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Archive for December, 2013

I’ve been called a lot of names, but “a Christmas miracle” is a new one for me.

And yet, there it was last week on my computer screen when I told my cousin Judy that I’d be able to drive out to Pennsylvania for her twenty-fourth annual Christmas Eve party. With geographic distance and a rapidly growing clan came the need for holiday celebrations that once fit around a (very long) table to separate into two. I hadn’t seen Judy’s side of the family in years, and when I walked through the door, a cheer erupted, followed  by hugs and kisses all around and a running squeal from my little cousin Clover.

The family was gathered around the kitchen counter, and someone quickly offered a stool and pushed a glass of wine into my hand. There was a round-robin of catching up until the cries of the kids could no longer be ignored and we all dove under the tree to dig out our gifts. On the pine needle-strewn floor, I found a bag with my name filled with a kaleidoscope of kitchen tools. Over cake, Clover and I assembled glow-in-the-dark necklaces. 

Bedtimes drew near and the crowd thinned out. As we approached midnight, just a few of us remained. Over the last drops of wine, we packed food into containers and neatly fit them into the refrigerator like a 3D Tetris game. And then the real catching up began. There were stories about my father as a kid, about lives reinvented, about family members I’d never had the opportunity to meet. Apparently my great-grandmother Lillian used to watch TV with a blanket around her legs because she didn’t want the anchorman to look up her skirt. Classic. Just classic.

I woke up the next morning in a red and green haze. I hadn’t heard Santa overnight, but I had no problem blaming him for the few  forkfuls of cake that disappeared before I got the coffee brewing. Judy, her husband Michael, and I shared a lazy morning and then I showered (in a tinsel-bedazzled bathroom) and got back in my car to drive home.

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lately

Hello, hello!

Yesterday was the shortest day of the year, and today was the warmest it’s been in months. I was driving about this afternoon, popping over to Crown Heights for a little barbecue and a few pretzels, and as I headed home in traffic and the sky darkened into night just a few minutes later than it did yesterday, I shot a few photos.

Here’s to longer days. And more sunshine. 

Manhattan Bridge N train

Apparently, the North Pole is somewhere on the Upper East Side. Where? Not sure.

North Pole

There’s a green market outside my apartment every Friday. You can never have enough apples.

apples

Or cranberry applesauce
cranberry applesauce

And then there’s Cuban artist Alexandre Arrachea‘s No Limits exhibit – The Sherry Netherland in Union Square

Union Square

I’m having fun being back in New York.

ps – Did you notice that it’s snowing on my blog? It starts every year on December first and continues until I’m not sure when. Love it.

pps – Want to make your chocolate chip cookies exactly the way you want them? Here’s a start. To make my own recipe even better (crispy crispy crispy), I should try 100% white sugar, melt the butter, use only baking soda, just barely mix all the ingredients together, and let the dough rest overnight before baking.

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kitchen rummaging

A few weeks ago, I found myself face-to-face with my twelve-year-old self.

A friend asked me for a few hours of emergency babysitting, and I rushed over to take care of her son. I checked in on the little guy and, reassured by his rhythmic breathing and his little wrinkled hand wrapped around a blanket, I did what every good babysitter does. I sussed out the snack situation. I set my computer and books down on the sofa and turned to the kitchen to rummage.

The counter was littered with bottles and formula. From the fridge, I grabbed a pear. Sinking my teeth into the crispy fruit to free up my hands, I reached for the cabinet above the sink. Cheerios. I filed the cereal in the back of my mind in case I got desperate.

Then I pulled open the freezer. Jackpot! A ziplock back of chocolate chip cookies. I snuck out one  golden craggy biscuit, carefully re-sealing the bag and returning it to its niche. I lifted the cookie to my teeth and broke off a cold piece with a satisfying snap.

Chocolate chip cookies

And with that one frozen bite, I was transported to the kitchen of my childhood.

I’m not sure when or how it happened, but at one point I took over the cookie-baking duties in my house. With the rare exception of an odd batch of peanut butter cookies with their tell-tale fork-made cross-hatch design or snickerdoodles rolled in cinnamon-sugar and tangy with cream of tartar, chocolate chip cookies were the darling of the Squires household. And I was  happy to comply. Whenever I baked, my chocoholic father showed his appreciation with a trail of crumbs from the cooling rack to his favorite chair in the living room.

Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe - Betty Crocker

When I made cookies, I was a one-kid production line. For efficiency’s sake, I calculated and jotted down on page 136 of our Betty Crocker cookbook* how much margarine (we didn’t use butter) I needed for a double chocolate chip batch: exactly 5 sticks and 8 teaspoons. We had two ovens – one below the stove, and the other above where most microwaves are installed these days. I used both of the ovens simultaneously, rotating three cookie sheets at a time (the top oven only  had a single rack). I had four sheets to work with, so there was always one dotted with raw dough ready to replace the one the buzzing timer told me was ready. 

