Croatian Octopus Salad

September 23rd, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

I like octopus. It’s a smart, wily mollusk and it can accomplish things, including opening jars and taking apart clam and coconut shells, that I sometimes struggle to do. Because I admire its intelligence and respect that it has been mismanaged as a food source, I generally avoid eating this extraordinary creature. However . . .

A few weeks ago I was traveling around Croatia where octopus was a mainstay of restaurant menus. Although I hadn’t expected to encounter it so frequently, its prevalence shouldn’t have surprised me; seven species of this cephalopod exist in the Adriatic Sea alone. With a variety of octopus swimming off the Dalmatia Coast and seafood playing such a prominent role in Croatian cuisine, its popularity now seems obvious.

In Croatia octopus features in such dishes as hobotnica ispod peke, or octopus beneath a lid, and hobotnica sala, octopus salad. The latter is what I tried at a picturesque waterfront restaurant in beautiful Dubrovnik. While usually served as an appetizer, this salad is filling enough to be eaten as a main course.

Serves 4 to 6

2 pounds octopus, preferably sourced from Portugal or Spain and caught by trap or pot
1 pound potatoes
2 teaspoons salt, plus more for seasoning
2/3 cup olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons capers, drained and rinsed
1 small red onion, halved and thinly sliced
Ground black pepper, to taste
Bibb lettuce, for serving

Fill a medium stockpot with water and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and bring it to a boil over medium heat. Add the octopus and allow it to cook for 45 to 60 minutes or until tender when probed with a fork.

While the octopus is cooking, bring a small stockpot filled with water to a boil. Add the potatoes and 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook until fork tender, 20 to 30 minutes. Drain the potatoes. Allow them to cool slightly before peeling and cutting them into small cubes.

Whisk together the olive oil, red wine vinegar, garlic and capers. Set aside.

Drain the octopus. Rinse it in cold water and dry it with a clean cloth. Octopus dried, slice it into 1/2-inch pieces.

In a large bowl toss together the cubed potatoes, octopus and sliced onion. Pour the dressing over top and toss again to combine. Taste and add salt and ground black pepper to taste. Serve atop a bed of Bibb lettuce.

Fruits of the Forest Tartlets

August 17th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Fruits of the forest tartlet with pitcher of sauce

It’s time, once again, to talk about elderberries. Back in season and growing with a vengeance on an old friend’s farm, they present me with the annual challenge of what to do with quarts and quarts of bold, earthy fruit.

Loads of elderberries to be picked

Last year I featured these tiny, bluish-black berries in a colorful sweet that I’d dubbed “Elderberries and Cream.” Consisting of stewed elderberries layered between white bands of homemade, vanilla-laced whipped cream, this uncomplicated dish was perfect for elderberry fans. Unfortunately, those preferring a milder last course were better off just skipping dessert for Elderberries and Cream was a heady, strong-flavored confection.

Berries of the forest—blackberries, elderberries, raspberries, strawberries and blueberries

This year I’ve opted for a treat that will satisfy a variety of tastes. Rather than only showcase elderberries, I’ve gone for all of summer’s fabulous foraged fruit—or at least all that I can pick at my friends’ farm—and made a dessert with the “fruits of the forest.” Years ago a family friend introduced me to fruits of the forest pie at the Tavern in New Wilmington, Pa. The memory of that deliciously complex slice of pie and the thought of writing a recipe inspired by several lifelong friends serve as the basis for the following Fruits of the Forest Tartlets.

Makes 12 mini tarts

2 cups blueberries
1 1/2 cups blackberries
1 1/4 cup raspberries
1/2 cup strawberries, quartered
1/2 cup elderberries
3/4 cup sugar
1 sheet puff pastry, defrosted
Whipped cream, for serving

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a 12-cup muffin tin and set aside.

Place the fruit and sugar in a large saucepan and bring them to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and allow the fruit to simmer for 10 minutes or until the berries have released their juices and have softened.

Using a slotted spoon, remove the fruit and place it in a bowl; by separating the fruit from its juices, you ensure that you won’t end up with a soggy tart crust. Bring the remaining liquid to a boil again and allow it cook until it has reduced in half and thickened, 10 to 15 minutes.

Lightly flour a clean work surface and then roll out the puff pastry with a rolling pin. You want it to be about 1/8-inch thick. Using a sharp knife, cut the pastry into 12 same-sized rectangles or squares.

