Annie on the road: cuckoo for cookie.

Fort Wayne, a city tucked between Amish country and Ohio in northeast Indiana, may not seem like a mouth-watering town, but every place has its treasures. Consider the hot potato wedges tossed in Old Bay seasoning and served with a side of thick tzatziki at Munchies. The best French toast I ever had came from, of all places, a cafeteria in a government building, where they used three fat slices of soft bread and sprinkled the whole beautiful plate with powdered sugar. I can’t count the number of times I ordered Breads & Spreads at Dash In: a plate of hummus, roasted red pepper dip, and herbed cream cheese served with toast points and pita triangles.

Not trashy enough for Midwestern food, you say? Try the stinky hot dogs at Coney Island (no real relation to the New York City beach), which are legendary dogs on squishy buns, topped with ripe diced onions, and doused with a thin cumin-laced beef chilli that soaks into the bread. I can name countless other favorites: the prime rib at Acme Bar, the tangy barbecue sauce glazing succulent ribs at Ziffles, the thin crisp fries dusted with a mysteriously alluring herb (thyme, maybe?) at Henry’s.

So I went back to Indiana to visit friends, I claimed, but in reality I think went back for this iced sugar cookie from The Cookie Cottage. I don’t know what’s in it, and I’m not sure I want to know because it might require the use of powerfully addictive substances currently illegal under multiple state and federal statues. The cookie itself is a perfect combination of crisp and tender. The icing, a thin soft layer spread neatly over the top, has a tangy rich flavor laced, surprisingly, with a slight salty kick. It’s an astonishing combination. I’m glad I left Fort Wayne, because resisting this cookie while trying to lose weight would require a force of willpower that could rip a hole in the fabric of the universe.

sugar cookie

Sesame seed or shiso seed crisps (Charleston Benne Wafers), with variations.

My cousin left her family’s farm in rural South Korea (motto: modern plumbing, schmodern plumbing) more than two decades ago to live with our family in Illinois. My mom likes to tell everybody the story about how my fresh-off-the-boat cousin couldn’t figure out how to open the car door and ended up stuck in our driveway for an hour before my dad finally found the poor woman and let her out. Eventually she moved to New York City, struggled as a manicurist, and married. She and her husband took over a Manhattan deli, turned it into a huge success, had two children, and moved out of Queens to an affluent suburb across the river in New Jersey.

Now my cousin owns a BMW. I’m dying to see her again because I want her to take me for a ride, giving me a chance to ask her if she needs help getting out of the car. Har. I’ll have my chance in a week. This Thursday I leave for a three-week road trip with stops in Indiana, West Virginia, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.

Sesame Seed Crisps from sideIn addition to the precious gift of my brilliant humor, I want to give my cousin something special. What do you buy a woman who can buy your butt then go dancing in Gucci shoes? I thought about this for a long time before I found the answer: homemade food. You make something that she can’t buy, doesn’t know she wants, and will end up loving. Two things Koreans can’t resist are sweets and seeds.

Koreans use sesame seeds in savory dishes all the time, but they also love the rich flavor in candy and store-bought deep-fried treats. Few people make sesame seed sweets at home, and I figured out why after I burned seven of ten fingers attempting to roll a layer of hot-syrup-soaked white sesame seeds on top of a layer of black sesame seeds into a log. Then I dented my favorite knife trying to slice it. Pretty though those spiral candies were, that was the last time I tried that. So I was thrilled to the tips of my healed fingers to find a baked cookie recipe from the American South called Charleston Benne Wafers. Benne is an African word for sesame seeds, which were imported and loved by the slaves. The original recipe yielded overly sweet wafers light on the seeds, so I doubled the seeds and created multiple variations from thin and crunchy to light and airy.

Shiso Seeds[Pictured: Shiso seeds]

Eventually I started experimenting with shiso seeds, seeds of the shiso plant (also known as the beefsteak, perilla, kaenip, or deulkkae plant), whose pungent herbal leaves are used in Asian cuisines. Shiso seeds have a fantastic nutty crunch with an elusive medicinal flavor like the shiso leaf. They go over with Korean tasters even better than the sesame seeds. One of these days I may experiment with black and white poppy seeds just in case I need to feed a group of Hungarians . . . or feel like failing a drug test.

These crisps are a cross between a delicate candy and a crisp cookie. They’re so delicious that even if you aren’t Korean, African, or from Charleston, I think you’ll love them. Adults may prefer the Airy variation’s thick lightness, and kids might prefer the Candy variation’s sweet crunch. My personal favorite? The slightly chewy master recipe made with shiso seeds wins every time. They also store well if kept airtight. I currently have test batches wrapped in two layers of plastic bags on a sunny deck under a black tarp to test how well they will hold up in my hot car during my meandering drive east. So far so good.

