Nosh: Croatian Breskvice — Jammy Peach Cookies

HOLY PEACH MOTHER OF ALL COOKIE GOODNESS!

You know when you read about some recipe in a magazine and think, oh my word, what an interesting thing! And then for the life of you, you can’t remember what the name was of the thing you read, until–just a few days later, and by a few I mean maybe two–your professional baker friend posts a picture of her very own version of the thing you were just reading about? And out of the goodness of her heart sends you her very own recipe?

So. All that happened.

I forget where I first read about breskvice (BRESK-vee-tsye), the traditional Croatian cookie that looks like a boozy ersatz peach, but I was immediately smitten by the idea. Puffy, pretty, at first glance they totally resemble peaches (especially when they’re really glammed up with a clove “stem” and mint leaf…uh…”leaf”) but then when you bite into them…they still taste like peaches! Schnappsy peaches. With rum. Which is, basically, winning all around. The recipe I used was provided to me (with permission given to blog) by the equally insanely lovely and talented Diane of Cake Diane Custom Cake Studio near Dallas, and Texas people, what are you waiting for? Go make this woman a cake star.

Breskvice–not gonna lie–are kind of time consuming. Even more time-consuming: they may need to sit and dry for a day or two, so make them ahead of time. They’re occasion desserts, served at events like weddings and birthdays and holidays, where you want to let the recipients know they’re worth the effort. And you know? They really are worth the effort. Here’s the full recipe in .pdf format (which you’ll need the Adobe Acrobat reader to see, and if you don’t have this on your computer by now go here for the free download, and seriously? Welcome to the year 1996). First we’ll talk about how to make the cookies. You’ll need:

  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 2 tsp peach liqueur
  • 6 cups all-purpose flour
  • 4 tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp salt

Preheat your oven to 350°, and line at least two (I used three) baking sheets with baker’s parchment or a silicone baking mat. Bust out your handy-dandy stand mixer (or a hand mixer, but once you add the flour prepare for an upper-body workout) and put eggs and sugar into the mixing bowl. Beat at a reasonably medium-working-it speed for about three minutes; your objective is to incorporate air into the eggs to build a fluffy, puffy cookie. Once the eggs and sugar look airy and have turned pale yellow, stream the vegetable oil in to incorporate, then mix that all together until it’s creamy.

Did my old-skool Sunbeam stand mixer. I'm going to petition the internets for a Kitchen-Aid.

Dig my old-skool Sunbeam stand mixer. I’m going to petition the internets for a shiny new Kitchen-Aid.

While the eggs are aerating and mixing and creaming with the oil, combine flour, salt and baking powder in another bowl. Yes, six cups of flour. Yes, it’s a lot of cookie. But you know…go big or go home. You don’t have to sift the flour but you should whisk your dry ingredients together so they’re well combined. Keep them off to the side for a minute.  Add milk, schnapps and vanilla to the eggs and give that a minute to combine. Then add your dry ingredient mix.

REMEMBER! If you keep your stand mixer running while you add the flour, drop the speed, and only add a little bit of flour at a time. Otherwise physics will go to work and the momentum will throw the flour back out of the bowl and all over you and your countertops. Incorporate the flour using your mixer for as long as feasibly possible, but at some point you’ll probably have to finish the mix by hand. My tell-tale signs that I need to make the mix-switch are when the mixer’s blades begin pushing the dough to the top of the bowl and adding more would create dough spillage, and also when I smell the motor of my mixer start to burn (seriously, I need a new stand mixer). When you’re finished, you will find yourself holding a bowl of the stickiest, thickest dough you’ve ever faced in your life.

Glob glob glob.

It’s like quicksand. Only yummier.

The recipe advises you to lightly coat your hands in oil before rolling these into balls and putting them on your parchment-lined baking sheets. That will work if you don’t mind having your hands covered in sticky oil. It didn’t work for me. I quickly realized I needed another plan; I took two spoons and rolled the dough between them like they’re quenelles. Here’s George hand-modeling it for you.

Bonus: discussed with and approved by Cake Diane herself!

Bonus: discussed with and approved by Cake Diane herself!

The tops of the cookies are uneven, but that’s OK. Just take a small spatula or knife, dip that in some oil, and smooth out the tops of the cookies.

It's like magic or something.

It’s like magic or something.

And then? Bake! They should take 15-20 (ish) minutes total, so check them after 8 minutes or so and rotate the pans. They should be nice and puffy on top, and lightly golden on the bottom.

Yep. That's it.

Yep. That’s it.

Set aside to cool.

While the cookies are cooling, you can start to assemble the filling. For that you’ll need:

  • 1-1/2 cups ground (not chopped) walnuts
  • 2 tsp cocoa
  • 2 tsp dark rum
  • 2 tsp peach liqueur
  • 12-oz jar peach or apricot jam*
  • 1-2 tablespoons milk
  • reserved cookie crumbs

Grind walnuts in a food processor until they’re small crumbly walnut bits, but don’t grind them into a fine meal. You still want some nubbly texture from them. Set aside.

Combine cocoa, dark rum, peach schnapps, and jam. *Here is where I deviate wildly from the printed recipe. The first time I made this I followed the recipe to a T and thought the filling was a bit too soupy, plus I had a ton of it left over that I had no use for. The second time I made them, I used a 12-oz jar of jam (as noted above), and pulled ½ cup of the jam to use as “glue” between the cookies, after it was mixed with the liquors and cocoa. The resulting final filling held together more to my liking and was exactly as much as I needed. Play around with the recipe, see what you like best. It’s your kitchen!

Anyway. Back to it.

Dig out a peach-pit sized hole in the bottom of your cookie, being careful not to poke through the outside. Reserve the crumbs.

Let us sing the praises of a good paring knife. Aaaaa-meeeennnnn!

Let us sing the praises of a good paring knife. Aaaaa-meeeennnnn!

