Friday, December 13, 2013

Let's Get Snapin': Spicy Ginger Snaps

Tis the season for cookies, especially ginger snaps. When I was little, I distinctly remember eating the small, crunchy brown cookies from a brown bag-I can't remember what brand-but my Grandma would only buy those. I remember eating them, and lingering on the spicy notes that were left in my mouth. I think that was when my love of gingersnaps started-and it hasn't stopped. However, I think it is a shame that I typically only make these during "The Holidays". I will have to change that-since ginger is such a warm, refreshing and spicy addition to any time of year…gingersnap affogato in the summer? Probably going to happen.

I have to admit, I only found and perfect this one in the past 4 years, thanks to one of my Aunt's who discovered this lovely lady and her cook books. After buying Pure Desserts, I had to buy Alice's book devoted to only cookies. I have not been disappointed yet-and I don't think you would be either if you grabbed either of those books!

The cookies are wonderfully spicy (thanks to a good quantity of fresh and dried ginger), can be cooked to snappy perfection or to chewy goodness. The traditional rolling in Demerara, turbinado or other large-crystal sugar is a classic, but topping with a small piece of crystallized ginger or leaving them plain is perfectly acceptable too.

This recipe is remarkably easy, requiring one a few pieces of equipment and can be done entirely by hand. What's more: the dough can be make a few days ahead, made into balls at you leisure, baked off when you want (or when guests pop in…or when you really just want a fresh gingersnap…). Alternatively, you can freeze pre-made balls, thaw overnight in the fridge, then bake. So really, there is no excuse. Get snaping'!

Spicy Ginger Snaps
Adapted from Alice Medrich's recipe in "Pure Desserts"
Makes about 48 to 52 small, 2" cookies

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soday
2 heaping teaspoons dried ground ginger
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
pinch cardamon, garam masala (optional)
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup un-sulphered molasses
1/2 cup white sugar
1/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar
2 heaping tablespoons freshly grated ginger*
1 large egg
3/4 cup crystallized ginger, chopped finely**
1/2 cup Demerara or Turbinado sugar for rolling
1/3 cup crystalized ginger, cut into small pieces for topping

*Use a zester with larger holes, a microplane, or as I did this year: peel and cut the ginger root into small pieces, and pulse in a coffee or spice grinder until smooth, scraping the edges of the grinder between pulsing.
**The original recipe calls for mixing in the finely chopped crystallized ginger, but I find that omitting this does not impact the awesome-ness of this cookie. I bump up the fresh grated ginger to compensate, but feel free to add the crystallized ginger if you love it!

1 medium sized sauce pan (make sure it is large enough to hold the entirety of the dough, since this will be your main mixing vessel)
Small bowl for spice measuring
Rubber spatula
Wooden spoon
Measuring cups and spoons
Bowl for rolling sugar
Ordinary metal kitchen spoon
Baking sheets with parchment
Thin metal or plastic spatula for removing cookies
Cooling rack

In the sauce pan, melt the butter over low to moderate heat. Once melted, remove from the heat completely. Add the sugars and the molasses. Mix thoroughly with a rubber spatula. Crack in the egg, and stir vigorously. It is imperative that the pan is not hot, or else the egg will curdle.

Now, grab your sifter, spices, and baking soda, and measure into a small bowl. Admire how amazing they all are!

Measure the flour into the sifter directly over the with the wet ingredients, add the spices, and sift into the pan. Now, with the rubber spatula or a more sturdy wooden spoon, mix everything thoroughly together. It may take a touch of muscle-but deal with it-this is worth it.

Now, allow the dough to rest for a few minutes. Pre-heat your over to 350F, and assemble the rolling sugar and/or chop the small pieces of crystallized ginger for on top. Grab sheet pans, and line with parchment, and set up a cooling rack of sorts (towels laid flat over newspaper or brown paper bags work in a pinch).

