Mocha Ganache Shortbread

In thinking about baking lately, I’ve been attracted to layers. This could have been inspired by an outrageously good bar style dessert I had at, of all places, a training workshop on my campus. We changed catering companies in the last year or so, and the new service is unexpectedly good. The last day of this workshop, they brought in not only lemon bars, but a three layer concoction that, if memory serves, involved a thick chocolate layer on the bottom, a cream cheese layer reminiscent of cheesecake in the middle, and then a thin topper that might have been red velvet cake on top. All this with cherries dotted through. Immediately upon getting home that day, I emailed the catering service asking for more info. I have yet to hear an answer…

But anyway, layers: of course I instantly think of cake, but because I’m now back in school and am thinking about what treats I can leave in the mailroom, I need something smaller and more portable. Cake can be messy. As I was trawling my way around Pinterest I saw something that reminded me of that old classic the peanut butter blossom: Hershey’s kisses pressed into a soft cookie. Instead of the traditional peanut butter, I thought about shortbread: crisp, tender, crumbly, enhanced by browning the butter. The milk chocolate drop became a rich ganache layer spread over the top, not just chocolate but espresso too, for a mocha-like kick-in-the-pants to perk us up for a morning – or an afternoon, for that matter – in the classroom.

For shortbread, I borrowed from both Ruhlman’s bare bones ratio in, well, Ratio, and from Martha Stewart’s version, formulated for brown butter. A little milk gets added in to compensate for the water lost from the butter during the melting and browning process. I wanted some salt and some vanilla too, and then had to stop myself from adding all kinds of other ingredients: roughly chopped almonds, orange zest, a spritz of garam masala – because I wanted to focus on the buttery shortbread and its rich, caffeine-infused topping. But do feel free to experiment if you want; any of these would, I suspect, be delicious. I’ve used weight here to measure my ingredients, following Ruhlman’s formula: shortbread requires 1 part sugar, 2 parts fat (butter, in this case), 3 parts flour. This is more precise and, in a lot of ways, easier: you can pour directly into your mixing bowl, which means no one has to wash a stack of measuring cups.

A note on the ganache: this combination of semi-sweet chocolate and heavy cream can vary in thickness anywhere from a drizzling glaze to the dense squelch of a truffle. This one is fudge-like straight from the refrigerator, but it softens slightly as it warms and becomes more like a very thick frosting. It’s rich, but not overwhelmingly so because it is not overly sweet. The coffee flavor and the percentage of cocoa in the chocolate keep it away from toothache territory.

It took a while before we got to taste this; between the need to re-solidify the butter after browning, a friend in town, cooling the shortbread after baking, and time for the ganache to harden, 48 hours passed before N. and I finally stood anxiously over these little squares as I sliced. Yours needn’t take that long, obviously, but do be aware of the cooling time it requires.

Nevertheless, the wait was worth it. At first bite you taste sweetness, but it quickly develops into that deep, almost fruity taste coffee lends to chocolate. Then, as you crunch through the shortbread layer, you start to pick up on the buttery richness there. And then, while you are savoring all that goodness, you are somewhat surprised to see another piece already in your hand, ready for a repeat.

I’m delivering a tray of these to the mailroom at work tomorrow. N. and I are taking bets about how long they will last. He says 10 minutes. I’m thinking, given how early I get to work, that they may last an hour or two, but I’m certain none will make it into the afternoon.

