Tuesday, December 23, 2008

'Tis the season...of peppermint!

I love making candy. To me, it's part of the holiday season! Another part is peppermint. Candy canes, peppermint bark, and, my favorite, mint chocolate chip ice cream...I'll expound on the latter today. My parents, for a variety of complicated reasons, had two ice cream machines and gave one to me and my husband several years ago. We are therefore lucky enough to have a stand-alone machine with built-in refrigeration and a wonderful Italian name (the Il Gelataio Magnum, sadly not imported into the US anymore), though every ice cream recipe can be made with the standard chill-in-the-freezer-for-eight-hours units.

What did the advent of the ice cream machine into our lives mean to me? Delicious would be one way to describe my feelings. Time-consuming would be another (only in that I have made ever so many batches over the years). Life-altering would be yet another.

Pretty much the only thing I can ever think of making for dessert when we have people over for dinner is ice cream. Occasionally I make a new recipe for tart or cake that I'm curious about, or whip out an old faithful, but more often I think of the kind of ice cream that I want to make and then try to match dessert to that! The only store-bought ice cream that I think matches my home-made variety is from Bi-rite Creamery in the Mission district of San Francisco (think salted caramel or honey lavender).

Because of my addiction to ice cream, we often have several different kinds in the freezer at once (sadly, missteps like avocado last longer than cinnamon or chocolate or mint chocolate chip). I have tried a number of recipes for mint chocolate chip over the years, and the one I've settled on below is easy-peasy and perfect for the holidays (though, really, very refreshing in July as well). In the past, I've tried all manner of iterations: the boiling of fresh spearmint in the milk/cream mixture (grassy and pea-soup-green), the increasing of the proportion of peppermint extract (breath-of-icy-New-England-air), among others, and the tried-and-true recipe follows. It's creamy, white, chocolate-and-peppermint-flecked, and difficult to limit to just one scoop!

A not-so-quick word about ice cream custard: I have come across some lovely recipes for frozen yogurt, and I do love granita, but to make a truly deliciously smooth ice cream or gelato, you really need to make custard. The recipe below is pretty standard, but this variation originates with my father, who found the recipe at the Palo Alto Public Library in the late 60s while making ice cream with a girlfriend who (horrors!) is not now my mother. For detailed instructions, David Lebovitz's The Perfect Scoop has, in addition to many delicious recipes, an excellent introduction to the process. Heating the egg mixture to 170 is crucial to allow the custard to set slightly, and to avoid that pesky problem of Salmonella, but heating it higher than that will cause the eggs to scramble. By-the-bye, I have found no way to use up all the egg whites generated during the process. I just don't like angel food cake as much as ice cream, but egg whites will keep in a sealed jar in the fridge for a week or two.

Basic Vanilla Ice Cream Custard
Makes 1 quart
Time: 30 minutes active, 3 hours total

1 1/2 c. heavy cream
1/2 c. milk
2/3 c. sugar
1/2 t. salt
4 egg yolks
1 tsp. vanilla extract or 1 vanilla bean

In a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan over moderate heat, mix together the cream, milk, sugar, salt, and, if using, vanilla bean seeds and vanilla bean pod until scalded (cream mixture will boil up vigorously). While the mixture is heating, place the egg yolks in a heatproof bowl. Pour into the bowl with the egg yolks, whisking constantly so that the yolks don't scramble. Pour entire mixture back into the original saucepan. Stirring constantly, heat cream-yolk mixture to 170 degrees on a candy thermometer. Press mixture through strainer into medium-sized bowl. If not using vanilla bean, add vanilla extract at this point. Cover and place in refrigerator for at least 1 hour and up to 48 hours.

Freeze in ice cream machine according to manufacturer's instructions. Ice cream consistency generally improves with additional freezing for several hours.

Peppermint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream Variation: Follow the recipe above exactly. When adding vanilla extract, also add 3/4 tsp. peppermint extract. Then, when ice cream machine is almost done churning, sprinkle 3 oz. finely chopped semi-sweet chocolate along with 6 crushed peppermint candies. Enjoy!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Warming up from the inside out

It really has been ever so cold. Well, at least compared to what I'm used to here on the Left Coast. But I had to scrape ice (ice!) off my car windshield two mornings ago (and, as ice was an unexpected overnight development, I was subsequently late to work).

Invariably, each year as it starts getting colder, my mind turns to soups. Leek and potato, minestrone, Julia Child's French onion, cream of asparagus, you name it. I think I could happily have soup every night for a week! Soup's loveliest attributes make it well-suited to winter: it keeps well, it is often better the next day, and it heats up so easily in the microwave or on the stove. And, of course, like a mug of hot cocoa savored after being out on the ski slopes all day, soup warms you up from the inside out.

As the temperatures drop, my husband B starts clamoring for black bean soup. He downs great bowlfuls at a time, sometimes for breakfast. (Remember how I said that soup keeps well? Eating it before noon was not what I meant.) I am the primary cook in the family, but black bean soup is one of the few recipes he brought to our relationship. It's quite a flexible recipe, easily able to adapt to what you have in your fridge (so take the words below as a guideline rather than the rule). You can make the base with a classic mirepoix, but I usually stick with just onions and eliminate the carrots and celery. I usually use canned black beans, for convenience's sake, but you can soak black beans overnight and then boil them until tender (about 45 minutes) with four parts water for every one part beans. The soup ends up being so hearty that it's actually more of a chili than a soup. It's also quick enough that it makes an easy weeknight meal, but, as with all soups, it improves with simmering.

