I will be the first to say that I'm a terrible food blogger. Maybe it's because I started this site before the phrase was a thing—way back then, it wasn't a profession, but rather a hobby that few understood. 

Then writing here became more than a hobby, it became not a journal but a way to talk from this corner of the world to points all over. Posts, to me, were like letters. 

Sarah Kieffer's Chocolate Sugar Cookies | Tara O'Brady + Seven Spoons

But right now, with people murdered as they worshipped in Québec, the litany of egregious acts and lies from the current administration in the United States, and the continuing refugee crisis, I don't have a lot of words. All I have is that Sarah wrote a book I've been meaning to write about for months, and the incomprehensible state of things doesn't the diminish recognition she deserves.

The book is full of sweetness and comfort, and it is a lovely thing. xo

TO HELP: The American Civil Liberties Union | Doctor's Without Borders | The International Rescue Committee 

TO READ: Throwing Parties During the Apocalypse, by Tim at Lottie + Doof.

 

SARAH KIEFFER'S CHOCOLATE SUGAR COOKIES

"I often find myself craving a piece of chocolate in the afternoons, s it goes rather with the cup of hot coffee that is also a necessity in my daily life. Most days a little sure of bittersweet will do, but other times something more extravagant is essential. I found these chocolate sugar cookies to do the trick; they are soft and delicious without being overly rich and sweet."

— From The Vanilla Bean Baking Book: Recipes for Irresistible Everyday Favourites and Reinvented Classics by Sarah Kieffer. (Penguin Books, 2016) 

Makes around 12 cookies

INGREDIENTS

  • 1¾ cups | 250 g all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup | 50 g natural cocoa powder or a combination cocoa powder
  • ¾ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup | 225 g unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1¾ cups | 350 sugar (plus 1 cup | 200g  for rolling)
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon ground cardamom (optional)

METHOD

Adjust an oven rack to the middle position. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle, beat the butter on medium until smooth. Add the 1¾ cups sugar and beat on medium until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the egg and vanilla and beat on medium until combined. Add the flour mixture and beat on low until just combined.

Place the remaining 1 cup sugar in a medium bowl. Stir in cardamom, if desired.

Form the cookies into 3-ounce | 85 g balls (a scant ⅓ cup each). Roll each ball in the sugar and place 6 cookies on each prepared sheet pan. Bake one sheet at a time 11 to 14 minutes, until the edges have set and the centers are puffed and starting to crackle.

Transfer the baking sheet to a wire rack and let the cookies cool completely on the pan.

When I sat down to give one last read to this post on Molly Wizenberg's new book, Delancey: A Man, a Woman, a Restaurant, a Marriage, I did what one does when it's time to really focus. I checked Twitter.

At the top of the feed I found a friend's tweet announcing that Molly was on the radio, at that very moment, talking about Delancey, in an interview recorded at the wood-fired pizza restaurant of the same name (hers with her husband, Brandon Petit). So, I had Molly's voice as company for my edits, and current rewrite, while I snacked on a piece of shortbread made from a recipe found in the book.

It was an Escher drawing, come to life, with cookies. 

molly's rosemary candied ginger shortbread | tara o'brady

I've known Molly long enough that our emails go back to when I had a completely different job, and there's one in which she introduces one Mr. Brandon, still a student and waiter in NYC at the time. With that history, what follows here isn't meant to be an unbiased review. It is difficult to remove bias when speaking about a friend, and honestly, I don't want to. 

Molly's site introduced me to food blogs. Orangette was mentioned somewhere else, and I clicked the link; it took me to a warm chickpea salad. I didn't really know what a food blog was, or that they would become a thing, but I still knew what I was reading was good. 

(In searching for that particular piece just now, I fell back into step with Keaton, Jimmy's buttered brunches, and Rebecca's all-red straw collection. I lost an hour in the process, and ate a handful of salted pistachios, an apple, and two small squares of chocolate. That is the pull of Molly's writing. It makes you want to read more. It also makes you very hungry.) 

But really, you don't need me to tell you how good Molly's stories are. First at Orangette, then in her column in Bon Appetit, then elsewhere (including the Washington Post and her Spilled Milk podcast), then with her first book, A Handmade Life, Molly established herself not only as a talent, but as an exceptional one. Though superlatives are often ascribed willy-nilly, she is a benchmark of contemporary food writing, in the truest, realest sense of the word.

molly's rosemary + candied ginger shortbread | seven spoons

Sixteen Candles turned 30 two days ago. One anniversary tribute argued it as John Hughes's best work, not just for Jake Ryan and that dining table, but for how it showed difficulty to be more inclusive than exclusive; nobody is really spared from personal doubt, not even the popular kids.

(And there goes half an hour watching Sixteen Candles clips.)

In a culture that often manufactures glossed perfection, or uses hard times as a praise-courting kind of martyrdom, the story of Delancey is told in a frank plainness that saves it from being overly sentimental, while still keeping an acute sense of the all-too-real turmoil it accounts.

Some of the stories are familiar, having been hinted at on Orangette, but here there's the full look at how things went. Delancey picks up where A Homemade Life left off, with Brandon and Molly still settling into their new marriage, the decision to open a restaurant in Seattle, then chronicles its subsequent construction and early days.

