Classic Shortening Pie Crust

The pie crust dough I typically turn to, the dough that kicked off my pie and tart obsession ten years ago, the dough that entices even people who don’t like pie into asking for another slice, is in all honesty a giant cookie. A lightly sweet, emblematic sugar cookie, perfumed with vanilla and fortified with an egg. It escapes all the usual pitfalls a hapless baker - or eater - can encounter while preparing, assembling, and consuming a crust: it doesn’t crumble, it doesn’t dry out, it has plenty of flavor of its own.

The recipe that follows is not that crust. You can find that crust in last year’s Bourbon Pumpkin Pie, and I heartily recommend it when you’d like a sweet, crisp case for whatever filling your heart desires. However, the recipe that follows is a very good crust. It’s flaky, which the cookie crust is not, and provides a much more classic, savory contrast to a rich pie.

I wanted to try an all-shortening recipe, in the hope of broadening my dairy-free dessert repertoire, and am pleased to report that shortening makes it all easier. Much, much easier. Straight out of the freezer, it’s still more pliable than butter, mixing like a dream with flour, sugar, and salt. The chilled dough actually allows itself to be rolled into a circle without crumbling (much). While a butter crust can’t be beat for flavor, a shortening crust can’t be beat for ease.

Watch for this crust in the next post, playing a supporting role to pears and pecans!

Classic Shortening Pie Crust

Adapted from Pie by Ken Haedrich

Yield: 1 crust for a 9 1/2” deep-dish pie

Notes: Keeping your wet ingredients - shortening and water - as cold as possible will add to the flakiness of the dough. To keep your water cold until you add it, measure it into a glass measuring cup and place the cup in a bowl filled with ice and water. This crust can be made by hand or with an electric mixer. Both approaches are easy and quick. The dough may be frozen for up to a month, wrapped well in plastic wrap, before using.

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup cold vegetable shortening
1/4 cup cold water

Over a large bowl, cut the vegetable shortening into pieces. Place the bowl, shortening and all, into the freezer for 10 minutes. Remove and sprinkle the flour, sugar, and salt over the shortening.

By hand: With your fingertips, a pastry blender, or two knives, rub or chop the shortening into the flour mixture until it all looks like coarse meal. You’ll see a combination of small and large clumps. Add about half of the water to the dough, stirring with a fork and tossing up the dry flour from the bottom of the bowl to incorporate it. Add the rest of the water in two stages, mixing until the dough sticks together. Add just enough water to dampen the dough; you may not need the full 1/4 cup.

With a mixer: On low speed, mix the shortening and flour until you’ve got coarse meal with both large and small clumps. Add about half the water and mix in short bursts, turning the mixer on and off. Add the rest of the water in two stages, mixing on low speed until the dough begins to form large clumps. Stop as needed to toss up the drier parts of the mixture from the bottom of the bowl.

Sprinkle a cutting board or countertop with flour, and flour your hands as well. Turn the dough onto your surface, patting it together into a lump if it wants to break apart, and flatten it into a disk about 3/4 inch thick. If the edges are crumbly (as mine always seem to be), pat them into the disk with your fingertips. Wrap the disk of dough in plastic and chill in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour, or overnight. 

When you’re ready to assemble your pie, unwrap the dough, place it on a large piece of parchment paper, and roll out to a 13-inch circle. Invert a pie dish over the center of the dough. With one hand underneath the parchment paper, supporting the dough, and the other holding the pie dish, flip everything over so your bottom hand is now on top, pressing the dough into the pie dish. Carefully peel away the paper and trim the edges of the dough.

Chocolate Town Pie

Before I tell you about chocolate town pie - before we get to its place in the canon of my in-laws’ recipes, before we discuss the first time I tasted a forkful of it in my husband’s apartment, long before we started dating, or the fact that it mates with a simple store-bought crust as if they were designed for each other, making it a dessert that yields a very large pleasure-to-time ratio - I have a request to make.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever had a kitchen breakdown.

There’s something about that room: it can shift from a warm, cozy haven, fragranced with spicy aromas, where working with food is an aesthetic, pleasurable, and even meditative experience; where the counters are clean and each ingredient is experienced through all the senses; to an inferno of rising panic interspersed with multitasking, frequent expletives, sweat, miscalculated cooking times, and dishes narrowly missing the floor - or not. Sometimes all it takes is one pot boiling over.

After the cycle of Jewish holidays in September and October, when the time to reflect in synagogue was matched by sharing many, many festive meals, it was time to re-evaluate. As much as I loved hosting friends and family, and liked the idea of planning elaborate menus themed by cuisine, the reality of spending a full Sunday in the kitchen whipping up seven dishes for four eaters - fully aware in the back of my mind that yes! Another meal is coming up! And another! - prompted a spousal intervention and a break from the kitchen.

