Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Merry Holiday Multiple Personality Gluten-Free Butter Cookie


Right now there are four kinds of cookie dough chilling in the refrigerator and some will be relegated to the deep freeze so that we can enjoy holiday treats well past Christmas.  In February when the skies are gray and the ground is soaked with endless rain, there is nothing like the smell of gingerbread boys baking up in the oven to warm the soul.

All this annual cookie lollapalooza-ing began because this little Jewish kid got a taste of the holiday tree trimming and brightly sparkled cookies one Christmas when she was 5 years old.  And though I didn’t get a stocking filled with treats that year although I begged, I did add a festive and cookie filled Christmas, sans the religious part, to my things-I–will-do–when-I-am-all-grown-up list I kept in my kidlet head.  The list was varied; I never did get to fly on a spaceship with Major West from Lost in Space, but I eventually did get to make all the holiday cookies I wanted.

From the first year we lived on our own, I happily embraced the other festive holiday tradition aside from latkes and made more Christmas cookies than the bakery down the street.  Even having to live gluten free didn’t stop me.

A big fan of bakery butter cookies, and the store brand, Stella D’oro, I wondered for years how they got those little confections into those spiffy shapes.  And then one day I learned about cookie presses and rushed right out to find one.  I’ve gone through several varieties including the spiff-o-matic electric thing, and I’ve come back around to the simple cheap manual press.  Once a year I drag out the tattered box and set out to make fabulous copies of my favorite bakery and Stella D’oro treats.  And every year I end up with something slightly the same only different.

I am not organized.  If it weren’t for my blog, I might never remember the recipes I create.  I write them down as I bake and promptly do something stupid, like forget to label the paper with what the cookie is, or even that it is a cookie.  I put it in the junk drawer only to find it years later with no recollection of what the list means, if I can even read the bad penmanship at all.  Sometimes I put it in a special place where I am sure not forget it.  I still can’t find any of those.  Other times I write notes in a cookbook when I modify the recipe with annotations that make perfect sense at the time.  And later, reading them over, I’ve no idea what “yippee” means next to baking soda.

Consequently, I redo the whole recipe deal every year and search for something that sounds right, or a new one that seems improved.  And then I mix it up a little.  But I warn you.  Recipes are fluid and meant to evolve.  So don’t be surprised if I make the same thing next year, but it is slightly different.  Try it.

Multiply the recipe to accommodate larger batches.  You can store the extra dough in the refrigerator for a few days and in the freezer for quite some time.  Bring to a chilled room temperature before using.   Happy baking!
Gluten Free Black & White Butter Cookie Dough: Spritz, Pinwheels, and Thumbprints
Almond & Vanilla Dough
  • 2 sticks room temperature unsalted butter (1 cup)
  • ¾ cup ultra fine sugar or 1 cup sifted powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • ½ teaspoon almond
  • 1 egg
  • 295 grams gluten free flour (no gritty stuff because it has no place to hide) about 2 and a scant ¼ cup
  • 1 teaspoon xanthan gum
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • Pinch salt
Double Chocolate Dough
  • 2 sticks room temperature unsalted butter (1 cup)
  • 1 cup ultra fine sugar or 1 cup sifted powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • ½ teaspoon almond
  • 1 tablespoon strong coffee (leftover from the morning joe)
  • 295 grams gluten free flour (about 2 and a scant ¼ cup)
  • 1 teaspoon xanthan gum
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ cup unsweetened cocoa sifted (your favorite)
  • ½ cup of melted bittersweet chocolate
  • Pinch salt
Blend together the flour, xanthan gum, salt, (cocoa for the chocolate dough only) and whisk to lighten.

In a stand mixer, cream butter and sugar until pretty.  Add the flavorings and the egg.  On low, mix in the flour (and cocoa) until blended.  Finish incorporating with a spatula and don’t over mix.  For the chocolate cookies, add in the melted chocolate and blend in thoroughly with a spatula.

Bake each at 350.  Makes at least 3 dozen per recipe.

Using parchment paper, place a long-ish rope of dough toward the edge of the paper and like roll up like sushi, into a sort of log that is slightly less than the width of the cookie press tube.

Refrigerate (or freeze) until ready to use but at least two hours.  You want the butter to chill thoroughly.

Take one log or two logs at a time out of the refrigerator and as soon as it is workable stuff into the press and pop out designs on silpat or parchment sheets.  They won’t spread much so you can get a lot on one sheet.

Add decorations, like sprinkles or colored sugar, cherries, or chocolate chips now.  Bake 5 minutes and rotate.  Bake for about 4 minutes more.  You want the light cookies just very lightly browned and the chocolate are better slightly less brown.

Black & White Pinwheels
Roll the plain and chocolate dough separately to the same size on parchment paper.  Place one on top of the other and roll them up with the aid of parchment paper (the dough is sticky) as tightly as possible.  Refrigerate overnight for best results.  Unroll the dough and slice at ¼ inch intervals with a very sharp knife.  Place on silpat or parchment and bake about 10 minutes depending on thickness.  Rotate and bake about 5 minutes more or until the plain dough is slightly brown on the bottom.

Scoop dough by teaspoons size and roll into a ball.  Place on silpat or parchment lined cookie sheets and with your index finger, press a dent in the center.  Refrigerate about an hour before filling and baking.  Fill with jam (about a ¼ teaspoon) or a chocolate chip or two, or candied cherries, or nuts or crushed peppermint candy canes.  Bake about 5 minutes and rotate.  Bake about 4 minutes more.

Cool and eat.  Store in separate tins.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

On Thanksgiving, I am Grateful for You

grateful - the little reminders

To my virtual and otherwise embodied friends & family:

I know that so many of you are going through challenges, that 2010 has been a year filled with anxiety and questions, largely without answer.  To say that this past year has been full of underwhelming hope and disappointing results is an understatement. 

But I am proud to be your friend.  Honored, actually.  If anything, I’ve learned from each of you a great deal about humility, grace and how to operate with compassion when life is dealing a hand that should be tossed back into the pile of discards.   Not once did you complain and say your plight was unfair.   Mostly you said that you were still better off than so many others and that it was just time to muster up more patience and fortitude.

