The Cookie Jar: Chocolate Shortbread Nuggets

For some reason, shortbread seems to be my Achilles Heel of baking. They never end up the way I expect. Maybe my experiences with shortbread are too tainted by store bought packages of the stuff, crispy and sweet, but very, very firm, due to the fact that they have to be packaged and sent all over the world for consumption. Still, whenever I sit down to make shortbread, I’ve always had a really rough time getting them to come out right, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because they require more steps and gentle care than I’m used to, compared to the rough and tumble (not to mention very forgiving) drop cookie dough. This is why, once again, I’ve turned to Carole Walter and her expertise.

Cookie bakers, if you have not yet gone out and purchased Carole’s book, you are missing out! Sure, everyone on the internet is talking about Dorie Greenspan – and I love her too. I have her raved-about dessert book, and she’s wonderful. But when it comes to cookies, Carole Walter is the woman in charge.

I’ve been known to make shortcuts when it comes to baking. I don’t often sift my dry ingredients, nor do I add eggs “one at a time” as instructed. Since I’ve failed a few times at shortbread, I followed instructions to the letter.


Photograph courtesy of Duane Winfield

Chocolate Shortbread Nuggets
adapted from Great Cookies by Carole Walter

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, spooned in and leveled
1/2 cup rice flour, spooned in and leveled
1/2 cup strained Dutch-processed cocoa powder, spooned in and leveled
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, slightly softened
2/3 cup superfine sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 tablespoon sparkling white sugar
4 ounces fine-quality bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
1 teaspoon vegetable or canola oil

Position shelf in the center of the oven. Heat the oven to 300-degrees F. Cut a 15 inch square of heavy-duty aluminum foil. Invert a 9-inch square baking pan and center the foil over the pan, pressing it across the bottom and down the sides. Remove the foil, turn the pan right side up and place the foil shell in the pan, shaping it smoothly across the bottom and snugly against the sides.

This foil trick is one Carole uses with most of her recipes and it is handy. Funny how much this helps – wrangling a piece of foil into a square container is often a clumsy undertaking, but this ensures that your foil is formed perfectly and won’t mar the edges of your shortbread during the baking process.

Strain the flour, rice flour, cocoa and salt together three times. Set aside.

I really did do this straining part, and not only because I was paranoid that I was going to turn out another horrid batch of shortbread. In this case, I wanted to make sure the cocoa was sifted, because baking cocoa has a nasty habit of containing little lumps that don’t smooth out no matter how hard you mix – which brings me to the next reason I strained, and that’s because with this batter you cannot over mix, or you’ll ruin it. The little balls of hard stuff that couldn’t be strained through were tossed out. As an aside, I did not use a sifter for this. I used a hand held strainer that is used to strain seeds from jam and berries, etc. It worked like a charm, if you aren’t counting the part where I accidentally flung a bit of powder across the counter. Other than that, it was great.

Place the butter in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (I only have a hand held with beaters and it was fine) and mix on medium-low speed until smooth and creamy, about 1 minute. Add sugar gradually, taking about 1 minute, then mix for 1 minute longer, scraping the side of the bowl as needed. Add the vanilla and mix to combine.

I didn’t take pictures of this because you know what butter and sugar look like when mixed. Unless a vision of Jesus suddenly appears at the bottom of the bowl (and I hope not, because I’d like to think he’s got better gigs) then there’s really no reason to photograph that and stick it up here.

Transfer the mixture to a wide, wooden bowl for ease of mixing.

Okay, this was not something I did. Instead, I used my big, green bowl that you’ve seen a million times before, and it was large enough that I didn’t have to transfer anything. There’s nothing I hate more than using a million different bowls for no reason, when I can keep my messy dishes down to a minimum.

Using a wooden spoon, cut half of the dry ingredients into the butter mixture until it is almost incorporated. Work in the remaining dry ingredients by hand, adding in five or six additions.

Um okay, I did take another shortcut. I did mix all of this together by my hand held mixer, but not for very long. I added in two portions, then removed the mixer and did the rest with a wooden spoon.

Gently knead the mixture just until a smooth dough is formed. Be careful as to not overwork the dough, as this will result in a tough cookie.

Okay so as I said, I used my hand held mixer then used the spoon for the rest of it. I didn’t mix for very long at all, just enough to smoosh the dry ingredients into the rest of the dough – and that was just barely. As soon as the dry stuff was smooshed in with a single press to each dry area, I stopped touching it just in case.

Hopefully the above makes sense and, in context, it doesn’t sound like I’m some sort of sex offender.

Press the dough evenly into the pan, using a flat-bottomed glass wrapped in plastic. Be sure the dough is pushed into the corners. Test for evenness by inserting a toothpick or point of a knife randomly into the dough. Clean the sides of the pan by inserting the flat side of a metal scraper, small metal spatula, or plastic pastry corne in between the dough and the sides of the pan.

I didn’t have plastic, so I covered the pan with a piece of parchment paper, then I used a flat-bottomed glass to even everything out. To separate the edges from the foil, I used a knife. As much as I was worried about the dough being messy and fussy to separate from ungreased foil, it was actually fine. I had no problems.

