Whole Foods and me: a love story (gone wrong)

Spiral Bread

Spiral Bread

The people who run Whole Foods will, no doubt, be absolutely devastated to learn that I intend to never shop at their stores again. Shhhh. That noise you hear is them scurrying to hide under their desks so that they can curl into the fetal position and have a good cry at this news.

It’s not for the reason you think.

Many folks like to nickname the chain “Whole Paychecks” due to the (I think) inaccurate perception that their prices are higher. I’ve actually had great success over the years finding bargains on what I perceive to be excellent products. So what’s the problem?

Their stores are zoos. I just can’t stand it anymore. I’m not an architect. I’m not an anthropologist (well, not a professional one), and I have never worked in a grocery store, even as a bag boy (like the cool kids in my high school who all worked at the Triple A Market.) There are certainly other markets in New York that are equally crowded (that’s been the rap on Fairway for years.)

But there is something in the magic mix that is the Whole Foods shopping experience that is so anarchic, so impolite, so lacking in civility, so…unpleasant that I must conclude that life is too short to spend another moment struggling to navigate their aisles. I applaud their success. I applaud their aesthetic. I applaud their fish counter. But they are complete and utter failures at managing the traffic within their stores. Is it due to the carts that are the size of a humvee? Is it due to aisles that are perhaps too narrow? Is it due to their propensity towards placing islands of New Jersey blueberries smack dab in the middle of the most crowded part of the store? I just don’t know.

I’m the first to admit that I am a geek: I love to trawl the aisles of a supermarket. No matter what city I’m in the supermarket is one of my stops—even in Europe. It is an activity that brings me great pleasure. That’s why I resent Whole Foods so much: the experience of shopping in their stores (at least in New York City) sucks the pleasure out of the experience, making it a chore. There’s no time to discover new things: I’m too busy being in someone’s way. As I was checking out last weekend, the cashier, trying to be helpful, recommended that the best hours to shop at Whole Foods were early in the morning. I didn’t mention to her that I like to do my grocery shopping on my own terms, not when it is more convenient for Whole Foods.

I never did find what I had gone in there to buy. I wanted to make the incredible Spiral Bread you see in the photo above. This is based on a recipe from my beloved old Craig Claiborne-penned New York Times Cookbook. It is really just a hearty old-fashioned Farmhouse White loaf with a stuffing (You roll the dough into a flat rectangle, spread your filling of choice on top, roll jelly-roll style then place in the loaf pan and bake.) The cookbook gives recipes for two different kinds of fillings, one parsley and scallion, another anchovy-based (umami anyone?), both of which are yummy, but delicate.

With Super Bowl coming up, I wanted to make something with a bit more substance, ideally with some meat added to the parsley-scallion filling. On a previous trip to Whole Foods I had seen some very tempting American Speck, the herbal-infused ham. I thought that either the speck or some kind of Parma-style ham would give the bread the savory oomph I was seeking. (Hey, don’t laugh. I am trying to bring up the level of Super Bowl food. Sorry: not a Buffalo wing fan.)

Sadly the Speck was nowhere to be found at Whole Foods last weekend, so I switched to plan B: sausage. My thought was to cook some very nice sausage filling, drain it thoroughly, and use that as the filling.

I ended up experimenting with chicken sausage. Chicken sausage does not have the loose-knit consistency of pork sausage, but what it lacks in crumble it compensates with flavor and lower fat. Oh, and since it is pre-cooked I could skip that step.

You can see in the picture that I ended up dicing the chicken sausage. Looks odd, yes, tastes great, yes.

To give the bread a little heft I cooked some oats with the milk that goes into the recipe. You’d never know they are there because they dissolve as the dough kneads in the stand mixer.

Knead the dough by hand? Are you kidding? What is this 1962?

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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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Saccharomyces and me: a love story

Buckwheat Grissini

Buckwheat Grissini

There are times when cooking seems like a chore: when you’re tired, impatient, or just have other things on your mind. There are times when cooking seems like, well, cooking, a loving exercise in the care and feeding of yourself or your family. Then there are the times (and I think these are my favorite times) when cooking feels like an arts and crafts project. Baking, frosting, and decorating a birthday cake is really just a big arts and crafts project. Cookies and even the humble Rice Krispies Treats fall under that category too.

