Friday, October 29, 2010

Not Gloating



The July/August 2009 issue of Vegetarian Times had a recipe for the best brownies I’ve ever eaten. Over the years I’ve tried dozens of recipes, and this one was it. The best.

I freelanced at VT the summer of 2007, and I know the painstaking methods the magazine employs when it comes to recipe testing and editing. When I found a mistake in the instructions for the brownies, I read the text six times because I was sure I was missing something. VT couldn’t have made a mistake. But, after the sixth sentence-by-sentence read-through, I had to concede that someone had erred.

Whoever edited the recipe forgot to include the step of combining the wet and dry ingredients. Anyone who bakes understands that this step has to occur whether or not the recipe instructions say so. This has been corrected in the online version of the recipe

Please believe me when I say I’m not gloating. I’ve made far more embarrassing errors that found their way into print during my career in magazine publishing.

For the almost-five years I worked at Entertainment Weekly, I lived in dread of having to work on music stories. Since I knew nothing about current artists, reading about them was about as interesting to me as settling down with a thick wad of engineering specs.

The last Grammy issue I worked on before relocating to the Left Coast was a bear. We were past deadline, exhausted and trying to finish the last piece of the night, a feature on the nominated artists. I was the last copy editor to see the piece before it went to press.

There was a photo of someone named Beck on one of the pages. I’d never heard of him. I distinctly wrote a query on the side of the page proof as such: Jeff? My intended meaning: Do you mean Jeff Beck? The associate editor working on the piece apparently mistook my query for musical acumen and sent the piece to press with the photo caption identifying Beck, the alternative-music genius, as Jeff Beck, guitarist for the Yardbirds and number 14 in Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. (And, I later learned, the inspiration for Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel!)

The magazine ran a correction in the following issue―no big deal; the New York Times does it daily. It was very professional and did not mention me by name or even refer to “a musically bereft copy editor” as the source of the error. I wasn’t upbraided for the gaffe. Far worse. I was teased mercilessly. So mercilessly, in fact, that the following month I had no choice but to move across the country to escape utter humiliation and salvage some vestige of my reputation.

When I find an error in a magazine or book, I don’t gloat. I’m humbled because I know how intense deadline pressure is and how easy it is to miss something. With so many magazines downsizing, life is not getting any easier for editorial staffs.

So, if you find an error in a recipe, allow common sense to prevail.  The ability to cut another some slack is a wonderfully human quality, because even the most diligent of us occasionally make mistakes—even when we’re not under deadline pressure.

Gooey Gluten-free Brownies
Makes 16 squares
Adapted from Vegetarian Times, July/August 2009

If you don’t want to go gluten-free here, nix the xanthan gum and sub 1 cup all-purpose flour, which is what VT has in the original. The original also calls for melting the chocolate and butter in a double boiler. If you roll that way, be my guest, but I find the microwave extremely useful for chocolate melting. You can also use a combination of bittersweet and semisweet chocolate, which yields extremely tasty results. My favorite chocolate to bake with is Ghirardelli, but, heck, we’re not communists, so use whichever kind you like best. (If you are a communist, use whatever chocolate is the community cupboard. But make sure you ask first.)

Canola oil spray
⅔ cup GF Classical Blend, or your favorite gluten-free flour blend
⅓ cup coconut flour
¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon xanthan gum
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, broken up into small pieces
1½ sticks (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1½ cups light brown sugar
3 large eggs, beaten

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray 8x8 baking pan with canola oil.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together flours, cocoa powder, baking powder, salt and xanthan gum.
3. In a microwave-safe bowl, melt chocolate and butter in microwave. Keep an eye on it—don’t let it start to bubble up and erupt. When everything is mostly melted, remove bowl from microwave and whisk chocolate and butter until smooth. Let mixture cool a bit.
4. Whisk brown sugar into chocolate-butter mixture. Fold in beaten eggs. Stir in dry ingredients until combined.
5. Spread batter evenly into baking pan and bake until brownies are set, about 25-30 minutes, depending on how gooey you like them. (We like them pretty gooey, so I baked for 25 minutes.) They’ll still be kind of soft in the center. Don’t overbake. Cool brownies in pan on wire rack. Slice into squares when you’re ready to serve.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Autumn in Los Angeles


