I started writing this post numerous times, trying to figure out how to just come out and say it. I skirted around the issue. I sugar-coated it. But here, I’ll just come out with it: I stole this cookbook. No really, I full-on stole it. And it’s fabulous. Now let me explain: This fall, I was an intern at a local weekly paper here in San Francisco. It started out strong with assignments, bad coffee, and seminars touching on San Francisco history and politics. I was engaged. I envisioned a future with me traipsing about the city covering local food and culture. I wouldn’t make much money, but I’d be happy. And well-fed. But in a very short time, the support faded and I found myself at a dark, windowless desk trying to look busy and not sulk that nothing I ever wrote seemed to make it to the right person’s desk. The scheduling of the internship was such that I couldn’t accept a full-time job anywhere, and I was the oldest intern by a solid ten years. I kept telling myself it could go somewhere. Who knows? In the meantime, I got to know Twitter. I did a little online shopping. I taught myself photo editing techniques, and learned a little hmtl code. I even wrote letters to relatives I hadn’t seen in way too long.
The high point of each day was checking the mail. I spent way more time on the task than my fellow interns, making piles for the appropriate editors and studying the upcoming events and book releases to see what might be worth checking out. And then, there were the days when publishers and PR folks would send books, cd’s, free tickets and the like. So now you can see where this is going. On a particularly dreary and stormy afternoon, my editor received a recipe compilation from the editors at Food & Wine entitled, Best of the Best Cookbook Recipes. In it, the they’d gone through the most exciting cookbooks from 2009 and pulled their favorite dishes. Ah hah. It must be mine. I looked around and slid it into my welcoming messenger bag. I know, I know–stealing’s never good. Even if you are a jaded, overqualified intern. And after a mere few hours, my conscience started to get the best of me. So I left a note. It went a little something like this. Dear ______ (overworked editor): You got a cookbook in the mail today and I’m borrowing it for research purposes. Let me know if you ever need it back. Thanks, Megan (intern in the back left corner). There. Phew. Now it wasn’t technically stealing. And guess what? The editor that rarely published my pieces also never checks her mail. Imagine that. Three months later, that note’s probably still sitting there. Lucky for us because now I can share these cookies with you.
Now I’m the kind of gal that sticks to a recipe once I find one I like. I commit to it wholeheartedly. I’ve got my rock-solid pie crust recipe, my favorite brownie recipe, the best onion casserole you’ll ever taste. So I don’t often set out looking for other pie crust recipes or new and better brownies. And with snickerdoodles, I’m faithful to Magnolia Bakery’s recipe. They’re thin and chewy with a crackled sugar top and a classic sunken center. I’m particularly fond of crumbling them over vanilla ice cream and berries in the summer or eating them right out of the oven with a cup of milky coffee in the winter. That being said, I was intrigued by Mani Niall’s recipe for Cinnamon Cardamom Snickerdoodles from Best of the Best Cookbook Recipes. The recipe is pulled from Niall’s book, Sweet! in which he explores recipes using all different kinds of natural sweeteners (this is one of the few recipes using white sugar) such as agave, honey, and muscovado sugar. He aims to improve familiar recipes by varying the sweeteners to avoid processed sugars and blood-sugar spikes. I’ll be honest. I wasn’t drawn to this recipe for any of those reasons. I simply love cardamom and had never considered using it with a classic snickerdoodle recipe. The result is quite magical.
Cardamom is a spice that’s used in a lot of Indian and Middle Eastern dishes for it’s complex, aromatic, spicy-sweetness. It dresses up these cookies like nothing else. If your typical snickerdoodle is good afternoon snacking fare, these are racier–more apt for late night kitchen forays. Now snickerdoodles are tough to muck up. So I hope you decide to give these a try, and I hope my old editor isn’t reading the blog. It’s a very, very safe bet she’s not. I’m willing to bet this stolen cookbook on it.
While this was an excellent recipe just the way it was, I did adapt it slightly using just a dash less cardamom. I like the subtle warmth the spice brings to the cookies, but I found 1 1/2 tsp. sufficiently conveyed that. I also used ground cardamom instead of grinding my own like Niall suggests. She raises an important point that spices lose their freshness quickly, but I had just purchased the cardamom and it was used so sparingly that I’m happy with the results. If you’d like to use fresh cardamom, grind the seeds from 20 cardamom pods in an electric spice grinder, mini food processor, or mortar/pestle and use immediately.
Slightly adapted from: Sweet!
For Spiced Sugar:
Position oven racks in the center and top third of the oven and preheat oven to 375 F. Line two baking sheets with parchment or a silicone baking mat. Sift together the flour, cream of tartar, baking soda, and salt (This is important, to completely combine the cream of tarter and baking soda, and to break up any clumps). Beat the butter and sugar in a medium-size bowl with an electric mixer at high speed until the mixture is light in color and texture, about 3 minutes. One at a time, beat in the eggs, then the vanilla. Reduce the speed to low. In four equal additions, add the flour mixture, beating the dough until it’s smooth after each addition.
