Good Fortune

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While I got in the spirit of St. Patrick’s Day this year, I did not spend my St. Patrick’s evening at the local pub drinking Guinness (this turns out to have been a good thing since I heard the Guinness ran short).  No corned beef and cabbage for this year for me either.  No shepherd’s pie.  No potatoes.  I feasted on Chinese food.

I’ve written before about the lack of ethnic food offerings on San Juan Island. My friend Sharalyn, hostess extraordinaire, decided it was about time for another feast, this time with an Asian flair.

In the weeks before the party, people talked about making stir fries, pork buns, won tons, pot stickers, and other delicacies, but it took me some time to decide what to bring.  About a week before the party, someone mentioned fortune cookies.

Fortune cookies have fascinated me since my third grade class visited a fortune cookie factory in San Francisco’s Chinatown.  Everybody called it a factory, but really, it was one man and with a crazy machine in a small, narrow room.   The machine looked like a miniature Ferris wheel, but instead of the usual cages around the wheel, it had a dozen or so round griddles facing in toward the center.   A dispenser unleashed a stream of batter onto each griddle just as it passed the bottom.  The cookies rotated up, clinging to their griddles, baking all the while.  Just as each griddle rounded the arc’s zenith, a perfectly baked cookie dropped into the hands of the man, who tucked a fortune inside as he magically transformed the flat disk into a fortune cookie.  This is how I remember it anyway.  It blew my 9-year old mind.

Fortune cookies combine two of my favorite pastimes, eating and reading.  Once, inspired by this coincidence, I made fortune cookies for my American Literature classes stuffed with aphorisms from Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack.   As my students munched their cookies, I explained the writing assignment that accompanied their “fortunes.”   This tickled my students and had the desired effect.  They began writing without much complaint.

Here’s the thing about fortune cookies, though;  while I’d venture to guess that every single Chinese restaurant in America serves them, they’re not Chinese in origin.  According to Jennifer Lee in Fortune Cookie Chronicles, they originated in San Francisco in the early 20th century.   Lee’s research led to several Japanese immigrants who made “crescent-shaped crackers with little slips of paper inside, called senbei,” which became popular in Chinese eateries.

Since I was going to a Chinese feast cooked by Americans of mostly European descent on St. Patrick’s Day, I decided not to trouble myself with nuanced cultural details.  Once I arrived at this point,  it didn’t even matter if I produced authentic San Francisco fortune cookies, which to be honest, don’t taste especially interesting.  So, as I mixed up the batter, I added cardamom for flavor.  As I pulled golden disks out of the oven, I folded in Irish wit and wisdom.

Here are some of my favorite St. Patrick’s Day fortunes:

  • As you slide down the banisters of life may the splinters never point the wrong way.
  • May the outside leaves of your cabbage always be free from worms.
  • The man with the boots does not mind where he places his foot.
  • He who waits long enough at the ferry will get over at last.

I made about five dozen cookies, but you don’t need to make anywhere near that number to get the hang of folding them.  It is slow work, though;  you have to shape the flat disks right as they come out of the oven because they stiffen quickly, making them difficult to manage.

I recommend starting with two cookies at a time until you get the hang of it.   The cookies bake for about 14 minutes total, and I eventually I got into a rhythm of folding several cookies every seven minutes or so as I rotated baking sheets in and out of the oven.   While the process took a chunk of time, the downtime allowed me to turn to other tasks in small bursts.

And so, you may ask, are homemade fortune cookies worth the effort?   I think so.  How cool is inserting your own custom-made fortunes inside small cookies?  And the addition of cardamom to these vanilla-spiked wafers gives them a distinctive personality that transcends the standard fortune cookie variety.  At the party, as Sharalyn finished her first cookie, she said, “I don’t even like fortune cookies!”  Before she’d finished her sentence, she’d already reached for another one.  I’d call that high praise.

Cardamom-Spiced Fortune Cookies

Makes about 22 cookies.

2 large egg whites
1 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons water
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
generous pinch ground cloves
1 teaspoons cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar

Prepare fortunes on 2-inch strips of paper.  Preheat oven to 300° F.  Grease or line four baking sheets with silicone baking mats (if using baking mats, slide 3 1/4-inch circles of paper underneath each mat to use as guides for shaping your cookies).

