Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Whadaya REALLY Think About My Recipe? When Brutal Honesty is a Good Thing

It’s usually a bad idea to criticize someone’s food. Even if the cook asks for an “honest opinion,” beware of giving it. This is as risky as admitting to somebody that, yes, they do look fat in that outfit, or agreeing that their child is homely. In most cases, skip that 2.5 star rating and follow the little white lie road, instead.

Recently, my poor son—who’s generally as tactful as a seasoned diplomat—erred badly on the side of brutal honesty. And it’s (sort of) my fault.

He was visiting some friends during the holidays, and the host’s mother proudly brought out some of her “family-famous” cookies for him to try. This lady had heard that I was a cookbook author and after learning that my son had been a “taster-rater” of many of my cookie recipes, wanted him to judge hers, too. “I told her I really didn’t feel comfortable with that,” he related, “but she kept insisting, so finally I did.”

He gave her treats a score of “6.5 to 7 out of 10.” Immediately, all chit-chat ceased, and the room temperature dropped 30 degrees. His attempt to backpedal by adding that the cookies were “just a little bit dry and needed more flavor” didn’t help. “She only wanted me to say I liked them,” he lamented. “She wasn’t really interested at all in how to make them better!” He seemed startled at that, no doubt because it’s always why I want to know.

Which brings me to the point of this story: If you’re a professional creating recipes that people are paying for, you must move yourself beyond just wanting to be flattered by feedback. Seek out honest criticism. Force yourself to get past feeling insulted and act on the information provided. (For more on recipes that are good enough for publication go here.)

Because I stress to my recipe testers and taster/raters that I need the truth, I get it—and, on occasion, it’s brutal (yet often funny, too): “These cookies would be good for packing material and nothing else!” is probably the meanest, most colorful criticism I’ve ever gotten. Right up there with it is a taster-rater’s comment on a white chocolate mousse with mocha sauce, “Couldn’t bear to eat this at first--looked like mashed potatoes and gravy!” A 1.5 appearance rating--ouch!

Though such comments may seem unnecessarily harsh and should never be directed at a home cook, they alerted me to serious taste, texture, and appearance issues. I needed to know them to produce professional-quality dishes (the mashed potato-gravy problem hadn’t occurred to me at all).

Since most of us have been schooled to be kind about people’s cooking, it’s not only important for the professional food writer or cookbook author to seek out honest opinions, but to put in perspective the comments of those who are overly enthusiastic or just being nice. My editor at Wiley, Justin Schwartz, says that in particular, bloggers with lots of loyal followers tend to be swayed too much by flattering feedback and often need a dose of hard truth:

“I’ve had people tell me they probably just need someone to help them cross the t's and dot the i's, when I already know their recipes need massive reworking. Bloggers all think that. …. They'll say things like, ‘But my recipes are good, and I know it because my fans tell me so.’ …. Are their friends/testers just not mentioning the problems?” If you’re a blogger interested in writing for cookbook or food editors, consider whether this observation might apply to you.

Is it ever pleasant to have testers or tasters pick at or diss my dishes? No, not even after thousands of recipes critiqued over many years. But it’s a lot better to have somebody privately tell me a recipe should only be fed to the garbage disposer than to have a disgruntled reviewer give it 1 star and say that on!

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Sunday, March 27, 2011

It's Sugaring Season in Maple Country: Time for Maple-Cream Sundaes

Unless you live in maple country you may not know it, but this is harvest time for North America’s maple producers. They’ve been out in the sugar bush the last month or so, working frantically to bring us the next year’s supply of maple syrup.
Their sugaring season is always short—those precious few late winter weeks when the days are warm enough that the sap rises from the roots of seemingly lifeless trees, but nights are still cold enough that it falls again and the branches don’t start to leaf. Once they do, the sap takes on an odd flavor, and the harvesting ceases for another whole year. At this point, many of the trees have been tapped and their watery essence reduced to syrup. Bottles and jugs of fluid amber and gold are now arriving in stores and are waiting for us to pluck them from the shelves.

So, let’s step up and do our part! I really have been trying to do mine—by coming up with several new maple recipes, including my maple shortbread mini-cups and the maple sundae sauce featured here. My chief taster, my hubby, said that this recipe needed a number of tests before it was perfect: Yes, it’s his usual ploy when he likes to keep eating what I happen to be making!

