Friday, October 26, 2007

Mexican Morsels

As Halloween approaches, my thoughts drift to Day of the Dead. And then they drift to Mexico. And then somehow they drift to Mexican Wedding Cakes or Polverones. This fabulous cookie often tops the Favorite Cookie List of many a cookie fanatic, for good reason. It’s one of the simplest cookies to make where butter and the earthy flavor of fresh nuts take center stage. Equally good with either pecans or walnuts, these cookies are light, crumbly, not too sweet and melt-in-your-mouth tender.

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a rich tradition that dates back thousands of years to the Zapotec, Mixtec, Maya and Olmec indigenous populations of Southern Mexico. It is a celebration of the return of the dead that takes place principally on November 1st and 2nd. There is quite a lot of regional variation, but most follow the same general theme. Gravesites are freshly cleaned and spruced up. Marigolds and favorite foods of the dead are arranged to attract and invite their return. It is believed that the spirit of loved ones comes and takes the nourishment or spirit of the ofrendas, or offerings. Candles, skulls and religious symbols fill the tables in many homes along with pan de muerto, a sweet egg bread formed in various shapes to represent skulls or bones.

This recipe for Mexican Wedding Cakes is adapted from Alice Medrich's Cookies and Brownies, a flawless collection of classic cookie recipes. Unfortunately, it’s apparently out of print, so if you ever see one at a used bookstore or a garage sale, snap it up!

Here is my ofrenda.

Bench notes:
- While lots of recipes direct us to prepare the nuts in a coarse chop, I’ve found that when you process them with the flour and sugar to a much finer crumb, it really brings out the flavor of the nut and makes for a really great texture.
- Be sure your walnuts are fresh. Due to their high oil content, they tend to become rancid rather quickly. Store nuts in an airtight container in your freezer to keep them from becoming stale or rancid.
- I use a #40 ice cream scoop to portion these cookies. It speeds up the process and creates uniform cookies. (The #40 refers to 40 scoops per quart.)
- These cookies keep very well in an airtight container. I’ve done hundreds for wedding favors.

Mexican Wedding Cakes
adapted from Alice Medrich's Cookies and Brownies
Makes about 4 dozen cookies

1 1/2 C nuts
1/4 C sugar
2 C flour
1/4 t salt
8 oz (2 sticks) butter, softened and cut into small pieces
2 t vanilla extract
1 large egg yolk (optional)
1/2 C powdered sugar

Place the sugar and nuts in the bowl of a food processor and process to a fine powder. Add the flour and salt and pulse to mix thoroughly. Add the pices of butter, vanilla and egg yolk. Process just until the mixture collects into damp clumps. Place the dough on a piece of plastic and cover with another piece. Pat the dough into an even package and chill overnight.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Your oven racks should be in the upper and lower third of the oven.

Scoop or shape the dough into 1 1/4” balls and place 12 to a baking sheet lined with parchment or a silpat. Bake for 22 to 24 minutes or until only slightly colored on the top and golden brown on the bottom. Rotate baking sheets half-way through to ensure even baking and browning.

Cool the cookies for about 5 minutes. Sift powered sugar over the top of each one. Cool completely before storing in an airtight container. These can be stored for about 2 weeks, but may need another dusting of powdered sugar.


Friday, October 19, 2007

Connoisseur of Coffee

Peet’s Coffee first appeared on the scene in Berkeley in 1966 and soon acquired a zealous following of java-crazed caffeine addicts. Alfred Peet launched a revolution in coffee roasting and coffee appreciation that continues to this day. His recent death reminded me of the tremendous contribution he made to the drinking habits of a nation.

I know it’s almost impossible to believe there once was a time before Starbuck’s. That was a time when Dutch immigrant Alfred Peet began to share his immense knowledge of coffee and fine tea with the San Francisco Bay Area. A second-generation coffee roaster, Alfred Peet grew up in his father’s roastery in Holland and also worked in the tea business in London and Indonesia. He immigrated to San Francisco in 1955 and found a job in coffee importing. He eventually set about looking for a place to start his own company and began importing the finest beans from all over the world. For people who prefer their coffee in the darker roast range, Peet’s coffee set the standard. Take a moment and learn a little bit about the joys of brewing a magical cup of coffee.

The production of coffee shares some similarity with the production of wine, cheese and chocolate. What matters crucially is the terrain, the weather, the caretaking, the selection, handling, processing, storing, and aging. The knowledge and devotion these products require is what keeps us endlessly fascinated with artisan products. I bow to Mr. Peet’s love of the pursuit of the finest ingredients and the pleasure they bring to our everyday lives.

I love the flavor of good coffee in pastries and desserts. In honor of Alfred Peet, I put together the following recipe for those who share my fix. These cookies are for the adult in you. They are crisp and full of the flavor of fresh robust coffee beans; not too sweet, with a slight burst of intense dark roast sensation reminiscent of a great shot of espresso.

To Alfred Peet, a consummate connoisseur.

