Sunday, December 31, 2006

Bitter Lemon Tart

V. and I are heading off for a short vacation very early tomorrow morning. Our flight departs at 7:30, which means we have to be at National Airport at 5:30, which means waking up and leaving home at hours too indecent to be mentioned. The upshot of all this is that we'll celebrate the new year by snoring.

Because we won't be awake when 2007 arrives, we decided to have a New Year's Eve brunch for those of our friends who are not out of town and who did not have previous commitments. As it happens, brunch on New Year's Eve (when it falls on a weekend) is not a time when people generally have previous commitments, so despite our having planned this little get together about three days ago, most of the people who were in town were able to show up.

I decided to rein myself in somewhat on the food preparation, so there was only about twice as much food as we needed, and that's much better than I usually do. I doubled a lot of recipes and made two versions, so I ended up with two quiches: one with bacon, jarlsberg, and caramelized onions; the other with caramelized onions and all the leftover cheese (chevre and brie) from our recent party. I made a generous batch of pâte brisée (15 ounces all purpose flour, twelve tablespoons butter, 1/4 tsp salt, 2 egg yolks, 1/2 tablespoon red wine vinegar, and about 3/4 cup of ice water) which allowed me to have large circles of thick crust so that I could fold the edges under and keep the rim of the pastry standing upright even through a blind baking (fifteen minutes with foil; another five minutes without: all at 350). I made the custard from seven whole eggs, three cups of half-and-half, two teaspoons of dijon mustard, half a teaspoon of salt, a grating of nutmeg, and some freshly ground black pepper. I baked the quiches at 375, and they took about forty-five minutes to get nicely browned. Delicious.

I also made a double batch of my favorite (from Beat This) blueberry muffin recipe and used half of it with frozen blueberries and the other half with a combination of frozen sweet cherries and toasted slivered almonds. Also delicious.

I had originally intended to be very good about my diet today, so I also made two salads which were more or less on my plan. And the salads (one green bean salad dressed with a bit of walnut oil and an equal amount of white balsamic vinegar with some garlic, ginger, and salt and pepper; one salad of halved grape tomatoes, cubed feta cheese, halved black olives, fresh red pepper strips, baby spinach, and a lot of chiffonaded basil -- all dressed with a standard vinaigrette) were also delicious, but I also made a punchbowl full of exceptionally good mimosas, and after a couple of those, I couldn't resist trying all of the stuff that I'd made extra rich because I'd only been going to give it to my guests. Ah well.

For dessert, I had the last of my Christmas cookies, and this stunning bitter lemon tart. And "stunning" really is the word, because the taste is both a bit of a shock and unexpectedly wonderful. At least to my palate. Because of the bitterness, I felt it necessary to warn my guests, but about three-quarters of them raved about it. The other quarter, I think, were put off by the bitterness, but they were polite enough to say nothing. Take your own taste and the tastes of your guests into account if you're considering making it.

I didn't really set out to make a bitter lemon tart. But I had a small package of Meyer lemons. I saw them last week in the supermarket, and since I'd never seen any around here before, I picked them right up, without a real plan. I decided on the lemon tart when it became clear we were having a bit of a crowd for brunch. I have often heard it said that one can use the entire Meyer lemon without fear of excess bitterness. One would, of course, never include the white part of the peel of an ordinary lemon (except, of course, if one is making candied lemon peel, which requires Herculean effort to tame the bitterness) because of bitterness, but I chopped up most of my Meyers (they came in a pack of four, ranging in size from not very big to decidedly small), added some sugar, and left them to macerate overnight in the refrigerator with no fear of bitterness.

But then I tasted them the next morning. I also tasted fear, but I was determined not to be bested. I tossed my finely diced (sort of: I had chopped some of them fine, but others I had cut into wedges and then put through my handy dandy Japanese, ceramic-blade slicer, and I ended up with a variety of shapes of small pieces) lemons into the food processor, added more sugar until I got a bitter taste that I liked, and then added the rest of the ingredients.

I'd made the tart base the night before. And I think that even if you start out by grinding your Meyer lemons in the food processor with sugar, you probably want to let them sit with the sugar overnight, so you may as well make your crust the night before, too.

I had wanted a nut crust for the base, and after some thought, I decided to make something very like a macaroon batter and spread it along the base of a springform pan and bake it until brown. A word to the wise: if you attempt this, make sure that the batter completely covers the bottom of the pan and runs all the way to the sides of the pan so that there are no gaps for the lemon filling to run down into. I didn't lose any of my filling to the oven floor, but some of it did seep down and make the crust a bit soggy. But still very, very good.

You will not want to chop all of your lemons, however. Take the smallest of your lemons, cut it in half crosswise, and make several very thin slices. These slices will end up being a decoration, and they are very pretty indeed. If you are very skilled with a knife, then go ahead and do this by hand. (But keep it to yourself, okay? The rest of us don't need to be made to feel inferior.) I have very recently sharpened my knives, so the lemon chopping was relatively easy. Still, I made the slices with the 2 mm setting on my handy dandy Japanese ceramic-bladed slicer. My handy dandy slicer has two settings that are thinner than 2 mm, but I very rarely find anything that slices well much thinner than 2 mm. Perhaps I am not buying enough truffles. You will candy your lemon slices in a sugar syrup and leave them to dry on a rack overnight. You will be extremely taken with just how pretty they look sitting there. It will seem almost a shame to have to eat them, but you will go ahead and put them on the top of the tart and, eventually, eat them because I said so.

The macaroon batter recipe will make more than enough to make your tart crust. You want a substantial but not thick layer of the macaroon for the crust. I think about a quarter-inch is right, but a little more or less will not hurt anything. The leftover macaroon batter will make excellent macaroons. Just use a largeish cookie scoop to put mounds of the batter on a lined cookie sheet and bake along with the tart crust. The macaroons will take an extra ten minutes or so. They are yummy. Crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside, delicious throughout.