Not only is the recipe simple, but it satisfies a major requirement of one of Vermont’s maple moguls, David Marvin, of Butternut Mountain Farms. His maple retail shop, or “sugar shack” as some of the locals call it, is pictured. For more pics of David's charming "shack," plus one of an old-fashioned sap collecting bucket hanging on a tree, go here.

“I don’t see much point in those recipes that just call for a tablespoon or two of maple syrup,” David confided when I visited him during the harvesting season a number of years ago. “If you’re going to call it a maple recipe, don't be timid about using the maple.” He was laughing, but I think he was serious!

One thing to remember when you bake or cook with maple syrup: It’s often best to use grade A Dark Amber or grade B syrup. The grade A dark amber has a robust maple bouquet and hearty flavor that’s excellent for sauces and confections. Grade B is the strongest and darkest table grade syrup and is excellent in baked goods, where a subtle maple taste would be too muted or completely lost. (Note that the USDA grading indicates only syrup color, not quality. Also, Canadian syrups are rated using an entirely different system.)

Maple Sundae Sauce

Boiling down the pure maple syrup with cream intensifies and smooths its flavor and adds body. The corn syrup helps keep the sauce from crystallizing during storage, so don’t leave it out. If desired, garnish the servings with some toasted pecans or walnuts.

I doubt that I have to tell you this makes a truly tasty dessert—the pic speaks for itself! (For a different, very "mapley" treat, my nut bars, plus Vermont sugaring pics, go here.)

1 cup pure maple syrup, preferably grade A dark amber
1/3 cup heavy (whipping) cream
1/4 cup light corn syrup
In a heavy, 2-quart or larger non-reactive saucepan over medium-high heat, stir together the maple syrup, cream and corn syrup. Adjust the heat so the mixture boils. When it comes to a full, foamy boil, cook for 2 1/2 to 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. For a more fluid sauce cook for the shorter time; for a thicker sauce and turns slighty chewy over ice cream cook for the full 3 minutes. Remove from the heat. Pour through a fine sieve into a non-reactive storage container.
Cool to warm before serving. If the sauce seems thicker, thin it with a few teaspoons warm water. Serve immediately over ice cream or refrigerate, tightly covered. Serve warm; reheat and stir well before using. Keeps, refrigerated, for 2 weeks.
Makes 1 1/3 cups sauce.
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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Chicken Skillet Pronto-What I Fix When I've Been Making Desserts All Day!

Since I spend so much time playing around with recipes in my kitchen, casual acquaintances often imagine that I always fix fabulous meals. I hope it isn't bitterly disappointing to hear this, but I don't!

Sometimes, I'm just so involved testing one kind of recipe--like the 75 breads in my Kneadlessly Simple cookbook, or 150 desserts for my All-American Dessert Book--that I'm too busy to think about what's for dinner until it's nearly time to eat. And often, what I've been making that day--say three kinds of chocolate truffles-- just won't do for dinner!

Even when I'm working on entrees and other savory dishes, they aren't necessarily what a family might want or expect to be served Recently, in the depths of January, I was making and, out of desperation, serving my hubby some light, "refreshing" summer dishes that will appear a feature that will run in Eating WelI in a few months. He was a good sport about it, but frankly it's really hard to muster enthusiasm for even a very tasty chilled soup and zesty salad supper when the wind chill is minus 2 F outside. (That meal actually cooled me off so much my teeth chattered and I had to put on an extra sweater!)

This is one of those recipes I turn to when my counter tops are loaded with a day's worth of candies, cookies or other sweet treats, but dinner has to be on the table pronto. I should add that for health reasons, I really try to cook low-fat, nutritious meals, and since this one features lean chicken, beans , and instant brown rice, it fills that bill. (My hubby actually had to have scary heart surgery, which I blogged about here.)

Note that even though bottled picante sauces and salsas area wonderfully convenient way to quickly zip up dishes, they are high in sodium. So I don't add any extra salt to the recipe. Rinsing off the beans before using them also helps lower the sodium content.

The dish not only goes together quickly, but total cooking time is short. Carrot and celery sticks or a simple salad and perhaps a fruit dish or bread can round out the meal.

Tip: For even quicker preparation, substitute a time-saver package of cubed chicken breast meat for the breast halves. And to boost fiber, use instant brown rice; it's a very convenient "healthy" whole grain product.