Bench notes:
- For a close-up of the texture of these cookies, click on the photos.
- For maximum flavor, use your very favorite dark roast coffee beans.
- These cookies taste great when fresh but are even better as the days follow.
- For even baking, it’s always a good practice to rotate your cookie sheet pans and exchange top to bottom racks half-way through the baking time.

Espresso Cookies

Makes 1 dozen 2” cookies or about 2 dozen 1 1/2” cookies

1 C flour
1/4 t salt
2 T finely ground espresso beans
4 oz butter ( 1 stick) @ room temperature
1/4 C + 2 T sugar
2 t Kahlua
1 t vanilla

Sift together the flour, salt and ground espresso beans.
Cream butter and sugar together until smooth and creamy but not fluffy.
Add Kahlua and vanilla and blend well.
Add the flour all at once and mix just until the dough starts to come together. Finish the mixing gently using a rubber spatula. For maximum tenderness, be careful not to overmix!

Place the dough on a piece of plastic wrap. Press it down into a circle. Cover with a second piece of plastic and roll to 1/4" with a rolling pin. Slide onto a pizza pan or baking sheet and chill thoroughly, preferably overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut out cookie shapes and place 12 on a cookie sheet lined with either parchment or a silpat.

Bake for 12 to 14 minutes, rotating baking sheets and switching top and bottom shelves half way through. Cookies are done when the edges turn a light golden brown and can be easily nudged without sticking. Allow cookies to firm up on the pan for 1 minute before removing to a cooling rack. Cool completely. Store in an airtight container.

Enjoy with - what else? A steaming hot cup o’ joe.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Perfume of Pear

There are few things so subtle yet unmistakable in flavor than pears. Their juicy deliciousness is derived from both their delicate scent and more delicate taste. Even visually, they appear to be in utter repose, off in their own quiet conspiracy.

I love working with pears. The perfume that releases once you’ve peeled and cored a perfectly ripe pear is beyond description. But how do you capture their quiet essence without overwhelming it with other flavors? Because pears go so well with caramel, various spices, nuts, wine, spirits, cheese or chocolate, it’s easy to let any of those other flavors take hold. But how to balance all of these other elements so you still have that faint-whisper sensation of pure pear? How do you render that pure essence so it’s in the forefront of your palate? It’s one of the hardest things to do and something I’ve thought about for years!

While on this trail of simplicity, I’ve baked some ripe pears in a basic flaky sour cream pastry dough to highlight and exalt the fresh flavor and simplicity of the fruit. Unadorned, quiet and complete all on their own.

Bench notes:

- A few years ago I had the great fortune of sampling a plum kifli at Crixa, a terrific bakery in Berkeley that makes the most interesting Hungarian, Russian, Central European and American pastries and desserts. I searched and experimented for something approximating kifli dough. The pastry dough I use here is one version.
- Although I am in a purist mood, you can of course add your favorite spices or minced ginger or golden raisins or whatever you’d like to the fruit.
- These delicate pastries are to be eaten the same day.

Pears in Pastry
Makes 6 pastries

1 C flour
1 T sugar
1/8 t salt
4 oz cold butter cut into small pieces
1/4 C sour cream
1 egg yolk

2 pears, peeled and cored
2 T sugar, to taste
1/2 lemon
egg wash: 1 egg + 1t water

Combine the flour, sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Add butter and process until the butter is reduced to small pieces and the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal for the most part. Add sour cream and yolk and pulse just until the dough starts to come together. Be careful not to overmix. Gather the dough on a piece of plastic wrap and seal it. Chill thoroughly.

Remove the dough and let it warm at room temperature for a couple of minutes. Roll out to 1/8” and cut into desired shapes. Place cutouts on a parchment lined baking sheet and chill for 30 minutes.

Place the juice of 1/2 lemon in a bowl large enough to hold the sliced pears. Prepare pears by peeling, coring and slicing or dicing them. Add the pears to the bowl and toss to coat with lemon juice. Add sugar and toss gently. Remove pastry from the refrigerator and brush the pastry edges with egg wash. Top with pear mixture and seal. Place the pastries in the freezer for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Egg wash the dough and sprinkle with a bit more sugar. Bake the pastries for 20 – 25 minutes until golden brown, rotating the baking sheet half way through as necessary to ensure even baking.

Take in that aroma. Cool. Stare. Consume.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Gone Tasting

I’m heading to NYC for a few days to delve into the sights, sounds and tastes of the city and collect a much-needed tête-à-tête with my closest friends.

It’s also time to turn our attention to the onset of a most beautiful autumn. The transition between seasons always brings our relationship with nature into crisp focus. The weather and quality of light change, and we find our tables reflecting a whole new incredible crop of delicious fresh food. Although I nearly weep as the summer’s bounty of cherries, apricots, figs, blackberries, nectarines and peaches fades from sight, I really love all that comes next. Pears, apples, quince, pomegranates, dates, citrus and nuts are all fabulous in their own right. And then there’s chocolate and crèmes and compotes and spice. The challenges to keep fall and winter menus interesting are a welcome stretch.

While I’m away, please see what you can do to stir up some trouble in the kitchen.

See you soon.

pear & persimmon photography courtesy of Jennifer Kanter/Semaphore Fine Preserves & Films