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Sweet Charity

Snickerdoodle

Sweet Charity

Many years ago my parents took me to see a play during the holiday season. This sticks in my mind because I remember that at the end of the play the actors stepped forward and asked for donations to the Actor’s Fund—the same way they do now for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. As the actors were speaking, several people in the audience stood up to leave, one of them grumbling to no one in particular, “Someone always has their hand out!”

(Obviously a certain grumbling someone must have gotten some bad egg nog that day.)

Now, I apologize, but whenever I think about this I chuckle because, 1.) in some absurd way it strikes me as funny, and because 2.) I can always think of better endings to the story. Perhaps he was visited by three ghosts that night, one for Christmas past, one for…oh, sorry, I think that’s been done.

No matter, for the “takeaway” (as they like to say in corporate America) was obviously not gleaned by little me from the stage that night. I don’t have any recollection of what play we were seeing, but the memory of Ebenezer Scrooge, live and in concert has never left me.

Thankfully the reality is that most folks are not like that, although at times we may need just a little reminder to be charitable. Charitable giving seems to get a bit more attention during the holiday season. While much of the attention gets focused on money, there are also the gifts of time and expertise.

A colleague recently drafted me to help with a holiday event she is coordinating on behalf of a children’s hospital that is headquartered at New York Presbyterian Hospital. She is getting a group of Wall Street-types together to sit down and make holiday cards for the kids. She is familiar with my cookie proclivities therefore volunteered my services to feed the volunteers. (I’m not sure if the hospital wants cookies for the kids. I’ll have to find out, but I suspect they are careful about the source of the food they feed the kids.)

The assignment was very specific: “I volunteered you to bake cookies for the people who will be making the cards. I told them you’d make Snickerdoodles. I love those, don’t you?”

Uh-oh. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I can only remember having a Snickerdoodle once in my life and being severely underwhelmed. They were just a touch too, um, “white bread” for my taste. Or are Snickerdoodles like liver: if you haven’t had it properly prepared you shouldn’t judge? (Yes, I just compared a cookie to liver. I like liver. Sorry.)

It gets worse. I can’t step out of the shadow of feeling that the name, “Snickerdoodle” is a touch too precious. The cookie I remember was almost catatonic in its softness, and undistinguished in flavor; a mushy sugar cookie. Who knows, maybe it came from a mix? (Can you imagine?)

I may be stuck with the name, but a dull cookie? From me? Never! How could I “goose” things a bit and make this cookie a bit more interesting? Mind you, I feel a responsibility to not stray too far from the Snickerdoodle’s known identity, but want to make the “best in class.”

Here’s the goal: this cookie is supposed to be a bit crispy on the outside, but a little soft on the inside (a chemical reaction that results from the unusual use of cream of tartar as the leavener). In addition, there should be an even coating of cinnamon and sugar. What is obviously in play here is the amount of cinnamon, and what kind of sugar to use.

Let’s start with the sugar. The basic recipe calls for plain white granulated sugar inside and out. Why not introduce a gentle note of crunch by using a large crystal sugar inside and out? Demerara sugar will give a slightly honey-ed note to the mild-mannered Snickerdoodle, and its large crystals will crackle with each bite. In addition, substituting it for some of the sugar in the batter with keep the cookie’s soft middle from being too mushy.

The cinnamon – sugar coating took a little work to get exactly the balance I wanted, but gave me yet another opportunity to add a little more personality. I started with just the demerara sugar and cinnamon, but the cinnamon took over. I found the right balance with half vanilla sugar, half demerara sugar, and the cinnamon. The result had a touch of cinnamon doughnut—a nice surprise.

Size matters here. I weighed half ounce portions of dough which baked into a cookie slightly larger than two inches in diameter. Any larger and I fear that the cookies may have had the dreaded mushy middles. Instead they have a springy, cakey quality—another happy “doughnutty” note.

A nice, gentle cookie, but the “doughnutty” notes jogged my memory. It is Hanukkah, and last year I was yearning for some kind of baked-not-fried Sufganyot, the little jelly doughnuts that have become such a popular festival of lights treat. A little jelly between two Snickerdoodles and I held in my hand, (ring the bell, please) a Sufganyot cookie. It was like a gift from above.

I mentioned briefly above that I weighed the portions of the dough. It is not a prerequisite. You can accomplish the same thing using a tablespoon, but a good digital scale can be a real time saver for folks who bake a lot. Convert recipes you use a lot to ounces instead of cups. Then you can pour ingredients right from the package into a bowl set on the scale. You’ll save time and get more consistent results. Digital scales make a great holiday gift for bakers too.

(Hint, hint.)

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Click here for the recipe for Snickerdoodles.

If you’re feeling ambitious but need a bit of cookie baking technique and guidance, read the Butter Flour Eggs Cookie Primer 101 for some basic cookie-baking tips.

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The Ronald McDonald House of New York is an amazing facility which provides a temporary “home-away-from-home” for pediatric cancer patients and their families. The Ronald McDonald House is supported entirely by private donations. Please read about this amazing place, and keep them in mind when considering your year-end charity donation.

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

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Back From the Beach

Jordan Marsh Blueberry Cake

This is one of THOSE years: the Labor Day weekend is late and the Jewish holidays are early; in fact, they commence just a couple of days after the weekend. I’m no sooner rinsing the beach sand from my feet when I have to start thinking about dessert for the family Rosh Hashanah dinner — my yearly assignment. Luckily I have had a little something stored in the back of my mind for a few weeks.

When I wrote about blueberries a few weeks ago I mentioned — almost in passing — the famous blueberry muffins from Boston’s beloved but now dearly departed Jordan Marsh department store. I haven’t been able to get those off my mind. When you have an itch you’re not supposed to scratch it, but I’m only human: I can’t resist.

