Missed Valentine: Triple Chocolate Cookies

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

-Yes it's a late V-Day post. Stop with the rolling your eyes and frickin' read.-

Dear Brian,

So you're at field training this entire month with the army in the middle of nowhere Kentucky (though "nowhere" might be too general a description for that state) working on building your medical skills. It's noble of you and I'm proud of you, and even though I know you're bitching about it we both know part of you loves the military camaraderie and the fact that you get to build your knowledge base. It sorta makes it worth all the physical training and three in the morning.

I get to sleep at three in the morning. So, you know, ha ha.

I'm proud of you for what you do for your career, your education, and the fact that you do this for me, too. Alas, we both know I hate when you leave. I never handle it well.

Remember the first time you were going to be gone for three months? The night before you left I had a panic attack so bad I earned myself a hospital visit where the doctor drugged me higher than a cat on a car trip and put me on oxygen because I was hyperventilating so bad my heart almost popped like a kernel of corn over an open flame.

We both know I'm much better now. I only have a small bout of depression and get a tiny void that I try to fill with sex (insert dirty pun here) in the days before you leave, and with bottles of wine and too much exercise when you're actually gone.

Christmas & Corgis: Vanilla Bean & Citrus Shortbread

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Hey All,
So this weekend I hosted my annual holiday brunch and with that all encompassing event there was no time to really blog because I was cooking food for forty people all weekend.

So yeah...

Attitudes: Peppermint Chocolate Crinkles

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

-I roll them in cocaine just like Uncle Escobar taught me.-

So here's a little Christmas story for you all that should bring some cheer or cause you to bang your head against the desk so hard you black out. I inadvertently got an employee at Target fired from his job. Well, I was a catalyst. He did it to himself. I find it's generally hard to keep a job when you're a disrespectful douchecanoe; but, hey, that's just my opinion.

I went to the Target around the corner looking for a certain electronic gift for my dad. (He reads this blog sometimes - not always as a dutiful father should, dad - so I can't say what.) I went to the electronics section and inquired as to the item I wanted. The attendant, a very helpful and conciliatory man with a mighty neck beard that could shame all other neck beards, apologized and told me they were all out.

"What I can do is call the other store on 65th Street and see if they have it," he said with a smile.

Pastry Origami: Fortune Cookies

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

-Man who folds fortune cookies gets bent.-

350 fortune cookies. 5 friends. 1 industry convection oven. 1 culinary classroom.

This is how you have a party.

When one of our friends stated that she and her husband planned to have a garden party to reveal their new Chinese Garden - a project that had been two years in the making involving lots of heavy equipment, talented artists, and a research trip to China – we decided to pitch in and help with the food. When we were told it would be for 300+ guests we balked. "No problem," we said, because we fancy ourselves both gluttons for both cookies and punishment.

All of us had professional baking or restaurant experience, but none of us had ever made a fortune cookie. I was, technically, an exception as I had made them once, but it had been 10 years earlier and I couldn’t remember anything of the experience except I knew I would burn my fingers.

So we printed out some fortunes, cut out some stencils so we could spread out perfect circles of tuile dough, and after watching a few too many Youtube tutorials set to it.

-For those of you curious, "He Who conquers himself is happy," and "Man should walk in women's pants." I can't recall the others. One said something about BFE.-

-A serious factory line of people makes this WAY easier. As does a professional kitchen, but hey...-

Chill and Warmth: Chocolate & Ginger Cookies

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

-Something toasty on a crazy cold day.-

I'm sitting on the floor next to my oven right now typing this because I am frozen. The pilot light has yet to be lit in the new place (and by pilot light I mean odd fuse-like device that needs to be installed in the electric heater; oh if only it were simply striking a match). The only source of heat right now is the layers of sweaters bulking up my wiry frame.

I mean, what else do you do when it is under 40 degrees Fahrenheit in your dwelling?

I am also somewhat relying on the ambient heat given off from my cantankerous oven. It's as senile as the average Floridian retiree and puts out heat based on similar whims. It's something that must definitely be looked at but right now it's at least reliably baking my cookies (double entendre that all you want).

I actually did buy a space heater, though. Some giant ceramic tower device that puts out more heat than an alley cat in August. Unfortunately, it's more intelligent than I am as programing it correctly is more difficult that setting the clock on the VCR my mom had in the 90's.

The whole situation has left me only the teeniest bit absolutely livid right now.

-I would be more upset if I wasn't buried under quilts.-

As I shivered in my new place the only thing that seemed to make any sense was to bake cookies. It would force the oven to (hopefully) grumble to life and heat the kitchen, which luckily has a door to it and therefore I can trap the heat and hotbox myself.

But cookies have another function - that of comfort. What other food turns a house into a home? Indeed, chocolate chip cookies are the first thing I ever learned to make. I have great memories of my mom teaching my brothers and I how to bake them. We'd always do it in fall and winter when turning on the oven and hot cookies was the only sane way to warm us up in our brisk 50 F Southern California winters. (It doesn't sound bad, but when that's what you grow up with that, well, 50F sets the standard of tolerable cold. Now that I live in Northern California where it hits an arctic death of 20F.) We would carefully crack eggs and beat butter, and my mom would pretend not to notice me and my siblings sneaking fingerfuls of cookie dough.

A more innocent time before salmonella scares and kids learned by making mistakes and hurting themselves and not being protected from every little thing, and parents were terrified that the entire would was out to destroy their young.

Manners: Pistachio & Vanilla Sables

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

-Delicate and proper snackie bits.-

When it comes to manners in my family one is expected to be au fait in the subject. They won't make or break you with us, but by god if you want to rest comfortably in our subconscious opinion of you then knowing soup spoon from dessert spoon is critical. (The egg spoon, too, if you know what's what.)

Both sides of the family have a history of strict etiquette training. Cotillion for two years is a minimum. Children should be able to properly foxtrot at the age of six, Cha Cha at twelve, and god help you if you can't Charleston by the time you've graduated middle school.

Furthermore, manners classes are mandatory. I recall spending far too many Tuesday nights learning how to properly seat a lady, make introductions, and tie a tie (bow and straight; always Windsor).

All of it was so boring I would have killed to learn how to half-Windsor a noose and kick the chair out from under myself. Unfortunately, propriety demands that one do this in the privacy of your own home and not in front of classmates.

-For god's sake, kill yourself in private! We're not savages!-

The pinnacle of all the training was table manners. Prim, proper, precise. We didn't simply learn which side the fork goes on, but to differentiate the forks; salad, dessert, dinner, shrimp, fish, even snail forks and their proper places at the meal and when they could be served according to ancient custom was all part of the strict curriculum. Indeed, some of the laws were so odd and arcane (i.e. Brandy glasses must always be placed neither on left or right side of the dinner plate, but the side closest to the host) that one wonders if all this ritual might exist to summon some dark pagan god to brunch.

The instructor, a dour woman with a genteel mien and canckles thick enough to dock a ship to, was thorough to say the least. Not even fourteen, I was able identify nine various types of wine and spirits glasses through her tutelage. Furthermore, she wisely took an international approach and trained us in the proper handling of chopsticks and insisted that we never eat Indian food with our left hand.