Mocha ganache shortbread
Makes one 9×9 inch tray
About 3 hours including cooling time
For the shortbread:
4 ounces sugar (1/2 cup + 1 TB)
8 ounces butter (2 sticks or 16 tablespoons)
12 ounces flour (2-2½ cups)
2 TB milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ – 1 teaspoon salt, depending on your preference
For the mocha ganache:
8 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, chopped into small pieces
5-6 ounces heavy cream
3 tablespoons instant espresso powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
  • First, brown the butter: in a small pot, melt the butter swirling gently on occasion, over medium to medium-low heat. Once melted, the butter will foam up, then clear slightly, and then the magic: the solids will sink to the bottom of the pan and begin to brown slightly. At this point, turn off the heat. You want this beautiful browning, but you don’t want those solids to burn. There is only a small window between browning and burning, so watch carefully as the butter reaches this stage.
  • Pour the melted butter and browned bits (which you may have to scrape off the bottom of the pan) into the bowl you will use to make the shortbread.  I used my stand mixer bowl.  Stow it in the freezer for 10-15 minutes, just until the butter solidifies – you don’t want it to be liquid anymore, but don’t let it harden or freeze.
  • Preheat the oven to 350F and line a 9×9-inch baking dish with parchment paper, letting the paper extend over the edges of the dish to make a sling for easy removal later on.
  • Add the sugar, milk, and vanilla to the cooled brown butter and beat with an electric mixer or the paddle attachment of your stand mixer until well combined.
  • Add in the flour and mix again to incorporate. First the dough will be very crumbly, but then as the flour begins to hydrate it will take on the texture of damp sand. At that point, stop mixing. Yes, it is a crumbly mess rather than a proper dough. That’s okay. The more you mix it, the more the gluten develops and the tougher the end result will be. For maximum tenderness, be brave: dump the crumbs into your lined baking dish and use your hands or a rubber spatula to firmly press it into the baking dish like you would do with a graham cracker crust.
  • Bake at 350F for 30-40 minutes, until the top of the shortbread is golden and has only a very slight give when gently pressed. Allow it to cool completely.
  • To make the ganache, you have two options: you can use a double boiler, or you can use the microwave.
  • For the double boiler, heat water in a small pot to a simmer. Place a glass bowl over the pot but don’t let it touch the water below. Add the chocolate, the instant espresso powder, and the cream to the bowl and stir gently until it melts together smoothly. When the chocolate has completely melted, add the vanilla and stir to combine.
  • To use the microwave, pour the cream into a glass bowl and heat until it is barely simmering; depending on your microwave this may take 1-1½ minutes. When it is just forming tiny bubbles (you don’t want it to boil), stir in the instant espresso and let it dissolve, then add the chocolate and stir gently to combine. Be patient: the heat of the cream will melt the chocolate.
  • If the cream cools down too much and the chocolate doesn’t seem to be melting at all, return the bowl to the microwave and heat for 15-20 seconds, then remove and continue stirring. Repeat if necessary. When the chocolate has completely melted, add the vanilla and stir to combine.
  • Pour the ganache over the cooled shortbread, using a spatula to spread it evenly across the top. Let sit until cool, then refrigerate until the ganache hardens to the texture of cool butter: if pressed hard it will give, but it you gently touch it your fingertip won’t leave a mark.
  • When the ganache has hardened, you can use the parchment paper sling to remove the whole confection from the baking dish, slice into squares of your desired size using a very sharp knife, and try to resist eating them all in one go.

 

Lemon Blueberry Scones

Well, that whole “feeling promising” thing really panned out, didn’t it? I could give you a whole list of reasons I didn’t post last week, ranging from puppy to visiting relatives to bad weather, but the simplest and most truthful explanation is lack of inspiration. It happens every now and then: in spite of my dozens of cookbooks and long lists of dish ideas, sometimes I just don’t get excited about making anything. I used to fret about this, but anymore I try to give myself a break. Some weeks I don’t come up with anything I want to cook for dinner, much less anything worthy of posting here; some weeks I have four ideas for the next week ten minutes after I come home from the grocery store.

To get myself back on track I think I’m in need of a little structure. I did so well back in the days of Twelve Loaves because I had loose guidelines to follow and a set deadline (not to mention I was only working part time…). Yes, last year I had my Chopped Challenge project, but I ended up getting stymied on an entrée challenge N. set me because his inclusion of pretzel rolls put me in sandwich blinders. I just couldn’t see a creative approach, and that led to ignoring the prospect completely. That was, perhaps, too strict a guideline. A touch more flexibility is in order for this year.

One of my friends and former colleagues (hi H!) does a weekly baking project that she photographs and posts about on Facebook. This, with its similarity to Twelve Loaves and the reminder that baking was my first love in the kitchen, sparked a glimmer for me. I can’t always come up with a beautiful, delicious, post-able dish, but I can almost always think of something to bake. So we’ll try that for a bit and see if it feels, to quote myself again from a fresh few weeks ago, “promising.” That doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll be baking something every week, but it’ll be a bit of a safety net for me to rely on. I’m sure my coworkers and our office staff won’t mind either, since they are usually the ones responsible for preventing N. and me from eating the whole batch.

I learned early in our relocation to southern California that winter is citrus season. That being the case, lemon feels right for January: it’s sour but bright, and its color promises spring to come. Zest and some of the sparkling-sharp juice fit well in so many applications. I love blueberries with lemon, and since they were unexpectedly on sale at my grocery store, that was enough of an inspiration for me. I decided on scones, those not-quite-a-biscuit pastries beloved of a British tea spread. This rendition replaces the usual cream with buttermilk to capitalize on the tang of the lemon zest – the sugar in the dough balances out their combined sourness, and if you still want more sweetness, I’d suggest a glaze of powdered sugar and a dribble of lemon juice to spread or drizzle over the top. You can also add some finely chopped crystallized or candied ginger, if you want sweetness with extra zing. I’ve included suggestions for both in the instructions below.

Holly, my new kitchen helper!

