I Believe This Might Just Be My Masterpiece: Birthday Cake 2014

Brown Butter & Lime Cake, with Strawberry Jam, Cornflake Crunch, and Corn Buttercream

Who makes the best cakes?  Momofuku Milk Bar makes the best cakes.  I am not being paid or otherwise compensated to say this.  It’s just the damn truth.

Here’s the logic: the best food texture is, obviously, crunchy.  Obviously.

What makes a good salad better?  Crunchy croutons (or crunchy bits of bacon).

Want your mac and cheese to go to 11?  Put a parmesan-breadcrumb topping on it.  Crunchy.

Best fried eggs ever?  Fry them on some panko.  You have unlocked achievement: crunchy.

What do you put on yogurt?  Granola.  Because crunchy.

What is lacking in 99.999% of cakes?  You daaamn right: crunchy.

pretty cake

I’m not a bakery connoisseur, but as far as I know, Christina Tosi is the only baker out there putting substantial crunchy in her cakes.  I’m talking serious crunch here.  Buckets of crunch.  Toasted nuts do not count, they are weak.  Other than the occasional dacquoise, which involves layers of dried meringue (and who makes those?), I’m not really aware of any.  Am I missing anything?

Crunchy layers will take a good cake to a friggin’ amazing cake.  Since I got my grubby hands on the Milk Bar cookbook, I haven’t made a layer cake without some sort of crunchy “crumb” layer.  You can never go back.

This year for my birthday, in imitation of Tosi, I made myself a Brown Butter & Lime Cake, with Strawberry Jam, Cornflake Crunch, and Corn Buttercream.

And hoo boy.

Hooooooo boy.

This cake… this cake was special.  It did not last long.

This is my new favorite cake trick: flavored buttercream.  And it’s stupid easy!  Figure out what flavor you want.  Buy some freeze dried whatever-that-flavor-is.  Me, I used corn.  Grind some to a fine powder in a spice/coffee grinder, and add it to your favorite buttercream.  Wham!  Corn Buttercream.

You’re welcome.

Brown Butter & Lime Cake, with Strawberry Jam, Cornflake Crunch, and Corn Buttercream

Yield: 1 friggin amazing cake

Brown Butter & Lime Cake, with Strawberry Jam, Cornflake Crunch, and Corn Buttercream

All right, let's do this thing.

The cake was Rose Levy Beranbaum's French Génoise. I made the Rich Variant, doubled the recipe to make 2 cakes, and rubbed the zest of 1 lime into the sugar until it looked like wet sand and smelled incredible. In the syrup, I used Bourbon.

For the strawberry jam, I sliced up a shy quart of farmers market strawberries, put 'em in a pan with a sprinkling of sugar (maybe a couple of tablespoons), and a hefty squeeze of lemon. I measured nothing. It cooked on medium-low until thick and jammy, which took it at least 30 minutes, probably more. And buddy, it was intense.

The cornflake crunch was based on Chef Tosi's Corn Crumbs, but I swapped cornflakes for the indicated Cap'n Crunch.  It didn't really work as expected.  It needed waaay more white chocolate at the end to make it come together.  It did the job, though.

The buttercream was based on the same recipe as this one, sans rum. I made only a half recipe this time, and it was the perfect amount for a 10" four-layer cake. I added 60 grams of finely ground freeze-dried corn to the finished buttercream.


  • (links to recipes in the headnotes)
  • Brown Butter and Lime Cake
  • Bourbon Syrup
  • Strawberry Jam
  • Cornflake Crunch
  • Corn Buttercream


1. Slice the cakes in half horizontally, and trim any domed tops until things are nice and flat. Place the bottom of one cake on a cake plate or serving platter. (Reserve the other bottom for the top of the cake.) Slide four strips of wax paper under each side of the cake to protect the platter from over-frosting.

2. Brush the cake with the Bourbon Syrup until well-moistened.

3. Spread one third of the Strawberry Jam in a thin layer all the way to the edge.

4. Crumble an even layer of Cornflake Crunch over the jam, and press until mostly even.

5. Spread a dollop of Corn Buttercream evenly over the top of the Crunch layer, as evenly as possible.

6. Place another layer of cake on top of the frosting, and gently press into place.

7. Repeat the layering process. Brush the cut side of the last cake layer with syrup before stacking it syrup-side-down onto the cake.

8. Place a very large dollop of frosting on the top of the cake. Smooth it across the top and down the sides of the cake in a thin, even layer. Don't worry about crumbs at this point, just make it look even. This is called a "crumb coat". Use additional frosting as needed, but make this coat a thin one. Don't get crumbs in the bowl of remaining frosting.

9. Once the crumb coat is finished, chill the cake and any unused frosting for at least 1 hour.

10. When the crumb coat is firm and well chilled, repeat the frosting procedure with the remaining frosting. No crumbs should be showing.

11. Decorate however you want to, with piped frosting, leftover Cornflake Crunch, or whatever.

12. Chill the cake at least 1 hour, or until frosting is firm and well chilled. Now remove the wax paper from under the cake. Admire how clean your platter looks.

13. Serve at a party with candles and friends to sing "Happy Birthday". Champagne, Bourbon, you know the drill.


Birthday Cake: Anise and Pineapple (and Crème Fraîche and Maple and Walnuts Too)

birthday cake

This is overdue, but who cares?  Cake is cake.

I made a birthday cake late last year, for my lovely sous-chef, editor, and boyfriend.  (One of those roles came before the other two, not vice versa.  I’m not that kind of girl.)

I demand inspiration each year for this cake.  You may remember last year’s version, or the one before.  And lest we forget, the first year I handed him the challenge, his reply was for a cake that “most people wouldn’t want to even try, based solely on the description”.

This year, the request was for something anise.  Or pineapple.  Whichever.

Of course, I had to do both.  What’s life about without a good challenge now and again?

Anise Spice Cake with Crème Fraîche Frosting, Pineapple Jam, and Maple Walnuts

In the end, I gave him an Anise Spice Cake with Pineapple Jam, Crème Fraîche Frosting, and Maple Coated Walnuts.  And if I’m brutally honest (I am), I wish I had been more bold with the anise, and used a heavier hand with the pineapple.  Neither flavor came through particularly strong, though the cake was a very good one overall.

It’s not too rich.  The crème fraîche puts the frosting firmly on the tangy side of sweet, without being too sour.  The cake is very moist, and the pineapple jam helps it stay that way over time.  The crunch from the maple walnuts is just delightful.

Also, be sure to let the cake chill thoroughly before slicing it.  Take it from one who knows.

Anise Spice Cake with Crème Fraîche Frosting, Pineapple Jam, and Maple Walnuts
chill that cake or this’ll happen to you

Anise Spice Cake with Crème Fraîche Frosting, Pineapple Jam, and Maple Walnuts

Yield: 1 gorgeous cake

Anise Spice Cake with Crème Fraîche Frosting, Pineapple Jam, and Maple Walnuts

The jam is adapted from this recipe. The cake and frosting are adapted from this recipe. I baked this in a half sheet pan, though round cake pans will work just as well. They will bake more quickly, though.

Measurements are given in grams, because I take great pleasure in precision baking. I honestly don't understand how anyone bakes without using a scale. The frosting, on the other hand, can handle a lot of variance, so the measurements are a little looser. Wing that one. Have fun.


    For the Pineapple Jam:
  • 1 medium pineapple, chopped into 1 inch pieces
  • 2 d'Anjou pears, chopped very finely (or peeled and chopped into 1 inch pieces)
  • 210 grams (7 1/2 ounces, or 1 cup) sugar
  • Zest and juice from from 2-3 lemons (enough to make about 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice)
  • 1 tablespoon rum
  • For the Maple Coated Walnuts:
  • 125 grams (about 1 cup) walnuts
  • 100 grams (about 1/3 cup) maple syrup
  • Kosher salt, to taste
  • For the Anise Spice Cake:
  • 300 grams (2 1/2 cups) all purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons ground aniseed
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground Chinese five-spice
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
  • 50 grams (1/3 cup) finely chopped crystallized ginger
  • 170 grams (3/4 cup, or 1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus a little extra for coating the cake pans
  • 200 grams (1 cup) dark brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs, preferably at room temperature
  • 170 grams (3/4 cup) hot water (not boiling)
  • 190 grams (2/3 cup) maple syrup
  • For the Crème Fraîche Frosting:
  • 2 teaspoons unflavored gelatine (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons cold water (optional)
  • 2 cups crème fraîche
  • 2 cups heavy whipping cream
  • 6 tablespoons powdered sugar
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup
  • 1 tablespoon rum


To make the Pineapple Jam:

1. Chop the pineapple and pear, and combine in a medium pan with the sugar and lemon juice.

2. Simmer over medium-low heat until fruit is tender, about 10 minutes.

3. Reduce heat to low. Stirring occasionally, simmer an additional 30 to 60 minutes, or until thick. Do not let scorch. Jam will continue to thicken as it cools. Can be made several days in advance.

