Tuesday, 13 May 2008

The Cookie Project - Part 2

Ever since I read this blog post by Kelly-Jane, I haven't been able to stop thinking about these cookies. I could almost say that I've been obsessing about them, but then you might think I was very strange.

I adore dulce de leche, and have long pondered making my own. Martha, true to form, gives complex instructions about simmering condensed milk in a double boiler for 5 hours (yeah yeah yeah...) but I knew that it was possible to simply boil unopened cans of condensed milk to get the same effect. Slightly scary though, don't you think? I was thrilled to come upon this method, as described in a new-favourite blog of mine, Crockpot 365. I must try that some time... but it takes 8 hours and I wanted dulce de leche NOW! So I followed a link from Crockpot365 to the Eagle Brand website, which gave several methods for making it. The one that involved a mere 26 minutes in the microwave seemed the obvious choice, so that's what I did. It worked really well, although I fear that I nuked it for a couple of minutes too long, as it became almost toffee-like as it hardened, and I found myself chewing it off the spoon. I ended up adding a splash of milk to thin it down to the correct consistency. It tastes perfect, but just keep a close eye on it near the end of the microwaving time.

I only made 1 can-worth of dulce de leche, so decided to also halve the recipe for the cookies. Somehow 'only' using 1 and a half sticks of butter didn't seem so terrifyingly unhealthy as the 3 sticks in Martha's recipe. I still have birthday cake in the house from last weekend, so I didn't want to subject myself to the pressure of having to eat lots of cake and cookies! However, it still made 2 dozen cookies... oops!

I had assumed that the cookies would be like shortbread, but in fact they were rather more like pastry - quite flaky. Unfortunately some of mine were a little like puff pastry, and rose up dramatically during the cooking, making them tricky to sandwich together. I'm not sure why this happened, but I had a few mini-explosions as I tried to squish them flat. Because they were so pastry-like, I found that they looked rather dull. Boring really. Even though I had played about with my fun Linzer Cookie Press (hence the cool cut-out shapes on the tops), they looked a bit sad. This is clearly why Martha recommends the sanding sugar topping, something else that had hadn't been bothered to do. I must address my increasing culinary laziness. OK, now I'm only balking at the 5-minute job of sprinkling some sugar... the next thing you know I'll be blogging about buying microwave ready-meals.

After much faffing around I filled half of them with the dulce de leche, and the other half with Nutella (never a bad option) and after a quick dusting with icing sugar they looked fairly presentable. The cookies themselves are slightly bland, but enough sickly filling means that's not too much of a problem. If I made these again I think I wouldn't actually use this recipe at all - I'd make a plain shortbread cookie and sandwich them together with the dulce de leche.

Re-reading Kelly-Jane's blog post, I see that hers look like - and are described as - shortbread cookies. I clearly did something wrong. Ah well. We live and learn! I had intended to send these into work with Rob for his office bake-sale, but as I now learn that the bake-sale has been cancelled, I know a staff-room where these will be appreciated, no matter what they look like...

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Favourite Food Photos

I love taking photos, but invariably find myself disappointed with the pictures that I take of food. It's often because I have cooked in the evening, and it's harder to get good photos in artificial light. It's also that, once it's cooked, I just want to get on and EAT the food, not faff about with the camera. But even so, it's frustrating.

However, having just attempted to sort some of my thousands of digital photographs into some kind of order, I have discovered a few food photos that I really like, so thought I'd share:

Beef Wellington. This has become my culinary piece de resistance. I have only ever made it once, and will quite possibly never make it again, a) because buying such a large chunk of fillet steak would be so outrageously expensive in the UK that Rob would have a coronary before he even ate this, and b) this one was so good I'd be terrified that further attempts couldn't live up to it.

Cinnamon and Cardamon Rolls. From 'Falling Cloudberries' by Tessa Kiros. These were delicious - not my usual style of cinnamon buns (I would tend towards the more traditional syrupy sticky style) but they did look particularly beautiful lined up on the baking sheet. Like little snails... but in a nice way!

I have already blogged about my new-found love of making no-knead bread, and this is this weekend's effort - a sun-dried tomato and black olive version. Aside from the wonderful taste of this no-knead loaf, I just adore the cornmeal-flecked brown crackly top. I am always egotistically aglow with pride when I take one of these out of the oven - I feel like a professional baker!

The infamous Funfetti Cake! Yes, it's made from a Pillsbury cake mix; yes, it's chock-full of artificial colourings and flavourings, and is quite honestly way too sweet to eat more than a thin slice... but I still love it, especially the way it looks, fresh from the oven. This was the first time I had used my silicon bundt ring, and was delighted with the shape of this cake too.

From the ridiculous to the sublime - Elisabeth's Great-Aunt's Molasses Crinkle Cookies. This recipe was eagerly passed around the cooking forum - the cookies are wonderful, but with the added glow of knowing that it is a recipe that has been passed down through a friend's family. When I visited Elisabeth I was delighted to see the original recipe card, carefully handwritten by her great-aunt. Truly a little piece of food-history!

Apple and Mint Jelly. This is one of my favourite things to make, jar, and use throughout the year. It is especially tasty with roast lamb. The apples came from Sarah's apple tree, and the mint from her garden - so it was delightfully frugal, as well as being stunningly beautiful!

A campsite supper, eaten in California on our recent trip, and a fine example of how anything can taste amazing when eaten under the stars. Both the mac 'n' cheese and the wine were purchased at our favourite supermarket of all time, Trader Joe's, and cooked and eaten over the campfire, this truly felt like food of the Gods.

