Merry Christmas!

I am an unapologetic Christmas junkie.  The lights, the colors, the sparkly decorations…they all totally appeal to my inner four-year-old’s desire to fly rocket ships through star fields of strung lights and roll around in an orgiastic riot of crinkly paper.

Full disclosure: I do that in my head most of the time, anyway.

So.  Here are some of my favorite photos of Christmas good tidings.  Enjoy!  And if Christmas isn’t your thing, then bear in mind that I wish you nothing but peace and good will, every day of the year.

Brookgreen Gardens, Nights of 1000 Candles, December 2013.

Brookgreen Gardens, Nights of 1000 Candles, December 2013.

A window diorama, Lewisburg PA, December 2013.

A window diorama, Lewisburg PA, December 2013.

This was one of my grandmother's ornaments.  December, 2013.

This was one of my grandmother’s ornaments. December, 2011.

Christmaxplosion!  Clifton, NJ, December 2013.

Christmaxplosion! Clifton, NJ, December 2013.

This is why I have a gym membership.  December 2013.

This is why I have a gym membership. December 2013.

Where at all began as a wee Paisley.  December, about a thousand years ago.

Where at all began as a wee Paisley. December, about a thousand years ago.

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.

Nosh: Tangerine Butter Cookies

It’s baking season! It’s baking season! I mean, yeah, the holidays are coming and Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and it’s late this year so Christmas is hot on its heels. But whatever.  It’s baking season! It’s baking season!

I don’t know why I don’t bake more often.  Clearly I enjoy it.  And I’m pretty good at it.  But, you know.  Ovens…measuring.  Pfft!  Who needs it?  (Other than people who want to make accurate recipes or care about things like proportion, but I digress.) My first cookies for the year were these beautiful, rich, citrusy tangerine butter cookies.  This is a gorgeous recipe.  It’s crisp, it’s satisfying, it’s got a great, round mouthfeel and it’s slightly savory from olive oil (and perhaps an additional thing or two).   As it is baking and successful baking relies largely on successful manipulation of chemistry, I deviated only slightly from the recipe.  I’ll just fill you in as we sit here and discuss.  Anyway.  Let’s get started. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 3/4 cup  butter, softened
  • 1 1/2 cups  sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons  baking soda
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons  cream of tartar
  • 1 teaspoon  salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons  finely shredded tangerine peel or orange peel
  • 1 teaspoon  vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon  orange extract
  • 3/4 cup  olive oil
  • 1/2 cup  white cornmeal
  • 4 cups  all-purpose (AP) flour
  • 1/2 cup  sugar

Get out a large mixing bowl and an electric mixer (or stand mixer…or wooden spoon).  Gather up the first five ingredients (butter, sugar, baking soda, cream of tartar and salt) and have them ready to roll.

This is a strong start to just about anything.

This is a strong start to just about anything.

The butter should be nice and soft so it will cream easily, which is a pretty way of saying it can be whipped into pillowy peaks; this should only take you about a minute.  I used a big bowl and a hand mixer; a stand mixer would also do the trick.  If you only have a whisk you’ll face a hearty workout for your stirring arm, but it can be done since your ingredients are so pliant.  The butter shouldn’t be liquid, but it should be entirely squishable.  Once it’s whipped, add the sugar, baking soda, cream of tartar, and salt, then cream all that together until it looks fluffy and the butter’s turned a lighter color.  Then get ready to add the flavorings.

Truth: I used to cream butter and sugar together as a kid and eat it straight out of the bowl. #weirdkidhabits #badideas #afterschoolsnacks

Truth: I used to cream butter and sugar together as a kid and eat it straight out of the bowl. #weirdkidhabits #badideas #afterschoolsnacks

I have the shredded zest from two tangerines sitting in a bowl with the orange and vanilla extracts.  I thought it would be fun to let those flavors mingle.  And, know how I always warn that you should crack eggs into a small bowl and then into a batter so you can easily pick out a piece of eggshell if it chips off?  Today I was grateful that I took my own advice.  I did, indeed, have to pick out a bit of shell, which is so much easier to spot and retrieve in a small cup than in a large mixture.  And who wants sharp, crunchy eggshell cookies?  Not this girl.  Beat in the eggs and extracts and then…. I knew that things like cornmeal and olive oil were waiting in the wings to get used, so I also knew this cookie could stand up to a little savory manipulation.  Here’s where I get all crazy-like.  I added a teaspoon of coriander because I think it plays incredibly nicely with citrus (and the orange family in particular) and a few grinds of fresh-ground black pepper.  The black pepper flakes look interesting, and it adds a slightly spicy, savory undercurrent.  If pressed for a measurement, I’d say it was no more than a (scant) half-teaspoon.

