Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Chewy Molasses Ginger Cookies

I realize that I just posted about chewy cinnamon cookies ("just", of course, is an entirely relative term), so this might seem overkill with the whole chewy cookie thing, but these chewy molasses ginger cookies are an essential part of Christmastime cookie baking, so they're going up. Without a picture even, because I'm rushing the recipe out to you before I get a chance to make them again, though I've made them often.

I'm pretty picky about my cookies. I don't like making mediocre cookies (probably because I don't like making mediocre anything), so there needs to be something compelling about a cookie to make me fall in love. These were inspired by Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, which sells a cookie called ginger jump-ups. I found a recipe that reminded me of them in an issue of Cook's Illustrated some time ago, and this is my variation of that recipe, candied ginger being a significant portion of that. I really like all the spice in these cookies; they have a slightly unexpected bite that goes well with the dark flavor. A heavy dose of molasses keeps the cookies moist for a good long time (in case your holiday gift to the neighbor sits on their doorstep the whole weekend), and the ginger pops in your mouth. I love it! Don't chop it too finely, or you'll miss out on the delight of these cookies.

Note again about crystallized ginger: it's very easy to find in a small box in the Asian section of most grocery stores as well as in bulk spice sections.

To view a printable version of this recipe, click here.

Chewy Molasses Ginger Cookies

⅓ c. + ½ c. granulated sugar
2¼ c. all-purpose flour
1 t. baking soda
2 t. cinnamon
1-2 T. diced crystallized ginger
¼ t. ground cloves
¼ t. ground allspice
¼ t. salt
¼ t. fresh finely ground pepper
⅓ c. dark brown sugar
12 T. unsalted butter, room temperature
1 lg. egg yolk
1 t. vanilla extract
½ c. mild Brer Rabbit molasses

Preheat the oven to 375˚. Place ½ c. sugar for dipping in a shallow dish.

Whisk together flour, soda, ginger, and salt. Separately, beat together butter, ⅓ c. sugar, and brown sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 min. Beat in yolk, vanilla, and spices, then molasses. Carefully add dry ingredients and beat until just mixed in.

Scoop heaping tablespoons of dough into palms, roll into balls, and drop into dipping sugar. Toss dough balls and set on baking sheet lined with parchment paper, 2” apart. Bake until browned but puffy. Edges will be slightly set but the center should be soft, about 11 min. Cool on sheet 5 min., then transfer to rack or counter to cool. Store in an airtight container.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Pumpkin Pie

I know, I know. I'm spoiling you, posting twice in two days. It's so unlike me. Well, maybe more like my old self before I was trying to sell a house and take care of the kids while my husband is in another state. But I know you can take it. And besides, this recipe is especially for me because I've nearly lost it several times and I'd have to start all over if I did, deciding what I like in a good pumpkin pie.

I like my pumpkin pie to be pretty traditional, but smooth and creamy (it is a custard, after all). And I don't mind a little zip or zing to go with the spices, so I substitute crystallized ginger (sometimes called candied ginger) for powdered ginger. I also love it in my chewy molasses cookies which I've also never posted (maybe I'll take care of that in the next couple of weeks). It's a little punchy, but still sweet and not too crazy. If I'm making the pumpkin pie for a large gathering with lots of children (typical), I chop the ginger up really finely, into little bits, and then it's not too strong for them. You can find crystallized ginger in the Asian section of the supermarket, in a little box. Or in a bulk spices section, if you're lucky.

I came up with this recipe about 6 or 7 years ago, and I've never varied from it until this year. It's always been a deep dish recipe, but my husband and I decided last year we prefer pumpkin pie not to be deep dish. Yes, it took us a long time to figure that out, but it's the only pie I would say that about, so you'll have to forgive me.

Here's the recipe, and I'll post a picture after I bake it. Sorry! You'll have to wait.

For a printable version of this recipe, click here.

Pumpkin Pie

1 unbaked pie shell (recipe here)
1 3/4 c. pumpkin purée (canned is great, fresh is great if you press the juice out)
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
3/4 c. cream
1/2 c. dark brown sugar
1/4 t. allspice (freshly ground if possible)
3/4 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. ground ginger
1 1/2 T. crystallized ginger, chopped (optional)
1/4 t. salt

Preheat the oven to 375˚. Line a 9" or 10" pie dish with the pastry. Make some pastry leaves with the remaining dough. You can place these around the edge of the pie now or bake them separately to garnish later (just a few in the middle). Chill the pastry while preparing the filling.

Combine the pumpkin with all remaining ingredient and mix thoroughly. pour into the prepared crust and and bake for 50-75 minutes, until the crust is nicely browned and the custard is set (it will jiggle like jell-o, not like liquid). A toothpick should come out clean halfway to the center of the pie. If the crust browns too quickly make a ring of aluminum foil to protect it during baking. Bake the individual leaves for about 15 minutes. Cool pie and leaves. Refrigerate pie to chill completely.

Garnish with pastry leaves. Serve with lightly sweetened (about 2 T. sugar per 1 c. cream) whipped cream.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Cinnamon Swirl Vanilla-Orange Bread

I know it's Thanksgiving and you're probably expecting me to post something Thanksgivingish, but I'm currently in love with my new loaf and couldn't resist passing this on first.

My mom made homemade bread all the time when I was little. Well, in retrospect it seems like all the time, but maybe it wasn't. It was definitely a lot. And occasionally she'd make cinnamon swirl bread with raisins in it, and that would make the best toast ever possible. Mmm. Good memories.

I had (shockingly) never made cinnamon swirl bread until a couple weeks ago, at which time I could resist no longer. My family is not a raisin family, so I needed a way to make my cinnamon bread taste like more than just regular bread with cinnamon sprinkles. Since the title of my post gives my quest-end away, and since I didn't take too long figuring it out anyhow, I'll cut to the chase: orange zest and vanilla beans in a honey-and-butter enriched milk bread. That's right. I know what you're thinking. Mmm. That sounds good.

You should taste it.

But, of course, that's why I post: so you can taste. Only you have to do the work. Or, if you're masochistic, you can simply read what I'm writing, stare at the pictures, and ache for what you're missing.

