Three Soups for a Chilly Weekend

IMG_3123It’s finally cooled off here in LA, with chilly evenings dipping into the 40s. I know to those of you in Chicago, Canada, New England, you scoff at these temperatures. But trust me, to our lizard-like, sun-on-a-rock constitutions, it’s puffer coat weather.

Which as a native East Coaster, I love. I like cozy, I like pulling into the dark time, lighting candles, wearing my hairy house sweater, and making super easy, super delicious comfort foods. Which lately have been soups.

As we head into another cool pre-winter weekend, here are three super easy, ready in a jiffy, crazy delicious soups:

  • Lentil Soup with Andouille and Croutons
  • Cumin Scented Carrot Soup
  • Ovgolemono

All are ready in about an hour, using ingredients you likely have on hand. If not, all can be assembled from a quick run to Trader Joe’s (or your local market).

As to broth: I use chicken broth as specified in the recipes, but I’ve also made each using a vegetable broth. The lentil and carrot soups are great either way. The Ovgolemono needs some doctoring to bring up the flavor profile – herbs, extra lemon, garlic. I leave the prescription to you if you’d like to make it vegetarian.

10959623_10153756242427375_6940046747736783804_nLentil Soup with Andouille and Croutons

Adapted from Florence Fabricant in The New York Times

Ingredients

5 Tbs extra virgin olive oil, divided into 3 Tbs and 2 Tbs

1 c finely diced onion

⅔ c finely diced carrot (I use bagged julienned carrots and do a quick chop)

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

3/4 tsp dried thyme

Freshly ground black pepper

2½ c small green lentils (I buy French lentils at a specialty store; they’re also available at Whole Foods. Trader Joes has green lentils. They all work just fine.)

10 c chicken broth – divided: 8 c for soup, 2 c if resulting soup is too thick

2 slices whole wheat bread, diced (I use a gluten free whole grain I always have on hand)

4-5 Andouille sausages (about 5″ long) (I use the Trader Joe’s chicken Andouille, cut into ¼ inch slices)

Salt to taste

½ cup dry sherry (optional)

Preparation

Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a heavy soup pot or Dutch oven. Add onion, carrot and garlic, and cook over low heat until soft. Stir in thyme and a generous grinding of pepper. Add lentils and 8 cups broth. Bring to a simmer and cook until tender, about 45 minutes.

While lentils cook, heat remaining oil in a skillet. Add bread and sauté over medium heat until lightly browned and crispy. Remove to a bowl. Add kielbasa to pan and sauté until lightly browned. Place in bowl with croutons. Set aside.

When ready, purée lentils in a food processor in several batches, but do not allow to become perfectly smooth. Return to pot and reheat. If soup is too thick, add 1 cup or more of reserved broth. Season to taste with salt and stir in sherry if using. Serve, topping each portion with kielbasa and crouton mixture.

This is so delicious. Even if you don’t care for lentil soup, I’m betting you’ll like this.

FullSizeRender (2)Carrot Soup

My mom made carrot soup often. I’ve made so many variations over the years (Jane Brody’s is a particular fave) that this recipe is likely the result of many cooks.

Ingredients

2 Tbs butter

1 c chopped white onion

1 pound carrots, cut into smallish pieces (I use bagged baby carrots, cutting each in half)

1 medium apple, peeled, cored, cut into ½ inch chunks

2 ½ c chicken broth

¾ tsp ground cumin

1 Tbs white or brown sugar

1 tsp fresh lemon juice

Pinch of ground allspice

Preparation

Melt butter in large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onion; sauté until soft. Add carrots and apples. Stir together for 1 minute.

Add broth; bring to boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer until carrots are tender, about 20 minutes.

Drain soup in colander over a bowl to catch liquids. Return liquids to saucepan. Puree the solids in batches in food processor until smooth. Return to saucepan. Bring to a mild simmer over medium heat. Stir in the sugar, lemon juice, and spices. Season with salt and pepper. If the soup seems thin, let it simmer for up to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to cook off some of the liquid.

You can serve with a dollop of room temperature crème fraiche and snipped parsley. I enjoy it plain with a cheesy/harissa toast on the side.

332978_10150363587677375_1017777789_oOvgolemono a la Leslie Lewis

I lived for two super fun years just outside Stamford, CT, with a roommate whose love of food exceeds my own. We tinkered with starting a catering business using the slogan,  “Food that stimulates your glands.” As you can imagine, we didn’t get far out in the world, but we ate like kings in our apartment. This recipe is her recipe. It’s the ultimate chicken soup in my opinion. Comforting and easy. I have it at least once a week all year round. (This recipe can be easily halved.)

Ingredients

8 c chicken broth

½ c Orzo pasta

¼ c fresh lemon juice

1 large egg, room temperature

Snipped chives

Preparation

In a medium saucepan, combine broth and orzo. Bring to a boil and cook for 15 minutes.

Combine egg and lemon juice in a medium bowl.

When the broth is ready, ladle about a cup of hot soup into the lemon-egg mixture, whisking vigorously. Return the warmed egg mixture to the saucepan and stir gently over medium heat. You want to thicken the soup without bringing it to a boil. (A boil will curdle the eggs.)

Taste for salt, adding as needed. Serve with snipped chives. I like this with a frisee salad dressed in a mustardy vinaigrette (lunch), or with a couple of open-face grilled gruyere baguette toasts (dinner).

