4.28.2009

look up

biscotti baggie

Sometimes people ask me if I feel afraid when Eli goes rock climbing out west. The short answer is no, but it's a little more complicated than that. Simply put, climbing is something Eli loves to do, and I want him to do what he loves. I have the choice either to spend my time fearing, or not. I choose not. There's also the fact that Eli and his climbing partner, Rich, are well-trained, highly skilled climbers, not fool hardy thrill seekers. Their approach is anything but reckless. Eli enjoys the sport because of the intimacy with nature it affords him, the fitness it demands, and the truly awesome views he gets to take in from on top of the world. (He loves all the cool gear, too.)

I usually leave it at that. But there's something else. When I say that, no, I am not afraid, I am actually answering a question different from the one posed. The question, as I hear it, is whether I am any more frightened by the thought of losing Eli when he is hanging off the side of a cliff than, say, when he's driving to the grocery store or, for that matter, folding laundry on our sofa. The truth is - although I don't dwell on it - losing him is among my greatest fears. It's just that I fear it the same whether he is chopping an onion in the kitchen or making his way up the face of a 1500 foot wall. I think that when we sign up to live in big, fat love, this fear comes with the territory. And so we track flights, say "drive safely" and, yes, I do breathe a sigh of relief when Eli comes down off the mountain exhilarated, tired, and in one piece. We love and we love, we recognize that we cannot protect the people we love with our love, and then we love and love some more.

And speaking of love: More than I fear it, I love that Eli is at this moment climbing higher and higher, thousands of feet in the air, a continent away. When Eli and I were first dating, he once said to me, "It's as if I have an extra set of eyes now, like I can take in twice the amount of world." I know what he means. I may be sitting here munching biscotti and tea, but I'm also with him way up there. I could look down, but I prefer to look up and out.

[Happy birthday, dear Rich! And welcome home. Thanks for keeping Eli from plummeting to the ground on climb after climb. I, um, really appreciate it.]

biscotti breakfast

Almond biscotti
Adapted from David Tanis's A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes

The best thing about these biscotti is the texture. You get a nice crackly crunch on the outside, and a soft, buttery center that you can sink your teeth into even before you dunk 'em. Despite the rich ingredients, the overall flavor of these biscotti is mild. At first I thought they were, perhaps, a little too mild. But after eating four in a row it was clear that I had no serious complaints. Next time, I'll try the following tweaks: increase the almond extract, add another generous pinch of salt, and toast the sliced almonds before mixing them into the batter. I'll update this recipe once I have tried it with the changes. In the meantime, the recipe is worth making just as it is. [Recipe updated June 25, 2009]

Oh, and by the way, you could also dip these in chocolate if you're into that kind of thing (ahem, hello, Hoffman family). I prefer them as they are.

8 T. (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 c. sugar
2 large eggs
1 t. almond extract
2 c. flour
1 1/2 t. baking powder
2 generous pinches of salt
3/4 c. sliced almonds (not blanched), toasted

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Stir in the almond extract.

In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Slowly mix the dry ingredients into the butter and sugar mixture until full incorporated. Stir in the sliced almonds.

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and divide it into thirds. Roll into logs about 2-inches in diameter. Place the logs on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake for 25-30 minutes, until lightly browned. Remove the logs and allow them to cool slightly.

While the logs are still warm, slice them on the diagonal about 1/2 inch thick. Use a sharp knife to avoid crumbling. Arrange the slices on two baking sheets and bake for approximately 7 minutes, until they appear barely toasted. Turn the biscotti over and allow them to toast for another 5-7 minutes, until lightly brown. Cool on a rack.

Biscotti will keep for several weeks in an airtight container.

Makes about 30 biscotti.

4.26.2009

faces to faces

april 26 2009

There is the kind of joy that sends you spinning around the room, whooping and cheering. And then there's another kind, just as warm and wide, that shuts you right up and sits you right down. At once, it takes your breath away, and then returns it, newly steady, slow, and deep.

There are truly no words when your dearest friends bring identical twin girls into the world at 5:30am on a Sunday morning.

Teeny ones, I've got some news for you about your parents: You got the best ones.

Sarit, your favorite cookies are on their way. I'll leave it up to you to decide if you feel like sharing them with Jonathan. As for the itsy-bitsies, we can't wait to welcome them, faces to faces.

4.25.2009

we jump at the chance

single cupcake

You may recall a certain sesame-loving noodle guardian from earlier in the pages of Sweet Amandine. Her name, dear readers, is Anna (or, affectionately, Anner), and she is the youngest of our four-sibling brood.

