Thursday, February 23, 2017

Grated Carrot Salad with Coriander & Pistachios

Monique Jamet Hooker in her book Cooking with the Seasons makes the observation that "The French eat carrot salad the same way Americans eat carrot sticks." Leave it to the French to turn the humble, raw carrot into something special.  I'll eat that plain, ubiquitous carrot stick when it shows up in a picnic basket or on a party relish tray...but only because it is less dubious than some of the other things that might be on offer.  The difference between noshing on a horse fodder-like carrot stick and a chic little dish of grated carrots dressed with a tangy and garlicky or herbaceous vinaigrette pretty well sums up the chasm between the French and the American manner of dining.  David Lebovitz tells us that the ability to produce this simple little salad is "in your DNA" if you're French.  Fortunately for the rest of us, Carottes Râpées is an easy thing to learn to make.

In its most basic form, a grated carrot salad is nothing more than grated (or julienned) carrots dressed in a simple vinaigrette.  I like it best if the vinaigrette is a lemony one...but a red wine vinaigrette will work fine too.  The vinaigrette should be on the tangy side.  It should not be overly sweet.  The sweetness in this salad should come primarily from the carrots themselves...not an abundance of added sugar or honey.  It is fine to correct carrots that are not as naturally sweet as you would like with a pinch of sugar or a drizzle of honey.  But the overall effect of the salad should be lively, tangy and zippy. 

Other additions to this basic salad are minimal and vary from cook to cook.  When starting out without a vinaigrette (just dressing the carrots directly with lemon juice or red wine vinegar and olive oil) it is usual to include garlic or shallot.  Some cooks add a bit of Dijon mustard.  Freshly toasted and ground spices like coriander, cumin and fennel are also common.  And the salad is almost always finished with fresh herbs...flat leaf parsley, cilantro, tarragon, chervil or chives.  Every recipe I have ever seen or made includes a bit of cayenne or hot pepper flakes.  David Tanis makes a fantastic Moroccan version that is finished with lime and a scattering of green olives

When I make a grated carrot salad I add a couple of steps that I think improve its taste, texture and shelf life.  The first is something you won't have to worry about if you are making your salad with a vinaigrette you already have on hand, and that is to allow the minced/smashed garlic and/or minced shallots to macerate briefly in the lemon juice or vinegar before adding them to the carrots.  This brief soak is how I always begin when I make a vinaigrette and its purpose is to soften the harshness of these two ingredients.  Not only will the flavor of garlic or shallot be stronger and harsher if you don't do this, their presence will become more and more prominent as the salad sits...making for a salad that tastes overwhelmingly of garlic or shallot on subsequent days.  Since one of the things I like about grated carrot salad is the fact that it keeps really well for several days, it would be a shame if it became inedible because the garlic or shallot had become too strong.

The second thing I do is something I picked up in David Tanis's Moroccan version.  Instead of making a vinaigrette and pouring it over the carrots...or simply throwing all the ingredients into a bowl and combining them, Tanis adds the ingredients in stages, adding the olive oil last.  The reason for this is that if allowed to sit on the carrots for a short length of time, the salt and the acidity of the lemon or vinegar will begin to soften the carrots by drawing out some of their liquid.  If you wait to add the oil until after the carrots have started to soften, you will use less oil and you won't end up with a pile of grated carrots sitting in a pool of oil.  The other benefit of waiting to add the oil is that the seasonings will be absorbed by the carrots better if there is no oil coating them and acting as a barrier.   

Obviously recipes for Carottes Râpées are easy to find...and I do hope you will look for one to try.  The one I am sharing today would be a good place to start.  It is from Jody Williams' book Buvette and it is a bit unusual.  Like the basic versions I have described, it is simple and streamlined.  But, it contains the surprise of chopped, toasted pistachios.  The pistachios add color... subtle crunch... and sweetness.  They are, I think, a genius touch...and make this salad my new favorite version of the grated carrot salad.    

Grated Carrot Salad with Coriander & Pistachios

2 T. freshly squeezed lemon juice...or more, to taste
1 small clove garlic, grated with a microplaner or smashed to a purée with a pinch of salt
1 lb. carrots, trimmed and peeled
1/2 t. kosher salt, plus more to taste as needed
1 t. coriander seeds, toasted and crushed in a mortar and pestle
pinch cayenne, or to taste
1/4 c. pistachios, toasted and coarsely chopped
3 to 4 T. cilantro chiffonade
about 3 T. olive oil

Place the lemon juice in a small bowl and add the garlic.  Stir to distribute the garlic and set aside.  (This is an important step, whether you are using garlic...or making another carrot salad with minced shallot.  Allowing the smashed/minced garlic—or shallot—to macerate for a bit in the acid will soften its harshness considerably.)

