Blame those pink daisy cookies that her mother used to bake.
Those sweet confections lured Julia M. Usher into a life of pastries.
Now, propelled by her fond memories of baking gatherings from her Connecticut youth, Usher has collected 50 delectable recipes in her new cooking and entertaining book “Cookie Swap” (Gibbs-Smith, $19.95).
Usher said cookie swaps are a great idea all over again.
“It strikes a chord, given the current economic conditions,” she said. “Everybody shares in the preparation and the costs. I think we’ll see a resurgence in cookie swaps and potlucks.”
The St. Louis resident sees cookie swaps as more than just a holiday event. In her book, she has eight themed parties, including a spooky Halloween fest, a return-to-school event and a bridal theme.
“There’s plenty of great cookie recipes and themes for parties,” she said. “It’s a great vehicle for reconnecting with people.”
Usher has been coming to Maine since age 4, when her family visited Oakland House in Brooksville. She and her husband have been looking for property here over the past decade.
“I try to get there as often as I can,” she said. “I hope to make it permanent someday.”
Usher fell in love with baking while watching her mother, an accomplished home baker, in the kitchen. She set baking aside temporarily to earn a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Yale in 1984, a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from University of California-Berkeley and an MBA from Stanford.
But she returned full time to baking in 1994, when she enrolled in the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. She graduated as valedictorian, earning the M.F.K. Fisher Prize for outstanding scholarship in 1996. One year later, she opened AzucArte, an upscale bakery which became known for its wedding cakes.
Usher closed that bakery in 2004, turning to food writing and styling instead.
“Running a specialty bakery wasn’t as creative as you might think,” she said. “Brides would come in and order something like a cake I had made before, and I hate repeating things. Each time, I want something fresh and new.”
Since then, Usher has been earning her writing credentials. She is contributing editor at Dessert Professional, a 2008 James Beard Foundation Journalism Awards finalist and an entertaining consultant for St. Louis AT HOME magazine. Her work has appeared in Vera Wang on Weddings, Bon Appetit, Fine Cooking, Better Homes and Gardens, Mary Engelbreit’s Home Companion, Gastronomica and many bridal magazines.
When it came time to organize her book “Cookie Swap,” the recipes that Usher ended up using were 20 percent old family favorites and another 80 percent developed specifically for the book. It took her about two years to come up with her concepts and another year to write the book and style the photos for photographer Steve Adams.
“The themes dictated a lot of the ingredients and recipes,” she said.
Preparing the recipes was “a test of endurance,” Usher added.
“There’s only so much time you can spend in the kitchen, before your taste buds get kind of numb,” she said. “I recruited other tasters to help me, because it’s hard for the palate to differentiate after a while.”
“Cookie Swap” is already available on Amazon.com, but will become available on local store shelves during Usher’s Maine tour. (See accompanying schedule.)
What will Usher do after that? Maybe go back to cakes.
“I miss making cakes,” she said. “They’re on a much larger scale.”
“Cookie Swap” author Julia M. Usher will be making the following local appearances: 6:30-8:30 p.m. Aug. 6, Blue Hill Library, cookie swap and book signing; 7-9 p.m. Aug. 7, Sherman’s Books & Stationery, Bar Harbor, cookie sampling and book signing; 1-2 p.m. Aug. 8, Bookstacks, Bucksport, cookie sampling and book signing; 2-4 p.m. Aug. 9, The Good Table, Belfast, cookie decorating demonstration and book signing; 1-3 p.m. Aug. 10, Sherman’s Books & Stationery, Camden, cookie talk and book signing; 3-5:30 p.m. Aug. 11, Left Bank Books, Searsport, cookie talk and book signing.
Below are recipes from “Fun in the Sun,” a party for summer in “Cookie Swap”:
Chocolate-Chai Burgers on Sesame-Seed Buns
Makes about 1½ dozen “burgers.”
COCOA MACAROON “BUNS”:
1¼ cups powdered sugar
1 cup almond flour (aka almond meal, available at organic and health food stores)
2 tablespoons unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
3 large egg whites, room temperature
Þ teaspoon salt
¼ cup sifted superfine sugar
1 to 1½ teaspoons white sesame seeds (for sprinkling)
CHAI-INFUSED GANACHE “BURGERS”:
9 ounces premium semisweet chocolate, finely chopped or ground in food processor
1½ cups heavy cream
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
10 Chai tea bags
1. Position a rack in center of oven and preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.
2. Mix the Cocoa Macaron “Buns.” Using a large-gauge sieve, sift powdered sugar, almond flour and cocoa powder together in medium bowl. Break apart any lumps of almond flour remaining in sieve and add to bowl.
Place egg whites in clean bowl of an electric mixer fitted with whip attachment. Beat on medium speed until frothy and then add the salt. Turn mixer to high speed and continue to beat to firm peaks, less than 1 minute. With mixer still running, gradually add the superfine sugar. Stop briefly, if needed, to scrape any sugar off sides of bowl, then continue beating until whites are stiff and shiny, about 1 more minute. Do not overbeat, as you’ll find it more difficult to incorporate the dry ingredients without overfolding.
