Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Spinach Apple Salad with Maple Cider Vinaigrette

Up until the last couple of days we have had a relatively mild winter here. Relative being the operative word as temperatures in the upper 30s and low 40s on a sunny day can feel rather balmy this time of the year. As much as I am trying to stay in and enjoy the moment, I can't help but wonder what Mother Nature has in store for the remainder of the winter. With a stack of books I have yet to read, DVDs containing seasons of shows to watch either again or for the first time (move over Breaking Bad, Homeland, and Walking Dead, House of Cards and Downton Abbey are up next), a stack of wood to keep a fire going, and all of those bottles of wine I couldn't resist buying are all I need to get through any bitter cold or blizzard-like weather days. Secretly I am looking forward to taking in the beauty and silence of the first significant snowfall particularly now that I have rediscovered places to photograph the elegance of the winter landscape. The words of English novelist J. B. Priestley have always resonated with me. "The first fall of snow is not only an event, it is a magical event. You go to bed in one kind of a world and wake up in another quite different, and if this is not enchantment, where is it to be found?'

With so many of the recently posted recipes skewing closer to the somewhat high in calories end of the food spectrum, I thought it might be wise to end the year with a healthier one. For those of you who may be in a bit of a salad rut, I am hoping this Spinach Apple Salad with Maple Cider Vinaigrette will give you (and your family) a much needed reprieve from your same-old-same-old salad. As much as I too can sometimes be a creature of habit, I love finding something to give my habits a reason to change. Thinking I might now be headed for a new salad rut.

This Spinach Apple Salad with Maple Cider Vinaigrette was the first course for this year's Christmas dinner. Having made a different salad not exactly getting rave reviews at a prior family gathering, there was a great deal of pressure on this salad to perform. Whether or not it was one of several Christmas miracles occurring over the course of the day, the salad was deemed to be 'great'. No one even mentioned their most recent salad eating experience here. Hopefully the Spinach Apple Salad with Maple Cider Vinaigrette successfully erased that (bad) memory.

Eating more spinach in the year ahead is more of a goal than a resolution. Not only do I like how it tastes, it has a high nutritional value. Spinach is a rich source of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, and iron among others. This just may be one of the foods to keep us all healthy in the cold winter months ahead.

The medium-strong blue flavor and creamy texture of the Point Reyes Blue Cheese made it the perfect choice for this salad and pairs incredibly well with the apples. If you are a fan of blue cheese but have not yet tried this one, you absolutely must.

Ever since discovering how delicious PInk Lady apples were in the Apple Galette, I cannot seem to get enough of them. Time had also come for me to add another apple to my perennial favorites, Honey Crisps and Granny Smiths. If simplicity is one of your goals for 2015, buy the praline pecans available at Trader Joe's instead of making your own.

When I looked at the list of ingredients in the Maple Cider Vinaigrette I wondered if the pure maple syrup would make it a little 'too' sweet. The dijon mustard and apple cider vinegar tempered its' sweetness, giving way to a vinaigrette that was both refreshing and rather delish. The vinaigrette can be made right before serving, early in the day or the day before. Stored in the refrigerator it lasts for several days.

The Spinach Apple Salad with Maple Cider Vinaigrette would be great served either at lunch (all on its' own) or at dinner. The mild flavor of the shallots did not overshadow the flavors of the cheese or pecans, however, a thinly sliced red onion would also work in this salad. Technically by changing out the shallots with a red onion, using goat cheese instead of the Point Reyes Blue, or replacing the Pink Lady apples with either Honey Crisps or Gala Apples, you would be serving a 'different' salad each time (keeping you from getting into a salad rut!).

Wishing you all a very happy new year! Looking forward to inspiring you with more recipes in 2015!

