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The Time Capsule

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

The Time Capsule

“The more you celebrate your life, the more there is in life to celebrate.”

WOW!  Christmas is less than two weeks away.  Where did this year go?  It’s been so busy this year; I hardly noticed it whooshing by.  I guess its right what they say, that time seems to go exponentially faster when you have kids.  Lately my life seems like a runaway train and that I’m chasing behind it like Yosemite Sam on a hand powered cart. 

Every year, Marko and I argue over when to put out the Christmas decorations.   Me, like any other red-blooded American, wants to put them out the day after Thanksgiving.  However, he is steadfast in saying that they should not be put out until after Sinter Klaas (December 5th).   So we usually meet in the middle and I end up putting out some non-obtrusive Christmas decorations here and there the last week in November and then properly decking the halls December 6th.   Usually every December 7th, my house looks like Santa’s workshop exploded with decorations everywhere. 

I don’t know what’s wrong with me this year, but I realized just yesterday that I don’t have any decorations up except for the sparse notions that I put up at the end of November.   Am I so busy that I don’t have time to haul out the holly this year?  It’s time for a remedy.  Rallying the kids together, we trudge to the attic and drag down boxes of decorations.  

Excitedly, the kids begin unpacking as if it were their own Christmas presents, inspecting every item and asking details about every one of them.  “Gee, Mom, I never saw this one”, says my youngest daughter, Lara, as she holds up a ceramic snowman.  “That was given to me years ago by my Aunt Luci.  You never met her but she passed away this year.” I explain to her as I suddenly remember my dearly departed aunt.  Understanding, she takes the snowman carefully between her two hands and puts it in a place of honor on the shelf.  Our reverence is broken by a squeal from Rebecca, “This is mine!” she says as she holds up a brass rocking horse ornament with her name on it. “Baby’s First Christmas 2001” is inscribed on it.  Yes, it is.  It’s hard to believe that it was 9 years ago already that we celebrated her very first Christmas. I remember that time, her at 6 weeks old, the first grandchild, being passed around between family members and friends, all gazing at her with admiration. I think of how our family has changed since then.  I feel thankful for my loved ones still on this earth and suddenly miss those no longer with us. 

This year, unwrapping our Christmas decorations was like opening up a time capsule.  Mere trinkets of nearly no monetary value offering invaluable memories that I can share with my own children.  Gifts from treasured people in our lives and reminders that marked special occasions.  Even an ancient box of faded and cracked ornaments left to us years ago had its own stories to tell.  Each piece wrapped in the local newspaper  from 1977.  Smoothing the crumpled paper, I  scan the news of that day. Even though the news is hardly noteworthy,  I think of how fun it is to read about what happened  33 years ago.  A spot in time. 

I’m content to have spent this time reminiscing with my kids.  I think it will be a tradition for us from now on.  It will be a time for us to stop and remember.  It all goes by so fast.

This weeks recipe is the favorite Christmas cookie of my mom. 

Sonia Henie (Thumbprints) Cookies

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup packed light or dark brown sugar
2 large eggs, separated
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) walnuts, chopped
1/4 cup granulated sugar
Pinch of salt
2/3 cup fruit preserves, such as raspberry or apricot

1. Position the racks in the top and bottom thirds of the oven and preheat to 350°F.

2. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat the butter until creamy. Add the brown sugar and beat until light in color and textur. Beat in the egg yolks and vanilla. Using a wooden spoon, gradually mix in the flour to make a soft dough. Chill dough for 1 hour. Using a scant tablespoon, roll the dough into 1-inch balls.  
4. In a small bowl, beat the egg whites with the pinch of salt until foamy. Pour about one-third of the chopped walnut mixture into a shallow bowl. Dip each ball of dough in the egg whites, roll in the walnut mixture to coat, and place 1 inch apart on nonstick cookie sheets. Press an indent about ½ inch and about 1/4 inch deep. Repeat with the rest of the balls.  Spoon about ½ teaspoon of preserves into the indent. You can also use maraschino cherries instead. 
5. Bake until the cookies are set and slightly browned, about 12-15 minutes. Cool on the baking sheets for 2 minutes. Transfer to wire cooling racks to cool completely. The cookies can be prepared up to 1 week ahead, stored in an airtight container at room temperature. Can be frozen too. 

