Sunday, December 21, 2008

Holiday Blend

I've been taken hostage by cookies and little baggies with string. Going homemade for the holidays, I've been sidetracked from my keyboard by baking sheets and treat boxes and gooey, sweet pounds of...well, now, since some certain family members may be grazing these pages I won't say what exactly, but I'll just say chocolate may or may not be involved.

My furious baking has also taken me away from recipes not involving excessive amounts of butter or cups packed with sugar. I'm starting to forget about vegetables. I promise we'll start the new year with a confettied parade of green leaves and baby tomatoes, but for now, let's just be sugar drunk for a little longer.

In addition to little white lights and the smell of pine, I've always been particularly fond of the holiday season as it is a widely celebrated excuse to eat sweets. Because the more the merrier is a true sentiment, and because the more friends, the more cookies you can bake, since we last chatted some of the best people in the Greenpoint area gathered in the name of great goodies; I baked, Russ sprinkled nutmeg on seriously frothy eggnog, and our friends snacked, pinning cloves into ribbon-tied oranges for a deliciously scented, affordable option in the way of ornaments.

Vanilla-sugar coated, soft molasses drops were the bat-sign of cookies shining bright on a starry Brooklyn night; everyone answered the call leaving crumbs of glittery sugar. One of my favorites, I promise you the smell of these baking is so warm and fantastic it actually feels good down to your toes.

Almost as good, that is, as it does to snack with your favorite sweeties. While there are certainly times that call of solitary ice cream consumption, and while there will always midnight snacks where you eat just one more of those brownies than you would have if someone were watching...the holidays remind me that I love food for the way it unites us, unwinds us, and gives us shiny moments to feel needed and be nourished.

I'm sure you are all packing wool socks and flannel pj's in preparation for your own holiday plans. I myself am heading to Michigan with Russ to seriously celebrate my love for snow (and family), so it may be a little while till we meet here again. But before we go, I'd like to give you one last snack; a childhood favorite of Russ's, try filling dried dates with peanut butter, finishing them off with a roll in white sugar:

If I could wrap them in a box for you I would. A sweet snack from me to you as I'm so truly glad you've all found your way to my little corner shop of a blog. And because I'm looking out for you, after the holidays, vegetables, I promise.

From the glow of eight candles to stars perched on tree tops, I wish you all warm sugary holidays. Safe travels! Eat up!

Peanut Butter-Stuffed Sugar Dates

Dried dates
Peanut butter
Granuated sugar

1. Cut a slit into the middle of a dried date.
2. Using knife, spread a bit of peanut butter into the date.
3. Roll in sugar.
4. Repeat until full.

your heart's desire

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Great Scone Experiment

My apron is my lab coat.  My kitchen, my lab.  The experiment?  Solving the equation for creating a perfect scone.

I've shared with you my deep feelings for breakfast.  All things starchy and sweet in particular.  However, in a sea of malted waffles and flapping jacks, I've always been particularly fascinated by what we call the scone.  It's a chameleon in the pastry case.  It's cakey, crumbly, dense...sweet then savory... almost always delicious but almost never the same.  

How curious.  I feel a call to experiment.   In the name of science (and yes, because I love love love scones) I decide I will work in a cloud of flour to discover the perfect mix of butter and sugar, trying currants, chocolate chips, herbs and cheese, tirelessly seeking out the ratio for a scone that embodies true...scone-iness.  

Trial 1.  I start with cranberries:

And ginger.  Hypothesizing that the shining example of a scone should have the ability to change with the times, I observe the times now call for holiday breakfasts complimented with scents of fresh pine and cold winter air. What better then, than ruby berries and warm spice.

But what about the meat of the scone?  Whirling around from the cutting board, facing the drawing board...I quickly remember it's blank.  With the number of scone recipes in the world as many as there are bakeries and breakfast buffets, I decide the most scientifically methodical decision is to spin the globe, close my eyes, and drop my finger.  

It lands on a new cookbook in my collection, "The Sweeter Side of Amy's Bread".  Cream scones to be exact.  Alright I say.  We're off. 

Stirring together flour, spice, berries and brown sugar, a stream of heavy cream brings it all together in a gooey blob of a dough; as I mix it up to the morning croons of Otis Redding, I make an observation that thus far the recipe is simple enough to allow mixing and simultaneous shimmying.  A check in the plus column.

On the table it's a bit of a sticky mess.  Not unmanageable, just enough to get your hands dirty.  The cold creamy dough coats my fingers like a spa treatment, breakfast style.  Taking care to keep the dough fairly thick (the method reminds that the scones tend to spread significantly during baking), I slice six large triangles and send them into the oven.  Then I wash my hands.

One mug of coffee and a few eager peeks into the oven later, the first run of the experiment nears it's close.  Pulling the tray from the oven, pushing smart looking glasses up for a close look, I note the scones look soft, have spread slightly and smell, well, heavenly.  

I too note my rumbling stomach and commence the final phase of testing.  Tasting.  The result?A success for cakey scone supporters.  They are very light, slightly crumbly, very moist and happily, very tasty.

