But Sugar is Sweeter

Holiday

Strawberry, Cream Cheese, Pretzel Squares

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This dessert is kind of hard to describe.  When you hear  “Strawberry-Pretzel” it sounds weird, and even slightly gross,  and I get that.  Let me just tell you that when I was describing it to my mom, before I could even finish telling her about the middle layer of the dessert, she said, “That is my all time favorite summer dessert!,” and then she was disappointed that she couldn’t partake in eating it.   I’m pretty sure that at some point in your life, you have eaten this dessert, perhaps without ever knowing what went into making it so delicious.  I made this for the 4th of July BBQ we had when we got back from our camping adventure and since I wanted it to be red white and blue, I added some blueberries to the cream cheese layer.  Unfortunately, you could hardly see the blue, or taste the blueberries, which should only tell you that this dessert should not simply be relegated to the 4th of July – you should probably just eat it all summer, or all year for that matter.

I’m sorry I didn’t get to take pictures of all the steps, but I was in kind of a hurry because  I started making this without first reading the instructions carefully.  This is probably the type of thing you should make the day before, or at least the morning of an evening BBQ, because jello takes a long time to set!  I cut down the chilling time significantly (because I needed it ready by 7 pm), and it still turned out fine, so I have indicated this change in the recipe below.  However, other than the waiting time between each layer, this was much simpler to put together than I imagined.  Each layer is super easy- just mix and pour into the pan.  The only baking required is the 10 minutes to set the pretzel crust.  I even took the liberty of “lightening” this dessert, and  it didn’t taste any different than I remember as a kid.  In fact, a lot of people call this “Strawberry, Pretzel Salad”, so I’m pretty sure that means that you can eat a lot of it without feeling guilty ;-).

Strawberry, Cream Cheese and Pretzel Squares

Hands on time: 20 minutes                Total Time with Cooling: 3 1/2 hours

Makes 1-13×9 inch pan, about 15-20 servings

  • 2 cups finely crushed pretzels (Pulse in the food processor)
  • ½ cup sugar, divided
  • 10 T. butter (1 stick + 2 T.), melted
  • 1½ pkg. (10 oz. total) PHILADELPHIA 1/3 less fat Cream Cheese, softened
  • 2 Tbsp. milk
  • 1 cup thawed COOL WHIP Whipped Topping
  • 2 cups boiling water
  • 1 pkg. (4 servings) JELL-O Brand Strawberry Flavor Gelatin
  • 1 pkg. (4 servings) Sugar Free JELL-O Brand Strawberry Flavor Gelatin
  • 1½ cups ice cold water (ice cubes are fine)
  • 1 qt. (4 cups) strawberries, sliced
  • 1 cup blueberries, if desired

Pretzel Layer: Preheat oven to 350°F. Mix pretzel crumbs, 1/4 cup of the sugar and all the butter. Press into bottom of 13×9-inch baking pan. Bake 10 min. Cool.

Cream Cheese Layer: Beat cream cheese, remaining 1/4 cup sugar and the milk until well blended. Gently stir in whipped topping and blueberries (if using).  Spread over cooled crust. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Strawberry Jello Layer: While the above layers are in the fridge, stir boiling water into dry gelatin mix in large bowl for at least 2 minutes, until completely dissolved. Stir in ice cold water (it is fine if ice cubes are still in the water, they will melt).  Put bowl in the freezer for 20 minutes, then remove and stir in strawberries. Pour cool jello over the cream cheese layer, and allow to solidify in the fridge for about 3 hours.  Slice in squares and serve with a fork.

Adapted from Brown Eyed Baker, originally adapted from Kraft

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Bunnies, Chicks and Eggs, Oh my!

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Decorating cookies for every holiday is starting to become a tradition, and I’m more than okay with that!  I have my final test of pre-clinical medicine next Tuesday (hooray!), but that makes going home for Easter weekend a little tricky.  So what did I do instead?  I went home this past weekend, and celebrated Easter a little early.  We had a great visit, and collectively decided that decorating cookies is WAY more fun than decorating eggs.  John even joined in on the fun, and he may have actually won the award for best cookie decorator (yes, this was hard for me to admit :-)).

While I was ridiculously excited about this set of 4 Easter cookie cutters I found, I think next time I might just stick to making eggs.  The chicks and bunnies were cute, but there wasn’t very much room for creativity with them – I ended up just wishing that I had some more eggs to try out all the ideas I had.  My favorite thing to do was to  drag a toothpick through lines on the cookies, and create fun designs.

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I made a double batch of royal icing (using a full 2 pound bag), and it was more than enough! To get started just see the tutorial I posted earlier.  We actually had a lot of icing left over, but I wanted to make sure I had plenty to make 6 different colors (white, green, aqua, pink, violet, and yellow).

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FYI – Those are John’s fingers (not mine).

I made the sugar cookies dough one day, then rolled it out the next, and then the next day we decorated the cookies back at home.  Spacing out the project really makes it a lot less of a project, and more of a fun family activity. So instead of dying boiled eggs – try decorating some egg cookies this year!  Finishing with an iced cookie is a lot tastier than a hard boiled egg :-)!

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Royal Icing – Recipe and Tutorial

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So maybe St. Patrick’s day isn’t considered a major holiday for most people, but those people didn’t grow up in my family.  In my (half) Irish family, St. Patty’s day is probably the next  big holiday after Thanksgiving and Christmas. I had been wanting to decorate St. Patty’s day cookies pretty much since I finished the Valentine’s Day ones. It worked out perfectly,  because my festive mother was here to help me  decorate them!  I mentioned earlier that I really wanted to try to get good enough at royal icing to post a “How to” – and I think I have just about reached that point.  I’ve made it enough times now that I have it down to a science.  It’s kind of addicting, so be careful.  My mom and I are already planning next year’s St. Patty’s Day cookie decorating, and we were even brainstorming about Easter….

