Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Rosemary Crackers

Crackers and cereal are two food items that seem ridiculously overpriced.  Consisting of little more than wheat and water, they are priced as if made from frankincense and myrrh. Although I don't see myself making my own grape nuts or shredded wheat any time soon, crackers are a different matter.

Essentially an unleavened flatbread, these crackers are not only economical, but quick and easy as well.  By the time the oven is heated, these are ready to be baked.  They taste as good as any crackers you might find in an upscale store and are a fraction of the cost.  Using a pasta machine to roll out the dough, you can vary the thickness from paper-thin to a thicker consistency that will stand up to dips and spreads.  The amount of rosemary might seem excessive, but the flavor is surprisingly subtle.

Rosemary Crackers
adapted from this recipe found on The Fresh Loaf

1 1/2 cups (7.2 oz) flour  
1 tsp salt
pinch of sugar
2 TBS finely chopped fresh rosemary
2 TBS olive oil
4 oz ice water

Place a baking stone in the lower third of an oven and preheat oven to 475º F, allowing at least half an hour for the stone to be heated.  Place a pan on the bottom of the oven.
Put the flour, salt, sugar and rosemary in a food processor with a cutting blade and pulse to blend the ingredients.  Add the olive oil and pulse several times to blend.  With the machine running, add just enough of the water for the dough to begin to come together.  You don't want it to actually form a ball until you press it together by hand.

Form the dough into a ball and divide into four equal sized pieces.  Working with one piece at a time, cover the other pieces with plastic or a damp towel to keep from drying out.
Flatten the dough into a rectangular shape that will fit into the widest setting on a pasta machine.  Dip the dough into flour, brushing off excess.  Roll dough through the pasta machine until you reach your desired thinness.  8, the next to last setting on my Atlas machine, produces an almost ethereal cracker, but one that is not very practical for spreading.  I find the setting of 6 to produce a very thin but still relatively sturdy cracker.

Cut the rolled sheets of dough to the size cracker you want.  Place on a piece of parchment paper, and lightly brush with water and sprinkle with sea salt.  

Pour a cup of water into the pan on the bottom of the oven.  Place the parchment paper with the crackers on the baking stone.  Bake for 2 to 3 minutes--until just beginning to show spots of brown--then flip the crackers over and bake for another 2 minutes or so.  Remove to a rack and cool.  Follow the same procedure with the rest of the dough.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Spekkuk Spiced Coffee Cake

Spekkuk is one of the few positive byproducts of Holland's brutal, nearly four-century colonization of Indonesia.  A rich cake heavily spiced with some of the spices that first attracted the Dutch to Indonesia, Spekkuk is traditionally served with sweet tea.  Baked in alternating layers of spiced batter and plain batter, lapis legit, is an even more elegant version of spekkuk and can be found in bakeries throughout the archipelago.

Wanting something sweet for a morning get together that had the flavor of spekkuk without the excessive richness, I adapted a recipe from The San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook for Cafe Beaujolais Coffee Cake. The original recipe is delicious, but the spices for this spekkuk version result in an even more amply spiced coffee cake.  This is a no-fuss recipe that could easily be prepared for a Christmas morning breakfast or brunch.

Spekkuk Spiced Coffee Cake
adapted from Cafe Beaujolais Coffee Cake

2 1/4 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tsp nutmeg (preferably freshly ground)
4 teaspoons cinnamon, divided (I ground one stick of Indonesian cinnamon)
6 whole cloves, ground
1 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup corn oil
1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 egg, beaten
1 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 350º F. Butter a 9 x 13 x 2 inch (22.5 x 32.5 x 5 cm) baking pan.

In a large bowl thoroughly mix the flour with the salt, 3 teaspoons of the cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and sugars.  Stir in the oil and mix well.  After removing 3/4 cup of this mixture to a smaller bowl, add the chopped nuts and remaining teaspoon of cinnamon to it.

Add the remaining ingredients to the mixture in the large bowl.  Stir well until you have a fairly smooth batter.  Pour the batter into the greased pan and then sprinkle the nut mixture on top.

Bake for about 40 minutes, until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean.  Although best served warm, this is also fine served at room temperature.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Blue Cheese Tartlets with Honeyed Walnuts

I can't recall when exactly I became fond of blue cheese, but I know I was well into adulthood.  Blue cheese, like brussels sprouts, is something of an acquired taste.  It requires a certain aging of the taster as much as the cheese.  Like brussels sprouts, it is pretty much a take it or leave it proposition.  I doubt you'll find too many children who appreciate the tang of a good blue.

I particularly like blue cheese in salads with pears and walnuts.  The crisp sweetness of the pears is a perfect foil to the salty richness of the cheese.  A salad with arugula, pears, blue cheese, and walnuts lightly dressed with a vinaigrette is a perfect winter salad.  

The holiday season is one of potlucks and cocktail parties for many.  As my wife and I both teach--at different schools in different districts--the last days before winter breaks are often hectic with competing parties.  One annual party that we look forward to is a wine tasting that raises funds for local ESL teachers.  With school districts dismantling adult education programs (a bill passed several years ago allows school districts to continue to receive funding for adult education classes even though the districts no longer offer classes, siphoning the funds for K-12 classes) these are lean times for ESL instructors.  The annual wine tasting is an enjoyable event that also helps out a few people.

Once you have the shells made (and you could certainly use packaged phyllo cups instead), these are a snap to assemble and bake.  I made several variations, putting bacon in some, diced apples in others, some with membrillo  spread on the bottom, and the rest simply with the cheese and walnuts.  I think my favorite were the ones with the membrillo; the sweetness of the quince paste was a nice counterpart to the cheese.

To make these, fill pre-baked tartlet shells with several teaspoons of softened blue cheese mixed with cream or cream cheese.  Top with honeyed walnuts and bake at 350º for eight to ten minutes.  Serve warm or at room temperature.  Bacon, pears, caramelized onions, or membrillo may be placed in the shells before adding the blue cheese mixture.