Spinach Apple Salad with Maple Cider Vinaigrette (inspired by the spinach-apple salad recipe on myrecipes)

Maple Cider Vinaigrette
1/3 cup cider vinegar
2 Tablespoons pure maple syrup
1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard (recommend Maille)
1/4 teaspoon sea salt (could also use Kosher salt)
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

6 ounces of candied praline pecans (homemade or the ones from Trader Joe's)
10 ounces baby spinach
1 or 2 Pink Lady apples, thinly sliced (Honey Crisp or Gala apples would also work well)
1 large or 2 medium sized shallots, thinly sliced
6 ounces blue cheese (highly recommend Point Reyes Blue)

1. For the Vinaigrette: Whisk together the cider vinegar, pure maple syrup, dijon mustard, salt and pepper. Gradually whisk in the extra-virgin olive oil until well-blended.
2. On a large serving platter, lightly dress the spinach and sliced apples with the salad dressing. 
3. Top the salad with the sliced shallots and crumbled blue cheese. Serve remaining salad dressing on the side.

December winter images taken at the Chicago Botanic Gardens in Glencoe, Illinois.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Roasted Brussels Sprouts Gratin

"The best gifts in the world are not in the material objects one can buy from the store, but in the memories we make with the people we love." As I have gotten older and wisdom has finally set in, I have come to see what Christmas was meant to be about: the making of memories. At some point in our lives most of the presents received (with a few exceptions) become a blur, but time spent with family and friends is not easily forgotten. Which means I take the day (particularly the meal and all of the associated hoopla planning) seriously. Given the chance, who does not want to tip the scales in favor of creating good memories?

The good news (or bad news depending on one's perspective) is that there are no Christmas meal traditions in our family. Some years I have made a booklet containing all of the meal's recipes while in other years I have simply recorded the menu.This year's holiday meal incorporated some of my travels this year as well as included the past favorites of beef tenderloin, red wine mushroom gravy, roasted balsamic red onions (made this year with the worth its' weight in gold traditional balsamic vinegar by Mia Bella bought on a recent trip to Tucson), and Wendy's Mashed Potatoes as well as several 'new' or rather 'new to my family' dishes. The spinach-apple salad with a maple-cider vinaigrette, roasted brussels sprouts gratin, a bread pudding (an adaptation of the New Orleans School of Cooking recipe), and the chocolate cake with chocolate buttercream icing, Momofuku style were making a first time holiday appearance. To compliment this relatively rich meal, my sister and brother-in-law were bringing the unbelievable (big and bold) 2007 Keenan Cabernet Franc (Napa Valley, Spring Mountain District). Yet in spite of all the thought and planning that went into the meal part of the day, there was one dish I had reservations about.

So I decided to text to my sister to be certain brussels sprouts were on the list of vegetable favorites. The expected response was a simple 'yes or no' answer, but hers came with a qualifier 'brussels sprouts with pancetta'. For a moment I wondered whether to send back a snarky sisterly response ('that wasn't the question') but instead remained silent as even adding a smiley face to that response wouldn't have completely disguised what I was thinking. Little did she know I was going to be making brussels sprouts with pancetta, only it wasn't going to be the 'brussels sprouts with pancetta' she might have been anticipating. Spoiler Alert: The Roasted Brussels Sprouts Gratin may now be her favorite way to eat 'brussels sprouts and pancetta'.

After looking at the ingredients in Saveur's Roasted Brussels Sprouts Gratin recipe after going to the grocery store several times, I made the decision to make some minor ingredient changes (eliminating the garlic and thyme) as I felt there may have been too many flavors going on. Additionally, I wanted to temper the richness of the dish slightly by using both heavy whipping cream and whole milk. The recipe also needed to be doubled as one pound of brussels sprouts was not going to serve nine hungry, somewhat adventurous eaters. Before doing the grocery shopping I had read somewhere smaller sized brussels sprouts were more flavorful and tender. I almost let out a scream of sheer delight when I came upon the big box of perfect, small brussels sprouts in the produce aisle. Finding the 'perfect' brussels sprouts was a foreshadowing good things to come kind of omen.

