August 25, 2008 Chocolate Chip Cookies
I’ve not been remiss at blogging for lack of good meals, but because we’ve had house guests and we’ve had more sad news: Mikel’s father died on Saturday. That he died a mere month after my own father, from the same type of cancer, is a bit bewildering, to say the least. We’ll be gone to South Carolina for a few days. Last week our friends Robin and Gil Shuler
, two of the most talented people I’ve ever known, were here with their children Nick and Tillye, en route to take Tillye to her freshman year at Pratt. One of the things I made were chocolate chip cookies, which are a sort of iconographic food for Mikel, whose mother’s freezer always holds tins and tins of them.
For years, I tried to get the recipe from Dixie, his mother, who swore to me time and time again that she simply followed the Toll House cookie recipe on the package of Nestlé Semi-Sweet Morsels.
I’ve never had much of a sweet tooth, but I’ve been a chocolate snob since my father first brought us back rich dark candies from Switzerland, Belgium, and Germany in the early 60s. I’ve never cared for milk chocolate, which has always tasted to me the way powdered milk smells. And until the vast improvements in the 90s, I always found the waxy quality and insipid taste of American chocolates inferior. I never liked Nestlé’s chocolate chips. But I made “America’s Favorite Cookie Recipe,” as it’s called on the package, several times, hoping to capture the elusive qualities of Dixie’s. Though I followed the recipe precisely, they never tasted like hers. I finally decided that it was simply because they were Dixie’s that her cookies were better. I couldn’t really have known, though, since I had never eaten more than one or two of them. We were living in South Carolina then, and would often go to her farm in the Pee Dee region of the state for relaxation — and for Mikel to get his fill of cookies. I began tasting them with a cook’s discerning palate. Though I knew she included a cup of nuts in the recipe, and I could taste them, I could barely perceive their physical presence. I asked her if she ground them finely in a food processor, even though I had once witnessed her chopping them by hand with a knife. “I chop them as finely as I feel like it at the moment,” she told me. “The finer, the better, but some times I give out sooner than others.” She lives near the world’s largest seller of pecans, so I bought some freshly-shelled jumbo halves while visiting her and made the recipe, chopping them by hand until they were fine, but not so fine as a food processor would do.
They still weren’t right.
A couple of years went by. The recipe on the package calls for “packed brown sugar.” Light or dark?
Dixie swore it didn’t matter. “Whichever I have on hand.”
I tried half and half. No go.
She sent some to Mikel for Christmas one year, in an old Christmas tin. There’s a piece of masking tape on the top of it that says, “Better if frozen.”
The cookies were delicious, very finely grained and delicate. Aha! I thought. She uses soft southern flour, like White Lily. So I rushed out and bought some, and made a new batch, and put them in the old Christmas tin with Dixie’s handwriting on it. We had guests coming for the weekend, and as I watched Mikel take his first bite of the imposters, I asked him how they were. “Not bad,” was all I got.
“Well, don’t eat all of them, we’ve got guests coming.”
He closed the tin and put it back in the freezer.
“How did they taste?”
They tasted fine, I knew, but, after several days, I got him to explain to me that it was the fact that his mother’s freezer is always filled with them, and that he can eat as many as he wants, whenever he wants, that makes them so special. There really is something deeply maternal going on here, I thought, and, no matter what, mine will never be Dixie’s cookies. I even convinced myself that the tins themselves were what made the difference. At Dixie’s they are all old Tetley Tea tins from the 50s.
So I went online to try to find some, but it was Christmastime and folks were asking $50, $75, and $100 apiece for the tins, obviously capitalizing on the nostalgia factor during the holidays! I had my limits.
At some point last winter, I was chatting with Dixie on the phone and asked her point-blank: Are you SURE you are telling me everything? Do you use a special flour?
“No, I just use SwansDown, the same I always have.”
I could have killed her! All these years I’ve been trying to duplicate a cookie whose formula is a world-renowned, often published recipe that appears on every bag of Nestlé’s chocolate chips. Except one little thing: she uses cake flour!
About the same time, Mikel’s birthday was approaching, so I went back online to see if I could find Tetley tea tins, and, eBay be thanked, I found two for $10, including shipping! I couldn’t find SwansDown, but I did find Pillsbury’s Softasilk®.
I made the cookies, put them in the Tetley tins, and tucked them into the freezer. I let him find them there himself, and even let him think that his mother had sent them. I wasn’t about to tell him that the supply was limited. And he tasted them and smiled. But we both knew: they weren’t Dixie’s. I’ve read the recipe a hundred times. I follow it to a tee. I’m not going to print it here, because you can find it online very easily, or on the Nestlé package.
