Archive for entertaining

The Secret to Chocolate Chip Cookies

Chocolate Chip Cookies

These are exactly the way I like them. Exactly.

I feel okay about cupcakes. I feel okay about muffins. I even feel okay about cakes (well, not frosting them, but making them). I feel okay about my ability to make them consistently. I feel like they’re products that, while I wouldn’t say I’ve “mastered” them, I feel confident that I can make them well.

But cookies? Cookies are something else.

Cookies are tough. They’re small and delicate. They burn easily. I have a hell of a time making them the same size and thickness. And it’s easier to mess a cookie up. Yes, if you accidentally add too much butter to your cake, it might turn out a little heavy. But if you add too much butter too your cookie it will spread out all over the pan into a thin, crispy, inedible mess.

And of all the cookies I’ve ever made, the ones I’ve had the most trouble with are chocolate chip cookies. Yes, the things I’ve been making since I was four – the baked good I’ve made more than any other. They’ve been a source of endless frustration – sometimes ending up dry and crackly, other times spreading out into paper thin circles. Even though I use the same recipe every time (the one on the back of the bag of Nestlé Toll House Semi Sweet Chocolate Chips), the actual finished product varies wildly.

For what it’s worth, I like a thick, hefty chocolate chip cookie, with a soft, substantial center and a slight crispness around the edges. I like them best right out of the oven, when they’re falling apart and melting and the centers are just barely set.

I had some girlfriends over Friday night for girl talk, wine and Apolo Ohno watching, and I did something I’ve always wanted to do – I popped up in the middle of the evening and made everyone a batch of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. It made me feel like the best hostess ever – although I think they were humoring me more than anything (one of my friends was like “just let her be The Modern Domestic, guys”).

But I have a new weapon in my kitchen arsenal these days – I finally went out and bought a kitchen scale. And I would just like to say that every home baker should go out and get one right away. Immediately. They make baking so much easier; rather than messing around with measuring cups, you just pour everything into the bowl. And it’s so much more precise – rather than hoping that my “dip and sweep” cup of flour really is one cup, I know that I’ve added exactly five ounces of flour to my batter.

So this Friday, I converted the Nestlé Toll House chocolate chip cookie to weighed measurements using an excellent set of conversion tables in the back of The Cake Bible. And the cookies came out perfectly – slightly mounded and soft in the center and crisp at the edges. For the first time in a long time, they were exactly the way I liked them. Because the tiniest changes in the portion of fat to flour to liquid matters so much in a cookie, the extra control that the scale affords can make a huge difference.

So go out. Buy that kitchen scale. And the first thing you can make are the Nestlé Toll House chocolate chip cookies – my converted recipe is below. Go fourth and weigh!

Recipe: Chocolate Chip Cookies


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Bake Sale: Cookie Plates for Valentine’s Day

Almond and Citrus Sandwich Cookies - 2

It's February. It's Valentine's Day. Don't we all need a cookie?

Someone suggested mid-December that I should have sold cookie plates for Christmas, since people are always looking for sweet treats to celebrate the holiday. But, think about it, wouldn’t you rather have cookies for Valentine’s Day? It’s after the holiday season, the weather is usually dreary, and I think people are much more in need of a little something to brighten their day. If you’re not in a couple, then you can get a plate to snack on with your friends while you drink champagne and celebrate the single life. If you have a partner or a family, you can have them for a lovely dessert. And if you want to give your coworkers a pick-me-up (let’s face it, if you’re working on health care reform you probably need it by now), then bring in a plate to share with the office.

So, I’ll be offering up plates of heart-shaped sandwich cookies for the holiday. The cookies are almond sugar cookies, flavored with citrus. They’re sweet and buttery and crisp, with a fragrant hit of lemon and orange. You can choose between two fillings – a sophisticated Cabernet filling, or a decadent and rich dark chocolate ganache. One plate is 20 cookies and costs $15.

To order and for details, just fill out this order form. If you have questions, shoot me an email at

Almond and Citrus Sandwhich cookies - 4

Cabernet filling - sweet and rich with a boozy hit that marries perfectly with the crisp almond cookies.

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Hungry Eyes

Patrick Swayze Memorial Brunch

The Patrick Swayze Memorial Brunch

This Sunday, I hosted the Patrick Swayze Memorial Brunch. It was fun. A lot of fun. But it was also more than fun. It was strangely, unexpectedly moving.

The Arugula Files commented this weekend that Dirty Dancing is an “absurd” movie. And it is. I can’t think of a better word to describe the movie. So many things about it don’t make any sense. In the real world, would a 35 year old dance instructor ever find love with an 18 year old resort guest? Would the dance instructor ever care about dancing “the last dance of the season” at a resort that just fired him? Would he care if he did a half-ass job dancing at a neighboring resort?

