Saturday, December 31, 2011

Bye-Bye to Bad 2011 Food Trends--Five Whose Passing Should Not Be Mourned

As we ring out the old year, and bring in the new, I've been mulling over several food trends I'm really happy to kiss goodbye. Things I don't want to eat, drink or even think about anymore. I'm sure I've missed some of your "favorite" duds, so please feel free to jump in  and add them in the comments section.  (For a post on all the foods I really hate, go here.)

Kombucha’s been touted as “the new yogurt,” by the probiotics crowd, but since this so-called “health” drink is sour, slimy and looks like pond scum, I’m inclined to dub it “the new sludge” instead.  Few medical experts think that the gut flora replenishing and energy boosting claims have much merit.  And considering that nasty gelatinous glob of microorganisms floating on top I don’t see how this grim brew can be promoted  as a “perfect alternative  to coffee, tea, beer, or soda,” and sold for $3 a bottle with a straight face. But maybe it’s just me—I  get squirmy just watching those Jamie Lee Curtis Activia commercials.
Eating Insects
I’m not sure that eating insects really was a hot 2011 food trend except on “Fear Factor,” but the Huffington Post said so here, so it must be true.  Even if, as is claimed, insects are good for you, full of protein, and have low environmental impact, I’m not going to grow a crop in my garden this year, at least not on purpose. Should any creepy-crawlies turn up, I won’t be cooking ‘em.  And hopefully nobody else will be in 2012. Aren’t insects for the birds? 

Cucumber Cocktails
I know cucumber quaffs  were trendy in 2011 because I kept hearing and reading about them and was even treated to a too-cool cucumber margarita earlier this year at a culinary conference. Neither I,  nor the tequila, was happy about it. And I’ll bet the inventor of the margarita was appalled.  I don’t even think the cucumber was pleased. The most positive thing I can tell you is that the concoction was green. And you know what Kermit said about that.

Bacon in Everything  
I like bacon, even love good wood-smoked bacon. Tucked into a BLT, or livening up a potato chowder, or paired with a stack of hot cakes or scrambled eggs, a few crispy slices are one of the hog’s great gifts to humankind.  But in caramels and cookies? On hot fudge sundaes and coconut cream pies? Yeah, these dishes are not really bad with bacon, but if you like a nice hit of salty or smoky, add some roasted, salted, smoked nuts instead. They won’t garner any media attention or earn trendiness points, but they deliver more crunch and less grease. (My proof:  I tried, really tried to make bacon cookies, and every time they came out better when I replaced the bacon with nuts.) In 2012, let's vow to keep bacon where it belongs.

Nouvelle Chips
The gourmet food peeps claim that all those new, exciting, crispy chips concocted from pinto beans, naan, peas, mung beans, kale and wild rice made ordinary potato chips passé in 2011.  If that’s so, Lord, I hope that the spud ones bounce back in 2012. (Which seems likely ABC News predicts that 2012 will be a big year for the potato. Really?) IMHO, nobody ever invented a better vehicle for ingesting salt, fat, carbohydrates, and calories than the plain old potato chip. In the spirit of not messing with a good thing, I’m skipping the Madagascar sea-salted, artisanal barbecue, copper-kettle-cooked, chipotle-lime versions of potato chips, too. Why not join me, and we can make this a hot 2012 trend?
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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Add Party Panache with Parmesan Wafers--Easy & Gluten-Free, Too

Like many home bakers, I've been focused mostly on cranking out cookies and similar sweets the last few weeks. But now, with New Year's Eve fare on the agenda, I'm yearning for something savory to serve. These Parmesan wafers immediately came to mind.

 As you can see, they are light, fragile-crisp, and enticing looking. And since they contain only Parmensan cheese and herbs, they are slightly salty and full of flavor. (And gluten-free, as well.) They are excellent munchies to serve with cocktails, or with a soup course (especially tomato soup--yum). Or offer them along with a glass of bubbly when you ring in the New Year.

The most successful nibbles and noshes always seem to be highly addictive, and these are, too. So of you're serving a crowd, consider doubling or tripling the recipe.

Herbed Parmesan Wafers

The only key to success with these amazingly simple but tempting wafers is to use fresh, good-quality Parmesan cheese. The black pepper is optional; add it amply, or sparingly, as desired.

