Thursday, January 28, 2010

Gratuitous Cuteness

A comforter, haphazardly tossed over a chair, becomes a nest for Topher.

Dorie Greenspan's Chewy, Chunky Blondies

My friends and I get together at least once a month to play board games, and when we do, the rules are pretty simple: You bring your own booze, and games and a snack to share. Most people pick up a bag of chips or some hummus and once, famously, a box of Twinkies.

As you can imagine, that's not good enough for me - not when I have a whole captive audience on which to try out new baking recipes.

In preparation for the last get-together, I was flipping through Dorie Greenspan's Baking from My Home to Yours and came upon these "Chewy, Chunky Blondies." (By the way, if you don't have this book and you're into baking, you need to buy it - right now.) I just happened to have all the ingredients in my pantry, and so it made the cut for Game Day.

The thing I love about Dorie's cookie recipes is that they usually are chock full of add-ins, which is how I think cookies and bars should be. In the case of these bars, we're talking a full cup each of coconut, chopped nuts (I used walnuts), butterscotch chips and hand-chopped bittersweet chocolate.

There were almost more add-ins than cookie, and that was just fine by me. But the cookie itself is nice and moist, full of rich, brown-sugary, buttery flavor. They went over a storm, and are definitely something I'd make again.

As a bonus, Game Day was held at the home of a couple; I'd played with the husband before (that sounds weird), but had never met the wife. When I walked in, she looked at the container and said, "If those are what I think they are, you're my new best friend." I asked her if she thought they were blondies and voila...I had a new best friend.

Chewy, Chunky Blondies
a Dorie Greenspan recipe

2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 cups (packed) light brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
6 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, cut into chunks, or 1 cup chocolate chips
1 cup butterscotch chips or Heath Toffee Bits
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
1 cup sweetened shredded coconut

Center a rack in the oven and preheat to 325 degrees. Butter a 9x13 inch baking pan and put it on a baking sheet.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

Working with a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium speed until smooth and creamy. Add both sugars and beat for another 3 minutes, until well-incorporated. Add the eggs one by one, beating for 1 minute after each addition, then beat in the vanilla. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the dry ingredients, mixing until they just disappear into the batter. Using a rubber spatula, stir in the chocolate, butterscotch chips, nuts and coconut. Scrape the batter into the buttered pan and even the top as much as possible.

Bake for about 40 minutes, until a knife inserted in the center of the blondies comes out clean. (Note: Careful here; a couple of times I got "false readings" because I hit a chunk of butterscotch or chocolate.) The blondies should pull away from the sides of the pan a little and the top should be a nice honey brown. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let cool for about 15 minutes before turning the blondies out onto another rack. Invert onto a rack and cool to room temperature right side up.

Cut into 32 bars, each roughly 2 1/4 by 1 1/2 inches.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

David Lebovitz' Potato Leek Soup

I know it seems like I only bake sweets, and I'll admit, I do that a lot. It's not that I'm averse to cooking. It's just that I'm usually just feeding myself, and when I am, I'm perfectly content to eat peanut butter sandwiches or stir fry some rice and tofu. Or just pop a batch of popcorn to eat while playing Mass Effect.

When I do cook, I like to do something that can be stretched out for informal meals throughout the week - beans and rice in the Crock Pot, for instance, or a pot of soup.

Key this week's recipe from David Lebovitz. I love Lebovitz, because he's funny, he's from San Francisco (even if he now lives in Paris), and he makes some seriously good grub. (Plus, he's written the world's best ice cream book.)

I came across this recipe on his site a few days' back, and since we're currently smack dab in the middle of the Bay Area's monsoon season (didn't realize we had those, did you?), I figured it was as good a time as any to pull it out.

The thing I loved about this recipe is the balance. In other potato-leek soup recipes I've tried, the flavors weren't balanced enough for my taste. They were too, well, leeky.

Which reminds me of a funny story about leeks: I was shopping once with my friend Jennie, who is totally punilicious. I love puns, which annoyed everyone else, because it meant I was always encouraging Jennie's terrible puns. Anyway, we were shopping, and our friend suggested we buy leeks for the stew we were making. Cue Jennie:

"Well, if they're LEEKS, we need a double bag!"

