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The New Joys of Jell-O: Joy Is Not the Word I Would Use

ring around the fruit mold

RingAroundJellO2I have never been a fan of Jell-O. I find the texture off-putting, the taste chemical-y and harsh, and the very principle simply wrong. This is probably one reason that I own three Jell-O cookbooks; in fact, it was a Jell-O cookbook that started me down the path to Recipes of the Damned, and eventually to this blog.

JelloFruitCocktailThe New Joys of Jell-O is not that cookbook. The New Joys of Jell-O is a slim hardcover published in 1973 and resplendent with early 1970s glory; lurid color photos display outmoded hairstyles, clothing and Jell-O dishes. The publisher is clearly trying to pull Jell-O out of a 1960s cultural tar pit by showing that hip, groovy people who are in touch with today’s modern world will show up on your doorstep carrying fruit encased in translucent goo.

JellOPowderThe last time I made a Jell-O recipe I played it safe, adding melon balls to lime Jell-O and leaving it at that. This time I decided that I really had to go big. Big and bad, as it happened. So I scanned the recipes for something that would encapsulate all the worst aspects of Jell-O cookery — no small selection of choices — and settled on ring around the fruit mold.

JellOInBundtPan2I began by making the Jell-O itself. Following the recipe’s instructions, I drained the liquid from a 30-ounce can of fruit cocktail, and added water to it to make 1 1/2 cups. I set this aside, possibly not as far as I should have. I dissolved a 6-ounce packet of strawberry Jell-O in 2 cups of boiling water, stirred in the fruit cocktail solution, and poured the liquid into a Bundt pan. This represented my first real sign that things weren’t going to go quite as hoped. (Well, first real sign after the realization that I was making Jell-O in the first place.) I don’t own any actual Jell-O molds, and I didn’t have anything at all ring-shaped other than my standard Bundt pan, and it’s about twice the size I needed. I worried a little about whether the Jell-O would unmold cleanly, then decided there wasn’t anything I could do about it at this point, and put the pan in the fridge to chill overnight.

DicingMarshmallowsThe next step was to assemble the fruit component. The recipe called for 1 cup of prepared Dream Whip, 1/3 cup of chopped nuts, 1/2 cup miniature marshmallows, and the fruit from that can of fruit cocktail. You can see already this isn’t going anywhere good. I’ll reassure you on one point, though: Dream Whip is (or perhaps was) the mix-it-yourself equivalent of Cool Whip. (It is not salad dressing; that’s Miracle Whip. Breathe a sigh of relief.) I don’t know if Dream Whip is available for sale today, but it certainly can’t be found in my neighborhood grocery store, so I substituted Cool Whip.

JellOFillingIngredsThe marshmallows were also a problem, because they didn’t have miniatures at FoodTown. I couldn’t be sure from the shelves if they were sold out or if they just weren’t available. I considered trying the other grocery stores in the area, but I decided against that. It’s been insanely hot here, and I didn’t feel like trooping from store to store. I also wasn’t confident that I’d find them anywhere else; after all, who runs out of or doesn’t stock miniature marshmallows? It wouldn’t be the first time that I’d gone store to store only to discover that nobody carries something that I had just assumed everybody would have in stock. And I had a party to prepare for; I didn’t really want to spend the time, especially if it wasn’t going to come to anything.

JellOFillingSo I bought full-size marshmallows and decided to chop them into bits. This was tricky, because marshmallows are gummy and sticky inside and really want to stick to your knife. I dusted my knife blade with powered sugar and dipped the exposed surfaces in powdered sugar as I went along, and while this didn’t completely solve the stickiness problem, it reduced it enough that I could accumulate half a cup of marshmallow bits without completely losing it.

JellOJelledMy sourcing problems addressed, I mixed together the Cool Whip, fruit cocktail bits, marshmallows and chopped walnuts. The mixture was pale and lumpy and distinctly unencouraging. I set it aside and prepared to unmold my Jell-O. I turned it onto a plate and it came out in once piece–a misshapen piece that was liquidy at the edges. I think I may have held the mold in warm water a little too long; I was afraid I’d mixed in too much liquid (package directions say no) or used boiling water when I should not have (package directions say boiling water, no problem there) or failed to let it chill long enough. But it didn’t continue to bleed liquid, so I think I just warmed the pan too much. Certainly once I’d turned it out into a cockeyed triangle, it didn’t remain malleable enough for me to shape it back into a ring.

JellOUnmolded2I began to spoon the fruit cocktail mixture into the center. There was a lot of it. Frankly, I think there was too much of it. For the amount of fruit cocktail mixture I had I think I needed twice the Jell-O. (It had occurred to me the night before, when I saw that the Bundt pan was only half full, that I might go get more Jell-O and make a double quantity. But then it occurred to me that I would have that much more Jell-O left over, because I had no illusions that the party guests were going to flock to the Jell-O mold and clamor to take some home with them. So I didn’t.) I spooned in as much as I felt I could reasonably keep on the plate without in fact hiding the Jell-O, and carried the dish out to the party buffet.

RingAroundJellO3Quite a bit later, after we’d enjoyed salad and dips and pickles and cake and whiskey (more on that in another post), Scott decided it was time to find out how the Jell-O was. He served himself a plate with even shares of Jell-O and fruit cocktail mixture, took a bite, and furrowed his brows. “You have to eat some of this,” he said, in a tone that implied “It’s your fault we even have this here.” He served some out for me before I could protest, though I agreed that it was my fault and it was only fair that I tried it for myself.

