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Monday, December 20, 2010

ginger rum molasses cookies – joe froggers

ginger rum molasses cookies

Come Wednesday, Andrew and I are heading back to Boston’s North Shore where we’ll be visiting our families. Our towns are the kind of historic New England towns where the houses are often brandishing signs of the year they were built, the glass in the windows is always thicker at the bottom suggesting a notable age, and the entryway doors are lower and shorter hearkening back to the time when people were simply of a more modest height. We are neighbors to Salem, with its rich and dark history of persecutions, Puritans and propriety. Halloween is a real hoot there, by the way. And nearby is a little town named Marblehead. It’s a coastal town, small, beautiful, quaint. It delivers brutal winds in the winter and a much-needed breeze in the summer off the Atlantic. Sometimes you can spot a lobster or two sunning themselves in the shallow water. Marblehead, like Salem, is also rich in history, and its early sailors are considered the forerunners of the American Navy. It is also a town rich in fishing and fishermen. This cookie here belongs to them.

It’s not often that a cookie hails from the same place as you. And when you find out that it does, you pay attention and take notice. Especially when this cookie comes with a history and a story. On the outside, the cookie looks humble. It is, as you can see, brown and outside of a few sparkly granules of sugar decorating its top – it is a cookie unadorned. And it kind of likes it that way. It’s a cookie that doesn’t boast, isn’t in your face, and just quietly goes about its business with resolve and persistence.

ginger rum molasses cookies

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

lemon butter cookies

lemon butter cookies

Alas, we have arrived to the season of the cookie, perhaps the most inspired of all seasons because, let’s be honest, who doesn’t love a good cookie? It’s cold outside (and if you’ve been living on the East Coast, ooooh-weee did it get cold, or did it get cold?), you’ve got a cup of tea by your side, and you can’t be expected to have your tea solo, now can you? No, your tea deserves a companion, a partner in crime (if eating cookies is indeed a crime), and nothing accompanies a hot tea better than a simple, humble butter cookie. Also, few things make a better homemade gift around this time of year. Certainly, from the looks of it the butter cookie might come across as too unambitious a player in the Christmas cookie assortment, but it is precisely because it’s so unassuming and straight-forward, that it is the most versatile. Add a bit of lemon zest to it, and I’m a goner.

zesty bright yellow yolks

I should probably confess first that the butter cookie, the sablé, is my favorite type of cookie in the world. Throw a macaron in my direction and I’ll gladly, and gratefully, eat it. But give me a butter cookie, a tender, melt-in-your-mouth rich morsel of the perfect marriage of butter, sugar, and eggs, and I will be yours forever. It’s that easy. And no, while Andrew didn’t woo me with sablés, he sure appreciates a good cookie when he sees one. And this cookie that I got for you today is that cookie. It is perfection embodied and it comes in such a delightfully small size, that you could have a couple and not feel like you’ve just made a mess of things. One bite and the cookie melts in your mouth.

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Monday, August 23, 2010

peach shortcake

peach shortcake

And the kitchen counter was covered in flour. As was the kitchen floor. And my face. And my hair. And shhhhhh, parts of my camera! Oh recipe development, you are a mess-maker! Not that I didn’t know that. But I think the chaos created in my kitchen was of an unprecedented level. And I can’t wait for more.

fragrant summer peaches

That’s a peach shortcake above that you see. I figured that because I like shortcake (and I’m not alone in this, am I) I shouldn’t be limited to just strawberry shortcake. We’ve got but a short window when strawberries are in season and after that, it’s just not the same, though with a little sugar and balsamic, there are miracles to be had. But, still, the season is woefully short, especially if you love strawberries as much as I do. Or shortcake for that matter. And last time I checked, there wasn’t a soul in the world who was going to (willingly) refuse shortcake: all that butter and whipped cream? Yes, please. Thus, I decided to extend the shortcake idea well into the summer months, when stone fruit, such as peaches, comes in full swing at my local farmer’s market.

shortcake mise

By now you probably know that I have this unabashed love of rustic dessert. If you ask me to choose between a chocolate tart and a chocolate bread pudding, inevitably, the bread pudding will win almost every time. Crumbles, buckles, brown bettys, slumps, spoon cake, pudding cake, buttermilk everyday cake – hold my attention more than their fancier cousins. The dessert, I’d want to eat in my pajamas, on my couch on a quiet evening; kind that looks better messy than perfectly composed.