The exacting and repetitive nature of a lot of baking can turn people off. They don’t want to feel restricted by a recipe. They don’t want to feel restricted by decorating the same cookie in the same way dozens of times.

I don’t really consider myself a touchy-feely-tactile person. I don’t like slimy things, in fact, I won’t even wear my metal wrist-watch during the hot weather because it gets sticky from my perspiration. (The latter always makes me think of Grace Kelly’s heiress character in “To Catch a Thief” explaining why she doesn’t wear jewelry: “I don’t like cold things against my skin.” This was a Hitchcock movie, so the line is imbued with multiple meanings.)

Yet, give me some bread dough, and I’ll squish it and stretch it and slap it and roll it around like a little kid making mud pies. Any baker feels connected to the living, breathing organisms that bloat and puff a pile of flour and water. Every Sunday night as I make my pizza I often think that master potters have nothing on me; they’re working with a lump of clay. I’m working with millions of little yeasties, all seemingly holding their breaths at the same time so that when I bite into the crust it will be crunchy and chewy, tender enough to yield to my delicate middle-aged teeth, yet, up to the job of holding all that sauce and cheese. When the bell rings and I open the oven door for bread—or any yeasty treat—I always feel the tingle of a little miracle. Every time the timer rings a yeast cell gets it wings. They gave their lives for my slice of pie.

This past weekend I found myself in need of a little treat and a little soothing arts and crafts. I was craving savory, so I settled on Grissini. For a while back in the ‘90s any restaurant worth its salt greeted you with a stalk of home-baked grissini—usually with a mashup  of complex flavors. So while this project may seem as dated as a plate of blackened catfish, I contend that for the home baker in need of occupational therapy, baking grissini can be a soothing task.

My baking-geek passion of late has been experimenting with alternative grains. What I find interesting is that variation of flavors and texture these can lend to my yeasty treats. If 2012 was the year of spelt (which has now found a place in my weekly pizza), then 2013 has started off as the year of buckwheat.

I need to backpedal a bit here. Buckwheat is not actually a grain, it is the seed of an herbal plant. But that’s splitting hairs: do you care that the tomato is actually a fruit? No? Then you won’t care if buckwheat isn’t wheat.

I have a bag of buckwheat flour sitting in my fridge, the remnants of a blini and smoked salmon New Year’s Eve adventure. I’ve been eating buckwheat my entire life, perhaps because of my Russian-Jewish background. A bowl of Kasha Varnishkes (buckwheat with bow tie noodles) was never far away if there was a roasted chicken for dinner. My Pop enjoyed Aunt Jemima Buckwheat pancakes as a weekend treat (I don’t think Aunt Jemima makes the stuff anymore), and as an adult I have come to prize Buckwheat for its healthy dose of vegetable protein without the frou-frou of fat. Oh yeah: it tastes good too, kind of like a lighter, more moist version of cooked bulgur wheat.

So, while pulling the bag of type “00” flour I needed to bake the grissini, I spied the bag of buckwheat flour and thought, “Hmph, why not?”

A quarter cup of the flour replaced an equal amount of the white flour, but went a very long way towards darkening the dough. I was cautious as buckwheat lacks the gluten that the yeasties need to puff the dough.

The arts and crafts portion of the program involved the actual rolling of the little ropes. Too much flour on the board and you don’t get enough traction to roll them into ropes, too little and they stick and squish to the board. A little flour dusted on my hands then patted on each portion of dough was just the touch needed. The actual shape is very forgiving, as lumpy and bumpy are the order of the day as long as you make them somewhat uniform in length.

I went old school with flavorings relying on poppy seeds, sesame seeds, garlic powder, and sea salt. Happily, they bake with relative speed—about 15 minutes, but sadly, if you’re not careful they’ll disappear even faster.

They can be a bit addictive.

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Click here for the Buckwheat Grissini recipe

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

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My Roman Holiday

Blood Orange Cake

A love for blood oranges…

Some years ago I was at a Fancy Food Show at the Javits Center here in New York. If you’ve ever been to any kind of trade show—the auto show, the boat show, pet couture week—you know that there’s a lot of walking involved and after a while you get hungry and thirsty. You would think that this would be solved by the mere fact that you are at a Fancy Food Show, but ironically pickin’s were slim that day. I seem to remember eating Jamaican beef patties, and some kind of meringue-topped “nibbly” desserts. Bottled water was yours…for a price, and upstairs, out of the exhibition hall.

