Monthly Archives: December 2009

A morning ritual

coffee with cream and sugar cookie 1

Here’s my morning ritual: coffee, with cream and sugar. Here’s what you have to add to turn it into a cookie: butter, flour, crunch, and chew.

To look at them, you’d think chocolate – I should know, I’ve been looking at them all day. But the flavor that really screams is pure espresso.

Even before they’re baked, the dough for these little holiday numbers has the gorgeous, rich brown color of an extremely comfortable couch. Or a cup of coffee spiked with the perfect amount (that is to say, not too much, but certainly some) cream and sugar. But on the inside, no chocolate at all – just a half cup of espresso beans, whizzed and shaken in the grinder until the poor thing starts to complain.

A half cup. That’s enough for a full French press, in this house.

rolling coffee with cream and sugar cookie

Actually, to be fair, these cookies taste more like chocolate-covered espresso beans, once they’re doused in a healthy dose of bittersweet. And by “healthy dose,” I mean enough chocolate that the combo should make you feel slightly high, but I like them best completely blanketed, as opposed to just decorated. I’d like to think a certain rotund, pink-cheeked fellow would appreciated the sugar shot halfway though his night.

And milk. Don’t forget to leave out the milk.

Enjoy the holidays. We’re heading back east. See you in 2010!

coffee with cream and sugar cookie drying

Coffee (with Cream and Sugar) Cookies (PDF)

A cross between traditional refrigerator cookies and coffee-flavored shortbread, these cookies are made with a whopping half cup of espresso beans. For chocolate-covered espresso beans in cookie form, decorate them with melted dark chocolate—the more, the better, in my opinion.

TIME: 25 minutes active time, plus rolling and decorating, if desired
MAKES: Three to four dozen cookies, depending on cutters

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup espresso beans, ground very fine
2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
Pinch salt
2 tablespoons heavy cream
Melted dark chocolate (for decorating, if desired)

In the work bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar on medium speed until light, about 3 minutes. Whisk the ground espresso, flour, and salt together in a small bowl.

With the machine on low, add half the flour to the mixer, and mix until incorporated, scraping down the sides of the mixer with a plastic spatula when needed. (The dough will be a little crumbly.) Add the cream, mix until combined, then add the remaining flour and mix again until the dough is uniformly blended.

Divide the dough between two big pieces of wax paper. Pat the dough into flat discs, wrap in the paper, and chill for 2 hours (or up to 3 days), until firm.

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicon baking sheets, and set aside. Allow the dough to soften at room temperature for about 20 minutes, until pliable. (You can speed up this process by kneading small pieces of the dough in your hands, if you’d like.)

Using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface to 1/4” thick. Cut into shapes, and arrange on baking sheets. (The cookies will not spread.) Bake for about 20 minutes, rotating the baking sheets halfway through, or until the cookies are puffed in the center.

Cool the cookies 10 minutes on the baking sheets, then transfer to cooling racks to cool completely. Repeat with the remaining dough, then decorate cooled cookies with melted dark chocolate. Store in an airtight container up to 1 week.

Note: If cookie cutting isn’t your thing, you can roll each mound into a log almost a foot long and about 1 1/2” in diameter. Wrap each log in wax paper, twist the ends to seal, and chill. Cut into 1/4” rounds before baking.

(Half) coffee with cream and sugar cookie

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Filed under Cookies, dessert, recipe

Telephone

Ingredients for holiday dinner
To listen to the version of this story that aired on KUOW, click here.

I recently played the most ridiculous game of telephone. It started when I called my grandmother to cook her dinner.

I know, it sounds all wrong, doesn’t it? You can’t cook for someone over the phone. I didn’t think so either. I’d planned a trip to Portland to do it in person. My grandmother, June, called her sister, and a friend, and molded an entire day around a trip to the grocery store for about ten ingredients. They scrummed around the produce department guy, battering him with questions about fennel and kale. Then they hit the fish counter, where, June told me, she knew not to order the wild salmon because it’s bad for the environment, and knew she could have told the fish guy where to cut, but didn’t have to. I smiled over the phone, not caring what she bought, because she was going to cook. (This woman eats, but she does not, in contemporary lexicon, cook.)

