Thursday, December 30, 2010

Saltine Toffee Candy

Confession: I am about to talk about something that I in fact did not make. (I did, however, watch curiously as my sister did.)

Confession (again): I can't stop listening to Taylor Swift's new album, Speak Now.

Phew. That feels good to get off my chest. Anyway, now that I've been completely honest, there's no sense in holding this back either: I don't like candy.

Yes, I said it.

I've actually never been a fan of caramel-y, toffee-flavored confections. I don't even like lollipops or hard candies. And while it's completely accurate to call this sweet a candy, it's also accurate to say that I am totally obsessed with it.

My mom's friend brought this to our house before Christmas and my mom, who similarly isn't big on candy-like treats, promptly proclaimed it to be delicious. That alone should have been my first tipping point to how good this stuff was. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), I actually didn't get around to trying it for a few days, after which I scorned myself for waiting so long to enjoy its awesomeness.
At first glance including a cracker in this candy may seem a bit strange. Rest assured that the end result is nothing short of taste bud bliss. I think that the genius of this candy comes from the layering of the different components. The bottom layer of saltine crackers provides the perfect base for the candy, giving it sturdiness. The toffee-like combination of brown sugar and butter is, not surprisingly, rich but not too sweet. (Another thing that I love is that some of the sugar/butter mix seeps through the holes of the saltines and hardens onto the bottom of the crackers, too.) The crowning layer is semisweet chocolate, giving a hint of bitterness and a familiar chocolate flavor. A sprinkling of chopped pecans provides some textural contrast, too.

These were definitely the easiest things we made for the holidays this year. The ingredient list is short and the actual hands-on preparation time is minimal. Considering the end result, I'd say these are an all-around must-make. And since I don't throw around the word "must" too often here, consider it a testament to how addictive this stuff is. You've been warned.
Saltine Toffee Candy

This candy comes together quite quickly and is pretty foolproof (at least as far as candymaking goes). Instead of pecans, you could use any nut, and I'm inclined to think that toasted coconut and crushed peppermint candies would also be delicious. The candy (unbroken) can be made ahead and stored in the refrigerator until you are ready to break it into pieces.

Yield: Lots and lots (at least 12 servings)

About 40 saltine crackers, or enough to cover a 12 by 18-inch baking pan
2 sticks unsalted butter
1 cup brown sugar
12 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup chopped pecans

Position an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a 12 by 18-inch (half-sheet) pan with foil. Arrange the saltine crackers in the pan so that they cover the entire pan.

In a medium saucepan, melt butter and brown sugar over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Continue to heat until the mixture comes to a boil, 3 to 5 minutes. Quickly but carefully pour the mixture over the saltine crackers. Using a rubber spatula, spread the butter/sugar mixture out so that it covers the saltines in as even a layer as possible. Since the toffee is very sticky, it may resist spreading in a perfectly even layer; just make sure it reaches to the edges of the pan, covering all the crackers.

Bake for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, remove the toffee-covered crackers from the oven. Sprinkle the chocolate chips over the hot and bubbling toffee as evenly as possible. After a few seconds, the chocolate chips will begin to melt. Spread the chocolate into an even layer over the toffee using an offset spatula or rubber spatula. Once the chocolate is spread in an even layer, sprinkle the pecans on top. Lightly press down on the pecans to make sure that they are suspended in the chocolate.

Refrigerate for an hour, or until the chocolate is firm and set. Break up into pieces (the more irregular the better) and eat now or store in an airtight container at room temperature or in the refrigerator.

(Enjoy these now, before the first week of January comes around and you're bombarded with Weight Watchers ads and Special K commercials making you feel guilty about your Christmas cookie habit.)

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Walnut Linzer Sables

I know it seems crazy to post about Christmas cookies after rambling on about New Year's resolutions. I'd like to say that I planned it all along.

The truth is that I am so accustomed to clicking "Publish Post" right after I finish a post that I completely forgot that I wanted to wait until Friday to share my New Year's post. And once it was done I really didn't feel like going back and changing anything. Oh, well.

The (other) truth is that these cookies are, to me at least, more winter-inspired than Christmas-specific. Well, except for the Christmas tree cut-outs. And so we'll pretend that they're actually winter evergreens for the next few minutes.