The orange in the bread is bright and vibrant against the mellow dough, but it doesn't overpower the bread and nicely complements the cinnamon. The vanilla is slightly angelic, and I'm keeping it in the recipe, but if you don't have any beans around, feel free to make this bread with everything else and leave that out. But don't leave anything else out. (By the way, I buy my vanilla beans for a very low price on eBay and keep them in a sealed bag inside an airtight jar in my pantry.)

Since it's Thanksgiving week, I highly recommend you make this tonight and tomorrow (it takes 2 days) and have a lovely breakfast Thanksgiving morning (you'll be having leftover pie on Friday morning). Or do what I'm doing, and make several loaves over the next few weeks and pass them out as Christmas gifts. You could make friends pretty quickly that way.

For a printable version of this recipe, click here.

Cinnamon Swirl Vanilla-Orange Bread

approx. 7 1/2 - 8 c. white bread flour
2 c. cold water
1 1/4 t. instant yeast (if using active dry, you'll need to proof it first)
1 1/2 c. lowfat milk
1/2 c. honey
1/2 c. (1 stick) unsalted butter
zest of 1 large orange
seeds scraped from 1 vanilla bean (optional)
1 T. salt
a good supply of cinnamon sugar (1 t. cinnamon for each 1/4 c. sugar)

In a medium bowl, stir together the water, 2 c. flour, and 1/4 t. yeast. Cover. Set aside 8-12 hours (overnight).

Heat the milk and butter until the butter has melted, then stir in the honey.

In a large bowl, combine the sponge from the night before, zest, vanilla seeds, and remaining 1 t. yeast. Stir together, then add 5 c. flour, salt, and milk mixture. Begin kneading with a stand mixer or by hand, adding more flour as needed until the dough is no longer sticky but still soft and tender. Knead 8-10 minutes. Transfer the dough to a large bowl coated with oil or cooking spray. Cover and let rise 2-3 hours, until doubled in size.

Divide the dough into two equal parts. On a lightly floured surface, roll each out into a rectangle about 9" x 22". Sprinkle the dough generously with the cinnamon sugar, creating a nice, even layer, not too thick, but covering the entire surface. Roll up the short ends to short ends. Seal the ends by pinching them to the rest of the dough, then turn that side down and set loaves in two generously sprayed 9"x5" loaf pans. Cover and let rise about an hour.

Preheat the oven to 350˚. When the loaves have risen to the point that they are an inch or so above the top of the loaf pans, place them in the oven. Quickly add 1 c. of ice cubes to the bottom of the oven and close the oven door. Leave the door closed during baking, especially the first 20 minutes.

Bake until golden brown all the way around and hollow-sounding when tapped on the bottom of the loaf, 45 minutes for me. Don't underbake your bread. If you want to measure the temperature, it should be around 200˚ in the middle.

Turn the loaves out onto a cooling rack and cool all the way to room temperature before slicing into, or the cinnamon sugar will not be set and will be gooey, sliding out and abandoning future slices of bread from the same loaf. So tempting, but DON'T do it.

Enjoy. :)

Monday, November 03, 2008

Chewy Cinnamon Cookies

I've been anxious to post these cookies for a while, namely because I'm afraid I'll lose the recipe and have to stop making them. That would be a tragedy.

My sister told me a couple of weeks ago that she prefers her cookies not to have chocolate in them. I was shocked. Really, are there more people like this out there? Unless you have a natural aversion or allergic reaction to chocolate, this is something I don't really understand. Well, I can understand it to a degree, I suppose, because I prefer taking bites or chocolate chip cookie dough without chunks of chocolate in it. And I really, really like these cookies. So I'm starting to get it.

About seven years ago (holy cow! how time flies!) when we lived in Ann Arbor I first tasted Carol's Cookies. If you live within purchasing distance, I recommend you try them. Anyhow, my favorite by far was the cinnamon swirl. I've never been a snickerdoodle fan, though at least for part of my childhood they were my sister's favorite. I'm not a fan of the cream of tartar – who really is? – and there wasn't nearly enough cinnamon on there. Carol solved those problems for me. No cream of tartar (at least none I could taste), and lots of cinnamon. Plus the cookie was thick, so it was nice and golden on the outside but still moist and chewy on the inside. I loved them.

After we moved to California, there was no way to have Carol's cinnamon swirl cookies anymore except by mail order, which was too expensive for me. But I never forgot them. I actually started trying to figure out how to make really wonderful cinnamon cookies about halfway through my brownies project, but it wasn't until I'd made the Jacques Torres chocolate chip cookies a few times that I realized I might be able to get the cookie I want. To me, cookies always needed to mixed by hand. If you beat them in the KitchenAid, you'd whip too much air into them and they'd fall flat on the cookie sheet. What I learned from this recipe is that you should whip them a good long time, creaming the butter and sugar, and then refrigerate them. This helps in two ways: 1. a higher butter content in the dough which means more flavor, and 2. baked from a cold temperature keeps them from falling flat; they have just the right amount of height for me (not way huge like a Carol's cookie, though).

So I took the chocolate chip cookie recipe and tweaked it a bit. I like a good amount of brown sugar with cinnamon, and a couple of other things here and there. I didn't want the flavor to fall flat, either, so I top the unbaked balls of dough with a generous shake of cinnamon and sugar.

Also they won a neighborhood dessert contest when served with drinking chocolate, so I'm not the only one who likes them.

They're very good. You should try them.

for a printable version of this recipe, click here
Chewy Cinnamon Cookies

2 c. + 2 T. (8 1/2 oz.) cake flour
1 3/4 c. + 2 T. (8 1/2 oz.) bread flour
1 1/4 t. baking soda
1 1/2 t. baking powder
1 t. Kosher salt
1 c. unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 c. (5 1/2 oz.) granulated sugar
1 3/4 c. (12 1/2 oz.) light brown sugar
1 1/2 t. cinnamon
2 eggs
1 t. vanilla extract
granulated sugar

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flours, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

In a stand mixer, cream the butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar, and cinnamon together on medium high for 5 minutes, until very light and fluffy. Mix in eggs, one at a time, and then vanilla. Stir in the dry ingredients until just combined.

