Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Sprouts and Cake

This post is going to have to be five posts in one, there is just too much good stuff to be doing these days. One of my Rachels has come and gone, and that was mighty fabulous if I do say so myself. We walked and talked and sipped wine and chopped up some dinner and saw a film and ate some eggs and I got to make myself 100% certain that her man is not only smart and infinitely likable and - bonus - a Food Person but together they seem right as rain. I love that. Thanks for the visit you two.

The next Rachel has touched down here in the Tarheel state, but she and AV are spending a little time in the Durham/Chapel Hill area for a few days so it will be tomorrow when we see them. I am hoppy and squeaky as usual.

What the heck else? Oh. The garden. Well, as I mentioned a few posts back, it all of a sudden got blindingly cold around here. Right on the heels of days in the very high sixties. We were actually at my mum's when this happened, and from the carnage under the hoops I am guessing that one of them might have blown off (it was also mighty windy) and gotten tucked in my one of our fabulous neighbors. That or the plants under there just could not handle a sixty degree drop in less than a day. The usual troopers have not disappointed: kale, you are my best friend in the vegetable world. But the lettuces are on their last legs, broccoli long gone, chard a thing of the past. Ah well. We have actually been cooking up some plans for some cold boxes that will replace the hoops next year - big long plastic covered frames with tops that open for easy picking. The winter garden is a huge part of our diet (and what I think of to make myself feel better when I regret not getting to any canning this summer) but when it is freezing and windy it can be a real bear to get in there to pick.

Ok, I was all set to post something about bacon and brussel sprouts, but this girl just did it so just visit her. Brassica and bacon make the best of friends. We like to bake our bacon, a trick from one of my food loving uncles, and it makes a messy spattery chore into a snap - just remember to pour off the fat once or twice while it's baking. I sauté the brussel sprouts (sliced oh-so-thin) in just a bit of bacon fat with TONS of black pepper. Like way more than you might ever think was a good idea. Toss it all with some small pasta and some parmesan cheese and chopped up bacon and it's all good.

Ok, so cake and then I'm out of here. When I saw this recipe in the NYT I immediately knew that I needed to make it. Chocolate and whiskey? A lot of chocolate and a stupid amount of whiskey? I'm in. (Note: I distinctly remember the moment when someone first informed me that it was sexy for women to drink whiskey.)

A few notes on this: one, I had some leftover orange zest sitting on the counter so I threw that in and liked it immensely. Two, in the past when I have seen instant espresso powder on an ingredient list, I have just assumed that I would have to use the crap at the regular grocery store, Folgers or something ucky. This time, mind spinning on the cup! of whiskey that was about to go into this cake I checked the coffee section at our local health/gourmet food store and found some instant espresso that didn't look like a science experiment and smelled great. Worth it. Last two things: I think it needed to cool longer than 15 minutes before turning it out, but I did have a very deep bunt pan, and don't dust with confectioner's sugar before it's completely cooled like I did because then your pretty snowflake dusting will just melt away. Oh wait, also, I used a mix of good whiskey and cheaper burbon and it worked out just fine.

LAST THING: this f-ing cake will keep you up all night. Like really, all night. To the point where I would probably only ever make this for a huge party where it would all get eaten by people who want to stay up late. Because otherwise, there it is, and who doesn't like just a bite of something sweet after dinner when, well, something sweet it sitting right there??? People who know me well will be aghast to hear that after two nights of staring at the ceiling at 2 in the morning, I have not eaten any of this cake after 3 in the afternoon for several days in a row. My sweet tooth has been beaten. Sort of. Consider yourself warned.

Whiskey-Soaked Dark Chocolate Bunt Cake
From The New York Times.

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened, more for greasing pan
2 cups all-purpose flour, more for dusting pan
5 ounces unsweetened chocolate
1/4 cup instant espresso powder
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup bourbon, rye or other whiskey, more for sprinkling
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking soda
Confectioners’ sugar, for garnish (optional)
1 teaspoon orange zest (optional)

1. Grease and flour a 10-cup-capacity Bundt pan (or two 8- or 9-inch loaf pans). Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In microwave oven or double boiler over simmering water, melt chocolate. Let cool.

2. Put espresso and cocoa powders in a 2-cup (or larger) glass measuring cup. Add enough boiling water to come up to the 1 cup measuring line. Mix until powders dissolve. Add whiskey and salt, reflect on just how much a cup of whiskey really is; let cool.

