30 January 2007

Cookies for Cynics

posted by gastrogirl @ 14:02 to section Cooking

I am so tired of the cupcake trend.

Perhaps saying so brands me as an infidel, but to be honest, they just don’t do much for me. We recently had two cupcake shops open in my city, and while the cakes are pretty to look at, I just don’t understand the recent national obsession with cupcake-only joints…particularly because the wow factor seems to reside mostly in the style and flavour of frosting, and I have never been keen on copious amounts of frosting. It makes my teeth hurt. So while there’s something to be said for visual appeal, the novelty just isn’t intriguing enough to hold my attention. If there are two types of people in the world, then I am a cookie person. Cupcakes, while fun in the right circumstances, take a back seat.

Because of this strange apathy towards fluffy, frosted cakes, it goes without saying that the standard birthday cake would wither in my house. I don’t dislike all cakes, but tend to prefer heavier, denser ones, and please hold the frosting (although ganache is A-ok). Perhaps if the cupcake shop had a wee flourless chocolate cupcake with no toppings….that is a trend I could go for. Er, but wait, I think that is basically a brownie. Anyway, my everyday sweet tooth prefers the humble cookie as the favourite fix in terms of size and toothsomeness. I like that they don’t need special containers and are easy to transport – all the better to give away if I’ve made too large of a batch. I like that they are drier, chewier, and often dunkable. Also…not that I should be thinking about health when consuming cookies, but in the “low-fat” realm, cookies seem to be able to hold their own better than many other baked goods do. On the other hand, perhaps Nick Malgieri‘s new book could put me in my place for that remark.

Even if you disagree, what better month than January to try out those cookie recipes you just didn’t get to during the holidays? Consider this my response to an over-frosted scene. A plus with the following recipes is that they both last for at least two weeks if kept in airtight containers, so no pressure to eat them all at once (ha ha). Since there’s no secret to my love of cookies with apricot and ginger, I was anxious to try Nic’s Apricot Ginger Oat Biscuits from Bakingsheet. Although these are two tastes that taste great together, they are nothing at all like the cornmeal cookies I made last summer, so if you’ve tried one recipe, don’t neglect its fraternal twin here. I made some minor adjustments to make them more flavourful, doubling the amount of ginger and apricots, as well as adding a splash of milk to the batter, as by itself it was too dry to hold together. Otherwise, the cookies were delicious – the corn syrup keeps them a little bit chewy inside, even though the outside is more crisp and biscuit-like. I should note that by “biscuit” I mean the British/Australian use of the term, which usually translates to “cookie” for Americans. I also have a possibly misguided perception that biscuits are less sugary and more crisp than American-style cookies. At any rate, these are just right for dunking into hot tea. They are homey and somewhat humble looking, but have a terrific flavour.

apricot ginger oat biscuits

In addition to the biscuits, I made another tea-compatible cookie: Cardamom Squares, adapted from another old recipe from Gourmet. They are not strictly cardamomy – more like just light spice cookies but with cardamom in a starring role. They’re extremely easy to put together, though, as most slice-and-bake type cookies are. They are tender, last for a long time, and look fairly elegant when drizzled with a bit of chocolate. The texture is somewhat more crisp than shortbread, but not quite hard, either.

cardamom squares

By the way, don’t you think Cookies for Cynics would make a great book? What sort of cookies would cynics eat? Something bitter, perhaps? I like the idea of a DIY series For Cynics, to replace those awful (Cooking,Business,Science,Remodeling,Whatever) For Dummies how-to books. Of course these aren’t really for cynics, and eating them won’t make you cynical…so don’t blame me!

