28 April 2009

The Sweeter Side of Germans

German chocolate cake is delicious. It's the food that got me to realize that coconut and pecans were not my enemies.

It makes sense, then, that German chocolate cookies would be just as revolutionary. And even easier to eat.

The origin of this iconic pairing isn't as obvious as it seems: Ask a real German, and you'll be met with cries of "Was ist das?" (believe me, it happened yesterday when I was hanging out with a few). German chocolate is actually the creation of the U.S.-based Samuel German, who produced a baking chocolate sweeter than semisweet in 1852- forseeing the hunger of legions of prediabetic Americans, no doubt.

I'm never one to turn my nose up at sugar, but I do like my chocolate on the dark side. So, inspired by this recipe from Taste and Tell, I used a bittersweet type (71% cocoa) for my cookies. I wouldn't dream of telling an American what to do, however, so feel free to replace it with an equal amount of German or semisweet chocolate.

An accompanying glass of iced mint tea is the only real requirement.

German Chocolate Cookies
Makes: 2 1/2 dozen.

6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 large eggs
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon firmly packed brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1/3 cup shredded coconut (unsweetened)
1/3 cup finely chopped pecans

1. In small bowl, sift together flour, baking powder and salt. In small pot, over very low heat, melt chocolate and butter until smooth, stirring constantly. Set aside to cool.

2. With electric mixer, beat eggs and brown sugar on high speed until mixture is pale and thick, about 5 minutes. Add cooled chocolate mixture and vanilla and beat until just combined. Scrape down the bowl and beat again for 10 seconds. Add flour mixture and mix on low until just combined. Do not overmix. Fold in chocolate chips. (Dough will look very liquid, but it will harden in the refrigerator.) Chill at least 6 hours or overnight.

3. Heat oven to 375°. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. In small bowl, stir together coconut and pecans. Quickly roll tablespoons of dough into a ball, then coat with coconut-pecan mixture. Place about 1 inch apart on baking sheets, flattening balls slightly. Bake for 11 to 13 minutes, rotating pans halfway through, until tops of cookies are set and begin to show a few cracks. Let cool 3 minutes on sheets before removing to racks to cool completely.

I don't think I can convey how difficult it was to not inhale these while I was taking pictures. The toasty, full flavors of shredded coconut and chopped pecans are like edible precious jewels adorning the soft, rich chocolate inside. Overall, these cookies are less sweet- due to the higher cocoa percentage and unsweetened coconut- than a traditional German chocolate cake, but I'd argue that they're even better. In cookies, like women, sometimes it's best to trade sweetness for a little depth.

24 April 2009

The State of Tea

A wild Camellia sinensis leaf falls off a tree 5,000 years ago, and drifts into a cup of hot water next to the Chinese emperor Shen Nung. The fragrant liquor that wafts to his nose invites a sip, and the worldwide dominion of tea is born.

Regardless of whether you believe the legend, it's hard to dispute tea's permanence- even in the face of the lackluster Coffee and Tea Festival, which I walked through on Sunday. It may have been just end-of-show fatigue, but the event seemed emptier, the exhibitors quieter, than in previous years. It was depressing to think that the current economic climate- which, while dire, is not all that significant from a thousands-year perspective- is to blame. Tea has lasted through upheavals of empires, world wars, and nearly every major human milestone. How could it possibly fade into obscurity now?

Of course, I am as prone as a heroine in a Thomas Hardy novel to fits of melodrama, and it seemed a bit premature to draft a tea obituary. So I decided to stick around for a seminar on the green teas of China, Korea and Japan by Yoon Hee Kim, president of TeaClassic. I figured that drinking those in particular always elevates my mood, so learning more about them could be as effective.

It started out a bit basic for a green-tea junkie, but Kim was a captivating speaker, not so much for the planned presentation but for her entertaining anecdotes and descriptive side tracks. Her passion for tea truly revealed itself at those moments, and I was moved (and annoying enough) to wrangle an invitation to come back to the TeaClassic booth and taste some mao feng, a Chinese green she had spoken lovingly of.

The tea was everything she promised: round, smooth and clean. It was an honor to share a pot with such a tea master, and made sweeter by her generosity. I'm so often drawn to the solo, quiet contemplation that a cup of tea brings, I sometimes forget how equally ideal it is for a more magnanimous serving to others.

Buoyed by my unexpected gift, I headed to Amai tea house (a festival participant a few years back), which was closing that day, to get a first and last taste. The dragonwell was lovely and the mini yuzu cupcake a tender, citrusy delight, even if the towering buttercream had a tendency to find a way up my nose with each bite. (I don't like it when frosting gets overly architectural, but I was still bereft when the final dollop of it ended up on the counter instead of the cake.)

It was a bittersweet snack. Why did it have to be so good if I could never taste it again?

