The unforgettable first … cookbook

There’s a first time for everything, we all know that. Many such moments are memorable, IMG_2429some forgettable (or regrettable) and a few, well, they just fill you with an inner glow. Like when you buy your very first cookbook.

When setting up my first apartment kitchen shortly after college, I treated myself to The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook. And what a treat it was. It’s a glorious book: Organized seasonally and lavishly illustrated with line drawings, it’s full of quotes, tips and hints, all delivered in a fabulously chatty, New York insider tone. Authors Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins blew open not only my palate, but all my ideas about food and what was possible for the home cook. It also introduced me to a homey, intimate way of writing about food. I never met Julee or Sheila, but I feel like I have. And I love it, to this day, when they join me in the kitchen as I leaf through my dog-eared and stained copies of both Good Times and the original The Silver Palate Cookbook, coaching me on how to make something wonderful.

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A food storybook you’ll want to curl up with again and again.

Over the years I’ve cooked this food for friends and loved ones, unashamedly taking credit for the delectable Chicken Pot Pie (tarragon! a revelation!) – it’s always a hit. I didn’t start at the swelly end of the spectrum with Julee and Sheila, though. I began more humbly.

I began with the Coffee Blond Brownie. I’d never experienced a bar like this – so dense, so chewy, so…luscious is the only word. Or maybe decadent. Rich. Toothsome. Out of this world. Lots of butter and a full pound of dark brown sugar, combined with chocolate and coffee. Insanity. And pretty much foolproof unless you overbake.

Over the years I’ve tinkered with the recipe: Adjusting the amount of coffee; replacing the coffee with Kahlua; adding cinnamon; and trying different types of chocolate. All have been good, especially the Kahlua during the holidays. But the original recipe really doesn’t need any work – it’s perfection.

Nancy Siesel/The New York Times

Sheila Lukins photo by Nancy Siesel/The New York Times

Both original Silver Palate cookbooks are available on Amazon. Trust me when I tell you these are much more than simple cookbooks. These are food storybooks you’ll want to curl up with again and again.

Note: In writing this piece, I discovered that Sheila Lukins passed away in 2009. I’m so saddened to learn this. The New York Times remembered Sheila with a headline stating she “awakened taste buds.” She certainly did for me. We should all aspire to something so worthy.

Coffee Blond Brownies

From The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook

1 pound dark brown sugar

1 ½ sticks (¾ c) unsalted butter

2 T instant espresso powder dissolved in 1 T hot water

2 eggs

2 T vanilla extract

2 c unbleached all-purpose flour

2 tsp baking powder

½ tsp salt

1 c semisweet chocolate chips (or equivalent volume of chopped bittersweet chocolate)

1 c chopped pecans (optional)

Preparation

Heat the brown sugar and butter in a medium-size saucepan over medium-low heat untilIMG_2400 the butter melts. Add the espresso mixture. Set aside to cool to room temperature.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 11 x 8 inch baking pan. (If you want to ensure attractive squares, line the pan with foil or parchment, leaving overhangs, so you can easily lift out the bars.)

Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

When the butter mixture is cool, use a wooden spoon to beat in the eggs and vanilla. Then add the flour mixture, stirring with the wooden spoon until well combined.

Stir in the chocolate (and pecans if using).

Spread the batter evenly in the prepared pan with a rubber spatula.

IMG_2430Bake until lightly browned, 25 to 30 minutes. Do not overbake.

Cool completely and cut into squares.

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Going donutty? Donut Muffins Scratch the Itch

There’s a line, attributed to the great Homer Simpson, that goes something like this: HeIMG_2357 offers someone a donut. They say they are not hungry. He replies, “Since when do you have to be hungry to eat a donut?”

And to that, I say “word.” I like a donut. My favorite is a plain cake donut (the “old-fashioned” as some shops call it), followed by a chocolate cake donut. Followed by a powdered sugar Entenmann’s or a cinnamon sugar from a cider mill. I could tumble down the donut hole forever or at least until we hit the jelly bellies (not a fan) or anything with coconut.

What I don’t like is making donuts. I’m afraid of anything that requires 375-degree pots of hot oil. And, truth be told, my attempts have never been successful. They have been…indigestible. So what’s a girl to do on a morning when she wants a donut but certainly doesn’t want to go out?

The Donut Muffin. Perfectly easy, perfectly tasty, and scratches that donut itch, well, perfectly.

IMG_2319My first experience with the Donut Muffin was thanks to Marion Cunningham and her delightful, homey little tome, The Breakfast Book. She didn’t call them Donut Muffins but the recipe, full of nutmeg and cinnamon sugar, offered the same flavor profile. I packed her book with the bulk of my cookbook library when I recently downsized my living space, so when I had a recent weekend craving, I had to work from memory.

The following is my improvised recipe for Donut Muffins. On any given morning you can go donutty in less than an hour.FullSizeRender

A note on tools: There are many muffin pans to choose from out there, some are even gold! Mine is my mom’s, simple aluminum, oft-used, much loved, with the way-cool name of the “Muffinaire.” I like any excuse to rock the Muffinaire, but I always use paper liners. That old aluminum is a mutha to clean and at least one muffin always sticks.

Donut Muffins

Inspired by The Breakfast Book

¾ c milk

Enough crème fraiche to bring the milk measure to 1 cup

1 ½ sticks unsalted butter, smacked with rolling pin until soft

1 c  sugar

2 large eggs

1 ½ tsps vanilla extract

3 c flour

2 ½ tsp baking powder

¼ tsp baking soda

1 tsp sea salt

2 tsp grated nutmeg

For the cinnamon sugar topping (optional for the purist)

3 Tbs melted butter

2 Tbs sugar mixed with 1-2 tsp cinnamon

Preparation

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a standard 12 cup muffin pan with paper liners.

Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and nutmeg in a bowl and stir with fork or whisk to combine.

Pour milk into a 1 cup measuring cup. Spoon small dollops of crème fraiche into the cup until the volume reaches 1 full cup. Stir to blend.

Beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, until just combined. Mix in the vanilla.

With IMG_2320the mixer on low, alternate adding the dry ingredients with the milk, one-third at a time, and mix until smooth and very thick.

Using a medium ice cream scoop, drop dollops of batter into the prepared muffin pan.

Bake until a wire tester comes out clean, 25-30 minutes.muffins3 (Don’t worry if they don’t brown, just use the tester.)

Let pan cool on a rack for about 5 minutes. Then brush each muffin with the melted butter and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar.

Et voila! Donut cravings satisfied! These are most delicious when still slightly warm with, yes, some butter. But also great at room temp with a cup of IMG_2358tea or a glass of milk. They are best the same day, but can be frozen. Let defrost in fridge before a quick zap in the microwave.