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.

For my kitchen ruler I use my grandmother's knitting gauge. It's skinny, long, and made of metal, and fits snugly in the drawer  under the counter where I do most of my baking. Because of it, I can tell you that these atta biscuits are precisely 1-by-1 1/2-inch rectangles, and its sharp edge was used to keep all the corners straight.

I can also tell you that atta biscuits take no more than 30 minutes from start to cookies, with no need to set out ingredients in advance, or cream any butter, and that they are immensely dunkable, making them the optimal sidebar to teatime.

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Atta biscuits, if you've not heard of them, as I'd not heard of them until my mother enlightened me about two months ago, are dryish whole wheat cookies that are sold roadside in India. They are flat and crunchy through and through, and mum says they're a favourite with truck drivers. 

I'm without any point of reference or sentimentality for atta biscuits beyond what she told me, but I think I understand them. They're good travelling food, and whenever we visited India when I was a kid, we'd travel a lot. We'd pack sandwiches made with tinned pâté for journeys by train, which I'd eat sitting up on the top bunk of the sleeper car. The soft, whipped texture of the spread would meld into the squidge of the bread, and both stuck to the back of my front teeth. I liked those sleeper cars, with their royal blue cushions and pale turquoise walls, and the way the train rocked as you slept. I even liked the clicking whirr of the ceiling fan. When we'd pull into stations Dad would buy dosas wrapped in banana leaves through the car's window.

At the hotel high in the Nilgiri Hills where we stayed on my last trip, the stone floors were always cold in morning, even though it was June or maybe even July by that point. My mother taught me to wrap a wool shawl around both my shoulders, tucking the inside edge behind my back before draping the other edge over top and around, thus keeping me tightly swaddled against the chill. For breakfast we'd order sweet milky tea and buttered toast, and I'd dip the latter into the former. 

Atta biscuits fit in with all of that. A simple snack made by stirring together basic pantry staples, in lean quantity. The biscuits aren't really rich, nor too sweet. They're not so austere as to feel a punishment, but not so decadent as to seem an extravagance, either. I've eaten two while writing this.

They are crumbly, quietly everyday cookies. A batch makes a modest amount – a single tray that feeds four nicely with a handful left over for later. They don't require any special equipment, even the knitting gauge isn't necessary, and you can get them together while the kettle boils. 

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I'm certain that these cookies are not entirely authentic, since they are not as snappily crisp as they should be, but they've got an appeal that deserves its own attention. They taste in between shredded wheat cereal and a digestive biscuit, like a scone on a diet, maybe. They remind me of Stephanie's oatcakes that Molly wrote about, and they could be used in pretty much the same ways. (That said, these are puffier at their middles and might not sandwich as so well, and it's best to flip them upside-down for topping.)

I've not had the chance to get my mother over here to try this incarnation of the recipe we've been working on, but I'll be sure to relay her thoughts. There's also word that there's a shop not far from here that sells packaged atta biscuits, so there's some taste testing ahead. Maybe the dough should be rolled thinner, so they don't swell so much. Such a change will either mean more cookies or revised measurements. 

For now, I'll leave you with these, as they are. Safe travels.

OUR ATTA BISCUITS

A collaboration between my mum and me. A coarse cane sugar is nice here; it flecks the baked cookies with sparkles and adds crunch.

Makes 24 small cookies.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup atta, see note
  • 2  tablespoons natural cane sugar, be a little generous
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons cold butter, cut into small pieces
  • 1/4 cup milk, or thereabouts

Method

Preheat an oven to 425°F (220°C) with a rack in the upper third. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

In a medium bowl, stir together the atta, sugar, baking powder and salt. Using a pastry cutter, two blunt knives or your fingertips, cut the butter into the flour mixture until it's a fairly even meal — you don't want any large flakes of butter remaining. With a fork, stir in just enough milk for the dough start to come away from the sides of the bowl. Gently press the dough into a cohesive ball, then turn it out onto a clean work surface. Roll the dough out to a 6-by-8-inch rectangle, then cut it into 24 1-by-1 1/2-inch pieces. Use the tines of a fork to press marks into each. Transfer the biscuits to the baking sheet, with at least 1/4-inch in between. Bake in the preheated oven until the biscuits are puffed and golden, around 15 minutes. 

