Inside my window

October 9, 2010 § 1 Comment

I made something today (smiles). I don’t really know what to call it. I think that is the reason I am having such a hard time starting the paragraph. You see, I took the kilo of apples à cuire, which I purchased at the market for 1 euro, peeled them, loving how the skin came off easily in long curls, and tossed them in the stove pot. I took a couple spoonfuls of my leftover dulce de leche and a couple more of butter and added them to the pot. And hovered over it, smelling the air above it anxiously, as the mixture simmered and bubbled and boiled. I ate a cup of stewed apples then, just plain and simple, and set aside the pot while I prepared the shortbread.

I stood by the open window, looking out at the courtyard through the lacey curtains, my hands in the metal bowl, gently crumbling the cold butter into ground hazelnuts. When I felt the need for sweetness, I added an arbitrary cupful of sugar and a light drizzle of maple syrup. And then I padded the dough into a fluted tart shell, setting aside a quarter of it for the topping, brushed the top with the stewed apples and crumbled the remaining dough on top of it all. I had no idea, putting my creation in the oven, what it would result in. Would the apples soak through the shortbread? Would it cook through? Did I add enough flour? I had no idea beyond the feel of the dough in my hands.

It browned, to a crispy, golden hue. The apples turned to jam — a thick, tart layer with a hint of cream from the dulce de leche — between two layers of nutty, buttery shortbread. Except it’s less like shortbread and more like those little nutty cookies you make at Christmas-time, covered in powdered sugar. The crumble top crunches when you bite into a slice and then the soft texture of the apples takes over. The bottom holds up, but just barely, as you lift a slice from the pan. And for a moment, I feel like I have achieved something today.

And then I am taking a slice back to bed, where I am working on a million projects at once, trying to straighten out applications, travel plans and my life after Paris.

Changing seasons and a fall cookie

September 27, 2010 § 1 Comment

I think it is finally fall over here; the skies are overcast, it drizzles occasionally and I’m huddled up in my apartment in wool socks because I’m sick. Lovely. In fact I think we have skipped fall altogether and gone straight to winter. Which is unfortunate, because fall happens to be my favorite season of the year. I love walking to the crunch of the leaves underfoot, swerving a bit out of my way to make sure I step on that leaf that looks particularly brittle, breaking out my vast collection of scarves, which could probably represent every country I have ever been to, and bursting into the house on a really windy day, feeling that first initial blast of warm air on your face, and then the opposite cold burst when you step outside again. Back home, it means street blocks turn into pumpkin patches full of straw mazes and colorful pumpkins and squash every shade of orange, yellow and purple. Local coffeeshops start serving their seasonal flavored lattes — the cinnamon, the pumpkin which gradually merge into the peppermint and eggnog flavors of the holiday season. Cakes become denser, most fresh fruits slowly disappearing from the table to be replaced with spices and caramels.

But fall doesn’t seem to be much of a season over here. Indeed, as I spent the weekend in London, I toured various displays of Christmas trees, snowy animal decorations and hundreds of sets of Christmas china and ornaments. Glitter of every color seemed to sparkle in the windows of the department stores. Churches beckoned people dressed in their best clothes inside on Sunday morning, as we took a stroll along the Thames. For me, fall has a bit of a rustic charm, the charm of things changing, but that intermittent period where you aren’t quite sure where the change is leading. And when your surroundings are changing so dramatically, you long for your food to bring the warmth and comfort that you had taken for granted all around you during the summer. Fall is above all else a time for the homemade, a time for the nostalgic, a time for incorporating the warm with the simple.

The September 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Mandy of “What the Fruitcake?!” Mandy challenged everyone to make Decorated Sugar Cookies based on recipes from Peggy Porschen and The Joy of Baking. The challenge was to made decorated sugar cookies with the theme of September. We were provided with a recipe for sugar cookies and a recipe for royal icing. I chose to make mostly bells, as the church bells have played a major part in my life this September. I live and go to school right by Notre Dame so my day passes according to the ringing of the church bells — once at the demi-heure and then according to the time on the hour. Sticking to the theme that baking in fall months ought to be warm and rustic — aided along by the fact that I simply could not find food coloring at any French supermarket — I decorated my church bells with dulce de leche instead of royal icing. I would love to decorate with royal icing one day, perhaps around Christmas.

Basic Sugar Cookies
Adapted from Peggy Porschen:
Makes Approximately 36x 10cm / 4″ Cookies

200g / 7oz / ½ cup + 6 Tbsp Unsalted Butter, at room temperature

400g / 14oz / 3 cups + 3 Tbsp All Purpose / Plain Flour

200g / 7oz / 1 cup Caster Sugar / Superfine Sugar

1 Large Egg, lightly beaten

5ml / 1 tsp Vanilla Extract / Or seeds from 1 vanilla bean

Cream together the butter and sugar until creamy. Beat in the egg until well combined. Add the sifted flour and mix until a sticky dough forms.

