Saturday, December 29, 2007

Chocolate Pretzel Success (corrections appended)

A while back, Deb of Smitten Kitchen fame blogged about the shortcomings of Martha Stewart's chocolate pretzel cookie recipe. "Dry, bland, and not chocolatey enough" and more colorful adjectives described a cocopretzel that just didn't cut it. She suggested trying to make pretzels out of Dorie Greenspan's very flavorful and buttery chocolate rollout cookies, which I had been planning to make later that day. I figured what the hell? Chocolate pretzels they would be.

Needless to say, nothing is ever that easy. Dorie's chocolate rollout cookies are awesome cookies, but they make lousy pretzels. In the oven, they flatten out and spread a bit, losing their pretzel shape, and once cooled, they've got the texture of great cookies, not crunchy, crispy pretzels. Pretzels: 1. Rivka: 0.

With disappointment under my belt, I decided to give chocolate pretzels a second chance -- but not without a great deal of research. I googled several different phrasings of "chocolate pretzel cookie" and found total rubbish -- not even one decent recipe came up. I checked all my cookbooks with no luck. Left only to my own devices, I decided to develop a chocolate pretzel recipe.

My strategy was pretty simple (um, amateur?). I wrote out the ratio of butter:flour:cocoa:sugar:eggs in each recipe, noted the addition of baking powder and chocolate to Dorie's recipe and water and espresso to Martha's, and did my best to create a compromise between the two recipes that maintained the pretzely texture without sacrificing (much of) the flavor. And friends, you'll be thrilled to know that I succeeded! Yep, this super amateur method actually, to my total shock, worked!

Rivka's chocolate pretzel recipe (that's right, it's named after me!) yielded a chocolate pretzel that kept its round shape and its relatively toothsome crumb, but also packed a chocolatey punch from lots of cocoa and even a bit of chocolate. I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've developed a recipe from scratch -- so pat me on the back, will ya? And then run home and make these. They'll surely spread some holiday cheer (and maybe some chocolate onto your face, too).

Rivka's CocoPretzels
makes 18 pretzels

  • 1 1/2 sticks butter
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 or 2 oz. good quality chocolate (I used ghiradelli chips, and 1 oz is about 30 chips; the second time around, I used 2 oz and they were even better!)
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 cup cocoa
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • (1 egg yolk, for brushing)
  1. In a stand mixer with the paddle attachment or with an electric mixer, whip butter until smooth, about 2 minutes.
  2. Add sugars and whip until incorporated, 2 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, melt chocolate over double boiler.
  4. Add egg, vanilla and salt; mix until combined, about 20 seconds.
  5. Add chocolate; mix until combined, about 30 seconds, on low speed.
  6. Add cocoa, flour, and baking powder. Mix on low speed until completely blended, about two minutes or less.
  7. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 2 hours, or freeze for 45 minutes.
  8. Remove dough from fridge/freezer. Break off 1 1/2 Tbsp.-size chunks. (Alternatively, do as I did and slice the dough into relatively equal portions from the start.

  9. roll into 10-inch logs, about 1/3-1/2 an inch thick.
    DO NOT do as I did and roll them all out before shaping, because they'll get stiff and crack when you try to shape them. Shape as you go!

  10. Take the edges in your hand, bring them together, and twist them twice, leaving the tips dangling.

  11. Bring the twist down onto the rounded pretzel, stick the tips to the pretzel, and transfer to a non-stick or lined baking sheet.

  12. Brush with a very light coat of egg yolk mixed with water and sprinkle with rock sugar if you desire.

  13. Bake at 325 degrees for 15 minutes, until they've just begun to harden.
  14. Move delicately from baking sheet onto cooling rack, and allow to cool completely before serving. (Don't let that stop you from trying one...or two.)

Read more!

Friday, December 28, 2007

Sugar High Friday, baby!

Hey folks! Just a plug to check out Zorra's roundup of the Sugar High Friday entries -- mine's all the way at the bottom; it's the saffrom rice pudding and it's delicious! All the entries look mouthwatering -- so go check'em out!

Have a great weekend! Read more!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Simple antipasti

In Italy, antipasti are meant to whet your appetite. (Granted, when I ate out in Italy, my appetite needed little whetting -- what with all the whiffs of freshly-made pasta and roasted tomato sauce drifting from the kitchen to my table.) Nonetheless, in Italy, antipasti are simply appetizers, mere preludes to the main dish. In my house, they're just part of the meal. After all, roasted vegetables with a splash of quality balsamic vinegar and just the right amount of good olive oil make a perfect accompaniment to whatever's being served. In my humble opinion, they need not precede the main course -- in fact, they do just fine right alongside it.

