Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Evie's Chocolate Sugar Balls

Many of us are reaching an age in which our parents are leaving their long-time homes. This happened with my mom about a year and a half ago. She's got a beautiful apartment near where she and my dad used to live, but it's smaller than the house so she had to shed a lot (a lot!) of beloved belongings.

One of these was an orange metal recipe box that she ended up giving me. To be honest, all this time since my dad's death and her move I've been more focused on a magenta notebook we found hiding in a bookcase while we were packing up that turned out to be recipes my dad had collected. Turns out they were mostly recipes he printed off by Dr. Andrew Weil, who my dad had been intrigued by for years. It was only last week that the orange box, sitting on a shelf under a large kitchen window, caught my eye. I pulled it off the shelf and opened it.

It was like opening a treasure chest of memories, filled with recipes on index cards, some typed, some in Mom's handwriting or that of a friend who gave it to her. The names were mostly familiar, so many that I hadn't heard or thought of since childhood or adolescence. There were also her handwritten lists clearly tracking her progress in setting up for dinner parties (a habit I've adopted as well). Some are on notepaper from my dad's office, some on fragile wide-spaced lines of paper I remember from elementary school that my siblings and I used either to draw on or to practice cursive writing.

Many of the recipes were familiar family recipes--kugels, chopped liver and the like. In fact, I realized looking at recipes on scraps of envelops and others on index cards that my mom and my grandmother's handwriting were so familiar I wasn't sure who wrote them out. And there are a couple of empty bags of bright yellow Nestlé's chocolate chips saved for the Toll House cookie recipe. Many  recipes I'd never seen (and likely will never make; clearly of a time when convenience foods/ingredients were much more popular than today).

And then there were those I'd never seen but totally intrigued me, including this recipe my mom calls Chocolate Sugar Balls. Looking at the ingredients, they clearly were chocolate chip cookies sans the leavening. No eggs, no baking soda. But plenty of butter, brown sugar, vanilla, chocolate chips, and nuts.

I decided to make them over the weekend--and learned from the experience. The recipe was a little gung-ho on the nuts, so I've cut the amount in half (add them back if you like). And because there was no liquid from eggs to hold the balls together, I've added just a tablespoon of water. I've also added an amount for powdered sugar.

I happened to visit my mom later in the afternoon after making the cookies and brought her about a dozen, along with the recipe index card. She looked at it and laughed. She had come up with it herself years ago, she said, to mimic a treasured family recipe we call snow ball cookies--and agreed with my changes, adding that she would also reduce the amount of brown sugar. I left it as is.

I'm offering the recipe below with my changes and adaptations. The recipe makes more than 80 cookies so there are plenty to freeze and enjoy or share later. As it happened I didn't have enough semi-sweet chocolate chips but also had a bag of butterscotch chips for some reason, so I mixed them together and used walnuts that I toasted and chopped. They tasted great, so feel free to substitute chocolate chips with other flavors.

The Chocolate Sugar Balls are crunchy and sweet. They're a fun bite that represent the best of chocolate chip cookies, without the debate over soft vs. crisp. And the powdered sugar is an added sweet bonus. But don't bother to sneak them. That powdered sugar on your shirt will be a dead giveaway.

Evie's Chocolate Sugar Balls
Yield: 84 cookies
(printable recipe)

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanila
1 cup toasted nuts, roughly chopped
1 12-ounce package semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 tablespoon water
3 cups powdered sugar

1. Pre-heat oven to 350°.
2. Sift together flour and salt. Set aside.
3. Beat butter, sugar, and vanilla until well combined.
4. Stir in nuts, chocolate chips, and water.

5. Form balls, about an inch in diameter. Place on ungreased cookie sheet.

6. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until just browned.

7. Roll in a bowl of powdered sugar while still warm. Let cool and roll a second time.

Print Page

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Sea Salt Caramels from Sugar Mamma

There are certain foods that no matter how simple they actually are to make if you actually endeavored to learn how still have a mystique about them. Caramels, for me, fall into this category.

