Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Christmas cookies

It all started a couple of days ago when my daughter came back from school with a note from her teacher asking me if I could donate a dozen cookies for an upcoming event at the school. It sounded all perfectly doable until I saw the handwritten side note specifying Christmas cookies.
Panic struck me : I had never baked Christmas cookies. As a matter of fact we are not very familiar with the my-kitchen-is-turned-into-a cookie-factory-for-the-entire-month-of-December kind of tradition that other families seem to wholeheartedly embrace or shall I say observe religiously each year. Anyway it came in a timely manner to remind me that I had yet to return that empty box to my neighbor who had given me a share of her yearly tradition…I would return the empty box full… with more Christmas cookies.
I still had to find both the inspiration and the recipe to start my little enterprise.
The Washington Post saved me. The Wednesday edition features a food section I always enjoy flipping through. I already had in mind the kind of cookies I wanted to make : a frosted sugar cookie.

Because a) I get to roll out my dough and have fun choosing and cutting the shapes and b) I get to choose the color of the frosting. That sounded like tons of fun. As I unfolded the paper my would-be cookies were making the front page : delicate, slightly iridescent snowflake cookies. They were part of a larger project consisting of an entire Christmas wreath as an edible ornament ; for me they would remain cookies and I was ready for the challenge.

Making my own roll out cookie dough proved trickier than I had hoped and more time consuming as the dough had to be refrigerated overnight then rolled to the desired thickness (also a tricky part) and cut without either sticking to the counter (definitely the trickiest part) or become a stretched melting deformed version of the original shape. It would then have to be refrigerated one more time before going in the oven.
Then came the frosting and my memorable first time using a piping bag armed with a number 2 tip. The result : pretty little sugary treats.
I still had to find a suitable way to package my confections for the school. I had kept a bulky plastic container which used to hold my organic baby arugula in its first life. I was going to give it a second one. I would tie a nice piece of ribbon around it to give it that festive look and there : my eco-chic cookie box.

And who knows it might even be a lucky salad container and get a third life as a craft box in a happy first grade classroom?

Thursday, December 11, 2008


What could possibly be more comforting and indeed tasty in those chilly wintry days than a nice bowl of chili? Right maybe a hearty soup loaded with root vegetables. But not today.

With winter coming and our most cherished farmer’s markets and CSA’s closing their doors until spring, fresh local seasonal vegetables are in short supply…forcing me to do some serious thinking if I want my children to not only eat their dinner but actually enjoy it too.

My chili making starts a day ahead. I never ever use canned beans….to me vegetables coming from a can are not to be trusted, taste or nutrition wise. In this recipe I use 3 different types of beans that I soak for about 16 hours and then cook for 4. Time consuming you’ll say ; well all the soaking requires is for you to fill up a bowl of water put the beans in and let it sit on the counter, then while the beans are bubbling away on the stove…well you get the picture.

The dish has simmered just long enough for the ingredients to start binding together (but not too long as I wouldn’t want my beans to start loosing their shape) in a large cast iron pot along with some ground beef, a chunky tomato sauce and other vegetables, spices and of course chili. In this case a chipotle chili in adobo sauce for some extra smokiness.

To serve ladle into a bowl and add sour cream (aka crema or crème fraiche) or grated cheese. I like my chili piping hot with a sprig of cilantro.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Challah here I come!

I never quite really understood why when pursuing a culinary education there was automatically a divide between baking and cooking. “Thou shalt choose! Thou shalt become a pastry chef or a culinary chef!” in any case, not both!
And why not?

When I became a more enthusiast cook about 6 years ago (of course, I had fed myself before that!) I started to play around with more ingredients and new techniques and oddly enough I started to develop what I call a flourphobia.
Each and every time a recipe involved dipping my hands into flour my confections almost invariably turned out as hard as a rock and just plain inedible.
I was purposefully shying away from any recipe that would call for the slightest dusting of flour.

Six years down the road I am a more experienced baker, it took some time, but I guess I could never quite bring myself to give up on flour and dough, and I have to confess that today I find it almost addictive to work with flour.
One of the lessons I learned though was that when you’re baking you’re dealing with much more than just ingredients, your pots and pans and a goodwill to make something yummy. Baking involves chemistry, which honestly I am not eager to learn so I’ll just stick to the fundamentals. When I bake I feel I am truly creating something. Baking makes me feel like a magician, it is an art that I find irresistibly attractive, warm and comforting, almost the essence of life ….so reducing it to a couple of formulas….no thank you.
Today I am attempting to make my first Challah. I came across Challah when I lived in New-York. The sweet, buttery, soft and chewy texture of Challah was a perfect replica of my childhood’s brioche.
And here it is right out of the oven. I guess all I have to say is Mazel tov!