Try finding almond flour right now in the Twin Cities. It isn’t easy. And it's our fault.
Almond flour's instantaneous popularity is linked to the key role (2 1/4 cups, to be exact) it plays in the winning recipe in our 2014 Taste Holiday Cookie Contest.
We're not surprised that Italian Almond Cookies have captured the attention of Twin Cities bakers. We love them, and it's not as if we haven't observed this phenomenon before; in past years, we've witnessed a skyrocketing demand for such items as pistachios, sliced almonds and chile-spiced chocolate bars.
Back to almond flour. Two days after we published our winning recipe, I conducted an informal in-store survey, dropping in at four randomly selected supermarkets and scoping out the almond flour situation. At all four, I encountered empty shelves. Turns out, my experience was not outside the norm.
“I stopped by my neighborhood grocery store, and they didn’t have any,” said Jennie Baltutis of Minneapolis. “And I thought, ‘Wow, how many people are making that recipe?”
"We've definitely seen a pretty big increase in sales of almond flour," said Luke Friedrich of Supervalu, the region's largest supermarket wholesaler, which fills the shelves at Cub Foods, Lunds and Byerly's, Jerry's Foods and other stores. "Our supply is very low right now. But we've ordered a significant increase -- ten-fold over the normal amount -- and we'll have shipments in by Friday, and more the following week."
If you're planning on baking our winning cookie - and you should, it's fantastic, and so easy to prepare -- here’s our tip: Shop at your local natural foods co-op.
Many stock almond flour in their chilled bulk section. We called around, and here’s what we found:
All three Lakewinds Food Co-op locations are fully stocked (“Plenty of almond flour here,” said the helpful person at the co-op’s Minnetonka location, and “We just got more in this morning” said the friendly staffer at Lakewinds' Chanhassen location, although, let's face it, pretty much everyone in co-opland is friendly). Ditto Valley Natural Foods in Burnsville.
It’s the same story at the Wedge Co-op in Minneapolis, which reports a sizeable inventory on hand (pictured, above) and more on order.
At Seward Co-op in Minneapolis, “We did have a run on almond flour when the recipe first came out, a pretty significant spike,” said marketing manager Tom Vogel. “But we definitely have it, and we’re bracing for the next run on demand.”
A few co-ops — Eastside Food Co-op in Minneapolis, and both locations of Mississippi Market in St. Paul — skip the bulk-section thing and go the packaged route (find it in the baking supplies aisle). Still, all three stores say they’ve got almond flour on hand.
The best news? Buying in bulk at local natural foods co-ops is a fairly reliable best-value situation, with prices usually hovering in the $8.50/pound range. By comparison, some supermarkets charge as much as $14 for a l-lb. bag. Oh, and if you've never shopped at a co-op before, don't worry about membership issues; you don't need to become a member/owner to shop.
Two other options: We’ve heard from readers that they’ve seen plenty of almond flour on the shelves at SuperTarget stores. Almond meal — a coarser and less-expensive version of almond flour, and perfectly acceptable for this recipe — appears to be in stock at most Trader Joe’s stores (TJ's private label almond meal is the ingredient of choice for winning baker William Teresa).
Or make your own. It's easy: Buy blanched, shelled almonds and grind them in a food processor until they take on the texture of wet sand. Watch carefully; grind too much, and you'll end up with almond butter.
When it comes to our holiday cookie contest, the Star Tribune isn't alone (that's an image -- by Star Tribune photographer Tom Wallace -- of Chocolate Peppermint Cookies, a finalist in this year's 12th-annual survey, which drew nearly 300 entries). December is the month when newspapers across the country are publishing the results of their annual bake-a-thons. Here's a quick rundown:
The Chicago Tribune's 28th-annual competition attracted 100 bakers, and shines the spotlight on Erna's Crescents from Erna Steinbrenner of Downer's Grove, Ill. It's a rolled cookie (with a sour cream dough), filled with ground walnuts.
