10.31.2010

In the name of the cookie

My cousin, Katie, was married last weekend in Brooklyn.



The festivities began with a dinner at Frankies Spuntino that made me want to strap on an extra stomach for the evening. Alas, single-stomached creature that I am, I had no choice but to leave several lonely bites of gnocchi marinara and fresh ricotta slumping sadly on my plate. The wedding itself was the next day, at The Bell House, a 1920s warehouse that was converted into a performance venue a couple of years back. It’s a warm and welcoming space, dimly lit by crystal chandeliers that hang from wooden beams. Katie and her husband, Kit, who both work in theatre –that’s how they met– were married up on stage, under the glow of stage lights and paper lanterns. It was elegant and intimate, glamorous and simple at the same time.

A few months back, Katie asked me to bake for the reception. Obviously, I agreed. I flitted between cookbooks and paged through my recipe file, but nothing seemed quite right. I went from toffee, to almond tarts, to molasses cookies when, finally, about two weeks before the wedding, my genius of a step-mom, Amy, solved it. Our phone conversation went something like this:

Me: …and so noooow, I think I’m going to make those gingery molasses cookies. Katie likes the flavors; they’ll taste like fall. Plus, they travel well.
Amy: Sounds good. But have you thought about making those Mexican wedding cakes?
Me: [silence.] Oh my gosh, that’s brilliant. You’re brilliant. HOW did you think of that?
Amy: Uh, well, there is that word “wedding” in the name of the cookie…

Sometimes I am not very smart.



I ate my first Mexican wedding cake five years ago, not long after Eli and I were married. (Five years ago. Five years! As of yesterday, that’s how long we’ve been married. I’ll take another five now, please. And then another. And another, yep, and another, yes, yes. Until forever, please. Amen.) Amy made these cakes which, as you can see, are actually cookies, for a post-wedding party that she and my dad threw for us back in Ohio. I remember holding one between my index finger and thumb, tilting my head forward to keep from dusting my new satin blouse with powdered sugar, and cupping my other hand beneath the cookie to protect the floor. I was expecting something like a doughnut hole, cakey and soft (there is that word “cake” in the name of the cookie), but what I got was much better.

Mexican wedding cakes are made from an eggless, butter-rich dough, splashed with vanilla and speckled with toasted ground pecans. Genealogically speaking, they’re a relative of the shortbread cookie. But while most shortbread is dense and hard by design, Mexican wedding cakes are anything but. Smooth and tight on the outside, tender and loose within, they’re like tiny bombs of sandy, nut-flecked crumbs that half explode, half melt in your mouth. Instantly smitten, I scored the recipe from Amy, and made them a few weeks later for our first Chanukah party in our new home. Given that they’ve made an appearance every year since, and that they are, I think, my most-requested cookie recipe, it’s hard to believe that it has taken me so long to deposit them here. Thanks for the nudge, Katie and Kit, and for a beautiful and inspiring wedding weekend.

I'd like to end today with the poem by James Kavanaugh that Katie asked me to read during the ceremony. May we all get to live in this kind of love.

To Love is Not to Possess

To love is not to possess,
To own or imprison,
Nor to lose one's self in another.
Love is to join and separate,
To walk alone and together,
To find a laughing freedom
That lonely isolation does not permit.
It is finally to be able
To be who we really are
No longer clinging in childish dependency
Nor docilely living separate lives in silence,
It is to be perfectly one's self
And perfectly join in permanent commitment
To another—and to one's inner self.
Love only endures when it moves like waves,
Receding and returning gently or passionately,
Or moving lovingly like the tide
In the moon's own predictable harmony,
Because finally, despite a child's scars
Or an adult's deepest wounds,
They are openly free to be
Who they really are—and always secretly were,
In the very true core of their being
Where true and lasting love can alone abide.