Puff pastry in a muffin cup

Place a square of pastry into each cup of the muffin tin. It’s fine if some pastry hangs out of the cup.

Using a knife, poke holes into the bottom and side of the pastry so that it doesn’t puff up too much when baked. Place the muffin tin in the oven and bake the pastry for 5 minutes. Remove from the oven and spoon equal amounts of fruit into each lightly baked cup.

Fruits of the forest spooned into a lightly baked pastry cup

Return the muffin tin to the oven and bake the tartlets for 15 minutes or until the pastry is golden in color. Remove the pan from the oven, place it on a wire rack and allow the tartlets to cool for 10 minutes before lifting each from the pan and placing in bowls. Spoon the reduced berry sauce over the top of the tartlets. Top with whipped cream and serve immediately.

Sweet and Sour Cucumber Salad

July 21st, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

What’s summertime if not the time to throw theme parties? That’s my motto! With that in mind I recently subjected friends to a night of Danish food and activities. Yes, when torturing friends with vacation photos just isn’t enough, there’s “A Night of Danish Delights.”

Lots of Carlsberg lager, akvavit and other Danish delights at Danish night

Recalling the surprising number of ping pong and badminton clubs seen throughout Denmark, I included ping pong, badminton and a Lego building competition on the activity list. Why Legos? Well, Denmark is the birthplace of Legos. Besides, how often can I justify playing with 6 pounds of colorful toy bricks? Never!

Danish-inspired buffet table

Denmark is also home to such culinary specialties as pickled herring, smoked salmon, smørrebrød, hearty rugbrød or Danish brown bread, danishes and hindbærsnitte. They, along with Danish tilsit, blue and havarti cheeses, starred in the evening’s menu. So, too, did steamed, heads-on shrimp. As you might expect, these appealed to a select few. There is something about having your food stare back at you . . ..

Heads-on shrimp in Skagen, DK

Far more approachable were the refreshing summer salads of seasonal berries and sweet and sour cucumbers. Taken from Camilla Plum’s The Scandinavian Kitchen cookbook (Kyle Books, 2011), sweet and sour cucumber salad is a particular favorite of mine. Even if I hadn’t focused on Danish cuisine, I would have made this light, flavorful dish. It’s the ideal summertime salad and a snap to create.

Sweet and Sour Cucumber Salad

If you own or can borrow a mandoline, use that to cut the cucumbers. With a mandoline you’ll save time and create beautiful, uniform slices for the salad. Don’t despair if you can’t track down this tool. A sharp chef’s knife and attentive slicing will also do the trick.

From Camilla Plum’s The Scandinavian Kitchen
When refrigerated, this salad will keep for several weeks.
Serves 4

1/3 cup water
1/3 cup cider vinegar
4 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon coarse sea salt
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
2 small cucumbers

Place the water, vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper in a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. As the marinade is heating, thinly slice the cucumbers and place them in a bowl. Pour the hot liquid over the cucumbers. Cool before serving.

Danish Raspberry Slice or Hindbærsnitte

July 6th, 2015 § 1 comment § permalink

Hindbærsnitte from Holms Bager, Copenhagen

Hindbærsnitte is the latest addition to my ever-growing list of international dessert crushes. Some people liken it to homemade Pop Tarts. Others equate it to thumbprint cookies. Neither comparison comes close to the sweet splendor of this lovely Danish cookie.

To further illustrate the composition of a hindbærsnitte, I forced myself to take several bites.

Inspired by Viennese confections, hindbærsnitte was born in Copenhagen in the late 1800s. The legend goes that in 1850 Danish bakers went on a long-term strike over unfair wages. To keep the country in breads and sweets, bakers from Austria were hired to fill the vacancies. Their time in Denmark and the culinary traditions that they shared would influence the creation of many Danish baked goods, including hindbærsnitte. With its flour- and almond-based dough and thick, fruity filling this cookie does remind me of such Austrian specialties as Linzer tortes and augens.

Hindbærsnitte or Danish raspberry slice in true slice form in Skagen.

The literal translation of hindbærsnitte is raspberry slice. Its name more or less explains the treat — baked cookie dough blanketed by raspberry preserves, topped with another sheet of baked dough and then sliced and iced or iced and sliced. The order of the last two steps is interchangeable. Keep in mind, though, that if you slice after icing, you may get jam on your icing. However, if you ice after slicing, the icing may ooze over the cookies’ sides and make them sticky to the touch.

