Sunday, January 15, 2017

Tunisian Spiced Lamb Meatballs

We had David Tanis's Tunisian Meatballs for dinner the other night.  Tanis is one of my favorite chefs...and I love the cookbook in which this recipe is found...but for some reason I hadn't made them in a while.  Since I am teaching them in an upcoming class, I thought it would be a good idea to make them again.  It isn't as if I need a refresher course in cooking these meatballs, but having the recent tactile experience of making something always reminds me of things I want to say during a class.  As I made them, I was struck anew with what a fantastic recipe this is for meatballs.

I appreciate this recipe for many reasons:   The balance of spices is just right...  gently evocative of another place.  They are not too hot...nor are they too mild.   And the saffron and tomato cooking broth is subtle, fragrant and flavorful.  The dish is particularly nice with couscous (one of my favorite side dishes). But more than anything else, I love this recipe because it contains the bones of a great basic recipe for meatballs—it gets the balance of ground meat to egg to bread to salt just right.  Too much bread and a meatball will be mealy and soft rather than meaty.  Too little and the meatballs will be dry...and possibly hard.  Too much egg and they will be rubbery...  not enough and they will have a tendency to fall apart.  If you have tried a lot of recipes for meatballs, you know that getting the balance right is not a given.  Since happening upon this recipe a few years ago, I have used the ratios in this recipe to "repair" a couple of recipes that have good flavor, but inconsistent textural results. 

I have always made this particular recipe with lamb, but I am certain they would be delicious made with beef.  Just make sure that you are using a meat that is about twenty percent fat.  A cut with less fat will tend to produce dry, hard meatballs.  If this amount of fat seems decadent to you, consider this dish (or any meatball dish) an occasional splurge where the extra fat is totally worth the tender, juicy, flavorful result.

As you look at the recipe, don't be put off by the length of the ingredient list.  As Tanis points out, you can organize your work by making the sauce and/or the meat mixture ahead.  And even if you choose to make all the components and finish the dish in one session, once you have all of the spices measured out...and the herbs chopped...the meat mixture is very quickly and easily put together.   Furthermore, as with almost every recipe for meatballs in sauce, these freeze beautifully.  If you take the time to make a large batch, you can freeze it in portion-sized packets.  Then, on some future night when you are tired and busy, you will be able to enjoy the luxury of a slightly labor intensive dish...without having to expend any labor at all.

Tunisian Meatballs

The Sauce:
2 T. olive oil
1 1/2 c. finely diced onion
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 T. tomato paste
1 inch piece cinnamon stick
Large pinch saffron, crumbled
Salt and pepper
3 c. chicken broth, vegetable broth or water

The Meatballs:

1 1/2 c. cubed day-old firm white bread
1 c. milk
1 lb. ground lamb (or beef chuck)
1 large egg, beaten
1 t. kosher salt, divided
4 garlic cloves, smashed to a purée with some of the salt
1/4 t. black pepper
2 t. paprika
1 t. ground ginger
1 t. turmeric
1/2 t. ground cumin
1/4 t. cayenne
1/4 t. ground cloves
1/4 t. ground coriander
1/8 t. grated nutmeg
2 T. minced parsley
2 T. minced cilantro
2 T. finely chopped scallion, white and pale green portions
All-purpose flour, for dusting
Olive oil or vegetable oil
Chiffonade parsley and cilantro for garnish
Thinly sliced scallions (green portion only) for garnish

To make the sauce, heat the oil over medium-high heat in a wide, heavy bottomed saucepan. Add onion and cook without browning until softened, about 5 to 10 minutes. Add garlic, tomato paste, cinnamon stick and saffron, and stir well to incorporate. Season generously with salt and pepper, and allow to sizzle for 1 minute more. Add broth, bring to a simmer, and simmer gently for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat. The sauce may be made up to a day in advance and refrigerated.

To make the meatballs, put bread cubes and milk in a small bowl and let the bread soak until softened, about 5 minutes, then squeeze dry and transfer to a medium bowl.

Add the ground meat to the bread and mix gently with your hands, then add the egg, garlic, salt, pepper, paprika, ginger, turmeric, cumin, cayenne, cloves, coriander and nutmeg. Mix well with hands to distribute seasoning. Add the parsley, cilantro and scallion, and knead for a minute. The mix may be prepared up to a day in advance and refrigerated. 