I tried to keep everything moving like clockwork, but the cooling process was a bottleneck and my system typically broke down around the ninth dozen when I’d have a backlog of cooling cookies. My father tried to help, grabbing as many plaint, still-warm cookies straight off the sheets as he could.

At the end of the cookie-baking marathon there would be, oh, about 150 cookies. Yup. One-five-zero cookies. Once they were fully cooled, most of them went straight into bags and straight into the freezer where, weeks later, I might find a sweet dozen between packages of frozen broccoli, or behind a carton of sorbet, or in the ice-cube maker. If my father didn’t find them first. 

* I’ve written about chocolate chip cookies in the past here and here, substituting another recipe when I couldn’t find the Betty Crocker one I grew up with. About a year ago, I finally found poor old page-stained, spine-cracked, well-loved Betty while I was rummaging through the pantry at my parents house. Seems I like kitchen rummaging. I scanned the cookie recipe and one for pancakes as well.

Chocolate chip cookies

Chocolate Chip Cookies

This recipe is adapted from page 136 in Better Crocker’s Cookbook, circa well before I was born.

These cookies are really flat and crispy. If you prefer ones that are thicker and chewy, add 1/2 cup of flour and replace half the butter with shortening. I used a mix of milk and dark chocolate chips just to shake things up a bit.

Makes 6-7 dozen

- 1 1/3 C butter, room temperature

- 1 C granulated sugar

- 1 C packed brown sugar

- 2 eggs

- 2 t vanilla

- 3 C all-purpose flour

- 1 t baking soda

- 1 C dark or semi-sweet chocolate chips

- 1 C milk chocolate chips

Prep. Preheat oven to 375ºF and position the racks int he top and bottom third of the oven. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Mix. Mix together the room temperature butter, sugars, eggs, and vanilla. I used the paddle attachment on my stand mixer, but growing up I mixed everything by hand. Stir in the remaining ingredients with a spatula.

Scoop. Drop dough by rounded teaspoonfuls two inches apart on the lined  baking sheet(s). You can use two spoons, a spoon and a finger to nudge the dough onto the sheet, or a small cookie/ice cream scoop. The cookies will spread a lot, so make sure you leave enough room between them.

Bake. Bake in the middle of the oven for 8-10 minutes or until light brown. After the first four minutes, switch the sheets top and bottom and rotate them front to back for even baking.

Cool. Let the cookies cool on parchment on the baking sheet for 2-3 minutes until they firm up enough to keep their round shapes. If you try to lift the parchment and the cookies  wrinkle and squish, leave them on the tray for another minute. Slide the parchment off the sheet and allow the cookies to cool until you can easily slide them off the parchment straight onto a cooling rack. If you’re going to freeze the cookies, let them cool completely before slipping them into a zip-top bag. Otherwise you’ll end up with a big frozen cookie lump. Which isn’t always bad thing. If you don’t want to share.

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dessert first

Hello, December. Hello, snow.

December snow

Hello, birthday.

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Yup, December is birthday month over here. The official date is the 8th, and my friends and family made this past weekend wonderfully special. There was dinner and a spa and dinner again. And a few more things to come. As I said, it’s birthday month on my blog.

That chocolate cake up there? It’s a birthday cake. But it’s not my birthday cake; it’s Alyson’s. And I made it one year and ten days ago on the dot.

In case  you don’t remember, a few years back, Alyson and I went to Vienna where I dragged her from cafe to cafe in search of the best sachertorte.  From one side of the city to the other, we chased this dense, slightly-dry, not-too-sweet, layered chocolate cake whose richness can only be tempered by a large scoop of whipped cream. 

From the day my plane touched down back in Boston, that sachertorte haunted me. Within days of my return home, I started my search for a recipe. First there was Austrian chef Wolfgang Puck’s version and one from Kaffehaus, a cookbook of cakes from central Europe. Then a high school classmate sent me a German recipe that her husband swears is authentic, and that the daughter of a colleague translated for me. Just before summer, I clipped a recipe from Food & Wine and found this dreamy video of sachertorte being made (watch it if you think chocolate is sexy) and its accompanying recipe.

I tucked away all of the recipes and waited.

As Alyson’s birthday approached, I studied each set of instructions and devised a plan of action. I created a spreadsheet comparing each of the recipes I had collected: quantities of ingredients, number of cake layers, amount of apricot filling. (I know, I know. A spreadsheet? I know.)

Armed with way too much information, I decided to go with the recipe that had the highest bittersweet chocolate-to-sugar ratio, only two layers, and a hefty dose of apricot.

