I Love Cherries!

lots and lots of sour cherries

I love cherries. A lot. And I just adore French pastry chef extraordinaire Pierre Hermé. A lot. So when I saw this Pierre Hermé Cherry-Pistachio Tart posted on pastry luminary Dorie Greenspan’s website, it was the pastry equivalent of Bogey and Bacall for me.

I am not usually the kind of pastry cook who likes to exactly reproduce recipes. I buy cookbooks for inspiration and reference. I’ve never understood the wildly popular undertaking of baking or cooking one’s way through an entire cookbook and blogging about it. Simply recreating another cook’s recipes, from beginning to end, step by step? I can’t imagine a more boring undertaking.

When I assist at L’Academie, part of my job is to scale all of the ingredients for each student and for the chef instructor in advance, put each labeled ingredient for each recipe on a separate half sheet tray, and pull out the trays and pass them out as the chef moves from recipe to recipe during the course of the class. Or, sometimes I’m required to bake something in advance, or start a recipe to be finished by students if there isn’t enough time to complete an entire recipe within the allotted class time. Under these circumstances, perfectly following the chef’s recipe is vital.

But when I’m in my own kitchen, baking on my own time, it’s all about my creativity and my own fun and whimsy. However, playing with a Pierre Hermé tart recipe seemed almost sacrilegious to me. So, I made the decision to not alter this recipe more than necessary.

For those who don’t know, Pierre Hermé is a pastry god. When I finally get a chance to visit Paris, his shop will be my first stop. Before the hotel. Before The Louvre. Before anything else. Until then, I can at least bake his tart in my own kitchen. First, I paid a visit to my local Indian grocer, who has the best stash of nuts in town, for pistachios (and a huge container of mango kulfi for snacking while pie baking — it was hot out, okay!). Then, I bought some more sour cherries at my local farmers’ market. And I spent an entire afternoon searching fruitlessly for bitter almond extract, and ended up settling for Penzey’s (which worked great). I was ready to spend my weekend making the Pierre Hermé tart.

Then I remembered I had promised a good friend that I would bake her a traditional cherry pie, because she (and her pick-up truck) helped me dispose of an old picnic table that had seen better days. And she’s not exactly a Pierre Hermé Cherry-Pistachio Tart kind of gal. So that would mean having to bake two cherry pies. Oh, well, I was up for the challenge.

rolling sucre for old fashioned cherry vanilla pie

First up was my yearly sour cherry season pie tradition. The recipe is appropriately called Old Fashioned Cherry Vanilla Pie, and it first appeared in a 1997 Gourmet magazine. (GOSH, I do miss Gourmet). I’ve been baking this pie every summer since the magazine first appeared in my mailbox. I think it’s the best sour cherry recipe ever. (I’ve never used the crust recipe, though. I use my own.) I doubled the recipe and made two. One for me, and one for my friend with the pick-up truck.

mixing the filling

I had purchased a flat of sour cherries at the Takoma Park farmers’ market two weeks earlier, and stayed up until midnight pitting and freezing them. The idea of pitting more cherries did not thrill me, but nor did the idea of disturbing my little winter horde of sour cherries so soon after I found room for them in my freezer. So, I broke down and bought more sour cherries at this Sunday’s market, and I bought some sweet cherries at Whole Foods and I pitted them all. And now I’m pretty darned tired of pitting cherries.

almost ready to bake!

I got up early and made two Old Fashioned Cherry Vanilla Pies before 10 a.m. I had purchased some black raspberries at the farmers’ market from the same vendor from whom I had purchased the sour cherries, and I threw them in at the last minute. It was an awesome addition.

yummy black raspberries

While the cherry vanilla pies were cooling, I embarked on Pierre Hermés’ tart. The night before, I had macerated the cherries and made enough sucre pastry for three pies and two mini tarts.

tart shells

I only have one tart ring, and it is 8″, so I baked one 8″ tart and two individual tarts. I guess I could have used a tart pan with a removable bottom (I have one of those in every size imaginable) but I wanted to use my ring since I have so few occasions to do so.

pistachio paste

I used Penzey’s almond extract after a search for bitter almond extract turned up short. It’s on my list of things to find the next time I’m in New York. Pounding the pistachios and extract into a paste using a mortar and pestle just about killed me, so I’m sorry Dorie, but next time I’m pulling out the mini Cuisinart. That was just, plain tedious. I pounded those pistachios through an entire Law and Order rerun. (Aside: I once spotted Sam Waterston eating pierogies at 3 a.m. at Veselka, while I was wearing a red silk corset and was in the process of fishing chopped beets out of my cleavage — but that’s another story.)

almond pistachio cream

Also, I do not have the book that Dorie references which contains the original recipe for this tart, and I just could not visualize using the large grid rack that fits in my half sheet pan (which doubles as my cooling rack) to shred the streusel. I used a box grater instead.

streusel

I don’t think that my tart came out looking as pretty as the one in Dorie Greenspan’s photograph, but I am certainly not unhappy with the results.

not quite Pierre Hermé!

mini cherry tarts

I gave a slice of both the Pierre Hermé tart and the Old Fashioned Cherry Vanilla Pie to some friends, and asked for a comparison. Most people preferred the Old Fashioned Cherry Vanilla Pie. I think it’s a nostalgia thing. We are in the middle of in intense heatwave — the hottest June on record in Washington D.C. according the news — so what could be better than a slice of traditional cherry pie topped with vanilla ice cream? French pastry doesn’t stand a chance!