JellODishedThe Jell-O was the best part of it. This is not a compliment. The combination of Cool Whip and fruit cocktail and marshmallows was unpleasant, even more than I had expected. (The nuts did nothing to improve or degrade it, really.) The flavors and textures were completely discordant. There was the slipperiness and chemical tang of Jell-O, the sticky softness of marshmallow, and the mushy so-very-not-fresh-fruit sensation of the fruit cocktail pieces. I finished the serving because I kept thinking one of these spoonfuls was bound to improve, but they never did.

The apartment was really warm, but the Jell-O held up surprisingly well, and didn’t start to melt off the plate for some hours. Once it did, I took it out to the kitchen and disposed of it.

Verdict: Disgusting. Kids, don’t try this at home.

Eat More, Weigh Less: The Joy of Eggplant

pita chips with roasted eggplant dip

EggplantAtPicnic2Lately it seems to be taking an act of God to get me to cook much. I’m cooking dinner most evenings, but I’ve been doing easy lazy things. Pasta with sun-dried tomatoes, basil and chickpeas. Stir-fry. Hot dogs. Things that don’t require measuring or even really counting. I feel like I haven’t quite caught up with my domestic life yet, what with travel and Eggplantsome fairly mentally demanding projects at work.

But this past Friday was the office picnic, in Central Park no less, and I knew I had to get my act together. By the time I signed the contribution sheet the dessert and entree categories were pretty full, so I turned my attention to appetizers, and chose two: a spicy roasted eggplant dip, and a EggplantRoastedgoat cheese spread with roasted garlic (next post).

I’ve made roasted eggplant dip before, about a year ago. This one is a little bit different, with the inclusion of a minced jalapeno pepper and a slightly different blend of spices. Spices are a key element in Eat More, Weigh Less, the first of two healthy lifestyle cookbooks by Dr. Dean Ornish (I ShallotChileSpicescooked from the second, Everyday Cooking With Dr. Dean Ornish, in November). Dr. Ornish’s recipes are drastically low in fat, so strong flavor elements are featured to help counteract the popular notion that low-fat food isn’t flavorful.

This dip was definitely flavorful. I began by halving two eggplants lengthwise and putting them in a EggplantRoasted3350-degree oven to roast. While they cooked, I minced a jalapeno pepper and a shallot, juiced a lemon and a lime to get a teaspoon of juice from each, and mixed that in a bowl with some cumin, cinnamon and salt. Once the eggplants were out of the oven and cool enough to handle, I put them into a food processor with the shallot-pepper mixture and processed it all until it was EggplantInProcessorsmooth.

I did push the eggplant halves into the processor bowl without cutting them up (come on, you try neatly slicing a roasted eggplant! It kind of falls apart on you), and this meant that there were some oversized pieces of the skin that I had to pluck out for aesthetic reasons. I think if I did this again I’d scoop the EggplantDip3eggplant flesh out of the skins, even though I favor eating the skins of vegetables on principle.

I also cut up some pitas into single-layer slices and toasted them. Dr. Ornish’s recipe said to brush them with an egg white wash, which I didn’t bother to do. That might have made them stiffer and better able to scoop up dip, but I wasn’t convinced the MorePicnicSpread2extra effort would have been worth it. I cut up some additional pitas and left them uncooked, and they seemed robust enough.

The next day I hauled my dips, pitas and bread to the park, where our crew found a picnic spot that was very close to, but not exactly, the spot we had chosen ahead of time. We laid out blankets and massive quantities MorePicnicSpreadof food, and began to dish up a welcome late lunch. People seemed to enjoy the eggplant dip. There was a fair amount of it left at the end of the day, but that was because we had managed to bring enough to feed at least twice our number. And it was a little too warm out to overstuff ourselves.

Verdict: Success. Easy, tasty, and low in fat. I’ll want to make this one again.

The Martha Stewart Living Christmas Cookbook: Tasty Traditions

olive-filled rolls, brussels sprouts salad with roasted shallot vinaigrette, roasted turkey breast, turkey gravy, mashed potatoes with caramelized parsnips

DinnerAftermathIn retrospect it was probably not very smart to spend both Christmas Eve and Christmas laboring in the kitchen to create multi-dish meals. But the results were so good for both, I can’t really fault myself, and I did have two more weekend days to recover.

For Christmas I decided to cook from The Martha Stewart Living Christmas Cookbook. SpongeI’ve used this book before, though not for much: a guide to making pot pie, possibly a coffee cake. A number of the desserts repeat recipes in other MSL cookbooks, though since they’re good recipes it’s probably better to have several copies than to be without them. I had never made a Christmas dinner from it, despite the obvious possibilities. So I went SpongeAt24Hrsthrough it, selected some recipes, double-checked oven temperatures and timing, and replaced some recipes with others that would make for a smoother cooking day. I made a cooking plan. I looked at our side table, laden with little bags of cookies and candy, and decided not to make a separate dessert. I invited a friend to join us for the big day.

