Saturday, December 31, 2011

the obligatory new year's eve cocktail post, sans cocktail

I had the idea that my taste in alcohol would mature after college.

I thought it would be part and parcel of that mysterious metamorphosis from which I'd emerge a full-fledged Grown-Up. At some point in my twenties, my dress sense would evolve, I'd lose my taste for hot wings, and somewhere along the way, I'd also acquire a taste for gin-and-tonics and develop the ability to drink wine and have something intelligent to say about it.

So far, I've decided that hot wings lose a lot of their appeal when there are no late nights in dorm common rooms involved, but my taste in clothing is stuck at dark jeans and t-shirts with funny slogans, I find that gin still tastes medicinal, and the only comment I can make about wine is what it smells like when I stick my nose in the glass. I still drink dry whites, fruity reds, dark beers, Frangelico-spiked coffee, and not much else. I might learn to mix a proper martini at some point (it seems like a useful skill), but it's doubtful that I'd actually drink the finished result.

Suffice to say, no-one would put me in charge of drinks at a New Year's Eve gathering. (Well, not unless they planned to serve nothing but large quantities of bone-dry prosecco.) That's fine with me, because I'm perfectly happy to handle canapes and cocktail nibbles instead.

I think of canapes and cocktail nibbles as two distinct categories of appetizers. Canapes, in sufficient quantities, will make a meal. Cocktail nibbles, however, are closer to bar snacks - something to graze on before the mini quiches and prosciutto-wrapped asparagus spears make their appearance - and therefore shouldn't be too elaborate, or too numerous. Toasted nuts, mixed olives, maybe a few thin curls of salty ham. Items that can be found at a good deli or import store, and don't require any cooking.

Of course, there's always an exception to the rule. Cheese twists (or cheese straws) are long spirals of cheese-flavored pastry, pleasant to nibble on with a glass in hand, and quite festive as part of a cocktail spread. While you can find some perfectly serviceable varieties at a good import store, they're even better when baked from scratch.

The recipe below is essentially a basic pastry recipe, modified to incorporate cheese, and given the "rough puff" treatment to produce flaky, crispy twists. Classic flavorings for cheese twists include paprika and rosemary, but I've chosen to flavor mine with toasted cumin seeds and black pepper. They're quite moreish, and they have the added bonus of making my underdeveloped taste in alcohol irrelevant. Never mind the martinis - I find that they pair best with bone-dry prosecco anyway.

Parmesan Cheddar Cheese Twists with Toasted Cumin and Black Pepper

For rosemary and black pepper twists, replace the cumin with one teaspoon of finely chopped fresh rosemary.

(Makes about three dozen six-inch twists. Will keep in an airtight container for up to a week, but they're best consumed fresh.)

In a dry pan over low heat, toast one tablespoon of whole cumin seeds until aromatic, about five minutes or so. Transfer the cumin to a small bowl, and set aside to cool.

In a mixing bowl, combine two hundred grams of plain flour (about a cup and a half) with a quarter-teaspoon of salt. Cut in a hundred grams of chilled butter (about seven tablespoons) and rub it in with your fingertips until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Stir in fifty grams of finely grated - preferably Microplaned - parmesan (one point eight ounces, about a cup), a sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper, and the toasted cumin seeds.

Add four tablespoons of ice water, and turn the mixture gently until it just starts to hold together. Add sixty grams (two ounces) of finely chopped sharp cheddar and work it into the dough.

Turn the dough out on a clean countertop. Flatten it out roughly with the palm of your hand, and fold it over into thirds, like a letter. Flatten it out again lengthways, and fold it over into thirds again. Flatten and fold one more time, to make three times in all. Wrap the dough in plastic and chill in the fridge until firm.

When the dough has been fully chilled, pull it from the fridge and cut it in half. Wrap up one half and stick it back in the fridge.

Preheat the oven to 180F. Line two baking trays with parchment paper.

