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When it comes to baking my philosophy (for now) is the easier the better. What could be easier than a plate of palmiers, the butterfly shaped French cookies sometimes also known as “elephant ears” or “palm leaves”?  Now, I’m not talking about standing in the kitchen all afternoon buttering and folding laminate pastry dough–I’m not brave enough for that yet. I’m talking about puff pastry bought at the market, sprinkled with sugar and popped into the oven for minutes. The result is a light, buttery cookie with a caramel crunch that is hard to resist. And sure to impress.

Granted, I make sure I get the best puff pastry money can buy, usually the all-butter puff pastry at my local Gourmet Warehouse. This recipe is for a classic palmier–puff pastry layered with sugar–but palmiers can also be made savory, using pesto, thin layers of ham and mustard, or other condiments.

It’s best to allow the pastry to defrost overnight in the refrigerator so the dough is very pliable but still cold when you pop the cookies in the oven. In fact, you should put the dough in the fridge for about fifteen minutes or so after you have sprinkled it with sugar; the combination of the chilled dough and the heat of your oven is what makes the puff pastry rise.

To make palmiers, you will need a sheet of puff pastry and a half cup of sugar. Sprinkle your work surface with a generous dusting of sugar. This will prevent the dough from sticking and will press the sugar into the dough when you roll it out.

With a rolling pin, roll the dough out into a rectangle. Because you will be rolling up the dough, make sure your rectangle is symmetrical; you can use a pastry scraper or another sharp edge to keep the edges even. Sprinkle the dough with the sugar, pressing it gently into the dough. Gently lift the bottom half of the rectangle to the center so that it halfway up the middle. Press down. Fold the other side down to meet the other half and press that down as well. Now fold the two sides together.

Cover the roll with plastic wrap and put in the fridge for fifteen minutes. Cut the roll into 1/2-inch slices. Brush each piece with a pastry brush dipped in water and then press into some sugar. You can put an extra tablespoon or two on your work surface. Place palmiers cut side up on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Be sure to leave a lot of space between each palmier.

Bake the cookies at 400F for about 7-10 minutes, then turn with a spatula and cook for another 7-10 minutes, or until golden. This will give each side that crispy, caramel crunch.

Serve with coffee or alongside a bowl of vanilla ice cream.

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almondcookies

I come from a cultural background where coffee–specifically Turkish coffee–is a way of life. There are many rituals around how coffee is made (over the stove in a little brass pot called a džezva) and imbibed (with neighbors and friends, usually on a weekend morning but sometimes during the week at a midday break). Couples get up extra early to partake in a cup together, before heading off to work and their daily chores. There is no question; coffee is sacred. Now tea? Tea, on the other hand, is for sick people. If you are ever offered coffee but request tea, you will invariably be asked if you are coming down with a fever.

For most of my life I shared this mentality. Except for the odd spot of chamomile when I had the flu, tea rarely passed my lips. I began drinking drip coffee when I was fourteen and graduated to espresso when I lived in Italy. I drank cappuccino and cafe lattes on a daily basis way before Starbucks began making serious inroads. I drank that Turkish coffee whenever I visited Serbia, even though I didn’t like it all that much. What I enjoyed was turning the cup upside down on my saucer when I was done and having my companion read my fortune in the coffee grounds, which always sat on the bottom like sediment.

Now I know some people who wax poetic about tea. I have a friend who will drive across the city for his favorite blends. Who has a special corner on his desk at work reserved for his tea leaves and the various accouterments of tea-making. Periodically he will implore me to take a whiff of some new discovery. As I dip my nose into the foil bag and inhale the scent of vanilla rooibos or a Mayan chocolate truffle infusion, I will concede to one thing; tea, like coffee, smells better than it tastes. With one exception–chai. The spiced milk tea from the Indian subcontinent.

In many languages, including my own second language, chai is the word for regular tea; however, in North America, chai refers to masala chai, tea that is brewed with a variety of aromatic spices such as cardamom, cinnamon and cloves. Often, the water is heated with 1/4 to 1/2 parts whole milk, which gives the chai richness. Chai also tends to be sweet, with a fair amount of sugar added to bring out the flavors of the spices. Since I have always adored these warm spices, I have become a big fan of chai.

