Monday, December 24, 2012

Cointreau-Glazed Cranberry Clementine Tea Cake

I've wanted to make a gussied-up version of this coffee shop staple ever since I learned that it was a coffee shop staple, which happened, several years ago, while I was working in a coffee shop. Slicing up loaf after loaf of this fragrant cake every morning at 5am never failed to cheer me.

Ok, it always failed to cheer me.

But sometimes my attention to inconsequential details can have deleterious effects, as was almost the case for this cake when my love of alliteration nearly prevented me from making it.

Ever since cranberries came clamoring into season, I've been waiting (not so) patiently for clementines to make their appearance so that I might marry them into holy, buttery-loaved bliss. Week after week, with "clems" scrawled hopefully on the shopping list, I passed over several types of mandarins and every variety of orange. Satsuma Triple Sec Sour Berry Sweet Bread just wouldn't have had the same ring. Cara caras could have worked, but would have been a bit of a mouthful. And I wasn't about to lie and use a clementine imposter. I wouldn't do that to you.

Meanwhile, the fresh cranberries were dwindling, and with them, my determination. Fairchilds did look an awful lot like clementines, surely no one would be able to tell the difference from a photograph...

But suddenly there they were one day, in all their tangeriney glory – darling clementines with a fragrance like sun-drenched flowers and segments as sweet as candy.

The real impetus for making this cake happened when I found the world's most perfect pound cake recipe several years ago in an old issue of Fine Cooking. After several sad  pound cakes whose thin batters let berries slip through to congregate on the bottom of the pan, I was euphoric when I cut into this cake to find the berries dotted evenly throughout the batter.

The secret ingredient is cream cheese, which gets whipped into the butter and sugar base, and keeps the batter sturdy enough to hold the berries aloft while simultaneously adding moisture and tangy richness. Had I more room up top, you can bet I'd have titled this recipe Cranberry Clementine Cointreau Cream Cheese Tea Cake.

A simple glaze made from powdered sugar whisked with Cointreau orange liqueur is brushed on the still-warm cake, crackling as it cools and locking in moisture. It doesn't taste obviously boozy, but it adds a little je ne sais quoi. (Now Cointreau really would cheer me up at 5am.)

Cranberry-orange (or "cran-o" as we hollered it throughout the morning rush at Farley's) is a classic combination for good reason, and the brighter, flowery flavor of clementine zest only improves things. The sweetness in the cake and glaze counterbalances the tart cranberries, and keeps the cake moist, but not so sweet to put you off reaching for another slice, say, with your morning tea or coffee. The cake slices cleanly, with a beautiful crumb that will remind you of a creamsicle in its creamy-vanilla-citrusiness, punctuated by pockets of jammy fruit. (Speaking of which: creamsicle martinis. Yes.)

This recipe is forgiving and easy to whip up. It can be eaten warm from the oven, or cooled and kept for up to 5 days at room temperature. Make it with fresh cranberries as clementines are beginning their season, or use frozen berries later on.

But if you choose to make this with tangelos, pixies or murcotts, it can be our little secret.

Tangerine tangents:
Tangerine Olive Oil Pound Cake
Tangerine Blood Orange Upside-Down Cake
Tangerine Poppy Seed Brunch Cake
Satsuma, Ginger and Oat Scones

Cointreau-Glazed Cranberry Clementine Tea Cake

Adapted this Lemon Huckleberry Tea Cake, which I originally adapted from a pound cake recipe in Fine Cooking

Clementines come into season as cranberries are on their way out. You could certainly substitute other citrus zest for the clementines, or use frozen cranberries (probably no need to thaw first). And I'm eager to try this with rhubarb in place of cranberries in the spring. An 8x4" pan will yield a tall loaf, like the one pictured here, but if a 9x5 incher is what you've got, that will work just fine. Enjoy this cake with breakfast, brunch, or, as the name implies, afternoon tea.