By far the best thing about antipasti is their simplicity. Season, drizzle, and roast, that's all there is to it! These simple steps work wonders for eggplant, zucchini, onions, tomatoes, even sweet potatoes. The trick is to slice thinly, and flip once half-way through the roasting process so that both sides crisp up. If you're sparing with the oil, as I am, best use a pastry brush, which will spread the oil over the entire surface without soaking them all too much. And while cooking spray is fine for the pan, I strongly recommend sticking to real olive oil for the vegetables themselves; olive oil is a strong player in the saturated, concentrated flavor that antipasti develop.

I can safely say that this "recipe" has no recipe, but a method, instead: slice whatever vegetables you use about 1/4-1/8 inch thick, as uniformly as possible. Line a roasting pan with a single layer of vegetables. Brush each side with olive oil, sprinkle salt and pepper, and add herbs if you like (I favor sage, pictured below, for eggplant, and rosemary with sweet potatoes, onion, and a new addition -- turnips).

Bake at around 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes until the tops are browned; flip, and bake another 10-15 minutes. Check regularly to avoid burning (which I unfortunately have a tendency to do!). Once the vegetables are out of the oven, transfer to a platter, drizzle with good balsamic vinegar, add salt and pepper to taste, and bring to room temperature before serving.

Read more!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Happy Holidays!

You know it's holiday time when this is your kitchen table display...

Happy Holidays to all, and enjoy the winter season! Read more!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Daring Bakers bake Buche de Noel

In honor of the holiday season, Daring Bakers’ took on what may be the holy grail of daring recipes: Buche de Noel, or Yule Log. Until Lis and Ivonne charged DBers with making this, I didn’t even know it was a food. See, traditionally, the Yule Log was a large, thick piece of wood burned by Pagans just after winter solstice (which was on Friday), in order to thank their gods for making the days longer and the weather warmer in the months to come. Today, not many people burn Yule Logs, but apparently, loads of people eat them around Christmastime.

Now I'm not one to balk when the going gets tough -- but that doesn't mean I won't bring in reinforcements. Fortunately for me, my dear friend Dellie was visiting from Boston, so we devoted a few hours one night last week to this undertaking. Boy was I wise -- both to set aside lots of time and to enlist a cooking compatriot: Buche is quite the project!

A classically-constructed Buche consists of a soft “genoise” cake, layered with some type of filling, rolled into a jellyroll shape, and coated with a thick layer of buttercream frosting. Oh, yes – how could I forget? – it’s also shaped like a log. To do this, you lop off a diagonal slice from the front of the unfrosted cake, and place it about ¾ of the way down the log with the diagonal end jutting upwards, to resemble a broken branch from the log.

Sound weird and odd and energy-intensive? But we haven’t even finished explaining the insanity that is Buche: after you’ve mixed and folded and mixed and baked and rolled and cut and placed and rolled and blahblahblah, you make some meringue, shape some stems and caps, and build meringue mushrooms (yes, you heard me correctly). To do this, you poke a hole in the bottom of each cap, fill with some raw meringue (or frosting, if you’re like we are) and insert the stem.

When you’re finished with the hours of stove-hovering, you’ll see something like this:

Now, correct me if I’m wrong – maybe Dellie and I were being too judgmental – but is this not the most random dessert you’ve ever seen? Cake shaped like a log and scraped to look like bark with some mushrooms growing out the sides?

…Yea, I thought so.

Having said that, it sure was fun to make – especially with the company of such a dear friend! -- and if you have a hankering for some seriously weird dessert-making and a few odd hours to kill, then sure, try this at home, why don’t ya?
For all the rest of you, just ooh and ahh at this one, and have yourselves some Happy Holidays!

Buche De Noel
Sources: Perfect Cakes by Nick Malgieri and The Williams-Sonoma Collection: Dessert
Serves 12
Cake should be stored in a cool, dry place. Leftovers should be refrigerated

Plain Genoise:

3 large eggs
3 large egg yolks
pinch of salt
¾ cup of sugar
½ cup cake flour - spoon flour into dry-measure cup and level off (also known as cake & pastry flour)
¼ cup cornstarch

one 10 x 15 inch jelly-roll pan that has been buttered and lined with parchment paper and then buttered again

1.Set a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees F.

2.Half-fill a medium saucepan with water and bring it to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat so the water is simmering.

3.Whisk the eggs, egg yolks, salt and sugar together in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer. Place over the pan of simmering water and whisk gently until the mixture is just lukewarm, about 100 degrees if you have a thermometer (or test with your finger - it should be warm to the touch).

4.Attach the bowl to the mixer and, with the whisk attachment, whip on medium-high speed until the egg mixture is cooled (touch the outside of the bowl to tell) and tripled in volume. The egg foam will be thick and will form a slowly dissolving ribbon falling back onto the bowl of whipped eggs when the whisk is lifted.