Many coffeehouses serve chai made from commercial liquid concentrates. Supermarkets also carry teabags of chai blends, which need to be steeped longer than regular tea yet still lack the strength of traditionally brewed chai. You can also find chai spice blends alongside the herbs and spices, a powdered version which can be added to black tea for that masala chai flavor. Be aware, however, that purists decry this as not really chai. If you are interested in making an authentic chai, look here.

These cookies are inspired by that deep, rich chai taste. They’re a snap to make from ingredients one usually has one hand. Just the thing to have with your next cup of chai.

Chai-Spiced Almond Cookies

chaicookies

Adapted from Epicurious/Bon Appetit January 2006

Makes about 22 cookies

Ingredients:

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature

1 1/3 cup powdered sugar, divided

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 teaspoon almond extract

3/4 teaspoon ground allspice

3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 cup toasted coarsely ground almonds

Method:

1) Preheat oven to 350F. Beat butter, 1/3 cup sugar, extracts, spices and salt in a medium bowl. Beat in flour, then stir in almonds.

2) Using hands, roll dough into tablespoon-size balls. Press down top slightly and place on a large baking sheet, spacing apart.

3) Bake until pale golden, 10-15 minutes, depending on your oven. Be sure not to overbake.

4) Cool cookies on the sheet for five minutes. Place remaining sugar in a large bowl. Gently coat each cookie in sugar and cool further on a wire rack. Cool completely, then roll again in sugar before serving.


chocbiscottiThe first time I made biscotti something went terribly wrong. I don’t know what, but something did.  They were …er… soft. That was a long time ago but I still remember my bitter disappointment. It was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back and I pretty much gave up on baking after that. Knowing thyself as I do now, I’m sure it was all my fault, though I doubt I would have admitted it at the time. I must have cut corners, over or under measured the ingredients, improvised on the recipe as I was wont to do. Both my mother and grandmother do their measuring with coffee mugs and their baking comes out perfectly. Needless to say, I have not inherited this ability to eyeball ingredients with laser-like precision. When I use a recipe I have learned to follow it exactly–at least the first time around–and I’m much happier with my results of late, especially when it comes to baking. Not all recipes work. Some of them are just plain wrong, and I’ve ranted about that in a previous post. I find that to be particularly so with books written by professional chefs who have not collaborated with a food writer, because so much of what they do comes out of instinct and years of skill honed in the kitchen. I still improvise, but I know that it’s in the name of fun and experimentation, and that things might not turn out the way I hope. Now when I improvise, I take copious notes as I go along. If a dish comes out really well, I’ll know how to recreate it.

Take these biscotti. Fifteen years later, I attempted another round of making them. I’d been having a biscotti craving lately, particularly for chocolate biscotti, but the only ones I could find were those grainy long sticks of fiber board that you can get at any number of neighborhood cafes. I truly despise those bastardized versions of the venerable Italian biscotto. Now, I happen to live a hop, skip, and a jump from my city’s Little Italy and could have gone into any Italian deli and come out with a box of the genuine biscuit. Most of the time these little crunchy little cookies studded with whole almonds are enough to make me swoon, but this time I knew they wouldn’t cut it. I wanted chocolate. Double chocolate. So I came up with these.

I call these double chocolate because of the cocoa base and the addition of chocolate chips. You can make them triple chocolate by drizzling them with melted chocolate. And in the spirit of keeping things authentic I included the whole almonds, which is–in my opinion–the best part of any biscotto.

The outcome here is not based on any one recipe. I looked through several to get an idea of the base ingredients and then experimented with others. Some of the recipes called for too much butter. Pointless for a cookie that’s supposed to be hard and dry, don’t you think? Others seemed complicated, or that they might turn out too sweet. I like what I came up with, but I confess that the next time around I’ll probably double the almonds. I like my biscotti to have a mouth full of them in every bite. Just like the ones from the Italian deli.

