Ginger Nut Cookies

It’s cookie time in the Oliver-Turner household. In anticipation of the holidays I’m rolling up my shirtsleeves and getting out the sticks of butter. I’m traveling to DC/Virginia this year to spend Christmas with my sister, brother-in-law and nephews, and currently studying up on my cookie craft.
This sounds incredible, but I haven’t spent a single holiday season with children in my adult life. I’m looking forward to taking part in their joy and excitement and I think me and Chris are both giddy about the toy shopping.

My sister and I are planning an epic cookie-fest for sometime during the holiday week leading up to Christmas. I will be bringing along my famous chocolate chip pecan cookie recipe, and I’m excited to add to my repertoire ginger nut cookies. Inspired by Herman Melville’s short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener,” which I read just recently. In the story, an eccentric scrivener, working at a law office in the early half of the 19th Century, refuses to continue with his work. Throughout the story, the narrator, Bartleby’s employer, notices that he seems to only eat crunchy ginger nut cakes. If I could, I would only eat these spicy ginger nut cookies, but alas, I’ll have to settle for them on occasion.

Ginger Nut Cookies
Dry ingredients:
2 cups all-purpose flour
¼tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground cloves
½ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp ground black pepper
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp baking powder

Wet Ingredients:
½ cup softened butter
¼ cup oil (I used walnut), you can also sub shortening.
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 large egg (you can add another egg if you want a softer texture)
¼ cup dark molasses
¼cup + extra for finishing, finely chopped walnuts and almonds

Preheat oven 350F.

In a large bowl combine dry ingredients. Stir together and set aside.

In another bowl, cream together the butter, oil and sugar. You can use an electric mixer; I use a flat, wooden paddle spoon. Once the butter/sugar mixture is well mixed and fluffy, add in the egg and beat for a minute or two. Add the molasses and nuts. Slowly stir in the dry mixture. The dough will be slightly sticky.

Roll dough into balls, about 1Tblsp large, place on a lined baking sheet. The cookies will spread quite a bit, so be sure to place them with a little room between each. Garnish with chopped nut mixture. Bake 15mins.

I think I’m going to go enjoy these cookies with a cup of cheer.


The Power Skillet

I’m a generally practical person.
True, I am given to occasional flights of fancy and I have been known to drift off into the hazy ether of daydreams during my morning subway commute, but when it comes to everyday living I’ve got two feet firmly planted on the ground. I do not like buying things that are purely ornamental and have absolutely no use beyond sitting on a shelf. For instance, I can see the use in purchasing a particularly beautiful tablecloth, or cloth napkin or embroidered towel, because they are all decorative but also functional.

I am not a collector of any sort. I have come to believe there is a special layer of hell resigned to the storage and display of knickknacks. I try to keep my teeny tiny kitchen in functional order by only having the most basic kitchen supplies. So, what is my favorite, most versatile kitchen tool? Hands down, my cast iron skillet. It’s super easy to clean, it can be used on the stove top or in the oven, it’s sturdy and will undoubtedly last forever and in an emergency situation it can easily double as a weapon. I have imagined many times that in any zombie-apocalypse scenario, I would be the girl wielding the cast iron skillet.

Cast iron is perfect for baking because dough will brown on all sides and you get a perfect, crispy crust on upside down cakes. It’s naturally non-stick and an added bonus: iron! Yes, using cast iron is a great way to get extra iron in your diet without taking supplements (that may contain lead).

Blueberry and Peach Brown Bottom Skillet Cake

For the Brown Sugar Crust:
1 cup brown sugar
a sprinkle of cinnamon
1 stick of melted butter

For the Cake:
4 TBSP butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup all purpose flour or cake flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 large egg
1/2 cup milk
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp cinnamon
Peaches, blueberries, plums, pineapple, whatever fruit you have laying around.

Get out your 12″ skillet. Feel the power. Preheat oven to 450. Melt the butter and mix in with the brown sugar, spread evenly on the bottom of the skillet
For the cake: Sift together dry ingredients, set aside. In a separate bowl, cream together the softened butter and sugar until you have a paste of sorts. Then add in the egg, milk, vanilla and cinnamon until thoroughly incorporated and smooth. The slowly fold in the dry ingredients until you have a thick batter. Pour batter into your power skillet and plunk in your fruit of choice. I particularly like stone fruits for this cake, and berries, yes, lots of berries. Bake that sucker for 25-30 mins and the skillet will reward you for your effort.

