Monday, February 18, 2013

Chocolate Chip Cookies with Toffee Bits

I have had chocolate chip cookies on the brain for a few days. I saw them in the new Everyday Food insert in the current issue of Martha Stewart Living. The focus of the insert was simple variations on classics and other favorites (roast chickens, simple pastas, smoothies, favorite casseroles, etc.). In keeping with this theme the chocolate chip cookie recipe was presented as a basic template with several ideas for "mix-ins" other than—and in addition to—chocolate chips. One version included toffee chips. For some reason I had some of these on hand (I have no idea why). A Toffee & Chocolate Chip Cookie seemed like a fine way to satisfy my craving.

The recipe I ended up making is really just a slight variation on the classic Toll House recipe. I have increased the flour by a small amount, which serves to make the cookie a bit more substantial without making it dry. I also adjusted the ratio of the sugars so there is more brown sugar than white. I like the sharper taste and slightly chewier texture that results. Most importantly, I cut the baking soda in half. I noticed that the Everyday Food recipe called for this lesser amount. I wanted to try it this way because one of the things I don't like about Toll House Cookies is that they are too thin and flat—which could be due to too much leavener. A cookie with a high amount of chemical leavener will rise rapidly when it first goes into the oven and then suddenly collapse—producing a cookie that is thin and flat.

I was very pleased with these cookies...they turned out just the way I like my chocolate chip cookies. They aren't too thin (or too thick), and they have a slight crunch on the outside and a chewy interior (without being raw). If you like Toll House Cookies...and the taste of chocolate and toffee together....I think you will love these.

Toffee & Chocolate Chip Cookies

300 grams (2 1/2 cups) all-purpose flour
1/2 t. baking soda
1 t. salt
1/2 lb. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
200 grams (1 cup) light brown sugar
100 grams (1/2 cup) granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 T. vanilla
170 grams (1 cup) semi-sweet chocolate chips
150 grams (1 cup) toffee chips (I used Heath Bits-o-brickle)

Combine the dry ingredients and set aside. Briefly cream the butter and sugars together. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Beat in the vanilla. Fold in the dry ingredients, followed by the chocolate and toffee. Cover and chill at least one hour.

Using a 1/2-ounce scoop, place slightly mounded scoops of dough onto parchment-lined baking sheets, spacing 2 inches apart.

Bake in a 350° oven until the edges are golden and the cookies are set, but still quite soft—about 12 minutes (see note). Rotate the cookie sheet when the cookies are half done. Cool the cookies on the sheets for two minutes.

Transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool completely. Makes about 4 1/2 dozen.

Note: As with any recipe, the amount of time these take in your oven will possibly vary from the amount of time they took in mine. I would suggest checking these at about 10 minutes.

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Friday, February 15, 2013

French Onion Soup

A couple of weeks ago I rediscovered French Onion Soup. I haven't had it in years...perhaps not since cooking school (which was longer ago than I would like to admit). I made it in preparation for an upcoming class—"A French Bistro Meal"—that I am co-teaching with my friend Nancy. I don't know why, but I have always thought of French Onion Soup as a "starter" course...not the main event. And since I almost never eat a meal in "courses" at home, it isn't something I would think to make. But that is likely to change. Served with a little green salad on the side, this delicious soup made a warming and very satisfying winter meal.

There is no shortage of recipes for French Onion Soup. Probably every French cookbook includes a recipe and any food blog that tends to the classics...or technique...or French food...will likely have posted a recipe. So I'm really not posting anything new or unusual with this recipe...just a record of the soup that I made and enjoyed and will be preferred version in the midst of a world of countless variations.

