Wednesday, October 28, 2009

come to the dark side. we have cookies.

I have never been a cookie baker.

Oh, I've made certain exceptions, and I might have a bit of a shortbread problem, but classic American cookies have never held my interest. Let Cook's Illustrated tackle the problem of the perfect specimen of chocolate chip; let others rave about peanut butter and molasses; I've owed my allegiance to biscuits, clinging firmly to my beloved Tim Tams, Jaffa Cakes, and chocolate digestives, with the occasional foray into shortbread variations.

Or at least I did. Never say never, as the old expression goes. A few weeks back, I woke up with a hankering to bake oatmeal cookies. Granted, I find oatmeal cookies to be the most tolerable variety of typical cookie, and I suppose I couldn't expect to make it through ten years in New England with my culinary tastes unchanged. Nonetheless, it was something of a shock.

Still, I couldn't let go of my characteristic ways, even when producing uncharacteristic baked goods. I looked at several recipes for dense, soft oatmeal raisin cookies. And then I proceeded to develop a recipe for something entirely different.

The raisins were the first victims of my tinkering. I turned out the initial batch in Tom and Isobel's kitchen, and Isobel does not like raisins in her baked goods, so I substituted dried cherries instead.* Next, I decided nuts would also make a good addition; in went flaked almonds. Then it only made sense to tweak the spicing: equal parts vanilla and almond essence, and a little nutmeg to keep the cinnamon company.

Subsequent batches tweaked the cookie texture: more flour, less of the oats, and in a bit of inspiration lifted from ANZAC biscuits, a little golden syrup. The finished result is a cookie with a hard, faintly chewy texture. The golden syrup adds caramel notes, and the cherries provide a pleasant tartness. They may be oatmeal cookies, but they're not typical.

I'm staying firm on this: I'm not changing sides. I'll visit the cookie camp every once in a while, but you'll get my Tim Tams when you pry them from my cold dead hands, and I'm still not about to bake any cookies with chocolate chips.

You might, however, talk me into considering chocolate chunk.

Cherry-Almond Oatmeal Cookies

If you would prefer softer, chewier cookies, use half a cup of flour and one-and-a-half cups of oats, rather than a cup of each.

(Makes approximately two dozen cookies. Dough may be frozen.)

Preheat the oven to 350F. Line two large baking trays with parchment paper.

Get out a big mixing bowl. Cream together one stick of salted butter and a packed-down two-thirds of a cup of brown sugar. Beat in two tablespoons of golden syrup, one egg, half a teaspoon of vanilla extract, and half a teaspoon of almond extract until smooth and glossy.

Stir in half a teaspoon of baking soda, one cup of flour, half a teaspoon of cinnamon, half a teaspoon of nutmeg, and a generous pinch of salt.

Stir in one cup of quick-cook oats, three-quarters of a cup of dried cherries, and half a cup of flaked almonds.

Scoop heaped tablespoons of the mixture onto your baking trays. Bake for fourteen to sixteen minutes, or until cookies are golden. Allow to cool before serving.

*Tom, as you might recall, is one of the law students; Isobel is his SO. I'm thinking that it might be time to write up a cast page for this blog.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

conversations at the farmer's market

If Boston weather has a motto, it must be "carpe diem." Despite Sunday's freak snowstorm, this week's weather has been beautifully mild, and I've been using the clear afternoons as an excuse to spend extra time at the farmer's market. (I've decided that my writing assignments can wait - there will be more than enough nasty grey weather to keep me indoors in the coming months.)

I love the farmer's market for all the typical foodie reasons. I like the quality and seasonality of the produce. I like the variety, and I like knowing exactly where it comes from. But what I like best are the conversations.

Yes, I'm That Girl, the one who strikes up conversations with complete strangers about what they're going to do with the produce they're buying, and pipes up when someone wonders aloud what to do with kohlrabi or husk cherries. I also like to ask the farmers questions, because they're knowledgeable and excited about the produce they're selling. It's a welcome change from the supermarket, where the usual produce-related conversation is limited to explaining the difference between leeks and scallions to a bewildered cashier.

