From kale to cookies, this is how we do.
Baking was how I got my foothold in the kitchen, and I think it’s still where I feel most comfortable, most sure of my abilities. People love baked goods, you know? And even people who claim not to love baked goods always seem to make an exception for mine, which makes me feel awesome sauce (as my students would say).
I am admittedly a snob when it comes to certain things, and baked goods are one of them. This is a recent development; I used to be an equal-opportunity sugar fiend, but now I like things that are a lot less sweet; I am very picky about the kind of chocolate I will eat or bake with, making the candy area by grocery store check-out lanes a lot less tempting.
The sweet tooth still throbs, though, the main food area in which my discipline is inconsistent. So starting Wednesday, I’m going to be saying “adios” to baked goods for a while; no sweets (or diet sodas, which make me crave sugar like nobody’s business) for me during Lent 2011.
In past years, I’ve found that going without something (meat, alcohol, chocolate) for a little while recalibrates my relationship to that thing, hopefully making me more mindful and appreciative of whatever it may be. Or just really cranky without my sugar fix. We’ll find out!
FAT TUESDAY TREATS
It’s traditional to load up on whatever you’re giving up the day before your fasting starts—hence Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras and its over-the-top Epicureanism. These two cookies might not be the most decadent, but they are sophisticated and delicious.
Both of these cookies are ever-so-slightly adapted from Alice Medrich’s Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cookies, which you should buy RIGHT NOW if you love sweets as much as I do. It’s probably one of the best cookbooks I’ve ever had the pleasure of owning: an authoritative but friendly voice, lovely photographs (though I wish there were more of those), and every recipe one I can’t wait to try.
Be advised: for both of these cookies, it’s all about the butter. I’m talking really-good-quality golden, fatty butter, the expensive kind. Because there’s nothing better than that sensual, slide-y quality it takes on when you remember to take it out of the refrigerator at the right time instead of cheating with the microwave (we’ve all done that, right?) Seriously, buy the good stuff. And bake with it. And slather it on homemade bread. Now and always.
Salted Peanut Cookies with White Chocolate
Note: this recipe includes chilling time for the dough—two hours minimum up to two days.
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
½ tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. flaky sea salt or ¾ tsp. fine sea salt
8 T unsalted butter, softened
¼ cup packed dark brown sugar
¾ cup white sugar
1 cup natural peanut butter
1 tsp. vanilla extract
¾ cup white chocolate chips or chunks
½ cup unsalted peanuts, chopped
Whisk together the dry ingredients: flour, baking soda, & salt. In a separate bowl, mix the butter with both sugars until smooth and creamy. (You can use a mixer or a wooden spoon & elbow grease for this part). Add the egg, vanilla, and peanut butter and mix until blended. Stir in the dry ingredients until just incorporated. Gently mix in the peanuts and white chocolate.
Cover the dough and refrigerate as directed above. When you’re ready to bake, preheat your oven to 325°.
Squeeze the dough in the palms of your hands to form 1-inch balls; the dough will be crumbly, but don’t worry. Place the cookies two inches apart on cookies sheets lined with parchment (or greased).
Bake 15-18 minutes or until cookies are lightly colored on top and bottom. Though I normally think it’s an unnecessarily fussy step, I do recommend rotating the pans from top to bottom halfway through baking.
The cookies will be very soft to the touch. Cool a good while before attempting to move them around!
Be warned—you may find yourself putting away handfuls of these at a time. They are also lovely crumbled with vanilla ice cream.
¾ cup + 2 T all-purpose flour
2 T natural cocoa powder
¼ tsp. salt
14 T unsalted butter, cut into chunks
4 oz. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped*
1 1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
½ tsp. instant espresso powder
special equipment: mini-cupcake/muffin pans and liners to go inside them
oven: preheat to 350°
Whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, and salt. In a separate (glass) bowl, melt the chocolate and butter together, using a double boiler or the microwave. (The latter is my preferred method—just take it slow, 30 second increments, stirring well in between each one).
Once the chocolate and butter are completely melted, whisk in the sugar, vanilla, & espresso powder. Add the eggs one at a time, blending well before adding the next. Add the dry ingredients and whisk until smooth, but do not overmix.
Spoon a little batter into each cup, filling almost to the top of the liner. Bake 14-18 minutes or until a toothpick comes out of the center of one of the cakes with just a few crumbs. Cool the cakes on a rack before enjoying or storing in an airtight container for up to three days.