The book isn't about the restaurant. Not really. The restaurant is of course what pushes the story along, but at the heart of it is what it takes to actively build the life you want; the commitment, the swallowing fear, the joy, and the toll. It is about building that life with someone, the support and faith that takes, and the uncomfortable realization that there can be distance and discord within the strongest of partnerships. It is about growing up, about claiming responsibility for our choices, and ownership of the people we become.

Delancey shows how one of the best can get even better. Molly's sharp-witted, playful voice still rings with authenticity, yet has matured. It reads as honest, at points painfully so, with a deep-set vulnerability. Parts are awkward, complicated, and messy.  Molly isn't always the hero. She shows her own bad-guy moments, and admits when she wished she could have acted differently than she did. She is self-aware, and hopeful. 

Delancey is like how we talk to friends about life, after opening a second bottle of wine.

molly's rosemary candied ginger shortbread | tara o'brady

Molly, you introduced us to French toast fried in oil, bouchons de thon, and Corentine's way with carrots. You showed us the potential of this medium, proved to an industry the value of new voices, and you are an essential part of this community. You have shared these years, shared Delancey, Essex, your friends, the dogs, your family, your mother, Burg, Brandon, and now sweet June.

Thank you for writing, M. Thanks for all of it. 

 

MOLLY'S SHORTBREAD WITH ROSEMARY + CANDIED GINGER 

Just like in A Homemade Life, Delancey has recipes to end chapters; while linked to the restaurant in many ways, they are not restaurant recipes per se. Instead they are those which represent a certain point in time (Vietnamese rice noodle salad, sautéed dates with sea salt, one heck of a cocktail called The Benjamin Wayne Smith) or, in the case of this shortbread, a roasted pork shoulder, and a trick with red wine vinaigrette, they're ones that came into their life because of the restaurant.

I won't excerpt the Molly's headnote, as the story behind this recipe is another reason to grab the book. But the cookies are inspired by ones served by the late Christina Choi at her restaurant, Nettletown.

The shortbread comes together in a flash, straightforward as shortbreads go, with the expected triumvirate of butter, sugar, and flour, then rosemary and candied ginger are invited to hang out. The combination is fiercely aromatic on the cutting board, but when baked, it unwinds. So, the lolling richness of the shortbread gets broadened by the thrumming warmth the ginger, and made slightly-more-savoury with the herb's resiny sharpness. I want to try them with a few, stingy drops of almond extract, and made slightly larger to serve as base for macerated strawberries. 

I did add a gilding roll of the dough in sugar before baking; the step added just enough texture to emphasize the edge of each cookie. I liked that.

Barely tweaked from Delancey: A Man, a Woman, a Restaurant, a Marriage (Simon & Schuster, 2014), by Molly Wizenberg. The recipe is mostly in Molly's words.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1/2 cup (100 g) granulated sugar
  • 2 sticks (226 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2 cups (280 g) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine-grained sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon (about 4 g) finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves
  • 1/3 cup (60 g) chopped candied ginger
  • Sugar, for rolling, see note

METHOD

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the sugar and butter. Beat until light and fluffy, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed with a rubber spatula. 

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, and rosemary. Add to the mixer bowl, and beat on low speed until the flour is absorbed and the dough begins to form large clumps that pull away from the sides of the bowl. Add the candied ginger, and mix briefly to incorporate. Divide the dough between two pieces of plastic wrap or parchment paper, and shape it into roughly 1 1/2-inch-diameter logs. Wrap, and refrigerate the dough logs for a few hours or overnight, until good and firm.  

When your'e ready to bake the cookies, preheat the oven to 300°F/150°C. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. 

Sprinkle sugar over work surface or in a wide, shallow dish large enough to accommodate the dough logs. Remove the logs from the refrigerator and while they're still very cold, roll them in the sugar to coat. Slice into 1/4-inch-thick rounds. Arrange the cookies 1 inch apart on the prepared baking sheets. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the edges are pale golden, rotating and switching the pans midway through. Transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool completely. 

These cookies will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for a week, if not longer. They can also be frozen.

Yield: about 60 cookies 

Note from Tara: This recipe used up the last of my candied ginger, but there was a lot of sugar left in the container. So, I sifted it for any larger clumps, then used that spiced sugar when rolling the cookies, making for an extra ginger kick. Lacking that, sanding sugar would be pretty, and granulated would work just fine.

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Good friends, recently back from a trip to Greece and Turkey, had us over for dinner last Saturday night. In Istanbul they took a cooking class, and the night's menu took largely from that. After a true feast of lentil soup, courgette fritters, dolmas, and Imam Bayildi, us lucky folks were treated to one platter of pale lokum, and another tray of baklava, cut into quilted diamonds. Not ones to overlook any detail, our hosts prepared Turkish coffee alongside. For the coffee, Michael used the pot they'd brought home, beautiful and small, hammered copper with a long handle, and he scented the brew with cinnamon.