3. Using an electric mixer, beat 1 cup butter until fluffy. Add sugar and beat until well combined. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, beating well between each addition. Beat in the vanilla extract, baking soda and melted chocolate, scraping down sides of bowl with a rubber spatula.

4. On low speed, beat in a third of the whiskey mixture. When liquid is absorbed, beat in 1 cup flour. Repeat additions, ending with whiskey mixture. Scrape batter into prepared pan and smooth top. Bake until a cake tester inserted into center of cake comes out clean, about 1 hour 10 minutes for Bundt pan (loaf pans will take less time, start checking them after 55 minutes).

5. Transfer cake to a rack. Unmold after 15+ minutes and sprinkle warm cake with more whiskey (do it, I know it seems insane but you must). Let cool before serving, garnished with confectioners’ sugar if you like.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Merry Merry Merry

Hello, hello, hello! How were the holidays out there? I hope they were lovely. B and I had an absolutely perfect string of days full of reading and cooking and hiking and the tearing open of beautifully wrapped presents and, as always, lots of sitting by the tree. It's so warm here again - on Christmas day we headed slightly north to one of my favorite places to hike and it was positively spring-like, with brilliant green ferns and mosses so bright as to be shocking. The waterfalls were flush with water, a sight for sore eyes in our droughty mountains.

And the presents! People, we are so spoiled. Packages from all parts, boxes tucked into cars after leaving each of our mums, and our own sneaky gifts for one another. B got me a raft of supplies for cheese making, including Butter Muslin, which, just say it with me now - "Butter Muslin" - you feel better already, don't you? I do. My mum scored big with a gorgeous dead-stock vintage bathrobe for B, complete with all the tags of the era espousing how positively high tech this bathrobe is. Awesome. Major spoilage from our girls out west, a host of vintage house things from B's mum - everything so thoughtful and much of it old or handmade, which is just the best.

B made the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dinner out of this cookbook, a traditional celebration meal from Sumatra, Beef Rendang. I was practically speechless, it was so good. Star anise, lemongrass, shallots, garlic, ginger, fresh turmeric, fresh galangal, cardamon pods, cinnamon sticks, coconut milk. Christ. Served up with fresh greens from the garden it nearly killed me with the tastiness. We decided that this dish should be our Christmas tradition. Can I keep talking about how great my husband is for a second? My mum kind of got him rolling on bread baking with a mini lesson when we were there, and the man promptly came home and baked up some kickass bread. This is so fabulous, because bread baking is Not My Thing but who doesn't want homemade bread in their life??? Right.

Anyway. One of my Rachels is on her way here right this very moment, so I am off to tidy the house. Coming soon: brussel sprout deliciousness and a chocolate cake that will keep you up all night and practically get you drunk from smelling it. Oh, and the chickpea thing! Stay tuned.

Monday, December 22, 2008

More Peppermints

Shiver, shiver, shiver. We have traded a high of 67 for a high of 20, which seems generous considering that it's midday and currently 11 degrees. Bring on the tea! The cider! The chicory! Christ.

B and I drove north a few days ago to do some early Christmasing with my family and we are still here lounging about and reading and playing some wicked tunes on my step-dad's 1905 Gibson guitar. Holy hell did I ever just fall in love with that guitar. ANYWAY. Visiting my parents is so relaxing. I made meatballs and we watched the Wizard of Oz, which I have not seen in about 15 years and I was duly blown away by its magnificence. The witch still scares me, it's so delicious.

Before we left our rockstar chicken sitter came over, who happens to be in culinary school so of course we pretty much get together and talk about, make, and eat food. Last time we made some sort of dish involving paper thin slices of eggplant stuffed with a variety of delicious things like feta and ricotta and nuts and garlic. This time we made Peppermint Bark - I know, it involves white chocolate which is normally something I avoid at all costs, but we got the good stuff and it really does play nice here. It made sweet tins of gifty goodness. We also made a fabulous savory snack of roasted chickpeas with pistachios and all sorts of spices which I will post soon because it's a nice change from all the sweets this time of year.

Anyway. I hope everyone is very warm and snug out there. Don't forget your hat.

Friday, December 19, 2008

We Eat Our Greens

Ok, I don’t want you thinking that we are rotting our teeth over here with nothing but cookies, so today’s offering is a soup recipe that is both tasty and good for you and seems to come out ok no matter how many shortcuts I take when I make it. Plus it has a soft boiled egg plopped into it at the last minute which pretty much makes it a winner in my book (note: new favorite trick – forgetting to put baking eggs on the counter to reach room temperature and running out to the coop for a handful that were recently warmed by a chicken’s butt).