***
Mexican Wedding Cakes
Adapted from Bon App├ętit, May 2003

For the dough:
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
½ cup powdered sugar
2 tsps. vanilla
2 cups flour
1 cup pecans, toasted, coarsely ground

For the sugar coating:
1½ cups powdered sugar
¼ tsp. cinnamon

Beat the butter in the bowl of an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add the ½ cup powdered sugar and vanilla, and blend well. Beat in the flour, and then the toasted, ground pecans. Divide the dough in half, form each half into a ball, and wrap separately in plastic. Chill for at least 30 minutes, or overnight. (If you chill the dough overnight, you’ll need to let it soften on the counter for 20 to 30 minutes before you scoop it. Don’t let it get too warm; it should be scoopable, but still cold.)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Whisk together the 1½ cups powdered sugar and cinnamon in a pie dish or a large bowl, and set aside.

Remove half of the chilled dough from the fridge and, using one level tablespoonful of dough for each cookie, roll into balls between the palms of your hands. Arrange the dough balls about half an inch apart on the prepared baking sheet. Bake for about 15-17 minutes, until the cookies flush a shade darker on top, and are golden brown on the bottom. Cool the cookies for about five minutes on the baking sheet, and then gently toss them in the cinnamon sugar. Transfer the coated cookies to a rack and cool completely. Repeat with the remaining dough.

Hold onto any leftover cinnamon sugar for quick touch-ups before serving.

Store these cookies at room temperature in an airtight container, and they’ll keep well for several days. Possibly up to a week, though I’ve never seen them last that long.

Yield: About 40 cookies.

10.26.2010

Rebound

I baked some cookies last Wednesday night that robbed me of the will to chew and swallow. They were that bad. Worse, actually, seeing as how they contained an entire ten-ounce brick of Scharffen-Berger chocolate (what a waste), and even that couldn’t save them from the trash. I had to wait for them to cool so that they wouldn’t melt the garbage bag. It was a sad, sad scene. The waiting period between straight-from-the-oven and into-the-mouth may be the best waiting there is, precisely because the waiting ends, in due time, with a cookie. This was not that kind of waiting. Dumping cookies into the garbage straight from the rack is borderline torture. I wouldn’t be surprised if tucked away in some fiery corner of hell, there’s a rack of still-warm cookies that the condemned are forced to tip into the trash for all eternity.

For obvious reasons, these cookies are not what I want to share with you today. Rather, I want to tell you about the rebound cookie, the cookie that I jumped out of bed to bake at 6:30am the next morning, for the sole reason that I was feeling like I needed a win, and I knew that this cookie would deliver.



I had made this recipe once before, the previous week, for my brother’s eighteenth (EIGHTEENTH!) birthday and, quite simply, the resulting cookie blew me away. It’s a peanut butter cookie with milk chocolate chunks. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I never really got peanut butter cookies until this particular peanut butter cookie came along.

I’m not sure if I should admit this here, but until a week and a half ago, I hadn’t even thought of peanut butter cookies as real cookies. That probably makes me some kind of cookie bigot, which is as baffling as it is horrifying. A peanut butter sandwich is undoubtedly a real sandwich, after all, one that I hold in very high esteem, no less. Sometimes, I don’t get me.

While I can’t tell you precisely what went wrong between me and peanut butter cookies in the past, a simple comparison with the new cookie in my life does provide at least a clue, a clue that leads me to believe that it must have been a texture thing. The only peanut butter cookies that I had ever tasted were crisp, brittle ones. In theory, that’s not necessarily a bad thing; there is room in my heart for cookies that snap. Some cookies are truly best that way. And some cookies – like peanut butter cookies, if you ask me – are not. When I mentioned peanut butter cookies to my father-in-law a couple of weeks ago, he shook his head and said, “I take my peanut butter straight.” So do I, typically, whether it’s between two slices of bread, smeared on a salted rice cake, scraped onto an apple wedge or, most commonly, licked directly from the spoon. For me, peanut butter pleasure has only about thirty percent to do with flavor. The remaining seventy percent is all about texture, and I have a feeling that I’m not the only one who feels this way. The very existence of the varieties of peanut butter out there – creamy, chunky, extra-chunky, all variations on the theme of texture – speaks to this point, I think. Texture matters. Yet baked into a dry, crumbly cookie, the texture of peanut butter disappears completely.



