Sunday, November 27, 2005

Virtual Cookie Swap: Apricot-Pecan Squares

This is my second contribution to the Virtual Cookie Swap. The first one was a spice cookie with chocolate topping (link).

After finding the patience to wait for the butter to soften, the batter and bars came together easily. The bars are fairly sweet, with a butterscotch background. The apricots and pecans offer textural and flavor contrast. I used unsulfured Blenheim apricots from Trader Joes (Buy California Grown, and all that), and they were a bit too tough for this recipe (they are much better when used in cooked oatmeal cereal or other hot and wet dishes). It might be worthwhile to try pre-soaking the apricots to soften them, but one must be careful to fully dry the fruit before adding it to the batter. Nonetheless, they would be an excellent addition to a cookie tray.

Apricot-Pecan Squares

Adapted from Nick Malgieri's Cookies Unlimited.

1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt

1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups light brown sugar, firmly packed
1 1/2 t. vanilla extract
2 eggs

2/3 cup dried apricots, chopped into 1/4" pieces
2/3 cup pecans, coarsely chopped

(Unit conversion page)

Position a rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Butter a 9 x 13 x 2 inch pan. Cut a piece of parchment paper so that it runs down the middle of the pan and hangs over two of the sides (it could be the long sides or short sides). After the bars are finished you will use the paper to remove the bars from the pan for cooling and cutting.

Mix the flour, baking powder and salt together in a small bowl (this bowl will not be the main mixing bowl, so only needs big enough to hold the flour).

Place the butter and brown sugar into a large mixing bowl. Use the paddle attachment if you have one. Beat the butter and sugar at medium-high speed for about a minute until well mixed and lightened. Add the vanilla extract, then the first egg, then the second egg, beating at medium speed between each addition.

Turn the mixer to low speed and add the flour mixture. Mix for a few seconds, then turn off the mixer. Remove the bowl and hand stir the mixture a few times with a wooden spoon or rubber scraper. Fold in the fruit and nuts.

Transfer the batter to the prepared pan, then use an offset spatula or other tool to smooth the top. Bake for 25-35 minutes, or until the top of the bars is golden brown and a cake tester comes out clean. Turn halfway through baking for best results. After removing the pan from the oven, cool it on a rack for 10 minutes. Slice a knife along the edges where the bars contact the baking dish to separate, then remove the bars from the pan using the paper as an aid. Place on a cooking rack.

When the bars are cool, carefully remove the paper. Cut into 2-inch squares.

Store in an air-tight container with sheets of parchment or wax paper separating the layers.

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Virtual Cookie Swap: Cardamom Butter Squares

I baked two batches of cookies for the Virtual Cookie Swap. My criteria for the swap were 1) both must be new (to me) recipes, 2) portability, 3) one batch must feature chocolate, 4) one batch must feature fruit, 5) one batch must have the recipe on-line to save me some typing.

This post is about the first batch, Iced Cardamom Butter Squares (the second one is here). The recipe was originally published in Gourmet magazine in December 2004, but I'm not sure of the context (it looks like a "readers suggest" type of feature).

The dough is simple to make. Nonetheless, it yields sublime flavors. I'm not much of a cookie dough eater, but I could have eaten a large quantity of this. They are "refrigerator cookies", so after I made the batter, I formed it into a rectangular log (with the help of plastic wrap and a cookie sheet), then refrigerated it until firm. When the dough was firm, I sliced it into cookies (see figure below), and placed the pieces on an ungreased cookie sheet. After baking and cooling, I used ziploc bags as ersatz pastry bags and zigzagged two kinds of icing across the top: one was made from powdered sugar and instant espresso powder, the other was pure dark chocolate. For me, it was as if I was filling out a rental car agreement as I wrote my first initial across each cookie.

The recipe can be found at Epicurious. A list of some of my favorite Christmas cookies is in another post.

Note: I bought my ground cardamom at an Indian Grocery for about $0.75/oz. The bottles at the grocery store are probably $3-4/oz.

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Favorite Holiday Cookies

It seems to be cookie week at Mental Masala, with quite a few posts about cookies. These are some of my favorite cookies, most of which are good for holiday entertaining:

  • Chocolate Gingerbread from Martha Stewart Living (blog post here with link to recipe) - a thrilling combination of spice and chocolate.
  • Swedish Spice from Maida Heatter's Brand-New Book of Great Cookies - thin and crispy, crackling with flavors of almond, rum, spice and caramel.
  • My own Chocolate Chunk Cookies (recipe) - a good, basic chocolate oatmeal cookie which would offer some homey counterpoint to a plate of fussy or fancy Christmas cookies.
  • Mom's Shortbread (recipe) - Rich and crispy. Best when made with very small cutters.
  • Black Gold Cookies from Marcel Desaulniers' Death by Chocolate Cookies (recipe) - More "chocolate delivery system" than cookie, with the bare minimum amount of flour to meet the USDA's cookie labeling requirements.
  • Nick Maglieri's X-cookies (with figs or prunes) - Crispy, fruity, and complex.

