Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Homemade Caramels

It's back!  It's back!  My desire to bake and blog is back!!  I should modify that slightly.  Technically, I still have no desire to "bake" anything -- no oven, no stand mixer -- and I don't know why (*whimper*).  I do know, however, that I want to learn how to make every single kind of candy that exists.  Not sure where this overwhelming need came from, but I'll take it... and so will you.  :)

It's not like I've ever had any success with candy.  My one previous attempt went terribly wrong when I broke the cardinal (sidenote:  Go Cardinals!) rule of candy making -- never make candy on a rainy or humid day.  Maybe the recent shift to cool, dry weather set off my internal baking barometer.  Also, when's the last time you had homemade hard candy or homemade nouget or homemade gum drops?  I was intrigued.

Also, my inner geek loves the precision and science of candy-making.  A good candy thermometer is a must because a few degrees can make a huge difference. Plus, it has it's own language -- firm ball, soft ball, hard crack, thread, and so on -- to describe the stages of cooking sugar.  These terms aren't used as much now that candy thermometers are reliable and inexpensive, but it's sort of fun to know that you can make taffy at the soft crack stage and toffee at the hard crack stage. 

I thought I'd start with a classic candy:  Caramel.  Not the ooey-gooey liquid kind you drizzle over ice cream, but the chewy, semi-solid pieces of candy that are individually wrapped like little presents.  While I was handing out my caramels to anyone who would try one, it was funny to hear how people thought caramel was made.  One person said that it had gelatin in it to make it chewy and another person thought it was just melted brown sugar.  

Turns out that caramel has five very basic ingredients:  heavy cream, butter, sugar, corn syrup and water. You start things off by boiling the cream and butter in pot #1 and setting it aside to slightly cool.

Then the fun starts in pot #2.  This is where the magic happens.  First, you set up the candy thermometer against the side of the pot, making sure that the tip is submerged, but not touching the bottom.  On medium-high heat, boil the sugar, syrup, and water and stir until the sugar is dissolved..  Once the sugar is dissolved, you stop stirring, but occasionally jiggle the pot to jostle the liquid around.

As the temperature goes up, the color of the sugar darkens.  Later, you will need to carefully watch for the caramel to reach a perfect 248 degrees (firm ball stage), but for now, it's okay if the sugar/syrup/water goes above that -- I let mine get up to 300. 

Once it's a nice golden color (or just stop at 300ish), grab Pot #1 and very carefully pour the cream/butter into Pot #2.  IT. WILL. GO. CRAZY.  And that's fine -- just start stirring and mixing it all together. That's why you need to make sure you're using a big enough pot. It also needs to be a heavy-bottomed pot so that it doesn't heat up too fast. Once the scalding liquid calms down, you'll probably see a flood stage line like this:

Aww, reminds me of the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1993.  Memories.
Now you need to start watching the thermometer like the paparazzi on the Pitt-Jolies. The temperature was hovering around 300 before you added the cream/butter, but that addition will drop it below 240.  You're going sit, watch, and occasionally stir until the candy thermometer reads exactly 248 degrees. Not 247 and not 249... 248 exactly.  I actually took mine off the heat at approximately 247 and 3/4.  I figured it might keep cooking just a smidge during the transfer to the pan. 

This can take anywhere from 10 to 40 minutes depending on the stove, the pan, and the flame. So watch it!

Almost there...
As soon as it was ready, I poured the boiling caramel into the prepared pan.  But of course, my first attempt at caramel wasn't going to go perfectly.  I had prepped an 8x8 baking pan by lining it with parchment paper so it would be ready for the liquid caramel.  However, apparently I did not leave enough of an overhang because the weight of the caramel made the sides flop into the sticky stuff immediately.  I quickly transferred the pan to a cooling rack on the kitchen table, but all of the sides kept flopping over!  Todd was out running errands, so with one arm I held the paper down and with the other arm, I grabbed just about anything on the table that was heavy enough to weigh it down.

Note:  My pan has like a 1/2 inch flat lip around the edge, I'm not just magically balancing crystal on a rim.
And now we wait.  At least 2 hours, but I think I waited closer to 4.  The caramel magically solidifies into a chewy, yet melt-in-your-mouth candy.  Neither Todd nor I had ever eaten homemade caramel before, so we were concerned, even though the flavor was amazing, that the texture was wrong.  It's not quite as stick-in-your-teeth chewy as store-bought caramels.  But then we realized that maybe this is the real texture of caramel. 

