Archive for October, 2009

I kind of went crazy this year with making treats for Kiddo’s pre-school.  I know once he’s out there in the real world next year, his school isn’t going to be as keen about homemade goodies, so this was the year to get a chance to get some of my candy-making and cookie-baking desires satisfied.


I debated for a while whether I was going to make sugar cookies or gingerbread for the kids.  Choo and several friends talked me off the gingerbread ledge (I can’t wait for December, when I attempt to be knee-deep in gingerbread for the whole month), but I decided to do a bit of a twist on sugar cookies that ended up being a very nice compromise.  It gave the cookies enough character that they were more than just plain sweet.  As for the icing, I like to go with Martha Stewart’s recipe and instructions.  If you do any amount of cookie baking through the year, I would recommend getting the meringue powder–it’s easy to pick up at craft stores like Michael’s or any candy making supply store.  It’s shelf stable, and you’re not wasting egg yolks (well, unless you’ve got plans for, say, lemon curd or pastry cream or hollandaise sauce).

I think I just realized my love of royal icing and brightly decorated cookies comes from them being completely verboten when I was a child.  Oh, sure, we had the occasional Toll House cookie, but a delightfully colored, almost-pure-sugar cookie was an absolute no-no, so I’m sure my inner child is just excited that I can make them now.

Brown Sugar and Spice Cookies

makes approximately 30 cookies

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

1 cup dark brown sugar

1 egg

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

3 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt (skip if you use salted butter)

1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

  1. In a large bowl, beat butter and brown sugar until fluffy.
  2. With a rubber spatula, scrape down sides, then beat in egg and vanilla.
  3. Sift together all dry ingredients together, and add to butter mixture.  Beat until flour is fully incorporated.
  4. Turn dough out onto plastic wrap and press down to approximately 1/2″ thick.  Wrap dough in plastic wrap and chill for a minimum of 4 hours, up to overnight.
  5. When ready to bake cookies, preheat oven to 350°.  Line sheet pans with parchment paper, or butter sheet pans.
  6. Roll dough to just under a 1/4″ thickness, and cut with cookie cutters.  Place on sheet pans 1″ apart.
  7. Bake cookies 11-13 minutes, until golden brown.  Cool on sheet pan for 5 minutes before transferring to cooling rack.
  8. Once fully cooled, they can be frosted with royal icing.




Next up were the caramel apples.

One of the biggest complaints that come from home cooks when making caramel apples is that the caramel slips off the apple.  Well, of course:  if you’re buying them from the supermarket, they’re waxed like your cousin Skeeter’s Camaro.  If you have access to a farmer’s market, go buy unwaxed apples.  I know, they’re not as pretty, but your caramel will stick.  If you have to get your apples from the supermarket, then you need to get that wax off.  My method is to put them in a sinkful of water with a drop of Dawn dishwashing liquid (a drop is all you need, it’ll help cut through that wax) and a fresh nylon scrubby or washcloth.  Wash the apples thoroughly and scrub the skins; be sure to dry the apples with a clean towel.  Once the apples are dry, remove any stems, and punch in the craft sticks at either the stem or blossom end.  As I was using baby Gala apples, the bottoms were on the small side, so the sticks went into the blossom end.

Once that was done, it was time to start the caramel.  As you may notice, I’ve got two shades of caramel happening in that picture.  The first batch of caramel I made, I used white sugar–by the time the caramel hit hard ball stage (255-260°, ideally) it was a very light brown–not as dark as I would have liked it, but if I had let it go farther, then I’d have headed into crack stage territory, and there would be no chewy caramel.  The next batch of caramel, I went with brown sugar, and I liked the final result–a much darker “caramelly” color once it reached 260°.

Once the caramel was made, I had my apples ready to dip.  I swirled the apples first in the caramel, then swirled them a second time over the pan so I could evenly coat the apples and any excess caramel could drip off.  A very important tip:  put your dipped apples on wax paper or silpat (if you have it).  It will do caramel-mind-melds with your pans and plates if you don’t have anything in between.  After dipping all the apples, I just did a drizzle of milk chocolate over the caramel, but this is where you can have fun and experiment–dip in different kinds of chocolate, roll in chopped nuts or candies–the possibilities are endless.  Kids can especially help out with the decorating the apples, and you can pretend it’s healthy, “because it’s got fruit.”

