Nosh: Croatian Breskvice — Jammy Peach Cookies

HOLY PEACH MOTHER OF ALL COOKIE GOODNESS!

You know when you read about some recipe in a magazine and think, oh my word, what an interesting thing! And then for the life of you, you can’t remember what the name was of the thing you read, until–just a few days later, and by a few I mean maybe two–your professional baker friend posts a picture of her very own version of the thing you were just reading about? And out of the goodness of her heart sends you her very own recipe?

So. All that happened.

I forget where I first read about breskvice (BRESK-vee-tsye), the traditional Croatian cookie that looks like a boozy ersatz peach, but I was immediately smitten by the idea. Puffy, pretty, at first glance they totally resemble peaches (especially when they’re really glammed up with a clove “stem” and mint leaf…uh…”leaf”) but then when you bite into them…they still taste like peaches! Schnappsy peaches. With rum. Which is, basically, winning all around. The recipe I used was provided to me (with permission given to blog) by the equally insanely lovely and talented Diane of Cake Diane Custom Cake Studio near Dallas, and Texas people, what are you waiting for? Go make this woman a cake star.

Breskvice–not gonna lie–are kind of time consuming. Even more time-consuming: they may need to sit and dry for a day or two, so make them ahead of time. They’re occasion desserts, served at events like weddings and birthdays and holidays, where you want to let the recipients know they’re worth the effort. And you know? They really are worth the effort. Here’s the full recipe in .pdf format (which you’ll need the Adobe Acrobat reader to see, and if you don’t have this on your computer by now go here for the free download, and seriously? Welcome to the year 1996). First we’ll talk about how to make the cookies. You’ll need:

  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 2 tsp peach liqueur
  • 6 cups all-purpose flour
  • 4 tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp salt

Preheat your oven to 350°, and line at least two (I used three) baking sheets with baker’s parchment or a silicone baking mat. Bust out your handy-dandy stand mixer (or a hand mixer, but once you add the flour prepare for an upper-body workout) and put eggs and sugar into the mixing bowl. Beat at a reasonably medium-working-it speed for about three minutes; your objective is to incorporate air into the eggs to build a fluffy, puffy cookie. Once the eggs and sugar look airy and have turned pale yellow, stream the vegetable oil in to incorporate, then mix that all together until it’s creamy.

Did my old-skool Sunbeam stand mixer. I'm going to petition the internets for a Kitchen-Aid.

Dig my old-skool Sunbeam stand mixer. I’m going to petition the internets for a shiny new Kitchen-Aid.

While the eggs are aerating and mixing and creaming with the oil, combine flour, salt and baking powder in another bowl. Yes, six cups of flour. Yes, it’s a lot of cookie. But you know…go big or go home. You don’t have to sift the flour but you should whisk your dry ingredients together so they’re well combined. Keep them off to the side for a minute.  Add milk, schnapps and vanilla to the eggs and give that a minute to combine. Then add your dry ingredient mix.

REMEMBER! If you keep your stand mixer running while you add the flour, drop the speed, and only add a little bit of flour at a time. Otherwise physics will go to work and the momentum will throw the flour back out of the bowl and all over you and your countertops. Incorporate the flour using your mixer for as long as feasibly possible, but at some point you’ll probably have to finish the mix by hand. My tell-tale signs that I need to make the mix-switch are when the mixer’s blades begin pushing the dough to the top of the bowl and adding more would create dough spillage, and also when I smell the motor of my mixer start to burn (seriously, I need a new stand mixer). When you’re finished, you will find yourself holding a bowl of the stickiest, thickest dough you’ve ever faced in your life.

Glob glob glob.

It’s like quicksand. Only yummier.

The recipe advises you to lightly coat your hands in oil before rolling these into balls and putting them on your parchment-lined baking sheets. That will work if you don’t mind having your hands covered in sticky oil. It didn’t work for me. I quickly realized I needed another plan; I took two spoons and rolled the dough between them like they’re quenelles. Here’s George hand-modeling it for you.

Bonus: discussed with and approved by Cake Diane herself!

Bonus: discussed with and approved by Cake Diane herself!

