Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Caramelized onions, mushroom and thyme tart

I can see the surprised looks -- another tart/quiche? Yes! I'm sorry! Alas, this has not been a week of creative dinners. Instead, I have been taking photos of this beautiful October light. I cannot get enough of it. Every time I go outside, I want to grab my camera and point, point everywhere and capture the golden touch on leaves, on flowers, on cheekbones and in mirrors. I've put some of my favorites on Color Moods, so I hope you will visit me there as well. Meanwhile, if you like caramelized onions and mushrooms (and if you don't, you and I need to sit down for a tiny chat), this quiche is a winner with a capital W, I promise. I didn't think it was possible, but I think I like this combination even better than leeks and Swiss chard. The onions are caramelized in white wine and herbes de Provence, and this, for me, perfectly captures the delicate, golden taste of fall.

Caramelized onions, mushroom and thyme tart

For the crust:
(recipe from the Tartine cookbook)
1.5 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup plus 2 T very cold (or frozen) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
1/3 cup iced water
1/2 tsp salt

For the filling:
4 eggs
1 cup milk (I even used low-fat *shock* *horror*)
6 oz mushrooms, sliced (any kind)
1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
1/4 cup white wine
1 tsp herbes de Provence
2 tsp dried thyme
Salt and pepper to taste

The night before - make the crust. When making a flaky crust, remember that cold is your best friend. Chill everything whenever possible. In a small cup, mix salt and water, put in the refrigerator until ready to use. Put the flour in a large bowl and scatter pieces of butter on top of it. With a pastry blender, cut the butter into the flour quickly until the biggest pieces are no larger than a pea. Put the whole thing in the freezer for 5 min. Slowly, add the salt water mixture, mixing with a fork just until the dough comes together. Turn it out onto a flowered work surface and pinch the dough together. You should still see pieces of butter. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate overnight.

Take out the dough and let it sit on the counter for 5 min or so, or until it's pliable. Butter or spray your tart/quiche/pie pan. Roll out the dough to a desired size and place in the pan. Do not stretch dough, but press it gently into place. Trim the edges to be even with the edge of the pan. Freeze for at least 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 375F. Put a buttered piece of foil (shiny side down) into the tart pan and bake for 20 minutes. Take out the foil and bake for another 5-10 minutes or until the crust is golden brown and fully baked. After the crust is done, cool on the counter.

While the crust is baking, saute the onions with a little butter or olive oil on medium heat until soft, about 5 minutes. Pour in the white wine and sprinkle with salt and herbes de Provence. Turn the heat to low and let simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 25 minutes or until the liquid evaporates. This isn't the traditional method of caramelizing onions, but I wanted a milder flavor for this tart. After the onions are done, spread them inside the crust. In the same pan, saute sliced mushrooms and thyme for 5-7 minutes or until the mushrooms are very soft. Spread the mushrooms on top of the onions.

Whisk the eggs, milk, salt and pepper. Pour over the vegetables. Bake on 375F for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 325F and bake until the filling is set, about another 30 minutes, rotating once about half way through the baking time. I like this tart warm or hot, and I can imagine a dollop of crème fraîche could be a very good thing.

Continued after the jump...

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Vanilla Extract, DIY And A Giveaway

Update: Congratulations, Peg, and thank you! See the finished product right here.

The other day, A. and I sat across from each other in a cafe downtown for a wonderful lunch of fragrant pad thai, which was so large that neither of us could finish it. We asked our waitress to wrap up our portions, but she must have misheard because she accidentally threw them away. We said, "oh well," but the restaurant surprised us by making us both new pad thais. Really, two whole new portions. It struck me then, just like that, how lucky I am that my parents braved insanely difficult times and brought me here, that I can sit in a restaurant with white tablecloths and ice clinking in my glass, that the sky is blue and that I could pay the bill with money that I, myself, had earned through honest labor. And that someone made me a new pad thai. I gave it to someone else so that she could eat it and I promised myself that I will give more often to people who are in need, even if it's one sandwich at a time. It meant so much to me, who has so much. Pay it forward, I said to myself.

What does this have to do with making your own vanilla extract? Well, let me tell you. I finally gave in to my inner voice and bought wonderful Mexican vanilla beans. Excited and a little nervous, I picked up the first bean with shaking hands, split it carefully and added good, old-fashioned ingredients that I know have nothing to do with "corn syrup." I made three bottles, and I want to give one of them to one of the people who reads this blog on the condition that when you receive it, you do something nice (can be something very little, like a hug or a cup of hot soup) for someone else. What, did you think I do things with no strings attached? It doesn't work like that around here, don't you know. :) Just make a comment on this post and 8/10 weeks from now, when my extract is done, I will randomly select one comment and that person will receive a holiday gift in the mail to start their New Year on a dark, rummy, flavorful, amber vanilla note. If you are feeling so inclined, also tell me the kinds of things people have done for you that have inspired you to pay it forward.