Cover at surface with plastic wrap and refrigerate at the very least 4 hours, but preferably 24 hours before baking.

To make the cinnamon-sugar topping, combine 1 t. cinnamon for every 1/4 c. sugar.

To bake, preheat the oven to 350˚. Place a silpat or parchment paper on a large baking sheet. Place 8 2-oz. rounds (2 1/2 - 3 T.) on a baking sheet. Sprinkle each ball heavily with cinnamon-sugar mixture. Bake 18-19 minutes, until golden brown but still slightly moist on inside. Cool 5-10 minutes on sheet, them cool completely on a wire rack.

The unbaked dough will keep in the refrigerator up to 72 hours (if you keep it well hidden).

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Crazy Days

Sometimes it's hard to keep up on my blog because I feel a bit like The Scream and that's about all I have to say right now.

Except that I also really wish I had time and sanity to post about some amazing, incredible, chewy, buttery, cinnamon cookies. No, not snickerdoodles. Later.

Friday, October 17, 2008

New York, part 4

After Del Posto, Heidi and I decided to see the Statue of Liberty at night from across the water and take pictures. On the way (sort of), we passed by the New York Stock Exchange during its calmest hours, just days before it started falling apart. The building looks pretty solid, though, so at least that's not going anywhere.

As we neared a very dimly lit Battery Park and saw tons of police officers just hanging around the periphery (though not a foot inside it), I remembered that Battery Park is often used in Law & Order, where all the bad stuff happens at night. We saw a very small, faraway glimpse of the beautifully lit Statue of Liberty, but that was as close as we dared get. So we hopped back on the subway, and that wrapped up our evening.

Day two of two started with a plan to head up toward Jacques Torres soon after it opened (9 a.m.), find some pastries or something for breakfast, and then look around Central Park and the general area before lunch. Instead, as we headed over to the Times Square subway station (a block from the hotel), we walked right into a huge outdoor market that wasn't there on Friday. It was a really nice surprise. Heidi and I really weren't that hungry (surprise, surprise) after so much food the day before, so we split a smoothie from a vendor made from freshly chopped mango, oranges, some pineapple juice, and ice. It was delicious, especially since I prefer to start my day with a smoothie. Then we shopped a bit: I bought a tie for Mark, a cashmere scarf for me, and a pashmina shawl each for Emily and me. I think the total, with smoothie, was about $25. Not a bad deal.

We then headed up to Amsterdam Avenue and the irresistible Jacques Torres chocolate shop, which you can read about here (if you haven't already). (By the way, I've added a picture of the cookies after I made them at home, and they are as delicious as the ones at the store!) After indulging in chocolate, we took a peek at Central Park, looked for some painkillers for Heidi's headache (to no avail), and visited L'Occitane, one of the very best little stores on the planet with several locations worldwide. Though I'm not a huge shopper, if I had lots of extra money, I would probably buy everything in that store. Or online.

After a bit of shopping, we headed over to Trump Tower to lunch at the Nougatine Room at Jean-Georges. Once again, I don't have access to the menu we ordered from, so I'll have to do my best at explaining our selections.

I took a picture of my roll, by the way, because the crumb was so nice. The bread was airy and chewy and slightly crusty, and deserved a photograph.

Heidi and I went for the very affordable $24.07 prix fixe menu, which meant we each ordered an appetizer, an entrée, and a dessert. The prix fixe menu was separate from the regular lunch menu and had two options for each course.

For the first course, I had the soup: a spicy tomato broth with cockles and kafir. Cockles would be a small shellfish, like the Irish song "Cockles and Mussels", and kafir would refer to very thin leaves from the kafir lime tree. The tomato soup was poured over the cockles, kafir leaves, and a few other greens at the table, which was a lovely presentation I very much enjoyed. I was expecting and hoping for a light soup, since it was called a broth, but there was definitely a touch of cream (though certainly nothing like 50%). It was very good, and nicely offset the rich chocolate from the morning.

Heidi opted for the salad, Romaine hearts with a balsamic vinaigrette (I think) and spicy pickled plums. They were very interesting, and they packed quite a punch! I thought they were delicious, and I'd love to try making some maybe next year, as they're great for salad. Maybe not so punchy, though, as Heidi couldn't finish the dish due to her burning mouth.

Our entrées were beautiful. Heidi ordered the beef tenderloin (I think it was tenderloin...) served over broccoli rabe and corn purée of some sort. (I don't remember what they called it.) The beef was topped with a black pepper butter. I thought the whole thing was delicious and would have eaten hers had I not been full from mine, but it didn't appeal to Heidi quite as much. In the dish's defense, though, she had a splitting migraine by this time and was not enjoying much.

I ordered the salmon with napa cabbage, bacon, porcini mushrooms, and a miso mushroom broth. It was topped with mustard seeds. It's pictured below as a large picture because it was the very best entrée I had in New York, and I can't wait to have it again. Of course, that may be never, but maybe, someday, I can figure out how to make it. I'm not sure what the fronds and seeds are. Maybe fennel fronds? I think they're a little stiff for that. The mustard seeds were superfluous and did nothing for the dish other than top an otherwise ordinary-looking piece of perfectly medium or medium-rare, whatever is perfect, salmon. Not only was the salmon exquisitely prepared, the Napa cabbage was just perfectly sautéed with the mushrooms and bacon, and the miso mushroom broth was warm and soothing in every way. I loved this dish. Loved it.

Well, to make up for that, our dessert arrived. We both ordered the non-chocolate option, sure nothing could top what we'd had that morning. I don't know why we didn't learn from our trip to Del Posto and go with chocolate, since nice restaurants work hard at perfecting their chocolate offerings. Instead, we opted for something "refreshing". That would be yogurt panna cotta served over a sponge cake, gelato, and minted fresh peaches over a strawberry purée. The peaches and purée were very small but good. The yogurt panna cotta was inedible. Maybe too much gelatin in the panna cotta? Bad yogurt? It really was unpalatable. The gelato was far worse. I couldn't remember what it was supposed to be. Black pepper? Snot? Seriously, it was that bad. It reminded me of the bad additions to Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans in Harry Potter. Horrific is not going too far, I promise. And look at the picture. Is that a pretty presentation? If you think it might be, then, believe me, the camera did wonders for it. It was very unappealing from the moment it arrived. However, by this time there wasn't any space left anywhere in our bodies for food, so we didn't send the desserts back.

