Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Scandopolitan

There are some dishes you prepare because they are ridiculously delicious. And others because they are just too pretty for words. And others, like the scandopolitan, because they are just too much fun to say. Seriously. I can't stop. Luckily, this aquavit-based cocktail is delicious as well, in addition to being Christmas-bright, and a good way to use up any leftover schnapps.

Aquavit is definitely something of an acquired taste. It's the traditional booze of Scandinavia, flavored with a variety of spices. The particular combination varies by distillery, but caraway is usually front and center. In my rigid view of the food pantheon, caraway seeds have one acceptable place: rye bread. And the occasional loaf of Irish soda bread. But that's pretty much it. Certainly not in my beverage. And I don't think I'm alone in this view. Aquavit can be a hard beverage to like, especially straight up, as it's traditionally enjoyed. A few years ago we bought a bottle to celebrate the summer solstice. Come winter, it was still lurking about in the back of our liquor cabinet. Which led to the development of the Scandipolitan.

The basic template for the cocktail, as the name suggests, is shamelessly borrowed from the Cosmopolitan. If you want to go for a full-on Scandinavian theme, you can mix the aquavit with lingonberry juice, made from the cold-climate berries that grow there. But if you'd prefer to be a bit more domestic, cranberry juice makes a fine substitute. The remaining ingredients of lime, Triple Sec and seltzer temper the fusty edge of caraway, easing it into a sweet context (much like the aforementioned Irish soda bread). It takes aquavit from something to be thrown back (followed, in my case, by an involuntary full-body shudder) to a drink to be savored. I'm still trying to figure out the perfect garnish, since sprigs of lingonberries aren't readily available. A twist of liquorice? A few sprays of fresh dill? Skewers of herring? I'm open to ideas. Skål!

The Scandopolitan

yields two drinks

feel free to adjust the proportions of sweet Triple Sec (or orange liqueur of your choice) and lime to suit your tastes, and the sweetness and tang of the juice used

2 shots aquavit
2 shots lingonberry juice concentrate (or unsweetened cranberry juice)
1 shot triple sec
juice of 1/2 lime

Pour the aquavit, lingonberry juice, triple sec and lime into a shaker with a few cube of ice, and shake until chilled and well combined. Pour over ice into a cocktail glass, with a lollipop (sugared) rim if you like. Top with a bit of seltzer, stir, and enjoy.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

Time can be one of your best friends when cooking. A few hours of a hands-off simmer can turn a pot of vegetables and water into a deeply flavorful soup. And an overnight slow rise can turn out loaves of home-cooked bread that can hold their own against your local artisan boulangerie. And it turns out that the same holds true for sweets. Last year, The New York Times ran an article profiling what they deemed the definitive chocolate chip cookie recipe, which the blogosphere resoundingly endorsed. The recipe seems pretty standard, with the usual players of creamed butter, brown and white sugars, flour, leavening, vanilla and chocolate. But then it instructs you to set your batter back in the refrigerator. For a full day. Or even two. The resulting cookies sport a caramel-like sophistication, handily beating out their less-mature brethren in taste tests.

Now, I'm all for richly complex baked goods. But sometimes time isn't on your side. Sometimes you want to whip up a batch of chocolate chip cookies to share with your friends who are about to board a plane (and to console yourself after their departure). But yet you still crave toffee-like layers of flavor, a step above the standard wan Tollhouse variety. At times like these, there's brown butter.

Brown butter, or beurre noisette if you're feeling French, is simply butter that's been heated until the milk solids separate out and darken. The French name translates to "hazelnut butter," which aptly describes the toasty, nutty flavor that this process imparts. It's your quickest shortcut to the deep, complex flavors that usually take hours to develop. Yes, there's a small bit of fuss. You've got to swirl the pan a bit as the butter melts, to ensure even heating, and make sure to use a light colored pot so that you can see the butter darkening, and don't miss the brief window before it becomes bitterly burnt. But isn't that easier than twiddling your thumbs for several days, while delicious cookie dough calls to you from the refrigerator with its siren song?

Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

adapted from Cook's Illustrated's Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies
yields 16-24 cookies, depending on the size

1 3/4 cups flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 3/4 sticks unsalted butter
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 packed brown sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
1 egg
1 egg yolk
1 1/4 cups chocolate chips

Preheat an oven to 375 degrees.

Sift together flour and baking soda, set aside.

Place 10 tablespoons butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan or skillet. Heat over medium-high until the butter melts. Continue to cook until the butter is a deep golden brown, swirling the pan constantly (~1-3 minutes). Pour thebrown butter into a large bowl, and immediately add the remaining 4 tablespoons of reserved butter. Let sit, swirling occasionally, until the remaining butter has melted.

When all the butter has melted, add the sugars, salt and vanilla to the bowl, and whisk to combine. Add the egg and egg yolk. Whisk until the mixture is smooth, ~30 seconds, and then let sit for 3 minutes. Repeat the whisking and resting two more times. The sugars will begin to dissolve, and the mixture will become thicker, shiny and lighter in color.

Stir in the flour mixture until just combined, and fold in the chocolate chips. Scoop balls of dough onto a prepared cookie sheet, using 2-3 tablespoons of dough (depending on how large you like your cookies). Bake, one sheet at a time, until the edges are beginning to get golden, but the centers are still puffy and soft (8-14 minutes, depending on cookie size and oven temperature).
Cool on a rack.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Marmitako (Basque Potato Tuna Soup)

The words "summer soup" conjure up different pictures in different parts of the world. In some places, it's a chilled and dilled borscht. In others, a cooling, smoothie-like mix of fruit and dairy. And in the Basque Country, it is a simmering stew of potatoes and tuna.

Okay, I know this sounds like the last thing you'd want on a hot day. But the timing makes some bit of sense: summer brings the new potato harvest, as well as the annual tuna run. Even so, it's not quite what I look for on a sunny afternoon. But on chilly winter nights, like the ones we've been having recently, it's perfect.

Every coastal region seems to have its own version of fish stew, from a rustic chowder to a layered boulliabaisse. Marmitako is on the surface a simple soup, but has a surprisingly satisfying depth. The aromatics and potatoes are cooked together for well over an hour to develop the flavors, and the tuna is stirred in at the end to add a briny note without becoming overcooked.

Marmitako was traditionally made right on the tuna boats themselves, simmering the day's catch with potatoes that had been brought on board. It can take many forms, some using dried peppers, others with onions or tomatoes. This particular version was adapted by my friend Iñaki, who's been schooling me in Basque cuisine for the past few months. He's sadly heading back home next week, and shared this recipe during our final cooking session. It's a hell of a parting gift.


as adapted by Iñaki Guridi

yields one large pot

As with the Basque soup porrusalda, the potatoes aren't cut with a knife, but broken into rough-edged pieces that release more starch to thicken the soup. To do this, slide a paring knife halfway through a peeled potato, about 1.5" down. Press the potato between your thumb and the knife, and twist to free a chunk roughly 1.5" square. Repeat until the whole potato is reduced to rough chunks.

2 Tbsp olive oil
1 red pepper, finely diced
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
6 medium (or 4 large) waxy red or yellow potatoes, peeled and broken into chunks (see above)
2 Tbsp tomato paste
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 1/2 lb fresh tuna (albacore, if possible), cut into 1" cubes
salt and pepper

Heat the 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add the pepper, garlic and potatoes, and saute for several minutes, until the pepper and garlic have softened. Add the tomato paste, and enough water to cover everything by about 2". Season with salt, bring to a boil, and simmer, covered, for at least an hour and a half, until quite tender and flavorful.

When the soup is about 20 minutes from being done, heat the remaining tablespoon olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the tuna, season liberally with salt, and saute for 3-5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until firm but not fully cooked. Add the cubes to the soup pot, and simmer gently for another 15 minutes to meld the flavors.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


Many recipes from our grandparents' generation are pretty cryptic when it comes to instructions. Unlike today's blogs and cookbooks, with their blow-by-blow pictorials, older recipes often give just the basics. My grandmother's typewritten index card for potato pancakes tells you to "fry in a lot of grease quickly." Others don't even provide that much detail -- just a list of ingredients. Because that was all you needed. Cooking used to be an oral tradition, learned from members of your family. You knew how to handle fat and flour, and when to take something out of the oven.