Combine flour, cardamom, cloves, cornstarch, salt, and sugar in a medium bowl.  In a separate bowl, lightly whisk egg whites, vanilla extract, vegetable oil, and water until frothy.  Add dry ingredients to the eggs and stir until the batter is smooth.

Spoon about a tablespoon of batter onto the baking sheet and use the back of a spoon to smooth the batter into a 3 1/4-inch circles.  Repeat this step until you have 2 to 4 circles (depending on your folding abilities).

Bake for 7 minutes on the lower rack of the oven.  While the cookies bake, prepare a second baking sheet with batter.  After 7 minutes pass, shift lower baking sheet to the top rack and place the second baking sheet on the lower rack.  Bake for 7 minutes again, or until the cookies on the top rack are lightly browned around the edges.  Remove finished cookies quickly and reshuffle the baking sheets in your oven to continue the baking process.

Remove one of the cookies from the baking sheet and flip it top side down onto a clean dish towel.  Place a fortune in the middle of the cookie.  Fold the cookie in half and then pinch the sides together carefully.  Place the finished cookie in a muffin tin to help it maintain its shape.  Repeat with remaining cookies.

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Going Green

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Perhaps my younger daughter’s desire to wear green clothes all week long set me off.  Or maybe it was listening in on conversations about catching leprechauns and convincing them to hand over the gold.

Whatever the reason, I got in the spirit of St. Patrick’s Day this year.  This meant making leprechaun traps as well as eating lots of spinach.

We haven’t yet gotten rich on gold (darned traps), but we’ve certainly had an iron-rich diet.

Last Sunday evening, I baked green bread for Eliza’s sandwiches.  As my husband prepared her lunch Monday morning, she regarded the green loaf warily:   “What makes it green?” she wanted to know.  “Is it spinach?”

My husband replied, “It’s the same stuff they use to make goldfish crackers green.”   She nodded and smiled.

It turns out she likes green bread.  A lot.  If you don’t know there’s spinach in it, it just tastes like a rich savory loaf, which, oddly enough, she requested with peanut butter and jelly.  I think the best part for her, though, was tripping out her friends with her green sandwiches.

Since I was on a green roll, when Tessa wanted to bring green food to the St. Patrick’s Day party at her school, I mixed up more green dough to form into cloverleafs.

The rolls looked much prettier than the loaf I made earlier in the week.  The first time I made the recipe, I didn’t blanch the spinach as directed.  The bread tasted fine, but it looked more murky olive than the springy green I’d imagined.  Even so, they aren’t quite as vivid as I’d hoped;  next time I’ll err on the side of underdone and take them out before they begin to brown.

In addition to mixing spinach into yeasted dough, I pureed some with eggs and combined the deep emerald mixture with flour and salt to make pasta dough.  Making spinach pasta only takes one step more than preparing plain pasta, but it looks at least 10 times cooler.

If you’ve ever made fresh pasta before, you know the homemade variety tastes about a million times better than any dried pasta you can buy at the store.  Spinach pasta is no exception.  It’s fresh and tender and, like the bread, not overwhelmingly spinachy.

I wanted to make papperdelle, but my pasta maker only cuts narrow noodles, so we used scissors to trim it by hand.  I dug out some craft scissors with sawtooth edges to make the pasta look more interesting.  The scissors, really too small for my hands, fit better in Tessa’s.
We may not have have found a pot of gold this week, but if I can get my kids to eat spinach cheerfully, I’m happy.  After all, I didn’t really expect either of these miracles to happen anyway.

Spinach Bread

Adapted from Susan Stehn’s recipe.  Makes one 9-by-5-inch loaf or 16 cloverleaf rolls.

5 ounces fresh spinach
1/2 cup warm water
generous pinch of sugar
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
3 1/2 cups unbleached all-pupose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon butter, melted

Immerse fresh spinach in rapidly boiling water.  When the water returns to a boil, drain and rinse in cold water.  Gently squeeze dry.  Puree spinach in a food processor or blender.  Put the puree in a measuring cup and add cool  water to make up a volume of 3/4 cup.  Set aside.