Then my cat got attacked by a raccoon. He was oozy and insulted and very much upset about being left alone indoors, so at the very last minute, I cancelled on my grandmother. She was devastated. She used that word – devastated – and I could hear the truth of it in her voice, weighing her down like an age. (She’s not usually dramatic.)

So we made a phone date. She’d invite her friends back over, and I’d call “on the cellular phone,” and we’d do it all that way, ear to ear. I’d talk, and she’d chop, and it would be like I was right there in the kitchen.

Of course, there was a little catch. The point of cooking for her, that night, was to demonstrate for her a holiday entertaining menu that even she could master – a whole dinner that would take me a heaping ten minutes to put in the oven. There would be roasted salmon with a lemon-cumin raita (she loves yogurt sauces), Dijon potatoes (she’s a mustard fiend), roasted fennel with sherry, and creamed kale – just the right balance of familiarity and foreignness. I figured ten minutes for me meant 20 or so for us together. But on the telephone?

But they’d already purchased the food.

Dinner at Grandma June’s house is a five o’clock affair. I called at 4:15, and June answered on the first ring.

“We’re here,” she sang. “Mary’s had her cigarette, and Verna has the knife.” Taken out of context, I might have been worried, but in this case, I knew that meant they were ready.

“I’m just going to hand the phone to Verna, and you can tell her what to do, okay?” said June.

“Not so fast,” I said. June will do almost anything to not cook. “How about you hold the phone while she chops?” I figured processing the instructions counted for at least half.

And so it began. My dinner plan echoed from Seattle to Portland, from me, to June, then invariably Verna and Mary:

Jess: Okay, let’s start by turning on the oven.
June: Verna, turn on the oven.
Verna: How do you turn on the oven?
June: Push in the dial.
Verna: Okay, how hot do you want it?
June: How hot do we want it?
Jess: 400 degrees.
June: 400 degrees.
Mary: How long is this going to take?

And on we went. I learned, over the next (honestly) 40 minutes, to give extremely specific instructions. We started with potatoes, then fennel, then kale, then salmon. But we started everything slowly:

Jess: Is your white square ceramic pan nearby?
June: Yes, right here.
Jess: Okay, I’m going to tell you how to cut the fennel, then you’re going to put the fennel slices in, drizzle them with olive oil and roll them around a bit. Ready?
June: (To Verna, excited) We’re going to get the fennel ready now. (To Jess) Okay, what do we do?
Jess: Okay. Pretend the fennel is a hand. You see it, with the fingers sticking up?
June: Verna: Pretend the fennel is a hand, with the fingers sticking up.
Verna: I don’t see it. A hand?
June: We don’t see it. What do you mean?
Jess: Can you pretend that the white part is your palm and the green sticky-uppity parts are fingers?
June: Oh, yes.
Verna: What. What? (June explains.)
Jess: (Hems, haws, then decides not to trim the bottom.) Okay. You can eat all of it, but for tonight, we’re going to cut the tops off. Cut the long green stalks off where the rings would be, if the fennel was a hand.
June: Cut the long green stalks off where the rings would be . . . what?
Jess: If the fennel was a hand.
June: If the fennel was a hand. Isn’t it were a hand?
(Chopping sounds.)
Jess: Okay, now cut it into slices through the core.
June: Now cut it into slices through the core.
Verna: I have to talk to her about the center.

Verna washed her hands, and June handed her the phone. I explained how to cut the fennel bulb into wedges right through the center core, so the layers of vegetable stick together, and promised her that it would roast up nice and soft. She handed the phone back to June, and got to work. And on we went, for potatoes, kale, salmon, and the sauce.

Overall, though, it worked quite well. Since it took us (collectively) longer than it took me alone to prepare the ingredients, I had them cut their salmon into smaller filets, instead of roasting it in a big slab, and unless they were lying, it came out perfectly.