Saveur's recipe called for the use of bacon, however, even before the text exchange with my sister I knew I wanted to use pancetta instead. If bacon makes everything taste better, thick slices of pancetta would achieve that and more. Additionally the recipe called for the use of six shallots. The shallots available at one of the stores I frequent look as if they were on steroids. Because of their size, I opted to use just two of them. Thinly sliced the shallots measured almost one cup. The thick slices of chopped pancetta and thin slices of shallots are sautéd until the onions have caramelized. After deglazing the pan with 1 1/2 Tablespoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice, the pancetta and shallots are transferred to a large buttered oval gratin dish and tossed with one teaspoon of lemon zest.

Roasting almost any vegetable can significantly alter their flavors. Caramelizing their natural sugars brings out their natural sweetness. And roasting brussels sprouts transforms the beautiful green and white gems into incredible bites of deliciousness. Simply tossed in extra-virgin olive oil, seasoned with kosher salt and pepper, the brussels sprouts are roasted in a 400 (F) degree preheated oven for approximately 15-20 minutes (or until lightly browned and easily pierced with a knife). The vegetables going into the oven are not the same ones coming out.

The second layer of the gratin is the mornay sauce. Made with heavy cream, whole milk, butter, flour, grated gruyere cheese, grated Parmigano-Reggiano cheese, kosher salt and white pepper, it is poured evenly over the roasted brussels sprouts, cooked pancetta and caramelized shallots. The final layer of the gratin is made with panko bread crumbs, melted butter, lemon zest and some grated gruyere cheese. At this point the entire gratin can be covered and refrigerated for several hours or overnight (I made mine the night before with great results).

I baked the gratin in a preheated 350 (F) degree oven for somewhere between 30-35 minutes. Most gratins are baked at higher temperatures (i.e., 400 degrees), however, having several side dishes to bake (all with different baking temperatures) I simply reduced the temperature and increased the baking time (t worked). When the top of the gratin was lightly browned and thoroughly heated through I took it out of the oven.

Yes I know, this another one of those blog postings without a final finished photo. Getting the Christmas dinner on the table along with bad lighting are my excuses this time. If you could only see the finished dish. Seriously it was beautiful. I would bet it is a dish destined to entice even those who don't think they are fans of brussels sprouts (or specify they eat them only one way). One bite of the gratin might make them wonder why they may have dissed them for so long.

The Roasted Brussels Sprouts Gratin was a great compliment to the medium-rare roasted beef tenderloin, however, it would also pair well with chicken, lamb or pork (don't think a rich gratin goes particularly well with fish). If a baked ham is something you serve on New Year's Day, the gratin along with the Lemony Potato Salad would make for a great, memorable meal. Isn't making memories what holiday meals are all about? Heck, why limit memorable meals to only the holidays? And oh, before I forget, the roasted brussels sprouts gratin will be making repeat appearances here and we will not be waiting for a holiday.
Roasted Brussels Sprouts Gratin (adapted from the recipe shared in Saveur)

4 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 pounds brussel sprouts (choose small ones if you can find them), rinsed and halved
2 large shallots, peeled and thinly sliced (yield approximately 1 cup)
3 thick slices (5-6 ounces) pancetta, chopped
1 1/2 Tablespoon fresh squeeze lemon juice
2 teaspoon lemon zest (divided)
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
4 teaspoons all-purpose flour
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 cup whole milk
4 ounces gruyere cheese, grated (divided)
2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon of white pepper (could use black pepper)
2 ounces freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 cup Panko bread crumbs
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1. For the gratin topping, mix together the panko bread crumbs, 2 Tablespoons melted butter, 1 teaspoon lemon zest, 1 ounce of gruyere, salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
2. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
3. In a large bowl, toss brussels sprouts with 4 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. Arrange in a single layer on large baking tray. Roast for approximately 15-20 minutes (or until browned and can be pierced with a fork). Set aside.
4. Heat a medium sized sauté pan over medium heat. Add shallots and pancetta, stirring frequently until shallots begin to caramelize. Deglaze pan with 1 1/2 Tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice. Stir and remove from heat. Toss shallots/pancetta with roasted brussels sprouts and 1 teaspoon lemon zest. Transfer to a 9"x12" buttered baking dish or 10" oval gratin dish. Set aside.
5. To make the mornay sauce: In a 3 quart saucepan, melt 2 Tablespoons butter. Add 4 teaspoons all-purpose flour, stirring frequently to create a light brown, nutty toasted scented roux. Slowly add whipping cream and milk, stirring frequently to prevent lumps and burning until slightly thickened. Remove from heat and stir in 3 ounces of grated gruyere cheese and 1 ounce of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Season with 1 teaspoon kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. 
6. Pour mornay sauce over brussels sprouts/shallots/pancetta mixture.
7. Sprinkle the panko bread crumb mixture evenly over top of gratin.
8. Bake at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes or until lightly browned and heated through. Serve immediately.