The tops of the cookies are uneven, but that’s OK. Just take a small spatula or knife, dip that in some oil, and smooth out the tops of the cookies.

It's like magic or something.

It’s like magic or something.

And then? Bake! They should take 15-20 (ish) minutes total, so check them after 8 minutes or so and rotate the pans. They should be nice and puffy on top, and lightly golden on the bottom.

Yep. That's it.

Yep. That’s it.

Set aside to cool.

While the cookies are cooling, you can start to assemble the filling. For that you’ll need:

  • 1-1/2 cups ground (not chopped) walnuts
  • 2 tsp cocoa
  • 2 tsp dark rum
  • 2 tsp peach liqueur
  • 12-oz jar peach or apricot jam*
  • 1-2 tablespoons milk
  • reserved cookie crumbs

Grind walnuts in a food processor until they’re small crumbly walnut bits, but don’t grind them into a fine meal. You still want some nubbly texture from them. Set aside.

Combine cocoa, dark rum, peach schnapps, and jam. *Here is where I deviate wildly from the printed recipe. The first time I made this I followed the recipe to a T and thought the filling was a bit too soupy, plus I had a ton of it left over that I had no use for. The second time I made them, I used a 12-oz jar of jam (as noted above), and pulled ½ cup of the jam to use as “glue” between the cookies, after it was mixed with the liquors and cocoa. The resulting final filling held together more to my liking and was exactly as much as I needed. Play around with the recipe, see what you like best. It’s your kitchen!

Anyway. Back to it.

Dig out a peach-pit sized hole in the bottom of your cookie, being careful not to poke through the outside. Reserve the crumbs.

Let us sing the praises of a good paring knife. Aaaaa-meeeennnnn!

Let us sing the praises of a good paring knife. Aaaaa-meeeennnnn!

Reserve ½ cup jam mixture, if you’re doing this my way, and fold in walnuts and cookie middles. If you’re following the printed recipe, take the entire jam mixture and fold in walnuts and cookie middles. You’ll end up with a setup that looks a little like this:

It's like the happiest assembly line, ever.

It’s like the happiest assembly line, ever.

Fill all the cookie middles, then coat one half of your cookie sandwich with jam-glue.

Yes, just like this.

Yes, just like this.

And then sandwich the halves together. Do this again and again until you have row after row of jam-filled sandwich sugar cookies. And when you think it can’t possibly get any better?

Hold on.

Take two utility bowls and add some peach schnapps to each of them (I’d start with ½ cup in each bowl, and work from there).  Add a few drops of red food coloring to one bowl, and a few drops of yellow to the other. In a third bowl (one large enough to roll the sandwich cookies in), add a pile of super-fine (a/k/a caster) sugar. Have a large roll of paper towels nearby. Take a cookie and dip it in the yellow dye, blot with paper towels to dry. Then dip the other sort of side/third/ish in the red dye, and blot again.

Time to play!

Time to play! Sooo, maybe your fingers get a little dye-ish. Wear gloves if that worries you.

You’re supposed to be imitating the look of a peach, so be creative and allow for color gradations and the nice round red butt of a ripe peach. Once they’re blotted dry, roll them in caster sugar to create “peach fuzz” and place them on your cooling rack to dry.

The trickiest part to this recipe is not letting them get too soggy in the coloring process, but the good news is, they’ll dry. And BONUS: they even taste better after sitting for a few days, so if you do get the soggies, put them on a cooling rack, loosely covered with wax paper, in your fridge. In a day or two all will be well, and you’ll have this:

HOLY MOTHER OF ALL PEACH GOODNESS!

HOLY PEACH MOTHER OF ALL COOKIE GOODNESS!

You can go all out and put in a clove “stem” and mint leaf “leaf”, but you’re not eating them so…why bother?  And yes, once they’re completely dry and ready to eat, you can also freeze any leftovers you might have. I know, I’ve tried it. Wrap each one in plastic and then store them in a plastic bag for extra protection, in the freezer. Just give them a couple of hours to thaw once you take them out.

When you cut the cookie in half, the walnut filling will look sort of like a peach pit. They’re unbearably cute and delicious. While they are outstanding all on their own, I have found that the best way to enjoy them is with friends, after dinner, over a robust and hearty conversation and a nicely chilled bottle of sparkling dry rosé.

