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Dear Bakers,

First, mad props to you. Honest. Life is hard; you make us treats. Without you*, how could we forget about the workaday world of Cadillac SUV drivers who don’t signal, about 16-page apartment leases, about presidential candidates who strut and fret their hour upon the stage? A cinnamon croissant roll takes five minutes to eat, but what a blissful five minutes. How unburdened an experience. You are gods and archangels.

Thank you for the variety on your menu, thank you for offering both plain and fancified, thank you for blueberries in high summer and spiced pumpkin in the fall. Thank you for little saucers of broken-up scones to try while we wait for service. (Full disclosure: Sometimes I pop one to soothe a hungry stomach and then go. But you know I spend liberally the rest of the week. We’re cool.)

Thank you, so many of you, for making pie crusts with lard, or butter, or a combo of the two. Thank you, others of you, for eschewing shortening entirely for the glory of butter. You know your cookies will be flatter, but firmly avow that flavor must never fall to the ax of showboating.

But I must take exception to those of you who bake with excessive amounts of sugar. Of course America has a sweet tooth. We just don’t need as much sugar as you’re adding. Many of your cakes and cupcakes are too darn sweet, and lots of bakers don’t stop there: even a corn muffin these days can make a girl’s mouth pucker. My argument:

  1. If the first and last ingredient we taste is sugar, the product is dull.
  2. If the first and last ingredient we taste is sugar, the rest of the ingredients don’t get their say.
  3. Ibid., the structure will be gritty.

I love chocolate brownies, for example. But when did we make sugar more important than the quality of the chocolate, the richness of the butter, and the fudginess or cakiness of the square itself? I ate a brownie on Sunday that was gorgeous to look at. But it was so packed with sugar that I crunched my way through it.** The chocolate, fat, and texture were very much an afterthought.

Last point:

4. If one ingredient isn’t allowed to be a diva, we can appreciate the subtlety and balance of the other ingredients.

Like seals being tossed fish time and again, pushing sugar into the spotlight of baked goods narrows our thinking, dulls our senses, and deprives us of a fuller experience. Let us taste the almond extract in your cherry scones; we’ll be excited to learn they’re such a winning pair (cousins, almonds and cherries, you know). Let us search for a hint of orange peel, or come to adore exotic cardamom on first taste. We love to learn. Let us get excited by the nuances of your work.

The brownie above, now. Good example. Much less sugar, in the European tradition. More excellent-quality chocolate, cream, and butter. It was dense, sticky—a deep and powerful experience. I’ll drive a half an hour north for this thing, and I cannot imagine I’m alone.

Being active observers of flavors and textures is a positive; looking for them with eagerness and learning from them is a blessing. Conscious, discerning eating can’t help but inform conscious, discerning thinking outside the bakery, and goodness knows we can all use a little more of that.

Two thumbs up, and best regards,

~M (and my dentist)

*And maybe Lin-Manuel Miranda.
**Of course I ate the whole thing. It wasn’t a good brownie, but it was a brownie.

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My past week could be accurately weighed in butter grams.

I made snickerdoodles (cinnamon sugar cookies common in the midwest U.S.) along with my extra-rich chocolate-chip cookies and handed them out to several audiences. They both contain a staggering amount of butter (the latter especially; it calls for 2.5 sticks of it, and its batter must be refrigerated for four hours so it stiffens enough to hold up in the oven), and consequently both were well received.

First on the docket: what I called Random Acts of Cookie. I’ve noticed there seems to be a general malaise in the world lately. Election year or some such nonsense. So on Wednesday I went on the offense and planned to fight back by handing out snickerdoodles to anyone I came upon.

I’d like to say I handed them all out. The truth is, only one person accepted one, though they were individually bagged and all. I’ll still say it was a success, though, because I drove some out to my friend Jim at work and he laughed and ate them right up. Then I gave another to my friend Mike, who’s from Ohio, and told him the cookie was his birthright. He conceded without an argument.

Next up I made chocolate-chip cookies for the cast of a show. My friend Tom plays a conniving, comedic pope in it (the script actually says, ‘with atrocious Italian accent’), which is reason enough to celebrate. That’s the box above. I also gave him a piece of chocolate cinnamon babka—my Easter bread—yesterday which, oddly, he ate on his way to dinner. I got a voice mail telling me to stop everything I’m doing and make only that, for the rest of my life. It is a good recipe. And the cast made appreciative little mmmm noises as they ate. It’s hard to disappoint actors.