DoughToRiseThe first thing I started working on was the olive-filled rolls, specifically the sponge for the bread. I mixed a fairly small amount of yeast with warm water and let it sit about 10 minutes, until it bubbled a bit; then I added more water plus some oil and flour and mixed it all together with the dough-hook attachments for my hand mixer, transferred the mixture to an oiled bowl, BrusselsSproutsLeavescovered it with plastic wrap, and let it sit at room temperature for 24 hours. The mixture was thick but soft when I put on the plastic wrap; it expanded during the incubation period, though it never overflowed the bowl as I feared it might. When I removed the plastic wrap the next morning it was a thick and springy mass. The recipe directed me to add half a cup of sponge “pulled into small ParsnipStripspieces” to the olive roll mixture, but I would have had to lay the individual pieces out separately on the counter to keep them from melding back together at once. The half-cup mass blended easily enough into a mixture of water, a bit more yeast, olive oil, flour and salt, and the dough hooks on the mixture did a quick and efficient job of transforming the ingredients into a unified and PeelingPotatoesspringy ball of dough. I had never used the hooks for bread before; I prefer to knead by hand. But at this point I knew I would need the 20 minutes or so that using the mixer would buy me. I did spend about five minutes doing a final hand-knead, then put the dough into an oiled bowl and let it rise for two and a half hours. I put the remaining sponge into the fridge; I should really freeze some of it. RoastedShallotsIt will be handy for making more bread (I think if I follow one more of the recipes calling for sponge that Martha includes, I’ll figure out what I need to know to improvise afterward).

While the dough rose I began my vegetable prep. On paper this did not look considerable, as I had only four vegetables to prep: potatoes for boiling and mashing, PotatoSlicesshallots for roasting, parsnips for roasting, and brussels sprouts. Unfortunately, the brussels sprout salad recipe requires you to separate the sprouts into individual leaves, which sounds reasonable enough until you actually start to do it. Brussels sprouts are really miniature cabbages, and those tiny little leaves take a bit of gentle persuasion to separate. I soon CaramelizedParsnips2developed a system: cut off the stem end and pull away the loosest leaves, cut off a bit more of the stem end, continue until the little core of sprout remaining was no bigger around than my little finger, leave it at that. This was tedious work, but it made for a pretty salad, and it made the peeling and slicing of potatoes seem like a snap in comparison.

ShallotDressingOnce the leaves are separated, the salad is simple: blanch the leaves in boiling salted water 1-2 minutes, then plunge them into an ice bath to stop the cooking and fix the bright color, then drain. This part moves fast, so I couldn’t really get any good pictures of it. For the dressing, I roasted the shallots whole, then peeled them and put them into a food processor with some BlanchedSproutsbalsamic vinegar and pulsed to chop them. I transferred this mixture to a bowl and whisked in some olive oil, then dressed the sprout leaves with the vinaigrette when it was time to serve dinner.

Mashed potatoes are as straightforward as you might expect: peel and slice potatoes, boil them until tender, then mash them together with milk, butter, MashedPotatoesand sour cream. The clever part is to then serve them with caramelized parsnips: parsnip sticks that have been roasted with olive oil, sugars, garlic powder, salt and pepper. The flavors go wonderfully together. The other clever part is to use the dough hook attachments to mash the potatoes, which quickly blend and mash them without overbeating or making them OliveRollsComponentsgluey or tough. Who knew?

Roasted turkey breast was pretty simple too: brush a turkey breast with olive oil and season with salt and pepper, roast it until done. I had to let the turkey breast finish early so I could raise the oven temperature to bake the rolls; when they came out, I put the turkey back in to make sure it was warm, but while it was FillingRollresting I poured the pan drippings into a saucepan to make gravy. I had never really made pan gravy before. The recipes I’ve seen always tell you to put the roasting pan on the stovetop, and I’ve never had a roasting pan that was suitable for putting on a burner. But during the roll-baking hiatus it occurred to me that since the turkey was fully cooked I could PanOfRolls2put it on the platter while I poured off the pan juices, and that it was certainly worth a try. And gravy turns out to be simple. Heat the pan juices in a skillet or saucepan; stir in some flour to make a roux (one could use cornstarch or arrowroot too), then add water or broth gradually while continuing to whisk, until the gravy reaches the desired consistency.

RollsToBake2Ah, the rolls. These were probably the most complicated recipe of the day. Once the dough had risen I divided it into 18 more-or-less equal pieces. I used my fingers to press and stretch each piece into about a rectangle about 4 by 5 inches, and spooned on a bit of olive paste (made by combining kalamata olives, balsamic vinegar, olive oil and garlic in the food processor). I BakedRollsrolled up each piece so the olive paste was sealed inside; I think the filling was supposed to spiral with the dough like a cinnamon roll, but most of them weren’t large enough for the spiral effect to be really evident. I laid the rolls together in loaf pans, nine to a pan, and let them rise once more. When it was time to preheat the oven I put an empty metal baking pan on the bottom TurkeyPlattershelf, and when I put the rolls in I poured water into the pan so it would create steam in the oven. This gave the rolls a¬† nice crusty exterior. When they were done baking, I pulled the pans from the oven, turned the segmented loaves out onto a cooling rack, and let them rest while I reheated and sliced the turkey breast and got everything else ready.

BreadPotatoesGravyThis was a lovely holiday meal. The turkey was juicy and delicious; the salad was tangy; the potatoes were rich and luxurious; and the rolls. The rolls! They were wonderful, the rich olive mixture playing off the tender bread. Even the gravy was a nice complement to both the meat and the potatoes. Our friend brought more sweets, and we had a nicely indulgent Christmas dinner.

PotPiesPlatedOh, and I used the leftovers too: On Sunday I made pie crust (also from this cookbook, as it happens), sauteed onions with celery, carrots, mushrooms and potatoes, added chunked-up turkey breast, and made a bit more gravy; I assembled all these into mini pot pies shaped in muffin pans. They turned out well, and I managed to get all but two of the little pies out of the pan without breaking them.