Bake for 50 – 55 minutes (I used an 8×8 inch pan, so I baked mine for the full 55) or until set on top. Take out and let rest for 5 minutes. Using a dough scraper, cut straight down through the dough at about 1-inch intervals, making eight strips. Give the pan a quarter turn and cut four more strips at 2-inch intervals. (I was worried, so I followed this methodology to the letter, with success!) Sprinkle with the sparkling white sugar. Return to the oven and bake for another 10 minutes.

Remove from the oven and let rest for 10 minutes. Have a cookie sheet without sides ready. Using the foil as an aid (aka the foil sling we’ve been talking about a lot lately), lift the shortbread from the pan and place it on the cookie sheet. Pull the aluminum foil so it releases from the sides of the shortbread, wrapping the larger sides of the foil under the pan to prevent it from sliding. Wrap loose edges of the foil around the sides of the cookie sheet, smoothing the foil as best as you can. Cut through the shortbread again, and using a spatula, spread them slightly apart.

Return to the oven for 10 more minutes to crisp and dry the cookies. Remove from the oven and let cool for 5 – 10 minutes before transferring to a cooling rack.

For garnish, stir together the melted chocolate and vegetable oil. While the cookies are still tepid, dip each cookie into the chocolate mixture to a depth of 3/4 inch. Place on a cooling rack and allow to stand until the chocolate sets.

Here’s a shot of my mostly-uniform lovelies:


Okay, so you know I’m not great at Geometry; it’s a fact I have never hidden from you. I’m just thrilled I got the texture and taste right – next time I’ll work a little harder on making them perfect rectangles.

Store in an airtight container, layered between strips of wax paper, for up to 3 weeks. These cookies may be frozen.

The texture is light and crispy and a deep, dark chocolate flavor, much better than the stuff you get in the store. The chocolate taste is amazing and I’m very excited to be able to give these as gifts for the holiday season.

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MoM Dec. ‘08 Cook’s Illustrated: Rocky Road Bark

I’m stunned. I mean to say that I am absolutely beside myself with the Rocky Road Bark from the December Magazine of the Month, Cook’s Illustrated 2008 Baking. Not only is it our MoM, but we also have a major AwK Advisory in effect.

and!

I looked at the recipe and thought it was a throwaway. Basically it’s one of those kid-friendly looking things where you just layer stuff in a pan, bake it and call it good.

But no. Oh no.

The bottom layer is graham crackers – which is what threw me off. I wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of eating something that had graham crackers on the bottom, because I associate that with day care and being five-years old. As an adult, I now cannot stand graham crackers. They’re dry and tasteless and I’d like to think that my palette has evolved since then.

But the graham crackers do not stay in this state for long. After the graham crackers go down, salty caramel is made.

The ingredients to the caramel are butter, light brown sugar and salt – with the salt being the most important ingredient. The caramel that emerges is this outrageously delicious salty-sweet concoction that I couldn’t get enough of. After the sugar is mostly dissolved, I continued to stir it until it became slightly foamy, then I removed it from the heat.

This is spread over the graham crackers and baked in the oven.

While it bakes, the caramel starts to bubble, the rest of the sugar crystals dissolve. More importantly, the graham crackers start to absorb the moisture from the caramel, which is seeping through the cracks, coating the crackers on both sides. The graham crackers are transformed into a higher state of being.

Once the caramel comes out of the oven, it will cool, the bubbles will subside and the color of the salty caramel will be a dark amber.

Chocolate chips are sprinkled on top, warmed up in the oven, then spread over the caramel to make a chocolate layer.

You can sort of see the darkened caramel beneath the chocolate chips.

After the chocolate chips are spread over the top, nuts and miniature marshmallows are sprinkled on top, then pressed in to adhere.

I have to admit, I thought this bark was going to be completely stupid, but when I put it in my mouth, it was heavenly. The secret is the homemade salty caramel. You HAVE TO make this – find it on page 55 of our Dec. ’08 MoM. After it’s cooled a bit, it is cut up into pretty little 2-inch squares. These also went into my cookie boxes, and I have to say it’s probably my favorite thing that I’ve made this season. I will definitely be making it again.

The Cookie Jar: Chocolate Hazelnut Crinkle Cookies

For my annual holiday baking, I tried out yet another cookie from epicurious.com’s holiday cookie list: Chocolate Hazelnut Crinkle Cookies. I don’t really have a lot of “in process” pictures, so I’ll just give you some of my thoughts.

Here’s the official photo from Gourmet Magazine:

Beautiful. And the finished product from the home cook comes out looking just like it:

To get the uniformed look, I used a spring loaded melon ball scooper. Though they came out looking beautifully, I was disappointed with the taste: The cookie involves grinding up toasted hazelnuts in the food processor, which gives it a great texture, but the smoky flavor was off putting. I should have figured that before I made them, but I was looking to try something different. If you like the taste of smoky, toasted hazelnuts, then you’ll probably enjoy this very much. I did not. It still went into my holiday cookie boxes because the batter made so darn many of them, but they weren’t my favorite.

