December 24
It took five hours on the bus, but here I am, arrived in Washington D.C., to spend Christmas with my mother and my brother’s family. We call it the circus: my two year old nephew running as fast as he can, two large dogs chasing him, and then the adults, also running about in their own way. This year, I’m in charge of the desserts. Last night I brought homemade chocolate and walnut toffee; today I’m baking while my mother — the queen of vegetables — chops away at carrots, leeks, sunchokes, and Japanese sweet potatoes. There will be an apple pie that requires a half-day of labor (you can find the recipe here from Joy the Baker, perhaps one of the best apple pies if you enjoy flaky crusts and caramelized interiors), and also gluten-free cookies. Both my mother and my sister-in-law’s mother are allergic to gluten. Although I grew up on mostly macrobiotic and vegetarian and Japanese cuisine, and I like to experiment with different flours and grains — rice and buckwheat mainly, buckwheat being my favorite for an earthy flavor in chocolate cakes, pancakes and cookies — I’m still new to desserts that entirely omit flour, unless it’s a flourless chocolate cake. But these cookies, from the Sprouted Kitchen cookbook, a repertoire of beautiful photos, inventive recipes that result in delicate creations, good for your soul and body I assure you, are marvelous. I’ve changed the recipe a tad, adding chocolate instead of nibs, and depending on my mood I grind my own almond meal or chop the coconut flakes into courser pieces.

 
Let me tell you, though, about these cookies, and what makes them so unique. I like that they’re not too sweet, but the chocolate chips turn them into dessert centerpieces. The almond and coconut provide a complex, yet subtle nutty flavor, and the coconut oil lingers on your tongue as a mysterious aftertaste. I use fleur de sel for a salty undertone. For a recipe that has so few ingredients and is simple to assemble, this one is like a magic potion or one of those ageless combinations (radish, butter, sea salt) you’d rather not tinker with, at least not too much. I have to give credit to my talented friend, Sarah, for introducing me to these cookies a few weeks ago, when she hosted a fantastic brunch in her new Fort Greene home. Everything was made by Sarah, including the butter and yogurt, and beneath a layer of chai fig newtons were hidden the coconut-almond gems. After eating two of them, I folded three inside a napkin to save for breakfast.
 

 
December 25
 
Christmas day has arrived. Leo, my nephew, successfully opened many of his presents, as did the dogs, ripping away with their teeth at the wrapped gifts. We ate blueberry pancakes, made with Pamela’s gluten-free mix, grilled sausage, and scrambled eggs with fresh dill snipped from the garden and extra sharp cheddar from our favorite cheese woman at Harris Teeter. There was leftover apple pie and champagne for the brave ones.
 
Pamela’s pancakes are easy breakfast treats, softer and grainier than regular pancakes, they are the kind you can eat almost endlessly without feeling bloated. Not surprising, as the mix has brown rice flour, buttermilk, and almond meal, among other ingredients. The exterior cooks crisp and golden, whereas the inside is light as air, reminding me of Japanese shortcake. Tonight, my mother and I continue our work in the kitchen with a Belgian chicken soup called Waterzooï and an almond-chocolate cake. We sit back in our chairs, hands folded over our bellies, feeling resplendent, and Leo, endless energy and leg-strength, continues to zigzag around the apartment.
 
RECIPES
 

Coconut, Almond, Chocolate Cookies

 
Makes 25 small cookies
 
Ingredients:
1 ¼ cups almond meal
1/3 cup chocolate chips (I chop them to make smaller pieces)
½ cup unsweetened shredded coconut
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt, fleur de sel
1/3 cup pure cane sugar or dark brown sugar or light brown sugar
1 egg
3 generous tablespoons coconut oil, melted and cooled
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
 
Directions:
In a large bowl, combine almond meal, chocolate, coconut, baking powder, salt and sugar.
 
In a second bowl, beat the egg until it doubles in volume, and whisk in the coconut oil and vanilla extract. Add this to the dry ingredients and mix until combined. Place in the refrigerator for thirty minutes.
 
Preheat the oven to 375 F.
 
Make small balls with your hands and place on a baking sheet. I lightly buttered my baking sheet with clarified butter. Bake for 8-10 minutes, and allow to cool before serving.
 
 

Pamela’s Pancakes

 
So-ever slightly adapted from Pamela’s Baking & Pancake Mix
Makes 4-6 pancakes
 
Ingredients:
1 cup Pamela’s Baking & Pancake Mix
1 egg, room temperature
¾ cup water
1 tbsp canola oil
Frozen or fresh blueberries
Maple syrup, jam, chocolate chips, butter (optional)
We also love to drizzle Wild Maine Blueberry Syrup, “Caviar of Maine,” onto our pancakes
 
Directions:
Mix all the ingredients together until the batter is smooth. Pour batter onto a lightly oiled pan or griddle. Plop a few blueberries onto the cooking pancake. Flip over once, when bubbles appear on the surface of the pancake. You can reheat extra pancakes and eat as a snack in the afternoon.
 
