Tuesday, July 29, 2008

July Daring Bakers: Girl Meets Buttercream

Oh yes, it's that time of month again - when all of the blogosphere's most talented and neurotic bakers share their finished Daring Bakers challenges! This month's challenge was the filbert gateau from Carol Walters' book Great Cakes, and was hosted by Chris from Mele Cotte. Since the recipe is ridiculously long (as will become evident shortly) you can check here to see it in its entirety. Also, be sure to check the Daring Bakers blogroll to get a glimpse of some more gorgeous gateaux (um, is that French?).

So on to the challenge. I was initially not so excited about this recipe, given its buttercream-y nature and the fact that I found it to be fairly similar to the opera cakes that were made not so long ago. I've ranted about buttercream before, but I decided to bite the bullet on this challenge and use it as an opportunity to try finally making the stuff. Even though it isn't my thing, I always enjoy a good challenge, and it turns out I really enjoyed the chance to try something new.

For the first time in my Daring Bakers career, I really followed this recipe to the letter. Except I used almonds instead of hazelnuts. But whatever. The recipe said to make your own freakin' praline from scratch, so I did it. It said to pulse the nuts with cornstarch, and then fold them tablespoon by tablespoon into the genoise batter, so I did it. And two days later, I had a pretty nice-looking cake! I was pretty scared of the buttercream, mostly because I had read several accounts of failed attempts, but it actually came together pretty easily for me. I made it in advance, and making it spreadable after a day in the fridge was a little, um, sketchy, but in the end it worked out just fine. I'll be honest - I still don't actually like buttercream, but I can't say I don't like the satisfaction of making it successfully.

As I hinted before, this cake was a multi-step process in the extremely time-consuming sense. I made it over two days, saving each component and putting it all together before serving. First came the buttercream, then the simple soaking syrup (flavored with bourbon, of course), then the raspberry glaze, the homemade almond praline, the praline paste, the genoise, the whipped cream, and finally the ganache. I told you - we weren't messing around this month.

But let's break it down a bit: I'll spare you process pictures of the buttercream (it got a little ugly at times), but here is the finished stuff, with bits of praline paste mixed in:

And here is the lovely homemade praline, which is essentially an almond brittle made by melting sugar and mixing in the nuts:

And then of course, there is the cake itself, which rises only with the help of meticulously whipped egg yolks and whites. I halved the recipe, and thus had to find a small cake pan to bake with. I ended up with this yellow "kid-sized" thing from Williams-Sonoma, which worked remarkably well. Buttered and floured:

I was a little worried about the cake, because I couldn't bring myself to buy cake flour - when you have 10 types of flour in your pint-sized kitchen, buying more, especially one that will get used at most once per year, isn't really an option. But the cake rose beautifully, just enough to be able to slice it into three (only two here, but there were three in total) layers.

Once all of the componenets were assembled, it took only, oh, five or six hours to put it all together. First I brushed the layers with some yummy, bourbon-y syrup:

Next, I layered them with the buttercream and whipped cream, and let it firm up in the fridge (and yes, my "cake stand" is an upside-down cast iron skillet, in case you were wondering):

Time for the ganache? Nope, gotta trim that baby:

And finally, after a layer of raspberry glaze, came the good stuff: a silky smooth bath of bourbon-laced, bittersweet chocolate. Guess who licked those globs of ganache from under the cake rack?

After letting all of that chill for a bit, I broke out the remaining buttercream and the leftover praline paste, and "decorated" the top of the cake. Apparently I'm not much of a decorator, because the top of the cake kind of looked like crap. But the slices were pretty nice...

So was it worth it? Will I make it again? Honestly, probably not. When a recipe starts calling for homemade praline, which then gets pulverized into a paste, I begin to lose interest. I'm really glad I made this cake, and I enjoyed doing so, but this recipe was pretty fussy, and although the cake was delicious, I can't confidently say it was any more delicious than, say, a really moist chocolate buttermilk cake. It looked a lot fancier though, so maybe that's worth something.

