Sunday, April 15, 2012

Cranberry cookies

As we've seen, I like adding cranberries to things they're not normally in. We were discussing baking cookies, and I have a jar of dried cranberries which we discussed putting in. I was against the motion—these particular cranberries were over-sweetened (dried, unsweetened cranberries would be nice, but these were really sickly sweet)—and suggested fresh cranberries. Which I was out of.

Over the river and through the woods and off to the grocery we go. I returned with cranberries and used them instead of chocolate chips in tollhouse cookies. (You can also use them in addition to chocolate chips, which is not frowned upon, especially if you use dark chocolate which balances the cranberry flavor well.) The recipe is a normal tollhouse cookie recipe (feel free to use your own) but with a few minor changes. You'll use:

The berries won't stir in that well.
That's why the good lord gave you
hands. It's more fun, too.

  • 2 1/4 C flour
  • 1 t baking soda
  • 1 t salt
  • 1 C butter (softened)
  • 3/4 C brown sugar
  • 3/4 C white sugar
  • 1 t vanilla
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 C cranberries (8 ounces), or 1/2 C cranberries and 1/2 C chocolate chips
  • 1 C chopped walnuts
Make these as you would normal chocolate chip cookies (cream butter and sugar, add eggs and vanilla, stir in dries). Then add the nuts and chocolate chips. 

Slightly smushed and formed cookies
on the tray.
Finally, add the cranberries. The berries will not stick in the dough like raisins or chocolate chips do, so you'll have to form the cookies around the berries, especially if they are frozen. This precludes using a spoon to put the cookies on the baking sheet, so get your hands in to the dough! I also made slightly larger cookies (8 on a 12x18" sheet) so there are several berries in each. They don't have to be pretty when they go on the sheet, but you don't want berries rolling around. Making a sandwich—dough, cranberries, and more dough on top—seems to work well.

Bake at 350˚ until browned on top. Recipes often give times, but it depends a lot on the oven. These seemed to take longer than the usual 9-11 minutes you see on cookie recipes, because the cranberries keep the dough cooler. Once they pop, though, and the red juice runs down the side, well, it's a beautiful—and tasty—thing.

These also make a fantastic cookie bar (make the same batter, and put it in a glass pan and bake at 350 until done, 25-40 minutes).

Cranberries at Passover—an American Charoset

Back in biblical times, there wasn't much contact between the Americas and Europe and Asia (that is, of course, unless you're a Mormon). So it would seem anachronistic to include the certainly-American fruit in a Passover seder. But I was given the task of making charoset for the family meal this year, and I took it as a challenge. I made several varieties. There was a rather typical apple-plum-walnut (I found plums at the grocery, and they figured in well). There was "tropical" charoset which had mangoes and strawberries but wound up being too watery and had to be cooked down (although it tasted good and sure looked like mortar. There was pistachio charoset, which was subtle and delicious.

And then there was the crowd's favorite: cranberry. There are two traditional charosets. Ashkenazic is generally simply made with apples and walnuts. Sephardic focuses more on dried fruit like figs, raisins and dates and a variety of nuts. I prefer the moister texture of the Ashkenaz, but like the more exotic flavors of the Sephardim (the pistachio charoset, which I kept dry by adding only enough plum, apple and wine to get it to stick together, was more in this tradition). And cranberries, well, it's setting off in a new direction.

Charoset is generally quite sweet, so I figured the presence of the fruit (and a bit of honey or even maple syrup, for the true American experience) would balance out the tartness of the cranberries. (I'd eat straight cranberries chopped with walnuts and wine, but I'm not sure that's one to bring to the masses.) I had several requests for the recipe and I sort of laughed. Recipe? I just chopped stuff and mixed it in a bowl. Nevertheless, here's an approximation of what I made:

  • 2 Apples, a less-sweet variety like Granny Smith
  • 2 firm Plums
  • 1/2 pound (or perhaps more) Walnuts
  • 1/2 pound frozen cranberries (or if you can somehow get them, fresh)
  • A pinch of cinnamon (optional)
  • Honey or maple syrup
  • A robust (cheap) wine. Kosher if you must. The Trader Joes / Whole Foods $3 merlot variety works fine
You could make this whole recipe by hand, but I used a food processor. Definitely easier.

Roast the walnuts until they are slightly browned and set aside to cool. Core both apples, quarter them and pulse in a food processor until they are chopped but not pureed. Set aside in a large bowl.

Do the same with the plums, drain off any extraneous liquid and add to the apples. 

Since you can't get fresh cranberries this time of year, put frozen cranberries in the food processor and pulse them until they are chopped as well, and add them to the mix.