Coarsely grate the carrots using the large holes of a box grater or the grating disc of your food processer (see note). Put the carrots in a large bowl, sprinkle with the salt, and toss. Add the coriander and cayenne and toss.  Pour the lemon-garlic mixture over all.  Toss well and let soften a bit (20 to 30 minutes).

Add enough olive oil to coat and fold in the pistachios and cilantro.  Taste and adjust the seasoning with lemon juice, salt, black pepper and cayenne.  If the carrots are not as sweet as you would like, add a pinch of sugar or drizzle of honey.  Cover and set aside at cool room temperature for up to several hours, or refrigerate and then return to room temperature to serve.  The salad keeps, well covered and in the refrigerator for several days. 

(Recipe adapted from Buvette, by Jody Williams)

Note:  I recently read an article in the premier issue of Christopher Kimball's Milk Street that explained how grating actually enhances the sweetness of the carrots.  Since grating ruptures more of the carrot's cells, more natural sugars are released into the salad.  You will find French Carrot Salads that feature julienned carrots...and these are delicious too...but if you want to enhance the sweetness of the carrot, grating is the way to go.  Just make sure you grate them coarsely or you will have soggy carrot pulp instead of nice strands of crisp carrot.  

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Italian Ricotta Cookies

During the summer months, as each local crop hits its stride and begins to fill the market stalls to overflowing, I am never surprised when consecutive blog posts seem to be variations on a theme (corn....  tomatoes....  summer squash....  etc.).  I don't expect this kind of thing to happen in the dead of winter.  But so far this year, that's exactly what seems to be happening...although not with fresh produce....  Last month turned out to be the month of Aidells Roasted Garlic & Gruyère Chicken Sausage.  This month looks to be the month of Ricotta cheese.  After today,  I will be two for two this month.  First gnocchi, and today....cookies.  

It was just a year ago when I first became acquainted with the soft ricotta cookies I'm sharing today.  This is surprising.  They are without a doubt the kind of thing I should have grown up on.  They look just like something that would come out of a grandmother's kitchen (I ate lots of soft, frosted, drop cookies at my maternal grandmother's house).  But more than that, they are apparently a traditional Italian-American baked good....and my home town has a large population of people with Italian-American roots.  I'm certain many of the family owned bakeries around town would have sold their own versions of this cookie.  Since I've always been a bit of a Cookie Monster, I don't know how I missed them. 

One of the things that you will notice about these cookies is that they are decidedly unprofessional and homey in appearance.  (You can correct this a bit...making them more uniform by using a cookie scoop...or making them perfectly round by chilling the dough and rolling it into smooth balls before baking—but even then, they are not a particularly neat or precise cookie....)  You might even be tempted to bypass this cookie for a more beautiful one.  But I assure, if you did this you would be missing out.  Soft, fluffy and tender—and topped with a drippy icing (sort of a cross between a simple American-style buttercream and a traditional cookie glaze)—they are more like little miniature cakes than cookies.  And they have an addictive vanilla-y and almond-y flavor.  It is difficult to stop eating at one...or two....  

Recipes for this cookie can be found all over the web, and they don’t really vary too much from one to the next.  I am passing along the one I like best.  I have adapted it slightly in order to suit my preference—the first bakery version I tried was fragrant with almond, so I have omitted the orange zest and added almond extract to the cookie and the icing.  If you look around a bit, you might find a version that appeals to you more.  Maybe it would be a good idea to sample more than one variation—to compare and contrast.  If you have never had one, I think you will find that you will want to become better acquainted with this tender and delicious little cookie as soon as possible.

Italian Ricotta Cookies

4 1/2 c. (500 g.) all purpose flour
1 t. baking powder
1 t. baking soda
1 t. salt
1/2 lb.unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
2 c. (400 g.) sugar
2 eggs
1 t. vanilla extract
1/2 t. almond extract
15 oz. full-fat Ricotta cheese (drained if very wet)

6 T. (85 g.) unsalted butter, melted

3 c. (340 g.) powdered sugar
4 1/2 T. heavy cream
1 1/2 t. vanilla extract
3/4 t. almond extract

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour with baking powder, baking soda and salt.  Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, briefly cream together butter and sugar until smooth.  Add the eggs one and a time, beating until fully incorporated and scraping down the sides.  Add the vanilla and almond extracts and blend in.  Add Ricotta cheese and mix until smooth and fully incorporated (the mixture will probably look curdled).

