Sunday, November 1, 2009

Candy Virgin No More!

While organizing my pantry the other evening, I noticed a long forgotten bag of white sugar. Normally I don't use white sugar (flavor per calorie ratio is too low), but a while back I became infatuated with sugar sculpting and bought a bag. I've never made candy before, and my new hobby of sugar sculpting never got off the ground, but for some reason on that night the bag of white sugar called to me. And I said, "Yes, Sir!"

Not even food is above changes in fashion, seasons, and trends. Therefore, in tracking down some great candy know-how, I knew I had to go back in time. A recipe for something as archaic and dietarily precarious as a big chunk of hardened sugar wouldn't be hanging around in any of my newfangled cookbooks. I dug out The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, originally published in 1896, and was soon on my way to becoming a sugar goddess!

Yeah, right! This is what happen:

Candy Attempt #1: Flaky Business

I quickly found the chapter on candy making in the old Fannie Farmer and read the introduction. There was a little more to candy than I originally thought, but it didn't sound hard. After all, Frannie had tons of useful hints!

I measured the ingredients for a half batch of cashew brittle: 1/2 c sugar, 1/4 c light corn syrup, 1/4 c water. I pored them into my sauce pan and stirred. Dissolve the sugar completely before bringing the mixture to a boil, Fannie said, in order to prevent 'sugaring' (crystals that make the candy grainy). Once that occurs, according to Alton Brown on his wonderful program "Good Eats," all you can do is add more water, dissolve, and start the heating all over again.

While dissolving my sugar mixture, I began to realize that the syrup was full of tiny black flakes! Either the sugar was scraping off my pan's coating or there was something burned to the bottom of it. The mixture wasn't salvageable. Down the sink.

Candy Attempt #2: Burn, Baby, Burn!

Again I measured sugar, corn syrup, and water, into a bowl this time, and began to stir. When the sugar was finally dissolved, I pored it into my freshly scrubbed pan and turned on the heat. Fannie tip #2: I covered the mixture when it came to a boil, allowing the condensation to wash any undissolved sugar off the sides of the pan. A single undissolved sugar granule can start the dreaded 'sugaring' chain reaction. Yeck!

2.5 minutes passed. I took off the lid, and washed down the sides of the pan with water and a pastry brush (again, to protect against sugaring), managing to burn my hand in the process. Then I took the candy's temperature. I was looking for 290F. The thermometer read 265. So far so good.

As I stood there, however, something began to happen. The candy on the left side of the pan started to darken. Some caramelization, that's good. But then it got darker, and fast! I flicked on my electronic thermometer and jammed it into the candy. 315!

I killed the heat, and I cooled and tasted a strand. Burned.

I tried to make the best of it by using the opportunity to play with some sugar shapes, creating long fragile threads of candy and beautiful webs of crackling sugar. Fun, messy, and dangerous? I burned myself a couple more times on the hot candy and stabbed my hand on a stray sliver of hardened sugar as I was washing the pan out for Round 3. I started to feel more like I was in a fighting ring than a kitchen.

When the bleeding stopped I got ready to try again.

Round 3: Old Mistakes Die Hard.

This time I vowed to make it right. I measured my ingredients into the pan. No, not the pan! I didn't want any more of those black flecks in my syrup. I dumped the mixture from the pan into the mixing bowl. The sugar finally dissolved, it seemed to take forever, when I saw something in the bowl that shouldn't be there. Little flecks of burned candy had somehow gotten into the new syrup. If a single grain could cause sugaring, these chunks would cause it for sure. Dumped that batch down the sink with its brothers, re-washed the bowl and the pan, and vowed to get it right, for real this time!

Round 4: Blond is Beautiful?

Everything started out fine this time, plus I made a little discovery. If I poured the water in over the sugar before the corn syrup, it didn't take me fifteen minutes to get the granules to dissolve. I patted myself on the back for a minor victory.

I brought the candy to a boil over a more modest flame, covered it, uncovered it, washed down the sides of the pan without getting burned, and checked the temperature. 255, 260, 265, 270. So far so good. No signs of burning. 275, 280, 285, 290. No signs of burning.

No signs of browning either. Without browning the candy wouldn't have that lovely caramel taste that comes when anything gets browned and caramelized. I decide to push the temperature up into the highest reaches of the hard crack stage (a term for candy that has reached a temperature of 290F-310F).

295, 300, 305, 310.

I start to panic. The candy shouldn't go any higher. 315F burned the last batch, but this one's still pale as a winter moon.

No, I said to myself. There will be candy! I poored the anemic mixture down over the salted cashews that had been waiting all this time and left the candy to harden. The result: a mild but mostly flavorless candy. Many of the nuts didn't stick all that well and broke lose when we cracked the cooled candy.