Take the dough half and roll it out between sheets of greaseproof paper until it's three milimetres (about an eighth of an inch) thick. Trim the dough so that it's fifteen centimetres (about six inches) long (keep the scraps) and then cut it into centimetre-wide strips.

Take a strip of dough and set it on the countertop. Take the ends between your fingers, and turn them in opposite directions so that the dough twists upon itself. (Give the strip plenty of turns, because the dough will untwist a little after it's been placed on the baking tray.) Lay the twist on a baking tray, and repeat the process with the remaining strips. Transfer the twists to the oven.

Bake the twists for twenty-five to twenty-eight minutes, switching the trays halfway, until twists are golden brown. As they bake, roll and cut the remaining dough. (Any scraps can be re-rolled, too.)

Transfer the finished twists to a cooling rack, and finish shaping and baking the remaining dough.

When all the twists are cool, transfer them to an airtight container. To serve, arrange in wide-mouthed jars or glasses. If you like, they may be warmed slightly before serving.

Note: I suspect the twists may be shaped, frozen, and later baked from frozen, but I have yet to test the theory, so don't take my word for it.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

the hostess gift

Of all the voices I joke about hearing in my head, there's one I sometimes forget. It's a quiet little voice, easily overlooked, and it gets lost when all the other voices - the ones that talk about food and cooking - start clamoring for attention.

That little voice only pipes up when I'm invited to dinner, or lunch, or tea, or any other sort of social occasion at someone's home. And then I wonder how I ever could forget about its existence. You see, the voice sounds suspiciously like that of my mother, and it likes to announce, in the sternest tones possible, that should I forget a hostess gift, I do so on pain of death and dishonor.

My parents were not etiquette mavens. I cannot remember receiving any instruction in, say, table manners. (I suspect I may have been taught by my grandparents, with a little polish added by my stint at a private, all-girls school in Sydney, which was occasionally old-fashioned to the point of anachronism.) Like all Asian children, however, I was instructed in the various complex and arcane forms of address for courtesy aunts and uncles. I was on strict orders to answer questions about school and study without any of my customary snark. And I learned that it was unthinkable to show up at someone's house for a social occasion empty-handed.

Flowers, I learned, were an acceptable hostess gift, and the easiest if one was pressed for time and happened to be close to a supermarket with a florist's stand. Occasionally, if my parents knew the hosts very well, and were certain of their drinking habits, we would make a detour en route at a liquor store for a bottle of wine. Their preferred gift, however, was food, and preferably fruit. Netted bags of mandarins. Thick-skinned clusters of grapes. Golden pears, the bigger the better. During Chinese New Year, every home we visited looked like its inhabitants were thinking about making a foray into the greengrocer's business.

When I received an invitation to Christmas lunch with people I'd only just met here in Melbourne, the little voice didn't falter. My taste in hostess gifts runs to baked goods, however, and so I decided Christmas cookies were in order. Give my fondness for traditional Christmas sweets in the European tradition - panettone, stollen, springerle, even old-fashioned, brandied fruitcake - spices and dried fruit were an obvious starting point.

I began with a simple shortbread base, and seasoned it with vanilla, brandy, orange zest and various spices before adding dried currants and crystallized ginger. I let the dough chill before rolling and cutting simple rounds. Baked at low heat, the resulting cookies were richly fragrant, with a delicate, sandy crumb. Packaged in cellophane and tied with bright ribbon, I think they make quite a pretty hostess gift.

Even the little voice in my head is in grudging agreement.

Christmas Spice Cookies

I've baked these as a rolled cookie, but the dough can also be shaped into a log before chilling, and then sliced and baked. These taste best a day or two after baking, when the flavors have had time to develop.

(Makes somewhere between one-and-a-half and two dozen. Dough will freeze. Cookies will keep in an airtight container for a week or so.)

In a mixing bowl, cream together one hundred and twenty-five grams of softened butter (about four ounces) and fifty-five grams of sugar (about a quarter-cup.) Stir in a quarter-teaspoon of salt, followed by a quarter-teaspoon of cinnamon, a quarter-teaspoon of allspice, an eighth-teaspoon of allspice, and an eighth-teaspoon of cloves.