Add 1/2 cup warm water to the bowl of a standing electric mixer.  Sprinkle surface with sugar and yeast.  Stir to combine and set aside until bubbly, about 5 to 10 minutes.

Add 1 cup flour, salt, spinach puree, and butter to the yeast mixture.  With the paddle attachment, stir slowly to combine, and then mix on medium speed for about a minute.   Add additional flour, about 1/2 cup at a time, until the dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl.  Switch to the dough hook and knead for 3 to 5 minutes, until the dough is smooth but slightly sticky.   Turn out onto a lightly floured counter and knead briefly by hand, if desired.

Place dough in a lightly greased bowl, turning the dough once to coat with oil.  Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and allow the dough to rise until doubled in size, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

To form into a loaf:   Grease one 9-by-5-inch loaf pan. Turn out the dough and shape it into a rectangle.  Roll it into a tight loaf, pinching the seams closed.  Set dough seam-side down in the pan and dust lightly with flour.  Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise until the top of the dough extends just above the loaf pan, about 45 minutes.  Bake on the lower rack of an oven preheated to 400° F.  If the loaf begins to brown too quickly, slip a baking sheet on the top rack of the oven to diffuse the heat.  Bake for about 40 to 45 minutes, until the loaf sounds hollow when tapped with your finger.  Immediately transfer from pan to a cooling rack.  Cool completely before slicing.

To form into cloverleaf rolls:  Lightly oil 16 muffin tin cups (2 1/2 inch-diameter at the top of each cup).  Turn out the dough and divide it into 16 even pieces.  Working with one at a time, divide each piece into three smaller pieces.  Shape the smaller pieces into tight balls, pinching the seam of each one together on what will be the bottom side of each ball.  Drop the three balls into one muffin round.  Repeat.  Let the rolls rise until doubled in bulk, about 30 to 40 minutes.   Bake on the lower rack of an oven preheated to 400° F for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the rolls just begin to brown and sound hollow when tapped with a finger.  If they begin to brown too quickly, slip a baking sheet on the top rack of the oven to diffuse the heat.  Remove the rolls immediately from the muffin tins and cool on a rack.

Spinach Pasta

Adaped from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.  Makes about 1 pound of pasta.

1 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 cups semolina flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups fresh spinach, packed
2 extra large eggs
1 tablespoon olive oil, if needed

Mix flours and salt in the bowl of a standing electric mixer with the paddle attachment.  Set aside.

Combine eggs and uncooked spinach in a blender.  Blend until spinach is pureed.

With the mixer on slow speed, scrape spinach-egg mixture into the flour mixture, mixing until combined.  If the mixture seems dry, add 1 tablespoon of olive oil.  If it seems too moist, add more flour a little bit at a time (either kind will do).

Remove dough from the mixing bowl and knead by hand for about five minutes, adding additional flour only if needed to prevent sticking.  Let dough rest for  at least 20 minutes before forming pasta.

When ready, roll pasta dough thinly and cut into strips by hand or feed the dough through a pasta machine.

Cook pasta until desired tenderness–2 to 4 minutes–in a large pot of salted water.  Toss with sauce and serve.

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Pie Eyed | Chocolate Cream Pie

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Rich chocolate pudding layered over a cinnamon-pecan-chocolate crust and topped with freshly whipped cream, this Chocolate Cream Pie tastes heavenly.

I still remember the moment when, more than eight years ago, a particular issue of Gourmet magazine swished through my door’s mail slot.   My mouth watered as I flipped through page after page of chocolate recipes.  Chocolate Cream Pie.  Chocolate Espresso Pots de Creme.  Chocolate Fallen Souffle Cake.  Chocolate Bread Pudding.  Chocolate Layer Cake.  Chocolate Mint Cupcakes.  Chocolate Caramel Frozen Parfaits.  Hot Fudge Sauce.  I’m pretty sure I dropped everything and got right to work making the Chocolate Caramel Frozen Parfaits.

