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Thursday, February 1, 2007

Candy for Christmas

As you can probably tell from the previous entry, I am aware of—and responsive to—food trends. So, when I received a container of lavender sea salt for Christmas from my sister Sara, the first place my mind went was to salt-topped candies, which are all the rage these days. Minimal searching online led to this recipe on Epicurious, which I decided to use. Originally, I was planning either to use a chocolate truffle recipe or a caramel one, but when I saw the Chocolate Caramel recipe, it seemed like a nice compromise. This was the inaugural use of my new Le Creuset 5 1/2-qt. French Oven, and it performed perfectly. It was especially nice to have a pan with a light-colored interior, because it was so simple to keep an eye on the color of the sugar syrup as it cooked. I don’t have a candy thermometer, so I made a sort of ghetto version of one with my digital remote thermometer by using a clothespin to attach the probe to the side of the pan.

the caramel cooking

I made these as a present for a coworker at our holiday gift exchange. I went shopping for wax candy wrappers, as the recipe suggested, but I found only foil ones, which actually turned out to be a good thing as the candy ended up sticking to wax paper and parchment. I also found an inexpensive candy box at the same store (my favorite restaurant supply store in LA) that fit 24 wrapped candies. Paired with a gift card to the trendy frozen yogurt store that keeps popping up all around town, I thought it made a great gift (and apologies for sounding self-satisfied—a big pet peeve of mine).

Lavender Sea Salt Chocolate Caramels
very slightly adapted from

-2 cups heavy cream
-10 1/2 oz. fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (no more than 60% cacao, if marked), finely chopped*
-1 3/4 cup sugar
-1/2 cup light corn syrup
-1/4 cup water
-1/4 teaspoon salt
-3 tablespoons flaky sea salt, such as Maldon*
-vegetable oil for greasing

Line bottom and sides of an 8-inch straight-sided metal baking pan with 2 long sheets of crisscrossed parchment. Bring cream just to a boil in a 1- to 1 1/2-quart heavy saucepan over moderately high heat, then remove from heat and add chocolate. Let stand 1 minute, then stir until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth.

the ganache

Bring sugar, corn syrup, water, and salt to a boil in a 5- to 6-quart heavy pot over moderate heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Boil, uncovered, without stirring but gently swirling pan occasionally, until sugar is deep golden, about 10 minutes. Carefully pour in chocolate mixture (syrup will bubble and steam vigorously—stand back). Continue to boil over moderate heat, stirring frequently, until mixture registers 255° on thermometer, about 15 minutes. Add butter, stirring until completely melted, then immediately pour into lined baking pan (do not scrape any caramel clinging to bottom or side of pan). Let caramel stand for 10 minutes, then sprinkle evenly with sea salt. Cool completely in pan on rack, about 2 hours.

Carefully invert caramel onto a clean, dry cutting board, then peel off parchment. Turn caramel salt side up. Lightly oil blade of a large, heavy knife and cut into 1-inch squares.

before cutting

*I bought, both for this occasion and for general use, a 4-lb box of Valrhona 55% Chocolate B√Ętons. I can’t tell whether or not there are any stabilizers, because the ingredient list is in French, but they melted up beautifully.
*I used Lavender Sea Salt, but that is obviously up to you. You could use another herb, or just plain sea salt. The brand of mine is the girl & the fig.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Cupcake Challenge

I fell in love with cupcakes around the same time that the rest of the country did, but was not very inspired to make my own until I (one) got the Magnolia Bakery cookbook, and (two) discovered (or rather, learned about from my sister) Chockylit’s Cupcake Blog. Her beautiful photography and inspired flavor combinations led me to try several of her recipes, always with great results. When she recently posted a challenge to her readers to create a new cupcake, I thought it would be a good chance to try a few ideas I had been tossing around. When making desserts, I enjoy experimenting with unusual combinations, especially introducing flavors and herbs usually reserved for savory contexts into sweet ones. I’ve made a great lavender-scented chocolate cake a couple times (from Epicurious), and experimented last summer with a cupcake by pulsing fresh thyme with the sugar I used in the cake batter. The thyme flavor didn’t really come through with that one, perhaps because of the raspberry buttercream I used to frost it.

