Monday, October 29, 2012

"Eat Me" Cookies, or Not in Wonderland Anymore

As a child of the 80s and 90s, I grew up with Disney movies.  I acted out elaborate dance routines (by myself) to music from The Lion King.   I watched Aladdin every day for over a week.  I’m fairly certain I still have a majority of the movie memorized (which probably explains why I can’t remember rather more important facts, like phone numbers or dates).  While many of the movies I watched had the classic princesses in it, I’m grateful that I missed the princess phenomenon, of which I highly disapprove.

Besides, those were never my favorite movies.  I loved Beauty and the Beast, it’s true, but mainly because Belle had her nose stuck in a book as much as I did.  And I liked the Beast better before he transformed back into a prince, not to mention how much better the household staff were as household objects.  I’ve never been a princess kind of girl.  I always enjoyed the adventure parts of the stories better.  I barely watched Snow White,Cinderella, or Sleeping Beauty.  I preferred Scar, the Magic Carpet, and underwater worlds.  I preferred gifts of libraries.

While I can’t honestly say that Alice in Wonderland was ever one of my favorites (book or movie), I did enjoy the upside-down, topsy-turvy world filled with darkness and wonder.  It was, at least, interesting.  A girl falls into a fantasy world, and it isn’t all sweetness and light and singing birds.  You (and Alice) are never quite certain what’s going on or what is going to happen next.  It all seems very much like a dream

Which leads me to the first book I read for the “Dirty Book Club” I’m a part of.  I missed out on the first book, a non-fiction work, but the second book chosen was Lost Girls, a (graphic) graphic novel  by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie.   And believe me, we are not in Kansas anymore, kids.  The premise is that Dorothy Gale (of Wizard of Oz), Wendy Darling (of Peter Pan), and Alice (of Alice in Wonderland) meet up right before the events of World War I at a hotel in Austria.   They tell their stories of sexual awakening, abuse, and molestation, which they have turned into their own private fantasy worlds (i.e. Alice’s White Rabbit is a family friend who gives her alcohol and molests her, Dorothy’s Cowardly Lion is a shy farm boy she seduces, and Wendy’s Captain Hook is a deformed pervert). 

While this story effectively served to forever brutally mutilate beloved childhood stories, I can’t deny the brilliance of the notion.  Each of the three girls have a fantasy world. Fantasy worlds are a basic coping method, particularly for sexual trauma.  Plus, placing the three women against the backdrop of World War I, considered to be the end of American innocence, doubles the loss of innocence the stories portray.  Each of the girls’ stories are illustrated in different manner.  Wendy’s stories are shaped like tall, Victorian windows.  Dorothy’s are long and low, like the Kansas skyline.  And Alice’s are oval, like her looking glass.

It was these little details that, for lack of a better word, endeared me to the otherwise unendearing story.  The stories are appalling, and go from slightly offensive to all-out repugnant.  But the psychology, setting, illustrations, and clever twists redeem the rest and give, at least, a reason for the graphic illustrations.  For the most part.

For our discussion meeting, I wanted to bring something appropriate to the topic, without being, well, vulgar.  So I fell back on the more innocent side of the stories with the classic, child-friendly version of Alice in Wonderland.  Lost Girls referenced the “Eat Me,” sweets from the original Alice story, though in an entirely different way, during a debauched scene that Alice's perverse mentor involves her in.  "He had pellets.  He had laudanum.  I think even the cake we had was opiated.  Everything unfurled magnificently. [...] I didn't know if I was a very little girl or a giant woman."  

A trusty Google search led me to these adorable sugar cookies straight out of the Disney version of Alice, which changes the cake of the book into delightful cookies.  It was perfect.  Even though the Alice story was never a favorite, I always loved the idea of the little “Eat Me” “Drink Me” bottles and sweets.  It’s an image that’s stuck with me, potential proof of my long-dormant inner foodie.