Impeccable taste in noodles is only the first in a long list of Anna's winning qualities. For one thing, never was there a cooler cucumber on the tennis court. No matter the score, whether her opponent is poutily throwing her racket to the ground, or gleefully pumping her fist in the air, Anna's face remains frozen in an expression of steely resolve, her lips flat as a line, her blue-eyed gaze focused straight ahead. She can organize a mean social studies binder, perform entire multi-character scenes from the movie Shrek, complete with spot-on accents, and, if necessary, could live indefinitely on a diet consisting only of ramen, scrambled eggs, chocolate, and Panera sandwiches. If you're looking for a forgotten lyric to a Queen song, or an honest opinion on a new haircut or pair of earrings, Anna is your girl. A few months ago, she even went so far as to declare me immortal. It meant a lot, since at the time I was feeling anything but.

And another thing: You know that girl in high school who was gorgeous, well-liked, and a straight-A student, an outstanding athlete and a skilled artist? No? Neither did I. But this mythical creature exists, people, in the form of my youngest sister!

Sometimes, it's hard for me to believe that such a wholly fantastic person could actually be related to me. But when, out of the blue, she asks me to help her bake a birthday cake - despite the fact that there is not a birthday in sight - I smile with the knowledge that we are indeed cut from the same cloth. That day in the kitchen, Anna's hilarious realization that the primary ingredient in buttercream frosting is, (gulp), butter, was, quite literally, the icing on our slightly sloping cake.

Oh, Anner bananer! It's no wonder that when you go and turn 15, we jump at the chance to celebrate you.

By now, you have hopefully devoured (and perhaps even shared, though I know that's asking a lot) the little lemon cupcakes sent from my kitchen to yours. Please finish up the ninth grade just as soon as possible and come and visit us in Boston. If the mood strikes, we can bake a cake.

cupcakes on tray

Lemon butter (cup)cakes
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen, who adapted her recipe from Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa Parties

For cupcakes:
2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 1/2 c. granulated sugar
4 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
1/3 c. grated lemon zest (6-8 lemons)
3 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1/4 c. lemon juice
3/4 c. buttermilk
1 tsp. vanilla

For glaze:
2 c. powdered sugar
4 T. lemon juice

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 12-muffin tin, or line with paper or foil liners. (Alternatively, you can make one large Bundt cake, or two loaves with this recipe. If making loaves, line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper for easier removal.)

Cream the butter and granulated sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle. Beat until fluffy, approximately five minutes. With the paddle still running at medium speed, add the eggs, one at a time, and the lemon zest.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a bowl. In another bowl (or glass measure cup, as I like to do it), combine the 1/4 c. lemon juice, buttermilk, and vanilla. Alternately add the dry mixture and the wet mixture to the butter and sugar, beginning and ending with the dry. Pour or spoon the batter into the muffin tin or loaf pans.

Bake the cupcakes for 25-30 minutes. (The loaves will take longer, 35-40 minutes.)

Allow the cupcakes to cool in the tin for 10-15 minutes. Then, remove them from the tin and place them on a rack to cool completely.

In a clean bowl, whisk together the powdered sugar and 4 T. lemon juice. Spoon the glaze over the completely cooled cupcakes and allow it to set.

Makes approximately 24 cupcakes, or 2 loaves.

4.23.2009

to a pistol packin' patriot on his 26th

This is the tale of a set of keys that nearly was lost, but wasn't, and a second slice of cake that almost wasn't devoured, but was. It involves a spur-of-the-moment shower in a bathroom not my own, a bathtub-loving cat who tried to stall the operation, a vintage gold watch that may or may not have been broken, and the kind of giddiness and pride that only the assemblage of a four-layer strawberry cream cake can inspire.

slice under plastic

Our story begins several weeks ago, when a certain soon-to-be 26-year-old shyly placed his order for a certain very special birthday cake. The birthday boy was none other than my friend Eitan, he who occasionally wields imaginary pistols and shoots them off Wild West style at the dinner table, who, in the eighth grade, composed a heart-rending (and rhyme-tastic) song chronicling the sorry fate of "a baker who lived in a village, who went by the name of Mr. Concillage," he who repeatedly insists, "you really don't need to bake me a birthday cake," but with a hopeful smile and a mischievous gleam in his eye adds, "but if you do, can it have whipped cream?" and with that seals the deal.

It took some prodding, dear readers, but soon Eitan's request was on the table: something cold, moist, and custardy, with a generous helping of strawberries. Eitan, his wife, Julia, Eli, and I were in the midst of an after-dinner flop on our green sofas. Our bellies were full, but our brains soldiered on to consider just what this luscious-sounding cake might look like. The word "trifle" was tossed around, fingers were pointed at the strawberry-crowned cover of April's Gourmet magazine, and soon even Julia had come to terms with the idea of a dream birthday cake conspicuously lacking in chocolate.

