Sunday, July 31, 2011

Balsamic Bliss

I developed a completely new appreciation for balsamic vinegar while in Italy. I've always enjoyed it, and knew it was prized with many uses, but I had never bothered to get especially creative with it myself. Tasting how good it can really be made me want to try it in lots of new places and dishes, and the strawberry cake from the previous post - while not unique - was my first toe into the depths of what balsamic can offer baked goods.

The cookie recipe below is more of a plunge into a big, shimmery, syrupy pool of black-red balsamic bliss. When you know the "secret" ingredient (made totally unsecret by the title of this entry) the flavor is absolutely detectable but still subtle and balanced. But serve these to unsuspecting friends, and very few will realize what it is that makes these cookies so good. Try it, and have fun surprising them!

I've blogged about chocolate cookies before, and how much I want them to be so good, but they are so often dry, or bitter. This recipe is neither, as the balsamic lends a fruitness and a moistness to the cookies similar to what dates or apples might do, but with exceedingly more sophistication. And unlike cookies baked with fruit which can be thick, or doughy in the center, these are light, thin, and crisp around the edges, while still being chewy in the center.

Coffee is often added as a flavor enhancer to baked goods with chocolate, adding a depth without really imparting its own characteristics, and the balsamic works a little in the same way. There is no vinegar-y residue, but there is definitely more to the flavor than just enhanced chocolatelyness. If you use a good balsamic that you already like the flavor of, with a nice fruitiness and not too much acid, you will really appreciate how these cookies pick up those notes. It's almost like chocolate cookies with blackberry jam... in fact, maybe that would be a good idea too!!

Another benefit of these cookies is that the technique for mixing the batter is similar to brownies - it can all be done in one saucepan, so they're pretty easy. Following are some other ways I've found recently to use balsamic.

Chocolate-Secret-Ingredient Cookies a.k.a. Chocolate-Balsamic Cookies
I found this recipe on a blog which attributed the original to Alice Medrich and her cookbook "Bittersweet." You can google "chocolate balsamic cookies" to see some good photos - I didn't take one. Some of the versions call for an egg, which will make the cookie slightly more cake-like; I like them crispier around the edges so I did not include an egg, which can make the version vegan if you use margarine instead of butter.

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
5 tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 cup plus unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch-process)
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
1/3 cup low-fat yogurt (I used fat-free vanilla yogurt, but you could also substitute sour cream)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar (I almost wrote "good balsamic" but don't even bother buying balsamic that isn't already good and that you would lick straight from a spoon. It shouldn't go on your salad, and it shouldn't go in your cookies. It's worth it for the good stuff, you only need 1 T.)

Whisk together dry ingredients. In a medium saucepan, melt butter, then stir in the cocoa and sugars. Mix in yogurt, and liquids, then blend in flour mixture. Drop teaspoonfuls of dough on cookie sheet lined with parchment. (I don't usually bother with the parchment step, but I think it's worth it in this case. The cookies come out of the oven still soft, and you want to be able to move them to a rack to cool, without messing them up.) I like my cookies smaller, bite-sized, but you can use up to a tablespoon of dough for each if you like them bigger, just leave a couple of inches for them to spread on the sheets during baking.

Bake at 350 for about 11 minutes. They might not be look completely set, but you don't want to overcook them, as they will turn bitter, and they will continue to cook after removed from the oven. Slide the parchment sheet onto a rack to allow cookies to cool completely.

Salmon with Cherry-Balsamic SauceServes 2
Scale these quantities to fit your group, and your tastes. I figured about 6 cherries per person.
12 firm, ripe, Bing cherries
1 clove garlic
1 1/2 tablespoons Balsamic vinegar

Grill or roast your salmon filets or steaks with just a bit of salt and pepper. While they're cooking, chop enough cherries to make a serving for each salmon portion. In a small saucepan, toss cherries with balsamic and garlic. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and keep warm until serving. Drizzle some vinegar sauce on the plate, top with portion of salmon, and spoon cooked cherries over.

Bing Cherry-Balsamic Salmon, served with a saute of carmelized onions
and savoy cabbage with capers, and onion focaccia.
Balsamic and Mushroom Quinoa
This was one of those use-up-whatever-is-in-the-fridge recipes, but I ended up really enjoying it. 
Red quinoa, cooked according to package directions (I don't think the red quinoa really tastes different, but it adds another visual element to the dish.)
Saute slivered onion in part butter/part olive oil over medium low heat until translucent and starting to carmelize. Add diced mushrooms and carrots and cook until tender. Deglaze with balsamic and toss in cooked quinoa until well-coated and heated through.

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