Thursday, January 22, 2009

Chocolate Sandwich Cookies

Oreo cookies are a time-honored snack long favored by children and big kids-at-heart. There’s no denying that the 97 year-old toothsome snack is not healthy. But that hasn’t stopped cross-generational consumers from snapping up bags upon bags of the historic cookie, making it one of America’s most enduring and beloved treats.

Eating an Oreo has never been a simple act: twisting the cookie open, licking down the creamy center, dipping the crunchy halves into milk until rendered soggy. But the pure, unadulterated joy of Oreo consumption can turn any stone-cold scrooge into a jubilant kid.

Lets face the facts, though. Home baked goods are always a better alternative to the trans fat laden commercial desserts from your local grocer. Rather than devour an entire bag of chemically processed (albeit yummy) goodness, why not make your own?

This recipe for chocolate sandwich cookies is not difficult, but it is certainly tedious, a perfect activity for a blustery, snowed-in day. Although time consuming, the finished product is well worth the effort.

The cookies are sublime, like a homemade version of the Oreo: crunchy, wafer-thin, slightly flaky and subtly salty cocoa-infused biscuits wedged together by a sugary, creamy white chocolate ganache. The effort is certainly a worthy indulgence. These “Oreos” are a grown-up, sumptuously mature reworking of the childhood classic.

For dough:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (1/2 pound) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
1 large egg yolk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

For ganache:
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 1/2 tablespoons light corn syrup
3/4 pound fine-quality white chocolate, melted
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Equipment: a 1 3/4-inch fluted round cookie cutter

Make dough:
Whisk together flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt.

Beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer until pale and fluffy, then beat in yolk and vanilla. At low speed, mix in flour mixture in 3 batches just until a dough forms. Divide dough in half and form each piece into a 6-inch square, then chill, wrapped in plastic wrap, until firm, 2 to 3 hours.

Make ganache while dough chills:
Bring cream and corn syrup just to a simmer in a small heavy saucepan, then stir into melted chocolate. Stir in butter and vanilla until smooth. Cover surface with parchment paper and chill, stirring occasionally, until very thick, about 30 minutes.

Cut and bake cookies:
Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle. Butter 2 large baking sheets.

Roll out 1 piece of dough between sheets of parchment paper into a 14- by 10-inch rectangle (1/8 inch thick). Slide dough in parchment onto a tray and freeze until dough is firm, about 10 minutes. Repeat with remaining dough.

Cut out as many rounds as possible from first chilled square with cutter, reserving and chilling scraps, then quickly transfer cookies to a buttered baking sheet, arranging them 1/2 inch apart. (If dough becomes too soft, return to freezer until firm.)

Sprinkle half of cookies with decorative sugar (if using), then bake cookies until baked through and slightly puffed, 10 to 12 minutes. Cool on sheet on rack 5 minutes, then transfer to rack to cool completely (cookies will crisp as they cool).

Make more cookies with remaining dough and scraps (reroll only once).

Assemble sandwich cookies:
Beat ganache with an electric mixer at high speed just until light and fluffy. Transfer to a sealable plastic bag (snip off 1/8 to 1/4 inch from 1 corner with scissors). Pipe ganache onto flat sides of plain cookies, then top with sugared cookies to make sandwiches. Chill, layered between sheets of parchment, in an airtight container until filling is set, at least 1 hour.

Sandwiched cookies keep, chilled, 4 days.

Makes 3 1/2 dozen cookies.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Potatoes Gratin

Potatoes are one of those versatile foods that apply to any season. In summer, potato salad is served cold, coated in a thin layer of crisp mayo or oil and livened up with herbs. In the cooler weather, potatoes beckon to be baked or roasted in their little fall jackets, perfect for a hearty, warming snack. In winter, however, I want something meatier, something heavier, richer and creamier. I want 1000 calorie potatoes! And nothing fits the bill better than potatoes au gratin.

Over the past few years, I have been on an aggressive hunt for a life-changing au gratin recipe. I’ve cooked through the steakhouse cookbooks, the grill and grill accompaniment cookbooks, a few classic cookbooks, an “all things potato” cookbook and just about everything in between. After undertaking dozens of recipes, I was left cold, unsatisfied and carbo-loaded.

With a little help from famed chef Alice Waters’ cookbook “The Art of Simple Food,” I found enough inspiration to create the perfect gratin. Chef Waters’ recipe is incredibly simple, bare-bones and even somewhat healthy: thinly sliced potatoes baked, 3 layers deep, with salt, pepper and milk. It is her post-recipe suggestions that bring the everyday au gratin to heightened levels. She recommends rubbing the pan with garlic to ramp up the flavor, or adding a dash of cheese toward the end of baking to create a flavorful, crispy top layer.

I went full throttle with the casserole, 4 potatoes sliced paper-thin, the layers sprinkled with salt, pepper and cayenne, slathered in a caloric mixture of half & half and heavy cream, a layer of thinly sliced garlic on the bottom, baked off and topped with a crispy, crunchy layer of gruyere. This, my friends, is the ultimate au gratin, garlic flavor infused in every bite, the top browned and crunchy, the bottom golden, the layers perfectly tender, gooey and velvety.

2 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
4 potatoes, thinly sliced with a mandolin, about 1/16 inch thick
Salt to taste
Black pepper to taste
Cayenne to taste
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup half & half
Greyere for sprinkling, grated

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Rub a 9x12 inch baking dish with butter until well coated. Layer the bottom of the buttered dish with the sliced garlic.

Make a layer of potato slices on top of the garlic, overlapping them slightly. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and cayenne. Continue to layer the potatoes, seasoning each layer to taste, until the potatoes are used up or until you make 3 layers.

Pour cream and half & half over the potatoes.

Bake potatoes for about 1 hour total. Halfway through the baking, take the gratin dish out of the oven and press the potatoes flat with a spatula to keep the top moist. Sprinkle gruyere over top of potatoes for the last 15 minutes of baking. The gratin is done when the potatoes are soft and the top is golden brown.

Yield: 4 servings.