Reserve ½ cup jam mixture, if you’re doing this my way, and fold in walnuts and cookie middles. If you’re following the printed recipe, take the entire jam mixture and fold in walnuts and cookie middles. You’ll end up with a setup that looks a little like this:

It's like the happiest assembly line, ever.

It’s like the happiest assembly line, ever.

Fill all the cookie middles, then coat one half of your cookie sandwich with jam-glue.

Yes, just like this.

Yes, just like this.

And then sandwich the halves together. Do this again and again until you have row after row of jam-filled sandwich sugar cookies. And when you think it can’t possibly get any better?

Hold on.

Take two utility bowls and add some peach schnapps to each of them (I’d start with ½ cup in each bowl, and work from there).  Add a few drops of red food coloring to one bowl, and a few drops of yellow to the other. In a third bowl (one large enough to roll the sandwich cookies in), add a pile of super-fine (a/k/a caster) sugar. Have a large roll of paper towels nearby. Take a cookie and dip it in the yellow dye, blot with paper towels to dry. Then dip the other sort of side/third/ish in the red dye, and blot again.

Time to play!

Time to play! Sooo, maybe your fingers get a little dye-ish. Wear gloves if that worries you.

You’re supposed to be imitating the look of a peach, so be creative and allow for color gradations and the nice round red butt of a ripe peach. Once they’re blotted dry, roll them in caster sugar to create “peach fuzz” and place them on your cooling rack to dry.

The trickiest part to this recipe is not letting them get too soggy in the coloring process, but the good news is, they’ll dry. And BONUS: they even taste better after sitting for a few days, so if you do get the soggies, put them on a cooling rack, loosely covered with wax paper, in your fridge. In a day or two all will be well, and you’ll have this:

HOLY MOTHER OF ALL PEACH GOODNESS!

HOLY PEACH MOTHER OF ALL COOKIE GOODNESS!

You can go all out and put in a clove “stem” and mint leaf “leaf”, but you’re not eating them so…why bother?  And yes, once they’re completely dry and ready to eat, you can also freeze any leftovers you might have. I know, I’ve tried it. Wrap each one in plastic and then store them in a plastic bag for extra protection, in the freezer. Just give them a couple of hours to thaw once you take them out.

When you cut the cookie in half, the walnut filling will look sort of like a peach pit. They’re unbearably cute and delicious. While they are outstanding all on their own, I have found that the best way to enjoy them is with friends, after dinner, over a robust and hearty conversation and a nicely chilled bottle of sparkling dry rosé.

This was a very good night.

This was a very good night.

Enjoy!  Happy eating!

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Nosh: Black Forest Cookies

No holiday cookie tray is complete without something chewy and fruity.  I think that’s how fruitcake has managed to hold on for as long as it has, despite the fact that it’s inherently creepy.  (Note to home fruitcake makers: I’ve never had a fruitcake that isn’t commercial, and gross.  I’m willing to give homemade cakes the benefit of the doubt.  And I digress.)

Thank you, but… No.
Image from jbinghamoc.wordpress.com

Never fear, good people!  I have the solution!  Plus, you get to mainline chocolate in the process and when is that ever bad?  Right.  Never.  Presenting: the Black Forest Cookie.

A take on the traditional black forest cake, the nominal cookie is made from dense, rich chocolate and is loaded with…what should ideally be entirely cherries, but you know…we’ll get to that in a minute.  This drop cookie is uncomplicated and comes together fairly quickly, so it’s going to find itself in my reserve of go-to recipes.  I got this recipe from one of those mini-cookbooks you can impulse-buy at the cash register of your local supermarket (because I impulse-bought one).  It’s a Martha Stewart recipe, which pains me because I have no love for her, and yes, I realize she’s crying over that all the way to the bank.  But more importantly (for our purposes), it’s readily available online.  Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 8 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup packed dark-brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 package (about 12 ounces) semisweet chocolate chunks
  • 1 1/2 cups dried cherries

Get the butter and chocolate going in a double-boiler.  If you don’t have a dedicated double-boiler, then do what I do and put a mixing bowl over a pot of boiling water.  There is one caveat: don’t let the bowl touch the water, because then you might scorch the chocolate, and who wants that?  You don’t need much water in the pot to get the job done, maybe just an inch or two.  And don’t bother chopping the chocolate (which, for some reason, I haaaaaaate to do); just break it into chunks and let heat do the work for you.

Behold the awesome power of buttery chocolate goodness!

Behold the awesome power of buttery chocolate goodness!

I promise you, if you keep it over the steam heat rising from the water in the lower pot, the butter and chocolate will melt.

While this morphs into a beautiful mass of buttery chocolate, measure out your dry ingredients and keep them handy, because you’re going to be mixing them all at the same time.

Measured and a'waitin'.

Measured and a’waitin’.

BUT FIRST!

When the chocolate is entirely melted, take your melting vessel (mixing bowl, top pot of the double boiler) off the heat and whisk in the eggs, one at a time.  Give yourself a minute between removing the chocolate from the heat and adding the eggs.  The chocolate mixture will cool slightly and you’ll run less of a risk of ending up with chocolate-covered scrambled eggs (which can happen if the chocolate is too hot when you add in the eggs.  See: don’t scorch the chocolate).  And, as always, add the eggs one at a time by cracking them into a separate cup first so you can retrieve any rogue bits of shell that end up in your egg.

Just a tiny bit of patience pays off in this step. Big time.

Just a tiny bit of patience pays off in this step. Big time.

Whisk that together, then dump in all your dry ingredients and give that a mix.  Don’t overmix, just incorporate.  You’ve got more mixing to come and you don’t want to toughen up your cookies from overmixage.

The next step is to add the bag of chocolate chips (yes, a whole bag, no real measuring required) and the cherries.

Ahhh…the cherries.