My ragged-edged hindbærsnitte.

To fill the hindbærsnitte, either use good quality, store-bought jam or make your own raspberry preserves.

Makes 3 dozen cookies

for the raspberry jam:
2 cups black or red raspberries
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice

for the dough:
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
2/3 cup ground almonds
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/3 cup butter, chilled and cut into chunks
2 eggs, whisked
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups raspberry preserves, homemade or store-bought

for the icing:
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
1 tablespoon orange or lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
Crushed pistachios, optional, for decorating
Sugar sprinkles, optional, for decorating
Grated orange zest, optional, for decorating

If making your own jam, place the sugar, berries and lemon juice in a large saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Cook for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the berries have released all their juices and the liquid has cooked down to a thick syrup. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the jam to cool to room temperature.

Whisk together the flour, sugar, almonds and salt. Using a pastry cutter or fork, incorporate the cold butter chunks, mixing until a crumbly dough forms (see above). Add the eggs and vanilla. With a spatula or your hands mix the ingredients together until a soft dough forms. Shape the dough into two balls, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for a minimum of 1 hour or maximum of 24 hours.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Lightly dust a clean work surface and rolling pin with flour. Roll out the first ball of dough until it’s rectangular in shape and roughly 1/4-inch thick. Trim off the ragged edges and place the dough on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Repeat with the other dough.

Bake for 12 to 15 minutes or until the edges are golden in color. Remove the dough sheets from the oven and allow them to cool completely.

Once the dough has cooled, spread a generous amount of jam over one sheet. Place the other sheet on top of the jam-covered sheet. At this point you’re ready to ice your cookies.

To make the icing, whisk together the confectioner’s sugar, juice and vanilla extract. Spread the icing over the top of the dough. Allow the icing to harden before cutting the cookies into rectangular slices and then decorating with crushed pistachios or sugar sprinkles or grated zest or whatever strikes your fancy.

How To Pack Lightly

June 17th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

However tempting it may be and however well prepared he may seem, if you want to save space, don’t pack the family cat.

Food fans, hold onto your forks and knives. This week I’m switching gears to discuss another passion of mine, travel. Because I enjoy traveling so much more without the burden of a huge, heavy suitcase or backpack to lug around the globe — and because a friend recently mentioned that she needed to learn how to pack lightly — I thought that I’d impart a few packing tips. So, for all those wondering how to manage three weeks or just three days with only a small carry-on bag …


*Ziploc bag with TSA-approved size (3-ounce) containers of conditioner, deodorant and sunscreen. Although I love my brand of shampoo, I figure that hotel shampoo is fine when combined with my usual conditioner. The Ziploc bag also contains Ibuprofen, a sheet of Benadryl (great for allergies, restless nights and allergic reactions), a few tablets of Immodium (the victim of food poisoning’s friend), loose Band-Aids, small hair brush, toothbrush, toothpaste, facial soap and tweezers. What the bag doesn’t contain are bottle openers, pocket knives, scissors or any liquid over 3 ounces. The TSA has enough of those items already.

*Underwear — Take quick-drying underwear that can be hand-washed and dried overnight.

*Socks — For warmer climates I toss in a three pairs of tennis socks to wear with sneakers. (Yes, you read that correctly. Sneakers.) For cooler days I have three pairs of SmartWool socks. I like this brand because its socks aren’t bulky but still keep my feet cushioned and toasty. If I’m headed to a wintry destination, I also include a pair of tights to wear with a skirt or beneath pants for added warmth.

*1 pair of pajama bottoms & 1 or 2 long-sleeved, quick-drying t-shirts — A pajama set tends to be cumbersome so I take the pants and partner them with long-sleeved t-shirts. If I’m in a cold climate, I wear these Ts under sweaters, too.

*1 pair of black pants — Keep it simple and pack black, which doesn’t show stains and can be dressed up or down for any occasion. As with the underwear, make sure that you can wash these either in a washing machine or sink and have them dry enough to pack or wear again within 24 hours.

*1 pair of jeans — For cooler places only. Heading to the South, South America or the Sahara? Pack a pair of lightweight, quick-drying pants instead.

*1 black cardigan sweater — Keeps me warm on the plane, in drafty buildings and during unseasonably chilly days. Depending upon the season and destination’s climate, I pick either 100% cotton or wool, specifically merino or cashmere. These fabrics are breathable and don’t take up much space. Once again, I choose black because it goes with everything, hides stains and tends to be dressier yet less memorable and tiresome than a bold colored or geometric patterned sweater.