Sadly, one of you folded your tent before anyone could reach out and grab your hand, leaving us breathless with grief and questions without answer.  We kept going anyway, missing you every single day. 

Then there are those of you who can make even the most unfortunate event seem like a glass half full.  You’ve no idea how much your attitude catches on and makes life bearable and even inspirational for so many more around you. 

I’ve watched some of you invent great alternate universes that keep the sanity alive.  I’ve watched some of you create some innovative solutions to ordinary life altering issues.  I’ve seen some of you march forward with enough chutzpah to lend some to others who are in need.  I’ve seen some of you part with precious gifts just to make the world a better place all the while dealing with a pile of things that would undo an ordinary soul.

You are some of the most brilliant people on this planet.   Keep marching.  Keep on speaking.  Keep on being who you are.   That’s all. 

In gratitude I say, pie for all.

And thank you.

Monday, November 22, 2010

A Very Gluten Free Thanksgiving


Holiday food memories are like a family photo album with scratch and sniff pages.   Ask anyone about their earliest Thanksgiving memories and chances are it is a combination of the Macy’s parade and the smell of yams with toasted marshmallows or pumpkin pie.  Then again, some of us might only remember Uncle Zeke’s shiny flask filled with something that added a certain charm to the boring punch bowl filled with preseason eggnog.

My brother reports that we always had a Thanksgiving dinner growing up; that the Ad Man recited the same typed poem/prayer of thanks each year.  But I cannot muster up one solitary memory from childhood about the holiday.  There aren’t even any family photos from Thanksgiving to use as a memory crutch.  I’m puzzled that the guy- the Ad Man- who photographed anything and everyone would skip a major holiday opportunity.  I suspect that we actually ate liver and onions for Thanksgiving and that is why I’ve blocked out those early years.

My Thanksgiving memories actually begin when I was a 17-year-old bride attending the famous holiday feast with combined families at the newly minted in-laws.  Just because it was Thanksgiving and the new lemon loving in-laws were hosting my father and stepmother, assorted siblings and guests meant there was something nothing to be nervous about. The gathering would take place in their beautiful colonial on a wooded lane where the neighbor parks his helicopter.   Perfectly Norman Rockwell – in theory.  Spending most of that memorable holiday with a “nervous” stomach ailment was mortifying.  The Ad Man even rustled up the family doctor by phone who diagnosed “stomach ache”.  It would still be years before the gluten intolerance diagnosis, but I was suffering all the way back then.

Since that Thursday 30 something years ago, we’ve spent some happy and almost pain-free Thanksgivings with the in-laws.  We came to enjoy the time together and I prepared in advance for the onslaught of not feeling well by keeping a giant assortment of stomach remedies in my bag.   It also helps that we avoided mingling the two entire families ever again after that first crazy year.

That first memorable in-law Thanksgiving Day is where the early hints that gluten was not my friend were apparent.  Those “stomach aches” that everyone assumed were merely stress related were pain inflicted by the invasion of wheat, barley and rye making me sick.  And Thanksgiving dinner is nothing without a pile of stuffing, freshly baked rolls, pies and even those awful green beans drowning in mushroom soup and topped with fried onions; lots of wheat.

These days we prefer a small holiday dinner.  Neither of us enjoys turkey so we feast on a chicken or duck and after the gluten diagnosis we avoided stuffing, but now that we have access to some great gluten free breads, we indulge this one time of year.  Loading up on fresh veggies, lightly sautéed and seasoned along with the chicken makes for a wonderful feast and none of the stress, physical or mental.

My favorite stuffing is Stove Top (quit snickering).  It was a sad day when I realized I couldn’t eat it any longer.  And there are those that subscribe to more is better, loading up the savory bread with chestnuts, apples, nuts, sausage and other little goodies.  I like the old original version with a little sautéed celery and onion, seasonings like sage, thyme, (poultry seasoning), salt and pepper and moistened with chicken broth and butter.  Tossed lightly and either served from the pot or a casserole that bakes to make the top a bit crunchy.
I worked on this version until it tasted quite similar to the old Stove Top and nothing makes me happier.

On this holiday, I salute the long gone Ad Man, the long gone family doctor who meant well more than he was accurate, and the fabulous house that was on the lane with the helicopter pad.  We raise our glasses in a toast to our younger selves – and say a small hallelujah that we got this far in one piece to enjoy our gluten free holiday feast.
Gluten Free Fabulous Stove Top Stuffing
Savory Cubes
  • Ends of old loaves of gluten free bread (variety is good), cubed into ½ inch pieces
  • Olive oil
  • Herbs and spices: thyme, chopped sage, poultry seasoning, a pinch of rosemary, salt, pepper
  • Butter
  • Chicken broth
Cube up the bread into ½ inch pieces.  If you have the opportunity, leave it out overnight uncovered to dry out a bit.  Otherwise just proceed after cubing. The prep and recipe are very flexible and resilient.  In a large bowl combine a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and enough herbs/spices to make your nose tickle.  Add the cubes of bread and fold gently (don’t break up the bread) to coat.  If you need more just drizzle and fold.

On a lightly oiled baking pan (I use a half sheet pan size) lay out the cubes about one layer high (you will have a small pile).  If there is too much use a second sheet.

Place in a preheated 350 oven for about 15 minutes.  Turn the oven to 300 degrees and bake for about 35 minutes.  You want the cubes to toast and dry, but not burn.  Turn the oven off and don’t open it.  Leave the pans in there for as long as you are able – overnight is great.  You want them as dry as possible.

When completely cooled store in a double zip-lock bag or container and refrigerate.  Because they have so much oil in them, you don’t want it to get rancid before you use them all.

Gluten Free Stuffing
  • 6 -8 cups of stuffing cubes
  • 2 ribs celery chopped to a medium fine dice
  • ½ onion chopped to a medium fine dice
  • ½ stick butter
  • Poultry seasoning to taste
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Parsley (until it looks pretty)
  • ½ cup gluten free chicken broth (and more if needed)
Sautée celery and onion in butter and oil mixture over medium low heat.  When very soft add the spices and stir.  Take stuffing cubes and place in a bowl.  Drizzle the softened mixture over the cubes and fold in being careful to not break up the cubes.  Add broth until just moistened.  Place in a buttered casserole dish and cover with foil.  Bake at 350 for about 20 minutes and uncover for an additional five to ten minutes.
Just remember that the whole thing is adjustable to your own tastes – add more or less spicing, veggies or broth.

