Seasonal Cooking, Holiday Baking

26 12 2012

Happy Boxing Day, everyone!  I hope you’ve already had a lovely long weekend with family and friends, and that you’ll have a few more occasions to celebrate the end of this year, the Winter Solstice, or anything else that gives you a chance to eat and drink with your loved ones.

I feel like I haven’t been doing as much cooking as I normally do this time of year – in lieu of planning elaborate meals, I’ve been focused on relaxing and reflecting, simmering big pots of stew to be eaten over several days.  Oh, I’ve baked some cookies and whipped up some eggnog, but instead of my customary Christmas foie gras, I got a capon roast from the butcher, neatly tied with a chestnut-and-liver-sausage filling.  All I had to do was sear it on the stove and let it finish roasting in the oven for a nearly effortless Christmas Eve meal.

And yet, that doesn’t mean I haven’t scored some hits all the same.  I’ve been noodling around with the McCormick Flavor Forecast, and found a couple of great ways to incorporate my very favorite of their proposed flavor combinations: Cider, Sage, and Molasses.  Of all the options, this one seemed to me the most supremely seasonal, with its earthy-herbal sage, bittersweet molasses, and tangy apple cider.  I toyed around with some pear cider ideas, but the apple ideas came out on top.

So I have two recipes to share with you today. One a lentil salad – we ate it once with pan-fried sausages, and finished it off with our capon roast on Christmas Eve; the other an indulgent bar cookie whose touch of sage and dark molasses make it distinctly grown-up (there are plenty of other cookies for the kids, anyway).

Here’s to a year-end filled with love, happiness, and delectable eats!

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11 01 2011

It’s easy to forget, with all the snow and holiday hoopla, just how much of winter is still yet to come after the new year.  The French use Epiphany as an excuse to keep eating sweets throughout the month of January, in the form of the galette des rois.  And I think they’re right.  Gloomy January days are no time to give up the pleasures of rich, buttery doughs baked to an appealing golden brown or sweet, nutty fillings.  Besides, Philly cream cheese has finally arrived in France!  I think we should celebrate with some rugelah.

Cover your bench in powdered sugar

You might spell it another way (I most often see “rugelach”), but orthography aside, this is really a wonderful little pastry.  Crumbly cream cheese dough, sticky fruit and nuts, and ridiculously easy to make.  Rugelah come from the Eastern European Jewish baking tradition, and I first learned to bake them in a Jewish-owned, European-style bakery in Dallas, of all places.  The ones we made there were filled with walnuts, which I can’t eat, so I had to sate myself with the incredible smell of roasted flour and caramelized jam when I pulled them out of the (enormous) oven every night.

Rolled out thin and long

One Thanksgiving the chef took pity on me and let me use the filling for the pecan rings in the rugelah so I could finally taste them.  My nose had not let me down – they were fantastic.  Since then, I’ve had to make my own walnut-free version at home from time to time.

Smeared with apple butter and sprinkled with cinnamon-sugar nuts

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French Baking For The American Football Crowd

19 10 2010

Come fall, many Americans living abroad miss the excitement, camaraderie, and all-around fun of watching NFL football.  Nick and I are no exception.  But this year we’ve joined forces with a group of friends to get a pass which allows us to watch all the games we want over the internet.  We’ve been getting together every Sunday night to watch the day games live.  People take turns hosting the gathering, and everyone brings beer and snacks to share.  It’s a convivial atmosphere and a fun group – I dare say I’d have fun even if I didn’t enjoy football.  (But since I do, go Niners!)

Chocolate-Peanut Butter Sablés

Nick and I missed the first couple of weeks of the season, but we’ve been going for the last three weeks, and I’ve baked something every time.  The first week we went, I brought these rhubarb crumble bars – I didn’t have any quince jam, so I just doubled the amount of rhubarb filling.  They were devoured.  Then following week, I made the ever-popular bacon-onion dip, but I felt that a sweet of some sort was expected of me, too.  (That’s what happens when you make pastries for a living.)  So I took the opportunity to try one of the many, many recipes I have flagged in Pierre Hermé’s Larousse du Chocolat.

