Orange-Scented Molasses Cookies

There is an ice storm passing through and every shape outside from earth to sky–only grey–a heavy, wet, chilling shade of grey. Every once in awhile, a neighbor burdened with the task of catching the downtown bus, walks cautiously past my kitchen window, skidding, catching himself at the last minute. I’m so lucky that I get to be home today and having cancelled a couple of appointments, here is where I shall stay.

One of my favorite issues of Cook’s Illustrated magazine is one that I happened to pick up while in line checking out at the grocery store 5 years ago. It’s the 2012 Holiday Baking issue and I’ve referenced it often (read: pages are flour-dusted with pen-scratched notes in the margins) from buttermilk biscuits, Christmas morning cinnamon buns and to these very addictive chewy gingerbread cookies that while baking, fill my kitchen with the fragrance and aroma of a more pleasant winter’s eve–cinnamon, cloves and orange.

  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar PLUS 2/3 cup for dipping
  • 3 teaspoons grated orange zest (2 teaspoons for dipping; 1 teaspoon for cookies)
  • 2 1/4 cup (11 1/4 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 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 fine, freshly ground pepper
  • 12 tablespoons unsalted butter, sliced into 12 pieces, softened but still cool
  • 1/3 cup packed dark brown sugar
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup (measure in a liquid measuring cup) light or dark molasses (not blackstrap–too strong)

Move the oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 375°F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Then, in the little bowl that came with your food processor, that if you, like me, haven’t used before, process 2/3 cup granulated sugar with 2 teaspoons grated orange zest until a lovely and fragrant pale orange (10 seconds ought to do it). Next pour sugar into an 8- or 9-inch cake pan and set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk flour, baking soda (as molasses has a bit of acidity to it, it needs a bit of baking soda, an alkalai, to react with it and provide lift) salt, and spices together until thoroughly combined. Set aside.

In a stand mixer fitted with paddle, beat butter for a 20 seconds or so, then add 1/3 cup granulated sugar, dark brown sugar and 1 teaspoon grated orange zest and beat on medium-high speed until light and fluffy (about 3 minutes). Reduce speed to medium-low and add egg yolk and vanilla. Increase speed to medium and beat until incorporated, about 20 seconds.

Reduce speed to medium-low and add molasses beating until fully incorporated (20 seconds), scraping bottom and sides of bowl once with a rubber spatula. Reduce speed to lowest setting and add flour mixture slowly, mixing until just combined, scraping the bottom and sides of the bowl again, once.

Remove the bowl from the mixer and give the dough a final stir with the rubber spatula, making sure to really get to the bottom of the bowl. Dough will be soft.

Scoop and form 1 1/2-inch balls (using a tablespoon as a guide may help), dropping 6 at a time into the cake pan with the sugar/orange zest mixture. Toss balls in sugar to coat and place about 2 inches apart on the prepared sheet. (I spaced 3 across and 4 down–my pans are 17″x 12″).  Bake only one pan at a time for about 10 minutes (cookies won’t bake evenly otherwise), turning the pan once half-way through baking. 

Do not over bake. Cookies are done even though the centers are still soft and in between the cracks appears to look raw. Cool cookies on the cookie sheet for 5 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool to room temperature.

Store in an airtight container for up to 5 days.

 

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Damn! That’s good pumpkin bread

It doesn’t take long for me to jump aboard the pumpkin band wagon.  Once the month of October hits, all I see is orange: orange leaves, orange sunsets, orange food.

This damn good pumpkin bread is decadent and moist and was the offering in last week’s Give It Away half of what I bake each week goes to whomever you tell me could use a little something sweet in their day–and was delivered by me to a lovely and very happily surprised mom/grandma.

The aroma of cinnamon and nutmeg simmering down with pumpkin in the kitchen is so warm and soothing that it takes  the sting out of summer’s leaving.  You’ll find the traditional pumpkin bread ingredients in this post with a few surprises (okay, cream cheese!).  However, and this is a big HOWEVER, leave it to Cooks Illustrated to find a way to make pumpkin taste even more autumnal and less like the can from whence it came.  This recipe has you cooking the pumpkin down with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, the season’s beloved trinity of spices, into an almost custard before combining with the remaining ingredients.

This makes two 8 1/2 by 4 1/2-inch loaves or one 9×5-inch loaf pan with extra batter to make muffins.

Damn, that’s good pumpkin bread!, adapted from Cooks Illustrated October 2012 issue:

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Butter pans (bottoms and sides).  After you butter the pans you can lay a piece of parchment paper in the bottom and butter again.

