We were dubbed The Macaroon Gang by one of the husbands of our little group, incredulous as he was that his wife and her food-obsessed buddies would devote an entire day to tracking down macaroons on the Lower East Side. But by then we had our route plotted out, starting at the little shop that stocked barrels of fresh, moist, densely sweet coconut macaroons for Passover — in plain, chocolate-dipped, chocolate chip, and chocolate dipped in chocolate — then heading down the street to the kosher pastry shop, the dried fruit and nut store, the matzoh factory, and the pickle man, for fresh horseradish (grated into a barrel by a guy on the sidewalk wearing a gas mask). It mattered little that only one of us was Jewish and actually needed some of the items for her Seder dinner. We’d fallen in love with those coconut macaroons from the LES and brought back bags full.
Alas, all of those iconic little LES shops have disappeared, their scuffed and worn storefronts turned into glass-box boutiques and coffee houses of a now thoroughly gentrified area. Coconut macaroons, on the other hand, remain a staple around Passover in New York. They’re likely produced by the same companies, although shed of the requisite trek to the old neighborhood, they’ve somehow lost their magic.
So this year, thoughts have turned to another macaroon variant for Passover, made with ground almonds and walnuts instead of coconut, and topped with bit of jam to make the cookies glisten like little jewels. This recipe, courtesy of cookbook author Joan Nathan in The New York Times, puts a Baghdad spin on things, with cardamom as the main spice, and a touch of rosewater in the finish. The only other ingredients are sugar and egg, just like basic coconut macaroons (not to be confused with the trendy French macarons), and they can be, in fact, should be, mixed in one bowl by hand. The process: incredibly simple. The results; hauntingly aromatic.
Tip: Be careful on the baking time, as these cookies can quickly become too brown and dry. Remove from the oven when they still look slightly underdone, and they will stay tender and chewy.
The signboard outside a neighborhood sweets shop offered the enticing promise of rose-flavored hot chocolate. A promise that, as is so often is the case with rose-flavored/scented foods, did not quite stand up in the bargain. The Valrhona hot chocolate was indeed luscious and lovingly prepared, but a bit heavy-handed in the addition of rose flavoring. It’s a problem encountered a lot in recipes that attempt to incorporate a lovely hint of rose, but instead leave a lingering sense of having ingested perfume, or soap.
It transported me back to the first recipe I ever encountered that called for rose water. Many moons ago, when the Three Points Cooks first got together in the kitchen, Bon Appetit magazine published an over-the-top recipe for brownies that called for both semi-sweet and milk chocolate, coconut, whipped egg whites, rum, Amaretto, and rose water. And that made it irresistible. Who knows where we even located a bottle of rose water in those days before gourmet markets became a fixture on every corner, but whipping up a batch of those lovelies forever changed my perception of how food and fragrance could combine to elevate commonplace ingredients. Just a touch of rose water takes chocolate to a whole other place. It’s hard to pinpoint how exactly — maybe some magical mix of serotonin-releasing elements and sense memories – but rose water enhances the very chocolaty-ness of chocolate, with an injection of ethereal freshness.
That discovery sent me off in search of other chocolate and rose dessert combinations, which remain relatively uncommon even now, years down the road, when all our taste buds have become more accustomed to the addition of herbs to sweets and floral notes to savories. Perhaps it’s because so many of them fall into the trap of a soapy overdose of rose. The idea is for the rose essence to be barely noticeable, a subtle whisper, an alluring perfume. That’s always been the beauty of this particular recipe to me. Tasters who are pretty sure they know what they’re getting with a brownie will raise an eyebrow in surprise and ask about the secret ingredient. Is it brandy? Marzipan? A particular kind of chocolate? They pick up on something, but can’t quite place it.
Rose water can be tricky, to be sure. Different brands seem to have different levels of strength, and it’s easy to overdo. Think of it as an extract, starting with a portion of the amount called for in any recipe, and taste for balance.
Try the recipe here: Chocolate-Coconut Brownies
I absolutely do not have space in my kitchen for specialty kitchen gadgets. And still I buy them. After Christmas, I scored a sweet mold for walnut-shaped cookies. The deep discount served as my justification (for this mold as well as one for shortbreads…) But, if I am going to be honest, I was really just smitten with how clever the final results would look.
Walnut cookies cross cultural barriers. Mexico has polvorones. Delicious and powdered sugar covered, these delicate wedding cookies are associated with our southern neighbor, but originated in the Arab world and traveled to the Western Hemisphere via Spain. Eastern Europe–I am thinking Poland and Czech Republic here, but I suspect they are widely Slavic–trot out the walnut-shaped cookies at Christmas.
Walnut cookies are as versatile as they are delicious. They can be rolled in balls or flattened like a traditional cookie. Or they can be cooked in molds, made fancy when the two halves are cemented together with icing or melted jam… or, when in my hands, with chocolate ganache.
