25 April 2014

Spiced Double Chocolate Cookies

An unexpected crush on a cookie prompts me to write today. It's a bit of a walk on the dark and spicy side, so I hope you're ready. But don't worry, it's nothing you can't handle.

Here's a reason why you should trust me on it: I'm pretty picky with cookies. And when it comes to double chocolate ones, I know you're not guaranteed to cookie perfection with any recipe just because there's a double dose of chocolate in there.

This cookie, like those pear muffins, happened because of my mom. I hope she knows she's giving me a lot of distraction by gifting me with these random ingredients.

But I'm not complaining. Incentive is never a bad thing. In fact, I think it ends up being how most things come together. It's about having something to build from. Because, when you don't know what to do, the same advice always applies: start where you are. Start with anything you have. Don't know what to make for dinner? Build around that obvious thing that's hanging out in the fridge already. Leftover tomato sauce becomes a vehicle for chicken sausage meatballs. The day-old heel of sourdough: panzanella salad!

This law is the thing that helps me through cooking everyday when the last thing I think I can handle is buying ten new ingredients to make a specific recipe. So I always ask: what do I have right now.

Back to the cookies: my mom gave us a spiced chili chocolate bar on Easter. This bar was not exactly what I expected. It was quite complex- with notes of pink peppercorn, and chili with fine quality cacao. It was quite good, but intense, something to have just a few squares of at a time. Thus, since after a day there was still 2/3 of the bar left (a rarity around here) my mind got to thinking about spicy chocolate cookies. I fussed around a little, hemming and almost adapting these cookies to be spicy, then changed my mind after deciding they should be left as is, and falling for a photograph by the talented Brian.

After some scribbling and math I ended up modifying A Thought's... recipe just a hair to accommodate my quite spicy bar, doing a half batch and omitting the additional cayenne called for in the dough. In the end it was the genius harmony of spices in the small amount of cocoa powder, nice dose of cinnamon and vanilla with lots of shaved chili chocolate that took these into full-bodied Mexican chocolate blisstown.

But what also makes these cookies special is their texture. They are thinnish with a nice spread (sorry) from a longer lower bake, and delicately chewy with lightly crisp outer edges and this, I've learned, is my favorite texture for this type of confection. Enjoy.

Spiced Double Chocolate Cookies

1 c + 2 T all-purpose flour (I used 1 c AP and 2T whole wheat pastry)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 T unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 cup (1 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup + 2 T packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup + 2 T granulated sugar
1  large egg, at room temperature
3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
7 oz bittersweet, spicy chocolate of choice, chopped/shaved using a chef’s knife (note: I used roughly about 5 oz spicy chocolate bar and 2 oz of a regular dark bar)

Whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda, cocoa powder, cinnamon together well, set aside.
In a mixer cream butter + salt + sugars until light and fluffy, a few minutes, scrape down as needed.
Add egg + vanilla to combine. Scrape down, mix once more.
Add dry mix in 2 additions, on low until just combined. Add half chocolate and pulse mixer once to distribute, then add other half and using a spatula or dough scraper stir dough once or twice more.
Using a medium scoop (about 2.5 Tbs capacity), scoop dough balls.

Note: at this point you may chill or freeze dough balls. When ready to bake:

Oven 325, rack in center. Line pan with parchment. Bake a few on a sheet at a time, about 15 minutes, until edges are light brown. Cool 3 minutes on tray, then move to rack to cool completely before serving.

22 April 2014

Peanut Butter Scones (with jam)

The last few spoonfuls in the peanut butter jar are hanging out on your shelf and what do you do, besides hope that someone doesn't just finish them off with a spoon? Mix up some ridic-good flourless PB cookies like every other day? Break out the mixer for something a little more involved? I'm not sure it's possible to get sick of peanut butter cookies but sometimes you feel branching out would be healthy. So, and how hard can this be to explain, you can tuck it into scone dough with a little whole wheat pastry flour sneaked in, cut out rounds, bake  in a hot oven so they puff and bronze, cool, open, slather with strawberry jam and there you have it: a pbj on whole wheat in scone form.        

