Come in for a drink and a bite

I’ll keep this short and sweet, as it’s a busy week of travel and family and food and gifts. And in that vein, two quick and easy treats–one for eating, one for drinking.

Mulled Wine

The first may be my new favorite party snack–spicy whole grain mustard sprinkled with herbs sandwiched between flaky pieces of buttery puff pastry. They’re about the easiest thing on earth to make; perfect to make ahead, freeze, and bake right before a party (or bake off a few to have with dinner); look festive and fancy; and, most importantly, they taste fantastic and are a great compliment to just about anything on your menu.

Batons

These are from my absolutely favorite new cookbook, Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table. I feel like I’m losing food blogger credibility admitting this, but it’s incredibly rare that I’ll sit down and read a cookbook cover-to-cover like a novel, but I’ve read through this at least twice (granted, once was when I was laid up with the world’s most miserable cold and I was just dreaming about being able to taste anything again). The recipes themselves are wonderful–simple, unfussy, delicious–and Dorie’s writing is equally comfortable, like a friend chatting about a great recipe she discovered.

Mustard Batons

On the libations side, this is less a recipe and more an ingenious idea for on-demand mulled wine (and really, if there’s any season that’s perfect for festive spirits on a whim, this would be it). The base of this mulled wine is actually a wine syrup infused with citrus and whole spices that is easy to customize (the spices below are just what I like, a few slices of ginger for instance would not be out of place).

And since the syrup can be made ahead (it’s actually better after infusing for a day), it’s just a matter of deciding how much mulled wine you want to make–enough for a party or a glass for a cozy treat by the fire.

Mustard Batons and Mulled Wine Continue reading

What’s Cooking Wednesday: A Party, Gifts, and Restaurant Week

I hosted my first holiday party last weekend and…well, I think I kind of love having parties. There is absolutely, 100%, nothing more satisfying than seeing my friends happy and well-fed in my home.

Party spread, and a tree!
Ready for entertaining!

As for what I made, this was the menu:

  • Smoked salmon
  • Mustard batons (I loved these, they were dead simple and tasted great)
  • French Onion Soup palmiers (puff pastry covered with caramelized onions and gruyere, rolled, and sliced)
  • Gougeres with gruyere (from Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table, but you can find the recipe at West of the Loop)
  • Muhammara
  • Mustard (I made three kinds: white wine, hard cider, and blueberry stout)
  • Pickled vegetables
  • Herb marinated olives (from Around My French Table)
  • Baked brie/cheese plate/salami
  • Mulled wine
  • Hot chocolate (from Smitten Kitchen)
  • Damson plum gin (this turned out spectacularly, and went amazingly well with champagne)
  • Cookies (full list in the next post)

Plus the usual bread, crackers, nuts, beer, sparkling wine. It was quite the spread if I do say so myself!

Party spread

In other news, while I didn’t put together a gift guide, the Chicago Food Bloggers saved me the trouble and put together a great one. My fellow foodies gave some awesome suggestions–books, edibles, experiences, gadgets–for just about anyone on your list. If I had remembered to contribute, I would have suggested a cooking class or two at the Peterson Garden Project.

And finally the Chicago Restaurant Week(s) lineup was announced today! These two weeks starting January 30 are great for getting out and trying new places around the city. My favorite discovery from last year was Ada Street and their amazing cocktails, creative (and, more importantly, delicious) small plates, and the most spectacular buttermilk pannacotta. Yum. This year they’re doing a pretty funky menu based on the last meals of criminals–a bit morbid, but intriguing.

I always end up over-analyzing my options and then only end up going to one place, but this year I want to hit at least 3. Now I just have to pick some places and actually go!

 

 

Happy baking season: The perfect chocolate chip cookie

It’s kind of adorable when cookie recipes say “Cool completely before serving.” Who are they kidding, really? They’re lucky if the dough makes it to the oven before disappearing by the spoonful in the name of “taste testing.” And let’s be honest, a warm cookie oozing chocolate may be one of life’s small perfections. “Cool before serving”–bah, humbug.

It's all worth it

So starts December, month of cookies and baked goods coming at you from every direction. (I know, we’ve barely finished the last bites of turkey and pie. Time flies when you’re having fun eating all the things.)

