Mexican wedding cookies

My first cookbook was a Ladybird children’s book called We Can Cook.  I was ten or eleven at the time, and my mother bought it at the annual Calcutta Book Fair.  My sister and I spent hours flipping through the slim hardbound volume, marveling at recipes for strange dishes such as “Welsh Rarebit,” “Shepherd’s Pie” and “Cornish Pasties.”  Most of the recipes required ingredients that appeared to exist only on another continent.

One recipe seemed to be within our reach.  It was called “jam tarts,” and it required a simple shortcrust pastry made of flour, butter and water.  Mom taught us to rub the cold butter into the flour with our fingertips and then add a little cold water such that a dough came together.  The dough was rolled out on a cool marble counter-top.  We cut little circles with a cutter to fit the muffin pan, and then pressed down the circles into the pan, to form shallow rims. Each tart shell was jabbed with a fork before the tray went into our tiny oven.  When the tarts came out, they were filled with spoonfuls of strawberry or mixed fruit jam and baked again for a few minutes.  The jam melted to form a smooth top in the pastries.

The warm tarts were utterly divine to bite into: buttery and crumbly, sticky with bits of warm jam.  This tart became our secret midnight feast snack.  We became adept at pretending to be asleep, and then creeping into the kitchen at night to quickly bake a small order of these treats.  In later years, my sister went on to earn a culinary degree and become a pastry chef.  As for me, well let’s just say that I’m still in search of a good cookie recipe.

Recently, I found myself at a Mexican cooking class at ICE where we made a very easy and tasty Mexican wedding cookie.  The nutty cookie dough had almond and pecan flour and was subtly flavored with vanilla and sweet, fragrant anise seeds.  At home, I decided to beat soft butter and sugar with an electric beater for a minute before gently stirring in all the dry ingredients instead of using a food processor as in the original recipe.  The result was a airier, fluffier cookie than the one from class, although I equally preferred both.  I’ve written out the recipes below.

Mexican Wedding Cookies

Adapted from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York

Makes about two dozen two inch cookies

1/4 cup almonds

1/4 cup pecans

1 stick cold butter, cut into pieces

1/4 cup confectioner’s sugar + more for rolling

1 1/2 tsps vanilla extract

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp anise seeds

1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees

2. Grind the almonds and pecans in a food processor until fine.  Add the butter and continue to grind until you obtain a smooth paste.  Add the confectioner’s sugar and vanilla and process again.  Add the flour and anise seeds and process until everything is well blended.

3.  Roll the dough into small one-inch balls using your hands.  If the dough sticks and is hard to roll, refrigerate briefly.  Place the balls about 1 inch apart on an ungreased baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes or so, until brown on the bottom.

4.  Remove from oven and cool for 15 minutes.  Roll the cookies while still warm in the remaining confectioner’s sugar. Let cool slightly more, and roll in confectioner’s sugar again.

Note: if you decide to use my method of using an electric beater, first beat the sugar and room temperature butter for a minute or so on the lowest setting.  Add the vanilla and beat a little more.  Separately mix all the dry ingredients – flour, nut flours and anise seeds.  Fold gently into the beaten butter and sugar, to make the dough.  Proceed as above.

A good egg

A few years ago I began buying cage-free hen eggs that were fed an organic vegetarian diet, and were not injected with hormones etc.  The eggs I presumed would be healthier and would taste better.  I didn’t find anything remarkable about these eggs.  Pale yellow yolks, the usual whites.  There was a subtle taste difference I thought, or maybe it was all in my mind.

Last summer, we were at the now-closed IGA grocery store in Red Hook buying last-minute groceries for breakfast.  In their egg aisle, I found boxes of eggs from a farm called Feather Ridge.  The box with its purple label proclaimed lots of things – more omega-3, quality & goodness from the Hudson Valley, fresh from the family farm — but I weary of labels, of wading through phrases and sentences that had to be researched further and that may or may not stand up to their claims, didn’t pay too much attention.  I returned home with that box and cast it into the refrigerator.

When I cracked open an egg the next morning as early sunlight slanted into the kitchen, I blinked several times.  The yolk that was sitting on the black cast iron pan was a large, brilliant, quivering golden-orange orb.  The whites were thick and firm.  I couldn’t even begin to describe the taste of that egg.  It tasted delicious, wholesome, fresh and I suppose just like a normal, healthy hen egg.   Later I found a write-up that described how Feather Ridge fed its hens a diet that included ground flaxseed.  I also found the following mentioned on Locanda Verde’s menu: We use organic eggs from Feather Ridge Farms in Elizaville, NY.  I pestered my local store to carry the eggs.  Michael Sobsey began making a weekly trip to the Tribeca farmer’s market to source these eggs for the Hoboken market.  He reported them as a best-selling product in the store.  I reasoned that once you had tasted this egg, you just couldn’t go back to a regular supermarket egg.

Since, I’ve become terribly interested in farm-fresh, local eggs laid by healthy and happily roaming chickens.  I’ve taken myself to Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills where Agastya found a precious egg nestled in the grass as we wandered around their huge flock of chickens.  I’ve also found very fresh, bright yellow yolk eggs laid that same morning whenever we’ve visited Sprout Creek Farm.

My recent visit to find eggs at Kinderhook Farm in Ghent, NY was an experience of a sublime sort.  Lee, the kind resident farmer, took me all around his breathtaking property.  It was a misty afternoon, sheep were scattered about nibbling tender green grass.   I could see cows in the distance on the gently sloping hills.  As we walked out to the fields, scores of colorful, plump, healthy and (am I really saying this?) sweet-smelling chickens came running out.  One bold bird stood so close to me, waiting to be fed, that I reached out and ran my hand down its firm, feathery back.  Lee showed us where the eggs were laid, in the front hatch of the red small barn-like egg mobile.  A raising of the hatch revealed a nesting hen and eggs of all colors – blue, speckled, green, beige, brown and white.  I peppered Lee with questions, while I plotted how I could get these eggs back in Hoboken.  For who could contemplate going back to eating an egg not freshly laid by a free-roaming, grass-worm-insect eating hen?  Especially once you’d rubbed the soft back of one.

I like to eat my eggs very simply – usually fried on one side in a small pat of butter, preferably in a cast iron pan.  This way I can taste both the yolk and the white separately, and the yolk remains slightly runny, bright yellow drenching my toast as I bite into an open sandwich of toasted bread and egg, topped with a few crumbly bits of cheese.  I’ve also discovered that any cheese – blue, soft, semi-soft, firm, and made with any type of milk and aged for any length of time – tastes great with egg and toast.  

To make a fried egg: heat up the butter on high/medium heat and break open your egg over the pan.  Turn the heat to low and let the white set.  Remove when the egg unsticks itself from the bottom of the pan.  Flip over if you want a more firmly cooked egg.

I also love an easy unda roti, which is an egg roll or wrap that makes good use of leftover Indian-style flatbread from the previous night’s dinner.

To make an egg roll: Whisk an egg and set aside while a dob of butter heats in a flat pan.  Pour in the egg and let it cook for a few seconds before placing the roti  on top of the still-runny egg.  Cook over a low flame for a few more seconds till you see the sides of the egg setting around the roti.  Flip over, cook for another few seconds and turn onto your plate with the egg side up.  Heap thinly sliced onions tossed in lime juice, add some finely chopped green chillies and sprinkle of chaat masala if you wish, and roll up the egg roti.  Serve with plain or spicy Maggi ketchup.