I can certainly see myself adapting the recipe for a special occasion birthday cake, but leaving out the tedious steps that made this a two-day project. And the buttercream? Still not my thing. Without the amazingly delicious ganache, this cake would have been way too sweet for me. I'm glad I can check it off my "to-make" list, but don't expect to see it creeping around the Red Ramekin kitchen any time in the near future.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Entertaining 101: Grape Leaves

One of the many ways in which I've been taking advantage of my free summer is by entertaining. I usually don't host anything too elaborate (not least because our apartment doesn't comfortably accommodate many more than 4 or 5 people), but I tend to use casual dinners as an excuse to test out new recipes and techniques.

Last week, after having a couple of friends over for dinner, I realized that my entertaining menus might make viable blogging material. I don't claim to be an expert entertainer, but I do put some thought into what I serve my guests, and every once in a while I'm left with a good idea or a successful recipe to show for my efforts.

Last week, I decided on a Middle-Eastern/Greek-inspired menu, mostly because I had been wanting to come up with a recipe for stuffed grape leaves. When I'm cooking for guests, I often opt for an ethnic cuisine, because I find it easier to tie the menu together when I have a few guidelines in terms of style and flavors. Also, the cuisines I tend to make - Indian, Mediterranean, Moroccan - are extremely delicious!

In addition to the grape leaves, I also served homemade whole wheat pita, roasted onions and zucchini, an eggplant and pepper salad with tahini dressing, and my favorite chickpea salad. I also made a cucumber-yogurt sauce and hummus. Everything was served family style, with a stack of fresh pitas on the end of the table for various forms of scooping and dipping. It was the kind of meal where you take little bites of this and that, and eat well without ever feeling stuffed or weighed down. I kept dessert simple with some biscotti and light almond cookies.

Instead of sharing recipes for the entire menu, I thought I'd share just the grape leaves, which were so tasty I decided to make another batch today. Still cruising on my millet high, I opted for that grain instead of the traditional rice. Other than that, though, these grape leaves have fairly traditional flavors: mint, dill, and feta predominate, and tart currants punctuate their sharpness. I also chose to use almonds, the first time because I was out of pine nuts, and the second time because they tasted so good on the first try. I had some blanched and slivered almonds left over from baking, but raw or toasted whole almonds would surely work, too. They add wonderful texture and a subtle richness to the stuffed leaves, which complements the tangy acidity of the cheese, lemon, and tomato. For such little bundles, these grape leaves really showcase a variety of contrasting and tasty flavors.

Although the filling for these grape leaves is a breeze to put together, making the stuffed leaves is rather time consuming. I found jarred, brined leaves at my grocery store, but these require blanching, then stuffing and rolling, and then another quick steam. I have no idea how they pack so many leaves into that little jar, but it makes for a somewhat frustrating 20 minutes when you have to pry them apart after removing them from their brine. Sure, it's worth it - but probably not for a quick dinner. This is entertaining, after all!

Hoping that the grape leaves wouldn't actually need to be cooked after stuffing, despite the directions I read in several different recipes, I tried them both steamed and not. The bad news is that steaming really does improve the texture of the stuffed leaves. The good news is that after steaming, they are really, really good. And steaming is actually a very quick process.

I feel like I should be giving a host of instructions about how to roll, blanch, fill, etc. the grape leaves, but it is a fairly intuitive process, and rather forgiving, to boot. It is important to separate the leaves after removing them from the brine, and it's also essential to blanch them, to remove some of their saltiness and make them pliable for rolling. I like to blanch the leaves 5 or so at a time, leaving them in the water for 10-15 seconds and then removing them to a baking tray covered in paper towels. Then it's just stuff, roll, steam, and enjoy.

I served these as a main part of my meal, but they would also make fantastic appetizers at a larger get-together. They also make a great and healthy breakfast or lunch, straight from the fridge. Not that I would know. The recipe below is good for about 25 stuffed grape leaves, but can be easily doubled. They go down easy, and keep well for a few days, so make plenty!

Millet and Almond Stuffed Grape Leaves

2 c. cooked millet
1/4 c. chopped almonds
2 tbs. dried currants
1 heaping tbs. each chopped mint and dill
1/2 tsp. salt
black pepper
1/4 tsp. smoked paprika
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. oregano
1 tbs. olive oil
2 tbs. tomato paste
1 tsp. warm water
juice of 1 lemon
1 shallot, finely diced
1 oz. goat or feta cheese
30-40 grape leaves


To prepare filling: Combine millet, almonds, herbs, currants, shallot, spices, oil, and lemon juice in a large bowl. In a small bowl, combine tomato paste with about 1 tsp. warm water, or enough to make it the consistency of ketchup. Add tomato paste to millet mixture and stir to combine thoroughly. Crumble the cheese into the filling and mix well. Taste and adjust seasonings.

