Sunday, October 30, 2011

Creamy Macaroni and Cheese

Creamy Mac and Cheese

There are days like today, where comfort is of the essence. A day to stay in my pajamas, organize plans for the week to come, do laundry, clean up, and eat really well.  Yesterday was stupid. I wore my rain boots out but didn't tuck my jeans into them. My umbrella was useless, it kept turning inside out with the wind. And despite the unseasonably cold, rainy-snowy-slushy weather, I went out three separate times. Not sensible.

Ruth's Box

Today is the day after the really rainy, snowy and strange late October day where I overdid it on the errands and ended up exhausted with a sore throat. It's the morning after the night where our neighbors partied too hard (again), accounting for a gross lack of sleep around here. So right around 11 a.m. before our stomachs started growling, I reached for Ruth's recipe box. While I grated, measured and stirred, I imagined her in her 1950's kitchen making this for her family. When did she make this? Was it a weeknight dish?  Something tells me this was more of a once in a while, for emergencies dish. Maybe someone was cramming for a test, or had a bad case of the doldrums and needed some comfort in a bowl.

Creamy Mac and Cheese

Foods like this are important. They say, "I love you" and "let's just be a quiet family today." No need to go schlepping through the busy city, in search of adventure every day. Today we can just be together and share some creamy mac and cheese before our nap. Well, their nap. At least some people in this household are sensible.

Creamy Macaroni and Cheese
Serves 4-6
I adapted Ruth's recipe by adding about 1/4 cup of soft goat cheese and slightly reducing the amount of cheddar cheese and milk. If you don't have goat cheese, just use 8 ounces of sharp cheddar and 3 cups of milk. I also used orecchiete instead of elbow macaroni because I can't resist their slightly floppy shape. In addition, I replaced the margarine with butter. 

1 1/2 cups elbow macaroni (or 2 cups orecchiete)
2 tablespoons butter
4 1/2 tablespoons flour
1/4 teaspoon mustard (I used coarse grain.)
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
2 1/2 cups milk (I used whole milk.)
3/4 teaspoon worcestershire sauce
1/4 small onion, grated (about 2 tablespoons grated onion)
7 ounces grated sharp cheddar cheese
3 ounces soft goat cheese
1 slice bread (or 3 tablespoons fine bread crumbs)
1 1/2 tablespoons melted butter

Cook and drain the pasta and put into a 2 quart casserole dish. 
In a saucepan over low heat, melt the butter, blend in the flour, mustard, salt and pepper.
Remove from the heat and gradually add the milk.
Cook until thickened, stirring constantly.  
Add worcestershire sauce, onion, and cheeses.  Stir until the cheeses melt. 
Pour over the pasta.  
Combine the butter and fine bread crumbs (I made my own in the food processor using one slice of wheat bread.) Sprinkle the buttered bread crumbs over the dish and bake at 375 degrees for 30-40 minutes until browned. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Ginger Molasses Cookies and kitchen meditations

Ginger Molasses Cookies

I baked a cookie and it took me to the other side of the world to a dry lake bed in Sossusvlei, Namibia. That's some cookie.


Food often triggers memories of loved ones, childhood, or far off places through its scent and flavor. The act of cooking itself can be meditative.  Sometimes I focus solely on my hands. Other times, my mind wanders to its depths and I revisit a special time or place in my life.  With a little imagination, the foods I create can take me anywhere I want with a little game of visual association.

Ginger Molasses Cookies

Seeing the cracked appearance of these ginger molasses cookies instantly made me recall the parched earth at the bottom of the world's biggest sand dune.  So I thought I'd tell you about it, and give you the recipe so you can experience it for yourself.


It was a cold morning in remote Southern Namibia when we set out with a guide to climb the dune known as Big Daddy. It was a quiet hike, our feet sliding into the iron rich sand as we advanced steadily to the top.  It felt like what I imagine it would be like to walk on Mars, with the alien landscape and the hue of the red sand.  We were so small in the face of the mammoth dunes that stretched and curved like dinosaur spines as far as the eye could see. Was this nature imitating art or the other way around, we asked ourselves.