There is one catch to my cookie fetish: since cookie recipes tend to be uncomplicated and ideal for quick gratification, it tends to make one lazy for trying more complex desserts. With that in mind, I ought to try something a bit more challenging soon! While I don’t really celebrate Valentine’s Day, it’s the next holiday I can think of that would give me an excuse to try something a bit fancier (I daresay Candlemas might be too obscure). Oh, as if I need an excuse anyway. Meanwhile, here are the recipes…
Continue reading “Cookies for Cynics”…

21 January 2007

Squid and Cranberry Salad

posted by rlink @ 23:38 to section Cooking,Food

A while back, the owners of a long-since closed local bar and small concert venue decided to turn their empty space into a restaurant serving rustic Southern Italian cuisine. The dining room may be full of so much kitch that it looks like your crazy Italian grandmother’s house, but the food more than makes up for it. One of the menu items that I love is a squid and cranberry salad. I’m not sure how cranberries factor in to Italian cuisine, but I’ve tried to recreate the dish anyways.
Continue reading “Squid and Cranberry Salad”…

The Passion of the Truffle

posted by gastrogirl @ 22:38 to section Cooking

It must be quite obvious by now that I can’t resist a bad pun, particularly for the title of a post. But this one really is relevant to the content, and these truffles both inspire and exhibit passion! I made this recipe for my very first Sugar High Friday, a blogging event that encourages participants to share their sugary creations based on a particular theme. This time around, it’s hosted by top-notch food blogger David Lebovitz. The theme of this Sugar High Friday, #27, is Chocolate by Brand. We were told to make a chocolate treat using a particular brand, and explain the whys behind our choice. Below is my entry, which are Passion Fruit Truffles made with El Rey Mijao (61%).

passion1

Continue reading “The Passion of the Truffle”…

27 December 2006

Wintry Shortbread

posted by gastrogirl @ 13:26 to section Cooking

rosemary_shortbread_sm.jpg

As a person of Celtic extract, I should probably have some strong opinions on shortbread. This might be even more apparent to my friends who were around when I got into a mad bidding war on eBay and spent far too much money on a set of vintage shortbread molds emblazoned with Welsh dragons, Scottish thistles, Irish harps, and English roses (and they don’t even work very well, alas). I do have a few basic criteria: anything called shortbread definitely needs to have plenty of pure butter, no eggs, not be too sugary, and should be crisp, not chewy. I’m not too much of a purist when it comes to the difference between “shortbread” and “shortbread cookie” (traditionally, shortbread is pressed into a mold or formed in a disc, shortbread cookies are just that – rolled into a log and sliced or rolled flat and cut with cookie cutters), but apart from those simple rules, I’m game for a bit of experimentation – plain butter shortbread is a wonderfully simple treat, but there’s no need to stick with just that.

I found this recipe for Rosemary Shortbread a few years ago in Gourmet magazine, and since then it’s become one of my signature holiday cookies. The flavor of rosemary lends a romantic, early-winter mood which goes splendidly with tea. Its texture is both tender yet slightly crisp, and when decorated with little sprigs, makes a lovely and rustic gift when wrapped carefully in parchment and twine.

Rosemary Shortbread
adapted from Gourmet magazine


2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons honey
1/2 cup confectioners sugar

superfine sugar for dusting

Preheat oven to 300°F.

Whisk together flour, salt, baking powder, and rosemary in a bowl.

Mix together butter, honey, and confectioners sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at low speed, then add flour mixture and mix until dough resembles coarse meal with some small (roughly pea-size) butter lumps. Gather dough into a ball and transfer to a lightly floured surface. Knead dough until it just comes together, about 8 times. Halve dough and press each half evenly into a 9-inch pie or tart pan. Score dough into 8 wedges by pricking dotted lines with a fork. If you like, press a spring of rosemary onto the center of each wedge. Sprinkle dough lightly with superfine sugar.

Bake the shortbread until just golden, 20 to 25 minutes. Cool 5 minutes, then cut along score marks with a large heavy knife. Keep shortbread wedges in an airtight container.

