Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Peanut Butter Shale Candy - revised

A while back, I posted a recipe for peanut butter shale candy. I was perfectly happy with it, but that doesn't mean I was done fiddling with the recipe.

This is a larger batch than the previous recipe. Might as well ... it's pretty darned good stuff. And I made a few other changes as well.

This candy is very similar to the previous one, with one change. That shale was a little harder, while this one is a little more .. fragile. It reminds me a lot of the filling inside a Butterfingers candy bar - sort of shattery. It breaks apart easily, and you can see layers in it when it breaks.

It's also just a little crumbly.

I made large pieces using a silicone mold that I bought right before Christmas, but smaller pieces would be great coated in chocolate.

I used a raw cane sugar, but white sugar would be fine, too. Normally I use unsalted butter for cooking, hut this time I opted for salted, to add just that tiny bit of salt to the candy.

Peanut Butter Shale

2 cups raw cane sugar
1 cup corn syrup
1/4 cup water
1 stick (8 tablespoons, 1/4 pound) salted butter
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 cups smooth peanut butter

Have a cookie sheet standing ready, lined with a silicone baking mat.. Or use a silicone mold. Or butter a baking sheet.

Combine the sugar, corn syrup, and water in a large saucepan (nonstick makes cleanup easier, but it's not necessary). Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the butter.

Attach a candy thermometer to the pot to measure the temperature of the hot sugar.

Continue cooking on medium heat until the temperature reaches 305 degrees. Don't be impatient and heat it too quickly, or the sugar can burn before it reaches the proper temperature.

Add the baking soda and the peanut butter, and stir to combine the peanut butter with the candy. The baking soda will cause it to foam up - that's normal.

Pour the candy onto the prepared baking sheet or into the mold. Spread it out as desired, using a heatproof spatula.

Let it cool completely, then break apart.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Sauerkraut Pierogi

Have you ever had pierogi? When I was a kid, they weren't as well known as they are now, but along with their current popularity came some non-traditional modifications. Fillings have gotten more varied. Which isn't terrible, but it still seems odd to me to see cheddar cheese in pierogi.

And some people (gasp!) deep fry them.

Pierogi - if you don't know them - are sort of like ravioli. They're a filled pasta. But unlike ravioli that's served with a sauce, pierogi are boiled and served with a little melted butter. Sour cream is a traditional topping.

That's the first day. But the second day, folks would heat up some butter - or maybe some bacon fat - and fry the leftover pierogi, browning them a bit. At that point, chopped onions or might be cooked with the pierogi, or they might be served with some crumbled bacon.

And again, sour cream.

But my mom liked pierogi best when it was fried, so we didn't do the first-day, second day thing. She'd boil them just to cook the noodles, then give them a little fry before serving them. And that's usually what I do, too.

When I was a kid, the traditional and most common) savory fillings were sauerkraut, potato, cheese, or meat. More rare were mushroom pierogi or cabbage pierogi. There were also sweet pierogi filled with plums. I never cared for those at all.

Out of the most common savory ones, I never liked the meat-filled ones. The cheese weren't my favorite, but I didn't mind them if I accidentally picked one. Potato was my second favorite. I'd pick a light-colored pierogi, hoping it had a potato filling instead of cheese. But my favorite was sauerkraut. I adored the sauerkraut pierogi.

There are probably thousands of recipes for cooking sauerkraut, from a basic draining and rinsing and heating of the preserved kraut, to longer cooking cooking with more ingredients. I like mine cooked longer, until it's browned a bit and I often add cabbage and onions. Sometimes I add mushrooms. Here's one of my recipes.

But you can use just about any sauerkraut recipe you like.

Pierogi dough isn't the same as dough used for ravioli or spaghetti - it's a softer dough, and richer. Many recipes include sour cream, which makes perfect sense, since sour cream is so common in Polish cooking.

When making pierogi, one key to getting it right is to make sure the filling isn't too wet. I decided to add a bit of Kary's Dry Roux to the sauerkraut filling to help keep any moisture from causing problems.

Sauerkraut Pierogi


2 cups all purpose flour
1 egg
2 tablespoons sour cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup water
1 to 1 1/2 cups prepared sauerkraut
2 teapoons Kary's Dry Roux

Pile the dough on your counter in a mountain-like formation. Create a well in the center of the dough. Hey! It's a volcano!

Put the egg, sour cream, and salt in the center of the well. Add about half of the water.

Use a fork to break the egg yolk and begin stirring the mixture, drawing in some of the flour to make a paste. Add the remainder of the water and continue stirring, drawing in more of the flour until you can start kneading the dough.

If the dough is too sticky to knead, dust it with flour, but try to avoid adding any. The goal is to have a soft, pliable dough. I should be soft and pliable; tacky, but not sticky.

If you have a stand mixer. using that to mix the dough is much easier, and you're less likely to add extra flour that you don't need.

If you're using a stand mixer, toss all the dough ingredients into the bowl of your stand mixer and mix with the flat paddle until the dough forms a ball and cleans the sides of the bowl. continue mixing at medium speed until the dough becomes smooth and stretchy. It should be tacky - like a post-it note. But not sticky.

Cover the dough and let it rest for 10 minutes so the gluten relaxes and makes it easier to roll.

I find that it's easiest to deal with pierogi in batches. Like this:

Sprinkle some flour on a baking sheet.