Note: The gratin can be  prepared early in the day or the night before. Store covered in the refrigerated. Remove from the refrigerator at least one hour before baking.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Cheddar Cheese and Sausage Breakfast Casserole

"It's easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of life. Once in awhile, remember to relax and let things fall in place" was one of those quotes of the day recently popping up in my FB and Twitter feeds. Only a very good friend, the kind of friend who is a constant presence in your life, would use that post as the perfect opportunity to let me know this was a quote I needed to pay attention to (she wasn't leaving anything to chance and she knows me well). The concept of 'relaxing' is one I understand but one some might say has not consistently been successfully applied in my life (this would be the unanimous perspective of my friends). I would frame it a little differently. My version would be my pendulum just swings a little further to the high energy side of life.

The holidays can be incredibly 'stressful', however, if there was ever a food to make you look and feel 'relaxed' it would be a breakfast casserole. Easily put together (usually the day/night before) and baked while everyone is opening presents or sleeping in a little late the day after a holiday, a breakfast casserole might be one of the simplest things to make, But don't let its' simplicity fool you. These savory bread pudding-like dishes have layers and layers of flavor. If that wasn't enough, it is also the quintessentially perfect must-have, go-to dish when having guests stay over or to bring over to a friend or neighbor. With directions simply saying 'bake for 45-50 minutes in a preheated 350 degree oven' you will be delivering a casserole that says 'sit back, relax and enjoy'. If you are looking to simplify your life just a bit (I guess I should jump on that bandwagon someday soon) make a breakfast casserole. Make this Cheddar Cheese and Sausage Breakfast Casserole.

This Cheddar Cheese and Sausage Breakfast Casserole has it all. Eggs, bread, sharp cheddar cheese and pork sausage. Did I mention yet this is quite a hearty dish? Guaranteed to satisfy the most ravenous members of your family. In other words, it should keep everyone out of the kitchen except when they come in to steal a few more bites. This is a blessing, especially if you also have to make the Christmas dinner.

If you can't find a bulk breakfast pork sausage in the meat section of your grocery store, try looking for it (in a one pound package) in the refrigerated section near the bacon. In a large frying pan, crumble the sausage, cooking until lightly browned and no pink remains. If the pork sausage exudes a great deal of fat, drain on a paper towel (and if it does, remember not to buy that pork sausage the next time).

This recipe calls for the use of whole milk (don't even think about substituting 1%, 2% or skim) for a reason. The fat content in the whole milk not only helps to bind the ingredients, but it also acts as a tenderizer, creating a much richer mouthful of deliciousness. The use of a lower fat milk could contribute to a breakfast casserole becoming tough. So remember, more is sometimes better.

Now to the cheese. Use a sharp cheddar. A two year old cheddar if you can find one. Even better a white, two year old cheddar. Growing up in the midwest, I thought cheddars were always yellow. While living on the east coast, most of the cheddars were white. And almost all of the cheddars made in Vermont are white. If you can find the two year aged Cheddar made by Grafton Village Cheese Company, buy it. You will not be sorry. This breakfast casserole calls for 1 1/2 cups of cheese. A four ounce piece of cheese yields one cup of grated cheese. You have probably already figured out that for this casserole you will need a six ounce piece of cheese.

