pretzel bites.

pretzel bites.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

st. patty's day candies. liquored up.

i am not irish. not even close. but i've got a soft spot in my heart for st. patty's day. it's not about the booze, though i do enjoy a good irish whiskey, some guinness, and even bailey's irish cream. or at least i did before i was pregnant. i didn't grow up celebrating in any way (though i believe as a child i dutifully wore green to avoid being pinched). in fact, the only person in my family who acknowledged the holiday was my extremely jewish paternal grandmother. every year, until her death when i was a junior in college, i got a card from her on st. patty's day. valentine's day, too. for her, it wasn't about the holidays themselves. it was about the cards. she had an entire bureau filled with greeting cards collected over the course of i don't know how many years. this bureau was a treasure chest and a great source of entertainment to me as a child. i can easily recall sitting on the floor rifling through the endless supply of birthday, new years, get well soon, and otherwise generically good wishes, utterly fascinated and impressed by the collection.

so there was that.

and then there was the year i got engaged. josh and joey and i went with my old roommate and dear friend jessie (i know. it's a lot of j's) to a st. patty's day party one of her coworkers was throwing. two important things happened at the party: the game taboo and dancing. when someone busted out taboo (if you don't know what taboo is you should find out. it's a wonderful game, which i will not try to explain for fear my description will be irreversibly confusing.) josh and joey and i formed a team. not just any team. the winning team. but we didn't just win. we obliterated the competition. everyone was impressed. i was excessively proud. the dancing came later. parties with dancing are the best kinds of parties. at some point someone put beyonce's "single ladies" song on and we all danced to it. (if you're not familiar with this song, you do not live in this universe. it contains the line "if you liked it then you should have put a ring on it.") there's a picture of me pointing to my ring finger while dancing, which, in retrospect, could be embarrassing but isn't because there are about five other girls in the picture making the same gesture. my oh-so-serious-boyfriend just happened to be feet away. and he just happened to have my engagement ring IN HIS POCKET. and it just so happens that an hour or so before we left for the party he had called my parents to ask for their blessing... don't worry. he didn't propose to me at this random-coworker-of-my-roommate's party after we danced to this song. it happened the next morning and it was quiet and private and only ours. but you can see why i have a soft spot for st. patty's day.

this year, my friends matt and kate invited us over for an irish inspired st. patty's day dinner. at seven-and-a-half months pregnant i'm eating with abandon and having dinner is a pretty exciting event in and of itself, but having dinner with friends was an even happier prospect. so i did what i always do when i'm happy, which is concoct things. irish things. with alcohol.

i started with this betty crocker recipe, which i got a kick out of, and tweaked it only slightly. if you click on the link you will see that the recipe calls for honey flavored whiskey. what is honey flavored whiskey you ask? i haven't a clue, nor could i ever have justified purchasing an entire bottle of it for a first time candy making endeavor. so i improvised.

ingredients for salted whiskey caramels:
5 tablespoons butter
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup whiskey (i used johnny walker because the other stuff we have is fancy shmancy)
1 tsp honey
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp sea salt
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1/4 cup water
1/2-1 tbsp sea salt for topping

to make the salted whiskey caramels:
1. line a 9x9 pan with parchment paper and spray it with a ton of cooking spray.
2. in a small pot heat the butter, cream, whiskey, vanilla, and salt and stir it frequently until it boils, then remove it from the heat.
3. in a large pot (i learned this the hard way by using a medium pot. things spilled over. scrubbing the stove top happened.) mix the sugar, corn syrup, and water and heat it on medium-high heat but don't stir it! this is hard because it's fun to stir things on the stove top. heat it until it reaches 310 degrees F. (have i mentioned i have a candy thermometer? well i do. my aunt got it for me and i love it and feel very sophisticated and serious when i'm using it.) this takes a while, and if you're impatient like i am you will stare at the thermometer and wonder why it's not getting hotter faster.
4. when the sugar mixture finally reaches 310 degrees F add the cream mixture. (this is where my spillage happened.) beat it with a whisk and stare at the thermometer again until it reaches 248 degrees F. at least now you have something to do while you wait!
5. pour the caramel into a pan, wait 10 minutes, then sprinkle the sea salt over the top. you can add as much or as little as you like, but i think 1/2 tbsp is the right amount. i added too much and ended up scraping some off. stick the pan in the fridge and let it cool completely before cutting. i'll get to that later.

somehow salted whiskey caramels just didn't seem like enough. i wanted to keep going with the whole candy making thing, so i moved on to bailey's irish cream, which is like a dessert in and of itself. i found and tweaked this recipe and a now i have a new favorite cooking blog!