Cashew Date Macaroons

1 cup toasted sweetened coconut
6 dates, halved
1 cup roasted, unsalted cashew pieces
1/4 t. salt
2 egg whites
2 T. sugar

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Put the date halves and coconut in the bowl of your food processor. Process until the dates are chopped into small bits. Add the cashews and salt and process until the cashews are ground but not oily.

Put the egg whites in the bowl of your stand mixer, with the whisk attachment fitted. Whisk on low until they are foamy, and then increase speed to high and whisk until you have soft peaks. Gradually add in the sugar and whisk until you have stiff peaks. Fold in the cashew mixer.

Spread about a quarter-inch layer of the mixture in the bottom of a nine-inch, non-stick springform pan. With a large (two-inch) cookie scoop (or two tablespoons), form the remaining batter into mounds on a lined cookie sheet. Bake until medium-brown on the outside: about twenty-five minutes for the crust and thirty-five minutes for the cookies.

Bitter Lemon Tart

A macaroon crust in a nine-inch springform pan
4 Meyer lemons
3 eggs
4 T. butter, melted
1/2 t. almond extract

1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup water

The night before, take your smallest lemon and make eight to ten very thin crosswise slices from the middle of it. Reserve the slices.

Cut the rest of the smallest lemon and the remaining lemons into rough dice. Scrape all of the lemon pieces and juice into a large measuring cup and determine how much you have. Add an equal volume of sugar and stir well. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Meanwhile, in small saucier, combine the sugar and water. Put a lid on it and bring it to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and slide the lemon slices into the syrup. Put the lid back on it and simmer for half an hour. Turn off the heat and let sit until cool. Remove the lemons to a rack and let dry overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Put the lemons and sugar in the bowl of your food processor. Process until very finely ground. Add the eggs, the melted butter, and the almond extract, and process again until very well mixed.

Pour the batter into the macaroon-lined springform pan and top with the candied slices. Bake until set, approximately thirty-five minutes.

Let cool. Serve at room temperature right away, or refrigerate and serve cold. It's good either way.

You will want to run a dull knife around the edge of the springform pan before you open it so as not to tear the tart apart.

You will also want to cut small slices of this tart because it's very potent. I cut mine into sixteen pieces, and they were just about the right size.

V. and I will be spending the week in Florida, first in the Everglades and then in the keys. We had planned to stay in Key West, but the hotel we'd booked was closed down because of carbon monoxide poisoning, so now we will be staying just south of Key Largo, which suits me just fine. While I will doubtless be enjoying and comparing various key lime pies, I won't be posting, so let me take this opportunity to wish each and every one of you a happy new year and the best of all possible years in 2007.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

I'll Bring Prunes for Christmas

You are not, reader, to infer from the title that I am among those who become cross, ungrateful, spiteful, mean, or depressed when I come into contact with any aspect of any of the various holidays that celebrate the winter solstice. I have probably said before that I really do believe that this is the most wonderful time of the year, and we all know that I have no fear of repeating myself.

It is my fervent hope that each of you is enjoying the season as much as I am. I may, in fact, be a bit frazzled at this point, but it's a very happy sort of frazzled. I spent most of today with my daughters, then V., his mother, and I went over to his son's and daughter-in-law's house for dinner. Dinner, due to some sort of mistake with timing the turkey, was not actually on the table before I had to leave to head for church, but I had brought some grapes in the car to help clear my voice, so I was not hungry, and in any case, I do not like to eat much before I sing. Having started the season this year some weeks back by joining my favorite soprano in my favorite Bach duet (the slower of the two Soprano-Bass duets from Wachet Auf, the Advent cantata), I closed out the season by joining her in a beautiful arrangement of Pietro Yon's Gesu Bambino, and we sang both pieces magnificently. I also sang with the choir tonight, and that went very well, also. Then I stayed for about half an hour of the post-service reception where I accepted many compliments and enjoyed spiced cider and two of the best cupcakes ever. My own.

If you want to read the whole sordid story behind how I originally came by this most excellent of cake recipes, then you can go here. I can't be bothered to retell it in this post. We are all asked to bring refreshments to share after the service, and while I have plenty of Christmas cookies and would be happy to make more, I had been wanting to have a go at turning the prune cake into cupcakes. Originally, I had intended to make full-sized cupcakes for V.'s and my holiday party last weekend, but while I had managed to pull back a bit after having made far too much food last year, I was still doing a lot of other cooking, and I already had plenty of desserts without making the cupcakes.

It was not without some trepidation that I spooned my cupcake batter into the mini-cupcake liners. I was worried that since I'd been using tired old ground ginger when I first made the cake that the new, flavorful ginger would be too much of a presence. And I was worried that the relatively large chunks of prunes that work well in a full cake would not work in a mini-cupcake (or whatever the hell those things are called). I was worried that I was using too much chocolate and that I wouldn't get the baking time just right. I was worried that making them a full day before they were to be served would cause them to lose something.

I need not have worried. The batter, as before, comes together so that it is both more than the sum of its parts and not apparently composed of its parts. The ginger, no doubt, is important, but it is not really separately identifiable. Neither is the cinnamon. Nor the orange zest. But I'm convinced that they all belong there. The chocolate and the prunes are identifiable, but they are also subtly transformed. I got pretty lucky with the baking time on the initial trial, and they were just as good tonight as they were last night. I will note, however, that if you make this recipe, you owe it to yourself to eat one or two of them while they're still warm. Instant happiness.