I was out of salted nuts at that point, but I was not defeated. I would rise again! I gird myself for one more go. And this time, I would get it right!

Round 5: For Better or Worse.

I spent the next half hour shelling unsalted, roasted peanuts. I would have been done sooner, but my half-starved family kept eating the nuts as I shelled them. (Somewhere in all that mess, I kind of forgot to feed them dinner.)

Finally I had nuts. Unsalted nuts. The recipe called for salted, and I knew salt was important. It makes toffees and brittles pop with flavor. I vowed to toss a few pinches of salt into the hot candy before I poured in the peanuts. I had decided to pour the peanuts into the hot candy and give it a stir before spreading it onto the aluminum foil. Hopefully then the peanuts would stick better than the cashews had.

The result: The cold peanuts dropping into the hot candy cooled the candy too quickly. It turned into a solid lump. I pushed and pushed and stretched. Finally I had a thick, dense, but passable peanut brittle. That was when I remembered the salt.

The salt!

The candy had to have salt. It just had to. I hastily sprinkled the top of the brittle with table salt. The grains just sat on top of the hot candy. They wouldn't sink in. It was the cashews all over again! Using my finger tips, I presses as much salt as I could down into the surface of the candy. For better or worse, that was my peanut brittle.

Finally the fun part came, breaking and tasting. I let my 4-year-old step-daughter have the first break. She sliced open her thumb. The broken sugar edges were sharp as little blades, and they cut right through her baby skin. We washed and bandaged her hand, then we all tried a bite of candy. She bit her lip crunching the thick brittle. Par for the course!

Well, I still haven't made a decent batch of candy. I now realize how far I am from my goal of being a recreational sugar sculptor, and I know why my mother says she nixes any recipe with the words 'candy thermometer' in it. It was intimidating to fail over an over making something that seemed so simple. There were only 5 ingredients!

But I did learn something about myself. Apparently I don't give up all that easy. Is that courage or stupidity? It takes more than just burning me, stabbing me, burning me again several times, and cutting the ones I love to make me quit! I will make candy again! I will spin sugar nets and sticks and strings and it will be fun! Next time, yes next time, I will get it right!!!

Are you up to the challenge? Here's a similar recipie:

Go Forth Fearlessly!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Thinkin' Bout Smoked Salmon

Today I got to thinking about a cuisine I crave a lot but rarely cook or eat.  Scandinavian food.  Being an American of mostly Norwegian decent, many of the dishes of my youth and childhood, both on my mother's and father's sides, were Norse.  As I sit here with my Swedish cookbook on my lap, flipping longingly through the pages, I'm reminded of a rhyme I learned as a child:

   "Ten thousand Swedes ran through the weeds chased by one Norwegian..." 

Be that as it may, the most accessible source of Scandinavian food I've found so far in SoCal is the wonderful Swedish organization IKEA. Every time I go there I feel like it's the holidays. It's a guilty pleasure. I love it. If anyone knows of any more restaurants or markets where I can get my Norwegian food on in LA without having to wait for the Sons of Norway dinner in Van Nuys in November, I'd be grateful.

For those of you not familiar with Norway, or Norwegian food, Norway is a long thin country up near the Arctic Circle.  Its rocky coast line winds and twists on forever, and the growing season is understandably short.  As a result, preservation and rationing are everything.  Scandinavian food is simple and rich in seafood, pickled herring, smoked salmon, dried salted cod, salty fish pastes.  I'd love to share with you all the simple flavorful dishes I'm really jones-ing for right now, like the infamous lutfisk, but I'll start you slow. ;)  Here are two recipes to begin your introduction to the Scandinavian flavors I love.  They're both simple-surprise surprise!- so get out there and taste something new!  Both these recipes are simple, beautiful, and a little bit hoity-toity due to the seafood and so can be easily modified to make perfect appetizers.

A Special Breakfast for Us Norwegian Kids: Bagles and Lox

2 Plain Bagles
4 oz. Cream Cheeze
4 oz. Smoked Salmon
Capers or Sliced Onions, if desired

Half the bagels.  Toast or warm bagel halves in the microwave.  Spread one ounce of room temperature cream cheese on each bagel half.  Top with one ounce of smoked salmon (and capers or onions if desired).

Makes 4 servings.

*Use mini-bagels and garnish with fresh dill to make appetizers.

Here's Swedish lox recipe modified from the Swedish Cooking NGV cookbook, simplified for everyday use.