lime zest

For this cupcake, I liked the idea of using thyme again. I went through many ideas—something Mediterranean? Orange? Tangerine? Eventually, through a thought process too convoluted to remember, I decided that I was going to make a lime-vanilla cupcake with a thyme-cucumber frosting. (The coworkers to whom I told this idea all reacted somewhere along the lines of “you had me until the frosting,” for which I don’t blame them. I wasn’t sure if I had convinced myself even to that point.) To make the cake portion, I decided to travel the familiar route and modify Magnolia’s Traditional Vanilla Birthday Cake recipe by substituting lime juice for part of the milk and adding some lime zest. I was a little worried that the acidic lime juice would interfere with the texture of the cake, or maybe the leavening, but it didn’t turn out to be a problem. After my first batch, I was satisfied with the result but decided I wanted the lime flavor to be more pronounced.

just out of the oven

True to form, I turned again to Magnolia for the frosting recipe (although it’s basically the same buttercream that anyone would make without a recipe). Instead of milk, I added a few tablespoons of pureed English cucumber, and threw in a teaspoon or so of chopped fresh thyme with the butter, and omitted the vanilla. When I tried the finished product out of the bowl, it didn’t taste much different than regular buttercream. When I tried it on one of the previous day’s prototype cupcakes, though, the cucumber flavor came through…and suddenly the cake had a stronger lime flavor! Somehow, through some sensory chemistry that I won’t pretend to understand, the cake and the frosting each made the other taste more like itself. I decided that the cake didn’t need modification after all, and the only change I would make to the frosting would be to remove the thyme—it didn’t add anything to the flavor experience, and it was occasionally distracting and seemed out of place.

cucumber puree

I was pleased with the final result; the flavor was subtle, and not overly sweet. The cucumber buttercream meshed well enough with the lime that I don’t think the flavor seemed out of place. I guess I need to work on my frosting technique…I guess that I just figured my offset spatula would do all the work for me and they’d look effortlessly fabulous. I think I should probably have added more powdered sugar to the frosting, to make it smoother.

Lime-Vanilla Cupcakes with Cucumber Buttercream

makes one dozen cupcakes

Lime Vanilla Cupcakes
-1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
-zest and juice of one lime
-1 cup sugar
-2 eggs, room temperature
-3/4 cup self-rising flour
-1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
-4-5 tablespoons milk
-1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Preheat the oven to 350
2. Cream butter and zest in the bowl of an electric mixer on medium speed until butter us smooth. Gradually add sugar (while mixer is running) and continue beating until fluffy, about 3 minutes.
3. Add the eggs one at a time, scraping the bowl and beating until smooth after each addition.
4. Squeeze the lime directly into a liquid measuring cup; you should have around 3 tablespoons of juice. Add enough milk to total 1/2 cup of liquid, and then add vanilla extract and whisk to combine. Whisk flours together to combine.
5. Add the flour mixture to the batter in four parts, alternating with thirds of the milk mixture and beating after each addition until incorporated.
6. Divide batter among the 12 cups of a lined standard cupcake pan (I use a large ice cream-style scoop, packed just full, to evenly distribute the batter). Bake without disturbing for 15 minutes, then rotate the pan 180 degrees. Continue baking 5-10 more minutes, until cupcakes are just starting to color and spring back when lightly touched with a fingertip. Remove cupcakes from pan and let cool completely on a wire rack before frosting.

Cucumber Buttercream
-1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
-4-5 cups powdered sugar
-3 to 4 inches English/Hothouse cucumber, cut into one-inch chunks and pureed in a food processor until the consistency of applesauce
-tiny dash salt

1. Cream the butter with 2 cups of the powdered sugar. Add 3 tablespoons of the cucumber puree and beat until smooth.
2. Gradually add remaining sugar, 1/2 cup at a time, until frosting is creamy, smooth, and thick enough to be spreadable (you may not need to use all of the sugar).
3. Frost cooled cupcakes with a small offset spatula.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Christmas Dinner, Part One