On paper the Jordan Marsh blueberry muffin is an unlikely star: oversized, sugar-crusted, less muffin than cake, and perhaps even a bit on the dry side, although the better for dunking because of it.

(Does anyone still dunk? Never my cup of tea — pardon the pun — dunking was best demonstrated by Clark Gable in the movie “It Happened One Night.” Yeah, they still call them “Dunkin’ Donuts” but I don’t think anyone still does. Please correct me if I am wrong.)

Ask any Bostonian, current or former, about the Jordan Marsh muffin and you will likely get some kind of fond memories recalled about Aunties or Grandmothers bringing them on visits, not to mention quick side trips to “Jawdin’s” bakery counter whilst in the store on other business. While muffins are usually reserved for breakfast or Hollywood gift giving (muffin baskets are big business out there), we were never shy about occasionally eating the Jordan Marsh muffins for dessert.

Like dunking, the Jordan Marsh blueberry muffin is no doubt the product of a different age. For a big chunk of the mid-twentieth century, the big department stores always had in-house bakeries. Granted many, including Macy’s (which absorbed the Jordan Marsh chain some years ago), still do. But with rare exceptions the fare is trucked in from a vendor. The stuff they sell is hit or miss. The old time department store bakery was likely a bit more modest in scope, with muffins, cakes, cookies, and brownies (the Jordan Marsh nostalgia silver medalist) being the focus. I have a fond memory of my Mom returning home with a B. Altman’s Chocolate Cake from a trip accompanying my Dad to New York City. That was a few years ago — B. Altman’s is a library now — but I remember that big swirly-frosted cake as if it was last week. The latter will likely produce a phone call from my Mom remarking on my elephantine memory.

But I mention that cake as an illustration of the aesthetic I am trying to highlight. I can’t say for sure that everything those bakeries sold was golden, but it was good dependable stuff that didn’t try too hard.

This brings us back to blueberry muffins and an early Rosh Hashanah. I thought it might be nice to let summer influence the choice of desserts this year. They usually are tinged with the rustier flavors and colors of the fall season, like my pumpkin cake from last year. This year they’ll be bright and summery, and the aforementioned idea of serving blueberry muffins for dessert seems apt.

Two problems, or shall I say, minor roadblocks, require equally minor detours: The first is that “Jawdin’s” is gone and so are their muffins. The second is that I can’t serve muffins at a holiday dinner. Serving muffins as dessert is a cute trick best saved for another time.

Luckily, I can easily swerve around both roadblocks. Jordan Marsh may be gone, but with a bit of internet digging the real, real, recipe (as opposed to the real recipe) is not hard to find. And if I don’t want to serve muffins for dessert I can just pour the batter into a cake pan or two and serve it as a cake.

I did just that, using two five inch cake pans which gave them great height. But feel free to use one standard eight or nine inch pan.

My only real problem was my own nagging desire to bring my own twist to this recipe. Luckily a little experimentation quickly made me retreat from that idea. I thought it might be nice to serve this as a real cake, including frosting. Bad idea. I tried a simple white frosting which had the double whammy of making the whole thing too sweet while completely obliterating the blueberry flavor. Ditto a really nice lemon frosting: triple whammy. Too sweet, no blueberry, all lemon.

So, going back to basics, I decided to let the cake shine as is, in all its basic mid-century home-spun glory, kind of like an edible version of thumbing through an old copy of Life Magazine. For the holiday dinner, if I decide to gild the lily at all it will be by dabbing a bit of barely sweetened whipped cream on the plate, as much for looks as for the blueberries and cream simulation.

Bear in mind that the highlights of these muffins, the crunchy sugar crown, the thick brown crust, and the abundance of blueberries are the things that require just the slightest extra attention while mixing the batter: be sure to carefully fold in the blueberries with a rubber spatula using caution to break the berries as little as possible. And the sugary, crusty crown? Just use a heavy hand with the sugar. As with any muffin, mix this relatively heavy batter as little as possible.

And if you’ve just got to make muffins, I say, “Go for it,” but be sure to fill the muffin tins almost to the top so they develop a big crunchy “crown,” Don’t use paper liners or you won’t get the trademark brown crust.

Everybody out of the water! Fall is here!

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Click here for the recipe for “Jordan Marsh Blueberry Cake.”

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

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Christmas in July (The Figgy Pudding part anyway…)

Semolina Fig Cake

fa la la la la...

Over the past several days I have been noticing that retailers — both on line and off — are trying to use what may turn out to be one of the hottest summers on record to their advantage. The other day while channel surfing I happened upon a show on QVC devoted solely to Christmas trees and wreaths. The show’s title (you guessed it) was Christmas In July. Well heck, these folks don’t trade in subtlety, they trade in cubic zirconia.

Can you blame them for trying? The thought of the holiday season may have a cooling effect on some folks, others will be enticed to start their shopping early, and still others — like me — watch in amusement from the artificial winter of my air conditioned living room.

As I sat watching the various ways you can adjust the trees to flash their twinkling lights, my air conditioner faithfully fighting off Mother Nature’s sticky panting, I thought of the song “We Wish You A Merry Christmas,” most notably the line that beckons, “Oh bring us a figgy pudding.” (I would think of food.)

Wait. Did I think of the song or was it playing in the background as the host of the show demonstrated how the remote control on the battery powered wreath works?

No matter: it put the thought of figs in my mind. Fresh figs, happily, are actually in season during the summer months, unlike the PVC wreaths flashing their LED lights in tempo to “Jingle Bells.”

