Archive for the ‘Cookies’ Category

Save Our Ship

Zwieback

good for what ails you

“You can’t set her on fire, you can’t sink her, and you can’t catch her.”

You’re reading a blog about baking, so your mind must be wondering: who on earth could this quote describe? Julia Child? No. The answer isn’t a “who”, it’s a “what”, although if you’re a sailor or naval-type you will debate the latter point.

The quote is attributed to William Francis Gibbs, the preeminent naval architect of his day, a man who designed over 5000 US Navy ships and the famous World War II “Liberty” ship fleet. So, which of those mighty battle ships was Gibbs describing? None. He was describing what I have always thought is the most beautiful ocean liner ever built, the s.s. United States.

It is not hyperbole to describe the United States as the culmination of Gibb’s life-long dreams, and, perhaps, the love of his life. (When asked which he loved more, the ship or his wife, his unblinking answer was, “The ship — a thousand times more.”)

Gibbs was many things: tough, profane, a self taught naval architect, and perhaps, as he has recently been labeled, the Steve Jobs of his day. That’s an apt description of Gibbs; the technological advances he built into the United States were true shipbuilding game changers.

A tough old salt he may have been, but it is worth noting that his firm employed women in key jobs, including the one who designed the propellers for the s.s. United States. (No small job by the way. The ship set records for speed that stand to this day, yet was noted for its lack of vibration, something that is usually caused by the propellers.)

After a couple of high profile ocean liner fires, he built the Unites States to the very highest standards of fire safety. Advertising for the ship often noted that the only wood on board was in the butcher’s blocks and the grand pianos. (Gibbs wanted aluminum pianos, but William Steinway proved that his wood pianos wouldn’t burn by inviting Gibbs to the Steinway factory, dousing a piano with gasoline and lighting a match. The piano smoldered a bit but didn’t burn, and Gibbs was satisfied.)

The s.s. United States was launched in 1951 and her career was heavily subsidized by the U.S. government until 1969 when the Nixon administration pulled the plug, sending her into a sudden and surprising retirement. Over the years she has changed hands many times, had her sleek mid-century interiors stripped away, and for the last seventeen years been tied up at a pier across from an Ikea in Philadelphia.

the s.s. United States: rusting,abandoned, but still beautiful

the s.s. United States: rusting,abandoned, but still beautiful

What’s amazing is that she still exists and hasn’t been sold off for scrap metal—yet. Now in the hands of a group that is trying to save the ship, she sits rusting, yet still as beautiful as ever. The group, the SS United States Conservancy, seeks to make her an integral part of a waterfront development, with New York, her former home, seemingly the favorite location. Personally I think she’d be very cool in New York City, docked next to the air craft carrier Intrepid, sporting her red, white, and blue smoke stacks, two sisters standing as testament to the highest examples of twentieth century American engineering and craftsmanship.

Unfortunately cobbling together the deal to recondition and place the ship in the right setting has been taking more time than the conservancy has money, so a trip to the scrap yard is a constant threat. (The conservancy reports they have only about two months in reserve for the ship’s current upkeep.)

In addition to the usual fundraising route, they have devised a very creative crowd-sourcing scheme—to which I am proud to say I have contributed. Save the United States is a great site where you can learn more about the ship and contribute to the conservancy by “buying” pieces of a virtual version of the ship. (I “own” fifty square inches of the First Class Observation Lounge. Please remove your shoes when passing through.)

Even if you don’t want to contribute, I recommend a visit to that site and to the conservancy’s main website, http://www.ssusc.org/ to learn about this great American creation.

You need not worry about getting seasick: it is a pretend ship, and I have baked an old seasickness remedy standby that was always available on ocean liners—including the United States.

Zwieback may be more familiar as a teething cookie for babies, but this mildly sweet, nutmeg infused toast is light as a feather, and its crunch can be intensely satisfying—and stomach settling. The recipe is available from the King Arthur Flour site. I recommend the full dose of nutmeg, but make sure to let the Zwieback cool thoroughly before eating or the nutmeg can be a little overwhelming. Try these dipped in some New England Clam Chowder. Or plain if you’re a little queasy.

And Bon Voyage!

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Absolutely, positively

I Heart Christmas cookies

Nothing says loving…

I am pleased to announce that I just returned from the Post Office. Remember the Post Office?

I marvel at the Post Office. Now I know where my Windows 95 computer went to die. Hey, stuff still gets from point A to point B. How? I don’t know. A visit to a New York City Post Office is to reaffirm one’s belief in Santa Claus and his elves.

My snarky humor is in no way meant to besmirch the work being done by the thousands of Postal Workers around the country who really do get the job done.

I just hate waiting in line.

Lest you think I am a holiday luddite, rest assured that the majority of my shopping is done via the internet. Occasionally this translates into higher shipping costs, yet this is more than compensated for by the reduced schlepping costs. However, every now and then, for intimates I hold in high regard, I like to send a little something homemade from my humble kitchen. A modest effort that folks always seem to appreciate. But, cookies don’t mail themselves.

All has not been well in my kitchen; my stove has decided that it is time to retire and begrudgingly bakes at one temperature—when it lights at all. (New stove on the way…) All of this adds up to, as they say on Wall Street, a challenging season.