Makes one 8x4 or 9x5" loaf, 8-10 servings

4 ounces (1 stick, 1/2 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 ounces (1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons) cream cheese, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups sugar (preferably organic cane sugar)
zest of 3 clementines (or other medium tangerines)
3 eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups fresh cranberries, halved (if frozen, probably no need to defrost first)

1/2 cup powdered sugar (sifted if clumpy)
4 tablespoons Cointreau (or other orange liqueur), or enough to make a thin glaze

Make the cake:
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 325º. Line an 8x4 or 9x5" loaf pan with a sling of parchment paper (or just shove a piece of paper in there, creasing the folds flat). (Lacking parchment, you can generously grease the pan and dust it with flour.)

Combine the butter, cream cheese, sugar and zest in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium until light and fluffy, 3 - 4 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until combined after each addition, and scraping down the sides of the bowl and the paddle as needed. (The mixture may break, and that's ok.) Stir in the vanilla. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt, then add it to the batter, stirring on low speed until just combined. Fold the batter a few times with a rubber spatula, scraping the paddle and bottom of the bowl, to make sure the batter is thoroughly combined, and that any zest clumps are distributed throughout the batter. Gently fold in the cranberries. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.

Bake the cake until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean, or with a few moist crumbs attached, 1 1/4 - 1 1/2 hours. Let the cake cool for 10 or 15 minutes, then remove it from the pan, and peel away the parchment. Poke it all over the top and sides with a toothpick or skewer.

Make the glaze:
While the cake is cooling, whisk together the powdered sugar and cointreau until you have a glaze that's about as thin as half and half. Brush the glaze all over the top and sides of the warm cake. Let the cake cool completely, at least one hour.

The cake keeps well, wrapped, at room temperature or in the fridge, for up to a week.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

(Vegan) Chocolate Chile Coconut Milk Truffles

Forgive me for not posting a truffle recipe sooner, but I've been in recovery from truffle trauma for some time now. Folks, this is no truffling matter.

(Sorry – too many Marx Brothers videos.)

The first event occurred when I worked at a restaurant I lovingly refer to as Pome (though it would be more apt to take a tip from Sara Barron and call it simply "Hell"). We used to make truffles to give to the lucky (and usually high-maintenance) patrons, gratis, after their exorbitant meals, presumably to soften the blow of the bill when it came crashing down on their idyllic evening. (On second thought, they probably all had expense accounts.)

It was often my job to roll the truffles, and, in order to protect the congealed ganache from the brutal heat of the ancient oven, I would do so in the walk-in refrigerator. This wouldn't have phased me save for the fact that the walk-in often contained a pig.

A dead, partially dismembered pig, dangling from the ceiling.

So me and the partially dismembered pig would hang out (me, figuratively; the pig, literally), rolling truffles, in a tiny, 40 degree room.

It surprises me that with these unpleasant associations I had any truffle-making gusto left after I quit. But that winter I decided to make truffles for everyone I knew. And not just one type – I decided to make nine different kinds of truffles; three flavors each of rolled, filled, and cut truffles. This decision was followed by an intense week of steeping, chopping, whisking, dipping, dredging, and "tasting" so much ganache that I never wanted to see the stuff again.

But last week I had a birthday party with guests who were variously gluten-intolerant and/or vegan. Since I haven't braved many gluten-free and vegan treats (those scare me, and besides – I love butter), I should have made these. (What I actually did was make these gluten-free brownies and top them with this white chocolate peppermint cream. I then handed the vegan a bar of dark chocolate and told him to have at it.)

Had I been using my noggin, I would have made these truffles, because not only are they gluten-free and vegan, they also taste so amazing that even a person with no food allergies would enjoy them (and in our case, are currently enjoying them) immensely. They were inspired by a couple of favorite blogs: Love and Lemons and Green Kitchen Stories, as well as my own traditional truffle-making experience (minus the pig).

The ganache begins with coconut milk steeped with chiles de arbol and ceylon cinnamon. Chiles de arbol are fairly hot (a 7 on a scale of 1-10) skinny red peppers, and they not only give the ganache a capsicum kick, they add their own savory-sweet flavor as well. Ceylon cinnamon is the real deal; the sticks are delicate, like parchment paper, and easily broken up. Their flavor is more nuanced and subtle than the cassia cinnamon that one usually finds, less bright and spicy, and it blends beautifully with the fruity coconut milk and chocolate, letting the chile be the star of the show. (Either type of cinnamon will be delicious here, though.)

