Thursday, December 25, 2008

happy merry to all!

It’s Merry Chaos here in Princeton. Has a year gone by already? The weather is gorgeously warm, which is such a treat after the brutal winter storms and their aftermath that we've encountered at home and here on the East Coast. The sky is a beautiful blue color. The turkey is in the oven. The dough for the potato rolls is rising. We're about to break out the champagne. And, my kids have each declared this to be the Best. Christmas. Ever! Surrounded by family, I couldn't agree more.

No matter where you are and what you believe, I hope that your day is filled with peace and glad tidings!

Friday, December 19, 2008

holiday cookies

My mother, a fantastic baker, always had a pan of bars or plate of cookies stashed in a special hiding spot—plain sight. But, during the run up to Christmas, she’d nestle her baked goods—cookies, candies, pastries—in deep, parchment paper-lined tins that, a decade earlier, had hosted fruitcakes. She would put the tins into cold storage—the deep freezer in our garage—until such time as when she went “visiting,” dropping in on friends and neighbors to deliver her holiday cheer.

Such is my mother’s generosity. And such was the small community and the civility in which I was raised. Friends would stop by our house, unannounced, to say “hello.” Perhaps this practice is alive and well somewhere, but it’s certainly not done where I live.

Maybe the holiday cookies—the frilly, the fussy, the fancy, the not-for-everyday numbers—were the draw. I loved my mother’s boozy bourbon balls, the date-walnut balls enlivened by rice krispies, spicy gingerbread cutouts, rich chocolate crinkles, chocolate-dipped overtly sweet coconut bonbons, iced sugar cutouts, the powder sugar explosion of Russian tea cakes, brownies with a mint-ganache layer.

My mother was also a cookie-exchange maven, so some of the treats were made by others, such as spritz cookies—extruded neon food-dyed dough, sprinkled with complementary-colored sugar. Or peanut butter blossoms, crusted with sugar and crowned by a fat Hershey’s Kiss. Or wreath cookies—cornflakes bound by a mixture of melted marshmallows, butter, and a bottle of green food coloring, shaped into a ring, and adorned with a cluster of red hots “berries”.

But my absolute favorite cookie is her whirlagig—a peanut-butter cookie base rolled, pinwheel-style, around a thin ribbon of chocolate filling. I don't know the recipe's origin and hadn't thought to ask until now—they’ve been my mother’s since the beginning of my time. I did an online search and saw nothing that approaches this particular recipe. The recipe could have come from any of the places where my mother finds baking gems—church cookbooks, special interest publications, the butter carton, the newspaper. Unfortunately, she was unavailable for comment when I began this post.

Alhough I’d eat them any day of the week, these cookies were only made for Christmas. By appearance, they lack all the impressiveness of jewel-toned jam thumbprints or the seasonality of springerle. Whirlagigs are almost ordinary, like chocolate chip or peanut butter cookies. They’re rugged—brown dough, darker brown filling. They’re not pretty—very few of mine show their potential pinwheel spiral. But, they do look interesting, and they taste amazing. Not too sweet, which I think is the biggest fault of most holiday cookies. I am a firm believer that if one is staring at a platter of assorted cookies, one should be able to try as many as appeal.

Years ago, when Hambone and I started baking Christmas cookies, I asked my mother for the recipe, which she gladly shared with us. I’d never read it before so I was somewhat surprised to learn that the chocolate filling was made a little more-ish with a secret ingredient. No, it’s not booze, though I’m sure the addition of a complementary liquor wouldn’t be bad. Rather, chocolate chips are melted with an equal amount of butterscotch chips.

I also learned that whirligigs are a little fussy to make, which catapults them into the realm of for-special-times-only. As I made this year’s batch, I struggled here and there—but don’t let that stop you. I’ll provide tips in the recipe. Eventually, I realized the logs didn’t have to be sliced perfectly. If you mash the dough together in the approximation of a cookie, it will do what it’s supposed to in the oven. In every bite, the baked whirlagig offers a golden mean of cookie to chocolate filling.

Since whirligigs are too good to make just once a year, I resolve to bake them more often in 2009. Afterall, I have a technique to perfect—and these cookies are beyond worth it.

