Nosh: Chocolate Panna Cotta with Pepita Brittle

This dessert is like a dream come true for me. Chocolate pudding? Plus candy? And it goes well with red wine? Wheeeeeee!  I love panna cotta (which translates as “cooked cream”, because…well…that’s what it is) in all its incarnations, though the following recipe basically lets you mainline chocolate so it’s got my entirely unrepentant bias. Plus it’s yummy. Here’s the recipe I’ve taken this from, and the ingredient list:

  • 2 teaspoons unflavored powdered gelatin
  • 2 3/4 cups whole milk
  • 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
  • Vegetable oil
  • 3/4 cup salted roasted pepitas
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter

This is one of those dishes that goes best if all of your preparatory side work is done ahead of time. Before you get started, find your strainer, butter your ramekins, set up your parchment or silicone mat for cooling off the brittle, measure your ingredients, bust out the double-boiler to melt the chocolate. If you’re going to use the double-boiler (which I recommend, and more on that in a minute), get the water in the bottom of the pot boiling so you can start working on your chocolate.

Pot o' water + metal mixing bowl = instant double boiler.

Pot o’ water + metal mixing bowl = instant double boiler.

The recipe says to melt the chocolate in a microwave, which I think is a terrible idea. I know, I know, the microwave oven was invented when a magnetron melted a candy bar in a man’s pocket from five feet away. It should be a natural choice for melting chocolate, right?  But. But there’s a difference between putting an item directly into the path of a microwave’s magnetron and having it succumb to ambient waves. I’ve put chocolate in the microwave just a liiiiittle too long and had it seize up, going from smooth chocolately goodness to weird crumbly nightmare. It was maybe a 10-second mistake, which is so easy to make. And that? Won’t happen when you use a double-boiler. Since melted chocolate is a primary ingredient, and panna cotta is a dish that’s dependent on texture for success, why put the chocolate in the microwave where it can get gnarly? Use a double-boiler. Bonus: once the chocolate is melted it can stay on the boiler over low heat until you need it, and you won’t have to worry about re-heating…and re-heating…and re-heating.

Also, set up a cup to bloom your gelatin right away.

When you bloom gelatin, you rehydrate the gelatin granules and they swell. Use cold liquid to bloom your gelatin; the grains will absorb cold water more evenly and thus will swell more thoroughly. Hot liquids penetrate the outer coating of the gelatin grain quickly and cause it to get waterlogged, so nothing gets through to the middle of the grain. Sprinkle gelatin into the hydrating liquid– don’t dump–so the grains disperse evenly in the liquid and can evenly hydrate. Hot water and one-lump dumping are both shortcuts to getting a grainy dessert, which, you know. Boo. Who wants that? Nobody wants that. You want smooth. So pour off ¼ cup of (cold) milk into a waiting bowl and sprinkle evenly with two teaspoons of gelatin. And then let it sit for at least five minutes.

Ooh...evenly distributed and hydrate-y.

Ooh…evenly distributed and hydrate-y.

Heat the remaining 2½ cups of milk with two tablespoons sugar and 1/4 teaspoon salt, just to a simmer. If it boils you could scald the milk, which will alter the taste of your panna cotta, which you don’t want. Gently…gently…let the milk simmer. Love your desserts and treat them with tenderness, and they will love you. Once the milk mixture is simmering, add the gelatin and whisk until it’s completely incorporated with the milk. Then spread the love even further and whisk the milk mix into the melted chocolate. This is, of course, conveniently sitting in the mixing bowl you’ve used as the top part of the double-boiler and you are, of course, fusing together all the good feelings in the world into a harmonious blend of thickened hot milk and chocolate.

It's not the greatest picture, maybe. But it gets the point across.

It’s not the greatest picture, maybe. But it gets the point across.

