Archive for the ‘Holiday’ Category

The Great Compromise

Hand Pies

Red, white, and blueberry

Warning: What follows is a colossal stretch of logic. Don’t say we didn’t warn you. – The Editors

I love to throw around a big word every now and then. I mean the words no one uses except when jokingly throwing around big words or showing off at the Scrabble board. I’m partial to triskaidekaphobia—the word, and the condition. Yes, I had to use spell check to make sure I’d spelled it correctly, and yes, I was impressed that it was in the Microsoft Word spell check dictionary. Evidently Microsoft’s engineers share my phobic nature.

As you know, triskaidekaphobia refers to the fear of the number thirteen. Friday the thirteenth? Uh-oh.

But many years ago someone pointed out to me that we should celebrate the number thirteen. There were thirteen original colonies, and that whole story turned out okay. Didn’t it? (I’ll leave politics to the politicians. I’ll just keep my big bazoo shut and continue making up facts as I need them.)

Hey, I saw the movie 1776, so I know that creating the United States wasn’t easy. Reason number one: it was 90 degrees in Philadelphia that summer and they wore those powdered wigs without air conditioning. If that were me, you’d be moving me around with a squeegee. Reason number two: all those opinionated, headstrong men had to compromise to make any progress and get the Declaration of Independence completed and signed. Compromise is just so…old fashioned. After all, I think I know what’s best, don’t you agree?

Sidestepping that question for a moment, a few days ago one of my favorite things happened. I had a “What’s that ?” moment. These are moments where I am figuratively thrown off my feet by seeing something unexpected. This is kind of like when Tom Cruise got his first glimpse of the alien spaceship in War of the Worlds, except without the look of horror and the knowledge that Dakota Fanning will mop the floor with him in all their scenes together.

I was walking through Whole Foods and I saw Pearl River Chocolate Hand Pies on display. Definitely a “What’s that ?” moment.

I still haven’t figured out how they made the filling. It was a cross between a brownie and flourless chocolate cake. Not drippy, but not cakey, and with a steady, unyielding semi-sweet flavor. The crust was a little bit shortbread, and a little bit pie crust. Hand pies…I love the concept.

Yet I had concerns, deep, worrying, wrinkle-inducing concerns. (Yes, an exaggeration.)

If I were to substitute fruit fillings would the pies become too drippy or messy to, say, eat them as you walk down the street? Could I make a decent crust? These are basically empanadas, and I have been humbled by past, unsuccessful attempts at making empanada dough. Perhaps a compromise was in order?

After all, if the founding fathers could compromise and create a country, then I could do the same and give up a little of my “from scratch” baking snobbery and make hand pies from pre-made empanada dough. (Is it some kind of patriotic heresy to put hand pies and the drafting of the Declaration of Independence on the same level?)

(See, we warned you! – The Editors)

Pre-made, pre-cut empanada dough is certainly not a foreign object in my neighborhood New York City markets—Goya makes them in two sizes and colors. The question is, Are they any good?

The answer is: they’re just okay, but they have a couple of sparkling advantages over making your own.

Advantage number one: someone else has mixed the dough and cut them into circles for you.

Advantage number two: they are incredibly easy to use.  Because most of the discos were cracked or broken it seemed obvious that the bag I bought had been roughly handled. Yet, when thawed they were easily mended, filled and sealed. The little rolled, crimped edge? The Goya “discos” handled crimping like a champ.

But all of this convenience comes at the price of flavor and texture. I found the discos to be more like a substantial version of wonton wrappers. Not bad, mind you, but just lacking the faintly sweet flakiness of really good empanadas.

Still, the ease and convenience factor are hard to resist. My hand pies were filled with strawberries, but where I think these will shine is if you fill them with something slightly more assertive like spiced peaches, or even pumpkin. (Serve the latter warm with Maple Ice Cream on Thanksgiving.)

I know that Goya isn’t the only game in town when it comes to empanada dough, but here in the big city if you’re talking about neighborhood convenience Goya is a behemoth. Even in my heavily Dominican-influenced neighborhood Goya seems to have crowded out any other brands in my corner bodega.

A quick search on line doesn’t return a lot of competing products in this category. There is another company named La Cubanita, but I couldn’t find a way to order their product. There’s also a Goya empanada shell that is imported from Argentina, and another brand named La Salteña that I need to road test. (If you really know your empanada dough drop me a line with your advice.)

Happy Independence Day!


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Salute the Tweet

Cheesy Easter

Vermont Triple Cheese Bread

Vermont Triple Cheese Bread

If you invite me for Easter dinner I promise to bring the bread. How much bread depends entirely on what you are cooking for the main course. If you’re cooking a Ham (or buying the spiral-cut kind) I’ll bring a loaf or two and some nice rolls. Lamb or mutton will mean I’ll need to rent a U-haul and make two trips. You’re serving mutton just like your Grandmother used to make? My Grandmother used to make Pickled Tongue but you don’t see me serving that for dinner. Easter dinner tip #1: stick with a main course you don’t have to explain.

