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I’m in the mood for cookies today, and winter spices seem like just the flavor. I’m not big on commercial cookies but I do have a soft spot for Biscoff.

A Belgian speculoos cookie, Biscoff are crunchy, flavorful, go great with coffee or tea, and can be (here’s the sad part) hard to find. They were at Costco for about a minute and then gone. Amazon would be happy to sell me a bunch but for inflated prices.

After some fruitless searching among the European delis in the area, I wondered if I could make my own. (Surely I could write reams of speculative fiction, if only I were fueled by speculoos. I had to find out.)

Good news! Stella Parks put together a recipe for a homemade version. You can dive into it here, with her explanation of why what should have been a simple process was not, and why some of the most important ingredients can get lost in translation.

* * *

This recipe was a great place to start but not spicy enough for me. If you compare the original with what’s below, you’ll see I’ve boosted the spices considerably. I’ve also trimmed down the ingredients a little.*

Candi sugar was ok but it was hard to find and I found it a little too sweet. The kinako, or roasted soybean flour, was interesting but was a little too nutty and could lean toward burnt flavors.

I don’t know that these cookies have done much for my writing, but they are perfect for an afternoon coffee break. Enjoy!

Famartin, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

* * *

Biscoff-ish

(adapted from Homemade Biscoff (Belgian Speculoos Cookies) Recipe)

Makes thirty-two 1 1/2 by 2 1/2-inch cookies

Ingredients

  • 150g (2/3 C.) deeply toasted sugar
  • 90g (6 1/3 T.) butter, softened
  • 4.75g (3/4 t.) baking soda
  • 2.5g (scant 1 t.) Ceylon cinnamon
  • .5g (scant 1/4 t.) ground or freshly grated nutmeg
  • .4g (fat 1/8 t.) kosher salt; for table salt, use half as much by volume or use the same weight
  • .25g (fat 3/16 t.) ground cloves
  • .4g (scant 1/4 t.) ground cardamom
  • .125g (fat 1/16 t.) ground anise
  • 15g (1 T.) water
  • 155g (1 1/4 C.) flour

Directions

1. With oven rack in lower middle position, preheat to 350°F. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine sugar with butter, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, cloves, cardamom, and anise. Cream on medium speed until fluffy, soft, and pale, about 10 minutes, pausing to scrape the bowl and paddle as needed if the sugar seems dense and compacted at the bottom of the bowl.

2. While creaming on medium speed, slowly drizzle in the water a little at a time. Once it disappears into the fluffy butter/sugar mix, reduce speed to low and add the flour all at once. Continue mixing until the dough begins to gather around the paddle.

3. Turn the dough onto a clean surface, and knead gently to form a ball. Pat into a rectangular shape, then dust with flour, above and below. Roll to a thickness of ~3/16-inch, using a ruler for guidance. Slide a spatula or bench scraper beneath the dough to loosen, and brush away any excess flour.

4. With a fluted pastry wheel, pizza cutter or blade, cut the dough into 3/4-inch strips, then cut crossways to form 2-inch rectangles. Cut the scraps with cookie cutters or bake as is. With an offset spatula, transfer the cutouts and scraps to a parchment-lined cookie sheet, leaving ~half inch between each piece to account for spread.

5. Bake until cookies are golden brown, about 16 minutes. Cool to room temperature directly on the baking sheet; the cookies will not crisp until fully cool. Store leftovers in an airtight container up to 1 month at room temperature; the scraps can be ground to use for crumbs and frozen in an airtight container for up to 3 months.**

* * *

* I’ve included Imperial units but note that they are by nature less precise than weights, and I’ve only tested the recipe in grams. I will say that a couple of years ago I bought an inexpensive spice scale to go with my regular kitchen scale and it was very much worth it.

** Seriously though, they won’t be around that long. And I usually make a double batch.

* * *

My recipe iterations, with version notes and the Post-it I use for marking out the dough spacing.

