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Craig Strong's Raisin-Filled Sugar and Spice Cookies

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It's a good thing I'll be in Pasadena next week - I have half a mind to track down Craig Strong of the Ritz-Carlton, toting my little Ziploc bag filled with a few buttery crumbs and the lingering scent of ginger and lemons, to tell him that despite the utter unwillingness of that wondrous cookie dough to allow itself to be rolled and the fact that the recipe produced far more cookies than he said it would, that I was having a Very Hard Time Indeed (or Nigh Impossible, I suppose) not to eat all of the delicious crescents of tender cookie and spicy-sweet citrus jam (the empty Ziploc bag would then be presented as proof) and that even my personal cookie expert proclaimed them to be very good and, furthermore, she asked for the recipe, which is a sign, if any, of the true deliciousness of said cookies.

And then I'd thank him, of course. I am nothing if not polite.

First published in the Los Angeles Times in December, along with nine other cookies proclaimed to be the best in the land, or at least the county, Craig's cookie recipe consists of a soft, buttery dough, speckled with vanilla bean seeds, rolled out and filled with an aromatic golden raisin jam (again with the golden raisins, I know, but once again I'm going to tell all you raisin-haters that in this incarnation, the little golden nuggets are completely transformed into something else entirely - the lemon peel and grated ginger and gentle stewing all help a bit - and I guarantee you will not regret making these, I really do). Brushed with a cream glaze and sparkling with a sprinkle of turbinado sugar crystals, the cookies may not look like the recipe says they will, but that doesn't matter in the slightest. These are fantastic cookies that pack a textural punch and hugely delicious flavor.

And? Drumroll... They're going into my permanent repertoire, for sure.

Let me just quickly tell you how I ended up improvising. First of all, I substituted vanilla extract for the seeds - and yes, I felt very badly about it. But I had everything else in the house, and I was on a cookie-making roll and at the time, subbing with the extract didn't seem so bad. And it wasn't! Like I said, these are fantastic little confections. Made with vanilla beans, they will most definitely pass even the most rigorous Christmas gift test with flying colors. I figured, in plain old March, it'd be okay if I didn't go all out.

Then, the dough. I found it too sticky to roll out, even after an overnight stay in the fridge. So, employing my Silpat, the palm of my hand, and very quick work, I decided to make crescent-shaped cookies instead of the fluted-edge, stamped cookies. I plucked off a walnut-sized piece of dough, flattened it on the Silpat with one swift movement, dolloped a teaspoon of the raisin jam on top, folded the cookie over (this required a spatula, usually), then brushed it with the cream glaze and rolled it in the coarse sugar.

You might need a few tries to get a cookie that isn't ripped open here and there. But you'll get the hang of it. Maybe have a friend help you. Or spread the work out over two days (I did - baking some Saturday night, and the rest Sunday morning so that we'd have enough for dessert on Sunday afternoon, after a most successful lunch of Russ-and-Molly inspired kale-and-goat-cheese frittata - but with a boiled Carola potato or two for good measure - and salad) - that way you don't get too irritated at the dough and the fussiness of the whole project.

Besides, I'm here to tell you that I, self-appointed queen of non-fussy cooking, think these things are worth the trouble. They really are.

After all that work, the payoff comes so quickly. A mere 10 to 12 minutes in the oven and your house will fill with this amazing scent - browning butter, caramelizing sugar, a spicy melange of grated ginger and lemon peel. You'll pull out the trays of browned cookies, let them cool as long as you're able and then bite into one. Your teeth will hit the alluring crunch of the turbinado sugar, then sink gently into the soft cookie and the gooey fruit filling that is just the right balance of sweet and spicy and bold against the creamy backdrop of the casing. You'll eat one, and another, then congratulate yourself that you had the foresight to make these in March, when the holidays are far away, and there's absolutely no reason why you should pack any of the cookies up and ship them away.

Holiday spirit, bah humbug. It's spring, and these are all for you.

Raisin-Filled Sugar and Spice Cookies
Makes 30 cookies


1/2 cup butter
1 vanilla bean, scraped of seeds
1 1/3 cups sugar, divided
1 tablespoon milk
2 eggs
2 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 cup golden raisins
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1 tablespoon cornstarch
3 egg yolks
1 tablespoon heavy cream
Coarse sugar, such as sanding sugar

1. In the bowl of a standing mixer, beat the butter, vanilla bean seeds and 1 cup sugar, about 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl if necessary. Beat in the milk and eggs one at a time; mix well.

2. Sift together the flour, baking powder, salt and cardamom into a large bowl. Add to the butter mixture, beating until just incorporated. Cover the bowl with plastic film and chill 2 to 3 hours, until dough is firm.

3. For the filling, mix the raisins, one-third cup sugar, lemon zest, lemon juice and ginger in a small saucepan. Stir together the cornstarch and one-half cup water until smooth and add this to the raisin mixture. Heat, stirring occasionally, to boiling. Reduce the heat and simmer, stirring, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool to room temperature.

4. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut the dough in half and roll out two rectangles one-eighth-inch thick. In a small bowl, beat together the egg yolks and cream with a fork. Lightly brush one rectangle of dough with the egg yolk mixture.

5. Spoon 12 mounds, about a tablespoon each, of the raisin mixture spread 3 1/2 inches apart on the sheet of dough. Cover with the other sheet of dough and cut around the mound of filling with a fluted round 3-inch cookie cutter. Rework the excess dough, re-roll, fill and cut for the remainder of the cookies. Lift filled cookies onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush the tops of the cookies with the egg yolk mixture and sprinkle with coarse sugar. Bake until golden brown, 10 to 12 minutes.

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