Saturday, December 22, 2012

Portuguese Sweet Lemon and Olive Cookies

It's cookie season! Despite my best intentions, I've found myself lingering at the dessert table at for multiple tastes of chocolate chips and powdered sugar, or tearing at packages, hoping that someone has sent me a box of ninjabread men. I guess it's just not December without a cookie tray. But here's the thing: all those cookie trays? They're kinda sweet. And buttery. And after a few social occasions, it can all be a Bit Too Much.

So what to do in this season of cookie overload (beyond saying no to the cookie tray, which we all know is just crazytalk)? Turn to a cookie that's not quite so sweet. Or so buttery. Something a bit salty — briny, even. With a hefty helping of lemon zest. Like this Portuguese sweet lemon and olive cookie.

When I first spied this recipe from the amazing David Leite, I thought that these were just a sort of savory biscuit, some European too-sophisticated-for-sugar affair. But they are decidedly cookies. Just a more complex, salty-sweet version. They're studded with rich, briny, oil-cured olives, and punched up with lemon zest, sugar and olive oil (making them, to the delight of the lactose-intolerant, dairy-free). The sparkly dusting of sugar makes them sweet and festive enough to let you know you're firmly in the celebratory cookie season, but their rustic rough edges and briny notes are different enough to give a bit of a relief from it all. And they go beautifully with a glass of wine, cup of eggnog, solstice ale, or mug of tea — whatever it is you're using to toast the season. Happy holidays!

Portuguese Sweet Lemon and Olive Cookies
adapted from David Leite 
yields ~18 cookies

1 1/2 cups flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup oil-cured olives, rinsed if excessively salty, then pitted and coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest
pinch coarse salt
1/4 cup olive oil
1 large egg

Preheat your oven to 375° Fahrenheit. Cut three sheets of parchment paper to fit your cookie sheet, and set aside.

In a large bowl, mix together the flour, sugar, baking powder, chopped olives, lemon zest, and salt. In a separate bowl (I used the measuring cup with the oil), beat together the olive oil and egg until well combined. Pour this mixture into your dry ingredients, and mix well, until the dough comes together when you squeeze it (it won't come together into a cohesive ball, but it'll come together as you shape each cookie).

Lay out one of your sheets of parchment on a clean counter, and set out a small dish of additional sugar (start with maybe 1/4 cup). Pull off generous tablespoons of dough, and squeeze and then roll them to shape into balls. Shape 5 balls, roll them in the dish of sugar until well coated, and place on the parchment paper with ample space between them. Place one of the other sheets of parchment on top, and smush each cookie with your hand to flatten. Take a rolling pin and roll out further, until the cookies are about 4 inches across, and a scant 1/16th inch thick (don't worry about the rustic ragged edges — that's how these cookies should look). Transfer the parchment to a cookie tray, and bake until just browned on the edges and sort of pebbled on top, ~10 minutes. While the cookies are baking, shape the remaining dough for the next round. When done, let cool on a rack (Leite recommends fresh parchment for each batch, but given the short cooking time, I was easily able to cycle through mine). Store in an airtight container for several days, or bring to your holiday party that very night.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Apple Cider Doughnuts

The best doughnut is a fresh doughnut. I know, I don't have to tell you that. But this might be news: the best hour-or-so-old doughnut? That's a cake doughnut.

So doughnuts come in two main forms: yeasted and cake doughnuts. Even if you don't think you know the difference, you probably do. Yeasted doughnuts are airy and fluffy (from, you guessed it, yeast), the fried pillows that you find filled with custard or jelly. And cake doughnuts are, well, a bit cakier, a bit firmer. The kind you find at the apple orchard.