Enjoy!

A Tale of Two Pies (and One Tart)

My mom kept a tub of Crisco in the fridge. She’d toss some tablespoons of the coldIMG_3067 shortening into a bowl of flour, cut it in, add some water, knead it together with her hands. She’d roll it out, line a pie plate. Fill it with cut up apples (skins on), cinnamon sugar, and dots of butter. Seal it with a top crust and bake it up. Delicious smell, delicious taste, with a modicum of effort. A terrifically simple apple pie.

The same cannot be said for the day long endeavor of a pie I made this weekend. I’ll temper my remarks by saying that I’m not a huge apple pie fan. I like it. If it’s there I’ll eat it. But I’m not going to order it at a restaurant (no tarte tatin for me) or at House of Pies. But every so often I do want a baked apple something. And I had a new cookbook I was eager to try from an author I really enjoy.

As to apples. Eating-wise, I only, ONLY, like McIntosh. Or the occasional Granny Smith. Baking-wise, I know the Delicious’s are meant to be the best, but I use Pink Lady. Because I like pink and because I like the quaint name. Just sayin’. You can use whatever apples you like.

Back to the pie…. I read the recipe, or at least I thought I did, but throughout preparation I felt like it kept surprising me…. “Wait, what, I have to freeze this? I have to reduce this? I have to chill it for how long?” Perhaps it was a combination of my vision problem and the fact that the recipe preparation was written in long paragraphs. Whatever it was, it seems I can no longer work that way. I need bullet points.

4 pieThe instructions included lengthy macerating of apples, chilling of dough, chilling of pie, resting of pie, among other tasks and rests and waits. And in the end, after all that time and effort, the result was not as good as my mom’s 20-minute version and far less pretty.

But, I like to win so I rolled up my sleeves for round two, pulling a recipe long stored in my digital recipe box for a Honey Apple Pie with Orange Lattice Crust. There’s OJ in the crust and dried fruit with the apples. What could be bad? Well, in my case, I don’t care for too much honey. But I read that you can replace honey cup for cup with sugar up to one cup. So I did, and added a little extra OJ to the fruit fordouble moisture. The pastry was easy and fun. The apples – I used Golden Delicious as specified – didn’t macerate well, no juices were released. I thought the baking would take care of that. But check after check after check, my pie was just sitting in the oven, barely breathing.

WTH? Then I checked my heat – started at 425 for 10 minutes then reduced to 350. Sure enough, my dodgy oven was hovering at about 325. I nudged it up, checked again after 10 minutes, et voila! Bubbling juices! I let it go for IMG_3060another 10-15 minutes. It browned, more bubbling juices. I feared for flavor after all that time in the oven, but it wasn’t a problem. The result is a pretty, not-too-sweet pie. If you make it, and I suggest you do, here are some adjustments:

  • Orange zest in the crust in addition to juice.
  • More sugar in the crust – as it, it’s great for a savory pie. It needs a bit more oomph.
  • More dried fruit – it calls for 2 Tbs  each of diced cherries, apricots and peaches; increase to 4 Tbs each, and soak in cognac along with the OJ.
  • More spice in the filling. The cinnamon comes through subtly, the cardamom not at all. Jack up the spices to taste. You could also increase the sugar, although I like it not too sweet.
  • Egg wash and sugar the lattice. It’s just prettier and tastes a bit more special.

A great effort, but still not a total win. So I made what always works, what I call “Apple Pizza” which is just a version of Ina Garten’s Apple Tart. I like how pretty it is. And it’s fun to make, especially if you have a mandoline. And, ps, this pastry is also dreamy to work with. You can’t go wrong.

A word on pastry: Get the slab. I always believed I was challenged in the pastry department. Years ago I bought a large plastic slab that had a rough surface. This was meant to be ideal for preventing pastry from sticking. It didn’t work very well, my results were not worth the effort. Then, a few years ago, I had a lovely large kitchen and an even lovelier large granite island. What ho pastry! Suddenly, I was better at this. Then, last year to combat my vintage tiled counters, I bought a marble slab. Now I’m a pastry ROCK STAR. Get the slab.

IMG_2761Apple Pizza

Adapted from Ina Garten

Ingredients
Pastry

2 c flour

1/2 tsp fine sea salt

1 Tbs sugar

12 Tbs (1 1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, diced

1/4 -1/2 c ice water

Apples

4-6 Pink Lady apples (depending on size; use any apple you prefer)

1/2 cup sugar

3/4 tsp cinnamon (or more to taste)

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) cold unsalted butter, small-diced

Egg wash

One large egg mixed with one Tbs of milk

Turbinado sugar

Preparation

Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment or Silpat, set aside.

Make the pastry: Put flour, salt and sugar in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the IMG_3704steel blade; pulse a few times to combine. Toss in the diced butter and pulse until the butter is the size of peas. With the motor running, dribble the 1/4-cup ice water down the feed tube and pulse just until the dough starts to come together. The dough should be a bit sticky. Add additional water as needed just until it comes together. Dump onto a lightly floured board and knead quickly into a ball. Flatten into a thick square, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Roll the dough to about 10 x 14 inches, and pinch the edges to make a slight rim. Put the rolled dough on the prepared sheet pan and refrigerate while you prepare the apples.