Key to scones is not overworking the sticky mixture. One, continuing to work it makes for tougher scones, as you’ll start to activate the gluten in the flour. Two, the more you mix, the stickier the dough becomes. You want it to just come together, and then make use of a well-floured surface to pat or roll out the dough before quickly slicing and relocating the unbaked scones to a cookie sheet. Don’t worry about perfect shapes; they will be delicious regardless.

N. and I shared one of these while they were still a touch warm, and then immediately shared another one. The outside was just crisp, the interior moist and barely flaky, and the blueberries and lemon play well together. N’s favorite thing about them, though, was the occasional crunch of salt – I used Morton kosher salt rather than everyday table salt, and though these are definitely not salty, once in a while your teeth hit a crystal that didn’t fully dissolve in the oven and it’s a lovely little punch that somehow enhances the flavors of the fruit.

Although scones are best on the first day, just like their biscuit brethren, I found these reheat remarkably well in the toaster oven, regaining a bit of crispness. Then, it’s a simple task to split them in half and spread with butter or clotted cream and some jam, or munch alongside a bit of yogurt and fresh fruit, or just pop straight into your mouth as is.

Lemon Blueberry Scones
Adapted from Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger
Makes 16 scones
35-45 minutes
½ cup granulated sugar
zest of two lemons
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¾ cup (12 tablespoons or 1½ sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 6-8 slices for easier integration
1 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 cup fresh blueberries, roughly chopped (this was about 6 ounces for me)
optional: ¼ cup finely chopped candied or crystallized ginger

 

  • Preheat the oven to 400F and lightly grease or line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. In a large bowl, rub the lemon zest into the sugar between your thumb and fingers. Supposedly this releases essential oils from the zest, so its lemon flavor is enhanced. But more practically, it also makes the zest easier to integrate into the mixture (thus helping to prevent overmixing), so don’t skip this part!
  • Whisk together the flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda with the sugar and zest in the large bowl. Dump in the chunks of butter and use a pastry blender or your fingertips to combine – you are looking for a texture between pea-sized chunks of butter and “coarse meal.”
  • Add in the chopped blueberries, the ginger if using, and the buttermilk, and bring together with a rubber spatula or a fork. The dough might at first feel too dry, but in a minute or two as the buttermilk hydrates the flour it will become sticky and “shaggy.” Knead it by hand two or three times right in the bowl to ensure any dry chunks at the bottom are mixed in.
  • Transfer the ball of dough to a well-floured board, and use a bench scraper or sharp knife to divide it in half. Roll or pat one half into a ¾ inch thick round. With a sharp knife, cut it into 8 wedges. Using a bench scraper or a thin spatula, quickly and confidently move these to one of your prepared cookie sheets, leaving space in between each scone and its neighbors. Repeat with the second half of dough.
  • Bake in your preheated 400F oven for 15-18 minutes, until the edges of the scones are beginning to brown and the exterior is set. The moment you remove them they will look underdone. Let them cool a minute or two on the cookie sheet before moving them to a wire rack to cool completely. As they cool, they will firm up.
  • Once scones are completely cool, either eat them immediately, or if you wish, whisk together about 2 cups of powdered sugar with a few dribbles of lemon juice to form a thick glaze. You can then spread or drizzle this over the tops of the scones, or dip each scone in for smoother coverage. Let them sit until the glaze hardens, and then get on with your snacking.

 

Indian Spiced Pumpkin Custard Bars

I’ve tried to start this post three times. Each time I deleted what I’d written, and ultimately it took me a week in between actually making the thing and knowing what to write (hence the Halloween plate) because as usual, it’s hard to know how much from “out there” belongs here in my little virtual kitchen. I feel like I want to talk about it, even though it is hard, because to separate and live only in an idealized, happy little blog space feels disingenuous. Yet to try to write about a massacre in the same breath as a dessert feels just as bad. And it is happening more and more often.

So I’m going to try to write this post by talking about my friend M. instead. M. is an amazing woman who, in my last two years of graduate school became a firm friend, and in the years since has risen in my esteem to be one of my favorite people. She is smart. She is complex. She is opinionated and feisty and loud and dedicated and… just a really cool human being. She is also vexed with a complicated set of food allergies. And she happens to be Jewish. She deserves, as do all people, to live safely, have the freedom to practice their faith or lack thereof, and to pursue happiness in their own way. And so because I’m having trouble writing out my thoughts about Pittsburgh and what has happened there in a way that makes sense, I made a dessert for M.