Refinement was tested in a final exam: high tea at the Ritz Carlton. Our carriage was graded over steaming cups of Earl Grey and crustless cucumber sandwiches. Still a finicky eater at this age, I was sure that the vile offerings were a test of our vigilance because who on earth would actually want to eat any of it?

-Thank you, miss. May I have another?-

I passed with flying colors, though my acerbic wit in response to the food wasn't appreciated. Sadly, there was no place to escape and work on that double-noose Windsor.

In the end, of course, comes the day we all dread when we realize our parents were right. (Not that we would ever admit it.) So it was with all this training in social behavior. The dancing lessons paid off astoundingly well throughout high school, college, and beyond. Leading a sweet gent to the dance floor for a graceful lesson in the waltz is a fantastic way to sweep him off his feet and take him home. My impeccable manners ingratiated me to the parents of any boy I dated. Damn if a bartender doesn't appreciate the fact I know my port glass from brandy snifter.

Naturally, I don't hold others to these standards of near-ridiculous refinement. Not everyone went through such rigorous training. As long as you chew with your mouth closed, say please and thank you, and veer away from any conversation topics focusing on what you read in People magazine, well, we're just dandy.

The Chocolate Chip Heresy: Buckwheat Chocolate Chip Cookies

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

-Try not to freak out on me. Just keep control.-

I'm not sure if admitting what I plan to admit will ruin my pastry reputation. I'm afraid that my baking teachers won't allow me the chance to justify myself before deleting me from their phones and that fellow baking bloggers are going to write me scathing e-mails. Any other foodie will disavow ever having met me.

Even you, dear reader, may become quite upset. You may take what I'm about to say personally or as an affront to your family and friends whose baking skills you so admire. I may even offend your sense of taste. Possibly so much that it will shatter and that the resulting chasmic void inside you will be filled with the anger of demonic chefs from the abysmal inferno whose only desire is for the blood of a blasphemer such as I to be spilled.

If that happens, don't worry. I understand. In certain cases I'm sure I would do the same.

Generally, though, I think most people involved in the creation of desserts have personalities as sweet as the tarts they bake. I simply hope you will bear with me long enough so that I can explain myself.

And, so, I make my admission: I love the Nestle Tollhouse cookie recipe.

Love it.

And - here is the part I felt the need to warn you about - I think it is unequivocally the best chocolate chip cookie recipe out there.

*please feel free to rage, troll, roll your eyes, scoff, and turn off your computer at this point*

-Pictured: Delicious heresy.-

Let me start out by saying that this recipe is the one that I grew up with. In fact, it is the first recipe I ever learned. My mom would gather up my brothers and me and she would have us cracking eggs and measuring sugar while teaching us how to properly turn on the oven and use oven mitts.

Throughout the process I would steal fingerfulls of cookie dough when my mom wasn't looking; though I'm pretty sure she knew it was happening. Even so, she would still let me lick the beaters clean once the dough was all scooped. She may have simply been wanting to keep us busy or needed satisfy her own cookie cravings, but I truly believe it was these lazy Saturday afternoons in the kitchen that instilled me a desire to cook. For me, this recipe defined my childhood as much as scraped knees and my attempts to haggle a better price with the toothfairy. ($5 on the last one!)

Knowing this, many of my friends have argued to me that it isn't the flavor of these cookies that I adore, but rather the nostalgia (one of life's greatest spices). I've considered this and must sternly disagree.

Take my mom's tacos. My mom makes amazing tacos. They're some of the best I've ever eaten; spicy, meaty, loaded with cheese, and lightly fried (yes, we fried our tacos). However, one vacation I had some tacos at a roadside in Zihuatanejo that can only be called epic. The tacos were filled with chunks of beef that had been marinated in lime juice and chilies, and the tortilla could barely contain the freshly cut cabbage and tiny boulders of cotija. After one bite I knew that never again would I have a better taco. Nostalgia makes my mom's tacos quite awesome and brings about sighs for simpler times, but nostalgia doesn't make them the best tacos I've ever had.

Not like these cookies.

I've gone through and tested other recipes. For example, when David Leite purported in the New York Times to have the best chocolate chip cookie recipe ever the food blog world went mad with home tests and comparisons. I did my own test and found that they were quite riveting with flavor. I appreciated the butterscotch flavor and flecks of salt of his cookie recipe, but no chocolate chunk epiphany had I. It still wasn't the Tollhouse.

(Incidentally, I'm one of David Leite's biggest fans. The man is an epic writer, comic genius, and skilled baker. Plus, he's one of the sassiest people I know and I appreciate genuine sass. If you're ever lucky enough to have lunch or a conversation with him you're in for a real treat.)

I tried recipes from every other cookbook and blog. Most tasted fine, some were amazing, and only a few were truly disappointing, but none quite matched up. Like a sugar-junkie Goldilocks I dismissed each for subjective reasons. This recipe is too crunchy. This one has too much chocolate. This one has too little salt. I still adamantly stand by my assessments.

-Goldilocks can keep her stupid porridge.-

For me, there was only one recipe that was just right.

In past years I've only made two changes to the Tollhouse recipe. The first is that I always add the baking soda separately from the flour. This results in a softer cookie. (Please, do not ask me why. I have been trying to figure this one out forever. Any chemists reading this please contact me.)

The second change I made is to always let the dough rest for 24 hours. David Lebovitz once advised me to do this and I have never gone back. The flavors have a chance to meld and deepen, which results in a more caramel flavor to the cookies.

These changes effectively make the Tollhouse recipe the Garrett House recipe, but so be it. The changes are so minor I hardly consider them changes at all.

It was only yesterday I made some drastic alterations, though not by intention but necessity. Partway through the recipe - the butter and sugars creamed and the eggs beaten in - I realized I was short about 1/2 cup of flour.

Panic set in. What to do!? Yes, I could run to the store, but damn, I was too lazy! I could send BF but he was playing video games and I had a better chance of success of sending Eat Beast with a note and some change tied to his collar. (And Eat Beast would probably eat the bag of flour anyways.)

-Incidentally, Eat Beast made off with this exact cookie the second I stepped away to get a different lens for the camera.-

Spontaneously, and without much consideration, I decided to substitute some buckwheat flour. I reasoned that it might make for an interesting change and give the cookies a bit more of a nutty flavor.

Of course, the result of this substitution also meant a reduction in the number of gluten bonds in the cookie, and, therefore, the cookies would likely spread a bit more. To counter this I also decided to freeze the dough into logs and then slices them into discs before baking.

See? Drastic. Near cataclysmic changes to the Tollhouse recipe! If this recipe were a movie directed by Michael Bay this would be the part where everything explodes.

That is, assuming that explode means explode in a fiery ball of buckwheaty deliciousness. The addition of the buckwheat seemed to highlight the toasted pecans and acted as a rugged backdrop to the chocolate by exemplifying its earthier flavors. The cookies themselves were soft in the middle and the crisp edges had a pleasant sandiness to couldn't be achieved with using just all-purpose flour.

A satisfying snap and good chew, plus plenty of flavor make these my new favorite chocolate chip cookie. This was a chocolate chip cookie that was just right.

