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December 2005
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February 2006

Grand Casino's San Andreas Cookies


I've got a bit of a sweet tooth. It's not out of control; sometimes I'm happy to reach for a ripe piece of fruit instead. But I'd be lying if I said that an afternoon chocolate fix isn't something I look forward to on most days. It has to be dark and not too sweet. It has to be the right size: not so big that I'll feel gluttonous after eating the whole thing, and not so small that I keep reaching for more. But lately, I've become too reliant on running out for an indulgence from the deli, and I'd like to put the 75 cents I spend each time into a piggy bank instead (they're not for nothing, my New Year's resolutions! Though I have to admit that, so far, I am doing abominably badly with the whole gym thing. While I ponder the conundrum that I find myself in, worrying about my gym attendance while posting about chocolate cookies, I invite you to continue reading).

I thought I'd make a batch of cookies that I could nibble on all week, whilst also sharing with colleagues and feeding to Ben after a particularly demoralizing day of work. The recipe I chose comes from a bakery in Los Angeles and was featured in the Culinary SOS column of the LA TImes back in November. They're named after the San Andreas fault line, which is repeated in the craggy top of these sugar-coated confections. I've seen recipes for cookies with a dark interior and a snowy, crackled top before: in magazines and on the back of cocoa boxes. But they've never been described quite so lyrically as by Barbara Hansen and the cookie namers at Grand Casino.

The cookies have a pleasing texture: they're nubby from the pulverized almonds, crunchy from the granulated sugar coating, and tender and melting within. I was amazed by the amount of baking powder called for (two whole tablespoons!), and the fact that there was no salt in the recipe. I had to practically hold my fingers back with the other hand as they itched to throw in a pinch. With 12 ounces of melted chocolate in the mix, the cookies have a deep chocolate flavor, but beating the eggs for a long time and adding all that baking powder makes for surprisingly light results.

I'd suggest baking the cookies in two batches. Rolling the dough (that, I swear to God, rose overnight in the fridge. Is that even possible? Probably not) into balls and then in two kinds of sugar is a messy proposition, and when the dough softens from the temperature of the room, it gets even messier. Make up one sheet of cookies, and put the rest of the dough back in the fridge until you're ready to take out the first batch. That way, the dough stays cool and manageable.

San Andreas Cookies
About 2 dozen cookies

2 ounces (1/2 stick) butter
12 ounces dark chocolate
3 eggs
7 tablespoons granulated sugar, plus 1/4 cup for coating, divided
3/4 cup flour, sifted
2 tablespoons baking powder
1 cup almond meal
6 tablespoons milk
1/4 cup powdered sugar

1. Melt the butter and dark chocolate in a bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water. Set aside to cool slightly.

2. In the bowl of an electric mixer beat the eggs and 7 tablespoons sugar until the mixture reaches ribbon stage and is pale and thick, about 3 minutes. Mix in the melted chocolate and butter.

3. Combine the flour, baking powder and almond meal. Alternating with the milk, add these dry ingredients to the batter. Spoon the mixture into a container, cover tightly and chill overnight.

4. Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Place the one-fourth cup granulated sugar and the powdered sugar in two separate shallow bowls. Scoop out 2 tablespoons of dough per cookie and form into a ball. Roll each ball of dough in granulated sugar, then in the powdered sugar.

5. Place on parchment-lined baking sheets and bake in the oven. Cookies will flatten and crack during baking, and are done when the dough is no longer gooey in the center when tested with toothpick, about 20 to 24 minutes. Place on rack to cool.

IMBB #22: Gulya Pinkhasov's Shurpa Lagman


Whuh? In the whuh whuh? That was the translation of the look on Ben's face when I told him what we were having for dinner last week. "Gulya Pinkhasov's Shurpa Lagman" doesn't exactly trip lightly off the tongue. I have to admit it was part of the reason why I chose to make that dish in the first place. Well, that and the fact that I'm not sure when I'll next eat Bukharian Jewish food (anyone else looking forward to Chassidic Hip Hop live in Queens on February 4th?). I know Rego Park isn't far from Chelsea, but the fact that I can't even drag myself to MoMA on a regular basis means I shouldn't exactly count on reporting to Regostan for a dinner date any time soon.

