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croquants {ffwd}

croquants

Don’t you love a snow day? Even though you could choose on any day to be lazy and just stay at home and putter, a snow day gives you permission, absolving you of the guilty feeling a self-imposed lazy day might bring on. I also love the relative quiet that a travel ban brings on. The sound of our and our neighbors’ snow blowers might pepper the air, but no one is out driving around except the snow plows.

The Day After

I have a dog who loves (insists on) walks, so even the winter storm (blizzard?) called Juno didn’t keep us home. With no traffic, we can safely walk down our normally very busy street (it’s actually a state highway) to get to quiet side streets. I find it peaceful to walk in the solitude of a neighborhood where most people are sheltering indoors. My very furry dog Bella is in her element, except for her frustration when mountains of snow prevent us from walking on the unpaved parts of our usual routes.

This week’s recipe for French Fridays with Dorie offered the perfect activity for when I was back inside the warm house. I baked a batch of croquants, a meringue-y nut-filled cookie.

Calling for just four ingredients, these cookies couldn’t be easier. The nuts are barely chopped. The egg whites don’t even need to be whipped. The nuts are tossed with sugar before stirring in the egg whites and then the flour. I used my smallest cookie scoop to form small mounds on parchment-lined baking sheets.

nuts and sugar

The croquants puff up and transform into light and slightly chewy delights. I loved the big pieces of nuts glued together with the meringue-like dough. I used a half hazelnuts (cut in half) and almonds (cut in halves or thirds crosswise). I’m intrigued to try the cashews Dorie mentioned as well as pecans and maybe macadamia nuts. So many possibilities!

Dough

I’d never heard of croquants before. They were new to me, and yet familiar. Croquants remind me of several different confections I enjoy. The texture reminds me of the almond macaroons I get at the Italian bakery. I was also reminded of the divinity candy I was obsessed with making when I was in high school. Most of all, they remind me of the Forgotten Kisses my mother used to make with chocolate chips. Now that I think of it, I wonder how croquants would be with chocolate chips instead of the nuts or with a mix of half and half…

The review from the resident chocoholic was this: “They’re not my top choice (no chocolate), but they are really good cookies”. A backhanded compliment, but praise nonetheless, so I definitely plan on making croquants again!

Check out my French Fridays friends’ links at French Fridays with Dorie. We don’t post the recipes, but you can find it in Dorie Greenspan’s book Around My French Table.

And for anyone who missed it on Facebook, here’s a photo from our breakfast at Area Four with Tricia and Mr. Tricia when they were in town two weekends ago.

Tricia3

Holiday Treat Wrap-Up

Holiday Treats

It’s hard to believe that the frenzy of the holiday season is over. I’m still cruising on a sugar high. It’s time to come down soon, but first we have to finish off the dwindling supply of sweets.

It’s been my tradition for a decade or more to make an assortment of treats to share with friends. The whole process is one of my favorite parts of the holidays. First, there’s choosing what to make. I usually mix old favorites with some new recipes. I also enjoy figuring out the right balance of cookies, candies, and nuts. Then, there’s the actual cooking, stirring up a whirlwind of sugar in the kitchen. Plus, there’s packaging everything up in a festive and inviting way, and, finally, delivering the packages to the people that made my year a special one.

Then, we repeat the process, usually with a different assortment, for Howard’s colleagues for him to bring when he returns to the office after New Years.

For my friends’ packages, I made two kinds of cookies, some sweet and salty nuts, and chocolate bark.

Round 1

Round 1

For cookies, first up, I tried Speculoos from Dorie Greenspan’s newest book, Baking Chez Moi. These spice cookies are rolled into logs for slice-and-bake cookies, my favorite technique, though to be honest, I preferred the rolled out version I’ve made from her Around My French Table.

I also chose another cookie recipe from an unlikely source, the out-of-print China Moon Cookbook. A long time ago, at my library’s book sale, I bought a signed copy of this book from a Chinese bistro that was once located in San Francisco, but I’ve never made a single recipe from it. It’s the dessert chapter that always tempts me with a variety of small cookies and luscious sounding tarts, all much more bistro-like than Chinese. The recipe for chocolate stars was calling to me, though my star cookie cutter wasn’t small enough, so I made snowflakes instead. These chocolate shortbread cookies were delightful. Cocoa powder made the dough chocolaty and the chopped dark chocolate gave an added burst of chocolate flavor. Even for this non-chocoholic, this recipe is a winner.

I always like to include some kind of nuts for snacking. The Maple-Thyme Pecans in the new Ovenly cookbook, from the bakery in Brooklyn, were tempting. I made one batch with pecans and another with walnuts. With the second batch, I cut back on the amount of maple syrup to avoid the soupy puddle left in the pan with the first batch. The sweet from the maple was nicely countered by the herbal tones of the thyme and the saltiness of coarse sea salt.

