Saturday, December 15, 2012

Irish Cream Fudge

You may remember that Christmastime = candytime in the Bailey house.  It's a very calorie intensive time, because you know I gots to test it all.  Can't give something away to your loved ones if you haven't verified its tastiness, you know.  And since it's the only time of the year that I make candy, I feel the need to make AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE.  I really can't even help myself.  Last year I totally ran out of people to feed it to and was still cranking out fudges and brittles, just for the experience.  Some of it was in our fridge for months.  It all keeps really well, but neither of us needed to be randomly eating fudge for weeks on end.  Luckily this year Marc is back to a "real" Army unit and I have a whole battalion to feed, if I want. 

When some people cook (see: my blogging partner, Laura) they just throw things together as they go, relying on their intuition and creativity to pull a dish out of thin air.  I have a lot of admiration for those people.  Those who are good at it can make some of the yummiest things you've ever had.  But that's not how I operate.  I have developed a lot of cooking intuition, don't get me wrong, but I am a scientist in my heart and in my kitchen.  I measure almost everything.  I set the timer constantly, and I take the readings of my thermometer as gospel.  

So when it comes to something as precise (and potentially dangerous) as candymaking, I don't fly by the seat of my pants; I follow a set of rules:  

Rule #1 - Be safe.  This is the most important.  I like to think I'm not a safety lame-o, but you can really hurt yourself or someone else with boiling hot sugar, so I don't mess around with it.  Even though I am careful, I burned the crap out of my finger this year on 320 degree peanut brittle.  Not fun.  My blisters remain long after the brittle is gone.  
Rule #2 - This kind of goes along with rule #1, but pay attention to what you're doing.  Know thyself.  Know what your distractions are and make sure you find a way to mitigate them.  For example, if you're like me, you may not want to try to make buttercrunch while watching soccer.  Otherwise you boil your mixture right past that 300 degree mark while you're busy watching Ozil send a perfect cross into the box for Cristiano Ronaldo to score.  No, I've never done it.  I'm just sayin'.  
Rule #3 - Use really good ingredients.  Crappy chocolate makes crappy fudge.  What?  There's no such thing as crappy chocolate?  Ok, you may have a point.  But this much is true: really good chocolate makes really good fudge.  Lower quality chocolate does not melt as nicely and certainly doesn't taste as complex.  
Rule #4 - Prep everything first.  Otherwise you end up with a pot-ful of something burning hot and no buttered pan to spread it into.  FAIL.  
Rule #5 - Use a much bigger pot than you think you need.  Boiling sugar mixtures tend to bubble up furiously.  
Rule #6 - Use a thermometer.  Always.  Our cooking ancestors had a handle on that thing where you put a drop of the hot sugar mixture into a glass of water to see if it was at the soft ball or hard crack stage, or whatever.  There is no reason to do that now because there are these things called thermometers, and they are (usually) very accurate.

Given that we now have a set of rules, let's break one, shall we?  I make this fudge every year because it's so easy.  It also has a lovely boozy taste, and you know this girl is in favor of that.  I don't know what the magic is with this recipe and I cannot remember where it came from so I'm not sure who to thank, but you don't need a thermometer.  You just bring the sugar mixture to a low boil and stir the hell out of it for a while, then pour it over the chocolate chips to melt them, and spread it in a pan.  Done.  It's like I can forget everything I know about candymaking!!!  Except I'm still going to use the good chocolate.

Irish Cream Fudge

My recipe notes that you should store this fudge in the refrigerator, and I normally do, but it does fairly well at room temp, too.  I've shipped it to friends and family before and it traveled just fine.  I left out the nuts this year because one of my recipients doesn't care for nuts in desserts, and since he is deployed and has to be away from his family for Christmas, he gets what he likes.  It was still very good without them.

24 oz. milk chocolate chips
12 oz. semisweet chocolate chips
14 oz. marshmallow creme
2 tsp. vanilla
2/3 cup Irish cream liqueur, such as Bailey's
2 cups chopped nuts (optional)
4 1/2 cups granulated sugar
12 oz. can evaporated milk
1/2 pound butter (2 sticks)

Line a 10" x 15" x 1" pan with heavy duty foil and rub the foil with one of the sticks of butter.  In a large, heavy bowl, add all the chocolate chips, marshmallow creme, vanilla, Irish cream and nuts.

