Saturday, February 28, 2009

A lengthy tome re: chocolate Valentino

Want to know how to make a relatively easy Daring Bakers challenge more interesting? Take your (non-baker) husband up on his offer to make the same challenge recipe -- without any input or assistance from you -- and see how he does. That is, if you're prepared for his novice attempt to outshine your own creation.

First things first. Before I can get to the rollicking fun of February's Daring Bakers challenge, there is a little business I must get out of the way. Here is the obligatory language that I must post in order to receive credit for this month's challenge:

The February 2009 challenge is hosted by Wendy of WMPE's blog and Dharm of Dad ~ Baker & Chef. We have chosen a Chocolate Valentino cake by Chef Wan; a Vanilla Ice Cream recipe from Dharm and a Vanilla Ice Cream recipe from Wendy as the challenge.

OK, with that out of the way, on with the Great Husband-Wife Chocolate Valentino Cake-Off of Ought-Nine.

So I was standing around the kitchen a few weeks ago talking about this month's Daring Bakers recipe, a chocolate Valentino cake with homemade ice cream. It's a fairly simple cake to make -- it only has three ingredients. And I've made homemade ice cream many times before. And I'd just finished making a birthday cake for my nephew in the shape of King Boo riding the MarioKart Piranha Prowler. I said, quite innocently, "This is going to be quite easy."

Husband said, "What if I made the cake, too? We could compare, see which one is better."

"Brilliant," I replied. "You have to do it with absolutely no help from me. No questions, nothing." Then I got down on my knees and thanked God that I had married him and have access to his dementia.

I made my cake first. Part of the challenge was making homemade ice cream to go along with the chocolate Valentino. I immediately settled on cinnamon ice cream. Cinnamon! People love cinnamon. Anytime anyone says, "Oh, this is so good. What's in it?" the answer invariably comes back, cinnamon. Cinnamon. Again and again. And cinnamon, at least to my taste receptors, goes marvelously with rich, unadulterated chocolate. Which is fantastic, because this chocolate cake has nothing to adulterate it. No sugar, no vanilla, no flour. Only eggs, butter and the glorious full flavor of chocolate.

So, by popular demand, I revisited the cinnamon ice cream that Mom made for my birthday last year. Luckily, I guess, Mom's ice cream maker is still sitting in our library. She left it at our house after using it for my birthday last October because, in her words, "The handles are like razorblades and I cannot carry it." I made quite a bit of fun of her when she said this, until I picked it up and tried to carry it out to her car. Seriously. It's a heavy machine, and the painful metal protrusions meant to serve as handles really are like razorblades. So in our library the ice cream maker stayed, waiting for (a) someone at my house to use it again or (b) someone with an Ove Glove to stop by and take it back to its home. The former scenario arrived first. Lucky for us: this ice cream is tasty. It is rich and very cinnamony, and it goes well with so many dessert accompaniments (or stands righteously on its own). Which means this ice cream will stick around, happily, long after the chocolate Valentino is gone.

As for the Valentino, it is intensely flavored by whatever chocolate you use. There is, quite literally, nothing else in the cake to provide flavor. So choose your chocolate wisely; make sure it's a chocolate you love. There are many mouth-watering options in the ext(p)ensive chocolate aisle at my local gourmet market; however, I could not justify spending $45 on a pound of mint- or cinnamon- or chili-flavored chocolate for this cake. When I win the lottery, I shall make chocolate Valentino with exotic chocolate, but until then, it's all Ghirardelli (or all Cadbury Dairy Milk, if I can find it), all the time.

I chose a combination of 60% bittersweet chocolate and 70% extra bittersweet chocolate -- eight ounces of each. Husband chose a pound of good old-fashioned Hershey's milk chocolate. We thought it would be a good taste-test, comparing sweeter chocolate with the dark, rich stuff. Both were good, each had its own chocolatey personality. Which you prefer really is a matter of taste. My dark chocolate cake had a firmer texture and was, naturally, stronger in flavor. Husband's milk chocolate cake rose a bit higher and was much sweeter, though its texture was less firm, almost molten. Both cakes were delicious, but what impressed me most was Husband's foray into baking. He did an excellent job, with little to no assistance from me. Well, on second thought: I did do his dishes. But as this heart conveys, I love him, so I don't mind.

