People, bake these cookies. Today.
Armed with the knowledge of my interest in cookie-baking, my colleague Kim Ode appeared at my desk, tempting me with "something I thought you would find interesting," she said. And how.
She handed me a catalogue-sized teaser from publisher Simon & Schuster, a promotion piece for the upcoming cookbook by the inventor of the Cronut, Dominique Ansel.
It's unclear if the recipe for the nation's most talked-about pastry (a kind of doughnut-croissant smash-up) will be included in "Dominique Ansel: The Secret Recipes." While the publisher's sneak peak includes the book's table of contents, and a subhead under Chapter 3 reads "The Real Cronut Lesson," my guess is that it doesn't reveal trade secrets. After all, the Cronut portion of Ansel's bakery's website is peppered with words like "proprietary" and "registered trademark."
Not that this home baker is particularly interested. The prospect of deep-frying laminated dough in my kitchen triggers the kind of anxiety I normally associate with watching Shelley Duvall cope with Jack Nicholson in "The Shining," so I'll leave that daunting task to the professionals, and enjoy -- from afar -- the ritual where fanatics queue up for hours outside Ansel's New York City bakery for a crack at the Cronut.
No, we didn't discuss the scalpers' market that has mushroomed in the wake of such insane demand. As former New York Post gossip columnist Cindy Adams would famously say, "Only in New York, kids, only in New York."
Instead, Kim directed my attention to the flyer's last two inside pages, which feature a recipe for a flourless chocolate cookie with pecans. Cronut, schmonut; one glance and I knew that I'd be first in line to buy Ansel's book upon its October release.
The pictures certainly captured my attention -- truly, they epitomize hard-core food porn -- but the clincher was the author's comment at the top of the recipe, which reads, "I love making this recipe. . .because of its forgiving nature and utterly addictive results."
Yeah: Easy. Fabulous. And chocolate. Three of the best motivators for composing a shopping list.
I don't recall the last time that a rookie whirl through a recipe went so well, with so little effort. No electric mixer required, just a whisk. Sure, you'll need a double-boiler, but a rudimentary one suffices (I used a mixing bowl and a saucepan). As for the formula, it's the drop cookie at its most fundamental.
And wow, what results. I was bowled over by the cookie's intensely chocolate-ey flavor, which starts as a heavy perfume before it gets near your taste buds. Its gooey texture comes as close to voluptuous as a cookie can get. In contrast to all that melty chocolate is the barest, faintest trace of a crispy exterior. The way it collapses in your mouth is almost meringue-like.
Ansel -- who won the James Beard Foundation's coveted Outstanding Pastry Chef award earlier this month -- wisely suggests serving the cookies warm. “A glass of milk helps,” he writes.
But eating them in their not-warm state isn't exactly shabby. It's a fairly perishible cookie, lasting about two days when stored at room temperature. Not that I can imagine a batch of them hanging around that long.
I was also immediately drawn into the essay that preceded the recipe. Ansel, a Frenchman, was baffled by this country's affection for the cookie. "I had never been to America, and I had yet to taste a cookie I actually liked," he wrote, describing how, at the neighborhood bakery of his youth, his peers preferred croissants or eclairs over cookies.
"Yet somehow an ocean away, there was an entire nation that shared a genuine and unanimous love for this one triumphant product," he wrote. "No single pastry in France unites the people in the same way."
He goes on to describe his cookie-related lightbulb moment, which came from polling his American customers on their cookie habits. He concluded that everyone's favorite cookies weren't the ones that they purchased, but the ones they've baked themselves.
"For many of these people, cookies were the very first things they'd baked as children," he wrote. "These people were no longer merely tasting the flavors; they were tasting a moment in time."
Nice, right? He concludes by describing the first cookies he baked in the United States; they sound quite a bit like these flourless chocolate lovelies. Not only can the guy bake, he's also a compelling storyteller.
As for baking tips, Ansel offers a few. The dough can be refrigerated for up to three days, or frozen for up to a week. For the latter, defrost the dough in the refrigerator for a few hours before baking.
