Friday, December 10, 2010

ingredient: VANILLA (part 1)

Some things don’t go as planned. It happens when baking, and it happens to all of us. And so that one day you will feel better about your own mishaps, so that I can save you some tears, I’m going to tell you about my own vanilla scented disaster. Consider this your gift. Merry Christmas.

It started yesterday afternoon when, while Christmas shopping for others, I clearly went ahead and bought some fancy, expensive, gourmet Madagascar bourbon vanilla extract for myself. I was totally thrilled because I’ve been wanting to bake with real, pure vanilla extract for the longest time. In fact I had just drooled over a vanilla extract sampler from the King Arthur’s Flour catalog. (I don’t know what Mexican vanilla is, or how it’s different from Tahitian vanilla, but I want it.) So while holding my free Nespresso machine sample in the aisles of Sur La Table, I decided to buy the extract, write my next post on vanilla, and write off the bill as a work expense.

My first hurtle came as I trolled through my not-insubstantial cookbook collection and then moved to browsing the internet. I noticed that almost all the recipes that were listed under the keyword “vanilla” had vanilla beans as the star ingredient. I didn’t just drop twenty bucks on vanilla beans. I was going to use my extract, damn it. So I kept searching. But it was one of those times when somehow none of any hundred of recipes were interesting to me. I considered and rejected vanilla pudding with fig compote (did I really want to have to eat a tub of pudding just to write about vanilla?) and Ricotta and Vanilla Ravioli with Orange Mint Dipping Sauce (um, Giada, I love you but this may have been going too far), and crème brulee (because I don’t have a mini blow torch, which might be the only stupid kitchen tool I don’t have. An ebelskiver pan? Yes. A combination avocado pitter/peeler that doesn’t work? Of course. A cookie cutter in the shape of one of those stupid foam fingers you buy at sporting events? Who doesn’t!)

Throughout the search I was obstinately resisting cookies.

Until finally I gave in and relented that there was nothing to make but cookies. Even though I am about to attend not one but two cookie decorating parties; even though we just had to throw out some delicious and absolutely adorable gingerbread turkeys because we just couldn’t get through them; even though there’s no time to eat cookies because I’m too busy eating loaves and loaves of panettone before they disappear with the new year. And even though I’m always trying to come up with something new and exciting for you, dear reader, and I was afraid that you don’t share my same love/obsession with cookies and you’d think that by resorting to cookies I was being, well, vanilla.

Things didn’t even get easier when I succumbed to a very lovely looking recipe for Viennese Vanilla Crescents. This recipe won me over because when I hear the word “Viennese” during wintertime I picture houses which look like they’re made of gingerbread with lattice windows dusted in snow, and filled with people eating linzer tarts and drinking mulled wine. Also these cookies resemble Greek walnut crescents, which I love. And someone once told me that crescent cookies got their shape in 1683 when bakers in Vienna made pastries to celebrate the end of the Turkish siege. (Good thing the siege wasn't laid by the Falkland Islands. Though I do have a cookie cutter in the shape of a sheep if push comes to shove.)

So after I had let out a sigh of relief at finally settling on a recipe, I actually read the damn thing. It had the mark of death. You see, I just won’t make a recipe that says, “start the day before.” I will work for 12 hours straight on feast, I will work without stop for four hours or more for the perfect lasagna, but something about having to start a recipe the day before I want to eat it really puts me off. When I decide I want to make a recipe it’s because I’ve decided I want to eat that recipe. Wait 24 hours? Not going to happen.

The other roadblock to making the only recipe in the entire world that I felt like making to showcase vanilla was that it called for that thing I didn’t think I had; a vanilla bean. But then it turned out that I actually did have a vanilla bean, and it was even pretty fresh. I reconsidered. It was already eight p.m. and I had already had dessert (panettone) so I supposed that just this once I could wait overnight to have the cookies. On top of that, the recipe was appealing because you make the dough in the food processor. I love things you can make in the food processor.

But then the three and a half cups of flour and three sticks of butter and confectioner’s sugar and salt and hazelnuts didn’t fit in my standard size food processor. I smushed it down. I pulsed and smushed. I pulsed and stirred and smushed. No. Freaking. Dice.

