Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Snowflakes & Chocolate Pepper Cookies

The first snowflakes of the season earlier this week were perfectly timed to pair with the above chocolate pepper cookies I baked for a friend's holiday party.  These aren't just any old Christmas cookie.  They hail from my friend's mother's kitchen with a lot of love and a little spice.  Marcia Russell has been making these lovely confections for nearly 30 years.  I must quote her directly because her story is so heartfelt: 

"Back in 1981, newly married and almost no kitchen knowledge at all, I came upon a book that changed my life.  Hold on now.  Martha Stewart's 'Entertaining'.  It was all the motivation I needed to quit my job, stay at home, and become the best 'homemaker' ever.  The fabulous Ms. Stewart became for me and as we know now, the standard to live up to in the home!  Ha.  It became my career and I've never (hardly ever) looked back.  Like so many others I imagine.  Within her book is a recipe for Chocolate Pepper Cookies.  For many years I baked them without ever telling anyone the ingredients, for fear of the psychological set-up for turned-up noses.  Everyone loved them though and as food tastes have changed since those days, I now proudly annouce all of the ingredients!  I have also taken liberties with her original recipe (in typical Stewart style), and really 'amped-up' the spices.  I hope you make a batch, find them craveable,  and share them with as many people as you can." 

  According to Marcia and Sarah these cookies also come with a good dose of warning: you will be addicted within a single bite.  Having never baked or tasted them before, I was a bit skeptical.  But, just as they insisted, these treats will be making an appearance each and every holiday season from here out.  They're rich, flavorful and hit you with that perfect amount of peppery-spice.  So indulgent and satisfying that you'll be able to savor one or 2 and be done...well, maybe one or 2 per day while they last, which won't be very long if you share them with family and friends.  
I must thank Mama Russell and Martha Stewart herself this holiday.  In true creative cook form, I've taken additional liberties with the recipe and paired them with a rich caramel filling as well as a touch of mascarpone frosting with candied kumquats.  
On with the recipe...

*makes a double batch
1 ½ cups unsalted butter
1 ¾ cups sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ cups unsweetened cocoa powder
¼ teaspoon salt
½ - ¾ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon + an extra little pinch cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. 
Cream the butter and the sugar in a stand mixer or with an electric beater.  Add the eggs and beat until fluffy.  
In another bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients.  Add to the butter mixture and beat until well mixed.  Shape into two flattened discs. Wrap the discs separately in plastic wrap, and refrigerate at least 1 hour or overnight.  The dough can be frozen in an additional plastic bag for one month. 
Line baking sheets with parchment paper.
On a well-floured board, roll out the dough until about ¼ inch thick.  Cut dough into shapes of your choice and set 1 inch apart on baking sheets.  Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or until just set, do not allow to darken.  Cool on racks.

Caramel Filling for "Sandwiches"
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/2 vanilla bean split in half (scrape out seeds and add both to pan)
In a medium saucepan, heat sugars over medium and allow to melt.  Add in cream, butter and vanilla bean.  Simmer for about 10 minutes while stirring.  Sauce should thicken once cooled.  Refrigerate up to 2 weeks.

Mascarpone Frosting with Candied Kumquats
*note mascarpone is like "Italian cream cheese", you can also substitute Neufchatel (1/3 reduced fat cream cheese) here 
8 ounces mascarpone or Neufchatel cream cheese
1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick), at room temperature and cut into pieces
1 cup confectioner's sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Cream mascarpone and butter together.  Mix in sugar and vanilla until well-blended and smooth.

Candied Kumquats: 
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
about 15 kumquats, thinly sliced
1/2 vanilla bean, spilt in half and scrape out seeds

Heat sugar and water over medium heat until sugar dissolves.  Add in vanilla and kumquats simmer for about 15 to 20 minutes.  Remove from heat and allow to cool.  Place kumquats slices on parchment paper to dry.    

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