Archive for March, 2010

Caramel Kick #2

Friday, March 19th, 2010

Caramel Sauce and Vanilla Ice Cream

Homemade Caramel Sauce and Vanilla Ice Cream (covered with leftover English toffee bits!)

After my last post about English toffee, I thought that caramel sauce should be next. Both English toffee and caramel sauce (and caramels too, for that matter) involve cooking sugar to a certain degree of caramelization. Plus, caramel sauce is yet another (!) simple treat where the homemade result is so much better than what we can buy in the store. The same caution about working with hot sugar applies here, too…

Caramel sauce is made in two simple steps:
1) cook sugar and water to a light to medium amber color; and
2) whisk in 1 cup heavy cream and a little butter

Yes, that’s it! And, unlike the English Toffee, you don’t even have to stir! So, details…

Steps to Making Caramel Sauce

Water and Sugar in the Pan; Sugar Completely Moistened; Cooked to Clear Syrup

1) Put 1/2 cup of water in a large saucepan and add 2 cups of sugar. Pour the sugar on top of the water carefully so stray sugar crystals don’t land on the sides of the pan. With a spoon, gently mix the sugar and water together until all of the sugar is moistened – and continue to keep the sugar off the sides of the pan. This attention to the sides of the pan will minimize the chance of the sugar crystallizing, i.e. turning chunky and grainy. And what if sugar lands on the sides of the pan? Just wash it down with a little fresh water on your (clean) fingertips.
Steps to Making Caramel Sauce

Sugar Syrup Just Starting to Caramelize; Medium Amber Color; Cream Added

Steps for Making Caramel Sauce

Whisking in the Cream; Finished Caramel Sauce; Really Finished Caramel Sauce!

2) Cover the pan and cook over medium heat until the sugar has completely dissolved and the mixture is clear and simmering (about 10 minutes – but you’ll have to watch it to know for sure). Remove the lid and continue to cook until the mixture is a light to medium amber color. Don’t stir the mixture at all! When it starts to color a little, you can slowly and carefully swirl the pan to help it color evenly, just don’t stir it – and be careful if you swirl it so you don’t splash yourself.

Once the mixture has cooked to a light to medium amber color, remove the pan from the heat and quickly pour in about ¼ of the cream. The sugar syrup will steam and boil fiercely when the cream is added, so don’t stand over the pan – stand back, continuing to pour the cream in ¼ increments until the cream is all in. Then, carefully whisk the sauce together, continuing to be careful because it will still be steaming. Finally, whisk in 2 tablespoons of butter (salted or unsalted is ok) and pour into a heat proof container. Cool, cover and store in the refrigerator.

The caramel sauce will thicken when it cools – just reheat it a little in the microwave to make it pourable. Serve over your favorite ice cream, on your favorite cake or with whatever else you like!

Let me know what you think!

Cathy

Oh, Sugar, Sugar…

Friday, March 12th, 2010

Finished English Toffee

English Toffee - Yum!


Oh, honey, honey… do you remember that song from decades ago by The Archies? Well, today I’m your candy girl and I’m serving up buttery English toffee with toasted almonds and chocolate. Making toffee is another recipe that is pretty easy with spectacular rewards for the effort – fresh, buttery toffee from your own kitchen and yet another way to impress your friends (how many of them are making toffee from scratch?!)

First, a cautionary note about toffee making: hot sugar can be very dangerous and must be handled carefully at all times, so this is not a recipe to make with little kids or even with little kids underfoot. They can eat it later though!

Making the toffee itself takes about 15 minutes then, once it’s cooled, about another 10 minutes to slather it with chocolate and more nuts. The basic steps are 1) melt butter and sugar together, add almonds or whatever nut you like; 2) cook to “hard crack” stage; 3) pour into a pan and cool; and 4) cover with chocolate and nuts. Without further delay… let’s make some toffee.

Steps for making English Toffee

Butter and Sugar in Saucepan; Stirring the Butter and Sugar Together as the Butter Melts; Puffy, Cream-colored, Cohesive mix


Steps for making English Toffee

Adding the Nuts; Cooking to Hard Crack Stage; Cooling in the Pan

1.) Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9×13 heat proof pan (I actually use Pam) and set aside.  Put 2 sticks of salted butter (that’s ½ pound) and 2 cups of sugar into a large saucepan. Cook on the stove-top on medium heat, stirring to blend the sugar and butter together, making sure to moisten all of the sugar with the butter. Continue to stir, also scraping the sides of the pan to remove sugar crystals there. The mixture will change from a loose blend of sugar and melted butter into a somewhat puffy, cream-colored cohesive mix. Keep stirring, and when the sides start to turn a little brown, add 1 cup of nuts. Keep stirring.

2.) Cook to “hard crack” stage – this is somewhat fussy to describe, but it’s really critical to the outcome. Continue to stir the toffee. Although there’s no need to constantly stir, don’t walk away – keep watching what’s happening in the pan. Hard crack stage is technically about 300 – 305 degrees and there a few ways to tell when the toffee is there. Two of the best ways are 1) use a candy thermometer; or 2) carefully watch the mixture for the magic few seconds when it changes from a somewhat grainy, puffy looking “coffee with cream” color to a smooth, glossy, medium brown toffee color. If the toffee continues to cook much beyond 305 degrees, it won’t look too different at first but it will start to take on a burned flavor – so, the toffee will look great, but it might taste slightly burned. If it really cooks beyond this stage, it will start to smoke and turn black – and this can happen in about 1 minute.

But, it’s also really important to not cook it less than 300 – 305 degrees. If it’s not cooked to hard crack stage, the toffee will be grainy and soft – very un-toffee-like! Like I said, it’s fussy to describe “hard crack”, but the concept is pretty easy!

