Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Family Heirlooms: Ischler, The Emperor of Cookies

Time to disclose another favorite recipe from my "secret" book of family heirlooms.

Ischler (or Isler, Ishler) is a tiny cookie dating back to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The cookie was first made in 1849 in the town of Bad Ischl as a treat for the Emperor Franz Joseph I, who established his summer residence there. Needles to say, the tiny Ischler immediately became Emperor’s favorite desert and incredibly popular across all Austro-Hungarian lands.

Ischler is an example of what's in Serbian cousine known as "sitni kolaci" or "tiny cookies". Every special occasion, every wedding (and funeral), every Christmas and slava, every major family celebration needs to be accompanied with a gigantic plate of tiny cookes. The more varieties, the merrier, as I have not seen a plate with less than six different kinds. God forbid less than six! If the lady of the house served her guests from an impoverished plate, she ran the risk of loosing her good cooking reputation forever. And in good old days, good cooking reputation was really important to Serbian ladies. Thus the plate of tiny cookies became the competition grounds for good cooking reputation. (Come to think about it, I should dedicate one post entirely to the tiny cookies tradition, that's something to write about!)

Back to my current topic. I inherited two different recipes for Ischler from my two grandmothers. I distinctly preferred the recipe from Grandmother A. I cannot name the names here, because the other side of the family will take offense. Recipe supremacy is a dangerous territory. Grandma B's recipe was far from bad either, it had some very strong points. Hence, my mom and I went to work, did a bit of readjusting here and there, went back and forth a couple of times, and united the family in an embodiment of an Ischler that defines perfection. (Just my modest opinion.) The version below is now our “family approved” trademark.

Chocolate Ischler

the cookies

* 210g butter
* 2 small egg yolks
* 100g powder sugar
* 60g dark chocolate
* 300g all-purpose flou

1. Melt the chocolate. In a mixer fitted with paddle, beat the butter with the powder sugar until creamy. 

2. Add the egg yolks and continue to beat until incorporated. Add the melted chocolate and continue to beat until incorporated. Add the flour and beat until uniform dough forms. Cover the dough and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

3. Preheat the oven to 325°F convection bake (350°F regular bake). Place the dough on work surface dusted with flour and roll it out to a 1/4-inch-thick round. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Using a small round cookie cutter (I use 1-inch or quarter-size cutters), stamp out the cookies and arrange them one inch apart on the baking sheets.

4. Bake for about 12-15 minutes. Let the cookies cool on the baking sheets for 5 minutes and then transfer to wire rack or flat surface to cool completely.

the cream & glaze

* 210g granulated sugar
* 70g semi-sweet or bitter-sweet chocolate (for the cream), cut into pieces 

* 125g butter (for the cream)
* 150g semi-sweet chocolate (for the icing)
* 1 tsp butter (for the icing)

1. Prepare the cream: In a medium size saucepan, mix the granulated sugar with 1/2 cup of water.

2. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and stir in the chocolate. Reduce the heat to medium-low and continue to boil to make syrup. (Occasionally remove the sugar from the edges of the pan with spatula so that crystals do not form.) Once the syrup reaches the soft ball stage (about 235°F, essentially, you will be having a very thick syrup) remove from the heat and add the butter.Continue to stir until the butter is fully incorporated. Put the cream into the refrigerator for about 3-4 hours until completely cool and creamy. (You might have to occasionally stir the cream to prevent the crystals from forming on the top.)

3. Once the cream has cooled and firmed in the refrigerator, transfer it to a mixer and beat until it becomes light and fluffy.

4. Take a cookie round at a time, spread the cream on it and top with another cookie round.

5. Prepare the glaze. In a small saucepan melt the chocolate with three tablespoons of water over low heat. Add the butter and continue to simmer until the icing is uniform and thick. Remove from the stove and let it cool for about 2 minutes.

6. Dip the cookie sandwiches into glaze (one side only), and leave on work surface until the glaze sets hard (about 2 hours). When the glaze has hardened completely, place the cookies into a tin box with a tight lid, and store in a cool dry place for at least one day before serving. 

7. If you are storing the cookies in the fridge, make sure you take them out about at least two hours before serving.

Makes about 40 cookies

p.s. I am not of the kind who likes to delve on every single aspect of the recipe. I like the recipes crisp and clean. But these little guys require certain degree of baking/pastry skills, so here are some additional tips:

A note on the process: I usually make the cookies over two days, to serve them on day three. That is when they are the softest. On day one I make the cookies (the little sandwiches). I put them in the airtight container in one layer and then store them in the fridge. On day two, I glaze the cookies. Once they are glazed, I let them sit outside the fridge for about two to three hours. The glaze will harden, and in the meantime the cookies will absorb some of the moisture from the glaze and the cream, and will get even softer. I then put them back into the airtight container, in one layer, and return them to the fridge. On day three I take them out about two hours before serving.

A note on the buttercream: Make sure you do not go too much beyond 238F. The syrup should be thick and bubbly (but should not begin to crystallize). If it becomes too hard you can always add some water. Only after you add the butter, and the cream is completely cold, you will be able to get a sense if the cream is thick enough. (This cooling process does take some time in the fridge.) If, by any chance, the cream is still too liquid, you can cook it some more (this time with the butter) until it thickens a bit, and then send it back to the fridge. The end result should be a bit thicker than the chocolate buttercream for the cupcakes. (In other words, should be thick enough to hold two cookies without being too wiggly.)

A note on the glaze: Depending on the kind of chocolate you are using, you may want to add more or less butter. If you are using extra dark chocolate with high cocoa content, add a bit more butter, otherwise the glaze might crack.

A note on simplification: If you are not in the mood for making the chocolate cream, you can substitute it with raspberry jam, which is another popular version of Ischler recipe.

A note on kitchen conditions: If you are making the cookies in the summer, try to keep the kitchen cool, otherwise, you will be up for a little trouble.

A note on tiny people: Tiny people love Ischler's, even more so than the Emperor did. This is tiny people's dream. Sometimes, for Miss Pain's birthday party, I make a hundred or so, and pile them up really high, like a "cake". And you have to see their faces!

Happy Valentine's day!

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