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My cousin Laura is an amazing baker and her soft ginger cookies are to die for. I’ve been meaning to try to make something similar and this weekend seemed like a good time, since we’re all hunkering down for what is supposed to be The Storm Of The Century. I’ve always loved the phrase “atmospheric river” – it sounds like something out of a Tom Waits song – but did you know that an atmospheric river can carry as much water as 15 Mississippi Rivers? But I digress.

Cooking is an interesting thing. Some people are recipe people; some people are not. Some people who are not normally recipe people will tell you that they will experiment with everything but baking, for which they religiously follow recipes. I’m not a recipe person (well, let’s face it, I’m not much of a cook, other than baking), but in this case, since I’ve never made these before, I told myself I was going to find one recipe and stick with it. Did I? No, of course not – that would just be too boring.

I looked at a lot of recipes. This Epicurious one came up first on google (good job Epicurious!) and it looked pretty good, so I kind of used it as a base, but it seemed a little low on the spice factor, and I only had dark molasses and dark brown sugar, not light. This AllRecipes one struck me similarly, although it did up the fresh ginger quotient and add the triple threat, candied ginger. I was intrigued by the tablespoon of cocoa recommended by Fork, Knife, Spoon, so I incorporated that. I loved the spice line up in Feasting At Home, but I just can’t deal with the idea of vegetable oil in my baking. Also it calls for white pepper and I was more intrigued by the cayenne I’d seen in a couple of recipes including this one. I liked the orange zest idea from Bakerita. But none of them mentioned freshly ground nutmeg, which I’m kind of a fanatic about.

So here’s what I did.

2 1/4 cups flour

1 tsp baking soda

1 T unsweetened cocoa

1/4 tsp salt

2 tsp ground ginger

2 tsp ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp ground cloves

1/2 tsp ground cardamom

1/4 tsp cayenne

1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

1 tsp grated orange zest

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter, softened

1 cup dark brown sugar

1 egg

1/4 cup molasses

2 T fresh grated ginger

1 cup minced candied ginger

sugar for rolling

I’ve never worked with candied ginger much and at first I found it really frustrating. Everyone says to mince or chop it but it’s sticky, so when you do this it all lumps together and it’s hard to get it in small pieces. After wrestling with it for a while my first brilliant idea was to take 1/4 cup of the flour and use it to sprinkle over the candied ginger to make it easier to mince and to stop it all from glopping together. It worked great. Do this and set it aside.

My second brilliant idea was to use two kinds of fresh ginger. Now, I realize that we in northern California food heaven have choices that other people don’t, and I’m sure using just one would work fine. But since I found them at the produce store, I couldn’t resist, so I combined Hawaiian ginger (that’s the big one) with young ginger from Fiji (I know, I know). I grated a full heaping tablespoon of each. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 and grease a baking sheet.

Then, in a bowl, combine the remaining flour, cocoa, and all the dry spices. Stir with a whisk to remove lumps.

 

Grate the orange zest over that and combine.

In a second bowl, cream the butter and brown sugar.

Add the egg and molasses and beat well.

Stir in the fresh ginger. Add the flour mixture in two stages and stir in.

As it stiffens, add the candied ginger and stir well.

Roll it into one-inch balls and roll them in sugar (I used some brown sugar that had dried up but I think you could use anything granulated).

Bake for 10-12 minutes until cracked on the outside and firm but still soft.

Cool for a couple of minutes on the baking sheet and then move to a wire rack.

Are they the best ginger cookies EVER? Well, I’m not sure since I’ve never made them before but here’s what I can tell you.

  • The cocoa is barely detectable, certainly not as chocolate, but it gives a really nice bottom note.
  • The orange zest is very subtle – I might try it with more next time.
  • The proportions are good. They came out firm inside and soft inside.
  • Believe it or not there’s not too much ginger. After tasting these I’m thinking the recipes that call for a teaspoon or two of fresh ginger and 1/4 cup of minced candied ginger would taste pretty insipid.
  • Nor are there too many spices in general. All the spices melded really well and the cayenne was super subtle, just providing a hint of heat.
  • They’re dark. They’re delicious but I might try them without the cocoa and light molasses and light brown sugar just to see how a tawnier approach comes out.
  • I didn’t use any vanilla and some of the recipes call for it so I might try that.

 

 

Here’s my recipe for the quickest holiday decoration ever, in three easy steps:

  1. Take your best, shapeliest pinecone and slap some gold paint on the ends of the petals
  2. Take the little bits of the bead curtain that you’ve been saving for just such an occasion
  3. Grab your glue gun and glue the little plastic jewels to the ends of the pinecone petals

It’s literally a 7-minute project, but as Carl Sagan said, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.” No doubt, dear reader, this 7-minute recipe assumes certain things, which in turn tell you a lot about – well, we’ll get to that.