IMG_0680 - Version 2

Then, from the top, we ran down the side of the 380 meter (1,246 feet) dune, breathless and unafraid of falling.


So why not let a cookie be more than just a sweet indulgence? Put on your hiking boots and take a bite.


Ginger Molasses Cookies
Make sure your spices are very fresh and these fragrant cookies will truly liven your senses.

About 50 large cookies

4 1/2 cups unbleached flour
4 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons cinnamon
4 teaspoons ginger
1 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 pound brown sugar
1-1/2 cups shortening
2 eggs
1/2 cup molasses
granulated sugar

Sift the flour with the soda, spices and salt.

Cream sugar and shortening until light and fluffy.  Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Beat in molasses, stir in sifted ingredients. (Note: for some reason I had to knead the dough together with my hands, but they still came out fine.)

Drop by rounded tablespoons into a bowl of sugar. Place on baking sheet,  (greased, or lined with parchment or a silpat) sugar side up, about 2 inches apart.

Bake in a pre-heated 350 degree oven 11 - 13 minutes.  Cool on racks.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Orange Cumin Beef Stew

Orange Cumin Beef Stew

Recently a dear friend called on the phone sounding excited. "Nicole, I have two things to tell you," she said. "First, on the way to work, there was a car in front of me with a bumper sticker: Love people. Cook them good food.  That's what you do!!" I could hear the smile in her voice.  "Second, I made your chili last night and we're having it tonight. I'm about to make the muffins."  Bravo, I thought, people are starting to cook from my blog. I love it.

I guess I hadn't realized to what extent I do follow that mantra. Lucky to finally be in a city where we have both friends and family, I've been capitalizing on this and hosting miniature dinner parties during the week.  Entertaining mid-week breaks up any monotony and invites warmth into what might otherwise be just another night.  Well, there was nothing blasé about last Thursday night. I invited an old friend (with a great sense of humor) whom we've known for 13 years.  P arrived home from work and spontaneously pulled out a bottle of good Champagne.  What better way to celebrate life then to feast and be merry on a Thursday night?


Forgive my enthusiasm. Now I want to talk about stew.

There are foods that we expect to taste the same every time we eat them.  That's part of the attraction; they are foods we can depend on to make us feel a certain way.  This recipe, however, is the revival of beef stew, a trusty old comfort food. And watch out, this is not your grandmother's stew.  This one is daring and bold with a flavor combination that sets it apart from the classic and sends it into the realm of legendary.  A dish that you'll want to make over and over because it will be hard to forget.

My mother used to make this stew for "company."  It's special enough for any family gathering but also remarkable enough to share with friends, guests, or "company" in the old-fashioned sense of the term.  Serve with some crusty French bread and wait to hear the symphony of "mmmmmmm....!"

Orange Cumin Beef Stew

Orange Cumin Beef Stew
Serves 6
I suggest making this one day before you plan on serving it so that all of the flavors really pop.

3 pounds chuck for stew, cut into 1-inch cubes
cooking oil
1/4 cup orange juice
grated rind of one orange (choose organic)
1/2 cup beef broth
1 6-oz can tomato paste
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
4-1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon oregano
3 cloves garlic, minced
1-1/2 teaspoons allspice
8 ounces fresh or frozen pearl onions
1 pound small mushrooms
butter for sautéing
salt and pepper to taste

Sauté the beef in medium/hot oil a few pieces at a time to brown. Transfer it to a large pot and add all the other ingredients except the onions, mushrooms, butter, salt and pepper. Cover the pot and simmer on medium-low, stirring occasionally for about 1 1/2 hours or until the beef is tender. If the sauce is too thin, add 2 tablespoons of cornstarch dissolved in water.

Saute the onions and mushrooms briefly in butter and add them to the stew.

