Friday, October 31, 2008

double, double, toil and trouble

What do you get when you put the Basil Queen and the Popcorn Ball Princess in a kitchen with vast quantities of popcorn, white sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, and butter, on the night before Halloween?

Popcorn balls, of course!

I had plans for a Halloween dinner that involved dining like zombies. It didn't pan out, because I couldn't find fresh calves' brains. (Frozen brains aren't the same.) So instead of fried brains with sherry butter and capers, à la Ruth Reichl, I'm presenting Bella's family recipe for popcorn balls.

Popcorn balls, if you're not familiar with them, are an old-fashioned American sweet: giant clusters of freshly popped corn held together by vast quantities of chewy caramel. Like kettle corn, but even better. Bella makes amazingly sticky, chewy, dental-work-endangering examples of this art, which, in case you've forgotten, is how she got her title as the Popcorn Ball Princess.

Bella makes popcorn balls every year on the night before Halloween, and a handful of lucky friends get to share in the fruits of her endeavour. The process of wrestling with a mountain of popped corn and a giant pot of molten caramel requires at least two pairs of hands, so she invited me along to help.

Popcorn balls qualify as candy, though of a fairly basic type. My experiences with candymaking have been limited to a few experiments with small quantities of salt caramel, so standing over a massive pot of molten sugar as it churned and bubbled its way towards the hard-crack stage was scary, but exciting.

It was definitely one of the more memorable Halloween-ish activities I've been involved in. Even if it didn't involve any brains.

(And not a bad way to celebrate an anniversary - did I mention that this blog is now a year old?)

Bobbie Sue's Popcorn Balls

This is a two-person process. Do not attempt it alone.

(Makes 40-50.)

3 cups popcorn seeds (for a total of 48 cups of popped corn)
3 cups white sugar
3 cups brown sugar
2 cups corn syrup
1 cup water
4 teaspoons vinegar
3 cups butter (6 sticks) at room temperature, plus extra for greasing hands
candy thermometer

Lay out sheets of waxed paper on a flat surface.

You can prepare the popped corn and the caramel at the same time (that's part of the reason why you need two people), but the popped corn must be ready before the caramel is done, because once the caramel is done, it's not going to wait.

Pop the corn. You will be making a lot of popped corn. You will need a very, very large pot or bowl to hold the popped corn - big enough to cook or bathe a three year-old in.

Get out a large, solid, heavy-bottomed pot, not quite as large as the one holding the popcorn, but large enough to cook a baby. Molten sugar bubbles up as it cooks, and you will be very, very sorry if you use a pot that is too small.

Put the white sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, water, and vinegar in the pot. Heat, stirring slowly, until the mixture reaches a boil and starts to bubble.

Put your candy thermometer in the mixture, and cook, stirring continuously, until it reaches 260F, also known as the hard-ball stage. (It's the point at which a spoonful of the mixture, dropped into cold water, will form a hard ball.)

Once the mixture hits the hard-ball stage, reduce the heat, and stir in the butter, a stick at a time. When the butter has been fully incorporated, remove the pot from heat and get ready to work quickly.

One person needs to stir the popcorn while the other pours the caramel into the mixture. You may need to move the pot around; if you create a moving stream of molten caramel, keep a careful eye on the other person's hands. Molten caramel causes nasty, nasty burns.

(Sorry, Bella!)

When all the caramel has been incorporated into the popcorn, you'll want to grease your hands up to the wrists in butter. Take handfuls of the popcorn mixture, and shape into balls roughly three inches in diameter, setting them on the waxed paper as you go. Be sure to only take handfuls off the top, so that you're only working with the stuff that's had some time to cool, and re-butter your hands as necessary.

When all the popcorn balls have been formed and allowed to cool, wrap them in more waxed paper. Give them only to people you really like.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

whisk-y business

Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a KitchenAid
My friends have stand mixers; I’m kind of ashamed

I do have the space for it if my counter’s rearranged

Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a KitchenAid...

I want a KitchenAid mixer.

Of course, you say. Join the club. Every aspiring chef, enthusiastic home cook, pretentious foodie, and eager bride-to-be wants a KitchenAid mixer. Does it even need to be said?

You want one for all those complicated, meringue-based desserts, like pavlova and vacherin and dacquoise. You want to be able to make mousse at the drop of a hat. If you get the pasta attachment, you won’t need a pasta maker. You have as many reasons to want a KitchenAid mixer as there are recipes on your to-do list.

If only those were the only reasons.