Pay close attention during the chocolate-melting step. “If even a drop of water gets into the chocolate, it seizes and turns grainy," Ansel wrote. "Double-check that all equipment is dry, and the bowl sits well above the rim of the pot to avoid the steam.”
There are two reasons why this is a prepare-the-day-before recipe. Initially, the dough feels more like a batter, so much so that you'll wonder, this is going to turn into cookies? Fear not. An overnight firming-up period in the refrigerator takes care of the problem.
But there's a second textural issue, one that comes into play once the cookies come out of the oven. "It’s great to make sure your ingredients are mixed well, but too much mixing overworks the dough and causes it to become tough," Ansel writes. "That’s why many great recipes call for a period for the dough to rest.”
I have a few suggestions. Next time I make these cookies (which will probably roll around in the next few days because, yes, they ranked that high on the Delicious-O-Meter), I'm going to toast the pecans. (Here's how: Place pecans in a dry skillet over medium heat and cook, shaking the pan often, until the nuts begin to release their fragrance, about 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from heat and cool.)
The recipe's directions call for forming balls from roughly 3 1/2 tablespoons of dough. That's a big cookie. Even when they're completely cooled, these cookies don't hold together terribly well, and I'm guessing that reducing their heft will make them easier to handle. Which is why next time, rather than using a 3-tablespoon scoop. I'm going to reach for the 2 tablespoon scoop.
You'll need roughly 15 ounces of dark chocolate. I bought two 10-ounce bags of Ghirardelli 60% cacao bittersweet chocolate baking chips at my neighborhood Lunds, at $3.99 per bag. I'll use the remaining five ounces for the next batch. But I'll probably test-drive the bittersweet chocolate chips that are sold in the bulk section at Seward Co-op.
Although Ansel doesn't mention this factoid anywhere in the recipe, this is a gluten-free cookie. Maybe the best gluten-free cookie I've ever made, although, let's face it, the competition isn't exactly Olympian. If gluten-free is an important characteristic, be sure you’re using the proper baking powder. Some baking powders contain flour, so note that the package is clearly labeled “gluten-free” before using. Corn starch is gluten-free.
FLOURLESS CHOCOLATE PECAN COOKIES
Makes about 16 to 20 cookies.
Note: This recipe must be prepared in advance. From pastry chef Dominique Ansel, a preview from his upcoming cookbook, “Dominique Ansel: The Secret Recipes” (Simon & Schuster).
2 c. dark chocolate chips (over 60 percent cocoa content), divided
3 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 c. sugar
3 tbsp. corn starch
3/4 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
4 tbsp. pecans, roughly chopped
Fill a saucepan with about 2 inches of water over medium heat and let it come to a simmer. Place a stainless steel bowl on top of the simmering water (making sure that the bottom of the bowl does not come in contact with the water) and add 1 1/2 cups chocolate chips. Stir slowly with a spatula to ensure that chocolate chips are completely melted before turning off heat.
In a separate microwave-proof bowl, melt butter in microwave oven. Stir melted butter into melted chocolate. Keep mixture warm over double boiler with heat turned off.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together sugar, corn starch, baking powder and salt.
Add eggs and whisk until fully incorpoated and batter resembles the consistency of pancake batter, making sure you incorporate any dry ingredients that may have settled on the bottom or side of bowl, using a spatula or scraper if necessary.
Slowly whisk in melted chocolate and butter mixture (if chocolate-butter mixture cools and begins to solidify, gently reheat it over the double boiler before incorporating).
Using a spatula, gently fold remaining 1/2 cup chocolate chips, as well as pecans, into the batter.
Cover batter tightly with plastic wrap, pressing wrap to cover surface of batter. Refrigerate overnight.
When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper.
Using your hands or a scoop, break dough into pieces roughly the size of your palm (about 3 1/2 tablespoons). Roll dough into balls. Place balls at least 2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets. Using the palm of your hand, gently press the tops of the dough, forming it into a thick disk.
Bake in the oven’s middle rack until cookies are just beginning to crack on top but the dough is set on the edge and has a soft spot in the center (about the size of a quarter), about 8 minutes, rotating pan halfway through baking. Remove from oven and allow cookies to cool on baking sheets until cookies further set, about 5 to 7 minutes. Serve warm, or carefully slide parchment paper onto a wire rack and cool cookies completely.