In the past I’ve written that I consider a good bread basket to be the lifeboat that can rescue me from a bad meal. Talking mutton and lifeboats conjures images of a culinary Titanic.

Better yet, here’s a novel new idea: The First Annual Easter pot luck. The menu will be comprised solely of the items everyone in attendance gave up for Lent. With my friends in attendance there may be an oversupply of martinis and red wine, but that’s okay because there will also be an oversupply of cake, cookies, and ice cream. It’s called balance, people.

And yes, the point is moot for yours truly. Giving up things for Lent is literally not in my religion, but I can’t resist an occasion marked by a big meal.

How can Easter not be on my mind? Easter candy has been on the shelves of every drug store for what seems like months, the squishy, mellow neon of the Peeps calling my name like a Stay-Puft siren.

This is a good place to mention one of the landmarks of my kitchen: my recipe files. These could perhaps be mistaken for a paper recycling bin. I have a tendency to keep empty flour bags because a recipe printed on the side caught my eye. They tend to sit on the shelf for a while, waiting for an occasion when I will smooth out the wrinkles and bring them to life.

So it was that a long expired bag of King Arthur flour was reincarnated because of the words, “Triple Cheese Bread” printed on the side.

(I am not a paid spokesman for King Arthur flour and did not receive so much as a dusting of flour for this endorsement.)

I’m not sure why I felt like I needed an excuse to bake Triple Cheese bread. This is one of those recipes that deserves the reverse: a day of its own. I imagine that I’ll wake up one morning with the exhortation, “It’s Triple Cheese Bread Day!” on my lips.

In the meantime there’s Easter Dinner. Easter Dinner always holds an interesting allure for me. As much as I love winter, April always seems full of the warm promise of good things to come. (I was Bar Mitzvah-ed in April. Maybe that’s why I like April?)

Depending on the year, April can be both the last gasp of winter and the first whiff of spring, so it is time to celebrate with sun, flowers, and happy food. I think Triple Cheese bread is happy food because it makes me smile.

I repeat this often: if you have a Kitchen Aid stand mixer then baking bread is really no harder than knowing how to set a timer. As this is someone else’s recipe I can only tell you my tips to success.

First: because all of the ingredients in bread can blunt the flavor of cheese, find the sharpest cheddar you can find. This can be tricky. I happened to find a Vermont cheddar by Cabot that they labeled “Seriously Sharp.” Its brininess turned out to be just right. (I’m not a spokesman for Cabot either. But I like this cheese and the implied harmony of pairing Vermont flour with Vermont cheese.)

Even though it may be counterintuitive, I avoided top shelf Parmesan, hoping that the modestly priced domestic version I used would lend enough saltiness and nuttiness to the bread—using the good stuff in a loaf of bread seems like a waste.

The third cheese seems like a cheat. Cottage Cheese? The name aside, I never think of this as cheese, but baking chemistry hints that this is a really good baking ingredient, tenderizing the dough into a pillowy soft foam.

Finally, here’s your choice: I used a loaf pan that is slightly oversized so my bread rose with flat top; use a standard load pan for the old-fashioned dome shaped loaf.

Triple Cheese Loaf isn’t just for dinner. The legendary Schrafft’s restaurants used it famous cheese bread in sandwiches, often pairing it with, what else—grilled, sliced ham.

Did I mention that it is amazing toasted?

No, I didn’t, because you’ll eat the whole loaf that way.


Here’s the Triple Cheese Bread recipe.


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Marshmallow Tweets?

Downton Seder

Flourless Chocolate Napoleons

Flourless Chocolate Napoleons

It should come as no surprise that I am an unapologetic Downton Abbey addict. I was a huge soap opera addict too. If any of the words you’re about to read appear smudged it is because I am still teary-eyed over the loss of One Life to Live. The latter has only been gone since January 13, yet I continue to stare longingly at the list of scheduled recordings on my DVR praying for a miraculous return from the dead (hey, this is after all soap opera we’re discussing. Anything can happen…)

Downton Abbey was a wonderful diversion from my loss, although it was a bit like being given one of those tiny four-piece boxes of Godiva chocolates when you are used to having an enormous Hershey’s with Almonds: it’s delicious, but gone in a blink. Are you sneering derisively at my choice of programming? That, chum, was part of the fun of being a soap fan, so there. If you have any illusions about Downton Abbey, let me help you out: it is a SOAP OPERA. All caps. Period. That’s why you loved it and can’t wait for it to return.

Part of its distinction is the amazing attention to detail that goes into its production. Predictably, my eye is drawn toward the many dinner table and kitchen scenes—seemingly more than most shows. The kitchen and the cooks, Mrs. Patmore and young Daisy, figure prominently in every episode. The folks upstairs eat a lot, and they eat well.

