Birthdays Rain or Shine

Remember back when I said that the beautiful weather we were having was bound to be temporary? Well it was true. The weather around Seattle has pretty much reverted back to fall weather, except that it’s daytime for about twice as long. I’ve been keeping myself busy though–mostly going to birthday parties.

About this time 2 years ago, I was spending a bit of time with tiny babies. We had several friends who all had babies within about 2 weeks of each other, and it was very exciting because we had just announced that we ourselves were going to be having a baby in October (Lilli’s originally expected birth-month).

And at this same time just last year, I was preparing to launch this baby–the blog you are reading now. (Big plans for that birthday–not all of them cake related!)

And the list goes on with a whole bunch of other May birthdays in our family: the births of both my mom (57 yrs ago) and my dad (56 years ago), Joe’s mom (60 years ago), the twins’ mom (32 years ago) and also the twins themselves (9 years ago).

With so many birthdays this month, we have been busy indeed. Busy making cards and birthday treats. Busy picking out the perfect children’s books as gifts for our youngest friends, busy painting wrapping paper especially for them. There has been brunch parties and dinner parties, kid parties and grown up parties. Who doesn’t love a month full of parties?

Of all the treats I made this month, probably my favorite was a set of cookies for one of those young friends. It was a glorious sunny day when we were planning to spend the afternoon celebrating the birth of Niko, and I wanted to make a special treat for him. I had some gingerbread cookie dough saved in the freezer from when Lilli was on an “I’m the gingerbread man” kick the week before, so I took out the last of it and cut out one cookie for each of the letters in his name. I baked them just right, and then I let them cool.

I frosted them with a thick, lemony, and not too sweet icing and dipped each one in a rainbow of sprinkles. The sprinkles are the key. Bright and cheerful and fun, they make just about any birthday treat that much better.

The best part about these cookies is you don’t even really need a recipe. Just use any dough that would be rolled out and cut, and decorate with a thick frosting that dries hard–I used about 1 cup of powdered sugar turned into a thick paste with the juice of about 1 lemon. Dip the cookie frosting side down into a dish full of whatever sort of sprinkle you want and let it harden before you pack them up.

It’s easy enough that you can do it even if you have 100 birthday parties to go to all at once and they made exactly the statement that I wanted them to make: that I took my time and made something special just for the birthday boy.

Three Corners

I have a huge stash of things in jars.

Sometimes I go to pull one thing out of the stash and I find something else entirely and I’m all like “Yeah! This is gonna be sooo good.”

I did that yesterday when I was looking for some sort of jam to put into the cookies the kids and I were making. I found a jar of curry pickled green tomatoes that I had completely forgotten about. I still have an open jar of a different kind of tomato pickle in the fridge so I restrained myself and didn’t pull the new jar out of the bench.

I’ll just have to find an excuse to use up the other pickles so I can eat the new ones.

But in the meantime I’m also restraining myself from eating all those cookies we made.

It’s Purim this week–a Jewish holiday marking the saving of the Jewish people of the city of Shushan by their secretly Jewish queen, Esther. It’s traditional to give gifts of food to neighbors and loved ones. Actually, pretty much anybody. This is a tradition I have no trouble getting behind, because I am really good at making huge batches of things for the sole purpose of giving them away. Usually one of the things that is included in the goodie bag is a few hamentashen.

Yesterday I was home with all three little Goldbergs while Joe did a 70 mile ride with his bike team. We went to the park and did some other stuff, but the best part of the day was the cookies. We made the dough in the morning and once Lilli was down for the count after lunch, Isaac and I (Aaron was out with a friend) rolled out the dough and got them into the oven.

We used kumquat marmalade and crab apple jelly to fill them. They’re not exactly traditional Jewish fillings, but whatever. I’m not exactly a traditional Jew.

