Sunday, December 28, 2008

Generally not in the habit

Christmas is a traditional affair. I prefer the foods and sweets that we ate when I was a child; I'll take old-fashioned, simple dishes to any manner of modern gourmet holiday spread featured in a cooking magazine. Pierogies. Potato pancakes. Gooey bar cookies that my aunt's been making for decades. Old-school hard tack.

I'm generally not in the habit of tackling complex bûche de noël recipes the day before Christmas. Not that there's anything wrong with complex bûche de noël recipes; it's just that I'd rather spend my down-to-the-wire holiday cooking time recreating favorites from my youth.

But the Daring Bakers aren't so into nostalgic gooey bar cookies. At least not formally.

Even though it's far outside the realm of my traditional Christmas cookery, I was pretty stoked nonetheless by the December challenge. This month's challenge is brought to us by the adventurous Hilda from Saffron and Blueberry and Marion from Il en Faut Peu Pour Etre Heureux. They have chosen a French yule log by Flore from Florilege Gourmand. This is not the kind of yule log/bûche de noël that you might be thinking of -- the one made from genoise with all the buttercream that looks like an actual log, with meringue mushrooms and little decorations of woodland creatures. No! This is the French kind of yule log -- the one one made from various layers of cake, mousse and other confections, frozen in a mold that looks like a half-pipe. This challenge gave me the opportunity to make some dessert elements that I'd never made before, and it gave me the excuse to buy a bûche de noël mold. Which is thrilling to me: I am always looking for excuses to add to my vast collection of cookware and bakeware.

My plan was to present the yule log for dessert on Christmas Eve, when my family would be gathered for our traditional fish dinner. But life got in the way and I wasn't able to complete the dessert for Christmas Eve. No matter -- dinner on Christmas Day needs dessert, too! I was very pleased with the final result and it was definitely worth the patient work required to create it. I chose almond, orange, chocolate and cinnamon as my primary flavors and they came through the finished yule log beautifully. As Mom said, "This is the kind of dessert best enjoyed by a refined palate." The cinnamon mingled happily with the chocolate, lending a spicy assertiveness that prevented all the chocolate in the dish from taking over with a one-note flavor. The almonds and orange were a wonderful counterbalance. When I first beheld the bûche de noël mold -- which is rather small and dainty -- I wondered what would be the point of all that work only to fill a tiny mold? Well, it all makes sense now: the dessert is so rich that a slice any larger would be overwhelming. It's hard to imagine that a dessert with so much chocolate could be dainty, but it is. There you have it.

As you will see, the recipe that follows is lengthy. Which means that I should probably stop talking now. I hope that someday you do try this yule log -- it truly isn't as much work as it seems and you will impress yourself and others with the finished result. And who knows? You may just decide to make a French yule log a regular part of your traditional holiday celebration.

Merry Christmas, everyone, and Happy New Year.


Adapted from recipes found on Florilege Gourmand

I strongly encourage you to attempt this glorious show-stopping dessert. Though the recipe is lengthy, rest assured that the individual elements are certainly manageable...easy, even! Just give yourself two or three days to complete the dessert; you will thank yourself, as your planning and time management will allow you to make a very impressive dessert with little stress.

The other thing that will allow you to make a very impressive dessert with little stress? A kitchen scale.

A note about the pan: I used a classic bûche de noël mold to shape my dessert. If you don't wish to purchase a special pan, lots of other Daring Bakers used loaf pans to assemble their yule logs. The recipes as written below fit the classic mold almost perfectly. Regardless of the pan you use, you will need to line the mold with plastic of some sort. Plain old write-on transparencies -- the kind you used to use with an overhead projector and that you can find at office-supply stores -- work perfectly.

The six elements, in the order they should be made:

(1) Praline crisp insert
(2) Cinnamon crème brûlée insert
(3) Dark chocolate mousse
(4) Almond-orange dacquoise biscuit
(5) Cinnamon-milk chocolate ganache insert
(6) Dark chocolate icing

In preparing this yule log for Christmas, I made the praline crisp insert on the evening of the 23rd. In the daytime of the 24th I made the cinnamon crème brûlée insert, dark chocolate mousse, almond-orange dacquoise biscuit and cinnamon-milk chocolate ganache insert. I constructed the yule log and placed it in the freezer until the next day. About two hours before serving, on Christmas Day, I made the dark chocolate icing. This way, making the yule log didn't take over an entire day, which it would do if you attempted to make it all at once.