*1 skirt or simple dress — If I take a dress, it’s a black dress that can be worn sightseeing during the day and dressed up with a scarf, bracelet or necklace for an evening out. If I’m traveling to a conservative locale, this dress will fall below my knees and have long sleeves. With a skirt I go for practical knee-length.

*1 simple dress-up/dress-down black shirt — Wardrobe staple. I wear it under the black cardigan and with black pants, a skirt, jeans or quick-drying pants.

*1 to 3 wrinkle-proof tops/shirts — Color and style is up to you. Just be sure that these tops don’t require dry cleaning, ironing or any fussy treatment. If you’re traveling in brisk weather, be sure that these shirts can be worn beneath sweaters.

*1 fleece zip-up or heavy wool sweater for cold trips only — Layers, layers, layers. That’s how you stay warm in the Swiss Alps and Scottish Highlands in February and in Iceland in May. Bring along a fleece zip-up or heavy wool sweater to put over your shirt and cardigan. It may sound unfashionable but it serves the purpose, which is to stay warm.

*Accessories — Keep this simple as well. One to two pairs of earrings. A necklace or bracelet. Note, that if you’re spending three weeks trekking through the desert, mountains or jungle, leave the jewelry at home. If I’m off to a chilly land, I toss in a scarf that can be worn for warmth and to spruce up my black wardrobe.

*1 pair of sneakers — It seems taboo to be an American wearing sneakers but, thanks to a lifetime of bad knees, I’ve learned to add a pair of running shoes to my suitcase.

The complete outfit: Unglamorous but functional, it prepares me for a range of temperatures, weather and activities in Copenhagen, DK and elsewhere.

*1 pair of comfortable boots or sandals — If I’m not headed somewhere sultry, I throw on a pair of well-worn, water-proofed Frye boots for my journey. You don’t have to splurge on Fryes or even pack boots. Just take something comfortable, proven to hold up over miles of walking and that can be worn anywhere with anything.

*1 bag of almonds — Placed in my camera bag, which is my personal item on the plane.

*2 to 3 PB & J sandwiches — I’ve never had any luck with airplane food so I take along PB&Js for the flight. These go in my camera bag.

*Travel journal, novel, guidebook, pen, sunglasses, Altoids — They also go in my camera bag.

Along with my inflatable travel pillow, camera, camera charger, phone, phone charger, passport and wallet with a credit card, debit card and driver’s license, these are all that I take on a trip.

I don’t bother with a hairdryer. Hotels, B&Bs and private residences invariably have them. I likewise don’t fuss with umbrellas or multiple coats. Whatever jacket I wear onto the plane is what I’ll wear throughout my journey. Soap for washing clothes? If the rented apartment has a washer and dryer, it has laundry detergent, too. I also don’t bother with boxes of cereal, granola bars, etc. Whether in Cairo or Cleveland, I’m able to stop at a market and buy these goods.

By packing lightly, I don’t check a bag and therefore don’t have to worry about having my luggage lost or delayed for days. That has happened one too many times for me. Likewise, I don’t have to drag a heavy suitcase onto trains and buses, in and out of cars and up and down staircases and cobbled streets. Truly, no one, not even my traveling companion(s), cares what I (or you) wear on the road. Treat yourself and travel lightly. It makes the journey much more pleasant and freeing.

Pickle That Herring!

June 5th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Over the years of cooking, eating and writing about seafood I’ve developed a fascination with herring. Rich in flavor and high in omega-3 fatty acids, this ancient creature has sustained mankind for thousands of years. Small but mighty, it has been the foundation of such major cities as Amsterdam and also the root of such battles as the Anglo-Dutch Wars. Yet, in America most people don’t give this silvery fish a second glance. However, if you’re in Denmark, where I recently spent the past few weeks, you’ll get to know herring quite well.

It’s been said that the Danes have more pickling cures for herring than they do days of the year. I can believe this for, during three trips that I’ve made to Denmark, I’ve sampled at least two dozen types of tart and velvety pickled herring. Curried herring. Herring with dill and capers. Herring in cream sauce. Herring marinated in wine. Herring marinated in sherry. The list goes on and on.With so much pickled herring being commercially produced, people tend to buy rather than preserve their own fish. You can, however, make this delicacy at home. All that you need are herring fillets, vinegar and spices, herbs or other flavoriing. If you’d like to try your hand at pickling, click on this link for a recipe for Branteviks Herring at Zester Daily.