To prepare grape leaves: Remove grape leaves from jar and separate, setting aside damaged or torn leaves (don't throw out). Blanch in boiling water, 5 at a time, for about 10-15 seconds. Drain on paper towels. Place leaf veiny side up, with stem end facing you. Mound a heaping spoonful of filling in center of leaf. Roll leaf by pulling bottom over filling, then folding in the sides, and then rolling to create a spring roll-like shape. Repeat with remaining filling and leaves.

To steam leaves: Lightly oil a dutch oven and cover bottom completely with a layer of unused or damaged grape leaves. Arrange stuffed leaves on top in a single layer. Add water to the pot until the stuffed leaves are half-submerged. Cover the pot and place over medium-low heat, then steam for about 15 minutes. Stuffed leaves should be tender and slightly wrinkled. Remove the stuffed grape leaves from the pot and allow to cool. Serve immediately or store in the refrigerator.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


We are celebrating today because Jonathan passed his oral exam, which means that he now has an "advanced degree" and will be able to spend the remainder of his summer doing things other than studying contract theory by the glow of his computer screen. More importantly, though, it means that I've made brownies as a little post-exam treat.

I've been on a bourbon kick lately; not drinking it, mind you, but cooking with it. It all started with an ice cream recipe that called for a splash or two, and it's been bourbon on the brain ever since (evidenced by the state of the bottle below).

Bourbon has a complex and caramel-y sweetness, which heightens the flavors in desserts and makes ordinary vanillas and chocolates absolutely other-worldly. It's no surprise, then, that I came up with the idea for a bourbon brownie. I realize that I'm not the first person to have this brilliant idea, but even so, I think these brownies might just be the best brownies in the world. Seriously, they are that good. I think it goes without saying that these are rather indulgent treats - hence "celebrownies." Start making these on a regular basis and you're in trouble.

For special occasions, though, they are just right. They also add a grown-up twist to the classic brownie that doesn't eclipse its perfect, fudgy-gooey simplicity. I made these with whole wheat flour because honestly, you could put sawdust in them and nobody would know the difference. Brownies aren't really about the flour, but whole wheat pastry is what I always have on hand.

These brownies are remarkably quick and easy to make, and only require one saucepan (and no double-boiling!). I make them in a slightly unorthodox way, by melting the butter and sugar together and cooking until the mixture just barely begins to color. Essentially, this creates a caramel-like base for the brownies, which enhances their fudginess (to use the technical term). Even when the brownies are cooked through, they retain a sticky, moist, and deliciously gooey texture. If you are a fan of cakey brownies, well, you're out of luck today.

I heat the butter and sugar until boiling and uniformly foamy, stirring every few seconds to avoid too much caramelization. The batter sometimes ends up with a few small, toffee-like bits of cooked sugar which, trust me, is a good thing. From there, I add the bourbon and vanilla (being very careful, as this is a hot mixture), and then proceed in a regular-brownie like fashion.

One of the many wonderful things about these brownies is that a little goes a long way. I know when most recipes say things like "cut into small squares, as these are very rich," a real sweet-eating wuss must have written the directions, but really, these things are rich. So cut into moderately-sized squares, at the very least.

So, enough with the analysis already! Eat some brownies!

Bourbon Celebration Brownies

1/2 c. (1 stick) butter
1 c. sugar
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 c. bourbon
4 oz. unsweetened chocolate, chopped
2 eggs
2/3 c. flour (whole wheat pastry is great)
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cinnamon


In a medium saucepan, melt butter with sugar. Cook for a few minutes, until boiling, stirring with a rubber spatula every 15 seconds or so. Cook like this until mixture is uniformly foamy, and the edges are just barely beginning to brown. Remove from heat and stir, scraping sides of pan. Add vanilla and bourbon, and stir to combine, being very careful not to splash yourself with the hot mixture. Batter will look a bit broken at this point, but continue stirring until liquids are incorporated. Add chopped chocolate and stir until completely melted. Now add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add flour, salt, and cinnamon, and mix vigorously for several seconds, until batter is completely mixed, slightly thickened, and shiny. Pour into a greased 8x8 pan, and bake at 350 F until completely dry on top and edges are just starting to pull away from sides of the pan, about 20-25 minutes. Let cool and devour.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Beet Soup, in Disguise

I'll admit that I'm a bit of a Food Network junkie. Don't get me wrong - I really don't watch much television (Jonathan and I don't even have cable in our apartment), but when I have easy access to cooking shows, I'll indulge myself in a little Giada, Bobby, or Ina.

