Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Demel’s Amadeus Cookies

During my college sojourn in Italy, my friends and I travelled to Vienna for a long weekend that turned out to be one of the most poetic times of my life. My memories of our brief but poignant stay in Vienna feel culled from a mystical dreamscape.

Regardless of reality, my mind’s eye views a shimmering indigo Danube (not muddy and murky), ruby red cobblestone streets (not crowded with clueless tourists), luxe palaces, old world charm and enchanted sophistication (memories of the late night bar fights have faded).

The memory of our rustic (and let’s be honest, somewhat soiled) hotel room has evanesced, leaving only pristine, pearly sheets, lush, down-filled comforters, a charming yet exposed shower, and a gasp-inducing view (which probably didn’t even exist). In my mind, Mozart’s beautiful music wafted through the air as we sipped strong coffee and sampled buttercream-coated, meringue-piped and custard-filled cakes, chocolate-glazed pastries and marzipan-filled confections.

Recently Saveur Magazine published an article on the Demel, the famous Austrian confectioner that, ten years later, I still hold in the highest esteem. I ascertain that my memory of Demel is not caricatural. I recall obscene cases of layer cakes, pastries, buttery cookies, apricot jam filled chocolate Sachertortes, flaky strudel, dainty petit fours and endless coffee cakes. I recall white, starched tablecloths, baroque art lining the walls and a majestic air of formality tingeing the air.

The magazine features recipes for Demel’s chocolate truffle cake, marbled coffee cake, Russian punch cake and Amadeus cookies, a buttery sandwich wedged together with Kirschwasser spiked almond/pasticcio paste and dipped into velvety chocolate.

The sumptuous cookies well represent the grand and luxurious Demel. Visually, they are gorgeous: two golden cookies delicately fastened together with neon green paste, half coated in a dark, silken chocolate. They also taste pretty insane: the liquor spiked paste nestled between crisp, buttery wafers, all playing off the dark, slightly bitter chocolate; not too sweet, but without a doubt, decadently rich.

For the cookies:
1 3⁄4 cups flour
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
3⁄4 cup confectioners' sugar
2 egg yolks
1⁄2 teaspoon fine salt

For the filling:
1⁄2 cup shelled and unsalted pistachios
1 tablespoon sugar
3 1⁄2 ounces almond paste, at room temperature, chopped
2 tablespoons cherry liqueur, preferably kirsch
1⁄2 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the glaze:
1⁄2 cup sugar
3 tablespoons light corn syrup
4 ounces semisweet chocolate, preferably 54%, roughly chopped

1. Make the cookie dough: In a bowl, beat 1⁄2 cup flour, butter, and confectioners' sugar with a handheld mixer on medium speed until pale and fluffy, 1-2 minutes. Add yolks one at a time, beating until smooth after each addition. Add salt and remaining flour; beat to make a dough. Halve dough, flatten into 2 disks, and wrap each with plastic wrap. Refrigerate dough for 1 hour.

2. Make the filling: Heat oven to 325 degrees. In the bowl of a food processor, process the pistachios with the sugar until finely ground. Add almond paste and process until combined. Add the kirsch and vanilla and process until combined; set filling aside.

3. Transfer 1 dough disk to a lightly floured surface and roll with a floured rolling pin to a 1⁄8-inch thickness. Using a 1 3⁄4-inch round cookie cutter, cut out 24 cookies. Repeat with remaining dough disk. (Combine and reroll scraps to make 48 cookies in all.) Place cookies 1-inch apart on 2 parchment paper-lined baking sheets and bake, rotating pans halfway through, until cookies are pale golden, about 20 minutes. Let cool.

4. Meanwhile, make the glaze: Bring sugar, corn syrup, and 3 tbsp. water to a boil in a 1-quart saucepan over high heat. Remove from the heat, add chocolate, and swirl pan to coat the chocolate with the sugar mixture. Let sit without stirring to allow the chocolate to melt, about 5 minutes. Slowly stir the chocolate with a rubber spatula until smooth; set aside to let cool slightly.

5. Spoon about 1 teaspoon of the filling onto 24 cookies and top with remaining cookies. Gently press cookies together to sandwich them. Dip half of each cookie into the chocolate glaze. Transfer to a rack and let the glaze solidify.

Yield: Makes 24 cookies.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Raw Sweet Corn and Cashew Chowder

I’ve been feeling strange lately; inexplicably so. Nothing is wrong, per se, but I’m off.

And for once, I am at a loss for words to describe my condition (and I’m rarely at a loss for words!). Is it general malaise? Have a group of angry aliens snuck into my bedroom while I slumber and administered a probe? Has a Star Trek ear bug wormed its way into my system, shedding its exoskeleton in my stomach? Do I have a tapeworm? Is it simply the “jumping out of one’s own skin” syndrome?

I digress. I feel strange.

I need a quick cure and obviously a hard and fast dose of penicillin will not suffice. I’ve never tried any sort of master cleanse and I refuse. I do not care to buy packs of unmarked powders from a Yoda-style guru online and I refuse to drink that odd, unappealing and seemingly dangerous lemon juice/cayenne concoction. Anyhow, I’m not interested in starvation. But I do need to detox, whether my turmoil is physical or of the existential breed.