The last couple of years I have tried different recipes for hamentashen and not been happy with any of them. I’m not really sure why it took me so long to figure it out. It’s basically a sugar cookie dough, sometimes parve (no dairy or meat ingredients) or sometimes not, and then you fold it up into little three cornered treasure boxes of fruit or poppyseed filling. They’re pretty basic as far as technical skill goes.

This year I think I finally got them right. The trick is to use a solid fat instead of oil, which is what some recipes call for. The oil makes them parve, but you can just as easily use vegetable shortening, or I guess margarine, if you need them to not have any dairy. A recipe I got from a friend had a substitution to make them vegan even.

If you’re looking for a basic recipe this is the one. I based it on a recipe I got out of a cookbook that I think came from my mother-in-law, a cookbook called “Daf Yummy.” I tweaked some parts of it to meet in the middle with the recipe my friend swears by, and ended up with a dough I can finally be proud to call “my hamentashen recipe.” You could add orange zest in addition to the orange juice, you can switch up half of the flour for whole wheat, you can add a tsp of cinnamon or another spice to the dough. You could even make them chocolate by substituting about 1/4 cup of the flour for cocoa powder.

Now, when you’re eating all those cookies, you might need something to wash them down with.

Another Purim tradition, one that is actually commanded by the Talmud according to some Rabbis, is to drink. Heavily. There’s a lot of drinking in the story–it pretty much saved the day. So, you are supposed to drink until you are perfumed with wine and can’t tell the Hamens (bad guys) from the Mordechais (good guys). To help you along I worked out a recipe for a cocktail that is the perfect embodiment of the heroine in this Purim story: Queen Esther.

She’s strong and sweet. She’s bold, but knows exactly when to play her cards. She’s everything a heroine needs to be–just like this cocktail. It’s smooth and sweet and comes on slowly, building up to end each sip with a little fire.

There’s a long tradition of sweetened citrus drinks in the Middle East, dating back centuries, to the time of Esther and her kin. The grapefruit is a new twist on that idea, playing against the herbal notes of the thyme perfectly. I like to think that Her Highness would have approved of this refreshing mix, and would have gladly served it to her King. Maybe she wouldn’t have used good bourbon for old Hamen though.

makes about 36 cookies

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup sugar, depending on how sweet your filling will be
2 cups all purpose flour
1 large egg, broken up with a fork
2 Tbsp fresh squeezed orange juice (or lemon)
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp salt
2 1/2 cup all purpose flour

Filling of choice such as jam, ganache, or a more traditional filling such as prune or poppy seed

In a food processor, blend the sugar and butter until well combined. Add the egg, orange juice, vanilla extract, baking soda, and salt. Pulse just until everything looks mixed in. Add in the flour and blend until the dough comes together in a ball. Wrap in plastic or parchment paper and refrigerate for several hours.

When you are ready to bake your cookies, preheat the oven to 375ºF. Line 2 (or 3 if you have them) cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Working with 1/2 batch at a time, roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface to about 1/8″ thick. Cut out circles about 2 1/2″ in diameter, using a cookie cutter or the rim of a glass dipped in flour. You can re-roll the dough, but you might need to chill it a bit longer depending on how cold it was to begin with.

Line the circles up on the trays and place about 1 Tbsp of filling in each cookie. I like to use a small ice cream style scoop for this job, it makes it slightly less messy. Fold up the edges of the cookies on three sides, making a nice little triangle around the filling. Be sure to let some of the filling show in the center. If the corners won’t stick together on their own, use a wet finger to trace a circle around each piece of dough, then fold them up.

Bake for about 10-12 minutes, or until the corners are a nice golden brown. Cool completely on wire racks before eating these cookies, or you run the risk of burning your mouth on the filling. Just take my word on this.

The Queen Esther
makes 1 cocktail

2 oz good bourbon
1/6 Ruby grapefruit
1 large sprig thyme
1 Tbsp simple syrup
3-4 dashes grapefruit bitters, I like Fee Brothers

In a cocktail shaker, muddle the grapefruit and the thyme, squeezing as much juice out of the grapefruit as you can. Add the bourbon, syrup, and bitters. Put in a handful of ice, put on the top, and shake it up. Pour over fresh ice and garnish with grapefruit and more thyme, if desired.