Add the flour mixture and mix on low speed until the ingredients come together to make a soft dough.  Chill the dough for an hour or two. 

Drop the dough (see note) onto a parchment-lined baking sheet leaving at least 2 inches between the mounds of dough.  

Bake for 10 to 14 minutes (this will depend on size of cookies and your oven so keep an eye on them). Cookies will just be started to get lightly golden around the bottom edges. If you press them lightly they will feel tender, but they will spring back.  Be careful not to over bake—you want them to remain soft and cake-y.
Slide the parchment off the baking sheet and onto a rack. Repeat with all of the dough. 

While the cookies are cooling, make the glaze:  Mix together melted butter, powdered sugar, heavy cream, and extracts in a bowl until smooth and no lumps remain. Add additional splashes of milk or cream if you want a thinner glaze.  You don't want it to be so thick that it will tear the cookies...but also not so thin that it runs off of the cookies. 

When the cookies are completely cool, spread with the glaze and add colored sprinkles of your choosing.  Allow the glaze to set before storing air tight (separate the layers of cookies with parchment or waxed paper). 

Note:  You may make these cookies in the traditional manner of drop cookies by simply dropping mounds of dough from a spoon onto the baking sheets...or you may use a cookies scoop.  I like to use a scant half tablespoon sized scoop (about 20 grams of dough)...but they are traditionally made larger.  It doesn't really matter what size you make them, as long as they are all the same size (so they will bake evenly).  Depending on the size you make them, you will get 4 to 7 dozen cookies.

(Recipe adapted from the blog Wishes & Dishes)

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Ricotta Gnocchi

A couple of years ago I posted a recipe for Ravioli Nudi (sometimes called Gnudi or Spinach & Ricotta Gnocchi).  As delicious as they are, they are not something that I would typically be inclined to make on short notice...  Making them is a bit of a project and they are special occasion fare (at least in my world they are...perhaps an Italian might feel differently). 

Plain ricotta gnocchi (a close cousin of ravioli nudi) are another matter.  As long as you remember to drain the ricotta 12 to 24 hours ahead of time, these delicious little dumplings can come together very quickly.  If you have never made gnocchi of any kind (varieties abound), these would be a great place to start.

As with the gnudi, the goal when making the dough for the ricotta gnocchi is to add as little flour as is necessary to make a dough that can be handled.  If your main ingredient (greens... or cheese....) is wet, you will need to add more flour to make this possible.  The more flour you add, the denser and heavier the gnocchi will be (not what you want).  Hence, the necessity of thoroughly drying the greens (for the gnudi) and draining the ricotta of excess whey (for both the gnudi and the ricotta gnocchi). 

The other main ingredient in the gnocchi is egg.  The egg proteins coagulate during the cooking process and basically hold the gnocchi together.  Not enough egg and the gnocchi will disintegrate in the water.  Too much egg and the gnocchi will be kind of firm and a bit rubbery.  One whole egg is about the right amount to bind a pound of drained ricotta.  Since I prefer the texture of gnocchi made with a higher percentage of yolks, I follow Nate Appleman's (of A16 in San Francisco) lead of using one yolk and half an egg, which is about equivalent to the weight of a whole egg.  This arrangement provides just the right amount of puff (from the small amount of white) without any rubbery effect.  (It also leaves half of an egg available for repairing the dough if your tester gnocchi disintegrates in the water.)

As long as you remember that the idea is to make fluffy pillows of well seasoned ricotta—and that the flour and egg are just structural background players—you should have good success with your gnocchi.  Simply season the cheese (salt, Parmesan, a little olive oil), beat in the egg and then work in the flour with brief, deft movements.  Overworking will create tough dumplings. 

Forming the ricotta gnocchi is also comparatively easy.  Just divide the dough into manageable lumps, flour the work surface very lightly, roll into even (about 1/2-inch in diameter) ropes and cut cross-wise into uniform (a scant 1-inch) lengths.  You can stop at this point and you will have ricotta gnocchi.  Because I have been making potato gnocchi for many years (I'm not sure why I have never written a post...)—and I love the look of the grooves and indentations (not to mention the way they hold the sauce) of traditional potato gnocchi—I go one step further and roll the little cylinders of dough off the tines of a fork.  I have given instruction for how to do this in the recipe, but please don't feel like you are not making true ricotta gnocchi if you don't execute this extra step.