The recipe here is not changed much from the last time I made it. A few more prunes. Less cocoa powder, more chocolate, and the chocolate is in smaller pieces. Grated orange zest instead of candied orange peel. Because I had originally intended to make the cupcakes a week ago, the prunes sat around in the sherry for a week. I don't think, however, that there is a significant improvement over what you get from soaking them overnight.

If you want larger cupcakes, cook for longer. I'm not sure for exactly how long but until the cupcakes seem not quite cooked when you press on them. They must not dry out. For the mini-cupcakes twelve minutes without opening the oven was just right.

Excellent Prune Cupcakes

12 ounces prunes
1/2 cup sherry
1 cup flour
1/2 t. baking soda
1 t. ground cinnamon
1 t. ground ginger
1 T. cocoa powder
pinch salt
1/2 cup sugar
4 ounces (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
grated zest of one orange
2 eggs
1 t. vanilla extract
4 ounces miniature chocolate chips

Chop each prune into six or eight pieces. Put in a bowl, add the sherry, stir, and let sit, preferably overnight (or longer).

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line mini-muffin pans with mini-cupcake liners. (The recipe will make just under four dozen.)

Put the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, cocoa powder, salt, and sugar in the bowl of your stand mixer. With the whisk attachment, mix for three minutes. Add the butter a tablespoon at a time, whisking until fully incorporated. Add, mixing until each is incorporated before proceeding to the next, the orange zest, the eggs, and the vanilla extract. Stir in the chocolate chips and the prunes and sherry by hand.

Put a slightly rounded soup spoon full of batter in each cup. Bake for twelve minutes. Remove from oven and let cool slightly, then remove to a rack to cool completely.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Rum Balls

I was all set to begin this post by explaining that you could learn everything you needed to know about my culinary philosophy by the fact that, despite having posted a perfectly serviceable rum ball recipe last year, when I went to make rum balls this year, I went and looked at a bunch of other recipes and synthesized a new one without even bothering to check whether I'd already posted one. But then I went and checked, and I had not, in fact, posted one, so never mind.

And then I was going to start by saying that my Christmas cookie baking had taken a bit of a detour because I was sitting at work minding my own business the other day when my mother called me and, out of the blue, asked me to make and send her some of my biscotti. This is not the sort of request that one could refuse, even if one wanted to, and I certainly didn't want to. In fact, I made a double recipe so that I could send a bunch to my mother. That also got me thinking of other cookies that I wanted to make and send with the biscotti because what, after all, is more important to a son than showing his mother that he's a better and more prolific baker than she is? Parent-child competition, after all, is at the heart of a lot of Greek tragedy, and that always ends well, doesn't it? Or at least, I'm pretty sure that Oedipus at Colonus, the Musical did. That Antigone sure could sing.


I have never made nor met a rum ball that I didn't like, and I think that probably includes the sort that are made with confectioner's sugar and cocoa powder. You can compensate for a lot with dark rum. My recipe, which uses granulated sugar and corn syrup and very dark chocolate (my standard choice: TJ's 72% dark chocolate) and a goodly quantity of very good rum is terrific. If you can eat these and not be happy, then you are having a very bad day, and I'm sorry about that.

You can, of course, make all sorts of substitutions in this recipe. One of the most common is to make bourbon balls instead. (I will not insult your intelligence by telling you how to change the rum balls into bourbon balls.) Bourbon is, indeed, a fine liquor, and if you're from Kentucky, then I can certainly understand why you might prefer it. But I really think that dark rum and dark chocolate share a special affinity. And good dark rum is just so, well, good. Open up the bottle and take a whiff. One goes so far as to say that the smell of good dark rum would be incontrovertible proof of the existence of God if only so many of his followers weren't so very intent on attributing rum to the other side. (By the way, does anyone else think "I'm working the other side/ of the heaven and hell divide" would make a good hip hop lyric, or is it just me? Yeah, it's always just me, isn't it?)

I have also seen recipes where people replace the vanilla wafers and cocoa/chocolate with crushed Oreos. This strikes me as not the best possible idea, but you do what you like. You can certainly substitute another nut for the walnuts. In fact, I considered substituting black walnuts, but I only have twelve ounces of black walnuts left, and they are too precious to use in a recipe where they are not really showcased. Besides, the rum balls are fabulous with English walnuts.

I did read one article that suggested replacing the vanilla wafers with shortbread cookies. I reckon that if you use either shortbread or butter cookies that you will be a God among men, but, really, who needs that much responsibility? People will be asking you to heal them or to pick winning lottery numbers ALL THE TIME. See also my note about rum earlier. Do you really want to give that up?

Finally, you can roll your rum balls in nothing, in granulated sugar, in confectioner's sugar, in finely chopped nuts, in shredded coconut, or in anything you like. You could go so far as to dip them in chocolate and then roll them in any of the above. But part of the point of rum balls is that they're not so much work, and a lot of that extra rolling strikes me as unnecessary. Of course, if you dip them in chocolate, you will seal in the rum, which is a very good thing. Whether you do that or not, though, make sure to wrap the rum balls tightly after they're done. I store mine in a tin that wouldn't hold much more than this recipe (which, by the way, made six-and-one-half dozen rum balls), with waxed paper between each layer and on the bottom and top of all the layers, and with more waxed paper across the top. As much as possible, you want to avoid losing any of the alcohol to evaporation. Just because.

Rum Balls

1 cup walnuts
A 12 ounce box of vanilla wafers
8 ounces bittersweet or extra bittersweet chocolate
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup corn syrup
1/2 cup dark rum
Additional sugar, if desired, for rolling

Toast the walnuts for about 10 minutes at about 350 degrees. Be careful not to burn them. Let them cool.