Anyhow, I don't fault Jean-Georges. He gave me one of the best entrées of my life, remember? I can forgive him. And the cost of the meal was amazing for a very high-quality restaurant with excellent (if a bit stuffy, okay not just a bit) service.

With the Nougatine Room behind us, the two of us headed out to continue our conquest of New York. We had gifts to buy for our kids, places to see, that sort of thing. We visited Rockefeller Center and the American Girl Place – without our girls – and admired how pretty some of New York is. We also tasted the chocolate at Teuscher Chocolates and opted to return to Jacques Torres for more take-home chocolate and take-home cookies. That was one of our best decisions on the trip.

We had tickets for the broadway show Wicked at 8:00, and we'd certainly had plenty of food since arriving in New York, so we opted to have a really light evening meal. I'd seen a great pizza stand at the food court at Grand Central Station. We headed over ther, where I ordered a slice with sausage and soppresetta or something like that. It tasted very rich for such a thin little slice. I was surprised how strong the meat was, but it was delicious and a great place to get a little pizza.

Then we headed off to Gershwin Theatre and Wicked. Since this is a food blog, I'm not going into that except to say that it was an amazing experience and we were thrilled throughout the entire performance. I wanted to stay in my seat and watch the whole thing again, but I'm pretty sure everyone was going home.

After the show, Heidi and I changed back into our normal digs and took the subway down to Chinatown. Once again, police officers lined the streets, so we were either very safe or not at all, and I chose not to worry. I didn't take my camera to that area, but there's a great disparity in how clean the streets are between some places and others in the city. I suppose that's true everywhere.

We went out for a late night dinner at Wo Hop, a 21/7 downstairs Chinese cafe in Chinatown. (It's closed from 7am - 10am daily.) The sweet and pungent chicken was good (made with large slices of pickles), but the steamed dumplings were really good. They were fist size, filled with a pork mixture, and looked like oversized potstickers. Six large dumplings came on a plate, happily nestled in potsticker sauce, a combination of soy and something sweet, I think.

Exhausted and happy, we returned to the hotel, chatted too long, slept very few hours, and headed to separate airports and back to our families.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

New York, part 3

It's now been nearly a month since New York, and I haven't finished my write-up. What a slacker! Anyhow, to continue...

Heidi and I made a tourist stop Friday afternoon, taking the subway a little out of the way to see Grand Central Station. It's magnificent. It's amazing that such care was taken with a travel station, but I suppose traveling used to be more for the well-to-do. Below are several pictures, which you can click on to get a larger view.

Dinner that evening was at Del Posto, an upscale Mario Batali restaurant. We'd originally planned on dining at Babbo, a very popular Batali restaurant in Greenwich Village, but the only reservation I could get (on the day reservations opened) was 10:45 p.m. Yikes! Del Posto was more accomodating, though I think when I called I must have filled in someone else's cancellation, as 6:15 and 10:45 were my options.

Del Posto was an amazing experience. The waiters were attentive and professional, and were excellent at putting us right at ease. There was no pretension that they were better than we, but at the same time it was clear we were dining at a higher level. A talented jazz pianist filled the room with music – good jazz, because there's good jazz and lounge-type gets-old-fast jazz. The decorations were very classic but elegant, and the lighting enough to clearly see your companion and food, but not all the way across the room. There are several options for ordering, and we chose to go with a menu that would give us several courses, one of which we'd share. (As a note, the menu has already changed so much I'm going to have to do my best explaining what we ordered!)

Before anything we'd chosen arrived, the waiter brought out a small dish with amuse bouches from the chef. They included a whipped mortadella ball and a breaded and fried disk of some Italian cheese. The cheese was good, the mortadella not so much, and I thought it a strange sample of the chef's talents. Still, I felt pampered.

Then a bread basket was brought out with two portions each of five types of bread: a crispy breadstick, a focaccia roll, a rustic white roll, a whole wheat olive roll, and something else. Hopefully Heidi will remember better. Knowing how much food was in store, Heidi and each split a roll and then ate half of what we'd taken, so we could try them all. They were all very good, with an especially excellent crumb on the rustic white, but my favorite was the breadstick. I think it was made with a generous amount of olive oil in it; it had a nice crunch on the outside and the inside was spacious but flavorful and almost pastry-like, nothing like the rustic white. I'd like to learn to make them. If I do, I'll pass the recipe on.

For my first course, I ordered a tuna and beef dish. Those are small cubes of fatty tuna (the kind you'd use for good sushi) and tenderloin, seasoned with herbs and sesame seeds, and accompanied with a mellow, slightly sweet sauce. While the meat was a touch large for bite-size, the flavors were delicious and the tuna melted wonderfully in my mouth.

Still, as much as I loved it (especially the tuna), it was trumped by the horseradish panna cotta on Heidi's plate. This panna cotta was loose enough to nearly be a thick sauce. It was light and delicate and one of the two best things I tasted in New York that wasn't chocolate. It was an accompaniment to her lobster with (I think) a puréed pea sauce that was very nice and fresh but totally masked the flavor of the lobster. That didn't really matter, though, because they could have just put a generous dollop of horseradish panna cotta by itself on a plate and it would have been worth it.

The next course, the primi, was shared, so we each chose an item and they brought one out first on two plates, then followed it with the next. Our first was Heidi's choice: toasted semolina crespelle with sweet garlic, pancetta, and pesto. A crespelle, as we discovered, is a crèpe, and a delicious one at that. I ordered the handmade meat-filled ravioli with browned butter. It wasn't called ravioli, I'm sure, but I don't recall its name. My first intent in going to a Mario Batali restaurant was to try the pasta, to see how it tasted, how thin the noodles were, and know what the texture is supposed to be. Assuming Mario knows, and I think he does, the noodles should be as thin as you can possibly get them, the texture delicate and moist, and the browned butter not too brown. I could have just had a large serving of that for dinner, frankly. In fact, I hope to try to replicate it in my own kitchen, but who knows when, and who knows how long it will take to get my noodles so perfect?