Unfortunately, there seems to have been a breakdown in the system, sometime around the 1950s. Take these ruggelach as an example. They're a delicate cookie from Eastern Europe, popular among Ashkenazi Jews. My mother's recipe features a “potchke” of jam, nuts and cinnamon rolled up in rich sour cream dough. And since the advent of the food processor, she's made this dough by blitzing the ingredients into a homogenized mass. The cookies had a lovely flavor, from the sweet filling and rich sour cream, but the dough had all the delicacy of a day-old breadstick.

On my first rugelach-making session, I approached the dough with knowledge gleaned from obsessive cookbook-reading and pie-baking sessions. I pulsed the dries, cut in the butter, and gently mixed in the sour cream until it just held together. My mother steadfastly refused to believe that my light, flaky cookies were made from the same recipe. This is not an exaggeration. I never got the admiration my transformed ruggelach so rightly deserved. But at least I have delicious cookies to console me.


adapted from a family recipe

yields 64 small cookies

Since I first posted this recipe, I've since changed my technique, brushing the rolled rugelach with an egg wash, and then sprinkling them additional cinnamon-sugar. Either way is delicious.

3 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 Tbsp sugar
1/2 lb cold butter, cut into tablespoon-sized cubes
1 cup sour cream
1 tsp vanilla

1 1/3 cups apricot jam
1 1/3 cups finely-chopped walnuts
1/4 cup cinnamon-sugar (1/4 cup sugar mixed with 2-3 tsp cinnamon)

In a bowl or a food processor, mix together the flour, salt and sugar until combined. Add the butter, and pulse in the food processor or cut with a pastry cutter (or two knives) until it is reduced to bits that are about half the size of a pea. If using a food processor, dump the contents into a bowl at this point. Stir the vanilla into the sour cream. Using a spoon, and then your hands when needed, knead the sour cream and vanilla into the flour mixture until it is well incorporated, and the dough holds together when you squeeze it. Stop as soon as this is possible — do not over-mix. Shape the dough into four chubby disks, cover with plastic and allow to relax in the refrigerator for at least one hour (overnight is fine too).

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and line two cookie sheets with parchment or liners (very important, as the molten jam tends to solder them to a pan).

Take a disk of dough out of the refrigerator, and place on a floured countertop or pastry mat. Roll out to a 12" circle, trimming off the ends if needed. This dough is much softer than a traditional pastry crust, so you shouldn't need to let it warm up before rolling. Spread 1/3 cup apricot jam over the round of dough, and sprinkle with 1/3 cup nuts and 1 Tbsp cinnamon-sugar. Taking a chef's knife or pizza cutter, divide the dough evenly into 16 wedges. Starting from the wide base of each wedge, roll towards the center to form a crescent. Place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment or silicone liner, making sure that the tip of the crescent is pinned underneath to prevent the cookie from unrolling. Bake until the filling is bubbling and the crust is just beginning to color, about 30 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool, being careful of the hot jam. Best enjoyed the day they are made (any leftovers are best kept in the freezer).

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Swedish Breakfast Sandwich

Swedish food gets an unfairly bad rap. Sure, there are tons of meatballs in cream sauce, and a dearth of vegetables outside of the arctic-friendly root category. And for a reason I never determined, pizza is invariably served with pickled cabbage salad. But there are some great things. Cream-filled buns, scented with saffron or cardamom. Crayfish parties, complete with paper hats, aquavit, and sing-a-longs. And breakfasts.

Breakfast in Sweden is seldom just a bowl of cereal. There might be some hot porridge with a dollop of jam for your sweet tooth, but also a boiled egg with some crispbread for a shot of protein. And while we're at it: herring!

Sweden has nearly 5,000 miles of coastline, so it's not surprising that seafood features heavily into the national diet. It's enjoyed fresh, pickled, smoked, and salted. And, in this case, made into a paste that can be squeezed on top of your open-faced sandwich.