The Results Are In: Marx Foods Capricious Chocolate Challenge

Update:  I didn’t win anything this time around, but thanks to all who cast a vote in my direction!

A couple of weeks can fly by so fast when you aren’t looking. Weeks filled with playdates, family holiday parties, Drs appointments and colds.

They’ve also been filled with testing. I was selected to participate in a contest Marx Foods was holding: to create an original recipe based on chocolate, using samples of ingredients supplied by them. I met the Marx Foods guys back at Will Bake For Food in November, and thought it would be fun to work on my recipe testing skills in a semi-high pressure format. What can I say, I do better under pressure. I did have a little trouble deciding what I wanted to make though, so could only narrow it down as far as 3 different recipes. Dear readers, you’re in for a little bit of a ride, but it’ll be worth it.

So, I’ve been busy testing out cookie batch after cookie batch. A little cookie made of humble ingredients that have been mixed up to be larger than the sum of their parts. A cookie that started out as one thing and quickly turned into something else, something better. I thought it would be pretty perfect to have a cookie recipe, since cookies are such a big thing this time of year. Am I right?

I also tested some créme brulées that ended up being pots de créme instead. And there’s also one savory dish, in case you don’t like dessert. (Who doesn’t like dessert?) More about those later, as first comes first. And if you like any of these recipes (or just like me) you can click the Marx Foods banner at the bottom to vote for me once the voting process has started!

Without further ado, here it is:

Mexican Chocolate Tea Cookies
makes about 32 cookies

These cookies are based on a common Mexican Tea Cookie, but also are based on a regular old Chocolate Crackle. They were inspired by the chilies included in the samples I got as part of the contest. 

8 oz semisweet chocolate, chips are ok but the better the chocolate, the better the cookie
2 oz unsweetened chocolate
1 cup brown sugar
3 eggs
1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
2 tsp chili powder (I used freshly ground dried Puya chilies from Marx Foods)*
1 tsp ground cinnamon
4 oz toasted ground almonds
7 oz all purpose flour
4 oz mini chocolate chips

Sift the flour with the baking soda and salt and set aside.

In a double boiler, melt the chocolates. When completely melted, add in the spices and sugar and mix to combine. Add the oil and eggs all at once and mix thoroughly. Next add the almonds, stirring with kind of a smashing motion to make sure that any lumps are broken up. Lastly, add the flour mixture and stir just until you see no more streaks. Let the batter rest until it is cool to the touch, then mix in the mini chips, otherwise they’ll melt.

Cover and chill for several hours in the refrigerator, at least 3. When you are ready to bake the cookies, preheat the oven to 350ºF, with racks in the lower and upper thirds.

Using a number 30 scoop, (or scooping about 1 1/2 Tbsp sized balls) portion the dough out, and place on a parchment lined tray. These cookies don’t spread much, so you want them to be nice and flat on the bottom and rounded on top, which is best achieved using the scoop. Leave about 2″ between each cookie.

Bake about 10 minutes, then rotate the pans, both top to bottom and spinning the pans front to back. Bake about 7 minutes more. They should be firm but not firm enough to lift off the pan while still hot. Let cool for about 5 minutes then remove to a cooling rack. Let cool completely before dusting with powdered sugar.

The rejects, which we gladly ate anyway

The best part about these cookies is that unlike a more traditional Mexican Tea Cookie, which are akin to a shortbread and must contain butter to taste good, these are parve (dairy free). If you keep kosher, that means that you can eat them as dessert following the main attraction:

Chocolate and Chili Braised Beef Short Ribs with Sweet Potato
serves about 6

The short ribs I used for this recipe are ones that came from the cow we bought back in summer. They were excellent, tender, flavorful and totally worth buying a freezer for. The sauce also goes great on the saffron roasted potatoes I served with the ribs. 