For the apples: Core the apples and cut into quarters. Using a mandoline set to 1/8-inch, slice four of the apples. Leave the peel on. Put your sheet of dough in front of you, short side facing you. Places the slices of apple in slightly overlapping rows across the pastry. Try to be as uniform as possible, snacking on the smaller bits of apple. Cut up another apple or two if you don’t have enough slices.

IMG_3705

I got scared of the seemingly large amount of sugar. Note the difference in appearance between this and the photo above. Use your sugar!

Mix the sugar and cinnamon together and sprinkle over the apples. It will look like a lot. Be strong and try to use all of it. Dot with butter.

Brush the edges of the dough with the egg wash and sprinkle with Turbinado.

Bake 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the pastry is browned and the edges of the apples start to brown. Rotate the pan once during cooking. If the apple juices  burn in the parchment, don’t worry, the tart will be fine! (Verbatim from Ina!)

When done, cool on sheet on rack. Loosen with spatula after 10 minutes. Serve warm. (This is also good for breakfast at room temperature.)

Variations

  • Ina’s recipe calls for finishing with 1/2 cup apricot jelly or warm sieved apricot jam and 2 tablespoons Calvados rum or water. Heat the apricot jelly together with the Calvados and brush the apples and the pastry completely with the jelly mixture. Allow to cool.
  • I occasionally make a larger rim of pastry and fill with a thin layer of pastry cream before placing the apples. Because pastry cream.

Enjoy!

Fall Back Orange Cranberry Scones

I hope everyone had a gentle “fall back” on the weekend. I, myself, fell into a BloodyFullSizeRender_1 copy Mary and sumptuous grilled cheese at the Napa Valley Grille. Followed by a nap. So my usual Sunday bake was not on.

Monday morning, though, was a different story: I’d made a mushroom pasta on Friday so had leftover crème fraiche; I also had leftover candied orange peel from last week’s chocolate orange soda bread. I don’t know what that says to you, but it says scones to me!

I’ve been making this recipe for so long I don’t remember its origins. All I can tell you is that it’s delicious and foolproof. And fun, if you get your hands in there. I read somewhere that Irish scones vary from the touch of the hand of the woman who made them. So if you cut in the butter with your fingertips, you’ll be part of a long tradition and you’ll impart your uniqueness to the dough. And you’ll have the tenderest scones ever.

Nothing wrong with that.

These come together fast and in one bowl. They’ll be ready pretty much when the tea is. Perfect for just about any morning, but especially great for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I’m calling ’em “Fall Back” scones, not only because that’s what we just did, but because they’re so easy, they’ll be your fall back breakfast in no time.

Fall Back Orange Cranberry Scones

Ingredients

2 c flour

1/3 c sugar

2 Tbs grated orange peel

1 Tbs baking powder

½ tsp salt

½ c (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into ½ inch dice

½ c dried cranberries

¼ – ½ c diced candied orange peel

¼ cup sour cream (or crème fraiche)

3 tablespoons orange juice

1 large egg

Turbinado sugar

Preparation

Preheat oven to 425°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

UntitledWhisk together flour, sugar, orange peel, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Add diced butter. Using fingertips or a wire pastry cutter, cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in cranberries and diced candied orange peel.

In a 2-cup measuring cup, whisk together the sour cream (or crème fraiche), orange juice and egg. Make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients in the bowl. Pour in the wet ingredients, stirring gently with a wooden spoon. Continue stirring until the dough just comes together and there’s no dry flour in the bowl.

Knead the dough gently in the bowl for a few turns to eliminate some of the stickiness. Then pat dough into an 8-inch circle on the prepared bakinFullSizeRender_3g pan. Using a pizza cutter, cut the circle in half one way, then in the other direction. Then cut across in a diagonal to create 8 equal wedges. Use the edge of the cutter to scooch them apart a little bit. Sprinkle with a generous amount of turbinado.

Bake until golden, about 12 minutes. Let cool about 10 minutes before serving with lots of good butter and jam. (They are also fantastic on their own.) These keep in a Ziploc on the counter for a day or two, or in the freezer for about a month.

IMG_2915Enjoy!

Trusting yourself + Everything Seasonal Bread

I know I’m not the only person who reads cookbooks like novels. (Especially since they are more and more often one-part memoir and two-parts recipes.) I always have. My motherFullSizeRender (1) had some real oldies I liked to read sitting at the kitchen table while she cooked. I adored the Better Homes & Gardens gingham book for its ring binding. I spent many childhood hours moving the pages around, sorting favorites or putting together “menus.” To this day, the BHG Baked Custard recipe is my go-to for almost instant homey gratification. (And, ps, if you use ½ milk, ½ heavy cream, it sets up with a moussey texture on the bottom and shiny custard on the top. Complete happiness.)

All that childhood reading has contributed to a sense for flavors and which will be complementary (on both the savory and sweet side). While I don’t have the most adventurous palate (“delicacies” are not my thing), I do think it’s fairly sophisticated. I can tell by the way a recipe is written whether it’s great or just serviceable, and I know when it will work and when it won’t.

Usually.

On the weekend I made a chocolate cake using a recipe from a respectable source. I had reservations – it called for cocoa and buttermilk which don’t harmonize for me – but since it was only one stick of butter, I gave it a go. Oy, friends. Bad. The overly sweet batter tasted “chocolaty” and the cake was…. Well, it was pretty: Dark. Good crumb. Good texture. It just tasted terrible. Thinking it might be my palate, I offered it around. No one cared for it. Well, one of my neighbor’s said, “It’s good. But I don’t want any more of it.” I let it sit for a day, loosely wrapped in plastic, to see if anything would meld or bloom. No. Bad. I trashed it (along with, apparently, all photos of it).