I love Christmas and the entire holiday season, but I hew to a different vocabulary of tastes during the summer months: a better way of putting it would be to say “a time and a taste for everything.” (Sounds like a T shirt slogan. On sale in the lobby gift shop.)

During the summer I gravitate towards lighter foods, and things with brighter, fresher flavors. That does not mean that cake is out of the question. In fact when the thought of figs came to mind so did an old recipe of mine, one that I’ve been anxious to revisit for quite a while. It’s the first recipe I ever wrote that got published. Make that ghost-published.

You see, I have a friend who spends a great deal of time away from New York, so when he’s in town we always try to get together and catch up. Usually this involves gabbing in a Chinese restaurant until the staff makes it abundantly clear that they’d like us to leave. One time a few years ago he came over for coffee and cake.

He liked the cake so much that he asked for the recipe. A while later, with my permission, he volunteered the recipe for a book that was sold for charity, adding an amusing back-story that bore no relation to the truth. Did I care? No! I had published my first recipe. (I have no idea how well the book sold.)

The funny thing is that when I baked the cake I faced a kitchen with dwindling supplies, including – uh-oh – not enough sugar.

So, winging it with whatever I had in the cupboard, I came up with an adaptation of a basic Italian Olive Oil cake recipe that was satisfyingly plain. Don’t confuse plain with boring, because the cake was flavorful, moist, and had an unexpectedly hearty crumb. (Is using the term “crumb” a little high-falutin’? Apologies. It sounds like we’re having a cake tasting the way folks have wine tastings, but instead of comparing bouquets we’re comparing crumbs. A slippery slope. I promise to use caution.)

Some people hear the words “olive oil” and “cake” in the same sentence and get a little worried. If you’ve cooked with olive oil you know it usually has a scent that ranges from grassy green to turpentine. In salads or cooking that’s usually not a problem; in chocolate chip cookies this could be objectionable. But with the right cohorts olive oil can be a welcome addition to the sweet part of the meal.

Just like when you’re making chicken, a touch of lemon is compatible with olive oil. Maple syrup lends a bit caramel, and vanilla adds…well, vanilla.

The real difference is using semolina flour. This adds a texture, color, and a slightly sweeter grain flavor than plain flour. The result is like a big, moist corn muffin with hints of undecipherable influences. It’s good cake, and I thought, perfect for a re-visit, fresh figs in hand.

The figs I found were just on the cusp of going past their prime, so I carefully diced them (a serrated knife helped), and gently folded them into the batter. For a touch of crunch I sprinkled Demerara sugar on top before baking, the large sugar crystals lending a touch of molasses crunch to the finished cake. The figs dissolved slightly into the finished cake, but not enough that the little pop-pop-pop of their seeds – a la “Fig Newtons”—was lost. Their gentle honey flavor mellowed a bit, mixing beautifully with the other sweet ingredients. It all sounds kind of icky sweet, but in truth, not so much. Mellow is the best adjective here.

A perfect light summer dessert, yes, but not a bad choice with coffee, even for breakfast.

And this time the recipe’s all mine. No ghosts.

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Click here for my Semolina Fig Cake recipe.

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

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As Seen On TV!

Tomato Tart

Tomato Tart

Attention infomercial marketers: I am your perfect audience. Well, kind of. Let me explain.

It is frighteningly easy to get me to sit and watch an infomercial. Just the other day I tarried in front of the TV for a screening of Joan Rivers’ latest epic “Great Hair Day”, which consists of a little comb and make up set that allows those stricken with thinning hair to “camouflage” the thin spots. I couldn’t tear myself away.

Cathy Mitchell and the Xpress Redi-Set-Go cooker? Who wouldn’t love to live in a house where the kitchen has a series of what are basically little round waffle irons that will cook you a restaurant-quality steak in minutes, a freshly baked chocolate cake, and a breakfast tortilla – all without ever having to turn on your stove?

The one that truly rings my bell though is the Topsy-Turvy tomato growing “system” (“system” being one of the infomercial marketer’s key buzz words.) This wise invention will allow you to grow tomatoes anywhere, upside down, basically turning a tomato plant into a hanging plant. You water the top of the plant which is now the roots: the fruit are now at the bottom. If I recall correctly, the infomercial even shows the plant hanging on a typically urban fire escape like we have here in the Big Apple.

I just can’t believe that whoever wrote that ever lived in New York City. Even if you are lucky enough to have a building Super or landlord who will look the other way while your tomato plant trots them out of compliance with fire laws, the squirrels will nab your tomatoes before you can say, “vinaigrette.” (New York City squirrels are notoriously smart. It’s just a matter of time before one of them runs for Mayor. Buh-dum-dum.)

Sadly, here’s where I go lacking as an infomercial audience member: I never order anything from these shows. Call me cheap, or discerning, as long as you spell my name correctly. I did once order a set of environmentally-friendly cookware from Home Shopping Network, opened the box, immediately closed the box and sent them back. (Money back guarantee. Need I say more?)

Anyway, living in New York you really don’t need to grow tomatoes on your fire escape, as we have several excellent farmers’ markets. Buying tomatoes at a farmer’s market is my version of the Topsy Turvy, and – to quote many an infomercial – that’s not all: I also get to support folks who are trying to make a living as farmers.

This past weekend I was able to find an ample supply of heirloom tomatoes. Heirloom tomatoes are grown from older seed stocks than those that produce the usual perfect round red fruit to which we’ve become accustomed. My purchases included a variety that looked like a variegated red oblong balloon that had been slightly overinflated and a big plump variety whose sunny yellow practically screamed, “Summer!”

I’m usually pretty good at buying only what I think I will eat within a day or two, but enthusiasm – and hunger – must have gotten the better of me. I can only eat so many salads and slices of tomato with mozzarella. I needed to use up my excess.