Autumn in Los Angeles is unlike autumn anywhere else. Some days it’s cold and pouring rain and my hair is out of control; other days, like today, it’s hot, dry and windy and my hair lies cooperatively against my head like a normal person’s. On the cold days I am sure my ice cream maker won’t make an appearance until well after Christmas. Then Mother Nature chuckles and bestows us with an 80-degree day. I know this is her way of telling me to make some ice cream.

It’s fitting that we’re having summer weather today, because the World Series starts in San Francisco tonight, and no matter how cold it gets during the Fall Classic, the World Series will always be a summer thing to me. I know, it’s called the Fall Classic and it’s actually played in the fall, but the whole thing starts in the summer, right? My beloved Yankees were dismissed by the Texas Rangers, so I will be rooting for the San Francisco Giants. The Giants are my second-favorite team, so unless they were playing against the Yankees, I’d be rooting for them anyway.

Whether you’re in the middle of a twister in the Midwest or in New York, where my sister, Wendy, tells me it’s raining again, you can bust out your ice cream maker and do some damage.  If you are in the middle of a twister, though, please wait until you’re out of imminent danger and your power’s restored before starting the ice cream. Yeah, I probably didn’t need to tell you that.

Toasted Almond Ice Cream
Makes a little more than a pint

When I was a kid and the ice cream man would cruise around my neighborhood in New York, I would go absolutely berserk. I loved the ice cream man more than Santa Claus because the ice cream man would always have Good Humor Toasted Almond bars. This ice cream reminds me of those hot, humid summer evenings when my pals and I would play an intense game of baseball after dinner and completely abandon the game no matter who was winning as soon as we heard the ice cream man’s bell. So, be prepared: Making this ice cream could cause people to spaz out completely.

1¼ cups reduced fat (2%) milk
Scant ⅔ cup sugar
1¼ cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon almond extract
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Generous pinch of sea salt
½ cup raw almonds, toasted and coarsely chopped

1. Combine milk and sugar into large mixing bowl. Use hand mixer on low speed for 2 minutes or use whisk to dissolve sugar. Whisking takes more like 3-4 minutes for sugar to dissolve.
2. Mix in heavy cream and almond and vanilla extracts.
3. Pour the mixture into your ice cream maker and follow the instructions specific to your machine to thicken the ice cream. (Mine takes about 23 minutes.) Add sea salt to the ice cream right after you pour it into the ice cream maker.
4. Five minutes before the ice cream has reached desired thickness, pour in the chopped almonds. Let it work its magic, then transfer ice cream to a container and freeze for an hour or two. If the ice cream gets too hard, take it out of the freezer and let it soften for 10 minutes before serving.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Competition




When I was in high school I was on the swim team, and I participated in the drama club. I enjoyed acting far more than swimming, so I eventually concentrated my efforts on the artistic. I got my first real taste of competition there. Auditioning for roles was no comparison to attempting to swim faster than the kid in the next lane. Even though I didn’t always get the role I auditioned for, I wasn’t magically transformed into a competitive person. I was usually just happy to be performing. My life continued in this noncompetitive way for quite some time.

Then I met a really obnoxious woman at a dinner party a while back who boasted that her chocolate chip cookies were the best, and soon I would be “begging” her for the recipe, which she would “never” give me. (Truthfully, I had her tagged as obnoxious even before the cookie conversation.) The party’s hostess, a close friend, cut in with, “Lori is a really good baker, and she doesn’t need a recipe from you. She writes a blog!”