I have always been fascinated by the women who ran the kitchens in those houses. They were from a class of society where they had to “go into service.” Mrs. Patmore is portrayed stereotypically as a bit of a drudge: short, stout, and frowsy. (In fact, Lesley Nichol, the actress who portrays Mrs. Patmore, recently joked in an interview that when she reported to friends that she’d been cast in a sort of upstairs / downstairs series she replied to the question “Which one are you?” with the answer, “What do you think?”)

Yet, think about the skill, judgment, and knowledge required to do the job. I’m not talking about long hours here; walk into any contemporary restaurant kitchen and you’ll see folks putting in some mighty long days. I’m talking about the juggling needed. The Mrs. Patmores of the world fed the folks upstairs and downstairs, and did so while keeping within the budget set by the folks upstairs. You can be sure that she planned every menu around what was available seasonally and had to be able to credibly prepare meals that more than pleased the master and his wife—even if the meal was hunted by the master on the estate (would you know what to do with mutton?)

You can also be sure that special occasions had to be met with a worldly, well-informed eye keeping up with what the more fashionable houses were serving; not just any cake would do for dessert. If Lord and Lady So-And-So served it you did too.

(Okay, yes, perhaps I get too involved with these stories. But good story-telling does that to me.)

So I was thinking it might be fun to bake something in tribute to Downton Abbey and Mrs. Patmore (geek!). I’ve also been on a jag about baking stuff that is Passover friendly and gluten-free. Hopefully there’ll be chocolate involved. (No calories or fat would be even better; alas I’m not a magician.)

Flourless Chocolate cake is certainly nothing new in either the gluten-free or Passover realms. It’s a good idea, but it’s been around the block enough times that it could already use a new outlook.

Surely a woman like Mrs. Patmore was no stranger to the roulade and the genoise. These are cakes that rely on air beaten into the eggs for their leavening rather than baking soda or baking powder and are more what we associate with European-style cakes or tortes than the big fluffy monsters (and I use that as a term of endearment) we bake.

Yes, there is usually flour involved, but eggs are sturdy little creations and if you ask them nicely and treat them with respect they’ll do triple duty for you by adding moisture, structure, and lift to cakes, giving flour the day off. Roulade is baked in a small sheet pan—a jelly roll pan—convenient because roulade is filled with jelly and rolled…usually.

But I have other plans for it.

Rolling a roulade can be fussy. My roulade (chocolate by the way) is simply turned out of the pan and cut into shapes with a knife. You could also pull out your trusty biscuit cutter and make little individual layered tortes…drizzle a touch of lukewarm ganache on top.

I stuck with something I thought Mrs. Patmore would be proud of, Napoleons. I piped a bit of sweetened vanilla whipped cream between two layers of the roulade, and finished with fresh raspberries and dusted the whole affair with confectioner’s sugar.

Gluten- free Passover at Downton Abbey anyone?


Here’s the Flourless Chocolate Roulade recipe


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Tweet this Masterpiece…

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!


Here’s the Almond Macaroon recipe


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I dunno. Surprise me.

Pavlova Sweet Heart

Pavlova Sweet Heart

If certain magazines are to be believed, true love is only an exercise / diet / new outfit / new attitude / new rule away. Yes, it’s that easy.

As I am a skeptic, I question whether love can be found by following someone else’s template, like learning to salsa by using one of those old home dance lessons where you put the footprints on the floor and followed them by number. Where’s the magic? Where’s the chemistry?

I know couples for whom love came in the blink of an eye. The late playwright Arthur Laurents agreed that it’s all about the dance, that look in the eye. “Some enchanted evening you may see a stranger across a crowded room. And somehow you’ll know…” was Oscar Hammerstein’s version, and depending on the singer, it has the breeze of truth.

Every February we celebrate love, or at least toast its possibility, by eating chocolate, drinking champagne, and sneezing over roses. I am on the fence with this one. Every year I see the line flowing out the door onto the sidewalk as the clerks at the Godiva store near me struggle to keep up with the desperate hordes. Every year I cannot decide whether I think that kind of predictable, clichéd behavior is really fun, or tragically lacking in imagination. That must mean it’s both, yes?

Here’s one side: some folks want—expect—to get that stuff on Valentine’s Day. To deviate from that checklist would be a cardinal sin. On the other side are the folks who couldn’t care less. For them the real hearts and flowers derive from using your imagination. “I dunno. Surprise me,” would be their credo. Who can say which is right and which is wrong?

Me? I dunno. Surprise me. Let nature take its course. As long as there’s chocolate involved I’m good.  I thought of that the other day while at the supermarket. Winter is not traditionally a fertile time for fruits and vegetables. Our bounty of year-round fruits and vegetables really only dates back to the beginning of the jet age. Berries used to be only a summertime treat. Now you can get strawberries in February from South America or Florida. Personally, I think Strawberries are often overlooked on Valentine’s Day—not forgotten mind you, just pushed to the bottom of the list.