Gluten Free Drunken Pumpkin Pie
  • One gluten free pie crust: Whole Foods or your favorite recipe
  • One 15 oz. can of organic pumpkin
  • 1 cup of half/half
  • ½ cup of milk
  • 4- 5 tablespoons of really good whiskey
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • ½ cup of superfine sugar
  • ¼ cup of maple syrup (the real stuff)
  • 3 eggs
  • Ground ginger, a pinch of ground clove, a bit of cinnamon and a large twist of the black pepper
  • A ton of whipped cream
Preheat oven to 325.  Bake pie shell (9”) for about 20-25 minutes or until lightly brown.

Place the other ingredients (except the whipped cream) in a large bowl and whisk together until fully incorporated.  Add as much or as little of the spices as you like – they mellow with time so more is actually better.  The black pepper is an old trick (not mine) that seems to provide a happy back note to the whole thing.

Pour through a mesh sieve into the pie crust and bake for about 55 minutes, checking at 45 minutes.  The center should be slightly wiggly.  Do not fret if cracks form (although they should not) because you can cover them with whipped cream when serving.
If you have the time, leave the mixture to sit for about 30 minutes to mingle before pouring into the shell.  Even better – bake the pie the night before because it tastes best the 2nd day after the flavorings and whiskey have a chance to hang out together.  Store in the refrigerator but take it out about 30 minutes before serving for best flavor.  Pile on the whipped cream and enjoy.

Happy Gluten Free Thanksgiving!

*cross posted from my new food blog at Wordpress:

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

You Know You Want One: Peanut Butter Buckeyes

fully dressed little peanut butter buckeyes
Even though most of our street celebrated Hanukkah, there were neighbors and friends who brought us homemade holiday food gifts and by far the favorite was chocolate peanut butter fudge.  If candy were currency we kids would have been able to pay off the mortgage with the amount that we hoarded.  We were allowed to buy candy with our allowance, but rarely was any sweet stuff purchased by our mom; Brach’s Bridge Mix was for, well, bridge games.  

Halloween was the most important holiday of the year and none of us failed to fill up pillowcases filled with goodies.  We were only interested in the good stuff which would have been by today’s standards,  enormous chocolate bars and peanut butter cups.
At an early age I fell in love with the partnership of anything peanut butter and chocolate.  It was limited to Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups when I could afford them with my allowance.

Syracuse is not all that far from Ohio yet I never knew a buckeye was anything but a tree thing until I saw the recipe on Smitten Kitchen.  How did this confection remain off my sweet tooth radar?  For God’s sake – it has peanut butter and chocolate, two of the holy grail candy ingredients.

Smitten Kitchen was borrowing from the Baked boys and that version has cream cheese and graham cracker crumbs.  I wondered how the origninal Buckeye candies were prepared.

A Google search came up with a zillion recipes and mixed reviews as well as several techniques. 
The common complaints turned out to be rather simple.  People had an expectation that mixing up butter, peanut butter, powdered sugar and flavoring and covering it with chocolate could be done by a door knob.
Even the most simple looking confection requires a little skill, practice, and attention to detail.  Chocolate seizes – it doesn’t harden, or the inside mixture crumbles if too dry, or oozes condensation if too wet and messes with the chocolate coating.  All things chemistry have to coincide to make it work.  Though it isn’t rocket science, it is the kind of thing that takes a bit practice and patience.  

I might find darker creamy peanut butter  next time.  When the ingredient list is that small, the main character, peanut butter, needs to be stellar and taste deeply roasted.  I used organic (ordinary) peanut butter from Whole Paycheck and it isn’t peanut-ty enough.  But that might just be me.

But about one thing everyone agrees - be careful.  They’re addictive.
happy little (linty) buckeyes
Peanut Butter Chocolate Buckeyes
  • 3 cups sifted organic powdered sugar
  • 1.5 cups creamy peanut butter
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 teaspoon flaked salt (you want salt that will dissolve)
  • 1 bag (12 ounces) bittersweet chocolate chips
  • 1 tablespoon Crisco or other shortening
Prepare a large baking sheet with a silpat or parchment.  Sift the sugar into a large mixing bowl (I used a stand-mixer).  Drop in the peanut butter and butter.  Set the mixer on low until the sugar is incorporated and then turn it up just until everything is fully mixed.  With  the mixer running on low, slowly add in the salt and vanilla.

Using a tablespoon scoop, place on the cookie sheet until you’ve used all the mixture.  Form into round balls.  Keep your hands clean and a little moist with water and the rolling will go smoothly.  If you start to build up the mixture on your hands, the balls will get slightly linty (see photo).

Once done, set the pan in the freezer.  You can leave it overnight but you will want to cover it with foil.  Right before dipping,  in a small bowl over a tiny pan of simmering water (tiny tiny simmer!) melt the chocolate with the Crisco.  Once melted, stir until fully dissolved.  Cool slightly.

Using toothpicks or forks, dip each frozen peanut butter ball into the chocolate, let it drip a bit and place on the frozen cookie sheet; it helps set the chocolate faster.  Either cover them entirely with chocolate or just leave a little “buckeye”  peeking out.

Freeze or refrigerate.  And serve cold – straight from the freezer or refrigerator.
And watch them disappear!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Dear Insurance Company: Really?

avoid this!
Even the fancy aroma of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies doesn’t banish the persistent ode-de-stink; nothing like the imaginary smell of an old wet down jacket or stinky boot-liner to clog up the sinus.    

Battling an ongoing sinus war is certainly not a good way to enjoy the beautiful fall weather.  Oh wait.  At 85 degrees things are continuing to bloom long since past their prime; including mold and fungus which accounts for the spectacular Petri-dish fusion up inside my head.

For going on a decade I’ve lived with the persistent muse called sinus fungus that mimics a sinus infection.  In fact there is more research these days that points to fungus being the culprit of more sinus problems than infections as once thought.  Antibiotics, while effective for treating real infections, only provides a better playground for the other stuff once the good bacteria are wiped out in the grand slam from the pharmaceuticals.  

