Chocolate Espresso Wafer Cookies

chocolate espresso wafers

So, January.  Getting the new year off to a good start and all that.

Except I really didn’t.

Instead, I tried making an icebox cake. Okay, a couple of icebox cakes.  

If you’ve never made one, an icebox cake usually consists of whipped cream and wafer cookies, although some recipes add in pudding and/or fruit.  I attempted a few slightly different versions of the cookies and cream variety, and was surprised when I was completely underwhelmed.  I had expected that I’d absolutely love it, mostly due to the copious amounts of whipped cream, but it was just okay.  Nothing special.  I mean, if I’m going to use approximately three cups of heavy cream (yes, I really said three cups!) in a dessert, it’s got to knock my socks off. 

While the cake(s) were definitely not a hit, these Chocolate Espresso Wafer Cookies were.  Most of the icebox cakes called for packages of store-bought chocolate wafers, but this gem, from smitten kitchen, is the the homemade version of the cookie, and so much better than the supermarket kind.  They are delicious on their own, and great for making a crumb crust.  I can easily imagine them in all sorts of other fabulous scenarios, like this beauty of a Classic Ice Cream Cake, via Kinfolk.

Making a double batch of cookies is highly recommended, especially if you plan to use a portion for another dessert.

Chocolate Espresso Wafer Cookies

Makes about 50-60 cookies.  Adapted from Smitten Kitchen, here.

1 1/2 cup flour
1 1/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
14 tablespoons unsalted butter, slightly softened and cut into 12 pieces
2 tablespoons whole milk
2 tablespoons brewed espresso, cooled to room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla paste

Mix together the milk, vanilla paste and espresso in a bowl or cup with a pouring spout and set aside.

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, salt and baking soda and pulse several times to incorporate.  Add butter and pulse until just mixed through. With the processor running, add in the reserved milk mixture and continue to process until it is fully incorporated, about one minute, or until the mixture begins to clump around the blade or sides of the bowl.  Transfer the dough to a cutting board and knead through a few times to make sure it is evenly blended.  Form the dough into a log about one and three-quarter inches in diameter.  Wrap the log in waxed paper and refrigerate until firm, at least one hour.

Line baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350℉, with racks positioned in the upper and lower thirds.  Cut the log of dough into scant 1/4-inch thick slices and place them one inch apart on the reserved baking sheets (they will spread a bit).  Bake, rotating the baking sheet from top to bottom and back to front halfway through the baking time, for a total of twelve to fifteen minutes.  The cookies will puff up and then deflate – they will be done about 90 seconds after they deflate.

Slide the parchment from the baking sheets onto racks to cool completely.  Cookies can be stored in an airtight container for up to two weeks or frozen for up to two months.

Bourbon Butterscotch Pudding

bourbon butterscotch pudding

I recently learned that quite a fair amount of people consider butterscotch and caramel to taste the same.  I suppose this could be true, because I’ve got friends who claim they can’t tell the difference between butter and margarine (seriously?) and others who say that whipped topping tastes like real whipped cream to them.  I don’t see how this is remotely possible, but there it is.  The first time I had the whipped topping stuff I was not even in grade school yet – I took one bite and instantly knew it was so definitely not whipped cream.  I mean, the two don’t even contain anything close to the same ingredients, and I’m not certain that some of the gunk that is in the whipped topping could really be considered edible.  Chemical wax? Um, no thanks.

At least butterscotch and caramel share mostly the same stuff, the main difference being that butterscotch contains brown sugar, while caramel contains granulated sugar.  Both are delicious, but while you can find caramel just about everywhere, and seemingly on everything, butterscotch is much more elusive.  There should be more butterscotch in the world. Much more. So, in an attempt to even things out a bit, there is this bourbon butterscotch pudding.