Shortcake biscuits benefit from fruit that has been allowed to steep in its juices, usually facilitated by the addition of sugar. On its own, the biscuit is dry and crumbly, but ladle some fruit with some sugary juices in the middle of a halved biscuit, and a few minutes later, the fruit begins to penetrate the crumbly surface. Peaches, especially right now, tend to run on the sweet side, so I add a tiny bit of lemon juice to up the tartness just a bit. Mixed with a few spoons of sugar and left alone, the peaches transform into a lovely uncooked compote of sorts.

crumbly and mixed circles

I originally wrote up this recipe, upon Jennie’s invitation, for the Cuisinart blog as a guest post. I’m not sure when the post is going up, but I couldn’t wait to share it with all of you. I tested the biscuit recipe and came up with something that can either yield a more rustic and chewy biscuit, or a more traditional crumbly one, depending on what you want to do. So I’m offering you a whole wheat and an all purpose versions here. With this exercise alone, I have found new respect for coming up with new baking recipes – testing batches, adjusting your ingredients, is nothing to scoff at. Not that I ever did. But the process can be laborious, intense, at times frustrating – but in the end, if you are patient and persistent, immensely rewarding.

shortcake
blanched! nekkid peach

This upcoming Sunday, I’m embarking on testing chocolate cake recipe for cupcakes I’m making for a friend’s wedding in October. I’m going to enlist Andrew and a part-time photographer to capture the messes and the hands-on details. Operation “Wedding Cupcakes” is about to commence. I see flour everywhere. Brace yourselves.

chillin'

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

cinnamon toasts

cinnamon toasts

Lest you think of me as a cool and hip individual, I should probably set the record straight. For a certain length of time in my childhood, H. G. Wells’ novel “Time Machine” was my favorite book in the world. I was obsessed to the point of a tantrum, refusing to admit that time travel was a thing of the fantasy world. I wanted time travel to be real. But if you asked me why, I couldn’t really tell you. I wasn’t trying to change the past or alter the future. I was just fascinated with time travel. Now, of course, I’d be glad to have a time machine on hand, if only to go back in time and tell my fifth grade self that New Kids On the Block were totally going to make a comeback. It would have quieted my weary mind.

But, I am pretty sure, I’ve discovered a time portal and its name is cinnamon toast. Cinnamon toast (I swoon as I type these words) – is magical. Really. It’s as if I’ve come full circle with it. Back to my childhood years. And all it took was one bite.

mmm... butter..

I know that I’m losing all of you now that you’re going, what, cinnamon toast? You’re writing about cinnamon toast? But I beg of you to hold on a minute and let me explain. The inspiration, the time-travel, was possible because Molly wrote about the cinnamon toast her grandmother used to make and told her readers – this is not just some toast you put sugar and cinnamon on. This is a cookie. This is special. This – is not to be missed.

Molly also warned these would be heavenly, downright addictive. Jennie tweeted they are to be dubbed “cinnamon crack”. And I was intrigued. Anything that’s covered in cinnamon and sugar is a welcome addition to my life.

cinnamon toasts

It’s funny how you read about a recipe and are instantly ignited to run to your kitchen and make it. Except you never stock any white bread and it’s eleven o’clock at night and while you’ve been known to make goulash at one o’clock in the morning, you’re not exactly running to your nearest bodega at such late an hour on a school night. So you’re forced to wait and wonder if, indeed, these are as good as the claims are, meanwhile you are reading tweets about how these little guys should be renamed as “cinnamon crack”.

And so I finally went out and bought some white bread, cut them into diagonal quarters. Melted my butter and brushed it onto the bread and dipped each side in cinnamon sugar. Which, by the way, let me tell you – it takes a strong person not to lick his fingers in between the dipping. That cinnamon sugar scent – oh my! Strangely though, even as I was going through the motions, I didn’t make the connection that this kind of cinnamon toast was a favorite snack of mine when I was growing up in Russia.

cinnamon toasts

And yet, it was not until I bit into a cooled-off toast, with a cup of tea at my side, that these toasts, like tiny little time-machines, instantly transported me to the time when I was five and lived in snowy St. Petersburg, where my mother tried just about everything to get me to eat. A finicky eater, (who isn’t one at five years old?), few things excited me food-wise. But anything covered in cinnamon and sugar was definitely something I could get behind.

And so, my mother, in a stroke of brilliance or desperation, devised to make me these cinnamon toasts. White bread in Russia came as these big loaves that look very much like Italian bread here does. She cut the loaf thinly into slices and lightly dipped each of the pieces in milk on both sides, careful not to soak the bread, and then dredged the sides in cinnamon and sugar. She then baked these shimmering toasts until they were crispy and the house smelled like sweet cinnamon heaven. I could have licked the air, it was so good.

These were promised to me as dessert, provided, of course, that I ate my dinner. Which I did. In a heartbeat. And then, I was left to my own devices with a plateful of cinnamon toasts and cups of hot tea with milk. I think those were some of my happiest moment: alone in the kitchen with my cinnamon toast and tea. I can tell you that to this day I could be made infinitely happy by a cup of tea and a simple cookie. Such as this toast.

cinnamon toasts

Now, were you to ask me, which do I prefer, the cinnamon toast of my childhood and the brainchild of my mother, or Molly’s buttery and rich cinnamon toast, I’ll tell you honestly – Molly’s. And I know that my mother, reading this, would agree. Because anything tastes better when it’s dipped in butter. It’s just that simple. But my mother’s toasts are pretty darn good too, especially if butter is the sort of thing you’re supposed to stay away from. I’m keeping both recipes within my reach because they connect my present and my past, bringing me full circle.

