the best chocolate chunk cookies

After a party several months ago, I froze the half-dozen leftover chocolate chunk cookies for some future, unknown yet entirely foreseeable occasion when I’d feel like a intravenous shot of fudge. And then promptly forgot about them. I caught glimpses of them every now and then, like when I went rummaging in the freezer for some ice cream or coffee beans, but never thought of, you know, taking them out for a snack. Unthinkably, it seems, I’d forgotten that they were the best chocolate cookie I’ve ever had.

That changed this week. And I’m sorry, I know I swore off complaints about the weather, but I have to break: it’s the past seven days of gray skies, forty-degrees, and near-daily rain showers that drove me to the chocolate. Does anyone else feel cheated out of spring? True, our daffodils are very pretty. True, this month brought a couple truly springlike days, days when grilling felt slightly daring in the chilly-warm weather but the birds were singing. But otherwise, it’s felt like a warmed-over continuation of winter; it doesn’t have that lively spring air, the feel of awakening.

Long story short, it was a dreary Monday afternoon, I was yawning by four o’clock, I made myself a coffee and with the thought, Might as well do tea time right, pulled the cookie bag out of the freezer and blitzed one (okay, two) in the microwave for twenty seconds. I’ve kept it up every day since. I’m a creature of habit, especially habits with three kinds of chocolate.

Here’s the deal with these cookies. You melt together some butter and chocolate chips, and to this add all the usual ingredients — eggs, sugar, flour, vanilla extract. The key difference, of course, is that the foundation, the batter, is already quite chocolatey. Then you stir in the rest of the chocolate chips, so you get those delicious pockets of melted chips throughout the cookie when it’s fresh from the oven (or microwave). AND you top it with chunks of white chocolate. They are fabulous. They even make me perversely grateful for the dismal weather that drove me to them.

Dark and White Chocolate Chunk Cookies
(Bon Appetit Desserts)

N.B. The original recipe calls for half a cup of chopped crystallized ginger. I didn’t include it the first time because I didn’t have any on hand, and in times afterward I wasn’t interested in tampering with perfection. But I imagine the spicy heat of crystallized ginger would make a very interesting, grown-up addition. If you are intrepid enough to try, report back!

Makes about 2 dozen

  • 2 2/3 cup bittersweet or semisweet chocolate chips, divided
  • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup (packed) light brown sugar
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • 3/4 cup self-rising flour*
  • 1/2 cup chopped crystallized ginger (optional, see head notes)
  • 3 1/2 oz high-quality white chocolate, coarsely chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Stir 2 cups chocolate chips and butter in a small saucepan over low heat until melted. Alternatively, place in a microwave safe bowl and melt in the microwave, stirring every 30 seconds, until just melted together. Cool 10 minutes.

Beat eggs and brown sugar in a large bowl until well blended. Beat in melted chocolate mixture, then vanilla, then flour. Stir in ginger, if using, and remaining 2/3 cup chocolate chips. Let stand 10 minutes.

Drop cookie dough by rounded tablespoonfuls onto prepared cookie sheets, spacing cookies 1 1/2 to 2 inches apart. Press white chocolate pieces into tops of cookies. Bake until cookies look puffed and slightly dry on top, about 13 minutes. Cool thoroughly.

*To make self-rising flour, sift or stir together 1 cup all purpose flour, 1 1/2 tsp baking powder, and 1/4 tsp salt in a small bowl. Measure from this.


wordless wednesday: pea salad

visiting american gothic

A couple weeks ago, I wrote that before leaving Iowa in two weeks, my number one goal was to visit the American Gothic House — the house with that famous upper-story Gothic window in Grant Wood’s American Gothic, which is, yes, a real, standing house in a small, 1,000-person town in southern Iowa called Eldon. And yesterday, with B. in tow, I did.

Eldon was a pretty out-of-the-way destination for Grant Wood, too. He lived in Cedar Rapids — not far from us! — and found himself in Eldon in 1930 for an art festival. During his visit, a local artist offered to drive him around the town (then a booming railroad community), and Grant Wood was captivated by this tiny country home outfitted with such a “pretentious” (his words) window. He asked the owner if he might include the house in a painting (she consented, and promptly cleaned the residence from top to bottom, not realizing he only meant the outside) and drew a quick sketch.

Back home in Cedar Rapids, Grant Wood asked his sister and dentist to sit for the father/daughter portrait. He assured them that they wouldn’t be recognized. His dentist, Dr. B. H. McKeeby, was, and it ended their friendship. When he painted his sister Nan, he elongated her face to further distort her appearance. Dr. McKeeby and Nan were painted separately in his studio — not standing before the house. The artist never returned to Eldon.