So I went into this recipe thinking, I have a giant bag of dried cherries (local peeps: that I got at the Natural Food and Garden Store), no need to check how much I have.  Conveniently forgetting, of course, the handful I would snack on with each trip into the pantry.  I pulled out the bag of dried cherries and…

Rut ro.

Nowhere near enough.  I had a moment of panic and then I thought…you know…here’s a golden opportunity to use those spare ends of bags of fruit I’ve had hanging around, and turn this into sort of a kitchen-sink cookie.  So.  In went the cherries, and some currants, and Craisins, and then raisins to top it off, until I reached my 1 1/2 cup mark.

Batter has become secondary. The chunky bits are all that matter.

Batter has become secondary. The chunky bits are all that matter.

Fold this all together with your trusty rubber spatula until it becomes a glorious riot of nuggety goodness and smooth, rich batter.

It's so hard to not just eat it like this.

It’s so hard to not just eat it like this.

Then cover this with plastic wrap and put the whole thing in your fridge for at least 30 minutes.  This is where you could park it for a while (up to overnight) if you don’t have the time to finish them.  Or, you could preheat your oven to 350° and line your cookie sheets with baker’s parchment and, after half an hour, take it from the fridge and get to spoonin’.  The dough becomes a pretty solid mass as you leave it in your refrigerator to set up, so it can be hard to scoop to the proper size, especially if you have not-necessarily-the-strongest measuring spoons.  Like mine.  So.  Use a heavy spoon to dig the first two tablespoons of dough’s worth of cookie out and measure that into a measuring spoon.

Use the resources available to you.

Use the resources available to you.

Then? Use that as a scale model to measure out the rest of your cookies.  It goes much more easily that way, instead of fighting with measuring spoons that would bend and/or break (I mean, look at them, they’re so thin).  Before you know it you’ll have…

Mmmmm...

Mmmmm…

…row after row of dropped chocolate cookies.  Put these beautiful tastebombs in your hot oven and bake for 11-13 minutes, until the edges look nice and firm.  Rotate them once halfway through bake time if you think it’s needed, then remove them from the oven and let them cool on the trays for five minutes, and then on racks until they’re thoroughly cool.  Bonus, holiday bakers: these cookies freeze well, so you can make them early and stick ‘em in the freezer until you’re ready to load them on gift trays.

Side note: is it possible to experience an independently generated smell memory?  Because there’s nothing baking in my house and I swear I can smell their chocolatey goodness right now.  Anyway.

Once they’re cool and ready to eat…don’t forget to have them with some milk.

Yay!

Yay!

Two things…  1) This cookie is little more than a hand-held chocolate delivery system with occasional pockets of fruit, and that’s not a bad thing.  EVER.  And 2) I enjoyed this cookies-and-milk photo op way more than I probably should have.  (No, I think we need another shot…TAKE TEN!)  (I’m only partially joking.)

Enjoy!  And happy baking.

Nosh: Tangerine Butter Cookies

It’s baking season! It’s baking season! I mean, yeah, the holidays are coming and Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and it’s late this year so Christmas is hot on its heels. But whatever.  It’s baking season! It’s baking season!

I don’t know why I don’t bake more often.  Clearly I enjoy it.  And I’m pretty good at it.  But, you know.  Ovens…measuring.  Pfft!  Who needs it?  (Other than people who want to make accurate recipes or care about things like proportion, but I digress.) My first cookies for the year were these beautiful, rich, citrusy tangerine butter cookies.  This is a gorgeous recipe.  It’s crisp, it’s satisfying, it’s got a great, round mouthfeel and it’s slightly savory from olive oil (and perhaps an additional thing or two).   As it is baking and successful baking relies largely on successful manipulation of chemistry, I deviated only slightly from the recipe.  I’ll just fill you in as we sit here and discuss.  Anyway.  Let’s get started. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 3/4 cup  butter, softened
  • 1 1/2 cups  sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons  baking soda
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons  cream of tartar
  • 1 teaspoon  salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons  finely shredded tangerine peel or orange peel
  • 1 teaspoon  vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon  orange extract
  • 3/4 cup  olive oil
  • 1/2 cup  white cornmeal
  • 4 cups  all-purpose (AP) flour
  • 1/2 cup  sugar

Get out a large mixing bowl and an electric mixer (or stand mixer…or wooden spoon).  Gather up the first five ingredients (butter, sugar, baking soda, cream of tartar and salt) and have them ready to roll.

This is a strong start to just about anything.

This is a strong start to just about anything.

The butter should be nice and soft so it will cream easily, which is a pretty way of saying it can be whipped into pillowy peaks; this should only take you about a minute.  I used a big bowl and a hand mixer; a stand mixer would also do the trick.  If you only have a whisk you’ll face a hearty workout for your stirring arm, but it can be done since your ingredients are so pliant.  The butter shouldn’t be liquid, but it should be entirely squishable.  Once it’s whipped, add the sugar, baking soda, cream of tartar, and salt, then cream all that together until it looks fluffy and the butter’s turned a lighter color.  Then get ready to add the flavorings.

Truth: I used to cream butter and sugar together as a kid and eat it straight out of the bowl. #weirdkidhabits #badideas #afterschoolsnacks

Truth: I used to cream butter and sugar together as a kid and eat it straight out of the bowl. #weirdkidhabits #badideas #afterschoolsnacks

I have the shredded zest from two tangerines sitting in a bowl with the orange and vanilla extracts.  I thought it would be fun to let those flavors mingle.  And, know how I always warn that you should crack eggs into a small bowl and then into a batter so you can easily pick out a piece of eggshell if it chips off?  Today I was grateful that I took my own advice.  I did, indeed, have to pick out a bit of shell, which is so much easier to spot and retrieve in a small cup than in a large mixture.  And who wants sharp, crunchy eggshell cookies?  Not this girl.  Beat in the eggs and extracts and then…. I knew that things like cornmeal and olive oil were waiting in the wings to get used, so I also knew this cookie could stand up to a little savory manipulation.  Here’s where I get all crazy-like.  I added a teaspoon of coriander because I think it plays incredibly nicely with citrus (and the orange family in particular) and a few grinds of fresh-ground black pepper.  The black pepper flakes look interesting, and it adds a slightly spicy, savory undercurrent.  If pressed for a measurement, I’d say it was no more than a (scant) half-teaspoon.