My entrée was roast duck alla scappi with sweet corn polenta, trevisano, and campari. If you're looking at the picture, it's easy to spot the duck and sweet corn polenta. The trevisano is a type of radicchio, which was definitely used in making the bitter and unappealing round of something to the left of the entrée. The campari is a liquor that was used in making the dish, so I'm sure its flavor has been imparted somewhere, but I don't know it at all, so I didn't recognize it. I did learn something, two things, from this dish: 1. Making polenta from sweet corn is a fabulous idea, and I'll have to tackle that. 2. I don't care for duck. It has a very strong poultry flavor to it, and it's tough if overcooked, so thus the medium-rare look, which probably does nothing to diminish the strong taste. Not the best dish, but I still admired how excellently prepared and presented it was.

Heidi ordered an almond-crusted halibut with fresh vegetables and a light sauce. It was very good. I was concerned when the waiter mentioned the dish that an almond crust would be overpowering for the delicate flavors of halibut, but Heidi really enjoyed it. I preferred it without the crust, but it was cooked perfectly, and the vegetables were very nice.

After such a lovely meal, all that was left was dessert. We had just soaked everything in, too. The atmosphere was so relaxing and elegant, and it was rejuvenating to be there for a couple of hours, attended to gingerly by three waiters who knew everything about each dish, including intricate details about its preparation and authenticity. We were offered a cheese plate before dessert, but Heidi isn't a cheese fanatic, and I knew if I sampled them, I might not have room for dessert. Oh, I definitely have to go back.

For dessert, I chose the butterscotch semifreddo, similar to a slightly soft but dense ice cream, which was served with strawberries, cake crumbles, and a milk caramel. The butterscotch flavor was warm and soothing, not overly sweet, and the strawberries were a perfect match. I really enjoy trying items like semifreddo at a nice restaurant because I know what to aim for in my home kitchen. In fact, I sincerely regret not trying risotto in New York, something I was hoping to taste while there for the texture, so I could be sure to get it right here. (I have made it, but I don't know how my texture compares with what it ought to be.)

Back to dessert. It's funny, but when I think of dessert at Del Posto, I have to think for a moment or two to remember what I ordered because what I really think of is Heidi's dessert. I opted not to order chocolate since we'd had a nice chocolate dessert at Mesa Grill for lunch, but Heidi was smart enough to not let that get in the way. Her chocolate soufflé was amazing, and I genuinely think of it at least every few days since we've been back, anxious to replicate it. Her soufflé was served in a smart little demitasse cup, dusted with powdered sugar, and accompanied with an outstanding hazelnut gelato. When it was brought to the table, the waiter broke the top open with a spoon and poured an intense chocolate sauce from a small, delicate silver pitcher inside the dessert. The chocolate was not only intense but smooth and of the best quality. Seriously, the best dessert.

So, of course, we assumed we were done after dessert. Little did we know, there was more to come. (Not enough experience in fine dining?) Our third waiter, who seemed to take over about a third of the way into the evening, brought out confections. He placed two of each on a plate for us to share, and they included jellies, biscotti, something coconut, and a few other things. Nothing as amazing as dessert, but everything interesting and a delight.

That was the entire experience of Del Posto. Everything was smooth and perfectly placed and calming. Heidi and I left feeling better than a day at the spa. It was our most unaffordable meal in New York, but definitely my best.

Friday, September 26, 2008

New York, part 2

I am not a breakfast person. Large waffles smothered with syrup and whipped cream make a great dessert but often make me sick at breakfast, and pancakes are at about the same place. I love a good omelet, but I'm allergic to eggs (egg whites, actually, and not if they're in things like cake, just if I'm sitting down to eat some fluffy, creamy scrambled eggs). What's left? Biscuits and gravy. Heavy. Granola? Good option, but I make that at home. French toast? See waffle. Have I reached the end of your standard menu? Pretty much, which is why going out for breakfast is not typically my suggestion. Still, Heidi wanted a good breakfast in New York, and I was right there. I'm not so jaded I can't hope there are still good possibilities for a morning menu; I just didn't know them yet.

Two of my friends that visited New York this spring insisted we try Norma's at the Parker Meridien Hotel. So glad I trusted their advice. It was fabulous! Really, truly, inspiring. This was the one nice restaurant we went to that I really had little information about, so I didn't have overblown expectations. I don't know who came up with the menu, who runs the show, to whom I owe the pleasure of my visit.

We were seated in a very nice room with lots of suits and formally-dressed waiters. (I say waiters because I'm pretty sure we didn't see any female wait staff the entire time we were in New York.) Menus were presented by the host, which were quickly followed by our waiter pouring freshly squeezed orange juice into our tall, elegant glasses. We started reading the menu – something that is usually a short task for me – and only stopped ourselves when we were conscious of taking so long to decide. Soon after our menus had been swept away, another server brought us samples of the smoothie of the day, orange banana. It was little perks like these that put their service over the top and made a good visit with excellent food a really great visit.

Heidi ordered the Light and Lemony Griddle Cakes with Crispy Crêpe Strings and I ordered the Artichoke Benny (which, unfortunately, is missing from the online menu!). The griddle cakes taste nothing like any pancake I've ever eaten. They're moist the way a crêpe is moist, thick like a pancake, sweet and buttery like a cake (but not like the frosting), and lemony like fresh lemonade. It was topped with a luscious whipped Devonshire cream, a delight that was almost unnecessarily, and not even thoroughly consumed. (My daughter will be appalled!)

My breakfast was a lovely entrance into the food possibilities awaiting me in New York. Two perfectly poached eggs each sat atop a freshly carved and cooked artichoke heart, sitting on a bed of sautéed spinach. The entire dish was placed on cubes of steamed or boiled potatoes and turnips, lightly buttered and salted, and topped with a porcini mushroom sauce. The mushroom sauce, spinach, turnips, and potatoes went so extraordinarily well together that I am looking forward to making a side dish out of those items in the future. The eggs and artichokes were also wonderful, though I admit I reluctantly ate only half of my egg white.

While we were enjoying our breakfast, we heard bits of conversation here and there from our close neighbors. Heidi afterward told me a piece she'd heard from the lady next to her.

