Monday, December 19, 2011

Chocolate Ginger Snap sandwiches with Nutella filling

This recipe is MINE.  All mine.  Combining things I love into a decadent holiday cookie that can't be beat. It is by far the most elaborate cookie I make, but worth it.

If there is one secret to this cookie, it is letting it sit for at least a day in an airtight container with the Nutella inside to let the cookies get soft again.

Recipe - Chocolate Ginger Snap sandwiches with Nutella filling

stand mixer/hand mixer & bowl
3-4 C bowl
rubber spatula
regular spoon
baking sheet (+silpat)
cooling racks
butter knife
airtight container(s)

3/4 C (1.5 sticks/ 6oz.) butter
1/4 C brown sugar
1/2 C granulated sugar
1 egg yolk (if you use the whole egg it'll work, just need to cook longer)
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 C molasses

1 3/4 C flour
1/2 C cocoa powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp allspice
pinch of salt (if using unsalted butter)

1/2 C chopped candied ginger (Trader Joe's or an Asian grocery - crystalized ginger will work in a pinch)


In a 3-4 C bowl, stir together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and all the dry spices (pepper, ginger, allspice, salt).  Set aside.
In the stand mixer, beat the butter until smooth.  Beat in the sugar until the mixture has a fluffy texture.  Add in the egg yolk, vanilla and molasses.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl and make sure everything is combined.
At low speed, slowly add in the flour mixture.  When everything is combined, put in the chopped candied ginger, and stir until just mixed in.

Scrape the dough into the bowl you used to mix the flour.  Pop it in the fridge for at least 30 min. (Overnight is fine!)

Preheat the oven to 375˚F.
Use the spoon to scoop out dough and roll it into 1 inch balls.  Place them 2 inches apart on your baking sheet (silpat).  When the pan is full, lightly press down on the dough to slightly flatten each one.

Bake for about 10-12 minutes.

Let the cookies cool until they start to get solid.  Move them to a cooling rack.
Match up cookies by size.  Spread one cookie with a layer of Nutella, and make the sandwich.  Place in an airtight container for at least a day.  The cookie with soften, and make a decadent treat.

You can of course taste a few while still crispy for comparison.

Russian Tea Cakes

or Mexican Wedding Cookies

These are the same cookie with two different names.  Makes me suspect the recipe has been around for donkeys' years, traveling with pastry chefs all over Europe, the only change being altering the nuts by region.  Where powered sugar comes into it all, I don't know.

But these make quick, tasty, surprisingly sophisticated cookies.  Unlike the walnuts in chocolate chip cookies or brownies, these nuts are not optional.  The bitterness of the finely chopped nuts creates an balance of sweet and bitter for an interesting and satisfying cookie.  The key - the nuts must be chopped finely - no big chunks please!   I confess, I used to make these nutless - not understanding the role of the bitterness, and the resulting cookies had a whole different texture and a sweet but boring flavor.  Add the nuts, you'll be glad you did!

The powdered sugar always gets everywhere.  Sooooo worth it!

Recipe - Russian Tea Cakes / Mexican Wedding Cookies

stand mixer / hand mixer & bowl
rubber spatula
large snap-top lidded container
baking sheet (+silpat)
regular spoon

1 C (2 sticks/8oz.) butter
2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 C powdered sugar
2 C flour (+ pinch of salt if using unsalted butter)
1 C chopped walnuts (or pine nuts/hazelnuts/almonds...)

1 C powdered sugar - for the outside

(If your nuts need to be chopped, food processor all the way - OR - break out a cutting board and big knife, and chop away until you have small pieces - nothing bigger than a mini-chocolate chip.  Alternately, place them in a sturdy plastic bag, crush with a pan or rolling pin.)
Beat the butter smooth in the stand mixer.  Add the vanilla and sugar at low speed.  Scrape down the sides of the mixer, and make sure everything is well combined.
On low speed add the flour, and then the chopped nuts.

Preheat the oven to 325˚F
Use the spoon to scoop up dough, and roll into about 1 inch balls.  (You can make them smaller or larger - just adjust the cooking time.)
Place them about 1 inch apart on the baking sheet/silpat. (No need to grease - plenty of butter in these cookies!)
Bake for 20 minutes (check for very light browning on the bottom.)