Once the milk and chocolate are blended, strain the mixture through a sieve into another bowl, preferably one you can tidily pour out of. Yes, straining is necessary. There will in all likelihood be solids, largely from the chocolate. They’re not harmful to eat but they’re total texture killers, and I can’t stress enough that this dessert should be satiny. Pour your future panna cotta into ready, waiting, pre-greased ramekins. The recipe says to use vegetable oil. I used butter. Because butter, that’s why.

All efforts are bending toward one perfect dessert.

All efforts are bending toward one perfect dessert.

Then cover the ramekins with plastic wrap and put them in the fridge for at least two hours, or overnight. Until you’re ready to eat.

Next, get started on the pepita brittle. Pepitas. You know…pumpkin seeds. They are one and the same thing. I had roasted, unsalted pepitas, which I prefer because that means I control the salt, and we all know what a control freak I am. Measure out ¾ cup pepitas, then mix with cinnamon and nutmeg. I couldn’t help myself; I added a healthy shot of fresh-ground black pepper as well (no more than ¼ teaspoon) (ehhh…maybe it was ½ teaspoon…). Add salt to taste. I’m sure this would be sublime with a shot of cayenne pepper, but the people I was making this for don’t care for spicy heat so I exercised restraint in front of the fiery spices. For once.

Really, you could add anything you'd like to your pepitas. It's your kitchen.

Really, you could add anything you’d like to your pepitas. It’s your kitchen.

Set this aside and then get ready to pay attention. You’re about to make hard caramel, and you all surely know by now how I feel about working with hot sugar (click here and scroll just a bit and you can even see where I included a short video of boiling sugar, yikes). My attitude is, give hot sugar all the love and attention it needs, and don’t ever touch it with your naked skin.

Got it?

Great. So. Have your silicone mat ready as a landing pad for your hot brittle?

Ready! Bonus points if you also have an offset spatula that you've pre-rubbed with butter to help the smoothing process. But you can just use a knife. If that's what you use, just mind your knuckles.

Ready! Bonus points if you have an offset spatula, pre-rubbed with butter to help the brittle-smoothing process. But you can just use a knife. If that’s what you use, please mind your knuckles.

Yes, ready? OK. Need to take a bathroom break? Let the cat out? Get baby some water? Do it, and get back to me. Go. Sugar doesn’t wait, so once you start cooking it you need to stay there to see it through. It won’t take very long, but it’s awfully needy in that short time.

In a heavy-bottomed stainless steel sauce pan, add ¾ cup sugar and ¼ cup water, and cook it together over medium-high (maybe a touch closer to high) heat, gently swirling the pan to move the mix around. it will start to bubble, and eventually turn a lovely dark brown. Don’t. Leave. The. Room. The sugar cooking thought process will go something like this:

Hmmm. Still kind of white-ish clear. *swirl swirl*

Boy, it’s barely changed any hint of color. *swirl swirl*.

…hmmmm…

Am I doing this right? *checks recipe* *swirl*

…puts the pan down and scans through the fifteen text messages that rolled in at exactly the wrong moment…

What’s that smell? No, GOD! I only looked away for, like, thirty seconds! *ruined* *starts over* *smell of burnt sugar stays in the house for at least three more days*

End scene.

So please. Keep an eye on the sugar. And remember, it will continue to cook in your hot pan even off the heat, so add the spiced pepitas when the caramel turns, roughly, this shade of golden brown:

A pleasant medium-brown, no?

A pleasant, golden medium-brown, no?

Be forewarned: adding pepitas will make the sugar angry, so to fully incorporate them into the brittle, use a spoon with a nice long handle. Keep stirring. By the time you walk across your modest, by no means large kitchen to pour the brittle mix out onto the waiting mat, it will have turned this rich, dark brown.

See? It's like three shades darker.

See? It’s like three shades darker.

Leave it alone for at the very least 20 minutes, and longer if possible. At 20 minutes the brittle will be manageable, but still hot in places. It’s better to let it cool completely (give it 45 minutes) before cracking it into shards.