Because this stuff is so sticky, cutting it into clean little pieces is challenging.  I removed the parchment paper easily (PS:  Do not grease or spray the parchment paper, otherwise your caramels will be greasy, and there is really no need), and transferred the block of caramel to a cutting board.  I first tried heating my huge knife over an open flame on the stove, and although I felt like a bit of a bad-ass, I wasn't getting clean cuts because the caramel was too soft. 

Then I tried putting the caramel in the freezer for 5 minutes, and that worked perfectly.  It freezes very quickly, so you might have to let it thaw just a tad or it will break when you cut into it.  I had to stick it back in a few times if I didn't cut it quickly enough.  For some reason I liked the look of little rectangles instead of little squares. 

Now onto a surprisingly fun part -- wrapping!  I wrapped all of mine while watching Game 4 of the World Series, and I decided that that was my happy place.  Sitting on the couch in my pajamas, watching the Cardinals play on tv, and wrapping cute little candies. 

I'm not sure if this is the "proper" way to wrap candy because I sort of just made it up, but it seemed to work fine.  First, cut out lots of little pieces of paper -- about this big: 

Roll the paper over the candy.  

Very gently twist one end of the waxed paper.  Seriously, be gentle because it rips super easily.  Now, you need to twist the other end going the same direction, so that you can open it by simply grabbing both ends and pulling. I was only good at twisting with my right hand, so I flipped it over and twisted the opposite direction.  I'm making myself dizzy. 

Note:  I'm pretty sure this was one is actually twisted incorrectly.  Doh.
All in all, I'm officially obsessed.  I made two batches over the weekend and made complete strangers try it.  I'm back to researching kitchen supply stores, reading my favorite food blogs, and drooling over Photograzing on my lunch break.  Hopefully there will be lots of colorful new goodies in the near future!

Homemade Caramels (adapted from Epicurious.com)

1 cup heavy cream
5 tbsps salted butter, cut into pieces
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1/4 cup water

Line an 8x8 inch square baking pan with parchment paper covering all sides.  Do not grease or spray.

In a small pot, bring heavy cream and butter to a boil, then remove from the heat and set aside.

Attach a candy or deep-fat thermometer to the side of a 3-4 quart heavy-bottomed pot.  Boil the sugar, corn syrup and water, and stir until the sugar is dissolved.  Once dissolved, continue to boil without stirring (but gently swirl the pan occasionally), until the mixture is a light golden color.  I let mine get to 300 degrees. 

Carefully, pour in the cream/butter mixture, turn down the heat to medium-low, and continuously stir.  Don't worry about the crazy bubbles, they will go away.  Simmer, stirring frequently, until the caramel registers 248 degrees on the thermometer (or "firm ball" stage).  It took about 20-25 minutes for mine, but it totally depends on the heat and your stove.  Just watch the thermometer very carefully. 

At exactly 248 degrees, pour the mixture into the prepared baking pan and cool for at least 2 hours. Cut into cute little pieces and wrap in waxed paper, as above.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Guacasauraus Mex and Healthy Dippers

Ooooh I love this dip.  My friend Krissy made this for me while I was visiting Illinois back in July, and I've been wanting to make it ever since.  I made some slight variations to the recipe, and with her permission and the original creator's permission, here it is.  Plus, I've had the name "Guacasaurus Mex" (get it, like Tyrannosaurus Rex?) in my head for like two years now, and it's the perfect name for this dip!  It's not exactly guacamole or salsa, but definitely south of the border, so it's Guacasaurus Mex!

Even though there's a lot going on in this dip, it honestly tastes light and fresh.  Especially if you make it during this time of year because tomatoes and corn are so perfect right now.  And it's even sort of healthy -- at least compared to practically any other dip you might find at the grocery store. 

Plus, this makes a massive amount of dip.  Four hungry, hungry hippos adults barely polished this off over the course of an hour.

