Saturday, December 10, 2011


Caramels & Tiny Vintage Christmas Ornaments

Do I have a treat for you all today!  Honestly, if you live in Chicago, come on over, because I’ve literally got a treat for you.  Homemade caramels!  Or if I happen to bump into you while we’re out and about, and if I happen to forget to offer you one myself (unlikely, because my official holiday obsession of 2011 is doling out these chewy confections), please just ask, because I’ve gotten in the habit of carrying around a dozen or so of these in the big pocket of my purse, to give as little spur-of-the-moment holiday surprises.  For all you out-of-towners, I hope the recipe itself will be treat enough.  I do think it will, because half the fun of these incredible homemade caramels lies in making them yourself! 

Lots of Caramels!

I’ve always adored caramels.  Not just liked, not just loved even, but adored.  In fact, one of my fondest, most precious childhood memories revolves around caramels.  When I was little, a sweet old lady named Mrs. Rupp lived three doors down from my grandparents, in a little pitched roof home that in my eyes looked like a real life gingerbread house.  A far cry from Hansel & Gretel's witch though, Mrs. Rupp was the neighborhood’s Candy Lady.  Everyone knew, that if you were brave enough to ring her bell all by yourself (no grown-ups I mean - you could bring cousins along of course), you’d be rewarded with a choice from Mrs. Rupp’s candy tin.  So anytime we’d visit Grandma & Grandpa, my sister Molly and I would make a quick trip, dashing through the backyard woods, then up the gingerbread steps, to ring the Candy Lady’s doorbell.  We’d wait a few minutes as small, frail Mrs. Rupp would slowly amble with her cane to the back door.  We wouldn’t even have to ask, just smile and say hello.  She’d sweetly smile herself, reach for her candy tin on the little shelf beside the door,  and hold it out towards us, as she’d done countless times before.  The selection was simple, always three choices - bright yellow butterscotch hard candies, those round swirly peppermints wrapped in cellophane, and you guessed it, caramels – but it was always such a thrill, and I always chose the caramels.  Then after quick exclamations of ‘thank you’ (which in hindsight were much, much too quick, because how can you properly thank someone for such a lovely, lasting memory, for weaving such sweet, idyllic charm into your past, with just those two little words?) we’d dash back again to our buzzing hive of a family, before anyone even knew we’d disappeared. 


Our Candy Lady’s caramels were always the Kraft kind.  And don’t get me wrong, Kraft caramels are Good.  Good with a capital G!  But with all sincere respect to sweet Mrs. Rupp, homemade caramels are Better, with a capital B!  If you too adore caramels, even if you merely love them, you have to make these.  You’re going to just about die, they are so good. 

Taste and texture battle it out with every chew, each competing to win your heart.  Immensely rich and impossibly buttery, with deep caramel complexity that somehow yields the most simply thrilling satisfaction, the taste is pure heaven.   But then the stretchy, tender chewiness grabs a hold of you, and suddenly you find yourself in a sweet, sticky, golden love triangle.  I suppose it doesn’t matter really, what you like best about these caramels.  I for one will never be able to decide.  All I know is that I’ll forever be hopelessly smitten.       


And hey everybody, this is the perfect time of year for making these!  They really are sensational gifts.  I hope you’re not too intimidated to give them a try.  Please don’t be.  Really.  Because, and I can’t lie, I was a bit intimidated myself, thinking at every turn that these were just not going to turn out right, but then, was instead unfailingly surprised at every turn, and repeatedly thrilled by the easy results.  I’ve made them twice already, because they’re disappearing fast.  And I’m pretty sure I’ll make them again a few times more, before the season is through.  I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed giving these to friends and family.  And I bet a bit of that just may have to do with my memory of Mrs. Rupp.  Because every time I reach into my big purse pocket, or pull down my own candy tin from the top kitchen shelf, I can’t help but think of her.  So with every gifted caramel, I send her up an extra little thank you, and smile to myself, knowing that I’m passing on a sweet little tidbit of her lovely tradition. 

