Archive for October, 2009

Sweet Treats

cookieThere’s been a happy confluence of events recently; my foodie stars are aligned.

Connie was in touch earlier this month to remind me of fun we’d had a few years back baking cookies (and drinking wine) with two other friends. We’d spent an entire afternoon covered in flour, crunching egg shells on her floor, gossiping and getting sillier as the day wore on. We shared our recipes, turned out dozens of sweet goodies and divided up the spoils before going home.

Did I want to do it again this year? Of course!

This week I find myself in Maine visiting Best Friend whose lovely home includes a chilly attic with a treasure trove of books left by the former owner. I have an affinity for books; especially old books with yellowed pages and antiquated language. Best Friend’s attic holds hundreds of those tomes and many are for the cook. With cookie cooking coming up, this visit’s attic search was focused on finding cookery books about sweets. And, what a sweet I found! “Desserts in America, 1650-1900.”

I dug in. I started to read.

The cookie, A cookie. What is a cookie? Where did they come from? The earliest form of this favorite sweet is found in Persia around the 7th century where sugar was also first used. Not as sweet then as they are today, they traveled well and the concept spread. Muslims brought cookies to Spain and by the 14th Century forms of cookies were common all over Europe. Centuries later the cookie came to America compliments of the Dutch. Originally called koekje or little cakes, koekje was Anglicized to cookie. By the 1800’s cookies were a New Year’s Day specialty and tradition required families to provide one for a visitor to carry away in his pocket.

From America’s earliest days, there is no doubt that the cookie was widely enjoyed. Few American homes were without cookie making tools that included a rolling pin (called a molding pin), a plain board (called a molding board) a wineglass, tumbler or flour-dredging box for cutting the dough into discs. Tin cutters in the shape of animals, stars, crescents and leaves were also commonly found.

There is also no doubt that the simple Dutch koekje had spun off into recipes for hundreds of little sweet treats. By the 19th Century, all Cookery Books featured at least a few receipts for cookies. According to my newly found book which quotes a New York hostess, “Cookies are proper for tea or for putting upon a salver to eat with jellies.” The lady goes on to describe the receipt for one of her favorites, a fragile cylinder to be served plain or filled with cream:

“The housewife will beat equal parts of cream, sugar, flour and orange water together for half an hour. Then pour a spoonful onto a very hot wafer iron and baked it for a mere minute until it was light brown. While the wafer was hot she was rolled it around a wooden roller or the handle of a wooden spoon and let it cool until crisp.”

The Naples biscuit was another early American sweet; it is the fore runner of our modern graham cracker. It was enjoyed by itself and used for thickening possets (sweet spiced hot milk curdled with ale or beer). These little cookies were baked in small tins and I read George Washington owned four (tins, that is).

Most early American cookies, then commonly called little flat cakes or drop cakes, almost always were flavored, instead of with vanilla, with rose or orange-flower water. More commonly than not, they would contain seeds, sometimes whole, sometimes ground by a mortar and a pestle. Cardamom, cinnamon and caraway were the flavors most used; sugar was often sprinkled on the top. All were baked in a “quick” but not too hot oven with several sheets of paper under the baking sweet dough.

When I pack my bag to come back home, my new Book Friend will come along. I can not wait to bake some of those old fashioned delights.

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I love marzipan; I also love the memories it holds. My little girl birthday cakes were always decorated with butter cream flowers filled with marzipan and during the spring Nana brought us sugared marzipan candies from Dubin’s, a favorite bakery in Brooklyn.

Ratafia Cakes (cookies) are made from almond paste, the essential ingredient for marchpane, marzipan. The book flopped open to that page when I first picked it up. It will be the first recipe I’ll try.

Untested Recipes for Ratafia Cakes (cookies)

Mix thoroughly:

  • 7 ounces almond paste
  • 7/8 cup sugar
  • 2 egg whites
  • 1 tsp almond extract

Form this mixture into 1” ovals. Place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake at 325° for 15 minutes.