To make the Maple Coated Walnuts:

1. Preheat oven to 350° F.

2. Toast walnuts on a sheet pan for 7 to 10 minutes, or until fragrant but not overly browned. Let cool. Lay out a piece of aluminum foil on a heat-proof surface.

3. Place nuts in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Drizzle maple syrup over walnuts, and stir to coat. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Cook until syrup is thick and dark, about 3 minutes.

4. Turn nuts out onto the foil, and sprinkle with a large pinch of Kosher salt. Let cool at least 1 hour.

5. Chop coated nuts finely, either by hand or by pulsing in a food processor. Can be made several days in advance.

To make the Cake:

1. Preheat the oven to 350° F. Lightly coat a rimmed baking sheet (13x18x1 inch) with cool or room-temperature butter, then dust with flour. Knock any excess flour out of the pan. Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper.

2. Whisk together the flour, spices, baking soda, salt, and ginger. Set aside.

3. Combine the butter and brown sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the paddle attachment, cream together on medium speed until fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes, scraping the bowl once or twice to combine thoroughly.

4. Add the eggs one at a time, beating on low to combine after each addition, scraping the bowl as needed.

5. Stir the hot water and maple syrup together. Add the dry ingredients to the butter-sugar mixture in the stand mixer in 4 separate additions, alternating with 3 separate additions of the maple syrup and water. Beat on low speed to combine after each addition, scraping the bowl as needed to incorporate evenly. Do not overmix; just beat until no large pockets of flour are left.

6. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, and smooth the top evenly. Bake at 350° F for 30 to 40 minutes, or until done. Let cake cool in pan.

To make the Frosting:

1. Sprinkle the gelatine evenly over the surface of the cold water in a small, microwave-safe bowl. Let stand 5 to 10 minutes, or until evenly moistened and bloomed. This step, though optional, will help maintain the integrity of your frosting and keep it from weeping over time.

2. Microwave the bowl of gelatine for about 30 seconds, or until dissolved.

3. Combine the crème fraîche and cream in the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the whisk attachment, whip on medium-high while gradually adding the powdered sugar. Do not beat past soft peaks.

4. Drizzle in the gelatine, maple syrup, and rum while whisking at low speed. You may need to whisk or fold these in by hand. If the cream starts to look a little lumpy and over-whipped, whisk in some additional heavy cream to smooth it out.

To assemble the cake (see photos below):

1. Using a serrated knife, cut the edges of the cake off (just like cutting the crust off a sandwich). Cut the cake into four equal-sized pieces.

2. Spread one piece with a thin layer of the Pineapple Jam, and place on desired cake plate or serving platter. Slide four strips of wax paper under each side of the cake to protect the platter from over-frosting.

3. Spread a dollop of frosting evenly over the top of the Pineapple Jam layer.

4. Repeat the layering process, spreading a cake layer with jam before stacking it onto the cake and spreading frosting over the top of the jam. Do not spread jam onto the last cake layer; just stack it on top of the other layers.

5. Place a very large dollop of frosting on the top of the cake. Smooth it across the top and down the sides of the cake in a thin, even layer. Do not worry about crumbs at this point, just make it look even. This is called a "crumb coat". Use additional frosting as needed, but make this coat a thin one.

6. Once the crumb coat is finished, chill the cake and any unused frosting for at least 1 hour.

7. When the crumb coat is firm and well chilled, repeat the frosting procedure with the remaining frosting. No crumbs should be showing.

8. Press the chopped Maple Coated Walnuts into the sides of the cake.

9. Chill the cake at least 1 hour, or until frosting is firm and well chilled. Now remove the wax paper from under the cake.

10. Serve with candles and merriment and friends to sing "Happy Birthday". A spot of Champagne or Bourbon is not unwelcome here.


Step by step photos for cake frosting:

cake cake cake
perfectly smooth cake
cut cut cut
cut into four equal pieces
jam jam jam
thin layer of jam
small dollop between layers
squish squish squish
the stack
so much frosting
lots of frosting on top for the crumb coat
second coat of frosting.  this cake would fail in culinary school, please don’t show this to my former teachers.
finished!  masking the sides with nuts fixes all ills.

The Birthday Cake

In case anyone was wondering – and you were all wondering, right? – this is the birthday cake I made for my boyfriend this year.

It’s a tradition that I ask him every year what kind of cake he wants, and in return he gives me not a flavor, but a fairly broad category that I can have fun with.  These have included “fruit”, “cookie”, and “something that most people wouldn’t even want to try based solely on the description”.  Good times.

This year, the challenge was “super spice cake”.  So I made a super-gingery ginger cake with spiced poached pears, and lemon ice cream for a clean counterpoint.

Recipes for the ginger cake and poached pears are both from David Lebovitz‘s Ready For Dessert, one of the smartest cookbook investments I’ve ever made.  Every. Single. Recipe. is flawless, and turns out exactly as described.

The ginger cake (recipe can be found here) has so much ginger in it, you’ll think it’s a typo.  But have faith, because you’ll be rewarded with an incredibly moist cake that’s bursting at the seams with fresh, clean, super ginger flavor.  Did I mention moist?  This cake, cut and covered loosely with plastic wrap at room temperature, did not dry out even a little bit.  Not even the cut edges.  Not even after a week or more.  Absolument incroyable.

The pears, lightly spiced, were a delightful addition, and in any other setting would be stars in their own right.  But here they were clearly in a supporting role.  A similar recipe to the one I used can be found here, on Mr. Lebovitz’s blog.

But the lemon ice cream… oh!, the lemon ice cream.  The recipe (which you can find here) is from Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home, by Jeni Britton Bauer.  And people, if you have an ice cream maker, and you don’t have this book, you’re cheating yourself.  It’s not just a gorgeous book to look at, the recipes are inventive and result in textbook-perfect texture for your homemade ice creams, sorbets, and ices.  Listen to this woman, she knows exactly what she’s doing with ice cream.  I might not ever use anyone else’s ice cream recipes.

This lemon ice cream strikes the elusive ideal balance between tart, sweet, and creamy.  Even better, the headnote of the recipe said she developed it to pair with an intense and dark ginger cake.  I was practically forced to make it.  The result couldn’t have been better.  I’m intending to use up part of the remaining ice cream in ginger cookie ice cream sandwiches, it went together so well.

Again, recipes:
Ginger Cake
Poached Pears
Lemon Ice Cream

happy birthday indeed

Almond Milk Panna Cotta; Or, Vegan Dessert Win

We recently invited a dear friend over for dinner, a dear friend who is going a-courtin’ with a sweet new fellow.  This fellow happens to be vegan, which isn’t an issue until you invite him over for your annual Kentucky Derby party and realize three hours and a few mint juleps into the party that absolutely everything you’ve served has some sort of non-vegan ingredient in it so you have to improvise some off-the-cuff guacamole with one avocado (and no tomatoes, red onions, or cilantro around) before the poor guy passes out.

Luckily, he didn’t hold that against me, and agreed to return for a proper dinner.  Little did he know that I had never prepared an entirely vegan three-course meal before.  I do love a menu-planning challenge.

The appetizer and entrée were simple enough: a creamy dip of roasted eggplant and tahini with pita wedges, followed by a dish of lentils, hazelnuts, celeriac, and herbs, both recipes from my new favorite cookbook, Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty.  But dessert… ah, dessert was a conundrum all on its own.  Complicating the issue, our oven had obstinately refused to turn on one morning a week or so earlier, and the repairs had not yet occurred.

So.  A dessert.  Vegan.  With no oven.  Hmmmm.  Obstinate myself, I refused to resort to a platter of cut-up fruit.  My pride was at stake here.  I could do better than a fig on a plate.

