I’ve Got A Lovely Bunch Of Coconuts.

When I was about seven or eight, I watched The Parent Trap II with my brother and our cousins.  The storyline isn’t that important (best friends want their single parents to marry, and — coincidence? — one of those parents is a twin played by Hayley Mills) but what stuck with me for some reason was a scene early on in the movie where the two young girls bake cookies.  They had a huge mixing bowl on a kitchen countertop, and the two kept on throwing in what seemed to me to be the craziest ingredients into their dough: marshmallows! Cap’n Crunch! M&Ms! pretzels!  Then the girls formed their cookies and put them in the oven, and all I could think was, Gross.

I really think that that movie is what turned me off of baking.  Interestingly enough, it didn’t turn me off of cookies.

In the time that’s passed since The Parent Trap II, I’ve made my peace with baking, and with what my seven-year-old self would have thought to be gross cookie ingredients.  As a seven-year-old, for example, I never would’ve even considered eating anything with coconut in it; like my former teacher Steve Almond wrote in his excellent book Candyfreak, “Oddly, it isn’t the flavor of coconut that troubles me, but the texture… I feel as if I’m chewing on a sweetened cuticle.”

True dat, Steve.Toasted Coconut Chocolate Chip Cookies -- 10thirty.

I like coconut, I really do, but its cuticleness just drives me bananas.  I think that’s why I’m so surprised that I adore these cookies as much as I do.  The trick, with these not-overwhelmingly-sweet cookies, is toasting the cuticle out of the coconut and amping up the richness of its natural flavor.  As a result, you get these little soft bites of truly intense coconuttiness — which just so happens to pair quite nicely with a luxe dark chocolate, I might add.

Have these cookies changed my mind about coconut?  Perhaps not.  But they’ve definitely got me thinking about coconut a bit more, and with something like a smile on my face.

Toasted Coconut Chocolate Chunk Cookies, from Cooking Light
Makes about twenty-five cookies

1 cup flaked sweetened coconut
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
¾ cup packed brown sugar
¼ cup unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg
2 ounces dark chocolate (70% cacao), chopped
Cooking spray

  1. Preheat oven to 350°.
  2. Arrange coconut in a single layer in a small baking pan. Bake at 350° for 7 minutes or until lightly toasted, stirring once. Set aside to cool.
  3. Weigh or lightly spoon flour into a dry measuring cup; level with a knife. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl; stir with a whisk until blended. Place sugar and butter in a large bowl; beat with a mixer at medium speed until well blended. Beat in vanilla and egg. Add flour mixture, beating at low speed just until combined. Stir in toasted coconut and chocolate.
  4. Drop by level tablespoons 2 inches apart onto baking sheets coated with cooking spray. Bake at 350° for 10 minutes or until bottoms of cookies just begin to brown. Remove from pan, and cool completely on wire racks.
I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” was originally recorded by Merv Griffith, but I’ve had a huge fondness for Danny Kaye since childhood, and since he was a huge lover of food, I went with his version.

Chocolate City.

I am completely behind on most things in my life, so it makes complete sense to me that I would be writing about Thanksgiving almost two weeks later.  Time may have passed, but I’m still feeling the impact of my contribution to the table.  I’m aware of how obnoxious that comes across but I don’t care.  I don’t care because it’s true.  Besides, it’s not as if I invented the recipe; that credit goes to the lovely people of the much-mourned Gourmet.  It’s just a damn good recipe, it makes a damn good tart, and I’m damn well going to take the credit.

This tart is as incredibly easy make as it is incredibly easy it is to eat — as long as the eater has plenty of milk to wash it down with.  It is a very rich tart, this unassuming wedge of chocolate, and the type of chocolate used makes all the difference.  I personally prefer a darker chocolate; the tart is very dense, and a sweeter chocolate here quickly becomes cloying.

Chocolate Truffle Tart from Gourmet
Makes ten portions

for the crust
28 chocolate wafers such as Nabisco Famous, finely ground in a food processor (1 ½ cups)
¾ stick (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and cooled completely

for the filling
½ pound fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (no more than 60% cacao if marked), coarsely chopped
¾ stick (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
½ cup heavy cream
¼ cup granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

optional garnish
unsweetened cocoa powder for sprinkling (I skipped this)

special equipment
an 8-inch (20-cm) round springform pan

  1. Make the crust.  Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°. Wrap a sheet of foil over bottom of springform pan (in case of leaks). Lightly butter side of pan.
  2. Stir together ground wafers and butter in a bowl until combined, then pat mixture evenly onto bottom of pan and 1 ½ inches up side. Bake until crust is slightly puffed, about ten minutes, then cool completely in pan on a rack, about fifteen minutes. Leave oven on.
  3. Make the filling while crust cools.  Melt chocolate and butter in a 2-quart heavy saucepan over low heat, stirring until smooth, then remove from heat and cool five minutes.
  4. Whisk together eggs, cream, sugar, salt, and vanilla in a bowl. Whisk chocolate mixture into egg mixture until combined well.
  5. Assemble and bake tart. Pour filling into cooled crust and rap pan once on counter to eliminate any air bubbles. Bake until filling one inch from edge is set and slightly puffed but center trembles slightly when pan is gently shaken, twenty to twenty-five minutes. (Center will continue to set as it cools.)
  6. Cool tart completely in pan on a rack, about two hours. Chill, uncovered, until center is firm, about four hours. Remove side of pan and sprinkle with cocoa to serve.

Cooks’ notes:

  • Tart can be chilled up to three days. Cover loosely after tart is completely chilled (covering before may cause condensation).
  • Crust, without filling, can be made one day ahead and kept, covered, at room temperature.
Chocolate City” by Parliament.

