Why Dana Treat?

July 9, 2008

I like to think I learned how to bake from my mom. Or, at least I learned some of the basics from her. Some of my earliest memories in the kitchen are baking with my mom. She has recently had a “baking disaster” (her words) each time she has tried to make a dessert for some special occasion, but she really is the one who got me started on my path as a baker and as a cook. My mom is very exacting and precise and VERY neat, so it makes sense that she would take well to baking.

The two lessons from my mom I remember most vividly are how to level flour with a table knife (I have recently switched to using my finger in my eternal quest for reducing the number of dishes I do in a day), and to make sure to gather all the ingredients for a recipe before you start. Maybe because I never really cooked with my mom (only baked), I only do this very helpful gathering step when I bake. I read the recipe very carefully (as she does), pull everything out of the pantry and refrigerator that I will need, and retrieve all the measuring spoons and cups so I will have everything right at my fingertips.

When I cook, I am a lot less organized. I don’t grab all the things I will need from the fridge or the vegetable basket, I don’t pull out all the knives and measuring devices I will need, I don’t pull out bowls in which to put the various vegetables I will be chopping and adding at different times. I’m not sure why this is and everytime I am knee deep in something and realize that I have to rinse my hands,
yet again, to dig down in the vegetable bin for the forgotten scallions, I wonder why I don’t just get everything out in advance.

I love to cook and to bake about equally although they do feel very different to me. I always approach a baking recipe with a certain amount of trepidation – even if it is something relatively simple. Maybe that is why, when a recipe turns out, I get an incredible sense of satisfaction that I don’t always get when, say, the pasta sauce turns out great. Is it because baking feels like magic? You mix stuff together, put it in the oven, and poof! something delicious (and sometimes even beautiful) comes out.

When my older son was just over a year old, a friend asked a group of us where to get a good birthday cake. I thought about it and realized that apart from Macrina Bakery, there wasn’t a single place that I could recommend. As I was kind of itching for something to do besides being a stay-at-home-mom, I thought that perhaps that could be my niche – baking for friends’ birthdays, dinner parties, or just because. I had the idea that every time I brought a dessert to someone, I would include a “treat” as just a little extra. A couple of cookies or chocolate truffles – just to thank them and to make my dessert that much more memorable.

A few months after that baking fantasy started, I had lunch with my friend Stephanie. She told me that they had just started employing a personal chef to cook for them a couple of times a week. Stephanie and her husband Mark love to eat and they love good food. She herself likes to cook and is quite good at it, but she was finding that with her work and travel schedule, cooking was becoming too much of a chore. She was thrilled with the new service for the convenience but she wasn’t thrilled with the food. It was too much like her mom used to make and the dishes were too heavy. Without thinking too carefully, I said, “I’ll cook for you.” Without missing beat, she asked, “You will?” And that is how I became a personal chef.

We started slowly – I had (at the time) a 17 month old and both she and Mark (but especially Mark) LOVED their meat. I cooked for them once a week and was so excited about it, I would lay awake at night thinking of menus for them. Soon after our start, they decided to fire the other chef and have me cook for them twice a week. Soon after that, they referred another couple to me who wanted me to cook for them three times a week, so Stephanie and Mark signed on for three days too. I kept up this schedule until shortly before I had my second son and, after a 6 month maternity leave, I went back to twice a week. This month, it will be a year that I have been back.

From the very beginning, I wanted to incorporate baking into the meals for them. I took my own idea of bringing them a “treat” as a thank you for their business and to help make the meals more memorable. Thus, Dana Treat was born. I bring them a treat every Tuesday and it has allowed me to make some delicious things. Tonight’s cookies are from Martha Stewart’s Cookies and they prompted Randy to say, “I don’t care if she is a felon – these are amazing!”

For some reason, whenever I make cookies, I never end up with the same yield as the recipe says. I almost always end up with less. So when I read that this recipe should yield 3 dozen sandwich cookies with only 1 3/4 cup of flour, I scoffed and then doubled the recipe. When I read to use a 1 inch ice cream scoop to measure out the cookies, I scoffed and used my 2 inch. People, listen to Martha. Unless you want 10 million cookies, don’t double it, and the 1 inch ice cream scoop makes just the right size. My one quibble is that the filling took longer than the 1/2 hour she says to set up – give yourself at least an hour and even then it will be soft – but no one will care.

Before the recipe, let’s talk about vanilla beans. Yes, they are expensive, but their flavor is incomparable. If you have a vanilla lover in your life, these cookies totally plain will make them very happy – all because of the vanilla bean. I have been very disappointed by those that I have ordered through the mail and have always been happy with the ones from Whole Foods. You want your vanilla bean to be supple and moist, not craggy and dried out and the beans at Whole Foods fit the bill. You find them in the bulk spice section and they are a fraction of the cost of the prepackaged ones in the baking aisle of any grocery store. To get those precious seeds out, use a paring knife to cut down the length of the bean, but don’t cut all the way through. Open it like a book, then take the back of your knife and run it all the way down the bean. The seeds will stick to the back of your knife. You can then put the pod in to your sugar container for the most wonderful smelling vanilla sugar.

Raspberry Cream Sandwiches
Martha Stewart’s Cookies

Makes 3 dozen

For the cookies:
1 3/4 cup flour

1 tsp. baking soda

1/2 tsp. coarse salt

10 tbsp (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 large egg

2 tsp. vanilla extract

1 vanilla bean, halved lengthwise, seeds scraped and reserved

For the filling:
1/2 pint fresh raspberries

2 tsp. sugar

7 1/2 oz. best quality white chocolate, chopped

1/3 cup heavy cream

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Make cookies: Whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt. ut butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on medium-high until pale and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add egg, vanilla extract, and vanilla seeds; reserve bean for another use. Mix until smooth. Reduce speed to low; gradually mix in flour mixture.

2. Using a 1 inch ice cream scoop, drop dough onto baking sheets, spacing 2 inches apart. Bake, rotating sheets halfway through until golden and just set, 8-10 minutes. Let cool on wire wracks.

3. Make filling: Puree raspberries and sugar in a food processor. Pour mixture through a fine sieve into a small bowl, pressing to extract juice; discard seeds.

4. Melt white chocolate in a heat-proof bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Remove from heat; whisk in cream in a slow, steady stream. Add reserved raspberry mixture; slowly whisking until pale, about 3 minutes. Refrigerate 3o minutes (or longer).

5. Assemble cookies: Spread 1 tablespoon filling onto the bottom of one cookie; sandwich with another. Repeat. Cookies can be refrigerated between layers of parchment in airtight container at room temperature for up to two days.

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