Just slightly sweet, this is a very creamy, light, summer-weight pudding.  It sets nicely, but doesn’t form much of the pudding “skin” on the top that delights some but horrifies others. If you want to cook off the small amount of alcohol in the tablespoon of bourbon, just whisk it in at the beginning with the milk instead of adding it in at the end with the vanilla extract.

Here, I’ve topped the puddings with fresh whipped cream and a sprinkle of grated dark chocolate, but they are equally good with, say, a drizzle of butterscotch sauce and a crumbled chocolate wafer cookie (or really, whatever your heart desires).

Except whipped topping.

bourbon butterscotch pudding

Bourbon Butterscotch Pudding
Makes four servings.  Adapted from Gourmet, here.

1/2 cup dark brown sugar, packed
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon flaky sea salt
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 vanilla bean, split down the center and scraped
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, chopped
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 tablespoon bourbon

In a heavy medium saucepan, mix together sugar, cornstarch and salt.  Whisk in milk, cream and vanilla bean and bits, and bring to a boil over medium heat, whisking frequently.  Once mixture has begum to boil, reduce heat to medium low and whisk constantly for one minute.  Remove from heat and add in butter, vanilla extract and bourbon – whisk until fully incorporated (about one minute.)  Strain the pudding through a fine mesh sieve and discard vanilla bean pod.  Transfer pudding to four serving containers, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 1 1/2 hours to chill and set.

Pudding will keep for up to five days, refrigerated.

We Love Jam

we love jam blenheim apricot

The imaginary, idealized version of me makes really good jam.

This imaginary me has a lot of skills (such as making jam) that the real me does not, in fact, possess.  To be fair, it’s not that I can’t make jam, it’s more like I never get around to actually doing it.  I’m great at picking out the fruit, but somehow it always disappears before the actual jam-making process begins.  Periodically, people send me jars of jam, presumably in sympathy for my lack of focus in this particular endeavor, or possibly in an attempt at inspiration.  Either way, while their generous gifts have yet to galvanize me into bona fide jam-making activity, they have enabled me to try out some truly amazing stuff.

One jam I won’t be making is apricot, because the guys over at We Love Jam have got this one completely covered.  Before I tasted it, I would never have said my favorite jam in all the world would be apricot, but there it is.  You know something is pretty special when you weren’t all that excited about it before you tried it, and after it becomes the standard by which all others are measured.

This jam is made from just three ingredients – organic apricots, cane sugar and spices.  I have no idea what the “spices” are, and I suspect, sadly, that I never will.  We Love Jam states they use “trace spices…to accentuate key flavors in the fruit” and whatever that proprietary mix is, it works perfectly.  For this jam, they use only freshly-picked Blenheim apricots (never frozen), which allows them to skip the use of pectin, resulting in a jam with a  juicy, thinner consistency and an intense, vibrant flavor.  It is fabulous slathered on toast, croissants or biscuits, but a person with limited restraint could easily eat it straight from the jar with just a spoon.  Oops, I have.  And it is wonderful.

Just two guys make all this jam, plus their other products.  Everything is made in small batches, labeled by them, and shipped by them.  Sometimes, they’ve even picked the fruit!  Eric and Phineas clearly really do love jam, and it shows (plus, they have to be pretty indefatigable, dedicated guys).  However, since this is a two-person operation, and they only produce according to the season, some things may be sold out or have a waiting list. Order early.  Even if you have to wait for your item, trust me, it will be worth it.  You can check out all their goods, here.  There also have a handy list of retailers, where you can buy a limited selection of their products, here.

This year, I’m ordering a few extra jars of the apricot jam.  Rattling around in the back of my mind is the idea that it would be just perfect for an apricot version of Dorie Greenspan’s Classic Jammers from Beurre & Sel.

As soon as my jam arrives, I’m on it.  I just know this is going to be good.

Brownie Bites

brownie bites

Is there an easier way to say “I love you” than homemade brownies?

Well, maybe, but since these brownie bites do the trick so nicely, I’m probably not really going to bother to look.

