Sunday, March 29, 2009

Visions of Cookies

I've been having trouble sleeping. And when I'm not sleeping, I'm having visions. Not of sugarplums, but of cookies. For the last few weeks, I've been seeing a cookie in my head, a cookie that has been calling to me. A cookie that is chewy and thick with good "stuff." I'm talking about oatmeal cookies here. Just say the words "oatmeal cookie" and people kind of fall apart. It connotes all sorts of warm and fuzzy thoughts. And who couldn't use some warm thoughts in today's ever so chilly economic climate (more thoughts on how to combat this cold environment in a future post).

I think oatmeal cookies are alot like chocolate chip cookies; that is, people have distinct preferences about their likes and dislikes. And I'm no different. I like my cookies with "stuff." Don't give me a plain old oatmeal cookie. Give me nuts, give me some kind of dried fruit, give me coconut. Yes! I want texture and flavor galore.

Now, I suppose I could buy this cookie somewhere, but that wouldn't be any fun. So today, on this rainy, chilly day, in between getting our taxes together, I decided to make this ultimate oatmeal cookie. And where better to start than with the recipe from that kindly Quaker Oats man (see any Quaker Oats product for picture of said man). I mean, there's no reason to totally reinvent the wheel here; I think it's safe to say the Quaker Oats people know how to bake an oatmeal cookie. But their recipe didn't have a whole lot of stuff (only raisins). And in the visions I'd been having, my oatmeal cookie had pistachios and coconut. I toyed with the idea of cranberries or craisins, but in the end I decided to stick with raisins.

One other thing I did differently than the QO recipe was to chill the batter for a couple of hours before baking. In a landmark article by David Leite for the New York Times, David details the need for letting cookie dough rest 12-36 hours to give it time to absorb the liquid. If I had started this on Friday or Saturday, I could have given the dough the full recommended resting time, but I got to this on Sunday afternoon. So my dough only rested two hours. Still, they came out great. Some of them had a lacey quality to them - not what I was going for, but delicious nonetheless. Others were the holy grail of oatmeal cookies - thick, chewy, redolent with cinnamon, with the wonderful texture of coconut and the salty crunch of pistachios. Look at that photo above of the cooling cookies - just look at the "stuff" jutting out. This is an oatmeal cookie!

If you want to experience my ultimate oatmeal cookie, the recipe is below. Or go forth and conjure up your own true vision. Then let us know what kind of cookie visions keep you up at night.

The Cook's Tour Ultimate Oatmeal Cookie

2 sticks butter, softened
1 C firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 C granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 t vanilla
1-1/2 C all-purpose flour
1 t baking soda
1 t cinnamon
1/2 t salt
3 C quick or old fashioned oats, uncooked
1 C raisins
1 C sweetened coconut
1 C shelled pistachios, roughly chopped

Heat oven to 350F. Beat together butter and sugars until creamy. Add eggs and vanilla; beat well. Add combined flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt; mix well. Stir in oats, raisins, coconut, pistachios; mix well.

Drop by rounded tablespoons onto ungreased cookie sheets. Bake 10-12 minutes or until golden brown. Cool 1 minute on cookie sheet; remove to wire rack. Makes about 4 dozen.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Welcome, Spring?

The calendar tells me it's the first day of spring, but take a look at the photo above -- that was taken at 6:45am today on my back deck -- snow! A spring snowfall is not that unusual, but we did have temps near 60 just a few days ago.

Ah, but why quibble? We have officially left winter behind and moved onto spring. To celebrate, as I write this tonight I am having my favorite warm weather drink: V&T, otherwise known as vodka and tonic, with a handful of wonderful Spanish Marcona almonds. I didn't plan ahead too well because I forgot to buy lemons at the market just an hour ago, but I will make do with a wedge of frozen lime from last summer for my drink (tip: take lemons or limes, cut into appropriately-sized drink wedges, pile into a zip lock and freeze; not only do they flavor your drink, they act as little fruity ice cubes). The sun is setting out my window and I already feel a slight lift off my shoulders from the burdens of the work week.

To make this a little more interactive, I've got a couple of questions for you:

1. What are you doing to celebrate spring?
2. What is your favorite spring recipe?

Post your comments below by clicking on the little envelope.

