Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Sweet Potato Coconut Drop Biscuits

We had a lot of fun making some cookies today. Daina had the great idea of organizing a cookie party, which focused around baking and decorating some delicious cut-outs. On the side, we decided to wing it with some sweet potato coconut drop biscuits, adapted from a recipe Daina had on hand.

I almost never bake by myself. It's not worth it (or often, not possible) to bake a single-person-sized batch of anything, and most baked goods get exponentially worse as they age (a loaf of crusty bread, right out of the oven, tastes even better than it smells. Give me a bowl of garlic-rosemary olive oil for dipping and I'll call you on the way to Heaven. And don't talk to me about warm Tollhouse cookies. Nothing should be that delicious). But baking in groups is wonderful. Many hands make light work, everyone gets a few warm cookies, and no one leaves with an aching stomach.

If I were to sit down and come up with a sweet potato coconut cookie, this might not be the exact recipe I'd land on. I'm posting this recipe because a.) I will never post an untested recipe on this site, b.) they were delicious,  c.) they are quite a bit healthier and lighter than the cookies I might have baked and d.) these cookies were one of those "what do we have lying around? OK let's use that!" recipes - it's one of my favorite ways to cook, and is worth preserving for posterity.

That being said, here are a few changes you might try:

For more coconut flavor: (and a much heavier cookie) you could try experimenting with coconut oil (1/4 cup butter and 1/4 cup coconut oil?) and/or mash the sweet potatoes with 1/3 cup of coconut milk.

Instead of slivered almonds: you could use toasted, chopped pecans (or walnuts) and maple chips (I don't love maple chips, because they are artificially flavored. Born and raised in New Hampshire (the home of the world's best maple syrup - don't listen to those shifty Vermonters), I get a bit feisty when it comes to real maple syrup). In lieu of the chips, you could try mixing in chunks of maple candy and see what happens. The candy would melt quite a bit more than chips, possibly leaving holes in the cookies, I'm not sure. I couldn't find any recipes using maple candy chunks online, so let me know if you ever try it out (I'll let you know if I try it, too!). Make sure to stir in the candy at the end, after the batter is mixed, otherwise it will break up and you're just adding maple sugar (not that there's anything wrong with that).

That being said, here's the recipe, exactly as we made it.

Sweet Potato Coconut Drop Biscuits:

1 1/4 cup mashed sweet potatoes, we used 2 medium potatoes
1/4 cup almond milk (milk would also work)
1 1/4 cup Bisquick (or the Bisquick substitute we used, see below NOTE: if using Bisquick substitute, add an additional 2 tblsp butter (or oil))
2 tsp coconut extract
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup raw sugar (white sugar would also work fine)

1.) Preheat oven to 350.

2.) Mash the potato flesh with the milk. We used microwave-ready sweet potatoes, but you could bake them as well (which results in more evenly baked flesh, we had some hard, undercooked chunks, but that wasn't an issue since we only needed 1 1/4 cups). Prick the potatoes all over with a paring knife (or the tip of a larger knife) and roast on baking sheets at 450 for 35-45 minutes. Make sure to put the potatoes on a baking sheet! They ooze out dark, caramelized sugars, which are easy enough to clean off sheets, but a real pain to get off the bottom of your oven.

3.) Toast the nuts by placing them in a single layer in a frying pan and cooking over medium high heat, shaking the pan occasionally, until lightly browned and fragrant (if you are using slivered almonds, you won't be able to put them in a single layer, and therefore should shake more frequently, this is one reason to use chopped nuts instead). Remove any burned nuts as they will add quite a bit of bitterness to the dough. Note: this is a technique everyone should master. There are very few recipes which include nuts that won't be improved by toasting them first.

4.) Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and beat with an electric mixer until well combined and smooth. The dough should be sticky, but not too sticky. If you tap it gently with your finger, no dough should stick, but if you press down more heavily you should get a nice coating of orange cookie dough.

5.) Using two tablespoons, form drop biscuits by scooping a spoonful of dough, then scraping it onto a greased baking pan with the second spoon (note, if you're having a lot of trouble getting the dough off the second spoon, it's probably too wet, and needs more flour). The cookies should be about 1 inch apart, as they will expand while baking.