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Ugh. I slept not well, feel not 100% well, and it’s Tuesday, the most demanding of my work days. But! I have decided!* Today will be a not bad day. Probably.

How do I know that this is true? Because already one thing has gone right. No spiders in my straws.

As you may remember, I usually have a smoothie for breakfast, the kind with chia and hemp seeds and other ingredients that require big straws. You may also know that I have a soft spot for the planet and the critters who live here (even creepies like spiders), so I don’t use plastic straws. A thoughtful friend gave me some cool metal bendy straws for my birthday (thanks, L.:)** which are terrific for things like lemonade and iced tea, but for smoothies, I like glass.

That’s them on the right. Sturdy borosilicate glass straws*** with rounded ends, thick enough for thick liquids but clear enough to see if anything has crawled inside during the night. Like a spider.****

It’s only happened once, but coming this close to sucking up a house spider first thing in the morning? Not something one forgets.

So, how do I know that today is going to be a not terrible day? No spiders for breakfast. I count that as a win.*****

Hope you have a not terrible day too, but if you don’t, remember that it happens to the best of us!

“But I am very poorly today & very stupid & I hate everybody & everything. One lives only to make blunders.” 

― Charles Darwin

I think of this quote a lot on bad days. Just keep going. You’ll get through it.

* * *

* I find this sort of declaration works better if exclamation points are involved.

** This photo shows other cool gifts as well, like the fun person-shaped tea infuser and spice rack. I try not to be too saccharine, because sometimes life just really is hard no matter how much positive thinking one applies, but starting off the day feeling both grateful and fortunate helps.

*** My straws came from a company called GlassDharma but they’ve retired now. They passed on their lifetime guarantee to another company called DrinkingStraws. I haven’t tried them yet but their straws look fun.

**** For a while we were getting spiders in all kinds of weird places, like the blender and yes, straws. My guess is that it the light refraction in those places looks something like water to them, but that’s just a guess.

***** The spiders are off doing what they do. I don’t kill them.

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I’m baking today. Remember that recipe I posted a couple of days ago? Yeah, that’s the one. Mr. Man is fresh out of sandwich bread and I like to bake, so it’s a win-win.

Bread is at once astonishingly simple (flour + water and optional leavening and heat, the end) and complex. Once you get past the basics, head onto the web and search for “baking bread,” you’ll find a million (no wait, 1.61 billion! seriously?) hits, plus an entire genre of cookbooks plus whole cultures (hello, France!) that revolve around this particular culinary marvel.

* * *

I like bread. I like baking. I don’t love lots of nitpicky details.* That’s why I spend a non-zero amount of time trying to simplify my favorite recipes. I’m usually asking “What can I strip from this process and still have the result turn out well?” 

But. Our house is cold at night plus my flour spends most of its time in the freezer, and cold dough is sluggish dough. So today I’m going to highlight a little thing called “desired dough temperature.” (Yes, the acronym is unfortunate, but it’s still a useful concept.)

“…there’s a crucial facet of baking that can help us bakers increase consistency that isn’t always immediately apparent: the importance of dough temperature in baking.”

— The Importance of Dough Temperature in Baking | The Perfect Loaf**

The article linked above gets into the nitty gritty of what and why, if you’re up for a deep dive. Here’s a similar review from King Arthur, who I love***: 

Desired dough temperature | King Arthur Baking

* * *

Geesh, so many footnotes today. Where was I? Right, how to produce consistent bread through temperature control. Ahem. 

Short version: balance ingredient and room temperatures so your dough is ~78F. The easiest way to do that is to tweak the temperature of your liquid to compensate for cold flour, say, or a cold room.

There’s a formula, which I dutifully wrote down, then thought, “Self, you know the internet worked this out already. There’s got to be a handy dough calculator just waiting for you!” And lo, there was. I’m sure there are lots of them, but this is the one I’ve been using:

Common Bread Baking Calculators | The Perfect Loaf

This is what my calculator looked like for this morning’s dough:

I used my mixer to knead the dough today and had to guess on the friction factor, but I came quite close to my target****:

And look, it’s time to shape the dough for its second rise. Happy baking!