1 tablespoon olive oil or canola oil
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, cut into 1 inch cubes
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
1/2 cup mild or medium-hot bottled picante sauce or salsa
3/4 cup (uncooked) "instant" (or "5 minute") brown or white rice
2/3 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth or water
1 can (14-15 ounces) black beans, well rinsed and drained
2/3 cup frozen (thawed) corn, rinsed and drained, optional
Black pepper to taste, optional
Chopped fresh cilantro or parsley leaves, optional

In a 12-inch nonstick skillet over high heat, combine the oil, chicken and thyme leaves. Cook, stirring, 3 or 4 minutes, until chicken pieces begin to brown. Stir in the picante sauce or salsa, adjusting heat so mixture simmers gently; cook 3 minutes longer. Add rice, broth (or water), beans, and the corn, if using. Let return to a simmer.

Continue simmering gently, covered, for 8 to 10 minutes, until the chicken and rice are just cooked through. (Brown rice will take a little longer than white.) Fluff with a fork before serving. Season with pepper, if desired. Garnish with a little more salsa and chopped cilantro or parsley leaves, if desired. You can serve extra salsa at the table, but probably shouldn't if you're trying to lower your family's sodium intake.

Makes 4 servings.

For another dinner-in-a-hurry idea, check out my chicken curry, here.
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Friday, March 18, 2011

You Did WHAT to My Recipe?! Sad Tales from the Food Writer Files

It’s obvious from the number of times I’ve been asked, “Do you test your recipes?” that many cookbook readers are skeptical about this. Yet, as I mentioned in my “recipes good enough for publication,” blog post, almost without exception, all of the experienced and successful recipe writers and creators I know do test, usually a lot.

True, readers can still get burned by sketchy, fragmented “receipts” in old cookbooks, as well as the modern-day fund-raiser/ community collections and Internet offerings just gathered up and published without any testing or editing. In such works, it’s pretty common for home cook contributors to omit key details—like forgetting to list the baking powder in muffins or to say that the gelatin has to be softened before it’s dumped into a boiling mixture.

And I admit, errors, even fatal ones, occasionally slip into even well-tested cookbook and article recipes. Not long ago, I came upon a fudge recipe in a newspaper that gave lengthy, thoughtful advice on choosing the right chocolate, but failed to mention how much of it was required!

I’m sorry to say that in my pizza dough recipe in the initial print run of my Kneadlessly Simple cookbook the “yield” was listed as “1 pizza,” even though the directions clearly said to divide the dough in half and “use each half to prepare a pizza.” DUH! (Don’t even ask—it’s far too complicated to explain how this happened, but it got fixed right away.)

But truly, it’s not always our fault! Sometimes problems can arise due to—dare I even mention it?—USER error. My friend and fellow cookbook author, David Joachim, has a pithy explanation for this: “A recipe writer provides a map, but the cook still has to drive the car. If the cook doesn't have much experience, the ride may be bumpy. Even though recipe writers may be excellent backseat drivers, no recipe is truly foolproof.” In other words, there's always an unavoidable oops factor!

Here are just some of the more bizarre, unbelievable, slightly maddening, even heartbreaking, I'm-gonna-scream sad food writer tales in my files. Unfortunately, I’m not making any of them up!

> A young teenager made my “easy” chocolate cake that appeared in a Sunday magazine supplement for his mom on Mothers’ Day. Unfortunately, he added 2 tablespoons instead of 2 teaspoons of baking powder. His father complained that it “overflowed and messed up the whole oven, stunk up the kitchen, and wasn’t fit to eat.” I don’t doubt any of that one bit!

> An agitated newbie cook told a home economist friend of mine who was working the USDA holiday turkey hot-line that despite what the recipe said her 22 pound turkey would NOT fit in the 25-pound turkey baking bag. My friend eventually figured out that the caller was trying to fit not only the turkey but the roasting pan in the bag.

> In the I’m-happy-to-help-BUT,” department: A reader personally called me to report that though my cheesecake came out “pretty good,” it took 20 minutes longer to bake than the recipe said. In reviewing her steps, we found that she’d started with cold water in the water bath, not the hot water specified. “That would slow down the baking a bit,” I pointed out.

> Mark Scarbrough, one of my cookbook author colleagues, once had a reader raise a fuss about a pie crust recipe not working. When he followed up and discovered that she had mistakenly substituted cornstarch for the flour, she countered, "They're both white!"