After more Google searching than I'd like to admit, and a careful patching together of several promising recipes, I had my game plan. On Thursday night, I prepared the custard, and on Friday morning, I baked and split the cake layers, macerated the strawberries, whipped the cream and, hands literally atremble with excitement, put the whole, whopping thing together.

from above on coffee table

So far, so good.

Eli left work early so that he could assemble his contribution to the birthday dinner, something specially suited to Eitan's penchant for Mexican cuisine: a saucy, steaming bed of bean and cheese enchiladas. The thought of making our way over to Eitan and Julia's with both the enchiladas and a towering four-layer cake in tow tortured me with waking nightmares of a whipped cream and bean-spattered sidewalk. But never fear, we had a plan: Eli would prepare the filling and the sauce for his enchiladas and then drive me over to Eitan and Julia's with the cake securely resting on my lap. Then, we would turn around, Eli would bake his enchiladas, and we would head back out, right on schedule.

Given the fact that the cake had not even threatened to crumble or tear when I delicately split two layers into four, and that our punctiliously timed baking, cooking, and delivering schedule had, thus far, gone off without a hitch, something was bound to go wrong. It was only fair.

When Eitan saw the cake, his eyes grew gratifyingly wide. Julia made room in the fridge while Eli and Eitan slid the four-layered beast from the wax paper-lined baking sheet to a glass pedestal. (I only shrieked a little during the perilous transfer. I am very brave.) Eitan ran for his camera, and after a brief photo shoot, Eli and I were back on the road. We jumped from the car, and then it hit us:

Eli: Do you have the keys?
Jess: No, you have the keys.
Eli: No, I don't.
Jess: Yes, you do. I was holding the cake, you grabbed the keys, locked the front door, and stuffed them into your pocket.
[Silence.]

Just how it came to be that our car keys and house keys were on two separate rings that evening is not all that interesting, so I'll spare you the details. But the clock was ticking, and there we were, unsure of how we were going to get into our building, let alone our apartment, bake the enchiladas, shower, and make it back to Eitan's birthday dinner on time. Finding our keys was also, ideally, a part of the plan.

We buzzed up to our neighbor Varina, and she let us in. I did such a good job, dear readers, of keeping my cool. I said not a word, rolled not an eyeball, and even smiled a little on our elevator ride up. (Though, I must admit, when Eli tried to give me a quick squeeze between the third and fourth floors, I quietly explained, "I'm not mad, but I don't want to hug you.") At Varina's place, Eli called Eitan and Julia, confirmed that they had our house keys, and sped off to retrieve them. Without missing a beat, I turned to Varina and shamelessly asked if I might shower. Varina extricated her cat from the tub, handed me a towel and, classy shower-lender that she is, even offered me a glass of wine. Good friends and neighbors are the best consolation at key-less times like these.

I leapt from the shower just as the front door of our apartment, one floor below, slammed shut. Still dripping, I hurriedly waved good-bye to Varina, flew down the stairs, and found Eli sliding the enchiladas into the oven. We arrived at Eitan and Julia's exactly 45-minutes late - not bad, all things considered.

Julia and Eitan were waiting for us, as were our friends Jonathan and Hila. When the six of us get together, hilarity always ensues. I mean, everyone-talking-at-once, howling-with-laughter hilarity. Last Friday night was no exception. Hila's account of a questionably sordid watch seller had us giggling in no time, especially the part about how, in a tense phone conversation with the perpetrator, she referred to Eli - my software developer husband - as her lawyer. From there, we moved on to crude hand gestures, enchilada sauce on the carpet, and some good old-fashioned marveling at our friendship and the luck that brought us together.

Finally, it was show time.

Eitan, despite it being his birthday, insisted that I do the honors. Smiling dopily, I cut the first slice. From the outside, the cake looked like a hulking puff of white, a few sliced strawberries perched almost comically atop the airy whipped cream. But the inside (oh the inside!) was an entirely different story. Four-layers, three pounds of strawberries, and a double recipe of custard different, to be exact. It was the most unbeautiful beautiful thing I have ever seen.

the inside up close

I ask you, has ugly ever looked so good?

I had worried that this cake would be cloyingly sweet, or that somehow or other the combination of cake, custard, berries, and cream would fall short. I need not have been concerned. Quieting the six of us is no easy task, but this cake left us in bliss-induced silence for at least a few gaping seconds. Then came the moaning, ("Ohhh... delicious...") the groaning, ("This cake is so rich!") and the scraping of the plates. Even Eli finished his slice, which is saying a lot. Jonathan decided against a second piece, but then went ahead and ate one anyway. There was finger licking, people. I was in heaven.

