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.

12 December 2016

Sometimes, the Best Things Come from a Need to Adapt (plus Recipe: Lemon Snowball Cookies)

When I was preparing cookies for our very first cookie party (in December 2009), I pulled out all of my favorite recipes. Cookies I'd made for years. Tried-and-true recipes handed down from parents, in-laws, and grandparents. Especially my favorite Christmas cookie: Russian Teacakes (a melt-in-your-mouth little bite-sized cookie full of chopped pecans). But then I realized that, for an open-house party like we were planning, not knowing the allergy profiles for every guest, it wouldn't be wise to serve anything with nuts.

I decided to tweak and adapt that Russian Teacakes recipe to something a bit more allergy-safe. I decided to use the delicious lemon bars my great-grandma used to make for every family Christmas party when I was a little girl as inspiration ... and my Lemon Snowball Cookies have been the biggest hit at our cookie parties ever since!

My friend, Susie, loved the Lemon Snowball Cookies so much that the unofficial name for the recipe in our house is "Aunt Susie's Christmas Cookies." And whenever I make them for the party, I hold several dozen in reserve until she arrives, so she can be sure to get some. And recently, Susie has adopted a mostly-vegan diet, so these cookies are perfect for her, as they have no eggs and can be made with margarine or shortening instead of butter, so they're great for a vegan diet.

This year, I tweaked the recipe even more. My brain tumor has been acting up lately, and the latest development (since September) is that I'm having allergic reactions (itchy, tingly skin, swollen tongue and throat, not being able to breathe...) to almost every food I try to eat (and not being able to breathe just because you wanted to eat lunch is no fun!)

I've identified about 30 safe ingredients so far, and I try to keep my food intake to these ingredients only. The Lemon Snowball Cookies easily adapted to my new, even more restricted diet, and you can find that recipe variation at the bottom of this post.

Original Lemon Snowball Cookie Recipe:

You’ll need:
1 c. butter (or margarine or vegetable shortening)
1 c. powdered sugar (divided)
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. lemon extract
2 1/4 c. flour (whole wheat gives the most full flavor, but all-purpose works almost as well)

Cream together margarine and 1/2 c. powdered sugar.

Add lemon flavoring and salt. Beat until light and fluffy.

Stir in flour.

Chill dough 3-4 hours. (If you skip this step, your cookies will not hold their shape.)

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Roll into balls approximately 1/2″ in diameter (I use a mini cookie scoop, but you can use your hands, if you don’t have one.)

Place dough balls on an ungreased baking sheet. Cookies don’t spread when baked (unless you forgot to chill the dough), so you can place them close together, as long as they’re not touching. I can usually fit the entire batch of cookies onto one large baking sheet.

Bake for 10-12 minutes, until cookies are set, but not browned. Cool slightly on the baking sheet, then transfer to wire rack to cool completely.

Put the remaining 1/2 c. of powdered sugar into a gallon-sized zip-top baggie. Place the cooled cookies into the bag and zip closed. Shake the bag gently to coat each cookie in powdered sugar. I’ve found that 1/2 c. sugar is just about perfect for one batch of cookies, but you can use more or less, depending upon your personal taste preferences. (recipe makes approximately 8 dozen cookies)

These delicious little bite-sized cookies are so good, you’ll probably need to make several batches, if you want enough to share!

Gluten-Free, Vegan Lemon Snowball Cookies 
You will need: 
1 c. coconut oil
1/2 c. powdered sugar (+ 1/2 c. more to roll finished cookies in)
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. lemon extract
1/4 c. cornstarch
2 1/4 c. Gluten-free All-purpose flour (I used Bob's Red Mill 1 to 1 All-Purpose GF Flour)

Follow mixing & baking directions for regular Lemon Snowball Cookies (above) with the following changes:
     * Add cornstarch with the salt and lemon extract (before stirring in the flour).

     * Because the coconut oil solidifies much faster than butter or margarine when chilled, I scooped the cookie balls BEFORE chilling the dough for this version. Place dough balls on parchment-lined cookie sheet and chill in refrigerator for 1 hour or in the freezer for about 30 minutes. (If you try to chill it first, the dough may be too hard and crumbly to portion properly.) You do still need to chill the dough (AFTER rolling into balls), but only for about an hour (instead of 3-4, as needed for the original recipe).

Make-ahead instructions for both versions:
     * Freeze individually-portioned cookie dough balls on parchment-lined cookie sheets until solid (30 minutes for GF version, 4-5 hours for original version). Then, transfer to large zipper-seal freezer bags.
     * When time to bake, preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake cookies from frozen (no need to thaw!) for 12-15 minutes, until set but not browned. Cool, then roll in powdered sugar as before.