Get it?? See what she did th... Oh, never mind.

Anyway, David's soup was none too leeky, and had the perfect blend of potato and leek. I used a rich homemade veggie stock I had on hand instead of water, and I can't help but think that boosted the flavor a bit, too. Best of all, since I'm currently eating strict vegetarian, it could be made completely vegan (subbing olive oil for butter).

And it made the house smell all warm and homey.

So, if you're looking for a nice warm soup for your own monsoon season, I'd highly recommend David Lebovitz' Potato Leek Soup.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

TWD: Cocoa-Nana Bread

I actually made this week's Tuesdays with Dorie recipe, Cocoa-Nana Bread, over the New Year's break, in anticipation of today. It certainly is an interesting hybrid: Is it chocolate or banana? Is it a bread or a cake?

On the former, it's definitely more chocolate than banana, in my opinion. I know the combo sounds kind of odd, but the banana is almost an afterthought - what with the full cup of cocoa powder and chunks of bittersweet chocolate. It's almost as if the banana is there to give the bread a nice, moist texture, but the banana flavor really only hits you at the end of the taste.

And while it's called Cocoa-Nana BREAD, I'd beg to differ. Texture-wise, this is much closer to pound cake than to, say, banana bread. Part of that is the mixing method; quick breads like banana bread mix the dry and wet ingredients together separately, then stir them together. This bread is made more like a cake, by creaming the butter and sugar, then mixing in the other ingredients.

The result is a dense, thick loaf that really should be called Cocoa-Nana CAKE.

This was delicious served on its own, but it really came to life when I spread it with cherry preserves. Nigella Lawson has a chocolate-cherry trifle recipe that calls for sandwiching chocolate cake like this with cherry preserves, and I really think this would be the perfect base for such a trifle. I didn't have enough leftovers to try it, but I will.

In the meantime, if you want the recipe, head over to Obsessed with Baking.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sunday Brunch: Sears Fine Foods

Welcome to Sunday Brunch here at the Cinema! Sunday brunch is kind of an institution here in the San Francisco Bay Area (at least in the crowd I run with), and there are a lot of places that do it really well. I thought I'd take you through some of them, thus allowing me an excuse to go to brunch this morning to get pictures. See how this works?

Let's start with the granddaddy of all of them:

Yes, it's called Sears. I love saying "I had brunch at Sears", which conjures up images of me hanging out on a washing machine, eating eggs benedict. However, the two Sears are not associated, and there are no washing machines in sight. Sadly.

What Sears Fine Food is is one of the most famous places for breakfast in all of San Francisco. It's located right on Union Square, and is a major tourist draw. It's got a very old-fashioned SF vibe inside, filled with dark wood, white and black tile flooring, brass fixtures and neatly dressed waitstaff.

Miss Cassy, perusing the menu at Sears.

A couple of my girlfriends and I "discovered" this place a few months ago, because it's very close to the movie theater we like to go to downtown. I say discovered because it falls into that old adage where you never really experience the city you live in the way tourists do. (I, for instance, have never been to Alcatraz.) Lots of natives don't come here for that reason, and they're missing out, I say.

There's always a line outside Sears, especially on weekend mornings. This is actually one reason a lot of people don't experience it; they look at that line, which can stretch down the sidewalk, and freak out that they'll starve to death before they make it in the door. And they leave.

Here's an insider's secret: do not be intimidated by the line. I have never once been in it where I waited more than 10 minutes before I got seated. The truth is that a.) Sears is a cavernous place, and they move people in and out pretty briskly and b.) there's no place inside to wait. So, people wait on the sidewalk, but that's really not an indication of how long it will take to get seated. What would look like an hour wait in the rain at another restaurant is just a few minutes there.

So be brave and stay in line. Your reward will be...

The most awesome French toast you've ever had. This is what Cassy gets almost every time. One thing I love about Sears Fine Food is that they bring out their maple syrup warm.

Asking for extra powdered sugar gets you a whole ceramic bowl filled with the stuff. Cassy sprinkles it all over her French toast.

This is their most famous breakfast item: the Swedish pancakes. They're dollar-sized pancakes with a bit of buckwheat in the batter. They serve them with a little lingonberry sauce on the side, and I must say they are darn tasty.

