Look to the Chocolate Dipped Coconut Macaroon

I am a terrible person. Maybe not 100% terrible but certainly there are times when I call my ‘goodness’ into question. The other evening I was waiting for the elevator in my building’s lobby when I overheard a conversation between two women I know…let’s call them “Fran” and “Lenore.” Fran, late 40’s and sort of the First Lady of the building, asks Lenore, late 80’s and sort of the First Kvetch of the building, what she is doing for Passover. Lenore responds, “Well, the first night I may go to my cousin’s but she lives a few blocks away and the second I may go to a friend’s but she hasn’t been feeling well so, God willing, I will be somewhere.” I should add that her response took a manipulative two minutes while Fran was waiting breathlessly. “You have to come to us on the first night! Don’t go to your cousin!” Fran offers giddily. “Oh, that would be nice…” And then, as if she had just scored an endorsement from Oprah in her run for office, Fran squeals, “Yay!” and, turning to her husband, “I got her! She’ll be with us!”
In a million years I wouldn’t have 1) asked Lenore what she was doing for Passover 2) upon learning what she was doing ask her to forgo her potential plan and come to me if in fact I was hosting a Seder or 3) be excited if she said “yes.” That is not very nice of me. She is an old woman who lives alone, walks very slowly with a cane and eats dinner every single night at the City Grill restaurant around my corner. (In fact, she is such a good customer she is often escorted back to the building by one of the young waiters.) It’s a good thing Jews don’t believe in a Heaven vs. Hell afterlife situation because I know I’d never be looking at the pearly gates.
My reaction to her probably comes from two places. I’ve had guilt inflicting relationships with several older women in my day and know what never calling enough, never cheering them up enough, never visiting enough feels and sounds like. The slow, thick, syrupy voice of disappointment is one you don’t easily forget.

Then again this Lenore is not an altogether sympathetic person. For awhile we both served on a building committee, the purpose of which was to meet prospective residents, and there were several occasions when this woman said inappropriate things a little too loudly. There was a comment about how helpful the building staff is, especially the "fat, colored" fellow. I know. I wanted to crawl under the couch. There was the time when, after meeting with a very financially stable Asian-American man, she said, "Chinamen are very good with numbers." You know, as I’m writing this, I’m thinking I’m really not so terrible because who wants a racist at their Passover (or any dinner) table?

And this is where it gets kind of complicated. I don’t know anything about her but who knows how she was raised or what life path led her to be living alone at her age in a small apartment on the Upper West Side. Is she racist or ignorant? Is one worse than the other? And that is not to excuse either. I had a grandfather who lost his filter after he suffered from a stroke. When we took him to dinner for his 90th birthday he said (audibly), when the youngest and most attractive group of customers walked into the Morton’s in West Palm Beach, “Look at that, they let the coloreds in!” His wife, a bigger bigot than he, covered for him with an “oh, he doesn’t know what he’s saying!” But in fact, didn’t he? Hadn’t he been stripped of civility’s veneer by the short circuiting in his brain and wasn’t what he was saying expressing what he truly felt?
It is so awful that there was a time when views like theirs were easily and acceptably expressed among their like minded friends. Why was that remotely okay? Didn’t most of us come here (even if we have to go back a few generations) from somewhere else because of attitudes just like theirs? And that’s not even taking into consideration that some of us are here because our ancestors were ripped from their African homeland as recently as 150 years ago. And here it is coming on Passover—the time Jews mark their own freedom from slavery. The irony is just incredible.