From my end, it was sort of a grueling half hour or so. But it also made my heart melt, they same way it does when a kid says something so entirely wrong it’s cute. I’d say, “Squeeze the lemon over the fish,” and June would say, “How do you squeeze a lemon again?” and Verna would say, “June, I know how to squeeze a lemon,” and Mary, more kitchencaster than participant, would say, “What’s the lemon for? Why aren’t we putting it on the fish later?” And since I was there, they’d ask me, to make sure, and we’d spend 25 seconds – watch the clock, it’s a long time – talking lemon-squeezing.

But my goodness, they giggled. There were three of them, but even so, sometimes they were so overwhelmed by the collective energy it took to, say, find the cumin, that they’d abandon me on the counter, and I could hear them twittering, one to the next. It was like listening to a recording of a pack of teenagers in 1939.

And after they’d called back to report that yes, dinner was sensational, I imagined them gathered in front of her giant new television, watching the World Series, picking kale out of their teeth, and wished I wasn’t such a sucker for Whiney McWhiskers. But if anyone understands coddling a cat, it’s June.

Over Thanksgiving, she told me again how much fun she’d had. “But fennel,” she said. “I wouldn’t be too sad if I never saw fennel again. I’m a carrots-onions-potatoes kind of gal.”

Fair enough. I’ll cook the fennel here.

Holiday Dinner 2

The Ten Minute Holiday Meal: Roasted Salmon with Lemon-Cumin Raita, Caramelized Fennel with Sherry Vinegar, Simple Dijon Potatoes, and Creamed Kale (PDF)

The holidays are a time to put the shine on your best silver, if that’s what suits you, but it doesn’t suit everyone. Me? I didn’t always save the pasta-making, reduction-simmering, and bread baking for other times of the year. It used to make sense to stand in the kitchen for hours, talking and stirring. But these days, with an 8-month-old, I’m lucky if I can boil water in one try at 6 p.m. So this year, having guests over will mean simplicity, so there’s a chance – even the slightest, skinniest chance – that I’ll get to talk to the people hanging out with us in our home.

The following simple menu was designed with a 4-person dinner party in mind, to be prepared in a bit over 10 minutes (with dinner about 20 minutes afterward). It doubles easily, but if you do double it, keep in mind that it will take you longer to cut the vegetables, so the salmon might go in later. Luckily, it’s hard to overcook the potatoes, fennel, and kale, so let the salmon determine dinnertime – just add the sherry to the fennel right when you start taking things out of the oven, so it has a minute or two to sizzle.

If you can’t find Olsen Farms’ “Spud Nuts,” which are basically ridiculously small potatoes, quarter golf ball-sized potatoes and use them instead. Potatoes simply halved (per the photos above) don’t quite cook enough in the time allotted.

And, as always, please READ THROUGH the directions before beginning. The directions assume all produce is washed.

*

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

MAKE THE POTATOES: Grease a shallow roasting pan with a teaspoon of olive oil. Toss 1 1/2 pounds Spud Nuts (or quartered small potatoes) with 2 heaping tablespoons Dijon mustard, transfer them to the pan, and put them in the oven on the bottom rack.

MAKE THE FENNEL: Cut the long green stalks off a 1 1/2 pound fennel bulb and save to slice into a salad. Cut the fennel in half vertically (with the stripes), then cut each half into 6 or 8 wedges, so the core keeps each wedge intact. Pile the wedges in an ovenproof pan big enough to fit them in one layer, drizzle with 2 teaspoons of olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and mix with your hands until all the fennel is coated. Add to the oven’s bottom rack.

START THE KALE: Cut 2 small bunches (about 3/4 pound) lacinato (also called dinosaur) kale crosswise into thin ribbons. Heat 1/2 tablespoon olive oil in a large, deep pan over medium heat. Add a crushed, chopped garlic clove, stir for a few seconds, then add the kale, and cook, stirring occasionally while you continue.

