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Our decorated gingerbread men, snowflakes and more.
Today we decorated ginger cookies. It's not a traditional gingerbread recipe so the cookies are softer and bake up puffy. They lose their defined edges but are pleasantly plump! I make these cookies as drop cookies throughout the year with just a sprinkle of sugar on top. I think they taste even better with just the sugar, but decorating is always fun!
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The dry ingredients spiced with great color from the ground ginger and cinnamon.
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Recipe uses canola oil, not butter.
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Thick molasses pours easily from the measuring cup that held the oil.
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Liquid ingredients just before adding the flour mixture.
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After adding the flour, the dough becomes quite dense. This is a double batch.
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Divide the dough and flatten into discs. Refrigerate for easier rolling and cutting.
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Rolling on parchment paper makes for easy clean up!
These ginger cookies are based on NYC's Magnolia Bakery's Iced Ginger Cookie, though I have adapted them slightly by reducing the amount of oil. When I follow their recipe, I feel like I can literally taste the oil and there's even an oily texture. Reducing the oil makes the cookie a tad firmer but it remains moist.

Franny & Jordan believe that when you come home from school, the house should smell of fresh-baked cookies. I try to oblige when I can, and I love this recipe because they are optimal for spur-of-the-moment baking since there's no butter that has to be softened the night before. Although I tend to fret about the future, I'm not very good about actually planning and organizing the small things. I often bring out a stick of butter, but then don't have time to bake with it. I've always envied the moms who can conceive a week's worth of meals, shop and prep those dinners on the weekends, and then enjoy easier weeknights after being at work all day. And I've always wished to live within walking distance of a produce and meat market so I wouldn't have to plan anything at all. These simple cookies are just right when you're craving a fresh-baked dessert but didn't know you'd have time to bake!

It's the holiday season so I took some time off work and had the luxury to make the  dough last night. We invited Franny & Jordan's friend, Elle, to our house to bake and decorate. 
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Snipping the corner of a zipper lock bag makes for an easy pastry bag. The bigger the snip, the wider the piping.
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Franny decorates a house.
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My gingerbread gal boasts a bodice.

Ginger Cookie, slightly adapted from Magnolia Bakery
yield: about 4 dozen gingersnap size cookies, or 12 gingerbread men

Equipment
stand mixer
large bowl for dry ingredients
measuring cups, liquid measuring cup, measuring spoons
spatula
plastic wrap
spring-action melon baller (if making round cookies)
rolling pin & cookie cutters (if making shaped cookies)

Dry Ingredients
2C flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt

Wet Ingredients
1/2C canola oil
1C sugar**
1 large egg
1/4 cup molasses
*Magnolia Bakery recipe uses 3/4 cup canola oil
**If you don't ice the cookies, then sprinkle with additional sugar (about 2-3T). Course sugar gives a nice texture and gives it sparkle

Procedure for cookie dough
1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees
2. Combine dry ingredients in a big bowl & set aside
3. In a mixer bowl, beat together oil and sugar
4. Add egg & combine
5. Add molasses & beat well*
6. On low, gradually add the dry ingredients. Use a spatula to incorporate any dry bits stuck to the bottom
7. If making drop cookies, cover the mixer bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 15 minutes or overnight. Or seal in an air tight container and bake off a few cookies each night for a week.
8. If you want gingersnap-size cookies, use a melon baller to portion the dough onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet (or ungreased cookie sheet)
9. With your finger, lightly depress the cookies to flatten slightly for more uniform cooking
10. Sprinkle lightly with sugar
11. Bake for 9-1/2 to 10 minutes for a slightly chewy interior & crusty exterior.**
12. Cool on baking sheet for 1-2 minutes, and then transfer to a baking rack to cool

Alternate directions for cookie-cutter cookies:
7b. If making cookie-cutter cookies, plop half the dough onto plastic wrap and flatten into a thick disk. Refrigerate at least 2 hours or overnight.
8b. Lightly flour your rolling surface (parchment paper, cutting board (not used for vegetables or meat) or kitchen counter) and rolling pin
9b. Remove plastic wrap and roll dough to 1/4" thick
10b. Use cookie cutters and place cookies on cookie sheet with at least 2" in between cookies
11b. Combine dough scraps into a ball, and re-refrigerate. Combine with scraps from 2nd disk and roll again
12b. Bake for 7-1/2 minutes
13b. Cool on baking sheet for 1-2 minutes, and then transfer to a baking rack to cool

*Be sure to use the same measuring cup for the molasses as you used to measure the oil. The canola will slick the glass and the sticky molasses will easily pour completely from the cup.
**For a crisp cookie, flatten the cookie more before baking. Or for chewier cookies, adjust baking time or make cookies larger.

Icing Equipment
medium bowl
medium metal spoon for stirring
measuring spoons
citrus reamer & mesh strainer

Icing Ingredients (not from Magnolia Bakery)
1C powdered sugar
2T fresh-squeezed lemon juice
warm water, if needed
I love the slight tartness from the lemon juice. It keeps the cookies from getting too sweet.

