Drunken Fig and Honeyed Walnut Sundae

As I type this, I am sitting in my parents’ backyard, at a table in what I’ve been calling their “redwood grove,” sipping a glass of prosecco and thinking about vacation. I think there are a few different levels of vacation, and with them come differing levels of indulgence. The good old “staycation,” a concept that has been around for decades but which only became an official word in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2010, seems to call for something humble – homey – perhaps a slice of pound cake with some berries or a smear of jam and not much else. A heavy-duty vacation – the kind that requires airline travel or a passport – requires something more indulgent. On a voyage up and down the East Coast that N. and I took a number of years ago, we unexpectedly ended up in a first class train cabin on a leg from Boston to New York City, and as we sat back and wondered at our luck, an attendant suddenly, unexpectedly, dropped off two gleaming glasses of lush, impossibly light chocolate mousse. That’s a big vacation dessert. Indulgent. Rich. Not the first thing you’d choose from a cookbook. Big vacations are opera cakes and crème brûlée and napoleons.

But there are also in between vacations: those that require only a day trip, or when you lie around in your rented beach-house-for-the-weekend with no agenda besides thinking all day about what will be for dinner, and then scrapping all your plans and going to get tacos instead. There are the ones that consist of living with friends for a week because you only get to see them once a year, or dropping by the family’s house for a few warm evenings to shake off the spent semester, or grabbing a hotel room unexpectedly because the glory of the afternoon wore on so long you can’t bear the idea of the drive home, and besides, you’re on vacation.

This dessert is for one of those in between kinds of vacations. The idea came from Judy Rodgers’ red wine figs in her Zuni Café Cookbook, a thick tome spilling with interesting combinations that I’m still working my way through, and a garam masala laced bowl of walnuts I whipped up for a last minute happy hour a month or two ago. The result is a glorious trifecta of textures and temperatures: ice cream, chewy figs steeped in warm, orange-spiked red wine, and toasted walnuts tossed in spiced honey. It’s a very adult sort of sundae – no sprinkles, no bright berries, no whipped cream or chocolate of any sort. Yet it’s also indulgent – wine-drenched figs intense enough you’ll only want a few, and warm walnuts dripping with honey, so reminiscent of baklava, slowly melting the rich, cold, sweet ice cream underneath. And if you are lucky enough to choose an ice cream that is studded with dozens of tiny, crunchy seeds scraped from that precious pod, well, all the better.

And now that you have this on a Monday, you’ve got something to dream about (and get going: the figs need a few days to steep and soak up that wine) until you get to your weekend, and whatever kind of vacation it holds.

Drunken Fig and Honeyed Walnut Sundaes
Makes 4 sundaes
About 40 minutes active time, plus at least 2 days for figs to steep
For Drunken Figs:
1½ cups red wine
2 tablespoons orange liqueur, such as Grand Marnier
2 bay leaves
1 strip of orange zest, about half an inch wide, taken from stem end to navel end of orange
8 ounces dried black mission figs
1-2 teaspoons honey
For Honeyed Walnuts:
1 cup walnut halves or pieces, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons honey
¼ – ½ teaspoon salt (we found ½ teaspoon was right on the edge of being too much)
½ teaspoon garam masala
To serve:
Vanilla bean ice cream, about two scoops per person

 

  • To make the drunken figs, heat the wine and orange liqueur in a small saucepan with the bay leaves and boil until it has reduced to ½ cup. This will take around 20 minutes.
  • While the wine reduces, stem and halve the figs (cut from stem end to belly end to expose all of the seeds) and place them in a 2 – 4 cup vessel with a tight fitting lid. Add the strip of orange zest.
  • When the wine has reduced, stir in the honey, then pour over the figs and zest. Cover and shake, “leave to swell for a few days,” shaking periodically (for me, this ended up being 2 days), then refrigerate until ready to use. Serve at room temperature or slightly warm.
  • To make the honeyed walnuts, preheat the oven to 300F and scatter the walnuts on a baking tray. Bake until lightly browned and fragrant; 10-15 minutes. While they toast, combine the honey, salt, and garam masala in a small bowl with a whisk. When the walnuts come out of the oven, immediately scrape and pour the honey over them and toss to coat. The hot walnuts will heat and thin the honey, making it easier to combine.
  • To serve, place two scoops of ice cream into a dish of your choice. Scoop and drizzle about ¼ cup of the walnuts over the top, then add 5-6 fig halves plus a little remaining liquid, if there is any. Eat immediately.