As a rule, I love the fluffy pillow of a yeasted doughnut best of all. But here's the thing: yeasted doughnuts do not age well. At all. After they cool down, they're just sad pillows of air and grease. But cake doughnuts? They hold up great. Sure, they're best hot from the oil. But even the next morning, their sturdier crumb (sturdier-yet-still-somewhat-delicate, mind you) still makes for a fine accompaniment to your morning coffee — especially if you've rolled them in some cinnamon sugar to sop up the grease. And so, when I wanted to bring some doughnuts to a Hanukkah party, and that party was being held more than half an hour from my kitchen, I decided to make up a batch of cake doughnuts.

These are dangerously delicious. The liquid in the dough comes from boiled-down cider and buttermilk, which are both baking perfection. The apple flavor comes through (thanks to the concentration), but subtle enough to play nicely with the other spices. There is some fussing involved — the dough must be par-frozen and then chilled — but the delicate handling of a soft dough yields doughnuts that are toothsome-yet-light. They're amazing straight from the pan. But even a few hours later at a party? They're pretty amazing as well.

And if you're looking for another greasy treat to enjoy this holiday season, I can direct you toward a recent story about spinach and cheese boyos. They come with their own rich tradition (and their own lashings of oil), over at NPR. Happy Hanukkah!

Apple Cider Doughnuts

adapted from Lauren Dawson at Hearth Restaurant, via the Washington Post
yields 18 doughnuts (and doughnut holes)

1 cup apple cider
3 1/2 cups flour, plus additional for the work surface
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3/4 teaspoon coarse salt
4 tablespoons butter, warmed to room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1/2 cup buttermilk (if you don't have, you can substitute an equivalent amount of milk with a hefty splash of cider vinegar, or, if you're frying for dairy-free folks, cider vinegar plus coconut milk is a crazy good substitute)

oil for frying
1 cup sugar tossed with 1 heaping spoonful cinnamon to finish

Start by reducing the cider: Pour into a saucepan, and bring to a boil over a medium-high heat. Reduce until it's just high enough to maintain a rolling simmer, and let cook off until reduced to 1/4 cup, ~20 minutes. Set aside to cool.

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

Fit a mixer with a paddle attachment, and beat together the softened butter and sugar for a few minutes, until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one by one, stopping to scrape down the sides. Add the boiled-down cider and buttermilk, mix until well combined, then add the flour mixture and stir on low until the mixture just comes together — do not overmix!

Line two sheet trays with parchment or waxed paper, and sprinkle generously with flour. Turn the dough out onto one of the sheets, sprinkle with a bit more flour, and pat/roll until it's 1/2-inch thick. Transfer the tray to the freezer until it firms up slightly, ~20 minutes.

Remove from the freezer, and round up some dough cutters (Dawson recommends 3-inch rounds, but I used my 2-1/4-inch round cutter for the doughnuts, and a well-cleaned cap from a bottle of Campari for the holes). Cut out the shapes, and transfer to the other tray. Mush the scraps together, re-roll, and cut out the remainder. Move the tray to the refrigerator, and let relax there for 20-30 minutes.

When the dough is nearing the end of its relaxing time, heat a few inches of high-heat oil in a large pan (I used my cast iron Dutch oven) over a medium-high heat to 350 degrees. Prepare a rack for the cooked doughnuts, or a plate lined with paper towels or brown paper (I ripped up a few grocery bags). Mix together the sugar and cinnamon in a bowl.

When the oil is hot, add a test doughnut. It should become brown on the first side in about 60 seconds, and on the second side in a little less. If it passes this test, add a round of doughnuts. Cook until brown, flip, and fry until brown on the second side. Transfer to your prepared tray/rack, let drain/cool for a moment, then transfer to the sugar-cinnamon mixture. Coat with the mixture on each side. Enjoy hot, or not.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Scallion Latkes with Rice Vinegar Sour Cream

    It's a long-standing, well-documented tradition that American Jews go out for Chinese food on Christmas. In fact, a Borscht Belt-worthy joke about the practice even made it into the record of the Senate Judiciary Committee. There are many theories as to why, but they all generally acknowledge this basic fact: Chinese restaurants tend to be open on Christmas.  And so, for many American Jews, memories of December are scented with egg rolls as much as pine boughs. So why not bring Chinese flavors into the classic Hanukkah potato pancake as well?