Caramel for Caramel Apples

covers 4-5 large apples, 6-8 medium apples, or 8-10 baby apples

1 pound sugar (white sugar for a light caramel, brown sugar for a darker caramel)

1/3 cup corn syrup

1/2 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons butter

Add all ingredients into a saucepan, and simmer over medium heat to hard ball stage (255-260°).  Take off heat immediately, and working quickly, swirl apples in caramel, and then tilt and spin slowly to let excess drip off and coat apple evenly.  Place on silpat or wax-paper lined sheet pans. While caramel is warm, roll in chopped nuts if desired, or let caramel cool completely and drizzle with chocolate, and roll in nuts or candies.


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I’ll say this now:  I totally nabbed this idea from Martha Stewart.  Easy, can be done in an afternoon, totally kid-friendly, and HEY, it’s candy!  What’s not to love?

First, there was a double boiler and a pound of white confectionary wafers.


I’ll tell you one thing, I have never actually owned a double boiler in my life.  It’s easily rigged with a large metal mixing bowl that fits atop a small stockpot.   As for the white confectionary wafers, well, you don’t need to get them, you can use a pound of white chocolate, and add a tablespoon of vegetable oil.  The extra fat added to the chocolate helps mimic couverture–chocolate with a higher percentage of cocoa butter–which professional candy makers use for those gorgeous shiny chocolate coatings.

So, anyway:  melt your white chocolate.

One more thing, if you’re using a double boiler, be careful about getting water in your chocolate.  That would be bad–crossing the streams bad.  Water causes chocolate to seize, meaning it will get grainy and lumpy and it will not cooperate at all.


I lined sheet pans with parchment (wax paper would also work), and spooned about 1 tablespoon of the melted chocolate onto the paper.  With the spoon, I swirled the chocolate into ghost-like shapes, and went with short, fat ghosts with little stubby arms.   Kiddo helped out by adding the lollipop sticks.  I gave the sticks a little twirl to make sure they were fully covered with the chocolate.  I added about an extra teaspoon of chocolate once the sticks were in place, to make sure that they were fully anchored.


The ghosts went into the fridge for a 10 minute rest to set.  Once ready, I gently peeled off the paper.


About 2 ounces of dark chocolate (I just happened to have some leftover from when I made the Marjolaine 3 weeks ago) were melted and poured into a piping bag.  If you don’t have piping bags (because I’m sure you just keep a drawer full of ’em, right?) you can use a ziploc bag, and snip off the tip–just be sure to use a freezer bag, as the plastic is heavier and will be easier to handle.

Piping chocolate can be tricky.  It took a few ghosts to get the hang of it again, but once I was comfortable, I was on a roll.


C’mon!  How cute are these?!

And, these were not expensive at all:  The pound of confectionary wafers cost $3.79, the lollypop sticks were 89 cents for 25.  The pound was plenty to make a full 25 ghostie pops.

But, since these are destined to be part of the festivities at Kiddo’s pre-school, they needed to be wrapped.


Yes, I found little ghost treat bags at the candy supply store.   Perhaps it was a bit overboard, but I still can’t get over how cute they turned out.

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I was made aware that this past Saturday was Sweetest Day, which I had never known its origins as being a promotion to boost candy sales.  A holiday designed for buying candy?  How did I not know about this sooner?

That’s it, I will always celebrate Sweetest Day by making candy to give away to people I like from now on.

I had a late start this time around and after thinking of different kinds of candies I could make, I decided on a favorite:  Toffee.  You want to know one of the reasons why it’s a favorite of mine?  The recipe starts out with one pound of butter.

Yes.  You read that right.  One. Pound. Of. Butter.


See?  I wasn’t kidding.  And to that one pound of butter (say it a few times, it feels awfully decadent)  in went two cups of sugar.  I had this in my heavy enameled cast-iron pot with the heat on medium, and once the butter melted, I slipped on the candy thermometer and it was time to stir.  And stir.  And stir some more.


