Thursday, December 25, 2008

Anita's Chocolate Crinkle Cookies

I've always had this idea that life takes you where it wants you to go. Not that you can be passive -- you get opportunities and you work like crazy to pick them up, and you get knocked down and you have to discover your own way out -- but you find yourself along a certain road and, whether you know it or not, it is a good one in the end. I found myself walking down that road, but as I walk (run, huff, crawl) along, I keep looking over at the green grass on both sides and wondering... should I have taken the other path? Should I have made that left at Albuquerque (as Bugs Bunny would say)? I love so many things that are not my job -- I love painting, baking, writing, traveling, taking photographs, and maybe all of them together. Why am I not doing those things for a living?

The other day, one of my neighbors brought me an article cut out of a newspaper, about a woman who used to be a lawyer and then quit and went to culinary school and opened her own baking business. It stayed in my mind for quite a long time, sitting, simmering. What an attractive idea, full of adventure and new challenges... It was still in my mind when I took a whole Sunday to bake 20 boxes of 3 different kinds of cookies and 10 boxes of biscotti. On Monday, I had a whole new appreciation for my job. Do I still love baking? Oh yes, absolutely (and it all turned out deliciously, and the office was full of people smiling at me and waving vigorously from afar). But now I understand its place in my life much better than I used to, and I understand why the path along which I am walking is the right one for me... for now!

Chocolate Crinkles

from Anita Chu's "Field Guide to Cookies"

6 oz semisweet chocolate, chopped
1/4 cup plus 2 Tbs unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
2 Tbs cocoa powder
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
confectioners sugar for rolling

Melt chocolate and butter over a double boiler. Remove from heat and set aside.

In the meantime, whip the eggs with the sugar until thick and pale. Add the vanilla extract and the melted chocolate and mix.

Sift flour, cocoa powder, salt and baking powder into a bowl and add this to the chocolate mixture. Mix until combined.

Place this bowl in the refrigerator for about 2 hours until the dough hardens enough to scoop out.

Preheat oven to 325F. Scoop one inch balls. Roll these in powdered sugar and place them on sheetpans lined with parchment paper. Flatten the tops of the cookies a bit with your fingers and bake until set for about 12 minutes.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Lenox Almond Biscotti

Ever since I first made these, they have been my go-to biscotti recipe. I love the texture -- a light sweetness that has a pleasant crunch of cornmeal to make it unique. I love the fact that these can be adapted every which way (I made them with chocolate chips and cranberries once, and dipped them in dark chocolate another time), and I love that they are distinctly home-made, compared to the hard, brittle things that Starbucks likes to call biscotti. Also, and perhaps most importantly, these are eminently givable and eminently lovable.

These were a TWD challenge a while back and some people had issues with them spreading too much. All I can tell you is that I followed the instructions pretty closely and have never had problems (Dorie says to make the dough into two logs, about 2x12 inches, and it has worked wonderfully for me). The only thing I really add to the recipe is to put the rack in the upper third of the oven and add about 5 minutes to the first baking (until the logs start turning golden and the edges look crispy). Oh, and I tone down the almond extract to 1 tsp instead of 1.5 -- I don't like a very strong almond smell. Also, it's really important to let these rest the full half hour between bakings; otherwise, they will crumble, even with the sharpest knife. When you make the cut, make it decisively (versus cutting in a sawing motion). Easy recipe, lovely results.

Lenox Almond Biscotti
from Dorie Greenspan's Baking From my Home to Yours

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons pure almond extract
3/4 cup sliced almonds, blanched or unblanched

GETTING READY: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment or a silicone mat.

Whisk the flour, baking powder and salt together. Add the cornmeal and whisk again to blend.

Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar together at medium speed for 3 minutes, until very smooth. Add the eggs and continue to beat, scraping down the bowl as needed, for another 2 minutes, or until the mixture is light, smooth and creamy. Beat in the almond extract. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the dry ingredients, mixing only until they are incorporated. You'll have a soft, stick-to-your-fingers dough that will ball up around the paddle or beaters. Scrape down the paddle and bowl, toss in the almonds and mix just to blend.

Scrape half the dough onto one side of the baking sheet. Using your fingers and a rubber spatula or scraper, work the dough into a log about 12 inches long and 1 1¿2 inches wide. The log will be more rectangular than domed, and bumpy, rough and uneven. Form a second log with the remaining dough on the other side of the baking sheet.

Bake for 15 minutes, or until the logs are lightly golden but still soft and springy to the touch. Transfer the baking sheet to a rack and cool the logs on the baking sheet for 30 minutes.

If you turned off the oven, bring it back up to 350 degrees F.

Using a wide metal spatula, transfer the logs to a cutting board and, with a long serrated knife, trim the ends and cut the logs into 3/4-inch-thick slices. Return the slices to the baking sheet — this time standing them up like a marching band — and slide the sheet back into the oven.

Bake the biscotti for another 15 minutes, or until they are golden and firm. Transfer them to racks and cool to room temperature.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Happy Hanukah!

May love and light fill your home always.

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Honey, I Shrunk the Apple Tart

Sometimes, I get writer's block. Not so much for this blog, but for my other creative writing endeavors (no, don't ask, you would just laugh!). I sit and write, and then delete paragraphs and write again, and it just feels all wrong. I'm sure you know the feeling. And then, when I'm almost desperate with frustration, and I know what I want to say but the words just won't come, I take a crayon and color outside the lines -- I change up the perspective, I put myself in a different character's shoes, and voila, it begins to flow.

