Austrian raspberry shortbread.

I’ve been posting cookies lately but can I (please) post one more?  You won’t mind?  I promise, after this one I’ll be posting savory eats for at least a week or two.  Plus, this is not just a cookie—it’s a bar cookie and it’s outstanding.  The most impressive cookie I had to offer this Christmas.  When someone asked what it was, my father chimed in: Who cares what it is! It’s delicious! And my father is the pickiest eater I know.

It takes a little elbow grease—you need to grate the frozen dough—but it’s the perfect cookie to make for your family, or your boss, or anyone you want to please.  It harkens the good old days when mixes weren’t in any pantries and Betty Crocker wasn’t simply a name on a box.  Don’t forgo the grating and don’t press down on the grated dough when sprinkling it into the pan—it’s all part of the perfect crumbly, almost coffee-cake texture that makes this cookie shine.

The recipe is from Smitten Kitchen, who got it here.  SK suggests adding some vanilla or lemon (or both) to the dough.  I planned to do just that, but forgot, and I consequentially was glad I did.  I thought the pleasingly simple shortbread dough highlighted the raspberry jam that’s spread between the layers; but of course you should choose for yourself.

I know that Christmas has past but this cookie is too good to wait a whole year for.  Perhaps New Year’s brunch?  Or maybe you have some house guests to feed?  Even if it’s just you and your dog (or cat or fish), you simply must make this cookie.  It keeps well and freezes equally so.  There’s no excuse—It’s delicious!

Austrian Raspberry Shortbread

from Epicurious, a recipe by Gale Gand, Rick Tramonto, Julia Moskin via the Smitten Kitchen

makes about 36 small squares

  • 1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter, slightly softened
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup raspberry jam, at room temperature
  • 1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar

Cream the butter in a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (or using a hand mixer) until soft and fluffy. Add the egg yolks and mix well.

Mix the granulated sugar, flour, baking powder, and salt together. Add to the butter and egg yolk mixture and mix just until incorporated and the dough starts to come together. Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and form into two balls. Wrap each ball in plastic wrap and freeze at least 2 hours or overnight (or as long as a month, if you like).

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Remove one ball of dough from the freezer and coarsely grate it by hand or with the grating disk in a food processor into the bottom of a 9×13-inch baking pan or a 10-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Make sure the surface is covered evenly with shreds of dough.

With the back of a spoon or a flexible spatula, spread the jam over the surface, to within 1/2 inch of the edge all the way around. Remove the remaining dough from the freezer and coarsely grate it over the entire surface.

Bake until lightly golden brown, 30 to 40 minutes. As soon as the shortbread comes out of the oven, dust with confectioners’ sugar. Cool on a wire rack, then cut in the pan with a serrated knife.

Whole-wheat peanut butter cookies with raw sugar.

The other day, I came across an old cookbook that Jim’s aunt Maria gave me.  Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Cookies, from 1977.  It’s covered in notes from Maria—her favorites, her leave ’ems—with charm that only an old, used cookbook can have.  And it turned out to be a Christmas miracle; every recipe I’ve tried is delicious and practically fool-proof—the perfect pick me-up just as I got cookie fatigue, bored of the regular olds and needing some inspiration.  Maida, who won a James Beard award for this cookbook, makes cookies exciting.

The whole wheat peanut butter cookie with raw sugar immediately caught my eye—it’s made of whole-wheat pastry flour, and the only sweetener is raw sugar.  It’s probably a cookie conceived in the 60’s, a total hippie-cookie.  What’s even more exciting though, is that it is good. Real good.

The cookies are crunchy, hardly sweet, and taste mildly of peanut butter.  The nutty whole-wheat pastry flour reiterates the peanut butter flavor, as well as emphasizes the raw sugar’s crunch with it’s grainy texture.  The texture, really, is the best part—at once buttery and crumbly, with crisp edges and a moist but not soft middle.  Cracker-like.

It’s a very subtle, sophisticated cookie—an adult’s cookie just perfect sitting among the other Christmas chocolate, sugar, and gingerbread cookies.  It could also accompany a cheese plate.  Or—better yet—you could serve these late Christmas Eve, leaving a few with a tall glass of milk for that fat, jolly guy.  Just remember the carrots for his donkeys.