Do you see how perfectly browned this cake is? It’s the magic of the skillet. A quick disclaimer: I don’t care what celebrity chefs on the Food Network have to say about butter, I do not always use full fat animal butter in these recipes. Butter has an awful lot of cholesterol and fat and while it’s fine in moderation, it is not a healthy choice for many Americans who consume far too much animal fat and protein in other foods. For that reason I usually use a subsitute. Earth Balance is my personal favorite brand of alterna-butter (Margarine is now a four letter word that I won’t bother using). Sometimes I use half butter, half olive oil or I skip the butter altogether and use olive oil as my fat.

Butter or no butter, this cake is awesome. Some people have a power tie, other people have a power animal, I have a power skillet.


With Fireworks

I wouldn’t say I’m a particularly patriotic person, but every year I tend to find myself participating in a get together of one sort or another on the Fourth of July. Where I grew up, in Phoenix, Arizona, fireworks did not happen every summer because of the risk of brush fires. Then, in college I moved to a mountain town in Northern AZ where the entire area surrounding the city was liable to spontaneously combust at the mere mention of an open flame.
It wasn’t until last year, when I moved to Chicago that fireworks were back on the table, in a big way. We live right next to a park that literally crackles and sizzles with the sounds of explosives for the entire holiday weekend, and rather than find that annoying I think it’s great. I think it’s great that once a year it’s entirely acceptable to set off explosives in a public park.

So, with the sounds of whizzing cherry bombs infiltrating my kitchen, I decided to make a French cake and top it with strawberries and blueberries. “Why not pay homage to the contributions the French have made to American culture,” I thought. (Well actually, I got the berries because they were on sale and they looked so sweet and delicious, and the french cake has been on my baking set list for a while now.)
I could have made biscuit-like shortcakes instead, but this moist, citrus-y cake evokes something a little more elegant.

I can not and will not take any credit for the cake recipe. It unabashedly comes from Molly Wizenberg, author of “Orangette” one of my favorite food blogs. The only tweeks I made were adding valencia orange zest, vanilla, and baking it in a loaf pan as opposed to a 9X9 round, cake pan.

French Yogurt Cake

1 1/2 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp lemon zest
1 tsp valencia orange zest
1/2 cup yogurt
1 cup sugar
3 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup vegetable oil

Syrup
1/4 cup lemon and orange juice
1/4 cup confectioner’s sugar

Heat oven to 350. Whisk flour, baking powder, salt and zest until just incorporated.
In a large bowl, mix yogurt, sugar, eggs and vanilla until smooth. Slowly fold in flour until a creamy batter.
Lastly, add in the oil and mix thoroughly until smooth. Pour batter into an oiled and floured loaf or cake pan. Bake for 25-35 mins until a toothpick comes out clean from the center. When done, transfer to a rack and drizzle the syrup over the warm cake.

For the fruit topping, I simply rinsed the berries, quartered the strawberries and tossed with a bit of the juice and about 2 TBSP of confectioner’s sugar. Let the berries sit in the fridge for an hour or two so the juice from the berries can pool at the bottom of the bowl.

I topped mine with hand-whipped cream. For that, I pour the cream into a chilled bowl, add a few TBSP of confectioner’s sugar and a drop of vanilla and beat until stiff.

Voila!

I’m certainly not a nationalistic type, but I have to thank the French for their cake recipe. I intend to devour every bite under a sky of sparklers.
Happy Fourth.


Sweets for the Sweet

I did it.
I survived the Great Chicago Blizzard of ’11.
In case you’re wondering, this was the view out my back window about two days after the blizzard:

To be honest, it wasn’t all that bad. I got two days off from work and I had all of that time cooped up in the apartment to get some actual work done. I played some guitar, I caught up on my leisure reading and I baked magnificent cookies.

