Thursday, March 28, 2013

Not-Too-Puffy Sugar Cookies

As I've mentioned before, I am a HUGE fan of cookie cutters. But not just any cookie cutter will do; only the weirdest and geekiest will find a happy home in my kitchen.

So when PAX East (the gaming convention held in Boston that I attend every year) rolled around and I started to think up cookie ideas for the Cookie Brigade (a group that gives away cookies to PAX attendees and takes donations for Child's Play), I knew I had to be on the lookout for more geeky stamps.

And then I found my new favorite Etsy shop, WarpZone. It is FILLED with amazingly-detailed, highly geeky cookie cutters made using a 3-D printer. I had such a hard time picking some and not just buying everything she had. I'm actually still fighting that temptation...

I opted for Doctor Who (above) and Archer (below). The Archer ones are awesome, but they were a little too delicate because of how the heads stick out for me to bring to PAX again. The Doctor Who ones, however, turned out AWESOME! I got great response when I was handing them out, and I'm really happy with how the food coloring in the dough turned out. The weeping angels turned out the best, because I used black dye and marbled it in a bit to look like stone.

Oh, and Cookie Brigade ended up raising $17,650 this PAX East!!! How incredible is that?!

The problem with these kinds of cookie cutters, though, is that you need to use a dough that doesn't rise too much in the oven. My usual sugar cookie recipe puffs up a fair deal. Luckily, I found a great recipe in an old issue of Cooking Light, and I ended up making 6 batches of it. It's not a particularly special sugar cookie recipe, but I like to keep track of anything I've had substantial results with. It's also a fairly forgiving dough - I rerolled it and rerolled it after screwing up quite a few times (these cookie cutters need the dough to be a very specific thickness), and I didn't feel the quality of the cookie suffered. I will DEFINITELY be making these cookies for PAX again next year.

Not-Too-Puffy Sugar Cookies (adapted from Cooking Light)
1 cup sugar
10 Tbsp butter, softened
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract or paste
2 egg whites
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
2 1/2 cups flour

In the bowl of a mixer, cream together sugar and butter. Beat in vanilla and egg whites, then beat in baking powder and salt. Slowly add flour until combined. Divide dough in half, shaping each half into a disk. If you want to add food dye (I recommend gel food dye) to the dough, gently work it in now (don't forget plastic gloves!). Wrap with plastic wrap and chill at least one hour.

Preheat oven to 375°. Lightly flour your rolling surface, then roll dough out to desired thickness (about 1/4 inch for these cutters). Stamp away to your heart's content! Place cookies on a parchment-lined baking sheet with about 1 inch between cookies. Bake for 10 minutes or until just starting to brown at the edges.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Vine Brook Tavern, Lexington

I've lived most of my life in the Boston suburb of Lexington, so I can say firmly that it is somewhat of a culinary wasteland. There's plenty of pizza and Asian (which only recently got any traction with Formosa Taipei - but then, that's another post). And besides one of my favorite bakeries, there wasn't anything in town that I've felt deserved much attention.

Until now, at least. A few months ago, Vine Brook Tavern opened right in the center of town, and I feel like I've found my local watering hole AND a place I can firmly recommend to friends and guests. I've been a few times already, each in very different circumstances (once for a drink and appetizers, once for a more casual family-like dinner, and once for a finer evening out), and I've only seen the quality of everything improve over time. The building, which has housed a few Italian chain restaurants in it's last few iterations, has been cleaned up a lot, and it really fits in with the historical look of the town now. I'd call the design contemporary colonial, with lots of wood and iron and muted colors. And yet, it still feels inviting! The only thing missing is a fireplace to have a drink next to.

First off: the drinks. There is some fine cocktail work happening here! The fig sidecar (with fig-infused Bulleit bourbon) is something I dream of, and the Bee's Knees is perfectly sweet. And these drinks aren't wimpy, either!

My favorite appetizer at Vine Brook is the lobster tacos (one for $4 or three for $12), but they are sadly not on the menu right now (they've been replaced by steak tacos). Hopefully they'll come back soon, because a couple of those and a drink at the bar would make me a happy girl any day. Coming in a close second, however, is the duck confit pizzetta (above, $9) - roughly 6 inches in diameter, the little pizza is loaded with duck confit, crispy caramelized onions, fresh ricotta, and little pieces of hazelnut. Plus, the crust is crispy on the bottom - a tough thing to do with all those toppings!

Another appetizer you have to try: the cauliflower steak ($8). Personally, I love cauliflower and would eat it any day of the week, but I know most people aren't quite so excited by it. Even our waiter said he wasn't a fan of cauliflower, but he strongly recommended we try this dish. It's a wonderful presentation of  crispy roasted cauliflower with plenty of garlic and capers. I love the idea of starting a meal not with a salad, but with a cooked veggie!

The entrees are equally delicious and hearty. My steak frites ($23, which I ordered with sweet potato fries instead of regular, and you should too) were perfectly cooked, and the fries were tossed with arugula, parmesan, and garlic, which wilted the greens slightly. Oh so good! The roasted salmon ($22) was also clearly cooked with expertise and was served with crispy root veggies and a bright beet sauce.

I didn't have high hopes for dessert, which was OK , because I was plenty full. But when our order of apple and pear crisp came out, piping hot, with a pile of melty vanilla ice cream on top, I suddenly found myself willing to eat some more. The fruit was still chunky, not cooked down to mush, and the topping was loaded with oats and was nice and crunchy. What a way to end a meal!

Like I said, I am so happy to have a place like Vine Brook Tavern open in my hometown. We sorely needed something of this quality, and I know I'll be back. Chef Chris Frothingham (who has previously worked at Sel de la Terre, Bonfire, and Kingfish Hall) is doing great stuff with fresh and seasonal items while maintaining a varied menu that can appeal to a wide variety of diners. I can't wait to see what he comes up with when all the local produce comes in during the summer!

Full disclosure note: one of my three visits was paid for by the restaurant.

Vine Brook Tavern on Urbanspoon