Throughout all the variations runs one main thread of agreement: a good result with this soup depends upon deep caramelization of the onions. Don't shortcut this step. Recipes differ on how to reach this point, but the goal is the same—soft, sweet, amber-colored onions. A few recipes will begin over higher heat, caramelizing the onions right off the bat and then reducing the heat and allowing the onions to soften. I prefer to start the onions in a covered pot over moderate or moderately low heat. This encourages the onions to release a lot of liquid. They will then begin to stew and soften in their own juices. The collapsed onions are then allowed to cook uncovered until their liquid has evaporated and they are deeply caramelized.

The whole process takes over an hour, but for most of that time they only need to be checked (and stirred) occasionally. It is only towards the end that they need to be watched carefully—and stirred regularly—so they won't burn. The lower the heat and the longer they are cooked, the sweeter they will be.

One major variation among recipes is the type of liquid used. You will find recipes that use a light chicken stock, some that use a rich beef broth and a few that use water. It is actually the recipes that use water that are the most traditional. In its origins, this is a soup of the would not have been enriched with a meat broth. Madeleine Kamman writes that during the 19th century this simple soup became a specialty of the bistros and cafés of the central market of Paris. I'm not sure when it went from being a water-based to a broth-based soup. Madeleine's version is water-based. I prefer to use a mix of chicken stock and water. Some stock adds a bit of depth—using all stock seems too rich.

As for the other liquids, the soup usually includes white wine...occasionally red. Most of the time the wine is added and reduced before the water or broth is added, but I have seen recipes where the wine is added at the end. Many soups also include Sherry or Port. Gordon Hamersley suggests that Sherry is the appropriate choice with Chicken Stock and Port with Beef...but you should use whichever fortified wine you matter what liquid you are using.

The crowning glory of French Onion soup is a slice or two of stale baguette and a bit of cheese. The use of stale bread would have originally been a move of economy...but its inclusion serves to make a light broth-y soup more substantial. At the same time it provides a resting place for the cheese. If you don't have a stale baguette (or other sturdy country-style loaf), toast the bread to dry it out a bit. For a little added richness, give the bread a smear of butter before floating it on the soup.

As far as the cheese is concerned, use a light hand. The temptation to pile it on is great, but the result of too much cheese is a soup topped with a thick, nearly impenetrable raft. Getting this concoction to the mouth without some loss of dignity is difficult. Once there, chewing through such a wad of goo is unpleasant at best and a choking hazard at worst. About an ounce (1/3 cup, coarsely grated) is plenty for a serving of soup. And since you will be using such a restrained hand with the cheese, purchase the best you can afford. A nice, imported, cave-aged Gruyère is perfect. Not only is the flavor better, the melted texture is not as impossibly stretchy as with cheaper cheeses.

If you have only sampled restaurant versions of French Onion Soup, I encourage you to try making it for yourself. Choose a chilly, gray Saturday or Sunday afternoon...when you will be at home and can keep an occasional eye on the stove. Your results will be vastly superior to what you would be likely to get if you went out. And I predict you will be surprised at how flavorful...and filling...such a simple soup can be.

  French Onion Soup
(Soupe à l'Oignon Gratinée)

3 T. unsalted butter, divided
2 lbs. yellow onions—peeled, trimmed, halved, cored and thinly sliced lengthwise
1 clove garlic, peeled, trimmed and thinly sliced
1 bay leaf
1/2 T. picked fresh thyme
Freshly ground pepper
3/4 c. dry white wine
5 c. chicken stock
4 c. water
1/3 to 1/2 c. dry sherry (or Port)
6 to 12 slices (3/8- to 1/2-inch thick) baguette or other sturdy, country-style bread (you want the bread to just cover the width of your serving bowls)
6 oz. grated Gruyère cheese (don't skimp on quality—choose a nice, cave-aged cheese...preferably an import)

Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a 5-quart Dutch oven (or other large, heavy pot) over moderate to moderately low heat. Add the onions, along with a generous pinch of salt, and toss to coat in the butter. Cover the pot and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions have collapsed and released their liquid. This will take about 15 to 20 minutes.