I'll give you one of my favorite healthy-eating tips:  use veggies instead chips as your dippers.  Of course, chips are awesome and some are literally manufactured into scoops to hold massive quantities of dip, but if you think about it, there are some natural scoops out there too.

Yeah, see what I mean?  If you cut a bell pepper right, the curve at the top (near the stem) will hold a ton of dip.  Just make sure to cut thick strips or it's not quite sturdy enough.

I normally try to use baby carrots too, but I was noticing that all of the dip slides off because there's no inward curvature.  Last night before our friends, Mike and Oz, came over for drinks and apps, I had an idea.  I scrounged through three different baskets of kitchen gadgets and found my melon scooper.  I grabbed a baby carrot, dug the scooper into one end... and voila!

A carrot scoop!  Sure it doesn't look like much, but check this out:

Yikes.  Ignore my cuticle.  I swear I'll get a manicure next week.
Heck yeah!  I was super impressed.  It's a little tedious to scoop out every single baby carrot, and much easier to open a bag of chips, but this is so much healthier!  Even Mikey ate his vegetables...

Guacasaurus Mex (adapted from Krissy's boss's recipe) :)

2 ripe avocados, pitted and diced (save the pits)
3 small-medium tomatoes, diced
5 green onions, thinly sliced
2 ears of corn, kernals cut off (raw, don't cook)
1 15 oz can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
1-2 tsp cayenne pepper (adjust depending on how spicy you like it)

1/4 cup apple cidar vinegar
1/4 cup vegetable oil (or olive oil)

In a big plastic storage container with a tight-fitting lid, add the avocado (plus pits), tomatoes, onion, corn and black beans. Sprinkle salt, pepper and cayenne on top.  Do. Not. Stir.  Close the lid, double check that it's sealed, and shake everything all together.  See, you need a container that's big enough to allow for some jiggle room.  Otherwise, the ingredients will stay separated.  It should look like this:

If it's not mixing quite right (my avocado stayed in big chunks), then you can gently stir it with a big spoon.  Lastly, when you're ready to serve, whisk together the vinegar and oil.  Drizzle the mixture over the top of the dip and stir to incorporate. If you won't be serving it for a while, close the container and refrigerate until it's time -- and then drizzle the vinegar/oil when it's time to be devoured.  And trust me, it will be.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Pasta-Less Lasagna for Two

Well hello there!  I know, I've been totally MIA all summer, but I'm finally getting the itch to get back into the kitchen.  Our little electric grill out on the patio has gotten plenty of use this summer, but the kitchen is just too hot and windowless -- not exactly my idea of where I want to hang out during nice weather.  I think I was so blog-crazy last winter because the kitchen was so warm and cozy, and there was nothing better to do!

The final push that got me back into blogging was a super sweet message from a Facebook friend asking me when I was going to post a new recipe.  I asked her if she preferred something sweet or something savory, she voted savory, and I immediately knew what I wanted to make.  I've eaten too many burgers, hot dogs, and other BBQ fare this summer, so I opted for one of my old favorites -- pasta-less lasagna.  I've made this once before, for a big family dinner, and it was a huge hit.  But since it's just Todd and me for dinner tonight, I thought of a good solution to pare down the recipe -- a loaf pan!

As the name indicates, this lasagna contains no pasta.  Instead, thinly-sliced zucchini and eggplant create the layers.  Coincidentally, we were at a friend's BBQ last night, and they had a garden complete with eggplant and zucchini!  I left with a belly full of pulled pork (from their backyard smoker) and a bag full of veggies -- thanks Pollacks!

A mandoline would definitely come in handy here to slice the veggies into thin, even strips, but you can also use a super sharp, giant knife.  That's what I did because I was too lazy to dig out my mandoline.  And it makes me feel very Top Chefy to use my biggest, bad a$$ knife.

The next step is sort of fun, and really important -- sweat the veggies.  Zucchini and eggplant contain a ton of water, and if you don't get some of that water out, your lasagna will be a soupy mess.  Once the veggies are sliced, layer them in colanders and generously pour salt on both sides of each slice.  Place the colanders in the sink or on a rimmed tray or plate to catch the dripping water.  Let them sweat for at least 30 minutes, and then completely rinse off the salt and pat the veggies dry with paper towels.