 Happy Holidays with Love from the Hoven Family!

Zen and the Art of French Baking

Scenes from my last post:  Alas we see our heroine (played by me) confronting her fears and, with a bit of careful instruction, succeeding in deboning a turkey.  To tell you the truth, this task was never really more than a bit of drama then an actual fear.  I actually looked forward to learning how to skilfully fillet that beast, preparing by carefully sharpening my knives like a serial killer with an evil grin on my face.  No, this was no fear. I enjoyed it waayy too much.

 Over the years, I’ve taken on many culinary challenges with equal zeal; Baguettes, croissant lacquered dough, soufflés, home made cheese, etc… except one. 

 This summer, we celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary in the Alsace region of France.  Anyone lucky enough to visit this region will be greeted by its famous steely white wines and hearty cuisine. One Saturday afternoon while walking through the medieval streets of Colmar, we come to Patisserie Gilg.  In its modern interior every sugared creation was showcased on its own special pedestal, some even with dramatic lighting.  It looked more like the Museum of Modern Edible Art than a pastry shop, all works too intricate and artsy to actually eat.   Marko and I walked studiously around the store admiring each piece; a few steps back, pondering, while thoughtfully rubbing our chins.   “This cake has influences of Mondriaan.  Yes, I am seeing a bit of Frank Lloyd Wright in that one.” we joke to each other. 

Actually, I consider myself a baker, but I would never try to replicate any of these creations.  They are way too fussy for me. I prefer things that people will actually eat not wear as a hat. So my admiration is justified but I’m just not intrigued.   As we walk around, we come to a refrigerated case.  In this case, glowing under its own special lighting, I see my next obsession.  Perfect little buttons in a bevy of vivid colors and flavors, each filled with its own special genache and encircled by little lacy collars: French Macarons. 

Now I must try these!  Bite-sized bits in the most intriguing flavors like ‘Pommes d’Amore’.  Translated this means ‘Apples of Love’.  How romantic is that?  When I get home, I search to find that this is what the French call those red cinnamon candy apples.  I love the French! They can even make a sickly sweet carnival treat sound like food of the Gods.  I decide to try two flavors:  Chocolate and Caramel.  After I express my selection to the handsome young man behind the counter, he does something completely unexpected.  Instead of grabbing a pair of tongs and sticking them in a bag like every other bakery on earth would, he ceremoniously dons a pair of white cotton gloves and carefully slides each cookie in their own tiny clear plastic bag and packs them together in a small white box.  WOW! A cookie that gets the white-glove-treatment!!  Suddenly, I begin to feel intimidated.  How difficult can these be?  At a-euro-fifty apiece for an inch and a half cookie, they better be good though!! 

And they are. Marko and I find a café and order coffees.  When our coffees arrive, I gingerly place the box between us. With a deep breath, I open the box and remove the bag with the caramel cookie inside.  Let’s start with the one with the lightest flavour, I said as if we were at a wine tasting. Taking the cookie between my two fingers, I take the ever-so-slightest nibble. “And? And?”, Marko asks.  Sweet, almondy, with a distinct taste of caramelized sugar. Their extra fine texture as light as air with their filling giving them substance. Yes.  I HAVE to make these.

When we get home, I google to find to the recipe only to discover that these are some uber-trendy rage at the moment.  RAGE!?  Have I been living under a rock or something?  I’ve never seen or even heard of these until just last week?  Am I a day late and a dollar short on this one?   I always consider myself on-top of the latest culinary trends. Maybe I’m just too close to the fire here. 

