Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Hot Sauce! Demystifying Caramel

It's taken me awhile to do this, but I finally made caramel sauce with a candy thermometer. I've always cooked caramel by sight, having learned long ago what to look for in color, changes in bubbling, and smell. But this is hard to teach. Giving someone an exact number on a thermometer is a better way to ensure their caramel will come out right.

Caramel is the simple result of heating sugar to a specific temperature. Think broadly about sugar when considering caramel. You caramelize onions for French Onion Soupquiche, and salads just by cooking the sugars in the onions. Extended heating of goat milk will yield cajeta. In this process, it is the sugars in the goat milk that caramelize, lending cajeta it's distinctive flavor.

For a basic caramel sauce, you heat sugar until it reaches a fairly specific temperature: too low and your caramel lacks depth, too high and it's bitter. After the right temperature is achieved you add cream and vanilla.

My candy thermometer lists a caramel range between 360° F and 380° F.  Sugar (sucrose) begins to melt around 320° F and caramelize around 340° F. If you're going to the trouble to make caramel sauce with a candy thermometer, it's probably a good idea to test the thermometer first. Do this by measuring the temp of a cup of boiling water. At sea level, it should read 212° F. If it reads above or below this number, replace it or make necessary adjustments. Oh, and for my Telluride peeps, and those at higher altitude, please note: for every 1,000 feet you are above sea level, subtract 2 degrees F from the temperature you're aiming for.

I like caramel cooked to 360° F - that's the temp at which I find it has the flavor. For a point of reference, 355-360° F is considered medium caramel and 375-380° F is considered dark caramel. I wonder who made those distinctions in the first place. Another scientific tidbit, most caramel sauce recipes I've seen have a smidgen of corn syrup added. This addition adds a wee bit of glucose to the sauce (corn syrup is only about 20% glucose), probably not enough to change the cooking times, but does change the chemical structure and prevent the formation of crystals. Sucrose is a large crystal and it has a harder time bonding with other sucrose crystals when molecules of fructose and glucose are in the mix. I always add a smidgen of corn syrup to my berry sauces and sorbets, just to keep the sauces smooth and crystal-free.

Caramel Sauce
Print recipe only here

2 cups sugar
1 T corn syrup
2 T water
1/2 vanilla bean
1 cup heavy cream
4 T unsalted butter

Heat the water, sugar and corn syrup in a medium-large (but deep) stainless steel or heavy-bottomed saucepan, fitted with a  good candy thermometer. I use a deep 4-quart pot and have a flat-edged candy thermometer

Cut the vanilla bean lengthwise down the middle, only cutting thru one side. Open it up and scrape out the pods. Put the pod paste and the scraped bean into a small saucepan with the cream.

Heat the cream and vanilla bean over low-medium heat. You don't need to boil it (and don't, because it will make a mess if it boils). 

Cook the sugar until it turns a deep amber and approaches 360° F. Once it reaches that temp, immediately remove from the heat and carefully (and slowly!) pour the hot cream and vanilla bean into the amber sugar. It will get very excited and bubbly. Just pour slowly and you won't make a mess or hurt yourself.  Stir and allow to cool for several minutes, then add the butter and stir gently until melted and just combined. Now it's done. You can transfer it to a squeeze bottle or glass jar once it's cooled a bit more.

Warm, refrigerate leftover sauce, reheating as necessary. Keeps for awhile (a few months).

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Sunday, October 14, 2012

High Fructose Sugar Cookies

Oreo Sugar Cookies, the confection produced by my young breed this weekend, are the turducken of the sweet kitchen. Full disclosure: the Oreos were crushed and added to the sugar cookie dough, whereas a real turducken cookie would have a whole Oreo encased in sugar cookie dough.

The fount of this recipe (reduced to two steps by my husband: 1. sugar; 2. cookies) is easily imagined - summer camp, where fun goes on a sugar-binge. Sidebar: I'll never stop chuckling at the U of Chicago's unofficial motto: where fun goes to die.

