December 25, 2008

Chocolate Chunky Cups

You guys all read Orangette, right? At least all you food bloggers do, no doubt. Orangette was one of the first food blogs I found. I don't even know how I got there but I remember a post about her kitchen and a UPS package and that she had polaroid-style photos. I was captivated instantly. One thing I really admire about Molly's blogging is that it's generous in ideas but spare in both its prose and posts. She doesn't post every single thing she cooks. She obviously self-edits, only writes up recipes that are well-tested, and she doesn't show off.

And when she refers back to an earlier post about something from the past, I always follow the links. Because invariably I will find something else to swoon over. But for all the months that I have been reading Orangette, I had not actually cooked anything from it yet. Well, I think I started off on the right foot. In a recent post about holiday baking, she mentioned "chocolate blocks." Cacao-freak that I am, I had to check it out. Which is how I wound up with a friend dubbing me a "chocolatier" and making me laugh out loud. If they only knew how easy it was! Easier than making chocolate chip cookies. Easier than making fruit crisp. And way, way easier than making a pie crust.

Here's the basic idea: Start with good chocolate. Melt it. Add your choice of dried fruit & nuts, and some sea salt. Chill. Done in an hour.

You can find the recipe here. My big change - and with all due respect to the food blog goddess herself, I think it's a huge improvement aesthetically - was to chill my chocolates in mini muffin cups and to reserve some fruit & nuts to sprinkle on top*. So much prettier this way and alerts everyone to the presence of nuts in case of any allergies. Molly chills hers in an 8-inch square baking pan and then cuts into small blocks. I tried that method on the first go-round, but found it hard to cut neat squares. You also lose a lot of the edges if you want them all to look nice - and I hate to waste chocolate! (I melted that batch and started over - it's a forgiving recipe).

The fruit & nut combinations are endless. Dried cherries are so good with dark chocolate, and I combined them with golden raisins, peanuts & pistachios. I added chopped crystallized ginger to a second batch and that was terrific! Hazelnuts would be great if you had them - but really, any nut and any dried fruit can work. I also sprinkled fleur de sel both in and on the chocolates - just be careful of over-salting if your nuts are salted, too. I wish I had had dried apricots in the house because the orange would be pretty - perhaps next time.

A bonbon cup might be a more manageable size for popping in the mouth, but the mini muffin cup is easier to fill and I used my 24-cup mini muffin tin to store them while chilling - very handy.

For my holiday gift bags, I packed 4 chocolates into small Wilton brand candy boxes that I found at Michael's Arts & Crafts, and tied with ribbon.

I will never give up baking, but I have to say that chocolate-making -- at least this kind -- is so simple and so rewarding. I've started reading recipes for homemade peanut butter cups - oh lordy, we're in trouble now....

*Full disclosure: I got this idea from the French Chocolate Bark in Ina Garten's new Back to Basics book. I am a food plagiarizer, guilty as charged.

December 23, 2008

No Pudding in the House

If you came here looking for a TWD post on butterscotch pudding, I am sorry to disappoint you. There is just way too much holiday baking to be done for me to squeeze in pudding also. Pudding can't be put in a gift bag so that rules it out for this week.

Also, I have been making the most amazing butterscotch pudding for a number of years now. It comes from a New York restaurant called Drovers Tap Room and the pudding was a signature dessert there for a long time. It requires no cornstarch and is baked slowly in a bain marie, producing the silkiest pudding ever. I just can't see going back to the cornstarch method after knowing the Drovers version. The NY Times published the recipe a decade ago and I've been making it ever since. You can find the recipe here.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

December 21, 2008

Still I'd Like to Save One Soul

I'm not Christian. I need to say that upfront because I am about to tell you about my favorite Christmas cd, "William the Angel" by Rob Mathes. It's a song cycle about angels, the birth of Jesus, the meaning of Christmas and the power of faith. It's not even the type of music I typically like - being more ballad-y, ez-listening-y and schmaltzy than I normally choose. But I think the songwriting is excellent, the music will make you dance and sway and the story is a universal one about hope, redemption and belief. I love it. It puts me in a Christmas mood every year about this time and brings tears to my eyes if I am feeling a little sappy. It also reminds me of my first year of dating my husband when we went to one of Rob Mathes' annual Christmas concerts. That was a magical evening; I remember being awed by the music - we saw Mavis Staples among others - and feeling so madly in love. Anyway, give it a listen. This is the title track but the whole album is beautiful. (Sorry but I can't embed the video as it's protected on youtube).

I am also a huge fan of Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life." I am a total sucker for it and cry every time, and not just at end - I cry through the whole thing. There was a good article in the NY Times this week about its subversive nature as a cautionary tale about the disappointments of adulthood and conformity - I agree that that is in the movie and it's what makes it more than just a Christmas story to me. It's that cynicism veiled in saccharine which makes me love the movie on more than a sentimental level.

Why do I celebrate Christmas if I don't believe Christ was a saviour? I've been asked that many times over the years. Well, I love all the cultural trappings - the cookies, the carols, the lights, the tree, the big dinner, Rudolph, Santa, the Grinch, champagne & eggnog. And as someone who doesn't participate in any organized religion, I find it important to have a time when we focus on family, friends, helping others less fortunate than us and finding joy in an often-cruel world. Tom and I have already started talking about the traditions we will give our daughter for Christmas. Yes, there will be gifts, a tree and the myth of Santa Claus. But we will also create a day when we remember the most important and invaluable gift of all - love. Love for our family & friends and for those we don't even know.