Verdict: Success. I’m going to have to make the rolls again, and soon. In the future I might just quarter and blanch the brussels sprouts, though it wouldn’t be as picturesque.

McCall’s Cookie Collection: Two New (to Me) Holiday Cookies

coffee-almond lace wafers, glazed fudge drops

RolledWafersThis is the third and last Christmas cookie post. I’ve come back to McCall’s Cookie Collection, which I used in June only to realize I’d made that recipe before, and so this time I was careful to choose things I know I’ve never made. From this book or any other, in fact. As is my wont, I tried to choose cookies that would be a little bit tricky, but both recipes were surprisingly GlazingFudgeDropseasy.

The first one I attempted was coffee-almond lace wafers. The batter itself is simple: Combine ground almonds (I used a coffee grinder to grind my own), butter, sugar, instant coffee, milk and a bit of flour in a saucepan, and stir them together over low heat until the butter is melted.

IngredsForCoffeeAlmondLaceHere I must make an FTC-guidelines-style disclaimer: The instant coffee I used was Starbucks VIA, Colombian, and I got it free from another far more popular blogger, Clutch 22, who is a co-worker; Starbucks had sent her a generous supply of both Colombian and Italian varieties and encouraged her to blog about it, share samples with others, and encourage them to blog about it MeltingButteras well. So Starbucks has indirectly provided me with free samples in hopes that I will endorse it. I drank some in October and enjoyed it, but never wrote about it. But I was very glad to have it on hand for this recipe, because I was not inclined to go out and buy other kinds of instant coffee for the sake of the recipe. Unlike other brands that I’ve tried when stuck in cheap LiquidBatteroffice settings or motels, VIA actually tastes like real coffee. And it imparted a very good coffee flavor to these cookies. Plus, the little single-serve packet was exactly the right amount for the recipe. So, OK, I’m endorsing it.

Once the batter was a smooth liquid, I poured little rounds of it onto parchment on cookie sheets, BatterToBakeabout five rounds per cookie sheet. I baked them one sheet at a time for about 8 minutes, during which time the batter spread in a lacy pattern; then I let the sheet cool for about a minute.

Now came what I thought would be the tricky part: I picked up each round in turn and rolled it around the handle of a wooden BakedFlatWafersspoon, then placed the cylinder on a cooling rack to finish setting. In fact the cookies began to stiffen up as soon as they were lifted from the cookie sheet, and if I didn’t move quickly enough the last cookie would harden too soon and shatter when I tried to roll it. But once I got a feel for the pace at which I needed to lift and roll, this part became very easy. I love it when you can follow some IngredsForFudgeDropssimple steps and produce something that looks complicated and elegant.

The cooled cookies were delicious, with a rich coffee and almond flavor, but quite fragile. I decided not to ship any because I did not think they would survive handling by the Postal Service, so those we didn’t eat at the party went in to the office, where they were very MixingFudgeBatterwell received.

The other recipe I tried was for glazed fudge drops. These were fairly easy as well, and may be the only cookie I’ve made in years that doesn’t call for butter. In one bowl I mixed flour, unsweetened cocoa powder, salt and baking powder. In another bowl I beat eggs with vegetable oil, vanilla, almond extract and FudgeBatterWithNutssugar; I then stirred in the flour mixture and chopped walnuts, and chilled the resulting stiff dough for 30 minutes, during which time I sifted powdered sugar and beat it with a bit of milk to make a glaze.

I took the dough out of the fridge and scooped spoonfuls of it onto parchment on cookie sheets, and baked them for about 10 minutes. FudgeDropsToBakeI let them cool on the cookie sheets for a minute or two, then transferred the cookies to a cooling rack set over parchment and spooned on glaze, then sprinkled on chocolate jimmies. I made the mistake of glazing too many at first without adding the jimmies right away; the glaze hardens fast, so you really have to glaze and then sprinkle about four at a time to keep the jimmies FudgeDropsBakedfrom just bouncing right off. I was quite pleased to see that the glaze was almost exactly the right amount for the number of cookies the recipe produced, with barely a cookie’s worth left in the bowl when all were coated. The resulting cookies were tasty — nutty and chewy, with a good chocolate flavor — and everyone seemed to enjoy them.

Verdict: Success. I’ll be adding these to my repertoire, and maybe I can even figure out a way to securely pack the coffee-almond lace wafers for shipping.

Martha Stewart Holiday Cookies: The Great Caramel Spill of 2009

golden popcorn squares

CaramelPopcornBarsThe really crazy part of this isn’t that I tried out a caramel sauce recipe that nearly led to disaster. The really crazy part is that I almost made fortune cookies in addition to the other holiday sweets.

PopcornMartha Stewart Holiday Cookies is another of those special-issue magazines, this one from 2001 (several years before we lived above Zupan’s). I’ve used it before; I’m quite fond of the oatmeal cookies with dried cranberries, and there’s a chocolate cookie that I make every year (I did this year too, but didn’t take pictures since it’s not new for the blog). Most of these recipes are charming and truly special, and this appealed to me because I don’t want to do PopcornNPeanutsanything dull or unoriginal when it comes to my holiday baking.

So I gave very serious thought to making fortune cookies, for which Martha provides a recipe. I’ve made fortune cookies before, nearly 20 years ago now; the tricky part is folding them quickly before they harden. But when I was doing my last planning for the baking marathon I calculated CookingSyrupforCaramelhow long it would take to make them, and realized that I would have to devote 2 hours just to the fortune cookies; they go slowly because you can only bake two at a time to ensure you have time to fold them.