For the Streusel:

  • 5 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon unbleached, all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
  • *1/4 cup coarsely chopped toasted walnuts (optional)

*lay a single layer of walnuts in a non-stick pan on top of the stove and warm until you can smell them.  Stay close, they can burn quickly.  Take off the heat and when cool, turn them out onto a cutting board and with your chef’s knife, give them a rough chop.  Leave them as big or as small as you would like them to feel in your mouth.

Into a small bowl mix all this together using your fingers (not hands) until you see what looks like wet sand.

For the pumpkin bread:

Into a medium bowl, whisk together:

  • 2 cups (10 ounces) unbleached, all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Next, into a medium saucepan, combine:

  • 1 (15-ounce) can unsweetened pure pumpkin (not pumpkin pie mix)
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly-grated nutmeg (ground is fine)
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

Cook the pumpkin mix on medium heat, stirring constantly until reduced to a cup and a half.  This took me approximately 8 minutes.  I set a timer.

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Then remove the pot from the heat and stir in until combined:

  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 4 ounces cream cheese, cut into 12 pieces (at room temperature)

Important: Let this mixture stand for 5 minutes.  This will melt the cream cheese.

In the meantime, whisk together:

  • 4 large eggs (at room temperature)
  • 1/4 cup buttermilk (give the container a good shake first)

After those 5 minutes, add the egg mixture to the pot and give it all a good whisking!

Finally,

Gently fold in the flour mixture just until combined.  Small lumps of flour will remain.  Do not over mix.  This will make the difference in your pumpkin bread turning out moist and light.  No gummy texture!

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Ready to Bake:

Scrape batter into pans.  Fill each no less than half-way, but leave 1/2 inch of space from the top.

Into the oven.  Start checking for doneness after 25 minutes.  It’s done when a toothpick inserted into the center comes out almost clean.  About 35 minutes.

Every Girl’s Gotta Have a Theme Song & A Great Recipe for Pie Crust

 

I’ve been baking pies since the nineties, as well as sweating over making my own pie crust.  But I am here today to tell you how silly it is to fear something that is so simple to make.  I’m writing this post not just for you, but for me as well.  Because even though I finally feel like I can do it — make my own darn good pie crust, I’m telling you, that the very next time I decide to bake a pie, I’m going to sweat a little.

What is it that has so many home bakers so nervous?   I can’t tell you how often I hear, especially at this time of year, “I can’t make pie crust.”  You can.  And so can I, make really great pie crust that’s flaky and tasty.  Now let’s get on with our flaky, tasty bad selves and get over our pie crust making fears once and for all!

Let’s begin with vodka and the genius’ behind the Cooks’ Illustrated Foolproof Pie Dough that appeared in the November 2007 issue.  Now, full disclosure here…I never actually saw this issue, but I did hear about it around the foodie water cooler.

It seems that a little vodka added when mixing the pie crust will boost the crust’s flakiness, and that good pie crust can really use the extra liquid when bringing the dough together.  Unlike water, however, vodka will evaporate when baking, leaving behind a very tender and flaky crust.  Important Note!! Remember that even though the finished baked pie crust will have no trace of alcohol in it, the raw crust is very boozy.  Keep this in mind if your kids, like mine, like to take a nibble at the pie dough scraps left behind on the table.

I’ve got to credit Smitten Kitchen  http://smittenkitchen.com/ again for this one.  I found the Cooks Illustrated recipe on her site, because, much to my disappointment you cannot get recipes off the Cooks Illustrated website unless you pay for an online subscription, which, by the way, doesn’t just come along with the magazine subscription, of which I pay for and look forward to finding in my mailbox every month.  I’m just saying I think it’s a disservice to home bakers, but we do have our ways of getting the recipes we need.

Time to break this down.  This pie crust recipe has only seven ingredients, one of which is water.  Easy right?  And you probably have all of these in your kitchen right now: all-purpose flour, salt, sugar, unsalted butter, vegetable shortening, vodka (Go, check your freezer.  I’m sure it’s still there from that last party you threw.  I’ll wait….).

A food processor is great, if you have one, but an even better appliance to have that will make this pie crust the best ever and make you a culinary sorceress among friends?  A refrigerator/freezer!  We’ve all got one.  See that!

And away we go!

Foolproof Pie Dough — Cooks Illustrated, November 2007 as it appears on http://smittenkitchen.com/.

Makes enough for a one 9-inch double-crust pie

  • 2 1/2 cups (12 1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon table salt
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4 inch slices
  • 1/2 cup cold vegetable shortening (I keep mine in the freezer and use it straight from there.), cut into small bits
  • 1/4 cup vodka
  • 1/4 cup water ( I took my water from my Brita and kept it in the measuring cup in the fridge until I needed it.)

First, slice the butter and cut up the shortening into small bits, then put it all back in the fridge until you need it.  Mix the flour salt and sugar in a large bowl until combined.

Add butter and shortening and blend using a hand-held pastry blender until the mixture resembles coarse corn meal.