*Cleanup tip: if you can’t figure out how to get residual sugar off the sides of your saucepan without scrubbing and scrubbing and scrubbing…relax. Fill the pan with hot water, and let the water dissolve the sugar, like water does. Suddenly, cleanup becomes easier by a factor of a million. Full-on science-ing!

And so. You have nicely chilled ramekins. You have pepita brittle, cooled and broken into shards. Now what?

Take the panna cotta out of the fridge and let it warm up for not very long at all. Two minutes? Three? No more than five; what you’re trying to do is loosen the butter that lines the ramekins, not bring the pudding up to room temperature. Slide a knife around the edge of the panna cotta, then cover the ramekin with the dessert plate you’ll be serving it on. Flip! A beautifully silky chocolate pudding should be on the plate, ready to eat. Garnish it with a dramatic shard of pepita brittle and baby, you’ve got dessert.

Et voila!

Et voila!

Panna cotta isn’t hard, but it is kind of science-y, and you have to be ready for it. The payoff at the end, though, is entirely worth it. Silky, creamy, soft and soothing, with a contrasting bit of candy fun. And pure chocolate! This dessert officially has it all. Enjoy!

And speaking of science…SCIENCE!

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Nosh: Chocolate Caramel Peanut Nuggets

First things first: the original recipe I adapted this from calls them bars, but I cut them small so they’re nuggets.  OK?  Plus, it’s cuter that way.

Anyway.  Hi!  Holiday snack creation under major way in the House of Paisley, since someone (who would be me) is way, way, waaaaaay behind in her baking this season.  I have no idea what happened.  Time just got away from me.  Anyway.  This recipe is mostly easy, though it does come with a little bit of caution.  It takes a chunk of time because it involves layers setting up in your freezer and you can’t rush that.  And, I always want people to be aware when something requires working with hot sugar, which is no joke and can cause a burn.  I worked from a recipe online (that you can find here) but altered it…beeeecause…I can’t help myself.  Here’s what I used:

  • 8 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, divided
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream, at room temperature
  • 6 ounces white chocolate, chopped
  • 1 cup peanuts (meaning, 1 cup’s worth after they’ve been removed from their shells)
  • a sprinkling of kosher or sea salt, to taste

First things first: take the cream out of your fridge and let it sit on the counter.  You really do want it to be warm…or at least warm-ish…when the time comes to use it.  Shell your peanuts.  The original recipe called for the use of salted, roasted peanuts, but I used unsalted because I am a bit of a control freak and want to determine for myself how much salt goes into a recipe.  Get 4 ounces of semi-sweet chocolate melting in a double-boiler.  Line a bread pan with baker’s parchment, and give the parchment a good shot of your favorite non-stick cooking spray.

Getting this parchment set may be the most difficult part of the process.

Getting this parchment set may be the most difficult part of the process.

When choosing the chocolate that’s currently melting, remember: you can use whatever sort of chocolate you’d like.  I used semi-sweet because it’s my favorite for desserts, and recommend against using milk chocolate because the caramel is pretty sweet and milk chocolate won’t provide any bitter balance.  I also wouldn’t use a chocolate that’s higher than 70% cacao unless you’re making this for hardcore chocofiends.  But.  Once the first four ounces of chocolate have melted, pour it into your prepared bread pan and add a sprinkling of salt over it.

Step one: complete.

Step one: complete.

Put this in the freezer to set for 15-ish minutes.  Keep your double-boiler handy, since you’re going to use it again for the second batch of chocolate.

While this is heating, gather up the peanuts and cream (measured out to 1/3 cup, so it’s ready to use).  Put the sugar and water in a sauce pot and start heating it over low-to-medium heat, until the sugar dissolves and the liquid turns clear.  Stir it occasionally, but not too much.  While the sugar is turning into syrup, chop the white chocolate.  You will want it to be fairly small.

Try to resist nibbling.  But go on, have a taste.  :)

Try to resist nibbling. But go on, have a taste. 🙂

So, peanuts, cream, white chocolate, and a heat-proof silicone stirrer, all close at hand?  Great.  Because this stage moves along fairly quickly.  Get the chocolate layer out of the freezer and have that handy, too.  When the sugar starts to look like this:

Looks like sweet toasty napalm!

Looks like sweet toasty napalm!

And by “this” I mean, golden on the edges with slow thick bubbles, then take the pot and slowly start to swirl the sugar, over heat, until it turns rich brown and smells like deep caramel.

For the love of all that is holy, resist sticking your finger in to have a taste.

For the love of all that is holy, resist sticking your finger in to have a taste.

Move this off the heat and be ready to move fast.  The cream goes in first, and it will bubble fiercely.  Don’t freak out, it’s OK, just stir it in really quickly.  Follow that with the peanuts and chocolate.  You may notice that the candy is giving some resistance; it’s cooling and trying to set, which it will do as soon as it’s able, which is why you A) don’t want to use cold cream, because the cold will make the sugar set even faster and B) need everything close by and ready for use.  Give it all a couple of stirs until everything is fully incorporated, then pour it on top of the frozen chocolate and smooth it out into a nutty layer.  Sprinkle with a little more salt, if you’re so inclined.

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas noms.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas noms.

Put this back in the freezer.  Go have some lunch, because this should set for about 45 minutes.

Once your peanut layer is frozen, put the second batch of chocolate on the double-boiler.  Melt that, pour it on top, put it back in the freezer.  Leave it alone for another half an hour.  When it’s fully frozen, take it from the freezer and lift it out of the bread pan with the parchment.  Peel off the parchment and put it on a cutting board.

Like so.

Like so.

Then take your trusty chef’s knife and cut it into whatever size pieces you want.  I like bite-size, because they’re adorable and you don’t have to commit to an entire bar.  These are kind of like biting into a slightly harder Snickers, and oh…they’re so good.  Creamy, chocolately, peanutty…if you show up with these at a family event you’re sure to become the favorite niece or nephew soon enough, and work your way to the top of crazy Uncle Arthur’s will.

All is nommy and bright.

All is nommy and bright.

If only I had a crazy Uncle Arthur.

And so.  The biggest problem I find with these?  Is that they manage to get in your mouth.  Relentlessly.  🙂  Enjoy!

Nosh: Apple Cider Caramels

It’s the holidays, and holidays mean candy-making!  Of some kind, anyway.  In my house, anyway.  I really like to make candy, and it’s not as hard as I thought it would be before my first candy-making venture, oh so long ago.  Just…please…respect the sugar.  More on that later.

So I was reading through my Food & Wine magazine, and there was this lovely recipe for apple cider caramels.  I adore soft caramels; I always have and I always will, much to the chagrin of my dentist.  I’ve made them plain, I’ve made salted, I’ve infused them with lavender.  But cider?  Fall harvest deliciousness plus long-standing favorite candy?  Yes, please!  Tell me more!

Actually…before you go on, get the cider started because reducing a half-gallon of cider down to two cups takes FOR.  EVER.  Keep it at a nice, even, medium heat; you don’t want to scorch your cider, nor do you want it to take any longer than it must.  Use the best cider that you can (remember, great ingredients = great food), though I would probably eschew anything excessively pulpy to avoid creating texture issues.

Looks kind of sludgy.  Gets better.  Promise.

Looks kind of sludgy. Gets better. Promise.

You can literally ignore this for the first 45 minutes or so that it’s on the stove, barring (of course) basic stovetop maintenance, i.e., making sure the cat isn’t sticking his nose in your pan or a toddler isn’t pulling boiling cider onto her head.  After the first 45, kind of keep a closer eye on it until you see a real change in texture; it will go from, you know, juice-ish consistency to something that’s kind of thick and glossy.  Keep a measuring cup nearby and just sort of pour it in when you think the reduction is getting close, to check how much you actually have.  If it hasn’t reduced enough?  Back in the pot until it’s ready to be checked again.

And so on.

FYI, you can park your cider once it’s reduced if, say…you have to get to Zumba class and need to take a pause in your pursuit of the perfect caramel.  Be forewarned: the reduced cider will congeal into a solid amber gel.  It’s a little freakish, but once you put it into a pot with sugar and heat it up it will break right back down, no harm, no foul.

Next: get your cream and milk going in one pot, and your sugar, water, corn syrup and (congealed or not) cider in another.  It should look a little something like this.

Notice my bizarro glob of cidery goo in the pot on the back burner?  No sweat, it melts.

Notice my bizarro glob of cidery goo in the pot on the back burner? No sweat, it melts.

Wait for the cream to warm through and the sugar to dissolve into a smooth, incorporated syrup.  Once that’s happened, whisk in a stick of butter and then the cream mixture, carefully, and this is where I added the spices as the recipe called for even though it says to add them later (my one deviation from how the recipe was written).  Let it turn from golden syrup…

It looks so shiny and inviting.

It looks so shiny and inviting.

…into a bubbling cauldron of sweet molten napalm.

OK, look.  I know I always say this when I make candy, but it’s always true: hot sugar will mess you up but good.  This candy requires you raise its temperature to 245°F, and as sugar gets hot, it gets sticky.  If you plunged your hand into a pot of 245°F water and then pulled it out, it would suck–a lot–but as soon as your hand was out of the water it would at least start to cool.  The sugar, however, would retain its heat, not cool nearly as quickly (so it would continue to cook your hand meat) and would stick to you.  Ow.  Here’s a short video I took of the caramel in process; consider it my version of a PSA.

Seriously, kids.  Don’t try this at home.

The things I endure for friends and family.  🙂

Anyway.

Once you’ve cooked your sugar to the freakish 245°F, remove the candy thermometer and pour your caramel into a pan you have waiting, lined with aluminum foil and a coating of nonstick cooking spray.

It gets much less scary after this.

It gets much less scary after this.

Let it cool, and once it’s cooled off enough to manage, cover the pan and put it in the fridge overnight.  And then sit down and relax, since you’ve survived the Night of Boiling Sugar.  The next day you’ll just be involved in the grunt work of cutting and wrapping your caramels, and eating them as you wrap.  🙂

Next day:

Out of the pan and onto a cutting board.  Mark off one-inch sections with your handy kitchen ruler, and then start slicing into your caramel.  It helps to coat your knife with a shot of non-stick spray, because by its nature caramel will stick to everything.

And so the chopping begins.

And so the chopping begins.

Then mark off half-inch sections in each row of caramel.  Set up a workstation for yourself with a ruler (it sounds ridiculous, but my baking and candy making skills turned a corner when I realized I could use your basic ruler in the kitchen), wax paper and/or commercial candy wrappers, some scissors and a big-ass tray to hold them all in.  Then go for it.  There’s no other way around it.

Be a pnnacle of industry!

Be a pinnacle of industry!

Slice, wrap, toss in the tray; slice, wrap, toss in the tray.  Get some good music on while you do it to make things move more fluidly.  I believe I listened to a friend’s mixlr broadcast that day, because how can you not want to listen to the King of Jingaling while you wrap candies?  Before you know it, you’ll go from naked cider caramels to…

:D  Yes, please!

😀 Yes, please!

Missing, of course, the half dozen or so I ate along the way.  For quality control purposes, you understand.

These are delicious.  They really do bring all the fun of a caramel apple without the bother of trying to fit your chops around a giant piece of candied fruit.  I’m sure I’ll make other caramels in my lifetime, but these will remain in my candy repertoire for a long, long time to come.  You should try it!  It’s fun, and people always give you that, “Ooh!  You made this?” squee, which provides its own benefits.  And you can’t support an economy much more local than the one in your own kitchen.  Go for it, folks.  I’m cheering you on!

Just be careful with the hot sugar.

Festive Christmakwanukkastice!

Nosh: Marshmallows!

I love marshmallows.  Love.  Always have.  I’m not sure why, but nevertheless, it’s the truth.  When I was a kid I used to squish them into taffy in order to eat them, or jam my hot chocolate full of ’em, or just power them down.

Recently, I’ve discovered that marshmallows are ridiculously easy to make.  Even better–because you’re in control (to some degree; I mean, you ARE working with boiling sugar so on some level you are completely beholden to the laws of physics, though I suppose you can make that argument for just about anything, and I digress), you can make them taste however you want.  I’ve just started playing around with the flavoring but I’ve realized, the possibilities are pretty well endless.

The easiest recipe I’ve seen comes from Ina Garten; it doesn’t involve egg whites or potato starch or whatever the frig else.  As I don’t care much for toasted coconut, I don’t use that part of her recipe and instead prep the pan with a shot of non-stick spray and a bed of equal parts powdered sugar and cornstarch (start with one quarter-cup of each, mix them together and you’re ready to go).

Ready for marshing.

With that being said, I present…the marshmallow.

  • 3 packages unflavored gelatin
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 cup light corn syrup
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
  • Equal mix of corn starch and confectioners’ sugar, for dusting

First things first; start your gelatin…gelatating…in a mixing bowl with a half-cup of water.  It will look vaguely like an alien life form has started gestating next to your stand mixer, but that’s all OK.

Gelatastic!

Honestly, that bubble in the middle kind of reminds me of the Little Rascals episode where Stymie makes the birthday cake, only sadly lacking the sound effects.  Unforch, that’s not what this is.  Anyway.  You can let this sit while you make the syrup.

Put your sugar, corn syrup and salt in a pot with a half-cup water and a candy thermometer (which, of course, you will make sure doesn’t touch the bottom of your pot, because then your thermometer will measure the temperature of the bottom of the pot and not the liquid, and things will go south for you.  Don’t mess with hot sugar, it’s like napalm).  Start off at a medium heat until the sugar dissolves, and after that you can boost it higher to get the sugar boiling, until the syrup reaches a terrifying 240°.

What looks like a simple, harmless combination of sugar and water…

Becomes danger fuel with the application of a little heat.

The funny thing is, I really like making candy, despite the fact that I have a pretty healthy fear of boiling sugar.  Maybe I am actually an adrenaline junkie and this is how I get my kicks.  Skydiving, schmydiving; let me manhandle some boiling syrup.  Moving on.

And so, once your sugar has reached 240°, pour it into the waiting gelatin.  Start the beaters off slow until the sugar and gelatin incorporate (again, protecting yourself from hot syrup being blasted around your kitchen) and then crank the speed of your mixer and just… Let. It. Rip.

Dig my old-skool mixer.

The recipe says to add vanilla in the last minute of mixing, and that it will thicken up first.  How will you know when it’s thick and ready for the final hit of flavor?  You’ll hear the beaters slow down and start to labor.  And while the recipe calls for vanilla, you can absolutely put in anything you want.  I used Bailey’s for this batch.

Oh yes, I went there.

And so, pour into your prepared pan.  This one is 12×8; I think I’m going to experiment with a slightly smaller one next time, just for fun.  Remember to spray anything you’re going to touch the marshmallows with–a spatula, your hands–with a shot of non-stick spray, because otherwise you’re going to goo up yourself and all your equipment just trying to wrestle it into a pan.  Don’t let the candy win!  You’re almost there.  Top with more powdered sugar and cornstarch, and let set for a couple of hours.

Patience, people. Patience.

The cool thing is, this will pull out in one piece once it’s set.  You’ll be able to roll it up like a window shade and lift it right out.  And then?  Easy-peasy.  Put it on a cutting board and have at it with a knife or whatever sharp instrument you prefer.  (I like to use a pizza cutter.)  Cut to whatever size you prefer, because it’s all about you and your intentions with your marshmallows.  Coat them once more in powdered sugar/cornstarch, because you’ve got newly exposed, sticky sides and they will just clump together if you don’t.  And then?

Feast.

You’ll never look at marshmallows the same way, my friends.  Enjoy!

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