Friday, December 12, 2014

Cookie secrets from Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop

Ready to eat -- Fire Island Bakeshop's chocolate chip cookies fresh from the oven.

Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop builds its reputation on its breads and pastries, but many a visitor just wants a meringue, or a peanut butter cookie, or something small and chocolate-y to nibble. Often enough, the nibbler asks, "How do you get the chocolate chip cookie to puff up like that?" "What sort of butter do you use?" "Can I have another one please?"

A sampling of Fire Island cookies -- in the front -- chocolate shortbread with chocolate ganache filling; on the tray, chocolate chip cookies, rugelach, and at the back, birdseed bars.

Of course, you can almost always have another one. And on a Sunday evening, shortly before Christmas, Rachel Saul, co-owner of the bakeshop, offered a class to answer some of the other questions. About a dozen people gathered around work tables in the main room after the shop closed. Rachel handed out bakers' white aprons to tie around our waists, and plunged right into the how-tos of chocolate chip cookies.

Cookie class -- Rachel Saul at left in front of the oven, pastry chef Astrid in white coat, students.

She made it plain throughout that there are many ways of putting together cookies They are, after all, descended from ancient foods, the cakes of flour and water baked in the embers of the fire, and many chefs throughout the centuries have experimented with the basics. By adding oil and sugar, and then dozens of other delights -- fruits, nuts, chocolate, spices --  cooks have arrived at today's treats. What Rachel wanted to share was the way that Fire Island bakes cookies, based on their years of training and experience.

Chocolate chip dough, waiting to be scooped and shaped.

Scoops for the cookie dough.

So, that high-topped chocolate chip cookie? Some love the flatter version, others like them crisp. Fire Island likes them buttery, domed, evenly rounded. They get that way by being scooped out, rounded into small spheres, frozen, and then sent directly from the freezer into the 350 degree oven. Because they're cold when they go into the oven they have time to puff up, and become a bit crisp on the outside while staying soft on the inside.

Chocolate chip cookies, on parchment paper, ready for the freezer. 

They will go straight into the 350 degree oven on the same sheet. To get the best results,Fire Island bakers make sure that they are evenly distributed, with a cookie at each corner of the sheet and some space to spread a bit. They let them cook for five minutes, then rotate the pan 180 degrees. Whenever someone opens the oven door, they call out "Oven open!" The space is so small for the fourteen employees that they must coordinate their movements carefully.

"Oven Open!" Rachel has a pan of peanut butter cookies to bake.

About the ingredients -- Rachel emphasized that Fire Island uses non-GMO, and organic products as much as possible. All of the flour is organic, and comes from Central Milling in Utah. For cookies, they use "Type 85," a flour that combines white and whole wheat. Their butter is organic and salted. Although many bakers like unsalted, Fire Island believes that the salted butter lasts better, and brightens the tastes in the cookies. They reduce the amounts of sugar used in their cookies, and amp up the flavors with small amounts of salt and carefully-chosen spices.

In the flour storeroom.

We washed our hands, scooped dozens of cookies onto trays, and then headed into the back room to learn about chocolate shortbread while the chocolate chip cookies were chilling.

Some of the ingredients for the chocolate shortbread: butter, Extra Brute Chocolate powder, eggs.

One student separated the yolks from the egg whites, while Astrid demonstrated how to cream the butter, sugar, and salt in a professional mixer until it pulled away from the sides of the bowl. This incorporates air and makes the cookies lighter. Separately, she mixed melted butter with the cocoa powder, and let it cool before combining it with the butter and sugar mixture, so that it didn't melt the butter in the sugar mixture. At each step of the process, the bakers mix ingredients until they are about 90 to 95% combined. As more ingredients are incorporated, the earlier mixing will be completed. Astrid said that it was important not to overmix cookie dough, or the gluten in the wheat flour will "develop" more, and the cookies will be tougher (they'll taste fine, but the texture might not be ideal). Next, she folded in the egg yolks, two at a time. She scraped the sides of the bowl now and again, to make sure that the ingredients were evenly distributed.