One of the challenges of cooking - and enjoying the process - is recognizing its two faces. The artistic side wants slow movements, focus, thought, and care. The functional side demands getting food on the table as efficiently as possible, which makes it tempting to multitask in the name of speed, stirring two pots at once while intermittently chopping onions and leaning over to check something in the oven. 

Fortunately, chocolate town pie is one of those happy dishes that doesn’t make you choose. The pie almost makes itself: whip up the components of a giant cookie, but with just enough flour to bind it all; stir in a big helping of chocolate chips, and pour most of the batter into a pie shell, reserving a dollop to taste. What you’ll pull out of the oven is almost candy in a crust: a crackly cookie top gives way to a layer of butterscotch goo, all grounded by a firm foundation of chocolate. Warm, it’s amazing, but I like chocolate town pie even better after it’s cooled in the fridge, when the chocolate chips have melded together into a solid layer at the bottom of the pie. With a list of ingredients that are probably all in your fridge and pantry, this is a go-to pie for hosting, potlucks, and any time you want a quick, fresh-baked, delicious dessert.

Chocolate Town Pie

Adapted from a wedding gift book of family recipes via my sister-in-law

~Yield: 1 9” or 9 1/2” pie, about 8 servings~

Notes: I always use a basic, frozen pie crust, with great results. If you make your own, I recommend a recipe without sugar, to contrast with the sweetness of the filling. I love this recipe with vanilla; my husband loves it with bourbon. Sometimes I compromise with a teaspoon of vanilla and a tablespoon of bourbon. The full two tablespoons of bourbon will definitely give a strong bourbon flavor, along with an airier texture. While I typically use semisweet, milk chocolate chips are also delicious if you have a real sweet tooth, as is a mix of white and semisweet chocolate chips. Finally, the original recipe called for one cup chopped pecans or walnuts. If you like nuts in your cookies and pies, go for it.

1 9” or 9-1/2” unbaked pie crust

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter or margarine, softened
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract OR 2 tablespoons bourbon
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. If using a pie crust in an aluminum tin, set it on a cookie sheet for stability.

In a medium bowl, cream the butter until fluffy. Beat in the eggs and the vanilla or bourbon. Mix in the sugar and flour until batter is smooth. Stir in the chocolate chips. 

Pour the batter into the pie crust. Bake 45-50 minutes or until top is golden. Cool for about one hour.

Cinnamon Roll Cookies

Some recipes are worth the wait. 

I’ve been wanting to share these cinnamon roll chimeras - half cookie, half cupcake, all indulgence - since finding the recipe in the L.A. Times during a visit with my grandma in June. After carefully scissoring the article out of the paper (and feeling very old-fashioned in the process), keeping it safe between the pages of one of the books my grandmother sent home with me as she habitually does, and giving it a place of honor in my cookbook holder at home, I pulled it out two weeks later to make a batch for my birthday.

Let me tell you what these cookies aren’t: they aren’t a quick n’ dirty, whip up the dough in one bowl and shove the cookie sheet in the oven affair. They aren’t the team-playing, share-the-dessert-table kind. They want your attention, both during the baking process and the eating process, and they’ll reward you with all the spiced nutty richness and caramel-noted brown sugar you could hope for in a cinnamon roll, plus the flaky buttery texture of a compact cookie, and minus the yeasted dough rising time.

Naturally, since I figured one dessert wasn’t enough for a birthday party and heaped the cookies on a platter alongside these, various sorbets, and fresh melon, we ended up with leftovers, which freeze excellently and respond well to a brief bout in the microwave. Make these nuggets for someone you love, or for an occasion you’d like to remember. They’re worth the effort.

Cinnamon Roll Cookies

Adapted from the San Diego bakery The Cravory, via the L.A. Times

~Yield: 24 substantial cookies~

Note: This recipe calls for two chilling times: an hour plus for the dough alone, and anywhere between an hour and overnight for the dough + filling log. Because some ingredients are repeated in the dough, the filling, and the glaze, I’ve put the instructions for each of the three components after their respective ingredient lists.

Cookie Dough
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1/2 cup (3 1/2 oz) sugar
1 cup (8 oz) brown sugar
1/4 cup (1 oz) powdered sugar
3 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups + 1 teaspoon (13 oz) unbleached flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup (1 oz) cornstarch
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

In a large bowl, cream the butter, sugar, brown sugar, and powdered sugar. Beat in the eggs one at a time until fully incorporated, then add the vanilla.  