Honestly, we're talking just four basic ingredients--butter, cream, sugar, and corn syrup. But this quartet, once cooked together, is the foundation of sweet magic--that is, if you use really good ingredients and have the finesse and creativity to take it to a sublime level of deliciousness.

Nancy Flint understands this. In fact, five years ago she created a small business--Sugar Mamma--around caramels. She's taken these four basic ingredients and elevated them with various flavorings to create 17 flavors of caramels that you can find all over San Diego County.

Flint, once a lactation consultant, had to give up her calling in 2002 when she was diagnosed with stage 4 lymphoma right at her 40th birthday. She survived and acceded to her two daughters' request to spend more time together by homeschooling them until high school. During that time she had been making sea salt caramels as Christmas gifts, tweaking various recipes until she came up with her own version. Over the years friends and family were on her to enter the caramels into a food competition. Finally, in 2012, Flint entered them at the San Diego County Fair--and won. From there she was featured on the CW. When asked by the TV hosts where people could buy her caramels, she had no answer. But a lightbulb went off. And that's when she started her home-based business.

Today, her small-batch caramels (and marshmallows) are sold primarily at boutiques and hotels in San Diego County--the Hotel del Coronado, the Manchester Grand Hyatt, Pigment in North Park, Vom Fass in Hillcrest, and the Perfect Pineapple in North County are just some of the venues that carry her sweets.

I found her caramels at the new SoCal Made shop in Mission Valley. The flavors are on rotation by season for the most part, ranging from Sea Salt (recipe below),  Chai, Chili Pepper, and Bourbon to Meyer Lemon, Coconut, and Passion Fruit. In fact, Flint grows the passion fruit and Meyer lemons that go into her caramels. She partners with local vendors when she can. So, she uses Dark Horse Coffee for her Coffee Caramel. And if you're vegan, no worries; she's conquered that, too.

I tasted three flavors. The Chili Pepper is a sweet powerful spice bomb. The heat is there but it's quite enjoyable. The Chai, with its cinnamon, cardamom, and nutmeg flavors, is Christmas in a sweet bite. And the Beer and Pretzels has that mellow hops flavor with a happy pretzel crunch. Flint, an accomplished home cook, has a flair for flavor and works hard to perfect her vision. Her Coconut Caramel, for instance, is layered with five versions of coconut--coconut cream, flakes, toasted flakes, extract, and coconut sugar.

"Don't be afraid of flavor," she said. "Build them. Test them them. And adjust them until you have them just right."

So, instead of just tossing dried chilies into her basic four ingredients to cook them together, Flint now steeps the seeds and dried chilies in cream for two hours to infuse the cream not just with heat but the essence of chili flavor. "Initially, I did it simply and people kept telling me they didn't get any heat. So I kept playing with technique until I got what I wanted. The steeping really made the difference."

Flint makes everything by hand by herself out of her Talmidge home kitchen, usually working in the neighborhood of 12 hours a day every day to meet her orders. She starts by combining her foundational ingredients--the butter, sugar, cream, and corn syrup, in a large pot, heating the mixture over medium high heat until it reaches 248° F--stirring all the while.

"Once the sugar dissolves, you can step away briefly, but stay close," she advised. "You can stir every minute instead of constantly but you don't want it to stick or burn."

With a jelly roll pan lined with parchment paper next to her, Flint stirs until she reaches the temperature she wants, at which point she removes the pot from the heat. Then she adds kosher salt and vanilla, stirs to incorporate them and pours the mixture into the pan. If it's Sea Salt Caramel, she'll give the mixture a few minutes to set, then sprinkle Maldon sea salt over it. In general, fruity flavors get the fruit addition during the cooking process. Any alcohol flavor gets that at the end of the cooking process, once it's off the heat.