Just in case, here is the (easiest in the world) recipe:

DIY Vanilla extract
3 vanilla beans
1 cup vodka (can be very cheap vodka, although I just used what I had - Absolut)
1-2 T dark rum (to taste, I used 2)

Split the vanilla beans down the middle with a sharp knife, leaving them attached at the ends (split the third vanilla bean completely in half). Scrape out the seeds and place the beans and seeds in a 9-10 oz container with an airtight lid (or you can divide between two 5-oz containers, like I did) and pour the vodka inside. Place the container in a dark, dry place (like your pantry) and let the extract infuse for 8-10 weeks, shaking the container slightly once a week. When the extract is a very dark amber color, pour the rum into your container(s) and swirl it around a bit. Your extract is ready to be used! The vanilla beans are so strong that you can even top off the container with a little more vodka once you've used up some extract. It should regain its color and intensity shortly. I made more than enough for me, my mom, and also one of my readers, so go ahead, leave me a comment, and I cannot wait to share the fruits of my labor with you.

Continued after the jump...

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Leek and Swiss Chard Tart (or is it quiche?)

I was telling a friend the other day that I made a quiche for dinner. She said, "Oh, I don't like the amount of cheese and cream they usually put in those." I smiled. "Mine has no cheese and no cream, and A. didn't even notice." Okay, so there is a bit of good butter and quite a few eggs, but it's very hearty and satisfying and packed to the brim with veggies, so that in one slice, you get everything you could possibly want for dinner. And even better, this tart is TASTIER on the second day (if it lasts that long, which it probably won't).

Now, I will ask you for a favor. Do not -- please, do not -- buy a frozen crust at the store. Seriously, with a tiny bit of foresight, you can make your own in no time and it's LEAPS AND BOUNDS better. I mean, I can't even describe it. The tender, flaky, buttery crust is like an essential part of the whole zen experience of eating this tart, and after you've had a bite, you'll never look at Pillsbury ever again. Sorry, Pillsbury, you are very cute, and your crescent rolls had me at hello, but we have to go our separate ways now. It's not you, it's me.

Leek and Swiss Chard Tart

For the crust:
(recipe from the Tartine cookbook)
1.5 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup plus 2 T very cold (or frozen) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
1/3 cup iced water
1/2 tsp salt

For the filling:
5 eggs
1 cup milk (I even used low-fat *shock* *horror*)
2 large leeks or 3 small ones (white and light green parts only)
1/2 bunch of Swiss Chard, finely chopped
Salt and pepper to taste

The night before - make the crust. When making a flaky crust, remember that cold is your best friend. Chill everything whenever possible. In a small cup, mix salt and water, put in the refrigerator until ready to use. Put the flour in a large bowl and scatter pieces of butter on top of it. With a pastry blender, cut the butter into the flour quickly until the biggest pieces are no larger than a pea. Put the whole thing in the freezer for 5 min. Slowly, add the salt water mixture, mixing with a fork just until the dough comes together. Turn it out onto a flowered work surface and pinch the dough together. You should still see pieces of butter. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate overnight.

Take out the dough and let it sit on the counter for 5 min or so, or until it's pliable. Butter or spray your tart/quiche/pie pan. Roll out the dough to a desired size and place in the pan. Do not stretch dough, but press it gently into place. Trim the edges to be even with the edge of the pan. Freeze for at least 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 375F. Put a buttered piece of foil (shiny side down) into the tart pan and bake for 20 minutes. Take out the foil and bake for another 5 minutes or until the crust is golden brown and fully baked. After the crust is done, cool on the counter.

While the crust is cooling, wash and slice the leeks thinly. Saute on low-medium heat until the leeks are tender and soft, but not brown. Chop the Swiss Chard and throw into the pan with the leeks for a few minutes until wilted and soft. Spread this mixture inside the tart shell.

Whisk the eggs, milk, salt and pepper. Pour over the vegetables. Bake on 375F for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 325F and bake until the filling is set, about another 30 minutes. This tart is best served slightly warm or at room temperature, so let it cool a bit before you dig in!

Continued after the jump...

