Back in the Saddle, Part 1


It has been awhile since I’ve been in the kitchen. After Final Exams last May I packed up my kit and have either been packing, traveling, or unpacking since then.

I’ve missed it. So, when I had a reason- a friend’s birthday – to decorate something I grabbed my kit from the garage and picked out some pastry tips. I was making a simple icebox cake — which doesn’t even need to be baked, just assembled — but I was still happy to be playing around.

This is a great little dessert for hot weather. It’s versatile, easy, and can be done the night before you need it. Icebox cakes are typically made from wafer cookies spread with fresh whipped cream and then stacked into a design. Because the wafer cookies absorb moisture from the whipped cream the layers soften into a “cake” and the whipped cream tightens into a frosting.  It’s perfect for a light, refreshing summer dessert.

Now I want one made out of vanilla wafers, whipped cream, and lemon curd. Or vanilla and cherry preserves. Or maybe I just need to make a trifle next…

Not bad for two days later!

Not bad for two days later!

Buttercrunch Toffee

Half Batch of Pecan Buttercrunch

Half Batch of Pecan Buttercrunch

I’ve always been a fan of toffee — one Christmas I received a big can of Almond Roca in my stocking and thought I had hit the jackpot — but never considered making it at home. Candy thermometer? Tempering chocolate? Forget it. But, we are in the Confections section of my Chocolate and Showpiece class and toffee was on the docket.

It turns out it’s not so hard. To eliminate any stress, though, I do recommend a candy thermometer. They’re fairly inexpensive and sugar is extremely temperature sensitive — a few degrees difference in heat makes an enormous difference in the outcome of your confection.

As for the tempering, you can sidestep any of the rigamarole associated with large-batch tempering, which can be very touchy for even a moderately experienced baker, by using a shortcut. Here’s the thing about the shortcut, though — you have to do it as described. Don’t shortcut the shortcut.

This recipe is adapted from Chocolates and Confections by Peter P. Greweling, CMB. Chef Greweling, an instructor at The Culinary Institute of America, is quite precise in his discussions about chocolates and confections. The depth with which he discusses the topics might seem intimidating but the photographs, which are gorgeous, are inspiring.

The recipe is written to yield 60 oz., which is quite a bit of toffee for an average person. We made a half-batch in class, split it between two people, and both had a decent amount to take home with us.

We also only coated one side of the toffee in chocolate — easier, faster, and quite sufficient — which means that if you only want to coat one side with chocolate you would want to cut the amount of chocolate, nuts, and the salt for the nuts (not the salt for the toffee mixture) in half for a whole batch, or quarter it for a half-batch.

Pecan Buttercrunch

Yield: 60 oz.

16 oz. butter, melted
16 oz. sugar
3 oz. water
1 tbsp. vanilla

24 oz. dark chocolate, tempered (see below), for coating — use bars, not chips
16 oz. pecans, or other nut, toasted, chopped and salted
2 tsp. salt

Note: Have a silicone baking mat and an off-set spatula or rubber spatula laid out and ready for the hot toffee when it comes off the stove. You will need to work very quickly to get it out of the pan and spread smoothly on the mat before it cools.

Combine the butter, sugar, water, and salt in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly.

Once it comes to a boil, continue cooking over moderate heat to 298 degrees Farenheit while stirring constantly. Do not be concerned if the sugar seems to sit at a certain temperature without budging for awhile. Just keep stirring and watching — the temperature will shoot up suddenly.

When the mixture reaches 298 degrees, take it off heat and add the vanilla extract. Stir well. Pour quickly onto the silicone baking mat and spread to desired thickness before the toffee sets. Allow to cool completely. I suggest not working the toffee too much once you pour it out — just smooth it quickly to the thickness you want. You will be breaking it into irregular pieces, anyway, so you don’t need to fuss with it too much at this point.

While the toffee is cooling, temper your chocolate.