Thankfully the folks from San Pellegrino had set up a booth where they were passing out little sample cups of their fine aqua minerale. Five or six trips to the well only began to put a dent in my thirst. On one of my return trips I noticed an array of little multi-colored bottles displayed. From the labels I could see that they were orange and grapefruit sodas. A third line of unlabeled bottles were bright red and small enough that they brought to mind the little wax “soda bottle” candies we used to get from the penny candy store back in the 1900’s. (They were right next to the wax lips.)

As stingy as they were with the water, the folks from San Pellegrino were delighted to introduce me to Aranciata, their pulpy, fresh, orange soda that most Americans would equate with Orangina. If I really wanted an authentic Roman refreshment (I was told) they needed to add a dash of the liquid in the tiny red bottles too. Roman-style swag? Who could say no? Well the drink was yummy, the red stuff—which I learned was called San Bittér—was the bitter, herbal, syrupy ying to the Aranciata’s citrus yang, a non-alcoholic version of Campari and orange juice. I felt as though I was basking in the Roman sunshine. Ahhhh…

I thought of this recently after hopping aboard the blood orange bandwagon. January seems to have become the season blood oranges, and, truth be told, I need a little Florida food sunshine in January, which can often seem unrelentingly gloomy. (I mentioned this to my dentist who comforted me by exclaiming, “Thank goodness you don’t live in Finland! They don’t see the sun for weeks.” Thanks, Doc.)

I bought a half dozen of the fruit and decided to experiment. I found them inconsistent. Eaten out of hand, one was bright and sweet, another was tart and bitter. The combination of sweet and bitter is what made me think back to my San Pellegrino “Roman Holiday” at the Javits. I suppose I could have just bought a few bottles of San Bittér and Aranciata and called it a day, but the thought of baking something with the Blood Oranges intrigued me. Would it be sweet or bitter? Would it be both?

My first thought was Crème Brulee. Extra skinny slices of the fruit on top of the custard, with the crackling dome of bruleed sugar on top. Sounds good, but I really craved a twist on an old fashioned upside down cake.

Pineapple Upside Down Cake always suffers from a case of the “icks”: too sweet, too syrupy, too many maraschino cherries. I wanted something that would celebrate the blood oranges, but, secretly, if someone just wasn’t into the fruit, I wanted them to have a nice piece of cake waiting beneath.

Pineapple Upside Down cake gets a lot of the goo from the syrup used to can the fruit. I made up for that by gently and briefly simmering the juice of one blood orange with the requisite brown sugar and butter. Maraschino cherries were banned from the room; who needs ‘em? The slices of blood orange had a nineteen-sixties, Marimekko pizzazz that made the cherries irrelevant.

For the cake I decided that a simple, yellow cake would not be up to the job, so I swapped out a bit of flour and substituted ground almond meal. Instead of butter I used canola oil. A good dose of grated orange zest combined with the almond meal made sure no one would miss the butter I was omitting—and the canola oil and almonds are considered “healthy” fats. (The latter is, shall we say, my attempt at lessening the guilt attached to eating a big hunk of cake. Oh yeah: there’s vitamin C in the oranges too. Okay, I’ll stop.)

Depending on the bitterness or sweetness of the blood oranges you’ll either end up with a pleasantly sweet, gooey cake, or a slightly bitter, tart cake with a sweet gooey syrup. The latter will bring you a bit of Roman sunshine in the gloom of winter. (If the tartness or bitterness isn’t your thing, dust the cake with some confectioner’s sugar, or serve with a dollop of sweetened whipped cream.)

Besides: who wants a predictable cake?

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Click here for the Blood Orange Upside Down Cake recipe

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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Silicone for my breasts

Fast food my way

Fast food my way

Here’s a New Year’s Resolution for you: question everything you eat.

(I was going to say, “Question everything you put in your mouth,” but that sounded dirty.)