> A food editor (who really should have known better) mixed up one of my oatmeal cookie recipes using a processor instead of the mixer called for. She continued to disparage the overly-stiff dough and dry, tough cookies even after I explained that when rolled oats are ground into flour by a processor blade, they’ll make the dough much drier and stiffer than when they’re incorporated as flakes. There seemed no point in even bothering to mention that toughness increases when a processor overdevelops the gluten in wheat flour….

> Food writer and blogger Jeanne Sauvage recollects that someone used a pancake mix (containing baking soda, salt, etc.) as a "substitute" for flour in her recipe. They then complained “that the texture was funny and it tasted too salty!” Really?

> In the I-never-saw-that-one-coming department: An elderly lady, whom I knew was a good baker, declared my tip on using foil to keep water from seeping into a leaky springform pan a “disaster.” It turns out she had interpreted my direction to “wrap the pan bottom in a sheet of aluminum foil large enough to extend all the way up the pan sides,” to mean that the foil should be wrapped around the inside of the pan. Which, as she said, didn’t prevent leaks and made the cheesecake come out “just terrible.” (Ever since, I’ve instructed readers to “set the pan on a sheet of foil, then pull it up around the outside of the pan.)

> In the I-definitely-saw-that-one-coming department: I know whenever someone tells me they substituted diet tub-style margarine for the butter in one of my cookies—and this has happened a number of times—that they are also going to tell me the recipe failed. Diet tub margarine and butter have about as much in common, baking-wise, as mud and melted chocolate: They look vaguely similar but, trust me, the two are going to yield different results, one of which folks are not going to like!

Anybody got other sad stories to share? Bring 'em on!

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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Ratafias--Beautiful Infused Cordials to Make at Home

I have been playing around with wine recipes lately, though I admit my wine expertise is pretty much limited to what I learned on some vineyard tours in Napa Valley and the New York Finger Lakes. But as often happens, what I post about here often reflects what’s going on behind the scenes in my kitchen or life.

Right now one little project I’m involved with is helping out a young couple I know with their start-up boutique winery here in Maryland. Using some of their Far Eastern Shore Winery products, I’m creating several recipes that they’ll be able to hand out to customers at regional wine festivals.

The couple, Tien-Seng and Tara Chiu, are wonderful people: I’ve known Tien-Seng since he and my son were high school buddies and then roommates in college. I’ve known Tara since the two were married and she started attending the gatherings at my son’s house. Just chatting with them always brightens my day!

Actually, their marriage was partly responsible for their fledgling business! Tara and Tien-Seng decided to make wine for their wedding reception, and guests started asking local wine retailers to carry it. At this point, they have a licensed production facility at their Easton, MD, home, and 52 retailers in the state carry their wines. Their grapes now come from local suppliers, but they plan to harvest their own in the near future. Eventually they hope to quit their current jobs and concentrate on the winery full time.

Tien-Seng describes their products as “nontraditional, gently sweet wines where we blend a grape wine with specific fruit flavors. This yields an 'anytime wine' that pairs well with a variety of foods, but can also be enjoyed alone.” They currently sell seven different wines, from Black Swan Rouge, a cabernet brightened with real blackberries to Summer Swan Blanc, a chardonnay highlighted with apricots, peaches and hints of citrus.

I’ve served another of their offerings, the Autumn Swan Blanc, a pinot gris blended with white cranberry juice, in place of sangria. And the following retafia recipe, which features this wine, makes a tempting fall aperitif, light liqueur, or simple cocktail.

I’d come across ratafia recipes before in 18th and 19th century cookery books, but never tried to prepare these charming drinks until recently.
Says Eleanor Parkinson in her 1861 work, The Complete Confectioner, Pastry Cook and Baker, "These are liqueurs made by the infusion of the ingredients in spirits, ... but instead of being distilled they are simply filtered, and sugar is added to them."

The spirits called for in ratafias are most often brandy or rum, but occasionally wine. Flavoring ingredients range from spice and herb leaves and seeds, fresh and dried fruits and berries, and even nuts and cocoa beans.

Orange, Spice and White Wine Ratafias

I was actually amazed at the subtle, yet noticeably appealing flavor and aroma notes the orange strips and spices added. They made this already pleasantly fruity wine so enticing that once I’d taken the photos, I kept sampling after dinner every night until I’d polished off the whole batch!

