Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Wicked Delicious Granola

Everything hinges on the first choice I make on Monday.  If I open the door on the left and choose an onion bagel toasted golden brown with a smear of cream cheese like a snow drift, my week can spiral down into a cycle of crap food, low energy, skipping my workout, and feeling generally foul.  Or I can choose the door on the right: something substantive and powerful, something that fuels my body and my mood, something that makes me want to choose a clean and healthy lunch that will set me up to kick everyone else’s ass in yoga after work.  (What?  That isn’t the point of yoga?)  Something that makes me want to choose food with lots of food in it.

But Mondays are hard and if I’m going to choose the door on the right I need to make sure that door is appealing as hell so that bagel has no chance to seduce me. As luck would have it, I’ve developed a strategy that is nearly no fail.  I make a batch of granola that smells like Christmas on Sunday afternoon and I look forward to getting to eat it the next day.  I proudly carry my week’s worth of granola and a container of Greek yogurt in on Monday morning knowing that I’m about to kick Monday’s ass, because I’m about to kick breakfast’s ass.  Take that bagel.  (And honestly, there’s not a bagel on the west coast that’s worth eating anyway.)

Make this – it’s easy.  One bowl, one very small pan, one baking sheet. Ten minutes to of prep time and 40 minutes in the oven.  You will be so proud of yourself and your co-workers will weep with joy when you share – trust me.

This was inspired by a few granola recipes I’ve tried and tweaked over the last year, but the recipe closest to my ultimate result is this one: Chunky Date, Coconut & Almond Granola, from Bon Appetit, via Epicurious.

Wicked Delicious Granola

2 cups old fashioned oats
¾ cup sliced almonds
½ cup whole pecans
1/3 c (packed) Muscovado sugar (substitution suggestion: dark brown sugar)
1 ½ tsp ground allspice
1 tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp ground cloves
½ stick butter (1/4 cup)
2 TBS honey
¼ tsp vanilla
1 cup packed pitted dates, roughly chopped
1 c unsweetened flaked coconut

Preheat oven to 325 F.   Combine first seven ingredients in a large bowl, breaking up and clumps of Muscovado sugar.  I also like to snap some of the pecans in half with my fingers while I’m stirring everything through.  Meanwhile, in a small saucepan over very low heat, warm the butter with the honey, swirling the pan occasionally to combine.  When honey/butter mixture is melted through and looks uniform add the vanilla and give it a few good swirls.   Pour the syrup you’ve made over your oat mixture and mix thoroughly with your hands or a flexile spatula.  It will take a little working over for the wet ingredients to coat the dry ingredients evenly and there’s no danger of over mixing here, so take your time.

Spread your oat mixture on a prepared cookie sheet.  I use a silicone mat because it will need to be stirred a couple of times and that way I don’t risk up-turning parchment or ripping aluminum foil, but either are a fine substitution, particularly if you’re more graceful than I am.

Pop the sheet in the oven and reduce the heat to 300 F.  After 15 minutes, add your chopped dates and stir to combine.  Return your cookie sheet to the oven for 10 minutes.  Add coconut flakes and stir to combine.  Your kitchen will smell like heaven, so don’t make granola when you’re hungry.   At this point, set a timer for 10 more minutes and check it again.  You’re watching the coconut – you want it to have turned a slight golden brown at the edges.  My total cooking time is usually 40 minutes, but you may find you want your granola more or less toasty – feel free to adjust to your liking.

Remove the cookie sheet from the oven and leave it alone to cool – no mixing.  This is when your tasty little nuggets are formed.  When it’s completely cool, transfer to a container, where it will remain fresh for about a week.

This recipe doubles well, however, you'll have to mix about half way through the initial baking time and it will be a bit cumbersome. 

My serving preference is to use it to top some hearty Greek yogurt and I like to add a little wheat germ and/or flax seeds to my bowl.  I used to include them in the recipe itself, but too often I’d find them resting at the bottom of the container at the end of the week.

Finally, it’s just come to my attention that I have a massive international readership (thank you, five to ten people in England, one person in Germany, and hello, South Africa!) so I need to move away from crazy American measurements and include weights.  None of this “cups” shenanigans.  Check back in on this recipe the same time tomorrow – I need to get batteries for my scale and then I’ll update this post.

Friday, January 27, 2012

On Perfect as the Enemy of Good: Ugly Cookies

All of a sudden there are words on this page – this page that had been blank for more than three years.  Not too long after I made that egg sandwich I was paralyzed by the quest for perfection.  I would draft posts, choose pictures, look into hosting and promoting a website, research monetizing, etc.  Nothing I wrote was perfect and no matter what I learned I felt I should know more.