While I love my friend for coming to my defense, I decided I would worm the cookie secret from the loudmouth chick by employing some Godfather wisdom: Keep your friends close, your enemies closer. By the end of the party, I had basically gotten her to tell me what made these cookies so good―and they were good―less butter and sugar than you find in most recipes. So I immediately set to work and discovered what I think is the best combination of ingredients.

You know, I still don’t consider myself a particularly competitive person, but I seriously enjoy a challenge and I love puzzles. So, if we meet at a dinner party and you tell me that you have a secret recipe for something that appeals to me, I will probably pepper you with questions and then go home to try to figure out the recipe on my own. But rest assured: I would never make you beg for a recipe. Cross my heart.
 
No-Beg Chocolate Chunk Cookies
Makes 18 3½-inch cookies

I tried both Ghirardelli’s bittersweet baking bar (60% cocoa) and Green & Black’s dark chocolate bar (70% cocoa). While I like to eat the G&B on its own, the Ghirardelli is better for cookies. If you want to use chocolate chips instead, substitute 1½ cups of bittersweet chips for the chopped chocolate. Ghirardelli makes excellent bittersweet chips. If you want to go vegan with these, sub Earth Balance or another nondairy margarine for the butter and make sure your chocolate doesn’t have any milk fat. Both the Ghirardelli bittersweet baking bar and chips do. If you want to make smaller cookies, use half as much dough for each cookie and bake 7-8 minutes. This will yield about 3 dozen cookies.

1¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1½ sticks (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
½ cup sugar
½ cup brown sugar, packed
¼ cup unsweetened applesauce
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped

1. Preheat oven to 375° F. Line baking sheet with parchment. If you don’t want to use parchment, that’s fine. Just don’t grease the baking sheet.
2. In medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda and salt. In large bowl, whisk together butter, sugars, applesauce and vanilla. Mix dry ingredients into wet ingredients until combined. Stir in chocolate chunks.
3. Drop heaping teaspoons of dough onto baking sheet. Bake 10 minutes. Let cool on baking sheet for 5 minutes then transfer to rack. When completely cooled, store in airtight container for up to 3 days.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

October


When September finally relents and gives way to my favorite month, there are so many things for me to be excited about. Topping the list: The cooler weather and clouds I’ve been dreaming about since July, the World Series and the leaves changing. I know that sounds weird. Los Angeles isn’t supposed to have seasons, but we actually experience a little bit of fall. The one thing I really look forward to in October, though, is Halloween.

Some New York City residents go door-to-door with their kids in the apartment buildings where they live, but childhood in New York City usually means no trick-or-treating. Since he was born in the city, Max spent his first four years not knowing the joys of receiving candy from strangers, staying up way past his bedtime and eating so much sugar at one sitting that he starts to hallucinate. When we moved to Los Angeles, that all changed. The Halloweens we took Max trick-or-treating in Los Angeles far surpass any childhood memories I have.

Max still enjoys Halloween, though, at 18, he’s not outwardly excited about it and he no longer goes trick-or-treating. He usually gets together with friends, and, thankfully, he’s not doing the…spicy…things I was doing when I was his age. At least I don’t think he is, and until he’s brought home by the police, I have no reason to think otherwise.

Now, each Halloween I sit in my living room reading a book, as the porch lights guide the little Freddy Kruegers, vampires, princesses and witches to my front door and the big silver bowl of candy waiting to be emptied.

The action dies down pretty early here in the northeast San Fernando Valley. By 9 p.m. the last carload of teenagers who are too cool to dress up or walk street to street have driven off, the porch lights have been extinguished and the front door has been closed. I sequester the remaining candy to the pantry so I don’t eat myself into a chocolate coma. Next October I’ll divulge some of my wild adolescent Halloween adventures. I just have to make sure those activities have a statute of limitations, and that the statute of limitations has, in fact, run out.

Pumpkin-Apple Bread
Makes 1 loaf

October always gives me the urge to make something pumpkin-y. I also wanted to make something apple-y, so I decided to combine the two here.