Yes I know Godiva comes in the pretty gold ballotin, and a rose is a rose is a rose, but to me strawberries are like Gisele Bündchen. You can dress them in anything and they look amazing. Think about it. Put them in a brown paper bag and they retain the berry version of great cheekbones.

Dress them in something special and oo-la-la. Valentine’s Day is a special occasion, so Gisele had better throw on more than just a pair of blue jeans.

I’m not sure why Pavlovas aren’t as popular in the US as they are elsewhere—especially on Valentine’s Day. There’s something unexpectedly luxurious about Pavlovas—including the fact that the dessert was created as a tribute to a Russian ballerina during one of her world tours in Australia or New Zealand.

Essentially a big meringue topped with fruit, when executed just so, Pavlova has a rather ethereal appearance, mimicking the dancer’s tulle skirts. Where most people expect meringue to crunch away into powdery oblivion after a couple of bites, Pavlova stays gooey in the middle.

For Valentine’s Day I made the usually round or freeform Pavlova into a heart, by piping the meringue, but that is purely formality; shaping with a spoon will do the same duty, without the formality. If you’re ambitious but not feeling dexterous or confident with the piping bag, feel free to make a square basket.

After baking, I dipped the bottom of the Pavlova in chocolate then filled it with fruit, and dusted it with a puff of confectioner’s sugar. I used Star Fruit to give my big strawberries a color counterpoint, but use what looks good to you. An extra swoop or two of chocolate (made by sweeping melted chocolate on parchment paper, letting it set, then peeling it off) serves as anxiously amorous punctuation.

Or there’s always a box of Russell Stover from Duane Reade. I meant it when I said, “If there’s chocolate I’m good.”


You can use the same meringue recipe I used to make Halloween ghosts to make these Valentine’s Day Pavlovas.


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Will you be my Tweet heart?

Goulash, not ghoulish

Meyer Lemon Savarin

Happy New Year!

Here’s a dirty little secret about me: I like reading the obituaries in The New York Times. There’s nothing ghoulish here. I actually think of these as sparkling little pocket biographies, for, if you are written up in The New York Times on the occasion of your death, chances are you did something notable in the years preceding.

Edie Stevenson, the woman who created the “Hey Mikey! He likes it!” television commercial? She was there last week. (My name is Michael. You can just imagine how many times I hear that line when I’m about to taste someone’s cooking.) She was right alongside Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong-Il. How’s that for democracy in death?

I’ve read some screenplay-worthy stories of folks by reading the obits: Gene Tunney, the championship boxer? Great story. The obits also tend to make an excellent history lesson, albeit one that is centered mostly on the mid to late twentieth century.

Hey, I realize this isn’t for everyone, but personally I found the story of the creation of the Dorito inspiring. No less inspiring than the fact that Arch West, the former Frito-Lay exec who helped create what is considered one of the ultimate “junk foods” lived to the ripe old age of 97.

I had a college art professor who was fond of saying, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” At the time I thought this was almost horrifically jaded. Now I get it. That was his way of saying, “Yes, by all means celebrate creativity. Just remember that someone may have done it before; it’s your version of it that moves things forward.”  (Plus ça la change:  the more things change, the more they stay the same.)

Blogs about food? There may be one or two others besides the one you’re reading. But this one is different because I am writing it. (I didn’t say better, just different.) I don’t claim to be moving blogs—or even food writing forward, but I’m trying to do my own thing. I’m following a path well trod by M.F.K Fisher, Craig Claiborne, Benjamin Franklin, and countless cavemen sitting around a fire.

This is true of the world. The computer? Done. The cell phone? Done. But then Steve Jobs got a hold of them…and no I’m not comparing myself to Steve Jobs.

When it comes to food we always have a foot in two worlds: the first is where we came from and the second is where we’re going. We can’t help ourselves: someone served us something that soothed our soul when we were young and impressionable (last week.) That is now the barometer by which we measure future, similar meals. Today’s earth-shattering discovery is tomorrow’s touchstone.

But then there’s the magic surprise of the new and undiscovered that is always lurking around the corner with everything you eat. Maybe it is a new flavor of ice cream, a different way of grilling a steak, or even a cookie with that slight twist you never thought you’d like. (Sea salt on chocolate chip cookies? Who knew?)

That’s why I enjoy old recipes so much. I could never navigate a slavish route through Julia Child’s oeuvre. I’d be stopping every few pages with my own “What ifs?” What if I used olive oil here or Asiago cheese there? (I do that in the supermarket too. Don’t go shopping with me if you want to get in and out of the market in one day.)

