Good Cookies Make Good Neighbors

Our upstairs neighbors got married this weekend. They’re good neighbors to have and do things like weed the front garden. They also don’t complain about Lilli, ahem, finding her voice, sometimes in the middle of the night.

Their rehearsal dinner, which they graciously invited us to, was the night before the big day, upstairs at their place.  Not wanting to arrive empty-handed, I decided to bake something for the bride and groom. I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t think of making these – Mexican wedding cakes – immediately. I mean, the word “wedding” is in the name of the cookie!

Mexican Wedding Cakes

It’s a very simple recipe from Favorite Cookie Recipes by Lou Seibert Pappas. I’ve never mentioned this unassuming little book before, but it has my absolute most favorite cookie recipe – a soft, chewy gingerbread – that has yet to make it onto the blog. I’ll try hard this year to change that. In the meantime, let’s talk about these cookies.

Different cultures around the world have similar cookies. Be it Russian teacakes, polvorones in Spain or snowball cookies, they are all full of butter and nuts, topped with powdered sugar. This particular recipe says you can use hazelnuts, pecans or walnuts. I choose pecans, or, as the Southern bride put it when I presented her the cookies “pea-CAHNS.” It turns out her stepmother is of Mexican descent and had actually requested these cookies as part of the wedding celebration.

For the chopped nuts the recipe called for, I ended up giving whole pecans – purchased at Costco – a whirl in the food processor. There were leftover nuts which I stored in a plastic bag and tossed in the fridge. I’ll probably sprinkle them on top of a salad at some point this week. The dough came together very quickly in the stand mixer. Even though the recipe said to stir in the nuts, I added them using the mixer on a lower speed.

For the roll in confectioner’s sugar, I used a large Tupperware container. I choose it because it had a large, flat bottom and had sides to make it a clean toss. The step that took the longest was the shaping of the cookies into little balls, which really didn’t take very long. The result is a really lovely cookie.

Mexican Wedding Cakes from Favorite Cookie Recipes by Lou Seibert Pappas

Ingredients

½ cup butter, room temperature

¼ cup powdered sugar

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/8 tsp. salt

1 cup finely chopped pecans, hazelnuts or walnuts

Powdered sugar for rolling

Directions

Preheat oven to 350.

Beat butter and sugar together until creamy. Mix in vanilla. Add flour and salt and beat until smooth. Stir in nuts. Shape into ½-inch balls. Place on an ungreased baking sheet and bake in 350F oven for 15 minutes, or until lightly browned. Remove from oven and quickly roll hot cookies in powdered sugar. Cool and roll again in sugar.

 

Whiskey A Go Go

Lilli is seven months old, and she’s crawling and trying to stand up. She’s a bit of a handful, and after we get her down at night I have rediscovered my taste for alcohol, which I thought I’d lost during the pregnancy.

The only way I can go to the bathroom.

The only way I can go to the bathroom.

Since I’m getting back into the game, I thought I would consult an expert. Jordan Mackay, the James-Beard-award winning wine and spirits writer for San Francisco magazine. His writing on food, wine, spirits, and beer has also appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Decanter, The Art of Eating, Wine and Spirits, Food & Wine, Gourmet and many others.

Currently, he writes regularly for San Francisco, as well as a monthly pairing column in Cooking Light. His first book, Passion for Pinot, was published in 2009, and his second, Secrets of the Sommeliers (with Rajat Parr– no relation), was released in October 2010, winning the James Beard award in 2011. His latest book, Two in the Kitchen, with his wife Christie Dufault, was published in late 2012. Currently, he is working on a book about Texas barbecue and two more books on wine. He lives in San Francisco.

Jordan MacKay - smaller

Jordan is running a Whiskey Camp seminar at noon on Saturday, September 21 at the 8th annual Newport Mansions Wine & Food FestivalBut if you can’t make it, consider this interview a free preview.

Take me through a whisky tasting: how do you taste it, what are you looking for, and how do you manage to get through without getting blind drunk?

Tasting whisky is a little different than tasting wine, because, for instance, it’s much much stronger. You generally can’t hold it in your mouth as long nor smell it directly. Still, the same principles apply. Here are the things to pay attention to: 

  1. Choose the right glass (a small spirits, cordial, or sherry glass is perfect) and season it with a tiny bit of what you’re about to taste, then toss it and pour an ounce or so.
  2. Smell the whisky. Open your mouth when you inhale through the nose. This will give you some air flow and keep your nostrils from being singed. Sniff once, lightly, to get acquainted. Wait a couple of seconds, then sniff again, more deeply. Repeat as many times as desired.
  3. Taste it. First a tiny taste to whet the tongue and to season your mouth (as you did the glass). Then take a sip. Hold for a few seconds then swallow or spit. Be attentive as the flavors smolder on the tongue. Watch them, see how they morph and evolve. Then drink!