So I turned instead to golden popcorn squares. Every other cookie in the magazine has a big glorious display photograph. CookingSyrup2Golden popcorn squares appear in a photo that’s really featuring creative ways to pack and wrap the cookies, and I had to dig to find it; the squares are a pretty small part of the scene. I think there’s a reason for this. They’re not an elegantly pretty cookie. They are a somewhat rustic bar. And, oh, they are messy.

Golden popcorn squares have CaramelSaucethree basic ingredients: popcorn, peanuts and caramel sauce. Popcorn was easy: I used our stovetop popper and some Greenmarket popcorn kernels and canola oil, and in short order had exactly 12 cups of beautiful, white, fluffy kernels — and no unpopped kernels. I thought this was auspicious, which just goes to show you that I am not always in tune with my intuition. I added some peanuts, and I took a few moments to prepare the baking pan: oil the pan, line it with parchment, oil the parchment. Then I turned my attention to the caramel sauce, for which Martha provides the recipe.

CaramelCornI wasn’t intimidated at the prospect of making caramel sauce on the stovetop. I’ve made peanut brittle before, so heating sugar syrup is nothing new to me. And I was careful to use a good, heavy saucepan, a nice Calphalon one I received for Christmas a few years ago. The recipe specifies that the saucepan should be at least 3 inches deep, and this one was 4 inches. What I failed to take into account was that I was making one and a half recipes’ worth. So I blithely moved ahead. I combined sugar, PanToBakecream of tartar, salt and water in the pan and cooked it until it reached 300 degrees. This is kind of fun to watch: When it reaches 212 the water boils out vigorously, and it looks like it’s going to bubble out of control but it doesn’t. When the mixture reached 300, I attempted to follow the direction to pour heavy cream slowly down the side of the saucepan. I believe the object of doing it this way is to quickly warm up the cream before it reaches the syrup. Unfortunately, my pan was small enough that I had very little side of pan exposed above the top of the sugar mixture, and could not help but pour some of the still-cool cream directly into the sauce, which caused it to bubble over dramatically.

CleanedStovetopThe first rule in any cooking mishap is not to panic. The second is to remove a boiling-over mixture from the hot burner, which I did immediately, though it was a little tough because the sticky mixture really wanted to adhere the pan to the stovetop. I went ahead and finished incorporating the cream into the sauce, then mixed it with the popcorn and peanuts and PanBakedNTurnedpressed the mixture tightly into the baking pan. With bars safely in the oven, I turned my attention to the stovetop. As you can see, I took a couple of pictures of mess mode, but of course I couldn’t capture the most alarming points of the boiling-over because I needed to focus on dealing with the crisis itself. And I am inordinately proud of the fact that it did not occur to me until hours later to summon my husband out to the kitchen to document the disaster for me. This tells me I haven’t entirely taken leave of my senses. (You cannot blame me for wanting assurance sometimes.)

PanBakedNTurned2Caramel sauce is a sticky substance, and burned caramel sauce really wants to adhere to the stovetop. Fortunately, the thing that makes it so sticky is also the key to its cleanup: The stuff is mostly sugar, and sugar dissolves in hot water. I did a bit of damage to a kitchen sponge, but with some concerted effort I was able to wipe away the stuck-on goo in pretty short order, and I had managed to clear away nearly all traces before the popcorn mixture was ready to come out of the oven. What really saved me was the new flat stovetop; it would have been a lot harder to safely get the caramel out of the pipes and crevice of a gas stove burner.

SlabToCutWe weren’t done with the recipe yet, though. Martha directs you to prepare two pans, but I only have one of that size. Her instructions call for letting the baked bars cool for 5 minutes, then inverting the mixture into the second prepared pan and letting that cool entirely. Perhaps, I thought, I could turn the bars onto a cookie sheet. So I tried it, and CuttingSlabthe caramel quickly began to dribble down and the popcorn slab to sag and spread. It would seem the point of the second pan is to get the baked mixture into cooler surroundings as quickly as possible to allow it to set up. So I hustled to wash, re-oil and re-parchment the pan, then invert the now shaggy-looking mixture back into it. The whole thing was somewhat lopsided and irregular, but I left it to cool overnight anyway.

CuttingSlab2The next day, I turned the now-set bars out of the pan onto a cutting board and hewed it into squares. I expected that part to be more difficult, but my knife is a pretty good one, and it didn’t take me long to make passable bars. They looked great, though the longer they sat at room temperature the more they wanted to adhere to one another. By the time I was ready to bag up treats I’d given up on the concept of “bars,” and of “pretty,” and decided to see it as bags of caramel corn.

CaramelPopcornBars2And it was delicious. Is delicious; I’m nibbling on some right now. (Carefully, so as not to get my keyboard sticky.) I may have to get a second baking pan and a larger Calphalon saucepan, sharpen my knife, and try it again next year.

Verdict: Close enough. I made caramel corn and got the stovetop clean again. That’s good enough for me.

Christmas Cookies: First of Three Holiday Cookie Posts

Christmas sugar wafers

DecoratedShapes2Christmas Cookies is a pretty little volume published by Oxmoor House, which also puts out a lot of Martha Stewart titles. The photography is lovely, and the recipes are very nice. I’ve used this book before; last year I made a pecan-butter cookie that was truly delicious and very easy. I may make some of those this coming weekend, now that I think about it. But this past weekend I SugarWaferIngredientswas determined to take advantage of my holiday baking frenzy to check a few blog titles off the list, and the rules call for new recipes, so the pecan-butter cookies did not make the cut. Instead, I decided to try Christmas sugar wafers, which have earned themselves a place near the head of my sugar cookie list.