I asked Husband to write about his virgin foray into Daring Bakerness. He writes:

I'm no more well adjusted as the next guy. And while I've had my share of problems and losses, I also have had successes and finds. But I've always been a pretty happy guy, and a dream I had about 10 years ago has always stuck with me as a reminder.

I was in the kitchen in my one-room apartment in Chicago. I popped open a box of Duncan Hines brownie mix, and after stirring the powder with the eggs and water, I poured the mix in a buttered baking pan and popped it in the oven. I sat and read the newspaper (this is still in the dream) for 25 minutes or whatever it was, took it out of the oven and started cutting. Apparently there’s no need to allow for cooling in the dream. Anyway, I took a bite and woke up.

Friends have long told me that the dream was this amazing metaphor for how happy I must be in real life -- how much I must be at peace to have a relatively pleasant dream about baking brownies as opposed to being chased off a cliff, sitting naked in a classroom or any other disastrous situation.

Perhaps. But it also gave away something of an open secret: I had an ongoing relationship with Duncan Hines.

Every couple of months or so we’d reunite, and it was … delicious. I’m sure we’d see each other at parties, too, but I could never be so sure without awkwardly asking my friends.

Duncan – he’s easy. He’s sweet.

You want it fast? He gives it to you fast.

A few years ago I married Dianne, who, if you’re on this Web site, you know just how most excellent a cook – and baker – she is. And so, it’s been a long time since I've thought of Duncan, much less spent a night with him. As I wrote when I guestblogged potato latkes, Dianne helped me, a man who truly does enjoy cooking but often has no idea what he’s doing, to ditch the mix and give it a go, even if there’s a stumble along the way.

And in baking the Chocolate Valentino, there were indeed stumbles. But since I’ve never actually made a cake from scratch before – and I didn’t let Dianne help me at all except to help me not destroy anything in the kitchen – even a failure would have been a success.

The process, as Dianne explains, was pretty straightforward. But it was all new to me – so I was figuring out how to get stiff peaks, fold egg whites and determine just what a “parchment circle” was.

Therein lay my real challenge.

Dianne had made her cake a few days earlier, but thought the dark chocolate a bit too bitter (she’s not as big on dark chocolate as I am). So since I was going to make my amateur version as something for her to contrast, I opted to use milk chocolate instead. Time constraints prevented me from making the ice cream.

Everything went relatively well until what should have been easy part – the end. Seems the same 20 minutes that baked Dianne’s cake perfectly left mine with quite a shimmy in the middle, despite the cake reaching the recipe-required 140 degree internal temperature. So I sent it back in the oven for another 10 minutes, covered. The cake sure looked good, but wasn’t quite done all the way through. In retrospect, I should have baked it 30 minutes straight.

But among all my flaws, I won’t live life with regret.

Parts of it were a bit on the extreme molten side, something of a pudding cake right in the middle, but it was frighteningly delicious. And really, isn’t that all that matters?

So Duncan, if you’re reading this, I’m so sorry. I think you should know by now we’ll never spend another minute together again.

Sure, I’m still a bit intimidated by the science of baking. And it’s certainly an investment in time. But baking this stuff myself … I mean – Duncan, you never had stiff peaks. Sorry to put that out there.

Yeah, I still will occasionally see Jim Beam, Auntie Anne and General Tso. But my relationship with Duncan Hines is over.

And, Duncan, if it makes you feel any better, I’m not seeing Betty Crocker on the side anymore, either.


Adapted from Gale Gand's recipe

The cream mixture has to chill for at least 3 hours, or overnight. So make sure to allow yourself enough time to make this ice cream.

2 c. half-and-half
2 c. heavy cream
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and scraped
1 cinnamon stick
1 t. ground cinnamon
9 egg yolks
3/4 c. sugar

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat, combine the half-and-half, heavy cream, vanilla beans (including, of course, the scraped insides of the bean), cinnamon stick and ground cinnamon. Whisk the mixture frequently to prevent it from sticking to the bottom of the pan. When it reaches a fast simmer (do not boil), turn off the heat and let the mixture steep for 10 minutes.