The cookie is pretty straight forward and difficult to screw up. I did put my dough into the refrigerator and left it overnight, but I just let it sit out for a couple of hours the next day, until it was easily scoopable – chilled and firm, yet easy to mold into a ball. The balls of dough were rolled through a heavy dosage of powdered sugar and then baked. As they baked, the cookie spread, giving it the “crinkled” look. I only wish the taste lived up to the look.

Chocolate Hazelnut Crinkle Cookies
Courtesy of Gourmet

2/3 cup hazelnuts
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
6 oz fine-quality bittersweet
chocolate (no more than 60% cacao if marked), finely chopped
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs
1/4 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup confectioners sugar

Make dough:
Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°F.

Toast hazelnuts in a shallow baking pan in oven until skins split and nuts are pale golden, about 10 minutes. Remove from oven (turn oven off), then wrap hazelnuts in a kitchen towel and rub to remove any loose skins. Cool nuts completely. Pulse nuts with granulated sugar in a food processor until finely chopped.

Melt chocolate in a metal bowl set over a saucepan of barely simmering water or in top of a double boiler, stirring until smooth. Remove bowl from heat and set aside.

Whisk together flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt in a bowl.

Beat together butter and brown sugar in another bowl with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until creamy, about 3 minutes. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition, then beat in melted chocolate until combined. Add milk and vanilla, beating to incorporate. Reduce speed to low and add flour mixture, mixing until just combined. Stir in nut mixture. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and chill dough until firm, 2 to 3 hours.

Form and bake cookies:
Put oven racks in upper and lower thirds of oven and preheat oven to 350°F. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper.

Sift confectioners sugar into a bowl. Halve dough and chill 1 half, wrapped in plastic wrap. Roll remaining half into 1-inch balls, placing them on a sheet of wax paper as rolled. Roll balls, 3 or 4 at a time, in confectioners sugar to coat generously and arrange 2 inches apart on lined baking sheets.

Bake, switching position of sheets halfway through baking, until cookies are puffed and cracked and edges feel dry (but centers are still slightly soft), 12 to 18 minutes total. Transfer cookies (still on parchment) to racks to cool completely.

While first batch is baking, roll remaining dough into balls. Line cooled cookie sheets with fresh parchment, then coat balls with confectioners sugar and bake in same manner.

The Cookie Jar: Poppy Seed Thumbprints

Out of my arsenal of cookie books, one I constantly reach for is by cookie diva herself and winner of a James Beard Award, Carole Walter.

This is basically your cookie bible. It’s got everything from drop cookies to shortbreads to international cookies, and all of them are wonderful. So far I’ve tried out half the book, and everything I’ve made so far is amazing. If you love baking cookies, then Great Cookies: Secrets to Sensational Sweets is one to pick up. More than half of the book is designed for someone who is looking to take the next step up from your generic fuss-free drop cookies, so if you want to pick up some tips and strengthen your baking mettle, get this book. She’s got a lot of fun cookies that you’ll make again and again.

I’ve been mentioning how much I’ve been into fruit cookies lately. While flipping through the Great Cookies book, I ran across one that I’ve eyeballed a few times: Poppy Seed Thumbprints. I happened to have all the ingredients in my pantry, so I put this one to the test. The result: Success!


photo courtesy Duane Winfield

Poppy Seed Thumbprints
recipe adapted from Great Cookies by Carole Walter

2 cups all purpose flour, spooned in and leveled
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup poppy seeds
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, slightly firm
1/2 cup sugar
2 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Raspberry Preserves
Apricot Preserves

Position shelves in the upper and lower thirds of the oven. Heat the oven to 350-degrees F. Strain together the flour and salt in a large bowl. Whisk in the poppy seeds and set aside.

In the large bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the butter on medium-low speed until smooth. Pour in the sugar and mix just until incorporated. Add the egg yolks and vanilla, mixing only until blended. Using a wooden spoon, stir in the dry ingredients in two additions, mixing just to combine after each addition. Note: Do not overmix this dough or it will become oily.

So this is where the trick comes in – forming them. The dough is not exactly hard to work with, but it’s not entirely soft and pliable, either. However you form them on the cookie sheet is how they will be shaped when they’re done baking.

Roll the dough into balls about the size of a walnut and place 2 inches apart on the cookie sheets. Using a wooden spoon with a rounded handle no wider than 1/2 inch, make a deep indentation with the tip of the handle in the center of each cookie. If the dough sticks, dip the tip in flour before pressing.

Be careful with this step and don’t jam your handle into the cookie all the way. This is where some of my cookies started to break apart. Go easy.


Slightly phallic, but you get the idea.

Hopefully you can see what I’m getting at with the picture above – some of the cookies cracked apart if I wasn’t careful while making my indentations. If you leave the cookie like that to bake, that’s how it will come out; the dough will not blend back together during baking, like what you would experience with a chocolate chip cookie dough.

Place the cookies in the oven. After 10 minutes, remove the cookies from the oven and re-press each indentation. Then fill the centers with preserves. To do this neatly (yeah she tells us how to do it neatly and I still goofed a couple of them up – go me) point the tip of the spoon down into the indentation and slide the preserves off with your fingertip. Do not overfill these or the preserves will run over.