It is that time of year again, when hearts grow all a-flutter. Oh, Valentine’s Day, you are both a joy and a scourge. I enjoy the idea of publicly celebrating love and all its pleasures, but I do not enjoy all of the packaged, trite, crap that lines the grocery shelves every February. Yes, we all need a little distraction from the snow and why not treat yourself to a nice dinner with the one you love? But it really is a bit much to press everyone to load up on unpalatable, corn syrup-laden garbage. With all of this free time, I decided to treat my darlin’ to some goodies baked with love. I found a recipe online from recipegirl.com, tweeked it a bit and made some delicious, decadent sugar cookies. I added the coffee, you can use water instead, but coffee brings out the flavor of the cocoa.

CHOCOLATE SNAPS
1½ cups (6¼ ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
¾ cup (2¼ ounces) Dutch- process cocoa powder (or Special Dark)
½ tsp salt
½ tsp baking powder
¾ cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter
1 cup (8 ounces) granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 Tbs extra strong, brewed coffee
1 tsp vanilla extract
1. In a medium-sized mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa, salt and baking powder, whisking until no lumps remain. In a separate, larger bowl, beat the butter until light. Add the sugar and continue beating until it’s well incorporated. Then add the egg, water, and vanilla and beat for at least 2 minutes, until the mixture has lightened both in color and texture. Gently mix in the dry ingredients.
2. Shape the dough into a flattened disk. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30-40 mins, or overnight. This dough is very soft, so it’s imperative that it’s been chilled before you roll it out.
3. Preheat oven to 325°F. Lightly grease (or line with parchment) two or three baking sheets.
4. On a clean, heavily floured work surface, roll the dough to a 1/8-inch thickness, and cut to desired shapes. Place the cookies on the prepared baking sheets. They won’t expand a great deal, so you don’t need a lot of space between them.
5. Bake the cookies for 17 to 18 minutes. (Watch carefully; it’s difficult to tell when they’re done, as they’re so dark you can’t see if they’re brown, but when you start to smell them they’re probably done. If you smell even a whiff of scorching, remove them from the oven immediately.) Transfer the cookies to a rack and cool them completely.
Yield: 8 to 9 dozen cookies
Recipe Source: King Arthur Flour: Cookie Companion

I can’t think of a better gift for your sweetheart than these cookies. They are crisp and have a deep, fudgy flavor. They would go well with a nice cup of coffee, or a glass of wine.

I prefer to eat them while watching this movie


Key Lime Pie – An Apt Adieu to my Summer

Note: This post was originally written Aug. 31st, 2010

The weather report says that today marks the end of meteorological summer and she’s going out with more of a bang than a whimper . While not the hottest day on record, the early evening swelters with a particularly stinging heat. Today I stayed home to nurse my husband following a tooth extraction. He is cloistered in the bedroom with his laptop and pain meds, condemned to eat only soft, cold food for the next twenty four hours. I am keeping him fed on applesauce and cottage cheese.

On this hot day, the last day of summer, with the windows wide open and the bronze rays of the setting sun beaming down from above, I have decided to finally approach a pie I have been meaning to make for the past three months. Back when it was winter and I was freezing my tuckus off all I could think of was a hot beach. I had imagined the white sand, the blue waves, and a neverending picnic of cold sandwiches, salads, lemonade, sangria and key lime pie. Key lime pie embodies all of my summertime hopes and dreams. Sweet, tart, cool, creamy, looking like a slice of sunshine on the plate, it is the kind of pie that sings summer.

This key lime pie sums up the entirety of my summer. On the one hand ambitious, or at least seemingly so, as I have to confess that this very key lime pie is my first key lime pie; on the other hand, lazy and not too eager to impress. You see, I did not score a huge cache of key limes at the Farmer’s Market, lug them home and squeeze every tiny one of them for their juice. I bought a bottle of key lime juice, a can of condensed milk and a pre-made graham crust. I know you are thinking I probably should have just bought a pie at the store, but I couldn’t resist donning an apron and getting fancy with whipped cream.

The recipe is stolen from a google search, but I didn’t feel it needed to be cited as it is a pretty simple and universal recipe, I even found a nearly identical version on the inside of the graham cracker crust label.