Prepare an ice bath. Place several handfuls of ice in a large bowl, then add cold water to cover. Rest a smaller bowl in the ice water.

In a medium bowl, mix together the egg yolks and sugar until the mixture turns a light yellow and is ribbony. In a thin stream, whisk half of the cream mixture into the yolks; whisk well to combine. Pour the egg-cream mixture back into the saucepan containing the rest of the cream. Whisk to combine. Switch to a wooden spoon and heat the mixture over medium heat, stirring constantly, until it reaches 180 degrees. If you have one, go ahead and measure the temperature with a probe thermometer (essential kitchen tool without which I would be lost). Alternatively, you will know that the mixture is done when it coats the back of the spoon. (Run your finger across the back of the spoon. If the stripe remains defined, the mixture is done. If the edges blur, the mixture is not quite thick enough yet.)

Remove the cream mixture from the heat and pour through a chinois or fine wire-mesh sieve and into the smaller bowl set in the ice bath. This removes the vanilla bean, cinnamon stick and any tiny bits of egg that might have cooked.

Let cool on the counter for about 20 minutes. Stir once more, then place a piece of plastic wrap on the surface of the cream. Cover with a second piece of plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator at least 3 hours or overnight.

When the mixture is chilled, process in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions.

Makes 1 quart.


Adapted from Sweet Treats, by Chef Wan ("Asia's Most Flamboyant Food Ambassador")

The chocolate Valentino invites you to use whichever chocolate makes you happiest. If you like milk, use milk. If you like dark, go dark. If you like chocolate made in Tasmania, get yourself some chocolate made in Tasmania. Ooh, chocolate made in Tasmania. I wish I had some chocolate made in Tasmania. I digress.

16 oz. chocolate of your choosing, broken into pieces or roughly chopped
1/2 c. (1 stick) plus 2 T. unsalted butter
5 large eggs, separated

Place the chocolate and butter in a heat-proof bowl and set over a saucepan of gently simmering water. Melt, stirring often. Remove from the heat when melted and allow to cool on the counter, stirring every so often.

Butter a round cake pan (or a heart-shaped pan, if you have one). Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper, then butter the parchment paper.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Separate the egg whites from the yolks, placing each in medium bowls. When chocolate is cool, beat the egg whites to stiff peaks. Then, using the same beater, mix the yolks together.

Add the egg yolks to the cool chocolate, stirring with a rubber spatula to incorporate. Fold 1/3 of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture, until incorporated. Add the remaining whites and fold gently to combine. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake for 25-30 minutes. When finished, the top of the cake will resemble a brownie and a toothpick inserted into the cake will appear wet. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes and then unmold.

Serves 8.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


There are times when I get completely fixated on one particular foodstuff. Usually it's something that I haven't had in a long time that, for whatever reason, pops into my head and then I cannot rest until I've made a batch. It doesn't have to be anything fancy or even remotely gourmet. For example, for the past two days I have been completely obsessed with having ramen noodles for lunch. The kind that come in a brick with a powdery salty soup base for $.30 per serving. It's sick, really, because I have a pot of homemade ribollita in the refrigerator, yet I keep reaching for the ramen. I am helpless against the powerful sway of the unexplained food craving.

The same thing happened to me last week, but at least the targeted foodstuff then was something homemade and delicious, rather than an inexpensive staple stored in a milk crate next to every college freshman's hotpot. Last week, I was all about macaroni and cheese. Good, from-scratch, baked macaroni and cheese. I thought about it and thought about it and thought about it until I finally made Husband go to the store and stock up on extra-sharp cheddar and Barilla's wonderful ridged elbow macaroni. I love Barilla's elbows so much more than other brands, because the ridges have a knack for holding on tight to the cheese sauce, much like Dan Hill wants to hold his woman until he dies, 'til they both break down and cry. In addition to macaroni and cheese, the other thing I thought a lot about last week was Sirius' re-airing of retro 1970s Casey Kasem countdowns.