Ricotta gnocchi are very versatile and may be sauced in numerous ways.  I am including a recipe for a rich ragout of butternut squash and mushrooms (similar to one I posted for pasta a few years ago)—but this sauce is actually sort of complex as far as sauces for gnocchi go.  Most of the time they are sauced simply:   A basic tomato sauce...   or a light cream sauce...  or an herbaceous pesto of some kind...   or nothing but butter and Parmesan.   Any simple pasta sauce will work well.  They can also be floated in a richly flavored clear broth ("in brodo")...  alone, or with a few fresh vegetables.  And like other styles of gnocchi, they are excellent when cooked, cooled and given a quick sauté in a bit of butter.  No matter how you sauce them, I think you will find them to be delicious.

Ricotta Gnocchi

1 lb. drained (see note) whole milk ricotta
2 T. olive oil, plus more for cooking
3/4 t. kosher salt
1 oz. finely grated Parmesan
1 egg, beaten
1 egg yolk
1 c. all-purpose flour (4 ounces)
Semolina flour

Place the ricotta in a bowl with the olive oil and salt.  Beat until smooth (some ricotta has prominent curds and you want the ricotta to be smooth) and starting to get fluffy.  Add the Parmesan and beat in.  Beat in half of the egg and the yolk (save the remaining half egg). 

Place half of the flour onto a clean counter and turn the ricotta mixture out onto the flour.  Sprinkle half of the remaining flour over the mound of ricotta.  With a bench scraper, cut the flour into the ricotta mixture just until it has disappeared and the dough begins to come together, adding as much of the remaining flour as is necessary to form a soft, slightly springy dough.  The dough may be tacky to the touch, but it shouldn't stick to your fingers.

Test the dough for seasoning and structure by pinching off a 1-inch by 1/2-inch piece and dropping it into a pan of simmering salted water and cooking for a minute after it floats to the surface.  If it falls apart, work in some of the reserved egg and if necessary more flour and test again.  Taste and correct the salt if necessary. 

Cut the finished dough into six pieces.  On a lightly floured surface, roll each piece out into a long rope that is about a half inch in diameter and about 20 inches long. 

Dust the work surface and the ropes with semolina and using a bench scraper, cut the ropes crosswise into 1 inch pieces.  To finish shaping, place one of the cut surfaces of the gnocchi on a semolina-dusted fork and with your thumb (floured if necessary) press the other cut surface down and away from yourself, rolling the gnocchi off of the fork as you do.  

You should end up with a dumpling that has the marks of the fork on one side and a dimple from your thumb on the other.  Place the gnocchi onto a semolina dusted sheet pan as you form them.  The gnocchi may be held at a cool room temperature or uncovered in the refrigerator, for a few hours.  They may also be frozen at this point (see notes).

To cook the gnocchi, bring a large pot of well-salted water to a simmer (a hard boil will encourage the gnocchi to disintegrate).  Add the gnocchi.  Carefully stir or gently slide the pan back and forth to make sure the gnocchi aren't sticking to the bottom.  Monitor the pot to make sure a gentle simmer is maintained.  The gnocchi will begin to bob to the surface.  Continue to cook for 1 minute after they float to the surface.  (They are done when they feel slightly springyrather than squishyto the touch.)   Lift the gnocchi out of the water with a mesh strainer and place in a wide dish with a few tablespoons of olive oil.  Toss to coat.  

Serve immediately dressed with your favorite sauce or set aside for up to an hour.  Reheat in the sauce the gnocchi will be served in. 

Makes about 120 gnocchi (possibly more, depending on how thick you make your ropes and how wide you make your cuts), serving 4 to 6.

(Recipe adapted from A16 Food+Wine, by Nate Appleman & Shelley Lindgren)

  • Most commercially available ricotta is wet. You will probably be able to pour some of the water off when you open the container. Even if it looks firm and dry, I always place it in a paper towel-lined sieve and suspend it over a bowl to let it drain overnight (in the fridge). Often there will be no liquid in the bowl, but the paper towel will be saturated. If you don't drain the ricotta, you may need to add more flour to the dough, which can make the gnocchi stodgy and tough. 
  • To freeze the gnocchi, place them in the freezer in a single layer on a semolina dusted sheet pan. When the gnocchi are hard, transfer them to a freezer bag. To cook, spread the frozen gnocchi on a sheet pan (with some of the semolina from the bag, or fresh semolina) and let them sit uncovered at room temperature to thaw. This should take about 15 to 20 minutes. Cook as for fresh. 
  • Recipe is easily halved or multiplied. 
  • If you do not have a large stock pot, poach the gnocchi in two batches.