The Lazy Girl’s Key Lime Pie

1 (9inch) graham cracker crust
3 eggs
1/2 cup key lime juice
1 (14oz) can sweetened condensed milk
1 pinch salt
1 pinch cream of tartar

Whipped Cream Topping:
1/2 cup chilled whipping cream
1/4/ cup confectioners sugar
1 tsp vanilla

Preheat oven to 325.
Separate 2 of the eggs. Put the whites in a separate bowl. To the yolks, add one whole egg, the lime juice and the sweetened condensed milk. Whisk until smooth and set aside. With clean mixer blades or whisk attachment, beat the egg whites with the salt and cream of tartar until it forms firm peaks. DO NOT OVERBEAT the whites until dry. Fold the beaten whites into the filling mixture. Pour filling into crust. Bake for 10 – 15mins or until set. Let cool at room temperature, then refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight.
When ready to serve, put whipped cream in chilled bowl and whisk until firm. Use spatula to fill decorating bag and pipe around pie. I like to use a rosette shape.

Folding the egg whites into the filling


The Final Product

Summer on a plate

The beaten egg whites really make the final product fluffy. It’s like biting into a lime-flavored cloud. If you eat it after only three or four hours in the fridge it will almost dissolve instantly on your tongue. The longer the pie sets the more firm and concentrated the flavors become. The last slice I consumed, about three days after baking, was rich and custardy as opposed to the first couple of slices that were light and airy.

Ironically, I actually went to Florida for a weekend this summer and didn’t taste a single key lime. I used key lime juice produced and bottled in Florida and bought in Illinois, which made me sit and think about the state of the global economy for about two seconds before the flavor of the citrus whisked me back to the beach and the hot sands of the Atlantic coast. I don’t know if using fresh key limes would have changed the flavor dynamic all that much. I am totally on board with the concept of freshness and buying locally, but if I took every admonition to only buy produce from within a three hundred mile radius, I wouldn’t be able to make a key lime pie. I still have about half a bottle of the juice and now I just have to wonder how I’m going to use it, key limeade? Key lime and garlic marinade for tofu or tempeh? Key lime salad dressing? Cupcakes? Oh, the possibilities.

This recipes is definitely a keeper. I think I might make this pie in the dead of winter to remind myself that summer will be on its way and the sun will shine once more.

TIPS: The eggs beat quicker and firmer if the bowl is chilled. I usually rinse a steel bowl in water and put it in the freezer for five minutes or so.
Cream of tartar (or potassium hydrogen tartrate) is a type of acid salt that stabilizes and increases the volume of egg whites. It is also used in candies and desserts to produce a creamier texture.

Also, I prefer to use local, organic, vegetarian, certified humane eggs. They are a few bucks more than factory eggs, but are less likely to be contaminated with salmonella, contain more nutrients and the hens will thank you for allowing them to have a decent life.


Carmelized Pears

As I am writing this, Spring in Chicago has officially sprung. The newly unfurled leaves of the oak trees ruffle and flutter. The park behind my house is filled with shouts and bellows of laughter as children play baseball and soccer. Little dogs run around off their leashes and dash after ground squirrels. Tulips bloom along the sidewalks, and  not a single cloud hangs in the sky.
What a perfect day to lounge in bed with the window wide open, sip a cup of coffee and nibble at chocolate brownies covered in ganache. Decadence. Utter decadence.

But I’m not going to write about the brownies. Partly because I made them last night from a box (yikes), and also because I am just not a great baker. In fact, me and baking have a long history of not really getting along. In high school, I perfected a recipe for chocolate chip pecan cookies, and I have always shown great skill with pancakes, but when my baking projects go wrong, they go so, so wrong. I always seem to wind up with a sunken hole in the middle of my cakes, or biscuits that crack  teeth in half.