*Medrich’s recipe calls for 70% cacao, but I used 55% and cut the sugar down to just 1 cup.
I know it’s kind of cheesy, but I love the idea of a Bucket List.
Much as the name makes me cringe (is it just me, or does it sound a little crass?) the idea of composing one has lingered with me for the last few months. I started writing one this summer, at a lunchtime table with a glass of wine in New York, inspired I know by the wonder of that trip and the feeling of aliveness that comes when we exist in our own skin, somewhere else, for a while.
I tucked the six-or-seven-line list into a letter I was mailing to a friend, who responded with a list of his own in kind; few better ways to get to the substance of a person than that. And really, few better ways to get to the substance of myself. What is it that I care about? Do I really want to do that, or am I just saying it because it sounds good? The act of writing these things down builds something, generates an energy, creates a realness and substance:
* See my mom hold her grandchild
* Take Jill to India
* Write a really great play
* Attend an opera at the MET
* Bake a wedding cake for one of my friends
* Keep a basil plant alive
See, not everything on one’s Life To-Do list has to be deadly significant. I think the joy comes in imagining the experiences, no matter how small, that would bring one satisfaction and pleasure. The one item I’ve crossed off, “Make pasta from scratch”, required just a day’s worth of planning and was a great deal of fun, though I’d like to now amend that item to read “Make really good pasta from scratch.”
Last week, I asked my students to start their own lists. And I’d love to hear what you fine people would put on yours.
PEANUT BUTTER/ALMOND BUTTER COOKIES
adapted from Smitten Kitchen
Necessity, as they say, is the parent of invention, and so when I found myself one day without enough peanut butter to complete a peanut butter cookie recipe, I fudged with almond butter. The results were delicious, and so–viola!
½ cup butter, softened
½ cup peanut butter
½ cup almond butter
½ cup brown sugar
¾ cup white sugar, plus a little extra for rolling
1 T milk
1 tsp. vanilla
1 ¼ cup flour
¾ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
optional but delicious add-ins: 1 cup chocolate chunks or chips
½ cup chopped, roasted peanuts
Combine the butters in the bowl of a stand mixer, blending well before adding both sugars. When the mixture is smooth, crack in the egg and blend again. Stir in the milk and vanilla.
Whisk the dry ingredients together, then add to the wet. Stir in chocolate and/or peanuts.
Form the dough into half-inch balls, then roll in white sugar before baking on well-greased or parchment-covered baking sheets, 10-12 minutes. Do not over bake! I promise they’re done.
Last year, I was asked to be in charge of desserts for a renegade Seder. Such is the path by which I discovered Matzo Toffee, which is what baby matzo hopes it will grow up to be someday and what you, once you make it, will be unable to stop eating. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the combination of all good flavors—the richness of bittersweet chocolate, the butteriness of toffee, the earthy snap of almonds, the crunch of matzo, & the edge and texture of quality sea salt—but if you are Jewish and observing Passover next week*, it might be exciting to discover that matzo can actually be delicious.
What is a renegade Seder, you might ask? Well, consider that our hostess was a Jewess whose Twitter bio claims she is a “kosher pork authority.” Her sweetheart is a Muslim and for Halloween, they dressed up as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (she taped settlements to his shirt as the night wore on). For the reading of the Haggadah, we had gift bags full of “plagues” represented by various craft-store-acquisitions, including red foam cut-out boils. There were Red Sea cocktails with drowned Egyptian ninja figurines. (Please note: we love Egyptians. We do not wish them any violence. We were just going along with the Bible story).
And I, the Hindu, was unable to eat the desserts I had made for the Seder because I had given up desserts for Lent. Heh. But the toffee went over so well with the rest of the evening’s guests that they convinced me to save a bag for Easter Sunday, upon which occasion I promptly devoured what was left.
Before we dash off on vacation, I’ll be making up a batch of this good stuff in solidarity with my Jewish friends and students. Now that I’m back from the 8th grade Washington, D.C. trip—a whirlwind, exhausting and unbelievably fun four days—I’m relishing the spring break life but already kinda miss my students. Just don’t tell them that!