*Dramatic reenactment of my face every morning on the subway*
My other layers included meaty tomato sauce (I doctored up a jar sauce with onion, garlic, and ground beef), ricotta cheese mixed with chopped spinach, a very thin layer of homemade pesto (complete with homegrown basil, thankyouverymuch) and fresh mozzarella. 

You can pretty much assemble it in any order you want, but always start with a layer of tomato sauce because anything else will stick to the bottom of the pan and burn.  And finish it off with a layer of mozzarella for a nice golden brown, cheesy crust.  My order:  sauce, eggplant (thicker pieces for the bottom layer), ricotta/spinach, sauce, zucchini, ricotta/spinach, sauce, zucchini, pesto, mozzarella.  Or something like that.  You definitely don't have to be precise with the layering -- just arrange them to cover as much of the pan as possible.  We're going for a rustic look.

Once it's baked through, stick it under the broiler for a few minutes to get the top layer of mozzarella all brown and delicious.  If you absolutely must have pasta with your lasagna, make a small batch to go on the side.  But trust me, you won't miss the pasta at all!

Pasta-Less Lasagna for Two*
(*Two very, very hungry adults -- we have enough leftovers for one of us to have it tomorrow.)

1 medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb ground beef, cooked
1 large jar store-bought tomato sauce
cayenne pepper
(...or you can make your own sauce, however you normally do it)

16 oz part-skim ricotta
1 cup chopped frozen spinach, thawed and drained
pinch of nutmeg

1 medium eggplant
2 medium zucchini
fresh mozzarella (sorry, forgot to check exactly how much.. it was a fresh, small ball)
pesto (optional)

First, prep and sweat the eggplant and zucchini.  With either a mandoline or a large, sharp knife, carefully slice the zucchini lengthwise into 1/4 inch slices and the eggplant slightly thicker because it's the bottom layer.  Place the slices into a mesh colander set in the sink or on a rimmed baking sheet.  Generously salt the veggies on both sides.  I'm talking a ton of salt.  It's okay, you're washing it off later. In just a few minutes, you will literally see beads of "sweat" coming off the veggies.  Let them sit and sweat for at least 30 minutes... work on the other steps during this time.

Second, while the veggies are sweating like a hooker in church, make the sauce.  You can use your own recipe, but here's how I make mine.  I basically take a very plain, low-sugar jarred sauce and doctor it up.  Saute the onion and garlic in a hot saute pan, and then pour it into a medium-sized deep pot.  Next, cook the ground beef in the same hot pan and then add it to the onion, garlic.  Finally, pour in the jarred sauce, stir and cook on medium-low heat until it's cooked through.  Add the salt, pepper and cayenne to taste.  Set aside.

Third, in a small bowl, mix together the ricotta, spinach and pinch of nutmeg.  Set aside.

Finally, assembly time!  I used a 10 inch x 5 inch loaf pan.  Spray all sides with cooking spray.  As I said above, you can really layer this however you want, but always start with a layer of tomato sauce because anything else will stick to the bottom of the pan and burn.  And end with mozzarella because it browns so nicely at the very end.  My order: sauce, eggplant (thicker pieces for the bottom layer), ricotta/spinach, sauce, zucchini, ricotta/spinach, sauce, zucchini, pesto, mozzarella. Or something like that.

Bake for 40 minutes in a 400 degree oven.  Broil it on high for a few minutes to get the top cheese layer all brown and pretty.  Just watch the oven closely until it's a good color. Then, very important, let it rest and cool for at least 15 minutes.  I was antsy and Todd was hungry, so we dug in too fast and it was sort of messy looking.  But it was delicious!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

MY PICK!! Coffee Ice Cream Tart

It's here!  It's here!  My pick is finally here!!  When I joined Tuesdays with Dorie back in June 2009, my pick seemed a million miles away.  Over the last year and a half, I've pretty much taught myself how to bake, and Tuesdays with Dorie has been a huge part of my journey.  It pushes me to bake outside my comfort zone and to try recipes that I never would have chosen on my own -- ie:  le blanc-manger.