5.While the eggs are whipping, stir together the flour and cornstarch.

6.Sift one-third of the flour mixture over the beaten eggs. Use a rubber spatula to fold in the flour mixture, making sure to scrape all the way to the bottom of the bowl on every pass through the batter to prevent the flour mixture from accumulating there and making lumps. Repeat with another third of the flour mixture and finally with the remainder.

7.Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.

8.Bake the genoise for about 10 to 12 minutes. Make sure the cake doesn’t overbake and become too dry or it will not roll properly.

9.While the cake is baking, begin making the buttercream.

10.Once the cake is done (a tester will come out clean and if you press the cake lightly it will spring back), remove it from the oven and let it cool on a rack.

Coffee Buttercream:

4 large egg whites
1 cup sugar
24 tablespoons (3 sticks or 1-1/2 cups) unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons instant espresso powder
2 tablespoons rum or brandy

1.Whisk the egg whites and sugar together in the bowl of an electric mixer. Set the bowl over simmering water and whisk gently until the sugar is dissolved and the egg whites are hot.

2.Attach the bowl to the mixer and whip with the whisk on medium speed until cooled. Switch to the paddle and beat in the softened butter and continue beating until the buttercream is smooth. Dissolve the instant coffee in the liquor and beat into the buttercream.

Filling and frosting the log:

1.Run a sharp knife around the edges of the genoise to loosen it from the pan.

2.Turn the genoise layer over (unmolding it from the sheet pan onto a flat surface) and peel away the paper.

3.Carefully invert your genoise onto a fresh piece of parchment paper.

4.Spread with half the coffee buttercream (or whatever filling you’re using).

5.Use the parchment paper to help you roll the cake into a tight cylinder.

6.Transfer back to the baking sheet and refrigerate for several hours.

7.Unwrap the cake. Trim the ends on the diagonal, starting the cuts about 2 inches away from each end.

8.Position the larger cut piece on each log about 2/3 across the top.

9.Cover the log with the reserved buttercream, making sure to curve around the protruding stump.

10.Streak the buttercream with a fork or decorating comb to resemble bark.

11.Transfer the log to a platter and decorate with your mushrooms and whatever other decorations you’ve chosen.

Meringue Mushrooms:

3 large egg whites, at room temperature
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
½ cup (3-1/2 ounces/105 g.) granulated sugar
1/3 cup (1-1/3 ounces/40 g.) icing sugar
Unsweetened cocoa powder for dusting

1.Preheat the oven to 225 degrees F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment. Have ready a pastry bag fitted with a small (no. 6) plain tip. In a bowl, using a mixer on medium-low speed, beat together the egg whites and cream of tartar until very foamy. Slowly add the granulated sugar while beating. Increase the speed to high and beat until soft peaks form when the beaters are lifted. Continue until the whites hold stiff, shiny peaks. Sift the icing sugar over the whites and, using a rubber spatula, fold in until well blended.

2.Scoop the mixture into the bag. On one baking sheet, pipe 48 stems, each ½ inch (12 mm.) wide at the base and tapering off to a point at the top, ¾ inch (2 cm.) tall, and spaced about ½ inch (12 mm.) apart. On the other sheet, pipe 48 mounds for the tops, each about 1-1/4 inches (3 cm.) wide and ¾ inch (2 cm.) high, also spaced ½ inch (12 mm.) apart. With a damp fingertip, gently smooth any pointy tips. Dust with cocoa. Reserve the remaining meringue.

3.Bake until dry and firm enough to lift off the paper, 50-55 minutes. Set the pans on the counter and turn the mounds flat side up. With the tip of a knife, carefully make a small hole in the flat side of each mound. Pipe small dabs of the remaining meringue into the holes and insert the stems tip first. Return to the oven until completely dry, about 15 minutes longer. Let cool completely on the sheets.

4.Garnish your Yule Log with the mushrooms.

Read more!

Holiday Cookies

With candy canes and sprinkles lining grocery store shelves, holiday season just screams, "sugar cookies!" Around this time each year, I toss aside my fanciest dessert recipes and opt for the more humble sugar cookie instead. Sugar cookies can be enhanced any which way, from flavoring the dough to adding crushed candy to topping with sprinkles and frosting....with so many variations, there's truly a sugar cookie for everyone.

