November 2006 archives

Nick Malgieri’s Chewy Oatmeal Raisin Cookie Recipe

Recently I bought a sack of delightfully-crispy Boskop apples, my favorite of all French apple varieties.

After a quick rinse, I eagerly took a bite, my teeth breaking through the tight skin, anticipating the cool, crisp-tart flesh of a just-harvested apple.

But instead I spit it out: the flesh had gone soft and my precious apple was completely inedible.

Now any normal person would have tossed the rest of that apple in the garbage and grabbed another one. But not me. Since I am my mother’s son, I can’t throw anything away, no matter how trivial. But being quick-witted, I thought I would combine my frugal nature with my amazing generosity and the need to present a recipe here on the site, which is something I haven’t been able to do in a while due to my travels and travails.

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I’ve been working on an interview with master baker Nick Malgieri, who just came out with a new book, Perfect Light Desserts: Fabulous Cakes, Cookies, Pies, and More Made with Real Butter, Sugar, Flour, and Eggs, All Under 300 Calories Per Generous Serving (whew!). Look for that interview here, which became so lengthy and interesting that I’m still working on it, and will appear in the next week or so here on the site. I’ll talk to Nick about teaching, being the pastry chef at Window’s On The World, why he steals recipes from me, and what it’s like to write cookbooks.

Because the recipes in his latest book have less-calories than regular desserts, several recipes use applesauce as a base. So like the abnormal person I’ve become living alone in my Parisian garret, a reclusive phantom of le gâteau Opera, I made The World’s Tiniest Batch of Applesauce, but managed to turn it into two baking sheets of Nick’s exceptionally chewy, dense, and delicious oatmeal cookies.

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Here’s my adaptation of the recipe from Nick’s book. Although he calls for raisins, I didn’t have any, so instead of actually leaving my apartment, I dug deep into my valuable expat stash for the benefit of my readers (yeah, right…) and substituted tart, bright-red dried cranberries instead. But you could use any diced dried fruit that you want.
I didn’t have any oatmeal on hand either. So I used tofu.

Ok, just kidding (that was for all the ‘substitution’ people…and you know who you are!)
I used a mixture called cinq céréales, a blend of rolled oats, wheat, rye and other rolled grains that I stock up on at Naturalia, which is Paris’ health-food store chain and a great place to explore, and see how ‘healthy’ Parisians eats. (If you’re expecting to see Birkenstocks and draw-string pants, though, you going to be disappointed.) And although I’ve become un pea Parisian, I guess you can take the boy out of America, you can’t take America out of the boy, and I supersized them, making my cookies bigger using about 2 tablespoons of the batter per cookie. I got 16 cookies, which were gone in a flash, since I bribed…uh, I mean…brought them to vendors at my local market who had no idea what an oatmeal cookie was. Needless to say, I got a few more stranger looks than usual yesterday, handing out cookies from a sack, but no one seemed to mind. The French are pushovers for anything delicious, which has made my life a whole lot easier around here, let me tell you.

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Unfortunately, though, I ate quite a bit of the dough before it could be baked. How could I resist? It was like the most delicious, yummiest ‘bowl of’ oatmeal I’ve ever tasted, all bound together with a touch of French butter and golden brown sugar. And although my tinkering with the size probably screwed up the calorie guidelines, they were delicious and I figure I’ll just have one less glass of wine this month to make up for it.
Really.

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Chewy Oatmeal Raisin Cookies
About 36 cookies

Adapted from Nick Malgieri’s book, Perfect Light Desserts: Fabulous Cakes, Cookies, Pies, and More Made with Real Butter, Sugar, Flour, and Eggs (HarperCollins).

  • 1 cup flour (spoon flour into dry-measure cup and level off)
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup (packed) light brown sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 1/3 cups rolled oats (not instant)
  • 1/2 cup dark raisins (or dried cranberries)

2 baking sheets lined with parchment paper, foil, or silicone mats

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and set the rack on the lower and upper thirds of the oven.

2. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

3. In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter and granulated sugar until smooth. Mix in the brown sugar, then the egg, applesauce, and vanilla.

4. Stir in the dry ingredients, then the oats and raisins.

5. Drop the batter by rounded teaspoons 2-inches apart on the baking sheets and use a fork to gently flatten the dough.

6. Bake the cookies for 10 to 12 minutes, or until they “look dull on the surface but are moist and soft”, according to Nick. Rotate baking sheets during baking for even heating.