4 lbs 3″ beef short ribs with plenty of meat on the bones

For the dry rub:
2 Tbsp ground Puya chilies*
1 Tbsp ground Chipotle pepper
2 Tbsp cocoa powder
1 Tbsp salt
10-12 grinds black pepper

For the braising liquid:
1 yellow onion, chopped
2 smallish sweet potatoes, cut into 1″ rounds
4 cloves garlic
1/3 cup tomato paste
2 cups of your choice of broth (you might need more if your pan is bigger)
1 cup cold strong coffee
6 oz chocolate

Mix together the dry rub ingredients in a large bowl, and coat each piece of rib completely. Cover and refrigerate the ribs for several hours or overnight.

Heat a large (at least 5 qt) dutch oven with enough oil to just cover the bottom. Working in batches, brown each rib on all sides, taking care not to crowd the pieces so that they don’t steam themselves. Remove the ribs to a clean plate as you go.

Once all the ribs are browned, add in the onions and cook till translucent and starting to get a little brown, then add the tomato paste and garlic. Stir it around the pan, cooking it until it starts to smell like tomatoes, then add the coffee, being sure to scrape up all the browned bits that loosed up when you add the liquid. (Use a wooden spoon or other tool that won’t damage the surface of your dutch oven.) Add the sweet potatoes, and then the ribs, tucking everything in all together as best you can. Cover with stock and place in the bottom third of the oven. Cook about 2 hours, until the meat is tender. Remove the lid and cook another 1/2 hour more, letting the liquid reduce down.

Remove the pan from the oven and then remove the ribs, discarding any bones that fall slip out. Place the ribs in a bowl, and strain about 3/4 of the sweet potatoes and onions out of the broth. Let the broth rest for a few minutes and spoon off any excess fat that rises to the top. Add the meat back in, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and let simmer on the stove for about another 1/2 hour, tasting for spice. When I tasted mine, I kept getting a hit of spice at the back of my throat that led me to believe that it would be pretty hot, but it wasn’t as strongly flavoured as I feared once we were eating it with all the components together. In the last 15 minutes or so of cooking, add in the chocolate. Be sure and stir it up so the sauce reaches a nice smooth consistency, but then add back in some more of those sweet potatoes for a little bit of texture.

Serve immediately, with a little sour cream on the side to cool the heat, if you want it. (We used Sour Supreme)

Of course, if you’re not worried about having a parve dessert after your dinner, you could always serve the next recipe instead. They started out as créme brulées, with the intention of using the coconut sugar to make the crust on top. Turns out, it was too moist and brown a sugar to work well and mostly just burned instead. Well, since the texture of the pudding itself had been closer to a pot de créme anyway, I just went down that road.  

The original créme brulées

Fennel & Chocolate Pots de Créme
makes 6-8

1 1/4 cup heavy cream
1 1/4 cup half & half
7 egg yolks
4 Tbsp coconut sugar*
2 Tbsp granulated sugar
1 vanilla bean, split and seeds removed*
6 oz good quality dark chocolate, chopped
1 Tbsp fennel seeds
2 tsp fennel pollen*

Preheat oven to 300ºF

In a medium sized, heavy bottomed pot, toast the fennel seeds until they are fragrant and starting to brown, just a couple of minutes. You’ll want to watch them carefully as they will burn easily. Using a wooden spoon, crush the seeds up a bit. Next, add the fennel pollen, vanilla bean, cream and half & half and heat until it almost reaches a boil. Turn off heat and add chocolate. Let this mixture steep for 15 minutes or so, until you can smell the fennel just the faintest little bit. If it smells stronger sooner, continue with the next steps.

While the chocolate mixture steeps, combine the sugars and the egg yolks in a large metal bowl.

Next, bring the chocolate mixture back to a simmer while stirring continuously (do not boil, or you risk burning the chocolate). Strain this mixture into the eggs yolks, and then whisk until fully combined. Pour into 6 small cups or ramekins, each at least 6 oz. You could also use smaller dishes and make more servings, as it’s a rich dish for some palates.