The hot, spiced coconut milk gets strained and whisked into chopped bittersweet chocolate and softened coconut oil to make a creamy ganache (that I bet would make a killer glaze for a vegan chocolate cake). The ganache chills until firm enough to scoop or pipe into tablespoon-sized balls. The balls are rolled smooth, then they (along with your hands and anything you try to touch with them) get coated in melted chocolate and dredged in velvety cocoa powder.

The finished ganache is so creamy and rich, no one will ever guess that these truffles weren't made with butter and cream. A small box of them would make a welcome gift; or drop them into mini-muffin cup liners and serve them at a cocktail party. I bet you could even plop them into some hot milk and whisk like mad for instant spicy hot chocolate bombs. (Note to self: do this.)

Truffle-making isn't hard, it just feels strange doing it for the first time, like anything else. If you're new to rolling truffles, take a look through Deb's post, which does an excellent job of demystifying the truffling experience. (Heck, it even helped kick my own truffle trauma.)

The trickiest part is coating cold ganache balls in warm chocolate. But know that you can skip the chocolate-coating if you like and just roll the balls in cocoa powder (or chopped nuts or shredded coconut). If you do so, serve them within an hour or two, as the cocoa will absorb the moisture in the ganache and the truffle will lose its velveteen appearance.

And nothing could be more traumatic than that.

(Vegan) Chocolate Chile Coconut Milk Truffles

Inspired by Love and Lemons, Green Kitchen Stories and Smitten Kitchen

Chiles de arbol can be found in the Latin-American section of grocery stores, and are also available here. Their heat may vary, and the heat seems to increase as the finished ganache and truffles sit. I used three 2 1/2" long peppers, and the spiciness is quite prominent; use only two small ones if you want less heat. (Lacking chiles de arbol, you could try substituting red pepper flakes, though the amount may take some experimentation. I would start with 1/2 teaspoon and work up from there.)

To make these officially vegan, you'll need to use a bittersweet chocolate that's made with vegan sweetener. Do take care to use a chocolate with a 70% cacao mass, as a lower amount will likely result in overly-soft ganache, whereas darker chocolate could cause the ganache to "break" as you whisk it. I'm partial to Scharffen Berger, but Guittard and Valrhona are also excellent brands. Velvety dutch-processed cocoa powder looks the prettiest and has a milder flavor than the natural stuff, but either will work for coating the truffles. As I mentioned above, you can skip the pesky chocolate coating altogether and just roll the truffles in cocoa powder, nuts, or shredded coconut shortly before serving.

The amount here makes, I feel, enough truffles to make truffle-making worth your while, but not so many as to be overwhelming. If having a touch of leftover coconut milk drives you crazy, or if you want to dive into truffle-making head-first, try the following amounts: 1 can (13.5 ounces) coconut milk, 9 ounces chopped chocolate, 3 chiles, 4 cinnamon sticks, a scant 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and 1/4 cup coconut oil. This will yield about 45 truffles.

All ounce measurements are by weight.

Makes about thirty 1" truffles

Spiced Coconut Milk ganache:
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (9 ounces) full-fat coconut milk
2 or 3 (2-3" long) chiles de arbol, crumbled
3 (3" long) cinnamon sticks (preferably ceylon), broken into a few pieces
a big pinch of fine sea or kosher salt (about 1/8 teaspoon)
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate (70% cacao mass), finely chopped (about 1 1/4 cups)
3 tablespoons softened extra-virgin coconut oil

4 ounces bittersweet chocolate (70% cacao mass), finely chopped (about 1 cup)
1/2 cup cocoa powder (preferably dutch-processed)

Make the ganache:
In a small saucepan, combine the coconut milk, chiles, cinnamon sticks and salt. Warm gently over a medium flame, swirling frequently, until the mixture is steamy-hot, with small bubbles around the edge of the pan. Cover and let steep 15-20 minutes.