–OR—

Beat

  • 3 egg whites until just stiff

Add:

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 TBS rosewater
  • 1 cup of almond paste
  • ½ tsp almond extract

Fold In:

  • 2 cups of sifted flour

Drop by teaspoon onto a well greased cookie sheet. Bake at 325° for 10 minutes.

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The First Classic French Recipe I Learned to Cook Very Well

pouring-chardonnayJulia Child for me, like so many, many others, provided my first peek into “How It’s Supposed To Be Done”, cooking that is. Her original Mastering the Art of French Cooking was the second cookbook I ever owned and it remains one of my favorites. I still have my original copy—dog eared and stained—and her recipes offer the best guidance for a new cook (which I was back in the day) and timeless recipes and techniques for the cook with more experience (which I like to think I’ve become).

Coq au Vin , chicken simmered in wine, was the first thing I tried from that book and wow, did I love it. I followed the recipe to a “T”. Over the years, as my confidence grew, I decided to make a few changes, especially after finding a very old recipe in Larousse Gastronomique. The result is an amalgam of two very fine worlds and remains, I think, an excellent dish.

For context, a word about Larousse: (I know you know about Julia) I consider it the Bible of Cooking. It is set up alphabetically and contains the most complete compendium of (mostly French) cooking terms and techniques and original recipes that I have ever seen. It was first published in 1938. It is said Escoffier collaborated with the author.

And, for added context, some history about Coq au Vin:  Coq is the French word for cock and it is rumored that this dish was originally made with the old rooster who no longer did his duty. Wine was added to tenderize the old guy and it simmered all day while the Farmer and His Wife worked in the fields. Nowadays, even Larousse admits, the stew should be “prepared with a fine young chicken”.

Back to the pot and now, the first ingredient, my favorite, the wine. Julia gives the cook a choice of red or white although she offers that the red is more common. Larousse goes a bit further, gets more specific and instructs the cook to use an “old Auvergne wine”, a little known area in central France growing ancient vines surrounded by extinct volcanoes. Auvergne produces reds (Gamay and Pinot Noir), whites (Chardonnay) and Rose, so the cook still has a choice. (Determined to cook with a vin that was classic for the dish, I once went on a fruitless search all over NY City looking for a bottle of wine from Auvergne). The bottom line is you should use what you prefer; I’ve grown to prefer a white just because the look of chicken tinted by red simply does not appeal. Beaujolais is a region near Auvergne and is an excellent wine alternative. The wines are fruity and light and I’ve seen several fine cooks choose a vin with that label and produce an excellent stew.

Mushrooms are another ingredient where Julia and Larousse do not agree.  Julia just says “mushrooms” and I was originally taught to use button (most likely because in this country, in those years, button was all you could find).  With Larousse the mushrooms are morels and I suspect this is more accurate as the farmer’s wife would have scavenged the local wood for whatever she could and morels seem a more likely find.

There is no mention of bacon in my beat up Larousse, rather 3 ounces of lean pork cut into dice. Julia calls for lean bacon, cut into lardons (small sticks) and given a blanch (quick cook in lightly boiling water). That is still what I prefer to do. The quick hot bath tamps down the bacon flavor, makes it nice and mild so it does not over power the stew.

Bouquet Garni provides the next divergence of opinion; Larousse takes this win. Defined by that book simply as a tied bundle of fresh herbs removed after cooking, I use fresh thyme, fresh parsley and a bay leaf. Julia calls for dried herbs that go in, stay in and doesn’t use parsley until it is time for a garnish.

Beurre manie, blended butter and flour, shows up with Julia, is not preferred in Larousse. Instead the cook is told to thicken the sauce “with the blood of the chicken mixed with the pounded liver and some brandy”. I passed on that and stayed with the butter; besides, Larousse does write,  “lacking the blood, the sauce may be thickened with kneaded butter” which I assumed was  the beurre manie.

Here is my version of Classic Coq au Vin

Before you begin, please read through this carefully and try to familiarize yourself with the steps. Actually, that should be done anytime you cook.