Tempering Chocolate by the Direct Method

This shortcut is good for relatively small amounts of chocolate. You want to use bar chocolate, not chips, because chips generally have vegetable oil or other emulsifiers in them — they won’t harden back up the way you want.

Chop the chocolate into small, even pieces and place in a microwave-safe bowl. The goal is to heat the chocolate very, very slowly. Do not rush this. Microwaves, and the amount of chocolate you are using, vary so it’s not possible to give precise times for this but start slowly. Microwave for about 30 seconds — you can even reduce the power on your microwave to 50% if you know how — and stir it well. It should have melted a little. Microwave it again and stir it. Keep doing this, stirring well each time you take it out. When the chocolate is about 85% melted but still a little chunky, just stir it until the chunks melt and the chocolate is smooth. Expect this process to take about 6 turns (or more depending on how much chocolate you are tempering) in the microwave.

The most important part of this process is to not overheat the chocolate in any way. It’s easy to burn chocolate, which would be a bummer, but even more importantly, chocolate that is heated too high, even if it doesn’t burn, may not set properly. You are only heating the chocolate enough to get it melted and smooth.

Now the chocolate is ready to pour over the toffee.

Once the toffee is cool, blot it with a clean towel to remove any excess oil from the surface which would prevent the chocolate from adhering. Coat one side of the toffee with half of the chocolate (or, all of the chocolate if you are only coating one side) by pouring it on and smoothing it out with a spatula. Immediately sprinkle the toasted, salted nuts onto the chocolate. Allow the chocolate to set. How long it takes chocolate to set depends on how thick you poured the chocolate, etc., but I’d say give it a good 20 minutes to start. Turn and repeat on the other side of the toffee if you are coating both sides. Break into desired-sized pieces. Store protected from heat and humidity.

When fresh, the toffee should be crisp and crunchy to the bite. As the toffee picks up moisture from the air, it will become softer to the bite and stickier to chew.

Tax Refund Coming? Think “Pasta Maker”

I love my KitchenAid Stand Mixer.  I still remember the day I brought it home, so proud and excited…I had dedicated my whole tax refund to it that year and I couldn’t be more pleased for having it. I felt like I’d hit the Big Time. It’s still my favorite appliance.

One of the perks of having a KitchenAid is that the mixers have the benefit of accepting attachments and KitchenAid makes sure there are plenty of tantalizing — and expensive — attachments from which to choose. One year, for Christmas, Santa brought me the highly coveted Pasta Maker attachment. I was SUPER excited. And then I waited almost a year to try it because I was intimidated by it. I’m not sure why.

One day I was visiting my friend and her mother-in-law decided to make pasta like it was no big deal. So, I watched her. And, it’s no big deal. Of course, she has been doing it for years, so it looked even easier and smoother than it actually is the first few times but, with a little practice you’ll see there’s nothing to fear.

So, if you have that pasta attachment — or, you’re expecting your tax refund and want to invest a chunk of it in either a KitchenAid or the pasta attachment —  I say go for it! (You could also make the dough by hand — very easy — and crank it through a much less expensive tabletop pasta roller for a lot less $$ investment and a tiny bit more time and muscle investment. )

I decided to try making some Spinach pasta the other day. I had the last of my summer pesto to use and a handful of pine nuts looking for a place to land so I gave it a whirl. Spinach has quite a bit of moisture in it, so it requires a little extra handling when you are sheeting it (putting it through the rollers). I learned this after the fact.

Flour, flour, flour.

Other advice? Don’t fall so in love with the way your pasta looks that you set it down to take pictures of it because what used to be an ethereal delicacy of thinness is now a hot mess of clumpy fresh pasta. Have the back of a chair at the ready for draping.

And flour, flour, flour.