Praline crisp insert

3.5 oz. (100 g.) milk chocolate
1 2/3 T. (25 g.) unsalted butter
2.1 oz. (60 g.) gavottes (recipe follows) or rice krispies or corn flakes
2 T. almond praline (recipe follows)

1/3 c. whole milk
2/3 T. (8 g.) unsalted butter
1/3 c. minus 2 t. (35 g.) all-purpose flour
1 T. beaten egg
1 t. sugar
1/2 t. vegetable oil

Almond praline
1/2 c. whole almonds
1/3 c. sugar

If using, make the gavottes. Preheat the oven to 430 degrees Fahrenheit. In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, combine the milk and butter together and heat until the butter is completely melted. Remove from heat. Sift the flour into the milk-butter mixture, whisk to combine. Add the egg and sugar; whisk to combine. Make sure there are no lumps. Grease a baking sheet with vegetable oil and spread the batter thinly over it. Bake for about 10 minutes, watching carefully, until it is golden and crispy. Let cool, then break apart or chop the gavottes into roughly 1/4-inch pieces. Set aside.

Make the praline. Line a baking sheet with a Silpat or with buttered parchment. Place the sugar in a heavy skillet. Heat over a low flame for 5-10 minutes until the sugar begins to melt. Watch the sugar closely; there is an extremely fine line between sweet and delicious and burnt and bitter. Swirl the pan to prevent the melting sugar from burning. If the sugar is not melting uniformly, go ahead and stir it gently with a wooden spoon.

When the sugar is completely melted and caramel in color, remove from heat. Stir in the almonds with a wooden spoon or silicone spatula and separate the almond clusters as best you can. Return to low heat and cook until the mixture starts to bubble stirring often. Pour the almond-sugar concoction onto the Silpat and spread it out as evenly as possible. Allow to cool and harden into brittle.

Break the cooled praline into pieces and place in a food processor. Pulse into a medium-fine texture and then process until the brittle turns into a powder, then a paste. (You only need 2 T. of the praline for this recipe; store the leftover in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. You can do delicious things with it, like sprinkle it over ice cream. Do not refrigerate.)

Back to the praline insert. Melt the chocolate and butter in a double boiler or bowl placed over a pan of simmering water. Add 2 T. of the praline and chopped gavottes (or rice krispies or corn flakes). Mix quickly to thoroughly coat with the chocolate. Spread the chocolate mixture between two sheets of wax paper to a size slightly larger than your desired shape. Refrigerate until hard.

Cinnamon crème brûlée insert

1/2 c. heavy cream
1/2 c. whole milk
4 egg yolks
2 T. sugar
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
A 3- or 4-inch cinnamon stick (I like Ceylon softstick cinnamon)

Heat the milk, cream, scraped vanilla bean and cinnamon stick to just boiling. Remove from the heat and let the vanilla and cinnamon infuse for about 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 210 degrees Fahrenheit. In a medium bowl, whisk together the sugar and egg yolks. Pour the vanilla- and cinnamon-infused milk over the sugar-yolk mixture and whisk until well combined.

Prepare the baking molds. I find that three small disposable aluminum loaf pans work well for this task, and are easily found in the grocery store. (You will have some crème brûlée left over; only about half of this finished recipe fits in the bûche de noël mold.) Wipe the pans with a wet cloth or paper towel, then line them with parchment paper. Prepare a bain-marie: fill another loaf pan about 3/4 full with water and place on the oven rack. Pour the cream into the three parchment-lined pans and place in the oven. Bake for 1 hour or until firm on the edges and slightly wobbly in the center. Cool completely in the pans, then place the pans in the freezer for at least 1 hour.

Dark chocolate mousse

3 egg yolks
3 T. sugar
1 1/2 t. light corn syrup
.5 oz. (15 g.) water
1 1/2 c. heavy cream, divided
6.2 oz. (175 g.) dark chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 1/4 t. unflavored powdered gelatin (can be found in the baking aisle of the grocery store)

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg yolks until very light in color, for about 5 minutes.

In a small heavy-bottomed saucepan, cook the sugar, corn syrup and water over medium heat until the mixture reaches 244 degrees Fahrenheit on a candy thermometer (soft ball stage). Add the sugar mixture to the egg yolks by pouring it into the bowl in a thin stream while continuing to beat the yolks. Continue beating the mixture until cool, approximately 5 minutes.

In a heat-proof bowl over a saucepan of simmering water (or a double boiler) heat 2 T. of the heavy cream until bubbling. Add the chopped chocolate and stir until melted and smooth.

While the chocolate mixture is melting, whip the remaining heavy cream in a medium bowl to stiff peaks.

