Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Peanut Butter Cookies and a Glass of Milk

I'm slowly developing an addiction to cookbooks, which I think pretty much everyone in my family has realized. Lucky for me, they hit the spot every time they pick out a new book.

For Christmas, I got the reprint of Betty Crocker's original Cooky Book from 1963, retro images and all. Paging through it makes me feel like I'm in the sixties, trying to find a cooky (not a cookie, no no) to go along with a Jell-O ring or some other weird sixties specialty. You can find the cookbook here, and it's full of fun and easy cookie recipes. While you're on the Wiley website looking at the book, buy Water in Buildings by William B. Rose!

For my first recipe from the book, I decided to try my hand at a classic that I hadn't had in years--the peanut butter cookie. Ahhh, the peanut butter cookie. The American classic, made to be scarfed down with a cold glass of milk. The thing is, I don't really like milk unless it's chocolate milk. I take that back--I like a cold glass of milk (the cliché that never dies), but only if it's American, bad-for-you milk. Oh I know, I should be happy I have delicious hormone-free French milk to indulge in. Which I do, with a good dose of Van Houten chocolate powder and sugar. But the cold glass of milk is never going to happen in France. I'll admit it: I do not like the taste of real milk.

Now that I've gotten that taboo out of the way, I will add that a true PB cookie has not only a glass of milk by its side, but the signature crosshatch pattern everyone had fun doing when they were children. Alright, I might have spent more time eating the cookies than crosshatching them when I was little, but I'm just adding to the story here.

All this to say that the Peanut Butter Cooky--or Cookie, as you wish--is quite probably the madeleine de Proust of many Americans. It may remind you of coming home from school to a warm batch of cookies, grabbing one and feeling it melt in your mouth, or licking the spoon from the peanut butter jar.

Yes, I added chocolate to the milk after the picture.

To put it in the words of Betty Crocker:

"Think many happy family memories are bound up with the tradition of the cooky jar? (...) the traveling businessman discovering a packet of favorite cookies tucked in his luggage..."

Does anyone else just felt like they were just thrown into a pistachio green Formica kitchen with ladies in pastel colors? Oh, Betty Crocker...

The cookies were, pretty unsurprisingly considering the lengthy success of this book, really good. I baked them a little less longer than the recipe indicated for my second batch, and they were perfect. With or without milk.

Peanut Butter Cookies
"a favorite with men and children"
makes about 36 cookies

1/2 cup shortening (I used butter)
1/2 cup peanut butter
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 TS baking powder
3/4 TS soda
1/4 TS salt

- Mix shortening (butter), peanut butter, sugars, and egg thoroughly. Measure flour by dipping method or sifting. Blend all dry ingredients; stir into shortening (butter) mixture. Chill dough.

- Heat oven to 375°F. Roll dough in 1 1/4" balls. Place 3" apart on lightly greased baking sheet. Flatten crisscross style with fork dipped in flour.

- Bake 10 to 12 minutes (might be because of the butter, but I'd recommend 8 to 9 minutes for them to be chewy).

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Maman's Almond French Toast

I've always been a pancake kind of girl.

Hardly cooked--with the runny center--and drenched in maple syrup is the way I like them best. There was a point in my life where I wished I could eat pancakes for breakfast every weekend. That is, until I went home to Urbana this summer.

I always liked French toast, but it was never really a love story. French toast never left me with that feeling I get after eating one too many pancakes, because I always end up eating one too many, where I lean back and sigh happily about my sticky fingers and empty plate.

Back in Urbana, I woke up on a sunny morning and made my way downstairs. There's nothing I like quite as much as waking up for breakfast at home. For some reason, it feels just right and makes me want to stay there, seated at our counter, until the end of the year. This time, I'd have to add "until the end of the year with a plate of almond French toast". This French toast is like no other: you know that feeling you get where you wish it was just a little juicier? Well, this one is drenched in a decadent mix of milk and cream, and the slivered almonds and almond extract bring the taste up to something totally crazy.

The good thing about Maman's French toast is that it's rich--and I've never really liked a breakfast/brunch dish that left me pining for more. Rich enough, however, that you could even serve it as dessert after a light meal. Basically, if you count the goûter or four o'clock snack, this French toast can be eaten four different times during the day. And that, in my opinion, means four different moments of pure happiness.

Maman's Almond French Toast
serves 4

- 8 slices of brioche
- 3 eggs
- 2 pinches salt
- 3 TB sugar
- 1/4 TS vanilla extract
- 1/4 TS almond extract
- 1 1/4 c. whole milk
- 1/4 c. heavy cream
- unsalted butter, for cooking
- 1 c. sliced almonds

Heat griddle. In a medium bowl, whisk eggs.

Add salt, sugar, vanilla and almond extracts.

Gradually whisk in milk and cream, and pour mixture into a shallow baking dish.

Place bread in the dish and let soak 3 minutes on one side, turn it over and let the other side soak for about a minute.

Butter the griddle, and let the butter bubble.