I want a KitchenAid mixer to avoid my shortcomings. I want a KitchenAid mixer so that I can ignore my failings. I want a KitchenAid mixer so that I no longer have to contend with my bête noire. (Bête blanche?)

I want a KitchenAid mixer so that I can make whipped cream.

You see, a KitchenAid mixer makes whipped cream foolproof. You open the carton, pour it in the bowl, add sugar and flavorings as needed, turn on the mixer (medium speed – high makes the cream splash everywhere), wander away, and when you come back a little while later, the contents of the bowl have doubled in volume, and whisk attachment is trailing those smooth swirly patterns through a fluffy cloud of white. Turn off the mixer. Voilà, whipped cream.

Whipping cream by hand is a different matter. Despite the fact that you cannot walk away from it, you don’t take your eyes off it, and if you’re paranoid, you’ll stop to check the texture every other minute, it is still much, much easier to miss that split-second of luscious perfection and end up with a bowl of clumpy, clotted pre-butter instead.

I’ve learned that I will probably screw up hand-whipped cream about every other time that I try it.** I’ve also learned that when I work with white chocolate – my other bête blanche – it only goes right about once every three times.

Which means, if I’ve calculated my probabilities right, that I have a one-in-six chance of not screwing up when I make white chocolate ganache.***

Which is why I only make frozen white chocolate ganache. Sub-zero temperatures hide a multitude of sins - even slightly overwhipped cream develops an agreeable texture when frozen. Add crumbly shortbread and some raspberry sauce, and a disaster can become a respectable dessert.

Hmm. If I can’t have a KitchenAid mixer, could I have an ice-cream maker instead?

Frozen White Chocolate Ganache Tart

(Serves one if you like white chocolate a lot more than I do. Leftovers can go right back in the freezer.)

First, the shortbread shell: Get out a big bowl, drop in a stick of softened butter, and use a fork to mash it with one-eighth of a cup of sugar and a half-teaspoon of salt until well-combined. Measure out one cup of flour, and use the fork to gradually incorporate it into the butter until you have a sandy mixture that you can form into a ball.

Preheat the oven to 325F. Take an eight-inch false-bottomed tart pan and set it on a baking tray. Take the shortbread dough and press it gently into the pan. If it seems a bit thick, remove some of the excess and bake it separately. (It's nice to snack on.)

Prick the dough lightly with a fork. Bake in the oven for thirty to forty minutes, or until the pastry has turned golden in color. Set aside to cool.

Next, coat the shortbread with a thin layer of dark chocolate (it's not essential, but it helps with integrity issues, and adds an interesting dimension to the flavor of the finished tart): Bring a pot of water to a simmer on the stove. Set a heatproof mixing bowl on the pot, and add a few teaspoons of dark chocolate chips. Stir until melted, and remove from heat. Use a butter knife or a teaspoon to coat the shortbread shell in chocolate. Pop it in the freezer to set.

The first step in the ganache (the easier step) involves melting the cream and the white chocolate together. Take three ounces of white chocolate (use chips, or cut a bar into small chunks) and place in a big metal bowl. Pour three-quarters of a cup of heavy whipping cream into a small saucepan and place over low heat. Stir the cream. Keep stirring the cream.

The idea is to get the cream to a little below body temperature, which is hot enough to melt chocolate. You could use a candy thermometer if you're gadget-inclined, but I just test with my fingertips, and pull the cream off the stove when it feels like a warm bath.

Pour the warmed cream over the chocolate. Stir until the cream and the chocolate are incorporated together in one smooth mixture. Let the mixture cool, then stick the entire bowl in the fridge to chill. Cream that isn't cold won't whip.

Once the white chocolate cream mixture is properly chilled, it's on to part two - the whipping. If you're lucky enough to be in possession of a stand mixer, pour the cream into the bowl and let the machine work its magic. If you're doing this by hand, well, misery loves company, right?

All I can recommend is that you whip the mixture gently and carefully and stop to check the texture every other minute. You even can err on the side of caution and leave the mixture a little underwhipped.

Once you get the ganache to its desired texture (or close enough), pour it into the tart shell, smooth out the top, and freeze for at least two hours. Serve with plenty of raspberry sauce.

*My sincerest apologies to Janis Joplin. I couldn't resist.

**The fact that I can hand-whisk lemon curd and hollandaise and even egg whites for soufflés without missing a beat makes this particularly exasperating.

***Given those odds, you might be wondering why I make white chocolate ganache at all. The answer, this time, is that we were celebrating Kitty's birthday.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

the queen of tarts

The summer I worked in the pastry kitchen, I made tarts.