No, no, and no. And yet, in the world of Dirty Dancing, all these illogical plot devices make sense. You accept them and allow yourself to be caught up in the schmaltz, the drama, and the poetic movement of Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey on the dance floor.

In honor of Patrick Swayze’s death, I decided to go as girly as possible with the brunch. I made watermelon mimosas, as a tribute to that famous scene, and which were lovely and refreshing.

Patrick Swayze Memorial Brunch - Watermelon Mimosa

Watermelon mimosas.

I knew I wanted to make cupcakes (how could I not?), but I had a difficult time choosing a recipe. After all, how does one convey the spirit of Dirty Dancing in cake and frosting? In the end, I decided to do something girly, very girly, as this is the movie that captured the hearts of little girls across the country.

Chocolate and strawberry seemed like especially girly flavorings, so I made up a batch of devil’s food cupcakes with strawberry buttercream frosting. I liked the symbolism of the “devils” food (sounds, a little “dirty,” doesn’t it?) and the buttercream was an appropriate, feminine pink.

So there it is. A memorial celebration fit for Johnny Castle.

Patrick Swayze Memorial Brunch - 2

You will be missed, Patrick. You will be missed.

Recipe: Watermelon Mimosas

1/2 seedless watermelon (approximately 3 lbs of watermelon)
1 bottle sparkling white wine

Remove watermelon from rind; cut into 1 inch chunks. Puree in a blender or food processor – or, if you lack either of those appliances, place chunks in a large bowl and mash into a pulp using a potato masher. Strain through a fine mesh strainer, and pour into a measuring cup (for easy pouring. This made approximately 2 and 1/4 cups of juice).

Pour however much champagne you want into a wine glass or champagne flute. Top with watermelon juice, to taste.

For me, this made around six mimosas. But I like them . . . um, generously proportioned.

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Would You Serve Leftovers to Guests?


For me, it depends.

While I’m kind of tired of reading about the psychology of leftovers (I understand that we’re in a recession, but Food Section editors really need to come up with some new article ideas), I thought the newest leftover piece from The New York Times actually managed to ask a question I hadn’t thought of before: would I serve leftovers to guests?

Among other things, the piece talks about a couple that tried to pass off failed chocolate zucchini bread on party guests, even though the cake was ” turgid” and “oozing” and clearly destined for the trash bin. The baking perfectionist in me would never sink that low – just this weekend I threw away an entire batch of red velvet cupcakes I had intended to bring to a Fourth of July party because they were slightly burned on the bottom.

Okay, so I definitely won’t pass off my failed baking experiments on my guests, but I think I’d happily serve leftover (successful) baked goods. For instance I have some almond cupcakes sitting in my freezer that I’d serve to guests, and I’ve been known to keep a pound cake in my freezer just in case I need a quick dessert (thaw it, toast it, and serve it with berries and whipped cream).

But I don’t think my willingness to serve leftovers would go past baked goods. Many cakes and cookies are perfectly fine served out of the freezer (well, if thawed), but when I’m having people over for dinner I really like the experience of creating a new meal for the occasion. It’s stressful, but part of the reason I have dinner parties is to cook a big meal, try a new recipe, or make something decadent I’d never eat myself. Or maybe I’m just an exhibitionist in the kitchen.

What about you? Would you serve leftovers to guests? Would you serve some leftovers items (like leftover dip), but not others (left over roast chicken)?

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April Custard Project, Take Two: Orange Chocolate Pots De Creme

Pot de creme

Orange Chocolate Pot De Creme.

After the cupcake deluge last week, I was done with sugar. Or, well, I was done with sugar for a couple of days. As Wonk the Plank will tell you, I have a huge sweet tooth, so this was an unusual occurrence in our household. But eating multiple cupcakes for days on end (how many I’m not even going to say), will force even the most avid sugar enthusiast tot take a break.

If you’re wondering why last week didn’t have a custard project entry – that’s why.

Thankfully, I rallied this weekend. Wonk’s mother was visiting, and I wanted our Sunday night dinner to end with a fabulous and decadent dessert – I can never pass up the opportunity to show off for company. So I served up the second entry in the April Custard Project: Orange Chocolate Pot De Crèmes.

Let me first say that we loved it – I flavored the custard with orange and cinnamon, which married well with the chocolate. But I also especially loved this dessert because it was so simple, and yet so satisfying.

The pot de crème is a classic French dessert – it’s a cream-based custard that is thickened with egg yolks and cooked in small custard cups (think of it as a crème brulee, but without the burnt sugar topping). The pot de crème embodies what I love about many French desserts – it’s a rich and deeply satisfying dessert that is deceptively simple. It can also be adapted to any taste or flavor.

It allows me to show off with relatively little effort.