It’s not enough. It’s not even a related action. But I saw a post on Facebook the day I made these from a woman named Kim Weild that told me “The Talmud says: Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” We have so, so much work to do. And on this day I could not complete the work, but baking was a tiny way of doing something I felt capable of doing. And I voted while it was baking, so there. Are you going to? Tomorrow’s the day…

One of the challenges of feeding M. is that she cannot have dairy or eggs. Rice is out of the question, as is beef. So is avocado, of all things. Gluten isn’t a no-no, but it should be a rarity. So M. has spent several years investigating alternatives, and though I don’t see her very often, I occasionally concoct something she can eat, in the off chance I’ll get a chance to feed her. There’s an allergy-free coconut cream pie recipe deep in my mind that I want to get to someday.

This one, though, is inspired by a now-lost-to-the-ages conversation she and another food-interested friend had on Facebook once that I eavesdropped all over. It involved pumpkin, turmeric, and other various spices. It may have included oatmeal. What it did for me, however, was to get me thinking of what would happen if you combined a lot of warm spices with Indian flair in a pumpkin pie, subbed out the eggs for silken tofu, and instead of a traditional crust, pressed together a combination of nuts and coconut oil graham cracker style. And then I scrapped the whole pie idea entirely and went with bars instead.

These are rich, taking a long time to bake and an insistence on cooling completely before they can be dealt with. Ideally they should be refrigerated overnight to let the coconut oil and the oils the nuts release chill and reconstitute, while the pumpkin and tofu mixture solidifies into something creamy and almost smooth. But in addition to a baking dish, they do require only one food processor and a small bowl to mix up, so that’s easy. They fit right into a long, slow afternoon when you need something sweet and tender and spiced to comfort you.

M., here’s a humble plate of comfort I made thinking of you. Happy belated Hallow-birthday-ween.

Indian Spiced Pumpkin Custard Bars
Makes 9×9 inch square pan
About 1½ hours plus cooling time
Crust:
1 cup raw, unsalted pistachios
1 cup raw walnuts (halves or pieces)
¼ cup brown sugar
½ teaspoon salt
scant ⅓ cup coconut oil
Filling:
1 can (15 ounces) pumpkin puree (not pumpkin pie filling)
16 ounce block silken tofu, drained and patted dry
½ cup soy, almond, or coconut milk – your preference
¾ cup brown sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cardamom
½ teaspoon ginger
½ teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon vanilla

 

  • Preheat the oven to 350F and line your baking dish with a “sling” of parchment paper: one piece that covers the bottom and extends past the top of opposite sides, and a second piece positioned perpendicularly, so it adds a second layer to the bottom and extends past the top of the other two sides.
  • To make the crust, add the walnuts, pistachios, ¼ cup brown sugar, and ½ teaspoon salt into the bowl of a food processor. Using the pulse function, pulverize into fairly even bits about the size of lentils, though some will be smaller. Reserve ¾ cup of this mixture for later.
  • Add the coconut oil and buzz on high until very well combined but not quite buttery. You want the coconut oil to be fully integrated, but you still want to be able to manipulate the mixture.
  • Once well combined, dump the crust mixture into the prepared pan and use your hands or a spatula to press it into an even layer across the bottom. Stow this in the fridge while you make the filling.
  • In the same food processor (you can wash it out if you want to, but I didn’t bother), combine the pumpkin puree, the silken tofu, the milk, the ¾ cup brown sugar, ½ teaspoon salt, all the spices, and the vanilla. Process on high until the mixture is very smooth, then stop the machine and scrape down the sides to be sure – sometimes little clumps of tofu remain.
  • Remove the crust from the refrigerator and pour the velvet-smooth filling in, then carefully transfer to the oven and bake for about 60 minutes. The edges of the filling will be firm and the center will be extremely wobbly but set on top.
  • Remove from the oven, gently sprinkle the reserved nut mixture over the top in an even layer, being sure to get it into the corners. Return to the oven and bake for another 10 minutes.
  • Turn off the oven but leave the dish inside for about 10 minutes, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely before refrigerating, ideally overnight, but at least for a few hours.
  • Carefully remove from the pan and the sling, then slice while still cold and serve. Alternatively, serve by scooping big spoonfuls into bowls or pretty glasses and adding a scoop of ice cream or whipped cream on top.

Haters Gonna Hate Pumpkin Spice Loaf: Now with photos!!

People have such vitriolic responses to the phrase “it’s pumpkin spice season” that by this point some of you have already stopped reading. I’ve heard a few interesting theories about why this is, including the idea publicized by a student at Swarthmore College a few years ago that since the drink that popularized this craze is popular among women, hating on it is another subtle way we’ve internalized sexism: pumpkin spice lattes are a girly thing, so just like other girly trends it must be devalued. Vox and various others picked up on this idea, also evaluating the pumpkin spice connection to capitalism, class, and being “basic.”

