Thursday, December 30, 2010

Peppermint Bark: Easier Made than Purchased

Day 2 of candy making went well. The recipe, which I wrote up by combining elements that made sense from half a dozen internet recipes, makes for an essentially easy afternoon project.  My bittersweet chocolate did seize up a bit but I ressurected it with another tablespoon of cream and rolled it out with a rolling pin. The finished chocolate breaks wonderfully and has a good minty flavor. Peppermint Bark is a must try for those of you who are fans but have yet to make your own. Next holiday season be sure to buy some clear cello candy bags and some gorgeous ribbon - it makes a wonderful gift.

One more note: extracts, like a box of chocolates and unlike men, are not created equal. Make sure your extracts are pure and, in this case, pure peppermint. Generic "Mint Extract" is often a blend of spearmint and peppermint which is not what you want here. I recommend sourcing it at your local spice merchant. The Spice House in Chicago sells a wonderful one.

Make sure, also, to use the best quality white and bittersweet chocolate you can get your hands on.

Peppermint Bark
Print recipe only here

Makes 1 pound

8 ounces white chocolate
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate
4 tablespoons heavy cream
3/4 teaspoon peppermint extract
6 candy canes, smashed (or 4-5 ounces peppermint candies)

Turn over a large baking sheet. Cover securely with foil and tape in place.

Coarsely chop white chocolate and transfer to a medium stainless steel mixing bowl. Reserve.

Combine bittersweet chocolate, cream and peppermint extract in medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan over low heat and stir until just melted and smooth. Cool for 5 minutes. If the chocolate seizes up, just add a bit more cream and heat until soft again. Using a large offset spatula, spread bittersweet chocolate in even layer. It should be about 9x12. You can also just roll it out with a rolling pin if need be - just plop the chocolate onto the foil-covered baking sheet, cover with a large piece of plastic wrap and roll out. Refrigerate until very cold and firm, about 25 minutes.

Unwrap candy canes or peppermint candies and place in a heavy duty ziploc bag. Smash with a rolling pin or meat tenderizer until pulverized. Reserve.

Bring an inch or two of water to boil in a wide saucepan or saute pan. Turn off heat and set bowl of white chocolate on the hot water. Stir until the chocolate is melted and smooth. Remove from water bath and let cool for 3-5 minutes. Pour onto bittersweet chocolate. Using icing spatula, spread to cover the bittersweet chocolate. Sprinkle candy cane dust and bits all over surface. Chill until set, about 30 minutes.

Lift foil with bark onto work surface; trim edges. Break into medium large shards. Let stand 15 minutes at room temperature before serving.

Can be made 2 weeks ahead. Store refrigerated in an airtight container.

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Microwave for Pralines? Bah! Humbug!

Tomorrow I'm going to make peppermint bark. I vowed to do it this year and don't have many hours left. And speaking of things sneaking up on you, I thought we'd have to wait until November for a another one of those dates with all the same numbers. But I saw a sign for something happening on 1/1/11 today and realized both November and January will furnish two dates with lots of 1s. Would this be pleasing to the Count or not? One! One! One! One!

The bark should be less tricky than those microwave pralines everyone was talking about from the NY Times.  Our gracious hostess at a fabulous neighborhood dinner party followed that recipe and warned me of the its failings. (It should be mentioned that she was able to refashion them with incredible success using her own creative genius, a bit of salt, and cinnamon.) I decided to give pralines a whirl today but since I do not own a microwave went about it the old-fashioned way with a pot and candy thermometer. Truth to tell, after discovering the numbers on my candy thermometer had, like, washed off (?!?!?), I went about candy making the really old-fashioned way with a cup of cold water.

Anyway, pecan pralines will make a delightful addition to the dessert tray I'm planning to execute for New Year's Eve.

Pecan Pralines
Print recipe only here

Makes 2-3 dozen

3 cups pecans
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups light brown sugar
3/4 cup heavy cream
2-3 T Meyer's Rum
1/3 cup butter
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350.

Spread the pecans on a baking sheet and bake for about 5-10 minutes.

Combine remaining ingredients except the pecans and vanilla  in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Cook until it reaches the soft ball stage, or between 235 and 240 degrees. In lieu of a candy thermometer, drizzle some of the hot candy into a glass of cold water. When ready, the candy ball should flatten between your fingers when you take it out of the water.

Turn off the flame and set the pot on a back burner to cool for about 15 minutes.

Line a baking sheet with parchment, foil or a silicone mat.

Add the pecans and vanilla to the candy and stir vigorously (not so vigorously as to munch the pecans) for about a minute, or until the mixture creams a bit and loses its glossiness.

Now work fast! Use two soup spoons and scoop the mixture into 2-inch-diameter mounds onto the lined baking sheet. If the mix becomes too hard to shape, or too sandy, reheat gently until it softens, adding scant spoonful of water if it looks too thick. Cool for 2-3 minutes, then resume spooning.