Add the gelatin to the melted chocolate mixture and stir. Let cool slightly, then stir in 1/2 c. of the whipped cream. Add the egg yolk mixture and fold in carefully. Add the remaining whipped cream to the mousse and fold until just combined. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use.

Almond-orange dacquoise biscuit

3/4 c. plus 1 T. (80 g.) almond meal
1/2 c. confectioner's sugar
2 T. all-purpose flour
Zest of one orange
3 egg whites
1/4 c. sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. In a medium bowl, whisk together the almond meal and confectioner's sugar. Sift the flour into the mix.

In the clean, dry bowl of an electric mixer, beat the egg whites, gradually adding the granulated sugar, to stiff peaks. Pour the almond meal mixture into the egg whites and fold gently with a large spatula to incorporate. Take care not to deflate the egg whites.

Line a baking sheet with a Silpat or buttered parchment paper. Spread the batter on the Silpat or parchment to an area that is slightly larger than your desired shape (for the traditional bûche de noël mold you'll need one rectangle that is wide enough to line the bottom, half-pipe of the mold as well as a narrower rectangle to fit over the top of the mold). The spread batter should be about 1/3-inch tall.

Bake for 12-15 minutes, until golden. Let cool, then, using a wide spatula, release the cake from the pan. Trim into the desired shape and set aside.

Cinnamon-milk chocolate ganache insert

2.7 oz. (75 g.) milk chocolate, finely chopped
3.2 oz. (90 g.) dark chocolate, finely chopped
1/2 c. sugar
2/3 c. minus 1 T. (4.5 oz.) heavy cream
1/2 t. cinnamon
3 T. plus 1/2 t. unsalted butter, softened

Place the chopped milk and dark chocolate in a medium bowl; set aside.

Place the sugar in a small saucepan with high sides. Heat over medium-high heat, watching carefully, until the sugar begins to melt. Swirl the pan occasionally to allow the sugar to melt evenly. Cook to an amber color.

As the sugar is melting, whisk together the heavy cream and cinnamon and heat until boiling. Pour the cream mixture into the melted caramel, whisking constantly. (Be careful; at this stage the caramel can spatter.) Whisk together the caramel and cream until well combined.

Pour the caramel-cream mixture over the milk and dark chocolate. Wait 30 seconds then stir until smooth. Add the softened butter and whisk until smooth and shiny. Set aside at room temperature until ready to use.

P.S. Something excellent to do with leftover ganache: chill it, then scoop it with a tablespoon and roll it into balls. Dust the balls in cocoa powder or confectioner's sugar and...mmm, truffles.

AT THIS POINT, ASSEMBLE THE YULE LOG. Line the mold with plastic transparencies, cut to size (allow a little overhang from the top of the mold; it will make it easier to grab and unmold later).

Place the piece of dacquoise in the mold, gently curving it to fit the mold.

Prepare a piping bag with the fittings but without a tip; fill with dark chocolate mousse. Pipe 1/3 of the mousse onto the dacquoise in an even layer.

Release the crème brûlée from the pans and cut in half lengthwise; arrange on top of the chocolate mousse, nestling it into the mousse.

Pipe the second 1/3 of the mousse on top of the crème brûlée.

Trim the chilled praline crisp insert to fit the mold; cut in half if necessary. Place the crisp on top of the mousse.

Pipe the remaining 1/3 of the mousse on top of the praline crisp. Place the yule log in the freezer for several hours to set.

After a few hours, remove the yule log from the freezer. Place the ganache in a piping bag or in a plastic bag with the corner snipped off; pipe the ganache on top of the frozen mousse.

Place the second strip of dacquoise on top to "close" the yule log. Freeze until the next day.

The next day -- the day you are going to serve the yule log -- prepare the dark chocolate icing.

Dark chocolate icing

1/2 c. heavy cream
1/2 c. plus 2 T. sugar
1/2 c. water
2/3 c. unsweetened cocoa powder
1 T. powdered gelatin

In a medium saucepan, bring the cream, sugar, water and cocoa powder to a boil. Cook an additional 3 minutes after it reaches a boil. Add gelatin to the chocolate mixture; whisk to combine well. Let cool while checking the texture regularly. As soon as the mixture coats a spoon, it is ready to use immediately.

Remove the yule log from the freezer, unmold and place on a wire rack set over a baking sheet.

