Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas! - Orange Lard Cookies

Whoosh! Christmas rather caught me by surprise this year. Maybe it's the lack of snow, but it took me longer than usual to get into the spirit of things. And yet, with just a few hours to go till Christmas Eve officially starts, everything seems to be on track: the tree is trimmed, the gifts are wrapped, and I've got bread baking in the oven.

As usual when we stay in Montreal, we're spending Christmas Eve with Laurent's parents. They always invite quite a crowd over, and there's always a mountain of food, prepared by Laurent's father. This year, however, I wanted to contribute in some way. I thought about something I can make that no one else around me does; and it had to be something appropriate for an Italian Christmas, so Asian food was out. So I settled on bread. Bread isn't an essential part of supper, but I find homemade bread always adds a nice touch.

So I spent part of today making two kinds of bread from my favourite Marcy Goldman book: pull-apart buttery rolls, which I have made before, and buttermilk biscuits. They're almost ready, so perhaps I'll snap a picture and add it to the end of this post.

I haven't done much holiday baking this year. I did make gingerbread men, for the very first time, and am quite pleased with the flavour, although I may have overbaked them a bit. And I made lard cookies.

I'm quite into Jennifer McLagan's cookbooks at the moment. As you may know, she's been specializing in unpopular foods for several years: Bones (or rather, cooking on the bone), Fat, and, most recently, Odd Bits (not just offal, but generally all the parts of the animal people tend to not use anymore). While flipping through Fat, I came upon a recipe for Spanish-style lard cookies, and decided to give it a try. I'd never cooked with lard before, and was even very surprised to discover how available it is, found in the pastry aisle at most supermarkets - too bad, I was already having visions of rendering pork fat.

The cookies were as simple to make as cookies can be. I substituted orange liqueur for brandy, as I don't keep the latter in the house. Honestly, I'd be prepared to be that no one, save an expert baker, would ever guess that these cookies were lard-based: you can't taste it at all. But it apparently gives a unique texture, and while I would have to make a butter version to compare and really determine the difference, I'd describe the ones I made as crispy, but not brittle or hard, and not sandy either. Not sure this description is very useful, but I would definitely make these again.

Oooh, look at that, my bread is ready! The biscuits taste good, but to be honest they're rather unattractive. Oh well. The pull-apart rolls, on the other hand, look fabulous. (Sorry for the saturated pics, I'm in a hurry.)

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone!

Orange-flavoured Lard Cookies
Slightly adapted from Jennifer McLagan's Fat

Yields around 20 cookies

125g (4.2 oz, 6/8 cup) all-purpose flour
60g (2 oz, 1/2 cup) almond flour
100g (3.5 oz 1/2 cup) granulated sugar
2 tsp ground cinnamon
Pinch of salt
100g (1/2 cup, 3.5 oz) lard, diced, at room temperature
1 whole egg
Zest of one orange, finely grated
1 tbsp orange liqueur (Cointreau or Triple Sec)
Icing sugar, for dusting

Preheat oven to 180ºC (350ºF). Line baking sheets with parchment paper.

Mix the flour and almond flour together in a mixing bowl, then spread them on a baking sheet in an even layer. Roast them in the over, stirring occasionally, until they are fragrant and just beginning to brown. Remove from the oven and let cool completely.

Lower the oven to 150ºF (300ºF).

Put the cooled flour and almond mixture in a large mixing bowl, stir in the sugar, cinnamon, and salt. Add the lard and work it into the flour mixture with a wooden spoon or dough whisk, to obtain a homogenous mixture.

In a smaller bowl, whisk together the egg, orange zest, and liqueur. Incorporate this mixture into the flour and lard mixture, and stir to obtain a soft dough.

Take tablespoonfuls of dough, form them into balls, and place them on the prepared baking sheets, about 4 cm (1 1/2 inches) apart, and slightly flatten them with the palm of your hand. Bake until firm to the tough and slightly browned on the bottom, about 30 minutes.

Transfer the cookies to a wire rack and cool completely. Dust with icing sugar and store in an airtight container for up to one week.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Honeymoon, pt 1 - Momofuku

Okay, boys and girls, let's get back on track! It's been an emotional and disorienting couple of weeks, as I have been without a computer: my laptop got stolen. I was at a café with my friends and took out my computer to show them my wedding pictures, which I had finally received. Then I put it back in my bag, which was on the floor right next to me. When I got up to leave, my bag was open and the laptop was gone. The amazing thing is that one of my friends was sitting right opposite me, and she didn't see a thing. Apparently this sort of thing happens a lot in the neighbourhood, with professional thieves preying on students. The worst part is, I practically never bring my laptop to work in cafés, there's too much noise and I'm always scared I'm going to spill something on it. It really was rotten luck...

