Saturday, December 19, 2009

Baking up a Blizzard

I was snowed in today. All day. I baked. I drank. I played in the snow. It was a good day.

I've been waiting all week to try the Lemon Poppy Seed Sandwich Cookies from The Washington Post feature on cookies. They're rollout cookies, so I knew they would take some time. Then we were hit with a blizzard. Excellent. Time for baking!

Oy! These cookies were a lot of work. What rollout cookies aren't? However, there are rollout cookies that are worth the work and then there are these cookies. The dough was so unforgiving, breaking up into crumbly bits, as if on command, after the first re-roll. Damn. Frankly, I am not even going to put the recipe up here. Feel free to investigate the link.

The cranberry jam, on the other hand, was fabulous. I only wished I had a brunch to go to this morning to share this jam with others. Tart, but sweet and just how I like it. I had hoped the jam would be able to save these cookies, which it did, to an extent. If it weren't for the jam, I probably would have thrown the cookies out. They weren't bad, but they were a little floury and flavorless for all the effort (and butter) I put in.

So after hours of boiling, pureeing, rolling and baking, I finally looked up to see over a foot of snow on the ground outside. Holy blizzard, Batman! Having lived in DC for almost 5 years, I didn't realize how much I missed a healthy snowfall. After staring dejectedly at my cookies for half an hour, I tugged on my duck boots, tossed a scarf around my neck, pulled a hat on my head and struck out into the wintery wonderfulness.

Okay, I may have been that girl walking up and down my neighborhood, occasionally singing, but mostly humming Bing Crosby tunes to myself as I jumped and tromped into snow drifts, chasing that satisfying crunch of loosely packed snow. It was grand.

And then it hit me, why not make some mulled wine to warm up after my snow adventure - which is exactly what I did. This is my blizzard mulled wine, which consists of whatever wine, fruit and spices I had on hand.

Blizzard Mulled Wine

2 750-ml bottles of Charles Shaw Merlot
1 lemon, sliced
1/2 cup fresh cranberries
2 cinnamon sticks
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
3 generous tablespoons of sugar

Combine all ingredients in a large pot or slow cooker. Cover and simmer on low for at least an hour, but be careful not to let it boil. Ladle into mugs, snuggle up with someone special and sip contentedly.

Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Pistachio Cookies

Nothing gets me in the Christmas spirit like Christmas movies. Now, I am not talking about cheeserific junk like Prancer or The Santa Clause. I hate the cheapness of those movies. I mean, really, there is no challenge. Is it really that hard to be in the Christmas spirit when you find a new pet reindeer? Or your Dad suddenly becomes Santa Claus? I like the Christmas movies that make their characters work for it, like Die Hard, Scrooged, and even more traditional picks like It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street. Life is decidedly not wonderful in It's a Wonderful Life; it begins with a guy wanting to commit suicide. And Miracle actually has Santa committed. Do you know what state-run, mental hospitals were like in the 40s? That's dark. Not to mention that no-bullshit little girl, who tells Santa to his face, that she doesn't believe in him. Those are some big, dramatic obstacles. And then there are the terrorists.

What I am trying to say is that Christmas spirit shouldn't be handed to you on a serving dish. You have to go through some tough times to realize just how nice you've got it. Which brings me to my next cookie recipe. Having watched "Die Hard" while I was baking my German Chocolate Cookies, (fitting, no?), I thought Scrooged, which is all about realizing the wonderfulness around you, would be the perfect picture to watch while I baked Pistachio Cookies. Why? Maybe because Frank Cross is like a pistachio, with a touch exterior and a sweet and salty sensitive side. Or maybe I just like watching Carol Kane hit Bill Murray in the face with a toaster.