All of this is a fancy way of saying that these cookies are chewy, and that it’s thanks to this chewiness that peanut butter cookies have, at long last, taken up their rightful place in my personal pantheon of outstanding cookies. These cookies are crisp around the edges, yes, but soft in the center, so that they retain a hint of the creaminess that makes peanut butter, well, peanut butter in the first place. With their shards of chocolate, rippled tops, and the caramel-like undertones brought on by that happy combination of brown sugar and vanilla, they’re like really good chocolate chip cookies zipped into peanut butter cookie suits. They’re the perfect antidote to even the most devastating failure in the kitchen, though I don’t plan on waiting for my next big flop to make these again. And neither should you.

Peanut Butter Cookies with Milk Chocolate Chunks
Adapted from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking, by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito (via Design*Sponge)

I don’t yet own the Baked cookbook, but that has got to change. I have it on good authority that every recipe was tested ten times. Ten times! Apparently, these peanut butter cookies are only the beginning. There is at least one instance in there of bona fide magic, I hear, resulting from a particularly inspired combination of salt, chocolate and caramel. Obviously, this cookbook belongs on my shelf.

Back to the cookies at hand: For spreading, smearing, and spooning, I typically prefer natural peanut butter, but I’ve never tried it for baking. I was worried that it might behave strangely because of its inconsistent texture, and so I went with Simply Jif instead. It worked like a charm. As for the chocolate, milk is definitely the way to go. According to Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito, the recipe’s creators (as reported by Grace over at Design*Sponge), dark chocolate will taste unpleasantly bitter against the peanut butter. Finally, after so much talk about the glory of chewy peanut butter cookies, if you prefer yours crisp – we can still be friends! – just add a couple of minutes to the baking time. I actually baked my first couple of trays a little bit longer than the time I recommend here, and they firmed right up.

1 ¾ c. flour
2 tsps. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 c. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 c. granulated sugar, plus more for sprinkling
1 c. firmly packed dark brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
1 c. creamy peanut butter (I use Simply Jif)
6 oz. milk chocolate, coarsely chopped or broken into shards (I use Ghirardelli milk chocolate baking bars.)

Sift the flour, baking soda, and salt into a medium bowl.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat together the butter and sugars until light and fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and, with the mixer running, add the eggs one at a time. (Wait for the first egg to incorporate before adding the second.) Add the vanilla and the peanut butter, and beat until just incorporated.

Add half of the flour mixture, and mix for 15 seconds. Add the rest of the flour mixture and mix, once again, until just incorporated.

Gently fold in the chocolate with a spatula. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 3 hours, or overnight. Depending on the temperature of your fridge and how long you’ve chilled the dough, you may need to let the dough soften slightly before scooping. When I chill the dough overnight, I find that leaving it on the counter for about 20-30 minutes does the trick. Just don’t let the dough get too warm. As soon as it’s soft enough to scoop, get going.

When it’s time to bake the cookies, preheat the oven to 375 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Drop the dough by rounded tablespoons (I used a 1½ tablespoon cookie scoop) onto the prepared baking sheets. The cookies will spread, so be sure to leave at least 2 inches between them. Then, gently press down each cookie with the palm of your hand. You’re just looking to flatten the tops ever so slightly.