It would be easy to imagine that someone who writes a blog about baking would be…uh…ample. Generously proportioned. I have at times battled the bulge, yes, but the truth is that I do not eat the stuff you see here every day, and certainly not until it has been photographed. Worse: I’m not sure that I believe in moderation. Some stuff should be indulged in only on special occasions.

Full disclosure #1: I have a sweet tooth.

Full disclosure #2: I am vain.

Full disclosure #3: My vanity often trumps my sweet tooth. And that’s saying a lot.

I’ve been working out in a gym since I was in college, yet, several years ago after a routine, yearly physical during which I aced every test, my doctor sat me down, looked me squarely in the face and asked, “So, what are you going to do to lose some weight?”

I rebelled, but saw the light one morning when I stepped out of the shower and saw myself in the mirror. “The doctor is right,” thought I, “I look kind of…dumpy.” And as if awakened from a deep sleep, my vanity (bless its heart) took over.

Like Dorothy trying to get back to Kansas, I “…had the answer all along.” I didn’t need to pay a trainer. The kitchen is the one room I can walk into and feel perfectly confident. I can do anything in the kitchen, not just bake. (Yeah, I know. That sounds dirty too.)

No, I did not invent a cookie diet. But, over a lifetime I have learned a lot about cooking and food. As surprising as this sounds (even to me), there are people who do not understand the difference between protein, carbohydrate, and fat. Are you one of them? It’s okay.

What’s not okay is to deny the role a proper diet plays in your health. I often joke that I honestly believe that chocolate has medicinal qualities. But I don’t eat it every day. Oh, by the way, that’s no joke: I do actually believe that chocolate has medicinal qualities.

Every day I eat a good, healthful, pleasurable, diet so that when the good stuff comes along—the treats, the “special” meal, the really good ice cream—I can eat them without guilt. Over the holidays I helped my friend’s three and six-year old kids bake cookies. You think I left without indulging in the Rice Krispies Treats? Think again.

I don’t believe in diets. A co-worker recently tried a liquid cleanse. Tried, but couldn’t complete. Silly. Passive. Don’t diet. Instead, change your life. Learn what works for you. Learn what makes your jeans seem to “shrink.” Fire up the internet. Find an app for your phone. Get educated.

ANYWAY. I consider myself a picky eater. But the good news is that there are a lot of foods that I enjoy that I can eat every day. I’m the guy who can make a meal out of a can of sardines. (Let’s just say I know my way around the canned fish aisle. Some of it, like good sardines, is superfood. Some of it stinks like a house guest who has exceeded the three day hospitality limit.)(Ahem: How many friends do you have who can claim they know their way around the canned fish aisle?)

Many New Yorkers never cook a meal at home. The United States Department of Agriculture recently released the results of a study that concluded that you get more calories, more saturated fat, more salt, and less fiber when you eat out. Does this mean I never eat processed food? No. It means I pick and choose carefully, based on ingredients, the nutrition label, and my needs.

I hear you thinking. “I don’t have time to cook every meal from scratch.” Neither do I, so I don’t. That’s not the point. The point is to question everything you eat. Ask what’s in it, where was it made, and how big is that portion? I recently asked a waitress the weight in ounces of the flounder on the menu. While she looked a little surprised at the question, I knew that the chef would know. I tried it in a corporate cafeteria recently. I noticed that the woman making the sandwiches had all of the meats in portions, and yes, she had weighed each one. (Four ounces.)

Speaking of flounder: isn’t that a beautiful fillet in the picture above? That thing in which it sits? Looks like a model of the cargo bay from the Space Shuttle, yes? Actually it is a Spanish-made Lékué steamer. I enjoy steam-roasting fish, usually in parchment. Fish steamed in a pot on the stove tends to be a little bland for my tastes, but wrapped in parchment and baked in the heat of a hot oven you get the best of both worlds: the moisture of steam, and the finish from the heat of roasting or baking. I found the Lékué steamer one day while trolling the aisles at Sur la Table. It is made of silicone, and, while designed for microwave cooking, it is perfectly at home in a regular oven.