Pour about half of the chocolate icing over the yule log. Using an offset spatula or a butter knife, spread the chocolate over the yule log to coat. This coat doesn't have to be pretty and shiny and lovely; just make sure all of the dacquoise is covered in chocolate. Let set for about 5 minutes. Then, pour the remaining chocolate icing over the yule log and allow it to flow over the sides. Let set, then transfer the yule log to a serving plate and return it to the freezer until ready to serve.

Decorate as you wish. If I had more time, I would have liked to decorate this yule log with some orangettes. Next time!

To serve, cut into 1/2-inch slices with a serrated knife.

Makes about 24 servings. Store any leftovers in the freezer covered in plastic wrap and a layer of aluminum foil.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Oy to the World!

Guestblogging for Dianne is her husband, Dan.

As in all cultures, food is central to Judaism. It’s not entirely custom, of course, as it’s an active component of certain religious rites. Take the Passover seder, which tells the story of Exodus to a unique tastetrack steeped in symbolism and tradition, and the food itself is an integral part of the religious experience.

Then there’s Hanukkah. A holiday in which tradition calls for Jews to eat foods fried in oil. Not any particular kind of food. And not sautéed or drizzled. Just fried. All to commemorate a miracle in which day’s worth of oil lasted eight days at the Second Temple after its liberation by the Maccabean guerilla army.

Would the average American Jew bother to enjoy a latke, much less own a menorah, if Hanukkah didn’t fall on the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew (lunar) calendar, roughly coinciding with the Christmas season on the Gregorian calendar? My guess is it would fall somewhere in the collective Jewish experience as Tu Bishvat and the Fast of Tammuz. And you don’t see too many Tu Bishvat guestblogs floating around.

So Hanukkah is indeed, the most major of minor holidays. Who could turn their back on eating fried foods in honor of ancestors kicking serious Seleucid butt? Or betting the last gelt to your name (chocolate or otherwise) on a few spins of the dreidel?

That’s right – total indifference to calorie and fat-gram count, as well as the beloved tradition of gambling is key components of the holiday. And why not? What can pass as vice is commonplace during so many Jewish celebrations. Wine is key to the weekly Shabbat meal and flows during the Passover seder, while drunkenness is commonplace during Purim to the point that it’s a subject of debate. I had my first drink – a fuzzy navel, of all things – at my Bar Mitzvah. (Thanks for sneaking it to me, Dad!). Find the right interpretation and I’m sure you’ll find a holiday that requires painkillers and hookers. So it’s with apologies to my LDL levels and congratulations to the cardiology industry that I eagerly await Hanukkah every year.

The gifts are great, sure. But it’s really the tasty fried foods, and especially latkes, that are the reason for the season.

Growing up, latkes meant mom cutting open a box of Manischewitz or Streits latke mix. I’d eventually have the honor of mixing the powder with a couple of cracked eggs and some water. After some time in the fridge, you’d have a thickened bowl of potatoey goo that I naively thought was what a latke should be made from. Mom would deal with working with the hot oil, but as I got older, I’d be given free rein of the process.

Years later, living on my own and unemployed, I took to cooking more than I had, if only to save money and use my time to pick up some skills. I started picking off recipes in the library of cookbooks I let gather dust (and grease) in my kitchen, and that Hanukkah I figured it was high time to do it right.

And as I learned long ago from my wife and food blogger extraordinaire, once you go scratch you never go back to mix, regardless of the ease involved.

And with latkes, it couldn’t be easier anyway.

When I first started celebrating Christmas with Dianne, I missed traditional New York Jewish Christmas fare: delicious, delicious Chinese food and movie theater popcorn. But thanks to her encouragement, we’ve added my homemade latkes to the Christmas Eve menu, regardless of when Hanukkah falls (this year, the calendar was kind, overlapping the holidays).

Happy holidays, everyone, whatever you may celebrate. And happy eating!


Recipe adapted from The World of Jewish Cooking, by Gil Marks

6 medium Idaho potatoes (about two pounds)
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
3 eggs, lightly beaten
3 T. matzo meal
1 t. kosher salt
½ t. pepper
Vegetable oil, for frying

Grate the potatoes in a Cuisinart if you have one (and laboriously by hand if not) and place in large bowl of water. I know some cooks lightly salt the water to keep the potatoes from browning, but I’m in the camp of putting a vitamin C tablet or some squeezed lemon juice in the water instead.

Drain the potatoes really, really well, pressing out every last bit of moisture. Return to the bowl and stir in the remaining ingredients. Beat another egg in if you think the mixture isn’t holding together, but be wary of adding any more or you’ll be stuck with a fried potato omelet.

