The Best Chocolate Chip Cookies

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There are many things, American things, I grew up without: The Brady Bunch, onion rings, McDonalds, 21 Jump Street, PB&J sandwiches, bagels, MacGyver, cranberry muffins, and the list goes on and on. But there’s one thing I didn’t have as a kid that always makes Steve wonder how I made it to adulthood without severe psychological trauma: chocolate chip cookies. Not only did we not have chocolate chip cookies when I was a kid, I didn’t even know that they existed. All the American TV shows and movies I watched were subtitled and “chocolate chip cookies” were simply translated as “cookie with chocolate” or simply “cookie.” It wasn’t until I came to the U.S. that I discovered the culinary marvel that is the chocolate chip cookie. In all fairness, chocolate chip cookies are not well known or loved anywhere else in the world either. Our French friends always produce their Gallic shrug and a dismissive puff when we mention chocolate chip cookies. They’re not impressed.DSC04364

I, on the other hand, am a huge chocolate chip cookie fan. A good, and that’s a big caveat, chocolate chip cookie is the perfect dessert. It’s sweet but darkly so, thanks to the brown sugar. It has chocolate, but in perfect proportions. It’s slightly crispy on the outside but soft and a little chewy on the inside. You can hold it in your hand, you can dip it in milk, you can sandwich ice-cream between two of them, you can eat it cold or slightly warm.

Unfortunately, like all good things, the chocolate chip cookie has been bastardized a million times over. Finding a great cookie or a great recipe is for many, the holy grail of American desserts. Finally, I think I’ve found it. This recipe, from Smitten Kitchen, has produced consistently some of the best, most mouth-wateringly delicious, most addictive chocolate chip cookies Steve and I have had. The best part is that you can make the dough, shape the cookies and then freeze them. Whenever you want a freshly baked cookie, pop one in the oven for 16 minutes and you’re all set. These are so good, that they might even convert the French to chocolate chip cookie lovers.
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The Best Chocolate Chip Cookies – Slightly adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Makes 15-16 cookies

Ingredients:

3/4 teaspoon baking soda
Heaped 1/4 teaspoon (or, technically, 1/4 + 1/8 teaspoon) fine sea or table salt
1 3/4 cups (220 grams) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (4 ounces or 113 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 tablespoons (25 grams) granulated sugar
2 tablespoons (25 grams) turbinado sugar
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (165 grams) packed light or dark brown sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 pound (112 grams) semi- or bittersweet chocolate, cut into roughly 1/2-inch chunks with a serrated knife
1/4 pound (112 grams) milk chocolate, cut into roughly 1/2-inch chunks with a serrated knife
Flaky sea salt (like Maldon), to finish

Directions:

Heat oven to 360°F (182°C) and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicon baking mat. (I know…360°F?? But it does seem to make a difference. If your oven isn’t this precise, just bake them at 350°F and add some baking time, probably a couple of minutes).

In a small bowl, mix flour, salt and baking soda and set aside. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugars together with an electric mixer until very light and fluffy, about 3-4 minutes. Add egg and vanilla, beating until incorporated, and scraping down the bowl as needed. Beat in the flour mixture on a low speed until just mixed. The dough will look crumbly at this point. With a spatula, fold/stir in the chocolate chunks.

Scoop cookies into 3 tablespoon (I used a #20 scoop) mounds, spacing them apart on the prepared baking sheet. Sprinkle each with a few flakes of sea salt. Put in refrigerator for at least 30 minutes (up to a few hours) if you’ll bake them on the spot, or place them in the freezer to bake them at a later time.

If baking them immediately:
Bake for 11 to 12 minutes in preheated oven, until golden on the outside but still very gooey and soft inside. Out of the oven, let rest on baking sheet out of the for 5 minutes before transferring a cooling rack. Wait another 5-10 minutes (if you can manage that) before eating them.

