Sometimes life seems like no more that a series of weird coincidences. Like when I met my fabulous literary agent Angela Miller: when I left Cook’s Illustrated nearly ten years ago, I asked the formidable Jack Bishop (Cook’s editorial director and renown cookbook author) for advice on getting an agent. He gave me Angela’s name and I took that back pocket ticket with me to Brooklyn when I moved here in 2002. Not a month after the big move, I threw my back out and fell behind in my work–getting in touch with Angela got pushed to the back burner. Eight months later in the summer of 2003, the NYC blackout happened, I met Suvir Saran (who happened to be a neighbor) and like kismet, I found out Angela was his agent too. Like I said, in New York, and especially in Brooklyn, weird coincidences seem to happen.
Which is how I met Emily Cavalier, the brains behind the blog Mouth of the Border and the fantastic dinner party series, Midnight Brunch, which I am cooking for this Friday. My sister-in-law Caryn-Ann, went to the University of New Hampshire and was (still is, actually) good friends with Emily. When Emily moved to Brooklyn from New England, Caryn-Ann connected us–see, Emily was trying to figure out how to get a footing in the world of food. We met at a coffee shop in Fort Greene–I think it was 2006. God knows what I said to her–I was like a year postpartum, severely sleep deprived, and probably epically behind on work…to say I was upbeat and congenial probably would have been a stretch to say the least! Caryn-Ann got married last summer and guess who I run into–Emily! Not only is Emily a lovely person who happens to live a whole two blocks from me in Clinton Hill, but in the five years since she moved to the city she carved out quite a niche for herself planning food events and spearheading press campaigns.
I am amazed at Emily’s indie spirit and confidence and so honored to be collaborating with her on this third installment of Midnight Brunch! We cooked up a fantastic menu that calls on ancient spice trade for inspiration–you know, the routes of Vasco de Gamma, long-ago sea pirates, and intrepid mariners who sailed around the world in search of black pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves. What better time than now to cook up a feast showcasing spices used throughout the holiday season. I mean, imagine apple pie without cinnamon, bread stuffing without a kick of black pepper, a holiday ham without its requisite clove studs, and egg nog without a dash of nutmeg! This Friday, 11/11/11 (can you get any more auspicious?) we’re cooking up a bevy of deliciousness–lamb “vin”daloo, Sicilian meatballs, Persian rice with pistachios and saffron, and smoky honey-glazed sweet potatoes with cilantro and peanuts to name but a few dishes (all paired with stellar craft cocktails thanks to mixologist Brian Quinn featuring SNAP ginger liqueur, Elijah Craig 12-year bourbon, and Banks 5-island rum).
When I was thinking about a cookie to accompany Emily’s cardamom panna cotta, I envisioned Portuguese and Spanish sailors returning home from a many months-long sea adventure and how, once they set foot on land, they must have been bowled over by the fragrances of their homeland. The romantic in me went straight to the sweet perfume of orange and almond blossoms, which are so intoxicating, especially by moonlight. What better way to honor the end of the 11/11/11 Midnight Brunch journey than with these flavors. Orange Blossom and Almond Shortbread is somewhere between an English Hobnob and Scottish shortbread, buttery and crisp yet nutty and toasty thanks to almonds and just a smidge of whole wheat flour. A cinch to make, it also keeps beautifully for up to a week in an airtight container, making it a worthy treat to bring along on your epic journeys this holiday season.
Orange Blossom and Almond Shortbread
Makes 16 rectangles or 32 triangle-shaped cookies
- 1 cup sliced almonds
- 3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
- Zest of 1/4 orange
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/4 cup whole wheat flour
- 1/3 cup confectioners’ sugar plus more for dusting
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 2 teaspoons orange flower water
- 1 stick plus 2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1. Preheat the oven to 450°F. Lightly coat a 9- by 13-inch baking dish with nonstick pan spray and set aside.
2. Place the almonds in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until they finely chopped, about four 1-second pulses. Add 3/4 cup of sugar and the orange zest and pulse to combine. Add the flours, confectioners’ sugar, and salt and process for 3 seconds to thoroughly combine. Sprinkle the orange flour water over the dry ingredients and then drizzle in the honey. Add the butter pieces and pulse until the mixture is like coarse cornmeal and rides up the sides of the food processor, about 12 to 15 1-second pulses.
3. Turn the mixture out into the pan and spread evenly. Use the bottom of a measuring cup to press the crumble dough into a dense, even layer. Drag the back of a knife through the dough (but don’t go to the bottom of the pan) to mark the dough into 3 rows crosswise and 6 columns lengthwise.
4. Place the baking dish in the oven and immediately reduce the oven temperature to 300°F. Bake until golden brown and fragrant, 20 to 25 minutes, rotating the pan midway through baking. Remove the pan from the oven, cool for 10 minutes, and then sprinkle with the remaining 1 tablespoon of sugar. Cool for another 10 minutes and then use a sharp paring knife to slice completely through the cookies where marked (for smaller triangle shaped cookies, you can also divide each cookie in half on a diagonal at this time). Cool completely and then use a knife to pop the cookies out of the pan. The shortbread keeps in an airtight container for up to one week.