Monday, December 21, 2009

Old-Fashioned Molasses Cookies

Here's an easy and very tasty cookie if you're looking to do some Christmas baking. Thanks to the molasses, this is a soft, slightly chewy cookie, which softens more in the day or two after baking. Although I've seen the same basic recipe referred to as "ginger cookies," they are not crisp and ultra-spicy like gingersnaps.

Seasoned with ginger, cinnamon and cloves, they have a mellow spiced flavor, but the soft texture and sugared surface is what sets them apart for me. This is a fairly old recipe. My mom's cousin in Pennsylvania made them, and I tried them at her home when I was a kid. I went crazy for these cookies. Hoping to find the same recipe she would have used, I did a bit of research.

First of all, you absolutely should not use blackstrap molasses in these (or any other dessert), unless its harsh, bitter flavor is what you're looking for. The recipe has been around since at least the 1960s (and I imagine much earlier)--it appeared in Gourmet magazine in 1965. Back then, blackstrap molasses (originally, and still, marketed as a health food product) was probably not available in every natural food store and most supermarkets.

Today, regular old unsulphured molasses isn't so easy to come by. Grandma's brand is the most ubiquitous. It's usually kept near the maple syrup, and my grocery store seems to only stock it for the holidays. Unlike blackstrap, it has a sweet, rich molasses flavor without that icky bitterness. Perfect for baking.

When I finally got my hands on that yellow jar of Grandma's molasses (trademarked slogan: Get your Grandma out more often!), I saw that the company had conveniently printed the classic molasses cookie recipe right there on the jar. I felt sure it's what my cousin would have used, and it's identical the Gourmet recipe.

Grandma's calls for shortening (Crisco), and that's what I used. I LOVE butter, and I know that many bakers today turn their noses up at shortening. I think this is ridiculous. It makes important contributions to texture in certain recipes, like pie crust, and it's perfectly safe since there's no trans fat. There may not be any difference in texture if you substitute an equal amount of unsalted butter here, but frankly, I didn't care enough to try. I just wanted to bite into the same cookies I loved as a kid!

Old-Fashioned Molasses Cookies
Adapted from Grandma's Molasses

These cookies should be soft, so watch them carefully when baking. They will look very moist and underdone, but I promise you they're fine and will set up completely while cooling. I found one recipe in my research that called for sliding the parchment paper onto the counter top to cool the cookies rather than transferring them to a cooling rack. Supposedly, this would keep them optimally soft. I'm not sure if I buy this, but I'm happy to do it. For cookie baking, I prefer insulated cookie sheets to prevent undersides from over browning.

Makes 3 1/2 to 4 dozen

2 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. (generous) salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ginger
1/2 tsp. cloves
3/4 cup shortening, at room temperature
1 cup (packed) light brown sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
1/4 cup molasses (not blackstrap)
1/4 cup granulated sugar

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger and cloves. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the shortening, brown sugar, egg and molasses on medium high speed until combined. Add the flour mixture and beat on lowest speed to moisten. Increase speed to medium and beat until combined, scraping down bowl as needed. Chill dough in freezer for about an hour or in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours.

Preheat oven to 375 and line baking sheets with parchment paper. Place 1/4 cup sugar in a shallow bowl. Scoop dough by rounded tablespoons and roll between your palms into 1 1/4 to 1 1/2-inch balls. Roll in sugar and place on baking sheet about 2 1/2 inches apart.

Fill a glass with cold water. Dip your fingertips in the water and sprinkle each ball of dough with a few drops (this makes the crinkles). Bake one sheet at a time in the center of the oven for 8 to 9 minutes, or until cookies have spread, but still appear quite moist (they will not look "set" or done, but they are). Slide parchment onto counter top and cool completely.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Flourless Chocolate-Hazelnut Cake

If you're furiously clicking on recipe links in search of the perfect elegant party cake, you can stop right here. I was in your shoes last week, and I know how it is. You want something that will look fancy (and so tempting that not a single guest will refuse a slice) and taste as fantastic as it looks.

If you're of the opinion that a surefire way to delight everyone is by lavishing them with chocolate, this is the dessert you want. I love a traditional layer cake with all the bells and whistles, but as a dinner party dessert it seems a little too much. Not that this is healthy or restrained--it just feels right.

While I toyed with the idea of a homey pear crisp or an overtly seasonal cranberry upside down cake for my party, I finally came to the should-have-been-obvious conclusion that a non-chocolate dessert runs the risk of being just a wee bit disappointing.

You're probably expecting me to launch into the "this cake is so rich you only need a few bites" spiel, but I'm not. After having light appetizers, boeuf bourgignon, mashed potatoes and golden beet salad, I polished off my whole (admittedly not huge) slice. It's simply that good, but I also think it's because this particular cake isn't just a slab of chocolate. A cup of hazelnuts, roasted and finely ground, add texture, complexity and a bit of contrast to the semisweet chocolate. Love, love, love.

Oh, by the way, there's also 1/4 cup of Frangelico (the hazelnut liqueur that looks like Friar Tuck), and the topping is fresh whipped cream flavored with nothing more than another hit of the liqueur. I advise not skipping the cream--it offsets the rich chocolate just perfectly.


Flourless Chocolate-Hazelnut Cake
Adapted from this recipe at epicurious.com.

This recipe (from Bon Appetit, January '08) worked beautifully as written. However, I have a couple notes to offer: Please roast, peel and cool the hazelnuts before grinding them for the cake! Cook on a baking sheet at 350 for about 10 minutes (shaking once) or until lightly browned and fragrant. Immediately wrap in a dish towel and let steam for 5 minutes. Then rub them around in the towel to remove as much of the skins as you can. You may have to fiddle around and pick through many of them, and you can't expect to get every bit of skin (here's an even better little guide). You'll want to do this because the skin can be bitter. If you can't find chocolate labeled 60% cocoa, combine different percentages--I used about 2/3 54% and 1/3 70%. Use high quality chocolate. One of the best things about this cake is that you can make it up to 3 days ahead. It needs several hours to chill, and some say the chocolate flavor magically improves overnight.