Lesson: Trust yourself. In the kitchen and in life.

IMG_2840So then I had the rest of a quart of buttermilk. And it is autumn, which calls for cozy, which calls for bread. Specifically Dark Chocolate Orange Soda Bread. Super easy, super fun, and super delicious. You can never go wrong with chocolate and orange, and it’s bread! Who cares if I have to run the AC in order to turn on the oven?

This is a recipe from Epicurious. I don’t make any changes to it. The dough is sticky sticky sticky. Scarily so. Be brave, dear reader, and don’t add a ton more flour to make it easier to handle! Just roll it around on your lightly floured work surface until you can take your hand off it without taking half of it with you. It can be done. I have a “vintage” kitchen that has tiled countertops (the horror!), so I work on a marble slab. And use a bench scraper to nudge my mound of dough off the marble and onto the prepared baking sheet.

I first made this last December for a holiday event. The dough was so crazy sticky that I just mounded it onto the sheet and said a prayer. Holy patron saint of bakers, is this stuff delicious! I mean seriously. For its ease and nothing fancy ingredients, it comes together like a trip to heaven. I’d never made soda bread before. I think I’d had it once at a St. Patrick’s dinner 30 years ago and that version was too rusk-like for me. The chocolate and orange drew me in like a moth to a flame. And, turns out, that 30 year old memory? That was just a bad loaf.

IMG_2836As to ingredients, I use Valhrona Manjari 64%FullSizeRender coarsely chopped and candied orange peel from local cooks’ store (oft mentioned here), Surfa’s. I’ve made this bread many times since, using orange peel from the Berkeley Bowl (similar to Surfa’s) and from the supermarket. The supermarket tubs (usually available only around the holidays) are a sweeter, stickier product. The orange bits tend to clump together in the bread, but it still tastes wonderful.

Important: Mind the time! Because the dough is so difficult to manage, my loaves have turned out differently every time. Sometimes wider and flatter, sometimes taller and more compact. The recipe calls for 70 minutes baking. I have never needed that much time, neither when using a fancy calibrated Wolf range nor when using the Home Depot special oven in my current place. The loaf needs to be brown, firm, with a tester coming out clean.IMG_2841 Check it at 40 minutes. I’ll be surprised if you need more than 60 total. It tastes as wonderful regardless of how the loaves appear.

It’s best to let this bread fully cool before cutting. Then you can slather it with butter, toast it, do whatever you like to do with bread. Baked up with a little vanilla custard, it also makes a nice bread pudding.

This baby will take you straight from Halloween through Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s brunch.

It’s that good.

Dark Chocolate Orange Soda Bread

From Epicurious

Ingredients

3 c unbleached all purpose flour

½ c plus 2 Tbs sugar

2 tsp salt

2 tsp baking powder

½ tsp baking soda

6 Tbs (3/4 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

6 ounces bittersweet (not unsweetened), cut into 1/3-inch pieces

6 ounces candied orange peel, diced

1 ¼ c buttermilk

1 large egg

Preparation

UntitledPosition rack in center of oven and preheat to 350°F. Line rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper; butter parchment. Whisk first 5 ingredients in large bowl to blend. Add butter; rub in with fingertips until mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in chocolate and orange peel. Whisk buttermilk and egg in medium bowl to blend; add to dry ingredients. Stir just until incorporated.

Turn dough out onto floured work surface and knead gently just until dough comes together, about 5 turns. Form dough into 6 1/2-inch-diameter round, about 2 to 2 1/2IMG_2839 inches high. Transfer to prepared baking sheet. Using sharp knife, cut 1-inch-deep, 3-inch-long slits in top of bread, forming sunburst pattern.

Bake bread until well browned and very firm when pressed and tester inserted into center comes out clean, turning baking sheet halfway through baking, about 1 hour 10 minutes total. Transfer bread to rack and cool completely, at least 3 hours. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Wrap in foil and store at room temperature.)

FullSizeRender

Feelin’ Like Fall Peanut Butter Cookies

It’s been a tough autumn here in Southern California. Temperatures have been close to IMG_2682100 degrees all across the Southland, with regional blackouts due to 24/7 AC and beach dwellers who are normally proud of their “we don’t need AC” status, flocking to packed movie theaters for relief. There have been a few classic SoCal fall days mixed in, though, with breezy temps in the low 70s and cool nights that might tumble into the low 60s – those are baking days.

This past weekend was cool and cloudy, perfect for making soup and peanut butter cookies. I like my peanut butter cookies crisp with a hint of chocolate, so I use equal amounts of white and brown sugar, and add cocoa nibs. It’s the perfect cookie: Easy to pull together and, with a couple of hours of Hulu to catch up on, the right amount of baking time.

Feelin’ Like Fall Peanut Butter Cookies

Yield 2-3 dozen

Ingredients

1 ¼ c flour

¾ tsp baking soda

1 c (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened (beat cold butter between wax paper sheets with a rolling pin)

½ c light brown sugar, packed

1 large egg

¾ tsp vanilla extract

1 c chunky peanut butter (I use Skippy)

½ c cocoa nibs

Preparation

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment (parchment makes a crisper cookie than Silpat).

