bittersweet chocolate…

May 16, 2012 Comments Off on bittersweet chocolate…

…in many forms.  It’s my last week with the kiddos before I decamp for two weeks of design-building a food stand for an Omaha food festival and then four weeks of research and travel in Italy.  Tough gig, I know.  I told them that we should do some of our favorite kitchen things together to mark the occasion.  Grilling is big on the list.  So is pizza.  We did a Food and Wine mac’n’cheese recipe last night and, as usual, C reported that it was “good, but not as good as pimiento mac.”  I agreed with him.

They didn’t mention desserts at all, so I figured I’d experiment a bit.  I overbought bittersweet chocolate a couple of weeks ago, and I certainly don’t want it in the house while they’re gone.  Because I’ll make something, and eat it.  So instead I found two recipes that I thought we could do as a team, that would use up the chocolate, and that would be ridiculous.

Like chocolate souffles!  This is actually an NPR recipe for Salted Chocolate Soufflettes.  The point was that souffles aren’t all that hard, and they’re delicious, so why don’t people make more of them?  I couldn’t agree more.  I’ve played around with enough French pastry recipes in the last few weeks that I’ve become pretty comfortable with beating egg whites into a stiff froth.  There’s timing involved, but once egg white has enough air beaten into it to stand on its own, I’ve realized that it takes some effort to deflate it.  So I figured these seemed eminently doable, even with my ham-handed kitchen skills.  Super easy–melted butter, cream, and chocolate get mixed with egg yolks, the whites from those eggs (plus one or two extra whites, which I had leftover from this weekend’s pistachio ice cream) get beaten into a frenzy and folded into the yolk mixture, and the resulting foam gets spooned into some ramekins and baked for 25 minutes at 375°.  The results were spectacular–C actually backed away from the oven after he took a peek inside because they grew a fairly alarming amount.  They deflated a little bit as they cooled, but with some leftover strawberries and raspberries they tasted great.  Light, airy, and crunchy exteriors, but also rich and pudding-like on the inside.  We’ll do these again.

And for the last round of lunch cookies before the summer peregrinations?  These spectacular &$%ers.  Brown butter chocolate chip cookies, from Food and Wine this month.  No real secrets, here, just brown the butter before it gets creamed with the requisite sugars.  Small detail, huge difference.  Even though the rest of the recipe is basically a simple Toll House cookie, the browned butter adds a really nice nuttiness and some serious color.  The dough sits overnight, which I’m guessing autolyses the flour nicely.  And, helpfully, the recipe calls for a full quarter-cup scoop of batter per cookie.  I’ve been more economical with the portions this year, but what the hell.  O reports that they’re watching videos every day in at least a couple of classes, so if teachers are calling it a year, I say add sugar-and-carb madness to the soup of spring-driven tween hormones.  A full quarter cup it is.  “When I opened my lunchbox,” O said, “I thought it was a hamburger patty.”  Total win, and soooper tasty.  They’d better eat all of them before they go to their mom’s place.

Not sure how we’ll top those, dessert-wise, but I’m thinking an almond cake would be appropriate given the looming departure for Italy…

baking frenzy

December 12, 2011 Comments Off on baking frenzy

I cleaned the oven last week–the easy but scary way.  It was carnage in there–layer upon layer of corn meal from baking, burned-on olive oil from overgenerous pan-roasting, etc.  It was to the point that you couldn’t really see through the oven window.  All of that really demanded the nuclear option, but it also made me think for a bit.  What would happen when all of that oven funk was exposed to the 800° heat of a hardcore cleaning cycle?  The option, of course, was to bury my head in the oven with a can full of corrosive oven cleaner.  Blech.  I’d rather set the kitchen on fire.

L offered nothing but encouragement.  “It’s a normal oven function,” she said.  Get over it.  She admitted, though, that her preferred method of oven-cleaning was to change apartments.

Anyway, it went off without a hitch.  It took five hours, and the thing made some amazing noises, but it had the bonus side effect of keeping the kitchen super-toasty on the coldest winter day yet.  When it finally let me open the door, the inside was pristine, totally clean save for a thin film of white dust on the oven floor.  I’ll admit to spending several minutes a day ever since just opening the door and staring at the inside, and realizing that I’d never really known what color it was.

With that brave task accomplished, I baked some stuff this weekend.  Part of me thought that the magic flavoring qualities of the oven grime would be sorely missed, but I also figured that I was now much less likely to set the smoke alarm off at random intervals (so far, true).  My studio had its review this weekend, and I figured that I’d make some stuff for them.  I baked a batch of oatmeal cookies during the final-week-deathwatch, and thought that the review could use some home-baked goodness.  That’s a rye loaf up above, out of Hertzberg and Francois’ Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.  It’s the recipe that, apparently, got them started on the cold fermentation kick, and it was pretty lovely.  I’d never made rye before, and it was definitely a different feel getting the dough together.  But it also baked up flawlessly, and with a little cornstarch wash and some caraway seeds it tasted like every good New York deli I’ve ever been to, with a super-crunchy outside and a chewy, moist inside.

