Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Chocolate Chocolate Chip Coffee Muffins

 I was intrigued by this recipe of Nigella Lawson's for chocolate chocolate chip muffins. Unlike most recipes for just about every baked good on the web, one of the complaints in the 'comments' sections was that it wasn't sweet enough. 

I'm a bad judge of bitterness.  I fail every standard for 'supertasting.'  I like bitter vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower.  I began drinking coffee without milk when I was thirteen years old.  I like dark chocolate, walnuts and almonds.  Ironically, despite a fondness for liverwurst and provolone cheese as a child, I was probably more of an elite supertaster back then.  Even white potatoes seemed bitter to my tastebuds, I loathed all vegetables, and if you had served me a bowl of frosting, I would have eaten it with a spoon. I blanched at the taste of wine, and while I don't drink as an adult, I do like the taste of balsamic vinegar.
Proof that I once did have a carefree side, free of bitterness.  And I did know how to smile!

I suppose my palate has matured, but sometimes I wonder if my tongue has grown coarse and bitter with my character. Even when I'm in yoga class, my instructor tells me to smile.  I find myself arguing with him: surely in yoga class I'm allowed to be in touch with my authentic, unsmiling self rather than grin like I'm auditioning for Annie?

 I find people judge others on their perceived happiness scale all of the time.  Like, I'll mention the name of an author or an actress I think is quite talented but perhaps a teeny bit tormented and the inevitable response will be: but I don't think they are really happy! Like that 'disqualifies' their accomplishment. Or I'll be angst-ing about what I lack in my own life and character and the response will be: but will that make you really happy?

 I've never thought of happiness as a permanent state, much less a responsibility (smile!  be happy)!  I personally think that because human life by definition is in a state of constant change, I doubt I'll ever live in a permanent  state of happiness and doesn't make me feel as if I'm bad or unappreciative. And I just don't understand the mentality of someone who listens to Ode to Joy from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony who thinks: sure, this music is okay, but was he really happy?  I THINK NOT!

My goal has always simply been to lead an exciting life. That is definitely a work in progress. Still, I think that a little discontent, a little restlessness, a little hunger, even a little bitterness ( provided it is tempered with a good sense of humor is good) for the soul.  Or at least for something.

I made Nigella's muffins and ignoring the commentators, I deferred to her preference for minimal sugar and even replaced the milk with coffee.  The resulting muffin tastes very intense and is for dark chocolate aficionados only.  It's the type of muffin an existentialist philosopher or poet might read, pouring over a dense text or watching The Seventh Seal at night.  Would the muffin make Sartre, Kierkegaard, or the star of an Ingmar Bergman film happy?  I can't say, but I think it might.

Chocolate Chocolate Chip Coffee Muffins

 --yields 8-12 muffins--

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
3/4 cup powdered sugar (Nigella used superfine sugar, and see Anna's notes in the comments below for why this yielded such a spectacular 'muffin top').

1 cup coffee
1/3 cup plus two teaspoons vegetable oil
1 beaten large egg
1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips, plus 1/4 cup for sprinkling on top


1. Preheat the oven to 400F. Line the muffin tin.
2. Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cocoa powder, and sugar together. 
3. Mix the coffee, oil, and egg in a separate bowl, gradually incorporate the dry mixture. Fold in 1/2 a cup of chocolate chips.
4. Pour into the liners, sprinkle the remaining chips on top of the muffins.
5. Bake for approximately 20 minutes.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Browned butter cinnamon cookies

I'm obsessed with cartoons.   Snoopy, Garfield, Calvin and Hobbes, and even Tom and Jerry were formidable influences upon my emotional and psychic development.  However, Little Archie comics always left me cold. I remember going to a birthday party as a prepubescent with a Little Archie theme, and all of the prizes were Archie comics, and I just didn't 'get' them.  I think it's because of the Betty versus Veronica problem.

You see, according to stereotypical cultural dictates, all women are supposed to be 'Bettys' or 'Veronicas.'  Betty is the all-American girl.  Blonde, wholesome, clean-cut.  As American and pleasing as apple pie.  Veronica is complex.  Wealthy, remote, difficult to please. Spoiled, difficult to stomach, yet intoxicating as a glass of expensive wine.

I'm a brunette and there is no one with hair or a complexion less suited for blonde highlights, much less a platinum coiffure. I like the theater and movies with subtitles. I'll tell you what I think rather than what you want to hear. And I'm standoffish, a loner by nature.  Happily single.

On the other hand, I'm always the girl with the stain on her shirt, who doesn't understand the point of wearing makeup to work out, and who is more adept at quoting Blackadder and discussing NCAA bracketology than keeping track of how short hemlines should be this season.