* * *

* I was never the kid who memorized every single dinosaur genus and species, or knew every baseball stat, or could rattle off the weather in my hometown in 1861. I suspect that particular period in a child’s life has to do with some confluence of brain expansion outpacing life expansion, but that’s just me guessing. Hmm… This is where I have a moment of deep introspection and realize, wait a minute, I was that kid. Not dinosaurs or sports, but Star Wars. And Lord of the Rings. On the other hand, I was never the sort of completist who had to love all things Star Wars (sorry Episodes I, II & III, you definitely do not complete me), so no judgements here.

** Aside: That Brød & Taylor proofer in this blog’s first picture? I want that. It’s pricey and a mostly single-use appliance and I don’t know that it’s quite big enough to hold all of our yogurt containers and as I’ve been telling myself for the past three years, I do not need it. And still it calls to me:)

*** Both as a mythical modern legend and a company. I liked T. H. White’s The Once and Future King and Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave as a kid. Although I try to ignore that business with Guinevere and Lancelot and Mordred and… ok, maybe I just like Merlin and Excalibur and the Round Table. Where (let’s bring it home) they would have enjoyed bread!

**** I probably should have stuck the probe in all the way (have I learned nothing from aliens?) but the dough ball was so nice I didn’t want to puncture it.

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Sammich Bread

I post recipes for your entertainment and edification, but also so that when I lose my scribbled-on bits of paper I’m not left digging through piles of scrap-paper notes while muttering “I just saw it here somewhere!” For example, today’s recipe is my current favorite sourdough bread recipe. Here’s what it looks like when it’s at home:

Mr. Man liked my initial attempts at sourdough (I’ll have to post that recipe later) but wanted a soft, sandwich-friendly loaf that had good flavor and stored well but wasn’t as tangy as a classic sourdough loaf. This recipe works perfectly.

The recipe is a hybrid, with both starter and instant yeast. If you don’t have yeast, it’s possible to make it work with levain only, using a little more starter and longer rise times (check out comments at the recipe link below; search for “yeast” to see what other bakers have done).

The original is from King Arthur, an employee-owned company established in 1790, and known for its flour but also its recipes, videos, and helpful staff. We can’t get their flour up here, and so have to make do with alternatives. I use unbleached organic all-purpose flour because that’s what I’ve got, and I’ve tweaked the recipe to work without dry milk, which I never have.

I’ve used this recipe to make two standard loaves or (same bake time) one 9 x 13 pan of pull-apart rolls, great for sliders or with soup, chili, etc. Hasn’t failed me yet!

* * *

Sourdough Sandwich Bread

modified from Sourdough Sandwich Bread | King Arthur Baking

Ingredients

Levain*

• 1 C + 1 Tbs (128g) flour

• 1/2 C + 1 Tbs (128g) water (60° to 70°F)

• 3 Tbs (44g) ripe (fed) sourdough starter

* The flavor won’t be as developed, but if you forget, this can be done the morning of.

Dough

• 5 1/4 C (631g) flour

• 1/4 C (50g) sugar • 2 1/2 tsp (15g) salt

• 2 tsp (5.6g) instant yeast

• 4 Tbs (57g) butter, room temperature

• 1 5/8 C (382g) milk (70° to 80°F, I microwave for 35 seconds)

• all of the ripe levain

Instructions

• Make the levain (~8pm): Mix the levain ingredients together and place in a covered container with room for the levain to grow. It will almost double in size, and will take about 12 hours to ripen at room temperature (70°F). This is a good time to take the butter out of the fridge.

• Make the dough (~8am): Mix and then knead together all of the dough ingredients, including the levain, to make a smooth, supple, and not overly sticky dough. Your mileage may vary, but kneading takes me 10-12 minutes by machine or hand.

• Place the kneaded dough in a lightly-buttered bowl, cover the bowl, and let the dough rise for 1 to 2 hours, until doubled in size.