Put the vanilla wafers in your food processor, and process them until they're finely ground. Add the walnuts, and process again, until the walnuts are finely ground.

Melt the chocolate, then stir in the sugar and corn syrup. Let cool and stir in the rum. It does not matter how well the rum gets incorporated into the chocolate.

Turn the chocolate mixture into the crumb mixture in the processor and process until the dough forms a smooth ball.

Using a one-inch cookie scoop (or not), scoop out pieces of the dough and roll them between your hands into balls.

Roll the balls in sugar (granulated or confectioner's) if desired.

I usually melt my chocolate in the microwave, but since I was toasting the walnuts at the same time, I just chopped it up and put it in a heatproof bowl and put the bowl over a saucepan of simmering water. Whatever works for you.

If, when you're rolling the dough into balls, you find them a bit crumbly, try applying more pressure and rolling for longer: the dough should work itself into a coherent ball soon enough. If you're rolling the balls in sugar and get sugar on your hands, you will promote crumbliness, but you can overcome that pretty easily. If you still find the dough too crumbly, add another teaspoon or so of rum. In fact, it's a good idea to add additional rum partway through the rolling. This helps keep the dough moist, plus it increases the rum content, and that can't help but be a good thing.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Christmas Spritz

There is nothing in this whole wide world that makes me as nostalgic about Christmas as a Mirro cookie press.

Why exactly this should be cannot help but remain something of a mystery, but I have a few notions. When I was a child, there was always a lot of pre-Christmas activity around the house, and much of it had to do with baking. The fruitcakes would typically be prepared before Thanksgiving, and then many December days included the baking of one or more kind of Christmas cookie. Most if not all of those cookies were delicious, and some of them got made mostly around Christmas time, but as far as I can remember, my mother only got out her cookie press one time a year, and that was always to make the Christmas spritz cookies.

The nostalgia may have even more to do, however, with the passing of the cookie press. At some point during the 70s or 80s, cookie presses appear to have been replaced by the cookie gun, an implement which does exactly the same thing as the cookie press but with sexier packaging and slightly less (to my mind) functionality. I blame Charlton Heston. For a lot of things.

You can still buy new cookie guns, but if you want a Mirro cookie press, then your best bet is ebay. I found mine at yard sales back in the 80s. And yes, that's plural. I got so much pleasure out of finding and owning the first one that I couldn't help buying a second. And with any luck, my mother will give me hers someday. If my brother or sister tries to get it, I plan to swap one of mine for Mom's when they're not looking. I'm pretty sure that neither of them has ever seen The Red Violin, and nobody in my family really understands just how devious I can be when it comes to inherited cookware, so I'll almost certainly get away with it.

Oddly, or perhaps not, I have no particular nostalgia for Mom's actual spritz cookies. I'm pretty sure that she used the recipe from the booklet that came with her cookie press, and while they were perfectly fine cookies, the taste was nothing to write home about. (Especially given that I would already have been home, so that writing would have been a waste of a stamp. That's right: I am so old that when I was a kid, we didn't even have email. If we wanted to talk to distant relatives, we yelled really loudly.) The cookies were fun to make, and they didn't look like the other Christmas cookies since Mom colored some of the dough red and some of it green and pressed it into the shapes of reefs and Christmas trees, but they weren't nearly as tasty as the pecan cups or the rum balls. Mmmm, rum balls.

I don't color my spritz dough, but I did go out of the way to develop a kick-ass recipe. You could easily color it red and apply green sprinkles or color it green and apply red sprinkles. I haven't applied any sprinkles at all, but I do plan to make up a batch of green royal icing and put it in a squeeze bottle and use thin stripes of green icing to give some color and additional flavor to the cookies. The cookies, without the icing, are in no way, shape, or form lacking in flavor, but since the lemon is so wonderfully pronounced in the cookies, I'll probably play up the almond in the royal icing to make them even better.

If you don't have a cookie press, then you can certainly drop these by teaspoons or use a cookie scoop. It won't be nearly as much fun, but you'll still have awesome cookies. In either case, the butter content of the cookies is sufficient so that you don't need to grease your cookie sheets. I did some of my cookies on Silpats and some on (ungreased) aluminum foil, and they all came off just fine. The Silpats are a little easier to use because when you go to lift the cookie press away from the foil, the foil wants to follow the cookie press up. You wouldn't have that problem if you just pressed your cookies onto your ungreased pan, but some of my half-sheet pans are currently missing, and since I only have three in the kitchen right now, I wanted to line the sheets to make reusing them easier. Parchment would also work, but I reckon you'd have the same problem that you have with foil. It's not much of a problem however.

It takes a tiny bit of practice to use the cookie press correctly, but only a tiny bit. You basically set the press flat on the sheet, turn the handle, and lift. The only difficulty, such as it is, is turning the handle the right amount. You will find, even after the press is fully loaded and primed, that the same amount of turn will deliver slightly different amounts of dough. Don't let that bother you. Your cookies will still all be done at the same time, even if there are slight variations in size. If, after you've baked the cookies, you find that a couple of them are so horribly disfigured as to not resemble Christmas trees (if that's the shape you're using), then you must eat the non-trees as a means of ensuring quality control. Just keep telling yourself, "It's a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it."

Lemon-Almond Spritz Cookies

2 lemons
1/2 lb. butter
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. baking powder
1 egg (mine was an extra large egg)
1.5 cups whole almonds, toasted and cooled
2 cups all purpose flour

Zest the lemons and reserve the zest. Juice the lemons and reserve the juice.

Combine the lemon zest and almonds in the bowl of the food processor. Process until finely ground. Add the flour and process until still more finely ground. Reserve.