The recipe came with an article in the NY Times about the Bukharian Jewish community flourishing in Rego Park. I found it utterly fascinating. Bukharians don't consider themselves Ashkenazi or Sephardi but Babylonian. They speak anything from Farsi to Uzbek. And they eat Korean pickled carrots as an appetizer because of Stalin's mass deportations of ethnic Koreans from East to West. And isn't there something magical and otherworldy about hearing stories from the cities of Samarkand and Tashkent? It's not the first time I've thought about the wonder that is New York, and all the different people crammed within it. Amazing, really.

Shurpa lagman is a soupy lamb stew that's studded with cubed vegetables, flavored with cumin and white vinegar, and draped with chewy strands of noodles. Shurpa is a soup that's traditional to the Central Asian region, and lagman is the Bukharian version of Chinese lo mein, but Uighurs (Muslim Asians) also lay claim to it. I thought this dish would be a fitting entry for this month's Is My Blog Burning event, hosted by Amy and featuring the humble noodle. It was filling and hearty, and I liked the novelty of trying something so different, yet somehow familiar. Would I made it again? Well, I'm slowly establishing that cumin reminds me of certain unpleasantries, so I'm honestly not sure. Ben loved it and eagerly had seconds.

It's really pretty easy: you brown chunks of lamb meat, then boil them in beef broth for an hour and a half. At that point you throw in cubed turnips, peppers and carrots, some canned tomatoes, chickpeas and seasonings (I probably don't have to tell you that I left out the cilantro) and let that simmer until combined, another half hour. I loved the idea of adding white vinegar to "brighten" up the flavor - it worked like a charm. Then you boil up a pot of noodles (I used fresh fettuccine, because they were easier to find than Chinese egg noodles) and ladle out a portion on top of each filled soup bowl. Slurp up each spoon or forkful dreaming of the Silk Road.

SHF #15: Sally Schneider's "Real" Jell-O


There are days when living in New York feels like having found a spot to curl up on in an pearl-laden oyster shell. Those days I walk around the city feeling love and magnanimity towards everyone I pass: surly cab drivers honking at dithering cars, delivery guys on teetering bicycles who insist on driving against traffic, corn-rowed women working at the check-out line in my grocery store who break into a smile when I thank them. The sun shines just so on the tops of buildings and being alive in Manhattan feels like a privilege.

But then there are days when the trudge to work is twice as long than the day before. The unrelenting noise makes my eyeballs twitch. The people on the sidewalk in front of me are too slow, the line at the grocery store makes me crazy, and it's all I can do to keep myself from locking myself in my bathroom and plugging my ears up for some peace and quiet (though of course that won't be happening any time soon, due to the recent cockroach sighting and subsequent moratorium on bathroom stays longer than 85 seconds. You'd be amazed at how fast a face can be washed, toned, and moisturized while simultaneously making room for a thorough brushing of the teeth.).

On days like those, I eat cereal for dinner. I make rude gestures when my cell phone rings. I think all sorts of woeful and self-indulgent thoughts about (the abysmal state of) my writing, my (sometimes screwy and complicated) relationships with the people I love, and my (totally unknown) purpose in life. To make myself feel better, I curl up on my couch and dream about a life in which Jon Stewart is my best friend, obliging me with constant amusement and tales of mockery.

I'm not giving up that dream, but I have found a different antidote to my current malaise, and it comes in the form of exotic fruit juice and powdered pigs knuckles. Jell-O, yup. Sam of Becks & Posh proposed that the theme for this month's Sugar High Friday be anything made with minimal or no processed sugar. Amongst my mountains of newspaper clippings, there was nothing fitting this description that inspired me. But being the lucky owner of Sally Schneider's A New Way to Cook proved serendipitous.

Sally has you dissolve powdered gelatin in some unsweetened fruit juice (go to a fancy food store and you can go nuts choosing what kind - sour cherry? papaya? Japanese plum?) both cold and heated, which you then mix together and chill. You can make different batches of juice and layer them over each other (waiting until each layer is set before starting a new one). If you're creative with colors and the thickness of layers, you've got yourself a batch of desserts that are stunningly simple and visually arresting (or the other way around).