So, once the toffee is at 300 – 305 degrees or has just arrived at the smooth-glossy-medium-brown-toffee-colored stage, immediately remove the pan from the heat and carefully pour the toffee into the prepared 9×13 pan. Cool on the counter or in the refrigerator. If it’s going in the refrigerator to cool, don’t put it in there right away – the toffee and the pan are very hot at this stage, so let it cool down a little on the counter at first. Once it goes in the refrigerator, it takes about 30 minutes to completely cool down.

3.) While the toffee is cooling, put about ½ – ¾ cups of nuts on a sheet pan and put them in the oven to toast. The nuts are done when they just start to become fragrant – this will take 10 minutes or less, depending on the oven. When the nuts have cooled, chop them and set aside for sprinkling on the toffee later.

4.) When it’s time to finish the toffee, melt your favorite chocolate chips in the microwave – milk or dark chocolate, whatever you like. For the best way to melt chocolate in the microwave, check out our instructions for chocolate ganache.

Spread a layer of chocolate on one side of the toffee and sprinkle with the chopped nuts. Return the toffee to the refrigerator for a few minutes to set the chocolate, then invert the toffee onto a sheet of wax paper or parchment and coat the other side with chocolate and more nuts. The toffee may start to break at this point, but it’s going to be broken into pieces anyway.

Break into pieces – I use the handle end of a heavy knife – and store in an airtight container at room temperature. Some nuts and chocolate bits will fall off when the toffee is broken into pieces – save those for ice cream topping or eat them just as they are.

Bowl of Finished English Toffee

Buttery, Crunchy, Chocolatey, Toasted Nutty

The toffee will be crunchy, but it shouldn’t be breaking any teeth – another benefit of cooking it to proper hard crack stage. It will definitely be buttery and sweet. And chocolatey. And toasted nutty.

Maybe next, we’ll do caramel sauce…

Enjoy!

Cathy

Polenta… and I Mean Quick!

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

Finished Polenta with Olive Oil and Parmesan Cheese

Soft and Creamy Polenta with Parmesan Cheese and Olive Oil

Someone asked me the other day what I put in my brown rice to make it moist. It got me thinking about grains – specifically brown rice and polenta. They are two of my “go-to” grains, for similar reasons, but not for the same meal! They both have satisfying texture and taste, they’re warm and filling, they’re healthful and easy. Count me in!

Polenta is corn meal, Italian-style. It can be served soft and creamy or firm and crispy. I usually serve it soft and creamy with a little parmesan cheese – it makes a perfect pair with something like Beef Bourguignon because the juices from the stew play so nicely with the taste and texture of the polenta. You can buy corn meal for polenta in the bulk section of supermarkets or in a pre-packaged bag labeled “Polenta”, which is just bulk corn meal in a bag labeled “Polenta”! I buy it in the bag because it has the recipe I like on the back, and the bag itself is thick and sturdy for storage. Plus, it’s a good looking bag! By my count, that’s at least two solid practical reasons to buy the bag. The third reason is just the kind of thing that probably makes my husband a little crazy sometimes…

Bag of Polenta

See? That's a Good Looking Bag!

The basic recipe is to bring 4 cups of water to boil, add 1 teaspoon salt, slowly whisk in 1 cup of polenta and keep whisking until it’s done. I find this takes about 5 – 10 minutes over medium heat. When it gets to the consistency I like, similar to porridge, I add 2 tablespoons butter and about ½ – ¾ cup of parmesan cheese (freshly grated – don’t even think about the green can kind). The recipe says to use a double boiler, which I never do; and it says it will take 25 minutes, which it never does. I use to wonder why my polenta cooks up so much faster than the stated 25 minutes, but I decided it must be because I serve mine soft and creamy. If I cooked it for the full 25 minutes, it would set up very sturdily and be perfect for slicing and then browning in a skillet. Mostly I don’t wonder about my polenta, though – I just eat it (and so does my husband, by the way).

And what about that moist brown rice? Talk about a simple, healthy and satisfying side dish… and it cooks itself! Add 1 part brown rice (not fast cooking, not par-boiled, not from a box with seasonings… just whole grain brown rice out of a bag, and I’m sure you can buy this in bulk, too!) to 2 parts low sodium chicken broth. I happen to use a coffee cup to measure (so 1 coffee cup of brown rice and 2 coffee cups of broth), but you can use a measuring cup if you’re feeling conventional ; ). Cover and simmer over the lowest heat possible. It needs to gently simmer, not boil. This lets the rice absorb the broth, rather than the broth just boiling off and leaving crunchy uncooked rice behind.

Check the rice after about 20 minutes to be sure the broth hasn’t completely evaporated. If it’s drying up, add a little more broth. Basically, cook it for about 30 minutes total, checking to be sure it hasn’t dried up and tasting it towards the end for tenderness. Once it’s tender take it off the heat, making sure there is still a little bit of broth in the pan – this is what keeps it moist and it will absorb as the rice sits. Add a little salt to taste (we have to make up for the low sodium broth!) and stir. The texture is al dente, like properly cooked pasta, and the flavor is mildly nutty. Start the rice first and it will be done just when the rest of your meal is ready.

Just one more note about Polenta with Beef Bourguignon. My favorite Beef Bourguignon recipe is from The New Basics Cookbook by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins. I was given this cookbook in 1991, when I got married, and later acquired The Silver Palate Cookbook by the same authors. I wanted to give my readers a link to this Beef Bourguignon recipe, but there doesn’t seem to be one available. In “Googling” for the recipe, I came across the news that Sheila Lukins, one of the authors, had passed away last summer. I was surprised and wanted to mention it here as my small tribute to someone I never met but from whom I learned to cook many fine meals.

Cook a great meal tonight for someone you love!

Cathy