So, even though it's a very basic recipe, I thought I should share my mac and cheese with you. Because every cook needs a good mac and cheese up her sleeve for those cold winter nights when only comfort food will do. Or for those warm summer nights when only comfort food will do. Comfort food knows no season. I like this recipe because the cheese sauce is not at all mealy or grainy and it is the perfect amount for a pound of pasta. The macaroni is richly coated by the sauce but isn't drowning a cheesy death.

Extra bonus: if you manage to have any leftovers, it reheats very well the next day, especially if you use the oven or toaster oven to re-crisp the panko topping. But if you're anything like me -- and you have a husband who loves pretty much whatever you make for him and a nephew who scoffs at Kraft macaroni and cheese and will only eat the good homemade stuff -- you won't have any leftovers. 

But what you will have is "Sometimes When We Touch" stuck in your head.



6 T. unsalted butter
6 T. flour
3 c. whole milk
1/8 t. freshly-grated nutmeg
1/8 t. cayenne
3/4 t. kosher salt
1 lb. extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated and divided
1 lb. elbow macaroni, with ridges
1/2 c. panko

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and put a large pot of salted water on to boil.

Make a roux. In a large pot, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Add the flour and whisk constantly for about 7 minutes to cook away the raw-flour taste. You don't have to measure your flour in perfect little tablespoon-sized heaps, as Husband did for me here, though it is sort of cute:

Add the milk and whisk to combine. Add the nutmeg, cayenne and salt. Bring the milk mixture to a boil, whisking frequently. (The thickening power of the roux will not be in full effect until the mixture reaches a boil.) Add the grated cheese, reserving about 1/2 c. for the topping. Switch to a wooden spoon and stir until the cheese is melted and the sauce is well blended. Reduce heat to low and stir frequently to make sure the sauce doesn't stick to the bottom of the pot.

Cook the macaroni to a minute or so before al dente -- it will continue cooking in the oven and you don't want it to be overcooked and mushy. Drain the pasta and add it to the cheese sauce, stirring to combine. Transfer to a casserole dish and top with the reserved cheese and panko.

Place the casserole on a baking sheet and bake for 40 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and the edges are bubbly.

Makes 6 hefty portions. And you want your portions to be hefty when you're talking homemade macaroni and cheese.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Rewarded in spades

Ah, baklava. Sweet, sweet baklava. So tempting you are, with your dozens of layers of golden flaky phyllo drowning in a deluge of honey and a landslide of crunchy spice-infused nuts. I have always loved you, though my affection reached its zenith there in the mid-1990s, when I'd order a single perfect diamond-shaped piece of you served without adornment on a clear glass plate following each of my many Pita Inn meals of hummus and falafel. The friendly Pita Inn employee would remove you from a big tray stationed behind the cash register where you'd sit, just waiting to be purchased so that you could yield, simultaneously crunchy and gooey, to the demands of some college student's fork. Whatever you cost back then, dear piece of baklava, as a percentage of my work-study $85-per-week haul, know that you had to have been worth it. Otherwise I would have saved my dollars for the El. Or for $.25 draft night at Sluggers. 

As delicious as you were -- and as successfully as you separated me from my hard-earned cash as the supervisor of my dorm's mail room -- I stopped regularly partaking of your delicate goodness after I moved away from the vicinity of the Pita Inn. Which is a sad tale, to be sure, because it turns out you are easy to make at home. But hindsight being 20/20 and all...I was not to learn this until many years later when, inspired by the great Alton Brown, I decided to give home baklava-making a go.

It's simple, people. You won't even believe it. I always considered baklava-making to be outside the purview of the home baker. It was just one of those things, like hot pretzels and graham crackers, which are better left to the pros. Right? Wrong. It's a little bit time consuming, as it always is to work with thin, delicate phyllo. And it requires a specialty ingredient (rose water) and tool (spray bottle) that you might not have on hand. And it involves a few techniques that you might not have tried before (clarifying butter; blanching almonds). And you have to wait at least eight hours, preferably overnight, before you can consume the finished baklava, which will test your eater's patience in ways you surely have yet to experience. 