Spinach Pasta

(from the KitchenAid Pasta Sheet Roller and Cutter Set instructions, slightly modified):

y= 1 1/2 lbs. dough

1 package (10 oz) frozen, chopped spinach, thawed

1 tbsp. water

4 large eggs (7/8 cup)

4 cups sifted all-purpose flour

Place spinach in a towel and wring out all the water until the spinach feels very dry. (I didn’t do this — I just squeezed it — so that might have contributed to my moisture situation). Finely chop spinach using a food grinder attachment, food processor, or blender. (Hmm. I didn’t do this either, but I don’t think it matters. It’s “possible” I didn’t read this part of the directions and just went at it…)

Place chopped spinach, water, eggs, and flour into mixer bowl. Use beater paddle to mix 30 seconds on Speed 2 (low). Exchange paddle for dough hook. Knead 2 minutes on Speed 2. Remove dough from bowl and hand knead for 1-2 minutes. Divide dough into 8 pieces and process with roller attachment.  Cook as you would dry pasta, but adjust cooking times down. Fresh pasta takes considerably less time to cook than dry pasta. Check after 4 minutes.

Buon appetito!

Try This At Home, Kids!

There are lots of baking and pastry photos I take in my labs which don’t necessarily make it into a specific blog post. You can see these photos, and other interests, on Facebook on my Bean Pie And Baking page, so “Like” us on The Book! You can do that by clicking the link, or by finding the “Like” button on the right-hand side of this blog post.  And this semester, especially in my Advanced Pastry class where we sometimes divide up to produce a dozen different items, I’m coming across a lot of really good recipes. So, if you see a photo which interests you and are thinking you might want to try it at home, let me know. It’s highly likely that I could share the recipe.

Here’s a recipe we tried out last week in class. Pretty tasty, and fairly straightforward. The recipe calls for fresh figs, but we used dried figs in class and it was very nice. My only advice if you are using dried figs might be to consider the size of the serving pieces relative to the size of the sliced figs. These figs look gorgeous, but they were a bit of a mouthful. Dried figs are sticky and don’t bite cleanly — you need to take the whole piece in one bite, and half a fig can be a bit much for one bite. It can also push the goat cheese-to-fig balance a bit out of whack.

Fig and Goat Cheese Tart

Fig and Goat Cheese Galette before the edges are turned up and the galette is baked.

Candied Fig and Goat Cheese Galette

Yield = 8 –  four inch tarts

2 each Puff Pastry, pre-made sheets

1 1/2 lb. figs, fresh (can use dried, but slice into bite-sized pieces)

8 oz. goat cheese

1/2 oz. star anise

3 cups sugar

1/2 cup water

1 cup Brandy

1/2 cup honey

Combine the water, brandy, sugar and star anise into a sauce pot and bring to a boil. Cut the figs into halves or quarters (stay on the smaller side if using dried figs). Lower the heat on the poaching liquid to a simmer and add the figs. Mind you don’t boil them — keep them at a gentle simmer — you don’t want them banging around the pot getting disfigured. Poach the figs until the skin is tender, but before the meat begins to break down. Remove the star anise.

Cut the puff pastry into 5″ circles (or 4 1/2″x4 1/2″ squares) and place onto a sheet pan lined with a silpat (or parchment paper). Evenly distribute the goat cheese on each of the circles, and spread it leaving a 3/4″ rim without cheese. Arrange the poached figs decoratively onto the cheese. Fold the edges of the galette up and over toward the goat cheese to form a crust. Bake at 375 degrees F until the pastry is golden brown. Cool the galettes, then drizzle a small amount of honey onto each one.


Ask And Ye Shall Receive

Adding the hot grilled peach to the freshly minted soft serve blew the aesthetic, but since I like to slurp my ice cream anyway, I didn’t mind.

In my post “The Ice Cream Man Might Drive Me Crazy” I told you how much I’d love to make ice cream but just can’t cotton to having many quarts of ice cream in my freezer into perpetuity. Not only do I not have the freezer space (I still have cookies and rolls from last semester’s baking class and this semester’s baking class just started), it’s not good for you.

