Friday, December 28, 2007

Chocolate Gingerbread Cookies

“An I had but one penny in the world, thou shouldst have it to buy gingerbread...”
William Shakespeare
Love’s Labours Lost (Act V, Scene 1)

These are the best holiday cookies I have ever eaten. I hate to admit it, but the recipe is adapted from Martha Stewart. Once you taste these, you will understand why they are only the second adapted recipe I have featured on this site. The unbaked dough is divine, and can be eaten straight from the bowl or mixed with vanilla ice cream for a decadent dessert.

Gingerbread was first created in pre-Christian Europe to celebrate the Winter solstice. After the Crusades, Catholic monks began to bake gingerbread for special religious celebrations. In medieval times, gingerbread became associated with secular festivals, which came to be known as ‘gingerbread fairs’. Early bakers produced motifs inspired by daily life. In the seventeeth and eighteenth century, themes expanded to include nobility, floral and geometric designs.

In Medieval England the term gingerbread meant 'preserved ginger', and was adopted from the old French gingebras, which came from the Latin zingebar. Today gingerbread takes many variations – from crispy biscuit to dense cake. This chewy cookie falls somewhere between the two, with a healthy dose of chocolate.

Makes 24 cookies

1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 tablespoon cocoa
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1-2 tablespoons fresh ginger, grated (not chopped)
1/2 cup dark brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup molasses
1 teaspoon baking soda
8 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips or chunks
granulated sugar

1. In a medium bowl mix flour, ground ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and cocoa. Set aside.
2. In a large bowl beat butter and ginger. Add brown sugar and beat well; then add molasses and beat well.
3. In a cup dissolve baking soda in 2 teaspoons of boiling water.
4. Beat half of the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients. Add the dissolved baking soda. Then add the remaining dry ingredients and beat well.
5. Fold chocolate chips or chunks into the dough.
6. Pat dough into a circle about 1 inch thick and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate for 1 hour or until the dough has hardened.
7. Roll into 1 inch balls and chill for a further 30 minutes (see photo above). Since the dough does not contain egg, these balls can be kept in the fridge for several days or frozen for later use.
8. Preheat the oven to 325F.
9. To bake cookies, roll balls in granulated sugar and place 1 inch apart on a Silpat-lined baking sheet (you can use parchment paper as well).
10. Bake for 8-10 minutes and allow to cool for 5-10 minutes. If the cookie bottoms are burned and shiny, reduce the oven temperature to 300F and cook for 2 minutes longer. Gently transfer to a wire rack to cool to room temperature.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Turkey Lasagna Al Forno

Those of you who are chronic recipe surfers are probably inundated with gingerbread, egg nog and turkey recipes at this time of year. Despite all the food at holiday parties, in office corridors and under the tree, there is no substitute for hearty sustenance during the festive season. This lasagna is an ideal feed-a-crowd recipe, especially if you have houseguests at this busy time of year. Given the turkey sausage in this lasagna, it could even be a substitute for a traditional Christmas roast turkey or ham.

I created this recipe for a book club that my boyfriend hosted earlier this week. You can prepare it several days in advance, store in the refrigerator and bake before serving. Alternately, you can freeze it up to one month and thaw overnight before baking.

You may be surprised to know that the word lasagna traces its origins to lasanon, the Greek word for chamber pot. The term was adopted by Romans as lasanum, to refer to the cooking pot in which lasagna was originally made. The Italians have vigorously denied recent claims that lasagna originated in England, in the court of King Richard II. Regardless of its genesis, it has become a staple in North America, Europe, Australia and Ethiopia.