My first thought was chocolate mousse, my go-to recipe that uses olive oil (vegan!) and a soupçon of Bourbon (also vegan!).  It didn’t require an oven, always went over well, and could be made in advance.  I’d just get some nice cream and fold in the… ohhhhh.


After chocolate mousse, I often turn to panna cotta for a sophisticated end to a dinner.  But panna cotta (literally, “cooked cream”) is about one of the least vegan desserts I can think of.  At its basest level, it’s just milk and/or cream, thickened with gelatin (it’s made of hooves, you know!).  Vegan panna cotta?  It sounds a little crazy.

But, inspired by an old post on Chez Pim that I recently came across, it occurred to me to swap the cow’s milk for almond milk, and the gelatin for agar agar.  Suddenly, the idea of a vegan panna cotta wasn’t so crazy.

Finding agar wasn’t tricky.  The only tricky thing was the lack of information on how to use it.  Even in pastry school, the extent of our education thereof consisted essentially of a footnote under “gelatin”.  (To paraphrase: “Agar is a weird thickener you can use, it’s made of seaweed.  Good luck.”)

Faced with recipes containing wildly varying proportions of agar-to-liquid, hazy descriptions (“pretty firm” doesn’t help), and the fact that agar is sold variously as powder, flakes, or strips, I ended up just testing it myself.  I boiled cups of water with increasing amounts of powdered agar until, when the mixture was chilled, the consistency was just right.  And trust me, if you overdo it, you can bounce the stuff like a rubber ball.  Kinda neat, but you do not want to eat that.

The rest of the recipe came together easily, especially after finding this dairy-free panna cotta on Tartelette.  Her idea of using non-dairy creamer to replicate the thickness of cream is head-slappingly obvious, but I wouldn’t have thought of it.  Planning to serve the verrines with a blueberry compote, I decreased the sugar for a less saccharine base, and tossed in a few drops of almond extract to boost the almond-y flavor.

Already feeling pleased with myself, I was even happier when the “panna” cotta was greeted with rave reviews.  The almond and soy milks made for a lighter, slightly nuttier flavor than a traditional recipe, one that was ideal for a hot summer night.  As for the texture, it was exactly what I wanted: soft and yielding, just barely able to hold itself upright if one attempted to unmold it (though I never do).  Due to the nature of agar, you can never really achieve quite the same melting quality you can get with gelatin, but, used judiciously, you can get pretty darn close.

Judging by the scraped-clean glasses left after the dinner, I’d say everyone else thought it was darn close, too.

Almond Milk Panna Cotta
Adapted from Tartelette
Makes 4 servings

I prefer to refer to this as “Almond Milk Panna Cotta”, as it sounds more purposeful and enticing than “Vegan Panna Cotta”, which sounds like an exercise in futility, or a consolation prize.  Almond milk has a delight all its own; it just so happens that I made sure that the rest of the ingredients were vegan-friendly as well.

A word on agar: any sort (powdered, sheet, etc.) will of course work here.  If you’ve never used it, I suggest trying it out first.  To do so, place a small plate in the freezer, and measure out 1 cup of water.  Dissolve 1/4 teaspoon powdered agar (or equivalent) in a pan in a spoonful of the water.  Add remaining water, and bring to a boil for 30 seconds.  Cool slightly, and pour a little onto the frozen plate.  Chill the plate in the refrigerator.  It should gel within 5-10 minutes; if it doesn’t, use a little more agar and repeat.  If it’s too tough, decrease the amount of agar.  Repeat until you get a texture you like.  Sounds like a pain, I know, but it’s not as much of a pain as having your dessert turn out tough and rubbery, or not even set.

1/2 teaspoon powdered agar
1 cup unsweetened almond milk
1 cup non-dairy creamer of choice
1/4 cup sugar
1/16 – 1/8 teaspoon almond extract, depending on strength of extract and how much almond flavor you want
Optional: Blueberry Compote (recipe below)

1.  Place agar in a small saucepan.  Drizzle in a spoonful of almond milk, and stir to dissolve, adding more liquid if necessary.  Add remaining almond milk, non-dairy creamer, and sugar.  Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar.

2.  Boil for 30 seconds, stirring constantly, to make sure the agar will set.  The mixture will probably threaten to boil over; if it does, briefly remove it from the heat until the foam subsides.  After 30 seconds, remove from the heat and let cool to about room temperature.

3.  Add the almond extract, and divide evenly into 4 ramekins or glasses.  Let cool completely, if necessary, before covering with plastic wrap and refrigerating for at least 3 hours, or overnight.  Serve with Blueberry Compote spooned over the tops, if desired.

Blueberry Compote
Adapted from Ready for Dessert, by David Lebovitz
Makes about 1 cup

I adore this sauce, especially over panna cotta, as it is suggested in the cookbook.  The gin is the perfect “what IS that?” touch.  Taste your blueberries before adding the sugar.  If they’re very sweet, you might not need much sugar.  If they’re a little wan, use more.  Remember, after cooking, you can always add a little more sweetness if need be.

12 ounces blueberries, fresh or unthawed frozen
1-2 tablespoons sugar, depending on sweetness of berries, plus extra as needed
4 teaspoons gin
Zest of 1 lemon, plus a light squeeze of its juice
1 bay leaf
1 three-fingered pinch salt

1.  Combine all ingredients in a small pan.  Bring to a rapid simmer over medium heat, stirring to make sure sugar is dissolved.  Simmer until thickened slightly, 5 to 15 minutes, depending on how juicy the berries are.  (Compote will thicken further after chilling.)  Discard the bay leaf, and taste the compote.  Add additional sugar or splashes of lemon juice as needed.  Chill until ready to use.

Corn Cookies, à la Momofuku Milk Bar

On our recent trip to New York City, we stopped in at Momofuku Milk Bar.  Christina Tosi, head Pastry Chef of David Chang’s Momofuku empire, has lately become a darling of the food world.  With my training in Baking and Pastry Arts, I mostly wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

love this logo

I’ve already said my piece on the black sesame croissant we got (the short version: it’s awesome), but we also picked up the five cookie flavors they offered that day: Compost(TM)(srsly), chocolate-chocolate, cornflake-marshmallow, blueberry & cream, and corn.  As you can see, some of them didn’t last until the photo shoot.

left to right: compost(tm), chocolate-chocolate, cornflake-marshmallow

Overall, these are good cookies.  They have many qualities of acceptable bakery cookies: big as a small plate, sweet, interesting flavor bits, texture somewhere between chewy and soft.  The chocolate-chocolate was the best of these three, with a sophisticated flavor redolent of Oreo, which I assume must be due to black cocoa.  But if I’m honest, I didn’t get anything terribly special from the lauded Compost(TM) and blueberry & cream flavors.  Yes, the Compost(TM) has interesting salty bits, and the blueberry has… blueberries; but they’re not really enough for me to travel across town for, let alone get on a plane to NYC.

compost(tm) cookie; reminded me of a gussied-up potato chip cookie my mom used to make

Maybe the problem is with me, though.  Despite my scholastic specialization, I don’t have much of a sweet tooth.  I’d much rather eat something salty and savory over a cookie any day.  So for a cookie to impress me, it has to be something pretty darn special.  It has to make me sit up, narrow my eyes, tilt my head ever so slightly, and maybe curse gently.  It pretty much has to be Plato’s Ideal Cookie.

This, Gentle Reader, is that cookie.

Well, it’s where that cookie used to be, anyway.  This is where the corn cookie used to be, the cookie that made me wish I had been responsible for its existence.  How could anything that is not-corn taste so much like corn?

I’ve never tried to reverse-engineer a baked good before, but this cookie demanded an attempt.  I had two clues at my disposal: one, the ingredients list (listed by weight, remember), and two, the knowledge that Chef Tosi uses high-quality ingredients with simple techniques.  She was likely going to use whatever was easily at her disposal, and not futz with things too much.  There would be no unnecessary complication, like, say, steeping churned-in-house butter with late-July corn cobs to infuse every possible mote with ultimate corn flavor.

cornmeal not ground finely enough yet

The one “mystery” ingredient, if it can be called that, was something listed as “corn powder (dyhydrated corn)” [sic].  I assumed that was a typo, and not corn with two types of water.  And as chance would have it, while procuring cinnamon from the amazing spice store that I am lucky to live near, I noticed a register-side basket of nothing less than freeze-dried corn.  Close enough.

look ma, no water

Back home, my research determined that this cookie dough was most likely a variant of the basic chocolate chip cookie, sans chips, of course.  I listed the ingredients and amounts from four trusted recipes, and developed a recipe based on those, swapping some of the flour for finely-ground corn meal and freeze-dried corn.