In preparation for our move to Brooklyn, I have been going through stacks of old food magazines and clipping inspiring recipes for my recipe book. I revisited the article “Simply Delicious Raw-Food Recipes” profiling raw-food enthusiast Ani Phyo who creates healthful and flavorful dishes using fresh, uncooked ingredients. She stays clear of a preachy, holier-than-thou stance on the subject. Her goal is to inspire others to “cook” and enjoy raw-foods recipes as well as make the lifestyle more accessible to the layman.

Upon reading Phyo’s recipes, I knew right away that eating raw would be the cure for my malaise. (And no, I’m not converting to a raw lifestyle! Who do you think we’re talking about here?!)

I decided to eat all raw, vegan foods for two days (and then continue eating as many fruits, vegetables and grains for the rest of the week). This means no cooking anything, no processed or cooked foods. All food consumed will be organic, uncooked, unprocessed and for me, vegan (though many raw foodists do eat honey and therefore are not considered vegan). My goal was to boost my energy and cleanse my system while opening the vortex of my mind to a totally different lifestyle.

I initially went into this experiment with skepticism. I had never had a raw foods meal that I fully enjoyed and although Phyo’s recipes appeared expertly crafted, I doubted their ability to satisfy my cravings while leaving me both satiated and spiritually content.

While I could never adhere to this lifestyle for a multitude of reasons (I believe cooking enhances flavor, kills germs and even enhances the nutritional value of a lot of foods), I was pleasantly surprised by Phyo’s recipes. Of the recipes on her website, we tried her corn and cashew chowder with cilantro and black pepper, the zucchini “pasta” was raw marinara, the fuzzy navel orange and pecan smoothie, the raw cacao “milkshake” and the apricot pudding. Everything was fresh and bursting with nuanced flavor.

Spring and summer are a particularly wonderful time to enjoy raw recipes as fresh produce reaches its peak and eating raw can definitely connect a person to the dynamic vitality of a fruit or vegetable.

Phyo’s chowder is a perfect early summer soup, taking advantage of easily accessible sweet yellow corn. The combination of corn and cashews seems so natural after tasting the soup. The sweetness of the corn plays so nicely off the earthiness of the nuts and when whirled together, you get a really creamy concoction. The recipe requires a hefty six tablespoons of olive oil so make sure to use a very good Extra Virgin Olive Oil as the flavor hits right up front.

Although we have a high speed blender, my soup was slightly grainy. I might suggest straining it through a China Cap if you have one handy or soaking the cashews in lukewarm water for 1-2 hours, yielding a more velvety texture.

The chowder literally took ten minutes to prepare, not including chucking my corn, which I did at the grocery store. I cannot recommend this soup enough. It is perfect for a light, healthy dinner or as part of a summer picnic in the park.

Raw Sweet Corn Chowder with Cashews
Adapted from Ani Phyo

3 1/4 cups fresh yellow sweet corn, shucked and kernels removed
2 cups water
1/2 cup raw cashews, soaked for up to 2 hours, drained
4-6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 small garlic clove
2 teaspoons kosher salt, or to taste
2 teaspoons of chopped fresh cilantro, or to taste
Black pepper to taste

In a blender, combine 2 1/4 cups of the corn with the water, cashews, olive oil, garlic and salt and puree until smooth. Taste for seasoning. Refrigerate if desired for a colder soup.

Pour the soup into bowls. Garnish with the remaining 1 cup of corn kernels, the cilantro, a sprinkle of pepper, and any other garnish of choice.

Yield: Makes 4 servings.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Macaroons, Two Ways

This year’s Passover has already matriculated, yet my unadulterated love for the iconic macaroon perseveres.

Macaroons have become the hallmark finish to the Passover feast, leavened with silken egg whites rather than the taboo flour that’s temporarily outlawed by observant Jews.

Whether you prefer almond or coconut macaroons is an age-old debate, though many traditionalists argue that almond macaroons are the only sacrosanct version of the cookie.

Though I obsess over everything and anything touched by almonds, there’s something sublimely knockout about Mark Bittman’s coconut macaroons with caramelized sugar, custardy egg whites and textured coconut flakes. Like a perfect almond macaroon, they unfold in a symphony of sensations: moist on the tongue, sweet to the taste and chewy to the teeth.

Meanwhile, Cooks Illustrated almond macaroons have a gossamer thin, crisp shell with a pillowy, yet chewy center, slightly reminiscent of elegant French macaroons; earthy like almonds themselves, yet sweet as if lovingly caressed with honey.

As the macaroons bake, you will notice the air tinged with an ambient perfume of sugary sweetness, a therapeutic and relaxing aroma that coddles the mind and stirs the stomach.

Both versions of the cookie are refined, yet comfortably nourishing and familiar.

Mark Bittman’s Coconut Macaroons

1 cup sugar
3 cups shredded unsweetened coconut
3 egg whites, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch salt

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and mix well with a rubber spatula or your hands.

