Saturday, December 19, 2009

'Tis the season...of peppermint! (2)

B loves peppermint. As a consequence, the tip of my tongue is burnt. Only slightly burnt, but it's noticeable every time my tongue touches my teeth, or the roof of my mouth.

Let me explain. The other day, I was in line at the grocery store when I noticed that there were peppermint-flavored marshmallows displayed prominently next to the check-out. Not only that, they were on sale! I'm a sucker for gimmicks like this. (Last night I bought a headband located suspiciously near the cash register in a clothing store; was it a coincidence that it was also on sale?) Obviously, peppermint-flavored marshmallows were not on my carefully-constructed grocery list, which contained the components of our dinnertime meals for the next four nights, but lacked a section called "impulse buys." Apparently, the marketing ploys I learned about in a college sociology class called "Shop Till You Drop" are devastatingly effective, even on a presumably educated consumer like me, because I (needless to say, impulsively) bought the marshmallows.

We had the marshmallows for dessert that night, the perfect topping for a mug each of Scharffenberger cocoa (I tend to prefer marshmallows to whipped cream in terms of hot chocolate toppings, because the whipped cream disappears ever so quickly). The marshmallows melted, in typical gooey fashion, releasing the perfect amount of pepperminty flavor into each sip. I was a little greedy, though, and tried to drink my hot chocolate too quickly, leading to the slightly burnt tongue that I already described.

While excellent in the cocoa, the marshmallows on their own, without the chocolate-y accompaniment, were disappointingly firm. And for some reason, I decided that firm marshmallows were not to be tolerated this holiday season!

I think you can see where this is headed.

Thenceforth, I ventured into an unknown realm: homemade marshmallow-making. The only occupant of this realm that I know personally is my mother, she of the three turkeys at Thanksgiving and the homemade ricotta and the countless other culinary feats. For those of you not my mother and thus not familiar with the making of marshmallows, this blog entry will serve as my official field report. At first I was quite intimidated by the recipes I looked into, all of which called for a stand mixer. There's a lot of variation in the recipes as well, in terms of amount of gelatin and presence or absence of egg whites. I figured the recipe in the Scharffenberger cookbook would be a good place to start; chocolate and marshmallows go so well together that I trusted their marshmallow-making acumen.

Though I have a well-equipped kitchen (complete with such gems as a stand-alone pizza oven, a mozzarella slicer, and a milkshake maker), I do not yet own a stand mixer. I'm pleased to inform you that homemade marshmallows are (a) no more difficult to make than any other candy (and, as with all candy-making, a candy thermometer is essential); (b) far more pillowy than their store-bought compatriots; and (c) possible—nay, easy—to make with a handheld mixer.

The marshmallow-making experience was a revelation. I would actually say that marshmallows now fall into a can-and-should-be-made-at-home category, the same category that homemade pasta occupies. B and I eat marshmallows only rarely, but when we do, I want them to be perfect. Which means that I can't go back to the dried-out, slightly firm, store-bought version.

An added benefit is that I can pick the flavoring of the marshmallows if I make them myself! For now, I'm pretty content with peppermint, though I'm planning to whip up a batch of plain old vanilla too. Actually, the only other extract I have in the cupboard right now is almond, and almond-flavored marshmallow sounds a little odd, doesn't it? Besides, peppermint is so much more seasonal.

When my brother E and I were little, we played poker with tidbits from around the kitchen standing in for plastic betting chips. We used marshmallows, chocolate chips, and Mallomars as currency, and you could choose to bet with your pot of winnings, or to snack on them instead. Mallomars, those classic cookies, were worth the most. We never had these peppermint marshmallows back then, but I can imagine that they would have surpassed even the Mallomar in betting value. They are awfully delicious. Enjoy!