These winter wonderfuls are a good place to start.  I ate two and wished there were more.  But I wonder, should they have been firmer?  Thicker?  I ponder.  Is there such a thing as a perfect scone or is a scone a scone because of it's shape-shifting sweetness?  For the sake of research, and a little bit for my love of scones, the experiment shall continue.  

Stay tuned.  Until next time, I wish you cakey cranberry ginger scones, happy holiday breakfasts, a shimmy or two and lots of Otis Redding.

Cranberry Ginger Scones

3 1/2 C flour
1 T plus 1 t baking powder
1 1/2 t salt
6 t ground ginger
1 C dark brown sugar
2 1/2 C fresh or frozen cranberries, chopped
2 2/3 C heavy cream
1 egg (for egg wash)
Turbinado sugar for sprinkling

1.  Preheat oven to 400.
2.  Whisk together flour, baking powder, salt and ginger.  Stir in brown sugar until evenly distributed.
3.  Stir in cranberries.
4.  Make a well and pour in heavy cream.  Stir with a wooden spoon or spatula until a soft dough is formed, strong enough to hold its shape without spreading.  If the dough is too stiff you can add a little more cream.
5.  Divide the dough evenly in two.  Gently shape each piece into a disk about 2 inches thick.  It will be VERY STICKY!  Go with it, enjoy it.
6.  Using a floured knife, cut each disk into six wedges.
7.  Place six on a sheet tray leaving as much space around each as possible.  Brush with egg wash (1 egg plus 1 t water), and sprinkle tops with turbinado sugar.
8.  Bake at 400 for 7 minutes.  Rotate pans, lower oven to 350, continue baking for 15 to 20 more minutes.  Scones should be golden brown and firm to the touch.  You can turn the oven down to 325 if your scones are browning too quickly.
9.  Do a shimmy and eat a scone!

12 large scones

Monday, December 8, 2008

Soup: A Love List

In an ode to love letters and grocery lists, here are 15 reasons (seasoned with one recipe) for which I am smitten with soup.

1. While it's not officially winter, it is officially cold. And soup, well, it's hot. It's the warm-cocoa-in-a-mug of nourishing meals.
2. Unlike cocoa, soup is further like tea; it knows no season. Or rather, it knows them all. While it warms in the winter it also glistens in the spring, satisfies in summer, soothes in the fall.
3. Soup is a white t-shirt and a slinky black dress. In a cup on a sick day, in a thermos for a quick lunch, in a white china bowl in a candlelit always looks good.
4. And what can't you put in it? Soup does not discriminate. Potatoes and ham. Coconut and chicken. Hazelnuts and mushrooms. Or, say...a bumpy pile of sunchokes.

5. Soup is easy. A handful of this, a sprinkle of that; add liquid and veggies, meat and seasonings, turn up the heat and you are your own chef; the soup's on.
6. Soup is comfortable. It is no hard shelled lobster. No fishy filet full of fragile bones. On a white tablecloth full of silvery silverware you can always find the soup spoon. A bowl feels good in your hands. A spoon, good between your lips.
7. Soup is sipable. Soup is slurpable.
8. It can be as simple or as complex as your time and tastebuds wish. Chicken and noodles or a melange of mysterious spices. If you're thinking sunchokes try shallots, sage, thyme and garlic.

9. Soup keeps you on your toes. It's thin and clear, smooth and thick, subtle and indulgent, chunky and nourishing. As many times as you've had it, it can continually surprise.
10. And continually change. You love clam chowder? A career could be made from tasting the varieties that simmer with people's secret ingredients.
11. So how wonderful is it then that chicken soup isn't always just chicken soup. Tomato bisque, not simply tomatoes and cream. A good soup is layered with flavors brewing just underneath the surface; to add some shazaam to your sunchoke soup, sautee andouille sausage with the seasonings before adding broth and veggies

12. And while it cooks, listen. Soup sizzles, hisses, beats and bubbles.
13. When its done, the more the merrier. No need to scrimp with soup; plunging a long spoon into a tall pot, it is satiating, even before the first bite, to know you're stirring a meal meant for feeding people you love.
14. Soup is the little dish that can. It stands alone as well as it complements a good salad, or teases before a feast. Try your sunchoke and sausage soup with a sandwich on crusty bread.

15. And best of all, soup has long arms. It leaves no one out and it squeezes tight. A fine she-crab bisque, or a campfire steak and potato stew, cabbage stock or broth with alphabet noodles, gumbo or puree of sunchokes, isn't soup something we all have in common?

Sunchoke Soup with Andouille Sausage

2 pounds sunchokes
1 medium to large link of andouille sausage*
8 medium sized shallots
3 cloves of garlic
4 springs of thyme, picked
1 T fresh sage, chopped
2 T olive oil
2 qt chicken stock

*in a pinch, anything slightly spiced and smoked will do!

