Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Wonderland Sugar Cookies

…Still she haunts me, phantomwise
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:

Ever drifting down the stream --
Lingering in the golden gleam --
Life what is it but a dream?
          -From Through the Looking-Glass, by Lewis Carroll

  In a recurring dream, I stumble upon a small glass box with a perfect little confection inside, the words “Eat Me” spelled out on top in frosting.  Perhaps that’s why making these adorable cookies for an Alice in Wonderland themed 1st birthday party last weekend was so deeply satisfying.  And it was a good thing that I made some extras because even I couldn’t resist doing just what they commanded.

  I used a simple sugar cookie dough and frosted them with pale blue royal icing- here’s Martha’s recipe if you want to try it. This type of rolled cookie dough recipe is made using the creaming method which provides a short crumb and buttery texture.    
  I start by creaming the butter and sugar until they lighten a bit, then add the eggs and vanilla one at a time.  I mix slowly to allow the fats to absorb the liquids and form an emulsion- if any of the ingredients are too cold, the mixture will curdle.  I cheat and take a blowtorch to the KitchenAid bowl, but if you don’t have one lying around it’s a good idea to remove the butter and eggs from the fridge like an hour before you want to use them.    

  I add sifted dry ingredients to the butter and eggs and mix on low until just combined.  You don’t want to overwork the dough here- kneading develops gluten and results in a tough final product.  As soon as the dough forms a ball, you can divide it in parts and wrap it in plastic parcels to refrigerate.

  Once the dough hardens in the fridge, I roll it out and cut out shapes, then bake until golden brown.

  Then I ice and decorate.  For these I used a loose royal icing, then piped in a firmer purple icing on top. 

Friday, April 22, 2011

Buttermilk Ramp Biscuits

Buttermilk Ramp Biscuits with Coriander and Pecorino Cheese
 When I was 23 I was working as a pastry cook at Tabla- my first experience with life in the professional kitchen.  It had been a rough start but I’d survived the long cold winter living in my parent’s basement, and by spring I had emerged triumphant, moving back into the city with plans to start culinary school in a few short months.  I was discovering my love for working the line, and new beginnings were in the air. 
  One slow Sunday in April before service, a burst of activity at the pass caught our attention over in pastry- a couple sous chefs had come in with four huge plastic Lexans full of what looked like dirty overgrown stinkweeds.  It was the arrival of the first ramps of the season, and their pungent wild oniony smell invaded the kitchen like clouds of tear gas. 
  Before then, I'd never heard of a ramp, and I watched Chef show us how to clean them.  He grabbed a slim leafy bulb and sliced off the tangle of dirty roots by the end, then peeled off the slimy outer layer- voila.  It seemed like a lot of work for a stinky little weed.  For the next two weeks the big tubs of ramps kept pouring in, and cleaning the grimy shoots became a daily activity, even in pastry.  Their stink permeated my every pore and even after work I could smell it on my hands and in my hair, and my fingernails were constantly dirty no matter how much I scrubbed.  I’ve always been a hard-core Allium lover at heart- the more pungent the better- but as far as I was concerned if I never saw another ramp again it would be ok by me. 
  And then I actually tasted one- grilled on the flat top and sprinkled with sea salt- and I finally got what all the fuss was about.  In flavor they are compared to a cross between garlic and onions, but they have a funky earthy quality all their own.  
  Ramps only grow wild, and their season lasts but a few short weeks at the dawn of spring.  Back then, the only people who noticed or cared that the ramps had arrived were the chefs who scoured the green market at dawn, buying up every last crate before the sun had reached its high point in the sky. 
  But thanks to their being the very epitome of seasonal New York, it seems every over-blogged eater who calls himself a foodie is suddenly an expert in this “trendy” little plant.  In this city where I can buy an avocado on any corner in the middle of January or pop into Whole Foods for a mangosteen twelve months of the year, the ramp remains seasonally out of reach.  There’s an impenetrable velvet rope around ramp season and we all know how New Yorkers just love to line up.  Some have compared the recent popularity of the ramp with the arugula boom of the 90’s, already forseeing it as a passing fad, and others ask, are they really worth the hype? 
What kind of a question is that, people?  We’re talking about a vegetable here, not some summer blockbuster!
In their delicate flavor there is something fleeting and reckless, bold and young and unapologetic.  Their silky leaves are among the first real green things we see in the spring market and their arrival brings the uncultivated promise of good things to come.  They aren’t the prettiest to look at but they clean up nice, and they seem to say: “Take us as we are, or leave us be!”, and you gotta respect that. 