Then it sits for 12 hours/overnight to set. Once fully set Flint cuts the caramel into 1-inch squares, wraps each individually by hand and packages them. Home cooks can use wax paper squares or cellophane candy wrappers (found across the internet, including Amazon) for wrapping individual caramels, which can last several weeks at room temperature.

If you make these at home--Flint has generously given us her Sea Salt Caramel recipe--follow these additional tips of hers:

  • Use the best ingredients you can.
  • Pour what comes out into the pan. Don't scrape the dregs of the pot into the pan because they won't crystalize. Instead, scrape them into a silicon ice cube mold.
  • Got bubbles? Don't worry. Flint said they tend to pop on their own over the 12 hours.
  • Got a sticky pot? Soak it in hot water to melt the sugar so the mess will release.

Sea Salt Caramels
from Sugar Mamma

Yield: 240 1-inch pieces

3/4 cup of unsalted butter
4 cups heavy cream
4 cups granulated sugar
2 cups corn syrup
2 teaspoons kosher stalt
1 teaspoon vanilla
Maldon sea salt to sprinkle

1. Line a 10- X 15-inch jelly pan with parchment paper. Set aside.
2. Combine the butter, cream sugar, and corn syrup in a large pot. Bring to the boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly.
3. Once the mixture comes to the boil continue stirring by just every minute instead of constantly. Add a candy thermometer to the side of the pot reaching into the caramel mixture. Once it reaches 248° F, remove the pan from the heat.
4. Stir in the kosher salt and vanilla. When mixed well, pour into the jelly pan.
5. After 5 minutes sprinkle the Maldon sea salt over the mixture. 

6. Let set for 12 hours or overnight. Cut into 1-inch pieces and wrap them individually in wax paper.

Print Page

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Do You Roast Your Radishes?

Roasting root vegetables is such a wonderfully obvious way to enjoy the fruits of the underground. Fennel, parsnips, turnips, carrots, onions, and celery root--and, of course, potatoes--all benefit from the sweetness roasting brings out in them.

But radishes? Really? Isn't the whole point of radishes to bring a spicy crunch to salads and snacking?

Well, there's no saying you can't have it both ways. I love snacking on chilled radishes but roasted radishes, bathed in olive oil and flavored with salt and pepper, are a wonderful thing. Even better? Place them on a bed of sautéed radish greens. Yes, those very greens you whack off and toss actually are quite delicious.

Roasting radishes is easy and quick. You don't even need a recipe. Just a bunch of radishes (or more, depending on how many people you're serving), extra virgin olive oil, sea salt, ground pepper, and your favorite herbs or green onions.

Here we go:

1. Separate the radishes from the greens and set the greens aside.
2. Wash the radishes and trim them, leaving a bit of stem on top.
3. Pre-heat the oven to 450° F.

4. Once the radishes are dry, slice in half lengthwise, then place in a bowl and toss with extra virgin olive oil, sea salt, and ground pepper.

5. Place cut side down in a cast iron pan and roast for 13 minutes.
6. While the radishes are roasting, slice a green onion or mince parsley or other herbs.
7. Remove the radishes from the oven. Plate and sprinkle with the herbs. Eat right away. They're best hot.

Print Page

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Berry Thyme Pie with Crisp Topping

If you know me and my writing, you know I love to bake pies. With berry season in full swing, I decided to make a mixed berry pie. Only instead of two crusts, I opted to top the berries with my favorite crisp mixture.

My berries of choice were strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries. To thicken the inevitable juices I used a mere tablespoon of cornstarch. And for a bit of a twist, I added a tablespoon of fresh French thyme leaves from my garden.

I made the pie for a lunch I threw for my mom and a few of her friends. What made it easier was that I had a pie crust disc in the freezer already. I made it for a meal awhile ago and it was so handy to have that ready to defrost and roll out. So, if you're making pie, make an extra crust or two, shape them into discs, wrap them in plastic, then put them in a freezer bag. The night before you want to bake, defrost what you need in the freezer overnight.

