On Vanilla Extract + Almond Chocolate Chip Cookies.

I’ve said before that I don’t bake that often, but that’s no longer the case.  Now I’ve consistently got a batch of muffins in the freezer, which I defrost on an as-needed basis, and there’s almost always cookies on the counter.  So  basically, what I’m trying to say is that I’ve been going through vanilla extract like it’s my job.

Until recently I’d been using Nielsen-Massey vanillas, which are quite nice, but after using up two bottles in a ridiculously short period of time I decided that I should instead make my own extract.  It’s surprisingly easy, so much so that I’ve been kind of kicking myself for not doing it sooner.  Seriously, it seems utterly ridiculous to write a “recipe” for it, but here goes:

Homemade Vanilla Extract
The quantity you end up with depends upon what size container you use, and how much liquor you can pour into it.

3 to 4 vanilla beans
rum or vodka (again, the amount you’ll need depends on your container, but I think about 3 beans to about 1 cup is a good ratio.)

  1. Before you begin, you’ll need a glass container with a tight cap.  I recycled one of my Nielsen-Massey bottles, but anything with a good seal on it will do as long as it’s clean and sterilized.  To sterilize, submerge your container in a pot of boiling hot water and it let sit in its bath for about ten minutes.  (This is why you want a glass bottle.)
  2. While your bottle is sterilizing, get your beans ready.  With a sharp thin knife, slit the beans open lengthwise so that the fine-grained little black specks within peek out.  This is all you have to do to prepare the vanilla for extract, so you can use the remaining sterilization time having a dance party in the kitchen.  I recommend pretty much any track off The Cardigans‘ album Life, or T.Rex’s Essential Collection, if you prefer something less poppy and more glam.
  3. When your bottle is nice and sterilized, slide your beans inside and top off with alcohol.* Seal the bottle tightly and give it a good couple of shakes — you can dance with it for a track or two if you like, but it’s not necessary — then store it in a cool, dark place like a kitchen cabinet, perhaps where you keep your drinking glasses, so that your vanilla has some company.
  4. For the next two months, visit your bottle about twice a week and give it a some more shakes, and maybe a twirl or two around the kitchen.  You can get going on your baking after the two months have passed.  Since you can keep your brand-new vanilla extract indefinitely in its cool, dark cabinet, you can top off the rum or vodka whenever you think it’s running low, as well as slip another slit bean into the mix if you’ve ever got one handy.  Just make sure to give the bottle a shake after you add anything to it, whether it’s alcohol or a bean.

Once you’ve got your vanilla extract ready to go, you can make this dead simple chocolate chip cookie recipe from Baking by James Peterson.

I know there are just about as many chocolate chip cookie recipes out there as there are chocolate chip cookie eaters, but I really think that it’s in your best interest to follow Mr. Peterson’s instructions at least once.  The results are crunchy and buttery and full of sweet flavor.  He calls for walnuts in his ingredients, but I prefer finely sliced almonds.  It’s up to you as to what nut you use.  I only care that you give these a shot — after you’ve made some vanilla extract, of course.

(Almond) Chocolate Chip Cookies, from Baking by James Peterson, though not verbatim
Makes about sixteen cookies **

6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped, or chocolate chips
1 cup flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
¾ cup butter, cut in slices
¼ cup brown sugar
¼ cup granulated sugar
1 egg yolk
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¾ cup sliced or slivered almonds

  • Unless you are using silicone baking liners or nonstick sheet pans, brush two pans with room-temperature butter.  In a bowl, sift together flour, baking soda and salt.
  • If you plan on mixing the ingredients by hand or with a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix together the butter and sugars until fluffy.  Then mix in the egg yolk and vanilla, then add the flour mixture all at once.  Stir or mix on low to medium speed until there’s no loose flour visible.  Stir in the nuts and chocolate.
  • If you plan on using a food processor, process all the ingredients except the nuts and chocolate for about 20 seconds, or until they clump together and you see no loose flour.  If there’s stubborn loose flour clinging to the bottom of the bowl, scrape it up with a silicone spatula and process for 5 seconds more.  Transfer the dough to a bowl and nix in the nuts and chocolate with a wooden spoon.
  • Refrigerate the dough for 30 minutes.  Preheat the oven to 375°.
  • For the first cookie, measure out 2 tablespoons of dough — you can use a 2-tablespoon ice cream scoop — and roll it into a ball.  Set the ball on the sheet pan and press it into a 2 ¾-inch disk with the bottom of a glass.  If the glass sticks to the dough, dip it in cold water in between pressing the cookies down.  Continue shaping the rest of the cookies.
  • Bake for about 15 minutes, or until the edges brown slightly.  Let cool until set and then transfer to cooling racks, or let cool in the pans set on racks.  Store tightly sealed in an airtight container for up to 1 week.
* I use rum, personally, but vodka is perfectly fine.
** If you follow Mr. Peterson’s 2-tablespoon suggestion.  My cookies are made of one ounce of dough each (I use my digital scale for precise amounts) and just over 1 ½ inches across.  I end up with almost thirty cookies.

