Thursday, December 16, 2010

Gluten Free Sesame and Anise Cookies

I love cookies. Which is funny for a girl who doesn't eat sugar. But I have to admit, there is just something fantastic about those chewy treats that fit so neatly in the palm of your hand. And yes, I am a chewy cookie girl, not a crunch-loving one. "What about cupcakes?", you ask. Nope, never been a fan. I'm not a cake fan either. Too light and airy. In fact, had my mother make giant chocolate and butterscotch chip ice cream balls for my 8th birthday as a protest against cake. (Disclaimer: This statement does not include cheesecake or flourless chocolate cakes.) And yet for all my cookie love, I didn't actually have a real chocolate chip cookie until I was a preteen. And let me tell you...when I finally bit into the rich, buttery goodness, noticed the sharp zing of sugar and coating of fat on my tongue, I immediately plopped it down on the table and thought,“What the heck is this and what have I been eating all these years!?!”

As with all things, it began with my mother. My mom loves to bake and couldn't wait to have a little girl with whom she could share her baking joy. She got the daughter she wanted but everything else was a no-go. I am not a baker, never have never will be, and though to this day I'm happy to talk her ear off in the kitchen, she knows not to ask me to measure or whisk. My mother's baking also comes with a single caveat: she’s a hippie baker. As a kid, butter substitutes, fructose and carob lined our pantry and glared at me from their “better-than-thou” perches. By everyday standards I don’t think I’m even allowed to call her baked round experiments "cookies", though they were certainly cookies to me and my siblings. Each baked treat harbored whole rolled oats and a good dose of the wheat germ that lived in the refrigerator side door. As I am now learning more about baked goods, I keep hearing this term “crumb”. Like “the cake had a nice light crumb” or “the scone with its richly textured crumb.” Yet, I know nothing about “crumbs” for the simple fact that my mother’s baking didn’t have any! God bless that sweet hippie baker, with her whole wheat dense-as-a-door edibles. Everything that came out of her kitchen weighed about 5 pounds, packed with walnuts, dried fruit and an extreme colon-cleansing amount of fiber. Her cookies were toughly-textured things that broke off in large chunks rather than crumbling under the pressure of one’s teeth. And I loved them. I still do actually. I have to admit that because of my earliest experiences with what I thought were "real" cookies, I’m still a major fan of the healthy hippie stuff and am repelled by sickeningly sweet cakes and muffins that leave your teeth aching and your mouth begging for a scrapper to remove the shellac of sugar and fat. And yes, my sugar queen sister thinks I'm annoying but my dentist loves me.

Sugar is such a popular topic, especially during the holidays. In fact, it is safe to say that almost every day in December a client asks for healthy dessert recipes. I've only posted a few which include my delicious chocolate truffles, brown rice crispy treats and date walnut tea biscuits. So here is a new cookie I just made for my friend's annual cookie party. It is gluten-free (a nice healthy buzz word) and is sweetened with real maple syrup. The great thing about bringing healthier desserts to a party is you can eat your own stuff without getting sucked into all the other junk. Here is a quick rundown on exactly what makes a dessert healthy. And no, it does not mean low fat. Healthy, in my book anyway, means high quality fat, unrefined sweeteners, and whole grain (or no grain) flours. Here is a list for you to use to make your holiday desserts a little more healthy.

Fats: Use organic butter or extra virgin coconut oil rather than refined vegetable oils

Sweeteners: Substitute honey, maple syrup, brown rice syrup or unrefined/unbleached cane sugar for white and brown sugar (Here is a handy conversion sheet)

Flours: Use whole wheat pastry flour or almond flour instead of enriched white flour

Be warned: These cookies are dangerously good. They are reminiscent of halvah, a rich Middle Eastern sesame confection that my father often brought home when he wanted to be bad. Yes, halvah and salami were his go-to treats and there was an ongoing debate as to which version, the traditional or the chocolate dipped halvah, was best. (I was a flip-flopper myself.) The star anise was a last minute addition and I think it gives a nice warming sensation to the cookies.

The sesame cookie dough has a similar texture to peanut butter cookie dough. Though it may seem dry, it is not. That is how it is supposed to be. I adapted this recipe from the blog Elana's Pantry, which is a great resource for gluten-free goodies.

Gluten Free Sesame and Anise Cookies

Makes 24 cookies

2 1/2 cup almond flour

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon ground star anise

1/2 cup maple syrup

2/3 cup roasted organic tahini (Sesame seed paste. I used Arrowhead Mills.)