And, most importantly, Eitan got his cake, and ate it too. Happy birthday, friend.

Strawberry Custard Cassata Cake, or, Cleveland Cassata
Adapted from the Strawberry Chiffon Shortcake at Smitten Kitchen, and the Strawberry Cream Cake published in the June 1997 issue of Gourmet.

When Eitan first rattled off his list of ideal birthday cake qualities - cool, moist, custardy, and chock full of strawberries - a cake from my childhood in Cleveland immediately came to mind. Cassata cake. I began my research with a search for cassata cake recipes, but one after another they called for ricotta cheese instead of custard between the cake and strawberry layers. I was baffled. It was surely custard in the cakes that I remembered.

With a little more digging, I found that, while the majority of cassata cakes are indeed made with ricotta, Corbo's bakery in Cleveland has long produced a custard and strawberry cassata. Their Sicilian family recipe traces back 100 years. Apparently, this cake got the attention of Chef Mario Batali who, according to this site, said, "Corbo's Bakery has the best cassata I have tried in the USA." Other bakeries and supermarkets in the Cleveland area took their cues from Corbo's and made their cassatas with custard, too. To reproduce this Cleveland classic, I grabbed the cake from one recipe, the custard from another, and did my best to piece together a cassata the way I remember it.

Yes, this cake is a bit of a project in that it involves several components and takes some time to put together. But difficult it is not. To keep things manageable, you can make the custard and the cake the night before - it's best to refrigerate the cake before splitting the layers, anyway, to decrease the risk of breakage - and then just split the layers, macerate the berries, whip the cream, and assemble the next morning.

For the cake layers:
2 1/4 c. cake flour
1 1/4 and 1/4 cups sugar, divided
1 T. baking powder
1 t. salt
3/4 c. cold water
1/2 c. vegetable oil
1 t. lemon zest
1 t. vanilla extract
5 large egg yolks at room temperature
8 large egg whites at room temperature
1/2 t. cream of tartar

For the custard:
6 large egg yolks
1/2 c. sugar
2 c. half and half
3 T. cornstarch

For the macerated strawberries:
3 lb. strawberries
2 T. sugar

For the whipped cream:
2 c. chilled heavy cream
1 T. sugar

Make the custard: (you can do this step the night before)
Whisk together all of the custard ingredients in a saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-low heat, whisking constantly. Turn down the heat so that the mixture just simmers, and whisk until thick, 1-2 minutes. (The key words here are whisk constantly. The custard will tell you in no uncertain terms when it is done. It's like magic. One moment you can comfortably whisk your way through the liquid, and the next it is undeniably a thick custard. Cornstarch is neat like that.) Transfer the custard to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap or a round of wax paper, and cool. Then, chill custard, covered, for at least 3 hours, or up to 2 days.

Bake the cakes: (you can also do this step the night before)
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line the bottoms of two 9-inch round cake pans with lightly oiled (I use cooking spray) parchment paper . Otherwise, leave the pans ungreased.

Sift together the flour, 1 1/4 c. sugar, baking powder, and salt twice into a large bowl.

In a separate bowl, use an electric hand mixer on high speed to beat together the yolks, water, oil, zest, and vanilla until smooth. Stir into the flour mixture.

In another large bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar until soft peaks form. Add the remaining 1/4 c. sugar, and beat on high until the peaks are stiff but not dry.

Using a rubber spatula (and a very light touch), fold about a quarter of the fluffy egg whites into the egg yolk mixture. Then fold in the remaining whites. Be very gentle. The goal here is to incorporate the egg whites without allowing them to deflate significantly. It is all of the air that has been whipped into the egg whites that will make for tall and light cake layers. As soon as the egg whites are no longer visible, stop folding.

Scrape the batter into the two prepared pans and spread evenly. (Here is a trick for making sure you have poured an equal amount of batter into each pan: Grab two toothpicks and stick one into the center of each batter-filled pan. Then, pull them out and see if the amounts of batter on the picks line up.) Bake for approximately 35 minutes, until the top springs back when lightly pressed and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

For the next step, and for the splitting, wax paper is your friend. Any surface that carries a cake layer, I line with wax paper for easier transfer.

Allow the cakes to cool in their pans on a cooling rack for at least an hour. When completely cool, run a knife around the sides to release the cakes, cover each pan with a wax paper-lined plate, and flip. Gently lift the pans off of the cakes, and carefully peel back the pieces of parchment, taking care not to take the very tops of the cake with you. (I did end up pulling off a teeny tiny bit of the top of one layer, but it didn't matter, since the cake would ultimately be covered in whipped cream.)