I'm not sure I have a favorite spring recipe, but to welcome the advent of warmer weather, on Sunday (when it is supposed to be near 60 again) we are going to grill up a few links of fabulous chicken sausage from the Goffle Road Poultry Farm in Wyckoff, NJ. The chicken sausage here is like no other - the taste and the texture is way above par. Along with maybe a nice helping of sauteed spinach, terrific potato salad, and crusty bread, and we've got the makings of a great "Welcome, Spring" dinner.

Of course, when I think spring, I think Easter. And when I think Easter, I think back to my childhood Easters with my Italian family. Which inevitably leads me to ricotta. We would always have a ricotta pie or cheesecake at our Easter celebrations. And while I could supply you with a traditional ricotta cheesecake recipe, I thought you might like to try something a little different. The recipe below is straight out of Nigella Lawson's book, Feast. I will be making these for our Easter meal this year. What I like about these is that you can serve them as part of a brunch or dessert after a big meal. They are not too heavy so you can pop two or three and not feel guilty (who needs that?).

Enjoy the weekend!

Baci di Ricotta (Ricotta Kisses)

Makes 30


1 cup ricotta

2 eggs

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder pinch salt

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 tablespoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 teaspoons confectioners’ sugar to serve


Put the ricotta and eggs into a bowl and beat until smooth. Add the flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, sugar, and vanilla extract. Beat the mixture to make a smooth batter.

Fill a wide, shallow pan with about ¾in of oil. Heat the pan of oil until a tiny blob of batter sizzles when dropped into the hot fat.

Drop rounded teaspoons of the ricotta batter into the pan, about five or six at a time; don’t be tempted to make them bigger, boring though this is — they will puff up on cooking. You need to turn them over quite quickly, so it’s best to do a few at a time. You don’t want to get too frantic around all that hot fat. As they turn a golden brown, flip them over and leave them for a minute or so on the other side.

As you lift them out of the pan, place the cooked baci di ricotta on some paper towel, just to remove the excess oil. Then pile the balls of heat-bronzed ricotta on to a plate in a rough-and-tumble pyramid shape, and push the confectioners’ sugar through a small sieve evenly but thickly over them. Eat straightaway. As if…

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Irish Soda Bread

It's that time of year - when almost everything you see is about to "magically" turn green. From beer to highway lanes to cupcakes. It is, of course, St Patrick's Day. I don't have anything green for you, but I do have a fabulous Irish Soda Bread recipe.

I was curious as to the history of Irish Soda Bread so I did a little research, and just in case you were also curious here's the story. One entry I found, said that Irish Soda Bread wasn't invented by the Irish at all...this didn't sound right to me (and this wasn't even from Wikipedia) so I dug a little deeper. I found a reference from English Bread and Yeast Cookery by Elizabeth David (this book is considered to be THE source for information on all types of breads, yeast breads included): "Soda Breads. Quickly made breads, griddle cakes and scones with bicarbonate of soda and cream of tartar or tartaric acid became popular in Ireland, Scotland and England well over a hundred years ago. The properties of chemical raising agents had been appreciated early in the nineteenth century, and experiments with commercially practical formulas had been successful during the 1850s, and earlier...At first, chemical mixes seem to have been used mainly to lighten home-made biscuits, girdle scones, oatcakes, and other bakestone products which had previously been made without any benefit of any aerating agen. It was only later, after they had been much advertised as yeast powder, dried yeast, yeast substitute, that housewives began to think that chemical mixtures could...replace fresh yeast in their tea cake, spice cake and bread recipes...At that period, German or compressed yeast, much like the bakers yeast we know today, was increasingly replacing the old ale yeasts and barms, as was very generally known, although incorrectly, as dried yeast...It is try that well-made Irish soda bread, baked over a peat fire and with meal ground from soft Irish wheat unblended with imported high gluten grain, is unsurpassed for flavour. The draweback with these breads, even when made in ideal conditions, is that they quickly become dry, so are only at their best when freshly baked..."