It is crazy warm here right now. Like I am looking darkly at trees and thinking “don’t you dare go crazy and bud right now” in as fierce of a way as possible. I think a cold front is headed our way, thank goodness. For now the chickens are psyched and my garlic just got another three inches of straw mulch because it was peeping up over the heavy layer already there – hey, I see you! Yum. The warm weather did give us a chance to pull off the hoops and the frost blankets to take better inventory than we usually do when we duck in there for greens. Some of the arugula bit the dust and the bok choy that we didn’t get to went to seed and thus went to the girls. But the greens and lettuces grow on. I swear that every time we eat greens, which, er, is a lot, we talk about how much better they taste than anything from the store. So. Sweet.

Ok enough about greens, back to cookies. This fine lady linked to this thing and it is practically giving me a heart attack. You were warned.

Quinoa Soup with Greens

3/4 cup of quinoa
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon crushed red chili flakes (or to taste)
1/2 teaspoon cayenne (or to taste)
3 medium soup potatoes (I like red skinned ones), chopped into the size you prefer (me: small)
2 quarts good chicken stock
1 cup water or enough to adjust the consistency to your ideal
4 cups chopped greens (I used chard, spinach and kale)
1 bunch of scallions, chopped (I use a fair amount of the green part too)
1 tablespoon butter
1 egg per person
Salt and pepper to taste

Sauté garlic lightly in a dab of olive oil. Toss in quinoa and just stir to coat and toast for a handful of minutes. Add the stock and water, simmer for 10 minutes. Add chopped potatoes, and spices. Simmer until potatoes are just about tender (circa 10 minutes depending upon the size of your potato cubes – keep any eye on this as it’s easy to over cook them). Add the greens and scallions and simmer for another 3 minutes. Lower the heat and add the pat of butter and adjust seasoning and consistency. Boil your eggs in a separate pan (I like my hard boiled eggs to be oh-so-barely hard so that they are still a deep shiny orange in the center. Bringing water to a boil, putting the egg in and setting a timer for 7 minutes will get you eggs like that.). Ladle soup into bowls, slice your eggs in half (the long way if you please), put the eggs on top, enjoy.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Peppermint Pigs

Ok. So this might be the most discombobulated post here yet. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

There were these cookies, in my childhood, you see. Called Peppermint Pigs by those in the know, although I am not sure who in my family this includes. I may or may not have ever even eaten one of these Pigs. My brain wants to say that they showed up at my Uncle Mikey’s farm for a celebration, but I would have been too little for the remembering of eating things out there, although wouldn’t it be just like me to have a first memory about a cookie? Yes. Either through lore or the eating of one of these cookies I believe them to be a chocolate sandwich cookie filled with minty icing. I have bothered my mother about this recipe in the past, to no avail. Since I don’t really remember eating one, I think it’s quite possible that I just fell head over heels in love with the idea that a cookie earned the name Peppermint Pig. I have my suspicions that the name was generated by my family to indicate that they were so scrumptious that one would be inclined to make a pig of one’s self.

Ok. Enter in my collection of cookie recipes that either involve a chocolate wafer-like cookie (either roll-out or chilled log style) or a mint icing. It’s huge. On Saturday, when for some reason after years – years, mind you, over a decade even – of thinking about giving one of these recipes a whirl I finally went for it, I counted 17 different recipes, again without counting cookbooks. Jesus. So. I spent a moment thinking about what this cookie should be like. One: the chocolate cookie part should be thin, very chocolaty, and not very sweet. And two: the icing should be extremely minty and not at all gritty. I hate gritty icing. I am the kid who will eat your cake and leave you a neat shell of icing, nine times out of ten (my Gran’s baking aside, mind you, ooh, her Chocolate Raspberry cake will knock your socks off). So I went with a roll-out dough that used very little sugar and a ton of cocoa. And an icing recipe that called for cream cheese, which seems to not only cut down on the grit but, I don’t know, add some heft to the whole affair.

And woo-wee people, I just got lucky. These might have just surpassed the Rugelach as the holiday cookie of the year, at least according to my husband. They are time consuming, like any roll-out cookie, but oh so worth it (plus I just inherited my mother’s vintage cookie cutter collection that I used as a child – how I love those shapes). Creamy, minty filling between two deep, dark, barely sweetened cookies – you will put it in your mouth, exclaim how rich! How scrumptious! How intense! How could I possibly eat another? In about two minutes you will find out just how. And thus, whether even remotely close to the original or not, these are now my Peppermint Pigs.