• Divide the dough in half, and shape each into 8″ logs. Place the logs in two buttered bread pans. Cover the pans and let the loaves rise until they’ve crowned about 1″ over the rim of the pan, about 1 to 2 hours. Don’t score.

• Towards the end of the rising time, preheat the oven to 375°F.

• Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until the crust is golden brown. (Internal target temperature is 195-200F.) For me, this is 35 minutes. Remove the loaves from the oven and turn them out onto a rack. Let cool completely before slicing.

* * *

nom!

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You Were Right

So, you were right yesterday when you read my piece and thought to yourself, “No way is she getting all that done in an hour.”

My response:

1: You were right. I’m saying it again to give you the opportunity to revel in it. Who doesn’t like being right?

2: I roasted the mushrooms and minced the stems, but did not make stock. We watched an episode of Star Trek: Discovery instead (Michelle Yeoh forever!) and then I made a gallon of mushroom soup.

3: The extra time gave me a chance to switch gears. Today I decided to switch from making stock to duxelles, because the mushrooms were so fresh that even the typically-woody shiitake stems were soft and delicious. I’m sautéing that now and will (predictably) freeze them in cubes for later.

4: Even though the whole process took longer than expected, I’m glad I did it because yay, ready-to-eat mushrooms are great, but also because the optimistic time frame helped me get started in the first place. Yesterday was the kind of day where I woke up and wished I had another couple of hours to sleep in. Thinking about several hours of mushroom-related kitchen work might have meant me saying, “Hmm, thanks, but no thanks.” This way, I got started, made good progress, and finished several things I might not have thought I had the energy for yesterday.

It reminds me that getting started is often my biggest hurdle. That’s helpful for both the kitchen and writing.

* * *

So I didn’t get everything done as fast as I’d hoped. I still managed to tackle those three huge boxes of mushrooms before they went bad and also made soup, which we’ll have tonight for dinner with the bread I made this morning. So yay.

And really, that was a lot of mushrooms.

* * *

not sure what happened to that one roll in the back, but whatever, it’s fine

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Stocking Up

Today is mushroom day. Not “a” mushroom day, the kind that’s dark and dank and often rooted in excrement, but a day for preparation.

Literally. Today we picked up 11 pounds of mushrooms from the good folks at Carleton Mushroom and I’m going to spend the next hour or so getting them cooked and into my freezer.

That’s six pounds of shiitakes and five pounds of cafe mushrooms. I’ll need to rinse, trim, cut and roast them, then let them cool before putting them in the freezer.

(Ok, I know what you’re thinking: That’s going to take longer than an hour. Like, way longer. You’re probably right:)

It’s worth it. Once they’re cooked, you can use them in many ways, and the shiitake taste like bacon.

Serious Eats has an article about this that’s helpful, but it’s a straightforward process. Here’s my stripped-down version:*

  • slice mushrooms, toss with olive oil, salt and pepper
  • bake at 400F for ~45 minutes (30 to 60 minutes, really, depending on the mushroom; the shiitake dry out faster, so keep an eye on them, but also they are delicious when mostly crispy)
  • for stock: while the caps are roasting, chop and sauté any leftover stems with oil, salt and pepper, then add a couple of bay leaves and a whack-load of water and simmer on low until reduced by ~half or you get sick of waiting.

This is a shot from the last time I did this, with oyster and shiitake mushrooms.

In the end, we’ll have bags of frozen mushrooms ready for use plus stock from the stems.** (Stock is more more work to simmer down, then strain and freeze, but I hate wasting all those stems plus the result was worth it last time so I’ll do it again.)

Maybe I’ll finish in time to get down into the workshop (what? I like wishful thinking), but even if I don’t I’ll consider the afternoon well spent. And the next time future me is looking for a flavor boost for dinner or a quick addition to soup, pasta, rice, dumplings, or pizza, I’ll be glad I did.

