Tuesday, August 30, 2005

My New Favorite Plum

Actually, I'm not sure I had a favorite before. I preferred red to black, but the grocery store never described them in any more detail, much less named them. But at the farmer's market everything's got a name, and this beauty is called Elephant Heart. Sweet, tangy, and unbelievably juicy, with gorgeous red flesh. I got three in a basket of mixed plums, but you can bet I'm going to buy a whole basket of them next week!

My Favorite Drop Cookies

Chocolate Banana Cookies didn't make my list of favorites, but this is my favorite cookie photo so far

39 different cookies. It's quite possible that I've tried more cookie recipes in the past 10 months than in all the time prior to that. Making a batch of cookies every Sunday evening has become part of the rhythm of my weekends and something that has brought me great pleasure.

Not to say there haven't been some magnificent flops along the way. The ones that come to mind are 24-Karat Cookies and the cookie I will never live down - Poppy-Seed Wafers. There were near-disasters too - those cookies where I had to throw out a goodly portion because they stuck to the foil or burned.

But in between, there have been lots of good cookies and, yes, some mediocre ones. They start to run together after a while, but a few stand out and will no doubt be making encore appearances at my house.

With one exception, what follows is not an ordered list - it's hard for me to compare a cookie I tried two weeks ago with one I tried 6 months ago. There is one cookie that I keep thinking about, though, so I'd have to say that it is my favorite drop cookie. But first, the runners up...

Connecticut Nutmeg Hermits - nothing flashy, but definitely habit-forming

Date-Nut Wafers - sweet, crispy, chewy, with cinnamon, walnuts and dates. What more could you want in a cookie?

Date-Nut Rocks - hmmm... another date-nut cookie, maybe there's a pattern here.

Tijuana Fiesta Cookies - these were such a surprise to me - unusual and unusually good.

Which brings me to my favorite cookie so far...

Pumpkin Rocks - soooo good, wish I had some now. Crunchy outside, soft inside, loaded with nuts and raisins, and topped with a lemony glaze... mmmmm. As I said before, though, there's one caveat: these cookies are really best the day they are made.

Finally, just in case you're late to the party, all these cookies are from Maida Heatter's Book of Great Cookies. All the recipes are also included in a later compilation called Maida Heatter's Cookies. I recommend all Maida Heatter's books, but her cookie book is obviously near and dear to my heart.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Mondays with Maida - Vanilla Butter Wafers

Page 70 in the old book / page 98 in the new book

These cookies were incredibily easy, with just the most basic of cookie ingredients: butter, vanilla, sugar, egg, and flour. And yet, I'm still not sure that they came out the way they were supposed to. I'm certain they didn't end up shaped as Maida intended...

I thought I did "place the dough neatly and carefully", but nonetheless my cookies failed to "bake into perfect rounds". I opened the oven halfway through the allotted time in order to reverse the cookie sheets and was startled to see thin layers of dough floating on top of a sea of bubbling melted butter. Even when the cookies were done, there was still an excess of melted butter. Although the dough contains a high proportion of butter (1/2 cup butter to 1/3 cup flour), the dough appeared to be of a normal consistency before baking. Perhaps the excess butter was intentional (maybe it was necessary to achieve the browned edges?), but it sure turned me off to these cookies.

I came so close to throwing them in the trash - I put them in the storage container, then started to take them out, then put them back in, then stood there undecided for quite some time. At last, I packed them up, having decided that at least I need to get the cookie panel to taste them. When I brought them into work the next day, I handed out cookies to those on the panel and then, after initially hiding the rest in my office, decided to put the cookies out in their regular place (but without the usual email announcement). I was amazed to see that by afternoon, they were all gone.

Even more surprising, they didn't get a zero...

Suzanne: "I enjoyed this thin buttery wafer. It had a hint of lemon in the flavor. It would have been a great cookie if Cathy had put two of the cookies together with chocolate in the middle. Yum! Rating - 3.5"

Denny: "Too much butter, but I like butter and don't eat enough of it. Rating - 3.8"

Terri: "A buttery delight - wafer thin, chewy, and delicious with tea. This would be a good cookie with a fruit dessert. Rating - 3.0"

Phil: "A wafer thin, buttery cookie with an absence of sweetness. Not a first pick but might be a nice accompaniment to a sorbet or coffee ice cream. As wafer cookies go, stick with the praline with pecans or Norman Rockwell oatmeal varieties sampled previously. Rating - 2.8"

Overall rating by the panel - 3.3

That's a wrap for drop cookies! Next week the bar cookies begin with Petites Trianons. The contest was a bust (no entries), but tomorrow I'll tell you which were my personal favorites from among the drop cookies.