Remove bowl from mixer and transfer whites to a large bowl. Sift almond flour mixture over top of meringue in three additions, folding with a large rubber spatula between each addition. Stop folding as soon as dry ingredients are evenly incorporated and batter has turned shiny. The batter should be thick, but peaks created by lifting up the spatula should largely dis-appear into the bulk of the batter.
3. Turn the meringue into a pastry bag fitted with a 3/8-inch round tip. Pipe the batter into 1½- to 1¾-inch rounds onto prepared cookie sheets, spacing cookies about 1 inch apart. Rap the cookie sheets on a tabletop to release trapped air bubbles. Flatten any peaks in meringue with a barely damp fingertip and sprinkle cookie tops evenly with sesame seeds.
4. Air-dry until a skin has formed on cookie tops, about 30 to 45 minutes.
5. Bake 13 to 15 minutes. When done, the cookies should feel dry and firm and should begin to lift off the parchment paper when gently nudged (If the cookies do not budge from the paper, bake 1 to 2 minutes longer). Slide cookies, still on the parchment paper, onto a wire rack and cool a few minutes until they are easily removed from the paper. Cool completely be-fore filling or storing.
6. Prepare the Chai-Infused Ganache Burgers: It is best to make the ganache just before you are ready to assemble the cookies. Place the chopped (or ground) chocolate in a large bowl so it forms a shallow layer. Set aside.
7. Pour the cream into a medium (3-quart) nonreactive saucepan. Place over medium to medium-high heat and scald the cream. (Heat cream to just below boiling point. The cream will put off steam, but no bubbles should break on its surface.) Add the tea bags to the warm cream and let them steep 30 minutes.
8. Rewarm cream over medium heat. Immediately strain the hot cream through a fine-meshed sieve directly onto chocolate. Gently squeeze the tea bags through sieve to release the retained cream. Discard the spent tea bags. Let the mixture sit 1 to 2 minutes without stirring, then gently whisk until chocolate is completely melted. (If the chocolate does not completely melt, set bowl over barely simmering water in a double boiler and stir regularly until smooth. Do not overheat, or the ganache may break.) Stir in corn syrup.
9. Pour ganache into a shallow pan to a ½- to ¾-inch depth, cover, and refrigerate 20 to 25 minutes, or until slightly thickened. Stir occasionally during chilling to maintain uniform consistency. Watch the ganache closely, as it can overchill and become difficult to pipe.
10. Assemble sandwiches: Transfer chilled ganache to a pastry bag fitted with a Þ-inch round tip. The ganache should be sufficiently thick to hold a thin line when piped. If not, empty pastry bag and return ganache to fridge for additional chilling. (If the ganache is too thick to pipe easily, warm it with your hands by squeezing the bag repeatedly.) Turn half of cookies over so bottoms are facing up. Pipe a 1¾-inch diameter round, about ¼ inch tall, on each cookie bottom. The more squiggles you pipe, the more the mound will resemble a hamburger patty. (To save time, the ganache can be spooned onto the cookies.) Cap with another cookie of similar size and gently press together to form a sandwich.
Top Dogs with Coffee Cream Filling
Makes 2 to 2½ dozen sandwich cookies.
HAZELNUT MERINGUE “BUNS”:
1 cup granulated sugar, divided
¾ cup chopped hazelnuts (with skins)
2 tablespoons cornstarch
4 large egg whites, room temperature
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
Þ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pure hazelnut extract
COFFEE BUTTERCREAM FILLING:
4 large egg whites, room temperature
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
ª cup granulated sugar
¤ cup plus 1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1ª cups (3 sticks plus 2ª tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
15 to 20 drops yellow soft gel food coloring
15 to 20 drops brown soft gel food coloring, divided
1½ tablespoons instant espresso powder, dissolved in 1 teaspoon boiling water
1 to 2 drops red soft gel food coloring
1. Position racks in upper and lower thirds of oven and preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.
2. Mix the Hazelnut Meringue “Buns”: Combine ½ cup sugar, hazelnuts and cornstarch in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Process until nuts are finely ground but not pasty.
Place egg whites and cream of tartar in the clean bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whip attachment. Beat on medium speed until frothy and add salt. Continue to beat to firm peaks. Turn mixer to medium-high speed and gradually add remaining sugar. Quickly scrape down sides of bowl, then resume beating on high speed until the whites are stiff and glossy, about 1 to 2 minutes.
Using a large rubber spatula, fold in the nut mixture along with the hazelnut extract.
3. Turn meringue into a pastry bag fitted with a ½-inch round tip. Pipe 2 to 2½ dozen small (¾-by-2¼-inch) buns onto each prepared cookie sheet, spacing cookies about one inch apart. (You should have 4 to 5 dozen buns in total, two per finished cookie.) Smooth any peaks in meringue with a barely damp fingertip.