It’s not clear what commentary (indeed, if any) Grant Wood meant to offer with this portrait. It’s known that he set out to paint the sort of people who would live in the house with the pretentious window. Some have interpreted the figures’ sour expressions as a satire of the rigidness and narrow-mindedness sometimes associated with Midwestern types, though it seems fairly unlikely that Wood, who adored his early years on his family’s farm, intended such a reading. The painting can also be seen as a celebration of the virtue of hard work and seriousness. Likewise, it’s not clear what the inclusion of the Gothic window implies: was Wood mocking the homeowners’ attempt to make the house look grander than it was, or honoring their effort to insert beauty into their everyday life?

Seeing the house (the real house!) in situ was quite extraordinary. If you look closely at the painting, you’ll note that the patterned curtain in the Gothic window has been swapped out for a gauzy white one. But it is otherwise completely unchanged. There is the same sense of attempted grandeur — a literal window of beauty — in an otherwise plain house, in an otherwise unglamorous town.

You’ve probably already guessed at the interpretation I prefer, if for admittedly sentimental reasons. I like to think Wood made the painting in praise of the farmer and daughter’s grasps at elegance. His topmost gold shirt button, her cameo brooch, the curl escaping her bun, the Gothic window — despite their dour faces, there are these extra efforts, the appeals to the aesthetic, for no real purpose and no functional reason. Just that it feels good to look at pretty things. It’s beauty for beauty’s sake.

So this isn’t exactly sound art historical theory. But it’s what I’m sticking with. Thanks to this quick road trip (the house is less than ninety minutes away), I can check off my number one Iowa goal and feel just a wee bit more connected to to the rolling prairie hills, via this house that has defined the state for so many.

The house center is manned by two grandmotherly sorts, and it stocks costumes for those (aka everyone) wanting to recreate the painting — and add to its already rich history of parodies. And … of course … what would a trip to the American Gothic House be without a photo op?

cooking with the doctor

When I woke up this morning, there was snow on the ground. It’s all melted into rain now, thank you for asking, but this mid-April brush with winter made me all the more excited, and grateful, for the hot (in both senses!) leftovers from last night, destined for today’s lunch table: Dr. Pepper pulled pork.

Considering I hadn’t even tasted Dr. Pepper at this time last year, this dish is a big step. Considering I don’t consider myself a huge fan of spicy foods, and this dish calls for a can of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, this dish is an even bigger step. And yet the idea of slow-roasting pork shoulder in both for five hours caught hold of me, if only for curiosity’s sake. (Billy is so lucky, to hear entreaties like “This sounds weird. Let’s make it for dinner!) We tried it last weekend and, with some trepidation, spooned it into corn tortillas with sour cream, tomato salsa, caramelized onions and red peppers, and a little jack cheese.

It was unbelievably good. The meat was quite spicy but a little sweet, with an almost barbecued flavor, and the smooth sour cream mellowed out all that heat. Matched with the acidity of the tomatoes and the deliciously sweet onions and peppers, and the cheese — I was just done. It’s the best slow-cooked meat I’ve ever had, and definitely the best pulled pork.

We made it again last night, less than a week after its first audition. It’s that good. I know it sounds weird, and you’re likely thinking, there’s surely a reason chefs don’t regularly baste their roasts with soda . . . but try it anyway. If only for curiosity’s sake. I think you’ll be converted.

Spicy Dr. Pepper Pulled Pork
(Via the Pioneer Woman)

Enough meat for 10-12 6inch tortillas. How many that serves is between you, your guests, and your stomach.

  • 1/2 yellow onion
  • 1 1/2 to 2 lbs pork shoulder (also called pork butt; you can buy the whole shoulder, about six pounds, or packaged shoulder cuts, which are just the right size for this recipe)
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 tbsp brown sugar
  • 1/2 can chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, or about 3 ounces
  • 1 can Dr. Pepper, more to taste

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

Cut the onion into wedges and lay it at the bottom of a heavy dutch oven. Add the meat. Salt and pepper generously. Add the brown sugar and chipotle peppers, and pour the Dr. Pepper over it all.

Lid it, and cook in the oven until the meat is positively falling off the bone and pulls apart easily, about five hours. (Pictured in the photo above. If, after some preliminary fork investigation, your meat looks more like the photo at the very top of the post, it’s not ready. Return it to the oven, lidded, for another hour.) Using two forks, shred the pork, discarding big pieces of fat. Put it on the stovetop and keep warm until ready to use. Feel free to add some more Dr. Pepper at this point, just for kicks, for the meat to absorb.

N.B. Although I have not tried it this way, you could definitely adapt the recipe to a slow cooker — just cook it for longer, i.e. all day.

We love it in corn tortillas (ahem, not pictured) with salsa, sour cream, grilled onions, peppers, and cheese.

the curious case of artisinal chocolate

If you’d asked me two years ago what sprang to mind when I heard the words “Iowa artisan,” I would have (somewhat shamefacedly) admitted corn husk dolls. Because I had one! Not because I stereotype! Or perhaps . . . pie baking. Hog fattening.

Maybe I had a couple stereotypes.