Whole-Wheat Peanut Butter Cookies

from Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Cookies

makes 48 cookies

  • 1 ¼ cups unsifted whole-wheat pastry flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • generous ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ pound (1 stick) butter
  • ½ cup smooth peanut butter
  • 1 cup raw sugar
  • 1 egg

Sift together this flour, baking soda, and salt and set aside.  In the large bowl of a stand mixer cream the butter.  Add the peanut butter and beat until smooth.  Add the raw sugar and beat well, then add the egg and beat well again.  On low speed gradually add the sifted dry ingredients, scraping the bowl with a rubber spatula and beating only until smooth.

Tear off a piece of wax paper about 16 inches long.  Spoon the dough lenthwise down the center of the paper in a heavy strip about 10 to 11 inches long.  Fold the long sides of the paper over the dough and, with your hands, shape the dough into a long, round or oblong roll, 12 inches long.  Wrap the dough in the wax paper.

Slide a cookie sheet under the dough and transfer it to the freezer or refridgerator until firm (or as much longer as you wish).

Unwrap the dough and replace it on the wax paper.  With a sharp knife cut the dough into slices ¼ inch think and place them 1 inche apart on unbuttered cookie sheets.

Bake for 15 minutes or a little longer, until the cookies are lightly colored and semifirm to the touch.  Reverse the sheets top to bottom and front to back to insure even browning.

With a wide metal spatula transfer the cookies to the rack to cool.

We Can’t Let This Bank Fail

I’ve worked in the non-profit sector so I know first-hand that charities get hit hard in times of economic stress.  Sad, because it’s during such times that the jobless rates go up, and more and more people struggle to provide food for themselves and their families.  Bruce Springsteen has begun a campaign on behalf of the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, raising awareness of hunger in New Jersey.  And I’ve joined up with the group of New Jersey bloggers (spearheaded by Deborah of Jersey Bites) to help.

• More than 35 million Americans, including 12 million children, either live with or are on the verge of hunger. – USDA, Household Food Security in the United States, 2006

• The number of families coming to churches and food banks trying to get help to feed their families has increased approximately 20 percent. – National Anti-Hunger Organizations, 2008 Blueprint to End Hunger

• According to a recent survey, 6 percent of Americans said they or someone in their immediate family has gone to bed hungry in the past month because they could not afford enough food. – 2008 Hormel Hunger Survey

• One out of every five New Jersey families does not earn enough to afford the basic necessities – housing, food and child care – although 85 percent of these households have at least one family member who is working. – Poverty Research Institute, June 2008

• In New Jersey alone, an estimated 250,000 new clients will be seeking sustenance this year from the state’s food banks. – “No Food on the table,” By Judy Peet, The Star-Ledger, Oct. 23, 2008

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“The Community FoodBank of New Jersey is facing a dire shortage of food, so much so that – without the public’s support – it may, for the first time in its history, begin to ration food. This is a state-wide crisis, with the unstable economy resulting in a 30 percent increase in those needing food. In years past, the Community FoodBank of New Jersey has provided assistance to more than 500,000 New Jerseyans, but expects to see a major uptick in need this year, especially during the winter months when people often struggle between paying heating and food bills.”

Here’s how you can help:

  1. Make a monetary contribution: Visit http://www.njfoodbank.org/.
  2. Donate food: Drop off a bag of food at your local food pantry.
  3. Organize a food drive: We can help explain the logistics of starting a food drive. Just call 908-355-FOOD.
  4. Help “Check Out Hunger:” Look for the “Check Out Hunger” coupons at your local supermarket and donate. No donation is too small!

I know that many of my readers are not from New Jersey, but hey, why dontcha donate anyway?  Or figure out if and where the community food banks are in your own state.  There are hungry people everywhere… and they all need our help.

Finally, the Trenton area is very dear to my heart, and I know that many are suffering there.  If you can, please visit the website of Mercer Street Friends and learn the ways that you can give.

If you have any questions—or if you are in New Jersey and in need—please email me.

Happy Holidays and wishes of good health, cheer, and full bellies for everyone!

Please click ‘more’ to view the list of Bloggers Participating in the “We Can’t Let This Blog Fail Campaign”.

Continue reading “We Can’t Let This Bank Fail”

They are spicy. And they are good.