Tossed with browned butter, lemon and broccoli....

Ricotta Gnocchi with Mushrooms, Butternut Squash & Herbs

2 T. Olive oil
5 to 6 T. unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 T. slices and divided
12 oz. crimini mushrooms, trimmed and sliced 1/4-inch thick
salt & freshly ground pepper
3 cups diced (1/4- to 1/3-inch) butternut squash (about 14 oz. net weight)
1 T. chopped fresh thyme
1/2 T. minced fresh rosemary or 1 T. chiffonade fresh sage
2 large shallots (about 4 oz.), minced (to make 2/3 c.)
3/4 c. chicken stock or low-salt canned broth
2 T. chopped Italian parsley
1 recipe ricotta gnocchi, cooked as directed and lightly filmed with olive oil

Warm the olive oil in a large sauté pan (large enough to hold the squash in a snug single layer) set over medium high to high heat. When the oil is hot (you should see a thin wisp of smoke), swirl in a tablespoon of butter.  When it foams, add the mushrooms.  Toss to coat the mushrooms in the fat and then leave the pan alone to allow the mushrooms to begin to brown.  When the edges are beginning to brown, give the mushrooms a toss/stir, season with a good pinch of salt and scatter half of the thyme and rosemary over all.  Continue to sauté, stirring occasionally and regulating the heat as necessary to maintain a very active sizzle without allowing the mushrooms to scorch, until the mushrooms are browned and tender—about 4 to 5 minutes total.  If the mushrooms seem dry at any point, add another half tablespoon or so of butter. 

Transfer the mushrooms to a plate and return the pan to the heat.  Add three tablespoons of butter to the pan.  When it melts and foams, add the squash along with a pinch of salt and the remaining thyme and rosemary.  Sauté, regulating the heat to maintain the activity in the pan and cooking until the squash is beginning to caramelize nicely—about 5 to 7 minutes.  Add another tablespoon of butter to the pan.  When it is melted, add the shallots, along with a pinch of salt.  When the shallots have softened (about 3 minutes), return the mushrooms to the pan and add the stock.     The stock should come up almost to the top of the vegetables—add more if the vegetables aren't almost covered.  Taste and season with salt and pepper. 

Cook at a bare simmer (uncovered and stirring every now and then) until the squash is just tender—about 20 minutes after adding the stock. As the liquid reduces, add hot water and continue to cook.  You should maintain a level of liquid in the pan that comes 2/3 to 3/4 of the way up the vegetables. 

When the squash is tender, add the gnocchi and parsley.  Toss to coat. If the gnocchi have cooled since cooking, gently heat through.  

Taste and correct the seasoning.  If the sauce seems tight, add more warm water...or you may use the water the gnocchi were cooked in (taking into consideration that this water is well salted).  Divide the gnocchi and sauce among warm plates or shallow pasta bowls and serve immediately.  Serves 4 to 5.

 Printable Version

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Kale & Potato Soup with Garlic Sausage

At the risk of sounding like I'm a paid advertiser for Aidells sausage (I'm not), I am sharing another recipe (the third in less than a month) featuring their Roasted Garlic and Gruyère Sausage.  I have just recently discovered this sausage, and I admit to being a great fan.  At the end of December I featured it in a hearty green salad with roasted potatoes, hard cooked eggs and haricots verts.  Then, I started the New Year with a pizza...with squash and apples...and the aforementioned sausage.  Today, I'm sharing a recipe for one of my favorite soups (Alice Waters' Kale & Potato Soup), made even better by the addition of said sausage.

I have always made this soup pretty much as written in The Art of Simple Food.  The original is nothing more than a rich, sweet onion and garlic scented chicken broth filled with potatoes and curly kale.  But as always, the apparent simplicity is deceptive.  I still remember the first time I made the soup.  I was feeling a bit under the weather on a cold and dreary winter day and the soup tasted so very good.  More than that though, as I ate, it made me feel truly nourished...   I remember just wanting to bury my face in the bowl.  I didn't, of course....but it really was that good.