But I tend to sympathize more with the point made near the end of the article, and which I’ve seen in a few other places, which is simply: there’s enough trauma and horror and viciousness going on in that weird world we inhabit, so let’s let people find harmless joy where they can. And further, let’s face it: by and large, the mixture of warm autumnal spices that we mean when we say “pumpkin spice” are, even if you don’t want them in your coffee, frankly delicious.

So I’m on board the pumpkin spice train, and although I’m not terrifically enthused about them being swirled through my latte, a liberal dosing in pies, cookies, cakes, muffins, or breads of almost any kind is a-okay by me. And since my Trader Joe’s had a big end cap display of their pumpkin butter this week and Los Angeles is STILL resisting its usual September heat wave tendencies, I decided to take advantage of the season my calendar reports we’ve just fallen into (get it? get it?) and bake up a yeasted loaf infused with all those spices pumpkin benefits from.

My loaf started with an old favorite I haven’t worked with in a while: my Nana’s sweet dough. It’s a firm but soft product, elastic and pliable, and though in this incarnation it’s fairly sticky from all the wet ingredients, it just sighs when you roll it out in such a lovely way. I added a full cup of pumpkin puree to Nana’s original recipe, plus the requisite cinnamon and nutmeg the pumpkin spicing requires. You could use ginger and cloves as well, but this time around I decided to complete the trifecta with cardamom; its slightly citrusy brightness feels right for “fall” in Southern California.

To get that luscious, deep, spicy sweetness of the pumpkin butter into my creation, I decided to do a swirl in the center of my loaf: once risen, I rolled out the dough into a large rectangle, smeared it with butter, added a glossy layer of the deep orange spread, and on a whim, zested on some orange rind for additional lift.

This is a monstrous loaf. I bake so often with only sourdough anymore that I forget how high and how certainly active dry yeast rises. Even though it climbed in both its first and second rise, the oven spring as the loaf actually baked was incredible; I couldn’t believe it was holding its shape as it pillowed, hugely, almost like a gigantic Yorkshire pudding, above the loaf pan, and was disappointed but not surprised when it deflated a bit as it cooled; a huge air pocket between the bulk of the loaf and the mountaineering dome was the source of much of its swollen majesty.

Never mind that aesthetic imperfection, though; the loaf itself was a delight. Not too sweet, it boasts a pillowy, soft-but-chewy texture that reminds me of my mom’s challah, but with a subtle pumpkin flavor pushed along by the warm spices, and a just-toothsome crust for a pleasant contrast. The pumpkin butter slathered into the center is sweet and rich, but there’s only a bit of it swirled through the while thing, making the addition of jam or preserves extraneous: it’s baked right in. To me, that means you can eat this at any time of day, just like its latte-based inspiration. Haters gonna hate, it’s true, but that just means another slice for you.

Pumpkin Spice Loaf
Makes 1 very large loaf
About 4 hours
Dough:
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
pinch sugar
½ cup warm whole milk
1 egg
¼ cup softened butter
1 cup pumpkin puree
1 teaspoon vanilla
¼ cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cardamom
½ teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
2-3 cups bread flour
Filling:
¼ cup softened butter
¼ – ½ cup pumpkin butter spread
zest from 1 orange

 