What I have searched for is the perfect brownie recipe, and happily stumbled upon this one a year or two ago from Chasing Delicious.  You can read all about the evolution of the recipe here, but what you really need to know is that these brownie bites are crazy good. The tops are sleek and glossy, the sides are crisp and chewy, and the centers are dense and fudgy.  They instantly became a household favorite.

Their flavor is more chocolatey than sweet, so while the bites are terrific on their own, they also make a great foundation for a dessert bar –  they are so versatile you can tailor them to nearly any taste or occasion.  Served with ice cream and, say, a salted carmel or marshmallow sauce, they make wonderful brownie sundaes.  Or forgo the ice cream, add a drizzle of creme anglaise, then go nutty by garnishing with spiced pecans or walnuts. For chocolate fanatics, try topping the bites with hot fudge sauce and bourbon-spiked chocolate whipped cream.  To keep them finger-friendly for a buffet, crown them with piped meringue, then lightly brown the meringue with a kitchen torch.

A word of advice about these brownie bites – they never last long.  Although in theory 36 brownie bites should be enough to sustain a household of two adults for two days, alas, somehow it never is.  If you are making them to share (and you totally should), I recommend a double batch.

row of brownie bites

Brownie Bites
Makes 36 bites.  Adapted from Chasing Delicious, here.

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, chopped
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
4 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate chips (or chopped chocolate bar)
2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 large eggs
1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons flour

Preheat oven to 325℉.  Lightly butter mini muffin pans.  Place pans on a baking tray and set aside.

Place the butter in the top portion of a double-boiler over simmering water (you can also use a medium heat-proof bowl placed over a saucepan of simmering water).  When about a third of the butter has melted, add in the cocoa powder and chocolate, stirring occasionally.  When about two thirds of the butter has melted, add in the sugar and salt. Stir occasionally until the butter and chocolate are completely melted – when mixed well, it will still appear gritty in texture.

Remove the top portion of the double-boiler (or bowl) from heat and let cool for five minutes.  Add vanilla and mix through.  Add eggs, one at a time, stirring well after each addition.  Add flour and mix  through until fully incorporated.

Spoon the batter into the prepared mini muffin pans, filling each well until it is just even with the top.  Bake in the lower third of the oven for about 18 – 22 minutes – the tops will be set and shiny, and a toothpick inserted in the center will be slightly moist with batter, but not runny.  Remove the pans from the baking tray.  Allow the bites to cool in the pans for five minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

The brownie bites will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for up to three days.

Lemony Crab Dip

lemony crab dip

For everyday dining, I don’t usually serve an appetizer.  But for guests and parties and special occasions, I’ll trot out a few to keep everybody happy.  They are nice to nibble on while the main attraction finishes cooking, with a cocktail or a glass of bubbly in hand, and no one goes hungry before the meal is served.

This crab dip is versatile and great any time of the year, although in winter, the light, citrusy note is particularly welcome as a contrast to heartier cold-weather dishes.  A light hand with the mayonnaise ensures that the flavor of the crab shines through.  You can heap the dip in a bowl and surround it with a platter of accompaniments, or serve it in small individual bowls, with baskets of crackers, bread and raw vegetables on the side.

This dip travels really well – you can make it up to a few days before, it packs up quickly to take on the road, and no cutlery is necessary (although a knife for spreading is nice). For a fun twist, pre-cut your bread into shapes, add a few leaves of watercress, and turn the dip into crab sandwiches.  With the addition of a few other small bites, these little nibbles make the perfect picnic.

lemony crab dip picnic pack

Lemony Crab Dip
Serves 4-6 as an appetizer.  Adapted from Coastal Living, here.

2 1/2 cups fresh lump crabmeat, picked over for shells and gently flaked
1 cup finely chopped shallot
1/2 cup finely chopped celery
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1/8 teaspoon celery seed
kosher salt, to taste
scant 1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

In a large bowl, combine first eight ingredients and toss well.  Add in mayonnaise and stir until fully incorporated.  Top with chopped parsley and refrigerate in a covered container for at least two hours.  Dip will keep for up to three days, refrigerated.