I made sugar cookies twice this season, both times differently than I have before. When Jackie hosted a cookie-making-and-decorating party (a blast, as you may have guessed), I was introduced to the wonder that is maple extract. It's not the easiest to find, but I'll be keeping it close for those times when I'm craving maple flavor, but adding maple syrup would change the texture. Apparently 5 lbs. of cookie dough and lots of intermittent nibbling wasn't enough for me, so I decided to make another batch at home. For those, I used vanilla extract and just a bit of molasses, which imparted an earthy flavor to otherwise regular sugar cookies. I highly recommend these recipes, and I've included both of them below.

At Jackie's party, we had the full gamut of cookie decorations as our disposal, from trusty powdered-sugar-milk icings to ginger-flavored sugar and other fancy treats. While those were loads of fun to play with, back at my house I used crushed candy instead. You can do so many things with crushed candy canes and heath bars, the two I used: you can incorporate them into the dough, sprinkle or press them on top of each cookie, or fill them into holes in your cookies to make a stained-glass effect, as Elise does here.
Any way you choose, it's pretty hard to go wrong. So make a double batch of these and keep'em around this holiday season. Your family, friends, and uninvited guests will surely thank you.

Rolled Maple Sugar Cookies
courtesy of Jackie and her friend's mom


  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 11 Tbsp. (a bit less than 1 1/2 sticks) butter, cut into chunks
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/3 tsp. vanilla
  • 2/3 tsp. maple extract
  • 1 Tbsp. milk
  1. Mix flour and baking powder in a large mixing bowl.
  2. Add all the other ingredients, in order, and mix either by hand or using a kitchenaid/electric mixer. Shape dough into a disk.
  3. Chill for at least one hour, up to overnight.
  4. Roll out dough to 1/4-inch thickness, and cut out any shapes you like.
  5. Bake at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes, until cookies have just begun to brown around the edges.

To make frosting:

Put 1/2 cup of powdered sugar in a small bowl, and add milk by the Tbsp. until the mixture is the thickness of syrup. A thinner icing will run more easily and take longer to dry; a thicker one will run less and dry more quickly, but is harder to manipulate into shapes.

Old-fashioned Sugar Cookies
adapted from Epicurious

  • 1 1/2 sticks butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 Tbsp. molasses
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp. baking soda
  • 3/4 tsp. salt

  1. Stir together butter, sugar, egg and vanilla, either by hand or with a mixer.
  2. Add flour, baking soda, and salt; stir until the mixture forms a dough.
  3. Form into a disk, and chill, covered, at least 2 hours.
  4. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
  5. Roll dough to 1/4 inch thickness, and cut out 2-inch rounds from the dough (or any other shape).
  6. Crush any hard candy until most of it is very fine; I used heath bars and candy canes.
  7. dunk cookies in crushed candy, and place 1 inch apart on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper.
  8. Bake in batches in the middle of the oven for 8-12 minutes, until edges have just turned golden.
  9. This last part is important -- eat one hot! Cookies will keep, packed in an airtight container, for up to one week.

Read more!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Carrot Soup

It's already December and I still haven't posted a freezable soup recipe? Can't be.

My nose is red and my paws are frosty these days. If only it were possible to have the kettle whistling by the time I walked in the door, so that I could instantly hold a piping hot mug of chai after weathering the cold. Until someone invents that kettle, there's frozen soup. There're few things easier than popping a soup-filled ziploc out of the freezer and nuking your dinner on a cold winter night. Start to finish, it only takes 4 minutes, and the results are just as good, if not better, than freshly made soup. The ingredients have had time to mingle with each other a bit more, so frozen soups often taste flavor-saturated than their fresh siblings. Top the soup with some homemade croutons and you're good to go!

Carrot soup is one of the simplest and lowest-maintenance options for wintertime. Once all the ingredients have landed in the pot, simply cover and hang out by the fire for an hour or two. Then throw it all in the food processor, et voila!

Spiced Carrot Soup
serves 4-6.


  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup minced onion or shallot
  • 3 Tbsp. minced peeled fresh ginger
  • 2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. allspice
  • 1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 1/8 tsp. cumin
  • 2 tsp. salt (if using water; if using chicken stock or broth, no salt is needed)
  • 3-4 cups (or more) chicken stock, chicken broth, or water, as needed
  • 4 cups sliced peeled carrots (about 1 1/2 pounds)
  • 1 cup or so orange juice
  • pinch brown sugar or a couple tsp. maple syrup, if needed

  1. Heat oil in heavy large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onion or shallot, ginger, salt, and spices, and sauté until onion is translucent, about 5 minutes.
  2. Add carrots, and toss to coat with onion mixture.
  3. Add 3 cups liquid, or enough that liquid covers carrots by about 1 inch. Cover and simmer until carrots are tender, about 30 minutes. Add orange juice, and cook a few minutes longer. If needed, add sugar or syrup to sweeten.
  4. Transfer in batches to the food processor and puree. Adjust the seasoning if necessary.
  5. Transfer pot to fridge and chill; if desired, when soup is just warm, transfer to ziplocs and freeze in 1-serving portions. Be sure to eliminate all air from the bag before closing.