While the soup is simmering, I usually whip up a batch of cornbread, often with a jalapeno to give it a bit of spice. B puts his slice of cornbread in the bottom of the bowl before ladling soup over, but I have mine on the side with a dab of butter to round out the meal. With a glance at the thermometer (it's currently 46 degrees outside), I'm off to the kitchen now to make a batch of black bean soup before B gets home.

B's Black Bean Soup
Serves 4, with leftovers
Time: 25 min active, 45 min total

2 onions, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 T. olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped or crushed
1-2 c. tomatoes, chopped (canned or fresh)
3 15-oz cans black beans, drained
1 t. cumin
1 t. oregano
1 t. cayenne
6 c. chicken broth
1 chicken breast, sauteed and chopped (optional)

1 c. grated cheddar cheese
1 c. sour cream
1 avocado, chopped
1/2 c. cilantro, chopped

Heat olive oil in large pot over moderate heat. Add onions and bell pepper, and saute until onion turns translucent, approximately 8 minutes. Add garlic and stir for 1 minute. Add tomatoes, black beans, and spices; cook for 5 minutes. Add chicken broth and bring to a boil; simmer for at least 10 minutes or longer to allow flavors to meld, skimming occasionally. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Just before serving, you may blend half of the mixture to thicken the soup. Add chicken breast if desired. Ladle into bowls, and garnish as desired.

Corn Bread
Adapted from The Joy of Cooking

Makes 9 pieces
Time: 10 min active, 25 min total

3/4 c. flour
3/4 c. cornmeal
2 1/2 t. baking powder
2 T. sugar
3/4 t. salt
1 jalapeno, with seeds, chopped (optional)
1 egg
3 T. melted butter
3/4 c. milk

Preheat oven to 425. Pour liquid into dry ingredients, including jalapeno if desired. Combine with a few rapid strokes. Pour into lightly-buttered 8 inch baking dish. Bake for 15 min or until edges are lightly browned. Cut into 9 equal pieces and serve immediately.

Note: This recipe lends itself to variations. It makes a killer Thanksgiving turkey stuffing. And for a breakfast corn muffin, do not add the jalapeno, and pour the batter into muffin cups; serve with butter and strawberry jam.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Beginning

The middle of my second year of internal medicine residency seems like a funny time to start a blog. But I've always loved writing, and cooking, and sharing recipes, and a blog seems like the perfect (and most efficient!) way to unite these three interests of mine. Recently I've been inspired by a blog my friend A shared with me, Orangette, and it's made my wish to start writing instead more of a need.

To start off with, then, in this holiday season, I wanted to share a recipe for filbert toffee. My mom has carried on the Christmas toffee-making tradition every year since I was little. She loves toffee, and was initially inspired by Littlejohn's almond version in the farmers' market in Los Angeles, which my dad had grown up eating. Once my mom found the Gourmet recipe, she confirmed with the proprietress (Mrs. Littlejohn) that their version also used equal parts butter and sugar, and I don't think a member of my family has been back for the original since!

The recipe only has four ingredients, and you know it's hard to go wrong when those four are butter, sugar, chocolate, and hazelnuts. My friend J's mother never knew about this recipe, but she would have approved, since she only made recipes with five or fewer ingredients. If you have a decently-stocked pantry, these four should always be on hand, especially since the hazelnuts can be toasted well ahead of time and stored in the freezer or in a sealed jar at room temperature. The ratio of work to wow factor is definitely in your favor with this recipe. As a co-worker said today after biting into some toffee, "Is it supposed to be this buttery and delicious?"

Filbert Toffee
Adapted from Gourmet, 1973

Makes 12-16 pieces
Time: 20 min active time, with minimum 2 hours cooling

1 c. regular, salted butter (2 sticks)
1 c. sugar
4 oz. semisweet chocolate, chopped (I use Scharffenberger 62% or Valrhona)
3/4 c. hazelnuts, toasted for 10 min in a 350 degree oven, then rubbed between a tea towel to remove some of the tough outer skin, then chopped

Lightly butter an 8 inch square pan. Melt the butter and sugar in a medium saucepan over moderate heat, stirring frequently. Bring the mixture to between 294 and 296 degrees on the candy thermometer (between soft and hard crack). Immediately pour into pan, tilting to make an even layer. Sprinkle the chocolate over the toffee. Let sit for 5 min, then use a flat-handled knife to spread the chocolate evenly. Sprinkle the hazelnuts over the chocolate, and press into the chocolate layer. Place pan in a cool place for at least two hours but preferably overnight. Run a knife around the edge of the pan to remove the toffee, then break into pieces. If it doesn't come out easily, simply use the knife to break into pieces inside the pan. Toffee keeps well in a sealed tupperware for at least 2 weeks...if it lasts that long.