Apparently I'm also making the farmers hungry. I asked for a bunch of kale at a Copley Market stand the other day, and got into a discussion of the merits of dinosaur kale versus curly kale. I was told that the curly kale was excellent, very sweet, but I already had a specific dish in mind.

I explained to the farmer that I was making buttercup squash gnocchi, and that I was going to saute some sliced dinosaur kale until crispy, and then toss it with the gnocchi in a brown butter sauce. The farmer remarked that he'd picked up some great recipes from people shopping at the farmer's market, but what he really had to figure out was how to get invited to dinner.

I didn't have any ideas on that front. But I did pick up some pears for dessert. If I bring him a slice of pear tart, do you think I might get a discount on my squash next time?

Buttercup Squash Gnocchi with Brown Butter, Crispy Kale, and Caramelized Onions

These gnocchi are also good when made with sweet potatoes, though they won't be quite the same spectacular shade of yellow.

(Recipe for one. Makes enough gnocchi for four main course-sized portions; uncooked gnocchi may be frozen.)

Preheat the oven to 350F.

Take a buttercup squash weighing roughly two pounds, hack it in half with a big knife or cleaver, and scrape out the seeds. Lay the halves cut side down in a baking dish, and pour in a little water (just a quarter-inch or so), but don't let it seep underneath the squash into the seed cavity. Put the dish in the oven. Bake for forty to fifty minutes, or until the squash is soft when you poke it with a fork.

Remove the baking dish from the oven, and move the squash halves to a cutting board. Allow to cool, then scrape out the flesh. It should have a fairly dry, floury texture. (If it's wet, you're going to need to put it in cheesecloth or a clean dishcloth and set it in a colander to drain before making the dough.)

Measure out three cups of the baked squash into a big mixing bowl. (You can have any extra squash as a snack with maple syrup and butter.) Mash with a wooden spoon until the texture is smooth, then beat in two tablespoons of olive oil and one large egg. Stir in one cup of flour. The dough will be soft and quite sticky. Resist the urge to add more flour.

Sprinkle two baking trays with flour. Clear off a section of counter space, and sprinkle it generously with flour too. Take a spoonful of the gnocchi dough and drop it on the floured surface. Roll it around to form a ball, and use a fork to press it on each side. Set the gnocchi on one of the baking trays. Repeat until you run out of dough.

(At this point, you can either cook the gnocchi immediately, or freeze them on the baking trays. Once they're fully frozen, they can be transferred to Ziploc bags.)

When you're ready to cook the gnocchi, clear off all your counters and ready several pans. This is a fairly straightforward recipe, but there is some assembly required.

Start with the brown butter: melt two tablespoons of butter over low heat and cook until golden brown and delicious-smelling. Transfer to a small bowl or heatproof measuring cup; set aside.

Cut a small onion into half-moons, and cook in a little olive oil in a large pan over low heat until soft and caramelized. Set aside. (Read: move the pan to one of your back burners. Leave the burner off, of course.)

Set a big pot of salted water on to boil.

Take a few leaves of lacinato (dinosaur) kale, washed to get rid of any lingering grit, and cut it crosswise into ribbons. Heat a splash of olive oil in a hot pan and add the kale. Sprinkle with salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the kale darkens and turns crispy. Set aside.

Once the pot of water hits a rolling boil, drop in your gnocchi, ten at a time, and cook until they float to the surface. Lift them out with a slotted spoon, and put them in the pan with the caramelized onions.

Once you've cooked however many gnocchi you feel like eating, put the pan over low heat, and pour over the brown butter. Add the kale, and give the gnocchi a gentle toss to mix everything together. Tip the contents of the pan onto a plate. Top with plenty of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Serve immediately.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

a sweet in search of an occasion

When I have writer’s block, I like to bake shortbread.

I've probably mentioned it before, but during senior year of college, whenever my thesis and I got into a disagreement, I’d pull out the flour bin and fetch another pound of butter from the freezer. There's something very soothing about the process of creaming together butter and sugar, working in flour, shaping a round and baking it to a perfect shade of pale gold. Suffice to say, my housemates ate a lot of shortbread that year.