RASPBERRY RHUBARB PIE
Note: This recipe must be prepared in advance. “Our raspberry rhubarb pie is another sought-after treat at the New Scenic Cafe,” writes Scott Graden in “New Scenic Cafe: The Cookbook.” “I have always enjoyed the tart and bitter flavor of rhubarb, and it is traditional to use it in desserts in Minnesota, though I add just enough sugar to soften the rhubarb’s singular impact. When it is in season, I use as much fresh rhubarb as I can get my hands on. Use fresh for this recipe, if it’s available, but frozen rhubarb also works well."
3/4 c. vegetable shortening
1 3/4 c. flour, plus extra for rolling crust
1 tsp. kosher salt
5 oz. ice-cold water
2 lb. rhubarb
12 oz. frozen raspberries
1/2 c. flour
1 1/3 c. plus 1 tbsp. sugar, divided
Freshly whipped cream
To prepare crust: Before beginning, chill the vegetable shortening in the refrigerator. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together flour and salt. Using a pastry blender, cut in shortening, until shortening pieces are no larger than the size of peas.
Add water to mixture, using a fork to blend it together lightly until dough looks evenly damp (you should be able to see small clumps of shortening in the dough). Lightly flour a work surface. With floured hands,form dough into a ball, then divide dough into 2 equal parts. Gently shape each piece of dough into a smooth, round disc and wrap each disc tightly with plastic wrap. Refrigerate dough for at least 30 minutes.
To prepare filling: If using frozen rhubarb, allow it to defrost fully (though the raspberries should remain frozen). For fresh rhubarb, clean the stalks and chop them into 1/4-inch pieces. In a large bowl, combine rhubarb, raspberries, 1/2 cup flour and 1 1/3 cups sugar, and stir until evenly combined.
To prepare pie: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Remove dough discs from refrigerator and unwrap. On a floured work surface, using a floured rolling pin, roll dough until it is just wider than the outer rim of the pie pan. Transfer dough into pie pan, and press dough into pan’s edges, making sure the end of the crust just barely hangs over the rim of the pan all the way around. Place pie pan in the refrigerator.
Roll the second dough disc to the same size as the first. Remove pie pan from refrigerator, fill it with prepared fruit filling. Transfer second crust to the top of the pie, making sure there are no air pockets between the filling and the top crust. Roll and crimp edges of the top and bottom crusts to seal them together. Using the tip of a knife, cut several vent holes in the top crust, and dust with 1 tablespoon sugar.
Place pie pan on a baking sheet and bake pie for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 300 degrees and bake pie for another 35 minutes. Using an instant-read thermometer, check temperature at the pie’s center, baking until it reads 170 degrees. Any juices that have bubbled out should appear clear rather than cloudy, indicated doneness, and the crust should be light golden brown. Remove pie from oven, place pie pan on a cooling rack and allow it to cool to room temperature (at least 1 hour) before slicing. Serve with freshly whipped cream.
The VEAP building (Volunteers Enlisted in Assisting People) in Bloomington, which houses the largest food shelf in Minnesota (and offers many social services), has a new commercial kitchen, and with it a new effort to make good use of surplus fruits and vegetables. Their first project was to repurpose bananas into banana bread. They tinkered with a recipe to make it more healthful (whole wheat flour, less sugar, more bananas, less fat). See it below. Have to say it tastes mighty good.
For more about the program, go to the story.
Makes 1 loaf.
Note: For the best flavor, use bananas that have lots of brown specks on the skin and that are slightly soft. Mash bananas with a table fork, potato masher or wire whisk; it’s fine to have small lumps remaining. A large, lengthwise crack in the thin, tender top crust of a quick bread is normal. From the kitchen of VEAP (Volunteers Enlisted in Assisting People) in Bloomington.
