Sunday, September 11, 2011

Treating our Troops

In the past few days leading up to today, the 10 year anniversary of 9/11, I have dedicated my baking time to honor our troops with some baked goods. Tomorrow they will be shipped off to to the unit of a former high school classmate currently serving in Afghanistan. I am focusing this entry on simple recipes for cookies that can easily be sent overseas, as well as a great method of wrapping them to ensure they will reach their destination fresh (as is possible) and in one piece (I hope).

I did some reading about what to and what not to send. The information was a bit overwhelming and sometimes contradictory. I read it's important not to ship anything made with butter. This didn't make sense to me since I also read how much our troops love homemade chocolate chips cookies. I tried to find out if it was reasonable to send cake truffles, to no avail. In the end, I decided no, since the heat on the Middle East would probably turn them into gooey messes. Obviously, decorated iced cookies would not be wise to send. The icing will likely melt and there's a high likelihood of breakage. No moist breads, such as banana bread. They heat will make them go rancid. So, I went back to basics. I mixed up some classic recipes, which I love, and spent a few days baking dozens of cookies. :)

I began with peanut butter cookies. To say I love peanut butter cookies is a bit of an understatement. I have absolutely zero control around them, so I feel great that any of them made it to the wrapping-up stage! Here is my favorite recipe of all time:

Peanut Butter Cookies (adapted from Betty Crocker's Cookbook)

1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup peanut butter (I prefer Reese's Peanut Butter)
1/4 cup shortening (I prefer Crisco baking sticks, butter flavor)
1/4 cup butter, softened
2 tablespoons milk
1 egg
1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons milk

Cream together the butter, shortening, and peanut butter. Mix in sugars, egg and milk. Add the remaining ingredients. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Roll the dough into 1 1/2 - 2 inch balls and place on an ungreased cookie sheet at least three inches apart. Using a fork make a crisscross pattern by pressing down on the cookie. Dip the fork in flour between cookies to prevent the dough from sticking. Bake between 9-10 minutes. Let cookies cool several minutes before removing them from cookie sheet.

Indents for criss-cross pattern made with a fork.

Perpendicular lines by fork press.

Repeat process with each cookie.

Ready to eat!!
These cookies are just the way I like them...soft and chewy on the inside, a bit crispy on the outside. Looking at these pictures as I post them makes me want to whip up a batch right now and eat spoonfuls of the dough before they even make it to the oven, so let's move on to chocolate chip before I lose control of myself and act on it!

While growing up, I was a chocolate chip cookie baking fanatic. I loved making them. I followed the recipe on the back of the Tollhouse Chocolate Chip bag to a "T". Over the years, I stopped making them in favor of more diverse, "mature" recipes. A few months ago I had a craving for the cookies of my childhood, so I purchased some of my beloved Tollhouse semi-sweet chips, followed the recipe on the back in anticipation of the moment I would be tasting gooey chocolate melted in delicious dough. The moment finally came and, well, they were good, but not as good as I remembered. Thus, began my hunt for THE chocolate chip cookie recipe. The one that is everything I hope for it to be!

I found a promising one on It has the exact same ingredients as the Tollhouse version, but in different increments. I do not want a flat, crunchy cookie with all kinds of nuts, chips and flavors. I'm looking for a chewy, chocolatey version of the original. This was was pretty close, but I'm not sure it's THE ONE.

Best Chocolate Chip Cookies

1 cup butter, softened
1 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons hot water
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream together butter, white sugar, and brown sugar until smooth. Beat in the eggs one at a time, then stir in vanilla. Dissolve baking soda in hot water. Add to batter along with salt. Stir in flour and chocolate chips. Bake for 10 minutes or until edges are nicely browned.

Chocolate chip cookies are a "drop" cookie. This means it's a type of dough you just sort of "drop" by the teaspoon full onto a cookie sheet. You can also use a cookie scoop to do the job.

Culinary Institute of America Cookie Scoop

I baked half of a sheet of cookies using the drop method, the other half using a scoop to see which I preferred.

Unbaked dough - Drop method on left, cookie scoop on right.