Basically, I didn’t know anything about Iowa, or what I was getting myself into.

As it turns out, I have encountered zero corn husk dolls or “fattest pig” state fair competitions since moving here, and most of the pies have come out of my oven. What I have encountered is gourmet roasted Amana coffee, in flavors ranging from the traditional French Vanilla or Hazelnut to the wackier Blueberry Cinnamon Crumble and Vermont Maple Nut Crunch. A reminder: those are all coffee flavors. I have also encountered fruit wine. Yes, I know all wine is made from grapes, and that grapes are a fruit, but I mean cranberry wine. Apricot wine. Peach, apple, rhubarb wines. I believe it is what you would call “interesting” (as in “iiiinteresting…”) and let’s just say there’s a reason wine is made of grapes and not plums.

The best discovery of all, though, has been the local chocolate-makers. There’s the Chocolate Haus in Amana, whose four-pack of truffles almost always proves an irresistible pick-me-up. And then there’s Bochner Chocolates, with a single store off the Coralville Strip (and a tiny factory near the grocery store!) that churns out the most gorgeous, creatively flavored special occasion chocolates I’ve been lucky enough to taste. They have blue-speckled truffles filled with sea salted caramel and purple-dusted ones filled with lavender. There’s a whole line of alcohol-filled squares, from Bailey’s to Mojito (!), and an equally large group of fruit-fillings. They even cater to choco-purists with truffles made of cocoa nibs or Ghanaian beans. I would never (truly, never) have expected to find a place like Bochner Chocolates in Iowa — but oh, how wrong I was. I just finished my Valentine’s box (I know – discipline!) and our high-top table looks suddenly quite sad without all those snazzy, rich flavor possibilities.

worth a (farther) drive

Yesterday, in a supreme gesture of “because I can” and testament to the power of “why not,” I drove to Des Moines for a couple hours. And not the cultural big city Des Moines; no, I set my sights the mall, full stop. I don’t know what it says about me that I logged four hours behind the wheel just to indulge in the consumerist pleasure of tooling around an (admittedly beautiful) indoor shopping center with stubby, potted palm trees and water fountains, poking around the sauce pans at Williams-Sonoma and picking up a slice of peanut butter cheesecake for dessert several hours later. But it felt really good. I picked an Auntie Anne’s pretzel, the butter-dipped kind — one of the world’s best shopping indulgences. I spent an hour at J.Crew trying on soft tees and cropped pants and even (gasp!) gingham shorts and, at the end, marveled at how much nicer the Jordan Creek sales associates are than the ones in Tyson’s, VA. I popped across the artificial outdoor bridge for the P.F. Chang’s lunch bowl and read my Pride and Prejudice. And then it was back to Iowa City, where it was still brightly sunny and a gorgeous 65-degrees — and all of this to say, I suppose, how lovely a simple, do-nothing, indulgent day away is. I hope you get to have one soon, too.

worth a drive

The New York Times has a new article up entitled “Four Paris Restaurants Worth a Metro Ride”, and when it was published ten days ago about as many people emailed it to me. I hope to pay a visit some of those tables next month, though truthfully I’m still a little peeved at author Mark Bittman for blowing one of my favorite local-ish restaurants, Astier, with a mention in the paper of record. I guess I can kiss my insider badge goodbye. . .

I know some people (ahem, most of you) consider Iowa City a trek in and of itself. With so many fantastic dining options downtown — many of which I’d continue to frequent if they were transplanted to New York City, high praise indeed — it can be tempting, even here, to fall into geographic snobbishness. Kalona, twenty miles southwest of our cosmopolitan little city, is a town of less then 2500. Getting there is a drive through pure country, and yet I’d been wanting to go for a good year. Why? Food, of course.

It’s called Tuscan Moon, and it’s a quiet, unassuming, delicious restaurant housed in the historic Old Kalona Hotel. There’s a gorgeous patio for outdoor dining, but the inside is just as fun: with old hardwood floors, exposed brick walls, chandeliers and high ceilings, it’s a real trip. When we went last weekend, there was a classical guitarist performing and the owner was circulating, asking how everyone’s meal was. It’s that kind of place.

My dinner was a perfectly respectable showcase of the restaurant’s home-cooked Italian roots: a very fine Caesar salad and an enormous plate of farfalle with bolognese sauce (which came, in true home style, with a slice of soft white loaf bread). I think Billy’s selections really hit it out of the park, though, demonstrating what happy heights Tuscan Moon can sail to outside the Italian box. There was the simply presented yellow fin sashimi and then — oh my — jerk-rubbed, grilled pork tenderloin with mango salsa. It was a special that night, but I heard they’re turning it into a regular menu item. I hope so, because it’s what I’d get next time. The smoky, charred flavor of the grill and spices were a brilliant foil to the sweet, juicy mango. It was a totally different level. It was grown up and sophisticated and wow, Kalona! Small but mighty. You done good.