Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Pecan Puffs - Rich and Devastating Cookies

Rich and Devastating. That’s how the Joy of Cooking describes my favourite cookies - little icing sugar-covered gems. Don't confuse them with Mexican Wedding Cookies because they're WAY better than those.

My Mom has been making these cookies for as long as I can remember. Strangely, I associate them with Jewish holidays. I remember sneaking into the dining room and attempting to pinch a cookie from the serving plate. It wasn’t easy. In fact it was pretty much impossible. My Mom used the same platter to serve them on every time – a rectangular crystal plate. She would line the cookies up neatly in rows, and when the bottom layer was full she would add rows on top. The end result was a beautiful, icing sugar-covered pyramid of perfectly round, bite-sized, poof-in-your-mouth confections. I was sure she counted them as she laid them out, and she would surely know (or see the fingerprints in the icing sugar) if I tried to take one.

So I was forced to wait along with everyone else. Back in the day when Mom and Dad entertained it was go big or go home. That meant an appetizer (usually chopped liver or gefilte fish), soup (chicken soup with matzah balls), salad, main course (meat, knishes, vegetables, tsimmis, homemade braided Challah, etcetera). Guests would push their chairs back from the table and rub their bellies professing that they could not possibly eat one more bite. Yet when the desserts arrived, magically they had room for more.

My brother and I always had room for more. We, like most other children, always saved the uppermost corner of our stomachs for dessert. We convincingly traced the outline of the space on our bellies while describing our technique to the grownups. “It’s right here”, I remember saying, “...I left some space right here”. Most times there was a main dessert and then accompanying treats for little fingers. When pecan puffs were on the table I didn’t see a need for the main dessert.

Before we were excused from the table, my brother would get out of his chair and go stand next to our Dad and he’d begin telling jokes to his fans – knock knock jokes when he was very young, then Fonzie jokes, which always got a good laugh. Once the jokes were done and my brother and I had enjoyed our fill of After Eights, pecan puffs, and whatever else was lying around (Elite chocolate from Israel on Passover – fruit-filled, or Rosemarie with praline inside), we relocated to our parents’ room where we were allowed to watch some TV before bed. We usually didn’t watch TV and instead hovered at the top of the stairs where you could still hear the conversation at the dining room table. The jokes got a little raunchier, the conversation at times more interesting because we were hearing things we shouldn’t be hearing, but more boring as well when they got started on politics.

The next morning, we’d always check to see which treats were left over. We considered ourselves lucky if we were able to find any pecan puffs. Without further delay, here is the recipe (from The Joy of Cooking, by Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker). I have made absolutely NO adjustments. This recipe is perfect. One comment I would make is don’t buy your pecans already ground – you will get a much dryer cookie if you do this. Grinding your own nuts also leaves some pieces larger than others, so you’ll get a nice crumbly, melt-in-your-mouth cookie.

About forty 1 1/2 - inch balls (I never get 40, more like 30)

Preheat the oven to 300°F. Beat until soft:
 ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter


Add and blend until creamy:
2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

Measure, then grind in a nut grinder:
1 cup pecan meats

Sift before measuring:
1 cup cake flour

Stir the pecans and the flour into the butter mixture. 

Roll the dough into small balls. Place balls on a greased cookie sheet (I use a Silpat) and bake about 30 minutes. Note: the photo on the left is from a batch I made with pre-grinded nuts. The photo on the right is from the batch I made by grinding my own nuts. The pre-grinded nuts cookies were very dry. The others were much better and the dough was easier to work with.

Roll while hot in:
Confectioners’ sugar

To glaze, put the sheet back into the oven for a minute. (I have never done the glazing step). Cool and serve.  

To achieve the awesome wreath-like look of the presentation in the very first photo above, use bay leaves and fresh cranberries. For the bay leaves, if they are very dry you can soak them in water for 10 minutes or so to make them more pliable before you arrange them beneath and within the cookies. For the cranberries, coat them in egg whites, then dust them with granulated sugar and toss them in the freezer for about 30 minutes to an hour. Voila!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Crispy Crumbled Bacon Fish Cakes

Some time in December I awoke with a craving for fish chowder. This happens quite a bit since I moved back to St. John's, partly because I worked in the kitchen at Get Stuffed for about half a year, and I suppose the other part is all about location. When I'm in Montreal, I seek out a poutine, etc.

