Sunday, April 14, 2013

Baker Karen Barker prefers savory crunch over sugary sweets for dessert

Karen and Ben Barker will be the guest speakers for Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina (CHOP NC) from 7:30-8:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 17, at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. A meet and greet will precede the reading from 6:45-7:15 p.m. next door at Foster’s Market.

Karen Barker's Olive Oil Biscotti with Orange and Rosemary
There are many home bakers and professional chefs who aspire to be as creative Karen Barker. But now and then, the James Beard Award-winning pastry chef – who used to dazzle customers at the much-missed Magnolia Grill – finds herself in the position of a fan who just has to know how a certain treat was made.

“There is a great coffee place in the East Village of New York City that Ben and I really like called Abraco,” Barker says from the kitchen of the couple’s Chapel Hill home. “They make a sweet-savory black olive biscotti that is just delicious.”

Barker has made her share of biscotti; the twice-baked cookie can be made from a wide variety of ingredients (different flours and fats, with or without eggs) and endless flavor profiles. But there was something about this one that was especially memorable.  

Karen and Ben Barker prepare for dinner with friends.
“I’m not a big sugar person, so sweets don’t often excite me,” Barker says as she gathered ingredients on the heavy butcher block counter. “Once in Provence I saw someone make a dessert with black olive and tomatoes and herbs. But this was the first time I’d ever tasted a biscotti anything like that. I loved it.”

Barker was making a batch to bring to a meeting the next day of their dinner party club. Ben was prepping an appetizer of brined lamb tongue to be simmered with shallot in a red wine sauce. Karen was making the biscotti to provide a crunchy counterpoint to the final course, a dairy-free chocolate mousse served with a red Italian dessert wine.

“A savory cookie is not for everyone,” she concedes while giving the fragrant, purplish olives a quick mince and grinding a generous amount of black pepper into her mixer’s work bowl. “But dunk this into some wine, or scoop up some chocolate mousse … it’s just perfect.”

Barker says the recipe could be easily tweaked to substitute other ingredients: use lemon zest instead of orange, leave out the olives and add walnuts. “I wouldn’t try green olive, though,” she says, wrinkling her nose. “I just don’t think that would work.” 

Barker leaves the end slices on the counter after she returns the cookies to the oven for their final toasting. “Baker’s privilege,” she says, nibbling a slice deemed not pretty enough to serve. She closes her eyes for a moment to let the flavors fill her mouth.

“I have to say, I find these pretty addictive,” she sighs. “I have a hard time just having one of them."

Karen Barker’s Olive Oil Biscotti with Rosemary and Orange

Makes 1 loaf (about 18-22 slices)

2/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 eggs
1½ cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup semolina or yellow corn meal
2 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
1 tsbp. minced rosemary
zest of 1 orange
1/4 cup fine chopped black olives (such as kalamata)
a few grinds of black pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine first three ingredients in the work bowl of mixer; combine well with paddle attachment. Add remaining ingredients, mix again. Ensure that all ingredients are thoroughly blended but avoid overworking the dough, which will be sticky.

Transfer dough with floured hands to a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Lightly press into the shape of a 12x3-inch log, adding pinches of flour if needed. Chill for at least 40 minutes but preferably for several hours.
Bake for 30 minutes or until loaf is lightly browned. Remove from oven. When cool enough to handle, use a serrated knife and cut half-inch slices on the diagonal; should yield about 18-22 pieces. Arrange flat on the baking pan - it's OK if they are crowded - and return to oven until just lightly golden around the edges, about 5-6 minutes. Turn slices over and toast again, about 3-4 minutes, until just golden on the edges.

Cool biscotti completely. Wrap in parchment paper or keep in airtight container.

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