So full of excuses! Rationalizations! A true ice cream maker would buy a second freezer and churn away into the night like a mad creamery scientist, right? Well.

Enter Fortune. I killed my oddly expensive Little Green carpet cleaner by letting my oh-so-natural vinegar-and-water solution (so superior to commercially scented products! so chemical free! so groovy!) sit in the tank. I had been vaguely wondering why my closet smelled like vinegar every time I went in there for something…it was because the vinegar — surprise! — had eaten away at all the rubber seals and gaskets and the bottom had basically fallen out of the contraption without my noticing. Don’t be surprised — this kind of thing is actually a routine occurrence for me. But, I’m trying to explain why I happened to alter my regular routine and found myself in a Super Goodwill looking for somebody else’s  discarded handheld carpet spot cleaner — the whole other-people’s-trash-is-my-treasure sort of thing. Naturally, I didn’t find one, but I did find a bitchin’ piece of vintage Tupperware (no, not the deviled egg keeper — La Fortune’s not THAT sweet) and this: the Hamilton Beach 1/2 pint ice cream maker. $3. Yippee! Imagine my delight. It’s on.

This one isn’t mine — mine is blue, is missing one bowl and the manual — but this is the Half Pint Ice Cream Maker in its Platonic form.

And, can I tell you that right after that, no less than four ice cream recipes came my way via other food blogs? Coupled with the other half dozen ice cream recipes roosting in my inbox right now, I figured it was time. Just in time for autumn, when people tend to want ice cream the most, yes.

First, I decided to make vanilla. Start at the beginning, right? Keep it simple?  But then I decided to grill some peaches to go with it…and doesn’t honey go well with peaches? And don’t I just happen to have a recipe for Honey Ice Cream culled from the food blog The Way The Cookie Crumbles? Well, yes. So it was Honey Ice Cream — with some vanilla bean paste thrown in for good measure because I CAN’T JUST LEAVE IT ALONE —  scaled down from y= 1 quart to y= 6 oz.

Prepping the little guy: cold ice cream base, frozen bowl. See how tiny he is?!

My Lil’ Mini is  ready to go.

Next, I decided on Lemon Buttermilk Sorbet. I came across this recipe in the comments section of a website when I was searching for advice on my new Lil’ Mini. Since I was sans instruction manual, I was boning up on soft-serve strategies using the glorious inter-web. If you find yourself in possession of a Hamilton Beach Half Pint Soft Serve Ice Cream Maker and want some advice, click here.  The recipe for Lemon Buttermilk Sorbet turns out to be from (68 reviewers gave it an average of 4 forks). I had lemons and buttermilk on hand (doesn’t everyone?), so this recipe proved to be a snap. Plus, I felt very virtuous since there wasn’t any cream in it. And, I love lemons.

Buttermilk Sorbet

When I was feeling less virtuous, I decided to try Cooking Light’s version, which is, ironically, not as “light” as the recipe from since it combines buttermilk with whole milk and half-and-half. Cream sure does make for the delicious, doesn’t it?

Buttermilk Sorbet, but with cream and milk. Does that mean it’s not sorbet?

For my next trick, I chose something a little more exotic: Coconut Red Bean Ice Cream. I found this recipe on a blog called Butter is Beautiful. If you read my post “Cuckoo For Coconut!”  you’ll remember I’m in a coconut phase, so you can see how coconut ice cream would intrigue me. This recipe also happens to be vegan, but shhhhh! or nobody will try it.

The making of the Coconut Red bean Ice Cream. I made the red bean paste, on the right, a day or two ahead. It’s no sweat.

This recipe involves coconut milk mixed together with red bean paste, which you can buy at an Asian market. Or, if you are already making red beans and rice since you have to use up the smoked pork you still have from your ham-buying frenzy earlier in the summer (see “The Aisle of Ham“), you can just set a portion of red beans aside after soaking and cook it off separately from the savory dish. Red bean paste is very easy to make.  You can see its appearance in the photo above.  Try it, except don’t put the red bean paste in the saucepan — that was a mistake — it actually gets stirred in after the concoction comes off the heat. It smelled extremely good in the making.