I decided a Tomato Tart was perfect for this exercise. While Tomato Tart shares DNA with pizza, it is actually closer in temperament to quiche, but really it is just a gratin in a tart crust. Kind of simple and the type of thing you can eat hot from the oven or cool with a salad for a refreshing dinner on a stinky hot summer night.

Because I can’t resist fiddling with what is likely already good enough I decided to channel a collaboration between my (imaginary) ex-hippie Italian Grandmother, and Alice Waters. (Imaginary) Grandma created a semolina pastry crust (the semolina again adding a bit of sunny color to the proceedings) and Alice Waters added a bit of locally-produced Goat Cheese to the white sauce that serves as a glue holding the tomatoes in the crust.

Because the heat has made me a little lazy (or unmotivated?) I made a crust that didn’t need to be rolled. The semolina crust is by nature sandier than a normal crust, so I just dumped it from the mixing bowl into the tart tin and pressed it evenly around with my fingers and the flat bottom of a measuring cup.

If calling it a Tomato Tart seems too “frou-frou” for your tastes, feel free to call it a Tomato Pie. I baked mine in a French tart tin, but you can use a rectangular baker or Pyrex lasagna dish and get the same result.

Don’t be afraid of salt with the tart: tomatoes and salt are well known for collaborating happily. Use a softer salt like sea salt: mine has a liberal sprinkle of flaky sea salt, and a snowy drift of good grated Parmesan on top before baking (or reheating) will add a bit of brine too.

Now, will someone explain to me how “HD Sunglasses” work? (Just saw them on TV.)

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Click here for the recipe for Tomato Tart.

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

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Holiday On Ice

Chocolate Red Velvet Cupcakes

Chocolate Red Velvet Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Meringue

Like many New Yorkers, my kitchen is air conditioned only on special occasions. As luck would have it, I have several friends and family members whose birthdays fall during the summer. I grew up in a house where birthdays were always marked by a cake, so as an adult I feel compelled to extend the courtesy by baking birthday cakes for my friends. Those are the special occasions when I crank the kitchen a/c to its chilliest setting, which, to my liking, is just short of snowfall.

This weekend as our nation celebrates its birthday (“234?? You don’t look a day over…”) I’m lucky enough to have a friend who has invited me to watch the big fireworks display from her rooftop aerie. I’m using the description “rooftop aerie” more for fun than for accuracy. The truth is, her apartment is relatively modest, although she does have a postcard view of the Empire State Building and shared use of the roof. I’m not sure if her kitchen is air conditioned, even on special occasions. I’m too shy to ask. The question “Is your kitchen air conditioned?” seems a tad too close to “Is your refrigerator running?” for my comfort. I’m a little long in the tooth for what we used to refer to as “chicken calls.”

(You don’t remember “chicken calls?” When we were kids we’d pick folks at random from the phone book, call them, ask, “Is your refrigerator running?” and when they’d say, “Yes” we’d say, “Well you better run and catch it!” and then hang up.)

(Yes, I know it’s not funny. But I was – what – 8 or 9 years old? Where I grew up this was practically considered gang warfare.)

(No, I didn’t learn to cook at the reformatory.)

My second favorite modern convenience, after air conditioning – caller ID – has all but eliminated the scourge of chicken calls.

I am worried about the relative coolness of her kitchen because of the all American menu that has been planned — take out Chinese food and my cupcakes. The Chinese food can take care of itself: I’m worried about the cupcakes. If her kitchen is hot I’ll worry about them sitting out on the counter too long (The frosting will melt.) I also have what they refer to as a scheduling problem, that is, I don’t really have time Saturday or Sunday to bake and frost cupcakes. My only choice is to make them a few days ahead, and then stare fear in the eye by calling ahead to reserve fridge space.

Unlike Mrs. Weasley in the “Harry Potter” books, I don’t have the skills to wave a magic wand and make food appear. So, instead of magic, I’ll let chemistry do the work. I know that many folks insist that you can only bake cookies and cakes with butter. I, however, do not subscribe to such absolutes in baking (or in much else, to be honest.)

Bakers down south have agreed with this tenet for years. True Southern Red Velvet Cake is made with oil, not butter. Aside from making a lighter, springier, cake, oil has the further advantage of solidifying at a lower temperature than butter. What this means for me and you is that we can bake cakes with oil, store them in the refrigerator, and they’ll be light and springy right out of the fridge, unlike butter cakes which need some time to come up to room temperature. In addition, cakes made with oil freeze and thaw beautifully.

All of this got me to thinking about my sister-in-law. One of the “givens” of any chocolate cake made within my family is that it must be large enough for left-overs. After the stress of a long day’s work my sister-in-law eats forks-full right out the box without even removing it from the refrigerator. (And she’s what my Auntie used to refer to as a “mere slip of a thing.”) The point is, sometimes chocolate cake tastes better on the cool side.

On a warm summer Fourth of July night under the stars a nice cool piece of cake would be yummy. Frosting and fireworks. That’s my kind of holiday. Chocolate frosting is okay cold, although I admit it is better when the chill is off. There must be a frosting that tastes good and is the perfect consistency right from the fridge. (Not to mention saving me the round trip down stairs from my friend’s rooftop aerie to take the cupcakes out of the fridge to warm up.) Clearly it was time to get to work in the Butter Flour Eggs Frosting Lab.

