Monthly Archives: May 2008

Does The World Need A Chocolate Peanut Butter Cookie?

Welcome to IPB Living Investigates, a hard-hitting series where we tackle the most burning of questions. Today’s edition finds us exploring the age-old question: is a chocolate peanut butter cookie really necessary. This question was first drawn to our attention… um… well… sorta just yesterday. You see, Gentle Reader, in a spur of the moment “what shall we have to celebrate this weekend’s string of S-Days?” it was decided we should make peanut butter cookies with M&Ms using the recipe from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking From My Home To Yours. We have had much success with this recipe before so we thought we knew what we were getting into. That was, until we noticed the “Playing Around” sidebar that suggested replacing some of the flour with cocoa powder.

Cocoa powder?!?

This needed to be tried. We whipped up one batch of plain peanut butter cookies, following the original recipe to a tee, except for the omission of nuts and the addition of plain M&Ms. We then whipped up a batch using the chocolate variation, again with M&Ms instead of nuts. While mixing the second batch up, I posited the chocolate cookies had the potential to be either awesome or wholly unnecessary since the original version is so tasty on its own.

The initial review thirty minutes out of the oven was that the chocolate ones were good but not great. I decided to withhold judgment until the cookies had time to cool completely. 12 hours later the concensus is: good but not great. They have a really nice chocolately flavor with a subtle hint of peanut butter underneath, ending with a nice peanut buttery aftertaste. The M&Ms don’t really pop at all in this version, whereas the original features a huge peanut butter pow with little explosions of crunchy, sweet candy fun. The problem with the chocolate version is two-fold. One, the original recipe is so phenomenally good, it’s hard not to be disappointed to be eating a cookie so close to them but not exactly them. Two, there are so many other really great chocolate cookie recipes out there, why make a chocolate cookie that’s not out-of-this-world good?

I don’t mean to cut these cookies down too much, as they really are delicious and a very nice twist on a classic. In fact, in discussing the cookie’s merits, Schnookie and I had this exchange:

Me: I think if I made peanut butter cookies often, every three times or so, I’d change it up and make the chocolate versions.

Schnookie: Yeah, if this were your go-to cookie, that’d be great. I mean, if we made these instead of the Tollhouse chocolate chip as a fall-back cookie…

[Long, thoughtful pause of behalf of both parties.]

Me: Yeeeahhh….

This is bad news for our Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies! The world doesn’t really need a chocolate peanut butter cookie, but every so often, it certainly wouldn’t hurt anyone.

Recipe:
Peanut Butter Crisscrosses
Source: Baking From My Home To Yours, by Dorie Greenspan

2 1/2 cups flour*
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 pinch freshly grated nutmeg

2 sticks unsalted butter
1 cup peanut , crunchy or smooth (not natural) [I use smooth Skippy]
1 cup (packed) brown sugar
3/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs

1 1/2 cups chopped salted peanuts [I use 1/2 a small bag of plain M&Ms instead because who wants nuts in their cookies?!]

*For chocolate variation, use 2 cups flour and 1/2 cup of unsweetened cocoa powder

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Whisk together flour, soda, powder, salt and nutmeg. Beat the butter on medium speed until smooth. Add peanut butter and mix for another minute. [Make sure to try the cookie pudding at this point because peanut butter butter is extraordinary.] Add sugar and brown sugar and beat for 3 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time and beat for a minute each. With the mixer on low speed, pour in the dry ingredients and mix until the dry ingredients are just incorporated. Mix in the nuts or M&Ms.

Put some sugar in a small bowl. Roll tablespoon sized scoops of the dough into balls and roll in sugar. Using a greased fork dipped in sugar, make crisscrosses in the tops of the cookies (or, grease the bottom of a glass and dip it in the sugar, then flatten the cookie with the glass).

Bake for about 12 minutes, or until the cookies are light colored and cracked on top. (The cookies will be a little soft). Cool before eating, as they don’t taste as good when warm.