*To make this recipe kosher-for-Passover, ensure that all the ingredients are certified kosher-for-Passover and that the kitchen you’re cooking in and utensils you’re cooking with are as well. Since this recipe contains a large amount of butter, serve it with a meatless meal or make it with kosher margarine. You may need to omit the vanilla.
Adapted slightly from David Lebovitz
You can also make this recipe with Saltines or another plain cracker, omitting the sea salt. You might want to double the recipe, while you’re at it—it’s incredibly simple to make and very, very satisfying.
6 sheets unsalted matzo
1 cup unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 cup packed light brown sugar 1
½ cup bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped or in chips
½ tsp. vanilla extract
a pinch of salt
1 cup almonds or another nut, toasted & chopped
a few generous sprinklings of coarse sea salt
pan: Baking sheet(s) lined very well with foil, then top the foil with parchment paper. Yes, this is necessary. Toffee is messy business, you know. Delicious, but messy.
Place the matzo along the bottom of the baking pan, breaking it up to cover the whole bottom.
In a big, thick saucepan, melt the butter and brown sugar together over medium heat. Bring up to a boil, stirring regularly, for about three minutes, as the mixture thickens. Remove from heat and stir in the salt & vanilla. Pour over the matzo, distributing the caramel mixture evenly and quickly.
Move the baking sheet(s) to the oven and bake for 12-15 minutes, watching to make sure that the caramel doesn’t burn. (If it begins to get too dark, remove from the oven & turn down the heat to 325˚.) Once everything is nice and golden brown, remove from the oven and immediately sprinkle the matzo with the chocolate. Wait a few minutes, then smooth out the now-melted chocolate with a spatula. See how you just made the recipe work for you? Love that.
As the chocolate is cooling, sprinkle with the toppings of your choice—in my case, some almonds & good sea salt. Let the matzo toffee cool completely before breaking into pieces and devouring it. If there’s any leftover, it will keep in an airtight container for up to a week.
I know it’s fashionable to berate Valentine’s Day as an over commercialized trainwreck, but you know what? I kind of like it. Though I’m lucky enough to have someone I love to share it with (and believe me, I know that helps), what I really like about the holiday, despite it being a shallow capitalist ploy to get us all to buy crappy candy & cheesy cards, is that it puts love on the calendar.
Granted, most of what our culture has to say about love is sad, scary, dangerous crap (hello, song lyrics & “romantic” comedies)—but does that mean love has to become a bad word? I hope not, because that thing called love keeps blowing me away. Real love, that genuine, below-the-surface, heart-full-to-bursting stuff, is the most extraordinary thing I think we, as human beings, get to experience.
Here’s what I love about love: it’s the best teacher I’ve ever had. Just when I have stuffed the world back into its custom-sized box, contained and understood, safely put away where I might observe and manipulate it…love reminds me that there are approximately 8 zillion things possible in this life of which I can barely even conceive.
Each time I get to a place where I think I know love’s dimension, understand the various ways it can work, can drive people mad, can knock us on our asses and humble us and transport and expand…then suddenly, a whole new layer unfolds and I’m stunned all over again.
Love is the one thing that will actually push me to be the person I want to be. My love for Jill has forced me to expand, to be so, so much bigger and calmer and compassionate than I ever was before I met her. My love for my mother has brought me to moments of unselfishness and grace that fly in the face of my barest, basest self.
These brownies are named for a man I hardly know. Greg and his wife Sharon are friends I made via Twitter, if you can believe it, and whom I have grown to love in a way that really doesn’t make sense. Sometimes it works that way, mysteriously.
Loving someone else takes the much-too-bright shine off of our own imperfect lives for a little while. I’ve baked these brownies for Greg twice—once on his birthday, once following his mother’s death—and both times, the gesture usurped and created a level of intimacy beyond what we had established at that point.
So now, every time I make brownies, I think of Greg. Whether I’m making them for their namesake, or to go into a care package for Dave’s family, or for my colleague Steve (with leftover dulce de leche swirled in), or to finish off a dinner party for Jill’s visiting friend, my circle of concern grows in the process and, for a while, it isn’t all about me. When I throw myself into a bowl of puddled chocolate and butter, when I will myself towards care and comfort with every spatula turn, then I’m a little bit closer to mirroring love and its infinity inside myself.
