Monday, December 28, 2015

Candied Pecans

At Christmas time I like to make these candied nuts and give them as little presents. Easy to make and irresistible. People love them. You can use almonds as well or a mix of the two. I thank Curt for sharing this recipe with me.
You don’t have to wait for Christmas to make them. Create your own party nuts by adding some cayenne pepper to make them spicy. Reduce the amount of cinnamon a tad and omit the nutmeg. Add bourbon to the egg whites instead of water. Use whatever spices you like!
  • 1 lb of pecan halves or whole almonds
  • 2 egg whites beaten with 1 tablespoon of water 
  • 1/2 tablespoon or more vanilla extract
  • 1-1/2 cups of sugar (How much sugar depends on how sweet you want them. You can substitute light brown sugar just make sure you pack it down into the measuring cup when measuring.)
  • 1 tablespoon of cinnamon (use a full TBSP)
  • 2 teaspoons of salt
  • (option) 1 teaspoon nutmeg 
  • (option) for spicy nuts add 1 teaspoon or more of cayenne)
  1. In a large bowl, whip egg whites and water to frothy; add vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt (and any options) and mix. 
  2. Add nuts and mix until nuts are well coated. 
  3. Add sugar and toss well to coat. 
  4. Next, the fun part: cover a LARGE cookie sheet with non-stick foil or parchment paper or a Silpat non-stick baking mat. It’s going to get sticky. 
  5. Spread the nut mixture evenly onto the sheet pan. 
  6. Pre-heat oven to 275 degrees F. 
  7. You will bake the nuts for 1 hour, turning with a spatula every 15 minutes. Each time lift the bottom of the mixture to the top and spread out.
Mixture will still be gooey when done, but dries hard when it cools. Just break it apart.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Chocolate Pecan Bark

Every Christmas I make bark. It’s so easy and so delicious. I give tins to friends as little presents. What I like about bark candy is that you don’t need any special candy making tools. It only takes about 30 minutes to make. I make a double batch, but you can half this recipe for a single sheet pan of bark.

Tools: baking sheet pans, double boilers, parchment paper
Makes 2 sheet pans of bark.

You’ll Need: 
  • 2 pounds of pecan halves (or whole almonds). I’ve used almonds, cashews and walnuts, but pecans just seem to go taste the best to me. They are sweet and softer to chew. Peanuts can work, too. You could also use a mix of 2 nuts.
  • 4 pounds of candy making chocolate. I like to buy the Ghirardelli Dark Chocolate Candy Making and Dipping Wafers. I buy it at Sam’s Club in a 2 lb. bag. I have seen it in some groceries around December, but it only comes in an 8 oz. bag. Just don’t mistake it for Baking Chips - they are not the same. While dark in color it is less bitter than regular dark chocolate and tastes more like a cross between milk chocolate and dark chocolate. You can buy candy making wafers at stores that specialize in cake and candy making. Chocolate specifically used for candy making is tempered so it remains shiny, has a good snap and melts smoothly in your mouth. That’s why you use candy making chocolate which has been tempered.
  • 6 ounces of white chocolate chips or a box of Baker’s Premium white chocolate.
Double Boiler: A double-boiler is an actual 3 piece pot you can purchase - a pot set in a pot with a lid, but you can create your own with a saucepan and a bowl. For candy-making you will want the bowl to be larger than the saucepan. The bottom of the bowl should sit down into the saucepan an inch or 2, not just sit on the rim of the saucepan.
An example of a bad double boiler. The top insert is smaller than the bottom saucepan. This could allow steam to get into the chocolate causing it to seize and become unusable.
A good double boiler - the insert sits down into the saucepan and is larger than the saucepan.

Set up 2 double-boilers - a large one for the dark chocolate and a small one for the white chocolate. (See microwave instructions below if you prefer that method for melting chocolate.) Put 1 inch of water in a saucepan. Place a glass or metal bowl larger than the saucepan over the saucepan. The water should not touch the bottom of the top bowl. Bring the water to a simmer then turn it to low. You do not want it boiling. Just keep it just below a simmer. You want to melt the chocolate very slowly or it will burn. Be careful not to get any water into the melting chocolate or it will seize up and become useless. If steam is rising up around the bowl it might condensate and get in the chocolate. Steam means your water is too hot. Microwave: You can melt the wafers in a microwave, but that requires careful attention and patience. It’s easy to burn the chocolate in a microwave if you are not extremely careful. Follow the directions on the package carefully.