Buckwheat Chocolate Chip Cookies
Adapted from Nestle and from David Lebovtiz' Room for Dessert
Makes 4 dozen

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup buckwheat flour
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs, room temperature
1 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup chopped pecans, toasted

1. Whisk together the flours and salt, and set aside. With an electric mixer cream together the butter, sugars, and vanilla on medium speed being sure to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating each in for thirty seconds. Add the baking soda and mix in. Add the flour mixture and mix on low speed until just incorporated. Stir in the chocolate chips and nuts.

2. On a lightly floured surface divide the dough into quarters and shape each quarter into a log about 9-inches long. Wrap in plastic wrap and freeze for 24 hours.

3. Preheat oven to 350F. Slice the logs up into discs about 3/4-inch thick. Place them about three inches apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake for about 10 minutes or until the tops are lightly browned. Cool on the sheets for a few minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

Aversion: Chocolate Espresso Shortbread

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

-No aversion to these at all.-

Unlike my friend, Janelle, who has an intense aversion towards Peruvian flute bands and movies where large-breasted teenagers have their organs band sawed off by psychopaths, I find intense fascination in them. Should she hear either one in the background she will go out of her way to locate its source and then proceed to get 200 yards away from it and whip out her MP3 player in order to drown it all out. Don't even try to get her inside a Hot Topic store. It's like she's afraid the droves of hipsters will beat her to death with lead pipes decorated with Rainbow Bright decals.

On the other hand I do everything in my power to avoid various objects, people, places, and ideas. I'm no different from my friend, or in that matter anyone else.

Personally, I use every fiber of my being to avoid disappointment, hearing about astrology as a means of guiding your life, ironing my clothes, prolonged small talk, court TV, the state of boredom, and the state of Wyoming. I also have a tendency to steer clear of guys who wear too much Abercrombie & Fitch clothing. (This, though, is easily mitigated if they're wearing Abercrombie & Fitch's cologne, Fierce, which usually encourages bouts of heavy purring in me.)

The sources of aversion are numerous; they can be icky, painful, traumatic, unknown, or far too familiar. Other times it may be trivial such as my disinclination to check the mail, which I'm sure must piss off my mail carrier as he tries to cram yet another day's bills and fliers into a too tiny mailbox.

Of course, some sources of aversion are extreme and with proper grounds. When I graduated college I fell into a job at a local non-profit. The work had moral glitter and I enjoyed the fact that while it made me look selfless when people asked what I did at parties, really, it was a comfy job that paid well and had good benefits. The only downside of that job was my ex, Will, from my freshmen year of college, worked there.

-Nibby doughs are happy doughs. Plus, they make for a great Valentine's Day cookie.-

We had broken up years ago for many reasons. He was the first person I had ever dated and he pressed for marriage while I was still eighteen. I felt that I could be tied to a table and suffocated with pillow and still not be as smothered as when he called me six times a day. Saran wrap could take a lesson on cling from him. I in turn had only dated this one person. I wanted freedom, so, I cheated. I cheated a lot. The relationship was a velvet prison, too comfy and familiar to leave, so I found a way to ensure that he would break up with me.

That relationship, as a whole, was like a Melville novel. It started out with potential, but it was boring, tedious, and by the end left me wondering why I had stuck with it as long as I did. The breakup was efficient, though, not without crying, and I found myself pretty well over it by the month's end.

Still, the prospect of working with and seeing Will on a regular basis was about appealing as having a colonic preformed with industrial strength drain cleaner. I took great pains to avoid him at work; I took lunches late, I prowled around corners, and I sat on the other side of the room at staff meetings.

During times we had to interact we were cordial to each other for the sake of professionalism, an often under-appreciated savior. However, throughout the conversation we sprinkled in insults and snide comments that only the two of us would recognize. In fact, each public passing was like a coded game of the dozens for us. If we didn't dislike each other so much this game might have even been more fun than it already was (to me, at least).

-As tasty as these are they're a bitch to photograph.-

I realized that this intense aversion started to go too far when I actually hid in a broom closet to dodge him. Almost immediately after I hid myself, naturally, he was stopped by his supervisor and pulled into a conversation. I spent about twenty minutes trying to stay silent with a mop handle jabbed into my kidney. You may say I could have just walked out but after anything more than thirty seconds in a broom closet it's pretty safe to assume that there isn't any excuse you can make that won't cause people to question if they should invite you over to their next party.

I'm not sure why it was like this. I had faced him before on numerous occasions and had weathered it fine, even politely. Maybe after all this time I had begun to feel guilt? Maybe I simply was tired of the uncomfortable looks and false pleasantries? Maybe I just didn't want to see his stupid face? Either way, I simply didn't want to be around him.

Of course, not all aversions are as deeply personal. Some are simply based on intensely focused displeasure. Cooking is no different. There are some culinary tasks I just avoid at all costs.

I do my best to avoid cooking fish. This isn't because I don't know how, but because I never remember how to clean or cut them and I don't want people who think I'm a good cook to know otherwise (though with this confession I guess that's no longer a problem). I keep my distance from lima beans. My mother's cooking has ensured that they and I will never be on speaking terms.

If I can avoid it I won't bake anything in a waterbath, as a combination of poor coordination and boiling hot water never seems to work well for me. (This fact alone means every baking instructor I have ever had insists on making me get over this fear of mine. The result usually being an accident and the aversion increasing.)

-Perfect with a glass of milk which will help dilute the sheer amount of caffeine you'll inject into your bloodstream.-

Lastly, and maybe most surprisingly, I tend to shy away from cooking with chocolate. Don't confuse this with me saying I dislike chocolate. I enjoy it quite a bit. However, if I'm given the choice to make chocolate chip cookies or prepare a simple jam or fruit tart I'll go with the latter. In addition, when it comes to messiness, fruit is generally the cleaner of the two and, yes, that does factor into the decision for me.

This is all much to BF's lament as he prefers chocolate to fruit, even to cigarettes, which is really saying something assuming he could hear me when he smokes outside on the patio.

Going through the last few posts I noticed an exceptional focus on citrus and cheese and as much as I love that I need a break from it myself once in a while. I actually craved something musky and bitter, something crunchy, and chocolate seemed the way to go.

Chocolate shortbread with espresso powder seemed the right way to go. To say these cookies have only a shot of espresso is misleading. It's more like a buckshot of espresso in the torso. The right amount of chocolate and espresso give these a nice bang. Crushed cocoa nibs add a little more crunch to the sandy texture of the shortbread and make a simple, but intense cookie.

This isn't to say I won't still avoid chocolate when it comes to baking. It's a given that I will, but it's always nice to have something rich and reliable to fall back on when I'm feeling forward for cocoa.

Chocolate Espresso Shortbread Cookies
Adapted from Elizabeth Falkner's recipe in The Essence of Chocolate

1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 heaping tablespoon espresso powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup cocoa nibs, crushed with a rolling pin
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 325F and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. Combine flour, espresso powder, cocoa powder, and salt in a bowl. Set aside.

