Thursday, October 27, 2011

owl cookies

 I can assure you these are just as cute in person. They came into existence when my husband marched out holding a magazine and pointed to an owl cookie cutter saying- "You've got to make these!" A quick amazon search later and the cookie cutter was on it's way.

Rather than make a sugar cookie, I used Ina Garten's indefatigable shortbread cookie recipe. I have used it to make all manner of cookies and when the dough is chilled it keeps a clean edge (the better to showcase cookie design- nothing sadder than painstakingly cutting out cookies only to have them bake and spread into unidentifiable blobs.) To echo the almond feathers, I added almond extract in place of the traditional vanilla.

The icing is my old standby of powdered sugar, a smidgen of milk and assorted food colorings. I repeated the almond flavoring with a drop (and I literally mean a drop) of almond extract. The eyes are small dots of melted chocolate, the nose a trimmed up piece of candy corn.

I don't know what else to say except that in addition to be ridiculously adorable, these cookies are quite tasty. I consider this a triumph as so often overly decorated things look lovely, but end up tasting awful. (Even as a child I felt this way about decorating Christmas cookies- I knew that rows of red hots gave a gingerbread candy cane it's trademark stripes, but I also knew I would never want to eat a row after row of red hots.)

shortbread cookies

3/4 pound unsalted butter at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (here is where I substituted almond)
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt

1) Preheat the oven to 350. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mix together the butter and 1 cup sugar until they are just combined. Add the vanilla.

2) In a medium bowl, sift together the flour and salt, then add them to the butter-sugar mixture. Mix on low speed until the dough starts to come together. Dump onto a surface dusted with flour and shape into a flat disk. Wrap in plastic and chill for 30 minutes.

3) Roll the dough 1/2 inch thick and cut with a 3 inch cutter. Place the cookies on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes (I think the owls took a little less time, keep an eye on them) until the edges begin to brown.

4) Allow to cool to room temperature.

5) Lay a light glaze of icing on the owl cookie base.
6) On the lower portion of the owl, "feather" with sliced almonds.
7) Add the candy corn nose and chocolate eyes.
8) Before moving cookies, allow the icing to dry completely. Admire adoringly.

Monday, October 24, 2011

book love- diversion vs. discovery

This past weekend I finished the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge. The writing is clean and patient, nothing feels rushed. The last page was so heartrending (and so true!) that it almost did me in.

A few months back, I read a very interesting piece by Michael Feeley Callan in Vanity Fair about the massive undertaking involved in the making of the film "All The Presidents Men." The films director, Alan Pakula, was said that at the time the film was made, "American theater per se was similar. We had a disproportionate interest in diversion therapy and too little interest in discovery." (Read the full piece here.)

This stuck with me and echoed around these past few months: diversion versus discovery. It made me think about the way that I consume entertainment and spend my time. In Olive Kitteridge, Strout writes, " was because she had not known what one should know: that day after day was unconsciously squandered." It caused me to ask myself to begin to recognize whether I am using my time to divert myself or to discover- to create, to grow.

Please do not get me wrong- I completely value diversion. It is needed to stop me from obsessing or worrying over too much nonsense. When I wake up at 2am and cannot sleep because I am replaying some exchange from earlier in the day, I need to divert my mind just long enough to remember how exhausted I am. This is usually best accomplished with an episode of Friends. (I have this on a post it note next to my computer: "Worrying is the same thing as banging your head against the wall. It only feels good when you stop."- John Powers.)

However, what Pakula's quote taught me was to be cautious in my life when the balance of daily activities tips toward diversion- when I spend more minutes and hours trying to ignore the life around me than I do in engaging it, discovering it. If I too often feel the need to "escape" (through mindless entertainment, obsessive FB checking, Pinterist-ing the entire Remodelista site- you get the idea, define diversion for yourself), then it is a signal that I need to pause and start asking myself some questions.

The truth is, though, that true discovery genius in writing sneaks up. It appears to be diverting but ends up smacking us upside the head with a truth so powerful it takes our breath away. I have had a few reading experiences like that in my life and every time it happens I am shaken and yet so grateful. Reading Olive Kitteridge was like that for me. Bless the skills and insight of it's writer, Elizabeth Strout.

This makes me wonder- have you read a book lately that started off as a diversion but ended up helping you discover something new? I'd love to hear about it.

fall colors

I live in Southern California and fall shows up pretty late here. As I write this, the temperatures are in the high 70's and a balmy wind is ruffling the eucalyptus tree leaves outside my window. In October, tree leaves are likely to fall as much from being burnt crisp by the sun as from changing with the season.

I still love fall in So Cal and look for it's early signs.
The orangey-reds are prominent, but in different forms:
the last of the home grown tomatoes (to be oven roasted and layered on toasted bread brushed with mascarpone)
the first bag of mandarin oranges stacked on my red cake plate (to be tossed into work bags for breakfast)
and finally, pumpkins (to be roasted for bread, cookies, and pie).
What does fall look like for you?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

double chocolate cupcakes

Last year a friend gave me a Food Network desk calendar for Christmas. It's fun: each day I get a new recipe or food trick, etc. Occasionally, it declares a certain day "National Pie Day" or "National Coffee Day" (I tend to think everyday is National Coffee day.) Well, apparently this past Tuesday, 10/18, was National Chocolate Cupcake Day.

