Filed under: Recipes
So I’m posting a cookie recipe.
There, I said it. It’s not funky, it’s not edgy, it’s not subversive – but hey, it’s solstice time, right? Time to trim the holy tree with arcane sigils and bake beans of varying luckiness into cakes and burn suspicious candles to entice the sun to return and otherwise be generally festive, right?
Time to eat some cookies. And I don’t care who sees.
John’s Tea-Rose Cookies
These fragrant butter cookies, scented with floral tea and rosewater, are inspired by the large, lush tea roses of late summer – making them perfect for midwinter. A dollop of rose hip jelly, an Eastern European specialty, brings them to colorful life.
Electric stand mixer with paddle attachment
Rubber spatula or bowl scraper
Cookie sheets lined with parchment paper
Piping bag fitted with large star tip
Piping bag fitted with small tip
9 oz unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
6 oz powdered sugar (plus extra for decorating)
1 whole egg
½ fl. oz rosewater (substitute ¼ oz vanilla if necessary)
½ oz Earl Grey tea leaves, crushed fine
1 tsp vegetable oil
1 tsp salt
11 oz bread flour
1 cup rose hip jelly
1. Preheat oven to 375º F.
2. In bowl of mixer, combine butter, sugar, and crushed tealeaves. Cream together until light and fluffy, about 8 minutes.
3. While continuing to beat mixture, gradually add egg, rosewater, vegetable oil, and salt.
4. Add flour to bowl and blend on low speed until just combined. Do not over-mix.
5. Using the piping bag fitted with the large star tip, pipe roses onto the parchment lined pans, about 1½ to 2 inches in diameter (The mixture is rather heavy and stiff, but it will pipe. Swing the tip in tiny circles as you squeeze the bag to form nice rose shapes. Do not worry about leaving too much space between cookies – this dough will spread very little in the oven).
6. Using a finger dipped in powdered sugar, press a small indentation into the center of each cookie.
7. Using the small piping bag and tip, fill the indentations with rose hip jelly.
8. Bake until golden, approximately 10 to 12 minutes, cool on racks, and serve.
Gentle readers, I have a problem – I’ll eat anything. I don’t mean just food, although I will eat any food; I mean anything. Grass, leaves, suspicious berries, paper, small rocks – it all goes in my mouth, often before I notice that this has happened. It’s automatic. It’s not exactly a point of pride, but I’m not exactly ashamed of it anymore either. Because now I understand the factors that have led me to this peculiar, often rewarding, and occasionally dangerous pattern of behavior; I am a son of Thag. And I know I’m not alone.
Who’s Thag, you ask? Only the single most important figure the prehistory of human development. Indulge me for a moment, and I’ll introduce you. Peer backward through the mists of time – see them there, the wandering tribe in their skins and furs? They are the oldest of the old school, pursuing the only activities older than the world’s oldest profession: hunting and gathering. There’s Ugg, with his spear, and Neela, with her reed basket full of berries, and Ogo, carefully bashing one chunk of flint against another to fashion a crude knife, and there, in the bushes, doubled over and clutching his stomach in agony, is Thag, the tribe’s Designated Taster.
Thag is evolution’s answer to the greatest problem facing a tribe of gatherers: namely, what to gather. Through some quirk of genetics, Thag was gifted with the inclination to eat new things, making him an invaluable resource to his more sensible compatriots; to know if a thing was worth gathering, they need only watch Thag for signs of cramps, hallucinations, or incipient death. It was Thag who first drank that fruit juice that had been sitting out too long and ushered in the age of inebriation. It was Thag who ate that enticingly colored mushroom and became convinced he was a cave bear. It was Thag who first thought to lick the back of a tree frog, and dropped interestingly dead.
Think how poor we would all be without Thag and those like him; who else decided to eat the bark off the cinnamon tree? Who else discovered vanilla, which tastes like absolutely nothing until it’s been fermenting in the detritus of the forest floor? Ziggy once opined that the first man to eat a lobster must have been extremely hungry, but it need not have been so; the man who ate the first lobster was Thag.
In a world that’s largely moved beyond the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, where it sometimes seems that everything good to eat has already been eaten, it may seem that there’s no place for us, we children of Thag. But take a moment and consider that most exalted of French herbs, tarragon. It forms the backbone of fines herbes, and lends its unique sweetness to everything from béarnaise sauce to Russian Tarkhun soda. James Beard once claimed that even cannibalism would be palatable if there were only enough tarragon to be had. But unlike most of the herb garden, tarragon has only been used for about five hundred years, meaning some medieval French S.o.T. went wandering through the fields and happened to pop a stray leaf in his mouth, and the rest was culinary history.