I received Dorie Greenspan's Baking From My Home to Yours for my birthday and after only a while perusing it all I could think was Where has this book been all my life? I mentally bookmarked about half of the recipes just flipping through and vowed to try out (at least) one this holiday season.
The chosen recipe is these Walnut Linzer Sables. I've long wanted to make Linzer cookies and I was inspired by a Martha Stewart variation that used a small Christmas tree cookie cutter for the top cutter.

I really can't say enough good things about this dough. Ground walnuts lend a wonderful toasty flavor and traditional winter spices add warmth. After being rolled out the dough is chilled before being cut and baked.

Plain, the cookies are redolent of butter, sugar, toasted nuts, and just a hint of cinnamon. The cookies have a sandy texture like a sable (or French butter cookie) but they're sturdy enough to be topped with jam and sandwiched.

I opted to use a cranberry jam that we had on hand because it seemed particularly festive, and it adds a subtle tartness that is a good contrast to the sweet, spiced cookie.

Perhaps my favorite thing about this recipe, besides how easy the dough is to work with, was how versatile it is. As you can see from the photos, the sandwiches can be easily adapted for all sorts of occasions. Obviously for Christmas a tree cutter or any other holiday cutter would be great for making the top cookie. You could use hearts for Valentine's day or flowers for Easter or summer. In autumn, a leaf would do.
After rolling and cutting out all the cookies there will inevitably be some leftover dough. Rather than throwing it away, I opted to roll them into balls and make thumbprint cookies. Now that's what I call fabulous leftovers!

Walnut Linzer Sables
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan

I doubled Dorie Greenspan's recipe and got about 30 or so sandwich cookies (of varying sizes) out of the recipe. Depending on the cutter size you use, you may get more or less. Instead of walnuts, you could use ground almonds, hazelnuts, or pecans. To finely grind the nuts, place them in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade and pulse until the nuts resemble a coarse cornmeal. Be careful not to grind the nuts too much, lest you end up with nut butter (which is still tasty, just not what you're looking for). Instead of cranberry jam, you can use any flavor of smooth jam, such as raspberry or strawberry. If you opt to use a flavor that still has chunks of fruit in it, strain the jam before making the filling for the cookies.

Yield: about 30 sandwich cookies, depending on the size of cookie

For the cookie dough:
3 cups finely ground walnuts (see note above)
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
Scant 1/2 teaspoon cloves
2 large eggs
4 teaspoons water
2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar

For the jam filling:
About 1 cup cranberry jam
1 teaspoon water

Begin by making the dough. Whisk together the ground nuts, flour, cinnamon, salt, and cloves. In a small bowl, whisk the eggs and water.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or in a large bowl using a hand mixer, cream the butter and sugar together at medium speed until smooth, about 3 minutes, scraping down the bowl as needed. Add the egg mixture and beat for 1 more minute. Reduce the speed to low and add the dry ingredients slowly, mixing until they just disappear into the dough. Be careful not to work the dough much once the flour is incorporated. If the dough comes together but some dry crumbs remain in the bottom of the bowl, stop the mixer and finish blending the ingredients with a rubber spatula.

Divide the dough into quarters. Working with one quarter at a time, put the dough between two large sheets of wax paper or plastic wrap. Use your hands to flatten the dough into a disk. Then, using a rolling pin, roll the dough until it is about 1/4 inch thick. Transfer the dough (still covered in paper or plastic) to a cookie sheet and repeat with the remaining dough. Once all the dough is rolled out, transfer the cookie sheet to the refrigerator and chill for about 2 hours, or until it is very firm. You can also freeze the dough for about 45 minutes. (The rolled-out dough can be wrapped airtight and stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 days or in the freezer for up to 2 months. Just thaw the dough enough to cut out the cookies and proceed from there.)

Once the dough is firm, prepare to bake the cookies. Adjust an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone mats (such as Silpat).

Working with one sheet of dough at a time, remove the dough from the refrigerator. Using a cookie cutter (I used a 1 3/4-inch size and a 2-inch size), cut out as many cookies as you can. Set the scraps aside for re-rolling or making into jam thumbprints (see below). Transfer the rounds to a baking sheet, leaving a little space between the cookies.

Bake the cookies for 11 to 13 minutes, or until the cookies are lightly golden, dry, and just firm to the touch. Transfer the cookies to a rack to cool to room temperature.

