Monthly Archives: February 2015

Belgian-inspired Speculoos cookie ice cream

Winter and ice cream certainly aren’t synonymous, but this ice cream, inspired by a house-made ice cream at one of Brussels’ trendiest restaurants, is perfect for a cozy winter dinner party or indulgent treat. When I created this recipe, I was surprised at how well the flavors and textures melded together; I would count this as one of my top five favorite ice creams ever – that I’ve eaten, let alone made!

If you’ve been following the blog, you may have noticed a few nods to Belgium, and some of them related to chocolate, Belgium’s best-known food export. If you’ve spent any time in Belgium or The Netherlands (Holland) or on flights on U.S. or European airlines, however, you likely have seen or tasted a variation of speculoos cookies (Biscoff, anyone?). Speculoos cookies, in their Belgian incarnation, are golden-brown, crisp cookies with a hint of gingerbread flavor. Some versions have very little spice, while others add a heavier dose of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and other spices. If you’re American and have visited a Trader Joe’s grocery store, you may see their speculoos cookie butter spread prominently displayed and promoted – a peanut butter or Nutella alternative.

Speculoos cookies and cookie butter are easy finds for Americans at Trader Joe's

Speculoos cookies and cookie butter are easy finds for Americans at Trader Joe’s

During a trip to Brussels and at the end of an excellent meal at the trendy Lola, a brasserie near the Grand Sablon downtown, I was fortunate enough to share an exquisite speculoos glace (ice cream) sundae. It was unmatched in its soft, creamy texture with a not-too-heavy dose of speculoos flavor. I was compelled to try a pint of another glacier’s (ice cream shop) speculoos ice cream, but the flavor was a bit heavy-handed, and the texture was not quite so creamy and rich. When, back home, I received a Kitchen Aid ice cream making attachment as a gift, I instantly knew what my first ice cream creation would be: speculoos.

I have made several homemade ice creams throughout my life, but I’d not used the Kitchen Aid attachment, so I was skeptical. Scouring recipes across the Internet for a good ice cream base that would provide a thickness and richness – like gelato, I took this one from The Texan New Yorker and concocted my own variation.

The result is a thick, creamy, and delicately flavored vanilla-cinnamon custard base with crushed speculoos cookies mixed inside and a ribbon of dense, sweet speculoos cookie butter. I won’t be crass by repeating the expletives I used when excitedly describing the ice cream (both times I made it), but I’d be happy to be served this version at the restaurant. While the custard may appear intimidating, it is quite simple to make – just leave ample time to cool the custard fully before churning.

Just finished frozen cusstard  ice cream

Just finished frozen custard ice cream

Speculoos cookie custard glace

  • Servings: 8
  • Difficulty: medium
  • Print

  • 3 cups whole milk
  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup granulated (white) sugar
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 heaping tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp sea salt
  • 100 g. (3.5 ounces or about 8-10 whole) speculoos cookies
  • 2/3 cup speculoos cookie butter (available at Trader Joe’s in the USA; brands such as Lotus in Europe)

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To make the custard, bring the milk and cream in a medium saucepan to a simmer over medium heat. Whisk in the brown sugar until dissolved. Remove from heat when the mixture reaches a light boil (small bubbles). Meanwhile, in a small mixing bowl, gently beat the egg yolks (can be done manually with a whisk) with the 1/4 cup granulated sugar. Pour 1/2 cup of the egg mixture into the milk mixture and whisk to incorporate, which tempers the mixture. Gradually whisk in the remainder of the beaten egg and sugar. Return the saucepan to medium-low heat and bring to a rolling boil, stirring frequently. When the mixture reaches a boil, remove from heat. Chill in an ice bath (fill a larger pot or mixing bowl with ice and a bit of cold water and place the saucepan with the custard mixture over top). Once cooled to room temperature, refrigerate until well chilled (or place in a freezer for about 30 minutes to speed the process. If you use the freezer for chilling, make sure to whisk occasionally to prevent a skin or ice crystals from forming prematurely).

Mixing in the speculoos cookies.

Mixing in the speculoos cookies.