1 1/3 cups freshly shredded good quality Parmesan cheese

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh chives or 1 teaspoon dried chives or basil leaves

Fresh, coarsely ground black pepper, optional
Position a rack in the upper third of the oven; preheat to 375 degrees F. Line two large baking sheets with nonstick foil or with foil sprayed with nonstick cooking spray.
In a medium bowl, stir together the cheese and herbs. Using  a 1 tablespoon measuring spoon filled about 2/3rds full, scoop up the mixture and place in 2- to 2 1/2-inch mounds about 2 1/2  inches apart on the sheets. Pat or spread out the shreds so they are evenly spaced and spread out in the round. Grind fresh coarse-ground black pepper, over the tops, if desired.

Bake (upper third of the oven) one pan at a time for 6 to 9 minutes; reverse the pan from front to back about halfway through, continuing until the wafers are bubbly and just slightly golden colored. Remove from the oven and let firm up about 2 minutes. Using a wide spatula transfer the crisps to paper towels and let stand until cooled to at least warm. Serve them barely warm or at room temperature.

Makes about 25  2 1/2 to 3-inch wafers.

Perhaps you'd enjoy this fine pesto-pasta-bean soup (left) along with your Parmesan wafers.  Or perhaps an easy minestrone.

Or for another cracker recipe (it features peanuts), go here. 
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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

New Year's Good Wishes & Thanks

With the old year waning, and the new one approaching fast, I've been reflecting back and also looking forward. I've had a lot of good fortune in my life and year. I truly hope you have, too.

Here are just a few things, some large, some small, some trivial, some not, that I'm grateful for:

> That my son and his family now live near enough that we can just hop in a car and drive over for a day. No TSA pat-downs or jammed airports for me anymore!

> That when my exuberant little poodle ran away in the woods we found him before the foxes did.

> That my mother never minded me baking and messing up her kitchen.

> That nobody at our family holiday gatherings reminds me of the cast of “Married with Children,” or “Jersey Shore.”

> That when I dropped my brand new I-phone it didn’t break. Also, that I haven’t lost it (at least not yet).

> That I had three grandparents who thought I was totally adorable.

> That I have two grandchildren who definitely are totally adorable.

>That I live in a country where women are allowed to read, write, and have opinions, and that I can count a goodly number of  wise, loyal and opinionated ones as my friends.

 > That I have a loving companion to share my life with.

>  That I found the key to the freezer door so I can stop having to tape it shut.

That my worth as a person isn’t judged by the tidiness of my house.

> That the new year looks to be full of both gratifying work and interesting play.

May your New Year be everything you hope for and more.

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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Kids Holiday Cookie Baking & Decorating--Making Memories, Having Fun

I invited my grandchildren to come bake and decorate Christmas cookies in Nana's kitchen yesterday. I don't think I have to talk it up too much, because the looks on their faces pretty much tells you they had a good time. You can also see that their cookies came out just great! For a quick, fun video of the three of us making cookies together, go here. Or, for a how-to video showing the best way to roll out dough, go here.
I'd already made up the sugar cookie dough, rolled it out between sheets of baking parchment, and chilled it as the video here shows. Then the kids went to work cutting out the cookies using the cutters they personally chose from my collection. That's Lizzie admiring  the cookies just before we baked them.

The next step was to make the simple powdered sugar icings. The kids got to pick the colors and do all the mixing themselves, which they enjoyed a great deal. Since I prefer to minimize their exposure to synthetic food dyes, all of the ones we used came from fruits and other natural botanical colorants.
As you can see, these come in a variety of hues and are plenty vibrant. (I also further avoided commercial synthetic colors by making my own cookie sprinkles; the recipe is here.)

 The next step was to set up the kids at a table with the icings, sprinkles, and cookies.  Notice that they are working on sheets of baking parchment (makes for easier cleanup!). I also provided a spoon for each icing so the shades wouldn't get mixed together as the same one was dipped into multiple bowls.

As they decorated the kids did a lot of sampling of the icings and sprinkles (especially Charlie), which is why I skip the synthetic dyes in the first place. At first they also tended to load on too much icing in too many colors, but when they saw that this resulted in a messy look, they started adding less. (I made a point of letting them work as independently as they could.) We picked out their best efforts and those are shown in the pic at top. Very appetizing, I'd say. (For some easy decorating tips, go here.)