You can do the same thing with my crisp recipe. This is something I always try to have on hand. A batch made with the recipe below will give you enough for a couple of pies at least. Or if you just want to make single serving crisps, cut up the fruit, place in a small baking dish, and then pull out the crisp from the freezer to top the fruit before baking.

I've included one of my favorite pie crust recipes below. This is from Belgian pastry chef and owner of Michele Coulon Dessertier. It's very easy--made strictly with butter, not butter and lard or Crisco. That means you should invest in the best butter you can find. For more tips I've learned from Michele, take a look at the piece I wrote years ago when she taught me how to make this crust.

Berry Thyme Pie with Crisp Topping
(printable recipe)
Yield: 1, 9” pie, 8 servings

1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
5 cups assorted fresh berries
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 pie crust (see recipe below)
Crisp mixture (see recipe below)

1. Mix together sugar, cornstarch, and lemon juice in a large bowl. Add berries and thyme and gently toss to combine. Let stand, stirring occasionally while you roll out the crust. 
2. Roll the pie crust on a lightly floured surface into a 13” to 14” circle. Carefully transfer into a deep, 9” pie pan. Trim overhanging dough to 1” and fold underneath along the edge of the pie pan, then crimp decoratively. Freeze the crust for 20 minutes and pre-heat oven to 400° F.
3. Spoon berry mixture into chilled crust. Evenly sprinkle crisp topping over the berries. Place pie on parchment-lined baking sheet to catch any runover. Bake pie until crust and crisp topping are lightly brown—about 55 minutes. Cover the pie loosely with foil if the topping browns too quickly. 
4. Remove pie from oven and let cool before serving—at least 3 hours. 

Pie Crust à la Michele Coulon
Yield: 2 pie crusts, top and bottom. Cut recipe in half for 1 crust.

4 cups flour
1 teaspoons salt 
1 pound cold European-style butter cut into 1-inch chunky pieces

1.  Mix until coarse crumbs form.
2. Add 12 tablespoons or 160 grams ice water.
3. Mix until just blended. Shape into two discs. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate. 

If you don’t plan to bake the pie within a couple of days, wrap well and freeze. Later you can defrost the discs overnight in the refrigerator.

Caron’s Crisp Mixture

What I love about this recipe is that I can make the mixture in advance and store it in the freezer. 

Makes 8 to 10 servings, depending on how much you use per serving.

Mix together:

2 cups quick cooking oats
1 cup toasted walnuts, chopped
1 ½ cups lightly packed brown sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon fennel pollen
1 cup unsalted butter, melted

Store in the freezer until you’re ready to bake.


Print Page

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The Easier Way of Entertaining--With Spanakopita

Over the years I've adapted my approach to entertaining. Raised by parents who constantly had people over, whether it was family or friends or entertaining for business, I learned from an early age that "the right way" to do it was to make everything yourself--except for Thanksgiving, which is the official potluck holiday. My mom would slave for days to perfect every dish. The meals were always delicious, the table always beautiful. As proud as she was in the achievement, I often wonder, though, if she enjoyed the gatherings themselves.

Nevertheless I adopted that approach and for years took pride in crafting--okay, controlling--meals that I alone made. It was both exhilarating and exhausting--and often very expensive. I was an entertaining snob who looked down at potlucks. My experience with them--from college through book clubs well into middle age--was that those not as particular about food would contribute dishes that were either, well, crappy, or parsimonious. (Yep, that old saw that the food was terrible and there wasn't enough of it.)

That was then. Much as I still love to create an entire meal, I pick and choose my solo ventures. And since so many of my friends are chefs or in the culinary industry, why wouldn't I want them to help create a meal? But, even on my own, I've learned--and my mom eventually evolved to this, too--to pick just a couple or few dishes to make myself and then buy the rest.