When the cookies come out of the oven, let them cool until you can just pick them up.  Pop them into the powdered sugar in the snap-top container.  Shake them around to cover the cookies.
Open the lid, use a fork to roll the cookies gently in the sugar and pick them up.  Shaking the cookies in the powdered sugar while they are still warm gives them a frosting layer.  The final roll gives then the fluffy powdery layer.  Using the fork as a lifter prevents fingerprints.

Nibble a few.  You deserve it.

A simple recipe like this begs for variations - pine nuts work with citrus extracts and citrus zest in the dough.  If you use almonds, replace some of the vanilla with almond extract.  If you use hazelnuts, mix the powdered sugar for the outside with cocoa powder (1:1).  Try peppermint extract, and then crush candy canes with the powdered sugar for the outside.   Have FUN!

Lemon Pepper Parmesan Shortbreads

       Twisting shortbread to make it savory is one of the nifty tricks I've been playing with.  And these luscious nibbles are one of my favorite holiday tastes with a citrus and pepper bite.  These work equally well with mid-day tea or as party food with a glass of wine.
(These have a smaller amount of sugar than regular shortbread - to let the savory flavors speak up.)

They're teeny tiny, so nibble a few!
Recipe - Lemon Pepper Parmesan Shortbreads

stand mixer
rubber spatula
3C (or larger) plastic snap top container
melon baller/small spoon (I'll explain)
baking sheet (+ silpat)
small grater
pepper mill

1 C (2 sticks/8 oz.) butter
1/4 C granulated sugar
1/4 C powdered sugar
1 Tbs lemon zest (1 lemon - see below)
1 tsp pepper (grind right then, or use a little more)
1/2 C grated parmesan
2 C flour (stir in 1 tsp salt if using unsalted butter)

Use the small grater to gather 1 Tbs lemon zest (the shiny fragrant part of the peel.  Avoid the bitter white pith.)  Grate the 1/2 C of parmesan cheese.  Grind a tsp of pepper - or use a little more if you have it pre-ground.
Put the butter in the mixer, and beat it until smooth.  At slow speed add in the sugars, pepper, lemon zest and grated cheese.  Use the spatula to scrape down the sides of the mixer bowl and make sure all the ingredients are combined.
With the mixer back on slow, add in the flour.  Mix until just combined.

Scrape the dough into the plastic snap top container, and pop in the fridge for at least an hour or overnight. (Or you can make these way ahead and freeze the dough.  Thaw overnight before moving on to the next step)

Preheat the oven to 300˚F.
Use the melon baller to scoop out little balls of dough and place them about 1 inch apart on the baking sheet.  These have so much butter in them you don't need to grease the cookie sheet, but a silicone baking mat makes everything easier.
When you have a pan full, pop them in the oven for 8-12 minutes (depending the size of your melon baller).  Look for light browning on the bottom as the sign that the cookies are done.

Brew up a pot of tea and taste test a few!

Cheese Crispies

       Some things should be enjoyed only once a year, because if you ate them year round they might kill you.  OK, maybe not quite.  But these Cheese Crispies (aka Cheese Puffs or Cheese Biscuits) are one of those secrets out of Southern food lore that should and do only come around during the holidays.
       The good news is they are made from things just about everyone has in their kitchen (I always have to make a special trip for the Rice Crispies, but that's just me), but the proportions are a little worrying.  I wouldn't normally recommend mixing quite this much butter and cheese.  OK, just once a year.  And make sure you share.
       They pack a bunch of flavor, so are great with with celebratory beverages.  They are from the same family of salty snacks the Spiced Pecans come from, so they play well together.
       (And for those of your wondering about pedigree, one of the recipes I work from is a crumbling back-of-the-envelope affair in my mom's handwriting that mentions "oleo")

Once again, the tastiest food isn't smooth & shiny

Recipe - Cheese Crispies

baking sheets
large mixing bowl
small bowl
cheese grater (food processor is great here)
sharp knife
cutting board
(pastry cutter/two butter knives)

8 oz cheddar cheese (sharp - some or all)
6 oz butter (1.5 sticks or 12 Tbs) - cold
1.5 C flour
pinch of cayenne or 1 tsp chili powder
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp salt
1.5 C rice crispies

Grate the cheese and chop the butter into small pieces.  Combine these in the large bowl with 1/2 C flour.  Set aside to let the cheese and butter warm up to room temperature.
In a smaller bowl, stir together the other 1 C flour with the spices (cayenne, garlic powder and salt).