The truth is, though, I utterly despise (at least in theory) most of the cooking shows on the Food Network. Rachael Ray? Well, I won't go there. There are literally entire blogs devoted to that subject (and some of them are so nasty that I feel bad even providing links to them). Honestly though, her show is no worse than the rest of them. A few weeks ago, I saw someone make pasta (from a box) with tomato sauce and a plain green salad on the side. On television. I know lots of people don't do much cooking, but seriously? Pasta from a box?

That's just the tip of the iceberg, too. Watching "Down Home with the Neelys" makes me feel uncomfortably embarrassed for the entire Neely family. Sandra Lee seems to think that dumping all manner of processed junk into her crockpot makes it "homemade." And everything Paula Deen showcases on her half-hour heart attack how-to just makes me want to barf, period.

The only show that I really enjoy on the Food Network is the Barefoot Contessa, with Ina Garten. Perhaps it's because she used to have a show on PBS's How-to Saturday, along with culinary greats like Jacques Pepin, Julia Child, and Martin Yan. In any case, her food is beautiful and creative, and she herself is one of the most likable television chefs on the air. Although most of Ina's recipes are caterer-friendly, and thus brimming with all sorts of fat and sugar, a recipe that caught my eye on her show was her chilled beet soup, a summery riff on borscht that uses yogurt and sour cream as its base.

With a fresh bunch of chioggia beets from the farmers market, and in desperate need of a restorative chilled something-or-other on account of the weather, I decided to make my own version of chilled beet soup. I had never used chioggia beets before, but thought that their white and red stripes would allow for a more subdued hue in my recipe. The soup that Ina makes is veritably fuchsia in color, and, although lovely, seems a bit extreme for a first course.

I didn't expect the red in my beets to completely wash out, though, which is exactly what happened. After boiling my beets, I was left with a dark brownish cooking liquid and almost perfectly white-fleshed beets. Instead of a soft pink soup, what I ended up with was something that looked suspiciously like the raita that I love so much in Indian restaurants: runny and white with flecks of green herbs and black pepper.

Despite its color though, the soup was very summery and refreshing, and decidedly beet-y, too. My version is heavily flavored with dill, which lends an herbiness that is richer and more savory, in my opinion, than the taste of cilantro or mint. Trying to achieve a more evenly textured soup, I used my new (and incredibly awesome) stick blender to lightly puree the chunks of cucumber and beet with the yogurt base, leaving just a few smaller, chunkier pieces of vegetable.

As you can probably imagine, my version of the soup is much lighter than Ina's; I used non-fat plain yogurt with just a few tablespoons of reduced-fat Greek yogurt mixed in (I had to use up that little half-container somehow...) and skipped the sour cream entirely. I also didn't sweeten the soup at all, as the beets are sweet enough on their own for my tastes.

All in all, this is a lovely and simple soup, and I imagine it would look as good in pink as it does in white. I can also imagine it without the beets and perhaps with some shredded carrot, so maybe it would even be nice in orange, too. The recipe that I give here is only a guideline; this is the type of dish that is very forgiving and that can be easily tweaked and adjusted. Just be sure to let it sit for a few hours before serving; this gives the flavors time to meld and develop.