As the pictures show, the whole cranberries didn’t break down at all even after 6 weeks (and kept floating, too!), so I’m not sure that they contributed much flavor. But I think they make a pretty garnish, so feel free to incorporate them if you like.

Serve the ratafias at cool room temperature in cordial or smallish wine glasses as an aperitif, or after dinner in place of a dessert liqueur. Or pour over a few ice cubes in short glasses for light, refreshing low-alcohol cocktails.(BTW, the pic at the very top shows a red wine-blackberry ratafia; I'll be posting that recipe some time in the future.)

Tip: Adjust the amount of sugar to suit your taste. Begin with the minimum called for and increase it if desired.
750 ml bottle Swan Autumn Blanc (or substitute a fruity Pinot Gris or semi-dry Riesling white wine)
2 1/2 to 4 tablespoons granulated sugar, to taste
Strips of orange peel (orange part of the skin only) from 1 small well-washed orange
2 whole allspice berries and 2 cardamom pods (substitute 1 whole clove if cardamom is unavailable)
2 to 3 tablespoons fresh whole cranberries, washed and patted dry, optional
Fresh orange slices for garnish, optional
In a glass pitcher or other non-reactive container with a spout, stir together the wine, the minimum amount of sugar called for, the strips of orange peel, and spices until the sugar dissolves. Taste and add more sugar, if desired. Put into a bottle or jar; stir in the berries, if using, and close tightly. Store in a cool cupboard (or out of the light) for at least 3 weeks and up to 6 weeks.
If desired, strain the liquid through a sieve, discarding the fruits and spices. Or, if preferred, pour straight from the storage jar, spooning out and floating a few cranberries for garnish, if desired. Optional orange slices are a nice garnishing touch, too.
Makes about a quart, 6 to 10 servings, depending on size.
For another unusual beverage you might be interested in, see my Arizona Sunset cocktails recipe.
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Friday, March 11, 2011

When Is a Recipe Good Enough for Publication? More Food Writing Lessons I’ve Learned the Hard Way

After mentioning that my first submission to the Washington Post was almost rejected due to blah recipes, I got a follow-up question asking what I considered a good recipe.

As the initial story indicated, editors often make this call. If they personally think a recipe is too ordinary or arcane or just sounds unappealing, they’ll reject it. So, if at all possible, suggest some specific recipe ideas when you pitch your piece. I could have done it with my first Washington Post feature and many editors prefer this approach, but I was too green to realize I should.

If you don’t have this opportunity, then use the recipes you see in the publication as your guide. Cautionary note: Contracts routinely specify that recipes must be original, and editors are leery of running material that borrows from another writer’s work, so go easy on adapting.

Once you know what sort of recipe is appropriate, the next step is producing one that is “good enough” for publication. My hubby has been following my work and sampling my recipes so long that he gets this important distinction. Often when a recipe is in progress he’ll says, “That’s okay for me to eat, but not good enough to put in a cookbook!”

A “for publication” recipe must taste at least “very good,” and hopefully wonderful to everyone sampling it. Remember that pleasing texture and appearance play a part in overall “taste” appeal. Appetizing looks are actually vital if the recipe will be photographed.

The recipe must also be easy and foolproof enough for the targeted audience to make, so think carefully about how cooking savvy these folks are. Remember, too, that if the publication’s tester can’t successfully reproduce your dish, it and probably your further chances with that market are doomed. The best way to avoid this fate is to test recipes thoroughly and to write up the preparation instructions with great care. (And don't forget the recipe intros; see tips on writing them here.) (For more on the "oops" factor in recipe testing, go here.)

Always Test, Never Just Guess
A guest at a book signing once confided that the pictures of dishes in my cookbooks were her proof that at least those recipes had been tested once! And I’m often asked if I test my recipes, which, given the amount of testing that’s usually involved in producing each one, sometimes makes me laugh out loud!

Actually, all the experienced and successful food writers and cookbook authors I’ve talked with say they test every recipe, often multiple times. Why? Here’s what a colleague, cookbook author and chef Terry Thompson Anderson, has to say: “If, after a second testing, I don't feel really enthusiastic about a new recipe, it gets 86'd. But if I do know it has potential, I keep testing until it works perfectly and I have the taste, spiciness, sweetness, times/temperatures, and methods right.” Obviously, she’s mindful that she has to detail all this information, or the end user, her reader, won’t be able to successfully duplicate her dish.