Put the butter in your stand mixer and cream on low. Gradually add the sugar, creaming all the way. With the mixer running, add the lemon juice and then the egg, and mix until all is well combined. Gradually add in the flour-almond-zest mixture and mix until all is again well combined.

Transfer the dough to a cookie press. Press the cookies onto ungreased cookie sheets. Bake at 350 degrees for about seventeen minutes, or just until the edges turn medium brown. Remove the sheets from the oven and allow the cookies to cool for five minutes or so. Loosen the cookies from the sheets. Cool entirely. Decorate appropriately.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Petits Fours

I will use almost any excuse to bake right about now. I reckon I'm two baby steps away from making up bags of biscotti to distribute to the homeless, though I would probably spend a lot of time worrying about nuts and potential allergic reactions. Anyway, despite the fact that I had already made black walnut teacakes with the specific intent of bringing them to my church's combined 50th anniversary/building dedication ceremony, I decided that I would make something a little more involved and, well, showy.

I have plenty of recipes that would work for such a purpose, but why use an established recipe when you can make one up? I decided that I wanted something very much like a petit four, but that I didn't want to use the standard petit four construction method -- or at least that I didn't want to use what I understand to be the standard petit four construction method. I figured that it would be easiest to make tiny cakes by modifying a biscuit recipe. Then I would split the biscuits, fill them with a layer of buttercream, and coat the whole shebang with some ganache.

Sadly, while the result was both gorgeous and delicious, I cannot recommend it without reservation. As it happens (and as I should have known and did, in fact, know), ganache is really not a great coating for something that's going to be eaten with the fingers, unless it's going to be eaten in a refrigerated room. There are certainly worse things than having a bit of chocolate adhering to one's fingers so that one is forced to lick them in public, but be aware that if these have to sit at room temperature for more than a half hour, fingers will need to be licked.

Nonetheless, the individual components of the recipe have considerable merit, and had I merely split the biscuits, piped a ring of buttercream onto the top of the bottom half, added a dab of ganache in the middle of the buttercream, and put the top back on, fingers everywhere would have been a good deal safer. The resulting petits fours would not have been as pretty, of course. Perhaps I should have stuck with the ganache and made some praline and coated the sides of the petits fours with ground praline, but that would have been too much, even for me.

Anyway, the biscuits themselves were very tasty, though I might add a touch more ground and/or candied ginger next time, though that will likely depend on the context in which they are to be used. It also occurs to me that I might greatly reduce the amount of baking powder, roll them thinner, cook them in a more moderate oven and just sandwich two together. But I might not.

Orange-Ginger Biscuits

6 ounces all purpose flour
6 ounces cake flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 t. salt
2 t. baking powder
1 t. powdered ginger
3 T. minced candied ginger
Grated zest of one orange
4 ounces butter, very cold and cut into bits
1 egg
1/2 cup sour cream
1 t. vanilla extract

Orange glaze

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.

Combine the flours, sugar, salt, baking powder and ginger in a bowl and whisk to combine. Add the ginger and orange zest and either whisk or use your fingers to separate the tiny pieces of ginger and coat them with flour. Add the butter and do the same thing.

Combine the egg, sour cream, and vanilla and mix well. Add to the dry ingredients and toss well with a big fork. You could do this in a stand mixer or food processor if you prefer. Add enough milk (probably between two and four tablespoons) to form a soft dough.

Turn onto a well-floured board or marble and roll out 1/2-inch thick. Cut the dough into small rounds and place the rounds on cookie sheets. Re-roll the scraps until all of the dough has been cut into rounds.

Bake at 400 degrees for 16-18 minutes, or until the tops are lightly browned. Makes about sixty-six (very) small biscuits.

As with any biscuit, you want your dough to be as soft and wet as is consistent with still being able to handle it. You may be tempted to cook the biscuits for longer so that they are well browned. Go ahead and do that, but only if you don't plan to split them. Even when baked to light brown (at which point, by the way, they taste very good), they need to be split carefully with a serrated knife to avoid crumbling.

I am very pleased with my raspberry buttercream. I almost always make cooked buttercreams, often from recipes out of Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Cake Bible, modified only in that I typically use twice as many whole eggs as she uses egg yolks. Those buttercreams are delicious, but I am never very amused by the step that involves my pouring boiling syrup onto the egg yolks while the mixer is running.

I wondered whether I could keep essentially the same proportions but cook the eggs and sugar together directly over low heat as if I were making a custard sauce, then let that mixture cool and beat the butter directly into it. As it happens, I could. The only wrinkle was that if you start with just eggs and sugar, you may or may not be able to get all the sugar to dissolve in the eggs before the mixture thickens. I decided to add some raspberry liqueur at the beginning of the process to speed the dissolution of the sugar. This idea worked very well, except that I wasn't using the very best raspberry liqueur, and the result was a bit brown. Fortunately, I had already planned to add some heated and sieved raspberry preserves to provide a stronger raspberry flavor, and the end result was a not-unattractive light pink. It is likely, however, that I'll try to find some paste food colors before I use the leftover buttercream for this coming weekend's party. (Some of my friends like to think that they're butch, and I think that it might be impolitic to let on that I know better.) In any case, the finished buttercream was silky and delicious. It was soft, but it held its shape very well.

I very rarely use a double boiler, and I didn't use one here, but if you're nervous about cooking eggs and sugar over direct heat, then by all means use a double boiler. I think that if you whisk more or less constantly (but not all that quickly), and if you have a pan with rounded sides, and if you use moderate-low heat, it's not that hard to avoid curdling. You do need to watch the custard closely and be aware that once it starts to thicken, it will get to the very thick consistency that you want very quickly. If by chance you get some curdling, then just go ahead and run the custard through the blender.

The butter needs to be at a cool room temperature. It should be softened, but not warm.