Ideal vs. actual

Looking at those squiggles and imagining the crisp butteriness that surely accompanies each bite, my thoughts somehow turned to peanut butter.  I figured I could swap out half the butter for peanut butter and the cookies would be that much more delicious (and more American football-watching appropriate).  Well, as you can see in the above picture, it didn’t exactly go according to plan.  It turns out that peanut butter is a lot drier than butter, and as a result my dough was way too stiff to be piped out into dainty swirls.  That’s what I get for trying to bake something fancy for a football party.  Still, the familiar rounds with the classic fork design let my friends know that these were indeed peanut butter cookies, despite their chocolatey appearance.  Rolling subsequent batches in sparkly sugar felt even more American.  The only thing that belies the French origin of these cookies is the crumbly texture typical of French sablé cookies – “sablé” being French for “sandy.”  And if you wanted to serve these at your next football get-together, I don’t think anyone would complain.

A French-American alliance

Chocolate-Peanut Butter Sablés

The refined tea cookie gets a homespun twist with the classic flavor combination of chocolate and peanut butter.

4.6 oz. / 130 g all-purpose flour
4.6 oz. / 130 g cake flour
1 oz. / 30 g cocoa powder
4.4 oz. / 125 g butter, softened
4.4 oz. / 125 g peanut butter (smooth or crunchy is up to you)
3.5 oz. / 100 g powdered sugar
A pinch of fine sea salt
2 egg whites, lightly beaten
granulated and/or turbinado sugar for rolling (optional)

  1. Preheat the oven to 355 F / 180 C. Sift the flours and cocoa powder together and set aside.
  2. Whisk the butter and peanut butter until soft and creamy. Sift in the powdered sugar and add the salt. Continue whisking until evenly combined. Measure out 4 tablespoons of the egg whites and whisk them in.
  3. Add the sifted flours and cocoa powder to the bowl with the butters. Stir gently with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula until the dough comes together. It may help to incorporate half the flour at a time.
  4. Form the dough into 1” / 2.5 cm balls. Roll in sugar, if desired, and place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Flatten the cookies by making a crosshatch pattern with the tines of a fork.
  5. Bake about 10 minutes, until cookies are firm with a slight give when poked with a finger. Repeat shaping and baking until all the dough is used up. Cookies will keep for about 3 days in an airtight container.

Makes about 60 cookies.

On this day in 2009: Le Cumin et Les Noix de Pecan

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

M&M Cookies and Other Super Bowl Treats

2 02 2010

Well, the Big Game is coming up on Sunday.  Who are you rooting for?  And more importantly, what will you eat?  I’m looking to help out on that second one.  I don’t follow sports religiously, but I do enjoy playoffs, and I have my teams.  What I enjoy the most about the Super Bowl, though (this is going to come as a huge shock to my regular readers) is getting together with friends and eating while we watch.  I also like the commercials, but really it’s the conviviality of the experience that I look forward to.  I like to plan out a menu, or just a dish if it’s a potluck-type thing.  I like preparing it, knowing that it means a fun time is just around the corner.

M&M cookies

I made these cookies a while ago, with a bag of M&Ms Dark that somehow wound up on my shelf after Thanksgiving.  I thought they were quintessentially American, and hence perfect for nibbling during the USA’s most-watched sporting event.  If you’re the superfan type, you could probably get the candies in your team’s colors for an even more festive cookie.  Stay tuned after the recipe for more crowd-friendly Super Bowl party food ideas.

M&M Cookies

I like these made with the Dark M&Ms, which taste more like the semi-sweet chips I’m used to in chocolate chip cookies.  This is a small batch which can easily be doubled.