Can of Caramels

Makes about 4 dozen 1-inch square candies (with an 8 x 8-inch pan)
Or about 6 to 7 dozen  3/4 x 3/4  x 1 1/2-inch rectangular candies (with a 9 x 13-inch pan)
Plus scraps :)
Homemade Caramels
2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 cup light corn syrup
1 can (14-ounces) condensed milk
2 cups heavy whipping cream
2 sticks unsalted butter, sliced into 1-inch pieces, plus more for greasing the pan
1 Tablespoon kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Special equipment:
either an 8 x 8-inch square baking pan or a 9 x 13-inch baking pan
a large (at least 5-quart) heavy-bottomed sauce pot
a candy thermometer
lots of wax paper
Caramel Ingredients 
Generously butter the bottom and sides of the baking pan and set aside. 
Combine all ingredients except for vanilla in a large (at least 5 quart) heavy-bottomed sauce pot.  Over medium heat, stir with a whisk to dissolve the sugar and melt the butter.  Whisking frequently, bring to a boil, then turn the heat down to low or medium-low, to maintain a gentle but somewhat rapid boil.  From this point on, try your best to ignore the impulse to stir, and instead just swirl the pan a bit, if things seem to need a mix.  Continue boiling until the sauce turns from pale tan to light gold to deep caramel brown. 

Butter melted and sugar dissolved About 220 degrees

about 230 degrees About 240 degrees 

But do not judge doneness by color alone!  You must, must use a candy thermometer.  All will depend on the final temperature of the candy.  And here you can make some personal choices:  If you like softer, lighter colored caramels, turn off the heat when the thermometer reaches 245°F.  But if you’re after a chewier, more deeply colored caramel, cook until the thermometer reaches 250°F, then remove from the heat.  It’s a very exacting process, so really try hard not to stop before 245°F or beyond 150°F, or they’ll be a touch too soft or too chewy, respectively. 

I have a few thoughts about differences between the two temperatures and the results you’ll get depending on what you choose:  If you decide to stop cooking at 245°F, you will have created the smoothest, creamiest, most tender caramels ever.  They will be perfectly soft and stretchy and all around lovely.  They will also be a little lighter in color.   The main drawback is, they will be so easy to chew, they’ll disappear way too fast.  If instead you choose the 250°F caramels, you will be gifted with immensely chewy, deeply caramelized, intensely flavored blocks of gold.  Not the luscious little confections of 5 degrees cooler, these guys will require a decent amount of chewing.  But don’t get me wrong, this added jaw work-out should not be considered a drawback in the least!  The extra chewiness will ensure that the pleasure of these caramels lasts a little while longer, which you will be grateful for.  I love these as much as the softer ones, and that’s why I just had to include both options in the recipe.  I like to think of these as adult caramels, and the others as perfect for kids.  The only negative I can think of with these 250°F caramels, it that they’re a little more difficult to slice.  Well, not more difficult exactly, let’s just say less easy.  :)

The cooking process can take upwards of an hour, but it won’t need your constant attention.  Once the caramel starts to deepen in color, just give the temperature a check every few minutes, while you stay busy doing something else (washing dishes, cutting wax paper wrappers).  You’ll find that at first, the temperature rises relatively quickly, but the closer and closer you get to your end temperature, the longer and longer it takes. 

One last note about temperature.  Since the ultimate result really does rely on the final temperature, it is very important that your candy thermometer is calibrated.  To do so, bring a pot of water to a rapid boil, and take its temperature.  The thermometer should read 212°F.  If not, you’ll know by how much, and in what direction, you’ll need to adjust the final temperature of your caramel – just adjust it up or down, by however many degrees you were off from 212. 

Add the vanilla and whisk to combine, then immediately pour into the prepared pan.  You’ll be inclined to scrape the saucepot with a rubber spatula, to get out all the remaining sauce sticking to the bottom of the pan, but I advise you against doing this too enthusiastically.  These sticky bottom bits could have reached much higher temperatures than the rest of the sauce, and so may add some tough or even crunchy specks to your smooth candy.  (Instead, allow the pot to cool a bit, then snack on the lingering goodness. Trust me, at this point, you’ll be dying to try your caramels, and will be thrilled to have a an early taste!)

Allow the pan to rest at room temperature, uncovered, until it cools to room temperature.  This will take about 3 hours for the 9 x 13-inch pan and upwards of 6 hours for the 8 x 8-inch pan.

Smooth and Creamy 
When cool, slice around the edges with a sharp knife, just to loosen it from the pan a bit, and then using a metal spatula, lift the sheet of caramel directly from the pan, and transfer to a cutting board.  (You’re going to worry that this will be tricky (I did), but I assure you, it is satisfyingly easy! Phew!)

Now it’s time for slicing.  If you used the 8-inch square pan, you’ll be able to get about 4 dozen 1-inch square pieces. (The height of the caramel in the pan will be roughly 1-inch.)   And if you used the 9 x 13-inch pan, nearly 7 dozen 3/4 x 3/4 x 1 1/2-inch rectangular pieces.  (The height will be roughly 3/4-inch.) 