As I began considering the possibility while sifting through recipes, I decided what I had in mind were more like top twisting biscuits, served open faced, as vehicles for jam, rather than the more popular cakey choco-PB sliced scone variety, so I played with a recipe found on Peanut Butter & Co.'s website and adjusted a few things: I left out the honey-roasted peanuts, swapped in a touch of whole wheat pastry flour for some of the all purpose, and half-and-half for the milk. I used Irish butter and Justin's plain smooth peanut butter. 

Though I usually make scones by hand I found it convenient to make these as instructed in the food processor because it's quicker to cut in the peanut butter that way. In the end I found the process a little like pumpkin scone dough, with different chemistry of course. You've got your flour and butter, your nut butter and here some egg and half and half to bring it together. It's a little on the thick/dense side as you shape it but don't worry, it will get a nice tender inside, and  crisp crumb outside once it bakes, just don't over-handle it. And other thing: make sure to cool these a good several minutes so the insides set fully, before spreading on your jam. I'll post the full recipe below but know that it halves nicely for 5 scones (above) and even quadruple divides for about 3 of them. 

Oh, and did I mention we liked them, a lot? Happy baking : )

Peanut Butter Scones with jam  
Adapted from I Love PB
Yield: 10, halve quantities for a lesser amount

2 cups /250 grams all-purpose flour
1/2 cup/ 58 grams whole wheat pastry flour (or all all-purpose)
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ cup/ 48 grams sugar
¼ cup/ 55 grams unsalted, chilled butter, diced
½ cup/120 grams smooth peanut butter, chilled a little if possible
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 large egg
6 to 8 tablespoons half and half, plus more to brush on top

Oven to 450, rack in the top third. Line a sheet pan with parchment, set aside.

Pulse flour, salt, sugar, baking powder in  food processor a few times to combine and fluff. Toss the butter on top and pulse a few times to cut in, then add peanut butter in dollops, and cut in until just incorporated. Add the vanilla and egg and pulse a few times to moisten, then the milk a Tbs a time-start with the lesser amount and just add the rest if needed. Dough should be stiff and start to hold together. Dump it onto a sheet of plastic or parchment, lightly pat into a rough disk and fold it over itself. Optionally, place into the freezer for a few minutes while you clean up a little. Remove disc and stamp out rounds with a lightly floured 2.5 inch cutter (don't twist it). Gently press together scraps for a last scone. Place apart on sheet pan. Brush tops with a little half and half. Bake 15-18 minutes until puffed and the tops and bottoms are golden brown. Set on a cooling rack in the pan for a few minutes. Then remove to cool further, pushing them together on the rack and loosely covering with parchment until ready to eat. Slice and serve with berry jam of choice. Freeze extra after cooled.

Note: take care not to over-process. If you lack a processor you can cut in butter and PB by hand then stir in the wet ingredients. I found the processor a sure way to disperse the peanut butter evenly though.

13 April 2014

Pear Ginger Almond Muffins

A visitation from my mother nowadays nearly always includes a little plastic shopping bag of at least one or two pantry or sundry items that aren't necessary--I live across from a market, but nevertheless, items I probably don't have. Extra sponges! A ripening banana! Half a bag of a whole grain! A coconut water! Often, a torn out magazine or newspaper article of some relevance to my life is thrown in, too. Oh and she once gave me that notebook in the above photo which I at first scoffed at. I know, it's pretty, what was I thinking. I'm just usually more of a minimal Moleskin girl. But I've actually come to love the widened of pages of this particular journal. They make you write bigger.

