Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Chocolate Chunk Cookies

This weekend I made the best chocolate chunk cookies. I can't promise they're the best chocolate chunk cookies you'll ever make, nor can I take any credit for the recipe. I adapted it from from Dawn Finicane over at vanilla sugar; Dawn has a self-proclaimed obsession with recreating Levain Bakery's cookies. I can't say if these taste like Levain's or not because, sadly, I haven't yet had the pleasure of having my mind blown at Levain.

I left the ingredients and quantities in Dawn's recipe mostly unchanged (I increased the salt, baking powder and vanilla, and didn't use European butter), but employed a slightly different technique. Rather than shred cold butter with a cheese grater as Dawn instructs (too messy/melty), I cut the butter into 1/2-inch chunks and pulsed it in my food processor with the sugar. The key here is to create a dough that's studded with pieces of cold butter, a la biscuits or scones, as opposed to creaming the butter as you would when making most cookies.

Also key is letting this dough rest in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours and preferably overnight. I've told you before and I'm telling you again: do not underestimate the importance of letting the dough rest and absorb moisture and flavor from the fats and liquids.

Best Ever Chocolate Chunk Cookies
Makes about 20 to 24
Adapted from Dawn Finicane's Levain Bakery chocolate chip cookie clone recipe at vanilla sugar, which itself is inspired by Levain Bakery and cookiemadness.net. (All of which is beginning to remind me of the episode of Friends in which Phoebe realizes her grandmother's legacy -- her super secret recipe for the best chocolate chip cookies ever -- is really the Nestle Toll House recipe.)

3 cups unbleached all purpose flour, measured using the scoop and sweep method
1 to 1 1/4 teaspoons sea salt (I recommend you use flake sea salt as opposed to coarse crystals)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (European butter is recommended for its low moisture content, but if you can't find it, use a quality brand. Avoid store brands, as they contain too much water.)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar, tightly packed
2 large eggs, cold
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups best quality semi-sweet chocolate chunks or chips (I used Valrhona 70% Guanaja, which I buy in 3 kg blocks. If you prefer a sweeter cookie, use chocolate with more sugar, e.g., 60% cocoa solids.)
1 heaping cup walnut halves, roughly chopped

1. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda. Set aside.

2. In the bowl of a food processor or stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, process or beat the butter with the sugars just until lumps of butter the size of large peas are incorporated throughout the sugar. If using a food processor, transfer the butter-sugar mixture to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.

3. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat on low speed just until combined; lumps of butter should remain. Add the flour mixture, chocolate and walnuts all at once, and beat on increasing speed until you're certain you're on the verge of burning up your mixer's motor. Remove the bowl from the mixer, set aside the paddle attachment, and gently work and fold the dough with your hands until the flour, chocolate and walnuts are evenly distributed.

4. Using a 1/4 cup measure and your hands, shape the dough into (approximately) 2-ounce balls. Work quickly; the butter should remain in cold pieces as opposed to warming enough to "melt" into the dough. Place the balls on a cookie sheet, plate or similar. Cover tightly and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.

5. When you're ready to bake the cookies (i.e., the dough has rested sufficiently), heat oven to 375 degrees F. Place the dough balls on parchment- or silicone mat-lined baking sheets, spacing them about 4 inches from the edges and each other. (I fit exactly 7 cookies on each of three, 13" x 18" half sheet jelly roll pans.) Do not flatten the dough balls.

6. Bake cookies at 375 for 8 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees F, rotate the baking sheets 180 degrees and bake for another 8 to 10 minutes or until cookies appear set and are golden at the edges. Remove cookies from oven (still on the baking sheets) and cool on baking racks for 2-5 minutes, then move cookies directly onto racks to cool completely. (I simply slide the cookies -- still on the parchment paper -- from the baking sheets to the cooling racks.) Cookies will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for two days or in the freezer for a month.

I found the flavor of these cookies to be even better the second day. I recommend you break them into chunks, slather them with peanut butter and shove them in your face. I'm not even kidding.

Update 3/10/11: I've since made several more batches of these cookies, and have found that increasing the sea salt to 1 1/4 teaspoons makes these cookies amazing. Also, because the dough is not very sweet, I now prefer to use semi sweet chocolate chunks that are 55% to 60% cocoa solids.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Alice Medrich's Cocoa Brownies with Browned Butter and Walnuts

Once upon a time when I was in college, I had the privilege of working at Cocolat, Alice Medrich's famed Northern California chocolate dessert shop. Although Alice had sold her share in the company by the time I joined, she was still present in the simple yet decadent confections that filled the pastry cases each day. Her brilliance with all things chocolate made her a superhero to me, and any time she popped in to the shop -- in the flesh! -- to pick up a torte or truffles, I'd go weak in the knees.

