Sunday, January 29, 2012

A sweet hybrid: the cookie-muffin

I have told you this before; I'm not a huge lover of cookies. But every once in a while, I come across one that steals my heart away, one that makes me want to eat it again and again.

Granted, these are rare incidences and even rarer when it comes to cookies or biscuits that are not in my Greek repertoire, yet somehow I become hooked. I'm powerless to resist their allure, which of course leads to the complete disregard of my just one dessert/chocolate/piece of cake-a-week rule. Yes, I have to restrain myself like that.

So, I discovered something more exciting than a simple cookie. I discovered the cookie-muffin. Ok, some of you may already be familiar with the concept but up until a year ago, I wasn't.

Cookie-muffin or muffin-cookie, call it what you will, is cookie dough baked in a muffin tin. What you end up with, is basically a larger, moister cookie with a crunchy exterior and a soft and chewy interior. In this particular case, a soft and chewy interior filled with chocolate chunks that ooze out of the cookie-muffin when it's warm from the oven, and become solid little pieces of chocolate heaven once it's cooled. The Fleur de Sel accentuates the taste of the chocolate and gives the cookie-muffin an extra layer of flavor that you instantly notice when you take the first bite.

Ever since I discovered this sweet hybrid, my idea of a cookie changed drastically. The possibilities were endless. I ended up making every kind of cookie I knew into a cookie-muffin. Not all of them worked, but it was worth the try.

I based the recipe for this chocolate chunk cookie-muffin on a chocolate chip cookie recipe by master chocolatier Jacques Torres. I have to say, the original recipe is superb and it is definitely worth a try, but as I tinkered with it several times, I came up with something that better suits my tastes. Plus, Torres says you need to refrigerate the cookie dough for 24 to 36 (!) hours and I'm notorious for my lack of patience when it comes to things like that.

The main differences ingredient-wise, apart from quantities, are the omission of the baking soda, the substitution of the cake flour for all-purpose flour and the substitution of the light brown sugar for dark brown sugar. I love the strong molasses flavor of dark brown sugar, and the color it imparts to the cookie-muffin is so much more appealing to me than the paleness of the average choc-chip cookie.

I always try to find the right words to describe whatever kind of food, savory or sweet dish, or treat I share with you, and even though I know that the word 'delicious' is rather trite, there are times when that exact word is all I want to say, and mean it.
So, here it goes; this chocolate chunk cookie-muffin is simply delicious, reader.

Chocolate Chunk Cookie-Muffins with Fleur de Sel
Adapted from Jacques Torres via The New York Times

You can use Fleur de Sel (hand-harvested sea salt) or any other good quality coarse sea salt; Maldon sea salt flakes would be great as well.

I used chocolate with 70% cocoa solids but if you have a really sweet tooth then you can definitely use a 55%.

So, what if you don't have a muffin/cupcake tin? That's ok, you can simply make regular cookies instead. Just make sure you refrigerate the dough for an hour (so they won't spread a lot during baking) and then scoop small balls of dough (ping pong ball-shaped) onto a baking sheet lined with baking paper, leaving a 3-4 cm gap between them, and bake them in the oven for 9-10 minutes.

The dough for these cookie-muffins freezes well and you can keep it in your freezer for up to 2 months. Shape the dough into small cylinders, take one out of the freezer, cut into 2-3 cm slices for cookies or 5-6 cm slices for cookie-muffins, and bake away.

Yield: 15 cookie-muffins (or around 30 cookies)

180 g unsalted butter, at room temperature
250 g soft dark brown sugar
80 g caster sugar
1 ½ tsp pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs
200 g strong flour (bread flour)
200 g all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp Fleur de Sel
160 g dark chocolate 70% cocoa solids, cut into small chunks

Special equipment: stand or hand-held mixer, one or two 12-cup muffin/cupcake pans, paper liners (optional)

In the bowl of the stand mixer (or in a large bowl) add the butter, soft dark brown sugar and caster sugar. Beat, using the paddle attachment (or with your hand-held mixer), on medium-high speed until creamy.
Add the vanilla extract and the first egg and beat well. Add the second egg and beat well.
Add the strong and all-purpose flour, the baking powder and the Fleur de Sel, and beat until just combined.
Add the chocolate chunks and mix with your hands, kneading lightly the dough, until the chocolate chunks are distributed throughout the dough and there are no visible patches of flour.

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius.

Take your muffin/cupcake pan and butter the cups lightly. Alternatively, you can line the cups with paper liners. Take the dough and form balls, roughly the size of a mandarin. Place dough balls into each cup of the muffin pan and press them down gently. The cups must be filled by 3/4 with dough.
Bake in the preheated oven, on the middle rack, for 13-15 minutes, until they take on a golden brown color but are still soft in the middle.
Take the pan out of the oven and allow the cookie-muffins to cool a bit before you take them out of the muffin cups. Then place them on a wire rack to cool.