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Brunch for Eight

When I was in college, we used to have dinner parties, like all the time. In fact, we had dinner parties even when all we could use to cook was a 40 year old oven which barely baked chocolate chip cookies. It seemed easy back then -- all you needed was one big dish that everyone could eat, a lot of wine and maybe a cheesecake from Trader Joe's. These days, I find that fewer and fewer people have parties at home. I think it's because women feel like they have to be domestic goddesses, like they have to wow everyone with something amazing, like they have to be Nigella Lawson and like paper plates for dessert are suddenly not cool anymore. They think about the hassle of preparing a 5-star-chef meal to satisfy critical guests' expectations and then they just say screw it and go to a restaurant with a real 5-star-chef.

Well, guess what, I am NOT okay with that. There is so much charm in hosting people at your house, in seeing them eat food that you prepared and choosing your own music and dimming the lights just so. Today, I made a brunch for 8 people in under two hours*, and I can tell you, it was dead easy and it was awesome. I used simple ingredients and I was not above having bagels (and I bought them, too, ha!). Seriously, though -- we should get together at home more often; we should cook for our loved ones; we should eat off of our best china, drink our best wine, dance to Ella Fitzgerald and sit as long as we want to without a waiter giving us the stink eye. And now, I'm just going to stop and give you the menu already, because I'm beginning to feel like I need a short skirt and pom-poms and it's too early for Halloween.

*Except for the crème brûlée, I made that the night before and it took me maybe 15 minutes.

(PS Sorry for the lack of pictures, but my clock was inexplicably 1/2 hr late and I panicked and broke things and burned myself and chaos and pandemonium ensued and I didn't have time to take pictures. But the food turned out great. I kept the blood out of the frittata -- just kidding, mom!).

Full-Proof Brunch Menu For Eight

Two wedges of cheese (e.g. Brie and Cheddar or, as I prefer, Brie and Blue Costello)
Pepper crackers, 1 box
1 cold, crisp apple, sliced
A bottle of Prosecco or champagne, cold

Main course:
Frittata with whatever you have on hand (mine was with cheddar, onions, tomatoes and sausage, but you could easily go with asparagus and sun-dried tomatoes or eggplant, cherry tomatoes and gruyere)
Orzo with herbs and goat cheese
Bagels, halved and toasted
Cream cheese
2 tomatoes, 1 red onion and 2 avocados, thinly sliced
Arugula salad with persimmons, almonds, pomegranate seeds and goat cheese

Crème brûlée

White wine
Mineral water with sliced limes and lemons
Orange Juice

Today's recipe: Frittata!

You should make a frittata because it is the easiest and most versatile dish in the world. And also because saying "frittata" is so much more fun than "omelet." First, you should decide on your ingredients. Asparagus, mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes? Chorizo and caramelized onions? Fresh mozzarella, basil and tomatoes? What kind of cheese are you going to use? Should you throw in herbs like thyme and/or spices like smoked paprika? Here is how I made mine. The procedure is basically the same, just switch up the ingredients.

In a 10 inch skillet that you can put into the oven, heat up a few tablespoons of olive oil on medium heat. While the oil is heating, chop your ingredients. In my case, it was 1 chorizo (vegetarians, omit this), 1 medium beefsteak tomato and 1/2 of a large red onion. Toss the ingredients into the skillet and saute for a few minutes until they start looking and smelling good (until the chorizo browns and the onion/eggplant/mushrooms/whatever is softening). Note that for asparagus, you should saute all the ingredients first and then throw it into the skillet for a minute at the end right before you pour in the eggs.

While everything is sauteing, put your oven on the broiler setting. For eight people, I used 6 eggs and 6 egg whites (for health and fluffiness reasons) and 1/2 cup of milk. Whisk the eggs, egg whites, milk, a few shakes of salt and pepper together and then when the ingredients have sauteed enough, pour the eggs into the skillet. Throw in a handful of grated cheese. Cover. Go put on your makeup and pour champagne for everyone. Heh heh. Ok, leave it on the heat, covered, for about 10 minutes (or until the eggs are just starting to set but are still a bit wobbly) and then put the skillet under the broiler (I put the rack in the middle of the oven) for another 5-10 minutes or until the frittata is completely set in the middle. Watch it carefully so it doesn't burn. Cut into 8 pieces and transfer to a serving platter. Please be very careful taking it out of the oven because the skillet is going to be HOT (can you tell I am speaking from painful experience here???).

Stay tuned for the other recipes, especially the salad and the crème brûlée. They were really, really, really good.

Continued after the jump...

