Friday, December 19, 2014

Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies

I love happy accidents in the kitchen. The other night, I was testing out apple crisp topping recipes. I was playing around with ratios for the perfect, crumbly, buttery, lovely crisp topping. One batch of topping felt more like cookie-dough than the crumbly mixture I was looking for. I could have tried to salvage the mixture by adding more flour, but instead I thought, "what if I add an egg, some baking soda and some chocolate chips to this... will it make a cookie?"

The answer is a BIG yes. Not only did it make cookies, it made delicious cookies. It made the kind of cookies I'm always going for: crisp on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside.

Usually I make cookies by creaming room temp (or melted) butter and sugar together, then adding dry ingredients to that. What I discovered with these cookies is that you can actually use super cold butter, and make the dough similarly to how you make pie or biscuit dough. No creaming of sugar and butter first. No waiting for butter to come to temp. No stand-mixer. This recipe doesn't make a huge batch of cookies, but because the recipe is so easy, it's the perfect thing to whip up for a small group of friends or family when you're craving cookies and want them fast. Of course, you can also double or triple the recipe.

One note about my brand preferences - I'm a big fan of Ghiradelli's semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips. They're a little larger than most of the mainstream brands of chocolate chips. I think they have deeper chocolate flavor, and a silkier texture. I'm also a fan of Guittard. I always pick up a bag when I see it on sale. Regular semisweet chocolate chips will do just fine. You can also swap dark chocolate for milk or white chocolate chip. I'm not a big fan of white chocolate, but if you are and want to make this recipe festive, you could also add dried cranberries to the mix. You can also add your favorite spices to the batter, or omit entirely.

Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies
Makes about 12-14 medium-large cookies

1¼ cup all purpose flour (can substitute with gluten free flour)
½ cup rolled oats
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
good pinch of kosher or flake salt
8 tablespoons (½ a cup or 1 stick) of COLD unsalted butter, cubed small
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup good quality dark chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 375°F.

In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients: flour, oats, sugars, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt. Stir until evenly mixed.

Cube the butter into small pieces. Add the cubed butter to the dry ingredients. Using your hands, combine the butter and dry ingredients together until the butter is fully incorporated and the mixture resembles a coarse pea-sized meal.  Don’t worry too much about perfection here… you’re looking to just break apart the butter as you mix-in the dry ingredients. It takes a little elbow grease, but it’s not hard. If you are nervous you can use a pastry cutter or a food processor instead.

Next, add the beaten egg and vanilla extract. Mix until just combined (be careful not to over mix at this point). Fold in the chocolate chips. 

Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Scoop out heaping spoonfuls of dough. Flatten slightly so the dough is2-3 inches in diameter (as shown below). Bake for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven, allow to cool on the sheet pan for 2 more minutes, than transfer the cookies to a cooling rack.

If you prefer smaller cookies, you can use heaping teaspoons and bake the cookies for 8 instead of 10 minutes.

The cookies should be crispy on the edge and chewy on the inside. They will look a little undercooked when you first take them out, but don’t worry, they’ll harden and firm up as they cool.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Brussels Sprouts Gratin

This gratin is the ultimate way to show those healthy cruciferous brussels sprouts who's boss. Here's the thing, I don't eat heavy cheesy dishes every day, but special occasions can warrant good cheese, heavy cream, and butter. As a special occasion dish this is heaven. The brussels sprouts are roasted before they are assembled into a gratin making them buttery and caramelized, and the mornay sauce (simply a Béchamel sauce with grated cheese added to it) are so happy to be paired with these strong-tasting cabbage-y things.

Gratins are great make-ahead dishes. You can assemble them up to a day in advance and heat them up just prior to serving. They also tend to freeze well.

One note about brussels sprouts: the smaller the better. Sometimes you're limited to whatever the store or farmers' market has to offer. I lucked out and found young, fresh, tiny little brussels sprouts for this dish. I find that the smaller brussels are milder, more tender, and more delicious than the big ones. Certainly, this recipe will work with larger guys, I would just make sure to roast them for longer.

This dish would be great with a bright fresh light salad to balance out the richness of the gratin. It could be paired with your favorite savory entrée. For vegetarians, this side works super well alongside mushroom dishes.