Just last week, as I scanned recipes from the February 2004  Gourmet issue on Epicurious (my magazine somehow did not survive the purging of my last two moves),  I realized that this was the source of the hot fudge recipe I ate every nearly every day during my pregnancy with Eliza.  The  recipe comes together quickly when the urgent need for a sweet treat strikes, and I still–with frightening regularity–spoon this thick, molten chocolate over fresh strawberries or vanilla ice cream, usually, but not always, after my children go to bed.

Aside from the hot fudge, I remember making several of the other recipes once or twice, but the one imprinted in my memory, the one I kept making again and again, was the the chocolate cream pie.  The cool smoothness of the bittersweet chocolate filling makes it sort of pie you want to just sit down to with a fork and eat until you’ve finished off the entire thing.

If you go that route, though, you miss out on witnessing the impossibly triangular wedges of pudding and cream that emerge from the pie dish.  I recommend making this at least twice to help you decide which method works best for you.

Chocolate cream pie isn’t difficult to make, but it takes some planning since the pie has to chill in the refrigerator for at least six hours.  Before I mainlined hot fudge for nine months and had a baby, I could handle that kind of planning.  As a new mom, though, I couldn’t, or wouldn’t plan so far ahead for dessert, and so I eventually lost track of the recipe.

But just the other day, when Eliza suggested that we make a chocolate cream pie, the memory of the pie’s rich flavors and textures came right back to me.  Fortunately, the magazine issue’s visual splendor had sealed its source in my mind.  With a few key strokes, the recipe appeared on my screen alongside a small but tantalizing picture of a the very chocolate cream pie that tempted me years ago.

Since I last made chocolate cream pie, I’ve done enough baking to feel confident deviating from recipes when I feel inspired.  Because this particular filling made such an impression on me, I followed that part of the recipe almost exactly, but I experimented with a chocolate nut crust.  Toasted pecans impart richness and texture to the crust, as well as a satisfying contrast to smooth chocolate filling.  On a whim, I mixed in cinnamon in with the nuts, which added dimension to intense the chocolate flavors.

The girls and I made quite a mess in the kitchen making chocolate cream pie together.  We licked chocolate pudding off beaters and spatulas and bowls.  We munched on toasted pecans and nibbled stray chocolate crust crumbs.  And then we waited six long hours before we topped our pie with whipped cream and chocolate shavings.

It tasted better than I remembered.  This time, I’m not letting it get away from me.

Chocolate Cream Pie

Filling adapted from Gourmet.  Crust adapted from The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion.  Makes one 9 1/2-inch pie.  Serves 8 to 10.

1 cup pecan halves, toasted
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/3 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/4 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

2/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 large egg yolks
3 cups whole milk
5 ounces bittersweet chocolate (not unsweetened), melted
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla

1 1/2 cups chilled heavy cream
1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
chocolate shavings

Preheat oven to 400°F.  Whirl toasted pecans in a food processor until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal.  Set aside.

In a medium-sized bowl beat 1 stick butter until fluffy.  Add the salt, vanilla, cinnamon, sugar, and cocoa, and blend until smooth.  Add the flour and stir to blend.  Finally, add the nuts.  The mixture will be dry.

Lightly grease a 9 1/2-inch pie pan. Press the crust into the bottom and up the sides of the pan. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, until it the crust is set (The dark color makes it hard to tell, but it’s done when you can just begin to smell the chocolate.). Remove the crust from the oven and set it aside to cool.

Whisk together sugar, cornstarch, salt, and yolks in a 3-quart heavy saucepan until combined well, then add milk in a stream, whisking constantly. Bring to a boil over moderate heat, whisking, then reduce heat and simmer, whisking, 1 minute (filling will be thick).

Force filling through a fine-mesh sieve into a medium bowl, then whisk in chocolates, butter, and vanilla.

Place the bowl containing filling in a larger bowl containing ice and water.  Whisk filling until it feels just warm to the touch, adding more ice to the water bath if necessary.   Pour filling into crust and chill pie, loosely covered, at least 6 hours.

Just before serving, beat cream with confectioners’ sugar and vanilla in a bowl using an electric mixer until it just holds stiff peaks.  Spoon the whipped cream on top of pie and spread it evenly with a spatula.  Garnish with chocolate shavings.


