Wednesday, March 30, 2011

You'll-Never-Buy-A-Mix-Again Brownies

Never is a very bold statement. In general, I don't like the word never. In my head, never sounds like the premature death of possibility--or an easy excuse. As in: "I will never lose weight." Or "I will never be able to travel outside of the continental United States."

Clearly, it's easier for some people to realize certain dreams than it is for others.  It's easier for an ectomorphic teenage cross-country runner to get in shape and lose weight than it is for a sedentary, middle-aged office worker. Easier for someone with a trust fund to jump on a plane to Santorini. But often when people say, 'I never,' what they really mean is 'I am personally scared that this goal will take a great deal of hard work that I'm not willing to invest in this objective.'

However, I am willing to acknowledge that there are some 'nevers' in my life:

1. I will never become an Olympic-level figure skater or gymnast (even a rhythmic gymnast, much as I loved 
twirling those little streamers in third grade).
2. I will never buy eight-tracks for my 2XL again.
3. I will never make a 'mix tape' for a friend again.
4. I will never buy Aqua Net again.
5. I will never go to the Soviet Union again, because the country doesn't exist anymore.

When I was fifteen, I was chosen to be a 'Friendship Ambassador' to the Soviet Union. This was during the waning days of glasnot and perestroika. The idea of 'never' was being challenged daily--as in the Berlin Wall was never supposed to come down. I traveled through the Soviet Union for three weeks--Russia and Belorus--and had the surreal experience of hearing, just after leaving 'White Russia' that the nation had declared itself independent.

Some memories of my journey mark me as a foreigner traveling in Russia. I saw the waxy corpse in Lenin's tomb, preserved with a kind of a saintly reverence. I recall being asked to say a few words at a memorial for some of the dead Soviet soldiers of World War II. I remember smoking unfiltered cigarettes and drinking vodka on a homestay with a Russian family over cheap caviar served on crisps and sour cream.  (Bless my sturdier teenager constitution!) I remember hearing a lecture from a man who had survived the Great Patriotic War, and navigating the complicated procedures of shopping in Russia (which involved waiting in several lines simply to buy a box of shortbread).

I also remember, however, feeling incredibly isolated from the other American kids on the trip. I had some stupid dreams, having watched Doctor Zhivago way too many times and read way too much Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky, that this was a Great Experience. Clearly the real point of it all was to have something cool to put on the college resume, and to have unsupervised sex. Which most of the kids were doing, given that they spent quite a bit of time trying to skip out of required day trips and events to either canoodle with their bf or gf of the day, or cry on the shoulder of a friend because bf or gf was cheating. I wasn't above the college resume or the sex thing, of course. But the only guy interested in touching me at the time was a gypsy boy who tried to pickpocket me and steal my cassette player.

I was quite snotty about how little my fellow 'ambassadors' seemed to care about the world around them. But really, we had all caught the same, obsessive disease so common amongst teenagers. They were obsessed with themselves, and so was I--obsessed with how much I was 'not like' other people.

I returned, part of me exhausted and feeling as if I had experienced something monumental, the other part of me feeling lonely and estranged from people my age. However, after waiting nine hours in a Moscow airport, mercifully not held up in customs when one girl in the delegation tried to smuggle several Russian soldier's uniforms (traded for Levis), I suppose I should have been grateful for small favors...

Speaking of which, given the stringency with which I apply the word 'never'--you should make these brownies. They are made with typical 'pantry staple' ingredients, and they don't even require two different kinds of chocolate to put together. I know some people have a fondness for the box taste but these are so easy it's almost not worth going to the store to pick up the Duncan Heinz. They're also pretty much close to 'idiot proof'--I've made them with white whole wheat flour, all-purpose flour, even brown rather than the specified granulated sugar, and they disappear instantaneously whenever I bring them over someone's house or to a party. The following recipe is how I usually make them.
Easy Cocoa Brownies