3. Cream the butter and sugar together on medium speed for 5 minutes, being sure to scrape down the sides and bottom as needed. Add the vanilla and mix for 30 seconds. Add about half the flour mixture and mix on low speed. Scrape down the bottom and sides and add the rest of the flour mixture. Once incorporated mix at medium speed for 2 minutes. Mix in cocoa nibs.

4. Lay out a sheet of parchment paper and place the dough on it. Cover with another sheet of parchment paper and roll out to 1/4-inch thickness with a rolling pin. (You can also lightly flour a work space, but I find my method far easier, cleaner, and the shortbread keeps a sandy texture by not picking up the flour.) You may find the dough getting too soft. If it does, place it in the freezer for ten minutes to firm it up before you continue rolling. Cut into desired shapes and place on baking sheets about 1 inch apart.

5. Bake for 15 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through baking. Remove the pans and allow to cool for a minute or two before moving to a wire rack to cool completely.

Makes 3 dozen.

That Christmas Cheer in Late-November: Chipotle Gingerbread Cookie Recipe

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

-Classic gingerbread cookies with a delightful, Mexican-inspired kick of chipotle chilies.-

I went out and bought a Christmas tree today. Not a live one, but a good quality fake one. To be honest, I prefer it that way at the moment.

I grew up going to the tree lot every winter with my family and getting a real one. We would go the day after Thanksgiving while everyone else was at the mall fighting to the death over Tickle-Me Elmos and half-price cashmere pashminas. My brother and I would race down the tight coniferous alleyways, slapping into branches and inspecting every Douglas and Blue Spruce in order to find the fattest, tallest, and fullest tree we could. Eventually, we would find it and call over our parents to come see and approve. Then the tree would be hogtied and strapped to the roof of our car. Dad would set it up inside and we would all begin the lavish decoration.

However, these days my dad isn't here to do the heavy lifting. He also isn't crawling under the tree to water it every morning. My mom isn't vacuuming up the fallen needles or cleaning up the bits of tinsel the cat has thrown up. Honestly, I don't have the energy for any of that. It's a pain in the ass.

Personally, I love a good fake tree that can be stored in the closet during the year and be propped out during the holidays. These days you'll find that a high quality fake tree is nearly indistinguishable from a real one. It's almost shocking. My mother went and got a fancy one that, swear to God, unless you touch it with your fingers you would never know it didn't grow in the ground from humble little seed. Given, I do miss coming into a room on a cold morning and having it smell like winter in the high Sierras, but it's a sacrafice I am willing to make.

-The smell of these cookies is just as good as the scent of fresh pine.-

And, yes, I am aware it's November and that it isn't even Thanksgiving yet. I grew up putting the Christmas decorations early so it seems natural to me. I'm like WalMart, I begin to think of stringing up lights and mistletoe before the Trick-or-Treaters have even knocked on the door. BF hates it, but that's his business. At least, there aren't fuzzy, Santa-faced toilet seat covers in the bathroom. Not like when I was a kid. It was like Chris Kringle hosted a Yuletide orgy at our house. Candles, bells, crystal angels, throw pillows... we went all Christmas'd out. I loved it.

Now that all the kids are out of the house both mom and dad do it a bit more tasteful now. Christmas chic. Martha would be proud of Mom's giant tree covered in white lights and designer ornaments and ribbon in gold, cream, and mauve in its many tasteful shades that I didn't know mauve had.

Of course, the reason I had to buy a tree at all this year was because of the fire. It's the only thing I hadn't replaced yet. The fire had happened two days after Christmas so the tree had still been up. It was also a fake one, a high-quality one, with the ornaments and garland in a trendy color scheme of key lime, navy blue, and teal, which I was ecstatic over for the fact that it matched my living room. When I wandered into the wreckage the next day I found my tree smashed onto the floor. Bent and broken, then firemen had knocked it over and in order to get upstairs had continued marching over it. I don't blame them as they were just doing their job, and a plastic tree isn't something they're going to concern themselves with when the roof is on fire. Anyways, everything was destroyed that night and the tree was just another casualty.

As I stood there in the husk of my old home, the carpet black and wet from ash and melted water pipes, I carefully bent down through the wrecage and moved some of the collapsed ceiling off of the tree. I found that a few of the ornaments were still intact. Somehow, miraculously, these big delicate objects had survived the carnage. I picked up one of the big teal glass balls and blew some of the debris and dust off. A little rub and it was shiny as ever, and I could see my fisheyed reflection looking back at me.

-If you want, you can also poke a tiny hole into each cookie and hang them from your tree as ornaments.-

I hurled the ball as hard as I could against the nearest wall. The explosive pop was exciting. The shards tinkled in the air, like diamond dust, and fell to the ground with a hushed applause. I picked up another and hurled it too. And the next one. I laughed as each one burst like a miniature fireworks. My own little bombastic display. It was fun, and I laughed with each one.

It was cathartic. I guess. I'm still not sure what I was thinking then. I know that part of it was enjoying the simple act of wanton destruction. In that roofless room it didn't really matter what I did. I could be a small engine of pure ruination. I reveled in the sound of each delicate sphere crushing into a cloud of colored dust and cheap glass. It felt great to be so damn careless.

How often do we really get to experience something like that? Probably not often enough.

Normally, I wait until after Thanksgiving to put up a tree. This year, I did it earlier. The tree was the last part of putting my life together as it once was. Maybe, I'm just poorly psychoanalyzing myself but that's how it feels. This year, I just needed the tree up and I needed it now.

-Quite spicy, these are best served with a tall glass of milk.-

Still, part of Christmas for me isn't just the tree in your home or the people you enjoy it with. It's also the food. Not every year, but some, my family would make gingerbread cookies. One or two would get decorated and I would pierce the top of the cookie with a ornament hook and hang the cookies on the tree. Edible decorations that added the scent of spiced bread to the room. I loved those ornaments, but I loved the cookies that we saved to eat even more. (We also lost a freshly made plate of cookies in the fire. Ugh.)

These cookies are an adult version of the classic gingerbread cookie. Something a bit more daring and adventurous. A cookie for those with a trendy tree who want to take a small step outside of the traditional holiday treats. This gingerbread cookie is spiced with a hint of chipotle chili powder, a small suggestion I picked up from renowned rock-n-roll baker, Elizabeth Falkner. The chipotle adds another layer of heat and a slight smokiness that enlivens the gingerbread and warms the palate.

The base recipe comes from Kate Washington, a local food writing celebrity here in Sacramento. She, in turn, got it from a random woman named Mrs. Morrissey, whom she met in line in a grocery store. Encouraged that this was the best recipe ever, Mrs. Morrissey gave Kate her address and told her to stop by her home and pick it up. Kate did, and she has never used anything since. I can see why too, it's a flavorful cookie with a snappy texture. A perfect cookie for lighting up the holidays (you know, in a good way).

Chipotle Gingerbread Cookies
Makes 4-6 dozen, depending on size of the cookies.

1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 cup brown sugar
2/3 cup molasses
1 egg, beaten to blend
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon chipotle powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

1. In a stand mixer cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in molasses and egg, being sure to scrape down the sides and bottom, until light and uniform.

2. Sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and spices. Mix in the dry ingredients to the butter mixture until the entire thing comes together in one uniform batter.