At first, once the butter melted, it was kind of odd and “broken” looking (broken being a culinary term when a fat separates from a sauce, like in homemade macaroni and cheese or hollandaise that’s been overcooked)–the melted butter acts like it doesn’t want to incorporate into the sugar, but I knew better.  Somewhere at 240°, I had this bubbling mass that still had another 10 minutes or so to go before we had toffee.

After hours and hours and hours of stirring, the syrup hit the Hard Crack Stage (I should throw in some Crack Is Wack joke in here somehow) which is 300°-310°.  This is when it’s time to work quickly.  Once the heat gets turned off on a cooking sugar syrup, it will start its crystalization process.


Immediately I tossed in about 1 1/2 cups of roughly chopped almonds.  To be honest, I stole them from Choo’s snacking stash, and they were already roasted and lightly salted.  I don’t mind some salt in caramels, and in fact, I think it enhances the flavor of the caramelized sugar and browned butter.  After the almonds were mixed in, I (carefully!) poured this into a well-buttered 8″ square cake pan.


I use a smaller pan because I like my toffee in big, solid chunks, but I know that others like it in thinner sheets, so a 9 x 13 cake pan or a silpat-lined sheet pan (for even thinner sheets, or if you want to break it up for little toffee pieces for other confections like pretzels dipped in milk chocolate and rolled in toffee bits).

Once this block had cooled a bit (but still very warm to the touch), I sprinkled the top with shaved dark chocolate which promptly melted so I could spread it out into a nice, thin sheet of chocolate.   And, really, that’s it–you don’t need to do anything else.  Once it’s fully cooled, it pops out of the pan very easily, and can be broken up into bite-size pieces with a large knife or a toffee hammer.

One of my ideas for the holidays is to try to find a source for little toffee hammers like See’s used to put in their boxes of Victoria Toffee.  I could just wrap up an entire block of this toffee in cellophane and attach the hammer in the bow.  Sugar and Tools:  a winning combination.

But, this time around, I just piled pieces up on a plate and brought them into work:


Yeah, that’ll do.

Almond Toffee

1 pound unsalted butter

2 cups sugar

1-2 cups of roughly chopped toasted almonds (amount is to personal preference)

4-6 ounces dark chocolate, either shaved, or in chips

  1. In a heavy-bottomed pot turn heat to medium and add butter and sugar.
  2. Once butter melts, stir often as syrup begins to boil.  Keep a close eye on the syrup as it can scorch easily.
  3. Simmer syrup until it reaches the hard crack stage, at 300° to 310°, approximately 10-15 minutes.
  4. Turn heat off and working quickly, add nuts and stir until fully incorporated.  Pour into buttered cake pan or silpat-lined sheet pan.
  5. When the toffee has cooled slightly but is still very warm to the touch, sprinkle chocolate on top and let the heat of the toffee melt the chocolate.  Spread chocolate evenly with rubber spatula.
  6. Let toffee cool completely before lifting out of pan.  Use a heavy knife or small hammer to break into bite-sized pieces.

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It seems that in the matter of days the weather turned from the hot oven blast of the Santa Anas to cool and grey, with the wind that portends our first storm of the season.  I’ve hit my turning point towards seasonal nestiness; I want soups and stews for dinner, oatmeal packed with raisins and maple syrup for breakfast, and rich autumn fruit baked into cakes and pies.

A few weeks ago, I saw Ree Drummond’s recipe for Upside Down Apple Cake that she cooked in her cast iron skillet, and today I said, Self, I do believe it is time to make this cake. Oh, and wouldn’t you know, this weekend’s trip to the market netted me a very large bag of Granny Smith apples (on sale for 49 cents a pound–you know I had to bring some home to be turned into something).

Now, of course, I did have to tweak the recipe a bit since her recipe calls for a 10″ skillet, and mine happens to be 12″.  I bumped my apples up to 6 but kept the butter and sugar amounts for the caramel the same.


I have NO CLUE why those apple slices look so green on the right!  Forgive me, I’m still learning how to do color correcting with the photo editor.  ANYWAY.  Have I ever mentioned my love of caramel?  Chocolate’s great and all, but chances run high if there’s a caramel-based dessert on a restaurant menu, that’s probably what I’m getting.  Bring me some Dulce de Leche and I’ll be your loyal friend and always help you move.