But serenity is mine. I have a few survival tips that get me through seasons like this.

1.) Pay a visit to the Island of Reduced Expectations. This is a lovely place where the weather is always temperate and pie crust is always perfect—even if you don’t follow Martha Stewart’s recipe. This year’s visit meant making peace with the aforementioned oven and baking by smell and color rather than using a timer. Besides, my Mom likes things cooked “well done.” Translated into the real world this means that I made three kinds of cookies instead of the six whose recipes had caught my eye. And burned a few.

2.) How big is your kitchen? If it is like mine the answer is, “Too small.” (Ditto the refrigerator.) This means I need to plan where I can place racks of cookies as they cool. My living room has often been enlisted, even though this means it smells like cookies for days after. (Could be worse. That’s why I never cook salmon at home. Even good smells get into the upholstery. I have a feeling that someday when I buy a new sofa and place the current one on the street for pick up, folks will think a bakery opened on the block.) I have a constant rhythm going of dough going in the oven, just out of the oven cookies moving to the cooling rack, cooled cookies moving to storage containers. Lather, rinse, repeat.

3.) Special treatment cookies? Don’t do it all in one day or you will end up in the psych ward with my family. I spread preparations for the beautiful I Heart Christmas cookies shown above over three days. Day one I made the dough, then wrapped it and stuck it in the fridge. Day two I rolled and cut the dough, sprinkled it with vanilla sugar and baked the hearts. Day three I dipped them in chocolate, sprinkled them with crushed candy canes, and refrigerated them to set the chocolate. It was still a challenge, but worth it, and much easier because each step was begun with a clean kitchen. (Full disclosure: I did have one accident and lost about ten completed cookies when a cooling rack slipped out of the fridge because I opened the door with too much gusto. I’d like to blame the kitchen or the fridge, but I’ll be adult and blame my noisy neighbors.)

4.) The internet is your friend and you don’t even have to bake it cookies or buy it drinks. Did you know that with a little bit of planning you can use the post office and never be scowled at by an employee or wait in line? Avail yourself—when possible—of Priority Mail flat rate shipping boxes. I goofed this year, hence my wait in line. I shipped some cookies to family and friends in gift boxes I had purchased at the baking supply store. They didn’t fit in the flat rate boxes. If they had, I could have paid for and printed the postage at home, packed the box, and then waved to the folks standing in line as I dropped my package in the chute. The interesting irony is that metal cookie tins would have weighed more, but they would have fit in the flat rate boxes and therefore cost less to ship and saved me time. Ah well, next time. (But the cookies looked nice in those boxes…)

5.) If you live in or near New York City, visit “the tree” at Rockefeller Center.

You can’t help but smile.

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The “I Heart Christmas” cookies pictured above are a variation on my “I Heart Shortbread” recipe. They are decorated with Candy Canes that were pulverized in a food processor.

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

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Phoning it in

Martha Stewart Thin Mints

iCookie?

“If you had an iPhone…”

For several weeks this past year those words—spoken by an unseen Voice Over Artist in a television commercial for Apple’s iPhone—made me cringe. There was a certain smugness there that reminded me of the fat rich kid who used to make fun of my cheap skis when I was 12 and pretending to be Jean-Claude Killy.

I was a perfectly content Android user. Well, not perfectly content. I liked my phone, and was fond of and reliant on many of the apps I had installed. (It had this cool alarm clock that required you to solve a simple math problem before you could disable it or snooze.)

And yet…

After about a year and a half, one of the high priests (priestesses?) of Android decided that it would be a good idea to send a big update of the phone’s operating system (all of which have alluring foodie names like Jelly Bean and Ice Cream Sandwich) to all phones on the network.

(Insert lone bugler playing “Taps” here.)

The phone never recovered. Soon I was getting little warning icons that the phone’s storage was full. I set about urgently deleting old email, unused apps, and photos, but to no avail. The “storage full” icons remained as constant as the “check tire pressure” warning light in my Mom’s car. (We can talk about that another time.)

The thing is: the phone wasn’t even close to being full. It had one of the largest expansion cards available. It was a bug. Verizon happily sent me a replacement phone—factory reconditioned—which required me to “rebuild” or restore all the apps I had installed and re-connect my email. Peace reigned over the land.

Or did it?

Now, I am the first to admit that I have lousy vision. One day I was checking out my newly replaced phone and thought, “Gee, my eyes must be tired, it looks like the screen is pulsating between brighter and darker.” Worries of going blind soon dissipated as I realized that it was indeed the phone and not my eyes. I then began to notice that if I didn’t keep the screen sparkling clean it would either ignore my touch or simply start doing its own frantic thing as if some phantom finger were trying to dial, text, tweet, and email its phantom Mom. (I might add that said Phantom had deplorable taste in music too.)

“If you had an iPhone…” began ringing in my ears. Tinnitus?  No. A barrage of P.R. whetting the world’s appetite for the iPhone 5. I decided to get one and see what the hub-bub was about. All I had to do was wait a couple of months until the happy coincidence of the iPhone release frenzy and my two-year contract renewal date. Would my old phone survive until then?

It survived just fine, whiling away the hours texting, emailing, and tweeting itself. (Perhaps it started a blog?)