The original recipe called for 8 slices of white bread cubed. However, I would more than strongly recommend you use 8 slices of frozen thick sliced Texas Toast with garlic instead. I must admit, the idea of changing out the white bread bread with the Texas Toast isn't mine. It was the recommendation, a rather great recommendation, of a friend's husband (thank you Dan!). In a buttered casserole dish, the cubes of frozen Texas Toast are layered first, followed by the sausage and then the cheese. The milk/egg mixture is poured evenly over the entire casserole. It may look like there is not enough liquid, but not to worry, there is.

Allowing the Cheddar Cheese and Sausage Breakfast Casserole to sit overnight in the refrigerator results in a custard-like, bread pudding like texture to the casserole. Assembling it the night before not only makes for a more 'relaxing' start to your morning, but it makes for an even more scrumptious dish.

The Cheddar Cheese and Sausage Breakfast Casserole is baked in a preheated 350 degree (F) oven for 45-50 minutes or until it is puffy, lightly browned and the center is set. The aroma created by this casserole is incredible. If anyone wasn't hungry when they wake up in the morning, they will be. Heck you might even wake them up! Note: This casserole easily feeds 8 to 10 people. But if you don't have that many people in your house, it reheats well in the microwave later in the day or even the next day. 

Imagine yourself waking up on Christmas or some cold winter weekend morning and being able to enjoy this effortless, oh-so delicious breakfast casserole. There is only one downside to this dish, particularly for those who are described by their friends as needing work on 'relaxing just a bit'. It's deciding what to do with found discretionary time. Hmmm, I wonder if doing nothing would feel relaxing. Guess I will just have to test that hypothesis out.

Cheddar Cheese and Sausage Breakfast Casserole (inspired by a 1990 Bon Appetit recipe)

8 slices of frozen thick cut Texas Toast with garlic, cut into cubes
1 pound (mild to medium) bulk pork country sausage, crumbled, cooked and cooled
6 ounces (1 1/2 cups) grated sharp cheddar cheese, grated (recommend Grafton Village 2 year aged cheddar or other high quality 2 year old sharp cheddar)
10 large eggs
2 cups whole milk (do not use low or non-fat)
2 teaspoons dry mustard
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1. Butter a 9"x13" rectangular or oval casserole dish. Set aside.
2. Mix together milk, eggs, dry mustard, salt and pepper. Set aside.
3. Layer bread cubes in bottom of pan.
4. Top bread with sausage and cheese.
5. Pour egg/milk mixture over bread/sausage/cheese. Cover and refrigerate.
6. Take casserole out of the refrigerator at least 30 minutes before baking. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
7. Bake casserole until lightly browned, puffed and center is set (approximately 45-50 minutes). Serve immediately.

"No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted" (a quote by Aesop). On my recent trip to New Orleans, I spend some time in Lucullus, an incredible culinary antique store. It is one of those shops where the size of the store is deceiving in the sense that you will find yourself spending as much time browsing in it as you might in a store ten or twenty times its's size. Each time you walk around the store your eye sees something different, making you wonder how you could have missed so many right in plain view things. I wasn't going there to browse, I was going for the singular purpose of coming home with a treasure. Although the choices seemed endless, my recent obsession with pewter at least gave me a focus. But having a focus doesn't always mean the choices aren't endless. After looking at some pewter spoons and platters I ultimately decided on a platter with great markings. As I was leaving the store, I wondered if I should have gotten at least one spoon. In retrospect, I think I may have been wondering out loud.