The seventh-annual cookie showdown at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel drew 106 entries and singled out Three Wiseman Treasures from Jane Mathews of Franksville, Wis., a drop cookie with pecans, dates, crystallized ginger and a dash of cardamom and curry powder.
The Tampa Bay Times' 13th-annual holiday bakefest drew nearly 500 participants, and food editor Janet Keeler doesn't select a winner, preferring to highlight favorites, which include Noelettes from Lisa Smith of St. Petersburg, Fla. (a chocolate cookie topped with chopped pistachios and candied orange peel); Cran-Pistachio Cookies from Josette Konczeski of Tampa, Fla. (a sugar cookie embellished with nuts and dried fruit); and Amaretto Chunk Cookies from Florence Tirabassi of Kenneth City, Fla. (a liqueur-flavored drop cookie with coconut, chocolate and sliced almond grace notes).
At the Los Angeles Times, Vesta Bars took to the top spot among 100-plus entries; the recipe is being published on Dec. 20.
Other newspapers are definitely in a holiday baking mood, even if they steer clear of contest mode. I know I'm going to tackle the Cranberry Ecstacy Bars from the Portland Oregonian (a test-kitchen remake of a popular Starbucks holiday treat), the Linzer Trees (a cutout with roasted almonds and raspberry jam) from the New York Times, Fudgy Walnut Cookies (exactly what their name implies) from the Washington Post and Oatmeal Lace Cookies (thin and crispy and dipped in chocolate) from the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
Just when the Star Tribune's Taste Holiday Cookie Contest was putting the spotlight on Twin Cities bakers, another Minneapolis cookie maker was stepping into cookie fame and fortune.
She's Karen Cope, and her formula for Chocolate Croissant Cookies was named the winner in Cook's Country magazine's annual Christmas cookie contest. Along with seeing her name -- and her recipe -- in the magazine, Cope was also awarded $1,000. Congratulations!
CHOCOLATE CROISSANT COOKIES
Makes 20 cookies.
Note: This recipe must be prepared in advance. From Cook’s Country magazine and contest winner Karen Cope of Minneapolis. “While Hershey’s isn’t the test kitchen’s favorite milk chocolate (that would be Dove Silky Smooth Milk Chocolate), it is essential in this recipe,” notes the magazine. “Why? Because these cookies were engineered to work with three-rectangle blocks of the iconic milk chocolate. Place one chocolate rectangle in the center of each 4-by-2-inch piece of dough, fold the edges over, and bake seam side down.”
1 c. flour
1/8 tsp. salt
8 tbsp. (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
4 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
2 tbsp. granulated sugar
½ tsp. vanilla extract
6 (1.55-oz.) Hershey’s milk chocolate bars, divided
1 egg, slightly beaten
3 tbsp. white sanding sugar
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour and salt.
In a bowl of an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat butter, cream cheese and granulated sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add vanilla extract and beat until incorporated. Reduce speed to low and add flour mixture in 2 additions, scraping down sides of bowl and mixing until just incorporated. Form dough into a 6-inch disk. Wrap disk in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to 24 hours.
When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper. Break 5 chocolate bars crosswise along their 3 seams to yield 4 rectangles (you should have 20 pieces in total). On a lightly floured work surface using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll dough into a 20-by-8-inch rectangle. Cut dough into 20 4-by-2 rectangles. Working with 1 dough rectangle at a time, place 1 chocolate piece crosswise across dough (so chocolate hangs over edges). Fold dough around chocolate. Repeat with remaining 19 pieces of dough and chocolate and place cookies, seam side down, 1 ½ inches apart on prepared baking sheets. Brush tops with egg and sprinkle with sanding sugar.
Bake until golden brown, 18 to 20 minutes. Remove from oven and cool 5 minutes before transferring cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.
Break remaining chocolate bar into pieces, place in a bowl and melt in a microwave oven, stirring occasionally, about 1 minute. Using a spoon, drizzle melted chocolate over tops of cookies. Let chocolate set for at least 30 minutes before serving.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever baked with almond flour.