The sheeting machine. It has a canvas belt. When the chefs are rolling the shortbread out, they put it between sheets of silicone (sil-pats) so that the chocolate doesn't stain the belt.

After the dough for these cookies chilled for a while, we ran it through the pastry sheeter. At home, rolling the dough out between two sheets of parchment paper would work just as well.

A rolling pin for home.

Shortbreads going on to the baking sheet. Note the even thickness.

After the shortbreads were ready to bake, we mixed up peanut butter cookies.

Measuring sugar --  at Fire Island, everything gets weighed.

We creamed the butter with the brown and white sugars, added the eggs, peanut butter, and last, the flour and dry ingredients. The peanut butter dough also got chilled, then scooped, shaped, and put on to the trays that had been lined with parchment paper (Fire Island re-uses their parchment paper up to eight times).

Peanut butter cookies ready to come out of the oven (they were baked at 350 degrees). 

The cookies were spaced widely so that they had room to spread, and plenty of heat around them to cook through. For flatter cookies, Rachel suggested pushing them down with the palm of your hand. They'll be crisper, but still soft inside.

Supplies for decorating sugar cookies.

We moved on to decorate sugar cookies that Rachel and Astrid had made earlier. Rachel demonstrated how to work with royal icing, piping it first around the edge of the cookie, then filling in the middle, and finally, adding the decorations.

Piping icing around the edge of the cookie; next step will be to fill in the center.

Finished sugar cookies.

While some of the students worked on sugar cookies, others watched Astrid add chocolate to cooked cream, turning the whole wonderful mix into chocolate ganache. They drizzled ganache onto biscotti, and dipped some of them into it.

Mixing cooked heavy cream and chocolate to make ganache.

Dipping cookies in ganache.

That was it. We took home plates piled high with our productions of the evening, and a few other cookies to savor. And we left with enough of Fire Island's secrets to brighten our cookie baking for years to come.

Rugelach, chocolate chip cookies, and birdseed bars.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Kirsten and Mandy Dixon Live at the Anchorage Museum

Tutka Bay and the Tutka Bay Lodge

How to spend a pleasant hour: listen to Kirsten and Mandy Dixon demonstrate how to make Alaska Pasta Carbonara at the Anchorage Museum. I went this evening to watch them cook for a small group of people, who took time out on a Thursday evening for food tips from two of Alaska's world-renowned chefs. The room on the fourth floor of the museum was scented with shallots sauteeing in butter, and the subtleness of fresh pasta boiling briefly. For nibbling ,while watching the demo, the Dixons provided little bites of bread with their smoked salmon with cardamom dip from Riversong Lodge Cookbook.

Smoked salmon-cardamom dip appetizers greeted guests at the Anchorage Museum cooking lesson.

 At the end, guests at the free event sampled small plates of fresh fettucine topped with a creamy miso sauce, salmon bacon, and shaved bites of hard cheese.

Alaskan Salmon Carbonara with fresh herbed fettucine.

I don't have a recipe for this specific dish for you, but here are recipes for the home-made pasta layered with fresh herbs, and the salmon bacon,. A creamy miso sauce is in Kirsten and Mandy's newest cookbook, The Tutka Bay Lodge Cookbook, at page 160.

The Tutka Bay Lodge Cookbook: Coastal Cuisine from the Wilds of Alaska
The Tutka Bay Lodge Cookbook

Kirsten discusses influences on Alaska cuisine.

The foods that Alaskans harvest -- the salmon, halibut and other seafoods, the vegetables that thrive in Alaska's summers, the sea plants, and the wild foods that can be foraged all affect what we cook. Styles and flavors have come from Alaska Natives, Russia, Eastern Asia, Scandinavia, and the Gold Rushers and early miners. The sample dish that the Dixons prepared -- salmon bacon, miso sauce, fresh pasta with herbs -- combined many of those influences into distinctly Alaskan tastes and textures.