In a separate large bowl, whisk together the flour, cinnamon, cornstarch, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and beat until just combined - careful not to over mix! Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 1 hour.

1 cup (4 oz) chopped, toasted pecans
1/2 cup (4 oz) brown sugar
1/4 (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 tablespoon cinnamon

Shortly before you plan to assemble the cookies, combine all filling ingredients in a medium bowl, stirring well.

Flour a cutting board or work surface. Turn the dough out and roll with a rolling pin into a 10 x 10 inch square.

Spoon and spread the filling evenly over the dough.

Gently roll the dough into a tight log. Wrap the log in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least one hour, preferably overnight.

2 oz cream cheese, softened
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 cup (4 oz) powdered sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract, or 1 vanilla bean, scraped
zest of 1/2 orange (optional)
3 tablespoons milk

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Whisk together the cream cheese and butter. Slowly beat in the powdered sugar, then add the vanilla and optional orange zest. Mix in the milk until the glaze is smooth and thick.

Grease two 12-cup muffin tins. Take the dough log out of the refrigerator. Slice the log crosswise into 24 even slices, about 1/2 inch thick. Coax each slice into a muffin cup.

Bake until the tops of the cookies are lightly browned, about 15 minutes. Rotate the tins halfway through the baking time.

Let the cookies cool in the muffin tins. With a fork, drizzle the glaze over the cookies.

Apple and Honey Loaf

I teach at a Catholic school, and it feels like home. There’s always food on the table in the staff room. Faculty babies abound. Everyone looks out for everyone else. And it was only a matter of months before I stopped noticing the flapping ties of second grade boys as they jumped up and down to “Ridin’ on the Railway” in music class. Right before last Passover, seventy 7th and 8th graders piled into my room to learn about how Jews celebrate the holiday. I brought in far too little matzah and far too much charoset, and passed around haggadahs and described the seder. On the way out, the kids ate all the matzah I had set aside for the 6th grade, right under my nose. I’d have figured they were going through some lean times, except that I kept fielding questions from subsequent classes about where to buy matzah, you know, if you wanted to have it as a snack. Yes. These kids actually wanted to eat matzah as a snack. Voluntarily embracing the bread of affliction and devouring it for fun. I think I actually saw some pieces of matzah make an appearance in a ziploc bag at recess a few days later.

For all their matzah-pursuing ways, the kiddos fell down on the job when it came to charoset consumption. I can’t blame them; with the minuscule fragments of matzah I had to dole out, there was barely room to scoop up a taste of the stuff. That meant I was left with an enormous tupperware of grated apples, walnuts, and cinnamon in wine, packed solid and weighing as much as an infant, which I offered it to the 8th grade teacher to present to her starving students as an afternoon pick-me-up. She graciously agreed. At the end of the school day, I found the tupperware returned to the all-accepting food table in the faculty room, pristine and untouched. Since then, it’s been taking up real estate in my freezer.

With Rosh Hashanah dawning - a time of new beginnings and a clean slate - it only makes sense to clear out my freezer. (Bear with me, and please ignore any shades of Passover prep.) The charoset, I reasoned, would be perfect in a quick bread. A zucchini-type bread, with grated apples instead. I made a loaf, and it was moist, sweet, mildly appled, just crusted enough around the edges, and everything else a quick bread should be. And the tupperware of charoset? It looked as though the surface had been ruffled by a light wind. Nothing whatsoever to indicate that a packed cup of this business had been scooped out to help structure the loaf cooling on my kitchen counter.

So I did the logical thing. I made five more loaves. One for my parents in Portland and my two brothers temporarily nesting with them before flying the coop. Three for the string ensembles I direct, and one intended for the faculty food table that somehow disappeared before it could make its way there.

The plus side of making follow-up batches is getting to tinker. First time around, I hewed closely to a zucchini bread recipe and just cut the sugar a smidge to make up for the sweetness of the apples. After that, I used mostly brown sugar, swapped a quarter cup for honey to underscore the Rosh Hashanah connection, and amped up the spice with a zing of ginger and a hit of cloves. In the end, it encapsulates just the experiences I hope for in a new year: sweet, a little nutty, with a spicy kick, and asking to be shared.

As for the charoset: don’t worry, there’s still enough left to use for both seders next Passover.

Apple and Honey Loaf

Liberally tweaked from Smitten Kitchen

~Yield: 2 8x4” loaves~

Note: Although I used charoset for the grated apples in this recipe, I don’t think the splash of wine and sprinkling of cinnamon made much difference in the final flavor. So, if you don’t have a brick of the stuff hanging out next to your ice cubes, plain old grated apple is just fine.