And then one day last week, a woman I used to work with quit.  She stopped her day job and started her life as she wanted it.  First I was inspired and then I was motivated.  And then suddenly I didn’t care if I was perfect, I just wanted to start doing something I wanted to do.  And now there are words on the page – imperfect words and imperfect pictures, but they are mine.  So I say all of this to say, hang in there with me while I get in the groove – and if there’s something you’ve been wanting to do, try it.  What’s the worst that can happen?

This recipe is dedicated to my former co-worker and to my friends whose ooooh’s and aaah’s over the cookies below helped me feel like I had something worth posting about.   It is adapted from my friend Linda’s world famous-in-the-neighborhood cookie recipe.  I’ve changed the oats-to-flour recipe to make a flatter, chewier cookie – they aren’t as pretty as Linda’s, but I’m a sucker for oats, so these ugly cookies get me every time.

Ugly Cookies

1 c. butter
1 c. brown sugar
1 c. granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
1 3/4c. oats
1 1/4 c. flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 c. dried cherries, coarsely chopped
1 c. Scharffenberger’s bittersweet chocolate chunks
1 c. flaked coconut

In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat together butter, sugars, eggs and vanilla until mixture is light, about 2 minutes. Whisk the next four ingredients together and then add to the wet ingredients until blended. Finally, mix in cherries, chocolate and coconut – be careful not to over mix.  Store dough in the fridge covered in plastic wrap for 1-2 days before continuing for best results.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.  Drop batter by the heaping tablespoonful on a prepared cookie sheet. Bake at 325 for 12-14 minutes or until cookies are lightly browned.

Notes: The fridge storage time really makes a difference in the flavor.  Plus, I like that I can keep the dough in the fridge and bake off cookies as I need them.  Sometimes I scoop them and lay them on a cookie sheet to freeze individually and then pop them in a storage bag.  That way you can bake just a couple at a time.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Bittersweet Macaroons

This wasn’t our first Christmas together – it was our fifth – but it was our first as an engaged couple and it really did feel different.The feeling was a combination of a very first Christmas kiss and an 80-year old couple holding hands. Peace and joy, peace and joy.

We had purchased Christmas cards to send to our now mutual loved ones, which was already a step up from the years prior. We had decorated our tree, Our tree, and it felt momentous. And as we did so I was trying to figure out what to do for casual gifts – something to leave in someone’s cube in case they left something in mine, something that said thank you and I’m thinking of you. Something… affordable.

I should tell you that I don’t like macaroons. I only liked a macaroon one time – at Angel Maid bakery in Culver City. But I thought quite highly of that macaroon and I thought I could replicate it, so attempt to replicate it we did.

This started with a trip to Surfas, also in Culver City. A million dollars and some unnecessary but satisfying purchases later, I had our ingredients. We settled in for a long winter’s baking (okay, it was 72 degrees – this is Southern California, after all).

In a matter of two hours, we made 80 macaroons - two batches following the recipe below. Simple, chewy and toasty on the outside, soft on the inside, dipped in bittersweet chocolate. They were a major success – they were the macaroons that make you into a macaroon person. And they are our first new tradition as a nearly married couple.

This recipe is adapted from Danny Cohen’s recipe, as posted on Food & Wine. I got lucky -- the recipe was simple and exactly what I was looking for and it was the first one we tried. These macaroons highlight coconut and chocolate -- no filler, no weird doughy or cakey texture. The ingredients remain essentially the same as the original recipe, but we put them together differently for the second batch because it worked better for us. The recipe below makes 40 macaroons.

One 14-ounce bag sweetened shredded coconut
One 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 large egg whites
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 ounces Scharffenberger bittersweet chocolate, melted

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Beat the egg whites with the salt until you have firm peaks.

In a separate large bowl, combine sweetened condensed milk with the vanilla. Fold in the egg whites. Gently, gently, gently fold in the coconut.

Scoop tablespoon-ish sized balls (I used a small ice cream scoop) on to your cookie sheets prepped with silpats (preferred) or parchment. Pop in the oven for 22-27 minutes until lightly golden, turning and rotating half way through.

Cool completely – if you’re on a mission, mine got cold enough after 10 minutes on the counter and five minutes in the freezer.

While your macaroons are cooling, melt your bittersweet chocolate in a double boiler (or the microwave, or a glass bowl set above simmering water, etc.). When they are cool enough to handle, dip their little bottoms in the chocolate and allow to set.

Eat or give away, as you wish. Rumor has it they will store quite nicely in the fridge for two weeks, but I can only tell you they didn't last very long in my house at all -- but they have only themselves to blame.