The dough came together beautifully, to my glee, and baked into a soft and ultra-yellow cookie that looked surprisingly similar to the real deal.  And the taste?  I couldn’t very well do a side by side comparison, but it wasn’t far off from what I remembered: slightly under-sweet, buttery, and with a truckload of corn flavor.

It’s possible to tweak the amounts slightly and maybe achieve a more accurate recipe, but I’m pretty thrilled with what resulted.  And unless someone is willing to sponsor me, I don’t really want to pay for the shipping involved in acquiring a new batch of “control” corn cookies for further analysis.

i has a corm cookie


EDIT: Based on this tweet that I just saw:

…I’m revising the recipe to include a mandatory fridge rest for the dough.  I don’t know that all of Chef Tosi’s cookie recipes would necessarily include a rest, but one apparently does.  I know it works miracles on most cookie dough, and I’ve always done it for this recipe with great success.  And it’s my blog.  So there.

Corn Cookies
Inspired blatantly from Christina Tosi’s Corn Cookies at Momofuku Milk Bar
Makes about 4 dozen two-inch cookies 

As with most cookie dough, this one may be frozen or refrigerated, and may actually give a better result if left to rest overnight in the refrigerator.  If you can’t get your hands on corn flour, just use a good-quality cornmeal (preferably stone-ground, but whatever) and grind it to a very fine powder in a spice grinder.  Don’t be tempted to use unadulterated cornmeal; it will give your cookies a gritty texture.  No pun intended.

While I found the freeze-dried corn at my amazing local spice shop (they ship!), I know that natural-food groceries (like Whole Foods) often carry a brand of dehydrated vegetables that makes dried corn.  They might have it in stock, or be able to order it for you.

Also, I specify a European-style butter, which has a higher fat percentage than American butter, making for a softer cookie.  I don’t know what sort of butter Milk Bar uses, but I know their dairy is high-quality and sourced from a local farm, so I figured I’d use the good stuff.  The recipe should work just fine with whatever butter you have, though.

Yes, I’m listing everything by weight.  Grams, to boot.  I don’t know how to translate “120 grams of freeze-dried corn” into cups; I’m sorry.  But if you bake regularly, and you don’t have a scale, you should really, really, really invest the $15-20.  It’s much more precise, and your baked goods will turn out more consistently.

175 grams unbleached all-purpose flour
120 grams freeze-dried corn, ground to a fine powder in a spice grinder
55 grams corn flour (see headnote)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
350 grams granulated sugar
225 grams (8 ounces) European-style unsalted butter (such as Plugrá), at room temperature
100 grams (2 large) eggs

1.  Preheat the oven to 350º F.  Whisk together the all-purpose flour, ground up freeze-dried corn, corn flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda; set it aside.

2.  In the bowl of a stand mixer (or by hand, if you’re into that), cream together the sugar and butter until just combined, scraping the bowl as needed.  You should only need to mix for about a minute, maybe less.  Please do not beat the living daylights out of it; your cookies will spread too much if you do.

3.  Add the eggs one at a time, beating to incorporate after each addition.  Add the dry ingredients and mix just until a soft dough forms.  Gently scrape the dough into an airtight container (a plastic container, zip-top bag, or just wrap the lot in plastic wrap); no need to shape pretty logs, though that’s certainly an option if you like.  Refrigerate for at least 1 hour, and up to 2-3 days.  Alternatively, portion the dough out into individual cookie lumps, place on a single sheet pan (it’s okay if they touch), wrap in plastic wrap, and freeze until solid before storing in a gallon freezer zip-top bag.

4.  If refrigerated, leave dough at room temperature for 30-60 minutes before proceeding.  If frozen in portioned out lumps, proceed without thawing, but add a couple of extra minutes to the baking time.  Scoop heaping tablespoons of dough onto parchment-lined or ungreased sheet pans, leaving about 2 inches between each.  Bake at 350º F for 10-12 minutes, or until the undersides and the occasional outside edge turn golden brown.  Don’t let the tops brown; the cookies should remain bright yellow with no (or very little) browning.  Let cookies cool briefly on the pans before transferring to racks to cool thoroughly.

Valentine’s Day, Round 3: Smoked Tangerine Panna Cotta

And finally, we come to this.

I was well pleased with myself for figuring this one out, I must say.  When I decided to cook a special Valentine’s Day dinner for my Special Lady, Ruth Bourdain, there was one ingredient I simply had to include: smoked tangerine zest.  (She kinda has a thing for it.)

With the other three courses of the meal focused on offal, the natural place in the meal for this special ingredient was dessert.  And personally, I can hardly think of a more indulgent and pleasing way to showcase the ethereal flavor of citrus zest than to infuse it into a gently quivering, cool panna cotta.

Okay… I admit it.  I may have faked the “smoked” part a bit.  Now, now, now, don’t get me wrong.  It’s not like I used liquid smoke or anything; it’s all real all the time up in here.  But I may have fudged the adjectives in the recipe title.  It’s not so much “Smoked Tangerine Panna Cotta” as “Smoked Panna Cotta with Tangerine”.  There, I’ve confessed it.  And may RuBo have mercy on my poor soul.

My logic was simple: when trying for something called “Smoked Tangerine Panna Cotta”, why not infuse the main ingredient with smoke, rather than something (the tangerine zest) that comprises only a tiny percentage of the dish?  Besides, everyone knows that tangerine zest is best smoked in a pipe.  To do otherwise is to waste it.  That thinking paid off in the end, and I was rewarded with a custard that was thoroughly – but very subtly – saturated with a shadowy hint of smoke, as well as a vibrant citrus note.

(Also, OMG you guys, I smoked half and half!  In a 500 square foot apartment with minimal ventilation!  Think of the possibilities!  Big Smoked Trout, I am a slave to you no longer.)

The panna cotta was served with suprêmes cut from the zested tangerines, and was crowned with a simple almond florentine (recipe found here, sans chocolat) for a seductive crunch.  For a drink pairing, I whipped up a well-balanced drink called a New Pal (recipe found here).  Its flavors of robust rye whiskey, fruity sweet vermouth, and citrus-laced, bitter Campari could not have paired better with the creamy panna cotta.  It might look like a whole lotta Campari and sweet vermouth, but it’s actually perfect.  (This from a girl who absolutely hates Campari.)  If you’ve ever enjoyed a complex cocktail, this is right up your alley.  I might describe this as the Thinking Man’s Sazerac, or a Manhattan Gone Wild, but neither is entirely accurate.

And so, this Valentine’s Day romance becomes a sweet memory, one for me to fondly recall in my twilight years.  Ruthie has left her indelible mark on me, as she does all who cross her path, and I wish I were woman enough to hold her forever.  Alas, it is not to be; one cannot tie down the wind.  I wish her all the best, and I will always remember that she smelled of powdered sugar and duck confit.

Smoked Tangerine Panna Cotta
Adapted from David Lebovitz
Makes 6 servings

I’ve written a range for the amount of gelatine used here.  If you want to unmold the panna cotta, you’ll need a firmer consistency, which requires the structure that a greater amount of gelatine provides.  If you prefer a softer and more melting texture, and don’t mind eating out of the molding vessel, use the lesser amount.

3 cups Smoked Half and Half (recipe below)
1/2 cup sugar
Zest of 3 tangerines (reserving the flesh for a garnish, optional)
Zest of 1/2 lemon
1 whole star anise
1 cinnamon stick
1 pinch salt
1 to 1 1/2 packets unflavored gelatine, either 8 or 12 g (see headnote)
5 tablespoons cold water

1.  In a medium saucepan, combine the Smoked Half and Half, sugar, tangerine and lemon zest, star anise, cinnamon, and salt.  Place over medium heat, and stir to dissolve the sugar.  Bring to just under boiling, or the point where bubbles begin to form around the edges and steam rises from the surface.  Remove from the heat, cover, and let stand 1 hour.