ingredients for the irish cream chocolate fudge caramels:
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup bailey's irish cream
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups golden syrup or corn syrup (i used a combination of the two)
1 tbsp salt
9 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips (i just guestimated 2/3 of a 12 oz. bag)
1 tbsp flaky salt for the top

to make the irish cream chocolate fudge caramels:
1. line a 9x9 pan with either parchment paper or aluminum foil and spray it generously with cooking spray.
2. combine the heavy cream, irish cream, sugar, and syrup in a large pot and heat over medium high heat until it boils and reaches 250 degrees F. remove it from the heat and let it sit for five minutes.
3. when the five minutes are up, stir in the chocolate chips and pour it into the pan. sprinkle it with salt and then stick it in the fridge to cool completely before cutting.

to cut the salted whiskey caramels and the irish cream chocolate fudge caramels:
1. do not do anything even remotely similar to what i did. i don't know why the simplest tasks are sometimes the hardest for me. i think it's fair to say that no two pieces of candy turned out the same size. and i was cutting a SQUARE.

the truth is, the sizes of the candies didn't matter. i even wrapped each one individually in parchment paper, which is one of the fanciest things i have ever done. the dinner was delicious, the company made it all the more so, and the candies were a hit!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

from winter to spring: a tale of two breads

about a month ago josh and i went to charleston for the weekend. josh had never been and i hadn't been since i was quite young. all i remembered was water and mansions. a very good combination. good enough, even, to warrant a this-may-be-the-last-trip-we-take-just-the-two-of-us-for-a-very-very-very-long-time getaway. besides, the plane ride isn't all that long. it's not a terribly expensive city. the weather is generally good. the architecture and the history are incredible. and the food scene is exploding. it was a sensational weekend. josh and i are perfect travel partners and every moment of a trip to a new(ish) place with him is an adventure, whether we're out exploring historical sites or resting in front of the fireplace in our hotel room. (yes. our hotel room had a fireplace.) we certainly did our fair share of site seeing and wandering (i think i spent an entire day pointing at things and saying "oh! isn't that just beautiful! oh, look at that house! i wonder how old it is! oh, look at that gate! don't you just love it here? oh, i think we could live here!) and we even visited a plantation where we saw a lot of spanish moss and alligators.
but the real highlight was the food. and boy, did we eat. and eat. and eat. in fact, on our last full day there we couldn't decide between two restaurants for lunch, so we ate at both of them. i kid you not. and this is the south. the portions aren't exactly small. i'm not going to tell you everything we ate and how incredibly, mind-bogglingly delicious it all was, because i think everyone should go there and taste for themselves. but i am going to tell you about the bread we ate a hominy grill, where we went for breakfast directly before heading to the airport to fly home. we picked this spot because our dear friend albert, a tennessee native, who has made it abundantly clear on multiple occasions that he believes it is by the grace of god that he was born a southerner, told us we must. though we ordered neither the big nasty biscuit w/ fried chicken breast, cheddar cheese and sausage gravy, nor the shrimp sauteed w/ scallions, mushrooms & bacon over cheese grits, two of the establishment's specialties, we still managed to do pretty well for ourselves without violating the laws of kashrut. it was the ginger pumpkin bread that did it. two perfectly thick, moist, buttery slices of freshly baked, obscenely flavorful bread reminiscent of fall and winter and warmth and happiness. it was served with sticky sweet strawberry jam reminiscent of spring and summer.
we stared at each other after our first bites. and then we talked about it while we were eating it. and on the way to the airport. and on the flight home. and for days and weeks afterward. i knew there had to be a recipe out there somewhere that would satisfy our craving for this southern delicacy. so last weekend, when josh's parents, aunt, uncle, and cousin all descended on brooklyn for the weekend just in time for a shabbat brunch on saturday morning, i knew i had the perfect audience for my first attempt to recreate the heavenly bread. i chose this recipe for no particular reason and made a few small adjustments while i was making it on friday.