Sprinkle the cookies with granulated sugar and bake for 8-9 minutes for chewy cookies, and about 10 minutes for crisp cookies. When you remove the cookies from the oven, especially if you’re aiming for chewy, they will be cooked through but extremely soft. Don’t be alarmed; they’ll firm up as they cool. The only challenge is getting them in one piece from the sheet to the cooling rack. I recommend one of two things: Leave them on the sheet for a minute or two so that they cool at least a bit, and then use a metal spatula – which is thinner than the plastic kind – to transfer them carefully to a cooling rack. Or, you can skip the spatula all together, and slide the entire cookie-loaded sheet of parchment from the baking sheet to the rack.

10.11.2010

A bowl of cheese

Today, I’d like to tell you about a bowl of cheese.



Some of you out there may argue that a bowl of cheese is not a meal, and there was a day when I might have agreed with you. I don’t like to think about that day anymore.

Brooklyn readers, perhaps you recognize that bowl of cheese up there? I snapped that shot at a place called Five Leaves, where I met a friend for breakfast a couple of Sundays ago. She lives in Williamsburg, not far from Five Leaves, but she had never been there before. When we were on our way out, she said, “I’d like to come here again with you.” I decided to write that as one long sentence, since I think that’s how she meant it, with equal emphasis on the “here” and the “you.” But in truth, it sounded as if the “with you” part were tacked on, that what really mattered was having another go at that cheese or, in her case, that heaping bowl of house-made granola, yogurt, and fruit. I don’t blame her. It was very good.

The cheese, by the way, was fresh ricotta, served with figs, honey, and thyme. Fanned out on the plate beneath the bowl was bread, shot through with fruit and nuts. I’m not sure if you can tell from the photo, but this ricotta was drier and crumblier than the kind that’s been pressed into plastic tubs. Store-bought ricotta is often heavy and dense, a single, brick-like mass that you scoop out of the container in lumps. Fresh ricotta settles more in drifts. The curds are distinct, and cling to each other only loosely.



Ricotta is the simplest and most satisfying thing I’ve made in a while. If you can boil milk, you can make ricotta. Actually, if you can boil milk, you will make ricotta. So long as you add something acidic like vinegar, or lemon juice or, in the case of this recipe, buttermilk. From what I understand, the acid encourages the milk to curdle as it heats. The temperature climbs to 175 degrees and then, quite suddenly, instead of a pot of milk, you’re looking at a pot of curds and whey. I know it’s plain science, but it feels like magic. The curds bob and shimmy to the surface, you skim them into a cheesecloth-lined colander, gather up the corners of the cloth to form a small pouch, and leave it to drain for a quarter of an hour or so. And then, there it is. Cheese. That’s all there is to it.

I’m on my second batch now, and I’ve been sneaking ricotta into all manner of things. We’re bound to get to one or two of those things here sooner or later, but I feel it’s important to start with ricotta and toast, mostly because I’ve been eating so much of it. I can’t imagine a bread that wouldn’t pair beautifully with a heap of fresh ricotta, but I like it best on something chewy, brown, and lightly sweet. These days, I’ve been going with slices of a cinnamon raisin version of this loaf, or my favorite soda bread. It may not sound like much, but hot toast, a cushion of cheese, and a dribble of honey is a killer combination. Sometimes, I’ll prime the toast with a layer of apricot jam before I reach for the cheese, and then top things off with a pinch or two of chopped thyme. Now that is good stuff.

Five Leaves has three menus, one for breakfast and lunch, one for dinner, and one for “in between.” Their house-made ricotta is on every last one of them, which I take as a sign that a bowl of cheese is not only a meal, but any darn meal you please.

Homemade Ricotta
Adapted from 101 Cookbooks

In her recipe notes, Heidi writes, “Ricotta tastes and smells like the milk it is made from so use the best and freshest dairy you can find.” I second that. The fewer the ingredients in a recipe, the more important it is to make sure that they are of the highest quality. Heidi also suggests replacing a portion of the milk with goat milk for a variation on this recipe. I haven’t tried it, but it sounds good to me, and Heidi has never steered me wrong. Next time.