The same kind of thing happened with this tart. I made the full size version twice, and both times (though I got rave reviews on the taste), I just wasn't feeling it. Then... oh yes, you know what comes next... came these little 4" tarts. And people, I tell you, it was fabulous, and it sang to me as only a perfect dessert can sing. The crust is thin and crisp and the apples are tender and fragrant, and it's just the perfect size. I'm in love... with a tart.

The recipe (and mouthwatering photos) can be found at Smitten Kitchen.

The recipe yields four 4" tartelettes. For these, it's best to use smaller apples that will stay firm, like golden delicious. Once I made and chilled the dough, I divided it into four parts and rolled each piece out into a 6 inch circle between two sheets of wax paper. I put the rolled out dough into the freezer for a few minutes before transferring to the tartelette pans (this is a great trick that I learned from a pastry chef -- this way, you can transfer even the thinnest crust without ripping it).

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Monday, December 1, 2008

Irene's Unofficial Holiday Gift Guide

I knew Thanksgiving was over when the only songs I heard on the radio this morning were about Rudolph, I walked into my building to a huge and beautiful Christmas tree and the temperature was down to -- oh, wait, it was still up in the 70s, but this is LA and we drape Christmas lights over palm tress and Corona bottles around here. Not that I'm complaining, mind you!

The point is, 'tis definitely the season, and if there is one thing I love more than receiving gifts, it is actually giving them. And that part has gotten easier and easier throughout the years. In fact, ever since the invention of online shopping, I like to avoid huge lines and have my purchases come to me, instead of the other way around. Here are a few things on my list this year that I either have tried out for myself or would love to try out and that I think would please even the most discerning recipient.

For The Chef

Once Upon A Tart by Frank Mentesana and Jerome Audureau. New from Alibris, $12.84 (or from Amazon for about $15). I just got this cookbook myself (I ordered a used copy for $5 including shipping, whoo hoo!) and I've already fallen in love with its intuitive layout and inventive recipes (and boy, there are a lot of recipes!). The authors are successful owners of a great cafe and bring their different backgrounds (French and American) into perfect harmony in the dishes they create. Personally, I love buying (and getting) used books because I feel like I give them a new home, but for the price tag of just under $13 for a new copy, you can't go wrong.

The Sweet Life: Desserts From Chanterelle, by Kate Zuckerman. New from Alibris, $9.50 (Seriously, $10? This is a steal. You'd better get this quick because I have an itchy credit card finger). Beautifully written and beautifully illustrated, this book has a special place in my kitchen. There is something a little extraordinary and very special in each of Kate Zuckerman's creations (maple ginger ice cream, anyone?) and I have no scruples in giving this book my full and warm endorsement.

For The Entertainer

Stemless Wine Glass from Crate and Barrel, $1.95/each (or, a decanter set with four glasses for $19.95!). I used to think stemless wine glasses were an abomination, but then I left behind my wine snobbery and actually used one. They are awesome for everything, including wine, cocktails, juices and even desserts like mousses or trifles. I've said before that in my small kitchen, everything has to do double and triple duty, and these glasses more than aquit themselves. And for $2 each, if someone (*cough* me) drops a glass, I can say "mazel tov" and not worry about it.

Bamboo-Porcelain 3-Section Serving Tray from Sur la Table, $29.95. Undoubtedly, this is the most used serving dish at Chez Irene. In fact, I would put it near the top of my "things I can't live without" list. Here are some of a myriad of combinations: salami, cheese, olives; roasted peppers, roasted eggplant, sundried tomatoes; cherry tomatoes, baby carrots, herbed yogurt dip; salted peanuts, wasabi peas, cheese twists; smoked salmon, sliced tomatoes, capers; guacamole, sour cream, salsa; blueberries, raspberries, almonds; truffles, truffles, truffles... you get the idea. Functional and pretty, what more could anyone want?

Polka-Dot Dessert Plates, $27.99/six at Brentwood Kitchen. What party would be complete without tid-bit plates? Officially, these are called "dessert" plates, but their small size and lollypop colors make them perfect for any kind of entertaining. And because the owner of Brentwood Kitchen is a close friend of mine, all Confessions of a Tart readers will get 10% off any purchase from now until January 1, 2009. Just enter the code TART at checkout. It's good to have friends in high places!

For The Tea Lover

Tea from Lupicia, about $7.00/tin or 10 teabags. For my last birthday, I was lucky enough to get a box of tea from this Japanese company. I love exploring new flavors of tea from different regions like China, India and Africa and since I tried Lupicia tea, I've been a big fan. They have so many imaginative flavors that I'm often at the store for at least a half hour before I can pick anything out (thankfully, their salespeople are very patient), and their tea is fantastic. If I had to pick only three flavors, I would go with Apricot (a fragrant black tea), Jasmin Mandarin (a green tea that has the most wonderful Jasmine smell) and the Momo Peach Oolong.

Bird Teapot, $13.95 at Crate and Barrel. This would make an adorable gift for anyone who drinks a lot of tea. I love its classic curves, the little bird on top and the fact that the handle actually has a grip for your thumb. Made of white porcelain, it matches perfectly with anything in my tea cup collection. I loved it when I received it as a gift from a thoughtful friend.

Harvest Cup & Saucer, $26.99 for a set of 4 at Wrapables. I can imagine myself having a quiet cup of tea in the afternoon, looking out of my window onto a gray, winter day, and feeling warm and cozy at home with my tea and something little and sweet. I can also imagine sharing this cup of tea and a laugh with friends and family (although they would probably fight me for the dessert...). I really like this pretty, delicate set.

Well, I hope you've had fun going on a virtual shopping trip with me! If you have a favorite gift that has made you smile, leave it in the comments, I am always expanding my list!

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