Sunday, December 30, 2012

Post Holiday Simplicity—Cream of Tomato Soup

The food that I love to cook—and eat—always tends toward simplicity (even the name of my private chef service advertises this). But at no time do I crave simple, clean flavors more than I do just after the holidays. Not only am I tired after the bustle of palate is tired. So on the day after Christmas this year, we dined on a simple Cream of Tomato Soup. The bright flavor and creamy texture were precisely what I needed.

The recipe I'm posting is the exact soup I made, but it is really just a variation on a theme: Cook onions in a generous amount of olive oil until tender and beginning to turn golden. Add garlic and cook until fragrant. Add some good quality canned tomatoes along with some stock or water (stock gives a more rounded flavor...water a light, clean tomato taste) and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes to allow the flavors to blend. Purée and add a bit of cream (or milk...or half & half) and serve. It's that simple. If you keep onions, garlic and canned tomatoes in your pantry, there really is no excuse for opening up a can of tomato soup.

You can vary this formula to your heart's content. Start with butter instead of olive oil. Or, do as I have done and start by rendering some bacon or pancetta. (The crisped bacon can be reserved and sprinkled over the finished soup.) Adding a few herbs—oregano, marjoram, basil...fresh or dried—as well as some hot pepper flakes adds interest and zip. Add these with the garlic.

The addition of white wine will provide depth to the natural sweetness and acidity of the tomatoes. Add (and reduce) before adding the tomatoes and water/stock. As with many puréed vegetable soups that contain no other starch (like flour or potatoes), adding a small amount of rice will give your finished soup a little body and a nice velvety texture—but you will have a fine soup without it. You could of course add other vegetables to cook with the onion—carrot, celery, fennel, etc.—but I think this is moving beyond "simple". This is not necessarily a bad thing...just not what I was after this particular time.

In general, puréed soups cry out for a garnish of some kind..something to enhance the flavor and provide textural contrast. As mentioned earlier, if you have made your soup with bacon, the crisp bits of bacon are a perfect finish. Other than that, a few crumbles of blue cheese would be good....or some chopped fresh herbs...or crisp croutons.... But in the end, I don't really want a chef-y garnish. When it really comes down to it, the perfect accompaniment to a bowl of tomato soup is the tried and true: a warm quesadilla or that childhood favorite, a grilled cheese sandwich.

Cream of Tomato Soup with Bacon

2 T. olive oil
4 strips bacon (about 3 oz.), thinly sliced cross-wise
2 medium onions (about 1 lb.), thinly sliced
2 fat cloves garlic, minced
1/8 to 1/4 t. red pepper flakes
1 t. dried oregano
2 T. rice (Arborio, basmati, etc.)
1/2 c. white wine
2 28-oz. cans peeled Italian plum tomatoes, crushed
3 c. water (or chicken stock)
1 c. heavy cream (or half & half, or milk)
Salt & Pepper

Ingredients for half a recipe

In a medium-sized stockpot, warm the olive oil over medium heat. Add the bacon and cook until crisp. Remove to paper towels and reserve.

Add the onion along with a pinch of salt and sweat until very soft and beginning to caramelize—about 15 to 20 minutes. Add the garlic, oregano, pepper flakes, and rice. Cook one minute.  Add the wine and reduce by two-thirds. Add the tomatoes and water. Season with salt (the salt required will vary greatly, depending on the brand of canned tomatoes you use). Simmer the soup until the rice is tender—20 to 30 minutes. Purée the soup, adding more water or stock if the soup is too thick. Return the soup to the pot (straining, if you like). Stir in the cream. Heat through and correct the seasoning with salt and pepper.

Ladle the soup into bowls and serve topped with the reserved bacon. Makes 2 1/2 quarts soup.

Note: If you would like to make this soup without bacon, start with 3 T. of olive oil, adding more if the onions seem dry.

