Thursday, April 30, 2009

Cookies That Could Cost You Your Job

I got fired because of these cookies.

When my children were very small I had a semi-regular job baking for a java john in Telluride. I made breakfast pastries, cookies and biscotti. Things were going well until they asked me to supersize my cookies and biscotti.

I once read about a chef who had a beef about serving filet mignon at his restaurant - he considered the cut inferior. Filet mignon may be tender but it's mild. It begs for a sauce or peppercorns or something to give it some flavor. The chef wanted to provide diners with better (and, incidentally, less expensive) cuts but they kept requesting pricier filet. He began to wonder who was more stupid: his customers for not having better taste, or he himself for not providing (and charging them for) what they wanted.

Well, a similar thing happened with my cookies. I sort of quietly refused to increase the size of my triple chocolate cookies and biscotti and the john sort of stopped ordering from me. In retrospect, I suppose I could have made the cookies a little bigger. But I wasn't going to budge on the biscotti. And sure enough, my former client found a bakery that produced gargantuan, totally uncivilized biscotti for them. I could make a case in my defense involving ethics and tradition and the responsibility I take seriously as a cook, and it wouldn't be all hot air - but it was a job I was willing to lose. Stupid coffee company.

Triple Chocolate Cookies
Print recipe only here

Makes 4-5 dozen smallish cookies


4 eggs
1 ½ cups sugar
2 t vanilla
2 T espresso or coffee extract
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate (can substitute 1 ⅓ cups semisweet chocolate chips)
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate
One stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter
½ cup flour
½ t salt
½ t baking powder
1 ½ cups chocolate chips

Melt the bittersweet and unsweetened chocolates and butter in a double boiler (over barely simmering water):

Whisk together the eggs, sugar, vanilla and espresso.

Add the chocolate slowly to the eggs, whisking in well.

Sift the dry ingredients. Stir into the chocolate mixture.

Add the chocoalte chips, stirring well to combine.

Allow the dough to sit at room temperature for 20 minutes or so (or while you preheat the oven) to cool and stiffen a bit.

Using a soup spoon, portion 12 mounds of dough onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Flatten a bit with the heel of your hand. It's messy.

Bake for 12 minutes at 300 convection (or 350 in a standard oven, which may add a couple of minutes of baking time), rotating the baking sheet halfway thru cooking. Cookies are done when the surface is uniform (not too glossy) and just set.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

How Old Are the Spices in Your Cupboard?

First of all, I need to insist that you sing the title to the tune of, "How much is that doggie in the window?" I hate to be so bossy, but it's more fun that way. Trust me.

I've become a major fan of The Spice House in Chicago's Old Town neighborhood. I've gone through several jars of Milwaukee Iron and am slowly replacing all my spices with goods from their aromatic shop on Wells (they do a good deal of mail-order business for those of you reading from the sticks).

Pantry Bosses say to replace your spices every year or so. I think of myself as a gourmet but am fairly certain my mustard powder predates my preadolescent child. I use it so infrequently that I can't bring myself to throw down cash annually. Clearly there is a meeting point. Also clear: do not allow me to feed you things made with mustard powder.

Am I alone here? Please raise your hand if you replace your spices each year.

Further reading:
Spice Island's guide to replacing spices
You couldn't possibly be outdated, could you?
Mark Bittman = your pantry's keeper

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

On Cupcakes and Cooking School

I don't make cupcakes unless I really have to. And they don't look anything like the ones pictured here (it's a good time to give the fine folks at Viking a photo credit). I don't make it a habit of buying them either. I live down the street from a nice enough looking shop that hawks cupcakes that are easy on the eyes and hard on the wallet, waist and palate. They consist of dense, flavorless cake and heavy buttercream. Buttercream is just not right for a cupcake.

Just west of me is a different sort of shop, a purveyor of more simple sweets. Their cupcakes look like something you might have made at home and taste like a good version of a basic supermarket cake with a shortening-based icing and a loud shout-out to food coloring. I find their cupcakes more appealing, mostly because, even with the shortening they simply taste better (though the actual cake part is nearly as flavorless).