Old Fashioned Cherry Vanilla Pie, sans a slice

You’d think I’d be done with baking cherry pies after that marathon cherry pie baking session, but with such a short cherry season I’m still ready for more. So, I think I’ll buy more cherries at a weekday market next to my office on the way home tonight, and I’ll be up tonight pitting them and making sucre again, I suppose.

Old Fashioned Cherry Vanilla Pie

And I will make the Pierre Hermé tart again, but I think that next time I will get a little more creative. I’m thinking some apricots, gently poached in sugar and vanilla, with hazelnuts instead of pistachios, might be nice when cherry season is over. I just can’t help myself….

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A salute to William Butler Yeats and my grandmother, Ollie Mae, on my birthday.

Grandma Goddard's Coconut Cake

The Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, was born exactly 100 years before me, on June 13, 1865. I had been considering baking something Irish-themed for my birthday, since Yeats and I also share an Irish heritage as well as a birthday — a 145th birthday present for W.B., and a 45th one for me.

I just can’t bring myself to do it. First of all, despite my very Irish name, I’m not all that Irish. My grandfather was an Irishman, but I never knew him, and my father never had a relationship with him. My grandmother, Victoria, divorced him before my father was born and moved to New York and worked as a model. She left my father behind to be raised in a rowhouse in Southwest Philadelphia by her Lithuanian immigrant mother, my Great-Grandmother Wosinko.

Grandmother Victoria on Clearwater Beach in 1962

Grandmother Victoria

Great-Grandmother Wosinko

And my mother’s family pretty much all came over from England in the 17th Century, fought in the Revolutionary War, moved to Florida in the mid-19th Century, and I was born and raised in the same general location that the last seven generations of my mom’s family have lived and died for 150 years. Except for my mom’s paternal great-grandmother, who was Cherokee, I’m pretty much solid English Protestant stock on that side of the family.

My maternal great-grandmother with my grandfather and 3 of his 5 sisters.

My great-great-great-grandfather, Eber Goddard, was a patriot in the American Revolution. Eber’s son, Asa Goddard, left his home in Lancaster, Massachusetts after Eber’s death in 1835 and headed down to Florida, which was just being pioneered at the time. He stopped in New Orleans on the way, married a girl from Kentucky named Mary Edrington, and took his new wife to Manatee County, Florida (which at that time included my hometown of Sarasota).

I’ve always thought that Florida must have sucked something awful back then. It’s no great shakes now. It’s humid and unbearably hot and is populated by bugs the size of Volkswagons, alligators, black widow spiders, poisonous land and water snakes, man-eating sharks, cranky retirees, and rednecks. But back then, though, there was no air conditioning, outlet malls, DisneyWorld, SPF 70, or bug repellent.

Despite the hardships of the Florida wilderness, Mary and Asa persevered. One of their sons and my great-great-grandfather, Benjamin Edrington Goddard, fought in the 7th Manatee Infantry in the Confederacy. He is buried in an old cemetery up the street from a huge outlet mall, which makes it convenient for me to pay my respects and purchase a new Coach handbag in one trip.

So, despite the fact that I have a very Irish name, I am not really Irish. I am a quarter Irish by blood, but I was not raised with any Irish tradition or heritage at all (unless you count being raised Catholic, but that was the Lithuanian influence). No Irish dancing. No Irish songs. No corned beef and cabbage. I was raised on good Florida Cracker food — cornbread, chicken-fried steak and gravy, smoked mullet, grits and tomato gravy, stone crabs, swamp cabbage, and sweet tea.

But on my birthday, my Southern Baptist-raised mother insisted on making me birthday cakes with shamrocks and green frosting. One year, I had an Irish “Colleen” Barbie birthday cake in a green dress with shamrocks. Another year, my birthday cake was topped with a ceramic music box shaped like an Irish girl in a green dress decorated with (you guessed it) shamrocks, that rotated and played “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.”

I’m 45 today, and I am old enough to declare that there will be no Irish crap on my birthday. There will be no stupid songs about girls named Colleen who don’t wear shoes, or shamrocks made out of green buttercream. It’s bad enough that the entire country thinks it’s okay to to consume massive quantities of cheap, green beer and fake an Irish brogue once a year in March, I’m not doing it again in June. That’s my birthday present to me.

An early birthday that was unusually free of an Irish themed cake.

So, I’m sorry W.B. Yeats. I know you loved Ireland, and Irish folktales and heritage, and I suppose it would be nice to honor our shared birthday and heritage with some culinary tribute to Ireland, but I’m not doing it. (And, in the interest of full disclosure, I never really liked Yeats’ poetry. I’ve always found Yeats to be trite and insipid — but that’s another diatribe.)

Instead, I’m baking something that is true to my tradition for my birthday — the cake that was on our family table at my grandparents’ house for every holiday of my entire life. My cousins had it on their birthday every year because my aunts did not marry an Irish-Lithuanian guy from Southwest Philadelphia, so they got normal birthday cakes baked by my grandmother. It is written on the same recipe card that I used when I copied it from my mother’s recipe book 15 years ago, and my mom copied it from her mother and my grandmother, Ollie Mae. Ollie Mae called it “Grandma Goddard’s Coconut Cake.”

Ollie Mae’s Grandma Goddard was Benjamin’s widow, Melissa. As a Confederate widow, Melissa received a $5 per month Confederate widow’s pension from the state of Florida, which Ollie Mae told me helped her family through the Great Depression. “We were lucky to have a little more than our neighbors because of it,” she told me once. In addition to the pension, Melissa also received a bag of flour and a bag of sugar every Christmas, most likely for holiday baking. I have no doubt that this coconut cake was one of the things she baked with her Confederate widow sugar and Confederate widow flour.

