Bits and Pieces

Today is all about bits and pieces.  I’m hard at work trying to get sample chapters of the two manuscripts I’m taking to the Book Expo edited then burned onto CDs.  And like the 3rd grader embellishing her book report with ribbons so she’ll get an “A” I have spent the morning gussying up the CD cases that will hold the discs.  That’s them in the photo on the left.  Fancy stuff.

Of course, this is time I should be using to write this week’s blog entry.

In its place I’m posting two of the entries from a proposed cookbook/food memoir, one from the Cookies section and one from Fruit Desserts. You’re the first to see these chapters, and these are two of my favorite recipes.  Enjoy!

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One of the first cookbooks I ever owned was a paperback version of the Toll House cookbook by Ruth Wakefield, owner of the Toll House Restaurant in Whitman, Massachusetts, birthplace of the Toll House cookie.

There are a couple of accounts describing this cookie’s birth.  In one, Ruth Wakefield started to make the batter for her restaurant’s signature chocolate cookies but found herself without baker’s (unsweetened) chocolate.  She did have at hand a bar of semisweet chocolate, and this she cut up and added to the mix before baking, expecting it would melt exactly like the other type had in the past.  It didn’t.

Another version relates that a broken chocolate bar fell into a sugar cookie dough from a shelf above the mixer.  Rather than throw away a rather costly mistake, the frugal Wakefield crossed her fingers and baked off the cookies.

Whichever tale you believe, no one argues that the finished cookies arrived on tables and guests loved them.  The now beloved chocolate chip cookie is the happy result of an accident.

When opting for a chocolate chip cookie I always turn to the Wakefield recipe rather than the one adapted for Nestle’s familiar yellow bag of chocolate chips.  The two recipes are practically identical except that the original includes a step for dissolving the teaspoon of baking soda in a teaspoon of warm water and adding this to the creamed mixture before adding the flour and salt.  It’s kind of an old fashioned step, this setting off the soda’s bubbling process early, as soda mixed into the dry ingredients will start leavening once it hits the wet, acidic part of the batter anyway.  But I like the idea of maintaining Ruth Wakefield’s tradition.

Chocolate chip cookies are traditionally American after all, started in Massachusetts but loved across the country.  They have a homey, right-out-of-the-oven-after-school deliciousness, but also the sophistication of having the perfect contrast of fruity chocolate to browned butterscotch flavors.  Maybe this is why these cookies caught on and endure still, why we hold onto our own beloved handed down versions and yet are always eager to lay our hands on a recipe for someone else’s variation.  We search for the ultimate, and also for the version that ultimately pleases something inside us the most.

I’ve got my own favorite version, one I threw together using some of my favorite things: pecans, coconut, and some milk chocolate along with the semisweet.  These are hardly traditional add-ins but, oh yum!  What a cookie!  Different, but still familiar.  A single bite reminds me of England’s milk chocolate Bounty bars, of the Magic Seven-Layer Bars of childhood, of the savory qualities of my grandmother’s pecan shortbreads, of Ruth Wakefield’s classics, and of coming home after a hard day of second grade to find a warm cookie and a cold glass of milk waiting for me.

With so little batter in proportion to the added ingredients, the quality of the chocolate’s flavors is important.  Milk, semisweet, or a combination, use only those chocolates you really like the taste of when sampled out of hand.  If you’re a purist and balk at the addition of coconut and nuts, note that they keep these cookies moister and chewier than a classic Toll House cookie.

Pecan, Coconut, and Chocolate Chunk Cookies

½ cup chopped pecans

2 cups chocolate chunks or chips (use milk, semisweet, or half and half)

1 ½ cups sweetened flaked coconut

1 cup plus 2 Tbsp. unbleached all-purpose flour

1 tsp. baking soda

½ tsp. salt

½ cup sugar

¼ cup dark or light brown sugar

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened

1 egg

1 tsp. vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.  Line 2 or 3 cookie sheets with parchment and set aside.  Measure out the nuts, chocolate and coconut and set aside.

Whisk flour, salt and baking soda together in a medium mixing bowl.  In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, and on medium speed cream the butter with the two sugars until light and fluffy.  Beat in the egg and vanilla until blended.

Add flour mixture to the creamed mixture, and on low speed blend only until combined.  Add in the nuts, chocolate and coconut and blend only until distributed.

Drop the batter by tablespoons or a small ice cream scoop onto the prepared cookie sheet, leaving about an inch and a half between each cookie.   Bake one sheet at a time in the middle of the preheated oven for about 12 minutes or until tops are light golden brown and look set.

Let the cookies cool on the sheet for a minute or two then remove them to a cooling rack.  Continue with the rest of the cookie sheets until all cookies are baked.

Makes about 2 ½ dozen cookies.

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For Easter dessert I really, really, really craved a ricotta pie from Modern Pastry in Boston’s North End.  Alas, I didn’t have one.  The craving hit me last minute so I hadn’t planned a trip into town, hadn’t even thought of placing an order at the busy bakery.  By the Saturday before Easter Sunday, anyone without a reserved pie would be out of luck.  The lines at Modern Pastry would be long, every last pie and pastry spoken for.

For many Italian Americans, Easter and sweet ricotta desserts go together hand in hand.  Italians more prepared than I sate their appetites for the sweetened cheese with either a straightforward ricotta pie or the once-a-year sweet Easter Pie, a more complex variation made with wheatberries and ricotta.