Coconut Red Bean Ice Cream. It was exceptionally creamy and delightful.

This ice cream may have been my favorite of the three only because it is a bit exotic. The coconut milk gives it a unique creaminess, and the red bean paste, while sweet, has an almost savory aspect to it. It’s a nice contrast. Plus, I liked the texture.

Overall, I’m very pleased with my newest uni-tasker. I believe the Goodwill did me right. It’s nice to be able to run up some ice cream in a jiff, and since I actually prefer soft-serve to hardened ice cream, I’m happy as a clam. Its half pint status suits my lifestyle and I can see myself using it enough to cover its $3 price tag. I’ll wager I will use it a lot more often than the mini pie maker I bought in a moment of holiday shopping weakness last December…although there’s still time to redeem myself on that one since pie season is a’comin’…But, before that, there are ice cream recipes galore to explore. Why, not three days ago another tasty recipe dropped into my inbox. It’s Ezra Pound Cake’s Maple Gelato, and goodness knows I enjoy a maple ice cream…

Cuckoo For Coconut! And Quick Pickled Cucumbers. And Thai Melon Salad.

Here’s what happened: global warming. It has been hot hot hot all over the nation and Maryland is right smack dab in the middle of it. (The heat, not the nation. Unclear pronoun reference. Deduct 5 points.) It has been so hot here (“HOW HOT IS IT??”  — I don’t have a punchline for this) but more oppressive than the heat is the humidity. I walked to the car at 10 AM last week and as long as it took me to get my keys ready my hands were moist like I was about to go on stage. Humid. Your-lungs-feel-wet humid. Mercy.

Anyway, it’s not really cooking weather except for some quick grilling, so I pulled out a recipe I found awhile back for Sichuan (Szechuan) Cucumber Pickles and now I can’t stop nomming on them. Pair this dish with a Thai Melon Salad from my cooking school textbook and a recipe for rice cooker coconut rice I am seriously bananas for right now, and you’ve got some goodness happening. Throw some lightly marinated chicken breast tenders on the grill the last 5 minutes of prep and you are set. Nutritious, cooling, and a crazy amount of texture. Pan-Asian delight.

Both of these salads should be made a few hours before serving leaving you plenty of time to put your feet up and drink some sweet tea before dinner.

First up, Sichuan (or Szechuan) Pickled Cucumbers.

Sichuan Pickled Cucumbers
The Gourmet Cookbook

Sichuan (Szechuan) Pickled Cucumbers

2 lbs.  small Kirby (pickling) cucumbers or 1-2 seedless English cucumbers
4 tsp. salt
3 tbsp. sugar
2 tbsp. rice vinegar (not seasoned)
1/3 c. Asian sesame oil
1 (1-inch) piece peeled fresh ginger, finely grated
8 (1-inch-long) dried hot chiles, seeded if desired
1 tsp. Sichuan peppercorns (optional)

First of all, I love sesame oil and its distinctive flavor makes this dish, so I can’t imagine subbing it out for any other oil, so don’t you try it, either. Well, I mean, you can if you want to, but… Next, a neat trick for “peeling” fresh ginger is to actually scrape the peel off with a spoon. Works like a charm and is not nearly so wasteful as peeling it with a knife or traditional peeler. While we’re on the subject, a spoon is just the ticket for scraping the seeds out of the cucumber wedges, too. And while the Szechuan peppercorns are optional, I’ve tried it with and without and although I love the tongue-numbing taste of Szechuan peppercorns, I would grind them first since they are a bit distracting if left whole.

Halved, quartered, seeds removed, and diced.

Halve each cucumber lengthwise, then halve again to end up with long quarters.  Scrape the seeds out, then chop. The recipe calls for 2-inch pieces, but I dice to medium. Toss cucumbers with salt in a bowl and let stand 20 minutes.

