Ooooh, you guys! I really hope I’m getting to you in time. Like before you get all set in your holiday baking plans. Because let me tell you what. These peppermint meringues? With their minty crunch, melting sweetness and slick of bittersweet chocolate? They need to be all up in your holiday cookie tins. I mean, just look at them in their jaunty striped suits. They will delight any recipient and call to you from the countertop. So says the person who’s had meringue crumbs all down her shirt for three days straight.
I can’t think of too many phrases more lovely than “Christmas confections”, can you? Well, I suppose there’s also “French meringue”, which I also have a thing for. And “spatula”, but that’s neither here nor there. But about the French meringue. It’s my favorite kind to make and eat. Oh, of course I love a pillowy, soft meringue atop a pie or the in-between kind that’s baked crisp on the outside with a marshmallow-y interior, like with a heavenly pavlova. But I’m totally enamored with the kind of hard-throughout meringue cookie that has you cronch-cronch-ing while it simulatneously melts in your mouth. And I’ll tell you what else–it’s dang hard to find a good, reliable recipe for that sort of thing.
This recipe is a far cry from a hard-core, classic French meringue (granulated and confectioners’ sugar? Flour? Mon dieu!), but the technique is every bit as simple. The little trick that makes these baked meringues so featherweight and addictively melt-in-your-mouth is the folding in of the confectioners’ sugar and a touch of flour, after the bulk of the superfine granulated sugar has been whipped into the egg whites. And can I just say that when I grind granulated sugar in my coffee grinder to make superfine sugar and then pour it into a plastic bag to store it, I always get the biggest laugh out of how questionable the whole thing looks?
If you wondered if I was a square before, well, I guess I cleared that one up for you.
But in addition to being a total square, I am also quite crafty, and after deciding to make these meringues peppermint, opted to dress them up even more by painting long stripes of red food coloring up the sides of a piping bag before filling it. As you pipe out the meringue, you’ll get a sweet little pattern on each cookie. Super stylish and cute! Unlike me with all these crazy meringue crumbs on my shirt.
To make superfine sugar, take regular granulated sugar for a spin in a clean coffee grinder or food processor fitted with the steel blade.
When you add the peppermint extract, the minty fragrance and flavor may seem a bit overpowering, but it will be tempered by adding the remaining sugar mixture, and some of its minty power will bake off during the long baking time, too.
Gel food coloring is available at any good baking supply store and many craft stores. It’s much thicker and much more intense in color than the liquid food coloring sold in supermarkets.You can forgo the jazzy striping altogether and just beat in a touch of festive food coloring with the extracts if you prefer.
Makes about 4-5 dozen, depending on size
4 large egg whites (about 4 ounces), at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
Pinch of salt
3/4 cup superfine sugar (see note)
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon peppermint extract
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
Red gel food coloring
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate chips (I like Ghiradelli)
Position the oven rack to the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat it to 250 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.
Sift together 2 tablespoons of the superfine sugar, the confectioners’ sugar, and the flour into a medium bowl. Set aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitter with the whip attachment, combine the egg whites, cream of tartar and salt. Whip first on medium speed, gradually increasing the speed to high, until the egg whites reach soft peaks. Gradually rain in the remaining superfine sugar. Continue to whip until the meringue is glossy and holds a very stiff peak. Beat in the vanilla and peppermint extracts.
Remove the bowl from the mixer. With a large spatula, gently and carefully fold in the remaining sugar mixture by hand in three additions, taking care not to deflate the egg whites.
On the inside of a piping bag fitted with a large star tip, use a long, thin paint brush to paint four or five long stripes of food coloring up the sides of the bag. Carefully transfer the meringue to the piping bag, aiming for the center of the bag as much as possible to avoid smudging the stripes. Pipe out the meringue into cookies about 1 1/2 inches in diameter onto the prepared baking sheets.
Place both sheets into the oven at once, and immediately turn the oven temperature down to 200 degrees. Bake until the cookies are completely firm and dry, about 1 hour and 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow the cookies to cool completely.