Jill Silverman Hough, also a food writer, adds that some recipes, especially desserts and baked goods, require many, many tests: "I'm reminiscing about the quince tarte tatin I created for a Bon Appetit piece—it took 7 attempts and 2 cases of quince to get the proportions of fruit/sugar/juiciness right! I haven't tested anything that much before or since, but I do find that baked desserts take more tries than anything else." Rose Levy Berenbaun has said she once tested a cake over thirty times, and I once tested a devil's food cake in my All-American Dessert Book 14 times!

In case you’re curious, I tested the following recipe three times, and felt I got off easy! I had to keep fiddling to get just the right amounts of filling and dough, and kept increasing the corn syrup to prevent the maple caramel from crystallizing. As for how I come up with prototype formulas, I’ll just summarize by saying I have a huge data base of my own published and unpublished recipes to draw on and tend to rely on them rather than adapting other folks’ work. My basic ideas for dishes come from everywhere—restaurants, pastry shops, food publications, new product and equipment information, Internet posts, food shows, etc. (Ideas and formulas aren’t copyrightable, but the introductory text and set of instructions accompanying recipes are.)

With the tweaks I made, the shortbread shells are now melt-in-the-mouth tender and only faintly sweet so they mate perfectly with the sweet, intensely “maplely” centers. Five days later, the caramel filling is still smooth--yes!

I’ve even served these goodies to a panel of tasters—I’ll talk about the enormous value of guinea pigs testers and tasting panels in a post some other time—and I'm satisfied with the response. So, now I’m ready to serve up the recipe to you. Enjoy!
Ooey-Gooey Maple Caramel Mini-Cups

These may look similar to pecan tassies, but trust me, they aren’t like tassies at all. Instead, think of these “mini-cups” as a variant of shortbread thumbprint cookies, with very deep wells that are filled with luscious pools of immensely satisfying, slightly gooey maple filling. The cookie cups can be garnished with pecan or walnut halves, or not. I like them both ways, depending on whether I feel like concentrating just on the glorious character of maple or am in the mood for the extra crunch and woodsy taste of the nuts.

The barely sweet maple shortbread shells are completely baked first. Then the caramel is simply poured into the cups. Since adding eggs or a thickening starch would partly mask the pure, unadulterated maple syrup taste, the filling stays slightly saucy and succulent and never sets up firm the way a tassie filling does.

Let me add that these are designed for serious maple lovers: Fans of artificial maple flavor and those who are ho-hum about real maple syrup may want to skip on by!
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, divided
1 cups plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose white flour
3 tablespoons maple syrup, preferably dark amber, plus 3/4 cup more for filling
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons light corn syrup
24 lightly toasted perfect walnut or pecan halves, optional
Coarse crystal salt for garnish, optional

Place a rack in the upper third of the oven; preheat to 350 degrees F. Generously spray 2 12-cup mini-muffin pans with nonstick spray.

For the dough: Cut 5 1/2 tablespoons butter into chunks. Combine the butter and flour in a food processor. Process in on/off pulses until the consistency of crumbs. In a small bowl or cup stir together 3 tablespoons maple syrup and vanilla until well blended. Pour the mixture over the flour mixture. Process in on/off pulses until just evenly incorporated; don’t over-process. If the mixture seems too dry to hold together, add a teaspoon more maple syrup and process just to incorporate it. Carefully remove the processor blade. Shape the dough into a flat disc.

Divide the disc into quarters. Divide each quarter into 6 equal portions, then roll them into balls. With a thumb or knuckle, press each ball into a mini-muffin cup so the dough is pushed up the sides evenly all the way around and forms a deep well. Be sure to work the dough up the sides so that the bottom isn’t overly thick and the well is as large as possible.

Bake (middle rack) for 11 to 14 minutes, or until lightly colored and slightly darker at the edges. Let stand until cooled. Using the point of a knife, loosen and gently lift the shells out to a rimmed, parchment-lined baking sheet.