I can’t say that making these was easy, but I liked how they turned out (though the originator's turned out far better), and they went so well with the topic.  They would be amazing for an Alice-themed party, and I think could be simplified, because really, writing with a toothpick was kindof ridiculous.

"Eat Me" Cookies
(makes approximately 2 doz cookies, depending on size of cookie cutters)
adapted from Diamonds for Dessert

1 c. butter (2 sticks), room temperature
1 1/2 c. sugar
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla
2 1/2 c. flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
Pink and peach food coloring
1 oz. bittersweet chocolate, melted

1 c. powdered sugar
4 tsp. milk, approx
2 tsp. light corn syrup
1/4 tsp almond extract
Red, pink, purple, and green food coloring
Pink and purple round sprinkles

To make the sugar cookie dough, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Add in the egg and vanilla, incorporating completely.  Whisk together the dry ingredients in another bowl, and then slowly add to the butter mixture to form the dough.

Bring the dough together into a ball and use a pastry cutter or knife to separate into four equal parts.  In a bowl, add a bit of pink food coloring to 1/4 of the dough to form the desired shade of pink.

In another bowl, add peach food coloring (or a combination of pink and orange) to the second 1/4 of dough to make the peach coloring.

In a third bowl, add the melted chocolate to the third 1/4 of dough to make the chocolate dough.

Wrap each 1/4 in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 350F.

Pick a color and roll out the dough on a floured surface to 1/4" thickness.  Then you can use a knife and/or cookie cutters to make the various shapes.  Diamonds for Dessert has a nice layout of the various color/shape combinations to create the precise look of the Disney cookies.  I recommend following her instructions, particularly for the checkerboard cookies, which I lost patience with and which, therefore, turned out rather miserably.

Place the cut-out cookies on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet and bake, in batches, for 8-12 minutes.  Mine were a bit on the thin side and averaged 10 minutes bake time.  Remove and cool completely on racks.

To make the icing, mix the powdered sugar and milk until no longer lumpy.  Start with 2 tsp. milk and add as needed.  Add the corn syrup and extract and mix until smooth.  If the icing is too thick, you can add in a bit more corn syrup.  You'll need to be able to spread it, but it shouldn't be so thin it drips over the edge of the cookie.

Again, follow Diamonds for Dessert's layout for decorating.  It's thorough.  I see no reason to repeat it here, except to say that I did have some trouble writing with the freaking toothpicks.  There has to be a better way.  I'd probably use icing bags if I ever made these again.

See?  Worst. Checkerboard. Ever.

In the end, I admit I enjoy ridiculously complex baking projects, so these fulfilled that masochistic desire, with the added benefit of being super cute.  And besides, who doesn't want to eat a cookie that's practically begging for it?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Middlesex, Moussaka, and Missing Greek Fest

About a month or so ago, as my husband and I were estate sale-ing, I remembered that it was the weekend of the yearly Greek Fest that takes place in the area.  We've gone the past few years.  It was where (during my period as a peroxide blonde) a Greek vendor told me I looked like "Marilyn Mon-noe" and offered to get me a fan to stand over.  It was where we stood in a long line in a constant drizzle of rain, just to get a giant plate of delicious food.  It was where I wanted to go.  Right then.  I could almost taste the thick sauce, the greasy meat, the phyllo dough.

Alas.  My husband is now a vegetarian, which seriously limits most food options (with the highly notable exception of baklava).  So he took me to a nearby Greek restaurant instead, and I had a gyro.  While delicious, it wasn't quite the same.

Thank God for reading.  One of my latest reads was Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides.  (Note: I feel like I'm one of the few people out there who has never read or seen The Virgin Suidcides, so Middlesex is my first encounter with Eugenides.)  For those of you who haven't read it, it tells the coming of age (and the changing of gender) of a Greek hermaphrodite.  It was, truly, a delightful book.  Eugenides writes with heart, sympathy, and honesty.  I adored the narration, the various and unique lives of the characters, and, of course, the food.  Because, of course, there is food.