Last summer a man named George Lang was written up on the obit page. He took a dark, dusty old restaurant on the Upper West Side, cleaned a few murals, and made the menu a bit more accessible. Café des Artistes became a legend, as much a pre-performance location for Lincoln Center audiences as a neighborhood “place” replete with atmosphere provided by interesting locals.

On the surface his story may appear to be of interest only to foodies. But he wasn’t born with a menu in his hand, and indeed it was the life lived before Café des Artistes came under his purview that is the really interesting part of his lore. (I won’t recap it here. Follow the link and read for yourself.)

A couple of years ago after the restaurant closed its doors Alex Witchel wrote a wonderful memory piece in the Times. The article was accompanied by a recipe for Orange Savarin, a wonderful, rich “continental-style” cake that was served toasted, splashed with a shot of rum, and “mit schlag”—with whipped cream.

George Lang is gone, his version of Café des Artistes is gone (although the restaurant is again open, now as “Leopard at des Artistes”) but I’m serving the savarin to my friends this New Year’s Eve as a nibble to accompany champagne. My version is made with Meyer Lemons which are plentiful this week in my market, and I’m skipping the splash of rum, but the “schlag” will be there if anyone wants it.

One step forward, two steps…


Click here for the recipe for Café des Artistes Savarin.


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What are you tweeting New Years Eve?

Yes, Virginia…

Latke Cookies

Santa isn't expecting these...

I recently received an email from a precocious youngster named Virginia questioning the existence of Santa Claus. Kids these days! Skeptics in a skeptical age. I replied by telling her to watch the coverage of the Kardashian wedding again. Watch that and, trust me, you’ll believe in Santa Claus. And flying reindeer. And elves.

Funny. I’ve never questioned the existence of Santa Claus. Sometimes you just have to roll with it. No, I’ve never actually met the guy. But I’ve never met George Clooney either, and no one questions his existence. Anyway I think the world is a better place with Santa Claus in it.

Therefore, every year Christmas week presents me with one crucial decision: what kind of cookie to leave for Santa Claus. Yes, I always leave him cookies and milk. I also leave carrots for the reindeer, although I doubt they’d turn their noses (so bright) up at the cookies. No, JOSN (Jolly Old Saint Nick) doesn’t indulge, but I suspect that has more to do with the fact that he’s in a hurry than with my cookies. It is strictly unofficial, but leaving goodies for Santa wins you points when it comes time to decide whether you belong on the naughty or nice list—whether or not he eats them.

This is an extension of something I learned from the folks on Wall Street: hedge your bets. (Santa has always been very generous with them. He must have quite a bit of cash tied up in derivatives.)

Over the years I have left different kinds of cookies for the old guy, usually reflecting whatever I had baked for the season’s parties, although there have been times when I baked a batch of Chocolate Chip cookies especially for Santa so that he would smell that they’d just come out of the oven.

This year with Hanukkah and Christmas overlapping I thought it might be fun to help Santa celebrate the festival of lights. I suppose I could leave him a plate of latkes; surely he doesn’t find those waiting at the base of most chimneys. But I don’t know if he’ll like cold latkes and somehow it just didn’t feel right to leave him anything other than cookies. Why not a latke that is actually a cookie?

This kind of trompe l’oeil / kitsch baking isn’t my usual calling. Yes, it is just this side of Sandra Lee, but as we are in the hap-happiest season of all, it really adds up to a bit of harmless fun.

I got the idea last week when I went to a daytime holiday potluck. People brought things ranging from Devil Dogs to Toll House Cookie bars. (Trust me, my eyes went right to those Devil Dogs.) But sitting amongst all the sweets was a platter of latkes. They were hot, and I was hungry, so I could smell every ingredient, the potato, the onion, the egg, the matzo meal, even the oil in which they’d been fried. (I must have been really hungry.) Still, it was a “one of these things is not like the other” moment, and the thought flashed through my mind, “The latkes should be cookies.”

Back in my kitchen I pondered how I could “make it so.” It seemed as though the best way to do this would be to decide on the flavor. Obviously onion is out of the question. But many folks enjoy their latkes with applesauce, or sour cream. Some like them sprinkled with sugar. The latter felt right. ‘Tis the season for a sugar cookie, and for that extra “zetz” cinnamon and sugar seemed even better.

The technique of making the cookies look like latkes was actually the easy part. The best latkes are made by shredding the onions and potato on the side of a box grater. Why not shred the cookie dough the same way? Then, just arrange the shreds on a cookie sheet. I couldn’t use just any dough, though, because certain cookie doughs would spread too much, losing the shredded look as they bake. My standby “I Heart Shortbread” recipe was enlisted.

The trick is to be extra gentle with the shredded dough when arranging it on the cookie sheets. Also, as great as the cinnamon and sugar is when baked on the cookies, I may experiment by dusting a mixture of cinnamon and confectioners’ sugar on the cookies just as they come out of the oven. I think the result would have a sort of a crunchy / dough-nutty flavor.

