Thursday, May 25, 2017

Chocolate Chip Tahini Cookies à la David Lebovitz

This is the picture that got me. As a sucker for oozing chocolate chip cookies, I lighted up when I  made my occasional scan of David Lebovitz's blog and saw this outrageous photo. Then I noticed the tahini and I headed straight for the kitchen.

The dough came together quickly, but I adjusted the recipe to my personal taste and used half the chocolate chunks (Scharffen Berger bittersweet and semisweet pieces) and I added a cup of walnuts to the mixture. Next time I'll add even more. Also, because I'm not a fan of the salty-sweet trend, I omitted the salt sprinkles at the end. I like a classic sweet cookie, even though David's first word is "salted."

My cookies just out of the oven cooling on the tray
Boy, my cookies did not resemble the plump, oozing specimens in David's photo, but one bite told me that I had a winner. Like he says, these are some of the best chocolate chip cookies I have ever had. They were crisp when they were warm and they remained crisp to the end, three days later. Chocolate lovers like my husband will want more chocolate, but these are perfect for me.

Here is the recipe copied from the David Lebovitz blog:

Salted Chocolate Chip Tahini Cookies
18 to 25 cookies 
Adapted from Modern Israeli Cooking: 100 New Recipes for Traditional Classics by Danielle Oron. I used chopped chocolate, rather than chocolate chips, for these cookies since I wanted large chunks of oozing chocolate rather than little bits of chocolate here and there. (But feel free to use chips if you’d like.) Normally when I chop chocolate for cookies, I add any small bits and pieces on the cutting board along with the bigger chunks. But for these, I wanted distinct, more assertive pieces of chocolate, so I sorted through and just used large chunks, saving the smaller bits for another baking project. I baked these cookies in a larger size, then tried them in smaller portions, and give baking times for each. Whichever size you bake them in, since everyone’s oven is different, it’s important to use visual clues rather than rely on precise minutes and numbers to tell when they’re done. Keep an eye on them during the final minutes of baking; the cookies are done when quite pale in the center and browned around the edges.
8 tablespoons (115g, 4 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup (120ml) tahini, well stirred
1/2 cup (100g) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (90g) packed light brown sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 large egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
cup plus 2 tablespoons (150g) flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
teaspoon kosher or sea salt
2 cups (280g) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate chunks, or chocolate chips
flaky sea salt, such as Maldon or fleur de sel
1. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter, tahini, granulated sugar and brown sugar on medium speed for 2 to 3 minutes, until fluffy. (The dough can also be made in a large mixing bowl, stirred with a spatula.)
2. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides. Add the egg, the yolk, and vanilla, and continue to mix for another minute, stopping the mixer to scrape down the sides of the bowl during mixing, to make sure the eggs are getting incorporated.
3. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, and kosher or sea salt. With the mixer on low speed, add the dry ingredients until just combined, then add the chocolate chips. Do not overmix. Cover the dough and refrigerate overnight.
4. Preheat the oven to 325ºF (180ºC). Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.
5. Form the cookies into rounds using an ice cream scoop, or your hands. For small cookies make each 1 1/2-inch (3,5cm), for larger cookies, make them 2-inches (5cm) round. Place them evenly spaced on the baking sheets, 3-inches (8cm) apart). Bake one sheet at a time, so you can keep an eye on them, in the middle rack of the oven.
6. Bake the cookies, turning the baking sheet in the oven midway during baking, until the cookies are golden brown around the edges but still pale in the center. For small cookies, about 12 minutes, for larger cookies, about 14 to 15 minutes. Remove from the oven, sprinkle cookies with a bit of flaky sea salt, and let the cookies cool on the baking sheet. Bake the remaining cookies the same way.Storage: These cookies will keep for two or three days at room temperature, but are definitely better the same day they’re baked. The unbaked dough can be refrigerated for up to one week, and frozen for up to two months.

My second try

My first cookies evaporated so fast that I had to make another batch. I adjusted this recipe to look more like David's. I made the cookies larger and thicker, I used more chocolate chunks and I salted the tops with sea salt to finish. Even better this time! At least some oozing is evident.
I met David in 1998 while he was teaching a cooking class at Sur La Table in Berkeley, where I worked. He was living in San Francisco then, just before moving to Paris. He arrived early and made a batch of extraordinary brownies for the staff and cooking class volunteers. I was bowled over by the rich, intense fudginess of his creation and the next day I asked Sandy Sachs, the cooking class coordinator, for David's recipe. To my surprise, the copy she handed to me was a Scharffen Berger hand out. The treat he had made were the chocolate brownies developed by Robert Steinberg for Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker. The staff knew Robert because he poked around Sur La Table while he was developing the recipes for his fledgling chocolate company. David also became friendly with Robert and John Scharffenbeger when they were launching the company. In Robert's 2008 obituary, David wrote: "I was really fortunate to know Robert and  had the pleasure of watching him make chocolate, swooning over a luscious spoonful of the sticky, half-crushed cocoa beans...learning how to be a more perceptive and thoughtful taster..."