Large mixed fruit tarts for the lunch buffet: solid shells of pâte brisée, brushed with chocolate to keep them from softening, filled with crème patissière, plus a slice of sponge cake for added integrity, decorated with a precise geometric pattern of strawberry halves, kiwifruit slices, and diced peaches, glossy with arrowroot-thickened apricot jam.

Bite-size jewel tarts for high tea and special functions: tiny pâte sucrée shells painted in couverture, a dab of crème patissière, thin wedges of kiwifruit or mango, and the faintest sheen of raspberry glaze.

Single-serving tarts for the cake shop: thin, tuile-like shells, mounded with crème patissière and topped with berries. Mountains of blueberries, lacquered in apricot glaze. Raspberries in concentric rings under a dusting of icing sugar. Strawberries cut and arranged to form five-petalled flowers.

Elegant tarts. Dainty tarts. Beautiful tarts that left me cold.

Don't get me wrong. I loved making those tarts in all their gorgeous, white-bone-china, heavy-silver, linen-napkin perfection. I turned out over a thousand of the jewel tarts, single-handedly, for one particularly enormous gala event. I loved them as the finished product of hours of hard work, but not as something I would prepare for myself. Not as something I'd look forward to eating.

When left to my own devices, I like a tart that isn't polite, something a little lopsided and uneven that bleeds juice and drips butter and has those slightly-burnt caramelly edges. The kind of tart that follows a lazy weekend lunch, or a weekday dinner on a day that calls for some kind of dessert. The kind of tart you could eat with your fingers if you felt like dispensing with good table manners.

The Italians call it crostata, and it's really the simplest fruit-and-pastry dessert you could possibly make: a wheel of pastry topped with fruit, edges folded over, and baked until bubbling and golden.

The kind of fruit is up to you. Apples, for a rustic take on apple pie. Pears, for a soft, velvety texture. Dried apricots, plumped in water with a little brandy, for a sticky, toothsome effect.

I like sweet, overripe plums, macerated with a little liqueur, cinnamon, and just enough sugar to draw out their juices. Baked, they split and ooze and fill the kitchen with a winey, tangy fragrance. Once the crostata is out of the oven, it takes discipline to not cut into it until it's cool enough to handle.

It's really too messy to be eaten with your fingers. Of course, I like it best that way.

Plum Crostata

If you suffer from Pastry Anxiety, this is an excellent dessert to practice on, because it doesn't require much handling, and there's no elaborate crimping or fluting to screw up. Even if the pastry is a complete disaster, you can just scoop out the fruit and top it with ice-cream. Of course, you can use storebought pastry, but it won't be quite the same.

(Serves one, for a very long time.)

Get out a big mixing bowl. Dump in one cup of flour, a few tablespoons of sugar, and a big pinch of salt. Cut in half a stick of butter until the largest lumps are no bigger than a pea. Add just enough very cold water - about a few tablespoons - to make the pastry dough come together. Form the pastry into a ball, wrap in wax paper, and put it in the fridge to chill.

Take a pound of ripe prune plums (the ones with bluish-purple skins and yellow flesh), rinse them, and pat them dry. Use your fingers to pull them apart; remove the pits and discard.

Put the plums in a bowl, and sprinkle over one teaspoon of sugar and a little cinnamon. You can also add a small splash of liqueur if you like - I'm fond of Frangelico. Give the plums a stir and let them sit for half an hour or so. You'll have slightly more plums than you'll really need for the tart, so feel free to steal a few to snack on.

Preheat the oven to 375F.

Remove the ball of pastry from the fridge, and put it on a baking tray atop a sheet of parchment paper. You can either use a rolling pin to roll out the pastry, or just press on it with the heel of your hand until it flattens out into a rough circle. (I still haven't gotten around to buying a rolling pin. I press it out.)

Take the plums and arrange them in rings on the pastry. Fold the edges over to create a rough border. Don't fret if it looks imperfect - the lopsidedness is all part of its charm.

Move the tray to the oven. Bake for forty-five to fifty minutes, or until the juices are bubbling, the butter in the pastry has started to caramelize, and the baking tray is a mess, despite the parchment paper. Remove the tray from the oven. Let the tart cool somewhat.

Serve warm in generous wedges. If you're not dispensing with table manners and cutlery, thick cream or ice-cream is a nice extra.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

the situation calls for chocolate

The reading is still coming along in relentless waves. The outlines are supposed to be taking shape. It has officially turned cold in Boston - sweater, scarf and gloves cold. And apparently the town is in a tizzy over something baseball-related, which makes taking the T during the late afternoons a rather dubious venture.