I made it for the first time a few weeks ago with her optional addition of sausage.  At the time, I think my goal was just to make the soup a bit more substantial....and I happened to have some of the Aidells sausage on hand.  I was surprised by how delighted I was with the result—I really didn't think the soup could be any better.  Clearly I was wrong.  I imagine I'll make it again someday without the addition of the sausage, but for the foreseeable future...probably not.

Kale & Potato Soup with Garlic Sausage

1/4 c. Extra Virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
6 to 8 oz. garlic sausage
2 medium onions (about 12 oz.), thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, peeled & chopped
1 pound Yukon Gold Potatoes, peeled, halved lengthwise and sliced cross-wise 1/4-inch thick
1 large bunch kale (about 8 oz.), stemmed, washed thoroughly and coarsely chopped
Salt & freshly ground
6 cups chicken stock
Freshly grated Parmesan

In a heavy soup pot set over medium heat, warm a thin film of the olive oil. Add the sausage and brown.  Lift out and add the remaining olive oil.  Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, tender, and slightly browned—about 12 to 15 minutes.  

Add the garlic and continue to cook until fragrant—1 or 2 minutes.  Add the kale along with a generous pinch of salt and using a tongs, turn to coat.  Cover and cook over low heat for 10 minutes—the kale will collapse and will begin to soften.  

Uncover and add the potatoes along with another pinch of salt.  Cook, stirring occasionally, for 2 or 3 minutes (so that the potatoes will begin to give up some starch).  Pour in the stock.  Raise the heat, bring to a boil, then immediately reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes, or until the kale and potatoes are tender. 

While the soup simmers, slice the sausage in 1/4-inch thick rounds.  Add to the soup for the last ten minutes of cooking.  Taste the soup and add more salt if necessary.  Serve hot and garnish each serving with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of cheese.

Makes 2 quarts soup.

  • Use a precooked sausage such as Kielbasa, Linguiça or Aidells Roasted Garlic & Gruyère Chicken Sausage (my favorite) 
  • Waters' original version did not include sausage. You may leave it out and just begin by cooking the onions in all of the oil. 
  • You may use any variety of kale that you prefer. Waters' original recipe was for curly kale. I prefer Tuscan. 
  • Add 1 1/2 cups cooked white beans with the sausage for a more substantial soup. If using canned, rinse them before adding. If freshly cooked, add them with their cooking liquid. If using canned, you may need to add more broth or water. 

(Recipe adapted from The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters)  

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Chocolate Shortbread Sandwich Cookies with Vanilla Buttercream Filling

Yes.  The title of today's post is code for Oreos.  I don't think Nabisco appreciates it when people use their word for these cookies....  Hence, the many euphemisms employed by bakers all over the country:  Thomas Keller's "TKOs", Emily Luchetti's "Stareos" (with the cookies cut in the shape of a star), and the many, many versions (King Arthur Flour and The New York Times, just to name two)  that go by the name "Faux-reos".   I'm sure there are others.  It is a testament to the beloved status of this childhood, processed food favorite that revered chefs (like Keller and Luchetti) have come up with their own scratch-made, adult versions.

My recipe is similar to that of Keller and Luchetti (as well as a few others) in that I make a shortbread-style cookie for the chocolate wafer portion.  Because it lacks egg and chemical leaveners (which are included in a lot of the other versions I ran across), classic shortbread doesn't puff much—and more importantly, doesn't spread at all—during the baking process.  It bakes into a tender, slightly crisp cookie...just like the chocolate wafer of a real Oreo. 

Other than nostalgia, the lasting appeal of the Oreo lies I think, in the contrast between the deep—and slightly bitter—chocolate flavor of the cookie and the sweet—almost too sweet—cream filling.  To get this contrast in my homemade version I used a fairly high percentage of cocoa (replacing 25 % of the weight of the flour) in one of my favorite plain shortbread recipes.  I increased the sugar only a small amount so as to preserve the punch of the cocoa flavor.  The resulting cookie had the exact deep, sharp, cocoa profile I was looking for.  It contrasted perfectly with the traditional, sweet, American-style buttercream frosting that I used for the filling. 

I loved Oreos when I was a kid.  My mother didn't tend to purchase prepared sweets (or processed foods in general...).  But I managed to get my Oreo fix at my paternal grandparents' home.  There, they always had a stash in their "Corn King" pottery cookie jar.  (Apparently they were my Grandfather's favorite cookie for his workday boxed lunch.)  Whenever I visited, I was allowed to indulge pretty much to my heart's content.   My hand was in and out of that cookie jar far more often than was good for me.  And now, as I think about it, those Oreos are probably responsible for sowing the seeds of not only my sugar habit, but also my coffee habit.  My grandmother and her sister liked to dunk their Oreos in their coffee.  Since it seemed so grown up, I wanted to do it too (and they of course let me...).