When the butter has softened, pour the flour mixture into the butter/cheese.  Use clean hands and squish together the mixture until you have a dough (and no large islands of one ingredient).  You can use a pastry cutter or a pair of butter knives to do the cutting in.
Taste for spiciness - add more now if it's needed.

Gently fold in the rice crispies (gently to avoid making too many crispie crumbs).
Cover the dough and place it in the fridge while you're not working with it.

Preheat the oven to 400˚F.
Working with 1/4 of the dough at a time, pinch off marble sized pieces, and form them into flattened balls.  Place them 1-2 inches apart on the baking sheet.
Bake for about 10-15 min (depending on the size of your marbles).

Serve them piping hot right out of the oven, or heat them up in the toaster for something to perk you up when it is dark at 5pm.

Mom's Spiced Pecans

These are the pecans of my childhood.  I knew the holidays were on the way when the house started to smell like toasty nuts and Worcestershire Sauce.  
In reality its a simple recipe.  (I think something like it use to come on Worcestershire Sauce bottles.)

This year the pecans were particularly moist, so I had to bake them extra long to get them toasty.  In an attempt to get more organized this year, I tracked down my several versions of the recipe.  Turns out I have versions of the recipe tucked everywhere, and every single one has different times, with another time written in parentheses beside it.  Clearly different moisture content of pecans is a perennial issue.  Because it is so variable, keep an eye (well a nose really) on the pecans so they don't turn into little chunks of charcoal.  If you smell toasty nuts get them out right away!

The Recipe - Mom's Spiced Pecans

baking sheet or large shallow pan
small bowl for meeting butter

1 lb pecans
2 Tbs butter
2 tsp seasoning salt
4 dashes chipotle Tabasco (+ 1 or 2 of regular Tabasco)

3 Tbs Worcestershire sauce

Melt the butter, stir in the seasoning salt and Tabasco(s).
Pour over the pecans on the baking sheet, and toss with clean hands until all the nuts are well coated.
Spread the nuts out into a single layer.

Preheat the oven to 300˚F.
Bake the nuts for 16 minutes.
Take them out and sprinkle on the Worcestershire sauce, stir the nuts so they all get a little sauce.
Return the nuts to the oven for 10 minutes.  Check and see if a cooled test nut is crispy and toasty.  Some years you may need to bake them for up to 20 minutes.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christmas Baking!

     A long time ago when music players wouldn't fit in your pocket, my mom would make a food Christmas gift for Everyone.  Lots of silly stories came out of that (e.g. "Dog's Favorite Cheese Ball"), and then there were the leftovers we got to enjoy through New Years.  But mainly, it was the fun of delivering the food, and watching people smile.  I've never gotten over that.

      So once again, it is kitchen madness as I force normal activity to the margins (the making and eating of  dinner becomes DIY foraging when this is on).

You cook durning the Holidays?  We are shocked, just shocked!  Look lady you have a cooking blog, of course you do.  Why a blog post about it?

Ah yes, the important question - this year I realized I can share the recipes!  (I'm quick like that.)

Since my staff of helper elves is actually a cat that just wants to be let in and out all day, and mocks me when I ask him not to play with the ribbon, you will find your bag may or may not contain all the treats listed here.

For those of you in the delivery radius - if you are wondering "what is This?" or want to make some for yourself later... well, this year you can find out.

For those of you somewhere out there, in the blogosphere, whip up a little something for yourself or your loved ones.

(A quick warning - what ever you do make will come out a little different.  Every year I veer off recipe somehow.      But if you follow the recipe exactly, you will get something tasty.  And if you make it a second time, I bet it'll taste a little different.... yet again!)