Eat them warm, and the chocolate will ooze out of the cookie-muffin. Eat them cold, and the chocolate chunks will be deliciously dense. Either way, they're perfect.

You can keep them, covered, at room temperature for 3-4 days.

Friday, January 20, 2012

My two passions

Half of the second floor of our apartment is a music studio. I don't know if I have told you this before but S and I are both musicians. S plays electric guitar and writes music and I sing.

When I first met S, more than ten years ago, we formed a band with three other musician friends. We used to rehearse in our drummer's home studio and at those god forsaken rehearsal studios in downtown Athens, filled with cigarette ashes and smoke and crazy music coming out of every other door you'd pass by. Friends would come to our rehearsals and jam sessions and it would become one big party. Until the real party would begin. The real gig.

We'd play all around Athens, in small pubs and bigger clubs, sometimes just in front of friends and acquaintances, and others in front of crowds of total strangers who danced and clapped and sang along and drank and applauded and had a good time; all because of us, of our music. That was probably the most joyous, carefree and fun period of my life.

Through the years, the band changed members and it eventually broke up, but the music never stopped for S and me. It's impossible for anyone who loves music as much as we do, to just give it up. Instead, much like ourselves, our music grew and evolved, and when opportunity came knocking, we opened the door wide open.

S, among other music album collaborations, has co-written the soundtrack for three Greek films that were released in theaters all around Greece and I have contributed several songs in the soundtrack of two of those films. Our music and vocals for two of the soundtracks were recorded here, in our apartment in Holland, in our little home studio.

When we went to Greece two years ago for the opening night of one of the films, at the Athens film festival "Νύχτες Πρεμιέρας" (Opening Nights), and actually heard the music coming out of the big loud theater speakers, it was an otherworldly experience. I could not believe it was me that was heard singing when on the big screen an actual film was being played. It was extraordinary.

Getting paid to do something that you really love is like nothing else in the world. Granted, we can't actually make a living from music, but that's what our day jobs are for. Besides, like true romantics, we are not in it for the money but for the feeling that we get when we create music and share ideas.
It is when I sing that I'm truly happy.

Creativity for me equals happiness. It is impossible to say the word "happiness" without humming a tune or without having the desire to go into the kitchen and cook. My two passions, singing and cooking.

Making bread is perhaps the most primitive form of cooking. The kneading, the tucking of the dough, the warmth needed for it to proof, expand and grow, all that remind me of the process that I go through when I create a melody for a song, when I write lyrics and when I sing. I need my time, my space to feel the music. My mind travels wherever the rhythm takes me, my thoughts intertwine with my emotions and the warmth manifests itself in a song, coming from deep inside me.

From me to you; bread.

To S, Alex, Greg, Thodori and Ektora.

Dutch Corn Bread - Maisbrood

This bread is crusty on the outside and soft and springy on the inside. It has a subtle corn flavor and a little sweetness to it and the cornmeal grains give a gentle crunchiness to the crumb.

You may remember seeing it in this post featuring a savory French toast with poached eggs for which it is ideal, but it is also perfect for a sweet French toast, for a sandwich, to spread some homemade cashew butter on it, or to accompany any kind of juicy dish with lots of sauce that needs gathering up.

I invariably use a bread pan to bake the corn bread in, but you can certainly bake it free form, placing it straight onto a baking tray lined with baking paper. You can also bake it on a pizza stone, if you have one.

Not all flours were created equal so you may need a little more or less than the amount indicated in the recipe. Keep in mind that you can always add more flour but you can't take it out.
Also, it's best if the dough is a tad wet rather than it being stiff and hard.

You can either knead the dough in a stand mixer or with your hands. Below, I'm including instructions for both.

Yield: 1 large loaf, around 1.2 kg

60 g coarse cornmeal (or polenta) plus extra to sprinkle over the loaf
30 g demerara sugar (cane sugar)
7 g instant or active dry yeast
250 ml lukewarm whole milk plus extra to brush over the loaf
250 ml lukewarm water
15 g fine sea salt
700 g all purpose flour

olive oil for brushing bowl and bread pan

Special equipment: electric stand mixer (optional), bread pan 11 x 27 cm and 9 cm deep (optional), plastic wrap

In the bowl of your stand mixer or in a large bowl, add the cornmeal, the demerara sugar, the yeast and the lukewarm milk and water. Mix with a fork and let stand for 5 minutes until the mixture is frothy.

Add the flour and the salt and if you're using a stand mixer, attach the dough hook and knead for about 10 minutes, on the lowest speed, until the dough no longer sticks to the sides of the bowl, and it is elastic.

Note: if you're kneading the dough by hand, you will definitely have to knead it for more than 10 minutes, about 15 minutes until it becomes smooth and elastic.

