Monday, December 18, 2006

Holiday Cookies - Break out the Butter!

I just finished making several kinds of cookies to ship to my clients and it's always an adventure when you've got multiple baking projects underway. Some cookies need to be chilled, others left out on the counter before baking, some need to cool on the cookie sheet, others need to be removed from the cookie sheet and cooled on a rack. So many things to think about! But it's fun and result is tasty and so colorful. And hopefully you bring joy to the recipients (who simultaneously curse you for contributing to their packing on the pounds over the holidays).

Following are a couple of new recipes I tried that I think are really worth the time and effort. Both are from the December issue of Gourmet. I have made personal notes in the recipes to help you bypass a couple of the small issues I ran into. My experience is that baking with two cooking sheets in the oven at the same time and switching their rack position mid-way through does not work. One set of cookies is always more cooked than the others. But my oven is old-school so maybe you'll have better luck. My advice is to just cook one sheet of cookies at a time in the middle of the oven and ensure that your cookies come out the way you want. It takes longer but the result is better. Enjoy!

Cookie Recipes:
Cranberry Pistachio Shortbread Cookies
French Macaroons with Chocolate Ganache Filling

Cranberry Pistachio Shortbread Cookies recipe

• 1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
• 1/2 tsp cinnamon
• 1/4 tsp salt
• 1-1/2 sticks unsalted butter (3/4 cup), softened
• 1/4 cup plus 2 tbsp granulated sugar
• 1/2 tsp finely grated orange zest
• 1/2 cup shelled pistachios (2-1/4 oz; not dyed red)
• 1/3 cup dried cranberries (1-1/4 oz)
• 1 large egg
• 1/4 cup decorative sugar (preferable coarse, white, red or green)

How to:

Make Dough
- Stir together flour, cinnamon and salt in a bowl.
- Beat together butter, granulated sugar and zest in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Reduce speed to low and add flour mixture in 3 batches, mixing until dough just comes together in clumps, then mix in pistachios and cranberries.
- Gather and press dough together, then divide into 2 equal pieces.
- Using a sheet of plastic wrap or wax paper as an aid, form each piece of dough into a log about 1-1/2 inches in diameter (these make small cookies so if you want them a little larger, make your log more like 2 or 2-1/2 inches).
- Square off long sides of each log to form a bar, then chill, wrapped in plastic, until very firm, about 2 hours.

Slice and Bake Cookies
- Put oven racks in upper and lower thirds of oven and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper.
- Brush egg over all 4 long sides of bars (but not ends). Sprinkle decorative sugar on a separate sheet of parchment or wax paper and press bars into sugar, coating well.
- Cut each bar crosswise into 1/4-inch thick slices, rotating bar after cutting each slice to help keep square shape. (If dough gets too soft to slice, freeze bars briefly until firm.) Arrange cookies about 1/2 inch apart on lined baking sheets.
- Bake cookies, switching position of sheets halfway through baking, until edges are pale golden, 15 to 18 mimutes total.
- Transfer cookies from parchment to racks using a slotted spatula and cool completely.

Dough bars can be chilled to to 3 days. Cookies keep in airtight container at room temperature for about 5 days.

French Macaroons with Chocolate Ganache Filling recipe


For Macaroons:
• 6 oz (2 cups) sliced blanched almonds (not slivered)
• 1-1/2 cups confectioners sugar
• 3 large egg whites
• 1/8 tsp salt
• 3 tbsp sugar
• Red or pink food coloring

For the Chocolate Raspberry Ganache
• 3 oz quality bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
• 1/3 cup heavy cream
• 1/16 tsp raspberry extract (I couldn't find this so I used Chambord - probably even better!)

How to:

Make Macaroons
- Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
- Pulse almonds with 1/2 cup confectioners sugar in a food processor until very finely ground (2 to 3 minutes) then transfer to a bowl.
- Sift in the remaining cup confectioners sugar, stirring to combine.
- Beat egg whites with salt in another bowl with an electric mixer at medium speed until they just hold soft peaks.
- Add granulated sugar, a little at a time, beating, then increase speed to high and continue to beat until whites just hold stiff, glossy peaks.
- Add drops of food coloring to reach desired shade and mix at low speed until evenly combined.
- Stir almond mixture into meringue with a rubber spatula until completely incorporated (meringue will deflate).
- Spoon batter into pastry or gallon-size sealable plastic bag, pressing out excess air. If you're not using a pastry bag, you will need to snip off the end of your pastry bag with about a 1/4-inch opening. Twist bag firmly above batter, then pipe peaked mounds of batter (the size of a chocolate kiss) onto lined sheets about 1-1/2 inces apart. Let cookies stand, uncovered, at room temperature until tops are no longer sticky and a light crust forms, 20 to 30 minutes.