* Pressing them into pans makes it easier to make a uniform shape, but if you like, the halves can be rolled into 8-inch discs and placed on baking sheets to cook.

rosemary_sm.jpg

4 December 2006

Post-Post Thanksgiving Post

posted by gastrogirl @ 14:11 to section Cooking

Well, so much for my plans to take pictures and post about my Thanksgiving this year! Things have been so hectic with me between work, preparing for T-giving, and organizing a 50-person party for my grandmother’s 80th birthday. I also still need to make goodies and send a package to my Blogging By Mail partner. Too much to do! At least on Thanksgiving the Apple, Parsnip, and Sausage dressing I made was well received, as was my variation on a Mexican Chocolate Icebox Cake. If I make the stuffing again, I will use only sweet sausage rather than sweet and hot, and perhaps cut down the meat a little – it was my first time making sausage dressing, and I would have preferred it to be a little less sausagey. The parsnip/apple combination is grand, though, and I’ll have to come up with more ways to pair those two up. The icebox cake was extremely rich and quite good – the main difference from the original recipe was that I made a slightly thicker mousse and soaked the inner ladyfingers in plenty of espresso. The result was something akin to tiramisu but with chocolate mousse instead of mascarpone. The presentation was lovely, just like the picture – so if you’re looking to impress but don’t want to put much time into a dessert, I urge you to try making it.

Meanwhile, here’s a not-so-great photograph of a genuinely great recipe for a pistachio cardamom cake I made a month or so ago when things were slightly less busy. It’s very easy to whip up and is just perfect with tea or coffee. Given that I’m already madly in love with cardamom, when it’s mixed up with pistachio and butter in this cake… swoon. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Pistachio Cardamom Cake


pistachio cardamom cake

1 cup unsalted pistachios
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cardamom seeds
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup milk
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 scant cup sugar
3 eggs

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Grind pistachios in a food processor until fine. Mix nuts with flour, baking powder, salt, and cardamom. Cream together butter and sugar in a bowl until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at at time and beat until fully incorporated. Mix in milk and vanilla, then add flour and pistachio mixture in two or three batches and mix until just combined.

Pour batter into a 9-inch round cake pan and bake for about 20 minutes or until a toothpick emerges cleanly from the middle. Sift powdered sugar over the top if desired. The cake is wonderful plain or served with fruit such as orange segments or strawberries.

16 November 2006

Wheat Berries

posted by gastrogirl @ 11:26 to section Cooking

wheatberry_salad

Things have been extraordinarily busy with me, so there hasn’t been much posting. There should be more entries soon, with Thanksgiving next week and several holiday parties on the way. I’ve also signed up for Blogging by Mail, Holiday Edition , and am looking forward to giving (and receiving!) fun food items in the mail. In the meantime, I’ve been making simple meals: salads, pasta…stuff that can be made quickly, will feed me for a few days, and won’t require too much time in the kitchen.

I think wheat berries are really overlooked in the US, at least outside of health-food stores. These chewy little nuggets, which are whole unprocessed kernels of wheat, are a terrific source of B vitamins and fiber. They are a medium shade of brown and have a nutty flavour which is particularly welcome in winter and autumnal dishes. They are lovely in salads and stuffings, and you could even have them for breakfast- drizzle with warm milk or cream, add a bit of honey, and top with fruit. The only negative is that they do take a rather long time to cook – between an hour and an hour and a half (they don’t need to be watched, though – just set a timer and do something else for a while). Many recipes call for soaking overnight, but I’ve found that to be unnecessary as long as they’re cooked long enough and in a proper amount of water.

For each cup of wheatberries, boil them in at least 4 quarts of water, as you might for pasta. If you use too little water, they will happily soak it all up and form a burnt crust on the bottom of your saucepan, causing a horrible stench which will ruin even the unburnt top layer by smell alone. Overcooked wheat berries, on the other hand, will lose their shape and become mushy. The goal here is to retain a pleasant chew without making your jaw ache. After boiling, drain them and use as you wish. They will also keep, refrigerated, for about 5 days or may be frozen for up to 2 months and thawed in the refrigerator.