Buttermilk Ramp Biscuits
2 cups         ramps, bulbs and leaves
                   cleaned and sliced
1 ½ cups     buttermilk
1 T              heavy cream
3 ½ cups      AP flour
1 ½ T          baking powder
1 T          baking soda

1 T              salt
2 tsp           coriander seeds, crushed
6 oz             butter, cold and cubed
                   Pecorino cheese

1. Preheat oven to 425° F.  Combine buttermilk, cream and ramps and soak for up to an hour- this will allow the ramps to steep into the buttermilk and intensify their rampiness
2. In a food processor or stand mixer, combine flour, baking powder, salt and 1 tsp coriander seeds. 
3. Cut the cold butter into the dry ingredients with a few pulses, until the mixture is mealy but still a bit chunky.  Add the buttermilk mixture and combine just until the dough comes together. 

4. Turn out onto a floured surface and roll to about ½ inch thick.  The dough might be tacky- dust with more flour to keep it from sticking as you roll.  Cut out circles with a cookie cutter or  use a knife for a more rustic look.

5. Place onto a lined baking sheet, brush with heavy cream and top with crushed coriander and shredded cheese.  Bake for 16-20 minutes, until the biscuits are risen and golden brown on top.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

La Primavera?

  Is it possible that spring has finally sprung?  Do I dare pack away my knitted hat and gloves and bust out my fair-weather scarves and open-toed shoes?  Today I was like a sleepy-eyed black bear venturing out of the den for the first time after a long hibernation- wearing the flip-flops I dug out of the closet and clad in just a t-shirt, my eyes puffy and accustomed to darkness, my arms pale from months of being hidden away from the rays of the sun.  But outside I found life springing up all around me.  I stood out on the sidewalk and marveled at the difference ten degrees can make on the psyche of the average downtown New Yorker, myself included. 
   This is the best time of year, a time when we can finally shake off the hunched-shouldered gait we’ve adopted to combat whipping winter winds, pull our hoods down, and look up and smile at one another.  It's a time to remember that we are human after all.  Today my neighbors, after so many months of hurrying wherever they had to go, amble along in the late afternoon sun.  The trees in Tompkins Square Park are blossoming, irises and crocuses are peeking their bright heads from the barely-thawed earth, and in the market, pencil thin asparagus is making its first appearance of the year.
   In the face of these stirring signs of rebirth, it’s hard not to feel like a new woman.

   My friend Lisa came over with two bottles of wine, and I whipped up this pasta with a tangy lemon-cream sauce, accompanied by an escarole salad tossed with a creamy garlic dressing.  I wanted to really showcase the sweet young asparagus, so I waited until the last minute to toss it into the sauce- at this time of year it doesn’t need much cooking at all. 
  Escarole is my leafy green of choice this week- the sturdy leaves provide crunch and slightly bitter bite that stands up great to creamy dressings.  I topped this salad with crunchy toasted breadcrumbs, inspired by a similar dish at The John Dory Oyster Bar.

Escarole salad with creamy garlic chive dressing and breadcrumbs

Garlic Chive Dressing

1                 yolk
1                 lemon, juiced
1 T              Dijon mustard
1                 clove garlic, grated or pressed
½ c              olive oil      
                    Chopped chives
                   Salt, pepper

1. Start with the mustard, lemon juice, garlic and a pinch of salt in a bowl.  Add yolk and whisk to combine.

2. Slowly stream olive oil into the liquid while whisking constantly until the dressing thickens.  Taste for salt and pepper, and add chopped chives. 
3. Wash and dry escarole, then rip or cut into fork-friendly pieces.  Toss the greens in the creamy dressing and allow it to sit for half an hour before serving for the most pleasing effect.

