Wednesday, December 30, 2009

bûche de noël

It’s not that I’ve never had any interest in attempting a bûche de noël before—it’s just that I never had the incentive. For most of my life, I’ve celebrated Christmas in close proximity to Freeport Bakery.

That Sacramento institution has been the source of many defining dessert moments—a Chocolate Charlotte wreathed in delicate ladyfingers, a marzipan-domed Honeybee Cake, a buttermilk Champagne Cake layered with strawberry custard mousse—but the greatest of these is their bûche de noël.

According to their website, this perennial holiday special involves a “light golden sponge cake layered with chocolate and brandy hazelnut mousse filling rolled into the classic yule log, frosted with bittersweet chocolate buttercream.”

In other words:


Say what you will of caroling or tree-trimming: the bûche is without a doubt my favorite holiday tradition. Alas, having now relocated to the East Coast, it’s a tradition that I can look forward to with less and less certainty.

And so this year, after a heroic but failed effort to convince Freeport to overnight a bûche to Massachusetts, K and I decided to make our own.

Below, a photo essay of our journey:

Smoothing the batter with the back of a tablespoon, per Carole Walter's instructions.
Not quite sure why a tablespoon, specifically.


The sponge cake, more velvety than spongy.

Spreading the hazelnut mousse.

We left a small portion of the cake unmoussed, for sealing.

Rolling the cake—the moment of truth.

We used a fork to create the "natural" bark effect. Alas, no marzipan mushrooms on hand.


Our major challenge, as it turns out, was more ideological than technical: how loyal should we be to the Freeport template? The closer we stuck to their model, the closer we might get to yule log glory. But we also risked greater disappointment.

Not wanting to fly too close to the sun, we settled on a similar flavor profile (chocolate and hazelnut), in a composition adapted to our own ambition and know-how: chocolate-hazelnut génoise with hazelnut mousse and dark chocolate ganache.

For those who’d never tasted the Freeport original, it was completely, unequivocally delicious. For the rest of us, still delicious, but not without a little twang of unfulfilled longing.

***


Chocolate-Hazelnut Génoise with Hazelnut Mousse and Chocolate Ganache

This was largely our own invention, but I used a few recipes in Great Cakes, by Carole Walter as my guide.

For the cake:
3 tablespoons unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa
1/4 cup hazelnuts, lightly toasted (skins removed)
2 tablespoons all-purpose flower
6 large egg yolks
3/4 cup superfine sugar
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
6 large egg whites
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/8 teaspoon salt
Confectioners’ sugar

For the filling:
1 tablespoon cold water
1/2 teaspoon unflavored gelatin
1 cup heavy cream, chilled
2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon Frangelico
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup finely chopped toasted hazelnuts (skins removed)

For the ganache:
6 ounces good-quality semisweet or bittersweet chocolate
6 ounces heavy cream
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1 tablespoon Frangelico
3/4 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 to 1 teaspoon hot water, if needed

Position the rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Butter the bottom (but not the sides) of a 10½” x 15½” x 1” jelly roll pan and line with parchment. Lightly butter the parchment.

Make the cake: Place the cocoa, nuts and flour in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse 8 to 10 times, then process until the nuts are ground very fine. Set aside.

Place the egg yolks in the bowl of an electric mixer fitter with beaters. Beat on medium speed until thick and light in color, about 2 minutes. Add the sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, taking about 3 minutes to blend it in well. Reduce speed to low, and add the vanilla, then the nut mixture, mixing until just blended. Do not overmix. Transfer the batter to a large mixing bowl and set aside.

In a separate bowl, whip the egg whites until frothy. Add the cream of tartar and salt and beat until whites form moist peaks. With a rubber spatula, fold 1/4 of the egg whites into the batter, taking about 20 turns to lighten. Quickly fold in the remaining whites.

Pour the batter into the pan. Gently smooth the top, spreading it evenly into the corners. Tap the pan gently on the counter to even out the batter.

Bake 12 to14 minutes, or until the top has risen and the cake feels soft to the touch. (It will not feel springy.) Take care not to overbake.

While the cake is baking, get ready a fine strainer and 1/3 cup confectioners’ sugar, a sheet of waxed paper at least 18 inches long, and a dampened kitchen towel.

Remove the cake from the oven and place it on a rack. Immediately sprinkle the top with the confectioner’s sugar. Run a thin sharp knife around the edge of the pan to loosen the sides. Cover the cake with waxed paper, then the dampened towel, and invert onto the countertop.

After 20 minutes, carefully lift off the pan. Very gently peel off the bottom layer of paper. Cool the cake flat for 20 to 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the filling: Place a large mixing bowl and beaters in the refrigerator to chill.