Pistachio Baklava with Cardamom

Christa's baklava was a masterwork. Baked to bronze and then lacquered with glaze, it was a marvel of texture. The top pastry shattering and light, the middle thick with nuts, and the bottommost strata solid with crunch. (And the whole far more beautiful than the rustic take I'm presenting.) While not a recipe from the class, Christa said the recipe was closest to Turkish baklava, which was the preferred of those they'd tried. The thing here it seems, is that the Turkish way uses a sugar syrup instead of one with honey, so while sweet, this baklava's flavour is clearer, brighter, more about delicacy and fragrance than tawny warmth. She'd used only cardamom in the filling; the spice rang high and bright, with an emphasis on its floral citrusy-ness. In using clarified butter, even the pastry and nuts came across as cleaner than expected. It was revelatory.

It was a wake up call.

Pistachio Baklava with Cardamom

Three days later, I was going over my notes. As I do, most mornings lately. After Sean is off and the boys are away, I click the kettle on for tea. While it steeps, I slice an apple, ideally one with lively crunch and generous juice, and settle the pieces in my bowl, leaving a space into which is nudged a spoon's worth of almond butter for dipping. Mug and bowl accompany me up the stairs, to the front of the house, where the computer sits on a desk beside a window that looks out to trees. The light is stained turmeric in October. Often I'll see a particular elderly couple walking on the street below. They both wear red coats. He is partial to flat caps that remind me of my dad's. They're part of this habit. Then, in between bites of apple, I settle in with my writing notebook.

The first notebook of any importance in my life was when I was a kid and used to keep an account of my dreams, as they happened, when still in that wild and woollen place of half-asleep. It was rarely effective, though I vaguely recall one from early elementary school involving a class trip, a UFO, and Duran Duran.

Most times I'd lose track of the dream as I was writing, or if I managed to get anything down, it would be indecipherable when I read it back. I once got a letter from someone that shared my first and maiden name, the signature looked familiar and foreign. My dreaming notes were often like that, like correspondence from not quite me. 

Although the notebook failed me then, it's long been useful for writing. 

I'm learning to move from one territory of work to another and back again. I've been writing a lot, for the book and other things, and then there's the rest of life, of the needs of the family, the children, the house and me, of the season, even. It's a stuttering grind, switching between languages of grams, ounces and measures to e-mail and appointments to laundry, raking the yard and volunteering at school on Halloween (and will that mean I'll need a costume?). 

On their own, the words don't amount to much more than a disjointed list. That said, they represent an attempt to aid a future me, something to fill the gaps and lapses, and ease the transition when I return to it. Like setting out clothes the night before a big day, a move to prepare for what could be needed.  

A selection of notes from Tuesday:

 I sat close enough to the fire that its heat burrowed through the fabric of my shirt and was itchy the skin at the small of my back. I drank the soup in gulping mouthfuls prickly with ginger and garlic and black pepper. My lips felt lined with sparks. 

On Saturday night, I had the finest baklava of my life. Our friend made it. It was terrific, as was the densely aromatic Turkish coffee they served, too. 

 Kids at the bus stops with shirt sleeves pulled down across the back of their hands, the cuff tight in their fists. A dancing shuffle of moving weight from foot to foot.

It's the pâté sandwiches we'd pack for train rides, eating them on the upper bunk of one of those sleeper cars with light blue walls. It's how the soft, whipped texture of the pâté melded into the softness of the bread, and both stuck to the back of my front teeth. 

The realization then, heavy and thudding like a stack of books on a table.

Pistachio and Cardamom Baklava

Usually I'll hold these seeds In hibernating wait, until there's the thing, the sugar-instead-of-honey whatever wonderful thing that clicks to make them complete, and they spring to bountiful utility. For some endeavours, like the last 20 minutes spent watching Duran Duran videos on YouTube, fruition never comes. (Unless you count a renewed infatuation with John Taylor a gain.)

In this batch of notes, it's the baklava. The baklava is the takeaway.

 

PISTACHIO BAKLAVA WITH CARDAMOM  

Recipe adapted, only barely, from Cook's Illustrated. Written in my words.

I won't pretend that baklava doesn't take planning, time, and fiddly (though not specifically difficult) work. That said, as one batch makes 40 or so pieces, and as it keeps so well (up to 10 days, covered tightly with foil, at room temperature), I'll make the bold proposal of stating that baklava is is not only doable, but should be done. In fact, next festive dinner, it could easily slide in to take the place of dessert. It ticks many of the same boxes as pie.  

I've added a murmur of cinnamon to the filling , because while I don't have a pot for making Turkish coffee, I didn't want to miss out on the combination. 

Makes 1 (9x13-inch) tray. 

FOR THE FILLING

  • 12 ounces shelled, raw pistachios
  • 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • A generous 1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt

TO ASSEMBLE

  • 1 cup clarified butter, melted but not hot
  • 1 pound phyllo, defrosted according to manufacturer's instruction if frozen

FOR THE SUGAR SYRUP

  • 1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup water
  • tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • A small piece of lemon rind, maybe 1-inch long
  • 10 black peppercorns
  • 1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt

To make the filling, place the pistachios in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse the motor in 1-second bursts until the nuts are finely chopped, maybe 10 to 15 times total. Pour the nuts into a bowl, then measure out 1 1/2 tablespoons for garnish and set aside. Stir the cardamom, cinnamon, sugar and salt into the rest. 

Preheat an oven to 300 °F / 150 °C, with a rack in the lower middle.