Gravad Lax Med Hovmastarsas

8 Rye Crisps (Wasa or similar brand)
4-5 oz. Smoked Salmon (moist)
1/4 c. Honey Mustard Sauce (not honey mustard)
1 Bunch Finely Chopped Fresh Dill

Stir the chopped dill into the honey mustard sauce. Pile each of the rye crisps with a 1/2 oz slice of the smoked salmon and the mustard sauce drizzled to taste.  

*Break rye crisps in half before topping (or buy a large wheel of rye crisp bread and break into pieces) and top with a sprig of fresh dill to make appetizers.

Enjoy! And like I said, simple!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Montana Memories and Root Vegetable Stew

When I go back in my mind to the best stews of my life, I find myself sitting at my grandmother's dining room table in Montana. Late fall snows dust the wide, terraced yard where her small orchards and gardens are scattered. The deer come in the dusk poking for forgotten apples. Homemade brown bread and raspberry rhubarb jam make the rounds while Grandma dishes up the first helping of stew.

Autumn is all about food that is both bold and soothing, and no main course embodies this better than a stew of hearty root vegetables. In this dish, several aromatics work together to create wonderful complexity and feature vegetables like turnips, parsnips, and rutabagas. The meat in this dish, whether chicken, beef, or venison, plays almost a supporting role to these earthy, fall flavors.

For Grandma's root vegetable stew, there was no written-in-stone recipe. The exact ingredients and quantities always changed depending on what she had on hand. As we were growing up, learning about food, Grandma used the stew as a chaperon for new tastes and textures she wanted us to discover. And while we ate, she taught us about food.

The venison in this stew, she would explain, was twice marinated to make sure it wouldn't be gamey and then browned with allspice, giving it a Scandinavian flavor. The chicken in another stew was cooked in a pressure cooker, making the meat insanely tender. And every vegetable, it seemed, came from the garden of a friend. In that way, we grew up very aware of our food and where it came from. The people of local religious communities and organic farmers seemed to stand around our table, their ghostly presence inviting us to not just enjoy but to be thankful for our meal.

Part of the charm of this type of dish is that unlike many prima donna courses, stew never holds form above function. The stews of my childhood were there to nourish us, to provide a place for the odds and ends of late summer cooking, and to fill us up when the constant chill made our hunger insatiable. The truest test for any stew is quite simply: Is it delicious? When autumn makes the days short and appetites big, a simple root vegetable stew has the power to satisfy a deep, primal part of ourselves, the part of us that knows winter is coming.

Hungry? Check out this link and the additional cooking instructions below.

Here are a couple of tips for making this stew a little more like the ones I remember:

Use rutabagas instead of beets, toss in a potato or two, and add a 1/2 to 1 lb. of your choice of meat. Brown 1" cubes of meat in a sauce pan if raw (with salt and pepper to taste) before adding stock to boil. If using cooked chicken, add in with veggies. If using fish, add 1" cubes during last 10 minutes of simmering and test for doneness (flaky, opaque) before serving.

Texture options: Smash some of the veggies with a fork for a courser stew. You can also puree part or all of the finished stew for a creamier, more refined texture.

Have fun connecting with your inner hunter/gatherer with a big bowl of this stew!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Why Eat Passion?

Every foodie knows that food is so much more than just food. We use certain dishes to make us feel better, to bring back memories, to satisfy parts of our souls that we can touch in no other way. Food marks every major occasion of our lives because food does so much more than fill our bellies. It does more even than merely define us. It creates us. And for me, food is all about escape. A simple plate of something new, and I'm on an instant vacation. Exotic flavors have the power to transport us to new places, new countries. Flavors can take us places. Try to bite a firm yellow pineapple and not think about sunshine on palm branches.

Food can teach us about new cultures and new ways of thinking too. To know the food of a people is to know something about their philosophies. How they treat food says something about how they view life and how they work to live life to its fullest. Every dish is a history lesson. From the simple fish dishes of Scandinavia, the stone ground corn of Mexico, to the small cut, quick fried meats and veggies of China, everything in cooking has a reason. None of it is without purpose, and there's always a story behind that purpose.

Food can transport us in other ways as well. Good cooking can make the simplest food rich, enriching the people who eat it. Likewise, even lobster is worthless if prepared improperly. (Tell you more about that one later!) Cooking is transformative. Eating is a continuation of that transformation inside us. We cook, we eat, we live, we change.

Well, I'm off now to discover more about what makes us... us! More stories, more philosophies, more lifestyles, more recipes, more flavors! And I'll share everything I learn right here, including some of my favorite old recipes and stories. So as you also go forth and eat, always remember:

Whatever you eat, eat with passion and you will always be satisfied.