Brussels Sprouts Gratin
Serves 8-10
Adapted from Saveur 

3 lbs. brussels sprouts (about 3 pints), halved
4-6 tablespoons olive oil, or to taste
salt and pepper, to taste
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
2 cups whole milk
1 cup half & half or heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2 cups shredded Gruyere, Emmental, or Swiss
1/4 cup shredded Parmesan

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Start by cleaning the brussels sprouts and removing any browned or tough outer leaves. Halve your brussels sprouts. In a large bowl, toss the brussels sprouts with the olive oil; make sure the sprouts are evenly coated in the oil. Season the sprouts with salt and pepper.

Transfer the seasoned brussels sprouts onto a baking sheet. Be careful not to crowd the sheet pan, you want to the sprouts to lie in a single flat layer so that they can evenly brown. Roast the sprouts until tender and browned, about 15-20 minutes depending on their size (check after 15 minutes and gage how much longer they need; they should be fully cooked).

Next, make the mornay sauce. Start by making a roux. Add 3 tablespoons butter to a medium saucepan (4-6 quart) on medium heat. Once the butter has just melted add the flour. Stir and cook until the mixture is golden brown and smells toasty, about 30-60 seconds. Slowly add the milk and half & half, continuously whisking the mixture as you add the liquid. Bring the liquid to a simmer, continuing to whisk so as to avoid lumps. Let the mixture thicken and simmer, about 2-3 minutes. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Remove from the heat and add the shredded cheese to the sauce. Stir until incorporated an you have a smooth sauce. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.

Transfer the roasted brussels sprouts to an oval gratin dish (about 10-11 inches in length), or you can also use a 9 x 11 baking dish. Pour the mornay sauce over the roasted brussels sprouts. Top with parmesan and a few more gratings of nutmeg, or some additional black pepper.

Loosely cover with foil and bake for 15 minutes. Remove the foil and let the top of the dish brown, about 5 more minutes. Let the gratin rest for 10 minutes before serving.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Stuffed Pumpkin

This is the ultimate slightly-indulgent, festive, holiday dish. It's hard to go wrong with bread, cheese, garlic and heavy cream. Frankly, you don't need much else to make something delicious (maybe butter). 

To describe this as a "crowd pleaser" puts all understatements to shame. And the recipe is so easy that it almost feels like cheating. Yes, it's delicious (see bread, cheese, and cream), but this is a dish that looks incredible uncooked as well as out of the oven. 

The pumpkin gets soft and delicate. The cheese makes everything good. The garlic and herbs cut through the richness, the cream adds a velvety texture. 

This recipe comes from the queen of all good things, Dorie Greenspan. Every recipe of hers that I've ever tried is both 1) delicious 2) works as written. I'm particularly fond of Around My French Table, but she is very well known for her desserts, and even has a new book on the topic. There's also a great interview with her in the current issue of Lucky Peach.

I only tweaked the recipe slightly. By tweaked, I mean I more or less eye-balled amounts as opposed to filling each pumpkin exactly as directed. Plus, we used smaller pumpkins than the one's Dorie uses. I like these sweet little pumpkins. We served this at Thanksgiving, amongst an abundance of other rich dishes; but if you're using the smaller pumpkins, you could even serve one per person. These were gone in minutes. Zero leftovers. 


Stuffed Pumpkins à la Dorie Greenspan
Slightly adapted from this
Serves 4-6 (The recipe can easily be doubled and tripled; I tripled the recipe)

2 1.5 lb. pumpkins 
salt and pepper, to taste
1/4 lb. GOOD quality stale bread, cut into .5-1-inch cubes (crusts can even be left on)
1/4 lb. Grueyére and/or cheddar (I used both!), cut into .5 1-inch cubes (same size as bread)
2-4 garlic cloves, roughly minced
1/4 cup chopped chives
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves (removed from stem)
1 teaspoon chopped rosemary
1/3 cup heavy cream
freshly grated nutmeg, to taste