Two months into first semester, I tired of plain butter, and started experimenting with other seasonings. Saffron caught my eye somewhere around the time that I was fighting the third draft of my second chapter. The problem with saffron, however, is that it needs to be “bloomed” in water or other liquid in order to release its flavor, and water encourages gluten development. Adding water to the shortbread would have made it tough.

I tried working the saffron into the butter and letting it sit before creaming it with the sugar, but there wasn’t much saffron flavor in the final product. Then I developed an obsession with salt caramel, and saffron shortbread fell by the wayside.

I'd almost forgotten my experiments with shortbread when I came into contact with someone else's culinary experiment: a homemade saffron liqueur, a little too strong to be palatable as a beverage, but perfect for cooking purposes. I used it in sauces to serve with fish, and then, one day when I found myself face-to-face with a legal writing assignment I had no desire to complete, the bottle of golden liquid caught my eye as I was getting butter out to bake shortbread.

I thought of medieval cooks using saffron and egg yolks to decorate pastries. Adding egg yolk to a basic mixture of butter, sugar, and flour produces dough for sablés, the Norman cousins of shortbread. Saffron gives them a deeper yellow hue, like tiny golden suns. Even before they were baked, I had a feeling that they were going to be cookies worthy of a special occasion.

Fortunately, the food blogosphere has that special occasion covered: October’s Monthly Mingle has a theme of High Tea Treats. In all honestly, I will probably eat my sablés at my desk while I work on that writing assignment I've been avoiding, but they needn't be limited to such humble surroundings. I think they'd be quite at home on a silver salver with a pot of Earl Grey, don't you?

Saffron Sablés

Regular good-quality butter is fine for these cookies, but if you can get your hands on European or European-style cultured butter, they'll be even better. I recommend mixing the dough with a fork: I will concede the use of a food processor if you’re making multiple batches, but for a single batch, it’s nonsense to say you can’t achieve a fine, sandy texture by hand.

(Makes approximately three dozen two-inch cookies.)

To make a saffron infusion, measure out one tablespoon of vodka and one tablespoon of gin (or use just vodka if you don't have gin; it's not essential), and place in a small bowl with a generous pinch of saffron threads. Cover with cling wrap and leave in the fridge overnight.

For the sablés, get out a large mixing bowl, and use a fork to cream together one stick (four ounces) of unsalted butter with a quarter-cup of white sugar. Add one egg yolk, a generous quarter-teaspoon of salt, and the saffron infusion (with the saffron); stir until smooth.

Gradually work in one cup (five ounces) of all-purpose flour until fully incorporated. The dough will be quite soft. Cover and chill in the fridge for at least an hour.

When you're ready to bake, preheat the oven to 300F. Line a baking tray with parchment paper.

Lay out a sheet of wax paper and sprinkle it lightly with flour. Place the dough on it. Cover with another sheet of wax paper, and roll out to a one-eighth-inch thickness. Remove the top layer of wax paper, and use a two-inch cookie cutter to stamp out rounds. (Dough scraps may be gathered, re-chilled briefly, and rolled out again.) Place the rounds on the baking tray.

Transfer the baking tray to the oven. Bake for sixteen to nineteen minutes, or until very slightly browned at the edges. Remove from the oven and transfer to a cooling rack. Allow to cool completely before serving.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

quatre friandises

prologue: long weekend

Friday morning. I wake and get dressed while it is still dark. I have an early train to catch; I am going to Washington DC for the weekend to visit my friend Anna. As Bella was my partner in crime during my semester in Rome, so was Anna during my semester in Paris.

Photography students, we explored the city with cameras in hand, ferreting out culinary delights that could be eaten on foot. Falafel pita in the Marais. Egg-and-cheese crepes at a stand by one of the Metro stops in the Latin Quarter. Viennoises and palmiers from the city's countless bakeries.

Four years later, Anna has a graduate degree and gainful employment, and I am struggling with the alarming notion that I will be a juris doctor in May. The cameras lie dormant. Neither of us has the time to spare for the darkroom.

