Sunday, March 8, 2009

Comfort Cookies: Orange Chocolate Crisps

My daughter lost her beloved cat, Kashie, on New Year's Day of this year. I was with her at the time and it was very sad. In the weeks to follow, Annie continued to grieve. One Sunday afternoon in January we decided to visit the Museum of Science and Industry - as a distraction and to get Annie out of the house for a bit. I wanted to bring her some cookies on that day as a gesture of my love and concern. Cookies of the decadent sort - big, gooey chocolate chip cookies, lemon bars, or brownies just didn't seem appropriate. In fact, they might have even seemed an affront, almost disrespectful at such a sensitive time.

Oranges, particularly navel oranges, are at their peak in January. I picked up some beauties at Whole Foods with a thought toward using their rind as well as their juice. Then I remembered a cookie I had adapted from a recipe found in "Gourmet's Best Desserts" published by Condé Nast in 1987. The original recipe was a butter cookie made with both flour and cornstarch and contained dried currants. Cookies made with part cornstarch have a melt-in-your-mouth quality that is simultaneously crisp and tender (Australia's "Melting Moments" Cookies are in this category). The recipe as written resulted in a rather ordinary finished product - acceptable but lacking panache. The cookies seemed to be missing something. I played around with them, baking several batches and finally, I had a winner. I substituted cranberries for the currants, incorporated orange rind and extract, and added mini chocolate chips. The ratio of orange to chocolate was just right and the cranberries added flavor, texture and color.

These are a tea cookie - elegant, small, crisp - perfect with a cup of Earl Grey or Darjeeling, coffee, or perhaps a glass of Chardonnay or a snifter of Grand Mariner or Cointreau. They are meant to be eaten two or three at a time with some deliberation, not wolfed down randomly. They keep nicely in a cookie tin for about a week. If you know someone who is going through a rough patch, these cookies would make an especially thoughtful gift. Please note that the cookie dough must chill for at least three hours or overnight before baking.


1-1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup cornstarch
1 teaspoon non-aluminum baking powder, such as Rumford
1/2 teaspoon noniodized salt or fine sea salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar (superfine or C & H Baker's sugar preferred)
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon pure orange extract
1-1/2 tablespoons grated orange peel (about two large oranges), colored part only
1 cup (one 5 oz. bag) moist dried cranberries, chopped
1 cup mini chocolate chips

In a medium bowl, stir the flour, cornstarch, baking powder and salt together with a wire whisk until well-blended. Set aside. In the bowl of a standing mixer, cream the butter at medium speed. Add the sugar and beat for about two minutes. Add the egg, orange extract, and orange peel and beat for about a minute. Add the flour mixture in two batches, blending at low speed after each addition until the flour is just incorporated. Stir in the chopped dried cranberries and chocolate chips. Chill the dough for at least three hours or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 375°. Line baking sheets with parchment paper or Reynolds Release foil.

Roll teaspoons of the dough into balls and arrange them two inches apart on the baking sheets. You should be able to comfortably fit 20 cookies on a 13"x17" cookie sheet. If your kitchen is very warm, keep the remainder of the dough chilled. Flatten each ball with the tines of a fork, pressing the tines in one direction only to form an oval cookie with a ribbed design. Bake the cookies in the middle of the oven for 10-12 minutes until they are golden around the edges. The cookies will remain rather pale and delicate looking. Transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool completely. Store in cookie tins for up to a week. Yields about 100 cookies, enough to keep a tin for yourself.

Note: The orange flavor predominates in this recipe. If you would like the flavor more subtle, just reduce the orange extract to 1-2 teaspoons and cut the amount of grated rind in half. I also see no reason why lemon rind and extract cannot be substituted for orange except that I am very fond of orange with chocolate. I have also substituted dried cherries for the cranberries and almond extract for the citrus rind. I am also considering a Rum-Raisin version, substituting 1/2 cup brown sugar for the white and adding 1 tsp. vanilla and 1-2 tablespoon(s) dark rum.   

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Fly Tying, Bread Baking, and the Lost Art of Things Built by Hand

I tied my first (and perhaps only) fly today. It was a Woolly Bugger with a gorgeous blue marabou tail, orange chenille body, and hackle from what appeared to be a Rhode Island Red Rooster, all tied together with a Rumplestiltskin-like silk filament. It was a serendipitous event that came about while shopping for a silk shirt at the Orvis store near my home. A couple of guys from a local fly fishing group were demonstrating their fly-tying skills and offered me a seat. "Would I like to try my hand at fly-tying?" "Yes, yes I would. I've always wanted to try - at least once."

Today's instructor, a boyish and affable man in perhaps his late thirties, is a research chemist when he's not tying flies. As he worked with me (all thumbs) we spoke of carbon nanotubes and the Space Elevator. We moved into a theological discussion of the ramifications of the First Law of Thermodynamics and then things really started to get interesting. Clearly, this had the beginnings of a Renaissance discussion had we more time. Fly-fishermen are are a fascinating lot, those among them who who tie flies, even more so. They are nature lovers of course, conservationists (nearly all of them employ catch-and-release), and inherently philosophical.

My dear old friend Hawthorne was a ravenous golfer, a one time pilot of a Cessna 172 Skyhawk, and a dedicated fly-fisherman. The thought of him with his Winston rod and waders, fishing in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, warms my heart to this day. Years ago, I bought him a few exotic flies (with names like "Orange Sprite", " Dark Montreal", "Parmachene Belle" and "Telephone Box") for his birthday. He was moved by their beauty and handiwork and, I suppose, the uniqueness of the gift. He appreciated the lost art of things made by hand, things made by artisans who were in it for the love of the craft and the satisfaction of seeing something from inception to the finished product. My chemist-fly-fishing-teacher (whose nimble hands have produced more than 10,000 flies) spoke of hand-building a split bamboo rod, a one hundred hour commitment. He crafted the rod and the flies and took them out in the stream and watched as the fish took the bait on the side of its mouth, at which point all was right with the world in a Zen-like moment of near perfection and calm.

In this world of fast food, electronic wizardry, assembly-line cars, and instant gratification, we have lost ourselves. If fly-tying isn't your thing, craft a loaf of homemade bread. Skip the bread machine and build it by hand. Bake a cake that doesn't come out of a box. Try your hand at painting or pottery. Plant flowers, take up woodworking, quilting or weaving. Build a house as a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity. Do something creative with your hands. It doesn't have to be perfect. My fly was off-center with the rooster feathers lying haphazardly among the chenille valleys, but it was mine. For a few moments on a bitter cold Saturday afternoon, I was at peace with myself and the world.