If you've got a few extra hours in your schedule and some special little people in your family, consider letting them have a cookie baking and decorating party in your kitchen this holiday. It may mean a lot more than any gift you can buy.

Have a joyful, peaceful holiday everyone.

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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Secrets to Making Chocolate Peppermint Bark--Step By Step Pics & Tips

 It’s funny how some recipes just start turning up all the time, and before anybody even notices they’re a classic. This has happened with peppermint bark, which is wildly popular these days, especially during the Christmas holidays. I started giving it out as a Christmas gift about 10 years ago, and now, I can't stop--all the recipients insist they have to receive it again each year!  (I'm up to making about 20 pounds every holiday; it's shown packed in gift bags below).

Aside from the fact that it features the dynamite duo of chocolate and peppermint, the festive contrasting colors probably help account for its huge appeal. (The same festive look brightens my Chocolate-Peppermint Brownies, too.)

Chocolate bark is easier to make than many candies, but there is one very important trick that a lot of the recipes circulating around don't tell you: You need to very carefully follow certain chocolate melting and cooling directions. This will ensure that the chocolate sets up quickly and has a smooth, crisp texture and sheen. Confectioners call this process tempering, and while it’s not hard to do, it can’t be skipped. Otherwise the chocolate may come out crumbly, blotchy, or streaked.

Basically, tempering ensures that melted chocolate has formed the most desirable type of crystals and cools and hardens before the natural white fat, cocoa butter, can rise to the surface and look streaky. Additionally, adding some unmelted chocolate to the bowl near the end of mixing not only cools, but “seeds the batch.” This encourages the mixture to set with the right crystals, specifically ones that makes it smooth and hard at room temperature. (I've just built the quick tempering process right into the recipe, so all you have to do is follow the steps.)

As for the recipes on the Web that make no mention of tempering: These may work if the chocolate just happens to be in the right state, but trust me, you're taking a risk. To avoid the tempering issue completely and still successfully make bark, you can buy compound chocolate or white "melting" chocolate confectionery products that include other fats such as palm kernel oil instead of the more temperamental cocoa butter. The problem is, since cocoa butter contributes a lot of the flavor to real chocolate, these convenient alternatives don't taste particularly chocolatey. 

Chocolate-Peppermint Bark

To conveniently ready the candy: Place unwrapped candies or broken-up sticks or cane pieces in the middle of a large cutting board and lay a plastic cutting mat over top. (And waxed paper over that to prevent bits from scattering. If you don't have a mat, slide the cutting board  into a triple layer of heavy plastic bags, closing the bags tightly. Using a kitchen mallet or the back of a heavy spoon, whack the candy into 1/8-inch or finer pieces (larger pieces will be too hard on the teeth.)
Chocolate melts at lower than human body temperature, and will scorch if exposed to very high heat, so warm it gently. Also, melted chocolate doesn’t mix readily with tiny amounts of liquids. So, don’t add peppermint extract or any other liquid to the melted chocolate, as this may cause the chocolate to suddenly harden. (A few drops of peppermint oil, on the other hand, can be added.)

Broken-up candy canes, peppermint sticks, or red and white peppermint hard candies will all work well in this recipe. I think a combination of canes or sticks  and pinwheel candies lends the best texture and flavor. 
Although the pics show dark chocolate bark being made, white chocolate bark can be prepared exactly the same way. Or, if you wish to make a two-toned bark, use a larger 12" by 18" sheet pan or two smaller sheets to prevent the bark from being too thick. Ready the first layer and let it completely cool and set as directed but without sprinkling any crushed peppermint over top. Then repeat with the second chocolate, spreading over the first layer and adding the crushed peppermint garnish over top.

For a two-toned bark readied with real chocolate (not compound chocolate), you must be sure to use a white chocolate containing cocoa butter and not palm kernel oil or coconut oil.  (Just read the label to be sure.) These two fats are incompatible with cocoa butter, and once the two-tone slab sets, the dark and light chocolate layers will just separate when you try to break the bark into pieces. (Chocolate expert Elaine Gonzales explained to me that the incompatibility results from the fact that the palm kernel oil and coconut oil are lauric acid fats and cocoa butter and some other commonly used fats have a completely different non-lauric chemical composition. The two types will not bond.)

If you have enough baking sheets, the bark recipe may be doubled. Follow the directions at the end.