Divide the dough into 4 equal pieces. Flour your work surface lightly. Roll the dough to slightly larger than 9 inches square. If it's not exactly square, that's fine, but if you can get it sort-of square, you'll be able to cut more rounds from each piece.

Using a 3-inch biscuit cutter (or something similar) cut 9 rounds from your dough. I used a fluted biscuit cutter, but a plain round one is just fine. Gather the excess dough and set it aside - you can re-roll it to make more pierogi.

Brush the bottom half of the dough circles with water - a pastry or silicone brush is fine, or just dip your finger in water and brush the bottom edge of the dough. This will help the dough stick to itself when you fold it over.

Put about a teaspoon of filling in the center of each circle. Make sure it's a compacted rather than fluffy. You don't need a lot of filling. After you've folded the first one, you'll get an idea of how much will work.

Fold the top of the dough over the bottom, and press to seal all around the edge. For extra security, you can press the fork tines all around the edge.

Continue with the rest of the rounds and with the other three pieces of dough. As you finish with the pierogi, put them on the baking sheet, not touching each other.

Gather and roll the scraps. You'll notice that the dough is stiffer than before - that's from the flour that got added to the dough as you were rolling it out the first time. Roll the dough as thin as previously.

Cut more rounds and fill and fold as before. You can reroll the scraps a third time, but after that the scraps might be too stiff for a fourth attempt. You could use those scraps to make some regular noodles, if you like.

You can cook your pierogi right away, or put the baking sheet in the freezer until they're frozen solid, then put them in a plastic bag and stash them in the freezer.

To cook the pierogi:

Heat water to a boil in a large pot - or a smaller one, if you're cooking fewer pierogi. Add as many pierogi as you want to cook. These cook quickly, since the pasta is fresh. Once they float to the top, let them cook another minute or two.

Meanwhile, melt a tablespoon or so of butter in a frying pan - more butter for more pierogi. Transfer the cooked pierogi to the frying pan. Let them brown a bit on the bottom, then flip them over and let them get a little brown on top.

If you like, you can serve the pierogi with some sauteed onions or mushrooms, or some crumbled bacon on top.

Serve with sour cream at the table.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Spelt and Flax Loaf

I've been so busy baking bread for my upcoming book, I haven't posted anything here for a while. But sometimes bread happens.

This loaf is made with spelt, which is in the wheat family. It's got gluten, but it acts a little different from the gluten in regular wheat - it forms quickly, but it can be a little fragile, so you don't want the knead the heck out of it.

To be honest, the flax seed was a last-minute addition. I wanted a little something extra, but I didn't just want seeds on top. Flax seeds seemed perfect.

Spelt and Flax Loaf

1 cup room temperature water
2 1/4 teaspoons Red Star* active dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
9 ounces (2 cups) Spelt flour
4 1/2 ounces (1 cup) bread flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup flax seeds

Combine all the ingredients in the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix until the dough comes together and you can see that it is beginning to get elastic. This takes very little time, so don't walk away.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside until the dough has doubled in size, about an hour.

When the dough has doubled, spray a 9x5 loaf pan with baking spray, flour your work surface, and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Turn out the dough and knead it briefly, then form it into a log about 8 inches long. Place the log in the prepared baking pan, seam-side down. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and set aside until the dough has risen about an inch over the top of the pan.

Remove the plastic wrap, slash the loaf as desired, and bake at 350 degrees until nicely browned, about 35 minutes.

Remove the loaf from the pan and let it cool completely on a rack before slicing.

*Other brands of active dry yeast might not work well. The Red Star active dry has smaller grains than some other brands, and can be blended directly into the dough. If you're using another brand, let the yeast soften in the water before adding the other ingredients. Instant yeast should also work in this recipe.


Friday, December 27, 2013

Ice Box Cake

While looking for something completely different, I ran across a recipe for something called Ice Box Cake. It dates back to the 50's or the 40's or maybe even the 20's and it's an incredibly easy recipe. And no doubt developed by a brand to sell their products.

But that doesn't matter. Sometimes those brand-developed recipes are the best.

And this one sounded intriguing. Basically, it's the cookies layered with whipped cream between them, then the stack is laid on its side, and the the whole thing is covered with whipped cream and it's refrigerated overnight. Then, it needs to be sliced on the diagonal to show the cookie stripes.

First, I tried a little stack of just a few cookies and it was really good. The whipped cream softened the cookies to make them cake-like. So I decided to make a larger cake.

But instead of stacking, then laying them on their sides - that seems awkward, and I didn't have a good plate for that sort of thing - I decided to stack. That way, I could slice straight down at any angle and it would show the stripes.

I used the traditional cookies - now made by Nabisco, they're called Famous Chocolate Wafers. And I made my own whipped cream, spiking it with Crown Maple Whisky. I like the flavor a lot, and I thought the maple would go well with the chocolate wafers.

Ice Box Cake

1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
2 tablespoons Crown Maple Whisky
24 Famous Chocolate Wafers

First, make the whipped cream - in a large bowl, whisk the cream, sugar, and whisky until it reaches stiff peaks. Then start layering - a layer of cookies, then whipped cream.

I made two rows of three cookies, and made three layers like that. Then I made two more layers of three cookies in the middle. I wasn't something I planned - it just thought it might look interesting.

Then I used a piping bag to cover the whole thing with whipped cream, leaving a few spots showing a few layers of cookies. I might work on the design. Maybe something round next time, or a ring of cookies. Or more whipped cream. Or less.

