IMBB/SHF Cookie Swap: Around the World in Four Cookies

This month sees two of the blogosphere’s most celebrated events, Is My Blog Burning? and Sugar High Fridays, combined into one diet-busting extravaganza: a Holiday Cookie Swap! I must have been feeling guilty about my recent lack of participation in blogging events, or else I was bitten badly by the cookie bug, because it seems I went a little overboard. I woke up Saturday morning and immersed myself in a marathon session of sugar, butter, eggs and nuts, only to emerge Sunday evening with not one, not two, not even three, but four types of cookies to show for it. Luckily the results were more than worth the effort – they’re all unbelievably delicious, and hopefully they’ll provide the inspiration for some new and exotic treats to add to your holiday cookie table. Thanks to both Alberto and Jennifer and happy baking!

Persian Rice Cookies 

Persian Rice Cookies

These naturally-wheat free cookies come from Iran and the beautiful (and highly recommended) book on Persian culture and cuisine called New Food of Life by Najmieh Batmanglij. They’re intoxicatingly scented with one of my favorite flavor combinations, cardamom and rose water, and crumbly and rich from the addition of clarified butter. I was tempted to rename them ‘Persian Wedding Cakes’ – alluding to their similarity with a certain crumbly dome-shaped cookie from Mexico – but I decided these are good enough to merit their own linguistic identity. I did have a problem with the recipe as written, I must say. Using the specified amount of rice flour left me after mixing not with a shiny, moldable dough, but rather with a sticky, viscous paste. It took the addition of nearly twice the amount of flour called for to achieve a consistency suitable for shaping. I was worried about the impact of all that extra flour on the cookies themselves, but I needn’t have worried – they were perfect: dense, tender and just sweet enough. This may vary based on the brand of rice flour you use, but don’t fret if you also find that you need to add much more flour than called for – the important thing is that the dough is firm enough. 

Source: New Food of Life by Najmieh Batmanglij 
Yield: 36 cookies

For the syrup:
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup rose water
1/2 teaspoon lime juice

For the batter:
1 cup clarified butter (instructions follow)
4 egg yolks
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cardamom
3 cups rice flour (have up to 6 cups handy)
1/4 cup pistachios, chopped, for garnish (optional)

Clarify the butter by bringing it to a boil over very low heat. Simmer for 15 minutes, removing foam from the top as it rises. When the liquid looks clear and the milk solids have settled to the bottom, decant the liquid into another bowl (leave the solids behind).
Prepare the syrup by combining the sugar and water in a pot. Bring to a boil and simmer for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the rose water and lime juice, and set aside to cool. It should be room temperature and not too thick before proceeding.
Beat the egg yolks into the cooled syrup until incorporated. In a large bowl, combine the cooled butter, cardamom and rice flour. Mix well, then add the syrup mixture and mix until the dough is quite stiff and is no longer sticky [my note: it should be thick enough to hold its shape; if it’s not, add more rice flour in 1/4 cup increments until it is firm and shiny, with a texture like PlayDoh®].
Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Line a cookie sheet with baking paper. Take a spoonful of dough the size of a walnut, roll into a ball between your palms, flatten slightly, and place on the cookie sheet. Repeat, leaving about an inch between cookies. Place the cookies in the preheated oven and bake for about 15 minutes, or until firm and cracked on top. They should still be quite white.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool before removing from the paper, and be careful – these cookies crumble very easily.

Scourtins (French Olive Cookies) 



One word describes these cookies: amazing. After my recent love-affair with olive jam, when I spotted the recipe for these cookies I knew I had to make them. They’re unlike any other cookie I’ve had before, combining the texture of a tender shortbread with the floral grassiness of olive oil and the salty bite of cured black olives. There’s a bit of hesitation at the first bite, but after that, you simply can’t stop eating them. The recipe for these comes from the talented Susan Herrmann Loomis, resident expert on French cuisine and author of several books including On Rue Tatin. This particularly recipe, she explains, "comes courtesy of Jean-Pierre Autrand, whose family produced olive oil at Les Vieux Moulins in Nyons, an ancient olive mill, until 1952. Mr. Autrand found this recipe in his family’s archives, updated it, and sells the results at the gift store adjacent to the olive mill." You can find Mr. Autrand at Les Vieux Moulins, 4, Promenade de la Digue, 26110 Nyons, France. 011.33.(0)4. 75. 26.11.00.  