I don’t have a picture of Melissa Goddard, but my grandmother described her to me as a small woman who wore Victorian boots and dresses. She told me stories of Melissa unlacing her Victorian boots and hiking up her long skirts and petticoats to wade into the Gulf with her grandchildren when they went swimming on hot days. Ollie Mae also told me that she smoked a pipe. That’s all I know about her, except that she passed down this cake for five generations. I’m sure that Melissa made this coconut cake for Ollie Mae on her childhood birthdays, Ollie Mae made it for my mother and my aunts and uncles, and I’m making it today. For both me, and for my joyful, red-headed grandmother, Ollie Mae.

A young Ollie Mae holding a monkey

I don’t mind sharing a birthday with a great Irish poet, but I’m more honored to share a birthday month with Ollie Mae. June 27th would have been her 81st birthday, if she was still with us (which I truly wish she was). A great lady, a great cook, and an amazing mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. I miss her every day.

Ollie Mae at her kitchen table

Grandma Goddard’s Coconut Cake is not beautiful. It will never be on the cover of a food magazine. It will never be the signature dessert of a celebrity pastry chef. It is an old-fashioned, soft cake, and as such it will break apart when you layer it, and you will curse as you patch it together with frosting. The layers will slide off center when you spread the frosting between them. It tastes best, though, when it is lopsided, with pieces of crumbs in the icing, served on a chipped dinner plate, with a side of Winn Dixie “Chek” brand Neopolitan ice cream and a chaser of sweet tea.

Grandma Goddard’s Coconut Cake

Notes:

Ollie Mae used fresh coconut that she grated on an old knuckle grater for this cake. My mother buys that nasty, sweetened coconut that is used for American macaroons and is sold in plastic bags at the supermarket. Do not use that stuff.

I use fresh coconut, but after grating it the old-fashioned way like my grandmother a few times, I broke down and bought a grating disk for my Cuisinart. It’s totally worth it. Of course, getting the coconut out of the shell is still a challenge (the fresher the coconut, the harder it is), as is getting the brown skin off of the white coconut. I use a sharp paring knife to pry the meat from the shell, and to trim the dark skin from the meat.

To get the “milk” out of the coconut, I hammer a large, philips head screwdriver (wash it first) into the coconut “eyes” and leave the coconut to drain into a Pryex measuring cup. Once it has drained, I put the coconuts into an old pillow case, take it to my front porch, and bang the coconuts against the concrete until they break open. After that, I pry the coconut shell from the meat, and trim away the brown skin. (Yes, it’s labor intensive, but the best things in life usually are.) I have purchased frozen, shredded coconut in my local Indian grocery store to make Indian recipes, and it’s very good and would make an acceptable substitute for fresh coconut (better than that processed, sweetened crap my mother uses anyway), and I could hardly blame you if that’s the route you want to take. Pick up a can of coconut milk at the same time to use for the liquid if you do.

Breaking up coconuts in an old Laura Ashley pillow case

I think that in Melissa Goddard’s day, the coconuts were larger (and wild in Florida, I am sure), and probably had a lot more liquid in them. I typically buy two coconuts now when I make this cake, because modern coconuts at grocery stores are tiny and generally older so much of the coconut milk has dried up. And also, I tend to end up with rotten ones because grocery stores keep them too long, so I like to have a back-up. My grandmother supplemented the coconut milk with regular milk if she did not have enough to measure 1 cup. I use a can of Thai coconut milk as a supplement or substitute.

draining the coconut

draining the coconut

The tradition in my family is to fill the cake simply with sweetened, whipped cream. But I often just double the frosting recipe and also use it to fill the layers. But I have also gotten creative through the years and have used lemon curd and key lime curd as a filling. Both are good.

frosting

frosting should be the consistency of marshmallow cream

Recipe:

Coconut Cake:
1 cup butter (2 sticks)
2 cups sugar
3 cups flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup coconut milk (drained from coconut)
4 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Frosting:
¼ teaspoons salt
2 egg whites
¼ cup superfine sugar
¾ cup white Karo syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
shredded coconut meat from 1 large or 2 small coconuts

Cake:

    1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour three 9-inch cake pans. (I put a parchment round in the bottom of each as well.)

    2. Cream together butter and sugar in a large bowl.

    3. Beat together egg yolks (not whites) with vanilla. Beat into creamed butter and sugar.

    4. Mix together flour and baking powder.

    5. Alternate adding coconut milk and dry ingredients to butter/sugar/egg mixture just until incorporated and ending with dry ingredients.

    6. Beat the 4 egg whites until stiff. Gently fold into batter until just incorporated. Do not overfold and deflate egg whites.

    7. Bake for 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into cake comes out with just a few crumbs on it.

Frosting:

    1. Beat egg whites and salt into soft peaks.

    2. Add sugar and beat until smooth and looks “glazy.”

    3. Add Karo slowly and beat until stiff.

    4. Add vanilla.

cooling layers

You can fill the cake with whipped cream and frost with the above frosting, which is what the original recipe directs, or you can fill and frost the cake with this frosting. Or you can fill the cake with lemon curd or lime curd, which I do occasionally with great success.

Press the fresh, grated coconut into the sides and onto the top of the cake. Ollie Mae sometimes put one maraschino cherry into the center of the cake as a decoration.