So what started out as "classic chocolate brownies" on a faded mail order leaflet, became "Robert's Fudgy Brownies." The recipe below was printed in a small booklet enclosed in Scharffen Berger's
bittersweet baking bar boxes. The company no longer includes these recipes, so I'm glad I kept the leaflets from the bittersweet and semisweet baking bar packages.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Forget Japan, Let's go to Calistoga

Having been forced by a back injury to cancel our trip to Japan last week, I decided to spend a day in Calistoga, our nearby go-to spot for fun and relaxation.  The weather was gorgeous and I could soak in the hot tub and read in a lounge chair, perfect for convalescence.

Calistoga, tucked into the base of Mount St. Helena at the top of the Napa Valley, is famous for it's hot springs, and offers all the rustic charm of a 19th century western resort town. It has never attained the sophistication of neighboring towns like St. Helena and Yountville down the road, so it retains its 1940s aura, in a breathtaking setting beneath the palasades pictured above. Being only an hour and a half from Berkeley, it is a perfect getaway for a day or two of fun. We always go on a weekday, stocking up on baguettes and cheese from the Cheeseboard before we leave, and picnicking on the tables provided by the spa.

Dean and I poolside at the Calistoga Spa and Hot Springs with his parents in the early 90's

Dean introduced me to Calistoga shortly after we met in 1989. He had been visiting there for many years with his parents. They always stayed at the Calistoga Spa and Hot Springs, but in warm weather the two of us would just buy a day pass and take advantage of the hot tub, huge pool, sauna and lounge area. These days we like to stop for dinner at one of Napa Valley's great restaurants and head home to our cat.

Dean, summer of 1992

Dean and his mother Ros
Ros and Myron had moved from Berkeley to Washington D.C. in 1991, and they would come back to the Bay Area both in summer and winter. During their stays  they would spend four or five days in Calistoga and we would visit them for a day or two; I have lovely memories of those times. Even in December we could soak in the hot tub and swim in the large "warm pool" or the heated swimming pool. It was fine as long as we had their room to run to and relax indoors.

Another photo of me around 1992
Sadly, Ros and Myron are no longer with us, but we continue to carry on the Calistoga tradition.

Mount View Hotel pool

After years of frequenting the same spa and finding it more crowded, more expensive and less convivial, we walked across the street to the Mount View Hotel and found that they too sold day passes. The pool area was serene, and though the hot tub and pool were smaller, the private and peaceful atmosphere more than made up for it.  It felt like we had arrived at our own private pool in Spain. We have been going there ever since.

Mount View Hotel swimming pool

We've gone to Calistoga together close to 100 times now. Many years we've gone for Thanksgiving. It's our tradition to go up Wednesday evening, stop at Mustard's Grill on Rte 29 for a great burger, and continue on to our hotel.

 A few years ago we stayed at the Mount View, awoke early on Thanksgiving day to cool mists hovering over the pool, had breakfast in our room, checked out, and spent the rest of the day basking in the warm sun (alone) until it was time for turkey at The Calistoga Inn, our favorite Calistoga eatery.

I'm enjoying my breakfast sandwich with coffee on Thanksgiving morning 

A brilliant mid-day display on Thanksgiving
Dean clowning around in the bright sun on Thanksgiving day 2014

Last week after a restful day, it was hot enough to dine on the splendid patio at the Calistoga Inn. We try to get there early enough to get a table overlooking the Napa River and we eat accompanied by birds singing in the  overhanging trees and the occasional family of ducks on the water. They have a great chef, and not enough people take advantage of this lovely spot. The Calistoga Brewery is on site, and we particularly like their refreshing Red Pale Ale.

Patio dining at the Calistoga Inn on Lincoln Ave in Calistoga

This time we ordered Chef Nicholas' inspired asparagus and prosciutto salad with arugula and pecorino

Our other favorite restaurants are Redd Wood in Yountville and Bistro Don Giovanni on Hwy 29 in Napa, both right on our way home. So even if we can't soak in a Japanese bath in Kyoto, a day in Calistoga comes pretty close. It will have to do for now...

Sunday, May 7, 2017

College Photos

Taya in Slichter hall 1964 Madison, Wisconsin, probably taken by roommate Sue Arps- note  '60s mobile in left upper corner

Since my fellow blogger Jeanette Baird is featuring vintage college photos Here, I will match her with one of me studying for exams Freshman year at UW Madison, with beloved stuffed dog Igor on left side of the pillow. Igor unzipped on his underside so I could pack things for overnights when I was little. I guess I couldn't leave him behind when I went to college. Where and when did he disappear and when did I change from this sweet young girl into a grumpy grownup?

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Off to Japan

Wisteria blooming now, just in time for our visit to Japan

Wisteria or "fuji" in Nara, an ancient Japanese capital one hour south of Kyoto. We will be traveling here next week with day packs only since some of the Ryokan are too small to accommodate suitcases for the 13 guests on our tour. We'll have our suitcases for 9 of the 14 nights of our trip. Another adventure...

Our Itinerary

             Thanks Cousin Sukey for generous sharing of your extensive knowledge of Japan!