Melt the chocolate chips on a double boiler or in the microwave on high power in 30 second intervals until smooth, stirring after each interval. Dip the bottoms of the cookies in the melted chocolate and place them on parchment-lined baking sheets. when the chocolate has cooled and set (the refrigerator can speed up this process considerably), remove the cookies from the sheets and store in airtight containers at cool room temperature for up to 2 weeks.
Is there such a thing as caramel season? Can the seasonal eating experts weigh in here, please? Because I just don’t know. I suppose fall would most likely be caramel season because of its toasty, warm flavor and apple-friendly demeanor, but I can’t be sure. In the meantime, I’ll just keep eating my way through early summer, subsisting mainly on these awesome sea salt caramels. Rustle of paper, chew, chew, sigh, chew.
So I know salted caramel has been all up in our area for the better part of three years now and I’m a little late in sharing a recipe in this category with you. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been eating as much of it as humanly possible before now. In fact, and I will sort of shield my eyes as I say this, I hold caramel in a higher regard than chocolate. Especially the buttery, salted variety. When done right, it’s just smack-the-table good.
Plus, besides the epically awesome flavor here, I think I have something new and pretty flippin’ exciting to offer you in the salted caramel candy department. These caramels are made with no corn syrup or white sugar whatsoever. And it was all a happy accident. Kind of like the whole penicillin thing. Except delicious. And not creepy. Come along.
I was all set to make a batch of traditional sea salt caramels, largely due to a very loud, specific and insistent craving for them. But as I started to pull ingredients from the pantry, I realized I was way short on corn syrup, mostly due to a so-crazy-I-had-to-try-it brownie recipe that I’ll share with you in the near future. Also, on that particular day I was so spacy I forgot one of the pillars upon which I build my personal character, also known as mise en place, and, duh, I already had a stick of butter for the recipe melting on the stovetop. Seriously, duh. I know better.
But I stood up straight, flicked my head back like Blanche Deveraux (God rest her soul, don’t even get me started) and plowed ahead, boldly replacing the corn syrup with agave nectar and while I was at it, swapping out the white sugar for raw, toasty turbinado (also known by the brand name Sugar in the Raw). And then I tried not to think about how it really might not work.
Except it did, people. The caramel bubbled up beautifully (I took it a few degrees hotter just to account for the extra water that agave nectar has that corn syrup doesn’t) and it took on an even deeper, richer color and flavor thanks to the raw sugar. It set up firm enough to cut, but still luxuriously soft and pleasantly chewy in the mouth. Buttery, salty, sweet–everything that a great caramel should be. The extra sprinkling of sea salt is the killer here. Dang.
And in the very background, if you really pay attention, you’ll taste something else, a sort of quiet earthiness from the natural sweeteners in this recipe, rounded out by a touch of rum that keeps the sweetness from being too one-note. I think these are really something special. And if you’re looking for a last-minute Father’s Day gift, I seriously can’t think of anything better. Unless your dad has had a lot of dental work. Or is diabetic. Then maybe you should just go for a tie in that case.
If you’d like to make this recipe using white sugar and corn syrup instead, increase the syrup to 1/2 cup. Regular brown sugar has more moisture than white or turbinado sugars and is not recommended.
Try to use the best coarse salt you can get your hands on here–avoid table salt at all costs (in addition to subpar flavor, it doesn’t measure the same as coarse salt). In a pinch, you can use kosher, but I really recommend a nice crunchy, crumbly fleur de sel, particulary for sprinkling.
Also, I really like vanilla bean paste here because it does double duty of vanilla extract flavor and gives a nice visual of bean flecks in the caramel, but you can just use 1 1/2 teaspoons of vanilla extract instead.
Makes about 4 dozen caramels, depending on size
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups turbinado sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup light agave nectar
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse sea salt, plus more for sprinkling (see note)
2 teaspoons dark rum (optional)
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste or extract (see note)
Line an 8×8 inch baking pan with aluminum foil and spray it generously with nonstick cooking spray.