Assumption #1: That you pick up pinecones when you’re in the woods, regardless of how much sap attaches to them, that you then pour boiling water over them (over and over and over) to dissolve the sap while your sisters laugh and roll their eyes, that you then dry them, and save them for just such a rainy day (figuratively speaking) because you just KNOW you will be able to make something cool with them, even if at the moment you can’t figure out what that might be.


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Assumption #2: That you have saved, and can remember and find, the little bits of the bead curtain that you trimmed off when you installed it lo these 10 years ago (or, alternatively, and more realistically, if also somewhat terrifying, that you have a spot where you save such things, so that when you’re looking for project ingredients, you go there, and are pleasantly surprised when you find them).

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Assumption #3: That you have silver and gold paint and a glue gun, and, most importantly, have no problem envisioning a pinecone as a Christmas tree, AND think that that’s a totally cool idea.

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If these are not true of you, more power to you – I’m sure your garage is much cleaner than mine. If they are true of you, you’re someone who likes to make stuff. And if you’re someone who likes to make stuff, acorns look like teacups, pinecones like Christmas trees, and the world like a magical place.

We’ve all heard the motto, “Do what you love,” but when you encounter someone who’s actually doing it, it’s pretty awe-inspiring. On our recent trip to France, I got lucky, and got to participate in a tasting with David Meil, the president of Les Antiquaires du Cognac, an artisanal cognac distillery.

I'm the one in the middle

I’m the one in the middle

Les Antiquaires du Cognac takes what is already a rarified art and raises it to a level that’s – yes, dear reader, that word again – truly obsessive. It also produces what I’m sure is the purest expression of this liqueur I will ever taste. And whatever you think of cognac, when you meet someone so dedicated to doing a particular thing the absolute best way it can possibly be done in this world (or the next) – you gotta be impressed.*

Cognac is a brandy that’s produced in the Charente and Charente-Maritime regions of France. Even at the mass produced level, it’s an esoteric product – the quintessential locavore spirit or eau de vie. To earn the name, it has to be made from particular grapes (Ugni blanc is the most common) grown in one of six defined geographic zones (Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bon Bois, and Bois Ordinaire), distilled twice in alembic, or pot, stills (from wine to eau de vie and then from eau de vie to more concentrated eau de vie), and aged at least two years in French oak barrels. The towns of Cognac and Jarnac are home to the “big guys,” which most Americans have at least heard of – Martell, Hennessy, Remy Martin, and Courvoisier. Together they produce millions of bottles of blended cognac per year, rated VS (very special), VSOP (very special old pale), reserve, or XO (extra old) or Napoleon.

Distillation is alchemy: it’s basically taking a liquid and heating it to turn it into vapor and then condensing it to turn it back into liquid. Distilling cognac is an ancient, perfectionist art that involves tossing “la produit de tête” (head) and the “produit de queue” (tail), using only “la coeur” (the heart). And the entire process has to be completed on a very strict schedule – to qualify as cognac, distillation must be entirely completed by the 31st of March, using grapes from the previous vintage.

Here’s what the stills look like.

Bigger than your average moonshine still

Bigger than your average moonshine still

It’s hard to even figure out how to compare Les Antiquaires du Cognac to the big five, but if you had to, you might land on The French Laundry vs. McDonald’s – in other words, completely, totally different. It’s a labor of love that produces just a few hundred bottles per year. Each is made from a single vintage, and aged a minimum of 40 years.

Why 40 years? That’s the minimum time it takes to bring down the natural cask strength of alcohol, which is about 70 percent, to bottle, or drinkable, strength, naturally. Mass produced cognacs achieve this quickly by adding water (and often caramel coloring, sugar, and other additives as well, in a process known as dosage, which creates a consistent “house style” year over year). Getting to bottle strength without artificial intervention takes much longer. The natural evaporation rate of 0.5 to 1 percent per year of alcohol from the barrel puts the cognac into a “drinkable” range of 43 to 49 percent in 40 years. The reality is that depending on humidity and cellar conditions, this process can take much longer. As a result, each of Les Antiquaires’ vintages is distinct – like a wine, shaped by the weather and conditions of its particular birth year, tempered by decades of aging in oak barrels.

Here’s what the barrels look like.

Barrels, ends marked in chalk

Barrels, ends marked in chalk

Vintage cognac, from a single barrel, made from grapes from a single vineyard, is a VERY serious thing. The barrels are sealed with sealing wax and a string. Each time the barrel is opened, it has to be in the presence of a lawyer and notary, who oversees the removal of cognac for bottling, catalogs how much has been removed, and re-seals the barrel with wax and a seal once the bottling or sampling is finished. If ever the seal is broken without an official present, the barrel loses its pedigree and can’t be sold as that vintage.

