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Friday, February 26, 2010

Toffee Butter Crunch

This is one of those things that it seems everyone has made at one time or another, but maybe not well. If everyone else is working from the same recipe I started with, it's no wonder. Someone once gave me a bag of this stuff as a gift and the toffee part was very light in color, lacking in flavor, and had no snap. Definitely not what I had in mind when it comes to toffee.

If you really want to make good butter toffee, you have to push the temperature much higher than many recipes specify. The one that I have gives instructions to remove from the heat at 280 degrees. At 280 degrees, the sugar hasn't had a chance yet to develop much flavor and, if you want good snap, you need to bring the sugar all the way to the hard crack stage or 300 degrees.

The good news is that armed with this knowledge, you can make some darn fine butter toffee. If you give it as gifts, you can be guaranteed the recipients will love you for life. What's even better? It's the quickest, easiest candy you've ever made! Well, maybe except for lollipops.

For a single batch, you need to use at least a 2-quart sauce pan. This recipe can easily be doubled, but if you do, be sure to use a much larger pan. The candy will bubble up quite a bit higher than you might expect when it really gets going. The last thing you want is molten sugar overflowing in your kitchen!

Stir together the butter, sugar, water, and corn syrup in the sauce pan and place over high heat.

Place your candy thermometer into the pan to keep track of the temperature. Cook over medium-high to high heat, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon. As you see in the picture below, it will come to a violent, roiling boil. Just keep an eye on the thermometer and let it do its thing. It may take anywhere from 10-25 minutes to reach 300 degrees, depending on your stove, so don't be dismayed if it seems to be taking a while.

As it cooks, it will lose water and shrink back down in the pot, becoming very gelatinous and gloppy. This is all part of the process, so just keep watching the thermometer. When you reach 285 degrees, you will need to be very vigilant; those last 15 degrees can go fast. Notice the difference in color between the picture above and below. That color is your flavor. Be ready to remove the pan from the heat right at 300 though... there's a fine line between flavor and burnt!

As soon as you remove the candy from the heat, add the pecan pieces, stir, and pour out onto a cookie sheet. There is no need to prepare the cookie sheet in any way. This candy has enough butter in it, it couldn't stick even if it wanted too! Jiggle the pan or help it to spread out with your wooded spoon. Be sure that you have a towel or trivet under the pan to protect your counter from the heat. Let the candy cool for a bit before moving on to the next step.

When the candy has cooled quite a bit (you should be able to touch it without hurting yourself), add the chocolate chips. I like to use the mini-morsels because they melt so much easier. The reason you need to let the candy cool before adding the chocolate is related to tempering. If you add the chocolate when the candy is too hot, it will heat the chocolate up too much and then it won't harden properly. It still tastes good, but is a real mess since the chocolate won't harden up like it should. The candy should not be warmer than about 105 degrees when you add the chocolate.

Let the chocolate sit on the candy for a bit to melt and then use a utensil of some sort to spread the chocolate evenly over the top. I use a butter knife. If you want, you can sprinkle some more crushed nuts on the top. They look pretty, but I find they tend to make the candy too messy. Move the tray to a cool area to firm up. If necessary, you can place it in the refrigerator. Avoid placing it in the freezer as this could also interfere with the chocolate's temper. (You can read my post about tempering chocolate if you want to learn more about this process).

When the candy is completely cool, break into small pieces and store in an air tight container. It will keep for at least a couple of weeks.

Toffee Butter Crunch
Yield: about 1 pound of candy

1 cup butter
1 cup sugar
3 TBS water
1 TBS light corn syrup
1/2 cup coarsely chopped pecans
3/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips (mini-morsels work best)
1/2 cup finely chopped pecans (optional)

Place the butter, sugar, water, and corn syrup together in at least a 2-quart sauce pan. Turn the heat to medium-high/high. When the butter melts, stir everything together and place a candy thermometer in the pan.

Let the mixture boil, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until it reaches 300 degrees and has a nice caramel color. Be very vigilant once the candy reaches 285, as the temperature can go up very rapidly from there. Remove from the heat as soon as it reaches 300. Immediately add the coarsely chopped pecans and stir.

Pour the hot candy out onto a sheet pan. Be sure there are some towels or pot holders under the sheet pan to protect your counters. Jiggle the pan or use your wooden spoon to help spread the mixture out, if necessary. Let cool until the surface is no warmer than 105 degrees. (Just feels warm to the touch). Sprinkle the chocolate chips on top and let them sit to soften. Spread with a knife into a nice, even coating. Sprinkle with the remaining nuts, if desired.

Place tray in a cool area or the refrigerator to harden. When fully cool, break into pieces and wrap for gifts or store in an air tight container.