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Sprinkle vodka and water over mixture.  With a rubber spatula, use folding motion to mix, pressing down on dough until dough is slightly tacky and sticks together.  Divide dough into two even balls and flatten each into 4-inch disk.  Wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 45 minutes or up to 2 days.

To freeze: Triple wrap each disk and place in the freezer.

You have just made pie crust!  All your ingredients were icy-cold and you barely touched it at all with your warm hands.  It is going to be great.

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So, let’s get rolling!  Take only one disk out of the fridge at a time.  The best method I’ve learned and the one that works well for me is rolling each disk out between two sheets of clear wrap.  If your clear wrap isn’t wide enough, you might want to overlap two sheets on the bottom as well as two sheets on the top.  Give your dough a couple of good whacks with your rolling pin then begin to roll back and forth a couple of times to get it going.  Then, and this is from Julia Child, lay your pin about 1/4 way from the bottom of the dough and roll up, stopping about an inch from the top, give your dough a 1/4 turn clockwise and repeat with one smooth motion toward the top.  Repeat, always a 1/4 turn and always clockwise until you have a pretty nice looking circle about 12 inches in diameter.

Gently peel back and remove the top piece of plastic wrap.  Begin to roll it up onto your pin while removing the bottom piece of plastic wrap.  Gently, unwind it from your pin laying it down into your pie plate.  Carefully lift up the edges of the pie crust while lightly pressing the crust down into the bottom edges of the pan.  Easy does it.

Now back into the refrigerator until you’re ready to fill it with something delicious.  Repeat for the top crust.  Don’t forget to vent.  I used a small leaf-shaped cookie cutter to let the steam out of this apple pie.

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Voilà!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Banana Bread — A Spoon and Some Bourbon

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Oh Friends, I am writing to you in a state of pure olfactory pleasure — as my kitchen still carries the scent of perfectly baked banana bread from one heck of a winner of a recipe.  Thank you!  Thank you!, Deb Perelman of the absolutely delightful website titled: Smitten Kitchen and author of The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook.

The recipe I gleaned from Perelman’s site did not disappoint.  The banana bread was moist, tender — not heavy at all, nor overly sweet and most deliciously seasoned with the spices of autumn — cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves.  Ohhhhhhh yummmmm.

Banana bread is one of those desserts? breakfast treats? quick breads?  all of the above, Darlings, that we’ve all grown up with, right?  Who has not taken a bite of banana bread, better yet, who hasn’t smelled it baking?  It’s warm, it’s comforting, it is forgiveness itself when one, let’s say, has a rough morning getting the little beasts to school.  Please interpret “beasts” as my beautiful children, of whom I adore.  I do.  I adore them.

But this morning, I’m not gonna lie.  It just wasn’t perfect.  It was pretty much ugly and awful.  The kind of send-off that deserves some kind of recovery, some rehabilitation, gentle reflection — all in the form of baking banana bread in the aftermath of the tornado that was this morning’s drama-filled preparation for an otherwise ordinary school day.  Yes, banana bread was the drink (alas, no, I could not find any bourbon in the house, so this time, this. Time. I left it out.), it was the Valium, it was the long run for some.  Baking this little something sweet was how I worked it all out.  It quite literally calmed my nerves while keeping my mind focused and my hands busy.

Ahhhh…..banana bread, which now that I think about it, begins by taking a few ugly, over-ripened bananas that seem to deserve no better than a dip in the garbage can.  And yet, even in all their brown-spottiness, these bananas when mixed with some butter, some sugar, flour and spices bloom into something of joy and peace.  Something deliciously soothing.

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So, if you’re not as of yet acquainted with Ms. Perelman, I urge you to go, now, and take a little stroll through the lively streets of her website.  This woman, out of her tiny Manhattan apartment, works on recipes from reputable sources such as Cooks Illustrated.  Perelman then gives you her version of which recipe works best as tweaked by her, our culinary curious friend.  She pretty much does all the work for us — takes away the guess-work as to whether or not the glossy recipe sitting in front of us will really work in our humble home kitchen.

Oooh, I think I’m going to change this blog’s byline to: With Love From Your Curiously Culinary Friend or Dame.  I like the word, Dame… from my humble home kitchen to yours.

