Homemade Marshmallows

Every so often the Food Network offers some really good ideas. Last Sunday, I watched Tyler Florence make marshmallows, a food I never thought I would venture to make from scratch. But after seeing the two egg whites whip in the stand mixer until they tripled in size — until they nearly spilled out of the mixer — I had to try for myself. Plus, he packaged them in a cellophane bag tied with a festive ribbon and nestled the pouch into a basket with a jar of hot cocoa mix, his idea for a wonderful homemade Christmas gift. After tasting one of these sugary confections, I couldn’t agree more.

Homemade Marshmallows:
Adapted from Tyler Florence

This recipe requires the use of a stand mixer.
3 tablespoons powdered gelatin
2 cups cold water
2 cups sugar
2 egg whites
2 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted, plus more for dusting pan and marshmallows

In a medium sized saucepan soak the gelatin in the cold water. After the gelatin has softened, about 10 minutes, add the regular sugar, and gently dissolve over low heat, another 8 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

In a mixer, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold in the sifted confectioners’ sugar. While the mixer is on low, slowly pour in the cooled gelatin mixture. Increase the speed and beat until white and thick. The volume should double (or triple) in size and should form between soft and firm peaks. (When the mixture fills nearly the entire bowl, it is ready.)

Coat bottom and all sides of a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with confectioners’ sugar. Pour marshmallow mixture in and top with more sifted confectioners’ sugar. Leave out overnight or for at least 3 hours to set. The marshmallow should be light and spongy when set.

Loosen marshmallow from edges of tray and invert onto a large cutting board. Use a large knife to cut the marshmallows into cubes. Sprinkle each piece with more confectioners’ sugar.

Duncan Hines Yellow Cake Mix Baking Spree

Three-hundred sixty-four days a year, my mother suffers from make-it-from-scratch syndrome. On her one day a year liberated from this affliction, she spends a few hours preparing a Greek New Year’s cake (vasilopita), pulling from the pantry a box of Duncan Hines yellow cake mix and a box of instant vanilla pudding. She combines these two powders in a bowl, adds a considerable amount of rum – the secret, she says, to the cake’s moist texture – and before long has produced a beautiful rum bundt cake, the dessert of choice for our annual coin-hiding, cake-cutting, Greek ritual.

Introducing this old WASP recipe into my mother’s repertoire – one dominated by traditional Greek dishes like spanakopita and moussaka – was no easy task. My stepfather, the man responsible for accomplishing this feat many years ago, still gloats to this day.

Only after several attempts at making the cake from scratch (substituting for the powdered mixes a pound cake one time and a chiffon cake another) received unfavorable reviews, did my mother concede, vowing never to tinker with the recipe again, a pledge widely supported by the rest of the family. Moist and boozy with a sugary-buttery glaze, this cake – in its original incarnation – has been a favorite since its debut.

Although my adoration for the rum bundt cake has made me less skeptical than my mother of recipes calling for instant cake mixes, I still find myself calling home to consult the authority before opening the box. “Be sure to add vanilla extract or a splash of Bourbon,” she always tells me, adding, “you need something to hide that artificial flavor.” Rarely do I end up making the recipe.

A recent visit to Williams- Sonoma, however, unexpectedly inspired a prepared-mix baking spree, my arrival to the shop fortuitously coinciding with the presentation of a batch of freshly made pumpkin dessert bars. Spiced with cinnamon, double-textured like a lemon bar, these pumpkin treats instantly won the affection of all who sampled them. Much to my surprise, the recipe called for a box of yellow cake mix.

After successfully making the pumpkin bars at home, along with a pan of quick apple kuchen, neither recipe calling for extract or alcohol, I resolved never to look suspiciously at recipes beginning with a premade mix. Though I’ll never tell my mother, my recent discoveries have confirmed an inkling I’ve had for years regarding the legendary rum bundt cake: The secret’s in the box, not the bottle.

The rum bundt cake can be made in mini pans as well. This was a batch I made last year for the Greek New Year’s Cake. Last year, I made the cake from scratch — truthfully, it’s much better using the box!
Rum Bundt Cake

1 box yellow cake mik
1 pkg. instant vanilla pudding
½ cup rum
4 eggs
½ cup canola oil
½ cup water

Preheat the oven to 325ºF. Mix all with an electric mixer for five minutes. Grease bundt pan and lightly flour. Bake for one hour.

