When A Cookie Is Not Quite A Cookie

April 9, 2008


At times, I have the world’s biggest sweet tooth. But other times, I like to turn down the sugar amp a tad. That is why I especially adore Italian desserts, because they satisfy more subtly. With their additions of nuts, olive oil, ricotta or other cheese, and fresh or dried fruit, they provide especially flavorful yet tempered endings to a fine meal.

One of my favorite new  cookbooks is “Dolce Italiano’’ (W.W. Norton & Company, 2007, $35) by Gina DePalma, the pastry chef at Babbo in Manhattan. It is filled with Italian desserts just like this.

Leafing through the pages, I stopped at the recipe for “Calcioni.’’ DePalma calls it her favorite baked pastry ever. So how could I resist?

These are small half-moon shaped pastries. The dough has a whisper of sweetness from granulated sugar and vanilla extract, while the filling is salty Percorino Romano. At first bite, you think you’re eating a cookie. Then, at second bite, you expect a filling of sweet jam of some sort. But surprise, surprise! Your taste buds are hit with the rich umami and saltiness of sheep’s milk cheese.

I love the unexpectedness of these pastries. And so did my former officemates, who couldn’t get enough of them.

Serve them as an appetizer, snack, or part of a cheese course at the end of a meal, along with a glass of sparkling wine or almost any still wine, especially full-bodied reds such as Cabarnet Sauvignon. Then wait for it, wait for it — the pleasurable look of surprise on the faces of your guests.

(makes 24 to 28 cookies)

For the dough:
3 large eggs
½ cup granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extact
2 to 21/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling

For the filling:
2 large eggs
1 cup grated Percorino Romano, or any hard, aged sheep’s milk cheese
Freshly grated black pepper

1 egg, lightly beaten, for glaze

To make dough: In the bowl of an electric mixer, use the paddle attachment on medium speed to beat eggs, sugar, and salt together until combined. Add melted butter and vanilla extract, and beat for a few more seconds. Add 2 cups flour and beat on low speed to form a soft, smooth dough that does not stick to your fingers; if necessary, add 1 to 2 tablespoons more flour, but take care not to make dough too stiff. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and chill dough in the refrigerator for 1 hour.

To make filling: Just before taking dough out of refrigerator to roll, beat eggs together well with a fork in a small bowl and then stir in grated cheese and a few grinds of black pepper. The filling should be moist but not runny; you are basically moistening the cheese with the eggs.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and position a rack in the center. Prepare two baking sheets by brushing them lightly with olive oil or spraying them with nonstick cooking spray.

Remove dough from refrigerator. On a well-floured work surface, roll dough to a thickness of about 1/16 inch. Using a 31/2- to 4-inch round cutter, cut circles as close together as possible; discard scraps. (If your work surface is small, divide dough into 2 pieces and cut circles in 2 batches).

Place a heaping teaspoon of filling slightly off-center on each circle and fold dough over to form a half-moon shape, pressing the dough together at the edges to seal. Bend ends toward each other to form a crescent. Using a toothpick, poke 2 tiny holes at the base of the filling mound; this will allow air to escape and prevent the crescents from exploding. For a decorative effect, press tines of a fork around the border to create a pattern. Place calcioni on the baking sheets, ½ inch apart. Use a small pastry brush to glaze each one with beaten egg.

Bake calcioni for 12 to 14 minutes, or until they are lightly golden brown; rotate baking sheets after 7 or 8 minutes to ensure even browning. Using a spatula, transfer calcioni from baking sheets to a cooling rack.

The calcioni are delicious served warm or may be cooled and stored in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

Note: Calcioni can be assembled ahead and frozen. Roll out dough, fill as described above, and poke holes at the base of each filling mound. Place crescents in a single layer on a plate or cookie sheet in the freezer until they are firm. At this point, the crescents can be stored together in a plastic freezer bag.

When ready to serve, remove calcinoi from freezer. Place them on cookie sheets, brush with egg wash, then bake as indicated, though you may have to allow an extra minute or two to brown.

Food Gal has moved. Please visit her at www.foodgal.com.


Cookie Therapy

April 4, 2008


Ever since my untimely departure from the Mercury News last month, I’ve been baking almost every week.

So much so that with every new batch that comes warm out of the oven, my husband has taken to calling them my “layoff cookies.’’

Which of course makes me chuckle. And which of course makes me think of the movie “Waitress’’ and its hilariously named pies, where right from the get-go you know: It’s personal . Oh, boy, is it ever.

No, I can’t say that I’ve been stirring up any “Journalism Sucks’’ cookies. Or any “Mercury News Mad-eleines.’’ Nor have I been rolling out any “MediaNews Mud Pies.”

But the thought makes me laugh. And gets me to thinking: Just what would actual newspaper layoff cookies be like: Would they be black-and-white butter cookies dipped in both dark and white chocolate ever so messily? Would they be rolled-out sugar cookies cut into the shape of alphabet letters, with a few not-quite-perfect askew ones? Or would they be bittersweet lemon meltaways with a flavor that vanishes like yesterday’s news?

I can’t say I had any of that in mind when I tried this recipe from the new “The Essential Chocolate Chip Cookbook’’ (Chronicle Books, $16.95) by former pastry chef Elinor Klivans.

The “coffee and white chocolate chip blondies’’ just appealed to me with their smear of melty white chocolate, reminiscent of just-out-of-the-oven homemade cinnamon buns.

Two tablespoons of coffee mixed into the batter lend a lovely café au lait lilt. These soft, chewy, perky cookies are a sure-fire pick-me-up anytime you need a little lift.

Coffee and white chocolate chip blondies
(makes 16 to 25 bars)

1 1/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ cup packed light brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons instant coffee powder, dissolved in 2 tablespoons warm water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons white chocolate chips, divided use

Position a rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch square baking pan and line pan with a piece of parchment paper that is long enough to extend over two opposite sides of the pan. Butter the paper.

In a small bowl, stir flour, baking powder, and salt together. Set aside.

In a large bowl, using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat butter, brown sugar, and granulated sugar until smoothly blended, about 1 minute. Stop mixer and scrape sides of bowl as needed during mixing. Add eggs, dissolved coffee, and vanilla and mix until blended, about 1 minute. The mixture may look slightly curdled. On low speed, add flour mixture, mixing just until it is incorporated. Mix in 1 cup of the white chocolate chips until evenly distributed.

Scrape batter into prepared pan. Bake just until top feels firm when lightly touched and a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, about 30 minutes.

Transfer pan to a wire rack. Immediately sprinkle remaining 3 tablespoons white chocolate chips over the top. Let chips sit for 10 minutes, then use the back of a teaspoon to gently smear melted chips to create large marbleized swirls of white chocolate. The swirls will not completely cover the bars. Cool until topping is firm, about 1 hour. These are thin bars and may sink slightly in the center as they cool, because the center is especially moist.

Loosen sides of bars from unlined sides of pan and use ends of paper to lift bars from the pan. Use a large sharp knife to cut bars into 16 or 25 pieces and then a wide spatula to help slide the blondies off the paper.

The blondies can be covered and stored at room temperature for up to 3 days.

Food Gal has moved. Please visit her at www.foodgal.com.