Then, refrigerate overnight. This softens the cookies to a cake-like consistency, which is what you're looking for. Good stuff. 

Have you ever tried anything like this?

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Cinnamon Dinosaur Cookies

These roll-out cookies can be used for any recipe where you use a cookie cutter, but I thought these dinosaur cutters from Cake Boss were pretty cute. I reviewed the cutters for Serious Eats, and of course that meant I needed to bake some cookies.
Tough life, huh?

If you make the cookies thick enough, all of them can stand up, except T-Rex who's standing on one foot. But really, who need cookies that stand up? I mean it's fun, but most of the time they sit on a plate. Or you're eating them.

The cinnamon here is pretty subtle - the flavor creeps in at the end. And the coffee doesn't so much add flavor as it adds a bit of depth to the cookies. I used an espresso powder that I got from King Arthur Flour, but any instant coffee or espresso should be fine. You don't want to add ground coffee - that would just be gritty and unpleasant.

Cinnamon Dinosaur Cookies

10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon espresso powder
2 cups (9 ounces) all purpose flour

In the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter, salt, and sugar until it's fluffy. (If you didn't plan ahead and the butter is hard, beat that first, to soften, then add the salt and sugar.)

You can also do this with an electric hand mixer, but after adding the flour, you'll probably want to mix by hand since the dough is pretty dense.

Once the butter/sugar mixture is fluffy, add the egg, vanilla, cinnamon, and espresso powder. Beat until well combined, scraping down the bowl as needed.

Add the flour and mix on low speed until the dough gathers itself into large lumps and it looks evenly blended - scraping the bowl as needed.
Remove the dough from the bowl, gather it together in one lump, then flatten it (for faster cooling. Wrap in plastic wrap or place in a plastic bag or covered container. Refrigerate until the dough is firm - two hours minimum, or up to 24 hours, if that's more convenient.

When you're ready to bake, heat the oven to 350 degrees and line several baking sheets with parchment paper.

Working with half of the dough at a time for easier rolling, flour your work surface very lightly and roll out the dough to about 1/4 inch thick. Cut with cookie cutters and place the cookies on the prepared sheets. If you like, you can decorate with colored sugars prior to baking.

Bake the cookies until lightly browned around the edges - about 12 minutes for small cookies like these dinosaurs.

Let the cookies cool on a rack.

Continue cutting and baking cookies until all the dough is used up. You can re-roll the scraps, as needed. If the dough begins getting soft, refrigerate it to firm it up.


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Gadgets: Cake Boss Fondant Cutters (But I used 'em for COOKIES!)

I don't cut a lot of fondant, and I don't expect to in the future, but I like the fondant cutters from Cake Boss for making cookies. They're small, and they're cute. And when I say small, I mean the size of ... oh, let's say animal crackers as opposed to Oreos. The T-Rex was the bulkiest of the bunch, but still only about 2 1/4 inches from nose to tail. The brontosaurus was the slimmest, but a little longer at 2 1/2 inches. They were all pretty much one-bite cookies.

But that's fine. Sometimes small cookies are just what you need.

I tested the dinosaur cutters ($9.99) with a basic roll-out cookie recipe and was really pleased with them. The cutters cut smoothly, the embossing works, and you just press the knob to eject the cookies.

Even more amusing, three of the four cookies in the set were able to stand on their own when I made them thick enough. T-Rex was posed on one foot, so he didn't stand, but he did a fine job leaning. I'm not sure why you'd need to do that, but you can if you want to.

Besides the dinosaur set, there's a springtime set, a princess set, and work truck set, each with four cutters.

I'm not seeing a downside to these, as long as you're happy with the size of the cookies. And of course, you can use these for cutting fondant or pastry or anything else you can think of.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

I love cookbooks ... maybe a little too much

I my cookbook collection is pretty extensive, but that doesn't stop me from wanting more. And more. And more. And then the mailman comes.

Here's the latest batch, just in time for you to go last-minutes shopping. Or put them on your "me" list for after Christmas.

Breakfast for Dinner
By Lindsay Landis & Taylor Hackbarth

I'm not big on eating breakfast foods in the morning, but I adore scrambled eggs for dinner, so this seems like a great book for (yawnnnn ... sleepy) me.

There are dishes that are instantly recognizable as breakfast foods with a dinner twist, but there are others that are dinner foods with a hint 'o breakfast.

In the main dish section, I found some interesting twists, like Italian-style Stuffed French Toast, Huevos Rancheros Tacos, and Breakfast Sausage Ravioli.

But this book doesn't stop at dinner - there are drinks and desserts, too. I thought the Mocha Ice Cream Pie with Biscotti crust was an interesting way of presenting coffee and a biscotti.

For me, one of the keys to "do I want this book or not" is whether there are recipes I want to try right away. For sure. The breakfast pizza is pretty high on the to-do list.

The Geometry of Pasta
By Caz Hildebrand and Jacob Kenedy

When I was a kid, pasta was spaghetti or elbow macaroni. Sometimes mom would get fancy and buy wagon wheels or bow ties.

It was a looooong time before I realized how many pasta shapes there are. And a lot longer before I realized that the shape should match the sauce. Perhaps because mom only made one sauce and that went with the spaghetti.