2.  Meanwhile, prepare 6 molding vessels (any sort of small glass, ramekin, or other such container).  If unmolding the dessert, lightly coat the inside of the molds with a neutral-flavored oil.  If not unmolding, you need not bother.

3.  Sprinkle the desired amount of gelatine over the cold water in a medium bowl.  Let bloom for 5 to 10 minutes.  Meanwhile, reheat the half and half mixture until just barely warm.

4.  Strain the warm half and half into the bloomed gelatine, discarding the spices and other solids.  Whisk to completely dissolve the gelatine.

5.  Divide equally among the 6 prepared molds.  Let cool to room temperature before covering each mold with plastic wrap.  Refrigerate until set, at least 4 hours and up to overnight.  To unmold, run a thin, sharp knife around the edge of the panna cotta before inverting onto a plate.  Serve with a garnish of tangerine wedges, if desired.

Smoked Half and Half
Method inspired by British Larder
Makes 3 cups

This method will obviously work for any amount of half and half, but smaller amounts will take on a smoky flavor much faster than larger amounts.  The amounts and times given left the half and half with a very subtle smoky note, more of a seductive background flavor than any real “smokehouse” punch.

1 to 2 cups apple wood chips
3 cups half and half

1. Cover the wood chips with water.

Soak for 30 to 60 minutes, then drain.  Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400º F, and position a rack in the lower-middle of the oven.

2.  Wrap the soaked and drained wood chips in a pouch made of a double-thickness of aluminum foil.  Poke holes liberally in the top of the foil pouch to allow smoke to escape.

there are holes

3.  Pour the half and half into a non-reactive and heat-safe bowl, preferably one that will expose the most surface area of the half and half without being too large.  Place the bowl on a rack set in a rimmed sheet tray, as shown (this creates a bit of an air gap between the bowl and the sheet tray that will help keep the half and half from overheating).

Create a sheet of aluminum foil large enough to tent the whole contraption loosely.  (If your foil is not wide enough, pleat the edges of two long sheets together with a butcher’s fold.)  Tent the foil sheet over the bowl and sheet pan, crimping and sealing three of the edges tightly enough to prevent smoke escaping.  Leave one corner open wide enough to slide the wood chip packet in, on the side of the sheet tray that is opposite the bowl of milk.

4.  Place the wood chip packet over a burner set to high.  When smoke beings pouring out of the packet in abundance, lift it with tongs and quickly slide it onto the sheet tray.  Quickly and tightly close up the last corner of the foil.

5.  Immediately transfer the covered tray to the oven, taking care not to spill the half and half as you move it.  Roast for 25 minutes.

6.  Remove the tray from the oven.  Let cool briefly, 5 to 10 minutes.  Carefully bring the tray outside before removing the foil tent (unless you enjoy a very, very smoky house).  Either use the half and half immediately, or let cool to room temperature before storing in the refrigerator.

smoked half and half!


Apple Cider and Walnut Birthday Cake

Every year, I ask my boyfriend not if he wants an elaborate, ridiculous, complicated, over-the-top birthday cake, but what kind.

As I was trained as a pastry chef, the chance for me to flex my pâtissière muscles once a year is irresistible.  I dive into the research stage like a student studying for final exams, poring over books and trawling through websites in search of the perfect combination of flavors and textures.  I plan, brainstorming ingredients and scribbling cross-section views to determine proper layering.  I bake, sometimes for several days, but always with the utmost care and professionalism, as this is serious business.  We invite others to help devour the behemoth.

The first year we lived together, he requested simply that it be “so unusual that most people wouldn’t want to try it based on the description”.  Thus was born the chocolate, pear, walnut, and blue cheese cake.  Five layers of it.  Oh, yes.  (And, in fact, many people did not want to try it based on that description, leaving us to finish most of it.)

The year after that, the request was for stark contrast to the previous year, something that could be described as yellow cake with white icing, but with a gourmet twist.  This resulted in the Meyer lemon cake with white chocolate buttercream, polka-dotted on the side with lavender macarons.

The challenge for this year was a simple request: fall fruit.  Having already offered pear (albeit subtly), and hating to repeat myself, I settled on apple as the dominant flavor.  My fevered brain concocted a vision of apples, walnuts, browned butter, and rum, layers of soft cake alternating with the airy crunch of dacquoise (basically, meringue with nuts).

Funnily enough, I ended up not using one single apple in the cake, preferring to use trusted recipes that would behave predictably, and flavoring with apple cider wherever possible.

The finished cake was a seven-layer stunner, and tasted just as good as it looked.  Yes, it was quite sweet and rich (and the tall pieces necessitated laying the fork down for a breather halfway through), but the friable walnut dacquoise yielding between the teeth and the rum buttercream literally melting over the tongue were compulsion enough to finish the plate.  The cider flavor was subtle, but crisply present, playing very nicely with the browned butter cake layers.  The texture was the real star here, each bite equally soft, crunchy, and luxurious.

There was not one single piece left over at the end of the night.  I’d say that’s a pretty good review.

Apple Cider and Walnut Birthday Cake
Makes one huge cake

For the cake layers, I turned to Rose Levy Beranbaum’s French Génoise (recipe can be found here).  I doubled the recipe almost exactly, but used 120- 130 grams (about 9 tablespoons) of beurre noisette to really accentuate the browned butter flavor.  Additionally, instead of using only vanilla, I reduced a small pan of apple cider until it was nearly thick as honey, concentrating the apple flavor, and used that instead of half the vanilla.

2 9-inch French Génoise Cakes (recipe here)
Cider Cake Syrup (recipe below)
Rum Buttercream Frosting (recipe below)
Walnut Dacquoise (recipe below), edges trimmed to 9 inches to match the cakes

1.  Cut the tops off the cakes to make them level.  Carefully cut each into two layers.  Place the bottom layer of one cake on a cake plate, cut-side up.  Slide thin pieces of wax paper or parchment under the cake, to prevent frosting from getting on the plate.  Brush the cake with the syrup, gently and thoroughly, but taking care not to drench the cake (otherwise, the buttercream will be difficult to spread).

2.  Place a large dollop of buttercream on the cake layer, and spread to an even thickness of 1/8 to 1/4 inch.  Add additional if necessary, but take care not to get crumbs in the main bowl of buttercream.  Wipe the icing spatula as needed.

3.  Place a round of dacquoise on top, and press very lightly into the buttercream.  Spread another layer of buttercream on top of the dacquoise, taking care to not break the dacquoise.

4.  Repeat layering of cake (using the top halves of each cake, brushing each layer with syrup), buttercream, and dacquoise, until only one cake layer remains.  For the last cake layer (the bottom of the other cake), brush the cut (top) side with syrup before placing cut-side down on top of the cake (the brown bottom should be on the very top).

5.  Place a huge dollop of buttercream on the top of the cake.  Spread evenly across the top in a very thin layer, and let the excess fall over the sides, spreading evenly as it does.  Smooth extra buttercream over the sides in a very thin layer.  Do not worry about visible crumbs (which may be many) in this layer.  When the cake is fully coated with a very thin, even layer of buttercream, transfer to the refrigerator.  Let chill approximately 30 minutes, or until buttercream is firm.

6.  To finish frosting the cake, spread another thin layer of room-temperature buttercream over the top to hide the visible crumbs in the first layer.  Either spread buttercream over the sides, or pipe decorative vertical lines (start at the bottom) around the cake as shown.  Return to the refrigerator until ready to serve.  The wax paper or parchment strips will be easiest and cleanest to remove if the cake is well-chilled.  If well-chilled, let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving.

Cider Cake Syrup
Makes about 1/2 cup

A light syrup such as this is one trade secret to achieving a moist, yet close-crumbed cake, ideal for thin cake layers.

2 1/2 ounces (70 g) water, about 5 tablespoons
2 1/2 ounces (70 g) apple cider, about 5 tablespoons
2-3 tablespoons sugar, or to taste

1.  Stir together over medium heat until the sugar dissolves.  Let cool before using.

Walnut Dacquoise
Adapted from The Professional Pastry Chef, by Bo Friberg
Makes four 9 inch rounds, plus a few extra meringue cookies

For this cake, you only need 3 dacquoise rounds, but one will invariably break.