Then prepare your mis en place(meaning everything in its place) : cut, chop and pre-measure everything you can. Arrange your ingredients in the order they will be used. Get out and set up all the equipment you will need, in the order you will need it. Tape the recipe to a cabinet door close to the stove. These steps will make the cooking a lot easier and the process a whole lot smoother. (Do not forget a glass for the cook with a little extra wine).

  • 1 fresh chicken, 3-4 pounds, cut into 6 pieces, washed and patted dry
  • 4 ounces of lean slab bacon, rind removed, cut into lardoons, sticks about 1” x 1/4 “
  • 2 TBS sweet butter + another 1 ½ TBS sweet butter + another separate 2 TBS sweet butter
  • 1 ½ TBS vegetable oil + another 1 TBS vegetable oil
  • S&P to taste
  • ¼ cup of cognac
  • 1 bottle of  very good chardonnay (if you can’t drink it, don’t cook with it)
  • 1-2 cups of brown chicken stock (chicken parts, bones and the veg are browned in a pan or the oven before added to water and simmered)
  • Another ½ cup of brown chicken stock
  • 2 medium cloves of garlic, mashed to a paste
  • 2 Bouquet garni: 1 with 2 sprigs of fresh flat leaf parsley, 3 springs of fresh thyme, 1 bay leaf, tied together with string and another bouquet garni with 1 sprig of parsley, 2 sprigs of thyme and a small bay leaf tied together with string
  • ½ TBS tomato paste
  • 12 small white onions (try to find fresh) blanched, peeled and patted dry. Leave the stem end intact so the onions won’t come apart. Remove and discard the root end.
  • ½ pound of morels
  • Beurre manie: 3 TBS flour mashed with 2 TBS softened sweet butter
  • 2-3 TBS fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped for garnish

Method: (Use a heavy Dutch oven with a tight fitting lid)

  • Over medium heat, sauté the blanched lardons in 2 TBS of butter until lightly browned. Remove the lardons, drain and set aside
  • In the same pot, brown the chicken, do not crowd them, do a few at a time if necessary, season with S&P, return the lardons to the pot, cover and cook over low heat for 10 minutes.
  • Remove the pot with the chicken away from the heat and pour in the warmed cognac. Quickly, carefully ignite the cognac and shake the pot until the flames die down.
  • Return the pot to the heat, turn the heat to medium high. Pour in the wine and enough stock to just cover the chicken. Stir in the garlic and tomato paste. Add the bouquet garni. Bring the pot to a gentle simmer, cover and cook for 30 minutes. Keep the liquid at a gentle simmer, do not let it boil.
  • While the chicken is simmering cook the mushrooms and the onions.
  • The onions: Melt 1 ½ TBS sweet butter and the same amount of vegetable oil in a heavy duty skillet over medium high heat. When the oil and butter bubble, add the onions, S&P and cook for 10 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally so the onions brown evenly. Add ½ cup brown chicken stock, the second bouquet garni , lower the heat to simmer, cover and cook for 40-50 minutes until the onions are tender but still have their shape. Discard the bouquet garni.
  • The mushrooms: melt 2 TBS butter and 1TBS oil in a heavy skillet over medium high heat. Add the mushrooms, season lightly with S&P, and sauté until lightly browned. 
  • After 30 minutes, remove the chicken from the pot, carefully so it doesn’t fall apart, to a warm platter. Cover loosely and set aside.
  • Simmer the remaining liquid in the casserole for 2 minutes and try to skim and discard any fat that you can. Then raise the heat to high and boil the sauce until about 2-2 ½ cups remain. Remove the bouquet garni, remove the pot from the heat and check the seasonings.
  • Slowly beat the beurre manie, adding a little at a time, into the hot sauce. You should use a heavy whisk for this; you do not want lumps in your sauce. After all the butter and flour are incorporated return the pot to a med heat, bring the sauce to a simmer and stir until the sauce is thick and will coat a spoon: put the spoon in the sauce, remove it, run a finger down the back, there should be a clean space where your finger was and the rest of the spoon should remain coated.
  • Return the chicken to the sauce. Add the onions and mushrooms. Gently, coat every thing with the sauce. The dish will hold like this  for up to one hour. If you are going to wait to serve, take a piece of plastic wrap and press it gently, directly, loosely onto the stew. When you are ready to serve, remove the plastic, reheat the pot, uncovered, carefully over low heat and let the stew simmer gently for 5 minutes or until its hot. Stir carefully.
  • It is traditional to serve directly from the casserole. Garnish with the chopped parley.
  • Serve this marvelous stew with the wine you used for cooking. Julia says boiled parsley potatoes and buttered peas usually accompany it in France. I heartily agree! But do add some crusty bread.