1 gallon whole milk
1 quart buttermilk
Sea salt (I use Maldon sea salt flakes.)

Pour the milk and buttermilk into a large, heavy pot and warm over medium-high heat. Stir occasionally to prevent burning. I clip a candy thermometer to the side of the pot to keep track of the rising temperature. Once the milk is hot, you can stop stirring.

While the milk is heating, line a colander with four or five layers of cheesecloth. Cheesecloth can be clingy, and typically comes in strips that are longer than they are wide. Rather than trying to fold the cloth multiple times, which can be tricky, I suggest draping the cloth in a single layer over the colander, and then folding in the overhang until you’ve got the desired number of layers. Oh, and a tip from Heidi: It’s best to use a wide-mouthed colander to facilitate faster cooling.

When the temperature of the milk reaches about 175 degrees, the curds and the whey will separate. Remove the pot from the heat, place the colander in the sink, and spoon the curds into the colander. After every few spoonfuls, add a couple of pinches of salt, to taste. Gently lift the sides of the cheesecloth every now and then to drain off excess liquid. Do not squeeze the curds, or press down on them with the spoon, or you’ll destroy the texture of the cheese. Once you’ve loaded all of the curds into the colander, gather the edges of the cheesecloth and tie them together with a piece of kitchen string. Tie the pouch to the faucet and leave the curds to drain for about 15-20 minutes. (You can adjust the time based on your desired consistency. The longer you leave the curds to drain, the drier your cheese will be.)

Transfer any unused cheese to an airtight container and refrigerate.

Makes about 4 cups.

10.02.2010

The nine states

Oregon, Nevada, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kentucky, West Virginia, and my very own Commonwealth of Massachusetts, listen up! This one’s for you. I’ll explain, but first things first. The bottom line is this: I love this kettle corn.



I also love my mother-in-law, Sarah. She had a birthday at the end of August, and it was a big one, the kind that ends with a zero, and feels important. To celebrate, she and my father-in-law rented a house on the beach in Narragansett, Rhode Island, and invited their four kids (plus three spouses, an almost-spouse, and a 17-month old grandson) to join them for a long weekend. Sarah claimed it was a birthday gift to herself, on account of getting to spend a few days with all of us. That’s what she wanted most, she said. But I don’t know. With barbeques in the evenings, and early-morning sits on a seaside bench, and a knit hat that Sarah made and gifted to me, it kind of felt more like my birthday. Which, knowing Sarah, would no doubt make her very happy.



Eli and I arrived in Narragansett to a fully stocked kitchen. It was no surprise, given Sarah’s habit of traveling with enough food to feed a small army. There was meat in the fridge, fruit on the counter, potatoes blanching in a pot on the stove, and an enormous bag of kettle corn – something called Angie’s Kettle Corn – on the table. I eyed it warily. I think that I probably feel about large packages of food the way my cousin, Michelle, once felt about presents. Michelle’s in college now, but as a child, when it came time to open holiday gifts, she once burst into tears when confronted with a box half the size of her little body. I remember her wailing, “It’s too biiiiig!” She refused to open it. I didn’t get it. But now, I do. I get it, Michelle. There is something about industrial-sized packages of food – even very good food – that makes me feel the exact same way. It’s simply too much. It’s sensory overload, or the anticipation of sensory overload, or something. The summer before I went away to college, I worked as a waitress, and once a week it was my job to fill the ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise jars from the bulk containers in the walk-in fridge. It’s a task that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Have you ever stared into the gloppy depths of a 5-gallon tub of mayonnaise? I was mildly terrified, and it was thanks only to many slow, deep breaths that I made it through. I swore off condiments for a while after that.