I procured a 9x5 loaf pan, and it has changed my life. I was using an 8x4 loaf pan, and I couldn’t for the life of me get a decent quick bread. It would be hard and crusty on the outside and mushy pudding in the middle, and no matter how I altered the baking temperature or the wet ingredients, I couldn’t get it right. Until I bought the 9x5 loaf pan. (Cue: angel chorus.) If you want to go vegan with this, sub ⅓ cup unsweetened applesauce for the eggs. This is flavorful, but not overly spicy, so if you want more spice, heck, add more spice.

Canola oil spray
2 cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon allspice
2 eggs
1 cup pureed pumpkin
⅓ cup canola oil
2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 medium apple, cored, peeled and chopped (I like Fuji or Gala)
1 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped
1 tablespoon brown sugar for sanding

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray 9x5 loaf pan with canola oil.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and spices. In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, pumpkin, oil, maple syrup and vanilla. Stir dry ingredients into wet until combined. Stir in apple and walnuts.
3. Pour batter into loaf pan and make sure it’s evenly distributed. The batter’s thick, so you need to use a bit of elbow grease to spread it. Sprinkle brown sugar over top of batter. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes.
4. Cool in loaf pan on rack for 20 minutes, then remove and allow to cool completely on rack before slicing and serving. This will last 2-3 days in an airtight container.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Best Zucchini Bread. Ever.


As much as I like to futz with recipes and switch things up, sometimes I find something that is so good it needs no futzing. This was my experience with the zucchini bread food writer and cook Susan Russo posted on her blog, Food Blogga, last summer. It’s her mom’s, and it is far and away the best zucchini bread I’ve ever eaten. You can see the original here.

All other zucchini breads I’ve tried, including stuff I’ve bought in a bakery and my own, are way too zucchini heavy. Susan’s mom hits just the right note with hers, not only with the zucchini but with the sweet and spice as well. This recipe also includes coconut, which I am happy to add to just about anything.

If you’re experiencing zucchini overload and have become vexed as to how to dispose of it, treat yourself and bake this without delay. It’ll be gone before you know it, and I just bet you’ll be longing for zucchini season to start up again so you can bake more zucchini bread.

Mom’s Zucchini Bread
Makes 1 loaf
Recipe by Susan Russo, www.foodblogga.com

The original recipe yields 2 loaves, but I have only one loaf pan, so I halved the recipe here. The only changes I made were: I used toasted pecans and unsweetened coconut, and I didn’t use an electric mixer to combine the wet ingredients. I used a whisk. Why? Because I’m lazy, that’s why.

Canola oil spray
1½ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 large eggs
1 cup sugar
½ cup canola oil
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
½ cup chopped nuts, preferably walnuts or pecans
1 cup shredded zucchini, with the skins
½ cup crushed pineapple, drained
⅓ cup shredded sweetened coconut

1. Place oven rack in center of oven and preheat to 350°F. Spray 9x5 loaf pan with canola oil.
2. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder and cinnamon.
3. In a medium bowl, beat eggs and sugar with an electric mixer. Add canola oil and vanilla and beat until combined. Add wet ingredients to the dry and stir by hand. Fold in nuts, zucchini, pineapple and coconut.
4. Pour batter into prepared pan and even it out. Bake 50-60 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes in pan, then turn out onto wire rack and cool completely. This will be good for 3 or so days in an airtight container, but I doubt it will last that long.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

London



My favorite city in the world is London. It reminds me of New York, but with an infinitely cleaner and more comfortable subway. London is damp and cool, and, dictated by my Western European genes, is the kind of weather I favor. I was 15 when I went to London for first time. My younger brother, Robbie, and I were meeting my dad, who was working in Saudi Arabia, for a few weeks of R&R. I know London has climbed out of the basement as far as cuisine goes, but when I was there in 1978 the food was pretty bad. Robbie and I subsisted on shrimp cocktail; fish and chips; and sweet, creamy tea and scones. Good bread was even hard to come by. Every restaurant we went into served rolls that were harder than rocks. Robbie and I started calling them enemy rolls, because we were convinced they had been dropped by the Luftwaffe during the Blitz.