 

 

 

 

 

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Kid Stuff

macMy sons could not be more different. While one was born looking like the ultimate Gerber baby, smiling, pudgy, pink and perfect, the other popped into this world with a permanent scowl, looking like a plucked chicken and sporting a uni-brow that extended into his hairline.

While my little chicken quickly blossomed into beautiful, each child maintained unique from birth eating habits. One Hoovered everything in sight and could not bear to even have the bottle removed so I could jam in a spoon of cereal, the other spit back everything that came near his mouth. As they grew, one continued to try and enjoy different tastes, the other survived childhood on dry tuna, apples, wedges of lettuce and hot dogs. And different foods on the same plate could not touch. Heaven forbid the potato came anywhere near the meat or for that matter, could the meat display any moisture. Pot roast had to be patted dry if he would even consider taking a taste….which he usually did not.

Now, if this child were round and looked like he was well nourished there would not have been any cause for concern. But my little chicken sported a chest where each rib was clearly evident and had arms no thicker than straws. A strong wind could have blown him away. My nickname for him…. “Bird”….was as much for the way he ate as for his size.

Flash forward 40 years and both babies have turned in Handsome Men and all past worries over lack of appetite or spindly appearance have completely disappeared. Bird is now, like his brother, a Hoover, a Good Eater and certainly Not Puny. Bird also now parents Another Bird, a Female Version.

They will be visiting shortly. I have asked for a Preferred Food List. It came today. As this Female Bird is somewhat taller than her Daddy was at the same age, her menu is of course somewhat longer. It does includes tuna. It has bananas, no apples. But I do see a chip off the original Bird Block.

You see, each generation will refine and improve upon the previous generation and Female Bird has done just that. She has taken her Daddy’s preferences and distinctive personality traits to a much higher level. Not only are there specific foods that she will eat, but each food has to be a certain brand and where slicing is involved, thickness (thinness in this case) is also a concern. And, to refine further, within each brand there are a few items with more specific selections: the rolls will have white seeds and the tuna will be solid pack only with water. In addition, parents will be flying in additional snacks from the Traveling Prescribed Food List.

As the Parent of this particular Parent I see this and I smile. I have perspective, I feel nostalgia and it is something I enjoy. It warms my heart. It makes me proud. Who said that when a parent struggles with his child it is retribution for that parent’s struggles with his parents? I heartily disagree. One generation does follow the other, each getting better along the way. What I see  is affirmation, very simple. I’m very sure.

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Mac and Cheese was on the Prescribed Food List. However, not this version, which is among my favorites. The evaporated milk makes a creamier, less grainy sauce.

Macaroni and Cheese for 10

Preheat oven to 400°

Butter a shallow 4 quart baking dish

Topping:’

  • 2 TBS sweet butter, melted
  • 1 cup of panko crumbs or coarsely processed white bread crumbs

Sauce:

  • ½ stick unsalted butter
  • 3 TBS all purpose flour
  • 2 ½ cups evaporated milk
  • 3 cups grated white cheddar
  • ½ cup grated Monterrey jack
  • 1 TBS grainy mustard
  • ½ pound elbow macaroni—cook in salted water 2-3 minutes less than the package directions, reserve about ½ cup of pasta water, drain pasta and then return pasta to reserved cooking water.
  • Freshly ground pepper to taste