Yes, that's all perfect when you read it huh? But sometimes, when you're actually making the dough yourself, either by hand or in a mixer, you see a big mess of sticky dough and you wonder what the heck the person who wrote the recipe was thinking. Well, it has happened to me numerous times. Here's the deal, at least for this type of bread.
If the dough is sticking too much, all around the bowl, then you definitely need to add more flour. A little at a time.
If it is sticking just a little bit, then it's ok. Remove the dough from the bowl and knead by hand to check the consistency. If it is sticking to your hands a lot and you see that you can't form it into a ball, add a little flour.
If it sticks a little to your hands but you can form it into a ball, then it's ok.

So, form the dough into a ball and place it back on the bowl of your stand mixer, or in another large bowl, that you have oiled all around with olive oil so that the dough won't stick as it proofs.
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave it in a warm place in your kitchen or anywhere around your house where it is not drafty. I always place it on the stovetop while the oven below is preheated, or right in front of it, on a chair.
The dough will need approximately 45 minutes to 1 hour to proof and double in volume.

Why cover the bowl with plastic wrap and not a kitchen towel? Because the plastic wrap prevents a crust from forming on the dough as it proofs.

In the meantime, brush with olive oil the bottom and sides of the bread pan, if you're using, and sprinkle with a little flour. Tap out excess flour.

Empty the dough onto a clean, lightly floured work surface and beat the air out of it. Knead for 1 minute, shape the dough into a rectangle, similar to the size of the bread pan, and place it in the pan.
If you're using a baking sheet, line it with baking paper, dusted with a little flour or cornmeal, and place the dough (shaped into a ball) on top.

Cover the dough with plastic wrap and leave it to proof in a warm place until it almost doubles in size.

Preheat your oven to 200 degrees Celsius.

Brush the top of the dough with a little milk and sprinkle with some cornmeal. Take a very sharp knife and slash the dough at an angle to 3-4 places. Place the bread pan (or baking sheet) on the middle rack of the oven and bake the bread for 30 minutes. Then lower the heat to 185 degrees Celsius and bake for further 5-10 minutes, until it is golden-brown on top.
It's a general rule that a bread loaf is ready when it makes a hollow sound when tapped on the bottom.

Take it out of the oven and leave it in the pan to cool for 10 minutes. Then take it out of the pan and if you're patient enough, let it cool completely on a rack.

Enjoy with some butter, or whatever your heart desires.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


One of the worst things that can happen to a person who loves cooking and eating good food, is a bout of gastritis. I have never experienced anything like this before and let me tell you, it is not pleasant.

All I'm able to eat for the past few days is chicken soup, boiled vegetables, crackers and low-fat cheese a.k.a. your basic nightmare, or at least mine.

I'm feeling better today and hopefully I'll be fully recovered in a couple of days. Till then, let me have another spoonful of this homemade chicken soup.

Dedicated to all of you out there who have the flu, stomach problems, those of you who want to soothe your tummy for whatever reason or those of you who simply want to detox.

For obvious reasons, I was unable to take any photographs of the soup while I was preparing it. These photographs were actually taken the third day into eating this soup, when all the vegetables and chicken were already consumed by yours truly and I was down to eating just plain old chicken broth. Ah, the glamor of food blogging, right?

Soothing Chicken Soup with Vegetables

You can add whatever vegetable you want to this soup. It's a good way to clean out your refrigerator of all those vegetables you haven't had the chance to use.

Yield: 4-6 servings

1 whole small chicken, about 1 kg
1 large onion, peeled
2 large carrots, peeled and cut in half crosswise
2 large parsnips, peeled and cut in half crosswise
100 ml (about ½ cup) olive oil
1 vegetable or chicken bouillon (stock) cube
Tap water, cold

Place the chicken inside a large pot. Add the onion, carrots, parsnips, a little salt and pepper and the bouillon (stock) cube. Add enough water to almost cover the chicken and add the olive oil.
Turn the heat on to high and bring to the boil. Then turn heat down to medium-low and put on the lid. Allow to simmer for 30 to 40 minutes or until the chicken is cooked (it should be falling off the bones) and the vegetables have softened.
If you want (I didn't), as the chicken is simmering, you can skim the fat/foam that collects on the surface of the water.

Turn off the heat, remove the onion from the pot and discard it. At this point, you can remove the vegetables and cut them into smaller pieces (I didn't bother doing that either).
Remove the chicken and place it on a tray or platter. Allow to cool down enough to handle. Pick the meat off the bones and cut them with your hands or a knife into bite-sized pieces.

If you want, you can pass the soup through a fine sieve. (Do I have to state the obvious and say that I didn't do that either?).

Return the vegetables and chicken pieces to the pot, check and adjust the seasoning, and serve.