Silde, or herring, fillets in Copenhagen, DK

Why such an obsession with herring? During the Middle Ages freshly caught herring from the Baltic and North Seas became a driving force of Denmark’s, and much of Northern Europe’s, economy. Today, the country’s northernmost city, Skagen, remains a major presence in this industry.

Fishing vessel, with nets, in Skagen, DK

What do people do with all that pickled fish? Serve it on a mixed greens salad, on brown bread or crackers, as a smørrebrød, with hardboiled eggs, chopped and tossed with beets or alongside potato salad. The pairings are almost as unlimited as the cures.

Pickled herring platter in Ribe, DK

1 teaspoon capers, drained and rinsed
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons fresh dill
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/2 cup sour cream
4 slices multi-grain, rye, Danish brown or other hearty bread
4 leaves Bibb lettuce, cut to fit the bread
4 fillets of pickled herring
1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced
2 hard cooked eggs, sliced
4 to 6 cherry tomatoes, sliced

Place the capers, lemon juice, dill, salt, pepper, and sour cream in the bowl of a food processor or blender and pulse until well combined.

Spread the sour cream dressing over a slice of bread. Place the lettuce, herring, and equal amounts of onion and egg and tomato slices on top of the bread. Consume using a knife and fork as the Danes do.

Spicy Shrimp Scampi

April 22nd, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Shrimp. It’s America’s favorite shellfish and, by some accounts, the country’s best selling seafood. Most Americans can rattle off at least one beloved shrimp recipe. Along with shrimp cocktail, the dish most often mentioned to me is shrimp scampi.

By definition scampi is not a culinary preparation but instead a small lobster—about 10 inches in length—found from Iceland to Morocco. In French it’s known as langoustine. The Italians refer to it as scampi. Others call it a Norway lobster or Dublin prawn. Yet, in North America, scampi has come to mean sautéing medium- to large-sized shrimp alongside garlic, butter and white wine and then serving the resulting dish over pasta. Go figure!

I’ve mentioned previously how you should purchase frozen shrimp and defrost the shellfish shortly before cooking. That way, you’re not buying already-defrosted-and-languishing-in-a-supermarket-seafood-case shrimp that you’re forced to cook right away. To defrost the shrimp, place the frozen bag in your refrigerator and allow the contents to thaw overnight. If you’re pressed for time, you can place the shrimp in a bowl filled with cold water and allow them to sit for 20 to 30 minutes. Whatever you do, don’t pop them into the microwave and hit the “defrost” button. You’ll end up with rubbery, singed shrimp.

When buying shrimp, I look at the size count. The smaller the count (i.e.16-20, 21-25, etc.), the larger the shrimp. I also get shell-on shrimp. The shells protect the shrimp, add flavor and can be used to make a delicious seafood stock. I likewise try to buy deveined shrimp. Although it’s not necessary to devein small shrimp, which are those falling into the 51-60 count and higher, keep in mind that, when you devein, you’re actually removing the shrimp’s intestinal track. Aesthetics aside, the vein does make some diners a bit squeamish.

This brings me to Spicy Shrimp Scampi. My version of the American favorite includes a touch of heat, courtesy of red pepper flakes, and, thanks to dried herbs, a bit of complexity. I also replace the butter with extra virgin olive oil.

Serves 4

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
2 pounds (26-30 count) frozen shrimp, defrosted and peeled
4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
2 teaspoons dried marjoram
1 1/2 teaspoons dried parsley
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes or to taste
1/4 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 pound cooked linguine or fettucine, optional, for serving

Place 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil in a large sauté pan and heat on medium-high. Once the oil is shimmering and hot, add the shrimp and garlic. Reduce the heat to medium.

Cook the shrimp for 2 minutes before turning them over and allowing them to cook on the other side for another minute.

Add the dried herbs, red pepper flakes, remaining olive oil and wine and toss to combine. Simmer the ingredients together until all the shrimp have curled slightly and turned coral in color, 1 to 3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat. Pour the scampi into a large bowl or toss it together with the pre-cooked linguine. Serve hot.

Toasted Almond Joy Aquavit

April 8th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

It has become a beloved, albeit unusual, Easter tradition. For the past few years on Easter eve my husband and I have gathered together with friends to nosh on such Scandinavian specialities as gravlax, pickled herring, rye crisps and pickled beets and sample each other’s take on infused vodka or, as we like to call our creations, homemade aquavit.