Ingredients

1 2/3 cup organic white sugar (I used Florida's Crystals)
3/4 cup melted butter
2 tablespoons room temperature water
2 large eggs, beaten
2 teaspoons real vanilla extract
1 1/3 cup white whole wheat flour
3/4 cup Hershey's Special Dark cocoa powder (unsweetened)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
(Optional) 1/4 sea salt to sprinkle on top of the brownies


Procedure

1. Preheat oven to 350F. Line an 8X8 pan with foil, allowing some to hang over both sides for easy removal.
2. Mix sugar,  butter, water, eggs, and vanilla extract in one bowl. Sift flour, coca, baking powder, and 1/4 teaspoon sea salt in another bowl and fold into the wet ingredients.
3. Pour into the pan (batter will be fairly thick). Sprinkle sea salt on top of the brownies and run a butter knife through the mixture to incorporate the extra salt slightly into the batter.
4. Bake for 20-25 minutes.
5. Cool for an hour and refrigerate for at least another hour--preferably overnight--to make brownies easier to cut.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

David Lebovitz's Salted Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies


“I love you like salt.”

One upon a time, there was a king with three daughters. He asked each girl how much she loved him. His first two daughters rewarded him with fulsome praise, saying they loved him more than their husbands, more than life itself. The youngest daughter merely said, “I love you like salt.” 

The young girl was cast out into the wilderness and bade never to return, while the other girls each inherited half his kingdom.

Of course, as soon as the older, lying daughters were given their land, they cast out their father.   The king was reduced to a beggar. 

One day, he wandered into another kingdom.  There was a royal banquet being held that very day, and he came to the castle and begged for food. The queen bade her servants to take the beggar in, wash and dress him, and allow him to attend the feast with the lords and ladies of the castle.   

“What is wrong with this meat?” everyone asked when dinner was served.

The stately queen explained: “You see what happens when there is no salt? Without salt, no matter how fine the food, there is always something lacking.”  She revealed herself to her father to be his lost daughter, his only true daughter. She had met and married a king.  She welcomed her father back and everyone lived happily ever after.

Shakespeare, of course, had a slightly darker take on this old folktale. However, I believe that even this happier version has some truth to it—salt adds something to food that cannot be replicated. When the great baker David Lebovitz posted a recipe for salted butter chocolate chip cookies,  he had to point out that despite the modern paranoia about salt consumption, to max out on your FDA-approved allotment of salt for the day, you’d pretty much have to eat the entire batch.

The problem with salt, of course, is that moderation can be difficult—like love. As a child I recall how I loved reading Victorian novels, while eating a snack that was (in a very 19th century fashion) appropriately immoderate--I’d sneak a bag of rippled sour cream and onion potato chips with some icy cool onion dip, and quietly work my way through the bag. First I’d dip the large chips into the icy, sour pristine surface.  Then I’d sprinkle the burnt and broken ends lurking at the corner of the plastic seams onto the surface of the dip and use one last chip to skim off the white surface of salty, potato-studded cream.

Sometimes I think that far more than taste, it’s the ritualized eating of processed foods that is so attractive—the satisfying pop when opening a can of biscuits or peeling off the frosting of a Hostess cupcake.
I don’t eat those things anymore, and I don’t miss their taste.  I know why I loved them so—the intoxicating combination of sugar and salt.  Fortunately, I've discovered that even the saltiest homemade food often has less salt than prefabricated foods like canned soup (which, oddly enough, doesn't even taste that salty--only leaves you desperately seeking out a liter of spring water about an hour afterward).

As with my former, intoxicating addiction of salt and sugar, I still have a tendency to fall in love with things to the point of obsession—it was never enough to read Shakespeare. I had to go to England to study Shakespearean acting, sit on Shakespeare’s grave, and see every production myself.  I always felt if I couldn’t do something well, it wasn’t worth doing, and if I did do something, if I wasn’t The Best, then it was pointless.

In my mid-thirties, I’ve come to understand the wisdom of salt—that sometimes ‘just enough’ is far better than dwelling in the extremes, and while a life without passion is as bland as a saltless meal, too much salt, too much love—either for a person, an idea, occupation or hobby—can be just as destructive, eventually killing your ability to taste at all.

