To the moon

I learned something in planning this year’s Chanukah party: When you host a party every December for half a decade and, year after year, pile your table high with certain tried and trues, your guests may develop a sense of… protectiveness, shall we say, about the offerings.

After five years, I thought it might be time for a few tweaks to the menu here and there. I quickly learned that such radical ideas would not be tolerated. Reactions to the mention of possible changes ran the gamut, from the anxious (“But you’ll keep the carrot cake cupcakes, right? The almond tarts?” Furrow, furrow, giggle, furrow) to the outraged (“No! It’s tradition!”). One friend simply cocked her head, and let out an “Okaaaay…” half-sigh, half-whisper, as if I had just told her that I’d decided to run off with my secret Italian lover. To the moon.


I would have to proceed carefully. In the end – as a comparison with last year’s party map will show – I got rid of very little.

Much to the relief of everyone involved, I guarded the flame with plenty of “classics” – cupcakes, cookies, tarts, and toffees – but fanned it, too, with a couple of somethings new. First, there were mini chocolate hazelnut cakes with sea salt, which you might remember from earlier this year. I eyed the crumb-strewn plate at the end of the night, and immediately knew that these cakes had joined the ranks of Things That Shall Not be Stricken from Parties Chanukah to Come.

On Chanukah, it’s customary to eat foods made with oil (okay, usually fried in oil, hence the latkes), to celebrate the drop of oil that, according to legend, burned on and on, against all odds. So for my second addition, I chose olive oil madeleines. I wasn’t sure what to make of these madeleines at first – a madeleine without butter? – and I’m not the only one. I found them in the recipe index of the August, 2009 issue of Gourmet not under the heading, “Desserts,” as one might expect, but in that odd little category tacked on at the end: “Miscellaneous.” It’s a strange place for a cake-like cookie, or a cookie-like cake, or however you might describe a thing that, either way, resembles dessert in one form or another. But after a single bite, I realized that the editors were right. These madeleines are decidedly miscellaneous. With only a half a cup of sugar in the recipe and three times the amount of olive oil, they’re almost – almost – savory. It kind of messes with you, actually. In a way that makes you eat another, and another still, in an effort to figure out just what, exactly, is going on in there amidst that tender crumb. Note: I am not complaining.

The recipe calls for the grated zest of two lemons, and I upped it to three at the suggestion of both Eli and my sister, Kasey. Still, the lemon flavor didn’t quite pop. I considered adding an extra hit of lemon via a few drops of lemon extract, a squeeze or two of juice, or a final shower of zest. But then it hit me: These madeleines are called Olive-Oil madeleines, not Lemon Olive Oil madeleines. The predominant flavor is supposed to be the oil, not the lemon. Once I alerted myself to this fact, I decided that I liked them this way, with the earthiness of the oil at top billing, and the lemon hovering more around than inside of the little cakes themselves. There’s a faint aura of citrus that hangs in the air over these madeleines, something you can smell, but just barely taste. It’s nice.

I’ve made these madeleines a couple of times already, and I’ll likely make them again, though probably not for next year’s Chanukah party. The trouble is the outer crust. Straight from the oven, it's delicate and crisp and absolutely perfect. But at room temperature, the crust turns soft and, after about an hour, borderline soggy. A solution to this problem is built into the recipe: “Madeleines can be made 4 hours ahead. Reheat, wrapped in foil, in oven until warm, about 15 minutes.” I did that, and it worked to some degree, but nothing beats that straight-from-the-oven crust.

What it all boils down to is that you should make these madeleines, and eat them right away. Which means that while they may not be the best candidates for leaving out on a plate during an hours-long party, they are ideally suited to the close of an intimate dinner party: Prepare the batter in advance, spoon it into the madeleine pan just before you clear the dishes, bake for 12-minutes, and serve hot, preferably paired with something cold, like ice cream or sorbet. Today, of all days, I should also mention that, dusted with powdered sugar and washed down with a flute of champagne, they would make a very fine midnight snack.

Happy 2011, friends. I saw something today that sums up exactly how I feel about the coming year. Click here. Up and up we go.

Olive Oil Madeleines
Adapted from Gourmet, August 2009
(where it was adapted from the kitchen of Chef Daniel Humm at Eleven Madison Park)

5 large eggs
½ cup granulated sugar
1 ½ cups plus
1 Tbs flour
1 ¼ tsp baking powder
¾ tsp salt
1 ½ cups extra-virgin olive oil; ideally, one you’d happily down by the spoonful
Zest from 3 lemons
Powdered sugar for dusting

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Whisk together the eggs and the sugar. Add the flour, baking powder, and salt, and whisk until just combined. Whisk in the olive oil and the zest.

Fill each mold of an ungreased madeleine pan with 1 level tablespoon of batter. Don’t worry too much about spreading the batter down into the crevices of the molds. It will spread on its own in the heat of the oven. Bake for about 12 minutes, until the cakes are golden and domed.