While the first batch of dough is baking, repeat with another sheet of dough, making sure to cut as many top pieces (with peekaboo cutouts) as bottom (non-cutout) pieces. Use any small cutter for the cutouts, which can be baked alongside the round cookies. Bake the second batch of cookies on the second baking sheet. Continue baking the cookies, one sheet at a time, until all the dough is used.

Once the cookies have cooled, make the jam filling. Place the jam and water in a microwave-safe bowl and stir to combine. Heat in the microwave until bowling, about 2 minutes. Let the jam cool and thicken slightly (it will still be pourable, though). To fill the cookies, place a bottom cookie flat-side up and spoon a bit of jam on top. Sandwich with a top cookie and let cool on a rack. If the jam layer is a bit thin, drizzle a little more filling into the cutout.

Cool, serve, and enjoy.

For the jam thumbprint cookies: If you have some remaining dough but don't wish to roll it out again, form them into about 1 1/2-inch balls. Flatten into disks about 1/2-inch thick and bake at 375 degrees F for 11 to 13 minutes, until golden around the edges and dry.

Remove the cookies from the oven. While they are still hot, carefully use your finger to form a small indentation in the center of the cookie (you could also use a small spoon). Transfer the cookies to a rack and cool to room temperature. Once the cookies have cooled, fill the indentation with any flavor of jam you like.

Monday, December 27, 2010

New Year's Resolution: Make More Rum Raisin Ice Cream

I've learned a lot this year. And I've gone through a lot of change this year, too, none bigger than the transition from high school girl to college girl.

My first semester at Tech was pretty much a whirlwind. Truthfully it turned out exactly nothing like I expected and I learned a lot: about Cholesky factorizations, how to calculate the effective temperature of a black body orbiting the sun, and other nerdy and generally uninteresting things (to the average person, that is). I learned how to study for exams, that you have to swipe your BuzzCard multiple times to get your clothes to dry properly, and the lyrics to more Taylor Swift songs than I'm willing to admit. I learned that I'm actually capable of succeeding at Tech, both academically and socially. I learned that I can take care of myself, too: buying groceries, taking medicine when you're sick (during finals...), and doing laundry. (Man, I feel like such a grown-up sometimes.)

And while I normally don't bother making New Year's resolutions, for some reason I feel compelled to this year. Perhaps it's my newly discovered independence. Likely it's the need to make lists and year-long goals that runs in the family. Either way, there are a few things that I want to hold myself accountable for in 2011.

The first is to keep my grades up. I'm taking harder classes this spring and I'm on track to take my first major (IE) classes in the fall, and I'm eager to see what it's all about.

My second resolution is to stay more organized. I've never been a huge organizer, so this will probably be the toughest for me. What usually happens is that I start out with a nice system for keeping things in their place, but after a week or two I get lazy and the clutter becomes overwhelming. Hopefully I can put an end to that cycle in 2011.

The last (and most prevalent to this blog) is to post more regularly over here. While it's difficult to post recipes from school because I can't cook that often, I don't want to use that as an excuse to post infrequently. I'm establishing a once-a-week goal for myself.

I haven't ever said it before (and I probably don't let it show that often), but this space here means a lot to me. I love sharing my ideas (and eccentricities) with everyone who reads the blog, and I only want to make this blog better.

For the new year, I want to share a delicious ice cream that we've made a few times in the past, most recently for this Christmas. It takes all of five minutes to prepare, and then the ice cream maker does the rest. The base is a lush vanilla flavor, and a heap of rum raisins adds a sweet and slightly spicy flavor. You could use this recipe as a starting off point for all kinds of variations. Other dried fruits like cranberries or figs would also work great. Liqueurs like Grand Marnier or even wines like port would do a fine job plumping up the fruit, but you could also use orange juice, apple cider, or cranberry juice if you wanted to keep things non-alcoholic.
Enjoy the New Year, and Happy 2011 to you all! Tell me - do you have any resolutions, food-related or otherwise?

Rum Raisin Ice Cream

Having the evaporated milk and cream cold makes this ice cream come together really quickly. It's important to have the base cold when it goes into the ice cream maker so that it freezes faster and more smoothly. I used spiced rum because it's what we have on hand. We also had only a 12-ounce can of evaporated milk, which was 1/2 cup short of the recipe's two cups. I supplemented the rest with 1% milk and it turned out fine. Either combination (16 ounces of evaporated milk or 12 ounces of evaporated milk plus 4 ounces of milk) would work.