These days I prefer my Oreos with ice cream.  And I am not alone in this.  When I served my homemade version to my family last weekend I saw more than one person drop their cookies right into their bowl of ice cream, breaking the cookies into pieces with their spoons as they dug in.  But if you don't have ice cream, I am happy to report that these cookies will make a fine accompaniment to your afternoon cup of coffee or tea.  Whether you dunk them or not is entirely up to you.

Chocolate Shortbread Sandwich Cookies with Vanilla Buttercream Filling 

Chocolate Dough:
1/2 lb. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at cool room temperature (it should be firm, but not rock hard)
4 oz. (1/2 c. plus 1 T.) sugar
1 t. pure vanilla extract
1/4 t. salt
210 g. (1 3/4 c.) all-purpose flour
70 g. (3/4 c. plus 1 T.) Dutch-process cocoa powder
Sugar for sprinkling, optional

 Vanilla Buttercream Filling:
2 oz. (4 T.) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 lb. (2 c.) powdered sugar
1/2 t. Vanilla
1 1/2 to 2 T. Milk, plus more as needed

Make the chocolate wafer cookies:  Whisk together the flour, cocoa and salt.  Set aside. 

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, briefly cream the butter and sugar (just to combine).  Beat in the vanilla. Add the dry ingredients and mix on low speed until the dough just comes together.  The dough should be stiff and firm.  If it is not, chill.   

On a lightly floured surface, roll about a third of the dough out into a 1/8-inch thickness.  Cut with a round (smooth or scalloped edge) cookie cutter and transfer the cookies to a parchment-lined baking sheet. 

(The cookies do not spread, so they can be placed within a half inch or so of each should be able to get 24 to 30 on a sheet.) Gather the scraps and combine with half the remaining dough, rolling and cutting as before.  Repeat the process with the remaining dough and scraps.  Reroll the last of the scraps once.

If you like, sprinkle the cookies with a little sugar.  Bake the cookies in a 325° oven until set...about 17 minutes or so (start checking at 15).  Let cool for a minute or two on the sheet before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.  You should have about 5 to 5 1/2 dozen chocolate wafers.

Make the filling:  Place the butter, powdered sugar, vanilla and 1 1/2 T. of milk in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.  Mix on low until the ingredients come together.  Increase the speed to high and beat for five minutes—or until very light and fluffy.  If the cream seems at all stiff, beat in another 1 to 1 1/2 t. of milk. 

Make the sandwich cookies:  Spread half of the cookies out on your work surface with the bottom of the cookie facing up.  Fill a piping bag fitted with a 1/2-inch round tip with the cream filling.  Pipe a flat spiral of the cream on half of the cookie wafers (the ones with the bottoms facing up), starting at the outside edge.  Place the unfrosted cookie wafers (bottom facing down) on top of the frosted ones, pressing very lightly so that the filling comes out to the edge.  You should have about 30 sandwich cookies.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Tunisian Spiced Lamb Meatballs

We had David Tanis's Tunisian Meatballs for dinner the other night.  Tanis is one of my favorite chefs...and I love the cookbook in which this recipe is found...but for some reason I hadn't made them in a while.  Since I am teaching them in an upcoming class, I thought it would be a good idea to make them again.  It isn't as if I need a refresher course in cooking these meatballs, but having the recent tactile experience of making something always reminds me of things I want to say during a class.  As I made them, I was struck anew with what a fantastic recipe this is for meatballs.

I appreciate this recipe for many reasons:   The balance of spices is just right...  gently evocative of another place.  They are not too hot...nor are they too mild.   And the saffron and tomato cooking broth is subtle, fragrant and flavorful.  The dish is particularly nice with couscous (one of my favorite side dishes). But more than anything else, I love this recipe because it contains the bones of a great basic recipe for meatballs—it gets the balance of ground meat to egg to bread to salt just right.  Too much bread and a meatball will be mealy and soft rather than meaty.  Too little and the meatballs will be dry...and possibly hard.  Too much egg and they will be rubbery...  not enough and they will have a tendency to fall apart.  If you have tried a lot of recipes for meatballs, you know that getting the balance right is not a given.  Since happening upon this recipe a few years ago, I have used the ratios in this recipe to "repair" a couple of recipes that have good flavor, but inconsistent textural results. 