The key to great brownies is great chocolate. Personally, I have become obsessed with Callebaut, which I am lucky enough to be able to buy in bulk at a few different specialty grocers here in town. I can’t say enough good things about springing for fancy baking chocolate, especially if you’re able to find it in large blocks like the ones pictured here. The price-per-ounce winds up being MUCH cheaper than purchasing chocolate in chip or bar form. And as long as you keep any leftover chocolate wrapped in plastic & tucked into a cool, dark pantry, you’ll be able to keep it on hand for months. Please do not put it in the refrigerator!
You can also order lots of great chocolate online—given how cold it is in most parts of the world right now, you won’t have to worry about it melting. However, if you’re in a rush or just aren’t up to my level of chocolate-obsession, buy some Ghirardelli at the very least. Nearly all grocery stores now carry it, and I cross-my-heart swear you’ll never go back to generic chocolate again.
This recipe is my fail-safe, with the coffee & vanilla flavors nicely highlighting the chocolate-y-ness of the chocolate (yes, that’s a technical term) and the chili powder adding just a little something extra. You can obviously switch in other flavorings, like orange or almond, and leave out the chili if it makes you nervous.
As for texture, I’ve gotta have nuts. Walnuts are most traditional for brownies, though pecans work nicely, too. Extra chocolate is never a bad thing in my book. But you could also toss in toffee bits, coconut, white chocolate chunks, etc.
6 ½ oz. bittersweet chocolate, in chips or chopped finely
9 ½ T butter
1 T Kahlua (substitute cold coffee if you like)
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup sugar, with 2 T removed
¾ cup flour
¼ tsp. ancho or regular chili powder (optional)
pinch of salt
½ cup chopped milk chocolate
½ cup chopped walnuts
pan: square baking pan (8 x 8 or 9 x 9)
First things first-line that baking pan with foil. Using two sheets (one going in either direction, like a + sign,) be sure to leave plenty of overhang on either side. Spray the inside of the foil with baking spray.
Melt the chocolate and butter together in a large bowl. Personally, I like the convenience of the microwave—just work in thirty second increments, stirring regularly to prevent burning. Of course, you can also use a more traditional double-boiler (a.k.a heatproof bowl set over gently simmering water).
Once the chocolate and butter are melted and mixed, stir in the Kahlua and vanilla. Set aside to cool down a bit.
In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and sugar together vigorously. Add to the chocolate mixture and mix thoroughly. Sift in the flour and pinch of salt. Toss in the chopped chocolate & walnuts, then fold all that goodness together.
Scrape the brownie batter into the foil-lined pan, then slide the pan into the oven. You will need some toothpicks & also, some patience. I recommend you begin toothpick-testing at minute 30, plunging a toothpick into the very middle of the brownie pan.
Since these are fudgy brownies, the toothpick doesn’t need to come back completely clean, but it shouldn’t be covered in batter, either. Remember, be patient! Depending on the temperament of your oven, the brownies will take 35-45 minutes.
Cool on a wire rack for at least ten minutes. At this point, you can lift the brownies out, using the foil overhang, and cool them further. I know it’s hard to resist, but they really are much easier to cut if you wait at least 20 minutes. If you must dig in, however, who will blame you? Not I. And not Greg, I’d wager.
This is totally one of those blog posts I would read & think “Come on! Does she really think this counts as a recipe? Who are we kidding here?”
I know. It isn’t a recipe, more like a great idea. Everyone loves ice cream, but scooping sundaes for a crowd can be kind-of a pain. Instead, take good-quality ice cream (perhaps some you just made yourself?), soften it a bit, mix in nuts or chocolate or fruit or candy, spread that into the cookie shell you just made, and freeze the whole thing up.
An hour later, you’ve got a simple, satisfying, & adaptable dessert, perfect for this hot, hot August.
Since this is sort of a slacker blog post, I’m going to throw in a little something extra here: our first Blue Jean Gourmet Mix. Hope you enjoy these summer kitchen tunes as much as we do.
ICE CREAM PIE
The possibilities are really quite endless here; you can tailor to a sophisticated, adult palate, a gooier, kid-friendly palate, or somewhere in-between:
a) chocolate cookie crust, chocolate ice cream, peppermint candies
b) gingersnap crust, vanilla ice cream, fresh fruit
c) vanilla wafer crust, banana ice cream, peanut butter cups
d) graham cracker crust, Neapolitan ice cream, mini marshmallows
For this pie, I made an Oreo crust, coffee ice cream, & mixed in toasted almonds & chunks of semi-sweet chocolate. To top it all off, homemade whipped cream & a few chocolate-covered espresso beans. There were several “Whoah, I don’t know if I can finish this” remarks followed by clean plates.