But this page from Land of Milk and Honey: The Story of Traditional Irish Food and Drink by Brid Mahon is much more interesting: "One of the oldest of all leavens is the sourdough method, and like many great discoveries it probably came about by accident. An old fable describes what happened. Long ago in the "stone age" when a woman made bread by the simple expedient of mixing ground corn and water together and baking the dough on hot stones or in the fire, a gound girl had just put down a loaf to bake when her lover invited her to go on a hunting trip. Off she sped, leaving the mixing bowl unwashed. When next she went to mix a cake in the bowl, a lump of sour fermented dough from the last baking was mixed in with the new dough. The result, of course, was delicious spongy bread which gained her the reputation of being the best bread-maker in Ireland, to her immense satisfaction. Even her lover had to admit that she was a better cook than his mother. Barm beer or liquid yeast obtained from beer-brewing was used from early times. Sowans (fermented juice of oat husks) was another traditional leaven, as was potato juice (potatoes grated and the juice allowed to turn sour). Bread soda, which would act not only as a leavening agent, but create the traditional soda bread, did not come into use until the first half of the 19th century. Cream of tartar and commercial baking powders continue to be used down to the present time." I like this version better, don't you? Luckily, today we don't have to bake over hot stones or an open fire - I don't think I would have done so well back then.

So then, on to our modern-day recipe. This was given to me by a friend I worked with many years ago. It is my favorite Irish Soda Bread recipe. But for you traditionalists out there, be forewarned: there are no caraway seeds in this version. This bread is wonderful slightly warm out of the oven, but keeps well for several days wrapped in foil. It is heavenly toasted with a wee bit (sorry, I had to get some Irish colloquialism in here) of butter and a cup of tea. And when you need just a little nosh to get you through the morning, say at 10am? This is it. All right - I'll just come out with it: this Irish Soda Bread is good any time!

I'll leave you with a very appropriate Irish proverb that says one should serve only "the newest of food and the oldest of drink." May the luck of the Irish be with you this St Paddy's Day!

Barbara's Irish Soda Bread

4 C flour
1 t. baking soda
1 C sugar
3/4 C melted butter
1 C raisins (pre-soaked in water)
1-1/3 C buttermilk
1 egg

Make a cinnamon-sugar mixture for top of bread.

Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees. Foil-line a 10" oven-proof frying pan and butter the foil.

Sift together the flour, baking soda, and sugar. Then combine the remaining ingredients into the dry ingredients. Mix all together until just combined. Scrape batter into foil-lined pan.

Make a cross in the top of the dough with a knife (FYI: a reference I found said this was not for religious reasons; it was a very practical way to divvy up the bread into four portions - pretty smart, huh?). Sprinkle the top of dough with cinnamon-sugar mixture. Bake for 1 hour.

Monday, March 2, 2009

A Variety of Topics

It's been awhile, but I've been busy gathering all sorts of food and restaurant data for you, my dear readers. Let's see, over the past two weeks I've visited 2 restaurants (one really good, one pretty good); cooked up a Lentil soup, and just today, baked a Banana Bread (photo above, hot out of the oven still in it's parchment paper wrapping). So it will be a jam-packed posting with varied topics, hopefully of interest to you.

I think I'll begin with the restaurants (in all honesty, there were a few more restaurants within that two week period, but I believe we should focus on the really good ones). Let's start with Saturday night's venture to Arturo's in Maplewood, NJ. Arturo's is located on a prime corner in adorable Maplewood. It is primarily a pizza shop but on Saturday nights, diners can opt for the tasting menu and embark upon Chef Dan Richter's flights of whimsy. This week's tasting consisted of eight courses for $50 per person (not unreasonable, we thought, when initially making the reservation). I had some hesitation about a tasting menu due to their usually small portions, but I figured eight courses should satisfy even Barry. Unfortunately, I had no idea how small these would be...let me clearly state that the food was delicious and there were plenty of "yummy" sounds emanating from our table. But when I tell you that one of the courses (scallops crudo in a Sicilian olive oil with watercress garnish) was exactly one scallop sliced micro-thin into four slices for the two of us to share, you get an idea of the size of these plates. Another course, foie gras ravioli, was served two on a plate, about 1 inch each. The server actually said to us when she laid the plate in front of us "that's for you to share." Other courses consisted of house-cured, paper thin pork shoulder, excellent beef carpaccio, and a delicious version of Tuscan ribolitto soup. The main course was a braised chicken leg served with one strand (I'm not kidding you) of broccoli rabe and two small, very creamy, Fingerling potatoes. A cheese course was served next with their homemade Farmer's cheese. The dessert course was a Panna Cotta with a very nice chocolate sauce. Now you may be thinking "hmmm...that sounds like alot of food," but trust me, I managed to eat every morsel of every course. My husband wanted to order a pizza to go as he was starving when we left. Of course, by that time we had been there three hours (!) having sat through what must be the slowest service in history. There's leisurely and then there's ridiculous. As I mentioned earlier, the food was delicious, but for $50/pp, I expect cloth napkins and flatware that wasn't borrowed from Folsom Prison. Oh, I also expect adequate portions - tasting or no tasting. I'm just sayin'...