I saw her briefly last week and in addition to the usual banana in the bag, there were 2 pears, which I almost didn't take. They were ripe, very. If eaten raw they would have had to be eaten immediately or become a wet mess. But I delayed, thinking to bake. Ironically though a few whole grain muffin recipes I've tagged with pears called for a firmer pear for grating. So I chopped and semi dehydrated one of the pears like in this recipe and then threw them into this recent batter in place of the raspberries. They were very nice. And the other pear? It met its fate with fresh ginger, a saucepan and a little gem of a recipe from the Food52 community, and that's what I'm here to talk about today.

The recipe comes from a woman named Mrs. T, and she adapted it from a recipe for applesauce muffins, replacing the applesauce with a quick homemade stovetop pear sauce infused with some fresh ginger. That gets stirred into a melted butter based batter, replacing the need for any yogurt or milk which is a nice change. The flour mix is infused with ground ginger and a crunchy nut and sugar mix sprinkled with a little more ground ginger gets dropped across the tops. Into the oven they go. And they are delicious. Light and tender, warmed by ginger, with smooth little pear pockets throughout, and crunchy nuts on top. Mrs. T suggests enjoying the muffins cooled down a bit with coffee preferably on your porch, maybe with a lake view or in a sunny spot in your kitchen. And that's just what we did. I think even heard a seagull outside the cracked kitchen window.

Pear ginger almond muffins

Makes 5 standard

Notes: you can find the original recipe here. I made a few changes. I halved the whole thing, I used toasted slivered almonds instead of walnuts, and used only a few tablespoons of the nuts instead of the larger amount she called for, and I swapped in a bit of whole wheat pastry flour for some of the all purpose. I also threw in a teensy dash of vanilla but that's optional. The ginger is the star here. And another thing! Do this: Make the pear ginger sauce a day or even two days before so it's all ready when you want to make the muffins and the overripe pear is off your mind. It can be kept in the fridge. To save time I also mixed my dry ingredients the night before and left them in a covered bowl. It was a cinch to thus mix the batter while the oven heated. 

1/2 c /120 grams pear ginger sauce**
1/4 tsp vanilla
75 grams butter ~ 1/3 cup
1 egg
2.5 Tbsp/ 32 grams natural cane sugar + 1 scant Tbsp for topping

1/2 c unbleached all purpose flour
1/4 c whole wheat pastry flour
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/8 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp ground ginger + 1/4 tsp for topping
3 Tbs slivered almonds, lightly toasted

Method: turn the oven to 400 rack in center. Melt the butter in a large saucepan swirling until just melted. Remove from heat and pour into a little bowl to cool. Take a pastry brush and dip lightly into the already melted butter to grease 5 muffin wells. Set aside. 

In a small bowl mix 1/4 tsp ground ginger, half the nuts and the scant 1 T sugar (I used Sugar in the Raw for that)

Mix up your flours, baking powder and soda, 1/2 tsp ginger, salt if your haven't done so, in a medium bowl. Whisk to fluff and combine. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk csugar and egg. Add vanilla. Add melted butter and whisk well to volumize and smooth. Stir in pear sauce. In 2 or 3 additions, fold flour mix into wet mix gently, then stir in half the almonds. Evenly divide batter in muffin cups, top evenly with nut-sugar topping.

Bake about 20 minutes. The tops will be golden and a skewer come out clean.

Cool in the pan 5 mins, then remove and continue to cool on rack. Serve with a little honey and Irish butter stirred together. Enjoy!

**Pear Sauce
1 large ripe pear (Bartlett or similar), peeled, cored and diced. Should yield about 1 cup
1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp grated ginger (I keep my peeled ginger root in the freezer and grate it with a microplane when I need it, which tends to make the gratings a little fluffy. So if you’re using fresh, unfrozen ginger, you might want a little less)
  1. Heat butter in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. When butter is melted and frothy add pears, tossing with a wooden spoon to coat.
  2. Add sugar, stirring to combine. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low.
  3. Add grated ginger and cook over low heat for about 15 or minutes, until pears are soft and most of the liquid has evaporated. Remove from heat and allow to cool for at least 15-20 minutes. Store in fridge a day or two before using if desired. 

