Thursday, January 28, 2010

Liza’s Colossal Cookies (on Steroids)

It’s been a while since I posted anything here, but being caught inside in this hostile weather is good motivation.

I have some fabulous recipes for sweets that I almost never make these days because most of my peer group is counting either carbs or calories. However, when I my grandchildren are around, I enjoy making these fun cookies. They are always a huge hit with anyone who loves peanut butter. The original recipe used a bag of chocolate chips instead of the peanut brittle and M&M variations. All versions are delicious.

This recipe originally came from my daughter; she doesn’t remember where she got it. She lost the recipe somewhere along the line, but I had it in my files. I just emailed it to her today. This is a good reason to give your favorite recipes to all your friends and relatives; you never know when a treasured slip of paper will go missing.

Liza’s Colossal Cookies (on Steroids)

With mixer, combine in the following order:
1/2 c. butter
1 1/2 c. white sugar
1 1/2 c. dk. brown sugar, packed
2 c. chunky peanut butter
4 eggs
1 tbsp. vanilla
1 tbsp. honey
2 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 3/4 c. old fashion oats
2/3 c. dry roasted, salted whole peanuts

Stir in by hand: 8 oz. peanut brittle, coarsely crushed (1 box of Sophie Mae brand from drugstore candy dept.)

Mix well and shape into “golf balls.” Set on lightly greased cookie sheet, leaving room for spreading, and flatten slightly. Press additional peanuts into tops. Bake 350° for about 12 minutes. The cookies will puff up and then fall. Remove them as soon as they fall. They should be just lightly browned.

Allow to cool on sheet for 1 minute to firm up.

The original recipe did not have peanut brittle. I’ve also made these with a 1-lb bag of peanut M&Ms instead of brittle. Or regular M&Ms. Or use a bag of chocolate chips, as in the original version.

A “Ladies’ Cookie” with a Past

Many years ago, my ex-husband and I bought what was then known as a “white elephant,” a huge Victorian house that two decades later would be referred to as a “trophy house.” When we bought it, however, we were impecunious hippies who had earned, through a business opportunity that we were astute enough to gamble on, enough for the down payment. Our friends thought we were crazy taking on this elegant monstrosity with 12-foot ceilings and a front hall that spanned 50 feet in length. “How will you heat it?” they asked, aghast at our foolishness. Indeed, we had no idea, but somehow we did.

Mrs. Hince, a little old lady who lived down the street, must have been in her 90s. She had been born on the street and had lived there all her life. I made her acquaintance on my daily walks past her house with Bess, the German Shepard. Puttering in her flower urns with a trowel in her hand, she was friendly and full of information about the history of the neighborhood. Curious to know more, we invited her for a visit one summer’s afternoon. She was sharp as the proverbial tack. Her detailed memories went back to the days of the horse and buggy.

At some point I got up the courage to ask her, “Mrs. Hince, do you tell your age?”

“Why, of course,” she replied. “I’m over forty.”

As we sipped tea she recalled playing hide-and seek in the servants’ quarters on the top floor of my house. She recounted that the spectacular mansion across the street had been owned by the Reillys who, being without children, had adopted the orphaned daughter of one of their 23 servants.

In a rags-to-riches story, little Miss Reilly eventually grew up and inherited the entire Newton estate including the mansion, acres of sweeping lawns and the enormous carriage house. Mrs. Hince recalled that Miss Reilly cordially served the plumbers cookies in the parlor when they came to fix a pipe, but she made it clear that “they were to take only three.” On days when Miss Reilly attended a matinee at Symphony Hall, her servant girls would parade her hats, each on a silver tray, as she sat in the parlor, whereupon she would make her choice for the afternoon’s outing.