1 stick butter
¼ cup rum
½ cup sugar

Meanwhile, combine rum, butter and sugar together in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. When cake comes out of the oven, pour one-third of this mixture into the bottom of the cake. Let sit for 30 minutes. Turn cake out onto a cooling rack. Paint a layer of the glaze all over the cake. Let harden. Paint another layer. Repeat until all the glaze is gone.

Note: Tastes even better the second day.

Pumpkin Butter Dessert Squares

1 package yellow cake mix
½ cup butter, melted
3 large eggs
1 jar Muirhead pumpkin butter (This is the Williams Sonoma brand, but any will do. The jar was 13.5 oz.)
½ cup milk
1 tablespoon flour
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup butter, softened
1 teaspoon cinnamon.

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Measure one cup of cake mix. Set aside. Stir remaining cake mix with the butter and one egg. Press the mixture into the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch pan. Mix the jar of pumpkin butter with the remaining two eggs and milk. Pour mixture over layer in the pan. Stir the reserved cake mix with the flour, sugar, butter and cinnamon. Mix until crumbly. Sprinkle over the top of the pumpkin layer. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until golden brown. Cut into two-inch squares. Serves 24.

Note: Of the three recipes posted here, I would say the kuchen tastes the most artificial, a sour cream glaze giving it an Entenmman’s-like character. Best served warm with a cup of coffee, however, this kuchen is still delectable.

Quick Apple Kuchen
Serves 20-24

1 box yellow cake mix
½ cup butter, softened
½ cup sweetened coconut
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3 large apples, peeled and sliced thinly
1 egg
1 cup sour cream

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Combine first three ingredients together in a bowl. Mix with your hands or beat slowly with an electric mixer. Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Pat mixture into pan. Bake 10 minutes. Meanwhile, mix cinnamon and sugar together and toss with the apples. Remove pan from the oven and top with the apple mixture. Whisk egg and sour cream together and drizzle over the apples. Return to the oven for 30 to 35 minutes. Serve immediately.

Daley Toffee

Well, after spending hours in the test kitchen, sifting through recipes submitted for The Bulletin’s “Edible Gift Recipe Contest”, I found a winner — Daley Toffee, a family recipe submitted by Laura Daley of Mount Airy. Crunchy, sweet, chocolaty, nutty, buttery, this toffee is so yummy! And addictive. Almost immediately after breaking the toffee into shards and photographing it, I brought it into the office — mostly to get it out of my sight — where the staff polished it off … I received several e-mails that day describing the scene. I returned to work the next day to find the empty Tupperware sitting on my chair.

Before trying this recipe, I had never attempted making toffee, and now, I have no fears of candy making or of terms like “hard-ball” stage. Cooking the sugar and butter mixture until it reaches the hard-ball stage is the only tricky part of this recipe, but Laura’s instructions make the process painless. Instead of relying on a thermometer, which I find never to be accurately calibrated anyway, Laura’s method calls for testing the mixture by dropping a small spoonful of the mixture into a glass of cold water — it’s foolproof.

The toffee, as Laura notes in the recipe, makes a great gift for the holidays. Several years ago, I purchased a case of 100 brown stationary boxes from Usbox.com. Although this large case of boxes takes up nearly half our storage space in the basement, every holiday season I am so happy to have these clear-top boxes on hand. I have packaged biscotti and chocolate truffles in them for the past two years, and now I will pack Daley Toffee in them as well. For a nice presentation, use parchment paper as a base inside the box, wrap the box with a delicate ribbon, and tie on a simple tag describing the contents of the box. My favorite tags to use for gift giving are metal rim tags, which you can find at Staples or any office supply store. They sell packs of 50 for about $10.

Daley Toffee: A Family Recipe
Laura’s notes: This recipe makes a great holiday gift for those with a sweet tooth! It keeps up to 2 weeks if you put it in an airtight container.

1 C. salted butter 

1 C. sugar 

3 T. water (if tap, put through a Britta or use well or bottled) 

1 1/8 tsp. vanilla
2/3 C. ground pecans (or nut of your choice) 

4-6 oz. premium milk chococlate (bar form is easiest; can also do a dark chocolate but we think milk chocolate is best)

Directions:
1. Cook butter, sugar, water, and vanilla over medium heat stirring CONSTANTLY until golden brown — test for hard ball stage in cold water. It may smoke, but don’t worry.
2. Put half to 2/3 of the nuts in the bottom of a greased 9×9 inch pan. 