Serves 8

1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, chopped
1/4 teaspoon chili powder
1 cup finely chopped carrots (optional)
1 1/4 pounds spicy turkey or chicken sausages, casings removed
26 ounces (1 jar) spicy tomato-based pasta sauce (Arrabiata sauce is ideal)

30 ounces partially skimmed ricotta cheese
10 ounces frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained
1 1/2 cups Parmesan cheese, grated
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons dried basil
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

Other Ingredients
1 to 1 1/2 cups Parmesan cheese, grated
9 uncooked lasagna noodles (regular or no cook)
12 ounces mozzarella cheese, grated

1. Boil lasagna noodles according to instructions on package. Drain hot water and fill with cold water. Leave the noodles in cold water until ready to use. You do not need to boil the noodles for this recipe, as uncooked noodles will bake through. However, it doesn’t take too much time, and might be preferable if you plan on freezing the lasagna.
2. In a large skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Sauté garlic until fragrant, and then sauté onions and chili powder for 2 minutes.
3. Add sausages and sauté for 10 minutes until brown, using a fork to break meat into chunks. Add tomato sauce and carrots and simmer 5 minutes.
4. Preheat oven to 375 F.
5. Mix ricotta, spinach, Parmesan, eggs, basil, oregano and pepper. Set aside.
6. Spread 1 cup meat sauce in the bottom of a 13x9 glass or metal baking dish. Place 3 noodles over sauce in a single layer. Top with another cup of meat sauce, followed by 1 cup of ricotta mixture. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup Parmesan and 1 cup mozzarella.
7. Repeat with 3 noodles, 1 cup meat sauce, 2 cups ricotta mixture, 1/4 cup Parmesan and 1 cup mozzarella. [see second photo above]
8. Place last 3 noodles over cheese. Spread 1 cup meat sauce, 1/2 cup Parmesan and the remaining mozzarella.
9. Dollop remaining ricotta mixture on top of lasagna, and remaining meat sauce around ricotta. Sprinkle with remaining Parmesan (if any). Cover tightly with foil.
10. Bake lasagna covered for 40-50 minutes. Uncover and continue baking until noodles are tender and lasagna is hot and bubbly. This will take between 20-30 minutes.
11. To bake a frozen lasagna either thaw overnight in the refrigerator and bake as above, or bake frozen lasagna for 90-100 minutes.
12. Allow lasagna to stand for 10 minutes before serving.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Hanukkah Shortbread Cookies

This was my second year celebrating Hanukkah with my boyfriend’s family. The occasion involved abundant food including Laura’s lovely latkes, a plethora of driedels and menorahs, and a mountain of blue and gold wrapping paper.

Other highlights from this year: a flashing yoyo that plays the ‘Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel’ song, uncle Mark’s reindeer antlers hung with stars of David, and singing the Adam Sandler Hanukkah song with the whole family. As a fitting end to our Hanukkah weekend, we saw a car on the highway with a huge menorah attached to the roof. As you can see, Hanukkah is big in New York!

My modest contribution to this year’s festivities was shortbread cookies that I made in Oxford and brought over in my hand luggage. Unfortunately, a number of them broke (the stars points snapped off) but I was able to bury them in the cookie platter and I don’t think anyone noticed.

Shortbread is one of my favorite treats. As a child, I ate a lot of Walkers Shortbread during the Christmas holidays (and all year long). My cookies are not quite as decadent, but are especially delicious with frosting. Thanks to Sarah for sharing the blue colored sugar that I used on some of the cookies.

Makes 60 cookies

2 cups unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated or caster sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract (optional)
4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
pinch salt

1 cup confectioner’s sugar
2 drops blue food color
2 teaspoons of water
silver dragées, for garnish (optional)
colored sugar (optional)