As for the cake, I multiplied everything by 1.5 to adjust for the size of the skillet.  Other recipe tweaks:  I did not have sour cream, but I did have whole milk yogurt, which makes an acceptable substitute and does help lighten the recipe a bit.  I did not multiply the baking powder, but added a half teaspoon of baking soda, which would give a big lift to the cake when it reacted with the yogurt. Along with the cinnamon, I added a few gratings of nutmeg and a pinch of ground cloves.

Once the sugar and butter started to turn a light amber color all around the apples (I cheated a bit by nudging the slices a bit during the cooking process so the caramel could move outwards and color the apples more evenly), the batter was spooned on and spread out and popped right into the oven.  I did have to bake the cake a little longer, and with the addition of the baking soda, it gave the cake some extra lift.


Can I tell you just how amazing this cake smells?  Apples and caramel and spices and cake, oh my.  Next time I bake this cake (and there will be a next time, trust me), I need someone from the Yankee Candle Company to come and sit in my kitchen and copy this scent into a candle, because I would buy it.


It’s not a pretty cake by any means.  If you were to be gentle on my feelings, you could call it rustic. Even Kiddo was kind of disappointed because when he heard the word cake, he imagined a big frothy confection decorated with various superheroes and candles.

His attitude changed when we shared a piece of that cake, still warm from the oven.

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I have had fond recollections of a cake I had made back in my school days;  I remembered it as layers of hazelnut meringues and ganache and (the oh-so-gorgeous Fat Bomb) French buttercream.  For some reason it had been sticking in my mind the past few months, and I decided that it had to be my birthday cake.

I still had my school recipe, but after a few searches online, I decided on Godiva Chocolate’s version.  I did a few things differently, the main thing being rather than spread the meringue into a full-sized sheet that would be cut after baking, I traced rectangles out on parchment paper and then piped the meringue into the rectangles (which is how I remember doing it in school).  In retrospect, I should have gone for the whole sheet–it would have saved me time, and I would have had more evenly sized pieces.  I didn’t bother with the Frangelico or butter in the ganache, and doubled the amount of chocolate covered hazelnuts for decoration.

One of those tricky things in life is getting those darn skins off of hazelnuts.


I didn’t need to get every little bit of skin off of them, especially when they’re getting a trip to the Cuisinart. Getting all the flaky parts is the key.  After roasting them in the oven, I let them cool for about 10-15 minutes–they were still a mite warm, but easy to handle.  I piled them on one side of a towel, and folded over the other side, giving them a rubdown.  The skins slid right off.  From there, I saved the ones to be dipped in chocolate, and the rest went into the food processor to be finely ground.


After the meringues were baked and cooled, it was time to do some layerin’.


See what I mean about the uneven sizes of the meringues?  I could have trimmed them, yes, but I didn’t.  I went with it.

Besides, my family motto is gelu exuviae a vulgus of delictum* (Frosting covers a multitude of sins), as shown here:


I used the buttercream like spackle–filling in the gaps, and creating a smooth surface. with a very thin layer (you might hear Martha Stewart call it a “crumb coat”–ok, ok, I call it that, too).  I popped that into the fridge for about 30 minutes for the buttercream to set, then I spread the final coat for a nice, smooth finish.


I finally finished this around 2:30 in the morning–note that everything was looking great until the very last part–the piping at the bottom–I had finally hit the wall and the buttercream was getting really soft… well, let’s just say I usually do a much nicer job but there was a pillow screaming my name at that point.


Ah, there’s a nice cross-section for you.  It was as good as I remembered it, if not better.  I served it with a Zinfandel Port (very yummy, and only $10 from Trader Joe’s) that was absolutely perfect.

Can I tell you I’m sad that I don’t have any more?  I gave away the rest at the office on Monday morning, because that stuff is dangerous.  Who’s birthday is next?  Any major celebrations coming up?  C’mon, give me a reason to make another!