Then beat in the olive oil, followed by the cornmeal and then the AP flour (which, as its name indicates, is general-use, generic building block flour, and I think outside the US it’s called “plain flour”, FYI), which should be added in incrementally.  If your beaters start to labor while adding the flour, make sure you mix the rest of it in by hand.  You’ll end up with a thick pile of dough that’s surprisingly soft and malleable.

...and I can't do a thing with it.

Truth: my cat goes berserk over raw dough. I have to put him outside when I bake.

Notice how it pulls cleanly up off the sides of the bowl?  Perfect.  Cover your dough mound with plastic wrap and let it chill in the fridge for a minimum of 30 minutes.  It can sit overnight (like mine did). When you’re ready to make your cookies, set up your mise en place, which basically means get yourself organized to process food efficiently.  Lay the recipe nearby for easy reference, set up your bowl with finishing sugar (I used two different colors because…holiday…festive…but you can use regular granulated sugar and that’s just fine), your cookie trays, and take the dough out of the fridge.

I know all y'all covet my turkey.

I know all y’all covet my turkey.

Preheat your oven to 350°.

Then stick your impeccably clean, freshly washed hands into the dough and roll roll roll.  You want dough balls that are about an inch across.

Toss three or four dough balls at a time in the sugar. It goes faster.

Toss three or four dough balls at a time in the sugar. It goes faster.

Line them up on the ungreased cookie sheets (because who needs to grease a sheet when you’re making cookies that are mostly butter and olive oil?  No one, that’s who).  The recipe wants you to make an X-pattern in the top of the dough by pressing a toothpick flat into the dough; first one arm of the X, then the other.  It does look nice.  Sounds time-consuming.  If you happen to have something–like a wire beater from your hand mixer–with a conveniently-X’ed butt end, press that into the cookie instead.

Work smarter, not harder.

Work smarter, not harder.

And bake, 9-11 minutes in the 350° oven.  My oven heats unevenly and it’s always hottest in the back, so I have to rotate my cookies once half-way through.  It’s always good to check, anyway.  When you’re finished…

Life = good.

Life = good.

You’ll find yourself with rich, beautiful, delicious, buttery-zesty cookies that freeze well, so they’re easy to make ahead for the holidays.  And this recipe makes a ton of cookies so you can give them to a bunch of people.  And it’s easy to mix and adaptable to your lifestyle, so you can park the dough overnight if you realize you don’t have adequate baking and cooling time.  Score!  This recipe rocks.

Enjoy!

Weekly Photo Challenge: Lost in the Details

This week’s photo challenge asks its participants to dig in to the details of something you’ve photographed.  OK.  Well.

When I was in Baltimore this past December we walked around the neighborhoods looking at houses decorated with Christmas lights and illuminated statues.  We saw this one house with some Santa Claus yard ornaments, a snowman, and a Mrs. Claus.

Ho ho ho! Happy holidays! Peace on Earth, yata yata.

Ho ho ho! Happy holidays! Peace on Earth, yada yada.

Pretty tame, right?  I mean, it’s Christmas!  It’s the Claus family!  Right?  Only, I found something strangely compelling about Mrs. Claus’s face.

She just looks so...

She just looks so…

...I can't stop looking...

…I can’t stop looking…

...It's like I'm caught in her gravitational pull...

…It’s like I’m caught in her gravitational pull…

...or a tractor beam, can't break free...

…or a tractor beam, can’t break free.

OH DEAR GOD!!!

OH MY GOD! I CAN SEE FOREVER!!

I can see forever.

The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be.
Photo from celestronimages.com

(With my humblest apologies to HP Lovecraft.)