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Tiramisu Cake

I like making cakes. It's really that, a process of making, when you tweak the recipe just so, when you carefully pick out just the right sort of chocolate and cut every strawberry to a desired thickness, when you whip the cream to be not soft and not hard, when you look and say, no, just a little more chopped or a teaspoon of this will make the difference (when it's probably all in your head). It's about making something special for someone special, a private communication between you and that person, a wordless expression of feelings only the two of you will understand.

Someone asked me last night, "what is in this cake?" And I blinked and had to think about it for a moment -- the question really stumped me -- "the usual things that go in a cake, I suppose" I said: butter, eggs, flour, etc (oh, and brandy)... The end result is so much more than the sum of its parts, though. The real ingredients are laughter and voices and the clinking of glasses, a cake-naming contest and lights and running out of wine.

The birthday girl won the contest, by the way, and named this cake "Temptation." :)

A few notes about the cake:
*I tweaked the recipe just a tiny bit -- I added more brandy and more espresso to the espresso syrup and upped the cream by a third of a cup. I also added strawberries, which I think was a really successful touch. I also did not use powdered chocolate (ick) but just grated some real chocolate over the top of the cake.
*This does not taste exactly like traditional Tiramisu, but the recipe yields a tender, velvety cake with a light, mousse-like filling. The texture held up well even after soaking, though the cake was by no means "wet" like actual Tiramisu.
*Although the list of steps might seem daunting at first, this cake is really one of the easiest cakes to make and I put it together in a flash (and I'm the slowest baker alive when it comes to a recipe I've never made before!)
*I love my new icing spatula. There, it has nothing to do with the recipe, but for someone who's been using a butter knife to frost things, an icing spatula is a luxury. Love, love, love it. Also, love, love, love this cake. Definitely a winner, people.

Tiramisu Cake
(adapted from Dorie Greenspan)

2 cups cake flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/4 (10 T) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup buttermilk

2 T espresso (about one shot?)
1/2 cup water
1/3 cup sugar
2 T brandy

1 8-oz container mascarpone cheese
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 T brandy
1 1/3 cup cold heavy cream + 3/4 T for strawberries
3 oz bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
12 or so medium to large strawberries
1 T espresso

Make the cake:
Preheat the oven to 350F and butter two 9x2 inch round pans. Line the pans with parchment paper.

Sift or whisk together the cake flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl. In a different, large bowl (or mixer bowl), beat the butter on medium speed until soft and creamy. Add the sugar and beat for another 3 minutes. Add the eggs one by one, and then the yolk, beating for 1 minute after each addition. Beat in the vanilla. It's going to look gross and curdled, but don't worry. Reduce speed to low and add the dry ingredients in 3 additions alternating with 2 additions of the buttermilk (begin and end with dry ingredients); scrape down the bowl and mix only until the ingredients disappear into the batter. Divide evenly between two pans and smooth the tops with a rubber spatula.

Bake for 28-30 minutes, rotating the pans at midway point, or until cakes are golden and springy to the touch and a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool for 5 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the cakes to unmold, flip over onto a rack or plates and peel the paper liners. Flip back over and cool at room temperature.

While the cakes are baking, make the espresso syrup: stir the water and sugar together in a small saucepan and bring just to a boil. Stir in the espresso and brandy. Set aside.

Make the filling and frosting: In a small bowl, whisk the mascarpone, sugar, vanilla and brandy just until blended and smooth. In a large (or mixer) bowl, whip 1 1/3 cups heavy cream until it holds firm peaks. With a rubber spatula, stir in about one quarter of the whipped cream into the mascarpone. Fold the mascarpone into the rest of the whipped cream with a light touch. Chop 1 oz of the chocolate very finely. Hull 6 strawberries and slice them thinly.

Strawberries: Take remaining 6 strawberries and slice them in half lengthwise, leaving the green tails on. Top a tray with wax or parchment paper and arrange strawberry halves on top. Chop 1 oz of the chocolate very finely and put in a small bowl. Bring 4 T cream to a boil and pour over the chocolate; let stand a minute and then whisk until smooth and glossy. The chocolate should be thin enough to drip from the end of a spoon -- if not, add a bit more cream and whisk in. Drizzle melted chocolate over strawberries. Refrigerate for at least 1/2 hr.

To assemble the cake: If the tops of the cake layers have crowned, use a long, serrated knife and a gentle sawing motion to even them. Place one layer cut side up on a cake plate. Using a pastry brush or a small spoon, soak the layer with 1/3 of the espresso syrup. Smooth some of the mascarpone filling over the layer. Gently press the 1 oz chopped chocolate into the filling and arrange sliced strawberries on top. Put the second cake layer on the counter, cut side up and soak it with half of the remaining espresso syrup. Turn the layer over (carefully, it'll be very soft) and position it on top of the first layer and filling. Soak the top of the cake with the remaining syrup.

