Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Brown Sugar Cookies

I was traveling to New York for a wedding last week and  I made the mistake of showing up at the airport with no personal identification whatsoever. For some inexplicable reason, when my ride showed up to take me to the airport, I grabbed my suitcase and purse and left my wallet behind.  Embarrassing? Um, yes. Lucky for me, it turns out that it is possible to get through security and onto the plane without identification. Also lucky for me, my next door neighbor was kind enough to offer to use her spare key to retrieve my wallet and then mail it to me so that I'd have it for the return trip. To say thank you, I made her some brown sugar cookies. I hope she will taste the pure gratitude that was baked into this particular batch.

In most cookies, the flavors of butter and sugar serve as a backdrop for more exciting ingredients like chocolate chips, nuts, or dried fruit. In typical sugar cookies, butter and sugar are the stars of the show. It's true that butter and sugar can be pretty exciting all on their own, and I love sugar cookies for their pale, plain, buttery sweetness. These brown sugar cookies are like typical sugar cookies, but the sugar and butter are replaced with brown(!) sugar and brown(!) butter.  The result is a sugar cookie with deep brown color and warm toffee flavor. These cookies have crisp exteriors and soft, chewy insides. Mmm.

Brown Sugar Cookies
Adapted from Cooks Illustrated. Makes 2 dozen cookies.
  • 14 tablespoons (1 3/4 sticks) unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 cups packed dark brown sugar (this should be fresh and moist)
  • 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 large egg plus 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Start by browning the butter. Melt 10 tablespoons of butter over medium heat, then continue to cook until the milk solids in the butter turn a dark golden brown color. Be careful not to let the butter burn. Swirl the pan as the butter cooks. Use a light-colored so that you can see the color of the butter. Transfer the brown butter to a large mixing bowl. Add the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter to the bowl and allow the fresh butter to melt together with the brown butter. (This step adds some fresh butter flavor to the cookies and helps the hot butter to cool more quickly). Set the butter aside for 15 minutes. Note: if you're going to use an electric mixer, you should put the butter in the bowl of the mixer. However, you can definitely make this recipe without a mixer, if you don't have one handy.

While the butter is cooling, adjust the oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.

In a small bowl, mix the granulated sugar and 1/4 cup packed brown sugar. Rub the mixture between your fingers until it is well-combined. This mixture will be used to coat the cookies before they go in the oven. Set the mixture aside for now.

In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda, and baking powder. Set the mixture aside.

Take the bowl with the melted butter in it and add the remaining 1 3/4 cups brown sugar and the salt. Stir until the mixture is smooth and there are no lumps. Stir in the egg, yolk, and vanilla. Add the flour mixture and mix until the dough is well-combined.

Form the dough into 24 balls, each about an inch and a half in diameter. Roll the dough balls in the reserved sugar mixture and place them on the prepared cookie sheets with about 2 inches between each cookie. The cookies need about 12-14 minutes in the oven. It's hard to tell when the they're done because the dough is dark, so they don't really change color as they cook. Instead, poke the cookies gently to decide whether they're ready to come out. They should be somewhat firm around the edges, but still fairly soft in the middle. If you're not sure, it's better to underbake than to overbake. Let the cookies sit on the baking sheet for a few minutes, until they are firm enough to move, then transfer them to a rack and let them cool to room temperature.

Lots of cookies taste best warm from the oven, but these cookies are actually better a few hours later. The cookies come out of the oven with a doughy center and crunchy exterior, but given some time, the center becomes firmer, the edges become softer, and a nice chewy texture develops throughout the cookie.

Store in an airtight container. Note that both the dough and the cookies freeze nicely, if you want to enjoy some cookies now and save the rest for another day.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Stuffed Strawberries with Mint

It's strawberry season, and the first ripe, red berries of the year are showing up at the market.  Usually, I'm quite happy to give strawberries a quick rinse and eat them straight out of the berry bowl. But when the occasion calls for something more elaborate, this stuffed strawberry recipe is a perfect choice. The berries are filled with sweetened, lemon-spiked cream cheese and topped with fresh mint. They are elegant and delicious, perfect for a dinner date or a brunch with friends. 

My mom has been making these strawberries for years, and everybody loves them. She flips them upside down, balances them on their leafy tops, cuts an 'X' halfway down into the the berry, and pipes the filling into the resulting star-shaped cavity. I prefer to hull the strawberries and pipe the filling in from the top. Either way, the berries look great and taste even better. 

In the classic version of this recipe, the sweetened cream cheese filling is flavored with lemon zest and lemon juice. For a chocolate version, skip the lemon and add cocoa powder and a little bit of chocolate, orange, or hazelnut liqueur. Garnish with chocolate shavings, candied orange peel, or chopped hazelnuts.