That’s what I thought. Here's the paradox: It’s not exactly a mainstream ingredient, yet it’s widely available, a staple in the baking aisle at most supermarkets. It's also a key component in the winning entry in our 2014 Holiday Cookie Contest.
Almond flour is exactly what it sounds like. The nuts are blanched, to remove their dark skins, and then finely ground. That’s it, no additives. Just pale, gently fragrant almonds, taken to a sand-like texture. And yes, you can make it yourself, using a food processor, but don't go too far, or you'll end up producing almond butter.
It pays to shop around.
The brand that most supermarkets carry, Bob’s Red Mill, is generally available in 1-lb. bags (pictured, above). In the past two weeks, I’ve seen prices all over the place. The lowest? It was at my local natural foods co-op: $11.69 (although I recently saw it on sale for $7.99). At Lunds and Byerly’s, as well as CobornsDelivers, it was $13.99. The top price, $14.59, was at Kowalski’s.
But the consistently lowest price for Bob’s Red Mill product? In the bulk section of your friendly neighborhood natural foods co-op, of course. At Seward Co-op, the bulk version (pictured, above) is regularly priced at $8.99 per pound.
Our winning 2014 baker, William Teresa, has a favorite almond flour source. He buys the house brand at Trader Joe’s. There’s a slight difference: it’s almond meal (pictured, above), not almond flour. The former skips the blanching process, so the end result is a variegated mix of golden and dark brown bits of ground almond, a blend that Teresa says gives his cookies an eye-catching appearance.
Another reason to love? The price: $5.99 for a 1-lb. bag. Find it (pictured, above) in the nuts aisle.
When stored in a cool, dry place, almond flour (and almond meal) has a six- to nine-month shelf life. Better yet, keep it in the freezer, just be sure to bring it to room temperature before using.
Gluten-free almond flour has many uses. Put it to work in place of bread crumbs. Make this exceptional cake. Add a delicately nutty spin on cookies (chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin both come to mind) by substituting a 1/4-cup to a 1/2-cup of all-purpose flour with almond flour. And definitely bake our winning cookie.
Peach season is in full swing (I spied this beauties -- direct from Coloma, Mich. -- on Saturday, at the East Town Market in Milwaukee). Take advantage with this can't-miss cobbler recipe. I've never made a better one.
Serves 6 to 8.
Note: From Williams-Sonoma.
1 1/4 c. flour
1/3 c. sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
7 tbsp. cold unsalted butter, cut into ¼-inch cubes
1 egg yolk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 tbsp. very cold water
3 lb. peaches, peeled, pitted and each cut into 8 slices
1/4 c. plus 2 tbsp. plus 1 tsp. granulated sugar, divided
1/4 c. plus 2 tbsp. firmly packed light brown sugar
2 1/2 tbsp. cornstarch
2 tsp. fresh lemon juice
1/4 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
1 tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 egg, lightly beaten
Vanilla ice cream for serving
To prepare dough: In a food processor fitted with a metal blade, combine flour, sugar and salt and pulse just to combine. Add butter and pulse until mixture resembles coarse cornmeal, with butter pieces no larger than small peas.
In a small bowl, whisk together egg yolk, vanilla and cold water. Add egg mixture to flour mixture and pulse just until dough pulls together; do not overmix.
Transfer dough to a work surface, pat into a ball and flatten into a disk. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
To prepare cobbler: When ready to bake, preheat an oven to 425 degrees.
In a large bowl, stir together peaches, 1/4 cup plus 2 Tbs. granulated sugar, the brown sugar, cornstarch, lemon juice and nutmeg. Transfer to a 2-quart rectangular baking dish and scatter butter pieces on top.
On a lightly floured work surface, roll out cobbler dough to a ¼-inch thickness. Tear dough into 3-inch pieces and place on top of peach filling. Brush dough with beaten egg and sprinkle with remaining 1 tablespoon sugar.
Bake cobbler for 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350ºF and bake until topping is browned, 50 to 60 minutes more.
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