BeatenWetMixtureNot that this list is terribly long, mind you. Most sugar cookies are not too exciting. Bakery sugar cookies are usually forgettable, and the ones from the plastic tube are execrable. But they’re fun. If you’re baking cookies for the holidays you need to have some that you can cut into shapes and decorate, and it’s silly to add creamy frosting and colored sprinkles to a cookie BeatenDoughthat’s flavorful enough to stand on its own. Sugar cookies do not need to be strongly flavored, but they should be buttery rather than cardboard-y. For years I’ve made my Christmas cutout cookies from a sour cream cookie recipe, which provides a nice rich undertone to the chocolate jimmies and icing squiggles and red hots.

DividingDoughThe challenge with sugar cookies is that they’re easy to overwork. The dough at its best is delicate and buttery, but rolling it repeatedly on a floury surface can make it tough and dull the flavor. There are two main ways to minimize this risk: chilling the dough so that it is not overly soft and kneadable when it is rolled, and rolling it between sheets of parchment or wax paper to DividingDough2minimize the use of flour. This recipe takes advantage of both techniques quite cleverly: once you have mixed the dough you roll it, between sheets of waxed paper, into four rounds, then put it into the freezer for at least half an hour (overnight turns out to be fine too); when you are ready to cut, you can get right to it without additional rolling, and the RollingSugarCookiesstill-cold cookies will not stretch or tear as you transfer them to the baking sheet.

Making the dough was fairly easy. I started by combining the dry ingredients: flour, some cornstarch, baking powder, baking soda and salt. I think the cornstarch helped mitigate toughness too, by helping to stiffen the dough without gluten. CookieShapesThen I beat together some butter, white sugar and brown sugar. When it was fluffy, I added vanilla and egg whites (the absence of yolks was another factor in a lighter, airier dough). I beat in the flour mixture, then divided and rolled the dough and chilled it. I took only one circle out of the freezer at a time, and did my best to cut the shapes as close together as possible to ensure the CookieShapes2least possible scrap dough to re-roll.

I baked the cookies until they were lightly browned and let them cool. That evening I hosted a cookie party; I’d invited people only a few days before (I’d sort of overlooked that detail in the midst of a crazed week back at work) and so there were only a few of us, but we had a good time BakedCookies2frosting and adorning the shapes. We also had a good time drinking the delicious Belgian-style beer that one guest brought, with up to 12% alcohol, which is the sort of thing that you don’t notice at the time but are acutely aware of the next morning when you have to get up and go to work. Fortunately, decorated sugar cookies can help restore one’s spirits, though not quite as BakedCookieseffectively as lots of water and a large coffee.

I invited guests to take home cookies, then packed what was left into little bags and sent most of them off to distant friends. Fingers crossed they will arrive in good time, still recognizable as trees and pigs and bells rather than crumbs and clumps. (Yes, pigs. I have a pig cookie cutter DecoratedShapesand I use it. Those of you who are Discworld fans can take this as a¬† nod to Hogswatchnight, the night that the Hogfather travels around the world giving gifts, assuming things haven’t gone awry.)

Verdict: Success. The cookies were light and buttery, and took well to decoration — better than the sour cream cookies, in fact. I may have to make these my holiday decorating standards.

Desserts, Martha Stewart: Simple but Elegant

summer fruit tart

Let me make this clear. I love Martha Stewart. I’ve loved her for years, even before the insider trading scandal and her prison term; I love her now that she’s softened her edges a bit as a result of her time in prison. I understand why people make fun of her. The magazine spreads are sometimes too perfect or elegant, and there are things like Christmas decorations that have you hot-gluing grapes to Styrofoam forms, or articles about hardwood floor care that include lines like “Once a week I get out the electric floor buffer.” (Only once a week, you say? Well, some of us have standards.) But a lot — a lot — of what she offers is simple, practical and good, even for a credit-challenged slacker like me who tries not to iron more than twice a year.

This dessert cookbook is a case in point. Some of the desserts are a bit work-intensive or elaborate. Miniature meringue puffs each topped with a single cherry, tiramisu wedding cake, berry gelatin sandwiched between meringue disks; all are beautiful but a challenge to my attention span. But the majority of the recipes are simple in their elegance. Uncomplicated layer cakes, chocolate-macadamia tart, a simple combination of pears and pecorino cheese. The central tenet of the book is that if you work with good ingredients, you need only do so much to create a stunning and delicious dessert.

I had originally wanted to make the black-and-white peanut bar, which is a simple layering of chocolate and vanilla ice creams with sugar wafer cookies, topped with semisweet chocolate and peanuts—a kind of fancy variation on the Nutty Buddy ice cream cone. But I had limited time to canvass grocery stores and I couldn’t find the sugar wafer cookies, so rather than try to substitute I opted to prepare a different recipe, the summer fruit tart. This turned out to be a great choice; the fruit was a better complement to the pasta with blue cheese and broccoli than the chocolate and nut mixture would have been, and the summer timing meant the peaches and berries I found were top quality.