One piece of advice, in order to get really perfect looking candies, before slicing, first measure the height of the caramel sheet for exactness, and then make little tweaks to the measurements based on that.  For instance, when I made the square candies, my measurement was more like 1 1/8-inch, rather than a pure inch, so I kept this length for each dimension.  It sounds ridiculously detail-oriented, but it really does make a big difference.  Of course, you could go the other (less-anal) direction all together, and roughly slice any size candy that you want - bigger rectangles, littler squares, you name it.  You certainly don’t need to go by my dimensions!


Once you’ve sliced all your caramels, now it’s time to get wrapping.  I’ve found that for the 1-inch square caramels, a 6 x 6-inch square of paper does the job.  For the rectangular caramels, cut your wax paper into 3 1/2 x 6-inch triangles.  To wrap, encircle the candies with the paper, then twist the ends to secure. 

These can be stored  in an airtight container, in a refrigerator for a few months, or at room temperature for upwards of a week.  But trust me, they won’t last nearly that long!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Coconut Curry Butternut Squash Soup

Coconut Curry Butternut Squash Soup

After a lucky string of seriously beautiful days surrounding Thanksgiving, the weather quickly turned in a major way today.  Cold and windy and drizzly, it was the kind of Sunday where staying inside a warm house all day just seems like such a good idea.  Another good idea for days like this one?  Soup making.  Because there’s nothing quite like soup for warming up a yucky day.  And so, while Ben and I settled in back home after a weekend away, I made us a pot of this curried Butternut squash soup. 

Coconut Curry Butternut Soup

I’ve been wanting to make a curried squash soup for a while now, and on the ride home from Toledo yesterday, I’d jotted down a few ideas on how to go about doing it.  I knew I wanted to include coconut milk, because I just love how coconut can both bring out and tame the sweet heat of a curry.  And I knew my soup had to contain loads and loads of vegetables, crowding the broth, pushing the limits from the realm of soup into nearly a stew.  I had a picture of the end result in mind:  Vibrant yellow and creamy, with tender pieces of deep orange  squash squeezed in a bright mosaic of greens and reds and golds.  So this morning, I resisted the urge to stay indoors, and made a quick trip to the produce market, collecting in my basket one giant onion, two slender pale green leeks,  a couple of cherry-red bell peppers, a package of very green baby spinach, a smooth long-necked squash, a head of garlic, and a small bulb of ginger.  Everything else I’d need, I was pretty sure I’d have in my cupboard back at home.

Squash, Garlic, Ginger & Peppers

Slicing Butternut Squash

After a laid back half-hour or so of vegetable slicing, I warmed up my big soup pot on the stove, then pulled down from the cupboards the other ingredients I’d jotted down in my car ride brain-storming session:  fish sauce, Thai red chile paste, brown sugar, curry powder.  As soon as the vegetables were in the pot, this soup just seemed to take care of itself, and within no time at all, my pot was filled with an exact picture of the soup I’d envisioned.  A sunny yellow broth, smooth and creamy, with ribbons of green spinach drifting though wide flecks of red peppers, orange squash and shimmery white onions.  Such a bright and beautiful concoction, just what the gloomy day had ordered!

Soups up!

As pretty as this soup is, it’s even better tasting than it looks, if you can believe it.  Sweet and smooth, with warm curry spices and a cool coconut undercurrent, it hits all the notes needed to really make you smile.  A small handful of roasted cashews sprinkled on top added a touch of crunch and saltiness, and a squeeze of lime and sprinkling of fresh cilantro leaves gave a bit of fresh brightness.  Spoonful after spoonful, I couldn’t wipe away a little grin, so happy to have achieved the the results I was after, and just plain glad to be eating such good soup, period. :)

Coconut Curry Butternut Squash Soup
Serves 6 to 8
Squash Curry Soup 
2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 Tablespoons butter
1 large onion, peeled, 1/2-inch diced
2 medium leeks, 1/2-inch diced, rinsed well *
2 red bell peppers, seeded & cored, 1/2-inch diced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
2 teaspoons fresh ginger, peeled and minced
2 teaspoons Thai red chile paste
1 teaspoon curry powder
2 Tablespoons dark brown sugar
2 pound butternut squash, peeled and seeded, 1/2-inch diced
1 (15-ounce) can coconut milk
3 cups chicken stock
juice from 1 lime
1 Tablespoon fish sauce
5 ounces baby spinach
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
about 1/2 cup salted roasted cashews, for garnish
cilantro, for garnish
All Chopped Up
Heat the olive oil and butter in a large soup pot over medium-high heat.  When the butter has melted, add the diced onion, leeks and red peppers.  Season generously with salt and pepper and cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are just tender and the onions are translucent, about seven to ten minutes.  Add the garlic and ginger and cook, stirring frequently, about two minutes.  Add the chile paste, curry powder and brown sugar and cook for two more minutes, stirring frequently.  Add the diced butternut squash and stir to combine.  Add the coconut milk and chicken stock and stir to combine.  Increase the heat to bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until the squash is tender, about 15 minutes.  Add the lime juice, fish sauce and spinach and stir to combine.  Continue to cook only until the spinach has wilted.  Taste, then season as needed with salt, pepper, more lime juice or more fish sauce.  Serve in soup bowls, garnished with cashews and cilantro, if you’d like. 
* For tips on cleaning and slicing leeks, refer to this post

