Birch and Barley

Birch and Barley
1337 14th St. NW
Washington, DC 20005

My birthday weekends usually turn into food weekends, and this past birthday weekend was no exception. Only hours after my parents’ plane landed in DC, I drug them down Wisconsin from their hotel to Sushi Ko. Friday night brought a stressful cab ride and an amazing meal at Rasika, where I drowned my transportation nerves in champagne cocktails spiked with candied ginger, fried spinach, and tandoori lamb so tender and flavorful that even my lamb-shy dad raved about it. Saturday was the highlight of the weekend and a meal that had been planned since October: Table 21 at VOLT.

All of these were wonderful, and I waved goodbye to my parents with a full stomach and a larger ass.

It was a great birthday weekend, but none of these meals were on my birthday.

This year, my birthday fell on that purgatory of all days, Sunday, and my parents were on a plane back to Little Rock that morning. Nevertheless, I still wanted to go out and do something for my birthday. What’s a girl who likes to eat to do? Why not … eat some more?

So I rounded up a small group of friends and decided to head to Birch and Barley. Chirchkey had fully impressed me with their beer list during my first and only visit, and the things I had heard about their food were mouth watering.

My friends and I were sat at a long rustic table lined with clear plastic modern chairs by a 10-foot window that covered nearly the entire front of the restaurant. The lighting was low, with a low buzz of conversation filtering through the large room and hovering around the bar.

Birch and Barley’s menu is broken down into 4 catagories: starters, flatbreads and pasta, mains, and sides. The options are small in number, but that didn’t mean I had an easy time choosing what to get. Per recommendation from our waiter, I started with the crispy fried duck egg, accompanied by pork belly, frisee, and quince. I ordered the dish based on the pork belly alone, which was succulent and brined in cider, but the egg was really the star, fried whole with a silky texture.

Lucky for me, I have other friends who love to eat, and one of them ordered the veal sausage flatbread topped with mushrooms, pecorino and parsley for the table. Also lucky for me, one side of the table decided not to try the pizza, which just left more for me. This could easily be a meal, and was really, really good, with a chewy crust and flavorful, fresh ingredients.

Unlucky for me was my main dish choice, the braised pork cheeks with white grits, parsnip, and pearl onions. Usually pork cheeks are deeply flavorful, but these were just bland and watery. The grits likewise lacked flavor, and the whole dish needed a good hit of salt and pepper. Again unlucky, none was to be found on our table.

My friends, however, favored better with their dishes. The hand rolled gnocchi with braised lamb neck was rich and flavorful, although I would not recommend it unless you really like lamb. Both of my friends who ordered the pasta also ordered the maple-glazed brussel sprouts, easily some of the best I have tasted, and they said that mixing the sprouts in with the lamb helped to cut the strong flavor and richness of the pasta. Another friend ordered the brat burger, something I must come back and order all for myself, and others tried the venison (did not get a chance to try) and the duck breast. Everyone else raved about their meals, I think I just ordered the wrong thing. Nevertheless, I would happily go back to try everything else.

Dessert was a real treat and both of our dishes were very imaginative, and very good. My dessert, the french toast, was brought out with a birthday candle and was free of charge.

Birch and Barley was one of the best birthday meals I have had in a long time, even given the weak pork cheeks I ordered. Good friends, good beer, and good food that we all shared, it was like a family meal around the family table.

Cookies Day 13: Orange-Almond Lace Cookies

Today was another easy cookie recipe, akin to the brownie thins I made yesterday. Remember how I said the brownie thins were like lace cookies? Well, today I made lace cookies. I guess they’re similar in the fact that they are both easy to make, expand A LOT when baked, utilize mostly butter, require dropping onto a baking sheet, and are very, very thin, but lace cookies have the brownie thins beat in their delicateness … and butteriness. When I took the cookies off of the baking sheet, Jay was like, “wow, you put a lot of oil on that sheet,” after which I informed him that what looked like oil was all residue from the cookies themselves.

Even despite all this butter, these lace cookies are so thin that I am shocked they do not crumble in my fingers when I pick them up. They’re surprisingly sturdy and pack a satisfying crunch around the edges, with a nice chewiness in the center. As for the flavor, the orange zest adds a nice citrus acidity that tempers the luscious heaviness of the butter.

These took just about as much time to make as the brownie thins, even though no microwave was involved. Spooning out the batter onto baking sheets can be a bit messy, so I suggest using a spatula to catch the drops.

I suppose these would make good gifts, packed snuggly in a decorative tin, but it’s hard not to crave the buttery crunch of these cookies all for yourself.