With some spot treatment over the years, most times I am adept at handling the August/September onslaught of allergies and can keep invasion of the clinical mud room in my sinus to a minimum.  But once it takes hold, the battle begins.  I bring out the McNeil rinses, the sprays, the OTC Claritin, and a huge pot of chicken soup.  In some cases it requires a battlefield of little soldiers called antifungal that attack the monsters hiding deep inside my breathing passages.  I take no prisoners and take the battle seriously because I want them gone.  Banished.

Only a few times during the decade, (ok, a few more than a few) have I had to succeed to intervention on the part of the torture machine inside my ENT’s office.  It is with mighty fortitude and the promise of a good fine red wine afterward that I even get near that contraption.  If you’ve seen one, you know what I am talking about.  Think Dyson, made especially for the sinus; only the wand is longer than one is tall.  Impossible it would seem that it would not go straight into one’s brain, but the Doctor is quite skilled in not poking a hole into the tiny bit of gray matter that remains intact at my age.

After one treatment, I once waited to faint until I was outside his office because I was too embarrassed to do it inside.  That required not only copious amounts of wine, but some very fine dark chocolate to rid me of that nightmare.  That is why, the actual incentive why I try valiantly to take care of it myself with all the tools at hand – at home.

I finally ran out of the antifungal meds and now with a new insurance plan find myself perplexed at how they are so stingy with the cheap ass drugs.  First they would not allow the doctor’s prescribed dosage saying it was too many.   I am supposed to take the stuff for a few weeks at a time – but the insurance company insists I cannot take more than two weeks.  Of course I don’t remember them conferencing in on my doctor’s visit, but apparently they were there in spirit.

Trying my best to not get too upset with their machinations, I relented and went for the copious refills allowed at the first moment possible.  And that was nixed as well with the slap that one treatment is plenty and the drug is not for chronic issues. 
Oh, really? 

So, now the Pharmacy has to submit a form from the doctor that double pinky swears that I really need this cheap ass medication that costs less to buy than the fax machine and man power it will take to give uber special permission to use.

Got that?

Good.  Welcome to our health care system, revised.  Let’s just say it needs some fine tuning.

And let’s just wish my visiting fungus a fond farewell, just as soon as I get my medication once again.  Meantime, I am parceling out the last doses like they are the very last pieces of dark chocolate on earth.

Thank you, health care company.  So glad to have you in my corner, all the time, 24/7 and making sure my treatment fits YOUR guidelines. 

I never knew you cared so much.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Book Review: Gluten Free Girl & The Chef

It took three days to pore through the entire book because I’d stop and savor the recipes and the stories. Or I'd have to go into the kitchen to check for ingredients of everything I was planning to make from the book.

But after cooking along with Shauna and Daniel through their blog, Gluten Free Girl and the Chef over the past years as they created this book, I almost feel like a proud distant relative as do many of their other faithful readers.

 That feeling of comradery shouldn't be a surprise to other people who also must eat gluten free. Gluten free people often feel a kinship when they meet others like themselves. It’s like showing up for the Bar Mitzvah and finding out that the special meal you had to special order was made for two other people too; you all end up at the same table, grateful for one another’s company.

But this book is so much more than that. They’ve raised the bar on gluten free cooking and baking, making it as mainstream and fresh as it can get. Each recipe is gluten free, but not taste free. Each recipe comes with a story, a background, and a history and through that you feel like you want to recreate it right now. I almost didn’t get past the first recipe – the baked eggs with taleggio cheese because I wanted to run right into the kitchen and bake that dish. It was ten o’clock at night and common sense won, but I still will be hunting down a good ripe taleggio this week for baked eggs this weekend.

For once, a gluten free book is not laden with recipes that try to imitate gluten baked goods or food. It is a book about real food including an introduction to all kinds of flours that go into baking and cooking gluten free. Shauna and Daniel introduce readers to a fabulous array of great flours and how to mix them together for different types of food.

They also introduce the concept of weighing ingredients for a variety of good reasons – not the least of which is that all flours are not created equal. One cup of superfine brown is not the same as one cup of sorghum flour and your results will suffer if you merely substitute cup for cup.
 But if you are no stranger to their blog, you already know this. I am grateful that all the recipes offer weights because I have given up the measuring cups for everything dry and most other ingredients. (Another proponent of weighing ingredients is Alice Medrich whose Chewy Gooey Crispy Cookie book is due out in November- she offers some gluten free recipes in that new book).

 The Ahern’s are also fans of fresh ingredients. Over the past two years in our house, we have been working to buy locally and as fresh as possible. I really like that they emphasize that in their book, and how to make choices about what to buy at the market just in case this is new to the reader. They lead gently with such kindness that any reader would feel confidence in following.
 This book certainly changes the landscape for any other gluten free cook books to follow. No one would feel deprived or feel like they were on a special diet when cooking from this book. Instead of looking for this cookbook in the special diets section, I would hope it is shelved in the mainstream cooking section under a category called something like, smashing success.

 I’ve already incorporated many Gluten Free Girl and the Chef recipes into my own cooking and baking. Gluten Free Flying Rocky Road Squares use Shauna’s gluten free graham crackers for the crust, and a gluten free adaptation of Alice Medrich’s Rocky Road Bars from her Cookies and Brownie book. Last night I par boiled some Yukon potatoes in an ocean of salted water with a little fresh thyme and garlic, drained them thoroughly and baked them until they were crispy on the outside, and soft and perfectly salty on the inside. All thanks to their instructions in the book.

Anyone gluten intolerant or living with celiac disease needs this book on their bookshelf, but I would also buy this book for anyone, living gluten free or not, who loves to cook and bake – it is that good.

I'm off to the kitchen to bake a one bowl wonder; chocolate peanut butter brownies from their book. After all, I still have a cupboard full of good chocolate to use up so I can make room for at least four new flours.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

School Night Chopped Salad

It isn't like when we were kids and the streets were jammed with marauding school children swarming down the sidewalks, metal lunch boxes in hand, dressed in new clothes heading for the first day of classes.
 These days the first sign that school is truly back in business around here is the monumental traffic jam early in the morning.  Lining up to spit out the kids are the mini vans, giant SUVs, and the ever more present limousine and Bentley, though the schools do ask parents to refrain from the delivering children in the latter. 
By the time I arrive, the coffee shop is packed with moms (and some dads) who have finished the morning drop-off and gym routine and are taking a java break before speeding off to the next errand.