1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1 cup pumpkin puree
1 stick melted butter
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1 tbs grated fresh ginger
2 eggs
3 tbs water

to make the pumpkin gingerbread:
1. preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and spray a loaf pan with pam or butter it all over.
2. combine the flour, salt, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a small bowl.
3. whisk the pumpkin, butter, sugar, molasses, fresh ginger, eggs, and water in a larger bowl.
4. add the dry ingredients to the wet ones and whisk them in until combined.
5. pour into the loaf pan and bake for 50-60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. let it cool, then remove it from the pan.

i may have "accidentally" tasted the batter and i could already tell it wasn't going to be anything like the hominy grill pumpkin gingerbread. for one thing, it was extremely dark, which i think was the result of all that molasses. the pumpkin flavor was almost forgotten in the midst of the spicy ginger kick. but it was still good, and i was pretty confident the finished product would be moist and delicious and flavorful in its own right, though i realized just how wintery it was going to be. i wanted to take the edge off the ginger with something, so i concocted a lovely spread to add lightness and sweetness to each bite. i checked out my fridge and pantry and found just the right ingredients to throw something together.

ingredients for the spread:
a good amount of ricotta
a few tablespoons of fig jam
a squeeze of honey
a small drop of balsamic vinegar
a few dashes of cinnamon

to make the spread:
i didn't measure anything and you don't need to either. start with the ricotta as a base and then add the fig jam a little bit at a time. add the other ingredients after the jam and stir them in and taste it. if you think it needs more honey, add more honey. if you think it needs more cinnamon, add more cinnamon. you get the idea.

i knew the combination was going to work. and it was going to compliment the rest of the brunch, which consisted of challah, my favorite fruit salad of strawberries, green grapes, watermelon, kiwi, and banana, olive bread toasts with spicy egg salad, lox, capers, and dill, crustless quiche with leeks, mushrooms, basil, and goat cheese, and spinach and micro green salad with grape tomatoes.

but then something happened virtually overnight and it changed everything, including the course of the brunch. it was the best thing in the world. spring. i know we've had an extraordinarily mild winter, and believe me, i'm very grateful for that fact, but spring's arrival announced itself unmistakably, creating a clear separation between the seasons. and in fact, spring arrived just as daylight savings graced us with that delicious extra hour of sun, which is a particularly essential thing for those of us who work in windowless offices and spend november through march leaving said offices well after the sun has set each day.
spring. even the word makes me feel light and happy.

but the pumpkin gingerbread was anything but springy. so on saturday morning i woke up extra early and crept out of bed to make another bread that would honor the glorious air. lemon pull-apart bread. i tweaked this recipe.

ingredients for the lemon pull-apart dough:
2 3/4 cups flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 packet yeast
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 cup cream (i would have used milk but didn't have any!)
2 tbsp of butter
1/3 cup water
1 tsp vanilla
2 eggs

ingredients for the lemon filling:
1 cup sugar
zest of 5 lemons
2 tbsp melted butter

ingredients for the icing:
1/3 cup softened cream cheese
juice of half a lemon
1/3 cup powdered sugar


to make the lemon pull-apart bread:

1. combine 2 cups of the flour, the sugar, yeast, and salt in a large bowl.
2. heat the cream and butter over low heat until the butter melts, then remove it from the heat, stir in the water, let it sit for about a minute, and add the vanilla.
3. pour the cream mixture over the dry mixture and combine with a rubber spatula. add the eggs one at a time and mix them in by hand. add the remaining flour little by little until the dough is smooth. it'll be sticky, but that doesn't mean you need to add more flour.
4. put the dough in a large greased bowl, cover it with plastic wrap and a tea towel and let it rise in a warm place for about an hour, or until it has doubled in size. my oven was on and i let the dough rise on top of it to help speed the process along.
5. when the dough is ready, deflate it on a clean counter. or you can leave it in the fridge overnight and bake the bread in the morning. apparently it's easier to work with the dough when it's a little chilled, but i had about an hour and a half to go before everyone was going to arrive and i didn't have time for that!
6. roll out the dough so it's about a 12x20 inch rectangle (i obviously didn't measure it). combine the lemon zest and sugar for the filling and melt the butter. use a pastry brush to spread the melted butter all over the dough, then cut it down into five 12x4 strips. spread 1/5 of the lemon zest mixture on a rectangle of dough, then stack another strip on top of it and repeat. generously butter a loaf pan or line it with parchment paper. slice the dough stack into 5 equal sections that should be about 2x4 inches each and fit them into the loaf pan with the cut sides down. cover the loaf pan with plastic wrap and a tea towel and let it rise for about 45 minutes, or until it was almost doubled in size again.
7. bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the top is golden brown. let it cool for about 10 minutes and then remove it from the pan.
8. stir the cream cheese, lemon juice, and powdered sugar and drizzle it over the bread. you can serve it by pulling pieces away bit by bit, or cutting into the bread. your choice.