Stir-frying the ginger and chiles in sesame oil.

While the cucumbers are salting, heat sesame oil in a wok or small deep skillet over moderately high heat until just smoking. Stir-fry the chiles and peppercorns for about 30 seconds or so, until the peppers turn dark. Add the ginger and stir-fry, being careful not to burn the ginger – it can happen quickly. Remove from heat and cool completely.

Cucumbers salted, rinsed, and patted dry.

Rinse cucumbers well, drain in a colander, and pat dry. Stir together the rice vinegar and sugar in a medium bowl until sugar dissolves. Add cucumbers, tossing to coat. Pour spiced oil over cucumbers and toss well. Marinate at room temperature for 3 hours before serving. The cucumbers can marinate, covered and refrigerated, for up to 4 days; stir occasionally. The longer the cucumbers marinate, the spicier they will be. Note: Leaving the seeds in the chile peppers will make a considerable difference in their heat level. Adjust accordingly.  Makes about 6 cups.

Next up, Thai Melon Salad (my textbook calls it a salsa, but I prefer to use it as a salad).

Thai Melon Salad
On Cooking, 5th ed.

Thai Melon Salad picture snaked from my textbook. Super low-tech photo, but you do get to see my advanced recipe ranking system.

 2 assorted melons (honeydew, cantaloupe. Crenshaw, etc.), peeled & diced
1 tsp. chopped garlic
2 tbsp. brown sugar
2 tbsp. fish sauce
1 tbsp. minced Serrano chile
2 fl ounce lime juice
4 tbsp. unsalted peanuts, roasted, chopped fine
4 tbsp. chopped mint

Cut the melons into small dice, or shape into small balls using a parisienne scoop. Combine the remaining ingredients and toss with melon pieces. Chill thoroughly. Garnish with more mint before serving, if desired. Serve with fish, shellfish, or chicken. Yields 1 quart.

And then there’s the rice.

Rice Cooker Coconut Rice
(this was scribbled on an index card, so not sure to whom to give credit but I modified it a bit so that makes it mine, right?)

Don’t let the exceedingly dark photo fool you — this stuff smells so amazing cooking that you’ll want to clap your hands.

Rice Cookers…I know, I know. I used to be against rice cookers — uni-taskers, and all, blah blah– but now I’m converted since it babysits its own self and leaves all my stove burners free — can’t argue with that!

I have unintentionally left out the salt on two occasions and the rice tastes just dandy to me, so you may want to try it, too.

2 c. jasmine rice
1 c. coconut milk (not light)
2 c. water
½ tsp. salt
3 tbsp. shredded coconut , plus more for garnish, see note

Combine all ingredients in the rice cooker. Stir to combine. Activate the rice cooker and let it do its thing. Allow to sit 10 minutes after it finishes cooking. Fluff with a fork before garnishing (see below) and serving. Serves 4.

Note: I highly recommend taking another 3-4 tbsp. shredded coconut and toasting it lightly in a pan over med.-high heat until the coconut begins to release its oils and browns. This can be done while the rice is bubbling away in its cozy coconut milk bath. Crumble toasted coconut over rice before serving.

And the chicken? Well, y’all know how to cook chicken, so I won’t bother with that. But, I will say that I came late to the party when it comes to chicken breast tenders. And now I’ve fallen hard. Sauteing or grilling them literally take about 3-4 minutes per side (if that).  There’s not even time to walk away so it’s easy to avoid overcooking them and drying them out. Just remember to cut out that tendon at the tip, because it’s super annoying to chew on that. Really harshes the chicken tender mellow. I chucked mine in a quick marinade of soy sauce, mirin, ginger and oil as I put the rice on, and 25 minutes in the bag was just about right to keep them juicy on the grill without overpowering their mild meat.

And that’s it. That’s the hot weather dinner du jour. So grab some sweet tea and enjoy!