  • Stir the yeast into the warm milk with the pinch of sugar and let it sit for 5-10 minutes to allow the yeast to wake up.  It will begin to get bubbly and smell warm and bready.
  • While you wait for the yeast, add the ¼ cup softened butter, the pumpkin puree, the egg, and the vanilla into the bowl of a stand mixer (or into a large mixing bowl). Mix with the paddle attachment to combine.
  • Add the yeast and milk mixture to the combined wet ingredients and mix them together briefly using the paddle attachment (if you are not using a stand mixer, an electric handheld or some elbow grease and a whisk will do nicely here).
  • Add the brown sugar, spices, salt, and 2 cups of flour.  Using the paddle attachment (or a sturdy wooden spoon if you aren’t a stand mixer sort of person), mix just until the flour is moistened and you have created a lumpy dough. Let it sit for about 20 minutes to begin hydrating the flour.
  • After the dough rests for 20 minutes, switch to the dough hook (or turn your dough out onto a well floured board) and knead for 5-8 minutes in the mixer, or 10-12 minutes by hand. The dough will be very sticky at first – we’ve added a lot of fat and a lot of moisture.  Don’t despair. Add more flour a ¼ cup at a time just until the dough cooperates (up to 3 cups of flour, though depending on the relative humidity of the day, you might not need that much).  It will still be a bit sticky, but it will become more elastic and supple and much easier to work with.
  • When your dough is smooth and stretchy and a bit springy, plop it into a greased or oiled bowl, cover it with plastic wrap, and set it aside in a warm place to rise until doubled, around 90 minutes.
  • Once doubled, punch down the dough to release trapped gas by gently deflating it with your fist. Turn it out onto a floured board and roll it into a rectangle of about 12×24 inches.
  • Smear the second ¼ cup of softened butter over the surface of the rolled out dough. Add the pumpkin butter and spread this atop the butter, leaving a half inch border at one of the long ends. Sprinkle on the orange zest, if using.
  • Begin to roll up the dough from the long side opposite the edge on which you left a border. Start with the middle and move out to the sides, as you would for a jelly roll.  Continue rolling until all the filling is enclosed, and then fold up the remaining, bare edge and pinch it firmly against the roll to create a seam.
  • Twist your log of dough a few times by gripping it and rotating your hands in opposite directions. This will ensure that a pretty swirl of filling is formed as it bakes. Fold the thinner ends underneath the fat middle and settle the whole thing into a buttered or greased loaf pan. Cover it lightly with greased plastic wrap and set it aside to rise again for 30-45 minutes minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350F.
  • At the end of the second rise, remove the plastic wrap form the loaf and bake it for 35-40 minutes, until the bottom sounds hollow when thumped or the internal temperature is between 180-200F (the thump test is the standard way of checking for doneness on bread, but it seems sort of impossible when you are baking a big loaf in a loaf pan. I prefer to take its temperature).
  • When it tests done, using whatever is your favorite method, remove it from the oven and let it cool for at least twenty minutes in the pan.  This will allow the structure to firm up so it slices nicely, rather than collapsing and squashing into itself when you so much as approach it with a serrated knife.
  • Slice and consume. I don’t think it needs a thing to accessorize it, but especially on the second or third day, a sweep of unsalted butter or a smear of cream cheese probably wouldn’t hurt anything…

Cherry Chocolate Brownie Chunk Cookies

This is the story of a batch of cookies that almost didn’t happen. I’ve had them in the back of my mind for the better part of a week, now – a rehash of these brownie chunk cookies I’ve been playing with for a few years – and Sunday morning, as N. headed off to run a 10k in Santa Monica, I was ready to bake.

Until.

The previous night, I’d decided to make some little pesto swirled buns to use up a bit of fed sourdough starter, and plopped the kneaded dough right back into the bowl of my stand mixer to rise slowly in the refrigerator overnight. So of course when I got ready to make the cookies Sunday morning, I walked straight over to the mixer and only remembered after a few seconds of confused staring why the bowl wasn’t there: it was full of raw dough.

No matter. I’d just use my old handheld electric mixer ad my biggest glass mixing bowl… which, it transpired, was full of potato salad. A big old metal bowl it would be, then. Not as photogenic, but that’s a bit of a tiniest violin complaint.

So I creamed up the butter, added the sugar, lifted the electric mixer to clear out some of the collected mixture from inside the beaters, and the whisk part of one of the beaters – just the little bulb bit at the end that does all the work – fell off its metal post right into the butter.

I just stood there for a few seconds, considering the wisdom of options that included washing my stand mixer bowl and just throwing the butter and sugar blend I’d started right into the garbage, and decided on perhaps the laziest, least responsible option, which was to jam the beater back onto its post and mix the rest of the batch with that side smashed up against the bowl so it wouldn’t come off.

So I did. And everything was great. Until I went to add the flour, and realized I didn’t have any. Well, that’s not quite true. I had bread flour, and I had whole wheat flour. But who wants that in a cookie? (Actually, there is a bit of bread flour in these, but using such a high protein flour for the whole allotment was untested and might be less than pleasant.)

It turns out the Ralph’s down the street from my house is pretty uncrowded just before nine in the morning on a Sunday, which meant I got back from my unexpected errand quickly enough that I couldn’t be too annoyed, but still. How many setbacks is one batch of cookies worth?

The answer is at least this many. Many even one more. These cookies are triumphant. There are toasted walnuts. There are shards of bittersweet chocolate. There are hunks of brownie that somehow don’t get dried out and overbaked. And there are cherries.

I’ve never been a big fan of chocolate and cherries. Chocolate and strawberries are, of course, a worthy classic, and though I would go for one or two Mayfairs, those See’s candy creations with chopped cherry and walnuts inside, other incarnations didn’t thrill me, I think because most of the chocolate and cherry combinations I was tasting involved maraschino or other sweet cherries. These cookies, though, rely on the opposite: you need tart or sour dried cherries for this one. I used Montmorencies, which are still sweet but carry the same slight pucker as a dried cranberry – enough to make your mouth water just a little – and this hit of contrast is perfect in these chocolate-drenched cookies.