Even now, I know that different shapes of pasta are supposed to match the sauce, but ... who has time to look up that stuff? I buy and interesting shape, and then sauce happens. Maybe I'll change my evil ways now that I have this book. It explains the different shapes of pasta, and then has recipes.

There are the usual pasta shapes that we all know, but there were plenty that I wasn't familiar with. AND, there are recipes for making some of the pasta shapes. Awesome!

One thing I wish this book included is a visual index of the pasta shapes, all on a few pages. There are graphics for each type of pasta, but if you know the shape and not the name, it will take some browsing to find it in the book. Probably not a big deal, since most boxes and bags of pasta do have the name, but there are times when something like that could be handy.

I'm a big pasta fan, so I'm looking forward to diving into these.

Winter Cocktails
By Maria Del Mar Sacasa

Ah, cocktails. If it seems odd to have a book specifically about winter cocktails, think about it a moment. There are some drinks that are year-round favorites, but there are plenty of others that are tied to seasons. Light, fruity drinks evoke summer. Mulled wine is definitely a winter drink.

This books includes some classics, but there are plenty of original cocktails, like Mama's Remedy or the Nutella Melt. There are also recipe for simple syrup, mixes, and some small bites and nibbles to go with the cocktails.

Not everything includes alcohol - there are non-alcoholic recipes included, and a few where the alcohol is optional. Some of the recipes include variations, which is nice. And many include tips or tidbits of information.

I didn't see a whole lot of exotic alcohols or specific brand names, and if there was something a little unusual mentioned, there were options included as well. So it should be pretty easy to make most of these drinks. I'm looking forward trying some of the warm cocktails. in particular.

Booze Cakes
By Kristina Castella and Terry Lee Stone

Might as well continue with the boozy theme. This time, we're not drinking, though - these are baked goods that use liquor for flavoring. Some rely on a single type of alcohol like the Pink Champagne Cake while others are all about the cocktail, like the Harvey Wallbanger Cake or the Margarita Cheesecake.

I usually make a rum cake for Christmas or New Year's, so I'm thinking I might try the recipe in this book. Besides a plain rum cake, it includes variations for a chocolate rum cake, one with nuts, and spiced rum cake.

There are also small bites - called Cake Shots here, and traditional cakes with added alcohol, like chocolate lava cakes with port wine. Not enough? There are also toppings and garnishes.

There are quite a few recipes in this book I'm looking forward to trying.

Tiny Party Food
By Teri Lyn Fisher and Jenny Park

Let's face it, small food is cute. And little bites are awesome because you can have just a little taste without facing a whole slice of cake or a giant burger. And then you can have another little taste, or you can choose some other little taste.

 That's what the book is all about. There are little sconces, one-bite crab cakes, And itty-bitty shepherd's pies.

Ooooh, those shepherd's pies look awesome.

And then there are desserts. Mini chocolate raspberry tarts and chocolate eclairs. Fried apple pies. Cheesecake. And breakfast - French Toast or Eggs Benedict. Yup, this book's got you covered.

Besides being great for parties, these would be fun as appetizers and nibbles at home when you want to do something a little special and quirky.

I received these books from the publisher. All words are my own.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Molecular Gastronomy Cocktails

When I have time ...

... hahahahaha hoho heeehee hahaha

Ahem. Excuse me, I lost it for a second there. What I meant to say is that when I have a little extra time, I've been fiddling around with some molecular gastronomy recipes. Previously, I made chocolate wind, honey caviar, and olive oil snow.

I find this stuff really interesting. Not that I want to make a whole meal of manipulated food, but I like the idea of adding little surprises and garnishes.

When I first heard about molecular gastronomy, the ingredients were hard to find, or the quantities were ridiculous - no one needs a 10-pound vat of something you'll use by the teaspoon. Now, there are ingredient kits, and you can find a lot of the products online in reasonable quantities.

But once you have the products, you have to figure out what to do with them.

I was pretty happy to see that the folks from Molecule-R, who make molecular gastronomy kits and sell supplies, now have a cookbook. The new book,  Molecular Gastronomy by Molecule-R has 40 recipes and a whole lot of information that's written for normal folks.

It's not just a book of "mix this, do that," but it explains what the ingredients are, where they come from, how they work, and how they're used in other products we're familiar with.

When I first started seeing chefs using molecular gastronomy techniques on TV, one of the techniques that fascinated me was making of spheres of things that aren't normally spheres. Caviar-like balls of olive oil or vinegar or whatever. It looked so fun.

So when I got my first molecular gastronomy kit, it's one of the first things I tried. And I still like the technique, and the results. This time around, I made some dark-pink (almost red) balls made from water, sugar, Captain Morgan Spiced Rum and a few drops of food coloring.

And then what?

I wanted them to sort of float around in a cocktail, and tried a carbonated water to see how they'd react, but they tended to all float to the surface. In plain water, they sunk. Either of those options would have been fine for serving, but not all that exciting for photos.

And I wanted something relatively clear.

I made a slushie with some ice, a bit of orange juice, and some Smirnoff Wild Honey vodka. I stirred the pink caviar in and liked the effect.

I think it would be fun to have a little bowl of these and let people stir them into their own drinks. I'm also thinking about mixing these into ice cream. I have no idea how they'd react to being frozen (we're just in the idea stage now) but I think they might stay soft because of the alcohol and sugar.

Or ... making rum cupcakes and using these as a garnish on top of the frosting.