I really think this may be the year Santa actually eats the cookies I leave for him. But if not, more for me!

Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah!


Click here for the recipe for Latke Cookies.

For your holiday baking you may also like my Christmas Fruitcake (for fruitcake haters), my Gluten-free Chocolate Crinkles, and Gingerdoodles, all perfect for your holiday table.


Here’s the link to the Butter Flour Eggs Holiday Cookie Baking Primer 101. It also includes a recipe for Chocolate Pepper Cookies and some technique and equipment suggestions. Don’t start your holiday baking without it!


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


I saw three tweets on Christmas Day…

I Still Prefer Chocolate

Fruitcake (for fruitcake haters)

Fruitcake (for fruitcake haters)

During the Christmas season it seems as though jokes about fruitcake are as inevitable as youngsters bursting into tears at the sight of Santa Claus. Hey, it happens. Pity the parents who waited in line for an hour at Macy’s for a photo of little Chelsea on Santa’s lap, only to have her experience the dreaded Christmas meltdown. Oh well, c’est xmas.

The thing is, fruitcake is an easy target. I don’t know anyone who likes it. The hunk of fruitcake I saw for sale at Duane Reade had a wrapper that looked like a joke (“…made from an old Southern recipe”). Perhaps this has more to do with America’s collective palate: I think we are a sugar cookie folk. The British seem to be more into the dark, spicy, and pungent. They love a good steamed pudding with hard sauce. (I read somewhere that Martha Stewart likes to give those away as holiday gifts. Martha, when you read this please note my preference for chocolate, and Happy Holidays to you too, doll.)

We all know the fruitcake jokes: that there’s only one piece of fruitcake, it gets passed around and around. Or everyone really uses fruitcake as a doorstop. (I didn’t say they were funny, I just said they were inevitable.) Mrs. Claus makes it out of reindeer droppings. (Love that one. Classy.)

So, why fruitcake on Christmas? Short answer: when people discovered that sugar made a good preservative for fruit, there was an excess of candied fruit available, so putting it in cake and giving it as a gift was a natural progression. Here’s my problem: the fruitcakes they sell now have candied fruit that I do not recognize, and the cake itself seems to be flavored with some kind of spirits that make it smell…er, funky (for lack of a better word.) Rum is one of the traditional fruitcake spirits. I’m not sure what the heck I smell in the fruitcake they sell in Duane Reade.

I don’t hate the concept of fruitcake, I hate the execution. It’s like a beautiful house with musty old furniture and peeling wallpaper. Clearly Fruitcake is a remnant of another age and is ready to be brought up to date. I think this is also an opportunity to highlight all the great seasonal flavors that we expect during the holidays.

One note: fruitcake will never be pretty. It is brown and lumpy. All I ask is that it tastes good. (And does not smell bad.) I will also admit that I know absolutely nothing about making traditional fruitcake. That may be an asset; I’m coming at this problem from a completely selfish place, answering the question, “What do I like?”

I like cinnamon. I like walnuts. Hmmm. It’s fruitcake, and I haven’t mentioned any fruit. Alright, I like figs, and candied pineapple, too. I also wanted to make something that would be relatively easy and fast because—let’s face it, during the holidays we’re all a little oversubscribed.

My cheat, er, shortcut, was that I was really looking at this as a bar cookie. Bar cookies have the advantage of a crust that gives each piece structure: it won’t fall apart in your hand and you don’t need a fork.

I vaguely remembered a blueberry bar I tasted somewhere. I don’t have the recipe, but what I have never been able to get the crust out of my mind. It was a shortbread made with dark brown sugar. It was, hard, had some crunch, and that toasty / sugary taste that dark brown sugar can lend food. If I could just figure that out then I knew the rest would take care of itself.

I kept it simple. Just a bit of flour, brown sugar, Earth Balance (which I use instead of butter), and cinnamon.  I made a mixture like wet sand and pressed it into the bottom of a brownie pan. Right on the money.

To bind my choice of fillings together I used a mixture that is not unlike what you use in Pecan Pie, but skipped the corn syrup in favor of just letting the natural molasses in the dark brown sugar do what it does best: make everything sweet and wet. This also makes the end result a bit less cloying. The walnuts melt into the other ingredients and bring to mind old-fashioned mincemeat. Not a bad traditional reference.

One of the things that used to drive me crazy about fruitcake was that I could never pick the candied fruit out (yeah I know: why bother having fruitcake if you’re just gonna…?) So, keeping that in mind, I reserved my candied pineapple to use only as garnish, and even added a few strips of sliced candied papaya for color. No mystery fruits allowed, and if people don’t want the candied fruit, it’s right there where they can pluck it out.

I nervously presented my new Fruitcake at a cookie swap. Folks were very enthusiastic.

Hello Fruitcake. Welcome to the Twenty-first century.