we had a wonderful weekend with josh's family, and though we had bagels for brunch the next day, there was still enough of both breads to go around. eating the pumpkin gingerbread with the ricotta spread was like cozying up on a comfortable couch under a warm blanket with your beloved husband on a blustery winter day. eating the lemon pull-apart bread was like walking around your beautiful neighborhood without a coat and seeing those first dreamy signs of life. bright yellow daffodils. deep purple crocuses. fresh green leaves. soft pink buds. biting into one and then the other was a fun, edible way to mark the glorious transition from winter to spring.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

the great hamantashen project.

purim was today. every purim i feel a little sad, which is sort of silly, because it's a perfectly fun holiday. we read the story of esther and make a lot of noise. we eat a big meal. we give fun little packages of food to our friends and family. we offer charity to those in need. we get to dress up in fun costumes and we're even encouraged to get so... festive... that we can't tell the difference between the bad guy in the story, haman, and the good guy, mordechai. so i really quite enjoy celebrating the holiday.

it's the cookies that make me sad.

they're hard, dry, bland, brick-like things filled with jam--or worse, poppy seeds--called hamentashen. they're shaped like triangles because haman's ears were supposedly very pointy. (doesn't that make for a great sounding villain!?) and every year it's the same thing. i think, okay, maybe this is the year i'll start loving hamantashen. in the past decade i've acquired other tastes. coffee. wasabi. raisins. so who's to say i won't acquire a taste for hamantashen one year? but this wasn't the year. don't get me wrong, some are better than others. my mother-in-law makes a pretty mean hamantashen dough. but still, i'd rather have her chocolate chip cookies. or anyone's chocolate chip cookies for that matter.

so i decided this year i had to reinvent the hamantashen. or at least experiment with reinventing the hamantashen. and thus the great hamentashen project came into being. it began on sunday afternoon and ended late sunday night, and after i don't know how many hours of standing and mixing and cleaning and baking and cooling and transferring and sampling later, i had finally finished. the result was actually sort of scary. it turns out that five large batches of hamantashen is a lot of cookies for one house.

regular hamantashen recipes take a lot of precision. i'm not very good at precision, so i decided to start with regular cookie recipes. and all of the regular cookie recipes i chose were selected based on one ridiculous criterion: the pictures. if the cookies in the pictures that accompanied the recipes i was browsing looked a certain way i decided the dough would be thick enough to shape into circles, fill with stuff, pinch into triangles, and keep the nice shape while baking.

not so much. the great hamantashen project=a lot of recipe tweaking. i basically ended up adding 1/4 cup - 1 cup flour and sugar to each recipe to get the dough thick enough to work with. i also stuck the dough in the freezer to harden for a few minutes while batches baked. so none of these recipes are entirely exact, which i know is sacrilege in the world of baking. but sometimes you just have to go with it. this was an experiment, after all.

i started simply enough with with a lemon cookie, which i knew i wanted to fill with raspberry jam.  then i remembered i had some sweetened coconut flakes and it seemed utterly necessary to add them.
ingredients for the lemon coconut raspberry hamantashen:
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup sugar (plus more for flattening the cookies)
1/2 cup sweetened shredded coconut
2 tbs lemon zest
1 tbs lemon juice
2 sticks softened
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
ingredients for the filling:
your favorite raspberry jam
to make:
1. preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
2. combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl and mix them together.
3. combine the sugar and lemon zest in a small bowl and rub them together with your fingers.
4. beat the butter and sugar/lemon zest mixture and add the egg, vanilla, and coconut. keep beating until it's smooth.
5. slowly add the flour mixture to the sugar mixture.
6. take walnut sized balls of dough and use your palm to flatten them in sugar. coat both sides, then transfer to parchment lined cookies sheets. add a dollop of raspberry jam to the center, then pinch the sides up over the jam to form a triangle, leaving a bit of the jam poking out the center.
7. bake for 12-14 minutes or until they're golden brown.

from there i moved on to peanut butter cookies, which i knew i wanted to stuff with chocolate and caramel.
ingredients for the cookies:
1 3/4 cups flour
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
2 sticks softened butter
3/4 cup sugar (plus more for flattening the cookies)
3/4 cup brow sugar
1 egg
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 cup smooth peanut butter
ingredients for the filling:
1/2 cup chocolate chips
soft caramel candy squares, cut into quarters
to make:
1. preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
2. combine the flour, baking soda, and salt in a small bowl.
3. combine both sugars with the butter and beat for a few minutes, then add the egg, vanilla, and peanut butter.
4. add the flour mixture to the sugar mixture until just combined.
5. take walnut sized balls of dough and use your palm to flatten them in sugar. coat both sides, then transfer to parchment lined cookies sheets. add about 4 or 5 chocolate chips and a quarter of the caramel candy square to the center of each circle, then pinch the sides to form a triangle with a little bit of the filling poking out.
6. bake for 12-15 minutes, or until the cookies are lightly browned.

