March 25, 2020

Dear friends,

Every day my facebook feed is filled with pictures of baked goods friends have made. There are golden-brown loaves of bread, trays of chocolate chip cookies, platters of brownies, oblong and tiered cakes and pies oozing last summer’s blackberries. As the news grows more dire, our ovens go into overtime. Stores are out of yeast and flour. I think we are catastrobaking.

My own kitchen has been filled with the aroma of baked bread, gingerbread and chocolate cheesecake this week, and the counter was strewn with cookies the week before, even though I rarely make desserts.

The bread and cakes just sort of happened as fear and boredom drove me to the kitchen. The cookies were on purpose. They are simply the best cookies I have tasted, ever. After eating two I bought at a Peruvian espresso bar in Florida, I knew I had to make them.

Picture two meltingly tender, vanilla-scented butter cookies hugging a thick swirl of milky caramel. Picture their pretty scalloped edges and dusting of powdered sugar. Sigh.

Alfajores are popular not only in Peru but in other Latin American countries and Spain, I learned. The ones I ate cost $2.50 each (yikes!) but were worth it.

The butter cookies owe their crumbly tenderness to cornstarch, which replaces some of the flour. Plenty of real butter contributes flavor and richness to the cookies. The dough is rolled out relatively thick — somewhere between one-fourth and one-eighth inch — and the rounds are baked just until set, not browned.

The filling is dulce de leche ( dool seh de LEH chey), a caramel made with sweetened condensed milk. It is sold in cans in Hispanic food stores and some supermarkets, or you can make your own, as I did.

You should have all of the ingredients for these wonderful cookies in your cabinets already, a prerequisite for catastrobaking. If you’re watching your weight or health, you will be glad the recipe makes just 12 to 14.

ALFAJORES

(Caramel sandwich cookies)
Dulce de leche (recipe follows)
1 3/4 cups flour
1/2 cup sifted cornstarch
1/2 cup sifted confectioners’ sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
2 tsp. vanilla
1 egg yolk
Confectioners’ sugar for sifting

Make the dulce de leche and set aside at room temperature. If making in advance, cover and refrigerate, then warm to room temperature before filling cookies.

In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, cornstarch, one-half cup confectioners’ sugar and salt. Set aside.

In a mixer bowl, beat the butter and vanilla on medium speed until smooth. Beat in egg yolk just until incorporated. Slowly add the flour mixture while beating on low speed. Continue beating on medium speed just until combined. Gather dough into a disk, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Roll dough on a lightly floured surface to a thickness of between 1/4 and 1/8 inch. Use a round plain or scalloped-edge cutter about 3 inches in diameter to cut dough. Re-roll scraps until all dough has been used. Place 1 inch apart on baking sheets. Chill about 10 minutes.

Bake one sheet at a time in the lower middle of oven for about 12 minutes, until the cookies are set but haven’t started to brown. Slide parchment sheets with cookies on them onto a counter and cool to room temperature.

When the cookies have cooled, flip half over and top each with about a tablespoon of dulce de leche. Use a spoon to drop the caramel in the middle of a cookie, then with the back of a wet spoon gently spread. Top with another cookie. Do not press down or the cookie will break. If you want to spread the caramel further, slide the cookies together horizontally.

Place the filled cookies on a rack over a baking sheet and generously sift confectioners’ sugar over all. Store overnight in a lidded container. Makes about 12 to 14 cookies, depending on the size of your cookie cutter.

Adapted from acozykitchen.com.

DULCE DE LECHE
1 can (14 oz.) sweetened condensed milk

Pour milk into a 9-inch glass pie pan. Cover tightly with foil. Place in a larger pan. Add enough boiling water to come halfway up sides of pie pan. Bake at 425 for 1 hour and 45 minutes, adding more boiling water at intervals to maintain water level.

Carefully remove from oven and remove pie pan from water bath. Remove foil and stir until smooth. Makes enough for 1 batch of alfajores cookies.

GUT CHECK
What I cooked last week:
Filet mignons with tarragon wine sauce, baked Japanese sweet potatoes and roast butternut squash; cream of wheat; Japanese pork curry (Tony); reheated frozen gyoza with gochujang sauce; shrimp fried rice; hamburgers with Mongolian barbecue sauce, sweet potato fries; cream cheese blender omelet; no-knead bread (twice); spaghetti with venison sauce, chopped salad; chicken and cabbage soup with smoked paprika; toasted crusty bread with pesto, ricotta cheese and a hard-fried egg; filet mignons with blue cheese sauce, brussels sprouts pan-seared in duck fat and baked potatoes with butter.

Carryout:
Ham and cheese sub from Subway.

TIDBITS
At age 70, I have been hesitant to leave my home even to pick up carryout from restaurants, as you can see from my gut check. A close friend has coronavirus and two weeks in, she is still flattened. But it is imperative we support our independent local restaurants. We must do our best to make sure they can reopen. We owe it to our chefs, wait staff and restaurateurs. We owe it to ourselves to protect this aspect of the quality of life in our communities.

During this crisis, please send me emails about the carryout meals you have enjoyed so I can share the names of restaurants you are patronizing. If a restaurant has curb service or delivery, tell me about that, too. (Use the link at the bottom of this newsletter).

One place you may want to support this week is Vincent’s Bakery, 2038 Bailey Road in Cuyahoga Falls. When you drive by, you will likely see employees in the street, passing loaves of fresh-baked bread through car windows. This is a mom and pop bakery that has been around since the 1950s. The baked goods are fantastic. Check out the offerings on Facebook. The phone number to order curb pickup is 330-923-8217.