Here’s the recipe for Christmas Fruitcake (for fruitcake haters).

For your holiday baking you may also like my  Gluten-free Chocolate Crinkles, and Gingerdoodles, both perfect for your holiday table.


Here’s the link to the Butter Flour Eggs Holiday Cookie Baking Primer 101. It also includes a recipe for Chocolate Pepper Cookies and some technique and equipment suggestions. Don’t start your holiday baking without it!


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


I’m dreaming of a tweet Christmas…

Holiday baking with Sneezy

Gluten-free Chocolate Krinkles

fudgy, chewy, and gluten free...

I am no stranger to allergies; I am a drippy-nosed, scratchy-throated, itchy-eyed dweller of a city with questionable air quality. Snow White called me the other day to ask if I’d fill in for Sneezy while he has some minor surgery. (Rim shot. Heigh Ho…)

My glamorous self-portrait aside, I was baking Christmas cookies the other day and realized that someone I admire very much cannot indulge because she is gluten intolerant. This is often referred to as an allergy, but it is actually the result of Celiac Disease which manifests itself by making the body unable to digest the gluten in bread, cake, and cookies. Clearly I have ignored these folks long enough; it’s time to invite them over to the cookie table, eh?

I completely understand. I don’t usually bake with real butter because it upsets my stomach. I use Earth Balance sticks, an excellent substitute, yet I recognize that some allowances need to be made to compensate for the various differences. As an example, I would never make a plain butter cookie with Earth Balance. No matter what they do to the stuff, it will never taste quite like real butter. Luckily—or perhaps because of this—I am drawn to treats with slightly more intense flavors. The latter, I think, is the key to baking without butter.

Call it gustatory sleight of hand if you like, but the fact is, if you draw attention to other flavors in a cookie, no one will notice or care about the lack of butter. (I should mention that I have no opinion about how healthy one type of fat is versus another. This is purely—and predictably—about my personal comfort.) I would only warn you to use caution with whatever product you use instead of butter; some do not match the fat-to-water ratio of butter and will compromise the texture of your baking. (Stay away from tub margarine and hedge your health bets by looking for something with non-hydrogenated oils and / or no trans-fats.)

Anyway, why reinvent the wheel? This sleight of hand philosophy can be applied to gluten-free baking as well. The trick is to find flour that will produce delicious cookies—not just good for gluten-free, but good AND gluten-free. This is not quite as straight forward as substituting Earth Balance for butter. Flour is a tricky item: even substituting different wheat flours can make a drastic difference in your baking. This can be caused by variations in the type of wheat, the grind, or even whether the flour was bleached—the latter is almost always the rule with cake flour.

Then there is gluten which is the product of the protein in wheat, barley, rye, and oats. Here’s the big problem: gluten is what makes bread, er, “bready”. It’s the magnificent “chew” in that baguette you just gnawed you way through while leaning over the sink so the calories wouldn’t count. (Yes, that’s how I think.) One of the reasons cake recipes often tell you to not over mix is so that you won’t over develop the gluten; in cakes and cookies you only want the protein for the structure it can lend the finished cake. Over mix that tender chocolate cake and you get rubber. That cupcake you just inhaled? Flour gave it its structure, sugar gave it its bulk.

Yeah, well, anyway, Merry Christmas, where are my cookies, you ask? Who are you: Santa with a couple million more chimneys to hit before the reindeers’ union mandated golden overtime kicks in?

Okay, I’ll cut to the chase. I found a flour called cup4cup which was created by Lena Kwak, of Thomas Keller’s famed The French Laundry restaurant. These folks seem to know what they are doing (!) so I decided this may be good flour for me to experiment with a bit of gluten-free baking. It is a mix of cornstarch, rice, milk powder, tapioca, and a few other healthy ingredients. The texture is powdery, similar to cake flour. Oh, by the way, it’s a little pricey; a three pound sack retails for $19.95.

I just needed a Christmas cookie with an intense flavor that would distract from any mischief the new flour may cause. A perfect candidate is Chocolate Krinkles, a dark, slightly chewy, chocolate cookie. The fudgy texture and flavor make this a cookie that is hard to ruin. (Put enough chocolate on a football and it would be delicious.)

My main concern, borne of many years using alternative ingredients for Passover baking was that the flour would smell funny (Passover flour often smells like wet paper when added to the wet ingredients.) I’m happy to report that other than a very powdery texture, cup4cup flour handles—at least in this recipe—just like all purpose flour. I’m even happier to report that a select group of associates did not notice anything amiss with the cookies and were genuinely surprised to learn that they were gluten free.

The folks who formulated the flour don’t recommend baking regular bread with the flour, but biscuits, brioche, quick breads, and anything that doesn’t have to rely on gluten for structure all seem like viable candidates. I’ll test a few out and let you know.

In the meantime my gluten-free friends can pack on some holiday pounds with the rest of us.