Unfold the phyllo on a cutting board, with a damp, lint-free kitchen towel and a large piece of cling film nearby. Using a 9x13-inch steel (not non-stick) straight-sided cake pan or a 9x13-inch glass baking dish as a guide, cut the phyllo into two roughly-even stacks; one may be larger than the other. Cover both stacks with the cling film, then the damp cloth, so that the pastry doesn't dry out. 

Brush the insides of the pan with butter. Fold back the damp towel and clingfilm covering the wider stack of phyllo. Take a sheet of phyllo and place it in the bottom of the pan. Gently brush the pastry with butter, then top with another sheet of phyllo, coating that one with butter, too. Repeat the process of layering and buttering with 6 more sheets, making 8 total. Replace the towel to cover the stack.

Scatter one-third of the chopped pistachios, about a scant 1 cup, over th phyllo. Pull the towel and film back over the thinner stack of pastry. Lay one piece of phyllo over the nuts, and carefully dab with butter until covered (brushing at this point would disturb the nuts). Cover with another piece of pastry, staggering if necessary to cover the filling, and butter again. Continue with 4 more pieces, making 6 total. Repeat process with half the remaining nuts, 6 more sheets phyllo, then the last of the nuts. For the top crust, use 8 to 10 of the neatest and most pristine sheets from the wider stack of phyllo. Layer and butter each, except for the last piece. Using clean and dry hands, gently compress the layers, working from the centre of the pan outwards. Spoon the rest of the clarified butter, approximately 1/4 cup, over the pastry, brushing to cover and coax the butter down the sides of the pan. Use a sharp-tipped serrated knife to portion the baklava into diamonds, making 8 slices each way on the diagonal. (Alternatively, cut the baklava into a grid pattern as seen here.)

Bake the baklava in the hot oven until deeply golden, around 90 minutes, making sure to rotate the pan halfway through the baking time.  

While the baklava is baking, make the sugar syrup. Combine all the syrup ingredients in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring often. Once at a full boil and the sugar has dissolved, pour syrup into a 2-cup measuring cup and set aside to cool. When room temperature, discard the lemon peel and peppercorns.  

Immediately after pulling the baklava from the oven, pour all but 2 tablespoons of the syrup over the cut lines. Drizzle the remaining syrup over the surface of the baklava, then decorate with the reserved pistachios as desired. (The classic decoration is a pinch of nuts in the centre of each piece.) Set the baklava on a wire rack to cool completely, about 3 hours. The baklava can be eaten once cooled, but improves with age. If possible, wrap the tray in tin foil and let stand at room temperature for 8 hours before serving.  

Any remaining baklava can be kept, wrapped, on the counter for 10 days.  

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stacked and sliced

I thought I’d tell you about where I grew up. I don’t think I have before, which is a shame, as it really was a fine place to be. 

I was born here in Canada, in Montréal, Québec to be specific. We moved to southern Ontario when I was a toddler, and it’s where I did almost all of my growing up. When I think of this place, I think of its geography.

On one side we had Lake Ontario. It is broad and blue, and, depending on where you stand, without end on the horizon. The escarpment, a rocky outcropping that carves a jagged, irregular zigzag across the map, is to its opposite. In between and all around were fields, orchards and vineyards, with their imposed geometry of pattern and crops on the landscape.

Then there was the river.

The Niagara River flows between Lakes Erie and Ontario, over its eponymous waterfalls and a breath-stealing gorge. Over that river, across that expanse that feels so big the air between feels solid, is a whole other world; a whole other country, in fact.

That’s the thing about living in a border-ish town. There’s the false familiarity of proximity with the simultaneous awareness of difference. The feeling of sameness although not quite there.

We share a lot with the United States; television stations travelled the airwaves without minding the division between us, same goes for radio. With Buffalo, New York a short drive away, I grew up with an adopted local pride (and accompanying expertise) for the distinguishing aspects of the classic hot chicken wing.

There were, of course, differences. And to a six-year-old, these were important ones. They had Apple Jacks and Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereals, for starters. And Jiff peanut butter. We had ketchup-flavoured potato chips and (sometimes) poured gravy on our fries.

Many of these disparities have disappeared in the years passed from my childhood and now, but we still spell colour and favourite with a “u”, call it Zed and not Zee for the last letter in the alphabet, our packet of ketchup-flavoured chips is emblazoned with both English and French, and we’ve got Butter Tarts. Nanaimo Bars, too.

For those who don’t know, butter tarts are basically miniature pecan pies without the pecans. Gooey, dark and the antithesis of subtle in its sweetness, the filling may include raisins or walnuts, but the inclusion of either is the subject of impassioned debate.

Nanaimo Bars, a bar cookie named after a city three time zones and 4,500 kilometers away in British Columbia, are more difficult to describe and, as far as I know, without compatriot in definition. In the way I learned to make them, you make a crust out of cocoa powder, butter, egg, graham crumbs, shredded coconut and chopped nuts (walnuts or almonds being the most trad). It’s baked until just firm and slightly crisp. I’ve recently found that other recipes cook the mixture on the stove top, with it then pressed into a pan and chilled to set.