Heat about a half-inch of the oil to 360 degrees on medium-high heat and add a heaping spoonful of the mixture into the oil in batches, and flatten them with the back of your spoon or spatula. Usually you can get three or four latkes frying up at once.

Once you see the edges of the latkes turn to a rich golden brown should you flip (it’ll take about three to five minutes). Cook the other side similarly and drain on a paper towel and sprinkle with kosher salt to taste.

Repeat until you run out of mixture. Make sure to keep the integrity, so to speak, of the latkes as you spoon them out or risk stray pieces of potato hanging around the periphery of the pan and charring.

The rogue potato shreds that escape from the main latke still make for excellent secret eating.

Serve with applesauce (my choice) or sour cream. My dad used to like it cold with jam.

Makes 16 or so large latkes. Sneak a few away from the pile and stick in the fridge for an awesome cold breakfast the next morning. Get someone else to clean the stove. Thanks, Dianne, for giving me the keys for a day. All my love to you. - Dan

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sometimes, confections = pain

Sugar, corn syrup, water, food coloring, flavoring.

When I was growing up, we'd make hard tack candy nearly every Christmas. When I was very little, I would just watch as Mom and Dad worked feverishly and painfully against the clock, pulling and rolling and cutting the hot sugar before it cooled. When I got a little older, I could join in (hot sugar isn't so great on wee children's hands). The taste of the sweet and flavorful hard candy is one of those tastes that instantly transports me back in time. I haven't had hard tack in years, but when I ate a sweet cinnamony piece last night it was like I was eight years old, staring in amazement as Dad snipped ropes of colorful sugar with a pair of kitchen shears.

Hard tack is ridiculously simple, and as long as you've got the right tools (heavy-bottomed saucepan, candy thermometer) you might find yourself as I did today...making batch after batch, all day long. My copy of the recipe is typed on a yellowed index card that Mom estimates dates back to 1955. She determined that date based on the fact that her sister, my Aunt Dolly, took typing in high school and practiced with the hard tack recipe:


2 C. Sugar
2/3 C. Karo
1/2 C. Water
Cook ingredients without stirring to crack stage.
Wash down sides of pan to remove crystals. Remove from
heat, add few drops of coloring and 1/4 Tsp. of oil Flavorin
Pour quickly on Greased tray. Start to cut as soon as it
cools slightly. Dust with powder sugar when cold.

Such a solid recipe, such a delicious result. It's no wonder to me that homemade hard tack has been a favorite in my extended family for 53 years (and counting). And I haven't even gotten to the best part: the dangerous fact that hard tack is a little painful to make. It must be rolled and cut while it's still hot, otherwise it will cool into a glass-like pool on the baking tray. You might (will) burn yourself. You might (will) get a blister or two. This is OK with me. I like to live on the edge when making Christmas candies. It's like a fun game! See who can cut the hot sugar the fastest with the least amount of injuries to his or her digits. Sometimes, confections = pain.

I in no way wish to dissuade you from hard tack, however. Once you get the hang of the method, I promise you can make the stuff without having to engage the burn unit. And the resulting candies are so yummy -- so festive to display in pretty bowls around the house or to package up as tasty gifts -- you will forget the hot mess just as soon as you're finished with it.

Sugar, corn syrup, water, food coloring, flavoring, a little pain, a lot of sweet nostalgia.



Flavored oils can be found at the pharmacy counter of your local supermarket. As I wandered the baking aisle, searching in vain for the oils and planning just how many stores I'd have to visit before I found them, I called Mom for some advice. "Check the pharmacy. That's where they had them in 1955." That's also where they have them in 2008. I asked the pharmacist why the flavored oils for candy making were located next to the pill splitters and those little plastic snap-lid day-of-the-week pill cases and she said her father used to have a pharmacy when she was growing up, and he carried the oils, too. Another pharmacist chimed in: "It's tradition." So, like a fiddler on the roof, look for the flavored oils in their traditional place: at the pharmacy.

1 c. sugar
1/3 c. light Karo syrup
1/4 c. water
1/8 t. flavored oil (cinnamon, peppermint, lemon, cherry, clove, spearmint, etc.)
Food coloring
Powdered sugar

Line a baking sheet with a Silpat (or grease a baking sheet with vegetable shortening). Set aside.

Prepare a small bowl of ice water and place it next to the baking sheet -- this is to give your hot fingers a nearby cool place to go, should you burn yourself.