My favorite coffee hangout, which always does a brisk business caffeinating the Geek Squad around here, is regularly jammed after school begins.  There are no solo tables available from 8AM to 10:00AM and everyone shares space. 

Recently hearing a collective murmur of “what’s for dinner” I replied with some smarty pants remark like ask Martha Stewart.   Forty one eyeballs (someone had an eye patch) turned to me and I’d be dust if those glares were lasers.  I never did that again – but I was ready the next time to win friends and influence mothers.

This time when they got around to the predictable dinner discussion, I said to no one and everyone, chopped salad with chicken.  This time, no eyeballs turned to laser me into dust and eye-patch-mom was fully functional again.  One cup of coffee later, I heard conversations around me mention salad fixings and that Trader Joe’s sells things already chopped, even the chicken.  I was not exactly winning friends, but I was influencing people.  One out of two isn’t bad that early in the morning.

Let’s try it here. 

What’s for dinner? 

How about chopped salad with chicken?  And don’t go buy those veggies already chopped – it is easier and less expensive to do it yourself on the weekend.  Roast a chicken on Sunday, chop up most of the veggies at the same time (after the farmer's market sojourn) and you can have dinner ready for Monday, a side dish on Tuesday and lunch on Wednesday.  That leaves only two more weekdays to worry about and that my friends, is success for a very busy household. 

Chopped salad used to be that oddity on the menu which usually meant the end of the ice berg lettuce with bits of tomato tossed in for color, and everything swimming in a sea of bottled Italian dressing.  No more.  These days chopped salad is making an improved appearance everywhere.   

There is a chopped salad that I wait for each springtime at a favorite restaurant and hope that it is on the menu once the early spring vegetables have hit the market.  It has a tiny bit of dill, some of those first baby peas that are actually green and sweet, some freshly blanched fava beans, and all kinds of other goodies.  Once I see it on the menu, I hit the farmer’s market or the best grocer’s produce section and buy a smattering of all the newly minted goodies. 

But other times of year I still crave a good chopped salad so we go with what’s ripe and local.  Sometimes we will have tiny pieces of freshly roasted beets, a little bit of blanched chard, and other times, just a variety of peppers, tomatoes, artichokes hearts, avocado, cukes, and herbs along with the freshly chopped varietal greens which always include nutty arugula, baby spinach and anything else that is fresh. 

Add in a little bit of leftover chopped roasted chicken and some hearty provolone or fresh mozzarella cheese sprinkled with grated asiago and it’s a meal.  A very pretty and very filling meal.
The key is to find stuff that is in season and local which is always cheaper, fresher, and way better tasting.  Take a walk around the weekend Farmer's Market to see what is in season right now.  Avoid produce from the grocery that is trucked from far away, if you can, because it is picked for shipping, not flavor or freshness.

Dressing?  Just a little bit goes a long way.  You want it to dress up the chopped stuff, not drown it.  I’d recommend your favorite homemade or artisanal vinaigrette.  Add an extra drizzle of your most special olive oil over the top and a smattering of freshly ground pepper and et voila! 

I'm patient.  Perhaps soon, instead of the dinner murmurs at the coffee shop, someone will start a conversation about dessert.  I have 750 different ways to mention chocolate.

Chopped Salad with Chicken

(Suggested) Ingredients
  • 1.5 to 2 cups of finely chopped leftover roasted chicken
  • 12 cups of mixed greens moderately chopped into ½ inch dice
  • Fresh or roasted red pepper ¼ inch dice
  • 1 cucumber ¼ dice (no seeds)
  • 2 tomatoes chopped (seed them) ¼ inch dice
  • 1 carrot peeled and ¼ inch diced
  • Jar of artichoke hearts cut into ¼ inch dice
  • 1 cup of cheese ¼ inch dice
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill
  • Sprinkle of fresh thyme
  • Other favorite veggies, either ¼ inch diced or finely chopped
Prepare the chopped items and store overnight in the refrigerator separately (if you are working ahead).  To assemble, drop everything into a huge bowl and give it a good toss.  Add in tiny amounts of the vinaigrette until the salad just slightly glistens. 

Portion out four hungry person servings (or more not so hungry person servings) and add a sprinkle of grated cheese, a splash of really good olive oil and a dash of freshly ground pepper.  Croutons are nice but not mandatory.

Optional (diced) items
  • Charcuterie
  • Hardboiled egg
  • Other cheeses (goat cheese is great)
  • Cured olives
  • Other herbs
  • apple or pear
  • nuts
  • dried fruit

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Merci à Ma Belle-Mère with Rainbow Birthday Cookies

my college graduation: Ad Man, Step-Mom & future Rabbi 

As a half-orphaned 12-year-old, I grew five inches, several pounds, one or two shoe sizes along with a few other assorted things that branched out during the year I spent with the widowed Ad Man.   When my soon to be step-mother arrived on the scene I was ready for a makeover from gawky child to ever more awkward and sullen adolescent.  My shoes were way too tight, my clothes were slightly small, and my very first training bra had long since navigated past safety pin RX.

I am pretty sure the woman took one look at me, grabbed the Ad Man’s credit card, shoved me into her car, and took me to the best department store in the city.   The Ad Man had probably exaggerated his fairy tale wealth and so she assumed buying the best (read: expensive) stuff would be a no brainer.  Too bad he blanched to the shade of winter blizzard white when she showed him our loot.  

The outing was to buy a complete makeover ensemble for their nuptials – something that hopefully would not embarrass anyone.  The idea was to start with the first layer and move on out to the stuff people actually would see.  Until she took me to the department called foundations (which is now affectionately called lingerie) I had no idea that underwear came with so much hardware.  We left there with two complete matching sets of stuff with enough wire to build a bicycle.  But not before I was mortified beyond reason by someone called a fitter who actually makes you stand there naked and measures you from more angles than I thought possible on one teenage human body.  