Waiter: Freshly squeezed orange juice, madam?
Lady: I'll have a diet coke, please.
Waiter (horrified and shocked look on his face): A diet coke?
Lady: Yes. I cannot start my day without a diet coke.
Waiter: I'll see that you get one.

Also, the neighbors to my left were speaking in some sort of a French accent. As the man was reading some of the items out loud to the lady with him, he came across something with Gruyère in it. I (later) remarked to Heidi that I'd never heard the word spoken in a way that made it seem so simple to pronounce. I guess it makes sense, being a French word and all.

We happily paid our bill and stayed a moment to chat (and take a moment to let it all sink in) while the staff refilled our orange juice glasses. I know I sound so naive, but really, when have you ever had your freshly squeezed orange juice glass refilled after you've paid the tab? I would have sworn it was heaven.

We didn't just go to New York to eat, though that may have been a primary objective, so we spent that morning visiting Filene's Basement, Anthropologie, and learning the ins and outs of the subway system before going to Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill for lunch, where I quickly changed from tennis shoes to brown flats, feeling quite conspicuous.

Mesa Grill was exciting to me, being an admirer of Bobby Flay. Michael Symon has said Bobby Flay is one of the most under-appreciated top chefs, which did not surprise me in New York, where the food is very much about subtle flavors and French technique. Mesa Grill is about bright, bold flavors and presentations. But, because of this, it also stands out as a nice contrast and compliment to continental restaurants across the city. Looking back, I think I may have appreciated it more on the second day, when the delicate character of other meals would make such strong food stand out. As it was, this meal was delicious in every way, but not unfamiliar, as I enjoy making and eating Mexican/Southwest cuisine on a somewhat regular basis.

I ordered the Ancho Chile-Honey Glazed Salmon with Spicy Black Bean Sauce, Tomatillo Salsa, and Roasted Jalapeño Crema. The salmon was glazed and blackened, intensifying the warm flavors of the ancho chile. The black bean sauce was delicious; I could have had nothing for lunch but a bowlful of that and been content. I really liked the tomatillo salsa. When I've had or made fresh tomatillo salsa in the past, it's always been blended, and this was diced. The tomatillos were fruity and soft; I'll have to try this method sometime.

Heidi ordered the Grilled MahiMahi with Roasted Pineapple-Cascabel Chile Sauce and Caramelized Pineapple-Green Onion Salsa. The fish was very tender and the flavors were delicious. Surprisingly, we didn't taste any heat from the chiles, but certainly the entrée was not worse off for that. Even better than the fish, though, was the rice it was served with. It was soft and creamy but not heavy, and the flavors were a light contrast to the sauces and onions, but still intriguing. It was a treat. I was pleased when I came home to see the recipe for this rice in my cookbook, and I'll make sure I blog about it in the future when I make it.

Getting full but not too full, we decided to split a dessert, an excellent move as we didn't even finish it. The Chocolate Brown Sugar Soufflé Pudding with Pecan Flatbread Crunch was a great choice. The pudding was creamy and fluffy, and the pecan flatbread was completely new. I tried forever to figure out how to describe it. It tastes very much like pralines. The main flavors are toasted pecans and brown sugar, and if it had been sold in bags I would have bought several. I don't know where to start, even, to recreate them, but I'm sure I'll try. The pudding was also served with a size of what I believe was toasted pecan whipped cream. It was so nice with a bite of the chocolate pudding.

We started the afternoon by walking over to Chelsea Market, a place we'd heard we needed to go but new nearly nothing about. This was unfortunate. While the entrance was strikingly peculiar, the market was cafe-style restaurants, bakeries, a small restaurant supply store, a small produce market, and a small Italian grocer. We were in no situation to appreciate it, having eaten two very good and very filling meals already that day. We did grab a few small rolls to sample later from Amy's Breads and a caramel brownie and turtle brownie from Fat Witch Brownies. When we did eventually nibble at them, they were all delicious, especially the brownies. (I may try adding a layer of caramel to my brownies!) The Food Network is also stationed there, but there were no signs, and I'm guessing they don't take to people strolling in off the streets. Maybe if we'd gone around the outside of the building?

In any case, we were tired and had time to spare, so we headed back to the hotel, where I went for a short swim to burn a few calories before dinner. Such exhausting work.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

New York, part 1: Jacques Torres Chocolate

My dear friend Heidi and I ran off to the Big Apple last weekend for 2 days of indulgence. We left our children behind with our good and encouraging husbands and set our minds on what we could experience in such a short time. Just to cut the suspense, I'll tell you right now: it was a lot. We squeezed as much as we could out of our weekend and slept a total of 11 hours over 3 nights (granted, it was really good sleep, the kind you can only get on perfect mattresses, crisp sheets, and no children within earshot).

Neither of us had ever visited New York City prior to this trip, so this heightened the anticipation, and we each felt like the stereotypical small town girl walking into the big city, excited and naive. It was an unavoidable sensation, but delightful in its own way.

We had three main goals: have fun, eat a lot of good food, and do a little shopping. And go see Wicked at the Gershwin Theatre. Four...we had four main goals. And we happily accomplished them.

It may seem simple to write a blog about my experience, but, as you know, I do like to go on and on about food, so I will not attempt to do too much at once. Instead, I'll just do little installments until I've taken care of everything. And, except for today, I'll just start at the beginning and go through each meal.

Today, however, I'm starting with what may have been the best episode. I'm talking about the Jacques Torres chocolate shop. You're probably aware of my love for good chocolate, so this opportunity was an absolute delight. In fact, we enjoyed it so much that we went back a second time – the only place to score that ranking.

Jacques Torres has three locations, all in New York, and two in Manhattan. The nearest location to us was also their newest, on Amsterdam between 73rd and 74th. One of the treasures of visiting New York for the first time was jumping on the subway to go to a district, walking out of the station, and seeing something completely different than wherever we'd just left. Our stop at Amsterdam and 72nd was the most pleasant of all these surprises. It is a beautiful area of New York City with amazing architecture (which really can be said of most of the city) and a very clean feeling to the streets. It felt energetic to be there, but still quaint with its wrought-iron fencing and garden area around the station entrance.