The other big experiment this weekend was biscotti.  Afternoon coffee in Rome was always accompanied by a couple of these, and they’re a serious weakness these days.  Nothing’s better than a lightly flavored, super-crunchy cookie dipped into a hot cup of strong coffee–the biscotti gets nice and soft, and the coffee gets sweeter (and, OK, a bit grainy).  I’d been eyeing the recipes in Cynthia Field’s Italian Baker, but there was a simpler-looking on in one of the Cooks’ Illustrated books, and I’ve learned to start there before moving into the more serious stuff.  Cook’s is really good about telling you why things get done the way they do, and what to watch for in other (often more traditional) recipes.  These biscotti were simple–orange zest, almonds, and vanilla, all mixed in to a straightforward mix of sugar, flour, butter, and baking powder.  You bake them in a loaf, then slice them thin and bake them again to dry them out–making them thirsty for coffee, just like their baker.  The recipe says they’ll keep for two weeks, but in a studio full of hungry, coffee-starved students, they lasted 15 minutes.

fagottini

November 13, 2011 Comments Off on fagottini

The new edition of Carol Field’s The Italian Baker arrived before I left town Wednesday for a quick trip to California, and it was on my mind all week.  I’m in a Roman state of mind.  My May trip is shaping up, with travel arrangements getting settled in, an itinerary starting to form, and some promising news about future research funding coming in over the transom.  So this was well-timed.

The Italian Baker is an encyclopedic collection of bread recipes, and I’ve got a batch of pan bigio rising as we speak.  But it also has a ton of desserts, including cookies.  C saw me reading through it yesterday.  We’re having a man-weekend while his mom and sister go see Wicked in the big city.  “New cookbook?”  he asked.  “Yep,” I told him.  “Any cookies?”

I hadn’t really thought about that, but I needed to bake some.  We’ve got a short stint coming up and I didn’t have time to get a fresh batch baked before I picked him up.  So I told him sure, we’d find a nice, simple Italian cookie recipe and make a week’s worth of that.

Simple, Italian, and cookie don’t always go together.  There were a lot of almond paste-based recipes, all of which looked doable but not excatly kid-friendly.  And then we came across this one.  It’s not the most promising name–these are apparently named after a pasta of the same shape–but the subtitle, “little jam-filled pockets,” intrigued the boy.  So we dissected the recipe and set to work.

These are based on pasta frolla, standard-issue Italian pastry dough–two parts flour, one part butter (!), and one part sugar. That’s a rich mix, and it gets some added oomph with egg, vanilla and lemon juice.  This was a good chance to crack open the good Mexican vanilla extract we bought a few weeks ago at the fancy big-city spice store.  All that gets cut together and chilled, then rolled out and cut into circles.  Lacking any cookie cutters, we found that egg rings did the trick.  Make these into pockets, dab a bit of organic apricot jam in the middle, seal them up, and (critical!) brush them with egg, and then bake them for 20 minutes.  C and I set up a little assembly line–jam, fold, brush, plop–and managed to more or less keep out of each others’ way.

The egg brush gives them a nice golden color, but even better is the really light crispy outside.  “These are the best cookies ever,” C said.  Even better than chocolate chip oatmeal?  “Well, they’re one of the best cookies ever.”  Super light, just a bit chewy, and the fruit in the center, while only as good as the jam you use, makes them seem like little fruit pies, albeit with really sweet crusts.  Whether they survive the lunchboxes or not this week remains to be seen, but C reckoned this might have been the greatest baking experiment yet.  I think we’ll try some more Italian cookies, probably of increasing difficulty.  There’s a nice contrast between these and the super-heavy and chewy American standard issue, and with Italian thoughts bouncing around in my head the picture of some light afternoon pastries with a cup of tea in some piazza in Vicenza (OK, or maybe a glass of wine), these seem like the right way to go for the moment…

double dutch

March 23, 2011 Comments Off on double dutch

Hard to believe, but it’s the last week of the temporary experiment in single fatherhood.  We go back to Oak Park Friday to pick up K, and I told the kids that we should make this week a Greatest Hits Festival of Dad Cooking.  Stellar, they said.