6 ounces (170 g) raw walnuts, about 1 1/2 cups
1 ounce (30 g) cornstarch, about 1/4 cup
1 cup egg whites, at room temperature
14 ounces (400 g) granulated sugar, about 2 cups

1.  Preheat the oven to 250º F, using convection heat if possible.  Spread the walnuts in an even layer on a baking sheet, and toast for 10 minutes.  Let cool.  Position racks near the top and bottom thirds of the oven.

2.  Meanwhile, draw four 9 inch circles on sheets of parchment (the cake pan you will use to bake the cake layers is a perfect template), and mark the center of each circle.  Invert the parchment onto baking sheets, so that the pencil or ink side is down.  Make sure you can see the circles through the parchment.

3.  Chop the cooled walnuts, preferably in a food processor, until very finely ground.  Take care not to over-process them, and make a paste.  Toss with the cornstarch.

4.  Using a stand mixer, beat the egg whites with the whip attachment on high speed until thickly foamy, or approximately quadrupled in volume.  Continue to whip while very slowly adding the sugar, taking about 4 minutes to add it all.  Whip until stiff peaks form.

5.  With a large rubber spatula, lightly but thoroughly fold the walnuts into the whipped egg whites by hand.  Transfer the dacquoise into a piping bag fitted with a 1/2 inch (number 5) round tip.  Fill the bag only slightly more than halfway for an easier time piping.

6.  To pipe the dacquoise rounds, start in the marked center of each circle.  Holding the piping bag vertically, and using even pressure, let the dacquoise fall from the tip into a flat, tight spiral on the parchment, leaving no gaps in the spiral.  Try to pipe each spiral in one continuous ribbon.  Repeat with remaining dacquoise and circles.  Pipe any leftover dacquoise into small cookies around the edges of the piped spirals (do not let them touch).  (Alternatively, if you don’t have a piping bag, gently spread the dacquoise out into as even a layer as possible, using the circles as templates.  Use a spoon to make cookies out of any leftover dacquoise.)

7.  Bake the dacquoise at 250º F for one hour, or until thoroughly dry.  If after one hour, you are unsure whether or not it’s dry, simply turn the oven off and leave the dacquoise in the oven with the door closed for one more hour, or up to overnight.  If not using immediately, store in an airtight container until ready to use.

8.  When ready to use, trim the edges of the dacquoise with a serrated knife, to make the rounds exactly as big as the cake layers you are using.

Rum Buttercream Frosting
Adapted from The Professional Pastry Chef, by Bo Friberg
Makes 4 1/2 pounds, or enough for one 7 layer cake, or more than anyone reasonable should ever have on hand

This recipe, a classical French Buttercream, really requires the use of a thermometer for the sugar syrup.  It seems perhaps unnecessarily complicated, but produces a much more stable buttercream than a simpler method.  Do not be tempted to estimate temperatures here, as accuracy is fairly crucial.  Be sure your butter is well-softened before beginning; it will make your life so much easier.  And you are reading that correctly, you need two whole pounds of butter.  They don’t call it “buttercream” for nothing.

1 1/2 pounds (680 g) granulated sugar, a scant 3 1/2 cups
1/2 cup water
12 egg yolks, at room temperature
2 pounds (910 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 to 3 tablespoons dark rum, to taste

1. In a medium saucepan, bring the sugar and water to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring just until the sugar is dissolved.  Without stirring further, cook the syrup until it reaches 240º F (sugar crystallization is the enemy here, and stirring will help form crystals).  Use a pastry brush dipped in water to wash any forming crystals off the side of the pan.

2.  Meanwhile, beat the egg yolks in a stand mixer on medium-high speed with the whisk attachment until fluffy and lightened in color, 3 minutes or so.  When the sugar syrup is fully cooked, lower the speed to medium-low.  Slowly drizzle the syrup down the side of the bowl into the yolks, avoiding the moving whisk as much as possible (which will fling syrup against the bowl, creating hard lumps that may later end up marring the smooth texture of the frosting).

3.  When all the syrup is added (do not scrape the pan; it’s okay if some remains), turn the speed to high and whip until the mixture has cooled.  This will take some time, maybe even 10 to 15 minutes.

4.  When the mixture has cooled enough to not melt the butter, turn the speed back to medium-low.  Add the butter gradually, only adding it in as fast as it can be incorporated.  The mixture will look curdled and broken at times, but do not despair.  Continue whipping, and all will be made well in the end.  When all (yes, all) the butter has been added, add the rum gradually, until it tastes right to you.  Use immediately, or refrigerate, bringing to room temperature before using.

How To Get the Christmas Spirit

Oh, it’s one of my favorite times of year.  I’ll admit it, I just love Christmas.  The weather isn’t too bad yet, there’s sparkly lights everywhere, and the Chicago Transit Authority runs a holiday train with a Santa and tinsel and candy canes and everything!  Everybody – but everybody – on that train has a big, fat smile on his face.

It’s to the point that somewhere around September (or whenever the weather starts getting cold), I begin to get a little itchy to put up the Christmas tree.  In my house, the day after Thanksgiving is dedicated to eggnog, Christmas music, Christmas movies, and trimming the tree.  It beats going to the mall by about fifty miles.

But I know that some people out there don’t particularly love this holiday season.  Too much stress, travel arrangements, gifts to buy, family drama… it can all get a bit overwhelming.  I understand.

So, in order to help you find a little of the Christmas cheer that fills me every December, I’ve written a little guide.  For one day, at least, forget the drama, forget the travel, forget the stress, and make some gifts from the heart instead of buying some overpriced tat.

It’s just a few easy steps to follow; and if you’re not a little happier at the end of it all, then you weren’t trying hard enough.


First, take a walk.  Preferably through a Winter Wonderland, but if it’s merely chilly, that’ll do just as well.

Take a long walk, and clear your head of any pesky thoughts.

Just walk for a while, and see what you see, smell what you smell, hear what you hear.  Walk.

Come home.  Turn on the tree.  Place it by a window so everyone else can see it too.  (Bonus points for putting it next to a mirror, for twice the sparkles.)  If you don’t have a tree, maybe light some candles.

Hang some stockings, either on a chimney, or just something that looks like a chimney.

Turn on the fireplace.  Or, you know, whatever you’ve got.

Play some Christmas music; or, if you’re absolutely sick of that stuff by now, play your favorite upbeat album.

Next, chop some chocolate.

a serrated knife is the best tool for the job

Melt it.

Add peppermint oil.

Stir in Rice Krispies (generic store brand is just as good).

Spoon out onto wax paper.

Let cool.

Give them away, but keep a few for yourself.  Count your blessings.  Send your loved ones, past and present, some good thoughts.  Send yourself a few, too.

If you’re not smiling a little after doing all this, then rinse and repeat.  For me, it never fails.  This is Christmas.

Crispy Chocolate-Mint Guys
Makes about 50

These could not be simpler.  They’re a fantastic way to use up any leftover melted chocolate, if you ever have any.  Take care when adding the peppermint oil, as one drop too much can make them taste unbearably minty.  (Famed chocolatier Jacques Torres makes something similar, but without peppermint flavor and using cornflakes instead, and I understand he can barely keep them in stock.  If it’s good enough for Jacques, it’s good enough for me.)

10 ounces good-quality chocolate
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon peppermint oil (not extract)
2 cups (about 4 ounces) puffed rice cereal (aka: Rice Krispies), or as much as needed

1.  Chop the chocolate, leaving about 1/3 in larger pieces (which will help temper the chocolate).  Place it in a medium to large microwave-safe bowl.

2.  Heat the chocolate in the microwave on high for 45 seconds.  Remove and stir (it will not be very melty yet).  Continue microwaving in 10 to 15 second increments, stirring after each one, until the chocolate is mostly melted, but a few large lumps remain (this is important; do not fully melt it in the microwave).

3.  When chocolate is heated enough, remove from microwave and stir gently until all lumps melt.  This may take a minute or two.

4.  Add peppermint oil in 1/16 teaspoon increments, tasting after each addition, until chocolate has a noticeably minty flavor.

5.  Stir in rice cereal until fully coated, adding more if necessary.  Spoon out onto a wax-paper-lined sheet tray in bite-sized mounds.

6.  Let sit briefly, about 15 minutes.  If properly tempered, the chocolate will begin to firm up.  If not, place in refrigerator until set.  Even if they don’t look perfect, they’ll still taste the same.