Peppermint Marshmallows
Adapted from Scharffenberger and Steinberg's The Essence of Chocolate

Time: 20 min active, 2 1/2 hours total
Makes: 16 2-in marshmallows

3/4 c. powdered sugar
3/4 c. cornstarch
2 1/4-oz envelopes gelatin
3/4 c. cold water, divided
1 1/2 c. granulated sugar
1/2 c. light corn syrup
1/4 t. salt
1 t. vanilla extract
1 t. peppermint extract

Grease an 8x8-in pan. In a small bowl, mix together the powdered sugar and cornstarch. Sprinkle about 1/2 c. of the powdered sugar/cornstarch mixture over the bottom and sides of the pan, then set aside the remaining mixture.

Put the gelatin and 1/4 c. cold water in a medium-sized bowl.

Meanwhile, mix together the remaining 1/2 c. water, granulated sugar, corn syrup, and salt in a small saucepan on the stove, and bring to a boil. Using a candy thermometer, bring the mixture to 236 degrees. While the mixture is heating, make an ice water bath in a large bowl. Cool the pot to approximately 210 degrees (about 10 to 15 seconds), stirring constantly (the mixture will become very thick and gluey).

Pour mixture into the medium-sized bowl containing the gelatin, using a spatula to scrape the pot. Beat with a handheld mixer for about 5 minutes, or until thick, white, and fluffy. Beat in the extracts.

Scrape the mixture into the prepared 8x8-in pan, using a greased rubber spatula. Sprinkle top with another 1/2 c. of powdered sugar/cornstarch mixture. Allow marshmallows to set in a cool area for at least two hours. Then invert onto a board (you may need to run a knife around the edge to loosen the marshmallow), and cut into desired shapes with a sharp knife, scissors, or greased cookie-cutters. Coat cut edges with remaining powdered sugar/cornstarch mixture. Marshmallows keep, tightly covered, for at least 1 week.

Hot Chocolate
Adapted from the Scharffenberger website

Serves: one
Time: 5 minutes

4 t. cocoa powder
1 T. sugar
1 c. milk
marshmallows, for serving

In a small saucepan over medium heat, stir together the chocolate, sugar, and 1 T. of milk until dissolved into a thick paste. Add the remaining milk and stir infrequently until warm. Serve with marshmallows.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


Today is my first blogversary. In honor of this event, I decided to make a cake. A delicious, seasonal cake. The kind of cake that's so good that it convinced my friend JMc that she really does like a cake that she lumps into a category she previously despised: "fruit desserts." This cake represents my sole foray into the world of upside-down cakes, because it's so delicious that I've never felt the need to explore further.

The first (and most important) thing to make this cake is to go to the store and buy some cranberries while you still can. They populate the refrigerated berry section only for a few short months, usually from November 1st (in time for the traditional Thanksgiving sauce) to about January 1st. Maybe in a location closer to the bogs of the Northeast you can find cranberries at other times of the year, but I haven't seen them in California past January. That is to say, if you don't buy cranberries within the next two weeks, you won't be able to make this cake for months and months, until they appear in the store again. That would be tragic.

But if you do purchase cranberries (and I really think you should), heed the instructions on the outside of the bag: "Buy two, freeze one." Cranberries freeze so well that you can just toss a bag (or three) into the freezer for use all year round. Then, when you're craving this cake on a cold day at some other time of year, you'll be able to make it without delay.

It hasn't been as cold this week as last, but the winter holidays are clearly upon us. The pumpkin patch across the street is now officially a Christmas tree lot, and I've ordered a lot of presents in the past week. Also, I made my first batch of toffee a few days ago, and I've been thinking about what to pack for B's and my joint family trip to Tahoe next week.

Partially because of the cold, and partially because of the season, and partially because my life is stressful, I've been in the mood for homey, comforting desserts. (Believe it or not, it's been weeks since I've made ice cream! Though, truthfully, that's going to change this weekend.) This buttermilk cake, with its topping of cranberries and walnuts softened in brown sugar and butter, fits the homey-comforting-dessert bill perfectly. It isn't much to look at, but the taste and texture are divine: tart yet sweet, and thoroughly moist. My favorite part is where the topping meets the cake; it's here that the brown sugar flavor is most prominent, and the texture slightly gooey. An ideal afternoon snack, I can add from experience that a slice of this cake makes an excellent breakfast as well.

