Friday, September 19, 2008

Loveable: S'mores Cookies

I believe I have found the world’s ugliest cookie. I made some cookies from a recipe in Gourmet magazine, and when I made a second batch, one of my nannies asked me what that log in the refrigerator was. I explained that they were the chocolate cookies that had been around the previous week. The other nanny was joyous that I was making another batch.

“I kept eating them,” she said, “And Kerina kept asking why I was eating those ugly cookies. I told her, they’re ugly, but they’re awesome!”

Indeed, I would say “ugly but awesome” sums these cookies up perfectly. In fact, so ugly are they that it took me half the batch just to find one that was attractive enough to photograph.

These are from a local company called Dish D’lish, run by a woman named Kathy Casey. The recipe was in the March issue of Gourmet magazine, in the You Asked for It section. A woman in the Seattle area said she goes out of her way to buy one of these whenever she flies out of Sea-Tac. Since I don’t fly (except in extreme situations), I realized would probably never get one of these cookies unless I made the recipe. And since there was no picture of the cookies with the recipe, I had to assume I was doing things correctly and that ugly was part of their charm.

The first time I made them I forgot to stir the candy bits into the cookie dough. The second time I made them I did, but I realized that I actually liked them better without them. Both times the recipe made more like 11 cookies than 10 (I'm not very good at rolling out the log to exactly 8" long).

Also the first time, I rolled the dough out into a log on a floured board, but didn’t like the look of the white flour on the chocolate dough. Remembering my Martha Stewart wisdom, I recalled the tip to “flour” cake pans for chocolate cake with cocoa to avoid that white-flour-on-the-outside-of-a-chocolate-cake look. I dusted the exterior of the dough log with cocoa powder. When baked off, the cookies had an extra hint of chocolate that was subtle, but interesting.

The topping is the real gotcha on these cookies. You have to mound the marshmallow goopiness perfectly in the center of the raw dough or it melts and slithers off onto the baking sheet, making it look like the topping was caught in the act of trying to escape when you opened the oven door and pulled the cookies out. If you manage to calculate the exact area of the cookie circle using the formula you remember from geometry, of course (isn’t it π x r squared?) and blop the stuff in the exact middle point, you wind up with a pool of melted marshmallow goodness that turns lightly golden. Using one large marshmallow half per cookie (cut around the equator), instead of the minis, also helps the appearance a bit. It’s still not very pretty, but it’s tasty.

I think the dough for these cookies could be used for more than just s’mores cookies. I see melting other things on top of them, such as caramels, or starlight mints. This bears consideration.

My one beef with these cookies is that after you make them, you’re left with most of a can of sweetened condensed milk to use up. It only calls for a quarter cup of it, and then you’re left with at least another 9 or so ounces of the stuff. I guess the solution is to make more ugly cookies.

I even put it on a really pretty plate in the hopes that it would make the cookie more visually appealing. Fail.

Chocolate-Toffee S'more Cookies
from Gourmet magazine, March 2008
makes 10-11 jumbo cookies

For Dough
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup shortening
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 (8 oz.) package toffee baking bits

For Topping
1 1/2 (5" x 2 1/2") graham crackers
1 cup mini marshmallows (or 5 large marshmallows halved through their equator)
1/4 cup sweetened condensed milk

Make the dough: combine flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt in a bowl. Cream together butter, shortening, and sugars in the bowl of an electric mixer until fluffy, then beat in the egg and vanilla. With the mixer on low, add in the flour mixture and mix until the dough just comes together. Stir in toffee bits.

Shape dough into a log 8" long, 3" in diameter on a board dusted with flour (or a combination of flour and cocoa powder) with floured hands. Flatten the ends and chill, wrapped in plastic, for 6 hours or overnight.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment. In a food processor, grind graham crackers into fine crumbs (about 1/4 cup). Combine crumbs with marshmallows and sweetened condensed milk (mixture will be very sticky).

Cut dough crosswise into 10-3/4" thick rounds. Place 2-3 slices on each baking sheet (these cookies spread about 5" during baking), and top with 1 heaping tablespoon of marshmallow topping, placing it in the center of each slice (this is where a single large marshmallow is easier than a clump of the smaller ones).