All my obsessions start with a bit of research.  I have to warn anyone doing research for a French recipe, it’s just as intimidating as French cooking itself.  I found all kinds of warnings, and signals and techniques as to what temperature the ingredients must be and how to whip the egg whites just so. Do you let the formed buttons sit overnight to get a shiny crust or just wack ‘em in the oven?  What do you have to do to get those nice collars on the bottom?.…failure and success stories abound.  UGH!  I don’t want to have to make these 20 times!  I just want to try them once maybe twice.  Geez, I totally psyched myself out now. 

After settling on a recipe from  Pure Gourmandise, a French site with recipes for all kinds of macarons (check out the McAron,  a cookie that looks like a hamburger.  Oh so cute) ,  I cut and paste the entire recipe into a French to English translator. The ingredients are simple enough; egg whites, ground almonds, sugar and some flavouring.  Viola!  I’m going to follow this to the letter.

About two months ago, I prepared the dry ingredients in full hopes of trying this. To this day, I still hadn’t tried it.  Besides a small drop of intimidation,  I don’t know,  maybe the mood wasn’t right.  I just wasn’t in the right place mentally.   There was always something; too rushed, not in the mood, something else to make.  Me, the recipe, and the ingredients just weren’t at ‘one’.   Today, I’m forcing myself in a bit of a state of Zen.  All the ingredients are laid out before me. The translated recipe taped to the wall in front of the counter where I’ll be working.   Ommmm, Be the cookie, Ommmm

 As I follow the recipe, I realize that it is much simpler than I expected. It really is just a lesson in how to beat egg whites to the correct consistency. Many of the warnings/ recommendations  are actually  unnecessary and that by following a few simple principles and a bit of luck, you will have a reasonable chance of success.  

These principles are:

  1. Make sure your utensils and bowls are absolutely fat free. 
  2. Make sure all your ingredients are room temperature.
  3. Make sure your oven is exactly 350F (175C).  Test your oven with a good thermometer. 
  4. For inch and a half (3cm) buttons, bake the buttons for exactly 11 minutes. 

 Macarons au Chocolate

Adapted from Pure Gourmandaise

 3 Egg whites
200g (1 Cup) regular white sugar
125g Almond powder (made by putting blanched almonds through a food processor, then a fine sieve)
15g cocoa powder
30g Powdered/Confectioner’s sugar

To make genache:

120g  Dark(pure) chocolate
80g Butter  (I used salted butter)
30g Heavy cream

 Hardware

3 identical baking sheets, a food processor, a mixer with a whip attachment, a sieve, a measuring cup, household scale, parchment paper, a pastry bag with a wide, round tip, spatula

Instructions:

The dark chocolate ganache

1. Melt chocolate, butter and cream over low heat (or microwave). Mix well and smooth. Cool.  It will become a thick paste.
 

Chocolate macaroons

Preheat oven to 350F/175C

2. Mix cocoa with powdered sugar and almond powder in a food processor until fine. Sift through a sieve.

3. Add a small pinch of salt to the egg whites and beat  until stiff,  adding a spoonful of sugar when the whisk leaves a mark, then putting in the rest and whisking at full speed until it reaches a soft-peak stage.  This is when you lift the beaters (or whisk) you will see peaks that will fall slightly over after a few seconds. The eggs will be bright white and glossy. It will look like cake frosting.   

4. Sprinkle the powder mixture gradually  into the whites and mix with the  spatula. The mixture should be shiny, smooth, and form a ribbon when falling back into the bowl.  It will look like cake batter.

5. Prepare a sheet of parchment on a baking sheet.  I pre-drew 3cm circles with a pen before starting.

6. Put the batter in a pastry bag and form small 3cm domes onto the parchment on a cookie sheet.

 7.  While it is recommended to wait 20 minutes or even overnight before baking, I just put them in the oven right away…and the earth continued to revolve.   Apparently waiting a bit also helps in removing from the parchment.  Mine stuck a bit but nothing serious. 

8.  This is going to sound weird but it really works in order to get that classic lace collar:  Stack the cookie sheet on two other  identical cookie sheets (yes, you will have a stack of 3 cookie sheets) . Bake for 11 minutes at 175 ° C. (13 to 17 minutes for larger buttons).

