03 January 2017

Introducing Elder Bartles: a Proud Mama Moment (plus recipe: GF Giant Sugar Cookies)

Yesterday, my son flew to Brazil to serve a 2-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. After his training (learning all of the things he'll need to know to serve effectively ... like how to speak Portuguese!) at the Sao Paulo Missionary Training Center, he'll be serving in the Brazil Salvador South mission for the next two years. (If you'd like to write to him, his missionary email address is benjamin.bartles@myldsmail.net - He will be checking his email once a week, and I'm sure he'd love to hear from you!)
 It's crazy to think he's already old enough to go off on his own (though he will have a companion with him at all times, so I guess he won't really be "on his own" ...) But he already looks the part - so much that three different people stopped us at the airport (before we even got to the security checkpoint) to ask if he was flying out to serve a mission!
 I know it will hit me like a ton of bricks before long, and I fully expect that I will probably have a day or two in the very near future when "he's really gone for two years" finally sinks in. When that happens, I reserve the right to put my life on hold while I sniffle and cry and miss my baby boy. But for now, I'm just so proud and excited for Elder Bartles that (for now, at least) I can't be sad. The people of Salvador, Brazil will be lucky to have him, and I can't wait to hear about the people he meets and the opportunities he'll have to serve them!
I was going to share my son's favorite cookie recipe with this post, but I realized as I started writing that his favorite cookie recipe is linked to several people who have influenced his life as he's grown to be the missionary he is today. So I'm going to wait to share it. And over the next couple of weeks, I'll be sharing stories of these missionaries and friends who served as role models for my son as he prepared for this milestone in his life (including the recipes that they inspired). Because life is sweet, and so are cookies. ;)
Confession: Even though my smile was too big to allow for tears at the airport, I did come home and indulge in copious amounts of junk food while watching the progress of his journey on my flight tracker app until I was too tired to keep my eyes open. And I may have eaten more than one of these
Giant (Gluten Free) Sugar Cookies
You will need:
1 c. butter
1 1/2 c. sugar
3 eggs 
1 Tbsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 Tbsp almond extract
3/4 c. cornstarch*
3 c. Gluten-Free flour (I used Bob's Red Mill 1 to 1 all-purpose GF flour)

Cream butter and sugar together. 

Add eggs, baking powder, salt, almond extract, and cornstarch, and beat until light and fluffy.

Stir in GF flour.

Using a large ice cream scoop, portion dough into 2 1/4-inch balls. Dip in colored sugar and flatten slightly. Place on parchment-lined cookie sheet. Chill for 2-4 hours.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Bake chilled cookie dough on parchment-lined cookie sheets (leaving at least 2 1/2 inches of space between cookies to allow for spreading) for 15-17 minutes, until bottoms are just slightly browned. 

*If you need gluten-free recipes for allergy-related reasons, make sure to check the label! I've recently discovered (when I had a negative reaction to something I thought was safe) that not all cornstarch is actually gluten-free!

26 December 2016

Don't Let Your Fears Get in Your Way (plus recipe: Spinach, Zucchini, Whole Wheat Cookies with White Chocolate)

When I started promising to make any kind of cookies requested by the missionaries who sent me letters, I fully expected that the requests would be for their favorite cookies that they missed from home. Traditional varieties, like chocolate chip, snickerdoodles, or even oatmeal raisin. But some of my favorite missionaries have taken my challenge as an opportunity to push me beyond my comfort zone - to see where my cookie-creation limits are.

My little brother, when he was serving a mission in Ireland, requested a fruitcake-inspired cookie that was such a big hit, I've been kicking myself ever since for not writing down the recipe as I went along. (These days, I almost always write down my recipe attempts, so I can recreate the cookies if they work ... or so that I know what to tweak if they don't. Because it's not often that you get to say the fruitcake was the hit of the party!) And until recently, my brother's fruitcake cookie was the most difficult recipe challenge I'd ever faced. But now, word has spread among the missionaries in the Baltimore, MD mission ... and the young men and women serving in our area have decided to try to stump me.

I have to admit, I'm really enjoying the regular letters from missionaries (some of whom I know personally, and others that I haven't actually met yet), and I have a lot of fun creating cookies to fit their wacky whims. One of the biggest challenges I've received so far was from Sister Bullock (who fit so well into our family that I still think of her as one of my adopted children, even though she transferred out of our immediate area a few months ago).
Sister Bullock, getting a bagpipes lesson when she came to our house for dinner one evening
She asked me to make cookies with zucchini, spinach, whole wheat, and white chocolate. Because she was certain that I'd never be able to do it, and she wanted to be the one who could brag about stumping me and winning my challenge.