There is that great Seinfeld episode when Jerry and Elaine are at a bakery and Jerry buys a black and white cookie. Using the cookie as a metaphor for racial harmony he says:

“Uhm, The thing about eating the black and white cookie, Elaine, is you want to get some black and some white in each bite. Nothing mixes better than vanilla and chocolate. And yet somehow racial harmony eludes us. If people would only look to the cookie all our problems would be solved.”
And of course because it is Seinfeld he winds up getting an upset stomach and literally tossing his cookie.
Jerry’s nausea to one side, I like to look to these macaroons as my own contribution to racial harmony. The orange zest cuts through the cloying sweetness coconut macaroons often succumb to and the dark chocolate just make them that much better. The cookies are great for Passover since they are flour-free but are yummy anytime. I can’t influence Lenore (I don’t think she’s noticed she is no longer invited to serve on the committee) but I know our Passover table will honor all those whose enslavement and persecution allowed us to be free. Okay, I’m not so bad. Thanks for reading while I figured that out. But now I can't stop humming “Ebony and Ivory."
Look to the Chocolate Dipped Coconut Macaroons
Adapted from Barefoot Contessa Family Style by Ina Garten, 2002
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14 ounces sweetened shredded coconut
14 ounce can of sweetened condensed milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Zest of 2 small (or 1 large) oranges
2 extra-large egg whites, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup Ghiradelli 60% Cacao Chocolate Chips

Preheat oven to 325. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.
Combine the coconut, condensed milk, vanilla, and orange zest in a large bowl.
In bowl of electric mixer with whisk attachment, whip egg whites and salt on high speed until medium-firm peak.Gently fold egg whites into coconut mixture until fully incorporated.Using 2 teaspoon ice cream scoop (1 3/4 " diameter) or 2 teaspoons drop batter onto cookie sheets.Bake 25-30 minutes until golden brown.
Cool completely.
Place chocolate chips in microwave safe bowl. Nuke for 30 second intervals, stirring between blasts until chocolate is completed melted.

Dip bottom of macaroons into melted chocolate and place top down on rack or wax paper lined cookie sheet. Allow to set and serve.

Yield: 4 dozen cookies


Playing with Fire Creme Brulee

What is the world coming to? Last week in the New York Times Kim Severson reported on the International Home and Housewares show held in Chicago. I read the piece because I always enjoy Ms. Severson’s work and because I love fantasizing about kitchens bigger than mine with budgets to match. My mouth fell when I got to the part where she described a new Frigidaire oven that includes a specific button on its control panel for chicken nuggets. Is this a joke? It was bad enough when microwaves started including popcorn settings but chicken nuggets? Okay, I’m not going to rag on the convenience of that much heralded and welcome staple found in the kitchen of every parent to a picky eater—even if they are made with parts of the bird you don’t want to imagine ingesting. I don’t have kids and it isn’t fair for me to throw a stone when conceivably I could find myself living in a glass house. No, I am going to rag on the laziness behind not being able to press (or dial if your oven is more than a few years old) 4-0-0. Did that really take so much energy? All you had to do was open a box or a bag and pour the frozen chunks onto a baking sheet and now you want a special button? Come on!
The gist of the article seemed to be that our land has become one of “push-button cooking.” Despite eyes glued to The Food Network and fans of Martha, Rachael, and Paula, most people consider cooking to really mean re-heating. And with appliance and food manufacturers running on the same team in the relay race, there are gadgets to help them.
Now, I’m all for fun kitchen toys but think of how many you have that you probably haven’t played with since you registered for them at Williams-Sonoma. Okay, maybe you unpacked them, placed them all new and shiny on your counter and felt kind of professional with your bread machine or panini press or margarita maker. Then you realized you valued your counter space more than the ability to make a margarita every Cinco de Mayo and put everything in your attic/garage/basement or way up top on a shelf you never get up to.
I am not guilt-free in this area, despite never having registered for anything. However, my gadgets are smaller due to my lack of space. There were the three lattes I enjoyed before my battery operated milk frother died a slow, stop and start death. There was the coffee grinder I have repurposed for burring flax seeds after my morning fog proved too much of a challenge for the work a freshly ground cup of joe entailed. Oh well. But now I find myself reconsidering a gift I received two years ago: a “Crème Brulee Torch.”
There are two reasons behind my resistance towards attempting home bruleed crème. One is that most recipes make at least four servings and although I can entertain another personne ici having three others for dinner could be a little tight. The other is the queasy memory this specific custard evokes. Not queasy because of the dessert, queasy because of the circumstances. You see, I had the most transcendent blueberry crème brulee at The Union Square Café in the late 80’s. To put you in the vibe of the time Kelly McGillis (if you're too young to know she co-starred with Tom Cruise in Top Gun, I hate you) was at the restaurant that night and the place was abuzz with a celebrity induced frisson. But, more importantly, I shouldn’t have been there at all because I was being taken to dinner by someone who was already taken. Very poor judgment on my part but I was young and dumb and it soon faded (er, exploded) away leaving the mark of that ill gotten crème brulee in its wake.
But I think twenty years has to be the statute of limitations for denying myself such a delicate but rich, silky but crunchy and altogether sublime dessert. I’m heading to my parents’ house to break my brulee-less streak. Have torch will travel! And I know my mother won’t be making dinner with the push of a button.