Tip: You don’t have to have a candy thermometer or other special equipment for this recipe. However, if a cooking or common household thermometer that registers 88 to 90 degrees F. is on hand, use it to check the chocolate temperature. If no thermometer is available, use the touch test provided in the recipe below. 

One more thing: If the chocolate drops down below 88 degrees F and starts to set, you may need to warm it again just slightly. Otherwise, the peppermint bits will hit the hard surface and fall off rather than sticking as they should. If the mixture is still in the stirring bowl, simply return it to the microwave and nuke it 2 or 3 seconds, then stir thorough. If the mixture is already spread out in the baking sheets, warm it in a low oven for a minute or two--watch carefully as you want only the surface to be tacky, not the whole layer to melt.

 About 1 pound 6 ounces semisweet or bittersweet (not unsweetened) chocolate or white chocolate, divided
1 tablespoon corn oil or other flavorless vegetable oil
2 to 3 drops oil of peppermint, optional
1/2 to 3/4 cup (about 4 1/2 to 5 ounces) crushed peppermint pinwheel hard candy or candy canes

Line a 10- by 15-inch (or similar) rimmed tray or baking sheet with aluminum foil; allow the foil to overlap on the narrow ends by 1 1/2 inches and try not to wrinkle the foil. Break up or chop 1 pound chocolate into small chunks; leave the remaining 6 ounces whole.

In a medium microwave-safe bowl, microwave the chopped chocolate and oil on 100-percent power for 1 minute. Stop and stir. Continue microwaving on 50 percent power, stopping and stirring every 30 seconds until most of the chocolate is melted. (Alternatively, heat the chopped chocolate and oil in a heavy, medium saucepan over lowest heat. Stir and watch carefully until most of the pieces are melted. Immediately remove the pan from the heat.

Transfer the chocolate to another dry, cool bowl. Continue stirring until the chocolate completely melts, about 5 minutes longer. Stir in the peppermint oil ( if using) and 4 ounces unchopped chocolate until it melts and the mixture is almost cool to the touch. To judge the warmth, insert a thermometer in the deepest part of the bowl. Wait 30 seconds, then check for 89 or lower degrees F. (Alternatively, touch the chocolate stirring spoon to just above your upper lip; the melted mixture should feel almost cool.) Keep stirring to cool the mixture if necessary. If some chunks remain unmelted when the desired temperature is reached, just lift them out and them aside. If the added pieces have completely melted and the mixture is still too warm, stir in the remaining 2 ounces unchopped chocolate and continue cooling down the mixture by stirring.

When the chocolate is cooled enough, lift out any unmelted chunks with a fork and discard. Add the previously sifted very fine peppermint shards to the chocolate. Stir well. Reserve the remaining larger bits for garnishing the top.

Immediately pour the chocolate-peppermint mixture into the prepared tray. Using an off-set spatula or table knife, spread the chocolate out to the edges; be sure the layer is evenly thick. Sprinkle the reserved peppermint bits evenly over the chocolate. Shake the tray back and forth and rap it on the counter several times to embed the candy bits in the chocolate. Immediately transfer the tray to the refrigerator, resting it flat. Refrigerate for 15 to 20 minutes or until the chocolate is completely set.

Carefully peel the chocolate bark from the foil as shown below; be sure to remove all bits of foil. Break the bark into 2- to 4-inch irregular pieces with your hands. Package the bark as desired.

Store airtight at cool room temperature for up to 2 months. Makes about 1 1/3 pounds peppermint bark.

Doubling the Recipe: Follow the basic directions, except ready two 10-by 15- or similar rimmed trays or baking sheets. Break up or chop 2 pounds chocolate into small chunks; have 8 ounces unchopped chocolate on hand. In a large microwave-safe bowl, microwave the chopped chocolate and 2 tablespoons corn oil on 100-percent power for 2 minutes. Stop and stir. Continue microwaving on 50 percent power, stopping and stirring every 30 seconds until most of the chocolate is melted. Continue stirring until the chocolate completely melts. Stir in 4 drops peppermint oil ( if using) and 5 ounces of unchopped chocolate. Proceed as for the original recipe, except if the mixture is still too warm, stir in 3 more ounces unchopped chocolate. Continue exactly as for the original recipe, except divide the recipe evenly between the two pans. Makes about 2 3/4 pounds peppermint bark.
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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Almost Sherrill's Soft Gingerbread Boys--(As Seen on the Food Network)

I've been getting requests today for a recipe that just appeared on a Food Network show on gingerbread. The pic here was taken in my kitchen several years ago when the segment was originally shot.