NOTE: If you are making this toffee to give as gifts, you may find yourself wanting to make a lot at one time. I have made as much as a triple batch and it works great. For a triple batch, you want to be sure you are using at least an 8-quart pan. A triple batch will fit perfectly on two 11x17 sheet pans.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Perfect Buttered Popcorn

Have you ever tried making buttered popcorn at home? I don't mean that microwave stuff, either... it doesn't really taste like butter. You know, real, subtle, finger-licking good butter. I wish that I could be satisfied eating plain popcorn, I really do. But I can't. I've come to terms with it, and I've found a way to make it work.

Air poppers are a great tool for popping corn. They're cheap and quick, but they won't apply the butter for you. I used to melt a little butter in a bowl and then pour it over the popped corn in as thin a stream as I could. I would then grab a spoon as quickly as possible to toss things around. It never worked. Invariably, I always ended up with kernels that were so coated in butter they were soggy and some that were naked as the day they were born. I knew there had to be a better way.

And there is. All you have to do is brush the stuff on. I use a pastry brush to apply it. For a half cup of unpopped kernels, I only need to use about 1 tablespoons of butter and I am completely satisfied with the flavor.

Just blot the popped kernels with the brush, tossing them in the bowl as you go to get all sides covered. You'll end up with a perfectly even coat every time. At this point, you can add a sprinkling of popcorn salt and curl up on the couch with your favorite movie while happily crunching away. Yum!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Gelatin Fruit Cups

Part of being a teacher is the acknowledgement that you can't go out to get lunch every day. I know that a lot of schools have been trying to improve their food, but even if they were serving the best food ever, I still would pack a lunch. When you only get a 26 minute break, the idea of walking all the way down to the lunch room and fighting my way through a line to get some chow is less than appealing.

I often need to get to work by 6:10 in the morning so that I can use the copy machine without waiting, and that means that I need quick packing lunches. Yogurt is a regular star as are those small bags of chips... and I've always been a fan of fruit cups with gelatin.

Until recently, I'd made my own using the artificially flavored stuff at the store. I started to find, however, that I'm not a fan of the acrid after taste that the artificial stuff tends to have. And it somehow felt wrong to be putting home canned pears into such overwhelmingly sweet, fake flavor. So, I decided to see how much trouble it would be to use unflavored gelatin and fruit juice... the good news? It's absolutely no trouble at all!

The only extra steps are the requirement to soften the gelatin in some cool liquid before mixing and making sure you have an appropriate fruit juice on hand. While you can use whatever juice you want, I wanted to go for a 100% juice variety. I really love cherries, so I purchased sweet cherry juice. There are all kinds of juice blends out there. Experiment! Try all kinds. The good news is that the sky is the limit.

To soften the gelatin, pour 1/4 cup of your still cool juice in a small bowl. Sprinkle the gelatin over the top and let it sit until the gelatin is absorbed and swells up.

As I was taking pictures, I help the bowl up so that some light was coming through. I got so intrigued by the shapes and colors! The geologist in me was screaming, "Look at the lava!"

Heat the juice to almost boiling. To keep a nice fresh flavor, try not to overheat the juice. Meanwhile, fill some plastic containers with the fruit of your choice. I like to use diced peaches or pears. These containers are 4 ounces each and work perfectly.

When the juice is heated, add the softened gelatin and any sugar or other flavorings you want to add. Swirl the contents in each slightly after they are filled to evenly distribute the fruit. Put on their covers and place in the refrigerator to firm up.

A single batch makes six containers, if you use the 4 ounce size. Just enough for one per day plus an extra for good measure.

Gelatin Fruit Cups
Yield: 6 - 4 oz. containers

1 packet (or 1/4 oz. or 2 1/2 tsp) unflavored gelatin such as Knox
2 cups fruit juice of your choice
1 - 16 oz jar or can of fruit (such as diced peaches or pears)
sugar, as needed, up to 1/4 cup (if you add too much sugar, you will need to add more gelatin)

Pour 1/4 cup of the still cool fruit juice into a small bowl. Sprinkle the gelatin over the juice and let it soften and swell while the remainder of the juice heats. Heat the rest of the juice until it is almost boiling. For the freshest taste, try not to overheat.

Add the softened gelatin and any needed sugar to the hot juice. Stir until all particles of gelatin and sugar are dissolved. Prepare the plastic containers by evenly dividing the drained fruit from one 16 ounce can between them. Pour the hot juice evenly between the containers. Swirl gently to evenly distribute the fruit. Cover and refrigerate. Requires at least 3-4 hours to full chill and set.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Cream of Asparagus Soup

Nothing says spring to me like asparagus. I know in many parts of the country, spring is just a far off dream, but here in Florida, we're starting to see asparagus in the market at peak-season price. I just can't help but think that it is spring when that happens.

It used to be that I knew spring had sprung when tender shoots of asparagus peeked out from the soil of my perennial garden in Ohio. There is nothing like home grown, fresh picked asparagus. And it is so easy to grow! The only down side is that it takes a few years to get the bed established. If you have the patience, you will be rewarded... unless your husband's in the military and then you get to be Johnny Appleseed and continually plant for other's enjoyment.

