Friday, February 26, 2010

Hey, Hey, Hamantashen


Photo by Anthony Palatta

One of my favorite holidays as a kid was Purim, which is often described as the Jewish version of Halloween because it involves dressing up in costumes. From a culinary perspective though, Purim is important because it's the time of year for eating "hamantashen," triangle-shaped cookies consisting of a simple butter cookie filled with one of three traditional fillings: cherry, apricot, or poppy seeds, three flavors that growing up, I couldn't stand. Thankfully, my mother would substitute a cinnamon-apple filling, or chocolate chips.

This year was my first making hamantashen, and I learned a few things. First, the dough is fairly simple to throw together: butter, sugar, eggs, lots of flour, vanilla, and baking powder. Second, the thinner you can roll the dough, the better, as it's a heavy cookie. Third, to make the triangle shapes, you need to cut out circles and then pinch the corners together--hard! Otherwise, while baking, the cookies tend to puff and pucker, ending up in shapes that are more pornographic than triangular.

For my fillings, I went for the traditional cherry and non-traditional blueberry, though I cheated and bought canned pie filling. If I'd had time, it would have been worth it to make my own so the homemade taste of the filling would match the homemade dough.

Also, I divided the dough in half and added chocolate chips for the cherry-filled portion, a winning tart-plus-sweet combo that would have been better with mini chocolate chips, as the size of regular chips prevented me from getting the dough as thin as I wanted.

Still, in the end, thin or fat, hamantashen are a satisfying Eastern European-style treat that probably goes best with a cup of hot tea on a cold snowy afternoon, like the one when I baked mine...

Here's how to make yours:

Ingredients:

1 stick of unsalted butter (or margarine for those who want non-dairy hamantashen)
3/4 cup sugar
3 eggs
3 cups flour
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
(mini-chocolate chips, optional)
Fillings of your choice

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream the butter and sugar. Add eggs one at a time and incorporate. Gradually add the rest of the ingredients. Roll out the dough on a floured surface to 1/4-1/2 inch thickness. Cut circles about 3 inches in diameter. Fill with whatever fillings you prefer (strawberry or apricot jam would be nice, blueberry, apple, or cherry pie filling, poppy seeds) Pinch the dough together in three corners to create triangles. Be sure to press hard.

Bake on parchment-lined cookie sheets for about 20 minutes. (Mine only took 18 minutes). Dough should be fragrant and lightly golden.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Lemony Tassies--What's a Tassie, You Ask?






(Photos by Anthony Palatta)

Last year, the venerable Betty Crocker company put out a Christmas cookie magazine (excuse me, Holiday cookie magazine) featuring ways to use their products in ways nature probably never intended. According to this magazine, Linda Bibbo of Ohio won $500 for her use of Betty Crocker sugar cookie mix for her "Lemon Dream Tassies" recipe, and after trying it, I can promise you she earned every penny.

What's a tassie, you ask? I had to look it up myself. It can mean a number of things including a wine goblet, a decorative ring, or as in this case, a miniature tart.

The recipe calls for adding ground almonds, cream cheese, and melted butter to Betty Crocker sugar cookie mix, then making little tart crusts in a mini-muffin pan. After they're baked, you can fill them with lemon or lime curd (Ms. Bibbo says to buy a 12-oz jar), then top with a mix of Betty Crocker frosting and cool whip, and garnish with zest and a sliced almond.

I decided to do without the garnish. I also decided, why buy curd, when thanks to Martha Stewart, I have a fantastic and easy recipe for lemon curd that's better than any variety you'll find in a jar. (Note: "curd," despite its unappetizing name, is basically a delicious custard often used to fill tarts.)

Though Martha's recipe is for lemon curd, I've found you can make it in lime, pink grapefruit, and orange flavors. All you do is substitute the zest of whatever citrus fruit you're using for the lemon zest in the recipe, and instead of the amount lemon juice called for, use half lemon juice and half the-other-citrus juice.

One note: the orange curd works, but after trying it for this recipe, it tasted weird in concert with the cookie crusts for tassies, so I've discontinued it.

Another note: when you first make the curd, the lime and grapefruit flavors may come out a bit runnier at first than the lemon. No worries. It'll set up fine when it chills in the fridge.

While the curd chills, I make the cookie crusts. After making the dough, you need to roll it into balls and then press it into each cup of your muffin tin. This laborious process was made easier by the fact that my partner (who took the fabulous photos!) used to be a dentist and happened to have an old rubber mallet for hammering gold fillings. It makes a great tassie-crust shaper. Also, during cooking, the crusts puff up, so midway through, I hammer them down again with the dental mallet. Don't worry if they come out a bit hard. Actually the more well done the better, because after the curd goes in, it softens the crust.

I have only one complaint with this recipe: If Betty Crocker ever stops making their sugar cookie mix, I'm screwed!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Creme Brulee/Banana Cream Pie: Cream, Cream, Cream!




(Photos by Anthony Palatta)

The past two Friday nights, friends invited me for dinner and I supplied the desserts: creme brulee and banana cream pie. What I realized was, they are basically the same thing, just in highbrow and lowbrow versions.