Assembly

9. Let the buttons cool a few minutes on a wire rack, then take off the buttons from the parchment. If cooked properly, they should come off easily, if not bake a minute or two more.

10. Paste the buttons in pairs with a dollop of chocolate ganache in between.

Storing

To be the best tasting, it is advisable to let them cool in the refrigerator at least a day before. Of course, this is not always easy to resist the temptation …

It can also be frozen and they thaw very well at room temperature. But remember that they can be thawed then refrozen!

 AHHH….The stars are all aligned and I am at one once again with the culinary universe.

Sinter Klaas Kapootje

Friday, November 19th, 2010

SINTER KLAAS KAPOONTE

It’s holiday time in Holland and as an introduction to this post, I kindly present a segment from one of my favorite holiday movies:  Miracle on 34th Street:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bOJXyqdF3uY

One of the things that always interested me is how other parts of the world celebrate holidays.  Living in Europe has given me an up-close-and-personal view of traditions that some people only read about.  With my birthday in December, I particularly find traditions that revolve around Christmas most intriguing. What I find fascinating, aside from the obvious food festivities, are the main characters of the celebration. To much confusion, many countries celebrate the birth of Christ and the feast of Saint Nicholas on the same day. This often results in heated secular debates, hilarious comedy (South Park’s ‘Spirit of Christmas’ pilot comes to mind) and hypothetical inquiries about the mish-mash of traditions as to which tradition goes with which celebration.  Hmm, what does a Christmas tree have to do with the birth of Christ anyway or Saint Nicholas for that matter?   To prevent confusion, some European countries hold separate and distinct celebrations. While traditions in countries vary greatly, the feast of Saint Nicholas or Sint Nicolaas as he is known here is mostly held on December 5th.  This is the alleged birthday of the 14th century Turkish cardinal (hence the red suit and mitre) known for giving all his worldly wealth to the poor before becoming a priest. Sinter Klaas, as he is more commonly known, is not the jolly fat man that Santa is (Santa’s modern-day image had been well defined by a Coca Cola ad campaign in the 1940’s) but a thin, old, stoic priest, dressed in a pointed hat, long white beard and red cardinal’s cape. December 5th is known as Pakjes-Avond or ‘package night’ and is the traditional day of gift giving. Unlike Christmas, this day is unfortunately not an official day off.  This often causes Pakjes Avond to be celebrated on the nearest weekend.


As the Dutch tradition goes, sometime in mid- November, Sint arrives in Holland by steamboat from Spain where he ‘summers’ in Madrid.  This is a nationally televised event that has every believing child glued to their TV or if they have access, standing outside waiting impatiently at designated docks for the steamboat to gloriously arrive.  With much pomp and circumstance, Sint disembarks his steamboat and is escorted to his gilded chair to give his welcoming speech.  Then with the same miracle that Santa is simultaneously at every department store in the US, everyone welcomes Sint as he mounts his faithful horse, Amerigo, and rides through every town.

He is accompanied by his entourage of black Moorish sidekicks, all named ‘Zwarte Piet’ or Black Pete.  Since actual Moors are difficult to come by in the predominately white Netherlands, the roles of the Zwarte Piets are played out by normally white Dutch people dancing around in black-face, wigs, and gaudy court jester costumes. At first glance, it doesn’t seem very P.C., in the same way that seeing an old film of the white Al Jolson in black-face singing ‘Mammie’ is.  In the ‘80s there was a movement of sorts to be non-discriminating, so instead of Black Pete, there was Pink Pete, Green Pete, Blue Pete, etc… It just got out of hand, so now the Dutch have their beloved Zwarte Piet back.  Now back to Sint’s journey. 

Along the route, the streets are filled with yet more children, each hoping to get a handful of sweets and tiny gingerbread cookies named pepernoten from the ‘Piets’ as they dance by.  Sint en Piet(s) will remain in cold, rainy Holland until after his birthday on December 5th. After that he will again board his steamboat, turn it around and return, exhausted, to sunny Spain. 