My inability to fit into either stereotypical category is supported by how I straddle the line with other commonly paired feminine ideals.

In Chicago, Velma is a cool, distant, tall drink-of water.  A murderous flapper with a heart of ice and a voice of pure smoke.  Roxie is scrappy, scrambling for fame and attention. A trashy, sexy blonde.  Now, I have been told that I create the impression of being classy, but fundamentally I am no Velma because even if I were rich, I'd just be wearing more expensive jeans that made my butt look better.  And I have freakishly short legs and arms.  Porpoise arms.

I guess in the 'Ginger versus Mary Ann' debate, I am more of a Mary Ann, based upon my name, brown hair, and my allergy to false eyelashes and rollers. But that's really because when I watched Gilligan's Island when I was a preschooler, I had a crush on the Professor, who loved Mary Ann.  An intellectual man with no practical skills.  Clearly, that trash 70s TV series ruined me for life in terms of picking a future mate....

I've always felt that even on a crass and stereotypical level there needs to be a middle ground between Betty and Veronica, but I guess the fact that most women (perhaps most people) are a bit of both is why the stereotype is so powerful.  One or two people seem to slip into the Betty/Veronica roles quite easily (I've met one or two women who have said, quite directly: "I am so Betty," or "I am Veronica) but most people secretly feel that there is some lack of harmony between the complete nature of their character and the cartoon-like cultural ideals...

I'm not sure there is a similar dichotomies of male romantic ideals.  Perhaps Richie and Fonzie (the nice boy versus the cool, bad boy)? Or Shelley versus Byron? 

Shelley--intellectual, spiritual, vegetarian, effete. A serial monogamist.  Killed when a gust of wind blew over his boat.  Byron--angry, passionate, inclined to have sex with anything that moved (male or female), swam the Hellespont. Chronic over-eater, over-drinker and dieter.  Killed fighting for Greek independence.

Anyway, in most ways, these cookies are totally Bettys. They make use of cinnamon, which is a very wholesome spice.  The browned butter adds a little sophistication but overall, although these aren't traditional chocolate chip cookies or Snickerdoodles, they would totally not be out of place at a bake sale at Riverdale High School, taste-wise. They're mainly Betty, with a little bit of Veronica thrown in, which is what I suspect that most of us are, deep down inside...male or female...


Browned Butter Cinnamon Cookies

-yields approximately 36 cookies-


1 cup (2 sticks) of butter
3/4 cup light brown sugar
1 large egg yolk
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 cups all-purpose flour
Milk (if needed)

Powdered sugar for rolling
1. 'Brown the butter' by heating the butter in a saucepan at low-to-medium heat, until the butter begins to bubble and foam.  Cool for at least a half an hour, or until the butter has re-solidified.
2. Preheat the oven to 350F.  Cream the butter and the sugar.  Fold in the yolk. Sift the cinnamon and the flour together, then spoon the dry mixture into the wet. If the dough is sandy, you can add a tablespoon of water or milk until it has a cookie dough consistency.
3.  Scoop dough into rounded balls on a cookie sheet. Chill for 15 minutes or slightly longer if you needed to add liquid to make the dough come together.

4. Bake for 10-12 minutes until the cookies look puffy and 'cracked.'  Cool for 1-2 minutes, then sprinkle powdered sugar on the surface.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Rye Cornmeal Muffin With Thyme

I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers
Could not, with all their quantity of love,

Make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her?

 --Hamlet, V.1

 I'm sorry, Hamlet, but I loved Ophelia. Or rather, I identified with her in high school, more so than any of Shakespeare's other heroines.

 I couldn't believe a man would ever die for the love of me, like Romeo did for Juliet.  And although I liked Lady Macbeth's breast-beating and hand-wringing I never really identified with her ambition.  I wouldn't ask a man to kill so I could have power by proxy. I could also never understand how surprised and guilty she was after killing Duncan.  I identified more with Macbeth--reluctant, afraid of his dark impulses, but wise enough to comprehend that once you become a monster there is no going back.

But Ophelia, I 'got,' instinctively.  Depressive, neurotic, insecure yet defiant.  Desperately in love with a tormented man she barely knew because she identified with him and he could express aloud all of the pain and inadequacy she felt inside. My other friends who dug Shakespeare called her a wimp.  A wimp to suffer within because of the injustices of the world?  If that was the case, then Hamlet was a wimp, not the 'most intelligent character ever created' as he is often called.

Unfortunately, given the limited imaginations of casting directors, I was never blonde and willowy enough to embody Ophelia.  Instead, I played her again and again in my head, reading Ophelia's mad scene for the umpteenth time in my room.  Didn't people understand the PROFOUND TRUTHS she was trying to communicate when she was singing obscene songs, throwing flowers, and quoting strangely prophetic bits of folk wisdom? They say the owl was a baker's/ daughter. Lord, we know what we are, but know not/what we may be.  

