Saturday, December 24, 2011

Fig Butter

If you like apple butter, you will love fig butter.  Fig butter ups the ante with its spices, red wine, and port.  I first tried it when I undertook these delicious scones, which are really more like a fancy version of cinnamon rolls minus the yeast.  But this time I skipped the scones altogether, doubled the batch of fig butter, and spooned it into jars for Christmas gifts.  It's wonderful on toast and pancakes, and you can just as easily add some to baked goods, such as muffins or your favorite quick bread.

Fig Butter
Adapted from Good to the Grain: Baking with Whole Grain Flours by Kim Boyce


1/2c sugar
2 whole cloves
1 star anise
1c red wine
1/2c port
12oz. dried figs, stems removed
1/4t cinnamon
4oz. (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened


1.  To poach the figs, measure 1/4c water and the sugar into a small heavy-bottomed saucepan. Stir the mixture together with a wooden spoon, incorporating the sugar without splashing it up the sides.  Add the cloves and star anise.

2.  Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat and cook for 7 to 10 minutes, until the syrup is amber-colored.

3.  Add the red wine, port, figs, and cinnamon, standing back a bit, as the syrup is hot. Don't panic when the syrup hardens; this is the normal reaction when liquids are added to hot sugar.  Continue cooking the mixture over medium heat for 2 minutes, until the sugar and wine blend.

4.  Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.  The figs will burble quietly as they are jostled together by the heat.  They are ready when the wine has reduced by half.  Remove the pan from the stove and cool to room temperature. [I let mine sit overnight.]

5.  Fish our the star anise and cloves.  Pour the cooled figs, with their liquid, into a food processor and puree until smooth, about 1 minute.  Add the softened butter to the fig paste and process until smooth.  The fig butter can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Panforte, the traditional Tuscan Christmas confection, is not for the faint of heart.  Its flavors are bold.  So is its texture. That’s not surprising since the recipe includes 18 ingredients, most of which are nuts and dried fruits. But what would panforte be without its stars: nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, and coriander?  I am all about spicy tastes this time of year.  I love Danish pebernødder nearly as much as the traditional gingerbread cookies I grew up making in the U.S.  I also make a wonderful fig butter that consists of dried figs stewed in a vat of wine, port, sugar, star anise, cloves, and cinnamon until the mixture is soft, thick, and syrupy.  It makes a wonderful gift.

So does panforte.  Apart from the taste, smell, and dramatic look of this chewy, fruit- and nut-studded cake, it’s most special when shared.  I cut mine into large wedges and wrap in baking paper for a rustic look.  I tie each bundle with a piece of brown twine or red and white checkered ribbon and suggest recipients enjoy a small slice with a mug of hot tea or coffee.

The other reason that panforte is not to be taken lightly is that it takes some planning and time to pull it all together.  There is nothing particularly difficult about it, unless you find candying your own fruit peel difficult.  In that case, see if you can buy some.  I treated the recipe like a puzzle that I worked on over time--three days to be exact.  I find it much more manageable, not to mention enjoyable, if I break a recipe like this down into steps.  First, I candied the quince.  And please, do not let an  inaccessibility to quince stop you from making panforte.  Just up the candied orange peel or substitute another candied fruit.

The day after I conquered the quince, I moved on to the orange peel.  I find that putting the fruit to cook on a back burner while I make dinner or wash dishes is the best way to accomplish this task.  I stored both batches of candied fruit in my fridge for a day and worked on toasting the nuts.  Then came the assembly.  The prep time was key.  Had I attempted to complete the whole thing in one shot I would have been annoyed, tired, and hurrying to finish it.  Instead, the assembly was a breeze and I could relax while patiently awaiting the finished product.

Adapted from Tartine Cookbook and The Wednesday Chef

8oz / 225g candied quince, strained and coarsely chopped
3oz / 100g candied orange peel, strained and coarsely chopped
1c / 225g dates, pitted and coarsely chopped
1c / 225g prunes, pitted and coarsely chopped
3/4c / 175g currants
2T / 30g grated orange zest
1T / 15g grated lemon zest
1c / 225g lightly toasted unsalted pistachios
2c / 450g well-toasted hazelnuts
2c / 450g well-toasted almonds
2/3c / 150g flour
1/2c / 115g cocoa powder
1T / 15g ground cinnamon
Freshly grated nutmeg from 1 1/2 nutmegs
3/4t / 7g ground coriander
3/4t / 7g freshly ground black pepper
3/4t / 7g ground cloves
3/4c / 175g honey
1 1/3c / 325g granulated sugar
1/4c / 60g powdered sugar


1. Heat the oven to 160 degrees. Butter a 26cm springform pan, line with parchment paper, and butter the parchment, making sure to butter the sides of the pan well.