With your hands, roll mixture into small balls about the size of a quarter. Dust lightly with flour.

Heat a quarter-inch of oil in a wide heavy skillet over medium-high heat. 

Fry meatballs, turning once, until barely browned, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer to a wire rack set over a tray lined with a double layer of paper towels.

Add the meatballs to the sauce, bring to a simmer over medium heat cover and cook for about 20 minutes, until the sauce has thickened slightly and the meatballs are tender. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning, adding salt or cayenne as necessary. 

Garnish meatballs with remaining parsley, cilantro and scallion. Serve with couscous or rice. Serves 4 to 6.

(Recipe adapted from One Good Dish by David Tanis)

  • I have made this recipe and formed very small meatballs (about 10 to 11 grams each and about the size of a quarter as Tanis directs) and also in a slightly larger size (about 15 grams each) without any reduction in quality or finesse (although, I prefer the smaller ones). If made into the very small size you will have about 60 meatballs. You will have 40 to 45 in the larger size. 
  • Both the sauce and the meatball mixture can be made a day ahead. Store covered in the refrigerator. 
  • As mentioned in the text, the ratios of this recipe produce a particularly fine meatball.  You can use these ratios to improvise your own meatball recipe...or repair a recipe that has nice flavors, but in which the texture of the meatball leaves something to be desired.  For every pound of meat, use 1 egg, 1 t. kosher salt, and 1 1/2 cups cubed firm white bread (soaked in milk and squeezed dry).

Friday, January 6, 2017

Winter Squash, Apple & Sausage Pizza

My first thought as we ate the pizza I made for dinner the other night was that it was really good and maybe I should post it to my blog.  My second thought was that even though it was good, it was just a simple pizza...and I had posted other pizzas...and well, maybe I would just let it pass.  Then I thought about the comment I made in my final post of 2016 about sharing more of the simple and basic dishes that appear on my table day in and day out...even if they aren't unusual or "chef-y".  And suddenly this simple pizza seemed like a good way to kick off the year.

Since Christmas, I have not been as focused as I usually am on food.  I have had a little extra time off and have been trying to use that time to attend to things that have fallen by the wayside for too long.  Dinners have been simple, hurried, pantry affairs almost every night.  I make a trip to the store occasionally to make sure I have some basics (seasonal vegetables, fruit, bacon/sausage/ham, grains/pastas, canned tomatoes/beans, eggs/dairy/cheese) and wing it from there to make a pasta, a soup, a salad, a pizza.....  

If pizzas aren't on your list of easy, weeknight meals, they should be.  Because they can be topped with almost any cooked ingredient, they are a great way to use up odds and ends of vegetables and cheeses.  If you have foods on hand that you like to eat, odds are you can come up with a flavorful combination for a pizza.  Just make your dough (more on that in a minute), choose a sauce (plain or seasoned olive oil, tomato sauce, reduced cream, seasoned ricotta...even a vegetable purée) and prepare/cook your toppings while the oven heats.

If you think your oven won't produce a good pizza, think again.  If you have a pizza stone and your oven will hold a temperature of 500° F, your oven is capable of producing a respectable pizza.  If you don't have a stone, you should take some of your holiday gift money (doesn't everyone get gift certificates these days?) and buy one.  It is a very small investment...and one that you won't regret.  While you're at it, pick up a peel (not strictly necessary—I made good pizza for years without one—but using one will produce a superior crust).  Then, stop at the grocery store on the way home and buy a bag of semolina flour (you can of course dust your peel with flour...but a semolina dusted peel is pretty much stick proof).  With practice you will be making consistently delicious pizzas in no time.

As for the dough....if you know how to use your food processor, you can make delicious pizza dough.  I have been making pizza dough for years the old fashioned way—mixing and kneading by hand.  But a couple of years ago I started to make it in the food processor because it's just so quick and easy.  I still occasionally make it by hand....but there is really no reason to other than that I occasionally want to slow down and enjoy the process of kneading.  (I give directions for both methods in the recipe.)  If you are still dubious about making your own, you can probably find a grocery store that sells freshly made dough in their prepared foods department.  I know that Whole Foods does this, and I'm sure there are others.