Source: Susan Herrmann Loomis, recipe online here
Yield: about 34 cookies

9 Tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup powdered/icing sugar, sifted
1 Tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
pinch of fine sea salt
1/2 cup cured black olives, preferably from Nyons, pitted and coarsely chopped

Preheat oven to 350F/180C. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
In a large bowl or the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter until it is soft and pale yellow. Mix in the sugar until blended, then drizzle in the olive oil and mix until combined. Add the flour and the sea salt, and mix gently but thoroughly until the dough is smooth, then add the olives and mix until they are thoroughly incorporated into the dough.
Place a piece of waxed paper or parchment paper on a work surface, and place the dough in the middle*. Cover it with another piece of waxed or parchment paper and roll out the dough until it is about 1/4-inch thick – 1/2 cm. (The dough is very sticky, and the paper makes it possible to roll out.) Refrigerate the dough for at least 30 minutes, and up to 24 hours. Cut out 2-inch (5 cm) rounds of dough and place them about 1/2-inch (1.3 cm) apart on prepared baking sheets. Gather the trimmings into a ball and roll it into a 1-inch (2.5 cm) diameter log. Wrap well and refrigerate, and when you are ready to bake, cut off 1/4-inch thick rounds. (This avoids over-rolling the dough.)
Bake until the scourtins are golden, about 15
minutes. Remove from oven and cool on wire racks.

*Instead of rolling and cutting, I actually found it easier to press all the dough into a shallow pan by hand, shortbread-style, score rectangles, and cut them immediately after baking.

Polish Raspberry Mazurkas 


Polish Raspberry Mazurkas  

I’ll start off by telling you that this recipe probably doesn’t come directly from Poland. While there is a type of pastry there called a Mazurek, which I believe is eaten at Easter and contains a rich dough topped with fresh and dried fruits and nuts, this particular cookie seems to be a Seattle delicacy. When I was in college I spent a summer working at a small coffee shop on Bainbridge Island, across the sound from Seattle, and by far the most popular pastry we sold was a small bar cookie with raspberry jam called a ‘mazurka’. I never found out who supplied these ambrosial cookies, but I have since seen references to several Seattle bakeries making and selling them, and I have to assume it’s a local adaptation of the Polish pastry that has taken on a life of its own. I’m happy to stand corrected if anyone knows anything more about them or has another recipe to share, but for my attempt to recreate them I turned to the only recipe I could find on the internet and modified according to my memory and tastes. While not quite living up to what I remember, they are pretty close, and got the thumbs-up from Manuel as he proclaimed them his ‘favorite of the weekend’. Don’t ask how many he ate. 

Source: adapted from this recipe
Yield: makes about 12 bars, depending on how you cut them 

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup rolled oats
3/4 cup walnuts, ground or very finely chopped
1 cup sweetened flaked coconut
3/4 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 lb raspberry jam

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a large rectangular pan (13×9 inches or thereabouts) with foil and butter the foil. Combine all dry ingredients in a large bowl. Break up any clumps of sugar with your finger tips and work the ingredients to mix them. Add the melted butter and work with fingers to combine well. Press half of dough in the foil-lined pan, working well into edges and pressing down to compact. Spread out the jam evenly to within 1/2 inch of edges of pan. Take handfuls of remaining dough mixture and crumble it over pan, distributing evenly. Press down with palms of hand to compact – but not too hard. Bake until golden-brown, about 45 minutes. Cool completely before cutting. Cut lengthwise into 3 even rows and crosswise into 4.