Printable Recipe

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Chocolate Babka

Several years ago as I was flipping through the Christmas issue of Gourmet magazine I happened across a picture of something called a Chocolate Babka. I had never tasted a Babka, but the picture of the yeasty egg and butter rich loaf—swirled through with large and small chunks of dark chocolate—made me want to taste one right then and there. When I tried it I found it to be even more delicious than I had imagined. I have been making this particular babka to eat and give to friends ever since. It is a perfect addition to a holiday breakfast or brunch...and would also make a delicious late-night treat with which to greet tired and hungry holiday travelers.

I have only made one significant change to the original recipe: I give it a second rise in the refrigerator (after the first rise and before the formed loaf gets its final proofing). Without this time in the refrigerator the dough is unmanageably soft and sticky. But after a short stint (four hours or—even better—overnight) in the refrigerator, the butter firms up and the dough rolls out quickly and easily...without excessive amounts of flour.

Ease of handling is not the only benefit of chilling the dough. Subjecting any yeast dough to a long cool rise will develop and enhance the flavor, and this loaf is no exception. Beyond that, chilling the dough overnight makes this an easy yeast bread to make for a Christmas breakfast or brunch. If you have all of your filling ingredients ready the night before, then the only thing left to do in the morning is to roll and form the loaf before setting it to rise. Without too much difficulty, you should have a warm Babka that is ready to serve by the time everyone is up and the gifts have been opened.

As delicious as it is, you shouldn't feel limited to flavoring your babka with chocolate. Babkas come from a long European tradition of rich holiday yeast breads that are typically studded with dried fruits and candied peel (Panettone, Stollen, Kugelhopf, etc). I believe it is the Americans who came up with the chocolate version (and also began baking babkas in a loaf pan rather than a fluted tube-style pan.) If you look around, you will discover babkas that are filled with all manner of dried fruits, nuts and spices, as well as those that are filled with chocolate. You will also find that many babkas are topped with a streusel—which I think emphasizes the fact that they really are a coffee cake...perfect for breakfast.

Last year I used this recipe to make individual portion sized "Baby Babkas". To me one of the most enjoyable ways to eat a babka is to tear it apart with your hands (rather than cutting it into slices). Having one's own little babka allows everyone to have this pleasure. The Gourmet recipe will make 16 baby babkas; I have included notes at the end describing a couple of ways to form them.

A "baby babka" with a very Christmas-y filling of
white chocolate, almond paste & dried cranberries

Before I close, I wanted to mention that it had been my intention this holiday season to write a lot more posts than I have. As it turned out, my days were much busier than I anticipated—leaving very little time for the blog. So, in the event that I am not able to write another post before Christmas day, I want to take the opportunity now to send my holiday wishes to everyone who takes time out occasionally to visit my blog: This year, I hope that you find yourself at a table surrounded by those you love best and that you experience the joy and the peace that are at the heart of this wonderful season.

Merry Christmas!

Chocolate Babka

3/4 c. warm whole milk (105° to 115°)
1/2 c. plus 2 t. sugar
1 T. active dry yeast
3 2/3 c. all-purpose flour (415 grams) plus additional for dusting
2 whole large eggs
1 large egg yolk
1 t. vanilla extract
3/4 t. salt
1 1/4 sticks (10 T.) unsalted butter, cut into pieces and softened slightly, but cool

1 large egg yolk
1 T. whole milk

5 T. unsalted butter, divided
2 (3 1/2- to 4-oz) bars fine-quality semi-sweet chocolate, finely chopped and divided
1/4 c. sugar, divided

Stir together warm milk and 2 teaspoons sugar in bowl of mixer. Sprinkle yeast over mixture and whisk to blend. Let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes.

Add 1/2 cup flour to yeast mixture and beat at medium speed until combined. Add whole eggs, yolk, vanilla, salt, and remaining 1/2 cup sugar and beat until combined. Reduce speed to low, then mix in the remaining flour, about 1/2 cup at a time. Increase speed to medium, then beat in butter, a few pieces at a time, and continue to beat until dough is shiny and forms strands from paddle to bowl—4 to 5 minutes. (Dough will be very soft and sticky.) 