In the past I’ve made sweet concoctions such as raspberry and apple pie aquavits. This time around I decided to take a savory approach and steep bouquets garnis of chopped sun-dried tomatoes, marjoram and crushed red peppercorns. I assumed that the resulting liquor would go well in Bloody Marys or on its own as a Mediterranean-inspired libation. Unfortunately, my pairing resulted in a decent drain cleaner but an atrocious smelling and tasting drink.

Luckily, we had a Plan B and Plan C in place. A few weekends before the fete my husband drove to our old neighbors Frank and Jane’s farm and dug up some roots from a sassafras tree. Ever hear of sassafras? It’s the stuff from which our ancestors brewed root beer and sassafras tea. Our goal was to clean, chop and add the roots to vodka for a fabulous sassafras liquor. Great booze we did get but we also crafted something that, according to our friend Jane, could poison everyone. The FDA and online sources such as WebMD state that sassasfras contains the chemical safrole, which, in large amounts, can be toxic to consume. Since no one wants to inspire a Jonestown kind of night, I dug out the ingredients for Plan C, Toasted Almond Joy Aquavit. Made from toasted blanched almonds, vanilla bean pod, simple syrup and vodka, it offered a safe, albeit, sweet alternative to “Sassafras Suicide.”

As with any infused liquor, the longer that you allow the nuts and vanilla to steep in the alcohol, the stronger the resulting flavor will be. If you are extremely time-pressed, you can add a smidgen of almond extract to the mixture to boost the flavor of the Toasted Almond Joy Aquavit. Even then, you should allow at least a week or more for the ingredients to meld together.

Makes 4 cups
Note: Takes a minimum of 2 weeks to infuse

for the liqueur:
1 cup blanched almonds, toasted and roughly chopped
2-inch vanilla bean, split
3 1/2 cups potato vodka
1/4 to 1/3 cup simple syrup (see below for recipe)
1/2 to 1 teaspoon almond extract, optional and to taste

for the simple syrup:
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup water

Place the almonds, vanilla bean and vodka in a large, lidded jar. Stir the ingredients together, put on the lid and place the jar in a cool spot. For the next two to four weeks shake the jar at least once/day to stir the ingredients together. As time passes, the vodka will change from transparent to a murky golden yellow.

When you are ready to decant the liquor, you will need to make the simple syrup. To do this, place 1/2 cup sugar and 1/2 cup water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Stirring frequently, allow the sugar to dissolve and the liquid to reduce slightly, 1 to 3 minutes. The liquid should remain clear and not begin to color. Remove the pan from the heat and cool the syrup to room temperature.

Once the liquid has cooled, add 1/4 to 1/3 cup simple syrup to the vodka mixture and stir vigorously to combine. Taste and add more simple syrup if desired. If you are adding the optional almond extract to the liquor, do so at this time, tasting and adding more as needed.

Line a funnel-shaped strainer or colander with a folded piece of cheesecloth. Placing the strainer over another large jar or container, pour the aquavit through the strainer and into the new jar. Discard the cheesecloth containing the nuts and vanilla bean.

Using a funnel, pour the strained aquavit into a bottle or another lidded jar. Seal and refrigerate the Toasted Almond Joy Aquavit until cold.

Frisian Sugar Bread for Easter & Beyond!

March 23rd, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

I may have visited the Netherlands twice, roamed around the Dutch-influenced areas of Belgium as many times and even have Dutch friends but, until recently, I’d never tried Dutch Frisian sugar bread. A specialty of the northern Dutch province of Friesland, suikerbrood or sugarbread features spices and a generous amount of the large, coarse, stark white sugar known as pearl sugar.

As you might expect from a food with “sugar” in its name, this is a sweet bread. Yet, I wouldn’t call it overly saccharine. Eaten at breakfast in the Netherlands, it has a warm, honeyed flavor on par with Danish pastries and cinnamon rolls. When I compare it to such cloying breakfast staples as syrup-soaked pancakes, waffles and French toast, I find this bread to be mild and pleasantly sweet.

Although not part of the pantheon of European Easter breads, Frisian sugar bread would be a fitting addition to any Easter brunch. For those abstaining from sweets or baked goods during Lent, it will be a delicious way to break these fasts. For everyone else it’ll be a scrumptious addition to the holiday feast.
Makes 2 loaves

2 packets dry active yeast
1 3/4 cups milk, warmed
1/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
5 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
8 ounces pearl sugar

Grease a large bowl with canola oil.