Wrap the two cakes in plastic wrap, and refrigerate at least three hours, or overnight.

Meanwhile, prepare the strawberries:
Slice the strawberries thinly (but not too thinly - you want the slices thick enough so that you can really taste and feel the berries even once they are smothered by custard, cake, and whipped cream!), and place in a bowl. Sprinkle with the 2T. sugar, and stir. Allow the strawberries to macerate for 1 hour. Their juices will release and pool at the bottom of the bowl. Every so often, give them a stir. Strain the berries, reserving the released juices.

When the cakes are thoroughly chilled, and thus a little sturdier, it's time to split them in two. Using a long serrated bread knife, carefully saw each layer in half. Place each layer on a wax paper-lined baking sheet or plate.

Whip the cream:
Whip the cream and sugar together until stiff.

Assemble the cake!
(I experimented with my layering technique: custard alone between the first and second layers, strawberries alone between the second and third layers, and strawberries and custard between the third an fourth layers. In the future, I'll put strawberries and custard between every layer.)

Place one cake layer on a wax paper-lined baking sheet. Brush the top of the layer with 1/3 of the reserved strawberry juice. Cover with a layer of strawberries, and then with a layer of custard. Top with the next layer of the cake, and repeat: strawberry juice, strawberries, custard, cake layer. And again.

Using a spatula, cover the entire cake with whipped cream. Top with either leftover macerated strawberries, or a few "raw" strawberries. (Next time, I'll go with the latter.)

Chill the cake for at least 8 hours before serving, so that the cake has time to absorb the strawberry juices. Bring to cool room temperature before serving.

(To transfer the cake from the baking sheet to a cake stand, use the wax paper to gently scooch the cake from one surface to the other, then tear away the visible wax paper.)

4.16.2009

what comes next

unpacking up close

"It smells wonderful in here!"

This simple phrase always makes my day. Especially when uttered about a recipe braving its maiden voyage in my oven. Could there be a more heartening declaration of support than these five little words? They say, "I trust in what comes next. I haven't yet laid eyes on it, but something in the air tells me that it's going to be good."

Last week, when my neighbor Elisha knocked on my door, my first-ever batch of coconut macaroons was browning in the oven. I was hopeful, but uncertain. There are few ingredients as divisive as coconut - so dearly beloved by some, but even more dearly despised by others. Nonetheless, when Elisha ooohed over the smell of toasty coconut hanging in the air, I had a hunch that everything was going to be okay.

A few minutes later, a small brigade of bronzed and beautiful macaroons came sliding out of the oven. They reminded me of tiny bald heads, rosy from too much sun. Capped with shaggy chocolate toupees, they looked dashing. And they tasted delicious - every bit as decadent as their enticing aroma foretold. Elisha's father put it best: "You should need a license to eat one of these!"

I'm beginning to think that maybe I should stop worrying about what comes next, and learn to follow my nose.

Chocolate-Covered Coconut Macaroons
Adapted from Molly Wizenberg's A Homemade Life
I have now made these macaroons twice. The first time I used 1 T. of coconut mixture per cookie, and the second time I used a 1/8 c. measuring cup. (The second batch of larger macaroons is pictured here.) The first time around, I covered the macaroons in chocolate by spooning the ganache over top, and the second time I dunked them into the chocolate. Next time, I'll go with a little bit of each of these techniques: I prefer the 1 T. closer-to-bite-sized versions, since the coconut is so darn rich. But instead of using a spoon to cap them off with chocolate, I'll dunk them, one by one. The dunking provides a thinner, more even coat - looks a little less like a lopsided toupee and more like a chocolate bowl haircut!

For the macaroons:
3 cups lightly packed unsweetened shredded coconut
1 1/2 c. granulated sugar
3/4 c. egg whites (about 5 or 6 large)
1 1/2 t. vanilla
1 t. almond extract

For the ganache:
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped (as usual, I prefer 70% Scharffen-Berger chocolate)
1/2 c. heavy cream

Make the macaroons:
Place the coconut, sugar, and egg whites in a medium heavy saucepan and stir to combine. Cook over a medium-low flame, stirring frequently, for 10-12 minutes. It is done when the mixture is still sticky and moist, but no longer creamy. (The mixture will look creamy at first, and will become drier and pastier as it cooks.) Remove from the heat, and mix in the vanilla and almond extracts. Spread out the mixture on a baking sheet, and refrigerate until cold, approximately 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Once the coconut mixture has been chilled, use a 1-tablespoon measuring spoon to scoop into small domes. Place the coconut domes on the baking sheet. Bake until golden, 25-30 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

Make the ganache:
Place the chopped chocolate in a medium boil. Heat the cream in a small saucepan until hot and steamy, but not boiling. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate and stir together until smooth. Holding the macaroons upside down by their flat bottoms, dunk them, one by one, in the chocolate ganache. Return the chocolate-covered macaroons to a baking pan or the cooling rack and refrigerate until the ganache sets, at least 2 hours. Transfer the macaroons to an airtight container, and refrigerate or freeze.