If you didn't see the feature here, let me fill you in: Some years back, when I was researching recipes for my All-American Dessert Book, I heard about a locally famous glazed gingerbread cookie that was prepared at a Capitol Hill diner called Sherrill's Restaurant. Trouble was, by the time I'd found out about these plump, chewy-soft goodies, the restaurant was no longer in business.

Some of my foodie colleagues with the Washington Post food section were in touch with the retired pastry chef who had made the cookies at Sherrills. They offered to see if he would give me the recipe for my book. When he declined, I then tried to pay him to make me a sample batch; I thought this would help me in trying to duplicate his recipe. Alas, he wasn't interested in doing this either.

Still determined, I talked at length to several of the Post food staffers who had eaten his cookies, writing down all the details of what the cookies looked and tasted like. Then for several months, I just kept making up versions and sending them to my Post colleagues for feedback. After numerous attempts and a lot of helpful comments like, "too sweet," "not spicy enough," "getting there," etc.,  I finally produced a batch that they declared "very, very close to the original."

I wish I could tell you that the original creator of  the Sherrill's gingerbread boys thought so too, but I never heard from him, so I don't know. But my cookies were extremely popular with those who tried them.

Several years after my All-American Dessert Book  containing my knockoff version came out, I was asked to do a video segment featuring my cookies for a show on gingerbread. It's since run several times on the Food Network, and now again this year. Since I'm getting requests for the recipe, here it is.  Enjoy!

Almost Sherrill's Soft Gingerbread Boys

Rolled gingerbread cookies are usually on the crisp and crunchy side, but these are plump, lightly glazed, sweet and not too spicy, and, most important, noticeably chewy-soft. Note that this recipe does not contain any eggs. 

Incidentally, the glaze (being added at left) is similar to that used on doughnuts, so it often becomes more opaque and flaky as it stands and cools. This is normal.

Tip: To keep this dough from warming up and softening too quickly, thoroughly chill a large baking sheet. Then lay the dough on it as you cut out the cookies. Chill the baking sheet as needed for successive batches.

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
2/3 cup light molasses
Generous 1/2 cup clover (or other mild) honey
1/3 cup corn oil (or other flavorless vegetable oil)
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
3 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
Scant 1/2 teaspoon salt
Dark raisins or dried currants (for eyes and buttons)
1 1/3 cups powdered' sugar, sifted after measuring if lumpy
3 1/2 tablespoons water
1 1/2 tablespoons corn oil (or other flavorless vegetable oil)

To make the dough:
In a large saucepan, stir together the butter, molasses, honey, oil and brown sugar until blended. Cook, stirring, over medium heat until the butter melts and the mixture just comes to a full boil. Immediately start timing and cook, stirring occasionally, for exactly 1 minute. Remove from the heat; let cool slightly.

In a large bowl, thoroughly stir together the flour, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, baking powder, and salt. Working carefully to avoid splashes, pour the molasses mixture over the flour mixture. Beat with a mixer on low, then medium speed until very well blended. If the mixer motor labors, stop and complete the mixing by hand. Cover and refrigerate for 30 to 40 minutes, or until barely warm and stiffened.

To roll the dough:
Divide the dough into thirds. Roll out each portion between sheets of baking parchment or wax paper until a generous 1/4-inch thick. Stack the rolled portions (paper still attached) on a baking sheet. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 12 hours, or freeze for 30 to 40 minutes, or until very cold and firm.

When ready to bake:
Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees F. Grease several baking sheets or coat with nonstick spray oil.

Working with one dough portion at a time and leaving the others in the refrigerator, gently peel off the top sheet of paper, then pat the paper loosely back into place so it will be easy to remove later. Invert the dough and peel off the second sheet.

Using a 4- to 5-inch gingerbread boy (or girl) cutter, cut out the cookies. Using a spatula, transfer cookies to baking sheets, spacing about 2 inches apart.* If at any point the dough softens too much to handle easily, transfer the paper and cookies to a baking sheet and refrigerate or freeze until firm. Re-roll any dough scraps. Continue cutting out the cookies until all the dough is used. Very firmly press raisins into the cookies for eyes and buttons.