Robbie and I made an amazing culinary discovery that sustained us through the hard times: Cadbury Whole Nut bars, made of creamy milk chocolate with whole roasted hazelnuts. I had never had a hazelnut before that, and I was hooked. These didn’t come in the same one-and-a-half-ounce size as our paltry American Hershey bars. These suckers were twice the size of our candy bars back home, and there was never a morsel left. That summer, I think Robbie and I ate our weights in Whole Nutters, as my dad called them. In fact, Robbie was nicknamed Chocolate by a kind, older gentleman we met in our travels around the country. Whenever I think back to that trip, Robbie’s 11-year-old face is never free of chocolate smears.

When I returned home to New York, I was stricken to discover the Whole Nut bar was nowhere to be found. I grieved and didn’t eat chocolate for a long time. When I went back to England again four years later, I stocked up. I was able to coax various friends and family members into bringing them back for me when they hopped across the pond, but I wasn’t getting them with nearly enough regularity. I conceived these cookies one day when I was missing London and really wanted a Whole Nutter. I sent my chocolate-loving mom a few dozen of these cookies last year for Mother’s Day, and I am happy to report she enjoyed them immensely. I think this gesture may have eased some of the pain I caused her as a child by always refusing to eat what she put in front of me.

There are still days when I miss London intensely, and I am hoping to get back there this summer. I have already purchased an extra suitcase that I will bring as an empty vessel for transporting my Whole Nutters back to the USA. And, rest assured, I will seek out and photograph those rock-hard enemy rolls in all their glory.

Lonely for London Cookies
Makes about 3 dozen cookies

This was originally a vegan recipe. I used Earth Balance for the butter and applesauce for the eggs. Though this recipe uses unsalted butter, I kept the applesauce because I like the flavor and texture so much.  If you want to go vegan, make sure your chocolate chips have no milk fat. I used bittersweet chocolate chips here, but feel free to use semisweet. I added coconut because I think coconut enhances everything. Try tossing a fistful of coconut at your significant other and see if your relationship isn’t a thousand times better.

½ cup hazelnuts
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon instant espresso powder
½ cup good-quality unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, melted
¾ cup sugar
¾ cup brown sugar, packed
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
⅓ cup all-natural, unsweetened applesauce
⅓ cup unsweetened shredded coconut
1 cup bittersweet chocolate chips (I like Ghirardelli)

1. Preheat oven to 375° F. Place hazelnuts on a baking sheet and toast until you can smell them, 8-10 minutes. Let cool, then remove the brown papery skins by rubbing the nuts in your hands or a dish towel. It’s kind of messy, so I usually do this over the sink. You need to get rid of the skins. They don’t taste good. Chop the nuts coarsely and set aside.
2. In medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, salt, espresso powder, and cocoa powder. In a large bowl, whisk together butter, sugar, brown sugar, and vanilla.  Whisk in applesauce until combined. Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients and stir together until combined. Stir in coconut, chocolate chips, and hazelnuts.
3. Place a piece of parchment paper onto an ungreased baking sheet. If you don’t want to use parchment, no worries, just don’t grease the baking sheet. Drop teaspoonfuls of dough onto the baking sheet. These spread out, so make sure you leave enough room on the baking sheet. Bake 8 minutes. When you remove the baking sheet from the oven, bang it against the counter to “deflate” the cookies. I usually just drop it kind of hard, and that does the trick. Let cool on baking sheet for five minutes, then transfer to rack to cool completely. When completely cool, transfer to an airtight container, where they’ll keep for about three days.


Update: I'm very proud that my Lonely for London Cookies have been included in Foodista's Best of the Food Blogs Cookbook: 100 Great Recipes, Photos and Voices, which is being published by Andrews McNeel for release on October 19. You can order it here.