Scrape dough into a lightly buttered bowl and cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rise in a draft-free place at room temperature until doubled in bulk, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

Gently deflate the dough with a buttered or oiled spatula. Cover again with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.

Lightly butter two 6 cup loaf pans. Line the pans with 2 pieces of parchment paper (1 lengthwise and 1 crosswise).

Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Cut the dough in half. Return one piece to the refrigerator while you roll out the first loaf. Beat together yolk and milk and set aside.

Melt 2 1/2 T. of the butter. Roll out the first piece of dough on a well-floured surface with a lightly floured rolling pin into an 18- by 10-inch rectangle and arrange with a long side nearest you. Spread the butter over the dough, leaving a 1/2-inch border across the long edge furthest from you. Brush the unbuttered edge with egg wash. Sprinkle half of chocolate evenly over buttered portion of the dough and then sprinkle with half of sugar (2 tablespoons). Starting with long side nearest to you, roll dough into a snug log, pinching firmly along the seam to seal. Bring ends of log together to form a ring, pinching to seal. Twist entire ring twice to form a double figure 8 and fit into one of lined loaf pans. 

Make another babka with remaining dough, butter, egg wash, chocolate and sugar in same manner. Chill remaining egg wash, covered, to use later. Loosely cover the pans with buttered plastic wrap (buttered side down) and let the babkas rise in a draft-free place at room temperature until the loaves look puffy and an indentation remains when the dough is lightly pressed—1 to 2 hours.

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350° (if using Pyrex pans, preheat the oven to 325°).

Brush the loaves with the remaining egg wash. If desired, sprinkle the loaves lightly with Turbinado sugar. Bake until tops are deep golden brown and bottoms sound hollow when tapped (when loaves are removed from pans), about 40 to 55 minutes. Transfer loaves to a rack and cool to room temperature. Babkas will keep, wrapped in plastic wrap and then foil, frozen for 3 weeks.

(Recipe from Gourmet, December 2006)


Streusel Topping: Many babka recipes add a streusel topping. If you would like to top your babkas with streusel combine 3/4 c. confectioner's sugar and 2/3 c. all-purpose flour in a bowl. Rub in 6 T. of butter. Squeeze so that you have some large clumps in addition to small crumbs. This is enough streusel for 2 loaves. Scatter the streusel over the egg-washed loaves (omit the Turbinado sugar) and bake. (Streusel adapted from Martha Stewart)

Filling Variations: Don't feel limited to a chocolate filling. Fillings can include nuts, dried fruits, spices, etc. Be creative. The "Baby Babkas" pictured in this post have chopped white chocolate (4 oz.), grated almond paste (2 oz.) and dried cranberries (1/2 c.) soaked in a small amount of orange juice and drained (quantities are for half a recipe or 8 baby babkas).

Baby Babkas: Instead of 2 loaves, make 16 "baby" babkas. Divide the dough and roll out and fill as described for loaves. Instead of rolling the entire sheet of dough jelly roll-style, cut each 18- by 10-inch rectangle horizontally into two strips; roll up each of these strips jelly roll-style and cut each of these narrow "rolls" into four equal pieces. Twist each piece attractively into a small bun. Alternatively, cut each 18- by 10-inch rectangle in half vertically and then cut each half into four equal strips horizontally.

Roll each of these miniature strips up jelly roll style and coil them up like a snail, tucking the end under. Place each "baby babka" into a well buttered 6-oz. ramekin.

Let rise as for the large loaves. Apply egg wash and sugar. Baking time will be shorter—25 to 30 minutes total. Cool for 5 minutes before removing from the ramekins.

Printable Recipe

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Linzer Thumbprint Cookies

The cookie class I mentioned in my last post is now a thing of the least until next year. Three of the recipes from the class have already been posted (Chocolate Almond Toffee, Walnut Acorns & Apricot-Almond Streusel Bars).  Since I managed to get a few pictures of the Linzer Thumbprints "in process", I thought I would share that recipe today.