When I got home, I read that Tafu, too, was closing the following day. Why, tea god, why? That was one of the only places in Manhattan to get a bowl of matcha that was practically a religious experience. The green-tea lattes were better than crack (and almost as expensive).

I need to get through this. And during the week, I've thought about how the recession can take many, many things away. But I like to think that even if we all end up sitting under a tree, just waiting for that leaf to fall in our cups, tea will be there.

20 April 2009

Cocoa Nuts

Why is it so funny when people get mad?

Everyone except me, I mean.

I know laughing isn't always the best option in a tense situation, but it's my default one. Because ultimately, what really requires an explosive reaction? I can think of many good circumstances that do, but far less bad ones (your pet-sitter misplacing your cat, someone accidentally burning your house down, anyone wearing Birkenstocks).

If that ratio is askew in your life, then just make this hot chocolate, and take a sip. It's scientifically impossible to be in a bad mood when you meet such a luscious, soothing drink. The coconut milk base was inspired by a NY Times recipe back in February, and the unexpected addition of Earl Grey from Tea Spot's live tea-hot chocolate tasting at City Bakery right around the same time. Truly comedic anger- which this city endlessly provides- was the catalyst.

Coconut-Earl Grey Hot Chocolate

In glass measuring cup, mix 1/2 cup boiling water and 2 tablespoons cocoa powder until dissolved. In medium saucepan, over medium heat, combine
1 1/4 cups coconut milk, 1/4 cup brown sugar, 2 teaspoons Earl Grey tea and a pinch of salt; bring to a boil and simmer 2 minutes, until sugar is dissolved. Stir in cocoa mixture and 1 ounce bittersweet chocolate, chopped, until smooth. Serve immediately or chill several hours.

The fact that it's nearly May yet still cold and gray enough to demand hot milk doesn't hurt, either. (Although extensive experiments indicate it's just as fragrant and delicious served chilled.)

Whatever your motivation, the citrusy bergamot of the tea and rich, sweet coconut milk whisper of warmth and calm as the chocolate slides over your tongue like a silk-lined mink coat. Realizing that you're consuming two stellar foods- tea and hot cocoa- simultaneously only adds to the sense of perfect balance.

And if a cupful of this doesn't provide five minutes of relaxation, you may be beyond help.

18 April 2009

Hear Tea, Hear Tea

Attention all tea lovers: it's time for the fourth annual Coffee and Tea Festival.

So put down your cups and head to the event, going on today and tomorrow at the Metropolitan Pavilion (125 W 18th St.). This one will be my third, and I'm looking forward to the unusual teas and treats from new vendors, along with a healthy dose of seminars. It's where I first tasted an Indian green tea (who knew?), learned how to prepare matcha correctly (thanks to the founder of Matcha Source), and listened to the history of the traditional Korean tea ceremony.

There's going to be a presentation on green teas, including those from Korea, which I'm really looking forward to.

To get in the mood and keep my palate clear, this morning I made a pot of this bracing Korean-inspired herbal infusion, from the March 2009 Gourmet. Even though the tea takes an hour to brew, it requires minimal effort and perfumes the whole house as it's steeping.

Korean Ginger Tea
Makes: 8 cups.

In a large saucepan, mix together 8 cups water, 1/2 cup peeled, chopped ginger and 2 cinnamon sticks. Simmer, covered, 1 hour. Strain into teapot or pitcher, and top each serving with pine nuts and honey to taste.

Chill any leftovers- the combination of fresh ginger and cinnamon is just as refreshing ice-cold. (I've been up for a long, long time already today.)

12 April 2009

Short and Sweet

Halloween may reign as the king of candy holidays, but Easter isn't far behind. While I'll never tire of jamming as many Reese's peanut butter eggs as possible into my mouth, it's nice to have something a little lighter for post-brunch teatime. And what better than shortbread?

Ginger Amaranth Shortbread
Makes: 2 dozen cookies.

1 1/2 cups white whole-wheat flour
1/2 cup amaranth flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 cup butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup natural cane sugar
1/3 cup minced crystallized ginger

1. In small bowl, whisk flours, salt and ginger together. In large bowl, with electric mixer, cream butter until light and fluffy, about 1 minute. Add sugar and beat until mixed, then add dry ingredients and beat until just blended. Stir in crystallized ginger.

2. Gather dough into a ball, then flatten into a disk. Wrap tightly and refrigerate for 1 hour, or overnight.

3. Heat oven to 350° and line baking sheets with parchment paper. On lightly floured surface, roll dough out to 1/4-inch thickness. Cut into desired shapes and transfer to baking sheets. Freeze for 10 minutes, then bake cookies for 10 minutes or until edges begin to brown. Let cool on sheets; store any leftover cookies tightly wrapped at room temperature.

