Wild Beasts! Marzipan and Chocolate Wild Beasts

In 1993, Palo Alto Animal Services received a phone call in which an anonymous person reported a missing pet: a huge, fast, aggressive and highly venomous Black Mamba snake. Basically, unless you carry antivenom in your lunchbox, there's about a 100% chance a bite will kill you. Clearly, black mambas are not cuddly pets. The phone tree went into immediate effect, calling to warn parents to drive their children to school rather than let them walk. Some schools even roped off areas. Since I knew that black mambas have a particular affinity for little girls, I was terrified. I remember being in the backseat of the carpool Volvo, peering into every bush we passed, expecting a giant snake to lurch out (like this). I think we were on lockdown the rest of the afternoon but eventually the scare faded when people realized that a) black mambas wouldn't survive long without a climate like Kenya's, b) it's pretty hard to obtain and keep a pet black mamba in the US, and c) the whole thing was probably a hoax. Someone made "I survived the Black Mamba" t-shirts. It ended up being a joke for anyone that remembers it. Nonetheless, the idea that dangerous animals would "invade" our suburbia can be unnerving.
Slightly less of a joke, because much more real than the mamba, are the mountain lions that sometimes take a short jaunt down from the hills to visit our backyards. I think usually they are just checking out the real estate values (they seem to prefer Atherton, wouldn't you?) but now and then they attack someone. In 2004, when the police shot a skinny mountain lion that was hiding out in a residential tree there was quite an uproar. Judging from the comments in the paper every time there's a sighting reported, having to share property with wild animals captivates our imagination and kindles our fears: "Are the mountain lions on our turf or are we on theirs? Are they trying to tell us something? One ate a goat--is that a sign? Have they newly developed a taste for human flesh? Or have they liked eating us all along? Do they like eating us better when we are shrink-wrapped in spandex biking gear?"
Wild beasts are the 4th plague on Egypt and the idea of wild animal mauling is still alarming...unless the animals are made of marzipan.

Marzipan is a traditional Passover confection in some parts of the world. You can buy it, of course, but it's simple to make at home. It is one of my absolute favorite treats and unlike the meringue in my earlier post, it is easy to model. If you're not like me and aren't equipped with a hedgehog cookie cutter (how did I end up the kind of person who has a hedgehog cookie cutter?) you can shape marzipan any way you like with your hands.
I originally tried painting my wild beasts...

but didn't like where that was going, so covered them in chocolate instead (could that have been the solution for all my failed art?) rrrRRROOOoooaaarr!

Marzipan Wild Beasts

  • 200 g blanched almonds (first healthcare, then weights & measures?!)
  • 175 g powdered sugar (FYI some powdered sugar has cornstarch. If that's an issue for you, you can process some granulated sugar in the food processor until fine.)
  • 1 egg white
  • few drops of almond extract
  • pinch of salt

Grind the almonds in a food processor until very very fine, stirring now and then to make sure it's even.

Add in the sugar and process. Then add in the egg white, extract, and salt and pulse until a lump of dough forms. Sprinkle a work surface with powdered sugar and knead the marzipan for a minute or so until smooth and easy to work with. Either roll out into a sheet about 1/2-1 cm thick and cut with cookie cutters or a knife, or model by hand. Let dry out for an hour before painting, icing or dipping in chocolate. Then keep in a covered container.

Blood! Blood Orange Salad on Bitter Greens

Continuing with my plague-inspired entries:
Blood is the first plague on Egypt. All the water turned to blood, killing the fish and making for some lousy tasting drip coffee. It would have been easy for me to go whimsical with this one (if you'd been to my apartment in Irvine, you might have seen a jar of homemade fake blood in the fridge) but I forced myself to do a straight recipe instead. The only "blood" here comes from the blood orange. I adapted this recipe from the Andalusian orange salad in Diana Henry's lovely "Crazy Water Pickled Lemons." It makes a great Passover salad because you get a bed of maror, or bitter herbs, symbolic of the bitterness of slavery, topped with oranges, dried fruit, nuts and sweet wine--echoing the Passover condiment, haroset, which represents the mortar used by the slaves to build. The sweet and pungent flavors compliment each other on the Seder plate and otherwise, as do the colors of the greens and the blood orange.
Blood Orange Salad on Bitter Greens

  • 5 blood oranges (regular oranges are OK too), peeled and sliced horizontally
  • 1/2 red onion, very finely sliced
  • 1/3 C raisins, currants, golden raisins, barberries, etc.
  • 1/4 C sherry. This time I used California madeira, marsala would work, Manischewitz would be great!
  • 1 T wine vinegar
  • Bunch of greens: In the past I've used arugula, watercress, or endive. This time I used mache, which is not as strongly flavored (but is also called "lamb's lettuce," which I felt was fitting)
  • bunch of mint (optional)
  • slivered, toasted almonds, for sprinkling.