Orange-Almond Lace Cookies
(original recipe Bon Appetit December 1999)

Ingredients
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups finely chopped almonds
3/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon all purpose flour
2 teaspoons grated orange peel
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg, beaten to blend

Preparation
Preheat oven to 325°F. Line large baking sheet with parchment paper. Stir 3/4 cup butter in heavy medium saucepan over medium-low heat until melted. Remove from heat. Stir in nuts, sugar, flour, orange peel and salt; then stir in egg. Drop some batter by generous tablespoonfuls onto prepared baking sheet, spacing 3 inches apart (cookies will spread).

Bake cookies until lacy and golden brown, about 15 minutes. Gently slide parchment paper with cookies onto rack; cool completely. Transfer cookies to paper towels. Repeat with remaining batter, lining cooled baking sheet with clean parchment for each batch. (Can be made ahead. Store between sheets of waxed paper in airtight container at room temperature up to 1 week or freeze up to 1 month.)

Cookies Day 12: Brownie Thins

I’m very, very happy to report that these cookies weren’t just good, not just great. They were glorious.

Do you like brownies? Do you like the edges of brownies? Do you like the crusty stuff that sticks to the pan when you remove the brownies?

If so, this recipe is for you.

Do you like one-bowl baking? Do you like easy baking? Do you like using your microwave when baking?

If so, this recipe is for you.

Do you like making desserts quickly, under 30 minutes? Do you like recipes you can throw together at the last minute? Do you like baking gifts for your friends, but not wasting your entire day?

If so, this recipe is for you.

I even royally screwed up this recipe by reading “1 cup sugar” instead of the actual “1/2 cup sugar” and adding a whole extra half cup to the recipe, and it still turned out great. This must be one of those recipes that you can’t screw up unless you really try, one of those non-bakers baking recipes. Furthermore, you do all of your butter- and chocolate-melting and mixing in one bowl, mixing only briefly.

The cookies are almost like lace cookies in chocolate form, chewy in the middle yet firm and crispy around the edges. The pisachios add a nice little crunch and difference of texture, while the unsweetened chocolate keep the cookies from becoming too sweet, even if you were to add extra sugar.

Brownie Thins
(original recipe Bon Appetit December 2007)

Ingredients
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup sugar
1 large egg
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
Pinch of coarse kosher salt
Nonstick vegetable oil spray
1/4 cup chopped pistachios

Preparation
Position rack in lowest third of oven; preheat to 350°F. Butter 2 baking sheets. Place butter and chocolate in medium microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on medium-high power until almost completely melted, about 1 minute. Whisk until smooth. Add sugar and egg; whisk until smooth, about 1 minute. Add flour, both extracts, and salt; stir just to blend. Let batter stand 10 minutes.

Scoop rounded teaspoonfuls batter onto prepared baking sheets, spacing apart (12 per sheet). Spray sheet of plastic wrap lightly with nonstick spray. Place, sprayed side down, over cookies. Using fingers, press each mound into 2 1/2- to 2 3/4-inch round. Remove plastic wrap. Sprinkle pistachios over rounds. Bake cookies, 1 sheet at a time, until slightly darker at edges and firm in center, about 7 minutes. Cool on sheet 2 minutes. Transfer cookies to rack; cool completely. DO AHEAD: Can be made 5 days ahead. Store airtight at room temperature.

Cookies Day 11: Chocolate Mint Cookies

And now for something completely different: a recipe I knew would work.

Discouraged by my utter inability to produce a decent fig swirl, today I chose I recipe that was tried and true, tested with a positive outcome. I also wanted something simple to make without requiring a lot of extra steps. And, most importantly, I wanted something that I knew would taste good. If you like thin mints, and I do, this recipe is for you. Plus, you get to drizzle melted chocolate all over everything, most likely making a mess in the meantime, and who doesn’t like to get messy?

Because these cookies are topped with melted chocolate they must be stored in the refrigerator, but then again I thought thin mins were at their best when they were nice and cold.

When I made this recipe I only had peppermint “flavor” rather than extract, which I think is a little weaker than extract. When I tasted a cookie by itself, sans drizzled chocolate, it didn’t really have the peppermint kick I was looking for. In order to boost the peppermint flavor I added 1/4 of a teaspoon of the flavoring to the chocolate once it was melted.

Chocolate Mint Cookies
(original recipe Bon Appetit January 2002)

Ingredients
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (preferably Dutch-process)
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 teaspoon peppermint extract
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup sugar
1 large egg

6 ounces bittersweet (not unsweetened) or semisweet chocolate, chopped

Preparation
Whisk flour, cocoa powder, and salt in medium bowl to blend. Using electric mixer, beat butter in large bowl until smooth. Beat in peppermint extract and vanilla extract. Beat in sugar in 3 additions. Add egg and beat until blended. Add dry ingredients and beat just until blended (dough will be sticky).