If baking from the freezer:
First, take out as many cookies as you want to bake and place them on a prepared baking sheet (lined with parchment paper or silicon mat). Then preheat the oven to 360°F (182°C) (this will give the cookies a few minutes to lose their chill). When oven reaches 360°F (182°C), place baking sheet in the oven and bake for 16 minutes. Out of the oven, let rest on baking sheet out of the for 5 minutes before transferring a cooling rack. Wait another 5-10 minutes (if you can manage that) before eating them.

Easy Chocolate Buttercream Frosting

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When I lived in the suburbs of New Jersey, I took a cake decorating class. It took place in a kitchen supply store in a strip mall (where else?). I was in my mid twenties,  going to grad school, and looking for something fun to do. As it turns out so were about ten middle-aged-to retired New Jersey housewives who were my classmates for this course. What I do remember from the course was that I cut myself with one of the piping tips and that I made little sugar roses that go on cakes. I also learned how to properly hold a frosting bag and how to alternate pressure to achieve the right effect. After the class, though, I rarely frosted and decorated a cake. Mostly because I hated the hassle of making the frosting itself.

But then came Smitten Kitchen and Deb’s super easy buttercream frosting recipe. It does require a food processor, as well as melting the chocolate and letting it cool, but it consists of throwing everything in said food processor and running it until they magically transform into a delicious, smooth frosting. After that, it’s up to you what to do with it. In the photo below, I made our favorite banana bread, and then sliced it in half and filled and frosted it. Needless to say, it was very delicious.
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Easy Chocolate Buttercream Frosting – Slightly adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Ingredients:

2 ounces (55 grams) unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled
1 1/2 cups (180 grams) powdered sugar (sifted if lumpy)
1/2 cup (1 stick or 4 ounces or 115 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
Pinch of fine sea salt (optional)
1 tablespoon cream or whole milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions:

Place all ingredients in a food processor and run machine to mix. Scrape down bowl then process until smooth and somewhat fluffed. If you don’t have a food processor, you could do this in a mixer by beating the butter, sugar and salt first, then adding the rest of the ingredients and beating until smooth.

Frost or fill your cake immediately

Short Ribs Braised in Ancho Chile Sauce

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Snow was the stuff of dreams when I was a kid. It’s not that it didn’t snow in Cyprus. It did, but only high up in the mountains and it was a rare occasion that we would drive up there to experience it. Our car was not equipped for snowy or icy roads and my parents were reluctant to risk going up there unless the roads were plowed and the forecast was clear. Where we lived, down in the mainland, it pretty much never snowed. Which meant that my sister and I spent winters wishing for those perfect conditions that would get us up there, so that we could build a snowman and have a snowball fight. Because we knew that snow would never arrive out our house.DSC04283 (1)

And then one year, I must have been eight or nine years old, it happened. The temperature dropped and clouds gathered. The forecast was definitive. There would be snow all the way down at sea level. Our parents woke us up in the morning and told us to come to their bedroom. All four of us got under the covers and watched the snowflakes gently fall outside the bedroom window. My mom talked about how serene and calming it was but my sister and I wanted only one thing: to go outside and play in the snow. “It’s not snowing enough to stick,” my dad told us, but we were undeterred. Thirty minutes later my sister and I were throwing mud balls at each other, much to my mom’s displeasure.

We are getting a snow blizzard this weekend here in the Northeast. In New York snow always starts out beautiful, drowning out the noise of the city and erasing the harsh lines of the buildings and sidewalks. It eventually turns into black sludge and everyone hates it but for a few hours, it’s quite magical. If you are going to be in the path of this storm or any other snow storm, make these short ribs. They will warm your soul and nourish your body to get it ready for those snowball fights or shoveling chores. DSC04288 (1)

Short Ribs Braised in Ancho Chile Sauce – Slightly adapted from Epicurious

Note: The recipe uses a roasting pan but I’ve always used a dutch oven. I brown the ribs in the dutch oven, remove them and cook the chile puree in it, add the remaining ingredients and the ribs and braise them. This way I only use one pot.