As I said, last night's pizza was particularly good.  And since it included ingredients that I always have on hand during the fall and winter months (a chunk of winter squash...a Pink Lady apple...shallots...sausage...Dubliner cheese....), I know I will be making it again.  I hope you will make it too...or better yet, come up with a new favorite of your own using the ingredients you like to keep on hand.

Winter Squash, Apple & Sausage Pizza

10 to 12 oz. butternut squash (half of a small to medium squash), peeled, seeded and cut in a 1/2-inch dice (you should have a scant 2 cups)
1 small sweet-tart apple (I like Pink Lady), peeled and cut in a half inch dice (about 1 cup)
Olive oil
Salt & freshly ground pepper
1 medium shallot, peeled and thinly sliced using a mandolin
pinch of pepper flakes
1/ 2 t. minced rosemary
1 3 to 4 oz. link cooked sausage (see note), halved and sliced 1/4-inch thick cross-wise on a slight diagonal
1 ball of pizza dough (see below), rested
5 oz. Dubliner cheese (see note), coarsely grated

Place the squash and apples in a bowl and drizzle with just enough olive oil to coat.  Season with salt and pepper and toss well.  Transfer to a small baking sheet (a quarter sheet pan is perfect) and roast in a preheated 450° oven until tender and beginning to brown—about 20 to 25 minutes.

When the vegetables are done roasting, scatter the shallots, rosemary, pepper flakes and sausage over and toss to combine.  Increase the oven temperature to 500°.

Build the pizza: On a lightly floured surface, roll or stretch the dough out into a 12-inch circle. Transfer the dough to a pizza pan, baking sheet or pizza peel that has been dusted with semolina (or flour...or cornmeal).  Spread a thin layer of oil over the crust. Scatter with half of the cheese, followed by the topping mixture, followed by the remaining cheese

If using a pizza pan or baking sheet, place the pizza in the pan on a pre-heated pizza stone in a pre-heated 500° oven. Bake until the crust is golden brown on the bottom and the cheese is bubbling, about 12 to 15 minutes. To insure a crisp crust, slide the pizza off of the pan and directly onto the pizza stone as soon as the crust is set (after 4 or 5 minutes). 

If using a peel, slide the pizza directly onto the preheated baking stone. Bake until the crust is golden brown on the bottom and the cheese is bubbling—about 8 to 10 minutes. 

When the pizza is done, transfer to a cutting board and cut into wedges and serve.

  • I like Aidells Roasted Garlic & Gruyère Smoked Chicken Sausage, but any favorite cooked sausage that will go with the squash and apples would be fine. Kielbasa would be excellent. You could also cook a fresh Italian sausage link and cut it in a similar fashion. 
  • I love the nutty taste of Dubliner and I always have it on hand. It is a great snacking and melting cheese. It is particularly good with the squash and apples on this pizza...but there are other cheeses that would work well. A good, sharp Cheddar...Fontina...low-moisture Mozzarella...etc. 

Pizza Dough

1/2 cup (115 g.) warm water (100º-110º)
1 1/8 t. instant or active dry yeast
160 to 180 grams (1 1/3 to 1 1/2 c.) unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 t. salt
1 T. olive oil

Place the water and yeast in a small bowl and let sit until the yeast has dissolved.  Place 160 grams (1 1/3 cups) of the flour and salt in the food processor fitted with the metal blade and pulse to blend.  Add the oil and yeast/water mixture and pulse until the dough is homogenous.  Pulse 3 or 4 times until the ingredients come together.  Begin to run the machine in long pulses (10 to 15 seconds each) until the dough is cohesive and elastic—it shouldn't take more than a minute.  If the dough seems wet and sticky, add flour a tablespoon at a time, pulsing after each addition.  If you like, turn the dough out onto a lightly floured counter and give it a few kneads by hand.  Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and cover the bowl with plastic wrap.  Let the dough rise until it has doubled in size—about 1 hour.  Punch down the dough and turn it onto a lightly floured surface and form it into a ball.  Cover with a towel (or turn the bowl it rose in upside down over the dough) and let rest for 15 to 20 minutes.  The dough is now ready to be shaped, topped and cooked or frozen.  (You may also make the dough 12 to 24 hours ahead.  Place the bowl of dough in the refrigerator where it will have a nice long, cool rise.  Roll, top and bake as usual.)