Let the pralines rest for 30 minutes before serving or storing. Store in an airtight container.

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Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Festive Christmas Eve Dinner

I'm working in reverse order. Having planned our Christmas breakfast (crepes, grapefruit, fresh squeezed OJ, breakfast sausages, scrambled eggs with Gruyère) I'm now plotting dinner.  I don't know who started the rally  call for TWO MEATS! but I love it. Serving two meats is a festive approach to an intimate Christmas Eve dinner. But you can't stop there; the dinner should be a multi-coursed event. There has to be a fish course as well as a colorful salad - mixed greens with Gorgonzola, candied pecans and sliced pear or pomegranate seeds comes to mind - and homemade rolls. Christmas eve dinner is like Thanksgiving but more upscale.

First, plan your protein then decide on the salad and sides. I'm going to roast a beef tenderloin and serve it with two sauces - a Stilton and a fresh horseradish sauce. I picked up some horseradish root this morning in the pre-dawn (well, 9am) quiet at Whole Foods. Full disclosure: I couldn't find a prepared horseradish. For the second meat, I'm still deciding between Roasted Leg of Lamb with Yukon Gold Potatoes, a glazed spiral ham, and that garlic-rosemary Brined Pork Loin I liked so much. It'll probably be the spiral ham, as we had that brined pork a couple of weeks ago and the lamb would be too much red meat for one meal. Two meats is already over-the-top enough without going up and over again.

Next: something fishy. My dad is known to make Coquilles St. Jacques on Christmas Eve, something I've always enjoyed. I will probably serve Crab Cakes with Red Pepper Sauce on mixed greens. Killing two birds with one stone - combining the fish and salad courses - is so in the spirit of Christmas whereas killing one bird with two stones is overkill, literally.

Sides. Simple Rosemary Roasted Yukon Gold potatoes are a favorite of mine. Just clean 5-10 potatoes (quarter the larger ones), toss with a bit of olive oil, some kosher salt and fresh ground pepper, several (as in 7-10) unpeeled garlic cloves and a 3-5 springs of fresh rosemary. Roast in a hot oven - like 425, or whatever temp you've got the meat going at, for about 30-40 minutes or until nice and golden. Want something green? Haricots Vert with Shallots and a wee pit of pancetta is always yum, as are Parsley Cashew Green Beans.

Homemade rolls. This is kind of like your trainer telling you to do unassisted pull ups. She might not expect you to pull it off but she wants to see you try. :) And if you do try you won't be disappointed - these rolls are totally worth it. Just don't ruin Christmas trying to squeeze these in if you're already in over your head. For the inspired or blessed with extra time:  Rosemary Raisin Rolls or Golden Pillow Dinner Rolls.

Salad. For those of you not killing any birds with my crab cakes idea, you might consider the Pinch house salad - simple mixed greens plus candied pecans, some Gorgonzola, candied pecans, and sliced pear or pomegranate seeds for color. You know how to extract seeds from a pomegranate, right? Cut it in half horizontally (the nub at the top is North), hold one half over a bowl and whack it all over with a wood spoon or back of a chef's knife. The seeds will spill into the bowl.

Drinks! Something bubbly is fun. Use more pomegranate seeds and make a festive Champagne cocktail by pouring a pit of Chambord into the bottom of a champagne flute, fill with Champagne and add a few pomegranate seeds. I picked up a magnum sized Christmas Ale from Anchor Brewing Co. They've been brewing it for 36 years. If it's anything like their Anchor Steam, we're sure to love it.

Finally, dessert.  If you're done cooking at this point, pick up an extra-special ice cream or sorbet from a micro dairy. Get something particularly festive such as peppermint, cinnamon or caramel. Serve with something chocolaty and decadent like hazelnut biscotti, triple chocolate cookies, or truffles.

And to all a Good Night!

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Monday, December 20, 2010

The Best Burger Buns

Back in the mid to late 1990s - long before Atkins and damning evidence about carbs - Jack in the Box had a terrific ad campaign featuring a panel of the meat and cheese obsessed to taste-test a new cheeseburger. One panelist questioned the need for the bun with the brilliant observation, "Bun's not meat nor cheese." Jack replied, incredulously, that if there were no bun consumers would have meat and cheese all over their hands. The obsessed panelists saw nothing wrong with that scenario.  Little did they know how prescient they were.

I'm no carbophobe but I do try to make all my calories count. Burger buns are tricky. They are absolutely critical to fully enjoy the physical act of eating a burger but most grocery store options are a total waste of calories.  The Wonder bread varieties are unacceptable. The healthy but dense Rudi's have it all wrong. The in-store bakery at Whole Foods turns out some decent sesame topped burger buns but only produces them seasonally. They taste just fine but are so tall that I end up slicing about an inch out of the inside to make the bun a reasonable size.