Place the yeast and warm milk in a small bowl and allow the yeast to dissolve, about 3 minutes. As the yeast is dissolving, stir the flour, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom and salt together in a large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl whisk together the sugar, egg and melted butter and set aside.

Make a well in the center of the flour and pour the milk into it. Stir the flour and milk together until roughly mixed. Add the butter mixture and stir again until combined.

Using either your hands or an electric stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, knead the dough for 10 to 15 minutes, until a soft, warm dough forms.

Form the dough into a ball and place it in the greased bowl. Cover the bowl with a clean, damp dishcloth, put it in a warm spot and allow the dough to rise until double in size, about 1 hour.

Toss together the pearl sugar and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon. Using either your hands or your mixer’s dough hook, knead the pearl sugar into the dough. (I find that hands usually work better than a dough hook here but the choice is yours.)

Butter the bottom and sides of 2 9″ x 5″ loaf pans. Lightly flour a clean work surface. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Divide the sugar-dotted dough in half and, using your hands, shape into two balls. Place the balls on the floured surface and press each out into a large (about 12 inches in length) rectangle. Taking one of the long ends, roll up the dough into a fat rectangle. Repeat with the remaining dough.

Place the dough rolls into the buttered pans. Place the pans in a warm spot, cover them with a damp, clean dishcloth and allow them to rise for 1 hour.

Place the pans in the preheated oven and bake the bread for 30 minutes, checking after 20 minutes to ensure that the tops aren’t browning too quickly. If the tops look dark, cover them with aluminum foil for the final 10 minutes of baking.

Remove the loaves from the oven and allow them to cool for 5 minutes in the pans. Remove them from the pans and cool the loaves completely on wire racks. Slice and serve with butter and coffee.

Double Chocolate S’mores Cookies

March 9th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

On the whole I don’t find supermarket baked goods all that enticing. The breads usually seem too airy, the cookies too bland, the cakes too slathered with artificially flavored frosting. However, last week, before the most recent, and hopefully last, snow of the season, I grabbed a cookie from my local market’s bakery section. Rather than satisfy my ever-present craving for sweets, it drove me to dig out my measuring cups, electric mixer, pen and notebook and create my own take on a s’more cookie.

What made this particular cookie so special, so inspiring? Sweet without being cloying, chocolaty without being too rich, it struck the perfect flavor balance. Dotted with chunks of graham cracker, chocolate and marshmallow, the cocoa-enriched dough was far more complex and appealing than the usual double chocolate chip cookie. As with its campfire namesake, this cookie was so good that it left me hankering for “some more.” (Yep, that’s how s’mores got their name. You can’t just eat one graham cracker-chocolate bar-toasted marshmallow combo. You always want “s’more.”)

As the first snowflakes began to fall, I darted back out to the grocery store for a bag of mini marshmallows, box of graham crackers and tin of unsweetened cocoa. Back at home, flakes swirling outside the kitchen window, I started working on a recipe for these cookies. With a nod to Westside Market for the inspiration, below is my version of Double Chocolate S’mores Cookies.

Makes 4 1/2 dozen cookies

3 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips, divided
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 eggs
3/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup (5 to 6 sheets) roughly crumbled graham crackers
3/4 cup mini marshmallows

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.

In a double boiler on the stove or in a glass bowl in the microwave, melt the half the chocolate chips and the butter, stirring together periodically until the chocolate has fully melted. Set aside to cool.

In a large bowl sift together flour, unsweetened cocoa, baking powder and salt.

Using either an electric stand or hand mixer, beat together the eggs, sugars and vanilla until light in color, 1 to 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and then add the cooled melted chocolate, beating until well-combined.

Scrape down the sides of the bowl again and add half the flour mixture. Beat until the flour is incorporated, scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the remaining flour. Beat until a soft dough has formed.

Add the remaining chocolate chips, crumbled graham crackers and mini marshmallows and stir to combine.

Shape the dough into 1-inch balls and place the balls on the parchment paper-lined baking sheets, leaving an inch or so between each cookie. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until cookies are firm. Remove the pans from the oven and allow the cookies to cool for 2 to 3 minutes before removing them from the pan and cooling them completely on a wire rack. Repeat until all the cookies have been baked.