Procedure for Icing
1. Mix powdered sugar and lemon juice with a spoon until smooth. 
2. Add small amounts of warm water, if needed, to achieve proper consistency. If using as "glue" for adding candy to cookies or piping from a bag, keep it thicker. If drizzling, make thinner.
Most recipes recommend sifting the powdered sugar, but I find that this step isn't really necessary if you stir it enough—one less thing to wash!
3. Be sure cookies are completely cool before icing
 
 
Today is Franny and Jordan's 14th birthday. We started the morning off with candy-in-their-shoes. Franny requested Fran's Chocolates salted caramels, dark chocolate truffles from Chocolatier Blue, See's Candies scotchmallows, Smarties, and I threw in a small bar of Almonds & Sea Salt in Dark Choolate from Chocolove, and See's Candies peppermint twists. Jordan requested lemon drops (the good kind, i.e. not from the drugstore. I made a special trip to Sweet Dreams on College avenue in the Elmwood district of Berkeley, and while I was there, I picked up a bag of my fave, swedish fish! Jordan's right; the quality of bulk candy from a real candy store is so much tastier). Other requests were See's Candies dark almond clusters, scotchmallows, loads of Smarties, and I added Chocolove's Raspberries in Dark Chocolate, a flavor combo that Jordan really enjoys.
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Franny looks divine in this retro style dress. My bad photo doesn't capture the color well.
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Jordan looks splendid in this colorful harlequin pattern, but the dress is just too big on the top. Back it goes.
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That's one happy girl wearing a wrapping paper hat and wielding an axe—an item from her wish list!
Franny asked me to make the Rich Chocolate Tart from the recent issue of Cook's Illustrated for their birthday cake. It's proving to be completely challenging! I'm writing as I go because the recipe calls for many breaks where you refrigerate the dough before it's rolled, after it's rolled, and on and on. I think it's highly unlikely that this thing is going to come out anything like it looks in the the photo. Even after watching the free video on the Cook's Illustrated website, my dough did not come together like expected. Although the recipe did not specify, I think ice cold butter is needed. One can see that if I were writing a professional cooking blog, I'd make a recipe dozens of time before trying to document with photos and tips! Alas, it's my small kitchen, below par instruments and my inexperience bringing this recipe to you. But that's also the point of my blog, to help me remember details of a recipe, to test if it's too complicated and not worth the effort to make again, and just fun for me to do. So here goes. It's a good way to spend my Saturday since Franny and Jordan are at school in rehearsal all day anyway!
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The dough didn't come together as a ball after adding the egg mixture to the dry ingredients. My guess is the butter got too warm.
ARGH! I hate recipes that require so many special pieces of equipment. Not having a tart pan with a removable bottom is proving to be a real problem. What I have is a pastry ring (a metal ring w/ no bottom) so the ring and dough are sitting directly on a sheet pan sprayed with non-stick spray (another ARGH! I realized that I accidentally bought Pam Baking which includes flour in the spray. I was wondering why the spray function was so damn hard to press and then sprayed with such force). The recipe calls to freeze the tart shell for 25 minutes right before baking. I threw the whole sheet pan in the freezer since the sheet pan is functioning as the bottom of my crust, but then afterwards realized that the sheet pan is now ice cold and the temperature in my pre-heated oven will drop considerably. I basically said, "screw it!" and it's baking now and I have no idea how much more time may be required for it to cook, nor if I will lose the nice golden brown color due to my pan mishaps. I suppose I should have used aluminum foil as a liner for the pastry ring...doh! So I'm scrapping the photos, the details, the equipment list, etc. The recipe should be up on the Cook's Illustrated site for a few months before they make it inaccessible for non-subscribers. Send me a comment or an email if you really want the recipe and I'll see what I can do. Here's the link: Rich Chocolate Tart, from Cooks Illustrated, November & December 2013 issue

Another ARGH! butter is oozing out beneath the pastry ring while it's baking in the oven, and I don't have it on a rimmed sheet pan so hopefully it's not going to gush all over the oven! This is actually getting to be pretty hilarious. Now I'm off to make the filling...
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Given all the hardships that proceeded this step, this looks pretty good. Now to cool, three hours to set in the refrigerator, and then glaze.
Making the filling proved to be simple—thank goodness—but I had so much leftover. The recipe calls for an 11" tart pan, and I was forced to use a 9" pastry ring, but unexpectedly, I didn't have any left-over dough. Obviously I did not roll the dough thin enough. I saved the filling and if it's delicious, I'll try the tart shell recipe again tomorrow (if I dare!) or maybe will make a pie crust using Dave's recipe.
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Franny with the final product.
We're too full to try the tart now, but I'm not waiting to post. Happy birthday to my babies! 
 