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Bedazzled by Bacon

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My daughters hate onions.  The presence of onions in breakfast, lunch, or dinner sets off moaning and groaning, so I’ve become adept at disguising them.  In macaroni and cheese, for example, I caramelize them, puree them, and then mix them into the sauce.  As long as no one mentions onions, the girls love my macaroni and cheese.

When I set out to make a bacon and onion tart, though, I knew I couldn’t hide the onions.  While pureed onions work fine in some dishes, I couldn’t picture them tucked into the bottom of this tart.  As I started to brace myself for complaints, inspiration struck. I decided dazzle my daughters with bacon: sweet-salty candied bacon.

My friend calls it millionaire bacon, and I’ve eaten myself sick at his house on more than one occasion because of its sheer addictiveness.  He presses brown sugar into bacon and bakes it on a rack in the oven.  The bacon crisps and the sugar hardens as it cools.   When I talked about candied bacon with one of my students after trying this recipe, he recommended eating the pan drippings as well:   “It’s like bacon taffy!” he raved. I’m a little frightened to try this, but he could be onto something.

On its own, the bacon hit the jackpot.  Eliza and Tessa nibbled bacon “candy” as I prepped dinner. I finally had to cut them off so I’d have enough for dinner.

I crossed my fingers that the bacon’s sugar-coated charm wouldn’t turn cloying in the tart.

My concern disappeared after one bite:   the mellow sweetness of caramelized onions, the rich bacon edged with candy sweetness, and the nutty smoothness of Gruyere cheese–all wrapped up in buttery, crisp crust–combined in near-perfection.

At dinner, Eliza and Tessa ate like I’ve never seen them eat before.  And after they’d each scarfed down one slice in nothing flat, they both asked for seconds.  And those onions?  They never even came up, not even once.  Keep it quiet, would you?

Candied Bacon and Onion Tart

Inspired by

1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 sticks cold, unsalted butter, cut in 1/4-inch pieces
1/4 cup ice water, strained

6 thick-cut bacon slices
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup white wine
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
3 large eggs
Salt and pepper, to taste
Generous pinch of ground nutmeg
1 cup packed, grated Gruyère cheese

Whirl dry ingredients for crust in the bowl of a food processor.  Add half a stick of the butter and process until you no longer see chunks.  Add remaining butter and process briefly, leaving chunks the size of peanuts.  Working quickly, turn on the food processor and pour the ice water through the feed tube, stopping before the dough comes together.  Pinch a bit of the dough between your fingers.  If it does not stick together, add a couple of teaspoons more water and whirl briefly.  Turn out the dough onto a large piece of plastic wrap.  Use the plastic wrap to help you create a large, flat disk:  fold the edges of the dough toward the center and press down to smooth out the roughness.   Refrigerate dough for at least 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400° F and place the oven rack in the top half of the oven.   Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil and place a rack on top of the foil.  Mix brown sugar and smoked paprika in a small bowl.  Sprinkle about half the mixture evenly over the tops of the bacon slices.  Press sugar firmly into the bacon;  turn bacon over and repeat.  Lay the bacon slices on the prepared rack.  Bake for 15 to 25 minutes, until bacon has cooked to desired crispness.  Set aside to cool.  Once cool, chop bacon into bite size pieces.

While bacon is cooking, heat two tablespoons of butter in a large skillet over medium heat.  Add onion and sauté until deep golden brown, about 20 minutes.  Add white wine and cook until it has evaporated.

Whisk cream, eggs, salt and pepper, and nutmeg in small bowl to blend.

Roll out dough into a 13-inch circle.  Transfer to an 11-inch tart pan with removable bottom set on a baking sheet.  Fold the dough’s overhanging edge down inside the tart pan–pressing gently to help it adhere–so its top edge is even with the top of the tart pan.  Spread onions over the bottom of the crust.  Add bacon and then cheese.  Pour the egg and cream mixture over the top.

Bake on the middle rack at 400° F until the tart is puffed, the filling is set, and the crust is pale golden, about 25 to 30 minutes.  If the filling begins to brown too much for your liking, slide a baking sheet on the top rack of the oven to diffuse the heat.   Cool tart on rack 10 minutes.  Remove pan sides.  Serve warm or at room temperature.

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