Stuffed Strawberries with Mint
Adapted from a recipe by Cheryl McGovern.
  • 2 pints strawberries (about 1.5 pounds)
  • 1 8-ounce block cream cheese, softened
  • 4-6 tablespoons powdered sugar, to taste
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • zest from one lemon (about 2 teaspoons)
In a medium bowl, use a fork to beat together the cream cheese, lemon juice, lemon zest, and powdered sugar. Spoon the mixture into a pastry bag fitted with the petal tip (The star tip makes the filling look pretty, but you have to worry about lemon zest clogging the opening). If you don't have a pastry bag, you can spoon the filling into a resealable plastic bag and use scissors to cut off one corner. Rinse the berries in a colander, then pat them dry. Use a small paring knife to cut the hulls out of the berries. Pipe some filling into each strawberry, then garnish with a small mint leaf. Arrange on a plate and serve, or prepare in advance and refrigerate for up to four hours before serving.

This looks like something that might be worth trying....
"Prolonging the Life of Berries" by Harold McGee 

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Mujadarrah: Lentils, Rice, and Onions

This simple Middle Eastern dish has very few ingredients. It's made with lentils, rice, and onions, plus a little olive oil and some salt and pepper. The recipe is uncomplicated. You boil lentils and rice in salted water. Meanwhile, you fry some onions. Then, you stir everything together and add black pepper. That's the whole recipe. It's quite simple. In fact, it's almost too simple. It's so simple that you might expect it to be a bit blah. But prepare to be surprised. This plain-Jane recipe produces delightful results. It is rich and earthy and entirely satisfying.

French green lentils are ideal in this dish because they have a firm texture and hold their shape nicely. Brown lentils are a fine alternative, but they'll produce a slightly mushier finished dish. Lentils are full of protein, which makes this an excellent vegetarian main course. The rice in the recipe provides a bright, starchy accompaniment to the lentils. Long-grain white rice works well, as does brown rice. At the heart of this dish is the onions. Dark ribbons of deeply-caramelized onions should punctuate every bite. Ordinary yellow onions cook down nicely without falling apart. The onions should sizzle slowly in olive oil until they are very brown and soft. Finally, a good amount of freshly ground black pepper is an absolute must. It adds a spicy note and focuses the flavor of the dish.

Now, for a side dish. And a story. My family was visiting last weekend and I decided to prepare mujadarrah with a cucumber salad for dinner. My mouth was watering at the thought of cucumbers with a garlicky yogurt dressing, but there was a problem. I had gone to the store earlier and bought a cucumber for the salad, but it was nowhere to be found. I searched high and low, with no luck. My mom suggested that I might have left the cucumber at the store. Or, perhaps it had rolled out of the bag of groceries and been forgotten in the car. She volunteered to go out and look for it. After a few minutes, she came back into the house. "I looked everywhere," she said. Then, in a somber voice, "I regret to inform you that your cucumber has been the victim of a hit and run accident." My poor cucumber had fallen out of the bag onto the street outside my house and been run over by a car! It was very sad. It was sad for the poor, mangled cucumber. It was sad for those who had wanted to eat the cucumber. In the end, we bought a replacement cucumber for the salad. It tasted bright and fresh alongside the heavier flavors of the mujadarrah. I definitely recommend the combination. Just do your best to keep your cucumber safe from reckless motorists.

Adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison. Serves 2 as a main course or 4 as a side dish.
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large or two medium onions, halved from pole to pole and sliced crosswise
  • 2 cups water
  • 2/3 cup lentils
  • 1/3 cup long-grain rice
  • kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Place the onions in a large skillet with the olive oil. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt. Cook over medium-high heat until the onions begin to brown. Turn the heat down to medium-low and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are a deep brown color. The heat should be high enough that you can hear the onions sizzle, but not so high that the onions become charred. It should take 20-30 minutes for the onions to fully caramelize. Turn off the heat and set the onions aside until the rice and lentils are finished cooking.

While the onions are cooking, bring two cups of water to a boil in a saucepan with a lid. Add 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt. Add the lentils, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer for 15 minutes. Then, stir in the rice, cover the pot, and simmer 15 minutes more. (Brown rice version: Use the same amount of water and salt. Add the brown rice to the water, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer for 15 minutes. Then, stir in the lentils, cover the pot, and simmer 30 minutes more.)

When the rice and lentis are cooked, stir in about two thirds of the caramelized onions and lots of black pepper. Stir very gently so the lentils don't fall apart. Taste and add more salt and pepper if necessary. Serve the mujadarrah in a big bowl with the remaining one third of the onions piled on top.

Cucumber Salad
Serves 2 to 4.

  • 1 English cucumber, peeled or not, according to taste
  • kosher salt
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2-3 ounces of plain greek yogurt
Slice the cucumber lengthwise into fourths or eighths. Slice the cucumber crosswise to make bite-sized pieces. Place the cucumber in a colander in the sink, sprinkle with half a teaspoon of salt, and toss to coat. After about 30 minutes, some water will have drained from the cucumber and it will be very crisp. In a medium-sized bowl, stir the cucumber together with the garlic and a few big spoonfuls of yogurt. Taste and add more salt if necessary.