I had already decided to bake Chocolate Red Velvet Cupcakes, an oil-based recipe. Red Velvet Cake is usually frosted with a cream cheese frosting but I usually frost Chocolate Cake with Italian Buttercream, which is a cooked meringue beaten with butter. It is smooth and fluffy. Splitting the difference seemed to be the obvious answer, as in Cream Cheese Meringue. I made the meringue as usual, and then beat in the cream cheese. The result was a bit loose, but the advantage of that was that instead of standing frosting cupcakes I merely dipped the tops of the cupcakes in the frosting. Each one came out smooth and perfect, with a little “Dairy Queen” swirly top that drooped as the cupcakes sat a while which lessened the cupcakes’ appeal not a bit.

Yes, yes, I know, Italian Meringue requires you to cook sugar to a specific temperature, and by extension requires the use of a candy thermometer. Never fear. You can substitute a jar or two of Marshmallow Fluff and beat that together with the cream cheese. The result will be a bit sweeter, and perhaps slightly overpower the delicate Chocolate Red Velvet cake, but that fear may be a reflection of my own preference for making things from scratch. Short of a blind side-by-side taste test who’s gonna know?

Either way, they’re Yankee Doodle dandy.

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Click here for the recipe for Chocolate Red Velvet Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Meringue.

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

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Roamin’ Holiday

Farinata

Farinata

The diary would start something like this: “Summer, day 2 / 102 days to go.” My summer travelogue diary would record my grand tour of the world’s “must-see” places, and all the amazing sights seen, sounds heard, and foods eaten along the way.

But the big reveal here is that I have neither the wanderlust nor the time that such a grand tour would require. Oh, there’s also a small detail — money — that I forgot to mention. Ho hum.

Well, that’s okay: I need neither time nor money to paint the globe red. In fact, I can pack a whirlwind summer tour into one hot, sticky, (and air conditioned) summer night. All I need is the right food, and a DVD or two. Full disclosure: none of these movies was made after 1960; Europe may have changed a touch since then.

We’ll start in the hot desert, Marrakech to be specific. Marrakech? “Mmmm, sounds like a drink,” to steal a quote from our first film. James Stewart and Doris Day are travelling with their young son in “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” The desert heat wafting up from the North African sand in this Alfred Hitchcock-directed thriller will make you parched and thirsty, so be sure to have a tall, cool drink nearby – this may be a good chance to crack open an icy bottle of Rosé for those so inclined. If, like me, you find your thirst is quenched by something a bit tamer, then join me for a pitcher of iced Red Zinger tea. Red Zinger is slightly sweet, so use a light hand with the sugar, and a heavy hand with the ice. By the way, Doris Day sings “Que Sera” in this flick, and watch for the scene where Day and Stewart try to eat Tagine with their hands.

Next we’re off to historic Rome for a “Roman Holiday” with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. What I have always loved about this film is that it is a lot like a travelogue featuring two movie stars, and – oh yeah—there’s a sweet love story too. If you’ve ever wondered what the big deal was about Audrey Hepburn, this movie will show you. Watch for the scene where she dances with her barber, and he pauses to adjust her bangs: a moment that does nothing to advance the plot, but does everything to advance the charm of the characters. All of this running around sunny Rome will make you hungry for a bit of pasta. I’m craving Orecchiette with Roasted Red Pepper Pesto.

Be careful of too many carbs though, because we’re hitting the beach next; You’ll want to look good in your bathing suit, right? We’re hanging on the French Riviera with Grace Kelly and Cary Grant in “To Catch A Thief.” Possibly the most glamorous movie ever made (c’mon, Cary Grant + Grace Kelly + the French Riviera=glamour) this may also be the most humorous of Hitchcock’s films. I don’t know why, but the aforementioned carb warning aside, this movie always makes me crave ice cream. A dab of gelato anyone? While you are eating the gelato, be sure to watch for the scene where Kelly plants a big kiss on Grant – and listen for the wobbly muted trumpet that underscores the kiss. It’s a hint of the frothy romance to follow, and is Hitchcock’s way of saying, “Don’t take this too seriously, folks.”

All of this makes me think of a conversation I had recently with an associate who just returned from the Southern Italian region of Cinque Terre. A busy executive, she spent an afternoon at her favorite area restaurant making pasta with an elderly Italian woman. The elderly Italian woman has been making the pasta there for countless years, and was laughing, having fun, and full of life. All of this reminded my associate that there’s a whole lot more out there than just the world of business. Cooking a good meal will do that for you.

I have never been to Cinque Terre, but I know the rich, green Ligurian Olive Oil that is pressed there. What I have never had is a local favorite snack called Farinata. Farinata is a flatbread made from chickpea flour, and baked in a well seasoned cast iron skillet in a roaring hot oven. It’s easy to make, casual to serve, and –I think—one of the great undiscovered bar foods. Mixed nuts with your cocktail? No thanks. A wedge or two of this savory, deceptively rich flatbread will make that extra dry martini go down cold and clean on a hot summer night. This is one of those great amalgamations of textures, a toasty crust, a crunchy edge, and a soft interior that will draw comparisons to potato pancakes. Very satisfying.

I don’t have a cast iron skillet, and my apartment-sized oven doesn’t get as hot as a real wood-fired brick oven, but my Farinata came out just fine. Keep this easy treat in mind this summer if you want to serve “a little somethin’” with pre-Barbecue drinks.

Cary Grant would approve.

Happy Summer!

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Click here for the recipe for Farinata.

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

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Spitting and Fuming

Watermelon Ice with Seeds

Watermelon Ice with Seeds

A  couple of nights ago I met up with a couple of friends at an outdoor cafe. I had the grilled salmon: Salmony, but still rather good. But that’s not why you called. At some point the conversation turned to modern technology. In my own defense: I am not a technophobe. After all, I built this blog with my own two mitts, I own a rather technically advanced cell phone, and I set up my own Wi-Fi network at the Butter Flour Eggs World Headquarters. Yet, during this conversation, something snapped. Let’s just say that my inner Andy Rooney came frothing forth like a certain real housewife ready to tip over a table.