My favorite food passage came early on, after Cal's (the narrator's) grandparents have come over to America.  Cal's grandfather works on an assembly line (another amazing passage), while his grandmother does her own work at home:

"Desdemona stayed home and cooked.  Without silkworms to tend or mulberry trees to pick, my grandmother filled her time with food.  While Lefty ground bearings nonstop, Desdemona built pastitsio, moussaka and galacto-boureko.  She coated the kitchen table with flour and, using a bleached broomstick, rolled out paper-thin sheets of dough.  The sheets came off her assembly line, one after another.  They filled the kitchen.  They covered the living room, where she'd laid bedsheets over the furniture.  Desdemona went up and down the line, adding walnuts, butter, honey, spinach, cheese, adding more layers of dough, then more butter, before forging the assembled concoctions in the oven."

I think my mouth may have been watering. I wanted, no, needed to make something.  My month-old desire for Greek Fest flared up, with overdue vengeance.  And so, before I even finished the book, I went out and bought some eggplant.  I was making moussaka.

Let me just say... this was delicious.  I also made a vegetarian version for Alec, which was almost equally as good.  It was warm, creamy, and tasted of everything I loved about Greek Fest.  All without waiting in line in the rain or having a Greek vendor attempt to get me to stand over a fan.

Note: If you'd like to see what I now also think of every time I think of moussaka, watch this SNL video:  The Love-ahs.

(makes approx. 4-6 servings: double recipe for a 9x13 pan)
adapted from

2 eggplants
1/2 lb potatoes
1 lb ground beef (or lamb)
1 onion, diced
1 clove garlic, diced
1/4 c. red wine
2 tbs chopped parsley
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp ground allspice
1/2 c. crushed tomatoes
1 tbs tomato paste
1/2 tsp sugar
1 c. breadcrumbs
4 egg whites, lightly beaten
1 c. Parmesan cheese, grated

1 stick salted butter
1/2 c. flour
2 c. warm milk
4 egg yolks, lightly beaten
Pinch ground nutmeg

Partially peel the eggplant, leaving strips of skin.  Slice eggplant into 1/2 slices.  Pile the slices in a colander in the sink, salting the eggplant liberally.  Cover with an inverted plate and place a heavy can (or two) on top to weight it down.  This is to draw some of the excess moisture out of the eggplant, with the added benefit of cutting down on the bitterness of the eggplant.  Let this sit for at least 15 minutes.  Preferably an hour.

Peel the potatoes and parboil them.  Parboiling: cooking until just done.  You don't want them overly soft, but there should not still be a crunch to them.  This should take about 20 minutes of boiling in a pot of water. Drain, cool, and slice them into 1/4" slices.  Set aside for later.

Preheat the oven to 400F.

Line a baking sheet with foil and lightly grease with olive oil or cooking spray.  Lightly beat the egg whites with a tablespoon of water.  Put the breadcrumbs on a plate.  Start an assembly line for coating the eggplant slices.  Dip a slice in the eggwhites, then dredge through the breadcrumbs, coating completely.  Place the coated slice on the covered baking sheet.  Repeat with all the slices.  Bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes, flip the slices over, then bake for another 15 minutes, until golden brown.

Remove from the oven, set aside, and lower the oven temperature to 350F.

To make the meat sauce, brown the ground beef in a large saute pan.  Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until translucent, about 5 minutes.  Add the garlic and cook for another minute.

Add the wine.  Simmer the mixture until slightly reduced.

Add the cinnamon, allspice, parsley, crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, and sugar.  Simmer uncovered for 15 minutes.  It will be a drier, chunkier sauce, not a thick and juicy tomato sauce.

Add salt and pepper to taste.

To make the bechamel sauce, melt the butter in a small sauce pan over low heat.  Add the flour, whisking constantly until smooth and incorporated into the butter.  It will look like a paste.  Let cook for a minute, being careful not to let it burn.