 

Double Chocolate Almond Biscotti

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Ingredients:

1/2 stick butter

3/4 cup sugar (180 ml)

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/3 cup cocoa (80 ml)

2 cups flour (500ml)

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 scant cup chocolate chips (100g)

1 cup almonds (100g)

 

Directions:

1) Toast the almonds on a baking sheet in the oven at 350F (180C) for about 15 minutes. Shake the pan once to make sure they get evenly browned.

2) Cream butter, sugar, and vanilla together in a large bowl with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add eggs and then cocoa. Beat until well combined.

3) Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together in another bowl, then gradually incorporate into the wet ingredients with a wooden spoon until a dough has formed.

4) Stir in the chocolate chips and almonds. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and chill for an hour.

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5) Preheat oven to 325F (160C). Turn dough out onto a lightly floured board. Separate into two. Form each half into a flat log about 12 inches long by patting it down and squaring off the edges with your finger tips. Place well apart on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

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6) Bake for thirty mintues. Cool on a cutting board until no longer hot to the touch and then cut crosswise on the diagonal into slices about 1 inch thick. Arrange on the baking sheet and bake for another 15-20 minutes.

7) Transfer biscotti on a wire rack to cool. Keep at room temperature in a cookie tin or other airtight container.

lemonbowlWhat would we do without lemons?  They provide an acidic component to almost anything that comes out of the kitchen.  They balance the sweetness of pies, cakes, and cookies.  Their tart flavor sharpens and adds complexity to seafood dishes, marinades, dressings and mayonnaise.  It’s no secret; I adore lemons.  I squeeze lemons into my water, sprinkle their zest into all manner of dessert, and even use them to brighten copper cookware.  When life gives me lemons, I make lemonade.

Take the humble madeleine, made iconic by Marcel Proust in Rememberances of Things Past.  As far as cookies go, this one is the last one I’d line up at the bakery for.  Pretty scalloped shape aside, the madeleines I have encountered have been so-so.  Moist and delicate, to be sure, but bland enough to have me reaching for a Toll House chocolate chunk macadamia nut cookie.

That was, until I discovered this recipe for Lemon Madeleines.  The bright quality of citrus and the slightly bitter zing of the lemon zest play off the richness of the butter and egg yolk.  Just the idea of them had me at my local cook shop, buying what I never thought I’d ever purchase–a couple of madeleine pans to add to my ever growing collection of bake ware.

I found this recipe in an old issue of Martha Stewart Living: April, 2003.  Promising myself I wouldn’t buy any more cookbooks until I’d cooked my way through my old ones, I started looking through some of the magazines I’d been holding onto.  I’m glad I did.  Now I can have my own madeleine memories.

lemonmads

Martha Stewart’s Lemon Madeleines

Makes 2 dozen

 

Ingredients:

3/4 cup unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), melted

1 1/2 cups sifted cake flour  (not self-rising)

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 large eggs

2 large egg yolks

3/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

2 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest

 

threemadsDirections

1) Preheat oven to 400F.  Lightly butter two madeleine pans and set aside.

2) Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl.

3) In another bowl, beat the eggs, yolks, sugar, vanilla, lemon juice, and zest until thick and pale, about 5 minutes.  Beat in the melted butter.

4) Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the flour mixture into the egg mixture.  Let it rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.

5) Pour batter into the prepared pans, filling until three-quarters full.  Bake until cookies are crisp and golden around the edges, about 7-8 minutes.

6) Transfer pan to a wire rack to cool before inverting cookies onto a serving platter.  Dust with icing sugar (confectioner’s sugar) if desired.

 

It’s important to let the batter rest; do not omit this step.  This allows the flour to absorb the liquid and results in the moist crumb that is the hallmark of a madeleine.  Also, be careful not to beat the batter.  Gently fold, as beating the batter will develop the gluten and create a denser cookie.

madscoffee

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QUOTE

"Noncooks think it's silly to invest two hours' work in two minutes' enjoyment; but if cooking is evanescent, so is the ballet." -Julia Child

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