No, I was not one of those folks who waited in line outside the Apple store, but I’ve used the phone for two months and I like it. I like the way it’s made, but the flip side to that is that I’m terrified of dropping and damaging it, so it lives in a protective case.

click the time on the recipe and it sets a timer for you

Recently I was scanning the app store and saw that the “Martha Stewart Bakes Cookies” app was on sale for zero dollars and no cents. That’s my kind of gambling, so I downloaded it. I think it is very slick. Here are details of my test drive.

I chose the Thin Mint Cookie—a celebration of cool chocolate—thinking that it would make an excellent holiday cookie. I expected the instructions would ask me to roll out dough and have at it with a circular cookie cutter. Martha’s folks have a fun and easy alternative: you place teaspoon-sized blobs of cookie dough on a cookie sheet. Then you flatten them with the bottom of a drinking glass dipped in water. It works, it’s fast, and even a kid can do it. During the holidays, involving the kids in the family baking is such great idea. Messy? Potentially. Fun? Yeah!

You’re left with very “rustic”, very thin chocolate wafer cookies—but proceed with caution. These can be addictive even without being dipped in mint-spiked melted chocolate. By the way, the iPhone app is so slick that you touch the highlighted direction “bake 8 to 10 minutes” in the recipe text and it automatically sets a countdown timer. Yes, Tim Cook, this is like baking in the Jetson’s kitchen.

Ah: one problem back on earth. Martha’s folks have us spiking the melted chocolate with mint extract. They got this wrong. You really should spike the cookies with the mint, and leave the chocolate as is.

But it’s chocolate: can you ever really go wrong?

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Martha Stewart Makes Cookies is available in the Apple App Store for the iPhone and iPad. It’s free for a limited time only.

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

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Donate to the American Red Cross to support Hurricane Sandy relief. Please.

Ginger

Gingerbread Biscotti

Gingerbread Biscotti

How the heck did ginger become the featured holiday season flavor, huh? Why, all of the sudden, I am reaching for powdered ginger, crystallized ginger, and molasses?

I’ll bet it’s because of our British friends and their propensity towards brandied, flaming, steamed puddings. Ginger comes from tropical locales all around the globe, many of these locales were British colonies at one time or another, and ginger has food preservation properties. There is some logic that can somehow be extrapolated from this regarding ginger’s Christmastime prevalence…but I haven’t figured it out. Yet.

I read that one year Martha Stewart made steamed Christmas puddings and gave them as gifts. I think if you are gift exchanging buddies with Martha Stewart and she gives you a steamed pudding for Christmas you should also get a lovely pima cotton t-shirt hand screened with the words, “I am Martha Stewart’s buddy and all I got for Christmas was a steamed pudding. And this lovely t-shirt.” I suppose you could add the words, “You should see what I gave her” but that sounds dirty. (While we’re on the subject of holiday-themed double entendres, last week someone complimented me on my Christmas globes. I replied, “No, those are all year ‘round.” Okay I’m done.)

While I prefer the charms of chocolate on any holiday, I would not like to leave you with the impression that I am immune to ginger’s charms. I am a fan: in fact I even created the Gingerdoodle cookie as a way of waking up those rather flabby, sleepy Snickerdoodles that inevitably appear at holiday cookie swaps.

The Gingerdoodle is a soft cookie, and it is that soft, slightly spicy quality that makes it an easy cookie in which you can overindulge. I am by nature a fan of crunchy cookies, including Chocolate Chip cookies, much to the chagrin of Mrs. Field’s fans when I bake my top secret, unpublished Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe.

This holiday season I thought it might be fun to bake a crunchy biscotti that would bring together the best of gingerbread, gingerdoodles, and Ginger from Gilligan’s Island into one crunchy treat. Two outta three aint bad. (Ginger—actress Tina Louise—did not return our phone calls, although we did receive a lovely holiday message from her attorneys with the words “cease” and “desist”.)

To keep things interesting I thought it might be fun to use the ginger flavor in a way that is slightly different than the Gingerdoodle—perhaps make it less “rich” and emphasize the gingerbread instead of the ginger. I am not too proud to admit that a stroll through the cookie aisle of my local supermarket reminded me of Carr’s Ginger Lemon creams. I love these although they veer a bit too much into the sweet lane of traffic. Indeed, they are very sweet. But the pairing of lemon and ginger? Perfect and easily emulated.

I had more or less perfected the level of crunch in my biscotti some years ago at the prompting of my late Auntie Esther. At the time she was living way out west in a dude ranch / retirement community. (Okay, not so much. I made up the dude ranch part because she was in a rather sandy suburb of Las Vegas.) I used to send her biscotti—mandel bread, actually—and she would call me and ask me to toast them a bit less next time. This went on for several batches until she finally exclaimed, “We’re old! They’re too hard! You’re gonna break our teeth!”

Good grief. Nonagenarians can be so testy!

So the hunt was on for a mild crunch that wouldn’t challenge fragile dental work—and Auntie Esther, hello, I’m now at an age where I understand completely. Just like the search for any magic cure, the answer was found as serendipitously as the discovery of penicillin. (And yes, I have a suit picked out to wear when I accept the Nobel Prize for this discovery.) You see—and stop me if this is too much information—I went through a cornmeal phase. Yes, I know: who hasn’t? Everything had to be dusted, dredged, coated, and submerged in cornmeal. But I survived because that’s what I do.