These cookies don’t really taste salty, but they do have that something extra that takes them beyond the usual Tollhouse recipe, and unlike the famous New York Times recipe, they don’t require two types of flour.  They’re as close to a perfect-looking chocolate chip cookie as I have been able to make.  This is how I made them (pretty much the same as David’s, but please read the original!)

Ingredients

4 ounces salted butter OR unsalted butter with  1/ 2 a teaspoon of sea salt, creamed into the butter (what I used)
2/3 cup light brown organic sugar
1/2 cup turbanido sugar
1 large beaten egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/3 cup white whole wheat flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 1/3 cups semisweet chocolate chunks

Procedure

  1. Don’t preheat the oven.
  2. Cream the butter and two sugars together. Add the egg and vanilla extract.
  3. Sift the flour, baking soda, and sea salt together.  Add to the creamed mixture.  Fold in the chocolate chunks.
  4. Chill the dough overnight.
  5. When ready to make, preheat the oven to 350F. Prepare two cookie sheets. Roll the dough (it will be very hard and stiff) into 20-24 balls of dough, evenly divided between both sheets.
  6. Bake for 5 minutes.  Turn cookie sheets in the oven, press down slightly with a spoon if necessary.
  7. Bake for 5-7 more minutes (approximately 10-12 minutes total of cooking time). Remove from oven. Cool until firm.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

David Lebovitz's Mint Chocolate Brownies

I never met my great-grandmother, although I've written about her so much I feel as if I know her. My mother spent some of her happiest afternoons playing in the gardens of my great-grandparents' home. My mother always said I inherited my storytelling ability from my great-grandmother. My great-grandmother was Irish and although she had no education--she emigrated as a teenager from county Sligo to America at the turn of the century--she apparently was a great one for the craic, while she was sewing doll clothes or tending her garden. The doll clothes weren't a hobby--my great-grandfather worked 'in the city' while my great-grandmother sold handmade toys and ran a boarding house from their large, sprawling home. Like many immigrants, neither of them were comfortable unless they were working and making money--constantly.

So perhaps, in her own strange way, my great-grandmother would understand how the holy holiday of St. Patrick's Day has become a marketing bonanza in America.
Flickr: brixton
My great-grandmother was a devout Irish Catholic, yet she married a Jewish-American man who, like her, only had a grade school education. Their sons became successful lawyers and businessmen, and my grandmother...alas, I'll save that story for another time. Despite the dire warnings about intermarriage that you still hear today, my great-grandparents had a very happy marriage. For a long time, my grandmother thought that everyone had a father who went to shul and a mother who went to church, because it seemed so natural to her.

It's said that my great-grandmother died at 90 not out of sickness, but because she regretted losing her sight from all the sewing. My great-grandfather, who was also in his 90s, stopped eating after her death and died nearly a month later.

My mother remembered the tender greens picked from my grandmother's garden, but of my great-grandmother's food...well, let's just say she was a frugal Irishwoman cooking for a large family and tenants, and leave it at that. There's an old saying that Irish cookbooks have two pages--Guinness on the one side, and a picture of a potato on the other, and my great-grandmother wasn't a drinker, so her cookbook was even shorter.

Whenever my grandmother used to cook, it usually involved throwing a chicken carcass and some cut up vegetables into a pan, so I assume that pretty much sums up my great-grandmother's good, old-fashioned Irish cooking. Baking chicken until there was no longer any danger of contamination and cooking vegetables until they blended into one another.

Is it any wonder I preferred McDonald's Happy Meals and Shamrock Shakes growing up?

St. Patrick's Day has developed its own, odd traditions in the United States, embracing green beer and mint-flavored foods as well as slightly more traditional corned beef, potatoes, and cabbage.  When I saw this recipe on David Lebovitz's blog, I had to make it. And it feels, well, somewhat Irish and seasonal, in my twisted American mindset.

Please check out the original version here!  I made it pretty much as David specified, only I used only one pound of peppermint patties rather than two, as he suggests.  I was making it for a friend of mine from yoga class, so I thought restraint was called for.