It keeps excellently in the fridge for 3-4 days.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

That's all I'm eating

I was thinking of telling you about my New Year's Day feast but then I thought it would be cruel to describe succulent pieces of roast pork with honey, thyme and orange juice, crispy pork skin, melt-in-the mouth potatoes and the best Politiki Vasilopita (New Year's Day Greek brioche-type bread) I have ever made, when all I'm going to share with you today is a salad.

A salad I did not serve at my New Year's Day feast but a salad I made and enjoyed the day after. I know it's not fair, but then again maybe it is. Because perhaps you're fed up with seeing pictures of fatty meat or better yet, fed up with eating it. I know I am. I think I'm all "meated" out.

My body yearns for salads and fruits, grains and legumes. That's all I'm eating these days. Greek lentil soup, clementines*, homemade barley bread and salads. This one here could easily be a part of a Christmas or New Year's dinner but I saved it for the following days on purpose. I don't want to lose all that glitz and glamor when January 2nd hits. I want my after-the-holidays salads to be just a tad superior to the everyday, middle-of-the-winter ones.

Last year's first post was again a salad—I guess I'm developing a pattern here. One with endives, apple, walnuts and Roquefort cheese. This year's salad though is not your typical winter salad. It's a herb salad. It is earthy, citrusy and well, herby.

Herb salads are nothing like vegetable salads. They're more pungent, more aromatic and their flavors can travel you to places you rarely visit. Places where parsley, mint and dill are treated not as your ordinary herbs but as stars in their own right.

The fresh herbs are paired with pomegranate seeds, winter carrot, fennel bulb and fennel seeds that are toasted and add another dimension of spiciness to the dish. And then my favorite citrus fruit, the orange, decorates the plate and enhances the overall flavor of the salad, firstly with its juicy segments and secondly as a reduced orange juice-syrup that is added to the dressing along with olive oil and lemon juice.

The result is an amazingly refreshing, vibrant and sweet-smelling salad. I'm not going to mention how healthy it is for you, that is obvious, I'm just going to tell you that it's guaranteed to boost your senses. Pinky swear.

P.S. I got this as a New Year's present from S. I foresee a lot of brûléeing in my future. Hang on tight!

* Whenever I talk about clementines, Kate Winslet (which I love) and this movie (which I also love) always come to mind.

Herb Salad with Fennel, Carrot, Pomegranate and Orange
Adapted from Nadia Zerouali & Merijn Tol

You can serve this salad with a grilled steak, chicken, a nice piece of fish or with some grilled cheese like halloumi or feta. Along with a glass of wine, you have dinner.

Yield: 6 salad servings

1 Tbsp fennel seeds
2 large oranges (the sweeter the better)
100 ml orange juice, freshly squeezed
1 small bunch of fresh dill
1 bunch of flat-leaf parsley
1 small bunch of fresh mint
1 pomegranate
1 medium-sized carrot
1 fennel bulb and fronds
80 ml extra virgin olive oil
Juice of ½ medium-sized lemon, freshly squeezed
Freshly ground black pepper

Place the fennel seeds in a non-stick skillet and dry-fry them over medium-high heat, stirring them around constantly, until they become fragrant, for about 1 ½ minutes. Be careful not to burn them. Remove them from the skillet and let them cool.

Cut the oranges by using a sharp knife. First, cut off the peel, then the white pith all around the fruit, exposing the flesh, and finally, cut free the flesh of the fruit from the membranes that are in between the wedges. Put the orange segments in a bowl and set aside. Squeeze the rest of the orange and measure the juice. If you don't have 100 ml, add some ready-squeezed orange juice or squeeze it from another orange.

Place the orange juice in a small saucepan and boil it over medium heat until it becomes syrupy, for about 10 minutes. Be careful not to burn it or reduce it too much because it will become bitter. Leave it to cool.

Pick the leaves from the dill, parsley and mint and place them in a bowl. You can do this ahead of time and keep the herbs in a Ziploc bag in the fridge.

Cut the pomegranate in half and take the seeds out with a spoon. Place the seeds in a bowl.

Peel the carrot and cut it lengthwise into ribbons, using a sharp knife, a vegetable peeler or a mandoline.

Cut the fennel bulb lengthwise using a sharp knife or mandoline. Cut the fennel fronds and add them to the herbs.

You can cut the carrot and fennel ahead of time and keep it in a bowl filled with water and ice cubes so that the vegetables remain crisp.

Make the dressing by adding in a small bowl the reduced orange juice, the olive oil, lemon juice and a little salt and pepper. Mix together well, using a whisk.

Drain the carrot ribbons and the fennel in a tea towel.

In a large salad bowl or platter, combine the dill, parsley, mint, fennel fronds, carrot, fennel and pomegranate seeds. Add the orange segments and drizzle with the dressing. Sprinkle some toasted fennel seeds on top and serve.