Note: If you don't have a torch don't worry, you can use your oven's broiler.

Playing with Fire Creme Brulee
adapted from The New York Times, March 27, 2009
Printer friendly version
2 cups heavy cream
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar, more for topping
1 Tablespoon favorite liqueur (optional)
1/2 cup berries of your choice (optional)

Heat oven to 325 degrees.

In a saucepan, combine cream and vanilla bean and cook over low heat just until hot.
Let sit for a few minutes, then discard vanilla bean. (OR if using vanilla extract, add it now.) At this point you can add about a Tablespoon of any favorite liqueur for extra flavor. Or not.In a bowl, beat yolks and sugar together until light.
Stir about a quarter of the cream into this mixture, then pour sugar-egg mixture back into the remaining cream and stir.
If you'd like your creme brulee to be fruity you could put a handful of berries in the bottom of each ramekin and proceed as directed below. Or not.

Pour into four 6-ounce ramekins and place ramekins in a baking dish;
fill dish with boiling water halfway up the sides of the dishes.
Bake for about 30 minutes, or until centers are barely set. Cool. Ramekins can be wrapped tightly and refrigerated for a couple of days.

When ready to serve, top each custard with 2-3 teaspoons of sugar in a thin layer.
Fire up torch and hold the flame close to the surface until sugar begins to melt quickly. Move the flame in small circles over the surface of the custard, heating the sugar until it is evenly melted and golden.
Place ramekins in a broiler 2 to 3 inches from heat source. Turn on broiler. Cook until sugar melts and browns or even blackens a bit, about 5 minutes.