Five Things About Me: 86 87 88 89 90.

86. I love love love getting into a bed made with freshly-laundered sheets.  It just might be the best feeling in the world.

87. Part of the reason why I haven’t hopped on the whole Twitter bandwagon is because I know my tweets would mostly be links to cute animals or say things like “Practicing sitting” and “I want a sandwich.”

88. I don’t drive that often, but I do drive often enough to have a list of driving peeves, such as drivers who neglect to use their turn indicators, tailgaters and driver who park so close to me that I can’t even get into my car, let alone move it.  The turn indicator things irritates me the most though.

89. My dream date would include walking a dog, getting my back scratched and a bottle of Saracco Moscato d’Asti.

90. I have four binders in my cookbook cabinet, one for each season of the year.  Inside, I store the recipes I’ve torn out of magazines, newspapers and similar under tabs labeled by month.  It might be the most organized aspect of my life, along with our bookshelves (which are alphabetical) and my section of the closet (which is sorted by category, i.e. “layering pieces,” “camisoles,” “lightweight cottons,” and “sweaters”).  Everything else that I own is in shambles.

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson.

(I’m trying to be better at posting book write-ups, especially since I seem to be on a reading rampage these past few months, and am already eleven books in this year.)

I am a glass-half-empty kind of girl, and one that my friend Monique says has a bit of melancholia about her, so it makes sense that I would gravitate towards a book like Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, which is depressing as all get out.   Don’t get me wrong, because the writing is spare and lovely and simple, but the story will break your heart.  More than that — it’ll shatter it.

Three years after his wife dies in the car crash that he himself barely survives, sixty-seven-year-old Trond moves to an isolated, rustic cabin on the frosty Norwegian-Swedish border.  There he lives as quietly as possible with just his dog for company, until he meets his only neighbor.  Already an introspective and contemplative man, this meeting causes Trond to think back to the summer of 1948, when he was a boy of fifteen.  What he didn’t realize then and does now is that what he experienced that summer shaped the next fifty-two years of his life; how Petterson twists Trond’s recollections — as varied as children getting shot, bridges getting blown up, and the horses of the title getting stolen — amongst his present-day observations is so beautifully fluid that it doesn’t even cross my mind to be bothered that the book’s plot has no climax.

Yes, you read that correctly.  There’s no climax, and it’s okay.  It might even be the point.  So many, fictional or otherwise, live their lives waiting for something to happen, and spend that anticipatory time studying what has transpired thus far.  Petterson’s Trond is no different, though in his case what he is waiting for is a placid death.  It’s sad, yes, but Trond isn’t.  He ruminates, and in the end, he accepts it all — what has made him who he is, what inevitably is going to eventually come — and if that peaceful recognition doesn’t crack your heart into a million bloody pieces, then maybe you don’t deserve to have one in the first place.

Five Things About Me: 81 82 83 84 85.

81. Towards the end of Ratatouille, when Anton Ego eats the dish of the title and is flung back to his childhood, the other members of the audience laughed.  I burst into tears.

82. I’m pretty adventurous when it comes to picking a nail color; though my go-to shades are navy, charcoal and black, I’ve slicked on bright cerulean blues, jazzy purples, cheerful fuchsias and mod whites.  I’ve never, however, had classic red nails.  They just seem very un-me.  And a little too “grown-up,” in a matching-lipstick, perfectly dressed, not-a-hair-out-of-place sort of way.

83. My parents never sent me to summer camp.  Instead, I would go into the city with them, and my mother would bring me around to the museums.  To this day, the Museum of Modern Art is my favorite, but not only because I love modern art.  I love it because I spent the most time there; it’s exactly eight minutes from my dad’s old office.