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.

There is Nothing Good About Being in a Car Accident…

…but it is nice to come home afterward and discover something like Amazon‘s nominees for the best book cover of 2009.  I happened to read Jonathan Tropper‘s This is Where I Leave You not too long ago (at my dear friend Amee’s suggestion — thank you!) so I am a bit partial to its Gray318-designed cover for that reason.  I can say the same for Baking by James Peterson (designed by Nancy Austin and Katy Brown) and the Momofuku cookbook by David Chang and Peter Meehan (designed by Marysarah Quinn), both of which I got for my birthday last month.  And while I do like Doogie Horner’s work on Seth Grahame-Smith’s undead take on a Jane Austen classic, I couldn’t get past the second chapter of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, so my biases work both ways, I suppose.

This is as good a time as any to direct you all to one of my favorite blogs, the Book Design Review, where book and design junkies like me can get a regular cover fix.

Oh, and I should tell you that Keith and I are fine.  Our car might not be, but we are.  In the (belated) spirit of the holiday, we are both very thankful for that.

Monday, In Seven Words.

Keith gets a new TV, I bake.

Banana Muffins, Chocolate Chip Brownie Bars + Blueberry Nectarine Buckle

Clockwise, from muffins:

Banana Muffins, from Catherine Robertson at Cat Can Cook
Makes twelve muffins

3 or 4 large bananas, mashed (I had three; I used three.)
½ cup white sugar
1 slightly beaten egg
1/3 cup melted margarine or butter
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups flour

Mix the mashed banana, sugar, egg and margarine together. Set aside. In a separate bowl, mix together baking soda, baking powder, salt and flour. Mix wet and dry ingredients all together, being careful not to over-stir! Pour into greased muffin tins, and bake in 350° oven for approximately 20 minutes.

Note: I added something like ¾ cup flour-dusted chopped walnuts, mainly because I had them.

Chocolate-Chip Brownie Double-Deckers, from The Weekend Baker by Abigail Johnson Dodge
Makes two dozen two-inch double-deckers

for the chocolate chip layer:
12 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon table salt
1 large egg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

for the brownie layer:
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into equal pieces
¾ cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder, sifted if lumpy
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon table salt
2 large eggs
1 ½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract
¾ cup all-purpose flour

  1. Position oven rack on the middle rung.  Heat oven to 325°.  Lightly grease a 9-by-13 inch baking pan.
  2. Begin making the chocolate chip layer by melting 12 tablespoons of butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat.  Stir occasionally until butter is melted.  Remove from heat and add brown sugar; whisk until no lumps remain.  Set aside to cool.
  3. While chocolate chip layer is cooling, make brownie layer by melting remaining 12 tablespoons of butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat.  Remove from heat and add cocoa powder; whisk until smooth.  Add sugar and salt; whisk until blended.  Add eggs one at a time, whisking in between eggs until just blended.  Whisk in vanilla with the second egg.  Sprinkle flour over chocolate mixture; stir with a spatula until just blended.  Scrape batter into prepared baking dish and spread evenly.  Set aside to finish chocolate chip layer.
  4. In a small bowl, combine flour, baking soda and salt; whisk until well-blended.  Once butter mixture has cooled, add to it the egg and vanilla; whisk until combined.  Pour in flour mixture and stir with a spatula until blended.  Stir in chocolate chips.  Drop cookie dough over brownie batter in large clumps; spread evenly and carefully with a spatula.
  5. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with small, gooey clumps of brownie sticking to it, about 40 minutes.  Do not overbake, or brownies will not be fudgy.  Transfer baking pan to a rack to cool completely.
  6. Once cooled, cut into small squares measuring about 2 inches each.  The cooler the double-deckers are, the cleaner the cutting will be.  Regardless, the cutting knife will get covered with sticky crumbs.

Note: Even though I spent a good portion of the day baking, I’m still a little lazy — which is why I poured the melted butter combo from step 2 into a separate heat-proof bowl before whisking in the brown sugar and reused the saucepan without washing for step 3.

Blueberry and Nectarine Buckle, from Gourmet’s Sweets: Desserts for Every Occasion
Makes eight portions

for the topping:
½ stick cold unsalted butter
¼ cup sugar, plus one tablespoon (the original recipe calls for ½ cup, but I find that amount a bit too sweet)
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon fleshly grated nutmeg

for the batter:
1 ½ sticks unsalted butter, softened
¾ cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon baking powder
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
3 large eggs
2 cups picked-over blueberries
2 nectarines, pitted and cut into 1-inch wedges

for an accompaniment:
2 scoops vanilla ice cream

  1. Make topping.  Cut butter into bits.  In a small bowl with your fingertips or a pastry blender blend together butter, sugar, flour and spices until mixture resembles coarse meal.  Chill topping while making batter.
  2. Preheat oven to 350°.  Butter a ten-inch round cake pan or a two-quart baking pan.
  3. Make batter.  Pit nectarines and cut into one-inch wedges.  In a large bowl with an electric mixer beat together butter and sugar, then beat in vanilla.  In a second bowl, stir together flour, salt and baking powder.  Beat flour mixture into butter mixture alternately with eggs, one at a time.  Beat well after each addition, and then fold in blueberries and nectarines.
  4. Spread batter in the pan and distribute topping evenly over the top.  Bake buckle in the middle of the oven for forty-five to fifty minutes, or until a tester comes out clean and topping is crisp and golden.  Serve with ice cream.

NoteOf course, you can eat this without ice cream.  But why would you want to?