“It isn’t the technology,” I fumed, “It’s the way people use it. If one more person walks into me from behind without even the courtesy of an “Excuse me” because they have their head buried in their BlackBerry, I’m going to knock the thing out of their hands and throw it under the wheels of the next available taxi.”

To which one of my friends sniffed, “I’ll tell you what it is: it’s bad breeding.”

Yikes! I can just imagine what people eavesdropping on our conversation must have thought of us. But it was with that mindset that I went to the market to buy Watermelon for this week’s blog and was greeted by seedless Watermelon.

No, seedless Watermelon isn’t new to me; it has been out there for a few years. But in my cranky mood (and yes, clearly someone needed a nap) I looked at it and was somewhat offended by its seeming lack of modesty about its aesthetic incompleteness. It sat on its bed of ice, smiling at me with a big, pink, toothless grin.

The great masters have included Watermelon in their still life repertoire down through the ages, the ripe fuchsia melon always proudly speckled with little black seeds. Then we come along and change the game. What’s next: a horseless Merry-Go-Round? Barber poles without stripes? Ocean liners without smokestacks? (Okay, just how old am I?)

Of course, I like and embrace the purpose behind seedless technology: no spitting. It’s the visual that just doesn’t work for me.

I mentioned in my blog last week that I recently added an ice cream maker to my kitchen tool belt. Someone please knock the thing out of my hands and throw it under the wheels of the next available taxi. It is addictive. In an effort to stay on the healthy side of the (diet) law I am going to try and confine myself to sorbets, although you should not be surprised if a Creamsicle recipe shows up here before Labor Day.

That’s why I was shopping for Watermelon. I was craving Watermelon Ice. I doubt you’ll find a better remedy for a burning hot summer day. The seedless Watermelon reminded me though, that Watermelon Ice suffers from the same aesthetic deficiency as seedless Watermelon: no seeds. And without seeds it’s just sweet pink ice…yet you can’t really have seeds in Watermelon Ice. Can you?

What to do?

Whenever I am faced with a problem like this I usually assume that the answer is to add chocolate. This time was no exception — news that should make my Sister-In-Law very happy. If the Watermelon has no seeds, then I’ll add my own, in the guise of very edible, very unspit-able, chocolate chips.

Do I hear the sharp intake of breath that signals your collective skepticism at the combination of chocolate and Watermelon? Fear not. Unconventional, yes; unpalatable, a resounding no. Don’t forget: chocolate runs hot, cold, and frozen. The sharp crunch of the frozen chocolate chips masquerading as Watermelon seeds is a happy addition to the icy, delicately sweetened Watermelon, especially since the deep freeze mutes the chocolate, rendering it one half of a very happy buddy system of flavors. Make no mistake: this is not frozen water with a hint of Watermelon flavor. This is unmistakably Watermelon with a capital “W”, cold and as summery as a picnic table with a plastic gingham tablecloth.

The ice itself is fairly simple to make, if perhaps a bit time consuming. Chop the melon, strain the juice, add a touch of sugar and the Ice Cream freezer does the rest. Yes, you can make this without an Ice Cream freezer, but if you choose to do so be prepared for a slightly harder, icier consistency. This is not necessarily a bad thing; the Ice Cream freezer makes a slightly suppler ice that is easier to scoop. And the bonus is that once you’ve mastered Watermelon ice you have a year-round trick up your sleeve: Honeydew Ice in the fall is a nice treat, perhaps with white chocolate chips playing the seeds.

Ahhhhh. All of the sudden, I’m not so cranky anymore.

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Click here for the recipe for Watermelon Ice.

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

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Is it the good turtle soup? (Or merely the mock?)

Cherry Cordial Frozen Yogurt

Of course the lyric of the Cole Porter song quoted here was all about discerning true love from mere passing fancy. (For the uninitiated, Cole Porter wrote many hit songs along with film and Broadway scores. Unfortunately he passed on before getting the opportunity to write for Beyoncé.)

However, I, true to form and blog content, am writing about food, in this case, frozen confections. Last week I wrote about desserts made with fresh cherries, and mentioned in passing what a shame it was that I didn’t have an ice cream freezer handy. Happily that has now been remedied and I am ready to freeze all manner of dairy products.

This isn’t my first time at the freezer, folks. I go back to the days of bagged ice, rock salt, and hand cranks. Let me tell you: hand cranked ice cream is manual labor, a clever trade off where you burn calories and then eat them back while hopefully avoiding the dreaded “ice cream headache.” Happily I have joined the twenty-first century: my Kitchen Aid now does all the work.

I should back up here for a moment and explain that I was all ready to write about something completely different this week. But the combination of fresh cherries waiting in my refrigerator, a rueful note from a friend about a late-nineties Cherry Garcia addiction, and the stinky-hot weather got me in the mood for making ice cream. Yet, something nagged at me, and I believe it was called vanity. I was afraid that with an ice cream freezer in hand I would shortly become a candidate for “The Biggest Loser.”

Thus my new mission: lowering the guilt quotient of frozen desserts (you can tell I mean business here because I used “thus” to start this sentence.) Clearly I have my work cut out for me; Ben, Jerry, and many others have been working on this mission for a very long time.

The science of ice cream is not a straightforward one. Indeed, Penn State has a world renowned course dedicated to ice cream science, nicknamed “Cow to Cone”; this is no mere “gut” course (although if you stop by Penn State’s Berkey Creamery enough you’ll have one. (A gut, I mean. Pardon the pun.))