Return cookies to the oven, rotating the pans top to bottom and front to back. Bake for 4 to 5 minutes longer or until the cookies are golden brown around the edges. Using a thin metal spatula, loosen the cookies from the pans as soon as they are cool enough to handle. Cool on wire racks.

I can’t get enough of these little things. If my mouth was big enough I’d pop them in whole to eat them in one bite. The poppy seed cookie with the sweet taste of jam inside is delicious. (Jam note: I used a sugar-free, seedless strawberry jam called Polamer’s that you can get in grocery stores.) These are going into my Christmas cookie boxes that my friends receive as holiday gifts… provided I can get them done before tomorrow afternoon. I know; I’m way behind! Yikes!

On Trial: Mini Black and White Cookies

I know, whenever you see the “On Trial” label at the top, it makes you wary. And it should, as it’s the dumping place for all of the recipes that have disappointed me horribly.


Photo courtesy of epicurious.com

This is another recipe that I snagged from Epicurious.com’s “25 Days of Christmas Cookies” section. It was one of those cases where you know you will hate these cookies, but you feel compelled to make them anyway because the picture is so great.

Look at that picture, would you? They’re beautiful. They look scrumptious. Funnily enough, they’re “mini” cookies, and yet in comparison to those (what appear to possibly be) Linzer cookies in the bottom right (anyone know?), they don’t look so mini to me. False advertising alert! Also, I just don’t like black and white cookies. The cookie itself is rather bland and, in my opinion, coating it with watered down powdered sugar just isn’t doing it for me. That’s just me – I know lots of people who love these things… for reasons I can’t explain.

Mini Black & White Cookies
Recipe courtesy of Gourmet

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup well-shaken buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
7 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg

Icings:
2 3/4 cups confectioners sugar
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
4 to 6 tablespoons water
1/4 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder

The batter is simple:

Put oven racks in upper and lower thirds of oven and preheat oven to 350°F. Butter 2 large baking sheets. Whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt in a bowl. Stir together buttermilk and vanilla in a cup.

Beat together butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium-high until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes, then add egg, beating until combined well. Reduce speed to low and add flour mixture and buttermilk mixture alternately in batches, beginning and ending with flour mixture, and mixing just until smooth.

That’s it. That’s all it makes. I use this bowl for most other cookie and cake mixing, and in normal recipes, the bowl is almost filled if that gives you any idea as to what we’re dealing with.

So here’s where things get a little complicated. These cookies are supposed to end up being only somewhat larger than my thumb – and I don’t have big hands. According to the instructions, this batter makes a whopping 60 cookies, so whatever you think you should drop on a cookie sheet, cut it in half because I promise whatever you think is small enough will not be.

The other issue I ran into is that the recipe instructs: “Drop rounded teaspoons of batter 1 inch apart onto baking sheets.” A serious issue I had here was that whatever weird, lumpy pseudo-spherical shape you drop down on the cookie sheet is going to spread out in that exact same form and bake that way. My first incarnations ended up being some really goofy looking shapes, and these cookies are supposed to be perfect little circles.

Drop rounded teaspoons of batter 1 inch apart onto baking sheets. Bake, switching position of sheets halfway through baking, until tops are puffed, edges are pale golden, and cookies spring back when touched, 6 to 8 minutes total. Transfer to a rack to cool.

As you can see above, I put the batter into a plastic ziploc bag and cut one of the corners off, to use as my cheapo alternative for a piping bag. After you pipe them, dip the tip of your finger in a little bit of water and smooth out the tops to make a round shape. (Another tip from our Magazine of the Month, Cook’s Illustrated Holiday Baking!)

Here’s the end product, sans powdered sugar glaze:

These came out better, and all mostly the same size. Then comes the powdered sugar icings:

Stir together confectioners sugar, corn syrup, lemon juice, vanilla, and 2 tablespoons water in a small bowl until smooth. If icing is not easily spreadable, add more water, 1/2 teaspoon at a time. Transfer half of icing to another bowl and stir in cocoa, adding more water, 1/2 teaspoon at a time, to thin to same consistency as vanilla icing. Cover surface with a dampened paper towel, then cover bowl with plastic wrap.

I tried out the icing instructions…

With offset spatula, spread white icing over half of flat side of each cookie. Starting with cookies you iced first, spread chocolate icing over other half.

…then discarded them. Instead I ended up dipping these dinky little things into the icing bowls one at a time. I started on the white icing first — the icing wasn’t as thick and white as I wanted it to be. It soaked into the cookie, so after the icing dried it wasn’t so white anymore. So I did that first. After those dried, I stuck the other half into the chocolate side. After the chocolate side dried, I put the first halves back into the white. I think I may have dunked the cookies into the white sides three times to make them come out white, rather than the translucent yellow of the actual cookie.

Here’s one of my end products, after the dipping process. I really felt that the cookie fell short of its promise, especially based on how long it takes to keep icing them. The cookie itself was not all that exciting, which made the overall experience really disappointing.

If you decide to make them and have other thoughts or results, post below or send us the link to your site so we can check out how you fared.