Yield: about 6 cups (1 1/2 quarts)

1 cup raisins
Dark rum
1 cup heavy cream, cold
2 cups evaporated milk, cold (see note above)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup sugar

Put the raisins in a small bowl and add enough rum to cover. Set aside for about an hour, or until the raisins are plump.

Once the raisins are plump, combine the cream, evaporated milk, and vanilla in a medium bowl. Add the sugar, and whisk until the sugar is dissolved. If the base is not cold, put the mixture in the refrigerator for about an hour to chill.

Freeze the ice cream in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions. Meanwhile, reserve about 3 tablespoons of rum from the rum raisin mixture, draining off the excess rum. When the ice cream has reached a soft serve consistency (usually after about 25 minutes), add the rum raisins and reserved rum. Adding the alcohol will make the ice cream melt a little in the machine. Keep churning for a few minutes more, until the ice cream has returned to soft serve consistency and there is no liquid cream at the surface.

Transfer the ice cream to a plastic serving container, cover, and freeze until hardened. The ice cream won't stiffen up completely (because of the rum), but it will firm up into the perfect consistency for serving.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Perfect Pumpkin Cheesecake

It's certainly no secret that I love cheesecake. While I have located my favorite restaurant cheesecake and even baked up a perfect plain cake, my favorite homemade cheesecake by far is of the pumpkin variety.

There is something about the texture of cheesecake - smooth, silky, and substantial enough without being overly heavy - that when combined with the flavor of pumpkin and a few autumn spices, something positively magical results.

We first made this cheesecake a few years back, when I first got into baking, but I've since adapted the recipe to suit our tastes. Since I only make it once a year (for Thanksgiving), it's an absolute treat. The warm combination of fresh spices and sweet pumpkin is the perfect pairing for a spicy gingersnap crust.

I think one of my favorite things about cheesecake is that there is minimal work involved to actually make it but there is a huge payoff once it's all done. I think cheesecake is one of the most impressive desserts you can serve; it's an added perk that it's also one of the easiest (and deceptively so). That said, there are a few guidelines that I always follow when making a cheesecake:

1. Make sure all your ingredients are at room temperature. A few hours before you make the cheesecake, put the cream cheese and eggs on the counter to come to room temperature. It will make mixing the batter so much easier. If you forget to take the eggs out, you can submerge them (uncracked) in a bowl of warm water for five minutes. Although I don't advise this, you can also soften the cream cheese in the microwave, but that's a tough task because you don't want the cream cheese to melt too much. It's just easier to let the cream cheese warm up by itself on the counter. (I have, however, found that sour cream, if used in the recipe, does not need to be at room temperature. Same goes for small quantities of milk or heavy cream.)

2. Employ a rubber spatula often. It's crucial to scrape down the sides of the bowl you're using, especially if it's the bowl of a stand mixer, in order to fully incorporate all ingredients. Inevitably some sugar or cream cheese won't mix in entirely, and the last thing you want is unincorporated pockets of cream cheese in the finished cake.

3. Bake in a water bath. Always. Even if the recipe doesn't advise it. Actually, if the recipe doesn't advise it, then I don't even use that recipe. Cheesecake is a delicate specimen and it must be treated with care. If you cook it too fast, it will overcook and crack. There's certainly nothing wrong with cracks as far as taste goes, but appearance-wise, they leave something to be desired. Ideally, you have a roasting pan (sadly we don't) that can hold your springform pan. In this case, make sure to wrap the pan in a double layer of aluminum foil. When the cheesecake goes into the oven, pour in hot, steamy water to go about halfway up the sides of the pan. The water bath helps the cheesecake cook evenly and avoid cracking. The next best thing in our house to a roasting pan is the bottom of a broiler pan. Unfortunately, the low sides of the broiler pan encourage fast evaporation of the water. If this is your case, monitor the level of the water and refill with hot water as needed. (And, yes, I realize that this cheesecake does have a crack in it. That's why I advise monitoring the water levels as needed, something I neglected to do. It was still delicious, though.)

