Monday, November 23, 2009

‘Lil Bites of Heaven

It’s turkey week! Is everyone going bonkers?

Me? Not so much. My apartment’s teeny-tiny, so my mom handles the brunt of the work each and every year, and quite capably I might add. There’s always a gourmet turkey (my favorite was the year she made a Wolfgang Puck turkey and said all the brining ingredients cost more than the turkey); the steadfast standbys; and then a couple exciting new neighbors. Sometimes I bring side dishes to this shindig (Daniel Humm’s Fingerling Potatoes with Dried Figs and Thyme was a huge hit last year); other times I bake cookies.

Tomorrow, I’m planning on making mashed turnips, along with Food and Wine’s creamed spinach with parsnips, and, if I’m feeling lucky, a portabello gravy.

But I get ahead of myself. (Be on the lookout for a post-Thanksgiving wrap-up, as well as a report on Eleven Madison Park, where I was lucky enough to dine this past Saturday.) In my last entry, I promised you cookies. Festive, holiday cookies that for many, many years, got the job done until Tavis’s Ricotta Cookies usurped them. And some days? Well some days, I get a confused feeling deep in my tummy and think maybe I jumped the gun when I pronounced Tavis’s Ricotta Cookies to be better than this gem.

Because there is only one ‘Lil Bite of Heaven.

In truth, the cookie of which I speak is the “Sandbakelse,” a Scandinavian tart-shaped cookie, and it’s been knocking socks off for years, pilgrim. But let’s face it: who can pronounce “Sandbakelse”? And number two, who wants to? A ‘Lil Bite of Heaven’ is wayyyy more accurate.

I found this particular Sandbakelse recipe in one of Martha Stewart’s old Holiday Special magazines (the one where she made an igloo cake out of marzipan). I follow the recipe pretty accurately, except I prefer to fill the tart with warmed apricot-almond jam, instead of the room-temperature, red currant jelly she calls for (I also like a pecan filling, a recipe for another day): I melt apricot jam over the stove to get it nice and soft, and then add a few drops of almond extract to give it the most wonderful, tantalizing taste. But experiment! Choose your own favorite! Add a sweet potato puree! Go crazy! The real reason these little tarts are so delicious is the hint of cardamom: an intense, and exotic, (and expensive—the last bottle I picked up was around $11) spice. No one can quite place it, but everyone tastes something. And then hounds me year after year to make these treashahs again.

‘Lil Bites of Heaven
Adapted from Martha Stewart’s Sandbakelse recipe
Makes about 5 dozen

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter as many mini-muffin tins as you’ve got (you’ll need them all)! In a large bowl, beat ½ pound cold, unsalted butter and 1 cup granulated sugar for about 2 minutes, or until light and fluffy. Beat in 1 large egg until smooth. Add 3 cups all-purpose flour (gradually), ¾ teaspoon cardamom, and a pinch of salt: beat until combined.

Roll dough into 1-inch balls; press them into the buttered mini-muffin tins (go halfway up the tin; if the cookie is too deep, the proportions will be off and you’ll just get a mouthful of jam in your ‘lil bite); make a small well with your finger. Do not add the jam yet.

Bake until golden brown, about 18-20 minutes, rotating trays halfway through. Place cookies on a wire rack to cool. Dust with confectioners’ sugar. Fill each well with the jam/filling of your choice. (See above for my notes on apricot almond jam, my preference.)
I hope these are as successful for your Holidays as they have been for mine.

Now what are you waiting for? Back to the turkey and stuffing!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Cookies Fit for the Man Who Saved Me from Certain Death

Last week, I had a bit of excitement. I pulled into work and realized that one of my tires was completely flat. Completely. Flatter than the line that registered how dead Jack Bauer was in the middle of Season 2 of 24 after he’s repeatedly tasered by terrorists. There was no way I could drive on it.

Lucky for me, a gentleman at the office offered to change it. His name is Tavis, and he’s just an all-around nice guy. He also for whatever reason has always reminded me of Tony Almeida from 24.

I’ve never had a flat before, so to have someone help me in this situation was a really big deal. I particularly appreciated Tavis’s good deed that afternoon, as he was on his way to a three-hour meeting, but insisted on changing the tire first, thinking it might be dark by the time his meeting was over.

I felt horrible about putting him out: “Tavis, you totally don’t have time to change my tire right now!” I said.