Remove the cookies from pan to a baking rack for at least 5 minutes before eating. The biscuits will crisp as they sit. Fully-cooled biscuits can be kept in an airtight container at room temperature for a few days.

Note:

  • Atta is a semi-hard whole wheat flour, that's finely ground. If you don't have access to atta, regular whole wheat flour can be sifted and used instead, keeping any bits of bran behind.
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P.S. Many thanks to the kind folks at Babble for including me on their 2013 list of the top food blogs written by mothers, generously including me in the top 10 overall and as first in the category of photography. It is an honour to be in such company.

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If Béa's dessert was a paragon of restraint, exquisitely delicate, this brash incarnation of much the same ingredients is its antithesis.

And, comically, the story of this cookie-studded, caramel-rippled ice cream began in stubborn frugality. 

On the same day that friends were introducing us to Sweetheart Sundaes, on this end we were making blondies (think brownies without the cocoa). Our bars were heavy with shards of semisweet chocolate, and a measured scattering of white; they baked up shatteringly glossy at their top and dense with chew at their centre. Following the theme of St. Valentine, my lads and I cut the slab into appropriate heart shapes, to wrap and give to fond friends.

Our affection was well represented. 

However, no matter how neatly, carefully, mindfully hearts are punched out of a rectangle, there will be scraps left over. In the manufacture of multiple trays of blondies, those scraps can pile up staggeringly quick. There's only so many that can be nibbled while you work, and as a result it became necessary to consider a suitable use for all those irregular bits.

bits and bobs

Thank goodness for ice cream.

With a faithful affection for frosty confections, I keep the pantry stocked with all that's needed to facilitate the most direct route to frozen happiness that I know — condensed milk ice cream.

It's pour-and-heat and you're ready to go, with only the wait to chill and freeze to contend with. We could have stopped there, stirring in those leftover chunks, arriving at a rocky-with-cookies n' cream conclusion. But, I decided the coming long weekend deserved fanfare of its own, and so espresso-kicked caramel would serve as epilogue to this tale.

Caramel, straight up, can be a tricky business. Even in this energetic application of excess, I thought that too much caramel would be rather too much. It's a modest amount we made, but what's more is there's a sharpness to that sweet, thanks to espresso. The toasty, roasted, tannic depth of coffee cleaves the thick richness of the caramel, taming the throaty burn that caramel can often bring; the combination ends up in between affogato and the nicest butterscotch candy and my-good-gravy-this-is-good  — that is to say, it's something we can work with.

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The image above was taken with my phone. In the immediacy of a dead camera battery, hot caramel, melting cream and what we'll now call smug frugality, you work with what's nearby, what's on hand. 

Here's to that working out just fine.

Crumbled cookie ice cream with espresso caramel

The condensed milk ice cream is an old favourite of mine, and its cooked sweetness works as a subtle underscore to the caramel ripple. 

Ingredients

  • 1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 14-ounce can evaporated milk
  • 1 fresh vanilla bean
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 3/4 cups heavy cream, divided
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1/4-1/2 teaspoon finely ground espresso beans or espresso powder, depending on taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup roughly crushed cookies, see note

In a medium saucepan, combine the condensed milk and evaporated milk. Spilt the vanilla bean down its length, scraping out the seeds. Add both the seeds and the bean to the saucepan, along with a good pinch of salt. Heat over medium-low heat until just under a simmer, stirring often.

Pour the mixture, along with the vanilla bean, into a clean bowl or pitcher. Stir in 1 1/2 cups of the heavy cream. Chill for a few hours or overnight.

Meanwhile, make the caramel. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat the brown sugar, honey, butter and a pinch of salt, stirring until the butter is melted. Pour in 1/4 cup of heavy cream, along with the ground espresso beans. Bring to a boil, whisking until smooth and the sugar is dissolved. Reduce the heat to low and continue to boil, undisturbed, for 1 minute longer. Remove from the heat, stir in the vanilla. Set aside to cool, stirring occasionally.

Strain the milk mixture in an ice cream maker and freeze according to manufacturer's direction. Depending on the capacity of your machine, either add the crushed cookies a handful at a time to the machine during the last few minutes of churning (the mixture should be the consistency of soft serve), or once the freezing cycle is finished, remove the ice cream to a large, chilled bowl and fold in the cookies by hand.