So it was a truly pleasant surprise when I discovered a skinny whole wheat burger bun that tasted good and held up under the weight of a lamb burger and all its fixins (tomato, red onion, and crumbled feta).  I picked up a package of International Fabulous Flats (the 100% Whole Wheat Slim Buns) and was beyond impressed by the flavor, texture and size. They are my new go to bun. The company is based in Toronto. I bought the package at my local Whole Foods.

One more thing. Serving sliders or smaller burgers for kids? Use a smooth-edged biscuit cutter to make buns match the size of burgers. I've seen slider buns, but they appear to be too tall, ruining the burger-bun ratio.

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2010 Pinch Holiday Gift Guide

Back by popular demand is the Pinch Holiday Gift Guide. Some items are repeated from last year, some are new. Where to shop? Unless you're an Amazon Prime member, you're probably doing last minute shopping the old fashioned way. TJ Maxx will often have a surprisingly good stash of kitchen tools. Keep an eye out there for All Clad, KitchenAid and Kuhn Rikon. Alternately, Sur la Table and Crate and Barrel are both very well-stocked. Cost Plus and World Market both have good kitchen sections, too.

Gifts under $30
Glass refrigerator pitchers - I have these in three different sizes (pint, quart and half-gallon) and use them regularly for sun tea, fresh squeezed juices, or for kids to serve themselves. The Container Store and Sur la Table sell them.

Muddler - I use mine mostly for making guacamole but in the summertime it's our mojito maker. I have a wooden one with a wide base. The stainless varieties are a good option, too.

Asian soup spoons - I picked up a melamine set at World Market (our ceramic ones kept breaking) that my children love using. Pretty chopsticks are fun gifts, too.

Fun cookie cutters - I just stuck some initial cookie cutters in my daughters' new advent calendar as a little gift. Sur la Table is a great place to pick up creative cutters.

Silicone spatulas and basters- The Rubbermaid spatulas are commercial kitchen compatible, and my personal faves. After shedding too many basting hairs into food, I've switched completely to silicone.

Kuhn rikon paring knife or cleaver with sheath - These come in a variety of colors. I use mine for picnics and camping. The bright color will stand out in your carry on and serve as a reminder to transfer it to your checked baggage. And you'll be able to find it when you drop it in the grass.

Microplane zester - No one should be without one of these. I use mine for Parmesan and citrus zesting.

Lemon squeezer - I have the lime and orange versions. I only recommend the lemon, as it accommodates lemons and limes. You just don't need the orange one.

Zyliss Susi garlic press - Incredibly efficient, this thing will amaze you if you've been stuck with the kind of garlic press that requires you to exert tons of pressure yet yields no pressed garlic.

Wine bottle foil cutter - I got one recently and surprised myself by using it all the time

Good kitchen shears - So many kitchens lack shears. How else are you gonna trim your artichokes, people? You can spend a lot on shears. This is a pretty low-end model.

Gifts over $30
Nutmeg Grinder - This particular one is kinda spendy. I have a $10 model purchased at my spice shop. The upscale version I bought as a gift has a better design.

Food Mill - These are incredibly useful and require elbow grease rather than electric power.

Salter Electronic Scale - Every cook worth their salt should have an electronic scale tucked in their cupboard.

5-inch utlity knife - I usually don't advocate purchasing knives for people because they're so personal. But this is a knife that every tomato-lover should have.

Good cake pans - Every home baker should have two 8- and 9-inch round cake pans, a 10-cup heavy-weight nonstick bundt pan and an 8-inch heavy-weight cheesecake pan.

Nicholas Mosse Pottery - Shown above. NM makes gorgeous Irish pottery pitchers, creamers, sugar bowls and butter dishes.

Cookbooks - Cooks always enjoy new material. Faves that are not oft found in cookbook libraries are Rick Bayless’ Mexican Everyday and Madhur Jaffrey’s Ultimate Curry Bible. A new favorite of mine is David Lebovit's The Perfect Scoop. And I totally want Jaffrey's latest tome - At Home with Madhur Jaffrey: Simple, Delectable Dishes from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka

Gifts over $50
Professional Power Juicer - If my next kitchen has more counter space I'm gonna get one of these for making fresh squeezed orange juice.

Pepper Grinder - I have the Atlas but also like the wooden Peugeut models. Salt and pepper sets area also a great idea. Find some good ones with glass (no acrylic!) and metals - copper, stainless or pewter all are lovely.

All Clad butter warmer - Butter should be melted in a heavy bottomed pot - and this one is perfect.

Pizza Stone and Peel - You'll be a pro with this set. My stone resides in my oven almost permanently. It lends some humidity to the dry electric heat.

Laguiole waiter’s corkscrew - The wine lover in your life will love you for this one. Some sites will engrave it for you, too.