I'll admit, I was a little bit panicky. Because I knew I could make a spinach, zucchini, whole wheat cookie with white chocolate, and I was pretty confident that I could even make one that I would enjoy. Because I usually prefer the "healthy options" in a variety of recipes. But I really didn't think I'd be able to combine all of those ingredients in a cookie that was delicious enough to tickle the tastebuds of the typical kid next door. And I don't consider my recipes a success unless those picky, won't-touch-a-vegetable taste-testers like it too.

But it worked! The cookies went quickly, and everyone agreed that I should have made a bigger batch.

Not surprisingly, those who knew the ingredient list before tasting the cookies were hesitant to try them. A lot of my taste testers had to be coaxed and coerced by those who had already taken the plunge. And a few of my regular tasters never did get the courage to try. But without exception, those who tried the cookies without first knowing what was in them came back for seconds or thirds.

Sometimes, we get so caught up in our own expectations that we miss out on the fabulous things life has waiting for us. It helps when we have friends and mentors to push us out of our comfort zones, but sometimes you just have to close our eyes and take a bite out of life. Who knows? You might find a new favorite recipe.

Whole Wheat, Spinach and Zucchini Cookies with White Chocolate Drizzle
You will need:

1/2 c. butter (softened)
2/3 c. brown sugar
2 egg whites (or 1 egg)
1 c. grated zucchini
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 c. shredded spinach
2 c. whole wheat flour (or 2 1/2 c. all-purpose flour)
3 oz. white chocolate, chopped

Place zucchini in a strainer, and press with a clean paper towel to strain liquid out, until you have only 1/2 c. zucchini. (If you don't drain the liquid, your cookies will be too mushy.)

Cream together butter and sugar, until light and fluffy. 

Beat in egg, zucchini, spinach, baking powder, and salt.

Stir in flour. Then, drop by teaspoonful onto a greased, or parchment-lined, baking sheet. Bake at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 8-10 minutes, until lightly browned on bottom.

Transfer to a wire rack to cool. 

In a small, microwave-safe bowl, melt white chocolate (in the microwave: zap for 30 seconds, stir, then microwave for 15 seconds at a time, stirring after each, until melted). Drizzle over the top of the cooled cookies. Chill 10-15 minutes to set the chocolate, then serve.

21 December 2016

Small Acts of Service Can Mean a World of Difference (plus recipe: Cinnamon Roll Sugar Cookies)

When I was newly-married and in college, I sent care packages to all of my friends who left to serve missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I told all of them that I'd send them cookies (any kind they wanted), every time they wrote me letters. That way, I could ensure that my mailbox would contain more than just bills and junk mail, and they could get a little taste of home no matter where in the world their missionary service took them.

Over the years, I extended my promise to friends and family of my friends ... until I had a standing promise for every missionary, whether I knew them personally or not: If they send me a letter to tell me about ways they're serving others in their missions, I'll send them cookies. Any kind they like.

Recently, some of the missionaries I've given the promise to have decided to test my "any kind of cookies you'd like." And I've gotten some interesting challenges that have tested my cookie recipe creation abilities.

Elder Cornejo, who is currently serving in the Baltimore, MD mission, wrote a letter to tell me about an experience he had that showed him how much the Lord loves and cares for each of His children. So often, we think we're insignificant, and that our own little light isn't bright enough to make a difference in the darkness surrounding us. But even a small candle can brighten a dark room. And the Lord uses our small acts of service to lift and lighten the burdens of those around us. Even a smile or a kind word can mean a world of difference in the life of someone who is suffering. And Elder Cornejo is the kind of young man who exemplifies this type of selfless service. Our family is blessed to know him.

If you ask my children, though, they might tell you that the biggest blessing from our friendship with Elder Cornejo is that he asked me to create cookies that tasted like cinnamon rolls. (They've quickly become a huge favorite at the Bartles house!) It's a relatively simple recipe, as far as mixing the ingredients, but it took three tries before I got the swirl just right when putting the layers together to make it look like cinnamon rolls in addition to tasting like them!

Cinnamon Roll Sugar Cookies

You will need:
1 c. butter (or margarine)
2 c. sugar
3 eggs
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
4 c. flour
1/4 c. ground cinnamon

In a large mixing bowl, cream together butter and sugar.