Let sit for a minute or two until sugar hardens and serve. Yield: 4 servings


Optimistic Blood Orange Olive Oil Cake

I was at a dinner recently when someone reported to the group that her spunky 82 year old aunt had just purchased a big spread out west with horses, plenty of land etc. “That’s great!” I said. “Kind of optimistic, no?” said someone else. Huh? Because this woman is already 82 she should just ignore the fact that she has great health and wealth and sit around in a gated retirement community waiting for the grim reaper? I don’t think so.
The discussion brought up a lot about living in the moment vs. living for the future. Granted her future may only last another ten years but she is carpe diem-ing which is a good thing and in my own small way I can relate. Back in the mid-90’s, when Starbucks was just starting to spill their caffeine across the island of Manhattan, I opened a birthday gift from a supposed friend to find a single, oversize coffee cup and saucer. Are you humming the theme from Friends?
Exactly. I was totally offended by the cup, despite my frozen “thanks!” smile. Why not just make it complete and include, say, a tiny can of Soup-for-One or a Lipton tea bag? Okay, on the one hand I was living alone and how many jumbo "Central Perk"-y cups does a singleton need? On the other hand, why make the assumption that my need for just one jumbo cup was a permanent condition? I mean it’s not like all I owned was one knife, fork, spoon, plate and glass. I actually had many of each. Was I being optimistic or realistic? Once in a while I was, in fact, joined by others at my place for a meal. Plus, who wants to keep doing the dishes?
I confront this present/future dilemma when I go food shopping. The larger the size the cheaper the item is per serving. That’s no problem on things you use every day but what about ketchup? I rarely need it but like to have it on hand, the smallest size at a normal supermarket is 14 ounces, and if I actually waited until I finished it to throw it out it would be long past its ‘best by’ date. Apparently, the one in my cabinet expired three years ago. Who knew? It’s the same thing with mayo. You never know when you might want a tuna sandwich. But clearly I don’t want them often enough because I just noticed the jar in my fridge, which I could have sworn I bought recently, was over and done with last November. And yes, I could be buying those cute, tiny sizes at the deli for four times the price but they scream efficiency-apartment-with-hotplate to me and that is just too depressing. I would rather be wasteful.
The other day I was out of olive oil, certainly a kitchen staple. Because my use of it is limited to salad dressing (and the odd sauté-ing or marinating of an odorless savory food item) it takes me awhile to make my way through the bottle. Is it being overly hopeful that I buy Fairway’s own 16 ounce size? Sure it could go rancid before I’m through with it or maybe I’ll be hit by a truck. Or, I might think of another use for it. Looking at the big, full greenish-yellow bottle it started to feel like it was burning a hole in my pocket. What to do with it?
I’ve had olive oil cakes before but never made my own. The ones I’ve tried always seem undercooked in the middle so I’ve shied away. I clipped this loaf cake recipe out of the Times a year ago and have always thought it seemed worth a try. My new bottle of olive oil would be put to good use. Plus, the blood oranges at the store looked great and the smell was enough to make me forget it hadn’t stopped pouring in three days. I felt like Don Corleone sitting in the sun at the end of The Godfather...except I didn’t keel over.
This cake is lovely and although you give up that specific butter-y taste, what you get in return is a slightly lighter pound cake vibe with a hint of the olive oil's fruitiness. Speaking of fruity, the blood orange provides a great acidic bite breaking through the richness of the cake and kind of infuses the whole thing with a very delicate spice. Was it optimistic for me to make a cake for no reason and no one to feed but myself? I don’t care. I’m making my way through it one happy slice at a time. Now, which one of my plates will I choose today?

Optimistic Blood Orange Olive Oil Cake
From The New York Times, March 18, 2009
Butter for greasing pan
3 blood oranges
1 cup sugar
Buttermilk or plain yogurt
3 large eggs
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
Honey-blood orange compote, for serving, optional (see note).

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan. Grate zest from 2 oranges and place in a bowl with sugar.
Using your fingers, rub ingredients together until orange zest is evenly distributed in sugar.
Supreme an orange: Cut off bottom and top so fruit is exposed and orange can stand upright on a cutting board. Cut away peel and pith, following curve of fruit with your knife. Cut orange segments out of their connective membranes and let them fall into a bowl. Repeat with another orange.
Break up segments with your fingers to about 1/4-inch pieces.

Halve remaining orange and squeeze juice into a measuring cup. You will have about 1/4 cup or so. Add buttermilk or yogurt to juice until you have 2/3 cup liquid altogether.
Pour mixture into bowl with sugar and whisk well. Whisk in eggs.
In another bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Gently whisk dry ingredients into wet ones. Switch to a spatula and fold in oil a little at a time. Fold in pieces of orange segments. Scrape batter into pan and smooth top.
Bake cake for about 55-65 minutes, or until it is golden and a knife inserted into center comes out clean. Cool on a rack for 5 minutes, then unmold and cool to room temperature right-side up.
Serve with honey-blood orange compote if you feel like it.
Yield: 8 to 10 servings.
Note: To make a honey-blood orange compote, supreme 3 more blood oranges according to directions in Step 2. Drizzle in 1 to 2 teaspoons honey. Let sit for 5 minutes, then stir gently.