2011's Goodies for an Instant Cocktail Party:

Mom's Spiced Pecans

Cheese Crispies

Lemon-Pepper-Parmesan Shortbreads

Russian Teacakes/Mexican Wedding Cookies (funny story)

Chocolate Ginger Snap - Nutella Sandwiches

Monday, December 5, 2011

Day 18 – One Last…

            Today was the day.  Tavin and I were finally going home, but our flight didn’t  leave until the afternoon.  So we went to Don Quixote. 

It is Target meets Spencer Gifts meets TJ Maxx meets Wal*Mart.  It is open 24 hours a day, and has a giant fish by the front door.

This is where one goes to find concentrated and complete whimsical goofiness with a strain of 13 year old humor. 
dog hats

spare paws

scary cheap beauty products

in case your new phone makes you miss that
"when phones had cords" feeling

It's a wrist rest.  Really!

              Well, after that we had time for one more bite of luxurious Japanese ice cream (adzuki bean, sesame and green tea).  And to end things right we were able to order our very last food by using the actual Japanese words, instead of just pointing at the pictures.

            As we left Tokyo, we got one more look at the model of the Eiffel tower, and Tokyo Disney.  And Tokyo as it will never be again.  We arrived home February 6, 2011.  The 9.0 earthquake and tsunami hit on March 11, just four weeks later.  Fortunately Keiko-san and her friends and family in Kamakura were around the corner from the tsunami, and were spared the worst.
            As we look back on this amazing trip we are so glad we went.  It reminded me to never stop having adventures, and to find Joy in the people and places I find myself around, for I never know what tomorrow will bring. 

Day 17 – Lost at Tsukiji Fish Market

 Tavin and I got up unbelievably early to go see the Tsukiji Fish market in action  (Next time, get a real tour).  Once we stumbled our way there, walking along streets deserted, except for the odd electric carts making deliveries.

            Inside it is strangely dim, with spots of bright light. 

The giant frozen tuna we got to see in National Geographic are there, but heavily guarded, and No Pictures,

 but I managed to get a blurry shot as a cart of them dashed by. 

Blurry pictures of fish whizzing by… sums up the market.  Along with the tiny booths going on and on, making up an enormous space.


    The big bonus of our wanderings; we found the neighborhood temple.  Beautiful, all lit up for the night.

And then we went home and took a nap.

Afterwards all three of us ventured out for food and a visit to the Tokyo Advertising Museum. 

There we got to show Tavin things he could hardly believe – like record players, black and white TV’s , big, thick, white iPods, and other relics of life before Tavin. 

Day 16 - Shinjuku, and Tokyo's Catering to the Agorophobe

            This was our last normal day in Tokyo, and there were a few places in Tokyo still wanted to see, but hadn’t yet.  First was the Imperial Palace that sits right in the middle of Tokyo.

            The garden across the moat the public is allowed to visit was closed on Fridays (whoops) 

but we still walked around, and saw all those wide open spaces in the midst of this phenomenally crowded town.  Much like Buckingham Palace plopped down in the middle of London, but instead of high walls and barbed wire, the Japanese Imperial family begins their defenses with a moat.  

A very serious, wide moat.  

And then walls, and then all sorts of security measures invisible to me.

            As we walked around the island we could see the the castle and parks.  The walkway on our side is lined with cherry trees. 

It was interesting walking around the bare trees with their barely swelling buds, knowing that in just a few weeks, the trees would be in bloom, and the Cherry-blossom viewing parties would be in full swing.      

Agoraphobes Unite!

             As we moved on to our next destination, lunch, we began to notice a trend, Tokyo is impressively tunneled with pedestrian walkways.  We had learned that knowing which exit you want out of the subways is essential, as the wrong exit can land you far from where you want to be. 
            Today we learned that someone truly bothered by wide open spaces could construct a very successful life where they never had to have sky over their head.  There were apartment buildings with direct entrances into the tunnels that lead to the subway.  Same with office buildings.  And then there are entire shopping meccas in the buildings over to train stations.  Grocery stores, department stores (yes, there subway exits that lead straight into are depchikas), restaurants, electronics, clothing and doo-dad shops  If you don’t want to, you never have to go outside, and still have a life.  It was amazing in a rather surreal way.
            Tokyo streets are almost devoid of signs, and the ones I could find were nearly all in Japanese (well obviously).  But the tunnels are festooned with maps, directional arrows and information in romanji (Japanese words in the roman alphabet).  On the streets we are lost, and have to look out for cars.  In the tunnels we have maps, and only have to look out for hurrying salarymen.

