Saturday, December 29, 2012

Hazelnut Cloud Cookies

With all the anticipation and preparations for the holidays, it's hard not to feel a little bit disappointed with the actual event, as my daughter did when the promised Christmas snowfall in Boston yielded only enough for this miniature snowman peeking quizzically around the porch pillar of my childhood home. We all have our hopes for the holidays and each celebration will only be an approximation of those expectations. My son had covered his bases with his list for Santa Claus: "a magic wand and some money", but got neither, while I suspect that my daughter's fervent wish was simply to be able to believe in Santa Claus for one more year, a tall order when Santa had to navigate between Eugene and Boston and between antithetical German and American Christmas traditions.  

Ensconced here in the artifacts of my childhood, I couldn't help pine for the incomparable flavors of the homemade German Christmas cookies we used to receive each year from my grandmother's home in Franconia, half of them crushed into an etherial mixture of sweet, nutty, buttery crumbs that I used to scoop and gobble by the handful. In a post-holiday attempt to perk up my daughter and recreate some of those flavors, I tried this recipe for powdery nut cookies, similar to her favorite pecan cloud cookies from the Eugene City Bakery.

The cookies are made from a simple butter dough sweetened with powdered sugar and packed with ground nuts (back in Eugene, I would use our supply of hazelnuts from Thistledown Farm). This batch served as an accompaniment to a tea party with toy china my son unearthed from my old bedroom. As we nibbled our dainty nut clouds, real snow clouds gathered in the afternoon sky and by bedtime enough snow had accumulated to ensure that real-sized snowmen will be built tomorrow. 

Hazelnut Cloud Cookies
adapted from Epicurious via Smitten Kitchen
makes about 4 dozen cookies
1 cup (2 sticks) butter at room temperature, cut into cubes
1/2 cup powdered sugar for the dough and about 1 1/2 cups for coating
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup hazelnuts (or use pecans or walnuts or a combination of nuts)
2 cups all purpose flour
1/8 tsp cinnamon (optional)

1. In a dry skillet or a toaster oven, lightly toast the nuts until fragrant. If using hazelnuts, roll them in a dishtowel to remove most of their skin. Combine the nuts and the flour in a food processor and blend into a fine powder (including the flour will prevent the nuts from turning into nut butter). Remove the nut flour to a bowl.

2. Put the butter in the food processor and process until well-creamed. Add the 1/2 cup powdered sugar and vanilla extract and process to incorporate. Now add the nut flour and process into a stiff dough. Transfer the dough back into the nut flour bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and chill for at least 30 minutes.

3. Prior to baking the cookies, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cover two baking pans with parchment paper or silicone mats. Scoop out large teaspoons of dough, roll them into 1 inch balls in your palms, and place them on the baking sheets in about three rows and four columns. Place in the oven. Chill the remaining half of the dough while the first batch of cookies bake. After 10 minutes, rotate the baking sheets 180 degrees and from top to bottom oven rack. Remove the cookies after about 18 minutes, when their bottoms are golden brown and their tops are pale golden.

4. Let the cookies cool on the rack for about five minutes. Fill a shallow bowl with 3/4 cup powdered sugar, and mix in cinnamon, if using. Roll each cookie in the powdered sugar and transfer to a serving plate. If you like, sift the remaining powdered sugar over the cookies to give them a final dusting. Bake the second batch of cookies as above (or you can store the dough to bake later). These cookies store well at room temperature in an airtight container for several days.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Yogurt Cake: Child's Play

My son's birthday is on winter solstice, and it's hard for me to believe that he is already five. Among the many remarkable implications of this statistic is that his sister is nine and a half and quite capable of baking him a birthday cake. Although her preference would be for chocolate, her brother requested a white cake. I suggested that she try a gateau au yaourt, which is apparently a recipe that all French children master at an early age. In fact, you can measure out all the ingredients in individual yogurt containers. Since we buy big tubs of Nancy's yogurt, my daughter used regular measuring cups, and not being too strict about European traditions, Swedish horse cake pans.

During baking, the batter spilled out a little from the pans, but just enough for the baker to sample her work before the official celebration.

When the time arrived, we dressed up the little cake as an elaborate zebra with a whipped cream coat and raspberry stripes. My son was delighted to have a cake baked by his big sister and devoured the whole thing. My daughter was proud of her baking accomplishment and vowed to stop calling her brother "baby" (unless he does something especially annoying).

Gâteau au Yaourt
from Chocolate and Zucchini
1 cup whole milk plain unsweetened yogurt (or use two 4 oz yogurts, and use the containers to measure out the rest of the ingredients)

2 eggs

1 cup sugar (2 yogurt containers)

1/3 cup vegetable oil (bit less than 1 yogurt container)

2 cups all-purpose flour (4 yogurt containers)

1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

a good pinch of salt

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1. Preheat the oven to 350° F, grease a round 10-inch cake pan or equivalent. 