Then beat in the olive oil, followed by the cornmeal and then the AP flour (which, as its name indicates, is general-use, generic building block flour, and I think outside the US it’s called “plain flour”, FYI), which should be added in incrementally.  If your beaters start to labor while adding the flour, make sure you mix the rest of it in by hand.  You’ll end up with a thick pile of dough that’s surprisingly soft and malleable.

...and I can't do a thing with it.

Truth: my cat goes berserk over raw dough. I have to put him outside when I bake.

Notice how it pulls cleanly up off the sides of the bowl?  Perfect.  Cover your dough mound with plastic wrap and let it chill in the fridge for a minimum of 30 minutes.  It can sit overnight (like mine did). When you’re ready to make your cookies, set up your mise en place, which basically means get yourself organized to process food efficiently.  Lay the recipe nearby for easy reference, set up your bowl with finishing sugar (I used two different colors because…holiday…festive…but you can use regular granulated sugar and that’s just fine), your cookie trays, and take the dough out of the fridge.

I know all y'all covet my turkey.

I know all y’all covet my turkey.

Preheat your oven to 350°.

Then stick your impeccably clean, freshly washed hands into the dough and roll roll roll.  You want dough balls that are about an inch across.

Toss three or four dough balls at a time in the sugar. It goes faster.

Toss three or four dough balls at a time in the sugar. It goes faster.

Line them up on the ungreased cookie sheets (because who needs to grease a sheet when you’re making cookies that are mostly butter and olive oil?  No one, that’s who).  The recipe wants you to make an X-pattern in the top of the dough by pressing a toothpick flat into the dough; first one arm of the X, then the other.  It does look nice.  Sounds time-consuming.  If you happen to have something–like a wire beater from your hand mixer–with a conveniently-X’ed butt end, press that into the cookie instead.

Work smarter, not harder.

Work smarter, not harder.

And bake, 9-11 minutes in the 350° oven.  My oven heats unevenly and it’s always hottest in the back, so I have to rotate my cookies once half-way through.  It’s always good to check, anyway.  When you’re finished…

Life = good.

Life = good.

You’ll find yourself with rich, beautiful, delicious, buttery-zesty cookies that freeze well, so they’re easy to make ahead for the holidays.  And this recipe makes a ton of cookies so you can give them to a bunch of people.  And it’s easy to mix and adaptable to your lifestyle, so you can park the dough overnight if you realize you don’t have adequate baking and cooling time.  Score!  This recipe rocks.

Enjoy!

Orange-Scented Chocolate Ganache Puffs

George and I have a bunch of really nice friends, which is awesome.  Some of them, when they heard about George and my bizarro double-Dad loss, decided what they needed to do was invite us over and give us food, which was awesome.  At least, he thinks it was awesome and I think it was awesome, though my waistline and I seem to be at a little bit of a loggerheads over this.

Stupid waistline.

Anyway, since our friends so generously offered to ply us with delicious food and wine, the least we could do was bring dessert.  I thought about what I wanted to make, for days.  I thought about cake and pie, but they can be a really unfair burden if only a few people will be at dinner.  I felt like being a little experimental since I haven’t been in the kitchen much lately and wanted to keep my mad skillz up to speed.  So as I trolled my way through my various recipes I came upon one for orange-scented cream puffs with chocolate cream and as far as I’m concerned, puffed food + orange + chocolate = WIN!  But I didn’t like the recipe given for the chocolate cream so I decided to go ganache instead, because I love ganache and it multitasks.  Unfortunately, my first attempt with the recipe out of the reissued Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book totally failed–the puffs burned on the outside, were still slightly raw on the inside, and didn’t rise at all–so I was forced to both find something new AND give the Betty Crocker recipe the finger.  In my frantic search for how to make puffy dough I found this recipe for a really simple, flexible, basic pâte à choux and friends, when you get this choux recipe down you can make profiteroles and eclairs, beignets, crullers, gougeres.  Oh myyyyyyy.

First up: ganache!  Ganache is easy-peasy, though I do take some issue with how the recipe says to make it.  It calls for you to chop the chocolate and let it melt into hot cream, but I?  Hate.  Hate hate.  Hate.  Fire-of-a-thousand-suns hate.  Chopping chocolate.  It takes a long time.  I can’t figure out how to do it tidily, it always gets all over my hands and the counter and the floor.  I’ll do it if I must but if I can avoid it?  Consider it avoided.  I melted the chocolate in a double-boiler and then added in the cream and triple sec (see: orange-scented) but of course, if you want to make it kid-friendly or just let the chocolate be its own zen chocolateness then by all means leave out the booze.  What you’ll end up with is a lovely bowl of smooth chocolate which can be used as a topping when it’s warm and relatively runny (like now).  Once it cools and firms up, it can be whipped and used as a filling.  See?  Multitasking.

Ganache in its primordial state.

Ganache in its primordial state.

So this?  Is done.  Set it aside to cool.  And if you stick it in the fridge and forget about it, and then it completely solidifies?  Don’t worry!  Reheat it over the top of the double-boiler just until it’s able to move around in the bowl; don’t let it get too hot or runny because then you’ll just have to wait for it to cool down again.  Once you can move a spoon through it in the bowl, you can whip it.  I speak from experience.

Next, make the pastry dough.  Pâte à choux is made from a simple combination of flour, butter, eggs and water.  Pinch of salt.  And then you can add whatever flavor you think is appropriate regarding whatever recipe you’re making–add mustard powder, for example, if you’re using this dough to make cheese puffs.  Add sugar if you’re making dessert.  But first!  Make the dough.