These tender, spicy cookies are from Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Cooking, which makes a very convincing case for whole grains in baking- something I've turned my white-flour nose up at for years.

I was missing out, because the unusual flours in this recipe turn out nuanced flavors- from toasty to nutty- that beautifully set off the double-ginger kick.

And how could I pass up a chance to bust out the bunny and flower cookie cutters?

This shortbread is delightful with a strong tea, such as English breakfast or a sencha. That way, you can quiet any misgivings about consuming more sweets with how healthy a treat this is.

And get right back to appreciating spring.

09 April 2009

The Biggest Little Lavender Chocolate-Chip Cookie

I do lots of things fast- eating (and digesting, believe me), reading, forming indelible opinions, getting deeper into debt.

But there's plenty I do slowly, like addition (or anything involving numbers, actually), getting dressed, and yes, cooking. It's my dirty little secret, but turning out a homemade dish or two often translates into three hours in the kitchen.

It's OK, though, because it's that much easier to pound tea when I'm just a step away from the stove.

But this dessert is really, really fast, even for a kitchen sloth like me. There's no individual servings to be shaped, barely five minutes of mixing, and only a skillet to rinse out at the very end.

Oh, and it makes the entire room smell like springtime and chocolate.

The original recipe was from an ancient Martha Stewart Living (circa 2002), and I've made it for countless occasions because it's so simple, delicious and versatile- it pairs beautifully with any type of tea. Somehow, the novelty factor of baking one gigantic cookie in a cast-iron skillet still hasn't worn off.

Lavender Chocolate-Chip Cookie
Makes: 8 servings.

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 cup packed light-brown sugar
2 teaspoons dried lavender, lightly crushed
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups (about 6 ounces) semisweet and/or dark chocolate chunks

1. Heat oven to 325°. In medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda and salt. In large bowl, with electric mixer, beat butter, both sugars and lavender until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add egg and vanilla; mix until fully incorporated. Add flour mixture and beat until just combined. Stir in chocolate chunks.

2. Transfer dough to a 10-inch iron skillet and press to flatten, covering bottom of pan. Bake until edges are brown and top is golden, 40 to 45 minutes. Don't overbake; cookie will continue to cook several minutes out of the oven.

3. Transfer to a wire rack to cool, 15 to 20 minutes. Cut into wedges and serve warm, if desired.

This was the first time I added lavender to the mix, and the combination of it with the dark chocolate was even better than I'd imagined: every softly chewy bite revealed a layered and fragrant brown-sugary richness. And if you have a piece with a cup of jasmine pearls, a Chinese green tea, the delicate floral notes of each really bloom.

Even if you're a chocolate chip cookie purist, try this version just once. And if you've never ventured beyond Chips Ahoy (I judge and pity you), you too can make this.

07 April 2009

Sencha Showdown

As I've mentioned over and over, Japanese greens are my favorite teas. But it never hurts to get a refresher (although that didn't seem to produce a pony on my birthday, and I must have reminded my parents that's what I wanted every single day for a decade). While gyokuros are forever at the top of my list, senchas do wind their way into many of my mornings.

Sencha is Japan's everyday tea as well as the country's most popular, commanding 80% of its tea production. Even beyond sencha, though, all Japanese teas are remarkably uniform- compared to Chinese or Indian, for instance- because the sole processing method on the leaves is steaming via hot water (as opposed to other techniques like pan or wood firing, or hot air).

You'd expect such monoteaism to lead to boring, indistinct cups, but that's really not the case. It just means that to fully appreciate the differences between senchas, you need to slow down and concentrate on subtleties- incidentally, a behavior that summons calm and relaxation. And unless you're a Buddhist monk, you probably could use some of that.

So I set up a tasting this morning of two senchas new to me, both from Ito En and just a few weeks old: hoshino hatsutsumi (above photo, right), and organic kagoshima (left). As the picture shows, the two brewed up the same light, yellowy green hue.

I did note a subtle difference in the leaves- while both have that rich pine-green color, the kagoshima (left) is flatter, the hoshino hatsutsumi (right) finer and more needlelike.

And the difference in taste, once I closed my eyes and focused just on what my mouth and nose were telling me, was remarkable. Where the hoshino was bright, lightly grassy and touched with astrigency, the kagoshima was incredibly smooth and round, with a velvety texture and even, pervasive sweetness.

What was most surprising was how much I loved the kagoshima. I did have a cup a few days ago and found it a pleasant tea, although not very striking. But I was tasting it in the middle of doing a thousand other things (and not even sitting down), so I missed that delicate, balanced flavor.

So this reminder is as much for me: pay attention to your next cup of tea. It won't take more than five minutes, but it will have a lasting effect on the rest of your day.