Sunday, August 18, 2019

Cowboy Cookies for a Birthday Girl

A couple of years ago, I came across a recipe for so-called 'Cowboy Cookies'. Needless to say that the recipe name attracted my attention, a bit like the 'Everything-but-the-Kitchen-Sink Cookies'. Although I am know to bake lots of different cookies following more traditional European recipes, I also love to bake big, chewy, chunky American-style cookies. To make a long cookie-baking story short, a couple of years ago, I started baking Cowboy Cookies and the kids loved them. Then, on a regular basis, I got requests for Cowboy Cookies. This past week I got a request for Birthday Cowboy Cookies AND a I was handed a new recipe. It seems the birthday girl was attracted to the fun title of the cookies for 'Texas Governor’s Mansion Cowboy Cookies'. Why not try a new recipe, I said, I was going to bake Cowboy Cookies (and a lovely cake) for the birthday anyways.

When doing my research on these cookies, I learned that former First Lady of the United States, Laura Bush is credited with creating this version of Cowboy Cookies. And the story behind her now famous Cowboy Cookie recipe is rather interesting, to say the least.

It seems that it was already commonplace for US presidential candidates to release family recipes during their campaign, it is thought 'to help humanize the candidates and also allows them to promote family values'. But public contests pitting the baking ability of potential first ladies against each other are relatively new. They began in 1992 when Hillary Rodham Clinton got everyone talking with her infamous cookie comment, discussing working as a lawyer while her husband Bill Clinton was Governor of Arkansas:

''I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas,'' she said. ''But what I decided to do was pursue my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life.''

She was probaly trying to make the point that in 1992, women had other options. But instead, it appears from what I have read, that her remark created a so-called 'reactionary cookie contest', the brainchild of Family Circle Magazine (a US home magazine that commenced publication in 1932, with British as well as Australian editions) which published her chocolate chip recipe and one from Barbara Bush, asking readers to try baking both and then vote on their favorite. Interestingly, the results of the bake-off have almost always predicted the winner of the US presidential election.

Be that as it may, in the first First Lady bake-off in 1992, the recipe for Hillary Clinton’s chocolate chip cookies beat out the one from Barbara Bush, and again in 1996, Hillary’s chocolate chip recipe won over Elizabeth Dole’s Pecan Roll cookies. In 2000, Laura Bush debuted above Texas Governor’s Mansion Cowboy Cookies, and as expected, they beat our Tipper Gore’s Ginger Snap recipe. Then in 2004 Laura Bush switched up her original recipe during her husband’s second presidential campaign to a similar oatmeal chocolate chunk recipe, but it’s her first Cowboy Cookie recipe, the Texas Governor’s Mansion Cowboy Cookies that’s become so beloved and famous - there are countless articles and blog entries written on the subject of these cookies.

Here is my personal adaptation of Laura Bush's winning recipe. As a European baker I would classify these cookies as classic chocolate chip cookies (chocolate chips always mean chunks of dark Belgian chocolate) fortified with lots of old-fashioned oats (the coarse variety), chopped pecans, shredded coconut (coarse shredds) as well as sweet cinnamon.

Texas Governor’s Mansion Cowboy Cookies
(Adapted from Laura Bush)

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour (390g)
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder 
  • 1 tablespoon baking soda 
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon (I like to use 'Ceylon cinnamon')
  • 1 teaspoon salt (I like to use fine sea salt)
  • 1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature (340g)
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar (300g - I like to use superfine baking sugar)
  • 1 1/2 cups light-brown sugar, packed (300g - I like to use fine cane sugar)
  • 3 eggs (I used 'M', organic)
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla (I used pure vanilla extract)
  • 3 cup semisweet chocolate chips (400g - I used dark Belgian baking chocolate chunks)
  • 3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats (270g - around here 'Kernige Haferflocken')
  • 2 cups sweetened flake coconut (150g)
  • 2 cups chopped pecans (220g)

  1. Heat oven to 350°F ( 175°C).
  2. Mix flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt in bowl.
  3. In a very large bowl, beat butter with an electric mixer at medium speed until smooth and creamy. Gradually beat in sugars to combine thoroughly.
  4. Add eggs one at a time, beating after each. Beat in vanilla.
  5. Stir in flour mixture until just combined. Stir in chocolate chips, oats, coconut and pecans.
  6. For each cookie, drop 1/4 cup (I used an ice cream scoop instead) dough onto ungreased baking sheets (I lined my sheets with baking parchment), spacing 3 inches (7.5 cm) apart.
  7. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, until edges are lightly browned; rotate sheets halfway through. 
  8. Remove cookies to rack to cool (cool on the baking sheets before removing).