I served Mrs. Hince Almond Crisps that day, thinking them to be the ultimate ladies’ tea cookie. I had gotten the recipe from another elderly lady, Mrs. Cardwell, who was a renowned cook. She served them to me with Earl Grey tea in flower-decked Limoges cups and I thought they were the best almond cookies I had ever tasted. Weeks later I called Mrs. Cardwell and asked if she would be so kind as to share the recipe with me. “Of course, my dear, I’d be happy to send it to you,” she graciously replied. But I think she forgot which cookie she’d served me that day, because the recipe that arrived was for a different almond cookie altogether. I’ve always wondered if it really was just a slip of memory; some people choose not to give out their best recipes.
After many months of experimenting, however, I finally created a facsimile of the one she served that day. I still think it is the ultimate tea cookie or the perfect choice to accompany a frosty pitcher of lemonade. I was wrong, however, about this being uniquely a ladies’ cookie. I made them recently for my friends Hal and Ginny Swinson, both excellent cooks. Hal Swinson was an outstanding football player in his Cornell years, a real guy’s guy. He opined that my little sweets might just be “the best cookies I’ve ever tasted.”

Almond Crisps
Preheat oven: 325°
2/3 cup blanched almonds, finely ground to a powder
1/2 cup butter, melted and cooled
1 egg yolk
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup flour
1/4 tsp each vanilla and almond extract
1/3 – 1/2 cup sliced almonds (the kind with the thin edge of skin)
Be careful not to turn the ground almonds into a paste. Mix all ingredients in order given, gently stirring in the sliced almonds so as not to break them. Drop by teaspoonful on parchment- or silicone-lined sheet or on aluminum foil sprayed with Pam. Shape into neat, flat disks with your fingers, press a few more sliced almonds into tops, and sprinkle lightly with sugar.

Set cookie sheet in upper third of oven and bake for 9 minutes or until delicately browned. Watch carefully, rotating pan if necessary. Cool slightly before removing to a rack.


This is not the time of year to plan beautiful fruit tarts. I bought some blueberries last week, imported from some South American country, and they were tasteless, dry pellets of pseudo-fruit. Here in Gloucester, we’re spoiled by the luscious little blue globes that come from our neighbors to the north in Maine. The state of Maine produces so many blueberries that growers have to import truckloads of hives of extra bees to pollinate them.

While we’re waiting for the luscious blueberries (and peaches and plums and cherries) of high summer, we can console ourselves with a remarkable fruit that we take for granted because it’s with us twelve months of the year. It is grown in parts of the world where it is always summer and, unlike some other fruits, it is no less delicious for traveling thousands of miles to our markets. This commonplace wonder is the friendly banana. (Somewhere I read that bananas are the number one item sold in supermarkets. Small wonder.)

Bananas are one of the oldest-known fruits. There is a myth that recounts that the serpent in the Garden of Eden actually was hidden in a bunch of bananas. In fact, the Latin botanical name for banana translates “Paradise fruit of knowledge.”

The ancients thought of bananas in terms of temptation, perhaps because no man can resist a banana cream pie. I know this from personal experience. I remember one dinner guest years ago who went to some length to inform me that he wouldn’t be having dessert with us because he had given up refined sugar. True to his word, he ate only three servings of banana cream pie!

The following is a recipe for that irresistible pie. It features a velvet-smooth custard that can’t curdle because of the binding effect of the flour. The top is a drift of whipped cream dusted with golden flakes of toasted coconut.

Now, Eve, whom would you care to tempt?

1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 cups milk
1 egg, plus 1 yolk
2 tablespoons butter
3/4 teaspoon vanilla
3 ripe bananas
1 baked 9-inch pie shell
1/2 cup shredded coconut
1 cup well-chilled heavy cream, whipped with 1 tablespoon sugar
In a heavy saucepan, mix sugar, flour and salt till thoroughly combined. With a whisk, stir in a little milk (about 1/3 cup) and mix to a smooth paste. Gradually stir in the remaining milk. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, till mixture comes to a full boil. Turn heat as low as possible and cook 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Beat the egg and yolk in a small bowl. Add about 1/2 cup of the hot mixture, whisk in well and return to the pan. Heat just until mixture returns to the boil. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla and butter. Lay a sheet of plastic wrap directly on surface to keep skin from forming. Cool.