The one great thing that came out of this period was learning to substitute a bit of cornmeal for the flour in my biscotti recipes. Cornmeal gives the biscotti a slightly sandy quality that emulates crunch even if you don’t toast the slices. Once toasted—even briefly—you get the perfect level of crunch and your dentist not be making emergency repairs to your choppers.

I did add some minutely diced crystallized ginger. You can vary the amount up or down depending upon your desire for heat in the spice. I glazed a few of the biscotti with a lemon glaze, but this proved to be unnecessary: too much gilt on the lily. Feel free if you want that citrusy sweetness, but the grated lemon zest in the cookies is really all you need.

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Click here for the recipe for Gingerbread Biscotti

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

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Donate to the American Red Cross to support Hurricane Sandy relief. Please.

Eenie. Meenie. Meinie.

Blondies? Hermits?

Blondies? Hermits?

I can’t decide if I think indecision is a good thing or a bad thing. Ah, the irony.

Recently I went to dinner with my Mom. She ordered skirt steak, but then sat with a cloud over her head wondering if she should change her order to lamb chops. I berated her (gently) with a huffy, “Once I make a decision I move on…always listen to your first instinct.” (Don’t worry: she still has plenty of ammo in her belt to cut me back down to size.)

What I forgot were my own—frequent—moments of indecision that usually occur before I do something. So for those keeping score: Mom, hand wringing after. Me: hand wringing before. Tie ball game, folks.

My brand of indecisiveness reared its ugly head a few days ago when it began to feel like fall and I decided I wanted to revisit my old recipe for Hermits. Hermits are the old-fashioned bar cookie that usually have a heavy jolt of molasses, spice, and raisins. These were a neighborhood bakery standby when I was a kid, but it occurred to me that they were, perhaps, a bit too intense for the uninitiated: some people hate raisins baked into anything, others can’t abide molasses, yet another group would pass on both. Hermits have another potential problem: no chocolate. Oh-oh.

What I couldn’t decide was whether to stick with tradition, or trod my own path and risk them not being Hermits but Blondies.

Nothing against Blondies.

Okay, something against Blondies: I always felt that their whole raison d’etre was to be the anti-Brownie, assiduously avoiding chocolate in order to present an overly sweet, bleached face to the world. The trouble with that is that they never assert any identity of their own.

I feel it is important to pause here for a moment and reflect on the fact that I just applied some kind of psychology to a bar cookie. Psychologists out there are having a field day. How did that make you feel? Our time is up for today. Feel free to take the Kleenex with you.

Uh-huh, so, back to the cookies.

My Hermit recipe had already made some allowances for modern taste. I lessened the amount of molasses and substituted tiny Zante currants for the raisins, a choice which preserved the “raisiny” flavor minus the goo of baked raisins. Would the earth open and swallow me whole if I went even further? What would be so bad about a mashup of all the best things from Hermits, Blondies, and Brownies? I know I’d be happy.

The special guest star—not usually seen on this stage—is chocolate. But I am not abandoning the molasses bite either, just reducing it to a “note” along with the vanilla. I was reluctant to retain the spice—in the form of cinnamon, but a friend’s excellent Chocolate-Cinnamon icing inspired the courage to leave it in.

Nuts seemed like a prerequisite, but I am weary of walnuts, therefore pecans were nominated, both chopped into the batter and used whole as decoration on top. The chocolate was chopped by hand too; chocolate chips seem too uniform for a cookie that has such a rough—dare I say—artisanal quality. (Call me “home on the range”…or should that be at the range?)

You can see from the picture above that I ended up with bars that slightly resemble Blondies or smaller, fatter Hermits. They’re not as sweet as Blondies, or even Toll House bar cookies. They’re less aggressive than Hermits. Blondies for Chocolate Lovers? Hermits for the 21st Century? I can’t decide what to call them. How about EenieMeanieMeinieMoes?

Last decision: do I eat them all myself or give some away? Hmmm…

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Here’s the recipe for EenieMeanieMeinieMoes

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

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to michael@butterfloureggs.com

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It’s all about the chocolate

Chocolate Crescent Cookies

Chocolate Crescent Cookies…the sea salt makes the difference

Sometimes it’s really all about the chocolate, that’s all.

So here’s the thing: chocolate can actually be very tricky. You really can’t just melt it and pour it into a mold and make your own chocolates. There’s a little task called tempering required. I once helped a pastry chef temper a bit of chocolate that he was then going to pour into molds. His technique was exhaustingly precise and deliberate—justified in the end by little caramel-filled bon-bons that were ceremoniously served at the end of the meal “upstairs.” They glowed as if they had been polished. (The quotation marks around “upstairs” refer to the fact that restaurant dining room was upstairs. Alex, the pastry chef in question, was relegated to the basement.)

Like so many things food related, tempering chocolate is as much science as it is art. Obviously standards and expectations are higher for a professional like Alex than for you and me, the humble home putter-er around the kitchen-er. But the focus remains the same: a smooth, glossy finish devoid of streaks or “bloom”—the little gray marks that betray badly tempered chocolate where the cocoa solids have begun to separate from the cocoa butter.