Traditional mixing method:  Place the water in a large bowl and add the yeast.  Let soften for a minute or two.  Add 1 ½ cups of the flour and whisk until smooth.  Add the oil, salt and another cup of the flour.  Stir with a wooden spoon to form a soft dough that holds its shape, adding more flour if necessary.  Sprinkle some of the remaining half cup of flour on a smooth surface.  Scrape the dough out of the bowl and sprinkle with a bit more flour.  Knead the dough, adding just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking, until the dough is smooth and springs back when pressed lightly with a finger—about 5 to 10 minutes.  Transfer the dough to a

Variation for a Whole Wheat Crust: Instead of unbleached all-purpose flour, use 3/4 c. bread flour and 1/2 to 3/4 c. whole wheat flour (any whole wheat flour will work, but I like “white” whole wheat flour).

Saturday, December 31, 2016

A simple salad from the pantry—and a versatile vinaigrette

As the year draws to a close, I thought I would share the simple salad that we had for dinner last night....and in so doing, revisit some of the reasons that I write For Love of the Table.  The salad wasn't fancy....or "chef-y"...  It was just good food that I made at home with what I had on hand.  In the early days of my blog, I posted a lot more things like this...maybe I should do a little more of that in the coming year.  My goal with For Love of the Table has always been to encourage people to cook at home.  Among other things, I want to post simple ideas along with technique driven posts (see "basic techniques") that will help people add to their basic cooking skills so that on a busy night before making the decision to go out, they can look in their pantry and say, "I've got this". 

If you have salad greens...and a basic vinaigrette in your fridge (or the makings in your pantry) probably have everything on hand to make a satisfying main course salad.  Our salad was a mix of arugula (what was left after I made a batch of arugula pesto) and baby lettuces (a good item to keep on hand).  Any fresh greens you have on hand will do.   

I roasted a few fingerling potatoes (about 4 oz. per person) because I like the substance of something starchy.  But if I hadn't had these I would have toasted some nice fat slices of a hearty bread (something I always keep in my freezer). 

Blanched or roasted vegetables are a good addition.  You could roast carrots (another basic pantry item)...or blanch a few florets of broccoli...or a handful of green beans.  Roasted beets can be a refrigerator staple and are wonderful in salads.  We happened to have the remains of one of those bags of the little haricot verts that have become so popular in recent I blanched a few of these (2 1/2 to 3 oz. per person is about right). 

For some protein, add a wedge of cheese...a hard cooked or poached egg...maybe some sausage or bacon...or the remains of a roast, steak or chop of some kind.  Even canned tuna...dressed with olive oil, a few dried herbs and some salt and pepper is nice.  I always have sausage in my freezer...usually Italian, but more recently I have also been keeping Aidells Smoked Chicken Sausage (I like the roasted garlic and Gruyère cheese) I added that.  The Aidells is nice in that it is already cooked and only needs to be heated through.  I must have been extra hungry, because I added a hard cooked egg along with the sausage.

If you follow my blog regularly, you know I like nuts of all all kinds of food it won't be a surprise to hear that I added some toasted walnuts to my salad.  Pistachios or pecans (or another favorite nut) would have been good too.  Other nice additions can include olives and dried fruits.

You can throw all the ingredients in a bowl and toss them in your vinaigrette for a true tossed salad...or dress everything separately and arrange each thing on individual plates or a big platter for more of a composed salad.  For our salad I spread the warm roasted potatoes on the plates, tossed the greens with the haricots verts (cooled just slightly), walnuts and vinaigrette and piled this on top of the potatoes.   I then tucked the wedges of egg and chunks of sausage in and around the salad.

Any vinaigrette you like is fine for an impromptu salad like this.  You don't even need to make a vinaigrette:  instead, you could add some shaved shallots or minced scallions to the salad and then dress with a drizzle of olive oil and some vinegar (or lemon) to taste.  The most important thing is to make sure that each item is well seasoned...including the greens.  Salt gets a bad rap, but as I know I have said before, you probably aren't getting too much if you are salting fresh/unprocessed ingredients in foods that you have cooked yourself. 