    For the record, I still love me a classic latke — the ones that taste of nothing but potatoes, onions, and salt (and, you know, oil). But I also love me a good scallion pancake. And so, for this Hanukkah (which, to my utter surprise, begins in a week), I've combined the two. Behold the scallion latke. With rice vinegar sour cream.

    These latkes still have that deliciously fun French-Fries-for-dinner oily air of a standard potato pancake. But then it gets a bit more interesting. There are a few bunches of fresh scallions, both whites and greens, and some fresh garlic and ginger (not found in the traditional scallion pancake, but common in Chinese cuisine and brilliant at cutting through the oil). The fried pancakes are served with sour cream that's been further soured with the tang of rice wine vinegar, and topped with a drizzle of toasted sesame oil and soy sauce (and a garnish of scallions because, well, why not). It's a delicious way to combine the best of these culinary traditions.

    And in other news of cozy winter traditions, here's a recent story on the history of weaving with dog fur. Yes, you heard me. You can listen over at the Northwest News Network.

    Scallion Latkes with Rice Vinegar Sour Cream

    yields ~3 1/2 dozen small latkes

    I'm always a favor of frying latkes in advance, so that you can actually sit down and enjoy them with your dining companions (and, if you're entertaining, you don't greet your guests with a house that smells of fry oil). I also think that the rest and reheat lets them cook a bit more evenly, and some of the oil comes out in the oven. Just make the latkes in advance as directed, let cool, and transfer to a sealed container in the freezer (you can layer with paper, or else par-freeze and then toss in freezer bags). Bake on a rimmed sheet, straight from the freezer, at 375° Fahrenheit until sizzling and starting to color a bit more.

    5 pounds russet potatoes, scrubbed but not peeled
    2 large bunches scallions, finely minced (set a few spoonfuls aside to garnish the finished latkes)
    8 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
    2—3-inch knob fresh ginger, grated
    1 tablespoon salt
    1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
    2 eggs
    1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
    1/4 cup matzo meal

    1-2 cups high-heat oil for frying

    For Serving:
    1 cup sour cream
    1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
    soy sauce
    toasted sesame oil
    sliced scallions

    Line a strainer with a large piece of cheesecloth or a loose-weave dish towel, and place in the sink or over a bowl. Shred half of the potatoes on the coarse holes of a box grater, and place the shreds in the lined strainer (if you have a food processor with a shredding disk, use that instead, then place about 1/4 of the shreds back in the bowl with a chopping blade, and pulse a few times to yield smaller bits that will help bind).

    Pick up the ends of the dish towel or cheesecloth and gather it around the load. Twist and squeeze to wring as much liquid as possible from the mixture, twisting further as more liquid is released. When it's as dry as possible, place the wrung-out mixture in a large mixing bowl. Repeat with the remaining potatoes.

    Add the scallions, garlic, ginger, salt, pepper, eggs, sesame oil and matzo meal to the potatoes, and stir well to combine. Pour the oil into frying pans to a depth of 1/2 inch, and heat over a medium-high heat until a shred of potato sizzles when dropped in. Shape three tablespoons of the latke mixture into a round shape (I like to pack a 1/4 cup measure three-quarters full) and place in the oil. Flatten slightly to form a small pancake. Repeat as many times as your pan space allows. Cook the latkes until they're well-browned, 5 to 7 minutes, then flip and brown the other side (play with the heat if it's taking much more/less time). When the second side has cooked, place on a plate lined with brown paper or paper towels, stacking with additional paper or paper towels as needed.

    To serve, stir the rice wine vinegar into the sour cream (taste, and add more if you favor a bit more tang). Top each latke with a dollop of the tangy sour cream, a small drizzle of soy sauce and/or sesame oil, and a sprinkling of the reserved scallions. Serve.