Some things, however, do not change.

i. red velvet cupcake

The sky is overcast as we walk down the brick-paved sidewalk of Georgetown's M Street. A light rain begins to fall as we wait in line outside Georgetown Cupcake, a bakery where, as the name suggests, there is just one kind of baked good on the menu. The shop is small, and the line moves slowly. Every time the bakery door opens, the scent of vanilla wafts out.

Inside, the glass-fronted display has the air of a jeweler's case. The cupcakes are carefully positioned on tiered cake stands - concentric rings in ruffled paper cups, topped with swirls of frosting. The flavors are varied and tantalizing: mocha, coconut, pumpkin spice. I opt for red velvet, a classic. A bakery box is deemed unnecessary; we take our cupcakes in capes of greaseproof paper, and duck under a wide doorway to consume them immediately.

The red velvet cupcake has a deep red hue, well befitting its name. Its cap of cream cheese frosting is adorned with a dusky pink sugar heart. The first taste: dense, moist cake with the solid flavor of cocoa, a contrast to the salt-sweet of the cream cheese. We take generous bites, licking frosting from our fingers. Such greed. Such pleasure.

ii. strawberry cupcake

The clouds have begun to disperse, and there is faint sunshine. We seat ourselves on a flight of brick steps by the C&O Canal, and I remove a strawberry cupcake from a white paper bag stickered with the logo of Baked and Wired.

The cupcake has been baked in a folded cup of wax paper. I unwrap the pleats, and we break off pieces with our fingers. The pale yellow cake has a soft, moist crumb, flecked with tiny pieces of fresh strawberry. The frosting is pink, and agreeably thick and sweet. It puts me in mind of strawberry-flavored Pocky, and the thought leaves me smiling.

iii. criollo chocolate, 100%

Late afternoon, and we wander down 18th Street in bright sunshine. Inside Biagio the atmosphere is hushed, almost reverent. The shelves are stacked with bars of fine chocolate, tins of drinking powder, and various cocoa curiosities. Customers peer at labels and talk with the staff in quiet tones.

There are samples laid out in china bowls, thin wafers of chocolate arranged by ascending cocoa content. I begin in the sixties, but I am drawn to the darkest. One of the staff notices and offers me a sample of hundred percent, single-plantation Criollo from Francois Pralus. The taste is deep and wonderfully bitter. It has a texture that isn’t creamy, but positively unctuous, coating teeth and tongue. Once the last traces have melted away, I move a single bar from the shelf to the counter.

iv. chipotle-cinnamon hot chocolate

Evening. We have ventured outside to pick up groceries; we decide to meander a little before we make our return journey. On 14th Street, we pass ACKC, a chocolatier with a "cocoa bar." The night is just cool enough to contemplate the thought of hot chocolate; we push open the glass-paned door and walk inside.

The store is decorated for fall, with Halloween displays in orange. Though we glance briefly at the chocolates, the cafe area is our ultimate destination. The concoctions are named for old-time movie stars; I briefly consider the Ginger Rogers (ginger and wasabi), but finally opt for the Lucy (chipotle and cinnamon.)

We sit at a table decorated with images of Audrey Hepburn, cradling our mugs. A tall crown of sweet whipped cream demands to be spooned up before approaching the liquid beneath. The chocolate is rich and fragrant, just spicy enough to require slow sips. A comforting warmth settles in my stomach as I finish the last mouthful.

We head home to sleep, perchance to dream of sugarplums.

Friday, October 9, 2009

basically, I put it in my own mouth

Wednesday, 10:30pm. I’m curled up on my bed in a fetal position. There’s a sheen of clammy sweat on my forehead. My whole abdomen feels like it’s on fire. I am on the verge of wishing myself dead.

I am experiencing an excruciating lesson in the anatomy of the human digestive system. The stomach is connected to the duodenum, the duodenum is connected to the jejunum, the jejunum is connected to the ileum, and if I were a cartoon, each portion would be lighting up red as everything I’ve eaten tonight passed through.

It’s not food poisoning. I haven’t eaten bad shellfish, or dubious hamburger, or even poorly-washed salad greens. I’ve just exceeded my culinary stupidity quota for the year. Maybe even for the next two years.