Linzer thumbprint cookies are a cross between the traditional thumbprint cookie—a simple molded cookie with a jam-filled depression in the center (often made by pressing your thumb into the cookie...hence, the name) and the classic Austrian Linzer Torte—a very special jam tart made with raspberry jam and a rich hazelnut cookie crust. The cookie that results from this cross is a "thumbprint" cookie made with a cinnamon scented hazelnut dough and filled with raspberry jam.  

Santa would be so lucky to get a few of these tender little gems on his plate...

Linzer Thumbprints

1 3/4 c. all-purpose flour (200 grams)
a scant 2/3 cup hazelnuts (83 grams), toasted, peeled and ground to a flour (see notes)
1 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. salt
1/2 lb. unsalted butter, softened
1/2 c. granulated sugar
2 eggs, separated
1 1/2 t. vanilla
zest of 1 lemon (optional)
3/4 c. hazelnuts, toasted, peeled and ground medium fine
2/3 to 3/4 c. best-quality seedless raspberry jam, well-stirred

Place the flour, finely ground hazelnuts, cinnamon and salt in a medium bowl and whisk to combine. Set aside.

Briefly cream the butter and sugar. Beat in the egg yolks, vanilla and zest (if using). Add the dry ingredients and stir just until well incorporated. Scrape the dough onto a piece of plastic wrap, press into a thick disc and refrigerate for about 2 hours or until the dough is firm.

When ready to bake the cookies, place the egg whites in a small bowl and beat until foamy. Place the ground hazelnuts in a wide shallow dish (a pie plate works well). Divide the jam between 2 small zip-lock bags.

Divide the dough into 6 equal portions. Work with one section at a time. Knead the dough between lightly floured hands until malleable. Roll into a 10-inch sausage and then cut into 10 1-inch segments. Repeat with 2 more sections of dough so that you have 30 segments (enough to fill one cookie sheet). Roll the segments into balls. Dip the balls into the egg white and then roll them in the hazelnuts. Place the hazelnut coated balls of dough onto a parchment lined baking sheet, spacing evenly (about 1 1/2 inches apart).

Using the end of a round handled wooden spoon or rubber spatula (something about 1/2- to 5/8-inch in diameter), create a depression in the center of each ball—pressing deeply, but not all the way through and being careful not to crack the edges of the cookie (if the dough cracks, carefully press back together).

You will need to occasionally flour the end of the wooden spoon as you work to keep it from sticking.

Place the baking sheet in the center of a preheated 350° oven and bake for 10 minutes. Remove the sheet from the oven and using the same implement you used to make the depressions, press the middle of the cookies back down.

Cut a corner off of the zip-lock bag (don't make the hole too big) and carefully pipe a small amount of jam into each depression. The jam should barely come up to the edges of the depression in the cookies.

Return the cookies to the oven and bake until they are golden and the jam is bubbling in the center of the cookie—another 5 to 10 minutes.

Cool the cookies on the sheet for 5 minutes. Carefully transfer the cookies to wire racks and cool completely. Repeat with the final three sections of dough.

If you like, lightly dredge the cookies with powdered sugar. Store in an air tight container. Makes 5 dozen cookies.


  •  The lemon zest is a traditional component of "Linzer" dough. I prefer these cookies without it—but they are delicious either way.
  •  If you don't have a nut grinder, you may purchase hazelnut flour. Or, prepare the dough in the food processor: Process the toasted, skinned hazelnuts and the sugar until the nuts are ground very finely. Cut the butter into a few pieces and add. Process until smooth and creamy. Process in the egg yolks, vanilla and zest (if using) just until incorporated. Scrape the sides of the bowl and add the dry ingredients. Pulse just until the flour is incorporated.
Printable Recipe

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Apricot-Almond Streusel Bars for the Holidays

I finally finished all eight (!) of the recipes for my upcoming Christmas Cookie class. I have been working on the class off and on for a couple of months...a little more "on" during the past few weeks. (I love cookies, but think I'm ready for a break.) The final recipe was for a cookie that I didn't specify in the class description—Apricot-Almond Streusel Bars.