Meanwhile, place the 6 ounces of chopped chocolate and coconut oil in a medium, heat-proof bowl. Have a fine-mesh sieve on stand-by.

When the coconut milk has steeped, rewarm it until steamy hot again, then strain it over the chocolate, pressing on the chiles and cinnamon to extract all the good stuff. Let the mixture sit for 1 minute, then gently whisk the mixture until completely smooth. Pour the ganache into a shallow pan, cover, and chill until firm, at least 2 hours, or up to a few days. 

Shape the truffles:
Use a tiny (#100) spring loaded ice cream scoop to form scant 1" balls of ganache, placing the balls on a small, rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment (for easy clean-up). Alternately, scrape the ganache into a piping bag fitted with a wide, plain tip and pipe into tablespoon-sized mounds, or use a large plastic baggie with a corner cut off to do the same. 

Let the ganache balls chill until firm, 30-60 minutes. 

Remove the ganache balls and, working quickly, roll each one between your palms to make a round-ish ball. You can also squeeze the balls into shape with your fingers. For rounder truffles, repeat the chilling and rolling process once more. Chill the balls again until firm, 30-60 minutes. If you want to coat the truffles in chocolate, proceed to the next step. Otherwise, roll the balls in cocoa powder, chopped toasted nuts, or toasted coconut flakes, and serve them within a couple of hours.

Coat the truffles in chocolate:
Place the 4 ounces of chocolate in a small metal bowl. Make sure the bowl and anything that touches the chocolate is bone-dry, as any tiny drop of water could cause the chocolate to seize up into impossible globules. Place the bowl over a pan filled with 2 inches of steaming (not simmering) water. Stir the chocolate occasionally until it has all melted. Remove the bowl from the pot, set it on a towel, and let the chocolate sit, stirring it occasionally, until it is body-temperature. If done properly, this will temper the chocolate (i.e. put it back into a stable emulsion) but it isn't a huge deal here, as the truffles will get coated in cocoa, which will hide any "blooming" (i.e. the separating out of cocoa solids). Note: if the chocolate gets too cold and starts setting up before you want it to, set it back over the pot of barely steaming water, stirring, until it has melted again. 

Sift the cocoa powder into a shallow bowl.

Set up a station like so (assuming you are right-handed): bowl of melted chocolate with a small spatula or spoon sitting in it on your left, cocoa powder in the middle, and sheet pan holding chilled ganache balls on your right. Once you get chocolate on your hands, you won't want to touch anything. (You can wear latex gloves for this, if you like, though I go commando when making a small batch like this.)

Smear about 1 tablespoon of chocolate on the palm of your left hand. Pick up a ganache ball and quickly roll it around in the chocolate, coating it completely. Immediately drop the coated ball into the bowl of cocoa powder and toss it around to coat it. Repeat this with as many balls as will fit in the cocoa bowl, then remove the balls to a plate (I just use the same sheet pan that the chilled balls are on). Keep this up until all the balls are coated in chocolate and cocoa.

Congratulations, you made truffles! Store these babies at cool room temperature. They should keep for at least a week or two, and possibly for a month or more.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Butternut Squash Risotto with Pancetta and Chèvre

This darkest time of the year combined with the recent cold snap is sending me into full-throttle hibernation mode. I know I'm not alone, here. 

If you're feeling the same, you'll enjoy this savory excuse to turn on the oven and stand over a hot stove slowly stirring this cozy dish. It's pretty much guaranteed to alleviate your December Doldrums.

I learned to make risotto from The Silver Palate cookbook half of my lifetime ago, and it is one of the few dishes I feel comfortable whipping up sans recipe. (We baker-types like our formulas.) Since I consider it to be one of my few savory "specialties," I'm appalled to realize that there is a mere single risotto recipe on this site.