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Friday, November 25, 2005

Mom's Shortbread

This is the shortbread that I grew up eating. My family only made them at Christmas-time, and generally as part of a massive cookie baking weekend. Very small cookie cutters (1/2" across) in shapes like stars, diamonds and the like made the cookies especially attractive and tasty. There is something about the one-bite cookie that I love.

Mom's Shortbread
(makes about 5 dozen)

1 cup softened butter
1/2 + 2 Tbsp. sugar
2-1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
(Unit conversion page)

In large bowl, with portable mixer at medium, or wooden spoon, beat butter with sugar until light and fluffy. With wooden spoon, stir in flour until smooth and well combined. Dough will be stiff.

Refrigerate dough several hours. Then divide into two parts; refrigerate until ready to roll out.

On lightly floured surface, roll out dough, one part at a time, l/3" thick. Cut out, using l-l/2" or 2" cookie cutters. Bake on ungreased cookie sheets 25 min. at 300 until light golden. Cool on wire rack.

Alternatively, use small 1/2" cutters and decrease the baking time slightly.

Chocolate Chunk Cookies

These cookies were inspired by some cookies that found on the bargain shelf at Berkeley Bowl (the best grocery store on the West Coast of the U.S., IMHO). The goal was something with good oatmeal flavor, big chunks of chocolate, and a basic heartiness (but not too hearty--these are cookies, after all!). I created the recipe many years ago (1994 or 1995), and have baked them many times since and they remain one of my "top 10" cookie recipes.

Chocolate Chunk Cookies

1 stick butter (4 oz.)
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar

1 egg
1 t. vanilla extract

1 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
3/4 cup unbleached white flour
1/4 cup wheat germ
1 cup quick oats
1/2 cup rolled oats (the non-quick variety)

3 ounces dark chocolate
2 ounces milk chocolate
1/2 cup walnuts, pecans, cashews, or almonds, coarsely chopped

(Unit conversion page)

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Mix the dry ingredients (but not the chocolate) together in a bowl.

Chop the dark and milk chocolate into pieces that are slightly larger than standard chocolate chips. It is not easy to do this; don't worry if the pieces are randomly sized, that is one of the charms of these cookies (a.k.a. chocolatey randomness).

Combine the butter and sugars in a bowl. If using a stand mixer, use the paddle attachment. Beat together until the mixture is light and fluffy. Beat in the egg and vanilla.

Add the dry ingredients to the bowl, and mix together on low speed until the dough is mixed. Add the chocolate and nuts, and mix on low speed for a short time to combine.

Bake for 10-15 minutes on greased or lined cookie sheets. After removing sheets from the oven, let the cookies cool for a few minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack.

Variations: Replace nuts with dried fruit (cherries are especially good). Adjust the oatmeal ratios.

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Saturday, November 19, 2005

Panisse on Stage in Berkeley

As restaurant names go, Alice Waters' landmark Chez Panisse is one of the more obscure ones. The source is a trilogy of French films from the 1930s: Marius (1931), Fanny (1932), and César (1936). Panisse, a late-middle-aged widower who made his fortune as a sail maker in Marseilles, France is featured in each film. In Marius, Panisse wants to marry the 18-year old Fanny (namesake of Alice Waters daughter and the overpriced but high quality Cafe Fanny in Northwest Berkeley). But Fanny is in love with Marius, son of César the bar owner (and source of the name of the tapas bar next to Chez Panisse in Berkeley).

The first movie, Marius, was first produced as a play, and is starting a new run in Berkeley at the Aurora Theatre. Today's SF Chronicle has a review of the new production of Marius by Marcel Pagnol. Here's an excerpt from the review:

It all started with "Marius." Sort of.

Marcel Pagnol may be far better known for his sweetly life-affirming films, but he started out as a playwright. "Marius" was actually his second runaway hit, in Paris in 1929, but it was the first of his trademark delicate comedies of working-class Marseilles life. It launched his film career two years later. It became the first of his famed "Fanny" or "Marseilles" trilogy, onstage and then on film.

"Marius" also introduced the characters after whom some of Berkeley's finer restaurants are named -- Panisse, Fanny and César. Which makes it perfectly fitting that Berkeley is the site of the first new stage translation of "Marius" in some 70 years.

