Cookies and Chocolate Mousse

Correction, make that vanilla bean sugar cookies and dark chocolate mousse. Don’t you just love how good those sound together? Well, they were good together, and I have Thomas Keller (of Bouchon and The French Laundry fame) and his recipes to thank for it. Actually, I have my friends, Shelley and Brett, to thank because they suggested we focus solely on the recipes of Thomas Keller for dinner club this month.

Great idea! Except if you know anything about the venerable Mr. Keller, you know that his recipes can veer toward the detailed, and sometimes, complicated end of the cooking spectrum. But, I had neither the time nor inclination for detailed or complicated as I set about deciding on the dessert I would bring. I wanted simple and easy. I mean, really, isn’t that what we all want from life? It’s already busy and involved. I don’t see any reason to make it more so. Not to mention, I have yet to find that there is an undisputable correlation between complication and time consumption and a superior result. The greatest joys in life are often the ones that come about in the most carefree and unexpected ways.

I don’t own any of Mr. Keller’s esteemed cookbooks, so I harnessed the power of the internet to find some of his dessert recipes that wouldn’t require a lot of time, far in advance or last minute preparation, or a laundry list of ingredients. Enter dark chocolate mousse and vanilla bean sugar cookies from his book, Bouchon. If my dinner club friends read the recipes, I think I’m going to lose a lot of street cred when they realize just how easy it was to make these sweets.

The beauty of both recipes is they can be made the night before. (No one has to know this, though.) In fact, the mousse needs to refrigerate for at least eight hours and the sugar cookie dough needs to be refrigerated for a few hours until it is firm enough to slice. So, since you really do need to make them somewhat in advance, why not make them the night before and spend the day of the party focusing instead on your outfit?

If you’re worried that people will think you just threw something together last minute or didn’t try too hard, do what I did and up the presentation factor. Remember, packaging sells the product. I bought cute little four ounce Bell glass jars and put the mousse in the jars for individual servings. I then plated the jars on antique plates from my grandmother and placed a couple of the sugar cookies alongside. It brought out the rustic, yet sophisticated, theme that is present in much of Keller’s cooking and at his restaurants and bakeries.

All in all, the two together made for the perfect dessert for the perfect ending to a fabulous meal with great friends. Because life shouldn’t be complicated.

When Life Gives You a Hurricane

Make cookies, I say! Yes, of course, first make all the necessary arrangements, take all the necessary precautions, heed the advice of public safety officials. But after that, while you’re sitting around, tapping your fingers, waiting for Mother Nature to descend, get out your cookie ingredients, people. That’s what I did anyway.

I find that there’s something comforting about having a warm oven, a little jazz music playing and getting my fingers all doughy and sticky and flour-y when inclement weather is imminent. Mother Nature is saying, “slow down, do something soul satisfying.” At least that’s what I heard.

Looking for inspiration, I turned to smitten kitchen, which was a brilliant idea, really, as this site has loads of interesting and unique cookie recipes. I was looking for three or four recipes because I was in a baking mood, but I also wanted to make enough cookies to give to neighbors to munch on while they weather the storm. About 6 hours, 13 and 1/2 dozen (164, to be exact) cookies and five deliveries later, mission accomplished. Oh, I think the plumber who came by this morning to fix the sump pump was happy, too, when I handed him a baggie full of about a dozen as he was leaving.

My favorite of the four I made is this peanut butter cookie. The recipe calls for chocolate chips and peanut butter chips. However, peanut butter chips have always worried me a bit. I’m not sure what they are, really. Really, what are they? But, I adore the combination of peanut butter with milk chocolate, and I happened to have a Trader Joe’s Pound Plus Milk Chocolate bar hanging around, so, instead, I chunked up some of that into the mix. Think Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup in a cookie. If only we could still hand out homemade baked goods at Halloween.

Second place ended in a tie between the oatmeal, dark chocolate chunk and pecan cookies (the dark chocolate chunk was my variation. Again TJ’s Pound Plus bar – keep those on hand, my friend) and the toasted coconut shortbread cookies. Very different, yet very delicious. I’ll be honest. I was a bit dubious about the addition of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves in a chocolate chip cookie recipe, but somehow the spices all combined delightfully with the dark chocolate, oatmeal and pecans. The spices actually had the effect of giving the dark chocolate a Mexican chocolate-like taste and, of course, those spices always go well with oatmeal and pecans. So, why was I was so skeptical? Maybe I was having some pre-hurricane jitters.

I find that coconut is one of those things about which people feel passionately – they either love it or hate it. I’m suspect, though, of anyone who dislikes coconut. If the person has an allergy, fine. Otherwise, that person is not to be trusted. So, when I came across this recipe, there was no question I would be making it. How often do you see coconut and shortbread together? Never, that’s how often. I rushed the chilling process a bit (put it in the freezer instead of the refrigerator) because I was in a hurry to make my deliveries before the rain started. Trying to speed up the chilling process violates Rule Number One in Shortbread 101. I managed to get the dough rolled out, though. After resting for a day in an air tight container, these cookies were a contender.