Ricciarelli (Sienese Almond Cookies) 

Ricciarelli (Sienese Almond Cookies)

These chewy little almond gems are similar to the more famous Amaretti Morbidi (soft Amaretti), but are a specialty of the Tuscan town of Siena. When Manuel and I were last in Siena a few years ago, I spent the better part of a day searching for these elusive cookies and buying as many variations as I could. I had hoped to have some to take home as gifts and edible souvenirs, but they were so good we had finished them all by the end of the day! Snow-white outside and meltingly soft inside, they’re a fragrant, cloudlike version of the best marzipan you’ve ever eaten. This recipe comes from Tessa Kiros and her enchanting book on Tuscan food, Twelve. I loved Tessa’s version of these cookies for the orange peel she adds – it raises the almond ecstasy to new heights and gives the cookies an injection of citrusy freshness that cuts the sweetness a bit and provides the perfect counterpoint to a cup of strong black espresso. 

Source: Twelve by Tessa Kiros 
Yield: Makes about 20 cookies

3 cups (300g) almond flour
1 1/3 cups (280g) caster/superfine sugar
1 1/4 cups (150g) powdered/icing sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
grated zest of 1 orange
2 egg whites
2 teaspoons almond extract

Line a baking sheet with baking or parchment paper.
Mix the almonds with the sugar, two-thirds of the powdered sugar, the baking powder and the orange zest in a bowl. In a clean bowl, beat the egg whites to soft peaks, then stir them into the almond mixture. Using a large spoon, mash the mixture to a wet, sticky mass. Stir in the almond extract.
Form oval or torpedo shapes about 2.5 inches long, roll in the remaining powdered sugar, and flatten slightly. Put them onto the parchment-lined baking sheet, allowing room to spread slightly, and sift the remaining powdered sugar over the tops. Leave the cookies at room temperature for about 2-3 hours to dry a little before baking.
Preheat the oven to 275F/140C. Bake the cookies for about 30 minutes, or until they are lightly golden and a little firm on the outside (the insides should still be soft). Cool completely and store in an airtight container.


Turkeys, Traditions and a Pistachio Tart

Pistachio and Almond Tart with Orange and Cardamom

I love Thanksgiving. I love coming in from the crisp November air to a warm, bustling kitchen. I love the smell of dozens of dishes in final stages of preparation, savory intermingling with sweet. I love the coming together of generations around the table, the threads of conversation picked up from last year as if they were never interrupted. I love that there is no anxiety over present-buying, no over-the-top commercialism, no religious overtones one either feels obligated to respect or rebel against. I love the way that people are given two whole days of public holiday to eat. I also love the thought that I can predict what nearly everyone in America regardless of time zone is doing at any given moment on Thanksgiving Day – they are either preparing food, eating food, or sated and stuffed from the overabundance that gives this feast its character. I love the sheer indulgence of it all.

But I also love breaking tradition on Thanksgiving. While others revel in the continuity and comfort of perennial favorites, I’m always looking for the next culinary thrill. Some people think I have a pathological fear of gastronomic commitment, but I think it’s better described as an insatiable lust for adventure. I believe that if I’m going to spend all day (or two or three) in the kitchen, I might as well tackle some items on my ‘must cook’ list, which each year seems to stretch longer than the last. And let’s face it, even if I were one for repeat-cooking, turkey, potatoes and cranberry relish can get kind of old. As a result, in my house just about anything goes for Thanksgiving, as long as it’s delicious, as long as there’s a lot, and as long as there are people around to share it. I’ve done full-on ethnic themed dinners, and hodge-podges of everything that looks good in a new cookbook or two. There have been Thanksgiving tamales, Thanksgiving curries, Thanksgiving pizzas and Thanksgiving tapas.

This year, we’re a little short on company, a little short on food, and a little short on time to celebrate. But luckily we’re not short on pistachio tart. Nutty, citrusy, subtly spiced and sporting a lustrous emerald hue, it’s the kind of confidently spectacular dessert that would be equally at home quietly biding its time on the buffet table with the more traditional post-feast sweets as it is shining in the spotlight. It’s decadent, exotic, and downright delicious. In fact, it’s almost good enough to merit a tradition of its own.