So we’ve done some old favorites.  Fried chicken and oven-baked sweet potato fries last night.  Pimiento mac’n’cheese will be the grand finale Thursday, and thanks to two alums who made an emergency run from Omaha (thanks, K and J!) we’ve got actual peppadews to work with.  That will taste amazing.  Tomorrow is a fundraiser at the local burger joint, so we’ll do that instead of broiling polenta again, though I may still do that and use up the leftover shrimp.  If K even sees those in the house she’ll have a seizure.

But the real dilemma was cookies.  Snickerdoodles?  Oatmeal chocolate?  Or those super-dense gourmet chocolate chip bricks?  The kids finally settled on that last one, but we’ve made those a bunch–no challenge there.  What if I looked for a different recipe?

“NO, Dad!”  said O.  I have a reputation for unwise experimentation and I’m sure she was anticipating flaxseed or wheat bran.  “Do the recipe EXACTLY the way you’ve been doing it.”

OK, fine.  I get it.  You don’t trust me.  So I’ll make the recipe exactly like it is in the cookbook.

With…one small exception.  What if I substituted half a cup of flour with, oh, I don’t know, half a cup of unsweetened dutch cocoa? That we happened to have leftover from the last gelato?  Pretty badassed, I thought.

When O got home she immediately smelled the gooey richness coming out of the kitchen.  “Someone baking brownies?” she asked.  And we snorted, because we all know what that means to the 12-year old mind.  Then she saw the cookies.

“What did you do?” she asked, but the look she gave me asked “what the hell did you do?

“Trust me,” I said.  “You can split that small one with your brother.”

She nibbled on her half and rolled her eyes back in her head, Bernini-like.

“Oh.  My.  God.”

“Language, dear.”

She thought these were totally worth the twenty-five cents for the swear jar.  As did I.  I put in an extra mile or two this morning.  I’ve already had my taster’s sample, but I cannot sit idly by while these are waiting, and I’m pretty sure one or maybe two are going to get nommed for lunch.  Because they are pretty amazing, sort of like brownie cookies with chocolate chips in them.  Definitely worth the swear jar.

baking day

March 1, 2011 Comments Off on baking day

So first things first.  The girl is in good shape.  Achey, and definitely up for the ibuprofen this afternoon when she got home from school, but fine.  The orthopedist’s office hadn’t called by the end of the day, so I phoned them and they basically said yup, we know about it, and we’ll get her in sometime this week, but it’s not falling off so it’s really not all that interesting to us.

So I sent both kids outside when they got home today, because it was spectacular out.  Temps up in the 50s, bright sun, etc.  It really felt like spring, enough that I cracked open the front and back doors and let a little fresh air in.  That’s always a big moment, because it starts to feel like we’ve been breathing the same air since November.

Anyway, the house also smelled fantastic, because I did this thing I’ve been doing where I get overly ambitious and plan too much with no backup.  So I have to follow through,  and I end up with the oven going pretty much all day.  Last night I realized we were almost out of 1) bread, and 2) cookies.  Neither of these represented an acceptable situation.

In addition, the boy wanted sloppy joes tonight, and I wanted sweet potato fries.  So I broke out my calendar and figured out how to get two sets of bread baking (since there’s no way I’m buying hamburger rolls at this point), a batch of vegan chocolate chip cookies (by request, I swear!), a 40-minute sweet potato roast and a trip to the store in.  It was complicated, but as you can see it came together in the end.  And I got in a run, two full chapters edited, and a bunch of appointments for electricians, etc., made.

The ciabatta kicked butt, the sloppy joes were awesome on the sandwich rolls (I left them in an extra couple of minutes so they’d stand up to the extreme sauciness), the sweet potatoes were a little underdone but nommed, and the cookies are awaiting judgment by the panel.

I am having a glass of wine tonight.

shortbread

February 9, 2011 Comments Off on shortbread

The kids went for their dessert last night and were horrified to discover only two of the awesome chocolate chip cookies were left.

“We won’t have any for lunch tomorrow!” they yelled.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.

“Didn’t you notice?”

I told them that I eat exactly one of every batch of cookies we make.  Otherwise I’d be fat again in two days.  They were even more horrified by this.

“Have some of your Christmas candy,” I said.  I should admit that I’m secretly proud of the fact that they haven’t made much of a dent in the pile.  “I’ll make something tomorrow.”

“How about shortbread?” O said.

Right on.  How about shortbread?  Our family has pretty deep Scottish roots, and I’ve always been particularly fond of shortbread.  It’s one of the few culinary achievements to come out of the land that created haggis (though believe me, we’re making one of those someday, too).  And I’d seen a good recipe a few weeks ago, one that involved grinding up oatmeal to start, which promised to give the final result a bit of texture and bite.