This is a situation that calls for chocolate. Lots of chocolate. Preferably in warm, melted form.

Usually, I'd bake up a batch of "Cadbury Fruit and Nut Bar" cakes, or just leave a bar of dark chocolate by the radiator to turn soft, but Virgin, of Virgin in the Volcano, asked me several months ago if I had a recipe for chocolate lava cake. She and I don't share any classes this year, so we decided to get together, have some wine, grouse about classes and the job hunt, and do some baking.

I pulled a copy of Jean-Georges Vongerichten's recipe for "Warm, Soft Chocolate Cake," and I tried to follow it. I really did. I had the chocolate. I had the butter. I had the eggs, the sugar, and the flour. I only have two ramekins, but I thought I'd halve the recipe, and we'd be fine.

And then Virgin sized up my ramekins with the practiced eye of one who has handled many shot glasses and definitely knows her fluid ounces, and told me that they were two-ounce ramekins, not four. Apparently the subtleties of the imperial system of measurement are still beyond me.

Oops. It turns out that if you use two two-ounce ramekins, even with a half recipe, you'll have too much batter. And because the recipe tells you to divide the batter evenly among four ramekins, you won't realise that you've overfilled your two ramekins until you check on the cakes in the oven and discover that they look more like soufflés.

And if you didn't quite butter and flour the molds generously enough, the cakes aren't going to tip out of the molds neatly. In fact, they're not going to tip out of the molds at all.

This is the moment at which you'll probably want to give up on the recipe and serve the cakes right in their ramekins, preferably with a dusting of cocoa and fresh raspberry sauce. They come out with gently crisped tops and rich, gooey centers, so it's not a complete loss.

And Virgin really likes their name. I can't blame her. I rather prefer it myself.

(Virgin in the) Volcano Soufflé-Cakes

Inspired by Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s “Warm, Soft Chocolate Cake."

(Makes three.)

Chocolate does not like high heat. Chocolate does not like water. These two factors make melting chocolate a tricky proposition. Happily, any dessert that combines melted chocolate with melted butter makes things much, much easier: as long as you melt the butter first, and then add the chocolate, your chances of ending up with a grainy, scorched mess are considerably lower.

Set up a double-boiler: put a small pot of water on the stove and bring it to a simmer. Set a heatproof bowl over the pot and drop in half a stick of butter, cut into rough chunks. When the butter has melted completely, add one-third of a cup of dark chocolate chips, or two ounces of finely chopped dark chocolate. Turn off the heat.

While you’re waiting for the chocolate to melt, beat together one egg, one egg yolk, and one-eighth of a cup of sugar until thick and very foamy.

Check on the butter-chocolate mixture. The chocolate should be mostly melted; stir with a rubber spatula until smooth and even. Don't worry if you have lumps - they're going to melt anyway when you bake the cakes.

Move the bowl to the counter and gently fold in the egg mixture.

Preheat the oven to 450F.

Take three two-ounce ramekins, butter them, and lightly flour them. Tap them to shake out any excess flour. Spoon the batter into the ramekins, filling them right up to the top.

Place the ramekins on a tray and bake for four to six minutes, or until the cakes have risen above the edge.

Remove the tray from the oven; transfer the ramekins to plates. Dust with a little icing sugar or bitter cocoa. Serve immediately with fresh raspberries or raspberry sauce on the side.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

the best souvenirs are edible

We've come to the point in the semester when the notes that have to be written up have started to overwhelm the amount of reading that notes have to be taken upon. All the good law students have settled in and started to outline for all they're worth.

Which is, of course, why I went to Vermont this weekend. Bella offered me a chance to get out of Boston, plus an invitation to her family's pseudo-Thanksgiving fall supper, and I couldn't resist.

Not only did we eat enough turkey and trimmings and pie to leave us full for the next two days, I also visited a maple sugarworks and bought lovely, smoky Grade B syrup.

And Bella's mother, who happens to be a skilled baker and enthusiastic gardener, sent me home with a loaf of homemade bread and a jar of dried homegrown Roma tomatoes.

The bread is soft and nutty and makes fantastic grilled cheese sandwiches, but it's the dried tomatoes that I'm really excited about.* They're sweet and chewy and wonderfully tangy, and they're wonderful to cook with once you get beyond the urge to eat them straight out of the jar like potato chips.