Yes there are machines that will perform this task for you, but they are expensive and the provenance of the professional pastry chef. After a while Alex’s basement workspace was rewarded with one, but there was a kind of double learning curve involved; Alex had to both learn to drive the beast and trust it too.

Alex’s surface of choice for tempering was a big slab of marble. Among its other qualities (beauty being one of them) marble stays cool. A friend once described her summer living and working with an Italian farm family. During the day the temperatures would reach at least one hundred degrees. After lunch the family would nap on the kitchen floor which was…that’s right, a big slab of marble. She said it was like dipping into a cool pool of water.

Alex would melt his chocolate in a double boiler over a very gentle heat, taking care to not let any steam from the double boiler get into the chocolate. (Moisture can make chocolate seize or clump.)

Periodically he would check the temperature of the chocolate with an instant-read thermometer and either reduce the heat or add “seed” chocolate—extra un-melted chocolate—to cool down the pot. When it reached the consistency and temperature he wanted, he would pour it onto the marble slab and start swirling and scraping it around the slab, stopping every now and then to again check its temperature with his instant-read thermometer. The part I helped with was the swirling and scraping, a technique whose sole requirement was that none of the chocolate would leave the slab and land on the floor or your clothes. (Yes, there was a huge temptation on the part of this glutton to dip my finger into the chocolate. But I liked Alex and didn’t want to make him mad.)

The science behind this—in laymen’s terms—is to stabilize the molecules of the cocoa solids. The result is a shine and a rich, deep “snap” when you break the cooled chocolate.

(Folks like me who buy chocolate at Duane Reade or other places in this real estate challenged city have all been stung by opening a bar of chocolate only to find it had been held in an un-air conditioned storeroom. It’s interesting to see firsthand how badly handled chocolate can become inedible.)

As I said, for the home cook, this rigmarole would seem tedious and unnecessary. (Tedious and Unnecessary? Weren’t they a dance team from the old Ed Sullivan Show? ) If you just want to dip a few strawberries, or the odd pretzel or two, a little care can elevate your chocolate dipped treats into a thing of beauty.

So here’s the Butter Flour Eggs chocolate melting primer, a/k/a my tempering shortcut. Alex and other professional pastry chefs, please turn away now: you’re not gonna like it.

Step 1: take your time. When in doubt melt the chocolate slowly. You’ll know you’re going slow enough when you invoke a deity whose initials are J.C. Example: “J____ C_____, aren’t you melted yet!?”

Step 2: Yes, use a double boiler. A glass bowl over a saucepan with a couple of inches of simmering water is you’re best set up. Keep the heat low to keep steam to a minimum. Steam is an enemy of chocolate. Steam: bad. (Hint: I actually use a triple boiler. The chocolate is melted in a glass Pyrex measuring jug placed on the glass bowl over the simmering pan of water.)

Step 3: chop your chocolate before melting. You should chop it so that it is like gravelly beach sand. (The safest way to chop a block of chocolate is to use a serrated bread knife, and chop at the corners of your block of chocolate.)

Step 4: Reserve roughly a quarter of your chopped chocolate as your “seed” chocolate, to be melted later.

After you have melted your chocolate, use a rubber scraper to stir it and swirl it in the bowl, making sure there are no lumps of un-melted chocolate. The consistency should be somewhat runny. Then add the “seed” chocolate that you reserved and continue to stir until that has melted.

The next step is to find the appropriate vessel with which to convey the chocolate to your mouth. I’m a fan of a mild, slightly crumbly cookie like the orange cornmeal crescents in the photo above. These are piped through a pastry tube then baked. After being dipped in chocolate the cookies are finished with just a flake or two (or three) of sea salt.

Happy Labor Day!

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Here’s the recipe for Orange Crescent Cookies

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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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Ceremonial Duties

Home-made Sugar Cones

waiting for Ben and Jerry

So far my only real celebration of summer’s arrival has been to listen to Nat King Cole sing about those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer. That always puts me in the mood for a good Clam Roll.

I absolutely love summer.

Okay, that’s a total lie. Let’s just say that I’ve gotten old enough to make my peace with summer. Nat King Cole, a few reliable old movies that I watch every summer, and the hypnotic hum of the air conditioner are what get me through. When those wear off a dab of ice cream does the trick. And just as they used to say about Brylcreem, “A little dab’ll do ya.”

A little dab of ice cream? Who stops there?

I know lots of folks who cannot get enough ice cream. I’m a more recreational user. But in the hot weather there’s something mighty appealing about the ceremony that surrounds ice cream.

When I was a kid my mother used to take me to Jules Salon for Men to have my hair cut. Jules, an expat Frenchman, ran a very modern (at the time) establishment for executives, but it was still very much a barbershop. So, there was little Mikey sitting on the bench, legs crossed, waiting, reading Paris-Match. I couldn’t understand a word in the magazine, but I like to think I learned a thing or two about Peugeot, Catherine Deneuve, and Georges Pompidou anyway.