3. Divide the dough into two equal parts and put them on a swath of plastic wrap. Roughly form each piece into a disc. Wrap well in plastic wrap and chill for three or more hours. The dough will still be somewhat soft for a chilled dough.

4. Preheat oven to 325F. Generously flour a flat work surface and the dough and roll out the dough to 1/4-inch thick; cut into shapes and place on a cookie sheet, preferably lined with parchment paper. Bake for 12-15 min; do not let brown. Cool on the sheets for a minute or two before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

-A little fiery kick to help one finally recover from a fire.-

Two Stories About Melomakarona

Monday, April 19, 2010

-It looks like this.-

-Story One-

"So, yeah, I don't think I did this right. I've Googled the image results on these and they're very different from what I'm looking at. Night and day over here."

This is the first time I would have killed for a picture along with the original recipe. I was making melomakarona, a Greek pastry that's supposedly much easier to make than it is to pronounce. I realized that something wasn't right when the cookies, though tasting amazing having been loaded with orange juice and cognac, didn't look right. They were like little shortbread coins, buttery and dense, but it seemed they wouldn't be able to hold much of the honey syrup they were to be soaked with without collapsing into mush.

The recipe came from a co-worker of mine, a Greek woman whose husband is a Greek chef (the god of barbecuing, in the Greek Pantheon). The recipe had been scribbled down for me, translated from Greek into English. It had never occurred to me that things could have been lost in translation. It was blind faith in the kitchen.

"It sounds like you overworked the dough. It should be really shaggy and kinda sticky," she said matteroffactly.

"Oookay. Yeah. I have a solid uniform ball of dough." The directions did not mention anything about overworking. Just that the flour should be slowly sifted in. "Alright, well, then they came out as little shortbread-like coins."

"Coins? That's way too small. They should be kinda cakey and maybe half the size of a twinkie."

I looked at the picture she had drawn me to illustrate the shape of the melomakarona. The were the length of my thumb and were to have ridges after being pressed against the side of a cheese grater. "Cake like? The size of twinkie? I went by your picture."

"The picture is the shape and look, not the size or texture," she replied.

"When are cookies cake-like?" I rebuffed.

"Madeleines. And melomakarona."

I sighed internally. God damn it. The instructions, once again, didn't make any note of this. "Ah well, they taste great this way. They're my fauxmelomakarona."

"That is a mouthful," she laughed.

"Yeah. Mouth full of cookies."

-Syrup or not, correct or not, these are super tasty.-

-Story Two-

Shitshitshitshitshitshitshitshit! I was barely over the speed limit!

I was losing it. Passing police officers on the road when I've done nothing wrong puts me into a full blown panic attack; post-traumatic stress due to overeager cops looking for speeders in Kern County, California. ("Over 200,000 speeding tickets cited last year!" says a billboard along the freeway. These cops have nothing else to do in the middle of nowhere.) Being pulled over nearly causes me to stroke-out and throw-up when I see those epileptic lights flash behind my car.

I rolled down my window and met the officer's face. He was wearing shades like Eric Estrada did back in the show CHiPs, and had a moustache like Tom Selleck. If I weren't terrified and pulled along the side of the road I would have assumed he was going to bust out a boom box and rip his shirt off.

Instead, I got, "License and registration?" I handed them over meekly, far too scared to speak. "Did you know you were speeding?"

I forced my voice to rise, "No. I mean, maybe? I don't think so."

"You were going 45 in a 40," he said. I could see my license reflected in his shades. I probably looked much better in that photo than I did at that moment, and that's saying something.

"Isn't that, kinda, the safe buffer-zone?"

The city is beginning to crack down on that he explained, and that the limit is technically the limit. Stupid economy encouraging cops to ticket more for breaking the speeding buffer zone.

He poked his head down. "What's that over on the other seat?" I looked over to my right where a plate of freshly made baklava and the plate of fauxmelomakarona sat.

"Oh these? They're desserts for a potluck." I looked at him and paused. It was a pause where every possible consequence and scenario that could ever happen played out in my head. "Greek baklava and melomakarona; cookies with cognac and orange."

"Never heard of them," he said.

I looked at my reflection in his shdaes and tried to see past them to meet his eyes with mine. "They're quite good." Another pause.

"Are they?"

Another pause.

"Yes. Would you like to try one?"

At this point it was a risky game. Two conversations. The one we were having about cookies, and the one we weren't having about me giving him cookies and not getting a ticket. Or, I hoped this was the case, and that I wasn't about to go to jail for bribing an officer of the law.

"Sure." I unwrapped the plate and handed him one. I thought of giving him two, but it felt too eager. He bit into it. I couldn't see his eyes and he didn't smile. His look, circa 1980, was impossible to read.

"Look," he said handing me my identification, "I'll give you a warning this time. You were only a few miles over and most people assume that's okay because for a long time it was. Don't go over anymore because the next guy won't give you a warning."

"Yes officer," I smiled.

And so I got out of a ticket with baked goods.

My Cop Out Cookie Post

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Finals week. I'm sitting at home putting together an argument for why I believe it's important to instruct in rhetorical grammar in the classroom. If not that, then I'm writing about the development of practical literary pedagogies for the classroom. If not that, I'm reading up on my Foucault for my thesis. If not that, I'm sleeping. Thus, no time to cook or blog.

As such, I'm sending you over to Simply Recipes where you can find some of my other stuff which is totally all super awesome for the holidays because 1) cookies = Christmas, and 2) baking cookies warms your place and makes it smell all tasty-like.

For example, you could be eating these mapletastic maple cookies:

If you want to break outside the mold you could nibble on some chocolate peppermint bark cookies:

If you want something a bit brighter then try these orange poppy seed cookies:

You'll find a total list of my cookie and other recipes at Simply Recipes here. You can also find a list of cookie recipes on Vanilla Garlic by clicking here. Hope you enjoy, and happy baking.

Photos by Elise Bauer.

Chocolate Lime Madeleines (aka: I'm Pissed Off)

Thursday, December 3, 2009

-Chocolate lime madeleines are a great way to work off the edge. Vodka works too.-

"No. I'm not okay. I'm cranky and I'm just a short push away from pissed off."

At this point it was best for BF and the rest of humanity to just leave me the hell alone. It's rare for me to brood. I obsess like a crazy person. One of the best obsessors you'll ever meet. I'm able to hamper, hover, worry, and fret to the point where I nervously pace at such a speed that I might actually spin the world under my feet and turn back time via the first Superman movie. Cranky, however, is something I rarely do as I'm usually able to stay somewhat level headed, and while I may worry at the drop of the hat it takes a lot for me to become upset.

Pissed off is simply a rare personal phenomenon. My personal aurora borealis but with more punching the wall and less pretty light.

Today was one of those occasions where somehow the stars had aligned and pulled at my personal poles. My emotional tides were high. My chakrahs misaligned and directing my energy through negative channels. I was ready to scream out in frustration. Smack a pillow. And at any moment I might simply snap at someone and verbally eviscerate them to the point that I would frolic in their blood and ichors. Or choke a bitch. Either way, someone would have to die.