Baked cookies - Drop method on left, cookie scoop on right.
Both my husband and I like the "drop" method cookie better. I enjoy their imperfect shape. It takes a bit longer doing it this way, but I think it's worth it to recreate the cookies of my youth. :)

Next up: Chocolate Cookies with Peanut Butter Chips. I. Love. These. Cookies. Oh yes, I do! This chocolate cookie recipe is perfect and I would do nothing to change it. The wonderful thing about this dough, as well as the chocolate chip cookie dough, is that you are not limited in the creations you can make from them. You can add anything, change flavors with extracts, change colors. Anything you can think of! They are great bases for experimenting. As for me, I add the peanut butter chips to this dough and wouldn't have it any other way. :)

Best Chocolate Drop Cookies

1 cup butter, softened
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup baking cocoa
3/4 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 bag Reese's Peanut Butter Chips

Mix butter and sugar until creamed. Add eggs, beating well into the butter/sugar mixture. Add vanilla. In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, baking cocoa, baking soda and salt. Stir flour mixture into creamed mixture a bit at a time until it is all combined. Add peanut butter chips. Refrigerate dough for at least an hour. Bake at 350 degrees for 8-10 minutes.

You can use the spoon "drop" method or a cookie scoop for this dough.
Simple, yet so delicious!
These chocolate cookies would also taste great with some mint extract (substituting for the vanilla) and mint chips. Or some orange rind and flavoring during the holidays. Mmmmm.....

Lastly (as far as cookies go), I made chocolate cut-out cookies. They are not very sweet, but they have a deep chocolately taste with bits of salt and they are AMAZING. I found this recipe on the Bake at 350 blog, which is an endless source of inspiration and wonder. I highly recommend stopping by Bake at 350 and you will be amazed, too!

Chocolate Cut-Out Cookies
adapted from recipe found on Bake at 350

1 cup unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup baking cocoa
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Whisk together the dry ingredients and set them aside. Cream together butter and sugar. Beat in the egg and vanilla. Combine the flour mixture a little at a time. Roll the dough onto a floured/cocoa-ed surface. Cut out desired shapes with selected cookie cutters. Freeze cut-outs on cookie sheet for 5 minutes before baking to ensure baked cookies will keep their shape.  Bake for 8 minutes.  Decorate with icing as desired.

I used a star shaped cut-out for the Troops. Perhaps they are not the best design as far as breakage, but I think they are all stars and want them to know it!

These are incredible cookies. Trust me. If you like dark chocolate candy bars sprinkled with sea salt, you will love these.

So, that's the end of the cookies for Soldiers. However, that was not the end of my baking. I had my mind set on making cake balls (cake pops without the sticks). As I previously mentioned, I realized they probably would not travel well and likely would melt in the heat. I came up with a different idea that I hope will work out.

I made vanilla and red velvet mini-cupcakes and will send a few cans of frosting. I can't be sure they will arrive in edible condition, but I'm going to give it a try and see what happens!

I have one more bit of advice for those of you who send baked goods overseas: how to pack them. After much investigating, here's what I found:

Work with about six cookies at a time. Lay the stack on cling wrap.
Roll the stack of cookies over, wrapping it in one layer of cling wrap. Fold the sides of the wrap over on top of eachother to securely wrap the cookies.
Wrap the cookies around several times (without folding each roll) until you have a few layers of wrap around the cookies. Separate the wrap from the roll and fold in sides securely.
Voila! Wrapped cookie stack. Now it can join the others!
Lined up and ready to do their duty!
Place your baked goods in a sturdy box filled with insulation (baking peanuts, bubble wrap, newspapers, etc) to protect against the knocking around packages go through on their journeys and hope for the best! You will need to fill out a declaration form, but the post office does not need to inspect your package before mailing it so you can take it all sealed up. You should not pay to insure your package, insurance does not cover mailings for soldiers.

On a final note, I would like to offer my appreciation and gratitude to all of the men and women who not only serve us in the military, but also to our Firemen, Policemen, and EMT men and women. This country is dependent on the sacrifices you make each day for us. I would especially like to thank my sister Sandy, her partner Nate, my brother-in-law Corey, and my Dad, who have all served during wartime. THANK YOU.

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