Zack Rogow's translation of "Marius" opened Thursday at the Aurora Theatre, staged by Artistic Director Tom Ross. It's sweet, gentle and lightly comic, pleasantly designed and fairly well performed. If it has nothing like the impact it had in '29, when it broke the Parisian mold of sophisticated boulevard comedies, it offers a rarely staged look at the manners and ideas of another time. Berkeley diners may be pleased to note that it also offers particularly nice turns by Panisse, Fanny and César.

It's a waterfront tale of goodhearted, wise eccentrics and of young love in conflict with the siren call of the sea. And it all takes place in a small bar-cafe, a charmingly open construct of gently arched ceiling fragments, old-fashioned orange linoleum and a view of the boats in the harbor in Greg Dunham's set, bathed in the Provencal sun of Jim Cave's lights. The neighborhood provincialism is nicely established by the denizens' reactions to a primly bemused clerk's (nicely portrayed by Nicholas Pelczar) account of a recent trip to Paris.

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Thursday, November 17, 2005

Oak tree galls

Gall on a valley oak tree(Updated 10/2/16: fixed broken links, added ink drawing image)

The nodule on this valley oak tree (quercus lobata) is not an oversized acorn or fruit, but is an interesting case of parasitism. A wasp larvae induces the tree to make the nodule — called a gall — thus providing food and shelter during the wasps' larval stage. The fascinating book An Island Called California, by Elna S. Bakker, contains a short description of how they are created.

Two generations of the cynipid wasp are necessary to form the "apple gall" like the one in the photograph. In the first generation, adult female wasps lay eggs on leaf buds, small twigs, acorns or other young parts of the tree. The eggs hatch, and the larvae begin to feed on the tree's tissue. The insect larvae secrete an irritating substance which causes the tree to produce the apple-sized galls, thus providing a source of food and shelter for the larvae. Eventually, the larvae develop to adulthood inside or near the gall, but only female wasps emerge from the apple galls in the spring. The females lay their eggs on leaf buds. The resulting larvae produce a differently shaped gall, with shapes like mushrooms, champagne glasses and more (see these photos from CalPhotos for examples). After a time, males and females emerge and mate. The females from this generation lay eggs to produce the apple gall, and the cycle continues. Generally, galls are not harmful to the tree, but there is a limit to how many a tree can produce without draining its vitality.

Sketches from a Tavern - attributed to Rembrandt van Rijn - NGA Images
Sketches from a Tavern - attributed to Rembrandt van Rijn
Galls are one of the raw ingredients for iron-gall ink. For centuries, this ink was made by combining ferrous sulfate (Fe2SO4) with an extract from an oak gall (gallo-tannic acid). The resulting ink was permanent and water-resistant, and was the standard for writing and art for 700 years. Many of the greatest European artists of the period — Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, and Rembrandt van Rijn, for example — executed their drawings using iron-gall ink.

Note: the photograph was taken at the quietly remarkable Cosumnes River Preserve in Galt, California (near I-5 between Sacramento and Stockton).

Other writings and references
Unmitigated Gall - a philosophical look at oak galls.

KQED Radio's Forum - An interview with William Bryant Logan, arborist and author of Oak: The Frame of Civilization. The one-hour program can be streamed here.

Image Credit
Sketches from a Tavern: Woman Standing and Two Men Seated, attributed to Rembrandt van Rijn, National Gallery of Art, open access.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Coffee Storage: Cupboard, fridge or freezer?

Sometimes I hear something that is different from my long-held perceptions, and want to find out the real story. This time the issue was coffee storage. The KCRW Good Food program of October 15 had a visit from their supermarket guru, Phil Lempert to talk about supermarket coffee. He said that putting coffee in the freezer is a very bad idea (the reasoning is provided below). I had always thought that freezing coffee might help reduce the degradation, so decided to determine the expert consensus.

First, some words about the basics of coffee roasting and the subsequent degradation. A green (unroasted) bean has a very long shelf life---months or even years (many large coffee producers have huge warehouses to store green beans until the market is most favorable for their sale). When the bean is roasted, it undergoes many changes---the so called browning reactions that convert the carbohydrates and proteins into a multitude of flavorful and aromatic compounds. These compounds are vulnerable to deterioration through volatilization, oxidation and rancidification via exposure to oxygen, light, heat and moisture. In addition, carbon dioxide---which provides body and bouquet to coffee--dissipates. Grinding breaks the cells of the coffee bean, thus releasing encapsulated aromatic compounds and exposing essential oils to oxygen.