1 tablespoon organic butter (You can also use coconut oil here to make the cookies vegan.)

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup toasted sesame seeds, in a small bowl

In a large mixing bowl combine the almond flour, sea salt, baking soda and star anise. In a smaller bowl mix together the maple syrup, tahini, butter, and vanilla extract. Mix the dry ingredients into the wet and combine thoroughly. Make 1 inch balls with the dough and roll each in the sesame seeds. Place on a parchment lined baking sheet and flatten a bit. Bake at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes, until the cookies are golden. Cool and enjoy!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Christmas Cheer

5th grade was my first year in private school and I was excited for the change and eager to see what this new school had to offer. Moving from a class of 35 to one of 12 was quite a change of pace but in the regular Jamie fashion, I soon got a handle on my new surroundings (i.e. first imperative school purchase: a sticker collection to trade with the other “cool” girls in my grade…all three of them). The curriculum was heavily focused on grammar (not that I’ve retained any of that knowledge) and the headmistresses, Mrs. Powell and Mrs. Plunkett, made sure every class took their monthly turn memorizing a poem to recite in front of the school and admiring parents at Friday assemblies. They were quite a pair, those two. Mrs. Powell’s overly-painted cheeks, forehead and nose made her already-angry face look like it might burst into flame, while Mrs. Plunkett, always dressed in an angelic combination of pastels, appeared on the brink of a face plant thanks to the girth of her over-sized ankles (or cankles, more aptly) bearing down on her oppressively small high heels. Roald Dahl himself couldn’t have done better when these two were matched.

Unlike the rest of the kids in my grade, who thought reciting poems was LAME, I was thrilled. Granted, the poems were a bit dry and none of us had any clue what they meant, but as a girl always down for a little time in the spotlight, I didn’t care. Just give me the words and show me the stage! Or concrete playground, as it were. Right before Christmas break we were given "Sea Fever" by John Masefield to study and recite. All I could make out was that this guy really liked sailing, which was enough for me. I was so excited to have a new performance in my repertoire that I asked if I could recite the poem for my relatives at Christmas dinner. All 40 of them! “During dessert would be best,” my aunt graciously said, though I should have sensed the eye roll. My sister and I were always asking to perform for our friends and family. Hey, she should I have been grateful I didn’t want to do our cheerleading routine again. “You're ugly, you're ugly, your mama says you're ugly!” Now that was a show stopper!

When my aunt brought out the large braising pots of sumptuous coq au vin and plates of buttery popovers, I barely looked up from my plate. In fact, I could barely take a bite of my food as I was entirely obsessed with rehearsing my lines over and over in my head. Finally it was time. I stood in front of my obviously-buzzed family members and began to speak. “I must go down to the seas again,” I bellowed in my biggest 10-year old voice. I looked over at my 15-year cousin Lorin to catch him smiling at me. “They love it!” I thought. I breezed through the first stanza and dove into the second with added gusto. As I neared the end I raised my voice louder for added effect. "And the flung spray and the blown spume!" I boomed. As the line came out of my mouth my cousin’s eyes widened and, as if to lead the charge, he burst out laughing. "What did she say?" my grandmother asked. "Blown spume! Jamie said blown spume!" my uncle cackled. Obviously not understanding the joke, I was mortified at the response. I promptly forgot the rest of the poem and ran “offstage” to the nearby bathroom. Granted I should have known my audience, as my family can make a sexual joke out of most anything. But I was in 5th grade, how was I supposed to know what "blown spume" might refer to? It took a good hour and 2 cups of my aunt’s homemade (and alcohol-laced) eggnog to coax me back to the party.

For years, my Uncle told and retold the story at every family gathering. "Remember when Jamie recited that poem about blown spume?” he’d say out of the side of his mischievous mouth. “Where did she get that poem? Just hilarious!!”

“Where did I get that poem?” I often wondered during these intense moments of humiliation. Mrs. Powell and Mrs. Plunkett, that’s where! How could they have done this to me? Were they not aware the havoc this poem might wreak on every child who chose to entertain their families during the holiday season? There were only two possibilities: 1) the hilarity of the line was wholly lost on them, which is entirely likely since neither had much of a sense of humor or 2) they completely understood the possible outcome and assigned the poem on purpose!