Cover each dish with foil and place in a high sided roasting pan. Place the pan in the oven on the middle rack and pour enough water into the pan to reach 1/2 way up the sides of the dishes. Bake for 30 minutes and check for doneness. Mine needed just about 7 more minutes after that. The crémes will be set around the edges but just barely so in the middle. Cool completely, and sprinkle just a pinch of coconut sugar over each one before serving, it lends a nice little crunch.

* These ingredients are the ones that were supplied to me by Marx Foods as part of the contest.

Cookie Day

For Thanksgiving, most everyone has traditions related to food. Usually they are related to the Thanksgiving meal itself.  For me it’s to go over the top and make some fancy dessert. For Joe it’s the unfulfilled desire for marshmallows on the candied yams (because I refuse to make it that way). But for my friend Jacey the best part of the holiday is the day after. In her family they have been baking cookies that day, all day, for…I dont even know how long, but it’s a long time.

Jacey and I used to be housemates, and cookie day was something that was looked forward to pretty much as soon as the weather got cold and talk turned towards the holidays. The cookies probably never lasted more than a week. Tops. More like only a couple of days.

The best were the peanut butter buckeyes. Those things are awesome.

Anyway, this year I got invited to cookie day. So, I headed down to Jacey’s parents’ house in Olympia for the afternoon last Friday to hang out, eat cookies and let Lilli work her magic on a grandpa just out of the hospital.  On the way I had a road buddy, Copper, who was also our housemate back in the day. We were pretty excited to see the magic in action.

Once we got there it was immediately clear that I would not be baking any cookies, but instead that I would be following Lilli around while she dismantled all their Christmas decorations. It worked out OK though, since I was totally unprepared and didn’t actually bring any cookie recipes to make. I had been thinking of chocolate crinkles, but I’ll have to save that recipe for another day.

Copper however, was very well prepared. After a recent trip to Germany, she had been inspired to get traditional wooden cookie presses. She made a dough and kneaded it for a while, then painstakingly pressed each cookie, dusting the press each time. She manually cut around each one, placing them on baking sheets to dry for a bit before baking. In the end I had to leave her there to get a ride back with another friend who was coming back to Seattle a little later than I. The cookies took longer than expected to bake and I had to leave kind of early to attend another Thanksgiving dinner. 

Even though I left early I did not return empty handed. The rest of the ladies had been busy since 8 o’clock that morning and there was lots of things to sample and bring home. I ended up the proud owner of a box piled high with goodies and a whole batch of peanut brittle. (If you ever find yourself with a whole batch of peanut brittle and some vanilla ice cream, please mix them together. You can thank me later.)

Just before leaving, I did finally help by make royal icing and even managed to decorate a couple of sugar cookies, but then had to go back to toddler corralling. 

Today, Tuesday, we have only a few cookies left of what I brought home, and about 1/2 of the peanut brittle. Lilli is partial to the peanut butter blossoms and the ginger cookies, but my favorite are the cardamom crescents, which come from a recipe in a magazine that Jacey’s mom had saved. 

We might have drunk a little champagne, discreet tumbler style.
I’m a sucker for cardamom, and they were at once buttery and light. I didn’t see how many the recipe made, so you’ll just have to make them for yourself and find out!

Cardamom Crescents

2 ½ cups flour
¾ tsp ground cardamom
½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp kosher salt
1 ½ cups powdered sugar, divided
1 cup pecans
1 cup unsalted butter, room temp
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350ºF. 

Whisk 1st four ingredients in a medium size bowl and set aside.  In a food processor, pulse the pecans and 1/2 cup of the powdered sugar just until a coarse meal forms, and set aside.