In a heavy saucepan, combine the sugar, milk and butter over medium heat and bring to a boil.  Turn the heat down until the mixture is at a low boil and cook, stirring constantly, for 10 minutes.  This seems like a long time when you are stirring, but don't skimp on this part.

Pour the hot milk mixture over the chocolate chip mixture and stir until everything is melted together.  Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and chill until set.  Turn out onto a large cutting board, peel the foil off the back and cut into small squares.  Or, be lazy like me and let people cut pieces off of a big chunk.


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

French Onion Soup

It rained all day in north central Kentucky on Monday.  All.  Day.  Dark, dreary, chilly and wet.  Which is fine, because we finished most of the outside chores we had planned for the weekend, and it made for awesome soup weather.  The storage shed was assembled, the grass was cut, the garage was mostly organized.... so we took advantage of a nasty "stay inside and put on comfy clothes" kind of day with french onion soup.  And now, so can you!

I've probably mentioned my love of America's Test Kitchen on this blog before.  If I haven't, here it is: I love that show.  While Marc was on his 2nd deployment to Iraq right after we got married, I bought myself most of the books they've ever published, which happily came with every season of the show on dvd for free.  I watched them ad nauseum.  I still do.  How someone can watch a chicken being roasted about 60 times within a 5 year period is beyond explanation, but here we are.  I know it makes me lame, and I don't give a fig.  I never get tired of the show.  And when a new season's worth of cookbooks and dvds shows up in my mailbox, I'm downright giddy about it.  I honestly believe it is my obsession with this show that has made me a decent home cook.  It's because they teach you the basics and the methods, not just specific recipes.  It's because they explain the science, and not just the ingredients.  When company comes over, I am confident enough in the ATK recipes to choose ones that I've never made before, because I know that as long as I follow the directions, they will come out great.  Pretty much every recipe is a winner....

....but there's an exception to every rule, right?

I can only think of a handful of ATK recipes that I was not impressed with.  And before I attract the negative attention of Christopher Kimball, let me just say, I'm sure it was operator error.  The failures are so rare that they stick out in my mind like cubes of Velveeta on a fancy cheese tray.  Chicken tikka masala-- I had SO much hope for that one, but it was bland, bland, bland.  How something could smell that fragrant and have an ingredient list that long and still have no flavor is beyond me.  Once I tested a recipe for them (yes, I am an ATK recipe tester, that's how big of a dork I am about the show) for crab cakes, and although they tasted fantastic, they totally crumbled apart into a million pieces.  Had I been serving those to guests I would have been really embarrassed.

Another let down was french onion soup.  The method involves cooking the onions in the oven.  It takes for-e-ver.  Every half hour or so you take the giant, burning hot, heavy Dutch oven out of the oven and deglaze the pan and then keep putting it back in until the onions are very dark.  And if you're like me, the fond in the pot is BURNT by the time you are done.  The burning seems to happen within seconds.  You take the pot out to deglaze and everything looks great and then moments later the fond is black.  I can't figure out how to avoid it.  Might as well call it Schrodinger's onions because at any given moment in time it's as if the fond is simultaneously burned and not, but you don't know what state it's going to be in until you take the lid off of the pot and force it to assume a position.  And even with all that long, slow cooking and how lovely and deep and brown and caramel-y those onions look, there is no flavor, except the flavor of carbon from the burnt onion fond.  I have tried their method twice because they made it look so easy on the show, and I really wanted to give it a fair shake.  But it's a LOT of work for no pay off.  That was the conclusion I came to both times.  So I'm going with a simple stove top method using boxed beef broth.  It's probably nothing like how a French cook would make it, so maybe I should call it American onion soup.  Regardless, it's less work and we love it.

As usual, I consulted my old cookbooks and found several recipes for cream of onion soup.  Most of the soups our ancestors made were apparently cream of whatever, and that didn't interest me here.  (However, I will be revisiting cream of tomato soup in the near future.  YUM.)  So I went with a version that is my own adaptation from a Ladies' Home Journal cookbook recipe.  I've been making this recipe in various ways for many years, and I've gotten it just how I like it.  Screw that burnt fond / oven method.

French (American) Onion Soup

It's very important that you use broiler safe bowls for this.  Do not put anything under a broiler that doesn't specifically say broiler safe.  You done been warned.