Makes a lot of cookies.

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Filed under Baked Goods, Cookie, Cookie, Cookie Starts With C, Taste Test

I Love The Mojitos, I Love The Sorbet… I Love The Mojito Sorbet!

One of my wonderful birthday presents this year was a White Mountain ice cream maker. I’ve had a cheap little ice cream maker for a few years now, but it never produced a satisfactory end product; everything I’d read about making ice cream at home suggested that to do it really right, you need the whole “ice and rock salt” thing going on to get your dessertstuff to freeze at the right consistency. I am super excited now to be able to channel the power of science that I totally don’t understand to make my desserts better.

The recipe I chose to christen the maching? Mojito sorbet. I found it Cheryl and Bill Jamison’s Smoke & Spice, and it sounded too simple and delicious to pass up. I mean, really — mojito sorbet? That’s got to be one of the greatest inventions of all time.

Like I said, the recipe was really simple. Just combine 2 cups of sugar, 1 1/2 cups of loosely packed mint leaves, 3/4 cups of light rum, and 3 cups of water in a medium saucepan. Heat over medium heat until small bubbles start to form at the sides of the pot, then remove from heat and let steep for 15 minutes. Then strain the mixture, stir in 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons of lime juice and 1/4 cup more rum. Let the mixture cool, then you’re ready to pop it into your ice cream maker and get freezing.

The instruction booklet that came with my ice cream maker explained the deal behind the ice and rock salt thing, and even with it spelled out for me, I can’t figure it out. All I know is that you pour the mojito syrup into the canister, put the canister in the bucket, and fill the rest of the bucket with ice.

Then you start the motor, let the canister get chilled, and then start pouring on the rock salt. As the ice melts down, you keep adding more ice and more rock salt until, per the instruction manual, “the motor sounds like its really straining.” What a helpful instruction! It also says it should take 20-25 minutes. The recipe for the mojito sorbet explained that the rum would make it so it wouldn’t freeze super solid, so I didn’t bother waiting for the motor to really strain; after 25 minutes, I opened up the canister and sure enough, in the bottom was a delicious-looking soft sorbet.

Yes, this is every bit as good as it should be. It’s light and sweet, with a mojito-y lime-and-mint marvelousness going on. And yes, there’s a boozy marvelousness to boot. Pookie put it best when she polished off a bowl of it and declared, “I want all my drinks to come in sorbet form from now on.”

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The Ice Creams of IPBville: Thomas Sweet

Five years ago, Schnookie and I finally decided the “living in Arizona” experiment just wasn’t working. We started compiling a list of reasons to move back to Central New Jersey. Number one on the list was changing seasons; that whole “the sun shines every day” just was not cutting it. Number two on the list? Ice cream. Our neck of the woods, the part of the world where we’d lived since grade school, is ice cream heaven. When you’re used to having at least three top-notch parlors nearby and you move somewhere with zero, it’s just wrong. When you’re used to having homemade ice cream and sundaes and blend-ins, buying mass-market ice cream from the grocery store is just wrong. Not being able to take your ice cream on a stroll on the Princeton campus, testing your ability to eat and walk at the same time, is just wrong. So we moved back, and the first night back in town, we headed out for ice cream. To commemorate the importance of quality ice cream parlors in our lives, we’re doing a Summer series here at IPB Living to review all the various ice cream establishments in the area. Some are old favorites, staples of our youths. Some are new to us. Some offer traditional soft serve, some fancy organic gelatos. All are going to get the IPB Living touch. We’ll be rating the experience of each place on several criteria: quality of ice cream, store ambiance, eating location, special perks, and nostalgia.

Today we start with the granddaddy of Central Jersey ice cream: Thomas Sweet. Thomas Sweet is a Princeton landmark. It’s been there for almost 30 years. (There are also stores in New Brunswick, home of Schnookie’s alma mater Rutgers, and in DC.) It’s also the logical place to start, since it routinely gets written up for being not just one of the best ice cream places in NJ, but for being one of the best nationwide.