Or, place the dough into the fridge and store it here until you are ready to bake. The dough will keep up to 1 week, if tightly covered to prevent drying.

If baking immediately, using a spoon, scoop out enough dough to make a ball the size of a small walnut. Roll in your hands, and then toss into the rolling sugar, rolling gently to help the sugar adhere. Place on the lined cookie sheet, spacing each cooking about 2" apart as they do spread If topping with the piece of crystallized ginger, place the dough ball on the sheet then gently press the piece into the cookie ball (the piece will be off-cenetered if now pressed firmly, but it's not a big deal if they do slide a bit…a few of mine always do).

Bake at 350F for 10 to 12 minutes. If you want more chewy snaps, bake until about 1/2 of the cookies have deflated. If you want snappy snaps, bake until almost all have collapsed. But of course, taste and test, and adjust according to your preference!

Enjoy, or pack into cute bags or boxes, and give to the people you adore, along with other goodies like freshly made filled truffles and hand-rolled truffles:


Friday, December 6, 2013

Cinderella Approved: Pumpkin Bread with Walnuts

Thanksgiving is done-but the rest of the holiday season awaits. This probably means one of two things (or three, if you are in my case): you have stocked up on canned pumpkin, you have made a large quantity of homemade pumpkin puree, or your Mom and/or Grandma has made a large quantity of pumpkin* puree, frozen it, and has been offering it to you at every occasion possible. Well, either way, pumpkin puree is a great thing to have on hand. It is healthy, beautiful and versatile. But let's not get too carried away-I mean, it is only a week after Thanksgiving…and Christmas baking looms in the near future.
Moist, nutty, spicy and tender-all good qualities of well-prepared pumpkin quick bread.
*by "pumpkin", my grandma (9 times out of 10) really means, and I quote from the conversation that I have with her almost each year, that her favorite use of "squash that is not good enough to eat" is pumpkin pie or pumpkin bars. Who cares? Well, if you have a butternut squash handy, you could easily make the following bread with pureed squash that has been roasted (375F for 45ish minutes). And I bet you'd have some of that roasted squash left over for dinner too.

Pumpkin bread should be comforting. It should be darn easy to make (it isn't called a quick bread for nothin', as the "quick" refers to using chemical leaveners, like bicarbonate, to rise during baking-no fermentation required!) and produce a fog of spicy-pumpkin laced aromas while baking. The spices called for are most likely sitting in you cupboards, waiting to be loved. If not, splurge on some quality spices for the holidays: cinnamon, whole nutmeg, ginger, cardamom, garam masala, allspice and cloves are my favorite holiday standbys. If your kitchen is lacking in a spice grater, you should consider investing. I have gone through two Mircoplane spice graters over the past 6 years, and have not been disappointed.
Tower o' pumpkin bread.
 The bread is an instant breakfast (fortified with a nice latte or cup of tea-of course). Inclusions of chocolate chips and/or nuts are a bonus for flavor and nutrition (omega, poly and mono-unsaturated fats, soluble fibers and fat-soluble vitamins anyone?).  And like many quick-breads, is better the day after. What does all of this mean? Make this-now! Share with friends, tis the season after all.

That's a hand-frothed, nutmeg-cinnamon-honey latte. Perfect with the bread.
And a quick word on the fats and sugars used: I used half melted butter, and half olive oil. I prefer melted fats or oils to solid fats (and subsequently the creaming method) in quick-breads because the liquid oils efficiently and thoroughly cover gluten proteins, which reduces gluten formation. Tough quick-breads are bad quick-breads, so I recommend you jump on the liquid fat bandwagon. Additionally, I understand the importance of being light-handed with refined sugars. If cutting back on sugar in this recipe, be especially wary of over-mixing, as sugars reduce gluten formation by hogging water from the gluten proteins (which again, need water to form gluten), adsorb moisture, which all result in a tender, moist bread. The addition of molasses and/or honey introduces a touch more hygroscopic sugars to draw more moisture into the bread as it ages….as if it will stick around for a long time!