Homemade Croutons

  • leftover bread; I used homemade no-knead bread with whole wheat flour and raisins.
  • pam or olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Slice bread, and cut slices into 1/2-inch cubes.
  3. Lay out cubes in a shallow baking sheet, in a single layer.
  4. Spray with pam or drizzle with oil, and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper.
  5. Bake at 350 for about 10 minutes, then turn oven down to 300 and bake another ten minutes, until crisp.
  6. Allow to cool completely before storing in bags or jars.

Read more!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Apricot-Cranberry Couronne

D. had some law school buddies over this weekend for a study marathon, and I thought it only fair that if D. study her butt off, I cook my butt off. So I started brainstorming ideas for brunch food that could be served room temp (since I'd already be gone by the time they came over, and D's not much in the way of kitchen activities that aren't dish-washing.) I settled on a frittata and apricot-couronne -- a hole-in-one, if you ask me.

I'd been meaning to make apricot couronne ever since I saw it over at Tartelette (you all know that Tartelette is one of my all time fave blogs). She found the recipe from one of her favorite cooks, Paul Hollywood. Now she tweaked his recipe a bit, and I tweaked her recipe a bit, so this is two degrees of separation from the original. Paul Hollywood uses apricots, raisins, and walnuts, and includes apricot jam in the filling. Tartelette used cherries instead of raisins, and brushed the apricot jam on the outside of the loaf. I used apricots, cranberries, and raisins, no walnuts, and no apricot jam, and I brushed the residual syrupy stuff from the apricot mixture on the outside, figuring that the butter in it would give the loaf a golden hue. Ahh, yes. How did it come out? Finger-lickin' good, of course!

**A fair warning, before you accuse me of being vague about the shaping instructions below: both Tartelette and UKTV (where the Paul Hollywood recipe originally appears) reference a video of that shaping that I couldn't find anywhere; when I finally found it, it wouldn't load. I've done my best to explain what they mean by "cut lengthwise and wrap to make a plait" -- but if you can't figure it out and don't want to risk anything craaazy, just roll up your loaf, wrap it around and pinch the edges together to make a donut shape, and bake it that way. It won't taste any less delicious.

Apricot-Cranberry Couronne
adapted from Paul Hollywood's recipe


For the dough:

  • 250 g (2 1/2 cups) white flour
  • 5 g (1 teaspoon) Salt
  • 50g (1/2 stick) Butter
  • 120ml (2/3 cup) warm milk
  • 1 packet dried yeast
  • 1 egg, beaten

For the filling:

  • about 12 dried apricots
  • 150g (2/3 cup) orange juice
  • 50g (1/2 stick) butter
  • 1/2 cup light muscovado or brown sugar
  • 35g (2 Tbsp) plain flour
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries
  • grated zest of one orange


1. First start to prepare the filling. Place the apricots, cranberries, and orange juice in a bowl and nuke in the microwave for a minute, then set aside to marinate while you make the dough.

2. To make the dough, place the strong white flour, salt, butter, warm milk, yeast and egg in a mixing bowl.

3. Mix well together to form a dough.

4. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 6 minutes.

5. Return the dough to the cleaned-out mixing bowl and set aside to rise in a warm place for 1-2 hours, until increased to 150% of the original size.

6. While the dough is rising, drain the marinated apricots and cranberries.

7. In a mixing bowl, cream together the butter and muscovado sugar until fluffy. Mix in the drained apricots, flour, cranberries, and orange zest.

8. Turn the risen dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll out the dough into a rectangle, approximately 25 x 33cm.

9. Spread the apricot mixture evenly over the dough rectangle.

10. Roll up the rectangle tightly. Roll it slightly, then cut lengthways along the dough (if some of the filling starts to seep out, no biggie). Delicately plait the 2 dough lengths together: the method is to twist each half slightly while wrapping them around each other, and when you've wrapped the lengths of dough completely, connect the two ends of the log to make a big donut-shaped plait. Brush the excess apricot syrup all over the top of the plait.

11. Place the dough plait on a lined baking sheet and set aside to rise for 1 hour.

12. Preheat the oven to 390°F.

13. Bake for 25 minutes until risen and golden.

14. Set aside to cool.

Read more!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Holiday Time!

It's that merry time of year again! Being Jewish, I get that Christmas isn't my holiday, but I can't help anxiously awaiting It's a Wonderful Life and the SNL Christmas special and Harry Connick, Jr. on the radio. It makes me so happy!