Melt a stick of butter in a cup of water.  Once that boils, add a cup of flour and a pinch of salt and stir stir stir (continuously, it should only take a minute or so) until it starts to come together into something recognizable as a nascent dough.

OK, so it looks a little like wet Play-Doh right now.  It'll get there!

OK, so it looks a little like wet Play-Doh right now. It’ll get there!

Take your pan off the heat.  You’re going to add four eggs in one at a time, and  I do recommend moving the dough into a mixing bowl at this point.  This will remove any concerns that the food will bear the effects of carry-over cooking, where the residual heat retained by the pan further cooks your food.  When you add the eggs, you don’t want them to scramble.  What you do want, after you add one and incorporate it into the batter, and then the next, and the next, and the next, is for it to turn into a tight, smooth, glossy dough.

Now this is dough that's ready to become whatever you want it to be.

Now this is dough that’s ready to become whatever you want it to be.

As you approach the final stirs in the creation of your glossy dough, fold in the flavorings.  Since we’re making this sweet and desserty I added two teaspoons of sugar and the zest from one very large (softball-sized, not an exaggeration) orange.  Now?  You’re ready to start baking.  Make sure the oven is pre-heating to 425° and load your dough into a pastry bag or plastic bag so you can squeeze it out onto an ungreased baking pan.

You might be thinking, “But I don’t WANT to use a pastry bag.  I don’t HAVE a pastry bag.  And using plastic as a one-use-only squeezy bag seems so wasteful” and you know what?  I get that, I do.  But here’s the deal: this dough is super-sticky.  Trying to neatly, evenly dole out puff-sized dough clouds through the clever use of spoons and fingers is a guaranteed path to this taking way longer than necessary, and for it to get all over you and your hands and up your arms and in your hair.  Who needs that?  I don’t need that.  You’re welcome to it, but I went for the plastic bag approach.

Ready for puffing!

Ready for puffing!

When you squeeze the puffs out onto the pan, they may end up with little points sticking off them, from where you pulled the bag away from the formed puff.  Fill a small bowl with water to dip your finger in, and tap down the pointy bits with your wet finger.  The water will prevent your finger from sticking to the dough, and making the outsides of the puffs relatively smooth will prevent the errant pointy bits from burning.  Put this in the 425° oven for 10 minutes, then drop the temp to 350° (and rotate the puff pan, if you want) and let them go for another 18 minutes (they would have been ok to leave in for maybe another two minutes, but no more).  This is what you’ll end up with.

Win!

Win!

While they’re baking, whip your ganache.

Whipped chocolate.  Can you think of anything more groovy?

Whipped chocolate. Can you think of anything more groovy?

And then–no joke this time–put your ganache in a pastry bag.  You need to get it inside the puff.  You could, of course, cut the puffs and just load the chocolate in there, if you don’t have a bag.  But if you do?

Go for it.

Go for it.

And then you end up with a tray of desserts that looks something like this:

I just love it when a plan comes together.

I just love it when a plan comes together.

This recipe made 18 chocolate-filled puffs (actually, it made 19, but the cat helped himself to one and pet people, stop worrying: he got it off the tray but didn’t get a chance to eat any of it, so no, we didn’t let the cat eat chocolate, he is fine) with enough left over ganache to warm up and drizzle on top.  With a scoop of vanilla ice cream?  Heaven.  The small dinner parties have tapered off for the time being and my waistline thanks me for that, but I’m kind of bummed I won’t have a reason to eat more of these any time soon.  Surprisingly simple, extra-fancy looking, with a little hit of orange wafting up through the chocolate?  Show up with these at a party and you’ll win friends, or at least one or two more dinner invitations.

Roasted Beet Galette

On a recent trip to the Boston area, we stopped at Russo’s in Watertown, a farmstand-turned-HOLY MOTHER OF GOD WHAT DON’T THEY HAVE that I try to make a point of visiting whenever possible.  I like that they’ve got a lot of interesting things in non-perishable containers, like vinegars and jellies and groovy crackers.  But they also have a huge selection of vegetables, some of which aren’t immediately perishable, and it was there that I first feasted my eyes upon a box of beautiful golden beets.

Oh hell yes.

Oh hell yes.

It makes no sense to me why golden beets are significantly less common than your basic red beet; they pretty much taste the same (they’re actually a little milder) and have almost the same nutritional value, they cook exactly the same, and they don’t stain your hands…and your cutting board…and your countertops.  But!  Despite the fact that I live in the middle of farm country, belong to a CSA and have been a foodie for a long time, it’s been years for me between golden beet sightings.

I have a hard time believing it’s because they’re reclusive creatures adept at hiding in the wild.

Anyway.  So I got my reclusive beets from the One of Everything Store annnnnd…then what?  Because they’re kind of special, hard-to-get beets I wanted to make something beautiful, and because my spring CSA is going to start up again fairly soon, I have a gigantic pile of pickled beets looming in my very near future.  So.  I thought and I thought, and ended up borrowing heavily from one recipe and substituting what I wanted instead of what the recipe called for and in the process, I made an amazing beet galette.

A galette is, basically, a tart with a pastry crust that isn’t molded into a pan.  The term is broad and can be interpreted in many ways, from a particular kind of large buckwheat crepe to a fruit-and-pastry dessert to a savory dinner tart.  Most of the recipes I found online used a CA-RAZY amount of butter in the crust and frankly, I don’t really like to cook like that if I can avoid it.   Or, they would chop the beets into a dice and I wanted to make pretty flat rounds.  Then I remembered this recipe and thought…wait a second…why don’t I use this as my template?  I’ll make this crust, put in my own fillings?