Last, but not least, I went a bit wild and crazy with the traditional chocolate chip cookie. Ready for this? Milk chocolate chunk and dark chocolate chunk! Oh yea, I’m kooky. Hey, life’s short. If you like chocolate, this is the cookie for you, my friend.

Truth be told, an epic weather event unlike anything seen in ten years shouldn’t be the reason to slow down and make a few batches of cookies. Life is short, and cookies rock, that’s reason enough.

In Season: Apples

Sometimes in life it’s better to be uninformed. The lack of knowledge allows us the freedom to make decisions differently than we might make otherwise. Sometimes these decisions have disastrous results, sometimes they have serendipitous results. Such was the case when I decided to make this recipe for apple pie bars. I only glanced at the recipe as I was wooed by the title and the picture, but I assumed it would be a simpler version of apple pie…in a bar form. Generally, bar recipes are easier and less time consuming (think brownies and blondies). I was also drawn to this recipe because bars are portable and bite-sized. I could have apple pie without the fuss and this sounded like the perfect recipe for that, I thought. Well, not so fast, sister.

The bad news. My biggest gripe about the recipe is that the alleged preparation time is one hour. Unless you are an octopus or have a flying monkey for an assistant, I have no idea how you can prepare the recipe in one hour. In fact, as the clock was ticking by, I became rattled and turned into a crazy person. I was racing around my kitchen, trying to beat the clock, just so I could reassure myself that I do know what I’m doing in the kitchen. It looked like a baking crime scene when it was all said and done. I would say allow a good hour and a half or more to get the recipe together.

Now, the good news. If you are looking for a different take on apple pie and you have the time, inclination and low enough cholesterol level, and decide to make these apple pie bars, you will be rewarded. Imagine your house smelling like heaven. Because, as you know, if there is a heaven, it smells like still warm, baked apple pie.

But that’s not all. Despite the fact that there are close to seven sticks of butter in the recipe (but just don’t think about that, okay?), the apple pie bars aren’t particularly rich or heavy, yet a little goes a long way. The serving size is two-inch squares, which is the perfect size for a snack or dessert, especially with a tiny scoop of, say, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams salty caramel flavor. I used a pan smaller than the one called for in the recipe, but I still got 40 bars from the pan. From that I gave nice little gifts to three neighbors, two small gifts to friends and Todd and I enjoyed them for dessert on two separate nights (and one of those nights we had a guest over to have dinner). Pretty good haul if you think about it. I think the bars are also a genius idea for a get together. I like the fact, too, that they will last for four days at room temperature in an air tight container or they can be frozen for up to a month. Give some away, enjoy some for a few days and save some to munch on over the month. A win-win situation, really.

The recipe calls for using boring Granny Smith apples. I used a mix of four varieties: Eastern, Gala, Granny Smith and Stayman. The three varieties other than the Granny Smith are fairly sweet. I think using all Granny Smith apples would have made the apple mixture lean toward the tart side, especially since the recipe does not include much sugar to sweeten the apples.

By the way, do you know how many varieties of apples there are in the United States or the world? Me either, until now. According to my always-accurate Google research, there are approximately 2,500 varieties grown in the U.S. and approximately 7,500 varieties of apples grown world-wide. 2,500 and 7,500, respectively, people. That is a lot of damn apple varieties. However, sadly, only 100 varieties are grown commercially and one of the “best” that is grown is Granny Smiths? What the heck? If, purportedly, 100 varieties are grown commercially, why, then, do we rarely ever see more than about five or so varieties at the grocery store and maybe only 10-15 at the orchards? Where are all of these apples? Seriously, where are they? I want to know. I’m talking to you, Mr. Commercial Apple Grower.

Sorry about that. Back to cooking notes. The shortbread dough for the crust was stickier than other shortbread doughs I’ve made, so I put it in the refrigerator for about fifteen minutes prior to baking. I baked the crust in a 375 degree convection oven. Oops. Evidently the crazy person who happened to look like me and who was doing the baking forgot that when using convection the temperature should be adjusted down, usually about 25 degrees. Thankfully, sanity returned and I cooked the crust for only 17 minutes, instead of the full 20 minutes. Everything was alright, although maybe slightly overbaked. The fact that the dough was a bit thicker due to the smaller pan size probably worked in my favor here, too. For the topping, I substituted pecans for the walnuts. There was about a cup or so of leftover topping, which was due in part to the smaller pan size, but other reviewers commented on having leftover topping as well. I’m figuring out a use for it, though, don’t you worry. I’m not letting butter, oats, brown sugar, cinnamon and nuts go to waste. No way.

So, despite my whining about the time investment, and my momentary lapse in sanity at times while making these, I think the recipe is worth the effort. Of course, now you’re fully informed, so who knows what might happen when you make them. Let me know…and let me know if you know where all those apples are.