These are my minimal changes: the original recipe yields between 36 to 42 rather huge cookies, I halved the recipe and made considerably smaller cookies using a regular ice cream scoop. I also reduced the baking time to 10 to 12 minutes. Make sure to let them cool on the baking sheets before trying to remove them. I also lined my baking sheets with baking parchment instead of baking the cookies on ungreased baking sheets.

If you enjoy chewy cookies loaded with mix-ins like pecans (which I luckily food at my health food store), old-fashioned oats, large flaked coconut and dark chocolate (I splurged and used a wonderful deep, dark Belgian baking chocolate), these are your kind of cookies.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Tear & Share Herb Bread (Kräuterbrot) and Herb Bundles (Kräuterstrauß) for Assumption Day (Mariä Himmelfahrt)

The Feast of the Assumption of Mary (Mariä Himmelfahrt) commemorates the Virgin Mary's assumption into heaven. Assumption Day is celebrated on or around August 15 in many countries, particularly in parts of Europe and South America. This day is a public holiday in the German states of Saarland and some parts of Bavaria. This August feast day is the oldest of all the festivals of Mary. The annual commemoration of Mary is connected with the ancient traditional belief that her body did not decay but soon after the burial was united again with her soul and was taken up to Heaven.

The universal belief of Mary's assumption has been framed in ancient legends and stories. The most famous of these legends is that Mary’s tomb was opened on the request of St. Thomas, the tomb was found empty, and thus the Apostles concluded that her body was taken up to Heaven. In lieu of her body, it was said that there was a wonderful smell of flowers and herbs.

In pre-Christian times the season from the middle of August to the middle of September was observed as a period of thanksgiving for the successful harvest of grains. Many symbolic rites were aimed toward the assurance of prosperous weather for the reaping of the fall fruits, vegetables and grains and for winter planting. Some elements of these ancient cults are now connected with the feast and season of the Assumption. All through the Middle Ages the days from August 15 to September 15 were called 'Our Lady's Thirty Days' (Frauendreißiger) in the German-speaking sections of Europe. Many Assumption shrines even today show Mary clothed in a robe covered with ears of grain.

Popular legends ascribe a character of blessing and goodness to 'Our Lady's Thirty Days' and all food produced during this period is especially wholesome and good, and will remain fresh much longer than at other times of the year.

The fact that herbs picked in August were considered of great power in healing occasioned the medieval practice of the 'Blessing of Herbs' on Assumption Day. The Church thus elevated a popular belief of pre-Christian times into a religious observance and gave it the character of a Christian rite of profound meaning.

There are a number of special traditions about trees and plants on the Feast of the Assumption of Mary and my personal favorite tradition on this day is the collection and benediction of herbs and plants.  Some people will go out into the fields and meadows to collect herbs with medicinal and culinary properties, or they will collect culinary herbs from their gardens. Popular herbs to collect include agrimony, chamomile, clover, mugwort, mullein, St John's wort, tansy, thyme, valerian, verbena, wormwood, and yarrow.

Each herb in the Herb Bundle has a distinct taste but also a special meaning and/or purpose. The rose, for example, represents Mary, lavender is known to soothe, mint is a herb with refreshing qualities, chamomile has healing properties etc. There are no 'official rules' for Herb Bundles, but the number of herbs (and flowers) that one puts into a bundle should always be a 'magic number':

3 – the number 3 represents 'Trinity'
7 - the number 7 represents 'Days of Creation' or the 'Sacraments'
9 - the number 9 represents 3x3, meaning three times 'Trinity'
12 -  the number 12 represents the number of Apostles or the 'Tribes of Israel'

After the benediction of the herbs, some herb bundles are placed by alters and others are fixed to the walls of houses and stalls. And although there is no such thing as one specific culinary tradition for Assumption Day, there are many dishes that can be prepared with those healthy August herbs.