The Cookie Jar: Grasshopper Squares

You may have seen these beautiful bites over at Epicurious.com’s “25 Days of Christmas Cookies” – that’s exactly where I saw them, too, and ran home to make them. These are based with a very dense, very intense chocolate brownie. The middle layer is a mint ganache, and none of that hard crap either. The ganache is gooey and delicious and sort of gets all over your fingers. I’m not complaining about that, though. Everything is topped off with a chocolate topping that solidifies back to medium-soft after it cools, keeping the ganache in tact. Overall, it is as delicious as the picture alludes.


Photo courtesy of epicurious.com

Pretty, right? Should be easy to make them look just like the picture, right?

I’m afraid not.

I have a few thoughts after making them, so let’s work our way through it, talking about the pros and cons.

Pros: Definitely the taste. I’ve made more than my fair share of mint pastries and the mint always comes up short: tastes too much like extract, can taste the so-called tasteless food coloring, etc. These deliver on the mint flavor, and the ganache is out of this world. I was also shocked at how easy these were to make. If you are looking to make something that is relatively efficient, this is a good way to go because you make one big pan of it, and you’re done. There’s no rotating of cookie pans or doing a million steps to get a pretty batch of cookies out.

Cons: Trying to cut this up into pretty little squares. The mint ganache is so soft that it requires the whole thing be chilled, but then the brownie became difficult to work with. What helped was cutting everything with a clean, warm knife, similarly to what you’d do with a cheesecake. After one cut, run the knife under hot water, wipe it off and make another cut. What also might help is if I had greater strength than a wet noodle. I also felt there is more ganache in the picture than actual, so the next time I make these (and I guarantee I will) I will probably increase the ganache ratio to 1.5 of what the recipe calls for.

And now, without further ado… here’s how I worked through these.

Grasshopper Squares
Courtesy of Gourmet

For brownie layer
1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter
10 1/2 oz fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (not extra-bitter or unsweetened and no more than 60% cacao if marked), finely chopped
1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/4 teaspoons vanilla
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
3/4 teaspoon salt

For mint ganache

1/2 cup heavy cream
10 oz fine-quality white chocolate, chopped
2 tablespoons green crème de menthe
1 teaspoon peppermint extract

For chocolate ganache
1 cup heavy cream
10 oz fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (not unsweetened), finely chopped

Ok, it’s a three-parter, but don’t be alarmed. Making the ganaches are all about throwing this into a double-boiler (or a pot with a heat-proof bowl on top) and letting it melt, and that’s it. We’re going to make another one of those foil slings just like with the Ultimate Turtle Brownies, butter the foil, then start on the bottom layer.

Melt butter and chocolate with brown sugar in a 3-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until smooth. Remove from heat. Whisk in eggs and vanilla until combined. Whisk in flour, cocoa, and salt until just combined.

Spread batter evenly in baking pan and bake until set and a wooden pick inserted in center comes out with moist crumbs adhering, about 20 minutes. Cool completely in pan on a rack, about 1 1/2 hours.

If you can still read this after looking at that glaring photo of aluminum foil, then read on!

Make mint ganache:
Bring cream to a simmer in a 2- to 3-quart saucepan and remove from heat. Pour over white chocolate in a bowl. Let stand 1 minute, then whisk until smooth.

Stir in crème de menthe and extract and chill, covered, stirring occasionally, until thick, about 1 hour.

Make chocolate ganache:
Bring cream to a simmer in a 2- to 3-quart saucepan and remove from heat. Pour over bittersweet chocolate in a bowl. Let stand 1 minute, then whisk until smooth. Chill, covered, stirring occasionally, until thick, about 30 minutes.

Assemble layers:
Spread mint ganache over top of cooled brownie in a thin even layer using offset spatula, then chill until firm but still slightly sticky, about 30 minutes.

Spread chocolate ganache over mint and chill until firm, about 2 hours.

Lift dessert out of pan using foil overhang. Run a heavy knife under hot water and wipe dry, then trim edges of dessert (1/4 inch off each side). Cut dessert into squares and peel from foil.

As you can see from the photo, I did have some trouble cutting it. The squares around the edges came out wonky, but everything in the middle came out looking really pretty. So, DH got to eat the edges, and everyone else got the nice stuff. See how I am?

I would highly recommend these. The skill it takes to make them is relatively low… if you don’t count the cutting at the end. Good luck and ENJOY!

The Cookie Jar: Double Chocolate-Cherry Cookies

This weekend I was working on my Christmas cookie boxes and, of course, I wanted to go with a myriad of things that I hadn’t ever tried before. For some reason, this year I am into fruit cookies. I don’t know why.

Sometimes cookies can be a very daunting task, especially if you take into consideration that many cookies are fussy and can require rolling, cutting, piping, shaping and decorating. My cookie boxes generally encompass a variety of cookies, so I try to keep my involved cookies down to a minimum. Everyone loves a good drop cookie, and they come in a myriad of flavors and delicious components to keep them exciting. Sure, I love the basic chocolate chip cookie. It’s a flavorful cookie dough, soft on the inside, crisp on the outside and riddled with delicious morsels of chocolate. However, I like my cookies just like I like my pizza: with a ton of stuff. I’m not a simple cheese and pepperoni person, and my cookies tend to be the same way.