Makes 14 to 18 macaroons.

4.13.2009

not so pure

When it comes to sushi and chocolate, I am a purist. I'll take my raw fish one species at a time, thank you very much. Rainbow rolls make me nervous. I can't even handle spicy mayonnaise on my tuna, let alone a double or triple reinforcement of yellowtail, salmon, and who knows what else? I've tried to indulge, but my tongue is never able to sort it all out. It's the same with chocolate. I like it best super-dark and unencumbered. No nuts, no fruit, no toffee. In other words, no distractions.

Yet in recent years I have loosened up a bit. Slip some avocado alongside my salmon and I don't complain. On a good day I'll even admit that it's kind of yummy. The thought of extraneous ingredients taking up space in a bar of chocolate where there could be, say, more chocolate, is not as easy for me to stomach. The unadulterated 70% and up stuff is just so darn delicious, it is hard to imagine why anyone would want to mess with it. Well, gentle readers, I have discovered the answer in the form of this candy.

cherry almond chunkies up close

The original recipe calls for a long list of dubious interlopers: dried cranberries and raisins and peanuts and pistachios. I get a little twitchy just thinking about it. At first, all I could picture were the tooth achingly sweet Chunky bars my dad used to eat when I was a kid. I'm on the same page with my dad about most things, but his inexplicable love for these nutty, raisin-y bars was enough to make me momentarily question my parentage whenever he so much as crinkled the foil wrapper.

Nevertheless, I decided to give this recipe a shot, with some serious toning down. I chose one nut, almonds, and one fruit, cherries, and got cooking. If you can even call it cooking. This recipe is as easy as they come. Simply melt the chocolate, stir in the almonds and cherries, chill, and cube. This week and last, I have served these candies alongside cakes and cookies that require considerably more time and effort. They steal the show every time.

My family and friends are not the only ones offering up rave reviews. I not only like these cherry almond chunkies, I love them. I have no idea why, but unlike raisins, which have a bad habit of getting in the way of things, the cherries all but disappear among the toasted almonds and rich curtain of chocolate. A sweet tang and occasional mild chewiness is all that remains of them. As for the nuts, they make themselves known, but they are content to let the chocolate do the talking.

So, yes please. I'll take my chocolate with almonds, cherries, and a few pinches of salt. I guess I'm not so pure after all.

Cherry Almond Chocolate Chunkies
Adapted from Gourmet, February 2003

The cherries, toasted almonds, and chocolate in this recipe add up to a winning combination no matter how you slice it. But what really puts these treats over the top is the salt. It brings out the best in all three players. Don't be afraid of a few generous grinds!

1 and 1/4 lbs. (20 oz.) high-quality bittersweet chocolate, chopped (I like to use 70% cocoa for this recipe.)
Neutral flavored oil for greasing the pan
1 and 1/2 c. almonds
1 heaping c. dried cherries
5-6 grinds or 1 scant tsp. sea salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the almonds in a single layer on a baking sheet, and toast until fragrant, approximately 8 minutes. Halfway through, give the nuts a stir so that they toast evenly.

Melt the chocolate in the top of a double boiler or in a metal bowl set over a saucepan of barely simmering water. Stir occasionally until smooth.

While the chocolate is melting, line the bottom and sides of an 8-inch square baking pan with foil. Leave a 2-inch overhang so that you can easily lift the chilled chocolate from the pan when the time comes. Lightly oil the foil.

When the chocolate is melted, remove the bowl from the heat, and dump in the toasted almonds, dried cherries, and salt. Stir, and pour into the foil-lined pan. Press evenly into the pan with a spatula.

Chill in the fridge for an hour. (Don't wait much longer than that or it will crack when you try to cut it.) When the chocolate is once again a solid block, lift out of the pan, and peel away the foil. Using a sharp knife, cut into chunks. Keep refrigerated.

Yields about 60 1-inch candies.

[Special thanks to Elisha, for lending me a bowl from her grandmother's beautiful set of china. The candies found it quite comfy.]