• 2 eggs
• 1/2 c. sugar (packed brown or granulated)
• 1/4 c. vegetable oil
• 1/4 c. fat-free or low-fat milk
• 2 tsp. vanilla
• 1 1/2 c. mashed very ripe bananas (5 to 6 medium) (see Note)
• 1 c. all-purpose flour
• 1 c. whole wheat flour
• 1 tsp. baking powder
• 1/2 tsp. baking soda
• 1/2 tsp. salt
• 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
Move oven rack to low position so that top of pan will be in center of oven. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease bottom only of a 9- by 5-inch loaf pan with shortening or spray with cooking spray.
In large bowl, beat eggs, sugar, oil, milk and vanilla with wire whisk or spoon until smooth. Stir in mashed bananas until smooth. Stir in flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon with spoon or rubber scraper just until moistened. Pour into pan.
Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.
Cool 10 minutes. With a knife, loosen sides of loaf from pan and remove from pan. Place top side up on wire rack. Cool completely, about 1 hour, before slicing. Wrap tightly and store at room temperature up to 4 days or refrigerate up to 10 days.
It's a honey of a tasting tonight as local professional chefs present their best pastries featuring dandelion honey. Come for a sample -- many samples -- from Spoonriver, Lucia’s, Restaurant Alma, Andoyne, Gigi’s Café Uptown, Mason Restaurant Barre, Open Arms, Seward Co-Op Bakery, Treat, Mademoiselle Miel and Jenny Breen. Proceeds go to support Healthy Bees, Healthy Lives initiative.
When: Thursday, April 10
Where: Nicollet Island Pavillion, 40 Power Street, Minneapolis
Monday is National Coffee Cake Day. Go figure.
When I hear coffee cake, my automatic word-association reflexes fly to one of my late grandmother’s recipes, one that is forever linked to my grandparents’ lake cabin.
Sugar Lake was a magical place in my childhood. It’s practically a far-ring suburb today – it’s about 10 miles south of Annandale, Minn. -- but in the pre-I-94 era the journey felt like a never-ending drive from my family's suburban Minneapolis home.
Grandma Gay had a Sugar Lake ritual, at least during blueberry season. She would alleviate her guests’ car weariness by greeting them with a slice or two of what I later discovered was an easy-to-prepare buckle, still warm from the oven.
Although it came off as an extra-special treat, her blueberry buckle was cloaked in practicality, using ingredients that were always on hand at the lake; no running into town for the sour cream or other coffee-cake staples that, inevitably, end up as a shopping list afterthought.
My guess is that, after countless summers, Grandma pulled her blueberry buckle together from memory. Fortunately, in the late 1970s, my sister Cheri thought to ask Grandma for the recipe. Treasure, right? I still have the card, written using a thick Flair pen, in Cheri’s tidy high-school cursive.
In honor of this momentous national holiday, I baked Grandma’s buckle this morning (using frozen berries discovered in the back of my freezer, picked last summer at Rush River Produce in Maiden Rock, Wis., pictured above), and our kitchen is perfumed with the loveliest scent.
If only I could open the windows and catch the breeze off the lake.
SUGAR LAKE BLUEBERRY BUCKLE
Note: I suggest adding a teaspoon vanilla extract to the batter when incorporating the milk, and maybe include a 3/4 cup toasted chopped pecans to the topping, two ingredients that probably weren't regulars in the Olsens' 1960s cabin pantry.
2 c. flour, plus extra for pan
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 c. (1 stick) butter, at room temperature, plus extra for pan
3/4 c. sugar
1/2 c. whole milk, at room temperature
2 c. blueberries
1/2 c. sugar
1/3 c. flour
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 c. (1 stick) cold butter, cut into small pieces
To prepare cake: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease and flour a 9x9-inch baking pan.
In a medium bowl, sift together flour, salt and baking powder and set aside.
In a large bowl of an electric mixer on medium-high speed, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add egg and beat until thoroughly combined. Reduce speed to low and alternately add flour mixture and milk in thirds, beginning and ending with flour mixture and mixing until just combined. Carefully fold blueberries into batter and pour batter into prepared baking pan.
To prepare topping: In a medium bowl, combine sugar, flour, cinnamon and butter and, using your fingers, press together until combined (dough will be lumpy). Spoon mixture evenly on top of batter. Bake 45 to 50 minutes. Remove from oven and cool pan on a wire rack for at least 15 minutes. Serve warm.
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