I cooked from sunrise to sunset on the day of Alyson’s birthday. In addition to sachertorte, I banged out challah, a roast, kale salad, and pomegranate carrots.

But here’s the deal. Since the torte was dairy, and dinner was meat, we ate dessert first. And then after dinner, we ate a second dessert.

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PS – I hear that the best sachertorte in NY is at Cafe Sabarsky. Guess where I’ll be later this week. Who wants to join me?

Sachertorte

As I mentioned above, I adapted this cake from five different recipes and most closely followed the one  from the most unlikely of sources. A sachertorte is definitely a special occasion cake: it takes about 4 hours to make (much of it cooking and cooling time) and you have to use and wash your stand mixing bowl three times.

Make sure to serve with barely-sweetened whipped cream. 

Serves 8-10

For the torte:

- 10 oz bittersweet chocolate (70% cocoa; I used Callebaut)

- 8 eggs

- 1 C sugar

- 2/3 C unsalted butter, softened

- 2 t vanilla extract

- 1 1/3 C all-purpose flour

- 1 1/2 C apricot preserves (I used Hero brand)

For the chocolate ganache:

- 2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter

- 8 oz semisweet chocolate, chopped (I used Callebaut)

- 2 T light corn syrup

- 1 t vanilla extract

For the whipped cream

- 1 C heavy cream

- 1 t vanilla extract

- 1 1/2 T confectioner’s sugar

Prep. Preheat the oven to 325°F. Butter and flour a 9-inch springform pan.

Melt. Finely chop the chocolate and melt it in a double boiler (I set a metal  bowl over an inch of water in a pot) over medium-high heat. Set aside.

Separate. Separate the eggs (this is easier to do straight from the fridge).

Beat. Beat the sugar and butter in a stand mixer until creamy. Add the egg yolks one at a time, blending after each addition. Add the vanilla. Fold in the flour and melted chocolate (don’t bother cleaning the bowl you melted the chocolate in; you’ll need to melt some more chocolate later). Transfer the chocolate batter into another bowl, clean and dry the mixer bowl well and then beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold them into the batter in several batches.

Bake. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 50 to 60 minutes, until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. (Clean the mixer bowl because you’re going to need it one more time.)

Cool. Let the cake cool in the pan for at least 30 minutes.

Puree. Pour the apricot preserves into a small bowl, microwave them for 10 seconds, and use an immersion blender to smooth into a glaze.

Cut. When the cake is cool, cut it in half crosswise, making two layers.

Spread. Brush the bottom layer with apricot, stack on the second layer, and then brush the whole cake with the rest of the preserves. It should look like this.

Melt (again). Melt the butter in a double boiler over medium-high heat. Finely chop the chocolate and add it with the corn syrup and cook, stirring constantly, until the chocolate is melted. Remove from the heat, stir in the vanilla, and let cool. Makes about 1 1/2 cups of ganache.

Pour. Pour the ganache over the cake, smoothing out tops and sides with a spatula. Before the ganache hardens, the cake should look like this.

Cool. Let the cool in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour, until set.

Whip. Use a stand mixer to whip together the cream, vanilla, and confectioner’s sugar.

Serve. Serve each slice with a nice scoop of whipped cream.

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stuffing

How was your Thanksgiving? Your Hanukkah?

This Thanksgiving, with nine of us around the table, we kept things low-key and didn’t go crazy with the food. I mean, we didn’t even have potatoes, sweet or otherwise.

Now, even with a more streamlined menu, there was still that last-minute scramble as we pulled the turkey out of the oven and realized that we hadn’t cooked the broccoli and brussels sprouts. Actually, we hadn’t even decided how to cook those vegetables. While we let the turkey rest, my mom and I rapidly sliced off florets and halved sprouts, spread them on a few baking sheets, doused with olive oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper, and popped them into the hot oven. You can’t go wrong with roasting.

We started dinner with soup served in mugs. The mugs don’t match the plates. They don’t even match each other. And not in that hip casual-chic kind of way. I love that we start dinner in mugs. It’s cozy – you can’t help but wrap your hands around the warm ceramic, raise it to your face, and blow on the steaming  soup until it’s cool enough to sip, spoons reserved for scraping out the last few drops.

After the salad was passed around, my cousin Ben slipped out to carve the turkey (he’s a turkey-carving whiz) and I grabbed the vegetables and stuffing out of the oven.

We took a dishwashing break before dessert.

The next day, we had turkey for lunch and dinner.

Cornbread stuffing, apple, celery, herbs

Before we get to the stuffing (you know, just in time to start planning next Thanksgiving), here are a few links and thoughts for the week.

Ever put maple syrup in your coffee? Try it. Thanks for the tip, Adeena.