Spoon 1/3 of the ice cream into a storage container. Smooth the top, and pour over a few tablespoons of caramel in long stripes. With the tip of a knife, lightly swirl the caramel into the ice cream. Layer in half of the remaining ice cream, and repeat the layers two more times, ending with a drizzle of caramel. There will be caramel left over. Set this aside.

Cover the ice cream and freeze for at least 3 hours. To serve, warm up the remaining caramel, along with any leftover cookies, or some chopped, toasted walnuts if you happen to have them around. Make sundaes, and try to keep from grinning.

Makes about 1 quart.

Note:

  • Blondies were the cookie of choice because we had them on hand. They had a balance of crunch and soft that gave a terrific texture; chocolate chip cookies, or oatmeal cookies are what I'd recommend for their similarity. If you're hard pressed though, there's little wrong with bashed up vanilla wafers.
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It began with sunlight and ended up with shortbread.

Most mornings, the front room of our house is quiet. As a family we prefer to cluster around the kitchen in those first minutes of the day, in sock feet and pajamas, mulling around the coffee maker and the kitchen table. 

The other day I was drawn out of that comforting circle of domesticity by the wayward ramblings of our youngest, whose well-loved train set resides in the room closest to the front of our home. And upon our arrival to that room, it was evident I had been missing out.

The leaves on our trees are only coming into their foliage now; they're still a tangle of branch and lacy beginnings of leaf. The first light of the morning isn't blocked, but delicately filtered through this doily of green, shining golden against the wall opposite our windows - on now on that wall, three projected rectangles that flickered with the shadows of a thousand butterflies.

Later that same day, we were in the backyard when our eldest implored me to look up - something adults often forget to do, but children seem to do all the time - he was pointing out the white chalk line of an airplane as it travelled across the sky. If you face the sun like that, even through trees, your cheeks grow warm and when you close your eyes it's like you're looking at fireworks through a kaleidoscope.

Maybe it was all this time staring at the sun, but that day I was seeing the world through dandelion-coloured glasses. So when it came to an afternoon snack, shortbread fit the bill. Weeks ago, Shari had talked about a version she'd tried that was speckled with rosemary. I'd bookmarked a promising recipe from Gourmet that same day, but not gotten around to trying it yet.

And oh boy, was I missing out when it comes to shortbread, too.

Pale yellow from generous quantities of butter and a of squeeze ochre-hued honey, this is a cookie that yields to the tooth but lingers on the tongue. They look comparatively plain, slightly sandy and crumbly at their edge and with the only the suggestion of a puff at their centres. But never mind their looks, the simplest of shortbreads are often the best in my books.

To make these is to make most biscuity cookies, sugar and butter are creamed with the honey, then dry ingredients are added to that. It's not a dough that likes to be bothered; as soon as all the flour is dampened by the fat, it's all tipped out onto a board and kneaded together. Pat it gently into your desired shapes, dust them with sugar, then off to the oven for baking. 

They are fine and sweet and a little bit savoury with flakes of salt and that resiney, piney taste of rosemary that pairs so well with honey. I think some lemon zest might be a possibility to explore, but only out of curiosity and not necessity, as they are not in any way in want of improvement.

As far as I can tell, it is the cookie for a spring afternoon. One full of sunshine, if that can be arranged.

HONEYED ROSEMARY SHORTBREAD

Recipe from Gourmet magazine, via Epicurious.

Notes

  • The recipe specifies a mild honey, however I used a more robust variety which resulted in a pronounced, honeyed flavour to the baked cookie.
  • I only had enough fresh rosemary on hand to amount to 2 chopped teaspoons rather than the required 1 tablespoon. I found the lesser quantity suited my taste.
  • For added texture and a satisfying salinity, I used sea salt.

* * * * * * * 

Today is the proper 5th anniversary of this site, although I did mention it a few days ago. In looking back through my archives it came to my attention that the comments from the first year or so of posts have not transferred with the redesign. (It broke my heart a little, I won't lie.)