Serve with baguette slices, crackers and assorted raw vegetables.

Snickerdoodles

snickerdoodles

Hello, 2013.  So pleased to meet you.

While I made my list of New Year’s resolutions, I realized they were really more like New Year’s aspirations – stuff I really, really want to make/see/do but just haven’t quite gotten around to yet.  Some of the things on my list are repeats from previous years that are still pending, while some are debuting as the result of new inspiration.  So it appears that this will be the year I spend some time in Venice (the California one), learn some basic embroidery, and desperately try not to kill the succulents, herbs or lime tree I’ll be planting in containers in the courtyard.

Building on last year’s chandelier success, the Fun with Electricity theme will continue, and more lighting fixtures will be produced – hopefully a big kitchen overhead number made with recycled glass.  I’m going to swim more, fly a kite, go camping, visit at least one observatory, and sample all the outlandish ice cream flavors I can (starting with cap’n crunch).  I’m going to use as many different modes of transportation as possible this year, from aeriel tram to zip-line, and attend an Outstanding in the Field farm dinner.  I’m planning on making chinese potstickers for the first time, as well as brioche, giardiniera and a charlotte.  I’m going to try my hand at candy making, using the addictive Liddabit Sweets Candy Cookbook as a guide.  

And finally, I’m going to make more cookies.  Lots.  Starting with these practically perfect snickerdoodles, which I munched on while making my list.

Whatever you are doing in 2013, make it marvelous!

snickerdoodles cooling

Snickerdoodles
Makes about 30 cookies.  Adapted from Martha Stewart, here.

2 3/4 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons sanding sugar

Preheat oven to 350℉.  In a large bowl, sift together flour, baking powder and salt.  Set aside.  Line baking trays with parchment paper and set aside.

In a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream together butter and 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar on medium speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes.  Mix in eggs. Reduce speed to low and add in one half of reserved flour mixture, mix until incorporated. Scrape down bowl and add in remaining flour mixture and mix again.

In a small bowl, stir together cinnamon, 1 tablespoon granulated sugar, and 2 tablespoons sanding sugar.  Shape dough into about 30 (one inch in diameter) balls and roll in thoroughly in cinnamon sugar.  Place dough balls on prepared cookie sheets about three inches apart.  Bake cookies, rotating sheets halfway through, until edges are golden, approximately 12 -15 minutes.  Transfer cookies to wire rack and let cool completely.

Cookies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature up to one week.

2013

Winter Borscht with Brisket

winter borscht with brisket

Holiday food traditions.  Nearly everybody has some, and I always want to try theirs.  Who knows, maybe it will be so amazingly fantastic, I’ll want to incorporate it into one of my own celebrations.

One of my personal holiday favorites in this Russian-inspired Winter Borscht, which we usually have on Christmas Eve.  My husband likes to call it “carnivore’s borscht” because it is chock full of tender, luscious brisket.  The beets give it a beautiful, deep, reddish-purple color that is unmistakeable – in fact, up to the point where you add the beets, it just looks like any other hearty beef and vegetable soup. Then the beets go in, and suddenly, it’s all festive.

Previous to making this dish, I was utterly (and I might add, blissfully) unaware that quite a few people have mixed feelings about borscht and beets in general. Over the years, when first presented with the idea that these items would be on the menu, initial comments were tepid at best.  And those were the good ones.  Other random questions were just odd, as in…

Q:  Borscht?  Isn’t that, like, some sort of beet juice?
A:  Yes, yes it is. Beet juice. Just plain beet juice.  We’ll be having stale crackers, too.
Q:  There are beets in it you say?  I’ve only had those pickled.  Is it pickle soup?
A:  Bingo!  Yes, I’m serving pickle soup.  Please bring your favorite ice cream for garnish.
Q:  Borscht?  Who eats borscht?
A:  Absolutely no one but us.  We are eccentric weirdos.  Let’s party!