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Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and Me

One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” — Virginia Woolf

“…instead of studying Locke, for instance, or writing — I go make an apple pie, or study The Joy of Cooking, reading it like a rare novel. Whoa, I said to myself. You will escape into domesticity & stifle yourself by falling headfirst into a bowl of cookie batter.” – Sylvia Plath

I ended my graduate school career (at last) a few weeks ago, and took the week before my graduation off from work. I had final assignments to complete, and I had to clean up my neglected house before weekend guests and well-wishers showed up at my door. Between juggling my April work deadline (see my previous post) and 3 nights of grad school per week, I was becoming a bit overwhelmed and cranky.

It wasn’t much of a vacation. I focused on final papers and a final presentation that was due the Thursday before graduation, and I was attempting to get some housework done between completing my assignments and leaving for class every evening. And to make matters worse, my car chose that week to break down, so I had to catch the bus to the subway in order to get to class, which took a larger chunk out of my already packed “week off”.

I was cleaning my kitchen and inspecting my pantry and refrigerator one morning after staying up until after 3 a.m. in order to finish a final class project that was due that evening, and I pulled a half-used bag of almond flour out of my cupboard, a plastic container of egg whites out of my refrigerator (left over from a week-long brownie-making orgy two weeks earlier), and then I became inspired and I checked for some heavy cream. Yes! — organic, free range Family Farms heavy cream on the shelf behind the buttermilk. Then I looked for and found an unopened jar of seedless, all-natural raspberry preserves in the pantry.

My final class presentation was eight hours away. I had been up until 3:30 in the morning putting the finishing touches on my presentation on a fake publishing house, complete with fake imprints, fake titles, and a fake business and marketing plan that would result in a very real final grade. I was exhausted and nervous about my presentation. I found it absolutely necessary, therefore, to make French macarons. Specifically, raspberry macarons.

As I was pulsing almond flour with sugar in my food processor, considering that I really should be focusing on my final class project instead of making raspberry macarons, I remembered a journal article that I recently read in Gastronomica about Sylvia Plath and how she would procrastinate on her writing deadlines by baking. Instead of writing, she said in her journals, she would “fall headfirst into a bowl of cookie batter.” I understand. There is something about baking when the rest of your life seems out of control that brings a sense of calmness and organization. A broken down car, a presentation that would determine my graduate school success or failure, a home that would never look like a page out of Martha Stewart Living magazine by the time my guests arrived – all of this was out of my control. But what I could do was whip egg whites into the perfect peak for the perfect macaron.

And as I was gently folding my perfectly peaked egg whites into my pink-tinted batter, I thought of Virginia Woolf. I was never a big Virginia Woolf fan. Despite the fact that I was an English major at a women’s liberal arts college, my curriculum was curiously devoid of both Plath and Woolf. I read Jane Austen, the Brontes, Margaret Atwood, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty, but I wouldn’t really discover Sylvia or Virginia until after I graduated.

Maybe it’s because they both committed suicide, and as such were not the best literary role models for young, female English majors. I read The Hours (no, I have not seen the movie) a few years ago, and it sparked a renewed interest in Virginia Woolf for me. In The Hours, the pregnant Laura is reading Mrs. Dalloway in bed before she begins the process of baking and decorating her husband’s birthday cake. Unsatisfied with the less-than-perfect results, she dumps it into her trashcan, which exacerbates her feelings of failure as the perfect mid-century housewife to her perfect World War II veteran husband in their perfect subdivision with their perfect neighbors.

Virginia Woolf baked bread, very good bread according to her friend Louie Mayer in Recollections of Virginia Woolf,

“I was surprised how complicated the process was and how accurately Mrs Woolf carried it out. She showed me how to make the dough with the right quantities of yeast and flour, and then how to knead it. She returned three or four times during the morning to knead it again. Finally, she made the dough into the shape of a cottage loaf and baked it at just the right temperature.”

I piped perfect – absolutely perfect – circles of macarons onto silpat-lined half sheet pans. I learned how to pipe perfect circles from Chef Mark Ramsdell when I was his pastry student at L’Academie de Cuisine. The secret is counting as you pipe, and lots of practice. I counted out loud, 1-2-3, for each pink blob before lifting the pastry bag for the next one. It was easy to lose myself in the counting and piping as the silpat sheets filled up. (In a way, the ability to pipe perfect circles gives me as much feeling of accomplishment as getting a master’s degree.) I let my beautiful little pink orbs rest for an hour while I preheated my oven and mixed chocolate and cream and seedless raspberry jam into a perfectly-emulsified ganache.

I don’t know why I felt a compulsion to make French macarons on the morning of my last graduate school class when I should have been focusing on Powerpoint slides and Excel spreadsheets for my made-up publishing house. Why did Sylvia Plath bake when she had a writing deadline? Why do I come home from work at 4 a.m. and choose to read a recipe and bake cookies after reading the same page proofs for hours over and over again? Why did Laura Brown throw her husband’s birthday cake in the trash, and why did Virginia Woolf spend her mornings baking bread? Maybe because no matter what happened that day, even if I embarrassed myself with a substandard publishing project and froze in front of my Powerpoint slides after missing my bus and showing up late for my last class, and my friends came down from New York for my graduation and my guest room carpets hadn’t been steam-cleaned, and the comforters hadn’t been dry cleaned, and my bathroom tile wasn’t pristine, and my sofa cushions smelled like wet terrier… even if all of that happened, at least I had made perfect raspberry macarons. At that was something.