Note: next time I would double the dough recipe; this really doesn’t make very many cookies. But then again, perhaps that’s for the best.

Peppermint Pigs
From too many recipes to count

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg, room temperature
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup plus two tablespoons all-purpose flour
Confectioner’s sugar, for rolling out dough

Cream butter and sugar together until fluffy and smooth. Add egg and mix until well combined.

Sift together flour and cocoa.

Add flour-cocoa mixture, mix until combined. Dough will be stiff and hard to work with. Divide into two discs, refrigerate until chilled, at least one hour.

Preheat oven to 350. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Lightly sprinkle a smattering of confectioner’s sugar on a cool surface, and roll one disc of dough out to about 1/8 inch thickness. Cut into shapes as desired, return scraps to refrigerator for re-chilling.

Bake cookies 10-12 minutes, until the fragrance of chocolate is driving everyone in the house mad. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Repeat until dough is all baked.

8 tablespoons (4 ounces) of cream cheese, room temperature
4 tablespoons of unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups confectioner’s sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon mint extract, more to taste (I added more)

In a food processor, combine cream cheese and butter until smooth. Slowly add confectioner’s sugar until smooth, then the mint extract and vanilla. Taste, adjust.

Once cookies are cooled, ice away, into sandwiches or whatever the heck is cheeriest to you. Make a pig of yourself, it’s Christmas.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Tree Sap

Oh my goodness. Just plain old busy around here. The man just finished up his finals, with smashing success as usual, and I have been sick, after just recently reflecting upon how long it had been since I got sick. Grr. Nothing deadly, mind you, at this point just an extremely annoying cough that wakes me up out of a dead sleep for a pleasant 20 minutes of hacking. Awesome.

In non-sarcastic awesome news, we got our tree a few days ago, later than usual due to aforementioned sickness and the fact that our car is the size of a roller skate. In what turned out be a fantastic discovery, there is this place that sells trees on the cheap-o while they are still bound up. Downside: no walking around in the cold picking the perfect tree. Upside: will fit into a roller skate. B knocked it out of the park and ended up bringing home the most perfectly shaped tree in the universe. It’s crazy beautiful and once I again I could not believe that I even entertained the thought of not getting a tree. I am allowed to have five hundred favorite things about Christmas, but really, my favorite thing about Christmas is sitting in the dark with just the tree lights on. I never fail to be filled with gratitude for how many amazing people I love and am loved by, for how beautiful the space around me can be, for how the passing of time is a wondrous thing. I may want to catch it by the coattails sometimes, but the fact is that every year is more spectacular than the last. Yeah, there’s always some sap in my Christmas tree…

Before I really bit the dust I baked up some snickerdoodles, a cookie I am not even entirely sure I like enough to be baking it at home, but dang it, I loved them when I was a kid and I had all the ingredients so there you go. When I was a kid we baked a lot of cookies, including snickerdoodles, out of this cookbook:

Choice, no? I look at the photo now and see mostly food coloring and tasteless sugar cookies, but man, when I was a kid I thought that cooky [sic] book was awesomeness incarnate. You should see the full color spreads inside (and no, I don’t own this anymore, but I found someone’s flickr page of it that took me waaaaaaay back).

Hey guess what? Hot on the heels of my fabulous visit with my BFF Dietlind, here comes my other BFF and her husband! And just before that, for a snippet of time, we get to hang out with my childhood BFF (conveniently also named Rachel) and her beau. Can you get over my luck? Me neither. Before that we are headed north to hang with my mama again, ‘cause it was just so much fun last time. Plus we are dying to read book two in the Reading Aloud While Driving tradition we started over Thanksgiving.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Cookie Hop

Hellooooooooooo! I feel like a lifetime has passed since I last made an appearance here. Thanksgiving was so fantastic. B and I have started reading aloud to each other in the car, which makes the drive go by in a hot second (note to self: always pack a flashlight). And then there was the incredible food and the walks and the sleeping in and the playing of many games and just general cozy family fun. Truly one of the most relaxing holidays in years.