We left the store that day with all the layers to completely transform me into a young lady, or a newly minted secretary as played by a giant 12 year old; the outfit was a tailored suit with little black pumps.  My face said kid, but my outfit said dictation.

Fortunately my step-mother also knew that stopping by the Snowflake Bakery on the way home to bring the Ad Man a special treat would probably soothe his shock at the final tab for all the fabric it took to make me presentable.  I was allowed to get some of my favorite things which amounted to a half moon treat along with their famous rainbow cookies.

Just to make sure I had my role in the newly formed family pretty well nailed down, I did what any self respecting hormonal teenager would do.  I perfected sullen.  Even on their wedding day, banished to the end of the one of the long tables, far away from the happy couple, I undoubtedly did my best pouting teen look for the audience of none.  Self involved teenagers rarely know that the world is not watching them, especially at an occasion where they are not the star of the show, like a wedding.

I am not even sure she remembers this early getting-to-know-you-through-undergarment-before-the-wedding shopping escapade.  But it was a beginning I’ll never forget, and have come to treasure as the years fly by.  It has been many decades now and today she celebrates a very big birthday that comes after 30 (plus four more decades).  If the old Snowflake Bakery were still in business I might buy her a little pastry and tell her that having her as my second mom is my lucky fortune, wired undergarments or not.
Judy's  Birthday Rainbow Cookies
  • 2 to 2.5  packages of (fresh) almond paste (about 16 ounces total)
  • 4.25 sticks of unsalted butter
  • 2 cups white (ultra fine works great) sugar
  • 2 teaspoons almond extract
  • splash of vanilla
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 teaspoons xanthan gum (for gluten free flour only)
  • 3 cups of gluten free flour or all purpose flour
  • 8 eggs
  • about 25 drops of red and green food coloring (each)
  • 1.5 - 2 jars of dark red jam (seedless is best)
  • pinch of your favorite liquor, Godiva, Cherry or whatever smells good
  • 12-15 ounces of really good quality bittersweet chocolate
  • 2 tablespoons corn syrup

Preheat oven to 350.  Butter and line three jelly roll pans with parchment that overhangs slightly.  Butter parchment.  Set aside.

Mix almond paste with sugar in a food processor thoroughly. 

In a stand mixer, incorporate the butter, almond/sugar.  Add eggs one at a time
Whisk flour, xanthan gum (for gluten free flour only) and salt in a bowl.  Add to wet mixture until incorporated. 

Separate batter evenly into three bowls.  Add green food coloring to one bowl, red in another bowl and leave one without color.  

Spread each batter in your prepared pans. Bake about 12 minutes total and rotate half way.  Let cool completely.

Heat jam until liquid.  Add liquors to taste.  Strain if necessary & cool to room temperature.

Loosen edge of green cake.  Lift parchment slightly so that it is free, but keep it in the pan. Spread thin layer of jam on top. 

Loosen edges of the layer that is not colored.  Flip layer onto layer with jelly using parchment to help.  Gently push it into place. Spread jam on that layer.  Place the last layer on top as evenly as possible.

Cover final layer with clean parchment. Wrap the whole thing in plastic wrap.   Place a large cutting board on top to weigh it down.  Set aside two hours or more. 

The Finish
Break up the chocolate and melt it in a double boiler over barely warm heat, stirring occasionally. 

When almost melted turn off the heat.  Stir in corn syrup.  Let chocolate cool slightly.

Trim the edges of the cake with a serrated knife.  Drizzle half the chocolate over top and spread.  Refrigerate about 15 minutes to set the chocolate.

Place a piece of clean parchment on a large baking sheet.  Place that on top of the chocolate coated side and in one movement, flip over. 

Peel off parchment.  Drizzle remaining chocolate to the edges.   Refrigerate until set.

Use a serrated knife or a very small sharp knife to cut the cookies into small squares. Tastes best the next day after liquor and other flavors fuse.  They keep well frozen, or at room temperature in a tin for about a week. 

Happy 36.8 Million minute birthday, Judy!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

It's Summertime and the Catalogs Are Caroling Their Wares: A little fun


hey WS, santa needs a vacation, too

The mailbox is beginning to overflow with holiday catalogs even while the temperature is a toasty 89 degrees outside.   While we are still eating freshly picked corn on the cob, summer berries, and enjoying perfectly vine-ripened tomatoes,  a faint fa la la la la  is dressing the covers of most incoming catalogs.
Perhaps the holiday catalogs are arriving earlier with hope that we will be fooled into thinking that gift shopping days are running out.  I've been peeking, and some of the most famous and once upon a time, sane cookware sellers have lost their ever loving collective minds.

It was always a treat for those who love cooking to see what new gadgets were emerging or what new pans might be available.  But I’m afraid that this year, we are seeing an entirely new beast.  This is the year of “say what the hell is that?” and holy craptastic.  And why would anyone want that thing in their kitchen taking up valuable real estate?
For the sale price of $99 you can own your very own monogrammed cutting board.  One of those giant wooden boards with a well around the edge to catch the meat juices now comes with your very own initial carved in the center of the board.  But does it come with a little brush to clean into the deep crevice of letter W?  Or perhaps Uncle Ernie is carving and he could give a rat’s ass about your hoity toity monogrammed cutting board and makes that fancy letter C turn into a somewhat awkward letter E?  So much for the sharp edge on that knife, by the way.  Monogrammed cutting board, Chuck?  Seriously.
The All Clad Deluxe slow cooker comes with an insert that is stove-top ready.  All that deluxe-quality for $300.  Rumor has it that they finally upgraded the stove-top deluxe insert so that it quit peeling.  Let’s have a little insert with our stew, shall we?  And here’s the part where it wins the stupid award; you can't brown anything in something with sides that tall.  If you drop stewing meat in the bottom, it will steam, not brown on the stove-top.  They sell the same slow cooker with a ceramic insert that can't go on the stove-top but it can go in the dishwasher. So for $100 less, buy the ceramic insert slow cooker, and brown the meat in a fry pan.  The ceramic insert may develop little hairline cracks (they say that was fixed, too) but at least it won’t peel.
How about a Staub cast-iron pot?  Used to be that in order to buy those you’d have to sell your firstborn, or take out another mortgage.  Seriously though, unless you have spent some time at the gym, or like to work out, Staub is way heavier than Le Creuset and twice the price.  They advertise that it is dishwasher safe, but guess what?  Hand wash for a longer life will be the saleperson's mantra or I am willing to give you my first born. 