Today was my last cookie visit, and it was half altruistic and half bribery: I returned some props to a rental company that can be as disorderly as a petting zoo inside Grand Central on Christmas Eve at 4:55pm. I bypass this by bringing them treats, and they got a dozen of those extra-buttery chocolate-chip cookies. As I told my friends on Facebook: It conveys moving past slights and misunderstandings, which I’m above, and also conveys a healthy dose of manipulation, which I’m not.

Also: Every time I bake, I try to hold back a few and set them aside for later. This way, when I know I’m going to meet a friend who loves chocolate, or has had a bad day, I can bring one along. It’s a very small gesture and very easy for me to do, but I have never met anyone who didn’t love it. Right now my freezer contains freezer-safe Hefty bags full of cookies, babka, two kinds of homemade Nutella truffles (those with a little added sugar and those without), and wedges of brownies. Treats in the freezer are my money in the bank. I’m armed. Make a lunch date with me and you’d find out.

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Another day, another popover.

There’s feeding them offstage, as in cookies or brownies, in which case they’re generally very easy to please. Onstage is a different matter. Often a script will call for actors eating (what we call practical food), and in my work as a prop master, it’s my job to procure it. Sometimes I buy it; other times that’s impossible or just plain inconvenient, and I have to make it for each performance. Below I offer a menu of my most unforgettable experiences in working with actor palates.

My Fair Lady

Calls for a tea service with strawberry tarts; I also added shortbread—a proper British cookie—and iced tea stood in for hot tea. The character Pickering is supposed to eat unabashedly throughout the scene, every night, and the actor who played him quite enjoyed himself. Pickering also consumes a great deal of port in every show. Since alcohol is not something that benefits actors performing just above an orchestra pit, I provided a decanter of cranberry juice instead. And I told the actor that if he happened to have a urinary tract infection, we were about to clear it right up.

Little Women

Calls for impractical ice cream and pastries, which I made of homemade play-dough, and practical popovers, which I baked fresh every night. The character Amy loves them, but not so much the young actress who played her. She’d leave the popover in the same place on the prop table every night with one bite missing, and I’d finish it.

Arms and the Man (or was it Chekov’s Three Sisters?)

Forgive me; this was college, in 1989. There is a party scene in one of these shows for which I set a few practical pastries on a little dish, and dozens more on a platter the size of a manhole cover. Then I told the actors that the ones on the giant platter were for the show and warned them not to eat them. They ignored me and tucked in every single day. I didn’t yell. I just got there earlier one day, hit the whole platter with spray polyurethane, and didn’t tell them.

Some say of all of life’s utterances, the most rewarding to hear is ‘I love you.’ I say it’s the 1.7 seconds after an actor spits a synthetic, combustible pastry into his hand and yells, ‘God-DAMMIT.’

Does this mean I’m not a romantic?

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

The script doesn’t actually call for practical food, but one director thought it would be fun to have the character Jacob munching on something during one scene. She settled on pasta. It got a laugh, and the Italian actor who played him was all in. Every night I brought him linguine tossed in olive oil, cracked black pepper, and Parmesan. He loved it.

Shrek

Shrek offers his crush, Fiona, a traditional ogre treat: a freshly killed beastie of some sort, plus odds and ends from the forest, in a sandwich. I used raffia, moss, bark, silk leaves, and my squirrel puppet. The script calls it a s’nother; personally, I called it an RLT (roadkill, lettuce, and tomato). Shrek and Fiona had to be able to munch on something from the sandwich, so I bought them gummy worms and tucked them into the edges. Fiona was impressed.

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Because anyone can send flowers.

And my favorite:

Jesus Christ Superstar

Top of Act 2, Jesus and the apostles are gathered for the Last Supper and are supposed to share and eat bread. I feel badly for the person who actually served the original 13 (whom I will forever picture as Mel Brooks), because it was a bear trying to get all of these guys to agree on what kind of bread they’d eat without complaint. I tried everything—matzoh, of course; Wonder bread; croissants (Mon Dieu! En Israel?); rolls. The actors all gave maudlin little coughs and said, ‘I can’t eat this; I can’t sing.’ Finally I got them all to agree on something. But I’m sure I’ve relinquished my place in heaven for serving Jesus and the disciples KFC biscuits.

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Hey now! We love these!

1) Get the unfathomably groovy idea of making them from scratch.

2.) Find a recipe from an esteemed resource who would know from these things.

2a) Strut a little.

3) Make the graham cracker cookie bases, which turn out surprisingly delicious in their own right, and not just as a generic circle to hold the two gooey toppings.

4) Make the marshmallow, which I’ve done before many times using another recipe. Realize that this new recipe is different from the former in several ways, the most notable being that the former did not turn the product into Insta-Cement.

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No, this is the second batch. As if my hands, stricken with stickin’, could maneuver a camera with the first.