The package containing the pewter platter arrived this past week. Upon taking the platter out of the box, I noticed there was something else wrapped and taped to it. It was a spoon. While my thoughts and feelings can often be somewhat transparent, I don't expect others, particularly strangers, to pick up let alone to act on them. Being the recipient of an unexpected kindness not only brings a sense of pure joy, but unspoken responsibility to pass it on, to pay it forward. I only hope that in the days, weeks or months ahead I can bring just some of that same sense of heartfelt joy I felt to a friend, to a stranger. As I look at that pewter spoon I will forever be reminded to never underestimate the power of a kind word, a kind deed. Especially the unexpected ones.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Wendy's Mashed Potatoes

In the spirit of the believing in the season of miracles, I thought I would share a recipe you might see as more than a bit of a departure from those I have shared in the past, almost two years. (Yes, in just a couple of weeks the blog will be celebrating its' second birthday! Woot woot!) At times I have gone on and on (endlessly probably) about the importance of using the freshest ingredients you can find and sermonizing how much fresh matters. And I really do try my best to live by that belief. But then every now and then there are those 'exceptions to the rule' moments which breaking the rule is the right thing to do. Wendy's Mashed Potatoes falls into that 'its okay to break the rule' category. These potatoes are the creamiest, tastiest, richest, whitest, most delicious 'mashed' potatoes you may ever eat. Surprisingly they are not made with fresh potatoes. Okay, brace yourself with what I am about to say next. This recipe uses instant potatoes as one of the ingredients (gasp). Yes, those instant potatoes that come in the box.

We have been having these potatoes at either Thanksgiving dinners for years now. Depending on the main course, Wendy's Mashed Potatoes generally make an encore appearance on the Christmas dinner table. However, there was one Christmas where beef tenderloin was the main course although we did not have Wendy's Mashed Potatoes. Not because the potatoes wouldn't have been a great side to go with the beef or not because anyone had grown tired of them. No, something else happened. In that year the casserole dish containing the 'hot out of the oven' best mashed potato casserole ever slid off the counter and came crashing to the ground on the slate floor in my kitchen. Potatoes and chards of glass covered the floor (not exactly the white Christmas everyone had dreamt of). Yet in a moment of complete irrationality I initially thought the casserole could be salvaged as there was no potato back-up plan to go with the beef tenderloin and red wine mushroom gravy/sauce I had slaved over making. But one look at the incredulous 'she isn't serious' looks on the faces of my family brought me to my senses. We all survived the dinner without Wendy's Mashed Potatoes that year. And now I make them in a cast iron baking dish.

The key to making this mashed potato casserole as creamy as possible is to ensure the cream cheese is at room temperature. Depending on how cool or warm your house/kitchen is, this might mean taking the cream cheese out of the refrigerator at least four to five hours before you are assembling the dish. If your cream cheese isn't soft and creamy, your casserole may end up having some 'lumps' in in. Not the kind of lumps you want. The softened, room temperature cream cheese is first mixed until smooth and creamy. Once it gets to that consistency the sour cream, dried minced onion and garlic salt are mixed in until well-blended and smooth. It is important this mixture be made and set aside waiting while the instant mashed potatoes are being prepared.

Following the package directions, you will make enough instant mashed potatoes to serve 12. Immediately the cream cheese/sour cream mixture is added to the 'cooked' potatoes and stirred until the well blended and creamy. The mixture is poured into a buttered 9"x12" inch casserole and baked in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30 to 40 minutes. However, this mashed potato casserole is one that can and probably should be made the day before your dinner. Your life will made much easier on the day of your holiday meal when you can simply take the prepared casserole out of the refrigerator and bake in the oven.

For those of you who feel making a recipe without all 'fresh' ingredients is an act of personal treason, I am willing to bet no one at your dinner table, not even the self professed foodies, will guess this mashed potato casserole was made with instant potatoes (unless of course your guests watch you making it or you let it slip). I can almost guarantee, your 'secret' will be not discovered as long as you believe in miracles. Once you taste Wendy's Mashed Potatoes you might find yourself wondering why anyone would want to make mashed potatoes 'the old-fashioned' way ever again.

Note: You might be wondering why such an incredibly delicious dish would only have two photos to go with the recipe. I am going to blame my overly ambitious Thanksgiving menu and the lack of 'good' light for the limited number of photos with this posting. What you are seeing is the unbaked version of Wendy's Mashed Potatoes. When baked the top of the potatoes are lightly browned.