To rectify this negligence (and for an excuse to combine three of my favorite foods - winter squash, goat cheese and arugula - onto one plate) I made this dish. It's inspired by Aran Goyaga of Canelle e Vanille, and uses Cook's Illustrated's Butternut Risotto as a guideline. The recipe begins with bright, roasted butternut squash, and turns out a sunny-looking dish strewn with rosy bits of crisped pancetta and lacy leaves of arugula. It makes a superbly comforting one-dish meal, and manages to incorporate each of the five tastes: sweet (roasted winter squash and arborio rice), salty (parmesan cheese), spicy (chile de arbol and arugula), tart (goat cheese) and umami (pancetta and chicken stock). I could pretty much live off of this stuff.

I detest peeling raw winter squash, so I adapted Cook's recipe to use roasted squash instead, which I find much easier to deal with. Just slice the squash lengthwise, place it cut-side-down on an oiled baking sheet, and pop it in the oven for about 45 minutes. When the squash has cooled, it's super easy to scrape out the strings and seeds, and to separate the flesh from the skin.

I had a giant roasted chicken leg left over from a Chanukah celebration, so I used it to make a quick chicken stock, along with a few sprigs of parsley and thyme, and the seeds and strings from the roasted squash. The risotto gets more flavor from white wine, chile de arbol, garlic and thyme leaves, and an extra boost at the finish when creamy parmesan, goat cheese, and chopped sage are folded in. Peppery arugula adds its crisp freshness, and juicy chunks of pan-fried pancetta give you something to sink your teeth into.

Contrary to popular belief, you don't have to constantly babysit risotto; just give it a stir every once in a while as you get on with other things in the kitchen, like, say, pouring yourself a glass of white wine while you fry up some pancetta in olive oil. Unless you burn the stuff, it's pretty hard to mess it up, and once you have all the ingredients prepped, it comes together relatively quickly. Could you serve this for Christmas dinner? Certainly. (Though you might want to leave off the pancetta for Chanukah...)

If you can't find pancetta, bacon, prosciutto or Serrano ham will make a fine substitute. For a vegetarian version, see the variation for vegetable stock in the headnote below, and serve the risotto studded with sauteed mushrooms (shiitake or porcini would be my first choices).

Either way, cozy up to this bowl of comfort food with another glass of white wine. Happy Winter Solstice.

Rice and everything nice:
Saffron Risotto with Spring Vegetable Ragout
Spring Vegetable Fried Rice
Coconut Cardamom Arroz Con Leche

Roasted Butternut Squash Risotto with Pancetta, Arugula and Chèvre 

For the most efficient risotto-making experience, roast your squash first, then make the stock, then cook the risotto. When the risotto is halfway done, fry up the pancetta. Have the components ready to go so you can serve the risotto as soon as it reaches the proper consistency.

If you prefer to start with ready-made stock, simmer it in a saucepan with the squash strings and seeds for 10 minutes, then strain the stock and return it to the pan to keep warm as you cook the risotto. Chicken stock adds a more savory flavor, whereas vegetable stock will result in a sweeter risotto; though you can certainly use it to make a vegetarian version. (For a quick vegetable stock, use a large carrot, a small potato, and a celery stalk, all chopped into a few big pieces, in place of the chicken.) Sauteed shiitake or porcini mushroom chunks would make a fine substitute for the pancetta.

Makes 6-8 main-course servings

Roasted butternut squash:
1 medium butternut squash, about 2 pounds
1 tablespoon sunflower or light olive oil

Quick chicken stock (makes about 6 cups): 
8 cups water
1 or 2 roasted chicken legs
1 small onion, sliced
a few sprigs each parsley and thyme
1 bay leaf
butternut squash strings and seeds from above

Risotto and garnishes:
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus another tablespoon for the pancetta
1 large yellow onion, finely diced
1 tablespoon chopped thyme leaves
1 chile de arbol, minced (or 1/4-1/2 teaspoon chile flakes)
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
2 cups arborio rice
1 cup dry white wine (I like something bright and citrusy, such as sauvignon blanc)
about 3 cups roasted squash flesh, from above
3/4 teaspoon salt
4-6 cups chicken stock (from above)
2 ounces (1 cup) grated parmesan
8 ounces fresh goat cheese, crumbled, half reserved for topping
2 tablespoons finely chopped sage leaves
freshly cracked black pepper
8 ounces pancetta, in 3/4" dice
1-2 cups arugula leaves, washed and dry

Roast the squash:
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350º. Drizzle a rimmed baking sheet with the oil. Slice the squash lengthwise, leaving the seeds and strings for now, and place it cut-side-down on the baking sheet. Roast it in the oven for about 45 minutes, until golden, tender and collapsing. Let the squash cool until you can handle it. Scoop out the strings and seeds, reserving them for the stock, then scoop the flesh away from the skin, discarding the skin and reserving the flesh. You should have about 3 cups of squash flesh. Add any pan juices to the stock, as well. 