In the fall and winter months I like to keep a tangy Dijon vinaigrette on hand.  I am including the recipe at the end of the post because it is so basic and versatile, but you don't really need a recipe.  Just mince a small to medium sized shallot and place it in a small bowl.  Add enough red wine vinegar to just cover the shallot along with a good pinch of salt and let sit for a few minutes (the vinegar will soften the harshness of the shallot). Add a blob of Dijon mustard (depending on how much you like mustard, anywhere from half to equal the amount of vinegar you used).  Whisk until smooth.  Add olive oil to balance the taste to your liking (add in a thin stream while whisking constantly).  An amount of olive oil equal to about four times the amount of vinegar you used will be about right.  The exact amount will depend on how much Dijon you used and on how tangy you like your vinaigrette.  Taste it on a lettuce leaf or on another element of your salad to make sure that you have the balance where you like it.  Homemade vinaigrettes like this one keep just fine in the refrigerator for several weeks.  Just pull it out of the fridge when you start getting dinner ready so that it will warm up a bit.  Shake well or re-whisk before using.

I had a few of the elements leftover...
They made a nice lunch salad with some cheese and bread...
I hope everyone has a safe and festive New Years Eve celebration....and a peaceful start to 2017.    If you like to cook...or if you want to cook more for yourself and your family and friends...I hope you will visit For Love of the Table often and that when you do that you find all kinds of delicious things here that bring satisfaction to you as a cook...and pleasure to those who gather around your table.   

Happy New Year.

Basic Dijon Vinaigrette

2 T. red wine vinegar
1 large shallot, finely diced (about 3 to 4 T.)
1/2 to 2/3 c. olive oil
2 T. Dijon mustard
Salt & pepper, to taste

Place the vinegar and shallots in a small bowl and set aside for a few minutes.  Season the vinegar and shallots with a good pinch of salt and some freshly ground pepper.  Add the mustard and whisk until smooth.  Gradually whisk in 1/2 cup of the olive oil in a thin stream.  Taste and correct the seasoning, adding more olive oil if the vinaigrette is too sharp for your taste.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Family Holiday Food Traditions...and a Christmas Eve Wreath Bread

When it comes to holiday foods, my family is all about tradition.   Year after year, the same foods appear on our tables and in our homes throughout the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season.  When I first began cooking for a living...going to school, cooking in an exciting restaurant kitchen...this bothered me a lot.  I found it to be constraining...and a bit boring.  I wanted to prepare exotic and different foods from other traditions.  Unfortunately, my desires didn't mesh very well with those of my family. 

But of course, the holidays really are about family: remembering the things that connect us to each other and to those who are no longer physically present.  Food...and the traditions that surround it...are a beautiful and symbolic part of this.  Every year we serve a sweet Wassail on Christmas Eve at a simple family gathering in my home.   Everyone expects it.  To be honest, I don't like it very much.  But my father loved it...and he loved Christmas.  So I am happy to make it every year because it reminds me of him and the joy he found in the holiday season.  And now, a new generation has apparently acquired a taste for it:  I found out a few years ago that my niece loves it.  So... the tradition will continue.

I have of course introduced a few new food traditions of my own into the mix.  The holiday wreath coffeecake I make now for Christmas breakfast was something I started making a few years ago...and it has gone over well.  It is, I think, here to stay.  Other traditional family foods have received a bit of a makeover: artisanal bread (instead of Wonder bread) in my Grandmother's sage dressing....homemade sour cherry compote (instead of canned pie filling) in a favorite family coffeecake....   But some recipes really didn't need to be changed at all.  They were already delicious...and part of the things I have loved about our family's holiday traditions.  The recipe I'm sharing today is one of these.  

I don't know at what point a particular dish had to first appear on our table in order for it to become a settled family tradition...but it probably had to be sometime before all of the kids had graduated from college.  (I think a lot of traditions are rooted in the fact that we all want to be kids again at Christmas...)  The bread I'm posting today appeared in Better Homes & Gardens magazine in December of 1982, so it's on the fringe in terms of time frame (two of the four of us were in college at that time).  But I'm glad it made the cut—it's a tradition that I happen to like. 