Whatever way you make the crust, upon it you spread a concoction that’s often mistakenly-described as a custard filling. What it is, in actual fact, is a custard-flavoured icing - thanks to the brilliance of powdered vanilla custard powder. It sounds strange, and maybe it is one of those things you have to grow up with to understand, but frosting, rather than the smooth eggy tenderness of custard, is imperative for its grittyness. It is all about the specific feel of sugar and powdered custard creamed into butter.

You see, there’s ganache yet to be poured over the whole pan, and it is the texture of the custard icing that stands up to that of the chocolate. Their consistencies almost match, so that when bitten, the chocolate gives way to the filling without clear definition against the tooth.

Not to fear, the stick-to-your teeth quality of those two components is cleanly cleared by the coarse crust below. Really, they thought of everything.

It has been a long while since I’ve had a Nanaimo Bar; they went through a popularity boost in the mid-90s right when everyone was watching Friends and drinking lattes at coffee shops. Around then, you’d find Nanaimo Bars on the counters at said coffee shops, with radical frosting flavours like Irish cream, cappuccino and mocha.

But then along came Justin. Justin Schwartz, if you don’t know already, a singularly-swell individual who shares my affection for Alice Medrich’s recent book, Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cookies. He’s been baking from it, and we’ve been chatting about it, and we got on the subject of the No-No Nanaimo Bars found, fittingly, in the Gooey chapter.

He’d not heard of Nanaimo Bars, and I of course had but was curious about the cheesecake-ish filling Medrich offers in lieu of my trashy-but-beloved custard powder. He made a pan and deemed them a revelation, which was just about all the encouragement I needed to do the same.

Justin is right, these were intensely good. I’ll add the asterisk that they're especially so straight out of the freezer - they won’t freeze solid, and so end up with a good share of the charms of an ice cream sandwich.

But, I will say, with allegiance and fidelity held firm, and as both Justin and Medrich herself note, these are not Nanaimo Bars. The cream cheese adds a new dimension, a refined edge of sharp dairy, that is a departure from the original. Dare I say, the dowdy bar is elevated to a place verging on elegant.

While something special in its own right, and with great respect to all those involved, I’ll hold tight to the false-yellow stripe of frosting between my chocolate and crust. I've got a predisposed allegiance to uphold. Custard powder in our cookies might be a Canadian thing. As far as traditions go, I'll stand on guard for thee.

*******

The latest issue of UPPERCASE magazine is out!  Here's a preview of what you'll find in the  Sweet column for winter; we're extolling the virtues of the small and making mini doughnuts.  There's also been some exciting news that has had me grinning for days. The first annual Canadian Food Blogger Awards were announced last week, and was wonderful to see so many friends on the list of nominees and winners! The judges saw fit to include me on that list, nominated for photography, and winning in the categories of writing and recipes. It is an honour and my gratitude goes out to all those involved.

I feel a wee bit of stage fright on the mention of this one - a week ago I was on CBC Radio One's Metro Morning talking food and blogs. If you'd like to take a listen (be kind!) the podcast can be found  here, with our segment beginning at around the 13:30 mark, and I first speak about a minute later.

It's been a good week. I hope yours has been too. Thanks for sharing all of this with me.

*******

MAYA'S NO-NO NANAIMO BARS

Named after the city in British Columbia, the traditional Nanaimo bar is a no-bake layered affair with a crumb crust and layers of sweet vanilla filling crowned with chocolate. These here — with a coconut pecan crust, vanilla cream cheese filling, and dark chocolate ganache — are for people who like the idea of the Nanaimo bar but wish it were different: less sweet, more grown-up, a bit modern. Oh, and these are baked. Thus, no claims to authenticity…only a very good bar created by a very good friend, Portland food maven Maya Klein.

Excerpted from Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cookies by Alice Medrich (Artisan Books, 2010).

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 1/2 cups (5 ounces) chocolate cookie crumbs (from 9 chocolate graham crackers)
  • 1/2 cup (1.5 ounces) unsweetened dried shredded coconut
  • 1/2 cup (2 ounces) finely chopped pecans
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons (4.375 ounces) granulated sugar
  • 8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 2 tablespoons (0.875 ounce) packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 7 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate with 55% to 60% cacao

Equipment

  • A 9-inch square metal baking pan, the bottom and all 4 sides lined with foil

METHOD

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Mix the crumbs, coconut, pecans, butter, and 1/4 cup of the granulated sugar and pat it very firmly into the lined pan. Bake the crust for 10 to 12 minutes, or until it looks slightly darker at the edges and smells toasted.

While the crust is baking, mix the filling. In a large bowl, beat the softened cream cheese, brown sugar, and 1/4 cup of the remaining granulated sugar until smooth. Beat in the vanilla and then the egg. When the crust is baked, dollop the filling onto the hot crust and spread gently with the back of a spoon. Bake the bars until the edges are slightly puffed, about 10 minutes. Cool on a rack for 30 minutes. Chill for at least 2 hours.

Dissolve the remaining 2 tablespoons granulated sugar in the cream. Bring 1/2 inch water to a simmer in a medium skillet. Coarsely chop the chocolate and combine with the cream in a medium metal bowl. Place the bowl directly in the skillet of hot water and turn off the heat. Let rest for 5 minutes and whisk until smooth. Set aside until needed.