Make the stock:
Combine all the stock ingredients in a large saucepan and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes, then strain. You should have about 6 cups of stock. Return the stock to the pan and have it barely simmering as you... 

Make the risotto:
Melt the butter and 1 tablespoon of the olive oil together in a wide soup pot or dutch oven set over a medium flame. Add the onion, thyme, and chile, and saute, stirring occasionally, until the onion is tender and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic, and cook, stirring, until fragrant, 2 minutes. Add the rice and cook, stirring, 3 minutes. The rice will be translucent on the outside, with an opaque pearl in the center of each grain.

Add the wine and reserved squash, and cook, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid is absorbed. Add about a cup of stock, enough to come up to the level of the rice, and cook, stirring occasionally, until most of the stock is absorbed, keeping the rice at a bare simmer. Continue adding the stock, stirring, letting it be absorbed, until the grains of rice are swollen and tender to your liking. Risotto should be firm enough to put on a plate, but with saucy goo surrounding each grain.

When the risotto is about halfway done, begin frying the pancetta. Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add the pancetta in a single layer and cook, stirring occasionally, until cooked through and caramelized around the edges. Set aside until ready to serve.

When the rice is tender to your liking, stir in the parmesan, half of the goat cheese, and all of the sage. Season to taste with salt and pepper. If the risotto looks dry, loosen it with a bit more stock; if it is too wet, let stand for a few minutes to absorb more liquid.

Risotto is best served immediately, when the rice and saucy base are distinct, so spoon it onto warm plates or shallow bowls without delay. Top each plate with pancetta bits, crumbles of goat cheese, and a handful of arugula leaves.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Buckwheat Cacao Nib Snowballs

It's not often that one has a snowball fight in San Francisco, but that is precisely what's been going down in my kitchen the past few Decembers. I've been trying to bake a great snowball that's crumbly and delicate, not too sweet, with an addictive salty kick.

Also called Mexican wedding cakes, polvorones, and Russian tea cakes, I have a soft spot for these buttery, bite-sized cookies made with loads of toasty nuts and coated in powdered sugar. Jay's mom makes the world's most perfect snowballs. She gives us a tin every year at Christmas, and every year I ponder what makes them so delicate and addictive. Then I help myself to another. And another.

Luckily for me, Mary is not only generous with her cookies, but also with her cookie recipes, and now I have the key to awesome snowballs, all year round (cue thunder and mad scientist-type laughter). Thank you, Mary!

I've been experimenting with different spices, nuts and add-ins, and, next to the original, this is mine and Jay's favorite version thus far.

I inherited a large bag of cacao nibs, and decided to make a dent in them. Last month at a tech rehearsal, my dance mate Steve reached into his bag for a snack, and came up with a sour expression on his face. He had been bamboozled by the bag's advertisement of "superfood" and thought that raw, unsweetened cacao nibs would make a healthy snack. If you've never eaten a straight nib, it's a bit like chewing on a coffee bean coated in unsweetened chocolate - bracingly bitter. Steve realized that noshing on nibs was a no-go, and handed me the remains of the bag when I assured him that they're better baked into cookies than on their own.

I thought they'd be ideal in these sugar-coated cookies, which can run the risk of being overly sweet, so I paired them with nutty buckwheat flour (a combination inspired by Alice Medrich's Pure Dessert via Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbooks) and almonds for a twist on these classic winter holiday cookies.

After making them several times, I've learned a few key pointers for making great snowballs.