MAKE THE SAUCE: Stir together the contents of an 8-ounce container full-fat Greek yogurt, the zest and juice of a lemon, 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin, salt and pepper to taste, and if you want, a chopped clove of garlic. Set aside to let the flavors marry, as they say.

MAKE THE SALMON: Center a 1 1/2 pound (roughly 1 1/2” thick) salmon filet on a parchment- or baking mat-lined baking sheet. Smear with 1 teaspoon olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Bake for 15 minutes or so, or roughly 10 minutes per inch of thickness, until the salmon just begins to exude small white beads of fat (but really not much longer, please).

UPKEEP: Add 1 cup heavy cream and a quick grate of nutmeg to the kale, stir, and walk away. Come back in 10 minutes, stir the kale, pour yourself more wine, and sit back down. (The kale is done when the cream’s gone, but it’s very happy to sit on low heat until you’re ready to eat.)

WHEN THE SALMON IS DONE: Add a big splash – about 1 1/2 tablespoons – sherry vinegar to the fennel pan, and return to the oven without breathing in too deeply (watch those vinegar fumes). Take the salmon out, and transfer it to a serving platter, along with the sauce. Transfer the kale to a serving bowl. Snuggle the potatoes in next to the salmon. Shake the fennel pan to release the wedges, and add them to the platter, too.

Serve hot.

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Filed under farmer's market, fish, gluten-free, kitchen adventure, media, radio, recipe, side dish, vegetables

A cure for cooktongue

Pear Cream Cake 1

I love Thanksgiving, when it’s in the kitchen, because it condenses all the ups and downs of cooking into just a few short hours. There’s the thrill of a big, brown bird, so heavy it takes two to baste. The disappointment of bland pureed meat from a too-boring pumpkin. The challenge of making whipped cream biscuits early in the morning with two crying babies, even when there are four hands. The carrots that sagged when I orphaned them on the stove for just a minute too long.

Gosh, that’s looking an awful lot like a meal I didn’t love.

I did, though. I loved it. It just took me three days.

Maybe I had a case of cooktongue. You know, cooktongue: the inevitable disease one acquires when cooking for too many people for too long. Serious side effects include food tasting terrible no matter the seasoning, boredom with dishes that usually excite, and difficulty chewing.

Our guests said dinner was good, but I thought they were just being nice. On Thursday, the only flavor I got was sawdust, ground to different consistencies and scattered around my plate. Before the pies came out, we wrapped a pretty platter of food up for E, who didn’t arrive until Friday. I was a bit wistful, shuffling it into the depths of the fridge, half hoping it would be forgotten. I hadn’t noticed the layers three different types of sausage created in the cornbread stuffing, or the hard cider in my sister’s first gravy, or the way a real, good ham coats the mouth with velvet.

Howes in the Hallway

What I did taste, while my cousin and my sister and I buzzed about on Thanksgiving day, was my family. I felt a laugh roll down my tongue and out into the air when I realized, after accusing them of gathering in the kitchen like a pack of rabid dogs, that a few of my female relatives had moved their semi-private conversation to the landing immediately outside the bathroom. (This is my family.)

Graham's Family Tree

I tasted Hong Kong, when my uncle described his meals at home there, and the sweet-and-sour fried eggplant he had at a guest house outside Beijing. I tasted the sweet potatoes, before feeding them to Graham, bourbon and all. I tasted the cold, wet air, as my cousin and I darted out the door for a massage, laughing, both of us having just found our children spots on the family baby-go-round. I tasted something between joy and happiness, peppered with satisfaction, each time a someone put a new handprint on Graham’s family tree. (Next, we’ll ask friends to add handprints in a different color.) And I tasted a little regret, for having committed to hosting Thanksgiving last year, when I didn’t know how I’d be feeling this year.

But for the most part, no, I did not taste the food in front of me.

Then Sunday afternoon, I woke up from a good, long nap, completely healed. E never got to her Thanksgiving plate, and when dinner rolled around, I put the entire thing in our new microwave. (We had a microwave before, but it lived, usually unplugged, in the basement. It’s a miracle, this thing, and much more useful living within arm’s reach of the refrigerator. Welcome to 1967, Jess.)