1/4 cup butter
1 Tbs. oil
3 lb. white or yellow onions, thinly sliced
2 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
2 (32 oz.) boxes low sodium beef broth
1 1/2 cups water
2 bay leaves
1 sprig fresh thyme
18 whole peppercorns
1/2 cup brandy
more salt to taste, as much as a few teaspoons
1 baguette or loaf of french bread
8 oz. gruyere cheese, shredded
8 oz. parmesan cheese, shredded

Heat the butter and oil in a large Dutch oven over medium high heat.  Once the butter has stopped foaming, add the onions, sugar and 1 tsp. salt.  Stir to coat the onions in the butter and oil and cook until beginning to soften.  Turn the heat down to medium low and continue to cook the onions, stirring occasionally until very soft and dark brown.  This will take a while, depending on the output of your stove and even the moisture in the onions.  I've had it take anywhere from 30 minutes to about an hour.  Once a lot of the moisture is gone, the onions will probably begin to stick a little bit to the pot and leave behind tasty browned bits of fond.

After the onions are very soft and dark, pour about half a cup of the broth into the pot and scrape up the browned bits using a wooden spoon.  Once the fond is all scraped up, add the remaining broth, the water, bay leaves, thyme and peppercorns.  If you have cheesecloth handy, this would be a great time to make a little sack for your peppercorns, bay leaves and thyme sprig.  That way they are super easy to fish out when you're done.  Boost the heat to high and bring the soup to a boil.  Once boiling, turn the heat back down to medium low and simmer gently for half an hour to 45 minutes.  Add brandy and simmer for 5 minutes more.   Remove the bay leaves and thyme sprig and either fish out the peppercorns, or warn those partaking not to bite down on them.  I've left them in before and have never bitten down on one.  They are pretty easy to spot as you scoop up spoonfuls of soup.

Preheat your broiler.  Slice enough pieces of bread to cover each bowlful of soup and then toast the bread until golden.  Ladle the soup into each broiler safe bowl, top with toasted bread slices and 2 to 3 Tbs. of each kind of cheese.  Place the bowls on a sheet pan and slide the pan under the broiler.  Broil until the cheese is melted and spotty brown.  It only took about 2 minutes in my broiler, but you'll need to go by eye, not time.  Careful!  It will be HOT when you dig in.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Apple Cake

It's officially fall now, and you know what that means?  Apples!  You know what else I love about fall?  Cakes!  Fall and winter are prime cake baking time because it's finally cool enough to actually enjoy having the oven on, and the cozy feeling that comes with it.  As opposed to summer when, unlike my parents, I will indeed turn my oven on, but when I do, I'm often chased into the basement to get some respite from the heat.  To recap, 2 great things about fall: apples and cake.  There is an obvious next step staring us in the face here, and it's called apple cake.

There must be some kind of apple cake high council that met long ago and ratified the master version of this recipe, because the many variations I encountered were all basically the same at their core.  The amount of oil, sugar, eggs and flour was very similar from one to another.  I saw one that called for half butter and half oil.  I saw a few that called for a bit more flour or a bit less apples than I used.  A few contained nutmeg in addition to or in place of cinnamon.  One more contemporary version called for serving a butterscotch sauce on top, which seemed cloyingly sweet and unnecessary to me.  I love butterscotch as much as the next girl, but do you want to taste the apples or not?  And there was one that called for canned apple pie filling, which is an absolute travesty any time of year, but especially now.  In the end, I went with a version that my mom has always made and has been in her recipe file for decades.  Since it is very similar to most of the recipes I found, and because it was always so good, I changed absolutely nothing.  Who am I to argue with the National Association for Apple Cake Integrity?

Apple Cake

As you can see, I used a 9 x 13 pan, but my sister-in-law makes a similar recipe and uses a Bundt pan.  I like to make a foil liner for the pan when I make a snack cake like this so I can lift the entire cake out of the pan to cut it.  That way I don't scratch up my bakeware with a knife.  I used Granny Smiths because their tartness complements the sweetness of the cake nicely, but the choice of apple is obviously up to you.  The batter will be very thick; it's almost more like a cookie dough than a cake batter.  You will need to smooth it out into an even layer before baking.  I served mine for dessert along with coffee or milk, as the diner preferred, but it was great the next morning for breakfast, too.  Also works well as just an anytime snack. 