No Knead Bread: White, Kind of Rye and Gently Wheat

I know, I'm so 2000-and-late -- everyone and her sister has posted about this bread. However, I'm a firm believer that there's no such thing as too much of this bread and I must continue to evangelize it. Plus, I've emailed the recipe so many times that this will make my life easier; call it productive laziness.

The basic recipe, Jim Lahey's No Knead Bread recipe posted in the New York Times, gives you some room to move. Although the posted recipe calls for 1 5/8 c water, rumor has it that it should have called for 1 1/2. I'm not overly concerned, because up until now I've never weighed my flour, so there's always been a bit of variation there. What I can tell you is that this is a very forgiving recipe, and if you fear bread-making, just try it. You don't have to tell anyone you've tried it unless it turns out as magnificently as I know it will -- and it's a really cheap risk.

No Knead Bread
Adapted from Jim Lahey's Sullivan Street Bakery Recipe

3 c AP flour (all-purpose)
1 1/2 tsp iodized salt
1/4 tsp instant yeast (also called rapid rise)
1 1/2 c filtered, room temperature water

Combine dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl with a whisk. And yes, I believe that the quality of your water matters-- it's a major ingredient. Also, I've heard that chlorine in tap water can make your yeast sad. We have a fancy filter on our fancy fridge and it's the most delicious water I've had in my life, so I use that.

Add your water and stir to combine. Your dough will be sticky and look torn. Cover your bowl tightly with plastic wrap and tuck the bowl in a warm place.

Ignore it for 19 hours. Really, you can leave it for 18-22 hours and be just fine. My favorite window is a 19 hour set. When you pull back your plastic wrap, the dough will have completely changed; it becomes wet, flat, bubbly, and taller.  The photo at the very top shows what the dough looks like after it's had 20+ hours to sit and think about what it has done.

Make yourself a nice place to grope your dough and be sure to flour your board generously. I also tend to shake some flour on top of the dough in the bowl; it makes it easier to coax it out on to the board.

Turn the dough in your hands a few times--really, a brief and gentle knead-- incorporating flour as you need it. I know this seems inexact and frightening, but have no fear, it will work out just fine.

Now here is where we hit the big No Knead conundrum. You are going to let your dough rest for another two hours, during which it will grow impressively, before you bake it. I have followed the original guidelines -- resting between two heavily floured towels -- and it has bitten me. The dough sticks and I lose it, and some of its lift, trying to pry it from the towel and hurl it into my pot. I have used, successfully, a small, high, oiled bowl. For my last effort, I left it on my heavily floured board under a nicely floured towel and it worked just fine. I lifted it with my hands into the preheated pot and it was gorgeous. So, you choose your method. It's really very forgiving.

Approximately 45 minutes before your dough will be ready for you, preheat your oven to 500 degrees and preheat your baking dish of choice with it. I use this Le Creuset Enameled Cast-Iron 7-1/4-Quart Round French Oven, Flame. I cover the plastic knob in foil and it hasn't melted on me yet, but you can order Le Creuset Replacement Knobs if you're at all concerned. Make sure to get your pot good and hot -- just long enough to preheat the oven is not long enough.

When your dough has rested, push your finger into it on a floury patch. If the dent remains and the dough doesn't spring back at you, it's ready to go into the screaming hot pot. Lift or gently pour your dough into the pot and cover with the scary hot lid.

I bake it covered for 45 minutes and uncovered for 15 -- voila, you have chewy, crusty marvelous bread that you made all on your own. You rule.

Variations: Endless, really. But I'll only tell you what I've proven not to be disastrous. My attempt at a rye: substitute one cup of the all-purpose flour with rye flour and 2 TBS of caraway seeds. My Gently Wheat: substitute one cup of the all-purpose flour with wheat flour.  You can see it takes a lot of scary math and chemistry involved.

Monday, January 23, 2012

And away we go!

It all started with an egg sandwich. I was sitting in front of a picture window the size of an elephant looking out over the Atlantic in Biddeford, Maine eating an egg sandwich of my own design that bordered on transcendent. I thought, people should know about this sandwich.

I have been pondering starting a food blog for some time. In fact, I have now written this post four times in as many months.

When the idea first occurred to me, I started cooking like a madwoman-- every day. At one point my fridge held multiple cakes (and cupcakes!) plus four different kinds of leftover protein of various sorts, and enough veggies to sink a ship, not to mention homemade granola and a sad, sad batch of biscuits* that were only pretty on the outside.

We were giving away food to everyone who stopped by the house but we were still gaining weight by the day . Worst of all, it was just a plain old waste of food.

Eventually I realized that I didn't have to cook every day, or post every day, or even make food that needed to be eaten right away (I could pickle stuff!) and I could still have a satisfying food blog. So, please, be patient as I get in to the groove-- and email requests!

*This is American biscuits, not British biscuits.