Thursday, May 30, 2013

Honey Lavender Cookies with Pistachios

I am sure I am not unique in finding baking therapeutic. When things are not going the way I'd like, it is very comforting to go to the kitchen and bake something. I know it sounds funny, but it's a great activity that keeps my hands busy and puts pleasant thoughts in my head. I love the magic of combining a bunch of dry ingredients with a bunch of wet ingredients, subjecting them to some heat and poof! You have a completely new product with a completely different texture. Besides, it is not just any product, it is something sweet and delightful. A treat. So here's to the magic of baking!

These cookies came about when I was flipping through the Oprah magazine and saw a bunch of recipes that use such natural sweeteners as maple syrup, honey and agave syrup. Now, I am not a fan of healthy baking. I think that trying to make desserts healthy by taking away fat and sugar defeats the purpose. The taste almost always suffers, and what's the point in eating desserts of not for their wonderful taste? Surely not to keep yourself healthy!

However, I HAVE baked with honey (my very popular and much pinned Winnie the Pooh cake, for example), and I do like how it behaves in baked goods. So I decided to give a shot to using it in cookies. I needed to find something to flavor the cookies with so as not to have them taste too plain. My first thought was black sesame seeds (like in one of my favorite coffee cakes which I now realize I have not written here about :)). But then I remembered lavender. Lovely flavor, if you ask me. The key here is not to overdo it lest your cookies will remind you of lavender soap :).

So here I present to you honey lavender cookies. Their sunny complexion comes from cornmeal, which also gives them a slight bite.

Honey Lavender Cookies

Makes 32

2 sticks (226 gr) butter, melted and cooled
3/4 cups honey (spray the inside of the measuring cup with baking spray to avoid sticking)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 egg yolks
2 cups flour
2/3 cups cornmeal
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon dry culinary lavender, rubbed between fingers
1/2 cup chopped pistachios

In medium bowl combine butter, honey, vanilla and egg yolks. In separate bowl combine flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt and lavender. Combine the two mixtures. Refrigerate the batter for about 30 minutes, until stiff enough to shape into balls.

Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper. Preheat oven to 350F (180C).

Shape dough into 32 balls, dip the top of each ball into chopped pistachios. Place on baking sheets 2 inches apart to allow for spreading. Bake 13-15 min, cool on rack. The cookies taste best on the same day they are baked.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Stuffed Bell Peppers

Right now I am in the middle of the 5 minutes in my life where I feel completely caught up. A magical moment. The kids' school and extra curricular activities are up to date, all the demands of teachers and coaches met (I think?). Clients lined up to keep me busy at work - which is an amazing thing for a freelancer as you never feel you can relax and not worry about your next gig. I even exercised this morning with a clear conscience and painted my nails a lovely candy color (blueish lilac, if you must know). Life is good. I want to remember this moment.

And what about the food? Ah, of course, food. How about we talk about stuffed peppers? Those are extremely popular in Russia, especially in the summer months, when bell peppers are abundant. It is the smell of my childhood summer weekends: bell peppers being cooked by my mom, then served with sour cream. Bell peppers are different in Russia from what we see here in regular supermarkets: they are longer, more delicate and have thinner skin. They are usually referred to as "sweet peppers" or "Bulgarian peppers."

This is not my mom's recipe. My mom cooked a very simple version: ground meat (beef or pork) and rice stuffed inside peppers and stewed with tomatoes. This version has added cheese to bind the filling together and instead of stewing them we will bake them. Because American bell peppers are so thick-skinned we will have to pre-cook them in water - a trick I learned from a cookbook.

Stuffed Bell Peppers

1 tablespoon salt
4 bell peppers, cored
1/2 cup white rice
1 tablespoon oil
1 onion, peeled and diced
3 garlic cloves, pressed through garlic press
~3/4 lb ground beef
 1 can (14.5 oz, 450 gr) can diced tomatoes, drained
1 1/4 cups (140 gr) grated cheese, such as Cheddar and Monterey Jack
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 tablespoon chopped dill
freshly ground black pepper

In a pot, bring to boil enough water to cover the peppers. Add salt and peppers and cook about 3 minutes, until soft. Remove with slotted spoon and let cool. In the meantime, cook rice in the same water the peppers were cooked in, for about 13 minutes. Drain.

Preheat oven to 350F (180C). Saute onions in oil until translucent, add garlic and cook another minute. Add ground beef and cook until brown, breaking up lumps. Mix this mixture with rice, tomatoes, cheese, parsley, dill and pepper. Divide this filling between the 4 peppers. Sprinkle more cheese on top if desired. Bake about 25-30 minutes. Serve with sour cream if you desire authentically Russian experience :).

Monday, May 6, 2013

Fudgy Chocolate Chip Cookies

I've really been struggling with photographing these cookies. Chocolate is generally tricky to photograph, but it is especially the case with these cookies. How do you convey their dark, intense chocolate-ness (bumped up by adding coffee into the mix) and their soft, almost fudge-y texture? Well, anyway, here it is. I can wait no longer. I must share, good photos or not. For a few years now I have been baking these cookies several times a year, getting *rave reviews* (pardon the cliche). They also freeze well. I found the recipe in my go-to book Baking Illustrated from America's Test Kitchen and modified/simplified it over the years (those guys are way too meticulous when writing their recipes!).

Are you all ready for summer? It's almost here! Wishing you a great, sunny and bubbly week.

Fudgy Chocolate Chip Cookies

Makes about 3.5 dozen

16 oz (450 gr) dark baking chocolate, chopped, or semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 cups flour
1/2 cup cocoa powder (preferably Dutch-processed)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 teaspoons instant coffee
10 tablespoons (150 gr) butter, softened
1 1/2 cups brown sugar (light or dark), packed
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips

Melt chocolate in microwave and let cool. Mix the next 4 ingredients in a separate bowl, set aside. In a small bowl or cup lightly whisk eggs with vanilla and coffee, set aside. Using electric mixer, cream butter with brown and granulated sugar until fluffy. With the mixer running, add the egg mixture, then chocolate. Beat until combined. Add four mixture, mix until just combined (do not overmix). Mix in chocolate chips.

Refrigerate batter for 30 min to let it thicken. In the meantime, heat oven to 350F (180C) and line 3 large baking sheets with parchment paper.

Using 1 3/4 inch spring loaded ice cream scoop, shape cookies placing them at least an inch apart (to allow for spreading). Bake 12 minutes (the cookies will be very soft in the center). Allow to cool on sheet for 10 minutes, then transfer to wire racksto cool completely.

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