5) Coax the marshmallow from the piping bag onto the cookies with warm, carefully chosen expletives. To which it’s actually responsive, and confirms that the recipe must come from the south. Far, far, FAR south. Like underground south.

5a) Decide next time to use the marshmallow recipe that comes from more northern climes.

6) Melt chocolate. Read the recipe that says to dip the cookies into it by hand. Choose not to spend what would otherwise be a productive evening in the ER with third-degree burns that smell like chocolate, and carefully pour the chocolate onto each marshmallowed cookie. Feel winningly like Jacques Torres.

7) Watch in horror as the marshmallow oozes off each cookie under the heat and weight of the hot chocolate, like that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but with better ingredients. Try to add more chocolate, but get the same results.

8) Shoot them maybe five different ways, each time having them insist on coming out blurry.

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Probably out of a deep sense of personal shame.

9) Taste one. It’s bloody effing fantastic. Question whether people would find it worrisome if I asked them to shut their eyes, then grope their way into the cookie bag, and then taste them.

10) Take my chances, dip them the way the recipe suggests, and find it works better than my Jacques Torres-y pouring method, even though some still ooze. Realize that there are plenty of people in my circle who are happy eating my kitchen mistakes.

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11) Re-panic when I also realize that since I don’t know how to temper chocolate–which the recipe does not even mention needs doing—it means there’s a solid chance the chocolate will have bloomed* by morning.

12) Cheer in a confused way** when even after Day 4, the chocolate topping has not bloomed.

12a) Get seriously cocky.

13) Bake Batch #2 with the worry-free poise of a principal dancer in the Ballet Russe who’s hoisted by a dancer with thighs like carved cedar. Use the favored northern marshmallow recipe, dip, and otherwise treat Batch #2 precisely as I did Batch #1.

14) Swear blue and green the next morning when 2/3 of them bloom.

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15) Seek out alternate chocolate topping for Batch #3, to be prepared this weekend.

16) With a fork, chip wedges of cooled chocolate out of the bottom of the Pyrex bowl and poke it into mouth. Do the same with the marshmallowy chocolatey dripped bits that are stuck to the cookie racks.

17) Be soothed.

*Tempering is the method by which chocolate is kept heated to a certain, consistent temperature, and guarantees a glossy finish. If you don’t do it, the chocolate blooms. It doesn’t affect the taste, but it looks funky.

**This isn’t easy. You try it.

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Ready for action: chocolates in background, toothpicks and drop cup in foreground.

I’m a lifelong sweet-maker/eater, which in my case means I grew up making Duncan Hines cakes and somewhere along the line had a bite of homemade (the cold-truth wallop I needed). Today, a local specialty bakery sells my homemade candy, and occasionally I cater desserts for parties—with everything scratch-made. I can tell if a cookie has butter in it or shortening. I can tell Hershey’s from Mama Ganache*.

But there’s a whole lot I didn’t know, like, just for starters, that Japan has a taste-bud-blowing way with chocolate. Where did that come from? They know from fish, yes; delectable noodles, yes; immaculate presentation and technique, for sure. Chocolate…?

Well, first things first: all quality products start with a mindset of caring. You have to care; and if you do, the product will follow.

When I tried Royce’ Chocolate’s candies in the Village recently and was asked to come back to their Madison Avenue location for a more comprehensive tasting—well, at first I dilly-dallied, right, like you just met me, no, I was stunned at the luxurious mouth feel of these candies, and I couldn’t wait to learn more. Asian chocolates. I’m in.

The story of Royce’ Chocolate starts on Hokkaido, Japan’s northern-most island. Do you need a daydream worthy of usurping your job for an hour? Here: the island looks like the landscape beneath the snow-capped Alps, but carpeted in flowers. Google image Hokkaido because I’m not doing it justice. There really are places on earth that look like this. I kind of want to go now.

Here live the cows that produce milk and cream that are the basis of this chocolate. They get to eat what grows on Hokkaido. And I’ve also been lucky enough to spend time with artisanal cheesemakers who will tell you that what cows eat factors immeasurably into the final product, and which sounds obvious because it is. Look at a Hokkaido photo. I figure anything that ate what grew out of that ground would produce something akin to rainbows.

A final and groovy note: Royce’ Chocolate is easily more stringent about cleanliness than the Mayo Clinic. Workers must wear special uniforms and then go through fans that blow extraneous dust off of them as they enter work areas. Not impressed yet? The factory was deliberately designed without right angles, where dirt and dust can collect. Thank you very much.

Okay. So.

What we ate (my sister came along. Oh, the belabored arm twisting. You can tell we’re related.)