Pistachio Cookies
(from The Washington Post cookie special)

3/4 cup (4 ounces) shelled, roasted, unsalted pistachios (plus about 50 for garnish)
2 tablespoons, plus 1 cup sugar
1 2/3 cups almond flour
2 large eggs

Yields about 30 cookies

Combine 3/4 cup pistachios and 2 tablespoons of sugar in a processor; pulse until finely chopped. Transfer to a bowl and mix in remaining cup of sugar and flour, using an electronic mixer. Beat on low speed to combine, then increase speed to medium and add eggs, one at a time. Cover and refrigerate dough for at least 8 hours. (It looks a little bit like baby food, but it tastes wonderful).

Position racks in upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 325 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

Scoop out spoonfuls of dough and roll between your hands to form 1-inch balls. (More on this step later). Use a little bit of water to moisten your hands, if they start to get sticky. Place cookies on sheets about 1 inch apart. Press a pistachio on top of each ball, flattening the dough slightly. Bake on the upper and lower racks for 7 or 8 minutes, then rotate the sheets back to front and top to bottom. Bake for 7 or 8 minutes until cookies have spread slightly and the edges are a light brown. Cool for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire rack. Done!

I have one editorial note to make about the original recipe. I have absolutely no concept of size when it comes to anything smaller than a foot. I actually keep a desk tape measure in my kitchen utility drawer, not to actually measure things, but to give myself a mental image of what whatever measurement I am supposed to be using. Therefore, my cookies were a probably bigger than 3/4 of an inch called for in the original recipe. Hence, my only getting about 30 cookies out of this recipe.

All in all, these cookies were a great success. Don't be put off by their crunchy appearance; they are light and the perfect amount of chewiness. And they were SO easy. I made the dough in about 10 minutes on Wednesday night, and woke up early to bake them on Thursday morning. I was a little bummed that I didn't get more cookies out of the recipe, because I hoped to bring them to the work holiday party. However, Mom always taught me, if you don't have enough to share with everyone, don't bring anything at all. Boyfriend was delighted. Several times that morning, I caught him scurrying out of the kitchen with a couple freshly baked cookies tucked behind his cup of coffee.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

German Chocolate Cookies

What gives?

I'm just not feeling the holiday vibe this year. I feel like something is missing. I am not talking about the cheesetastic store displays or the crazies at the mall (they are still there and they still don't know how to drive in parking lots). I'm taking about all those little things, like obnoxious holiday movie marathons, outrageous home decorations, shopping list freaks-outs and, of course, cookies!

What I didn't realize about all these little things, was how much they function as an early warning system that, yes, in fact, the holidays are coming, and, no, you can't scratch that frenemy off your holiday party invite list. Junk.

Panic was setting in on Saturday, until I somehow rationalized that the holiday season couldn't start until I had a tree, a cute three- or four-footer with lights and ornaments and that great tree smell! Sadly, after Boyfriend and I spent two hours driving from store to store looking for one, it started to sink in that a real tree just wasn't going to happen for me this year. Blerg. (The little fake one from a few years ago held up pretty well, even if I put a few too many ornaments on there). So, if I can't fill my apartment with the warm, comforting smells of a real Christmas tree, I can certainly brew up some bountiful baking aromas. Thanks, Washington Post! Project Christmas Cookie: Launch!
Whoa-dee! These cookies were good. Seriously. I rarely get excited about a cookie recipe. Frankly, I rarely get excited about cookies, period. Cookies really have to be something special to get my attention and these were really interesting. My usual Ambrosia Macaroons may have a rival as my go-to cookie. Unsurprisingly, coconut is still involved. I might make them bigger next time; these little devils were addictive.

(Okay, they may not look like much, but that pack a lot of flavor!)

German Chocolate Cookies 
(from Sally Sampson's "Cookies")
12 tbsp (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup light brown sugar
1 large egg, room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 cup flour
1/2 unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups sweetened coconut flakes
1 cup peans, lightly toasted, then coarsely chopped
4 ounces Baker's German chocolate


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

Cream butter and sugar with electronic mixer. Beat on low speed, then increase to medium speed until the cream and sugar are smooth, scarping down the sides of the bowl as needed.