4.12.2009

the very best of her

plated with wax paper

When I was a kid, visits to my grandparents' house in West Hartford began with a full-blown arrival ritual. The plane would touch down, and we would pour from the accordion mouth of the jetway, into the terminal. My grandfather, Pop, looking like he might actually pop with sheer joy, would be there waiting for us. Bouncing on the balls of his feet, he would fling his arms open wide, throw back his head, and greet us with bursts and gasps of his sweet, hearty laugh. This was back when airport gates still pulsed with joyful squeals, teary farewells, lingering kisses, and the sound of shoes rapidly beating against carpet en route to long-awaited embraces. I miss it, that arriving and departing in a flurry of hugs, whoops, and sighs.

Pop and Grandma lived on a long, windy street marked by two rows of oversized mailboxes where the street branched off from the main road. We would turn, and then drive up the hill to the house. Through the trees, the sweeping back deck would appear as we rounded the bend. My eyelids would be heavy with sleep by the time we pulled into the garage. But here was where the ritual truly began. The smell of the garage always grabbed me, and roused me from my half-slumber. Were you to bottle up this smell and wave it under my nose, I could identify it in a heartbeat as Pop and Grandma's garage. Yet I'm afraid I can't figure out how on earth to describe it. Like old photographs, perhaps? And potting soil, and worn leather - or maybe wood? - and blueberries, and what I sometimes imagined my father's childhood to be, all packed into a single whiff. Maybe this is why I want to capture my arrival ritual here, to chase these bits of it onto the page, in order to make up for the parts that don't translate.

Grandma Louise would meet us at the door with her soft hands and gentle squeezes. This house was a living, breathing extension of her. Standing there in the kitchen, Grandma wore her home like an enormous, multi-roomed cloak that showed off the very best of her.

Down in our bedroom, my sister and I would change into our pajamas. It was late, but my ritual continued: I would open every drawer of the white wicker furniture, pull out the same old plastic slot machine game, costume jewelry, and dolls half-bald from my early hairdressing experiments. I would thumb through the dog-eared Little Golden Books lined up on the dresser, and peek into Pop's college scrapbook. Sufficiently settled in, I would head back upstairs, to join the grown-ups in the kitchen.

On the counter, next to the refrigerator, lay a white, cardboard box, wrapped in string. Being a kid and all, I could slide my small hand into the box without even untying the string, and pull out my bedtime snack: a single sticky rugelach. Grandma baked apple pies and zucchini bread, knitted sweaters, and grew tomatoes in pots on the deck, but rugelech, she bought. With their caramelized, slightly burnt underbellies and clingy raisins, they were as much about my grandma and her home as the things she made with her own two hands. Which just goes to show that - though I'm often tempted to think otherwise - something need not be homemade to help make a home.

Until last week, I had never tasted homemade rugelech, let alone attempted to bake them myself. Quite simply, I had no idea - no idea- what lay in store.

rugelach cooling

In her lifetime, Grandma Louise prepared me for a lot. Thanks to her, I understood plenty about the good and the bad out there: There are jeans on the rack, for example, that will zip up without a hitch, but do your hips and bottom no favors, and sweet corn so toothsome that it's best to cushion every bite with a throaty grunt of pleasure. Curly hair, she taught me, often snarls back at even the most well-meaning brush. And it's not that I look ugly in that photograph, but that the picture itself "isn't flattering." Grandma taught me that I could take lemon or cream in my tea, but not both, that a well-composed platter on a Sunday table is nothing to scoff at, and that a bowl of raspberries is often the perfect end to a late-night summer meal. Grandma knew how to love with all her heart, how to be afraid, how to set a fine table and dig in with both hands. Ultimately, she showed me that illness may pin you to your seat, but it need not keep you from crossing oceans.

Despite all of this, for hot-out-of-the-oven rugelech she left me completely unprepared. I was on my own for this one, though I suppose I can't complain. One chocolaty, raspberry-y bite sent my eyes rolling in ecstasy towards the back of my head. Fingers still sticky, I dove for the phone. I wanted so badly to call up my grandma and tell her about these incredible rugelech, curling sweetly in my hand, reminding me of her. I called my dad instead. I bragged to him about my rugelech, and we missed Grandma together.

Chocolate Raspberry Rugelech
adapted from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook

close up

I realize that this recipe looks long and cumbersome, but I promise that it's not as bad as it seems. Remember, I'm a wordy one. Working with the cream cheese dough, so even-tempered and perfectly suited to rolling out and rolling up, is a dream. If you ask me, you should give this recipe a try for the sake of this dough alone. If you want to spread your making and baking over a couple of days, you can prepare the dough and the dry filling the night before. Then, in the morning, all you have to do is melt the jam, fill and roll up the rugelech, and bake. And if all of this still sounds like a lot of trouble for a few dozen rugelech, then please just trust me that it's worth it.