Nutrition Facts

Saturday, August 27, 2005


A little while back I made my first Penzeys purchase. I needed a large quantity of poppy seeds (for those awful Poppy Seed Wafers) and had calculated that buying several McCormick's bottles would be more expensive than buying an 8-ounce bag from Penzeys, even with shipping figured in. Of course, that was based on the assumption that I wouldn't go on a buying spree at Penzeys. But how could I not?

Actually, I think I showed admirable restraint. I bought some black peppercorns (which I needed anyway), some shrimp and crab boil (I need to keep working on liking shrimp, don't I?), and four kinds of cinnamon. I don't even remember why I was looking at the cinnamon now, but at some point while reading about the different varieties I decided it would be interesting to try them all and do a little taste test.

As soon as they arrived, I covered each label with paper marked with a letter - A, B, C and D. I put the jars up on a shelf and out of mind.

In the US, the term cinnamon may be used to refer to the bark of several species within the genus Cinnamomum. In fact, most of what is sold as cinnamon in the US is Korintje Cassia (C. burmannii) imported from Indonesia. True cinnamon, or Ceylon Cinnamon (C. verum or C. zeylanicum), is not typically found in US grocery stores, though it may be purchased in specialty shops and can be ordered from Penzeys and similar sites. My order also included China Cassia (C. cassia or C. aromaticum) and Vietnamese Cassia (C. laoureirii). There is another member of the Cinnamomum genus that is used in food - Indian Cassia (C. tamala or C. tejpata) - though it is the leaf of this variety of cassia that is most commonly used.

Cinnamon and cassia have been used in cooking for thousands of years. There are references to them in the Bible, and in Egypt they were used for embalming. They were once very, very expensive - so much so, that elaborate (and untrue) stories arose concerning the effort required to collect the spices. According to Herodotus, cinnamon and cassia were gathered in Arabia, apparently at great peril to those doing the gathering. Cassia was said to grow in a shallow lake with frightful winged creatures roosting nearby. No one knew where cinnamon grew, but the twigs were found in the nests of large birds. The nests were precariously perched on steep cliffs which couldn't possibly be scaled by any man. To collect the sticks, the Arabians would leave large chunks of ox carcass under the nests. The birds would carry these to their nests which would then collapse from the weight, and fall to the ground where the Arabians waited to gather the cinnamon sticks.

Today, cinnamon or cassia sticks come from the inner bark of upper branches and are quite mild in flavor compared to ground cinnamon. The bark used to produce ground cinnamon comes from lower side branches (grade B) or from the main trunk (grade A), which are older and have a much stronger flavor. Higher grades of cinnamon have a higher percentage of volatile oils in them.

Today I finally got around to conducting my taste test. I tried to be somewhat methodical about it. First I sniffed each one to try to characterize the aroma of each. At the same time I took note of the appearance. Then I tried to mix each with some hot water and see which if any "balled up". The reason for this test is that Korintje Cassia has a higher percentage of gum (mucilage) and tends to ball up when mixed with hot water, while the other types form a thick suspension. Finally, I mixed each with some sugar (one part cinnamon to two parts sugar) and tasted.

Clockwise from top left: China Cassia, Ceylon Cinnamon, Korintje Cassia, and Vietnamese Cassia

The Ceylon Cinnamon (C. zeylanicum) was immediately identifiable by its relatively pale color and mild flavor. It has a light, cinnamony flavor but with none of the heat of the other varieties I tasted. Its aroma is very faint, not at all sharp, but recognizably cinnamon.

The Vietnamese Cassia (C. loureirii) was at the opposite end of the spectrum. The aroma didn't seem as sharp to me as the China Cassia, but it was spicy hot to taste! It was my least favorite because I felt the heat overwhelmed the flavor, but the real test would be how it tastes when used in cooking. Interestingly, Penzeys recommends that you use two thirds the amount of cinnamon called for when you use Vietnamese Cassia.

China Cassia (C. cassia) is deep brown in color and has a sharp cinnamony scent. It has a nice, warm cinnamony taste - spicy, but with more of a slow burn. The heat builds in your mouth, but to me was less powerful than either the Vietnamese Cassia or the Korintje Cassia. Penzeys says that this is their best seller that it is spicier than Korintje.