 
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Upside down sundae with Judy's homemade caramel and chocolate sauces and oven toasted almonds
We just returned from a long weekend at our friend's Tahoe cabin for our fourth year in a row. It's always a wonderful visit full of delicious food, swimming in the lake, kayaking, chatting, and one of my favorite activities, admiring the bats at dusk while they swoop through the pine trees—such a magical sight. Our friend, Judy, is an amazing cook, baker and executor of well-planned and plentiful meals. While I worked on the beginning of this post, the kitchen was filled with the savory aroma of Judy sautéing shallots!
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The view from our room!
Judy and I took advantage of our time together to practice making her favorite caramel sauce (the recipe that I attempted to make and failed at a month ago). We had some concerns about how the butter, (Strauss' European organic salted butter) which was different than her normal brand, and the high altitude might affect the results. It was a little touch and go with the sauce behaving a bit differently at first, but Judy tamed it into submission and made a gloriously smooth caramel sauce. 

I'm still not sure what I did wrong when I tried to make this recipe previously at home by myself. I ended up with an awful light brown liquid with solidified chunks! I thought the problem might have been that I used too big of a saucepan (4-1/2 quart size) and that caused the mixture to heat too quickly, but then up at Tahoe, Judy used a pot about the same size. I think it must just take practice, and I intend to try again on my own this weekend.
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The supplies: sugar, heavy cream, vanilla and an old penny, in this case, an old Euro cent. More on that later!
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Adding the sugar to the melted butter.
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Butter and sugar coming together
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It was at this point where we were a bit concerned because the butter was separating from the sugar. Judy kept stirring and stirring, and it eventually came together.
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Use the color of an old penny to help judge if the sugar has browned enough. Other indicators are the smell, and when it starts to slightly smoke, it's getting close.
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Even after all the stirring, the sauce was slick with separated fat/oil from the butter, but we pushed on. Notice the color becoming more reddish-brown.
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Remove from heat, and add the heavy cream; watch out the mixture can flare up!
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Bubbly and frothy! Keep stirring!
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The finished sauce incorporated just fine and continued to darken as we stirred out the lumps.
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Notice the lighter (tastes more sweet) color of the jar on the left compared to today's batch (the two right jars). That dark red-brown color is achieved by cooking the mixture longer before adding the cream and creates a more complex, intense, burnt caramel flavor.
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Judy reaps the benefits of her work and gets to lick the spoon!
Rich Caramel Sauce, from David Lebovitz's Room for Dessert
Yield:  about 1-1/2 cups

Equipment
heavy saucepan, large enough so that when you add the cream, it doesn't overflow
wooden spoon
measuring cup & measuring spoons
glass canning jar(s)

Ingredients
8T (1 stick) salted butter
1C sugar
1C heavy cream
1/4 tsp vanilla extract

Procedure
1. Melt the butter in a clean, dry saucepan. This is important because impurities will cause the sugar crystals to re-bond.
2. Add sugar and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon.
3. Keep stirring as the mixture begins to carmelize and turn an amber color.
4. Use the old copper penny as a guide for the color of the caramel. It's important to let the mixture reach a deep reddish-brown color to achieve a more intense flavor. If it's too light, it will just taste sweet. 
5. As the mixture begins to smoke, it's getting really close. Watch it very carefully. David Lebovitz recommends using an All-Clad saucepan because the light stainless steel contrasts with the caramel and makes it easier to judge the color (Hint, hint. Birthday or Christmas gift, anyone?)
6. Instead of a candy thermometer, use your senses—visually, I think of Crayola crayon's burnt sienna, and the smell should be the moment right before it's just about to burn.
7. Remove from heat and add heavy cream. Stand back! It will foam up vigorously.
8. Stir continuously until smooth and creamy. This could take awhile.
9. Add vanilla.
10. Poor into glass jars (small canning jars or recycled jam jars are perfect) and cover. Store in the refrigerator for up to one week.
11. Rewarm before serving in the microwave at 15-second intervals, or over a double boiler

Notes: 
*Give this recipe your undivided attention. The mixture is hot and volatile. It can go from almost perfect to burnt in a matter of seconds.
*Judy adjusted the heat throughout, going from medium-low, to medium, to brief moments with no heat to control the rate of carmelization.
 
 
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Homemade fleur de sel caramels
Early in our relationship, Dave practiced what he believed to be a Danish tradition where on your birthday, you received candy in your shoes. I loved this idea and reciprocated on his birthday. Dave believed this was part of his Danish heritage, a vague memory from his youth, but we later learned from his mom that no such practice existed. In actuality, Danes just eat a lot of chocolate, and his memory was of his German neighbor's family receiving whole nuts (not chocolates) which were rolled down the hallway by, I think, Santa on Christmas eve. No shoes in sight. This multicultural mash-up has become a wonderful and totally unique-to-our family custom where you receive candy in your shoes on the morning of your birthday. The night before, you place your shoes (or fuzzy slippers) near your bedside, and after you fall asleep, your family fills them with candy. When you wake up, before presents or breakfast, you dive in and eat decadent and fancily packaged chocolates, old standby's like See's Candies, and drugstore favorites like Smarties or Swedish Fish. More recently, the tradition also includes salted caramels. Each year we try new artisanal interpretations, but I always come back to my favorites: the dark chocolate, gray salt caramels from Fran's Chocolates, based in Seattle, WA. 

