Friday, December 18, 2009

Most special

Hello Dolly bars are the sweet, gooey pillar upon which the joyous Christmases of my youth rest. They were omnipresent: on every cookie tray, in each cousin's hand, presented in abundance on the card table my aunt would set up in front of her living room closet for the express purpose of holding Christmas cookies.

(Studly cousin Jeff on Christmas morning 1984, in front of the festive tablecloth-covered cookie card table.)

I didn't know back then that they were a relatively common bar cookie. I didn't know that anyone else had ever heard of Hello Dolly bars. I thought my extended family was really onto something...a super-secret amalgamation of graham cracker, nuts, chocolate, butterscotch, coconut and Eagle Milk.

For you see, my aunt -- the one with the cookie card table -- is named Dolly. (Actually, she is named Georgeann, but everyone throughout the history of time has only called her Dolly.) And she is an amazing cookie-baker (she made all the cookies for my wedding favors). I thought the cookies were named for her. Like, Hello, Dolly! We are here to eat your cookies!
It wasn't until, like, 2003 that I realized they were (a) common, and (b) named after Carol Channing. OK, I don't know if they were named after Carol Channing, but I know for certain that they weren't named after Georgeann Shearer.

But just because something is popular doesn't mean it's not perfect in every way. (See: Glee, Tater Tots, "Single Ladies.") I'm happy I can't imagine Christmas without a pan of Hello Dolly bars. I'm glad that I can still picture them on the card table, next to those peanut butter cookies with the Hershey's Kisses planted firmly atop them.

So though Hello Dolly bars are nothing special, they are most special to me. If someone told me that I could only have one cookie at Christmastime, I would choose the Hello Dolly bar. They're rich, and sweet, and crumbly, and more than able to support a childhood's worth of happy Christmas memories.

Even if they're not named after my aunt.



These delicious cookies are an absolute snap to make. Which is good for when you need a quick dessert (or for when you have a craving).

1/2 c. (1 stick) unsalted butter
2 c. graham cracker crumbs (about 18 graham crackers, pulsed in the food processor)
1 c. sweetened coconut
6 oz. butterscotch chips
6 oz. semi-sweet chocolate chips
3/4 c. walnuts, roughly chopped
1 14-oz. can sweetened, condensed milk (I prefer Eagle Brand)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Melt the butter over low heat directly in a 13" x 9" metal pan. Sprinkle the graham cracker crumbs over the butter and mix to combine. Using your fingers, pat the graham cracker crust into an even layer on the bottom of the pan.

Sprinkle the coconut over the crust, followed by the butterscotch chips, chocolate chips and walnuts. Drizzle the sweetened, condensed milk evenly over the cookies, then bake for 20 minutes.

Remove from the oven and let cool completely before cutting into bars.

Makes 3 dozen cookies.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A rich hunk of chocolate

So you know it's bad news when your dad tells you he doesn't bother going to your blog anymore.

"I keep reading about those kaiser rolls, but there's never anything new."

Well, Father, as usual you are correct. I have been noticeably low-key around these parts for the past few weeks. Maybe I should blame the turkey:

(Father, expert carver of my brined bird.)

Or the spectacular view of Manhattan from our Hoboken hotel-room perch last weekend:

(Post-dinner at Diner.)

(Pre-"breakfast" at Shake Shack.)

Or Shake Shack, which we ate twice in two days, in the car mind you because the weather was so frightful:

(Note gearshift.)

(Steaming up the car windows with our Shake Shack.)

Or the cute dog, who requires and deserves a great deal of attention:

(No caption necessary.)

Or the Christmas decorations, which, you know, should be in place before the 25th:

Or the couch, my warm and inviting nemesis:

Yes, I've been otherwise occupied. And my little bloggy space has suffered. So today I offer chocolate on a stick -- something decadent enough to take your mind off my inappropriate absence. Because if anything's a distraction, a rich hunk of chocolate is.

A rich hunk of chocolate (or 36) is also a good thing to have on hand in December, when you might need a festive treat while decorating the tree, or listening to Christmas carols, or welcoming friends and long-lost family members. These cocoa blocks are perfect for just such occasions: chunks of creamy chocolate you can swirl in a mug of hot milk to create a deeply flavorful cup of hot chocolate -- or that you can just eat straight off the stick, depending on your patience and sweet tooth. When I think of December, I think of blustery snow, cable-knit sweaters and steaming mugs of cheerful soul-sating goodness. These cocoa blocks fit right in with that image, and are particularly perfect on Christmas morning.

They're also really easy to make, so you can get right back to the couch if you want. I won't judge you.


Adapted from the King Arthur Flour catalog

I used a bit of almond extract to add a non-chocolate complimentary dimension to these treats, but they would be equally delicious with an equal amount of vanilla extract or a drop or two of peppermint oil. Or even a drop of cinnamon oil (how very Mayan). Or you can skip the extra flavoring entirely and just go for the full-on chocolate.