This is just what I did a couple of weekends ago when I invited her and three of her friends to lunch. It's spring, my garden is reaching the height of prettiness, puppy Casper at a year old is now ready for prime time, and I thought we'd all enjoy some fresh air and home cooking.

What I decided on was a Mediterranean-style meal. At its heart would be a large spanakopita, filled with spinach, leeks, feta, and plenty of herbs. A large Greek salad with homemade lemon dressing would accompany it. And, for dessert, a berry pie topped by a crumble.

That's what I would make. After all, I also had a living to earn and the days leading up to lunch were working days for me. Everything else would come from Balboa International Market--the pita, the baba ganoush, the tzatziki, and the tabbouleh. I bought a container of mixed olives with garlic, dolmas, a half dozen baklava, and Persian pastry that looks like mini churros but are infused with honey and rose water. (One of the idiosyncratic things about the market is that they don't label their pre-packaged deli or dessert items.)

It turned out to be a beautiful afternoon. The sun was shining and comfortably warm. The patio table was overflowing with food--and no flies descended on it. The ladies spoiled the dogs with attention. Best of all I could sit down, relax, and enjoy the meal with them. And then everyone got to take home leftovers.

So, my lesson in all this? Plan a beautiful meal but just pick a few dishes to make yourself and either welcome contributions from others or pick up the rest at your favorite market. That way you can enjoy the gathering, too.

(printable recipe)
Serves 8 to 12

So, why spanakopita? First, it's delicious and easy to make--yes, even with filo (just defrost overnight in the fridge, unroll it, and keep the stack of leaves covered with a damp towel while working with it). It's also vegetarian and I didn't know if anyone had any meat issues. Finally, it's easy to build a meal around and looks beautifully rustic. You have a choice of olive oil versus melted butter to brush the filo leaves. I used olive oil but butter will add a rich flavor to it. And a tip here: Cooking down 2 pounds of spinach requires some skillet space. I use my wok because it gives me the cooking elbow room it needs. This part also just takes the most time. Once that's done the rest will go by fairly quickly, even with the filo. Don't worry about tears in the filo. It's all very forgiving, thanks to all the layers.

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, preferably Greek, or melted butter, plus a lot extra for brushing filo
3 leeks, white and light green parts, chopped and rinsed
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 pounds fresh spinach, well rinsed and dried
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ pound Greek feta cheese, crumbled or diced
½ cup fresh dill weed, minced
½ cup fresh mint, minced
¼ cup fresh oregano, minced
5 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 pound filo, defrosted overnight in refrigerator

Preheat oven to 375° and place rack in middle of oven.

In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add leeks and garlic and sauté until fragrant and soft, about 4 minutes. Add spinach in handfuls, stirring in as you add each batch. Let it wilt and cook down before adding the next handful. Once all of the spinach is in the pan, season with salt and pepper.

Remove from heat and spoon mixture into a colander. Place over sink and, using the back of a large spoon, press down to release excess liquid. Set aside to cool.

Once spinach mixture is at room temperature, add feta cheese, dill, mint, oregano, and eggs. Fold together until well incorporated. Set aside.

Brush the bottom and sides of a 9”-by-13” baking dish with olive oil. Keep ½ cup of olive oil (or melted butter) nearby. Unroll the feta and lay flat. Carefully pull the top sheet and place it into the baking dish with ends hanging well over the sides. Brush lightly with oil. Continue placing sheets one at a time into the dish at different angles so the entire pan is lined with sheet ends hanging down over the sides. Do this until you have only 3 sheets left.

Pour the filling into the dish, then fold over the hanging ends to cover the filling and brush with oil. Layer the remaining 3 sheets on top, brushing each sheet with oil. Fold the excess into the sides of the pan.

Use a sharp knife to cut through the layers to the filling in a few place. Brush the top with oil or butter and bake for 50 minutes until the top is puffed and golden brown. Let sit on counter for 10 minutes. Then cut into squares and serve warm.

Print Page