By Rick Nelson
Pastry chef Zoe Francois, in a 2000 Strib archive photo.
You may know Minneapolis pastry chef Zoe Francois from the classes she teaches at Cooks of Crocus Hill and the Chef’s Gallery, or you may remember her exceptional work at the Local and Backstage @ Bravo, or you may recognize her from her don’t-miss blog, zoebakes.com, which, by the way, includes some awesome holiday cookie recipes.
Or, if you’re a bread baker, you probably know her name from her 2007 best-selling cookbook, “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day” (Thomas Dunne Books, $27.95), which she co-wrote with Jeff Hertzberg. If you’re looking for a holiday gift for the baker on your list, this is the title for you, and if you don’t have it in your kitchen library, then run out and pick up a copy for yourself. Right now. It will change the way you think about baking bread – fantastic, bakery-quality bread – at home. Here are her takes on . . .
Christmas baking: “When I was growing up I looked forward to Christmas morning at my Granny’s house. It seemed like magic how I’d go to bed at night and wake up with a stocking stuffed with goodies at the foot of my bed. Later I learned that this was her way of keeping us kids in bed for an extra hour. Smart lady! My Granny had rituals that she never strayed from and one of them was making Christmas cookies. I remember tins of them all over the house. On every table, in every room there would be a different kind of wonderful sweet. I would search all over for my favorite, the maple shortbread cookies that had a sticky caramel coconut topping and a rich buttery bottom. It always seemed to me there were less of these lying around than the others. It turns out they were my father’s favorite as well and he beat me to the tins. It never occurred to me, as a child, the immense amount of effort my Granny went through to produce a dozen different Christmas cookies every year. All these years later, now that I make holiday cookies for my own family, I know it was a bit of magic and a whole lot of love that she used to create them, not to mention her precious time. This year she sent me several of those recipes, some of them on the original yellowed index cards from my great grandmother and great aunts. This year I intend to make every single one of them for my boys. It may take a while, not only because there are so many, but the instructions on some of the cards were minimal, proving it really was magic!
Sifting flour: “I hate to do [it] and will avoid it at great lengths. My Granny’s recipe calls for 1 1/4 cups sifted flour, which means you have to sift the flour over the measuring cup and once it is full sweep a knife over to level it off. This takes way too much time and is quite messy. I decided to weigh the flour and see if there was an easier way to get the same amount. It turns out that if I whisked the flour in my bin to aerate it, spooned it gently into my measuring cups and sweep a knife over it, I got exactly the same amount as I did when I sifted it. I was very pleased and intend to do this with most everything, except the most fragile cakes.”
A more recent photo of Zoe, in the familiar kitchen at Cooks of Crocus Hill in Edina.
MAPLE BROWN BUTTER SHORTBREAD COOKIES
Makes about 3 dozen.
Note: From Zoe Francois.
1/2 c. (1 stick) salted butter
1/4 c. sugar
1 1/4 c. sifted flour (see comment above)
2/3 c. maple syrup
1/4 tsp. salt
1 1/3 c. flaked coconut
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 tbsp. dried cranberries or cherries, very finely chopped (optional)
2 tbsp. candied fruit, very finely chopped (optional)
To prepare brown butter shortbread: Prepare a 9″ square baking dish with parchment paper (or use a rectangular tart pan with a false bottom). In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt butter until it boils and turns a light golden color, about 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat and drain butter into a medium bowl. Add sugar and flour to butter and mix with a spoon until well incorporated (dough will be quite loose). Cover and refrigerate dough for about 10 minutes; if dough gets too cold, just let it sit out until it is soft and pliable again.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Put dough into prepared pan and distribute it evenly (cover dough in plastic wrap so you can easily spread with your fingers without the dough sticking to you). Bake on a cookie sheet for 20 minutes, or until dough is a nice golden brown. Remove and allow crust to cool on a rack while you make the maple-coconut filling.
To prepare maple-coconut filling: In a saucepan over medium heat, combine maple syrup, salt, coconut and vanilla extract and cook until mixture comes to a boil. Continue to cook for about a minute and add dried and candied fruits (optional). Pour maple-coconut mixture over cooled crust. Bake at 375° for about 15 to 20 minutes, until the coconut turns golden brown. Remove from oven to a wire rack to cool completely (If you are using the 9″ pan with parchment, you will need to cut around the edges with a knife to loosen cookies from pan). Invert cookies onto a cutting board (and peel off parchment paper, if using). Cut into rectangular bars, or little squares if you want them to last a few extra minutes.