These are the spiciest, most molassesy-est cookies I have ever eaten.  And they are good. Perfect, even, for a cold holiday evening with a glass of peaty scotch—a cookie not quite suited for a tall glass of milk, but superb with spirits, eggnog, or hot mulled cider.  I made them to kick-start my first-ever year of cookie-baking for Christmas.  I thought they would be sufficiently holly, jolly, and nice—and would keep me in good spirits throughout a week of cookie madness that I’m sure will bring on many expletives, cookie-cursing, and a bag of coal in my stocking.

Because not only did I agree to cook the brunt of Christmas dinner at my sister’s this holiday, but I’ve decided to bring dozens and dozens (and dozens) of cookies with me.  So far, so good, though I’ve only made two kinds.  I do have all the recipe-finding and shopping done for the others, and I find that part to be the hardest.  Or at least I’ll say so now, while I’m sipping my morning coffee and gazing out the window towards the river.  Later, when I’m covered in flour and there’s dirty dishes everywhere, I may have a different opinion.

But I seriously doubt that I’ll ever regret signing on to the dinner (which I’m super excited about, since I hardly ever get to cook for my family) or the cookies.  I mean, when all is said and done (even if there is a mound of dishes in the sink), when you finally get to plop down on the couch, lift your cocoa-powder splotched feet, and award yourself a sample (or 3) of each and every delectable that you’ve just created, how can anyone regret the process?  And I for one am extra lucky, because I have a very weak-willed boyfriend who will do anything, even the dishes, to share in my sampling.

These cookies in particular are good graft for the weak-willed.  Their heady aroma, of ginger and clove and allspice and molasses, fills the air, even before they enter the oven, as you whip them into a batter.  I based the recipe off on one from Cook’s Illustrated, using 2 sticks of butter instead of 1 ½ because I had mistaken the directions.  I have to laugh at myself now, as I ran to Jim terror-stricken, telling him that I had mucked up everything.  He looked at me like I was crazy—I had put too much butter? And I was upset?  The extra butter of course didn’t muck up a thing, and I like to think it enhanced the consistency, but go by the original recipe if you are like, health-conscious or something.  For the molasses, because I am a sucker for the potency of blackstrap, I used a mixture of it with natural molasses to up the spiciness factor, the result being intense and delicious. They are spicy.  And they are good.

Dark Spice Cookies

(slightly) adapted from Cook’s Illustrated, January 2002

makes about 22 cookies

  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar, plus 1/2 cup for dipping
  • 2 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon table salt
  • 16 tablespoons unsalted butter (2 sticks), softened but still cool
  • 1/3 cup dark brown sugar (about 2 1/2 ounces)
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup natural molasses
  • 1/4 cup blackstrap molasses

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or a silicone mat. Place 1/2 cup sugar for dipping in 8- or 9-inch cake pan.

Whisk flour, baking soda, spices, and salt in medium bowl until thoroughly combined; set aside.

In standing mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat butter with brown and granulated sugars at medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Reduce speed to medium-low and add yolk and vanilla; increase speed to medium and beat until incorporated, about 20 seconds. Reduce speed to medium-low and add molasseses; beat until fully incorporated, about 20 seconds, scraping bottom and sides of bowl once with rubber spatula. Reduce speed to lowest setting; add flour mixture and beat until just incorporated, about 30 seconds, scraping bowl down once. Give dough final stir with rubber spatula to ensure that no pockets of flour remain at bottom. Dough will be soft.

Using tablespoon measure, scoop heaping tablespoon of dough and roll between palms into 11/2-inch ball; drop ball into cake pan with sugar and repeat to form about 4 balls. Toss balls in sugar to coat and set on prepared baking sheet, spacing them about 2 inches apart. Repeat with remaining dough. Bake 1 sheet at a time until cookies are browned, still puffy, and edges have begun to set but centers are still soft (cookies will look raw between cracks and seem underdone), about 11 minutes, rotating baking sheet halfway through baking. Do not overbake.

Cool cookies on baking sheet 5 minutes, then use wide metal spatula to transfer cookies to wire rack; cool cookies to room temperature.

Asian supermarket-inspired.

There’s so many things at the Asian supermarket that I can’t find anywhere else.  There’s slender long beans, mounds of my favorite chiles, all the cabbage you could ask for, quail eggs, pork bellies, and chicken feet for stocks—and that’s just the fresh section.  The spice aisle is unbelievably stocked, the pickles are amazing.  Every kind of tea I could wish for.  And the frozen section offers a selection of very good dumplings.

