Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A little bit of white powder

I'm not going to talk today about the kind of white powder that you ski on. And not the type that some of my patients smoke. (In a similar vein, several years ago when we went to Jackson, WY with J and other B, the TSA woman at SFO did suspect that I was transporting illicits when she searched my luggage and found several Ziplocs filled with white powder. Quite obviously these packages were not illegal. We were going to stay in a condo with a kitchen, and she had simply unearthed my carefully pre-measured and well-labeled scone mixes! Let's just say the look she gave me as I attempted to explain this happenstance suggested that the legality of my bags full of white powder was not immediately obvious to the outside observer.)

No, today I'm going to write about powdered sugar, a delicious white powder. Oh, powdered sugar, how I love thee! You taste deliciously sweet and provide an aesthetically-appealing topping for cakes and cookies.

Sometimes, when I make French toast, first I put powdered sugar, then maple syrup, then some lightly-sugared berries on top; B thinks I could easily cut out the powdered sugar from the sugary mess that I've created, but somehow I just can't do it. The powdered sugar may have a poorly-defined role amidst all the other forms of sweetness, but I still think it's necessary. And besides, my teeth can take it! I didn't get my first cavity until I was 25, and I think it was related more to the fact that I hadn't been to the dentist in two years (one of the dirty secrets of medical training is that the health and dental coverage for tomorrow's physicians is generally abysmal).

Powdered sugar's characteristic of creating attractive toppings is crucial for the success of the hazelnut thumbprint cookies I made yesterday. They're similar in feel to Mexican wedding cookies (I haven't found a good recipe for those bits of powdery goodness yet). The thumbprint cookies are from an easy recipe that I adapted from Dorie Greenspan's Baking, the final product of which is fancy enough to be served at a tea party, but quick enough to be whipped up for a tea party that you were given late notice for. In fact, I found the recipe one day while flipping the pages looking for a recipe that didn't require chilling for several hours, and this was one of the only ones that fit the bill (I'm often in a rush). Hers in particular look very chichi.

The powdered sugar makes them look completely put-together, like the perfect handbag that manages to finish an entire outfit. The hazelnuts provide crunch and character. And the jam that fills the thumbprint? That's sort of like the maple syrup on top of the French toast, a little bit of bonus sweetness to complement the powdered sugar.

Mine look terribly home-made in comparison (there was a powdered sugar shaker malfunction), but I wasn't taking them to any tea parties; they were just a treat for my somewhat indiscriminate residency colleagues at work. Here they are cooling, before I bundled them up into a Tupperware for the walk to the hospital. They don't look too bad, if you don't compare them directly to the food styling of Dorie's above. Besides, I guarantee that they taste delicious.

Dorie Greenspan's original recipe calls for equal parts hazelnuts and flour, but I prefer the cookies with a little bit more hazelnut. She says you can try other nuts, but the dough I made a few weeks ago using ground almonds with her proportions was so dry that I had to add a few tablespoons of water so that it would stick together enough to be rolled into balls. It's a time-saver to prepare the hazelnuts ahead of time: toast them in the oven for 10 minutes or so at 450 degrees, shaking the pan occasionally, until fragrant and starting to darken; then, while they are still warm, put them inside a dish towel and rub vigorously to try to remove some of the skins (though you needn't be perfect about the skin removal step). The prepared hazelnuts will keep, in a sealed container at room temperature or in the freezer, for months.

As for jam, really any flavor will do. I have used several different jams in these, but what you see above is one of my favorites: apricot-plum. My mother is a big jam-maker who rarely uses the same combination of component fruits twice (each of the 129 place settings at our wedding had, as a party favor, an 8-oz jar filled with some homemade jammy concoction), so I usually have plenty of jam on hand. Who knows what new flavors the coming summer harvest and subsequent fruit-processing will bring! All I know is that I have a new way to enjoy jam and powdered sugar together with these cookies. Maybe offering a thumbprint cookie to that surly TSA officer would have made my trip through security with my bags of white powder a little less painful. Or maybe not. Regardless, enjoy!

Hazelnut Thumbprint Cookies
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan's Baking

Makes 25-30 cookies
Time 20 min active, 1 hour total

1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 c. sugar
1/2 t. vanilla extract
1/4 t. almond extract (optional)
1 c. hazelnuts, toasted and with skins partially removed, then finely ground
3/4 c. all-purpose flour
powdered sugar, for dusting
1/2 c. jam, such as apricot-plum

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment or silicone mats.

Beat the butter and sugar together with a hand mixer in a medium bowl, until light and fluffy, about 2-3 minutes. Blend in the extracts. Add the hazelnuts and flour and mix until just incorporated. The dough should be dry but able to hold its shape; add a tablespoon or more of flour if it is too wet.

Roll a generous teaspoonful of dough between your palms to form a ball. Place balls at least two inches apart on the baking sheets. Repeat with remaining dough. Then, steadying each ball between your thumb and first two fingers, use the end of a wooden spoon to poke a hole in the center of each cookie.

Bake for 15 minutes, or until very lightly browned, rotating the cookie sheets halfway through. Transfer to a cooling rack and sprinkle powdered sugar (generously, if desired).

Heat jam on the stove or in the microwave until easy to spoon. Fill the indentations with jam. Allow to cool. Cookies will keep for several days with the same texture if tightly sealed.

P.S. Happy birthday, JB!

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