 A couple of cookware stores began carrying the Technivorm Moccamaster coffeemaker.  If you can call it that.  It is more like a space age modern muse for the kitchen counter.  Technivorm drips very hot coffee into a carafe about 3 inches lower than the bottom of the cone drip and you could stand there and watch the steam vapors escape and freeze on their way into the carafe, dropping the coffee temperature by a fair amount.   I’m stupid enough to own one.  I’ve had it for a year now and every time I make coffee I shake my head in wonder at what possessed me to part with that much money for this machine aside from the modern art sculpture look on my counter.  They came up with a fix and mailed me a part.  It is a cover for the carafe that allows for the drip to drop, so to speak, but keeps most of the heat contained.  A fine fix, but not a remarkable remedy.  Still drinking tepid coffee.  You could own one of these useless, but artsy machines for the mere pittance of $300.  My French press thought it was destined for the useless appliance closet after I toted home the Technivorm, but it has yet to make the move to live next to the nonstick egg poacher insert. Technivorm might arrive there first.
And last, and especially least, we could not leave out the smoking gun.  Yes, it is called the Smoking Gun.  It is a gadget that spews some magical smoky flavor into your food through the attached tube.  Just don’t point it at anyone and certainly don’t answer the door with the smoking gun in your hand – no need to create a misunderstanding with the UPS guy.  It runs on batteries and if you  forget to smoke it up while cooking you can add it later.  The catalog says you can, so it must be true.  At only $99 with an additional $25 wood chip assortment to complete the package, I think this might be the perfect mother-in-law gift for this holiday season.  Imagine when you tell people that you bought your mother-in-law a smoking gun for the holidays – an instant conversation stopper if ever there was one.
Now, if they'd only start carrying the All Clad stainless 14 inch fry pan, I might actually buy something.  But until then, I'm eyeing that Miele rotary iron for just $2000.  Think of all the money I'd save ironing my own tableclothes, if only I had any.  

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Coming to America with Poppy Seed Cookies

Lina & sweet Izzy, circa 1914
Where my mom was raised, in the tiny apartment on South 2nd Street in  Brooklyn, the kitchen served as culinary school for mastering the art of our heirloom family recipes.  She had a permanent front row seat in the classroom in her mother’s kitchen because her bed, a cot really, was located next to the stove.  That kitchen was the first place in America where our culinary family history was carried forward, one recipe at a time.

There were no notes, no recipe cards, but there was a teacher and a willing pupil, usually covered in flour, speaking Romanian mixed with Yiddish at first, and then finally English.  Undoubtedly some information was lost in translation, but each recipe has survived well over 150 years looking remarkably the same. 

But those heirloom recipes had a long journey to get to where they are today. 

Leaving behind family, friends and their home, four of a dozen siblings crossed the European continent on foot one hundred and ten years ago.  During the great emigration from Moldavia in Romania in 1899-1900 they sought freedom from the overwhelming oppression of merely being Jews. Carrying only a few possessions that included precious woodworking and dressmaking tools, a couple of family heirlooms and photos, they walked alongside thousands of other Jews to Hamburg.  Almost accidental Americans, they had an opportunity to emigrate to a host of countries, but because a distant cousin in the United States offered sponsorship, they finally boarded a ship sailing to New York Harbor. 

Arriving in America, the siblings honored their new home by swiftly assimilating.  Moise became Moses.  Rosa became Rose.  Marim became Mary and Lienor became Lina.  Moses became a successful carpenter and with his new young wife, raised two boys in Manhattan, whose educations would never have come to pass in their old homeland because in Romania the law didn’t allow Jews to attend school or pursue higher education. 
Rose and Mary opened a dressmaking business in New York that specialized in copying couture.  They were enormously popular and specialized in creating one-of-kind wedding dresses.  Lina, the youngest sister, married a man who had emigrated from the same region of Romania.   Lina and sweet Izzy, as he was known, made their home in Brooklyn where they raised my mother and her brother. 

Lina and Izzy’s was the place where friends and family gathered for Shabbat dinner.  Lina spent the entire day cleaning, cooking and baking and followed the admirable European method of preparation – where every single morsel of food was used.  Chicken parts would turn into savory broth.  Extra vegetables and herbs would go into the soup pot.  A leftover potato might be the beginning of a knish.  The dried fruit would be split into portions for both tzimmes and strudel.  Chicken fat would be used to make gribenes (fried chicken skin).  Nothing was wasted or allowed to be wasted.  Food was expensive and precious and even after decades of living in America they never forgot what it felt like to be hungry. 

Because I lost my mom nearly at the beginning of my mentoring, I had only a partial concept of how to prepare those recipes.  Fortunately while she was alive, my mother, who was a gifted letter writer, often wrote down those top-dog secret recipes for distant cousins though she never saved copies.  And years later with a simple twist of fate when I was researching our ancestry, I was able to locate some of those distant cousins and reclaim some of the recipes that were almost lost to me.

I never met my grandmother, and I had very little time with my mother; finding my distant cousins who actually ate dinner in my grandmother’s kitchen and could tell me family stories was like finding a treasured heirloom hidden in the attic, long forgotten. 

I can still see one very special cousin, sitting across from me the day we met more than fifteen years ago, painstakingly writing down the poppy seed cookie recipe on a card for me.  From memory, she spoke aloud in a soft voice recalling the ingredients and preparation, carefully documenting all of it. 