6.) Top each cookie with a sprinkling of raw sugar, and bake in 350 oven for 15-20 minutes, or until the bottoms are nicely browned, and a toothpick comes out clean from the center of a cookie. Feel free to taste-test for done-ness.

7.) Cool slightly, enjoy warm and with friends.

Bisquick substitute, makes  about 2 cups:
2 cups all purpose flour
1 tblsp baking powder
1 tsp salt

1.) Combine all ingredients.

Cruelty and Conscience

Foie Gras has come up twice in the past two days: I read this New York Times article on Ludo Lefebvre's all-foie tasting menu at his restaurant, Animal, in anticipation of California's foie gras ban taking effect, and I was sent this menu by a friend who's visiting Montreal (healthy!)

It seems to me that the wrong discussion is taking place. It shouldn't be a question whether or not shoving a tube down a goose's throat in order to force feed it and fatten up its delicious liver is cruel. Of course it's cruel, and of course it hurts the animal. Anyone who argues otherwise is lying or deluded. It's unfortunate that the above article's only pro-foie voices are either arguing this illogical point or are comically obnoxious (although earnest and fiercely passionate) frenchmen (an impression I got of Mr. Lefebvre from Top Chef Masters, and which this article cements - really, Ludo, foie gras is to the French as kimchi is to Koreans? You're comparing an absurdly rich, decadent delicacy to pickled cabbage which is eaten with almost every meal? REALLY?)

Here's what bugs me about this whole discussion: yes, there is no way, by definition, to make cruelty free foie gras, and I'm certainly open to arguments for vegetarianism, or to limiting ourselves to cruelty free meat, or dramatically reducing our meat consumption. But the large (LARGE) majority of meat that we eat (and yes, I am part of we) is raised in absolutely horrifying conditions, and banning foie does not seem like a step in the right direction, to me. It's like McDonalds having carb-free options - putting an easy band-aid on a relatively small problem can actually divert attention away from the bigger, tougher, more deeply entrenched problems. Banning foie gras might make us feel good, but by doing so, we're giving ourselves permission to ignore the fact that the cow that died for our burger has spent it's life in a place nowhere less horrifying than Hell on Earth.

It may seem silly posting about such a high end ingredient. I'm certainly no Fat Cat; I've only ever tasted real foie once, around five years ago (full disclosure, it was one of the best dishes I've ever eaten: a "Foie Gras Brulée" at Jean Georges in NYC (if you're ever in New York, go to the Nougatine room at Jean Georges for lunch - $32 for three shockingly good courses - it's one of the best deals in the city), which was a piece of silken, luscious foie gras with a crispy bruléed crust, paired with an sticky-sweet, bitter grapefruit marmalade which scraped the fat from the mouth, so that every bite of the foie was just like that revelatory first one), but it's hard to even say (or type) "foie gras" without sounding like a pompous ass.

I guess I'm trying to use this issue to illustrate a bigger point - we're in a world that needs changing. To fix the way we think of and consume food, we need to fundamentally change our attitude towards health and consumption, to cross a massive chasm. I worry that acts like the banning of foie gras are tiny steps towards that chasm, getting us closer to the edge, shrinking the distance we have left to get a running start and, someday soon, leap across.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Peach Cobbler with Crumb Topping and Cinnamon

It’s October, and it’s raining, what better day to think about cooking fruit (with cinnamon, of course)? I’m not much of a baker, so I really love cobblers. They’re delicious, but they’re also very forgiving. Unlike most deserts (and like most savory dishes) you can taste the filling as you go, and adjust the seasonings if you need to.

Last night, I made a peach cobbler, so that’s the recipe I’ve included. However, feel free to experiment with it, even if it’s your first time making a cobbler. The recipe below is relatively bare bones, so I wouldn’t recommend omitting anything (unless you change the type of fruit, or you’re a crazy person and really don’t like cinnamon), but here are some ideas on things you could add:

Change the fruit:
Apples are an obvious choice, but pears, plums, cherries, all sorts of berries, or even mangos could be great. Combinations are fun too, go nuts.