02 April 2014

Salads and Oatmeal

Once, either in my late teens or early 20s, on a trip driving through Maine with my family, we stopped at a country market, complex or outlet of a sort that looked exactly how I'd imagined a Maine strip mall might look like: i.e., not like a northern New Jersey one. A bit more...rustic, shall we say. 

Anyway, as sometimes occurs at malls and complexes, there was an event/giveaway happening and in another fluke of coincidence that also happened to be appropriately Maine-esque: the person of interest was Burt of Burt's Bees! And yes, he looked exactly like the drawing of his face on the products in his line. I noticed his skin was impeccable, like a child's and he was quite soft spoken and sedate in energy. He could have been 45 or 85; it was hard to tell. Naturally, I told him I buy his products, eagerly took some of the samples and as any beauty-conscious girl would do, got to asking him for skin advice beyond Seventeen magazine, which naturally led to, so, what do you eat? 

"Mostly salads and oatmeal," he said calmly. 

I think I just nodded, happy he didn't say avoid chocolate, and this and this, but I vividly remember the episode as a key moment of health advice I've received. Though my own needs, trials and errors have clearly rounded out my diet to include a lot more than salads and oatmeal, like, um chocolate, butter, coffee, wine, good pizza and protein to say the least, the purity of salads and oatmeal is rather undeniable. The message was: clean, simple, whole. It shouldn't be too much more complicated.

Let's talk about oatmeal for a second. It wasn't until yesterday that my preference for oats in granola and granola bar form was challenged by a humble bowl of toasted, cooked oatmeal. Perhaps you've already heard about it. Megan Gordon's recipe from her book has swept the foodie scene as makeover of the season. Oats done in this hybrid technique of a stove-top toast in a bit of butter followed by an 8 minute steam in a simmered liquid off the heat, yields cooked, separated grains and cancels out everything I didn't much care for in cooked oatmeal.  Say goodbye to soupy well-done oats and hello to a tender cereal that is simply just-cooked.  Top with your fixings and you may be a little wowed. Also, the cereal isn't super hot, but rather, just warm, so you can actually taste your toasted oats. I followed Melissa's version.

Another piece of health and what's more, sanity, advice I follow is from chef Tamar Adler: the magic of jar salads. No, not the mason jar layering kind, though that is pretty genius, but the concept: instead of spending a ton of time chopping and cooking on command or getting so bogged down by that endless business that you resort to unnecessarily buying everything prepared, let what you've already done guide you. 

Just make sure you have done something

The assumption is you've taken some shortcuts and been keeping things in jars. You've roasted a pepper, perhaps, or you've quick-pickled some onions, or you've saved last nights protein. You don't need a lot of variety here, confetti salads are kinda distracting, so you just need a block or two. We are going for humility with textural variance with a dose of crunch and heartiness. 

Take out anything in your jars a little before you want to eat, and put them on the counter to temper a bit. For this one I used chickpeas I had stored with a little garlic, salt oil and lemon, and I cheated, they were originally from a can, the pickled onions, leftover chicken breast I'd cooked and shredded, and round it out with a few raw stragglers: a handful greens, herbs, shavings of carrot, and a big lump of avocado. Grate a little cheese on too if you're feeling fancy. Bonus if you have some salad dressing made, but I don't always, so lemon, oil and Maldon also do the trick. Then, just assemble it with your hands (I'm sure Burt would approve) and plate it.

Farmer's Salad with Chicken 

Note: this salad is quite customizable to what you have...

Big handful greens, baby spinach, arugula, herb snips (I used chives)
Shaved raw carrot (or celery, scallion)
A portion of a roasted vegetable (I used asparagus)
An avocado half or third, some olives or both
Few shavings Parmesan
Pickled onions
Lemon, olive oil, salt or a dressing.

See you soon with a new sweet in tow, xoxo MN