I don't need the card these days to make the cookies, but I have it safely tucked away as a reminder to continue archiving all those recipes for the next generation.  Sometimes when I make the poppy seed cookies I imagine my grandmother standing in her mother's kitchen, over a hundred years ago in old Romania, carefully memorizing exactly the same movements I am doing.  Perhaps not exactly, since I can't help myself - this recipe is modified just a bit for a little extra kick, and can be prepared gluten free.
Culinary ancestry; it's almost better than 100 year old photographs.
Lina’s Poppy Seed Cookies
  • 1 egg
  • ½ cup vegetable oil
  • ¾ heaping cup of sugar
  • ½ teaspoon almond flavoring
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3 heaping tablespoons poppy seeds
  • Grated zest of one lemon
  • 2 cups of almond flour
  • 1 cup regular or gluten free flour (add pinch xanthan gum for gluten free)
Preheat oven to 375.
Mix flour, baking powder in one bowl.  Set aside.  In larger bowl mix  egg, oil, sugar, poppy seeds, lemon zest and almond flavoring.  Add dry ingredients to wet and mix well. Pinch off small pieces and roll into balls (add a little more almond flour if necessary) about a half inch big.  Place on silpat lined cookie sheets.  Flatten with your hand or use the back of a spoon.  Let set for about 30 minutes.  Bake 8 minutes and rotate cookie sheets.  Bake about 8 minutes more or until lightly brown.  Cool.  Makes several dozen cookies.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Where the Wild Shoes Are: With Nutella Meringue Drops

51SS1E3XKTLAfter walking to every patisserie that sold French macarons during my first month in Paris, my once sensible walking shoes began to seriously malfunction.  Fashionable in California but not exactly stylish in Paris, they were losing the battle with cobblestone streets and city walking.  With one sole flapping in the breeze, they were clearly gasping their last breath.  And given the awkwardness of encountering giggling little children and elderly women pointing at them, it was time to spring for something a little more, well, Parisian.  And black.

I memorized how to say my shoe size in French and put the prettiest pink collars on the adorable, but fake Bouledogues Français, Lulu and Phoebe (they're really Boston Terriers but no one in Paris understood the translation).  I’d already learned that dogs were always welcome everywhere in Paris and warmed up even the most sullen storekeeper.  I was not beneath using them to get what I wanted.

Sure enough, la vendeuse des chaussures, and in fact everyone in the shoe salon greeted the dogs warmly in rapid fire French.  But when I asked to see shoes in my size, the very proper elderly French saleswoman looked at me, looked down at my feet, frowned, pointed (again) and yelled out: MON DIEU!  QUARANTE TRIOS!

The small shoe salon got awfully silent as every eyeball moved to my feet, which were sadly, still clad in the ugly American shoe now being licked by one bored dog.  Satisfied that everyone knew the great dilemma the sales woman faced in helping the American with huge feet, she sighed loudly, and we moved up to the second floor where they apparently kept the clown-sized footwear. 

She brought out an array of the ugliest shoes that not even a catalog of podiatry shoes from 1943 would have advertised.   I politely rejected them all.  After tossing her hands in the air, doing that rapid fire French again, which I understood far more than I wanted  (big ox feet, ugly shoes will be only yours should you ever find anyone willing to sell you anything you American giant).  And that was the kind part.  I think she also asked Lulu and Phoebe to smell my feet, or to sell my feet.  Clearly, that was lost in translation.

Finally, the shoes she began to bring out were from the downstairs public display; translation, pretty shoes.  Perhaps the hideous selection was a test to see if I had a scintilla of good fashion sense which would not have been obvious given my current footwear.

Exactly 15 minutes after noon, the saleswoman started packing up the shoes and told me to pick something because she was leaving for her déjeuner.  Lunch break, it seems, happens whether you have a customer or not.  Though I wasn’t quite finished, to promote goodwill between the France and America, I purchased a pair of shoes.  Good thing I noticed they had two more locations in Paris where I could be humiliated all over again in a new setting because I certainly wasn't going back to that store ever again.

And continuing on my quest for French macarons, we detoured on the way back to the apartment by way of  La Printemps Department Store to visit Maison du Chocolat.  They had just gotten in the most delicate and delicious French macaroons I’d tasted yet. 

I tried to recreate the macarons when I was home in California months later.  After several macaron wrecks (getting them out of the oven without any cracks on top is tricky) I came upon a different solution; meringues with filling. 

These meringues are easy, inexpensive and dazzling.  Each time I make these I am reminded not only of that shoe shopping day, but of both France's persistent use of Nutella on everything, and of course, Maison du Chocolat and those amazing macaroons.

The meringues are gluten free and elegant enough to serve at a party or to give as a gift; if there are any left, that is.
Nutella Meringue Drops
  • 4 large or extra large egg whites
  • 2/3  cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons cornstarch
  • pinch of salt
  • ¼   teaspoon vanilla
  • ¼  teaspoon almond extract
  • ½ cup Nutella, or melted bittersweet chocolate
Preheat oven to 225.   Line two baking sheets with parchment or silpats.

Crack the eggs carefully and separate the yolks from the whites.  Store the yolks for another use. Pop the whites into a stand mixer or in a very large bowl and add the vanilla and almond and the salt.  Whisk away on high until frothy but no peaks are formed.

Whisk the sugar with the cornstarch and with the mixer on medium speed; pour the sugar mixture in a steady stream at the edge of the bowl until it is incorporated.  Scrape the bowl once with a spatula to make sure all the sugar is incorporated.  Now whisk on highest speed until stiff peaks form and mixture looks glossy.  

Use a pastry bag or very large Ziploc bag with a 1/2 inch tip to pipe the Meringues onto both cookie sheets, filling them – they can be placed very close together.   Or use a spoon to place some on the cookie sheet and use a twist of the spoon to shape them.   They should be between 1.5 and 2 inches in diameter.  Either way, the recipes yields dozens.

Bake 30 minutes and rotate the baking sheets.  Add about another 35 minutes to the cooking time and then turn off the oven and don't open the door!  Leave them in the oven 60 minutes more.  

Remove and let them cool completely before handling.

While they cool, gently melt the chocolate (in a water bath or the microwave) or Nutella until spreadable.   Let the mixture cool somewhat.  Take two Meringues and spread a bit of Nutella or chocolate on the bottom of one cookie.  Attach the other cookie.  Cool the cookies completely before serving – if you can wait.  Très bon!

Notes:  Don't try to make them on a day when your house might be humid - they won't dry.   Keep an eye on them in the oven because while they will still taste great if they brown, they won't look as pretty.  Don't be tempted to open the oven door - and if you err on the side of too much time, not a problem.  They might get soggy stored in plastic wrap.  A tin is best.