After a short ride on the panic-anger-despair roller coaster, I went to the internet. The recipe came from the Gourmet Cookbook, so I figured that someone must have reviewed it and could reassure me that it was the cookbook’s fault and not my own. I found the blog of a woman named Melissa who is cooking every single one of the 1,300 recipes in that behemoth book. While I’m afraid Melissa might be a little misled if she thinks Hollywood is going to come knocking (plans are already in the works for Ruth Riechl’s first book as movie), she did illuminate the problem with these cookies and provide a solution. When the mix didn’t fit in her Cuisinart she put it in the stand mixer and presto; dough! So I pulled out the mixer and moved my dough, undergoing a whole lot of hassle that reminded me that thanks to the internet I should always read reviews before cooking. The other problem with the dough was that it called for zero vanilla extract. Not to be deterred, I simply threw in a half teaspoon. (Unfortunately, that didn't end up imparting as much vanilla flavor as I had hoped.)

Gosh, I thought as I wrapped my huge lump of dough in some Saran wrap, this seems like an awful lot of dough! Only then did I look to see how many cookies the recipe intended to make. I did a double take. Yes, I had just made enough dough for one hundred Viennese Vanilla Crescents. No wonder I couldn’t fit it in my freaking food processor! One hundred cookies! What on earth am I going to do with one hundred cookies? I thought I was going to struggle with disposing of your average twenty four set. I could have given them away as presents but I just finished my Christmas shopping today, when I purchased the extract that got me into this mess. I can’t even send them to my boyfriend because he’s on a freaking beef bender in Buenos Aires.

One hundred Viennese Vanilla Crescents.


And then, oh yeah, that whole part of the recipe that I needed to start 24 hours in advance? That was the vanilla powdered sugar that the cookies are rolled in. Obviously I only decided to look at this after I put my pound or two of dough in the fridge. (To this I plead the complete brain fatigue that comes after battling holiday shopping crowds in SoHo.) It turns out that I didn’t have enough powdered sugar to make the topping and I sure as hell wasn’t going to walk to the supermarket in below freezing weather to get some. I shrugged it off and thought, looks like we’re making Viennese Vanilla Crescents rolled in (granulated) vanilla sugar.

Fast forward 12 hours.

This morning I had the bright idea that instead of rolling them out into crescents, I would cut the cookies into Christmas shapes. I thought I’d bring some to a holiday party I’m attending tonight as a nice, festive treat. Things continued to go wrong. First, the dough was so hard from being in the fridge all night that I had a two pound dough bowling ball on my hands. I tried not to get frustrated, I tried to maintain the zen. So I made myself some scrambled eggs with rosemary and Parmesan (the most successful thing I’ve done all day) while I waited for an hour while the dough ball got soft enough to roll out. Well, soft enough to half roll out, half smush out by force, all while prodding cracking edges, trying to keep the thing in one coherent blob. This was just the crumbliest f-ing dough I have ever worked with, and I’ve been making cookies a long time.

the scene of the crime

I breathed a sigh of relief when I managed to cut out some nice Christmas trees and some stars.

I popped one trial tray of cookies in the oven and let them bake for 15 minutes.

The next step was supposed to be to put the warm cookies on a baking tray which was covered with my vanilla powered sugar. I went along as planned, having substituted granulated for powered sugar. This almost worked. No, the granulated sugar didn’t stick as well as confectioners sugar would have, and yes, I put the cookies face down so that the pretty sparkly sugar was on the ugly, cracked underside of the cookies. But when I flipped a few stars over, they did glitter nicely and I thought it would all be OK .

Then I tried to move a tree.

The tree kept losing branches in my hands. I almost cried. “You bastards!” I shouted at the tray. Then, as per usual when I make a mistake while baking, I looked around furtively for witnesses and shoved the broken tree in my mouth. In less than a second it burst into a million crumbly pieces in my mouth. The overall result wasn’t bad; the cookie had a nice, buttery taste and the vanilla sugar actually tasted a lot like vanilla. But the crumble in my mouth was texturally a bit too much like sand. I tried to eat sand once when I was a child; it’s actually my earliest memory. But it didn’t work then and it didn’t work now.

Only 85 cookies left.

By the end, I gave up on the shapes and made balls because that’s a shape which traditionally works with crumbly cookies you roll in sugar. Except I was so frustrated I didn’t even make nice balls, I made blobs. I made crumbly sugar blobs and I don’t even care.

So how do I feel you ask? I feel like I've done a shit ton of work for a mediocre outcome! I feel like crushing a cookie in each hand and watching as the sugary sand falls through my fingers into the trash. But honestly that's one of the perils of baking and this certainly won't be the last time.

And of course, I won’t be deterred. I have to find a recipe to showcase vanilla for you. Just after I cheer myself up at this holiday party...

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