Baking For Others: Baking as an Art

EVENT: Phoebe’s Top Chef Chili Cook-off
VENUE: Phoebe’s Apartment, Flatiron
PARTY SIZE: 18 – 20, mostly Male with notable appetites
TYPE: Casual Buffet
MENU*: Keith’s Spiked Meat-Lovers Chili, Phoebe’s Smoky Chipotle Vegetarian Chili, Spinach
Salad with Corn, Avocado, and Cilantro Citrus Vinaigrette
DESSERT: Mexican Wedding Cakes, Cinnamon-Mocha Dulce de Leche Bites
*The meat, if you will, of this menu is featured in the following post

You know how everyone always likes to say that there are bakers and then there are cooks? The cooks get depicted as creative, impulsive types, while the bakers get shortshrifted: they’re seen as stodgy, by-the-book, uptight.

So off the bat, I’d like to announce that I’m both. Both a cook and a baker. Both creative and stodgy. Both impulsive and a little bit uptight. Both a recipe-follower and a recipe-perverter. Sure, I’m going to measure my baking powder and level it off just so, but I’m also going to throw in however many chocolate chips, a pinch of cinnamon, a spoonful of instant espresso powder, and those heath bar bits I’ve been storing in my freezer (see below for the Dulce de Leche Cinnamon-Mocha Bites that resulted).

For the chili party, of course, I was working within some recipe-like bounds: dessert had to be something that people would want to eat after Phoebe’s voluptuous stew, that I could carry with me on the subway without damage, and that wouldn’t completely wreck my kitchen (baking would occur circa 10pm on a Monday).

Two sources of inspiration hit, both for small but rich little after-dinner sweets.

From my small (confectioners sugar-free) kitchen to yours,



Mexican Wedding Cakes
Makes about 60 cookies

These shortbread-like nut balls are mysteriously referred to both as Russian tea cookies and Mexican wedding cakes—for Phoebe’s, I stuck to the theme with the latter. Typically, you make them with very little sugar in the dough; they’re sweetened instead by rolling them through a mountain of powdered sugar after baking. But because I wasn’t in the mood to dust powdered sugar from every corner of my kitchen, I opted to mix the sugar into the dough. They stay crisp this way too—whereas sugar on the outside can become soggy.

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
3 tablespoons powdered sugar
1 tablespoons brown sugar
¼ cup sugar
1 teaspoon bourbon
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup finely chopped toasted walnuts*

*Measure chopped or whole walnuts. Then toast the walnuts in a 325°F oven for about 10 minutes. Cool, then chop finely.

Preheat the oven to 325°F.

In a large bowl, mix the softened butter well, with a spoon, spatula, or (if your kitchen’s big enough) an electric mixer; add the sugars and mix more, until smooth and creamy. Add the bourbon (you can also just use ½ teaspoon of vanilla, but I was feeling extra festive). Put in the flour and the nuts, stirring just until the flour is absorbed by the butter-sugar mixture.

Roll tiny balls (large marble sized) and put them on an ungreased cookie sheet, two inches apart. Bake for 6-9minutes, until the cookies have spread slightly and look dry on top. Cool on the sheets, a rack, a plate or a clean countertop. When fully cooled, serve, or keep in an airtight container.

Adding the chopped walnuts to the Mexican Wedding Cakes

Cinnamon-Mocha Dolce de Leche Bites
Makes 48 cookies

Pondering the second batch of post-chili cookies, I conjured up every Mexican sweet I’d ever had: Flan, covered in caramel. Tres Leches cake, spongy and soaked with dulce de leche. Mexican hot chocolate or coffee, made piquant with cinnamon. And though I swear I do value my sense of proportion and ability to practice restraint, I really didn’t want to pick any one of these flavors.

So using a simple, butter-sugar-egg-flour refrigerator dough (note: refrigerator doughs have to chill for at least an hour before you use them!) that could stand up to all my extras, I proceeded to dissolve espresso powder, sift in cinnamon, chop dark chocolate chips into shards, and sprinkle in some caramel-like toffee bits. In the finished product, some of the flavors hit you together, and some flood in succession. I think these are best the day after they’re made.


½ cup (1 stick) butter
¼ cup sugar
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 teaspoons instant espresso powder
1 egg
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt
1/3 cup chocolate chips (measured, then chopped)
¼ cup heath bar bits (use any kind of caramel candy)

In a large bowl, cream the butter, sugars, and espresso powder until the espresso is dissolved and the texture is creamy. Beat in the egg until smooth again. In a separate bowl, stir together the cinnamon, flour, and salt, then add them to the butter mixture, stirring only until combined. Toss in the chocolate and the heath bar bits, mixing until well-distributed.
Break the dough into two semi-equal pieces. Roll each into about a 10-inch long log, as round as you can get it. Chill in the freezer for an hour (you can also chill in the fridge for a day or two, or keep frozen for a month).

When you’re ready to bake, preheat the over to 375°F. Slice each log into 24 pieces—slices should be about a quarter to a third of an inch. Arrange them on the ungreased baking sheet a half inch apart. Bake for about 8 minutes, until the tops of the cookies are slightly golden. Cool, then store in airtight containers.

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