Little Jewels

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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. 

 Almond-Walnut Thumbprint Macaroons 


Chocolate Kissed by a Rose

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Morning scents.8.7.14

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

Q is for Quince

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420px-Pancrace_Bessa00There’s something old-fashioned about quince. It could be partly because the fruit is rarely seen in U.S. markets these days, despite its likeness to the apples and pears that overflow grocery bins. That very scarcity, coupled with the fact that quinces have a dry, astringent flesh that needs to be cooked, and so can’t be eaten out of hand like their more alluringly juicy cousins, might explain why the fruit isn’t a part of our typical repertoire, even though quince trees are still abundant – and abundantly ignored – around the country.

A tasting of quince jam, served on a cracker with a bit of cheese at the greenmarket, persuaded me to pick up a few of these fall fruits. After all, cheese and quince paste (in a form somewhere between a dense jelly and fruit leather) are a classic pairing in Spanish cuisine. (I’ve even been known to serve some cheese and quince paste on matzo for a tapas meal served during Passover.) And the idea of cooking up a quick jam or compote that could accompany a meal of roast meats and vegetables, or be utilized for dessert in a tart of pastry, seemed appealing.

photoA browse through The Foods & Wines of Spain, by Penelope Casas (Knopf, 1982) turned up a version of the jam, and Banda de Almendra (Almond and Marmalade Puff Pastry Strips),which would take advantage of some puff pastry in the freezer. The quince (membrillo) marmalade cooks up in no time, and a little bit tops puff pastry strips, sprinkled in this case with some chopped leftover walnuts. A Spanish-born sampler recognized them immediately: “Ah, membrillo!” After he relayed that they also known as Corbatas (“ties”), a batch was obligingly shaped into neckties. 


Banda de Almendra

Quince Marmalade

Sweet Inspiration

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I know, I know, povitica/potica has made a few appearances here at Three Points Kitchen. But the Eastern European nut bread is a family holiday tradition, especially as part of the Easter basket and subsequent dinner. But part of the fun of baking comes from where experimentation and exploration can take you.

OK, sometimes innovation is a matter of necessity. Arriving in D.C. for Kate’s annual Easter feast, I realized I’d forgotten the walnuts needed for the traditional povitica filling. Kate suggested substituting pistachios from a stash she had on hand. My mother would not have approved (she barely tolerated the cheese filling option that is also traditional), but our revolutionary idea proved relevatory. Swapping out ground pistachios for the same amount of walnuts in the basic recipe, keeping the cinnamon and adding a touch of almond extract, took this batch of povitica to a delicious new place. The Turkish turn  it took seemed entirely in keeping with the culinary influences found throughout states of the former Yugoslavia from where our family recipe hails, and the swirl of green pistachio filling lent a springtime touch.

Sorry mom, but this one’s a keeper.  Try the recipe here.

Going Green

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Kiwi Lime TartHappy St. Patrick’s Day! Here in D.C., where we are celebrating another snow day (6 inches, sigh), we are going green with a cool and tangy kiwi-lime tart. It will complete our tribute to the Celts, aka dinner, which will feature a glorious fabada asturiana–the Spanish cassoulet that hails from Spain’s northern and very Celtic region of Asturias. Rebecca scored some actual Spanish faba beans in New York, and we have a jamón bone, sawed into three pieces, to throw into the soup pot this afternoon. Photos to come!

The Road to Paradise is Paved with Grains

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The ice cream experiments were continuing when I encountered a startlingly relevant passage in The Book of Salt. The novel, by Monique Truong, is told from the perspective of a Vietnamese cook hired by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas for their Parisian household in the late 1920s. Evidently, it takes off from a real-life anecdote in The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook. Miss Toklas wrote, “[He] came to us through an advertisement that I had in desperation put in the newspaper. It began captivatingly for those days: ‘Two American ladies wish to hire a cook. . . ’ ”

The novel intersperse the cook’s personal story with bits of kitchen wisdom he has picked up in his journey, including a description of “mes mesdames” tasting his best Singapore ice cream:

They both could taste the vanilla and the crystallized ginger, but only Miss Toklas could detect that there was something deeper, something that emerged as a lingering lace of a feeling on the tongue.