Begin cooking these a day in advance, since the custard will need time to cool and set. The only part of the recipe that can be a little intimidating is that you must temper the egg mixture before adding it to the hot custard – otherwise, you’ll end up with scrambled eggs in your custard. “Tempering” sounds scary, but all you have to do it quickly add a small amount of hot custard to the yolks and stir vigorously, which cooks the eggs without scrambling them.

Also, you may not want to make the candied orange peel, but I promise you – it’s really not as difficult as it sounds. And it adds a lovely touch and visual interest to the final dish – well worth the small amount of effort it takes.

Recipe: Orange Chocolate Pot De Creme

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March Shortbread Project Take Two: Parmesan, Thyme and Walnut Shortbread Cookies

Parmesean Shortbread

Savory shortbread. Because the last thing I need right now is more sugar.

There are days when I can’t face another cookie. Sometimes it’s a baking binge that does it – I go on a rampage and we have cookies lying around the house for weeks, driving Wonk the Plank to the edge of insanity with the thought that they might be wasted. Sometimes it’s the excess of the holiday season – who wants a cookie after eating countless cookies and pastries at holiday parties?

Last week it was the parade of sweets at the office that did it for me – we violated our usual healthy office policy and went on an epic sugar binge (can someone say Girl Scout cookies?).  I didn’t even want to look at a cookie, let alone bake one.

So I decided to mix things up a little, and made a savory shortbread cookie for part two of the March Shortbread project. I found this recipe for Parmesan, rosemary and walnut shortbread cookies on Epicurious, which sounded easy, fast, and perfect as a before-dinner nibble. The only change I made is that I was out of rosemary, and substituted fresh thyme instead.

I realized as I was throwing these together that the recipe was shockingly similar to the Parmesan black pepper crackers I baked last December. Both cookies were made from a simple dough of flour and butter, flavored with Parmesan cheese and herbs. Both were crisp and buttery, a perfect foil for a creamy spread or a slice of cheese.

Parmesan, Thyme and Walnut Shortbread
Adapted from Epicurious


8 tbs (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
4 oz freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tbs minced fresh thyme
1/2 cup walnuts
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
Pinch cayenne pepper


Heat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Place walnuts on a baking sheet and roast for 10 minutes, until toasted. Remove from oven and finely chop. Let cool.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream your butter. Add the Parmesan and mix well. Stir in the  flour, thyme, walnuts, salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper. Remove from bowl and place on a lightly floured work surface. With the palms of your hands, gently form the mixture into two logs, each one inch thick. Refrigerate for one hour or up to three days.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Slice logs into 1/4 inch slices. Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and bake for 20 minutes, until golden at edges. Let cool on a wire rack.

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Champagne (or, um, “sparkling wine”) Roundup

Strawberry and Champagne - Day 246

What's Christmas without bubbles?

Photo Courtesy of Velo Steve via flickr, under the Creative Commons license.

After work today, I’ll be heading out to pick up some sparking wine for Christmas. I was about to write that I was going to pick up some “Champagne,” but, as any Wayne’s World fan knows, Champagnes only come from the Champagne region of France. Since real Champagne is definitely out of my price range, I plan to buy sparkling white wine, probably from California.

Of course, I won’t be in the market for a really nice bottle, because I intend to use half of it for mimosas on Christmas morning, and the other half for leisurely sipping on Christmas Day. But I thought that some of you were probably in the same boat, so I put together a little roundup of the Web Guide to Champagne Buying.

The New York Times did a tasting of sparking wines all priced at $20 a bottle or under, which I found extremely helpful. Granted, most of their picks hover at the $20 range, which is a bit steep for mimosas, but their best value, Crémant de Limoux blanc de blancs from Domaine J. Laurens, is only $13. Even I can afford that.

For those of you who want to shell out for the real stuff, the Wall Street Journal put together a guide to buying “Prestige” champagnes—i.e., Champagnes that are way, way out my price range. While I don’t think I know anyone who reads this blog who’s in the market for a $150 bottle of wine (not even my parents!), the article has some nice tidbits about the history of Champagne, insight into Champagne prices, and commentary on what one should look for in a good bottle of Champagne.

This Apartment Therapy post from last year has a guide to Champagne buying with recommendations from Craving’s Cynthia Sin-Yi Cheng. Among other things, the article suggests to buy Champagne from established wine shops that have the facilities to properly store it. While Cynthia’s picks for 2008 are way out of my price range, her reasons for her picks are interesting and her tasting notes are an interesting read.

The Washington Post
also has a guide to finding good Champagne values.
The piece suggests, among other things, to look for small growers, local importers, and, of course, to ask your local wine store for their recommendations. The Post also did a tasting of different Champagnes, although their cheapest bottle is $38. Well, it’s still fun to read about, right?