1. Peel and chop sunchokes. (don't let the bumps scare you...just peel right over them, and if you loose a little flesh, no big whoop)
2. Slice sausage into 1/2 inch medallions, then chop slices to quarter.
3. In the bottom of a large stock pot, over medium heat, pour olive oil and sautee sausage, shallots, thyme, sage and garlic plus salt and pepper to taste. Heat until shallots are sweated and translucent. And when peppering, remember your sausage packs a punch! Pepper with care.
4. Add sunchokes and heat together for 2 min, stirring to brown lightly.
5. Cover with stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and let cook for about 45 min (or until sunchokes are tender).
6. Remove from heat. Let cool for about 20-30 min.
7. In a blender, puree half of the soup. BE CAREFUL! Hot soup in a blender has a tendency to get rowdy and explode out the top due to the prevent this, leave a small hole between the body of the blender and the lid (facing away from you!) and cover the top with towels to shield your hands from hot soup.
8. Pour pureed soup back into pot, stir.
9. Reheat to taste and serve.

approx 6 entree sized, soup lover servings

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Pretty Cups, Pounds of Chocolate

What inspires creativity in the kitchen?  Sweet potatoes from the farmer's market.  A new cookbook.  A rainy day.  Cravings.  Time.  There are as many sources as there are ways to cook an egg.  Not so long ago celebrating birthday number 27, I was given a set of beautiful, dreamy tea cups; in the time it takes to rip wrapping paper, inspiration!

It was clear to me that these little cups were meant for something special.  Something as indulgent as the golden, spiraling, dotted flowers that circled their thin rims.  Something as festive as the wintery-brilliant colors splashed on the saucers.  Something rich enough to let one tiny cup get the job done.

For me, more often than from dishware, inspiration in the kitchen comes from taking a close look at what's around.  On chilly days off from work, when you want to cook, but are also passionately committed to long underwear and slippers, creativity can be born from what's at hand in the pantry.  

Today my eyes fall on one 11 pound box of dark chocolate.  

I know this is not normal pantry fare.  I often wish on eyelashes and birthday candles and clocks at 11:11 for everyone's pantries to be heavy with pounds of chocolate.  Myself having made an investment some time ago figuring I'd benefit from chocolate on days just as today, this morning my special pantry provided just the idea for those special cups.

Hot chocolate.  Dark, excessively thick, milky hot chocolate.  Wheels still turning I see rosemary.  Really rolling now I think  caramel.  In a whir I grab bowls and milk and pots and sugar.

Wait.  Rosemary?  I know having 11 pounds of chocolate in my cupboard may imply insanity but follow me on this one.  In recent chats on navigating the path between sweet and savory Russ and I agreed that rosemary might indeed be a mighty little Magellan.  Earthy, wintery, fresh...combined with warm, nutty and sweet...tingling with the spirit of adventure that comes from new plans in the kitchen I decided it was time to test the waters.

So the rosemary set sail into a caramel.  Heating cream and steeping fresh rosemary needles in the pot I envision the herby caramel a cashmere scarf wrapped around scruffy, bearded cheeks; sweet and cozy with a hint of rustic wintry bite.

Slowly pouring the cream into a pot of caramelized hot sugar, the mixture froths wildly and fills the room with rich, herbal, sweet smelling steam.  For the hot chocolate base, boiling milk poured into a bowl of little chocolate pebbles further enhances the merry mix of scents and steam that warm the kitchen, wafting and fogging up windows.

To finish the drink I whisk the caramel into the thin chocolate ganache.  I dip a spoon into the bowl.  Inside slippers my toes are tickled.  My belly is happy.  And while my box of chocolate is a few ounces lighter, the taste test proves the experiment well worth the cocoa butter.  A fine, handsome drink for that dainty cup.

Maybe you don't have pounds of chocolate on hand.  Maybe your cups are cracked or coffee stained.  I have those too; don't worry about it.  Let this recipe inspire you to try a little cup of something delicious.  Let it give you some oohs and ahhs, some slippered-toe tickles,  and maybe let it lead you to your next great kitchen discovery (if that's the rationalization of excessive pantry chocolate stashing, all the better...)

Rosemary Caramel Hot Chocolate

For the caramel:
1 1/2 C heavy cream
2 large sprigs of rosemary, picked (about 2 T)
1 C sugar

For the chocolate base:
12 oz. dark chocolate, chopped (about 2 C)
4 C milk

1.  To make the caramel, first heat cream to a near boil.  Take cream off the heat, stir in rosemary, cover and let steep for about 5 min.
2.  Strain rosemary and reserve 1 C of cream.
3.  In a small pot, mix sugar with water (enough to make sugar feel like heavy, wet sand.  Don't stress...too much water won't hurt).  On high heat, cook until sugar reaches a beautiful, amber brown.
4.  Turn off heat.  Immediately, slowly stream in 1 C of cream.  Pour carefully- the mixture will foam up!  Stir caramel until smooth.
5.  To make the chocolate base, in a medium pot bring milk to a boil.
6.  In a large bowl, pour hot milk over chocolate.  Cover for 2 minutes without stirring.  
7.  Uncover, and whisk until mixture is smooth.
8.  Whisk in the rosemary caramel.

approx 1 qt