Knead into a ball and divide into 2 or 3 pieces. Roll out each portion between parchment paper to a thickness of about 5mm/1/5 inch (0.2 inch). Refrigerate for a minimum of 30mins. Once chilled, peel off parchment and place dough on a lightly floured surface. Cut out shapes with cookie cutters. Arrange shapes on parchment lined baking sheets and refrigerate for another 30mins to an hour. Preheat oven to 180°C / 350°F . Bake until golden around the edges, about 8-15mins depending on the size of the cookies. Leave to cool on cooling racks. Once completely cooled, decorate as desired.

Decorate with Dulce de Leche
By David Lebovitz

Graham crackers

September 2, 2010 § 1 Comment

It’s hard to think about anything but the fact that I’m moving to Paris. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it: I’m moving to Paris. It is at once terrifying and terribly exciting. Every time I start to think, my mind drifts to what I imagine my life to be like there and then I have to catch myself before the daydreaming goes too far and I start planning out the future too much. But really, it’s hard to flip that switch in my brain for long enough to write about my last few days in San Francisco.

But they were definitely good ones. On Friday night, I headed up to the Sonoma Wine Valley with my family for a night of camping. The vineyards stretched out before us on the ride up in pretty green rows, red fruit hanging off the vines almost ready for picking. Everywhere we looked, wooden signs offered daily wine and olive oil tastings, and we stopped by a local bakery, which sells its crusty bread to several stores in San Francisco, for a cinnamon twist and a latté. We got to the campsite pretty late in the evening, in time to set up our tents as it got dark and roast marshmallows by the campfire. We only have one camping chair, so the roasting required a bit of coordination but in the end there were some toasty golden brown marshmallows with chocolate and my homemade graham crackers.

These graham crackers are rich and buttery, with a fairly strong taste of honey. Slightly thicker and more crunchy than your standard store-bought graham cracker, these are also great on their own as a snack. In fact, my family was of the opinion that they were better on their own than in s’mores. I made them with half wheat flour and half white.

Graham Cracker Recipe
Adapted from Nancy Silverton’s Pastries from the La Brea Bakery (Villard, 2000), via 101 Cookbooks

1 1/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons unbleached pastry flour or unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups whole wheat four
1 cup dark brown sugar, lightly packed
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
7 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes and frozen
1/3 cup mild-flavored honey, such as clover
5 tablespoons whole milk
2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract

Ina bowl, combine the flour, brown sugar, baking soda, and salt until the mixture is uniform and crumbly.

In a small bowl, whisk together the honey, milk, and vanilla extract. Add the wet mixture to the flour mixture and mix with your hands until the dough barely comes together. It will be very soft and sticky.

Lightly flour a work surface and shape the dough into a rectangle about 1 inch thick. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours or overnight.

After two hours has elapsed, remove the dough from the refrigerator. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the rectangle about 1/8 inch thick. Cut crackers into squares, using a square cookie cutter (or I found the edges of a tupperware container worked nicely). Place cut crackers on baking sheets lined with parchment paper and chill until firm, about 30 to 45 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake for 25 minutes, until browned and slightly firm to the touch.

SHF: Salted Browned Butter Shortbread

August 26, 2010 § 2 Comments

Right as I was enjoying wearing boots and sweatshirts, an ungodly heat wave hit San Francisco. On a Monday afternoon, people flocked to the parks to picnic and schools kids complained about having to go to school right as the San Francisco summer finally got started. A run along Ocean Beach saw large clumps of people playing in the waves and cars overfilling the lots along the Great Highway. At midnight, I climbed to the top of Bernal Hill and walked out along Pier 1 with some old friends — all without long pants or a scarf, which is my standard get-up in this city.

This morning I stumbled out of bed, still in pajama boxers and my hair sticking every which way, and out the front door to take pictures in the gentle morning sun. In a couple of hours, the hot, dry sun will be beating down and I’ll have started a run along the tide line, hopefully barefoot, if I can find someone to shuttle my shoes around the city. Or maybe I’ll wait to run until the evening and cross the peak of Diamond Heights as the fog rolls in, when you can barely see three feet in front of you. As you climb to the peak, the air seems to thin and the wind comes from all directions, its cold blasts spurring you down the hill on the other side. Today, the day is temperamental, summer one moment and the perfect misty setting for a horror film the next.