Sesame Seed Crisps or Shiso Seed Crisps
Adapted from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook

Ingredients:
· 1/2 cup white sugar
· 1/2 cup light brown sugar
· 3 tablespoons flour
· 1/4 teaspoon salt
· 1 cup untoasted white sesame seeds
     or shiso seeds
· 1 tablespoon butter
· 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
· 1 egg, lightly beaten
· Water

1) Preheat oven to 350F. Put the seeds in a heavy skillet or sauce pan over medium heat, stirring or shaking frequently as you prepare the other ingredients and the pans. Seeds are done when they darken a shade or two and smell nutty, 5 to 10 minutes depending on the heat.

2) In the meantime, spray or grease the sides of one 18×13 half sheet pan (or two smaller jelly roll or other edged pans). Line the bottom of the pan(s) with parchment paper or a fiberglass silicone mat, such as Matfer Exopat or Demarle Silpat. (I used Matfer because it’s cheaper and works just fine.) Apparently you can grease and flour the pan instead, but these stick like gum in girl hair, so hey, good luck with that. If you’re using parchment paper, a spritz of non-stick spray or a little oil under the parchment will help keep it from sliding around.

3) Mix the white sugar, brown sugar, flour, and salt in a medium bowl. Remove seeds from heat and stir in the butter until the butter has melted. Scrape the hot seeds into the bowl with the other ingredients and stir well. Stir in the vanilla and then the lightly beaten egg. If the batter seems too thick to spread thinly, stir in a little water.

4) Spread the batter evenly to the edges of the prepared half sheet pan or as thin as you’d like on the jelly roll pans. Bake until batter has browned around the edges, about 15 minutes on a half sheet pan. (Start checking much earlier if you used jelly roll pans.) Press a thin edge like a bench scraper (or knife or pizza cutter, if you aren’t using a mat, which is easily cut) into the hot crisps to score them, making squares or diamonds, etc. Let cool completely, then pull the crisps apart along the score lines.

Airy variation: For thicker crisps that puff up into a delicate double-layered texture with puffy edges, use 1 cup white sugar, omit the brown sugar, and replace the whole egg with 1 lightly beaten egg white. Bake until edges are lightly browned, about 20 minutes. This version is crisper and can be broken into shards rather than scored, if you’d like.

Black sesame seed variation: Black sesame seeds turn bitter when toasted, so I suggest using at least half toasted white sesame seeds and mixing the untoasted black sesame seeds with the white only after the butter has melted. So, for instance, you could use 1/2 cup white sesame seeds and 1/2 cup black sesame seeds for a mixed look, or 1 cup minus 2 tablespoons of white sesame seeds and 2 tablespoons black sesame seeds for a speckled look, etc.

Candy variation: For thin crunchy crisps that are sweeter and almost brittle-like, keep the sugar ratio as is if you like the taste of brown sugar (I do), or use 1 cup white sugar and omit the brown sugar. Omit the egg either way. Bake until edges are lightly browned, about 20 minutes. This version is crisper and can be broken into shards rather than scored, if you’d like.

[Pictured: Shiso seed Cookie variation]

Shiso Seed Crisps

Cookie variation: For a more attractive but time-consuming result, drop the batter of your choice by heaping teaspoonfuls onto the prepared pan, leaving at least 2 inches between the cookies. I find that I can fit eight cookies on a half sheet pan. If the batter mounds up, don’t worry, they flatten in the heat. Bake until lightly brown around the edges, about 10 minutes. Let the cookies cool a bit before removing them. They will stick to even a fiberglass silicone mat until they’ve solidified somewhat, at which point they will remove cleanly. It takes some practice to get the timing right. Cool completely on a rack. If you’re not using a mat and they’ve stuck, place the pan back in the oven to soften them. You do not have to let the pan cool before starting another batch, but they will bake faster if you do so.

Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker: Grand Marnier orange tart.

I loves my booze. Funny thing, since I don’t drink. I’m one of those unfortunate Asians who lacks the necessary chemistry to break down alcohol. A few bouts of heavy drinking in college gave me crippling back pain, lobster complexion, and no sense of euphoria whatsoever. That’s a drag when you want not only to have an excusable reason to talk to parking meters, but to enjoy it, to learn from it, to be enlightened by it. Drunkenness is half the point of college; I spent those four years distressingly sober.