This?  Is what we call a plan, and here’s a reconstruction of the cobbled-together recipe and how I put it all together.  So.  Onward!  But forewarned is forearmed: this is not a dinner that you can just toss together in 20 minutes.  Save this for a cold, snug Sunday when you want to be productive but don’t feel like leaving the house.

Bear in mind: you can certainly make this recipe using the readily available red beets, if you can’t find golden like I almost always can’t.

First, make the crust.

Pulse your walnuts in a food processor until they’re ground fine.  If you don’t have a food processor, then try a blender, maybe.  Or put them in a bag and crush the daylights out of them with the bottom of a heavy frying pan.  Or go out to the store and buy a food processor, I’ll wait.  Mix the ground walnuts with the flours, salt and pepper, and chopped fresh herbs.  Use whatever herbs you prefer; in this batch I used parsley and thyme because I had them handy.  If you don’t have fresh herbs you can use dried, but use about half the amount as the recipe calls for because their flavor is concentrated and therefore a little stronger.  When your dry ingredients are mixed make a well so you can add the wet ingredients.  What does that mean?

What's that, Lassie?  Billy fell in the well?

What’s that, Lassie? Billy fell in the well?

It means you dig a hole in your dry ingredients and put your wet ingredients in said hole.  It helps you incorporate the ingredients quickly and thoroughly.  That’s important for this crust because it’s really hearty and you don’t want to overwork it and develop the glutens; that will just make it tough.  Who needs a tough crust?  Not this girl.

So knead the dough just until it comes together, then wrap it in plastic and put it in the fridge for at least 15 minutes or until you’re ready to roll it out.  Preheat your oven to  425° and get going on your beets and onions.  Thinly slice them both, toss with some oil, salt and pepper and put them on baking sheets and into the oven.  You’ll get nicely wilted beets and onions that are ready for the next stage of usefulness.  Drop the oven temp to 375°.

All hail the discs f golden deliciousness!

All hail the discs of golden deliciousness!

While these are cooking, toss your goat cheese and feta (if you’re using it) in the freezer (I’ll get to this in a moment, hang on) and chop your garlic.  Since you’re not going to cook the garlic any other way than baking it in with the galette, make sure you chop it fairly small or slice it super-thin.  I went for super-thin.

See?  Thin.

See? Thin.

But really, it’s whatever you think is easiest, so long as you remember that your objective here is to not bite into a hunk of par-baked garlic, because no.

Now, this thing about the frozen cheese.  If you’ve ever tried to cut goat cheese you surely know that it crumbles and sticks to the knife and doesn’t cut evenly and is generally a pain in the ass to manhandle.  Much the same can be said for feta.  But if you put the cheeses in the freezer for a little while–it doesn’t have to be long, fifteen minutes or so should to the trick–they become easier to cut in even, non-sticky slices.  Or grate like Parmesan.  So. Before you start slicing and dicing your cheese, take your  dough out of the fridge, unwrap it and place it on baker’s parchment or a non-stick baking mat that has been lightly dusted with flour.  Roll out the dough into a rustic, 15-inch or so circle, then take the cheese out of the freezer and cut the goat cheese into even, easy-to-disperse slices.

Goat cheese is so much easier to manage this way.

Goat cheese is so much easier to manage this way.

Starting about two inches in from the outer edge, put half the goat cheese on your rolled out dough.  Sprinkle on the garlic and grate some feta over it on a nice, fine grater.  Like it was Parmesan.  (I know I’ve said this before but I do believe it’s the best analogy I can think of.)

See, it's all about building a solid base.

See, it’s all about building a solid base.

Then start layering in the veggies.  Put in a layer of beets, then onions, then beets again.

I don't know if I want to eat this or put it in a vase.Who am I kidding?  I want to eat this.

I don’t know if I want to eat this or put it in a vase.
Who am I kidding? I want to eat this.

Add the rest of the goat cheese, and another shredding or two of feta if you’d like.  Remember, feta is salty, so if you intend to use it in this dish watch your salt content elsewhere and plan accordingly!  Carefully fold the edges inward and remember–they won’t reach the middle of the galette.  If the crust breaks at all where you fold it, just crimp it back together and move on.  It’s supposed to be rustic.

It's not "perfect" by any stretch of the imagination.  And that's just fine.

It’s not “perfect” by any stretch of the imagination. And that’s just fine.

Take hold of the parchment or baking mat and slide it, galette and all, onto a baking sheet.  Put it in the oven and let it cook for 50 minutes, and then let it sit for ten.  I served it with a gorgeous salad with lemon vinaigrette and some roasted potatoes.  And it was as good as I’d hoped.

Voila!  Dinner, is served.

Voila! Dinner, it is served.

Nosh: Walnut-Chestnut Honey Bread

Ahhhh, Serendipity!

I mean, of course, the confluence of fortunate events and not that John Cusack/Kate Beckinsale movie.  Considering those are two actors I generally like, that movie?  What a clunker.  Anyway.

So, serendipity.  Not too long ago and in all likelihood while I was cleaning out my pantry, my boyfriend spotted our jar of chestnut honey.  We had bought the honey at an open-air market while we were on our amazing vacation in Rome (come to think of it, we still have some grappa from that very same market…), but kind of didn’t know what to do with it this whole time.  I mean…chestnut honey.  Do you put that in tea?  It seems extravagant, don’t you think?

Rich, beautiful chestnut honey.

The fact that I inadvertently took a picture of my own reflection in this jar is cracking me up in an entirely sophomoric way.

Mmmmm, rich, beautiful chestnut honey.  Bonus!  Honey doesn’t go bad–seriously, it will last for years–so it’s a great keepsake to pick up if you’re looking for something with which you really don’t know what to do.

Anyway.  I was flipping through the latest issue of La Cucina Italiana, a cooking mag I subscribe to and which I highly recommend, when I saw they had an article about how the long periods indoors that cold winter days bring  are perfect for making bread.  Plus, they included recipes.  Cool, I thought.  I’ve been meaning to get back to bread-making…cooking in general, really, since the last month really knocked the wind out of my sails AND I haven’t been home much.  Then I saw it.  The perfect recipe.

