Friday, 3 November 2017

A Life in Seasons (Real Ones!) and Apple Cider Caramels

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I was spurred to write this post by two things (the usual two): a big life change and a recipe I just had to share.

First, the life change: my boyfriend – now my fiancé – and I moved north up the coast, to Bellingham, WA. We're a couple hours north of Seattle and half an hour south of Canada and smack dab in the middle of a ton of natural beauty, plus we can afford a two-bed apartment! It's all very exciting. I can't even tell you how thrilled I was when the fall colors appeared on the trees:

And then, last night, it began snowing, and when I woke up and peeked through the curtains the world outside looked like this!:

I actually shrieked and jumped on my fiancé, like a little kid who wakes up on Christmas morning and jumps on her parents to get them out of bed. I'm still giddy, hours later, every time I come into the living room and see this view:

So, those are my big pieces of life news, now on to the recipe I couldn't not share!

I've always had issues with candy; I made a couple of the easier kinds when I lived in London, but after one giant failure where thermometers were concerned I gave up on the trickier stuff. Until last week, when I decided that drooling over Smitten Kitchen's recipes and paying too much for handmade caramels at fancy stores was no longer enough, and I determined to try to make my own.

Well, reader, as you might have surmised from the photos: IT WORKED! I bought a legit candy thermometer and paid close attention to it and it was actually pretty easy! Until it came to cutting and wrapping them, which, you guys...that was majorly labor-intensive and sticky and just boring.

Worth it, though, because we have been eating these for days and we have neither finished them nor grown sick of their tart, sweet, sticky deliciousness.

This recipe is one for the archives, something I will probably make every year when the leaves turn and we carve pumpkins and watch Stranger Things (please let there be a new season every year forever). I made no changes, nor do I have any advice besides get you a candy thermometer. You can do it without one, technically (for help with that go to Deb's page, linked below the recipe), but I have failed with the ice-bath method before so I can't recommend it.

Apple Cider Caramels
   recipe from SK

(For help with the difference between apple juice and cider, read Deb's notes on her site, or ask Ned Flanders)

Neutral oil for the knife

In a medium saucepan over high heat, boil:
4 c (945ml) apple cider

Keep boiling, stirring occasionally until the liquid reduces to a dark, thick syrup, between 1/3 and 1/2 cup in volume. This took me about 45 minutes.

While the cider reduces, prepare for the next steps, which will happen pretty quickly. Line an 8-inch square metal baking pan with 2 sheets of crisscrossed parchment, leaving overlap so you can pull the cooled candy out later. Set that aside and set up your ingredients:

Stir together in a small dish:
     1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
     2 tsp flaky sea salt (less of a finer one)

Combine in a measuring cup:
     8 tbsp (115g or 1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
     1 c (200g) granulated sugar
     1/2 c (110g) packed light brown sugar
     1/3 c (80ml) heavy cream

Once the cider is reduced, remove it from the heat and stir in the butter/sugars/cream mixture.
Attach your candy thermometer and return the pot to the stove over medium-high heat. Let it boil until the thermometer reaches 252 degrees Fahrenheit, just a few minutes – don't look away for long!

When the thermometer reads 252F, remove the caramel from the stove, add the cinnamon/salt, and stir several times to combine. Pour the caramel into the prepared pan. 

Let the pan sit out for about two hours (or less, in the fridge) until the caramel has cooled to firm.  Meanwhile, cut out about 50 4-inch squares of waxed paper (I used parchment but waxed paper would have been better).

When the caramel is ready – mine never really got firm enough until I refrigerated it, and in fact I had to keep sticking it back in between rounds of cutting – use the parchment paper transfer the block to a cutting board. Oil your knife with a neutral oil such as Canola, and be sure to re-oil it after each cut, then cut the caramel into 1-by-1-inch squares. Wrap each square in waxed paper, twisting the sides to close.

