Thursday, March 31, 2011

Cloud cookies!

Linzer shortbread
It's been an excellent and exhausting week so far. Things have been pretty non-stop, and the week isn't over yet. On top of my usual scholarly duties, I've also been playing B&B hostess, neighbourhood guide, and department representative to a number of prospective philosophy grad students. Everyone I've met has been wonderful, and I really do hope that I'll be seeing them all again in September.
But right before things got crazy--like between eleven and midnight while waiting for our guests to arrive at one--I did get a chance to bake these cookies. They're adapted from a recipe in the much loved, much blogged-about book that Kim Boyce put out last year, Good to the Grain. Admittedly, I haven't baked much from it since having acquired it. Last year, at least, most of the recipes seemed a little too fussy for everyday baking. I guess making a ton of macarons recently has changed my outlook. Besides, these cookies are well worth a bit of trouble. 
Cloud cookies!
Still needing a break from anything too complicated, I simplified the recipe a bit. The original calls for an orange-cardamom honey glaze, which I'm sure would be wonderful but not something that I worried about when it was nearly midnight. I also went along with the ingredients that I already had on hand--whole-wheat pastry flour and almonds, instead of amaranth and hazelnuts. The result, while not nearly as exotic and nuanced as originally conceived, is a crisp, nutty, no-nonsense cookie.  They stand about halfway between shortbread and linzers--barely sweet with a marvellous saltiness. I think they're fantastic plain, but I can see how they'd be the kind of cookie that still wouldn't be over the top if you decided to flood each with a thin layer of royal icing to make them even more cloud-like. Munch on these when you're far away from home and it's too late for dinner or when the house is still asleep and you're waiting for everyone to be ready for breakfast.

Linzer Shortbread (Cloud) Cookies
Adapted from Kim Boyce's Good to the Grain
Note: as the recipe states, the dough is a rather dry, crumbly one--to make things easier between cutting out the cookies and placing them on my half-sheets, I used a metal dough-scraper and lifted each cookie from beneath and gently transferred it to one of the sheets. There was a risk of the dough breaking apart, otherwise.
2.5 oz (1/2 cup) raw almonds
4.25 oz (1 cup) all-purpose flour
1.1 oz (1/4 cup) whole-wheat pastry flour
2.3 oz (1/2 cup) granulated sugar
0.15 oz (3/4 teaspoon) fine sea salt
4 oz (1 stick) butter, softened to room temperature
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spread almonds evenly on a baking sheet and toast them in the oven for 10-14 minutes, until the nuts are dark and fragrant. Remove from the oven and cool. Once the nuts are cool, grind them in a food processor until finely ground, about 20 seconds.
  2. Prepare two baking sheets, rubbing them lightly with butter or covering them in parchment paper.
  3. While the nuts are toasting, sift the dry ingredients in a bowl, pouring back any bits of grain or other ingredients that may remain in the sifter. Add the softened butter and the ground almonds to the dry ingredients and rub the butter into the dough with your fingers. The ingredients such barely come together. Dump the dough out onto a floured work surface and press it together.
  4. Using a rolling pin, roll the dough out to a thickness of about 3/16 inch. If the dough seems to be cracking, push it back into place and continue rolling. You probably won't need any additional flour to roll out the dough, as it will be quite dry. Using your favourite cookie cutter, cut the dough into shapes and transfer them to the buttered baking sheets.
  5. Bake 20 to 24 minutes, depending on the size and shape of your cookies. They should be evenly  golden, with slightly darker edges and a dark golden bottom crust. When the cookies come out of the oven, move them to a baking rack for cooling. These cookies are best eaten as soon as they've cooled, but they'll keep in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Briefly Noted