Method:

  • Toss crumbs and 2 TBS butter together and set aside
  • Melt ½ stick butter over medium heat, add flour and pepper and stir for 1-2 minutes to cook the flour
  • Whisk in the milk and continue whisking until the sauce begins to bubble and is thick
  • Stir in mustard
  • Stir in cheeses until melted, remove from heat
  • Add cooked macaroni and reserved water, stir to combine
  • Pour into prepared dish

Bake for 5 minutes, remove from oven, stir, top with crumbs and bake another 20-25 minutes until golden. Let rest 10 minutes before serving

 

 

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The Crispy Time of Year

juniper%20berries[1]Autumn is upon us, I call this my crispy time of year. While many remind me fall is a season for waning, I see a time of burnished gold, pudgy pumpkins and apples ripe for picking. We can open windows, feel a breeze and put chrysanthemums in the garden. Fires crackle, syrup runs and delicious smells ride the air; burning logs, burning leaves, bundled just mown hay.

Yes! After weeks and months of  hot and humid, we have air with bite and sharp blue sky. My energy rises, I feel rejuvenated and my palate switches gears. I am, at heart, a lover of long simmering stews, braises with deep complex flavors, crusty cassoulets. Autumn, the perfect season for pots of slow cooked richness.  Autumn, the season for a very good pear, a perfect apple, fruit that count as two of my favorites.  Add silky cheese, dense bread, red wine and, it seems to me, heaven…..especially to accompany a chat with a friend; even better if there’s a hearth with a fire.

Yes! again, yes. This is certainly my favorite time of year. The Gastronomical Me (thank you Ms M.F.K. Fisher) is feeling positively decadent, positively brighter. I am ready for something to go with all the scarlet red and bright orangey yellow blooming just outside; I am on the hunt for something joyous on the tongue, warm in the belly.

It’s amazing how much time I can spend day dreaming a meal, planning a preparation….especially the First for a Much Loved Season. Eyes closed, I savor a preparation, eat an image, taste a taste. Trolling cookbooks, random notes and my battered Larousse, I consider and discard dozens of ideas before landing on the single ingredient, that perfect flavor to bring my fantasy food into focus.

Juniper berries! Clove! Tart, rich, aromatic, warm. Juniper berries and clove take pride of place this year; we’ll celebrate all this loveliness with sauerbraten and braised red cabbage. Include fresh applesauce and latkes for crispy and sweet. Buttery spaetzle to sop up the gravy. I’m ready….To market, to market I go!

Spaetzle

Serves 4 to 6

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • Optional: 1 tablespoon minced fresh herbs (chives, thyme or parsley) for the dough and additional chopped herbs for garnish

Method:

In a large bowl, combine the flour, salt, pepper, nutmeg and optional fresh herbs. In another mixing bowl, whisk the eggs and milk together.

Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the egg-milk mixture.

Gradually draw in the flour from the sides and combine well using a wooden spoon; the dough should be smooth and thick. Let the dough rest, covered, for 10 to 15 minutes.

Bring 3 quarts of salted water to a boil in a large deep pot, then reduce to a simmer. To form the spaetzle, hold a pierced pie pan, ricer, or large holed colander over the simmering water and push the dough, 1 cup at a time, through the holes with a spatula or spoon. Do this in batches so you don’t overcrowd the pot.

Cook  uncovered for 3 to 4 minutes or until the spaetzle floats to the surface, stirring gently to prevent sticking. Drain the spaetzle in a colander and spread it out on a large ungreased cookie pan. If you are not ready to serve, cover and refrigerate at this point.

When ready to serve:

Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat and add the spaetzle; tossing to coat. Cook the spaetzle, undisturbed, for 1 to 2 minutes to give the noodles some color, then toss and cook (undisturbed) an additional 1-2 minutes. Check seasonings adding S&P if needed. Sprinkle with optional chopped herbs and serve immediately.

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