2. In a large mixing-bowl, gently combine the yogurt, eggs, sugar, oil, and vanilla. 

3. In another bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add the flour mixture into the yogurt mixture, and blend together without overworking the batter. 

4. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until the top is golden brown and a cake tester comes out clean (the little horse cake was done after 20 minutes). Let stand for ten minutes, and transfer onto a rack to cool.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Easy Soft Polenta with Olive Oil Simmered Leeks

Some recipes are intuitive and transparent, like throwing together a fresh salad with seasonal produce, and they serve as a helpful reminder or inspiration. Other recipes pique our interest because they seem mysterious, improbable, and opaque. There's a special pleasure that comes from suspending one's best judgement, trying such a recipe, and having it succeed. Here are two such recipes from Paula Wolfert's The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen, a manifesto on the pleasures of slow cooked foods. The first recipe if for oven-baked polenta, which I was inspired to try with our ample supply of polenta from our Lonesome Whistle Farm CSA. Stirring your polenta continuously over a hot stove can be rewarding (and bicep building). But if you have time, and especially if you already have your oven on for a roast or stew, Wolfert's method is remarkably effortless and produces deliciously creamy polenta from an unpromising-looking sedentary sludge of water and cornmeal.

With my polenta and a Fair Valley Farm ham baking in the oven, and no stirring to occupy me, I got to flipping through Wolfert's cookbook and came across a recipe for slow cooked leeks and root vegetables simmered in olive oil that seemed perfect for my latest haul from Open Oak Farm's CSA. This recipe, which Wolfert described as "Mediterranean alchemy", offered the intrigue of a secret ingredient (a tablespoon of soaked rice) and an unusual cooking techniques (a parchment paper sealed pot). The final dish was a revelation: a meltingly sweet concoction of leeks and shallots that tempered the sharpness of a purple winter radish without cooking it to mush. And unexpectedly, the vegetables made a wonderful topping for the creamy polenta. The dinner was especially tasty resulting from the leisurely suspension of disbelief.

Oven-Baked Polenta
from Paula Wolfert's The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen
serves 6-8
2 cups polenta 
2 Tbsp butter or olive oil
2 tsp salt
8 cups cool water

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large ovenproof pan, melt the butter or add the oil and swill to coat the bottom and sides. Combine the remaining ingredients and stir with a fork. Bake, uncovered for 1 hour and 20 minutes. 

2. Stir the polenta with a fork, season with additional salt to taste, and bake for about 10 more minutes, or to the desired consistency. Remove from the oven and let rest for 5 minutes. Serve warm. 

Note: Leftovers can be reheated in a microwave, mixing between heating, and the polenta will become creamy again.

Leeks Simmered in Olive Oil
from Paula Wolfert's The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen
2 pounds leeks
1/3 cup chopped onion or shallot
1/4 cup olive oil
2 medium carrots, peeled and sliced, or substitute other root vegetables such as turnips or winter radishes
2 tsp sugar
1 Tbsp rice
salt and pepper to taste
juice of 1/2 lemon, or more to taste
1/4 cup chopped flat leaf parsley

1. Clean the leeks thoroughly (I like to trim the roots and green tops and then cut them lengthwise and wash them, splayed open, under running water, then drain well.) Cut them into two inch lengths. 

2. Combine the onions, olive oil, and root vegetables in a heavy Dutch oven and cook over medium heat, stirring, for 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the leeks and sugar, cover with a sheet of parchment paper or foil and a tight-fitting lid, reduce the heat to low and cook for 20 minutes (Leeks and root vegetables should cook in their own moisture. If necessary, add 1 Tbsp of water).

3. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, soak the rice in hot water for ten minutes. Drain.

4. Add the rice to the leeks. Season with salt and pepper, and cook, tightly covered, for 20 minutes longer.

5. Remove from the heat and add the lemon juice. Wolfert recommend serving the leeks and vegetables at room temperature or chilled, but they are also delicious warm on top of polenta with grated parmesan cheese.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Cardamom Lamb Koftas with Almond Yogurt Sauce

If you've never tried it before, you should grind some whole cardamom pods with a mortar and pestle. Inside those green shells are little black kernels that release a potent fragrance when pounded. I used some freshly ground cardamom to flavor lamb kofta made with our frozen stash of ground lamb from Fair Valley Farm. (Fair Valley Farm will be at 19th and Agate this Sunday Dec. 9th from 2-3 PM; if you'd like to stock up on their pasture-raised meat contact them ahead to place your order.) 