I have always made this particular recipe with lamb, but I am certain they would be delicious made with beef.  Just make sure that you are using a meat that is about twenty percent fat.  A cut with less fat will tend to produce dry, hard meatballs.  If this amount of fat seems decadent to you, consider this dish (or any meatball dish) an occasional splurge where the extra fat is totally worth the tender, juicy, flavorful result.

As you look at the recipe, don't be put off by the length of the ingredient list.  As Tanis points out, you can organize your work by making the sauce and/or the meat mixture ahead.  And even if you choose to make all the components and finish the dish in one session, once you have all of the spices measured out...and the herbs chopped...the meat mixture is very quickly and easily put together.   Furthermore, as with almost every recipe for meatballs in sauce, these freeze beautifully.  If you take the time to make a large batch, you can freeze it in portion-sized packets.  Then, on some future night when you are tired and busy, you will be able to enjoy the luxury of a slightly labor intensive dish...without having to expend any labor at all.

Tunisian Meatballs

The Sauce:
2 T. olive oil
1 1/2 c. finely diced onion
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 T. tomato paste
1 inch piece cinnamon stick
Large pinch saffron, crumbled
Salt and pepper
3 c. chicken broth, vegetable broth or water

The Meatballs:

1 1/2 c. cubed day-old firm white bread
1 c. milk
1 lb. ground lamb (or beef chuck)
1 large egg, beaten
1 t. kosher salt, divided
4 garlic cloves, smashed to a purée with some of the salt
1/4 t. black pepper
2 t. paprika
1 t. ground ginger
1 t. turmeric
1/2 t. ground cumin
1/4 t. cayenne
1/4 t. ground cloves
1/4 t. ground coriander
1/8 t. grated nutmeg
2 T. minced parsley
2 T. minced cilantro
2 T. finely chopped scallion, white and pale green portions
All-purpose flour, for dusting
Olive oil or vegetable oil
Chiffonade parsley and cilantro for garnish
Thinly sliced scallions (green portion only) for garnish

To make the sauce, heat the oil over medium-high heat in a wide, heavy bottomed saucepan. Add onion and cook without browning until softened, about 5 to 10 minutes. Add garlic, tomato paste, cinnamon stick and saffron, and stir well to incorporate. Season generously with salt and pepper, and allow to sizzle for 1 minute more. Add broth, bring to a simmer, and simmer gently for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat. The sauce may be made up to a day in advance and refrigerated.

To make the meatballs, put bread cubes and milk in a small bowl and let the bread soak until softened, about 5 minutes, then squeeze dry and transfer to a medium bowl.

Add the ground meat to the bread and mix gently with your hands, then add the egg, garlic, salt, pepper, paprika, ginger, turmeric, cumin, cayenne, cloves, coriander and nutmeg. Mix well with hands to distribute seasoning. Add the parsley, cilantro and scallion, and knead for a minute. The mix may be prepared up to a day in advance and refrigerated. 

With your hands, roll mixture into small balls about the size of a quarter. Dust lightly with flour.

Heat a quarter-inch of oil in a wide heavy skillet over medium-high heat. 

Fry meatballs, turning once, until barely browned, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer to a wire rack set over a tray lined with a double layer of paper towels.

Add the meatballs to the sauce, bring to a simmer over medium heat cover and cook for about 20 minutes, until the sauce has thickened slightly and the meatballs are tender. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning, adding salt or cayenne as necessary. 

Garnish meatballs with remaining parsley, cilantro and scallion. Serve with couscous or rice. Serves 4 to 6.

(Recipe adapted from One Good Dish by David Tanis)

  • I have made this recipe and formed very small meatballs (about 10 to 11 grams each and about the size of a quarter as Tanis directs) and also in a slightly larger size (about 15 grams each) without any reduction in quality or finesse (although, I prefer the smaller ones). If made into the very small size you will have about 60 meatballs. You will have 40 to 45 in the larger size. 
  • Both the sauce and the meatball mixture can be made a day ahead. Store covered in the refrigerator. 
  • As mentioned in the text, the ratios of this recipe produce a particularly fine meatball.  You can use these ratios to improvise your own meatball recipe...or repair a recipe that has nice flavors, but in which the texture of the meatball leaves something to be desired.  For every pound of meat, use 1 egg, 1 t. kosher salt, and 1 1/2 cups cubed firm white bread (soaked in milk and squeezed dry).