3 eggs
1 cup olive or vegetable oil
1 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup white sugar
1/4 cup honey
2 cups packed grated apple (okay to leave unpeeled)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon powdered ginger
1/4 teaspoon powdered cloves
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup chopped walnuts or almonds (optional)

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease two 8×4 inch loaf pans.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs. Mix in oil, sugars, and honey, then add the apples and vanilla.

In a medium bowl, combine flour, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Stir into the egg mixture. Divide the batter into prepared pans.

Bake loaves for 50-60 minutes, or until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean. 

Profiteroles with Vanilla Bean Cream and Butterscotch Sauce

In the midst of a whirlwind of happy events - my mom coming for a few days, putting on a recital with friends, and a visit from my thirteen-year-old cousin - these three-part, airy puffs, accoutered with vanilla bean pastry cream and a butterscotch sauce that’s a kissing cousin to ganache, the sort of delicacy I would never make if not for someone else prescribing it (sense a theme here?), somehow got made. They got eaten, too, but the logistics of that are less of a mystery.

When I make desserts, I gravitate toward heartiness: fruit-heaped pies, moist dense cakes, chewy cookies. Profiteroles? Those belong to glass cases in bakeries, or plated at a restaurant. In fact, I have to admit choux pastry has failed to attract me in the past. It’s struck me as more air than dough. Profiteroles have left my tastebuds unsatisfied and eclairs have disappointed me, with the exception of a cellophane-wrapped pastry I bought in a Kyoto convenience store two years ago, resting unassumingly on the shelf, serene in the knowledge that it would be, unequivocally, the best eclair I’d ever had the privilege to eat. I’m remembering now, at that same convenience store, the o-nigiri - seaweed-wrapped triangles of sticky rice; green tea cookies ‘n’ cream Haagen Dasz; and little bottles of potent plum wine. If I lived in Japan, I would spend a lot more of my time at convenience stores.

Nonetheless, these profiteroles give that Kyoto eclair a run for its money. The choux pastry, cooked on the stovetop before a pass through the oven, is light and fresh. The vanilla bean cream, which tastes like the richest, thickest pudding and is soul-mated with berries, is essentially a room-temperature french vanilla ice cream, pale yellow from a raft of egg yolks and stabilized with cornstarch. And the butterscotch sauce, which no doubt will give you less drama than it did me, takes the whole thing over the top.

Profiteroles with Vanilla Bean Cream and Butterscotch Sauce

Adapted from Ratio

Choux pastry

~Yield: About 20 profiteroles~

8 ounces (1 cup) water
4 ounces (1/2 cup/1 stick) unsalted butter
1 tablespoon sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
4 ounces (1 scant cup) flour
8 ounces (4 large) eggs

Vanilla Bean Pastry Cream

~Yield: About 2 1/2 cups~

8 ounces plus 3 ounces milk
8 ounces cream
1 vanilla bean, split down its length, or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 ounces sugar (about 1/2 cup)
4 ounces (8 large) egg yolks
6 tablespoons cornstarch
2 ounces (1/2 stick) unsalted butter

Butterscotch Sauce - click through for recipe

Choux pastry
Note: The choux pastry can be baked immediately once it’s cooked on the stovetop, or refrigerated for up to a day before baking.

Preheat oven to 425. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper, tin foil, or silicone liners.

In a medium saucepan over high heat, bring the water, butter, sugar, and salt to a simmer. Turn down the heat to medium, add the flour, and stir rapidly. As you stir, the dough will pull away from the sides of the pot. Continue stirring for another minute or two to continue cooking the flour and cook off some of the moisture. Take the pot off the heat and let it cool slightly, a few minutes - it should still be warm to hot. Stir in the eggs rapidly, one at a time. It will take a few seconds of vigorous stirring for each egg to be incorporated - it’s a great upper-body workout. You can also use a standing mixer or electric mixer: transfer the dough to a bowl and mix in the eggs one at  time.

Spoon golf-ball-sized portions of the dough onto the baking sheets. Bake for 10 minutes, then turn oven down to 350 and bake for 10 to 20 minutes longer. Taste or cut into one to judge its doneness: it should be airy inside and not too moist. 

Vanilla Bean Pastry Cream
Note: This was the first time I used a vanilla bean in cooking. It’s delicious, but I don’t think using the bean rather than extract is necessary. Vanilla extract should work fine and is definitely more economical. You’ll need three mixing bowls for this recipe, two large and one small to medium, as well as a saucepan.

In a medium saucepan, combine the 8 ounces of milk, the cream, and the vanilla bean or extract and bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat and let the bean steep for 15 minutes. With a dull knife, scrape the seeds from the pod into the warm milk and cream. Discard the pod.