A bloated bag of kettle corn’s got nothing on a giant vat of mayo, so when Sarah pulled open the package and pointed it in my general direction, I went for it. I am very brave. What I would discover over the next few days is that there is a reason for packaging this kettle corn in bags the size of overstuffed bed pillows. Unlike mayonnaise, kettle corn – this particular kettle corn, anyway – can and should be eaten by the handful. By the handsful, actually. Pack it up in bags any smaller, and you’d have little more than a single serving, barely enough to share. I would know, seeing as how I plowed through almost the entire bag all by myself during our stay. Eli and I visited his family again last weekend, and this time, Sarah had procured three bags (good lord!) for my – ahem, our – consumption. “I’ve never seen you snack like this,” my sister-in-law said. “It’s research,” I told her.



Research, indeed. The thing is, when you start in on this kettle corn, you don’t much feel like stopping. That’s all well and good if you happen to live in a place where Angie’s Kettle Corn is readily available. If only we all could be so lucky. Which brings us back to the residents of the nine states I called out at the beginning of this post, the states that, according to the company website, are bereft of Angie’s Kettle Corn. I could have moved – preferably to Minnesota to be close to company headquarters – but instead, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I did it for you. For us.

Kettle corn is, in theory, not all that exciting. It’s just sugared popcorn dusted with salt. Except there’s nothing “just” about it. The sugar melts in the hot oil and, as it cools, encases each popped kernel in a thin, glassy shell. Then comes the salt, and it’s so long! to whatever else you were planning on eating that day. I have skipped dinner exactly twice over the last month due to kettle corn overconsumption. I’m not proud; I just thought you should know. Consider it a warning. It’s the sweet and salty combination that does it. And the crunch doesn’t hurt. The effect is hypnotic. After a handful or two, I’m in a full-on kettle corn trance. Scoop. Eat. Repeat.



I hesitated to include that last photograph, given that it’s not a particularly flattering shot of my thighs. But the kettle corn looks damn good, and I know what really matters.

Kettle Corn
Inspired by Angie’s Kettle Corn

The only thing that could get in the way of a perfect batch of kettle corn is a layer of burnt kernels along the bottom of the pot. That’s true of all popcorn, to be sure, but the sugar in kettle corn heightens the risk. Here are two tips to keep your kettle corn from burning:

1. Remove the pot from the heat sooner than you normally would.
Over the years, I have refined my popcorn popping skills so that I end up with very few unpopped kernels at the bottom of the batch. Twice in my life I have actually popped every last one of those suckers, without scorching a single kernel. Those were big days for me, people. Big. But when it comes to kettle corn, I check my pride at the kitchen door, and I urge you to do the same. The sugar will burn before the popcorn, so if you wait until (what is typically) the very last moment to remove the pot from the heat, it will probably be too late. When the popping slows considerably – if you can count more than a second, two seconds, maximum, between pops – get that pot off of the flame! You’ll end up with more unpopped kernels at the bottom of the pot, but it’s a small price to pay for unscathed kettle corn.

2. Transfer the kettle corn immediately from the hot pot to a large bowl.
If you don’t, the sugar at the bottom of the pot will continue to cook, and might burn.

Most recipes for kettle corn – and popcorn, in general – call for some kind of vegetable oil, but I’ve been popping corn in olive oil for years. I like the stronger flavor, and I think it’s especially lovely in this sweet and salty recipe.

¾ c. corn kernels
1/3 c. olive oil (not extra-virgin), or enough to thickly coat the bottom of a large pot
¼ c. granulated sugar
Several generous pinches (about ½ tsp.) sea salt

Heat the oil and a couple of kernels in a large covered pot. Meanwhile, measure the corn kernels and sugar into a bowl so that you’re ready for a quick dump. When you hear the test kernels pop, remove the lid, and quickly pour the rest of the kernels and sugar into pot. Stir briefly to coat the kernels with oil and sugar, and replace the lid. With mitted hands, lift the pot by the handles (use your thumbs to keep the lid in place), and shake occasionally.

When the popping slows, remove the kettle corn from the heat, and immediately dump into a large bowl. Sprinkle with a few generous pinches of sea salt.