Divide dough between 2 sheets of plastic wrap. Using plastic wrap as aid, form dough on each into 2-inch-diameter log. Wrap with plastic and refrigerate dough until well chilled, at least 2 hours. (Dough can be prepared 1 day ahead. Keep refrigerated.)

Position 1 rack in center and 1 rack in top third of oven; preheat to 350°F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Unwrap cookie dough logs; roll briefly on work surface to form smooth round logs. Cut logs crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick rounds. Place rounds on prepared baking sheets, spacing 1 inch apart. Bake cookies until tops and edges are dry to touch, about 15 minutes. Transfer baking sheets with cookies to racks; cool completely. Stir chocolate in top of double boiler set over simmering water until melted and smooth. Remove from over water. Cool melted chocolate until slightly thickened but still pourable, about 10 minutes. Dip fork into melted chocolate, then wave fork back and forth over cookies, drizzling melted chocolate thickly over cookies in zigzag pattern. Refrigerate cookies on baking sheets until chocolate is set, about 10 minutes. (Cookies can be made 1 week ahead. Refrigerate in airtight container between sheets of parchment paper or waxed paper.)

Cookies Day 10: Fig Swirls

I’m almost embarassed to post on these cookies. I should have known better than to try a recipe that involved jelly rolling. Usually I consider myself a pretty decent baker, nothing close to professionally trained but at least decent enough to do well on any recipe. When it comes to jelly rolls, however, my abilities completely fail me. A few Christmases ago I made a yule log, and I went through countless batches of cake dough before I finally got a roll that didn’t crack completely when I tried to form it.

Frustration follows me whenever I attempt this kind of recipe. In this case, I hit more than one snag. I could not roll out my dough evenly, and when I had finished rolling it out the edges were too thin. One of my logs started cracking when I began to roll it up, leaving me with sandwich-like cookies rather than jelly rolls. I also overcooked the first batch, which happened to contain the prettier of the cookies. Attempting to remove the cookies from the baking sheets generally resulting in some of the fig filling getting stuck or the cookies themselves cracking, and when I put the cookies on a rack to cool as instructed even more of the filling fell out or stuck to the rack.

Damn those gorgeous photos that come with the posted or printed recipes, they always make me feel inferior in my baking skills. I guess they aren’t all bad, just not one of my proudest moments. They aren’t very sweet either, more akin to fig newtons or breakfast-type cookies rather than the intensely-sacharine iced or powdered-sugar covered cookies you see this time of year, and are a nice change from the types of above-mentioned cookies I have been making. Once again, I am very thankful to have a loving husband who both eats and enjoys all of the cookies I have been cranking out of out kitchen recently, both successes and failures alike. I’ll just chalk this one up to a learning experience.

Fig Swirls
(original recipe Gourmet December 2005)

Ingredients
For pastry dough
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened
4 oz cream cheese at room temperature
1 large egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla

For filling
1 cup packed soft dried Mission figs (8 oz), hard tips discarded
3/4 cup mild honey
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
2 teaspoons grated fresh orange zest
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Preparation
Make pastry dough:
Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a bowl.

Pulse butter, cream cheese, yolk, and vanilla in a food processor until smooth, then add flour mixture and pulse until dough just forms a ball.

Halve dough and form each half into a roughly 6- by 2-inch rectangle. Chill, wrapped in plastic wrap, until firm, about 1 1/2 hours.

Make filling:
Purée figs, honey, juice, zest, and cinnamon in cleaned food processor until almost smooth.

Make logs:
Roll out 1 piece of dough between 2 sheets of wax paper into a 10- by 8-inch rectangle (about 1/3 inch thick), long side facing you. Remove top sheet of wax paper and gently spread one fourth of fig mixture over bottom half of dough, leaving a 1/4-inch border. Using wax paper as an aid, roll dough, jelly-roll style, halfway, enclosing fig mixture. Flip dough, with wax paper. Remove paper. Spread with one third of remaining fig mixture and roll in same manner, to form an S-shaped log. Make another log. Chill logs, wrapped in wax paper, until firm, at least 4 hours.

Bake cookies:
Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 375°F.

Cut logs crosswise into 1/3-inch-thick slices and arrange slices about 2 inches apart on lightly buttered baking sheets. Bake until pastry is pale golden, 12 to 15 minutes. Transfer to racks to cool.