For the filling: In a heavy 2-quart saucepan bring 3/4 cup maple syrup, 2 1/2 tablespoons butter and the corn syrup to a boil over medium-high heat. When the mixture comes to a rolling, foamy boil, start timing and boil 2 minutes longer, stirring once or twice. Then, stirring frequently and watching carefully to prevent scorching, boil 1 1/2 minutes more; the mixture should turn slightly more amber in color but not darken completely. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly. For easy pouring, transfer the filling to a 1-cup measure. Pour the filling into the shortbreads, dividing it evenly among them.

Let the mini-cups stand until cooled. If desired, place a walnut or pecan on top of each. Sprinkle the tops very lightly with sea salt, if desired.
Packed airtight, these keep in the refrigerator for up to 5 days and can be frozen, airtight, for up to a month.
Makes 24 2 1/2 inch mini-cups.

For another tempting maple recipe, check out these delish bars.
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Sunday, March 6, 2011

Decorated Shamrock Cookies--Almost Too-Pretty-to-Eat Iced St. Pat's Day Treats

You may already know from previous posts that I'm a doting grandmother of two amazing grandchildren. Among the special little gifts I love to give to my favorite two youngsters are hand-decorated sugar cookies. I create them to give out at every holiday and special event. With St. Patrick's Day coming next, I've already readied my cookies and purchased cards. (Often I also usually make Irish soda bread; my favorite recipe is here.)

For Valentine's Day, I wrote a post about a decorating technique called marbling that I used to create pretty heart-shaped designs on cookies. Here, I’ve taken that same method in a different direction to decorate some St. Patrick's Day cookies. As you can see (above left), I've swirled and marbled several contrasting icing colors to creates attractive geometric designs on some cookies. On other cookies, I've just added little triads of dots, producing the look of simple shamrocks.

I always start by making and baking the sugar cookies ahead. Next, I ready a batch of fairly fluid powdered sugar icing or royal icing, then divide it among smaller bowls and create at least two and preferably three or four contrasting, complementary colors. (The background color needs to be a bit lighter than the others so the accenting designs will show up.) I lay out the cookies, a spreading knife, some toothpicks, paper towels and a plastic mat or sheet of parchment to serve as a work surface. Finally, I put the accenting colors in small pastry bags filtted with fine writing tips or in paper piping cones, or in sturdy baggies with a very small hole cut into one corner.

Working quickly, I spread the icing over a cookie, then immediately pipe the accenting icing or group of icings over top. For the swirled patterns, I pipe lines as shown in the pics--the idea is just to follow the general outline of the cookie itself, though this obviously doesn't have to be exact.

Next, using a toothpick, I start marbling, either by drawing the tip from the perimeter in toward the center, or vice-versa; it looks most interesting to marble in both directions.

For the cookies with little shamrocks (see the center cookie below) I simply add three dots of icing spaced close together. Sometimes I create stems by drawing a pick from the center through the space between two of the dots, but "stemless" shamrocks look fine, too. Since the icing flows a little differently each time, every cookie is unique. As necessary, I wipe any icing build-up from the toothpick. Sometimes I also pipe a border around the outside of cookies--this is completely optional.

Finally I let the icings set up completely. Since they are fairly wet and soft, I let the cookies stand at least five or six hours before packing them away. Little individual plastic or cellophane bags tied with--of course!--green ribbon lend a festive look to the gifts.

PS. I've already given my grandkids a few of the cookies. Yes, they were a hit!

Click here to see some other cookie decorating methods.

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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Food Writing Lessons I’ve Learned the Hard Way, Plus a Recipe That Helped Me Learn

With fresh local asparagus now back in our markets, I find myself revisiting a topic I tackled when I was a newbie freelancer decades ago. After first writing for my community newspaper and the now long-defunct Baltimore News American for a while, I gathered my courage and pitched a seasonal feature on fresh asparagus to William Rice, then the executive food editor of The Washington Post. (He later moved to the Chicago Tribune.)

I was still greener than the topic proposed, so I offered to submit “on speculation,” meaning that if he didn’t like my piece he wasn’t obliged to buy or even give me a kill fee. He said he’d take a look. (For more on working with editors, click here.)

Realizing that this was a huge opportunity to move up in the free-lance world, I slaved over my story, rewriting repeatedly, pruning and tightening, agonizing over my verb choices, and polishing every phrase. I wanted readers to be so seduced by my prose that they would be compelled to rush to their kitchens just drooling for asparagus. I submitted my masterpiece in early February, then frantically searched the Post food section every week hoping to see my baby in print.