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Grapefruit Panna Cotta with Candied Cranberries

Candied Cranberries & Grapefruit Panna Cotta

I’m going to need to make this a quick one, everybody!  I’ve been wanting to get this recipe to you for days and days, but I’ve had some camera issues, and that kept getting in my way.  And now it’s super late already, and I still have about a half dozen things on my to-do list that just must be accomplished before I go to bed, because when I wake up tomorrow, there’ll be no time for anything but cooking!  Yessss!  Thanksgiving cooking!  Can’t wait. 

Late Fall Fruit

And so, with no further ado, let me present to you these lovely Grapefruit Panna Cottas with Candied Cranberries.  Impossibly luscious, utterly smooth, as creamy as creamy can be.  And the flavor… to die for.  Tart, refreshing grapefruit married with smooth, round vanilla.  On top, a cool dollop of freshly whipped cream, and then…  then it’s the best part of all, glittering sugar-coated cranberries, crackly and crunchy, bright and tart and oh so pretty. 

Sparkling Cranberries

To me, this dessert is the perfect blend of autumn and winter.  (Am I’m really bringing up winter already?!)  Cranberries - a quintessential fall fruit – and grapefruit – a darling of winter.  The combination makes them absolutely perfect for this time of year.  And that’s why I think, for those of you who aren’t that crazy about pumpkin pie (I’m one of those persons myself, by the way), this could be a perfect ending to your Thanksgiving feast.  I only hope I’m not too late in getting this to you!   I won’t be too hard on myself though, because these pretty panna cottas are simply splendid no matter what the occasion.  You hardly need a holiday to enjoy them! 

Grapefruit Panna Cotta and Candied Cranberries

Happy Thanksgiving everybody!  Happy cooking!  Happy eating!

Grapefruit Panna Cotta
Serves 6
 Grapefruit Panna Cotta with Candied Cranberries
1 1/2 teaspoons gelatin
1/2 cup fresh grapefruit juice (be sure to zest the grapefruit before juicing it)
2 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/2 vanilla bean
1/4 cup grapefruit zest (from about 3 grapefruits)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
pinch of salt
1 cup sour cream
1 to 2 drops red food coloring
In a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin evenly over the grapefruit juice and allow it to set for at least five minutes.
In a medium saucepot, combine the heavy cream, vanilla bean (scrape the seeds from the pod and add it all to the pot), grapefruit zest, sugar and salt.  Bring to just a simmer (do not boil) over medium-high heat, then remove from the heat.  Add the gelatin mixture to the cream mixture  and stir to thoroughly dissolve.  Let steep for about 15 minutes, then strain through a fine mesh sieve, discarding the zest and vanilla bean. 
Grapefruit & Vanilla
Place the sour cream in a medium-sized mixing bowl.  Slowly add the cream mixture, stirring in a little at a time, until smooth.  (I like to use a rubber spatula, rather than a whisk, because it makes for less bubbles on top of the panna cotta.  But this means that I have to stir extra well, to insure total smoothness and combination of ingredients.)
Add one to two drops of red food coloring, just enough to lightly tinge it with pink, and stir to thoroughly blend. 
Fill six tea cups or soufflĂ© cups about 3/4 full with the cream mixture.  Chill for at least 8 hours. 
To serve, top with a dollop of whipped cream and some candied cranberries.  (See recipe just below.)

For the whipped cream:
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 Tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

Whisking by hand or with an electric mixer, whip the cream to soft peaks (When you stick a spoon into the cream and lift it out, a point will form then droop down after a second or two).  Add sugar and vanilla and whip to firm peaks (The point formed in the cream will stand straight up and not fall over.)