Deb says: "Caramels keep, in an airtight container at room temperature, for two weeks, but really, good luck with that." I completely agree ;)

Oh, and here are our pumpkins, for those of you who like to see stuff like that (as I do):

Thursday, 15 September 2016

We Cooked Seafood By the Seashore – Sicilian Mussels and Rolled Sardines in Sicily

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When we were planning our epic European summer trip, my boyfriend and I chose to stay mostly in apartments – we did this partly because it was cheaper than staying in hotels and more private than staying in hostels (which we did in Naples, and that was a weird flashback to my twenties), but only partly.  The other reason we chose apartment living was, as ever, food-related: we wanted to be able to cook, ideally making use of local ingredients we wouldn't have access to at home.

So, given that information, you might be surprised to learn that we didn't cook in our own place once for the entire trip – not in Berlin, or Bologna (where we did cook in someone else's home), or Rome, or any of the other cities where we had access to our own kitchen.  Oh, sure, we made coffee, and ate cheeses and meats which we bought at markets and grocery stores, and drank wine...but we didn't actually cook a meal.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

My Bologna Has a First Name – Learning to Make Pasta the Bolognese Way with Taste of Italy

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Holy crap – it’s been a YEAR since I posted here.  I am so ashamed.  To be fair, the past year has been the busiest of my life so far: I started teaching middle school, jumping right in at the deep end with no previous full-time experience, and I was (as you’d probably have guessed) completely consumed.  Any time I had to myself was spent grading, answering parent and student emails, lesson planning, or maybe, if I got really lucky, zoning out in front of a crappy TV show with a bottle of wine and my concerned boyfriend.  Needless to say, I didn’t cook much, let alone photograph it.  Which is too bad, really, since my apartment was super cute and photogenic, and living off Goldfish all year left me unhealthy and heavier than usual by June…  


Anyway, excuses aside, I come back now to share just a smidgen of the bounty from my much-needed summer vacation!  My boyfriend and I saved up a few thousand dollars, freed ourselves from our responsibilities, and set off for Europe the week after school let out – we went to Berlin for a week, then took trains through Austria and all down through Italy, ending in Sicily, and then we hopped over to France for a few weeks to help a friend with her new baby.  It was a pretty epic 7.5-week journey (all of which is documented on my Instagram feed), and while we didn’t cook often, what we did cook was as epic as the trip itself.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Cocktails or Cake – Why Not Both? Limoncello Birthday Cake with Campari Frosting

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Baking with KayMoWino in Napa

Remember when I made that adorable ha-cake for my friend's half birthday?  Well, luckily for me, despite generally preferring savory to sweet, K does love a good celebration cake, so when her full birthday rolled around this year she requested a cake that incorporated one of her favorite things: booze.  Specifically, Campari, which she fell in love with during a trip to Italy a couple years ago and which has been so well-loved as to have spawned its own hashtag.

Even better than suggesting (I won't go so far as to say demanding) a specific cake for her birthday, K suggested we bake it together, at my parents' house in the Napa Valley.  K is a food blogger too, although she focuses more on savory dishes and wine pairings, and while we've cooked together (we lived together for a while and we made some delicious dinners) we've never baked.  Plus, since she moved to Napa last year we get far too little bonding time, and this sounded like an excellent way to get some 'us' time (plus our assistant, but he's good at respecting our girl time).

Baking with KayMoWino in Napa

So without further ado, to the cake-baking!  Of course, we started with booze: Negronis (a classic Campari drink), natch, mixed by our handsome assistant (to whom also goes credit for all the photos herein and on Flickr).

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Another Win for Laziness: Chocolate Chip (Etc) Cookie Bars

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Chocolate chip cookie bars with Nutella

The first time, I made them because I needed something easy and transportable for a graduation party and I knew I wouldn't have time to wait for the butter in my freezer to soften, or to make multiple batches of drop cookies.  I googled 'melted butter cookie bars' and voila!  Bloggers to the rescue, as usual.