The chocolate shop is small and non intimidating. It has a little counter for drinks and a separate counter for chocolate truffles, pastries, and cookies. The walls are lined with ready-to-purchase delights: white, milk, and dark chocolate bars; mendients (more on those in a sec), malt balls, chocolate pretzels, chocolate gingerettes, chocolate macadamia nuts, hot chocolate, cookie mix, brownie mix, and chocolate for baking. There are two stores I would have gladly purchased the entire contents of while there, had I the ability, and this was one of them. (You'll have to read my future posts to know the other.)

Between the two trips to the store, I purchased (to bring home) a couple of chocolate bars, a 2-lb. bag of dark chocolate disks, a box of hand-picked truffles, and a small bag of mendients. Mendients (which I'd not heard of before visiting the shop) are small squares of chocolate each topped with a pistachio, an almond, and candied ginger. They are small-bite size, and like getting a taste of a good truffle at a discount. I purchased them when we first visited the shop, and then went all out for a box of chocolates upon returning, as I preferred them to the well-known (and somewhat garish) Teuscher chocolates I sampled at Rockefeller Center. Though it wasn't the price that swayed me, I was thrilled to pay a mere $1.50 per chocolate for such quality. And, really, all the contents of the shop were very affordable – another plus.

While there, Heidi ordered the frozen hot chocolate and I ordered the classic hot chocolate. Incredible. I wouldn't so much call mine "hot chocolate" as maybe "drinking chocolate", but I appreciate their lack of pretension in naming it. It's quite thick, very intense, and amazingly, beautifully rich. I would even say it's the best hot chocolate I've ever had. The frozen hot chocolate was irresistible; with conflicting emotions Heidi finished it off, though it upset her empty stomach. You can buy a bag of the hot chocolate mix there. Heidi did, and she said that it did indeed taste just like it did there. The ingredients are just chocolate, milk powder, and cornstarch. And if I have a list of ingredients, you can bet I'm going to get to work replicating.

It didn't take me long. I worked on it today, and I'm very happy with the result, so I'll be sharing that recipe with you at the end of this post. If you like eating really good chocolate, it's like that but better. I could really go on and on, but it would get old and it would be much better if you make it yourself. But I will add a note about the recipe: I used a chocolate that is about 62% cacao, and so I included a teaspoon of cocoa in the recipe to make it dark enough. If you use a chocolate that is over 65%, you might just try it without the cocoa first, as it will likely have the right depth of chocolate. My husband and daughter have both already had it and love it.

I also purchased in the shop two other delights. The first was an almond paste-filled pastry. I think the pastry was pâte à choux, which is what is used to make éclairs, or it may have been a puff pastry. I know they're completely different, but it was a bit confusing, and it seemed like a crossover between the two. Not possible, I know. In any case, it was delicious. I also had a chilled chocolate chip cookie (your choice of chilled or warm), which was, I promise you, the very best chocolate chip cookie I've ever had. I brought five home. It was buttery and chewy and heavy on the chocolate. The form of chocolate they use is called a fève, a wafer about quarter size that is very thin, and this is the bag of chocolate I purchased there, specifically for recreating the cookies at home. The benefit to this form is that each bite can have a great deal of chocolate in it while still having a luxurious amount of buttery, chewy cookie.

Lucky for all of us, the recipe for this cookie and an accompanying article was posted in the New York Times earlier this year, and I'm also including the recipe here. The salt content looks high. When I made them a month or two ago, I really liked the extra salt on top, but by the next day, there was no distinct saltiness, just a well-balanced cookie. If you try it, I hope you enjoy it. I do still really like my other chocolate chip recipe, but I'll be making this one again soon to see if I can get it to be as nice as my experience in New York.

To view a printable version of the following recipe, click here.

Drinking Chocolate

1/2 t. cornstarch
1 t. cocoa (or 1/2 t. cocoa if the cacao content of the chocolate is over 65%)
1/4 c. finely chopped bittersweet chocolate, at least 60%*
1/2 c. whole or lowfat milk

Stir together the cornstarch, cocoa, and chocolate. Whisk into the milk in a mug. Heat the mug in the microwave on high for 1 minute and 30-40 seconds, stopping to whisk every 20-30 seconds, until thickened slightly, melted, and smooth. Serve.

This recipe can be doubled, tripled, etc., and made on the stovetop (carefully).

*To measure the chocolate, I place the cornstarch and cocoa in the bottom of a 1/4 c. measuring cup, then add the chocolate on top, pressing and crunching it down to get it very compact.

To view a printable version of the following recipe, click here.

Chocolate Chip Cookies
adapted from Jacques Torres

2 cups + 2 T. (8 1/2 ounces) cake flour
1 3/4 cups + 2 T. (8 1/2 ounces) bread flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
2 1/2 sticks (1 1/4 cups) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups (10 ounces) light brown sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (8 ounces) granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons natural vanilla extract
1 1/4 pounds bittersweet chocolate wafers, disks, or fèves, at least 60 percent cacao content

1. Sift flours, baking soda, baking powder and salt into a bowl. Set aside.

2. Using a mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream butter and sugars together until very light, about 5 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in the vanilla. Reduce speed to low, add dry ingredients and mix until just combined, 5 to 10 seconds. Drop chocolate pieces in and incorporate them without breaking them. Press plastic wrap against dough and refrigerate for 24 to 36 hours. Dough may be used in batches, and can be refrigerated for up to 72 hours.

3. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a nonstick baking mat. Set aside.

4. Scoop 6 3 1/2-ounce mounds of dough (the size of generous golf balls) onto baking sheet, making sure to turn horizontally any chocolate pieces that are poking up; it will make for a more attractive cookie. Bake until golden brown but still soft, 18 to 20 minutes. Transfer sheet to a wire rack for 10 minutes, then slip cookies onto another rack to cool a bit more. Repeat with remaining dough, or reserve dough, refrigerated, for baking remaining batches the next day. Eat warm, with a big napkin.

(note: 2 oz. cookies (about 1/4 c.) are also a nice size. About 8 fit on a tray.)

Yield: 1 1/2 dozen 5-inch cookies.