On my last Free Friday, Franny and I gave Barefoot Contessa's Fleur de Sel Caramels a try. These were easier to make than I expected. My attempt a couple of month's ago to make caramel sauce was a total flop so I was unsure how these would go. These are delicious—maybe a bit too sweet for me, but next time, I think I can remedy that by browning the caramel longer before adding the cream. Also, these are considerably less sticky sweet when eaten straight from the refrigerator. 

How do these homemade caramels compare to Fran's Chocolates? They aren't quite as good—I enjoy the addition of the dark chocolate and the smoother consistency of Fran's—but they are really quite delicious, and I think if I keep practicing, these sea salt caramels will make a great holiday gift.
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Line an 8" x 8" pan with parchment paper that drapes over the edge of two sides to aid in the removal of the cooled caramel. Brush paper with a thin coating of vegetable oil, which helps too.
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Franny uses the mortar & pestle to break the salt into finer crystals.
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Combine water, light corn syrup and sugar. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
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Keep swirling (not stirring) the sugar mixture.
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After about five minutes, the sugar mixture is turning light brown. It's important to watch the sugar carefully, as it can go from perfect to burnt easily.
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This gorgeous tawny color was achieved after about 10 minutes. I added the cream at this point, but next time, I'm waiting longer for a darker caramel color resulting in, hopefully, even more depth of flavor.
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Add the cream mixture slowly to avoid the sugar mixture from bubbling out of the pot.
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Stir with a wooden spoon and insert a candy thermometer. Remove from heat when the temperature reaches 248 degrees. The mixture will continue to get darker.
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Poor into prepared pan and chill for about an hour in the refrigerator.
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Franny after a successful removal of the slab of caramel from the pan.
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Cut the square in half, then roll each half length-wise.
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Sprinkle generously with fleur de sel. For same size pieces, cut log in half, then by repeated halves to desired size. Brush the blade of your knife with vegetable oil to prevent the caramel from sticking.
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Pre-cut parchment paper and wrap individual pieces. Twist the ends in opposite directions to form an old-fashioned wrapper. Store in an air-tight container and refrigerate. I think they taste best when served cold.
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These pieces are each 1/8 of a log. I think they could easily be cut smaller as the caramels are very rich.
Fleur de Sel Caramels, from Barefoot Contessa: How Easy is That?
Yield:  About 16 large, or 32 bite-size caramels

Equipment
8" square baking pan
heavy & deep saucepan (I used my 2-1/2 quart, 6" wide by 4" deep Calphalon saucepan)*
small saucepan
parchment paper
pastry brush
wooden spoon
kitchen knife
candy thermometer
cutting board
*sauce pan size is important. Using too big of a pot will cause the sugar to cook too quickly and makes the consistency gritty.

Ingredients
vegetable oil
1-1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1 cup heavy cream
5T unsalted butter
1 tsp fleur de sel (French sea salt), plus extra for sprinkling
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract

Procedure
1. Line the square baking pan with parchment paper, leaving the paper longer on two sides so it drapes over the edge. This aids in the removal of the sticky caramel from the pan.
2. Brush the paper lightly with vegetable oil
3. In the deep saucepan, combine 1/4 cup water, sugar & corn syrup and bring to boil over medium-high heat. Do not stir, but instead swirl the pan. Keep an eye on the mixture as it can burn easily.
4. In the small saucepan, bring the cream, butter and 1 tsp of fleur de sel to a simmer over medium heat. Once combined, set aside.
5. When the sugar mixture has a dark amber color (see photos above, approx. 10-12 minutes), remove from heat and slowly add the cream mixture to the sugar mixture. It will bubble up (violently if you pour the cream mixture too fast) so be careful not to burn yourself, but it is fun potion-making-like to see it froth up.
6. Add vanilla and stir with a wooden spoon over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes. Insert the candy thermometer and monitor regularly. It will continue to darken.
7. When the mixture reaches 248 degrees (candy thermometers call this "firm ball"), very gently pour this VERY hot mixture into the prepared pan.
8. Refrigerate for about an hour or until firm.
9. Cut parchment paper into 4" x 5" squares to use for individual caramel wrappers. Set aside.
10. Once caramel is cold (it will be easier to remove from pan in one piece), use the parchment paper handles to lift the caramel (you might need to pry a little) onto the cutting board.
11. Cut the square of caramel in half with a sharp knife.
12. Start with one of the sheets of caramel and roll lengthwise into a tight 8-inch-long log. If the caramel is not malleable enough, wait a minute for it to soften at room temperature. 
13. Repeat with second piece.
14. Sprinkle both logs with fleur de sel.
15. Trim the ends (and sample!). If it's too sticky, brush vegetable oil on the knife for easier cutting.
16. Cut each log into 8 pieces. The easiest way to do this is to cut the log in half, then in half again, then each smaller segment in half once more. Repeat with second log. If you want smaller pieces, cut log once in half, and then approximate smaller, equal slices.
17. To wrap each caramel, place in a piece of parchment, fold to cover, and twist the ends.
18. Store in the refrigerator in an air-tight container and serve the caramels chilled.

After refrigerating, the fleur de sel crystals may dissolve or become transparent, but they still taste great. You can always re-sprinkle with a bit more fleur de sel after plating on a serving dish. Serve chilled for best flavor.
 