Post-Holiday Cookie Roundup

Christmas is over, the presents are unwrapped, we are on a hiatus from overindulgence until New Year’s Eve, gym memberships are being activated, and the landfills are groaning with the excess influx of tissue paper and wrapping paper and no-longer-necessary packing materials.  Here in central PA, my cookie materials are packed away for the time being.  For now.  I mean, I have plans for cookies I want to experiment with throughout the year for next year’s bakestravaganza and will get to that sooner rather than later.  And I like baking cookies, so it won’t be all that long before I’m back in the kitchen, standing behind my thousand-year-old mixer, whipping up something else.

But.

Holy pockets.

Holy pockets!  That’s a lot of cookies.

So I had one of each tray, for both mine and George’s families, plus whatever else was given away individually to friends and urban family.  What can I say?  I’m a giver.  A friend of mine, a professional baker, started asking me about what I was making and let’s face it–flattery will get you everywhere.  Really, person who does amazing constructed theme cakes and icing art?  You want to know what I’m baking?  Me?  Really?

D’awww, shucks.  Oh…Okay!

Presenting!  The 2012 Christmas Cookie Bakestravaganza and Candification Explanator.  Broken down by tray.

Tray One: C is for Cookie

Tray One: C is for Cookie

I’m starting with the lighter brown cookies to the left (cookies at 9:00!) and going clockwise, and if I’ve blogged about it, I’m linking to it.

Pumpkin Cookies

Chocolate Sables

Peppermint Palmiers

Two-Tone Cinnamon Cookies

Molasses Snaps

Polenta Biscotti

Little Dippers

And here comes Tray #2.

Remember, kids: C can also stand for "Candy".

Remember, kids: C can also stand for “Candy”.

Starting with the pink squares at 12:00….

Bailey’s Irish Cream Marshmallows

Apple Cider Caramels

Italian Fig Bundles

Cinnamon Marshmallows (use the same recipe for the Bailey’s marshmallows; just substitute cinnamon extract where the Bailey’s should go)

Caramel Corn

Cherry-Lemon Shortbread with White Chocolate Drizzle

If anyone has any questions about anything I haven’t linked to (or anything I have, really), please feel free to ask!

So.  There you have it.  900,000 calories later, is it any wonder I feel so desperately in need of Zumba?  I think I have eaten twice my weight in these things, which then becomes a real conundrum as the weight goes up…must…keep…eating…

I hope you are all having a safe and happy holiday season, and that you’re ready with shiny new gym memberships come January.  🙂

XOXO ***  Peace *** and Joy *** from Paisleyland

Travel Theme: Festive

Ailsa’s travel theme this week is “festive”…and I am sadly late in coming to this party, but it’s been a crazy week full o’ stuff and things…  Which is awesome, but attention-diverting.  Anyway.

The week’s festivities included a trip to Baltimore to hang out with my boyfriend’s daughter, and she–knowing we adore the kitschtastic–suggested a trip to Hampden to see “Miracle of 34th St.”  This was not, mind you, the 1947 movie starring a teensy little Natalie Wood (or the less excellent but surprisingly not awful 1994 version with Dylan McDermott, whose inherent dreaminess makes everything a little bit better).  Rather, this was a city block (of 34th St., natch) of the working-class neighborhood of Hampden, located in the northwest pocket of the city.  Hampden is fun and a little quirky-arty, with a huge foodie movement, uber-propelled to national notice by the always excellent Woodberry Kitchen.  We ate recently at Dogwood Restaurant and kill if you must, but get the vegetarian risotto.  The merry people of Hampden seem dedicated to providing hospitality unto the world, including a Christmasplosion that is a blingy feast for the eyes and the other senses as well.

Because it’s cold out, see?  And you can feel how cold it is, so that’s a sense.  Some of the houses play music, so you’ve got that whole “hearing” thing covered.  You’re breathing, so of course you smell things, too.  As for providing a feast for one’s sense of taste…

Well.  There you have it.

Well. There you have it.

Once you get past the street meat, which is surprisingly difficult to want to move away from, Hampden is a visual extravaganza of festive Christmas fun.  Ready for a tour down the block?

So much to see!