Pour the cold water into a small heatproof custard cup. Sprinkle the gelatin over the water and let stand 5 minutes without stirring. Gelatin will swell and turn opaque.
Set the custard cup in a skillet filled with 1/2 inch of boiling water. Stir until the gelatin is clear and completely dissolved. Remove the custard cup from the skillet and cool to tepid.

Pour the cream into the chilled bowl, and with chilled beaters whip the cream on medium speed. When it begins to thicken, add the confectioners’ sugar and the gelatin, then the Frangelico and vanilla. Beat until the cream forms soft peaks. (Do not overbeat or the filling will become grainy.) Finish whipping the cream by hand until thick, using a wire balloon wish. Fold in the chopped hazelnuts.

Trim 1/4 inch off the sides of the sponge sheet with a sharp knife to remove uneven edges. Spread the whipped cream across the cake, leaving about 1¼ inches on the far side. Gently slide the towel out from the under the cake.

Holding the edges of the wax paper closest to you, begin rolling the sponge sheet over. Press along the edge to curl the cake slightly downward. Center a cake plate or board on the far side of the roulade. Make the final turn of the roulade and gently remove the wax paper. Be sure the seal of the cake is underneath. Using two wide spatulas, carefully center the cake on the platter.

Make the ganache frosting: Using a serrated knife, finely chop the chocolate and place into a medium bowl. In a small saucepan, heat the heavy cream and corn syrup on low heat until it comes to a gentle boil. Immediately pour the hot cream over the chocolate. Let stand for about 1 minute, then slowly stir the chocolate and cream together until all the chocolate is melted. Blend in the Frangelico and the vanilla. If the surface is oily, add a bit of hot water. Chill the ganache in the refrigerator until it reaches a spreadable consistency.

Using an offset spatula, carefully spread the roulade with the ganache. Decorate as desired. Refrigerate the cake to set. Let the cake stand at room temperature for 30 minutes to 1 hour before serving.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

pumpkin pie

I'm reluctant to call this the best pumpkin pie ever. I will only say that, where pumpkin pie is concerned, this is my magnetic north. It’s the pumpkin pie against which K and I weigh every other pumpkin pie (or pie in general), and we have yet to find its equal.

Marcey’s Pumpkin Pie

I find this pie peaks on the second day—particularly when chilled. Straining the mixture ensures a smooth filling.

1¾ cups pumpkin (one 15-ounce can)
1 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup half and half
3 eggs
2/3 cup light brown sugar
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1¼ teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
one 9-inch pie crust, blind baked
Sweetened whipped cream, for serving

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large bowl, combine sugar, spices and pumpkin. In another bowl, beat eggs then add half and half and heavy cream. Whisk until smooth. Combine wet and dry ingredients, and mix until well incorporated.

Strain mixture through fine-mesh strainer set over medium bowl, using a spatula to press solids through strainer.

Pour mixture into the pie shell and bake for 50 to 60 minutes, until the edges are set. If the custard only jiggles slightly in the center, it's done. Transfer the pie to a wire rack and cool to room temperature, 2 to 3 hours. Serve with sweetened whipped cream.

Monday, December 28, 2009

brussels sprouts, three ways

I recently learned there is a scientific explanation for brussels sprout dissenters. Apparently, it’s a condition common among supertasters, whose abundance of taste buds makes them particularly sensitive to the bitter compounds in certain vegetables (tiny cabbages included). Which, frankly, sucks for them. I would gladly trade a hypersensitive palate for a plate of roasted brussels sprouts.

Below are a few of my favorite recent renditions.

***

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Chestnuts

We dressed up these Christmas dinner sprouts with buttery chestnuts. Pancetta or bacon would make another nice addition.

2-3 pounds brussels sprouts, cleaned and halved lengthwise
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup peeled and roasted chestnuts, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon butter

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Toss the brussels sprouts in a bowl with just enough olive oil to coat. Season with salt and pepper.

Arrange the sprouts in a single layer on the baking sheet and roast for about 20 minutes, or until fork-tender and some of the leaves have become caramelized.

Heat the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the chestnuts and stir until glazed. Add the roasted brussels sprouts and thyme, if desired. Toss to combine. Test for seasoning and serve.


***

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Walnuts and Pecorino
Adapted from Andrew Feinberg

Further proof of my nut + vegetable formula. The recipe comes from Franny’s restaurant in Brooklyn, which is always a good thing.

1/2 cup walnuts
24 Brussels sprouts, halved
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Squeeze of fresh lemon juice
Aged pecorino Toscano cheese for topping

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Toast the walnuts on a rimmed baking sheet for about 10 minutes, or until they smell toasty; set aside. Crumble them when they're cool enough to handle.