Bake cookies 18-22 minutes until topping is golden and cookies are baked through. Slide onto a rack to cool completely. Finish remaining cookies in the same manner.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Mystified: Fried Green Tomatoes

I suppose it was inevitable that I would eventually come around to love fried green tomatoes. You don’t come from a Southern family and not have some genetic predisposition towards fried chicken, grits, and fried green tomatoes, and my family is about as Southern as you get (my dad grew up in the north part of Louisiana and Mississippi, my mom in the southern part of Virginia). My dad used to tell me about the kinds of things his aunts made for dinner when he was young: whipped potatoes as light as down made without a single electric appliance, only a wooden spoon; greens cooked to the point of disintegration in pot likker; lemon meringue pies with piles of meringue that were so high they had to crane their necks to see one another across the table. And of course every time my grandmother came to visit she’d make pralines. Real pralines with fresh pecans she’d brought with her that were, as I recall, merely pools of brown sugar and butter studded with whole pecans. I know there was more to them than that, but I still remember the grainy almost gritty texture of the praline, and the meaty heft of the nut as I bit into one. That doesn’t sound very nice, but I assure you, they were sublime.

I fought fried green tomatoes for years, even refusing my sister-in-law’s urging to try the very best ones in the whole world at Kudzu Café in Atlanta (a restaurant that has sadly closed its doors). I wasn’t wild about raw red tomatoes, and I was pretty darned sure that raw green ones—even if they were technically cooked—weren’t going to go over well. This just goes to show, I think, how wrong one person can be. Last week when we got several green tomatoes in our CSA share, I couldn’t really think of anything to do with them but coat them in cornmeal and fry them. I can’t even put my finger on what changed my mind. Generally I can trace my whims to a specific incident or occurrence that drove a small wedge in the sheer rock face of my refusal to accept the food I was so vehemently rejecting, and later caused my stubborn resistance to cleave in half. But not in this case.

I have now come to the conclusion that the reason to grow tomatoes is so you can have an endless supply of fried green tomatoes. They require some fiddling--what with dredging them in flour, dipping them in buttermilk, and then dredging them in corn meal--and of course you do shallow fry them, so they’re not the healthiest of fare, but oh my. Tangy and firm in the middle, light crisp crust on the outside, I never dreamed they could be so good.

Although I ate a fair number at dinner, the next morning the memory lingered on, and with the enthusiasm that only a new convert shows, I took a chance and heated the leftovers up for breakfast. I was pleasantly surprised; usually fried things aren’t as good when reheated. Their crust tends to get mushy, and the overall quality suffers. I wouldn’t say the tomatoes were as phenomenally good as they were the night before, but I didn’t push them off my plate either. I used the toaster oven and I think that may have had something to do with it; if I’d microwaved them they’d have gotten soggy for sure.

The recipe I used was from the Food + Wine annual cookbook for 2007 (which means it was published in an issue in 2006). Originally it was a fried green tomato salad, with the tomatoes served over frisee with bacon with a warm vinaigrette. In retrospect, this would be very good too, although my worry is that the vinaigrette would sog the crust of the tomatoes and make them just a shade less spectacular. In this case we used the recipe for the tomatoes only and let the rest fall by the wayside. Interestingly, since then I have gone through my cookbooks to find possible variations on fried green tomatoes to see if there’s another version out there I want to try, and they seem to all be almost identical. Flour, eggs (or buttermilk or milk), and cornmeal. It doesn’t appear that many people have deviated from that formula. I still have some more research to do, but preliminary findings suggest I’ve already got the perfect combination of ingredients.

Now I’m delighted that we planted all our tomato plants so late; originally I was in a fret that I wouldn’t get many red tomatoes. With the very chilly start we had to summer out here, we didn’t get the plants in the ground until almost July 4th. This means that by the time frost is threatening I’ll have at least several dozen green tomatoes, and a watertight reason to eat fried green tomatoes at nearly every meal for as long as they last.

Fried Green Tomatoes
adapted from Food + Wine Magazine, August 2006
makes about 12 slices, or two dinner servings + two breakfast servings

4 large green (unripe) tomatoes, sliced crosswise 1/2 inch thick
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
Cayenne pepper
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon water
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 teaspoon dried thyme
Canola oil, for frying

In a large bowl, combine the tomatoes with the garlic and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and let stand for 10 minutes.

In a pie plate or shallow bowl, combine 3/4 cup of the flour with salt, pepper and cayenne. In another pie plate, whisk the eggs with the water. In a third pie plate, combine the cornmeal with the remaining 1/2 cup of flour and the thyme and season with salt, pepper and cayenne. Line a baking sheet with wax paper. Drain the tomatoes. Working with 1 slice at a time, dip the tomatoes in the flour, tapping off any excess, then dip in the beaten egg and then in the cornmeal; press to help it adhere. Transfer the breaded slices to the prepared baking sheet.

In a large skillet, heat 1/4 inch of canola oil until shimmering. Fry the tomato slices in batches over moderately high heat, turning once, until golden and crisp, 5 to 6 minutes per batch. Transfer to a rack lined with paper towels to drain. Sprinkle tomatoes with salt.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Passionate: Bright Lights Chard Gratin

As obsessive as I clearly am when I find something I like (please see Exhibit A: Blackberries), I can’t believe I haven’t shared with you my current obsession. I know this may sound a little strange at first, but hear me out. My current love, the food with which I am so taken that I actually planted it in my own garden to ensure an immediate and almost unending supply thereof, is Rainbow Chard.