Korintje Cassia (C. burmannii) is what I know as cinnamon. It is medium reddish brown in color and has a bright cinnamon aroma. It has a nice cinnamon flavor with a little fire - spicy and bright.

We've reached the end of my post, but I expect this is just the beginning of the story. I would have liked to have made four batches of cinnamon buns and done side by side comparisons, but that just wasn't feasible. I'll report back from time to time as I use these different types of cinnamon. I'm sure I'll find reasons to love them all!

Monday, August 22, 2005

Mondays with Maida - Tijuana Fiesta Cookies

Page 68 in the old book / page 96 in the new book

Phil suggested that everyone might like these so much because we were on the rebound from those awful Poppy-Seed Wafers. There might be an element of truth to that, but they were awful good. Not only were they good, they were unusual - quite different in flavor from any spice cookie I've ever had.

Because of the unusual spices in this recipe, I was afraid I was setting myself up for another disaster. But I need not have worried, these cookies have a wonderful warm spicy taste. The anise is what you taste first, but it is supported by the ginger and molasses and the other spices (coriander, cinnamon, and cloves) as well, though they are less distinct.

Some people didn't really enjoy the noticeable presence of whole anise seeds and crushed coriander. If you make these (and I recommend that you do!), depending upon your intended audience, you may want to try grinding the anise seed before adding it. I used a mortar and pestle to crush the coriander, but next time I'll probably substitute ground coriander. I did like the whole anise seed though.

I had a little trouble getting the proper consistency for the icing. I used more sugar and less milk than called for and it still wanted to run off the cookies. Next time I think I'll start with 2 cups of sugar and play it by ear with the milk.

It's so nice to have a happy cookie panel again...

Suzanne: "This was a soft cookie with the definite taste of anise. If you don't like licorice you won't like this cookie. The cookie had too many different tastes. I prefer a crunchier cookie. I did like the icing and the pecan on top. Rating - 3.0"

Denny: "Another one that I wouldn't normally like but I rate them a 4. Very good even with the anise which I don't like. Rating - 4.0"

Laura: "Moist, yummy cookies. Loved the spices! Rating - 4.0"

Phil: "A delightful discovery -- soft almost fluffy cookie with a strong melange of interesting spices (aptly refered to as exotic by Maida) with a noticable zip of anise. Seemed to wake up a range of taste buds I didn't remember having. Rating - 4.4"

Overall rating by the panel - 3.9

Next week - Vanilla Butter Wafers

Nutrition Facts

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Pesto Chicken with Yellow Squash

Last weekend my famer's market purchases included some more of those wonderful baby yellow squashes and a packet of basil leaves. Originally I thought I would make pesto chicken with the squash on the side, but then I decided that yellow squash slathered in pesto sounded pretty great too! What I ended up with was chicken and yellow squash in sort of a deconstructed pesto sauce. I liked it very much, though there are a couple of things I would do differently next time. Also, though I really enjoyed the leftovers, this dish is best the first time around when the pesto is still fresh.

Pesto Chicken with Yellow Squash

juice of 1 lemon
2 tbs olive oil
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 pounds boneless chicken breast halves
1 1/2 - 2 oz basil leaves
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
3 or 4 small yellow squash, sliced
toasted pine nuts
parmesan cheese

I was hoping to get nicely carmelized chunks of chicken, so I chose to cut the chicken into approximately 1-inch chunks, marinate them, then thread them on skewers and broil. I did get some nice carmelization, but I also dried out the chicken. Next time I think I would marinate and broil the breast halves and then cut them into chunks after cooking.

Clean the chicken and cut into cubes if desired. Place the breast halves or cubes into a large ziploc bag. Combine the lemon juice with the olive oil, cayenne and salt in a small bowl. Pour the mixture over the chicken in the bag. Squeeze out the air and seal the bag. Smoosh the chicken around so that it is coated all over with the lemon and oil mixture. Lay the bag in a dish so that chicken is in a single layer and refrigerate for 15 to 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the pesto in either a blender or food processor: first process the garlic and basil, then with the blender or processor running, pour in the olive oil through the opening in the top. Season to taste with salt.

Broil or grill the chicken. I sauteed the squash, but if you're grilling, you might grill the squash as well. If you're using breast halves, cut the chicken into 1-inch chunks. Combine the chicken, squash, and pesto. Garnish with shaved parmesan cheese and toasted pine nuts.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Mondays with Maida - Poppy-Seed Wafers & A Contest!