But as I settle in to write, it is still morning and I am back in the house. I’ve poured myself a tall glass of iced tea with a kick of mint and made open-faced sandwiches with juicy heirloom tomatoes that were just waiting to be sliced. Ah, summer.

These browned butter cookies pair just as well with iced tea as they do with a cup of hot tea. And with the weather changing every day, I keep a roll of cookie dough in the fridge, so that I am ready to bake off a couple when the winds change. Nutty and sandy, with a touch of sea salt on top, these cookies bring to mind summer days collecting sand dollars, with your toes in the wet sand and the harsh coastal wind in your face.

I made these shortbread cookies for this month’s Sugar High Friday, hosted by Elissa at 17 and Baking. Elissa picked browned butter or beurre noisette as the theme of the month, you can see all the details on her blog. Sugar High Fridays were started by Jennifer at The Domestic Goddess. This is the first time that I am partaking in the group challenge.

Salted Browned Butter Shortbread
Adapted from The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook via Bake List and Kitchen Meditation

1/2 cup unsalted butter, browned and cooled to room temperature
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 3/4 cup all purpose flour
1 generous pinch kosher salt
Fleur de sel for topping

Cream the butters and sugar together. Then add the vanilla, and slowly add the flour and kosher salt. Shape the dough into a log and refrigerate for at least half an hour. Preheat oven to 350F. Cut slices of the log approximately 1/4 inch thick and put cookies onto parchment-lined baking sheets. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until the edges are browned. After removing from the oven sprinkle each of the cookies with a touch of fleur de sel.

Seriously vanishing oatmeal cookies

August 14, 2010 § 1 Comment

I tend to hoard a lot of things — I collect little notebooks and spend about a week writing in each one, I have enough dresses to never repeat one on a night out for a year, and I buy all sorts of new ingredients, only to make one dessert with each one and then feel lost as to what to do with the remainders. I buy fresh lavender, rose water, seven different types of dark chocolate (semisweet, orange-scented, 75%, 85%, unsweetened, you get the picture) and all kinds of different nuts and dried fruits without usually a very coherent idea of what to do with them. Thus, I often end up with random quantities of ingredients, so that there is always a handful or two leftover after I have made whatever I fancied making that day.

So this week it came time to start thinking about packing to go home to San Francisco. I encountered piles of clothes I didn’t remember I had, multiple newly-acquired cake and tart pans that I have no idea where to pack, and a very random assortment of dry ingredients in the pantry that I knew none of the boys who usually live in this house will ever use. I had half a bag of large, unsweetened coconut shavings that I used to decorate this cake. I had half a bag of mini chocolate chips, which I had originally bought to replicate the chocolate chip scones Cloister Inn serves at breakfast. This has never happened but somehow the chocolate chips started to disappear on their own anyway. I have a handful of walnuts and a cup or two of sliced almonds, none of which I remember buying. But here all these things are in the kitchen and I’m leaving for good in a week and not taking them with me.

Luckily, the Quaker oatmeal cookie recipe came to rescue of these ingredients and supplied my house with cookies for at least 24 hours. I love oats, any kind of oats. Oatmeal in the morning (and maybe for lunch too), oatmeal on the top of fruit crisps, oats in granola and granola bars (more on this soon) and of course, the obligatory oatmeal cookie. My grandma makes fantastic oatmeal cookies, but until I finally decide to buy margarine, mine never turn out quite like hers.

These cookies were chewy with a crisp outside, packed full of coconut, chocolate and nuts. Yummy.

Vanishing Oatmeal Cookies
From Quaker Oats

½ cup (1 stick) plus 6 tablespoons butter, softened
¾ cup firmly packed brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt (optional)
3 cups old-fashioned oats
1 cup raisins (or nuts, coconut, chocolate chips etc. I probably doubled or tripled the amount of add-ins).

Heat oven to 350°F. In large bowl, beat butter and sugars on medium speed of electric mixer until creamy. Add eggs and vanilla; beat well. Add combined flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt; mix well. Add oats and coconut, nuts and chocolate chips; mix well.
Drop dough by rounded tablespoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheets.
Bake 8 to 10 minutes or until light golden brown. Cool 1 minute on cookie sheets; remove to wire rack. Cool completely. Store tightly covered.

My week of ginger cookies

July 27, 2010 § 1 Comment

You know how some kinds of cookies are just seasonal? Like you are only supposed to make gingerbread around Christmastime, when it’s cold out and you are huddled by the fireplace to keep warm. Well I don’t believe in seasonal. I would like to dress like it is summer every day of the winter. And make gingerbread every day of the summer.