 
These homemade croutons are completely addictive. I named them Elle's croutons because I first made them up when Elle was over for a playdate with the girls (they've designed a model of their dream Parisien apartment and are currently building it together). It was lunchtime, we were having soup and were out of crackers, so I improvised and made croutons. Normally I would have combined olive oil and butter, but I made these without due to Elle's dairy allergy. I love it when a restriction becomes an improvement! My family (and Elle) can eat these in huge quantities, snacking on them like potato chips. 
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Crusty bread sliced into half to one inch squares.
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Heat about 2T olive oil in a pan and sprinkle with about 1/4 tsp kosher salt. Toss repeatedly and drizzle more oil and more salt to taste.
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The more browned the better, and don't skimp on the salt! But be sure it's kosher salt* (see note below) which is milder than table salt and offers a much larger margin of error so you don't have to worry as much about over-salting.
*Special Note about Kosher Salt
When I started using Kosher salt a few years ago, I luckily picked up the Diamond Crystal brand which recently I've learned is the preferred salt in many a professional kitchen. It has a course texture and is much less salty per volume than table salt, and even compared to different brands of kosher salt. Diamond Crystal has a patented method of stacking salt crystals, instead of flattening, which creates a grain size that, although larger, is less compressed and so not as strong flavored. 

Therefore, you can't use equal amounts of table salt when a recipe calls for kosher or koshering salt, and you can't use equal amounts from different brands. Deb from Smitten Kitchen has a great article about salt where she sites Jill Santopietro's article and conversion between different brands and types. I've listed the conversion below for convenience, but you really should read both articles! Ultimately, you can be a lot more liberal when sprinkling with Diamond Crystal without worrying about over-salting.

As for baking, my friend and food professional, Peter Degnan, uses kosher salt for savory and Morton's table salt for baking. This has worked well for me. Thanks, Peter!
Salt Conversion from Jill Santopietro's Research:

1 teaspoon fine sea or table salt = roughly 1  1/4 teaspoons Morton's kosher salt = roughly   1  3/4 teaspoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt
Now, back to the croutons. 

They're best with a quality sweet batard (like Acme's Italian batard or Semifreddi's sweet batard), loads of olive oil and generous sprinkles of kosher salt. It's a great way to use up old bread (extra olive oil is required), but the flavors soak in better with a fresh loaf. 

Equipment
serrated knife & cutting board
Large frying pan

Ingredients
half loaf of crusty bread (we like sweet batards but sourdough would be delicious, too)
1/4 C olive oil, approx.
1/2 to 1 tsp kosher salt, approx. (table salt or iodized salt is too harsh. Course sea salt would work fine)

Procedure
1. Slice bread into 1/2"-1" rough squares. 
2. Pre-heat pan on medium-high heat.
3. Drizzle olive oil across pan to coat (approx 2T) and heat well.
4. Add half of the bread. A single layer is best for better browning.
5. Sprinkle with kosher salt (about 1/4 tsp).
6. While one side is browning, drizzle more olive oil on top of bread (about 1T).
7. Toss to brown other side, sprinkle more salt (about 1/8 to 1/4 tsp).
8. Keep adding more olive oil and salt to taste until well-browned.

Be sure to heat the olive oil in the pan before adding the bread for better browning. I let them brown on one side and then toss while in the pan, adding more olive oil and salt as I go. I'm not sure how chefs codify a recipe. It's so hard to measure exactly how much salt I'm using when I'm sprinkling. So I encourage sprinkling and tasting, rather than getting out your measuring spoons! You can always sprinkle more table side if you find they aren't savory enough.

The saturated pieces taste the best -- first you crunch through the browned exterior, then a satisfying little gush of olive oil. Don't be shy with either ingredient, and be sure not to overcrowd the bread in the pan. I usually make these in two batches, or else there are never enough! Even with two batches, we always want more. Enjoy!
 
 
Oh my gosh! This was so delicious! The recipe is from Smitten Kitchen's Spinach and Smashed Egg Toast. It was everything I love: fast, healthy, full of texture and breakfast-for-dinner! Thank you Smitten Kitchen!

Every time I go out for breakfast, I have poached eggs. I love the delicate white texture contrasted with the warm, gooey yolk, but I find poaching eggs at home to be troublesome. These five minute boiled eggs capture that delightful texture with no hassle! 

My very favorite brunch spot in the world is Tartine in NYC in the West Village. I have so many fond memories of brunches there with friends. While Cate was attending massage therapy school, I would go to her rent control apartment and she would "practice" on me, both swedish and shiatsu techniques. Afterwards, we'd walk down the block for breakfast at Tartine and indulge in the very best hollandaise sauce. On the weekends, they offer Eggs Benedict (with canadian bacon, Dave's fave) or Eggs Florentine (with spinach, my fave) with dark, crusty-browned potatoes, orange juice and coffee. They do booming business with a line that snakes around the block every weekend. 
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Even better than eating outside on a sunny spring day, was being bundled up in winter, waiting in line filled with anticipation. Here's Wendy, Dave & Mike, preparing for our Tartine ritual.
I loved Cate's apartment. It was light-filled and looked down upon one of those rare-Manhattan sights, a neighbor's backyard garden. I remember one warm summer evening, Cate, our friend, Joel, and I, sat out on her fire escape and chatted about the books we were each reading. I had so much time in those days. It never felt like it though. I was always rushing from one thing to the next, but in comparison to my life now, the days were long with vasts amounts of free time. Now the hours, weeks, months tumble by, and I'm trying to learn to better savor each day. I'm attempting to worry less about how things turn out, control only what I can control (i.e. how I respond to the out of control) and to stay present (less regret about the past and less anxiety about the future). I think that's what this blog is about. An attempt to have fun, reflect, be a little creative and an opportunity to practice really tossing things out there.