2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the candied quince and orange zest, dates, currants, orange and lemon zest, and all of the nuts. Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander, pepper and cloves over the fruits and nuts. Mix well. Set aside.

3. In a deep, heavy saucepan, combine the honey and granulated sugar over medium-high heat. Stir gently with a wooden spoon from time to time to make sure that no sugar is sticking to the bottom of the pan. Bring to a boil and cook until the mixture registers 120 degrees on a thermometer, about 3 minutes. The mixture will be frothy and boiling rapidly.

4. Remove from the heat and immediately pour over the fruit-and-flour mixture in the bowl. Stir with a wooden spoon to incorporate the syrup thoroughly with the other ingredients. Work quickly at this point; the longer the mixture sits, the firmer it becomes.

5. Transfer to the springform pan and smooth the top with a rubber spatula dipped in water. Bake until the top is slightly puffed and looks like a brownie, about 1 hour. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 30 minutes. Run a knife around the edge to loosen and turn out of the pan and cool completely.

6. Sift powdered sugar over the top, bottom and sides of the panforte. Lightly tap it over the counter to shake off excess sugar. It will keep, well wrapped, in a cool, dry place for up to 2 weeks, or indefinitely in the refrigerator. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Vegan Fruit and Nut Cookies

Contrary to what you might think, the words cookie and vegan are not an oxymoron. Really. Let me say up front, I am not nor will ever be vegan. I couldn’t live without bacon. Or cheese. And a rich brownie without a glass of cold milk? Forget it. But I love baked goods, including, it turns out, vegan cookies.

While I wholeheartedly believe that the western world consumes entirely too much meat--at the expense of our heath and the environment--I also believe that one can enjoy animal products to the fullest in moderation without foregoing them entirely. American food writer and critic Mark Bittman is a self proclaimed “vegetarian before 6:00 p.m.” That is to say, Bittman, author of the best selling cookbooks How to Cook Everything and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, eats plant foods all day long, but at dinner enjoys a regular meal of, say, pasta, cheese, vegetables, perhaps a small steak even. In this way, he reduces his carbon footprint while at the same time improving and maintaining his overall health. There are also “Meatless Mondays,” an increasingly global effort to forgo meat at least once a week.

So what does all this have to do with today’s recipe? Simple. Instead of turning to your stand-by cookie that contains butter and eggs, why not try one that not only tastes fantastic but is made sans animal products. Some might argue that it's better for you and the planet.

Loaded with fruit, nuts, and coconut, it’s the perfect treat alongside a mug of hot tea or coffee. Just the thing to warm up during these chilly fall days. Go ahead and play with the ingredients. Can’t find dried blueberries? Cranberries are a great substitute. No shelled pistachios on hand? Pumpkin seeds, walnuts, or sliced almonds are an equally good bet. If you are feeling health-conscious, political, or environmental, these cookies fit the bill. On the other hand, it’s totally okay if you just want a sweet treat.

Delicious Vegan Cookies
Adapted from Alicia Silverstone's recipe

1c /250 ml rolled oats
3/4c /175 ml all-purpose flour
1/3c /75 ml brown sugar
1t /5.0 ml (small spoonful) cream of tartar (omit if unavailable to you)
1t /5.0 ml baking soda
1/2t /2.5 ml sea salt
1/3c /80 g maple syrup
1/2c /115 g vegetable oil
1t /5.0 ml vanilla extract
1/4c /60 ml dried blueberries (or cranberries, raisins, apricots)
1/4c /60 ml toasted pistachios (or other nuts)
1/4c /60 ml unsweetened coconut flakes
1. Mix the oats, flour, brown sugar, tartar (if using), soda, and salt in a large bowl.
2. Stir in syrup, oil, and vanilla.
3. Fold in dried fruit, nuts, and coconut.
4. Wet your hands with water; use your hands to shape the dough into small balls of uniform size.
5. Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, slightly flatten ball with the palm of your hand.
6. Bake at 350F /180C for 8-12 minutes or until tops are slightly golden. Let cool 5 minutes on baking sheet before removing to a wire rack.

Makes 12-15 cookies, depending on the size of your dough balls.