A lot of people wonder – “Why use royal icing?….Doesn’t buttercream taste better?”. And I’ll say, yes if you are eating icing by itself, buttercream is definitely the way to go – but with a buttery cookie underneath royal icing adds a perfect amount of sweetness without being too rich. Plus the royal icing seals in the moisture of the cookie, so your cookies can be made ahead of time, and will last a lot longer. More importantly, it’s just not possible to decorate with buttercream the way you can with royal icing. Ever wonder how professional cookies get that completely smooth surface with multiple colors and no “spread marks”? That’s right – they use royal icing.

So here’s the recipe, followed by a long tutorial.  I tried to include as many pointers as possible, but for the most part you can figure out what to do looking at the pictures.

Royal Icing

  • 4 cups Powdered Sugar (About 1 Pound)
  • 2 Tablespoons Meringue Powder
  • 5 Tablespoons Water (to start)

Combine all ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer.  Mix on low (Speed 2 or 4) for 7-10 minutes, or until the sheen has disappeared and the icing has a matte appearance.   It will be too thick to use at this point so you will be adding more water later; however, getting it to this texture makes a difference in the final product.

How to Decorate with Royal Icing

  • 1 -2 batches of Royal Icing and Sugar Cookies
  • Small plastic containers with lids
  • Pastry Bags (I like disposable so you don’t have to clean them)
  • Couplers and Decorating Tips  (I use size 3)
  • Toothpicks
  • Gel Food Coloring
  • Miniature Squeeze bottle (optional)

First, start by planning out what colors you will want to use, and how much of each.  For these cookies, I made 5 colors: Green, Light Green, Orange, Black, and White.   According to color need, divide the white icing into the containers.  Add about 1 additional teaspoon of water to each container.  Stir to incorporate.  You may need to add another teaspoon or 2 in order to get a good consistency for piping.  The key is to get the icing thin enough that you can easily pipe  a smooth line, but thick enough that the icing will still dry quickly.
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Using toothpicks, add a little bit of gel food color and stir with a spoon.  Continue adding color until you achieve the desired tint. For dark colors, like black or red, you will need a lot of gel.

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Prepare your pastry bags by cutting about 3/4 of an inch from the tip. Place the coupler inside the bag, and secure the appropriate tip.  I prefer size 3 for edging the cookies, but I used a mix of sizes 2-4, because that’s what I have.  If you do not have pastry bags and tips , you can try using a ziploc bag and cutting the corner to make a VERY small hole.  I only spent about $10 for all the couplers, tips and bags, but if you are only going to make these once, it might not be worth it.
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Fold down the edges of the pastry bags, and using a spoon or knife, scoop the icing into the pastry bag.  You only need a very small amount of icing to edge the cookies, but I think it’s easier to work with if you have a moderate amount of icing in the bag.   Also, it’s easy to simply  squeeze the left over icing back into the original container when you are finished.

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Pipe the icing around the edges of each cookie to make an outline. To get the smoothest line possible you do not want the tip to be touching the cookie.
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I think it’s better to work quickly and let the icing lie smoothy, than to try to get an absolutely perfect shape for the outline. If you look at these, some of the cookies have a smoother outline, and some are more squiggly.
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Once the cookies are lined, squeeze unneeded icing back into the container.  Now it’s time to thin the icing for flooding.  Add 1 teaspoon water at a time to each icing, stirring after each addition.  You want the icing to be thin enough that when a spoonful of it is poured back into the container, it takes about 4 seconds for it to disappear into the pool of icing.   It is better to err on the side of too thick of icing than to thin.  If you accidentally make the icing too thin, add a little bit of powdered sugar to get it back to a normal consistency.
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You should now let the icing set for about 5 minutes in order to get the air bubbles to rise to the surface.  The first time making this, I didn’t do this, and you end up with air bubbles on what was supposed to be your smooth surface cookie.  Once the air bubbles have risen to the surface, gently stir the icing through once, just to pop them.
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If you are using mini squeeze bottles, this would be the time to transfer the icing into the bottle.  It’s easier to do if the icing is in a flexible plastic container, because you can bend the container to funnel the icing in.  This was my first time using squeeze bottles, and it does make it a lot easier to flood the cookies, but it also makes one more thing to clean when finished.
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Now flood the cookies.  If you are using squeeze bottles, just squeeze it around the edges and move inward to fill the cookie in.
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If you are not using squeeze bottles, spoon the icing onto the top of the cookie, and then spread it to the edges using a toothpick.  2 pointers: 1) If you spread the icing over just over the edge of the piping, it will help to blend the piping with the flooded icing.  2) It looks a lot better if you over-flood the cookies, so that the icing ends up creating a dome look on top of the cookie.  If you under-fill them, the center will sink down and the outer edge piping will be very visible.
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If you want to decorate the cookies with sprinkles, as I did with the pots of gold, it’s best to put this on while the icing is still wet.  If you want to pipe a design on top of the cookies, it’s best to let the cookies dry for at least 45 minutes (or overnight).  For the “plaid” effect on the cookies, I cleaned up while letting the cookies dry, and I just used the little bit of icing I had left in my pastry bags and piped perpendicular lines over several cookies in a row.

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Let let the cookies dry for several hours or overnight before packing them up. The cookies should then be stored in an airtight container or cellophane bags.  These cookies will last for at least a full week, and  once the icing has dried, it is very sturdy.  Therefore these cookies can be made in advance and are great for mailing.
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Inspired by Annie’s Eats