Big companies have long been studying ways to compensate for the thin flavor and underwhelming mouth feel of low fat ice cream. What makes me think I could do any better? I don’t. I’m not out to remake the world of ice cream, I’m just looking to have something cool and delicious waiting in the freezer after a hot, stinky day. If I can manage to keep it healthy too then I’ll consider it icing on the cake (again, you’ll please pardon the pun.)

So, with lowered expectations well in hand I got work. I happen to be a big fan of Greek Yogurt. Even the low fat versions tend to be thick, creamy, and very satisfying. What if I combined the cherries and chocolate from last week’s blog with Greek Yogurt and took them for a spin in my new ice cream freezer? Sounds promising.

I combined a 37.5 ounce container of plain 2% Fage Greek Yogurt with two teaspoons of vanilla and five packets of Stevia-based sweetener, a supposedly healthy, herb-based non-sugar sweetener. I’m not big on artificial sweeteners, but I thought this would be a good occasion to take this one for a test drive.

Following the Kitchen Aid’s directions, I let that mixture spin around in the freezer for fifteen minutes before adding a cup and a half of sliced, pitted cherries, and a half cup of milk chocolate that I had cut into chocolate chip-sized chunks. (Slicing and pitting the cherries was the most labor intense part of the project, but even that was easier than cranking an ice-locked freezer. I pitted and sliced the cherries while sitting and watching TV. No biggie.)

The result just out of the ice cream freezer was still very soft, but very tangy, and with a pronounced cherry flavor – no doubt the sliced cherries gave up some of their juice as they were knocked around by the ice cream freezer’s dasher. Pinkberry came to mind, but better due the chewy cherries and chocolate that popped up with each bite.

After finishing the frozen yogurt with an extended stay in the freezer I dug in with crazed anticipation. Or I should say I tried to dig in: the frozen yogurt was frozen solid, and required well over a half hour before being ready to scoop and serve. Once scoop-able I thought it tasted even better, the intense cold muting some of the overly bright notes of the yogurt, the stevia, and the cherries.

But it was the texture that was a bit of a letdown, too icy in spots, and too “melty” in other spots, with no compromise in sight. Clearly science caught up with me and won. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the stuff was still delicious, cool, refreshing, and all about the fresh cherries. So, yes, it is definitely the mock turtle soup, but still yummy. (I’m not publishing a formal recipe. For now let’s consider this a work in progress.)

My next attempt will find me substituting a bit of honey for the stevia. The natural glycerin in the honey may help the freezing qualities of the yogurt. We’ll see. I’ll happily trade a few carbs for a better consistency. I’ll report the results to you in this venue, but for now I’ll get to work on that second batch.

No, don’t worry about me. It’s okay: I’ll make the sacrifice.

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Read about my talented friend Fabiana Lee and her hand-crafted empanadas in The New York Times.

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Q: How do you make chocolate bark?

Cherry Cordial Tart

A: Pull its tail.

Sorry. I never met a corny joke I didn’t like. Cherries are a different story. With apologies to lovers of Cherry Pie I must reveal that I can’t abide cooked cherries. Uncooked? Yes. Love ‘em. Cooked? I’ll pass. I think it’s a texture thing, although I think it may also be a taste thing too. Straight from the refrigerator they are so cool and refreshing. Why jump through the proverbial hoop of cooking them?

With all the fresh cherries now showing up in markets everywhere I know the expectation may be for one of those lattice-topped pies to appear in this venue, but I’m afraid the lattice work will, for now, be relegated to the trellis in the garden of my imaginary Hamptons beach house.

(One can dream, yes?)

In the meantime there are fresh cherries to eat. Here’s the thing though: If I’m sitting at home alone after a long day, I have no problem eating the cherries and spitting the pits into a small dish. But if there are other folks present I become self-conscious of such behavior. Perhaps I am overly sensitive. My friends and family are a non-judgmental group and wouldn’t take offense at a bit of cherry pit removal (a/k/a spitting), yet I still think there’s a better way.

Now, I know I said I don’t like cooked cherries, but that doesn’t mean that I hang up my apron during cherry season. The desserts that follow are baked, yes, but my dirty little secret is that I add the cherries uncooked at the end. 

One obvious solution here is shortcake. We’ve been enjoying uncooked strawberries in shortcake desserts for eons, so why not extend that courtesy to cherries? But instead of making a sandwich of the fruit, whipped cream, and biscuit why not turn the whole thing on end and fill a jelly roll with slightly sweetened, kirsch-spiked whipped cream and serve sliced, pitted cherries on top? Folks who don’t like “boozy” desserts can leave out the kirsch, or substitute vanilla. You can also bake the jelly roll recipe as directed then instead of rolling it, slice it into squares and make your sandwich using that instead of the biscuit.

Don’t think that I am ignoring the cherry’s magical, symbiotic relationship with chocolate. Li-Lac Chocolates here in New York has long been famous for their Cherry Cordial chocolates. As much as I admire the fine work that goes into making an artisanal product like that, every time I bite into a Cherry Cordial I can’t help but wish that there was just chocolate and cherry but no goo in the filling.

Here’s my chance to make things – or at least cherries – the way I want them. I have married the best features of Cherry Pie to the best features Chocolate Bark (How do you make…oh sorry. I did that already.) Call it Cherry Cordial Tart.

I prebaked a bit of Pâte Sucré dough in a classic rectangular tart tin. Once the pastry cooled, I poured in a layer of gently melted good milk chocolate, then patiently lined up rows of sliced, pitted fresh cherry halves.

The gimmick is that you’re really making two desserts here. Eaten now, the lukewarm melted milk chocolate becomes like a sauce for the cherries. Eaten later, after a rest in the fridge, it becomes Cherry Chocolate Bark. (What’s amazing is how much more of it you can eat while the chocolate is still warm. It’s very smooth.) My illustration above shows a dab of whipped cream. It is totally unneeded, except to dress up the plate.