Follow instructions for use for your ice cream maker (I used a Kitchen Aid ice cream maker attachment to my stand mixer). While the ice cream is churning (unless doing so manually, in which case perform the next step in advance), place the speculoos cookies in a sealed plastic bag and pulverize, or, alternatively, grind in a food processor.  Whether you prefer larger chunks or a fine dust is a matter of personal preference. About 5 minutes before the churning is complete, gradually add the cookie butter and continue to churn/mix; repeat for the crushed speculoos cookies. Once finished, stir with a spatula to incorporate the add-ins more completely. Transfer to airtight containers and freeze overnight.

This recipe yields slightly more than one quart (two pints) of ice cream and is best packed in multiple, smaller containers than one large container.  The additional amount is perfect for two generous servings right out of the ice cream maker.

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Profile: Bordeaux’s Glouton, Le Bistrot

If I were to conceive the quintessential French bistro, it would look very much like Bistrot Glouton in Bordeaux, France. On a recent trip to Bordeaux, I had the pleasure of a lovely Saturday lunch there. A small, simple, and modern interior houses small wooden tables that place one in close proximity to fellow patrons, most of them locals excepting summer months. Nobody seems to mind the potential encroachment on one’s conversations (it isn’t a loud place), as the food is just lovely, and I enjoyed watching everyone’s dishes pass by. The cuisine is modern French – simplicity of flavor, perfectly cooked and artfully presented. The menu is written on chalk board, as it changes frequently but under the watchful eye of regular customers, who protest when their favorite menu items disappear, hoping the chef might relent and reinstate them, as they did with a unique fricaseed egg appetizer.

We started with a black (blood) sausage/blood pudding amuse bouche. Boudin noir, or black pudding made black from blood – yes, really – is fairly pervasive in French and British cuisine. Now, I’ve always been afraid of any dish with ‘blood’ in the name, but when something is offered to me, it would be rude to refuse. So I finally tried my first blood pudding. Though I couldn’t quite move my mind away from the concept of what I was eating, the flavor was really exquisite, I’ll admit. With the texture of seared foie gras though less compact and a flavor that evoked pate, truffles, and a hint of sweetness and iron, it was complemented by onions that had been pickled and just barely caramelized.

Blood pudding.

Blood pudding.

For my starter, I chose a warm vegetable salad accented with chicken, dressed with vinaigrette that was typically French and heavy on the oil. It was light and savory. One of my friends agreed to the server’s recommendation of the oeufs fricasee with XXX mushrooms and a bit of parmesan cheese. A single egg rested in a broth of its own milkiness, cream, and a bit of cheese. My friend raved at its delicacy and enjoyed it so much that she couldn’t leave so much as a single drop of the broth.

Fricaseed eggs (oeufs)

Fricaseed eggs (oeufs)

For my main course, I chose another entree (starter) in lieu of a larger plat (entree) – a tuna tartare. Half-inch cubes of luscious ahi tuna, tossed with sesame, ginger, and a hint of lemon and wasabi were arranged in a generous portion and topped with a savory, wasabi-accented whipped cream. I can say that I’ve never had ahi tuna complimented by dairy before, but the whipped cream somehow worked. One of my friends chose a fish plat, partially deboned and presented as such (see photo) and served with fingerling potato halves, delightfully roasted with oil, lemon, and oregano. My other friend ordered a skirt or flank steak, cooked perfectly medium rare and served with a small romaine salad and the best flash-fried potato squares I’ve ever tried. Crispy like frites on the outside and soft on the inside, these potatoes were made out-off-this-world with green onions and lemon. That simple combination was so good that I couldn’t stop eating his potatoes.

Click these images to enlarge!

All three of us were quite full, but we couldn’t refuse Glouton’s dessert selection. We compromised and split crepes Suzette – Gran Marnier flambeed tableside and filled with a light custard. While it wasn’t my first choice, one bite told me that it was, in fact, the best choice, both due to the expert execution and presentation. That dish was emblematic of the quality and artistry of Bistrot Glouton.

Crepes Suzette, need I say more?

Crepes Suzette, need I say more?

And of course, what would lunch in France be without the perfect wine? Glouton’s rose was fantastic, semi-dry and balanced with a nice crispness. I later tried a vin blanc (white wine) that was complex and intense, also slightly dry but heavier without butteriness of a heavy oak malolactic fermentation. I really enjoyed its notes of apple, citrus, and flowers alongside the citrus and creme tartness of the crepes Suzette.