Uncover and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions have shrunk dramatically in volume and have acquired a deep amber color—about 40 to 60 minutes. As the onions begin to color, reduce the heat and use a flat wooden spoon to scrape the bottom of the pan as you stir to release the caramelizing bits. The longer you cook the onions, the softer and sweeter they will become.

When the onions have reached the desired color, increase the heat to medium and add the remaining tablespoon of butter along with the garlic, thyme, bay and a generous grinding of pepper. Cook until the garlic is fragrant and the onions have begun to sizzle a bit in the added butter—about 2 to 3 minutes. Add the wine, increase the heat, and reduce (carefully scraping up all the caramelized bits) completely.

Add the stock, water and sherry and bring to a simmer.

Cook, maintaining a gentle simmer, for about 45 minutes to allow the flavors to blend. Taste and correct the seasoning with salt & pepper (remembering that the Gruyère cheese will be salty).

While the soup simmers, toast the slices of bread (they should be dry—if you are using stale bread, there is no need to toast it). If you like, spread the slices of bread with a bit of butter.

When ready to serve the soup, preheat the broiler (if you have a choice of settings, choose the highest setting) and adjust the oven rack so the top of the soup bowls will be about 4 to 6 inches away from the heat source. Set six oven/broiler proof bowls on a sturdy baking sheet. Ladle the soup into the bowls, being sure to maintain a nice balance of solids and broth in each bowl. Float a slice or two of the bread (covering the surface of the liquid as much as possible without any overlap) in each bowl. Top the bread with an ounce of the cheese, spreading over the surface in an even thickness. Slide the soup bowls under the broiler and broil until the cheese is melted, bubbling and golden brown in spots. Allow the soup to cool for a minute or two before serving—warning your guests that the bowls will be very hot.

Serves 6

(My version of this classic recipe was inspired by many different sources, but it would be fair to say that it draws most heavily on the recipes in Bistro Cooking at Home by Gordon Hamersley and The Balthazar Cookbook by Keith McNally, Riad Nasr & Lee Hanson)

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Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Chocolate Soufflé Cake for Valentine's Day

Valentine's day is approaching. In general, chocolate is not my first choice in the dessert department...but for Valentine's Day, even I will admit that chocolate seems to be in order. To fill the bill, there are lots of good options—custards, tarts, mousses, cakes, soufflés, etc.—but I think most people gravitate towards flour-less (or nearly flour-less) types of chocolate cakes for this particular holiday. I taught a favorite Fallen Chocolate Soufflé Cake (something in the "nearly flour-less chocolate cake" category) in a class last week. Although the class was focused on French food, I had the impression that several attendees would be making the cake for the upcoming holiday. And because I still had this cake in my mind as the weekend approached, I made it to take to a pot luck. There was not even a sliver left....and a friend requested the recipe so she could make it for her Valentine's Day celebration. It seems to be the cake of the moment.

This cake has many good qualities, but one thing that makes it particularly appropriate for a Valentine's Day that falls on a week night is that it can be made very quickly. In about an hour from the time you walk into the kitchen you can be enjoying a soft, warm chocolate cake. If you measure your ingredients and prepare your pan ahead, it will be even faster.

As far as technique is concerned, the cake is not difficult. The main thing is to make sure that the eggs are whipped sufficiently. They should be very light in color, very fluffy (as the whisk moves through the egg foam, it will leave a trail) and they will have tripled in volume. Also, when the whisk is lifted a few inches above the whipped egg foam, the foam should fall away from the whisk in a thick ribbon that folds back and forth upon itself and remains barely visible on top of the foam.