Just before placing the bread on the griddle, place almonds in a single layer in the shape of brioche slices.

Press one side of bread into the almonds and cook until golden brown, about 4 minutes.

Flip bread to other side and cook another 3 to 4 minutes.

Serve hot with maple syrup.

Asian-Style Chicken Udon Salad

One thing I miss the most about New York is how cheap, delicious, and easy to find Asian food was. Feeling like a quick bô-bun? A yummy pad thai? Chances are, wherever your apartment is, you can find either one a quick walk away.

In Paris, thing are different. Sure, there's amazing Vietnamese food to be had, owing to the pretty large Vietnamese population in France, and there are some really good Thai restaurants too. But none of them fall into the "cheap" category, and I can't seem to name a single place apart from the many sushi restaurants or Chinese take-outs that's within a five-minute walk from the apartment here. The crazy thing is, I have pretty much everything except the Asian food I'm craving: Italians galore, Indian, Mexican, you name it.

The only thing left to do is trek down to Tang Frères (I wrote about it a while ago here), stock up on Oyster Sauce, Hoisin Sauce, Nuoc Mam, and all the other wonderful things I can find for less than 1 euro. Tang Freres really is an Asian aficionado's paradise--I couldn't get over the fact that I had spent less than 30 euros for 30 items, even though I know prices are probably ten times higher than what you would actually pay in Asia. But I'm in Paris, and 90 cents for a jar of pickled ginger seems just right.

Now that my kitchen has exactly zero inches of free space left, and I've got everything I need, I can finally start cooking Asian food myself. Shrimp curries! Vietnamese chicken and tofu! If I didn't enjoy baking, I think I would spent my time making red and green curries and drown myself in liters coconut milk. I keep thinking I could eat pad thai and curries all day long, until I realize I don't think I would be able to fit into my kitchen if I decided to do that. Sure, my kitchen is small, but still--I won't take that risk.

Anyway, with my 3,000 magic ingredients on hand (did I mention my kitchen has really run out of space? I'm thinking of converting my whole apartment into a kitchen), I set out to recreate a recipe I made when I was back in Urbana for a couple of days: Chicken and Broccoli Udon Salad.

Chicken and Broccoli, pre-Udon

It's fresh enough for a warm summer lunch or dinner, but I can see myself making this throughout the year. The broccoli gives the salad a nice crunch, and the sauce coats all the ingredients nicely. Even better, it comes together in a short half-hour and the results are pretty impressive: this is one of those "one-pot" dishes that are good enough for an informal meal with friends.

And hey, since it won't prevent me from fitting into my tiny kitchen, I'd have seconds of this any day.

Asian-Style Chicken Udon Salad
serves 4

1 lb. chicken breast
1 lb. brocoli
1 lb. udon noodles (I used less, both times)
1/2 c. oyster sauce
2 TB Hoisin sauce
1 TB sesame oil
2 TS chili paste
1 bunch chopped scallions

- Cook the chicken in water, 5 to 10 minutes on medium heat. Drain, but keep the cooking water.

- Bring the water back to a boil and cook the broccoli for 5 minutes until bright green. Remove.

- Bring the water to a boil again, and cook udon. Reserve 1 cup liquid, and rinse udon under cold water.

Mix all the ingredients, adding 1/2 cup of the cooking water. If you'd like a thinner sauce, add the remaining 1/2 cup (I never do).

The temperature of the dish will be warm but definitely not hot, which is just perfect.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Take Me to the Opéra

Summer is all about being lazy.

With a three-month vacation, I think I pretty much incarnated the saying. That is, until the day I made an Opera cake.

The Opéra was probably first invented by the pâtisserie Dalloyau in celebration of the Garnier Opera House in Paris, a magnificent building which is not only the place to see great ballet or opera, but also to make yummy honey--they have an apiary on the roof. Just like the building, the cake is beautiful and complicated. Sure, it's delicious and that's what ultimately counts, but it is complicated. I say "probably" invented because they all seem to want to be the founders of the Opéra out there. Lenôtre also says it's theirs. I don't really care, as long as it tastes good.

If you like coffee and chocolate, then the Opéra is for you. Oh, and a fondness for butter doesn't hurt either.

I started looking for a recipe and stumbled upon the one written by Dorie Greenspan, which seemed pretty nice to me. The only main difference with a traditional recipe is that this one omits the Grand Marnier syrup, replacing it with a coffee syrup.

The trick to a good Opéra is having all the layers in the perfect proportions. You don't want to be overwhelmed by the coffee buttercream, or have too much cake: the biscuit Joconde, as it's called in French. Now, to get this part down, you have to be meticulous.

And to be meticulous, you have to be in a good mood and ready to concentrate. See, I told you I didn't spend a completely lazy summer! Once the whole thing is assembled:

- cake layer, doused in coffee syrup
- coffee buttercream
- another syrup/cake layer
- chocolate ganache
- yet some more cake and syrup
- buttercream, again
- chocolate glaze,

you'd imagine that these many layers ends up with an American-looking over-the-top cake, and higher than a house, but it's no more than four or five centimeters high.