The next thing I want to make from this book is the Reinvented Choco-Hazelnut which includes a hazelnut cake that's blended, then put into a nitrous whipper (like you'd use for whipped cream) and then cooked in a microwave. I have no idea if I'll like it, but it sounds intriguing.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

A Little of This, A Little of That

I guess I'm in the mood for roundups. I did a gift guide last week, and now I've got more goodies to tell you about. Some are gift-worthy, some are useful. tasty, or interesting. Some I received from the companies, some were from other sources, and I bought quite a few.

A little bit of this, a little bit of that.

But I thought you might be interested in a few of them.

GIR Spatulas

I reviewed the first GIR spatula a while back, and now they've got a whole bunch of different sizes. It's hard to say why I like these so much, but unless I need a spatula-spoon sort of thing, these are the ones I reach for first. Since it's one-piece construction, there aren't seams where food can lodge, and they're just the right firmness - bendy enough, but not too soft.

AND they come in a huge variety of colors. So you can coordinate with your kitchen colors, or buy completely wacky colors so you can find them easily among their brethren in the utensil crock.

They're a little pricy, but they should last nearly forever, unless your dog decides to use them as chew toys. The big one is ... really big, so this is the one to reach for when you're stirring the vat of marinara or the cauldron of chili. The little one might actually be my favorite.

Disclaimer: I received these from GIR but was not required to write about them.

9x13 Covered Baking Pan

I got one of these pans from Good Cook for some promotion they were running, and I went out and bought another one and I'm about to grab a few more. You might think that a lidded pan isn't necessary all that often, but I have to tell you, I'm finding plenty of uses for it. When I'm making buns, it's nice to be able to snap the lid on when the dough is rising - no need to fiddle with plastic wrap.

And, since the lid is tall, there's no chance the dough is going to rise that high. Or at least I hope not. With plastic wrap, the plastic usually sits right on top of the dough and it can stick, so that's another point for the lidded pan.

Then, when I've got baked goods that need to be transported, having a lidded container is great. I'm getting tired of buying plastic wrap, bags, and foil that get thrown away almost immediately.

The pan itself is getting a lot of use, as well, with buns, buns, and more buns going into the oven as I test recipes for the book I'm working on.

Disclaimer (and not): I received one of these from Good Cook, but have since purchased another.

Stretch Tops

Speaking of too much plastic wrap, I was getting really tired of the reams of plastic wrap I was wasting when I was covering bowls of rising dough, so I started looking for some kind of covers that would be reusable. I know some people use shower caps, but those are pretty much disposable. Oh, sure, you might use them a time or two, rinsing between uses, but if they get gunked up with dough, I'd probably toss them rather than scrub.

I saw some lids on Made-for-TV commercial, and they seemed like a brilliant idea. I couldn't find those for sale, but I did find some unbranded lids that looked pretty similar. I gave them a try and got frustrated pretty quickly. The description says they stretch to fit different-sized bowls, but trying to get the largest size onto my stand mixer bowl was like trying to put a queen-sized bedsheet on a king-size bed. And then, when I finally wrangled it in place, it wanted to slip off. UGH!

These actually work fine if you happen to have bowls that are the right size, but that's not quite what I was looking for. I do have some bowls they fit, so I can use them - but the point was to have a cover for the stand mixer bowl, so I moved on to another product.

I ordered Norpro's bowl covers, which are just stretchy silicone squares. I liked these a lot better - I was able to cover my mixer bowl, and it held tight as long as the square and bowl were clean and dry. A little flour or oil on the outside or rim of the bowl made things less stick-able, but not terrible.

The downside was that when I tried to cover a square pan, the sharp corner damaged the silicone square and the next time I tried to stretch it over a bowl, it tore. Since the tear was at the edge of the square, it's still perfectly usable, but now I know that it's a little fragile.

Since these don't need to fit a bowl of a specific size, they're really versatile, and they stretch a lot, and they cling pretty well. I'd love it if I could find them in an even larger size to fit things like muffin pans or other big baking pans. I'd love them even more if they weren't as delicate.

I decided to try one more product with a different design, and that was the odd-looking stretch cover from Lekue. I hesitated on this one because of the price, but decided to give it a go, anyway. And, good thing I did. The 10.2-inch lid is perfect for my stand mixer bowl. The odd shape means that it's holding on because of the design as well as the tackiness of the silicone.
When dough is rising, this thing hangs on tight and it expands to accommodate the gas building in the bowl. And it really, really, really stretches.

The downside is that it's not going to fit absolutely every bowl you own, but it does fit a range of sizes - the one that fits my stand mixer bowl also works well with several smaller mixing bowls I have, like the one above. But there's a point where it's just too floppy. It covers the bowl, but it's not snug enough to seal.

But, they sell covers in a lot of sizes, from the 10.2 that I bought, all the way down to a 3.3 inch size. I'm probably going to pick up a few more, just so I have a variety. And they come in a couple different colors, if that matters.

Allegedly, you can use them to cover a melon or a cut orange or whatever, but I was mostly interested in having flexible bowl covers.

Non-Disclaimer: I bought these.

Wacky Apple

Wacky Apple is a local company, and they sent me some samples of their apple products, including apple sauce, juices, and fruit leathers.

I love apple sauce, but not vast quantities all at once. When I buy a big jar and only use part of it, sometimes it'll be growing mold before I decide to use it again. The Wacky Apple products are marketed for kids, but I thought the single-serving sizes were kind of handy for the small applesauce cravings that sometimes hit.