I might not have a real time machine on hand, but I have have this cinnamon toast. And that’s way, way better.

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Thursday, March 4, 2010

honey graham crackers

seriously, aren't they cute?

When I was in sixth grade, I joined the Girl Scouts at the great urging of my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Sledge who, by the way, was a cool, cool lady. Apparently, it was the thing to do in our class, as all the girls joined and I succumbed to peer pressure. Mrs. Sledge happened to be our troop leader – she spent years in the Girl Scouts, ever since she had her daughters, who were now all grown up, married, and with kids of their own.

graham cracker mise

As a newly-minted Russian immigrant, trying to fit into a new school and make friends, I took her words as gospel and promptly joined, though the Scouts reminded me of the Young Pioneers Organization in the USSR. Since then, I was generally mistrustful of all groups where you had to pledge membership, and though I wanted to conform and be accepted, conformity, at its center, scared me. I tried to sell this idea to my even more skeptical father. Girls Scouts, I explained, were supposed to unite young women and boost confidence and morale. To which my father’s response was, as usual, “Read more books.” But while he wasn’t a buyer, he certainly didn’t stand in my way – he too wanted me to make friends.

shaping the doughshaping the dough - easier wrapped in plastic
shaping the dough - easier wrapped in plastica nice little rectangle

At first Girl Scouts seemed to me a musical version of home-ec classes. We did nothing more than gather in the music room and sing songs and learn how to sew on buttons. Well, the other girls had to learn how to sew on button. This kind of stuff is passed to you by your Russian grandmother at a very young age. I could sew on a button at four and around eight, I tried to knit a sweater. Anyway, songs and sewing got old really fast for me, but I liked the camaraderie and wanted to befriend as many girls as I could, so I stuck around. Attrition wasn’t going to be looked upon kindly. Middle school was a tough place for a new kid with an accent, odd clothes and an affinity for beets and cabbage.

rulers and pastry wheels

And just as I was getting really bored with the whole girl power get-togethers, we went on a camping trip. A real, sleep-in-the-tent-and-make-food-over-a-fire-camping-trip. We hiked, made gorp, slept in sleeping bags, and brushed out teeth with baking soda and water. And we made s’mores.

ready for baking

S’mores might not seem like anything special to you, dear readers, but that maybe it’s because you grew up with them. S’mores came to me at the age of twelve, like a bat mitzvah rite of passage, only instead of a anxiety-filled Torah portion, s’mores conjured up glee and delight [apologies to all who read their Torah portion with glee and delight.] Everything about a s’more was new to me: the marshmallow: burnt, and gooey; the chocolate: melted and oozy; and the graham cracker: crumbly and honey-sweet.

stacked, show-offs!

Graham crackers and I fell into an instant and torrid love affair. One bite sealed the deal. I couldn’t get enough. The slight kick of cinnamon, the hint of honey, the restrained sweetness – they all spoke to me. I made my parents buy a box with every grocery run. For years, graham crackers were my go-to snack.

honey graham crackers

It would seem natural that I would have tried to make them at home, but it had never occurred to me, until Karen DeMasco’s book made its way to me, that graham crackers could be made at home. Yes, hello world, meet the slowest learner in the history of learning. That’d be me. I could have googled it or something, but sometimes the most obvious things aren’t so obvious? Having made them now, I can tell you that I will never, ever buy a box of honey graham crackers again. It just doesn’t compare. At all. Out of a box, they’re fine, but made at home, they’re just about heavenly. The dough comes together in a pinch and after some chilling and meticulous cutting (I blame my grandmother for all my kitchen OCD tendencies) – you have the cutest, tastiest graham crackers you could imagine. Buttery, laced with honey and cinnamon, it’s a decadent cookie on its own. But paired with some dark chocolate (think Scharffenberger!) and some homemade marshmallows (easier that you think!), your homemade s’more will reach a new sophistication.

it was, after all, valentine's day

Now, all I need to do is plan a camping trip and bring these along. Maybe I wait a few weeks until it warms up?

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Friday, February 19, 2010

ultimate chocolate chip cookies

ultimate chocolate chip cookies

Friends, I think I finally got it – I finally feel totally and wholly American, and it’s taken me twenty-one years (minus two weeks) of living in the U.S. to achieve that. The moment arrived over the Super Bowl. On this most American of weekends, I did the single most American culinary thing–I made these chocolate chip cookies. You would think that I’d have felt this way after getting naturalized at eighteen, but I didn’t. You see, a piece of paper is different than a rite of passage. And making these cookies has been a rite of passage spanning many many years.

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