Wendy's Mashed Potatoes

18 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
8 ounces sour cream
1 teaspoon dried minced onion
1/4 teaspoon garlic salt
Instant Mashed Potatoes, prepared for 12 servings according to package directions (recommend Hungry Jack Instant Potatoes)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9"x12" baking pan and set aside.
2. In a standing mixer, beat the cream cheese at medium-high speed until really smooth and creamy.
3. Mix in sour cream, minced onion and garlic salt until well blended. Set aside.
4. Prepare instant mashed potatoes (for 12 servings) according to package directions.
5. Blend the cream cheese/sour cream mixture into the potatoes until smooth.
6. Pour mixture into prepared baking pan. Bake for 30-40 minutes or until potatoes are cooked through and top is lightly browned. Serve immediately.
Note: Can be prepared the night before. Covered, refrigerate, remove from from refrigerator at least 45 minutes before baking. Baking time might be increased by 5 to 10 minutes.

Images of art captured at the New Orleans Museum of Art.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Almond Pecan Buttercrunch Toffee

It is quite possible you are on candy and cookie overload right about now. Incorporating one new recipe into your holiday baking routine, making one more batch of anything, or discovering that someone has been into those tins of cookies you thought you had cleverly hidden from sight might be enough to push you over or at least to the edge. After sending off boxes of goodies to friends back east earlier this week (who else went to the Post Office on the busiest shipping day of the year?), I am getting the 'second wind' I was hoping for. My supply of caramels, peppermint bark, white chocolate pistachio shortbread cookies, Irish shortbread, and chocolate covered nuts has dwindled significantly over the past couple of weeks. Looking at the supply of unsalted butter in my refrigerator would cause one to think I was preparing for a worldwide butter shortage or baking for a significant portion of the free world.

Before making the Almond Pecan Buttercrunch Toffee I decided to look through a few cookbooks as well as some do a web search just in case I wanted to make some tweaks to the recipe someone had given me years ago. In the process of this quasi-research, I came across recipes called toffee, buttercrunch, and some even called buttercrunch toffee. This simple endeavor was now becoming more complicated. Allegedly traditional English Toffee is made from brown sugar while buttercrunch is made with granulated sugar. In addition to the sugar distinction, traditional English Toffee is generally only coated in chocolate. Whereas, buttercrunch is coated with chocolate and a variety of different topping (nuts being the most common). With the words toffee and buttercrunch being used so interchangeably some have resorted to calling this confection buttercrunch toffee. Seeing as the recipe I had is a little bit toffee a little bit buttercrunch, I thought I too would jump on the buttercrunch toffee bandwagon when renaming this recipe.

The more I read, the more patterns amongst the recipes there seemed to be. Most had a one cup of butter to one cup of sugar ratio. While most cooked the toffee until it reached a temperature of 300 degrees (F) on a candy thermometer, the recommended temperatures ranged from 285 degrees (F) to 315 degrees (F). In comparing ingredients, some recipes listed water some didn't; some listed vanilla, some didn't; some had salt, some didn't; some used corn syrup, some didn't; some used only one kind of nut, some used more than one. You get the picture. In the end, I decided to add both vanilla and kosher salt to the recipe I had; toast the pecans before chopping them; cook the mixture until it reached 305 degrees (F); use only two tablespoons of corn syrup; and sprinkle a little sea salt on the melted chocolate before sprinkling on the chopped pecans.

The time expended on all of this 'toffee research' turned out to be time well spent. All of the changes made to my toffee recipe turned out to be ones for the best. Equally important to adjusting and altering some of the ingredients, I found some of the toffee making techniques shared by Valerie Gordon in her cookbook Sweet to be valuable, useful information.

My original recipe called for slivered almonds, but I used sliced raw almonds instead. For a more rustic or Almond Roca-ish look to the toffee I would probably chop up raw whole almonds in the food processor. Either way it is 'raw unsalted ' almonds you want for this toffee.