Cranberries & Grapefruit

Candied Cranberries
Makes about 3 cups
Candied Cranberries
2 cups water
2 cups plus about 1 cup granulated sugar, divided
1 bag fresh cranberries (about 3 cups)
In a medium saucepot, combine the water and 2 cups sugar and bring to just a simmer over medium high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar.  Remove from the heat and allow to cool about 10 minutes.  Add the cranberries to the sugar-water mixture.  Refrigerate overnight, in an air-tight container. 
The next day, add the rest of the granulated sugar to a small mixing bowl.  Drain the cranberries from the sugar water.  One by one, toss the soaked cranberries in the sugar, coating all sides with sugar, then place on a parchment or wax paper lined baking tray.  Allow to dry, uncovered for about 3 hours, then serve. 
To store, keep in an air-tight container.  Unfortunately, keeping them covered will make them a little sticky and moist, dissolving the sugar.  In this case,  just roll them in a small bowl of sugar again and allow them to dry out for a little while.  They’ll be as good as new. 

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Apple Butter

Simple, Lovely Breakfast

I promised I’d be posting a few more apple recipes up here, before the season’s through. I think I even mentioned apple butter specifically.  And so, this weekend’s to-do list – along with re-organizing the pantry closet (I love organizing!), dusting the floor boards (worst chore ever!), writing a prep list for an upcoming catering gig (super booked holiday season, yay!), and finishing the last few rows of a knitted scarf for Ben (it turned out really cool!) – included keeping that promise.  So all day yesterday, I tended a gently simmering pot of apple butter,  making my way back and forth between the stove and my other tasks, as the slowly thickening sauce bubbled away.  Sure, it’s a recipe that takes hours and hours, but as you can tell from the impressive productivity (if I do say so myself) of my rare Saturday off, it doesn’t take all that much attention or effort.  This ease factor, combined with the smooth deliciousness of the end result, makes all that time (about seven to eight hours total) more than worth it.

Apple Bowl

So… Apple butter.  Some of you may be surprised that, while apple butter does contain apples (and lots of ‘em), it has no butter in it at all.  It shares that smooth, spreadable consistency of butter, and that same silky mouth feel, so I’m pretty sure that’s where its confusing name came from.  Mainly, apple butter is nothing much more than apples (and of course some sugar too), cooked into a sauce, then simmered and simmered until it thickens and caramelizes into a sweet, dark, sticky sauce.  Kind of like a caramel apple, in a spreadable form!  

Apple Peeling

This morning for breakfast, along with some thick-sliced applewood-smoked bacon and shirred eggs, we had toasted English muffins slathered with our new, gorgeous apple butter.   (And a little melty butter too, which soaked so charmingly into those lovely muffin nooks.)  Great bacon lovers both of us, Ben & I were nonetheless unanimous over which part of breakfast was our favorite – those sweet, buttery English muffins, to be sure.  So perfect.  But when if comes to all the ways apple butter can be used, I’ve got to say, we went with just about the most boring option possible, this morning.  Along with spreading over toast or muffins or biscuits, the possibilities of apple butter are nearly endless - served alongside grilled pork, or added to a sauce for pan-roasted chicken, swirled into oatmeal, dolloped atop pancakes, blended into yogurt, slathered inside a grilled cheddar cheese or a roasted turkey sandwich, subbed for jelly in a PB&J… oh man, I can hardly stop imagining all the delicious ways to use this awesome stuff!

Peeling & Slicing Apples

I really hope the time commitment doesn’t keep you from trying this recipe!  The golden goodness you’ll have at the end, not to mention the intoxicating orchard-like smell that will fill your home all day long, will have you convinced in an instant, that all was worth it!  For those of you up for giving it a whirl, happy simmering!! 

Granny Smiths & McIntoshes

Apple Butter
Makes about 1 quart
Apple Butter with English Muffins
2 quarts apple cider
3 pounds Granny Smith apples
3 pounds sweet red apples, such as McIntosh
2 cups granulated sugar
1 Tablespoon kosher salt
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
Pour the apple cider into a very large pot (Not a stock pot.  You want one that is wider than it is tall.), and simmer, uncovered, over medium-high heat until reduced to about 2 cups, about 45 minutes to an hour.  From time to time, collect with a spoon the frothy scum that gathers at the top, and discard.
While the cider simmers, peel and core the apples, then slice into large chunks.  Set aside until needed.
When the cider is reduced, add the sliced apples, and give it a stir.  Bring to a simmer, then cover the pot and continue to simmer over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the apples break down into an apple-sauce consistency, about 1 hour. 
Remove the lid.  Add the sugar, salt and lemon juice, and stir to combine.  Adjusting the heat to maintain just a bare simmer, continue to cook, uncovered, and stirring as needed, until the sauce reduces to a thick, spreadable consistency, and the color turns deep golden brown, about 6 to 6 1/2 hours. 
Two notes:  While you only need to give this a stir every 20 minutes or so for the first few hours, as time goes on, you will need to stir more frequently, even as frequently as every five minutes towards the very end.  Also, when it comes to judging when this is done, you just have to trust yourself.  All of a sudden, the sauce will take on a shiny, stretchy quality, and it will be perfectly done.  You’ll know it when you see it. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Raw Kale & Brussels Sprout Salad with Delicata Squash