In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar and the egg yolks for about 30 seconds, until smooth.

Fill the second large bowl with a half-and-half mixture of ice and water.

In the smaller bowl, stir together the cornstarch and the three ounces of milk until the cornstarch is dissolved. This may take a fair amount of stirring and scraping and remind you of making oobleck in elementary school.

Over medium heat, bring the milk-cream mixture back to just a simmer, then pour it slowly into the egg yolks and sugar while whisking continuously. Incorporating the warm milk slowly keeps the egg yolks from being cooked. Pour the whole thing back in the saucepan and add the cornstarch-milk mixture. Continue stirring over medium heat until the mixture becomes very thick. (Ratio recommends “until it just hits a boil.” My pastry cream never boiled; once it became alarmingly thick, I took it off the heat.) As the mixture thickens, you may notice it becoming increasingly lumpy from the cornstarch action. Never fear; the next step will magically smooth it out.

Sink the base of the saucepan into the water-ice bath and continue stirring until the pastry cream has cooled slightly but is still warm enough to melt the butter. Add the butter, stir until it’s completely incorporated, and watch the texture become velvety. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing the wrap against the surface of the cream, and refrigerate until ready to use.

To assemble: Slice each profiterole in half. Place a dollop of pastry cream on the bottom half and sandwich with the top half. Spoon butterscotch sauce over the top. Indulge.

Kat of The Bobwhites was our August 2012 Daring Baker hostess who inspired us to have fun in creating pate a choux shapes, filled with crème patisserie or Chantilly cream. We were encouraged to create swans or any shape we wanted and to go crazy with filling flavors allowing our creativity to go wild!

Tags: Food Dessert

Old-Fashioned Butterscotch Sauce

I was all set to tell you how, as a kid, I rarely chose chocolate. How, as tasty as chocolate could be, it melted in my hand before it ever got to my mouth, and caramel and vanilla just delivered so much more interest and nuance. How one of the highlights of visiting my grandfather’s office when I was young was receiving permission to lift the lid of the cobalt blue ceramic jug on his desk and select one caramel square, neatly wrapped in sturdy plastic. After rifling through the racks of frilly little girls’ dress samples and opening all the child-sized umbrellas in the back room, and after the requisite grilled cheese sandwich in the restaurant downstairs, I’d unwrap the caramel in the car as we exited the parking garage and savor it bite by minuscule bite.

However, what you really should know is that it’s official. I’ve become a crazy food blogger, dedicated at all costs to getting just the right picture, going to lengths to get obscure or specialized ingredients, and piecing together chefs d’oeuvres of cuisine that probably have no business in my home kitchen. When you drop your phone in a hot sticky mass of caramelizing brown sugar and butter on a stovetop in an attempt to snap a picture of this butterscotch-becoming substance dripping off a spoon, yelp and reach in to grab the phone, dash to the sink to run water over the ensuing sugar burn - to be avoided in the kitchen along the lines of boiling oil, fish out and wipe off the miraculously still-operating phone, and continue snapping pictures one-handed while holding an ice cube wrapped in a paper towel to your other hand - that, my friends, is culinary insanity.

While I wouldn’t recommend Samsung-flavored butterscotch as a matter of course, this sauce is well worth the few extra minutes it takes to bubble on the stove. The recipe comes from the wonderful cookbook Ratio, which is becoming a bible in our house with its adaptable recipes and straightforward guides to understanding ingredient interactions and proportions. I used the sauce to top a dessert that will show up here on Monday, but it would make a fabulous accompaniment for ice cream, crepes, or waffles, and, after chilling and setting in the fridge, a rich delicious ganache-like frosting for cakes and cupcakes.

Old-Fashioned Butterscotch Sauce

Adapted from Ratio

~Yield: about 1 1/2 cups~

Note: The recipes in Ratio use weights for accurate proportions. I’ve added volumes here, but if you have a kitchen scale, it’s the way to go for this sauce. I recommend adding the salt a little at a time and tasting until you reach the level of salty sweetness that makes your tastebuds happy. For me, it was about 1/4 teaspoon.

4 ounces (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
8 ounces (1 cup + 2 tablespoons) brown sugar
8 ounces (15 tablespoons, or 1 cup - 1 tablespoon) cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Over medium heat, in a heavy-bottomed saucepan or enameled cast-iron pot, combine the butter and sugar. Once the sugar has uniformly melted, avoid stirring and continue to cook until the mixture froths evilly. Take the pot off the heat and pour in the cream. It will hiss and bubble like mad, then settle down as you whisk it, preferably with a long handled spoon. When the cream is fully incorporated, let the butterscotch cool for ten minutes, then add the vanilla, cider vinegar, and salt to taste.