2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
2 cups sugar
1 cup oil
2 eggs
2 tsp. vanilla
3 cups apples, peeled and chopped (if using Granny Smiths, this is about 2 or 3 of the jumbo ones, or 4 to 5 smaller ones)
1 cup pecans, toasted and chopped (optional)

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.  Prepare a 9 x 13 baking pan by lining with foil and spraying the foil with vegetable oil cooking spray, or leave out the foil and grease and flour the pan.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, soda, baking powder, salt and cinnamon and whisk until well mixed.  Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar, oil, eggs and vanilla.  Add the flour mixture and stir until just combined.  Add the chopped apples and nuts, if using, and fold into the batter.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan, making sure to spread it out into an even layer and into the corners of the pan.  Bake for 1 hour at 300 degrees.  Allow to cool before slicing.


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Tomato Sauce

I have a fleeting memory from my childhood that taunts me with its vagueness.  Like many beloved memories of those days, it centers around 2 of my favorite things: my grandparents, and food.  This memory is about tomato sauce.  Sweet, perfectly seasoned sauce from ripe, juicy, homegrown tomatoes from my grandparents' garden.  They had a huge yard (at least by St. Louis standards), and across the entire back of the yard was a massive garden with rows and rows of tomato plants.  I know they grew other things as well, but I can't remember what they were.  I only remember the tomatoes because they were transformed into the fabulous sauce coveted by my parents and my aunt and uncle.

But the details are sketchy.  I remember being at their house several times on sauce day--you do NOT forget a smell that wonderful--but I don't remember any of the particulars and it seems no one in the family really does.  The entire operation took place in their basement, from what I remember.  I think they even had a separate stove down there were they cooked it all up.  Then there was some kind of process where the cooked mixture was taken from spent chunks of tomato and onion to a smooth sauce, and it was processed and canned.  It was an Italian-ish sauce that I suspect had, at the very least, basil and oregano, from what I remember about the way it tasted.  But I don't know what else, if anything, was in there.  I so wish I had asked my grandma what was in it.  By the time I was old enough to appreciate it and ask, she was already suffering from dementia and there's no way she would have remembered.  During the later years in her life, my dad would often make her recipes when he would bring my grandparents to our house for dinner.  Then he'd say, "Remember when you used to make this, mom?"  And she would say, "I made that???" in total bewilderment.  As if to say, wow, I was a great cook!  Yes.  Yes you were, grandma. 

When my grandparents stopped making the sauce, my mom and dad basically had to learn how to cook all over again without it.  Suddenly tomato sauce wasn't magically pre-seasoned anymore, and some things really never tasted the same again.  Over the years I've wanted to try and give it back to them.  (And myself!)

So last year Marc and I tried our hand at re-creating it for the first time, and it didn't take us too long to get a good ratio of herbs, sugar, salt, etc. to tomatoes, but the step where it actually became sauce was a little more difficult.  We tried a food mill, which was slow and not very effective.  Next we decided to just take the entire mixture and blend it all up, skins and all.  It tasted great, but Otto and Marguerite's sauce did not have seeds in it, and I wanted to make their sauce.  Talking with my brother about it recently, he said he remembered an attachment that Grandma put on her standing mixer that strained the sauce, expelling all the solids.  Eureka!  I ordered this for my standing mixer and now I think I'm finally on my way to replicating it.  I will admit that even my memories of the taste are vague, though.  So I don't know if I have it just right, but I think my grandparents' version would have been very simple, just like mine is.  Dried basil and oregano, salt, sugar, garlic cloves and onion pretty much covers it.  I would imagine theirs was not any fancier than that. And it still brings back a great food memory, even if that memory is a little fuzzy.

Seasoned Tomato Sauce

If you don't have a standing mixer to buy the attachments for, or you don't want to spend the money on the attachments, feel free to just blend everything up after cooking.  I actually think I like it better with the seeds and skins in it because, while still saucy, it gives it a nice body.  If you go for the straining method as I did, it will be very nice and smooth, but a little thin.  In the end it's yummy either way, so it's really all about your texture preferences. The lemon juice is an added safety measure to keep the sauce acidic enough to ward off bacteria growth.  You don't want to be handing out jars of botulinum toxin.  So don't skip that step.  The sugar in the sauce should take care of whatever sourness the juice adds.