I confess, ordering this particular pie at the bakery would have been a splurge anyway, for I had ricotta at home.  Nice quality ricotta, too: made from whole milk, fresh and creamy but not bland, possessing a slightly dry and crumbly consistency rather than the disappointing wetter kind.  I wouldn’t have to let it strain long to make it dry enough for baking in a crust.  Between our soup and meat and potatoes, though, we felt we had a lot of heavy and rich foods already on the menu.  Perhaps this cheesecake-like dessert would be a too-rich addition to the menu?

What, then, to make?

I looked through a few of my favorite cookbooks and found the answer finally in Nigella Lawson’s Forever Summer.  Her gorgeous book contains a recipe for lemony ricotta hot cakes, and the hot cakes gave me the idea for ricotta fritters.

I adapted the hotcake recipe a bit to come up with a fried version of the pancake.  Before you assume fritters might be large, doughy, and heavy, let me assure you these fritters are delicate and light as air.  They are sweet but not too sweet, and perfumed with both vanilla and lemon zest.  Invest in a good fry thermometer and your fried foods will have the crispest deep brown crust, a perfectly cooked interior, and no excess oil.  They become a fruit dessert when you serve a few on a plate with raspberry and lemon sauces for dipping.

I have included a chocolate sauce too, for diehard chocolate fans.

Ricotta Fritters

1 quart vegetable or canola oil for frying

¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour

2 tsp. baking powder

¼ tsp. salt

zest of 1 lemon

2 large eggs

1 cup whole milk ricotta cheese, drained in cheesecloth over a bowl overnight if wet

2 Tbsp. sugar

1 tsp. vanilla

Optional: ½ cup diced apple, pear, or dried apricots

Powdered sugar

Prepare a good thickness of paper towels and/or brown paper for draining your hot fritters and set aside.

Start preheating vegetable or canola oil in a large (14”) skillet.  Test temperature with a candy/deep fry thermometer.  Oil is ready for frying at 360-370 degrees.

As oil preheats, stir together flour, baking powder, salt, and lemon or orange zest in a medium size mixing bowl and set dry ingredients aside.

Break two eggs into another medium size mixing bowl.  Beat eggs lightly and add to them the ricotta cheese, sugar, and vanilla.  Combine with a whisk until mixture is smooth.  Add dry ingredients to the egg and cheese mixture.  Using a rubber scraper, gently fold the dry ingredients into the wet.  Blend only until the flour has been incorporated, and do not overmix.

(Note: if you choose to add in any optional fruit, fold it into the batter during the last few seconds of mixing and mix only until evenly distributed.)

Check oil temperature with the thermometer.  For frying, the oil should reach between 360 and 370 degrees.  When oil is ready, drop batter by tablespoons or a small ice cream scoop (about 1½ Tbsp.) into the skillet.  Make up to 6 fritters at a time, taking care not to overcrowd the skillet, thus lowering the oil’s temperature.

Cook one side until golden, then turn the fritter using a slotted spoon to brown the other side.  Continue to turn during cooking to fry evenly.  Fritters take about 3-4 minutes to cook.

Remove finished fritters from oil using the slotted spoon and transfer them to the paper to drain.  Repeat the frying/draining process with the next 6 fritters at a time until batter is gone.

When fritters are done, still warm and draining on the paper, sprinkle liberally with powdered sugar through a sieve or sifter.  Serve immediately on dessert plates, either plain or with lemon, raspberry, or chocolate sauces for dipping.  Fresh berries make a nice accompaniment.

Makes 16-24 fritters

Lemon Curd

½ cup sugar

2/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice, strained of pulp and seeds

2 Tbsp. heavy cream

3 large eggs

2 large egg yolks

Whisk sugar and lemon juice together in a small bowl.  Gradually whisk in the cream.  Then whisk in the eggs and yolks.  Whisk well.  Pour this mixture into a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan.  Cook over medium heat, continuing to whisk constantly.  The curd will begin to thicken after a few minutes (3-5 minutes).  Remove from heat immediately before overcooking and push through a strainer with a rubber scraper into a small bowl.

Cover the surface of the curd with a sheet of plastic wrap and set to cool slightly.  Serve lukewarm.

Raspberry Sauce

2 Tbsp. sugar

2 Tbsp. water

2 pints fresh raspberries (or 1 bag frozen)

Heat sugar and water together in a small saucean until sugar is completely dissolved.  Add to this simple syrup the raspberries.  Bring to a simmer and simmer steadily under liquid is slightly reduced and fruit and syrup look slightly thickened.  (Frozen berries will take longer.)

When thickened slightly, remove from heat.  Using a fork to mash or a stick blender, puree the berries in the saucepan.  When pureed, pour berry sauce through a sieve and push it through the mesh with the back of a spoon into a small bowl, removing all the seeds and leaving a smooth sauce.

Chocolate Sauce

4 ounces good quality semisweet chocolate chips (such as Callebaut or Ghirardelli)

½ cup heavy cream

1 Tbsp. sugar

1 Tbsp. softened unsalted butter

½ tsp. vanilla extract

Scald cream in a small saucepan over medium heat.  Add sugar.  Before cream boils, remove it from the heat and stir in the chocolate, butter, and vanilla.  Stir until smooth.

Let cool slightly then give one more vigorous stir.  Transfer to a small bowl.  Serve warm.  (May be cooled and reheated in a double boiler before serving.)