I consulted a few sources on coffee storage, and there is significant disagreement whether coffee should be kept in the freezer or at room temperature. There is agreement, however, that coffee should be protected from moisture, light, heat and air. In addition, the experts agree that storing beans in the refrigerator has negative consequences because the beans can pick up unwanted flavors from neighboring food and drink (or ex-food!).

Several sources recommended putting coffee in the freezer for storage because the low temperatures slow down the degradation process. However, this method creates the possibility that moisture will condense on the beans when the container is opened (think of the water that condenses on a glass of iced tea on a hot day), thus harming those that are put back into the freezer. To prevent condensation, beans could be frozen in small containers and allowed to warm to room temperature before the container is opened. In other words, when you buy a pound of coffee, pack it into small packages that contain the amount that you grind at one time.

A few quotes from books and the web:

In The New Kitchen Science, Howard Hillman writes "If you must store your coffee bean supply for more than two weeks, freeze it in a well-sealed moisture-proof container. Beans can go directly from freezer to grinder to coffee maker."

Corby Kummer's conclusion in The Joy of Coffee is that "refrigeration virtually guarantees off-flavors in brewed coffee, and that coffee never tastes quite the same after it has been frozen--even if freezing is far better than refrigerating. But if you can't use up your beans within two weeks or so, settle for putting them into the freezer, whole and tightly sealed, in either a glass jar or plastic container."

The Starbucks web site says: "Think of coffee as fresh produce. The enemies of coffee are oxygen, light, heat, and moisture. To keep coffee fresh, store it in an opaque, airtight container at room temperature. Storing coffee in the refrigerator or freezer for daily use can damage the coffee as warm, moist air condenses to the beans whenever the container is opened."

Phil Lempert's Coffee Chat News writes:
To preserve the integrity of the flavor of high-quality coffee beans, you must make sure to avoid moisture, air, and heat. Select containers that are tightly sealed, made of ceramic, stainless steel or opaque glass and store at room temperature.

Avoid containers that are aluminum or plastic because those materials can contaminate your coffee and give an “off” taste. If you are storing your beans in a clear glass jar, make sure to place it in a dark area of your kitchen to avoid light, which can fade the color and the flavor of the beans.

Never refrigerate or freeze coffee beans - the temperature and moisture will “shrink” the oils and crack the beans. The result is a severe loss of aroma and flavor.

The Peets web site answers "How should I store my coffee?" with
We recommend that you keep a week's worth of coffee in an airtight container at room temperature. For longer storage, keep it in the freezer. Packages of frozen coffee should be opened as infrequently as possible. Whole beans will keep up to four weeks, but ground coffee should be brewed within a week or two. Buying small amounts frequently and grinding your own beans is the best way to enjoy fresh coffee.

A final note about the nearly fraudulent labeling "vacuum packed for freshness":
After roasting, beans start to release carbon dioxide (CO2), with a released volume that is about 3 times the volume of beans. If beans were canned or bagged immediately after roasting, the release of CO2 could damage the can or bag. Consequently, most packers let beans sit for 12 hours or several days to allow the off-gassing process to go to completion (or just a few hours for ground coffee) before packing into the "vacuum sealed for freshness" packages. In other words, the packers allow the coffee to go stale before packing it!

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Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Autumn Colors in the Santa Monica Mountains, Los Angeles County

California is not known as a place for "Fall Color" since most of the famous trees are non-deciduous (Redwood, Giant Sequoia, Coast Live Oak, other conifers), but splendid autumn color is still available. You just need to focus on things a that are close to the ground.

In the Santa Monica Mountains, for example, you need to look at the shrubs. The Santa Monica Mountains are a dry and harsh place: blasted by salty breezes, devoid of rain nine months of the year, overloaded with rain the other three months, and occasionally catching on fire. Plants have adapted to survive the harsh conditions in many ways. For example, Manzanita leaves have a nearly vertically oriented to prevent overexposure to the sun; the native grasses are generally perennial and have root systems that grow deep and wide to find water; the leaves of live oaks are leathery to prevent water loss and to avoid sun damage.

Red shank (Adenostoma sparsifolium) and California buckwheat (eriogonum fasciculatum) are two colorful plants that one can find on the trails in the Santa Monica Mountains. At this time of the year, Red shank has green needles with a layer of orange-gold leaves beneath. These background leaves give the plant an autumn look. The California buckwheat is a distant relative of the buckwheat used to make flour (Fagopyrum esculentum, used for such things as Bretonese crepes and soba noodles). In the spring, California buckwheat has white flowers which develop into seed pods that become a rich crimson after they dry out.

Three California buckwheat links with many more pictures: Las Pilitas Nursery, Michael L. Charters' wildflower pages and Berkeley Digital Library Project