Quality of Ice Cream: The homemade ice cream at Thomas Sweet is undeniably excellent. The vanilla tastes like real vanilla, the chocolate is nice and rich. They don’t have thousands of flavors, but they always have a nice range of choices sure to please anyone.

In addition to offering the usual sundaes, milkshakes, cones, and floats, their signature dish is something called the Blend-In. A dish of ice cream and a scoop or two of toppings (usually candy of some kind) is put in a giant drill-like machine and out comes a perfectly blended mixture of creamy goodness. The result is a smooth bowl of ice cream and topping with fully integrated flavors, not like the half-assed blends you’ll get at a place like Cold Stone Creamery. A Blend-In is like an ice cream sundae squared.

For today’s dining pleasure, Schnookie opted for chocolate pudding ice cream with strawberries blended in. The chocolate pudding offered a nice flatness with a slightly unusual chocolate flavor; the strawberries added a mellowness on top of that. Schnookie, in particular, likes the Blend-In format because she loves fruited ice cream but her sensitive teeth (thanks, dishonest dentist!) keep her from eating anything cold that requires chewing. I had a Blend-In of chocolate malt ice cream with Kit Kats. The chocolate malt had a deep but light flavor, which the blended Kit Kat enhanced. Boomer opted for a root beer float; the ice cream was especially cream-y thanks to the French vanilla, but the root beer was a tad too weak. Schnookie rates the quality of her dish an A (but says it would have been an A+ if she’d thought to go with raspberries instead of strawberries), I give mine an A+, and Boomer weighs in with a B- thanks to the sub-par root beer (but the ice cream itself rates an A).

Store Ambiance: Thomas Sweet is a small, narrow store, with a handful of very small tables just inside the door. The cases of ice cream are at the back. At the height of summer the line stretches from the cases, through the tables, out the door, and down the stoop to the sidewalk. Along one wall are a few clippings from newspapers and magazines, and one picture of Walter Matthau enjoying a Thomas Sweet ice cream cone in full Einstein get-up from when IQ was filmed in town. The other wall usually features some fun, colorful mural.

It’s pretty traditional when it comes to what an ice cream parlor should look like. It’s homey and inviting, devoid of the uptight and intimidating atmosphere of a lot of Princeton institutions. We give it a B for ambiance.

Eating Location: This is where Thomas Sweet really excels. The store itself is usually too crowed to accommodate eating inside, but there are picnic tables immediately outside, and right next door is the lawn for the University’s arts building (yup, you can eat your ice cream right outside Joyce Carol Oates’ and Toni Morrison’s offices!) where plenty of people hunker down to enjoy their summery treats. However, if you’re willing to walk just two blocks away, you’ll find the perfect place to sit and eat — the Woody Woo.

The Woodrow Wilson School of International Something-or-Other is a very short walk from Thomas Sweet, and it features a lovely plaza with a seasonal fountain. You know it’s summer in Princeton when the Woody Woo fountain is running. The fountain fills a large, very shallow wading pool; in the hot months you’ll always find kids swimming, adults wading, and dogs cooling off. It turns into an impromptu community pool. Today was an overcast work-day in early summer so there weren’t very many people; but even with weathermen predicting thunderstorms there were still waders.

It’s a townie right of passage, I think, to at some point in your youth run into the Woody Woo fountain on a very hot, very humid day, getting completely soaked only to remember that it’s August in New Jersey and thus your clothes — especially your jeans — will never get dry. When you’re a kid, it’s worth it. Now? Not so much. So we stay off to the side, on the plaza steps.