But the time put into brushing each individual sheet of phyllo with clarified butter will be rewarded in spades as you bite into layer after layer of perfect crunchy goodness. And the rose water can be ordered online. And you'll enjoy adding to your cook's repertoire by learning how to clarify butter and blanch almonds -- so much so that you might begin clarifying butter just for the hell of it, to have it on hand to sauté thinly-sliced potatoes. And, well...I can't think of anything redeeming about waiting until the next day to eat your homemade baklava. Maybe it builds character and makes you more appreciative of the finished product. Or maybe it's just a trial at which all home baklava-makers must succeed. You know, like when Indy figures out how only the penitent man shall pass.

I made a batch of baklava last night and rushed home at lunch today to try a piece. I couldn't even wait until after the workday was over. Crispy, gooey, sweet, deeply spiced, buttery, cinnamon-y and oh so beautiful, it fills the room with an amazing fragrance...even the dog was strolling about, neck craned toward the ceiling, sniffing the air. But baklava is not for dogs. I digress.

As you stare at the 13" x 9" pan full of something that you just can't believe you made yourself you will be tempted to utter aloud, Damn. I'm good. Go ahead, say it. You are damn good, and so is the baklava.


Adapted from Alton Brown's recipe

In addition to Amazon, rose water is available at Dean & Deluca. I picked up a bottle when I visited their Georgetown store on a recent business trip to Washington, DC. If you are lucky enough to have a Dean & Deluca near you, definitely go there for the rosewater -- it's about half of what it costs on Amazon. (I suppose you could omit the rose water, but I have yet to try that and therefore can't vouch for the finished taste of the baklava. But I am crazy like that: I will seek out rare ingredients like a hunter stalking prey, for months if necessary, utilizing all means at my disposal including the dot-com and a very patient husband who traipses around Manhattan on my behalf searching for 72% Valrhona fèves and maple flakes.)

For the filling:

1 6" or 7" cinnamon stick, broken into a few pieces or 3 t. ground cinnamon
20 whole allspice berries
6 oz. blanched almonds
6 oz. raw or roasted (but unsalted) walnuts
6 oz. raw or roasted (but unsalted) pistachios
2/3 c. sugar
1/4 c. water
1 t. rose water
1 lb. phyllo dough, thawed
12 oz. (3 sticks) unsalted butter, clarified and melted

For the syrup:

1 1/4 c. honey
1 1/4 c. water
1 1/4 c. sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1 4-inch piece fresh orange peel

First, blanch the almonds. Measure 6 oz. of whole raw almonds. Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil. When boiling, add the almonds and bring the water back up to a boil. When it starts boiling, cook for 20-30 seconds then remove the almonds with a slotted spoon. As the almonds begin to cool, peel each one by holding onto the fatter end of the almond and squeezing, thereby popping the almond out of the skin. Dry in a single layer on a paper towel; set aside.

Then, clarify the butter. In a small heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. When the butter is completely melted, turn off the heat and skim the surface of the butter to remove most of the solids floating on top. Strain the butter through a fine wire mesh sieve lined with a few pieces of cheesecloth to make sure no solids remain.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Place the cinnamon stick and allspice berries into a spice grinder and grind to a fine powder. Place the almonds, walnuts, pistachios, sugar and freshly-ground spices into the bowl of a food processor and pulse until finely chopped, but not pasty or powdery, about 18 quick pulses. Set aside.

Combine the water and rose water in a small spritz bottle and set aside.

The phyllo I use comes in 13" x 9" sheets; if yours doesn't, trim the phyllo to this size to fit a 13" x 9" x 2" metal pan. Brush the bottoms and sides of the pan with the melted clarified butter. Lay down a sheet of phyllo and brush with butter, then repeat this process 9 more times, for a total of 10 sheets of phyllo each separated by a layer of butter. 

Top with 1/3 of the nut mixture, then spritz thoroughly with the rose water mixture.

Layer 6 more sheets of phyllo with butter in between each of them, followed by another third of the nuts and a thorough spritzing of the rose water mixture.

Layer 6 more sheets of phyllo with butter in between each of them, followed by the remaining third of the nuts and a thorough spritzing of the rose water mixture.