The original recipe calls for a 10-inch skillet, but I don't have one, so I've adapted it to an extremely useful round-bottomed 2-quart Pyrex dish I have (the same one I use for red gnocchi). You could really make this recipe in any number of vessels, provided that you like the shape when it's turned out upside-down. Invariably, some of the topping will stick to the bottom of the cake pan, but you can scoop it up with a spoon and put it right back onto the cake without anyone noticing your patchwork.

I think the recipe for this cranberry-walnut cake epitomizes some of the goals of my blog: it's quick, it uses mostly freezer or pantry ingredients, and it's delicious. Try it if you get a chance over this holiday season; I think you'll really like it.

Here's to many more blogversaries to come! Enjoy.

Cranberry Walnut Upside-down Cake

Time: 20 min active, 75 minutes total
Serves: 8

For the topping:
4 T. unsalted butter (1/2 stick)
3/4 c. brown sugar
3/4 c. chopped walnuts
2 c. cranberries (fresh or frozen)

For the cake:
6 T. unsalted butter (3/4 stick), softened
3/4 c. sugar
2 eggs
1/2 t. vanilla
1 1/2 c. flour
1 1/2 t. baking powder
1 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
3/4 c. buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. First, make the topping. Melt the butter in a medium skillet over medium-high heat, then add the brown sugar. Stir until dissolved, about 1 to 2 minutes. Add the walnuts and cranberries (O.K. if still frozen), and stir until the brown sugar melts again, approximately 2 minutes. Spoon the topping into a 2-quart capacity oven-safe vessel.

In a medium bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the vanilla. Add 1/2 c. flour, baking powder, soda, and salt, and mix well. Add half the buttermilk, then another 1/2 c. flour. Repeat with remaining buttermilk and flour, being careful not to overmix. Scrape the cake into the 2-quart vessel containing the cranberry topping.

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until a cake tester plunged into the center of the cake comes out clean (your baking time will vary considerably depending on the diameter of the vessel you choose). Cool cake on a rack for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the edge, then invert onto a serving platter. Spoon any extra topping from the dish and place on top of the cake.

Cake will keep for 3 to 4 days, tightly covered, and is best served warm.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The verdict

Thanksgiving 2009 is over. A lot of cooking took place, but the humble homage to Gourmet, like the magazine, is now done. The leftovers were distributed between the attendees, the pumpkin cheesecake has been devoured, and the napkins are washed and ironed. Overall, the three turkey extravaganza was an unmitigated success, prompting one diner to propose a toast: "To four turkeys next year!"

I'm sure you remember seeing the three brined birds lined up before cooking. One was to be deep-fried, one barbecued on a spit, and one oven-roasted.

Thankfully, the fried turkey was not the explosive, fiery mess I had been worried about. Nonetheless, preparing for the worst, I made my dad wear eye protection in the form of a shield he uses for welding. It turns out that this was overkill. He lowered the turkey into the hot oil slowly, and it was very "fire burn and cauldron bubble" (hot oil often is, I guess), but at no point was I concerned for his safety.

Forty-five minutes later, the turkey was done! It was nothing short of a miracle. I don't have a picture of the traditional turkey roasting in the oven, but I DO have a (very short) movie of the barbecued turkey.

Impressive, right? However, one lingering question remains. Which turkey won the taste test? I know you're all at the edge of your seats! After some discussion, we decided to vote by asking each person at the dinner table to pick their favorite turkey. (Drum roll, please.) The final tally was as follows:
  • Fried: 6*
  • Barbecued: 4
  • Oven-roasted: 2
*B's sister E also voted for the fried turkey, but she had a head-cold and could hardly smell anything, so her vote is not included. Additionally, my 98-year-old grandfather partook in the eating, but not the voting.

My mom (in a breach of voter confidentiality, I will inform you that she did not vote for the fried turkey) calls the results "not definitive." Which means, of course, that she's seriously considering the possibility of having four turkeys next year, if she can think of a fourth way to cook a turkey. Which would mean lots and lots of leftovers.