Alfajores; Or, The Best Sandwich Cookies You’ve Never Had

To explain how I discovered the Best Sandwich Cookie Probably Ever, I must begin with soccer.

For those of you who aren’t big into soccer, allow me to explain: it’s World Cup time.  To put it in more familiarly American terms, imagine if the Super Bowl were held only once every four years.  And imagine the rest of the world were allowed to compete.  (And, um, I guess imagine the rest of the world cared about fútbol americano.)

The World Cup is kind of a big deal.

I’ll be honest; I’m not exactly what you’d call a sports fan.  But hey hey, any excuse for a party, am I right?  So when one of my dear friends solicited culinary assistance for his month-long World Cup extravaganza, I said “yes”.  After all, this is the screen he’s got set up in his living room.  That’s 220 ever-lovin’ inches of hi-definition soccer action, people.  How could I refuse?

As for the food, we decided to focus on the US games, offering food that would acknowledge the two nations battling it out on the pitch.  For the first US game this last Saturday, against England, I prepared Chicago-style hot dogs to represent America, matched against Britain’s national dish, Tikka Masala.

(Recipe for hot dog buns is here; recipe for tikka masala is here, more than halfway down.)

To round out the meal, and for a little something sweet, I pulled inspiration from one of the teams who played earlier in the day and made some Argentinian cookies.  (Or at least, that’s what I told people; the truth is, I’d been dying to make the cookies since I heard about them, and any feeble excuse would do.)

Known as alfajores (al-fuh-HOR-ehs), their exact nature was a bit tricky to pin down.  Made with a significant amount of cornstarch (or none at all), the dough is rolled out and cut into rounds (or just dropped onto a baking sheet).  The baked cookies are sandwiched together with dulce de leche (or jam, or chocolate), and coated with powdered sugar (or chocolate, or nothing at all).  Really, the only consistency between recipes is the act of sandwiching the cookies; other than that, it’s all up to the whim of the chef.

The beauty of cookies this variable and this obscure is manifold; if no one knows what they’re supposed to be like, then you can’t possibly mess them up.  Were they authentic?  Possibly.  Were they good?  Oh, my, yes.

Meltingly tender and crumbly in texture, the subtle and lightly buttery flavor of the cookies themselves was matched gorgeously by the relative robustness of the dulce de leche in between.  The high percentage of cornstarch in the cookie dough made for a silken feel on the palate, while the sticky dulce de leche lingered just long enough to remind you of a chewy caramel.

I made over 50 of these sandwich cookies, and the dozen or so party guests (including myself) finished them all off.  Every last one.  They were the only things to go; there were nearly enough tikka masala and Chicago dog leftovers to throw the same party all over again.  I believe one or two lamentations were gently wailed when it was discovered that the alfajores were gone.

Stay tuned for more World Cup recipes; the second US game happens today, but, over plenty of American and Slovenian food, we’ll be watching it on repeat later tonight.  Yes, all 220 glorious, hi-def inches of it.

Adapted from Chow
Makes about 50 sandwich cookies

The high percentage of cornstarch in this dough means that you don’t have to worry nearly so much about toughening from over-rolling.  I re-rolled scraps three times (!), and the cookies still turned out well.  Try to find an organic cornstarch for this (or at least as high quality as you can find), as butter will only go so far in covering up off flavors.  Be gentle when sandwiching the cookies together, as the crumbly, shortbready texture can lead to much breakage.  I used a can of prepared dulce de leche, but if you prefer to make your own, try David Lebovitz’s simple recipe.

8 ounces (2 cups) cornstarch
6 3/4 ounces (1 1/2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
5 ounces (2/3 cup packed) light brown sugar
4 egg yolks, at room temperature
2 tablespoons rum, or brandy
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Dulce de leche, at room temperature
Powdered sugar, for dusting

1.  Whisk together the cornstarch, flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl.  Set aside.

2.  In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the room-temperature butter with the paddle attachment on medium speed until smooth, about 30 seconds.  Add the brown sugar and cream for 3 minutes on medium speed until fluffy and light, about 3 minutes.  Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating until each has incorporated, scraping the bowl as needed.  Add the rum and vanilla, and beat until mixed in.

3.  Add the cornstarch mixture, and mix at the lowest speed until just incorporated, 30 to 60 seconds.

4.  Turn the dough out onto a work surface sprinkled lightly with flour.  Knead gently two or three times, if needed, and divide into two even halves.  Shape each half into a disc, wrap tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 12 hours.

5.  Preheat the oven to 350º F.  Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper, or lightly flour.  Remove one piece of dough from the refrigerator, and let stand at room temperature for 10 minutes before rolling.

6.  Dust a work surface lightly with flour.  Roll dough to a thickness of 1/4 inch, dusting with additional flour as needed to prevent sticking.  Using a 1 1/2 inch to 2 inch round cutter, cut out rounds of dough as closely together as possible.  Place rounds on the prepared baking sheet, spacing at least 3/4 inch apart.  Gather scraps, knead together gently, wrap again in plastic wrap and refrigerate.

7.  Bake cookies at 350º F for 8 to 11 minutes, or until just beginning to color on the edges.  Let cool slightly on the pan before removing to a rack to cool completely.  Repeat rolling, cutting, and baking with remaining dough, saving all scraps to knead together and roll out at one time.

8.  To finish cookies, spread a slight amount of dulce de leche (1 to 2 teaspoons) on the underside of one cookie.  Very gently press a second cookie on top of the dulce de leche.  Repeat with remaining cookies.  Sift powdered sugar over the tops of the sandwiched cookies to finish.  Serve within 1 day.

Savory and Sweet: Hand Pies

(This is part three of a three-part collaboration with Cybelle Codish and Taryn Bickley.  For part one, click here.  For part two, click here.)

As soon as Spring breaks here in Chicago, something amazing happens.  Aside from the trees greening themselves overnight, and the frenzied blooming of flowers, there’s a sea change of a decidedly more human sort.  All at once, your social calendar just blows up.

People crawl out of their Winter hidey-holes, and oh my goodness we should do something!  Dinner plans form on weeknights, not just the obligatory Saturday night outing.  Emails flurry nearly every afternoon, in a back-and-forth of forming plans to go anywhere.  And suddenly, everyone is outside, in that primal need to enjoy the weather while it lasts.

My two collaborators, Taryn and Cybelle, and I are certainly not immune to this need.  Knowing how delightful a meal al fresco can be, we decided on hand pies for our final Savory and Sweet match-up.  Hand pies are perfect for an outdoor gathering: easily portable, and can be eaten with one hand while holding down the picnic blanket in a gust of wind.  Wrap one in parchment for each guest, toss in a bag with some fresh fruit, and you’ve got a party to go.

don't forget beverages

The savory offering here is a chicken and chorizo pie, which might more aptly be called an empanada.  There’s a touch of whole wheat flour in the all-butter crust, which lends a rusticity that befits the unfussy nature of the dish.  The filling is a loose mélange of dark chicken meat and vivacious Spanish chorizo, shot through with fruity green olives and the occasional sweetness of a golden raisin.  If you’re following along at home, the rhubarb chutney from earlier this week was simply fantastic with these, if a touch over the top.  It all depends on how gilded you prefer your lilies.

On the sweet side, we took advantage of the glut of berries in stores at the moment, and decided on mixed-berry pies for dessert.  Brushed with an egg wash for a golden gleam, and dusted with coarse sugar, I can just see these sparkling in the late-afternoon sun, in the park or on the back porch.  The cabernet-colored filling spilling out of the seams might have been avoided by cutting small vents in the tops of the pies, true; but I love the slightly-chewy gummi-fruit texture of those overcooked bits.  And besides, it makes them look positively exuberant.

exuberant, or defiant

For both crusts, I’ve written the recipes to use my favorite technique for cutting butter into flour by hand: mince the butter into as small pieces as possible, freeze, and simply toss with the flour.  Some people prefer to grate frozen butter into flour, which works well in theory, but I’ve always found that my hands melt the butter before I’m done grating.  Whatever method works best for you (including using a food processor, or any other way) is the method you should use.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these photos and recipes as much as I enjoyed putting it all together!  It was a true pleasure working with Taryn and Cybelle, two extremely talented and delightful ladies, who made the hours spent “working” on this feel like a very exclusive party.  I have an inkling that this won’t be the last time you’ll see the three of us partnering up!

our hosts: taryn and her husband brian
our hosts: taryn and her husband brian

Chicken and Chorizo Hand Pies
Adapted from Gourmet Magazine
Makes 12 pies

I’m not the biggest raisin fan in the world, but I nevertheless urge you to include them, no matter what you normally think of them.  The pockets of light sweetness they add simply make the dish.  If, while forming the pies, the crust softens, chill the pies for at least 15 minutes before baking for the flakiest possible crust.