Top with 8 sheets of phyllo with butter in between each of them. Brush the top generously with butter. Place in the oven and bake for 30 minutes.

Remove the pan from the oven and cut into 32 squares. Don't worry if the phyllo starts breaking apart -- the syrup you will add later will "glue" everything together. Return the pan to the oven and bake for another 30 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, place on a cooling rack and let cool for 2 hours.

Make the syrup during the last 30 minutes of the cooling time. Combine the honey, water, sugar, cinnamon stick and orange peel in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan. Bring the mixture a boil over high heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has dissolved. Reduce the heat to low and cook for about 12 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and discard the cinnamon stick and orange peel.

After the baklava has cooled, re-cut the pan following the same "lines" as before. Pour the hot syrup evenly over the baklava, making sure to use all of it. It seems like a lot of syrup, but the layers of phyllo and nuts eventually soak up all the sugary goodness.

Allow the pan to sit, uncovered, until completely cool. Cover and store at room temperature for at least 8 hours, preferably overnight before serving. Store, covered, at room temperature for up to 5 days.

Makes 32 glorious squares of baklava.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Just there in the background

When I first started making pesto with great frequency, I learned that I preferred to use walnuts in the sauce instead of the traditional pine nuts. As I went through bag after bag of walnuts in the service of great pesto-making, the big container of bulk pine nuts languished, unused, in the freezer. Which is a shame, because pine nuts are totally delicious and do not deserve to be shoved aside. So I did what I do whenever I have a lot of something on hand: I started looking for pine-nut-centric recipes. One recipe that I found -- for pine nut cookies with rosemary-- rose straight to the top of the stack.

This cookie is amazing. Its flavors are unexpected yet totally complementary, with a savory element that asserts itself yet does not at all bully the sweet components into submission. Based on just a cursory reading of the recipe, my assumption was that 3 1/2 teaspoons of woodsy, earthy, pungent rosemary would take over, dictating the cookie's flavor. That can't be good, I thought, but I was too intrigued not to give the recipe a shot.

I was wrong. Deliciously wrong.

Turns out the rosemary adds the faintest herbaceous hint -- savory, a little salty, even -- just there in the background. The ginger adds its own fragrance to the proceedings. The sweet nuttiness of the toasted pine nuts are center stage. The cookies are crispy, yet soft; light, yet rich. Delicate, even with a roster of heady and aromatic ingredients. A study in opposites. A cookie that makes you think.

Now, a pine nut and rosemary cookie is not at all what you think of when you think of a Valentine's Day treat. No matter. Because I don't know about you, but my Valentine -- as a rule -- has a personality that's a little outside the box anyway. I wouldn't have him any other way. And he wouldn't have any other cookie.* In fact, he just said, sheepishly: "Will it make me fat? If I have more?"

*Actually, that's totally a lie. He would eat any cookie I made for him, unless somehow it had green peppers in it. But you get the point: these cookies are tasty, unique and totally unexpected. And your Valentine will love them.


Adapted from "Martha Stewart Living"

3 1/2 t. fresh rosemary, finely chopped
1/4 c. pine nuts, toasted, plus more for topping cookies
2 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
1 t. baking soda
1/2 t. ground ginger
1/4 t. kosher salt
10 T. unsalted butter, softened
1 c. plus 2 T. sugar
2 T. olive oil
3 T. heavy cream
1 large egg
Sanding sugar, for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. On a dry baking sheet, toast the pine nuts until they are slightly browned, about 5-6 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool; keep the oven at 325.

Combine the rosemary and pine nuts in a food processor and pulse until the nuts are coarsely ground. Transfer the pine nut mixture to a large bowl, then add 2 c. of the flour, baking soda, ginger and salt. Whisk to combine; set aside.

Combine the butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on medium-high speed until the mixture is pale and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Mix in olive oil. Reduce speed to low and mix in the flour mixture. Add the cream, then mix until well combined, about 1 minute.