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan combine the sugar, Karo and water. Fit the pot with a candy thermometer and cook over medium heat, without stirring, until the sugar reaches the hard crack stage, 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Brush down the sides of the pan with a pastry brush dipped in water to prevent any crystallization. (I find that if your saucepan is heavy enough, this step is not necessary.) If you don't have a pastry brush, secure a strip of cloth or paper towel to the tines of the fork with a rubber band, then dip in water and "brush" the sides of the pan. That's the old-school, Aunt Dolly way.

When the mixture reaches 300 degrees/hard crack, turn off the heat. Remove the thermometer and add the flavored oil and food coloring. Mix well with a heat-proof spatula. Carefully pour the mixture onto the Silpat-lined (or greased) baking sheet.

Allow the candy to cool slightly, about 1 minute. With your fingers and a pair of kitchen shears, begin to lift up the outer edges of the sugar. Cut a piece of the candy, then roll between your hands into a rope. Snip the rope into 1/2-inch pieces. Then lift another edge of the candy "pool," cut another piece, roll and snip. Repeat, working as quickly as possible, until you've cut the entire batch.

Let the candy cool completely before placing it into a medium bowl. Spoon about a tablespoon of powdered sugar over the candy and mix with your hands to coat.

Makes about 2 c. of candies. You can double the recipe, but I do not suggest doing so unless you have someone to pull and cut with you; otherwise, the candy will cool before you can get through all of it.

Friday, December 19, 2008

As the name implies

Baci di ricotta.

Even the name is sweet, rolling off the tongue like so many Italian-accented Christmas greetings. Buon natale! Would you like some baci di ricotta?

I am part Italian -- one-quarter, to be exact. But, as I have mentioned before, it is a powerful one-quarter. Especially when it's Christmastime and there is baking to do. Maybe it has to do with visiting my Italian relatives in New Castle, Pennsylvania, when I was a child. Even now, many years later, I can picture the pizelles in Grandma Masterson's kitchen. Or maybe it has to do with Vatican City. Roman Catholicism is, after all, based in Rome. And the Catholic church in which I was raised remains a powerful force, even in my non-church-going years. Though Christmas is celebrated by people around the world, Italy seems to have cornered the market on authentic Christmas traditions, at least in my perception. Italy is Christmas to me.

These sweet little cookies fit right in with my Italian-centric Christmas. Though I'm not entirely sure of their authenticity -- as I clipped the recipe from some unidentified newspaper many, many years ago -- I like to think that a confection like this makes an appearance in one Italian town or another during the Christmas season. I like to imagine that somewhere, some eccentric grandmother is shouting, Giulia! Vieni qui, Giulia. Vieni e prendere i baci di ricotta!

Baci di ricotta are divine little morsels of fried dough -- nothing too fancy, in fact. The ricotta lends a moist creaminess to the interior of the baci, which contrasts deliciously with the light, crispy crust. A hint of cinnamon and just the right amount of sugar add a surprisingly complex flavor to what could otherwise devolve into a run-of-the-mill state-fair confection. These are not run-of-the-mill. As their name implies, these treats are kissed with just enough sugar and oil to make them perfect.

I might fry up a batch on Christmas Eve; they seem the perfect after-dinner sweet to enjoy while watching midnight mass from the Vatican. Just look at all those Italians. I bet they can't wait to jostle with each other to get their communion, then file out of St. Peter's and rush home for a baci.



These treats are best when served immediately; they don't store or keep well at all. So make them right before you plan on consuming them. The good thing is: the recipe is simple and they don't take long to fry to a gorgeous golden brown.

1 c. ricotta (not skim)
2 large eggs
1/2 c. Italian 00 flour (available at Italian markets, some gourmet groceries and online)
1 1/2 t. baking powder
Pinch of kosher salt
1/2 t. ground cinnamon (ceylon, if possible)
1 T. superfine sugar
1/2 t. vanilla extract
Vegetable oil for frying
Confectioners' sugar for dusting

In a medium bowl, combine the ricotta and eggs. Whisk together until smooth. Add the flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, sugar and vanilla. Whisk again to incorporate the ingredients and make a smooth batter. (There will be some lumps because of the ricotta; it doesn't have to be perfectly smooth.)

Fill a wide, shallow skillet with about 3/4-inch of vegetable oil. Place over medium-high heat until it reaches about 350 degrees Fahrenheit, or until a bit of batter sizzles when dropped in. Drop rounded teaspoons of batter into the oil, 5 or 6 at a time. When the batter puffs and the undersides turn light brown, flip gently using a spider or a pair of tongs. This takes only a minute or less, so watch carefully so they don't burn. Cook for an additional minute, then transfer to a plate lined with paper towels to drain.