Kale & Brussels Sprout Salad with Delicata Squash and Other Delicious Things

I’ve been infatuated lately with raw kale salads.  I know, it sounds a little hippy-ish!  And maybe that’s so, but it’s also incredibly delicious.  Thin ribbons of crunchy, deep green kale, hearty and fresh and just a little bitter, tossed with a flavorful mix of mustardy vinaigrette and all sorts of other tasty things.  I tell you, salads don’t get any tastier than this!  Especially this time of year, when sturdy kale is at it’s fall best.

Scooping Squash Seeds

I posted a raw kale salad recipe last year, for a St. Patrick’s Day dinner.  The tasty additions that time round included golden raisins, sweet slices of Vidalia onions, Parmesan cheese and toasted Hazelnuts.  Oh yes, and a mustard-malt vinaigrette.  Oh man, I just loved that salad. Check it out.  It was one of my favorite posts all year. 

This time, I combined the thinly sliced kale with raw Brussels sprout leaves, roasted Delicata squash, toasted pine nuts, plumped raisins and ribbons of Parmesan, then tossed them all together in a rosemary-Sherry vinaigrette.  The combination was totally delicious, and a perfect distillation of fall.  But honestly, you can top these kale salads with anything under the sun.  My main goal today is to try and get you to make a raw kale salad of any sort.  Follow my recipe to the letter, or just take the kale and run.  Have fun with it.  The extras are up to you.  And don’t worry my friends, you truly can’t go wrong here! 

Kale & Brussels Sprouts

Delicata Squash

But while I’ve got your ear, let me dwell a while on one particular salad addition of mine, the Delicata squash.  I have to admit, this is the first time I’ve cooked with this particular gourd.  I’ve seen it all over the place, and always pass it up for Butternut or Acorn or Spaghetti squash.  But I’d heard recently that the skin was edible.  Delicata… ah delicate!  With skin delicate enough to eat.  How convenient, I thought, and how pretty on a salad.  And so I had to give it a try.  And, is it any surprise… it was wonderful!  I mean, what winter squash isn’t?!  Buttery and sweet and deeply satisfying, very similar to Butternut, but perhaps a little milder.  And just as promised, the skin was no hindrance at all.  Oh wow, I love a new culinary discovery!

Duo of Salad Greens

Delicata with Olive Oil, Salt & Pepper

One last thought:  These kale salads are great all on their own, as a separate salad course.  But they’re super great too, served as a side dish.  I made this one last night with pan-roasted chicken breasts.  It was hearty enough, and so chock-full of other good things, that it was the only side I needed for this weeknight meal.  I really hope you all give this kale salad thing a try.  It will certainly help make for a very tasty fall and winter! 