In the years since, I've made many of Alice's creations at home using recipes from her beautiful books. Of course they're never quite the same as the treats from my Cocolat days, but they never disappoint. So when this month's Bon Appetit magazine arrived with a stash of new cocoa-based recipes from Alice, I knew exactly what to do: whip up a batch of her Cocoa Brownies with Browned Butter and Walnuts. Immediately. Bon Appetit's editors describe these as "some of the best brownies we've ever had." Of course they are!

If you're tempted to tweak and doctor Alice's deceptively simple recipe, don't. She knows what she's doing, and her brownies are perfect as-is -- even if, like me, you don't usually care for walnuts in your brownies. The nuttiness of the brown butter is enhanced by the walnuts, which themselves make for a satisfyingly toothsome bite.

But if you absolutely insist on making another batch with globs of Nutella swirled on top, I won't stop you. Either way, they make a perfect Valentine's Day treat.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The Old Biscuit Mill

One of my favorite things to do in Cape Town is visit the Saturday morning Design Goods and Neighbour Goods Markets at The Old Biscuit Mill. A former, uh,  biscuit (cookie) mill built in the late 1800s, the village-like complex now houses shops, galleries, farm stalls and cafes, as well as day and night markets, festivals and events. It's a must. (As is a visit to the Mill's website, which does a much better job than I of explaining it.)

The key to the Saturday markets is to arrive early. They officially open at 9 a.m., but it's best to get there as early as 8; the purveyors will still be setting up their stalls, but by 9:30 it's a mad house through which you can barely move, let alone get a decent photo -- or the pastry you've been coveting since you arrived.

And now I'm going to positively bomb this post* with photos because talk is cheap, a photo is worth a thousand words, and you're only here for the photos, right? 

*I know: I need to build galleries for photo heavy posts. Someday...

The Design Goods Market
Here you'll find designers selling clothing, accessories and toys for children, animals and the young at heart. My favorite stall is Petite Pois, where spunky children's clothes are sold out of a customized 1970s Mini. I couldn't resist getting a Rainbow Brite-ish outfit (top left corner of the photo below) for my friends Jake and Reagan's daughter, Piper. You can see Piper rocking the outfit -- and some other stuff I picked up for her -- here. (And, as Reagan would say, don't be jeal'!)

I really, really, really wanted one of these dolls, but I just couldn't justify it.

 Nor could I justify hauling this tipi back to America. (Sniffle.)

The Neighbour Goods Market
Words can't describe the awesomeness of the food and drink you'll find under the two giant tents at the Neighbour Goods Market. I've been stuck for hours trying to write something to do it justice, so I'll just tell you to bring your appetite and a big bag for hauling your goods home -- if they make it that far.

Something you don't need to bring, however, is a lot of cash. I'm making a huge generalization here, but compared to America, quality food is more affordable in South Africa, and not just because of the favorable exchange rate. Similar to what I observed in Europe, in South Africa fresh, local, organic, expertly crafted food isn't the luxury it is here.

Communal tables made from old doors.
I fell in love with the funky old striped refrigerator in the background on the left.

Bread, glorious bread.

A hummus platter bigger than my head.

The biggest spring rolls I've ever seen (about 3x5 inches each).

Veggie struuuuuuuudel.

Whipping up fresh Hollandaise for rosti Benedict.

With an exchange rate of about 7 South African rand to one U.S. dollar, these pies are about $3.50.
Veggie curry wraps.

Mushroom skewers at the Funky Fungi stall.
I loved the Bay Kebab stall because my maiden name is from the Dutch word, schoner.
The Bay Kebab truck. Brilliant.


Beer at 9 a.m.?
I prefer coffee.

Savory tarts.

Sweet tarts.

Apple galettes.

Giant apple strudel (about $2.50).

Carrot cake muffins with lime icing at Tina Bester's Queen of Tarts stall.

Lemon meringue tartlets at Queen of Tarts.

Milk tart (melktert). Very South African, very delicious.
"Really brilliant biscuits" at Dunk.

Artistry at Martin Senekal Confectionery Design. The sweet potato peanut cake was mind blowing.

Well, friends, that's about all the photos this little blog can handle. Thanks for scrolling -- I hope it didn't give you a finger cramp.