For the last six years, my sister Sara has given me the same birthday present: a ticket to the Bridge School Benefit, a large concert held in the Bay Area at the end of October. For the last few years, we’ve been superposing another tradition on that one; between acts at the concert, she and I discuss what our family will be eating for Christmas dinner that year. Among the cookbooks I grabbed from her apartment as we were leaving for the concert this year was the year 2000 edition of the Best American Recipes series, edited by Fran McCullough and Suzanne Hamlin. I’ve not yet returned it to her—and I’m sure I’ll be bringing it up ad nauseum. The collection includes a number of intriguing soup recipes, including a Senegalese Peanut Soup and a Red Pepper soup whose ingredients include sour cream and a pear. That which appealed the most to me, however, and the soup I chose for our holiday meal, was the Cream of Celery Root Soup with Shrimp Butter.

I don’t know why I was so drawn to the description of this soup—I had never eaten or cooked with celery root, that I know of, and while I certainly appreciate cream soups, I’m by no means enamored with them. It was, I suppose, in large part the garnishes that lent this recipe a touch of delicacy—would it be melodramatic to say mystery? Something about poaching the shrimp in cream, the six tablespoons of butter somehow shrinking into two, the finely diced green apple—I guess I just love giving a dish the chance to be more than the sum of its parts, no matter how disparate those parts seem at the time.
Come Christmas day (which, for various reasons, happened to fall on December 30th this year for my family), I was very pleased with the results of this recipe. The soup itself was a solid and comforting base, the subtle leek-y sweetness beautifully offset by the salty hint of the drizzled shrimp butter and the green apple’s tang. I think next year we’ll be in the Midwest for Christmas, probably celebrating with relatives who are less inclined to trust recipes with wacky root vegetable and shellfish. I guess that’ll just give me an excuse to make this soup for myself!

Cream of Celery Root with Shrimp Butter
adapted from The Best American Recipes 2000 by Fran McCullough and Suzanne Hamlin, after Marcia Kiesel
-8 tablespoons (1 stick) plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
-3 large leeks (white and tender green parts only), halved lengthwise, well rinsed, and thinly sliced crosswise
-2 thyme sprigs
-1/2 cup dry white wine
-6 cups chicken broth
-2 1/2 pounds celery root, peeled, trimmed, quartered, and cut into 2-inch chunks
-1/2 pound Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks [I couldn't find any Yukon Golds, so I just grabbed a baking potato]
-Salt to taste
-1/2 cup heavy cream
-1 tablespoon minced shallot
-1/2 pound medium shrimp, peeled, deveined, and halved lengthwise, shells reserved
-Freshly ground pepper to taste
-1/4 cup finely diced tart green apple, such as Granny Smith, for garnish
-1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme, for garnish

1. In a large Dutch oven, melt 3 tablespoons of the butter over low heat. Add the leeks and thyme sprigs, and cook until softened, about 8 minutes. Add the wine and simmer over medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Add the broth, celery root, potatoes, and a large pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over low heat until the vegetables are tender, about 45 minutes.
2. Working in batches, puree the soup in a blender or food processor until very smooth. Return the soup to the Dutch oven and stir in 1/4 cup of the cream.
3. In a medium skillet, melt the remaining 6 tablespoons butter over low heat. Add the shallot and the shrimp shells and cook, stirring, for 8 minutes. Strain through a coarse strainer, pressing on the shells to extract as much butter as possible; you should have about 2 tablespoons. Set aside and keep warm.
4. In a small saucepan, bring the remaining 1/4 cup cream to a simmer over low heat. Add the shrimp and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring, until just cooked through, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat.
5. Reheat the soup and season with salt and pepper. Ladle the soup into warm shallow bowls. Spoon the shrimp mixture into the bowls. Drizzle each serving lightly with the shrimp butter, garnish with the diced apple and minced thyme, and serve immediately.

One reason I love to make soups for big, celebratory meals is that most (or all) of the work can be done ahead of time. I cooked each component part of this soup the night before, on my family’s makeshift Christmas Eve, and then just reheated and combined the next day. I don’t trust my parents’ blender to be leakproof, so I ended up using my mother’s new (and large) food processor to blend the soup. It wasn’t as smooth as it probably could have been, but it was delicious all the same.