So for my big day, I chose the Coffee Ice Cream Tart.  I've probably skimmed through Dorie's cookbook a thousand times, and I never once noticed this recipe until my turn came around.  I tend to gravitate towards the ones with pictures. :)

I am soooo happy that I found this one!  I'm not just saying this because it was my pick, but the Coffee Ice Cream Tart is definitely one of my absolute favorite Dorie recipes!  I loved the coffee-almond flavor combo.  It reminded me dipping biscotti into a big cup of coffee.

Happy Husband hijacking my photo-taking.  So cute.  :)
 My only issue with this tart was a bit of a catch-22.  The crust was frozen along with the ice cream, so it became pretty impenetrable with a fork.  But if I let the crust thaw a bit, then the ice cream melted too much.  We ended up either chiseling away at the crust or picking it up and biting directly into it.  It doesn't really matter though, because once it was in our mouths, we forgot about how it got there.

The recipe is a bit time consuming (with the repeated freezings), but it's pretty easy to follow.  Plus, I love when Dorie includes store-bought goodies. In this case, the filling included "premium-quality coffee ice cream."  Of course, there are some delicious extras added to it -- almond extract, nutmeg and almonds ground into a paste. 

Note:  make sure the crust is completely cooled before you add the ice cream mixture.  I got a little antsy and poured in the ice cream a bit too soon... big mess.

We had our friends, Jeff and Lisa, over for dessert after an awesome dinner at the Wright restaurant in the Guggenheim Museum.  They are some of my most devoted blog fans, so they understood the importance of this recipe for me!  And come to think of it, my freestyle chocolate design is a little Kandinsky-esque!

Hello Jeff and Lisa!

Coffee Ice Cream Tart - (Dorie Greenspan, Baking, From My Home to Yours)

For the Crust
1 cup (4 ounces) toasted slivered or sliced blanched almonds
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup (packed) light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
pinch of salt
1/2 stick (4 tbsp) cold unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces)
1 large egg
1/4 teaspoon pure almond extract
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped

For the Filling
1 cup (4 ounces) toasted slivered or sliced blanched almonds
1 quart premium-quality coffee ice cream
1/2 teaspoon pure almond extract or 1 tablespoon amaretto
pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped, for decoration

To Make the Crust
Lightly butter a 10- or 11- inch fluted tart pan and line a baking sheet with parchment or a silicone mat.

Put the almonds, flour, sugar, nutmeg and salt in a food processor and pulse for about 10 seconds, or until the nuts are coarsely chopped.  Toss in the pieces of butter and pulse until the dough resembles coarse meal.  Add the egg and extract and continue to pulse until the dough forms clumps and large curds, about 10 seconds.  Turn the dough out into the tart pan and wipe out the processor.  (You'll use it for the filling.)

Press the dough evenly over the bottom and up the sides of the tart pan.  Freeze for 30 minutes.  (If you'd like, once the dough is frozen, you can wrap the tart pan and keep it in the freezer for up to 2 months.)

Getting Ready to Bake
Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Butter a piece of aluminum foil and press it, buttered side down, snugly into the tart pan; put the tart pan on a baking sheet.  Bake the shell for 20 minutes, then remove the foil.  If the crust has puffed, press down with the back of a fork.  Bake the crust for another 8 minutes or so, or until it is firm and golden. Transfer the pan to a cooling rack. 

Scatter the chopped chocolate over the bottom of the hot crust and use a small icing spatula (or a pastry brush) to spread it even.  Cool the crust to room temperature.

To Make the Filling
Put the almonds in the processor and pulse and process until they form a paste, a minute or two.  Add the ice cream, extract or amaretto and the nutmeg and pulse the machine on and off in quick spurts, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed, about 8 times, or until the ingredients are just blended -- don't process so long that the ice cream melts.  Scrape the ice cream into the tart shell and smooth the top.  Put the tart in the freezer for a least 30 minutes.

To Decorate the Tart
Melt the chocolate in a microwave oven or in a bowl over a pan of hot water.  If you like, put the chocolate in a small piping bag fitted with a very small plain tip (the kind used for writing) and pipe a lattice or a series of zig-zags across the top of the tart.  Or, for a more abstract look, dip the tines of a fork into the chocolate and drizzle the chocolate free-form.

Slide the tart into the freezer to set the chocolate, about 5 minutes, then cover and freeze for at least 4 hours.