Ginger cookies might well be my favorite kind of cookies, as well as a favorite of my brother’s. The smell of molasses and ginger in the kitchen is, for me, the ultimate comfort. I used to spend Saturday mornings in 9th grade baking gingerbread men before I even knew I liked the taste of gingerbread; I just knew they were supposed to epitomize Christmas, and Christmastime always brings you back home, where you belong. I used to argue with my brother over which cookie cutters to use — whether it was a bells and stars day (me) or an elephant day (the brother). I would liberally drizzle each cookie with icing, leaving extra icing in the cracks between the leaves of the table sticky. This took forever to clean up, not that I was often the one to do the cleaning.

But when we think about gingerbread men, we often overlook the other ginger cookie. These ginger molasses cookies, with the crackly sugarcoated outside and the chewy center, are what I turn to when I’m stressed out, upset, otherwise feeling under the weather. After several days of buying huge ginger cookies from the Firehook Bakery after work, I finally decided it was about time to start baking again.

I’m afraid I don’t actually have a recipe for these. You see, I started off with this recipe for Molasses Cookies from SammyW and distractedly added almost twice the amount of molasses necessary. So I upped the flour, spices and baking soda until the cookie dough felt and tasted right. While I ended up making a TON of cookies, they are all gone today; yet somehow, even without another cookie to look forward to, the week is looking up again.

Life loves: Brown butter brown sugar shorties

May 31, 2010 § 1 Comment

This morning I went for a run in Golden Gate Park. My plan was to follow John F. Kennedy Drive all the way down to Ocean Beach, run along the sand dunes and then make my way back. Unfortunately, I only got about 15 minutes along JFK before I completely wiped out on the gravel trail. The rest of the morning was spent picking gravel out of my hands. I know you really wanted to hear that right before I tell you about everything I’ve been baking.

Fortunately, I got patched up enough in time for a family brunch by the Bay at the Epic Roasthouse. Brunch is probably my favorite meal of the day. The waiter, who was a little standoffish, brought out a selection of cheese-chive popovers, cornbread in the shape of madeleines and white crusty bread with a pad of salty butter. I ordered an asparagus omelet, while my mother ordered the crab cake benedict and my brother and father, typical picky non-brunch eaters, ordered sides of steak fries, onion rings and scalloped potatoes. Tall glasses of champagne and lavender lemonade completed my love for brunch, and my father’s disdain for brunch. Apparently, it’s strange to drink champagne at 11:30 a.m. Who knew?

Speaking of other things I really love. Shortbread cookies. Brown butter. Brown sugar. And those three things altogether? Heaven. We really didn’t need any more cookies in the house, but after reading the heated comments on this recipe, I decided I had to give it a shot for myself. I mean, who doesn’t like a challenge? Deb at Smitten Kitchen swears that every time she has made these brown butter brown sugar shorties, they have come out heavenly. About half of the commentators agree. The other half complain about sandy, crumbly cookies that don’t hold their shape or, alternatively, lacy flat cookies that are more like florentines than shortbread. There’s some debate about how long to let the butter re-harden for and how long to chill the finished dough but not many conclusive answers either way about why people seem to be having different results. Luckily for the people in my house, these cookies came out perfectly for me. Unluckily, they were so good there were only three left by the end of the day. These cookies are wonderfully sandy and simultaneously salty and sweet. Hey that’s an alliteration.

Brown Butter Brown Sugar Shorties
Adapted by Smitten Kitchen from Gourmet

Makes about 32 cookies

1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter
1/2 cup packed brown sugar (preferably dark)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt (flaky salt would be great in these)
Demerara sugar (Sugar in the Raw) or sanding sugar for rolling (optional, I didn’t use it)

Cut butter into four or five pieces and cook butter in a small heavy saucepan over medium heat, stirring frequently, until it has a nutty fragrance and flecks on bottom of pan turn a light brown, anywhere from 4 to 7 minutes. It helps to frequently scrape the solids off the bottom of the pan in the last couple minutes to ensure even browning. Transfer butter to a bowl and chill until just firm, about 1 hour.

Beat together butter and brown sugar with an electric mixer until pale and fluffy. Beat in vanilla, then mix in flour and salt at low speed until just combined. Transfer dough to a sheet of wax paper or parchment and form into a 12-inch log, 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Chill, wrapped in wax paper, until firm, about 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle. Unwrap dough and roll it in coarse sugar, if using, and press the granules in with the paper you’d be using to wrap it. Slice dough into 1/4-inch-thick rounds, arranging 1 1/2 inches apart on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake until surface is dry and edges are slightly darker, 10 to 12 minutes. Let sit on sheet for a minute before transferring to a rack to cool. (Cookies will quite fragile at first, but will firm up as they cool.)

Dough keeps, chilled, up to 1 week, or in the freezer,

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