Note: Disks are sold at Jacques Torres Chocolate; Valrhona fèves, oval-shaped chocolate pieces, are at Whole Foods.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Pipián Verde and Mexican White Rice

I was recently talking about food with my friend Heidi, and when I mentioned that we eat quite a bit of Mexican, she pointed out how poorly represented that is on my blog. I've mentioned the tacos, which are really so simple and easy it seems silly to mention them, except that they taste so good. I also posted a recipe for green poblano rice, which I don't make often enough considering how nice it is. And I have a few recipes tucked away in my head that I go to semi-frequently for Mexican food, namely stuffed poblano chiles (which I'll have to go into another day) and pipián verde con pollo.

Pipián verde, also known as mole verde, is a creamy, bright sauce that gets the base of its flavor from ground, toasted pumpkin seeds. You can often buy pumpkin seeds near the produce section (at least in my grocery store) already toasted, which is very handy and makes for a quick dinner when paired with a quality carton of chicken stock from the store and a good rotisserie chicken (DON'T assume your quality store has a delicious chicken...I've made this mistake!), but I prefer the flavor of home-toasted pumpkin seeds, and the process takes about 5-10 minutes total, so it's not a huge effort. Plus, pumpkin seeds are less expensive when they're not toasted. I buy them in my grocery store's bulk section; you can often find them in the Mexican/Latin section of your grocery store or at a Latin market.

One of the reasons I love this meal, other than wanting to eat the delicious sauce by the spoonfuls, is that it's authentic Mexican food. The first time I made it, the flavors tasted so exotic but warming, unfamiliar but pleasing at the same time. I learned about it in one of the several Rick Bayless cookbooks I own and love. Chef Bayless has a style that is very easy to read, and in his cookbooks he speaks fondly of each dish before sharing the recipe, so it makes you really want to try everything he has to offer.

Even when I take the long version to make this, excepting the time it takes to make my own chicken stock, the meal never takes more than 90 minutes to prepare, and probably less. The short version takes about 30 minutes, and doesn't taste substantially different, so feel free to go that route if you prefer.

Well, at least for the pipián. You really need to take the time to make your own stock for the rice. It makes all the difference. Here's how.

Chicken Stock
Buy a whole chicken, sprinkle generously with Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, and roast it in the oven. I usually go about 60-90 minutes at 400˚. After removing all the edible chicken, throw all the remaining bones, skin, etc. (no liver) into a stockpot with water to cover. Simmer about 3 hours. I don't even add carrots, onions, herbs, or any extras to the stock unless I'm making a soup-specific stock I want to take extra care with. Strain. Reduce if you have way too much...6 to 8 cups should be about right.

Okay, now that we've cleared that up, let's talk rice. The beauty of this rice is that it just has a few ingredients, and when you have an item with just a few ingredients, it can be really, really good. If each ingredient is treated properly and has an important role in the dish, it's wonderful. Like crème anglaise. Or this rice. The onion is sweet, but the garlic sweeter, and smooth and nutty, complementing the roasted chicken stock and the mellow onion. How often would you expect to receive praise on white rice? Yet guests inevitably tell me how good it is. And it's really so very easy to make. Rice like this is also a nice side dish with anything that requires a good deal of attention in its final stages, since it's low-maintenance. You'll need 5-10 minutes of attention at the beginning to prep and sauté, but then a timer should take care of the rest of the work.

One last note, which I'm hoping will work out well and make me just so terribly excited. I'm going to start adding a link before each recipe that will take you to a read-only file on google docs where you will find a printable version of the recipe I've posted. This will make my life so much easier, since I'm always copying and pasting my own recipes into temporary documents, and some of you have either done the same or hit "Print Selection". In any case, this should be a bonus. I'd prefer to have a pdf available for download from the post, but blogger doesn't have the option to upload files other than pictures.

Print the following recipe from my Google docs page here.

Pipián Verde
adapted from Mexican Kitchen by Rick Bayless

1 1/2 c. (6 oz.) hulled pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
2-3 serranos, stemmed
3 cloves garlic
15 large sprigs cilantro
4 Romaine leaves, torn up a bit
2 large radish leaves, torn
4 c. chicken stock
prepared chicken, either sautéed breasts or roast chicken
olive oil
Kosher salt

Set a skillet over medium heat. Once it is quite warm, coat the bottom with about 2 T. olive oil. Add the pumpkin seeds and stir to coat them evenly. Sprinkle in some salt. Cook, stirring or flipping, for about 5 minutes, until most of the seeds have popped and look rounder and toasty. Don't burn them. Remove to a plate to cool slightly.

To a blender, add the onion, serranos, garlic, cilantro, Romaine, radish leaves, and 1 1/2 c. chicken stock. Blend until smooth. Add the toasted pumpkin seeds, saving about 2 T. for garnish, and blend again until smooth, adding an additional 1/2 c. of stock if necessary.

Heat 2 T. oil in a medium-large or large saucepan over medium heat. When it's hot, add the pumpkin seed purée all at once and cook, stirring, until thickened, about 5-10 minutes. Add the remaining stock and reduce the heat to a simmer. Let the sauce simmer and thicken for about 20 minutes. Season with salt, then return it to the blender in about 3 batches, covering the blender loosely with plastic wrap only (to prevent explosions and burns), and purée again. Add to prepared chicken and warm together before serving.

Leftover sauce is great for cheese enchiladas. Warm corn tortillas filled with monterey jack, rolled, sauced, and heated.

To view a printable version of the following recipe, click here.

Mexican White Rice

1 medium onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2 T. olive oil
2 c. medium-grain rice
3 1/2 c. rich chicken stock
Kosher salt

In a medium-large saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté, stirring, for about 5 minutes, until soft. Add the garlic and cook an additional minute or two. Add the rice and cook, stirring about 3 minutes, until some of the kernels are opaque. Add the chicken stock. Season with salt until the broth is pleasantly salty - not too much, but at the upper edge, as it will be salting the rice, too. Bring to a boil, cover, and reduce to a simmer (I put mine just past the 2 on a scale of 1-10). Set the timer for 20 minutes.

After 20 minutes, remove the pan from the heat, but do not lift the lid yet. Let rest 5 minutes. Remove the lid and turn out into a bowl. Serve.