This bad boy, however, is what I love the most. It's their "Crisp Pecan Waffle" and it makes me want to cry, it's so good. (You pronounce it PEA-can, by the way, not puh-CAHN. Don't let my mom tell you different.)

Actually, pretty much everything we've tried at Sears is delicious - even their hash browns are crispy on the outside and creamy and smooth inside.

We haven't done lunch or dinner there, but my friend Terry had a club sandwich on our last trip together, and she said it was just as good as their breakfast food.

Happy Terry, full of sandwich.

The waitstaff is always attentive, and when you're done, they give you a little token. You can keep it as a souvenir, or drop it in a slot machine at the front for a chance to win a free meal. We never win, but we keep trying, because at the very least, we still get to eat yummy waffles and french toast.

If you're in San Francisco, brave the line and try Sears Fine Food for brunch. Then you can be like me!

Next Sunday: Nona's Kitchen, in my hometown.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

My First Pie

I made a pie.

Doesn't sound all that exciting, does it?

After all, pretty much every post on this blog is about me making something or other. So, why should a pie be all that different?

Because - and here I have to make a confession: I was scared of pies. Absolutely terrified. Well, more specifically, I was scared of pie crusts. I just couldn't get them right. They always tore into pieces when I tried to roll them out, or shrunk into the filling when I baked them. But they usually didn't get far enough to be called pies; they were more like balls of slimy chunks of unrollable dough.


I have never - not once - made a final pie that I would want to serve anyone, and since I am not one to resort to ready-made crusts, I just gave up on them.

Stupid pies.

The problem is, I am seriously considering going to pastry school. If not full-time, at least taking some more in-depth pastry and baking classes. And how could I hold my head up in pastry school if I couldn't even make a simple pie crust?

So, a few days ago, I got it into my head that I was going to make a pie. I happened to have a jar of leftover pumpkin-pecan butter from Thanksgiving that I needed to use, and a little cream and an egg would turn that into a pie filling. So, I had only to tackle to the crust.

I turned to Cooks Illustrated, and they had at least one nice recipe that didn't require a food processor. (I don't like them, but it seems like every pie crust recipe requires one nowadays.) It included both shortening and butter, but here's something interesting - they have you freeze the butter, and then grate it into the flour (mixed with a little salt and sugar) after you've smashed in the chilled shortening. Then you cut that with a pastry cutter, and add some iced water until it forms a dough.

I pressed that dough into a circle until it held together and waited while it chilled. I was able to roll it out and into the pie plate, then added the filling. Less than an hour later, I had a real, honest-to-goodness, delicious pie.

It even looked okay. Sorta.

On the plus side, the crust was delicious - the butter gave it really good flavor, while the shortening made it nice and flaky. It stayed crisp, even on the bottom and even the next day. Cooks Illustrated isn't big on people reprinting their recipes, but it's in all their magazines and websites - I think it's called the traditional single-crust pie dough.

There were obviously a couple of negatives that I will need to iron out with practice. For starters, I got a little nervous rolling it out, and stopped too soon. That not only meant that my crimping looked kind of bad, but there was not quite enough dough on a couple of sides of the crust, and it crumpled in on itself. It also got a little brown; the filling recipe directed you to start out at 450 degrees for 15 minutes, and at the end of that, the edges were already brown. I protected them with foil the rest of the way, but they were still too dark. Next time, I'd wrap them in foil from the start.

But all in all, I was pleased. I had made a real-live pie, and I know what to do to get even better at it in the future.

Heck, maybe next Thanksgiving I will make my own pies. We'll see.

The point is: I did it. I made a pie.

Go me.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

TWD: Chocolate-Oatmeal "Almost Candy" Bars

Again with the not posting my Tuesdays with Dorie recipe on Tuesday. Sorry about that. It's purely a reflection of my own laziness, and not a reflection on these Chocolate-Oatmeal "Almost Candy" Bars. Because they rock.


The recipe is really straightforward; it's just a bar cookie with an oatmeal cookie base, covered in a layer of chocolate. You hold back some of the oatmeal base to make a crumbled topping, and then bake.