To toast pecans, spread them on a baking sheet and place in a 325-degree oven, shaking the sheet occasionally, for 15 minutes. Watch carefully; nuts burn quickly.

Add the egg and the vanilla extract to the butter and sugar mixture, beating between additions. Add the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt; beat until everything is well incorporated. Add the coconut, pecans and chocolate, mixing until well combined.

Drop the dough by heaping teaspoons onto the baking sheets, spacing cookies about 2 inches apart. DO AHEAD: the dough can be made and frozen for up to 2 months. Bake one sheet at a time for 10 to 12 minutes, until the undersides of the cookies begin to firm up. The tops may still look shiny. Let cool on the baking sheet for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack and cool completely.

(Note: The only thing I changed was that I only used a teaspoon of vanilla extract, rather than a full tablespoon called for in the original recipe. A tablespoon seemed like a lot).

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Pear and Cranberry Pie

I did it! I made a pie. I. Made. A. Pie. It wasn't pretty, but it sure was tasty. Okay, so there is a definite Frankenstein-esque look to it, but I've never made a pie before.

Stop number one on my trip to pie-discovery: L'Academie de Cuisine for a course on (obvi) pies and tarts. Man, did our instructor make it look so easy. One, two, three: pie crust. Riiiiight. No one in the class was really buying that it could be that easy either. Throughout the class, we shared stories about personal rolling pin showdowns and pie crust disasters. (Ahem.) Once upon a time, Mom might have been known to grumble, yell and even swear at pie crusts. Such behavior may or may not have caused Dad to hide in the upstairs den, pretty much as far away from the sounds of the kitchen as possible. But don't quote me on that. My instructor also told a story of a woman in one of her classes who ran crying from the kitchen in the middle of class. So don't be discouraged (or run away); commit to the pie crust, as ugly as it may be. As Mom always said, after the alleged swearing and rolling pin slamming, "Well, it doesn't matter how it looks, does it? It will taste good, right?" Absolutely, right.

Crust for a Two-Crust Pie
(from Chef Christine Ilich, c/o L'Academie de Cuisine)
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp salt
2 tablespoons sugar
2 sticks of unsalted butter, cold but pliable
1 egg yolk
1/4 cup cold water

In a large bowl, mix together flour, salt and sugar. Using your hands, mix in butter until the mixture resembles a course meal. Mix egg with water and add about a tablespoon at a time, mixing after each addition, until dough is just moist enough to hold together. Shape dough into two discs, wrap in plastic and chill 30 minutes.

It goes without saying that I enjoy these classes. There is a level of know-how that each chef brings to the class that helps me learn just what all this cooking business is about, such as the relative benefits of butter or shortening when making a pie crust or the affect of adding some egg to your dough. These kinds of explanations are the difference between knowing how to make a lot of recipes and knowing how to cook.

And I get to eat pie for lunch:

(From left to right) Sweet Potato Pie with Bourbon Cream, Maple Walnut Pie, Pear and Frangipane Tart and Apple and Cranberry Crumb Pie. And yeah, the pictures are fuzzy because taking pictures with my Blackberry kinda sucks.

Stop number two: my farmers' market for some sweet, juicy pears. I was so excited to make my first pie, I headed out into the rare D.C. snowfall last Saturday to visit my farmers' market in search of fresh pears. What a wise decision. These pears were the perfect ripeness. After tossing my crust discs in the fridge for a good chill, I sat down with my pears and the new "Star Trek" movie for some peeling, coring, slicing and avenging Romulans.