So whether your table encompasses turkeys or tagines, apple pie or tarte tatin, have a wonderful, belly-stretching holiday. And if, like me, you live in a part of the world that hasn’t woken up to the charms of giving thanks, rest assured that a little pistachio tart certainly can’t go amiss on any chilly Thursday in November.


Pistachio and Almond Tart with Orange and Cardamom

Source: adapted from Casa Moro, by Sam and Sam Clark
Note: Since shelling your own pistachios is a real pain (literally!), try to find them pre-shelled – Indian, Turkish, Persian and Middle Eastern shops (or shops that sell things imported from these countries) are good places to look. To blanch pistachios (and almonds, for that matter), drop them in boiling water for a couple of minutes, then drain. The skins should peel off easily. If they start to dry before you get through the batch, cover them with cold water until you finish the blanching. This does take quite a bit of time; you can use unblanched pistachios but the color will not be quite as vibrant.

for Crust:
225g flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
50g caster/superfine sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
250g butter
1 egg yolk

for Filling:
200g blanched almonds
300g shelled, blanched pistachios
250g caster/superfine sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
150ml orange juice
4 egg yolks
finely grated zest of one medium orange
pinch salt

for Glaze:
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons cream

for Topping (optional):
1 pint heavy cream, softly whipped
1 teaspoon rose water
1/4 teaspoon cardamom
mild honey, to tasteĀ 

For the crust, combine the dry ingredients in a food processor with the butter, and pulse until only small lumps of butter remain. Add the egg yolk and process for 20 seconds more, then turn out into a bowl and bring together by hand. Form the dough into a ball and refrigerate for at least half an hour. Roll out on a floured work surface to a large circle, and fit it into a 10 or 11-inch tart pan, trimming the top to an even height. Prick the crust well with a fork and place in the freezer.

Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Spread the blanched almonds and pistachios on a baking tray and bake for about 10 minutes, or until lightly colored. Set aside. Take the frozen crust out of the freezer and line with baking parchment or foil, line with beans or pie weights, and bake in the preheated oven for 20 minutes. Remove the beans and parchment, and continue to bake until the pastry is an even, light gold color, about 10 minutes more.

For the filling, process the nuts, sugar, and cardamom in a food processor until ground very fine. When ready, the nuts will have begun to release their oil and cake together. Slowly add the orange juice to make a very thick, smooth paste. Finally, add the egg yolks, orange zest and salt, and process until incorporated.

Spread the filling into the shell and smooth with a wet spatula. Bake for 10-15 minutes to dry the surface, then brush on the glaze (made by mixing the egg yolk and cream). Continue to bake for a further 10 minutes, or until golden.

Serve warm or at room temperature with a spoonful of the cream, into which you have stirred the rose water, cardamom and honey.


Turkish Delights

Muhammara (Red Pepper, Walnut and Pomegranate Dip)
and Tarator (Pine Nut and Garlic Dip) 

Last year in late spring, with the tiresome cold of a northern European winter having driven us to the point of madness, Manuel and I made an impulsive decision to spend a week in Turkey. It was really just luck that brought us to this destination, as we would have gone practically anywhere with sun and a place to lie supine beneath it, but a particularly good last minute deal to this country we had both been long eager to visit practically fell into our laps, and before we even had a chance to think twice, we had packed our bags and hopped on a plane.

Our itinerary took us to the southwest corner of Turkey – the area on a map where the coastline stops plunging south and takes a sharp left-turn to the east, an area stunningly beautiful but unsuitable for mass tourism because of its steep topography and lack of sandy beaches. We stayed in a small family-run hotel on a hill overlooking the town of Kalkan; below our balcony snaked small, serpentine streets leading down to the harbor, and beyond that – as if we were perched on the edge of the world – nothing but the crystalline waters of the Mediterranean stretching out to meet the horizon. The sun was shining, the locals friendly, the pace of life relaxed, the cold beers plentiful. There was something deeply, familiarly Mediterranean about the place – but at the same time it was tantalizingly foreign. This foreignness assumed many guises: the distant plaintive wail of the muezzin calling everyone to prayer at the break of dawn; the strange, incomprehensible writing on street signs; the markets, full of haggling and drama and unfamiliar products; the scent of tea and Nargile smoke wafting out from the interior of shops, and of course, in ways more spectacular than we could have dreamed, the food.