There's lots of little interesting bits. The oatmeal cookie base is studded with pieces of salted peanuts, and there's salted peanuts in the chocolate topping too. The chocolate layer is actually made by melting chocolate chips with condensed milk.

Dorie calls for adding raisins to the chocolate, but that just didn't sound appealing to me. It apparently didn't sound appealing to a lot of other bakers, either, because I read about a lot of substitutions on the forums. I settled on butterscotch chips, which melted nicely into the chocolate and gave an extra hit of sweetness to the bars.

There's really nothing I didn't like about these cookies, and they were super popular when I brought them to work the next day. I recommend you cut them thin (especially because they were really thick). It also makes a really big batch - I had plenty, and only made a half recipe in an 8x8 pan (instead of the 9x13 called for).

They were really sweet, especially with the butterscotch. I can even see making these MORE over the top, by adding coconut to the cookie base, or trying a caramel or dulce de leche layer between the two layers. But honestly, they're delicious and plenty sweet as is.

Overall, I thought these were great, and will probably make them again soon. To get the recipe, go to Confectiona's Realm.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

North American Cup Fencing Championships

I've always wanted to fence.

I love the energy of it, the power involved in overcoming your opponent quickly, before they can get their attack in on you. I love the blade itself - how something so small and thin could have done so much damage. "An elegant weapon for a more civilized age", as it were.

So a few months ago, when a local fencing club put flyers up in my area for an adult beginner's class, I thought, "What have I got to lose?" I was hooked instantly, and I've been fencing 2-3 times a week since then. Now, understand, I SUCK at it, but I suck a lot less than I did in August, and it's a great workout, and I love it.

Anyway, this weekend, the North American Cup is in San Jose, about an hour from me. The NAC is one of the biggest tournaments in the country, and it rotates from city to city. Essentially, this is where the big boys (and girls) fence. These are the best fencers in the country - the ones we'll all be watching at the next Summer Olympics. So I figured I'd go down and watch a few bouts and see how it's really done.

Division I was fighting yesterday, so it was pretty much the best of the best. It was also mostly college-age kids; I saw major contingents from Ohio State, Penn State, and Air Force.

Interestingly, there were tons of Eastern European accents, both in the fencers but particularly with the coaches. Most coaches (called Maestros in fencing) seemed to be Russian or Eastern European (one of my own Maestros is Polish, and two of my fellow students are Eastern European). The sport definitely seems to be more popular with those cultures, but that's just my own observation.

To give you an overview, there are three types of fencing - all based on the type of blade used: epee, foil, and sabre. Every type has different techniques, different blade/guard combinations, different targets, and different rules. Sabre is the fastest and most aggressive of the three, and it's what I fence. I went mainly to see the women's sabre fencers, but there was also some epee going on while I was there (not a lot of foil that I could see). I watched some qualifying rounds of women's sabre, and the medal round of men's epee.

The tournament goes through Monday afternoon, with Divisions II and III fighting today and tomorrow.

Here are some random shots from the floor. (Sorry, I didn't get any names or details or anything - a fencing tournament is a little bit controlled chaos.)

Some of the action from the women's sabre matches, mid-attack.

More sabre action.

En garde

She was the best fencer I saw yesterday. I believe she was from Penn State, but I may be wrong on that.

This fencer (from what looked to be an all-Islamic club) fought the best bout I saw yesterday - she came back from a 4-0 deficit (in a five-point bout) to win.

Men's epee. The guy from Air Force (left) was pretty cute.

Epee is a completely different style of fencing than I'm used to. Much more deliberate and methodical. They spend a lot of time setting up for a final strike, whereas in sabre, you just strike first and ask questions later.

Women's epee

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Brown-Eyed Susan Cake

Another one of the "Cake People" had their birthday this week: sweet Cassy. (Well, her actual birthday is this weekend, but we start early with Cassy's birthday.) I've only known her for a little over a year, but in that time she's pretty much become one of my favorite people in the world; I know if I ever need anything, Cassy-Cat will be there. So, yeah, she gets a cake for her birthday.

Plus, I've turned her from cool kid into a complete nerd (being partially responsible for her current Battlestar Galactica obsession), so I figured I ought to do something to make it up to her.