Cookies Day 9: Vanilla Crescents

So I missed a few cookie days because I was out of town, but I wanted to be sure to jump right back into baking when I got back. I had all these grand plans of baking 2 or 3 recipes on both Saturday and Sunday in an effort to catch up, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. Even so, it feels nice to be back in the kitchen.

For my first cookie since my absence, I chose a pretty easy recipe that is made even better by the fact that it only has 5 ingredients. Even though these cookies are simple, their flakiness and lightness makes them a great little treat. It’s also fun to shape them into their little crescent shapes.

Vanilla Crescents
(original recipe Cindy Mushet, Food & Wine)

Ingredients
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar, plus more for dusting
1 1/2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt

Preparation
Preheat the oven to 350° and position one rack in the upper third and one in the lower third. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper.

In the bowl of a standing electric mixer fitted with the paddle, beat the butter with 1/2 cup of the confectioners’ sugar until pale white, about 5 minutes. Beat in the vanilla. Add the flour and salt and beat at low speed just until combined.

On a lightly floured surface, roll level tablespoons of the dough into 3-inch ropes. Taper the ends slightly and form the ropes into crescents. Carefully transfer the crescents to the baking sheets, about 1/2 inch apart.

Bake the crescents for 22 to 24 minutes, until the bottoms are golden and the tops are pale blond; shift the baking sheets from top to bottom and front to back halfway through for even baking. Transfer the baking sheets to racks and let the cookies cool for 10 minutes.

Fill a small bowl with confectioners’ sugar. While the cookies are still warm, coat them in the sugar and transfer to a clean sheet of parchment paper to cool slightly. Roll the cooled cookies in the sugar again and let cool completely.

Cookies Day 8: Triple-Ginger Cookies

All this baking has really taught me a lot about my oven. I mean, I already knew it was shit, but I didn’t realize just how shitty it was until I baked this recipe. I’m not saying that this recipe was a failure. In fact, this was one of my best. I only just really realized how unevenly my oven cooks …. say, burning cookies on the bottom while perfectly baking cookies on the top. It was much sadness to pull out yet another burned batch of cookies, watching them harden into little ginger hockey pucks because an evil demon lives in my oven for the sole purpose of making my life miserable. Well, not completely miserable. Anyway, some of the cookies did not fare as well as the others, and luckily I have a sweet husband who volunteered to eat the rejects for me.

The cookies that did fare well, however, are amazing. If you don’t like ginger, or if you think it’s just ok but you can get tired of it, I wouldn’t make these cookies. I heart ginger so much though, and these have the same burning bite of fresh ginger tempered by the sweetness of crystalized ginger and a light dusting of sugar. These are also pretty similar to the molasses cookies I cooked for the first cookie day but better because (for the most part) they retain a nice chewiness in the center. Although the recipe might require you to go out for fresh or crystalized ginger, it’s pretty easy to make and requires some of the least effort, aside from the regular cookie-making steps. And the smell while they’re baking is wildly intoxicating, leading me to nearly burn my tongue on a hot cookie straight off the baking sheet.

What could make these even better? According to Bon Appetit, they are low in calories, with only 97 calories a cookie! This makes me a little nervous about all the other cookies I’ve been woofing down all week. Sometimes, however, sacrifices must be made.

Triple-Ginger Cookies
(original recipe Bon Appetit December 2009)

Ingredients
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/3 cup minced crystallized ginger
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
1/2 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
1 large egg, room temperature
1/4 cup light (mild-flavored) molasses
1 1/2 teaspoons finely grated fresh peeled ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/3 cup (about) sugar

Preparation
Position 1 rack in top third and 1 rack in bottom third of oven; preheat to 350°F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Whisk flour, crystallized ginger, baking soda, and 1/4 teaspoon salt in medium bowl. Using electric mixer, beat butter in large bowl until creamy and light, about 2 minutes. Gradually beat in both brown sugars. Beat on medium-high speed until creamy, about 3 minutes. Add egg, molasses, fresh ginger, ground ginger, cinnamon, and cloves. Beat to blend. Add flour mixture in 2 additions, beating on low speed just to blend between additions.

Place 1/3 cup sugar in small bowl. Measure 1 tablespoon dough. Roll into ball between palms of hands, then roll in sugar in bowl to coat; place on baking sheet. Repeat with remaining cookie dough, spacing cookies 1 1/2 to 2 inches apart.

Bake cookies until surfaces crack and cookies are firm around edges but still slightly soft in center, about 15 minutes. Cool completely on sheets on rack. DO AHEAD: Cookies can be made up to 4 days ahead. Store in airtight containers at room temperature.


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