So much to see!

This is the first house on the block.

This is the first house on the block.

IMG_0066-001

The first house on the block had a little cutout basement window, which they loaded up with a Disney theme and added Big Bird in there for good measure.  They also provided a footstool, so kids could peer into the window.  The kids, however, took it upon themselves to provide the wonder.

Check out the fingers gripping the windowsill. *killing me*

Check out the little fingers gripping the windowsill. *killing me*

And moving down the block…

There’s something inherently weird about the Holy Family surrounded in cartoonish candy canes.

Though it's kind of a cartoonish holy family, now that you look at it.

Though it’s kind of a cartoonish Holy Family, now that you look at it.  And I never knew light-up Teddy Ruxpin attended the birth.

It's the Peace House!

It’s the Peace House!

It's the LP-Christmas tree!

It’s the LP-Christmas tree!

I was completely in love with the bicycle tire sculptures.

I am completely in love with the bicycle tire sculptures.

Bike sculpture in front of the hubcap tree.  Dream. Come. True.

Bike sculpture in front of the hubcap tree. Dream. Come. True.

Abandoned house in the middle of all the lights.  Weird!

Abandoned and dark house in the middle of all the lights. Weird!

Up one side of the street and then down the other.

Up one side of the street and then down the other.

Welcome to the Natty Boh House!

Quenching Baltimore's thirst since 1885.

Quenching Baltimore’s thirst since 1885.

National Bohemian beer, or Natty Boh–a Baltimore original–is the thing of Balto-legend.  The Natty Boh man image is known all over Baltimore, and was recently used in an incredibly popular advertising campaign by Smyth Jewelers.  Mr. Natty Boh proposed to Salie Utz of Utz potato chip fame, and…

...the rest, as they say, is history.

…true love.

The rest, as they say, is history.

No Baltimore Christmas display would be complete without a big ol’ light-up crab.

I got'cher Old Bay riiiiiight heeeeere...

I got’cher Old Bay riiiiiight heeeeere…

Here’s some perspective of the work that goes into just one home.  These people are hard-core.

Whoa.

Whoa.

Remember, nothing says “festive” like an inflatable Mickey Mouse snowglobe yard ornament, next to a Sakrete sign.

Merry Concrete!

Merry Concrete!

DO NOT miss this if you’re in Baltimore during the holidays!  It’s too much kitschy, charming fun to pass up, and it’s full of good will and glad tidings.  It’s sure to knock the Scrooge out of the Scroogiest of you all.  Merry Christmas, everyone!  Season’s greetings!  Felices fiestas!  Feliz Navidad!  С Рождеством!  Joyeux Noël!.

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: 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!

Nosh: Italian Fig Bundles

Fa la la la la, la la la LAAAAA!

Whatever, haters.  No, I know it’s not even Halloween yet, but I have cookies to bake for the Christmas holidays.  These things take time.  It’s not as though they’re going to bake themselves, ohhhh lawdie be, don’t I but wish sometimes.  I cruised my recipes, I cruised the internet, and finally started to settle on some (but not all) of what I hope to make by December 21st-ish, give or take a day or two for the inevitable pre-holiday, time-stealing, unforeseen gremlin attacks.  I tend to over-plan and then wean out what seems unreasonable or really difficult as Christmas day draws nearer and nearer.  What can I say?  I like to bake cookies.

The first recipe I settled on–the first one that profoundly caught my eye, really–were these Italian fig bundles.  I just went to Italy this past March so it seemed to tie in nicely as a retrospective, though since I’ve tied together “cookies” and “March” I now feel like I have invented my own personal challenge and have to come up with “my year in cookies”.  Don’t bet on it.  Maybe next year, when I’ve had time to think about it.

Anyway, these fig bundles.  Baking for me is quite different than cooking.  Dinner?  I play with food.  Recipes are guidelines, but they’re not something to hold to religiously.  But baking?  Not so much.  Maybe it’s because I’m much less comfortable with it, maybe it’s because it seems so much more chemistry-ish to me, but my inherent disrespect for any given recipe stops at dessert.  Normally I don’t go for sandwich-type cookies because by definition they’re double the work for one end product but…you know…these were fig, man.  And they look like little raviolis.  I couldn’t say no.