Every time Jim and I go there, we leave happy, laughing, and sated from all the samples.  The prepared foods section is cheap and tasty—with all kinds of snacks to try.  One of our favorites is the barbecued meats.  The goods are on display in a moist-heat glass case; ribs, chicken, and duck for you to bring home chopped up or whole.  Because the meat stays at it’s utmost moistest when bought whole, and because I’m becoming a bit of a snob when it comes to butchering my own poultry, we bought a whole duck—beak and all—and scurried home for an Asian supermarket-inspired pasta.

More and more, I’ve begun taking my cooking cues from the places I shop.  This may be the result of learning more about cooking, or maybe it’s because I moved to a town where I can buy almost everything local from small-farms (as long as I’m always willing to take what I can get), but whatever the reason, it’s been working out pretty great.  We’ve been eating fabulously—grilled whole fish wrapped in bacon, lots of squash, homemade stewing-hen stocks—and many of the meals have been planned organically.  Maybe I’ll have a recipe in mind, read in a magazine lately, or maybe I’ll go completely wild and make the whole thing up, but it often goes that I buy what I see out and then go home and use whatever’s in the pantry to supplement.  This pasta was just that.

We had carrots and garlic and all the makings for an Asian-inspired sauce, so we cut up the duck, blanched some vegetables, boiled some fresh pasta, and threw everything together in a wok.  It was quick and easy but undeniably complex-tasting.  The black vinegar in the pasta’s sauce was punchy (to me it smells like coca-cola) and held up against the rich duck and creamy pasta.  The vegetables made for a full, fresh meal.  Drizzled with sriracha, the lingering heat was warm and comforting against the cold winds knocking about the windows.   We snuggled up and ate our fill, and eagerly began plans for our next trip back to the market.

Asian-style Pasta with Duck

serves 6

For the sauce:

  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 3 tablespoons Chinese black vinegar (preferably Chinkiang)
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons Asian sesame oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

For the pasta:

  • 1 pound fresh linguine or spaghetti
  • 1 whole barbecued duck, store-bought
  • 1 bunch long beans, cut into 2-inch pieces*
  • 2 cups shanghia pak choy, or baby boy choy, ends cut off and leaves separated
  • 2 carrots, cut into matchsticks
  • 1 bunch scallions, sliced
  • 1 bunch of cilantro, chopped
  • small handful of mint leaves, chopped
  • lime juice and zest, to taste
  • sriracha

Mix all of the sauce ingredients in a small bowl.  Set aside.

Cook the pasta in boiling salted water until tender, 2-5 minutes.

Blanch the carrots and choy in boiling water for 2 minutes, transfer to a plate.  Blanch the long beans in the same water for 3-5 minutes, until tender. Drain.

In a large wok, render the fat from the reserved pieces of duck skin.  Remove the skin and discard.  Add

Take the skin off of the duck breasts and legs, reserving a few pieces.  Tear the meat into bite-sized pieces (this is a messy job, so do it over a large cutting board.) Discard carcass.

Using a few pieces of the duck skin, render the fat in a large wok.  Add vegetables and duck pieces and cook for 1 minute.  Add pasta and sauce and cook for a few more minutes, until everything is fragrant and hot.  Add scallions and cook 1 minute more.

Transfer to a bowl.  Sprinkle with cilantro, mint, and lime zest and juice to taste.  Toss everything together and serve with sriracha.

*You can substitute regular green beans for the long beans.

Making love to your taste buds.

Brown butter is a labor of love. It takes time and a keen eye and practically continuous stirring to get it right. It can go from perfection to disaster in mere seconds. But, if you are able to bring the butter right to the edge of Blackened-Butter Abyss, when it’s exquisitely nutty and a rich brown, whatever you are serving will benefit from it in scores. Because we all know butter is tasty.  But when you times it by ten (which is how I rate brown butter), it’s not just tasty, it’s sexy, it’s… making love to your taste buds.

And, though every browned butter recipe is special, this one is even more so.  It takes dainty (otherwise a bit boring) broccolini and envelopes it in a luscious shallot-garlic-and-pecan brown butter sauce. Yes. Pecan brown butter.  And yes, it is as good as you can imagine.  The whole dish is nutty and buttery and garlicky.  And it’s down-right pretty on the plate—make sure not to take off too much of the slender broccolini stems, those long legs look (and taste) beautiful.