Her instructions were a little vague ("Not too huge on chocolate", "Maybe something fruity?"), until she mentioned that her favorite flavor combo in the world was chocolate and orange. That sounded more like something I could work with than her rhubarb idea (??), so I latched onto it.

Digging around, I found mention of a "brown-eyed susan cake." Apparently, it was all the rage in the 50s to make and decorate cakes based on flowers: crysanthemums, dahlias, and the like. The brown-eyed susan cake combined chocolate and orange flavors in both the layers and the frosting, so I decided on that.

Basically, you take a yellow cake batter and divide it in half: half gets flavored with chocolate and then half gets orange zest. You drop it into the cake pans by the spoonful to get kind of a checkerboard effect. Unless you're me, and then your cake layers look more like the symbol for radiation:

...which is kinda cool, actually.

Anyway, you then take a regular vanilla buttercream frosting, and divide it. To about 3/4 of it, you add dark chocolate, and to the rest a little orange juice (or in my case, a lot of orange juice and a little Grand Marnier). The chocolate frosting goes between the layers and on the sides, and the orange frosting goes on top.

I added a tiny bit of yellow food coloring to the orange-flavored frosting, then picked up some fresh brown-eyed susans on the way into work, and voila ... fancy birthday cake for an awesome person.

The things I would do differently? I used my favorite vanilla buttercream frosting that didn't require egg whites, but it's normally for cupcakes. I doubled the recipe, and still barely had enough to frost the cake. I felt this cake really needed piping around the edges to blend in the two frostings but I didn't feel like making another batch to have enough to do that.

Also, I wasn't too precise with the orange frosting. I added a tablespoon of juice to the frosting like the recipe said, but I couldn't taste the orange, so I added juice and Grand Marnier until the frosting was just about to break. Therefore, it looked a little moister and grainier than I'd like...but it tasted good!

It was actually a really great cake, especially for someone who prefers the taste of orange over chocolate. The chocolate held its own, but was very mellow and blended well with the orange. I added extra orange zest and juice to pump up the orange flavor, but overall, it's a great, easy cake.

You'll need your own recipes for yellow cake (or you can use a box; I won't judge) and frosting, but here's the instructions:

Brown-Eyed Susan Cake

1 recipe yellow cake batter
5-8 ounces bittersweet chocolate
2 teaspoons orange zest (I added a lot more; do this to taste)
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 tablespoon Grand Marnier or other orange liqueur
1 recipe vanilla buttercream frosting

Make the cake batter according to the recipe instructions, and divide it evenly between two bowls. To one bowl, add 2 ounces melted chocolate; add the orange zest to the other bowl. Drop the batter into your prepared pans by large spoonfuls in a loose checkerboard pattern; bake according to the recipe instructions.

After the cakes cool, make the buttercream frosting, and again, divide it into two bowls - this time putting about 3/4 of it in one bowl and 1/4 in the other. To the first bowl add the remain 3-6 ounces chocolate (use the larger amount if you doubled the frosting recipe). Add the juice and Grand Marnier to the second bowl and whip both to mix. (You can add extra juice and liqueur to the orange frosting, but be careful!)

To assemble, place one cake layer on the serving platter, and spread with chocolate frosting. Top with remaining cake layer, and spread the sides with chocolate frosting. If possible, reserve some of the chocolate frosting for piping. Spread the orange frosting on top. Pipe swirls of chocolate frosting to cover the cake's edge, if desired.

Top with fresh brown-eyed susan flowers, or make "brown-eyed susans" out of small pieces of candied orange zest and chocolate chips.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Secret Santa Game Exchange

And here you thought the holidays were over.

See, I've discovered that gamers have a hibernation period:

Every year, in every gaming group I've been a part of, Game Days start slowing down in late fall, and then come to a virtual standstill over the holidays (because, contrary to popular belief, we gamers apparently do have lives - who knew?). However, they then come roaring back in January. That is so true this year: I have a game scheduled pretty much every weekend of January.

So, in that vein, one of my groups celebrated Giftmas just a tad late, holding our "Secret Santa Game Exchange Day" yesterday.

We each made a list of games we wanted, and our Secret Santa purchased one of those off the list. We got together yesterday to open our gifts and play as many of the new games as we could.