3. Pour the cooked butter/sugar mixture over the nuts. 

4. Wait a few minutes and put the chocolate on top — when chocolate softens, spread evenly and sprinkle remaining nuts on top.
5. When completely cool, break into pieces. Store in airtight container. 

NOTE: You can also use an 8×13 if you’d prefer a thinner version — in which case increase nuts to 1 C.

Fair Trade Pecan Tart

Once a term used only to label coffee, chocolate, tea and a few other imported products, Fair Trade now describes a few domestic items as well. In honor of Fair Trade month (October), four farmers — two banana farmers from Costa Rica, a pecan farmer from Georgia, and an apple farmer from Vermont — visited several East Coast cities on a tour called the Faces Of Fair Trade. Last Tuesday, Joe Coffee Bar hosted one of the tour’s stops, and I got to meet Diann Johnson (the pecan farmer), Glen Schreiter (the apple farmer) and Yocser Godoy Carranza and Carlos Vargas (the banana farmers) — the new faces of Fair Trade.

I never realized all the difficulties — isolation, for example, and low prices driven by increased market supply from countries such as China — domestic farms face, until I spoke with these farmers, especially Mr. Schreiter.

To survive in a globalized world, Mr. Schreiter had to change his game plan, and in 2000, he initiated a complete restructuring of his farm, Saxtons River Orchards, in Saxtons River, Vermont. The last straw? Mr. Scheiter couldn’t even sell his apples to his neighbors, living only 10 minutes from his farm. Before 2000, Mr. Schreiter’s 200-acre farm, equipped with a multi-million dollar packing facility, shipped their apples all over the world. After 1993, however, when NAFTA enabled China (the largest apple-producing country in the world) and New Zealand to sell their apples to consumers in the U.S. and all over the world, Mr. Screiter’s farm began suffering.

And so, Mr. Schreiter downsized his farm to 40 acres, sold the packing facility and hooked up with an organization called Red Tomato, a nonprofit organization dedicated to connecting farmers and consumers. Red Tomato purchases 50 percent of Mr. Schreiter’s apples as well as fruits and vegetables from family farms located all along the East Coast, supplying shops throughout New England. Because few farmers’ markets operate near Saxtons River, and because the farm’s isolated location discourages many visitors, Mr. Schreiter believes his orchard could not survive without Red Tomato.

In 11 years, Red Tomato has succeeded in bringing locally grown produce to markets such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. In 20 years, Equal Exchange, the oldest and largest Fair Trade for-profit organization in the country, has brought numerous Fair Trade goods — including domestic nuts and dried cranberries — to hundreds of cafés and stores, reaching over a million consumers. These organizations, realizing that domestic farmers face many of the same challenges producers in marginalized regions of the world face, have changed the face of Fair Trade.

Also, find all of your holiday baking needs, certified Fair Trade that is, at Joe Coffee Bar. ‘Tis the season for pecan pie, so plan ahead: Find a source for Fair Trade products, and purchase enough now to cover your seasonal baking needs. Equal Exchange is another good source for Fair Trade products and information. This recipe has been adapted from this month’s Bon Appétit — it’s delectable — not cloyingly sweet. I’m very thankful I got to see my husband this weekend, who happily took the remaining tart off my hands … I’m looking forward to returning to my morning oat bran routine.

Diann Johnson (pecan farmer from Georgia) stands with Joe Cesa (owner of Joe Coffee Bar) at Joe Coffee Bar, where many Fair Trade products are sold:

Fair Trade Pecan Tart
Serves 5

1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
¼ C. sugar
1 large egg yolk
pinch sea salt
1¼ C. all purpose flour
2-3 T. milk, cream or water

Beat butter and sugar using an electric mixer until smooth. Add the yolk and salt and mix again until smooth. Add the flout, mixing on low until just incorporated. Add the liquid, a tablespoon at a time, to bind. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and roll into an 11-inch round, approximately. Transfer to a 9-inch round tart pan with a removable bottom. Pierce dough all over with a fork and place in the freezer for 30 minutes.