Peppercorns, Miss Toklas. Step the milk from morning till night with ten coarsely crushed peppercorns. Strain and proceed as usual. The “bite” that the peppercorns leave behind will make the eater take notice, examine this dish of sweet anew. Think of it as an unexpected hint of irony in a familiar lover’s voice.

Here it was. Just the solution for how to use the grains of paradise that had come into my possession, and for the ice cream I’d been pondering. A friend had passed along some of the spice, having purchased it for the interesting description alone, but saying, “I’m not sure what I’d do with it.”

I’d heard of grains of paradise, a spice native to West Africa, being used in beer brewing, and I seemed to recall a flurry of activity a while back, when it was discovered by chefs.  Grains of paradise are described as having a peppercorn-like bite, but with a bit of citrus that some have likened to a burst of lemon in the mouth.  Online recipes seemed to use them much like peppercorns — as a crust for fish, in salads or salad dressings — and the little dried berries do look similar. But I’d also found a Grains of Paradise Ice Cream, with a base of coconut milk. Aha! Still, while it was on the right track, it was not headed in quite in the right direction. Then, almost simultaneously, I came across The Book of Salt passage.

Sweet serendipity! Taking the fictional cook’s suggestion, I steeped a tablespoon of cracked grains of paradise in a standard vanilla ice cream base for about 8 hours, then strained the mixture, and churned in the ice cream maker as usual. The result is indeed evocative of the cook’s description. The effect is subtle, probably undetectable to most tasters, but the grains of paradise do provide an underlying depth of character, very much a “lingering lace of a feeling on the tongue.”

To gild the lily, the ice cream was paired with another recipe incorporating grains of paradise, Drunken Cherries. (How could I resist using the bounty of my favorite summer fruit?)

I’d long known that The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook is a sought-after collectible (with its own infamous “food of paradise” recipe), which drew my attention to The Book of Salt in the first place. But I have no idea where the novelist gathered the cooking tidbits passed along by her protagonist. Perhaps if Monique Truong still lives in Brooklyn, as the book jacket says, I’ll have the chance to ask her in person someday, and offer a jar of Drunken Cherries in thanks.

Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein in Paris, 1922 (Man Ray photo/National Portrait Gallery

Now That’s Iced Coffee!

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038It’s that time of year again. On the sweltering sidewalks of New York, everyone is staying hydrated by keeping a cup of iced coffee within sipping distance at all times. But I’ve never been a big fan. Iced coffee only really tastes good with lots of milk and sugar, and I try to avoid the extra calories that involves; the melting ice dilutes the flavor; coffee shops in these parts charge more for an iced coffee, anyway; and then there’s the matter of all those extra plastic cups and lids generated by the fascination with summer’s icy brew.

No, I think there’s a much better way of taking coffee iced: in the form of granita. I was reminded of it while reading a chapter in The Man Who Ate Everything, in which Vogue food critic Jeffrey Steingarten searches Italy for the perfect granita, stopping off in Palermo to join the local custom of breakfasting during hot-weather months on coffee granita into which pieces of brioche are dunked. Granita— differing from close cousin sorbet in the granular, yet fluffy texture of its ice crystals— is a perfect vehicle for delivering the punch of coffee or espresso in a truly refreshing manner.  The ingredient list consists basically of coffee and sugar (with a dollop of whipped cream for serving recommended).

But the best thing of all is that it’s incredibly easy to make. Coffee granita calls for no special skills, no special equipment, and it’s a great way to use up leftover coffee or espresso.  Mix it up, freeze in a metal pan, and stir with a fork every once in a while to scrape up the crystals. It takes a bit of time to develop the right texture, but the effort involved is little more than giving the pan a stir when you get up from the couch to grab a snack.

Once you’ve got the basic concept of granita-making down, the same technique can be used for other fruit and flavor varieties. We’ll be trying Watermelon Granita with Cardamom Syrup (also a good way to use up extra fruit), and Steingarten’s Chocolate Granita from Catania, which he turns into chocolate in garapegra, a “holy and noble elixir of fresh life” from the 18th-century, with the addition of some vanilla, orange zest, and a few drops of distilled jasmine.

How refreshing!