Raspberry Buttercream

3 eggs
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup raspberry liqueur
1 small jar raspberry preserves
1 pound butter, softened
1 T. rum

Heat the raspberry preserves, either in the microwave or in a small saucepan. Put a sieve or strainer over a bowl and dump the heated preserves into it. Push through with a rubber spatula. Discard the seeds.

Combine the eggs, sugar, and raspberry in a saucepan. Whisk well to combine, then place over moderate-low heat. Continue whisking to dissolve all the sugar. Cook, whisking all the while, until the custard is very thick. Do not boil.

Whisk in the sieved raspberry preserves, and turn the mixture into the bowl of your stand mixer. With the whisk attachment, whisk for five to ten minutes, or until the mixture reaches a warm room temperature. With the mixer running, add the butter a tablespoon at a time, letting each addition incorporate before going on to the next. When all the butter is incorporated, mix in the rum.

If you happen to have a thermometer handy, you'll find that the custard is about 185 degrees when it reaches the thick custard stage, but you really don't need a thermometer.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Spiced Cannibalism

With any luck, this post will be the second in a series of posts about Christmas cookies. Christmas seems to be sneaking up on me a bit this year, largely, I think, because I haven't made any of the Christmas comestibles that need to be done long in advance. I have not, for example, made black cake this year. Neither have I made vin de noix, though I still have plenty of that left from last year, for which I am very fortunate because if you make a list of all the very good things in the world, near the top of that list will be sitting down with a tiny glass of vin de noix and two or three of my very delicate black walnut tea cakes. In point of fact, I have not yet sat down with the tiny glass and the delicate cookies, but just thinking about the possibility of doing so makes me very happy. If I happen to have a very bad day in the next couple of weeks, I may have to go so far as to open the vin de noix bottle and the tea cake tin and smell them both at the same time.

Anyway, the list goes on: I haven't made any lebkuchen, I haven't made any fruitcake, and I haven't made any clementine ratafia. Evidently, I have been possessed by an alien. I must remind myself this weekend to look around the house for the pod.

Fortunately, most of the many, many kinds of Christmas cookies that I like to make don't need to be made long in advance, and I have both a few weeks left before Christmas and a chance to feed a lot of my friends next weekend. I also have four ounces of ground ginger that came in the mail this week from Penzey's, so I'm no longer cooking with old spice.

To be honest, I have never been able to get all that excited about gingerbread men. I mean, we've all seen Soylent Green, right? Rolling cookies and cutting them into shapes is great, and I have no qualms about eating, say, a sugar cookie angel, but, all other things being equal, I'd just as soon my food didn't look like people. (Though I will admit that I scoured the Internet to try to find a cookie cutter to make the shape of hot looking men for next weekend's party. Alas, there are no cookie cutters that are slightly suggestive without being downright pornographic and/or tasteless. Still, if anyone out there can tell me a source for twink cookie cutters, I'd be grateful.)

The dough I made is a bit on the tender side, so if you're going to try it, be prepared to either add another ounce or two of flour or, as I did, to use plenty of flour when you're rolling it out. If you're going to make gingerbread men, I think that the only way to really make it work is to take a hunk of the dough and either roll out a whole sheet and then transfer the sheet of dough to a greased cookie sheet or, better still, to roll a hunk of dough directly on a Silpat. If you take the Silpat route, you will still need flour for the top of the dough, but you won't need to flour the Silpat. When you have your sheet of dough on either your cookie sheet or your Silpat, press down with your cookie cutter, then remove all of the scraps of dough that don't look like part of a gingerbread man. If you used the Silpat, you can then slide the Silpat onto an ungreased cookie sheet.

I could only get about eight gingerbread men to a sheet, and I got bored with it, so I rolled out the rest of the dough and cut it simply with a round, fluted cookie cutter. For either the men or the rounds, the dough should be about 1/8-inch thick, though it can be a bit thicker without hurting anything. I had some orange glaze left over from the cookies I made in the last post, and when the round cookies came out of the oven, I brushed them with the glaze before removing them from the cookie sheet. With either sort of cookie, and with or without glazing, a five-minute rest after the cookies come from the oven allows them to be easily removed from the cookie sheet. Cool them thoroughly on a rack.

My recipe has more ginger than most, but I still think it could use a little more. I ground my own cloves and peppercorns. The latter adds a bit of a delayed kick to the recipe, and I really like their presence. You can adjust the spices as you like. I think that some ground cardamom would also be a welcome addition here, but I didn't think of it until it was too late. The same could easily be said of cocoa powder, though I think that if I continued down that line of thought, I'd soon be adding ground nuts and ground dried fruits, and I'd have lebkuchen.

I typically eschew brown sugar in favor of a combination of white sugar and molasses, but there happened to be a box of dark brown sugar in the pantry. It appears to have been there quite a while. I think that V. put it there in 1994 and vowed not to use it until the Democrats had retaken Congress. I'm not sure how you deal with rock solid brown sugar, but I just got out my chef's knife and chopped and chopped and chopped. Good exercise, I reckon.

Gingerbread Cookies

1/2 pound butter, at room temperature
6 ounces dark brown sugar
1/2 t. salt (1.5 t., if you used unsalted butter)
1 t. baking soda
1/2 t. baking powder
2 T. ground ginger
1 T. ground cinnamon
1 t. whole peppercorns, ground
2 t. whole cloves, ground
2 eggs
1 cup molasses
25 ounces all purpose flour

Cream the butter and sugar together in the bowl of your mixer. Add the other ingredients, in order, letting each get incorporated before moving on to the next. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least half an hour, or up to several days.

Roll out and cut into desired shapes. Bake on lightly greased or Silpat-lined baking sheets in a preheated 350 degree oven until done, about fifteen minutes if you've rolled your dough out 1/8 inch thick.