Simple ingredients
Butter, browned

I’ve said before I’m much more a fan of savory than sweet (pretty obviously so if you look at my recipe archive), but I’ll make an exception on occasion. And an exceptionally good chocolate chip cookie is just one of those occasions.

Add the egg
And we whisk

These cookies also happened to be the first use for the 6.5 pound bag of bittersweet chocolate I brought back from Paris. While you can of course use whatever chocolate you like, I’ve found I like the less-sweet dark chocolate. And while chips are traditional, I also prefer chopping up a big chocolate bar instead. I love how the pieces end up in varying sizes so I get a mix of nice chocolate chunks along with shards that melt into thin chocolate layers throughout the cookie. If you can find these fun little coin shapes, use them, or simply chop up a thick chocolate bar (I like Trader Joe’s Pound Plus bars).

This smells exactly like caramel Flour goes in Don't over-mix

And of course chocolate chip cookies require nuts (preferably walnuts). If you leave them out…well I just don’t know why you’d do such a thing (barring a deathly allergy, in which case you get a pass).

More good stuff It is physically impossible not to sneak a bite at this point Nearly cookies

What I absolutely love about this recipe though is the browned butter. I know, browned butter has become as irritatingly trendy as pumpkin spice or the cronut (a terribly obnoxious word that will keep me from ever eating one, by the way), which is unfortunate as toasty brown butter just so damn good. Honestly after you mix the butter with the sugars, salt, and vanilla, it smells exactly like the best caramel on earth. (I will not admit to pretty much huffing the dough as I was stirring it. Nope.) And then come the aforementioned chocolate and nuts, and why are you still reading? Go. Make cookies. I won’t tell if you eat them before they’re cool.

Best chocolate chip cookies

(I also won’t tell you that it’s super easy to freeze this cookie dough in balls so you can bake one or two cookies at a time, because do you know how good frozen cookie dough is? Just trust me, the cookies will be even less likely to make it to the oven.)

Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies
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What’s Cooking Wednesday: Almost Thanksgiving!

Just over a week to Thanksgiving! It’s tied with the 4th of July as my favorite food/friends/family holiday. While I don’t have any turkey (or mashed potato or stuffing) recipes to suggest for anyone’s feast, I thought it would be fun to see what I could contribute to the Thanksgiving table.

Let’s start with dessert (as all meals should, really). Might I suggest something slightly different along side the apple and pumpkin pie? How about a plum pie spiced with orange, brandy, ginger, cinnamon and a crunchy, crumbly, nutty topping? Yum.

Plum crumble pie

Cranberries? I have two options, both of which can be done in advance. Option one is equally good accompanying a perfect slice of turkey as it is stirred into a bowl of hot oatmeal on a cold morning–a fantastic conserve of cranberries and oranges, nuts and apricots. You can water-bath process it if you feel like it, or just store in the fridge.

Jammy

Option two is for the slightly more adventurous: pickled spiced cranberries. The berries themselves are delicious, sweet and tart and an excellent complement to the richness of a Thanksgiving meal, but the syrup is equally amazing mixed with some seltzer (…and possibly a little vodka or gin).

Pickled cranberries

Need something to nibble on with said drink? These spiced candied nuts work nicely and conveniently are also delicious (with the pickled cranberries) on a post-Thanksgiving salad with leftover sweet potatoes and goat cheese.

Candied spiced walnuts

And finally, since I feel no meal is complete without bread in some way, shape, or form, cornmeal biscuits with green onion and black pepper. If these are a bit too casual for your dinner table, they do make for a particularly delicious turkey sandwich.

Flaky biscuits, topped with salt and pepper

What are you planning for your Thanksgiving meal (or the leftovers, which are obviously the second best part of the holiday)?