while those were cooling i started on the chocolate cookies. i used my go-to chocolate cookie recipe, which is pretty thick as it is, so it only needed a little tweaking. i paired them with mint because who doesn't like chocolate and mint?!
ingredients for the cookies:
12 tbsp softened butter
1 1/2 cups flour
2 eggs
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups sugar
1 cup cocoa powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tsp instant coffee
ingredients for the filling:
3/4 cup white chocolate chips
1/2 cup dark or milk chocolate chips
1/4 cup cream
1 tbs butter
1/2 tsp mint extract
pinch of salt
to make:
1. start with the filling. melt the butter over medium heat and add the cream. stir in the chocolate chips until they are about half melted, then remove from heat and stir in the salt and mint extract until everything is melted. refrigerate while preparing the cookie dough.
2. preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
3. beat the sugar, eggs, and vanilla in a large bowl until they look fluffy.
4. stir the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, salt, and instant coffee in a separate bowl and then add this mixture to the butter mixture until it's all combined.
5. flatten tablespoon sized gobs of batter onto parchment lined cookie sheets. drop teaspoon sized amounts of the filling into the center of each cookie and then pinch the sides to form a triangle, leaving a bit of the filling poking out.
6. bake for 8 to 10 minutes. the mint mixture bakes into the cookies a bit, so you might want to top it off with another teaspoon as the cookies are cooling.

after that i was ready for the ricotta cookies. i've never made ricotta cookies before so i wasn't quite sure how this would go. turns out this batter took the most tweaking (like removing the lemon flavor and adding the most flour and sugar), but the result was shockingly moist!
ingredients for the cookies:
3 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 stick softened butter
2 3/4 cups sugar (plus more for flattening)
2 eggs
15 ounces ricotta
1 tbs balsamic vinegar (plus more for glazing)
ingredients for the filling:
fig jam

to make the cookies:
1. preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
2. combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl and set aside.
3. beat the butter and sugar in a large bowl for about three minutes then add the eggs, ricotta, and balsamic vinegar. slowly add in the flour mixture and beat until combined.
4. take walnut sized balls of dough and use your palm to flatten them in sugar. coat both sides, then transfer to parchment lined cookies sheets.
5. add a dollop of fig jam to the center of the circles, then pinch the sides up over the jam to form a triangle, leaving a bit of the jam poking out the center.
6. pour balsamic vinegar into a small cup and then lightly brush each cookie with a small amount.
7. bake for 12-15 minutes, or until golden brown.

for my final hamantashen of the evening i went for cinnamon cookies with a maple cream cheese filling. a little bit of a fall throw-back, but the flavors just go so well together!
ingredients for the cookies:
2 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
2 cups sugar (plus another 1/2 cup for flattening)
2 eggs
1 tbs ground cinnamon (plus another 1 1/2 for flattening)
ingredients for the filling:
1/2 cup cream cheese
3/4 cup powdered sugar
3 tbs maple syrup
to make:
1. start with the filling. combine all ingredients and mix until combined, then let harden in the fridge while working on the dough.
2. preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a small bowl and set it aside.
3. beat the butter and sugar for about three minutes, then add the eggs and cinnamon. slowly add the flour mixture and beat until combined.
4. combine the sugar and cinnamon reserved for flattening in a bowl and take walnut sized balls of dough and use your palm to flatten them in the sugar and cinnamon. coat both sides, then transfer to parchment lined cookies sheets.
5. dollop the maple cream cheese mixture into the center and fold the sides up to form triangles, leaving a bit of the filling exposed.
5. bake for 8-10 minutes. these cookies spread the most and looked the least triangular so i ended up shaping them a little by cutting rounded sides off with a knife.

by the end of the hamatashen project i could barely stand up anymore. hamantashen were everywhere. everywhere! they covered our entire table and stovetop. and we still had to stuff them into little baggies to distribute to family and friends! josh was very helpful with the assembly line, and even more helpful because he gave me a post-hamantashen project massage while we watched the first episode of downton abbey. (i finally know why everyone is raving about that show!) josh took most of them to school the next day and i think that every single person he saw got a bag! i brought them to work and even sent some in the mail... and there are STILL a few hanging out in our apartment...

so, though this project proved slightly ridiculous in the end, and i can really only claim that the cookies might be identified as part of the triangle family, it made me happy to give out soft, moist, interesting, non-brick-like hamantashen to family and friends. but next year i'm only making one kind. i've already decided. 'smores hamantashen!!!!

happy purim!!