Place about 1/2 cup of the dark chocolate wafers in a double boiler. Stir with a spatula every so often. When it has almost melted add more chocolate and stir every so often. Keep adding chocolate until it is all melted and smooth. Remove the bowl from the sauce pan and wipe the bowl dry to avoid getting water in it. Add in the pecans and mix to coat. While you are melting the dark chocolate put your white chocolate chips (or chopped up Baker’s white chocolate bar) in the other double boiler and melt slowly, stirring often until smooth.

Spread the pecan/chocolate mixture out onto parchment lined baking sheets with a spatula. Make an even layer pressing it down and spreading it to the edges of the parchment paper.

You will now make a home-made pastry/icing bag… Take a small plastic zip-lock type bag and place it in a short glass and pull back the sides of the bag down around the side of the glass. Pour in your melted white chocolate. 

Zip up the bag, squeezing out as much air as possible before you seal it. Now cut a very small piece off of one bottom corner of the baggie. Now squeezing the bag distribute the white chocolate over the bark in a back and forth pattern creating long, thin lines across the bark about 1/2 inch apart. You don’t have to use all of the white chocolate - just enough to give it that bark look. I like to finely chop some extra pecans and just sprinkle them across the top. It makes it look a little more rough and “barky.”

Let cool in a cool place until it has hardened. Don’t refrigerate or the chocolate will lose its shine. Use a sharp heavy knife or pizza cutter to brake it up into chunks. You can break it up by hand but it gets messy and the warmth of your hands will start to melt the chocolate. Store in an airtight container.


Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Best-Ever Christmas Sugar Cookies

For as long as I can remember my mother baked sugar cookies for Christmas. As she has become advanced in age she is really not up to making them anymore. So a few years ago I surprised her with making them. I have never tasted a sugar cookie recipe that I think beats hers. I don’t where where she got the recipe, I just know they are delicious - buttery, a little sweet, thin and crisp. I make a batch and we split it. Yes, we eat the entire batch ourselves. Guilty pleasure. They are relatively easy to make, but they do take a while. I devote a few hours to making them and they are so worth every minute.

Tools: baking sheets, rolling pin, hand or stand mixer, basting brush, 
parchment paper, cookie cutters
Time: About 2-1/2 hours if you use 2 sheet pans or 3-1/2 if you use 1.
Makes 4 to 5 dozen cookies.
  • 2 sticks unsalted softened butter. Use butter, not margarine! 
  • 1-1/2 cups sugar 
  • 2 eggs, beaten 
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla 
  • 1/4 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg 
  • 3-1/2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted 
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 teaspoons Cream of Tartar 
  • 1 teaspoon salt 
  • Egg white from 1 egg, beaten with a tablespoon of water 
  • Sprinkles - colored sugar crystals for decorating or just regular sugar 
  1. Set out the butter to soften. Once it is soft place it in a medium size mixing bowl and mix with a hand mixer or stand mixer until fluffy. Add sugar and “cream” the mixture until light and fluffy.
  2. Add the beaten eggs and vanilla and mix well. 
  3. Add all of the dry ingredients - flour, baking soda, cream of tartar, nutmeg and salt to a bowl and mix together with a fork or wisk. Don’t omit the nutmeg. It makes them extra good. 
  4. Add the dry ingredients to the wet and blend with the mixer until it looks like coarse sand. It will only take a minute or so. Form it into a disk about 2 inches thick, cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1/2 hour so the dough becomes firm. You can refrigerate it longer but it will become very firm and hard to roll out. In that case cut off the portion you will use first and let it sit out for about 5 minutes. 
  5. When you are ready to begin baking …
  6. Prepare 2 baking sheets if you have 2, but if you only have 1 that’s OK - it will just take longer. Line your baking sheets with parchment paper or use a Silpat baking mat. 
  7. Set oven to 350 degrees F. 
  8. Prepare a surface for rolling out the cookies: dust a clean surface with some flour and have flour for adding to the surface and rolling pin as needed. 
  9. You want to use only enough dough to make a sheet pan of cookies. Keep the remainder of the dough refrigerated. It should not be at room temperature when you begin rolling out the dough or it will be too soft to work with. Take 1/4 of the dough and roll it to 1/4 inch thick. The dough may seem stiff at first but it will soften quickly. Dip a cookie cutter in flour and cut out your shapes. Place them on the baking sheets about 1 inch apart. Brush with egg white and sprinkle with a little of the sugar. Form leftover dough from the roll-out into a ball and roll it out for a few more cookies. If your baking sheet is full just refrigerate the leftover dough for the next batch. 
  10. Bake for 7 minutes on the center racks of the oven then rotate the sheets front to back and top to bottom and bake for 7 more minutes. They should be slightly dry and brownish brown just on the edges. Every oven is different so the amount of time in your oven may vary. Also, variations is thickness of your dough will effect the time. Check at 12 minutes. Lift up a cookie. If the bottom is light golden brown they are done. They will harden when they cool. Adjust time if you need to after the first batch. An extra minute can mean a burnt cookie! NOTE: dark coated and non-stick sheet pans cook hotter than the regular type of cookie sheet and take less time to cook. Do your first batch at 6 minutes then rotate if using these types of pans and check in 6 minutes for doneness.
  11. Place the baked cookies on paper towel and let them completely cool. 
  12. Start your next batch, but be sure the baking sheet has cooled down. Don’t use a hot baking sheet or it will cause the bottoms to over brown and the tops will not be done. If you have 2 baking sheets you can alternate them so they are cool when you begin baking. 
  13. Store cookies in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks … but they won’t last that long!