Pour the warm ganache onto the bars, spread, and chill for at least 30 minutes before serving. Lift the bars out of the pan by using the edges of the foil liner. Cut into 16 or 25 squares, wiping the knife between cuts. May be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days.

Makes 16 large (2 1/4—inch) bars or 25 smaller bars.

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Date squares. Or do you call them bars? By whatever name, they were not a product of my childhood kitchen. My earliest association with these fruit-stuffed cookie sandwiches was elementary school bake sales, set up in the halls of our school for some charitable endeavour or another.

Those were exciting times, when our milk money was augmented with a few extra coins from Mum so that my brother and I could purchase a treat of our own choosing. Of our own choosing! I remember being giddy at the thought of such power. Upon arrival at school, all eyes would grow wide as the exotic array of baked goods emerged from backpacks. The riches were transferred to the careful hands of parent volunteers who laid them out on long tables in the hall outside our classroom. I don't know how I kept myself from swooning at the sight. Nor do I know how we lasted through what surely seemed an interminable wait until lunchtime.

A child of specific tastes, the exact moment the big hand and the little hand met at the top of the clock and that lunch bell rang, I'd make a beeline for the Rice Krispie treats. How do I love thee, you golden bricks of marshmallow-and-butter-bathed cereal. They were first-class sugar bombs, and a guilty favourite to this day. I vaguely recall date squares had their place on those tables, but they resided only on the edge of my awareness.

Fast forward to yesterday, when I had in my possession a stash of Medjools. I'd bought some for the specific purpose of a sticky-toffee-pudding-inspired cake; but when the matter of the cake was taken care of, a few handfuls remained, succulent and sweet beneath their sugar-flaked skin. In consideration of my previous nonchalance, it was surprising choice that I set about knocking together a pan of date squares. The first date squares I've ever baked.

I consulted various recipes, and took the best from the varied incarnations of date squares (bars?) I found. Some were with a shortbreadish base that had the butter and sugar creamed together before the introduction of the flour. A few had eggs involved, while most did not. There were oats and nuts to consider, and then there were dialogues in regards to the filling; sweeten or not to sweeten. Options galore.

I decided my treasures should be left as they were, so I stewed the dates briefly, then processed them into a dense, gungy purée that squelched pleasingly when spooned. The kicker in the filling was the few specks of floral-sharp clementine zest, which light up the mellowness of the dates like sparklers in the night sky. It was a modest elaboration that made all the difference.

The rest followed a simple method, you make the same sort of crisp topping I like for crumbles; cold butter is cut into a flour mixture to form irregular clumps, clumps which melt upon baking and crisp the surrounding dry ingredients into a rough and golden landscape. In this case the flour and oats are divided, with half patted into a tin to form the bottom crust. The dates slump in next, then the rest of the mixture is scattered over top.

When baked, the date filling sinks and seeps into the lower crust, so that the line between the two is blurred and what is left perfectly-bound strata of oats and fruit. The topping is not invited to their party and so turns sandy and delicate, crunchy only here and there. The perfect offset to the heft that lies beneath.

From the oven, the pan must rest, first on the counter and then in the fridge. The butter, and there is a good deal of butter here, firms up just enough to give it all some additional structure and the layers get a chance to settle into each other. All that's left is to cut the pan into bars (squares?) before you take a piece in one hand, a cold glass of milk in the other, and feel rather smug about your handiwork. There is something to be said for the act of slicing a tray of cookies that gives such a gratifying feeling of provision - a few swift swipes of the blade and you can feed a household for days. Happily. Handily.

I do not know what I was expecting with that first bite, but I surely wasn't expecting this. The skimpy serving of spices I had granted the crust had made their presence known in the most wonderful way; the squares were perfumed with the dark, deep notes of the wintry spices, and tasted of everything homespun and old-fashioned. And I liked it very much.

Now if by some rift in the space-time continuum third-grade me happens to be reading this, please take my advice and maybe give date squares a chance. And while we're at it, let me tell you now that our brief, torrid dalliance with crimped hair in the fifth grade is not a good idea. I don't care if all your friends own crimping irons, it's not a good look for them either.

Heed my words, younger me, you'll understand when you're older. And save your pennies for the next bake sale.

OAT AND NUT DATE SQUARES

Adapted from a variety of sources. I used some clementine to flavour the filling, but a few grates of orange zest would be just as good.

INGREDIENTS

  • 10 ounces (around 2 cups) pitted dates
  • 1 cup water
  • zest from half a clementine
  • 1/2 cup ground nuts, see note
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • a pinch of ground clove
  • 1 cup dark brown sugar, packed, see note
  • 6 ounces (3/4 cup, 1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter at coldish room temperature, diced
  • 1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats

METHOD

Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Grease and line an 9-inch square pan with parchment paper so that the paper hangs over the sides of the pan.

In a small saucepan, pour the water over the dates. Bring to a boil over medium high heat, stirring often. Reduce the heat to medium low to maintain a simmer, cooking the fruit until all of the liquid has been absorbed and the dates become a soft, concentrated paste, around 10 minutes. Stir often. Set the fruit aside to cool, stir in the clementine zest.