Of all our meals in Bordeaux, Glouton stood out most. Many more bistros could be called traditionally French, but this one is nowhere close to the tired, repetitive cafes that line the streets of France – or, for that matter, their cousins around the world. Its traditional, yet creative and deftly executed flavors and innovative plating were certainly worth a visit. Come during the work week and enjoy the three-course menu du jour for a very reasonable price, or a la carte as we did, with l’addition (the bill) totaling far less than one might pay for that level of cuisine in France.

Two days in Bordeaux

If you have been looking to plan – or just dreamed about – a trip that includes hops around Europe or France, make sure to add Bordeaux to your bucket list. Wine is only a starting point.  Whether or not you are an oenophile (wine lover), Bordeaux has a lot to offer visitors. A cosmopolitan French city, Bordeaux lacks the complexity and harried pace of Paris and can be much less intimidating for a foreigner. Its city center is easily walkable, and it is a bit more affordable relative to Paris.

My visit took place during the winter, and I have to say that I enjoyed being in the minority as a tourist. While I would recommend Bordeaux in the late spring time, visiting at a low point in the tourist season will give you much more of a local feel, like a welcomed guest.

Bordeaux and the surrounding towns and chateaux of Aquitaine are absolutely worth a long stay, but if you would like to sample Bordeaux with more of a local feel, I’ll offer a few must-trys to make your planning a bit easier.

General hints:

As in much of western Europe, be cognizant that shops and restaurants often are closed on Sundays. Additionally, any day of the week, make sure to follow proper lunch and dinner times; miss lunch, and between about 2:30 and 7 pm (1430-1900), you will be out of luck for meals and wine and may find mostly tea shops open. Some of the larger, more generic sidewalk cafes remain open during those times between lunch and dinner, but keep in mind that service is often limited. On Sundays, many restaurants do offer brunch, particularly brunch buffets – but make sure to arrive before 1400 (2 pm.), or you may be out of luck! As far as sights, wander around the city and marvel at its mostly 18th century architecture, though its heritage is much older. Bordeaux is an UNESCO world heritage site. The river Garonne is a great place for a scenic stroll and is beautifully lit and particularly romantic at night; it also is a great place for a jog or run, if you do not mind dodging pedestrians milling about.

Where to stay:
Bordeaux boasts many hotels. If you have a very limited budget, the Quality Hotel has clean, no-frills rooms for under US $100. It is centrally located just off Rue Saint Catherine, the main pedestrian shopping area. Don’t expect much, however. My recommendation is Le Boutique Hotel in on Rue Lafaurie Monbadon, just north of the Place de Bourse and Rue Saint Catherine (rooms are about $200 during low season, higher during the spring and summer). While I wouldn’t call it a luxury hotel (if you want true luxury – and to pay for it! – stay at Grand Hotel Bordeaux), it was chic, trendy, and a great place to stay. Its staff are extremely accommodating and most speak English very well. Wonderful service, modern rooms pay homage to classic pop culture, often with black-and-white portraits of Marilyn Monroe, for example. Each room is named after a wine-producing French chateau, and you’ll find oversized wine bottles of that chateau in your room (drained of wine, of course, so you’re protected from that temptation!). They do offer a breakfast buffet, for about 16 Euros in addition to the room rate; while it looked decent, I would skip it and eat elsewhere, unless it is a Sunday and you are pressed for time. The hotel is just off the beaten path, and its rooms surround an adorable, peaceful central courtyard that provides additional seating for the wine bar (which doubles as the breakfast room). Their wine tastings are worth the 35 Euro per person price.