These are a project. Before actually baking the cookies, each tray of which require almost twenty minutes in the oven, you have to make the brownies and toast the walnuts, and the whole mission sets you back a full pound of butter. But when you are faced with trays of perfectly golden, chocolate studded cookies that are just crisp at the edges and softly chewy in the center, and when you crunch into the first flake of sea salt scattered decadently across the top, all of that extra preparation, even an emergency grocery store quest, feels justified.

Cherry Chocolate Brownie Chunk Cookies
adapted from the Sweet Pea Bakery and Catering, via Bon Appetit magazine
Old Fashioned Brownies
Makes a ½ inch slab of about about 10×15 inches
5 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped (unless you’re lazy like me)
½ cup unsalted butter (1 stick), cubed (see parentheses above)
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
4 large eggs
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour

 

  • Preheat the oven to 350F. Line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil, or parchment paper leaving at least an inch overhang on all sides to lift with.
  • Create a double boiler by filling a medium pot about half full of water and setting a glass or metal bowl over the pot, being sure the bottom of the pot doesn’t touch the water. Add the chocolate and butter to the bowl, and bring the water in the pot to a bare simmer over medium heat. Stir frequently until chocolate and butter are smooth, glossy, and completely melted. Set aside to cool for at least 15 minutes.
  • When chocolate is barely warm to the touch, whisk in the sugar and vanilla. The mixture will become clumpy. Add the eggs and salt; whisk firmly until fully combined. Switch to a spatula and stir in the flour until no white streaks remain.
  • Dump and spread the batter over the prepared pan to create a thin, even layer. You may have to manipulate it quite a bit to get it to spread that far.
  • Bake in the preheated oven until a cake tester comes out with just a few moist crumbs; about 20 minutes. Cool in pan, then cover and refrigerate for a few hours or overnight.
  • To remove from the pan, lift using the foil overhang and reserve about ½ of the slab (or maybe a bit more) for the cookies. Use the remainder for your own devious purposes.

 

Cherry Chocolate Brownie Chunk Cookies
Makes 2½ – 3 dozen
1½ cups room temperature butter (3 sticks)
1 cup sugar
1½ cups brown sugar
1½ teaspoons vanilla
3 eggs
3 cups all-purpose flour
¾ cups bread flour
1½ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt, + more for sprinkling
1 cup walnuts, toasted, then chopped (I like to pop them in while I’m preheating the oven – by the time it reaches 325F, the walnuts are usually ready)
1 cup dried tart or sour cherries, such as Montmorency
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped in chunks
½ – ⅔ old-fashioned brownie slab, cut into ½-inch chunks

 

  • Preheat oven to 325F and line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper (toasting the walnuts while it’s preheating is a good way to multitask)
  • Cream the butter in a large bowl until it is light and fluffy. Add the sugar and the brown sugar and cream again until well integrated – be sure there are no errant chunks of butter.
  • Add the vanilla and eggs to the creamed butter and sugar and mix well to combine, scraping down the sides to create a homogeneous mixture.
  • Stir in the flours, baking soda, and salt to form a soft dough. Add the walnuts cherries, and chopped chocolate, stirring well to combine. Finally, gently fold in the brownie chunks – we don’t want to break them up too much.
  • Spray a ⅓ – ½ cup ice cream scoop or measuring cup with non-stick spray and use it to scoop the batter into rounds on the prepared cookie sheets, spacing them about 2 inches apart (this allowed me to fit six balls of dough on each sheet). Once spaced, press down with two fingers to flatten each ball slightly.
  • Sprinkle the top of each cookie sparingly with coarse or flaky sea salt and bake in the preheated 325F oven for 18-20 minutes, until edges of cookies are starting to turn golden and the middle is set but still very soft.
  • Cool on cookie sheets for 5 minutes, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely.

 

Lamb Stuffed Zucchini

The last week of summer is a curious avalanche of light melancholy and nervous action. I’m caught between the post-vacation-slump of wanting to curl and laze and bake my mind in nothing, and the deep itch of my protestant work ethic demanding I Get. Things. Done. before school starts.

So I cautiously plan in small doses, and I soothe the anxious itch that rears up when I am “wasting” time by consuming novels in gulps, to make up for reading little during the rest of the summer. I’m struck by Jesmyn Ward and Tommy Orange, and just this morning I fell back down into the entrancing, haunted wonderland that is Toni Morrison’s Beloved, inspired in part by this suggested reading list for white Americans assembled by a group of black writers. When I saw Morrison’s perhaps most famous novel on the list, I was brought back to an interview she did with Stephen Colbert in which she describes looking through her book for the right page to autograph for a reader, telling him “I looked down and there were these sentences.” I needed to read those sentences again. I burrowed through the first fifty pages this morning and now that itch is to open the book again.