Spiced Pumpkin Bread with Walnuts
Makes 1 loaf

1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 heaped teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
pinch garam masala (optional)
pinch cloves (optional-acquired taste buds my be required for this spice)
1 heaped teaspoon dried ground ginger
1 heaped teaspoon freshly grated ginger (optional, but strongly suggested)
1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt
1 cup pumpkin or squash puree
1/4 cup granulated sugar 
1/2 cup light or dark brown sugar
1/2 stick butter (4 TB) melted
1/4 cup vegetable or olive oil (or, use 1/2 cup melted butter or oil)
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons molasses or honey
2/3 cup milk 

Optional inclusions:
1 to 1 1/2 cups toasted nuts (walnuts and pepitas are great here)
1 cup dark, bittersweet chocolate bits
3/4 cup raisins, soaked for 15 minutes in 1 cup hot water optionally spiked with a shot or two of brandy, rum or whiskey, then drained before adding to batter 
Roasted and chopped walnuts-with additional cinnamon for good measure.
2 large bowls
rubber spatula
measuring cups and spoons
loaf pan (approximately 9" long, 4" deep, 4" wide)
parchment paper


Grease and flour the loaf pan, or line with parchment as I did. In a large bowl, sift the flour, spices, salt, baking powder and soda.

In another bowl, mix the eggs and pumpkin puree thoroughly. Add the sugars, molasses or honey, melted butter, oil and milk and mix until smooth and combined. If adding inclusions, add them to this mess of wet ingredients-you'll have less of a chance for floury-bits to stick to the inclusions (especially nuts with cracks and crevices).
Nothin' like mole-asses! 
Now, add the wet mess into the sifted dry ingredients, and mix thoroughly until combined-but do not over-mix. If over-mixed, the bread will have "tunnels" of over-formed gluten, and be tough.

Pour into the prepared loaf pan and sprinkle with additional spices of your choice (optional), and bake for 1 hour, or until a knife, wooden skewer, or piece of un-cooked spaghetti emerge without gooey batter. Cool, slice, enjoy.
It is hard to not look forward to getting out of bed in the morning when you have pumpkin bread waiting for you!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Chestnuts Simmering on an Electric Element: Chestnut and Lentil Soup with Parsley Cream and Toasted Walnuts

It is for certain a Monday after a holiday weekend: feelings of "I should be more rested than this!" and "Or maybe I should have slept more?" creep through your thoughts, and all you can think about is going home, having a nap and eating a nice lunch. And really, who wants to think about food after Thanksgiving? Well, I do, and I wanted to make something that was easy, light but still satisfying. To be honest, I have to (love to!) think about food-I study the various components, forms and reactions each day.

I acquired a beautiful new bowl from my aunt (below), and I had been eyeing a bag of red lentils in my cupboard. By complete luck, I also and roasted chestnuts I randomly* acquired a few weeks ago. I had also been dreaming of Italy, so naturally, chestnut and lentil soup seemed pretty logical. I looked up a few guidelines on how to whip this up, and modified it from here and here. I also read-up on the history of the Abruzzo region in Italy (thank you, Wikipedia…), where the starts of this soup hail from, since both lentils and chestnuts are specialties of the area. Next September, I hope to find myself in L'Aquila celebrating lenticchie (lentils) in the annual festival honoring the regional specialty (really, who else but the Italians would throw a lentil party?). Obviously, I did not get my hands on the real lenticchie traditionally used, so used red lentils. Red lentils cook rather quickly, and to be honest, it was the only type I had on hand! If you use a type that cooks slowly, you will need to simmer the soup longer, and potentially add more liquid to accommodate. As for the chestnuts: I had a bag that were pre-roasted and shelled. You can find these at well stocked grocery stores, especially around the holidays. You could use canned or jarred, simply drain and rinse before using.