Potato Chip Chocolate Fromage Blanc–I’m open-minded, and I love chocolate, and potato chips, and cheese, but this threw me. I thought it would taste okay, tops. No. Awesome. Addictive.  Each chip is coated in white chocolate and fromage blanc cheese. Salty, crunchy, sweet, creamy.

Potato Chip Chocolate Original–Coated on one side with milk chocolate. This keeps the chips from becoming flabby; they were good and thick, and had a great crunch.

Maccha Almond Chocolates–Roasted almonds coated in white chocolate and then with green tea chocolate. (An obligatory word about white chocolate. Many hate it; to me, it’s always been just okay. I tried theirs, and forgive me for sounding like a QVC commercial, but it’s nothing like I’ve ever tried. It tastes like homemade vanilla fudge.)

Baton Cookie Hazel Cacao–A fragile, crisp hazelnut cookie, coated on one side with dark chocolate and infused with cacao nibs.

Marshmallow Chocolate Milk Coffee–I love these cuties. Tater-tot-sized marshmallows coated with coffee chocolate. Soft and lovely.

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Pure Chocolates Venezuela Bitter & Ghana Sweet–Simple medallions that showcase several different chocolate varieties, from white all the way to 90% cacao (that’s 90% cacao to 10% sugar). I love dark chocolate, but don’t usually go above the upper 60s because it usually tastes like dirt, to put it plainly. I tried the 80% and then the 90%, and was genuinely surprised that no matter how high the percentage, it remained smooth and complex. Not bitter at all. How did they do that? I’ll always be a 60s girl, but this was delicious.

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Prafeuille Chocolat Maccha–Green tea sauce sandwiched between green tea-infused chocolate. Very delicate and aromatic.

Duo Praline–Soft, white Maccha chocolate with ground green tea, covered with fragrant green tea sauce, and further covered in a milk chocolate shell.

Chocolate Wafers Hazel Cream–A really good-quality version of the wafer-and-icing cookies we grew up devouring. These have hazelnut cream between the wafers and are coated with chocolate.

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And these tasted like chilled chocolate butter cream.

Many thanks to Athena Pappas, who did the gracious inviting, serving, and question-answering. She’s at the Madison Avenue store. (They have three locations—here as well as in Bryant Park and the Village.)

I’m happy to chirp about a company I like, so please take this as an emphatic chirp: this chocolate is exquisite for holiday gifts, unlike any your giftees have tasted. Royce’ Chocolates made with cream need refrigeration, and the stores provide a complimentary ice pack and insulating bag for them.

Have a creamy Christmas.

Royce’ Chocolate

New York, NY

royceconfectusa.com

 

*Then again, so can a lemur.

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I picked quinces from a lone tree on Route 35 yesterday, because this is what crazy people do in their downtime, and I have the oven heating up right now so I can bake my little tart crusts for them.

Let’s back up.

Last year around this time I took a jughandle* and ended up heading east on this same stretch of highway. Between two parking lots, one belonging to a repair shop and one belonging to a defunct Asian restaurant, I spied with my little eye a very weathered fruit-bearing tree. This is something that makes my heart race, and I have given up trying to figure out why. I didn’t know what the fruit was—it had a yellowish-green cast, so it was either pears, Golden Delicious apples, or quinces (all botanical cousins)—but by the time I had the opportunity to get back out there again, they’d all dropped and were gone.

Yesterday I went back, and they were so gnarled that even after I pulled them down I still wasn’t completely sure what they were. Either pears or quinces. Here’s 5-foot-3 me, jumping to grab equally gnarled branches to get a hold of the fruit as cars tear past me, their owners likely wondering what I’m smoking. I got six of them.

It wasn’t until they were in the warm car for a while that they gave me their name: quinces. (There they are above.) Swanky women in days past used to put quinces inside their dresser drawers; it was their version of potpourri. The quince and its cousins the apple and pear are in the Rose family. But unlike their cousins, the quince cannot be eaten raw.** You cook it in a sugar syrup with cinnamon, or in red wine. The flavor and aroma are exquisite, like an apple or pear that’s just returned from holiday on the Italian Riviera and is full of delicious secrets that it finally pens in its later years, then pokes into the fire. This is a fruit that most people haven’t heard of or seen, and it tends to be expensive. Oh, but not this time.

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Just ate one. Good stuff. I forgot to prick the dough (as you can see) before I blind baked them, so they came out more like flaky cookies than tart shells, but I can handle a flaky cookie.