We both considered ourselves familiar with Turkish food from Germany, where Turkish take-out is as ubiquitous as McDonalds and only sometimes better tasting. In Turkey itself, the food was jaw-dropping. It exploded with freshness and the flavors of sun-ripened fruits, vegetables and herbs. We feasted on chicken stewed with cumin, pomegranate and orange; fish roasted with sumac; eggplant stuffed with spicy lamb and pine nuts; melting tomato salads doused with lemon and fresh dill. We ate rose-petal jam on thick, creamy yogurt for breakfast, candied pumpkin and spoonfuls of honey-soaked pistachios for dessert. We drank tart apple tea, salty yogurt aryan, and tiny glasses of syrupy coffee. And whenever everything looked so good that we simply couldn’t decide what to order, we ate mezze.

Dips, salads, vegetables, pastries and meat – mezze are the tapas of the Middle East, small plates that are meant as an appetite stimulant, an antidote to indecision, and an excuse to linger over your meal for hours. In Turkey and other countries of the Eastern Mediterranean they’re cheap, plentiful, and about as authentic as food gets; they’re also one of the easiest ways to recreate a Middle Eastern feast at home. A few fragrant salads, some marinated olives and peppers, some spicy lamb kofte, warm pita bread and these hauntingly delicious dips, and you have a meal fit for a sultan. Though it can’t replace the magic of actually being there again, at least for this there is no last-minute packing required. 

Note: both of the following can be used as dips for bread, as a sauce for vegetables or as an accompaniment to meat or fish. 

Muhammara (Red Pepper Dip with Walnuts and Pomegranate)

Source: adapted from Paula Wolfert’s The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean
Yield: 3 cups 

2 1/2 lbs. red bell peppers
1-2 small hot chilis, or 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1 1/2 cups walnuts
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses, or more to taste
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons olive oil 

For best results, make the recipe at least one day in advance.

Roast the bell peppers and the chili, if using, over hot coals, a gas burner, or under the broiler in the oven, turning frequently until blackened and blistered all over, about 12 minutes. Place in a covered bowl to steam for ten minutes, then rub off the skins. Slit open the peppers and remove the stems, membranes and seeds. Spread the peppers on paper towels and let drain for at least ten minutes.

In a food processor, grind the walnuts, lemon juice, pomegranate molasses, cumin, salt and sugar until smooth. Add the peppers; process until pureed and creamy. With the machine on, add the olive oil in a thin stream. If the paste is too thick, thin with a tablespoon or two of water. Taste and add more pomegranate molasses, salt or sugar to achieve a good balance between sour, sweet and salty. Refrigerate overnight in a covered continer to allow the flavors to blend. Serve at room temperature.

Tarator (Pine Nut and Garlic Dip)

Source: adapted from Paula Wolfert’s The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean
Yield: 1 3/4 cups 

1 cup pine nuts
2-3 fat cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup water
2 cups stale crustless bread, soaked in water and squeezed dry (to make about 1/2 cup packed)
3 tablespoons vinegar or lemon juice
salt to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons plain or Greek yogurt (optional) 

In a skillet or oven, heat the nuts until they just start to turn fragrant and golden, watching closely to make sure they don’t burn. Place them in a food processor with the garlic and 1/3 cup of the water; process until smooth. With the machine running, add the bread, vinegar, salt, and the oil; process until well blended. Add the remaining water to loosen the mixture. If a slightly creamier texture is desired, add a couple tablespoons of yogurt. Transfer to a bowl and let mellow for at least two hours before serving, or up to a day.