Filling:
3 large eggs
½ C. packed brown sugar
½ C. maple syrup
½ C. dark corn syrup
¼ C. unsalted butter, melted
1½ C. coarsely chopped Fair Trade pecans, roasted and salted

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Whisk together the eggs, sugar and syrups until well blended. Pour in the melted butter, whisking constantly. Stir in the pecans. Place the tart shell on a baking sheet and pour the filling inside. Bake tart until filling is puffed and slightly set, about 40 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool

Pumpkin Cupcakes

These cupcakes, the third in a series of pumpkin recipes, are really a seasonal treat — they’ll please everyone: On Monday, fearing if I left them in my reach they would disappear as quickly as last week’s apple cake, I dropped the remaining 11 of this batch of 12 off at The Bulletin’s office, and they were a big hit. Unfortunately, I still have about a quart of the cream cheese frosting left in my refrigerator at home … I really hope I don’t return to Philadelphia with an empty stomach.

Pumpkin Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting
Yield = 12 cupcakes

1½ cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup pumpkin purée
1/3 cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
1¼ cups sugar
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon kosher salt

frosting and decorative garnishes (purchased at Fante’s) if desired

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Whisk together the flour and baking powder. In a separate bowl, whisk the remaining ingredients. Combine the wet and dry ingredients and mix only until just combined. Place paper liners in muffin pan or coat with cooking spray. Fill each cup only three-quarters full. Bake 20 to 25 minutes or until an inserted knife comes out clean. Let cool completely before frosting.

Cream Cheese Frosting

8 oz. cream cheese, room temperature
8 oz. butter, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups confectioners’ sugar

Beat all with an electric mixture until smooth. Chill until ready to serve.

Pumpkin Waffles, Bread Pudding

There’s nothing like gourd season to separate the purists and the pretenders in the kitchen. As I grew up indoctrinated with my mother’s culinary canons — chicken stock is made at home from real chickens, herbs and vegetables; salad dressing does not come from a bottle; homemade bread is simple to prepare; pie crusts are made only with butter; and the best burgers are made with freshly ground meat — I always considered myself a purist.

On Tuesday, however, I made the mistake of telling Sam Consylman, one of the farmers at the South and Passyunk Farmers’ Market, I had just made some pumpkin bread. “What kind of pumpkin did you use?” Mr. Consylman asked me. I paused. I knew what he meant. And as I looked around, I felt a sudden pressure, a collective stare emanating from the farm-stand table spilling with butternut, acorn, delicata, hubbard, kabocha and red kuri squashes. I sheepishly confessed: “Libby’s.”

“Oh man,” was all Mr. Consylman could say, his face twisting in disbelief, bordering on disgust. As he shook his head, he extolled the light texture and pure squash flavor of a real pumpkin pie, and he implored me to travel to Lancaster to taste one. I promised him I would.

I hope before winter squash season ends, I will get out to Lancaster, and I hope at some time, I do get around to making my own pumpkin pie from scratch. And in the meantime, I guess I’ll have to revise a little axiom of my own: Canned pumpkin for the sweets, fresh for the savories.

Pumpkin Waffles
Serves 3 to 4

2 cups flour
3 tablespoons sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice
1½ cups buttermilk
1 cup pumpkin purée
4 eggs, separated
1 stick butter, melted
1 tablespoon vanilla
powdered sugar, maple syrup and butter for serving

Preheat a waffle iron to hot and preheat the oven to 200ºF. Whisk together the flour, two tablespoons of the sugar, baking powder, salt and spice together. In a separate bowl, whisk the buttermilk, pumpkin, yolks, butter and vanilla until smooth. Combine wet and dry ingredients and mix only until just blended. Beat egg whites with an electric mixer until soft peaks form. Slowly add the remaining tablespoon of sugar and beat until glossy peaks form. Stir one-third of these egg whites into the batter to lighten, then gently fold in the remaining whites. Ladle into heated waffle iron and cook until crisp and golden. Meanwhile, place a cooling rack on top of a cookie sheet. As the waffles come off the iron, place on the cooling rack and place pan in oven to keep warm until all the waffles finish cooking (the rack keeps the waffles from getting soggy on the bottom).