2½ oz. / 70 g unsalted butter, softened (or use salted and omit the salt later)
3 oz. / 85 g brown sugar
1½ oz. / 43 g granulated sugar
¼ tsp. fine sea salt
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla extract
5 oz. / 140 g all-purpose flour
1/8 tsp. baking soda
5 oz. / 140 g M&Ms (a heaping half-cup)

  1. Preheat the oven to 350F/175C.
  2. Cream the butter, sugars, and salt together until smooth.  (You can do this by hand, as it doesn’t have to get to that “light and fluffy” stage.)  Add the egg and vanilla and beat until smooth once again.
  3. Combine the flour and baking soda, then add them to the bowl.  Stir gently until evenly incorporated.  Stir in the M&Ms.
  4. Drop by rounded tablespoons – by which I mean the spoons you use to eat off of, at the table – onto an ungreased cookie sheet.  (I like to line mine with parchment paper, but it’s not strictly necessary.)  Bake about 14 minutes, until the edges are golden brown.  It’s ok if the centers still look a bit moist – they’ll set up as the cookies cool.

Makes 15 cookies.

But a Super Bowl party cannot subsist on cookies alone.  Here are some ideas to round out the spread.

Dips and Snacks

Caramelized Onion-Bacon Dip
Great Grilled Guacamole
Sweet and Salty Spiced Pecans
Cheesy Poofs

Heartier Fare

Pizza (Or any of these variations: Flammekueche, Endive, Potimarron, Pissaladière, Calzone, Broccoli)
Cauliflower “Cake”
Jalapeno-Cheese Bread (Makes great sandwiches!)


Date Crumble Bars
Apple Cake
Spiced Pear Coffee Cake
Chili Brownies (These have been a huge hit at two football-watching parties already!)

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

Top of the Muffin to You!

9 12 2009

Or, Study for Steel-Cut Oat Cookies

Whenever I go to a museum, which is fairly often, seeing as I live in a city full of great ones, I always wonder about the little half-completed drawings, paintings, and sculptures labeled “Study for XYZ.”  Did the artist ever really intend for that particular piece to be displayed?  I understand the value in looking at these next to the final work, but I want to know at what point do your half-finished thoughts and handiworks become art in their own right?  Does it have to do with fame, either of the artist or of the work?  Are these the carefully hand-selected studies chosen from rooms full of crappy ones?  Where do they draw the line, so to speak?

And it really only seems to be a phenomenon in drawing, painting, and sculpture.  You don’t see this in photography exhibits.  You don’t watch the rehearsals of a play unless you have some specific reason to be there.  You generally don’t get to see all the miles of footage cut from films.  And do you really want to be on the receiving end of someone’s cooking experiment?  Maybe.  I guess it depends on the cook, their level of skill, and how much you trust them.

Oatmeal-Pecan Muffin Top

One time when I was a kid, my mom and I baked my favorite oatmeal cookies using a different recipe.  It was one we had found on the back of a new discovery: Steel-Cut Irish Oats.  I remember them being some of the best oatmeal cookies I’d ever had, chewier than usual, with a more substantial texture and great oat flavor.  The recipe has since been lost, but when I read Andrea’s recipe for Cooked Oatmeal Breakfast Cookies, starring Irish oats, I sat up and took notice.  And then did nothing about it for over six months.  But last weekend I decided to cook the rest of the Irish oats I had, and save some for the express purpose of making cookies.

I changed Andrea’s recipe a bit, reducing the baking powder, increasing the butter, adding salt and pecans, and omitting the pumpkin.  I was looking for something golden brown and butterscotchy, with lots of chewy steel-cut oats.  What I got were muffin tops.  They did make great on-the-go breakfasts for the days I choose to get twenty minutes more of sleep in the morning in lieu of sitting down and eating something (read: every day).

So does anybody really need my recipe for “Study in Steel-Cut Oat Cookies?”  Probably not.  Is it worth telling the story?  I think so, but then, I’m no art historian.  Incidentally, Andrea is.  Maybe I’ll ask her.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

Les Cookies

23 06 2008

Even though Hopie’s Kitchen beat me to it, I can’t help but to write about my first attempt at making The.  World’s.  Best.  Chocolate Chip Cookies.  Ever.  I am referring, of course, to the top-secret Doughmonkey chocolate chip cookie recipe.  (Sorry, I’m not giving away the secret – and anyway, they didn’t come out perfectly in my Parisian kitchen, so I may have some tweaking to do.)

Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough

Let me back up.  Our apartment complex (it seems weird to call it that, considering it’s nothing at all like an American apartment complex, but seeing as it is a collection of buildings, containing apartments and offices, sharing a gate, that’s the best phrase to describe it, I guess) had a party yesterday for all the residents.  It was a potluck-type deal, and I decided as soon as the signs were posted that I would be bringing chocolate chip cookies.  If there’s one thing I’ve made more than anything else in the last few years my life, it’s them.  Even after we closed the retail shop in favor of wholesale desserts, I was still going through around 500 of these puppies a week.  People can’t get enough of them.

I froze the cookie dough before baking - this helps prevent spreading.

Gathering the ingredients wasn’t hard – except that chocolate chips don’t seem to exist here.  I chopped a bar of 64% chocolate and used that instead, but this mid-quality French chocolate lacks a certain trait that makes Hershey’s chips so good for cookies.  Namely, chopped chocolate melts in the oven.  Hershey’s chips don’t.  I don’t know why, and I don’t particularly like to think about it, but it sure makes the cookies come out pretty.

Can\'t you just smell them?

Not that a gooey, melty chocolate chip cookie is a bad thing.  At the party yesterday, neighbors would come up and introduce themselves, and ask if I was the one who had made “les cookies.”  I was glad they were such a hit, despite not coming out exactly as I had expected.  (I think my scale has some accuracy issues.)  All four dozen cookies (minus the couple that I had to eat for quality control purposes) disappeared in the space of about two hours.  I was pleased and surprised, considering there were about three different kinds of brownies on the table as well.  But then, just because they looked a little flat doesn’t mean they didn’t taste great, and I knew it. 

The plate of cookies before being devoured by my neighbors

I got into a conversation with the artist who lives downstairs about how cookies are the one pastry that Americans have got over France.  He reluctantly agreed, and when I explained that it was a common activity for children to bake cookies with their mothers (at least it was in my house) he conceded that it was something to be proud of.

Looking at these pictures again, I’m wishing I had hoarded some, because now I’m out of sugar.

My Favorite Oatmeal Cookies

14 05 2008

One of the positive things that came out of my last trip to La Grande Epicerie was that I found a box of Quaker Oats.  This may not sound very exotic or exciting, but trust me, they aren’t easy to find around here.  Plus, it meant I could finally whip up a batch of oatmeal cookies, which are a perennial favorite of mine.  I generally refer to them as “Heart-Healthy Oatmeal Cookies,” but I don’t want to give anyone the wrong idea.  (My imaginary lawyers are telling me to say that I am not a medical professional and nobody should take diet or health advice from me.)  I call them that because they contain oats, a heart-healthy (or at least they are currently believed to be so) ingredient.  I figure that at least counteracts some of the butter and sugar.  Well, I like to tell myself that in order to justify eating about 5 cookies a day until the batch is exhausted.

Heart-Healthy Oatmeal Cookie Dough

I am an oatmeal cookie purist: no nuts, no chocolate, no cinnamon, and absolutely no raisins, under any circumstances.  I know of an awesome variation from the perfectionists over at Cook’s Illustrated with dried cherries, pecans, and dark chocolate which is decadently delicious, but I can eat mine for breakfast without feeling guilty.  As for the specific recipe, I use the same one I’ve made with my Mom dozens, if not hundreds, of times.  It’s from the Quaker Oats box, but I make a couple of changes/clarifications to their recipe:

1. The salt is NOT optional.  (This could, in fact, be the single most important cooking rule there is.  Apologies to those on low-sodium diets, but it’s true.  The right amount of salt makes everything taste better.)

2. Use butter, not margarine.  Preferably unsalted, so you can add the salt yourself.  I like to use larger-grained salt for these cookies so that every now and then you get an almost savory bite, enhancing the butterscotch-y sweetness of the brown sugar.

