May 17, 2011 § 2 Comments
Dear reader, I have neglected you, I know only too well. The lowdown: three months, 5 sets of visitors from overseas, 72 hours on a train to Seattle and back, one music festival in the desert, four days in Yosemite, 9 days in England. I write now from 37,000 feet in the air, homeward bound, confined in a metal tube circulating aromas of chicken or pasta, or something not worth figuring out. I seek solace and normality in words and memories of more appealing sights and smells and the promise of a week in the kitchen before the next trip (hopefully the last for a little while).
Traveling to England is always discombobulating. A homeland that is no longer home. A visit to the company where I am employed but do not work. A city where I know the back streets but have never lived. I’m not a tourist, nor a resident. Thankfully I have friends of the kind who are ready with unconditional hospitality: a spare room and a set of keys being less significant than quiet company after a day of too many meetings and jet-lag-fighting coffee brewed just before needed. Indeed, it’s partly testament to the warmth of good friends that I find myself such in-betweener in England and for that I give hearty thanks.
Cooking away from home is always a disconcerting event. Grown used to familiar pans and the quirks of my oven I lose some confidence in the face of anonymous cupboard doors and the thorny question of whether bicarb of soda can be substituted wholesale for baking soda. I am saved by the unexpected appearance of a familiar object: my old hand-held mixer which I donated out along with all other electrical goods when we moved to a land of inferior voltage. As I cradle the cool plastic I am reminded of batters past and loved: many a Victoria sponge cake of course, an extravagant and only semi-successful birthday butterscotch layer cake inspired by the equally extravagant and voluptuous Nigella, the batter and icing for all our wedding buns. The butter spatters the sides of the bowl, the surface, my t-shirt, just as it always has done with this method and I know the cookies will work out just fine, bicarb and all.
The cookies are in honor of a party which is itself in honor of an event so un-American I hardly know where to begin with the description. The Eurovision Song Contest, fondly shortened to Eurovision by anyone who has even a passing familiarity with this kitschfest. One glitter-heavy night a year sees the lucky finalists belt out their anthems on the stage of a grand stadium the construction and décor of which is likely to have negatively contributed to the GDP of the unlucky winners of the previous year’s shebang who are tasked with being hosts and therefore desperate not to win for a consecutive year. But the main event (play along at home!) is the complicated and farcical voting which largely involves the countries playing out regional international relations through their support for sister nations’ sequined ballads. It’s hugely enjoyable.
Dishes from the main competitors are suggested as the theme for the pot luck: halloumi kebabs, rye brot, anchovies, and a delicious quiche-cheesecake hybrid form the centrepiece of the spread. No-one seems to have been tempted to tackle Moldavian cuisine and the Slovenian national dish of pasta with peaches and yoghurt was actively rejected. In my quest to knock out something that fits my hugely constrained schedule I think of Dorie Greenspan’s aptly titled World Peace Cookies. In retrospect how American they seem in both conception and sentiment but the universality of their appeal is undeniable, smoothing over the bitterest conflicts over the use of pyrotechnics by the Greeks or the technicalities of Germany submitting the same act two years running. And assuming you can get hold of chocolate (if not, where are you?!), the ingredients are almost certain to be found in the kitchen of good hosts or easily supplemented from the local corner shop. A simple butter/sugar/flour dough is darkened by cocoa and becomes a vehicle for the whole raison d’etre of these biscuits, world peace aside: the perfect combination of chocolate and salt. A more than minor amount of the latter, ideally in the form of fleur de sel or similar flaked sea salt, fizzes on the tongue in most bites, allowing the fruity 70% dark chocolate shavings, probably still slightly warm and melted (unless you have unrivalled will power), to pop and sing like a Norwegian teenage heart-throb. Over the cookies and our smörgåsbord of Euro-treats, we place our votes. Maldova tops our list but gets a mere middling ranking on the official votes. We eat more rather than protest and for a few hours it’s like I have never been away.
World Peace Cookies
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours
Yield: approx. 24 cookies
175g all purpose/plain flour
30g unsweetened cocoa powder
½ tsp baking soda*
150g (11 tablespoons) butter
120g light brown sugar
50g caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
½ tsp fleur de sel or ¼ tsp regular fine table salt
150g bittersweet chocolate, shaved into chunks (or in chocolate chip form)
*In answer to the thorny question of whether you can substitute bicarbonate of soda for baking soda, well, yes I think you can since that is what I did. The cookies had a grainier texture than they’ve had on other occasions but there could be other causes for that (it’s possible I didn’t blend the butter and sugar well enough). I would be more cautious making this substitution in a cake recipe that relies on the leavening, but for these cookies it’s just fine.
Sift together the flour, cocoa powder and baking soda into a small to medium sized bowl and set to one side.
Cream the butter for a couple of minutes in a stand mixer or with a hand-held mixer until soft and fluffy. Add the sugars and continue to beat until the sugars are well incorporated and the batter is light. Add the vanilla extract and salt and beat to combine.
Pour the flour mixture on top of the batter. Cover the bowl with a clean tea towel and pulse the mixer for about 5 seconds to begin to incorporate the flour. Repeat another 4 or 5 times and then peak under the towel. If there is still a lot of dry flour on the top you might want to give another pulse or two, being careful not to overmix the batter. If the flour is starting to incorporate, remove the towel and mix for another 30 seconds until the batter is starting to clump.
Stir in the chocolate chips/shavings. Turn the batter out onto a work-surface and lightly knead to bring together. Don’t worry if the dough is quite crumbly – it should be just that and will firm up in the fridge before baking. Split the dough in two and form each half into a roll about 2 inches in diameter. Wrap the rolls in plastic wrap and leave in the fridge for at least 3 hours. You can freeze the dough at this point for up to 2-3 months, or keep in the fridge for up to 3 days.
When you are ready to bake the cookies, preheat the oven to 160C/325F. You will ideally need two baking sheets, lined with parchment, if you are going to bake the full batch. Slice rounds about ½ inch thick from the logs and arrange on the baking sheet with about an inch of space between them. Bake for about 12 minutes at which point the cookies will look still quite soft and underbaked: do not worry. Remove the baking sheet to a wire rack and leave the cookies to cool on the sheet. Serve when they are just warm or at room temperature to allow the chocolate to firm up a bit.