But I do have other obligations, and one of them is to the final, late summer push of my miraculous zucchini plant. It flourished in our absence, our friend who was on plant-watering duties taking home several swollen specimens, and offering another few to our neighbors, and then suddenly, with only two large, hidden bats remaining, took a gasping breath and shuddered to a… pause? A stop? I think it will produce a few more, maybe, but its time seems limited.

That being the case, there was little time to waste in sharing my biggest zucchini triumph of the summer with you, in case you, too, have a few dark green baseball bats you aren’t sure how to consume.

Rather than an accompaniment or a burying-ground, this recipe uses the zucchini as a vessel. Ground lamb, seared and spiced and liberally tossed with toasted pine nuts, golden raisins, chick peas, preserved lemon, feta crumbles, and as much grassy, bright dill as you can handle, gets piled into the scraped-out cavity of the monstrous squash. A mound of oiled breadcrumbs on top is not a necessity, but what a luxury.

This may seem like a lot of ingredients, but they really play together well. Lamb with dill is obviously a winner, but if you haven’t tried lamb with golden raisins, I insist that you make it a priority – they add a perfect sweetness and here, soak up some of the fat from the meat so they are juicy and plump in the final product. The feta and preserved lemon each contribute a nice brininess – I wouldn’t forgo either, though if you don’t have preserved lemon (and are unwilling to make it yourself), plenty of zest might fill in reasonably well. I initially added chick peas as a way of stretching the lamb, and you certainly don’t need them, but they provide a nice lightness of their own and, I think, eradicate any need for a side of starch. Though we ate ours overflowing segments with garlic-rubbed toast and were quite happy.

I like to think this filling has a life of its own beyond zucchini, which is what makes it so nice. A well-hollowed eggplant would work nicely as well, maybe a cored bell pepper, and as the days shorten and hopefully cool, a carefully carved butternut or kabocha squash. Or you could just ignore the vegetables entirely and use the lamb mixture (maybe minus the chick peas) as a loose filling for a take on stuffed shells, or ravioli, or just tossed gently with rigatoni and a few glugs of sauce.

Lamb Stuffed Zucchini
Serves 6-8 with filling left over
About an hour
1 very large zucchini squash
a maximum of ½ cup olive oil (you probably will not use all of it)
salt and pepper to taste
⅓ cup pine nuts
1 pound ground lamb
1 teaspoon allspice
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
15 ounce can chick peas, drained and rinsed
½ cup golden raisins
2-3 tablespoons finely diced preserved lemon
3-4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill (you could sub with an equal amount of mint or about half as much oregano, if you don’t like dill)
4 ounces crumbled feta
¾-1 cup panko bread crumbs

 

  • Preheat the oven to 400F and line a large baking tray with aluminum foil. Split the zucchini in half lengthwise so you have two long, rounded planks with seeds exposed. Scrape out the seeds and some of the interior flesh with a metal spoon. Discard the scrapings and place the remaining “boats” on the baking tray. Lightly coat them with olive oil before seasoning liberally with salt and pepper. When the oven is preheated, put in the zucchini-laden baking tray and let them roast about 20 minutes while you start the filling. After 20 minutes, remove from the oven and set aside.
  • To make the filling, first heat about 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a medium pan and add the pine nuts. Toast over medium heat, stirring and checking often, until they are nicely golden. Be careful; they burn quickly. When toasted to your liking, set them aside.
  • In the same pan, still on medium heat, add a little bit more oil and then your ground lamb. Use a flat-sided wooden spoon, if you have one, to break it up, then sprinkle over the allspice, cayenne pepper, and a bit of salt to season. Let it cook, stirring and turning and continuing to break up large chunks, until no longer pink in the center.
  • When the lamb is just cooked through, stir in the chick peas and the golden raisins, turn the heat down to medium-low, and let it go another five minutes. This lets the new additions pick up some flavor. After five minutes, remove from heat and drain off any excess fat.
  • To the now-cooked lamb, add the toasted pine nuts, the preserved lemon, the dill, and the feta, stirring well to combine everything. Taste for seasoning and add salt and more cayenne pepper, if needed. When you are satisfied with the flavor, scoop the filling into the empty, partially-cooked zucchini halves. I like to mound it up a bit. It will be crumbly because there is no binder.
  • In a small bowl, toss the panko bread crumbs with enough olive oil to coat them well. Pack spoonfuls on top of the lamb filling and exposed zucchini flesh.
  • Carefully place the laden tray back into the oven, turn the temperature down to 375F, and roast for 25-35 minutes, until the panko is deeply bronzed and the flesh of the zucchini pierces easily with a fork.
  • Let cool about 5 minutes before slicing and serving large segments.