- Meanwhile, put oven racks in upper and lower thirds of oven and preheat ove to 300 degrees.
- Bake cookies, switching position of sheets halfway through baking, until crisp and edges are slightly darker, 20 to 25 minutes. Cool completely on sheets on racks. They make this crackling noise when they cool which is really cool.

Make Ganache while Macaroons Bake
- Melt chocolate with cream in a metal bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water or in top of a double boiler, stirring until smooth (bowl should not touch the water).
- Remove bowl from heat , then add butter and raspberry extract (or Chambord), stirring until butter is melted.
- Let stand at room temperature until cooled completely and slightly thickened (set on the window sill to expedite).

Assemble Cookies
- Carefully peel cookies from parchment.
- Sandwich a thin layer of ganache (about 1/2 tsp) between flat sides of cookies. I recommend finding something to lean them against while they're cooling so they two sides don't slide apart.

Note: The macaroons taste better several hours later. They turn from crunchy to a little chewy and the almond flavor really comes through then.

Filled macaroons keen in an airtight container at room temperature for around 5 days.

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Another Amazing Cookie - Chocolate Hazelnut

Of all the cookies I've made this holiday season (and there have been many), this is my favorite new recipe I've tried. This cookie recipe is also from the December issue of Gourmet. Just roasting the hazelnuts gets you in the holiday spirit. Such a wonderful fragrance. And the flavors of the cookie are layered. First you taste the chocolate, then the hazelnut. It's an unusual cookie. Definitely a step above. Give it a try!

Chocolate Hazelnut Cookies


• 2/3 cup hazelnuts
• 2 tbsp sugar
• 6 oz fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (no more than 69% cacao if marked)
• 2-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
• 2 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
• 3/4 tsp salt
• 1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened
• 1-1/2 cups packed light brown sugar
• 2 large eggs
• 1/4 cup whole milk
• 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
• 3/4 cup confectioners sugar

How to:

Make the Dough
- Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Toast hazelnuts in a shallow baking pan in oven until skins split and nuts are pale golden, about 10 minutes.
- Remove from oven (turn off oven), then wrap hazelnuts in a kitchen towel and rub to remove loose skins (they won't all come out - that's okay).
- Cool nuts completely. When cooled, pulse nuts with granulated sugar in a food processor until finely chopped (about a minute).

- Melt chocolate in a metal bowl set over a saucepan of barely simmering water or in top of a double boiler, stirring until smooth. Remove bowl from heat and set aside.
- Whisk together flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt in a bowl.
- Beat together butter and brown sugar in another bowl with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until creamy (about 3 minutes). Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition, then beat in melted chocolate until combined. Add milk and vanilla, beating to incorporate. Reduce speed to low and add flour mixture, mixing until just combined. Stir in ground hazelnut and sugar mixture. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and chill dough until firm, 2 to 3 hours.

Form and Bake Cookies
- Put oven racks in upper and lower thirds of oven and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper.
- Sift confectioners sugar into a bowl. Halve dough and chill 1 half, wrapped in plastic wrap. Roll remaining half into 1-inch balls, placing them on a sheet of wax paper as rolled. Roll balls, 3 or 4 at time, in confectioners sugar to coat generously and arrange 2 inches apart on lined baking sheets.

- Bake, switching position of sheets halfway through baking (I prefer to just bake one batch at a time), until cookies are puffed and cracked and edges feel dry (but centers are still slightly soft), 12 to 18 minutes total.
- Transfer cookies (still on parchment) to racks to cool completely.
- While first batch is baking, roll remaining dough into balls.
- Line cooled cookie sheets with fresh parchment, then coat balls with confectioners sugar and bake in same manner.

NOTE: Cookies keep, layered between sheets of parchment or wax paper, in an airtight container at room temperature for 5 days.

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Sunday, December 17, 2006

Midwest Grill - A Carnivore's Paradise

Every day on my way home from work I walk past the Midwest Grill, a churrascaria (shoo-HOSS-ka-REE-ah) which I think translates to eat meat until they bring out the paddles. Actually, a churrascaria is a steakhouse where all forms of meat and poultry are slowly barbecued on spits - this technique creates a delicious crispiness on the outside and nice juicy flavors on the inside. The Midwest Grill wisely cooks all this food right near the window where passersby can get an eyeful of what's cooking. Quite a mouth-watering sight.

I have been resisting going there because I was waiting for a brisk winter comfort food kind of night and to remember to fast for a week beforehand. But since the weather has been so balmy and I can never stop eating, I decided to have my office Christmas party there instead. What a feast we had!