The turkey leftovers this year were surprisingly manageable, considering the large number of turkeys cooked. We ate turkey sandwiches (twice), a reheated Thanksgiving reprise complete with stuffing and other sides, and chilaquiles. I've already written about the delicious roasted tomatillo salsa that makes the chilaquiles exciting (and frequently requested by B). The chilaquiles were, I have to say, particularly delicious this year since we made them with the spicy leftover fried turkey. In order to inject flavor into the turkey, my dad literally injected flavor: a hot sauce went into the thickest parts of the meat with a big syringe. Frankly, this unexpected extra punch may have been what caused the fried turkey to win the overall competition.

Chilaquiles are basically a casserole, with chips and salsa and cheese standing in for tuna and crushed potato chips and cream of mushroom soup and whatever else people typically put in a casserole. With the weather as cold as it ever gets in San Francisco right now (it's 38 degrees as I write this), cheesiness and warmth and layering are desirable traits for an ideal dinner. Chilaquiles form a south-of-the-border casserole, while gnocchi make an Italian one.

Gnocchi are the easiest pasta to make. They start with one of my favorite ingredients, potatoes, which are mashed with egg, salt, and a little flour. The dough is rolled out into cylinders (or, as I used to call them when I was young, "worms") and chopped into pieces with a sharp knife; then each piece is shaped by pressing the back of a fork into it. It's important to use plenty of flour to keep each gnocchus (?) from sticking to the next. Also, try to make them a somewhat uniform size; when B helps, they tend to get larger and larger as he goes along.

Many recipes using cooked gnocchi exist in the world, but there is only one that B asks for, what he calls "red gnocchi." This "casserole" is perfect for a cold winter night, with two layers each of gnocchi, mozzarella, Parmesan, basil, and marinara sauce. It's warm, and cheesy, and fortifying if you, for some reason, need to leave the house and venture outside. It takes some time to make, and it doesn't use turkey, but the leftovers are quite satisfying as well. Enjoy!

Red Gnocchi
Adapted from Pasta Fresca

Time: 1 hour active, 1 1/2 hours total
Serves: 4, with leftovers

For the gnocchi:
1 russet potato
3-4 medium red potatoes
1 c. flour
1 t. salt
1 egg

For the marinara sauce:
1 T. olive oil
2 cloves garlic, smashed
1 can crushed tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
1 t. dried oregano or basil
1 t. salt

For the casserole:
4 oz. ball of mozzarella, sliced in small pieces
1 c. grated Parmesan
1/4 chopped Basil

First, place the potatoes in a pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, then simmer until potatoes are soft when pierced with a fork (the russet may take a little longer than the red potatoes), approximately 20-30 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the marinara sauce. Heat the olive oil in a small pot until hot but not smoking, then add the garlic. After 1 minute, when garlic is starting to turn golden, add tomatoes, basil, and salt. Lower heat to a simmer, and cook for 15 minutes or until desirable consistency.

When the potatoes are cooked, peel them, running under cold water if too hot, and place peeled potatoes in a large bowl. Mash, then mix in flour, salt, and egg, being careful not to overwork the dough.

Heat salted water in a large pot to cook the pasta and preheat oven to 450. While the water is heating, place a handful of dough on a well-floured board, and roll into a cylinder about 1/2-inch in diameter. Slice into individual gnocchi about 1 inch long with a sharp knife. Press the back of a fork into each gnocchi, and then dip cut edges in flour, shaking off excess. Place gnocchi in a single layer on a well-floured surface. Repeat with remaining dough.

Cook gnocchi in boiling water until they begin to float to the surface. Turn heat off, and place half of cooked gnocchi in a 2 to 3 quart oven-safe dish using a slotted spoon. Cover with half of the marinara sauce, then with half of the mozzarella, Parmesan, and basil. Repeat. Place casserole in the oven for 5 minutes, or until cheese melts and begins to bubble. Serve immediately.