  • 1 T wine vinegar (TJs used to carry a pomegranate vinegar which was perfect)
  • 3 T olive oil or walnut oil
  • reserved sherry from plumping raisins
  • 1/2 tsp honey
  • salt and pepper to taste

Heat the raisins 1/4 sherry and 1 T vinegar in a small saucepan until boiling. Remove from heat and let the raisins plump for about 15 minutes. Drain, reserving the liquid.
Pour most the reserved liquid over the sliced onions and let them sit. This will remove some of their bite.

Whisk the dressing ingredients together, adding about a spoonful of what's left of the reserved cooking liquid.
Arrange the greens and mint (if using) on plates. Add the orange slices and onion slices, then top with raisins and almonds. Drizzle with the dressing.

Frogs! Swiss Meringue Frogs

If I'm trapped in this house when the Big One strikes, I'll be surviving off the boxes of unused matzoh meal, potato starch and Passover cake mix from years past. Yes, it's that time again. Time for stocking up on more kosher-for-Passover products than you can use (because if you wait until the last minute, the shelves will be empty [from everyone else stocking up on more than they can use{because if they wait the shelves will be empty}]). It's also time for spring cleaning and celebrating the end of the cold, dark, months. The trees are exploding into little white flowers and I'm remembering my little skirts (OK it's California so they were never forgotten). Passover is a spring holiday and one of my favorites. Even more so than Rosh Hashanah, it's filled with very symbolic food. In addition, there is the restriction of not eating chametz, leavened products, the definition of which varies and can include most grains, legumes, and corn/syrup/starch. For many cooks, myself included, this limit presents an exciting challenge. I'm not one to try to fake a cake with matzoh meal. Just like tofu cheese, it will never taste like the real thing. I'd rather avoid matzoh altogether, just like matzoh would rather me avoid the bathroom.

I might get to the tears, bitterness, and freedom on this blog eventually, but first I'd like to attempt a couple of plague inspired treats, in no particular order (I know, I know, it's all about order. Sorry). I can't make any promises because I'm so busy that attempting an omelette for dinner is a rare thing these days--so don't hold your breath for "death of the first born" fashioned in spun sugar. However, I'm taking a class right now that is sculpturally inspiring/sculpturally humbling, so I thought I'd take a stab at making a few things during a study break.

Frogs. Perhaps the funniest of the 10 plagues to me. (Are plagues funny? Frogs on your bed! Take that!) Here I made them out of Swiss meringue, which according to Martha Stewart, is an "intermediate-level meringue", up from the beginner's French. Can I have my yellow belt now? Basically, you cook the egg whites and sugar over simmering water before beating into shiny, stiff peaks. It is more stable, especially if you add a little meringue powder along with the fresh eggs. As always with meringue, use a clean metal bowl and clean mixers, since the smallest trace of fat will affect volume. Separate cold eggs and allow the whites to come to room temperature before beating. It's best if the air is dry. If you are not feeling artistically inclined, you can easily make boils instead of frogs. Just switch the food coloring to red and form lumps. I might even top them with a little white chocolate pus. :)

Meringue Frogs
* FYI: meringue powder and food coloring can sometimes contain cornstarch.
  • 4 egg whites
  • 1 C sugar
  • 1 T meringue powder
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • few drops of green food coloring
Preheat the oven to 175-200 °F. Line baking sheets with parchment.
Whisk the whites, sugar, and meringue powder together in a clean metal bowl. Continue whisking with the bowl placed over gently simmering water until the sugar is dissolved, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and then beat with the electric mixer, starting on slow and moving up to high speed, until stiff, glossy peaks form. This will take about 10 minutes. Stir in vanilla and food coloring. Gently transfer some of the
meringue to a pastry bag, careful not to deflate it. Using two spoons, make a lump of meringue on the baking sheet for the body, then another smaller lump for the head. Pipe the legs and any other details you'd like. I kind of pushed things around gently until they looked as good as they could, given that meringue isn't Play-Doh. Work as quickly as you can, because the frogs will start to droop. Bake until dry, for about 1 hr to 1.5 hrs depending on the size. Turn off the oven and let cool in the oven. You can crack the door after a little while, if you like.