Ingredients:

4 dried ancho chiles, stemmed, seeded, and ribs discarded
2 cups boiling-hot water
1 medium onion, quartered
3 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped canned chipotle chiles in adobo plus 2 teaspoons adobo sauce
2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon salt
6 lb beef short ribs
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 cup brewed coffee

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Soak ancho chiles in boiling-hot water until softened, about 20 minutes, then drain them reserving the soaking liquid. Transfer ancho chiles to a blender and purée with onion, garlic, chipotles with sauce, maple syrup, lime juice, and 1 teaspoon salt.

Pat ribs dry and sprinkle with pepper and 2 teaspoons salt. Heat oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then brown ribs in 3 batches, turning occasionally, about 5 minutes per batch. Transfer as browned to a roasting pan just large enough to hold ribs in 1 layer.

Carefully add chile purée to fat remaining in skillet (it will spatter and steam) and cook over moderately low heat, stirring frequently, 5 minutes. Add reserved chile soaking liquid (or 1 1/2 cups water) and coffee and bring to a boil, then pour over ribs (liquid should reach about halfway up sides of meat).

Cover roasting pan tightly with foil and braise ribs until very tender, 3 to 3 1/2 hours. Skim fat from pan juices.

Serve ribs with mashed potatoes or soft polenta and with pan juices.

Roasted Squash with Pomegranate and Mint

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“Let’s quit our jobs and stay here until our money runs out,” Steve said to me. We were half way through our 10-day vacation in Hawaii, sitting outside our room in the bed and breakfast where we were staying in Maui. There was a light breeze and we were watching the sun slowly slide behind the island of Lanai across the ocean. I knew he was joking. It didn’t stop me, or Steve, from seriously considering it for a few seconds though.

That’s the impact of Hawaii. I had been there twice before almost 20 years ago but this was Steve’s first time. We planned this trip as a celebration of his 50th birthday and I was hoping that Hawaii was still the magical paradise I had remembered from the past. It surpassed all of our expectations. Words can’t properly describe the feeling you have when you wake up to sunny skies, with the temperature hovering in the upper 70s, a cool breeze rustling the palm trees and an orchestra of tropical birds welcoming the day.

Every day was a revelation. The Martian landscape of the Haleakala volcano one day was in stark contrast with the overwhelming lushness of the tropical jungle of the road to Hana the next day. On more than one occasion, we pulled off the road on a whim and jumped into the warm and crystal clear waters of the Pacific Ocean. We ate ahi tuna so fresh, it seemed almost like a vegetable. We discovered li hing mui powder, and we became instantly addicted to dried mango slices covered in it. We realized that the Aloha spirit is not some gimmicky lie for tourists but the true way of living generously for Hawaiians.

I could go on for ever. It was the first vacation I can remember where we really did not want to come back home (we usually look forward to returning to our home and routine). But alas, we had to. So, we found ourselves on Tuesday back in New York, bracing against a wind chill in the teens, trying to hold on to the memories of sipping Mai Tais by the ocean.

I wish I had a recipe for you that evoked Hawaii. But I don’t. The closest would be the passion fruit coconut pound cake recipe that I posted a little while back. But I do give you this roasted squash recipe. If nothing else, it will bring some Hawaiian color in your winter blues.DSC04315 (1)

Roasted Squash with Pomegranate and Mint

Ingredients:

1 kuri or kambocha squash
olive oil
salt and pepper
2 teaspoons ras el hanout spice mix (if unavailable, substitute with equal parts cinnamon, cumin, paprika, and coriander)
pomegranate molasses
fresh pomegranate seeds
fresh mint leaves

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 425° F.

Cut squash in one-inch slices and place in large bowl. Drizzle a good amount of olive oil, add salt and pepper and the ras el hanout mix, and using your hands mix well. You want every slice to be covered in the oil and spice mix.

Roast on baking sheets for about 25-30 minutes or until the squash is cooked through and the bottom of each slice is dark brown.