Turn the oven up to 450 degrees.

Toss the Brussels sprouts in a bowl with enough olive oil to coat each sprout, 2 to 3 tablespoons. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Arrange the sprouts in a single layer on the baking sheet and roast for about 20 minutes, or until fork-tender and some of the leaves have become crunchy.

Let the sprouts cool on the baking sheet, then toss in a large bowl with the walnuts. Drizzle liberally with olive oil, add a squeeze of lemon juice, and season with salt and pepper. Shave some of the cheese on top and serve warm.

***

Braised Brussels Sprouts With Pancetta And Toasted Bread Crumbs
Adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques, by Suzanne Goin

Goin is an expert at layering flavors and textures, but here the pancetta almost overwhelms the flavor of the brussels sprouts. (Which may or may not be a bad thing, depending on how you look at it.) I think I’ll reduce the amount of pancetta next time.


Serves 6

1 1/2 cups fresh bread crumbs
2 teaspoons thyme leaves
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 pounds baby brussels sprouts, washed and trimmed (cut larger ones in two)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
6 ounces pancetta in small dice
3 tablespoons minced shallots
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup veal stock or rich chicken or vegetable broth
2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a bowl, mix bread crumbs and thyme with 1/4 cup olive oil, and spread on a cookie sheet. Toast, tossing frequently, until golden brown, 10 to 12 minutes.

Heat butter and remaining olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until foamy. Add brussels sprouts, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and sauté, tossing frequently, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add diced pancetta, and sauté, tossing frequently, until sprouts are well browned and softened slightly and pancetta is crisp, about 10 minutes. Reduce heat, add shallots and garlic, and sauté until fragrant.

Increase heat to high, add balsamic vinegar and stock, and cook, tossing frequently, until sprouts are glazed and tender, about 10 minutes; add more stock if needed. Taste for seasoning, and sprinkle with chopped parsley. Transfer to a warm serving bowl and scatter bread crumbs on top.

graham cracker chewy bars

My immediate thought on seeing these in the LA Times was: I want to go to there. Somehow, it took me about seven months to achieve that objective. And it’s taken me almost as many weeks to document it here. No excuses: it’s just plain unacceptable.

This feels less like a recipe, and more like a paradigm shift—a long-overdue “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” moment for the humble graham cracker.


Graham Cracker Chewy Bars
Adapted from Celebrating With Julienne, by Susan Campoy

Imagine the graham cracker as you know it—in a crumb crust or a campfire s’more—and multiply it by a power of ten. Then combine that with a pecan pie. Voila, the graham cracker chewy bar.

For the crust:
3 cups graham cracker crumbs
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons flour

For the topping:
2 1/2 cups brown sugar (I used 1 1/2 cups light, 1 cup dark)
4 extra-large eggs
2/3 cup graham cracker crumbs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup pecans, chopped
Powdered sugar
Vanilla ice cream, for serving

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Make the crust: In a large bowl with an electric mixer, or in the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the graham cracker crumbs, butter, sugar and flour until moist and well-blended. Press the mixture firmly and evenly over the bottom of a 13-inch by 9-inch baking pan. Bake until the crust is golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes.

While the crust is baking, in a large bowl, whisk together the brown sugar and eggs to blend. Whisk in the graham cracker crumbs, vanilla, salt and baking powder until well-blended. Stir in the pecans.

Spread the mixture over the baked crust and return to the 350-degree oven until the filling is dark-golden on top and jiggles slightly when tapped, 20 to 25 minutes. [They will set more as they cool.] Transfer the pan to a cooling rack and cool completely. The bars can be made 1 day in advance. Wrap in plastic and keep at room temperature.

Cut into 24 bars, and sprinkle a light coating of sifted powdered sugar over the top. Serve with vanilla ice cream.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

spoon cookie redux

Just as I knew these brown butter spoon cookies were destined to make a holiday cameo, I also knew they were ripe for experimentation. For this batch, I ventured away from the recommended cherry-strawberry preserves filling, substituting other jams I had on-hand: Bonnie’s Jams Black & Blue, Sarabeth’s Strawberry-Raspberry, and L'Épicurien Coco-Passion (which manages to distill the genius of Oleana's coconut-passion fruit Baked Alaska into a condiment).

But curiosity and a simple code of ethics demanded that chocolate somehow enter into the equation. Plain ganache, I feared, would fail to distinguish itself from the cookie base. And then I spotted the unopened package of Andes Mints on our microwave (intended for this recipe). A mint-chocolate ganache, maybe?