You can see I have my whole dinner in there: some peppers, a bit of buckwheat pilaf I’d made in advance, and some citrus slices to season the fish while it bakes. I come home from the gym, pop my food into the Lékué then into the oven, and it cooks while I take a shower. It cleans easily, doesn’t retain food smells, and is reusable. It’s a bit slower than parchment, but I’ve enjoyed several meals cooked in it. (No I was not compensated for this, and yes, I found the Lékué myself and paid for it out of my own pocket. No endorsement here, just a report of a happy test drive.)

Don’t feel limited to fish. Anything that might normally dry out in the oven (chicken breasts or lean beef) cooks well in a steamer. Just be sure to add some moisture like broth or light vinaigrettes to help them cook.

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The Lékué steam case and other products are available at Sur la Table and on Amazon.com

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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La Silvana

Chouquettes

Chouquettes

In the world of grand opera there was no bigger star than Giulietta Silvana. At the Met—the old “Diamond Horseshoe” on 39th Street—even the sleepiest of men who’d been dragged to the opera by their culture-climbing wives woke up when “La Silvana” arrived center stage.

There was, of course, no shortage of men who swept through the stage door in their top hats and capes hoping to court “La Silvana.” The usual nightly contretemps between a Diva and her tenor? For “La Silvana”, this was just the opening salvo to a night of romance. Like a bee collecting pollen, she never settled on one flower. Reporter after reporter asked why, and to all she simply replied, “Show me a man of substance, and I will have sung my last Lucia.”

European suitors, many of them of royal lineage, also fell under her spell during visits to La Scala, the Palais Garnier, the Royal Opera House, and countless concert stages. Her great rival, Lily Pons, was green with envy at La Silvana’s independence from the grasp of one man.

At home, which was usually the best suite in the best hotel in whatever city she sang, she was tended to by a staff who doted on, and anticipated her every whim. Her private chef ensured that there would never be too much of her to squeeze into the corsets that costume designers inevitably built into her costumes; a private masseuse pounded every excess ounce of avoirdupois from her that the chef may have missed. What the chef and masseuse may have missed, her own notoriously steely discipline and focus nipped in the bud. She sailed around the world like a maharani: staff, clothes, jewels, and determination never far from her reach. If you find the theory that Great Divas are born Great Divas dubious, let La Silvana wipe away all doubts.

Still, if you were to observe closely, you’d notice some clues to the “real” La Silvana. At every meal, in any restaurant, even on the most luxurious ocean liner, she would rub the silverware with her napkin as if the cleanest was never clean enough. Then there was the locket: a large silver locket that never left her neck no matter the role or costume. She always held it when, as Tosca, she made her final plunge. No man, no maid, no costume designer could make her remove the locket. It was reported (but never confirmed) that she slept with it in her grasp.

Sadly, time—age—was unkind to La Silvana. Inevitably, her voice became heavy, her face matured, and she began to find herself shunted aside in favor of younger singers—both on stage and off.

Rather than linger on in the shadows, La Silvana did what she thought was expected of a Great Diva: she simply disappeared. Her whereabouts—even whether she was dead or alive—became one of the great mysteries of the Opera world.

However, after the recent death of Professor Carlos Bernberg—one of the world’s great scholars on twentieth century opera (and a notorious pack rat)—we are finally able to reveal what happened to La Silvana after she took her final bow. For, hidden amongst the boxes that defined the Professor’s living and working space lies the story of La Silvana’s Act II.

The story of her second act begins—by sheer coincidence—on a snowy Christmas Eve. Still awash in the rosy glow of music as he made his way from Carnegie Hall through the falling snow, Professor Bernberg, heeding the rumbles of his empty stomach, decided that a light, late supper was in order. Worried that Schrafft’s (his usual haunt) would be closed, he decided to try a small bistro he’d spied on his many trips through the neighborhood. Its warm glow always reminded him of Vienna, but its name always captured his fancy: “Lucia”. Not, “Lucia’s Place” or “Café Lucia”. Just “Lucia”.

He paused as he entered, for the restaurant was full and the boisterousness of the crowd left him with the impression that he was intruding on a private party. Through the smoky haze he could see a small staff of red-jacketed waiters clucking and bowing, and in the back, through a window cut in the wall, a cherub-cheeked man, white hair under a toque, fussing in the kitchen.