Chilled Beet Soup, in Disguise

3 or 4 beets (chioggia or regular)
1/2 English cucumber, peeled and diced
2-3 tbs. chopped fresh dill
1/2 c. beet cooking liquid
1 1/2 c. plain yogurt
juice of 1 lemon
1 tbs. white wine vinegar
generous pinch of aleppo pepper, or substitute dried chili flakes
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste


Boil the beets in water to cover until fork-tender, about 40 minutes. Reserve cooking liquid. When cool enough to handle, peel beets, and then chop into small pieces. In a large bowl, mix about 1/2 c. of the beet cooking liquid with the yogurt, lemon juice, and vinegar. Season to taste and mix well. Add beets, cucumber, and dill, and use a stick blender to lightly blend to desired consistency. Adjust seasonings and refrigerate for several hours or overnight. Before serving, stir thoroughly and top with a few grinds of black pepper. Serve chilled.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Why Bake Bread?

Why bake bread? is a question to which I've dedicated a surprising amount of intellectual effort. Although I've written mostly about simple yeasted pizza and English muffin doughs on this blog, I've been trying over the past few months to develop my bread-baking skills.

This has resulted both in plenty of deliciously warm bread and in plenty of hard-learned lessons about the ins and outs of making it (or attempting to do so). Making bread, though, is much more than success or failure in the yeast department, and, I feel so strongly that this is the case that I've written a short essay on my thoughts about the process.

Since this essay is a bit different (and much longer) than most posts on this blog, I will simply link to it here; please read it and comment on it if you have the time and are interested in what I have to say about the subject. Because I'm a true novice not only in bread-baking, but also in website creation and design, the site at which my essay is published is pretty basic. I've included photos on this page of a recent seeded loaf that I made. Enjoy!

Click here for my essay:
Why Bake Bread?

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Forgotten Grain

Although going to the farmers market and picking out a truckload of vegetables is fun stuff, the best part comes when you get home, and then have to decide what to do with all the things you just bought. Some of my loot from this week was best suited to raw munching or to being tossed casually in a salad, but one item in particular was calling out for a more involved preparation.

The eight ball zucchini from Monday's farmers market are perfect vegetables for stuffing. Although plenty of recipes exist for stuffed zucchini, these orb-shaped wonders are much more amenable to being stuffed given their bowl-like shape when cut in half. Now, I must say that the idea of stuffing vegetables is something of a mystery to me. Although it looks lovely, I can never quite understand why one wouldn't just serve the "stuffing" alongside a perfectly roasted vegetable and call it a meal. Does stuffing really add that much?

In the case of today's recipe, I'd say that the primary advantages of stuffing over side-by-side serving are presentation and ease of consumption. If you buy small squash, a stuffed one might make a lovely little appetizer, perfect for a party. However, the filling would go equally well alongside simply roasted or grilled squash if you happened to not be in a stuffing mood.

For this particular recipe, I chose to use an ingredient that is often overlooked in most kitchens: millet. Yes, millet. Although it is healthy and tasty, millet is often relegated to the realm of bird food. Even its name seems to evoke something drab and tasteless; it has neither the exotic air of quinoa nor the pretension of farro. Humble millet, though, is actually the perfect grain to use for stuffing. The grains cook relatively quickly, and are soft and just sticky enough to adhere to one another, obviating the need for binding agents like eggs. I also love the flavor of millet. It is mild but slightly sweet and nutty, and goes well with both sweet and savory accompaniments. If you've never tried millet before, this is your big chance. It also works well (uncooked) in breads and muffins, adding a pleasing crunch and flavor.

My millet-stuffed zucchini turned out to be one of those fridge-cleaning type of recipes, but the flavors went so well together that I will certainly be using this particular combination again soon. The broccoli was a last-minute decision, but was really sweet and wonderful with white wine and vinegar. The goat cheese, too, adds just the right balance of creamy richness and tang, especially when combined with the pine nuts.

A few warnings: I only purchased two small eight ball zucchini at the market, so I had an overabundance of stuffing (which I ate on its own). However, it is probably enough for at least 4 whole zucchini (8 halves), and possibly six. The zucchini I saw at the market ranged in size from golf balls to...um...some other kinds of balls that are bigger than tennis balls but smaller than bowling balls, so that's a factor, too. I highly recommend seeking out some eight balls for this recipe, because of the stuffing-friendly shape, but flavor-wise, they are about the same as regular old zucchini. Oh, and the scallions: I happened to have a glut of them, so tossed them into the mix. The dish would probably be fine with just the sweet onion, though.