I went to Hell Night at the East Coast Grill. And I ordered the Pasta from Hell.

"The Pasta from Hell is made with the Naga Jolokia, or Ghost Chile. This is the hottest pepper in the world, with a Scoville rating of over 1 million. Caution! Contents Hot!"

The first time Matt mentions Hell Night, I am somewhere in the welter of first-year, first-semester misery, and while it sounds entertaining, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure are hell enough for me. It’s almost two years later when I find an e-mail in my inbox with the subject heading “Hell Night: Harvest of Pain.” This time, my response is “Hell, yes!”

Which is how Wednesday evening ends up looking something like this:

5:40pm. Arrive at the East Coast Grill. Am running slightly late. Can’t help but notice that the door has been spray-painted with the slogan “Freaks only!” in black. Matt has already arrived and been seated. Our table is near the kitchen. Some of the chefs are wearing gas masks.

5:45pm. Between the loud music and general rowdiness of a crowd getting high on capsacin, the noise level is impressive. We almost have to shout to place our orders: a round of Russian Roulette Deviled Eggs, a basket of Hell Fries, spicy blackened swordfish for Matt, and the Pasta from Hell for me. The server tells me I do not want the Pasta from Hell, which, at nine bombs, has the highest heat rating of all the dishes on the menu. I assure her that I do.

5:50pm. The Master of Ceremony hands me the Pasta from Hell release form, which is printed on dark red paper and contains a full paragraph of synonyms for “regurgitate.” By my signature, I am absolving the East Coast Grill of all responsibility for anything stupid that I might do after eating the Pasta from Hell. The party at the next table over asks if they can read the release form. I can't tell if they're eyeing me with awe or horror.

6:00pm. The Russian Roulette Deviled Eggs arrive. The roulette involves their heat rating: they could be anywhere from three bombs (healthy kick) to eight bombs (incendiary.) One is garnished with a very dark sauce; one is garnished with a bright orange sauce. Matt offers me first pick. I choose the deviled egg with dark sauce. The egg is smoky and savory, but I suspect it's only five-bomb at most. I've eaten spicier Szechuan cuisine.

6:15pm. Server arrives with fries and entrees. The Hell Fries, it turns out, are regular potato fries, light and crispy, dusted with some sort of super-chile powder. They have kick, but they’re not particularly torturous. In fact, they’ve got a salty-sweet flavor that's rather addictive.

The Pasta from Hell, on the other hand, looks every bit as intimidating as its menu description. It’s not a particularly large plate, but it appears to contain as much sliced chile (red and green) as it does pasta, and the sausage sauce is reddish-orange in color from all the chile oil.

6:17pm. I pick up my fork. Here we go. I can't help but notice that I'm getting one or two glances from the next table over.

The first bite tastes good, full of fresh pepper flavor. The second bite offers tomato and the suggestion of sausage. At the third bite, the burn begins.

My nose is running. My eyes are watering. My ears are ringing. I am feeling light-headed. I take a few enormous gulps of iced water and try to catch my breath.

6:20pm. Matt is curious enough to try a bite. He develops a nosebleed a minute later. I think it might have something to do with the capsacin-laced smoke coming from the kitchen, but he’s blaming it squarely on the pasta.

6:50pm. I've accumulated a pile of crumpled paper napkins from wiping my eyes and nose. And I may be experiencing some difficulty breathing. I decide that I should take a break.

7:20pm. A long break. I am still feeling light-headed, almost drunk.

7:30pm. Scratch that. I've made it two-thirds of the way through the plate, and I am quite done. I could probably finish the pasta, but the amount of water I'd drink afterwards would make me sick - and that is an experience I could do without.

I try a bite of Matt's swordfish and eat some more Hell Fries. Matt is impressed that my tastebuds are still in working order. I admit to being somewhat surprised myself.

7:50pm. We decide that we are too full for dessert (though I do note that the dessert menu is free of chiles), and leave the restaurant. We start walking, and I discover that I am still troublingly light-headed. We decide to detour at Christina's Ice-Cream, which is located two doors down.