For the crust:
1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick), cold
9 ounces (2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
2 1/4 ounces (1/2 cup) whole wheat flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 egg, cold
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1/3 cup ice-cold water, plus extra as needed

For the filling:
2 whole chicken legs, bone-in, skin-on (about 1 pound)
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium white onions, diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon whole cumin
2 teaspoons sweet paprika
4 ounces raw Spanish-style chorizo (about 1 link), removed from casing
1/2 cup light-flavored beer
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/4 cup green olives, chopped roughly
1/4 cup golden raisins

To finish pies:
Flour for dusting and rolling out dough
1 egg, beaten with 1 tablespoon water to make an egg wash

1.  To make the crust, cut the butter into as small pieces as possible.  Pile loosely on a plate, and place in freezer while preparing remaining ingredients, or for about 10 minutes.

2.  In a large bowl, whisk together the flour and salt.  When butter is thoroughly firm, add to flour.  Using fingertips or a pastry cutter, quickly toss and pinch until mixture resembles coarse meal.  Large pea-sized lumps are okay.

3.  Beat egg with vinegar until well blended, and add to flour mixture.  Drizzle 1/3 cup ice water over, and quickly and gently fold in.  Dough may look dry; try squeezing a bit together with fingertips.  If mixture crumbles, add additional ice water by tablespoons, and gently mix together.  If mixture holds together, turn out onto a work surface.  Knead quickly and gently until mixture forms a cohesive ball, just a few turns.  Shape dough into a flat disc, wrap tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

4.  While dough chills, prepare the filling.  Rub chicken legs with 1 tablespoon olive oil, and season with salt and pepper.  Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add legs, skin side down, and cook until just golden brown, about 3 minutes.  Flip legs over, and brown other side, about 3 minutes more.  Remove to a plate.

5.  Discard all but two tablespoons fat from pan.  Add onions, stir to coat, and cook until translucent and lightly browned, about 5 minutes.  Add garlic, bay leaves, cumin, and paprika, and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, or until fragrant.  Add chorizo, breaking up if necessary, and cook until browned, about 5 minutes.

6.  Add beer and scrape bottom of pan to deglaze and loosen any flavorful browned bits.  Add chicken stock, olives, and raisins; stir to combine.  Nestle chicken legs, skin side up, into the mixture, reduce heat to medium-low or low to maintain a simmer, and cover pan.

7.  Simmer, covered, for 25 to 30 minutes, or until chicken registers 160º F on an instant read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh.  Remove legs to a clean plate to cool.  If necessary, continue simmering sauce until thickened and no longer soupy; it should be the consistency of heavy cream.  Remove bay leaves, and let cool to room temperature.  Pull chicken meat from bone, discarding skin, and stir meat into sauce.  Filling may be made up to 2 days ahead and refrigerated; bring to room temperature before using.

8.  When ready to make pies, preheat oven to 400º F.  Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.  Remove dough from refrigerator and let stand 5 to 10 minutes at room temperature.  (If kitchen is warm, divide dough in half, working with one piece at a time, and refrigerating other half to prevent butter melting.)

9.  Liberally dust a work surface with flour.  Divide dough into 12 even pieces, and form each into a roughly round shape.  Keep unused pieces covered loosely with plastic wrap.  Using a floured rolling pin, roll each piece to a disc about 5 inches in diameter (about 1/8 inch thick), lifting and turning dough and dusting with flour as needed to prevent sticking.  The shape need not be perfectly round.

10.  Place 2 generous tablespoons of filling in the center of each round.  Brush the edges of the dough lightly with egg wash, and fold the dough in half over the filling.  Crimp the edges to seal, either with a fork, or by making a series of very small overlapping folds with fingertips, pressing firmly.  Transfer each pie to the prepared baking sheet, lightly dusting off any excess flour.  Repeat with remaining crust and filling.

11.  Gently brush each pie with egg wash.  If dough has softened, refrigerate tray of pies for at least 15 minutes before baking.

12.  Bake at 400º F for about 25 minutes, or until golden brown.  Let cool briefly on trays before before serving, or remove to a wire rack to cool thoroughly before wrapping tightly and freezing.  Frozen, pies may be reheated on a baking sheet in a 350º F oven  for 15 to 20 minutes, or until warmed through.

Mixed Berry Hand Pies
Adapted from Gourmet Magazine
Makes 12 to 16 small pies

I’ve used blackberries and strawberries here, because that’s what was fresh at my market.  Any berry would work here, or even any cut-up fruit you prefer, such as peaches, plums, cherries, or pears.  The grated apple adds natural pectin, which thickens the filling just enough to shape the crust around.

For the crust:
3/4 cup unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), cold
1/4 cup non-hydrogenated vegetable shortening
11 1/4 ounces (2 1/2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup ice-cold water, plus extra as needed

For the filling:
6 ounces (1 heaped cup) blackberries
6 ounces (1 heaped cup) strawberries
1 Golden Delicious apple
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
6 tablespoons sugar

To finish pies:
Flour for rolling out crusts
1 egg, beaten with 1 tablespoon water to make an egg wash
Coarse sugar for dusting (such as demerara or turbinado)

1.  To make the crust, cut the butter and shortening into as small pieces as possible.  Pile loosely on a plate, and place in freezer while preparing remaining ingredients, or for about 10 minutes.

2.  In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, and salt.  When butter and shortening are thoroughly firm, add to flour.  Using fingertips or a pastry cutter, quickly toss and pinch until mixture resembles coarse meal.  Large pea-sized lumps are okay.

3.  Drizzle 1/3 cup ice water over the mixture, and quickly and gently fold in.  Dough may look dry; try squeezing a bit together with fingertips.  If mixture crumbles, add additional ice water by tablespoons, and gently mix together.  If mixture holds together, turn out onto a work surface.  Knead quickly and gently until mixture forms a cohesive ball, just a few turns, using heel of hand with a forward pressing motion to help flatten and incorporate lumps of fat.  Shape dough into a flat disc, wrap tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

4.  While dough chills, make filling.  Rinse berries.  Hull strawberries, and cut into halves, or quarters if large.  Place in a medium saucepan.  Peel apple, and grate directly into pan with berries.  Add allspice and sugar, and place over medium heat.  Bring to a simmer, reduce heat to medium-low, and continue cooking until thick, 5 to 10 minutes.  Stir occasionally to prevent scorching.  Remove from heat, and let cool completely.  Filling may be made 1 day ahead, and refrigerated.

5.  When ready to assemble pies, preheat oven to 375º F.  Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.  Remove dough from refrigerator and let stand 10 minutes at room temperature.  (If kitchen is warm, divide dough in half, working with one piece at a time, and refrigerating other half to prevent butter melting.)

6.  Liberally dust a work surface with flour.  Using a floured rolling pin, roll dough to desired thickness (a scant 1/8 inch thick), lifting and turning dough and dusting with flour as needed to prevent sticking.  With a rolling cutter (such as a pizza cutter), cut squares of dough, about 4 inches on each side.  Place scrap trimmings to one side, to be re-kneaded and re-rolled only once.

7.  Place 1 generous tablespoon of filling in the center of each square.  Brush the edges of the dough lightly with egg wash, and fold the dough over the filling to make a triangle.  Using a fork, crimp the edges to seal.  Transfer each pie to the prepared baking sheet, lightly dusting off any excess flour.  Repeat with remaining crust and filling.

8.  Gently brush each pie with egg wash, and sprinkle liberally with coarse sugar.  If dough has softened, refrigerate tray of pies for at least 15 minutes before baking.

9.  Bake at 375º F for 25 to 35 minutes, or until golden brown.  Let cool briefly on trays before removing to a wire rack to cool thoroughly.

All photos by Cybelle Codish.  All styling by Taryn Bickley.