Bob Kramer knife - Bob was my knife sharpener when I was a working chef in Seattle. Now he's expanded his operation and is selling knives through Williams Sonoma and Sur la Table. I normally don't advocate knives as gifts since they're so personal, but I'd make an exception for Bob's knives. I have a parer he made me 13 years ago and it's gorgeous.

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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Planning a Festive Christmas Breakfast

Cinnamon Sugar and Raspberry Crepes
Breakfast on Christmas morning has to be beautiful but given the multitude of distractions its execution is a daunting task. If there ever was a meal that took place amid such chaos, this is it. You're likely dealing a houseful of extended family, expectant children, a present you forgot to wrap, and a scheduled departure for Grandma's house.  Planning, shopping and prepping ahead of time is the best tactic. Here's some ideas to get you started.

Four is the magic number for a well rounded breakfast. You want a balance of sweet and savory and choices for everyone. Choose at least one thing from the four breakfast food groups that are fruit, bread, eggs, and meat.

Fruit - Keep an eye out later this week for fresh pineapple, clementines or Satsumas, Ruby Red Texas Grapefruit or oranges and buy whatever looks good. Grapefruit and fresh squeezed orange juice are both great for smaller crowds. Tangerines make lovely centerpieces in bowls on the table. Fruit salads are lovely, but time consuming, so don't plan on doing too much peeling and slicing. Fresh papaya with lime is another great option - but look for the papaya sooner rather than later as it will probably need some time to ripen on your counter.

Almond Croissants
Bread - You've got lots of choices here. You could pick up some bagels, smoked salmon and cream cheese. You could get croissants - Costco has fairly nice ones; buy in advance and warm up in a 300 oven for about 15 minutes. Or, pick up some almond paste and make Almond Croissants - you can do all the work a few days in advance and bake them off on Christmas morning. You could toast/broil those decadent Wolferman's English muffins (blueberry are a personal fave) or crumpets. I would pick up some good rasperry preserves and a European butter to serve if you go the muffin/crumpet route. Another fantastic option is Baked French Toast. Pick up a loaf or two of brioche and soak it overnite - then bake in the morning and delight everyone. Pancakes- traditional or cornmeal - and crepes are lovely as well, but only suitable to prepare for 6 or fewer people.

Eggs - For several years we ate Eggs Benedict on Christmas morning. I don't particularly like Hollandaise sauce, or poached eggs for that matter, but a homemade Egg McMuffin can be a delightful thing. To make a traditional Eggs Bene, you might consider picking up some of those adorable silicone eggs poachers. If poaching scares you, just cook the eggs over easy. No one will complain, trust me. To complete the dish, cook up some Canadian bacon (or the ham mentioned below), and toast some English muffins. Whip up the Hollandaise as the eggs cook and plan to sit down to eat immediately after assembling everything.

Breakfast Tortilla
Other egg options are the ever delightful Breakfast Tortilla which you could make a day in advance and warm up before serving. And don't overlook a simple batch of scrambled eggs. Make your scrambles a little more decadent with the addition of some grated Gruyère right at the end of cooking, and top with a bit of chopped parsley for color.

Meat - I just love Amy Lu's Breakfast Club Breakfast Sausages. They're lean, they're delicious. I buy them in Chicago at Whole Foods or Treasure Island. Trader Joe's sells a lean (Niman Ranch) Applewood Ham that crisps up nicely on a hot griddle. Plan for 2 links or slices per person and serve family-style on a small platter.

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Weight Watchers Cuts Carbs (but not cheeseburgers)

I recently posted this in the Pinched News column: Weight Watchers Upends Its Points System

WW is saying that the changes were necessary to reflect what science has taught is in the past ten years about how the body handles protein, fat and carbs.

The chief scientific officer for Weight Watchers International said, “Fifteen years ago we said a calorie is a calorie is a calorie. If you ate 100 calories of butter or 100 calories of chicken, it was all the same. Now, we know that is not the case, in terms of how hard the body has to work to make that energy available. And even more important is that where that energy comes from affects feelings of hunger and fullness.”

The president and chief executive described a flaw in the old system this way: “You could be holding an apple in one hand, which was two points, and you could be holding a 100-calorie snack pack of Oreos in the other hand, which was also two points."

In the new WW, fruits and veggies are now point free. And processed foods have seen their point values increase. That sounds ok, though unlimited fruit is not a good idea for anyone trying to shed pounds.

What I don't understand is why under the new system members are now awarded more daily points. Those Oreos went from counting an 2 out of 22 daily points to 3 out of 31, only the slightest increase in overall value. Unbelievably the point value for a Burger King bacon double cheeseburger is unchanged at 12 points, making it worth less of a dieter's daily points.

A diet plan that encourages fast food consumption? No wonder WW is a billion dollar empire.

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