And then: well, I got some kickass news in the job department. More on that later, but suffice to say that it has caused much toasting and B picking me up and spinning me around and a lot of general squeakiness and hopping around. I am a total hopper; I didn’t even realize it at the time, but people at our wedding reported that I hopped up and down after B said yes. Hop, hop, hop…

And speaking of hop-worthy things, there was a very brief time in my life when I lived in Portland, Oregon. Like, I measure this time in months, it was that brief. I liked Portland just fine, although something was always overwhelming me there: the sheer volume of hipsters, the ever-extending list of places to eat at or bands to see, the fecundity so ferocious that gardening there was more about pruning than coaxing… It wasn’t for me, but I do have a sweet spot for a few things there, including the Fig Tea Cookies from the Pearl Bakery. I love figs, and I will pretty much choose anything figgy when I visit a new bakery because oddly enough fig goodies are kind of rare (and date goodies, but that’s another story). Anyway, these were really more like large fig bars than a cookie, but they were indeed perfect for tea.

So. I fell hard for these, and when B and I visited last year I was so disappointed that they didn’t have them that I left vowing to track down the recipe or die trying. Well. Hello intertubes, I love you – the recipe popped up lickty split, right here. Note: there is an error in this recipe for the crust (it reads “10 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter” – 10 tablespoons is 1 1/4 sticks of butter). But: it doesn’t even matter because this crust recipe is not very good. In fact, when I’m being honest, it wasn’t very good even straight from the bakery. It was fine. Just fine. The cookies were all about the filling, bursting with fig and orange and cloves and brought down to earth by honey and cocoa and toasted walnuts. The filling knocked the cookie crust so far into the background that it was waving unnoticed from a small island somewhere west of far west. So when I made these last time and had a bunch of leftover fig filling, I threw it in the freezer thinking that it would stay there until I found something better to wrap it in.

I bet you know what comes next, don’t you? Longtime readers and eaters will know that I think these are pretty much one of the most amazing cookies to ever come out of my oven. They are gorgeous, fun to make, the dough is amazingly easy to work with and phenomenal tasting, and best of all: you can put whatever ingredients you want in there. My usual is dried apricot, walnuts, pecans, brown sugar, sugar, apricot preserves, and whatever spices sound good that day. They are knockout just like that. But last night I made half of them with the fig filling, and there was a serious amount of freaking out and hopping around in the kitchen. And this morning. And I will probably go home and hop around a little bit tonight just for good measure.

One note: the recipe for the fig filling calls for fresh figs, and I’m sure if you can get them they would be lovely (personal aside: I think it would be a waste of a fresh fig). Dried figs worked just fine.

Rugelach Pinwheels with Fig Filling
From the Sweet On You Bakery via Smitten Kitchen and from the Pearl Bakery

1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese, room temperature
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, room temperature
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour

12 ounces (about 2 cups) figs, stemmed and soaked in warm water until plump
2/3 cup currants
3 ounces (about 1 1/4 cups) toasted walnut pieces
Finely grated zest of 1 large orange
1/4 cup firmly-packed light brown sugar
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted after measuring
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
2/3 cup honey

1 cup sugar
Any spices you might like to throw in here

* This makes a ton of filling – feel free to halve it, or better yet: make the whole lot of it because it freezes like a dream.

1. Place cream cheese and butter in the bowl of a food processor and process until smooth and creamy. Add sugar and continue processing until fully incorporated. Add flour and pulse just until dough comes together. Divide dough into 2 equal pieces, wrap with plastic wrap, and refrigerate at least 2 hours.

2. Meanwhile, make filling. Place the figs in a saucepan and cover them with water. Bring just to a simmer over medium heat. Remove from heat, drain, and cool the figs. Once the figs are cooled, combine them in a food processor with the currents, walnuts, and orange zest until finely minced. Add brown sugar, unsweetened cocoa powder, nutmeg, coriander, cloves, and honey; pulse to combine. Taste and adjust. Scrape the filling into a bowl.

3. On a lightly floured surface, roll out 1 piece of dough into a rectangle about 1/8-inch thick. Spread a thin layer of fig filling over dough. Roll dough into a log beginning with one of the long sides; wrap in plastic wrap. Transfer dough log baking sheet. Repeat process with remaining piece of dough. Place dough logs in refrigerator; let chill at least 1 hour.

4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment paper; set aside. Mix together the sugar and spices for the topping; set aside.

5. Slice chilled dough logs crosswise, about 1/4 inch thick. Toss each cookie in the sugar-spice mixture. Place cookies 2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets. Bake until lightly browned, 18 to 20 minutes. Lift parchment paper from baking sheets and transfer to a wire cooling rack; let cool.

6. Hop around in delight.