Another slightly more portable variation is to use a very simple shortbread cookie dough cut into two or three-inch rounds. Dip them in or paint them with the chocolate, and place the cherry halves on top.

As I write this, I feel compelled to run out and buy an ice cream maker (the late hour makes it unlikely that I will find a local store open. Hmmmm. The internet is still open…) What could be better than my fresh cherries swirled into home-made vanilla ice cream? I could swirl in a bit of the melted milk chocolate – the freezer doing a bit of passive labor to transform the slippery melted chocolate into chunks that would play a counter melody to the chewiness of the deeply chilled cherries.

(I’ll experiment and report back to you.)

Now that’s a dream that doesn’t have to wait until I get that Hamptons beach house.

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

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Sic Semper Chocolate Cookies

Blackberry Tart - deconstructed

Blackberry Tart - deconstructed

A trainer at my gym related an experience he had a few nights ago. Just to set the scene, this guy is in tip-top condition; not an ounce of body fat. A seemingly virtuous paragon of discipline and self control.

Until the cookies called his name.

He reported that he woke up in the middle of the night and could not get back to sleep because a package of chocolate cookies was calling his name. He ate the entire package before returning to sleep.

Some of you reading this may think, “Well, if he has such discipline, one slip like that isn’t going to kill him.”

My reaction veers more toward relief: Relief that my struggle with will power is not as abnormal as I think. Relief that even those among us who seem to be paragons of self-control have their own “moments.”

And, relief that I am not the only one on a first name basis with his cookies.

Of course, it is my own darn fault. Nobody puts a gun to my head and orders me to bake cookies.

With that swirling in my mind, a friend called and invited me to a barbecue this weekend. Would I mind bringing dessert? (Is the Pope…?)

Fasten your seatbelts and get ready for the usual onslaught of news stories about how this is the “unofficial first weekend of summer.” For some folks this may mean that it is time to head over to Kmart for a new inflatable pool, but for me it means (and yes, I can tell you’re way ahead of me here) the official first weekend of summer eating.

Everyone loves the warm weather (except for pale, sweaty me.) But, I think there’s an unacknowledged caveat here: in the warm weather we have less material with which we can camouflage our various bodily flaws. So yes, everyone loves the summer, but everyone is self-conscious about this bump or that bulge (or both, in my case.)

Under the circumstances, I feel guilty foisting my usual parade of sweets upon a sun-baked, half naked, will power-compromised audience.  I sympathize: if I eat enough of my own desserts, it’ll be hard to distinguish me from the pool float, so light and easy does it.

A trip to the market answered all doubts about my ability to provide something summery, sweet, and light (ish), but still hit the proverbial “dessert spot.” (I can’t stand getting home from a party and feeling like I need to root through my fridge for a little something, so I want to make sure the other barbecuees will be equally sweet tooth sated. I take the request, “Will you bring dessert?” as a job description, not a social nicety.)

This week, California blackberries and strawberries are in abundance and cheap at the market. There’s the backbone of my Memorial Day dessert right there, yes, but the question remains: what to do with them?

The berries are very sweet and juicy, so it would be a shame to bake them into a pie or crisp. Nevertheless, dumping them in a bowl, even with whipped cream seems anticlimactic. What if I made a pie – deconstructed? Perhaps I’ve been watching too much of the last half hour of “Iron Chef” (the only part of the show I like; that’s when they eat) but here’s an example of what I mean: You and I both know what an Ice Cream Sandwich is, right? But as seen through the lens of a pastry chef, an Ice Cream Sandwich is really just ice cream and cookies. You could serve them in any order and still call it an ice cream sandwich, granted, at times what a pastry chef serves may be stretching the name of the item to the limit.

(Some years back we had a happy family meal with our 90-plus year old aunt at one of “superstar” chef Bradley Ogden’s restaurants. Auntie reveled in the whole thing, giggling like a schoolgirl as the waiter described the ranch from which her Veal Chop was sourced. Dessert time rolled around and the chef presented us with an extra dessert, Fresh Citrus Agar. As we dug in, we all had the same reaction: “Oh! Lemon Jello!” Yes, we are a sophisticated bunch.)

But I digress from my digression. The point is that I can do whatever I darn well please with my berries and crust, and still call it a pie or tart.

I checked my freezer and found some Pâte Sucré waiting for an assignment. (Doesn’t everyone?)

(Pâte Sucré is the slightly sweeter version of pie crust.)

When I was a waiter, I used to see the old cliché berry tarts all the time: fluted crust, frangipane filling, and berries glazed to within an inch of their lives. Delicious, yes. Berries in their natural state? No. For Memorial Day I’m stripping away some of the varnish.

I started by rolling the thawed Pâte Sucré to ¼” thick, and cutting 3” diameter round disks. Before baking I washed them with egg and sanded them with granulated sugar. As they baked briefly in the hot oven, they puffed slightly. The result is like a dryer version of puff pastry, the dryness being desirable because I’m not a fan of puff pastry, which always seems tasteless and greasy to me.

I dabbed a bit of Crème Fraiche on the cooled rounds, and plopped a few chilled blackberries on top. Other rounds got Chambord-spiked whipped cream and sliced strawberries, the latter being too plump whole to fit on the pastry. An ample sprinkling of Demerara sugar added sweetness, a bit of amber twinkle, and a soft crackle in the mouth. Three or four of these little pastries on a plate swiped with very, very soft chocolate ganache should keep everyone happy.

Now the important question: do I really have to wait an hour after eating before jumping into the inflatable pool?

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

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