Wherever you get your food, remember to tip extra generously.

THE MAILBAG

From Marlene H.:
Have been cleaning while “sheltering in place” and came across a note I had sent my cousin on 12/08/2000 where I told her someone had bid $325 for a Jane Snow (food critic for a day) dinner. Told her the auction went on for another week and how much I would love to go. Alas, I was not the high bidder.

Have been enjoying rediscovering these gems from the past.

Dear Marlene:
What memories that brings back! I did this twice. I actually reviewed the restaurants while entertaining the successful bidders. On one review, a nice young guy paid $400 to try to impress a young woman he asked to accompany him. I took them to a posh restaurant. She was pleasant but I could tell that would be their first and last date. The second time, I spilled red wine on the guest’s fancy dress and was so horrified I forget the rest of the evening.

From Alix W.:
Thanks for your newsletter today. Might be the highlight of the day even though I can’t go out to buy the ingredients. I still think Julia Child’s recipe for onion soup is the gold standard. I use double the amount of onions and let them caramelize for at least half an hour. You must keep a close eye on them (stirring almost constantly) but the end result is worth it. I always enjoy getting your newsletter.

Dear Alix:
Thanks for the note. I agree — that’s my favorite French onion soup recipe, too.

From Ron C.:
Yesterday a made a Swiss steak recipe for the Crock-Pot. However, I discovered an hour before dinner that the ground fault outlet had tripped off. I quickly poured the mixture into a Dutch oven, heated to boiling, then put it into a 350-degree oven for an hour. Turned out great! Sometimes ya gotta improvise.

Dear Ron:
I haven’t made Swiss steak in decades. I think it’s time. I will use the Dutch oven, though, because I have no idea what a “ground fault outlet” is. Better safe than sorry.

From Kristi P.:
I too am a stress cooker. I made a batch of grapefruit marmalade, three batches of strawberry-rhubarb jam from the strawberries and rhubarb that I cleaned out of my freezer, four loaves of bread, brownies and that doesn’t count meal prep which included date-stuffed quail, pot roast and a corned deer roast. There’s only two of us! Help!

Dear Kristi:
Thanks for the laugh. Think freezer! Then maybe this summer we will all have giant neighborhood meals spread on sun-dappled tables on the lawn. I can dream.

From Kathy G.:
Since my daughter is back from college early because of Coronavirus concerns, minimal cooking for two of us is really not good enough now. I have been making lasagne Florentine, chicken noodle and vegetable soups, corned beef brisket (in the Crock-Pot) with cabbage, carrots, onions and potatoes, spicy chili with meat sauce, beans and mushrooms and even baked sugar cookies — gone in a day!

Dear Kathy:
Tandem cooking with a daughter sounds like fun, pandemic or not.

From Chris O.:
What I made last week was vanilla extract in my Instant Pot. It is so easy to make, cheaper than buying it, has better flavor, plus I bottled some to give away as gifts.

Dear Chris:
What a clever use of your time — holiday gift-making. It is only March, but what the heck. Your vanilla sounds good.

From Marlene H.:
To see us through these scary times, we concentrated on purchasing canned vegetables, canned/boxed soups, shelf-stable almond milk, coffee, protein (meat for the freezer and canned tuna) and one obligatory jar of peanut butter. Didn’t stockpile the toilet paper. We’re trying the delivery service from one of the local grocery stores this week to see how that goes.

Have been doing lots of cooking, but agree, this may be getting old having to do it so often. We ate out a lot. Will most likely be trying some of the carryout services from the local restaurants in the very near future. Vaccaro’s Trattoria in Bath has a nice special of a variety of entrees that feed four for $40. Checking out other local restaurants, too.

Here are some of the recipes I’ve tried:

1 Crock-Pot Corned Beef and Cabbage right from the corned beef package recipe.
2 Paleo Chocolate Chip Blondies from bakerita.com. These were so good I would not have known they were paleo.
3 North Carolina Lemon Pie from myrecipereviews.com. The crust is made with saltines, melted butter, and corn syrup. The lemon filling is so easy and the pie is just delicious. The recipe calls for a whipped cream topping, but with the 4 egg whites left over from the yolks called for in the filling, I whipped them up and topped the pie with a meringue, which I really liked.
4 Slow Cooker Maple Brown Sugar Steel Cut Oatmeal from amindfulmom.com. I added a peeled, chopped apple and some ground flax seed because I had them in the pantry. Gave it extra flavor, texture, and fiber.
5 One-Pot Creamy Beef Stroganoff from pillsbury.com/recipes/. So, Pillsbury is promoting these one-pot dinners for those who don’t like to cook or clean up, so thought I’d give this one a try. The flavors were pretty good with the sauce nice and creamy, however, the noodles were a bit gummy. It did hit the mark for easy on the cooking and cleanup though.
6 Spicy Lamb Shish Kebabs from foodandwine.com/recipes. This was fabulous! I used lamb stew meat and the yogurt tenderized it so it melted in your mouth. We cooked them on the outdoor grill so they had that extra grill char. Yum!
7 Chicken Breasts with Artichoke-Olive Sauce from foodandwine.com/recipes. Another tasty treat from Food and Wine magazine.

I look forward to more of your recipes and what your other followers are making.

Dear Marlene:
OK, you win the award for the most creative use of your time in the kitchen. Wow. I removed the detailed links you supplied because apparently they don’t work in my newsletter, and provided simpler links that do work, but require a bit of poking around to zero in on the recipe. Thank you so much.

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