Pumpkin Bread Pudding
Serves 8

1 baguette or loaf of white bread, cut into one-inch cubes, preferably cut and left to stale overnight
¾ stick (6 tablespoons or 3 oz.) of unsalted butter, melted
3 eggs, lightly beaten
3 cups whole milk
½ teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¾ cup pumpkin purée
1 cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
powdered sugar

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Place cubed bread in a bowl and pour the melted butter over top. Toss to coat, then transfer to a baking dish such as a 9×12 glass baking dish or any other similarly shaped vessel.

In a separate bowl, whisk eggs, milk, vanilla, salt, pumpkin, sugar and spice together. Strain mixture then pour over the bread in the baking dish. Bake for 55 minutes to an hour. When pressed gently, mixture will feel slightly jiggly but set.

Let cool 15 minutes before spooning into bowls and sprinkling each with powdered sugar.

Best Dessert Ever

Seriously, this may be my favorite dessert ever. After cookies and cream ice cream, that is. No really, I have taken this don’t-take-your-mother’s-advice thing way too far. She, I mean my mother — (Liza hates to be referred to as a pronoun) — has been telling me to make this cake for years, well at least since 2004, when the New York Times printed the recipe.

I baked this cake this morning, ate one quarter of it for lunch, and another quarter for dinner. I’m tempted to include a picture of the half-eaten cake in this post, but am too embarrassed. I don’t know what else to say. It’s moist, delicious, seasonal and can be enjoyed at breakfast, lunch or dinner. I mean it. Make it!

Balzano Apple Cake
Adapted from New York Times 2004
Serves 8

1 stick butter, plus more for greasing pan
parchment paper
2 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean 

4 Fuji apples
½ cup flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon sea salt such as fleur de sel
½ cup milk at room temperature
powdered sugar

Heat oven to 350ºF. Grease a nine-inch-circle pan with butter. Cut a circle of parchment paper to fit the bottom of the pan and place inside pan.

Melt butter in small saucepan. Set aside. Beat together eggs and half of sugar in a bowl. Continue to beat while slowly adding remaining sugar until thick — it should form a ribbon when dropped from spoon.

Split vanilla bean in half lengthwise. Scrape seeds into the egg-sugar mixture and add pod to melted butter.

Peel apples and cut straight down around the core into four big chunks. Discard the core then slice the apple pieces thinly.

Remove vanilla pod from butter and discard. Stir butter into sugar-egg mixture. Combine flour, salt and baking powder, then stir into batter alternating with the milk. Stir in apples, coating every piece with batter. Pour batter into pan.

Bake for 25 minutes, then rotate the pan. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes more, until cake pulls away from pan and is brown on top. (A thin-bladed knife inserted into the center will come out clean when it is done.) Cool 30 minutes, then cut into wedges sprinkling each with powdered sugar if desired.

Green Tea Madeleines & Birchrun Hills Farm Blue

I realized I forgot to report a few other details from my little gathering last weekend. On Sunday morning, my friends and I slowly recovered from the late-night festivities with the help of coffee for some, tea for others, and green tea madeleines for all. I had some leftover batter for these delicate treats from a batch I had made a few days ago, and baked them off while the coffee brewed — they take only ten minutes in the oven. The recipe had been adapted from a recipe I cut out of this past April’s Bon Appetit for madeleines from New York’s renown Payard Patisserie & Bistro. The recipe is excellent — very lemony — and a couple of teaspoons of matcha (green tea powder) add a nice, but very subtle touch. Truthfully, the green tea flavor is hardly detectable, so double the amount of matcha for a more pronounced flavor.

And while I mentioned that we stopped by the Birchrun Hills Farm stand at the Sunday Headhouse Farmers’ Market, I forgot to mention that we all enjoyed a wedge of Birchrun Blue with our hors d’ouevres the previous evening. Sue Miller makes this creamy blue cheese from raw milk drawn from the cows on her dairy farm in Chester Springs. I recently visited her beautiful farm, met many of her precious cows and learned about the intensive cheese-making process. I also learned that a snack Sue makes — melted Birchrun Blue over a toasted baguette drizzled with honey — has been named “Sweet Sue” by one of her neighbors.