This was a very good night.

This was a very good night.

Enjoy!  Happy eating!

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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: 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!

What Cookery is This? The New Joys of Jell-O (1973)

Hooray for the flea market find!  There I was, looking for some kind of book that would craptastically inspire me and…voila!

How many joys can one dessert gelatin provide?

How many joys can one dessert gelatin provide?

Now, I am like you…or many of you, anyway…in that I am disturbed by the concept of Jell-O, particularly when there is foreign matter suspended in it (no offense, Bill Cosby).  Peaches.  Tuna.  Olives.  I’m not making that up; there is a recipe for a Nicoise salad in this book.  Nicoise.  Salad.  The thought of it makes me want to stab myself in the brain, though I suppose I should admire the Jell-O peoples’ recipe sensibilities.  If you gelatinize fish, please use the lemon Jell-O.  Once you accept that as a possibility, there’s nothing that stops a person from putting inedibles in the Jell-O.  Panties.  Key rings.  For Mardi Gras they can produce a Jell-O King Cake.  Who’s got the plastic baby?  (Mardi Gras people…you know you want this.  Call me.)  So an entire book dedicated to the concept of the artistry of Jell-O?

Nightmare fuel.

Which is precisely why I’m so thrilled to share this book with all of you.  For the record, I have the entire thing scanned so if there’s something I post that you want more information about…I’m here to help.  I would be curious to know why you wanted more info.  Not that I would deny you that info.  Just, you know.  Curious.

I need to preface this first Jell-O recipe with a story.  When George and I went to Savannah, we went in the summer.  It.  Was.  Hot.  It wasn’t just hot, it was (literally) “Do not go outside, the air quality is too poor” sort of hot.  C’est la vie.  One day while we were out in the city we saw a lovely little cafe (whose name escapes me, which is too bad because their food was fantastic) featuring gazpacho as their daily special.  Must eat!  Must have!  I adore gazpacho. It was the pick-me-up we both needed considering the weather.  Delightful.  Cool, refreshing, a little spicy, rich-yet-light, tomato-y, crunchy.  It was a delicious soup for sure, but this one sticks out in my memory because it was so perfect in its ability to refresh and delight.  What it was not, was encased in a lemon-flavored gelatin, getting slimy in the southern summer heat.

PAY ATTENTION, PEOPLE!  THIS IS A BOWL OF GAZPACHO EMBEDDED IN LEMON JELL-O.

Mmmm, a heaping, giant bowl of lemon Jell-O. And onions.

Mmmm, a heaping, giant bowl of lemon Jell-O. And onions..

Here’s the recipe, if anyone’s interested.  Do bear in mind: that gazpacho is solid.  SOLID.

Next, let me introduce you to the Jellied Fresh Vegetable Salad.  It’s a salad that’s primarily made from lemon Jell-O, boullion, and sour cream.  And then you add in things like celery and radishes and cucumbers, or–as I like to think of these ingredients–actual salad.

Really, it's a salad.

Really, it’s a salad.

Because I, for one, am anxious to eat my vegetables only–and I mean ONLY–when they are cleverly disguised as a milk glass lighting fixture.

Mmmm! This lamp looks delicious!

Part of the kitschtastic allure of Jell-O lies in its ability to mimic other things.  The lamp shade is a great example, but here are a few more.

The black and white Jell-O, for example, echoes the lines in the hostess’s dress.  It makes me feel like she is one with her tablescape.

La gélatine est très chic.

La gélatine est très chic.

I like how the hostess is positioned as though she’s coming out of the trifle dish.  And, props to the progressive nature of Jell-O, showing a mixed-race party in 1973.  After all, it was only ten years before that George Wallace was standing in the schoolhouse door, blocking integration efforts at the University of Alabama.  Fair play to Jell-O!

This next picture?  Doesn’t have the same sort of social implications.

Ding dong!  Creepy couple calling!

Ding dong! Creepy couple calling!