In my attempt at minimalism, I made a bottom layer of pomegranate Jell-O and a top layer of guava. The guava layer had a creamier texture, while the pomegranate jelly had the trademark wobble that gives Jell-O its lasting power among the young and young at heart (who hasn't stared happily into a bowl of Jell-O cubes as they jiggle and sway to their own beat?). The flavors were clear and delicious and the eating is pure pleasure. You can nibble your way carefully through one layer and then another, or you can sink your spoon through the quivering Jell-O and bring up a curved slice of bicolored joy.

As any child knows, the best thing about Jell-O is squelching it in your mouth, letting the coolness slide down your throat. And now as an adult I know that it can make even a dismal week a little bit better.

Real "Jell-O"
Serves 4

2 cups fresh or good-quality bottled fruit juice or puree
1 envelope (1/4 ounce) powdered gelatin
2-3 teaspoons of fresh lemon juice (optional)
Sugar, honey, maple syrup, or fructose to taste (optional)

1. Pour 1/2 cup fo the fruit juice into a medium glass bowl or measuring cup and sprinkle the gelatin over it. Let stand for 1 minute.

2. In a medium saucepan, bring the remaining 1 1/2 cups fruit juice to a boil. Stir into the gelatin mixture until dissolved. Add the lemon juice and sweetener to taste, if desired (I left both out). Pour into individual bowls or into one bowl. Let cool, then refrigerate for several hours, until set.

Nigella Lawson's Salmon with Ginger and Lemon Grass Broth


As I slurped up the hot broth in this bowl the other day - sharp lime juice mingling nicely with salty fish sauce and the exotic (well, sort of) flavors of julienned ginger and lemon grass - I felt like I was finally making up for all that bacon grease. And there's so much left to go! I know I sound like a broken record, but bear with me. I rarely eat that much pig fat in one week and I'm still trying to get over it.

A soup like this one is perfect for January - it's easy to make when you just don't feel like you can peruse one more cookbook or start one more slow-cooked feast, and it's crammed full of vegetables for vitamins and fiber, salmon for omega-3 fatty acids and natural health boosters in the form of lime juice, ginger slivers, not to mention a full three cups of Grandma's best medicine: chicken soup. Plus, it has not a drop of added fat.

Nigella Lawson printed this in the NY Times three Januarys ago, and it is just the kind of recipe one can expect from her. It's fast, it's easy, it works. It's not ever going to compete with the multi-layered, well-developed flavors that might come by following recipes from Fuchsia Dunlop or Corinne Trang, but for people (moi) who are intimidated by Asian cooking and the plethora of ingredients it requires, it is just the ticket.

While preparing the soup, I even got to flex the Mini Macgyver in me: my widest pot (which was to be filled with broth and flavorings, over which the salmon chunks would then be steamed) is a cast iron pot that, once filled, was too deep for the steamer basket. Using a shot measure that I filled with soup so it wouldn't wobble, I balanced the salmon-filled steamer atop it precariously, then covered that with the lid of a stockpot. Steamed perfection!

Standard Baking Company's Baguettes


I've said it before, but I'll say it again: there's really nothing like homemade bread. Nothing else comes close to the smell and warmth it imparts to the house, nor the sense of completion I get when I pull crusty loaves from my oven and let them cool on the table. I eat bread almost every day - it's a staple of my existence - so having it freshly made and available just makes sense. Although I'm surrounded by places where I can buy good bread (imagine - even the d'Agostino's around the corner sells bread from Tribeca Oven), I will always prefer to make my own. I can fiddle with new recipes, sink my fingers into cool, elastic dough, and commune with the hippy inside me (present since I tie-dyed my underpants and wrote a research paper on Woodstock in the 10th grade). Now that hippy has moved on from experimentation with fabric dyes to just wanting to bake bread, make her own yogurt and cheese, and grow her hair out. Not very counterculture, I know.