Bake for 9 to 14 minutes, until the tops are lightly colored and the edges are slightly darker; don't underbake. Transfer the baking sheets to wire racks over sheets of baking parchment or wax paper. Let the cookies stand for 4 minutes to firm up. Using a wide spatula, transfer them to the racks.

To make the glaze:
In a 1-quart saucepan, stir together the powdered sugar, 3 1/2 tablespoons water and oil until well blended. Bring to a boil, stirring, over medium-high heat, for 30 to 45 seconds (the glaze will be clear). Stir to recombine the glaze, then use immediately while it is still hot. (If the glaze is allowed to stand and cool, it may thicken and become sugary. In this case, add a teaspoon of hot water to thin it again, place over medium heat, and continue stirring until the sugar dissolves. Immediately remove from the heat and use.)

To glaze the cookies:
Using a pastry brush or a paper towel, brush the cookies with glaze until their tops are coated all over with an even layer; the more glaze you use, the softer the cookies will be. Stir the glaze frequently to prevent it from separating. Let the cookies cool completely, at least 1 hour. It's normal for the glaze to become slightly sugary and flaky.

The cookies will keep, packed flat with baking parchment or wax paper between the layers and stored airtight, at room temperature for up to a week or frozen for up to 2 months.Makes 16-18 gingerbread boys.

If you're a cookie fan you might also like my cranberry white chocolate drop cookies, or thoroughly tested, popular  sugar cookies recipe shown at left.  
Another post details how to ready homemade cookie sprinkles such as those here.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

How About Giving Some Cookbooks This Holiday --Support Authors AND Give a Memorable Gift

Let me climb up on a soapbox and say that if you're looking for a holiday gift for a foodie, you should think about giving a cookbook. Yes, I suggest this partly because I'm a cookbook author myself; several of my books are shown right here. And yes, I'm well aware that free recipes are available all over the Internet.

But please remember that very often the really well-tested and delectable recipes circulating out there on the web are adaptations borrowed from books that diligent authors or chefs spent a lot of time and money creating. (Of course, some bloggers do create original recipes and slave over their testing, and their readers should be appreciative.) Plus, having in hand a whole cookbook packed with interesting recipes, helpful and entertaining recipe intros, the author's personal tips, tutorials and commentary and, often, lovely photos, is a totally different, much more satisfying experience than using bare-bones recipe printouts.

Most of my colleagues with reputations for totally trustworthy recipes say they have to test numerous times to ensure that the final dish is perfect and that their instructions are written clearly enough that  even novice cooks can succeed. (To help ensure this, I often send out my recipes to home testers and have them make and rate each dish; the details are here.) At a minimum, the recipes I create for cookbooks, newspapers, magazines and for this blog get tested three times, and usually more. The 100% whole wheat-honey bread (shown at left) from my Kneadlessly Simple cookbook took more than 12 tries--I lost count after that! It took me eight tests to create the super reliable "nearly foolproof" fudge recipe posted here at Kitchenlane earlier this month. And about 20 tries to create the "knockoff"  gingerbread boys recipe here.

Probably the most over-the-top recipe testing story ever involves Julia Child's effort to create a doable and authentic French bread for her seminal Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Her editor, Judith Jones, says that Julia's husband Paul (who was a good cook) tried over 50 recipe variations without success. Finally, as my tribute to Julia details, they packed up, went to France, and visited the country's most famous baker to learn the secrets to success. I know many other less well-known food writers and cookbook authors who are equally as diligent about bringing their readers unique, carefully tested, utterly delectable recipes. This is time-consuming and expensive, and to be frank about it, they only get paid for their efforts when buyers support them and buy their books.

Let me be even bolder here and suggest that if  somebody on your gift list is interested in baking or eating good homemade yeast bread, you might consider giving them a copy of my latest cookbook, Kneadlessly Simple. The hardcover edition has  been very popular and has received many favorable reviews, and  now is even more reasonably priced in a brand new, easy to order, very economical softcover edition. Since the recipes require no kneading (and often no hand-shaping) and also greatly minimize kitchen muss and fuss, the book is geared for both newbie home bakers and those folks just too busy to hang around the house tending rising dough all day. Find more general info on the method and the crusty, white pot bread (shown at left above) here. (The recipes feature the convenient option to hold the dough in the refrigerator at several stages until you're around and ready to work with it.)  A post here explains more about what pots work best for the pot breads.