Pile kisses on a serving plate. Pass a spoonful of confectioners' sugar through a small wire-mesh sieve to dust the baci evenly. Serve immediately.

Makes about 30 baci, or 6 servings. Yes, 5 comprise a serving. You will wish 10 comprised a serving.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Yes, a cheese-cookie!

Christmas is, as we are all aware, a great time for sweets. Candies and cookies are as much a part of December as snow...well, as much as snow here in Ohio. Snow really isn't so much a part of December in, say, Australia. But they do like their sweets Down Under. I digress.

If you throw parties during the holidays, or host the family for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day at your house -- heck, if you work in an office -- you are bound to encounter more trays of cookies and gilded boxes of candy than your waistline appreciates. Chocolate abounds; gingerbread is all over the place; peppermint is omnipresent. How nice it is, then, to put together a savory and delicious cheese board from time to time to counteract the sugar. A little salty dairy to break the sweet-monopoly.

I love a good cheese board, one that's well-constructed with lots of different types of cheeses and complementary garnishes like toasted nuts, a bowl brimming with warmed and spiced olives, crispy crackers, dried or fresh fruit, maybe even a shallow dish of dukkah. I tend to favor sheep's milk cheese, hence my cheese boards always include Manchego or a young Italian Pecorino. There has to be something tangy in there, like the King Island Dairy Roaring Forties Blue or maybe the Humboldt Fog. Maybe an Australian cheddar if I can find it, or some solid aged Provolone if Dad will be coming over. When my friends Kerrie and Greg visited from Australia this past summer, I made it my business to stock the refrigerator with a variety of delectable cheeses, so a cheese board could be manufactured at a moment's notice.

So to properly outfit your holiday cheese boards, today I offer a dynamite Pecorino shortbread. These buttery, salty, cheesy bites fit squarely alongside whatever else in included in your cheese course, and with whatever cocktail is in your hand. They're not really a cracker, more like a cheese...cookie. Yes, a cheese-cookie! Brilliant, just devilishly brilliant. I can't think of a better thing than a cheese-cookie to inject a little savory into sugary December.

Pecorino shortbread is great homemade-gift material. Though, being shortbreads, these rounds are a bit crumbly so you'll want to choose your gift packaging carefully. I can see them stacked inside a wide-mouth Ball jar...beautiful to look at, amazing to eat.

But just for the record: you don't have to give them away. You don't even need to build a cheese board to go along with these shortbreads. Just eat them, yourself, straight off the cooling rack. I won't tell if you don't.


Adapted from "Bon Appetit"

1 3/4 c. all-purpose flour
3/4 c. grated Pecorino cheese, plus more for sprinkling
1 t. kosher salt
1/2 small garlic clove, minced
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1 c. (2 sticks) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with a Silpat or parchment paper.

Combine the flour, 3/4 c. Pecorino, salt, garlic and cayenne pepper in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse to combine. Add the butter and process until the dough begins to come together. This takes longer than you would expect, so keep processing. Eventually the butter will hydrate the dough and the mixture will begin to clump together.

Turn the crumbly dough out onto the counter and shape into a ball. Divide the dough in half. Roll each half into a 12-inch log. The dough is crumbly, but the log doesn't have to be perfect. Cut each log into 1-inch pieces, then roll each piece into a ball. Arrange the dough balls on the prepared baking sheet, spacing about 1 1/2 inches apart. Using the bottom of a drinking glass, press each ball into a 2-inch-diameter round. Sprinkle Pecorino over the rounds, to taste.

Bake the shortbread rounds until the tops are dry and bottoms are golden brown, about 20 minutes. Transfer shortbread to a rack and cool completely.

Makes 24 shortbread rounds. Shortbread can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature, or frozen for up to 1 month. So you can always have some on hand for when the cheese-mood strikes.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Here's some spinach

I know it is December. I know Christmas is in 10 days. I know this space should be full of scrumptious cookies, rich cakes and sweet candies worthy of a holiday feast. But you know, we all still need to eat dinner. All month long. And as much as I'd love to subsist on the baked good, sometimes I need some non-sugar sustenance. Maybe even a green vegetable. The horror!

So here's some spinach. But do not fret; this is spinach at its most amazingly delicious. The dish is called palak paneer and it's my very favorite item on any Indian restaurant's menu. (I dig you, too, naan, please don't feel left out.) I have long been a fan of Indian food. Husband and I enjoy going out for Indian; in fact, during our lengthy courtship I recall the two of us seeking Indian food on King St. during a visit to Charleston, South Carolina. We ordered some Indian beer...there might have been some pakora...I am pretty sure it was phenomenally romantic.