The recipe was super simple and I had all the ingredients, plus some pecans I thought would enhance the flavor of half the bars (we have a friend with a nut allergy so I wanted to leave half plain), and nobody was expecting cookies so the pressure was off.  I gave it a go and an hour later my companion and I were burning our fingers trying to 'test' the batch.

Once we were able to try a bite, we agreed: these things are good.  So good that I ate three that night, which is unusual for me – often when I bake something, no matter how tasty it is, I tire of it quickly and am obliged to convince someone else to eat the rest.  It's no coincidence that I favor tall boyfriends with hollow legs ;)

In this case, though, not only did I eat a bunch of the baked good in question but I also started thinking about making them again almost immediately upon leaving the party (I nearly brought home a couple bars but I stopped just short of embarrassing myself that much).  So when I was gifted two glass jars of Nutella from Italy and was antsy to use one as a wine glass, I knew exactly how to put the Nutella inside to good use.

Chocolate chip cookie bars with Nutella

The point is this: these bars are infinitely adaptable.  They were delicious with pecans, indulgent with Nutella, and likely would be even more toothsomely tasty with oats – that's my plan for next time!  In other words, make these.  As soon as humanly possible.

You're welcome.

Chocolate Chip (Etc) Cookie Bars
    Adapted for pecans/Nutella from Em's Bytes  
    (I doubled the recipe the first time and used an 8x13 pan – ain't nothin' wrong with twice the amount of this goodness)

Preheat oven to 350F/175C and grease an 8" pan, square or cake, whatever you have.

Mix together in a large bowl:
     1/2c (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
     1/4c sugar
     1/2c brown sugar

Beat in: 
     1 egg
     1 tsp vanilla

Add and stir until combined:
     1 c flour
     1 tsp baking powder
     1/4 tsp salt

Stir in:
     1c semi-sweet chocolate chips

     1c chopped pecans (optional – you can also place them on top of the dough once it's in the pan, if you fancy the look or want to limit their reach) 

Spread into prepared pan, pausing to top with blobs of Nutella if desired, and bake 20-25 minutes, or until golden brown. (Side note: mine never got as golden as I'd like, but I'm glad I pulled the first batch out when I did anyway, as they were getting close to dry.  I suggest using the cake tester method if in doubt, and remembering that gooey cookies are always better than dry.)

Friday, 17 April 2015

Lazy Bear: A Revelation for a Cranky Old SF Cynic

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I had the excellent luck last month to: A) meet a couple of awesome new friends at a shared table at brunch, B) become part of a dinner-going group with them and my friend A, with whom I went to Rome in December and who has brilliant connections and a serious take-charge attitude, leading to the four of us C) going to Lazy Bear for one of the most remarkable dining experiences I've ever had in my relatively charmed life.

I was extremely skeptical at first – Lazy Bear is a sort of private dinner club-turned restaurant that is super expensive and notoriously difficult to get tickets for, a combination that heightens my hype-dar immediately.  But I didn't want to be a party pooper and I had a little extra cash cushion so I agreed to go.  On the day of the dinner, a gorgeous sunny Saturday, I was loathe to get dressed up and go to what I was sure would be an overproduced and underdelivering San Francisco wankfest (pardon my French but I really was feeling very wary).  But almost from the minute I walked in the door, the first to arrive, my expectations were proven wrong.  


Friday, 27 March 2015

Monkeying Around with Birthday Cakes

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When my sister told me that her daughter, who turned three last week, had requested three cakes for her birthday party, I immediately volunteered to bake one of them.  I adore my niece and nephew and have had a blast getting to know them better since moving back from London, but I still see them rarely enough that any opportunity to impress them is worth jumping on.  It only got better when my sister told me the only other request my niece had made: that the party be 'a monkey party'.

I remembered a cake I'd seen on Smitten Kitchen, years back, a monkey face that looked surprisingly easy to put together.  A quick google confirmed my suspicions that this was something I could definitely handle, and I spent the rest of the day at work printing recipes, doubling and tripling ingredient lists, and blocking off the day before the party in my phone calendar.  I was going to go all out this time.