You will also need to know how to "fold" correctly. The folding process is much easier (and faster) to execute than it is to describe...but for those who are new to folding, I will take a stab at it: Holding the rim of the bowl with one hand and a rubber spatula with the other (your "working hand"), cut straight down through the center of the bowl with the rubber spatula until the spatula touches bottom. Then, bring the spatula up and toward you, scraping the side of the bowl with the spatula as you do. The heavier ingredients (chocolate and butter) will be clinging to the spatula as you lift it out of the mixture. Lay this heavier mixture over the top of the foam by rotating your wrist/lower arm as you return to the center of the bowl in order to make the next pass with the spatula. Before cutting down through the foam again, use your non-working hand to rotate the bowl so that your next "folding" pass through the mixture will be in a different spot (right next to the folding pass you just completed). Continue to fold and rotate until the mixture is homogenous (i.e.—no streaks remain). Stop folding as soon as you reach this point...the more you work the batter, the more it will shrink in volume. The goal of folding is to completely mix a heavy substance with a light foamy one without knocking too much air out of the foam. Your movements should be gentle and at the same time, purposeful.

I suppose I should end with the reassurance that I really do like chocolate....a lot. I just happen to like fruit desserts better. One of the reasons I shy away from chocolate desserts is that so often they tend to be way too rich. So much so that they can't really be comfortably enjoyed at the end of a meal. Flourless and nearly flourless chocolate cakes are particularly prone to this problem. But not this one. The recipe for this particular cake was given to me by my friend Bonnie (who adapted it from an old issue of Cook's Illustrated). What I love most about Bonnie's baked goods is that they have what I can only call finesse.  Her desserts are never heavy handed....or over the top. And this cake is an excellent example of the kinds of things I have had the privilege of enjoying at her table. It isn't too sweet...or too rich...or too dense. It is light...yet still very chocolate-y—a chocolate dessert that even I can appreciate.

Fallen Chocolate Soufflé Cake

4 oz. unsalted butter (plus extra to butter pan)
8 oz. semi-sweet or bitter-sweet chocolate (I like Ghirardelli 60%), coarsely broken or chopped
4 large eggs plus 1 large egg yolk
1 t. vanilla extract
1/4 t. salt
1/2 c. sugar
2 T. all purpose flour (plus extra to flour pan)

Heat oven to 375°. Generously butter and flour an 8- or 9-inch spring form pan. Melt butter and chocolate in a medium size bowl over a pan of simmering water; set aside.

Beat eggs, yolk, vanilla, salt and sugar at highest speed in bowl of stand mixer with a whisk attachment. Volume will triple, mixture will be fluffy and very light in color and a fat ribbon will form when the whisk is lifted out of the egg foam. Depending on the temperature of your eggs, this will take anywhere from 3 to 5 minutes.

Spread egg mixture over melted chocolate and butter; sift the flour over the egg foam.

Gently, (but purposefully) fold the egg foam and flour into chocolate until mixture is uniformly colored. Pour into the prepared pan.

Bake 22 to 25 minutes for 9-inch pan—about 5 minutes longer if using an 8-inch pan. The cake will puff up and a thin, dry crust will form on the top. Start checking the cake at about 20 minutes.  When the surface at the center ceases to look shiny and wet, the cake is done.

Cool for 15 minutes, then run a knife around the edge to remove the pan sides. Lightly dredge confectioner’s sugar over the top and serve. Serves 8 to 10.

The cake is best the day it is made...but is still delicious on the second or third day if it is wrapped air-tight.

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...with whipped cream and raspberry sauce.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Broccoli Risotto

Considering how much I enjoy risotto, I was surprised to discover that I have only posted it twice in the almost three years I have been keeping a blog. Although it makes a wonderful side dish, it most frequently appears on our table as an entrée. The other evening we had a particularly satisfying broccoli risotto for our dinner.

In my first post on risotto I gave a few pointers on the process of cooking risotto.  It would be a great place to start if you are new to risotto. The broccoli risotto from today's post is different from the corn and zucchini risotto from that first post only in the cooking and timing of the vegetable additions. For the corn and zucchini risotto, the vegetables are cooked ahead and folded in at the last minute. This is probably the most common way of adding vegetables to a risotto. It gives an effect of creamy rice, studded with distinct flecks of this case, sweet corn and nutty zucchini.