A short, slightly plump woman with silver hair grabbed both of his hands and greeted him like an old friend. She explained that while there were no individual tables available, if he didn’t mind, she could happily seat him with others. His initial reluctance was overruled by another rumble of his empty stomach, and he soon found himself seated at a large round table with seven other diners. Not so much seated as “tucked in”, as the plump, silver-haired matron who greeted him made sure his chair was pushed in and his “serviette” spread in his lap just so. While telling him about things to look for on the menu, she stood with a cloth and wiped his silverware.

Indicating the other people at the table, she allowed, “My friends will tell you that I am biased, but I think we have the best Veal Marengo in the world.” Nodding towards the kitchen she continued, “Franco is Piedmontese, so he knows just the right amount of white truffle to add.”

Well, given such salesmanship, and the agreement of his tablemates, how could the Professor not try the Veal Marengo?

After his meal—and a rather bracing glass of Cotes de Nuits – Villages—he patted his stomach in appreciation of the fine meal, and the happy conversation with the strangers at the table.

Insisting that he have something sweet with his coffee, the silver-haired matron delivered a small plate baring just a few simple, round pastries that were studded with nibs of sugar. They were hollow, and the nibs of sugar sweetened the toasted, egg-infused, pastry with little “pops” each time he took a bite.

The Professor pleaded with the silver-haired matron to know what they were.

“Ah, those? They are Chouquettes. I first had them on a Christmas Eve many moons ago in Vienna. A place much like this one. I was with my first love, my only true love. I had to plead with the baker for the recipe for I knew that I would want my love to have Chouquettes every Christmas Eve. I carried the recipe in my locket for many years. I always felt that I could conquer the world if I kept the recipe close to my heart.”

As she pointed to her large silver locket, the Professor looked her up and down while a wash of memories flooded him. “You are La Silvana!” he gasped.

“Ha!” she giggled. “La Silvana! I made her up like a child pretends to be a cowboy or an Indian. Would people have come to see Gertrude Silverman sing? I think not. So I became Giulietta Silvana. But all the fame and riches could never bring back my true love. He was lost in the Great War. After I stopped singing I opened this place so that every night I could re-live those dinners in Vienna. Some days, at my darkest, I imagine that the door will open, he’ll walk in, and we’ll be reunited forever.” Then, with a sigh, “But it is not to be.”

She smiled at the professor and said, “You’ll keep my secret, yes? Better for the world to think La Silvana just evaporated into thin air then for them to know she is now a dumpy, grey haired frau. So here I am, hiding in plain sight. Shhhh…” she teased, holding her finger over her lips if playing a game of Hide and Seek. As she made her request she offered the Professor one more Chouquette. He bit into it and as the sugar made little “pops” in his mouth, he knew almost as if he’d been placed under a spell, that he would never reveal the secret of La Silvana.

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Want to make your own Chouquettes? Follow my recipe for Gougeres, but omit the cheese. Before baking, sprinkle with nib (pearl) sugar, or any large grain sugar.

Look at this! The “I Heart Christmas” cookies seen below (inspired by noted artist Laura Loving) are in The New York Times!

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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This holiday season consider a gift to the Robin Hood Foundation.

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!

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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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!

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

A Child’s Thanksgiving in wails

Pumpkin Chocolate Cloverleaf Rolls

Pumpkin Chocolate Cloverleaf Rolls…boom

My sister Fran is a poopie-head. That is my honest, adult, unvarnished, truthful, insightful, well thought out appraisal of this thoroughly disappointing woman. Think George C. Scott as General Patton crossed with Glen Close as Cruella de Vil. Add maybe a sneeze or two of Susan Hayward in “I Want to Live!” There ya go.

HAPPY THANKSGIVING, EVERYONE!

In true American tradition I will be sitting at Frau Fran’s table this holiday eating her Turkey. She, in turn, will throw that in my and my other siblings’ faces forever. This is a delicate game of checks and balances. Yet, as dreadful as I have made the day sound, it is not without its rewards. I do love the meal. I have offered to host the meal myself many times but La Reina (another of my nicknames for Fran) insists—INSISTS—on hosting it. As with so many other things we have to do as a family, she bullies, coddles, bribes, threatens, and pouts until she gets her way. There have been years when I have been tempted to “call in sick” but my Mother won’t hear of it.

