Sunday, January 23, 2011

Putting things in the past

Almond cookies!
Every academic department has its social traditions. At my alma mater, for instance, on Thursday evenings after the weekly departmental colloquium (i.e. lecture and discussion), we all flocked to the faculty club to have a drink (on the department's tab, of course), gossip talk philosophy, and fight over the one sad bowl of peanuts or pretzels that the bartender put out.
Things are a little different at my new department. On Friday afternoons after the last talk has let out, everyone similarly gathers in the departmental lounge for a few hours to unwind over food and drink--only here, it's traditionally the responsibility of members of the incoming class to put the (modest) budget to good use every week and provide whatever sort of food and drink they want within the budget's constraints. This, of course, has made for both really good and really bad outcomes. I've been told that sometime ago the weekly spread was always Cheetos and PBR, as though teenagers had taken over the budget. But this year, I must say, my fellow first-years and I have been doing a pretty stand-up job. There's been plenty of fruit, cheese, hummus, and, ahem, the occasional bottle of twelve-year-old whisky.
I was responsible for last Friday's fare, and as you might imagine, things could easily have gotten out of hand with me, food, and a budget with which to do whatever I willed. I dreamed up something like this: at least two kinds of home-made hummus, maybe a red lentil dip, home-made pita bread, poached pears, dark rye bread, apple slices and caramel dip, mulled cider...but I restrained myself (there is that business of reading and research that I'm also supposed to be doing, if you remember) and drew the line at making cookies.
Okay, so I know that the last recipe I shared with you was from Berley's Modern Vegetarian Kitchen, but I love this book--it was the first real cookbook I worked with back in my early undergraduate days when I was just starting to get a feel for the kitchen, and I've never really put it down for very long since. It's clear, well-written, and full of reassurance for the novice cook--there are some very elegant illustrations, for instance, that demonstrate how to deal with odd-ball vegetables like artichokes and leeks, and there's lots of helpful information for vegetarians, new and old, about what to do with things like tempeh or seitan.
However, the reason that I've been turning to this book rather frequently as of late is its vegan desserts. As much as I love butter and eggs, I can't of course exclude my vegan friends from the table. I really like Berley's desserts--not only because they don't rely on things like butter substitutes or egg replacers but especially because they're amazing as they are. They don't taste as though they're missing something.
These toasted almond cookies are particularly outstanding. You start with raw almonds, which are toasted in the oven until their sweet nuttiness really comes through. You then grind these along with flour, salt, and baking soda into a beautifully aromatic meal. Finally, the real magic happens: maple syrup and a generous heap of orange zest go into the batter. Just shape the cookies as you would their peanut-butter counterparts, finish them with a sprinkle of sea salt, and into the oven they go. (And because they're vegan, you can definitely lick the spoon when you're done.)
The Friday crowd really enjoyed these cookies. They'd munch contemplatively on their first bites, not quite having figured out what was in them, and then smile knowingly when I told them. You'd almost think that they were peanut-butter cookies--the maple syrup mutes that distinctive almond flavour a little bit--but then the orange blooms in your mouth, and you know that this is no ordinary cookie.
Hopefully, these helped everyone put the old days of Cheetos and PBR behind them.

Toasted Almond Cookies with Orange Zest
Adapted (barely) from Peter Berley's Modern Vegetarian Kitchen

1 cup whole almonds (6 oz)
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour or 1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour and 1 cup all-purpose (8.4 oz of AP or 4.2 oz each of AP and WWP)
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup pure maple syrup (5.5 oz)
1/2 cup pure olive oil (or melted coconut butter or melted unsalted butter) (4 oz)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
1/2 cup sliced almonds (2 oz)
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread the almonds, both whole and sliced (while careful not to mix), on an ungreased baking sheet and toast in the oven for eight minutes.
  2. Set the sliced almonds aside. In a food processor fitted with a metal blade, combine the whole  almonds, flour, salt, and baking soda and grind to a fine meal.
  3. Lightly grease two baking sheets or line them with parchment paper (or, if you're short on half-sheets like me, just grease the one on which you toasted the almonds--no need to wash it, either).
  4. In a bowl, whisk together the maple syrup, olive oil, vanilla, almond extract, and orange zest. Add the almond mixture and sliced almonds and mix together with a wooden spoon (or your favourite silicone spatula).
  5. Moisten your hands and form the dough into walnut-sized balls (or, get out your trusty scoop--I used a #30, which I think means that it's a one-ounce scoop). Place the balls three inches apart on the baking sheet(s) and gently flatten into 2-inch rounds with a fork. Dust each cookie with a few grains of your favourite salt (I have Himalayan Pink that I like quite a bit).
  6. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, rotating the baking sheets halfway through for evening baking, until cookies are golden brown.
  7. Transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool.
Yield: the original recipe says about 24 but I only got 19. It's possible that I overfilled a few of my scoops. The smaller cookies were the prettiest.

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