Wines - and a few spirits abound aat the wine bar a Le Boutique Hotel

Wines – and a few spirits abound aat the wine bar a Le Boutique Hotel

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Where to drink:
Bordeaux wines, as well as those from other French appellations, are found nearly everywhere. Not once did I have a “bad” glass of wine, though some I prefer more than others. Whether you visit a dedicated wine bar, such as the one at Le Boutique Hotel, or simply enjoy wine at a cafe, brasserie, dinner at a bistro, or bar, you will have plenty of places to sip. If you prefer cocktails, Bordeaux has several bars to suit your preference. If you’d like a dive-y spot for beer with the locals, Cafe Brun is your place; be forewarned, my American friends and I experienced stereotypically brusque (one might say rude) French service there. Want slightly more upscale? Maria Randall is a hipster (I say hipster, you say bohemian) bar with more trendy (though very sweet) cocktails. I recommend the Alfonso cocktail made with sparkling wine and berry puree. As the night progresses, a DJ plays, and part of the bar can become a makeshift dance floor. My friends and I experienced some slow service at first, but as we made an effort to socialize with the locals, we were rewarded with quite a bit of cameraderie and fun! Want to be a bit more adult? The bar at the bottom of Gabriel is quiet and has a wonderful selection of cocktails that are not unreasonably priced for a bar of that caliber. My “top shelf” recommendation, however, is Le Bar inside the Grand Hotel Bordeaux near the Place de Bourse. Its ambiance is as grand, and its service princely – you will pay handsomely for that, however (17 to 23 Euros for most cocktails and wines by the glass). Still, I had a lovely experience there and felt the experience was worth the price. I recommend their signature Kir Royale champagne cocktails, made with Moet and pearls d’saveur (flavor pearls).  Another luxurious, by not quite so expensive, option is the bar at Gabriel.  Gabriel houses a bar, brasserie, and high-end restaurant all in one multi-level building.

Where to shop:
Rue Saint Catherine is a long pedestrian street in central Bordeaux, lined with shops and mainstream cafes. If you’re looking for French boutiques or high-end shopping, this is not your street; global names like Zara and Mango, and teeny-bopper Euro chain Pim-kie mingle with American brands, including McDonalds, the latter of which sells macarons, cannelle, and other French pastries in its McCafe. If you’ve never visited a one of the Galleries Lafayette scattered throughout Europe, browse the one located near the northern end of Rue Saint Catherine; it is a multi-level department store with pricy designer brands, not unlike Harrod’s in London. If you’re looking for high-end brands like Cartier and Mont Blanc, Cours Georges Clemenceau, another boulevard north of Rue Saint Catherine, contains many high-end shops. Walk further north along the Garonne past the Place des Quinconces and you’ll come to a series of riverside shops and cafes known as The Docks. Local boutiques are just as at home there as a Le Creuset store.

Where to eat:
By far, I find this aspect to be the most difficult decision in Bordeaux. With over 1700 restaurants in a city populated by less than 300,000 people (2 million in its metropolitan area), your choices are endless. Unlike in Paris, however, it is possible to find a terribly mediocre restaurant here as much as it is to find haute cuisine. My time in Bordeaux was insufficient to ferret out all the ‘good’ places, so I’ll make recommendations only based on my limited direct observation and those that came highly recommended by multiple websites and critics. Most places offer both a multi-course, prix fixe menu and a la carte. My favorite place was Bistrot Glouton, which you’ll see profiled in my next post. It was a small restaurant frequented by locals, with an inventive chef and menus that won’t break the bank. For a taste of the good life, but acccessibly so, Comptoir Cuisine, located in the Grand Hotel Bordeaux is not terribly expensive relative to its sister restaurant at the hotel. La Tupina was highly recommended as a flagship brasserie in Bordeaux; its owner operates several other bistro and cafe options on the same street, at various price points and with influences of Italy and Greece woven throughout. Finally, the Marche du Capucins, a large market of food vendors – from fresh produce to prepared foods – open daily until 1 pm (weekdays) or 2:30 pm (weekends) is an excellent location for regional French food adventures. Sample fresh produce, cheeses, crepes, and local dishes from a variety of vendors. It is worth the somewhat lengthy walk from the northern part of the city center.

This post is meant to inspire and guide you on your trip to Bordeaux. It is by no means a comprehensive list, as my time there was barely enough to glimpse Bordeaux. However short, I found Bordeaux to be a vibrant city, full of wonderful sights, flavors, and textures – and, of course – amazing wine (more on that in a later post). If you have visited Bordeaux yourself, please submit your own travel tips. Thank you for stopping by!

A tour of Belgium’s chocolatiers

Does Belgian chocolate live up to its hype?

My answer: Absolument or absoluut (“Absolutely” in French and Dutch)!

I’ve had the privilege of scouring Brussels and Bruges (Brugge) for chocolate. I’ve tried hot chocolate (see my post about my search for the best), chocolate glace (ice cream), truffles, bar chocolate, ubiquitious chocolatiers that cater to tourists, boutique chocolatiers with designer, haute chocolate. I conclude that Belgium is a destination for amazing chocolate.