 

Giving the gift of cookies

Fair warning–if I know you, you probably have a box of cookies heading your way right now (honestly, you may get a box even if I don’t know you). This past weekend was my annual Cookie Day, and as usual my apartment is absolutely overflowing with sweets and treats of all kinds (16 kinds, actually, all told). For the sake of brevity and my poor sleep-deprived eyes, I’ll keep this short and say how much I admire my family and family friends who can manage to pull off massive cookie-baking extravanganzas and keep their kitchens and sanity in any state of not-chaos. This is what I ended up making, along with recipe links where I could find them:

Boxed up

Pecan tassies
Pecan Tassies (from my Grandma Bello)
Coffee toffee shortbread
Coffee Toffee Shortbread
Biscotti three ways
Anise-Almond Biscotti, Anise Biscotti (from my Grandma Bello), and Chocolate-Orange-Almond Biscotti (adapted from David Lebovitz)
Fig-date swirls
Fig-Date Swirls (from Lottie and Doof)
Rye pretzels
Rye Pretzels (from Smitten Kitchen) *My favorite new cookie recipe. Not too sweet, nice and crispy, and the rye flour adds a nice nutty flavor without the nuts.
Spice cookeis
Spice Cookies (from The Wednesday Chef) *This is the latest in a long line of attempts to find the perfect spice cookie. I rolled my eyes when the recipe called for “1/2 a free-range egg,” instructed that the dough be rolled into “perfect” balls, and called for candied orange peel to top (I left it out as I couldn’t find it at any store and figured making my own toffee was quite enough this season) but they sounded delicious. They were good, but still not what I’m looking for. The search continues…
Suprise Insides
Surprise Insides (from my mom)
The surprise
The surprise
Raspberry almond meringues
Raspberry-Almond Meringue Bars (from my mom)
Thumbprints
Thumbprints (from The Better Homes and Gardens cookbook) with homemade blueberry-orange jam
Peanut butter blossoms
Peanut Butter Blossoms (from The Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, with some tweaks from my dad)
Snowcaps
Chocolate Snowcaps (from my mom)
Chocolate crinkles
Chocolate Crinkles (from my mom)

And finally, not pictured, nut roll and poppyseed roll (from my Grandma Connie).

This is the first year I haven’t made rugelach, marshmallows, or hot chocolate mix. I kind of missed all three at the end of the day, but I was happy I discovered the new rye cookies, which I think will be added to my list of staples (I don’t think I’ll do them as pretzel shapes next year though). And of course I can’t forget biggest thanks to my most reliable cookie helper for the past 6 (??!! really??!!) years! Thank you as always Andrea for covering yourself in powdered sugar so I don’t have to.

With that, I’m signing off until after the New Year. I hope you all have wonderful, relaxing fabulous holiday(s) with all your loved ones! (And if anyone has a favorite spice cookie I should try next year, please share!)

Coffee, toffee, and chocolate–welcome to cookie season

Is the smell of butter and sugar and spices taking over your kitchen yet? If not, come on over to mine. It’s the beginning of the holiday baking season, and I just made 13 dozen cookies to bring to my first cookie swap.

Boxed and labeled

For as much as holiday cookies are an annual tradition for me, and given how much I like swapping stuff, you’d think I’d have been to a cookie swap at some point, but nope. So when the new Savory Spice shop nearby asked if anyone would be interested in one, I figured it would be too fun to pass up.

The challenge: figuring out what cookie I wanted to make 13 dozen of–tried and true or something new? While I was home for Thanksgiving, I pored through my mom’s cookie cookbooks, trying to decide between my favorite biscotti (my first instinct, a cookie I know and love), or one of a dozen new tasty-sounding treats. Considering I wouldn’t have time to taste-test anything, and I’d only have a day for baking before the swap, my mom in her brilliance suggested one of our cookie day staples, shortbread studded with toffee bits and drizzled with chocolate. They’ve always been one of the most popular cookies we’ve made, look beautiful, are relatively simple, and really, who can pass up shortbread?

13 boxes total

Being the overachiever that I can be, and having a day to kill before diving back into work and a jam-packed month, I figured why not try making my own toffee? A terrible idea, as I now know how easy it is to make.

Coffee cocoa nib toffee ingredientsToffee ingredientsBubble bubbleToffee should not be this easy

My search for a toffee recipe actually led me to Smitten Kitchen, her coffee toffee, and her coffee chocolate shortbread. Honestly I’m one of those people who actually dislikes the taste of coffee (unless it’s an espresso in a piazza in Italy, or a foofy sugar drink from Starbucks), but I love how it smells. It has a bitter warmth, very similar to the caramelized sugar and browned butter flavor of toffee or to deep, dark chocolate. Hmm, toffee, chocolate, and coffee you say?