So, in honor of Mary's special feast day, I decided to bake a Tear & Share Herb Bread with lots of herbs from my kitchen garden – the soft ones, like Italian parsley, chives and basil, are folded into the yeast dough, while the sturdy ones, like sage, thyme and rosemary graze the top of this delicious, sharable bread.

Tear & Share Herb Bread - Kräuterbrot

  • 500g strong white flour, plus extra for kneading (around here that’s 'backstarkes Weizenmehl Type 550')
  • 21gr fresh yeast OR 7g sachet dried yeast
  • 125ml whole milk (I use milk with 3.5% fat content)
  • 125ml water
  • 1 tbsp molasses (around here that’s ‚Zuckerrübensirup‘)
  • 1 tsp fine sea salt
  • 30g butter, room temperature, plus extra for greasing
  • 3 tbsp fresh, soft herbs, chopped finely (such as Italian parsley, basil, chives or dill)
  • a few small branches of rosemary, thyme, oregano or a few sage leaves, for garnish
  • good olive oil suitable for baking
  • a few flakes of coarse sea salt (optional)
In addition
  • a springform pan, 24 cm; butter and dusted with flour, excess flour shaken out

  1. Sift the flour into a large mixing bowl.
  2. Heat the 125ml of water and the the 125ml of milk in a saucepan over a low heat until lukewarm, add the molasses and the yeast and stir until dissolved.
  3. Make a well in the center of the flour, add the milk/yeast mixture, cover with a bit of flour, cover with a tea towel and let rest for about 15 minutes.
  4. Uncover the bowl, add the salt and the butter and knead for a good 8 minutes until the dough comes together and turns soft and elastic.
  5. Place the dough in a large oiled bowl and cover loosely with a tea towel. Leave to rise in a warm place for about 60 minutes or until doubled in size.
  6. When the dough has doubled in size, tip it onto a floured surface and flatten with the palms of your hands. Spoon the chopped soft herb mixture on top and knead until evenly incorporated. Sprinkle with a little extra flour if it becomes sticky.
  7. Place the dough in the oiled bowl and cover again with the tea towel. Leave to rise in a warm place for another hour.
  8. When the dough has risen again, tip it onto your lightly floured work surface one more time.
  9. Divide the dough into nine (at this point you can use a scale to make sure your dough is equally diveded into 9 portions) and shape into neat balls by pulling the dough from the outside of the ball and pushing into the center. Turn over with the ends underneath. Place the rolls in a circle in the prepared springform pan. Cover loosely with lightly oiled kitchen wrap and leave to prove in a warm place for a good 15 minutes OR until the rolls are puffed, risen and 'have come together'. 
  10. Preheat the oven to 200°C (180°C convection).
  11. Brush the top of each roll lightly with olive and place a small sage leaf or small herb branch on top. Brush with more olive oil (sprinkle with a bit of coarse sea salt - optional) and bake in the center of the oven for about 30 minutes, or until risen and golden-brown. If the bread browns too quickly, cover loosely with foil for the last 10 minutes of baking.
  12. Transfer to a wire rack and leave to cool a little before serving & sharing. Serve with good farm fresh butter OR with extra good olive oil and coarse sea salt for dunking.

Paintings and other artworks depicting Mary's Assumption often depict Jesus or God, representing heaven, at the top. Early Christians or other people are usually in the lower part of the paintings and represent life on earth. The paintings often show Mary making her journey to heaven. She may be accompanied by angels or cherubs who serve as her guides.

The above painting depicts Mary's Assumption and I took the picture last week at the St. Michael's church in Luxembourg City, Luxemburg (Méchelskierch, Stad Lëtzebuerg).

The picture below depicts the inside of St. Mary of the Assumption church in Cologne (St. Mariä Himmelfahrt, Köln).