Ok, I suppose it's much easier to revel in the merriment of the season since I don't have 1001 Christmas gifts to buy. But for the rest of you, if you're looking for that perfect foodie-gift, I have two excellent suggestions. Both landed on my shelf by way of Hannukah (thanks, Ima!) and I couldn't be happier.

1) Pictured above is Nigella's new cookbook, Nigella Express. If you love Nigella (which we most certainly do), you'll love this larger, just-as-beautiful cookbook of recipes that can be made in a flash. If you've never opened a Nigella cookbook, now's the perfect time to start. Her photographers are amazingly talented, and everything looks mouthwateringly delicious.

2) This one is a must-have. I heard an interview with Judith Jones on the latest episode of The Splendid Table (a public radio food podcast), and she's an absolute delight. Jones grew up in the days of ladylike behavior and stockings draped over the bedside...but she was in Paris, living with a man (yes! a man!) whom she later married, discovering all that is wonderful about French food-life. Jones had a sixth sense about chef-authors; she has "discovered" trailblazers such as Julia Child, Madhur Jaffrey and Claudia Rodin, and she was the editor of Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child. She's now a VP editor at Knopf, and her story is worth hearing, or reading about, in full. Best of all, this book is less than fifteen bucks! Make someone happy without breaking the bank, will ya? Read more!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Good 'Ole Apple Pie

Apple Pie has been done, done, and done again. If you skim anyone's list of cookbooks or blogs, you'll find infinite declarations of how to make apple pie. Some claim to have the definitive recipe. Since I have never (to the best of my memory) actually made an apple pie, start to finish, from scratch, I'm certainly not going to promise that the results of this first attempt are worth repeating. However, I can say that I learned a great deal, and I'm positive that this post will impart at least one valuable apple-pie baking recipe (which so many others have discovered before I did): apple pies are best with regular top crusts. The lattice doesn't trap enough of the steam inside, and the apples either don't cook through, or don't get coated with that lovely apple pie sludge. Next time, I'll forgo the beautiful lattice and stick to the easier top crust. Save your lattices for berry pies and other juicy things.

That said, the sludge that this pie produced (in my humble opinion) perfectly balanced sweet and tart. The apples were soft but still toothsome, and the syrup that oozed from each slice was delightful. By the time the pie was actually gone, the dish needed very little scrubbing, as I'd been sneaking fingerfuls of the goo all along.

Here's the info about my pie, element by element:

The Crust
It's fashionable to avoid transfats these days. They're pretty darn bad for you, and you're definitely better off with butter. Plus, never growing up with much margarine or shortening in the house, they freak me out a bit, and I tend to associate them with spam and other such delicacies. However, Friday night dinner was meat, so I couldn't use butter in the crust, and frankly, oil is simply an unacceptable substitute in proper pie dough, so I caved and used margarine. I now understand why people use it, scary as it may be: it produces a perfectly flaky dough that's neither tough or overly dense. I'd say I'd do it again, but I won't. Hey, it was good while it lasted.

As for the lattice top, it's really not as complicated to make as it looks. An instructional video can be found here. Basically, the methodology is as follows: cut 16 1/2-inch strips from your second disk of rolled-out dough. Lay eight of them across the pie in one direction, equidistant from each other. Now, fold every other strip back over itself almost all the way, and lay down your first crossing strip. Unfold the folded strips over, and fold the other strips over themselves (that is, every other strip, but the ones that run under the first cross strip). Now, lay the next strip down. Unfold the folded strips, fold the unfolded strips, and lay down the next cross strip. Keep alternating this way until all strips are laid, and you'll find a perfect lattice crust.

The apples
People are so particular about which apples to use in a pie. These taste better, these hold their shape better, those are just horrible in pies, etc. I say, there's no such thing as an apple that's horrible in pies. They're all pretty darn good. So I picked up the "seconds" at the farmers market: with a couple of bruises here and there, seconds run about 89 cents a pound -- not bad for farm-fresh apples. It turns out that I used a mix of braeburn, honeycrisp, jonathan, and jonagold, and I was very pleased. The verdict? Use whatever's in the fridge. Just stay away from red delicious which taste less-than-wonderful and macintosh, which get kinda mushy.

The add-ins
I'm a big fan of quinces. The little suckers will give you quite a run for your money if you dare try to peel or (gasp!) slice them up, but once chopped, sugared, and cooked, quinces elevate any old apple pie and impart an unparalleled complexity of flavor. Quinces should be sauteed before added to pie, as they take longer to cook than apples (and are quite unpleasant if undercooked). I like to boil them in a very diluted simple syrup with a bit of vanilla and cinnamon.