Right, I know.

Tracy, chard? It looks like some weird weed and it has a name that sounds like the discarded by-product of the cheese making process. What you say is true, but I can’t help it. I’ve fallen and I’ve fallen hard. And work with me here: for once my insatiable love is for something healthy. Oh yes, at this point I’m still in the smother-it-with-white-sauce-and-buttered-crumbs stage of the relationship, but at least I’m not deep frying it. I maintain that the American public can be gently guided to love any food provided that it’s either breaded and deep fried, or smothered in a cheesy white sauce. I mean, really: calamari. I rest my case.

But back to my newfound passion. It started turning up in my CSA share each week, and I thought, what do I do with this? Enter Deborah Madison’s “Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets.” She has a recipe for Bright Lights Chard Gratin. In her introduction she says this recipe is just as good if you use some spinach or other green, plus the chard. Well there you go: I have no fear of spinach. Spinach and I are great pals. If I could get spinach, along with my old friends goat cheese, cream sauce, and bread crumbs, to introduce me to chard, why, I’d be at a party with a whole lot of folks I knew, and only one stranger in the mix. I could ease out of my comfort zone only slightly, and maybe make a new friend.

Since then I’ve eased further and further, and chard and I are now joined at the hip. I bought a packet of seeds and planted it in my garden, and the other night I made an all chard gratin with a combination of my CSA bunch and a fistful plucked from my own crop. It was still slathered in béchamel sauce, but it was all chard, no spinach invited (no offense, spinach; I still love you). I figure one of these days I’ll be brave enough to try a simple sauté, with the stems cooked first, and the leaves added after, all in just a touch of butter with some garlic, salt and pepper. But baby steps for baby feet, and I think my next experiment will be crisp chard cakes on a bed of creamy spinach (recipe in one of my new acquisitions, the Food + Wine 2008 cookbook). Still a chard/spinach combo, and still with the cream sauce and crumbs, but the cream sauce isn't in with the chard, and the spinach is a separate entity altogether. I can hardly wait.

Bright Lights Chard Gratin

from Deborah Madison’s “Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets.”
serves 4 as a main dish; 6 as a side dish; or, if you're me, two days in a row for lunch

2 pounds chard, including half the stems (or an equal amount of greens, such as spinach, nettles or sorrel)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 onion, finely chopped
sea salt, and freshly ground pepper
1 cup fresh bread crumbs
1 clove garlic, minced
3 tablespoons chopped dill or parsley
1 tablespoon flour
1 cup milk, cream, or a mixture of cream and stock
1 cup crumbled fresh goat cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F and lightly oil a 2-quart gratin dish.

Separate the leaves and chard stems. Wash the leaves well, then coarsely chop them. Trim the ragged edges off the stems, wash them well, and dice them into small pieces.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a wide skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and chard stems and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion has begun to brown, about 20 minutes. (Note: I found this took about 5-7 minutes, not 20; maybe my heat was higher. In any event, it shouldn’t be left unattended, because you may find this goes faster than the original recipe says it will.) Add the chard leaves (and any other greens you may be using), sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt, and cook until they’re wilted and tender, about 10 minutes (interestingly, this was about the correct amount of time).

Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a small skillet and add the bread crumbs, garlic and dill or parsley. Cook, stirring for about a minute, then scrape the crumbs into a bowl and return the pan to the heat.

Melt the last tablespoon of butter, stir in the flour, then whisk in the milk (I used plain old 2%). Simmer for 5 minutes, season with 1/2 teaspoons salt, and add to the chard mixture. Add the cheese, then taste the mixture, correct for salt, and season with pepper. (Note: I actually added the goat cheese to the white sauce in the pan and whisked it until the cheese was melted, then poured it over the chard mixture. This was successful also.)

Pour the mixture into the prepared dish and cover with the bread crumbs. Bake until heated through and golden on the surface, about 25 minutes. (The sauce will also be bubbling a bit.) Let settle a few minutes before serving.

Eat, and vow to make again as soon as humanly possible!

Saturday, September 06, 2008

A Collection: Things I Never Thought I Would Say (or would never have to say)

1) We don't clean the furniture with fruit

2) Don't throw the chicken (N.B. we were talking about a live chicken in this instance)

3) Yes, I'll get you some ketchup for your pizza

4) Peanut butter is not evil

5) Cheese and crackers really aren't a proper breakfast

6) So what if she got pizza sauce in her hair? She's still going to bed in 5 minutes!