The kitchen itself is not anywhere close to healed, however. This morning, a glance up at the pot rack revealed my blue saucepan – the one we used to make a base for Friday’s turkey pot pie – clean inside but still dripping with gravy outside. There are little piles of flour in every countertop corner. Stray sprigs of thyme keep sticking to my socks. And inside the refrigerator – a fridge, I might add, that now has a broken drawer, a door handle that continually pops off, and a complaining freezer compressor – all balance has been erased.

It’s not that we have so much food left over – a roasting pan-sized pot pie does miracles for leftovers. (I insist you try it with bacon and Brussels sprouts next time. Really.)

It’s the dairy. It’s disturbing our refrigerator’s chi. At last count, I saw two quarts of heavy cream, one quart of half and half, one pint of half and half, a half gallon of eggnog, 2% milk, whole milk, whipped cream, and two half-used big containers of sour cream. That’s a lot of halves. In the produce department, we have half a head of kale, half a bag of cranberries, and a few onions. That’s it.

I have nothing against cream. (Clearly. If you’ve been here before, you know that.) I’m just afraid of wasting it.

So yesterday, at the risk of reinstating what my friend Kathy calls the Thanksgiving butter coma, I decided to make a cream cake.

I’d also filled a big bowl with crisp, fat red pears for the week. They’re just now finger-dentable. I thought of making pear clafoutis, but wanted something sliceable – something creamy and eggy, but not so dangerously (read: endlessly) spoonable. Something for snacking, but not a cake with bonafide crumb.

Pears for cream cake in pan

I cut the pears thin (no peeling required) and pinwheeled them into a springform pan. (Don’t panic. It turns out the pinwheel doesn’t matter, because the batter covers the pears almost entirely.) I whirled room temperature eggs and sugar together, spiked them with cream, and folded in just a bit of flour, for stability. As the cake baked it puffed – slowly at first, but eventually cracking in the center. It cooled quietly into a rich, custardy disc. Then it stood up and asked me to make another pot of coffee, STAT.

Unsugared Pear Cream Cake

Standing alone in my kitchen, forking bites in between sips, it tasted like an overgrown pear-studded crepe, caught halfway between breakfast and dessert, three-quarters of the way from cake to clafoutis.

Thank you, family, for coming. But thank you for going, too. I do believe this cooktongue thing has cleared up.

Pear Cream Cake 2

Red Pear Cream Cake (PDF)
Caught between cake and clafoutis, this rich, custardy dessert is actually best for breakfast. Use pears that are just ripe enough to dent with your fingers near the top.

TIME: 20 minutes prep time
MAKES: 8 servings (or 2, if you’re me)

Butter, for greasing pan
2 large red pears (about 1 1/2 pounds), cored and sliced 1/4” thick (no need to peel)
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch salt
4 large eggs, room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
Confectioners’ sugar (for dusting), optional

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Use the butter to generously grease a 9” springform pan. Place the pan on a baking sheet, and arrange the pears on the bottom of the pan, overlaying them or stacking them so they’re in a roughly even layer.

Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt together in a small bowl and set aside.

In the work bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the eggs until blended on medium speed. Add the sugar in a slow, steady stream and mix until light, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add the cream and vanilla, and mix again for 30 seconds or so. Sprinkle the dry ingredients on top, and mix by hand until just blended – the batter will be thinner than regular cake batter, and may have a few small lumps in it still.

Pour the batter over the pears, poking any stray fruit under the surface if it pops out. Bake 40 to 50 minutes on the middle rack, until set and puffed in the center and golden brown on top. (If the cake seems to be browning too quickly, place a baking sheet on a rack immediately above the cake for the remainder of the baking time.)

Let cool 10 minutes in the pan. Run a small knife around the edge of the cake, remove the outside ring of the springform pan, and let cool another 15 minutes or so before cutting and serving, dusted with confectioners’ sugar, if desired.

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Filed under Cakes, fruit, recipe