Note: If you are using fresh pearl onions, boil them in water for 3 minutes. Then cut the root end off and the skins should peel off easily.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Cinnamon-Raisin Whirls and the hands that knead them

Kneading the dough

Her hands kneaded the dough for squash rolls, dill bread, chocolate bread, babka.  They stirred, mashed, sprinkled, poured, formed, and created wonderful treats right before my eyes. Those hands braided strands of dough into challah, and sometimes formed them into turtles or even body parts when she was feeling spunky. Those hands, with their un-manicured fingernails, were adorned with artsy rings and jingly bracelets.  I can see those hands holding a ripe mango (which for some reason chemotherapy had her craving) up to her mouth as the juice ran down her arms, dripping from her elbows.  I can see them clearly still because they are like mine, with long, slender fingers perfect for piano.

Rolling the dough

Sometimes I look down at my hands or my sister's hands when they are working in the kitchen.  Those are mom's hands, I think to myself, or sometimes say out loud. I know it's why I love to cook, because (in my mind) she's there with me sometimes.  Her voice cautions me to toss something that has been in the fridge too long, urges me to exercise wild abandon with my spices, and tells me never to apologize for anything I put on the table.

Her hands made these cinnamon whirls on many occasions when I was a kid.  Now, so many years later, I make them myself, hoping I'll find her standing beside me as I peer nervously into the oven. If only for a second.

Cinnamon-Raisin Whirls

Cinnamon-Raisin Whirls
Makes 12
These instructions are for use with a KitchenAid Mixer. I made them without, just with the use of a large bowl and wooden spoon.  We never iced these in my family, but I'm sharing the icing recipe because I know that some people out there love icing. Baking as instructed, in a 9 x 13 inch baking dish, will yield doughy rolls.  You can also slice them and arrange them to rise and bake separately on a cookie sheet, in which case the rolls will seem slightly drier.  Both methods are delicious.

2 packages active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water
3/4 cup sugar
2/3 cup warm milk
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter, softened
5 to 5 1/2 cups flour
2 eggs
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup raisins

Cinnamon Sugar
3/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon

Icing (Optional)
3/4 cup confectioners' sugar
1 teaspoon butter, softened
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons warm water

Sprinkle the yeast over the water in the large bowl of an electric mixer.  Add 1 tablespoon of the sugar.  Let stand until the yeast is soft, about 5 minutes.  Add the remaining sugar (to make 3/4 cup), milk, salt and the softened butter.

Add 3 cups flour.  Mix to blend, then beat at medium speed until smooth and elastic (about 5 minutes). Separate one of the eggs; reserve the white for glazing. Beat in egg yolk and one whole egg, one at a time, beating until smooth after each addition. Stir in about 2 cups more flour to make a soft dough.

Turn dough onto the counter or a board coated with some of the remaining 1/2 cup flour.  Knead until dough is smooth and satiny, adding just enough flour to prevent it from being sticky.

Turn dough into a greased bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and a dish towel.  Let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk (1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours).  Punch down dough and let rest 10 minutes.

Roll dough out evenly into a 14 by 18 inch triangle.  Spread with 1/3 cup softened butter and sprinkle with the cinnamon sugar and raisins.  Starting from the 18 inch side, roll jelly roll fashion, then moisten a long edge and pinch to seal.  Cut roll into 12 equal slices.

Arrange slices, cut sides down, in a well-greased 9 x 13-inch baking pan. Cover lightly with waxed paper. Let rise until doubled in bulk (45 minutes to 1 hour).

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
In a small bowl, beat reserved egg white with1 tablespoon water. Brush lightly over rolls.
Bake until well browned, about 15 to 20 minutes.

Optional icing:
Combine icing ingredients and drizzle over warm rolls, if desired. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Cinnamon-Raisin Whirl

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Apple Yorkshire Pudding


I was born and raised in New England, but I have been away so long I had forgotten what a true East Coast change of seasons felt like. I've since spent several autumns in the Mediterranean and even one in Mesopotamia, during which time I missed the buzz I get with the transition from summer to Fall. Now that I'm back in Manhattan, I'm flooded with the excitement that comes when the air starts to chill. My favorite part about this is the chance to enjoy locally grown fruits and vegetables characteristic of Fall.  I'm picking out a different variety of squash every day: roasting, drizzling with maple syrup, devouring.