As far as flavor, I liked that they weren't over-sugared, which is my pet peeve with some apple products. And there were a bunch of different flavors, with added fruits or cinnamon, as well as the plain applesauce. The juices were nice, and I can see how they'd be handy for sending along with lunches. If I buy juice, I don't mind buying larger quantities, but I can see how it could be useful if you just need a small amount of something for a recipe or you want juice with lunch.

Disclaimer: I received these as a free sample. I was not required to blog about them.

Bakery Bags and a Yeast Spoon

You know all that baking I've been doing? Well, when it's done, I need to stash those breads in bags, and those little grocery store bags storage bags just don't cut it when I've made a large loaf. The big bags from King Arthur Flour are big enough for my largest loaves, and they'll hold a whole 9x13 pan full of baked buns without breaking them apart - perfect for when I'm giving the buns away but don't want to send the pan, too.

Also great for storing other large items, and I've used them for brining as well.

These are the biggest ones, but there are several smaller sizes as well.

Speaking of King Arthur flour, I also love their yeast spoon. It seems like a silly thing, but you have to understand that I buy yeast by the pound. Or two pounds. A standard packet of yeast is 2 1/4 teaspoons, which is an odd amount to measure over and over and over. The yeast spoon measures 2 1/4 teaspoons, so it's one dip in the yeast jar, and I'm done.

Non-Disclaimer: I bought these.

Hershey's Spread

OOooo, yeah. This is a thick spread, like the consistency of peanut butter or nutella, but it's all chocolate. When this arrived from a Klout perk, I went after it with a spoon. I'm still not completely sure what I'll do with it, but I suspect I'll figure it out.

This product isn't up on the Hershey site yet, but I see on Amazon that they also sell chocolate almond and chocolate hazelnut. The chocolate almond sounds interesting, but I kind of like the plain chocolate version, since it will be a little more versatile.

Disclaimer(ish): I received this as a Klout perk. There is no obligation to write about these perks.

Diamond Candles

Are candles food related? They are when they're scented with food scents, and I chose the Vanilla Lime scent. I love vanilla and I love lime (it might be my favorite citrus fruit, but don't tell lemon or orange...) so I thought it would be nice to have in the house for those days when I've burned something or I'm just tired of the lingering odor of bacon.

Okay, maybe not bacon.

I was happy with the scent - it was pleasant but not overwhelming. And the candle itself is pretty huge. It looks like it should last for a LONG time. And the jar is re-usable, which is always a plus. The vanilla lime doesn't seem to be on the site now, but I see and orange-vanilla that would probably be just as awesome.

The added benefit of Diamond Candles is that each of their ring candles has a ring embedded in the wax of the candle, so that once you've burned about an inch of candle you can fish out the little packet and see what you got. Most of the rings are nice-quality costume jewelry, but someone could also get "real" jewelry. There are also classic candles that don't contain rings.

Oooooh, sparkly!
I ended up with a nice purple stone, which amused the heck out of me, since purple happens to be my favorite color. Score!

If you check the Diamond Candles website, it seems like they're often running specials and sales, so you can score some extras. I think these would be great gift items.

Disclaimer: I requested this from the company and received it at no cost to me. I was not required to write about it.

Lagrima Vanilla

I love vanilla. Sure, there's chocolate. But vanilla is pretty awesome too. I've tried a whole lot of brands, a lot of types, from a lot of countries. And I've made my own. Recently, I tried the Lagrima vanilla - it's made from single-source Ugandan vanilla beans in small batches.

If you're looking for a high-end, boutique vanilla, this could be the one for you. It's not as sweet as some brands, since there's no sugar (some brands add sugar. Crazy right?) and it's more earthy than floral - deep flavor that seems to linger. Nice stuff!

Each bottle includes a few vanilla beans, so when the bottle is empty, you can remove those beans and drop them into some sugar to make your own vanilla sugar.

I'll be cooking and baking with this vanilla soon, so keep a looking for results and recipes!

Disclaimer: I received a bottle of vanilla from the company for use in recipes.

Spiceologist Block

A while back my friend Heather from Farmgirl Gourmet said she was launching a partnership with a spice company and the next thing I knew there was a Kickstarter campaign for the Spiceologist Block, a wooden block that holds test tubes which are filled with spices from Savorx.

I really found this idea intriguing. Most of my spices are carefully stored in a dark cabinet, which is where they belong, but I'm really enthralled with the test tubes. It speaks to my inner mad scientist.

I'm going to use up the spices that came with the set, then figure out which spices I use enough to want them readily available on the counter, and revise what's in the block based on my peculiar cooking needs. My kitchen isn't very sunlit, anyway, and my most-used spices will get used quickly enough that it's not going to matter that the block is on the counter rather than in a cabinet.

Or ... I might fill it with colored sugars and crazy salts. We'll see. Right now I have a lot of new spices to use - some familiar favorites, and a few that I didn't have. Seriously, can you believe I didn't have pumpkin pie spice?

Non-Disclaimer: I received this after funding it on Kickstarter. In other words, I paid for it. Heather, however, is a friend. 

Thermapen Thermometer

My dad always felt that you should always buy the best-quality equipment you could afford, and I guess I absorbed some of that attitude. I've never regretted the money I've spent buying quality products, but I've often regretted buying cheap stuff that has to be replaced when it malfunctions or breaks.