Chocolate Chocolate-Chip Cookies with Olive Oil and Sea Salt

I’ve talked before about my mother-in-law’s family cookbook, a labor of love that includes favorites from over the years. Certain recipes belong to my husband’s family in a way that I’ll always associate with them: beer bread, sachertorte, a particular sweet challah, and the lavishly simple, make-in-five-minutes extravaganza in a crust known as chocolate town pie. All of the fare in the cookbook, in fact, is time-friendly for busy cooks, recipes that have made the grade repeatedly and are savored by the many guests who come through my in-laws’ apartment.

Operating under a tight schedule in a hot kitchen at some fuzzy point in the past - let’s say six months to a year ago - I pulled out the family cookbook to make crinkly chocolate cookies coated in confectioner’s sugar, and on a whim skipped the powdered coating, tossed in a fistful of chocolate chips, tried olive oil instead of vegetable oil, and sprinkled sea salt into the thick dough. The results? Brownie-like cookies, deep and fudgy with cocoa and littered with little goldmines of melted chocolate nuggets, and just a hint of salt playing off of the sweetness and the richness of the cocoa. 

Since then, I’ve made this recipe at least six times. It stirs up in minutes, bakes in minutes more, and offers a big batch of dairy-free deliciousness that’s perfectly suited to potlucks, snacks, or even a cup of morning coffee. The cookies freeze beautifully in a big plastic bag, and taste great out of the freezer for a quick chocolate fix.

Chocolate Chocolate-Chip Cookies with Olive Oil and Sea Salt

Adapted from Kosher by Design: Short on Time via The Looks Family Cookbook

~Yield: 3 1/2 - 4 dozen cookies~

Notes: Either dutch cocoa or natural cocoa will work for this recipe. If you use dutch cocoa, your cookies will spread more and be softer, with a slightly milder chocolate flavor. If you use natural cocoa, your cookies will stay close to their original shape, be a little chewier and more brownie-like, and have a deeper chocolate flavor.

1/2 cup olive oil (I use regular; extra-virgin would give a stronger flavor)
2 cups sugar
2 cups flour
1 cup cocoa powder
4 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper or tin foil. Grease the parchment paper or tin foil with olive oil or cooking spray.

Mix together all ingredients except the chocolate chips, until a soft dough forms. (The dough can get a little stiff if you’re using natural cocoa - muscles required!) Stir in the chocolate chips.

Wet your hands with cold water, roll the dough into 1 1/2 - inch balls, and place on prepared cookie sheets, leaving room between the cookies. Bake for 10 minutes. Cool completely before removing from cookie sheet.

*This recipe is being submitted to the Chocolate Chip Cookie Challenge over at 52KitchenAdventures! 

Strawberry Lemon Cupcakes with Rose Ice Cream

Cupcakes and ice cream together have always seemed over the top to me, a decadent pairing that’s perfect to read about, and even more delightful to ogle pictures of, but not something I ever expected to make. Something clicked this month when I browsed Cupcake Project’s Fifth Annual Cupcake Ice Cream Contest. It was time to move past vicarious enjoyment of the tantalizing text and pretty pictures, and join in the fun.

Behold the origin story: it was a dark and stormy night - actually, in typical Silicon Valley fashion, it was more likely a bright and sunny afternoon - and I put three flavor pairings up for a verdict on Facebook. The only conclusions to be made after friends weighed in: tastes and flavor preferences are all over the map, and people are opinionated on the subject of cupcakes. So, I went with the pairing I’d secretly been leaning towards all along in the hope that at least one person would be happy in the end, bolstered by a few staunch supporters.

The idea of pairing strawberry and rose came from a cobbler recipe, if I remember correctly, in Veganomicon, a cookbook that’s basically a vortex of incredible flavor combinations. I substituted lemon zest for orange zest in the cupcakes based on the combination of lemon juice and rosewater in the syrup for some baklava recipes. The cupcakes are subtly flavored, light, and fluffy, the perfect vehicle for soaking up the intriguingly perfumed ice cream.

However…I didn’t count on that pesky time zone difference when submitting my recipe to Cupcake Project. With a deadline of June 30 and my clock reading 10:19 pm, all would have been well and good, if I weren’t two hours behind St. Louis. There’s next year, right? And with friends well-fed today with cupcakes and ice cream, and more in our freezer, it’s a pretty happy ending.