The tart is fairly simple. You make a pastry dough of flour, salt, sugar and butter; because you do not over-process the mixture the butter is in fairly large chunks. You pat the somewhat unruly dough into a disk and chill it for at least an hour (or overnight, in my case). When you’re ready to bake, slice up some peaches and add a quart or two of blueberries, tossing them with some sugar and flour. Take the chilled dough and roll it out to be about 4 inches larger than the intended size of the tart; lay the crust in your pan, top it with the fruit mixture, and fold the edges in toward the center so you have a mostly open tart with about a three-inch pastry border. Brush the dough with milk and sprinkle with sugar, and bake at 375 for 30-40 minutes.

I admit I was kind of worried as I prepared the dough. The recipe says “dough will be full of butter chunks,” and it was, but I wasn’t sure if I had struck the right balance between blending in the butter just a little more and overworking the dough to make it tough. Then I rolled it out, and found myself a bit constrained by the size of my counter; when I got the crust to the appropriate size, it still seemed awfully thick. I was beginning to think I needed a bigger pan. Even with the edges folded in to the appropriate extent, the tart mostly filled a cookie sheet. The recipe calls for a very generous amount of fruit. And not long after I put the tart in the oven,  I spotted a bit of smoke: Some of that excess butter had dripped onto the oven floor, so I had to hastily wipe it away so that I could bake rather than smoke the pastry. I was afraid that I would continue to get drips and burning, but apparently only one edge of crust had strayed beyond the bounds of the cookie sheet, and the rest of the baking time was uneventful.

So when the timer went off I nervously opened the oven door, and found that my tart was now beautiful. I wasn’t the only one to think so, either.  The thick crust turned out to be perfect for the heavy load of fruit and the baking time. I had managed to mix it right—the pastry was flaky and delicious, not tough, and the butteriness was just right. I served the tart with butter pecan ice cream, sending us all into a major food coma.

Verdict: Success. The actual prep time was minimal and the result was spectacularly delicious. I might try to prepare it in my cast-iron skillet next time; the high sides should prevent butter from dripping and burning.

Joie Warner’s No-Cook Pasta Sauces: Bliss in a Bowl

blue cheese and broccoli sauce

Pasta with blue cheese and broccoli sauce

The premise of Joie Warner’s No-Cook Pasta Sauces is that you can make a tasty pasta meal with minimal time and cooking; most of the recipes require you to chop together fresh ingredients in a pasta bowl or other broad serving dish while the water is boiling to cook the noodles.

I love this book, and I’ve been in the habit of thinking that I know it very well, but in fact I have about four go-to recipes that I can prepare from memory. No-Cook Pasta Sauces contains 75 recipes. I have, as the educational set might say, not been working to potential.

We had invited friends to dinner, one of whom is a vegetarian, so of the July collection this book seemed the most promising. Because the only thing that gets significant heat in this book is the pasta water, the ability to use meat is limited.

Blue cheese for pasta sauce

Some recipes do call for it in the form of rotisserie chicken, cured or pre-cooked sausage, or shrimp that can be tossed into the noodle pot during the last few minutes of cooking. But mostly we’re dealing with fresh raw foods here, which is ideal for a summer evening.

The recipe for broccoli and blue cheese sauce caught my eye because my initial reaction was to be intimidated: would it be too strong, too overwhelming?

Warming blue cheese mixture for pasta

I decided that it would be better to ask Marianne and Colleen if they liked blue cheese than to chicken out, and fortunately they are both big fans, so I set out to get the ingredients. Garlic, crushed red pepper, olive oil, butter, blue cheese (I chose a Danish blue, whose chief point of differentiation was that it cost less than $10 a pound), parmesan, and broccoli. Even if I had gone for one of the more pricey cheeses (did you know some of the artisan varieties can run $30+ a pound?) it would not have been a very expensive meal.

Preparation is easy. You crumble the blue cheese into a pasta bowl, mince the garlic, grate the parmesan, cut the butter into small chunks, and add the oil and red pepper, along with a couple of twists of freshly ground black pepper.

Melted mixture of blue cheese and butter (and more)

Set the bowl over the pot in which you are bringing the pasta water to boil; this will soften the cheese and butter so you can mix the sauce well. Or, if you are inattentive, will melt them entirely, which is OK too. When the water is boiling remove the bowl (if you haven’t already) and pour in the dry pasta, plus some salt if that’s how you like it; while it cooks, cut the broccoli into florets. When the pasta is about 2 minutes from being done, add the broccoli to the water so it can cook; then drain and add the pasta and broccoli to the sauce, and stir well to coat.

I served it with a sliced loaf of sourdough, plus butter and beer (not to be applied in exactly the same ways);

Broccoli florets

I brought out the parmesan hunk and the microplaner so we could add a little extra to our bowls. This dish was very well-received. And for good reason: It smelled and tasted fabulous. This is the kind of recipe I love for entertaining: It looks, as my husband puts it, gourmet-y, but it’s incredibly easy to make. We had the cold leftovers for dinner the next night,  along with leftover bread and some wine, and it was delicious that way as well.

The finished dish

Verdict: Success. I will definitely make this recipe again, and I will be sure to mine this book for more dishes to try. Promising candidates include cherry tomato sauce with mint, sesame sauce with roasted red peppers, lemon and mascarpone sauce, and asparagus with orange and basil sauce.

The Meatless Gourmet: Last party recipe

samosas, cucumber-tomato raita

PartyTable2The Meatless Gourmet is a collection of vegetarian recipes from different world cuisines. Mexico, Italy, Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, and more are represented in appetizers, entrees, side dishes and beverages. I probably bought the book when it was new in 1995, because I know we’ve cooked from it for years.