I'm working on re-establishing those words, but in the interim, I wanted to say thanks. Really, I don't have a way to fully convey my gratitude - to all of you who have read, for all of you who wrote back then and who write now. My old stories seem so lonely without your presence, and it illustrates what makes this site mean so much to me. The conversation, that's the thing. And without you, it's gone. So, again, five years on, thank you.

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It just so happened that I was watching Heston Blumenthal's "In Search of Perfection" on the same day that my dear Sean requested some peanut butter cookies. For those not familiar with the show, it follows the Michelin-starred chef as he seeks out the quintessential recipe for various dishes. Whether it be Peking duck or risotto, Mr. Blumenthal looks to understand every aspect of the recipe, studying (in great detail) the importance and contribution of each ingredient, preparation and cooking method.

In this episode he tackled trifle. He examined its historical origins, researched the way tastes move around the human palate, and considered the effects of temperature on textural perception. A fascinating half hour later he presented his final imagining of the dessert - complete with saffron syllabub, strawberry jelly and a sweetened olive pureé.

Throughout the exercise, I could not help but compare his to the "standard" trifle that appears on our holiday table; a base of fluffy lemon-scented sponge, then scarlet-red raspberries staining layers of creamy custard and mascarpone cream, all topped off with bronzed shards of almond brittle. A far cry from Mr. Blumenthal's version, but my family will settle for nothing less.

And although this trifle has been deemed "perfect", I am still one to tweak things a little, depending on the fruit available, the audience I am serving or to better suit my whims.

Now I was thinking about the search for perfection, and the infinite possibilities when it comes to food. Every person perceives things differently, every person responds to flavours and textures in their own way. Every person has their own set of memories that are conjured by a smell or a taste. Each of us has a different set of criteria to satisfy; the journey towards finding the definitive form of any dish really is, well, endless.

But I digress. Back to Sean's request. While he had provided me with a recipe for his cookies (from Martha Stewart's cookie book) I could not help but delve a little deeper. When I asked him what kind of peanut butter cookie he was looking for, Sean immediately replied "soft and chewy." The Martha recipe sounded perfectly delicious, but the photo showed a cookie that looked more crisp than tender. After that, I consulted Dorie Greenspan's book for her advice, but came away empty handed.

In the end, I combined a few recipes, and drew upon my experience with baking. Albeit a bit unorthodox in measurements, I patched together a recipe that uses brown sugar for tenderness and caramel tones, granulated sugar for body and a bit of crispness, salt for added depth, and crunchy peanut butter for texture. Upon first bite, Sean declared these the best he'd ever had. Not too bad for a first try.

I am already thinking about what to change on my next attempt.

Soft and chewy peanut butter cookies

Living up to their title, these cookies are unbelievably tender. A great candidate for ice cream sandwiches - with a dulce de leche filling perhaps? Although I specify chunky peanut butter, that was only for personal preference. This recipe would work perfectly well with smooth.

Ingredients

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt (up to 1/2 teaspoon if you particularly like savoury sweets)

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 cup (8 tablespoons/1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

3/4 cup chunky peanut butter

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons packed golden or dark brown sugar

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 large egg

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

sea salt, optional, for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 350°F (175°C). Use parchment paper to line several standard baking sheets and set aside.

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

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer, cream together the butter and peanut butter until light and fluffy. Add the sugars and beat on high for three minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.

Add the egg and vanilla, then mix on medium speed until well blended.

Add the dry ingredients to the bowl and stir to just combine. Refrigerate the batter for 10-15 minutes to set up and chill thoroughly.

Using a 1 1/4" ice cream scoop dish out mounds of dough onto the prepared baking sheet (alternatively, use a generous 2 tablespoons of batter for each cookie), spacing them about 2 inches apart. Dip a fork into warm water and use the tines to press the dough balls lightly; you only want to slightly flatten their shape and leave the imprint of the fork. Freshly dip the fork between pressing each cookie. Sprinkle with sea salt, if desired.

Bake in the preheated oven for 18 minutes, rotating the sheets once during baking. Cool on pan for two minutes, then remove to a baking rack to cool completely.

Makes 18.

Notes:

• For a crisper cookie, bake for 20 minutes.

• Toffee bits, chopped peanuts or chocolate chips would all be great additions to this cookie.