Matcha Madeleines
Yield = 30

1¼ cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
pinch of salt
2 teaspoons matcha (green tea powder)*
1½ sticks (¾ cup) unsalted butter
2½ teaspoons honey
4 large eggs
¾ cup sugar
2½ tablespoons packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon grated lemon peel
Special equipment: madeleine pans (3-inch-long molds)

Whisk flour, baking powder, salt and matcha in a bowl. Place butter and honey in a microwave-proof dish and microwave for one minute. Stir, and microwave 30 seconds longer or until butter has melted.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk eggs, sugars and lemon peel until combined. On low speed, add half of the hot butter mixture and mix until blended. Add half of the flour mixture and mix again until blended. Repeat with remaining butter and flour mixture being careful to mix the batter just until the flour is incorporated. Let batter chill for one to three hours.

Preheat the oven to 450ºF. Butter and flour madeleine pan or pans. (Note: If you only have one pan, it is important to let each batch of madeleines cool completely in the pan. The pan should be washed, re-buttered and re-floured as well before using on a second and third batch.) Place heaping spoonfuls of the batter into the molds. Don’t worry about spreading the batter — it fills the molds and rises in the oven.

Bake five minutes. Reduce heat to 400ºF and bake five more minutes. Check madeleines: If they are golden brown around the edges and puffed in the center, remove from the oven. If necessary, continue baking. (They may take an additional five minutes.) Remove pan from the oven, and let madeleines cool completely in their molds before removing. Serve at room temperature with tea.

*Available at Asian markets. Also, the green tea taste of these madeleines is very subtle. For a stronger flavor, add an additional 1 to 2 teaspoons of matcha.

Black Prince Tomatoes & Chocolate Chip Cookies

chewy chocolate chip cookie with a touch of salt on top

I never thought I would say that I have a favorite tomato, but as of this past Saturday I do. As I passed through Reading Terminal Market on my way to the Fair Food Farmstand, I stopped at the Livengood stand, struck by the array of tomatoes on their table. I asked one of the men to suggest a tomato for a simple salad and he handed me a Black Prince. I purchased a dozen, made my way to the Farmstand for grass-fed ground beef, then headed home.

After a slight detour that led me to purchase 10 tiki torches (the price was ridiculous, really), I found my way home and started preparing for a dinner with five friends: Bates and Will, recently married and about to move to Syria for a year; Steph and Mike, recently engaged and big fans of grass-fed beef and their new East Coast city; and our friend Jon, single and still recovering from his great Asian adventure. Oh and much to my surprise, when I greeted my friends at the door, Bug, Bates and Will’s dachshund, had decided to make the trip from New York City too! Read all about the life of Bug (and Bates and Will), the latest plans for Steph and Mike’s wedding in Cabo and Jon’s wild last day in Hanoi.

By the light of the torches and a few candles, the six of us wholly enjoyed homemade hummus and pita prepared by Steph, olives brought by the New York crew and hamburgers made with Dr. Angusburger beef. The tomatoes, however, were the highlight of the evening. With basil from the farmstand, Claudio’s fresh mozzarella, olive oil, balsamic vinegar and a touch of salt, the tomatoes made a perfect salad.

Bates particularly appreciated how the tomatoes had been cut — in irregular chunks as opposed to slices — finding them easier to eat. For these shapes, I must give credit to the chef I worked under at Fork, Thien Ngo, who always plated food with a “chaos theory” in mind. He would “trash” restaurants whose food looked like “legos” on the plate. He preferred the very natural look, believing that the plating of food reflects how much the food has been handled.

Warm chocolate chip cookies and delectable green figs from the Farmstand finished the evening nicely. The simple dinner had been a success, as had the weekend as a whole: The following day, we walked to the Headhouse Farmers’ Market, where my friends all purchased cheese from Birchrun Hills Farm and met the wonderful Sue Miller. Then we walked to Reading Terminal and of course paid a visit to the Fair Food Farmstand where I showed my friends where I buy, among many groceries, grass-fed ground beef and raw milk, which we had all delighted in that morning for breakfast. And before sending them back on the Chinatown bus, we savored fresh rice noodles at Ding Ho — a perfect weekend indeed!