* * *

* I’m not commercial kitchen level by any means, where cooks make an art of mise en place, but I do like being at least a little prepared. I’m more about shortcuts that take the pressure off and not opening a vegetable drawer to see nasty puddles of slime where mushrooms used to be. Because ew.

** The freezer tends to have bags of things like cubes of frozen spinach, tabouli, leftover lentils and rice, plus frozen citrus juice, chopped scallions, and whatever else I can think of to make life easier when the day’s been long and dinner seems like an insurmountable challenge. When I can make time for this, I’m happy I did. Whatever works for you? Do that.

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The Brownie Lady

Mr. Man’s mechanic dropped him a text the other day, mentioning that he now had a new location and was ready for business, and to come on down whenever he needed work. He sent along Happy New Year’s wishes for Mr. Man and (here’s the fun part) The Brownie Lady. That’s me:)

Quick bit of info: We spent a considerable amount of time in Cambridge, Massachusetts and also listening to the much-loved Car Talk. Along with the many (many) jokes and bits of car advice, Tom and Ray also devoted a lot of time recommending customers bring their mechanics brownies. 

Self-interested? Sure. But if the mechanic’s happiness is indeed equated with customer happiness, doesn’t everyone win? I decided to find out. 

I’ve shared my brownie recipe here before. It’s quick, easy to whip up at almost any time, and good. I like it, Mr. Man likes it, and it turns out our mechanic likes it. Not that he wouldn’t have done a good job without added incentive, but does he do it faster than he might otherwise? Maybe. And who doesn’t like to feel appreciated? Win win win.

I don’t know if the mechanic knows my name, but he associates me with chocolate and kindness, and remembers that I cared enough to send him a treat. I like that. 

Photo by Jb Jorge Barreto on Pexels.com

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An Unexpected Delight

Today’s entry reminds me that unexpected delights can wait around any corner.

Cauliflower Salad

I’m not positive of this recipe’s provenance but I believe it came from a boyfriend’s mother, a long time ago. This is one of those dishes whose ingredients repel (me at least) but tastes fabulous. I tend to avoid cauliflower, dislike mayonnaise on textural grounds, and am reluctant to approve of anything with sugar and bacon in the same bowl.* Except this.

1½ cup mayonnaise
¼ cup sugar
⅓ cup Parmesan cheese
1 onion, finely chopped
1 head cauliflower, broken into florets
1 lb. bacon, cooked and crumbled
1 head lettuce, chopped

1.     Mix together mayonnaise, sugar, cheese and onion.

2.     Add cauliflower, bacon, and lettuce. Mix and let stand an hour or so.

* This recipe predates the candied bacon craze, which I admit is delicious.

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on Pexels.com

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In these, my last days of vacation, I bring you a delicious discovery: the guava cranberry mimosa!

So that’s my afternoon. Hope you’re enjoying yours too!

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Today, a recipe!

I decided to take this year off from birthday cakes, but I did make the delicious bite-sized treats that are madeleines. Reminiscent of pound cake but more flavorful, these French cakes have been one of my favorites for years. Now I’ve got the recipe down. Good thing, because they don’t last long!

***

This is a simple recipe with terrific results. The only real surprise is the amount of chilling time, so plan ahead. Also, I was fortunate enough to inherit a set of traditional European madeleine pans, and with the liberal application of butter and flour they work well. That said, if you don’t happen to have these single-purpose pans, I’ve had decent luck making them in cupcake liners. The shape is different, of course, but the edges pick up a small flute from the liners. The darker cupcake pan made the bottoms cook a bit too fast, but cut baking time by a minute or so and it should turn out fine.

On ingredients:

I use organic unbleached all-purpose flour (thank you, Costco) but you don’t have to. I also use granulated sugar that’s been toasted to bring out a caramel flavor that’s subtle but noticeable. If you have the time to do this, I suggest making a big batch so you have extra. It’s great in everything. As a note, I toasted a batch of organic sugar but pulled it after an hour. Turns out the higher molasses content means it’s faster to melt and burn, so keep an eye on it if you go that route. Still tasty!)