He: wearing the traditional creepster trench coat and smiling like he’s just bitten off his lower lip.  I think he’s a LIT-tle too anxious to throw his keys in the swinger’s bowl.  She: standing like she’s doing a pee-pee dance, and holding a gelatinous dessert that HOLY MOTHER OF GOD matches her outfit.  Who’s the more tasty dish; her, or the Jell-O? Coffee, tea or me, baby?

~~~musical interlude~~~

Ahhh, Teena Marie.  Safe travels into the Great Beyond.

Once you’ve stopped your crazy swinging lifestyle, Jell-O can be there to make your Happiest Day Ever even more super-duper extra-special.

A glass of wine, a loaf of salmon-dill Jell-O mousse, and thou.

A glass of wine, a loaf of salmon-dill Jell-O mousse, and thou.

(Cue the swelling music.)  OooOOOoOoOooo.  Nothing says love like standing in a grey, windswept, empty churchyard (who did they make all this food for, anyway?) in front of a variety of tart-n-tangy Jell-O meals.  Family, take note: IF I were to marry again (unlikely, as I’m pretty comfortable with the notion of “one and done” and George is in no hurry either) and IF we were to decide that the wedding feast should be prepared by family and IF you guys settled on a Jell-O based menu?  Yeah.  We’d be fighting. #consideryourselfwarned

And finally, for the holidays…

Know what?  I’m just going to let this one speak for itself.  BEHOLD!  The festive joy that is…JELL (…Jell…jell…) O! (…O’…o…)

These are a few of my least fav'rite things.

These are a few of my least fav’rite things.

So seriously, this is the sort of party that finds the hostess drunk in the kitchen at the end of the night, clutching a bottle of cooking sherry and crying about her lost youth, while her cousin starts yelling at the aunt who never loved her and somewhere, a boy child either tries to pop a wheelie on his bike off the roof of the toolshed and biffs, crashing into the neighbor’s prized rose bushes OR “accidentally” lights a rag in the garage on fire and can’t get it to stop.

Good times.

That’s a party I’d like to be at.

They’re right.  There are indeed multiple joys to be found in Jell-O!  I only had to consider the possibilities.

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: Thai Iced Tea Ice Cream

When you live in a small town with a limited number of recreational options, you tend to have home dinner parties.  At least, that’s what my friends and I do.  Invite some people over, cook something you can’t necessarily get your hands on at the corner bar and grille, have some cocktails and conversation.  Guests are often assigned to bring dessert and so, for the most recent dinner foray at a friend’s house, we brought homemade ice cream.  Since we knew said friend was making Thai curry (more easily available to us here than it was a few years ago but nevertheless, not standard takeout fare) I wanted something that would “go” with that.  I had a box of Thai tea laying around and so, Thai iced tea ice cream became a reality.

For those who have never had Thai iced tea, believe me when I say it is a glass full of realized happiness.  The tea is warmly spicy and slightly orangey and sweetened with condensed milk.  When I get one I have to pace myself or I swear I will drink the whole thing in one giant, straw-sucking slurp, social propriety be damned.

It’s that good.

So, turn it into ice cream.  Why not?  A former co-worker once said to me, “All the positive energy in the world goes into ice cream” and who wouldn’t want to bring that to a friend’s house?  I’m in.  I used this recipe with, of course, a few minor modifications and some suggestions along the way.  The first suggestion: make sure you get tea leaves that say they are a “Thai tea mix” or “Thai seasoning mix”.  The sort I used said it was “original Thai tea”, so it was a dark Ceylon, but it wasn’t nearly as spiced or orangey as I wanted it.  C’est la vie.  We live and learn.  And it was still delicious.

Of course, first things must be done first, and this is one of the pain-in-the-butt things about making ice cream, especially with the sort of maker we have.   There’s no, “Hey, I have a great idea!  Let’s make some ice cream NOW!” moments to be had.  The churning sleeve has to be frozen, so you really need to put it in your freezer overnight; if you hear any sloshy sounds when you shake it, it’s not ready to use.

It does take some planning.

It’s not that this is hard, but it does require planning.

So, next morning: assemble your starting lineup of ingredients.

I never said this recipe was designed for the health nut.

I never said this recipe was designed for the health nut.