An American making a mint chocolate recipe for an Irish holiday, cribbed from an American blogger living in Paris.  Who then brings the brownies to a class where an ancient Eastern practice is observed--in New Jersey.  I can think of no better way of honoring my great-grandmother's status as an Irish-American.

Procedure

Ingredient list is available here.

1. Preheat the oven to 425F. Line a 9X13 pan with foil. Butter the living daylights out of the foil.  Trust me on this one!
2. Put on an apron.  (I didn't and regretted it immediately, after putting in the 8 ounces of unsweetened Baker's chocolate and 8 ounces of unsalted butter into a bain marie).
3. Melt the chocolate and butter, stirring frequently. Remove from heat.  Cool.

4. Remember to unwrap the peppermint candies beforehand, so you don't have everything ready to go and suddenly realize why it's not nice to make fun of ingredient lists that specify UNWRAPPED candies as a gentle reminder to disorganized cooks.
5. I mixed the five beaten eggs, two tablespoons of real vanilla extract, 1/4 teaspoon of salt salt, one tablespoon of instant coffee, and 3 1/2 cups of sugar by hand.

6. Then, I added the chocolate butter mixture.

7. I slowly added in one cup of sifted flour to the wet ingredients. I used white whole wheat flour, rather than all-purpose.

6. Pour half the brownie batter into the pan. Top with the candy
7. Bake for 35 minutes, rotating once.  Some small peppermint patty explosions may occur at the corners.
8. Do not over-bake--there should be a crust on the top of the brownies, but you don't need to withdraw a 'clean' toothpick.

9. Cool for an hour, then chill overnight to cut more easily.  These brownies aren't ultra-fudgy, but are still quite dense.

10. For people who are very fond of end 'bits' with brownie crust, this brownie should be added to your 'must try' recipe list.  Even if you're not fond of mint brownies. 

The next time I make this, I may try I different type of candy.

Although I doubt my great-grandmother would approve of the extravagance of the chocolate used and the chocolate stains all over my clothing, I do know that she would have appreciated the effort I expended cooking for a crowd.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Cashew Butter Cookies


Cooking is a competitive activity. Yes, there is a veneer of niceness that pervades the foodie blog-o-sphere. But it's fairly obvious that every foodie is in some sort of competition, even if it's a competition that only exists within the cook's own mind.

For some bloggers, the competitive aspect of cooking and writing about food is very formal: it entails real world bake-offs and online cooking competitions. For others, the competition is more subtle, and involves their personal struggles to create the most decadent ("deep fried cheesecake")/kid-friendly ("dinosaur-shaped mini-meatloaves" /fastest ("thirty minutes or less")/sustainable ("all bought at my farmer's market")/most vegan ("yummy egg replacer brownies")/ most vegan-unfriendly (I'm thinking of you, David Chang) meal they can possibly create.

Speaking as someone who is pretty terrible at every formal competitive activity she enters, I'd have to say that I think noncompetitive hobbies don't exist. I spent the last yoga class mostly in 'child's pose' --for non-yogis, that is the 'I suck because I can't possibly do what the other people in class are doing pose'-- reflecting on how much yoga is a competitive noncompetitive activity. True, yogis tend to use rhetoric  like 'we're all on the same journey' versus cursing and calling people wussies for not going out and murdering the other team. (Although perhaps there is a Vince Lombardi of yoga, somewhere). But it's pretty obvious when someone is popping a scorpion handstand and you're not, and all of the 'good people' are getting 'adjusted' that there is a competitive nature to what is actually a very acrobatic art, even if there is a greater emphasis on breathing than say, trapeze work.

But competition isn't necessarily bad. The hope that I can someday, be good at something, keeps me disciplined--and sitting at the computer--trying to better myself as a writer and to challenge my fears and yes, 'improve' even at things like horseback riding, at which I have no talent. If it wasn't for the fact that I want to compete, if only with myself, I'd still be in bed right now.