As I write this I keep thinking about how barbershops have disappeared, but then the sting of truth washes over me: it’s not barbershops that have disappeared, it’s my hair, and therefore my need for barbershops.

ANYWAY…

After my haircut a trip of mere steps would find us in the chilled quiet of Bailey’s, an outpost of the beloved but sadly departed Boston confectionary. I find it hard to believe that places like this have seemingly evaporated. They were temples devoted to the worship of chill. Everything fed this nurturing cool, from the thick marble tables, to the twisted metal seat backs, and the steel, ruffle-rimmed metal ice cream dishes. Not a paper cup in sight.

On a hot summer day, our post-haircut treat was a drippy, hot fudge sundae with Mocha Lace ice cream, marshmallow sauce (instead of whipped cream), and salted walnuts on top. This was eaten with a loooooong metal spoon. We would chase that with tiny glasses of icy cold water that dripped from an enormous marble lavabo before trotting by the candy counter for a glimpse of the dusty, jewel-toned Turkish Delight.

Yes, each sundae likely wiped out that year’s harvest of sugar cane from a small Caribbean island. But this wasn’t an everyday indulgence, merely an occasional treat. My behavior—good or bad—was irrelevant, for nothing would keep my Mother from her appointed date with Mocha Lace. I suspect her choice of Jules Salon for Men had as much to do with its proximity to Bailey’s as it did with Jules’ talent with my little scalp.

The Ice Cream ceremony takes many forms. It could be the frightening jingle of the Mister Softee truck, or the technique you’ve honed to dampen the slam of the freezer door after you’ve snuck yet another spoonful of Phish Food…or Chubby Hubby…or both.

The common sugar cone is part of my ceremony. I love them just as much as the ice cream; yet, I prefer my ice cream in a dish, with the sugar cone perched on top like a pointy hat. With each spoonful of ice cream I get a bit of crunch from the cone, yet I don’t have to worry about ice cream melting out of the bottom and rolling down my wrist. Peculiar? Sue me.

Until recently I had never tried baking my own ice cream cones. The hardest thing about this was finding the right utensil. I absolutely refused to spend the forty or fifty dollars on yet another electric appliance. This had less to do with spending money and more to do with lack of kitchen storage. I knew I needed a pizzelle iron. Who knew unless you’re willing to dig deep, that the pizzelle world has gone all electric? (Yes, I was horrified by this too, so rest easy.)

Finally I consulted Fante’s, the great Philadelphia-based kitchen supply store. After my search for an old fashioned stove top pizzelle iron had run aground in Manhattan, they offered a happily modest selection, along with great advice, recipes, and a bit of history thrown in.

(Did you know that pizzelle irons used to be given as wedding gifts etched with the new bride’s initials and the wedding date? Totally charming. Maybe I’ll have mine etched with an outline of Mikey the Pig, this site’s mascot currently oinking at the top of this page. Anyone know a trustworthy pizzelle etcher?)

I’ll admit that I did have some trepidation before my inaugural run with my old-school iron. Would the cookies stick? Would they burn? I figured who cares? The iron isn’t electric so if the worst happened I could just soak it in the sink and scrub it with some steel wool. Hey, the thing only cost about sixteen dollars. I was willing to take a chance.

I worried for nothing. After following Fante’s instructions to season the iron, each ice cream cone slid out of the iron without a fight before being rolled and left to harden (which happens fast.)

For my bonus round I substituted gluten-free flour for the all-purpose kind called for in the recipe. There was really very little difference; if anything the gluten-free cones had a slightly more fragile crumble point. (If you try the gluten free kind make sure your baking powder is also gluten free.)

And yes, that’s the scoop on making ice cream cones.

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Here’s my sugar cone adaptation of Fante’s Pizzelle recipe.

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How ‘bout some jimmies on that Tweet?

My Commencement Speech (or) Pardon my cliché

Ice Cream Waffles

Ice Cream Waffles

To me, commencement speeches always seem like eulogies turned inside out. Hopefully you laughed or chuckled at that line—even if it was only on the inside. Laughter is something that seldom happens when hearing a eulogy, unless it’s for Chuckles the Clown (this is referring, of course, to the classic Mary Tyler Moore episode.)

But if eulogies are delivered at the end of a life, then it follows that you could kinda, sorta say that about commencement speeches too. That’s the end of a life and the beginning of another.

I once heard a commencement speaker compare the return of textbooks by graduating seniors to the turning in of rifles at the end of a war. Wow. I didn’t like school either, but I never felt like I was crouched in a fox hole. Well, maybe at prom, but that, as they say,”… is a whole other Oprah.”

All these years later I often think, “What did I learn in school?” The stuff I really remember was practical, “how to” stuff, like splicing video tape—something they do with a computer now and a skill that I seldom use in the kitchen.

I like to think I learned everything valuable I know in the years after school. The most valuable thing I’ve learned is that baking a cake is a microcosm of life’s experiences all crammed into a little tin pan and an hour or two.

Baking requires hunger, anticipation, planning, organization, a little chemistry, the ability to let go, and the ability to deal with failure and keep going.