As an aside, for those of you curious about the different between evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk, follow this link for a very good, basic explanation.  Since I didn’t have loose tea leaves and lack the patience to cut open tea bags and measure the actual leaves, you’ll notice that I stuffed a bunch of bags into a 1/4-cup measuring cup.  I think I used eleven bags.  It was plenty strong enough.

Measure out the appropriate amounts of things and put all this–the cream, both milks, the tea, the sugar and, though it doesn’t call for it in the recipe, a goodly pinch of salt–into a sauce pan.  Warm it until it’s hot and almost simmering, and then take it off the heat and let it sit.  The longer it sits, the more the tea steeps into the cream.  I let this go for about an hour and a half.  Once you’ve decided it’s steeped long enough, squeeze the tea out of the bags and reheat the mixture to its previous temperature: hot, but not simmering.  Let it rise in temperature gradually, since you’ve got some other stuff to do and it’s easier to keep an eye on a gradual rise in temperature.

Meanwhile, separate five eggs since you’re just going to need the yolks for this recipe.  Here are some suggestions for what to do if you want to save the whites for future use; just remember to freeze them as independent entities and not all in one lump container, if you think you may want to use the whites for more than one purpose.

Okay, so one yolk broke. So sue me.

Okay, so one yolk broke. So sue me.

You’re going to need to create a custard for the ice cream which means, tempering your eggs.  When you temper eggs, you raise their temperature slowly, so they can be incorporated into a hot mixture not as scrambled eggs but rather as a silky ambassador of body and flavor and fats.  Pour the hot milk and cream mix slowly–sloooowly–in a thin stream into the eggs, whisking the entire time.  Take a break from the pouring to just whisk and whisk.  Once you’ve got about half the milk incorporated into the eggs, add the whole thing back into your saucepan, put it back on the heat and keep whisking.  Since I lack either a third hand or a prehensile tail, I couldn’t photograph myself doing this so here’s a nice tutorial and slideshow from Serious Eats.

Stir it until it thickens; the classic test you can do to check if the custard is ready is the back-of-the-spoon test.  Simply, stick a spoon into the custard.  If you can draw your finger through the custard across the back of the spoon and said custard doesn’t run back together, it’s ready.

Ready.

Ready.

It’s like I deforested it.  Anyway.  Now you need to let the custard cool.  Theoretically, you could let it sit out until it’s cooled naturally, and then put it in the fridge and wait for that to get it nice and chilled.  But letting it sit at higher temperatures would invite a greater opportunity for things like bacteria to take hold.  And let’s face it, that churning sleeve has been freezing since last night and waiting for the custard to cool on its own would add hours to the process; ain’t nobody got time for that.  Solution?

Ice bath!

Why wait?

Why wait?

It’s pretty simple.  Put your smaller bowl with custard inside a larger bowl half-filled with ice and water.  That will start to drop the temperature of the custard immediately.  Change out the ice as often as necessary.  Some recipes recommend putting the custard into the fridge to set up and chill out even more after it’s been bathed in ice but I just kept mine in as icy a bath as possible until it was time to churn and then?

Away wit' ye!

Away wit’ ye!

No, I have no idea what caused the crack in my ice cream maker’s lid.  Anyway. Twenty-five short minutes later…

Feast!

Feast!

We garnished the ice cream with orange milano cookies because…because orange milano cookies, that’s why.  It’s also good with an drizzle of sweetened condensed milk, if you have any extra laying around.  This ice cream was delicious, even if it wasn’t quite as orange-spiced as I would have wanted.  It was one of the most intense black tea experiences I’ve ever had.  Rich, dark, black tea, sweet with lots of cream…just like my grandmother used to make for me, only gone crazy.  I think I need to get my hands on a smoky Russian tea and see what happens with that…

Enjoy, everyone!  Have fun in the kitchen!

Nosh: Panna Cotta

The scene: you’re invited to a friend’s house for dinner, and your assignment is to bring dessert.  You want to bring something nice, maybe even “fancy” or “elegant”-ish, love to cook, are up for the challenge but have been baking because of the holidays and so, are over cookies and cakes and pies, etc.  What’s a girl to make?