Kale & Brussels Sprout Salad

Raw Kale & Brussels Sprout Salad with Delicata Squash
Makes 4 big salads
This recipe calls for Lacinato kale, also called Tuscan or Dinosaur kale.  It is a special dark green variety, with long, thin, bumpy leaves.  If you can find this at a nearby store, I definitely recommend it.  If not, I’m sure a nice, crisp bunch of regular kale should work too.  Just make sure to slice it very thinly. 
Kale & Brussels Sprout Salad with Delicata Squash and Other Good Things
For the vinaigrette:
1/2 small garlic clove, peeled and minced
1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
3 Tablespoons Sherry vinegar
2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup vegetable or canola or grapeseed oil
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
For the rest of the salad:
2 Delicata squash
1 Tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 bunches Lacinato kale
about 8 heads Brussels spouts
1/2 cup pine nuts
1/2 cup raisins
2 to 3 ounce block Parmesan cheese
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
To make the vinaigrette:  Combine the minced garlic, mustard, rosemary, vinegar, a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper in a medium mixing bowl.  Whisk together, then slowly pour in the olive oil, then the vegetable oil, both in a thin stream and whisking as you pour.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  This can be made ahead and refrigerated for bout 4 to 5 days in an airtight container until needed.
To roast the squash
Preheat the oven to 400°F, and arrange an oven rack in the middle position.  Line one baking sheet pan with parchment paper or foil. 
Slice the squash in half length-wise, the using a spoon, scoop out the seeds.  Slice into 1/2-inch wide half-moons.  (No need to peel!  It is so delicate, you can eat that too!)  In a small mixing bowl, toss the sliced squash with the olive oil and a pinch of salt and pepper.  Arrange in a single layer over the prepared pan, and roast until tender and lightly browned, about 25 minutes.  Cool to room temperature and set aside.
Roasted Delicata Squash
To prep the kale: Working with 3-4 leaves at a time, and cutting straight across the  width of the leaves, slice the kale into thin ribbons of about 1/8-inch thick.  Slice from the tops of the leaves to within about an inch of the base of the leaves, discarding the tough, wide stem area at the bottom.  Wash the ribbons of kale in cool water, then spin dry.  Set aside.
To prep the Brussels sprouts:  Working with one sprout at a time, slice across the stem, at the base of the sprout – this will loosen the outer leaves attached to the lower stem.  Peel off and discard any tough and discolored outer leaves.  Reserve the un-blemished, tender leaves.  Then repeat, slicing across the base of the sprout, a little further up, to loosen another layer of leaves.  Peel off the leaves and reserve.  Continue this slicing and peeling, until you’ve separated the entire sprout into single leaves.  Repeat with the remaining Brussels sprouts.  Set aside.
To toast the pine nuts: Spread the raw pine nuts on a parchment- or foil-lined sheet tray and roast in a 350°F oven until toasted and aromatic, about 10 to 15 minutes.  Be sure to check every few minutes or so, and give the pan a little shake when you check.  Cool to room temperature and set aside. 
To prep the rest:  Soak the raisins in a large bowl of very hot water for about 15 minutes.  This should plump them up and make them juicy.  Drain them well and set aside. 
Using a vegetable peeler, shave the Parmesan into thin ribbons, and set aside. 
To assemble the salad:  In a large mixing bowl, combine the sliced kale and Brussels sprout leaves with most of the prepared squash, pine nuts, raisins and Parmesan.  (I say most of the squash, pine nuts, etc. because you’ll want to keep a little bit left over to top the salads on the plates.  It’s always nice to have some of the pretty stuff right on top.)  Drizzle the vinaigrette over the ingredients in the large bowl.  (You more than likely won’t need to use all the vinaigrette.  Just save it for another salad.)  Season with a good pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper.  Toss to coat thoroughly, and place onto salad plates.  Garnish the plates with the rest of the squash, pine nuts, raisins and Parmesan.  Serve. 
One of the great things about kale, is that it’s such a hearty green, it keeps for a while without getting soggy like other salad greens.  The same with the Brussels sprout leaves.  This salad can easily last at least a day in the fridge without loosing its structure.  It won’t be exactly as crisp, but it will definitely still be darn tasty!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Ham & Gruyere Thumbprints

Ham & Gruyere Thumbprints

When you’re a cook, there’s a bunch of questions you get asked all the time.  I thought it might be fun to answer some of them right now, as a prelude to the recipe.  The hands-down number one query is “What’s your favorite thing to cook?”.  This is the toughest one too; There’s so much I love to cook!  But the answer I find myself giving again and again is “Soup”.  Pure, warm coziness in a pot, soup comforts the heart and contents the belly.  I think soup may be my favorite thing to eat too.  

Another common question, “How do you come up with your recipes?”  There are lots of answers to this one.  Sometimes, but not too often, I’ll make up something totally unique and new and one-hundred percent created by me.  More often I’ll cook from memory, an old favorite I’ve made so often and for so long,  it’s locked in the brain.  Often too I’ll try out a cool new dish I find in a cookbook or magazine or blog or even on a restaurant menu, something new and unique and delicious looking, something I’d have never thought up myself in a million years.  I’ll sometimes follow these recipes to the letter (usually the case with desserts especially), and sometimes I’ll steal just the idea itself and run with it, making up my own recipe as I go along.  My favorite method of creating recipes works when I’m making something definitive and traditional – say like granola or shepherd’s pie or spaghetti & meatballs – something classic that you can make a million different ways.  For these sorts of dishes, I’ll read about a dozen different recipes for the same one thing, gathering lots of variations on the theme.  Then I’ll pick and choose the  ingredients and techniques I like best from the whole collection, amalgamating the recipes and fusing them together to create my own hybrid take on the dish.
Not quite melted yet...