Finally, I took inspiration from David Tanis’ One Good Dish and made some Espresso Hazelnut Bark. This was as simple as topping melted bittersweet chocolate with chopped toasted hazelnuts, crushed coffee beans, and flaky Maldon sea salt.

For packaging, I thought I had bought wintery gift bags at the end of last year’s holiday season, but I couldn’t find them. I used paper lunch bags which I rubber-stamped with snowflakes and tied them close with white yarn.

Snowflake Bag

For the individual items, I fill clear candy bags and typically seal them with our sealer. This year, I did something more interesting. Early in December, I was searching the internet to re-find a white felt wreath I’d seen, but couldn’t remember where. My search brought me to a new (to me) website, White Gunpowder. Though the felt wreath project I found on Kay and Bill’s blog wasn’t what I was looking for, I did discover lots of inspiring new packaging ideas. They were also having a giveaway for an assortment of their favorite packaging supplies. Miraculously, I won!

Packaging supplies I won from White Gunpowder

Packaging supplies I won from White Gunpowder

For this year’s holiday packages, I used the decorative tape to close up the bags. The colorful tape added festive color, plus made the bags easier to open and reseal. I’ll continue to enjoy playing around with the assorted bags, twine, ribbon, and tape that came in my package from White Gunpowder. You should check out their site when you get a chance.

For the New Year’s reprise for Howard, he wanted to go with an all-chocolate theme (his favorite flavor). We repeated the espresso hazelnut bark complemented by Karen’s Cracker Candy topped with chopped almonds (which we’ve nicknamed Toffee Crunch) and World Peace Cookies. To round things out, Howard wanted to include Peanut Blossoms, the peanut butter cookies with a Hershey’s kiss pressed into the top. A nostalgic favorite, I hadn’t made them since I was in high school, though I have sampled them on holiday cookie platters, just not at my house. I used the cookie dough recipe I found on Liz’s site, but baked the cookies a little longer and did not return the pan to the oven after pressing in the kiss (the candy melted too much). I located the gift bags in time for this set, and we used the decorative tape again to seal the individual treat bags.

Round 2

Round 2

Overall, this was the perfectly sweet way to end one year and bring in the new. I won’t tell you how many pounds of butter I went through! I will say that I see lots of soup simmering on the horizon to help push the diet back on track to more healthy eating.

If you still feel like indulging, you can follow links above or here are a few of the recipes I made that are not already on-line.

Espresso Hazelnut Bark

1 lb bittersweet chocolate (I used a “Pound Plus” bar of Trader Joe’s 54% Dark Chocolate)
½ cup hazelnuts
½ oz coffee beans
1 tsp Maldon flaked salt

Preheat the oven to 400F. Toast the hazelnuts for 10-15 minutes, until skin is very dark. Rub the hazelnuts in a dishtowel to remove the skins. Coarsely chop the hazelnuts. Set aside to cool.

Place the coffee beans in a ziplock bag. Use a rolling pin to crush the beans.

Line a baking sheet with foil.

Coarsely chop about 80% of the chocolate. Chop the remainder a bit finer. In the microwave, melt the coarsely chopped chocolate. (Start with 1 minute on full power, stir, then heat at 50% power in 30 second increments, stirring after each burst, until completely melted.) Immediately stir in finely chopped chocolate until it melts completely. This tempers the chocolate which gives it a nice sheen when it cools.

Use an offset spatula to spread the melted chocolate to cover the baking sheet. Sprinkle with the chopped hazelnuts, then the coffee beans, then the flaked salt. Lightly press the toppings so they adhere to the chocolate. Chill until firm. Cut or break into pieces.

Chocolate Shortbread Cookies
Makes 4 dozen 2-inch cookies

½ cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces
½ cup sugar
½ tsp vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/8 tsp fine sea salt
1/8 tsp baking soda
½ cup finely chopped bittersweet chocolate (1/8-inch bits)

In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar on medium speed until smooth and light, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the vanilla, flour, cocoa, salt, baking soda, and chocolate bits, and mix until well blended, about 2 minutes. Gather the dough into a ball and flatten slightly.

Dust a large piece of parchment paper with flour. Place the dough in the center. Place another piece of parchment on top. Roll out the dough to an even ¼-inch thickness. Refrigerate rolled-out dough until firm, about 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 350F.   Line large baking sheets with parchment.

Using a 2-inch cookie cutter, cut out cookies. Place ½ inch apart on the baking sheets. Reroll scraps and cut more shapes.

Bake until the cookies are firm enough at the edges to slide easily off the parchment, 12 to 15 minutes. The cookies will be soft but will crisp up as they cool. Cool on the baking sheets set on wire racks.

Notes:

  • I used the 72% dark chocolate from Trader Joe’s.
  • The recipe called for making stars, but my star-shaped cutters are 3-inch or larger. I have 2-inch snowflake cutters, so that’s what I used. I was going for size over shape. The 2-inch size is perfectly bite-sized.
  • When I rerolled the scraps, I did not chill the dough again.