Sugar and Spice

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Ginger Lemon SnapsEons 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…).

Happy Holidays!

Life’s A Beach, Part 1

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The question was pressing- what do we bring for food on a deserted island where we will be the only inhabitants. Reassured that there was indeed a gas stove on the little cay we called home for five days, we began the game we love to call “if you were stuck on a deserted island, what would you bring. . . ”  Thankfully, there was ample room in our bags, because no one needs more than a bathing suit, cover up and a pair of shorts to live happily for five days. Our food journey began with the knowledge that we would have ample access (via boat) to fresh fish, fresh fruit and the essential libation of Central American rum. Upon arrival to the cay, we also duly noted that coconuts were in large supply. Large enough, I may add, to play a rousing round or two of bocce ball with said coconuts.

Meal planning was out of the question, but we knew enough to take organic brown rice (a staple in our house), a good cooking knife, and ample spices. Macaroni and cheese was also added as a quick fix. A great challenge for those of us who believe everything tastes better home cooked, we found ourselves in the sauce section of the local coop and supermarket, reviewing all that was prepackaged. There was pad Thai, jambalaya and gourmet Mexican seasoning sauces, in bags no less. Were they waiting for us, did they know we were going on a trip, hence the packaging? Purchases packed, we made our way to the cay and made one more stop on the way the local supermarket of the main island to build up our supply of fresh fruits and local tortillas and beans.

Upon arriving on the island-cay, our first order of business was peeling the pineapple, and making some pineapple tea base. Using the pineapple tea as a base, we added fresh coconut water, freshly chopped coconut meat and pineapple, ample amounts of rum and a shot of fresh lime to create our first drink and christen our stay on the island with the first of many happy hours.

And then there was fresh sea bass.

The Sandy Cay

½ cup Pineapple tea (see above)
¼ cup fresh coconut water
2 shots dark rum
1 tbsp. chopped coconut
2 tbsp. chopped pineapple
Dash fresh lime juice

Mix the liquid ingredients together and then add the fruit. Stir and serve in fancy plastic glasses .

My Thai Pie

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I cannot get enough of big, classic South Asian flavor combinations, especially those that build on coconut, citrus and chile. So when a local pie-baking contest came up, with a category for most creative, I set to work on  pulling together a new dessert that capitalized on the rich, layered flavor combinations of my favorite Thai soup, tom kha gai.

The end result: a butter-enriched coconut chess pie infused with lime, ginger and jalapeño.  While not a winner according to the judges, my willing tasters over the weeks preceding the contest seemed to think my tom kha pie was pretty good.

Cuckoo for Coco Bread

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The best cure for a wintery mix—weather-speak for wet, cold, sloppy misery from the sky and DC’s current forecast—is a tropical diversion. If I could get on a plane headed south this second, I would. Alas, my accursed responsibility gene is keeping me from the sun-delivered Vitamin D, ridiculously sweet cocktails and tropical-fruit-laden foods of the Caribbean that I so obsessively crave. Recreating my favorites at home, then, seems to be my best, current option.

When I was in Roatán, Honduras, a century ago (read: 1.5 years), we greeted morning every day at one of the many laid-back food joints lining the turquoise water at Half Moon Bay. The breakfasts themselves were unspectacular—except for a delicious, toasted bread that came with every meal. We raved about it to our unimpressed wait staff. They told us, “It’s just bread.” The look on their face said, “Ridiculous gringas.”

But it wasn’t just bread. It was airy, cakey, with a large crumb and, while not sweet, definitely had something more going on than water, flour and yeast.  We asked and asked for a recipe or at least the secret ingredient. Finally, some poor woman took pity on us and let on that it was made of coconut.

Honduran pan de coco is a staple on the Bay Islands and, if my research holds, the brainchild of the Garífuna people who inhabit the area. It is bread, not pound cake, with flour and yeast transformed by unsweetened shredded coconut and/or coconut milk. (The recipe, like any staple handed down over time, varies on this and other points.) The coconut neither overwhelms nor weighs down what is definitely a white bread—a slice of which will make the best toast you’ll ever eat. Slathered with butter, it has changed my latitude.

Meanwhile, speaking of tropical drinks, the poison of choice on Roatán is the Monkey La La. Sweet enough to crack your teeth, it is the house specialty at the Sundowner, despite frequent island power outages. (The La La allegedly contains ice cream.) Try at your own risk and plan on a hearty breakfast–with pan de coco!–to soak up your sins and bring your glucose down to a more reasonable level.