How to do chili

Not pretty, but it warms you right up. (jay)

Not pretty, but it’ll warm you right up. (jby)

We’re well into the time of year when, in Minneapolis, the air outdoors will freeze your nose hairs on the first breath, and snow has lost its charm. Here in Vancouver, the only substantial snow is on the mountains across the water, but there’s ice on the trails in Stanley Park, and the trees are lacy with frozen fog. In either city, it’s the time of year for soup: elaborately spiced pho, classic chicken-noodle, and chili.

I don’t so much have a recipe for chili as I have some rules of thumb. My preferred ratios of ingredients, and some of my spicing, are informed by the recipe in Mark Bittman’s magisterial How to Cook Everything, but really that one confirmed a lot of what I’d already arrived at through trial and error. This probably won’t win you a state-fair cook-off, but it’ll make a big pot of hot, hearty, fragrantly spiced chili of the sort that goes perfectly with some cornbread or over rice on a cold winter night.

Here’s what you do:

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Holiday baking

Grandma’s date pudding. Photo by jby.

I could frankly do without a lot of holiday-time rituals, but I’m perfectly happy to have the excuse for baking. This year I made cranberry orange bread for the folks in my lab, following a great recipe in Mark Bittman’s magisterial How to Cook Everything. I’ve also taken a crack at Ma Savage’s Christmas Snowballs for one party, and for the departmental party, I dug up a family tradition: Grandma Bender’s date pudding.

My mom’s mom has a pretty serious sweet tooth, and so I learned to love this recipe—cubes of rich, sweet, date cake layered in sweetened whipped cream—as part of the main course for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. Nowadays, I cut the sugar from the whipped cream, and it still goes over quite well as a dessert. It’s also possible to substitute in whole wheat or spelt flour, which only makes the cake denser and richer. Recipe follows:

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Heat one cup of water to boiling, and soak one cup of chopped dried dates in the hot water for 20 minutes. Cream together one tablespoon of butter and one cup of sugar, and then blend in one egg, one cup of flour, one cup of chopped pecans (or other nuts), half a teaspoon of salt, one teaspoon of baking soda, and one teaspoon of vanilla extract. Finally, fold in the soaked dates and any liquid remaining with them; blend it all well. Spread this batter in a greased 9 inch by 13 inch cake pan and bake it for 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean.

When the cake is done, let it cool to room temperature, or stick it in the fridge or freezer if you’ve baked it in advance, which is often convenient. When you’re ready to assemble the pudding, whip two cups of heavy cream together with a teaspoon or two of vanilla extract until it’s stiff, then cut the cake into one-inch cubes and layer cubes of cake with the whipped cream in a midsize serving bowl. ◼

The best chocolate chip cookies I know how to make

Cookies! Photo by jby.

It’s been ages since I posted a recipe, but I’m still doing lots of cooking. So, here’s another staple in my personal recipe book: chocolate chip cookies. I found the recipe on, but I’ve incorporated a couple of stylistic quirks from the New York Times food section.

First, I refrigerate the dough at least overnight, or up to 48 hours, before baking. This lets the liquid (mainly eggs) integrate with the flour, for better texture. It also breaks up the work so it doesn’t take a whole afternoon at once.

Second, I make them big. I form balls of dough a little less than the size of a golf ball, so the entire recipe makes exactly 24 cookies, at a rate of six to a cookie sheet-ful. Big cookies end up with a range of texture from a crisper edge to a chewy center, which you can’t get if you make them too small. And I can tell you from personal experience that big cookies make a serious impression when you bring them to a lab meeting, or (as I did with these) your dissertation defense.

Follow the jump for the recipe!

  • 2/3 cup shortening
  • 2/3 cup unsalted butter
  • 1 cup white, granulated sugar
  • 1 cup brown sugar, tamped down
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup chopped pecans (optional)
  • 2 cups chocolate chips (emphatically not optional)

Blend together the shortening, butter, white and brown sugar, eggs, and vanilla. (Go ahead and soften up the butter and shortening in the microwave, if you’re blending by hand.) Sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt; mix this into the wet ingredients until they’re well blended. Finally, mix in the nuts and chocolate chips—I find this is most easily done by hand. Cover the dough and stick it in the refrigerator at least overnight, or up to 48 hours.

When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375ºF. Pull the dough out of the refrigerator. Line a cookie sheet with baking parchment, which makes cookie removal and cleanup much easier. Form the dough into not-quite-golf-ball-sized spheroids, and place about six on a single cookie sheet. Bake for about 14 minutes, or until the very edges of the cookies turn brown and dry.

I’ve come to feel strongly that you need nuts in your chocolate chip cookies, for crunchy contrast with the melted chocolate chips and chewy dough. Pecans are my preference, but go ahead and substitute walnuts if you must, or use no nuts at all. You Philistine.

You could also make the recipe vegan, just by substituting more shortening (and a little water) for the butter, and using vegan chocolate chips—but I haven’t tried this, so I can’t vouch for it. I do know that spelt flour works perfectly well with the recipe, in case you want to reduce gluten.

Finally, I like to use Ghiradelli’s 60% cacao chocolate chips, which are a bit flatter than typical chocolate chips, and nicely bittersweet. They’re pricey, but these cookies are an indulgence anyway. This kind of baking is absolutely part of a balanced, healthy diet, especially if you bake them to share. ◼