In a heavy medium saucepan over medium high heat, melt together the butter, sugar, cream and agave nectar. Bring it to a boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Clip a candy thermometer to the pot and reduce the heat to low, stirring occassionally, until the caramel reaches 248 degrees (this can take anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes or maybe longer–don’t rush it). As you see the temperature creeping towards 248, stir in the salt and the rum. When the caramel hits 248, pull the pot from the heat and stir in the vanilla.
Pour the caramel into the prepared pan set over a wire rack and let it cool, undisturbed, at room temperature overnight, or if you’re in a rush, 30 minutes at room temperature and another 30 minutes or so in the refrigerator until the caramel is very firm.
Line a cutting surface with a sheet of parchment paper and turn the caramel slab out onto it. Use a large sharp knife to cut the caramel into neat, even pieces (I like mine to be about 1 x 1 1/2 inches). Lightly sprinkle the caramels with more sea salt and wrap them in squares of parchment or waxed paper. Store at room temperature.
Chocolate and peppermint is the Brangelina of the holidays. Fact.
Just in time for the Christmas cutoff, I’m finally sharing a recipe with this celebrated holiday combination, while simultaneously packing like a madwoman for our trip to Colorado, being careful not to forget the essentials, like several pairs of stretchy yoga pants.
If you’re looking for an extra little something to add to the cookie plate this year, something with true holiday pizazz–this Layered Peppermint Crunch Bark is it, guys. And I’m happy to report that this peppermint bark has more personality than any other I’ve tried. Sure, you’ve got the usual suspects–white chocolate and a generous sprinkling of crushed peppermint candies–but with a layer of bittersweet chocolate and a smattering of candy bits tucked within, you get a particularly awesome flavor and texture that keeps you going back for just. One. More. Bite.
Beyond the fabulous texture (spectacularly crunchy at the outset, melting into a silky sea of white and dark chocolates on the tongue), and blast of refreshing mint flavor (so nice after a hearty winter meal), you just can’t beat the pretty factor with this treat. And you and your oven will enjoy a much-needed rest from the holiday baking frenzy–whipping up a batch of this bark feels delightfully more like a creative, crafty project than anything cooking-related.
Now, between you and me, there would really be nothing wrong with making a batch of this stuff solely for the purposes of self-indulgence while doing some last-minute online shopping. We’re totally worth it. But the sparkly, elegant look of the finished candy is just begging to be wrapped up in pretty glass jars with holiday ribbon and gifted to the people you really like. Consider it an amendment to the POC Treats for Gifting Guide! Happy, happy holidays, guys. Enjoy!
For the chocolates, you can use either bar chocolate or chocolate chips, but keep in mind that the results with bar chocolate will be a little bit finer textured and more luxurious than if you use chocolate chips (which have stablizers in them). For the dark chocolate, I like to use a half-and-half blend of bittersweet and semi-sweet chocolates, but use whichever you have on hand. Crush the peppermint candies by placing them in a large ziptop bag, having at them with a rolling pin and release that holiday stress!
Makes about 36 pieces
17 ounces good-quality white chocolate (I like Ghiradelli, see note)
6 ounces coarsely crushed peppermint candies (about 30 round striped ones or 12 regular candy canes)
7 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate (see note)
6 tablespoons whipping cream
3/4 teaspoon peppermint extract
Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking mat or a sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil.
Place the white chocolate in a metal bowl set over saucepan of barely simmering water (being careful not to allow the bottom of the bowl to touch the water), and stir occasionally until the chocolate is melted and smooth and a candy thermometer registers 110°F. Pour 2/3 cup of the melted white chocolate onto the baking sheet, and using an offset spatula, spread it into about a 9×12-inch rectangle. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup crushed peppermints. Refrigerate until set, about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, stir together the bittersweet chocolate, cream and peppermint extract in a heavy medium saucepan over medium-low heat until just melted and smooth. Cool to barely lukewarm, about 5 minutes. Pour the dark chocolate mixture in long lines over the white chocolate rectangle (pouring it in a puddle will start to melt and smear the white chocolate layer) and using a clean spatula, spread the chocolate in even layer. Refrigerate until very cold and firm, at least 25 minutes.