So even though they end up as a fountain of deliciousness, they have humble beginnings–creamed butter and sugar, some salt, some baking powder.  When you add the milk and egg to the butter mixture, it admittedly looks a little bit like the Delaware River at low tide but stick with it, it gets better as soon as you start adding flour.

Not yet graced with the beauty of figs, but happily pre-measured and a good start nonetheless.

If, like me, you tend to lose count of how much of a particular ingredient you’ve added when you’re supposed to incorporate slowly into a mix, then do yourself a favor and pre-measure said ingredient into a separate bowl before you start adding it to your main ingredient mix.  I never would have remembered if I was on my second-and-a-half cup of flour, or my third, but when you take a few moments to measure out three and a half cups beforehand then you can incorporate it slowly and not worry about screwing up your count.  Work smarter, not harder, people.  Once all the flour’s been added, divide the dough into fours, cover everything with plastic wrap and stick it in the fridge for at least a half an hour, while you make your filling.

The filling, the filling.  The filling is this luxurious amalgam of dates and figs and raisins and orange juice, and it’s rich and pungent and texturally interesting.  Again, I did NOT change a thing about the recipe (no matter how profoundly I may have wanted to), but for the next batch I’m probably going to set aside a few cookies so I can add rosemary to them.  Because rosemary is awesome.  And I think it would rock.  I digress.

So put your beautiful figs and dates in a food processor, with the raisins and pine nuts and orange juice and zest and whatever else it calls for.

Dates and figs, dates and figs…

And then grind the holy crap out of them until they’re well combined and ready to go into a cookie.  This is when you thank the almighty you have a food processor.  If you don’t…prepare to get sticky.  I’ve also just realized I’m wrong, I did NOT adhere to the recipe exactly as it is written because…and I’m almost positive this is true…I don’t think I’ve ever actually measured fresh citrus zest.  Like I have that level of patience.  And, OK, I had a tangerine, not an orange.  But I just zested one whole fruit and then had a little snack, since you can’t store it without the zest.  It will dry out almost immediately.

Once you finish your filling and your dough has firmed up for half an hour in the fridge, you can get to work on the cookie.  I am not gonna lie: they took a long time.  The 50 minutes the recipe people say it should take?  Lies!  Lies!  All damnable lies!  Unless, of course, you have a sous chef and a professional kitchen with a cool marble slab to roll out your dough on that will keep it firm yet workable.  Let me put it this way: the presidential debate last night?  Hour and a half long?  Yeah.  I listened to it from the kitchen, and while it was kind of interesting to form opinions based on what was heard rather than the combination of words and visuals, that’s another story for another day.  Of course, I did everything including make the filling during that hour and a half–I wasn’t just cutting dough–but forewarned is forearmed, they say.  Plan accordingly.

They are worth it.

Anyway.  Roll out your first quarter of dough and trim and cut them into 2×2-inch squares.  Yes, use a ruler.

Rulers are a surprisingly useful kitchen tool!

Since you’re basically assembling little, baked, fruity raviolis, make it an assembly line.  Set out all your bottom layers of cookie, then add your dollops of filling, then top with the top layer of cookie, then seal, then cut the X-es in the tops, then egg wash, then finish with coarse sugar.  So much easier than trying to finish one cookie at a time before moving on to the next.  It’s all about finding a rhythm.

Moving into the “topping” stage.

Once they’re finished, just pop ’em in the oven.  The directions say to bake for 12-15 minutes.  In order to get the nice, light-toasty brown color they became, mine were probably in for about 18 minutes and I rotated them once after 7 minutes, but I think my oven is a few degrees off.  Let them cool for a few minutes on the baking sheets before moving them onto cooling racks.

It still kind of looks like an assembly line, no?

OK, so they’re not AS perfect as the cookies in the picture on the recipe website, but you know what?  The person who’s going to bitch about that doesn’t deserve to sink their teeth into my domestic largesse.  Because these little fellas are deeee-licious.

Thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all week.

If there’s a better way to kick off the baking season, I have yet to find it.  I’m looking forward to the rest of the goodies I’ll be churning out of my kitchen.

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