Add the zest from one small orange, a half-teaspoon of vanilla, and a half-teaspoon of brandy. Stir again to combine. Beat in one egg yolk.

Stir in one hundred and forty grams (one cup) of plain white flour, little by little, until you have a nice sandy dough. Mix in fifty grams of finely chopped crystallized ginger (one-third of a cup) and fifty grams of dried currants (one-third of a cup.)

Wrap the dough in plastic and chill in the fridge for at least an hour.

Preheat the oven to 160C (325F.) Line two baking trays with parchment paper.

Roll the dough out between two sheets of parchment or wax paper (flour lightly to keep it easy to work with) to a quarter-inch thickness. Cut out two-inch rounds and place them on the baking trays. These cookies won't spread, so you can keep them quite close together.

Place the trays in the oven, and bake (switch the trays halfway through) for seventeen to twenty minutes, or until cookies are just barely colored. Transfer to cooling racks. When fully cool, place in decorative bags or cookie tins.

Serve with tea or coffee.

Friday, December 9, 2011

the breakfast battle

I am not a morning person.

Scratch that. I am Not A Morning Person. I do not react favorably to the sight of early morning sunshine. I build defensive trenches of comforters against the creeping threat of seven am. I sleep soundly and cannot be woken by anything other than an alarm clock, because only an alarm clock is implacable against my threats and invective. I do not merely abuse the snooze button - I am guilty of capital crimes against it.

If I had my way, I'd only ever sneak up on mornings from behind, catching them in passing after staying up all night.

Mornings are difficult. Breakfast, more so. My stomach doesn't wake up until at least half an hour after my eyes are open, and while I like many breakfast foods, I have no love for breakfast hour. Pancakes are delicious at four am and eleven am. At eight am, they are an abomination.

I didn't grow into my aversion to mornings. Even as a child, it took a lot to rouse me out of bed before nine. If there was ever an argument for giving children caffeine, I was a walking point in its favor. My mother, who took to heart the idea of breakfast as the most important meal of the day, would sigh and fret as I sat sullen and bleary-eyed at the kitchen table, refusing fruit and yogurt and Weet-Bix before finally choking down a few half-hearted bites of margarine toast, pointedly avoiding the crusts. When my sister reached an impressionable age and began imitating me in everything I did, my mother - my sugar-phobic mother - broke down and bought Pop-Tarts.

If the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation had created a snack machine to go with their Nutrimatic Drinks Dispenser, a Pop-Tart is the sort of thing it would produce. Rectangular, about the size of a small envelope, consisting of a sickly, jammy confection sandwiched between sheets of damp, crumbly pastry product, the Pop-Tart is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike a jam tartlet. Their tooth-aching sweetness was enough to give even me and my sister (hardened sugar junkies, the both of us) serious pause. Still, the joy of the forbidden was enough to get us eating them, and for a few weeks, the breakfast battle reached a ceasefire. Then the novelty wore off, and Pop-Tarts didn't last on their merits. We went back to margarine toast.

Later, I left for boarding school and discovered the magic of coffee. Mornings, while still not agreeable, became at least bearable, and I found that granola bars were a fairly effective mid-morning compromise. The last time I encountered Pop-Tarts - in the vending machine at law school - I noted with a certain bafflement that they'd introduced a double-frosted chocolate variety, complete with sprinkles. I had neither the nostalgia nor the morbid curiosity to try them.

Suffice to say, Pop-Tarts were the last thing on my mind when I was tinkering with a recipe for maple cookies. The results failed on their merits as cookies - the amount of maple syrup required to give the cookies a strong maple flavor also gave them an odd texture - but showed promise as pastry. Replacing the sugar and water in a standard sweet shortcrust with maple syrup and egg yolk, trading out regular butter for browned, and giving it a few quick turns produced a pastry that was flaky and fragrant. All I needed was the right recipe in which to use it.