Please note that my recipe for the Tear & Share Herb Bread (Kräuterbrot) is part of my series for a 'local' (meaning across the state of North Rhine-Westphalia) radio station, where, throughout the years, I present different baked goods that are closely tied to various holidays and seasons. If you are interested, have a listen (in German) HERE.

The various recipes of my series can be found here:

  • in January, for Three Kings Day (Dreikönigstag) two kinds of Galette des Rois (Dreikönigskuchen) (HERE)
  • for Lent (Fastenzeit) Lenten Soup with Lenten Beugel (Fastenbeugel) (HERE)
  • for Good Friday (Karfreitag) the delicious Hot Cross Buns (HERE)
  • for Pentecost /Whitsun (Pfingsten) the fun Allgäu Bread Birds (Allgäuer Brotvögel) (HERE)
  • for the beginning of the summer vacation, the lovely Sacristains (Almond & Sugar Puff Pastry Sticks) (HERE)
  • for St Christopher's Day (St Christophorus), the energy-packed Müsli Power Bars (Müsli Energieriegel) (HERE)
  • for Mary's Assumption Day (Mariä Himmelfahrt) my Tear & Share Herb Bread (Kräuterbrot) (HERE)
  • for Mary’s Birthday (Mariä Geburt) some very pretty Mary’s Sweet Rolls (Süße Marienküchlein) (HERE)
  • for Thanksgiving (Erntedankfest) a delicious and seasonal Thanksgiving Apple Tart with Frangipane (Erntedank Apfeltarte mit Mandelcreme) (HERE)
  • for Halloween a Pumpkin Spice Bundt Cake (Kürbis-Gewürzkuchen)
  • for St Martin's Day (Martinsfest) the cheerful Sweet Dough Men (Weckmänner) (HERE)
  • for St Andrew's Day (Andreastag) a classic Petticoat Tails Shortbread (HERE)
  • for Christmas Day (Weihnachten) these Traditional German Gingerbread (Elisenlebkuchen) (HERE
  • for New Year's Eve New Year's Eve Pretzel (Neujahrsbretzel)
  • for Candelmas Day (Mariä Lichtmess) some delightful Navettes de Saint Victor (HERE)
  • for Carnival Season (Karneval) these lovely Carnival Doughnuts (Karnevals-Krapfen) (HERE
  • for St Patrick's Day a traditional Irish Brown Soda Bread (Irisches Sodabrot)(HERE
  • for St Joseph's Day a long-forgotten but thankfully re-discovered Sweet Cotton Bread (Baumwollbrot)(HERE
  • for Palm Sunday (Palmsonntag) these very pretty Palm Pretzels (Palmbrezel) (HERE)
  • for Easter Sunday (Ostersonntag) an Easter Brunch at Home with Tarte Flambée (Flammkuchen) (HERE)
  • for the Month of May (Marienmonat Mai) these elegant Visitandines de Nancy (HERE
  • for Pentecost/Whitsun these festive Beignets (Heiliggeistkrapfen) (HERE) - more delicious treats to come very soon.

Monday, August 5, 2019

August Baking: Belgian Salted Butter Pound Cake - Backen im August: Belgischer Salzbutter Kuchen

We were in Antwerp (Belgium) this past weekend, and spent a rather pleasant time there thanks to having planned visits to the market and a number of different bakeries and coffee shops. I am always intrigued by the wide variety of baked goods and specialties that Belgian bakeries offer. All those treats seem to be displayed in a very, let’s call it 'French kind of way' – the way the tarts, most of them loaded with fresh fruits and berries of the season, savory quiches, flaky croissants, artisan breads, fresh rolls, buttery madeleines and blissful chocolates are displayed, always reminds me of French pastry shops.

I have taken a particular liking to the selection of Belgian pound (loaf) cakes as well as the way they are presented. Apart from the classic butter pound cake, you will likely see lemon, almond, vanilla, and chocolate pound cakes as well. Some plain, some adorned with almonds or a simple powdered sugar icing. Their shape is longer than the ones we are used to in Germany, a bit sleaker, more elegant, they always seem to be more delicate, yet their crumb and texture is pleasantly rich and delicious.