Remove from the oven, glaze if desired, let sit for five minutes, then remove to a rack to cool completely.

If you want to decorate your gingerbread men to look more like surreal people, then make up some royal icing, split it into parts, add a different color of food coloring to each part, and spread or pipe decorations on the cookies. If you like, you can press currants into the dough before it's baked to make eyes or buttons. (Apparently, gingerbread men never wear pullovers, which is kind of weird since you'd think it would be tough to manipulate all those buttons without fingers.) I just leave mine blank, however, so that it's more like eating the outline figures that you see on road signs. Decorating them just makes it more like eating a real person, and why would you want to do that? It's kind of like giving names to all of the tomatoes in your garden and then having to deal with your kids sobbing "You ate Herbert!" while you're trying to enjoy your BLT.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Practically Perfect Cookies

For nearly a year, I've been wanting to make a version of these cookies. Lindy posted the recipe way back in January, and while many people, including my mother, make these cookies regularly, I never had. But I also read in the comments about making the cookies with black walnuts, so I wanted to wait until I had some black walnuts, and then I got some black walnuts, but I only had two pounds of them, and they hadn't been easy to find or cheap to buy, so I wanted to make the most of them, and then I got busy or something, and a pound of the black walnuts just sat in my freezer in its little vacuum pack doing nothing, and then someone emailed me to ask if I could make a "finger food dessert" for our church's fiftieth anniversary celebration, and I thought that I should just go ahead and make these.

I know: way more information than you needed or wanted, but that's me, isn't it?

Anyway. I changed the recipe a bit. Black walnuts are considerably earthier and more intense than pecans, so I wanted to highlight the nuts, so I increased the quantity slightly. I also think that black walnuts call for a slightly different flavor profile, so I added some orange zest, and I cut down on the cinnamon. (What I really wanted was to omit the cinnamon and add a smaller quantity of cloves, but the ground cloves in my cupboard are very old, so I would have had to add more than I wanted, and I wouldn't have been able to give an accurate recipe. Because I figured I only needed about a quarter teaspoon of ground cloves, I didn't think that grinding was a good option: my spice grinder needs at least a few tablespoons to work properly. Perhaps when I'm making gingerbread, I'll grind a greater quantity of cloves and reserve a bit for another batch.) I am, truth be told, not really a big fan of powdered sugar, partly because of the cornstarch in it, but mostly because it tends to fly off the cookie and into my sinuses, where it was not invited. So I made the dough with granulated sugar, which I first processed so that it would more closely resemble super-fine sugar. To coat the cookies, I decided to try to make an orange glaze. The glaze itself was very good, but I probably didn't put enough powdered sugar in it, and the cookies were still slightly sticky, even when they'd fully cooled. So I took the glazed cookies and tossed them in a bit of powdered sugar. Alas.

Black Walnut Tea Cakes

1/3 cup granulated sugar
Grated zest of one orange
4 ounces black walnuts
2 sticks butter, room temperature
1/4 t. cinnamon
1 t. vanilla extract
10 ounces all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt (only if you used unsalted butter)

2/3 c. fresh squeezed orange juice
1 T. orange liqueur
2 c. powdered sugar

Put the sugar in the bowl of your food processor and process for about thirty seconds. Add the orange zest and black walnuts, and pulse the processor until the walnuts are finely ground.

In the bowl of your stand mixer, cream the butter until fluffy. With the mixer running slowly, add -- one at a time -- the sugar-and-walnut mixture, the cinnamon, the vanilla, the flour, and the salt. When well combined, move to a smaller bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and either refrigerate for several hours or put in the freezer for twenty minutes.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees and line two baking sheets with Silpats or parchment. Form the dough into balls about an inch across and place on the lined baking sheets, about two inches apart.

In a small, deep bowl, mix the orange juice and orange liqueur, then whisk in the powdered sugar until there are no lumps. The glaze should still be liquid.

Bake the cookies (you should only bake one sheet at a time) for about nine minutes, or until they smell really good but are not yet browning. Remove from the oven and let sit for two or three minutes. Dip the cookies in the glaze and set them on a rack to drain or dry. When cool, toss lightly in powdered sugar.

I got sixty-eight small cookies out of this batch. I formed the cookies with a small cookie scoop. I think that if I had been more diligent about getting the dough off the mixer paddle and the mixer bowl, I might have gotten one more cookie. I reckon that the thought of that missing cookie will haunt me for some time to come.

Glazing the cookies is really a lot of fun, but it's also a bit nerve wracking. When you first start with the still-hot cookies, they feel like they're going to come apart on you, so you'll have to work carefully. If this sort of thing makes you nervous, then wait five minutes after they come out of the oven to be safe. When you drop a cookie (or two cookies: I did two at a time) into the bowl of glaze, it will float on the top of the liquid. Take a fork, slip it under one edge of the cookie, and give the cookie a little flip. Then give it a second flip so that it ends up back like it was when you first put it in the bowl (except that it'll now be coated with glaze), then use the fork to transfer the cookie to the cooling/draining rack. You will want to have put waxed paper under the rack. It may be possible to leave more of the excess glaze in the bowl than I did, but I don't think you can avoid letting a lot fall off. Unless, perhaps, you make the glaze even thicker, which might be a good idea. I also considered beating up an egg white or two with more powdered sugar and then adding the glaze to get a sort of royal icing, but by that time, I was tired of experimenting, and I didn't think that I'd be able to coat all sides of the cookie with the royal icing.

I may have to look around for another sort of icing that starts liquid and dries hard rather than sticky, and I may have to try the recipe with the zest of a second orange (the amount of juice in the glaze came from two oranges, so I could do that easily enough), and I may have to replace the cinnamon with cloves.