Thus, the refined brown butter spoon cookie was transformed into the most awesome imitation Mint Milano known to man.

For civilized company, I’ll be sticking mostly to the recommended template—I like the acidity and the elegance the fruit preserves provide (of the variations mentioned here, I liked the strawberry-raspberry and coco-passion the most)—but I’ll make an extra batch of these little guys just for M and me.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

sweet butternut squash and coconut jam

If my summer had gone according to plan, I would have spent most of August in food preservation mode, channeling the season’s bounty into tomato sauce, pickled okra, and fruit conserves. Instead, October found me with a box of empty Mason Jars and a dozen dog-eared Christine Ferber recipes.

Where does this leave me? Demoralized, yes, but not defeated. In fact I’ve decided that winter, with its narrow roster of ingredients, will be perfect for honing my craft, so come spring I’ll be pickling ramps with the best of them.

Already, I’ve made a stockpot’s worth of vanilla applesauce—the consummation of a fall-foliage / apple-picking day trip to Chester, NJ (New Jersey: really quite beautiful. Who knew?) —and now, this butternut squash coconut jam.

I suspect Madame Ferber would not be pleased with the recipe—it bears none of her restraint or refined technique. But it’s bold and coconuty and scarily easy to eat by the spoonful.


Sweet Butternut Squash and Coconut Jam

Adapted from The Kitchn

Note the absurd quantity of sugar (really, it’s more confection than condiment)—next time, I’d reduce this a bit, to let the natural sweetness of the squash come through. I’d also experiment with more spices—ginger? nutmeg?

Makes about 4 cups

1 large butternut squash, approximately 2 pounds
2 cups milk
2 cups white sugar
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1 cinnamon stick
8-10 whole cloves
1 vanilla bean, split
1 cup dried unsweetened coconut

Peel the butternut squash and cut into small pieces - about 1 inch or less to a side. You can also grate it. The smaller you cut the pieces the faster it will cook. Put in a large (4 quarts or more) heavy pan over medium heat. Add the milk, sugars, cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla pulp and bean.

Cook over medium heat until the squash is soft and tender. Keep a close watch on it as the milk simmers; it has a tendency to foam up. After the milk comes to a simmer it will be 10-15 minutes before the squash is soft. As the squash becomes soft and tender, mash it into a pulp with a potato masher or a pair of forks. Stir well.

Keep the heat on medium and continue simmering, stirring frequently. When the mixture is reduced and thick like jam, remove from the heat. [This will take between 20 and 45 minutes.] Remove the vanilla pod and spices. Stir in the coconut and let cool before serving. Store in the refrigerator.




Vanilla Applesauce
Delicious warm, at room temperature, or straight from the refrigerator. Feel free to adjust the sugar and spice quantities to your liking.

Makes about 1 1/2 quarts

5 pounds apples (I used a combination of Mutsu, Fuji and Jonagold), peeled, cored, and quartered
1 cup apple cider
1/4 cup sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
3-4 strips of lemon peel (from one lemon)
2-3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and seeds scraped
1/2 teaspoon of salt

Combine all ingredients in a wide, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Cover and cook at a simmer, stirring occasionally, until apples have broken down, about 30 to 40 minutes.

Remove from heat the vanilla pod and lemon peel. [I like to let the cinnamon stick steep with the applesauce overnight.] Using a potato masher or immersion blender, puree to desired consistency. Taste for seasoning.

Refrigerate leftover applesauce in an airtight container, or freeze for later use.

Monday, December 14, 2009

world peace cookies

This cookie needs no introduction (it’s practically a food blog prerequisite), nor does it require further exposition. But let me speak for a moment to its texture—the sandy delicacy of a classic sablé punctuated by oozing potholes of melted chocolate and tiny fleur de sel crystals. It’s a beautiful, genre-bending hybrid that manages somehow to melt and dissolve in your mouth all at once.

For the recipe (a Pierre Hermé original via Dorie Greenspan), click here.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

braised rabbit with black olives and polenta

Mmmm. Bunny. Or, more precisely, Braised Rabbit with Black Olives and Polenta.

If that sounds familiar, it's because you've most likely salivated over the original at Al Di Là Trattoria, of Bittersweet Chocolate and Pear Cake fame. The entire dish, en Le Creuset, was transported here straight from our friend's oven, making for a delicious centerpiece to our weekend meal. (Yes, said friend is both a braising wizard and the best potluck guest ever.)

It was basically like getting Al Di Là delivered to our doorstep, which is a seriously dangerous proposition. (Round-the-clock Beet Ravioli with Butter and Poppy Seeds?) True to the original, we served it over creamy polenta—I used Andrew Carmellini's recipe, subbing out most of the milk for chicken stock—with Marcella Hazans's braised carrots and a cauliflower-pear-hazelnut dish I'll get to one of these days.