An official re-sealing the barrel

An official re-sealing the barrel

Odds and ends – essentially what doesn’t come out even – are kept in five-gallon glass carboys called a “demi-jean” (hence, “demijohn”).

Demijeans, various

Demijeans, various

 

While these can’t be sold as vintage cognac, they can be just as amazing. Like any vintage cognac without a pedigree – missing documentation, or different years blended together – these odds and ends are called “Hors d’âge” (which literally means “beyond age,” or off the normal age chart).

When a sample is taken from the barrel, it’s taken with a “topette” – a hand-blown glass test tube on a string.

Topette

Topette

There are millions of other particular words and tools, but I’ll spare you. Instead, here’s a photo of the tasting – from left to right, the youngest, a “Fine Bois” from 1973, then the 1968 “Petite Champagne”, 1952 “Borderies”, the 1968 “Grand Champagne”, and finally the oldest, on the right, was a “Grand Champagne” from 1935 (without full documentation, this is a perfect example of an hors d’âge cognac).

Yes, even though it seemed criminal, I spit

Yes, even though it seemed criminal, I spit

Let’s be real: most of us aren’t fortunate enough to inherit a cellar full of 40+ year-old cognac, and most of us can’t afford to drink it. But even with that caveat, it’s always great to see what real passion for a job or product is – that absolute devotion to making something the best it can ever be. That’s something we can all aspire to – even if it doesn’t come with a topette.

 

*Full disclosure: Les Antiquaires du Cognac is represented in the U.S. by Kimberly Jones Selections, which employs my husband (the guy on the left) – that’s how I got there.

There is a proverb that I used to kind of hate that says “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.” It bugs me because it’s so smug – so bucket listy – so serene and Pollyanna-ish, glossing over the very real frustration some of us can feel for not having been in the right place at the right time. And yet….

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“What on earth are those?”, you may well ask. Reader, I must confess, they are my proof that “The second best time is now.” Back in 2011, we planted Kiwi berry vines and built them a trellis. The vines were spindly little things growing out of their gallon pots, and the trellis looked embarrassingly aspirational looming above them. And we wondered if it would be worth it, because Kiwi berry vines take a notoriously long time to produce fruit. Each year since we planted them they’ve grown, and last summer they not only reached the top of the trellis but started climbing toward the gate. But still, no berries. And then. This year, the vines have grown to cover the trellis and create a beautiful little shady nook – and, it’s looking like there will be berries. And honestly, the last four years have passed in a flash. IMG_1031 So at the risk of sounding serene and bucket-listy – whatever you’re thinking you wish you’d already done – now’s the best time.

In a relationship, gardening is where the rubber meets the road.

People are unique beings with unique quirks, and whatever yours are, the garden will reveal them. Got a soft heart, so that each cut of the pruner nips into it? Your plants will reveal it by growing long and leggy. Got a short memory, so that you can’t remember where you planted the carrot seeds, and plant bean starts on top of them? Your garden will reveal it by growing a huge carrot hidden away under the been teepee.

Even two people who have been married for a shockingly long (to them) time can have very different ideas about when it’s time to take out the “Bull’s Blood” beet or prune the grapevines.

Take Lacinato Kale. This currently so-chic kale is sold as an annual but as this photo proves, if you live where it doesn’t freeze, it’s not – it’s a perennial. And in our garden, where the amount of light differs radically from winter to summer, it grows in a tangled mass. Whatever leaves grow in the winter are pretty much inedible – and as soon as spring comes, the ends of the loooong branches start sprouting tender, tasty leaves.

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You can just leave it alone and it will keep growing – but you’ll never lose the ratty bottom half (and trust me, you’ll never want to eat those old leaves).  And, you’ll be tripping over the canes all summer. But, if you just start chopping it down, someone will come up behind you and say “What are you DOING? It made it through the winter and we can eat it!! Don’t cut it all down!!! Plus, I think it looks cool like that!!!!!” And then you’re sunk.

This is why every gardner with a partner needs A Well Articulated Kale Management Plan. In the garden as at work, if you make a plan and articulate it clearly, you are more likely to get what we in the corporate world call “buy in” – and with buy in, you’ll end up with neatly pruned kale, all ready to sprout again, and a passel of tasty, tender tips (which is probably better than anything you’ll end up with at work, but that’s another blog post).

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Anyway, yes, that’s the kale in the foreground. We’ll talk about artichokes some other time.

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