All the bread snapshots in this post were taken in my kitchen as the recipes were being tested. (Thoroughly!) As you can see, the collection includes a wide variety of recipes--from the festive iced sweet loaf belowand the cheese bread shown at right and posted here.  A whole gallery of breads in the book, from cinnamon buns, to seeded and saffron bread are presented here.

Even if my bread book or perhaps my cookie or dessert books don't seem like the perfect choice for you to give, do think about titles by other authors that might enthrall a foodie friend or relative and that will also help keep the cookbook industry and its hard-working authors and editors in business. For a starter list of possible gift cookbooks check out the Chow post here.  My colleagues and I thank you and wish you a wonderful holiday.
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Monday, December 12, 2011

Make Your Own Cookie & Cake Sprinkles--Secrets to a Festive Custom Look

I just made my own decorator sprinkles to use on cookies, cakes, and other sweet treats. And you can, too!

They are easy, economical, taste much better than store-bought, and you can make them in absolutely any custom shade desired. An important added benefit for me personally is that by readying  homemade jimmies I can avoid giving my grandkids decors laden with synthetic food dyes. During a family cookie decorating session, they snitched a lot of sprinkles, all free of commercial synthetic dyes.

Since some research suggests that these may cause hyperactivity or allergic reactions in certain children, I feel more comfortable tinting my sprinkles using au natural food colorings made from only fruit, berry, and veggie-based colorants, and occasionally, cocoa powder. (For my "au natural" buttercream frosting, go here.) If the idea of au naturel decorating appeals to you, do keep an eye out for my soon-to-be-published Simply Sensational Cookies book, which will feature a whole host of synthetic dye-free cookie decorations and garnishes. Check out details here.

Often, I just use the dribs and drabs of whatever powdered sugar frostings are left over from decorating projects, such as my marathon decorating day featuring the eye-catching cookies shown here. To do this yourself, simply follow the piping, drying, and chopping instructions below.

But it's easy to mix up a batch of icing specifically for preparing sprinkles using the recipe here. The ingredients are just quickly stirred together--no mixer or beating required. 

For au naturel sprinkles in pastel shades, any fruit juices you have in the refrigerator will do--cranberry, Concord grape, cherry, raspberry or orange juice will all add a touch of color and a light, pleasing taste. If avoiding synthetic dyes matters to you, check the labels to be sure the juices you buy are actually free of  Red 40, and Yellow 5 or 6 and other petroleum derived products.  If you don't consider commercial dyes a big issue, tint the icing for your sprinkles with regular food colors, as desired.

For brighter completely au natural hues, it's possible to buy botanically-based colorants on-line and in some specialty stores. The India Tree brand, called Natural Decorating Colors, features a little three-color set. A company called Seelect sells a whole array of natural food colorants in 2-ounce bottles (each will likely last you a life-time!).  A third firm, sells a very convenient six-bottle set of natural colors in blue, red, yellow, purple, green, and orange. To see how these natural colors look used on assorted Valentine's cookies, go here.

Note that unlike the ordinary synthetic food dyes, these plant-based ones need to be stored in the refrigerator or the colors will fade over time. And, depending on the hue, the colors may not be as intense as the synthetic dyes.

Most important of all--some botanically-based dyes will change color in the presence of acids from fruit juices. So before you add them to a  whole batch of frosting, add a drop to a small amount of it to see if you like the color created.  Blue-hued natural dyes are particularly prone to changing color when blended with fruit juice--usually to a very pretty shade of pink. So, if you're really yearning for a blue frosting, use plain water instead of fruit juice in the recipe.

Homemade Sprinkles 

For multicolored nonpareils, you can pipe the various shades onto one sheet of parchment as shown in these pics. For individual colors, pipe each color onto a separate sheet and chop and store them separately. The recipe may be doubled, or even tripled if you wish, but the sprinkles are best used within 6 months. Note that homemade sprinkles are best to add over frostings and icings or to top sugar cookies that require fairly short baking times. Exposure to heat for longer than about 10 minutes causes the natural colors to fade.

By the way, both the icings and sprinkles shown in this post feature only botanically-based colors. Which proves that you can decorate with pizzazz and avoid health risks, too.