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Amaretto Cake

The other day I bought the basic ingredients to make a bundt cake. I like bundt cakes because, while I do like cakes with frosting, I am really more a fan of the cake itself. I have a recipe for a rum cake which is a great basis for making all kinds of bundt cakes. In my cookbook I use my rum cake recipe to create other flavors like a chocolate-orange bundt cake. So the question was what to do with my bundt cake ingredients - make a rum cake or maybe something else. I took a look at my liquor cabinet and there it was - a bottle of Amaretto liqueur. Amaretto is an almond flavored liqueur. I had just seen a recipe for an almond cake on America’s Test Kitchen that looked amazing so my mouth was kinda watering for that flavor. This recipe is not near as complex as was that one, but it turned out to be very tasty none the less. You could serve a slice with some fresh berries and a dollop of whipped cream for a nice dessert. 
Bundt pans: there are basically 2 types of bundt pans. The one I used is a simple round pan with a flat bottom typically used for angel food cakes. The other type will have a more complex shape usually with flutes. The flat type works best with this recipe because of the sliced almond topping.

Tools: large mixing bowl, hand mixer or stand mixer, small saucepan, bundt pan
  • 1 box yellow cake mix or butter cake mix. Be sure it does not already contain pudding as many do nowadays. Read the label.
  • 1 box (3.5 oz) French vanilla instant pudding
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup canola oil
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 cup Amaretto or an almond flavored liqueur
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 4 to 6 ounces of sliced almonds
  • 1/2 stick butter
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/2 cup Amaretto
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  1. Grease your bundt pan with butter or cooking spray. Then add a couple of tablespoons of flour and toss it around in the pan so it is coated with the flour. Invert over the sink and tap to remove excess flour. Place pan in the fridge until it is needed.
  2. In a large mixing bowl add the eggs, water, oil, Amaretto and nutmeg. Mix with a hand blender (or stand mixer) until well blended. Add cake and pudding mixes. Blend for 2 minutes on low speed. Wipe the bottom and sides of the bowl with a spatula then blend for another minute.
  3. Spread the sliced almonds in the bottom of your bundt pan. Pour the mixture over the almonds evenly in the bundt pan. Even out the mixture with a spatula if needed.
  4. Bake at 350 degrees F. on the center oven rack for 45 to 50 minutes or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean.
  5. A few minutes before the cake is finished make the sauce. Melt the butter in a small saucepan, then stir in rest of the ingredients. Bring to a simmer and cook for 2 minutes. Be careful it can bubble over so you need to watch it and stir it.
  6. When you remove the cake from the oven pour the hot sauce all over the cake leaving about 1/4 cup in reserve. After 30 minutes place a plate, top side down, on the top of the pan and invert it to remove the cake. Pour the remaining sauce over the top. For best flavor, make a day ahead if serving to guests. This gives it time to develop even more flavor.
(To make a rum cake substitute rum for Amaretto and chopped pecans for almonds. For a lemon or orange cake substitute lemon juice or orange juice for the liquor, no nuts needed. Also add the zest of 1 lemon or orange to the mix if you have whole citrus. Omit the nutmeg in these versions.)