Walnut chestnut honey bread.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but OMFG yes.  Toasted walnuts?  Always down with them.  A reason to use chestnut honey?  OK!  And since we’re facing a looming snow storm, you need extra bread in the house, because I think that’s the law.  Might as well make it myself.

For the record, I don’t have the same inclination if a storm warrants that we stock up on milk.

And so.  Back to the bread.  The first thing you should do, regardless of what the recipe says, is start toasting your walnuts.  Dry pan, no oil, medium-low heat, give the pan good, solid shakes every so often to  and don’t leave the kitchen when they’re cooking because once they start to toast, they can burn mighty quick.  Miiiiiiiiiiighty quick.

Delicious. Perfect. Ready to roll.

Delicious.  Toasty brown. Perfect. Let’s roll.

Toasting helps coax out the deeper flavors of the walnut and removes that raw, sort of “waxy” feel and taste that walnuts can have.  You don’t have to toast them beforehand, but why not take that extra step–which won’t take more than a few minutes, and you can do while you measure out the ingredients for your starter–and make sure your food will be as delicious as possible.  Be sure to put in extra walnuts so you can snack on them while they cool.  Is that just me?  It can’t just be me.

While your walnuts are toasting mix up the starter.  The recipe calls this the “biga” which actually means “chariot”.  Which kills me.  I can’t get the image of trumpets and fanfare out of my head while making said biga.

That’s some special bread. Toot-tootaroot-toot-toooooo!

Anyway.  Prepare your chariot.

Some day I'll find fame as a hand model.

Some day I’ll find fame as a hand model.

Since you’re using yeast, which can be killed if the water temperature gets too hot and bring an untimely end to your starter, do be careful with your water temperature.  Here’s what I did: I took room-temperature water, measured out how much I would need, and put that in the microwave for twenty seconds.  Granted, microwaves and starting water temps may vary, and you might not have a thermometer.  The inside-of-the-wrist test (like you do with baby formula) works just fine.  Mix this all together; it will look a little sludgy and foamy at first, but that’s OK, it just means the yeast is waking up.  And it tells you to cover tightly with plastic wrap but you know…historically, Italian nonnas didn’t have plastic wrap available to them when they made bread in their humble cucinas, so really, don’t bother with that.  Cover it with a lint-free towel (one that isn’t made of terry cloth) and put it in a warm, draft-free spot so it can start its rise.  I put mine in the oven.  It’s protected from drafts, from the cat, it maintains an even temperature.  Just, you know.  Don’t use your oven while your bread is in there (but by all means, use your stove).

Once your biga has had its initial rise, mix it with the ingredients for the dough.  Two things: if you don’t have finely-ground sea salt (or kosher salt), don’t be afraid to have at it with a mortar and pestle.  And if you don’t have chestnut honey, please, don’t sweat it.  It’s a specialty item, and you can indeed find it online if you want, but you can also substitute whatever honey you have handy.  Buckwheat honey would provide a similar flavor profile and is easily available, even here in central PA.  But any honey that you use in this recipe will be delicious, so don’t let that throw you.  So mix it all together, turn it out onto your floured work surface and you have something like…

Ehrm...uh...

Ehrm…uh…yum?

OK, OK, it sort of looks like a sticky pile of floured brains right now, but hang on, it gets better.  Knead the dough.  Yes, it will take you ten minutes, but bonus!  You get a bit of an upper-body workout.  And you don’t have to pound the heck out of it, as is popularly misconceived.  Fold up the bottom third into the middle, give it a wrist roll.  Fold down the top third, give it a wrist roll.  Rotate it 90°, repeat.  Not the most exciting thing you’ll ever do, perhaps.  But it works.  After ten minutes you’ll have a beautifully kneaded loaf of bread.

Told you it got better.

Told you it got better.

Knead in the nuts–which by now are cool, and you’ve run your knife through and given a very, VERY rough chop–into the bread, and then put that in a bowl that you’ve coated with olive oil.  If you really want to get crazy, coat the bread with some oil, too.

Who's my cute iddle-biddle ball of dough? Yes, you are.  Yes, you are.

Who’s my cute iddle-biddle ball of dough? Yes, you are. Yes, you are.

Then you cover it with your towel, stick it back in your unheated oven (or other appropriately draft-free rising place) and leave it alone for an hour.  It will double in size.

Beast.

Beast.

Then you take your risen dough and lay it out onto a prepared baking sheet.  Prepared how?  Well, all you really need to do is have it in front of you.  I sprinkled my baking sheet with cornmeal because it helps maintain non-stickness and I like the texture and flavor it lays down on the bottom crust.  But it’s not necessary.  Your bread is oiled, it will be fine without any additional tinkering.  Lay it out into a loaf.  The truly lazy (like me) can opt to hold the dough in one hand and let gravity pull the loaf downward and shape it for you.  Whatever works.

Obey gravity.  It's the law.

Obey gravity. It’s the law.

And then?  Towel back over it for a second rise.  Yes, indeed, it will rise even more, and after another 45 minutes you’ll have…

Good Lord! Did my cat get under there or something?

…A beautifully risen loaf of bread that’s now ready for baking.

What are you waiting for?  Get this baby in the oven!

What are you waiting for? Get this baby in the oven!

Spark up your oven to 400° and 25 minutes later (rotating once halfway through if your oven, like mine, heats unevenly).  The elusive “they” say that your bread will be done if you knock on the bottom crust and it sounds hollow.  This is true, and kind of weird-but-fun.  Sure, I guess I could stick a thermometer in the bread to check the internal temperature but in the desire to “get to know” my food, I’d rather come to understand what a hollow knock on a loaf sounds like.

Hello, gorgeous.

Hello, gorgeous.