Tip: My tried and true sugar cookie dough used to prepare the cookies shown is here.

1/2 cup powdered sugar, plus more if needed
1 to 2 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted if lumpy, optional
2 to 3 teaspoons cranberry, grape, cherry, raspberry, or orange fruit juice or water, plus more as needed
Several drops of regular or au naturel (botanically-based) commercial food colors, optional

Put the sugar in a small, deep bowl. (Or to make sprinkles in two colors, use two bowls.) If preparing cocoa jimmies, thoroughly stir in the cocoa powder; a larger amount will yield a deeper color and flavor. Gradually and thoroughly stir in enough juice or water to create an icing that is smooth and stiff enough to pipe. If desired, stir in a drop or two of food color for a brighter shade.

Lay out a long sheet of parchment. Spoon the icing into a pastry bag fitted with a fine writing tip; or into a parchment piping cone (as shown at left); or into a sturdy plastic baggie. Snip a tiny opening in the piping cone tip or one corner of the baggie.

Pipe slightly spaced, thin vertical lines of icing onto the parchment; as the pic at left shows, it's okay if the lines aren't perfect. Let the lines dry uncovered at least 15 hours in dry weather and 24 hours in damp or humid weather.

Slide the parchment and piped lines onto a cutting board and using a large knife, cut across the lines to create jimmies or dots as desired. (Or use a pizza cutter.) If the sprinkles don't seem completely dry, let stand  several hours to dry further. Use immediately or store airtight in a cool spot away from bright light for up to 6 months.

Makes about 1/2 cup sprinkles.

For more on "naturally beautiful" decorating with botanical food colors such as on the hearts  go here.

For a round-up other cookie decorating techniques such as the one shown on the daisy cookies below, go here.

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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Great Gifts from the Kitchen--Seven Tempting Treats To Make and Give This Holiday

Whether you just enjoy the creativity, or prefer to personalize and give more meaning to your presents, or are simply budget conscious, gifts from the kitchen are a gratifying option for the holidays. Here are just seven of the many kitchen gifts I've happily given out over the years. Click on the titles below to go to the how-to and recipes.

Gourmet Herbed Vinegars--For the right person, (usually a fairly adventuresome or gourmet cook),  homemade herbed vinegars can be the perfect gift. Not only do the bottles make a charming decorative kitchen accent, but the cook who likes to ready  homemade mayos, vinaigrettes, Bearnaise or quick pan sauces will be thrilled with their fresh, intense flavors and zip. Note that the vinegars are also easy to prepare.

Candied Grapefruit and Orange Peels--
The homemade version of this confection tastes so spectacular that just writing about it is making me want some now. In fact it's really hard to understand how store-bought citrus peels can be so much less appealing, but that's usually the case. Note that "as is" homemade candied peels are both fat- and gluten-free; of course, if you dip the strips in chocolate, they will then include cocoa butter, the natural fat of chocolate.

Hearty Minestrone Soup Mix

This is a perfect gift from the kitchen when your recipient is diet-conscious or simply doesn't like sweets. A convenient, not to mention eye-catching, jar of mix can be effortlessly combined with water and a can of tomatoes for a whole pot of healthful, nourishing minestrone. (By choosing certified gluten-free ingredients, you can tailor your soup mix to those allergic to gluten.)

Nearly Foolproof, No-Beat Chocolate Rocky Road Fudge--

It took me many tries over several decades to come up with a fudge recipe that looked and tasted good and came out right every single time. If you can bear to part with the batch, it makes a fine holiday gift for any fudge or chocolate fan.

Cranberry-Chocolate Chip Bars-in-Jars Mix--
Attractively-layered containers of "bars-in-jars" mix make thoughtful gifts for favorite teachers, relatives, or friends, and can be readied by teens or younger children working along with a grownup. The recipient stirs the mix together with butter and an egg for an almost effortless pan of festive homemade chocolate chip-cranberry bars.

Citrusy Homemade Limoncello Liqueur--
For the occasional tippler, or fan of all things Italian, a bottle of this potent lemon-scented liqueur would make a truly memorable gift. Better get on it though--the lemon peels have to steep at least a week and the holidays are almost here.

Stained Glass and Light Catcher Cookies--
Festive, highly giftable rolled cut-out cookies can be created fairly easily using this simple "stained glass," technique. Children love both giving and receiving these.
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