In the broccoli risotto, the broccoli is cooked from its raw state in the risotto itself—adding the stems at the very beginning with the onions and the florets only a few moments after the first addition of stock. The final effect is of a harmonious unity of broccoli and rice. If added early enough, the florets will soften and begin to fall apart into the risotto—which I think is nice...but they could be added a bit later if you prefer they remain intact.

You could of course prepare the broccoli risotto in the more traditional manner (like the one with corn and zucchini). Blanch the florets separately to the doneness you prefer. If you like, this may be done in the stock used to make the risotto. The blanched florets would then be added during the last five minutes of cooking. The stems may also be blanched (they will take a bit longer) and added with the florets...or sweated with the onions as in the recipe below. I imagine the risotto made with this alternate method would be delicious too.

As for the version I am posting today, adding the broccoli so early may sound like a recipe for disaster. But I assure you it is astonishingly good this way. While it isn't exactly what is known as "long cooked broccoli" is close.  If you have never made (or tasted) long-cooked broccoli—perhaps out of a childhood revulsion to overcooked broccoli—you should try this dish.  You won't believe what a great flavor you have been missing.  

Broccoli Risotto

1 small head broccoli (1/2 lb.), woody ends trimmed away and discarded
4 to 5 T. unsalted butter, divided
1/2 of a small onion, finely diced (about 3 oz.)
1 clove of garlic, minced
3/4 c. Arborio or Carnaroli rice
1/4 c. white wine
2 to 3 c. hot chicken stock
1/3 c. finely grated Pecorino
Salt & Pepper, to taste
Shaved Parmesan or Pecorino for garnish

Cut the florets off of the broccoli stems and coarsely chop (or cut into very small florets); set aside. If necessary, peel the stems. Cut the stems into a small, rough dice. You will have about 1 1/2 cups chopped florets and 3/4 cups diced stems.

Heat 2 1/2 T. of the butter in a heavy medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion, broccoli stems and garlic and sweat until quite soft—about 10 minutes. Add more butter if the pan seems dry.

Add the rice and continue to cook for a minute or two—it should begin to sizzle in the butter. Add the wine and cook until the pan is nearly dry. Begin to add the stock. Add enough so that the stock is at the same level as the rice in the pan. Adjust the heat so that the rice cooks at a slow simmer. When the pan is nearly dry,

add more stock (to the same level) and season lightly with salt & pepper. Continue cook the rice, stirring at regular intervals and adding more stock as each addition is absorbed.

When you add the broccoli florets will depend on how done you want them to be. If you want them to be soft and falling apart, add them after the rice has been cooking for 5 minutes. If you want them to be "just" cooked, add them after 10 or 12 minutes. I prefer to add them after 5 minutes.  When you add them, add a bit of salt to help them begin to release their liquid.  (Resist the temptation to add lots of extra liquid after adding the broccoli...the risotto will seem a bit dry at first because of the added bulk of the broccoli, but gradually, as you continue to stir and add liquid at regular intervals, the balance of liquid and solids will return.)  Continue to cook, stir and add stock (tasting and seasoning as necessary) until the rice is al dente (i.e.—has texture but is not at all crunchy)—a total of 20 to 25 minutes from the time of the first addition of liquid. 

The final consistency of the risotto should be fluid, but not soup-y. Increase the heat to reduce the broth quickly if the risotto is done, but still soup-y...add a bit more broth if the risotto is done but feels "tight". Remove from the heat and stir in another 1 or 2 tablespoons of butter—stirring until the risotto is creamy. Fold in the cheese. After adding the cheese, you may need to correct the consistency again with a splash more broth. Taste and correct the seasoning and serve immediately, garnished with shaved Parmesan or Pecorino. Serves 2 generously as an entrée...serves 3 or 4 as a side dish.

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