On rise:

There’s also a whole debate around whether to baking powder or not to baking powder. The traditional approach is most definitely (and defiantly)not, but it’s up to you. I am still haunted by a pre-teen angel-food cake debacle (pancake, meet actual cake, also tears and a lifelong dislike of recipes that rely solely on whipped egg whites for volume). I use the baking powder. It worked well, even when I let the batter sit in the fridge for 6+ hours, and tasted fine. Just be sure your baking powder doesn’t contain aluminum.

On lemon flavor:

like love the flavor of lemon but am not fond of chewy, waxy, dry lemon peel. I leave it out here, but if you find yourself with a nice, thin-skinned organic lemon on hand, I say use the zest. I also boosted the amount of glaze because the smaller amount in the original recipe didn’t quite stretch far enough. (I also use all lemon juice because I’m crazy like that, but the water will help it flow. Adjust as you like. Or use lime juice. Or 2T. orange concentrate, 1T+ water.)

***

And as a bonus for Mr. Man’s father and all who love writing, a taste of literature:

An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses … And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings … my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it.
— Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu

I prefer lemon glaze to a tea dip but the choice is yours. Whatever you do, have fun:) Also, here’s a picture for you, showing the perfect amount of browning. It’s not my picture as I ate all my madeleines before I thought to get a shot (because delicious:).

***

Lemon-Glazed Madeleines
Makes about 24 cookies
Adapted from this recipe (in The Sweet Life In Paris by David Lebovitz)

Cake:
3 large eggs, at room temperature
2/3 cup (130g) granulated sugar, toasted
rounded 1/8 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cup (175g) flour
1 teaspoon baking powder (optional)
zest of one small lemon (optional)
9 tablespoons (120g) butter, melted and cooled to just above room temperature, plus additional melted butter for the molds

Glaze:

7/8 cup (175g) powdered sugar
3 T. freshly-squeezed lemon juice
1 t. water
pinch salt, to taste

Prep pans and batter:

1. Thoroughly brush the indentations of a madeleine mold with melted butter. Dust with flour, tap off any excess, and place in the fridge or freezer. (Haven’t tried this with non-stick spray because it weirds me out but I imagine that works too.)

2. In the bowl of a standing electric mixer, whip the eggs, granulated sugar, and salt for 5 minutes until frothy and thickened. (Don’t have a standing mixer? use the regular kind, because honestly.)

3. Spoon the flour and baking powder, if using, into a sifter or mesh strainer and sift over the batter in batches, using a spatula to fold in each batch of flour. (This is a little tedious but worth it.)

4. Add the optional lemon zest to the cooled butter, then dribble the butter into the batter a few spoonfuls at a time, while folding each time to incorporate the butter. Fold just until all the butter is incorporated.

5. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. (Batter can be chilled for up to 12 hours.)

Wait, then bake:

6. To bake: preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

7. Plop enough batter in the center of each indentation with enough batter which you think will fill it by 3/4’s
(you’ll have to eyeball it, but it’s not brain-surgery so don’t worry if you’re not exact; I used a rounded 1 1/2 t. cookie scoop) Do not spread it.

8. Bake for 8-9 minutes or until the cakes just feel set (10 minutes for me with baking powder; the tops will be light but the fluted base should be a light-to-medium brown). While the cakes are baking, make a glaze by stirring together the powdered sugar, lemon juice, water and salt until smooth.

9. Remove from the oven and tilt the madeleines out onto a rack. The moment they’re cool enough to handle, dip each cake in the glaze, turning them over to make sure both sides are coated and scrape off any excess with a dull knife. After dipping, rest on the rack, scalloped side up, until the cakes are cool and the glaze has firmed up.

Storage:

Glazed madeleines store well uncovered or loosely-wrapped. They can be kept in a container for up to three days, if necessary (but, yeah, they won’t last that long. Unless you are a saint. Are you a saint? I am not). These also froze fine in a plastic bag, then defrosted on the counter. Emergency madeleines for the win!

 

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