84. I can’t brush my teeth while looking in the mirror.  It grosses me out.  If you think this is odd, consider this: I never used to be able to watch someone else brush his or her teeth, overhear someone brushing his or her teeth, or brush my own teeth while someone else brushed his or her own teeth next to me.  Once, when I was in grade school, my cousin slept over and in the morning I thought I could conquer my disgust of simultaneous side-by-side brushing.  As soon as we sat down at the table for breakfast a few minutes later, I threw up.

85. For some reason, I really like Say Yes to the Dress.  I couldn’t tell you why.  I got married in a $375 bridesmaid gown I had made in white*, and only recently brought to the dry cleaner’s for the first time this past December.

* I had straps put on too, and my sash was pistachio.  In case you were wondering.  And I know you were.

These Might Just Be The Best Meatballs Ever.

Is that kind of a bold statement?  I don’t care.  I’m not going to take it back or apologize for it, because these meatballs are It. It being delicious, lush and better than any other meatball I’ve ever had.

So there.

My dear dear friend Monique gave me the Ottolenghi cookbook for my last birthday, and I’d been dying to dive into it for a while.  Monique and I have several things in common, one of which is our absolute fervor for food, and another one being having Lebanese fathers*, so when she told me I was going to love the London restaurant’s gorgeous book of recipes, I didn’t doubt it for a second.  I’ve Post-It-ed exactly sixty-five recipes to try, and the following was my maiden voyage.

The reason I chose the beef and lamb meatballs as my first Ottolenghi recipe to try was simple: I thought Keith would like it.  I of course cook for myself, but when there’s someone else who’s going to be eating for your food, I think it’s only polite to take their tastes into consideration.  Besides, I happen to love Keith very much, so I try to avoid presenting him with foods he dislikes, no matter how much I enjoy them, like olives, fish and mushroom-heavy dishes.  The only time I don’t think about for whom I am cooking is when I’m feeding more than six people.  Then I focus more on pleasing myself, because it’s sometimes too stressful to account for so-and-so’s aversion to onions and such-and-such’s fennel-phobia.  I do, however, accomodate vegetarians and those with food allergies.  I just don’t have patience for picky eaters at my dinner table.

Jeez, I’m totally off-topic.

What’s interesting about this is how beautifully the tahini sauce in which the meatballs are baked adds an intense richness to the already-luscious lamb.  It’s not even remotely overwhelming, but completely complimentary instead.

Also complimentary is the lemon zest and parsley garnish, which I forgot to sprinkle on until after I had snapped this photograph, so I’ll leave you to imagine cheerful specks of bright yellow and green dotting the dish.

One last thing before I get to the recipe: these meatballs smell amaaaaazing, and not even just at the baking stage.  I made both Keith and Melissa stick their noses into the bowl of raw meat and inhale before I shoved them out of the way so that I could do the same.  Then when they come out of the oven… mm mm mm.

Beef + Lamb Meatballs Baked in Tahini, from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
Makes four to six portions, though four of us devoured these without any leftovers.

for the meatballs:
¼ cup stale white bread, crusts removed
¾ pound ground beef
¾ pound ground lamb
3 garlic cloves, crushed **
¼ cup flat-leafed parsley, finely chopped
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
2 ½ teaspoon ground all-spice
1 ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 egg
2 tablespoons olive oil

for the tahini sauce:
2/3 cup tahini paste
2/3 cup water
1/3 cup white wine vinegar (I had only champagne vinegar, so that’s what I used)
1 garlic clove, crushed
A pinch of salt

for the garnish:
grated zest of ½ a lemon (I love lemon, so used a whole one)
1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley

  1. First make the tahini sauce.  In a bowl, mix together the tahini paste, water, vinegar, garlic and salt.  Whisk well until it turns smooth and creamy, with a thick sauce-like consistency.  You may need to add more water.  Set aside while you make the meatballs.
  2. Preheat the oven to 400°.  Soak the bread in cold water for 2 – 3 minutes until it goes soft.  Squeeze out most of the water and crumble the bread into a mixing bowl.  Add the meats, garlic, parsley, salt, spices and egg; mix well with your hands.
  3. Shape the meat mixture into balls, each roughly the size of a golf ball.  Pour olive oil into a large frying pan and heat it up, being careful that it doesn’t get too hot or it will spit all over while frying.  Fry the meatballs in small batches for about 2 minutes, turning them around as you go until they are uniformly brown on the outside.
  4. Put the meatballs on a paper-towel-lined plate to soak up the excess oil, then arrange them on a single layer in an ovenproof baking dish.  Place in the oven for 5 minutes, then carefully remove to pour the tahini sauce over and around the meatballs.  Return to the oven for another 10 minutes.  The tahini sauce will take on a bit of color and thicken up, and the meatballs should be just cooked through.  Transfer to individual plates (or a serving dish) and garnish liberally with lemon zest and parsley.  Serve at once.