It's the size that counts: Not just the size of the cookies (too big and they're hard to eat, too small and the sugar-to-cookie ratio is all wrong), but also the size of nuts. Though it's tempting to grind the nuts in a food processor, Mary always hand-chops hers, and this is key. Hand-chopping gives you a variety of sizes ranging from powder to 1/8" chunks. When the nuts are too finely ground, they result in a dry, hard cookie, whereas a range of pieces leaves the cookie meltingly tender, like great shortbread.

All mixed up: I prefer using the so-called biscuit method (rubbing cold butter into the dry ingredients) to the creaming method (creaming softened butter with sugar). Rubbing in the butter, either with your fingertips or the paddle attachment of a stand mixer (never a food processor, which can grind the nuts too fine, see above) coats the gluten strands with butter, keeping them short and weak, which leads to tender cookies.

Keep your cool: Starting with cold butter has another bonus: you don't have to wait for the butter to soften, and you don't need to chill a soft dough before forming the cookies. And that means cookies, sooner.

Handle with care: Be gentle with this dough when rolling, as rough handling will develop the glutens and make for tough cookies.

Rock n' roll: Rolling the cookies in powdered sugar once before baking and again after results in cookies with the just the right amount of creamy coating. 

These cookies are quite addictive; sophisticated, maybe not kid-friendly (which is fine by me as our only kid is a cat, and they don't have sweet receptors on their tongues). Jay says they taste like Nutella (the cookies, not cats), and he's right. Though there are no hazelnuts, buckwheat does have some hazelnutty notes which blend with the unprocessed chocolate beans. I love the robust and earthy flavors going on here. They make an ideal contrast with the sweet coating of powdered sugar, which turns to a creamy icing as it absorbs the moisture in the cookies. The ample measure of salt will keep you coming back for more, whether you like it or not.

I hope these inspire you to have a snowball fight of your own, though you may not want to throw (or give) any away.

Buckwheat, before:

Nibby and nice:

One year ago:
Two years ago:
Three years ago:

Buckwheat Cacao Nib Snowballs

Adapted from the mother of all snowball recipes by Mary Doane

I used sliced almonds here, because they're easy to chop by hand, but I'd wager slivered or whole almonds would work just fine, too.  If the rolled cookies lose their snowy looks after a day or two, just sift a little more powdered sugar over their tops. All ounce measurements are by weight.

Makes about 2 1/2 dozen 1" round cookies

1/2 cup (2 1/2 ounces) all purpose flour
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (1 3/4 ounces) buckwheat flour
1/4 cup (2 ounces) organic granulated cane sugar
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
3/4 cup (2 3/4 ounces) sliced almonds, fairly finely chopped into pieces no larger than 1/8"
1/4 cup cacao nibs, roughly chopped a little larger than the almonds
1 stick (4 ounces) cold, unsalted butter, in 1/2" dice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup (2 1/4 ounces) powdered sugar

Position a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat to 350º. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, stir together the flours, granulated sugar, salt, chopped almonds and cacao nibs. Add the butter pieces, sprinkle the vanilla over the top, and work in with either a pastry blender, your fingertips, or the paddle on low speed until there are no more visible butter chunks, and the mixture begins to clump together. This will take a few minutes.

Sift the powdered sugar into a medium-sized shallow bowl.

Form 1 tablespoon of dough into a 1" ball (a #60 spring-loaded ice cream scoop works beautifully), and roll in powdered sugar, knocking any large clumps of sugar back into the bowl. Repeat with the rest of the dough, placing the dough balls at least 1 inch apart on the lined baking sheet.

Bake the cookies until they are cracked, slightly puffed, and light golden, 18 - 20 minutes. Let them cool completely on the baking sheet, then roll them a second time in the powdered sugar.

Store the cookies in an airtight container at room temperature. I'm guessing they will keep well for up to a week or two, though I'm not sure I can keep my hand out of the cookie jar long enough to find out...

Thursday, December 13, 2012

French Lentil and Spinach Soup

This soup clocks in at the top of my "how to survive the holidays" list. (Actually, it's the only thing on that list. Help.)