I am also the kind of home cook who prefers to not use recipes. I am in possession of a creative disposition and truly disdain measuring. Rulers are the bain of my existence, I detest templates of any sort and I was never good with comma usage in creative writing (as I am sure you have already noticed). I am made to feel suffocated by rules.
In the delicate chemistry of baking, one slip in your measurements and you’re done for. Accidentally added too much baking powder? Forget about it.
Which provides the explanation for why I have wound up with clumps of chewy, tasteless dough whenever I have attempted to bake without a recipe. The only exception to this would have to be cobblers. Throw some fruit and sugar in a dish and cover it with a crumbly mix of sugar, butter, oats and flour and you’re good to go. Not only do stewed fruits taste outstanding, but they are so elegant in their simplicity.
So when I found four, somewhat bruised pears that had lingered in the back of the vegetable crisper I thought of only one thing to do with them, carmelize those suckers and serve then with vanilla bean ice cream.

The great thing about this recipe is that there is no recipe.
Take your pears and peel them. Slice them in half and scoop out the core, retain the stem for its aesthetic appeal. Cover the bottom of a pie dish (or any other small baking dish) with a layer of brown sugar (approx. 1/4 cup). Now pour in enough brandy to make a thick paste (1-2Tbsp). You can substitute the brandy with orange or apple juice. Put your pears in the dish and coat with the mixture. Sprinkle with cinnamon and ginger and top with a few pats of butter. Cover. Put in a pre-heated oven at 450. Bake for 15-20mins until liquid condenses to a thick syrup.

Let cool until warm and serve with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream.
No one can mess this up. Doesn’t it look amazing?

right from the oven.

presentation is everything


I Got the Blues

Not really. I just love blueberries! Tiny, sweet little beads of joy. And the color. Oh, the color. Readers, as you follow me along here in my humble kitchen, you may learn a few things about my general state of being. For starters, I am prone to laziness. I love all things culinary and crafty, but I’m no Martha Stewart. I do not have the time to make souffles while knitting a sweater and making precious crepe paper invites to my monthly tea party. No, sometimes I slap a frozen pizza in the oven and call it a done deal. On bad days, I may even resort to ramen. I know all about Escoffier, James Beard, Alice Waters. I can drop names like hotcakes. I’ve done my homework. But I live in the real world and I have a real job and I get tired after working all day. I arrive home around 8:30pm most nights, so I don’t always have the energy to whip up something from scratch.

The other night, I wanted a decadent treat on a dime. Enter pound cake. What I love about pound cake bought from the store is that it literally lasts forever. I know, I know, that’s because it’s laden with all kinds of gnarly preservatives, right? Well, anyway I had some laying around in the cupboard, on hand for unexpected dessert moments. I’m going to go ahead and use my Jacques Pepin card to fluff up my cred. I love Jacques Pepin. I used to curl up in front on the tv on Sunday mornings and watch him on PBS. I learned how to dice an onion, cut avocados, and the proper way to crack an egg, all while enjoying Pepin’s delightfully cute French accent. I have been watching a lot of Jacques Pepin’s “Fast Food My Way,” recently, and he makes such simple, elegant desserts with only pound cake, fruit and chocolate. So, I’m taking the lazy train to dessertville here, but at least I’m in good company.

Blueberry sauce on the stove, bubbling away

First, I start with a bag of frozen organic blueberries. I, like most people, can’t generally afford to buy everything organic, but berries have some of the highest rates of pesticides. Blueberries also have incredibly high amounts of good ol’ antioxidants (which all fruits and veg contain, but some more than others). I’m using frozen berries simply because in my neck of the woods they are cheaper than fresh, obviously last longer, and come in handy for spur-of-the-moment pies, muffins, pancakes…etc. I also love me some blueberry smoothies!

I don’t like to measure ingredients if I can get away with it. In this case I dumped what was left of half a bag of bluebs into the pot with a tsp of cornstarch to help thicken the syrup and a couple of Tbsp of sugar. You can add a bit of water or juice to keep the berries from scorching. Turn the heat to medium and stir, coating the bluebs in the starch and sugar until they begin to sweat and finally to burst open and pour out their delicious, ambrosia-like juice. Keep a close eye on it and let it cook to your desired consistency. To thicken nicely, it only takes about five to ten minutes.

Once done, pour over the sliced pound cake and Voila! A decadent, gourmet dessert on the fly. A spoonful of whipped cream would doll it up nicely, if you want to get fancy. Happy eating!

So simple and unassuming.