At Get Stuffed there are no half measures when it comes to flavour, and some days it seemed that the two primary ingredients for most dishes were butter and bacon, and therefore the dishes draw a regular, satisfied crowd. At the time I was not eating pork, which left me quite wistful at key moments when I wanted to try their Tomato Gin soup or the meatloaf BLT sandwiches. This dietary restriction has since changed and is no doubt a result of giving in to regular, wonderful, temptations. No regrets.

I made quite a lot of fish cakes there for the lunch crowd, and missed the start-to-finish process when I left. It is therefore a pleasure to whip up a batch in my own space, and occasionally stray from the traditional recipe by injecting a little personal flavour favourites.

Back to the craving; the smoky flavour base that bacon provides to a creamy white fish-based bowl of chowder, particularly in the winter months, is irreplaceable. I couldn't be arsed at 9 AM on a Saturday to shop for ingredients and then begin a fish stock for a chowder, however it's no trouble to make a great fish cake in 60 minutes, either traditional or with a deeper heat .

Why not experiment and put the smoky aspect of the bowl into a fish disk? While I do love a thick fish cake that is crispy on the exterior yet soft and flaky within, I decided to throw in some crunch amongst the mixture of mashed potato and cod. Only one food can facilitate: crispy bacon.

435 g salt fish
900 g boiling potatoes
3 tbsp butter
200 ml whole milk
400 g bacon
3 medium onions
1 tbsp cumin
1 tbsp hot chilli powder (I got mine in Little India on Gerrard Street, Toronto)
1 tbsp turmeric
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp za'atar
1 tsp smoked salt
1 tsp pepper

Salt cod is a better idea for fish cakes as opposed to regular fillets as it adds both more flavour and chewiness to the final result (thanks, Karla). You can procure this at any market in my city, but you'll have to look around in cities such as Toronto or Montreal. Locate a Portuguese or Italian neighbourhood, or just find a Newfoundland shop. You'll need to soak the fish in cold water for 24 hours, changing the water at least four times. This extracts the majority of the salt yet retains the sailor-flavour. Put it in a colander and drain it for about 5 minutes before you place it in the oven.

Preheat your oven to 325 F for the fish. Peel your potatoes and make 3 cm cubes, tossing them into a bowl of water as you go. Once they are prepped, toss them into a dutch oven filled with cold water and bring to a boil. Reduce to medium and let it go for approximately 20 minutes, until a fork can spear them effortlessly. 

While your water is boiling, drain your fish for 5 minutes and then place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Sprinkle with pepper and bake them for 10 to 12 minutes. When they are ready, pour off the water into a large stainless steel bowl. 

Heat up a cast iron pan to about medium, and begin frying up the bacon. As it gets crispy, slide them over to one side of the pan and add the onions; this way they benefit from the bacon fat. Remove the bacon as it gets cripsy, and don't leave the onions for more than 10 minutes. Place the onions in the same bowl containing the cooked-fish broth.

While you are waiting, peel your garlic and proceed to either dice or run through the food processor. If you are making a few recipes throughout the day, grab two cloves of garlic and process them at the same time; place them into a small container and drizzle with vegetable oil to keep them moist. This garlic is semi-cured and is brought to you by Mount Scio Farms' Jeremy Carter, available during the summer and fall in St. John's:

Drain the spuds and put back into the dutch oven and throw in the butter, cut into cubes. Add your spices and cover the pot and wait about 3 minutes. Open it up and begin gently mashing for about 20 seconds.

Put that aside and cut up the fish into tiny pieces. Here's a lovely shot of my two favourite weekend ingredients:

Combine all ingredients into the bowl, and either lightly mash or mix it with your hands. It's more of a challenge to form the cakes when warm, so I generally place the bowl into the freezer for about ten minutes. On Sunday, once refrigerated for a day, the cakes will form much easier. Ideal size for the cakes are 8cm diameter and 3 cm thick.

Get your cast iron pan on medium-high; throw some flour on a cutting board and lightly cover the cakes. If you have any bacon fat remaining, use that to cook the cakes. Otherwise grab some vegetable oil or pork scrunchions and use that.

Cook 3 minutes on one side, then flip the discs and let 'em sizzle for 5. Finish them off in the oven on broil for another 3. 

Plate those babies on a big plate next to the...

I like the contrast of a rich, pulpy Turkish olive as well as the traditional mustard pickles. If you want to enhance the heat of the cooked-in chilli powder, try a garlic - Siracha mayonnaise instead. If you were me, you'd enjoy this with a cold beer...as long as it's after 11 AM.