Whirligig Cookies

1 cup butter
1 cup peanut butter (I like chunky)
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs, unbeaten
2 tsp. vanilla
2-1/2 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1-11 oz. pkg chocolate chips
1-11 oz. pkg butterscotch pieces

In the bowl of a stand mixer, fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together first four ingredients. Mix in eggs and vanilla, until well incorporated. In a medium bowl, sift flour, baking soda, and salt. Add dry ingredients to butter-sugar-egg mixture, and mix well.

Melt the chocolate and butterscotch pieces in a double boiler or in a small bowl over a pan of gently simmering water. Cool slightly.

Divide dough into four pieces, for manageability. Dough will be very soft and a bit sticky. Lightly flour a length of parchment paper and roll dough into an oblong, approximately 1/4-inch thick, though thicker works too. Spread melted chocolate/butterscotch on dough and roll as jelly roll, using parchment to form log. Wrap log in plastic and carefully (dough is still soft and now rather floppy) place in refrigerator to chill for at least 2 hours, though dough can be chilled overnight.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Slice cookie logs 1/4-inch thick and place on ungreased cookie sheet. You will need to use a light pressure to work knife through the solidified chocolate. Don't fret if the slice crumbles—you can reconstitute on cookie sheet. Bake 9-12 minutes.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

best remedy for midweek crisis

Recently, while suffering from a midweek cooking crisis, we fell back on an old reliable—simmer sauce. You know, ye olde vegetables and meat cooked in a jarred sauce. Trader Joe’s makes a decent Indian-style korma sauce that, I realize, would be a total heresy to anyone who reveres Indian food. What can I say? We were tired and uninspired, so I cubed some chicken, mandolined a fat carrot that I had been hording from my last farmers market haul, and threw in some tender tiny peas, then napped it with a jar of sauce. In the time it took to steam some basmati rice, dinner slowly bubbled to completion, practically cooking itself. I could only have been happier if I'd had some kheer.

But an overwhelming guilt cloud hung over the stove when I realized what a cheat I’d been. The only way to remedy the situation was to complicate the meal and cook a vegetable side. Completely from scratch. Enter Madhur Jaffrey's quick and easy recipes and a head of cabbage. In only fifteen or twenty minutes, I had a meltingly soulful, slightly more authentic, and utterly satisfying cabbage dish.

I love this preparation and ate nearly the entire bowl by myself. It’s soft and savory and tangy, reminding me of a beloved German staple, rot kohl. The following recipe is pretty flexible. Don’t sweat it if you don’t have all the seeds. You could certainly use a half teaspoon or so ground cumin. You could even skip the onion. But absolutely do not omit the lemon juice or the garam masala*, the Indian spice mixture that varies in composition from kitchen to kitchen. Both are crucial in making this a transcendent cabbage.

Also, as the next set of holidays approach, I think this Indian-spiced cabbage would wonderfully complement traditional roasted meats, such as beef or pork, as well as all manner of roasted bird—turkey, goose, game hens, duck.

Stir-Fried Green Cabbage (Bhuni bandh gobi)
inspired by Madhur Jaffrey’s Quick and Easy Indian Cooking

1-1/2 pounds green cabbage (half a large head)
1/4 cup grapeseed oil
3/4 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp fennel seeds
1 medium red onion, cut lengthwise in thin slices
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
2 T fresh lemon juice
heaping 1/2 teaspoon garam masala*

Remove the cabbage's tough outer leaves. Cut head in half, then cut in half again. Remove core. Put the oil in a large saute pan and set over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, put in the seeds and heat for a few minutes. Add onion. Stir fry for 3 to 4 minutes or until the onion has browned a bit. Put in the cabbage. Stir until the cabbage too has softened and browned a bit, about 6 minutes. Add the salt and cayenne. Turn down the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, for another 7 to 8 minutes or until the onions appear caramelized and soft. Mix in the lemon juice and garam masala, and serve.

*I use Penzey's garam masala, which is a blend of coriander, black peppercorns, cardamom, cinnamon, caraway, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, and kalonji (nigella).