Here're some scenes of the day, complete with color commentary.

It's my Secret Santa, DJ David K! He put the whole thing together, got us all to do wish lists, coordinated the exchange and basically herded cats to make it happen. Plus, he drew my name, so I was guaranteed an awesome gift:

Android is a complex, sci fi storytelling game where the players race against time and each other to solve a murder. There's a whole dystopian world of androids, clones, gadgets and vehicles, all set on a moon colony in the future. You're not only trying to solve the murder, but you're trying to solve your character's personal backstory and deal with their demons before the end of the two week game period.

This is exactly the kind of immersive, rich, theme-based world that David and I love in our games, so as soon as he saw it on my list he wanted to play it. Through total luck (and I know, because we were on Skype when he did the random draw), he got my name, and so I got Android.

Kingsburg was the game David got from his Santa, and it's on my list too. It's more of a strategy, resource-gathering game. You're basically playing as one of the king's governors, holding your own "duchy". You have to influence the king's advisors to give you various resources with which you build buildings - each that has its own effect. The buildings then let you fend off invasion (which happens periodically) or give you other benefits.

Here's my view of the table while playing Kingsburg. The mechanics are simple and straightforward, and it didn't take any time to learn the rules. There's an element of chance each round, so you're kind of having to rethink your strategy every round, which keeps you engaged. I actually loved this game, and want it now even more than I did before.

Here are some of the other games people got:

I got to be Secret Santa to my good friend Bryce! (There were lots of people I didn't know, so it was cool that two of the closest people there to me were my giver and receiver.) Anyway, Shadows over Camelot is an oldie-but-goodie, but one of the ones that Bryce doesn't have in his collection. Now he does.

My friend Davy got A Touch of Evil. It's a very atmospheric game set in the 18th century. You randomly draw a character on a card, each with their own abilities. I was Katarina, the Outlaw. This meant mostly that I was the best shot in the game. Also, that I was hot.

The premise is that you have a bunch of heroes going up against a randomly chosen villain, which is not played by anyone. So, it's basically you against the game. You have "teams" of heroes, though, so it was your team against the others. I'll do a full-blown review on Giant Fire Breathing Robot, but I had a hard time with this game. It lasted forever for starters and the rules and mechanics were a bit overwhelming for me. At the same time, the artwork, theme and soundtrack (yes, soundtrack) were pretty freaking awesome. So, I definitely want to try it again.

Overall, Secret Santa Day was a roaring success. I got an awesome game, got to spend time with some of my favoritest people, and made cookies that got me extra popularity points, which always come in handy.

Finally, speaking of Giant Fire Breathing Robot (GFBR, for short), that's my friends' new site for all things "geeky". They're really trying to branch out past games to cover anything of interest for our type of people. I've been writing some articles for them, so check them out.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

My New Favorite Chocolate Chip Cookie

Every good home cook has it: "their" chocolate chip cookie recipe. It has as much to do with your personal tastes as anything: milk vs. dark, crisp vs. chewy, nuts or not.

For me, I like my chocolate chip cookies with a little bite, and a lot of chocolate. But I don't like the chocolate to get all over my fingers for some reason. I like dark chocolate rather than milk chocolate (but only in chocolate chip cookies - for eating, I prefer milk), and I like walnuts, not pecans (even though I prefer pecans in everything else).

Basically, I'm incredibly picky.

Fortunately, I've found my chocolate chip cookie. First of all, I don't use chocolate chips; taking a tip from Dorie Greenspan, I take good chocolate and cut it into small squares. I dump the bars, shards and all, into the batter, so that the cookies are marbled and tweedy with chocolate. 1/3 semisweet chocolate and 2/3 bittersweet chocolate, which I think gives it just the right sweetness level. I also use a little extra sea salt for a faint salty flavor to balance the sweet.

I've made these cookies several times now, and they've always been a big hit. They're soft and chewy out of the oven, but then crisp up when they cool, though they still have a nice chew to them.

Also, they're pretty much noob-proof. Just bake them one sheet at a time, and keep an eye on them, and you'll be fine.

Better than fine, actually, cause you'll be full of chocolate chip cookies.