Alas, this didn't happen. By early March I was feeling so desperate I forced myself to call him back (no e-mail in those days) to find out the status of my piece.

“We like the writing—very evocative,” he said. “But the recipes just aren’t that interesting, and the ones with white asparagus don’t work for us. It’s too hard for our readers to get.” (My post on recipes that are "good enough" is here.)

With a feigned cheerfulness I hoped masked my panic (and wave of nausea), I offered to quickly send him some additional recipes. I hung up in a cold sweat. Of course, my next step was to race out, buy 15 pounds of green asparagus, and start cooking like crazy.

Just to underscore the hard lesson learned: This business is called food writing because it’s about both the writing and the food. I’d succeeded in delivering prose that would sell readers on trying asparagus—some (but not all) editors term this the “call to action,” and consider it essential for a food feature. But I hadn’t followed up with recipes that would be worth the trouble if folks did heed my call.

Poor recipes are a failing food editors (whether of newspapers, magazines, or cookbooks) won’t, or more accurately, can’t tolerate: If their precious (literally) readers get psyched by a story and then feel they’ve wasted time and money on the recipes, the editors themselves have to deal with the inevitable complaints.

There are two other valuable lessons to be learned from this tale: Steer clear of inaccessible, expensive, or unusual ingredients unless given a go-ahead in advance. My assumption that Bill Rice would feel “gourmet” white asparagus was appropriate for his audience was wrong (though it probably would be okay to call for it today).

And this is vitally important if you’re freelancing--always, always persevere! Listen very carefully to any criticism a busy editor takes time to give you and immediately act upon it. Devastated as I was, I could have said, “Gee, I’m sorry you don’t like my recipes,” and just gone away in despair. Instead, I somehow took the right tack and immediately tried to remedy what appeared to be standing in the way of publication. Three weeks later I had the thrill of seeing my first Washington Post food story in the paper. That was several decades ago, and I’ve been writing for the Post food section ever since.

Quick Stir-Fried Asparagus with Sesame and Toasted Sesame Oil

William Rice would almost certainly not have run the following recipe if I'd submitted it years ago because it calls for toasted sesame oil, an obscure ingredient at the time. Now the item is much better known, and for Washington metro area readers at least, fairly easy to obtain.

 Which suggests another food writing lesson learned: Times change, tastes change, and editors do too, so it's vital to keep your culinary skills current. (Still another lesson is understanding the importance of writing good recipe introductions; see my tips here. And for tips on what editors are looking for, go here.)

I like to serve asparagus often when it's in season, usually by braising it in a little chicken broth, or roasting it with olive oil, or by readying this nothing-to-it stir-fry. It shows off the flavor, color, and slightly crunchy texture of the vegetable well, and lends a vaguely Asian touch to a meal.

Tip: Don't confuse oriental toasted sesame oil with the mild-tasting sesame oil that is available in health food stores. Asian-style sesame oil has a distinct toasty flavor and rich brown color. It's usually stocked in grocery stores in the same section as soy sauce. I suggest reduced sodium soy in this recipe as it keeps the dish from being too salty.

1 1/2 pounds fresh asparagus (untrimmed)
1 1/2 tablespoons sesame seeds
1 1/2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil  

2  teaspoons reduced-sodium soy sauce or regular soy sauce
Coarse ground gourmet-blend (pink, black, and green) peppercorns for garnish, optional

Break off and discard the tough ends from the asparagus spears; only the tenderest 5 to 6 inches of the spear tops should be used. Cut the trimmed asparagus spears on a diagonal into 1 1/2-inch pieces.

In a 12-inch or similar nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, toast the sesame seeds, stirring constantly, until they just begin to turn light brown. Watch carefully and immediately turn them out onto paper toweling. In the same skillet, heat the oil to hot but not smoking. Add the asparagus pieces, and adjust the heat so they cook rapidly but don't burn. Cook, stirring 2 minutes or until the pieces are crisp-tender when tested with a fork. Add the soy sauce; cook, stirring, about 1 minute longer. Sprinkle some sesame seeds over top. Add a sprinkling of coarsely ground multi-blend peppercorns, if desired. Serve the remaining seeds separately at the table so diners can add more to taste. Makes 4 servings.

Another veggie recipe you may like--oven roasted tomatoes.
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