Creamed and caffinatedShortbread dough

So with a little tweaking or a few existing recipes, I came up with this–coffee-flavored toffee studded with cocoa nibs, crushed and stirred into coffee-flavored shortbread drizzled with bittersweet chocolate. I know and trust my mom’s toffee shortbread recipe, but I love the addition of a tablespoon of espresso from Deb’s recipe. For the toffee, the espresso adds the right flavor boost to the sugar and butter, but I wanted a little extra chocolate kick. Enter cocoa nibs, unsweetened raw cacao pieces with a nutty crunch. When the toffee is stirred into the dough and baked, it creates a wonderful chewy contrast to the flaky, delicate shortbread.

SquaredShortbreads

I think these might just be perfect cookies to start a month of baking projects–a just-right balance of bitter and sweet, delicate and chewy, toasty and nutty, and of course plenty of butter. Oh, plenty of butter.

Rows of cookies

Toffee Coffee Shortbread Continue reading

Have pie, be happy

I feel I’ve been remiss when it comes to pie. I’ve shared recipes for pie crust, sour cherry pie, coconut custard pie, and plum spice pie, but how can I talk so much about pie with mentioning the classic apple pie? Oh well, no better time than a week before Thanksgiving.

Apple pile Perfection, if I say so myself

Everyone  has “their” apple pie, made especially for holidays that rely on tradition. A particular type of apple from the family favorite farm stand that smells like wood smoke and cider, the crust made just-so by the hands of the trusted family pie-baker, the spices measured in pinches and shakes instead of teaspoons or ounces. For me, that pie is my dad’s apple pie, the top crust (my favorite part) poofing high over the apples and crackles and shatters when it’s cut (this is where I fall on the side of tradition versus doing it “right”–supposedly that puffed up crust isn’t ideal because it means the crust set before the apples had a chance to cook down. To that I say…well I don’t say anything because my mouth is full of delicious, delicious pie.)

Beautiful apples Nothing better than stealing a piece from this bowl Crust dust

This pie I’m sharing with you is not my dad’s apple pie. Or my mom’s, or my either of my grandmas’. It may become mine though, after a few years of nudging portions this way or that until I get it just so. I’m quite happy with this version for now though, the little tweaks and touches I’ve made to the original recipe  to make it my own.

Sprinkled and fluted

I mentioned recently that I picked up the Hoosier Mama Book of Pie cookbook and, having finally baked one of its recipes, I can’t say enough good things about it. All those questions you have about making really good pie? This book answers them. Obviously it has a great crust recipe that isn’t crazy complicated (and, I was pleased to note, was similar to the recipes from my grandmothers that I adapted to make my favorite crust). It has pies for each season, making my farmers market-loving heart ever so happy. It has small pies, big pies, sweet and savory, fruits and custards and pies I didn’t even know existed. There is a whole section on quiche (for any of my book club friends who might be reading–fair warning). It finally, finally showed me how to make pretty crimped edges that my awkward fingers could manage.

Ready to bakeBeautiful pie

Ultimately, it made the most spectacular looking pie that has ever come from my two hands–just look at this thing. I half expected a chorus of angels and the light of god to shine down when I pulled it out of the oven (and that’s not patting myself on the back, but acknowledging how good the instructions are in this book). Oh yeah, and it tasted pretty damn good too.

First slice of pie, crust crumbleThe missing piece

Essentially I love that this book treats pie with the respect it deserves. Yes, pie takes some practice. Yes, it takes a bit of time and attention. Pie has an incredibly rich history that I’m drawn to, a heritage full of generations modifying the basic recipe to fit what was available, what made sense at the time.

Pie is a dish that satisfies the soul, and is there any better time for soul-satisfying food than the end of November with loved ones gathered around a table to eat and share and be happy? I think not.

Have pie, be happy.

Perfect slice

Apple Pie
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Savoring the season

Out of any season, I love, love, love how fall smells the most. I love the cinnamon and warm baking apples, roasting nuts, crisp, bright citrus mingled with cloves, the smokey burning leaves. They are some of the most comforting scents, cozy and homey, and they permeate everything like the best aromatherapy you can imagine.

The two preserves I made recently represent two of the most popular profiles this time of year–warm and spiced, and tart and citrus-y–but each offers a slight twist on the traditional.