Strawberry Lemon Cupcakes

     I found that chopping the strawberries finely worked better than mashing them, as the original recipe suggested. Perhaps strawberries are softer in Southern grocery stores than the versions we get in California. The chopping blade on a food processor worked brilliantly, but you could also chop them small by hand. I avoid cooking with canola and vegetable oils, so I substituted refined coconut oil, which has a much milder coconut flavor than regular coconut oil. The original recipe also called for sifting the flour, baking soda, and salt together before adding them to the batter. I’ve only sifted flour for one recipe, ever, and though it did make a noticeable difference, it was nice in this case to have one less bowl to wash, and the cupcakes were perfectly cupcake-like. Finally, I strongly recommend using cupcake liners and baking the cupcakes in the upper half of your oven. The cupcakes I made that followed these protocols turned out just as cupcakes should. The other pan, baked without liners on the bottom oven rack, yielded sad little cakes that made only a halfhearted effort to rise and left most of their bottoms behind on the muffin tin.

Adapted from Screen Doors and Sweet Tea (a terrific Southern cookbook)

~Yield: 20 - 24 cupcakes~

2 1/2 cups cake flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup coconut or canola oil
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup finely chopped or mashed fresh or frozen strawberries
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a muffin tin with cupcake liners.

In a medium bow, combine the buttermilk, oil, and almond and vanilla extracts.

In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar with an electric mixer until fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Slowly add the buttermilk mixture and beat for one minute at medium speed.

Add the baking soda, the salt, and 1/2 cup of the flour, beating on a low speed. Add the rest of the flour and mix until just combined. Stir in the strawberries and lemon zest. 

Fill the cupcake liners two-thirds full. Bake the cupcakes for 18 to 20 minutes, until the cupcakes spring back when touched in the center. Cool the cupcakes in the pan for 10 minutes, then remove from the pan and allow to finish cooling.

Serve each cupcake with a scoop of rose ice cream on top, along with fresh strawberries if desired.

Rose Ice Cream

     Rose water is available at Whole Foods, and most likely at Middle Eastern grocery stores as well. It’s potent; a little goes a very long way. Because rose ice cream only seemed right to me in a delicate shade of pink, I added a little grenadine for color. Feel free to leave it out, to use a drop of food coloring instead, or to add a little raspberry puree for an all-natural experience.

1 pint of your favorite vanilla ice cream (I used Haagen-Dazs Five)
1/2 teaspoon rose water
2 teaspoons grenadine (optional)

Soften ice cream at room temperature until you can spoon it easily into a serving bowl. Stir the ice cream in the bowl, breaking up large chunks, and allow to soften some more until a spoon moves through it without much resistance.

Add the rose water and mix well.

If you’d like a pink tint to your rose ice cream,  stir in the grenadine until the ice cream is a uniform pale pink.

Fruity Bread Pudding

Bread pudding - pillowy, custardy, homey, soothing, livened with a dusting of spices - has to be the ultimate comfort food. I won’t weigh in on whether it beats mac ‘n’ cheese, but it’s up there, and that’s possibly why I’ve never allowed a pan of it to be in my kitchen. 

All that changed on Sunday, with not one but two trays of custard-soaked bread cubes taking up residence in my oven. A friend and colleague (hi, Carolyn!) was celebrating her 40th wedding anniversary, and asked that I cater the desserts. Her requests: something with berries, and bread pudding - her husband’s absolute, top-it-all, no-holds-barred favorite. 

With that kind of love for a particular dessert, there’s extra pressure to find the right recipe. Research turned up more variations - and more dedication to the dish - than I would have thought possible; the winner has to be a bakery in Los Angeles that devotes its being to nothing but bread pudding, with 108 varieties on the menu. (The “COMING SOON: San Francisco” banner on their home page gets them extra points.) However, as a bread pudding novitiate, there was only one place to turn: Smitten Kitchen’s vast storehouse of recipe knowledge. Her bread pudding is basic but decadent, jeweled with apples and raisins in supporting roles and starring chunks of bread that get browned and crusty on top while the bottoms are transformed into something utterly new, melding an eggnog-y custard and dough into the pudding of puddings.

After dessert was served on Sunday, the bread pudding received a thumbs-up from the man himself, who said the only possible improvement could be a rum sauce (note: the raisins would also be great soaked in rum), and divulged that he ate his weight in bread pudding during six months at sea.

Congratulations to Carolyn and Bill on a landmark anniversary - an inspiration and a joy to see!

Fruity Bread Pudding

Adapted from SmittenKitchen, who adapted it from Melissa Murphy and David Page via Food & Wine

This version of the recipe reflects a few changes based on time constraints and ingredient availability. If you have the time (and read the full recipe through ahead of time, unlike me), by all means plump the raisins in hot water, or, even more deliciously, rum, or some combination of the two. I used a mild sourdough-type bread; regular white bread or challah would also work well. The molasses-honey mixture works well; if you have enough molasses on hand, try all molasses.