Last night, the girls were out at a birthday party, so I tried SK's smashed eggs for mine and Dave's dinner, and was richly rewarded with memories of our old Manhattan days. Maybe that's a good formula. Indulging the senses with nutritious and memory-invoking food, blogging about good times with dear friends, and again, remembering to appreciate what I have.
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The ingredients!
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Does everything I love start with shallots?
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SK said to use a "small puddle of water." I'll call this about 2T.
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4 oz. of spinach. Washed but does not need to be dried.
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Just wilted and about to remove to drain in a colander.
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Melt 1-2T butter, saute minced shallots until soft, translucent and fragrant, but before they get brown.
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Add drained spinach
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Add 2T half and half, pinch of salt, a couple of turns of fresh ground pepper.
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Add eggs to boiling water and cook for five minutes.
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Toasted bread thinly spread with dijon mustard.
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Peel eggs under water to remove shell. Be sure to peel away thin membrane, and pat to dry.
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Gushy goodness! Eat with a fork and knife, or just pick it up and eat with your fingers.
Smashed Egg & Spinach on Toast, from Smitten Kitchen

Equipment

small sauce pan
fry pan
fork, butter knife, serrated knife
colander
wooden spoon, measuring spoons

Ingredients
2 large eggs
4 oz fresh spinach leaves
2 slices of hearty bread. I used herb slab sliced in half
2T shallots, minced
2T butter
2T half & half*
1 tsp Dijon mustard
kosher salt & fresh-ground pepper
1T crumbled cheese, such as feta or goat**

*Smitten Kitchen uses heavy cream. I always have half & half for my coffee so I substituted that instead and it tasted great!
**I skipped the crumbled cheese, and for me, it was plenty rich without the extra dairy. 

I have a hard time getting everything to come together at the same time. SK begins the process with boiling the water and then cooking the egg for 5 minutes. I find that's a lot to juggle so I waited to boil my water until after the spinach & shallots were cooked. I think that was a little late, so in the future, I plan to start the water after draining the spinach.

Procedure
1. Mince shallot into very small mince.
2. While washing spinach leaves (no need to dry. Yay!), heat 2T water in skillet over medium low heat.
3. When water bubbles, add spinach. Cook just until wilted. It should still be a bright green color. 
4. Drain spinach in colander, and press excess water out with a fork. Don't squeeze. You want the spinach to retain its shape.
5. Pat dry the pan (though I found the residual heat evaporated the left-over water from the spinach), and melt 2T butter over medium low heat.
6. While the butter melts, start boiling the water for the eggs in a small sauce pan, and slice & toast the bread.
7. Add shallots to melted butter and saute until soft, about 3 minutes or until shallots are fragrant and translucent, but not browned.
8. Add two eggs to boiling water, lower heat a bit so they don't knock around too much, but water is still boiling. Cook for five minutes for a really loose egg.
9. Add the spinach to the saute pan and incorporate. 
10. Add 2T half & half (or heavy cream) and incorporate, simmer for about a minute
11. Add two pinches of kosher salt and ground pepper, to taste. Turn burner off, but it's okay to leave in the pan on the stove to keep warm. 
12. Spread about 1/2 tsp. dijon on each slice of toast.
13. Drain eggs, peel under warm tap water. At five minutes, they are quite jiggly so gently pat dry with a paper towel.
14. Arrange spinach on toast, making a nest with an indented area for the egg to nestle.
15. Place egg in nest, smash with a fork and sprinkle with kosher salt and fresh ground pepper, serve immediately.
 
 
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Fresh-baked blueberry muffins, coffee, tangerines & deep purple anemones!
Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey is one of my favorite children's books. I love the warm relationship that Sal and her mother have, and the loving relationship of the mother bear and her cub. "Kuplink, kuplank, kuplunk!" go the blueberries as Sal drops them into her tin pail. We meet Sal again in One Morning in Maine. Her family lives on a tiny and isolated island with a rocky beachfront and soaring trees. Sal's older now and goes digging for clams with her father, when she loses her first tooth. Sal's rite of passage, her parents loving attention while simultaneously teaching Sal how to be resilient and strong, make me long for a more self-sufficient, slower lifestyle with a real connection to my natural surroundings.

One Valentine's Day many years ago -- I think it was as long ago as 2001! -- Dave gave each of us a gift. Jordan got Blueberries for Sal, Franny got what soon became another favorite, Love Songs of the Little Bear, and I received the BBC miniseries production of Pride and Prejudice (the definitive version with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth). All three gifts have woven deep threads into the narrative of our lives.