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François Payard's Chocolate Meringue Tarts in miniature; photo courtesy of Deep Media.

When I was little, I took piano lessons to little success. Even though I could manage to replicate notes on the page, I never had the 'sense' for the keys that makes one feel in ownership of the music. Nonetheless, I would spend the requisite time practicing on the keyboard at home, repeating the disjointed notes over and over until I hoped I had mastered them.

It was during these practices that my father would sometimes wander into the room and take over the keys; though wholly self-taught, he had such an ear for music that he could easily reproduce my melodies in their entirety. What's more, he would infuse them with nuance and a character deeper than the notes themselves.

In that simple exercise I saw what it mean to be an artist.

I had a similar feeling of revelation when I had the opportunity to review François Payard's third book, Chocolate Epiphany (Clarkson Potter, 2008). Though a fairly-proficient home baker, I could not help but be awed by the chocolate creations featured within. From the straightforward to the fanciful to the elegant, Payard (with Anne E. McBride) presents confections as beautiful as they are delicious.

Though focused solely on chocolate, the book covers a surprising breadth of recipes. After the helpful introductory guide, breakfast and brunch dishes are offered first, followed by chapters highlighting specific dessert forms (cookies, cakes and mousses, among others). The recipes encompass both the traditional and the unexpected, with classic favourites placed alongside inventive combinations of flavours and textures. There is no prejudice regarding chocolate varieties, with white, milk and dark all given the opportunity to shine.

As to be expected with his pedigree, the acclaimed pastry chef, James Beard Award winner and owner of a collection of pâtisseries/bistros includes recipes that are somewhat intimidating at first glance. These require a good deal of patience, reasonable skill and, in many cases, specialty equipment.

For example, the American Opera Cake calls for no less than four separate component recipes and three pages of instructions. That said, the expertly-detailed steps allow for stunning results that merit the effort. Between the chocolate cake layers Payard ingeniously switches the classic coffee buttercream filling for a peanut version alternated with a decadent peanut butter ganache. If that was not enough, a dark chocolate ganache is finally poured over all. The finished cake is a masterpiece of textures and a show-stopping celebration dessert to say the least.

Equally impressive are the Chocolate Pavlovas with Chocolate Mascarpone Mousse. Here Payard innovates by reconfiguring the form from a simple flat base into a full sphere of meringue filled with liqueur-laced mousse and topped with a flourish of mascarpone cream. Again, this is a recipe that one should carefully read before attempting, but the instructions are well laid out, concise and easy to follow.

Amongst these rather grand recipes Payard sprinkles in some beatifully-simple ones. Triple Chocolate Financiers (recipe) are a perfect little treat alongside coffee, Chocolate Rice Crispies are a bit of kitchy fun, and Chocolate Blinis elevate breakfast to a whole new level.

I was particularly fond of the Chocolate Meringue Tart (pictured, above). A cocoa makeover of the lemon meringue version from his childhood, Payard creates a recipe that is easy to assemble but with outstanding results. His Sweet Tart Dough comes together quickly and is a joy to work with. It is baked until golden, then filled with a luscious dark chocolate filling and crowned with peaks of scorched Swiss Meringue. Absolutely delicious.

One caveat, I did end up with an excess of filling even though I followed the recipe to the specific weight measurement of each ingredient.

Rounding out the contents is an indispensable chapter of basics; buttercreams, Crème Anglaise, doughs, and often-used base cakes are explained here, with tips and tricks usually only learned with years of experience. For those wishing to replicate the exquisite decorations that adorn many of the desserts, there are also step-by-step directions to creations like chocolate fans, drops, sticks, and shards.

The sumptuous photographs by Rogerio Voltan are tempting to say the least; with tightly cropped images that beautifully convey the various textures and elements of the recipes. My only complaint is that I could not find photo captions for the desserts featured on the chapter cover pages. While this information is included in the general index, the omission of labels alongside the specific images might be frustrating to those who find it difficult to match the photos with the corresponding recipe.

Nonetheless, Chocolate Epiphany is decadence at its best; truly an opus of cacao bean, with a Maestro's passion and expertise leading the way.

Some recipes from the book can be found online here and here.


Cover image courtesy Clarkson Potter.