1 pound unsliced mild sourdough, bakery white or challah bread, crusts removed, cut into roughly 1-inch cubes
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 cup golden raisins (optional: soaked in hot water for 15 minutes)
3 large eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 cups whole milk
2 tablespoons unsulfured molasses, or 1 tablespoon molasses and 1 tablespoon honey

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with foil. Distribute the bread cubes on the baking sheet and crisp in the oven for 6 minutes. Toss together in a bowl with the apple chunks and raisins.

Grease a 9×13-inch deep baking dish.

In a medium bowl, beat the eggs with the sugar until smooth. Add the spices, vanilla and salt.

In a medium saucepan, heat the milk with the molasses (and honey, if using), until just warmed. Add the warm milk a little at a time to the egg mixture, beating well to incorporate.

Spread the bread and fruit mixture in the greased baking dish. Pour the custard evenly over the bread mixture, doing your best to get it in the corners and distribute it over the bread cubes. Let stand for 5 minutes to allow the bread to soak up the custard. Bake in the center of the oven for about 40 minutes, until puffed and set, with the tops lightly browned. Allow the bread pudding to rest for at least 15 minutes before serving.

Tags: Dessert Apples

Chocolate Orange Almond Cake with Apricot Glaze

I expected eating in Italy to be a carb-tastic experience - pizza, pasta, gnocchi. What I wasn’t prepared for were the sweets. Pastries and nutella at breakfast, gelaterias and crepe shops literally around every corner, thick pudding-like hot chocolate, and tempting dessert menus that we never got to because dinner was so filling.

It’s fascinating to see which flavors are favored in different countries. The yogurt section in a grocery store can give a surprisingly good sense of them. So can sodas and juices. In the case of Italy’s sweets, hazelnut and chocolate seemed to reign supreme, flanked by orange, lemon, apricot to one side; walnut, almond, pistachio, and pine nuts to the other. Berries and other fruits were popular as well, along with creamy cheeses - ricotta, mascarpone.

There are so many desserts I want to make now, inspired directly by something I ate or more loosely by association: ricotta tart, perhaps with a swirl of honey and a scattering of pistachios on top; nutella anything; a “fruits of the forest” tart like the one below; tiramisu spiked with tea instead of coffee; and a rosemary-scented pine nut tart, because you can never have too many tarts.

This chocolate orange almond cake, the first of the bunch, has been on my to-make list for nearly a year, since What’s For Lunch, Honey posted a version with hazelnuts and a caramel ganache. Why it’s taken so long escapes understanding - with a food processor, the batter comes together in a couple of minutes. The one plan-ahead point is simmering the oranges. It’s an intriguing operation that lasts two hours and leaves you with orange-scented water and gently cooked fruit ready to toss into the food processor, peel and all. This step can be done the day before, and the oranges refrigerated until you’re making the batter. Burnished with an apricot glaze, the cake is moist, light, not too sweet, and redolent of chocolate and orange. It’s gluten-free and dairy-free, and dare I say it, would make a great Passover cake - one that you’d want to eat year-round.

Chocolate Orange Almond Cake with Apricot Glaze

Adapted from Nigella Lawson’s Feast via What’s For Lunch, Honey

2 small oranges, total weight – 13.4 oz/375g
6 eggs 
1 heaping teaspoon baking powder 
½ teaspoon baking soda
2 cups almond meal
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar 
1/2 cup cocoa powder 
½ teaspoon ground cardamom  

Apricot jam, for glaze

Rinse the oranges. Leaving them whole, place them in a pot and fill with just enough water to almost cover the oranges. Bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer and cook for about 2 hours, until soft and tender. 

Drain and cool the oranges, then cut in half and remove the seeds. Put the whole oranges, peel and all, in a food processor and process to a pulp. Set aside to cool, or place in the refrigerator overnight. 

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9” springform baking pan with a sheet of parchment paper - most easily done by cutting a square of paper slightly larger than the pan, placing it over the bottom, then attaching the top of the pan over it. Grease the bottom and sides of the pan.

In the food processor, add all of the remaining cake ingredients – eggs, baking powder, baking soda, almonds, sugar, cardamom, cocoa powder and the orange pulp – and process until smooth. There will still be bits of puréed orange in the batter. 

Pour the cake mixture into the prepared pan and bake for about 45 to 55 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. If you notice the top of the cake beginning to darken too quickly, cover it with some aluminum foil to prevent it from burning.

Allow the cake to cool completely in the pan. Remove the sides of the pan. Use a knife to spread a thin layer of apricot jam evenly over the surface of the cake. I chose to just glaze the top, but the sides can be glazed too if you wish.