(I made mine bigger, so whatever size you make them, just bake them until they look as directed by Nick.)

Storage: Once cool, store the cookies in an airtight container at room temperature.

Balsamic Vinegar in Modena, Italy

The hardest part about sampling so much good food is that it’s almost impossible to go back to eating the everyday stuff.

I challenge anyone who’s flecked a bit of fleur de sel across their food to go back to ordinary table salt. I took one taste of the cloud-like, billowy chocolate-enrobed marshmallows from Pierre Marcolini and now I can’t seem to get enough.

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A special bottle used to evaluate ‘Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale’


My first experience with real, true balsamic vinegar goes back to the time I worked with Paul Bertolli at Chez Panisse. Every so often he’d ask me for the key to the liquor cabinet (which, for some reason, I was entrusted with) and he’d pull out his little dark bottle of brown, viscous syrup.

A breathless hush would fall over the kitchen, and he would tenderly drip a few precious drops onto the dinner plates with great reverence. Although that liquor cabinet got pilfered on perhaps one too many occasions, mostly involving after-work fresh fruit daiquiris for the staff (I was definitely not the person to entrust with the key), I never did touch that little bottle.
It scared me.

So when planning my visit to the Emilia-Romania region, I decided I would be so close to Modena, it would be a shame not to visit and see what all the fuss was about. I sent a message to the Consorzio Produttori Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena who was happy to provide me with a glimpse of the process of making traditional balsamic vinegar.

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Giovanna uses a glass tube to demonstrate the varying thickness of her vinegars

I could not have been luckier to spend the morning with Giovanna Cati-Barbieri and her husband Giorgio, who may be the tallest man in Italy. Giovanna took me up to their cellar where rows of barrels are lined up, where her vinegars are aged and stored. In fact, tucked away in the attics of many residents of this city are similar wooden barrels, some hundreds of years old, where families privately make their own batches of vinegar, as they’ve been doing for generations.

Traditional balsamic vinegar is not to be confused with industrial balsamic vinegar, the acidic brown water that costs 2 bucks at the supermarket. It’s like comparing Ye Olde Log Cabin to pure, deep-dark maple syrup: there’s simply is no comparison. Giovanna, like others in town, follows traditional methods to make her balsamic vinegars, a process that’s strictly regulated and has both DOC (Denominazione di Origin Controllata) and DOP (Denominazione d’Origine Protetta) designations which ensure the 80 member consortium of local producers follow specific quality-assured guidelines.

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Rating the vinegar

You need to have a lot of patience to make true balsamico and many of Giovanna’s barrels are stamped with her daughter’s name in hopes she’ll carry on the tradition. Although you can find balsamic that’s younger, only balsamic vinegars that are aged 12 or 25 years get certification. And as those of us getting into our advanced years, there’s certainly a good argument for the gifts that age has bestowed upon us. But more importantly, aside from the certifications and designations, these balsamic vinegars are without a doubt one of the best-tasting things you’re ever liable to put in your mouth.

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Gorgeous bottles of balsamic aged in cherrywood

The process of making balsamic begins in October of each year with just-picked Lambrusco and Trebbiano grapes. If the grapes sit for any period of time, they’ll begin to ferment, so they’re cooked right away, but to a temperature no higher than 194 degrees (90 C), which is enough to release their juices but not to cook away any of the flavor. This year, 2006, was exceptionally good for the grapes, since the heatwave concentrated the natural sugars in the grapes.

Once the grape must has been cooked, the juice is cooled, filtered, then stored in barrels, which are never filled more than 3/4′s full. Giovanna uses many different types of wood, mostly castagno but also ginepro (juniper) and ciliegia (cherry), to make special reserve vinegars, since the wood imparts a fine flavor to the balsamico.

As the vinegar ages and evaporates over the years, the vinegar gets transferred from the large ‘mother’ barrel to smaller ones, gradually and systematically, over a period of several years. If you’re lucky, some day you’ll get a chance to taste vinegar that’s over 100 years old. It’s a rare treat.