And finally, a shot from yesterday - this is Rob's birthday cake. It is a coffee sponge cake, topped with walnuts, made using a Nigel Slater recipe. We cut into it yesterday afternoon, sitting in the sun in the garden, drinking mugs of tea (strange how coffee cake goes so well with tea).

Monday, 5 May 2008

My first 'Tag'

The lovely Sandy has tagged me... being relatively new to the blogging world, I was not really sure what this meant until recently, but I like the concept - it's nice to get to know one's fellow bloggers, and fun to have a challenge. My tag is to describe myself in 6 words... just try it, it's not easy! I asked Rob for some help, but he seemed to sense that it was a loaded question and refused to give me any words.

So, here are mine:

1) happy (a slightly bland word, but settled on after considering content, optimistic, cheerful, positive, relaxed...)

2) independent

3) creative

4) thoughtful

5) humorous (I like to laugh, Rob likes to laugh at me)

Clearly the final one should be 'egotistical'... why do we feel so embarrassed about giving ourselves compliments?! Still, I'll go with a neutral one (but true, 99% of the time):

6) hungry

That was harder than it might seem. It's interesting to describe yourself and then compare it to how others would describe you. For example, I know that many of my forum friends would think I am very 'adventurous', due to our many adventures here in Canada. However, I don't really see myself that way at all - I think I'm pretty UNadventurous in many ways... I'd never partake in any 'extreme' sports (I would rather chew off my own arm than do a bungee jump) and am naturally a real homebody, much preferring to be chilling out at home than being out and about. Still, we have adapted to our circumstances and really made ourselves make the most of our time here, and I'm very pleased that we have done so.

Now, my big problem is that I have no idea who has already been tagged for this task... I have checked several people's blogs and seen that they have already done it. If you are a blogger reading this, please consider yourself tagged by me! If you are not a blogger, have a go at it anyway, in the privacy of your own home, and see what you come up with. Good luck!

Edit - Just noticed that Julie has not done it yet! Please feel free, anyone else...

Sunday, 4 May 2008

The Cookie Project - Part 1

Last week I acquired a new cook book - 'Martha Stewart's Cookies'. This book should really come with a warning on the cover, as I defy anyone to pick it up and browse through it and not purchase it. A friend of mine aptly described the luscious photographs that accompany every recipe as 'Food Porn' - I couldn't agree more. I found myself inadvertently mmmmmm-ing and ahhhhhhh-ing with pleasure as I read through the book in its entirety, and in the days since I have found my mind drifting back to this book, mentally planning which tantalising treats were going to be attempted first.

The book is divided into chapters according to the style of cookie. I found myself immediately drawn to the 'Soft and Chewy' section, as this is exactly how I like my cookies to be. My choice of cookie yesterday - my inaugural recipe from the book - was the 'Anise Drops'. This might seem strange to some; there are many much more striking cookies in this book, and many that may seem initially more appealing. However, given my recent experiments with Tortas de Aciete, I felt like continuing with the aniseed theme.

These cookies are so quick and simple. I whipped up a batch while the coffee was brewing, and we found ourselves eating 'just one more' several times in the course of drinking said coffee. They are plain cookies, but elegantly, beautifully so; pale circles with a gently crackled top. The texture is slightly chewy but airy, the perfectly legitimate lovechild of a cake and a macaron.

My admiration for Martha Stewart is great, but if I had one criticism of her, it is that she is just too bloody perfect. Reading through her 'Living' magazine, or watching her daily television show, I am often struck with a depressing sense of my own inadequacies. Why does my house not look hers? Why can I never manage to have fresh flowers from the supermarket in the house, never mind freshly cut from my own immaculate garden? Well, perhaps it's because I have a life in which beautifying my house comes somewhat lower on my list of priorities than cooking, eating, drinking wine and watching television. Actually, cleaning my house comes lower than all those too... Never mind, my point was that while Martha instructs you to transfer this cookie batter to 'a pastry bag fitted with a coupler or a 1/2 inch plain tip (such as an Ateco #806)' and 'pipe 1 3/4 inch rounds onto baking sheets lined with parchment paper', I settled for dolloping teaspoons of the mixture onto the baking sheets. I admire Martha, but I can't be her, and I can live with that. (The mixture was liquid enough that the cookies spread into perfect circles as they cooked anyway!).

My other minor adjustment to the recipe would be to use only a scant teaspoon of the aniseed essence, rather than the full one advised. I just found that the flavour was slightly too overpowering, although strangely it had mellowed a little by this morning (when I accidentally ate one of these cookies for breakfast). Perhaps it was just that my aniseed essence was new, I'd just say go carefully with it as it's very strong.

For those of you yet to succumb to the purchase of this book, here is the incredibly simple recipe:

Anise Drops

1 1/2 cups of plain/all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
3 large eggs
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 tsp aniseed extract

Preheat the oven to 350F (180C).
Mix together flour, baking powder and salt.
Whisk eggs (using an electric mixer/whisk) until fluffy - about 3 minutes - then gradually whisk in sugar until incorporated - about 3 minutes more.
Mix in aniseed extract.
Reduce whisk speed to low and mix in flour mixture.
Plop mixture onto lined baking sheets and cook for 8-9 minutes, until tops crack. You may need to rotate the baking sheets half way through to ensure that they are all cooked evenly. They will remain very pale.
Transfer cookies to wire racks to cool completely.
These will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for 3 days.

I am not going to make any rash resolutions about cooking every recipe in this book, but you may have got the hint from the title of this post that I fully intend to continue baking from it - and perhaps tempt you to try too?