I do know that Dixie’s are more delicate than mine. Maybe it’s the flour. Maybe it’s the hand-chopping of the nuts, which I let the food processor do, which I know renders them oilier. But I also know that the recipe says to use rounded tablespoons and Dixie’s are more like rounded teaspoons.
And since mine will never be Dixie’s, I’ve also given up the Nestlé for better chocolate chips. The richer chips are creamier and darker and maintain a molten core, even when they’re frozen. I like them, and Mikel tolerates them. They just aren’t his mother’s.
On Saturday evening, after we heard that Mikel’s father had died, we went out to eat at Locanda
, on Capitol Hill, where we had delicious Italian fare — Liliana Dumas’s incredible homemade pasta and the delicious soups and salads of Chef Lonnie Zoeller (formerly at Hook), in addition to some enchanting wines (a 2001 Barbera; two Luganas — one from Brescia, the other from Abruzzo; and Maculan’s flawlesss Dindarello moscato, all recommended by Liliana’s son Michel, the sommelier). More about that meal later. I need to get ready to go to South Carolina.
August 18, 2008 Old-Fashioned Breakfast
When we were in Montana two weeks ago, we had every intention of getting up and making big, old-fashioned breakfasts. But two certain 7-year-olds I know didn’t seem interested. So with the cooler mornings we had this weekend, I even got up and made pancakes one morning — banana pecan pancakes, at that! We drenched them in fig syrup, which is the leftover syrup from canning figs (I gave the recipe LAST August, but it’s simply 2/3 pound of sugar to each pound of figs, cooked at a low boil until the figs are transparent, about an hour. I process them in sterilized jars for 15 minutes. Each pound of figs will make a pint of preserves, plus one more jar of fig syrup.)
Fig syrup is heavenly on these
Most southerners forgo traditional breakfasts these days, but we all enjoy an occasional old-fashioned eye-opener of pancakes and bacon or sausage drenched in good syrup. These buttermilk pancakes are made special with the addition of fruit and nuts, and by using soft southern flour, buttermilk, and baking soda, thay nearly float off the plate. None of those heavy flapjacks from camping trips here!
2 cups all-purpose flour, preferably soft southern flour such as White Lily
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 eggs, separated
2 cups buttermilk
2 tablespoons melted butter
1/4 cup chopped pecans
1 or 2 bananas, peeled
Preheat an oven to its lowest setting. Preheat a well-seasoned griddle to medium hot. In the meantime, sift the flour, soda, and salt. In a small mixing bowl, beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks. In a large bowl, mix the yolks with the buttermilk, then stir in the sifted ingredients. Stir in the butter and the nuts and mix well. Fold in the egg whites.
Ladle batter onto the hot griddle in circles about 4 inches wide and 1/4 inch thick. Slice the banana a little thinner than the pancake and place about 4 slices on each pancake. Cook until the pancakes are full of holes and have begun to brown on the edges. Turn and cook on the other side. Remove the pancakes to a plate and place in the warmed oven while you cook the rest of the pancakes.
Serve immediately with butter and syrup, and breakfast sausage or bacon.
Makes about 12 pancakes or 4 servings.
August 14, 2008
You know how it is when you’ve been on the road: catching up seems next to impossible. Yesterday I went to the big old DC Farmers Market in search of local produce and came home with local eggplant, okra, and crabmeat. Another thing about travelling: you get lazy. Last night I salted the eggplant and let it drain, wiped it dry and lightly coated it with olive oil and ground some fresh pepper on it and placed it under the broiler for a few minutes on each side. The okra I simply steamed in about a half inch of water, then tossed a tab of butter, salt, and pepper in with it after it was done, about 6 minutes. The crabmeat I devilled in this simple recipe:
Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking)
Devilled crabs in the Lowcountry are often called simply “Deb’l.” That there is no salt or pepper in this devil (usually indicating heavy seasoning) can be contributed to the use of seasoning in the water in which the crabs are steamed. Invariable in crab recipes in the South are the names of commercially prepared “crab boils.” But I find the serendipity of the moment, the projected use of the crabmeat, and the bounty of both my herb garden and spice rack at the time of cooking more important than formula. Because I steam the crabs rather than boil them, I am partial to a simple addition of salt and pepper vinegar to the water, though some Lowcountry cooks add mustard, cloves, bay leaves, and allspice.
The following recipe came from my old friend Alice Marks, one of Charleston‘s great cooks who died much too young. Alice packed the devil into crab backs (in Gullah, “barks”) or scallop shells, wrapped them well in aluminum foil, then froze them for reheating later. One filled shell makes a rich appetizer or supper item.
If you are buying crabmeat already steamed, season it heavily to taste with a crab seasoning of your choice or a mixture of salt, cayenne, and pepper.
