I get a lot of books in the mail to read and review. Most sit in stacks on my desk, eyeing me reproachfully. When I received chef Michel Richard's new book, Sweet Magic, I glanced at it quickly, thinking to put it on top of my guilty pile of books. And then I stopped. And flipped through a few more pages. Then I stuck a bookmark in, and a few more. Then I headed to the kitchen. I had to try a recipe to see how it worked in real life.
These cookies? They are amazing, and they start with an unexpected ingredient. See those little specks in the cookies? They aren't nuts. Read on for more about this recipe, and this playful, witty, unexpectedly delightful book.
Michel Richard is a one-of-a-kind French chef. He currently owns Citronelle in the D.C. area. He won a James Beard award as Outstanding Chef in 2007, and he is often referred to as a chef's chef. He has a sense of wit and playfulness, a precision informed by his early days as a pastry chef, and an absolute mastery of craft with a knack for making things sound easy. He considers the microwave his "secret weapon," and he's not afraid to use low-brow ingredients like cornflakes in high-end dishes.
His sparkling wit and sense of play come through in this book, his larger-than-life personality coming up through every page. He does such interesting things here, like in his very first recipe in the book: Ultimate French Toast. He basically has you make a flan, then embed it in slices of bread, and fry them. Totally decadent and homestyle, but very high-end at the same time. I mean, how often are you going to make something like that? But you have to respect the brain that could come up with it!
This book has three sections: My Sweet Dreams — his own creations, with things like Maple Parsnip Cake and Mulled Cider and Rum Risotto — You Can Take the Frenchman Out of France, but... — with French-inspired recipes like Pineapple Rum Baba and Creme Brulee Sandwich (!!) — and Made in the USA — with his own set of nods to his adopted country. This is where things get even more interesting, as he makes Lemon Cheesecake Ice Cream, and his own homage to chocolate chip cookies. He makes oatmeal cookies with bacon, and corn cookies with a "Smidgen of Curry." He makes the World's Flakiest Apple Pie, and a "moussemallow" that ends up in a Fourth of July tart.
I have some peeves with the book, but they are purely editorial. Why oh why do publishers these days dispense with tables of contents? There is no place in this book to skim the recipe titles and contents. Just an index. I really miss the table of contents in a book like this. Also, those who care about photos will be disappointed. There are just line illustrations here, which I found charming and attractive, but not everyone will love them.
Regardless of those quibbles, this book is a gem. Around every corner there are classic French pastry techniques explained in incredibly lucid terms, and then transformed and kicked up to a new level of witty creativity.
These cookies are the perfect example. He wanted to do an homage to the brown, buttery taste of the perfect American chocolate chip cookie. So he has you take an entire box of graham crackers and whiz them in the food processor with cocoa and chocolate. Then you mix in butter, sugar, and eggs, and chill the dough. Then slice and bake with yet more chocolate on top.
The result is a browned and delicious cookie that has a fine grittiness — sounds unappealing, perhaps, but they are infinitely moreish. They are deeply chocolaty, but not so rich they make you sick. They are the brilliant combination of old-school slice-and-bake icebox cookies, American ingredients, and a crazy chef's imagination.
As you can probably tell, I love this book. I don't know how often I'll make each recipe, but I feel like I learn things just by reading each recipe, and his creativity is immensely inspiring. But I do know I'll be making these cookies again; my friends demanded them, and soon!
• Find the book: Sweet Magic: Easy Recipes for Delectable Desserts , by Michel Richard and Peter Kaminsky. Published by Ecco November 2010. $18.15 at Amazon
Extremely Chocolaty Chip Cookies
This cookie is not meant as an improvement but more as an homage to the chocolate chip cookie. I was also inspired by another American delicacy, the graham cracker—so simple yet so crisp and with such depth of flavor. I was struck by what a nice crust it made for cheesecake, so I started to play with it, chopping up hazelnuts and dark chocolate to go along with it. Because the graham cracker is already baked, there is no opportunity for gluten to develop to hold the cookie together, so it is naturally crumbly, even though the eggs, salt, and sugar serve to bind it somewhat. Take care to pack the dough very tightly as described below. The texture of these cookies makes me think of sand—not the grittiness of sand, but the way it is full of fine little grains. Try serving them with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top—or use two spoons to shape the ice cream into oval “quenelles.”
Makes 24 cookies
1 cup hazelnuts
14.4-ounce box graham crackers, crushed (about 4 cups)
8 ounces dark or semisweet chocolate
1/2 cup dark alkalized (Dutch process) cocoa powder
11/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup packed brown sugar, dark
2 large eggs
Note: The cookie dough is rolled into a cylinder shape that can be refrigerated for several days or frozen for several months. Defrost it in the refrigerator before baking.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Place the hazelnuts on a sheet pan and bake them for 15 minutes, shaking them once halfway through. Transfer the nuts to the center of a kitchen towel. Fold the corners of the towel over and let them steam for 1 minute. Holding the towel, vigorously rub the hazelnuts inside to remove the skins. Don’t worry if a little bit of skin stays on. Cool the hazelnuts completely.
Place the hazelnuts and graham crackers in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the chopping blade and pulse to produce a fine powder. Roughly chop 4 ounces of the chocolate and add it to the food processor bowl, along with the cocoa powder. Process all together for 15 to 20 seconds, or until uniformly combined. Using a spatula, mix the butter and brown sugar in a medium bowl. Add the eggs and the contents of the mixer bowl and incorporate well.
Divide the dough into halves. Lightly wet your work surface, cut a length of plastic wrap about 24 inches long, and lay it on the damp counter. Place one of the dough balls in the center of the plastic. Take one edge of the plastic wrap and fold it over the dough. Tuck it under and roll the dough, forming a large sausage shape approximately 3 inches in diameter and 6 inches long in the process. Roll up the entire length of the plastic wrap around the dough two or three times. Next, twist both ends of the plastic very, very tightly. If you loosely pack this dough, it will crumble too easily. Fasten the ends tightly with twine or twist ties. Repeat the above steps with the other piece of dough. Refrigerate at least 4 hours, or until firm.
To bake the cookies, preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Cut the remaining 4 ounces of chocolate into large “chips.” Line two sheet pans with Silpat or parchment. Slice the dough into ½-inch-thick disks. Place 6 cookies on each sheet pan and press 6 to 8 chocolate pieces into the top of each. Bake the cookies for about 20 minutes. They will be very delicate—let them sit on the pan for 5 minutes until they are firm and cool enough to remove with a spatula. Carefully transfer the cookies to wire racks and cool completely. Store in an airtight container at room temperature.
(Images: Faith Durand. Book cover and recipe reprinted with permission of Harper Collins)