Once the dates are cool, purée them in a food processor fitted with the metal blade attachment. Scrape out the dates to a bowl as best as you can, but don't worry if there's a bit left behind. Set the fruit aside.

Into the processor, add in the nuts, flours, salt, baking soda and spices. Pulse to combine. Add the sugar and pulse again. Using your fingers to keep the pieces separated, crumble in the butter into the dry ingredients. Pulse again a few times until the flour and butter mixture resembles a coarse, uneven meal. Pour the mixture into a large bowl and stir in the oats.

Press a generous half of the crust mixture into the prepared pan. Spoon the date filling over, spreading it to cover the crust completely. Sprinkle the rest of the crust mixture over the fruit. Bake in the preheated oven until the top crust is golden brown and crisp, around 30 minutes. Rotate the pan once during baking.

Cool the bars completely on a rack, still in the pan. Once at room temperature, chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to firm up. Slice as desired, serving them at room temperature or chilled.

Makes one 9-inch square pan, can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature or refrigerated (my preference).

Notes:

• You can choose the nuts to use here. I went with walnuts (robust), but pecans (buttery) and almonds (fragrant) are also good candidates. In the case of nut allergies (hi Hannah!), use an additional 1/2 cup of either of the flours.

• The kosher salt remains noticeable in the crust; if you prefer a less discernible result, use a finer-grained salt and possibly use less.

• I am tempted to try these again with 3/4 cup brown sugar and 1 1/4 cup of oats, but my family has said that they should be as they are. Just thought I'd mention.

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Authortara
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When I first begin to get sick, I begin to clean. Ambitiously.

It's not just scrubbing dishes or sweeping the floors or folding the laundry. It's cleaning the windows and flipping the mattresses and vacuuming under the fridge. When my mind is fuzzy with sickness, I can't stand a similar feeling of clutter in my surroundings.

It drives me bonkers. But at least, in the best of circumstances, my fits of crazy result in cookies.

Last Tuesday I organized the closets. Most specifically, the Closet We Dare Not Open. That's the closet in our little den, a stash and dash repository, the closet that still had sealed boxes from when we moved to this house two years ago.

Yes, you heard me right. Sealed boxes. And yes, it has been two years.

Don't look at me like that. You try moving with a toddler when you're already expecting your next and let's see how well you do in getting all your boxes unpacked.

Ahem. Now that we've thrown open the quite literal door on my secret shame, back to the present. And those boxes. These were the boxes of nonessentials - the last boxes we'd packed from our previous house, thrown together as we made our way out the door.

In one I found a storage container (empty) for CDs, an unopened package of paper, a sketchpad and some dice. In another, pictureless fames and ice cube trays. And in another, I found my recipe notebooks.

The pair of books, pale slate with Prussian blue trim, date back even further than the move to this house. They are from A Time Before; the time before a ring had ever been put upon my finger and before my child had ever been placed in my arms. A time before I started writing here.

My Mum had recipe folders when I was growing up. She'd snip out and tack in recipes from magazines and newspapers, these interspersed with handwritten cards bearing the bosom-held secret recipes of family and friends. Hers were fat and full with both the memory and the promise of delicious meals.

When I decided I it was time to become an adult, I started my own recipe notebooks. It seemed the Thing to Do. I'm a gatherer by nature, and had a considerable stockpile of magazines and notepads full of material ready and waiting. I remember stacking the clippings into neat little piles, considering my methods of categorization. I had Breakfasts, Soups, Salads, Breads, Sides, Vegetarian Mains, Meat, Poultry, Cakes, Pies, Frozen Desserts and Sweets. (All of this compulsion fell neatly in line with my established addiction to stationery.)

I was ready, at least recipe-wise, for Sort of Life I was Going to Lead. My books were as much a compilation of tried recipes as it was of the recipes I wanted to try in that future. I was going to be prepared.

Prepared for everything except baking cookies. In curating these books, I overlooked cookies entirely. Filled anticipation for future dinner parties that would surely require an elegant sweets course, I hopped, skipped, and jumped my way past biscuits and wafers and biscotti. The closest I come to a cookie is the solitary mention of brownies.

I think I thought that cookies were dull. I know. I was young and stupid. Cookies were one of the first things I'd learned to bake, due in large part to Mrs. Wakefield and those bags of morsels, and I believe I had the fool idea that adulthood was the time to move on from such childish pursuits.

Thank goodness for being lazy. And in love. I started those books years ago, but I never finished them. They went into the back of a closet, moved from apartment to apartment to house to house, untouched. Instead of collecting, I started cooking, and the next thing I knew I was here.

And the person that is here is a mum who bakes cookies. Often.

A move to rectify the lapse in those books' the cookie section is long overdue, and I have already got my choice for the first one in. These Chocolate-chunk Oatmeal Cookies with Pecans and Dried Cherries are sigh-inducing balance of sweet, salty and subtly sour. They are speckled and nubbly, with a crisp rim and a soft centre, and deep cracks that travel their surface. And oh my stars, they are perfectly delicious. So delicious that they deserve a fan club.

We can have the meetings at my place. Once I'm done cleaning.