The quantities are pretty loose for this salad I made, so feel free to mix things up a bit and make it your own…

Wheat Berry Salad with Pecans and Dill
2 cups hard winter wheat berries, cooked in boiling water for 1-1.5 hours, until tender but chewy
1 small red or yellow onion, finely chopped
1 clove minced garlic
3/4 cup chopped toasted pecans
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1/2 cup chopped fresh dill
a few tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
a few tablespoons red wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste

Toss all ingredients together, adjusting amounts to taste. Serve cold or at room temperature. This will serve about 4-6 as a side dish.

4 November 2006

For love not money

posted by rlink @ 12:38 to section Cooking

I’ve done my time working in a commercial kitchen, but I still have several friends who have made a career out of it. One of them in particular recently relocated to Philadelphia from Pittsburgh. He’s done time in the kitchen at Casbah, was one of the original cooks at Eleven, and ended up becoming the executive pastry chef at Café Frick before deciding that he wanted to learn a new cuisine and needed to move to another city to do so. He even took a temporary position as the exec pastry chef at Casbah while he was in the months-long process of appartment hunting and moving to Philly, because they had lost theirs and asked him nicely.

Now, fine dining in Pittsburgh can’t even hold a candle to most typical restaurants in a city like New York or Philadelphia, but that is the topic of another post that has been languishing in draft status for a month. It’s important to mention, though, because this friend was told that, despite having some of the best credentials Pittsburgh has to offer, he would never be able to land a job cooking in a major Philadelphia restaurant, let alone be able to hack it if he did get hired somewhere. Ignoring the naysayers, he shot for the moon and only interviewed at two places: Pod and Morimoto.
Continue reading “For love not money”…

10 October 2006

Butternut Squash and Chickpea Soup

posted by gastrogirl @ 12:04 to section Cooking

Been busy with some new work and not much time to post lately. Here’s a lovely soup I made recently with butternut squash, which in my opinion is one of the most versatile of squashes. This soup is incredibly easy to make and also freezes well. I like the consistency to be a bit thick, but if you prefer you can thin it with some stock.

Butternut Squash and Chickpea Soup

chickpea_soup.jpg

2 15-oz cans of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 2-lb butternut squash
2 medium onions
1/4 cup of olive oil
5 cups of vegetable stock
1.5 teaspoons of roasted cumin
2 tablespoons of lemon juice, or more to taste
a few sprigs of fresh cilantro
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Wrap the squash tightly in aluminim foil and bake at 350 F for about 60 minutes, or until soft. Let the squash cool, then scoop out the flesh and put it aside, discarding the seeds and stringy stuff.

Heat the olive oil a heavy-bottomed saucepan. When hot, add onions and cook at medium heat until soft. Add the squash, chickpeas, stock, and cumin. Simmer for 30 minutes, covered. Puree the soup with an immersion blender or in a regular blender until smooth. If it seems too thick, add more water or stock to reach the desired consistency. Return soup to pot, stir in lemon juice, and reheat until warm. Sprinkle with cilantro leaves before serving.

3 October 2006

Pom and Circumstance

posted by gastrogirl @ 20:40 to section Cooking

Why is it that I always buy things and then forget about them until after their expiration date? This is particularly annoying when we’re talking about expensive produce or some delicate confection that gets pushed to the back of my pantry under the pretense of “saving” it for a special occasion or other such nonsense. The latest chapter in this saga is a bottle of pomegranate syrup that I’ve had sitting around for the past year or so. Pomegranate syrup is used in Middle Eastern cooking in dishes like khoresh (among others), but I just haven’t felt inspired enough to find a proper use for it. Luckily, the New York Times came to my rescue in the nick of time.