1 medium onion, chopped fine
4 celery stalks, chopped very fine
1/4 pound butter (1 stick)
8 crushed saltines
1 pound cooked and seasoned crabmeat
half a lemon, more or less to taste
3-6 tablespoons sherry, to taste
8-10 sterilized crab backs or scallop shells
Sauté the onion and celery in the butter until they are very limp. Let them cool completely, then mix with the saltines. Squeeze the juice of half a lemon, more or less to taste, over the crabmeat. Lightly fold the crabmeat into the mixture so that you do not break it up. Season to taste with sherry. Pack into shells and bake at 350o for about 15 or 20 minutes, until just heated through and lightly browned on top.
Fills 6 to 8 shells.
August 8, 2008 in Big Sky, Montana
I’ve been in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming the past week with my dear friend and wine guru Debbie Marlowe
and her family. We’ve been whitewater rafting and hiking and horseback riding and fly fishing (my favorite!) and birdwatching and to Yellowstone, as well as having spa treatments at the lodge here near the top of the mountain in Big Sky at Moonlight Basin. Here are Debbie’s twin grandsons, Brady and Jordan, entering the saloon in the remarkable ghost town, Nevada City, on the other side of the mountain.
We’ve seen elk and deer and a grizzly, as well as a half dozen bald eagles, dozens of ospreys, the glorious western tanager with its red head and yellow body, and many small mammals such as chipmunks and ground squirrels, marmots, and a fisher.
In Idaho Falls, we had a wonderful evening with the crew at MarCellars
, sampling and buying local wines, including the delightful Snake River Barbera from Arena Valley Vineyards
We bought delicious, just-picked produce and free range, natural poultry from the Co-Op in Bozeman, Montana, and we’ve had the delicious local, dry-aged beef as well.
Here are some grilled zucchini, grilled and peeled red peppers with red onions, and some surprisingly delicious hothouse tomatoes with local basil that we had with Tuscan style steaks one night. No real recipes to report, though I did make a soup of roasted chicken stock pureed with potatoes and served with local sausage and Macon-Lugny Les Charmes. It’s a variation of a recipe I published in The New Southern Cook
, for which Debbie wrote the wine recommendations:
Celeriac and Fennel Soup with Sausage
When I wrote The New Southern Cook, celeriac was just starting to appear in grocer’s produce sections, usually only from fall to spring. Now the knobby roots appear throughout the year alongside better-known fennel, which is maddeningly marketed as anise (whose bittersweet, seedlike fruits only vaguely compare in flavor to the crisp celery-like sweetness of fennel). Celeriac and fennel are both delicious raw in salads and slaws or briefly cooked in acidic liquids, but they also marry well in this soup with Italian sausage, whose fennel seeds further underscore the taste of celery.
I cut away the outer layer of the celeriac and place it on top of my hot water heater to completely dry out, then grind it with sea salt to make celery salt without the bitterness of the store-bought kind made with celery seeds.
1 pound Italian sausage, in casing
vegetable oil or bacon grease (optional)
2 cups sliced fennel bulbs (about 1 large or 2 small bulbs)
3/4 to 1 pound celeriac, peeled and cubed (2 to 3 cups)
6 cups chicken stock, divided
1 tablespoon hot pepper vinegar
1 leek, white part only, or 1 large red onion, chopped (1-1/2 cups)
1 pound peeled and diced baking potatoes
2 teaspoons salt
Cut the sausage into 1-inch links and sauté until thoroughly browned and cooked, adding oil or fat to the pan if necessary. Remove the sausage and set aside. Add the fennel, celeriac, 2 cups of chicken stock, the hot pepper vinegar, and the onion or leek to the pot and simmer until the onions begin to become transparent, about 10 minutes.
Add the remaining 4 cups of stock, the potatoes, and the salt and simmer for 45 minutes. Transfer in batches to a food processor or blender and puree. When all of the soup is pureed, return to the pot, and, just before serving, add the sausage and stir together to be sure that everything is warm throughout, reheating gently if necessary.
6 to 8 servings.
As for wine to go with, back when we wrote this book in 1994, Debbie recommended serving the Dry Creek Valley Fumé Blanc. Sauvignon Blanc has never been my favorite grape, but Dry Creek makes a Sancerre-style wine with just the right amount of fruit to offset the hot pepper vinegar in the soup and the heat of the sausage. With our buttery potato soup with beer sausage, the French Chardonnay was a better match.
Montana is beautiful and there are photo-ops at every turn. If you find yourself near Big Sky or Yellowstone, I highly recommend the great folks at Gallatin River Guides if you have any interest in fly fishing. It’s a remarkably zen-like sport that places one in synch with nature. The exhilaration of releasing the sparkling rainbows back into the river is as exciting as catching them, and learning the techniques is rewarding as well.