In the past few years we’re seen craft distilling take off, and now distillers like Maker’s Mark are lowering the proof of their whiskys to improve flavor. What’s the next trend you see over the horizon for whisky?

Actually, Maker’s is no longer going to reduce their proof. Speculation was that Maker’s was doing that in order to stretch its dwindling supply in the face of overwhelming global demand. But the backlash against the move by customers forced them to retract the plan.

But other trends I see are greater profiles for Japanese whiskeys, which are really interesting. The Mad Men Effect: More whisky crafted to the assumed tastes of women (read, softer, smoother and rounder). Sia scotch is an example. Beyond that, I see the future ever brightening for Irish whiskey and rye. Overall these are very good times to be a distiller. 

Ice, water, or neat, and why? 

It really depends. I rarely drink whisky neat anymore. A splash of water is my usual method. I do believe it opens up the spirit and makes it more attractive to drink. It might be slightly less intense, but the complexities and nuances are more available with a little dilution. But on a warm day an ice cube can be awfully nice. Seriously, there are no rules, and no one should ever take any heat for drinking a whisky any way they choose. Look, the much maligned whisky highball is all the rage in Japan. And those can be super refreshing. 

You also write about beer and wine and other spirits. What is the best thing you’ve ever drunk?

The best beer I’ve ever drunk was in a can and came from a vending machine in a neighborhood of Vienna was I was 20 and traveling through Europe with a backpack. Such sweet nectar! 

The best wine is usually what I’m drinking with my wife on the weekend when we have dinner together. Her company makes everything taste so much better. 

The best whisky? Well, the Port Ellen 29-year-old (8th release) that we drank in the warehouse of its (long shuttered) distillery on a misty day the Scottish island of Islay was pretty great. 

There are too many great elixirs in my past—and hopefully future—to count. What makes something epic is the setting, the mood, and the people you share it with. I truly believe that. 

Regifting, Sort of.

Recently, someone on our floor at work went to a far off land and brought back a box of dates. (You’ll remember that the boxes of Turkish Delight are brought directly to my desk.) After watching them go untouched for a few days, I took it upon myself to bring them home for a baking project. The result was a date nut bread, which my boss told me it was “the best one she’d ever had”. The New York Times apparently agreed; the title of the recipe is “An Incredible Date Nut Bread”.

a package for marilyn

The recipe calls for pouring boiling water over baking soda, and then pouring the mixture onto the pile of chopped dates and raisins. When The Essential New York Times Cookbook editor Amanda Hesser found this recipe, she wrote food scientist Harold McGee to get his take. He replied: “My guess is that the baking soda step is a quick way of hydrating and softening the fruit, and probably turns the date bits into mush, which would help moisten the cake more than discrete pieces.” McGee also thought the baking soda would help make the cake brown, and indeed, as Hesser puts it, “the cake emerges from the oven dark and tawny.” And I can report that it smelled even better than it looked; at one point the scent of the loaf baking in the oven literally stopped me in my tracks.

steeping the dried fruit

Over Thanksgiving we had a visit with Sylvie and her wife Miriam at Mir’s parents place up in Maine. I had wanted to bring a loaf up as a thank you to our hosts but Syl is deathly allergic to walnuts. As it turns out, so are half of her in-laws, so I think I made the right move. But Mir’s mom said she loved date nut bread, so, using the rest of the purloined dates, I baked her a loaf and sent it to her for Chanukah. It was only after I took it out of the oven that I noticed the title of the December 1977 article from which the recipe came: “Food Gifts You Can Make at Home.”

Baking Notes: I’ve been experimenting with flours lately, and the loaf I sent to Mir’s parents was made with white whole wheat flour. I was a little nervous it would be too dry, but the feedback I’ve received has been very positive. The flour choice is entirely up to you.

An Incredible Date-Nut Bread

Ingredients

1 cup diced pitted dates

¾ cup raisins

¼ cup golden raisins

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup boiling water

8 Tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

1 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 large egg

1 1/3 cup sifted all-purpose flour

¾ cup walnuts, broken into small pieces

  1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9x5x3-inch loaf pan. Line the bottom with a rectangle of wax paper. Butter the rectangle and sprinkle with flour; shake out the excess flour.
  2. Put the dates and raisins in a medium bowl. Dissolve the baking soda in the boiling water and pour it over the date mixture.
  3. Cream together the butter and sugar in a large bowl. Beat in the vanilla and egg. Add the flour and mix well. Add the date mixture, including the liquid. Add the walnuts.
  4. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Place in the oven and bake for 50 to 70 minutes, or until the top of the cake is dark brown and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool for about 3 to 5 minutes, then unmold onto a rack, remove the paper, and let cool.

A Perfect Pear-ing

We had quite a busy Saturday this weekend, starting with a lovely afternoon on Cape Ann. I shared a hay bale and a microphone with some really remarkable women to discuss eating locally at the Rockport HarvestFest. While we were there, we enjoyed lots of local treats like maple-covered almonds, fresh corn chowder and homemade pumpkin whoopie pies.