Page 68 in the old book / page 96 in the new book

I won't beat around the bush... these were bad. The recipe calls for 5 ounces of poppy seeds which, with just a cup of flour, is an awful lot of poppy seeds. They are not attractive cookies either. Suzanne thought they looked moldy and someone else said they looked "herby". There are some chopped raisins in them, which provides slight relief from all those poppy seeds, but not enough to make the cookies palatable. Somehow (by the second day) they were all eaten, but I didn't get any positive feedback on these.

The ratings from the cookie panel were the lowest ever. Both Denny and Terri were out, so we're only hearing from three this week (thank goodness!).

Suzanne: "This is not a cookie that you want to immediately pick up and eat. There are so many poppy seed, the cookie looks moldy. It has that grey-green look. The taste is just okay. It definitely has a long lasting taste, since after you finish the cookie, your tongue keeps finding poppy seeds hidden in your gums and teeth. Rating - 2.0"

Laura: "Laura doesn't care for poppy seeds. Thanks anyway. Rating - 1.0"

Phil: "Sometimes that's the way the cookie crumbles -- bitter, bitter, bitter, in spite of an occasional raisin. Even a competent cook could not salvage this dreadful cookie. Plus anyone consuming all those poppy seeds can forget about passing the drug screen for Department of Homeland Security any time soon (if that's your poison). Rating - 0.0"

Overall rating by the panel - 1.0

So, on a more cheerful note... Only two more drop cookies to go! To celebrate the end of the first chapter in the book, I've decided to sponsor a little contest. The prize will be a copy of the old book: Maida Heatter's Book of Great Cookies.

To enter you must write a brief cookie review "in the style of Phil" - whatever you decide that is. You may make or buy the cookie, but the post should include a photo, some background about where the recipe or cookie came from and the review - which you may attribute to Phil if you wish. Email me a link to your post by August 23rd. Phil has kindly agreed to judge the entries. I will announce the winner and post a list of the entries (possibly with some comments from Phil) on Tuesday, August 30th. Please feel free to enter even if you already have a copy of the book - you can give it to a friend or bestow it upon one of the other entrants.

Next week - Tijuana Fiesta Cookies

Nutrition Facts

Friday, August 12, 2005

Childhood Meme-ories

Nupur at One Hot Stove recently tagged me for this latest meme. Out of curiosity I decided to trace the thing back as far as I could. Lo and behold, I found the instigator of this on-line chain letter - Brad Warbiany. The original post, dated June 1st of this year, was titled Time to Unleash a Plague and his blog (actually a group blog) is aptly called The Unrepentant Individual. So now that everyone is feeling warm and fuzzy, on to my childhood memories...

In tracing this back I discovered that it took a slightly different bent once it hit the food blog world. As the book meme was transformed into a cookbook meme, so did "The Five Things I Miss From My Childhood" become "Childhood Food Memories". I've decided to go with the original theme, "Five Things I Miss From My Childhood", rather than the food-centric theme. Also, I've dropped the "The" because I sort of doubt my list will be the only or even the top five things I miss from childhood.

OK, so here we go...

I miss devouring books the way I did when I was a kid. Now, there never seems to be enough time and, well, I can't stay awake.

I miss family vacations, especially our camping trips along the Skyline Drive. Maybe it was the relaxed pace, the crazy double-solitaire games under the gas lantern, eating outdoors every night, the black bear sightings, buying penny candy and souvenirs at the camp store, the nature talks at the amphitheatre, hot chocolate and toasted marshmallows... oh who am I kidding? It was all wonderful... well, except maybe for the coin-operated showers that cut off after 5 minutes!

I miss the feeling I used to get when we would eat at McDonald's - and it wasn't guilt! Back then, there really were golden arches, they actually posted the number (in millions) of burgers sold, and you didn't enter the restaurant - you made your purchases at a counter and sat on a yellow and white tiled bench on the side of the building, ate at home, or ate in the car. I liked it best when we ate in the car. My sister, brothers, and I would sit on the tailgate of the station wagon and watch for a train to go by as we consumed our burgers, fries and shakes. It didn't matter that the pathetic burger couldn't be tasted under the pickles and ketchup - it was all about the fries and chocolate shakes!