Anyways, after the first twenty minutes of hyperventilating and being paralyzed by the sheer effort of wrapping my mind around what had happened, while my awesome friends took action on my part and talked to the staff and surrounding customers, after a weepy call to Laurent and a trip to the police station to report the theft, after a couple of days of feeling blue, and finally after taking advantage of Black Friday sales to order a new laptop (a fine piece of hardware which I'm typing this on), I started putting the incident behind me. Fortunately, I had backed up most of my important documents (including the wedding pics and my thesis), so there was no big personal loss. The thought of someone going through my data made me feel sick, but I knew the thieves would most likely be interested in the hardware, not my vacations photos or articles on Japanese pop culture...

And then, a few days ago, I got a call from the police informing me my laptop had been found! I'm picking it up tomorrow. Apparently, it's still in one piece, but they haven't tried to open it, so I don't know if the hard drive has already been wiped or not. Fingers crossed... But honestly, given that less than one in ten stolen laptops is recovered, I wasn't expecting mine to ever be found, so I'm happy either way. The good luck has balanced out the bad!

The moral of the story: always report stolen items, you never know.

So, on with our regular programming. Well, not that regular, as today's post is the first part of the Honeymoon Chronicles. Laurent and I couldn't get away for very long, so we decided to just spend a few days in New York. I grew up there, and Laurent has never really visited the city, so I was looking forward to showing him around. We had a wonderful time. I showed him the classics (the view from the Staten Island Ferry, Time Square, etc.), and also some places which were more personal to me (my old school, specific spots in Central Park). Over the course of five days, we pretty much covered the list of places I had compiled in my head.

My list of restaurants, however, was comparatively shorter. I was just a kid when I lived in NY, and fresh from Europe. At the age of five, I was impressed by things like grape juice, deli sandwiches, pizza, hot dogs, and frozen yogurt, most of which I had never tasted. Then we discovered ethnic takeout, especially Indian and Mexican food, which was not really available in Belgium at the time. My parents took me to a few restaurants, but I can't say I recall whether they really were good, or just conveniently close; and anyway, they've probably been closed for years. My parents lived in New York again several years ago, but none of us, myself included, really kept track of the food scene. No particular place stood out in my memory.

Our hotel was conveniently located near a Pain Quotidien, a chain I was familiar with, so Laurent and I often had lunch or breakfast there. It's ironic, because Le Pain Quotidien is actually a Belgian concept, so it kind of felt like eating, say, McDonald's in Tokyo. Except that Le Pain Quotidien is a million times tastier and healthier than McDonald's (and more expensive, unfortunately, but hey, we were on our honeymoon), and the setting is a billion times more attractive, with its wooden hues and cute little spreads. Besides, I have to admit I never feel bad about eating "foreign" food in North America, probably because immigrant cultures are such a huge part of this continent, and hence the concept of "local cuisine" has always seemed a lot looser here than it does in other regions.

Even though I don't really know much about the current New York restaurant scene, there was one place I knew we had to visit: Momofuku Noodle Bar. Back when I was making David Chang's ramen a few months ago, I took the time to read the non-recipe parts of the book, specifically how the restaurant came to be. I liked how things apparently really kicked off when the chefs decided to stop trying to be "authentic" and just started to make whatever they wanted, according to the seasons and their own whims. And the ramen I had whipped up in my kitchen had been really very good, so I could only imagine how great the real thing would be.

If we could get in, that is... I knew the place was hugely popular but not correspondingly huge, and fully expected to find people lined up in front. Which we did. I asked the hostess how long the wait would be for two people, prepared to wait for over an hour if need be (I've done it for Kazu on more than one occasion), and nearly fell over when she answered that she could seat us right away. And smack in the middle of the counter, no less! Luck of the newlyweds!

We started off with some shiitake buns. They were great, with very salty mushrooms, soft steamed buns, and crunch pickles.

But the real treat was watching the cooks prepping bowl after bowl of ramen. These guys were maintaining a serious rhythm!

I ordered the shoyu (soy) ramen, while Laurent ordered a miso version. I knew Chang had recently changed his broth recipe, to make it more environmentally and economically friendly, which I can only applaud; he now makes the broth with only chicken bones, no more pork bones. The result was still very good, with strong umami and smokiness compensating for the lack of meatiness. The noodles were awesome, firm bordering on chewy, as far from limp, sissy noodles as you can get. The pork was tender and deliciously seasoned. But... I have to say this: how I wish I could have tasted the original version! I get that it uses a lot of meat and generates a lot of waste, but I was honestly blown away by what I managed to make myself with the old recipe, and have no doubt the served far superior bowls at Momofuku back then. This new version is definitely great, but the difference is nonetheless felt...

Laurent's miso ramen, however, was spectacular. Neither of us had anything bad to say about it: it was simply perfection, with ideally balanced flavours. It's right up there with the burnt miso ramen we had in Tokyo and have been fantasizing about ever since. Maybe we just have a special weakness for miso... But Jesus, it was good.

So, that was one of the high culinary points of our trip. More to come!