We arrived early so we pretty much had the restaurant to ourselves. The ambiance there is charming. It has a very European feel, warm and cozy with a nice bar tucked in the back. The menu basically consists of one thing - a $22.00 all-you-can eat meat and poultry extravaganza where the spit-roasted food is brought to your table, one item after another - chicken wrapped in bacon, lamb, beef, you get the idea. I'm getting a little woozy just thinking about it. The server carves you what you want and you grab it with a set of tongs and put it on your plate. The servers always look disappointed when you turn them down but truly, you have to pace yourself or you'll be full in a minute. My two favorites were the lamb and beef which were both crisp and amazingly seasoned on the outside and pink and juicy on the inside. The Brazilian sausage is also quite yummy. It was great to try a variety of things so that next time I will focus on the things I enjoyed most. I recommend you do the same.

Oh and did I mention they also have two huge buffet areas with everything from the most amazing mashed potatoes (I think they fold in cream cheese) to baked beans, broccoli sautéed in garlic and tangy meatballs?

And then there are the desserts - rice pudding, chocolate mousse, ice cream and my personal "wow" factor dessert, the passion fruit pudding which packs some unexpected pucker and is absolutely delicious. You must try this if you go there.

So pick a brisk winter night to get some friends together (tell them to fast) and all meet up at the Midwest Grill. Have fun. We did.

Midwest Grill
1124 Cambridge Street (Inman Square), Cambridge, 617.354.7536
Hours: Sun - Thurs, 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.; Fri. and Sat open till midnight

Monday, December 11, 2006

Big is the New Black in NYC Dining

Huge cavernous restaurants that serve 900 dinners a night. Enormous cafés that offer a full chocolate-only menu. Giant family style platters of food. Big is "in" these days in New York. Often bigger can mean lower quality, less attention to detail and inferior service - but that did not prove to be the case on my recent Manhattan food tour.

Max Brenner's Chocolate by the Bald Man
If you're a chocaholic, I suggest you book a flight or hop on the Fung Wah bus to NYC pronto. Max Brenner's is a chocolate paradise second only to perhaps Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. It's a large two-level establishment that looks more like a French bistro than a chocolate café. Their menu consists of pages and pages of decadent chocolate delights, from Mexican Hot Chocolate to "Urban S'mores" to Chocolate Pizza . It's mind boggling. And mouth watering.

We asked our waitress for advice and she basically told us that everything is amazing and we'll just have to come back multiple times to try everything. Big help. Since we're not from New York and won't have the opportunity for multiple visits (which is really a good thing), we opted for the Tasting for 2 (aka the coma-inducing sampler). This ordering strategy enabled us to try a variety of things - a Crunchy Chocolate Cream Snack, Popping Candies Chocolate Lick (a shot of ganache with pop rocks on top), Warm Banana Split Waffle (served with carmelized toffee bananas and a mini beaker of chocolate sauce), Chocolate Covered Ice Cream Scoop and Chocolate Fondue with Marshmallows, Bananas and Strawberries which included a Pu Pu Platter-like flaming device for toasting the marshmallows (fire good). As if that wasn't way more than enough, we each ordered a form of the hot chocolate. I ordered the Italian Thick Hot Chocolate which the waitress said is a crowd favorite. Kemal ordered the "Suckao" which they describe as the "espresso of chocolate drinks." With all the chocolate activity on the table, I neglected my hot chocolate and was only able to drink a few sips of it but man was it good. Very rich. They should probably serve a smaller portion. I can't imagine anyone getting through a whole mug of that stuff. My favorite of everything was the Crunchy Chocolate Cream Snack. It was a thin rectangular slice of taste and texture - rich chocolate on one end and crunchy hazelnut on the other. Heavenly.

They serve their drinks in the greatest cups such as "hug mugs." It's sort of almond shaped. The idea is that you're supposed to hug it with your hands and drink out of the gravy boat-like spout. Very sweet - literally. The "Suckao" was a whole other interactive experience. You put chips of chocolate and steamed milk in a little saucer above a flame until it's your desired consistency then you sip it with a long metal straw. Quite an event.

These people are not just great chocolate makers but they are great marketers, too. They have a gift shop right on-site where you can buy all these cool things and they're plastered with the Max Brenner branding. So is the whole restaurant including the bathroom. A little bit overkill but clearly they know what they're doing.

If it's chocolate you crave, look no further than Max Brenner. They got it covered - in chocolate and lots of it.

When we walked into Buddakan, an incredibly stylish Asian hotspot in the Meatpacking District, I was a bit concerned because that perhaps form might override function. In other words, I was worried the food might not live up to the décor. The place is absolutely gorgeous. 2 gigantic floors- a happening, dimly-lit bar upstairs and multiple nooks of dining space at every turn. A cascading staircase with an incredible view of the downstairs - massive chandeliers, Asian art everywhere and the largest family style table I've ever seen (must seat at least 45 people). The ceiling has to be about 50 feet high on this lower level. Amazing.

We were seated downstairs in an area that didn't make us feel like we were in such a gargantuan space which was kind of nice. We were still recovering from the chocolate bender so we just ordered some appetizers which even if we hadn't stuffed ourselves on chocolate, would have been plenty. The appetizers were fairly generous but not over the top by any means. They serve everything family style which is a brilliant strategy for a restaurant of that size. That's their way of saying, "There's no way we're going to be able to keep up with serving everyone appetizers and entrees in a timely fashion so we'll just bring out the food when the chefs get to it." Which worked out just fine for us. We didn't have to wait long. No complaints.

Everything we ordered was very good, a couple of things were great. The Steamed Sea Bass Roll was one of the great ones. The fish was simply prepared with ginger and scallion oil and then wrapped in cabbage. Absolutely delicious - and healthy, a bonus. The Boneless Spare Ribs with Chinese Mustard was definitely better than your average boneless spareribs. The Shrimp Dumplings with Scallions and Bamboo Shoots in an Egg Drop Broth was my favorite. The shrimp was so succulent. Melt in your mouth delicious. We also had the General Tso's Dumplings, chicken dumpings with ginger. There was broth in the dumpling so that when you bit into it, it was very juicy. I enjoyed it but it didn't live up to the hype the waiter gave it. I thought the other dishes were better.

Buddakan is a great place to go if you want to hang out in a fun, beautiful, lively place; dine on really good food; and not have to deal with the velvet rope "am I cool enough to get in" scene. Everyone is welcome. It may not be the most cutting edge cuisine but after a long day of holiday shopping, it's nice to dine at a plae with no attitude. If you're anywhere near the West Village or Meatpacking District at dinner time, I recommend stopping into Buddakan - if not for dinnner then at least for a cocktail.

Many, many moons ago, I was a student at Fordham University in the Bronx. Our campus was right near an Italian Neighborhood known as "Arthur Avenue" and that is where I first learned about the wonders of Italian cuisine. My favorite restaurant was (and still is) Dominick's. Every time I go to New York I think about revisiting Dominick's but never seem to get over there. This year I was determined to go. I made plans to meet up with some of my old roommates and friends. It didn't take a lot of persuading when I mentioned Dominick's. We all remember it very fondly.

What's so great about Dominick's you may ask. Mostly, their signature dish (at least in our eyes), the Zuppa De Pesce, Linguina with Red Sauce and Seafood (mussels, little necks, lobster and the the most flavorful, tender calamari ever). There's not one thing in this dish that makes it great. It's really the combination of the amazing red sauce, which tastes like it's made with some kind of fish stock, combined with the perfectly cooked seafood and the al dente pasta. Like most of the meals at Dominick's, this one is served family style in a giant platter, fantastic for sharing. Other hits are the Baked Clams and Classic Linguini with Clams.

The other great thing about Dominick's is the ambiance - both outside and in. As we walked down Arthur Avenue, Christmas music was piped into the streets. This neighborhood embraces Christmas wholeheartedly. You won't see anything that says "Happy Holidays" there. It's Christmas to them and they don't make any effort to water it down or make it politically correct. Kind of refrshing actually. Inside, Dominick's is no frills. Family style seating, not much in the décor category - the focus here is good food and good times tucked in tightly with a hungry, happy crowd.

Aside from the food, my favorite things about Dominick's that give it great character are the fact that there is no menu and no check. And you don't question it. The waiter gives you some suggestions, you can then tell him what you're in the mood for, and then you place your order. Once the dinner is over, the waiter verbally tells you how much you owe him and you hand over the cash. If you need a receipt for your business expenses, you'll be out of luck here. I just love that whole experience.

I haven't been back to Dominick's since I was in college and I have to say it was just as wonderful as I remember - so was sitting down with my old - er - former college friends and catching up.

We ended the evening with some Italian pastries at an Arthur Avenue bakery which turned out to be an amazing time. The café had an older Italian gentleman there who was belting out Andrea Bocelli songs. Very impressive. The owner was so friendly to us and invited us to come back. You do not feel that kind of genuine warmth and kindness in Manhattan. I am sorry to say I didn't write down the name of this café. Ladies, if you can help jog my memory, that would be great.

Next time you go to Manhattan, consider a little detour to the Bronx. Just hop on the Metro North at Grand Central and 17 minutes later you'll be at the Fordham Road stop. Arthur Avenue is an easy 10-minute walk away. Also in this neighborhood is the phenomenal Bronx Zoo and Botanical Gardens. So there's lots to see and do. This area is perfectly safe and very friendly for those of you who might be concerned.

Max Brenner's Chocolate by the Bald Man
2 locations:
841 Broadway (Union Square), Manhattan
141 2nd Avenue, New York

75 9th Avenue (Meatpacking District), Manhattan

2335 Arthur Avenue, Bronx, NY
They don't need no stinkin' website. Place is packed every night. Expect a 2-hour wait even at 6pm on a Saturday night. No worries. There's a bar upstairs and others in the neighborhood. It's worth the wait!

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