Here’s the recipe that worked very well for me as of this very morning:

Jacked-Up Banana Bread as it appears on the website: http://smittenkitchen.com/

  • 3 to 4 ripe bananas, smashed
  • 1/3 cup (75 grams) melted salted butter
  • 3/4 to 1 cup (145 to 190 grams) light brown sugar (I agree with Perelman and used the lesser amount.  I also packed the sugar, but next time, for kicks I’ll weigh it out and see what the difference is.)
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 teaspoon (5ml) vanilla
  • 1 tablespoon (15ml) bourbon (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 teaspoon (3 grams) cinnamon
  • Up to 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg ( I grated a fresh one, I’m sure ground is fine.)
  • Pinch of ground cloves
  • 1 1/2 cups (190 grams) flour

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. With a wooden spoon, mix butter into the mashed bananas in a large mixing bowl.  Mix in the sugar, egg, vanilla and bourbon, then the spices.  Sprinkle the baking soda and salt over the mixture and mix in.  Add the flour last, mix.  Pour mixture into a buttered 4×8 inch loaf pan ( I used two mini loaf pans instead).  Bake for 50 minutes to one hour, or until a tester comes out clean.  Cool on a rack.  Remove from pan and slice to serve.

Note:  It took just 35 minutes in my oven to bake the two mini loaves.  After 20 minutes my home smelled divine.  Stay around as your banana bread bakes, check after 30 minutes by inserting a toothpick in the center.  If it comes out clean, it’s done.  Be careful that you don’t get a false, too moist reading by spearing a banana.  Use your nose to guide you.  When it smells like banana bread baking in your kitchen, it’s soon to be done.

Voilà!

mashed bananas mixed with melted butter
mashed bananas mixed with melted butter

 

weighing ingredients rather than measuring is a game changer
weighing ingredients rather than measuring is a game changer

“You carry all the ingredients to turn your existence into joy.  Mix them, Mix them!” — from Hafiz, To Build a Swing

 

 

 

From the Baker’s Rack: Winter Reading

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The snow is coming down.  The kids are in school and perhaps together we are staring out our respective windows at the same wintry scene.  There is so much on my mind.  There is always so much on my mind — but lately thoughts are coming down like fat snowflakes, swirling then piling high around me.  The only thoughts sticking are the one or two I manage to catch on my tongue.  I am feeling frozen and heavy like the rabbit the kids found in our backyard yesterday.  Before someone goes and gets a shovel (or pokes me with a stick as in the case of the poor, stiffened bunny), I need to thaw and make a move– any move and that is the purpose of this post.  I am making a move, despite the storm blowing outside, I am keeping everything calm and warm and focused inside.  I am getting something written (cue a quiet “hooray!”).

At this moment, the stars seem to be aligned in this cozy, softly lit home.  I have my coffee pot back.  My little French press met its demise two weekends ago, when my daughter accidentally tried to put a wooden pepper mill down on the counter driving it first through the fragile little pot, sending shards of glass into the bowl of salt I keep next to the stove.  I am writing on a new laptop this morning as well.  For months I’d been using an old one – a heavy, bulky dinosaur piece of technology, that believe me, you do not want to have on your lap.  The heat coming off of it alone gives new meaning to “pants on fire”!  I waited patiently (weeks!) for this computer — this light, quick, perfectly unbroken laptop to go on sale and here it is and here I am.

It seems I only know two speeds these days: super-fast, creating a blur of everything around me and sleepy-slow, where I avoid walking anywhere near the couch for fear I may collapse into hibernation.  It is the season to slow down, however I need to keep writing, ideally next to a window letting in a stream of strong sunlight.  I need to stay on middle ground — keep my fingers moving and trust that I am where I’m supposed to be.  There is no other place for me at this moment than with you at my kitchen table.

I also have an “all-or-nothing” type of personality.  Either I give something one-hundred-percent effort or I don’t do it at all.  These days I’ve been doing a lot of nothing-at-all with regards to my writing.  In a clear sign of avoidance (blame it on a lack of Vitamin D?), I’ve been organizing — cabinets, cookbooks, cooking magazines, the linen closet, the kids’ drawers.  And each night in bed, I’ve been reading anything about food:  Saveur, Bon Appetit, Cooks Illustrated.  I’ve cracked open Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, and Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink.  I just finished Blood, Bones and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton and am looking forward to picking up the memoir, A Girl and Her Pig: Recipes and Stories, by JJ Goode and Chef April Bloomfield next.

Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, by the late and beloved Marcella Hazan andmy newly acquired treasure, already has olive oil and butter stains marking the pages of recipes I’ve tried.  This instructional cookbook has been compared to Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and both Alfred A. Knopf publications were edited by the legendary Judith Jones.  As I’ve read in many reviews, this is the book the authority on Italian cooking.  Any holes in your memory of cooking with your Italian grandmother can be filled by Marcella — the universal Nonna.  Rest in peace, you certainly live on in my humble little kitchen.

The snow is slowing down and so am I, but first I’d like to leave you with a few final thoughts: Food is good–even better when you can take the time to taste it.  Even better when there is someone with whom to share it.  And, it’s a wonderful thing to be able to write about it — to offer not only my food stories, but yours as well.  Our memories of meals is something we all have in common, a place in which we can begin again and again.