There's plenty to blame my mood on. The pressure of finals. The stress of thesis deadlines approaching like quicksilver down a greased up, supersonic water slide. The annoyance of having to brave Walmart and Target (Pandaemonium and Hell, respectively) in an attempt to price shop for a new television to replace the ancient tube device that finally kicked it after 6 years. Top that off with general work stress and the panic of preparing for vacations and holidays and, yes, it's enough to get me riled up a bit.

It's times like these I need to work my anger out in the kitchen. I've had this recipe sort of sitting at the bottom of my to-do list for some time. Chocolate and lime are, in my opinion, a highly underrated combination. Fruity, dark, and a bit salty from the lime it seems to mingle well with bitter chocolate with a high cacao percentage.

Bitter chocolate to match a bitter mood.

Did it alleviate my stress? Not entirely. Only time and finishing up a few of my current commitments will do that. However, something to snack into takes the edge off, which, sometimes, is all you can really ask for.

-Not pictured: My seething rage.-

Chocolate Lime Madeleines
Makes 12 madeleines (one tray)

6 tablespoons of butter, plus extra to grease the pan
3 ounces of chocolate, 70% cacao
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
zest of one lime
2 large eggs
1/3 cup of sugar
1/2 cup of flour, sifted
pinch of salt

1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Use some butter to generously grease the madeline pan.

2. Place the butter and chocolate in a microwave safe bowl and melt in the microwave at 30 second intervals, stirring after each interval until completely melted and incorporated. Stir in the lime zest.

3. Whisk the sugar, vanilla, and eggs together until thick and the batter falls off the whisk in a long, thick ribbon that is slow to dissolve. About 5 minutes.

4. Beat in the flour and salt.

5. Fold in the chocolate mixture.

6. Spoon or pipe into the madeleine tray slots. Bake for 12-14 minutes. Remove from the tray and cool on a wire rack.

Crapload of Cranberries

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

-Cranberries, ginger, orange, and shortbread. It's normal for you to be a little aroused by that.-

"I'm sorry, how many cranberries do you have?" I asked having been caught off guard and needing to make sure.

"A crapload," Kristy, my classmate, responded flatly.

"You have a crapload of cranberries?" I was amused at the meter and alliteration of her statement, and yet disgusted by the mental image in my head. "That's... lovely."

"So what can I do with them?"

"Uhh..." she had caught me in the middle of an argument between my various inner voices as we/I debated our/my schedule and how all final papers and assignments would be time budgeted. I silenced them all down as quickly as I could and began to stumble out what seemed to be a cohesive response. "Uh, well... let's see. Um, what kind of recipe are you looking for? I guess, I have a great one for cranberry sorbet."

She gave a frustrated sigh. "I don't have an ice cream maker. Not all of us cook like you do. I need something quick and easy - preferably dessert - that I can slap together a few times over the next few months. My dad brought me like three bags of the things and I dunno what to do with them." As she said all this her hands gesticulated so erratically I wondered if she might accidentally slap some poor passerby unconscious.

"Hmm, well it is a bit early for cranberry sauce I assume?"

"Yeah, and honestly I'm not a huge fan as the canned stuff turned me off as a child," she said, her face contorting into a sneer as her tongue slithered out in an show of disgust.

"Let me get back to you on that, I'll see I can figure out something easy." She thanked me and as she went to her desk and I went back all the different aspects of brain voiced their opinions in heated debate once more.

You could have given her the cranberry cake recipe! Who uses the word crapload? Why would someone not have an ice cream maker? That's a stupid question! I want to do something new! Who has the time? I wonder what would happen if she actually had slapped someone?

And so on. Eventually we/I came to the decision to make some cranberry shortbread bars.

I had tried one or two recipes in the past and found them to be somewhat disappointing as most tasted like soggy pie dough with overly sweetened cranberry sauce sloped over it. Joy of Baking's recipe, whose shortbread base I found inspiring due to the dumplette-like use of it on top of the cranberries adorable and for it's tender texture and old-fashioned flavor, was where I decided to start in developing a new cranberry bar. I took the basic cranberry filling recipe, the same for most any cranberry bar, and then decided to perk it up a bunch.

This filling is a small dose of brown sugar to make the flavor a little darker. An insane amount of grated ginger and the zest of an orange are added to add personality. The result is a cranberry bar that's enticing; one that wears a slinky red dress and beguiles your senses in spicy, citrusy smells.

The next day I brought over the cranberry bars to her desk.

"OMG!" because she doesn't say "Oh, my God," "These are so good! Is there ginger in this?"

"Yeps. I also threw in some orange a pinch of cinnamon and some vanilla too because, you know, why the hell not, right?" I shrugged and smiled. "So these work? Supe easy to throw together and it'll use up your cranberries. Though you will need to pick up some fresh ginger and oranges."

"I'll just throw in some ground ginger and toss in spoonful or orange juice. I have the rest I think."

My brain sighed just a little and I almost said something about her suggested substitutions but decided to leave it alone. More than likely I would choose to do the same if it came to it.

"So when can I get the recipe?"

"Just check my blog in a few days."

And so, here it is.

-All the voices in your head will agree that this cranberry bar is awesome. However, the cranberry bar is unable to make them shut up about it.-

Ginger Cranberry Bars
Makes one 8X8 pan - adapted from Joy of Baking

Cranberry Filling
2 1/2 cups of cranberries
1/3 cup + 3 tablespoons of sugar
2 tablespoons of brown sugar
1 tablespoon of freshly grated ginger
1 tablespoon of orange zest
3 tablespoons of water
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract

Shortbread Mixture
2 cups of flour
2 tablespoons of cornstarch
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon of ground ginger
1 cup of butter
1 teaspoon of vanilla
1/3 cup of brown sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 350F and lightly grease an 8X8 (or 9x9) inch pan with butter or cooking spray.

2. Place cranberries, sugar, brown sugar, ginger, orange zest, water, and vanilla extract in a 2 quart saucepan and place over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil and boil for 5 minutes until it becomes reduced and syrupy. Be sure to give the mixture a stir once in a while to ensure the mixture does not burn; be gentle though as you don't want to break the berries but keep them whole. Take off heat and allow to cool.

3. Sift together in a separate bowl the flour, cornstarch, salt, and ginger.

4. In an electric mixer cream the butter with the brown sugar and vanilla. Slowly add in the flour mixture until just incorporated.

5. Press two-thirds of the dough into the prepared pan. Then evenly spread the cranberry filling, leaving 1/4 inch of space on the sides. Crumble the remaining dough over the top. Bake for 30 minutes or until top begins to brown around the edges. Cool on a wire rack, then cut and serve.

-This is what a crapload of cranberries looks like in bar cookie form.-

Know Your Vanilla - A Guide to Vanilla Varieties

Monday, November 2, 2009

I recently decided it was about time to update the vanilla variety guide which I originally wrote back in 2006. You'll find that I've now added Indian and Indonesian vanilla to the list and added to each a few recipe ideas that would best utilize the vanillas. Furthermore, I've noted a good base recipe with which to better identify the subtleties of flavors between them. Enjoy.

-Unbeknownst to most, happiness can be measured by the amount of vanilla beans you have.-

"Package came for you," I looked up to see my co-worker Shanette holding a box for me. "Now will you stop hovering and looking for the mail guy?"