Over the last few years (yes, I am a slow forgiver) I’ve released most of my anger for Mrses Powell and Plunkett. They were a crazy, scary pair of headmistresses with a bizarre penchant for classical poetry but hey, it could have been worse. And now I prefer to think that yes, they certainly assigned “Sea Fever” as a twisted joke to be played on our 5th grade class; a grand trick passed down from headmistress to headmistress to ensure deep childhood scarring. It took me years (too many to admit actually) to understand why my family was laughing at me. I initially thought they had all gone insane. How could the combination of two bizarre words be enough to insight a laugh riot? Thankfully I can now laugh with them at the absurdity of it all and in particular at that little girl who at the top of her unknowing lungs screamed, “…blown spume!!” Looking back now, my only regret from that night has nothing to do with that ridiculous poem: I regret not eating my coq au vin. While everyone was in sheer food ecstasy, I was obsessing over my lines, trying to get them just right. Just perfect. My aunt is a brilliant cook and to have missed her coq au vin was a true travesty. And to make things worse, she hasn’t made it since that fateful Christmas dinner. I’m sure it’s too late to ask for it this year but I’m truly considering putting in a request for 2011. Though if I know her (and my uncle) at all, there might be a caveat. “Only if you recite the blown spume poem again,” I can hear her saying. Honestly, it might be worth it.

Home grown fingerling potatoes from my friend Eddie's garden. It definitely pays to have a friend with a green thumb. I've got to get more of those potatoes...and green thumb friends.

Beef Stew with Roasted Vegetables

The last few years my Aunt Sissy has thrown a soup party for Christmas. Granted the menu doesn't have the same panache as coq au vin, but sometimes a big warming bowl (OK, a few big bowls) of soup around the holiday table is all you really need. Last year I made my roasted kabocha squash and lentil soup, which was a big hit. This year I'm eager to debut my first ever beef stew; a recent recreation of my friend Jacqueline's peasant stew that she made for my birthday a few weeks ago. I've woken up with stew on the brain at least 3 times since having hers, it was that good! As with all things Jacqueline, when I asked her how she made it, she immediately dove into a 30 minute explanation of each nuanced technique she employed to get the deeply rich, unbelievably flavored beef stew. OK, I will admit right now that Jacqueline is a better cook than me. Fine, I've said it. But I will also say I just don't have the time and mental capacity to go the culinary distance that she does. I'm all about good, delicious food that I can hammer out in an hour. (Fine, sometimes two.)

So with all of that, here is my Jacqueline inspired beef stew. Though I did cut a few corners I kept two intact that I think give the dish that added, "Oh my frickin' God this is good," quality. First, roast the root vegetables. Roasting them brings out their innate sweetness which tames the beefiness. Second, use the anchovy! It does not impart a fishy flavor (promise!) but provides umami, the 5th savory flavor also found in bacon and Parmesan cheese, that adds the final touch to make this dish a real show stopper.

Serves 4

5 tablespoons olive oil, divided

2-3 cups fingerling potatoes, scrubbed and cubed

1 turnip, cubed

2 carrots, peeled and cubed

1 pound organic beef stew meat, cut into 1 inch cubes

1 onion, chopped

1/2 a fennel bulb, chopped

4 garlic cloves, minced

1 anchovy fillet

1/4 teaspoon cloves

1 teaspoon fresh thyme

1/2 cup red wine

1/2 cup crushed tomatoes

3 cups organic chicken stock

Sea salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Mix the chopped potatoes, turnip and carrots with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and bit of salt and place in a large roasting pan. Throw them into the oven for about 35 minutes, or until they are nicely golden. Once done, take the vegetables out of the oven, set aside and reduce the oven to 315 degrees.

While the vegetables are roasting, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy stock pot and add the beef. Sprinkle the meat with a bit of salt and pepper and cook until all sides are browned. Remove the meat from the pot and set aside. Drain the excess fat from the pot, place it back on the heat and add the remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Add the onion and fennel and saute until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, anchovy, cloves and thyme and cook for another few minutes until the anchovy fillet has dissolved. Add the wine to the pot, and bring to a boil, scraping the pot of any brown bits.

Add the crushed tomatoes, beef, roasted vegetables, and the chicken stock to the large pot and mix thoroughly. Cover and bake in the 315 degree oven for 2 hours, until the beef is tender. Remove from the oven, adjust the seasoning and serve with a crisp winter salad. Enjoy!