4. Place both cookie sheets in oven at the same time and bake 25 to 30 minutes, or until cookies are crisp and lightly browned. To ensure even browning, rotate cookie sheets from top to bottom rack, and vice versa, midway through baking. Immediately transfer cookies to wire racks and cool completely before filling or storing.
5. Mix the Coffee Buttercream Filling. It is best to make the buttercream just before you assemble the cookies. Combine the egg whites and cream of tartar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whip attachment. Beat on medium speed to firm peaks.
6. Meanwhile, combine sugar and corn syrup in a large, nonstick skillet, and stir to evenly moisten sugar. Place mixture over medium-high heat and bring to boil, stirring as needed to make sure sugar completely dissolves. Continue to boil approximately 30 seconds, until thick, syrupy and bubbly through to center.
7. Turn mixer to medium-high speed and gradually add the hot sugar syrup in a slow, steady stream. (Do not stop the mixer while adding the syrup, or the egg whites will curdle.) Once all of the syrup has been incorporated, quickly scrape down sides of bowl, taking care not to scrape any hard crystallized sugar into meringue. Resume beating at high speed until me-ringue has cooled, about 7 to 10 minutes.
8. Add butter 2 tablespoons at a time, beating well after each addition. Note: The icing initially will deflate and look grainy but will get quick thick and glossy as more butter is incorporated.
9. Add vanilla extract and mix well.
10. Mix ½ cup Italian Buttercream with yellow food coloring and a drop of brown coloring to make the “mustard.” Combine remaining 1½ cups Italian Buttercream with dissolved espresso powder (or 2 ounces melted, cooled semisweet chocolate for kids) and whisk well. Deepen color to a hot-dog hue by adding remaining brown and red food coloring.
11. Assemble cookies. Fit a pastry bag with a å-inch round tip and fill with the brown buttercream. Fit another pastry bag with a Þ-inch round tip and fill with the yellow buttercream. Turn half of the cookies flat side up. Using the first pastry bag, pipe a short (½-by-1¾-inch) “hot dog” along length of each cookie. Top each hot dog with another bun, place flat side down, and gently press together. Turn sandwiches on their sides so hot dogs are clearly visible from top. Using second pastry bag, pipe a squiggle of yellow buttercream on top of each hot dog to mimic a squirt of mustard.
Pina Colada Beach Balls
Makes 1½ to 2 dozen cookies.
CLASSIC ICEBOX COOKIE DOUGH:
2½ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1¼ cups sifted powdered sugar
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 large egg
¾ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
FOR BEACH BALLS:
1½ teaspoons coconut extract
1 cup lightly packed sweetened coconut flakes (optional)
½ cup dried pineapple pieces, about 1 (3-ounce) bag (optional)
20-25 drops soft gel food coloring of your choice
1 large egg white, lightly beaten with 2 tablespoons water
1. Sift flour, baking soda and salt together in small bowl. Set aside for use in Step 3.
2. Place butter and sugars in bowl of an electric mixer. Stir to bring ingredients together (and to prevent the sugar from scattering in the next step).
3. Fit mixer with a paddle attachment and beat butter mixture on medium-low speed until light and creamy, about 1 minute. Add egg, vanilla extract and coconut extract, and beat until smooth, scraping down sides of bowl as needed. Gradually add flour mixture and mix until just incorporated.
4. Process coconut flakes and pineapple pieces into a fine meal in food processor fitted with a metal blade, and stir into finished dough, if desired.
5. Reserve 1 tablespoon dough for use in Step 9. Divide remaining dough in half. To the first half, add the food coloring and mix well to distribute color. Leave second half as is.
6. Flatten each portion of dough into a disk, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate 1 to 2 hours.
7. On a lightly floured surface, shape white portion of dough into a 2¼-inch-diameter log, about 4 to 5 inches long (if you add the coconut flakes and pineapple, the logs will be closer to 5 inches). Repeat with tinted dough, trying to match dimensions of the white log as closely as possible. Wrap the logs tightly in plastic wrap and freeze until quite firm. Unwrap and cut each log lengthwise into six equal wedges. Replace every other wedge in the tinted log with a wedge from the white log, and vice versa, affixing wedges to one another with a small amount of egg wash. Press each log together to make sure wedges are firmly in place.
8. Position a rack in center of oven and preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line two or more cookie sheets with parchment paper.
9. Work with one chilled log at a time, leaving any others in freezer until you’re ready to slice them. Cut the log lengthwise into 3/16- to 1/4-inch thick slices. Arrange slices 1½ to 2 inches apart on prepared cookie sheets. Shape reserved tablespoon of dough into tiny (1/4-inch) balls and gently press one into center of each cookie to make a “button.”
10. Bake 7 to 10 minutes, or until lightly browned on bottom.
11. Immediately transfer cookies to wire racks and cool completely before storing. Store baked cookies in airtight containers up to 5 days. For the crunchiest eating, enjoy within 24 hours. Note: For perfectly round cookies, you can either trim with a 2¼-inch round cutter before baking or with a 2¾-inch round cutter after baking, while cookies are still hot.