            Using the tunnels we found our way to a sky-high restaurant,

 and ate lunch at the top of Tokyo.  Once again the waitresses had fun looking at Tavin’s chopstick boingies, and were amazed that he really enjoyed those noodles.
            And then we went outside and found the Sword museum. 

An amazing collection of honest to goodness samurai swords, some of incredible antiquity.  This was also a museum for the ancient methods of forging and building the swords.  The short amount of time we spent there (no photos allowed) introduced us to aspects of the sword we didn’t even know existed – the grain of the metal, the finishes, and then there’s a whole art around the handle, the creation of the cords used in the handle, and then there’s the scabbard.  It was beautiful and baffling.
            It was a long walk to find this little tucked away museum, but fun to see a regular residential neighborhood of the main streets.  And it was a long walk back, so Tavin and I were exhausted by the time we got back to the hotel.
            But we perked right up when we found a new crazy Japanese game show.  The contestants were seated at a round table and served strange foods.  After tasting and examining the food they had to choose its price from 5 choices.  When they guessed wrong, their chairs were spun around the table rapidly.  And after that spin, they got another odd food, and had to guess again.  Our best crazy Japanese TV sighting of the whole trip.

Day 15 – Kidzania!

            Two weeks in to this trip, and lets face it, Tavin has had limited chances to run around, and almost no chance at all to be away from me and play with other kids.
            Today was his day.  All right, I admit it, it was my day too.
            We had been in each other’s pockets for a solid two weeks, through time changes, language barriers, odd food, strange beds and occasional transportation snafus.
            Fortunately our friends the Leeks had pointed us in this direction (Stephen… I don’t know what we would have done… we could’a done it, but it would have been messier!).  Kidzania is like nothing I’ve seen in the US, and was nowhere in the guide books.  If I had gotten a “Tokyo with Kids” book or some such, it would probably have shown up. 

 How to explain Kidzania?  If you could have gone to the Sesame Street you held in your head when you were a kid,
Fire Truck, Hospital entrance & Garbage services

The street w/ pedestrians
& a rescue vehicle

The bus you pay to take a tour of the city
cinema & cafe to the left

Replica of the tallest tower in Tokyo
Kids get to pretend to help build it           
and gotten to try the jobs you wanted to try,
Engineer/Construction Worker
Window Washer 

Airplane Pilot
(E sticker - his first Job)

These were some things he spent money on:

Bus ride

Car Rental 

that’s about the best I can explain Kidzania.
            Kidzania is a town set up for kids to try out being a citizen.  They get play at different jobs and then get paid for doing the jobs.

They have a bank account and an ATM card.  
With that money they can also buy things, like driving lessons, 

and rent a car,  

or go for a bus ride.

Or get fancy pens and custom stationery.

Yeah, it’s utopian.  But the kids are given responsibilities and a part in a group without a parent anywhere in sight.  That’s right, the parents are pretty much banished, err, gently encouraged to go hang out in the “parent’s lounge.”  So that is what I did.  I worked on my writing about our trip, read some, people watched, drank tea, relaxed and only worried about entertaining myself.

Here are some pictures taken by Other People of some of the things Tavin did without me:

Would you trust him in the pilots seat? 

Tavin doesn't stand out as much as you think he would,
except he favors red over the more standard navy.

We were in much better shape after some hours apart.
            Kidzania works in two shifts – one during school – for field trips and I guess privately tutored or home school kids.  We were lucky because this shift is much less crowded, and there was never much of a wait.  The second shift, the after school shift, appeared to be much more crowded.  We saw the kids starting to line up as the early shift ended.  The announcements and the staff gently kicked us out (through the gift shop, of course).  Since Tavin and I had barely seen each other all day, he had lots to tell me when we stopped for ice cream.  It turned out to be a beautiful sunny day.  Chocolate green tea is my new favorite flavor of ice cream.  I’ll be keeping my eye out.