But Tavis pulled out his gun and CTU badge and said:
Do you see what I did there? The cookie is supposed to be Tony Almeida.

I knew what Tavis’s good deed deserved: the most delicious cookie in the whole wide world, The Ricotta Cookie, henceforward known as Tavis’s Ricotta Cookie. It’s wonderful: the ricotta adds moistness, the icing has a hint of almond extract—they also taste great right out of the freezer.

I found the recipe on (it was submitted by “Sandy” – go, Sandy!), and upon baking my very first batch a few months ago, this little cookie instantly commandeered position of my previous favorite cookie in the whole world, “The Lil Bite of Heaven” (I’ll post a recipe for Lil Bites in a week or so – it’s an excellent, festive cookie, perfect for the holidays).

Here are the ingredients you’ll need to make Tavis’s Ricotta Cookies (yields 96 cookies).
For the cookie: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and in a medium bowl cream together: ½ pound of softened butter, 1 ¾ cup white sugar, 2 eggs, 15 ounces of ricotta cheese, and 2 tablespoons of vanilla extract.

In a separate bowl, combine 4 cups all-purpose flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1 teaspoon baking soda. Blend into the creamed mixture.

The next step says to roll the dough into teaspoon-sized balls, and arrange on an ungreased cookie sheet, but the dough is hard to work with at this point. It’s a little sticky:
Instead, roll up the dough in a few pieces of plastic wrap, and refrigerate for an hour or so.
It’ll make it much easier to get to this point:
Bake each sheet 8-10 minutes, until lightly browned.

For the topping: In a small bowl, beat 5 tablespoons milk, 1 ½ cups confectioners’ sugar, and 1 teaspoon almond extract until smooth. Spoon the mixture over the warm cookies, and add colored candy sprinkles.
And voila! Check out these manly cookies:
Thanks Tavis for your help last week. It was deeply appreciated.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Rangoli Indian Cuisine: Off the Hookah

Why, what’s this? Could it be… a blog entry?

I’m back everybody! Sorry it’s been so quiet over here. My 8-5:00 has been more like a 6-7:00 this past week, and the focus has been getting that work done for quite some time. However, to celebrate the end of a hectic week, I got the peeps together Saturday evening for what turned out to be just about the coolest get-together ever. All I can say is, my apologies for not alerting you of this event ahead of time. Because this was a classy affair: unbelievably entertaining and an insanely good value.

The venue was Rangoli Indian Cuisine in New Rochelle. I’m always up for Indian, but the restaurant was having a special affair to commemorate Diwali (an Indian holiday celebrating the festival of lights). For $50 per person, guests got to experience: an Indian buffet, open bar, bellydancing, live Sitar and Tabla music, and a bazaar downstairs offering Henna tattooing, Indian jewelry and clothing. The event was brought to my attention by my bellydancing instructor Bina (yep, you heard that right …and we’re moving on), who said she would be performing.

So, while the event has passed, and I realize some of you might’ve appreciated a heads-up as opposed to a re-cap, I’ll try to paint an accurate picture of what we experienced, and be sure to post the next event when it is announced. (I’m told Rangoli hosts live events often).

I arrived at the restaurant at 7:00 p.m. with friend Todd and bellydancing partner-in-crime Tia. There we met my brother Bill and his girlfriend Lori, and friends Erin, Pete, Christina and Chuck. A table had been reserved for our party in a festive-looking dining room, but the real action of the hour was happening at the open bar. Yes! Open bar! $50 per person was the golden ticket to Indian apps, buffet, live entertainment, culture, and ah-ah ah-ah ah-al-co-hol. Of the copious amounts of beverages consumed that evening were: Jack and Coke, Seven and Seven (both were very strong), good quality Pinot, Kingfisher, Heineken …. and cranberry juice for the designated driver. Next to the bar was a generous portion of appetizers, none very recognizable to me. There was a tandoori-looking chicken that was bright green in color instead of red, some type of cake made from grits, something resembling sausage, steamed lentil cakes, and an assortment of chutneys and sauces. Everything was quite tasty.