So I’ve made just enough batches of normal cookies to know the routine, and to blanch a little it at the recipe for shortbread.  Cold butter and flour?  In the mixer?  Won’t that just knock around for a while, scattering flour all over the kitchen?  Well, yes, but after ten minutes the magic happened.  The butter warmed up just enough to start sticking to the flour, and pretty soon there was a sort of doughy mass that pressed easily into a springform pan.  Lacking a biscuit cutter, I found the old flying saucer sandwich crimper that we used to use to make the kids’ sammies into little spaceships, and that worked nicely to cut a hole out of the middle.  Twenty minutes in the oven, then score the disk into wedges, prick those, and put it back in the oven with the heat turned off to let it dry out.

O got home right about when they were finished cooling, and I asked her if she wanted to help.  “Nah,” she said.

“OK, then, I’ll just dip them in the chocolate myself.”

Zoom.

She proved to be an able shortbread dipper.  We used the rest of the good Ghirardelli chips, and she only accidentally dropped two wedges into the double boiler.  “Oh,” she said, “dibs!

They came out amazingly well.  The recipe used confectioners sugar, which gave them a really fine grain that matched the coarseness of the oatmeal.  And the recipe cut the butter a bit from the standard shortbread formula–not that I’d know, but it said so–and they weren’t at all greasy.  Just light, crunchy, sweet but oaty.  And, of course, the chocolate didn’t hurt.  “So, O,” I said as we were finishing up.  “What do you think we ought to do with the leftover chocolate?”

Food painting.  Best.  Idea.  Ever.

snow day

February 1, 2011 § 2 Comments

I know, grownups are supposed to complain about snow, and we’re supposed to lament the fact that they’ve closed the schools, yadda, yadda, yadda.  But I have been secretly hoping for a snow day for a while.  As much as I hate driving on ice, I really like driving in snow, especially now that I get to drive the Subaru.  I love snowblowing (but talk to me tomorrow morning at 5:30 when it’s -2°), and I love the anarchy that a good snow day represents.  No school!  No work!  Go grab cafeteria trays and go sledding!

OK, so the last one was unlikely in blizzard conditions.  But when they called off school at 1:00 today, and when NOAA radio said, basically, “don’t go out unless you absolutely need to,” I decided that we absolutely needed to make a cafe run.  I am genetically predisposed to head out into bad weather, just to see if I can get back home, and the kids thought this would make a decent break from routine.  The good coffee shop downtown is only a few blocks away, and even though morale didn’t exactly need a boost (see photo of C, above left), I thought an outing was called for.

O and I both got hot stuff–cocoa for her, dark roast coffee for me–while the boy got himself a nice, cold Italian soda.  And they both got muffins.  It was nice–I used to take them to this coffee shop when they were tiny, usually when K was volunteering at the preschool and I had a morning with C.  We got to know the owners, since they’d just opened, and they have always had a seriously family-friendly atmosphere.  The kids hadn’t been in a while, but they both said they remembered going for muffins with K or me.  And as you can see, they fit into cafe culture quite nicely.

Our cookie supply was running low, so I suggested we make a new batch with our afternoon–a suggestion that won unsurprising unanimous approval.  The girl had, in fact, demanded pudding, but C was less enthusiastic and I gave him the deciding vote.  We picked up some nice cane sugar at the organic place (which the kids like now because they leave a lot of stuff out to sample…wait until they get a bite of organic herring by mistake…), and on the way out of the parking lot C asks if I can fishtail the car on the way home.  “This isn’t the VW,” I say.  “The Sube has all-wheel drive.  It’s pretty tough to fishtail this thing.”

“AW, COME ON,” C says.  At this point, I should mention that fishtailing the Volkswagen for C is not something I’ve done frequently, but it’s always–always–received a warm response from him when I’ve done it.  O asked what on earth a fishtail is, and so OK, I hit the gas a bit and steer sharply coming out of the parking lot.  And it’s not pretty, or impressive, but the back end comes out just enough that we’re ballistic for a few seconds and I’m working the steering wheel like an F1 driver until the thing comes back into line.

“WOO HOO!” says C from the back seat.  “OK, Dad, that was pretty cool,” says O.  I, meanwhile, check the mirrors and see no disapproving citizens or (more importantly) Ames’ finest…

We had a fine afternoon putting the cookies together.  The recipe we’ve been using has a super-thick batter, so the end product is about 3/4 of an inch thick and ultra-chewy.  Both kids helped, but only on the condition that they got to lick the batter off the mixer, which was fine by me.  They’re getting good at measuring stuff and working together, and we’ve now got a fine batch of cooling hockey pucks of chocolate, butter, and sugar that should get us through the week, anyway.

All in all, not a bad afternoon…we’ll see what happens with school tomorrow, my money’s on a late start but no cancellation.  Any takers?

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