Finally, I prepared the zucchini by roasting them before stuffing, as I really dislike big chunks of uncooked zucchini. Roast cut-side up, until the bottoms are browned but not so much that they are falling apart. The seeded flesh should slip out relatively easily with the help of a spoon, creating a little well for the millet stuffing. This recipe is truly greater than the sum of its parts, and makes a perfect appetizer or light lunch or dinner. And, even if you don't try this exact recipe, at least try the millet - it's a great addition to any whole grain repertoire.

Millet-Stuffed Eight Ball Zucchini

4-6 eight ball (round) zucchini
8-10 small scallions, white and light green parts only
1 c. uncooked millet
~2 c. water
1 sweet onion, such as vidalia, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 tbs. pine nuts, toasted
~2 c. broccoli, chopped into small pieces
1 oz. goat cheese
1/4 c. white wine
splash of balsamic vinegar
olive oil
salt, pepper, and Italian seasoning, to taste


Cut zucchini in half, and place cut side up in a roasting pan along with scallions. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper, then roast at 400 F for about 20 minutes, until browned on the bottom. Meanwhile, prepare stuffing. In a saucepan, saute half of the onion with the garlic in a bit of olive oil until wilted. Season, then add millet and cook for a minute or so. Add water, bring to a boil, and turn heat to low. Cook for about 10-15 minutes, until water is absorbed and millet is soft and fluffy. Cool millet in a large mixing bowl. In a saute pan, heat a bit of oil and saute remaining onion with broccoli. Season with salt and pepper. Add white wine and cook until onion is soft and broccoli is beginning to brown. Add broccoli mixture to millet, along with toasted pine nuts and goat cheese. Chop the roasted scallions, if using, and add those, too. When zucchini is cool enough to handle, scoop out seeded flesh with a spoon. Roughly chop the flesh and add it to the stuffing. Season stuffing with spices and a splash of balsamic vinegar, and stir to combine. Spoon stuffing into zucchinis and return to the oven for a few minutes, so that the tops are golden brown. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Farmers Market Finds

I'm a little embarrassed to admit that it took a month of living in my new apartment to do the minimal research required to scope out the nearby farmers markets. I really have no excuse, but in my defense, many markets in the Boston area don't really get going until late June or July anyway. A few days ago, though, I was determined to figure out where I could buy some fresh and local produce, and have thus far scoped out two farmers markets in Boston.

The first is located near City Hall, and is open on Mondays and Wednesdays. The second is in Copley Square, and runs Tuesdays and Fridays. The City Hall market was a bit of a disappointment; there were only three or so vegetable stands. They had some nice produce, though, and I came away with a haul of two "eight ball" squash (like round zucchini), a handful of garlic scapes, and some fresh peas that taste so good raw I'm not sure I would ever dare to cook them.

The Copley Square market was a bit more lively, with several more vegetable vendors in addition to a variety of bakery and specialty stands selling things like homemade soaps and dried lavender flowers. Not being one for stinky body products, though, I stuck primarily with the vegetables, and this time came away with a giant head of Chinese cabbage, a verdant bouquet of scallions, a lovely, flower-laden salad greens mix, and some precious baby carrots whose colors range from pale buttercream to deep garnet.

I also picked up a pint of local strawberries, which are much more supple and tender than anything you can buy in the supermarket. The find of the day, however, was half a dozen farm-fresh eggs, which I surely would have overlooked had a vendor not fortuitously grabbed some from the unmarked refrigerator behind the rest of her vegetable wares while I was standing close by.

The eggs were multi-colored - there was even a green one in the mix - and of slightly varying sizes, and looked so adorable and mismatched in their little carton. I walked briskly back to the apartment after my little field trip, where Jonathan enjoyed a rather refined lunch of poached eggs. His were served on toast, mine on top of the previously mentioned salad greens, carrots, and peas.

There is something about fresh eggs that makes them better than store-bought, and I'm convinced it isn't just their novelty. They have a rich, smooth taste and texture, and are somehow brighter, both in color and on the palate, than other eggs. Jonathan finished off the lot this morning with his usual scrambled eggs with scallions, but I think they are best poached, cooked just until the white is set and the yolk is still runny and creamy yellow-orange. I'm definitely going back for more of them on Friday, and this time I think I'll buy a dozen.