I'm quite sure there's more. These are the ones that came to mind right after I said #3.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Rustic: Blackberry Pie

I’m sorry to keep going on about blackberries, but if you live in the Pacific Northwest (or anyplace else where blackberries abound) you’ll be sympathetic. Of course if you live in a place where you have to buy blackberries at four bucks a pint, as I used to, perhaps you’ll be somewhat sympathetic (and maybe a little envious) as well. They’re just everywhere and they’re free. I spent the weekend making blackberry pie, blackberry compote, and the lovely delicately flavored pound cake in Suzanne Goin’s “Sunday Suppers at Lucques” that goes by the name Pastel Vasco, which is both laced with the blackberry compote, as well as served with it. And I have more grand plans in the works for my little pretties.

Picking blackberries is very soothing activity, in spite of the danger of the thorns. Your only focus is the next berry. Sunday morning I took five children blackberry picking (four of them mine, one the neighbors’—not as insane as it sounds, since the blackberry bushes are a hundred yards from the house next door to us). The children picked and ate and squabbled over who had found the biggest berry. I noticed the almost opalescent quality of the berries after a brief but heavy rain that morning.

Blackberries are very friendly bushes, almost too friendly; if you move in too close, they begin to embrace you, their little stickers gently but firmly hooking into your clothing. I also noticed the surprising lack of spider webs in the thicket (with relief, I might add; spiders weird me out). I saw only one web the whole time I was in there, and even though there was a cluster of big perfect berries right behind it, I left the web intact in deference to a spider who had been brave enough to make his home there.

When I got them home I made the blackberry pie. The recipe is from Mario Batali’s mom (published in the August Food + Wine), and is pretty basic. The crust for this is a straightforward combination of vegetable shortening, flour, sugar, and ice water. I’m out of practice with handling pie crust, but this one turned out well, despite a few tears. In fact, I think the best way to describe the visual outcome of this pie is “rustic.” I always find rustic to be a useful term that’s employed to describe things that are really just kind of ugly and ragged. But since this pie turned out just like that, we’ll go with rustic.

The filling is nothing more than blackberries, lemon juice, and sugar. I discovered that I had used all of my white sugar and forgotten to pick up any more at the grocery store on Saturday morning, so I substituted brown sugar for half the white and crossed my fingers.

The result, while ugly (for which read: rustic), was exactly what was promised to me. The crust was melty and tender and the berry filling bubbled up around the edges of the crust and made little pools of purple sticky on the top. Because I can’t stand the suspense in situations like this, I had done a test to make sure the crust would be good. I took the trimmings and baked them separately on another sheet until they were turning goldeny brown, then pulled them out and tasted them. They offered me a number of possibilities if I chose to skip the sugar, up the salt, and think savory.

The baking time was about an hour in my oven, and I found a crust shield to be a necessity in the last half hour of cooking. I do think the instruction I had to let the pie sit for four hours was a key to the success, because while it was still somewhat juicy and runny, the berries had set up to a certain degree, giving it some structure. It wasn’t just blackberry soup with crust croutons. I ate my piece straight, without ice cream so I could really get a feel for the flavor and sweetness of the filling, instead of being overwhelmed by the supplemental sugar. It had a nice balance, and while I’m informed that ice cream made it even better, it was pretty darned good without.

Marilyn Batali's Blackberry Pie
from Food + Wine Magazine, August 2008
1 9" pie (1-8 servings)

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup solid vegetable shortening, chilled
5 tablespoons ice water

2 pints (1 1/2 pounds, or about 20-30 minutes worth of picking) blackberries
1/2 cup sugar (I used 1/4 cup white, and about 1/4 cup of light brown; it came out fine)
3 tablespoons all purpose flour
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, and salt. Add the shortening and use a pastry blender or two knives to cut it into the flour, until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add the ice water and stir with a fork until the dough is moistened. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and gather into a ball. Knead 2 or 3 times until the dough just comes together. Divide in half, flatten each into a disk, and refrigerate until well chilled, at least an hour.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Let the dough stand at room temperature 10 minutes. Working on a lightly floured surface, roll out one disk of the dough to a 12" round. Transfer to a 9" pie plate Roll out remaining dough to an 11" round.

In a bowl, stir the blackberries with the sugar, flour, and lemon juice, lightly mashing the berries. Pour the berries into the prepared crust and sprinkle the butter cubes on top. Brush the overhanging pastry with water and carefully set the top crust over the berry filling. Press the edges of the dough together and trim the overhang to 1". Fold the edge under itself and crimp decoratively (or, in my case, messily). Cut 4 slits in the top crust.

Bake in the center of the oven (with a cookie sheet or piece of foil underneath it) for about an hour and 15 minutes, until the bottom crust is golden and the fruit is bubbling. If necessary, cover the edge with the foil for the last few minutes of baking. Let the pie cool at least four hours before serving.