Thinly slice 2 bananas into baked shell and immediately cover with custard. Chill pie thoroughly (2 hours minimum.) Meanwhile toast coconut on sheet in 325° oven for 10-12 minutes, or until golden, stirring frequently.

Chill a metal bowl and beaters in freezer. Just before serving whip cream with sugar. Peel remaining banana and score lengthwise with a fork. Arrange thin slices around edge of pie and sprinkle coconut over all. Serve at once or chill again for up to 2 hours.

Note: To stabilize the whipped cream so that it will hold in the fridge without “weeping,” beat in 1 tablespoon instant vanilla pudding mix and reduce the sugar to taste. This is a great trick whenever you make whipped cream. The unused portion of the pudding mix can be left in its box which is slipped into a zip lock bag and stored until the next time you make whipped cream.

The Yankee Guide to Grits

Jude Mathews, a Savannah native and a fabulous cook who has prepared breakfasts at Hovey House, won a $7,000 scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America with this article about her favorite breakfast casserole. It’s delicate — somewhat reminiscent of a souffle. You’ll love it when you have company because it can be made the night before and reheated in the morning. Substitute cooked, drained sausage for the ham for a change.

Grits Casserole
1 cup dry grits
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1 cup milk
4 eggs
1 pound diced ham
1/3 cup diced red bell pepper
1/3 cup diced green bell pepper
2 T. minced chives
2 T. butter
½ t. dry mustard
½ t garlic powder
½ t salt • ½ t black pepper
3-6 dashes Tabasco sauce
Cook grits according to directions on box. Sauté ham and peppers to remove excess moisture, about 7-10 min. Add ham and peppers to grits and stir, add shredded cheese and stir to melt cheese. Whisk 4 eggs with 1 cup of milk; add garlic powder, dry mustard, salt and pepper and Tabasco. Add egg mixture to grits and mix complexly. Pour into a baking dish. Bake at 350oF for 35-45 minutes or until bubbly. Let sit for 10 minutes before serving. 6 servings.

The Yankee Guide to Grits by Jude E. Mathews
If you grew up below the Mason Dixon line it goes without saying you grew up on grits. G.R.I.T.S. is even a colloquial acronym for people like y’all: Girls Raised In The South. Grits are part of every Southerner’s heritage.

But mention grits to a Yankee and you are met with anything from a blank stare to an outright “Yuck!” Not so surprising; improperly made grits are admittedly reminiscent of lumpy library paste. Southerners, however, don’t eat those.

Some of the best grits come stone-ground from little country mills, but you can get good grits in just about any grocery store. Grits have a delicious nutty flavor and a toothy, grainy texture that can stand alone, though they rarely do. They almost always pair up with complementary foods.

Grits are infinitely versatile. They can be served soft right out of the pan (like mashed potatoes) with gravy. Or allowed to cool and harden in a thin layer, cut into decorative shapes, then broiled (with lots of butter and Parmesan) or fried till crispy around the edges, as a change from rice and potatoes. They can be folded into stiffly beaten egg whites for a soufflé or used as a bottom crust or a golden topping for a casserole. Snuggle them against anything from Cajun shrimp to diced ham and scrambled eggs. If you are a purist you may want to skip the trouble and the calories and let the true, unadorned flavor of the corn shine alone.

Italians use grits, known to them as polenta, as a neutral base for a limitless number of flavorful toppings. Grits, sometimes referred to as hominy grits, are just a coarser grind of cornmeal. Yellow grits, as well as polenta, come from un-hulled corn; white grits from hulled corn. Yankees who think they “hate” grits usually love polenta. What’s not to love about a golden mound of grits/polenta strewn with fennel-specked sausages, peppers, onions, wild mushrooms, and melted Fontina?

One of my favorite ways of serving grits to unsuspecting Yankees is in a breakfast casserole made with eggs, ham, cheese and of course grits. The beauty of this recipe is that you can make it the night before and refrigerate it. Next morning you heat it in the oven while you brew coffee and pour juice. When your guests ask what was in that fabulous concoction, tell them they just kissed your grits.