Combine flour and baking soda in a small bowl and set aside.

IMG_2680Beat butter and both sugars in the bowl of an electric mixer on medium until fluffy. Add the egg and mix until combined. Mix in vanilla, then peanut butter. Beat well. Scrape down the sides and then add flour mixture. Beat on medium speed until well combined. Mix in cocoa nibs.

Remove bowl from mixer and give the dough a few turns with a wooden spoon or spatula to make sure the nibs are thoroughly mixed in.

Use a small ice cream scoop or rounded tablespoon to scoop up dough. Roll into balls and placeIMG_2684 on cookie sheets, spacing about 2.5 inches apart. Sprinkle generously with crystal sugar.

Bake, rotating sheets halfway through baking time, 20 minutes. Cool on rack.

Enjoy! Great with tea or cold milk. (The crispy makes ‘em dunkable.)

Twenty-Minute Toffee a la Rose

Candy. Candy candy candy. I reflexively think of myself as a candy lover but when I visit places like Dylan’s Candy Bar, I’m overwhelmed by colorful options and fruity aromas. I’llIMG_5946 eat Red Vines (or Twizzlers as we call ‘em back home), Mary Janes, and the occasional Dot. But what I’m really after are the M&Ms, Reese’s, Snickers, and Milk Duds.

So, OK, I like chocolate. As distinct from candy. So where do the twain meet? In toffee. And why not? Such a delectable happy marriage. Full disclosure: Wrap chocolate around sugar cooked anywhere between 245° and 290° F and I’ll eat it. But toffee is special. Buttery maybe? With the chocolate and the nuts? I love it and will enjoy everything from an Almond Roca all the way to fancy artisanal products. I’m not beyond paying $15 for 8 ounces of handmade goodness.

Second only to eating toffee is making it. It’s so dang easy, people. Just make sure you toffee4have a good thermometer and work carefully. I’ve made many toffee recipes but my go-to, all time fave is from Rose Levy Beranbaum – Mahogany Buttercrunch Toffee. The key? Brown sugar. Oh my my my my. I use the recipe from her book Rose’s Christmas Cookies. I’ve made it so often, I can make it from memory. (Which is impressive to people when we’re sitting around and I say, “Toffee anyone?” and then pop into the kitchen and whip some up.)

Like I did this week. OK, the only people sitting around with me were a dog and two cats who don’t eat toffee but I like to think they’re impressed by my efforts. It was one of those nights – I want something, what do I have on hand? Brown sugar, butter, chocolate, almonds. Always in the pantry. It takes about 20 minutes. The toffee hardens almost immediately, the chocolate takes some time. So when wanting instant gratification, I put the tray in the fridge for 15 minutes. Nom nom nom.

A touch of nostalgia

61f9a96ecd1c78fcdab784dc35ca72d7In writing this piece, I thought about my earliest toffee memories. While not toffee per se, what I remember is Callard & Bowser Butterscotch. It came in a white package wrapped in cellophane. Each piece was a tablet about an inch long wrapped in foil. I think my grandfather turned me on to this, it seems like he always had it on hand. I’m not generally into butterscotch (you can keep your Werther’s and your Pick-A-Mix disks), but this was something altogether different. Heavy on butter, light on sugar. I came across this lovely ode to the C&B Butterscotch on candyprofessor.com, which is itself a lovely blog that appears to be not currently active. She expresses the wonders of this wonderful confection better than I could.

Toffee Lessons Learned

  • Focus, focus, focus. I don’t think anyone wants to see a picture of the scar on my forearm from the time I wasn’t 100% focused on the task. Take it from FullSizeRender_2me – 250° sugar syrup on the arm is painful. (Also, if anyone is also still under the delusion that butter is meant to resolve a burn, forget it. Cold water is your only response.)
  • Trust your thermometer, but verify. Boil water and put your thermometer in. Account for any degrees above or below 212°F or 100°C.
  • Chocolate. Less is more with the darkness here, IMO. I use Valhrona Manjari (64%) or Caraibe (66%). If the chocolate is too dark, I feel like that’s all I taste.
  • Almonds. I don’t toast them. And I use less than suggested. I’m not in it for the nuts.
  • Prepare your workspace. Pre-measure your vanilla and baking soda and set near the stove. Set your prepared baking sheet nearby as well. I set up an assembly line of stove – potholder on counter – pre-measured vanilla and baking soda – prepared baking sheet. Once the sugar syrup is the right temperature, speed is of the essence.


Mahogany Buttercrunch Toffee

Adapted from Rose Levy Beranbaum

Ingredients

1 ¼ c blanched, sliced almonds, coarsely ground (toast if you want, I don’t)

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1/4 tsp. baking soda

1 ¼ c firmly packed light brown sugar

2 Tbs water

½ c (1 stick) unsalted butter

3 oz. semisweet chocolate (64% cacao), coarsely chopped

Line a rimmed baking sheet with a Silpat or butter generously, and set near the stove. Set your pre-measured vanilla and baking soda nearby as well.

Preparation

Sprinkle about half the nuts over a 7 x 10 inch area on the cookie sheet. Set it near the stove. Have the vanilla and baking soda nearby as well.