For the creme brulee, I looked at some recipes in a cookbook I have specializing in variations on creme brulees, both savory and sweet. I'd tried the basic recipe once before, which called for steeping a scraped vanilla bean in heavy cream, and I found it surprisingly lacking in vanilla flavor. This time, I decided to try the Barefoot Contessa's recipe, which calls for vanilla extract and a tablespoon of Grand Marnier. This worked out much better, I think because the G. M. really helped to bring out the vanilla flavor. You can check out the recipe here.

By the way, if you don't own a mini-torch, they are a hell of a lot of fun. Your friends will be lining up to caramelize their desserts.

For the banana cream pie, I went with a recipe from a book called 500 Pies & Tarts. Just as I did for creme brulee, I cooked cream on the stovetop and added egg yolks and vanilla. The only major difference was that I thickened the cream with cornstarch. (Also, you have to bake the creme brulee in individual ramekins in the oven.) But the end result was very similar, a thick, silky pudding with a comforting undertone of vanilla. (Now that I think of it, I wonder if a tablespoon of Grand Marnier would have perked it up...) After the mixture sets, you pile alternating layers of cream and bananas in a pie shell. The recipe says to chill the cream for 2 hours before filling the pie shell and then chill the pie another 6 hours. Being impatient, I shortened that time to 1 hour of chilling the cream and maybe 3 hours of chilling the pie. No problems. The filling was absolutely delicious.

The recipe recommended a cinnamon garnish, but I went for chocolate shavings.

For my crust, I used a recipe for "sweet crust" that used only butter rather than shortening or a mix of the two. Anthony, my partner and chief taste tester, loved it, but I found the all-butter crust caused all sorts of problems. It rolled out more like a pizza dough than a pie crust, and while baking, it shrank dramatically. The fault may have been with my process. My butter could have been colder. (It warmed up during transport to my friend's house, where I baked it.)

I've heard crumb crusts are traditional for banana cream pies, though I've never had one made that way. Maybe I'll try that next. Another alternative is to go the nilla wafers pudding route: Just lay those down in the pie plate and cover in bananas and cream. Or maybe mix it all up in a big bowl and call it banana pudding.

Friday, February 5, 2010

My First Post! (Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies)



There comes a time in a person's life when he or she feels the need for a little sugar. Or a lot of it.

I am a dessert addict. In my case, my yen for the sweet things in life probably began as a kid when each day that I came home from school and found my mother had made vanilla cupcakes with chocolate frosting, or chocolate chip cookies or apple crisp. I used to love to rummage through her cookbooks and stare at the technicolor photos of elaborate desserts: gingerbread houses for Christmas (forbidden to us because we were Jews), roulades, mint chocolate brownies, something called a "silver cake."

As an adult, I wasn't very good in the kitchen until a few years ago when I began taking cooking classes. Since then, I've been building a recipe collection of my own as well as an ever-growing collection of kitchen equipment. And when life gets too stressful, I can always lose myself in a good dessert recipe.

This year, with all that's been going on in the world and our fragile economy, life's gotten even more stressful. And as I try to figure out what to do about it, I've decided to have some fun, do a little baking, and share the results with the world. My partner, Anthony Palatta, volunteered to take the pictures. So here goes...

PEANUT BUTTER SANDWICH COOKIES

I never liked peanut butter as a kid. It seemed too sweet, too nutty, too sticky. The smell of someone else's peanut butter and jelly sandwich on the playground nauseated me.

My attitude toward pb changed when I was teaching English in Prague, and the word "peanut butter" came up in a lesson on food I was teaching to two businessmen. "Butter made from peanuts?" they asked me. So, I went to the imported food section of the biggest supermarket in town and brought them a jar to try. They sniffed it, made a face, but flatly refused to put such a thing in their mouths. To show them it wasn't poisoned, I gave it a try, and then realized, "Hey, this stuff's pretty good!"

I first experimented with this recipe for peanut butter cookies last summer while sharing a house on Fire Island. They were gone in a flash of ecstasy. Since then, I made the cookies for my ski club--more rave reviews, including one member who offered to marry me if I would just make him these cookies--and then last weekend for a house party.

What I love about the recipe, which comes from Martha Stewart's Everyday Food Magazine (one of my favorite sources) is how basic it is. Check it out here

The ingredients are pretty much flour, brown sugar, peanut butter, and butter for the cookies, which if you bake them just right (by underbaking them slightly) come out soft, "like bread slices," as a friend described them. But don't worry if you overbake them. After they're frosted, let them sit for a day and they'll soften up.

Also, one time I accidentally added way too much peanut butter (because in the list of ingredients, what you need for the filling and for the dough is combined), but the cookies still came out wonderfully.

You mush the ingredients together and then shape them into an 8-inch rectangular log. Martha doesn't specify the log's dimensions, but I recommend 2 inches wide by 1 inch high. Next, you refrigerate (or freeze) the log and then slice off cookies with a sharp knife into rectangles. If you can get the slices fairly thin, maybe about 1/4 inch, then your cookies won't be too doughy. However, the dough has a tendency to crumble, so it's kind of hard to get them thin. You can always patch any scraps back onto your rectangles and they'll bake together.

Throw them in the oven as directed, let them cool, and then make the frosting, which is basically a milk-flour roux mixed with peanut butter and sugar. Then start frosting and sandwiching. I like to put them in the refrigerator to set a little.

The results are irresistible: sweet, nutty, soft, and satisfying. People often ask me if there's jelly in them or any other special ingredients, but it's actually very simple. Just the usual magic of butter, sugar, and flavor.