Friday, December 26, 2008

I learned how to make biscotti from my Sicilian grandmother. She always made the ones with almonds, and for many years, I didn't realize there was any other kind of biscotti. I know better now, and for a change of pace this holiday, I made a batch of orange-pecan biscotti. Like so many of the recipes I post, this one is not difficult, but it does take a little bit of time. When you dunk your biscotti into your coffee the next morning, you won't regret the afternoon of baking!

Below is the recipe (adapted from a recipe in the Fine Cooking cookie issue and from my grandmother's recipe).

Orange-Pecan Biscotti
12 ounces white flour
1-1/2 cups white sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup orange zest, finely chopped (zest of two oranges)
1 cup chopped pecans
3 large eggs
5 tablespoons olive oil (yep, it's fabulous)
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon Grand Marnier (for a stronger flavor, you can double this)
To make the dough:
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two cookies sheets with parchment paper or Silpat mats.
2. In a large bowl, mix the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt.
3. Put a little of the flour mixture into a small cup and add the orange zest. Mix to keep it from clumping and then add to the rest of the flour mixture.
4. Add pecans.
5. In a small bowl, blend the eggs, olive oil, orange juice, and Grand Marnier until well blended.
6. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour in the egg mixture. Stir until the dough is blended. (It will be a sticky dough.)

To make the logs (or loaves):
1. On a heavily floured surface, cut off six pieces of dough of equal size. Roll each one into a log about 12 inches long. Place three logs on each cookie sheet, allowing room between each one. Flatten each log so that it's about 2 inches wide. (An easier method--for bigger, longer biscotti--is to divide the cookie dough in half. Form a loaf from each half, about 12 inches long by 2 inches wide. Place one loaf on each cookie sheet.)

2. Bake until the logs are golden and the tops are firm, about 23 minutes. Rotate the cookies sheets halfway through this first cooking (from top to bottom shelf and vice versa) to ensure even baking. (For the loaf method, follow this same step with about the same timing.)
3. Remove the logs or loaves from the oven and cool for a few minutes (until cool enough to handle).
4. Transfer logs/loaves to a cutting surface and with a serated knife cut the logs into cookies about 1/2-inch thick. (Cut the loaves into bigger slices, about 1-inch thick.)
5. Put the slices back onto the cookie sheets, one of the cut sides up, and return to the oven for another 10 minutes (for the log biscotti) or for another 15-20 minutes (for the loaf biscotti). You can't really go wrong with the baking time (unless you truly burn the biscotti). A shorter baking time makes chewy biscotti, while a longer baking time makes crunchier biscotti. Follow your preference.
*Makes about 65 small cookies (and roughly half that if you go with the loaf method)

Friday, December 19, 2008

One Christmas several years ago, I made a batch of molasses cookies, and as is my wont, I overbaked them. Instead of chewy cookies, they were hard. But because I hadn't actually burned them, they were still edible. A couple days later, SJG made a batch, and hers were perfect. We packed up all the cookies, SJG's and mine, to divvy up between my mother's Wisconsin household and my father's, where SJG and I were spending the holiday that year.

SJG's cookies were a hit, of course. Mine were ignored until all the others had been eaten up. They didn't go to waste though. When we had returned home, my mother called. "I've found a way to eat those cookies" she chortled. "They are PERFECT if you dunk them in milk! Why don't you send me some more," she continued. "But send me SJG's, not yours!"

This year, in fond memory of my mother, I made a batch of those molasses cookies. And I didn't overbake them.

Below is the recipe, adapted from the cookie edition of Fine Cooking that came out last month. The dough requires refrigeration before baking, so plan accordingly.

2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1-1/4 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter, at room temperature or softened in the microwave (I like to use premium butter for baking)
1 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/3 cup molasses (I like the strong, full flavor of blackstrap molasses, but any unsulphured molasses works well)
1 egg
granulated sugar for rolling the cookie dough in

1. In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, spices, and salt.
2. In a separate bowl, beat the butter and brown sugar together with an electric mixer and add the canola oil.
3. Add the molasses and the egg to the butter mixture and blend well.
4. Stir in the flour mixture and combine well.
5. Wrap dough in plastic wrap or put it in a plastic bag and refrigerate for about 3 hours.

To bake:
1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees.
2. Pinch off a walnut-sized piece of cookie dough and roll it in your palms to form
a smooth ball. (It's a messy process, so you may want to wash your hands after you've rolled a sheet of cookies.)
3. Roll the ball in granulated sugar to coat. Place on a lightly greased cookie
sheet (or you can use a Silpat mat instead of greasing the cookie sheet).
4. Repeat the process until you've used all the cookie dough. Sprinkle each ball
of dough on the cookie sheet with a little extra granulated sugar.
5. Bake 8-9 minutes until the center surface of the cookies is dry. Avoid the
temptation to overbake.
6. Cool the cookies on the cookie sheets for 5 minutes after you've taken them
out of the oven. Cool completely on a wire rack before storing. These cookies
freeze well.

*Makes about 2-1/2 sheets of cookies (roughly 36 cookies)

Friday, December 12, 2008

My mother killed herself six years ago this week. I felt close to her in the many months after her death. Really close. She came to me in my dreams, in frequent unexplained waftings of her perfume, in unanticipated bursts of the Mozart she used to play strong in my mind. I never really felt she’d completely left me behind. It seemed we inhabited a grey space somewhere between the living and the dead.

Years later I find we no longer live there together. I’ve shifted back to the realm of the living, and she to that of the dead. I miss meeting her in my dreams and have begun to wonder if, after a certain passing of time, the living and the dead lose their point of intersection forever.

My study is one of my favorite rooms in the house. It has my books, SJG’s clothes, all my personal papers, favorite framed prints, a comfortable reading chair and one of my mother’s lamps, and an assortment of the framed family photographs and artworks I gathered from her apartment after she died.

On a recent evening, I was in my study looking for something to show SJG when suddenly my bridal bouquet, dried and fragile now, fell from the bookcase behind me onto the floor. Wondering how the bouquet could have jettisoned from its sure perch, I bent down to pick up the scattered petals. Just as suddenly, one of the wooden hair sticks flew out of my tightly knotted bun, skidded across the floor, and split in two.

And then I noticed the photograph. The square black-and-white one from the 1950s. Fallen from its corner of my grandmother’s cross-stitched sampler, where it’s been tucked for six years. The one of my mother holding me, an infant, in front of her face. Where we’re smiling at each other as if there is no one else in the world worth smiling at. That makes me smile again and forget all the suffering. And that confirms for me that it is she, with me now in this room, at our point of intersection.

Friday, December 05, 2008

SJG and I love roasting as a culinary method. It's easy to do and brings out the sweet, complex flavor of so many foods. So when I saw a recipe recently in the November 18, 2008, New York Times food section for roasted fingerling potatoes, figs, and garlic (photo above by Francesco Tonelli for the New York Times), I decided to give it a whirl.

Everyone to whom I've mentioned this recipe says, "Oooh, that sounds awful," but I'm here to tell you that SJG--who had the same negative reaction--was fighting with me for the leftovers afterwards! Below is the recipe, adapted, as usual, for my tastes and methods.

1/2 to 3/4 pounds dried black mission figs (available at most coops)

1-1/2 to 2 cups brewed black tea (I used Twining's English Breakfast, but plain old Lipton black tea is fine too)

2 to 3 pounds small potatoes, sliced in half (you can use Yukon golds, fingerlings,
or banana potatoes, a fingerling-style potato we discovered recently at our local coop)

2-3 heads fresh garlic, separated into individual cloves with the paper still on each one (choose big heads with big cloves)

10 sprigs thyme (I used dried sprigs from a pot I have in our kitchen)

1/3 cup olive oil (enough to lightly coat everything)

salt and pepper, to taste

1. In a large bowl, soak figs in tea overnight. (Don't skip this step since it allows the dried fruit to withstand high heat during the roasting process.)
2. When ready to prepare the dish, preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
3. While the oven is heating, wash the potatoes and slice them in half the long way (to provide the biggest, broadest surface of flesh).
4. In a large bowl, combine the garlic cloves, thyme, drained figs, sliced potatoes, and olive oil.
5. Place on a large roasting sheet (a heavy duty cookie sheet is fine) and sprinkle with salt and pepper, to taste. Roast for about 30-40 minutes, tossing the potatoes with a spatula at about 15 or 20 minutes to ensure even baking. The potatoes are done when they have a nice golden brown color and you can easily pierce the flesh with a fork.
6. Serves 2-4 people. (Note that diners are meant to remove the paper of each garlic clove as part of the meal and eat the sweet roasted garlic meat with a bite of potato and fig. My photo below. Delicious!)