Monday, December 21, 2009

1:2:3 improvised christmas cookies

I wanted to make some Christmas cookies today, but I didn't want to go to the grocery store. I had butter, sugar, and flour:  what could I make?

I got out a book I got last summer: Ratio, by Michael Ruhlman.  The premise of this book is that you--yes, you!--can invent recipes. In fact you don't need recipes. You just need ratios. 

Most of the ratios in the book are on the order of x parts butter, x parts flour, x parts egg, x parts liquid.  With these ratios, you have a basic recipe for bread, pasta, pie dough, biscuits, all kinds of cakes and quick breads...and cookies.  The cookie recipe is one of the easiest to remember:  1 part sugar, 2 parts butter, and 3 parts flour.

Note that these "parts" are parts by weight, not by volume.  I have a little digital scale that I got at Walmart.  So for each batch of cookies, I weighed out 30 grams of sugar, 60 grams of butter, and 90 grams of flour.  This made a little batch of about 10 small cookies.

Cookies made with this ratio are shortbreads:  they are not terribly sweet, and there is no egg in them.  A plain cookie of just butter, sugar and flour is.. very plain, but good.  I could actually taste the butter, and I realized that getting good butter might make these cookies a lot better.  (I was just using Land o' Lakes unsalted butter.)  I am going to try that soon.

After trying the recipe first  plain,  I ground the sugar for the next batch with some candied orange peel in the blender, before creaming it with butter and mixing it with flour.  I put an almond in the middle of each of these cookies.  Nice!

I realized I had a little bit of a chocolate bar left, so for the third batch I melted that in the microwave and mixed it with the butter and sugar. You use 1.5 parts chocolate to every part of sugar. (Actually I should have mixed the melted chocolate with the flour first to keep it from melting the softened butter.)  To decorate those, I put a walnut in the middle of each one. How cute!

For the last batch, I really went wild.  I put left-over vanilla seeds in the blender with the sugar, along with some cloves and 30 grams of walnuts.  (You can substitute ground nuts for a third of the flour.)  Also a bit of dried ginger. Ground that up, and creamed it with the butter.  Added a little lemon extract, and some salt.  (A pinch of salt was added to all the batches.)  Then the flour.  This made a crumbly cookie, which I decorated with a bit of blueberry jam when they came out of the oven.

Ruhlman suggests chilling the dough before shaping it into cookies, but I thought it was easier just to do it without chilling.

Wow.  I used up a lot of left-overs in the kitchen and I sort of invented two cookies!  (The other two were suggestions in Ruhlman's book.)


I've been obsessed with panettone this winter.  It started last winter, when I saw a recipe in Gourmet for panettone, or maybe even before that, when a Peruvian friend in Houston gave me one for Christmas.  Peruvians love panettone; it's everywhere at Christmas.  People give each other panettones in gold boxes, and it's better than fruitcake; people actually eat it.

Panettone is originally from Italy.  It's a sweet bread with a lot of egg and butter in it, and it has dried fruit too.  It's a kind of fruity brioche I suppose.

The first recipe I tried this year was from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.  It's easy and pretty good.  You don't have to knead in softened butter; you simply melt the butter and add it to the liquid ingredients before you add the flour. You can use any dried fruit you want. I used sour cherries, blueberries and raisins.  The sour cherries were very good in this bread I thought.  The recipe made enough for three loaves, and you can store in the refrigerator for up to five days and bake a new panettone every day.  I found that the final rise for me was longer than the recipe says; maybe this is because my house is somewhat cold.

I liked the Artisan Bread in Five panettone, but it didn't have the lovely shreddy character of the "real" panettone that you get in a store.  However, later I found a recipe at Wild Yeast that resulted in such a perfect texture and crumb that I almost devoured a whole loaf by myself.  This recipe takes longer:  you make a stiff starter out of your regular sourdough starter, and that takes a whole day; then the first dough takes another 12 hours to ferment.  Finally, the last rise takes four hours, but again, mine didn't rise really enough in that time, and I think I should have left it to rise longer, even though it was sitting on an electric heating pad.  Still it was very, very good, if a little on the sweet side.

To make this recipe, I also made some candied citron and candied orange peel. This was easy.  You just simmer the peels in water for fifteen minutes; then you simmer them in a 1:1 sugar syrup for 45 minutes. Scoop out of the syrup and let dry on a rack.  Sprinkle with more sugar to keep them from sticking to each other.

I still have some of the paper panettone molds, so for my next trick:  chocolate panettone!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Sweet Potatoes in the Snow

My tiny garden in Houston did a pretty good job this fall of growing nutritious food. Two of the most vitamin-packed crops one can grow are sweet potatoes and collards, and my two little raised beds grew both, well.

The sweet potatoes are Garnets.  I planted a whole potato in one of the beds last spring, and it sprouted little plants, which I moved to 12" spacings.  They grew there all summer, completely unattended by me, through a long drought and very hot temperatures.  I dug them right before an unusual frost, in early December. Some winters, the temperature in Houston never goes below freezing, but this time, it not only got cold; it also snowed!  You can see the snow on the collard greens here.

I planted the collard greens in October; they don't do well in hot weather, so I waited until it cooled off some.  At first they had a few problems with bugs, but as the weather cooled, the bugs went away.  They love frost; it  makes them sweeter.