How could these flavors possibly be wrong?
Warm and spiced (and spiked with wine)?
Fall flavors, take 2
Or tart and citrus-y?

The first is a variation on a riff of a traditional Jewish Passover dish called charoset or charoses, normally an uncooked mixture of apples, honey, nuts, cinnamon, and sweet red wine. Conveniently this also happens to taste exactly like all the delicious, warm, spiced flavors of fall, no religious affiliation needed.

Wine-y apples Best applesauce ever? PossiblyFinishing touches

I’ve spread this on a piece of whole grain bread  instead of jam and stirred it into oatmeal, and imagine a beautiful jar and a bottle of wine would not be unwelcome as a hostess gift (do people still give those?).

On the other end of the spectrum of fall flavors, this cranberry conserve tastes like all the crispness of fall contained in a little jar (given my love of all things tart and sour, say cherries, rhubarb, and plums, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that cranberries are also a favorite).

Simmering orange segments Cranberry, orange, and apricot Boiling

In this conserve, oranges are used whole–that is, skin and all–for a slightly bitter note under the sweet and sour of simmered cranberries and a bit of texture with the crunch of nuts (any you like–walnuts, almonds, or pecans would be traditional, but pistachios would be colorful and tasty as well). It’s amazing as an accompaniment to any upcoming turkey dinners you might have planned, but also delicious on a cream scone or warmed slightly and spread on a ham sandwich.

Jammy Cranberries, conserved

Either of these can be canned, but they can also easily be refrigerated if you aren’t comfortable with the process, or just don’t want to spend the time. It is nice to pop open a jar of fall flavors come mid-January though!

Continue reading

Cookie Day!

Here’s a really easy riddle for you: what can you make with 6 1/2 pounds of butter, 12 pounds of flour, 29 eggs, and 3 pounds of sugar? Answer: A hell of a lot of cookies and a lot of happy friends, coworkers, and neighbors.

Who wants a cookie?

In case that wasn’t clue enough, this past weekend was Cookie Day (or really, Cookie Weekend), which has been an annual tradition since before I can remember. When I was growing up, my mom and her friend Connie would pick a day in December and there would be Baking-with-a-capital-B. Over the past 20 years, Cookie Day has seen 6 homes and pretty much every major life milestone–and I couldn’t be happier that I brought at least a small part of it with me when I moved to Chicago.

Recipes and lists
Lists are essential

Now, let me be clear: this is no two- or three-hour deal with one or two batches of your holiday cookie standards. I don’t say that out of some kind of misplaced pride or egotism, but to set the stage for the sheer amount of baking that is involved. During Cookie Day’s heyday, there had to have been more than 3 dozen kinds (that’s not 36 cookies, but 36 kinds of cookies) at the end of the day. And since nearly every recipe was at least doubled, if not tripled…I can’t even guess how many cookies that would be.

Fig-date swirlsPistachio-orange crescents

But oh, does it make for the best memories. There was the time trays of cookies were being shoved, hot, into trunks of cars because a) there was probably no other flat surface on which to cool them, and b) it was so late and everyone was so tired that it was unimaginable to do more than that. There was the year that we opened tins to start boxing up cooled cookies only to discover cookies leftover from the year before (thankfully well-preserved, if very stale). Or the year of the unfortunate reindeer turd cookies–at least they tasted good!–or the year of the florentine mishap.

Cookies

Some things have never changed with Cookie Day with my mom and Connie: mimosas always start the day, with a break for sandwiches and chips for lunch. Someone will always choose an overly-complicated new cookie recipe for the end of the day and end up swearing up a storm. Someone will inevitably put a dough in the refrigerator to chill, thinking “Oh, I’ll remember what cookie that’s for” and will have no idea three hours later which of the now five chilled doughs belonged to which cookie.

My mom will always make butter horns, Connie will always make rugelach, my sister Laura will always decorate the “pizza” cookies, and my sister Erica will show up at the end of the day to eat the butter horns and ask what she can take (but we love her anyways). And I will always be the pecan-tassie-maker and the unwrapper of Hersey’s Kisses and chocolate balls for peanut butter blossoms and “surprise inside”s–three tasks that I now happily pass off to my unwitting, yet very patient, friends. There have to be perks to hosting my own Cookie Day, you know.