So, yeah, the children made Oreo Sugar Cookies and I had to steer clear of the kitchen all day. Cookies are my weakness. Years ago, I read a book called Cowboys are My Weakness, which was good but unconvincing. I find cowboys generally aloof and insufficiently cuddly (if memory serves, so did the author), hardly something to go weak for. I would brake for a cowboy, but that's out of general human kindness and wishing to avoid being charged with vehicular manslaughter.

Owing to my fondness for cookies, and a childhood wholly devoted to the Children's Television Workshop, I also have a weakness for Cookie Monster. I'm indebted to a certain adolescent who tipped me off to this masterpiece:>

Best line: Please someone call the girl scout.

This recipe is decidedly for the younger set, or those not thrown off kilter by glucose spikes.

Oreo Sugar Cookies

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup sour cream

1 1/2 cups Oreo Cookies, crushed

Preheat oven to 350. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda. Add Oreos to a large Ziploc bag and crush with a rolling pin or your hands. Reserve.

Using an electric mixer on medium-high, beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 2 to 4 minutes. Add egg and vanilla; mix well to combine.

With mixer on low, add half the flour mixture, followed by sour cream, then remaining flour mixture, and mix just until smooth. Add Oreo crumbles and mix until just combined.

Drop mounds of dough 3 to 4 inches apart, onto two parchment-lined baking sheets. Bake until edges of cookies are just firm and tops are barely beginning to brown, 20 to 25 minutes, rotating sheets once halfway through. Cool and enjoy.

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Monday, October 8, 2012

On the Menu this Week

First of all, the Roasted Lamb from a few weeks ago was amazing. I can't recommend it highly enough, especially if you're serving six or more lamb lovers. I had the butcher at Whole Foods cut me a 2.5-pound piece of bone-in lamb shoulder which fed our family of four generously. We keep our animal protein portions small, though, so get more if you have bigger eaters.

Now that the school year has begun, my menu planning has taken a turn for the practical. In the summer I like to daydream a bit about food, but when the kids are in school and time is at more of a premium, I find I have to be more pragmatic about the time I can spend planning, shopping, and cooking. I tend to start each week thinking about what we haven't eaten in a while and plan my weekly menu around the combination of proteins and seasonal veggies. Then I make sure I'm stocked with grains, and produce for nightly salads.

I typically plan for five dinners, knowing that often we'll be out on a weekend night, or have one random night where we forage on leftovers or I make something simple like panini* and a salad. Tonight I'm planning on making Chicken Pesto Pasta, since I have chicken breasts and a bag of fresh basil on hand. Tomorrow will likely be a a quick Teriyaki night (quick pan-fried pork loin, on rice with stir-fried broccoli and bottled teriyaki sauce) since the family calendar has each of us in a different direction at dinnertime. Wednesday might be a good night for salmon, as it's a good day for me to get to Whole Foods, where I buy fish. I like to purchase and cook fish on the same day. Asian Salmon Salad sounds really good right now, so I'll make sure I get some bell peppers at the Green City Market on Wednesday morning.  Now I just need dinners for Thursday and Friday. We've not had Lamb Kabobs in some time, so that's an option, and Friday is a great night for Pizza Margherita, or Chanterelle Pizzas, if chanterelles are still coming to the market. It's a bit late in the season, but it's still possible.

And there - the weekly menu plan is done. Now I just have to plan my little shopping excursions and stock the fridge.

*Ham & Gruyère Panini
Featured on Pinch in 2008, In a Pinch

Preheat a griddle. Spray lightly with canola spray. Slather one piece of low-gluten sprouted bread with your favorite mustard. For the bread, I like both Alvarado Street or the comparable version at Trader Joe's.

Thinly slice some ham and Gruyère (note: Gruyère is very flavorful and a little goes a long way. I only use a few, thin slices to keep the sandwich healthy). Assemble and cook on hot griddle until the bread is toasted and the cheese is melted, about 2-3 minutes on each side. Press down using a panini press or a heavy lid, right on top of the sandwich. It's really good with greens dressed with Balsamic Vinaigrette.

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