4.  Toast some bread and crumble in up to serve on top of the salad, finish with grated pecorino.

Lemon Cream Sauce

Lemon Cream sauce with spring veg- la primavera!

4 cloves      garlic
1 c               heavy cream
½ c              stock or wine
2                 lemons, zested and juiced
2                 zucchini
1 bunch       asparagus
1 handful    basil, chiffonaded
Salt, pepper

1. Start ½ the garlic in a heavy-bottomed pan with some olive oil.  Sautee zucchini until it gets some color and just softens.  Remove from the pan.
2. Deglaze the pan with some stock or wine, scraping the bottom.  Toss in remaining garlic, add cream and lemon juice to the pan, reduce by half.

3.  Add the cooked zucchini, basil, and zest- finish with a pat of butter.  Taste and add salt and pepper if necessary.  Throw asparagus in at the very end- if it is tender and in season, there’s no need to blanch it beforehand. 

4. Cook your pasta of choice in boiling salted water until al dente- I used a whole-wheat fusilli in the vain attempt to counteract the decadent creamy sauce.  Drain and toss pasta into the saucepan, finish with a splash of balsamic vinegar.
Whole-Wheat fusilli with lemon cream sauce, asparagus and zucchini


Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Black and White and Red All Over

  In my line of work I meet all kinds of couples who are about to embark on a new life together, and believe me, I’ve seen some diverse and unlikely pairs- matches that my great-grandmother would never have conceived of, including my own.  Background, mother tongue, age, nationality- here in the East Village, it’s been the rare wedding cake I’ve made for a couple that shares even one of these characteristics among them, and it thrills me to see what new cultural mixes are being whipped up right before my very eyes. 
  So what brings two people together?  There are the obvious answers: attraction, similar interests, shared experiences… sheer proximity.  We all know that life can be tough, so there’s a measure of comfort in the idea that someone out there is contractually bound to help you out for better or worse so long as you both shall live.  And what keeps two people together?  That is a question I can only begin to answer, but it seems to boil down to this: mutual willingness.  Every day I meet more fresh couples who are about declare their love and commitment in front of everyone, who are ready to say out loud: I do if you do.  Getting to know these couples in love is one of my favorite things about my job- it’s exciting and inspiring to witness the birth of a union.
  Last weekend’s adorable couple was as visually diverse as they come- the bride was an Irish lass from Galway and the groom a dashing young man who hailed from Peru.  They choose to celebrate their wedding day at the New Leaf CafĂ© in Fort Tryon Park with possibly the most American of flavor combinations- Red Velvet cupcakes filled with cream cheese frosting and topped with whipped vanilla buttercream.  I baked them in black papers and finished each cupcake with a cupped black fondant blossom with little edible pearl centers.  Emma and Cesar also wanted a cake for slicing, so I did a small square covered with white fondant and decorated with the same black flower theme.

  Although I have developed a pretty delicious recipe for Red Velvet, it usually isn’t my favorite to make due to the copious amounts of food color I have to add.  (Yes, food color.  What did you think made it red?)  It ruins the flavor in my opinion, though people don’t seem to mind...  This time, I subbed a rehydrated beet powder for a good portion of the red gel paste and I was happy with the results.  The beet coloring deepened the redness and I was left with just a hint of that chemical taste.

  Meanwhile, I worked on the flowers.  Using a small metal cutter, I punched out a few flowers at a time and used my ball tool to thin the petals and cup each blossom.  

Then I placed the flowers in a drying tray to hold their shapes and let them harden overnight.

The next day, I glued edible pearls to the centers and dusted each blossom with iridescent dark blue shimmer to bring out the highlights.

I punched a hole in each cupcake, then filled them with a tangy sweet cream cheese frosting.  I topped each with a swirl of vanilla buttercream and one of the sugar blossoms.

  I baked a 7” square red velvet cake and I filled it and finished the sides with buttercream.  I rolled out a piece of white fondant and covered the cake, then decorated with the black flowers to match the cupcakes.

Satin Ice, my favorite brand of fondant.