Rewarm the bowl of white chocolate over barely simmering water again, to 110°F. Working quickly, pour the white chocolate over the firm bittersweet chocolate layer and spread evenly to cover. Immediately sprinkle the remaining crushed peppermints over the surface of the candy. Chill just until firm, about 20 minutes.
If using a silicone mat, slide a thin spatula under the slab of bark and remove it to a cutting board. (If using foil, remove the entire sheet of foil with the bark to a cutting board and trim the bark on the foil, removing the pieces once they’re cut.) Trim the edges of the slab of candy, and then cut the bark into 36 pieces. Let stand 15 minutes at room temperature before serving. Can be made 2 weeks ahead and kept in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
It may be totally impossible to say that phrase and not positively sing it whilst clapping your hands and maybe bouncing a little on your heels. And I’m not just saying that because I’ve been doing a lot of all three of those actions lately for reasons other than holiday confections. I know it’s been quite a while since my last post, but I have a really good reason this time…
Baby C was born late August, a full two weeks early, and the surprises have not stopped since. She just turned three months the other day, and we are just hitting the sweet spot now (like all the books predicted, my baby is quite punctual and definitely didn’t get that from me) where she greets mommy and daddy with big silly smiles and is falling into an excellent eating, playing and sleeping routine. Of course, these are all recent developments–the first two months were mainly a crash course in parental survival that no book or message board could ever have prepared me for. I wondered if I would ever be able to have any sort of hobby again that didn’t involve a Baby Bjorn.
With the exception of a carrot cake deliriously baked at two weeks post-partum (and it was delicious), there hasn’t been much activity on the baking front around here. And even if I’d had the brain power to blog, I couldn’t bear to attempt to justify to you why the husband and I have eaten our way through no less than three boxes of Betty Crocker’s Triple Chunk Brownie Mix since Baby C’s arrival. I thought my KitchenAid mixer might need therapy, its sobs were so heavy. We don’t believe in crying it out, so you can understand how heartbreaking it was to leave its gears so cold for so long.
Anyway, my point is that after a couple months of stumbling through the days with a newborn, things are getting back to normal around here. Well, it’s our new normal, actually, and it’s really pretty great. We’re getting ready for Baby C’s first Christmas, and she’s even showing interest in what goes on the kitchen, kicking and chirping from her bouncer seat while I tell her about what’s going into the pot or the mixing bowl. It’s sort of like doing a live cooking show for an audience of one and I love it. She’s entertained and I’m feeling more like myself again by working on some new recipes that just might become part of this year’s Christmas treat tins.
Excuses to bake and candymake are plentiful right now, people–I hope you’re taking advantage of that. If I can churn out some perfectly buttery, salty-sweet toffee (embellished with chocolate and almonds, no less) between changes and feedings and lollygagging on a Gymini play mat that plays Mozart’s “Symphony No. 40 in G Major” overandoverandoverandover, then anyone can. Except for babies, they really should be kept away from cooking candy.
This toffee is a mashup of a few different recipes, and after a few tries (one that ended up splattered in a burnt, smoking mess all over my kitchen counter; do pay attention to your heat settings and try to minimize distractions, i.e. babies that wake up suddenly and very cranky from an afternoon nap) I arrived at this recipe that delivers the kind of toffee I love. It has a high butter to sugar ratio, and a good amount of salt that cuts through the sweetness of the candy and the chocolate coating. The snowy layer of almost-ground almonds dusted over the chocolate rather than in the toffee layer offer extra interest in terms of flavor, texture and an elegant appearance (although you can totally stir in chopped nuts later if you prefer). And it also saves you the embarrassment of having to lick your fingers clean of melty candy, since it will be bad enough that you’ll be eating a quarter of the batch all by yourself as soon as it’s cooled.