Preheat the oven to 350°F. 
Line a baking sheet with parchment or foil. If you're using a big pumpkin, you'll want a casserole dish or something that will hold the pumpkin in place. These little guys held up perfectly on a baking sheet. 
Using a very sharp large nice, CAREFULLY, cut off the top 1/4 of the pumpkin. You want to cut far enough in that you get to the opening with all its seeds, but not too far as to halve the pumpkin. You're making a lid for the pumpkin like you would for a Halloween Jack-o-Lantern. Scoop out the seeds and strings from the cap and from inside of the pumpkin. Season the inside of the pumpkin generously with salt and pepper (this is your chance to season the meat of the pumpkin!).
In a large bowl, toss the bread cubes, cheese cubes, garlic, and herbs together. Season with more pepper. Fill each pumpkin with the bread and cheese mixture. You should have plenty, but you can always make more filling if the pumpkins aren't full. You want them full, but don't force/pack it in... just gently fill each one fully. 
In a liquid measuring cup, combine the heavy cream with freshly ground nutmeg. I love the flavor of nutmeg, but if you don't you can omit it. Pour a little cream into each pumpkin. You just want to moisten the mixture, but you don't want it to be too soupy. 
Put the cap back on top of the pumpkin and bake for 2 hours (checking on it after 90 minutes). For the last 20 minutes of cooking, remove the cap so that the inside can brown a little. You want the pumpkin flesh to be completely tender and for the cheese to be bubbling. 
When the pumpkin is ready, very carefully bring it to the table or transfer it to a platter that you'll bring to the table.
I served these whole, and people scooped out the pumpkin and cheese and bread filling. You can also cut it into big wedges (that will ooze out cheese). This is perfect for a holiday meal, or a cold winter night. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Edith's Chocolate Babka

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I had the great pleasure of learning how to make babka.

At 87, Edith still loves to bake and cook in her kitchen for her children, grandchildren, family and friends. Edith has more spunk than most people have at half her age. Her baking, like many talented cooks, is imprecise and relies on experience and feeling. I was deeply inspired by Edith, her food, and her stories.

That afternoon, Edith taught me her recipes for chocolate babka and walnut cake (both use the same dough) while telling me me stories about her family and her life. At first I was concerned about asking Edith difficult questions about her past. Her daughter, who was with us, assured me that Edith was happy to talk about her experiences. That's one of the many amazing things about this woman - she is incredibly open about her life. She will tell you like it is or like it was, but she does so without anger or hostility. She is aware and grateful for her fortunes even in the context of unfathomable unfairness and inhumanity. I only got to spend one afternoon with her, but it was clear that this is a woman who has an incredible sense of humor, sharpness, wit, and a deep understanding of humanity and the complexities of life. The Shoah foundation recorded Edith's holocaust survival story in full; I'm happy to help you locate it if you want to hear more about her story.

This short synopsis will hardly do justice to her full story, but nonetheless...

Born in 1926, Edith grew up in Lastovce, Czechoslovakia. In 1942, Hitler decreed that all Jewish girls 16 years of age and older had to be reported to the Slovakian government. At that time, 16 year old Edith was sent to live at her aunt's house in Hungary. Many Slovakian Jewish girls fled to Hungary at the time, and the Hungarian police were instructed to hunt them down. Edith hid in the basement of her family's home during that time. After six months, Edith was sent to Budapest; her family felt her chances of survival were better in a big city where she could get lost. Edith worked at an undergarment factory where she somehow managed to get her hands on the birth certificate of a Hungarian non-Jew. She also dyed her hair blonde. One day on a train, Edith was caught by two detectives. Unimaginably, during a time of war and bloodshed, not one but two detectives were on the case of tracking down a single Jewish girl in Budapest. Edith was sent to what was essentially a holding camp. She was there for about 6 months. Whenever the Germans were bombing, all the Jews were sent upstairs to the upper level of the building so that if the building were to be bombed they would perish. After 6 months, Edith was sent to Auschwitz. From Auschwitz, Edith was sent to the Liebau concentration camp. At the camp, there were approximately 200 women and 200 men that were kept separate from each other. The men and women were mostly young, and were forced to do excruciatingly hard labor. When Edith speaks of this, she talks about how impossible it is to explain the pain of hunger, the pain of the particularly horrible lice, among all the other types of pain. Edith managed to survive, and her camp was liberated by the Russians. In fact, Edith was liberated by a Russian Jewish general who made it his mission to protect the girls from being raped by other Russian soldiers (something that was happening), and made sure that they did not eat the food the Germans left behind (which was often poisoned).