Orange-almond macarons
All appearances to the contrary, I don't have a new macaron recipe for you today. The macarons pictured above, though perfectly ruffled and delicate, were not what I was hoping for. I dreamed of rich, intensely nutty almond macarons with just a hint of orange in their crackly shells, kind of like these cookies. But these macarons were just not meant to be--I got carried away with my first almond cream, letting it sit over the flame for too long, and then the fat separated from the nuts (yuck!); the second batch didn't quite set enough and dribbled all over the place; and in the shells, the orange zest came through too much on the tongue. The result? These macarons taste remarkably like Fruit Loops or, at least, like how I remember the stuff tasting. I'm not sure if it was the excessive orange zest or my not-so-great powdered sugar, but I got a second opinion last night--definitely like Fruit Loops. (My dinner guests took seconds all the same. Were they just being polite? Maybe it was the novelty.)
In any case, this recipe will just have to stay where it belongs--as a briefly noted failure in my lovely new Field Notes pocket notebook. If you're not familiar with Field Notes: they're a little American company that makes high-quality 5-1/2 by 3-1/2 inch soft-cover notebooks, printed right here in Chicago. Each notebook is a slim 48 pages (blank, lined, or graph paper) that fits in your back pocket, perfect for when you need to make a quick note or two about something. Every few months, Field Notes does a limited-edition run (their "Colors" series)--instead of their usual craft-paper brown, they put out notebooks with a pretty, coloured cover, like "Balsam Fir," which was the next to last in the series. 
Field Notes dry transfer
Just last week, they released their Spring 2011 run: the Dry Transfer "_____" Edition. The idea is this: you get three of their usual craft-paper notebooks in a pack, except without the usual "Field Notes" on the front cover--instead, there's a dry transfer kit for you to put whatever you want on. Just print out the template from their website, secure a notebook to it, grab a dull pencil, and transfer away! Field Notes even made a helpful little video for people like me who aren't very crafty. Naturally, my first notebook reads `Test Kitchen'. The kerning isn't perfect, but I think it's great. When I'm in the kitchen, there are always times when I want to make a note of something but can't be bothered to run to my computer, sticky hands and all. I'm going to try to keep this little guy in my apron pocket with a pen. We'll see how things go.
Almond cream on toast
Now, I wouldn't want to leave you completely empty-handed when I promised macarons. The consolation prize is a pretty good one, I think. Almond cream: sweet, nutty, and spreadable. Put it on your morning toast, in the place of frosting on your next chocolate cake, or on your waffles--I think that this would be really great on waffles with the touch of maple syrup involved.

Almond Cream
4 oz almonds (that's a generous half-cup)
1 oz granulated sugar (that's 2 tablespoons)
1 egg yolk
5 oz half-and-half
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Toast almonds on a baking sheet for 10-12 minutes, until nutty and aromatic. Let cool.
  2. Grind almonds in the food processor until they release their oils and turn into nut butter. Add sugar and egg yolk, pulse until combined. At this point, the mixture will be clumpy. Transfer it into a medium heat-proof bowl.
  3. Meanwhile, heat the cream in a small saucepan over medium-low heat until it just begins to bubble around the edges. Remove from heat. Stir in maple syrup and a generous pinch of salt.
  4. Gradually add about half of the cream to the almond mixture, whisking as you go. Return all of it to the saucepan over low heat and whisk until visibly thickened, 8-10 minutes. Make sure not to over do it, or it might separate. Remove from heat and scrape the almond cream into a glass jar. Put it in the refrigerator for at least 2 or 3 hours to cool and thicken.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Getting ready for company

Sourdough boules
With only a few exceptions, things have been rather routine around here lately--and, in light of recent events, I'm grateful for it. I've been, as usual, baking bread, reading philosophy, sifting around paper ideas in my head, and building trade empires--in friendly competition, of course.
But things are bound to get a little more exciting very soon. I've got some egg whites aging in the fridge, patiently awaiting the macaron ideas I've been dreaming up. (I just need to get some serious writing done before I dig out the old whisk and pastry bag.) And, in less than two weeks, my boyfriend and I are having our first house guests since having moved into this apartment. It's that time of year in the academic world--where bright, young (and lucky) aspiring scholars have just received acceptance letters from grad schools and are now out and about visiting institutions, weighing their options. Our guests are one such prospective student and his wife girlfriend, and so our job is to make them comfortable and get them excited about the department here and the city. Now, this department can pretty well take care of itself--its graduate program and faculty are fantastic, and I'm proud of them both--but a few hospitable touches on our part couldn't hurt either. A little homemade sourdough here, a little fig butter there, maybe a few cream biscuits, a slice or two of pear bread, and who wouldn't want to sign the dotted line and do philosophy here? That's the plan, starting with this sourdough, now snugly tucked into the freezer, ready for company.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