Pulse the walnuts and add them slowly to the fruit, mixing frequently. When it reaches the desired consistency, stop adding the walnuts, although you should have some extra nuts. Taste the charoset. If it tastes too tart, add a bit (1 T or so) of honey or maple syrup. Then add a bit (a few T) of wine; this charoset has a complex enough flavor that the wine is not really necessary; certainly don't go overboard with it.

Finally, if the mixture is too watery, add some more walnuts to soak up the moisture.

This will serve 15 to 20 and can be made ahead of time and refrigerated for a while. And I think it would make a heck of a cranberry sauce come Thanksgiving, too.

I was encouraged by many guests to quit my day job and go in to the charoset business. With the success of this and the pistachio (similar ingredients and process, figure it out) I just well may. It sure makes a healthy, and delicious snack. Even when you haven't been sitting around a table arguing and drinking wine for two hours beforehand.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The best Mac and Cheese you'll ever have

Nothing wrong with two pounds of Cabot
The best cheddar cheese in the world used to have a macaroni and cheese recipe on the back. My grandfather (and then, after he died, grandmother) used to make a pretty mean mac and cheese, too. So, I took the two recipes, pulled them in to one and, of course, added the magic ingredient. The result is phenomenal, and has three of my most favorite foods:

  1. Cabot seriously sharp cheddar
  2. Caramelized onions
  3. Cranberries
  4. Oh, and there's cayenne in there, too. You could call it the four Cs Mac and Cheese.
What this means is that you combine the tanginess of the cheddar, the sweetness of the onions, the sourness of the cranberries and the spiciness of the cayenne. It's fantastic.

So here's the deal. This will make enough for two 9x12 / 10x13 pans; it's enough to put in the fridge or freezer for the whole week. Or cut it in half and it's a good meal for two to four (depending on how hungry you are). Oh, and experiment, change portions, this is not exact.

The not-so-secret ingredient
  • 4 c elbow mac (about a pound, or a bit more)
  • 6 T of butter, plus a little more to grease the pan, plus a little more to caramelize the onions
  • 6 T flour
  • 1 t dry mustard (or quite a bit more of dijon)
  • 1 t cayenne (or more or less, to taste)
  • 1 t ground pepper
  • 1 t worcestershire
  • a pinch of salt
  • 4 c whole milk
  • 24-32 oz cheddar. Sharper the better. And really if it's not Cabot, you're doing it wrong. OH and it can not be yellow. DO NOT USE YELLOW CHEESE.
  • 1 to 2 onions, chopped, sauteed in butter as long as possible so they are brown and sweet. Don't add anything.
  • 1 cup (or so) of coarsely chopped bread crumbs (stale french or italian bread works very well for this)
  • About a pound of cranberries
Caramelize the onions. If you don't know how to do this, chop the onions, put them in a pan with butter brown them, then turn the heat to low and cook for a while. The lower and longer the better. If you don't do this ahead of time, it should be your first step. And if you do this ahead of time, make a bunch of onions, and put some in the fridge.

Cook the pasta fully. While it is boiling, grate about a pound and a half of cheese, or a bit more. Warm the milk (pouring cold milk in to a roux is a recipe for disaster) in a pot or microwave. Have the spices, milk and cheese by the stove.

Ready to go in the oven. I forgot to take a picture of
the beautifully-browned finished product. We were
too hungry for such frivolities.
In a large saucepan, melt the butter over low-to-medium heat and, once it is melted, slowly add the flour, whisking constantly. (Also, make sure you don't brown the butter.) This is the roux. This should develop in to a paste. Keep the heat low, and be careful not to over-brown it. Add the spices to this mixture. Then, slowly add the milk, continuing to whisk. Add the cheese bit by bit, stirring constantly. (Lots of stirring.) Once it thickens, turn the heat to low and keep stirring.

To this mixture, add the pasta, the caramelized onions, and the cranberries. Stir until the cranberries, if they are frozen together, are separated.

Grease pan(s) and pour the mixture in to the pans. Coarsely chop crusty bread (or use bread crumbs) and sprinkle across, and top this with about 1/4 of the cheese, reserved.

Bake at 400˚ for half an hour until the top and sides begin to brown. Slice and serve, and refrigerate leftovers. This can be made in pie tins and frozen for months and rewarmed in a 350˚ oven. That's how my grandfather made it, and he'd deliver it to our freezer for an easy kids meal. (Well, he used some swiss, and didn't add cranberries.) It makes a great adult comfort food meal too, especially when served with a salty, savory green (I'm thinking spinach, kale or asparagus).