 

Waterzooï (Belgian chicken soup)

 
From my mother, Akiko Okuma
 

 
Last spring I went to visit my friend Corine in Foy-Notre Dame, a lovely tiny village of 59 inhabitants. It is not far from Brussels and very close to Dinant. Foy-Notre Dame was built around a church in 1609 when a Virgin Mary “statue” was discovered inside an oak tree. It is still a pilgrimage place and many people from all over the world come to Foy-Notre Dame. There is a small restaurant in this village where I had a most delicious waterzooï, a Belgian specialty. Although it was spring, the weather was cold and this chicken soup was the perfect, hot, filling meal.
 
I asked Corine how she makes this soup. She told me that each family has a special waterzooï recipe. Here is her recipe:

 
Ingredients:
1 whole organic chicken
1 onion
2 cloves of garlic
2 leaks
3 carrots
1 branch of celery
3 or 4 cloves
3 shallots
Lemon juice to taste
2 large potatoes (a flavorful variety)
Sea salt, pepper
2 cups of heavy cream
1 or 2 egg yolks
 
Directions:
Cut the chicken into pieces at its joints.
 
Pierce onion with 3 or 4 cloves.
 
Cut the vegetables into pieces (not too small, not too big).
 
Lightly sauté the vegetables in olive oil and add salt.
 
Put the chicken and the onion with the cloves into a heavy pan and add water to cover. Boil the contents slowly. After a little while, add the vegetables. Cook on a low flame approximately for 45 minutes to an hour.
 
Once it is cooked, allow broth to cool. Place the broth in a bowl and put it in the fridge until the fat solidifies on the surface. Scoop the fat out.
 
Reserve some broth in a bowl, enough to boil the potatoes.
 
Remove bones and skin from the chicken, and cut the chicken into bite size pieces.
 
Warm the chicken and the vegetables in the broth. Add more salt if necessary and pepper. Squeeze in some juice from a lemon. Separately cook the peeled potatoes in the broth until they are done. Throw away the broth in which potatoes were cooked.
 
Beat the egg yolk and the cream in a small bowl. Pour slowly into the egg-cream mixture a spoonful of hot broth. At the last minute add the potatoes to the chicken soup. Keep the heat on very low to avoid boiling, and add the egg-cream mixture. If the soup is boiling, the egg-cream will curdle.
 
Serve right away while hot! Decorate with some chopped parsley.
 
Depending on the weather and if it is the only food you are serving, you can add more or less egg yolks and cream. Corine told me that some of her friends put one yolk for each guest. Or conversely, you can make the dish with only one yolk and one cup of heavy cream for a whole chicken. Just find your own waterzooï recipe.
 

 
 

The Chocolate Cake

 
My mother bakes this cake every year for our birthdays. She slices it into two disks and coats it with freshly whipped cream and chocolate shavings. This cake is the flavor of home, though back in the day my mother would cut the sugar and butter content in half, wanting a healthier version of the cake. The layers of cream made up for the diminished batter, though she still used a 56% Nestlé baking chocolate that sways on the sweeter side. Today, with its restored proportions of sugar and butter, this cake remains my favorite chocolate dessert recipe: I make it for birthdays, dinners, and parties. It never fails me. The rich crumbly texture retains lightness from the egg whites. It’s an elegant dessert, especially when cut into thin slices, served on a porcelain plate with a dollop of cream, a red berry, a leaf of mint. To dress it up, add 1 tablespoon of brandy or rum. Otherwise, stick to the traditional vanilla.
 

 
Ingredients:
200 grams chocolate at 56%
90 grams salted butter (I like salted for chocolate cakes)
5 eggs, separated
140 grams sugar
80 grams of flour or almond meal
1 tbsp. brandy or rum, or 1 tsp. vanilla extract
 
Directions:
Preheat the oven to 350 F.
 
Cut the chocolate and butter into small pieces. Place in a small saucepan, with a tablespoon of water, and melt over very low heat, stirring constantly. Set aside.
 
Stir sugar, vanilla (or rum/brandy), and egg yolks in a large bowl until light yellow. Add the chocolate and almond meal or flour. In a second bowl, whip the egg whites into firm peaks. Fold the egg whites into the chocolate mix; fold gently so as to avoid breaking the egg whites. Don’t over-stir. Pour batter into a buttered mold. Bake for 25-35 minutes, until a knife comes out almost clean, with a few crumbs still sticking to it.
 
You can eat the cake warm or cold. It’s delicious with fresh cream, though if you prefer sweet desserts, try a vanilla or mint ice cream. You can even freeze the leftover slices and eat them later, heated in the oven.
 
 

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