For the dough:
8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature
8 ounces cream cheese at room temperature
1/2 c. sugar
3 large egg yolks
1 t. vanilla
A pinch of coarse salt
2 1/3 c. all-purpose flour, plus a little extra for rolling out the dough

For the filling:
1 heaping c. pecans
1/4 c. granulated sugar
3-4 dashes cinnamon
A (hefty, if you're me) pinch of coarse salt
12 ounces raspberry jam, melted
1 c. semisweet chocolate chips, or 6 oz. of chopped bittersweet chocolate

For the finishing:
2 large egg whites, lightly beaten (I use the leftover egg whites from the yolks called for in the dough.)
1/4 c. turbinado sugar

First, make the dough: On medium speed, beat together the butter and cream cheese in the bowl of an electric mixer. Add the 1/2 c. granulated sugar, and beat until fluffy. Beat in the egg yolks, one at a time, leaving enough time for each yolk to combine with the batter between additions. Add the vanilla and the salt, and beat to combine. Reduce the speed to low, and beat in the flour. Divide the dough into three pieces and pat into disks. Wrap each disk in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour, or overnight.

Next, make the filling: Toast the pecans in a 350 degree oven until fragrant (approximately 7-8 minutes). Once the nuts have cooled, pulse them together in a food processor with the 1/4 c. granulated sugar, cinnamon, and salt. I like the pecans ground to a medium consistency - not too fine- to provide the rugelech with a nutty crunch.

Finally, roll and bake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Over a very low flame, melt the jam in a saucepan until it is runny enough to brush across the pastry without tearing the dough. On a lightly floured surface, roll out one disk of dough into a thin 12-inch round. (The dough should be less than 1/8 of an inch thick.) Brush evenly with jelly. Sprinkle one-third of the walnut mixture and one third of the chocolate chips over the jelly. The rugelech will roll up best if you leave about a 2-inch circle of dough in the center free of chocolate and nuts. Using the rolling pin or your fingers, gently press the chocolate and nuts into the dough. Next, cut the round into 16 equal-sized wedges with a pizza cutter or a sharp knife. At this point, the dough actually looks like a pizza, with raspberry jam instead of tomato sauce and chocolate chips and pecans in place of mushrooms and peppers.

rugelach just rolled

Starting from the "crust end," roll up each slice to the center of the "pie." Press the tip of each "slice" into the body of the pastry to seal. Place the rugelech on the prepared baking sheets. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling. Brush the tops of the rugelech with the beaten egg whites, and sprinkle with turbinado sugar.

Bake until golden brown, 20-25 minutes.

Enjoy at least one warm from the oven.

Makes 48.

boxed up

4.08.2009

the best of intentions

friday morning

Well. Hello.

It's been a little quiet around here lately. Thanks for stopping by every now and again to check in on me, nonetheless. I have now received enough mildly concerned e-mails and voice messages to know that I had better pop in, if only for a moment. Dear, doting readers, never fear! I'm alive and kicking. Alive and cooking, even.

My recent silence is not for lack of things to tell you. I've mixed and blended and whipped and whirred and kneaded and rolled out quite a backlog of goodies over the last week and a half. It's just that in the tug of war between my kitchen and my computer desk, the kitchen has been the reigning champ around here. That kitchen. With her shiny knives and crinkly rolls of parchment paper, she sure does know how to rope me in and pull me clean across that center line.

On Friday morning, I had the best of intentions: I would finish up the cooking by noon - we were hosting guests that evening - and then scoot right over to Sweet Amandine to tell the tale of the snappy ginger coffee cake that I baked on Tuesday. Maybe, I speculated optimistically, I would even get going on a post about Thursday's swoon-worthy rugelach. By 11am on Friday morning, the pâte brisée was snugly tucked into its pan and awaiting its apples and cream, and two braided loaves had begun their final rise. This was the moment to make my move. But then, en route to my desk, I saw a picture of my dear friend Naomi leaning against the old books on our mantle. One thing led to another, and suddenly I was back in the kitchen cutting butter into flour and cornmeal so that I could get a batch of corn-cherry scones in the mail to her by the end of the day. And now that the buttermilk carton was open, why not bake up a few extras to send to my sweet friend Sarit in Princeton? And Eli's brother and sister-in-law in Teaneck? Needless to say, I never made it into my office before our dinner guests arrived.

And Friday was only the beginning. Since then, I've baked a rich, mousse-y chocolate cake that looked like a pile of manure squashed by two ample butt cheeks, but tasted like heaven, a tray of chocolate covered coconut macaroons, two batches of almond macaroons, and sixty cherry-almond chocolate candies. Whew.

Next week, I'm going to tell you all about it. I promise.

For now, to those of you celebrating the Jewish holiday of Passover, may it be a liberating one for you and yours.

See you Sunday.