"Bake" covers all things sweet, in or out of the oven.

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New Orleans Pralines

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You didn’t think I forgot I had a blog, did you?  Well, I almost did.  With all the trips and the non-piggie Flu I picked up along the way, I’ve been neglecting the space here for quite a while.  (If you’re following me on Twitter you’ve heard it all before.)  Sorry.  But I’m back, and I brought you a pretty cool souvenir from the road, an amazing recipe for true New Orleans pralines.  For me, one of the best things about traveling is learning how to cook local specialties.  That’s how I bring that taste from the road home with me and recreate it whenever I want to.  So, imagine my delight when Ms.Linda and her husband Peter (my friend Josh’s dad) invited me over to their place to make pralines with them.

First, we must get something straight.  I don’t care where you are in -or even out of- the country, you need to learn how to pronounce the word right – and by ‘right’ I meant the way they do in New Orleans.  Repeat after me.  PRAA-leans.  Not praa-LEANS, or PRAY-leens.  And definitely not PRAA-lynes.  Got that?

Ok, now that we know how to pronounce it properly, it’s time I confess something.  This recipe makes textbook-perfect New Orleans pralines, yes, but it’s actually not from New Orleans!  Ms.Linda -she’s a proper Southern Lady so it’s Ms.Linda to you and me- said she got the recipe from “a Greyhound Man in Mississippi”.  I was hoping that she would say she got it from a man she met on a grayhound bus in Mississipi, wouldn’t it be such a fun story?  Alas, no, she just got it from a man who worked there.

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The best chocolate chips cookies ever?

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Once in a while, along comes a recipe that changes the name of the game.  Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread recipe published by Mark Bittman in the NY Times two years ago was one.  It got so many cooks – who hitherto dared not touch yeast bread – to fashion themselves a veritable French boulanger, baking loafs after loafs of crackly, crusty bread, and even turning more than a few of them into petty thieves. Then, a few months ago, the Times struck again, this time with a chocolate chips cookies recipe that purported to be no less than perfection itself.

The key to that recipe?  A little patience, said the indomitable David Leite who penned the piece.  Let me just tell you that it was quite an understatement.  Unlike the good Mr.Leite, I don’t live in a world where restraining oneself from devouring, entirely raw, the whole batch of chocolate chips cookie dough during the 36 hours called for in the recipe constitutes a little patience.  And not just any chocolate chips cookie dough, mind you, but one so rich, so deliciously salty-sweet, and so -ever, ever so- tempting.  In my world, chocolate chips cookie dough can speak.  And it’s calling my name – the whole, half a box of scrabble’s worth of alphabets in my name.

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no recipe apple tart

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Can you bake without a recipe?  Most of you are probably shaking your head no…no, no, no, no.  You’ve all been scared off by that culinary truism that refers to cooking as an art and baking as a science.  I don’t think it’s true at all.  And I think most good home cooks who are afraid of baking are missing out a whole lot.  The same is true with bakers who religiously follow recipes.  If baking is rigidly following a recipe, you’re missing out on the improvisation, the play that makes cooking so much fun.

Of course, it’s true that you need to learn a few basic recipes.  Learn how to do a pie/tart crust, for example.  Any good food writer/blogger worth their salt can teach you one. Yes, I even have one in my book (which of course you must wait for.)  But once you have that, you can bake just about any fruit tart or fruit pies that your heart desires and you mind imagines.

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Boozy Bitter Chocolate Truffles, or, I DON’T WANT TO BE YOUR VALENTINE!

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Nor do I want you mine.

I think it was that pink Rice Crispy Treats I was subjected to one sad Valentine that ruined it for me for ever.  Or perhaps it saved me.  Depending on your perspective.  In any case, if I saw another heart-shaped cookie or pink cake I might just scream and go sew black buttons over my eyes and then build traps for unsuspecting children or misguided lovers.  I just might.

But there is hope yet.  A distressed signal sent over Twitter to my crowd received in reply dozens of also-dissenting voices, reassuring me that, even in my most misanthrope moment, I am, alas, not alone.  In the dark, lonely corners of Twitterverse we plotted to bring down valentines.  “Do the Chicken with 40 cloves of garlic”, sang the Tweet-chorus.  “Cook everything that gives you gas”, cried a petulant – or perhaps flatulent – voice.  Another pointed to a gnarly – if absolutely delicious – Dim Sum staple, braised chicken feet. One even suggested a bottle of cheap booze and a hammer, I dared not ask why.  I supposed another that might do is that dish with a poetic name, Pissed-off Prawns, I ate earlier this week at Michael Chiarello’s new Bottega up in Napa.

Then an aha moment arrived.  What fun is bitterness without booze?  There you have it.  I’ll make chocolate truffles, dark and bitter chocolate truffles, and I’ll make it boozy.  Rum perhaps.  No, Armagnac, better yet, Armagnac with some prunes soaked in it.

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Dark Chocolate Hazelnut Bites

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I've got a soft spot in my heart for first cookbooks.  It's not because my own first book  is coming out later this year, ok -not just because of that- but I love the earnest and unabashed enthusiasm that every writer put into their first project.  Cookbooks that come later in their career may perhaps be more polished, or even altogether far better, but they are often missing that je ne sais quoi that first books possess.

If you're a regular reader of Chez Pim, I'm sure you're a fan of my dear friend David Lebovitz's as well – you might even like him better, which is, of course, totally cool with me, just don't tell me!  And if you're a fan of his, you must also know that he's not only an über-blogger, but a prolific cookbook writer, with many successful books under his proverbial belt.  But the one that had my heart, and still does, is his first, Room for Dessert.  A number of recipes in that book have made their ways into my baking repertoire, and the book has coffee, butter, and molasses stains to prove that too.

The cookies I made last week is one of those recipes from this book.  He calls it Black and White Cookies, made with ground almond and bittersweet chocolate, rolled in powdered sugar.  These cookies are cute as buttons, and just about the same size too, absolutely the perfect size for just a bite or two of something bittersweet with your coffee.  I must also admit that I don't quite know how to leave a good recipe well enough alone, so I made mine with hazelnut instead of almond.  The effect was really quite lovely, sort of like Nutella cookies for grown-ups.

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