Cream the butter with the vanilla. Add nut mixture, blending until just combined.  Add dry ingredients, blend well (dough will be moist but still crumbly).  Transfer to a work surface and knead until the mixture forms a ball, about 4-5 turns.
Measure 1 rounded tbsp of dough, and form into a ball. Roll into a log about 1½” long.  Gently bend into a crescent shape, pinching ends to taper (cookies may crack slightly).  Repeat with remaining dough, spacing about 1 inch apart on cookie sheets.

While baking, be sure to rotate sheets halfway through. Bake until bottoms are golden, 12 – 15 minutes.

Sift remaining 1 cup powdered sugar into a shallow wide bowl.  Working in batches of about 8 cookies each, roll warm cookies gently in powdered sugar to coat and transfer to a wire rack to cool.

A Sweet Weekend

It’s funny how when autumn comes to the NW, people really get good at holing up inside in the best sort of ways. Movies, too many library books, and of course, tasty food. I am totally guilty of this. I think I have about 4 library books right now, which is way more than I can read in 3 weeks. Good thing now I have a lot of treats to go with. Hmmm…

Ok time to be serious. One thing Seattlites are good at this time of year (at least some of us) is sharing what we have.
Today I got to take part in Will Bake For Food, the second annual even to help raise money and nonperishable donations for the Seattle and King County Emergency Feeding Program. It was very successful, and it was even more fun.
There were so many amazing bakers and bloggers in attendance, and of course a lot of very kind patrons. Some of whom were so excited to get there and get goodies that they were lining up well before 11 o’clock, the official start time of the event. We got to schmooze and check out each others wares before the public started to show up, which The Jennys (from here and here) finished up organizing and getting everybody set up. And, at the end we got to swap out any leftover treats from the ones we had been eyeing along the way.
This was not leftover. It went rather quickly.
I tried way too many goodies, and I might have come home with more than I started with (well maybe not that much considering I brought 4 dozen cookies and a whole bundt cake, but lets just say it was like a gourmet second Halloween). When the boys asked me if we could have dessert after dinner tonight, I almost couldn’t even answer I was so sweeted out. Good thing I had a big salad with dinner.  (Tomorrow I’m going to do even more balancing by taking a class at The Pantry to learn how to make amazing pizza a la Brandon Pettit from Delancey. Yay!)
Of the two things I brought, the one that most intrigued people was the Chai Spice Snickerdoodle cookies. The conversation I had with myself when I tried them (I had to eat the ugly ones, quality control) was pretty much this:
“Shut up. These cookies are awesome”
And then there wasn’t any more talking because I had told myself to shut up. Basically so I could, you know, eat more cookies.

That’s a wrap.


So here is the recipe, promised to a few lucky folks today who got to pick up cookies from me in person, and gladly shared with all of you. And no, drinking a cup of sweet, milky chai tea with these cookies would not be overkill. I promise.

Chai Spice Snickerdoodles
(makes about 2 dozen, using a # 30 scoop)

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, room temp
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 3/4 cups all purpose flour
2 tsp cream of tartar
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 tsp fresh ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp salt
2 large eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract

for the sugar to roll the cookies in:

1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp each all the above spices, omit allspice

Preheat oven to 400ºF. This might sound crazy for a cookie, but it will allow the cookie to bake without getting too brown and crispy. Trust me. Put one rack in the top 1/3 and one in the bottom.

Whisk together all the dry ingredients in a bowl and set aside.

Cream the butter and sugar together until very light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, then the vanilla, mixing completely between each addition, scraping down the bowl as necessary.

Add the flour mixture in 2 or 3 batches, making sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl between each addition. Mix just until combined.

Scoop. You may need to chill your dough for a bit if, unlike me, your kitchen is actually warm.  Roll each cookie completely in the sugar mixture before placing on parchment lined baking sheets, just 6 to a sheet. Bake about 6 minutes then rotate and bake for 6 more, adding a minute or two to the end if they are still very soft in the middle. They will not brown very much, which is just what you want for them to stay chewy. Cool for a couple minutes on the pan before transferring them to a rack to cool completely. Or not, because you probably won’t be able to wait that long.