Makes about 2 pounds
This recipe makes enough for two nice-sized gift tins of toffee. If you don’t have fleur del sel, kosher salt can be used, but avoid using plain table salt as it can give a bitter, tinny flavor to the salty-sweet candy. The impressive amount of butter in this recipe makes refrigeration or even freezing a good idea if it will be stored for longer than a few days. This recipe can easily be doubled with great results, but try working with these smaller amounts, or maybe even halving this recipe as a practice run before making a bigger batch.
1 cup whole raw almonds
1/2 pound unsalted butter (2 sticks)
1 generous teaspoon fleur de sel (a level teaspoon of kosher salt also works, see note)
1 cup plus 6 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon corn syrup
6 ounces high quality semi-sweet chocolate chips (I like Ghiradelli)
Before you begin cooking the toffee, have at the ready a large cookie sheet (or two if you are doubling the recipe). I like to line mine with silicone liners, as it makes flipping the toffee while coating it much easier. Place half the almonds in a blender, food processor or clean coffee grinder and take them for a spin until they are chopped so fine they are almost like a powder with the occasional hunk of almond in the mix and set aside. Roughly chop the other half of the almonds by hand (for stirring into the candy later) and set aside.
In a medium, heavy bottomed saucepan, begin melting the butter over medium-high heat with the salt. Once the butter is about three-quarters melted, add the sugar all at once, followed by the corn syrup, and begin stirring immediately. Continue stirring, gently in a figure-eight motion, until the butter is completely melted and the sugar has begun to dissolve, about 5-7 minutes–the mixture will turn from looking like a separated mess into something much more smooth and homogenous. It will also just begin to bubble at this point and take on a lovely blond shade. Turn the heat down to medium-low and stir the candy occasionally. Think low and slow–the bubbling will be sort of groovy and dreamy-looking, not a full, rapid boil.
Once you notice a change in the color of the candy–about 10-15 minutes later–clip a candy thermometer to the side of the pan, making sure it doesn’t touch the bottom of the pan. Continue stirring occasionally. You are looking for the candy to take on a beautiful, creamy toffee color and have the slightest scent of burnt sugar. The candy should ultimately reach a temperature of 290 degrees (soft crack stage), but once it hits about 280, take it off the heat, as it will continue cooking further and it can burn quickly. As soon as you remove it from the heat, stir in the almonds you’ve chopped by hand. Immediately (and very carefully) pour the toffee onto the prepared baking sheet. Use a heatproof spatula to pop any bubbles that rise to the surface of the candy while it’s still hot. Set the toffee aside to cool for about 30 minutes.
When the toffee is cooled, melt half of the chocolate chips in a double boiler or in the microwave for 30 second increments, stirring after each one. Spread the chocolate in a thin, even layer over the toffee and sprinkle generously with the ground almonds. Pop the sheet pan in the freezer for about five minutes, or until the chocolate is completely set underneath the almonds. While the candy sets, melt the second half of the chocolate chips. Carefully flip the candy slab over and repeat the chocolate and ground almond embellishment process, putting the sheet back into the freezer for a final set. When the chocolate is completely hardened, break the toffee into charmingly irregular pieces and store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.
Recipe edited 12/14/09
Oh, dear. I’ve done it again. After promising you in my last post that I was going to get back on track with our conversations, I totally dropped the ball. Luckily, my ice cream maker for my KitchenAid has arrived and recently I made the most amazing batch of blueberry muffins that I have ever tasted in my entire life. They were really something and I will be sure to share the recipe with you very soon. Seriously.
December 30, 2007
Since landing in Illinois one week ago, my tastebuds have gone into overdrive. With just a couple days left in my hometown. The main sport around here has been munching all snackily, alternating salty and sweet flavors interspersed with sips of wine or diet Coke. We’ve all decided that our holiday activities have required such a steady stream of fuel, whether it’s being a Wii player or spectator, watching two little puppies play, making a trip to a megamall or having a big old-fashioned family Christmas with a 17 pound turkey and a beef filet the size of the countertop. There also was a drive up to Kenosha, Wisconsin today just over the Wisco-Illinois border to meet halfway with some dear Milwaukee-born friends at a little restaurant with a Wisconsin theme. There was beer and cheese soup on the menu, people. But I have also braved the cold and snow three times to go for a run around the neighborhood in this town where I did a lot of growing up. So that’s physical and emotional work which means extra snacks for me. Good thing I brought along a big container of a buttery, sweet, salty, nutty brittle, drizzled with dark chocolate.