"YES! Thank you!" I snatched the box from her hands with gusto. I had been waiting eagerly over the past week for this to arrive - a box with what I assumed to be a small sample of sweet vanilla.

About a week before I had received a letter from Beanilla where a guy named Rob had inquired if I would like to try a some of their vanilla beans, and if I enjoyed them if I might write about them and if I didn't then no worries. I told him I would love to and that since this was the first offer of anything due to the blog I couldn't have been more ecstatic.

That is until I opened the box. The second the box opener sliced through the tape a gust of vanilla surrounded me. Rushing out of the box like Pandora's demons they quickly engulfed my office and everything was redolent with sweet, creamy, and spicy vanilla aromas.

Rob had sent me well over 200 vanilla beans of varying varieties. So many that I even called over all of my blogging and cooking friends and offered them free vanilla beans. Even after all the gifting, giving, and mailing I still had more than enough to last me years. In fact I still have a jar full of beans from that original shipment and since each bean can be used so many times I doubt I'll run out any time soon.

-Oh yeah, that's the good stuff. Right. There.-

Since that post went up I ran across Indian vanilla beans - India now becoming a major exporter of beans that possess a dark rummy scent that hints of cherries like the Bourbon variety. In addition, Rob recently wrote me and asked if I would be down with trying some new beans imported from Indonesia. I agreed and he once again sent me a large package of beans, along with a few samples of vanilla paste and extract (the paste now becoming my choice of vanilla for blondies, bread, and other rich baked goods). The beans themselves were strong, the scent reminiscent of sweet prunes and cinnamon. One of the most unique vanillas I've ever encountered.

I decided to run a new test to try out some of these vanillas. Looking at my old notes I decided to make a few batches of sugar cookies and whipped cream, two nicely blank slates which would best be able to show off the flavor of the vanillas. While at first I was curious if each would be just the same old vanilla once baked, each demonstrated a prideful arrogance in its individual flavor profile. One cookie had a a slight creamy flavor to it, while when sniffing the other I caught a slight boozy scent. One whipped cream was classic vanilla, and the other a smokey hint of tobacco seemed to linger in the background.

Once again, varieties of vanilla had proved themselves to possess particular flavor qualities that should be taken into consideration when purchasing vanilla.

-Knowing the differences in the various varieties of vanilla beans may make you a vanilla snob. You'll learn to be okay with that.-

Madagascar - Dark, full bodied, and rummy with a hint of tobacco, just like Rob told me it would be. Perfect for recipes that might be flambeed or if you need a vanilla to stand up to powerful flavors that might overshadow it.

Bourbon - Bourbon is defined by its fruity profile. Your nose may detect scents of figs, papaya, persimmon and cherries. Its diverse qualities make it good all around variety, but I personally prefer it with cookies and cakes where I want the vanilla to add dimension and complexity.

Mexico - This vanilla is sweet, smooth, and creamy; designed for infusions in milk, pastry cream, whipped cream, and all manner of ice creams. My personal favorite.

Tonga - This variety reminds me of cherries and of autumn, very brisk and felicitous. More of a delicate flavor. I've dedicated this one to using in developing fruit sauces for adorning meats as it seems to compliment the savory tastes of chicken and pork and at the same time enhance the fruit.

Papua New Guinea - Subtle notes of chocolate and red wine define this vanilla. Not a favorite as often it seems to disappear in the background of other more prominent ingredients, and when I want vanilla to stand front and center I usually want something a bit bolder. Still, for delicate tea cakes and that ilk of pastry this is a choice vanilla.

Tahiti - Generally floral, with hints of licorice and fig. I found that I prefer this vanilla in jams and preserves as it adds a floral bouquet to the overall taste. In addition, that slight licorice taste makes it choice for developing your own chai mix or spice rubs where you wish to include vanilla. Some Tahitian species are grown in other places that actual Tahiti. Tahitian strains actually grown in Tahiti have a darker, chocolate-like flavor.

India - The beans are huge and very oily, with a very muted, woodsy quality. A good vanilla that would stand up well to spices with a more heady comportment in a dish where the presence of cloves, rosemary, cinnamon, or thyme (and other such flavors with a dominating flavor) may threaten to eclipse other vanilla varieties.

Indonesia - These beans are thick, oily, and pliable. One of the mightiest of beans in physical presence. Also, it's one of the oddest. The scent of vanilla is somewhat fermented and the overall scent profile is one you would associate with prunes. In fact, I would say they smell more like prunes than vanilla. However, when cooked the vanilla flavor becomes more pronounced. Perfect for stewing fruit, or in pies and compotes.

Tahitensis & Planifolia Blend - The most typical and assuring of the vanillas - a genetic Wunderkind. This is what you might assume "typical" vanilla to smell like. A bit of a one note wonder, but because it possesses such a strong and reliable vanilla flavor that doesn't change with cooking it's my regular go-to vanilla variety. Probably the one I use more than any other - particularly for making vanilla extract or vanilla sugar. It's also one of the cheapest varieties.

So which one to pick? I suggest going with one or two that intrigue you the most and starting with that. As I noted earlier in the post sugar cookies are a great way to test the flavor profiles of vanilla. Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream are other good options. Whatever you do decide to use be sure that vanilla is the only and predominant flavor.

-Sugar cookies are one of the best ways to try out vanilla beans.-

Vanilla Bean Sugar Cookies
Adapted from Anita Chu's Field Guide to Cookies
Makes about 5 dozen

3 cups of flour
1 teaspoon of baking soda
pinch of kosher salt
1 cup of butter, room temperature
1 3/4 cups of sugar
1/4 cup of brown sugar
1 vanilla bean
2 eggs

1. Sift the flour, baking soda, and salt together in a bowl. Set aside.

2. Cream the butter and sugars together at high speed for about 3 minutes.

3. Cup open and scrape out the contents of the vanilla bean. Add to the butter-sugar mixture and mix in for 30 seconds.

4. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating for 30 seconds between each. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl and mix a bit more.

5. With the mixer on a low speed slowly add the flour mixture. Mix until just incorporated.

6. Cover dough and refrigerate for 45 minutes. While it chills, preheat the oven to 325F and line some baking sheets with parchment paper.

7. Roll the dough into balls about 1/2 to 1 inch in diameter. Place them on the baking sheets and give them a small press to flatten them.

8. Bake for 9-10 minutes or until edges are golden brown. Allow to cool on the sheets for a minute before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

-Picking the right variety will help you enhance your cooking and your cookies.-

Thanks again to Rob at Beanilla. You've given me a chance to explore one of my favorite flavors and share that knowledge.

-This is about as artsy-craftsy as we get here at Vanilla Garlic before I get frustrated and throw things. This knot took me, like, ten damn minutes.-

Consolation and Cookies

Thursday, October 8, 2009

-Cookies are a perfect comfort food because both words start with a "C". My reasoning is infallible here.-

Dear Tyler,

I'm not sure what to say to you. Not after what you did. I'm still angry and upset that you would lie to me like that over the last few weeks. I'm in class writing this and trying not to cry. I have to go up to the front and give a presentation but all I can thi-

Suddenly an arm covered the rest of the letter. I looked up quickly only to meet the bloodshot eyes of the letter's author. They were framed by her rumpled eyelids and brow, furrowed like sand dunes casting small shadows that seemed to make her rage towards the fact that I had trespassed upon such a private correspondence all the more intense. She stared at me coldly, my invasion had made her situation public and she was embarrassed; frustrated at the unexpected revelation.