Add the warm milk in a slow stream, whisking constantly.  Simmer over low until it thickens.  Do not let it come to a boil.

Remove from heat.  Add 1/2 a cup of the milk mixture to the egg yolks, whisking constantly.  This will temper the yolks so they do not cook in the hot mixture.  Then add the egg yolk mixture back into the milk mixture, again whisking constantly until incorporated.  Add the pinch of nutmeg.

Return to heat and simmer, stirring, until it significantly thickens.

It's finally time to assemble the moussaka.  Lightly grease a deep 9x9 pan (a lasagna pan).  Sprinkle the bottom with breadcrumbs, and top with a layer of potatoes.  Leave a small border around the edge to allow the sauce to fill in the sides when you add it.

Top with a layer of eggplant slices.

Add all of the meat sauce on top of the eggplant layer, and sprinkle 1/4 of the grated cheese on top.

Add another layer of eggplant slices, and a second 1/4 of the cheese.

Finally, pour the bechamel sauce over the top, allowing it to spread down the sides of the whole thing.  Smooth the top with a knife.  (Mine was a bit runnier than it should have been, because I was short on a few ingredients, but I assure you, it made no difference in taste.)  Sprinkle the top with the rest of the cheese.

Bake for 45 minutes, until the cheese is a glorious golden brown and your house smells divine.  Allow to cool for 10-15 minutes, or your tongue will probably, like mine, be burned.

This is a dish that reheats excellently, and really only seemed to get better.  I had two servings the first night, and only stopped myself from eating more by promising I would share it with my fellow Redhead in Crime, Katie.

Seriously, this dish makes up for missing Greek Fest, and then some.  There will be tweaking with the next go-round, but I could have doubled my recipe and still finished it all within the week.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A Hungry Girl in Discworld, and an Introduction

I have two truly great obsessions in life.  Books.  And food.  The first is a long-time love affair, while the second is a more recent, and more fattening, devotion.  As many things in my life seem to, these two loves go excellently together.  Perhaps I've only really begun to notice it this year, but there is a helluva lot of food in books.  I'm not complaining.  Far from it.  This year in particular, the food and drinks that are appearing in the books I've been reading (I aim for at least 50 books a year) have been greatly affecting me.  The Great Gatsby got me to drink gin.  Game of Thrones makes me crave meat and mead.  A Year in Provence had me practically packing my bags for France just so I could drink wine for breakfast, hunt for truffles, and cook all day long.

And that's what this blog is going to be about.  The books I read, the appetites they inspire, and the food I cook because of it.  Welcome, and enjoy!


Next to Julia Child, Terry Pratchett is my favorite food writer.  If you think those two don't go together, then you haven't been reading enough Pratchett.  Take, for example, this exquisite description of, well, diner food, in Guards! Guards!: "...the food was good solid stuff for a cold morning, all calories and fat and protein and maybe a vitamin crying softly because it was all alone."  Beautiful, isn't it?  Doesn't that just make you want to go straight out to your favorite greasy spoon and absolutely drown yourself in fried food?

As a confirmed food lover, the sheer presence of food in the Discworld novels caught my interest shortly after I began reading them.  I'm absolutely convinced that Sir Terry Pratchett loves food about as much as I do, particularly the food of the common people, or street food.  The references to "hot grease" in some books are mouth-wateringly numerous.  I would almost go so far as to say that Pratchett sees food as the great equalizer, but that is truly a subject for a dissertation.

For now, let's stick with the food itself.  With the notable exception of the wizard-centric novels, few other groups in the Discworld seem to encounter as much food as the Night Watch (if you ask me, this is a direct correlation to the above-mentioned prevalence of street food).  The Night Watch is made up of the common man (and dwarf, and zombie, and werewolf, and troll, and etc.), after all.  They live and work among other common men, et al, where food is bought and made and sold.  Wives cook breakfast, bakeries bake bread. There are eateries and street vendors (namely Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler).