In short, Ophelia was Gaga before Gaga was a word.

Ophelia's rosemary, pansies, fennel, columbines, and rue which she uses to 'speak' to others in her elaborate pageant of madness aren't so unusual I suppose--there is a reason that women and their potential to engage in alchemy with spices have always been feared--in sorcery and in cooking, as well as in Ophelia's mad scene.

With the cook's eye, looking at Ophelia's herbs and flowers, I used to wonder why she neglected thyme, the natural mate of rosemary.  Thyme would seem very appropriate, given that the Egyptians used it for embalming and thyme was often used to line coffins, to give the dead person courage in the next life.  But it is the spice of courage--fair maidens would give it to knights before battle--and Ophelia had no knight to whom she could give thyme, no one who loved and trusted her completely, and to go to her own death clutching it would be very bitter and false indeed.

In my own mad desire to throw something together with what was in my baking storage area, I noticed that I still had a bag of rye flour I used for an earlier quick bread, and a great deal of fresh thyme--more than I could use, even if I roasted a chicken a night for a month.  The savory muffin that was the result worked out so well,and got such rave reviews, I am posting it.  The flavor of the rye and cornmeal is accented with the thyme.  The muffins are particularly nice fresh from the oven, but they can also be toasted and buttered.  I think they would make a fantastic stuffing for mushrooms, chicken, or turkey as well. If you really want to go crazy.

Rye Cornmeal Muffin With Thyme

1 cup cornmeal (I used white, but yellow would work as well)
1 cup rye flour
1/3 cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1 cup Greek yogurt (I used the full fat kind. You can also use dairy or non-dairy milk and omit the water)
1/3 cup water
3 tablespoons vegetable oil (a fragrant olive oil would work well, but I used vegetable oil)
1 beaten, large egg
2 tablespoons fresh, crumbled thyme

1. Preheat oven to 350F.  Line 8-12 muffin tins.
2. Sift the cornmeal, rye flour, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together.
3. Combine the yogurt, water, oil, and egg.
4. Spoon the dry mixture into the wet, fold in the thyme.
5. Pour into the muffin tins.  Bake for approximately 20-22 minutes, until a toothpick can be extracted clean.  Cool for at least 10 minutes before eating.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Getting to the root: Carrot yogurt muffins

Raymond Carver's "What we talk about when we talk about love" is one of my favorite short stories and one of my favorite titles, ever.  It's a pretty typical Carver story. The central protagonists talk in spare, short sentences.  They drink.  Despite the lubrication of alcohol, the more they talk, the more blind they grow about themselves.

You'd think the answer is 'sex' when asked the question 'what do we talk about when we talk about love' but usually the real answer is what we talk about is ourselves, even when we are under the illusion of talking about another person.

Of course, I always find myself inserting into the blank: "What do we talk about when we talk about...."  What do we really talk about when we talk about marriage, the Superbowl, our pets, horses, cars, death...and food.

For some people, what they talk about when they talk about food is the fact that they perceive themselves as nurturers.  And I know that's not me, because I've had too many negative associations with the 'food as love myth.'  If I bought into the idea of food as love, as pure comfort, I wouldn't be cooking, I'd still be on the couch like I was as a child, snarfing my way miserably through the next program and only dreaming of the sunshine I was too tired, achy, and bloated to face.

There is also the idea that food is entertainment but I'm not sure I agree with that either. While I know this is heresy, as dreadful as a rider, actress, runner, and all of the various things I've tried in my life...I've never tasted a bit of food that was as good as a six mile run. Or being on stage. And certainly my worst ride (and as a truly terrible walk-trot-canter rider, I've had some bad ones) always tastes better than even the most ambrosia-like piece of chocolate...or even a freshly picked strawberry.  

For some, food is ideology.  But I'm not a "and we shall lie down with the lion and the lamb and all eat factory-processed seitan" together vegetarian or vegan--not a vegetarian or vegan at all, although I don't eat a lot of meat.  I fortunately don't have any crazy allergies or dietary restrictions so I'm not militantly against dairy or gluten or peanuts whatever unless someone has a genuine physical problem.  (Being grossed out by coconut and Jell-O doesn't count). I like to eat healthfully, but I'm creeped out by artificial sweeteners and I would rather eat a pat of butter than some weird substitute 'buttery spread.'