Pear and Cranberry Pie
(recipe from Good Housekeeping Step by Step Cookbook)
3 tablespoon cornstarch
1/8 tsp cinnamon
3/4 cup plus 1 tbsp sugar
1 1/2 cup cranberries
6 large ripe pears (about 3 pounds), peeled, cored and sliced
2 tbsp butter

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. In a large bowl mix cornstarch, cinnamon and 3/4 cup sugar. Add cranberries and pears; toss to combine. On a lightly floured surface, using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll out one of the discs of dough. Try to roll out your dough to be a few inches wider than your pie plate. You can always do a little patching later. making sure that the dough is lightly floured so that is doesn't stick, gently roll dough around your rolling pin and transfer to pie plate. Using a butter knife, trim the excess dough from around the pie plate. Keep the scraps to patch any holes in the bottom or top crusts. Spoon pear mixture into pie crust. Place dabs of butter over mixture. Roll out second disc, and place over filling. Cut a couple of slits in the top crust to allow steam to escape. Sprinkle pie with 1 tablespoon sugar.

Place sheet of foil underneath pie plate, folding up edges of the foil to form a rim. The foil will catch any sticky drips. Bake 20 minutes. Turn oven temperature to 375 degrees. Open the oven a crack for a minute or so, (don't walk away!) to allow the oven temperature to reach 375 degrees, close oven and bake 60 to 70 minutes longer, until filling is bubbly in center. Cool pie on wire rack for 1 hour. Serve warm.

Stop number three: my belly!

Pasta with Ratatouille

Shocking. Shocking is the only word I can think of to describe my food habits over the last few weeks. After all the roasting, baking and eating of Thanksgiving, I lost all foodie focus. Out of sheer laziness, I have made meals out of a bag of Pirate's Booty, Easy Mac (because regular mac and cheese seemed too much to handle), and the better part of a jar of kosher dills with a side of turkey pepperoni. Not to mention the fact that I recently had leftover roast beef with horseradish cream sauce - for breakfast. I feel like I have been on a food bender. Disgraceful.

This week, I was back on the wagon, ready to purge myself bad, post-holiday habits with a hearty helping of Pasta with Ratatouille.

Look at those bright, friendly colors!

I may not have been creating good foods after the holiday, but I was exercising my inner foodie outside of the kitchen. I had been visiting a lot of bookstores, perusing new, old and used books, when I decided to pick up a copy Ellen Helman's The Uncommon Gourmet. Mom has been cooking from this book for years. Ellen Helman provides a varied collection of simple recipes which are suitable for everyday, but often elegant enough for company. I'll be cooking from this book again soon. And so should you.

Pasta with Ratatouille 
(Adapted from The Uncommon Gourmet)
1 medium eggplant, peeled and chopped into 1/2" cubes
2 medium zucchini sliced into 1/2" rounds and cut in half
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 large red pepper, sliced
1 large green pepper, sliced
1 large red onion, halved and sliced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1 tsp dried basil
1/4 - 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper
salt and pepper to taste
28-oz. can diced tomatoes, drained
3/4 cup black olives, sliced
1 tablespoon capers
1 pound gemellli (or other textured pasta which will hold a liquidy sauce)
Makes 6 servings. Place eggplant and zucchini in a colander and sprinkle generously with salt. Let stand for about 30 minutes; rinse and pat dry. Warm 1-2 tablespoons olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Saute eggplant and zucchini until lightly browned. Remove vegetables from pot and set aside.

Add another 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil to pan. Add peppers and onions; saute until soft. Add garlic, parsley, basil, crushed red pepper, salt and pepper to taste. Add at least 2/3 of can of tomatoes or more if you like. (I started by adding 2/3 of the can, which looked right, but I like tomatoes, so I tossed the whole can in there). Simmer for about 5 minutes. Return eggplant and zucchini and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, cook and drain pasta according to directions on box.

Add olives and capers to the vegetable pot and simmer another 5 minutes, uncovered. Toss veggies with pasta in a large bowl and serve with freshly grated parmesan cheese. Makes great leftovers for the lunch box.

Boyfriend liked this dish so much, he said, "I don't even mind that there isn't any meat in it." So there you go.