Pratchett never misses a chance to use food as a wossname, metaphor.  A character's food preference is usually a commentary on their character.  The Patrician is known for dining on boiled water and dry bread, whereas other rulers are famed for eating with their knives and throwing half-masticated chicken legs over their shoulders.  And you always know who's been around when a peanut shell floats to the ground.

It should be little wonder by now that I've chosen a Discworld novel, Guards! Guards!, the first Watch book, for my first entry.  And for the very first Discworld delicacy, I've chosen a food with seemingly multiple definitions: the humble figgin.  It first makes its appearance in Guards! Guards!  Pratchett defines the figgin in a footnote as being "a short-crust pastry containing raisins."  Nobby and Sgt. Colon later go to a bakery to get some figgins.  But that isn't the extent of it.  Pratchett's definition comes only after the use of the word "figgin" in the sacred rituals of the Elucidated Brethren: "And it be well for an knowlessman that he should not be here, for he would ... [have] his figgin placed upon a spike."

This certainly implies a much more... intimate definition of the word.  Brother Fingers runs away screaming later in the book when Nobby asks if he would like his figgin toasted.  Also, a former ruler is "hung up by his figgin," and I have a hard time believing that he was merely clinging to one end of a particularly sturdy pastry.

Regardless, we will be sticking to the culinary version of the figgin.  It appears to be similar to a Chorley cake, popular in Lancashire.  A Chorley cake is traditionally made with currants, sandwiched between two layers of short crust pastry, but can also be made, like the figgin, with sweeter raisins (sultanas).  They are often served with butter or a slice of cheese and may be, as Nobby suggests, toasted.

I very much enjoyed learning about and making figgins. Chorley cakes.  Whichever.  My technique may need a bit of work, but there's no arguing with the end result, which is a light, just-barely-sweet pastry perfect for a tea-time or on-the-go snack.

Figgins (Chorley Cakes)
(makes 12-15)
adapted from Butcher, Baker

1 1/2 c. flour
1 stick unsalted butter (8 tbs), cold and cut into pieces
Pinch salt
1/2 c. ice cold water
2 tbs butter
Pinch nutmeg
1 c. raisins and currants
1 egg, beaten

Preheat oven to 400 F

Sift together flour and salt in a large bowl.  Add the 8 tbs butter into the bowl and either cut into the flour with a pastry cutter, or rub in with your fingers, until the mixture looks resembles sand and there are no pieces larger than a pea.

Add in water 1 tbs at a time, tossing the mixture with a fork, until the dough comes together and does not flake apart when squeezed.  Knead lightly to form a ball.  Flatten into a disc and wrap in plastic wrap.  Chill the dough for 1 hour.

To prepare the filling, melt the 2 tbs butter and mix in the nutmeg and raisins/currants until coated.

When the dough has chilled, generously flour your work surface.  Don't ever worry about over-flouring.  You can always dust off flour, but it's far more difficult to peel sticky dough off the counter.  Trust me.  Place the dough on the floured surface, and flour the top of the dough.  Roll it out to between 1/8-1/4" thickness.  Cut out 3" rounds in the dough, as many as you can get (around a dozen).

Put 1 tbs filling in the center of each disc. Fold the outside edges of the disc up over the filling to cover.  Flip the pastry over so the seam is facing down, and roll lightly over the pastry with a rolling pin to flatten.  The raisins will begin to press through the dough.  This is what you want to happen.  Place on a baking try lined with parchment paper.

(Note: next time I make these, I would flatten them even more.)

Repeat with the other rounds.

Brush with the beaten egg (this will add color to the pastry as it bakes), and bake in preheated oven for 10-15 minutes, until golden brown.

Enjoy warm from the oven, either plain or with butter or cheese.  These keep for several days in an airtight container.  You can heat them up again later, if they last that long.