I guess that's what I think about when I eat blueberries. Family, tenderness, nature. And blueberries in muffins make for even more warmth on a weekend morning. These blueberry muffins, from Baking Illustrated by the Editors of Cook's Illustrated Magazine, are my new favorites. These muffins brown beautifully resulting in a firmer, toasty goodness on the outside while still remaining fluffy tender in the middle. 
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Buttering the muffin tin instead of spraying with non-stick spray is really worth the effort. The result is better browning and rich flavor.
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Whisk vigorously until the sugar & eggs thicken.
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Add the just-out-of-the-freezer frozen blueberries (or fresh) to the dry ingredients. This coating helps keep the blueberries from sinking to the bottom of your muffins.
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Whisk the dry ingredients together to mix.
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Add the slightly cooled melted butter in 2 or 3 additions and whisk to incorporate.
Frozen blueberries are convenient and work fine in this recipe. 
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Fold the wet ingredients into the dry.
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Add sugar to the beaten eggs.
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Add the sour cream in three additions. I use a 1/2C measure cup (4 oz) twice, followed by a 1/4C (2 oz).
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The dough is very thick.
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Even though the blueberries have stained the batter purple, the muffins bake up just fine. Bake 25-30 minutes in a 350 degree, pre-heated oven. In my oven, it takes 30 minutes.
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Clean up begins while the muffins bake!
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Golden deliciousness!
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Let muffins cool for 5 minutes, then turn them out on to a wire rack so they don't steam and get soggy.
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Tender and fluffy, with well-distributed blueberries thanks to dusting the still-frozen berries in the flour mixture.
Blueberry Muffins from Baking Illustrated
Makes 12

Equipment needed
1 muffin tin
2 medium bowls
1 whisk
measuring cups & spoons
small saucepan to melt the butter
rubber spatula
soup spoon for scooping batter into muffin tins
wire rack fitted into a half-sheet pan (optional) for cooling

Ingredients
2C unbleached all-purpose flour
1T baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 large egg
1C sugar
4T (1/2 stick) unsalted butter -- melted and cooled slightly
1-1/4C (10oz) sour cream
1-1/2C (7-1/2 to 8 ounces) frozen or fresh blueberries

Procedure
1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees, wire rack in the middle position
2. Butter muffin tins
3. Whisk the dry ingredients in a bowl to combine
4. Beat the egg in another bowl until well-combined & lightens in color 
5. Add the sugar and whisk vigorously until the mixture become thick and homogenous
6. Add the melted butter in 2 or 3 additions and combine well after each addition
7. Add the sour cream in 2-3 additions, whisk just to combine
8. Remove the blueberries from the freezer and add to the dry ingredients. Gently toss to cover. *If using fresh berries, be sure that they are well-dried after washing.
9. Fold the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, careful not to overmix. The batter will be very thick and that's okay! It's also okay if small spots of flour remain or if the batter is stained a little purple from the berries.
10. Spoon batter into the muffin cups. Ina Garten would use a spring-loaded ice cream scooper for perfectly consistent sized muffins, Cooks Illustrated says to spray your spoon with cooking oil, but I think both are unnecessary.
11. Bake until muffins are golden brown, about 25-30 minutes, turning the muffin pan once for more uniform browning. Insert a toothpick in the center of the muffin. If it comes out clean, they are done, though the tops being brown are really a great indicator.
12. Cool in pan for about 5 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack to keep muffins from steaming. Enjoy warm, though they're good cold, too!
 
 
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It's a gray Sunday afternoon and Franny and Jordan are playing Scategories at the dining room table with their friend, Charlotte, so it must be time for me to bake cookies! 

I'm making my favorite chocolate, chocolate chip cookies which are the same as Barefoot Contessa's Chocolate White Chocolate Chunk Cookies except I substitute chocolate chips for the white chocolate chunks. I do this because I always have chocolate chips in the pantry (unless Dave has eaten them all), and second, because I find white chocolate too sweet.

The contrast of the white on dark brown cookie does make for a more enticing-looking cookie, but I prefer the semi-sweet taste of the chocolate chips.

Ina Garten always scoops her cookies with a spring-loaded ice cream scooper or melon baller to get a uniform size. I don't think that's necessary because they don't have to be perfect. 

She then presses them gently with her finger (finger dipped in water so the dough won't stick) to get an even spread of the cookies as it cooks while still retaining the nooks and valleys that give this cookie a terrific texture. 

These have already been flattened. As you can see, it's a very slight depression.
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On the first batch, I forgot to make the depression with my finger, and this is how they came out. Definitely more jaggedy, but still delicious. The kids voted accordingly: Charlotte liked the first batch better, Jordan and me the second, and Franny didn't care.
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We all agree that the finger-depressed cookies look better so we plan to stick with that!
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Cookies with friends. What could be better?
Chocolate Chocolate Chip Cookies, from Barefoot Contessa's Chocolate White Chocolate Chunk Cookies
Yield:  about 3 dozen cookies

1/2 lb. room temperature butter
1 C sugar
1 C brown sugar
2 Large (or XL) eggs
2 tsp. vanilla
2/3 C cocoa powder, unsweetened

Dry ingredients
2C flour, unbleached
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt

2C semi-sweet chocolate chips

Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Cream butter in a standing mixer. Add both sugars, eggs, and vanilla. After mixing well, add cocoa powder. Careful, it will float up and dust everything! Toss a kitchen towel over the mixer if you want to catch the dust. Mix the cocoa powder in well. 