The following is another in my long line of fishy, garlicky, your-breath-will-knock-out-vampires-at-fifty-paces pasta dishes. The breadcrumbs, odd as though they might sound, are not a mad experiment. They're lifted from Sicilian-style pasta dishes that use cheap breadcrumbs as a supposed substitute for pricey cheese. I'm not quite sure I buy the explanation, but the resulting dish is a little like eating pasta with toasted garlic bread - crunchy, salty, and just a little oily.

Just try not to eat all the dried tomatoes before they make it into the sauce.

Spaghetti with Dried Tomatoes, Anchovies and Toasted Breadcrumbs

You can use storebought breadcrumbs, but they won't taste as good as breadcrumbs you make yourself.

(Serves one, with leftovers.)

Set a big pot of salted water on to boil.

Heat a small quantity of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add a generous splash of cheap white wine (the kind you really wouldn't drink) and bring to a simmer.

Cut a big handful of sundried tomatoes - the plain kind, not the ones in oil - into thin strips. (This is easier to do with kitchen shears than a knife.)

When the salted water has reached a rolling boil, add half a pound of spaghetti.

Drop the sundried tomatoes into the pan. Simmer until the tomatoes soften and the wine has reduced by half. Open a can of anchovies in olive oil and add them to the pan. Use a wooden spoon to break them up. Cook until the mixture turns thick and saucy. Turn off the heat.

Meanwhile, heat olive oil in another pan. Add half a cup of breadcrumbs and three thinly sliced cloves of garlic. Toast until the breadcrumbs turn golden. Set aside.

When the spaghetti is al dente, drain and add it to the pan with the sundried tomatoes. Squeeze over the juice from half a lemon. Add the breadcrumbs and toss to coat. Serve immediately.

*I had a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich made with Vermont cheddar and lots of butter on Friday. I finally understand what all the fuss is about.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

distraction techniques

It's been more than a week again, hasn't it?

Well, I'm not sick, and I haven't been eaten by my reading (yet), so this time I'm going to blame my absence on my laptop.

I've had the same laptop for five years, and it's starting to make noises that suggest that it's headed to the Great Computer Store In The Sky, so I've been leaving it at home and taking notes by hand in class instead. This may be better for my concentration, but it has turned out to have a rather dismal effect on my blogging.

Mea culpa, mea culpa. Can I distract you from my delinquency with some apple raspberry cake?

"Cake" might not be quite the right word for it, but I haven't come up with a better way to describe what is essentially fruit in a pancake batter with baking powder, a not-quite-clafoutis. It's an easy dessert, the sort of thing that you might whip up when you want more than plain fruit, but don't feel like digging out a cookbook and making sure you have all the ingredients and equipment to bake something from a proper recipe.

The results are anything but fancy. It's served right out of the baking pan, so the presentation isn't elegant. The batter-fruit ratio is skewed in favor of fruit, so the slices tend to disintegrate when you transfer them from pan to plate. And when topped with yogurt and honey, they're a thoroughly unphotogenic mess. Probably not the sort of thing you'd want to serve at a dinner party, but just the thing to follow roast chicken or chili or some other solid, unassuming meal.

Apple Raspberry Cake

The French call this type of cooking au pif, literally, "by the nose." All you need to bake it are a few basic ingredients, a pan, a bowl, a whisk, a teaspoon, and a quarter-cup measure if you really, really insist. You can approximate and eyeball your way to the final result, and it'll come out just fine. This works well with ripe plums and other stone fruit, too.

(Serves one for a long time. Will freeze.)

Preheat the oven to 350F.

Get out a big mixing bowl. Crack in one egg. Add roughly a quarter cup of sugar. You may want a little less or a little more, depending on the sweetness of your fruit. Beat until well combined.

Add a rough teaspoon of baking powder, around three-quarters of a cup of flour, and a big pinch of salt. Beat again until the mixture starts to clump on the whisk.

Pour in a splash of milk. Beat the mixture until it becomes gloopy. Add more milk and keep whisking until the mixture becomes a pourable batter, about the consistency of thin yogurt.

Melt half a stick of butter in a cast-iron or other ovenproof pan big enough to serve as a baking dish.

Meanwhile, take two or three apples, peel them, core them, and cut them into wedges.

Once the butter has melted, swirl it to fully coat the pan, and pour off all the excess into the batter. Beat in the melted butter.

Put the apples into the pan. Scatter a generous quantity of fresh raspberries over the apples. Sprinkle with cinnamon and nutmeg.

Pour the batter over the fruit. Transfer the pan to the oven and bake for thirty-five to forty minutes, or until lightly browned on top.

Serve warm. It goes well with Greek yogurt and honey.