The slender baguettes above came from my latest batch of baking in which I followed a recipe that Molly O'Neill published when she still wrote for the New York Times Magazine regularly (every bio I found of her online says that she still is the food columnist for the magazine, but I think those are in need of a bit of an update). The piece was on artisan bakers at a time when artisan baking was just becoming mainstream. Maggie Glezer's fantastic book was published later that same year. Loaves of crusty bread with irregular pockets of air studding the creamy interior flooded bakeries, and people were becoming acquainted with words like poolish, autolyse, and biga.

The Standard Baking Company, now found under Portland's famous Fore Street restaurant, was known in foodie circles to have great, European-style bread. Using one basic poolish (a mixture of flour, water and yeast that is allowed to rise, then added to the dough to give the baked bread a better, fuller flavor), the bakers at Standard developed three recipes to incorporate it. I tried the baguette recipe first, but I plan to make the other two (a rustica and raisin-pecan) as soon as I find a bit more time. I made the poolish one afternoon by stirring together cake yeast (difficult to find, at least in lower Manhattan), flour and water and letting it sit for several hours. This fragrant slop was then to be measured out and added to a fresh bowl with flour, more cake yeast and water.

Unfortunately, it was around this time that I walked into my bathroom to wash my hands and saw a shiny cockroach amble languidly across the floor, sending me shrieking and wailing into the other room while Ben killed it and flushed it down the toilet. I, of course, had to also then vacate the premises and could return only at the point in which I didn't see a largish insect every time I closed my eyes or blinked. I'm such a girl, I know. A cowardly, wimpish girl. But there's something about roaches that just induces utter despair. You know they're there, lurking in the walls, too close for comfort. But you get through most days staying out of their way (and vice versa). When that delicate balance is thrown out of wack by the appearance of a roach in your personal space, it brings to light just how foolish and delusional you are for thinking you could live life avoiding them. Anyway, luckily for me, the poolish could be refrigerated.

The next day, with teeth clenched and eyes firmly ignoring all peripheral movement, I kneaded together some poolish, flour, water, salt and cake yeast into a shaggy dough, then let that sit for 15 minutes. I then tipped the dough out on the counter and kneaded it until it was smooth, about 10 minutes. I covered the dough and let it rise for an hour.
I tipped this gently back out on the counter and folded it in half. It then went back into the bowl to rise again.
An hour after that, the dough held the imprint of my hand when I pressed it gently, so I turned it out and divided it into three pieces. I shaped the pieces into logs and put them on a floured sheet.
O'Neill instructs you to fold the long sides of the loaves into the middle to create the baguette shape. I found that confusing, but managed to shape loaves that looked just fine.
These loaves rose a third time. After an hour or two, I heated the oven, slashed the baguettes (badly) and slid them in with a makeshift steam system of icecubes in a pan at the bottom of the oven (because I was too disorganized to get a spray bottle).
The baguettes baked until they were crusty and golden (O'Neill says this should take 16 minutes; my nutty oven took longer). I let the loaves cool on a rack, then broke one open to eat with dinner.

We ate half of that baguette for dinner. The crust was crisp and the crumb was warm and delicious (if a bit salty). I wonder what the difference to the crust would have been if I'd used a spray bottle or a pizza stone to insulate the oven. I wrapped the rest of that loaf in aluminum foil to reheat, sprinkled with water, for breakfast. In case you didn't know and were throwing out "stale" baguettes, the sprinkling of water and short time in the oven revives any limp baguette to its formerly crusty state. I froze the other two baguettes.

I'm not sure this is the baguette recipe: I'm still holding out for one that will deliver something closer to the Retrodor I loved to eat in Paris (though I realize that professional ovens, and water and flour quality in France has much to do with the flavor and texture). But the satisfaction that comes from biting into your own bread really makes up for almost everything.

Roasted Trout with Pancetta and Sage

I've been scouring my recipe clippings for dishes that use bacon, figuring I might as well kill two birds with one stone. I want to use up some of that cured pig sitting frozen stiff in my freezer, even if it is at a snail's pace and I have begun to have misgivings about the state of my arteries. When some girlfriends came for dinner last week, I looked for a recipe that'd be light and incorporate some of my bacon.