This eating location rates a solid A+. The walk there takes us past the exotic science labs and the gorgeous ivied walls of the University. We never get over giggling that the building that fills in for the Princeton-Plainsboro Hospital on House is just a block down. And best of all, the people-watching can’t be beat, especially when there are little kids daring each other to swim to the middle of the fountain structure, or when there are adorable dogs chasing balls with an energy suggesting its not 98 degrees with 100 % humidity.

That A+, by the way, would be an A++ except that the short walk is all a Blend-In needs to turn to soup.

Delicious, delicious soup.

Special Perks: Thomas Sweet is located in downtown Princeton, meaning a trip to get ice cream can be easily expanded into a trip to get lunch and window shop. Today we added lunch at Olive’s deli to the equation. Since Schnookie and I both insist on bringing our lunches of leftovers to work every day, I almost never get a nice take-out lunch; Olive’s is such a treat, then, the two or three times I year I go.

The Olives experience was made even better by the construction of the plaza next to the stunning, recently renovated Princeton Public Library.

Eating a delicious turkey-and-brie-on-foccacia sandwich in a bustling, tree-filled plaza is a delightful way to gear up for a trip to Thomas Sweet. This added bonus turns a quick trip out for ice cream into an event. This special perk rates a B+.

Nostalgia: Did we say “Eating Location” was where Thomas Sweet really excels? Because it’s got a lot going for it in the nostalgia category, too. When we were little, Dad and Boomer would pile us into the car and take us into town for sundaes and Blend-Ins. The six of us would then wander up to the campus; us kids would climb on the big bronze tiger sculptures while the adults would stroll in the Summer evening over to the flower garden. We’re too big for the tigers now, and the flower garden is a little out-of-the-way, but every trip to Thomas Sweet contains just a whiff of the summer evenings of our youth, when going for ice cream seemed like an adventure.

There are more contemporary nostalgic elements to Thomas Sweet, too, however. In 2003, unemployed and without a care in the world save the NJ Devils playoff run, Schnookie and I made many trips to Thomas Sweet, believing a Blend-In before game time was lucky for our boys. Obviously, those Blend-Ins were lucky — the Devils have a Stanley Cup to show for our dedication to ice cream consumption! Going to Thomas Sweet now reminds me of the giddy celebration when our team made the Finals, and of the nervous afternoons spent trying to stay calm about the big game that night.

In short, Thomas Sweet makes us equally nostalgic for the very best times of a childhood summer, and the very best times of a sports fan’s life. It doesn’t get any better than that. A+.

Summary: The other places we review are going to have to work very hard to beat Thomas Sweet.

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Picky Eating With Pookie: Oh Snap!

This summer I’m proud to present an IPB Living exclusive presentation of Picky Eating With Pookie. You see, Gentle Reader, I am a picky eater. For all this talk of veggie gardening and CSA farms, I have long maintained that I don’t really like most vegetables. Tomatoes, potatoes, and onions never really counted as vegetables to me, so they’ve always been on the a-okay list. Lettuce was iffy for a while, but with enough croûtons and dressing it could be made palatable. Thanks to a summer spent in Santa Fe, I discovered beans and peppers should be considered candy, not veggies. Everything else? Nasty. Nasty, nasty, nasty. I pick the peas out of every pot pie Schnookie makes; I carefully eat around the carrots in soups; I refuse to even go near any dish containing sweet potatoes; I break out in hives when confronted with cooked greens.

A very strange thing happened, though, when I started going stir-crazy for the garden and farm this early-Spring. I started to think about how great a carrot grown from the garden would taste. Now, I’ve never been good at verbalizing what exactly is wrong with the veggies I don’t like, so when called on why I don’t like peas or carrots, I’m usually left spluttering, “Just ‘cuz, okay! Get off my back about the peas and carrots!” So when I started salivating over this mythical carrot, I realized that I could sort of remember what carrots taste like and nowhere in that taste memory was an element I could put my finger on hating. It occurred to me that my inability to explain why I hate vegetables might work in my favor. Maybe my vegetable cortex, or whatever part of the brain determines which nutritious foods I’ll like, is a blank slate. Maybe I could start from scratch. Maybe I could try one of every vegetable that comes from the garden or the farm! Maybe I’d learn to love the foods that are good for me!