And if people eat differently from me, I tend to find that interesting rather than think: "oh, you're a bad person."  Some people I respect a great deal juice as a verb rather than chew, others still eat McDonald's on occasion.  I wouldn't want to eat either way, and I know what happens to my body when I do (whacked out blood sugar at either extreme) but I don't get the Internet flame wars about food.  Do you not know people in the real world who have consumed Pop Tarts when you're ragging on someone you saw in the supermarket buying a box? Do you seriously think that the government is trying to control your body because it wants your school to serve whole wheat pizza?  Seriously? 

I suppose for me, like almost everything, food is about story.  Name a food, and people will always have a story about it, good or bad.  I'm not entirely satisfied with how the story of my life, its larger narrative, is going in some ways, but stringing together small stories about food is one way to understand it.  Using things like love, like the body (animal and human), like sex and food seem like a more meaningful way to try to make sense of life than years, seconds, minutes, or even pairs of jeans we have worn.

I was introduced to carrot cake at age thirteen--it was the favorite cake of one of my favorite teachers, and that was my motivation to try it.  This is a healthy incarnation of carrot cake for a quick breakfast--it doesn't require grating the carrots and it's a good way to use up extra cooked carrots.  Each muffin has approximately 150-160 calories, depending on how you size them.

Carrot Yogurt Muffins

--yields 8-12 muffins--


1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup vegetable oil (or other neutral oil)
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/4 cup honey
1 large, beaten egg
3/4 cup Greek yogurt (full fat or 2%)
1/2 cup cooked, mashed pureed carrots. (You can also substitute unsweetened carrot juice or carrot baby food, unsweetened and unflavored)


1. Preheat the oven to 375F.  Line a muffin tin with 8-12 cups, depending on the size of the muffin you want.
2. Sift flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon.
3. Mix honey, egg, yogurt, and carrots.
4. Incorporate dry into wet mixture. Pour the batter into muffin liners and bake for 20-25 minutes until a toothpick can be extracted 'clean.'  Note that the cooking time may vary depending on the moisture of the carrots you use.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

Like many young girls, I had a dollhouse. Mine was a large, Victorian creation that was exactly the opposite of the flat, faux California-style house I actually inhabited in my New Jersey suburb.  My passion for collecting dollhouse accessories and making furniture for the small home seems strange in retrospect, since there are few adult duties I despise more than housework.  However, as a child you can't control your world, so it becomes strangely empowering to create a dresser drawer out of a stack of matchboxes.  (For my male readers of a certain age who are tempted to snigger at my tiny world, I respond: Star Wars figurines and GI Joe.  Need I say more?).

I loved stories like The Wind in the Willows about itty bitty animals living in teeny-weeny places, 'making do' with whatever they could scavenge.   I was fascinated with books about children who ran away from terrible circumstances, and lived alone in boxcars or even in museums. Some survived on hot dogs roasted over a fire and the berries they picked. From reading those types of prepubescent survival manuals, I learned that if you had to live on the pocket change you found on the ground, you should always get ice cream, because it has milk in it, and eat candy bars with nuts for protein.

Flickr: PetitPlat

Some things that seem cool as a child--using flashlights during a power outage, sleeping in a sleeping bag in someone else's room, and eating leftover cold pizza and Girl Scout cookies for dinner on the floor--begin to lose their charm as an adult.

As an adult, the idea of 'scraping by' and 'making do'  seems vastly less appealing.  I've matured into the type of person who tends not to get the new repairs for the house when she can't afford precisely what she wants, who doesn't buy new clothes if she can't find the perfect outfit.  And while I have stayed in youth hostels during all of the trips I have made as an adult abroad, finding a room with my own bathroom was a must.

These oatmeal cookies are in the spirit of my 'old self'--making do with what I had on hand. I was going to make oatmeal raisin cookies, but I had neither butter nor raisins.  So I Googled 'oatmeal raisin cookies with oil' and cobbled together this concoction.  I was actually surprised at how well they turned out and the good reviews they received.  Not only do they have no butter, but they also have very little flour. This gives the cookies the texture of chewy granola bars.  The kind of granola bars that your mother packed in your lunchbox as a kid, not the sort you find at health food stores.  Just the perfect cookie to make when you want to go camping in your backyard, or run away around the block with your plastic doctor's bag stuffed with Girl Scout cookies, granola bars, a Fisher Price flashlight and crayons.

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies (with oil, dairy-free)

--makes 24 cookies, adapted from All Recipes--

1/2 cup neutral-tasting oil (canola or vegetable)
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 large, beaten egg
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 cups quick-cooking oats (not instant)
1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips


1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Line a baking sheet with parchment.
2. Mix oil, sugar, and eggs together. Sift flour, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon. Incorporate 'dry' mixture into 'wet' mixture. Then fold in oats, followed by the chocolate chips.
3. Bake for 10-12 minutes.  Do not over-bake.  Cookies will still be slightly underdone when removed from the oven.