Braised Rabbit with Olives
Adapted from Anna Klinger

Serves 4

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 (2- to 3-pound) rabbit, cut into serving pieces as you would a chicken

Salt and black pepper

5 cloves garlic, crushed

1 or 2 sprigs fresh rosemary

1/2 cup white wine

2 to 3 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade

1/2 cup canned tomatoes, chopped (don't bother to drain)

12 black oil-cured olives

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Put the oil in a deep skillet or casserole, and turn the heat to medium-high. A minute or so later, when the oil is hot, add the rabbit, season it with salt and pepper and brown it well, rotating and turning the pieces as necessary; the process will take about 10 minutes. Remove the rabbit to a plate, pour off excess fat, if there is any, and return the pan to the stove over medium heat.

Add the garlic and rosemary and cook, stirring occasionally, until the garlic is lightly colored, 2 or 3 minutes. Add the wine and raise the heat to high; scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen any browned bits, and reduce the wine until there is just a tablespoon or two of liquid remaining in the pan.

Turn the heat down to medium, return the rabbit and any juices to the pan, and add the stock, tomatoes, and olives; cover and transfer the pan to the oven. Cook for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until the rabbit is tender but not falling off the bone (it tends to dry out at that point). Remove the rabbit, olives, rosemary, and garlic to a plate. Return the pan to the stovetop and reduce the liquid to a thick, sauce-like consistency (you want about 1 cup liquid) over high heat. Stir in the butter, pour over the rabbit, and serve.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

pumpkin-gingerbread ice cream with ginger spice cookies

An approximate timeline of my Saturday morning:

9:47 am: Browse through recently acquired cookbook, Sherry Yard's Desserts by the Yard. [Old school, I know, but watching her pull molten strands of sugar with her bare hands on an Iron Chef rerun was enough to earn my eternal respect. The woman is fierce.]

9:59 am: Spot recipe for Giant Gingerbread cookie.

9:59 am:
Experience violent craving for soft, chewy ginger-molasses confection.

10:13 am:
Draft spreadsheet comparing the ingredient quantities and oven temperature of the above cookie with those from three other recipes—an attempt to mathematically determine the perfect recipe. My old favorite, from Bon Appétit, seems to have the thick and chewy [read: vegetable shortening] edge on the competition.

10:19 am:
Contemplate chocolate chips as an addition to ginger cookies: crazy or crazy good?

10:21 am:
Discover someone has already gone there.

10:26 am:
Decide on taste test for evening dessert: classic Bon Appétit Ginger Spice Cookies (the control batch) vs. Orangette's Chocolate Chip Ginger-Molasses Cookies.

10:27am:
Realize that cookies alone represent an unbalanced dessert, may require ice cream accompaniment.

10:30 am:
Remember that chamber for Cuisinart ice cream maker is already chilling in freezer. (Can make, not buy ice cream.)

10:32 am:
Brainstorm ideal autumnal ice cream flavor to complement cookies.

10:34 am:
Pumpkin.

10:35 am:
No wait: Pumpkin gingerbread.

And so it came to pass that by lunchtime two cookie batters and one ice cream custard base were resting snugly in the refrigerator. Together, they made for a delicious dessert experiment.


First, the cookies:


In the end, my loyalty to the Bon Appétit recipe was reaffirmed. Orangette’s version was tasty as well, but once you got past the allure of melted chocolate (considerable, I’ll grant you), I'm not sure that the chocolate chips actually enhanced the cookie; in fact, at times, their flavor seemed to clash with the molasses. The chocolate variation was texturally inferior as well—less chewy and yielding, which is what I like in a ginger cookie.



Next, the ice cream:

Under the influence of multiple cookies and mild illness, M proclaimed this to be the best ice cream he'd ever tasted. And for me it's definitely up there. Of course, it had the textural advantage of being served straight from the machine, with nary an ice crystal to its name. But it was delicious the next night, too.



***

Ginger Spice Cookies
Adapted from Bon Appétit

Yield: 30 cookies

If memory serves me, I think I preferred these rolled in granulated sugar. This time, I used sugar “in the raw”—the title of a bad Meg Ryan movie?—which had a lovely crystalline appearance, but perhaps a less appealing texture. I may be making this up.