For the most part the recipes promised in the cookie class description are for little, hand-formed cookies—some with lots of detail work. These are the kinds of cookies that I truly love to make at Christmas. But the time required to make these special little cookies isn't always available. So, for my class, I wanted to be able to offer at least one cookie that had a festive feel and at the same time could be made quickly and easily for a last minute gift or pot-luck party contribution. These Apricot-Almond Streusel Bars fill the bill perfectly. They are simple to make—the same dough is used for the press-in crust and the crumbly topping—and to me, the almond and apricot flavors are very Christmas-y.

There are many similar recipes for these kinds of bar cookies floating around the web. For my recipe I am indebted most heavily to a recipe that ran in Bon Appétit a few years ago and another from Fine Cooking. If you look at these recipes, I'm sure you will see the things I borrowed as well as the changes I made.  Very observant (and mathematically inclined) readers will notice that I have reduced the quantity of dough used in the bottom crust in both recipes; I thought this produced a more balanced ratio of cookie to filling.  I loved the addition of the almond paste and almonds in the Bon Appétit recipe—but preferred the lighter texture that resulted from the addition of egg yolk to the dough in the one in Fine Cooking. I also preferred the cookies when the crust was partially baked before the filling and streusel were added.  This method produces a light and tender crust that is slightly crisp and not at all dough-y.  And baking the bottom crust first doesn't really add to the time required to make the bars since it can be done while the filling cooks.

Fillings other than apricot are of course possible. I particularly like dried fruit fillings, but the fresh cranberry filling used in the Fine Cooking recipe also appeals to me (you will only need about half of the recipe). Most recipes for bars like this call for a filling of fruit jam or preserves. If you would like to try something like this, use a little less jam than you would of the dried fruit filling—maybe 3/4 of a cup. In addition, make sure the jam is of highest quality (preferably with more fruit than sugar).  It should also be nice and thick. As I mentioned in my Jam Tart post, too much jam—or one that is thin and drippy—will give a gooey or soggy result.

If you are looking for a festive cookie that is quick and easy, I hope that you will give these a try. But more than that, I hope that during this busiest time of the year you will find the time to slow down for an evening or two and make some of the truly special and beautiful little cookies of the Almond Crescents, Walnut Acorns, Cucidati...or one of your own traditional family favorites.

Apricot-Almond Streusel Bars

6 oz. dried apricots (1 c. firmly packed), chopped
1/4 c. sugar
3/4 c. water
1 to 1 1/2 t. lemon juice

12 T. unsalted butter, room temperature (6 oz.)
1/2 c. sugar (100 g.) plus 2 T. sugar (25 g.)
1 egg yolk
1/2 t. almond extract
1 3/4 c. all purpose flour (210 g.)
1/2 t. salt
1/2 c. sliced almonds (50 g.)
1/4 c. (packed) almond paste (75 g.)

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter a 9x9x2-inch metal baking pan; line bottom and two sides with a strip of parchment paper, extending over sides. Butter parchment. Set aside.

In a small saucepan, combine the apricots, sugar and water. Bring to a simmer. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove the lid and continue to cook, stirring and mashing the apricots, until the excess liquid has evaporated or been absorbed and the filling is thickened. Stir in lemon juice to taste and set aside to cool. You will have a generous cup of a coarse apricot purée.

While the apricots cook and cool, briefly cream the butter and 1/2 cup of the sugar together until smooth. Beat in the egg yolk and the almond extract. Add the flour and salt and mix until the flour has been absorbed and the mixture is clumpy.

Transfer 1 1/3 cups of the clumps of dough (200 grams) to another bowl and toss in the almonds and the remaining 2 T. sugar. Chill until ready to build the bars.