Now, I’d be remiss in not pointing out the irony that what we call Belgian chocolate is sourced from outside Belgium. It’s akin to calling a wine a Napa Cabernet when its grapes actually were grown in Brazil and shipped to a winery in California. Belgian chocolate products originate as cacao beans from a wealth of other geographies – throughout the criollo and forestero (the two varieties of cacao) cacao producing regions of Africa and South America. But those countries themselves do not have the breadth and depth of expertise in roasting, refining, purifying the cacao, nor the artistry, of Belgium and western Europe. As someone who has traveled throughout cacao-producing countries in South America, I can say that I have tasted quite good, locally manufactured chocolate products, particularly in Peru; yet I haven’t seen quite the smoothness and richness that the Belgians, French, or Swiss extract in their retail and boutique chocolate products.

What do I mean by that? In general, even the darkest chocolate noir from Belgium will have a smooth bite and creamy mouth feel, while chocolate produced elsewhere with a high cacao content (above 70%) tends to be chalky, grainy, and not smooth. In Belgium, I have yet to be disappointed.

So allow me to take you on a brief tour of the chocolates of Belgium. Should you choose Belgium as a destination for business or pleasure, I have a few recommendations:

The flagship  boutique for Mary, the royal chocolatier

The flagship boutique for Mary, the royal chocolatier

Mary: Mary purports to be the royal chocolatier of Belgium. Walk into its signature store inside the Galerie Hubert, a high-end shopping hall in the heart of Brussels that is home to several of the best Belgian brands, and you’ll feel that you have stepped into a dainty gallery of perfect chocolate on display. Though it has an impressive and oh so delicately flavored truffle case, its primary retail products are its Langues du Chat (Cat’s Tongues) of solid chocolate and solid chocolate bars and squares, each individually wrapped and presented in a variety of elegant and simple packaging that is perfect for gifts. They offer variations of dark chocolates, as well as flavored squares, such as orange toffee and milk chocolate with cinnamon. It truly is chocolate at its purest and finest.

Neuhaus: With retail outlets in over 50 countries, Neuhaus has become an internationally recognized Belgian brand. I actually avoided Neuhaus during most of my visits to Belgium because of this fact. Perhaps it was a bit snobby and premature to assume that just because they went corporate – not so much as Godiva, but close enough for me – their chocolate wasn’t a must-try. A recent gift of a large Neuhaus ballotin at the holidays changed my mind (see the featured image, above). Every single chocolate – whether a traditional praline (not necessarily hazelnut or almond as we tend to assume), nougatine, solid chocolate, truffle, or a more distinctive creation, such as their signature Tentation (chocolate exterior, with a layer of “nougatine biscuit” and cream or ganache filling) – was smooth and delicious.

Pierre Marcolini: Another recognizable Belgian brand from a celebrated modern chocolatier with a bit shorter history than the other two, it features slick, modern, dark brown packaging. It’s like the Armani of chocolate. Their flavors lean a bit more towards the exotic.  They are quite expensive and have a narrower range of products, but they are intense and yet artisanal. I would call them the perfect corporate gift, as their brand and chocolates exude masculinity and an almost architectural, eye-catching precision. I realize that description doesn’t make them inviting; they are delicious – I once received them myself as a gift in the U.S. and savored every last bite! I just think of them as more showy and less distinctive and inviting, as say, Mary (above).

The rest: Chocolate shops are everywhere in Belgium, particularly in tourist-friendly areas such as the Grand Place in Brussels or the old city in Bruges. The quality and uniqueness of their chocolates isn’t up to par with those I described above, and typically, chocolates are not made in-house, but rather purchased from a mass distributor by shop owners and then resold, as I learned from a local businessman in Bruges. Still, I would not turn those chocolates away! Often, the beauty of these stores is that many of them, like Le Gourmand Belgique, sell self-service chocolates by weight, so you can enjoy filling your bag with as many bulk, mix-and-match treats as you wish. It’s a great way to spend those last few Euros you didn’t really want to come home with or exchange for other currency. Truffles, chocolate-covered toffees, pralines, bark, and even bricks of marzipan (my favorite non-chocolate candy) are on display. And yes, even some of these shops have their own moulded chocolate creations, ranging from the kid-friendly (lollipops, cars, animals) to the not-so-family-friendly, as are some of the interesting items in the display from a Bruges window front shown below.