Auburn, Alabama
This past weekend, four of us, rather than buckling down and getting a good start on our term papers, jumped in the car and sped down winding Interstate 65, through flat Indiana and past the rugged, rusty ridges of Kentucky and Tennessee, to Auburn, Alabama. Primarily, we were there for a much anticipated conference on Wittgenstein's Tractatus (pictured above is the conference location, the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, which houses a few Edvard Munch pieces and even more Audubons--a nice way to spend one's time between philosophy talks!). What really made the trip for me, however, was getting my first real glimpse at the American South and, at the same time, gaining a better sense of who one of my friends and fellow road-trippers is (he, having grown up in Alabama).
After the first day of the conference, we met up with his fiancee and a few old friends of his and had dinner at the Amsterdam Cafe. The dinner itself was great--I had my very first fried green tomatoes and a superb little taste of Gulf snapper. But it was our company that really made the night. Never have I met such people--so wonderfully warm, kind, earnest, reflective, and open from our first handshakes. Though they weren't philosophers by training--but artists, chemists, etc.--they welcomed my fumbling explanations of what it is that I do and what analytic philosophy is, more generally. And when we were done talking philosophy, we spoke of such things as bee-keeping in the city, community gardens, activism, Joel Salatin, guerilla gardening, and Ernest Hemingway. These are people I would have wanted to spend my undergraduate years talking to, late into the night and long after. I hope that we'll cross paths again.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Fussy things

Salted butter caramel macarons
A macaron, I've come to realise, is a bit like a fussy relative. There's this dear friend of my mother's, for instance, whom I call grandma (she's not actually my grandmother--it's just one of those things), who just terrified me as a child. She had this imperiousness about her--she liked to have things just so, and if they weren't done to her satisfaction, you'd be the first to know. Her eyes would narrow, her lips would pout, and she'd tell you in frank terms what you'd done wrong. Then you'd have to mumble an apology and promise to do better next time. She was a woman of stature who knew it and expected treatment befitting of it. (I suppose she also wanted me to grow up to be a well-mannered and decent human being and thought to admonish me early on at the first sign of misbehaviour. But I was young, and I dreaded her criticism.)
A macaron is a little like that. She's exacting--she needs to be treated just so--and when you don't get things quite right--if you underbake her, overmix her, or mismeasure--it shows. But when you do manage, it's well worth the effort. Your macaron will lift herself in the oven and reveal that pretty, ruffled foot, signalling to you that she's ready for great things, like salted-butter caramel. It's just a matter of figuring out what she likes and doing it. 
I'm still trying to work this out for myself. A couple of nights ago, my boyfriend and I tried our hand at salted-butter-caramel macarons. Unfortunately, quite a few of them came out underbaked and were stubborn about coming off the parchment as a result. But the handful that made it, as you can see, were something to marvel at--I should add that it wasn't me who did the piping. Most of these pretties are still tucked away in the fridge, but we couldn't help sampling a couple yesterday. And let me tell you, salted-butter caramel is a splendid thing sandwiched between two macaron shells. It's certainly a sweeter combination than chocolate and fig butter, but the salt (my trusty Himalayan pink) elevates things well beyond the saccharine. It brings out the scotch-y, buttery notes in the caramel, rounding out all the sweetness--a filling worthy of almost any fussy macaron.
Salted-Butter-Caramel Macarons: For the shells, we tried Helene of Tartelette's standard formula, which can be found here. The salted-butter caramel was from Smitten Kitchen. We made half of Deb's recipe, and there was plenty left for other applications, including eating it by the spoonful.