Whisk 1 T of espresso into the remaining mascarpone filling and smooth the frosting around the sides and on top of the cake. Grate 1 oz of chocolate over the top of the cake. With a butter knife, detach the refrigerated strawberry halves from the wax paper and arrange in a circle on top of the cake.

Refrigerate the cake for at least 3 hours or for up to 1 day before serving -- the elements need time to meld.

Continued after the jump...

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Alsatian Apple Tart

I know I talk a lot about my family on this blog. That's because they make up such a huge part of my life, and frankly, I wouldn't have it any other way. A. and I, my parents, several of my aunts and uncles, a few of my cousins and my grandparents, we all live within a square mile radius. Ours is a crazy family -- loud, in each other's business all the time, talking, eating, laughing, arguing, and eating some more. Sometimes, I want to move away to Iceland. Most days, however, I count my blessings because these are some of the best and most important people in the world to me, and I am very lucky to have them around (even though, oh boy, do we ever annoy the crap out of each other sometimes... and also, Iceland -- it's kinda far).

But this post, it's really about my grandmother. She's the matriarch, the Grandmother with the capital G. She's really not like other grandmas, oh no. From the outside, she looks like a sweet, little old Jewish lady, but inside, she's tough, clever, funny and she is very protective of us all. She doesn't like children and she doesn't like outsiders, but for us -- HER children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and appropriate significant others -- she's ready to slay dragons. She rules us all with an iron fist in the proverbial velvet glove, and almost nothing happens without "calling grandma" and getting her approval. My grandma raised two kids -- ALONE -- in post-WWII Russia. After her husband died, she did not remarry because she didn't want her children to have another father. She worked two jobs, one of them in a factory, and she raised two of the most brilliant, amazing women I know, my mom and my aunt. She kept her religion -- underground -- even though the Communist Party told her for her entire life that there is no God. And all this comes in an adorable little package that wears red lipstick and Elizabeth Taylor perfume. It's no wonder that she's something of a living legend in my family and that our love for her is boundless.

Every year, we meet at her house to break the fast after Yom Kippur, and my grandma makes a dizzying array of dishes. She never allows anyone to help her cook (she's notoriously and annoyingly secretive about her recipes) and she never asks anyone to bring anything. It's not because she's trying to be nice and spare you the work -- no, it's because she probably won't like your cooking. I told you, she's not like other grandmas! Imagine my surprise (well, to be accurate, I almost fell off my chair) when I got a telephone call from her asking me to bring "that apple tart you made a few weeks ago." I had to ask her to repeat it twice, just because I wanted to hear it again. It wasn't about vanity. I felt like she was choosing me to continue her traditions, like she was trusting me with something very important. I had made this apple tart before and had given her half, and I put my heart into making it this time. It's very simple, with an earthy, sweet flavor and a delicious aroma of vanilla and baked apples, and it goes really well with home-made whipped cream or vanilla ice-cream. I don't know what it was that my grandma liked so much about it, but that wasn't the point. She patted my hand proudly and beamed at me at the end of the meal, and I felt really, really good.

Alsatian Apple Tart
(adapted from Dorie Greenspan)

1 Sweet Tart Dough crust, partially baked (to partially bake, just omit the extra 10 minutes of baking described in step 5 after the link)

For the filling:
1 pound medium sized sweet apples
1 cup heavy cream
6 Tb. sugar
1 egg
1 egg yolk
2 Tbsp pear brandy (optional)

Preheat the oven to 374F. Peel, core and slice the apples thinly. Layer the apples in a circle on the bottom of the crust, filling in the middle. Make a second layer on top of the first layer. In a bowl that would be easy to pour out of, mix the eggs and sugar, add the cream and, if using, the brandy. Pour on top of the apples and bake at 375F for 50-55 minutes.

You can finish it off with some confectioners' sugar or glaze with apricot jelly. Because it was the Jewish New Year, I glazed the apples with a bit of honey for a sweet and joyful year. Many happy wishes to everyone!

*Note* Dorie's recipe says to use 3/4 cup of cream, but I found it not to be enough, so I use 1 cup. Also, the filling will puff up a bit, but don't worry, it will come back down when the tart is cooled. I like this at room temperature with slightly sweetened whipped cream.

Continued after the jump...