A thermometer is a kitchen basic these days, and if your goal is to cook your food to a precise temperature without overcooking, then it makes sense to have an accurate, reliable thermometer. I think the reason some of our moms were so fond of overcooking turkey and pork was that they couldn't reliably tell the difference between underdone and just-done. So, for safety's sake, they cooked everything a little longer. Like, overdone.

Now, we can tell for sure if our chicken is at a safe temperature. Or, we can if we have a working thermometer.

I recall one annoying evening when my roasted-something seemed to be cooking at lightning speed according to my leave-in thermometer. I double-checked with several other thermometers and got a wide range of readings. It was pretty obvious that my leave-in thermometer was having issues, but it was just as obvious that the other thermometers weren't all that accurate, either. Or maybe one was. But which one?

So, I invested in a Thermapen and I've never regretted the purchase. Well, I sort of regret that now there are splash-proof models and pretty colors, and the newest ones have backlit screens, while mine is the original version. But still, I'm happy I bought this one when I did. It has stayed accurate and it reads the temperature much faster than any of the other "instant" thermometers I happen to have sitting around here.

Non-disclaimer: I bought this.

So there we go - some of my new finds, old favorites, and other things. What's Santa putting under your tree this year?

Gadgets: Onpot

I may be the only person on the planet who thinks this is a problem, but it bugs the heck out of me when I take the lid off a pot and need to find a place to set it down. The area close to the stove is likely to be covered with food prep I'm working on, so there's not a whole lot of space for drippy lids.

And then when I pick the lid up to put it back on the pot. I have to wipe up the counter. Even if I set it upside down, I end up with drips or condensation.

The Onpot ($9.95) is a one-trick pony, but it's a pretty cool trick. Two suction cups attach to the lid of the pot - it's made from silicone, so the heat won't bother it.

Then, instead of removing the lid completely, you tilt it to rest on the rim of the pot. Any condensation inside the lid drips back into the pot white the lid stays far enough out of the way for stirring, adding ingredients, or just letting things cook uncovered for a while.

For the suction cups to stick tightly, the lid needs to be smooth, but most lids aren't textured - most of mine are glass or smooth metal. I don't know if I'd trust it with a super-heavy lid, like from a cast iron Dutch oven, but it seems sturdy enough for most lids.

Since it's made from silicone, it's dishwasher safe, but since it rests outside the pot it shouldn't need much scrubbing, in any case.

The product was supplied for the purpose of a review on Serious Eats; this was previously published on Serious Eats.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Cashew Brittle

Every year, I make some type of brittle or candy for my father-in-law for Christmas. This time, I decided to make cashew brittle, since it's his favorite nut. And I decided to make these REALLY nutty. Because that's how I roll.

The recipe for brittles is pretty flexible. I've made them with brown sugar or white. I've added butter or not. I've used more or less corn syrup. I've even made some with no corn syrup, but it tends to crystallize quicker, so you can't store it as long.

But as long as you heat it to the hard crack stage, you'll end up with a nice brittle. That's almost more important than the ingredients. Well, you do need sugar.

Speaking of sugar, I used a raw cane sugar. The chunks were bigger than regular granulated white sugar, but it melted just fine, anyway.

Some recipes suggest that you shouldn't stir at certain points in the process, which keeps the sugar from re-crystallizing after it melts. But ... I tend to poke and prod and stir, so the corn syrup is pretty necessary for me.

I picked up a couple of silicone molds that are meant for making brittles and barks - I thought it would make a really cool presentation. Since I didn't want the brittle to be super-thick, I used two of the molds for this one batch of brittle.

After I took the brittle out of the molds, I had some fun with them and filled in some of the lettering with melted white chocolate, so it would be more prominent.

At first, I was trying to neatly fill the letters, but then I realized it would be easier to simply spread the chocolate on, then scrape it off, letting it fill in the holes. Since there were some holes and imperfections in the surface of the brittle, I ended up with white dots ... I actually thought it looked kind of nice - like falling snow.

What do you think?

Cashew Brittle

2 cups raw cane sugar
1 cup corn syrup
1/2 cup water
1 cup (2 sticks, 1/2 pound) butter
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 pound cashews, chopped roughly

In a large saucepan (nonstick is nice for for easier cleaning) heat the sugar, corn syrup, and water, stirring as needed until the sugar melts. Continue heating to a boil. Add the butter and stir.

Place a candy thermometer in the pan, making sure it's in the sugar.

Heat to 280 degrees, then add the nuts. Stir. The mixture will thicken a lot when the cool nuts hit the hot sugar, and the sugar temp will probably also drop. Continue cooking, stirring continuously to keep the sugar or cashews from burning, until the temperature reaches 305 degrees. Add the baking soda and stir. The mixture will foam up.

Pour the mixture into the silicone molds or onto one or more baking sheets lined with silicone mats.

Spread or stretch the candy, as needed. Let it cool completely, then break into chunks.

If you're using the molds, you can fill the lettering with melted chocolate and let it harden. Or not.

Non-Disclaimer: The silicone molds are made by Good Cook, but I didn't receive these for free - I bought them at the grocery store.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Chocolate Pine Nut Cookies

Maybe it's just me, but pine nuts remind me a little bit of mint, so it seemed natural to put them into a chocolate cookie - I love chocolate and mint together.

These cookies also include some chocolate chips. Or, actually, I used some red, white and green chips along with the chocolate. They don't show up very much on the outside of the cookies, but you'll see them when you bite into them.