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Holiday Appetizers: Savory Parmesean Black Pepper Crackers


These Parmesan Black Pepper Crackers have a crunchy, cookie-like texture, but a salty, savory flavor.

For those of you who love to bake, but don’t feel like adding to the plethora of holiday sweets, then consider adding this savory cookie-like cracker to your baking arsenal. These Parmesan and Black Pepper Crackers are a tried-and-true Ina Garten recipe and make a great appetizer. We served them with a goat cheese spread, but they would go equally well with a sliver of Parmesan or cheddar on top.

This recipe was very easy to mix up—just cream the butter and stir in the rest of the ingredients. I did have to add a couple teaspoons of water before I could handle the dough, since it was very dry. Still, this may have had more to do with the climate than the recipe—the water content of your dough can vary from day to day depending on the weather. I ended up shaping the dough by rolling it up in a piece of wax paper and twisting the paper into a cylinder.

The crackers weren’t quite as perfectly circular as I wanted, but they still tasted excellent. These crackers have a crunchy, buttery, cookie-like texture, and the thyme and pepper compliment the savory saltiness of the cheese. They would be a perfect addition to any holiday appetizer spread.

Cracker ingredients

Ingredients: Grated Parmesan cheese, salt, pepper, thyme, flour and butter.

Parmesan Black Pepper Crackers
Ina Garten recipe, from the Food Network Web site.

1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter
3 ounces grated Parmesan
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Place the butter in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and mix until creamy. Add the Parmesan, flour, salt, thyme and pepper and combine.

Dump the dough on a lightly floured board and roll into a 13-inch long log. Wrap the log in plastic wrap and place in the freezer for 30 minutes to harden.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Cut the log crosswise into 1/4 to 1/2-inch thick slices. Place the slices on a sheet pan and bake for 22 minutes.

Crackers 2

The finished crackers on their serving plate, garnished with a few sprigs of thyme.

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Thanksgiving Reading For Your Peace of Mind

2006 Thanksgiving - 5.jpg
Thanksgiving Meal, courtesy of
xybermatthew on flickr.

Thanksgiving will soon be upon us, which means that food sites and publications have been churning out recipes, full-fledged feature pieces, and all-inclusive guides to this great American meal. These articles are supposed to be helpful, but they make cooking Thanksgiving dinner out to be a Herculean task on the scale of nuclear disarmament.

I’ve only made the Thanksgiving feast once during my first winter in Washington, and I can say from experience that you don’t have to have gone to culinary school to whip up some stuffing. I didn’t have any vacation time that year, and I couldn’t make it home for the big day. Instead, friends came down from New York, Nonnka came over from Georgetown, and we celebrated Thanksgiving orphan-style. It turned out to be one of my favorite Thanksgivings ever. And even I, an untested Thanksgiving novice, was able to make the meal—turkey, stuffing, and all.

Was it a lot of work? My God, yes. But was any of it really beyond the skill level of basic cook? Hell no. The hardest part was getting the timing right, and I think that’s something you have to learn from doing it over and over again.

So stop looking at those scary Gourmet Menu Guides that call for you to make a billion starters from scratch, and put down the Bon Appetite Complete Guide to Thanksgiving Kitchen Tools (the only tools you need are a good sharp knife and some pots and pans).

Instead, I’ve dug through the deluge of Thanksgiving articles to find something to really be thankful for: peace of mind. These articles will calm your soul, they will soothe your worried Thanksgiving consciousness, and they will let you know that you don’t have to spend a fortune to have a nice meal.

Simplifying the Turkey, Well-Priced Menus, and Holiday Wines on the Cheap

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Happy Halloween!

Halloween Table

Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween ModernDomestic readers! I hope that everyone will be out doing something to celebrate the holiday tonight. I plan on sitting outside our apartment building and handing out candy to trick-or-treaters with my coworker and Wonktheplank (later, we’ll possibly be checking out the insanity that will be Adams Morgan, mostly to see which drunk 22-year-old has the sluttiest outfit. We’ll see how we feel).

We had a couple people over last weekend to watch Rosemary’s Baby, eat cupcakes, and drink some Octoberfest brews. Wonktheplank and I had an awesome time putting together Halloween decorations for our apartment. In fact, I’m so proud of our little projects that I had to share them with you.

Wonktheplank watched about 10 minutes of Saw II last weekend on cable, and was inspired to create an elaborate torture device for my stuffed hippo out of kitchen utensils. It involved ice dripping through a strainer, which collected in a container, which rested on a see-saw, which (when it was heavy enough), flipped a trap door, which the hippo fell through and hung himself. It wasn’t even funny how much Wonktheplank enjoyed coming up with this creation, although I felt bad for my poor hippo, who never did anything to deserve such a fate.

Hippo Torture Device

Hippo awaits his doom in the Saw-inspired torture device.

More decorations (less savage than this one).

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