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Traditional Madeleines

I knew that walking into Sur La Table would be trouble -- it always is. I managed to skirt past the people browsing the section with a big red "SALE" sign; I put down the cutest little paella pan; I did not succumb to the call of the tart rings. In my tiny kitchen, every new item has to be absolutely necessary and do double or even triple duty, but there was something about that mini Madeleine pan that I just could not resist. Like a screen siren of days long gone, it called to me with its lush curves and sexy lines. I was a lost woman.

Eager to try out my new purchase, I made the first recipe from my "baking bible" -- the Dorie Greenspan "Baking" cookbook. The dough behaved beautifully and was easy to make, and my little honeys baked up with a most characteristic "hump." I was not so sold on the taste, however, as I thought the crumb was a little too dense (maybe it was my technique, as it was my first time ever making Madeleines). The flavor was wonderful, though-- vanilla sweetness and just enough of a hint of lemon. All in all, let us simply say that my quest for the perfect Madeleine is just beginning.

Traditional Madeleines
(Dorie Greenspan)
Makes 12 cookies or 24 minis

2/3 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
1/2 cup sugar
Grated zest of 1 lemon
2 large eggs, room temperature
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
3/4 stick (6 T) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
Confectioners' sugar for dusting

Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt.

Working in a mixer bowl or in a large bowl, rub the sugar and lemon zest together with your fingertips until the sugar is moist and fragrant. Add the eggs and beat eggs and sugar on medium speed until pale, thick and light, 2-3 min. Beat in the vanilla. With a rubber spatula, very gently fold in the dry ingredients, followed by the melted butter. Press a piece of plastic wrap against the surface of the batter and refrigerate for at least 3 hrs, or for up to 2 days.

Preheat the oven to 400F and center a rack in the oven. Butter and flour the Madeleine pan or spray non-stick pan with cooking spray. Spoon the batter into molds, filling each one almost to the top -- don't spread the batter. Bake large Madeleines 11-13 minutes and minis 8-10 minutes, or until the top is golden and springs back when touched. Remove the pan and release the Madeleines from the molds by rapping the edge of the pan against the counter. Gently pry any recalcitrant cookies from the pan using your fingers or a butter knife. Cool to room temperature.

Note: these are MUCH better the day they are baked, so I would suggest refrigerating the dough overnight and baking in the morning!

Continued after the jump...

Linzer Sables

In my baking career (purely amateur, you understand), I've made cakes and pies and tarts and scones, lemon bars and cheesecakes and custards and breads. I can probably make a tart crust with my eyes closed. Yet, I have made cookies only that one lonely time. As soon as I told you guys then that I didn't like cookies, some innate contrarian spirit made me go out there and try to bake a few. Now, these are not save the world cookies, just simple sablees with a little twist of ground almonds and cinnamon and chocolate (simple twist, did she say?), but as silly as it sounds, I really enjoyed baking these and thought I should share the experience. Oh, and I enjoyed eating them as well, and so did everyone else. Simply put, these cookies deserve to be eaten, and that's all any cookie can really wish for in its short, sweet life. :)

Linzer Sables
(adapted from Dorie Greenspan)

*Note 1* I made these with almonds and sandwiched with chocolate, but Dorie suggests that you can make them with hazelnuts, almonds or walnuts and sandwich with either chocolate or jam.
*Note 2* The recipe says that it makes 50 cookies (or 25 sandwich cookies), but I got about 1.5 times that -- maybe I roll out my dough a little thinner?
*Note 3 and final* To cut out the eyelet, use the end of a piping tip.

1 cup finely ground almonds
2 cups all purpose flour
1.5 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
1 large egg
2 tsp water
1 stick (8 T) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar

For the ganache: 4 oz bittersweet chocolate, 1/4 cup cream, 1 tbsp butter at room temperature

Whisk together the ground nuts, flour, cinnamon and salt. Using a fork, stir the egg and water together in a small bowl.

Beat the butter and sugar together at medium speed until smooth, about 3 minutes; add the egg mixture and beat for 1 minute more. Reduce the speed to low and beat in the dry ingredients, mixing only until they disappear into the dough (don't overwork the dough). If there are dry ingredients left in the bowl, mix them in with your hands.

Divide the dough in half. Working with one half at a time, put the dough between two large sheets of wax paper. Flatten the dough into a disk and roll it out until it's about 1/4 inch thick. Do the same with the other half. Making sure the dough is flat, transfer it to the freezer for 45 minutes (or refrigerate for 2 hrs).

Preheat the oven to 375F and line two baking sheets with parchment or silicone mats. Take out one piece of dough, and, peeling off the top piece of wax paper, cut out cookies of desired shape. If you want a peekaboo cutout, use the end of a piping tip to cut out little holes in the middle of half the cookies. Transfer the cookies to a baking sheet, leaving a little space between the cookies. If the dough has become too warm at this point, freeze it for 5 minutes more before transferring the cookies to a baking sheet. Use the scraps to roll more dough, freeze until firm and make more cookies.