During the time that Sint and Piet(s) are in town, children may set out their shoe.  The concept is very similar to setting out your stocking except that kids can do this at any time.  Children set their shoes out with cookies for Sint and Piet and water, straw, carrots, and/or apples for Amerigo before getting off to bed.  They also add their wish-list.   While they set out their shoes, children are encouraged by their parents to sing loudly, loud enough for Sint to hear.  The next morning they will wake to find their shoes filled with small presents, pepernoten, and marzipan figures, and/or a letter made out of chocolate. 

The way Sinter Klaas gives gifts is not as gentle as with Santa. With Santa, if you are good -you get presents. If you are bad – you get coal.  If little Dutch kids are bad, Sint puts them in a sack and takes them to Spain. This rarely does any good as a threat, since most Dutch families spend 3 weeks vacation in Spain during the summer. But anyway, December 5 is the day to exchange gifts. However these aren’t ‘real’ gifts, per se, but are gentle criticisms from the past year. This often home-made gift is mostly accompanied by a poem that subtly points out those nasty character flaws of the recipient. An example is by getting grandma a bell since whenever grandma needs anything done, like hanging pictures or fixing the door lock. She will never call anyone to do it but gives gentle hints whenever someone visits. So, when she wants something done…ring the bell!

The poem would go like this:
Dear Grandma,
Sint knows that sometimes we can all use a hand.
Using tools and ladders are things for a man.         (Sint is a chauvinist too).
If you tried this yourself, I’d hate it if you fell.
The next time you want something done, please ring this bell.�
Sincerely,
Sint and Piet

For a simply hilarious take on this Dutch tradition, and if you have 20 minutes to spare, then give a listen to David Sedaris 3 part commentary named ‘6 to 8 Black Men’.  Enjoy.  

Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbJpRLhaSqs&feature=related

Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vU1D1HKTDCY&feature=related

Part 3:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g17Pl7MFMco&feature=related

The following is a recipe for Dutch Pepernoten.  Tiny Dutch gingerbread cookies.  Great for baking with the kids. 

Pepernoten

  • 100 GRAM SELF RAISING FLOUR
  • 50 GRAM BUTTER
  • 50 GRAM BROWN SUGAR
  • 2 TBSP MILK
  • 1 TBSP PUMPKIN PIE SPICE

Mix all the ingredients well to a dough and form about 100 balls. Put these on a greased baking tray and bake 12 minutes at 350 degrees.

Wrong Coffee

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

Wrong Coffee

“Fasten your seatbelts we will be landing shortly”, chirps a Dutch-accented voice from the loud speaker.  It will be my very first time in the Netherlands and it will be my home base for the next 9 months. “A 9-month all-expense paid trip to Europe”, my manger promised me.  I’m so excited I could hardly sleep on the overnight flight. With me, I have only one suitcase and only a vague idea where I need to go once I get off the plane.  Heart pounding with anticipation,  I look out the window to the rapidly approaching ground. Through the foggy window,  I am stunned to see the most breathtaking sight; an eye-popping patchwork quilt of the most vivid colors imaginable as far as my tired eyes could see.  It’s  April and the  tulip fields of Haarlemmermeer are in full bloom and glowing in the early morning sun.   Simply awed, my nose pressed flatly  to the window, I try to take it all in. “Wow”, I say to myself , an anticipatory chill coursing over my skin, “This is going to be amazing!”