I suppose I could have sprinkled a few chips on top to make them more visible, but I don't mind that they're little hidden gems.

I got the pine nuts from my friends at Frieda's Specialty Produce and right now there's a coupon on their site for $1 off, AND you might find some specials at your local King Soopers or Kroger store. If you haven't tried pine nuts before, might as well give it a go while they're a little bit cheaper, right?

Chocolate Chip and Pine Nut Chocolate Cookies
Makes 5 dozen cookies

2 cups (9 ounces) all purpose flour
1/2 cup cocoa powder*
2 teaspoons baking powder
10 tablespoons shortening (I used the butter flavored)
1 1/2 cups white sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 eggs
1/2 cup milk
3 ounces (about 1/2 cup) pine nuts
1/2 cup chocolate chips (white, dark, or colored chips)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line several baking sheets with parchment paper

In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, cocoa powder and baking powder together. Set aside.

In the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a bowl, using an electric mixer), cream the shortening, sugar, and salt until it's light and fluffy.

Add the vanilla extract and beat until it's incorporated. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until combined.

Add the flour in thirds, alternating with two additions of the milk, mixing well between each addition. Stir in the pine nuts and the chocolate chips.

With a 1 1/2 inch cookie scoop, portion cookies onto the prepared cookie sheets, leaving space between them for expansion. Bake at 350 degrees until the cookies are set and no longer shiny on top - about 15 minutes.

Transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Three lunch sandwiches made in a breakfast sandwich maker

After my last breakfast sandwich binge, I wanted to make some more ... lunchy sandwiches. So here they are!

English Muffin Pizza

This is a great use for leftover Italian sausage. Start with a generous smear of tomato caponata or some thick marinara or your favorite pizza sauce on the bottom half of an English muffin, then add some slices of cooked Italian sausage. Top with a nice melty cheese like mozzarella, or even jack. Heat in the sandwich maker until the cheese is melted.

Yes, I left this one topless. So you can make another sandwich from the other half of the muffin. Sneaky, yes?

Tuna Melt

I'm guessing that Tuna Melts are a love-hate thing, right? People either love them or say, "ewwwww, warm tuna salad!" But if they're done right, the tuna salad stays mostly cool while the cheese gets a little melty.

Instead of an English muffin, this time I used a bagel. To be honest, the bagels I bought were a tiny bit too large for the breakfast sandwich maker, but that was an easy fix. I just cut a wedge from the bagel, and pushed the cut ends together making a smaller circle and it fit perfectly. Sometimes you just have to improvise.

I started with a few slices of tomato on the bottom (which also helped keep the tuna salad from falling through the hole in the bagel!) then a generous portion of tuna salad, then some cheese. It was too tall to fit into the sandwich maker with the egg-cooking plate in place, so I just moved that aside and let it cook for about 3 minutes until the cheese was melty. Then I put the top part of the bagel on.

If I wanted that top part of the bagel toasted, I could have let that sit in the sandwich maker for a minute after I took the main part of the sandwich out, but I was fine with it untoasted.

Ta daaaa!

Veggie Delight

This little sandwich combines some of my all-time favorite foods. And the colors are really pretty together. The olives add a nice briny flavor to cut the richness of the avocado and cheese and the red pepper adds a bit of lightness.

For something meat-free, this is pretty filling and VERY satisfying.

On the bottom half of the English muffin, I spread some avocado. Okay, maybe it was a LOT of avocado. Then I added some pitted kalamata olives, sliced in half lengthwise. That went into the bottom half of the sandwich maker. I but a big slice of roasted red pepper on the egg-cooker part, then topped that with some mild cheddar cheese. I let that cook until the cheese was almost melted, then topped with the top half of the English muffin to let it get a little toasty. Another minute and I called it LUNCH.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Cookie Cutters: The Rorschach Test of Baking

I used to work very-very-very part-time (like three or four hours a week) in a cooking-kitchen-gadget store, and when it was slow, I'd tidy up. Neaten up the cookie cutters. And there were some, if they were tilted sideways or hanging upside-down on the rack, that were baffling.

I'd stare at them and try to figure out what they were. And then I'd peek at the label to see if I was right.

So, when I got a box of holiday cookie cutters from Good Cook, I pulled them out one by one and named what they were without looking. It was all going swimmingly - Santa, stocking, gingerbread man, tree, mitten, duck, wreath, snowflake ...

Screech! Back up a second there. Duck???

Why was there a DUCK in the holiday cookie cutter set? 

But it wasn't a duck, it was actually a bird. 
Like this:

Maybe the partridge that was supposed to be in the pear tree?

But, no, that wasn't right. I know! It's a kitty!!!

Hmm. Perhaps not.

Maybe a kid playing with his new baseball mitt?

Crazy Aunt Zelda?

Oh dear...

Maybe the kid with the baseball mitt can help ...

Could it be ... a ... snowman???

Well, how about that?


And, it's a lot of other things, too, right?

Pretty cool. And weird.

Do you see any OTHER possible shapes?

Disclaim(ish): I get a TON of product from Good Cook as part of their Kitchen Experts program. For specific events, I am usually asked to include one or two of the products sent, but I'm free to do whatever I want with the rest. So, yes, I got this free. But this is NOT a required or sponsored post. I just happened to be amused by this particular item. I would have been just as amused if I had purchased it.