Bake the cookies one sheet at a time for 11 to 13 minutes, or until cookies are lightly golden, dry and just firm to the touch. Cool at room temperature. Repeat with the second disk of dough, making sure to cool the baking sheets between batches.

Sandwich cookies: Make the ganache by chopping the chocolate into a small bowl. Heat the cream to a boil and pour over the chocolate, letting it stand for a few minutes. Then, whisk until smooth and glossy, and stir in 1 tbsp of room-temperature unsalted butter. Let the ganache cool a bit. Then, place about 1/2 tsp of the ganache in the center of half of the cookies and sandwich with the remaining cookies.

If using jam, bring 1/2 cup jam (raspberry or apricot recommended) and 1 tsp of water to a boil. Let the jam cool slightly and place 1/2 tsp of jam in the center of each cookie, sandwiching with the remaining cookies.

Before serving, dust cookies lightly with confectioners sugar.

Continued after the jump...

Monday, October 6, 2008

One day in Paris

It all really starts the day before. You fly into CDG and, tired and sleepy, lug your overweight suitcase down the stairs, up the stairs, around the stairs and all over the place to the train stop. Then, you find out that the ticket machine only takes change -- not bills -- and that the change machine is broken. Hello, welcome to Paris, you think. The ticket machine also doesn't take your American credit cards (is Visa different in France?) and there is an impatient line behind you giving you dirty looks because out of the 10 ticket machines, only 2 seem to be working. You le sigh and sit on your suitcase, hoping that the noise you hear isn't the sound of your jars of honey from Munich and wine from Vienna breaking into a million little pieces.

You finally get tickets and take four seats on the train between the two of you (because your suitcase is actually heavier than you are and you're pretty sure it deserves its own place, and also, it doesn't fit anywhere else). Then, you get to Gare du Nord, and by Murphy's law, the exit you need to take is the one without an elevator or an escalator. Right, Paris, you think again. You look at your suitcase and at the flight of stairs stretching up and up into the street, and you are hot and sweaty and are being jostled by about a thousand people who are running, running, and you are about to cry because you know what, you've had it today already.

And then, five or six handsome guys in police uniforms -- the sweetest and most wonderful policemen that ever lived -- approach you with smiles and whistles and pick up your person-sized suitcase as it were made of feathers and in a jiffy, you run up those steps into the light, and you are outside in the spring air and the blinding sun. (You wonder if it's okay to tip policemen and then find that you only have a 100 Euro note with you, and decide that a smile of a pretty girl is worth about the same in France -- it's not really true, but the guys seem to agree with your interpretation). Ah, welcome to Paris, you think, your lips curving into an almost involuntary smile.

The next morning, you get up early -- really early, when the light is still blue and hazy and the streets have barely awoken, and you take the subway to the Marais (Marais? the dark woman at the subway ticket counter looks at you perplexedly). You get off the train and walk, eschewing the map, in the general direction of the Place des Vosges. It takes you a while to get there because the streets wind around and there are about a million things to look at, and you see red flowers in the window sills.

The Place des Vosges is almost deserted, but it is more beautiful than you could have imagined, the old buildings standing across from each other in dignified pride. You remember that some king kept his mistresses in the small, elegant palace here, and you want to scoff at kings and mistresses in the good egalitarian tradition, but all you can really do is imagine calling this lovely place home.

You find a cafe and you order, after much deliberation a cafe creme and a croissant au chocolat, because the waiter is cute and who would not want a croissant au chocolat? He doesn't get impatient with you -- he seems used to tourists taking their time. There are four Japanese men ordering omelets, and you ask one to take a picture because you are in Paris and you still can't believe it. The arches make even, slanting shadows across the ground and the fountain bubbles like a brook in the background, and you drink your coffee rather quickly and the delicate flakes of the croissant float around your plate.

There is a monastery with round turrets and red, Gothic windows, and a small, neat park where you meet a man reading a newspaper on a green, sloping bench. He is an American -- really, how do we always find each other abroad -- who has retired in Paris, and he points to a little girl who stumbles around the pebbled path with a click of his tongue. "Paris is the only city left in Europe with children," he says proudly and a little sadly. You talk to him about his life in Vienna, Rome and London and you say with a small sigh, "I am so sorry, but I am only here for one day." He nods kindly, understandingly. He lives here, but you get the impression that maybe every day is really "only one day" for him.