Many people view baking as an exercise in rigidity—follow the recipe or all heck will break loose. I beg to differ. I think of baking as an exercise in technique and its continual refinement. This is kind of like ballet or singing. Performers accomplished in either of those disciplines continue studying and taking classes even long after they have achieved success—and for some even after they have retired. It is this continual striving to get better that I think of every time I plug in my Kitchen Aid and start baking. You’re never done; school continues. It’s the shape of the classroom that changes. (I had to throw in the latter. Every commencement speech has lines like that.)

Hopefully as you travel down life’s hallway (I promise I’ll stop) the knowledge you accrue along your journey will give you the resilience to handle whatever surprises may be placed in your way. Sometimes this means you need to—yes, you’ve heard this before—think outside the box.

Learn to embrace the unexpected. We have an anchor woman here in New York named Sue Simmons. Late in her career she has become notable for the things she says when she forgets the microphone is on. This includes an “f-bomb” or two. She’s being “eased” into retirement next month. Part of the reason is that folks worry about what might come out of her mouth. I think this is a mistake. I say, keep her on and take away her script. Let her wing it, then sit back and hope for another “f-bomb” or better. I think ratings would go up and the news would be much more fun.

Any baker—or even better—anyone who ever toasted a slice of bread knows what I’m talking about. Ever burned a piece of toast? Did you scrape off the burnt part then serve the toast anyway? You were thinking outside the box. If you’d thrown away the toast you wouldn’t be embracing the unexpected, you’d be trying for perfect toast. The pursuit of perfection can waste a lot of bread. (Okay, you have to admit that one was cute.)

Thinking outside the box doesn’t always mean things have to be hard. In fact this can make things easier.

Take the little Belgian waffles in the photo above. These were made to satisfy a craving. Real Belgian waffles (Liege or Brussels style) require yeast dough, and a few hours wait while the dough rises. But this was a craving, which meant I needed them NOW.

So I used a simple waffle recipe, and sprinkled some vanilla sugar and Belgian pearl sugar onto my waffle iron just before adding the batter. The result was a reasonable facsimile of the true Belgian waffle.

If you throw enough ice cream at them no one will ever know the difference. And that, graduates, is all you need to know about dessert and life.

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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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“Baccalaureate Tweetalot”

Travelogue – High Seas Edition

Lemon Bars

Lemon Bars

Passover? Check. Easter? Check. Let the games begin. I have an unfailing, infallible, city-boy barometer that tells me every year when Spring has truly sprung: my eyes itch, my nose runs, and my throat gets raspy—a timbre somewhere between the earthiness of Bea Arthur and the pan-pipe squeak of Walter Brennan. Appealing.

No, this isn’t one of those city-boy rants about disliking nature, for Spring is to be celebrated. Even after the mild Winter we had, I still get the drift of the whole reborn/renew thing. It’s nice, right? I get it.

The change can be jarring though. Just about a week ago I was up in Massachusetts actually shivering and freezing my gougères. Today is warm and sunny. Spring weather makes me want to go on a picnic. I’ve always loved picnics since I was a tot in front of the TV watching Yogi Bear steal “pic-a-nic” baskets.  Just how die-hard of a city boy can I be if I like picnics?

The key is that I believe the word “picnic” can be very broadly defined.

When you mention the word picnic most people’s minds go straight to the image of the classic wicker picnic hamper. One summer during college I worked in a store that sold very elaborate (and very overpriced) picnic hampers fitted out with china, flatware, drinking glasses, gingham napkins, and a wet bar. (Kidding about the latter; just wanted to see if you’re paying attention.)

All that frippery is nice, but I think it is totally unnecessary. Admittedly the dishes and flatware were eco-green before their time, but that’s a sidebar to the main conversation.

My favorite picnic was a very New York experience, and while I do not remember the cost, I doubt it would be much of a stretch to call it dirt cheap. No wicker hamper. No blanket set out on the ground– in fact, no ground…but more about that in a moment.

First, I must cop to an embarrassing problem: I am rather prissy about washing my hands. If I eat something messy I am usually compelled to immediately wash my hands. Even too much vinegar in my salad triggers this compulsion. When I say “wash my hands” I mean wash my hands—little wet wipes usually will not satisfy. Obviously on a picnic this could present a problem, but I have it well under control via menu choices that support my apparent hand-related OCD.

Even under the best of circumstances it can be a trial to watch me eat a sandwich. No, I’m not messy. What I am is: annoyingly fastidious about everything staying in the sandwich. If anything falls out, then the entire operation must revert to fork and knife, except for the bread which at that point may be too soaked through with whatever for me to enjoy.

The other popular choice for picnic time is cold chicken. Based on my sandwich travails outlined above, how well do you think I’d do gnawing on a cold chicken wing? (Actually, this is a trick question. I just don’t like cold chicken. Put me next to a sink generously supplied with fluffy towels and skin nourishing soap and I’ll still be indifferent to cold chicken.)

By now you are likely under the impression that I am completely averse to eating anything without a utensil, but that it far from true.

Okay, enough of my soap and water blues; on with the picnic, city-boy style.

Let’s stop by Zabar’s on the way. While there we’ll be grabbing a baguette and avail ourselves of their slicing services.

We shall also step back into the cracker aisle (it’s next to the coffee). Any cracker is fine as long as the label is in a foreign language (and not ridiculously overpriced.) An alternative to crackers are my beloved Ines Rosales Tortas. I’d recommend getting both, but we’re going on a picnic and I like to travel light.