It is hard for Fran. Life hasn’t been easy. She married a man who was born without a brain, so she has had to think for two for nigh onto thirty years. (My Aunt Polly insists that Fran’s husband was also born without a spine, but that’s a whole other slice of pie.)

Clearly the parsnips won’t be the only bitter thing at the table this holiday. Yet, if you think about it, is there a better day for families to gather around their collective grievances than one on which they can drown said grievances in a big meal and a fat tanker-sized glass of moderately priced wine? I think not. You can keep your one hundred fifty dollars an hour family therapists. Bury your heartache under a pile of Ritz cracker stuffing, that’s what I say.

And speaking of football…

Over the years we lesser siblings who orbit Planet Fran like so many Moons have developed our own quiet rebellion—strictly sub-rosa but nonetheless well organized and quite virulent. The red wine stains on Fran’s favorite damask tablecloth? An accident, I assure you. The fact that every year Molly, Fran’s Cocker Spaniel, has an “accident” on the white living room rug? Chalk it up to the excitement of the day. (Hint: In those long-ago TV commercials Andy Griffin used to say, “Everything sits good on a Ritz.” Unfortunately Ritz don’t sit so good on Molly’s tummy. Good GIRL!)

No, Fran for All Seasons doesn’t stand in her kitchen for days on end cooking the big meal. She buys all of it pre-cooked, including the turkey, which she reanimates in her Magic Chef. What she fails to realize is that this reduces her martyrdom by a large factor. She doles out the money to Larry (that’s Mr. Fran) who then gets to pretend that he is the hunter / gatherer / breadwinner / head of the family by schlepping around town gathering the catered items in The Mercedes That Time Forgot.

Fran of a thousand faces has a knack for ordering good food—I’ll give her that—which is a surprise considering her sustenance is usually derived from a freezer full of Lean Cuisine. There was one disastrous year when she decided that she would start a new family tradition and serve a Honeybaked ham. This was met with howls of dissent, so equilibrium (or Librium) and roast turkey was restored the following year. But here’s my truth: as much as I love turkey, if you cut into it and found that it was made of bread I’d probably love it even more. The Thanksgiving bread basket? That’s my jam, yo.

It was my well-known love of the bread basket that sparked what has always been the most overt example of rebellion against Generalissimo Fran. It started as a dreadful act of violence directed at yours truly. I simply asked for the bread basket to be passed. Innocent as a lamb. Okay, there may have been the merest touch of an edge in my voice…and I may have labeled the bread basket with an adjective that I cannot print in a family blog. But really, just in good fun.

Anyway, before I could even slam the table with my fist and shout, “NOW!” it seemed like every roll ever baked since the beginning of time was being thrown at me. Thank goodness we’d already polished off the Parker House rolls I had baked, for their buttery goodness would surely have stained my handsome shirt.

As one good turn deserves another I was left only with the option of returning the salvo as best I could, after all it was eleven against one (my Mother had also lobbed a Pillsbury Crescent roll at me but you can’t return fire when it’s your Mother. I found out the hard way that that’s true in Paintball too.) (She’s fine.) (Now.)

When winging bread at folks it helps to first judge the distance of your target, the weight of the object being thrown, and the age and relative health of your target. Example: those hearty whole wheat raisin rolls are great for that sourpuss, bratty teenage niece with the big mouth, but for Granny stick with sliced bread thrown with a gentle Frisbee motion. However, please be advised that you should check with the bratty teenage niece’s parents prior to the meal to make sure she hasn’t already had her Sweet Sixteen Rhinoplasty. Either way it gets her out of the room.

Naturally one can game the system a bit by insisting on bringing home-baked rolls. This technique presents two advantages. The first is that you can make practice batches and sharpen your accuracy. The second is that it gives you complete control over the weight of each projectile dinner roll, therefore letting you adjust for age, height, and health of target.

I have gleaned from years of experience that the common Cloverleaf roll makes ideal cannon fodder for a Thanksgiving dinner. While they have a bit of heft, they don’t have the volume or mass of the whole grain raisin roll. They are also vaguely ball-shaped. This makes them safe for a wider range of targets: even Granny can survive being dinged by one, although it may hasten that day’s nap time.