Using a spring-loaded ice-cream scoop (or a teaspoon), shape the dough into 1-inch balls and space 2 inches apart on a Silpat- or parchment-lined baking sheet. Flatten the cookies slightly with your fingers, then top each with a pine nut. Sprinkle with sanding sugar.

Bake the cookies for about 12 minutes, until the edges are golden but the cookie is still pale, rotating the baking sheet halfway through. Let cool for 10 minutes on the baking sheet before removing to wire racks to cool completely.

Makes about 3 dozen cookies.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A shared history

Valentine's Day is about love, yes? Love for a spouse, love for a child, love for nephews, love for a parent or sister. Love for a dog.

But can't it also be about love for a cookbook? I don't see why not. But not just any cookbook: I'm talking about my abiding love for Betty Crocker's Cooky Book. After all, the relationship I've had with this dog-eared tome far predates the relationship I have with Husband. Which is not to say that I love a book more than I love Husband. It's just that Betty and her cookys and I have a shared history that reaches back well into the 1970s, when Husband was just a Mets-loving tot living three states over.

It seemed natural, therefore, that I turn to Betty for a Valentine's Day cookie recipe. Certainly she would have something Valentine-y and old-fashioned and nostalgic within her pages to help a girl celebrate the holiday of love. And lo, she does. Right there on p. 29, at the beginning of the chapter on holiday cookies, is a recipe for "love letters." I can't recall ever making these cookies as a child -- perhaps the folding and "sealing" of the flaky, buttery dough into little stationery-like shapes was too much work to interest Mom. We should have made them, though, because the "sealing wax" is a candied cherry, and Dad loves cherries. He doesn't love a lot of sweets, but cherries are usually enough to get his attention. Even though Husband has assumed the primary Valentine role, Dad has always been and will always be my Valentine. So this batch of cherry-sealed, citrus-scented love letters is going to him, many decades overdue.

I've given these decidedly old-school cookies a bit of a 21st-century foodie update: dried tart cherries to seal, instead of the old-fashioned bright-red candied ones, which my local grocery apparently only stocks at Christmas; and fancy sanding sugar to sprinkle over the cookies in place of plain sugar. I'm pretty sure Betty Crocker -- in 1963, the year my first-edition Cooky Book was published -- would never have used sanding sugar to finish her cookie. But I have it on hand and it just glistens so prettily. And as for the dried cherry, I'm guessing Dad would prefer the candied variety, as they probably remind him of some dessert his mother made. Oh well. It's the thought that counts when you're thinking of your Valentine.

And what a thought it is. Betty says it best: "Simple, edible, a warm-hearted gift because it is handmade, the cooky is a symbol of our childlike delight in festivals and sociability....Celebrate the religious, the patriotic, or the sentimental dates of the year with the time-honored observance of a special 'something good to eat.'"

See, I'm on to something here, loving a cookbook.


Adapted from Betty Crocker's Cooky Book

Perfect for St. Valentine's Day entertaining, Betty says these cookies are good for engagement parties and bridal showers, too. 

2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 c. sugar
1 t. kosher salt
1 c. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes and chilled
2 t. lemon zest
Zest of 1 orange
1/2 c. sour cream
About 1/2 c. dried or candied cherries
Sanding sugar (or regular sugar), for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 475 degrees Fahrenheit (as Betty says, "very hot"). In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar and salt and whisk to combine. Using a pastry blender, cut in the butter, lemon zest and orange zest until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Blend in the sour cream with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula; you'll have to use your hands to gather the dough into a firm ball. Divide the dough in half; set one piece aside.

Roll the dough on a well-floured board into a rectangle that's about 1/8-inch thick (adding more flour as needed). Using a pizza wheel or knife, trim the edges, then cut the dough into 3" x 2" pieces. Fold the ends of each piece in toward the center, overlapping slightly, as if you're folding a letter. Seal with a dried cherry (or a small piece of candied cherry, if using). Place the cookies on a Silpat- or parchment-lined baking sheet. Repeat the process with the second piece of dough.

Brush the cookies with water; sprinkle with sugar. Bake 8-10 minutes, checking after 8 minutes to make sure they don't burn.

Betty says this recipe makes 4 dozen cookies, but I can only get about 32 per batch.