12 lbs tomatoes, cored and quartered
1 head garlic, peel the cloves and just leave them whole
2 Tablespoons salt
1 large onion, cut into chunks 
3 Tablespoons dried basil
1 1/2 Tablespoons dried oregano
about 1/4 to 1/3 cup sugar
bottled lemon juice

Put all ingredients except the lemon juice in a large stock pot and bring to a simmer.  Simmer uncovered over a low heat until sauce is reduced by at least a third to as much as a half.  This will take quite a few hours.  Chill the sauce overnight and either blend in a food processor or blender, or use the above mentioned standing mixer attachments to strain out the solids.  If you just want to blend it you could also use a stick (immersion) blender and that way you will not need to chill the sauce first.  Bring the sauce back to a simmer and then fill clean, hot mason jars with hot tomato sauce and 1 Tbs. lemon juice per pint, leaving 1/2" of headspace.  Secure the lids and rings on the jars and process in a boiling water bath for at least 35 minutes.  Make sure all jars have sealed once they are cool.  Makes about 8 to 10 pints, depending on how much you cook it down.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Split Pea Soup


I'm back!  And I brought soup!  For those of you who've been asking when I was going to post again, thanks for your loyalty to the blog and I apologize for my absence.  For those who didn't notice I had been gone, some friend you are.  (Kidding.)

And so the inhibition-free smorgasbord of culinary delights that is the holiday season is long gone, and we've all had to find a way to be "good" again.  Towards the end of the holidays, I actually got to where I was tired of eating.  I know, I'm as surprised as you are.  Cookies, candy, big, guilt-laden breakfasts.... it all became too much after a while.  My family came here to my house for Christmas, and I made chicken parmigiano one night, chicken cordon bleu another night, we went out to eat a few times, and I made breakfasts consisting of things like an egg-bacon-potato casserole thing with a sausage gravy over the top, homemade doughnuts, french toast and so on and so on.  I feel like I'm getting fatter just reading about all the stuff I cooked.  I guess, other than it just being a new calendar year and time for a fresh start, that's probably why so many people start eating healthy right after New Year's.  If they're anything like me, they reach a point where they are actually craving things like a bowl of oatmeal, or some granola and yogurt instead of pancakes and bacon.

I've been sitting on this recipe for a while; it was actually one of the first things I made to get back in (relatively) healthy mode again once the holidays were over.  There is nothing better than a steaming bowl of hearty, stick-to-your-ribs comfort food, unless said comfort food is not just delicious, but healthy.  Good for you and good tasting almost never go together, so let this be one of those happy occasions.  

Fiber, veggies, lean protein - this soup has it all.  And it is infinitely adaptable. I made it with a good, lean ham here, but many of the times I've made it, I used turkey smoked sausage.  You could also use a ham bone if you had one, or, although I've never made it that way, I'm pretty sure it would be great with no meat at all, if you're going for an all-veggie version.  I've made it with green peas and a combination of yellow and green peas.  Both were great.  You can play with the ratios of vegetables endlessly.  Don't like celery?  Leave it out and just put in more carrots or whatever you do like.  Want to try some little cauliflower florets in there?  Yeah, sounds good to me.  Want to leave the skins on the taters?  Sure!  Don't have any chicken broth in your pantry?  Use water and maybe just a pinch more salt.  Trust me, it's still good.  Another added bonus, especially if you're cooking for only 2 people like I am - it freezes beautifully.  I put it into individual serving sizes and freeze it for Marc to take to work for lunch.  When you reheat it, just add a smidgen of water to thin it out a touch and it comes back to life as if you just made it.

It hasn't really felt much like winter yet in Kansas this year, but I don't care because I would eat this soup in the dog days of summer.  Enjoy!

Split Pea Soup

I call for red potatoes because they stand up nicely to the cooking and won't fall apart like russets might.  Yukon gold would also work great, or if you don't care if your potatoes fall apart, then by all means, use a russet if you like.  As I said above, infinitely adaptable.

1 lb. lean ham, cut into cubes
5 medium carrots, peeled and chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 large celery rib, chopped (about 1/2 cup)
1 small or 1/2 a large onion, diced (about 1 cup)
2 small red potatoes, peeled and cubed (about 1 cup)
1 lb. split peas
4 c. low sodium chicken broth (32 oz. box)
3 c. water
1 1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 bay leaves

Throw all the stuff into a pot and bring to a boil.  Turn heat down to low, cover and simmer gently for about an hour and a half or until the peas are cooked through and some are beginning to break down.  Remove bay leaves and serve.

It was really hard to get a good picture of this as a finished product.  To be honest, it's just not that pretty.  That's why I put the far more attractive image of the uncooked ingredients up at the top.  But just in case you still want to see it, here is a finished bowl.  But don't take my camera's word for it, make you own and just see how good it looks when it's sitting right in front of you.  :)