Then we trucked it back to town for an evening of parties. First stop was our friends’ annual beer and cheese party. What started as a gathering of about two dozen enthusiastic beer geeks six years ago has blossomed into more than 75 people sharing their favorite pairings.

In keeping with the local spirit, we brought a 2-year aged cheddar from Shelburne Farms in Vermont. We paired it with two versions of a saison, a spicy Belgian-style farmhouse ale, by new local breweries: Mystic Brewery in Chelsea and Backlash Beer Co. in Holyoke. And although the most popular accoutrement at the party was a baby (another change over the six years), my special accompaniment was a pear chutney I churned up earlier this week. As I simmered my pears, I thought about how my attempt to prepare a locally sourced dish had ended up involving ground coriander from Asia and lemons from California. Of course, the vinegary relish is of Indian origin and is now the most popular condiment in the United Kingdom.

Me, Maggie Batista, and Jane Ward. Not pictured: Heather Atwood.

Our second party was a 30th birthday for a dear friend, and the chutney did double duty that night as a small gift for him. I had actually tagged this recipe last fall to use as little gifts for friends, but the season slipped by too fast for me. To make sure that doesn’t happen again, I have another half dozen pears resting on my dining room table, just waiting to spruce up anything from a serving of yogurt to accompanying a nice piece of fish.

Pear Chutney from Deborah Madison’s America: The Vegetarian Table (I know, I’ve become a little addicted to this cookbook.)

As Deborah writes, “chutneys are sweet and sours in a single jar. Firm but ripe fruits are the best to use – little Winter Nellis, Anjou, or Bartlett Pears that are a day shy of eating. Peaches and nectarines can also be used for this chutney.”

Ingredients

2 pounds firm pears

½ cup white sugar

1 cup apple cider vinegar

1 cup light brown sugar

½ cup golden raisins

Zest of 1 lemon

1 ½ teaspoons ground coriander

1 teaspoon minced garlic

½ cup peeled and diced or sliced fresh ginger

¾ cup finely chopped white onion

3 dried cayenne, árbol, or other slender dried hot chiles

10 whole cloves

Directions

Peel and core the pears and dice them into small pieces. Put them in a heavy saucepan with the white sugar and place over low heat. Cook until they’ve released quite a bit of juice, 10 to 15 minutes. Stir them a few times while they cook. Drain off the juice and set the pears and juice aside separately.

In a nonreactive pot, combine the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Add the reserved juice, lower the heat, and simmer until fine bubbles dot the surface, about 40 minutes. Add the reserved pears and cook over low heat until the pears are translucent and the sauce is quite reduced and thick, about 25 minutes more. Ladle into a clean jar, cover tightly and refrigerate. They are best served after sitting for at least a day and will keep for up to two months.

Cheap Beets Gift Tip#2: Bring Beer or Cider Instead of Wine

This is one of my favorite beers of all times, but just a warning, it's very very sour.

Flipping through December food magazines, I’ve noticed a trend: recommendations for really good bottles of wine that cost less than $15. Now, I’m not much of a wine drinker — reds give me a headache — but I do like a good bottle of Belgian beer, or a crisp, hard cider. Which leads me to Cheap Beets Gift Tip#2: for the same price you would pay for a decent bottle of wine, you can get a world-class bottle of beer or cider. Continue reading

Cheap Beets Gifts Tip #1: Give a Gift That Can Make a Difference

We didn’t do a lot of gift exchanges last year. The layoff happened only four months earlier, and we were still feeling a little uneasy about how to celebrate the holiday season.

People around us understood. In fact, when I tell people about why I started this blog – to share my stories of our fiscally responsible food budget in the wake of an unforeseen layoff – everyone nods and often replies that their roommate, sister, uncle or they, themselves, just went through, or are going through, a similar ordeal.

Over the course of the next month, I hope to share with you some of the ways we were able to celebrate the holiday season and hopefully inspire you to also think outside the proverbial gift box.

Here’s tip #1: If you would really like to still give a gift this year but your budget is very small, consider making a small donation, in whatever amount you can afford — $5, $10, $18 — to an organization your friend or loved one cherishes. There are so many non-profits and charities that are really hurting in this economic downturn, from your favorite public television station, to your local food kitchen, or Federation, to international organizations like the AJWSOxfam, and the Red Cross. Maybe there’s a synagogue or church your friend loves attending. Maybe they’re very active alumni and would be thrilled if you made a donation in their honor to their university. Whatever the amount, it’s a wonderful way to spread holiday joy without breaking the budget.

My advice is to give it over the phone and insist the organization spend as little as possible on the mailing. Ask if they can send an acknowledgment of the gift over e-mail to cut down on office costs.

Stay tuned to Cheap Beets for more tips for ways to save money during what can be the most expensive time of the year.