My Green Market is overflowing with bushels of apples just waiting to be snacked on, sliced, eaten with almond butter or cheddar cheese, sautéed with thick, center cut pork chops, or cut up and folded into a delicious dessert.

The recipe for this apple Yorkshire pudding comes from my Grandmother Ruth's recipe box. I halved the sugar that Ruth used, so this works great for breakfast or for dessert.  It's a luscious, buttery and only takes a few minutes to prepare.  You can slide it into the oven when you wake up in the morning or as you sit down for your main course at dinner.  By the time you're ready for dessert, it'll be sizzling and golden brown and your whole house will smell like pure bliss.  You know that smell, right?


Apple Yorkshire Pudding
4 - 6 servings
The amount of butter will feel excessive while you're making this, but just ignore that.  I reduced the amount of sugar already, but it's the butter that makes it really good.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

1 cup flour
1 cup milk
2 eggs
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 apples, peeled and sliced
4 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Mix the flour, milk, eggs and salt in a bowl and whisk thoroughly.
Add the apples and stir to coat with the batter.
Butter a pie dish or a 9 x 9 baking pan using a bit of the 4 tablespoons butter, then slice the rest of the butter and arrange the slices around the bottom of your baking dish.
Mix the sugar and the cinnamon and sprinkle it evenly over the dessert.
Bake for 30 - 35 minutes and serve hot. 

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Building "my community" and other small projects

Nut thins

I'm in the habit of making new friends, and tend to do so quickly each time we move. I may come across as overly forward, but I'm OK with that. People can take it or leave it, and they do. I may live in a big city but I happen to like simple human interaction, so I go about building community however I can. That's where these cookies come in.

Nut thins

We live above a bar. We're lucky that the owners and clientele are a nice bunch of people, very courteous (they'll take our packages for us since we don't have a doorman) and eager to greet us as we come and go from the building. So recently when I got to baking these cookies, I brought down a plate and was told they disappeared like "hotcakes." Exactly what I like to hear, since I can't be expected to finish off a big batch of rich, buttery cookies on my own. A plate of cookies now and then doesn't cost me much, but the pay back is large. Back in Rome I had built up a series of friends around the community, like my butchers. I fully intend on building a similar lot here in New York. People I can exchange a few words, laughs, or smiles with on a weekly basis. It's the familiar faces that make a big city seem like a small town.

Nut thins

This cookie recipe is part of a small project that has been following me around the globe for years. It has been carefully packed away on four moves, sailed back and forth across the Atlantic ocean several times, wrapped up and nestled into boxes along side all our worldly belongings. Over the years I've looked over the recipes one by one, thinking I should really do something with them. They are my grandmother's recipes; that would be Ruth.

Ruth's Box, Nut thins

I'm not sure what spoke to me about these nut thins or why I chose them as a starting point. Many of Ruth's recipes are not very detailed. She hadn't specified what kind of nuts to use so I decided on both walnuts and pecans. Some of her recipes lack thorough instructions, which tells me that she was a skilled cook and baker who had method down and could probably bake a batch of rugelach blindfolded. Like a good Jewish grandmother, I suppose.

I've always been fascinated with Ruth's box of recipes and have treated it like an heirloom. I'd like to think that two generations from now when the internet and computers as we know them become obsolete, I may have a granddaughter who loves to cook. Perhaps she'll peruse my blog, reading my stories, trying my recipes and maybe getting a glimpse of what life was like in "the old days."

Nut Thins Recipe

I followed the recipe as written by Ruth, but couldn't resist adding 2 tablespoons of ground flax seeds, even though I'm pretty sure no one had ever heard of Omega 3 fatty acids in Ruth's day. Trust me, you would never know they are in there. Make these larger for chewier cookies, or smaller if you prefer, but I warn you that you may end up eating more that way.
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