In any case, there comes a time during each holiday season in which I need a gastronomical break from sugar, butter, spices, and alcohol. During those times, all I want are monastically seasoned leafy greens, and maybe some legumes. This soup is my current favorite palate cleanser.

When you start to feel weighed down by the sweets, boozy treats, cheese plates, charcuterie, and fried potato pancakes in which you will inevitably overindulge at holiday parties this time of year (and by "you" I mean "me"), I offer you this stupid healthy soup as an antidote.

Healthy though it may be, it hails from my bible Vegetable Soups from Deborah Madison's Kitchen, and, like all of Ms. Madison's recipes, uses a few innovative ingredients that build flavor and turn it into the best soup, ever.

First a mirepoix of onion, carrot and fennel soften in warm olive oil. Garlic, mustard and tomato paste caramelize on the bottom of the pan. A slug of red wine hits the pan with a sizzle, dissolving all those luscious flavors and reducing into a flavorful base, to which pretty green French lentils, vegetable stock and bay are added. When the soup has simmered and the lentils are meltingly tender, a mess of baby spinach leaves are added to wilt briefly. A flurry of parmesan and black pepper make an ideal finish.

Mustard may sound like a bizarre addition to a soup, but here it adds spice and acidity which, along with the tomato paste and red wine, create layers of tastes that blend and shine. Lentil soup may not sound like the most exciting meal (unless you are my sixteen-year-old niece, in which case you text about it "omg, that sounds so good!!!!! i'm so excited!!!!" No joke). But this one is actually kind of exciting.  

This soup has a refreshing austerity that makes it feel like a safe haven amidst decadence, a cool oasis in the middle of a sugar desert. Savoring a bowl is revitalizing in the same way as jumping into an icy cold river on a scorching day. And yet it is still nourishing and warm and filling, a wonderful one-bowl meal. It's even better on the second and third day, when the flavors have melded.

If you're on the hunt for more sweet and boozy recipes, don't you worry – I'll be back soon with more of those. 

Until then, bon appetit. And good luck.

Mental for lentils:

Wintery soups:

French Lentil and Spinach Soup

Soaking the lentils for 4-8 hours will help them cook faster, but it's not essential. If you do soak them, use the smaller quantity of water as they will have already absorbed some. This soup keeps well for up to a week in the fridge; add the spinach to order if you want it to stay green. Finish bowls with a grating of parmesan and pepper, and enjoy it with the rest of the red wine and some crusty bread.

Makes 2 quarts, 6-8 servings

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large yellow onion, finely diced
1 large or 2 smaller carrots, finely diced
1 small fennel bulb, finely diced (or 1 large celery stalk)
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon prepared mustard (I used stone-ground)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 cup red wine
1 1/2 cups french green lentils de puy, optionally soaked for 4-8 hours
1 bay leaf
6 - 8 cups vegetable stock or water
salt and black pepper
4-6 cups loosely packed baby spinach leaves, washed
parmesan, for serving

In a large soup pot, heat the olive oil over a medium flame until is shimmers. Add the onion, carrot and fennel, and saute, stirring occasionally, until the onion is tender and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic, and cook, stirring, until fragrant, 1 minute, being careful not to let it burn. Add the mustard and tomato paste. Cook, stirring, until it forms a film on the bottom of the pan, 1-2 minutes. 

Add the red wine, scrape up all the good stuff from the bottom of the pan, and let the mixture simmer until slightly thickened, 2 minutes. Drain the lentils if soaked, and add them to the pot along with the bay leaf and vegetable stock or water (use the smaller amount if the lentils have been soaked). Cover and simmer for 30 minutes.

Add 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt (less if your stock is salted) and continue to cook, covered, until the lentils are very tender, about 10 minutes. Green lentils hold their shape well, so if you see some beginning to fall apart, the soup is probably done.

Stir in the spinach leaves and simmer until wilted, 1-2 minutes. Or, if you're not serving all of the soup right away, save the spinach leaves and add them as you heat up individual portions of soup. 

Taste for seasoning, adding more salt if needed and freshly ground pepper. Serve bowls of soup topped with freshly grated parmesan and more pepper.