I packed up my macarons and brought them to class, and passed them among my fellow students and my professor as I gave my presentation. And I got an A- on my project, and in the class, and my professor sent me an e-mail to tell me my grade and to let me know how wonderful she found my raspberry macarons (a great compliment, I thought, considering she works for a French publishing company and spends a great deal of time in Paris) and wished me luck in my publishing career. I might have gotten an A or an A+ had I spent that morning fine-tuning my presentation instead of making raspberry macarons, but I didn’t care. The following day I put on a cap and gown and a master’s hood, and I graduated.

But I must get back into the world of my creative mind: otherwise, in the world of pies & shin beef, I die. The great vampire cook extracts the nourishment & I grow fat on the corruption of matter, mere mindless matter. I must be lean & write & make worlds besides this to live in.” – Sylvia Plath

Who said Sylvia Plath had to make a choice between her pies and her creative mind? Personally, I think that maybe if she had baked more apple pies — free from feelings of guilt or inferiority — maybe her head would not have been the last thing she stuck in her oven.

Maybe there’s a Ph.D. dissertation in there somewhere. Maybe for someone who has more interest in writing such a dissertation than in baking French macarons. Because one thing’s for sure. I’m not going to kill myself over it!

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Deadlines and the Zen of the Cookie!

I’ve had a huge work deadline for the past few weeks, and my coworkers and I have been working really long hours with very little sleep.

When we work until 2 am, we usually come in later the next day because we have to work until 2 am again, and if we don’t get any sleep at all we risk a psychotic breakdown. However, despite the fact that I am going into work late, I can never seem to sleep in. No matter what time I finally get to go to bed, once the birds start chirping and the sun starts to filter into my window, I am wide awake. I know I am going to suffer later when I am trying to make changes to a document at 1:30 in the morning, but I can’t help it. So, I end up sleep-deprived and cranky at 8 AM after only getting a few hours of sleep, knowing I have to be back in the office in a few hours.

So, I get up and bake cookies. Baking can be better than sleep. On some levels, it’s even more restorative. When I’m baking, space-time continuum is dull background noise, and I lose myself in butter, eggs, and vanilla. The sound of my Kitchenaid mixing dough is soothing zen. The miraculous alchemy of flour, butter, eggs, and vanilla coming together to form something wondrous and sweet and luscious makes the neglected mess of my home, the relentless stampede of my work deadline, and my complete lack of sleep fade away.

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Since I usually only have about 2 hours to bake something in order to get back into my office before lunchtime, I am limited in my baking ambitions. Chocolate croissants are out. Chocolate chip cookies are in. My favorite is the chocolate chip cookie recipe I learned at L’Academie. It’s a basic recipe that I alter with some pretty cool variations, such as white chocolate, hazelnut, and dried blueberries; and milk chocolate, dried cherries, and pecans. You can have a lot of fun with a really great basic recipe (thank you, Chef Mark Ramsdell). I also make brown sugar cookies, and basic sugar cookies to which I add chopped crystallized ginger. Cookies that can be mixed and baked in less than an hour, and then cooled while I take a shower and get dressed.

I’ve always had jobs that demand ridiculous hours from me. I was employed in the creative department of advertising agencies through most of my twenties and early-to-mid- thirties. I call those “the lost years” because I spent my life working. I completely lost my youth to Capitol One direct mail packages, Blue Cross and Blue Shield direct mail campaigns, Chesapeake Bagel Bakery store signage, and Ryan Home weekly newspaper advertisements. But I had fun for the most part. No one can say that working in advertising isn’t fun at least some of the time. Where else can you roll out of bed with a hangover, throw on a dirty t-shirt, and go to work looking like a mugshot of a person who hasn’t quite recovered from the previous evening’s binge drinking? Not that I ever did that. I was pretty well-groomed most of the time (unlike a certain art director from Pittsburgh who wore the same vintage bowling shirt every day for an entire month during a certain morose period that preceded a sudden move to Dallas and the loss of his ponytail).

One Sunday night in the 1990’s, I was baking oatmeal raisin cookies. It had been one of the very rare weekends that I didn’t have to work. I was taking the cookies out of the oven at about 10 pm to cool with the intention of taking them into the office the next day, when the phone rang. It was my creative director, Tom. He told me that he had just finished a new creative presentation, and he needed me to come into the office to print and board everything for a client presentation the next morning. “Seriously, Tom, it’s 10 pm and I just made cookies!” I said. “Great,” he replied, “I’m hungry!”

A few months later, I had major, emergency dental surgery due to a neglected, abcessed tooth. An art director buddy of mine literally forced me to go to her dentist, who was a few blocks from our office, after the left side of my face had swelled up so much that I looked like a hampster. Her dentist informed me that my abscess had become, supposedly, “life-threatening” and required that I make a choice between immediate surgery at a dental surgeon a few miles away, or the possibility of imminent death from a brain infection. After leaving the emergency dental surgeon’s office several hours later–sans a left molar–I jammed the prescription for Percocet into my pocket, ignored the dental surgeon’s instructions to go home immediately and stay in bed, went back to the studio, and worked until 4 am on a new business pitch for an insurance company with an ice pack duct-taped to the side of my face. Tom went to the all-night CVS and bought me canned vegetarian vegetable soup so I’d have something to eat when everyone else ordered pizza. He was thoughtful like that.

I went to L’Academie de Cuisine a few years later, after Earle Palmer Brown had been bought and then closed down, and then another agency that I worked for after that also closed due to general suckiness of the agency and bipolar tendencies on the part of the alcoholic owner (not WWA, above, just for the record, which was one of the better agencies for which I have worked). I had the crazy idea that I could do something I loved and not work insane hours for crappy money in an abusive work environment run by 40-year-old adolescent boys who were womanizing, narcissistic, slave drivers. I have since learned a thing or two about the pastry industry, but at the time I blissfully strolled into the school each night for class to the smell of yeast, dough, and vanilla lingering in the air, and immediately felt a harmony that only yeast, dough, and vanilla can bring me. Folding croissant dough, stirring custard in a slow figure 8 until it achieves perfect consistency and gives up its starch to aromatic sweetness, rolling pastry into a perfect circle… it was Zen. Pure Happiness. Peace.