2 cups all purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup chopped crystallized ginger
1 cup (packed) light brown sugar
1/2 cup vegetable shortening, room temperature
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 large egg
1/4 cup mild-flavored molasses [I used unsulphured, dark molasses, as it was the only thing available]
Granulated or demerara sugar, for rolling

Combine first 6 ingredients in medium bowl; whisk to blend. Mix in crystallized ginger. Using electric mixer, beat brown sugar, shortening and butter in large bowl until fluffy. Add egg and molasses and beat until blended. Add flour mixture and mix just until blended. Cover and refrigerate 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter 2 baking sheets. Spoon sugar in thick layer onto small plate. Using wet hands, form dough into 1 1/4-inch balls; roll in sugar to coat completely. Place balls on prepared sheets, spacing 2 inches apart.

Bake cookies until cracked on top but still soft to touch, about 12 minutes. Cool on sheets 1 minute. Carefully transfer to racks and cool. [Can be made 5 days ahead. Store airtight at room temperature.]


Pumpkin-Gingerbread Ice Cream
Partially adapted from The Craft of Baking, by Karen DeMasco

DeMasco’s recipe came approved by David Lebovitz, which meant I knew it would be good. Though I’m partial to this variation, the pumpkin base is very mix-in compatible. Next time, I may have to attempt the Pumpkin Mascarpone-Cocao Nib Ice Cream I had from the Bent Spoon at October’s New Amsterdam Market.

1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon freshly-grated ginger [I used ground ginger]
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
5 large egg yolks
1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1-2 teaspoons rum or brandy (optional)
3/4 cup canned pumpkin, or homemade
4 ginger spice cookies (recipe above)

Make an ice bath by putting some ice and a little water in a large bowl and nest a smaller metal bowl (at least 2 quarts) inside it. Set a mesh strainer over the top.

In a medium saucepan mix the milk, cream, granulated sugar, ginger, ground cinnamon, cinnamon stick, nutmeg, and salt. Warm the mixture until hot and the edges begin to bubble and foam.

Whisk the egg yolks in a separate bowl and gradually whisk in about half of the warm spiced milk mixture, stirring constantly.

Scrape the warmed yolks back in to the saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring constantly and scraping the bottom with a heatproof spatula, until the mixture thickens and coats the spatula. If using an instant-read thermometer, it should read between 160º-170ºF.

Immediately pour the mixture through the strainer into the bowl nested in the ice bath. Mix in the brown sugar, then stir until cool, then chill thoroughly, preferably overnight.

Whisk in the vanilla, liquor (if using), and pumpkin puree. Press the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer, then freeze in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions. Fold in the broken pieces of ginger spice cookies.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

winning hearts and minds cake

I had my first piece of flourless chocolate cake on Mother’s Day, 1995.

K, three years my senior and significantly more worldly, proposed we make a flourless cake for dessert. (I knew little about baking, but enough that “flourless” felt somehow dangerous and iconoclastic.) The result, through my twelve-year-old eyes, was sunken and sad-looking, and missing all the signifiers of a good chocolate cake (multiple layers, buttercream frosting). But it tasted incredible. Clearly, K had uncovered a culinary secret lost on the likes of Duncan Hines and Betty Crocker: in matters of chocolate cake, flour content is inversely proportional to deliciousness.

In recent years, I've refined, or rather renounced this theory. In fact, I’ve soured on the whole notion of flourless chocolate cake. Tasty? Yes. They're just so predictable, and, next to the molten chocolate cake, comically ubiquitous on restaurant menus. They've gone from revolutionary to run-of-the-mill in a little over a decade.

Or at least, that's how I felt until a few weeks ago, when I made this "Winning Hearts and Minds Cake." Suddenly the world is new again!

Truly, it's like no other flourless chocolate cake I've ever had. (I realize it's not technically flourless, but 1 tablespoon keeps it in the same general genre.) I don't know if I should credit the above-average quantities of butter or eggs, or perhaps even that sneaky tablespoon of flour, but oh man it's good—rich and silky, with a texture that's somewhere between a chiffon and a mud pie.


Winning Hearts and Minds Cake
Adapted from A Homemade Life, by Molly Wizenberg, who adapted it in turn by Je veux du chocolat!, by Trish Deseine

Make sure you make this cake a day ahead. Molly, who's had a great deal of experience with this cake (as she served it at her wedding), even recommends freezing it for at least a day, then allowing 24 hours for it to return to room temperature.

7 ounces best-quality dark chocolate [I used Scharffen Berger Bittersweet], finely chopped
7 ounces unsalted European-style butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
1 1/4 cup granulated sugar
5 large eggs
1 tablespoon unbleached all-purpose flour
whipped cream, for serving

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees, and butter an 8-inch round cake pan. Line the base of the pan with parchment, and butter the parchment too.