To make the crust, I used a food processor to make crumbs of the Oreos & a few tablespoons of butter, then pressed the crumbs into a pie pan. The whole thing went into the freezer for a while before I added in the ice cream filling.
Once you’ve filled the pie, be sure to cover it well to prevent freezer burn. Take out at least 5 minutes before you’re planning to serve, so it can thaw a little, making your life easier when it comes time to cut wedges.
LATE SUMMER KITCHEN MIX (turntable links to iTunes)
We Used to Be Friends – The Dandy Warhols
Spiralling – Keane
We’re an American Band – Grand Funk Railroad
Rosanna – Toto
Believe in Me – Emily White
Woodstock – Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young
Girls in Their Summer Clothes – Bruce Springsteen
Manhattan – Kings of Leon
Mr. Brownstone – Guns N’ Roses
Whole Lotta Love – Led Zeppelin
No You Girls – Franz Ferdinand
Freeway of Love – Aretha Franklin
Wouldn’t It Be Nice – The Beach Boys
Miss Ferguson – Cory Branan
Abigail – Courtney Robbins
Cheated Hearts – Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Overweight – Blue October
14th Street – Rufus Wainwright
Sometimes, a little fuss is in order.
Though our general philosophy here at Blue Jean Gourmet is that food does not need to be fussy to be delicious, there are occasions (and recipes and people) for which a little fuss is not such a bad thing. If you are making the fuss for a reason, it ceases to be fuss and starts to be care or love or desire or enthusiasm. And those are all good things.
Last week, Jill met my extended family for the first time. They’re not technically my family, as we’re not related by blood, but the aunties and uncles I grew up with in Memphis are mine, and I am theirs. They’re all brave immigrants, like my parents, who came to this country from India and somehow figured out how to raise children (sassy, first-generation children) in a completely foreign land.
As you can imagine, the whole l-e-s-b-i-a-n thing has been sort of a hard road for all of us; hard enough, and then really just not on the radar in the Indian community at all. But since my father died three years ago, things have shifted. I’m older; Jill and I have been together longer. My mother, in her generosity and determination to build a great adult relationship with me, has met me more than halfway. And my community has followed.
We had what my friends and I jokingly called a “sip and see,” usually thrown in the South when a baby is born and everyone comes to inspect him/her and drink punch. Instead of a baby, we had (a very nervous) Jill. And instead of punch, we had sparkling shiraz, fruit sodas, cheese & crackers, spinach dip, fruit, homemade chocolate-covered strawberries, and these cookies.
These amaretti, unlike the also delicious but crunchy kind you may be used to, are light, airy, and almost evaporate in your mouth when served plain. An equally good but richer option is to “glue” them together with some jam or melted chocolate.
In case you were wondering, Jill was charming and gracious, as she always is. I think my aunties and uncles saw at least a sliver of what I see in her, and they were gracious and lovingly inquisitive back. When I closed the door after our last guest, I found myself moved to tears because two parts of my life had finally come together, parts I long thought would always be separate. Certainly an occasion worth making a little fuss over.
CHEWY AMARETTI COOKIES
adapted from Gourmet magazine, January 2009
7 oz. almond paste (not marzipan)
1 cup sugar
2 large egg whites, at room temperature for 30 minutes
¼ cup almonds, toasted
pan: baking sheet
special equipment: food processor, parchment paper & a pastry bag (or just use a large Ziploc bag instead, like me)
Line the baking sheets with parchment paper; please don’t try to substitute anything else as it won’t work and you’ll regret it, I promise.
Pulse the almond paste with the sugar in your food processor until it has broken up & looks crumbly; add almonds & egg whites and process until the mixture is smooth.
Pile the mixture into your pastry bag or Ziploc bag; if the latter, cut off one corner of the bag and squeeze rounds onto the parchment. Cookies work best if they are less than an inch round; place them just as far apart on the sheets.
Bake until the cookies are golden & puffed, about 15 minutes. Cool on a rack, then peel off of the parchment.
optional: Sandwich the cookies together, two at a time, using any number of fillings; melted chocolate, raspberry or strawberry jam, Nutella, etc.