Note: The Ottolenghi cookbook is published with Metric measurements.  I own a digital scale and so didn’t have any problems, but converted the measurements as closely as possible for an American cook.  If you would like the original measurements, leave me a note in the comments and I’ll reply there.

* I suppose mine is technically Lebanese-Armenian, or Armenian-Lebanese.  No matter.
** I always put twice as many cloves of garlic than suggested, but then type up ingredients exactly as they were originally printed.  It’s a preference.

Five Things About Me: 76 77 78 79 80.

76. The Metro-Boston Library System only lets you request holds on fifty books at a time, which is why I have a list of 99 waiting-to-be-helds.

77. I am not what you would call a Red Hot Chili Peppers fan per se — I don’t own any of their albums, I haven’t downloaded any of their songs, etc. — but there is something I find remarkably soothing about Anthony Kiedis’s voice.  It’s almost as soothing to me as Ina Garten’s (see here).

78. It’s not cool to admit this, but my favorite cookie is Chips Ahoy! Gets me every time.

79. I have a very specific pattern that I follow closely when I put on makeup.  It’s stretched out over a period of time, so it doesn’t take as long as it seems since I do things like brush my teeth and wash my eyeglasses in between stages.  First, assuming I have clean skin, I moisturize my face and neck.  Then I wait something like five to ten minutes for it to absorb.  Second, I put on a thin layer of foundation, followed by blush.  Since I am currently using a gel stain, I have to wait something like ten minutes until it too has absorbed.  Third, I dust my face with loose powder, dab on some eye shadow, line my lids with another shadow and an angled brush, curl my lashes and apply mascara.  This last step takes about five minutes.  Basically, if I caved and bought the $42 tinted moisturizer I used to use and broke out the powder blush I purchased to replace my almost-finished gel stain, I could cut ten minutes out of my routine.

80. If it were possible to start each day with a consequence-free breakfast of a fat toasted garlic bagel topped with an inch of cream cheese and a layer of smoked salmon, I totally would.  And by “consequence-free” I mean no weight gain and no bad breath.

Dinner at East by Northeast.

Two points, before we begin:

Knowing these little facts about me, you would think that I would love East by Northeast, the new Chinese-fusion small-plate-based restaurant in Inman Square, right?

We-ell…

Here’s the thing: I have money issues.  I can easily consider purchasing a $600 pair of great boots because I’ll wear them for six months out of the year for several years to come.  I feel the same way about bags, chairs, and other items meant to last a while**.  With food, I’ll have little problem spending a good amount of money at the market or on a memorable meal; when it comes to a “normal” meal out, though, I want value for dollar.

Am I trying to say that dinner at East by Northeast is expensive?  Of course not; plates average at about $10.  But $10 seems, to me, to be too much to pay for two mini pork belly sandwiches, especially when I’ve eaten two larger, similar sandwiches across the river at Myers + Chang and at Momofukus Noodle and Ssäm — for the pretty much the same price.  I don’t think this makes me stingy though; it just makes me realize I won’t order the pork belly sandwiches at East by Northeast again.

What will I reorder?

The candied pecans ($4.00), for sure, and the celery root/poached chicken/apple salad ($7.00). I’d definitely go back for the pork dumplings with butternut squash ($8.00) and the cilantro-lime soda ($5.00).  If the braised pork with sticky rice ($9.00) and fried shrimp with smoked salt ($6.00) specials were added to the permanent menu, no one would be happier than me.  I’m interested to try one of the delicious-sounding mixed drinks, like the goji-pomegranate cocktail, and order a dish featuring the hand-rolled noodles.  I found the spicy broth in the beef shank noodle soup ($10.00) to be a bit too spicy for my spice-averse taste buds, but the wide noodles were so chewy and lush that I’d skip the meat altogether for the vegetarian version.

See, this is why I feel awful for complaining about price — the food was good.  It was beyond good.  And the service was both speedy and friendly.  And the intimate space is warm and cozy.  And the chef/owner is only twenty-seven!  I’m certain the restaurant will become a neighborhood favorite.

Just… the plates were a bit too small.

East by Northeast
1128 Cambridge Street
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139
617.876-0286
exnecambridge.com

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* Half, but it still counts.
** This doesn’t mean I do it often, but that’s the point.