1. Add salt to flour. Set aside.
2. Using a mixer, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add vanilla and mix well.
3. Add half the flour and incorporate using the mixer. With a wooden spoon, incorporate the remaining flour until the dough forms a soft ball.
4. Divide the dough into four parts and wrap each separately in saran wrap. Refrigerate for 30 minutes or until the dough is cool and firm.
5. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
6. Remove one portion of dough, and on a floured surface roll to 1/4 to 1/2 inch thickness. With a cookie cutter make star shapes and place directly onto an ungreased baking sheet. If using colored sugar, sprinkle it on the cookies before baking.
7. Bake for 8-12 minutes, until the edges just begin to brown. Cool to room temperature.
8. To make frosting, mix confectioner’s sugar and 1 teaspoon of water. Slowly add more water until you reach the consistency of honey. Add floor color, one drop at a time.
9. Use a knife to spread frosting on cookies. If using dragées, place them immediately and allow the frosting to set.
10. Cookies can be kept in an airtight container for up to one week.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Traditional Apple Pie

The person who coined the term “easy as pie” must have had a difficult life. Pie is not hard, per se, but it is not easy either. Pie crust can be labor intensive unless you have a food processor or commit the mortal sin of using your hands (as I sometimes do). Apple pie is especially time consuming because it requires a lot of peeling and slicing. Don’t let this deter you, however, since there is almost nothing as attractive as a freshly baked apple pie.

As children we often ate Mrs. Smith's brand frozen apple pie which, if memory serves, was fairly good. Once in a while we would make an apple pie from scratch. Apples are plentiful in the fall and winter, which make apple pies ideal for Thanksgiving and Christmas. They are certainly more attractive than the more traditional Thanksgiving options - plain pecan pie and the downright ugly pumpkin pie. On the other hand, they do not require the advance planning necessary for fruitcake or the ridiculous labor demanded by the Bûche de Noël.

Apple pies have been popular in Europe for centuries. This English recipe dates to 1381 and calls for a mixture of apples, figs, pears, raisins, spices and saffron in a pastry casing. Apple pies only became common in the United States in the eighteenth century, and so the saying "as American as apple pie" is likely to be a patriotic myth manufactured to sell more apples.

I made this pie from apples that grew on Norham Gardens, a leafy street in North Oxford. A gardener had placed them in a crate for passersby to take away, and I never refuse natural (and free) ingredients.

Serves 8-12


2 pie crusts
1 lemon, all zest and juice
12 apples, peeled and cored
3/4 cup granulated or caster sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
pinch of cloves
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
1 egg (optional)

1. Place lemon zest and juice into a large bowl.
2. Peel and core the apples (cut lengthwise into eight wedges). Any kind of apple will do, but using a mixture is a good idea. Tart Granny Smith apples are ideal for pie. Coring can take a long time, so if you bake a lot invest in an apple corer. Cut wedges into slices about 1/4 inch thick and place into a large bowl, coating with lemon juice to prevent discoloration.
3. Preheat oven to 425F. Add the sugar, spices and flour and mix well.
4. Remove pie crusts from the fridge. Allow to warm slightly or they will crack during preparation. On a lightly floured surface, roll out one pie crust until it is 10-11 inches in diameter. Draping it over the rolling pin, transfer to a 9-inch pie dish.
5. Place apple mixture in the crust. Apples will reduce in volume during baking so do not worry if they appear to be piled very high. Dot with butter.

6. Roll out the other pie crust to between 11-12 inches and place on top of the pie. Trim top or bottom crust if necessary. Tuck edges under the bottom crust and crimp and flute to seal. This will prevent the juices from bubbling through during baking. Cut several 1-inch slits into the top of the pie to allow steam to escape.

7. If you have any extra scraps of dough, shape them into leaves. Score the pastry to create the leaf stem and vein. You can also create other shapes such as animals or letters. Beat the egg in a small bowl and brush it over the pie. The egg wash will impart a rich brown color during baking.
8. Place pie on a baking sheet to catch any juices and to make it easier to remove from the oven. Bake at 425F for 25 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 350F and bake for another 25 minutes. Check the pie regularly to make sure it is not burning. If the top crust begins to brown too quickly, cover with aluminum foil.
9. Allow the pie to cool before serving with ice cream, whipped cream or custard. It can also be served with Cheshire or Cheddar cheese.