Melt the chocolate gently with the butter in a double boiler or in the microwave, stirring regularly to combine. Add the sugar to the chocolate-butter mixture, stirring well, and set aside to cool for a few moments. Then add the eggs one by one, stirring well after each addition, and then add the flour. The batter should be smooth and dark.

Pour batter into the buttered cake pan and bake for approximately 25 minutes, or until the center of the cake looks set and the top is shiny and a bit crackly-looking. [I began checking around the 20-minute mark. You’ll know it’s done when the top jiggles only slightly, if at all.] Let the cake cool in its pan on a rack for 10 minutes; then carefully turn the cake out of the pan and revert it, so that the crackly side is facing upward. Allow to cool completely. The cake will deflate slightly as it cools.

Serve at room temperature with slightly sweetened whipped cream.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

cashew chicken and caramelized broccoli

Full disclosure: It wasn't until recently that I distinguished between Chinese food and Chinese-American food. Specifically, I was pretty much ignorant of the former, convinced that the take-out staples of my youth (sweet-and-sour pork, General Tso's, and *oh sweet god* honey-glazed shrimp with walnuts) were entirely authentic. Since then, my understanding, and my palate, have evolved considerably, as I've been schooled on soup dumplings and Sichuan peppercorns. But deep inside, a candle still burns for the cornstarch-filled, sealed-with-a-fortune-cookie meals I remember so fondly.

This cashew chicken appeals to teenage take-out lover in me. It may not be authentic—let’s be clear, the recipe comes from Martha Stewart—but it's so fast and tasty and even moderately healthy—I can forgive all that. M., who is far better versed in these things, agrees.


Cashew Chicken
Adapted from Everyday Food

I'm not going to say this is the best version of cashew chicken I've ever tasted; my friend Susanna, for instance, makes a version that easily rivals this one. But for a first attempt, I'm pretty pleased. I also think the (minor) fault may have been with my soy sauce, a fancy artisanal variety (fermented in 100-year-old barrels!) that didn't perform as well as say, Kikkoman, under these conditions.

Serves 2-4

1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 tablespoons dry sherry (or cooking wine)
2 teaspoons minced, peeled, fresh ginger

3 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch

Coarse salt

1/2 cup chicken broth

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoons rice vinegar

2 teaspoons sugar

1 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons vegetable oil

2 garlic cloves, chopped

2/3 cup unsalted cashews, toasted
2 green onions, white and green parts separated and thinly sliced

In a medium bowl, toss chicken with sherry, ginger, and 1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch; season with salt. Refrigerate 30 minutes. In another bowl, combine broth, soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, and 2 teaspoons cornstarch. Set sauce aside.

In a large nonstick skillet, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat. Add half the chicken and cook until golden and cooked through, about 5 minutes. Transfer chicken to a covered plate. Add 1 teaspoon oil to skillet and cook remaining chicken (reduce heat if chicken is over-browning). Transfer to plate.

To same skillet, add 1 teaspoon oil, garlic, cashews, and green onion whites. Cook, stirring constantly, until garlic begins to soften, about 30 seconds. Whisk sauce and add to skillet along with chicken. Cook until sauce thickens, about 30 seconds. Top with green onion greens and serve with rice or noodles.


Caramelized Broccoli with Garlic
Adapted from Food & Wine

To all of the broccoli haters burned by memories of soggy, water-logged florets—please, give this recipe a chance. Crunchy and caramelized, it went perfectly with the cashew chicken, but I suspect it would perk up any plate.

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 heads of broccoli (1 1/4 pounds total), stems peeled
1/2 cup water
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
Pinch of crushed red pepper
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Cut the broccoli into thick slices. In a large, deep skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the broccoli, cut side down, cover and cook over moderate heat until richly browned on the bottom.

Add the water, cover and cook until the broccoli is just tender and the water has evaporated. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil along with the garlic and the crushed red pepper and cook uncovered until the garlic is golden brown. Season with salt and black pepper, drizzle with the lemon juice and serve.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

the best cranberry sauce

I know this looks ridiculous. I know.

It's just that I take the subject of cranberry sauce seriously. I'm
not one for culinary orthodoxy, but when it comes to Thanksgiving, certain rules must be observed. Foremost among these is this: One cranberry sauce is simply not adequate. Two, at minimum—preferably three, even if the third happens to be a Jello-fied cylinder, straight from the can (just for nostalgia's sake).

Which brings us to this year's cranberry taste test—a pet project
that's been in the works for some time now. In the past month, I've experimented with several acclaimed recipes, in addition to resurrecting some old favorites. What resulted was a tournament bracket of cranberry condiments, in order to determine the best cranberry sauce/chutney/relish (or in my case, the best triumvirate of cranberry sauces/chutneys/relishes) in all the land.