One of these days, I really am going to bake cookies and make chocolate for a living. For now, I just bake for some sanity in the midst of working long, crazy hours in a stressful job. One good thing about working in jobs that demand above-and-beyond dedication and long hours is that you tend to bond with your co-workers more than in 9-5 jobs. I’m still friends with almost every person with whom I have ever pulled an all-nighter. Once you’ve seen someone at his or her worst at 3 am– sobbing hysterically over a color printer that has suddenly ceased functioning, or talking an art director off a ledge when his Mac crashes and he loses an entire campaign — you have a bond that doesn’t go away. There are things that happen in the bowels of the night, in creative departments all over the world in advertising agencies of every stripe, that are best never repeated after the sun comes up. Like Fight Club — “the first rule of pulling an all-nighter at Earle Palmer Brown is, you don’t talk about what happens when you pull an all-nighter at Earle Palmer Brown”. I’ve seen art directors just suddenly disappear (also referred to as “getting a job at a boutique shop in Baltimore”.)

I’ve always baked as a counterbalance to what I do for a living. (One of these days, I’m actually going to make chocolate and cookies for a living, and then I don’t know what I’ll do. Maybe design ads for relaxation?) My cookies are my own. I can put dark chocolate or milk chocolate in them. I can decide I’m in the mood for hazelnuts. Or not. I can do what I want, without having to put up with some control freak, creative wannabe account manager giving me a hard time. I never have to hear:


    “What is this? This is not what I asked for! The client was specific. She said 112 chocolate chips. These have 118 chocolate chips. Did you read the creative brief? Does anyone in this fucking creative department read the fucking creative briefs, or do you people just do whatever the fucking hell you want? I don’t know why I fucking bother. We are going to lose this client and we are all going to get fired because you people can’t read a fucking creative brief and can’t follow simple goddamn instructions, or I wouldn’t be staring at a plate of cookies with 118 chocolate chips when I was very clear in my creative brief about the number of fucking chips the fucking client wants in her fucking cookies. And now I have to take this pile of crap to my client meeting and explain why I work with a bunch of incompetent fucking assholes who can’t follow simple, fucking instructions.”

Nope. I never have to hear that. At least about my cookies, anyway. So, here’s to cookies, with or without chips, nuts, or dried cherries. Made with sugar and spice and whatever else the hell I want to put in them. My cookies, made from my heart. The way I want. Even when I don’t have time to find my zen with French macarons, chocolate bonbons, or almond croissants, my cookies are always there to keep me centered and sane. And for those simple little round balls of doughy happiness, I am very grateful.

“Make ‘Em Your Own” chip, fruit, or nut cookies
(adapted from Chef Mark Ramsdell at L’Academie de Cuisine)

350° 13+ minutes (depending on size of cookie)

This recipe makes a lot of cookies. I make small (about 2 bite) cookies that I portion with a scoop, and I get about 4 dozen cookies from this recipe.

    4.4 oz. shortening (I use the transfat free “Spectrum” shortening that I purchase at Whole Foods)
    5.25 oz. butter, softened
    8 oz. sugar
    8 oz. brown sugar
    2 large eggs
    1 large yolk
    1 tsp. vanilla
    1 tsp. baking soda
    1 tsp. salt
    14 oz. all-purpose flour
    1 cup nuts, dried fruit, or a combination, coarsely chopped
    12 oz. chocolate chips, coarsely chopped (I buy my chocolate in bulk and chop it by hand, which gives some textural diversity which I think is appealing — but you can use bagged chocolate chips)
    1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment.

    2. Sift together. flour, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl.

    3. Cream shortening, butter + both sugars in a stand mixer, or with a hand-held mixer, for about 3 minutes.

    4. To the cream/butter/sugar mixture, add eggs. Then add flour mixture a little at a time until just combined.

    5. Mix in nuts, chips, and/or dried fruit by hand.

    6. These spread a bit so leave about 2 inches between cookies. I bake these at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes.

These are great for making ice cream sandwiches.

Ginger Cookies
(adapted from a Cook’s Illustrated recipe)


    10 oz (about 2 cups) flour (I use a combination of 9 oz. King Arthur all-purpose and 1 oz. King Arthur Queen Guinivere cake flour)
    ½ tsp. baking powder
    ¼ tsp. salt
    2 tsp. ground ginger (I use Penzey’s) — more if you really like ginger
    16 oz. unsalted butter (2 sticks), softened
    7 oz. (about 1 cup) granulated sugar
    1 tbs. light brown sugar
    1 large egg + 1 large egg yolk
    2 tsp. vanilla extract
    ½ cups chopped, crystallized ginger (I use Penzey’s Australian crystallized ginger)

    to roll cookies, mix together:
    ½ cup granulated sugar
    1 tsp. ground ginger


    1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or a silpat.

    2. Whisk together flour, baking powder, salt and ground ginger.

    3. In a glass measuring cup, lightly mix egg, egg yolk, and vanilla extract.

    4. In a Kitchenaid, or with a hand mixer, cream butter and both sugars for 3 minutes. Add egg/vanilla mixture and mix until just absorbed. Add dry ingredients gradually until just incorporated.