I have been known to bake yearly commemorative varietal batches and give them as gifts. The saffron version was quite delicious, although the resulting orange splotches on the walls required that Fran-tasy Island have her dining room repainted. But these are mere trifles taken in the context of the larger picture.

This year I decided it might be fun to add a touch of sugar, pumpkin, and chocolate to them. This lightly sweetened treat was inspired by Nancy Reagan’s well publicized Monkey Bread recipe. What better model of familial dysfunction has there ever been than the White House Reagans? These will make a calming respite with a cup of morning coffee.

And the chocolate should make some lovely stains on Fran-tastic’s dining-room walls.

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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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Discovering Chris (likes cake)

Apple Skillet Cake

Apple Skillet Cake

It was nice to get out of my apartment after being holed up waiting for Hurricane Sandy to have her way with us. I had a standing invitation to visit an elderly friend who just re-did his apartment and was having a few friends in so he could show it off.

Like so many New Yorkers Chris has lived in the same place for many years, and his views and location are—shall we say—extraordinary. The downside is that it is a sixth-floor walk up. It’s a climb. But Chris, having long ago retired (he was in the shipping business) never leaves his perch.

My goodness. For an elderly gent he’s the life of the party. He spent the entire time standing on his new coffee table.

Naturally I couldn’t show up empty handed. The question was: what shall I bring to a housewarming…or to be more accurate, a “redecoration-warming”?

It’s Fall. Every fall, this young(!) man’s fancy turns to apples.

That’s not entirely accurate. I should say my fancy turns to apple cake. A nice piece of apple cake just hits the spot for me on a chilly fall day. Hey, you can’t just eat chocolate all the time. (What the heck am I saying? Of course you can…)

I’ll admit that there are only so many ways to make apple cake. My ideal would be a cake that is not too sweet, not too heavy, that would have apples just tinted with a sting of cinnamon, and cooked through. Too many apple cakes end up with dull, undercooked apples. Don’t let this happen to you!

My standby trick for the latter problem is to cook—sauté—the apples first. Some people may object to this, after all, it is an extra step, and yet another pan to be washed, dried and put away. But I’m afraid I must insist.

Photobombing Chris

We couldn’t get him off the coffee table…

I kept thinking of all the big puffy apple pancakes I have made or been served over the years. You may have seen these referred to as “Dutch Babies” or “Dutch Apple Pancakes”. Kin to popovers, they owe their appeal to the high amount of eggs in the recipe that make the pancake puff so dramatically in the oven. The eggs, in turn, give the pancake a richness and heartiness that can be very satisfying.

Nice…but it’s not cake. And I want cake.

I do love my All-Clad skillets, and what better place to cook apples than there? While I’m at it, why not bake the cake in an nice shiny skillet and bring the whole thing as a gift to ol’ Chris?

I started off with three large apples cored, and thickly sliced. (I used a couple of Braeburns and a Cortland. I don’t think the variety matters all that much in this recipe.)

In the large skillet I slowly melted butter and sugar until I had a rough approximation of a light caramel sauce. Then I added the sliced apples and let the whole thing bubble until a lot of the liquid cooked away.

After removing from the heat, I made a very simple bowl and spoon cake batter (no mixer!). I poured it over the apples and spread it in an even layer. It seemed like there may not be enough batter to cover everything, but since the recipe calls for a healthy dose of baking powder, I knew that the heat of the oven would give it enough of a “whoosh” to cover everything.

I have to admit that I was experimenting: taking a little bit from this recipe and a little bit from that—not always a smart thing to do when baking. When you’re cooking on top of the stove you can taste as you go and adjust the seasonings as needed. Baking is a little like pottery: sometimes you really just don’t know what you’ll get until the timer beeps and you open the oven door.

In this case you get what seems like an unassuming cake in a pan…straight from the oven it almost looks like baked polenta. But then you turn it over and serve it apple-side-up, dusted with some confectioner’s sugar, and you have a gentle, homey snack, dessert, or even breakfast that would not have been out of place in a colonial tavern.

I could tell that Chris was thrilled, although he wouldn’t let on, being the stone-faced hombre he is. His apartment is beautiful, but as I wandered around I questioned whether he’d actually ever use the shiny, new skillet that the cake came in.

He doesn’t have much of a kitchen.

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Click here for the recipe for Apple Skillet Cake

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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