8:00pm. I discover that malted vanilla ice-cream is a highly effective way of cleaning the last traces of chile from one's mouth and throat. It occurs to me that it might have been more effective as a pre-meal measure, however, as a way of coating the lining of my digestive system.

8:30pm. "Detour" has turned into "extended stay." My stomach is on fire, and I've broken out in a cold sweat. I do not feel well enough to walk anywhere. We decide that I should take a taxi home.

9:00pm. Return to comfort of my own apartment. Pull the trashcan up near my bed, make sure the path to the bathroom is clear. Curl up in fetal position. Wait to see if the worst has passed.

10:00pm. I may have dozed off. Stomach seems to have settled. Has the worst passed?

10:30pm. Worst has decidedly not passed. Recall something about chile seeds and the risks of diverticulitis. Contemplate looking up diverticulitis on Google. Decide that I can contemplate painful death without the aid of Wikipedia. Curl up more firmly in fetal position.

11:00pm. There has been much joking about the aftereffects, as it were, of consuming very spicy food. I am nonplussed. Compared with the digestive effects, they're really quite anticlimactic.

1:00am. Here we go again. Through the haze of pain, I can't help but notice that the skin on my abdomen is hot to touch.

5:ooam. The worst is finally over. I decide that I am never, ever going to do anything quite so stupid again. And I will eat my diet of bananas, rice, applesauce and toast quietly and gratefully for the next few days.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

soup, beautiful soup

It has been soup weather in Boston of late.

Biting cold may be the province of stew, but intermittent rain and chilly evenings leave me in the mood for soup with bread and butter, perhaps with a wedge of cheese and crisp apple slices to follow. Now that I've mostly finished stockpiling fruit for the winter, my trips to the farmer's market are an exercise in finding vegetables to turn into soup.

It is dangerously easy to make bad soup. Thanks to institutional dining services, I have eaten corn chowder so alarmingly thick, a spoon would stand up in it. (Or rather, I ladled it into a bowl, and didn't actually consume it once I realized that it was the approximate consistency of wallpaper paste.) And yet the foundation of a bad soup and a good soup are frequently one and the same: the cooked butter-and-flour mixture, used for thickening liquids, that the French call roux.

Roux combined with milk produces béchamel; roux combined with white stock produces vélouté. Seafood chowders frequently begin with béchamel, but vélouté keeps perfect company with fresh vegetables. (The word is French for "velvety,"and it's a lovely description of the smooth, rich texture of the finished soup.)

Sorrel produces a tart, lemony broth. Carrots, seasoned with ginger and nutmeg, make for a bright, fresh puree. Cauliflower gives a finished product with a gentle nuttiness and pale, creamy color. And if you combine roux with both stock and milk, (which, to be honest, I have no idea what the French have termed), and get hold of some fresh corn before it disappears from the farmer's market for the year, you can make corn chowder that will put your college dining hall to shame.

(Not Your College Dining Hall's) Fresh Corn Chowder

Recipe based on instructions given in the chapter on roux in Michael Ruhlman's "Ratio."

(Serves one, with leftovers.)

Take two or three ears of fresh corn, shuck them, and cut the kernels away from the cob. Place in a bowl and set aside.

Melt one tablespoon of butter in a medium saucepan over low heat. Add one-and-a-half tablespoons of flour, and cook, stirring steadily, until the mixture starts to bubble and colors very slightly. Add one small yellow onion, finely diced, along with a generous pinch of salt. Cook until it turns soft, but does not color.

Stir in one cup of chicken or vegetable stock (if vegetable, make sure it's pale and mild in flavor - not too much carrot) and half a cup of milk. Bring to a low simmer and stir until the mixture begins to thicken.

Add the corn. Cook at a simmer, stirring occasionally, until the corn is tender. Add more stock if the mixture starts to look too thick. Check for salt, adjust to taste. The mixture can be cooled and blended to produce a smooth soup, but I've always thought of chowder as having whole bits in it, so I prefer to serve it as is.

Ladle into a bowl. Garnish with diced red pepper and a sprig of basil, and a swirl of cream, if you like.

Note: If reheating, do so over low heat, and do not bring to a boil.