Transfer to a rack to cool slightly. Dust with powdered sugar, and serve warm.

Yield: 48 madeleines.


For the best

I must be very delicious, because my dissertation is currently eating me alive. The good news is that it’s not so bad in the belly of this beast. The only trouble with all of this dissertating is that it has kept me from telling you about this year’s Chanukah party, and a certain lemon-scented newcomer to the dessert table. Give me a week to plow through some deadlines, and I’ll be back with all of the details. Until then, how about a handful of nuts to tide you over?

It’s probably for the best. I’m guessing that the last thing you need this weekend is another cookie recipe to add to your list. Will you pelt me with shortbread if I suggest that we forget about the cookie tin for today? I hope not. Let’s forget about the cookie tin for today. I’d like to shift our attention to the jar, instead. Or maybe to a pretty white dish, the kind that more or less lives on your table this time of year, filled with the overflow from your latest batch of toffee, or chocolate, or the spiced almonds we’re about to discuss. It’s the bowl that’s filled in the previous sentence, by the way, not the year, but I’m typing too quickly this morning to worry about questionably placed modifiers. Anyway, a year filled with chocolate and nuts doesn’t sound half bad.

I have a lot of nice things to say about these almonds. Here’s the biggie: They’re more nut than candy, more spiced than sugared. They’re sweet, yes, but there’s no thick crust of sugar to distract you from the fact that there’s a nut under there. I appreciate that. Sweet is nice, but I’m much more interested in the cinnamon, citrus, coriander, and cloves on board.

Packed in mason jars, they make a lovely gift. But you hardly need me to tell you that this time of year.

Off to the library. See you next week.

Moroccan Almonds
Adapted from First Impressions, 175 Memorable Appetizers and First Courses by Betty Rosbottom

Amy made these nuts for Thanksgiving this year, and when I asked her for the recipe, she directed me to this book from her collection. The title of the book and the curlicue writing on the cover made me snicker at first, but then I popped another couple of Amy’s almonds. That shut me right up. The book is by a woman named Betty Rosbottom. Betty Rosbottom! Now that is the name of someone I’d like to tell me how to cook. And how to garden, and sew and, judging from the photograph on the inside flap of the book cover, how to do the early-nineties hairspray thing and somehow pull it off. I want my name to be Betty Rosbottom. Ms. Robottom, according to the author blurb, “divides her time between Columbus and Amherst, Massachusetts.” Being a part-time Ohioan and a part-time Massachussett (-ette? Massachusite? Massachusian?) myself, I like that, too.

I struggled with what to call this recipe. These almonds didn’t exactly scream “Morocco!” to me, despite having been inspired by “Moroccan cuisine, known for its enticing combinations of both sweet and savory flavors.” I think of them more as “Sweet and Savory Spiced Almonds,” or “Spiced Almonds with Citrus,” but these options are so clumsy that I decided to stick with the original name.

¼ c. sugar (I might try even a little less next time)
1 tsp. ground coriander
½ tsp. ground cloves
2 tsps cinnamon
1 egg white
1 ½ tsps grated orange zest
2 c. (about 8 ounces) whole, unblanched almonds

Cooking spray or vegetable oil for the pan.

Preheat the oven to 275 degrees. Line a rimmed baking pan with aluminum foil, and spray or brush lightly with vegetable oil.

Combine the sugar and spices in a small bowl, and stir. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg white until frothy. Add the spices to the egg, and whisk again. Stir in the orange zest, then the almonds, and mix until the nuts are well-coated.

Pour the nuts onto the prepared baking pan and spread them into a single layer. Bake for 40 minutes. Every 10 minutes or so, give the baking pan a shake, and push the nuts around with a heat-safe spatula. Remove the nuts from the oven, and let them cool to room temperature on the baking pan.

The nuts will keep in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks.


The keeping kind

This Thanksgiving, I cooked exactly nothing. That’s precisely how much I baked, too, which brings the grand total amount of food that I prepared for the holiday to a whopping zero dishes. Instead, I focused on the eating. I am what Calvin Trillin would call a “serious eater,” and with nothing to distract me from scooping up the next bit of food and raising it to my lips, I was in top form. I know well the satisfaction of spinning a kitchen full of ingredients into a table full of food. But there’s a quiet pleasure, too, in lifting my plate from a leaf-strewn table and loading it with food that’s been roasted and sliced and mashed and whipped and rolled out entirely by somebody else. I’d forgotten about that, and it felt really nice to remember.

By Friday morning, I’d been out of the kitchen for a while, and I woke up feeling bake-ish. We were in Ohio with my family, which meant that I had access to Amy’s cookbook collection, including a copy of Alice Medrich’s Pure Dessert. Around the holidays, some people trim trees. I trim cookbooks. That morning, with a fresh pack of sticky tabs by my side, I gave Pure Dessert the old flip and trim treatment, plucking and pressing yellow tabs onto one promising recipe after another. A recipe for something called sesame coins had caught my eye somewhere along the way, and I skipped back a few tabs to find it.