Ho ho ho…


Here’s the recipe for the Gluten-free Chocolate Crinkles, along with information about where to purchase cup4cup flour. And don’t forget last week’s regular Gingerdoodles, both perfect for your holiday table.


Here’s the link to the Butter Flour Eggs Holiday Cookie Baking Primer 101. It also includes a recipe for Chocolate Pepper Cookies and some technique and equipment suggestions. Don’t start your holiday baking without it!


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


Holiday Tweets are gluten-free too!

Bing gets me going



I was thinking the other day about folks who live down south. They are accustomed to a holiday season without snow. True, there have been plenty of holiday seasons up north where we had no snow, but we still had the fun of seeing our breath on a chilly winter morning, or hugging a friend just in from the cold and feeling their icy cheek against ours.

Sounds poetic, but deep down all I’m really thinking about is my personal comfort (natch!). I perspire when the temperature goes above fifty degrees; my Mother refers to me as a Polar Bear. Yes, I’m certainly as pale as a Polar Bear, and, yes, I’m the guy who opens his windows in the middle of winter—you simply have to here in New York because our apartments are all heated by steam heat. (Bob Fosse fans should now snap their fingers a couple times, and tilt their bowlers over their eyes.)

One year while “trapped” in hot, sunny Arizona, Irving Berlin coped with a palm tree encrusted holiday season by penning “White Christmas”—the best selling single of all time. While I don’t have orange and palm trees swaying outside my window (as Berlin mentions in the usually unsung verse to the song) it is sixty-five degrees as I write this, and I am willing myself to feel the holiday spirit. (The dozens of Cyber Monday offers in my Inbox don’t seem to be doing the trick.)

My sure fire remedy? Queue up Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” album, and start baking Christmas cookies. There now, that wasn’t so hard, was it? (I also placed a snowflake wallpaper on the screen of my phone. It helps.)

Anyway, allow me to introduce my first cookie of the season, the Gingerdoodle. As you can tell from the name, it is built on the chassis of the famous Snickerdoodle. Snickerdoodles are fine, but I always think they are Sugar Cookies with yearnings for greater things. With the Gingerdoodle, their ambitions have been fulfilled. (You think I’m crazy for ascribing ambition to a cookie?) All I have done is take a basic Snickerdoodle and add a bit of spice, heat, and texture. It is still a soft, somewhat cakey cookie, but, as Ina Garten would say, “…with the volume turned up.”

I’ve never understood the Christmas-time passion for sugar cookies or the big cheap tins of “Danish Butter Cookies” –many of which have never been within miles of Copenhagen. Even when decorated, sugar cookies tend to be a bit transparent in flavor, meaning you can roll them around on your tongue as much as you’d like but you’ll never taste anything more than flour, butter, and sugar. The “Danish” cookies usually hint at a bit of cardamom, which is not a bad idea, but it’s usually executed in a sleepy way.

I demand more, darn it. Give me complexity. Give me a bit of surprise. Make me want to come back for more. Throw in some chocolate if you can, and I’ll be abuzz with the holiday spirit. The Gingerdoodle is a chocolate-free zone so we’ll have to look elsewhere for our choco-fix. That’s what the holiday color foils on Hershey’s Kisses are for…this week.

The basic Snickerdoodle is only mildly spiced with a wisp of cinnamon. The overall effect is like cinnamon toast—this, of course, is not a bad thing at all. But here’s my question: this time of year, why do you bake cookies? Usually you give them to friends or coworkers, or share them in cookie swaps. Don’t you want yours to stand out a bit? Tut, tut, baking holiday cookies is not the time to follow the pack. So let’s bake a cookie that will stand above the crowd, shall we?

First let’s take a look at the spice in the Snickerdoodle. A mere two teaspoons of cinnamon is added to spice up a very large batch of cookie dough. It’s not even added to the dough, it is sprinkled on the outside before baking. I’ve added an additional two teaspoons to the dough, plus the heat of two teaspoons (or more if you like) of ground ginger, the fragrance of ground cloves, and the kick of a generous half cup of chopped crystallized ginger. The latter also adds little dots of sugary chew to the finished cookie.

As I mentioned, these are a soft, cakey cookie, but I like a little crunch, so the cookies are made with and sprinkled with demerara sugar, the large grain, honey-brown sugar. (Layers: it’s like a nice cashmere sweater over a really good white shirt.)

As they bake they will fill your home with spiced holiday scents that would turn a Williams-Sonoma holiday candle green with envy.

Luckily, green is a holiday color…


Here’s the recipe for the Gingerdoodle.


Here’s the link to the Butter Flour Eggs Holiday Cookie Baking Primer 101. It also includes a recipe for Chocolate Pepper Cookies and some technique and equipment suggestions. Don’t start your holiday baking without it!


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


Have yourself a merry little Tweet

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