So, that being said, I'm pretty damn proud that I made these cookies in ten minutes or less. The actual 'wait time' is a bit longer, since the dough needs to be chilled.  But the spoon-in-the dough mixing and fixing time is shorter in duration than the meal-to-table turnaround of a certain famous food celebrity.  Yeah, Rachel, I'm lookin' at you. Plus, these simple cookies are made with cashew butter, which gives them an oh-so-much more elegant appeal. Because you know there's a difference between the guests you offer peanuts and the guests you try to impress with cashews.

Fast Cashew Butter Cookies

This makes a small batch of 12 medium-sized cookies--perfect for snacking or afterschool


Ingredients

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
1 cup of turbinado  OR 1/2 cup white granulated sugar and 1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 beaten, room temperature egg
1 1/4 cup white whole wheat flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 pinch of sea salt
 
Procedure

1. Preheat the oven to 375F.  Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.
2 Make sure the butter is room temperature. Either leave it out for at least an hour, or soften in the microwave, heating the stick for 10 seconds at a time until it's soft, but not liquid.  Of course, if you're European and never refrigerate your butter or eggs, you're reading this and wondering what is she talking about.  Or trying to convert all of the standard measurements into the metric system.
3. Cream the butter, cashew butter, and sugar. Stir in the beaten egg.
4. Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt together in a bowl.  Add slowly to the creamed mixture. Chill dough for an hour.
4. Roll the chilled dough into golf-ball sized spheres.  Make a crisscross pattern on the top, much like you would with a peanut butter cookie. Sprinkle lightly with more sea salt if desired.  Bake for 12-15 minutes, until slightly brown at the crisscrosses but not at the edges.  Remove from oven and cool.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Lemon ginger British flapjacks

The very first day I spent in England, I threw my suitcase onto the stained mattress of the YMCA bed  where I would lay my head for the next few months and looked around for a place to eat. 

At a local pub, I ordered a ‘vegetarian fry up’ and was served a very tasty buttery egg, beans, and a strange, wrinkled stewed tomato. I opened up the Sunday edition of the Independent, which I had bought to entertain myself while I read. 


On the front of the newspaper's magazine section there was a picture of a scantily-clad redhead in a pale white undershirt and boy shorts. I thought little of it until I skimmed the article within: it was about Charlie Dimmock, a British woman who had a gardening show and had a huge following because of the fact she knew so much about plants and wore no bra while stomping about  mulching roses.


The idea that the British could find soil fertilization and composting ‘hawt’ was a rude awakening about how much I needed to learn to culturally acclimate to the nation.

Although I still find the naughty garden show idea too foreign to fully comprehend, I did develop a fondness for many other British institutions, including good curry, cheap classical theater and flapjacks. 

Another British passion that continued to elude me, however, was tea. Even as a child, I would have play tea parties with cocoa and Ovaltine, rather than the nasty stuff that came in Lipton bags. I began drinking real coffee at fourteen.  I couldn’t fathom how, despite the penetration of Starbucks into the English Midlands, my British friends would have cupboards full of different sorts of tea and a tiny little container of Nescafe for friends who wanted ‘coffee.’

Small vent:
Nescafe=Coffee
INCORRECT

Anyway, although I haven’t  developed an appreciation even for good tea, despite the admitted beauty of teacups and a love of Alice in Wonderland,  I have to say that this version of the British oat cookie known as the flapjack is one of my favorites, and it uses all of the classic flavors of tea with great panache—ginger, lemon, and sugar.  It would be lovely to serve at a tea party or a garden party, now that the weather is breaking in the Northeast, and spring is on the horizon. But sorry Charlie, I’m keeping my darling buds of May (to quote the Bard) carefully fenced in.

Ingredients

2 cups of quick rolled oats
1 /4 cup diced candied ginger
1 /2 cup golden raisins
1 pinch salt
1 stick (1/ 2 cup) of Earth Balance (or butter, for a non-vegan version)
3 tablespoons of Lyle’s Golden Syrup (or a substitute)
1 /2 cup brown sugar
The juice of one lemon

Procedure
  1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Line a 8x8 or 9x9 round or square pan with parchment
  2. Sift the oats, raisins, ginger and salt in a bowl
  3. Melt the butter, syrup, sugar, and lemon juice together. Stir in the oat mixture. Remove from the heat.
  4. Pour and smooth into the prepared pan. Bake for 25 minutes until just bubbling. Remove from the oven. Cool for approximately one half hour.  When the mixture is still warm, score into 8-12 servings.  Cut when hardened.