3. Rotate the cookie sheet halfway through the baking time.  This ensures even browning.  By rotate I mean, “using oven mitts pick up the pan and turn it on the horizontal plane 180 degrees.”  (Not, as a friend of mine misinterpreted once, “using a spatula, flip each cookie over.”)

Oatmeal Cookies

That’s about it.  I use parchment paper to line my sheet pan.  You can keep reusing it until all the cookies are baked, and it makes the cleanup a lot easier.  If you don’t have parchment, don’t sweat it.  An ungreased cookie sheet works just as well.

While they may not qualify as heart-healthy, they are still a much better-for-you snack than a lot of other things you could be eating.  So go on, have two!

Baking Extravaganza, Act I

10 03 2008

For Nick’s birthday last week, he asked me to bake him some cookies.  Since I have yet to see a decent cookie in France (other than fancy little petits fours secs), I figured I had my work cut out for me.  The lack of brown sugar and/or molasses here is probably a major culprit, so I set out to divine a substitute.  (Note: I did actually see a bottle of molasses in a rare food shop after the cookies were made – it cost 12 euros for a pint!  Outrageous.)  I wrote an email to Michael Chu of Cooking for Engineers, asking if I could substitute a mixture of sugar and honey for brown sugar, and also if he knew anything about my recently acquired poudre à lever.  He was kind enough to respond in a timely manner, saying that the levure chimique was, in fact, more akin to baking powder than baking soda (I’m going to have to give those pancakesanother shot).  He also told me that while a honey-sugar combination would give me softer cookies as brown sugar would, they may have a honey flavor.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you’re making peanut butter cookies, as I was planning to do.  But because I love the flavor of brown sugar, and because I don’t really like the idea of beet sugar, I picked up some cassonade sugar (like turbinado but with smaller crystals).  It took me forever to find the sugar in the grocery store.  Just when I was beginning to learn where everything was, they closed for a week to redo the floor and moved everything around in the process.  I eventually found it next to the water and UHT milk, nowhere near the flour (next to the chocolate) or the baking supplies (next to the Kosher foods).  Anyway, it ended up being a good thing that I had to scour the store because I stumbled across a box of “bicarbonate alimentaire” in the health food aisle.  A thorough examination of the box revealed that this was the baking soda I had been searching for.  Looks like I’m all set.

Peanut Butter cookies, step 1

Basing my recipe off the one on Cooking for Engineers, I started with butter, peanut butter, sugar, cassonade, and honey.  I also like to add the salt at this point, to ensure even distribution in the final dough.  I creamed these ingredients (by hand) until the mixture was homogeneous and lighter in color.

Peanut Butter Cookies, step 2

Next I beat in an egg and some vanilla until smooth, followed by the dry ingredients (flour and baking soda, previously stirred together).  Now I had my cookie dough, and if you think I didn’t taste it several times to make sure it was ok, you don’t know me very well.

Peanut Butter Cookie Dough

Michael Chu recommends letting the dough chill before baking, but I couldn’t wait.  I pinched off a few pieces of dough and rolled them into balls.  I then coated these in a combination of cassonade and white sugar and impressed the traditional pattern with a fork.  Of course I had been preheating my toaster oven this whole time, so when my makeshift cookie sheet (tinfoil on the back of a metal cake pan) was ready, I popped it in.  Nine agonizing minutes later, I was assured that my efforts would not be for naught.

Peanut Butter Cookies - First Batch

A little darker than I wanted them, but crisp and buttery with good peanut flavor (I think this African peanut butter we have here is better than the partially-hydrogenated stuff we get in the States: it contains peanuts and salt, and that’s it).  Subsequent batches, after I managed to let the dough chill a bit, came out wonderfully.  I ended up with a plate full of cookies for Nick to take to work the next day.

Peanut Butter Cookies

The recipe has been requested, so now I have to figure out how to convert it all into metric.  (I’m lucky enough to have some American measuring cups and spoons – thanks, Bill!)  But I’m glad they were a hit, and this success has given me confidence in the baking-in-a-tiny-French-kitchen arena.

To be continued…

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