Change the dried seasonings:
Cinnamon goes with almost any fruit, but there are lots of other wonderful autumn-y seasonings. Nutmeg is classic, as are allspice (which is actually a dried berry, not a combination of spices as some people (e.g. me, up until embarrassingly recently) think) dried ginger, cardamom, and mace. A hint of cayenne pepper can be delicious, too. You can either mix spices together so that they blend and complement each other, or emphasize one. Ginger and pear is wonderful, (you could add minced, fresh ginger, as well!) as is apple-cardamom or cherry-cinnamon-cayenne.

If you add dried seasonings to the fruit mixture, add them to the crumb topping, too!

Change the liquid:
There are lots of wonderful alcoholic liquids which could add tons of flavor to your cobbler. Dry white wines can add an elegant touch (i.e. less homey, you might even think about taking out the cinnamon (GASP) and adding ginger), and fruit-flavored vodka (either the fruit you’re using or a complementary fruit) can add a lot of flavor. I’d use vodka, rather than rum, because when the alcohol cooks off you’re left with a more pure fruit flavor. There are also some amazingly delicious liqueurs out there, such as Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur (with pears!), St. Germain elderflower liqueur (with blackberries!) or any number of orange liqueurs (with anything!) such as Cointreau. Or you could try apples and bourbon, or mangoes and Pyrat rum.

Change the sweetener:
In addition to the white sugar, you could try different types of honey, maple syrup, or sugar (palm sugar, brown sugar, etc.). If you add a liqueur, that will also sweeten the cobbler.

An IMPORTANT note on “taste and adjust seasoning”:
You might see this phrase in a lot of recipes, including my own (often it refers to salt and pepper, but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion, for a later post). When you taste your cobbler, you should adjust proportions in two main ways:

Adjusting for taste balance:
The cobbler should not be too bitter, too sour, or too sweet. In general, if you taste an unpleasant bitterness, add sugar. If you add acid (i.e. sourness, a small squeeze of lemon juice, in this case) the flavors will “brighten”, becoming more sharp and distinct. If the filling tastes at all bitter or sour, or if it tastes too sweet (you’ll feel the sweetness in the back of your throat), change the ratios and re-taste.

I strongly recommend a very fun experiment—make a bowl full of a test “cobbler” in the microwave—just water and diced apples. Add sugar, lemon juice, and cinnamon (which is bitter), a tiny bit at a time, and keep tasting to see what the effects are (drink water in between tasting). What is the interplay of sour, bitter, and sweet? How do they interact? Can you find the perfect balance?

Adjusting for flavor balance:
You should be able to taste every flavor in the dish—cinnamon, honey, citrus, and fruit. If you can’t taste something, add a little bit more. This is one of the hardest things about cooking, especially because the balance can change as the dish cooks more (for example, the peach flavor will get more pronounced as it bakes). Professional chefs talk about “layers of flavor” in a dish, where each ingredient hits the palate, one after another, with every bite.

Because I had to pretty dramatically adjust the taste and flavor balances, the below measurements are inexact. I also made an enormous-party sized cobbler, so I’ve halved the recipe.

Peach Cobbler with Crumb Topping and Cinnamon:

For the filling:
7 large, somewhat ripe (but not too soft) peaches. Ideally, they should be about two days away from ripeness.
Zest of 1 naval orange
Zest of 1 lemon
1 tsp lemon juice
Juice of ½ naval orange
¼ c white sugar
¼ c honey
½ tsp cinnamon. Ideally Saigon cinnamon.
1 tbsp cornstarch

For the topping:
¼ cup (½ stick) butter, at room temperature
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup light brown sugar, tightly packed
½ tsp cinnamon.

1.) Preheat the oven to 400°.

2.) Peel the peaches and chop them into bite sized pieces.

3.) Combine all filling ingredients except for the cornstarch in a large pot, and cook over high heat, stirring constantly, until the peaches soften and are heated through.

4.) Taste and adjust seasoning (see above!). Add the cornstarch, and set aside.

5.) Combine the topping ingredients in a large bowl, and mash with a fork until well combined.

6.) Pour the fruit mixture into a baking dish, top with the topping, and bake for 40-45 minutes.

7.) Turn off the oven, but leave the cobbler inside for 30-60 minutes. This will help the cobbler tighten up.

8.) Remove from the oven, let cool, if necessary, and serve with vanilla ice cream.