Arrange in serving bowls or dishes, drizzle some pomegranate molasses on top, and garnish with pomegranate seeds and mint leaves.

Peanut Butter, Chocolate, and Banana Granola

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It’s customary to reflect on the past twelve months this time of year. Best-of-the-year lists are compiled, retrospectives are assembled, Barbara Walters unveils the people that fascinated her, and Oprah tempts us with her favorite things. We look back with sadness at the bad things that happened and with joy at the milestones we accomplished. And as the midnight hour of December 31st approaches, we hope that this arbitrary moment in time, chosen by men centuries ago, will somehow be unique, a marker of change. People make resolutions, to do less of some things and more of others, to be someone other than who they’ve always been, to want less and give more. Some drink and kiss, penned like abused animals in Times Square, others watch fireworks on their TV sets, and some are asleep long before the ball drops. In the end, the new year is always the same, like a bowl of granola: mostly familiar days, one after the other, studded with the occasional sweet surprise or bitter moment.

Happy New Year.

Peanut Butter, Chocolate, and Banana Granola – Adapted from David Lebovitz

Ingredients:

3 cups (300g) rolled oats (not the quick cooking kind)
1 cup (150g) roasted pecans, very coarsely chopped
1/2 cup (70g) sunflower seeds
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup (130g) smooth peanut butter (regular or natural)
1/4 cup (80g) maple syrup
1/4 cup (85g) honey
1/4 cup (60g) packed light brown sugar
2 tablespoons water
4oz (115g) dark chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup (45g) sweetened banana chips, chopped

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 325ºF (165ºC.)

In a large bowl, mix together the oats, chopped pecans, sunflower seeds, cinnamon, and salt.

In a small saucepan, warm the peanut butter, maple syrup, honey, brown sugar, and water over low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture is smooth.

Scrape the peanut butter mixture into the dry ingredients and mix it in well.

Transfer the granola mixture to a baking sheet and spread it in an even layer. Toast the granola in the oven for 25 to 30 minutes, stirring a few times during baking, until the granola is a golden brown. (It will crisp up as it cools.) Remove from oven and let cool completely. Once cool, mix in chocolate and banana chips.

Storage: Store the granola in an airtight container at room temperature. It will keep for one to two months.

Pear Vanilla Jam

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The weather in New York has been crazy. On Christmas eve, the high was 72°F (22°C). That was hotter than the weather in Cyprus! Because of the unusually warm fall, things have been a little strange around here. The grass outside our building is lush and green. The rose bushes a couple of blocks away are still blooming. So have the trees in the park in our neighborhood. The stores are putting all of their winter clothes on sale. Nothing has sold. Fashionistas are apparently freaking out because they can’t wear this year’s winter clothes. Christmas this year felt like an imposter. When people are walking outside in shorts and t-shirts it doesn’t give you quite that holiday spirit (unless you live in LA or Florida I guess).

It’s hard to even enjoy this nice weather, knowing that it may be a harbinger of more extreme weather, super hurricanes, plagues of locusts, alien invasions, and humanity’s annihilation! So prepare yourselves for the apocalypse by making this pear vanilla jam. The recipe is from my friend JC who has been making it for years and generously shared it with me. The jam is lovely and it will keep you well fed in your doomsday bunker.
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Pear Vanilla Jam

Ingredients:

4 lbs (1.8 kg) ripe Bartlett/Williams pears, peeled, cored and diced in small pieces
Sugar, 45% of the weight of chopped pears
Seeds scraped from 1 vanilla pod
1/4 cup lemon juice

Directions:

First, peel, core, and dice the pears. Weigh the diced pears. Place them in a large, heavy pot and add 45% of the weight of the pears in sugar (so if your diced pears weighed 1 kg, add 450 g of sugar).

Add the vanilla seeds and the lemon juice. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Continue boiling for about 20 minutes.