A third most popular question is “How do you organize your recipes?”.  Short answer is that I keep them filed on my computer.  For those who are interested, the long answer is this:  Inside my RECIPES file I keep two main sub-files, Tried & True and Looks Good.  Each of these files contains the same titles for sub-folders - Soups, Salads, Fish, Meat, Pasta, etc.  You get the idea.  When I find a a new recipe that looks promising, I’ll scan it from a magazine, copy and paste it from a website, or type it up into a Word document, then save it into its respective Looks Good folder.  (If a recipe looks really good, I won’t even bother sub-categorizing it into one of the smaller folders, but place it right in the main Looks Good file, to keep it in the forefront of my mind.)  Once I’ve tried out the recipe, I’ll either (A) move the document into the correlating Tried & True folder, because I really liked it and would make it again (At this time too I’ll edit the written recipe, adding any big changes or little tweaks I made while cooking), or (B) move the doc into the trash, because we didn’t love it all that much.  And that’s basically my system.  I really like it.  And it’s especially nice for sharing recipes.

Ham & Gruyere Thumbprints

One recipe that hardly lasted an afternoon in the realm of Looks Good was for these Ham & Gruyere Thumbprints.  We had plans to go to a dinner party one evening, and I’d offered to bring along an hors d’oeuvre.  Wanting to try something new, and not finding quite the right fit within my Looks Good–Hors D’Oeuvres file, I started scanning through the web.  I stumbled upon this recipe somewhere within the vast fabulousness of  (My honest answer to that particular question is “Yes, I ADORE Martha!!")  Anyways, as soon as I came across the recipe for these Ham & Gruyere Thumbprints, I knew straight away that I’d found that evening’s hors d’oeuvre.  How cool, I was thinking, to do a savory twist on the classic thumbprint cookie! So I diligently stuck with my system, copying and pasting the recipe into Word, then filing the doc into its proper Looks Good folder, even though I just knew from the beginning that these were going to be a big hit, and would ultimately end up in Tried & True
And a big hit they were!  Huge, huge hit.  The kind of hit where they were completely gone in a few minutes.  The kind of hit where it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that everybody went totally nuts over them.  Crisp and toasty and the epitome of golden brown, these savory cookies were surprisingly delicate to the bite, like tender pillows.  Wonderfully light and airy, but they carried a perfect richness too, with nutty cheese and smoky specks of ham.  In the centers were nestled golden pools of melted Gruyere cheese.  By the way, following the question theme of this post, even thought it’s not really a common one, my answer for “What's your favorite cheese?” is most definitely “Gruyere”.  Salty and nutty and absolutely gorgeous when melted, Gruyere has a flavor that just floors me every time.  These thumbprint hors d’oeuvres deliver all the goodness of Gruyere’s maximum taste, and with maximum style too. 
   Melty goodness    
Like I’d said, this wunderkind of a recipe lasted hardly a few hours in the Looks Good folder, before getting a quick and well-deserved promotion into the ranks of Tried & True.  And if I had a third folder called All-Time Absolute Favorites, it totally would have ended up there.  Because even though I’ve only made them twice so far, that’s exactly what they already are!

Any other cooking questions?  Let me know.  It’s been fun coming up with answers!

Ham & Gruyere Thumbprints
Adapted from a recipe on
Makes 3 dozen
Ham & Gruyere Thumbprints
1 stick unsalted butter, cut into large pieces
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup water
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup finely chopped Black Forest ham (about 3 ounces)
1 cup finely grated Gruyere cheese, plus 36 cubes (1/2-inch) for centers (8 ounces total)
Preheat the oven to 400°F and line two baking pans with parchment paper or foil.  Combine the butter, salt and water in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, and bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon.  Add the flour, stirring vigorously until incorporated.  Continue to cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture begins to pull away from the sides of the pan and a thin film forms on the pan’s bottom, about 2 minutes.  Remove from the heat and allow to cool for about 2 minutes. 
Transfer the dough to a large mixing bowl.  Then add the eggs, one at a time, beating with the wooden spoon to fully incorporate each egg before adding the next.  Stir in the pepper, ham and cheese. 
Spoon the dough into a pastry bag fitted with the largest star tip you’ve got.  (I use a Wilton 1M open star tip, which you can grab at Joanne’s for about a buck.)  On the prepared baking pans, pipe 1 1/2-inch wide rosettes, spacing them about 2 inches apart. 
Thumbprint dough
Make an indentation in the center of each rosette with your thumb.  (Lightly wet your thumb to keep the dough from sticking to it.)  Bake until crisp and golden, about 25 to 30 minutes, rotating the baking pans halfway through. 
Remove from the oven.  Press a cheese cube into each indentation.  Return to the oven and bake until the cheese has melted, about 10 minutes.  Serve warm. 
Gruyere middles