Mandy breaks eggs for the pasta dough.

Kirsten and Mandy shared dozens of cooking tips with us:

  • Use unsalted butter, because it's always fresher.
Ingredients and tools -- rolling pin, miso paste, shallots, unsalted butter.
  • Make sure that you're getting extra virgin olive oil from a reliable source. They mentioned that Costco glass bottles of olive oil with the Kirkland label fit that description.
Kirkland extra-virgin olive oil. Mandy rolling out the pasta layered with fresh herbs.
  • Make the pasta recipe with gluten-free flour, if desired. They recommended a mix developed by a friend called "Cup-4-Cup," available in stores around Anchorage.
  • For the demo cooking, they used lightweight, butane-fueled burners that are available at Asian stores in town. Mandy noted that they're very handy for warming a soup to serve when you're outside grilling other foods, and for a variety of purposes.
Butane-fueled lightweight portable burners, with pasta water on one, and miso sauce on the other.

  •  Use heavy stainless steel pans, and wooden cutting boards rather than plastic. They are easier to clean, and work well for both cutting and rolling.

The miso sauce. 

  • Kirsten suggested that the sauce should be drizzled over the pasta rather than mixed into it because the fresh pasta will soak up too much and become soggy.

The salmon bacon -- slices of smoked salmon lox, brushed with a rhubarb glaze, and baked for a few minutes until crisp.

The fresh pasta with herb layer.

  • Mandy rolled out one layer of pasta, spread fresh parsley, sage and other herbs on it, set another layer of pasta on top, and rolled it all through the hand-cranked pasta machine, before slicing it for fettucine.

The final dish -- herbed fresh fettucine, drizzled with creamy miso sauce, garnished with salmon bacon, fresh herbs, and shaved hard cheese.

Mandy runs La Baleine Cafe on the Homer Spit in the summer, and the Dixon family owns two wilderness lodges, described at Within the Wild.  They offer cooking classes, days and weekends, at the Tutka Bay Lodge.

Tutka Bay Cooking School, inside an old boat next to the lodge.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sour cream and chocolate chips -- a tale of two sweets

Sour cream-brown sugar-chocolate chip cookies for the first snow of the season

It was the best of days. It was the worst of days. In Anchorage, the first two inches of snow for the season meant  joy for some, and sorrow for others. In 1971 when the snow fell during our first October in Alaska, one of us curled up under the covers and hid for the rest of the day. Others went out and made snow angels and built as many snow people as the thin coating would allow. Having grown up in the Southwest corner of Michigan, snow is a fact of life, met with a smile (it's beautiful) and a sigh (it's cold and slick and has to be cleaned up).

No more sitting out on the front porch for the next few months.

So when the snow started coming down yesterday morning, Jim and I spent a while walking through the damp fine flakes, and then settled in for the afternoon at home. I filled the bird feeders and put them out (Anchorage law forbids putting bird seed out before the bears have gone to bed -- the first snow is generally considered to mark that day). Then I turned my attention to left over sour cream that had to be used soon. But how to decide between chocolate chip cookies and sour cream/caramel brownies? No way to do that, so I made both.

Sour Cream/Chocolate Chip Cookies

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. 


1/2 cup butter, slightly browned (melt over low heat, stirring, until just turning brown around the edges of the liquid)

1 1/4 cups firmly packed brown sugar

1/2 cup sour cream

1 egg

1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon vanilla

1 1/2 cups chocolate chips

Cream the butter and sugar thoroughly. Mix in sour cream and vanilla. then beat in the egg.

Whisk the flour and salt together in a separate bowl.

Add flour and salt to butter-sugar-egg-sour cream mixture and combine until an even color.

Mix in chocolate chips.

Drop by small spoonfuls onto ungreased baking sheets.

Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until just beginning to show a hint of brown around the edges.

Cool on racks.

Sour cream-caramel brownies with chocolate chips

Sour cream-caramel-chocolate chip brownies.

We purchased a ten-pound bag of chocolate chips from Costco not too long ago. I won't say that it was a mistake, but that is a lot of chocolate chips. Yesterday was a golden opportunity to use some

This recipe was adapted from Bakeaholic Mama's sour cream espresso brownies with salted caramels. I used homemade caramel sauce blended into the sour cream mixture, and added a cup and a half of chocolate chips instead of using the salted caramel chips.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Butter or oil a nine-inch by thirteen-inch, two-inch deep baking pan, and line with parchment paper.

Make the sour cream mixture:

1/2 cup sour cream

1/2 cup caramel sauce (see recipe below)

2 Tablespoons flour

1 egg

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 to 3/4 teaspoon salt (the larger amount gives more of a salted caramel experience)

Stir well in a medium bowl, and set aside.

Make the brownies:

4 eggs

1 cup brown sugar

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup butter, melted and browned, let cool a bit

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1 to 2 teaspoons espresso powder

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup to 3/4 cup cooking cocoa powder (I had only 1/2 cup left, and it worked fine)

1 1/2 cups chocolate chips

1/2 cup of caramel sauce for drizzling

Whisk the eggs, brown sugar, granulated sugar, vanilla, and salt together. Slowly whisk in the melted butter (pour in a bit at a time, then whisk -- the idea is to not have the butter so hot that the eggs start to cook).

In a separate bowl, stir the flour, cocoa, and espresso powder together.

Combine the flour mixture with the liquid batter. Fold in the chocolate chips.

Pour the brownie mix into the prepared baking pan. Pour the sour cream mixture over the top. Using a knife, swirl the layers together. Drizzle a half-cup of caramel sauce over the top.

Brownies, ready for the oven, with the caramel drizzled over.

Bake for 35 to 45 minutes (depends on your oven) until a toothpick pushed into the middle of the brownies comes out clean.

Cool for at least one-half hour before cutting (OK, I didn't wait that long before tasting, but to cut them evenly you need to let them cool for a while). Cut small pieces -- these are very rich. I am going to try freezing some of them to eat during the holidays.

Caramel sauce

Melt 1/2 cup of butter in a quart or two-quart pot. Stir in 1 1/4 cups of firmly-packed brown sugar and 2 Tablespoons of corn syrup (the corn syrup keeps sugar crystals from forming and gives the sauce a better texture). Bring to a boil, and boil for one minute. Turn down the heat a bit if needed to keep the pot from boiling over. After one minute, take the sauce off the heat and pour in 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream. Heat until boiling again, then turn off heat. Let cool. This keeps in jars in the refrigerator for several months, and is good on almost anything (haven't tried it on kale, but don't know why it wouldn't work).

Snow in pine branches.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Homer, Alaska delights, July 13, 2014

                                        Wild roses, Homer. [Photo, TWCarns]

                               Swift at its nest in the vent on a building [Photo, TWCarns]


   Evening rainbow caught in the mountains across Kachemak Bay from Land's End [Photo, TWCarns]

                              Cow parsnip head going to seed [Photo, TWCarns]

   Sandhill crane and half-grown chick at Beluga Slough (there were two adults and two young ones, but couldn't get them all in the same picture) [Photo, TWCarns]

                                       Bluebells at Beluga Slough [Photo, TWCarns]

                                Raven on driftwood at Bishop's Beach [Photo, TWCarns]

                                Homer Spit from Bishop's Beach [Photo, TWCarns]

                 Homer peony (these are becoming big business in the area because the growing conditions turn out to be ideal). [Photo, TWCarns]

                              Luke, Kathy, Lauren at Land's End beach. [Photo, TWCarns]

                                    Orange lilies in a garden. [Photo, TWCarns]