Once the cake was assembled, I thought I was finally done. That was before trimming it, which brought out my pent-up frustration--the ganache didn't turn out the way I wanted it to, too hard and not nearly spreadable. I guess everyone in the house sensed it, or maybe they heard me huff and puff and sigh, and maman came along to help with the trimming.

Next came the transportation. I honestly would never be able to become a professional caterer; I think my head would burst from all the stress of not dropping anything (did I mention that I'm extremely clumsy?). The beautiful Opéra was all set on its jelly roll pan, on top of some parchment paper, and ready to be brought over to my aunt and uncle's house. Obviously, we forgot one small detail. Parchment paper doesn't exactly stick to anything. Five minutes of screaming in the car every time we had to make a turn ensued, but thank goodness, the cake was sain et sauf.

Finally came the part I was waiting for: I could finally taste it.

The buttercream, ganache, cake and syrup all came together to create this wonderful creamy explosion in my mouth. The only thing is, this baby is all butter. One small piece automatically triggers the need for a sieste digestive in the hammock.

Back to lazy summer days it was.

And since laziness doesn't end with summer, here is a terrific link to the recipe from Splendid Kitchen because it really is long:

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Chocolate Chip Cookies, Again

I seem to be quite the pro when it comes to inverting things.

Take this, for example: I made a promise to myself that during the school year, I would bake once a week and go to the pool twice. You know, to balance out the raw-dough eating, the right-out-of-the-oven tasting, and the once-it-has-cooled tasting...among others.

However, a goodbye dinner for a friend off to Dublin and an impromptu dinner at my apartment left me with only one option, baking twice in the week. Of course, that doesn't explain why I only went to the pool once, but it's only Sunday afternoon right? Ha. Right.

Anyway, I developed some sort of obsession with my chocolate chip cookie recipe and wanted to improve it. The batter was clearly too runny when I baked the cookies right away, and I wanted to get something more out of the butter. At the risk of ending up with rock-hard, sadly disappointing cookies, I went ahead and decided these were the perfect occasions to try new things.
How right I was! Cringing in fear of seeing bleak looks on everyone's face when they tried my new and improved cookies, I can't say I was disappointed at all. Actually, let me rephrase. I wasn't really cringing, considering the above dough/out of the oven tasting I "forced" myself to go through--I was pretty sure my recipe was improving.

So, what did I change? Something every other cookie baker out there has probably done ages before me.

- I incorporated 1/3 of the butter at room temperature with the sugars, and melted the rest.

- I froze the dough for about 45 minutes to an hour before baking,

And my cookies were one step closer to being the way I love them.

Now the only problem is, I keep telling myself I'm going to mix things up and add nuts, but that time never comes. Sure, I'll add M&Ms for the fun of it, but next time friends come over they'll be warned. If you don't like chocolate, stay away from my cookies.

(But hide them somewhere so nobody else can eat them but me)

To come: lemon macarons, opera cake, peanut butter cookies, and yummy Asian recipes!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The End of a Long Summer, the Start of a New (School) Year

Three whole months of summer vacation.

I can proudly say it was my first in the past eight years or so, and also my first "long" (actually, in this case, I don't even think I need quotations marks) summer since I entered business school. No summer internship?!? Well, no, considering internships is what I had spent the past 25 months doing.

So, my summer vacation started on June 12th, and from then on it was all about fun, family, and food. As if fate wanted me to remember that I had exactly three months off, I came home to a dreary-looking, coat-wearing Paris on September 12th... which now gives me time to look back on what this summer was all about.

It was definitely about learning new techniques--the difficult Opera cake, or Pierre Hermé's lemon macarons--but also recalling the importance of food shared with important people in your life. Mind you, I'm not particularly referring to cooking next to important people in your life: I think all the girls I know will agree that having your maman compliment your cake is much better than the part where she stands around the kitchen, sure deep inside that you really do need her help.

Summer started out with a trip back home to Illinois, and after six months of a strange kitchen--not to mention cockroaches the size of my arm--it was nice to be back in my appliance-filled, airy open kitchen at the house. Here I discovered almond French toast, and since it's 9:30am when I'm writing this, I won't get into details right now. I don't have almonds, cream, or brioche on hand and my box of petit beurre is at risk of being eaten if I keep going.

We moved on to Palm Springs, California, where I got the wonderful chance to see family I hadn't seen in years and finally meet some great cousins. Personally, I think we should change the name of family reunion to family food celebration, given the amount of amazing Mexican food we had. Come to think of it, I wouldn't really mind having the French toast and some enchiladas right now. Too bad all I have are Italian Baci chocolates. Uh-oh, as they say.

To make a long story short, summer was a food-filled adventure. Even though I'm back in Paris, my recipe book has been replenished and I still feel on vacation--no, I don't really think it has anything to do with having a four-day weekend every week.

Well, maybe, but less time in class means more time in the kitchen, right?