Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Book Review - "Great Cookies" by Carole Walter

In the last two years I've acquired another half dozen books devoted to cookies (my collection of baking books is now at 65 volumes). There's not a dud among the cookie books, but I do have three favorites: The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion; the All-American Cookie Book by Nancy Baggett; and Great Cookies by Carole Walter. I bought Walter's book on a cold rainy day last fall and proceeded to read it - cover to cover.

Walter is a pro - in the same league as Maida Heatter, Rose Levy Beranbaum, Dorie Greenspan, Nick Malgieri, and Abigail Johnson Dodge. Aside from the recipes, which are nearly flawless, the 44-page "Teacher's Secrets for Sensational Cookies" is marvelous. This section includes such features as a two-page spread on the characteristics of various brands of chocolate chips; decorating and garnishing; guidelines for storing, wrapping and mailing cookies; an encyclopedic explanation of "Nuts and Seeds"; and a page entitled "Troubleshooting" to help decipher what can go wrong and how to avoid those pitfalls.

A helpful list of sources for equipment and ingredients is also included, along with a substantial bibliography. The section on Chocolate Chip Cookies has a bulleted list of helpful hints on producing the best of the best. The "Soft and Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies" on page 32 are a personal favorite. There are also lists of secrets for making giant cookies, Biscotti, and Rugalah, among others. This is really a professional textbook on how to make superlative cookies - and it's the tips and techniques that set this volume apart.

There are many recipes for ethnic favorites, too, such as Hamantaschen, Baklava, Springerle, and Jan Hagels (a personal favorite). Whether you're searching for holiday cookies, after-school treats, comfy bar cookies, or a cookie worthy of a dinner party (the Black and Whites are very chic!), you'll find them among the more than 200 recipes provided. The dozen recipes for fillings and glazes are a plus and the "Caramel Mascarpone Cream" is heavenly.

The book's layout is approachable and navigable, the fonts easy on the eyes, and the photographs both beautiful and helpful. The book is a bit heavy for it's size but not unwieldy. The Index would have been better with a larger typeface and darker ink, but that is my only complaint.

If you buy the book, just be sure to stock up on milk.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

French Toast Revisited - A Breakfast Classic with Fresh Orange Syrup and Summer Berries

Exotic ingredients and outlandish recipes get an awful lot of attention these days. Cookbooks, television programs and food magazines are full of what Julia Child referred to as "food fads". There seems to be so much fierce competition among professional chefs (and so much ego), that they go to ridiculous lengths to outdo each other. Do we really want Lobster Ice Cream, Buffalo Tongue, and Candied Anchovies? Maybe I don't want my Bolognese deconstructed. Maybe I prefer my butterflied leg of lamb seasoned with rosemary as opposed to having a rosemary tisane scenting the air nearby. Listen Mr. Chef Impressed-with-Yourself, I occasionally need something familiar, especially for breakfast.

Remember French Toast? Not the frozen kind - the real deal. French Toast is easier to prepare than pancakes (I always seem deep-six the first batch out of the skillet) and I don't have to haul the waffle maker out of the top cabinet. French Toast also makes great use of stale bread - and you can use almost any kind of bread - French bread, cinnamon raisin, challah, sourdough, even crossiants. It's fun to try specialty breads as well, such as pumpkin walnut or Asiago cheese.


Orange Syrup

1 cup sugar, preferably superfine
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
1 generous tablespoon no-pulp frozen orange juice concentrate
1 cup water
1 teaspoon pure orange extract
1 tablespoon orange liqueur (optional)

In a small saucepan, combine the sugar, orange juice, orange juice concentrate, extract and water. Bring to a boil over low heat, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for one minute. Remove from the heat and add the liqueur. Serve warm. Syrup can be made ahead of time and stored in a tightly covered glass jar in the refrigerator. Briefly reheat syrup before serving.

French Toast

6 large eggs
1 cup whole milk or half-and-half
1/2 cup orange juice
3 tablespoons sugar
grated zest of one medium orange
1 tablespoon orange liqueur (optional)
1 teaspoon pure orange extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
6-8 slices day-old challah or sturdy white bread, 1/2 inch thick
2 tablespoons unsalted butter or canola oil
2 cups fresh berries (blueberries, strawberries, raspberries)

In a medium shallow bowl, combine the eggs, milk, orange juice, sugar, orange zest, liqueur, extract and salt. Dip each slice of bread into the mixture, allowing it to soak up the liquid. Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the butter or oil and fry the egg-soaked bread for 2-3 minutes per side until golden brown, turning only once. Serve immediately with the syrup and berries. Wonderful with pure maple syrup, too! Serves 3-4. Recipe may be doubled.