Dark Chocolate Chip Cookies
(adapted from a recipe by Dorie Greenspan)

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 tsp salt
3/4 tsp baking soda
2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
2/3 cup (packed) light brown sugar
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, cut into small squares
4 ounces semisweet chocolate, cut into small squares
1 cup finely chopped walnuts or pecans

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment or a Silpat. (I prefer Silpat - the cookies don't brown as much on the bottom.)

Whisk together the flour, salt, and baking soda.

Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with the paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter at medium speed for about 1 minute, until smooth. Add the sugars and beat for another 2 minutes or so, until well-blended. Beat in the vanilla. Add the eggs one at a time, beating for 1 minute after each egg goes in. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the dry ingredients in 3 portions, mixing only until each addition is incorporated. Mix in the chocolate and nuts, preferably using a spatula to avoid overmixing. (The dough can be covered and refrigerated for up to 3 days, or frozen. Freeze the mounded tablespoons of dough on a lined baking sheet, then bag them when they're solid. There's no need to defrost the dough before baking-just add another minute or two to the baking time.)

Spoon the dough by slightly rounded tablespoonfuls onto the baking sheets, leaving about 2 inches between spoonfuls.

Bake the cookies - one sheet at a time and rotating the sheet at the midway point - for 10-12 minutes, or until they are brown at the edges and golden in the center; they may still be a little soft in the middle, and that's just fine. Pull the sheet from the oven and allow the cookies to rest for 1 minute, then carefully, using a wide metal spatula, transfer them to racks to cool to room temperature.

Repeat with the remainder of the dough, cooling the baking sheets between batches.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The List - 2009

So, every New Year's Day, you think about all the things you did wrong or didn't do at all, and resolve to do things right this year.


Well, here's another idea. It's the New Year's List - 25 things that you accomplished, did right or are just plain proud of from the year just past. I've been doing this for a few years now, and I highly recommend it.

I got the idea from Cheryl Richardson, who writes life coaching/self help books, and I have to say it's a pretty sound idea, especially if you're one of those people (like me) who tends to discount what they have really accomplished.

For instance, when I started to write my list this morning, I thought, "Oh, God...I accomplished nothing in 2009. I bet I won't even get to 25." Then I started writing.

Here are just 5 things from my list:

1. Traveled to London, England with my daughter (her first time abroad)
2. Lost 40 pounds
3. Turned 40
4. Went home for Christmas to see my family for the first time in 8 years (and had an awesome time)
5. Took up fencing, which I had always wanted to try and was too scared to.

Uh...I think those things alone would probably be enough to say I accomplished a lot in 2009, don't you? And of course, I had a lot of smaller - but equally impressive - things on my list, too.

The point is that it's easy to focus on the things you didn't do or want to change, and then forget all the things that you did do and do well. And while having goals and resolutions for the new year is important and worthwhile, how are you supposed to do that without a good internal inventory? You need to know your assets, as well as your liabilities.

At work, we call it "Start, Stop, Continue." What are those things you want to start doing, stop doing, and most importantly, continue doing? If you're doing something well or right now, you don't want to stop doing that, or let it slip. You want to build on it.

So, start your list! You can do more than 25 if you want, but try to get to at least 25. To help you out, here are some questions from Cheryl's book Life Makeovers.

"*What qualities of character have you strengthened? Are you more honest with others about how you feel? Have you learned to set boundaries with those people who drain your energy? Have you improved your communication skills or become more sensitive to the needs of others?

*Have you shared an act of kindness or supported others in some way? Did you help a friend who is going through a divorce or care for an elderly parent? Did you coach your kid's sports team or volunteer for a non-profit organization?

*What special memories have you created with those you love? Did you take a vacation that was particularly memorable? Did you organize an event that brought people closer together? Were there any special memories that stand out?

*What have you achieved or accomplished? Consider both your personal and professional life. Did you meet business goals or get a promotion at work? Did you finish an important project, like writing a book or developing a workshop, or channel your creative energy into cooking or painting?"

The great thing about this exercise is that even in "bad years", you accomplished more than you think you did. To see that on paper is actually a really good thing, and puts you in a frame of mind to make this year even better.

Happy 2010, everybody!