Picky Eating With Pookie will document this ambitious re-learning of vegetables. I don’t have high hopes. I suspect I’ll still dislike beets and string beans as much in September as I do now, but dagnabbit, I’m going to give it an honest effort! I will give each and every vegetable a fair shake — with two exceptions. Cooked spinach ain’t happening. Raw baby spinach? Awesome. Cooked, wilted, mineral-y, limp, chewy, stringy spinach will never taste good to me, even if you lobotomized my vegetable cortex. Also, I hate cooked peas. I can verbalize that I dislike their tinny, slimy, smelly, noxious little pea-ish selves. No cooked peas.

Because cooked peas are so vile, I was a little wary of the first Picky-Eating-eligible crop of the season:

Snap Peas.

Snap Peas.

Sounds pea-ish.

As I stared down the barrel of the snap pea, I thought back to earlier this Spring when I daringly tried edamame from the local sushi place, and asparagus from the local farm stand. Both were surprisingly delicious. “Maybe,” I thought, “I’m on a roll!” I reached out for the snap pea Schnookie had picked especially for me. As my shaking fingers closed around it I thought, “Or maybe it’ll taste like a pea! Peas are the devil’s food!” Still, I had made a promise to myself and I wasn’t going to give up before I got started (good thing the first farm crop this year wasn’t cooked spinach). So I ate it.

The taste sensation of eating a just-picked snap pea starts with a very satisfying crisp crunch that led directly into a burst of bright, fresh liquidness. It tasted, well, like a crisp, bright, fresh Summer day. However, if then transitioned into a slightly stringy toothiness that was tinged with more than a little pea-flavor. The aftertaste was just enough eau du pea that I hesitated before taking a second helping. But take a second helping I did. I’m hoping that I can convince myself that the pea aftertaste is the essence of shelling pea pods, which for some strange reason is a chore I think (in concept) I’d enjoy in a down-home, newer-better-life-as-a-gardener way.

I stopped after two pods, but the verdict on snap peas is 3 1/2 stars out of 5. I don’t think I’ll go out of my way to eat a big bowl of them, but should they appear in a dish on my plate, I’d probably eat several. And for a picky eater, sometimes that’s all you can ask. Tune in as the season progresses, as I tackle such vegetables as carrots, beets, string beans, and more!

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Mmmmm… Pulled Pork Tacos

Because I’m a red-blooded American, I have no choice but to barbecue on Memorial Day weekend. And because I’m a red-blooded American, I love tacos. So I figured this was a great opportunity to combine those two elements, and make pulled-pork tacos. With a delighted resolve to break out the smoker, I chose the recipe for “East L.A. Pork Tacos” from Cheryl and Bill Jamison’s Smoke & Spice cookbook.

The recipe starts with a “Borracho Marinade”, which of course should be followed with a hearty chorus of “Citizens of Borracho!” or “Now can you give a man some fightin’ room” (assuming you’ve seen The Great Race as many times as we have). This marinade is made up of:

2 cups of orange juice
2/3 cup of tequila
Juice of 2 limes
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 medium onion, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons dried oregano, preferably Mexican
1 teaspoon achiote paste
1 teaspoon cumin
Several dashes of hot sauce (the recipe stipulates “fiery habanero hot sauce”)

For the record, I didn’t have any achiote paste, nor did I have any hot sauce, so I just tossed in a teaspoon of adobo instead. Then I combined all that in the food processor, then poured it over the pork (the recipe calls for 6 shoulder pork chops, 12-14 oz each, but I went with two 4-pound Boston butts) in a plastic bag and let it marinate in the fridge overnight.