Peanut Butter Chocolate Thumbprints

Lately I've been waking up thinking I'm not in my own room, but in Hollywood instead... In a small bed with pilled madras sheets, birds singing against the unabating whisper that comes from being wedged between Santa Monica Blvd. and Sunset, the stifling smell of the neighbor's guava trees, and the sunlight flooding like a sustained Polaroid flash, throwing a glare on the hardwood to make you wish for lead goggles.
It's odd that I'd be confused, since the dark 6 AM quiet that I wake up in now bears no resemblance. Maybe I'm craving those lazy Hollywood mornings when I was hiding out from the street-cleaning meter maids, killing hours making breakfast and reading the Economist alone in someone else's kitchen. Or maybe I'm craving the companionship that allowed me to wake up in someone else's apartment. However, now in my own bed, I can make a snow angel (eye-mask still on). It's a relief to brush my arm over the smooth, cool sheets on the other side of my bed, immaculate since no one dragged wrinkles through them rolling out on the way to work. I didn't think much of it at the time, but those Indian sheets slightly scratching my skin developed into a mildly irritating compromise. Now, when I've shaken off the disorientation of sleep, I appreciate what a comfort it is to sleep on a pillow I picked for myself.

I have never made peanut butter cookies for myself. I make them all the time. I'm pretty fond of cookies, PB are just not my favorite (it works out: I'm not tempted to eat the whole batch before they make it to their destination). But my peanut butter cookies were someone else's favorite--so much that I'd ship them as a forget-me-not. There's something nice about making a thing for someone else, even when the recipient isn't there. There's something warm about the routine of it and where your mind goes when you're creaming the butter, rolling in sugar, dropping by rounded spoonful. Especially these days where most things I do are for me, there's a tenderness in creating something with the spirit of a gift.
As I was walking with a tupperware full of my last batch of these, a woman in her parked car rolled down her window to ask what I'd made. Turns out peanut butter chocolate are her favorite but she "doesn't know anyone who makes them anymore". Hopefully, a couple cookies from a passerby improved her evening.

Peanut Butter Chocolate Thumbprints
adapted from Rose's Christmas Cookies:"Peanut Butter and Jelly Jewels"

I've been making this recipe for 7 or 8 years. There could be a better one but it doesn't feel right to switch. It makes a sandy cookie rather than a chewy one and is good even without the chocolate.

  • 1 C flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • shake of nutmeg
  • double shake of cinnamon
  • 1/2 C light brown sugar, packed
  • 1/4 C granulated sugar
  • 1/2 C unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 C peanut butter (I really like chunky. Natural doesn't work very well)
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • sugar and cinnamon for rolling

  • 12 oz. semi-sweet chocolate chips (milk chocolate or bittersweet works too)
  • 6 T butter, room temperature

Preheat oven to 375 ° F and place oven racks in top and bottom third.

Sift flour, salt, baking soda, and spices together in a small bowl. Set aside.
Mix sugars together. Beat sugars with butter until lightened. Beat in peanut butter until creamy. Add in egg and vanilla and beat until just incorporated. Switch to a spoon if you were using an electric beater and slowly mix in the dry mixture to the PB one, until just incorporated. Refrigerate the dough at least an hour (and up to overnight).

Place some granulated sugar and a little cinnamon in a shallow bowl. Remove dough from fridge. Scoop dough by rounded teaspoonful and roll through the sugar. Place balls 1.5 inches apart on an ungreased cookie sheet. Using your finger, or the end of a wooden spoon, make a deep well in the center of each ball.

Bake for 10-12 minutes, rotating oven racks halfway. Cool on sheets for a couple minutes then transfer to cooling racks to cool completely. You can deepen the wells while the cookies are still warm.

For the Filling:

Melt the chocolate in a double-boiler, stirring constantly until it is smooth (since I'm neurotic about burning chocolate, I remove it from the heat before it is completely melted and use the residual heat to finish). Let it cool very slightly, then whisk in the softened butter until just mixed in. Use a pastry bag and tip, a cut-off Ziploc, or a spoon to fill the centers of the cookies. Allow the filled cookies to set until firm.