One of dozens of chocolate shops in Bruges  with, ah, creatively moulded chocolates.

One of dozens of chocolate shops in Bruges with, ah, creatively moulded chocolates.

Yes, those are breasts, if you thought your eyes were deceiving you. I did a double take when I saw them in person as well. Apparently you can make anything out of chocolate…If you’ve ever visited Bruges, you’ll not be surprised by this display.  Bruges is a lovely, though quite quirky and, at times, macabre, city.  Keep Bruges weird!

Bruges (Brugge), a lovely - if not weird - city!!

Bruges (Brugge), a lovely – if not weird – city!!

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Healthy Diplomat: Chocolate superfood cookies – paleo, vegan, and packed with chocolate

Clearly, I wouldn’t have started a food blog if I did not enjoy food.  I love to experience good food.  As you have seen from my posts thus far, and in particular, during Chocolate Month, I enjoy chocolate, and I don’t shy far away from good, rich, indulgent chocolate recipes.

But that’s not how and what I eat on a regular basis. I typically enjoy at least a bit of unadulterated dark chocolate on most days, but I’ve also found healthier ways to satisfy my chocolate cravings.

While I am known to eat chocolate regularly for breakfast – a not so indulgent protein or energy bar, at night I like something a bit more sophisticated. As I discussed in my last post, a twist on my signature chocolate chip cookie recipe, I have been baking for nearly my entire life. Last year, while trying to maintain a healthy balance with a group through the Whole Life Challenge, I challenged myself to devise a recipe for cookies that tasted delicious but packed a nutritious punch and complied with the constraints of the challenge (no wheat or refined flours, no sugar, no artificial sweeteners, and no dairy (though butter was allowed).  I found it very difficult to find tasty, compliant, and nutritious packaged versions at the grocery store.

After several attempts, I finally arrived at a recipe that will satisfy the most health-conscious sweet tooth and chocolate lovers. This recipe is vegan and has a low glycemic index and can be made paleo-friendly without oats. On the positive side, these cookies are packed with protein, fiber, antioxidants, and other vitamins and minerals. Cocoa powder and optional bittersweet chocolate add that beloved richness; if you have no restrictions on sugar, it adds a minimal amount.  Applesauce and banana add both sweetness and moisture, and peanut butter supplies needed healthy fat to bind the dough, add richness, needed protein and great flavor.

Treat yo self right! (Parks and Recreation, anyone?)

Chocolate superfood cookies

  • Servings: 20
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

Ingredients:

  • 1 ripe banana
  • 3 oz. unsweetened applesauce
  • 1/4 c. natural peanut butter – smooth or chunky
  • 1/4 c. dried fruit, finely chopped (dates, apricots, or unsweetened cherries)
  • 1-2 tsp. stevia extract – sugar equivalent (1-2 packets)
  • 2 tbsp. cocoa powder
  • 1/4 c. chia seeds
  • 1/4 c. unsweetened coconut or defatted coconut
  • 3/4 c. whole oats* (see below for instructions if omitting)
  • 1 oz. finely chopped or shaved bittersweet chocolate (70% cacao or higher), optional**

Preheat oven to 335 degrees Fahrenheit. In a small to medium mixing bowl, mash the banana with a fork. Using either the fork, a whisk, or electric mixer, beat in the applesauce and peanut butter until smooth. Add stevia to taste. Add the cocoa powder and mix thoroughly. Using a wooden spoon, gently mix in the dried fruit, chia seeds, coconut, and oats. Fold in the chopped chocolate.

Roll cookies by hand into 1″ spheres. Arrange and bake on a cookies sheet for about 15-20 minutes or until slightly firm and crisp on the exterior, yet soft inside. The cookies should be easy to remove and cool.

*If you wish to omit the oats for a paleo-friendly and lower carbohydrate version, double the amount of chia seeds and coconut. Bake for approximately 20 minutes; it is ideal to refrigerate cookies made without the oats to store and serve.

**I would recommend not using unsweetened chocolate, as the bitterness is a bit much for the fruit and stevia.  Lindt makes 90 and 99% bars with great mouth feel and texture, with minimal sugar.