In my experience with the standard Mr. Brown’s Pulled Pork (or whatever it’s called), I’ve learned the rule of thumb to give 1 1/2 hours for every pound of pork you’re smoking. That meant I needed my smoker warmed up (to somewhere between 200 and 220 degrees F) and ready for these bad boys to do the whole “slow and low” thing for six hours. What a welcome change from the previous smoked items I’ve made, where I’ve been looking at a nine-pound butt that needs to be ready for a lunchtime crowd. Suddenly I was combining my love of tacos with my love of sleeping in — this was becoming the best meal ever!

When the meat was done, it looked like something that would dress the sets of a caveman movie or something. It seems like meatstuffs that get roasted on sticks over fires in the movies always end up with this dark color and sheen. Frankly, they looked fake to me.

They tasted, however, amazing. The marinade gave the edges a nice citrusy zing, and the meat in the center was moist and lightly imbued with the bright flavors of the citrus and garlic and spices. It was just fantastic. And more than that, it was deliciously aromatic while smoking, so I can only hope our neighbors were really jealous.

The recipe then suggested you serve the shredded pork in tacos with all the standard taco fixings, along with a “Sauce Ole”.

The Sauce Ole is made as follows:

3/4 cup canned crushed tomatoes
2 small tomatoes, chopped
1/2 medium red onion, chopped
1/2 cup chopped roasted green chiles (preferably New Mexican, Anaheim, or poblano, fresh or frozen)
2-3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt

Combine all the ingredients with 1/2 cup water in a saucepan and bring the mixture to a simmer over medium heat. Cook for about 10 minutes, until the sauce has thickened a little, but so the vegetables are still crisp-tender. Refrigerate for at least one hour to allow the flavor to develop.

And just because I was feeling all kinds of gung-ho, I did roast and peel the poblano peppers fresh.

The other sides/fixings I made to go with this were some frijoles, some red rice, and some guacamole. And when it all came together, this dinner was insanely good. The Sauce Ole is out of this world, and paired with the pork, it tasted like something you’d get at a restaurant. I have rarely been as proud of a meal as I was of this one. And after laboring over it for two days, I ate it, of course, in about 35 seconds. I can’t wait to have this again!

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Filed under BBQ, Hearty Meals, Meats Meats Meats, Zesty Seasonings and Crazy Condiments

The Birthday Haul

We’re celebrating my birthday this weekend (it isn’t actually until the 28th, but who wouldn’t spend Memorial Day weekend partying?), and today I got to revel in how much Boomer and Pookie spoil me. That’s right: it was presents day. And as per tradition, my birthday is used as a chance for everyone to load up on things that will make life at Maple Hoo a bit lovelier for everyone. Sure, I got some earrings and a few books, but really my birthday loot is all about things all three of us want. Like this bowl that we all picked out of the Sundance catalog:

We can’t wait to start styling our food for IPB Living photo shoots in that!

And then there was the Penzey’s sampler of spice rubs that Pookie decided would be great fun to play with during a very grill-filled summer:

The presentation was so cool — it came in a wooden crate, and the packaging around the spice jars included whole bay leaves, cinnamon sticks and allspice. It was just a glorious gift to receive, and I am just crazy excited to start trying all these spice blends out.

The centerpiece of the gifts today, though, was the new basket Pookie picked for me to take to the Farm with me. For the last five years I’ve struggled to find a good system for the pick-your-own crops, since my string grocery bags are pretty lousy for the predominantly small veggies that the farm offers (hot peppers, cherry tomatoes, all manner of string beans, various berries, and so on). Well, my problems have all been solved, and stylishly so!

And that wasn’t all! I also got the ice cream maker I’d asked for (Pookie says that a gift of an ice cream maker to me is actually just the gift of homemade ice cream to her, and seems to think this proves she’s an evil genius. What she’s forgetting is that I get the fun of making the ice cream and the joy of eating it, so we both win), and Boomer surprised me with a bottle of eiswein. I figure both of those presents will, eventually, get posts of their own.

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