Ah, you’re just back from Antwerp. So this must be a Belgian recipe, you say. Well, yes, and no. On our recent visit, I noticed a vanilla butter type of pound cake in a pastry shop, bought a slice, tasted it, and since my extensive thumbing through my collection of Belgian cookbooks did not turn up any satisfactory results, and since the internet didn’t provide any similar recipes either, I tried to re-create it with Belgian ingredients.

Apart, of course, from the baking pan that I bought a long time ago, I used Belgian salted butter, eggs and fine sea salt. And I am more than happy with the result. Given that there are a number of Belgian items involved here, and given the fact that it truly resembles the lovely cake that I tasted in Belgium, I believe this fine teacake definitely merits the addition of 'Belgian' to its 'Salted Butter Pound Cake' name.

Belgian Salted Butter Pound Cake

  • 125g butter with sea salt (I used Belgian butter), at room tempertaure, plus some to grease the baking pan
  • ½ tsp fine sea salt (I used Belgian sea salt)
  • 250g powdered sugar (confectioner’s sugar)
  • 24 g pure vanilla sugar, (around here that equals 3 packets of 'Bourbon Vanille Zucker'), either qood quality store-bought OR homemade 
  • finely grated zest of 1 organic lemon
  • 2 eggs (M), free-range or organic (I used Belgian eggs; the weight for both eggs weighed together was 56g with shells)
  • 250g all purpose (plain) flour, plus some to flour the baking pan (my flour hails from a Belgian mill)
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 175ml full fat cream (I used cream with a 30% fat content)
  • 2 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • seasonal berries or fruits, to serve
  1. Preheat your oven to 180° C (356°F).
  2. Lightly grease a regular loaf pan: 24cm x 10.5cm (9.5in x 4in) or 26.5cm x 9.5cm (10.5in x 3.7in). For this recipe I used the 26.5cm x 9.5cm loaf pan.
  3. In a large bowl, beat the butter until very light. Beat in the salt, both sugars and the lemon zest gradually and then the eggs, one by one. Scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl, and beat until the mixture is very light and fluffy.
  4. In another bowl, whisk together the flour and baking powder,
  5. Alternately add the wet ingredients (cream and lemon juice) and the dry ingredients to the butter mixture, starting and ending with the flour.
  6. Stir to combine after each addition.
  7. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the top.
  8. Bake the cake for 60 to 65 minutes, until it springs back when pressed lightly on top, and a long toothpick or cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean. NOTE: if the cake appears to be browning too quickly, tent it with foil for the final 20 minutes or more of baking.
  9. Remove the cake from the oven, and loosen its edges. Wait 5 minutes, then carefully turn it out of the pan onto a rack to cool. Cool completely before serving, as it will crumble and fall apart if you cut into the cake while it is still warm.
  10. To dress the cake up a bit, simply sift some powdered sugar over the top (just before serving) and serve fresh seasonal fruits or berries alongside.

You can keep this pound cake for a few days – it gets even better a day or two after you made it – you will notice that the fine sea salt taste is a bit more pronounced on the second day. But it will keep moist and delicious for up to a week. And while a traditional pound cake has no leavening other than air and eggs, my recipe includes some baking powder as well, to lighten it up a little.

You might have noticed that my recipe calls for salted butter as well as fine sea salt - this will add the most delightful bit of sea salt taste to the final cake - you might want to experiment with the kind of salted butter you want to use for this recipe. I used good-quality, regular salted butter. If in doubt, give the butter a taste before you get started on the recipe, if the butter is very salty, omit the additional quantity of salt.

This special pound cake is incredibly rich, and, fortunately, one slice goes a long way. Better yet, no need to serve whipped cream alongside, but, by all means, if you happen to have some seasonal berries on hand, like these very tangy red currants, serve them alongside. You will end up with a perfectly balanced dessert here – buttery cake with tangy berries is my kind of August dessert bliss.

Make this easy pound cake for breakfast, afternoon tea or for a summer picnic.