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Judy Francini, the Divina Cucina, shows off a bottle of 100-year old vinegar in Florence

As Giovanna explained, “Balsamico is a life philosophy” since the techniques get handed down by word-of-mouth, and it takes more than just reading a recipe to know how to make the vinegars; when they must be decanted, how to monitor the evaporation, and evaluationing the vinegar at various times throughout the aging process. Giovanna also explained that the barrels are used like a dowry, handed down to daughters from generation-to-generation. She’s hoping her daughter will want to carry on the tradition as well. I hope so too.

Afterwards, Giovanna led me through a tasting of her vinegars, starting with a 12-year old bottle designated by a white cap, which was grape-y, tart, and pungent-sweet. It would be perfect to drizzle over carpaccio or shards of aged Parmesan cheese. Her 25-year old with a gold cap, was far fruitier, stickier, and with less acidity and more beguiling complexity.

Then she brought out the big guns: a tray of very special bottles, including her 25-year old reserve balsamic aged in cherry wood, which I immediately envisioned dripping over a vanilla-flavored panna cotta, then I tasted another 25-year old balsamic vinegar aged in juniper wood barrels, which she said should only be served over something “very important”, like venison or red meat.

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So good drizzled over sliceds of rare beef at Ristorante Vinicio

After several delectable spoonfuls, I was starting to swoon, wondering why I had lived so long without making aceto balsamico an essential item in my pantry? Well, I’m sure it had something to do with the cost; a small bottle will set one back at least $25. But since you’re just using just a few drops at a time (don’t you dare mix it into salad dressing), maybe ½ teaspoon, it’s merely a few cents per serving. So I tucked several bottles, packed very well, in my suitcase which thankfully made it back to my Parisian pad in one piece.

In spite of the price, a stingy few drops are all you need to make a very big impact. And never mind the photo…I asked them to keep pouring, feigning trouble with my camera, so they’d keep the precious liquid flowing. But I do recommend for newbies to try a bottle that’s at least 12-years old, as there’s a substantial difference between a thin, rather uninteresting 10-year old balsamic vinegar and a luscious, velvety 12- or 25-year old. The consortium of balsamic producers use a special bottle, designed by race car designer Giugiaro, to designate the provenance of their vinegars. Incidentally, it’s the same creative team that designs cars for a well-known, very famous Italian factory nearby, too.

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Freshly-churned vanilla gelato is the perfect foil for the tart-sweet taste of balsamico

The sad news is that now I’ve developed a taste of the good life, especially for true aceto balsamico, and have been tipping it over everything around here. But balsamico is also good with fresh figs, soft young goat cheese, shards of pecorino or Parmesan cheese, dark chocolate, gnocchi, and tortellini filled with sweet butternut squash.

Acetaia di Giorgio
Via Cabassi, 67
Tel: 059/333015

Visits can be arrange by telephone or through their web site and Giovanna speaks English. Reasonably-priced, secure international shipping is available as well.

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If you haven’t spent all your euros on vinegar, stop here on your way out of Modena

Modena

To learn more about balsamic vinegar in Modena, visit the web site for the Consorzio Produttori di Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena.

Modena is a easy train ride from Florence, and the trip takes about 20 minutes making it a perfect day excursion. To visit the balsamic producers, call in advance and you’ll need to rent a car or take a taxi. The New York Times recently wrote an excellent article about the region as well.

Another, larger producer of traditional balsamic vinegar is Acetaia Bompana. Visits can be arranged in English or French as well.

Be sure to visit the Mercato Coperto Albinelli. This wrought iron-covered daily market is a must-see and is one of the best in the world. Open until 2pm.

Hotel
Hotel Centrale
Via Rismondo, 55
Tel: 059/218808

Modest lodging, smack-dab in the center of town, on a quiet street.

Restaurants

Ristorante Vinicio
Via Emilia
Tel: 059/280313

Gran Caffè
Piazza XX Settembre, 34
Simple, contemporary foods. Great lunch spot for pasta and salads, with wine bar for early evening drinks. Next to market.

Trattoria da Omer
Via Torre, 33
Tel: 059/218050
Pastas and simple trattoria fare.

Ristorante da Danilo
Via Coltellini, 31
Tel: 059/225498
Regional cuisine, including bollito misto, boiled meat dinners, dished up almost tableside. The ravioli di zucca, plump squash ravioli, are excellent.

Hosteria Giusti
Vicolo Squallore, 46
Tel: 059/222533
Tiny salumeria with a few tables hidden in the back.