I didn't think I'd be able to fill both requirements until I stumbled across a trout dish from the LA Times - I can't find who wrote it and when - that's easy and delicious, with an ever-so-faint whiff of bacony splendor. Despite Thomas Kellerian green beans and molten chocolate cakes for dessert, that fish was the best part of our meal, hands down. You make a topping of diced bacon, shallots and sage that gets punched up with a spritz of lemon juice and strewn over the top of a broiled piece of trout. I didn't have any capers, so I left them out.

Then I closed the freezer door, hid my recipes under my bed, and went for a walk in the park. There's only so much a girl can cook and write about before smoke starts coming out of her ears.

Roasted Trout with Pancetta and Sage

Serves 4

4-5 tablespoons of olive oil, divided
1/4 cup minced shallots
2 ounces finely diced pancetta or bacon
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon drained nonpareil capers
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
4 boned trout, about 7 ounces each
Freshly ground black pepper
Sage leaves for garnish

1. Heat oven to 500 degrees. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a small saute pan and cook the shallots and pancetta until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Stir in the lemon juice, capers and sage and remove from the heat. Keep warm.

2. Oil a baking sheet large enough to hold all the trout in a single layer. Lay the fish skin side down on the sheet and brush the tops with oil. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Roast until the fish is just firm, about 5 minutes. Transfer to serving plates and spoon the bacon mixture over each fillet. Garnish with sage and serve at once.

Thomas Keller's Haricots Verts in Red Wine Vinegar Cream


Not really the most appetizing image up there, I know. It looks mostly like a mess of green beans defiled by too much mayonnaise. Would you believe that that inelegant creation comes from the deeified Thomas Keller, reprinted from the very pages of his spectacularly beautiful cookbook? Oh yes, I know, there were supposed to be little snippets of chives decorating the beans (but my chives were moldy), and half-moons of cherry tomatoes on the rim of the plate (but my friends don't eat tomatoes! It's a good thing I like my friends so much, or, you know, pffft), and the beans were to be sliced into 1-inch segments (but I wasn't, er, paying attention). So what you have there is really the unfancified version of beans in cream.

I've been eyeing this recipe for some time. It comes from a piece in the LA Times that Regina Schrambling did on vinegar in cooking. I thought it sounded like a lovely combination, and simple to boot. It was at the grocery store that I had my first misgivings. Half a pound of green beans is enough to feed four as a side dish, yes. But in a third of a cup of whisked cream? It sounded like cream overkill. And it was. If I made this again (or if you do), I'd double the amount of beans so that they aren't drowning in the sauce. Also? A teaspoon of vinegar is barely enough to tickle the cream, let alone actually taste like anything on your tongue. So I doubled that to 2 teaspoons, which was delicious.

The dish went nicely with a simple fillet of fish. But we kept wondering as we ate, who would really choose this unhealthy version of beans over the trusty standby dressing of oil, vinegar and a handy sprinkle of summer savory? The bottom line: whipped cream on my beans was a fun departure for once, but I don't think I'll make it again.

Incidentally, that whipped cream minus the additions would have gone perfectly dolloped on our dessert: Nigella Lawson's chocolate babycakes from the NY Times in December. I know: yawn. Aren't they so 1999? I'm late to the molten-chocolate-cake party, so I'm not giving them their own post. But at least they get their own picture. And if you're wondering, yes, they were good.

Haricots verts in red wine vinegar cream
Serves 4

1/2 pound haricots verts
coarse sea salt
1/3 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon best-quality red wine vinegar
freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped chives
16 grape tomatoes, cut in half.

1. Trim the stem ends of the beans and cut them into 1-inch lengths

2. Bring a pot of salted water to boil. Blanch the beans for 2 to 4 minutes. Drain and transfer to a bowl of ice water to chill. Pat dry.

3. Beat cream until it just thickens and the whisk leaves a trail in the bowl. Gently fold in vinegar, and salt and pepper. Do not overbeat.

4. Toss the beans with cream, garnish with chives and serve at once on a plate rimmed with halved tomatoes.