Helping hands are essential
Helping hands are essential

But beyond the masses and masses of sugar and flour and butter and chocolate and nuts, I love my friends who have joined me over the past few years for the baking extravanganza, and helped me create my own version of this tradition.

Treat box

Mulled wine or glogg has been the beverage of choice for the past three years, cheese and crackers for snacks. I still choose at least one overly complicated recipe, forget which cookie dough is which, and swear at midnight on Sunday that next year I’ll make two cookies and that’s all! (I’ve said that for 6 years, hasn’t happened yet.)

Boxed and ready to give away

What are your holiday baking traditions? Any other baking over-achievers–do we need to start a support group?

Cookie Day 2012 Recap

Types of cookies: 14, plus hot chocolate mix and marshmallows

  • Anise-almond biscotti
  • Fig-walnut biscotti
  • Peanut butter blossoms
  • Thumbprints (raspberry, grape, and apple-lemon)
  • Pecan tassies (a double-batch, god help me)
  • Chocolate-espresso crinkles
  • Rugelach
  • Raspberry meringue bars
  • Grasshopper bars

New this year:

  • Fig-date swirls
  • Pistachio-orange crescents (Cut-outs, filling, AND fussy timing? What was I thinking? They were delicious and quite popular though)
  • Chocolate-orange biscotti
  • Spice buttons (Never would have done the frosting and sprinkles, thank god for friends and co-bakers!)

Total number of cookies: 660, not including bar cookies or ones sacrificed for “taste-testing”

Best new recipe: Tie between adding espresso powder to my usual standard snowcap/crinkle recipe and a totally new pistachio-orange crescent (which I will never again make for Cookie Day, as they broke several of my cardinal rules, not least of which is no cutouts, complicated fillings, or overly fussy timing).

Grown-up tastes

Every year around this time, it would come in the mail. My dad would grab it from the box on his way in the house, a non-descript brown paper package, but I knew what was hiding inside by the unmistakeable handwriting on the outside, just waiting to be uncovered.

Anise Almond Biscotti

My sisters and I would tear open the wrapping to find a festive holiday tin. We’d pop open the lid and there, wrapped in layers of wax paper, still cold from their journey from Ohio to New York, were my grandma’s annual Christmas cookies.

My favorites then were a three-way tie between pecan tassies, with their layer of crunchy sugar hiding nutty, molasses-y insides; buckeyes, an Ohio specialty of a ball of peanut butter partially dipped in chocolate to resemble its namesake; and these chocolate cookies with a maraschino cherry hidden under a coating of chocolate frosting. There were other choices in the tin too, of course: soft, cakey cookies topped with sugar glaze and multi-colored sprinkles, peanut butter blossoms, maybe some pizzelles if they managed to survive the trecherous journey intact. And of course no gift of cookies from an Italian grandmother–from my Italian grandmother–would be complete without biscotti.

Anise Almond Biscotti

I never got the appeal of biscotti then. They weren’t really sweet; you risked cracking a tooth if you didn’t eat them patiently, waiting for them to soften in your mouth or a cup of coffee; they tasted…different. Anise, as I learned, an acquired taste and one not often acquired by kids who were more interested in chocolate or sugar frostings. They certainly didn’t look like a kid’s cookie–craggy oblong slices, broken up only by small flecks of aniseed, austere in the grand scheme of holiday cookies.

Anise Almond Biscotti

But my dad loved them. He would eat them on Sunday mornings with his once-weekly cup of coffee while my sisters and I made quick work of the rest of the treats. I would munch on one or two as long as I could dip them in hot chocolate, but only if all my other favorites were gone.

Anise Almond Biscotti

Since then, my tastes have grown up. Biscotti have become one of my favorite cookies for the holidays, one of the few that end up in my own private cookie stash once the rest have been gifted away. As with my issues with mass-produced muffins, these are not the biscotti you find at most coffee shops.

The licorice flavor of anise is the highlight, they’re just sweet enough for my tastes, and, while you won’t risk cracking a tooth like really traditional biscotti, they definitely have a crunch (and I personally like them best after a few days to really dry out). This time of year, they’re my favorite Sunday morning treat with a strong cup of tea–or, even better, an afternoon treat with a cup of hot mulled wine while I’m baking up more holiday goodies.

Anise Almond Biscotti Continue reading