CHOCOLATE-CHUNK OATMEAL COOKIES WITH PECANS AND DRIED CHERRIES

From Cooks Illustrated published May 2005.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/4 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
  • 1 cup pecans, toasted and chopped
  • 1 cup dried sour cherries or cranberries, chopped coarse
  • 4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped into small pieces about the size of chocolate chips
  • 3/4 cup (12 tablespoons, 1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened but still cool
  • 1 1/2 cups packed dark brown sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

METHOD

Preheat oven to 350°F (175°C), with racks on the top and bottom thirds. Use parchment paper to line several standard baking sheets and set aside.

In a bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

In another bowl combine the oats, pecans, dried cherries and chocolate.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer, cream together the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. With the mixer on medium-low, add the egg and beat until incorporated.

Scrape down the sides of the bowl, turn the mixer down to low, and add the flour mixture to the bowl. Stir until just combined. Finally incorporate the oats, nuts, fruit and chocolate. Do not overmix. Turn off the mixer and use a rubber spatula to give the dough a final stir and make sure that all the ingredients are incorporated.

Using an ice cream scoop to measure 1/4 cup portions of dough. Roll these portions lightly between your hands, then place 8 on each baking sheet, spaced evenly. Wet your hands and lightly press the dough to a 1-inch thickness. Bake the cookies, two trays at a time, in a preheated oven for 12 minutes. Rotate the trays top to bottom and back to front and bake for another 8 minutes or until the cookies are uniformly golden, but still wet in the middle. You might think that they're undercooked, but you're wrong - resist the urge to overbake, they will set up further as they cool.

Remove from the oven and cool on the baking sheets for 5 minutes before transferring to a wire rack. Store cooled cookies in an airtight container at room temperature.

Makes 16.

Notes:

• Although the original recipe specifies table salt, I used kosher salt instead; I enjoy the uneven saltiness of kosher in cookies, but that is only a personal preference.

• Continuing on the topic of salt, I sprinkled the pecans with some fine grained sea salt when they were toasted. This subtle salinity hummed steadily beneath the complexity of the chocolate and cherries.

• Wanting a slightly more modest cookie, I divided the dough into 24 and reduced my cooking time accordingly.

picnic on the porch

With all the cupcakes we've been making lately (and cakes, there were two cakes too, but that's another story), you would think I would be done with treats. You would think I'd be happy to leave my baking cupboard closed for few days and give the mixer a rest. You would think that would be sensible of me.

If you think that, you're thinking wrong.

It isn't my offense though, this return to sugar and sweets. I didn't mean to become truly, deeply, madly obsessed with the thought of gingersnaps for two weeks straight. I blame it on the Grandparents.

I know it sounds cruel that I would place blame squarely on the well-intentioned shoulders of my children's grandparents, but I call them like I seem them.

It's totally their fault.

Benjamin came home with a cookie from Grandma. Not surprising, of course, as Grandmas are made of cookies (and Grandpas of candy, don't you know). Being the sweet little man he is, Ben was prompt to share his snack with me as soon as he walked through the door. His sweetness may have been slightly influenced by his inability to open the wrapper the cookie was presented in, but really that is neither here nor there.

Crinkle, rip, crunch.

Half for him, half for me. I popped my share in my mouth distractedly. I wasn't really even in the mood for a cookie. Benjamin is deeply offended if you do not immediately enjoy the treat that has been shared, so I obliged.

Munch, munch, munch. Drat.

This cookie was really very good. Really especially good. And gone. My mind raced to tack down its characteristics; a thin biscuity, wafery cookie. Not cakey in the least. Not crumbly, not delicate, but crisp. Spice, yes, there was spice involved. Where's that wrapper? Think, think, think. Cinnamon, definitely. And ... something else. Ginger? Yes! Ginger was it.

Now I needed to make gingersnaps.

I am proud to say my restraint won out, momentarily at least. I exercised the utmost self-control and waited until the flour had settled and the candle smoke had cleared from our birthday celebrations before I did what I had to do.

I Googled.

After a few search modifications, and a few pages I struck gold. Well, sugar dusted bronze, to be exact. David Lebovitz. Chez Panisse. Gingersnaps. Done.

CHEZ PANISSE GINGERSNAPS

Unsurprisingly, considering their origin, these are some of the best gingersnaps I have tried. They are spicy without being claustrophobically so. The cinnamon and pepper add deeper dimensions of heat, complimenting the bright fire of ground ginger.

Recipe (via DavidLebovtiz.com)

Notes:

• The dough is quite soft, so I used this method to form the logs prior to chilling: wrap loosely-formed dough on the centre of a piece of parchment paper, fold the paper over. Then, holding the two edges of the parchment parallel to the dough together, press a ruler against the log to compress.

• I preferred my cookies on the smaller size, rolling the log out to a 1-inch diameter. The cooking time ran about 8 minutes. I also experimented with different thicknesses of cookies, some whisper-thin and crackling, others fat and tender. All were delicious.

• I regard to baking times, these cookies do brown quickly, going from deeply-golden to overly-toasted in a matter of moments. Keep an eye on them.

• On a particularly-vulnerable evening, I may have taken two of the thicker, softer cookies and sandwiched them with vanilla bean ice cream in between. And on another night, there may have been peaches too. And it may have been nothing short of wonderful.

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