A tart or pie didn't seem quite right. Then I learned through the blogosphere that people make homemade versions of Pop-Tarts, little pastries that keep the Pop-Tart's rectangular shape, but more like turnovers or hand pies in character. The pastry-to-filling ratio struck me as a good one, and it was easy to cook up a sweetly spiced mixture of apples and raisins to sandwich between sheets of pastry. A wash of egg and a spell in the oven, and the results were browned and delectable, perfect for eating at the kitchen table in one's pajamas.

Well, maybe not at breakfast hour. Could we skip that battle - and make it a late brunch?

Apple-Raisin "Pop-Tarts" with Flaky Maple Brown Butter Pastry

If you're not inclined to fuss with measuring and cutting rectangles, this recipe can also be used for turnovers: stamp out rounds of pastry with a large cookie-cutter, top with filling, and fold over into half-moons. Feel free to play with the filling, too - apple-cranberry and apple-cherry are possible variations, and I imagine these might be tasty with rhubarb compote or pumpkin butter too.

(Makes six, with leftover filling, which can be eaten with pancakes or toast.)

Start by cutting eight ounces of butter into small chunks and placing them in a light-colored pan over low heat. Cook until the butter melts and you can see the milk solids at the bottom (they'll be a whitish sediment); keep cooking until they turn a toasty, caramelly brown. Pour off the melted butter into a heatproof container; scrape the pan to get all the solids. Allow to cool, then refrigerate until solid. (You'll have roughly six ounces of brown butter.)

In a big mixing bowl, combine eight ounces of flour and three-quarters of a teaspoon of salt. Cut in the chilled brown butter, and rub it in with your fingertips until the largest bits are pea-sized. Add six tablespoons of maple syrup and half a beaten egg (set aside the other half) and stir until the mixture just starts to clump.

Turn the mixture - it will be a crumbly mess - out on a sheet of wax paper. Top with another sheet of wax paper and roll it out until it's about half an inch thick. Peel off the wax paper, and fold the dough - it will still be a crumbly mess - into thirds. Turn the pastry so that the folded seam is perpendicular, cover with wax paper and roll it out again. (It should be a little less crumbly by this point.) Fold it into thirds. Turn and repeat the folds again. (It should look like dough now.)

Fold the wax paper back over the pastry and wrap the whole package in plastic. Stick it in the fridge to chill.

Meanwhile, peel and core two tart apples (Granny Smiths or Macouns are good) and cut them into small dice. Place in a small saucepan with a quarter-cup of raisins, six tablespoons of sugar, two tablespoons of water, a big pinch of cinnamon and a big pinch of nutmeg. (Optional extra: a teaspoon of brandy.) Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the apples have softened and the mixture is sticky. Remove from heat; set aside to cool.

Pull the dough from the fridge. Roll it out to an eighth of an inch, and cut the pastry into a dozen rectangles of three by four inches. Using a fork, prick half the rectangles lightly (make sure the fork doesn't go all the way through.) Take the remaining beaten egg from the pastry, and add a little water to thin it.

Set out a parchment-covered baking tray. Arrange six of the rectangles on the baking tray. Use a fork to prick the pastry lightly (make sure they don't go all the way through.) Spoon apple-raisin filling onto the rectangles, leaving space at the edges. Dip a finger in the egg mixture and use it to moisten the edges, then top with another pastry rectangle. Press the edges with the tines of a fork to seal. Repeat the process with all the remaining rectangles.

Brush the tops of each pastry with egg wash, then prick all over with a fork, making sure you do pierce all the way through. If you like, the pastries can be sprinkled lightly with fleur de sel or cinnamon sugar.

Bake at 350F until nicely browned, about fifteen minutes. Turn out on a rack to cool a little - you don't want to burn your tongue on the filling. Serve warm.

Note: I haven't tried baking these from frozen, but I see no reason why it couldn't work.