Before I head back to a busy new year of work in California, some of which will be on national television which usually features people who don’t eat things like brittle or Chardonnay with potato chips, I really should start to scale back. The bottom of the brittle container is nearing, and I’ve decided that will be my stopping point. I mean, after the husband and I make a visit to the city tomorrow to visit our old neighborhoods and have a coffee at Julius Meinle, a big slice at Lou Malnati’s, and a warm, crackling bag of Garrett’s popcorn while walking along Michigan Avenue. And then I will stop. Because all good things, like a glorious hometown holiday eating tailspin, must come to an end.
Luckily, all good things have a beginning as well, and I blame this brittle as my undoing. It all came together quickly the night before our flight left San Francisco, a hybrid of several different brittle recipes I’ve collected. Among the laundry and phone calls and listmaking that come before a long vacation, there was still time to throw together this luscious, utterly satisfying candy. It’s a versatile recipe that allows for a lot of creativity. Use whatever nuts you like or happen to have in your cupboards, roasted or raw. I used roasted cashews and found that the cooking candy toasted and darkened the nuts even further, and gave a complex, deep caramel, almost coffee-like flavor to the candy. The chocolate can be semi-sweet, dark, a mixture of both, or even white chocolate, a drizzle of which would be lovely with Marcona almonds in the mix, now that I think about it. If you’d prefer to keep it traditional, this recipe would be just as delicious with the chocolate omitted altogether and using raw peanuts for a straightforward, old-fashioned peanut brittle.
Whatever variations you choose to make this recipe your own, make sure you’ve got the process and cooking temperatures down before beginning. A candy thermometer is your best friend here, and a necessity to achieving the proper snap when it cools. It may be tough to keep the flame under your pot at a good level, but just keep your eye on your thermometer and if the candy is hanging out at the same temperature for too long before jumping up to hard crack stage, just give it a jolt of heat to get it up to the right temperature. And don’t forget the baking soda–it seems like an odd ingredient here, but it’s the key to creating a porous brittle that is pleasantly, not painfully, crunchy.
Other things worth noting with this recipe are that if there was ever a time to finally invest in some silicone baking mats, this is it. Also, this is a fun recipe to prepare with another person, and definitely makes the hurried stretching of the rapidly cooling candy much easier. And finally, HOT SUGAR IS AKIN TO MOLTEN LAVA. Please be very, very careful while stirring and handling the cooking candy. Thank you. And thank you, delicious nut brittle, for setting me up for my holiday gluttony with great, great joy.
Roasted Nut Brittle
Makes 2 1/2 pounds
2 cups sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup water
1 cup unsalted butter
2 cups roasted or raw nuts (cashews, peanuts, almonds, hazelnuts)
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons fleur de sel or other sea salt
3/4 cup semi-sweet or dark chocolate chips
Line two baking sheets with silicone mats, or with plenty of nonstick cooking spray.
Combine sugar, corn syrup and water in a large, heavy bottomed saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat and stir until the sugar dissolves and mixture comes to a boil. Stir in the butter, and continue to stir frequently once it reaches 230 degrees.
When the cooking candy reaches 280 degrees, (soft-crack stage), add the nuts and begin stirring the mixture constantly until the temperature reaches 305 degrees (hard-crack stage). Remove the pot from the heat and quickly and carefully stir in the baking soda until completely incorporated–it will bubble intensely. Immediately pour the candy onto the prepared baking sheets. Immediately start stretching it thin by lifting and pulling from edges using two forks. Allow the slabs of brittle to cool completely. Meanwhile, melt the chocolate over a double boiler or in the microwave for 30 second increments, stirring often, until melted and a nice drizzling consistency. When the candy is cool, drizzle the chocolate Pollock-style all over the brittle. When the chocolate is set, break the into generous pieces. Store in an airtight container.
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