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Brownie Chunk Cookies

Despite my self-effacing proclamations of cookie-production-failure last week, earlier this week I pushed through my grading, closed down the semester (email? What email?), and made another batch of cookies. These, while not Christmas or holiday themed, per se, are a cookie I’ve been playing with for some time now, and the final result is so big, so decadent and comforting and butter laden and jammed with chocolate, that not including them on a holiday cookie platter feels unacceptable. Unless, of course, that’s because you ate them all before you had a chance to assemble that platter. In which case, carry on. I think you’ve got the right idea.

Food Blog December 2014-0972I found the original recipe for these cookies in an old issue of Bon Appetit magazine – a contribution from a place called Sweet Pea Bakery and Catering – and was bowled over by the concept: brownie chunks folded into walnut-spiked, brown-sugar forward cookie dough, baked into a, what? Brownkie? Cooknie? It means two separate baking projects, but really? If the end result is two casual, much beloved hand-held desserts in one thick, golden, oversized package, I’m willing to put in the extra time.

Food Blog December 2014-0961Food Blog December 2014-0962And yet, as I played, I wanted more. The recipe already calls for walnuts; I wanted mine toasted for that extra, almost bitter buttery richness. The deep chocolate-y squidge of the brownies, on the fudgy side (as opposed to cake-y, as you might expect), is good, but baked into the cookies they don’t have that same melty purity as chocolate chips or chunks might. Easy solution. A handful of chopped bittersweet chocolate joined the party. I replaced some of the all-purpose flour with bread flour to give the cookie some extra chew. And as a final coup de grace, a sprinkle of coarse sea salt over the top of each innocent not-so-little scoop of dough. Chocolate and salt are old friends, suitable for mergers beyond that classic dipped pretzel business. (Seriously, try it. If you don’t like a little salt sprinkled atop a chocolate chip cookie, I’m not sure we can be friends.)

Food Blog December 2014-0966Food Blog December 2014-0967This is a big cookie. I like it that way, because it means the brownie chunks and shards of chopped chocolate inside can be big enough to retain structural integrity. I will admit, though, that devoting almost 1/2 a cup of batter to each cookie makes for a large serving. If you were so inclined, I’m sure you could chop the additions smaller and scoop out more petite dough balls. I just… haven’t. Though I will admit to having thought hard about the opposite: smashing a scoop of vanilla ice cream between two of these monsters and giving up on eating any other food ever again. Because hey, holiday.

Next week I’ll be back with my final sauce offering for the year, and some concluding words on that project. But for now, I’ll keep it short, and wish you joy, warmth, and food as gorgeous on the tongue as it was on the plate. Or maybe more. Happy holidays, friends, no matter what you celebrate.

Food Blog December 2014-0976

Brownie chunk cookies
adapted from the Sweet Pea Bakery and Catering, via Bon Appetit magazine

 

Old Fashioned Brownies
Makes a 1/2 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, 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 3/4 of the slab for the cookies. Use the remainder for your own devious purposes.

 

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
1½ cups walnuts, toasted, then chopped
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped in chunks
¾ old-fashioned brownie slab, cut into 1-inch chunks

 

  • Preheat oven to 350F and line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper
  • 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 homogenous mixture.
  • Stir in the flours, baking soda, and salt to form a soft dough. Add the walnuts 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 350F 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.

Sweet Potato and Brussels Warm Salad

Food Blog November 2014-0792The first time I made this dish, which could be called a roasted side dish or a warm salad, depending on how you’re feeling, I didn’t actually make it. Let me explain. Like everyone (she says, because it makes her feel better), I have a few unfortunate… let’s call them character flaws. I’m clumsy. I drop things. I spill. I trip. Last week right in the middle of a lecture about pronouns and antecedents I bumped into the chalkboard and, in my recovery, stumbled into a wheeled desk chair that promptly rolled several feet across the classroom. My students were gracious enough to laugh at me.

Food Blog November 2014-0782Where my clumsiness can be amusing or endearing or even charming in other areas of life (I disagree, but N. seems to find it so), it occasionally winds up being dangerous in the kitchen. I take precautions: my knives are sharp, I stabilize my cutting boards, and I try not to do too many things at once. But once in a while, a knife slips, my mind wanders, and I wind up bleeding.