Paula Wolfert – queen of Mediterranean, Moroccan, and clay pot cooking – talks about Alzheimer’s and staving off its progression with cooking. On starting off every morning  with a hulk-green smoothie, filled with anti-oxidants and ingredients purported to improve cognition, she says, “It is tough going because it’s not delicious, it’s nutritious.  My grandmother told me, during the second world war, we were sitting in the vegetable garden: If you want to win a war, you’ve got to be willing to fight.”

A new-to-me blog, Apt. 2B Baking Co. More photos than words, Yossy Arefi, makes cakes and cookies that make me want to go out and buy pounds and pounds of butter. How about a meyer lemon and grapefruit bundt? Yes, please.

And now, the stuffing.

Cornbread apple stuffing

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen’s Apple and Herb Stuffing for All Seasons. I substituted corn bread (this recipe, which is based on Elisha’s recipe) for the hearty white bread that Deb recommended. I doubled this recipe for Thanksgiving, and our family of nine had enough leftovers for days.  When I reheat the stuffing, I sometimes pour a little liquid over top – water works just fine – to keep it from drying out in the oven (or microwave). 

Make or buy cornbread a day or two in advance if possible so you can pull it apart and dry it out; otherwise, toast it in the oven for 10-15 minutes. If you do want to make your own cornbread, I’ve modified my go-to recipe to reflect the quantities for this stuffing. 

Serves 8-10

- 1 recipe cornbread (below) or 6 cups of cornbread cut or torn into cubes and crumbs (approximately an 8X8 pan)
- 1 large yellow onion
- 2 large stalks celery
– 1 large or 2 small firm, tart tart apples, such as Granny Smith
– 5 T olive oil, divided
- 1 t chopped fresh thyme leaves
- ½ t kosher salt, plus more to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper
- ¼ C roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 3 sage leaves, minced
- 1-2 C turkey, chicken or vegetable stock or broth
- 1 large egg

Dry. Cut or tear the cornbread into small cubes or crumble into large crumbs. Let the bread dry out for a day or two before proceeding, or spread it out in a single layer on a large baking sheet and bake at 350°F for 10-15 minutes until pale golden. Keep your oven on.

Sauté. Finely chop the onion, celery, and apple. Heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add onion, thyme, salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper and cook until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add celery and cook for 2 more minutes. Then add apple and sauté until a bit tender, another 5 minutes.

Mix. Place dried-out cornbread in a large mixing bowl and scrape contents of the skillet on top. Whisk together egg and 1 cup broth and pour over. Stir in parsley and sage. Dig your hands in and mix everything together. The bread should hold its shape but be wet enough to squish when you squeeze it. If the bread seems a bit dry, pour another half cup of broth over it. If it’s still dry, pour in the last half cup. Let the bread soak for half an hour in the refrigerator.

Bake. Use the last tablespoon of oil to grease a 9-inch square baking dish (or another equivalent pan) . Spoon the bread mix into the dish. If  you toasted the bread earlier, your oven should already be at 350°F; otherwise, turn it on. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until brown on top and no liquid appears if you insert a knife vertically into the center of the stuffing pan and turn it slightly. Serve immediately, or reheat as needed. If you do reheat, you might need to add some extra liquid before popping into the oven for 10-15 minutes. 

(Non-dairy) skillet cornbread

Slightly modified from this recipe, which is based on this recipe

Serves 6-8

- 1 ½ C flour
- 1 ½ C fine cornmeal
- 2 T sugar
- 1 ½ t salt
- 1 ½ t baking powder
¾ C corn kernels (I use frozen and thaw them before use)
- 1 ¼ C water
– 4 T oil (canola or olive), divided
– 2 eggs

Preheat oven to 450ºF. Place a large oven-proof cast-iron skillet on the middle rack.

Mix. In a large bowl, mix together flour, cornmeal, sugar, salt, and baking powder. Set aside.

Purée. Place the corn, water and 2 tablespoons of oil into a blender (or food processor) and puree for about 2 minutes until it’s smooth and no corn pieces remain. Add the eggs and continue to blend everything together. You’ll end up with a light yellow liquid that’s a bit thicker than whole milk.

Wait. Wait until the oven is hot before adding the wet ingredients to the dry.

Stir. Add the wet ingredients to the dry. Stir until all the ingredients are incorporated (don’t over-mix), scraping the bottom and sides of the bowl to make sure you don’t miss any flour.

Swirl. Take the skillet out of the oven (it will be very hot) and pour in the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil, swirling so that it coats the bottom and sides of the skillet. Pour the batter into the skillet – is should sizzle as it hits the hot pan.

Bake. Bake for 20-25 minutes. Serve warm right out of the pan. If you’re making stuffing, let the cornbread completely cool, then cut or crumble into pieces and allow to dry out overnight or in the oven, as detailed above.

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