Serves 12

12 ounces 60% cacao bittersweet chocolate, chopped
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
6 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup (packed) light brown sugar
1/2 cup Frangelico or other hazelnut liqueur, divided
1 cup finely ground roasted (see headnote) hazelnuts (ground in processor; about 5 ounces)
1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
1 cup chilled heavy whipping cream
Chopped toasted hazelnuts for garnish

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350°F. Butter 9-inch-diameter springform pan. Line bottom of pan with parchment paper round. Wrap outside of pan tightly with 3 layers of heavy-duty foil. Combine chocolate and butter in a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave for 45 seconds and stir. Repeat. Microwave for 20 second intervals, stirring after each one, until smooth. Watch carefully to avoid burning (or reduce the microwave's power if it's particularly aggressive). Set aside and cool slightly.

Whisk eggs, golden brown sugar, and 1/4 cup Frangelico in large bowl to blend. Add chocolate mixture and whisk until smooth. Stir in ground hazelnuts and 1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt. Transfer batter to prepared pan. Place springform pan in large roasting pan and place in the preheated oven. Pour enough hot water into roasting pan to come halfway up sides of springform pan. Tent springform pan loosely with foil. Bake until cake is set in center and top is not quite dry to the touch, about 1 1/2 hours (top of cake will remain shiny and sides will have pulled away from the springform pan; a cake tester won't come out clean--it will have moist crumbs). Remove cake from roasting pan; remove foil from top and and place on a rack. When cool enough to handle, remove foil from outside of pan and cool completely. Cover with foil and refrigerate cake at least 3 hours, preferably overnight. You can make the cake up to 3 days ahead.

Using electric mixer, beat whipping cream and remaining 1/4 cup Frangelico in medium bowl until soft peaks form. Release pan sides. Keep the cake on the pan base and transfer to a larger platter if you want to bring the whole cake to the table. Cut cake into wedges. Transfer to plates. Top with whipped cream; sprinkle with chopped toasted hazelnuts. Serve cake chilled, directly from refrigerator.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Radicchio Risotto

This beautiful, earthy risotto is from Tessa Kiros' new cookbook, Venezia: Food & Dreams. Yes, it's beautiful despite the appearance in the photo, which does little to show off its charms!

The risotto is meat free and a great side dish or first course. I served it with steak in red wine-anchovy sauce with a dab of balsamic vinegar, resulting in much deliciousness, but not a lot of color contrast on the plate. All that being said, this risotto is a keeper!

I love the crisp bitterness of radicchio (the one that looks like a mini purple cabbage), and it gets just slightly mellowed and toothsome when cooked slowly along with the creamy Arborio rice. This is a red wine risotto (like this red wine risotto with sausage, arugula and caramelized onions), which deepens the color--and, I think, the flavor--even more.

According to Kiros, Venetians prefer a wet, soupy version of risotto made with vialone nano rice, rather than Arborio or arnaroli, which Kiros suggests. I loved reading about Venetian food and culture, and the book took me back to my trip to Venice, just about 10 years ago! It is one of the most unique and mind-boggling places on earth. Kiros seems to have written two books about this city she clearly adores--it's at once a well-done cookbook and artsy travelogue, with many photos bathed in Mediterranean sea-light. If you like Kiros' style, this book will have you drooling and trolling expedia all at once.

Right now is prime risotto-making weather. Does this recipe make you want to cook up a pot? Here are more risotto ideas I've posted: Roasted beet risotto; Roasted butternut squash risotto with mushrooms and spinach; and Fresh fava bean risotto with pancetta. That last post includes helpful (in my humble opinion!) step-by-step photos to hone your risotto making technique. And here's what I had to say about Tessa Kiros' last book, Falling Cloudberries.

Radicchio Risotto
Adapted from Venezia by Tessa Kiros.

Look for an imported brand of Arborio rice from Italy. In my experience, they provide the thick, creamy texture I've found lacking in domestic Arborio. Most supermarkets tend to have it in stock.

Serves 4 as a side or first course.

4 cups low sodium vegetable broth
1 Tbs. olive oil
1/2 Tbs. butter
1 large shallot, chopped
1 lb radicchio, thick stems removed and roughly chopped
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Pinch of dried thyme
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup Arborio rice
3/4 cup red wine
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, for serving
Fresh sage, parsley or basil, chopped, for garnish

Put broth in a small saucepan, cover and warm over medium-high heat. When broth barely starts to simmer, reduce heat to low (do not boil).

In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil and butter over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook 1 to 2 minutes to soften. Add the radicchio, season with salt, pepper and thyme. Cook, stirring often until slightly wilted, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and rice. Stir continuously until rice is glossy and opaque, about 3 minutes. Add the wine, bring to a simmer and cook until absorbed.

Add about 1 1/2 ladlefuls (about 1 1/2 cups) of the warm broth. Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat and cook, stirring continuously, until absorbed into the rice. Add 1/2 cup of broth and cook, stirring very often, until absorbed. Continue repeating these steps until risotto is tender, yet slightly firm to the bite. You may not use all the liquid, but if you run out, use hot water. This process (beginning with the first addition of broth) will take 20 to 24 minutes.

Taste for seasoning. Serve risotto immediately, garnished with cheese and fresh herbs.

Review copy of Venezia was generously provided by the publisher.