Sesame coins. I made them twice. Is it possible to have a favorite currency? Is that a thing? And do cookie currencies count? I’m going to go ahead and say yes, yes, and yes, if only for the chance to tell you that I would like nothing more this holiday season than a life-size piggy bank filled tail to snout with sesame coins, plus a hammer to smash it at once.

When I read in the recipe notes that these cookies are “inspired by the taste of halvah,” I thought, “hey, I’m inspired by the taste of halvah, too!” Inspired, that is, to make a cup of tea, and maybe peel an orange. That was my nightly routine when I was living in Israel. I would buy a soft brick of halvah at the market every week or two and, before bed, I'd shave off a slab to go with my tea. In the winter, I’d usually eat an orange, too.

What makes these cookies so gloriously reminiscent of halvah is a generous scoop of sesame seed paste, which I call by its Hebrew name, techina, and you might call tahini. It’s all about texture, the texture that’s at once grainy and smooth and, I’m pretty sure, is responsible for both the halvah lovers and the halvah haters in this world. Eli is in the latter camp, and this was his response to these cookies: “They’re great. But there’s something weird that happens with the texture at the end. They remind me of something… Halvah?” Swap his “but” for an “and,” his “weird” for a “wonderful,” and his “?” for an “!,” and you’ll have my response, instead. My friend, Janet, offered the wisest observation about these cookies. She took one bite, and uttered a single word: “Creamy.” It struck me, at first, as an odd thing to say about a cookie that’s tender, but notably on the drier side. You know what, though? Janet was right. They are creamy. They’re creamy in the way that halvah is creamy, which is to say that they give the strong impression of creaminess, while being fully capable of - even inclined toward - crumbling. Just like halvah. Janet! You’re so smart.

According to Alice Medrich, these cookies will keep for up to a month if you store them in an airtight container. I’m going to have to take her word for it, given that my entire first batch – forty-some cookies – was gone in a day, and my second batch didn’t last much longer. That sesame coins are the keeping kind of cookies makes them an excellent addition to the holiday tin, especially one that needs a few days to get where it’s going. (Just be sure to wrap the cookies carefully for shipping; they’re more delicate than they look.) Of course, they’ll do just as well in the tin parked on your very own kitchen counter. They’re the keeping kind of cookies in that way, too.


It's Chanukah! Whether or not you're celebrating, may your week be filled with joy and light. If you’re still in need of a potato latke fix, here are some recipes for you from the archives:

Eli’s Potato Latkes
Sweet Potato Curry Latkes

We serve them with cranberry applesauce and sour cream.

For dessert, here are a couple of recipes for cakes made with oil, a nod to the tiny bit of oil that, according to Chanukah legend, lasted for eight days :

Carrot Cake Cupcakes

Olive Oil Citrus Cake

Sesame Coins
Adapted from Pure Dessert by Alice Medrich

The original recipe recommends that you chill the dough for at least two hours, but I would suggest chilling it for at least four, or overnight. At two hours, my dough was still quite soft. I found it difficult to work with. A few more hours in the fridge made all the difference. Also, you might want to take a look at a ruler before you begin. It turns out that ¼ of an inch is much thicker than I realized. You don’t want to roll out the cookies any thinner than that, or you might have trouble transferring the cut dough to the baking pans. For a double recipe, says Alice, use one whole egg instead of two yolks.

2/3 cup (3 ounces) flour
¼ tsp. baking soda
2/3 cup unsalted tahini (sesame seed paste)
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
½ cup sugar
1 large egg yolk
½ tsp. vanilla
½ tsp. salt
3 Tbsp. sesame seeds

Whisk together the flour and baking soda in a small bowl, and set aside. In a medium bowl, mix the remaining ingredients (except for the sesame seeds) until smooth. Add the flour mixture, and work it into the wet ingredients with your hands. The dough will feel like an oily, slightly crumbly pie dough.

Divide the dough in half and pat into thick disks. Wrap each disk in plastic and chill for at least four hours, or overnight.

When you’re ready to bake the cookies, preheat the oven to 325 degrees, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Remove half of the dough from the refrigerator and allow it to soften, but only slightly. Unwrap the dough, place it between two pieces of wax paper, and roll it into a ¼-inch sheet (no thinner; see my note, above). Sprinkle the dough with half of the sesame seeds, and lightly roll over them with the rolling pin to press them into the dough. Using a 1½-inch round cookie cutter, cut as many “coins” as you can from the rolled-out dough. Transfer each coin to the lined baking pan. I use a metal spatula to keep from bending the edges of the cookies with my fingers. With a light touch (you don’t want to overwork or over-warm the dough), press together and roll out the remaining dough, and cut a few more cookies.

Bake for 10-12 minutes, until the edges of the cookies are lightly brown. Allow the cookies to cool completely on the baking sheets. While the first half of the batch is baking, repeat the above steps with the second disk of chilled dough.

Yield: About 40 cookies.