Kalles Kaviar is a product of the Abba company, and ubiquitous in Sweden. Luckily you can find it in American Ikea stores, if you don't have a European import shop nearby. There are a few variations, but the basic Kalles is made from cod roe, with a bit of seasoning and some potatoes to give it body. If you love a bagel with lox, you will love a slice of toast with egg and Kalles. Crisp toast, slightly bland boiled egg, and the salty, fishy paste come together for one of my absolute favorite breakfasts. This recipe is so simple I feel a bit embarrassed posting it. But if I can win one new convert, it will have been worth it.

Swedish Breakfast Sandwich

1 slice toast
1 egg
Kalles Kaviar

Place the egg in a small pot of water, and bring to a boil. When the water is at a full boil, turn off the heat, cover the pot, and let sit for 10 minutes. Peel the egg, and thinly slice. Layer the slices on the toast, and top with a hefty squeeze of Kalles. Sprinkle with pepper if desired (the Kalles will provide ample salt). Enjoy, to the horror of your non-fish-loving friends.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Floating Islands (Meringues in Custard Sauce)

My grandmother had a rotting old cookbook from the turn of the century, which I used to leaf through when I was visiting. Its recipes were more of a historical tour than a guide for actual cooking. Possum? Aspic salads? Yikes. I spent many hours lost in its pages, but my favorite was the section entitled "Cooking for Invalids." It's a section you'd be hard-pressed to find in a cookbook today. There were nourishing soups, smooth purees, and a horrifying concoction called "beef tea" which involved chunks of raw meat, water, a canning jar, and a water bath lasting several hours. And then there were the custards.

I never much had custards growing up, other than the boxed puddings that took their place for my mother's generation. As the cookbook illustrated, to some people they represent sickbed food, or the slippery sweets of childhood. But for me, they have an elegant simplicity. Floating islands, or ile flottante if you're feeling French, is a lovely grown-up version of this smooth dessert. It features a particularly luscious custard, the barely-thickened creme anglaise. Into this puddle you dollop a meringue, gently poached in milk. You can also add a handful of tart berries if you have them, to cut through the milky sweetness. The islands of meringues can be smoothly shaped, in theory, although mine usually turn out more like jagged glaciers. But it's beside the point -- the meringues are just an excuse to allow you to pour yourself another sea of smooth custard.

Floating Islands

adapted from my friend Emily's grandmother's recipe

serves 6

2 cups milk
6 egg yolks
scant 1/2 cup sugar
pinch salt
1/2 tsp vanilla


2 cups milk
6 egg whites
1/3 cup sugar
pinch salt

To make the custard: bring the milk to a boil over medium heat, then turn off the heat and let sit.

In a separate saucepan, beat the egg yolks with the sugar and salt until they thicken and lighten, about 3 minutes. Drizzle the just-boiled milk into the pan in a thin stream to temper the egg yolks, whisking all the while. Once the mixture is well-combined, place the pan over a medium-low flame. Continue to stir with a wooden spoon as it heats, until the custard thickens enough to coat the back of the spoon so that it holds the mark if you draw through it with your finger. Remove the pan from the heat as soon as this happens, and pour the custard through a strainer into a waiting bowl. Stir in the vanilla. Refrigerate until chilled (it will continue to thicken).

To make the meringues and assemble the dessert: Bring the milk to a gentle simmer over medium heat.

While the milk is heating, beat the egg whites, gradually adding the salt and sugar, until they form stiff peaks. Drop rough half-cups of the meringue mixture into the simmering milk. You can form jagged islands, or use two spoons to make somewhat smooth ovals. Let the islands simmer for one minute in the hot milk, then gently turn and simmer for another minute on the second side. Using a slotted spoon, remove the islands from the milk and set to drain on a clean plate. Repeat until all of the meringue is poached. The islands will swell dramatically in their simmer bath, and then shrink disappointingly when they're removed. Serve immediately on a puddle of chilled custard, or place in the refrigerator for up to 4 hours.