Drop cookies are a great way to go when you want to add something homespun and casual to a cookie box. They’re delicious, pretty, and efficient. They also travel very well. For these types of cookies, I have a bunch of basic books that fill the need. One of them is the Better Homes and Gardens Biggest Book of Cookies.

Four-hundred and seventy five never fail basic cookie recipes – seldom can you go wrong. Just look over the ingredient lists and figure out what you’ll eat and what you won’t. That’s when I flipped over the Double Chocolate-Cherry Cookies – then I did a double-take, and came right back and made them.

It’s an elegant twist on your basic chocolate chip cookie. Add dried cherries and chopped walnuts to your chocolate cookie, and you’ve got a pretty magnificent take on a drop cookie. In the past I’ve mentioned that I’m not a huge cherry fan, but I really love them with the nuts and the chocolate of this incarnation.

Double Chocolate-Cherry Cookies
adapted from Better Homes & Gardens Biggest Book of Cookies

1 cup butter, softened
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
2/3 cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
3 cups all purpose flour
2 cups dried tart cherries
1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts
1 1/2 cup bittersweet or semisweet chocolate pieces
1 cup white chocolate

A drop cookie is NOT difficult. The ingredients get combined, you drop them on a cookie sheet, and then you bake them. That’s pretty much it.

In a large mixing bowl, beat butter with an electric mixer on medium to high speed for 30 seconds. Add granulated sugar, brown sugar, baking soda and salt. Beat until combined, scraping sides of bowl occasionally. Beat in eggs and vanilla until smooth. Beat in as much of the flour as you can with the mixer. Stir in any remaining flour with a wooden spoon. Stir in cherries, walnuts, chocolate pieces and white baking pieces (dough will be stiff).

At the chocolate part, I just threw whatever I had in there. I didn’t have any semisweet pieces, so I tossed in whatever I had to come up with to equal 1 1/2 (brown) chocolate. I did have white baking pieces (chocolate) so that was fine. I would definitely make sure you put in some white baking pieces because the presentation is just that much more exciting to see the different chocolates together with the nuts and cherries.

Drop dough by rounded tablespoons 2 inches apart onto an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake in a 325 degree F oven for 14 – 16 minutes or until golden. Cool on cookie sheet for 1 minute. Transfer cookies to a wire rack and let cool.

The end result is something completely fun and I love the surprise of the tart and chewy cherry that mixes with the chocolate (I love cherry cordials, too, hence why this appealed to me). Another surprise was the walnuts – I didn’t think I’d be too thrilled about the nuts in there. For some reason I usually omit nuts, and I’m sure it’s because I have this idea that a lot of people dislike them. Whether or not that’s valid, I really thought the nut added to the overall texture, giving the cookie one more surprising component to bite into.

Make sure you store these in an airtight container – I put mine in one of my old Tupperware cookie containers and the lid popped off. Now these things are like miserable little rocks and completely inedible…

The good news is I get to make more. 🙂

MoM Dec. ’08 Cook’s Illustrated: Breakfast Strata with Sausage, Mushrooms and Monterey Jack

This weekend, I took a break out of my Christmas Cookie baking whirlwind to try out one of the breakfast stratas in AwK’s December 2008 magazine of the month, Cook’s Illustrated Holiday Baking.

But first, what is a breakfast strata? The test kitchen writes:

What’s quicker than quiche, sturdier than souffle, and combines the best qualities of both? The answer is strata, a layered casserole that in its most basic form comprises bread, eggs, cheese, and milk or cream. Layered among them are flavorful fillings that provide both substance and character, and the result is, in essence, a golden brown, puffed, hearty, savory bread pudding.

Yes, please!

The article goes on to explain how the test kitchen sampled a variety of different kinds of strata and experimented with a variety of ingredients and methods of cooking. In the end, they produced three versions of perfect strata. I selected Sausage, Mushrooms and Monterey Jack Cheese.

Strata has to be made ahead given time to chill. Making it the night before is best.

Rather than let bread sit out overnight, I let mine sit in a warm oven for a little bit. While that was sitting, I sauteed up the sausage, mushrooms and shallots.

I actually like that this dish has to rest in the refrigerator, because it’s perfect for a holiday morning when everyone gets up early and wanders around in pajamas and bathrobes. It sides up nicely with a cup of coffee and bed hair, so make it the night before and, when you get up the next morning, pop it into the oven for the set time. A hot, fancy breakfast will then be available for everyone.

The article explains that part of their experimenting was done with onions and garlic, but they found that shallots were better in this case. This version of the strata calls for three shallots, diced and sauteed with the mushrooms and sausage.

Then your bread comes out of the oven, is buttered and placed in your baking pan.

The singled recipe makes enough to go into a 9x9x2 pan. Revised times for doubled recipes are also listed, so again, no guesswork when you’re working with the Test Kitchen.

From here on out, it’s just layering and trying not to eat the rest of the bread. I had great success with the former, and not much with the latter. When I placed the second layer of bread down, I realized I had eaten one piece too many and had to quickly toast up another slice. In the earlier bread picture, you can even see how I tore off a corner of that center slice and ate it.