I did at least get to enjoy one decent harvest from my asparagus bed in Ohio before we had to leave. Doesn't that look fabulous? I hope the folks that bought our house like asparagus. This year should be a bumper crop!

Asparagus is such a great vegetable. You can include it in dishes for any time of the day. It's great in quiche. It's great wrapped in prosciutto and roasted. I like it steamed with a sprinkling of smoked salt. It also happens to rock as a soup. While this recipe can really highlight a number of vegetables (think broccoli or cauliflower), it's especially good with asparagus.

It starts with shallots and asparagus. And a little butter. You didn't think I'd forget about the butter, did you? While, ultimately, the soup will be pureed, I like to chop all the ingredients small so that they cook quickly. Usually when I make this soup, I'm in a hurry for some sustenance.

Saute the shallot in butter over medium heat. Add some celery and the asparagus pieces. Be sure to trim the stems so that you are only using the tender part of the spear. I once thought that because the soup was pureed I would use the whole spear. BIG mistake. The asparagus was pureed, but the soup still had a distinct woody texture. Not a very pleasant experience, let me tell you.

When the vegetables are softened and slightly browned, add the chicken broth. Cook at a simmer until the vegetables are very tender, almost falling apart. I save the tips of the asparagus for garnishing the soup. About five minutes before the vegetables are done, I cook the tips in the broth using a piece of cheesecloth to keep them separated.

Remove the soup from the heat and let cool for a few minutes before pureeing in a food processor or blender. In my experience, you don't have to worry too much about over processing it. It maintains a nice texture even with a fair amount of processing. Return the soup to the pan and place over medium-low heat. Add the cream and stir until it just reaches a simmer. Remove from the heat and serve!

Cream of Asparagus Soup
Yield: 2 servings, double/triple, etc. as needed

1 TBS butter
1 small shallot, diced
1/4 cup celery ribs, diced
2 cups chopped asparagus spears, woody ends removed
2 cups chicken broth
1/4 cup cream (heavy or light, depending on your mood)
salt & pepper to taste

Saute the shallot and celery in the butter over medium-high heat. Reduce heat as needed to prevent too much browning. When the shallot and celery are beginning to soften, add the asparagus. Saute for another 3-4 minutes.

Add the broth and bring the soup to a simmer. Cook until the vegetables are very tender, about ten minutes. Remove the soup from the heat and let cool slightly before pureeing in a food processor or blender. Return the soup to the pot and place back over the heat. Add the cream and salt and pepper. Heat, stirring, until it just reaches a simmer. Remove from the heat and serve.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Basil & Sun Dried Tomato Polenta Rounds

So, here we are. Eight hours of driving later, I am ready to see the space shuttle lift off tomorrow night... I mean morning. 4:39 am is a bit of a challenge, but sooooo worth it. We were able to come once before a few years ago and it was also a night launch. There is something about the night turning to day that really takes your breath away.

The reason we're here is because my husband served with one of the astronauts in the Air Force and they became friends. Actually, they were friends before that, having gone to college together, but that doesn't segue into this post very well. So, I am going to focus on the Air Force connection. Work with me, here, will you?

The reason is because the Air Force is ultimately the reason that this recipe exists. The different branches of the military have all sorts of camaraderie traditions. In the Air Force, the naming ceremony is a significant one. This is where a young man or woman receives their call sign. While I won't go into the gritty details, let it suffice to say that a naming ceremony often requires the eating of bizarre items by some of the participants.

When my husband went shopping in preparation for a recent naming ceremony, he tried to find things that he felt were weird, gross, or unusual. You know: dog biscuits, potted meat, raw eggs, and... pre-cooked polenta. I guess my husband wasn't the only one who didn't know what polenta was because while a few dog biscuits and raw eggs were consumed, the package of polenta was never opened. Ergo, it came home to be put into my pantry.

And there it sat for a while, until one night I couldn't stand that it kept rolling off the shelf, so I decided to do something with it. I liked the fact that it was already formed and that I could simply slice off pieces to saute in a skillet.

But, polenta, just being cooked cornmeal, needs a bit of flavor enhancement. I decided on sun dried tomatoes, basil, and Parmesan. Not only did they turn out beautifully, but they were pretty darn tasty, too... a darn sight better than dog biscuits, that's for sure!

Basil & Sun Dried Tomato Polenta Rounds
Yield: variable

1/2 thick slices of pre-cooked polenta from a roll
olive oil

Per polenta round:
1 tsp chopped fresh basil
2 tsp minced oil-packed sun dried tomatoes
1 tsp freshly grated Parmesan cheese
dash salt and pepper

Preheat a skillet over medium heat. Add a light skim of oil. When the oil is hot, add the polenta rounds. Cook for 2-4 minutes on each side, until they have gotten a nice, golden crust. Remove the heat and add the basil, sun dried tomatoes, salt, and pepper. Let the pan's residual heat gently cook the tomatoes and basil. Serve with a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.

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