For the party I decided to try the Indian section: samosas filled with a curried potato-and-pea mixture, and a cucumber-tomato raita. The recipes are clear and easy to follow. I made the samosa filling the day before the party. You start by cutting a potato into chunks and boiling it until it’s tender but not mushy; let it cool briefly and then remove the peel, and dice smaller. Dice some onion as well, and Samoas-TaterNOnionsautee it with some minced fresh ginger root and Indian spices: fennel, coriander, curry powder, cumin, turmeric and cayenne, plus salt and pepper. Add the potatoes and some fresh or frozen peas, and cook until the mixture is heated through and the peas are tender, about 15 minutes.

I assembled and baked the samosas the day of the party. The recipe calls for refrigerated biscuit dough. I had misgivings, but decided that I had enough to do without making my own biscuits. As it turns out, though, the time-consuming part of the process is the rolling and assembly; the time I saved by not mixing my own biscuits was spent in reading the ingredient labels at the supermarket to make sure the biscuit dough I chose did not include beef tallow. Because Samosas-Spicesthat would kind of defeat the purpose of a vegetarian recipe, and since there were actual vegetarians coming to the party I though it would be stupid to sabotage them in that way. If I make these again I’ll make biscuits from scratch.

But pressing forward with the pressure-packed dough: You roll out an individual biscuit and then cut it in half, top the lower end of each half with filling, and then close up the turnovers and bake them for about 8 minutes. The refrigerated dough may not have saved me any real time, but it tasted just fine in conjunction with the spicy potato and pea filling.

SamosasAssemblingThe raita is a sauce or dip that contrasts a cool, fresh flavor with the usual hot and spicy dishes that Indian food is known for. It was pretty easy to make: peel, seed and shred a cucumber, and combine it with plain nonfat yogurt, fresh mint, cumin, chili powder, salt and pepper, diced tomato and onion. I only tasted a little of it; I was looking forward to using the leftovers, but at the end of the night I stood in the over-warm room and looked at the mixture that had been sitting out for several hours and had visions of subsequent food poisoning. So down the drain it went, I’m sad to say. Maybe next time I’ll rest the bowl on a bed of ice.

SamosasToBakeVerdict: Success. The samosas and raita tasted good, and were easy to make. I’ll probably try them both again, with modifications to the samosas.SamosasBaked

McCall’s Cookie Collection: The next-to-last party book

crisscross peanut cookies

PBCookieDoughI knew that when it came to sweets, the Black and White Cupcakes would be the big hits of the party. Different, dramatic and delicious ‚Äî and did I mention they were chocolate? I am a rabid fan of chocolate. (I hesitate to use the term ‚Äúchocoholic‚Äù because there‚Äôs no alcohol in the stuff, and also I don‚Äôt have a problem and can quit any time I want.) I am such a rabid fan of chocolate, in fact, that I reflexively feel guilty when it comes to dessert. Any time I am planning dessert my immediate, powerful impulse is to choose something with chocolate. And then I have a momentary surge of doubt: Am I being too narrow when I choose chocolate? What about all those other delightful non-chocolate desserts, such as cr?®me brulee and blueberry pie and coffee ice cream? Am I missing something if I choose chocolate?

PBCookieDough2Most of the time I would say no, I’m not. (Though on mid-priced restaurant menus I am prone to choosing just about anything other than the inevitable Death by Chocolate Torte, especially if there’s a local or regional specialty to be had.) But I do try to be cognizant of the fact that not everyone is as wild about chocolate as I am, and to provide alternatives. In this case I didn’t want to do something very labor-intensive or fragile, nothing that would seem like it was competing with the cupcakes, so I opted for cookies.

I’ve had the McCall’s Cookie Collection book for decades — certainly since high school, possibly longer. I was the family’s designated cookie baker from about kindergarten, the year my mom PBCookiesRawdiscovered that I liked that particular task a lot more than she did, which also happened to be the year I discovered that people will ooh and aah over your cleverly decorated Christmas sugar cookies and then pass them over for the far tastier chocolate chip. Which is probably also a lesson for life: the pretty ones will get a lot of attention, but people quickly figure out who they need to rely on to get the job done right.

I have no idea where I got the book; a slim, battered paperback that might be better called a pamphlet than a cookbook, it looks like something that might have come free with a holiday bakeware purchase at a department store. There are a number of oddly lit photos of the finished cookies, all arrayed on trays or in large glass jars, PBCookiesplus some photos of a doll preparing and baking cookies. It must be a very large doll, because it appears to be in a full-scale kitchen, and in one of the shots there’s a real person in the background at the sink. All of which makes me wonder why they chose to use a doll instead of a person. Have some creepy with your Christmas cookies!

Not all of the recipes in the book are holiday cookies, but naturally quite a lot of them are. I’ve used this book a few times for my holiday baking, and I had to search for a while before finding a recipe I thought would be appropriate for summer. Peanut-butter cookies are a favorite of mine, so I settled on the recipe titled “Crisscross Peanut Cookies.” And it wasn’t until I was sliding the cooled cookies into zipper bags to hold until the next day that I had a sudden realization: Hadn’t I made these before? I might have. I’m not sure. I racked my brain but I could not be certain. PBCookies2So to err on the side of completeness, this book will have to go back into the 107 Cookbooks hopper; I’ll add it to the December cookie roundup, and will be sure to make something I know I’ve never made before, like Filbert-Chocolate Drops  or Walnut-Topped Cookies. (But not the sugar cookies; I’ve made them before and they’re boring.)

Verdict: Partial success. The cookies were delicious, but I didn’t ensure that I was using an untried recipe.