The CD’s oatmeal chocolate chunk cookies with vodka-spiked mandarins

I got my start in adapting recipes and baking at the age of eight, when I realized I loved cookie dough, but I wasn’t a huge fan of the alternating result of either spongy, cake-like biscuits or flat and crispy baked cookies my mother turned out. So I took it upon myself to read, learn, and adapt a recipe from The Joy of Cooking to suit my own tastes – both to create the best tasting dough for bingeing and a baked product that was flavorful and the right moist, chewy texture. Over the years, I used the resulting chocolate chip cookie recipe as a base for other variations – oat-free, egg-free (with bananas – horrible product that I attempted in college and baked in a toaster oven; I never made it again), chocolate with dark or white chocolate chips, chocolate cookie pizza, oatmeal cranberry white chocolate, oatmeal with both butterscotch and milk chocolate chips….the list was endless.

I learned a few lessons along the way that I’d like to pass on.  First of all, I avoid baking powder.  My mother always used it, but I found that its metallic flavor harshly detracts from the buttery vanilla notes in the cookie dough and tends to produce a more cake-like texture.  Additionally, baking temperature matters.  I bake at a higher heat than 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Why am I forsaking the Holy Grail of baking temperatures? The lower the heat on the typical chocolate chip cookie, the more they spread and the flatter they tend to bake (longer and lower), while counterintuitively, baking the cookies closer to 375 for a shorter duration is more likely to produce a chewy, fluffy cookie. I finally settled on 365 degrees as a compromise, particularly since 375 sometimes produces cookies that puff up nicely and quickly but collapse as they cool.

Last summer, I decided to try something different – a little bit of an adult kick, if you will. I spotted packaged, dried mandarin oranges at Trader Joe’s; they were too sweet for me to enjoy snacking on them, but I got it in my head that they might work well in a cookie. To extract the orange flavor and sweetness a bit more, I chopped the oranges and soaked them in a few tablespoons of vodka. The resulting orange-vodka flavor was subtle but pleasant. If you would like to substitute another dried fruit for the mandarins, go ahead; the possibilities are endless – pineapple soaked in rum with white chocolate or butterscotch chips instead of the dark chocolate or blueberries in vanilla vodka, for starters. Whichever variation you prefer, I believe you’ll find this to be the best chocolate chip cookie dough you’ve tasted – it may be hard to save enough for baking, but if you do, the baked cookies are just as good!

Oatmeal chocolate chunk cookies with vodka-spiked mandarins

  • Servings: 3 dozen
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 c. (1 stick) salted butter, room temperature
  • 1/2 c. granulated sugar
  • 1/2 c. light brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp. almond extract (optional)
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. baking soda (sodium carbonate)
  • 1 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
  • 1 c. chopped, dried mandarin oranges
  • 2 tbsp. vodka
  • 1 1/2 c. whole rolled oats (not quick-cooking)
  • 1 c. dark chocolate chunks or chips

In a small dish, steep dried mandarin oranges in the vodka, covered, for about two hours.

Preheat oven to 365 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter until fluffy. Beat in both sugars by hand. Add egg and continue to beat briskly by hand – no electric mixer needed. Mix in the vanilla, almond extract, salt, baking soda, and flour. Add in the oranges and up to 1 tbsp of vodka remaining after evaporation. Fold in the oats and chocolate chunks. Chill for about 20 minutes or until pliable. Roll into 1 1/2 inch spheres and arrange on a baking sheet with ample spacing. Bake for 8-10 minutes on 365 degrees.

Extreme chocolates in the Baltic States

Didn’t the Baltic series end a few weeks ago? you may be wondering if you saw the title. If you haven’t checked out my series on the cuisine of the Baltic States, please do so. Tabling a discussion on Baltic chocolates felt appropriate to include in Chocolate Month.

The Baltic States certainly are not world-renowned for chocolate. I’m not going to make the claim that Baltic chocolate is the next Belgian or Swiss chocolate either, but I want to share my finds in hopes that anyone who happens to make the Baltics a vacation or business destination knows exactly where to go and what to try to satisfy those chocolate cravings! Overall, as throughout Europe, chocolate shops – from in-house chocolatiers to manufactured retail – are a fixture on the streets of the three capitals. Supermarkets, too, prominently feature a wide variety of local and imported chocolate products from elsewhere in Europe (and yes, European-made American classics like M&Ms are easy to spot). I found the quality and variety of local products to be pretty great, and unique flavor combinations typically were well executed.