I packed these cardamom patties with minced shallot and cilantro and rolled them in garbanzo bean flour, which I had on hand and had seen used in a beef kofta recipe from Madhur Jaffrey. To simmer the kofta, my husband made a simplified version of a nut yogurt sauce from Neelam Batra's 1,000 Indian Recipes with garam masala. The final dish was deliciously rich  and flavorful, complemented by our stash of homemade Indian pickled beans and carrots and Asian pear chutney. I'm looking forward to making these kofta again, after we restock our freezer on Sunday, to help brighten Oregon's drizzly winter with warm spices.

Cardamom Lamb Kofta with Almond Yogurt Sauce
serves four
for the kofta
1 lb ground lamb
2 tsp whole green cardamom pods
1 shallot or 1/2 small onion
1/4 cup cilantro leaves
plenty of black pepper
~1/4 cup garbanzo bean (chickpea) flour for dusting
1 Tbsp ghee or butter

for the sauce
1/2 cup whole almonds
2 tsp garam masala
1 shallot or 1/2 small onion
2 garlic cloves
2 cups plain yogurt
1 cup water
1 Tbsp ghee or vegetable oil

1. To prepare the kofta, grind the cardamom pods in a mortar and pestle. Strain out the green shells and put the ground kernels in a mixing bowl. Mince the shallot and cilantro leaves and add to the bowl, along with the ground lamb. Add a generous grinding of black pepper and salt. Mix the meat to combine all the ingredients. Then form into 2 inch-long, finger-shaped patties (recipe will make about eight) and roll them to coat lightly in garbanzo bean flour. To help them hold together during cooking, chill the patties while you prepare the yogurt sauce.

2. To prepare the sauce, toast the almonds in a dry skillet for a few minutes until fragrant. In a food processor or electric spice mill, grind the almonds with the garam masala into a fine meal. Finely chop the shallot and garlic. In a food processor, or by hand, whisk together the yogurt and water until smooth. Heat a large pan and add 1 Tbsp ghee or oil. Add the shallot pieces and cook over medium high heat until they are very brown and crispy. Add the garlic, cook for a minute, then add the almond spice mix and saute for another minute until fragrant. Now turn up the heat and slowly add the yogurt mixture to pan, stirring vigorously to prevent it from curdling. Bring the sauce to a boil, then lower the heat and allow it to simmer for 10 to 15 minutes while you brown the kofta. 

3. Heat a skillet over medium high heat and add 1 Tbsp ghee or butter. Place the kofta into the hot pan and let them cook, undisturbed, until they are nicely browned. Rotate and cook on the other sides until they are browned all over (about 10 minutes). Now transfer them to the simmering yogurt sauce and allow them to cook through, about another 10 minutes. Taste and season the sauce with salt as needed. Serve the kofta and sauce over rice.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Parsnip and Riesling Beef Stew

The past week's chilly weather was a good motivation to turn on the oven for a slow-simmered stew filled with the latest offerings from our Open Oak Farm's Winter Vegetable CSA. For inspiration I started with Jool's Favorite Beef Stew from Jamie Oliver's Jamie's Dinners, which uses chunks of winter squash that bake into a rich, sweet broth.

Instead of carrots and onions, I used our supply of parsnips and leeks from Open Oak Farm. With this combination of pale tubers and alliums I decided to experiment with a lighter sauce than Oliver's red wine and tomato paste one, substituting instead a dry Riesling.  

Three hours in the oven produced a fragrant, flavorful stew, delicious with Open Oak Farm's fresh fingerling potatoes, that helped take the chill out of the air.

Parsnip and Riesling Beef Stew
3 leeks, cleaned, sliced lengthwise, and chopped into 1/2 inch pieces
6 parsnips, peeled and chopped roughly into 1 inch chunks
1 small delicata squash, peeled, deseeded, and chopped into 1 inch cubes
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 anchovies
3 cloves garlic, minced
10 sages leaves, finely chopped
1 lb cubed beef stew meat
1 Tbsp flour
1 cup broth
1/2 bottle dry Riesling
salt and pepper
lemon zest
chopped parsley

1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Prep all the vegetables. Toss the meat in the flour and plenty of salt and pepper.

2. Heat a large oven-save Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the olive oil and anchovies and simmer for a minute, mashing up the anchovies. Add the garlic and sage leaves and stir another minute. Add the leaks and saute for about five minutes, until softened. Add the meat and saute for a minute (Oliver says you don't need to brown the meat for this stew), then add the remaining vegetables, the broth and the white wine. Bring the pot to a simmer. Then cover and transfer to the oven. Bake for about 3 hours, until the meat is very tender and falls apart when you poke it with a fork. You can keep the stew warm in a 150 degree oven for another hour or so.

3. Serve warm, garnished with fresh chopped parsley leaves and lemon zest, accompanied by fresh potatoes, egg noodles, orzo, or soft polenta.