But while I might be short of actual perfection with the batch I made, I'm not far away. These are some seriously delicious cookies. (There is really no reconciling this cookie with Weight Watchers, but I really couldn't report to you without sampling, so I had to have one. Okay, I had to have six, but with this cookie, eating six shows amazing restraint.) The black walnuts, the orange, and the glaze make for powerful deliciousness. I do think that the black walnut variety is even better than the pecan variety, but black walnut scarcity being what it is, if you can't find any, you should go ahead and use pecans and Lindy's recipe. They're seriously delicious that way, too.

Still, I have twelve ounces of black walnuts left (and you don't!). I am entirely cognizant of how fortunate I am that whoever sold me the black walnuts vacuum packed them and that they developed not so much as a hint of rancidity during their sojourn in the freezer. I do not, however, wish to tempt fate, so I think that I'll probably be making three more batches of these cookies to give away.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


There are plenty of annoyances (some of which have been mentioned by readers in comments to earlier posts) associated with joining Weight Watchers, but if you can get past the cloud of estrogen at every meeting and the truly bizarre recipes (and you don't know how close I was to using the dreaded scare quotes around that last word: I deserve great credit for my forbearance) and the icky pre-packaged foods and instead focus on the healthier eating approach and the unlimited allotment of vegetables, you can derive some benefits (in addition to the obvious benefit of losing weight and having the, er, opportunity to replace your wardrobe).

For example, consumption of the usual complex carbohydrates (pasta, potatoes, rice) is eliminated or severely limited, but (on my plan at least) I can eat lentils, beans, and corn to my heart's content. I'm also allowed as much barley as I like.

At first blush, it doesn't make a lot of sense that I can have barley but not rice: the caloric values for uncooked rice and uncooked barley are very similar. On the other hand, a cup of barley has a great deal more fiber than a cup of rice, and, more importantly, a cup of rice will absorb about two cups of liquid while a cup of barley will take four, so you end up with about twice as much.

When I was planning my Thanksgiving dinner, I was staring at some barley and thinking that maybe it could be used for something like a risotto, so I put some oil in a saucepan and sweated some onions and heated up some stock in the microwave and cooked my barley in the oil and added the stock a half-cup or so at a time and put in a big pinch of saffron, and I ended up with something that was very good. But then I tried it again with bouillon instead of stock and turmeric instead of saffron and by adding the simmering bouillon all at once instead of bit by bit, and I ended up with something very good. More to the point, the texture of the barley really wasn't any better when I took lots of time and did lots of stirring so that while I started out feeling very virtuous for having followed my diet and having done all that stirring, I came to realize that half of my virtue had been wasted. Which, I reckon, is about par for the course, in all aspects of life.

Anyway, I've grown very attached to barley, and most weekends will find me making both a batch of curried lentils and a batch of barley risotto. I package them in one-cup containers and bring one of each for lunch, along with a cup of nonfat yogurt.

I cannot emphasize enough just how cheap that is. Even if I'm using a store-bought box of chicken stock for the barley and a can of coconut milk (I have, by the way, tried the light coconut milk with the curried lentils and found it sadly lacking: much better to use a third as much of the regular variety), and even if I can't find the yogurt on sale (and I almost always can), and even if I use nice mushrooms (I get portobellos from Costco and dice them and keep them in a container in the frig) I don't think that lunch is costing me much more than a buck. Along those lines, I will mention that if you see a box of barley in the aisle that has most of the dried beans, you might also find a bag of barley in the international foods aisle, and the bag of barley might run you about a third of what the box does. It seems a bit silly to care about spending $0.55 instead of $1.59 for a pound, but the box is also likely to be pearled barley, and I prefer the un-pearled sort. It does take longer to cook, but your barley will still be just right in under an hour.

Barley Risotto

Olive oil, 1 tablespoon
Onion, 1 medium-small, diced
Garlic, 1 clove, minced
Portobello mushrooms, 1 cup, diced
Barley, 1 cup
Chicken stock, broth, or bouillon, 4 cups
Saffron, 1 large pinch OR
Turmeric, 1 teaspoon
Salt and pepper, to taste

Bring the chicken stock, etc. to a bare simmer either on the stove or in the microwave.

Put a saucepan over medium heat and add the olive oil. Add the onion, stir, and cover. Cook for three or four minutes, until softened but not browned. Add the garlic, stir, and cook for a minute. Add the mushrooms, stir, and cover the pot until they have given up their juices. Remove cover and cook until the juices have nearly evaporated. Add the barley and saffron or turmeric, and cook, stirring constantly, for a minute. Add the stock, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover, and cook until tender, about forty to fifty minutes, stirring occasionally. Correct seasoning.

Those of you who are not watching your weight can see where I have made adjustments because I'm watching mine. If you want to use more oil and saute rather than steam your mushrooms, please feel free. I don't think I'd like the end result any better if I did those things, though.

You do want to be careful not to overcook your barley, but I generally find that when it's absorbed almost all the liquid, it's cooked just right. There is a little bit of liquid left over, which makes the end result somewhat creamier, like a real risotto. The creaminess is enhanced by a period of resting and survives reheating.

You can easily omit the mushrooms or replace them with just about anything you like. For example, last week, I used some of my staple puttanesca-esque tomato sauce to bake some mahi fillets in, and I used the leftover liquid from the baking pan to flavor the barley. Delicious.

If I'm making my own breakfast on a morning when I have more than five minutes, I like to take a non-stick skillet, put a cup or so of the cooked barley in it, heat it to bubbling, and add a whole egg on top. Then I cover it and cook until the egg is as done as I want it to be. It's one of my favorite breakfasts.