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Next we have the fruits, literal and figurative, of a walk I took to the beach a couple of days ago. I have a modest apartment in the kind of town that manicures everything, even the lion statues that stand post at their driveways.*** Enormous 100-year-old seaside Colonials maintained within an inch of their lives. It’s nice, but I’m more comfortable with the rustic and unprettified. I found it without even looking, between two properties owned by summer visitors, just steps to the street. And that translates to The Apples Are Mine.**** They, along with the quinces above, are examples of unsprayed, unwaxed fruit—something else the average person doesn’t usually see. This is how fruit looked to our great-grandmothers.

And I was startled to find a bonus: a crabapple tree that had been grafted to this old apple tree.

Haven’t decided what to make with them yet, but they’re so fresh that I can take my time deciding.

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So there you have it: a blithe admission that I am not above foraging from abandoned or forgotten trees. Why should I be?

‘Wait, Maris—that’s it?’ says the observant reader. ‘You said three trees, and we know you’re crap at math, but…’

I didn’t forget. There’s one more: a persimmon tree, the only one I know of in my area. Today I went by to check its progress. Coming along nicely, don’t you think? 😉

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*It’s a way to turn around on NJ highways. Along with pork roll, makes out-of-staters scratch their heads at us.

**Maybe not ‘cannot,’ but if you did, you’d be sorry. It’s tough and astringent. Let’s say ‘you’re better off not.’ There.

***Maybe hyperbole, maybe not.

****And the deer’s. I was surprised to find scat under the tree, just a 1/2 block to the ocean. Amazing. Until about 3 years ago, I’d never ever seen a deer in my area, and certainly not so close to the beach. Times be changin’.

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Shut…

I know, I get it—technically the holiday season ends tomorrow, if you’re going by the Twelve Days of Christmas schedule. That’s January 6, which some call the Epiphany, which my mom calls ‘Little Christmas’, and which is purported to be the day the Wise Men finally pulled in and dropped off their symbolic goodies*. Do just one tidbit this year, or save these up for next year. Or maybe you’ve done all of these already. Rock on. You win Christmas.

1) Attend a small-town tree-lighting. Big fun. Applaud when the big guy in red arrives, and again when he throws the switch and the town glows.

2) Open the doors on an Advent calendar. The kind that gives you a chocolate every day is okay, but I like the picture kind the best. The photos here are from one of the three 1960s calendars I own and adore.

3) Watch the old Christmas specials. The classics aren’t just nostalgia trips; many are also beautiful examples of stop-motion animation (anything Rankin & Bass) and hand-rendered animation (A Charlie Brown Christmas, with its luscious watercolor skies, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas! with its sly, Bugs-Bunny-esque Chuck Jones direction).

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a shift from mindless holiday cheeriness, and I’ve always found its wistful yearning to be sort of appealing. It was first aired in 1963, when the civil rights movement was just starting to heat up, and this might explain how emphatically the theme of conformity vs. non-conformity is pushed. It also aired a month after JFK’s assassination, and I’d be surprised if this didn’t have had a hand in its sense of melancholy.

Oh, it’s fun you want? Then watch The Year Without a Santa Claus to see Heat Miser throw awesome red-faced hissy fits, and Snow Miser (voiced by comedian Dick Shawn, who played LSD in The Producers a couple of years earlier) blithely instigating every one of said hissy fits.

4) Blow off one thing on your list. I have always made my own Christmas cards and loved sending them. This year, for some inexplicable reason that will probably come to me a decade from now at 3:15am, I just wasn’t feeling it. So I didn’t. Unless it’s a non-negotiable (like maybe the tree), opt out of doing something. The world will continue to spin on its axis, and you get to relax that much more.

5) Eat something real. A piece of real fruitcake, a cookie with real butter in it, real salt-cured country ham. I don’t need to elaborate on this point, right? I do that all year.

6) Same deal for a mug of hot chocolate that wasn’t shaken from a blue packet.

7) Walk through your neighborhood at night and see the assorted twinkliness. +1 if you find a window display of vintage moving figures holding candles or song books. Those are really cool.

8) Collect one can, or more, of vegetables every week you go to the supermarket during December. On 12/23, drop it all off at your local food bank. Include a plate of cookies just for the workers.

9) Read, or reread, A Christmas Carol. Unabridged. Do it to feel the lovely sense of connection with every other human on the planet washing over you, do it for Dickens’s delicious playfulness when it comes to words, do it to find new meaning every year. But do it.

10) Turn on the lights on the tree, turn off all of the other lights, turn on some Christmas music very quietly, and just rest.

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Open 🙂

*Gold, because according to Scripture the newborn was a king; frankincense, because he was a god; and myrrh, because he was destined to die (myrrh was an embalming fluid). Do I win the new Toyota Corolla?

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