Chocolate bars: The local brands Kalev (Estonian) and Laima (Latvian) are ubiquitous in their own countries, but you can find Kalev chocolate in Finland and Laima in Lithuania fairly easily as well. Grocery stores are a good place to get their chocolates – whether for your own cravings or for a gift for a chocolate loving friend back home! Marzipan covered in chocolate also falls within this category; what I found unique was the range of flavors infused in the marzipan, including actual liqueur. Kalev’s Vana Tallinn and Irish Whiskey flavored marzipan were both addictive (yes, you could taste the liqueur clearly), but Laima’s cranberry marzipan tasted like bitter cough syrup loaded with alcohol. Skip that one!

Estonian brand Kalev offers a variety of bar chocolate, some with decorative packaging (a reasonably priced gift!). My first try was a dark chocolate with cherry. Scarred by a recent experience of terrible, medicinal “raspberry” fruit flavor in Bolivian chocolate, I was pleasantly surprised to find a real concentration of what appeared to be natural cherry flavor. Though Kalev substitutes dried apples with cherry flavor for actual cherries, it weaves true cherry flavor throughout. Yum. Their dark chocolate with apricot also was pleasant. It wasn’t the richest quality chocolate, but its price point did not intend it to be so. A white chocolate bar studded with blueberries is great for those who prefer sweet white chocolate.

Latvia’s Laima sells its products throughout supermarkets in Latvia and Lithuania, but its retail stores offer more variety and higher-quality chocolates. My favorite was a seasonal (autumn) very large dark chocolate bar with dried cranberries and crumbled gingerbread pieces. It was an absolutely outstanding holiday treat, especially nibbled with a cup of hot tea or coffee. Another seasonal offering was a gingerbread-flavored wafer kuka (cake), along with a variant that more resembled a square gingerbread Kit Kat – crispier, individual portioned squares covered in dark chocolate. I would take that over a Kit-Kat any day. I was slightly disappointed with a chalky dark chocolate bar with pomegranate and hazelnut; it was 70% cacao but did not have the creamy, soft mouth feel of a better quality chocolate with the same cacao content. Laima’s mass-marketed Serenade chocolates are very good with an unexpected hint of apricot.

AJ’s Sokoladas is a chain of chocolate shops that more resembles a Belgian chocolatier or confisserie, as its focus is more on its selection of individual chocolates and truffles and less on pre-packaged goods (though one of the items in the featured photo, above, is a packaged chocolate-cherry biscuit/cookie from AJ’s). I dearly miss florentine cookies topped with a dollop of chocolate mousse and enrobed in dark chocolate with spicy chilies. It was sweet, spicy, nutty, and rich simultaneously. Their tangy bleu cheese-filled chocolate cups, topped with a single walnut, were a unique marriage of sweet and savory.

When in Estonia, trying a hot chocolate or coffee with local Vana Tallinn licquer is a must! It complements the chocolate quite well, surprisingly.

But THE best hot chocolate I’ve had outside of Brussels is also a wonderful destination for anything chocolate. Chocolats de Pierre claims to have been in business since 1937 here in Tallinn. It is the perfect bohemian hideaway, tucked back in the Master’s Courtyard off of Vene Street in Old Town Tallinn. Its chocolate offerings are much wider and more delicious than the well-advertised Bonaparte, also located in Old Town Tallinn. I sampled a Dusseldorf torte on my second visit – rich, ganache-like torte with a thin layer of almond-accented cherry and walnut with a thin, somewhat forgettable chocolate cake base. Never mind the base, the rich ganache had me at the first bite! An Irish Coffee torte had the consistency but not bite of cream cheese, deadly dark chocolate, and just hint of Irish whiskey. Their white chocolate cheesecake is light and really does melt in one’s mouth. Their homemade chocolates and an array of cheesecakes, quiches, and deadly-sinful chocolate concoctions were as good as anything in Belgium or France. But the creme de la creme was the kuum sokolaad (hot chocolate). No matter how one orders it, it is fantastic. Made with homemade chocolate sauce, cocoa, and steamed milk, describing it as drinking a melted chocolate bar doesn’t even begin to do it justice. Just fabulous!

And don’t even think about those calories. In my opinion, calories in the Magical Kingdom (Republic of Estonia) don’t count!