I miss that last-day-of-school elation. I've occasionally felt it in the more recent past as I left work just before a vacation, but it doesn't come often enough these days!

I miss Saturday mornings watching cartoons and playing with blocks. I know you probably think I'm reaching back into my infancy for this one, but my sister, brothers and I "played blocks" for years. It was engineering, role-playing, and creative play all rolled into one. Perhaps best of all it was a shared tradition. Our block collection, which resided in a large basket, started as a purchased set or two, but grew over the years thanks to my Dad's many carpentry projects. Over time, certain structures evolved and made regular appearances (most notably the pancake factory). In addition, certain blocks took on certain functions and heaven help the visiting friend who didn't conform!

Well, that was fun - thanks Nupur! I'm going to break the rules and not list the links and not tag anyone. I invite you to share what you miss from childhood in the comments of this post or feel free to tag yourself - I just don't want to be the bad guy!

Monday, August 08, 2005

Mondays with Maida - Butterscotch Molasses Cookies

Page 66 in the old book / page 97 in the new book

The notes with this recipe say that these cookies are easily mixed in a saucepan. If easily means in an uncomplicated way and without much chance of messing it up, then yes, they are easily mixed. But if easily means throw stuff in the saucepan, give it a few little stirs and voila, you have cookie dough, then I'm sorry, they are not easily mixed. This is a stiff dough stirred by hand - you will feel the burn. Think upper body workout.

The dough is not at all sticky and too stiff to simply drop from the spoon. I found myself shaping it into balls with two spoons. This wasn't difficult, but it would be just as easy to roll it in your hands into balls.

These cookies are simple and good, but not great. Sweet and slightly chewy, they have attractive, crackly tops. I thought they tasted more like molasses than butterscotch. In fact, they tasted much like a ginger snap and some assumed they were ginger cookies despite the fact that there is no ginger in them.

This one received mixed reviews from the cookie panel...

Suzanne: "The cookie was crunchy on the outside and chewy in the middle. This was a good cookie, not great, but good. This cookie was heavy which means one was enough. You felt full after eating the cookie. Rating - 3.0"

Denny: "No offense, but could've been sugar cookies except for all your work. Rating - 2.7"

Laura: "Maybe it was just the one I took, but my cookie was a tad dry. Not bad, but not my favorite thus far. Rating - 2.0 (sorry)"

Phil: "A blue collar kind of cookie which knows that if you're going to consume a couple of hundred calories you should know it. Simple flavors, sweet, with a little chew. Rating - 4.2"

Overall rating by the panel - 2.9

Next week - Poppy-Seed Wafers (Mohn Cookies)

Nutrition Facts

Thursday, August 04, 2005

A Weekend in Vermont

A weekend in Vermont with Bob and Chuck - what could be better? I've been waiting for this ever since Sicily! Mondays with Maida will be posted a little later on Monday than usual. Have a great weekend everyone!

Monday, August 01, 2005

Mondays with Maida - Raisin Oatmeal Cookies

Page 65 in the old book / page 93 in the new book

I'm afraid that this last of the oatmeal drop cookies is still not what I'm looking for in an oatmeal cookie. Judging by the ratings and comments of the cookie panel, it isn't what they're looking for either.

This dough is very thin - almost like a batter - and there's just enough of it to hold together the oats, raisins, and currants. The instructions say to bake these for 17 to 20 minutes, but I found that they smelled and looked done after 14 minutes. When freshly baked, the cookies are slightly crunchy on the outside and chewy inside. I didn't eat one the next day, but they appeared to have lost their crunch by then. I used the old fashioned rolled oats this time, but even that didn't elevate these cookies above the very ordinary.

Brace yourselves. Here's the cookie panel...

Suzanne: "What can I say? This was not my favorite cookie. Actually it tasted like a granola bar in the form of a cookie. It was a little dry so I actually ate the raisins for moistness. Yuk! Rating 2.0 (for effort)"

Denny: "Not my favorite so I'd give it a subjective 2.9. Rating - 2.9"

Terri: "A chewy (almost molasses) taste with lots of raisins! A flat cookie ~ could have used more oatmeal. Rating 3.0"

Phil: "A very wholesome, dense cookie which would be a great companion for that rare wilderness adventure (in lieu of that last handful of trail mix). Tastes a bit like a soft granola bar. If your not in survival mode pass on this one. Rating 2.7"

Overall rating by the panel - 2.7

Next week - Butterscotch Molasses Cookies

Nutrition Facts