Seems with all these opinions I should be able to make a decent looking cupcake myself, but the sad truth is that my decorating skills have never been my strong suit (tho I will say that at least my cupcakes taste fantastic!). So I'm considering a little tutelage (cupcake class, anyone?!?) in that department, either through The Chopping Block or the Viking Cooking School up in Glenview (thanks, Yvonne, for the tip on the latter).

How do you judge a cupcake?

Further reading: Not So Guilty Pleasure (or, If only somebody could get the cupcake right) in The Atlantic.

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Monday, April 13, 2009

Got Your Goat? Making Mexican Cajeta

Cajeta is a very fun word to say on account of the jota in the middle. It gives the word the same guttural punch as a boisterous Hebrew LeChaim!

Cajeta is a Mexican caramel sauce, made by slowly cooking sweetened goat's milk. I've been wanting to make it since buying a small tub of it's South American counterpart, Argentinian dulce de leche. I'm a big fan of caramel, and a big fan of goat's milk. As far as I know, goat's milk is the more traditional foundation for cajeta, where dulce de leche exclusively uses cow's milk. My standard caramel sauce is made much more quickly (by caramelizing the sugar which takes 5-10 minutes), but relies on cream and butter. Standard caramel is a lovely sauce, but I like the intrigue of goat's milk on the tongue.

I followed a recipe from Rick Bayless and had no trouble locating goat's milk at my local Trader Joes. I used to buy from my little grocer in Telluride when my children were small and having trouble digesting cow's milk. (Try adding goat's milk to Annie's mac and cheese sometime for a lovely two-cheese flavor.) There's an alternate preparation which involves a can of condesed milk, a vat of boiling water and a degree of danger of explosion that sounded too risky. Plus, I like the idea of using fresh milk, adding my own sugar, and stirring as the the milk caramelized.

And what am I going to do with it? Put it in crepes this weekend, along with banana and coconut, for one. Or add a spoonful to vanilla ice cream, or pour it over a Kentucky Butter cake. My children are enjoying it by the spoonful.

Print recipe only here

Makes about 1 cup


1 quart goat milk (available at Trader Joes, Whole Foods, and many other grocers)
1 cup sugar
1/2 vanilla bean, split open lengthwise
1/4 teaspoon baking soda, dissolved in 2 teaspoons water

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan combine the milk, sugar and vanilla bean and place over medium heat. Stir with a wooden spoon until it comes to a simmer and sugar is dissolved. Remove the pot from the heat and add dissolved baking soda. It will bubble up. When the bubbles have subsided, return the pot to the heat.

Adjust heat so that the milk is simmering briskly. Cook, stirring regularly, until the it turns pale golden, about one hour.

You will now need to stir the milk more frequently as it thickens and turns a caramel-brown color. Don’t allow the milk to stick to the bottom of the pot. It will probably cook for another 30-45 minutes, depending on how hot you simmer it. It is done when it reaches the soft ball stage, or a deep caramel color.

Strain the cajeta through a fine mesh strainer into a bowl or pyrex measuring cup to cool. When the cajeta is cool, it should be a medium-thick sauce. If it’s too thick, add hot water, one tablespoon at a time, until it is the proper consistency. If it is too thin, return to the heat until it thickens.

Refrigerate until ready to use. But reheat before serving; cajeta is best served warm.

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Saturday, April 4, 2009

Spring Strawberry Shortcake in 5 Steps

This cake is great for the baker who wants to make something beautiful but isn't quite comfortable with frosting and an offset spatula. I love the open sides on fruit cakes - it's so enticing to see a colorful berry peeking out between layers of cake and cream.

#1 Bake a cake
Any yellow cake will do, but I often use a Hot Milk Sponge cake or the Kentucky Butter cake. Bake it in 8 or 9-inch rounds (if you only have one cake pan, just bake it in one pan, but you'll have to slice it in half, or thirds, crosswise. Just make sure the cake is good and cold - refrigerating overnite is optimal - before attempting to slice into layers.