Basic Flaky Pie Crust
adapted from The Pie and Pastry Bible (© 1998 Cordon Rose, Inc.) by Rose Levy Beranbaum

(Pastry for a 9-inch lattice pie, a 9-inch deep-dish pie, a 10-inch pie shell, or a 12- to 14-inch free-form tart

  • 9 tablespoons unsalted butter or margarine, cold
  • 1 1/2 cups (dip and sweep method) bleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 tablespoons ice water
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons cider vinegar
  • 1/8 teaspoon baking powder (optional, and I didn't use it; if not using, double the salt)

  1. Divide the butter into two parts, about two thirds to one third: 6 tablespoons and 3 tablespoons.
  2. Cut the butter into 3/4-inch cubes. Wrap each portion of butter with plastic wrap, refrigerate the larger amount and freeze the smaller for at least 30 minutes. Place the flour, salt, and (optional) baking powder in a reclosable gallon-size freezer bag and freeze for at least 30 minutes.
  3. Place the flour mixture in a food processor with the metal blade and process for a few seconds to combine. Set the bag aside.
  4. Add the larger amount of butter cubes to the flour and process for about 20 seconds or until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add the remaining frozen butter cubes and pulse until all of the frozen butter is the size of peas. (Toss with a fork to see it better.)
  5. Add the lowest amount of the ice water and the vinegar and pulse 6 times. Pinch a small amount of the mixture together between your fingers. If it does not hold together, add half the remaining water and pulse 3 times. Try pinching the mixture again. If necessary, add the remaining water, pulsing 3 times to incorporate it. The mixture will be in particles and will not hold together without being pinched.
  6. Spoon the mixture into the plastic bag. (For a double-crust pie, it is easiest to divide the mixture in half at this point.)
  7. Holding both ends of the bag opening with you fingers, knead the mixture by alternately pressing it, from the outside of the bag, with the knuckles and heels of your hands until the mixture holds together in one piece and feels slightly stretchy when pulled.
  8. Wrap the dough with plastic wrap, flatten it into a disc (or discs) and refrigerate for at least 45 minutes, preferably overnight. (For a pie shell and lattice, divide it in a ratio of two thirds:one third — use about 9.5 ounces for the shell and the rest for the lattice, flattening the smaller part into a rectangle.)
  9. Store, refrigerated, up to 2 days; frozen, up to 3 months.
  10. The Pastry Bible's explanation of what's goin' on:

    Pastry flour offers the most tenderness while maintaining flakiness, but it is the addition of vinegar that relaxes the dough without losing flakiness, making it easier to roll, shrink less, and be even more tender. The baking powder lifts and aerates the dough slightly without weakening it, but it makes it seem more tender.

    Thes secret to success is finely incorporating about two thirds of the butter into the flour, which keeps the flour from absorbing too much water and forming gluten, which would make the crust tough. The remaining one third of the butter is incorporated in larger pieces, which serve to seperate the layers, resulting in the desired flakiness. This pie crust does not shrink or distort as much as the standard all-butter crust because there is less gluten development.

    If when adding the water, you find you need more than indicated in the recipe, chances are you haven't moisture-proofed the flour adequately (you haven't used the correct amount of butter or processed it fine enough), leaving the flour free to absorb more liquid. The resulting crust will be flakier but less tender.

    If you find you need less water than specified in the recipe, chances are you divided the butter incorrectly and used too much of it to moisture-proof the flour, preventing it from absorbing an adequate amount of water. The resulting crust will be more tender but not very flaky.

    Flattening the newly formed dough into a disc or discs before refrigerating makes it easier to roll without cracking. The dough is refrigerated to relax the gluten, making it less elastic and easier to roll. Chilling also firms the butter, preventing sticking and the need for extra flour when rolling, which would toughen it. Dough that has rested overnight before baking shrinks less.

Apple Pie adapted from Deb at Smitten Kitchen

  • 3 1/2 lbs apples (about 8)
  • 1 quince
  • 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, or one dash vanilla
  • 2 cups water and 1/4 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons juice and 1 teaspoon zest from 1 lemon
  • 3/4 cups sugar
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