Soft and Chewy Chocolate-Chip Cookies
Yields about 35 1¾ oz cookies

10¾ oz unsalted butter (1 1/3 cups)
10¼ oz light brown sugar (1½ cups packed)
7¾ oz granulated sugar (1 cup)
2 large eggs
1 T. pure vanilla extract
17 oz unbleached all-purpose flour (3¾ cups)
1¼ tsp table salt
1 tsp. baking soda
12 oz semisweet chocolate chips

Cream butter and sugars together in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, until light and fluffy. Scrape the bowl, beat again on high for one minute. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat until well blended, about another minute on medium-high speed. Whisk flour, salt and baking soda together in separate bowl. Add to butter mixture and combine with a spatula or wooden spoon until just blended. Add the chocolate chips and stir till combined. The dough will be stiff.

Portion into 1¾ oz sized balls. This is a tedious task, but it makes for beautiful and uniform cookies that bake evenly. If you have a digital scale, this is an easy task; if you have no scale, use a small ice cream scoop or some other uniform measuring device. Chill the portioned balls for at least three hours, or freeze for months.

Preheat oven to 375°. Place portioned balls nicely spaced on an ungreased jelly roll pan. Flatten slightly with the back of a spoon. Bake 8-11 minutes, rotating the sheet halfway through cooking. Keep a close watch. You want to remove the cookies from the oven when they still look slightly raw—you will think you are removing them too early. The cookies will continue cooking as they sit on the tray out of the oven. Let sit for 5 minutes on tray before removing to a cooling rack, and let cool completely before storing.

Bug, enjoying the wilderness in a Philadelphia backyard:

Baklava

This past Friday night, after dinner at Buddakan with nine of my high school friends followed by an evening of dancing at Plough and the Stars, two of my friends and I found ourselves famished back in my apartment. Luckily, I found some trusty items in the pantry: popcorn, frozen pizza dough and a whole tray of baklava.

I set to work in the kitchen. I heated oil in a saucepan for the popcorn. I preheated the panini machine. I unwrapped the pizza dough and threw it in the microwave to defrost/rise instantly. (This wasn’t a frozen pizza, rather an unbaked ball of dough.) I had only completed a fraction of my prep work when my friends wandered into the kitchen to inspect — they were really hungry.

Both asked why I had placed a pot on the stove. After explaining the non microwave popcorn process, I handed them the tray of baklava and guided them back into the living room. Kristin happily tucked into the nutty, honey-laden dessert, but Liz, after just a few bites, demanded her homemade pizza! I worked furiously in the kitchen to bring them more food. I rushed them the bowl of popcorn, but neither was impressed: The ratio of unpopped to popped kernels was probably 2:1. They had a valid argument.

By this point I had rolled the thawed dough into a small disk and thrown it onto the panini machine. After a few minutes, I pulled it off and slathered it with fresh ricotta cheese and fig jam. As a finishing touch, I drizzled some truffle oil — Liz’s favorite ingredient — over the top. I brought the pizza into the living room, where I found Kristin on the couch settling into her food coma and Liz on the air mattress awaiting her meal.

We finished the pizza while recounting the evening, our stomachs aching from laughing, nearly crying, and very likely from eating. Kristin went to bed swearing off baklava forever, and while Liz made no mention of giving up her truffle oil, I think she identified with Kristin’s state.

Fortunately, much to my relief, this bold declaration only lasted so long. Around three o’clock the following afternoon, Kristin admitted she was ready to give what remained of the baklava another go.

Baklava

1 lb. fillo dough, thawed in the refrigerator overnight
1 lb. walnuts
½ C. sugar
1 T. cinnamon
1 tsp. cloves
1 lb. clarified butter
1 lb. honey (about 2 cups)

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Pulse walnuts in a food processor until chopped (not too finely). Remove from processor and place in a bowl with the sugar, cinnamon and cloves.

Grease a 10- by 15-inch pan with one tablespoon of the melted butter. Layer one sheet of fillo dough on top. Spoon one to two tablespoons over the dough — do not use a pastry brush. (It’s ok if much of the dough is left unbuttered.) Layer with another sheet of fillo. Spoon more butter over top aiming for areas of the dough untouched by butter in the previous layer. Repeat this layering process with half of the fillo, about 14 sheets depending on the box. Spread the nut filling evenly over the top of the fillo, then top the nuts with the remaining fillo, layering in the same manner as before.

Brush the top layer of fillo with butter. Using a sharp knife, score the baklava in a diamond pattern. Place the pan in the oven and bake for 30 to 45 minutes, or until golden. Remove from the oven and immediately pour the honey over top.

Cut and serve.