An article about the joys of all things tart and sour caught my eye, and it included a recipe of Bulgur Salad with Pomegranate Dressing that really sounded delicious. My pomegranate syrup was set to self-destruct expire this October, so the heat was on to pom myself into sweet and sour oblivion. This salad lives up to that challenge, and I actually ended up using less dressing than the recipe called for, to avoid overpowering the dish. It should be said that this dressing is for sour lovers only…by itself, it’s a bit wild and verging on too-tart, but the tanginess is addictive and it mellows considerably when paired with the mild bulgur.

Bulgur Salad with Pomegranate Dressing
Adapted from The New York Times
pom_salad.jpg

A note: I halved this recipe from the original and it worked out just fine. Below are the halved amounts, which makes about enough for 5-6 side-dish servings. You can double it if you like, which will serve about 8-10 as a side dish.

1 cup medium-size bulgur wheat
1/3 cup olive oil
3 tablespoons pomegranate syrup
2-3 tablespoons lemon juice, or to taste
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne, or to taste
salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 bunch parsley, chopped
1 cup toasted walnuts

Cook bulgur in 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 cups of boiling water until water returns to the boil. Remove from heat and set it aside to soak up the water. After 30-45 minutes, drain the bulgur and put it in a serving bowl.

While bulgur soaks, make dressing: whisk olive oil, lemon juice, pomegranate syrup , tomato paste, and spices in a bowl. Add salt and pepper to taste. It will be very tart and tangy. This is normal. Adjust spices if desired.

Pour 1/2 of the dressing over the bulgur and mix thoroughly. Let it sit for 5-10 minutes to absorb the dressing, then taste. Add more dressing if desired, as well as the parsley and toasted nuts. Mix well and serve.

Makes about 5-6 side-dish servings.

PS: If you don’t have any pomegranate syrup but still want to try this salad, you should be able to find it in most Middle Eastern food stores. It’s also sometimes referred to as “pomegranate molasses”. Regular pomegranate juice won’t work, unfortunately, as it fails to deliver the concentrated flavor needed for the dressing.

19 September 2006

A Piper Picked A Peck of Pita

posted by gastrogirl @ 12:42 to section Cooking

Last night while cleaning my place up a bit, I re-discovered a pennywhistle which I bought some time ago but never learned to play. Inspiration hit me and soon I was tooting out “What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor” and working on “The Trooper and the Maid”, thanks to some lovely online tutorials. I’m not quite ready to go busking with my friend gnarphlager, but it’s a fun way to irritate my neighbors gain some appreciation of the skills required to pipe both quickly and cleanly.

Apart from drunken sailors, I also found myself wondering what to do with a bunch of pita bread that was preparing to get stale. A local grocer sells large bags of bread for very cheap, but it can be a challenge to eat all of it before it goes bad. The quickest solution to this is to make pita chips, which are great for munching at parties, scooping up dips, or just snacking. They will last for at least a week or two if kept in an airtight container. The only ingredients required (other than the pita) are probably already in your pantry: olive oil and a homemade or store-bought spice mixture (I like zatar, but you can use whatever suits you).

pita chips

Making your own pita crisps couldn’t be simpler, but there are two ways to go about it. The first way is to separate the two layers of bread with a small knife and brush olive oil on each layer. Sprinkle the spice mixture on top of this, then press the layers back together. Cut the round in half and the halves into small triangles before placing on a baking sheet. Another way is to not bother separating the layers and just brush the tops of the pitas with oil, sprinkle with spices, and cut into triangles. Don’t be afraid to be quite generous with the spices and oil, since some of the spice will fall off when the crisps cool. Also, if your spice mixture doesn’t include salt, be sure to add a liberal dash of that as well! Bake the triangles at about 400 F for 5 minutes or until lightly browned and firm to the touch. Until you find the precise time that works for you and your oven, be careful to keep an eye on the first batch, as they can go from crisp to burnt very quickly. Also, keep in mind that they will become more crisp as they cool, so if in doubt, take them out!

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