2. Use a non-stick baking sheet, or line a baking sheet with parchment paper. To make the pyramids, wet your hands and scoop out a rounded tablespoon of the mixture into the palm of one hand. Using your other hand, press in gently on both sides of the mixture, bringing the macaroon to a point. Continue pressing with your thumb and forefinger on both sides until you have an even shape. For cubes, start as you would for the pyramids, then gently press equally on all sides, turning the macaroon to square off each side. You can use a butter knife to gently smooth the sides of the pyramids and cubes if you like. For balls, roll the mixture between your palms gently until round.

3. Place each macaroon about an inch apart on the baking sheet. Bake until light brown, about 15 minutes. Remove the baking sheet and cool on a rack for at least 30 minutes before eating. These keep well in a covered container for up to 3 days.

Yield: Makes 2 dozen cookies.

Cooks Illustrated Almond Macaroons

7 ounces almond paste or 7 ounces blanched almonds
6 ounces blanched almond (silvered or whole)
1 1/4 cups sugar (regular or vanilla)
3 egg whites from 3 large eggs
1 tablespoons Amaretto (optional)
1 teaspoon almond extract

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Cover two cookie sheets with parchment paper and set aside.

2. Place almonds into the bowl of a food processor and process until roughly chopped. Add the sugar and continue to process until the almonds are finely ground. Crumble in the almond paste (if using) and continue to process until the paste is pulverized and you have a fairly uniform mixture. If you are not using almond paste, process until the almonds are fine and crumbly but not powdery, about 1 minute to 90 seconds.

3. Add the egg whites, extract, and Amaretto and continue to process until the dough is smooth and begins to form into a ball at the edge of the processor blades. Remove from the food processor and allow mixture to stand for 20 minutes.

4. Drop level tablespoons of the mixture onto your prepared parchment paper leaving about 1 1/2 inches of space between each cookie. For an even prettier cookie, gently roll the dough into a ball.

5. Bake for 20-25 minute, rotating the cookie sheets top to bottom and side to side during the baking process. The cookies should be golden on top but should not be over baked as they will have a tendency to harden.

6. Remove cookies from the oven and allow to cool completely on the parchment paper. To make removal easier, scrape the cookie off with a table knife or thin spatula to reduce the chance of tearing. Once cooled the cookies can be stored air tight for up to 4 days or frozen for 1-3 months.

Yield: Makes about 3 dozen cookies.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Gluten Free Cheddar Crackers

Coping with food allergies or intestinal diseases seems to be par for the course in today’s environment. With toxins lacing the food we eat, compounded with the noxious air we breathe, it is no surprise that our bodies react in extreme and bothersome ways. You hear more cases of nut allergies, lactose intolerance, IBS, Celiac, and wheat and soy allergies than ever before.

New eating needs necessitate the demand for newfangled cooking.

Having recently come across the book Healing Foods by Sandra Ramacher, I was extremely surprised to find such interesting and versatile recipes geared towards those who experience digestive diseases. All her recipes are grain free, gluten free and sugar free in addition to being simple, gourmet, inspired and layered with flavor.

Ramacher’s cheddar cheese crisps are one of the best salty, cheesy, crunchy snacks on the planet. They are comprised simply of almond flour, a frequently used substitute for wheat flour, cheddar cheese, cayenne pepper, baking soda and water. I left out the suggested thyme as I thought it might detract from the cheesy, spicy boldness with too much earthiness. The taste, compounded with the fact that it is gluten free, make it a foolproof snack with a zesty bite and crackling texture.

Ramacher’s book proves that dietary changes need not be arduous and painful. Sacrificing flavor and quality proves unnecessary with carefully written, elegant, thoughtful recipes.

Cheddar Crisps, adapted from Sandra Ramacher

1 cup almond flour, processed in food processor until flour is finely ground
1 cup sharp cheddar, grated
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
2 1/2 to 3 tablespoons cold water

1. Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Line 2 baking trays with parchment paper.

2. Mix almond flour, cheddar, baking soda and cayenne pepper. Add the cold water and mix to form into a flat dough. Cover and place into the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

3. Take the dough from the refrigerator and take about 1 teaspoon of dough and roll each one into a ball and squeeze down with your fingers onto the prepared baking tray. Each cracker should be about 1/8 inch thick and at least 3/4 inch away from the next cracker. Bake in oven for about 25 minutes OR until edges start to brown. Be very careful to monitor your crackers. You do not want them to overbrown during this stage. The crackers still need to look pale in the center.

4. Turn the oven down to 200 degrees. Take the trays out of the oven and let cool for 5 minutes. Turn each cracker over and put the trays back into the oven. Bake for another 30 minutes, turn the oven off and let the crackers sit in the oven until the oven has cooled down.

5. Take the trays out of the oven and let cool completely. Crackers should be slightly browned, but still pale. It is important not to brown beyond a faint golden hue, as the crackers will not taste good.

Store in airtight container, between kitchen paper.

Makes 20 crackers.