Food Blog November 2014-0783Food Blog November 2014-0788This unappetizing truth is what almost did this salad in. The first time I made it, this autumnal tumble of sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts, prosciutto, and walnuts, I had baked the prosciutto into saliva-inducing crisps, toasted the walnuts, and cooked off the sweet potatoes. All that remained, aside from a tart dressing I knew would involve whole grain mustard and cider vinegar, was to slice up a mess of brussels sprouts. To save on dishes, because N. hates washing the food processor, I was doing this delicate slicing by hand and, well, my hand slipped. In a matter of seconds, I was outside, sitting on the porch step with my hand in the air and my head between my knees thinking it was too early for the sky to be so dark, and N. was running for a bandage and asking questions about something called an emergency room.

Food Blog November 2014-0789When my head cleared a little, I decided the cut wasn’t bad enough to merit a hospital run, but it was bad enough that I wouldn’t be able to finish dinner. You’re up, N! We tagged out and N., usually a bit shy in the kitchen, did an admirable job slicing the rest of the sprouts, whisking up a sharp, perfectly acidic dressing, and tossing everything together. We ate, I recovered, and I suddenly had a fantastic war story to exchange with my sister when she suffered her own bit of kitchen clumsiness a few weeks later.

Food Blog November 2014-0794The dish stayed in the back of my mind. It was good when we ate it – nice for the day we’d had which, though warm, carried hints of cooler evenings to come – but I kept wanting more. The flavors should be deeper. The rawness of the brussels sprouts was okay, but with toasty edges they would be even better. My fix, as it usually is for things involving vegetables, was to roast everything. This created, I’ll admit, a bowl of cubes and shards that would never pass muster on a Pinterest board worth its salt. However,  it makes up for its homeliness by combining all the fall flavors and textures I was yearning for. It is sweet and earthy and vegetal, with the right amount of saltiness from the prosciutto. The walnuts have a slight, slight bitterness, which contrasts nicely against the sweet potato. And the dressing, tangy and light and packed with tiny mustard seeds that pop between your teeth, soaks down into the vegetables and lifts the whole thing back up into perfect, warm, satisfying fall salad territory.
Food Blog November 2014-0799

Roasted Sweet Potato and Brussels Sprouts “salad”
serves 2 as a main, 3-4 as a side
1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks (about 3 cups)
16 ounces brussels sprouts, stem ends and any wilted or yellowing leaves removed, halved or quartered. You want the sweet potatoes and the Brussels sprouts roughly equal in size.
6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
5-6 slices prosciutto
1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon whole grain mustard
2 teaspoons honey
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
Additional salt and pepper to taste, if desired

 

  • Preheat the oven to 450F and line a baking tray with aluminum foil. Pour 1 tablespoon of the olive oil directly onto the foil-lined tray and place the tray in the oven while it is preheating. While you wait for it to warm up, prep the vegetables.
  • Toss the sweet potato chunks and Brussels sprout pieces in a large bowl with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, the salt, and the pepper. Once the oven is preheated, transfer the vegetables to a single layer on the foil-lined tray that has been heating up inside. The additional of the oil already on the tray means the exteriors of the vegetables will start cooking immediately.
  • As soon as you place the tray of vegetables into the oven, turn the heat down to 425F. Roast the sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts for 20 minutes, then toss them to promote even browning and roast for an additional 20 minutes.
  • On another foil-lined baking sheet, spread out the prosciutto so the slices do not overlap. During the second 20 minute roasting of the vegetables, add the prosciutto tray to the oven and cook for about 10 minutes, until the slices are almost crisp and lightly bronzed.
  • Remove prosciutto slices to a paper towel to drain and cool, and add the chopped walnuts directly to the tray that previously held the prosciutto. Roast the walnuts for 5-6 minutes, until fragrant and slightly darker in color (keep an eye on them, though; they burn fast).
  • While the ingredients are roasting, make the dressing. In a large bowl (it can be the serving bowl, to save on dishes, if you like), whisk together the mustard, the honey, and the cider vinegar. While whisking, slowly pour in the remaining 4 tablespoons of olive oil. Taste and adjust seasonings if desired, but remember that the vegetables are already seasoned and the prosciutto is quite salty.
  • When the vegetables are roasted to your liking (I like them golden with slightly crusty edges, and yielding on the inside), remove from the oven and place them directly in the bowl with the dressing. Toss to combine. Crumble or chop up the prosciutto into bite-sized pieces, and add it and the walnuts to the bowl as well. Toss again to integrate, and serve warm or at room temperature.