To make the spiced sugar, combine the ground cardamom, sugar, and cinnamon in a small bowl. Using a level tablespoon of dough for each cookie, roll the dough into walnut-size balls. A few at a time, toss the balls in the spiced sugar to coat, and place about 2 inches apart on the cookie sheets. Sprinkle the tops of each cookie with a bit of the spiced sugar.
Bake until the edges of the cookies are crisp and lightly browned, but the centers are still a bit soft, 8-10 minutes. Rotate the cookie sheet halfway through baking. Cool on the sheets for a few minutes, then carefully transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. The cookies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 5 days.
Early Fall Baking
Last weekend we went apple picking up near Yakima, a good three hours east of Seattle. We drove over to Harmony Orchards with our friends Brandi and John and met up with many other groups and families to amble about the rows and rows of apples in the unusually warm sun. We missed the annual picking last year as we were on our honeymoon, but the previous year was the one in which we made the colossal mistake of picking over 70 pounds of apples. I've never made so much applesauce in my life. This year we practiced restraint in bringing home a cool 38 pounds and after getting them all situated in the basement, I started to leaf through a few cookbooks looking for a great apple recipe -- something, preferably, that used quite a few apples, wasn't too sweet and could double as breakfast or dessert (really, the best kind of recipe). And that's exactly what we have in these Custardy Apple Squares.
It turns out that returning from a sunny honeymoon to a rather rainy, dark stretch of Seattle fall hasn't been the easiest transition. Sam and I have been struggling a little to find our groove with work projects and even simple routines like cooking meals for one another and getting out of the easy daily ruts that can happen to us all. When we were traveling, we made some new vows to each other -- ways we can keep the fall and winter from feeling a bit gloomy, as tends to happen at a certain point living in the Pacific Northwest (for me, at least): from weekly wine tastings at our neighborhood wine shop to going on more lake walks. And I suppose that's one of the most energizing and invigorating parts about travel, isn't it? The opposite of the daily rut: the constant newness and discovery around every corner. One of my favorite small moments in Italy took place at a cafe in Naples when I accidentally ordered the wrong pastry and, instead, was brought this funny looking cousin of a croissant. We had a wonderfully sunny little table with strong cappuccino, and, disappointed by my lack of ordering prowess, I tried the ugly pastry only to discover my new favorite treat of all time (and the only one I can't pronounce): the sfogliatelle. I couldn't stop talking about this pastry, its thick flaky layers wrapped around a light, citrus-flecked sweet ricotta filling. It was like nothing I'd ever tried -- the perfect marriage of interesting textures and flavors. I became a woman obsessed. I began to see them displayed on every street corner; I researched their origin back at the hotel room, and started to look up recipes for how to recreate them at home. And the reason for the fascination was obviously that they were delicious. But even more: I'm so immersed in the food writing world that I rarely get a chance to discover a dish or a restaurant on my own without hearing tell of it first. And while a long way away from that Italian cafe, I had a similar feeling this week as I scanned the pages of Alice Medrich's new book, Flavor Flours, and baked up a loaf of her beautiful fall pumpkin loaf: Discovery, newness, delight!
I am writing this on Saturday afternoon on a day when we had big plans to conquer pre-baby chore lists, but Sam's not feeling great and my energy's a little low so it hasn't been quite what we'd envisioned. My goals for the morning were to repot a house plant and make some soup and I've done neither. I will say that the sweet potato and fennel are still sitting on the counter eagerly awaiting their Big Moment -- it just hasn't come about quite yet. Sam and I were both going to attempt to install the carseat, but it started to look really daunting so we abandoned ship; it's now sitting proudly in the basement, also eagerly awaiting its Big Moment. So it's been one of those weekends -- the kind you look back on and wonder what it is you actually accomplished. At the very least, I get the chance to tell you about this hearty cranberry cornbread. I know maybe it feels premature in the season for cranberry recipes, but hang with me here: slathered with a little soft butter and runny honey, there's nothing I'd rather eat right now on the cool, crisp Seattle mornings we've been having lately.
I rarely make muffins at home and never order one when I'm out and about as I find they're often far too sweet and never truly that satisfying. I realize, too, in looking back at my cookbook that there's only one muffin recipe throughout. Case in point: I'm tentative on muffins. But not these. We've been pretty thrilled to have this healthier version of Morning Glory muffins on the counter this week; they have little bits of apple, raisins, walnuts, and grated carrot and are cloaked in a buttery oat crumble topping -- quite the opposite of your boring coffeeshop fare. I thought long and hard about doing a Valentine's post, some festive cookie or confection that would be share-worthy this weekend, but the more we talked about what our weekend would really look like, it involved something special for breakfast instead. I don't remember the last time a Valentine's Day fell on a Saturday, so we have big plans to have breakfast in bed and if your plans are even remotely similar, these muffins would be a fine inclusion.
I generally work on weekends. It's something I've come to terms with only because I know it won't last forever. I write. I bake. But those two things don't always pay the bills, so I work retail on the weekends and dream of the day when I'll have a Sunday like this one: