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!

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: Black Forest Cookies

No holiday cookie tray is complete without something chewy and fruity.  I think that’s how fruitcake has managed to hold on for as long as it has, despite the fact that it’s inherently creepy.  (Note to home fruitcake makers: I’ve never had a fruitcake that isn’t commercial, and gross.  I’m willing to give homemade cakes the benefit of the doubt.  And I digress.)

Thank you, but… No.
Image from jbinghamoc.wordpress.com

Never fear, good people!  I have the solution!  Plus, you get to mainline chocolate in the process and when is that ever bad?  Right.  Never.  Presenting: the Black Forest Cookie.

A take on the traditional black forest cake, the nominal cookie is made from dense, rich chocolate and is loaded with…what should ideally be entirely cherries, but you know…we’ll get to that in a minute.  This drop cookie is uncomplicated and comes together fairly quickly, so it’s going to find itself in my reserve of go-to recipes.  I got this recipe from one of those mini-cookbooks you can impulse-buy at the cash register of your local supermarket (because I impulse-bought one).  It’s a Martha Stewart recipe, which pains me because I have no love for her, and yes, I realize she’s crying over that all the way to the bank.  But more importantly (for our purposes), it’s readily available online.  Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 8 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup packed dark-brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 package (about 12 ounces) semisweet chocolate chunks
  • 1 1/2 cups dried cherries

Get the butter and chocolate going in a double-boiler.  If you don’t have a dedicated double-boiler, then do what I do and put a mixing bowl over a pot of boiling water.  There is one caveat: don’t let the bowl touch the water, because then you might scorch the chocolate, and who wants that?  You don’t need much water in the pot to get the job done, maybe just an inch or two.  And don’t bother chopping the chocolate (which, for some reason, I haaaaaaate to do); just break it into chunks and let heat do the work for you.

Behold the awesome power of buttery chocolate goodness!

Behold the awesome power of buttery chocolate goodness!

I promise you, if you keep it over the steam heat rising from the water in the lower pot, the butter and chocolate will melt.

While this morphs into a beautiful mass of buttery chocolate, measure out your dry ingredients and keep them handy, because you’re going to be mixing them all at the same time.

Measured and a'waitin'.

Measured and a’waitin’.

BUT FIRST!

When the chocolate is entirely melted, take your melting vessel (mixing bowl, top pot of the double boiler) off the heat and whisk in the eggs, one at a time.  Give yourself a minute between removing the chocolate from the heat and adding the eggs.  The chocolate mixture will cool slightly and you’ll run less of a risk of ending up with chocolate-covered scrambled eggs (which can happen if the chocolate is too hot when you add in the eggs.  See: don’t scorch the chocolate).  And, as always, add the eggs one at a time by cracking them into a separate cup first so you can retrieve any rogue bits of shell that end up in your egg.

Just a tiny bit of patience pays off in this step. Big time.

Just a tiny bit of patience pays off in this step. Big time.

Whisk that together, then dump in all your dry ingredients and give that a mix.  Don’t overmix, just incorporate.  You’ve got more mixing to come and you don’t want to toughen up your cookies from overmixage.

The next step is to add the bag of chocolate chips (yes, a whole bag, no real measuring required) and the cherries.

Ahhh…the cherries.

So I went into this recipe thinking, I have a giant bag of dried cherries (local peeps: that I got at the Natural Food and Garden Store), no need to check how much I have.  Conveniently forgetting, of course, the handful I would snack on with each trip into the pantry.  I pulled out the bag of dried cherries and…

Rut ro.

Nowhere near enough.  I had a moment of panic and then I thought…you know…here’s a golden opportunity to use those spare ends of bags of fruit I’ve had hanging around, and turn this into sort of a kitchen-sink cookie.  So.  In went the cherries, and some currants, and Craisins, and then raisins to top it off, until I reached my 1 1/2 cup mark.

Batter has become secondary. The chunky bits are all that matter.

Batter has become secondary. The chunky bits are all that matter.

Fold this all together with your trusty rubber spatula until it becomes a glorious riot of nuggety goodness and smooth, rich batter.

It's so hard to not just eat it like this.

It’s so hard to not just eat it like this.

Then cover this with plastic wrap and put the whole thing in your fridge for at least 30 minutes.  This is where you could park it for a while (up to overnight) if you don’t have the time to finish them.  Or, you could preheat your oven to 350° and line your cookie sheets with baker’s parchment and, after half an hour, take it from the fridge and get to spoonin’.  The dough becomes a pretty solid mass as you leave it in your refrigerator to set up, so it can be hard to scoop to the proper size, especially if you have not-necessarily-the-strongest measuring spoons.  Like mine.  So.  Use a heavy spoon to dig the first two tablespoons of dough’s worth of cookie out and measure that into a measuring spoon.

Use the resources available to you.

Use the resources available to you.

Then? Use that as a scale model to measure out the rest of your cookies.  It goes much more easily that way, instead of fighting with measuring spoons that would bend and/or break (I mean, look at them, they’re so thin).  Before you know it you’ll have…

Mmmmm...

Mmmmm…

…row after row of dropped chocolate cookies.  Put these beautiful tastebombs in your hot oven and bake for 11-13 minutes, until the edges look nice and firm.  Rotate them once halfway through bake time if you think it’s needed, then remove them from the oven and let them cool on the trays for five minutes, and then on racks until they’re thoroughly cool.  Bonus, holiday bakers: these cookies freeze well, so you can make them early and stick ’em in the freezer until you’re ready to load them on gift trays.

Side note: is it possible to experience an independently generated smell memory?  Because there’s nothing baking in my house and I swear I can smell their chocolatey goodness right now.  Anyway.

Once they’re cool and ready to eat…don’t forget to have them with some milk.

Yay!

Yay!

Two things…  1) This cookie is little more than a hand-held chocolate delivery system with occasional pockets of fruit, and that’s not a bad thing.  EVER.  And 2) I enjoyed this cookies-and-milk photo op way more than I probably should have.  (No, I think we need another shot…TAKE TEN!)  (I’m only partially joking.)

Enjoy!  And happy baking.

Orange-Scented Chocolate Ganache Puffs

George and I have a bunch of really nice friends, which is awesome.  Some of them, when they heard about George and my bizarro double-Dad loss, decided what they needed to do was invite us over and give us food, which was awesome.  At least, he thinks it was awesome and I think it was awesome, though my waistline and I seem to be at a little bit of a loggerheads over this.

Stupid waistline.

Anyway, since our friends so generously offered to ply us with delicious food and wine, the least we could do was bring dessert.  I thought about what I wanted to make, for days.  I thought about cake and pie, but they can be a really unfair burden if only a few people will be at dinner.  I felt like being a little experimental since I haven’t been in the kitchen much lately and wanted to keep my mad skillz up to speed.  So as I trolled my way through my various recipes I came upon one for orange-scented cream puffs with chocolate cream and as far as I’m concerned, puffed food + orange + chocolate = WIN!  But I didn’t like the recipe given for the chocolate cream so I decided to go ganache instead, because I love ganache and it multitasks.  Unfortunately, my first attempt with the recipe out of the reissued Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book totally failed–the puffs burned on the outside, were still slightly raw on the inside, and didn’t rise at all–so I was forced to both find something new AND give the Betty Crocker recipe the finger.  In my frantic search for how to make puffy dough I found this recipe for a really simple, flexible, basic pâte à choux and friends, when you get this choux recipe down you can make profiteroles and eclairs, beignets, crullers, gougeres.  Oh myyyyyyy.

First up: ganache!  Ganache is easy-peasy, though I do take some issue with how the recipe says to make it.  It calls for you to chop the chocolate and let it melt into hot cream, but I?  Hate.  Hate hate.  Hate.  Fire-of-a-thousand-suns hate.  Chopping chocolate.  It takes a long time.  I can’t figure out how to do it tidily, it always gets all over my hands and the counter and the floor.  I’ll do it if I must but if I can avoid it?  Consider it avoided.  I melted the chocolate in a double-boiler and then added in the cream and triple sec (see: orange-scented) but of course, if you want to make it kid-friendly or just let the chocolate be its own zen chocolateness then by all means leave out the booze.  What you’ll end up with is a lovely bowl of smooth chocolate which can be used as a topping when it’s warm and relatively runny (like now).  Once it cools and firms up, it can be whipped and used as a filling.  See?  Multitasking.

Ganache in its primordial state.

Ganache in its primordial state.

So this?  Is done.  Set it aside to cool.  And if you stick it in the fridge and forget about it, and then it completely solidifies?  Don’t worry!  Reheat it over the top of the double-boiler just until it’s able to move around in the bowl; don’t let it get too hot or runny because then you’ll just have to wait for it to cool down again.  Once you can move a spoon through it in the bowl, you can whip it.  I speak from experience.

Next, make the pastry dough.  Pâte à choux is made from a simple combination of flour, butter, eggs and water.  Pinch of salt.  And then you can add whatever flavor you think is appropriate regarding whatever recipe you’re making–add mustard powder, for example, if you’re using this dough to make cheese puffs.  Add sugar if you’re making dessert.  But first!  Make the dough.

Melt a stick of butter in a cup of water.  Once that boils, add a cup of flour and a pinch of salt and stir stir stir (continuously, it should only take a minute or so) until it starts to come together into something recognizable as a nascent dough.

OK, so it looks a little like wet Play-Doh right now.  It'll get there!

OK, so it looks a little like wet Play-Doh right now. It’ll get there!

Take your pan off the heat.  You’re going to add four eggs in one at a time, and  I do recommend moving the dough into a mixing bowl at this point.  This will remove any concerns that the food will bear the effects of carry-over cooking, where the residual heat retained by the pan further cooks your food.  When you add the eggs, you don’t want them to scramble.  What you do want, after you add one and incorporate it into the batter, and then the next, and the next, and the next, is for it to turn into a tight, smooth, glossy dough.

Now this is dough that's ready to become whatever you want it to be.

Now this is dough that’s ready to become whatever you want it to be.

As you approach the final stirs in the creation of your glossy dough, fold in the flavorings.  Since we’re making this sweet and desserty I added two teaspoons of sugar and the zest from one very large (softball-sized, not an exaggeration) orange.  Now?  You’re ready to start baking.  Make sure the oven is pre-heating to 425° and load your dough into a pastry bag or plastic bag so you can squeeze it out onto an ungreased baking pan.

You might be thinking, “But I don’t WANT to use a pastry bag.  I don’t HAVE a pastry bag.  And using plastic as a one-use-only squeezy bag seems so wasteful” and you know what?  I get that, I do.  But here’s the deal: this dough is super-sticky.  Trying to neatly, evenly dole out puff-sized dough clouds through the clever use of spoons and fingers is a guaranteed path to this taking way longer than necessary, and for it to get all over you and your hands and up your arms and in your hair.  Who needs that?  I don’t need that.  You’re welcome to it, but I went for the plastic bag approach.

Ready for puffing!

Ready for puffing!

When you squeeze the puffs out onto the pan, they may end up with little points sticking off them, from where you pulled the bag away from the formed puff.  Fill a small bowl with water to dip your finger in, and tap down the pointy bits with your wet finger.  The water will prevent your finger from sticking to the dough, and making the outsides of the puffs relatively smooth will prevent the errant pointy bits from burning.  Put this in the 425° oven for 10 minutes, then drop the temp to 350° (and rotate the puff pan, if you want) and let them go for another 18 minutes (they would have been ok to leave in for maybe another two minutes, but no more).  This is what you’ll end up with.

Win!

Win!

While they’re baking, whip your ganache.

Whipped chocolate.  Can you think of anything more groovy?

Whipped chocolate. Can you think of anything more groovy?

And then–no joke this time–put your ganache in a pastry bag.  You need to get it inside the puff.  You could, of course, cut the puffs and just load the chocolate in there, if you don’t have a bag.  But if you do?

Go for it.

Go for it.

And then you end up with a tray of desserts that looks something like this:

I just love it when a plan comes together.

I just love it when a plan comes together.

This recipe made 18 chocolate-filled puffs (actually, it made 19, but the cat helped himself to one and pet people, stop worrying: he got it off the tray but didn’t get a chance to eat any of it, so no, we didn’t let the cat eat chocolate, he is fine) with enough left over ganache to warm up and drizzle on top.  With a scoop of vanilla ice cream?  Heaven.  The small dinner parties have tapered off for the time being and my waistline thanks me for that, but I’m kind of bummed I won’t have a reason to eat more of these any time soon.  Surprisingly simple, extra-fancy looking, with a little hit of orange wafting up through the chocolate?  Show up with these at a party and you’ll win friends, or at least one or two more dinner invitations.

Nosh: Little Dippers Cookies

Take 3/4 cup of butter out of the fridge to let it soften while you read this.  And pre-heat your oven to 350°.  Don’t ask questions; just do it!  All will be revealed in good time.

There’s little that’s better than chocolate with some coffee.  Unless, of course, you’ve got a cookie that combines the two flavors.

Behold!  The little dippers.  These festive beauties are also hand-held comfort nuggets, so they look as good as they taste.  Added bonus: they’re really easy to make.  Here’s the recipe, and surprise, surprise!  I didn’t deviate from it much.  So let’s get to it.

Put your flour, cocoa and salt into a bowl.

Of course you’ll stir it together. But first, just notice that it looks cool.

Give it a stir to combine, then set it aside.

Put your nicely softened butter into a mixing bowl and whip it for a minute or so, and then add your sugar in and cream the two of them together.  If you don’t have nicely softened butter, you can of course do the “put it on a plate and in the microwave for eight seconds and see if it’s soft, and then microwave again” process, but please be careful. You don’t want the butter to liquefy, and as anyone who’s ever eaten butter knows, it’s verrrry easy to over-microwave into a puddle.  Should that happen you would have to wait for the butter to start to firm up again before cooking, which is an ironic way to complicate this recipe.

Creamed butter and sugar.

True story: when I was a kid, I would cream together butter and sugar and have that on bread as an after-school snack.  Of course I ate it on overprocessed white bread, too, so I was basically mainlining pure carbs.  What a rush!  I still sort of miss it.

Anyway.

Mix in your egg and your espresso powder.

If you ever wanted to know what buttery sweet coffee tastes like, here you go.

For those who think they’ve got such mad skills that they don’t need to crack eggs into a separate container in case they break any shell into it, let me remind you: I have been baking for years and did, indeed, break some shell into the egg.  I was so glad that for once, at least, I had actually taken my own advice  and cracked my egg into a little cup.  Fished the shell right out, no drama, no concern about my cookies coming out crunchy-style.  Since I’ve been able to find instant espresso powder even here in my tiny hamlet, I assume most people would be able to get their hands on some in their own grocery stores.  If not, check out Amazon or other online outlets.  Hooray, internets!  Ingredients can be had.

Then add in your cocoa and flour mixture.  What’s the magic word when mixing a powder into a whirring set of beaters?  Incrementally.  In this particular recipe, I was able to get all the flour added without having to mix by hand.  You’ll have crumbly dough that looks a little like rubble.

Mmmmm, rubbly deliciousness.

Here is one of the areas where I deviate from the recipe.  It doesn’t call for putting the dough in the fridge to firm up before you roll and cut them.  Here’s the problem with that: butter-based goods, like this one, become notoriously difficult to handle when they’re warm.  Rolling them out is fine.  Cutting them with a cookie cutter is fine.  Getting them up off your work surface and onto a baking sheet?  That can be a bit of a problem.  They’re too malleable and susceptible to tearing and distortion.  Regardless of what the directions say, once you divide your dough in half, wrap it in plastic and let it firm for an hour or so before rolling.

Once they’ve firmed, it’s time to roll them out on a floured work surface.  To preserve the chocolately goodness of the cookies, you can flour the work surface with a half-and-half mix of flour and cocoa powder.  Oh, snap!  Yes, you CAN do that, OMG!  Works like a charm, and I am a total tart for all things chocolate.  Then cut them out with a star-shaped cookie cutter (or whatever shape you prefer, actually.  I won’t judge), put them on an ungreased cookie sheet, and into your waiting, pre-heated oven.

I know I’ve mentioned this in another recipe and I’m a little surprised this recipe doesn’t mention doing this since you can’t even come near the yield the recipe claims without doing so, but gather up the scraps from your cuttings, put them in the fridge (or freezer, if you’re in a rush) to let them firm up again, re-roll and re-cut the scraps to coax even more cookies out of your dough.  And then bake those, too.  Rotate the cookies once halfway through your bake time, and you’ll get gorgeous little chocolate-coffee stars that look something like this…

No matter how good they are right now, they’re going to be even better by the time we finish with them.

Once they’ve cooled, melt the chocolate in something nice and heatproof and deep enough for good dipping, in the microwave (or a double-boiler, if you don’t have a microwave, and check out this post to find out how to make an ersatz double-boiler without buying fancy dedicated equipment).  Dip each cookie, one-third to one-half deep into the chocolate.  Resist all urges to dunk the entire thing in a chocolate craze.  Lay the cookies out on wax paper so the chocolate can get and then?

Chocolate-coffee cookies stretch as far as the eye can see.

Enjoy!

Things In My House I Will Never Eat, Part 1

When you paint your kitchen, you are given the opportunity to browse through the myriad things you have on your shelves and in your pantry that may be gathering dust, that may be so much garbage, that may no longer hold the same allure they had when you first got them.

Or you might find yourself even more weirdly attached to some bit of effluvia floating around your house.

This is one of those stories.

My standard, go-to joke whenever anyone…and I mean anyone, like old bosses or my parents or strangers in coffee shops…asks me what I want, is the classic, little girl response.

I want a pony!

In the countless times I’ve pitched this idea to my boyfriend he has shot me down every time.  Even though we could let the pony live in the basement.  Even though I’m sure our cat would get hours of enjoyment majestically riding the pony through the neighborhood, heaping lordly disdain upon the other kittehs from his equine perch.

But George isn’t having it; he cuts the idea down every time.  Poor Sammy the Cat.

Anyway.  One Valentine’s Day a few years ago, we took a groovy romantic trip to a B&B in Gettysburg.  We had a lovely time–outlet shopping, went on a haunted Gettysburg walking tour, ate a bunch of really good food.  While we were up in the room with the lights low, enjoying a beautiful bottle of wine, George pulled out a gift bag.  “Oh, honey,” I said, “you didn’t have to get me anything!  We’re taking this great trip!”  He said, “You’re wrong about that.  I had to get you this.”  I opened the gift bag and there it was.

And I will call my pony Wildfire.

He got me my pony!

I can never eat my pony.

Even if it is delicious Purity Chocolate.

Mmmmm, chocolate pony…

The only feast I may have is with my eyes.

Nosh: Chocolate Honey Tart

I’m not entirely sure why this dish is called a “chocolate honey tart”, since honey flavors the crust but isn’t an integral part of the pie itself.  It would be like calling an old-fashioned apple pie with lard in the crust an “apple-lard pie”.  Mmmmmm, apple-lard.

I hear it’s very good.

Anyway.  I’ve made this dessert probably three or four times already and it always pays off big for me, but nevertheless…I have issues.  With how they pitch it, with how the recipe says to execute certain steps in the making.  For starters, the thing that makes this dish stand out for me is neither the chocolate (which nearly always ranks high on my list of yes) or the honey (see above paragraph) but rather, the lavender.  Yes, lavender.  Yes, the stuff that’s in that soap your grandmother kept in her linen closet so it would stay “fresh”.  Lavender, believe it or not, is quite lovely in food, so long as it’s used in moderation.  I do admit it can readily taste like you’re eating soap if it’s overdone, but I also like spicy food, which can resemble eating hot coals if you have a big overdo-it.  It’s all relative.

Some people say lavender tastes almost minty but for me, I like the way the pungent floral topnotes (think of the tastes that you sort of get up your nose) combine with its earthy, almost bitter quality, especially when you incorporate the leaves into your cooking.  Lavender sprigs may even be substituted for rosemary in most recipes, as it’s the flowers that taste really…uh…flowery.  I have admitted elsewhere that I adore floral flavors in my food.  I love violet ice cream, have been known to macerate rose petals, and recently came across a recipe for chamomile whipped cream that I am aching to try.  Lavender is not the easiest thing to get your hands on (Central Pennsylvanians, try the Natural Food Store in Lewisburg, or just order it online) but it can be found.  If you’re in any way a gardener (which, as the proud owner of the blackest of all black thumbs, I assure you I am not, but the boyfriend has his moments), then plant some.  It’s a perennial, so it will keep coming back as if by magic, and if you have a very warm even-though-global-warming-isn’t-real-she-said-facetiously winter, you can start harvesting in early May, though we mainly have leaves right now.

Lavender. Washed and ready to go.

We did have some dried buds, so they went in the mix too, but the greens looked so much more photogenic.  Anyway.  Wash the lavender, pull as much as you need, set it on a paper towel and let it dry on the side while you make your crust.

Making the crust is easy-peasy.  Put graham crackers, butter, and the titular honey in a food processor.  Process.  Until it looks like this:

Yup, looks pretty much right.

And then press it into a pan.  The recipe specifically calls for a tart pan with a removable bottom but I say meh.  You could certainly use the tart pan or a springform pan if you have one, but if you have neither (or if you’re downright stubborn…from one who knows) a pie plate works just fine.  Once the graham cracker crust is ready, press it into your baking vehicle of choice and put the crust in the oven (set at 350) for ten minutes or so, to set.

Post-oven, set, ready for the good stuff.

Right.  You set your crust, it’s cooling.  Now what?

Keep an eye on two things at the same time!

First, the recipe says to put the cream and lavender in a saucepan, boil it so the herbs steep, and then strain it into the chocolate.  Does it surprise anyone that I have issues with this?  First, it doesn’t specify which cream to use (other than “whipping cream”), so I will tell you now.  Stop dithering around at the dairy section and get heavy whipping cream.  Don’t worry about if you should get half-and-half, or some sort of “light” cream (an oxymoron if ever I heard one).  Go for full-on heavy cream, and make the tart so rich you can only eat a little piece of it.

If you can–if you have cheesecloth handy, or a tea ball–then steep your herbs in something else so you don’t have to worry about straining them at the end.  It’s probably not THAT big a deal, but it’s so simple to fish one little gris-gris bag full of lavender hoodoo out of your cream…

A bag full o’ herbs, steeping in a pot of cream. It’s just so tidy this way.

…instead of worrying about whether or not you’re going to splash hot cream everywhere.  As I, perhaps, have been known to do.

I’m not a ticking time bomb.  I’m a pending ER visit.

While your cream and lavender are steeping, put your chocolate into a double-boiler.  I know the recipe says to just put it in a saucepan, but here’s the thing: chocolate is an unforgiving mistress.  It can burn, it can scorch, it can seize, it can do all sorts of persnickety things, if you don’t treat it with love.  So put it in that double-boiler and treat it to gentle heat.  If you don’t have a double-boiler (like I don’t), then take a metal or glass mixing bowl and set it over a medium-sized pot with about an inch of water in the bottom.  Voila!  Double-boiler.

The recipe calls for twelve ounces of bittersweet chocolate chips.  I’m down with the bittersweet (I used Ghirardelli 60% cacao), I’m down with the chips.  But here’s the thing…most bags of chocolate chips are only ten ounces.  I know, I checked.  If you don’t have a kitchen scale, or have one but don’t feel like getting a second bag of chips, weighing out two ounces for the tart and then finding yourself stuck while you try to figure out what to do with these other remaining eight ounces of extraneous chippery I tell you now–relax.  Get one bag of chips, and one four-ounce bar of bittersweet baking chocolate.  Break that bar in half.  Put one half in with the chips.  Eat the other half.  No waste, you get a delicious treat, and you’ve got twelve perfectly measured ounces of chocolatey goodness waiting to be molded to your will.

All’s well that’s measured correctly.

Chocolate, in the boiler.  Heat, nice and medium-ish.  And let it melt.

Gentle, mellow progress.

And melt…

Tip: A heat resistant silicone spatula is good whenever you plan on working with any sort of candy.

And melt…

*om nom nom*

And, at this point, you pour in your (strained, or lavender gris-gris free) cream and then…

D’oh, no!

Admittedly, it looks a little like Pensacola Beach after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but that’s only for a few minutes.  Stir, have patience, keep the heat low and steady.  Stir, patience.  Stir, patience.  It will be rewarded.

Yay!

When you think you’ve reached the pinnacle of its smooth, creamy-chocolatey goodness, throw in some more cocoa powder and a little butter.  Just to make yourselves wild with desire.

If you thought this was easy…or maybe not easy but eh, not-so-bad…then wait until you get a load of this next series of steps.

1. Pour it into the prepared crust.

Tart in the making.

2. Let it start to cool on the counter for a little while (twenty minutes, maybe?) and then put it in the fridge.  It should set up for a minimum of 45 minutes, it’s totally set after two hours and it can stay there overnight.  Whatever, it’s all good.  And then

3. Eat.

Preferably with vanilla ice cream.

It’s really simple to make, it pays off every time, it doesn’t require terribly fancy equipment to make, and it’s like mainlining chocolate through a beautiful bouquet.  I’m not sure if there could ever be anything wrong with any of these claims, particularly because they are all true.  This won’t let you down.  Enjoy!

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