In a heavy-based saucepan, preferably nonstick, combine the brown sugar, water and butter. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly (trying not to disturb the thermometer), until the mixture reaches 285°F on a candy thermometer. Mind the heat: The first few times I made this, I had the heat too high and the syrup cooked too fast and scorched. While Burnt Caramel is trending in ice cream, it’s not so nice in toffee. Medium high heat, please.

Immediately remove the saucepan from the heat [onto the potholder] and stir in the vanilla and baking soda. Pour the toffee mixture carefully and evenly onto the nuts, keeping within the 7 x 10 rectangle.

IMG_5946Working quickly, scatter the chocolate onto the toffee. Press the chocolate lightly with your fingertips so it starts melting.

Let it sit for five minutes so the chocolate is soft enough to spread in an even layer over the surface of the toffee. Dust the chocolate with the remaining almonds. Leave the toffee to cool completely, then break it into irregular pieces, or refrigerate if you just can’t wait.

You can store the toffee in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a month. But you won’t have to. I keep it on the counter in a Ziploc bag. It lasts aboutoffee3t a day and a half.

Chunky Toffee: Sometimes I want thick pieces. When I do, I generously butter the bottom of an 8×8 square pan and sprinkle with the nuts. Everything else is the same except I go a little easier on the chocolate. When ready, I poke it sharply with a knife point to break and then go from there.

Note: Apparently Rose has updated the recipe in her latest book The Baking Bible. She now puts chocolate on the bottom and the top, as described delightfully here.

Pitch Black Cocoa Brownies

I was going to title this “The 40 Stroke Brownie” but my editorial staff felt that could go offIMG_2531 in too many unintended directions. Whatever. I still feel it’s interesting to note that many, many recipes instruct one to “beat vigorously for 40 strokes.” Not sure where it comes from and a Google search was exhausting scrolling through pages of health-related results. (Point taken, editors!) What I find, though, is that those 40 strokes with a wooden spoon are magical – your batter transforms into something satiny and wonderful. And whatever you’re baking is heightened – heavenly textures.

40 strokes of beauty

40 strokes of beauty

As was the case yesterday when, in mid-afternoon, I was toiling away at my desk and thinking I’d like something chocolate. And knowing there was nothing to be had at the moment (having finished my usually reliable supply of frozen chocolate bars). What to do?

Basic brownies. One bowl. 45 minutes from start to finish. Let’s go!

I was interested primarily in speed and ease so considered making from memory the recipe from the Baker’s box. But instead I once again invited Alice Medrich into the conversation and pulled together her Cocoa Brownies tout suite.

Because she’s Alice and therefore the bomb, her recipe includes a little discussion about cocoa and the flavor profiles when using natural (nonalkalized) or Dutch-process (alkalized) cocoa. She remarks that Dutch-process cocoa delivers a flavor reminiscent of Oreo cookies. Interesting. I use Droste Dutch-process cocoa and have never noticed the Oreo effect. I have noticed it, though, quite robustly, when using something called “Black Onyx” cocoa.

AccordingIMG_2532 to the Savory Spice Shop website, “[Black Onyx] has been alkalized to the extreme, producing a dark, purplish black cocoa that makes for an impressive black-as-coal baked good. This extreme alkalization neutralizes the natural bitterness, removing some of its chocolate flavor and a lot of its butter fat (10-12%).” I discovered it at my local heaven, er, specialty food shop, Surfa’s. It’s definitely black and definitely delivers the Oreo notes. You’ve got to be judicious in its use unless you love Oreos that much.

Yesterday I was also out of Droste, but did have a tub of Hershey’s cocoa in the cupboard. So I measured two ounces of Hershey’s and one ounce of Black Onyx into the recipe.

The results? Black as night, Oreo note present and accounted for, moist and slightly chewy texture. And exactly what this hardworking girl needed to get through the afternoon! I do believe it’s those last 40 strokes that make the texture so delightful.

Because the brownies are so intensely dark, these would make an excellent Halloween treat with just a single candy corn slightly off center on top.

Enjoy!

Pitch Black Cocoa Brownies

Adapted from Alice Medrich, Chewy, Gooey, Crispy, Crunchy Melt-In-Your-Mouth Cookies

Preheat oven to 325. Butter an 8-inch square pan, or line with parchment or foil, creating overhangs. Set aside.IMG_2530

Ingredients

10 tablespoons (1 ¼ sticks) unsalted butter

1 ¼ c sugar

2/3 c (2 ounces) natural unsweetened cocoa powder such as Hershey’s

1/3 c (1 ounce) Black Onyx unsweetened cocoa powder

¼ tsp salt

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

2 cold large eggs

1/3 cup plus 1 Tbs (1.75 ounces) all-purpose flour

Preparation

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven.

Melt butter gently in heatproof bowl in the microwave. Add the sugar, cocoa powders and salt to hot butter, stir to combine, and set aside to cool until just warm.

Stir in the vanilla with a wooden spoon. Add the eggs one at a time, stirring vigorously after each one. When the batter looks thick, shiny, and well blended, add the flour and stir until you cannot see it any longer, then beat vigorously for 40 strokes with the wooden spoon.

Spread evenly in the prepared pan.

Bake until a toothpick plunged into the center emerges slightly moist with batter, 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool completely on a rack.

Remove from pan and cut into squares.

The unforgettable first … cookbook

There’s a first time for everything, we all know that. Many such moments are memorable, IMG_2429some forgettable (or regrettable) and a few, well, they just fill you with an inner glow. Like when you buy your very first cookbook.