To celebrate, I share a very very chocolatey cupcake recipe: north douglas chocolate cupcake with chocolate buttercream frosting topped with chocolate ganache.
Yes, frosting on top of frosting.
Yes, chocolate on top of chocolate on top of chocolate.
This cupcake is nothing if not over the top but sometimes, that is all that will do.

double chocolate cupcakes

for the cupcakes:
follow the cake recipe here, except divide the batter into cupcake pans and bake at 350 for 20-25 minutes.
1st frosting: follow the recipe for north douglas chocolate buttercream.

for the ganache:
follow the ganache recipe from here.
2nd frosting: once the ganache is cool, then glaze over the buttercream frosted cupcakes.

Monday, October 17, 2011

sisters and soup

It is hard for me to write these things and not cry. I do not live near my sisters and sometimes I miss them so much it takes my breath away.

When I speak with friends with young daughters who routinely fight, steal each others clothes, and generally behave terribly towards one another, I tell them to take heart. These were all things my sisters and I did to one another and yet now I consider them my dearest friends. (I carry with me a great memory of an epic battle that ended when my mom walked in to find my older sister ripping buttons off my favorite shirt while I was smashing and scratching my sisters CDs. Yeah, we didn't mess around.)

We grew up eating homemade soup regularly- lentil, bean, split pea, oyster stew, halibut chowder, Chinese chicken noodle- these were some of our favorites. As little girls we loved soup so much, we used to talk endlessly about growing up and starting a restaurant called "Three Sisters Soup Kitchen."

Present day, my oldest sister always has a pot of Ina's lentil soup waiting for me when I get off the plane. I usually take an evening flight and after trekking around an airport and jostling with strangers, there is nothing more comforting than to sit down at her kitchen table to a bowl of this. I am amazed that in spite of the craziness of her week (my sister is a gifted critical care nurse) she always finds time to make me soup. We talk late into the night and continue the conversations of life- how to find meaning in work, our new favorite food ideas, learning to be kind to ourselves, and what item at J.Crew this season we cannot live without.

This soup is cozy and substantial and packs wonderful flavor with the addition of thyme and cumin.
I hope you share it with someone you love.
The recipe is from The Barefoot Contessa.

lentil vegetable soup

1 pound French green lentils*
4 cups chopped yellow onions (3 large onions)
4 cups chopped leeks, white part only (2 leeks)
1 tablespoon minced garlic (3 cloves)
1/4 cup good olive oil
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme leaves or 1 teaspoon dried
1 teaspoon ground cumin
3 cups medium diced celery (8 stalks)
3 cups medium diced carrots (4 to 6 carrots)
3 quarts chicken stock
1/4 cup tomato paste
2 tablespoons red wine or red wine vinegar
freshly grated parmesan cheese

1) In a large bowl, cover the lentils with boiling water and allow to sit for 15 minutes. Drain.

2) In a large stockpot on medium heat, saute the onions, leeks, and garlic with the olive oil, salt, pepper, thyme, and cumin for 20 minutes, until the vegetables are translucent and very tender.

3) Add the celery and carrots and saute for 10 more minutes. Add the chicken stock, tomato paste, and lentils. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer uncovered for one hour, until the lentils are cooked through.

4) Check the seasonings. Add the red wine and serve hot, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with grated parmesan.

*When I make this, I use regular lentils. My sister loves me and therefore takes the time to find the fancy French lentils.
*My sister also adds 1 lb. sliced kielbasa. The smoky flavor is perfect with lentils.
*I have been known to substitute small cubes of butternut squash for the carrots. I think the sweetness of the squash is very good here.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


I just finished reading Marisa del los Santos' novel, Falling Together. She is my favorite current writer and I highly anticipated her latest work. It was just lovely. Even now, days later, I find myself musing over passages.

One of my favorite sentences: "Isn't it as though that rice field satisfies some little piece of your soul that's been waiting for that specific shade of green all your life, without your knowing it?" I love that idea of stumbling into amazement with something, of being startled by color in nature.

The description of green reminded me of some images I captured from a visit this past summer to Yosemite.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

snickerdoodle cupcakes

These are beyond yummy. The texture of the cupcake is sublime. I am thinking of taking the base recipe and tweaking it a bit for other flavors- I love it that much. It has a dense pound cake like heft to it but is also etherealy light. I know, a complete contradiction and for curiosities sake alone you should make them to experience it. 

Fall seems like the perfect time for these. Their cinnamony goodness would be lovely with a sharp cup of coffee over a brunch and I cannot imagine any child not being thrilled to find one tucked into a lunch bag.

The recipe is from Martha Stewart. I did not follow her frosting recommendation. Instead I applied a simple powdered sugar glaze (powdered sugar whisked with a smidgen of milk until the right consistency) and sprinkled a bit more cinnamon sugar on top. I trend towards the less-is-more frosting school of thought (see strawberry love cupcakes) but I realize that not everyone feels the same. If so, the link to the original frosting set up is here.

snickerdoodle cupcakes

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups cake flour (not self-rising), sifted
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon, plus 1/2 teaspoon for dusting
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 3/4 cups sugar, plus 2 tablespoons for dusting
4 large eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups milk

1) Makes 28 cupcakes. Preheat oven to 350. Line standard muffin tins with paper liners. Sift together both flours, baking powder, salt, and 1 tablespoon cinnamon.

2) With an electric mixer on medium-high speed, cream butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating until each is incorporated, scraping down sides of bowl as needed. Beat in vanilla.

3) Reduce speed to low. Add flour mixture in three batches, alternating with two additions of milk, and beating until combined after each.

4) Divide batter evenly among lined cups, filling each three-quarters full. Bake, rotating tins halfway through, until a cake tester inserted in centers comes out clean, about 20 minutes.

5) Transfer tins to wire racks to cool completely before removing cupcakes. Once cupcakes are cooled, spread with a simple powdered sugar glaze and dust with cinnamon sugar (this is the reserved 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon plus 2 tablespoons sugar.)