The Winners:

Cranberry-Horseradish Relish
Or, the dark horse(radish) candidate, a staple of our Thanksgiving table for several years running. People respond to the flavor combination at first with skepticism, then (inevitably) with total submission. Technically, it's a relish (read: made with raw cranberries), and, with the aid of a food processor, dead-easy to prepare. Please trust me and try it.

Cranberry Fruit Conserve
Ina Garten, in her usual more-the-merrier wisdom, opts for a serious sugar-to-cranberry ratio. Combined with chopped apple, walnuts, and dual citrus action, it makes for a conserve so good you'll spoon it over toast, yogurt, breakfast cereal. (Warning: the rest of your Thanksgiving meal will pale in comparison.)

Triple Cranberry Sauce:

I loved the concept of this sauce, which concentrates the cranberry threefold (cooked, juiced and dried), but on first taste it didn't blow me away. Rather than abandon the batch, I nestled in a cinnamon stick and let it chill overnight, hopeful that the flavors would blossom into something delicious. They did.


The Runners-Up

Cranberry-Ginger Chutney
Of all my new test subjects, this is the one I most wanted to love (primarily out of loyalty to its creator, Molly of Orangette). I think, perhaps, I should have minded the title. This is definitely a chutney—with significantly more sweet-sour twang than your average sauce. I did really like it — particularly the bursts of crystallized ginger (which I'll borrow for future recipes)—but it's not quite what I'm looking for on Thanksgiving.

Spiced Cranberry Sauce with Zinfandel
Not pictured here, unfortunately, but the recipe stands out in my mind
from Thanksgivings past. I know it sounds annoyingly schwa, but the effect is rich and perfect for the season, almost like mulled wine. If you're looking for a "spiced" cranberry sauce, this one is my favorite so far.


Triple Cranberry Sauce with Ginger and Pecans
A riff on the Triple Cranberry Sauce featuring pecans and ginger syrup (ginger syrup—genius). Very tasty, but in the end I preferred the (only moderately tweaked) original.


Not For Me:

Cranberry Sauce with Grand Marnier

This was one of the featured "signature dishes" in Saveur's Thanksgiving issue this year, so I couldn't resist. It's another brown sugar-spiced variation on the cranberry, with the clever addition of black peppercorns. For me, the flavor was not as well balanced as the others.


***

Do yourself a favor and make these the day before. [Covered, they'll survive in the refrigerator at least twice that long.] You want to allow enough time for the flavors to blend. Plus, you already have enough on your Thanksgiving day plate.


Cranberry-Horseradish Relish

Most of the measurements below are approximate—you can add these things to taste. This is one that really needs time to rest; I usually avoid seasoning until after it's been chilled. By the way, this one wins the day-after Turkey sandwich condiment award.


1 (12-ounce) package cranberries, thawed

1 small onion, quartered [I usually end up using about 3/4 onion]

½ cup sugar
1/2 cup light sour cream or plain low-fat yogurt

2 tablespoons drained prepared horseradish
Salt


Combine cranberries, onion and sugar in a food processor. Pulse until coarsely chopped.
Transfer the mixture to a bowl and add sour cream, horseradish and salt to taste. Refrigerate until chilled, preferably overnight.


Cranberry Fruit Conserve
Adapted from Ina Garten


1 (12-ounce) bag of fresh cranberries, cleaned
1 3/4 cups sugar [I tend to use a little less]
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored, and chopped

1 orange, zest grated and juiced
1 lemon, zest grated and juiced
3/4 cup raisins
3/4 cup chopped walnuts or pecans


Cook the cranberries, sugar, and 1 cup of water in a saucepan over low heat for about 5 minutes, or until the skins pop open. Add the apple, zests, and juices and cook for 15 more minutes. Remove from the heat and add the raisins and nuts. Let cool, and serve chilled.


Triple-Cranberry Sauce

Adapted from Bon Appétit


1 cup frozen cranberry juice cocktail concentrate, thawed

1/3 cup sugar
1 12-ounce package fresh or frozen cranberries, cleaned
1/2 cup dried cranberries (about 2 ounces; I used a combination of cranberries and cherries)

3 tablespoons orange marmalade

2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
2 teaspoons minced orange peel
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1 cinnamon stick

Combine cranberry juice concentrate and sugar in heavy medium saucepan. Bring to boil over high heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Add fresh and dried cranberries and cook until dried berries begin to soften and fresh berries begin to pop, stirring often, about 7 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in orange marmalade, orange juice, orange peel, allspice and cinnamon stick. Cool completely. Cover; chill until cold, about 2 hours. Remove cinnamon stick and serve.