Cooking Indian at home, however, would seem to be a different matter. You think: too many ingredients! Too much time! It won't be as good as the restaurant's! Hand me the takeout menu! But I swear to you...there aren't that many ingredients, it doesn't take that long and, holy cow, it is better than the restaurant's. If you have everything on hand, and with just a slight bit of planning, in fact you can whip up some palak paneer -- the recipe includes a batch of homemade cheese, even! -- on a weeknight.

Your effort will be handsomely rewarded with an amazingly flavorful, mouth-watering dinner. Deep yet subtle, just a hint of spice even though the recipe doesn't call for anything hot, rich yet light. The homemade paneer, which is a simple Indian cheese, is mild and creamy, yet fried in vegetable oil to develop a pleasing brown crust: perfect little nuggets studded throughout the creamy spinach. Paired with saffron rice, the dish takes on a patina of professionalism. When you pack up the leftovers in translucent plastic containers, you will think you have takeout in your hand.

Give this recipe a shot. Fill up on the delicious spinach. Eat a square and nourishing meal. Then, get back to the sugar. Christmas is in 10 days, don't you know?!?


Paneer recipe adapted from "Gourmet"

Note: This recipe is equally delicious, if a little different, if you sub extra-firm tofu for the paneer. It saves a little time and is really quite a yummy alternative. Just press the tofu between a few kitchen towels to extract some of its moisture, then brown in a skillet just as you would the paneer in this recipe.

For the paneer:

10 c. whole milk
2 t. kosher salt
1/3 c. freshly-squeezed lemon juice

For the spinach:

5 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
3-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled
1 lb. baby spinach
1/3 c. vegetable oil
2 t. coriander seeds
1 t. cumin seeds
4 whole cloves
2 allspice berries
3-inch cinnamon stick
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
4 plum tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1/2 c. heavy cream
1/2 t. kosher salt

Make the paneer. Line a colander with four layers of cheesecloth; set aside. In a large pot, bring the milk to a full boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. This happens quicker than you might think, so keep an eye on it to avoid a boil-over. Add the salt and lemon juice and remove from the heat. Stir gently as the milk separates and the curd forms. Let stand for about 2 minutes.

Pour the separated milk into the cheesecloth-lined colander. Allow to cool enough so that you can handle it.

Gather up the edges of the cheesecloth and twist to squeeze out as much of the liquid as possible. With the cheese still in the cheesecloth, wrap the whole thing in a kitchen towel. Place the package in a bowl, put a plate on top of it and weigh it down with a large can or a mason jar full of beans or pasta. Let stand at room temperature until firm, about 1 hour. Unwrap the cheese and, using a serrated knife, cut into 1/2-inch cubes.

While the cheese is firming, make the spinach. Place the garlic, ginger and 2 T. water into the bowl of a food processor and finely chop until it becomes a paste. Remove from the food processor and set aside.

In a large covered pot, cook the spinach with 1/2 c. water over medium-high heat until wilted and tender, about 2 minutes. Let cool slightly. Place the spinach, without draining, in the bowl of the food processor and chop roughly. Set aside.

Heat the vegetable oil in a large non-stick skillet (non-stick is key) over medium-high heat. Brown the paneer, gently turning with a wooden spoon to avoid breaking the pieces. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the paneer to a plate lined with paper towel, leaving the oil behind in the skillet.

Add the coriander seeds, cumin seeds, cloves, allspice and cinnamon stick to the skillet and cook, stirring, until the spices are fragrant and the cinnamon stick unfurls slightly, about 1 minute. You will think: Unfurls?! This cinnamon stick is not going to unfurl. Whatever, recipe. But it does!

Add the onions to the spices and cook, stirring frequently, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic-ginger paste and cook for about 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the spinach puree and simmer the sauce, stirring occasionally, until thickened and most of the liquid evaporates, about 10 minutes. Add the cream and simmer, again stirring occasionally until thickened. Gently stir in the paneer and the salt.

Serve immediately with saffron rice; season with more salt, if needed.

For the saffron rice:

1 c. basmati rice
1 1/2 c. turkey or chicken stock (homemade is best)
1 T. olive oil
Pinch saffron
Pinch kosher salt

Place all ingredients in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil, uncovered, stirring occasionally. When the rice is boiling, cover with a tight-fitting lid, reduce the heat to low and simmer for 15-20 minutes. Fluff with a fork and serve.

Makes 6 servings.