Whenever bringing something to a relatively high temperature, your pan matters, your pan really, really matters.  Use a copper pan, heavy stainless steel pan (All-Clad works well) or a cast-iron one (like Le Creuset). If you are still putting together your wish list for the holidays or have time to add to or modify it, wish for a 3 quart copper pan (trust me you will be using this pan for more than just making toffee or caramels).

The questions asked most often when making toffee are 'how often do you stir it and what kitchen tool should one use?'. Until the mixture reaches 250 degrees (F), you will stir it occasionally. Between 250 and 290 degrees (F) you will stir a little more frequently, and from 290 degrees (F) to 305 degrees (F) you stir constantly (to prevent burning). And your best stirring tools? Either a wooden spoon or heatproof silicone spatula.

When the mixture reaches 305 degrees (F), remove from the heat and immediately stir in the vanilla and almonds before pouring into a parchment paper lined 12"x18" inch baking/jellyroll pan (one with sides). After smoothing the toffee with an offset spatula, allow it to sit for one minute before first lightly sprinkling with sea salt followed by the chopped milk chocolate.

Allow the chocolate to rest on the toffee for at least two minutes before spreading evenly over the toffee. While the chocolate is still 'wet' sprinkle with the toasted, chopped pecans. The toffee should rest for at least 20 minutes before the pan is placed in the refrigerator.

After one hour, remove the buttercrunch toffee from the refrigerator and break into pieces.

Unless you are planning to serve the Almond Pecan Buttercrunch Toffee immediately, store in a sealed air-tight container. I would also suggest you hide it if you are planning to serve it at a gathering or for Christmas or risk having it disappear.

This is seriously delicious buttery, nutty toffee. You are going to be making it all winter.

I am thinking this might be the last 'holiday confection' post before Christmas. But then again, I may get a 'third' wind and will surprise you (and myself) with another 'visions of sugar plums' post. However, there is a recipe for Creamy Potato Casserole I want you to have before Christmas (its one I didn't get posted before Thanksgiving, but its also one with very few photographs), so that will be up next. Time for me to start getting closer to the edge, again.

Almond Pecan Buttercrunch Toffee (technique inspired by Valerie Gordon's recipe in her cookbook Sweet)

1 pound (16 ounces) unsalted butter
2 cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 Tablespoons light corn syrup
1 Tablespoon and 1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups raw sliced or chopped almonds
1 cup pecans, roasted, finely chopped
12-14 ounces milk chocolate, chopped
Sea salt for finishing

1. Line a 12"x18" baking pan with parchment paper. Set aside.
2. Put butter in a heavy 3 quart copper or heavy stainless steel saucepan and set over medium-low heat. When butter is half melted, gradually add sugar, stirring with either a wooden or heatproof silicone spatula. Continue stirring until mixture takes on a thick creamy texture.
3. Attach thermometer to side of pan, increase heat to medium-high, stirring toffee mixture occasionally until it reaches 250 degrees (F). 
4. When it reaches 250 degrees (F), stir slightly more frequently. At 290 degrees (F) stir constantly to prevent any burning. Continue cooking and stirring until mixture reaches 305 (F) degrees.
5. Remove from heat, quickly stirring in vanilla and almonds. Pour mixture into prepared baking pan. Using an offset spatula, smooth mixture (it should fill the entire pan).
6. Let sit at least 1 minute before lightly sprinkling with sea salt, followed by sprinkling with the chopped milk chocolate.
7. Allow the chocolate to set at least 2 minutes before spreading with an offset spatula.
8. Sprinkle chopped roasted pecans over chocolate. Tap pan on counter to set pecans.
9. Allow to cool at least 20 minutes. Place in refrigerator for 1 hour. 
10. Remove from refrigerator, break into pieces.
11. Store in a sealed, air-tight container.

"Art attracts us only by what it reveals of our most secret self." (Jean-Luc Godard) Two of the images from the New Orleans Museum of Art taken in December, 2014 that caught my eye.