After a few rounds of drinks and more finger food than necessary, a group of us wandered downstairs to scope out the bazaar. Lovely clothing and jewelry were on hand, but I was immediately drawn to the Henna. I pointed to an intricate design and asked the woman behind the table how much and long it would take to paint. “Ten dollars,” she said. “And only about five minutes.” My girlfriends and I exclaimed over the deal and we all agreed to get tattoos. Sisters forever! I sat down first, and the woman began applying henna paste to my hand using a device similar to an icing tube. Within minutes, a lovely floral pattern emerged. But I was confused. The henna sat on my skin like little raised dots. The woman saw my expression. “Leave it on for about 20 minutes, and then rinse your hand with water,” she explained. “It will be dyed underneath.”

I eyed the delicate, wet dots. “Good luck trying to eat tonight,” I thought to myself sadly, but cheered when the woman added a few more swirls. My girlfriends began to shift uncomfortably, also thinking how difficult it would be to eat. As if on cue, we heard the host upstairs introduce the bellydancers; the excuses followed soon after, then a mass exodus of sisters sans tattoo went up to the dining room.

So whatever: I was the only one with a beautiful semi-permanent Henna tattoo. Monte from the mailroom made me feel a lot better about it at work two days later. (“Good Lord!” he exclaimed when he dropped off the mail. “What happened to your hand?” I told him. “It …looks kind of gross,” he said and then walked away.)

Anyhoo, I rushed back upstairs shortly after my tattoo-less sisters, and took my seat just in the nick of time to see the beautiful and mesmerizing Bina dramatically emerge in full bellydancing garb and Isis Wings.

Talk about a performer. Every eye in the house was on Bina. Watching her dance was reason enough to visit Rangoli. She moved in and out of tables with energy and spirit, captivating and inspiring all. Later, two of Bina’s students joined her on the dance floor.

“This is awesome,” Pete said, smiling from ear to ear, recording every second with his cell phone. “Todd, duck down,” he said, positioning his phone over Todd’s head to get a better view of undulating torsos. I noticed a growing crowd of people outside the restaurant, hands cupped to the window, also trying to get a glimpse of the show.

Then I noticed one of the dancers move toward me. But her hands were outstretched in a beckoning-motion.

Before I even had a chance to panic, I was swaying back and forth with the dancers on the floor, moving to the music, amidst cheers and encouragement from my friends. Next it was Todd’s turn to bust some crowd-pleasing moves, then Lori and Christina’s, followed by other diners who were more than happy to be coerced onto the dance floor. It was amusing to see some of the more timid and reserved-looking guests boogie down. Open bar must’ve really helped with inhibitions because there wasn’t a wet blanket in the room. Just happy, slightly glassy-eyed faces.

Still, the star of the show was unequivocally Bina. There was veil work, there was a cane, there was a sword. That she balanced on her torso. Unbelievable.

“Pete,” Erin said, nudging her fiancĂ©. “Can we come here for my birthday?”

“Absolutely,” he said, still recording. “It’s better and cheaper than Atlantic City.”

After the dancing portion of the evening, the buffet opened. While I realize that this here is a food blog, there was just too much going on to take pictures or really take note of what I was eating. And it all moved fast—by the time I got to the buffet table, the naan was gone, and shrimp and lamb had been strip-mined out of two main dishes (if you were patient enough to wait, all was replenished). I remember enjoying the chicken tikka masala very much, and exclaiming in joy when I saw a bowl of galub jamon balls for dessert.

The restaurant was also very warm, and there was only a small pitcher of water for our table of nine. Factor in alcohol, spicy, unfamiliar food, and our rowdy bunch soon got very quiet.

“My stomach’s angry,” Pete murmured, taking a bite of eggplant.

“Mine too,” said Todd. He loaded his fork full of spicy lentils. “Let’s see if these help.”

Naan somehow found its way to our table, which was wonderful. I also loaded up on a dish that resembled Paneer Saag, but contained baby corn instead of paneer cheese, which was a bit of a disappointment. Still, the food ranged to good to very good, and made me want to come back to Rangoli and have a proper dinner.

Live Sitar and Tabla music carried us through the rest of the evening, as did the restaurant’s extremely gracious hosts. It wasn’t until very late at night that we left the restaurant, tired, full, and exceedingly satisfied.

I was amazed at the care and consideration that went into planning such a special evening. And the value was unmatched. A gratuity was added to our bill (despite the self-service buffet) to make the total about $65 per person, yet I still found the amount under-priced for what we experienced.

I hope to see you at the next celebration!

Rangoli Indian Cuisine
615 Main Street
New Rochelle, NY 10801
(914) 235-1306