There are still a few other markets that I have left to try, namely one in the South End (Sundays, 10am-5pm), that I hope will be worthwhile. Until then, enjoy (vicariously, I suppose) my farmers market finds!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Dangerously Addictive Mini-Cookies, or How My Freezer Failed Me

Well it appears that I've taken a little vacation from blogging over the past few days. Maybe it's the whole July 4th atmosphere that has kept me away from the computer for the past week or so, but in any case, I really don't have much of an excuse. Since I don't start my "real job" until September, and most of my days are spent doing yoga, cooking, writing, and just generally enjoying myself, my claiming a "vacation" is like Tiger Woods claiming he needs a day off to squeeze in 9 holes.

But don't get me wrong - I haven't just been blobbing out in front of the TV (except for yesterday, when I couldn't resist watching the entire Wimbledon final). I've been doing plenty of cooking and barbecue-attending, too. In fact, I did a whole bunch of cooking for our July 4th get-together. For the party, I made a gigantic bowl of sangria with lots and lots of diced fresh fruit, some comfortingly simple chocolate chip cookies, an overtly patriotic mish-mash of lemon buttermilk cake, whipped cream, and fresh berries, and, to round it all out, a batch of almond butter-chocolate chip mini-cookies.

The batch of mini-cookies, however, was not the first batch of mini-cookies I made last week. In fact, it wasn't even the second batch. Indeed, it was the third batch of mini-cookies of the week, which should explain the whole "dangerously addictive" bit in the title of this post. To my credit, the batches are pretty small...but, frankly, I ate a whole lot of cookies, and there isn't much of a way around that. Luckily they're quite healthy. More like little snacky bites than cookies, really.

After making my fruit cobbler, which used almond butter in the biscuit crust, I was itching to bake some other goodies using almond butter. Now, I don't dislike peanut butter, but I think almond butter has a much richer, almost floral flavor that far surpasses that of peanut butter. It may cost three times as much, but it's worth it. And the fresh stuff that you can get ground on the spot? I can't get enough.

I find peanut butter cookies to be much too peanut-buttery for me, but in these cookies, the almond butter is not overpowering, and blends well with the honey and chocolate to create a subtle, yet flavorful richness. Besides, these aren't heavy at all; they're probably more akin to a granola bar-type of snack than a regular, super-sweet cookie. Chocolate never hurts, though.

I made my first batch of these cookies with the noble intention of snagging a few from the baking sheet fresh out of the oven, and then bundling the rest up in the freezer so that they'd stick around for a few days. That's usually my strategy with muffins - I wrap them individually, stick them in the freezer, and then take one or two out the night before I want to eat them so that they can thaw. This both a) preserves my muffins and b) prevents me from eating 5 at a time.

Thinking I had outsmarted my will-to-eat-cookies, I stuck these in the freezer, only to discover a few hours later that these cookies can be eaten directly out of the freezer, with no thawing time necessary. In fact, they taste almost better from the freezer - nice and crunchy. Needless to say, my plan for elongating the life of the first batch, and then of the second, didn't exactly work. Freezers suck, but whatever. Given all of the sugar and other junk that is in snack foods we usually think of as "healthy" - granola bars, crackers, and energy-type foods all come to mind - snacking on cookies like these is really a pretty good option.

A note about the recipe: I made these by heating the almond butter and honey together, to make the dough a little less unruly. When I added the chocolate to the dough, some of it melted, creating streaky bits of chocolate throughout. I like it this way, but if you want more defined chips, allow the dough to cool before adding the chopped chocolate.

Almond Butter-Chocolate Chip Cookies

1/4 c. chunky, fresh almond butter
1/4 c. honey
2 tbs. turbinado sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 egg
1 c. whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 c. quick-cooking oats
1 tsp. cinnamon
3/4 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. baking powder
pinch salt
1 1/2 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped

In a small saucepan, mix honey, almond butter, and sugar, and heat until thin and well-combined. Add vanilla extract and remove from heat. Allow to cool slightly, and then add the egg, mixing until combined. In a separate bowl, mix flour, oatmeal, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon. Add almond butter mixture to dry ingredients, and mix to form a dough. Add chopped chocolate and stir to combine. Drop dough by the teaspoon onto a greased, foil-lined cookie sheet, and bake at 375 F until browned on the bottom, about 8-10 minutes. Store in the freezer, if desired.