Add eggs, salt, and vanilla. Beat until light and fluffy.

Stir in flour, one cup at a time, until fully incorporated.

Divide dough. Set aside 2/3 of the dough for later. Add cinnamon to the remaining 1/3 and mix well. (This dough will be very cinnamony!)

On a floured surface, roll reserved cookie dough into a large rectangle, about 1 inch thick. Set aside.

Roll cinnamon-flavored dough into a rectangle roughly the same width and length as the first rectangle (it should be about 1/2-inch thick, since there's half the volume of dough).

Layer cinnamon dough onto the plain dough and continue rolling until the layered sheet of dough is about 1/2-inch thick. Roll tightly, as you would for cinnamon rolls. Chill for 1-2 hours.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Slice cookies 3/8-inch thick. Place on greased cookie sheet. Bake 8 minutes (do not overbake, or cookies won't be soft!) Let set 2 minutes on cookie sheet, and then transfer to wire rack to cool completely.

13 December 2016

Friends are the Most Important Thing (plus recipe: Double Chocolate Chip Cookies - Gluten Free & Vegan)

When I was in college, and my friend, Ken, left to serve a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormon church), I promised that every time he sent me a letter to let me know how things were going on his mission, I'd send back a care package with a fresh batch of his favorite cookies. He sent me several letters, keeping me up to date on his mission experiences, and he always requested my double chocolate chip cookies, which he shared with the people he was serving in Australia.

Ken and I kept in touch, even after his mission, and when the doctors first found my brain tumor back in 2002, only months after Ken was diagnosed with an aggressive stomach cancer, he helped me to put the fear and worry into perspective. He pointed me to a scripture that has come to be a source of comfort throughout the years, whenever I'm feeling totally lost and alone. From the Book of Mormon (Alma 7:12), speaking of Jesus Christ's Atonement: "And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities."  Ken reminded me that, no matter what we were going through, Jesus Christ suffered all, and he knows exactly what we're feeling. We aren't alone, even when we feel like we are.

Even though we were living many miles apart at the time (Ken and his wife were in Utah, and Phil and I were in California), Ken and I had many phone conversations over the next few months. In fact, this friendship was extremely valuable for all of us during that difficult time. Ken and I were able to talk about our treatments: the pain, the sleepless nights, the things that our spouses just didn't get ... and Phil was able to commiserate with Ken's wife, Suzy, about the difficulties of being a caregiver. The worries, the helplessness, the things Ken and I simply couldn't understand from our points of view.

A few months later, when my little sister got married in Utah, I was able to bring one last care package with double chocolate chip cookies to Ken, though I had to give them to Suzy to bring to him, as Ken was too sick to meet with us by that time.

I still think of Ken every time I make my double chocolate chip cookies, and I miss him more than ever, as I sometimes wish I still had someone who "gets it" just a phone call away.

This year, I tweaked my tried-and-true recipe a bit to fit my own recent special dietary needs. But the cookies still tasted just like the fudgy, deliciousness that Ken always requested in his care packages.

Gluten-Free, Vegan, Double Chocolate Chip Cookies
You will need:

1 c. coconut oil
1/4 c. grapeseed oil
2 1/2 c. sugar
4 tbsp. tapioca starch
1 tbsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. vanilla
1 c. water
2 c. cocoa powder
2 c. gluten-free flour (I used Bob's Red Mill 1 to 1 All-Purpose flour)
(optional) 1 pkg. vegan, soy-free chocolate chips (I use either Enjoy Life! brand or the Wegman's organic chocolate chips)

Cream together oils and sugar, until light and fluffy. 

Beat in tapioca starch, baking powder, salt, and vanilla. 

While continuing to mix at low speed, slowly drizzle in water until fully incorporated. Then, turn mixer up to high and beat 1-2 minutes.

Mix in cocoa powder. Then, add flour, and mix to combine.

Stir in chocolate chips. Chill dough in refrigerator for 30 minutes to 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.  Form dough into 1/2-inch balls. (I used a mini cookie scoop, but you can do this by hand, if you don't have a small cookie scoop.) Drop onto parchment-lined baking sheet.

Bake 8 minutes. 

Cool slightly on baking sheet, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely. Cookies should be soft and fudgy (more like a brownie consistency.)

You can also freeze the dough in individual portions on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. When fully frozen (after 2+ hours), transfer to large zipper-style freezer bags for future use. You can bake the cookies from frozen at 325 degrees Fahrenheit for 12-14 minutes.