But on Sunday night, all cylinders were firing (but not the pizza oven) at La Pizza Fresca in NYC. My friend, Noreen, found this listing of authentic Neapolitan pizzerias in the US and as NYC is only about 20 minutes away, we thought a trip was in order. We love pizza and if there is a chance to have real Neapolitan pizza close to home, we're on it. As it was a Sunday, we decided to have an early dinner so we arrived (after sailing through the Lincoln Tunnel and finding a parking spot on the street) about 5:30 (they opened at 5pm). We were so disappointed when the lovely hostess/ bartender told us that the pizza chef was delayed so there would be no pizza until 7:30! We were crushed - our hopes of authentic Neapolitan pizza dashed. We considered going elsewhere for dinner (we were in Manhattan, after all, in the Flatiron district), but after perusing the menu over a glass of Sangiovese, we opted to stay. And were we glad we did.

First of all, to appease us for the lack of pizza, the hostess brought us a plate of absolutely delicious and creamy mozzarella with ripe tomatoes and fresh basil. It just got better from there. Noreen and I both ordered the Grilled Calamari Salad, which was fabulous - large, fat, perfectly grilled squid nestled in mixed greens with Gaeta olives. Another primi thoroughly enjoyed was Barbabietole e Gorgonzola (beet salad, Gorgonzola cheese, pine nuts).

For mains, I had the hostess' recommendation of Rigatoni with Veal Polpetti (little meatballs) with San Marzano tomato (the meatballs were so delicate), Noreen had possibly the world's lightest gnocchi, my husband had the soup special (creamy, light, butternut squash), and Doug enjoyed Rigatoni alla Siciliana (eggplant, fresh mozzarella, San Marzano tomato). Dessert was also a cut above - authentic tira mi su and a mini chocolate souffle. The service was (as it should be) unnoticeable.

On the way out, we spoke to a woman who is a regular - she vouched for the pizza, saying it is outstanding. She also told us that on Sunday nights, the regular chef is off. A valuable tip for our next trip - this time definitely for the pizza.

I should also mention one of the other restaurants visited in the last couple of weeks was Gianna's in Carlstadt, NJ. No time to review here but it is an excellent "red sauce" Italian restaurant (the Bolognese sauce is wonderful).

Are you still with me? We'll wrap up quickly now with a recipe for Banana Bread with Cinnamon Crumble Topping (I'm skipping the lentil soup recipe as it wasn't all I had hoped for). This is from one of my favorite food writers, Molly Wizenberg, who writes the wonderful blog, Orangette. This is so different from other banana breads because it has this fabulous crunchy topping of cinnamon and brown sugar, that kind of crystallizes on the top of the bread. If you've got some past-their-prime bananas, put them to good use with this recipe.

I was inspired because of a food writing course I am taking. Our assignment was to write about a food (the feel, touch, smell, taste of it) - my choice was the everyday fruit, the ubiquitous banana. Ah, but when you really see the banana for the first time, it's not so everyday. Do me a favor: the next time you have a banana, really look at it - it's small, compact, it travels well, it's good both raw and cooked - pretty near perfect, wouldn't you agree?

Banana Bread with Cinnamon Crumble Topping

1-1/2 C all-purpose flour
1 C sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 t salt
1 cup mashed ripe banana (about 3 medium)
2 large eggs
1/2 C vegetable oil
1/4 C honey
1/4 C water

2 TB sugar
1 t ground cinnamon
2-1/2 TB packed dark brown sugar

Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter and flour a 9x5 inch metal loaf pan (alternatively, you can spray the pan lightly with cooking spray, then line it with parchment paper, letting the excess hang over the sides - this makes it very easy to remove the bread from the pan after baking).

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt. In a large bowl, whisk together the bananas, eggs, oil, honey, and water. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, and stir well. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan.

In a small bowl, mix together the topping ingredients. Sprinkle evenly over the batter.

Bake the bread until a tester inserted into its center comes out clean, about 1 hour, give or take a little. Cool the bread in the pan on a wire rack for 30 minutes. Then carefully remove the bread from the pan, taking care not to dislodge the topping. Cool completely before slicing. Makes 1 loaf.