Also, please note that the cocoa blocks need to stand overnight to set, so plan accordingly.

One final note: unless you are going to use all 36 cocoa blocks at once, I find it easiest to cut the blocks, then wrap the whole batch together in parchment paper and a layer of plastic wrap BEFORE adding the wooden sticks. Store at room temperature and insert the sticks before serving. (It's challenging to store 36 cocoa blocks on sticks.)

1/2 c. (4 oz.) heavy cream
14-oz. can sweetened, condensed milk
3 c. (18 oz.) semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
3/4 c. (4 oz.) unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
1/4 t. almond extract (or flavoring of your choice; see above)
1 T. cocoa powder, for dusting
Wooden sticks

Line an 8"x 8" pan with parchment paper, allowing for an overhang of parchment on all 4 sides that you'll use to grip and remove the cocoa blocks once they're set.

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat the cream and condensed milk over low heat until it simmers and steams. Remove from heat and add the chocolate; allow it to melt gently.

After 10 minutes, return the chocolate mixture to low heat to melt the chocolate completely. Whisk until the chocolate is thick and shiny, which only takes a few minutes. Add the almond extract and whisk to combine.

Pour the chocolate mixture into the prepared pan; level with an off-set spatula. Using a small sieve, sprinkle the cocoa powder over the chocolate to coat the surface. Set aside overnight, uncovered, at room temperature to set.

The next day, remove the chocolate from the pan using the excess parchment overhang. Heat a knife by running it under hot water. Dry the knife and cut the chocolate into 1 1/4"-inch squares, cleaning and reheating the knife occasionally to ensure even cuts.

Place a wooden stick into the center of each block, taking care not to stick it all the way through.

Eat straight off the block, or stir into a cup of hot milk. Repeat.

(Husband = cocoa block beneficiary.)

Makes 36 blocks.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Bread Baker's Apprentice 16/43: kaiser rolls

I feel like I'm becoming a broken record on this Bread Baker's Apprentice business:

"I do not wish to overstate it, but really, this is (so far) my favorite recipe from The Bread Baker's Apprentice, hands down."

"And? This focaccia is good. Damn good."

"However, were I not about to fly about as far as one can fly without starting back the other way, I'll tell you what I'd be doing: I'd be baking more English muffins. Because Reinhart's recipe is e-asy. Easy! And the resulting muffins -- especially if fork-split, toasted and slathered with a teaspoon of homemade blueberry jam -- are so much more delicious than anything anyone named Thomas ever baked."

"But as it is, Reinhart's cinnamon buns are so amazing I don't know if I'll ever have a need to go back. You live, you learn. You bake a better cinnamon bun."

"Trust Peter on this one: a long cold fermentation engenders amazing bagels, bagels that are good enough to turn a person with tepid feelings about bagels into a person who has to eat the entire batch, like, now."

It makes one wonder if I possess the ability to be critical.

To be fair, I wasn't a huge fan of Reinhart's French bread, strawberry-walnut celebration bread or corn bread. I mean, they weren't terrible, but they weren't favorites either. Chalk it up to Reinhart's overall brilliance, however, that I am only lukewarm on three of the 16 breads I've baked so far. I'd say that's a winning percentage.

Thus it logically follows that I found today's bread -- kaiser rolls -- to be absolutely amazing. You can quote me on that.

Reinhart's kaiser rolls are easy to make and they bake into large, well-risen rolls that are tender and airy on the inside, crusty and textural on the outside. They look really, really pretty and they taste even better. The only complaint I can possibly muster is that the recipe only makes six rolls. Six rolls! Six rolls disappear in no time. A word to the wise: make two batches. Or four. Or six, like I did.

I used my kaiser rolls as the foundation for savory, salty fried egg sandwiches. I also used them for hot turkey sandwiches, which I slathered with homemade thousand island dressing studded with my homegrown and canned dilly beans. Those two lunches were two of the best lunches I've had since Mom and I ate fish and chips at Fort Denison and enjoyed pies from Harry's Cafe de Wheels in Woolloomooloo. Which is saying a lot.

Meanwhile, what does it say about me that far more often than not I'm hesitant to move to the next Reinhart recipe, preferring instead to stay where I am, baking the current bread over and over again? Maybe it says that I am a whore for yeast, especially tried-and-true yeast. Maybe it says that I am easily pleased (though ask Husband, and you might get a different answer to that question). But then again maybe it says that I know a good thing when it comes along (again, see: Husband).


The Bread Baker's Apprentice challenge asks that we do not post Reinhart's recipes. But you all have the book by now already, so no biggie. Turn to page 175 to start making kaiser rolls over and over and over again.

PS. I'm submitting these kaiser rolls to Yeastspotting, because I'm so proud of their deliciousness that I wish to share them with the whole yeast-loving world.