Now I need to get back to the kitchen and bake more cookies!

December 16, 2008

Triple Ginger Buttery Jam Cookies (TWD)

This week for Tuesdays with Dorie, Heather of Randomosity & The Girl, invited us to make Buttery Jam Cookies.

Peering into my fridge, I found a jar of ginger preserves that I had bought for the Fruit Galette back in the summer. Inspiration struck and I decided to make a triple ginger cookie. Dorie's original recipe calls for powdered ginger, so I just upped the ginger-y-ness and added the preserves, along with diced candied ginger. I think this made a different cookie than was intended but as a big fan of ginger, I didn't miss the fruit jam at all.

The cookies are puffy and soft - not my favorite cookie texture. But I think they're still a nice cookie, and the ginger is especially good for this time of year. My dad loves all things ginger so I'll be baking up the rest of the dough for him on Christmas Eve.

You can find the cookie recipe on Heather's blog and if you'd like to make my version, just throw in a handful of chopped candied ginger at the end. I also flattened the balls of dough after putting them on the cookie sheets, to ensure a more uniform shape - if you follow Dorie's instructions, you'll get a more spherical shape and the bottoms may cook faster than the tops.

It's a cookie time of year and I was happy to add another one to the roster - thanks, Heather!

December 8, 2008

Grandma's Sugar Cookies ( TWD)

Sugar and spice. And butter. And salt. And well you know, a few pistachios and dried cherries don't hurt either. For this week's Tuesdays with Dorie, we are making Grandma's Sugar Cookies, which are a very simple cookie that offers lots of room for improvisation. These cookies were chosen by Ulrike of Kuchenlatein and you can find the recipe on her blog.

I baked two versions -- one a simple version with lots of spicy cinnamon baked inside (I love Penzey's Vietnamese Cassia Cinnamon) and a light dusting of cinnamon sugar sprinkled on before baking. These remind of a crisper, neater Snickerdoodle and they are really well suited for accompanying afternoon tea or late night cocoa.

My second batch was studded with dried cherries and pistachios. I love this combination for the holidays as you get the red & green effect but in more muted tones than brightly colored sugar. And the flavors are so good together.

For the record, I don't make shaped, frosted cookies for the holidays. Or for anytime. I have nothing against those cookies, and I know that the TWD bakers are going to knock themselves out with creativity and artistry on this week's challenge.

But you see a while back, I worked for a cookie company that specializes in hand-iced cookies. The cookies look gorgeous, and sometimes they don't taste bad either. But when you have a job where you watch people ice cookies for 8 hours a day, and they do it really, really well and really, really fast... Well, let's just say your motivation to do it at home definitely wanes. I ate so many iced cookies at that job. And I have never even liked iced cookies that much to begin with! But they were everywhere, all day long, and when a hunger pang or a boredom streak would hit, there the cookies were - so pretty, so inviting, so damn fattening. Sigh.

Every once in a while, we would have to test out new packaging and we would try eating really old cookies to see how they had fared. Needless to say, somebody has to spit out yucky, rotten cookies in order to tell you when they are "best eaten by." And that person was occasionally me. So, yup, I'm over iced, shaped cookies. They look pretty, and I bow down to all of you who slave over them. But as for me, I am now solely a "slice and bake" gal when it comes to sugar cookies.

Speaking of which...I like to wrap my cookies in parchment rather than the saran that Dorie recommends. I find it's helpful if you write the baking time and temp on the packages so you don't have to root around for the recipe later. I usually make 6 or 7 different cookie doughs for the holidays. I freeze the doughs in parchment rolls or individually scooped balls, label them and then bake in small batches for gift bags as I need them.

This year, these cookies will definitely be in the line-up.

December 2, 2008

Pecan Sable Sandwiches (TWD)

I can't believe I am squeaking this post in under deadline! It's been weeks since I did a Tuesdays with Dorie recipe - I know, I'm a bad, bad blogger. But I did it! 10:13 pm and I can post my pecan sable sandwiches.

Dorie didn't say you could use pecans in this recipe. Did she know something that I didn't? Well, I forged ahead anyway with some of the many pecans stocked in my freezer. I also used light brown sugar instead of white sugar - it's become a standard substitution for me lately as I think it's always an improvement. I filled mine with apricot jam and used a rectangular scalloped cutter that I LOVE. I poked tiny holes with the end of a tapered chopstick as I couldn't find my teeny pastry tip. The holes were a bit too small to give any peekaboo action, but I still love the shape and look of these and will definitely try it again with another recipe.

Despite my abiding love for pecans and brown sugar, I have to say that I found these a little bland. With a few bites I got a shot of salt and that seemed to improve things for my tastebuds but otherwise I'd have to say "eh."

As for the comments from other TWD'ers about the yield, my cutter is 2"x1.5" and I would get at least 30 sandwiches if I baked all of the dough.

Thank you to Dennis of Living the Life for choosing this week's recipe. I had never made sandwich cookies before and I'm inspired to make more types, so thanks Dennis.

On another note, I have a new camera. I am in love with it. Still working on getting the hang of how to use all the features and take better shots, but it's a great improvement and I can't stop taking pictures with it. It would probably help matters if I stopped trying to shoot late at night in my dark kitchen, but that's another issue. I love my new toy - thanks, Tom!