Next, depending on the weight of our purse (don’t you carry a purse? Mine is flat, plastic, and bears my name and a bank logo) we will choose a selection of thinly sliced meats and cheese. I’m a fan of Parma ham. (Sounds like a bumper sticker…) There’s also salami, speck, prosciutto—the beauty of a place like Zabar’s is that they’ll give you a little taste before you buy.

Let’s reverse course into the cheese aisle…a bit of razor-thin sliced Jarlsberg before we make our final and most important stop: the selection of chocolate bars up front near the cashier. I’m taking Damak pistachio-studded milk chocolate from Turkey, long my favorite , but go ahead and pick a dark chocolate so we can tell ourselves it’s actually health food, and then we’ll be on our way. (Grab a couple of bottles of water and I’ll meet you at the cashier.)

Because this is a city-boy picnic the first leg of the trip is—natch—the subway. We’ll jump on the 1 train and take it all the way down to South Ferry where we’ll meet our picnic destination: the Staten Island Ferry.

And I have a little surprise for you: hidden in my backpack are Lemon Bars that I baked just for this occasion. Is there anything that sings warm weather and sunny days better than a homemade Lemon Bar?

No, no, they’re all for you. Too messy for me…

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Here’s the Lemon Bar recipe.

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I really want world peace. And cookies.

Almond Macaroons

Gluten-free, Passover-friendly, sauce on the side...

People throughout the ages have commented on the apparent similarities between foods of many cultures. Take pasta as an example. The Japanese have soba noodles; Italians have spaghetti. Chinese throw wontons into broth; Jews throw Kreplach into broth—and with this last example you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference.

This year I am struck by the similarities between baking for folks on a gluten-free diet, and baking for folks observing Passover. Okay, calm down. Yes I know there is a glaring difference, but the higher-level view is remarkably similar.

Gluten-free folks avoid wheat, oats, barley, and rye. Passover folks avoid anything with leavening. But the similarity is that in order to bake something good for either group you must remove something (usually flour) and substitute it with something else. Believe it or not there are some substitutes that are perfect for both groups. No, what follows is not a recipe for gluten-free Matzos. I did see those in the market last year, so yes, they do exist. (Speaking for me and me alone, if I were gluten-free I’d just skip Matzo altogether.)

Many of the same problems overlap when you are baking for Passover or for Gluten-free diets. Flour can be a delicate item, and baking is (to be unglamorous for a moment) an exercise in chemistry. Upset the delicate balance and your end result will be (to use a highly scientific term) yucky.

If you’ve never baked for Passover before, allow me to introduce you to the traditional Passover substitute for flour: Passover Cake Meal. It is made by grinding matzo into a fine powder. Imagine grinding saltines (minus the salt) into a powder and using that to bake cookies. Imagine soaking a bowl of saltines in water. Mmmmmm. Smells good, eh? That’s what baking with matzo is all about.

Not that there hasn’t always been a certain “soul food” charm to the endeavor. I’m good for one plate of Matzo Brei (a/k/a, “Fried Matzo”—broken pieces of matzo scrambled with eggs) per year. It’s a treat and goes with the whole “fat and salt” aesthetic of soul food. More than one per year and I swear you are just looking for trouble.

Walk with me for a few minutes, would you? (it’s the middle of winter, we could use the air). Let’s walk down Madison…yeah, I know, I never get over to the East Side either. But there’s something over there I want you to see: les macarons. We won’t have to walk far because they are everywhere. You’ve seen them. You’ve likely even gotten a Groupon discount offer for them in your Inbox. They’re the beautiful, multi-colored, perfectly round macaroons that are usually filled with buttercream. They are to the 2010’s what Godiva chocolates were to the 1990’s. They’re also incredibly tricky to make at home. So I leave these to the pros. Trust me, I’ve tried.

But what I learned trying to bake macarons was that I can make a version that is less strict, and that is a happy treat for folks on gluten-free diets and folks celebrating Passover…and folks who fall into both categories.

It frustrates me that on paper they seem soooo easy. A few ground almonds, some sugar, a little egg white. But if the almonds aren’t ground just right, and the sugar isn’t mixed into the almonds just right, and the egg white doesn’t…well you get the picture. (Or shall I continue?)

But if your ultimate goal isn’t the perfection of les macarons, then you can combine the ingredients with abandon, add your own magic tricks, and end up with chewy, almond-scented macaroons that will make you skip the seder and head right for the dessert table.

I’ve taken some liberties here: well, a cheat actually. I’m using almond paste in addition to ground almonds. I’m also not expecting to end up with perfect disks, rather, I’m happy with toasty brown, irregularly-shaped cookies.

You can actually make these without the ground almonds, but using them adds a bit of structure to the batter that makes the job of dropping portions onto your cookie sheets less drippy and messy.

By the way there’s no dairy in these either, unless you include the egg whites. (I don’t.)

Amazing, eh? A “one-size-fits-all-except-those-who-are-allergic-to-nuts” cookie!

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Here’s the Almond Macaroon recipe

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

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to michael@butterfloureggs.com

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