The new bowl-the classic cobalt blue and white.
My modifications include: adding a touch of rosemary, pouring in a splash of milk pre-puree for a smoother consistency and adding in a (generous) dashes of freshly grated nutmeg and a drizzle of honey. I also decided, as I usually do with pureed soupy-things, to make a topping of contrasting flavor and toss in a few crunchy elements in the form of toasted walnuts. A few things I would definitely do next time: add more chestnuts, add less liquid, caramelize onions for a sweet-savory flavor base to compliment the chestnuts. I could also live with omitting the dairy-based topping, and subbing it just for some grated salty, hard cheese (parmesan, pecorino, asiago…) and a generous sprinkling of parsley.

Mmm, lentils. 
At any rate, the soup is good: it reminded me of the base for a hearty bean soup, but similar in starchy-thick texture and savory flavor of lentil soup. The chestnuts, I have to admit, did not stand-out as much as I had hoped, so will be adding more next time. Serve with plenty of crusty, warm bread regardless if you decided to adorn with the accouterments above (guides below!). The soup easily re-heats, with a touch of additional liquid to help thin, a few extra dashes of salt and nutmeg. Mangia mangia!

Chestnut and Lentil Soup
Serves 6 generously

1/2 pound (8 ounces) roasted, shelled chestnuts
1 pound (16 ounces) red lentils
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 small, sweet onion
4 cloves garlic, whole and smashed
1 carrot
2 stalks celery
1 cup diced tomatoes, fresh or canned
10 cups vegetable stock
1 bay leaf
generous pinches of each oregano, thyme, marjoram
fresh grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon finely chopped rosemary
1/2 cup roughly chopped parsley plus additional for topping
1/2 cup milk (any kind, except skim)
salt and pepper

Soup Accouterments:

Parsley Cream
1/4 cup grated parmesan
1/2 cup sour cream or yogurt
1 teaspoon honey

Mix all, with fresh parsley to taste by snipping with shears or chopping
Salt and pepper to taste, then dollop on bowls of soup before serving

Garlic-Scented Toasted Walnuts
Toast roughly chopped walnuts in a 375F oven until fragrant, about 10 minutes
Finley grate over 2 cloves of garlic, or to your taste, and toss with the warm nuts for an aromatic experience
Crusty Bread
This on is self-explanatory: get a nice French or Italian style crust bread, slice, and warm in a 350-375F oven to desired crunchy texture.

Large soup pot, preferably heavy bottom to prevent scorching
Wood spoon
Cutting board
Microplane or fine-toothed grater
Blender or immersion blender
Measuring cups
Additional bowls for toasted nuts and parsley cream

Warm the olive oil in the soup pot. Chop the celery, onion and carrots into 1" pieces, roughly, and add to the warmed oil in the pot. Toss in the smashed garlic cloves, and cook the mixture until the onions take-on brown color, and the garlic is soft. Add the tomatoes, salt, pepper, dried herbs, fresh rosemary and parsley, and nutmeg. Stir, using the wooden spoon to scrape off the caramelized vegetable bits from the bottom of the pan.
There is something satisfying about a strong, sturdy wood spoon scraping caramelized bits of vegetable off a cast iron pot….
Add the stock, and the bay leaf. Bring the mixture to a simmer.

Meanwhile, chop the chestnuts and measure the lentils. Add them to the simmering pot, and cover. Simmer over medium-low for about 20 minutes, checking occasionally.

Chopped chestnuts
Once the vegetables, lentils and chestnuts are tender, add the milk and puree the soup using an immersion blender or regular blender (use caution, for the steam in the regular blender may cause the lid to pop-off; I recommend using small batches if using a blender for this reason…and be careful!). You may leave some texture-it is up to your preference. Taste the soup for seasoning, adjusting for your preferences. I added a touch of honey, more salt and nutmeg to suit mine. Return to the heat for a moment, then portion out into bowls, and adorn as desired.

The soup-delicious!