Monday, December 20, 2010

the bells of st clement's

I developed a taste for many things in defiance of my mother.

My mother, as I've mentioned before, has an aversion to sugar. Butter, too, was verboten in the household where I grew up. (In the unhappier recesses of my memory, there are recollections of box mix cake made with margarine.) We ate soft, cottony bread - the sort that doesn't so much have a crust as it does a skin. And my mother held to a few other fierce and somewhat eccentric rules: no food coloring of any sort, no cinnamon, and absolutely no citrus peel.

Most recollections of teenage rebellion involve secret experimentation with drinking or smoking (or both.) The culprits in my stories are somewhat less typical: sticky cinnamon rolls, packages of unnaturally bright candy, and baguettes with crackling crusts, consumed secretly and delightedly without my mother's knowledge or permission. The sense of getting away with something forbidden, however, is much the same.

I grew up to keep sugar and butter as pantry staples. Margarine does not darken the threshold of my kitchen. And I delight in the baked goods that mark Christmas, revelling in stollen and panettone and fruitcake of the really boozy variety, in all their spiced, citrus-peel-filled goodness.

For all that I love a good baking project, however, I am not quite ambitious (or mad) enough to make my own versions of these delicacies. Instead, my oranges and lemons flavor pound cake and all a manner of cookies, joining my purchased delicacies in a selection ready for holiday nibbling.

The following chocolate orange shortbread is another of my many variations on a basic shortbread recipe. Dark with cocoa, flecked with chocolate, and perfumed with orange zest, I like this for last-minute baking - it's a quick, simple way to round out a cookie platter. I admit, too, that I enjoy it for another reason: while I'm really too old for teenage rebellion, zesting the orange still fills me with delight.

Orange Chocolate Shortbread

(Makes two dozen. Will keep for a week in an airtight container.)

Put a stick of butter in a mixing bowl and let it sit at room temperature until soft. (Not just softened, but soft.) Use a fork to cream in a quarter-cup of white sugar. Grate over the zest of one well-washed orange (preferably organic), and add half a teaspoon of vanilla extract and a quarter-teaspoon of salt.

Stir in a quarter-cup of cocoa powder until you have a smooth, dark mixture, then work in a scant cup of flour, little by little, until you have a soft dough. Stir in two or three ounces of finely chopped dark chocolate.

Turn the dough onto a sheet of plastic wrap or wax paper. Form into a log roughly one-and-a-half inches in diameter; wrap and chill for at least an hour.

When you're ready to bake, preheat the oven to 325F. Line two baking trays with parchment paper.

Remove the dough from the fridge and cut discs, about quarter of an inch in thickness. Lay them on the baking trays. Transfer the trays to the oven.

Bake for twenty-five to thirty minutes, switching the position of the trays halfway through. Allow to cool for five minutes on the trays, then transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling.

Serve with tea or coffee.

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