You sit on the cool, stone steps of an old church with stained glass windows, and then you take the streets back up to the Rue de Rosiers and the history is almost oppressive. There is a Star of David on one window, and you touch its worn gilt and you don't know what to feel.

Ile St. Louis greets you, glittering like a jewel in the mid-day sun, cheerful and brisk and full of smells. The back of the great cathedral looks at you indulgently as you pass a creperie and a bar with yellow lanterns, and you choose a tiny red restaurant that advertises a three course lunch for 10 euro. The place is full and animated, and the waitress squeezes you into the only empty table after a pleading glance and a smile. Your ears catch short strains of other people's conversations and your stomach rumbles a little from the smell of quiches and galettes. You eat slowly, savoring the moment, and the woman next to you -- one half of an older American couple -- says loudly that "this restaurant must charge for the ambiance." You exchange an amused glance with the waitress and she shakes her head as if to say, but we get these all the time. Only she would say it in French, so you are glad that the two of you understand each other without words. You leave and stand on Pont Saint-Louis for a long time, looking at the dark waters of the Seine.

Then you finally cross to the other side and you find yourself on the wide, tree-lined Boulevard Saint-Germain. Suddenly, everything becomes a little bit more chic and you pull your scarf around yourself smartly (though still not as smartly as the girls whose high heels are clicking on the old, worn stones). You wonder along the streets haphazardly, slightly shell-shocked from the contrast of the ultra-hip shops with the old, ornate balconies and street lamps. The cafes are the same, though, just as you wanted them to be, and this delights you so much that you almost recover from having passed four patisseries and three fromageries, each more enticing that the last one, during the course of two blocks. The park beckons you, however, and you move on, past the Latin Quarter and past the Sorbonne, and past the monastery with velvety purple flowers behind a carved iron gate, until you reach the Jardin du Luxembourg.

The Jardin is busy in the afternoon, and you are a little startled by the return of the noise and traffic, and the quick, sharp jabs of conversations in many languages. There is a hustle for empty chairs, but you snag one anyway, feeling a little like an outsider amidst the groups of students and families who are eating, drinking, playing or just sitting with their arms around each other. There is a statue of a boy above a bright bed of yellow flowers, and there is an old man who sits on a bench, leaning on his cane, and watching the boy with his eyes, but his thoughts are far, far away. The tourists pass him with their cameras and their smiles, and you are among them, carried by the tide, but he remains at peace. Marie de Medici watches over the cool, green waters of the Fountain of the Medicis, and there is beauty everywhere in the afternoon shadows.

On the way back, you take the less busy Rue de Toumon, and on Rue de Seine, you finally succumb to a patisserie, out of which you come out with a shockingly pink box with two pastries -- because you could not decide on one even if someone gave you $100 -- a lemon tart and some fancy raspberry concoction that you are afraid to touch. You don't even go near a fromagerie because, well, you are only human after all and God knows what would happen then. But you do buy, contrary to all your expectations, soap. You pick a bar of almond/honey, one of peach/mint and one lavender, and give the rest a good sniff when the sales-lady has her back turned, and it's glorious.

You wade, with hurting feet and singing senses, through the throngs of people and traffic to the cool, quiet bank of the Seine, and you cross along the Pont Royal (of course), unwilling to leave it all behind but knowing that you must. The Jardin des Tuileries is waiting for you. You sit by the fountain -- because you have to this time -- and a man next to you speaks very quickly in French, pointing to the shockingly pink box you've carried for two hours. You try to give the universal pathetic look of someone who doesn't speak the native language, and he gives up on you and smiles widely, and makes the "ok" sign at your box. You look at the gold, curvy letters and they say Gerard-Mulot. You understand and make the "ok" sign back and murmur, "merci." He smacks his lips, pats you on the shoulder, and continues on his way. You smile to yourself.

You order a dinner at a tiny bistro close to your wildly-expensive-but-I'm-here-for-a-night hotel, and you tell the waiter "to take away" and then laugh with him because he knows that only Americans ask for that. He winks and pops open a cold beer, sliding it across the counter a little to show off his prowess. The light is golden and fading, and you sit on the window seat in your room, eating possibly the best lemon tart in the universe and drinking hot, strong coffee (and picking the raspberries off the thing with Framboise which got a little rumpled, so you are not so afraid to touch it any longer, and thank goodness for that). The sky throws pink reflections on the gargoyles and the traffic beeps and fumes and the Louvre stands tall and proud -- facing the sunset -- and you know, you really know, that you will live the impossible magic of this day over and over and over again, and that there is only one place in this world like Paris.

Continued after the jump...