#2 Make sugar syrup
This is how to guarantee a moist cake. Make a sugar syrup by boiling 3/4 cup water and 1/2 cup sugar. Add liqueur/flavoring as you like. Using a pastry brush or squeeze bottle, soak cake layers with hot syrup.

#3 Slice and macerate strawberries
Buy at least 2 pint containers (those apx 5x7x3 boxes) of strawberries, remove the greens and slice. Transfer to a mixing bowl and toss with 2 T or so of sugar. Let sit for 5 minutes or so to macerate.

#4 Whip Cream
Whip a pint (more like 3 cups, to be on the safe side) of heavy cream with a spoonful of powdered sugar and a teaspoon of pure vanilla extract.

#5 Assemble the cake - but no more than 4 hours before serving
Set the bottom cake layer on a plate and soak with warm/hot sugar syrup.

Spoon a large dollop (about a cup) of whipped cream on the center of the bottom cake layer. Smooth out, close to the edges but with a 1-cm space of exposed cake. Top with an even layer of berries. Use a slotted spoon with the berries. You don't want them to put too much of the macerating liquid on the cream.

Top with next cake layer(s) and repeat.

Refrigerate until serving. And beware - this cake is a big mess to cut and serve. But it's scrumptious.

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Thursday, April 2, 2009

Lunchtime Linguine with Clam Sauce

I love pasta, and this is a favorite sauce. It's decidedly lowbrow, what with the canned minced clams and all. You could obviously class it up and get yourself a pound of littlenecks and do whatever it is that is done to littlenecks to cook and serve them. For a quick sauce, the canned clam version really is quite good. Just make sure they're minced.

I remain confused about the minced clams, namely why minced clam pieces are larger than chopped clam pieces when mincing should always produce smaller pieces. A chopped garlic clove, for example, may only yield 3-4 smaller pieces, whereas mincing the same clove increases the number of pieces (and reduces their size) by a factor of 10. Anyway, don't buy canned chopped clams. They're weird.

Linguine with Clam Sauce
Print recipe only here

Serves 2


1/2 pound thin spaghetti or linguini
1 can Snow's minced clams
1/3 cup dry white wine
1 T olive oil
2 cloves garlic, sliced
pinch crushed chili peppers
2 T chopped fresh parsley
1/4 cup fresh grated Parmesan

Fill a large sauce pan with water. Add 1 t kosher salt and bring to a boil.

In a small skillet heat 1-2 T olive oil over medium heat. Add sliced garlic and crushed chilis and saute until the garlic bubbles and is fragrant. Add another teaspoon of olive oil to the pan along with the clams and white wine. Bring to a gentle boil. Simmer, uncovered, for about 10 minutes while you cook the pasta.

When the pasta is just about cooked through, season with salt and fresh ground pepper. Drain the pasta and pour it into a bowl. Top with sauce, chopped parsley and Parmesan. Serve and enjoy.

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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Pinch Buying Guide

Each year I get hundreds of emails asking for gift ideas. I'm addressing them all via this post. It's early yet (267 days until Christmas) but with wedding season in the offing this should be useful.

These are basic kitchen essentials, things everyone with a kitchen must have. If your house didn't come with a kitchen go down to the crawl space (the space between the ground and your house) and count the axles. It's possible you've been living in your car. If there is no crawl space and your house is constructed using reverse-combi technology, you could be living in your tent (by choice, or circumstance). If you built your house out of bricks and the government forced you to take TARP money and it's adversely affecting your business model, you should return the cash and throw a lavish party in celebration. For everyone else, get shopping!

$20 and under
Belgian Waffle Stand
Heavy Duty Dough Docker Roller (shown above left; photo courtesy Chefs Catalog)
Cut Resistant Glove

Stainless-Steel Egg Cooker
Roast Cutting Tongs
Mini Scone pan
Mango Splitter and Peeler Set

Dual Zone Deep Fryer
Rechargeable Electric Corkscrew
Buccaneer Grill and Cooler Travel Tote

Penguin Soda Maker
Heineken Beer Tender

Windchaser Portable Ice Maker
Professional Electric Food Slicer

$500 and up
4-Rack Digital Smoker
Wine Saver PRO and Wine Saver HOME

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