    5. Mix in chopped ginger by hand.

    6. Using a small scoop or a spoon, form dough into small (about 2”) balls, roll in sugar/ginger mix, and space about 2” apart on parchment-lined baking sheet.

    7. Bake between 12-15 minutes until lightly brown around edges. I have a convection oven, and it takes a few minutes longer.

Another Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe that doesn’t require shortening

Makes 1 1/2 dozen 3-inch cookies

This is a recipe that I adapted from Cook’s Illustrated. I made one significant change. The original recipe calls for melting and cooling the butter. I brown the butter, which gives the cookie a butterscotch flavor that is a definite improvement. I really like these, although not as much as Chef Mark’s.

    10 1/2 oz (2-1/8 cups) all-purpose flour (I use King Arthur organic unbleached)
    ½ tsp. table salt
    ½ tsp. baking soda
    12 tbs. unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks)
    7 oz. (1 cup) dark brown sugar (light can work too)
    3-1/2 oz. (1/2 cup) granulated sugar
    1 large egg
    1 large egg yolk
    1-½ tsp. vanilla extract
    1-2 cups chocolate chips or chunks (I buy chocolate in bulk and cut it up myself), nuts, or dried fruit
    1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment or silpat.

    2. Brown butter by melting it gently over medium-low heat until it smells like butterscotch and has darkened slightly to a beige color. Don’t burn it. If it turns black, do it over again.

    3. Mix flour, salt, and baking soda together in medium bowl.

    4. In a measuring cup (or any other cup), lightly mix egg, yolk, and vanilla together.

    5. Mix melted and slightly cooled butter and brown and granulated sugars for 3 minutes in a stand mixer or with a hand-held mixer (or by hand for longer). Mix in egg/yolk/vanilla mixture. Mix in dry ingredients until just combined. Stir in chips by hand.

    6. Portion cookies in balls about 1” in diameter (I use a portion scoop). Keep about 2” apart on baking sheet. They spread a bit.

    7. Bake until cookies are light golden brown and outer edges start to harden yet centers are still soft and puffy, about 15 to 18. Don’t overbake. Cool on the cookie sheets if you want these cookies to retain their chewiness.

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Bunny Time!

I love making Easter chocolates more than any other chocolate. Maybe it’s the nostalgic memories of waking up as a kid to a big basket of candy, and the unnostalgic realization that the nasty peeps, foiled-wrapped waxy chocolate, hard and tasteless jelly beans, disappointingly thin hollow bunnies, and icky neon candy-coated marshmallow eggs all nestled in pink plastic “straw” sucked almost as much as having to get dressed up to sit in Mass for 3 hours. And to add insult to injury, after the first grade (i.e. First Communion), you had to wait until AFTER Mass to even eat your nasty Easter candy because you can’t eat before Communion. The only good thing about growing up Catholic is that Catholics usually have the good sense to keep their Sunday service to under an hour. The good priests (young and quick) had you out and at the Shoney’s breakfast buffet in 45 minutes. (Catholic Mass is the fast food of Christian services.) Except on Easter Sunday, when Catholics have to endure the longest and most boring service of the year.

When I was in high school, my friend Kim convinced her mother – who was an 8:00 am Mass Catholic, to let her (and her Saturday sleepover friends, which more often than not included me) sleep late on Sunday mornings and go to the 11:00 am Mass unchaperoned. The 11:00 am Mass is usually the last Mass of the morning, and hence the most crowded. Kim would take her mother’s huge station wagon (Kim was the youngest of 9 kids) and we would all go out to the beach instead of Mass and we changed into our swimsuits in the back of the station wagon while waiting in traffic on the bay bridge. Until Kim’s mother got wise, and demanded that Kim bring home the weekly church bulletin to prove we had gone to Mass and not to the beach. So, before Mass started, Kim drove up to the front door of St. Paul’s and one us (chosen by fate or challenge) tried to make a quick dash to the vestibule and back to grab a weekly bulletin without being spotted by anyone acquainted with our parents. An impossible mission, and Kim’s mother was notified, and after that Kim had to go to Mass at the crack of dawn with her mother. Now that we are 40-something (ahem!) Kim is still a regular at Sunday morning Mass and the only time I set foot in church is if someone has died or is getting married.

Even though I don’t go to Mass anymore, I still love Easter. The pastel clothes with shiny, new, patent leather shoes, the beautiful hymns, the crisp Spring air, daffodils and tulips, colored eggs (later made into deviled eggs for the Easter table), and (of course) chocolate bunnies, made the years of suffering through weeks of Lenten asceticism, Friday fish sandwiches, and those dreaded afternoon Stations of the Cross almost worth it. I’ve now made it a personal quest to make Easter chocolate that doesn’t suck. And I’m going to send some to my old friend Kim, who has sat through many Sunday masses with me, Easter and otherwise, since we were 8 years old. And I hope she enjoys the chocolate bunnies. After Communion, of course.

Here are some pictures of my 2010 Easter chocolate making marathon:

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Citrus Beurre Blanc, a.k.a. Devil Sauce

Citrus Beurre Blanc and Salmon

Citrus Beurre Blanc and Salmon

I cohabitate with a fish hater. Which is hard for me, being a native Floridian who grew up eating fish and seafood as a food group. My last meal, without a doubt, would be smoked mullet and swamp cabbage, exactly the way my grandmother made it. But even in the absence of smoked mullet and swamp cabbage, I eat fish every chance I get. Which is not often, considering my unfortunate living situation. So when I do eat it, I make it special. Being left all alone and to my own devices this weekend, I went to Whole Foods in Silver Spring and got a big piece of beautiful wild caught salmon, and made Sandy Patterson’s Citrus Beurre Blanc to go with it (grapefruits cost like THREE DOLLARS each at Whole Paycheck!!!!). This stuff is not for the feint of heart. It contains a ridiculous amount of butter, and as such is also ridiculously delicious. Which makes it dangerous for anyone who is not a supermodel or an Olympic athlete (or just annoyingly genetically blessed). If it moved to New York, Bloomberg would ban it.