Come on, it’s fresh Italian bread with butter slathered on top — can you blame me?

The second layer is assembled in the same order: bread, sausage mixture, cheese.

Then comes the fun part. A 1/2 cup of dry, white wine goes into the frying pan that you just had your sausage mixture in, and it simmers until reduced to half. It is whisked into eggs, cream, salt and pepper, then poured into the baking pan, over the assembled layers.

Before this goes into the oven, they recommend that the strata is weighted down. I was unable to do this because I only had foil and not plastic wrap, but they give another one of their nifty illustrations on how to do so. The article also goes into the whys, but I won’t go into it since it’s repetitive for those who have the magazine.

When it’s done sitting, it’s thrown in the oven for about 40 minutes. It will puff up and brown on the top and edges.

The end result is a light and fluffy egg breakfast, filled with savory ingredients. I worried that the bread might make the mixture too much like a bad, soggy bread pudding – I’ve been served a few of these and I’ve sworn them off for good. The texture really throws me off. The strata isn’t anything like that, and the bread gives the mixture some structure.

I cut my strata into quarters and served, piping hot.

On the Side: A Duo of Risotto

Every food enthusiast who watches food television has heard of risotto, though not everyone has cooked it. Up until about a year ago, I had been counted in that number. Risotto both intrigued and frightened me, caused me to salivate, yet also cower in fear. Averse reactions are difficult to avoid when 90% of the people who cook it on TV not only screw up, but are labeled stupid donkeys who can’t cook.

I didn’t want to be a stupid donkey who couldn’t cook, either, so I avoided risotto until recently.

I ran across a recipe for a Basic Risotto that included a few variations, and explained a little more scientifically how the risotto should be made, and why. You’ve probably noticed that I’ve been interested in more of the instructional explanations of food lately, so of course this appealed to me. I ran right home and made it.

Risotto is typically served as either a starter to a meal or as a side. Lately I’ve been serving it alongside lighter main dishes, like Pork Tenderloin with Cherry Balsamic Glaze. The basic components of risotto are rice, stock, wine, and cheese, and the variations of risotto can make this a nice accompaniment to any meal.

One thing to note if this is your first foray into risotto is that even though your recipe may only say 1 cup of rice, keep in mind that this really will end up into being a lot of risotto. There’s usually around 4 cups of stock that go into this, not to mention wine and cheese and other stuff. One cup of rice that goes into a risotto makes a lot, so if you’re cooking for two or three people, you will not want to double the recipe.

Basic Risotto
1 cup Arborio rice
2 tablespoons pure olive oil
1 large onion, peeled and finely diced
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 1/2 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons heavy cream

So all I’m going to do now is take you through the instructions that are posted on the Food Network website (recipe comes from Gourmet magazine but the recipe is on Food Network… beats me) and alternate with my photographs to show you the transformation from the raw ingredients into the risotto. I thought about adding additional commentary, but the recipe does such a great job of explaining what to and what not to do that it’s unnecessary.

Directions:
Pick through the rice to remove any stones or foreign matter, but do not wash it before cooking. Using a large skillet with a heavy bottom, heat the olive oil over low heat and saute or “sweat” the onions until translucent, being careful not to allow them to color or brown at all.

Add the Arborio rice, stir to coat with the olive oil, and saute with the onions to toast each grain of rice, about 7 minutes. This toasting process adds the chewy, al dente quality that attracts so many people to risotto.

Once the rice is lightly toasted, add the white wine slowly, stirring with a wooden spoon. A wooden spoon is always preferable when making risotto, as a metal spoon tends to cut or injure the grains of rice. Constant stirring should be avoided for the same reason.

Preheat the chicken stock just to the boiling point, then have it ready at stoveside. After the rice has absorbed the white wine and the skillet is nearly dry, add 1 cup stock, stirring occasionally, and cook over very low heat until the stock is absorbed. Continue adding the stock, 1 cup at a time, until all the stock has been absorbed.

(Adding the liquid in stages, instead of all at once, allows the grains of rice to expand more fully, adding to the risotto’s creamy texture.) Once the rice has been added to the pan, the entire cooking process will take about 17 to 20 minutes.

After all of the liquid has been added and the rice is chewy yet fully cooked, with a creamy texture, add the butter, Parmesan, and heavy cream. Stir to combine all the ingredients and serve immediately.

And that’s all there is to it. When I make it, I think it’s more about a timing issue – you really want to just jump the gun and pull it out on a plate, but this recipe really helps you walk it through.

Now if you want to get fancy, you can try one that Citizen Chef always makes and receives raves. I don’t know if I should be doing this or not but hey – he had his chance to post it and never did so I’m stealing his thunder.

Citizen Chef’s Awesome Green Onion Risotto
4 cups low salt chicken broth
2 Tablespoons butter
1 cup green onions
1 cup Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 Tablespoons whipping cream
3 Tablespoons finely grated orange peel

Remember to apply the same techniques described in the recipe above when making this.

Bring broth to simmer in medium saucepan over medium heat. Reduce heat to low and keep warm. Finely chop white part of green onion, thinly slice green part.