Of course, although those questions are genuine, I didn’t really answer them that way (except in my head).  Instead, I explained how beets are yummy and good for you and promised that if they didn’t like the borscht, there would be a host of other, quite lovely things to eat that they could have instead.  I’m very pleased to report that not one single person has ever taken me up on it.  Yes, this borscht is sooo good, it can convert even people who think they don’t like beets.  Or borscht.  If you already know you like beets and borscht, well, then, you, my friend, are golden. And invited to dinner.

This soup is so loaded with good stuff, that it easily stands as a meal on its own, along with a nice country loaf or a good pumpernickel (or both!).  For the holidays, I like to mix things up a little bit and add in a few seafood appetizers like my favorite crab dip (more on this one, here) classic shrimp cocktail and chilled stone crab claws, and a crunchy, winter white salad.  Occasionally, I’ll also throw in some mushroom piroshki, which are little mushroom and onion stuffed hand pies.

The very best part, aside from tasting great, is that the entire meal can be prepared in advance, so that the day of your festivities, you can lolygag about, chatting and sipping vodka or champagne cocktails or whatever else strikes your fancy, and just relax.

Yeah, I seriously need to do this more than once a year.

 

bowl of winter borscht

Winter Borscht with Brisket
Makes 10 servings.  Adapted from Food & Wine, here.

3 1/2 – 4 pounds beef brisket
4 quarts plus three cups of water
3 large onions, 2 halved, 1 finely chopped
1 parsnip, halved
4 carrots, 2 halved, 2 finely chopped
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
kosher salt, to taste
2 pounds beets (about 4-6), scrubbed
1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 slices of thick-cut bacon, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 large green bell pepper, diced
2 1/2 cups savoy cabbage, chopped
3 white potatoes, peeled and diced
1 cup diced canned tomatoes
freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoon celery leaves, finely chopped
sour cream, for garnish
additional chopped celery leaves, for garnish

Cut the brisket into four equal pieces and place them in a large stock pot.  Add the water and bring to a boil on high heat, skimming fat as necessary.  Add the halved onions, parsnip, halved carrots, bay leaves, peppercorns and salt to taste.  Reduce heat to medium-low, cover partially and cook until meat is tender, approximately three hours. Transfer the brisket to a cutting board and cut into bite-sized pieces.  Using a fine mesh sieve, strain the broth into a bowl and discard the vegetables. Drizzle a few tablespoons of broth over the reserved meat, toss to coat, and set aside the remaining broth and the brisket.

Preheat the oven to 375℉.  Wrap the beets individually in foil and place on a baking sheet rimmed with foil.  Bake for one hour, or until tender when pierced with a fork.  Let cool slightly, then peel and dice into bite-sized pieces.  Set aside.

Wipe out the stock pot, add vegetable oil and heat.  Add chopped bacon and cook over medium-high heat until crisp.  Add the chopped onion, chopped carrot and green pepper and cook until softened, about 7 minutes.  Add the chopped cabbage and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 7 minutes.  Add the reserved broth and brisket, the tomatoes and the potatoes and season to taste with salt and pepper.  Cover partially and cook over medium heat until potatoes are just tender, about 15-20 minutes. Add the beets and cook for another 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

In a mortar, pound the garlic, celery leaves and pepper with a pinch of salt into a paste and stir into the soup.  Let cook for 5 more minutes, then stir again.  Transfer soup to a tureen or bowls for serving, and garnish each bowl with a dollop of sour cream topped with celery leaves.

Note:  Take care to peel the roasted beets over a bowl or covered surface, as this process can be a bit messy.  Borscht can be made up to three days in advance. Refrigerate until ready to reheat. This recipe is easily doubled for a crowd.  It also freezes very well.