Gradually add the dry ingredients and be careful not to overbeat. Hand stir in the chocolate chips, scraping the bottom and the sides to mix in any dry ingredients.

Using your wooden spoon or a soup spoon, spoon the batter on to a parchment-lined sheet pan. Don't overcrowd. I usually only put 9 to a half-sheet pan. Wet fingertips and flatten slightly.

Cook for 11 minutes if making 3 dozen cookies. Ina's recipe makes larger cookies and so she cooks hers for 15 minutes. Be sure to not overcook. These are best when they are chewy in the middle but crusty on the edges.

Addendum from May 5, 2013: 
Having just written about salt, I think Ina Garten always uses kosher salt, even when she bakes. I use table salt when I bake, and you really can taste the salt in the above cookies. Personally I like this because it creates a complex umami flavor like eating caramels with sea salt. Next time I bake these cookies, maybe I'll try them with Diamond Crystal kosher salt and see if we can taste the difference. 
 
 
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It's another Saturday afternoon, and I haven't been to the store. I look in my pantry and find a great stand-by, canned tuna!

My tuna sandwiches don't have mayonaise. A simple vinaigrette with a few chopped vegetables then eat it on toast, over a salad, or if feeling indulgent, add cheddar and make a tuna melt. I prefer tuna packed in olive oil though I drain off most of the oil in the can and replace with fresh when making the dressing. I add whatever vegetables I have left in the fridge. Any combination of red or yellow peppers, carrots, green onion & celery work great. 

How do you like the retro, 50s, original-to-the house countertop? Our kitchen has matching linoleum on the floor! 

It's definitely not my first choice as the counter is a pain to keep clean–huge gaps at those metal seams along the edges that just collect gunk. I'm still working on my zen attitude towards leaving my work space spotless and not complaining about the clean up. There's always tomorrow!

Someday, I will have a gorgeous, easy-to-clean countertop.
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Mise en place. All ready to go with my crunchy , my heat, my melt, my protein and my acidic.
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First the vinaigrette. 1 tsp. dijon or other ground mustard and a squeeze of lemon juice.
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Add a pinch of kosher salt, a couple turns of cracked pepper, and about 1T of olive oil.
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Whisk continuously while adding the olive oil. The mustard works as an emulsifier and holds the whole vinaigrette together.
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Chop vegetables. A green onion (scallion) or a shallot is always good to include. It gives the tuna salad a little kick.
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Flake the tuna with a fork (separate the layers of packed tuna, instead of smooshing it all together which makes it resemble cat food!)
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Using a cheese planer makes for thin slices which assist in a quick melt.
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Heat 1T olive oil in a pan, or butter bottoms of one side of bread. Layer cheddar and cover with lid to encourage melting.
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Spread tuna mixture atop the cheese, after cheese has melted. *Note: I could have waited until the cheese was more melted. I like to have the tuna cold and vegetables still salad-like and cold while the cheese is very melty. Next time!
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Cover briefly to allow the tuna to sink into the melted cheddar and help the whole sandwich to adhere together.
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Light flavor from the vinaigrette, a bit of crunch from the red peppers, melty goodness from the cheddar, atop my favorite bread from Acme Bread Company in Berkeley!
 
 
After owning fakefood.com for over a decade, I've decided to use this as a venue for my experiments in the kitchen, my experiments to forge a creative and healthy life, a place to think about the good things, and a place to work out the hard things. And ultimately, a place for me to showcase my extensive fake food collection.  

My hope is that my entries will help me adapt to the ever-changing nature of my personal goals, my family and my relationship to my husband, Dave. I find myself experiencing some major growing pains, but it's also an exciting time of new found strength. I hope my blog is a place where I can include photos of my daughters alongside my searches for solutions to difficult questions. I'm not sure how appropriate those two things are sitting side by side in posts, but it is me. 

fakefood will also be a place to read about my cooking adventures. I love to watch cooking shows, but I get frustrated by recipes that have too many weird ingredients, use too many pans and have no awareness that most of us don't have spacious kitchens or an extra abundance of time to spend in the kitchen. I love to cook, but most of the time, I'm coming home after a full day at work and I just want to eat good food and fast. So what you will find here are simple recipes, many of which will be credited to real chefs, but you will know that they are tried and true, simple and delicious, include a few tips of my own, and possible to make in a small kitchen on a crappy electric stove. It is my hope that as I catalog more cooking experiments, my abilities will evolve and more recipes will be my own. Small kitchen and big flavor is my goal!

And lastly, fakefood will have many, many photos of fun and adorable fake food.

Thanks for reading & hope to hear from you,
shawn