This bread is amazing.  It’s hearty and chewy and dense, but not as chewy or dense as a bagel.  It’s adaptable; if you don’t like walnuts, use almonds, or pine nuts, or no nuts at all.  If you don’t have chestnut honey, use whatever type of honey you’ve got on hand.  It won’t really matter, it will be delicious any way you make it.  And the honeyed perfume will hang in your kitchen and make it smell fantastic, for hours.

Yes, please.

Yes, please.

It goes with everything.  I’ve eaten this bread with olive oil, with tomato sauce, with cream cheese and marmalade, and it works every. Single. Time.  This bread’s not difficult, it just takes some time to put together.  It is worth every anticipatory moment.  Enjoy!

Dinner is Served! Cooking with Campbell’s Soup (1970)

A dear, dear friend of mine, knowing my deep and abiding taste for kitsch, sent me a copy of the Campbell Soup Company’s Cooking With Soup: 608 Skillet Dishes, Casseroles, Stews, Sauces, Gravies, Dips, Soup Mates and Garnishes.  Once I picked myself up after having major swoonies, I thought…Good Lord, food photography has made tremendous strides in visual appeal over the intervening decades.

*blergh*

*blergh*

Feast your eyes (if not, surely, your taste buds) on the cover, which features a photo of the Penthouse Chicken.  I can only imagine that it’s deemed “penthouse” because it will make the diner feel as though they’re eating the swankiest of chickens in all the land and not because you want to put it up high, far out of reach of the unsuspecting who might get their hands on it.  Mmmm, where can I get mystery meat covered in congealed red glop, garnished with cross-sections of femur?  Let the noms begin!

I’ve never been a fan of cooking with soup, unless the thing I was eating was actually soup.  I mean, I’m not a big eater of processed foods to begin with, though I do confess to a weakness for chipotle chicken Lean Pockets and do indeed keep a few canned soups on hand.  Hey, I must eat in order not to die and like everyone else, can be lazy in my hunter-gathering.  I’m no stranger in looking for things that adequately meet my needs.  Canned soup provides a heaping dose of adequacy; it adequately keeps me alive, it provides adequate flavor so I don’t want to kill myself out of boredom, it keeps me adequately full until my next meal.  It also provides–and I say this looking at a can of Healthy Request tomato soup–sodium (normally, in relatively high amounts), high fructose corn syrup, potassium chloride and monopotassium phosphate (both of which are also used as fertilizers).

What it doesn’t provide is excellence.  Granted, there can only be so much excellence one can expect from food flavored with fertilizers.  The kitschmonger in me has gone berserk over this book.  It’s got the space-age sensibility that one truly CAN open up a bunch of packages and make things easy for Mom in the kitchen; it gives the feeling that we’re only a few short steps away from a food-o-matic a la The Jetsons.

Image from smcbydesign.com

Image from smcbydesign.com

I love the pithy word play, the recipes for “Souper Saucy Meat Loaf” and “Spread-a-Burgers”.  I can’t look at the section called “Soup on the Rocks” without flinching.  I rejoice over the inclusion of a recipe for THAT tuna casserole…you know the one, with the frozen peas and the cream of celery soup and the crumbled potato chips on top?  In this book they call it “PERFECT TUNA“.  *killing me*  Conversely, the foodie in me weeps as I page through the Great Big Book of Adequate. with all 608 recipes chock-full of nothing special.

Though “special” is a word that can mean many things.  And I think I am wrong.  I think I need to redefine what I consider to be “special”.

There were a few recipes that were particularly notable in their horror.  In all fairness, I just got this book yesterday so there are probably more than a few recipes that should strike terror into the hearts of readers, but two really stood out in their ability to churn the stomach and ruin the appetite.

Meat Shell Pie!

Meat Shell Pie!

Bonus!  You get three recipes here for the price of one.  But yes.  Meat shell pie, so lurid it inspired my boyfriend to write a song about it.  What you do, see, is you press out the ground beef to make a shell, and then you press halved hot dogs into said shell so it looks like a clock.  Then you top it with soup and sauteed onions, bake, and then top with Velveeta and bake again.  It upset me that the good people of Campbell’s didn’t include a picture of said meat shell pie and so, I drew a diagram.  So you could visualize the majestic nature of…the Pie.

Mmmmm...MMMM!

Mmmmm…MMMM!

Hot dog eaters take note: the color I used for the frankfurters (since I lack a light pink marker) is called “greyed lavender” and really, it’s not far off from a hot dog’s natural color.  I’m not judging, I’m just stating the facts.

Who wants seconds???

I was floored when I was thumbing through this book and realized they had included a desserts section.  I will grant that one may use canned soup for many things–casseroles, sauces, apparently cocktails–but the concept of using soup in dessert had eluded me.

You can only have this once you finish your meat shell pie!

You can only have this once you finish your meat shell pie!

Look, it’s lovely, isn’t it?  Looks all moist and delish.  Walnuts.  Candied plums for garnish.  What could go wrong?

Oh, right.  It’s made with tomato soup.

Nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

Nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

I can’t decide whether to be strangely comforted or plain-old revolted by the option to add raisins.

I appreciate cooking short cuts.  I’m no stranger to making food and freezing it for another time or another use entirely.  Opening a can of soup is a viable lazy-night alternative for sure but it’s no substitute for a real meal.  I blame cooking like this for our mental distance from the reality of our food, and where it comes from, and how it’s prepared, and what’s in it, and what it does to us.  When we cook like this, we cede control over what goes in to ourselves and the bodies of the people we love.  Take back control.  Understand your food.  Cook fresh, when feasible.

Let me put it this way: Were I to host a dinner party in Hell, this would be on the menu.  And if you think this book was written in 1970 and so, is outdated and nobody cooks like this anymore, let me remind you, just for starters…

http://busycooks.about.com/od/startwithseries/a/cannedsoup.htm

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