  1. Over medium heat, combine 2 cups water, 1/4 cup sugar, and vanilla. Stir until sugar dissolves. Peel and chop quince, removing the core. Add sliced quince to simple syrup and cook over medium for about 20 minutes, until quince pieces are soft-ish.
  2. Adjust oven rack to lowest position and heat rimmed baking sheet and oven to 500 degrees. Remove one piece of dough from refrigerator (if refrigerated longer than 1 hour, let stand at room temperature until malleable).
  3. Roll dough on lightly floured work surface or between two large sheets of wax paper, to about 1/2-inch thick. Fold dough in half, then over itself again into quarters, and transfer dough to pie plate, placing dough point in center of pie plate and unfolding. Working around circumference of pie plate, ease dough into pan corners by gently lifting dough edges with one hand while pressing around pan bottom with other hand. Leave dough that overhangs lip of plate in place; refrigerate dough-lined pie plate.
  4. Peel, core, and slice apples into about 8 slices each. Toss with lemon juice and zest. In a medium bowl, mix ¾ cup sugar, flour, salt and spices. Toss dry ingredients with apples. Add cooked quinces and toss. Turn fruit mixture, including juices, into chilled pie shell and pile heavily in center.
  5. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
  6. Roll out second piece of dough to 1/2-inch thick disk. Slice into 16 strips, and follow the instructions above for a lattice top. Alternatively, simply lay the second disk atop the apples in the same manner as you lined the pie plate with the first disk. Trim top and bottom edges to ½-inch beyond pan lip. Tuck this rim of dough underneath itself so that folded edge is flush with pan lip. Flute edging or press with fork tines to seal. For a non-lattice top crust, cut three slits on dough top. If pie dough is very soft, place in freezer for 10 minutes.
  7. Place pie on baking sheet and bake until top crust is golden, about 25 minutes. Rotate pie and reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees; continue baking until juices bubble and crust is deep golden brown, 30-35 minutes longer.
  8. Transfer pie to wire rack; cool to room temperature, at least 4 hours.

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Saturday, December 8, 2007

Saffron-Nutmeg Rice Pudding: Sugar High Friday!

Something has happened. There used to be no stopping me from gravitating straight toward the chocolate. In Baskin Robbins, I had no control over my constant need for chocolate raspberry truffle, and therefore tasted almost no other flavors for about six years. My mom could hide all the candy in the house and I wouldn't notice, but if chocolate had a hiding place, I could find it in a flash. Lately, my long-standing chocolate obsession has taken a backseat to simpler things. Exhibit A: this little rice pudding number, featured in the latest issue of gourmet. I turned the page to the letters section, noticed the recipe for rice pudding with (gulp) nutmeg as the only flavoring (not even vanilla!) and thought, I. must. make. this. now.

So I did.

Where has all the chocolate gone? No matter. If you make this rice pudding, I guarantee you won't miss chocolate, no, not one little bit. Nutmeg may sound "simple" when you shake it from the jar into your carrot soup (the subject of a later post...stay tuned!) But when it's freshly grated, when it stands alone on arborio rice -- with just some milk, cream and sugar to pull the pudding together -- why, nothing could be more complex.

Nutmeg is a "warm" spice, at once spicy and sweet, with a real bite and a pleasant bitterness that make it irresistible. In the jar, its flavor gets somewhat muted, so grate some from a whole nutmeg whenever possible. I bought 20 whole nutmeg pieces for a buck fifty, so it shouldn't set you back much, and it's truly worth it.

Now, I'll be honest: I didn't stop at the nutmeg. After all, something as simple as rice pudding provides a golden opportunity to play around. I happened to buy a (relatively) big box of saffron a couple weeks ago, and I've been waiting for a chance to use it. What better than a bright yellow, saffron-nutmeg flavored rice pudding? So it was settled.

Aside from the nutmeg, what drew me to this recipe was the stirring -- or lack thereof. Typically, rice pudding means hovering over the stove until your back aches, stirring the thing around and around so it doesn't clump or stick or overcook. Needless to say, it's a pain. But this recipe was for baked pudding: simply mix the ingredients in the ramekins themselves, stick'em on a baking sheet, and bake'em in the oven for an hour. Let's face it -- not much could be easier. And I'd be surprised if you don't scrape your bowl clean, as I did. Saffron-Nutmeg Rice Pudding: my entry for this month's Sugar High Friday.

Saffron-Nutmeg Rice Pudding adapted from this month's Gourmet
serves 4.

  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1/3 cup Arborio rice
  • 8 tsp. sugar
  • salt
  • whole nutmeg
  • 12 threads saffron
  • 4 Tbsp. heavy cream
  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees, and put rack in the middle. Butter the ramekins.
  2. Add 1/2 cup milk, 4 tsp. rice, 2 tsp. sugar, and a pinch of salt to each ramekin. Grate a bit of nutmeg over each, and put 3 threads of saffron in each. Stir well to combine, and ensure that the spices don't float, if possible.
  3. Put ramekins in a shallow baking pan and bake until most of the milk is absorbed and the tops are golden-brown, about 1 hour.
  4. A skin will form on each ramekin; remove the skin.
  5. Stir 1 Tbsp. cream into each pudding until creamy. Allow to cool, and if desired, refrigerate 30 minutes until chilled.
  6. Enjoy -- don't forget to scrape your ramekin to the last drop.
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