4. Let it cool. When the cheesecake comes out of the oven, it will have a solidified, matte-looking top layer. When you shake the pan it should still jiggle slightly in the center, though. Let the cheesecake cool for a little while on the counter (up to an hour, if possible) before chilling it in the refrigerator overnight. (That's another bonus of making cheesecake: it's an entirely make-ahead dessert, so it's perfect for company or hectic holidays.)
The original recipe, with notes scrawled all over: a sure sign of a tried and true favorite.

I realize this diatribe may be slightly intimidating if you've never made cheesecake before. I assure you that cheesecake is easy, though. I encourage you to make it for your next holiday gathering (or any other occasion). But if you find yourself needing help, don't hesitate to Skype me. I'm particularly skilled at giving late-night, virtual cheesecake-making lessons.

Pumpkin Cheesecake
Inspired by Bon Appetit

As I noted earlier, over the years I have changed quite a few components of the original recipe to suit our tastes. Namely, using only gingersnaps in the crust for a spicier contrast to the sweet pumpkin filling and using more spices in the filling. If you can, use freshly grated nutmeg. This may seem like a trivial detail, but you can really taste the nutmeg flavor in the finished cake, which, owing to the variety of spices used, has a wonderfully complex flavor. This cheesecake lasts for a long while in the refrigerator and, like other cheesecakes, freezes well. If you opt to freeze a few slices, wrap them tightly in plastic wrap and then in aluminum foil. I prefer this cheesecake chilled, but you can also serve it at room temperature. Although I think the cheesecake is perfect on its own, I imagine a dollop of spiced sour cream or Greek yogurt or a spoonful of whipped cream (similarly spiced or, if you'd like, bourbon-infused) would be a welcome addition.

Yield: 10 to 12 servings

For the crust:
About 12 ounces gingersnap cookies
3 tablespoons butter, melted

For the cheesecake batter:
4 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese (I use low-fat Neufchatel cheese)
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1 (15-ounce) can solid pack pumpkin
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Process the gingersnap cookies in a food processor until finely ground. (Alternatively, you can place them in a ziploc bag and crush them with the bottom of a pan or a rolling pin.) Add butter and pulse until blended in.

Spray the inside of a 9-inch springform pan with nonstick cooking spray and wrap the outside of the pan with a double layer of aluminum foil. Pour buttered crumbs into the pan and, using the bottom of a measuring cup, press the crumbs onto the bottom and up the sides of the pan. Try to get as even a layer throughout as possible. Bake until just lightly toasted, about 10 minutes. Let cool while you prepare the filling.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or with a hand mixer), beat the cream cheese on medium speed until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the sugar and beat thoroughly to incorporate. After adding the sugar, the batter will appear shiny. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula to ensure that all the sugar has been incorporated. Add the spices and beat until well-blended. Next beat in the pumpkin until well-blended. Scrape down the bowl again. Add the eggs and mix until well-blended. Once again, scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the vanilla extract and beat to incorporate. Scrape down the bowl for a final time, making sure that the entire batter is homogeneous and that no lumps remain. If there are lumps, briefly beat the batter on high speed for a few seconds.

Pour the batter into the prepared crust and set the springform pan in a roasting pan or other large baking pan with high sides. Meanwhile, put a kettle of water on to boil. Once the water is boiling, set the roasting pan with cheesecake in it into the oven. Quickly and carefully pour the hot, steaming water into the roasting pan so that it comes about halfway up the sides of the springform pan. Bake for 1 hour and 30 minutes. As the cake bakes, periodically monitor the water level, refilling the roasting pan as needed. (Use the oven light to check on the cheesecake; don't open the door every 20 minutes. If you do need to refill the water level, do so very quickly to let out as little oven heat as possible.)

After an hour and a half, remove the roasting pan from the oven. The cheesecake will have a browned and set top. When lightly shaken, it will still jiggle somewhat in the center. Cool for 30 minutes to an hour. Then place the springform pan on a paper-towel lined (to avoid slipping) plate and transfer to the refrigerator. Refrigerate overnight.

When you are ready to serve the cheesecake, remove it from the refrigerator and run a knife around the perimeter of the springform pan to loosen the crust from the sides. Remove the sides of the springform pan. Cut into slices and serve.

The cheesecake will keep, wrapped well in foil or plastic, for at least a week (if it lasts that long). You can also freeze the cake (see note above) for enjoying later.