When setting up my first apartment kitchen shortly after college, I treated myself to The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook. And what a treat it was. It’s a glorious book: Organized seasonally and lavishly illustrated with line drawings, it’s full of quotes, tips and hints, all delivered in a fabulously chatty, New York insider tone. Authors Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins blew open not only my palate, but all my ideas about food and what was possible for the home cook. It also introduced me to a homey, intimate way of writing about food. I never met Julee or Sheila, but I feel like I have. And I love it, to this day, when they join me in the kitchen as I leaf through my dog-eared and stained copies of both Good Times and the original The Silver Palate Cookbook, coaching me on how to make something wonderful.

Screen Shot 2015-09-28 at 12.41.15 PM

A food storybook you’ll want to curl up with again and again.

Over the years I’ve cooked this food for friends and loved ones, unashamedly taking credit for the delectable Chicken Pot Pie (tarragon! a revelation!) – it’s always a hit. I didn’t start at the swelly end of the spectrum with Julee and Sheila, though. I began more humbly.

I began with the Coffee Blond Brownie. I’d never experienced a bar like this – so dense, so chewy, so…luscious is the only word. Or maybe decadent. Rich. Toothsome. Out of this world. Lots of butter and a full pound of dark brown sugar, combined with chocolate and coffee. Insanity. And pretty much foolproof unless you overbake.

Over the years I’ve tinkered with the recipe: Adjusting the amount of coffee; replacing the coffee with Kahlua; adding cinnamon; and trying different types of chocolate. All have been good, especially the Kahlua during the holidays. But the original recipe really doesn’t need any work – it’s perfection.

Nancy Siesel/The New York Times

Sheila Lukins photo by Nancy Siesel/The New York Times

Both original Silver Palate cookbooks are available on Amazon. Trust me when I tell you these are much more than simple cookbooks. These are food storybooks you’ll want to curl up with again and again.

Note: In writing this piece, I discovered that Sheila Lukins passed away in 2009. I’m so saddened to learn this. The New York Times remembered Sheila with a headline stating she “awakened taste buds.” She certainly did for me. We should all aspire to something so worthy.

Coffee Blond Brownies

From The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook

1 pound dark brown sugar

1 ½ sticks (¾ c) unsalted butter

2 T instant espresso powder dissolved in 1 T hot water

2 eggs

2 T vanilla extract

2 c unbleached all-purpose flour

2 tsp baking powder

½ tsp salt

1 c semisweet chocolate chips (or equivalent volume of chopped bittersweet chocolate)

1 c chopped pecans (optional)

Preparation

Heat the brown sugar and butter in a medium-size saucepan over medium-low heat untilIMG_2400 the butter melts. Add the espresso mixture. Set aside to cool to room temperature.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 11 x 8 inch baking pan. (If you want to ensure attractive squares, line the pan with foil or parchment, leaving overhangs, so you can easily lift out the bars.)

Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

When the butter mixture is cool, use a wooden spoon to beat in the eggs and vanilla. Then add the flour mixture, stirring with the wooden spoon until well combined.

Stir in the chocolate (and pecans if using).

Spread the batter evenly in the prepared pan with a rubber spatula.

IMG_2430Bake until lightly browned, 25 to 30 minutes. Do not overbake.

Cool completely and cut into squares.

Going donutty? Donut Muffins Scratch the Itch

There’s a line, attributed to the great Homer Simpson, that goes something like this: HeIMG_2357 offers someone a donut. They say they are not hungry. He replies, “Since when do you have to be hungry to eat a donut?”

And to that, I say “word.” I like a donut. My favorite is a plain cake donut (the “old-fashioned” as some shops call it), followed by a chocolate cake donut. Followed by a powdered sugar Entenmann’s or a cinnamon sugar from a cider mill. I could tumble down the donut hole forever or at least until we hit the jelly bellies (not a fan) or anything with coconut.

What I don’t like is making donuts. I’m afraid of anything that requires 375-degree pots of hot oil. And, truth be told, my attempts have never been successful. They have been…indigestible. So what’s a girl to do on a morning when she wants a donut but certainly doesn’t want to go out?

The Donut Muffin. Perfectly easy, perfectly tasty, and scratches that donut itch, well, perfectly.

IMG_2319My first experience with the Donut Muffin was thanks to Marion Cunningham and her delightful, homey little tome, The Breakfast Book. She didn’t call them Donut Muffins but the recipe, full of nutmeg and cinnamon sugar, offered the same flavor profile. I packed her book with the bulk of my cookbook library when I recently downsized my living space, so when I had a recent weekend craving, I had to work from memory.

The following is my improvised recipe for Donut Muffins. On any given morning you can go donutty in less than an hour.FullSizeRender

A note on tools: There are many muffin pans to choose from out there, some are even gold! Mine is my mom’s, simple aluminum, oft-used, much loved, with the way-cool name of the “Muffinaire.” I like any excuse to rock the Muffinaire, but I always use paper liners. That old aluminum is a mutha to clean and at least one muffin always sticks.

Donut Muffins

Inspired by The Breakfast Book

¾ c milk

Enough crème fraiche to bring the milk measure to 1 cup

1 ½ sticks unsalted butter, smacked with rolling pin until soft

1 c  sugar

2 large eggs

1 ½ tsps vanilla extract

3 c flour

2 ½ tsp baking powder

¼ tsp baking soda

1 tsp sea salt

2 tsp grated nutmeg

For the cinnamon sugar topping (optional for the purist)

3 Tbs melted butter

2 Tbs sugar mixed with 1-2 tsp cinnamon

Preparation

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a standard 12 cup muffin pan with paper liners.

Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and nutmeg in a bowl and stir with fork or whisk to combine.

Pour milk into a 1 cup measuring cup. Spoon small dollops of crème fraiche into the cup until the volume reaches 1 full cup. Stir to blend.

Beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, until just combined. Mix in the vanilla.

With IMG_2320the mixer on low, alternate adding the dry ingredients with the milk, one-third at a time, and mix until smooth and very thick.

Using a medium ice cream scoop, drop dollops of batter into the prepared muffin pan.

Bake until a wire tester comes out clean, 25-30 minutes.muffins3 (Don’t worry if they don’t brown, just use the tester.)

Let pan cool on a rack for about 5 minutes. Then brush each muffin with the melted butter and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar.

Et voila! Donut cravings satisfied! These are most delicious when still slightly warm with, yes, some butter. But also great at room temp with a cup of IMG_2358tea or a glass of milk. They are best the same day, but can be frozen. Let defrost in fridge before a quick zap in the microwave.

Purloined Pudding Chocolate Pie

I was a world-class babysitter. I was booked weeks in advance, months ahead for bigDSC00555 occasions. There were bidding wars for New Year’s Eve. I kept a spreadsheet of clients with detailed notes. I was a pro and suspect this fact will figure largely in any Barbara Corcoran-style profile of me.

My clients wooed me, leaving various treats “to help pass the time.” One of my favorite clients wooed and won – for life. One babysitting eve, I casually reviewed their fridge and noticed little footed cups of chocolate pudding. I figured they wouldn’t mind my trying one. It was chocolate pudding with crushed graham crackers sprinkled on the bottom and top. This combo was a revelation to me. (Chocolate pie in my house was rare and was the black bottom variety made with a traditional pie crust.) I succumbed like Alfred Molina in Chocolat, awaking from my chocolate stupor to find I’d eaten all but one of the puddings. I carefully washed the cups (and my face) and didn’t look my employer in the eye when it was time to drive me home. My fourteen-year-old self expected I’d lost a client.

A couple of weeks later, they booked me again. After I’d put the kids to bed, I checked the fridge (cautiously this time). They’d left eight cups of pudding treats on a shelf with a note “For Caroline.” My allegiance to them – and to chocolate pudding and graham crackers – was sealed.

When it comes to chocolate pie, in my book, if it ain’t got a graham cracker crust, it ain’t really chocolate pie. Similarly, if the pudding wasn’t made on the stove from scratch…it ain’t the real deal. (Although in college we did enjoy the big cheat: Store-bought crust, Jell-O instant pudding and Cool-Whip. Toothy enough for a 20 year old and easily made in a dorm room.) I still use store-IMG_1675bought crust (Keebler is the best, imo) and though I’ve mucked around with the basic recipe (adding liqueurs, adjusting sugar, trying various percentages of cacao, etc.), over time I’ve decided that simpler really is better. (Although Kahlua can be a nice addition.)

Full disclosure – I make my pudding the way my grandmother showed me, not from a written recipe. So to ensure total foolproof ease here, the recipe below is adapted from Epicurious (Gourmet, 2004). The pudding always thickens, the pie always sets. And it tastes just as good as Grandma’s.

And so, I give you, Purloined Pudding Chocolate Pie, so named for those I stole and for the fact that this will disappear before your eyes.

Purloined Pudding Chocolate Pie

Adapted from Gourmet

Note: You must plan ahead. This pie takes several hours of cooling and setting time. For same day serving, start early in the morning.

  • One 6 oz. Keebler pre-made graham pie crust FullSizeRender
  • 2/3 c sugar
  • 1/4 c cornstarch
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 4 large egg yolks
  • 3 c whole milk
  • 5 oz bittersweet chocolate, melted (I use Valhrona 71% cacao)
  • 2 oz unsweetened chocolate, melted (I use Guittard)
  • 2 Tbs unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 Tbs Kahlua, optional, more or less to taste
  • 3/4 cup chilled heavy cream whipped with 1 Tbs powdered sugar
  • 1-2 Tbs. cocoa powder

Preparation

In a heavy 3-quart saucepan, whisk together sugar, cornstarch, salt, and yolks until well combined (the mixture will quickly become like paste, keep going until you’ve incorporated all the cornstarch).

PuddingsAdd the milk in a steady stream, whisking constantly until mixture is smooth.
Bring to a boil over moderate heat, stirring constantly, then reduce heat and simmer, stirring, about one minute. The filling will be beautifully thickened.

Force filling through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, then whisk in melted chocolates, butter, vanilla, and Kahlua if using.

Let cool for about 15 minutes, then cover surface with buttered wax paper and cool completely, then refrigerate for about 2 hours.IMG_1661

Spoon filling into crust and chill pie, loosely covered, at least 6 hours. At this point the pie can be stored, covered loosely with plastic wrap, overnight.

When ready to serve, top pie with sweetened whipped cream and sprinkle with cocoa. Serve immediately.

IMG_1677Assembled pie will last, loosely covered with plastic wrap, two days in fridge. (JK, it will be eaten long before two days pass.)