The pleasure I derive from alcohol now stems purely from its geekiness. Alcohol is so . . . so . . . complicated. Learning wines alone can occupy a lifetime. As a result, I own five cookbooks and reference books on wine alone. My liqueur collection may weigh more than an obese adolescent boy. Generous gifts from family friends to my father over the years means that even a few luxury items grace my cabinet, such as Rémy Martin XO Spécial Cognac and 18-year-old Scotch. What does a girl who doesn’t drink do with this all this alcohol?

Grand Marnier

Eat it. One tablespoon at a time.

Wines, fortified wines, and beers often go into my sauces and stews and feature heavily in my braising and poaching. But my favorite boozy dishes are sweets. A tablespoon of Frangelico mixed with vanilla yogurt and raspberries intoxicates me yet allows me to drive. Cream whipped with Chambord turns my angel food devilish. My favorite dessert combines the sinful creamy pleasures of cheesecake with the bracing orange Grand Marnier (pictured). While I can’t say that desserts like this have helped me lose weight, they definitely help keep me sane trying.

The great thing about this recipe is that you can use all cream cheese for a rich mild result, ricotta for a lighter result, or yogurt cheese for a tangy richness that works perfectly with the citrus flavor. You won’t believe that the yogurt version is actually light . . . er. And something about wide flat tart slices promises to fill you up in a way that tall slender cheesecake slices fail to do. Also, unlike cheesecake, the shallow depth of this tart means no cracking problems. That’s a big bonus if you, unlike me, bake drunk.

GRAND MARNIER ORANGE TART RECIPE

Adapted from the wonderful Fine Cooking magazine.

Crust:

· 1 cup finely ground crisp dry vanilla cookies, like Nilla Wafers (35 cookies)
· 2 tablespoons sugar
· 3 tablespoons butter, melted

1) Preheat oven to 350F.

2) Spritz the bottom of a 9 1/2-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom with cooking spray or lightly grease, then line the bottom with parchment paper. This step is optional but helps you remove the tart in one piece later.

3) Mix the crumbs, sugar, and melted butter. Press firmly into the bottom and sides of the tart pan. I like to use a metal measuring cup to flatten the crumbs and press them against the sides.

4) Bake until lightly browned and fragrant, 8 to 10 minutes. Cool completely.

Filling:

· 1 1/2 cups yogurt cheese, at room temperature (see directions below)
     OR 1 1/2 cups ricotta, at room temperature
     OR 1 1/2 cups cream or Neufchâtel cheese, at room temperature
     OR any combination of the above cheeses, at room temperature
· 4 ounces (1/2 box) cream or Neufchâtel cheese, at room temperature
· 3/4 cup sugar
· 1 tbsp cornstarch
· 1/4 teaspoon salt
· 1 large egg
· 1 tablespoon finely grated orange zest
· 1 tablespoon Grand Marnier

1) Preheat oven to 350F.

2) Beat cheeses in a bowl for several minutes until smooth. Add sugar, cornstarch, and salt and continue beating until well blended. Mix in egg, zest, and liqueur. Scrape the filling into the crust and spread the filling evenly.

3) Bake on the middle rack until the filling just barely jiggles when the pan is nudged, 30-35 minutes. Be careful not to overbake, but don’t worry too much if you slightly underbake, you’ll just get a more creamy result.

4) Let cool completely on a rack. Refrigerate the tart in the pan until firm. Remove tart from pan, slide a knife between the parchment and the pan bottom, and remove the tart to a serving plate. Slice and serve.

Yogurt cheese: To make yogurt cheese (if you don’t have a nifty yogurt cheese maker), line a colander or sieve with several layers of cheesecloth and pour in 3 cups of plain yogurt. Place the colander over a bowl in the fridge. Twelve to 24 hours later you should have 1 1/2 cups of yogurt cheese. This may not work if your yogurt has been heavily fortified with gelatin, although in my experience, moderate amounts of pectin don’t seem to cause problems. Try to either make your own yogurt or buy a yogurt that is gelatin and pectin free.

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bullet Food whores d’Ĺ“uvre recs
How to make yogurt, from the great Indian food blog Mahanandi.
Another way to make yogurt from the charming 101 cookbooks.
bullet Tip du jour
Yogurt or yogurt cheese make outstanding partial or sometimes even full replacements for sour cream or cream cheese in any recipe where the tanginess will not detract from the flavor. Strongly flavored dips and tart citrus desserts take especially well to yogurt cheese substitution.