Saturday, December 29, 2012

shortbread: theme and variation

Tis the season to bake cookies, and December was a cookie-full month. Sugar and butter entered into the kitchen and left at a rapid rate, whisked and beaten and frothed and suspended into crumbly-soft morsels. They were duly dispatched to friends by good old fashioned post, delivered to family throughout the holidays, and devoured at the office by sugar-happy coworkers. I added a recipe to the Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap of 2012, and on the way, experimented with several gazillion cookie recipes, finally settling on Almond Butter Cookies.  One evening, though, I had a crisis when I discovered I'd used up the last of the eggs: what's a girl to do with no eggs, no egg-substitute, no open grocery store, and a desire to bake something? Shortbread, of course. Few ingredients, flexible additions, and satisfyingly rich, the high butter-to-flour ratio provides a crumbly, lush cookie best savored in small, slow nibbles.  Shortbread is a rare creation, shining both in its simplest and more elaborate forms. Try plain shortbread, and let the richness of the flavor melt over your tongue, add chocolate chips and nuts for some spice, melt chocolate and dip shortbread in it, or experiment with your own wild flavors.

Shortbread, theme and variation

2 sticks (8 oz or 1 cup) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup of granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups of white whole wheat flour
1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon almond extract
2/3 chocolate chunks
2/3 chopped pecans or walnuts

1. Sift the salt and four together and set aside. Cream the butter and sugar in a separate bowl, then add vanilla (and almond extract, if using). Mix in the flour about 1/2 a cup at a time, until the dough is lightly mixed together. It will be crumbly and may not hold together very well.  If you are using the variation, add the nuts and chocolate now.

2. Form the dough into a ball, then flatten and shape into two loaves about half to three-quarters of an inch thick. Refrigerate for at least two hours and up to overnight.

3. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Take the molded dough and either put it on top of wax paper in a small loaf pan or on top of wax paper on a cookie sheet. Bake for 16-18 minutes, until the edges look barely browned. Let the dough cool and then slice up the cookies into large bite-sized pieces.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

blissful mistakes: inventing almond butter cookies

When a hurricane threatened the east coast last summer, I ran to the store to get staple food items, anticipating days of no electricity, but looking forward to lots of peanut butter.  Unfortunately, everyone in Philadelphia was on the same wavelength, and the peanut butter shelf blinked at me, spare and lonely.  But necessity emboldens palate adventures, and so I picked up one jar of almond butter and one of cashew. The cashew butter got eaten within a week, but the almond butter relaxed on my counter, daring me to get creative. And when I got a craving for sweets a week or two later, as I was making cookies inspired by Smitten Kitchen's lovely peanut butter cookies, I accidentally grabbed the jar of almond butter. A delectable accident, the cookies were a sweet-salty, crunchy-smooth mouthful of deliciousness. I played around with ingredients and measurements, taste tested them on family and friends, added some candied pecans for festive zing, and then sent them off for the Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap of 2012.

What is this cookie swap? It is a food/writer/new friend connection tool where virtual people become "real" - each blogger sends off a dozen cookies to three recipients, and receives three dozen cookies in return. As we're sending each other cookies, we're also raising money for Cookies for Kids' Cancer, cooking for a cause.  I sent cookies to the cool women at Hearts in my Oven, Shuffling Freckles, and Life Undeveloped, and received a mouth-watering variety of goodies from the lovely ladies at Sister's Snacktime Munchies, The Way to my Family's Heart, and Meal Planning Magic.  Thanks also to Love and Olive Oil and The Little Kitchen for hosting the swap and for fostering a sense of community and realness in the virtual food world.

Almond Butter Cookies

1/2 cup or one stick of unsalted butter
1 cup of crunchy, unsalted almond butter
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
1 egg
1 tablespoon half-and-half

1 1/4 cup of white whole wheat flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

1 generous cup of chocolate chips
1 1/2 cups of candied pecans

for the candied pecans:
1 1/2 cups shelled pecans
1/2 cup white sugar

Start by making the candied pecans.  Pour the 1/2 cup of sugar into a cold frying pan.  Turn the heat on, and after a few minutes, the sugar will turn brown and bubbly around the edges. Start mixing the sugar into a syrup, careful to get out all of the lumps. Once it's all mixed, turn off the heat and put the pecans in, stirring to coat the nuts completely. Let them cool on a plate for at least 30 minutes (they will coalesce into a candied-mass), and then cut them up into bite-sized pieces.  This step can be done several hours in advance.

Note: If you choose to use regular pecans, you must add extra white sugar to the dough, or the cookies will not be sweet enough.

For the cookies:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Sift the dry ingredients together in a bowl and set aside.  In a separate bowl, mix the butter and almond butter into a smooth paste. Add the sugars and keep mixing.  Add the eggs and half-and-half and mix until smooth.  Combine the wet and dry ingredients, stirring until completely incorporated.  Add the chocolate chips and pecans, and try really hard not to eat all the dough right then and there.  Roll the cookie dough into balls and place on the cookie sheet.  Put cookies in the oven for 9-10 minutes (my oven takes exactly 9 minutes and 45 seconds), and let cool.  Scarf them up!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

for love of the latkes

There's no such thing as a "Chanukah bush." And yet, one is sitting in my window sill, known by it's other name as a "Christmas tree." Being the liberal Jewish girl that I am, every time I catch a glimpse of that Christmas tree in my window, I get a frisson of bemusement.  My A values verdancy and crispness come the cold snap, and so, there's a decorated European cyprus (threatening on its cute packaging to grow to 15 feet if lovingly cared for) lolling in the window. And right next to that tree are blue and gold stars, shimmering in the light of several candles, illuminating the darkness of the cold, short days.

That's how many of our holidays are, a jumble of traditions and ideas, a loose interpretation of the religious underpinnings to arrive at a moral, ethical, peaceful co-existence, with an examination of the cultural implications thrown in for good measure.  And that's how I arrived at Fried Food Night.

Fried Food Night is exactly what it sounds like - an evening of fried, crispy, bad-for-you-but-oh-so-good delicacies.  This year, the menu includes my world famous latkes (which are heavily modeled/stolen from my dad's out-of-this-world latke special), fried dumplings and egg rolls, fried donuts, fried cookies, and then wine to offset the oil and crispiness.

It started as a way to honor Chanukah, and then, in the way of the best celebrations, transformed itself into a multicultural hodgepodge of holidays and friends and tradition. We gather together to eat fried food in a semblance of remembrance of eight days of oil, but also to renew friendships, and unify our disparate tribe around the table.

a new tradition: sweet potato-apple latkes