After the war, Edith returned to Czechoslovakia. Two of her brothers had also survived the war. Back in Czechoslovakia, Edith was set up on a blind date. Edith and her future husband clicked right away. They were married for 65 years (what's the secret? there's no secret. But don't go to bed angry, don't think relationships are a perfect 50/50 partnership, be willing to ungrudgingly compromise, and it helps if your husband tells you you're beautiful in the middle of an argument). Her husband passed away a few years ago at the age of 90. In 1948, Edith and her husband left Czechoslovakia for Israel where they lived for 10 years before immigrating to the United States to start a new life with their two daughters.

Edith originally got this recipe from a friend of hers. To the delight of her family and friends, Edith has been making this babka for many years. I have never seen babka prepared in a bundt pan, but it's pretty genius (and beautiful). This is a dense, chocolate-y, rich dessert with a lovely dough. If you need an exact recipe, I recommend you google "babka." If you're looking for a recipe with room for error and customization, see below.

I am so grateful to have heard Edith's stories and to have learned this recipe.

(The above recipe is for the dough for both the babka and a walnut cake. The filling is for the walnut cake. Edith has altered this recipe slightly. See below.)

Edith's Chocolate Babka

for the dough-
3.5-4 cups of flour
1 packet yeast (or 1.5 tablespoons)
5 tablespoons sugar, divided
1/4 cup water
2.5 sticks crisco or margarine, at room temp, cubed
5 egg yolks
1 cup seltzer water (secret ingredient)

for the filling-
finely ground walnuts
unsweetened cocoa powder
vanilla extract
strawberry jam
mini-chocolate chips

for the dough-
Combine the yeast with 1 tablespoon of sugar and a 1/4 cup of warm tap water (no more than 110°F). Let the yeast activate for 10-15 minutes.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine 3.5 cups of flour (you can add more flour later if the dough feels too wet). To the flour, add the cubed crisco. On level 1 or 2, mix the crisco and flour together until pea sized pieces form and you have a coarse meal.

Add the egg yolks, sugar,  activated yeast, and seltzer water to the mixer.

Mix on low until a dough forms, this will take a few minutes. Scrape down the sides periodically to make sure all of the dry ingredients are incorporated with the wet ingredients. If the dough seems too dry, add more seltzer. If the dough seems too wet, add more flour. You want a sticky silky dough (similar to challah dough in texture).

Add a little oil to a mixing bowl (either olive or vegetable is fine). Transfer the dough to the oiled bowl. Kneed the dough 5 or 6 times in the bowl. Cover the bowl with foil or plastic wrap, place a towel over the bowl. Let the dough rest overnight in the fridge.

 for the babka-
Dust a flat surface with flour, and place the dough on the flat surface. Cut the dough in half, and roll the dough out into a large rectangle, about 15 inches long and 1/4-inch thick.

Spread a thin layer of jam onto the dough leaving a 1-inch border around the sides.

GENEROUSLY top the dough with the cocoa and nut mixture. (I do not have amounts for this. Edith combines cocoa powder with sugar, walnuts and vanilla extract. I would blitz all of this in a food processor until it's finally ground. You could do: 1 cup nuts, 1/2 cup of sugar, 1/4 cup cocoa powder, 1 tsp vanilla - taste and adjust to your liking).

Don't be stingy! Add a handful of chocolate chips on top of the cocoa and nut mixture. Edith prefers mini-chocolate chips, but we had regular-sized that day. Once you've topped the dough, wrap it tightly into a roll.

You're almost there. Place this rolled up dough, into the bottom of a greased Bundt pan in a ring formation. 

Now, repeat that process with the second half of the dough. Once you've made a second roll of chocolate and jam filled goodness, place it on top of the first ring in the Bundt pan. Press the edges together with your fingers. Make sure the dough is sealed.

Now, your  babka is ready to go in the oven. 

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Bake for 45 minutes uncovered, and then cover the pan with foil and bake for another 45 minutes.

Let the babka cool on a rack in the Bundt pan for at least 20 minutes. Then, hope and pray that it will easily come out of the pan when you try to pop it out onto a serving plate. It seems to be easier to get the cake out of the pan after it cools for a bit.

Dust the babka with powdered sugar, slice, and serve with a hot cup of coffee or tea!

This babka freezes well. It can be baked, then frozen and reheated when ready to eat.