Eons ago, I worked in a small-town bakery. The homebaked goods–cookies, pies, rolls and bread–featured the local flour, ground by a real-life Dutch mill nearby. The bakery was an old house, its kitchen was our kitchen, still recognizable as a basic farmhouse cooking zone with the addition of a mixer big enough to fall into, an industrial oven and a stainless steel counter where we rolled and measured dough, and dropped cookies onto large metal sheets. We sold what we made just steps from the work area, at a glass case near the back door.
I learned a lot working there… mostly tricks to improve efficiency, a must in a small space with several moving people and a hot appliance in the middle of it all.
I was reminded this week of one of those tricks after I toted piles of Christmas cookies into the office. First, I heard people marvel that I took all that time to bake cookies. (“They’re such a pain.”) Next, they wanted to know how I got them all perfect, e.g., all round and the same size.
Now, I do not believe for a second that cookies are a chore. On the contrary, they are a zen joy to me, all process-based chemistry with quiet fulfillment at the end. I will admit, though, that several actions can make the baking all the more simple–and lead to more satisfying (visual) results.
So my Christmas gift to you–in addition to recipes for my favorite ginger snaps, a chewy coconut-pecan bar and the sublime no-roll sugar cookies that we produced every morning at the bakery–are these three tips:
1. Always chill the dough. Even half an hour will help cookies keep their shape, make them easier to form and let them rise rather than run. This is especially true if you have a hot kitchen.
2. For drop cookies, use a small ice cream scoop with a release band that sweeps the bowl of the scoop. Just dip, scrape against the bowl to flatten the bottom and drop the cookie onto the sheet. No fuss, no muss. And the cookies will exit the oven all the same size.
3. Do not overbake. Unless your oven temperture is wildly off, bake no more than the time range advised by the recipe. They will still cook a little once out of the oven, and you do not want them over dry. Or burnt (unless you are my dad…).
What’s a girl to do with a bowl of leftover buttercream, namely of the brown sugar variety? Admittedly, my first thought was to grab a spoon and draw the shades, with no one the wiser. But even I don’t have the fortitude for that. So I whipped up a frosting delivery device — in the form of fudgy brownies swirled wth fleur de sel caramel (a small jar was floating in the back of my fridge) — to take care of the excess. A perfect compliment.
The Book: Baked–New Frontiers in Baking (2008}
The weather says too hot to bake, but that has never stopped me. I need my sugar fix, especially after a meat-packed barbeque. (I am nothing if not about the balance.)
For our soccer tailgate on Saturday, I went with Baked’s Brewer’s Blondies (page 129–there was a photo on Page 127). Not your usual blondie–which usually is a brownie without the essential ingredient, chocolate–these rich bar cookies have powdered chocolate malt balls in them, adding an unexpected and delicious twist (not to mention chocolate).
Underbake them slighty and you will end up with blondies that tend toward a caramel center. Delicious with beer, they’d probably be better with milk. Or ice cream.
The word, Yoga, literally means to unite. Some say it is the uniting of individual consciousness with higher consciousness. Others believe it to be a state of realization. However, practically speaking, it is a state of unity, balance, and equilibrium, between body and brain, brain and mind, mind and spirit. In food terms, it is the alfajor–spiritual equilibrium found in the form of a cookie. A state of unity, a balance between taste and absolute comfort for the mind and spirit.
Two light butter cookies with a layer of dulce de leche or sweet caramel cream – and rolled in coconut, a favorite South American cookie.
Known as arequipe in Colombia, manjar in Honduras, dulce de leche (sweet milk) in Mexico, this is about as close as one can get to sweet harmony. If you are lucky enough to have a Latin American bodega with dulce de leche in stock, even better, or, just boil a can of condensed milk for three hours, keeping the can covered in the boiling water and your caramel filling is ready. Adding cinnamon and nutmeg or even a dash of chipotle powder only heightens it decadent taste.
Closing your eyes and biting into this cookie will certainly make one have a new appreciation for the term yoga. Ohm, yum, ohm, yum.
- 12 tablespoons butter
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 egg
- 2 egg yolks
- 2 1/2 cups cornstarch
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- Zest of 1/2 lemon
- Dulce de Leche
- Grated coconut
To make cookie dough:
Cream the butter and sugar together, then mix in the remaining ingredients except the dulce de leche and coconut until well blended. Knead on a floured work surface until the dough is smooth and let rest for 15 minutes.
Make the cookies:
Roll the dough out to a thickness of about 1/4 inch and cut into 2-inch rounds. Place on a greased cookie sheet and bake in a preheated 300°F oven for 20 minutes. When cool, spread some dulce de leche on the bottom of half the cookies and press another cookie on top, allowing some of the dulce de leche to squeeze from the sides. Roll the sides in the coconut until the sides are covered.
Makes about 12 delicious, definitely non low calorie cookies!