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So there we were, two courses in and a few glasses of wine drunk, and I had timed the brie to bake while we had our main course, and it would cool while we ate our salads;  the timer on the oven rang as I toted the empty second course plates into the kitchen and I open the oven door to this:


Let’s rewind to a bit earlier in the evening, when I was prepping this–I had forgotten that when I buy puff pastry, it comes in two sheets wrapped together, and had defrosted far more than I needed.  I decided to use the extra to cut out the decorations, and then some extras to egg wash and sprinkle with some vanilla sugar for the Kiddo to snack on.

What I forgot is the little rule of smaller things will cook faster.

I think when I opened the oven door, I may have yelped.

Then I laughed, and called people in to the kitchen to point and laugh.

The brie was still absolutely delicious, served with sliced Gala Apples, black seedless grapes,

Brie en Croûte with Caramelized Red Onion Compote

2 tablespoons butter

2 large red onions, sliced thinly

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons sugar

1 small wheel of brie, 6-8 ounces

1 sheet Peppridge Farm Puff Pastry, plus extra for decoration (optional)

1 egg

  1. In a heavy-bottomed pot, melt butter on low heat.  Add sliced onions and begin to cook on low heat to caramelize.  Slowly cook onions until soft and starting to brown–keep your heat low!  You’re coaxing the sugars out of the onions, and this will take time.  Expect to cook onions for a minimum of an hour.
  2. Add red wine vinegar, and deglaze pan, picking up all the browned bits.  Add sugar, and continue to cook until onions are fully caramelized and take on a soft, jam-like consistency.
  3. Remove from heat and cool;  can be made up to 3 days ahead and kept in an air-tight container until ready to prepare brie.
  4. Defrost puff pastry sheet as per box directions.  Dust workspace with a little flour to keep from sticking, and unfold sheet.
  5. Spoon onion compote in the center of the pastry sheet, approximately the size of the wheel of brie.  Place cheese on top of compote, then wrap the brie by first bringing in the four corners to the center and pinching together, then taking the loose ends and “pleating’ them, pinching any open spots shut so the cheese will not run out during the baking process.
  6. Turn brie over and put folded side down on a parchment-lined sheet pan.  Whisk the egg with a tablespoon of water, and brush egg wash over all the pastry.  If using any cut pieces for decoration, use egg wash to glue on to the surface.
  7. Place in a preheated 375° oven and bake for 20 minutes, until puffed and golden.  Let rest for about 10 minutes before serving.

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Some foodie might come across and wag his finger at me for being so pedestrian.

It’s the salad that has shown up on menus all over the place with a few variations;  it’s become the other salad you can order on the menu if you’re not in the mood for a Caesar Salad or a wedge of Iceburg.

But, you know what?  I don’t care.  I love this salad.  The fresh bitterness in the greens; the creamy acidity of the chevre, the crunch of the nuts, and the sweetness provided by the dried fruit and vinaigrette–it’s a perfect salad to me.  There’s also something really satisfying about eating greens that aren’t even 24 hours out of the farm;  I had spent part of my morning at the farmer’s market, choosing the salad greens and deciding on his Mesculun mix (which did contain a few leaves of frisee–not my favorite of all the greens).

Market Greens Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette

serves 4 as a first/salad course

6 ounces of Mesculun (a mix of baby salad leaves)

2-3 tablespoons balsamic vinaigrette (recipe to follow)

1 1/2 ounces fresh chevre, crumbled

1/2 cup candied pecans, roughly chopped

1/4 cup dried cranberries or other dried fruit

In a large mixing bowl, pour the balsamic vinaigrette into the bottom, and add salad greens.  Toss with tongs until leaves are fully coated with the dressing.  Pile greens onto plate and sprinkle with the chevre, pecans, and cranberries.

This balsamic vinaigrette comes from my catering days–I made a batch of this every 2 weeks for over 2 years.  I haven’t a clue where it originally came from.  It’s a dressing that seems to always get complements when I serve it–it has the right balance of sweetness and acidity.

Balsamic Vinaigrette

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon honey

1 large garlic clove

1/2 cup olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

In a blender or a food processor, add vinegar, honey, and garlic.  Start blender, and begin to add olive oil, drop by drop at first, then a slow stream until the vinaigrette has thickened.  Add salt and pepper to taste, and pulse blender again for a moment to mix in.  Store in a jar or air tight container.

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