Melt butter in large saucepan over medium heat. Add chopped green onions and cook until soft, stirring often, about 6 minutes. Stir in rice. Add wine; cook until almost all liquid is absorbed, stirring frequently, about 2 minutes.

Add 4 cups broth, 1 cup at a time, cooking until almost all broth is absorbed before adding more, stirring frequently, until rice is tender but still firm, about 20 minutes.

Stir in sliced green onions, Parmesan, whipping cream, and orange peel. Add more broth by 1/4 cupfuls as needed if dry. Season with salt and pepper. Serve warm.

Go forth with your risotto, and be a donkey no more!

Not that you were one to begin with, I was just sayin… You know… Because I need an ending.

Sorry.

Top Chef Season 5, Episode 4: “I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star!”

OK, let’s start with this guy.

And here’s what Anthony Bourdain has to say about him:

Perhaps, then, they should teach the cautionary tale of Rocco DiSpirito as an example of A Chef Who Went Too Far, one who went over the line–messed with the bitch goddess celebrity and got burned. Before television, Rocco was the well-respected chef of the three-star Union Pacific, a bright, charismatic guy with the world on a string. He was known for his skill in the kitchen, his innovative style, and his insistence on quality. As he became more recognized, he began expanding his “brand”, consulting to other restaurants, signing multiple endorsement deals, showing up at openings and promo parties. Now, after his hideous, high-profile, post-ironic “reality” television venture, The Restaurant, has run its humiliating course, he’s no longer the chef of his once excellent Union Pacific; he’s banned from his own eponymous eatery (the cynical and soulless Rocco’s); he’s finally settled protracted litigation with his ex-partner, Jeffrey Chodorow and he can presently be seen hawking cookware with his mom on QVC. It’s been a long, hard, and painfully public fall. In a highly competitive business, a certain amount of backbiting and schadenfreude is to be expected. But, in Rocco’s case, the reaction from his fellow chefs has been positively gleeful.

And in case you were wondering where most of my writing style, thoughts on food, and love of commas comes from, well there you go.

The Quickfire challenge was a breakfast amuse bouche, and I am going to skip right over that, and the resulting “how many bites makes an amuse bouche into an appetizer” discussion. I think we need to figure out this first, and then move on from there.

What our sermon today will be about, is the elimination challenge: present a 3 minute demo of a dish for television. Which implies that to be a successful chef, you have to be famous. Really? Who decided that exactly? I thought we here on Top Chef were above such petty concerns, we leave that to that bastard stepchild The Next Food Network Star. Now I love the Food Network, but that show in particular lacked something for me, and not just contestants who could cook (Oh Snapskies! What? My daughter says it all the time, it must be cool.) The contestants on that show didn’t want to be chefs, they wanted to be tv stars. Only one of those is a noble calling. Here on Top Chef we take struggling cooks and catapult them into the position of their dreams!!!!

Uhm, waitaminute. Back up the Snapskie truck. A quick look at the bios shows that 11 out of the 17 contestants are either working as executive chefs, or own their own business. So what the hell are we actually doing here? We have seen more and more contestants with more and more cooking background, which is great. But if these guys are already established chefs, what do they need to be on this show for? The cash? The exposure? Has Top Chef become what all reality shows eventually become: a platform for people to get rich and famous?

But back to the original question (yes there was one), what does being a “successful” chef look like? In any artistic endevor, there will be people who “sell out”, or at least appear to to others, usually those who are less successful. Is whoring yourself out to the Today show necessary? Is it evil?

There are plenty of chefs who quietly become famous, Thomas Keller being the vanguard for that front. These are not ivory tower chefs who refuse to connect with the public. Chefs that are cooking food that they think tastes good are connecting with the public in the most honest way possible.

Then there are the teacher chefs, and God help me I’m going to mention Bobby Flay. Morimoto standing on the cutting board issue aside, his shows are popular because he teaches people that cooking is easy and fun. And you have to get behind that just a little bit. I’ll even throw Rachel Rae in this category. Yes she’s not a chef, I know that. She knows that. And the person she hires to take care of her dogs makes more money than you and I combined.

And then there is the TV personality. This has to be considered the lowest rung on the ladder, not because it takes any less skill, but because it is the least righteous. Righteous was the word I was looking for 5 paragraphs ago. Here we get into people like Rocco, who seem to have taken the easy way out, been seduced by the trappings and forgotten what they were trying to do in the first place. Cook really good food.

Being a chef is a business, and that brings all sorts of ugly realities into play. It also has a certain amount of fame required, which brings even more ugliness in. And not to sour grapes this whole bit, but that is a large part of why I am not a professional chef. The other parts being, in no particular order: not wanting to work weekends and holidays, I don’t think I could find a kitchen to work in that was set at 71 degree room temp, and I have to have my wife check to see if the meat is done or I will kill my entire family. Don’t get me wrong, part of me would love to be a chef, I mean it’s right under rock star as far as coolness goes. But I tell myself that I have the best parts of being a chef already: I get to cook food for people I love.

And as you are wiping away that small tear lest it run down your rosey cheek, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that you cannot make creme brule in an hour. You would think an executive chef would know that.

~Citizen Chef