Panna cotta just may be the answer for which you seek.

An eggless custard made from milk, cream and unflavored gelatin, panna cotta is beautiful and delicate and creamy, almost like a not-fully-set ice cream that never melts.  It is traditionally flavored with sugar and vanilla but is, basically, wide open to reinterpretation.  I have seen coffee-flavored panna cotta, or white chocolate, or mint.  I’ve seen it finished with strawberry syrup, peanut brittle, salted caramel.  Unmolded from a ramekin and plated, or set into a decorative glass like it’s a parfait.  I went for the classic honey-and-vanilla flavor (click here for the recipe), and finished it with a warm fruit compote.  I don’t have any pictures except for the final product (it was late when I started making it, my camera was in the other room, the lighting was sub-par and I was tired and didn’t feel like launching a photo shoot), but it’s OK.  It’s easy.  I promise.

First, let your gelatin hydrate in the milk for five minutes, and then pour that in a pan and let the gelatin fully dissolve, which should take about five minutes.  Mix all the other ingredients in (yes, all of them–cream, sugar or honey, vanilla, salt) and let the sugar dissolve, which should take another five minutes or so.  Keep stirring, don’t let the milk boil.  Once that’s all mixed and dissolved and unified into one great creamy mass, pour it into prepared cups.  If you plan on serving the panna cotta directly from the cup it’s set in, you don’t have to grease it.  If you’re planning on unmolding it, you should grease your molds or ramekins with some sort of neutral oil; I spritzed mine with a canola cooking spray.  Let the poured custard cool a bit, then cover the cups and put them in the fridge overnight.  Done.

I made up the compote recipe.  What’s fun about compote is, it’s fruity, but you can make it as sweet or savory or tart as you’d like.  I knew the panna cotta would be creamy and sweet so I wanted something tart to provide balance.  It’s also traditionally served warm, so that’s another fun contrast.  As I love love love fruit compote and will put it on anything, practically, I made a ton of it.  Feel free to amend at will.  All measurements (tablespoons of this, teaspoons of that) relative, and subject to debate.

Anyway.

  • One Granny Smith apple, peeled and chopped into a fairly small dice
  • One bag of frozen mixed fruit (large pieces of fruit chopped to single-bite size, please)
  • One cup (ish) of frozen cranberries (or less, or none, if you don’t like them or have them hanging around your freezer, like I do)
  • One inch of fresh ginger, grated fine
  • One lemon, zested and then juiced
  • One teaspoon cinnamon
  • Two tablespoons sugar
  • Two tablespoons raspberry vinegar
  • 1/2 cup cranberry juice
  • 1/4 tsp salt, and pepper (yes, pepper) to taste

Put everything in a pot.  Boil it until it’s reduced and thick and the fruit has broken down into a fully incorporated mass, which will be about fifteen minutes or so.  Keep an eye on it because once it’s ready it will turn pretty quickly from soupy pot of fruit to thick stewed fruit that would burn easily.  Stir it every so often, and you’ll see when it becomes too thick to want to leave on any longer.  And this is the flavor profile I wanted for this specific dessert, but seriously, put in whatever you’d like.  If a tart compote isn’t your style, feel free to not use vinegar, or not use Granny Smith apples, or cranberries, or whatever.  That’s the fun of getting to know this dish; you can absolutely tailor it to your likes and needs.  Once it’s cooked, let it cool slightly, then store in the fridge until you need it.  Done.

When serving the panna cotta, first warm up the compote.  I put mine in the microwave just until it was warm.  Not hot.  Warm.  I wanted it to contrast with the custard, not melt it and/or burn my dining companions, so don’t nuke it into oblivion.  My panna cotta needed to be unmolded from the ramekins it was set in and then plated, which probably sounds more difficult than it is.  Run a knife around the edges of the custard to loosen it from the sides of the mold, and then?  Put a plate on top of the ramekin, flip so the plate is sitting properly on the table, and pull the mold up.  You’ll find yourself staring at a perfectly-shaped custard, waiting to be finished.  Add a healthy large spoonful of the compote (put the remainder on the table for those who want extra) and a sprinkle of crushed pistachios and molto bene!  Dessert.

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Yes.

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