"I... uh-I... Sorry. I was bored waiting for the class to start and my eyes just kinda started to wander around. I didn't mean to intrude on your personal stuff. It was a total accident." I began to apologize profusely stopping at just shaving my head as penance.

She looked at me, her eyes growing a bit softer and wet. She glazed her line of sight to the left and struggled in for a deep breath, the air stuttering as if filled her lungs to the point where her chest might burst. She exhaled like a gun firing a shot, echoing it in the acoustic classroom.

"It's okay. Sorry, just... Yeah. He's an asshole and it's hard just... you know..." she sighed.

"Writing it out. It's admitting to yourself and taking it in through your own senses that there are problems," I said, hoping that I was finishing her thoughts the right way assuming there was one. I realized I had probably been a bit forward in my amateur analysis and hoped I hadn't offended her more.

"Yeah." I was relieved to hear her say this. She continued, "Just it's hard after so long to just make this decision and change my life in such a way." She paused for a moment, then turned and asked, "Is it tacky to write a letter?"

"I dunno, but I think eventually you have to talk to the person. It's inevitable. Avoiding it just makes you the bad guy I think. On the other hand the guy is probably a douchebag," I gave her a smile so awkward I thought it would fall off my face. I've never been good at this kind of thing, even with friends I know well. I'm never sure what to do. Just listen? Offer advice? I'm happy to be there as support for the people in my life, yet emotional situations lose me like a thick fog. I'm just uncertain as which way to go.

"He is," she laughed. "I'm Kelly."

"Garrett," I replied. We shook hands. Then I remembered the cookies I had baked last night. In my rush to get to class in time I had thrown a few into a plastic baggie and dashed them into my messenger bag as a way to later fight off the unending drone of the professor. "Cookie? I find cookies generally make most things better. At least temporarily."

"Ooh! Yes. I dig cookies," we toasted our cookies like wine glasses, a small puff of crumbs falling to the ground between our desks.

I smiled. I wasn't sure what else I could do. Class started and we made a few jokes and smart ass one-liners to each other to cut through the dry lecture. She would go back to her letter every now and again, jotting a few words down but keeping them covered with her arm. The thoughts weren't ready to be made known to anyone but her.

I fear consolation will never be a skill of mine. All I can offer are a few kind words and some cookies. Luckily, it seems, that's all people need at times.

-Cookies should always come in neat little bundles like this.-

Chocolate Chip Cocoa Nib Cookies
Makes 4-5 dozen

1 cup of butter (2 sticks) room temperature
2 eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
1 heaping teaspoon of ground coffee
3/4 cup of sugar
3/4 cup of firmly packed dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon of baking soda
1 teaspoon of salt
2 cups of all-purpose flour
1/2 cup of whole wheat flour (substitute all-purpose if needed)
1 cup of dark or bittersweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup of cocoa nibs

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a side bowl whisk together the salt and flours.

2. Cream the butter for three minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating for thirty seconds each. Add the vanilla extract and coffee and beat for another minutes. Be sure to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl to ensure even mixing.

3. Add the sugars and beat for two or three minutes until light and fluffy. Add the baking soda and beat for another minute. Be sure to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl.

4. Slowly mix in the flour mixture and beat until just incorporated together.

5. Stir in the chocolate chips and cocoa nibs. Spoon onto the prepared baking sheet in small spoonfuls. Bake for 8-10 minutes or until the edges are golden brown and the centers no longer pale. Let cook for a moment on the pan then move to a wire rack to finish cooling.

-"Dear Tyler, I'm eating cookies and you aren't. Suck it."-

Amaretti & Butternut Cupcakes

Thursday, October 1, 2009

I revamped, rewrote, and refined my very favorite of all time cupcake recipe. Enjoy!

-I think putting a cookie on top of a cupcake was one of the smartest things I ever did.-

Certain flavors are unexepectedly harmonious in ways you might never expect. Some people add curry powder to brownies, others add feta cheese to their watermelon, I combine hardy knots of winter squash with crispy amaretti.

Yet, this is not necessarily a new combination; in Italy and now in the United States it has become an increasingly popular filling for ravioli in the winter, and is often served with a nutty cream sauce. As strange as cookies in pasta sounds the flavor is spontaneous and endearing to the senses. So, when a flavor combination is this delightful, how can I not make it into a cupcake?

Crispy amaretti are hunted game in this household, their airy bodies musky with the scent of almonds make them a favorite prey for the cookie hungry. Come autumn it's also common to see my squash bowl out, an old wire basket I once picked up at an antique store that holds the obtuse produce throughout the chilly months until I end up carving, baking, pureeing and dicing them into manageable portions for whatever recipe.

Taking these two strong flavors and combining them is a task any adventurous baker should try. Two flavors that are like fall winds mixing and swirling into each other becoming one unified force with more body, more spirit than when they were apart.

Even if it's not this recipe, grind some amaretti cookies into dust and add them to pumpkin pie or bread. Go on. You'll see, I'm right. Then you'll come and thank me and want to try this cupcake recipe even more.

Amaretti Butternut Squash Cupcakes
Makes about 24 cupcakes / 350 F oven

I decided to revisit my first ever original cupcake, Butternut Squash with Sage Frosting and Allspice, and use the same base with a few little alterations. I ground up a few of the cookies into the batter in lieu of actually using almond extract in fear it would overtake the squash. The cake is fantastic.

1 large butternut squash (for 2 cups of puree)
4 large eggs, lightly beaten, room temperature
1 cup of butter, room temperature
1 cup of granulated sugar
1 cup of brown sugar
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon of baking soda
1 teaspoon of baking powder
2 cups of flour
1/3 cup of finely ground amaretti cookies

What You'll Do...
1. Quarter and seed the squash. Place in a dish with 1/4 cup of water and bake for 40 minutes at 350 degrees. Let cool, scoop out (no skins!) then puree in a food processor or blender.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and crushed amaretti cookies. Set aside.

3. In a large bowl, whisk together sugars, eggs, and butter. Add dry ingredients and whisk until smooth. Whisk in butternut puree.

4. Divide batter evenly among liners, filling each about halfway. Bake at 350 F until tops spring back when touched, and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 18-22 minutes. Rotate pans once if needed. Transfer to a wire rack to let cool.

5) Frost with buttercream and top with an amaretti cookie.

Vanilla Buttercream
What You'll Need...
1 cup butter, room temperature
4 cups of powdered sugar
1/4 cup of milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

What You'll Do...
1. Cream the butter until soft.

2. Add the sugar and then the milk and extract. Cream till soft. Spread on cool cupcakes.

This recipe also makes for a great layer cake. Just use cake pans and increase the time to 35-40 minutes.

If you don't want to use butternut puree', 2 cups of pumpkin puree' from a can also tastes great!

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