Sandy Patterson, who graduated from and teaches at L’Academie de Cuisine, includes this sauce in some of the classes she teaches at the recreational school. (Her husband, Brian Patterson, teaches lesser sauces in the professional program.) I’d say it was the Food of the Gods, but it’s too good. It’s the Devil’s Sauce. How else could something so good be so bad ? And I’m also pretty gosh darn proud of myself for being able to consistently make it. I had a few greasy, nasty, unemulsified disasters with some early attempts.

I know what you’re saying… this is a PASTRY blog, not a beurre blanc blog. But one must diversify in one’s gratuitous butter intake, and a little savory never hurt anyone. Except for this sauce, which makes creme anglaise look like diet food. Here’s how you make it: (I can’t reprint Sandy’s original recipe. First, I don’t know where it is. Secondly, it’s unethical to hand out someone else’s recipe without permission. Thirdly, I’ve made it so many times that I stopped needing her recipe years ago and have strayed from it a bit. But at heart, it’s still Sandy Patterson’s Citrus Beurre Blanc/Devil Sauce.)

Finishing with Butter

Finishing with Butter

Combine the strained juice from a variety of citrus fruits (oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit, etc.) in a non-reactive saucepan with a bunch of roughly chopped shallots (2 or 3 or so) and a sprig of thyme if you have some lurking around but it’s not a big deal if you don’t. Reduce until the citrus juices are somewhat syrupy and almost evaporated, and then throw in some heavy cream (a good splash) — and reduce again until thick. Then whisk in a lot of butter, one pat at a time. At least 1-1/2 sticks (10-12 oz.) or so. The more butter you whisk in, the richer, creamier, and more devil-like it becomes. Strain, season, serve.

You can’t keep this stuff for more than an hour or so. It breaks if you try to reheat it. And you can’t just throw away the leftovers, nor can you put it in a coffee cup and drink it like milk. Really, you CAN’T! I mean, you could, but you really shouldn’t. That’s the devil sauce in your head telling you that you can. Instead, look around for other stuff to nonchalantly dip in the leftover sauce so you can pretend like you are not actually eating a bucket of butter and cream. Some suggestions are:


    leftover broccoli


    the ends of bread that you were saving for the birds


    leftover pizza


    saltine crackers


    Pringles


    melba toast


    leftover take-out dimsum


    dill pickles


    microwaved chorizo


    hard boiled eggs


    cherry tomatoes


    baby carrots


    Stella D’oro bread sticks


    the rice cakes you bought for your diet


    a big spoon




Finished Sauce

Finished Sauce

Thank you, Sandy!

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Shark!


I watched the movie Jaws on cable this weekend. I grew up on the Gulf coast of Florida, and after I watched that movie I stopped swimming out to sandbars, swimming at night with my siblings and cousins (like anyone ever could again after that opening scene), and I STILL can’t get into the ocean again without thinking that there is a Great White lurking just below the surface. Truth is, there IS. Maybe not JUST below the surface and maybe not a Great White, but if you’re in the ocean, then you’re swimming with sharks. My mom tells me stories about swimming in Midnight Pass, an area on Siesta Key in Sarasota where she grew up which is particularly known for sharks (small ones, not Great Whites). According to Mom, although she and her siblings never stayed in the water when they spotted a shark, they didn’t freak out and have panic attacks either. As a young man, my granddad used to kill small sand sharks and sell their jaws to tourists. Until one day, as he told the story, a large wave turned him from predator into prey. He won the day and I’m certain that the story of his gallant shark wrestling was probably exaggerated through the years, but he never hunted sharks again after that incident. Good for the sharks, which really don’t mean us any harm. We go into their home, splash around like a bunch of seals au gratin with truffle butter, and then don’t understand when they take a bite out of us.

When I was in the 7th grade and lived on Longboat Key (also in Sarasota), a dead shark washed up on the shore by my house. It was about 3 feet long, and it slowly decomposed on the shore until there was nothing left of it but a pile of dried-out leathery skin and some bones. It was gross, but it was the kind of adolescent gross that is fascinating and gross at the same time. Like when the giant shark eats Captain Quint in the movie. But watching that shark decompose made me appreciate exactly what goes into a shark, which made me appreciate sharks and what complex and fascinating creatures they actually are. It made me understand sharks beyond being the monsters from the deep that were demonized in a 1970’s movie blockbuster, and I felt quite sorry for that little shark that had washed up on the shore next to my house. It was very existential moment in my life, in a 12-year-old sort of way.

I found a shark cookie cutter last week on the clearance rack of TJ Maxx, while wandering around the Friendship Heights neighborhood of Washington, recovering from a particularly unpleasant dental appointment and waiting for my ride home to leave work. And when Jaws came on television over the weekend, I took it as a sign that I was meant to make shark cookies. Of course, I don’t really need an excuse to make cookies of any shape. But for justification, I packed a bunch of them up and sent them to a friend who is in the hospital recovering from knee surgery. A little homage to that shark of my adolescence, even if mine are made up of sugar, butter, eggs, and copious amounts of colored icing.

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