Test the jam by placing a little on a plate that you’ve kept in the freezer. Return to the freezer for 2-3 minutes. Push the jam with your index finger. If the liquid part is wrinkling, the jam is done. If not, boil it for another 5 minutes. Don’t boil it for more than 25-30 minutes. Since the jam doesn’t have added pectin it never gets quite as gel-like as other jams but it’s solid enough to be spreadable.

The jam can be canned for long term storage (in your bunker). Alternatively, you can place it in clean jars and freeze it.

Sweet Potato Cake with Apricots and Raisins

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If you were to travel to Cyprus over the Christmas period, expecting to experience some interesting traditions, unique to the Greek population of the south part of the island, you will probably be disappointed. Christmas in Cyprus is pretty much like Christmas everywhere else. There are Christmas trees and Santa Claus (St. Basil, as he’s known in Greek) and Christmas carols (exactly the same but with Greek lyrics) and tons of shopping. The only things that are perhaps somewhat unique are the traditional stuffed turkey served on Christmas day and the two typical types of cookies made for the season: kourambiedes (very similar to mexican wedding cookies) and melomakarona (cookies soaked in a spiced honey syrup).DSC04442

And then there is Christmas cake, one of the unfortunate leftover traditions from the decades of British rule over the island. It’s a dense, dense, DENSE fruit cake/brick, loaded with dried and candied fruits and nuts, covered with marzipan and then a hard, white icing on top. Before the icing solidifies, the cake is decorated with small Christmas decorations. Almost everyone hated Christmas cakes when I was a kid. And yet, every house would make one or buy one from a patisserie. The only thing we liked as kids was the moment we got to place the tiny decorations over the cake just after my mom iced it, or eating the thin layer of marzipan under that icing.

I guess fruit cakes are just not popular anywhere. In the U.S. they are always the butt of the joke. It’s a shame because a well-made cake with dried fruit and nuts can be wonderful. It doesn’t have to be dark as night or require a hacksaw to cut through it. This recipe is for such a cake. It’s a little boozy and it gets some of its sweetness as well as its tenderness from mashed sweet potatoes. The dried apricots and raisins provide both sweet and tart flavors and the roasted pecans round everything out. The original recipe, from David Lebovitz who adapted it from Alice Medrich, calls for a cream cheese frosting, but I love it just by itself. Perhaps it can become the new and improved Christmas cake.
DSC04451Sweet Potato Cake with Apricots and Raisins – Slightly adapted from David Lebovitz

Makes 2 8-inch loaf cakes

Ingredients:

1/3 cup (2 ounces, 57g) finely-diced dried apricots, preferably California
1/3 cup (2 ounces, 57g) raisins
1/2 cup (125ml) white vermouth
2 cups (8 oz, 225g) flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
6 tablespoons (75g) unsalted butter, cubed, at room temperature
1 cup (200g) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (90g) packed light or dark brown sugar
zest of 1 lemon
1 large egg and 1 large egg white, at room temperature
1 cup (240g) sweet potato puree
1 cup (125g) toasted pecans, coarsely chopped

Directions:

First, marinate apricot pieces and raisins in vermouth for about 30 minutes. Drain, pressing the apricots gently to extract all the liquid. Reserve the liquid.

Preheat oven to 350ºF (180ºC.) Grease with non-stick spray or butter two 8-inch (20cm) loaf pans.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, baking soda, and baking powder.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or in a large mixing bowl using a flexible spatula or spoon, cream the butter with the granulated and brown sugars, and lemon zest, until smooth and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg and the egg white and combine thoroughly. If using a stand mixer, stop the mixer and scrape down the side to make sure everything is incorporated. (The mixture may look curdled, which is fine.)

Mix in half of the flour mixture, then the drained vermouth and sweet potato puree, then the rest of the dry ingredients. Stop mixer as soon as they are incorporated (do not overmix). Stir in the nuts and apricots with a spatula.

Divide the batter into the prepared pans, smooth the tops, and bake about 55 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove from oven and cool for 15 minutes before removing onto cooling racks and cooling completely.