I found the recipe in the latest Bon Appetit (I’ve had some great luck with Bon Appetit recipes in the past few months—though it may be Gourmet’s red-headed stepchild) and served it at Thanksgiving.  It can be made hours ahead and re-heated on the stove-top when you are about to eat—so if you were thinking of not serving this for the holidays, think again.  I’ll be remaking it for Christmas… and New Year’s… and President’s Day… and whenever I can find the excuse.

Broccolini with Pecan Brown Butter

adapted from Bon Appetit, December 2008

serves 6

If you are nervous about making brown butter, here is a good color guide for you.

  • 5 bunches broccolini, cut off at the very bottom, hard part of the stems
  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter + 1 tablespoon if making ahead and reheating
  • 5 shallots, minced
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 3/4 cup pecans, crushed
  • kosher salt

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Add broccolini and cook for about 3-4 minutes.  Drain and put in ice water.

In a large skillet, add butter and melt.  Add shallots, garlic, pecans and cook until shallots are soft.  Turn the burner to medium-high and begin to brown the butter, stirring constantly, until it turns a rich brown color and has a nutty aroma (this is a little hard to figure because of the pecans).  When you are there, add the broccolini, reduce the heat, and toss gently until heated through and done to your liking.  Salt generously with kosher salt.  Serve hot.  If reheating later, leave broccoli in the skillet you used, then heat it up over a low heat with the extra butter until hot—about 15 minutes.

Jimmy talks The Red Cat

[Robin’s Note: Jim brought home a cute little card from The Red Hat so that I could take photos of it for the post.  Unfortunately, our dog Champ tried to eat it—probably because he didn’t get invited to the restaurant and he was starving.]

The website of The Red Cat, on 23rd and 10th in Manhattan, describes its restaurant as having “a New England Motiff,” and it’s a testament to the skill of the designer (and taste of the owner) that in spite of cute sconces at the tables and oversize lanterns hanging from the ceiling The Red Cat doesn’t feel themed at all, just stylishly homey with a few quirks and pleasant distractions: local artists’ pieces hang illuminated by brass lamps as if on show, the plates don’t match, and here and there bent silverware is drilled into the red and white barnwood panelling. You could overlook the décor entirely, however, and be the none the worse for it, because the food (and service) is excellent: straightforward new-American, big on flavor, light on sauce. I’m not sure it passes the couldn’t-I-just-make-this-at home test, but with most of the entrees priced under thirty dollars it doesn’t have to.

The calves liver was the best dish we had. It was twenty-one dollars, and I would have been happy getting it just about anywhere. The sides were brilliant; I’m not usually a fan of extra-pungent tomato sauces (a “melted tomato,” in this case, actually), but this liver, reeking of glorious smoky bacon, would have stood for no subtle complements. The delicious swiss chard pie was the tamest thing on the plate.

First, though, the appetizers. We had the romaine salad (only loser, not worth mentioning again), steak tartare, and a rabbit loin special. The tartare, served over watercress, cut with horseradish, would have been rave-worthy if only the quail egg hadn’t been broken (or maybe just overcooked); as it was, the yoke didn’t ooze over the meat, and the dish was just tasty. The rabbit was also good-not-amazing. Wrapped in pancetta, served over risotto, it delivered on the implicit expectations promise.

Our other entrees (along with the liver) were the striped bass with shitake mushrooms and grapefruit, and the crispy skate wing; and I don’t think it’s fair for me to judge the former. It’s a light dish, and I was eating the liver (from the one bite I had, the grapefruit did seem to work). The skate, on other hand, I could taste through all wafting bacon. It’s their signature dish and you can see why: served with eggplant and a piquillo pepper puree, it’s a homey dish that nobody eats at home. Which, of course, is exactly what The Red Cat is going for: home in the city, a place where you can snack on (delightful) tempura-fried green beans and really feel like your just snacking. It may not be worth its own trip into the city, but it’s perfect for after a show (easy access to the Lincoln Tunnel), and if you live in the city, the bar scene looked pretty cool.

Now a question for the readership: how do you guys feel about blogs panning restaurants? Part of me feels like it’s not fair because bloggers, as far as I know, rarely go back to a restaurant they didn’t like just to make sure it really sucked (and of course the place just might have had an off night); but part of me also feels that people know bloggers aren’t professional restaurant critics, and, given that, there’s nothing wrong with a blogger telling people about his one-time experience. I imagine food blogging as a whole is a boon to good restaurants.