Press remaining dough evenly onto bottom of prepared pan. Place the pan in the middle of the oven and bake until the crust is just set and beginning to turn pale golden along the edges (the dough will puff and then sink)—about 15 minutes.

Remove from the oven and let cool for 10 to 15 minutes. Adjust the oven rack so it is in the upper third of the oven.

To build the bars, spread the cooled apricot compote over the crust—spreading almost all the way to the edge of the crust. Coarsely grate the almond paste over the apricot. Scatter the chilled streusel evenly over all and press lightly.

Place the pan on the rack in the upper third of the oven and bake until the streusel is tinged with golden brown—about 35 to 40 minutes.

Cool completely in the pan on a rack. Using the parchment paper as an aid, lift the cookies from the pan. Cut into 4 equal strips, then cut each strip crosswise into 8 small bar cookies (or 4 larger cookies).

(Can be prepared ahead. Store in single layer in airtight container at room temperature up to 4 days or freeze up to 2 weeks.) If you like, dredge the finished cookies with some powdered sugar. Makes 32 small (or 16 large) bars. 

Printable Recipe

Monday, December 3, 2012

Sunday Night Dinner...Spaghetti alla Carbonara

Once, after having read my blog post on cooking for one, someone asked me if I ever just ate cereal for dinner. Since I don't like cereal, I answered in the negative. But there are occasions...more than I should probably admit...when I eat popcorn for dinner (air-popped...with lots of butter, kosher salt and sometimes a little olive oil.). In the world of "I don't feel like cooking tonight" dinners, I think cereal and popcorn are probably equivalent.

Popcorn isn't the only thing in my "I don't want to cook tonight" arsenal.  I'm also fond of Quesadillas...a nice Grilled Cheese Sandwich...a big plate of Fettuccine Alfredo....  I have never noticed this before, but there is a definite pattern here. Starch, fat, and cheese. Who knew? I don't throw the phrase "comfort food" around too often, but all of these things definitely fall into that least for me.

As far as cooking goes, Sunday night is a funny night. Some weekends, puttering around in the kitchen for the duration of a Sunday afternoon is the most pleasurable and relaxing way imaginable to bring the weekend to a close. Then there are weekends when Sunday evening arrives way too quickly and cooking dinner just isn't very high on my list. This is pretty much how I felt as I faced making dinner tonight. It wasn't quite a popcorn night...but it was close. Instead, we had another of my favorite starch, fat...and cheese...meals. Spaghetti alla Carbonara. Made with items any cook will have in their pantry, it is simple, slightly decadent, and very satisfying.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

For each serving, you will need:
1 or 2 slices of bacon
1 egg
100 grams (3 1/2 oz.) spaghetti
a heaped tablespoon of finely grated Parmesan
a teaspoon or so of soft unsalted butter
Salt & freshly ground black pepper

Put a large pot of water on to boil. Salt generously.

Cut the bacon cross-wise into 1/4- to 1/2-inch strips. Render over moderate heat until crisp. Lift the bacon out of the pan. Reserve the bacon and fat separately.

While the bacon cooks, submerge the egg in a bowl of hot tap water (so it won't be cold when added to the hot pasta).

Drop the spaghetti into rapidly boiling water. Cook until al dente. Just before the pasta is cooked, lift the egg out of the warm water and crack into a small bowl. Add a generous amount of freshly ground black paper and beat the egg lightly with a fork.

Drain the pasta well (reserving some of the pasta water). Return the pasta to the hot pot and immediately pour in the egg, bacon, bacon fat and butter. Stir until the egg is thickened (lightly scrambled). If necessary, place the pot back over low heat as your stir. Stir in the Parmesan. Taste and correct the seasoning with salt & pepper. Adjust the consistency with some of the pasta water if necessary—the spaghetti should be coated in a thin, fluid sauce of lightly thickened should not seem sticky or tight. Serve immediately with more Parmesan grated over.

(Recipe adapted from Valentina's Italian Regional Cookery by Valentina Harris)

Printable Recipe

Ingredients for Spaghetti Carbonara for two