Landed,  my head pounding with caffeine withdrawal,  I plot my first move;  Coffee!  I need a coffee!  Suitcase in hand, I plow down old ladies and small children to get to the coffee bar across from the gate.  I’m in a hurry.  “Coffee.  Black.  To go.  Please.” , I say with staccato  authority to the seemingly uninterested woman behind the counter.    Thirty seconds of tamping and whooshing  and then  a ceramic cup and saucer is slid before me.  On the saucer is a small cinnamon cookie. Inside the cup is a perfectly drawn cup of coffee. A thin crema separating the hot black liquid from my view.  “No, No,  I wanted this TO GO!”,  I demand, cranky with jet-lag.  Impatiently, she scolds me like my old third grade teacher. “Sit down, relax and drink your coffee.”, she spits.  Obediently, as if listening to my mother, I slink onto the tall bar stool and begin to sulk. Letting the warm scent caress my face,  I feel the haste release from my body.  I take a small, careful sip as if tasting coffee for the first time, resisting the urge to down it in one gulp.  A small sigh as I begin to breathe again. Even though I’m in a busy airport, I’m  light years away.  At this point,  the only things in the world are me and my new friend, Coffee. 

If there is one thing worth living in Holland for, is the coffee. Coffee is a very important staple in the Netherlands and is taken very seriously.  Maybe not as seriously as they do in Italy, but serious enough to be able to get a decent cup nearly anywhere.  The coffee here is strong and flavorful.    Many Americans find it too strong.  My coffee-addicted mother drinks tea when she’s here.  While coffee from machines comes in many different forms,  standard coffee comes in 4 basic types:  Coffee, Espresso, Cappuccino,  and Coffee Verkeerd (which is more milk than coffee. Translated as “Wrong” Coffee).

In Holland, all socializing starts with coffee. The process of serving it is rather ritualized, which I find amusing.  It goes something like this; when you arrive at a person’s house, you are immediately offered  a cup of coffee, sometimes  even before you get your coat off.  Seems normal, right?  Well, cookies are always served with coffee.  However, you can only have one. The host/hostess will take a tin of cookies out of the cabinet. Remove the lid. Pass around the tin. Put the lid back on and put it back in the cabinet. When the second round of coffee is served. The tin comes back out, the lid comes off…and the ritual starts again. When I had everyone over for one of  Marko’s  decade marking birthdays,  I put a big tray of cookies on the table.  I figured everyone could  take  as many as they wanted.  I thought Marko’s grandmother was going to die!  She took one look at the cookies, gasped in indignation, and said “Is that an American tradition?” “Its rude not to.” I said. By the look on her face, you’d have thought I’d had a steaming pile of cow manure on the table. Needless to say, after my announcement of  ‘open season’ on the cookies, they disappeared quickly.

The following recipe is popular in our own coffee ritual (and its really good with cold milk, too)

Chocolate Peanut-butter Surprise Cookies (makes about 25)
Adapted from King Arthur Flour (Magic in the Middles)

Chocolate Dough

1 1/2 cups  All-Purpose Flour

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup granulated sugar (plus extra for dredging)

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

1/4 cup smooth peanut butter

2 Tablespoons milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 large egg

Peanut butter filling

3/4 cup peanut butter any kind

3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar

Directions

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Lightly grease two baking sheets.
To make the filling: In a small bowl, stir together the peanut butter and confectioners’  sugar until smooth.  With floured hands or a teaspoon scoop, roll the filling into one-inch balls. To make the dough: In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt. In another medium-sized mixing bowl, beat together the sugars, butter, and peanut butter until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla, milk and the egg, beating to combine, then stir in the dry ingredients, blending wellTo shape the cookies: Scoop 1 tablespoon of the dough (a lump about the size of a walnut), make an indentation in the center with your finger and place one of the peanut butter balls into the indentationBring the cookie dough up and over the filling, pressing the edges together cover the center; roll the cookie in the palms of your hand to smooth it out. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling. Optionally, roll each rounded cookie in granulated sugar, and place on the prepared baking sheets, leaving about 2 inches between cookies.Using  the bottom of a drinking glass,  flatten each cookie to about 1/2-inch thick. Bake the cookies for 7 to 9 minutes, or until they’re set and you can smell chocolate. Remove them from the oven and cool on a rack.

If you don’t roll them in sugar, they are really good with chocolate icing made with powdered sugar, cocoa, and a bit of milk. (just using melted chocolate works too).  These cookies actually taste better after a few days (if on the off-chance they last that long)