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Low calorie, vegan 'health' quick bread



Last night, I was reading As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto. The book is a collection of the letters exchanged between  Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, the latter of whom was the wife and personal ‘secretary’ of Bernard DeVoto. DeVoto was a liberal newspaper columnist and Child wrote to him in appreciation of a brief rant he'd penned on the dullness of American kitchen knives.  Avis responded, and the two women exchanged letters for many years. The book overlaps with the time frame of My Life in France, but also stretches beyond it, and includes Avis ‘beta-testing’ some of Julia’s early recipes; discussions about the poor quality of American spices and America’s strange obsession with chicken versus other fowl; and both women’s eviscerating criticism of McCarthyism.

It’s quite charming to read letters, in the Internet age.  Can it be that people once used to write on a piece of paper, put down the letter to do something else, and then had to mail the document with a stamp?  The letters are long, and contain many ‘breaks’ within them, as life intervened before the letter could be finalized—it’s hard for me to fathom such a laborious form of communication today.

I fell asleep reading the book and had the oddest dream.  Suddenly, Julia Child was in my kitchen, and I was making my usual ‘breakfast bread.’
Julia: What are you dooo-ing, Marie?
Me: Er, nothing?
Julia: It looks like you are cooking some-thing.
Me:  Well, this is sort of my embarrassingly simple breakfast  bread. It’s something I came up with on my own. The bread is surprisingly good, given how healthy the ingredients are, and how low in calories.
Julia: Are you on a diet?
Me: No, but I do feel better if I eat relatively low sugar, high fiber foods. The applesauce and the cinnamon in the bread give it a nice sweetness.
Julia: No butter? No heavy cream?
Me: Um, I like to eat the bread with a tablespoon or two of natural peanut butter!

Suddenly, Julia vanished into thin air and I woke up.

I’m sorry Julia, but I must admit I like this bread. It’s not terribly decadent I guess.  But I know from reading your own words that you admit to have felt slightly ‘bilious’ after testing a series of duck and goose recipes, and needed to detox for a bit. For those of you without the iron constitution of zee French Chef, who like not-too-sweet, bran, whole wheat bread, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.  I plugged the recipe into a calorie count website (because I hate when things are advertised as low calorie without actual ‘counts’) and the calories in the entire bread average around 750-760, if you consumed all of it in one fell, fibrous swoop.

Low-calorie vegan 'health' quick bread

1 cup unprocessed wheat bran (I used Hodgson Mill--approximately 125 calories for a cup)
1 cup white whole wheat flour or whole wheat flour (Approximately 400 calories for a cup)
1 1/2 cups unsweetened applesauce (I used a commercially-bought variety, which clocks in at around 150 calories for this serving amount but extra props of you use homemade stuff)
1/2 cup hot water (zero calories, last time I checked)
2 tablespoons flax seed + 6 tablespoons of water (or a large egg if you don't care about the 'vegan' aspect of the bread, either way 60-75 calories)
1 teaspoon baking soda (Calories? Don't worry about it)
1 tablespoon cinnamon (or other spice combination of your choice, and if you're worried about calories in spices, go have a Tic-Tac instead and stop reading this blog)
1 pinch (or more, if you're like me) of sea salt

1. Preheat the oven to 400F. Line a 8X4 inch loaf pan with parchment, or use a square or round 8x8 or 9x9 inch cake pan. 
2. Mix the ingredients together in a bowl (this is fine for a 'one-bowl, dump and stir' procedure). Pour into the prepared pan.
3.  Bake for approximately an hour for the loaf pan, or 40 minutes for the flat cake pan. Make sure the top of the bread is resistant to your touch, to test for doneness.  
4. Cool. Because the bread is so moist, cooling overnight is ideal. I'd suggest making the bread in the evening and having it for breakfast the next morning.