Today my fellow-inheritors are wandering the Australian outback, creating wattle-seed cappuccino and illawarra plum sauce. Grant Achatz at Alinea in Chicago and Ferran Adrià at El Bulli in Spain are using chemistry and unbounded imagination to create flavors the world has never seen. So the next time you see me walking down the street, carefully masticating something inappropriate, think of Thag. And if you see me doubled over in the bushes, please dial 911. I’ll leave you with a recipe for that most obvious handiwork of Thag in the modern repertoire, Chinese Bird’s Nest Soup:
BIRD’S NEST SOUP
3 ½ oz (approx) dried bird's nest 6 cups Rich chicken stock for soup 1 large Chicken breast 2 Tbsp. Cornstarch 2 Tbsp. Rich chicken stock for paste 1 Tbsp. Dry sherry (Or Shaoxing Rice Wine) ¼ cup Rich chicken stock 2 Egg whites 1 tsp. Salt 2 Green onions, minced 1 Tbsp. Minced ham
Preparation: Soak bird's nest in cold water overnight. Drain and rinse. Spread softened nest pieces on a plate; pick out any prominent pieces of foreign matter (e.g. feathers, twigs) with tweezers. Bone chicken breast, removing membrane and muscle fiber; pound meat with cleaver handle to break down tissue, then mince chicken until it is pulp. Make a medium-thick paste with cornstarch and chicken stock.
Cooking: Bring rich chicken stock for soup to a boil. Immediately add bird's nest; simmer 30 minutes. Mix dry sherry and remaining stock; dribble slowly into minced chicken. Lightly beat egg whites with a fork; fold gently into chicken so they are not completely blended. Add salt to soup. Bring soup back to boil and add chicken mixture slowly so soup does not cool. When soup returns to boil, it is ready to serve. You can hold it at this point on low heat. Pour into serving bowl, garnish with green onions and ham.
What you just missed:
So after the last round of old-fashioned torrential downpours, our neighborhood witnessed something of a fungal renaissance, with pallid protuberances protruding from nearly every local lawn and easement. Some were poisonous, many noxious, and a choice few would have been supremely edible, had they sprouted from more wholesome soil.
Some of us ate them anyway.
What can I say – I’m a glutton for gluttony. The mushrooms I found so irresistible were of a variety known as the giant puffball; my father and I collected them often in my youth, in less polluted pastures. A patch of about eight of them was growing in a dirt patch near the corner of Arthur and Newgard. While in the past I’ve encountered specimens more than two feet in diameter, these were more modest; I picked two about the size of regulation baseballs, took them home, and began to tempt fate.
Peeling away the tougher skin and attached root, I sliced the pure white flesh into thin rounds, and sautéed them briefly with nothing but Irish butter and a touch of salt. The flavor was incredible; complex and earthy, with hints of garlic and whispered suggestions of pine. The texture was voluptuous and silky-rich, melting across my tongue. The only sense-memory I have that compares are the rounds of poached beef marrow that accompany an old-school sauce bordelaise.
And you can’t have any, even if you were fool enough to want to. Because time has turned those white globes into brown and toxic masses of spent spores. There’s a lesson in there somewhere . . .
What’s perfect RIGHT NOW:
Just a few blocks north of the puffball graveyard, in the alley that connects Greenview with North Shore just south of Pratt, some insanely generous soul has planted their alley fence with grapes – not the usual vines with their paltry clusters of bluish, seed-heavy grapelets, but actual grapes, purple and marble sized, with sweet-tart, juicy flesh that more than rewards the dedicated seed-spitter. If you want to taste a grape that’s never been dipped in fungicide or subjected to the ravages of the refrigerator truck, and don’t have the funds for a quick trip to Napa, you’d best go now, because their thin skins will soon crack and shrivel and you’ll be wishing you’d read this before I wrote it. I’ve been enjoying them for weeks; even in their hard, green immaturity they were full of a fruity, puckering sourness that made me appreciate the fuss surrounding verjuice.
Coming soon to a yard near you:
If your Chicago neighborhood has trees at all, and especially if your neighborhood is my neighborhood, chances are every third tree is a honey locust. Beloved by urban planners for their pollution resistance, honey locusts are related to mesquite, carob, and the Australian wattle, and not related to grasshoppers, cicadas, or other insects in any way. These are the trees with the feathery, ferny compound leaves and the thin, brown bean-like pods rattle in the trees and drop all over your sidewalk or, if you’re rich enough, your driveway.
It is to these pods that I wish to draw your attention. Right now they are still yellow in places, shading into the glossy, dark-roast brown that will signal their ripeness. The pods are filled with dark seeds the size of coffee beans, cradled in fibers and sticky pulp. Crack one open and you will be rewarded with the pure scent of autumn, like raw sugar and sweet peas and just a hint of pumpkin and, yes, honey (despite the name, bees never visit the honey locust; they prefer the black locust, whose pods, while plump, are toxic).
In leaner, greener times the generous honey locust supplemented our forefather’s diet in several ways. Scrape up a bit of the pulp and taste it – it’s everything your nose just promised you and more. The hard ripe seeds can be roasted and ground for a coffee substitute, though the flavor reminds me more of bitter chocolate. Come spring and early summer, the new pods and the sweet green seeds within can be sautéed or eaten raw as a vegetable. Most importantly, I am told – though I have not yet been brave enough to try it – that the following recipe yields a palatable beer. With any luck, I’ll be drunkenly typing the results of my experiments to you in the weeks to come.
Honey Locust Beer Recipe
Long black honey locust pods (number depends on how big of a crock or keg is being used).
Ripened persimmons or sliced apples (number same as above)
2 cups of molasses
Break the locust pods into pieces. Place a layer in a keg or crock. Add the persimmons or apples. Cover with boiling water. Add two cups of molasses. Let stand for three for four days before using.