I have not changed this loaf from the original (other than to stream line the method a bit).  Simple, festive and delicious as is—it is similar to the soft and slightly sweet homemade dinner rolls that everyone loves to have on their tables at the holidays.  It is the perfect accompaniment to the bowl of Cream of Wild Rice Soup that we always have for our Christmas Eve dinner (a tradition dating from our Minnesota days in the mid-70's). 

In recent years I guess you could say that I have gone from tolerating these family food traditions to enjoying them.  I am blessed that my work provides a creative outlet for me as I prepare a wide variety of interesting and different things for my clients.  In the hurry and rush of the season, it is frankly a relief to not have to think about what I'll prepare for dinner on Christmas Eve.   And then, sitting down to that simple and familiar bowl of soup with bread (before the rest of the family arrives for the Wassail and other traditional holiday treats), I get to have a quiet moment to truly enjoy the current season...and at the same time savor the memories of the many Christmases that have passed.

Merry Christmas.

Christmas Wreath Bread

3/4 c. (180 g.) milk
3 T. (41 g) unsalted butter, sliced 1/4-inch thick
2 1/4 t. instant or active dry yeast
3 T. (38 g) sugar
3/4 t. salt
1 large egg
2 1/2 to 3 c. (285 to 340 g) all-purpose flour
Milk for brushing
1/3 c. pecan halves

Scald the milk.  Place the butter in a medium-sized mixing bowl.  Pour the hot milk over the butter.  By the time the butter melts the temperature of the milk should be about 105° to 115° F.—if not, let it sit until it is. Add the yeast.  Stir until dissolved.  Whisk in the sugar, salt and egg.  Add a cup of the flour and whisk until smooth. Stir in another 1 1/2 cups of flour, adding as much of the remaining half cup necessary to obtain a soft, shaggy dough. 

Turn out, scraping the bowl well, onto a lightly floured surface and knead, adding only as much of the remaining flour as you need to manage the dough—it will remain a bit sticky, but will eventually become smooth and elastic.  This will take about 7 to 10 minutes.

Place the dough in a buttered bowl and turn to coat.  Cover with plastic wrap and set in a warm spot.  Let rise until doubled in bulk—about an hour to an hour and a half.  

Knock back the risen dough, turn out onto your work surface and divide into three equal balls.  

Cover with a towel and let rest for 10 to 15 minutes.  Roll each ball into a 24-inch rope....using very small amount of flour only if necessary to keep the ropes from sticking unmanageably. 

Grease the outside of a 6 oz. custard cup and invert on the center of a parchment lined baking sheet.  Braid the ropes loosely 

and wrap around the custard cup, pinching the ends together to seal and form a continuous braid.  

Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled—the loaf will look puffy and swollen 

and if you touch it gently with your fingertip, the indentation will remain—about an hour.  Carefully brush the loaf with milk and tuck the pecan halves decoratively into the crevices of the braid.  Bake in a 375° oven until golden brown—if you tap on the loaf it will sound hollow—20 minutes or so.  Transfer to a wire rack.  When the loaf is cool enough to handle, lift it off of the custard cup and serve.

(Recipe adapted from Better Homes & Gardens, December 1982)

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Chocolate Caramel Bars

Occasionally I will decide that a recipe I love...that I have been making for years...needs to be changed.  I actually think it would be odd if this didn't happen now and then.  I'm always learning new techniques...and picking up new ideas—and I want to apply these things to old favorites.  Sometimes a revision is called for simply because my tastes have changed.  The fact that I revamp a recipe doesn't necessarily mean the old/original version was just means I've found a way to make it even better.

I share all this because the cookie I am posting today—Chocolate Caramel Bars—has been part of a Christmas cookie class that I have been teaching for 10 years.  I taught it again last week...and included the "old" version in the class.  I had decided to try my hand at reworking the recipe the weekend before the class and just didn't have it ready in time.  But it is ready now. 

If you have the old version, you already know they are seriously delicious.  (Early on, these cookies were christened "Danger Bars" by a friend.  Rich as they are, it is difficult to limit yourself to one...or two...)  You might wonder how they could possibly be better.  Well...  this version has more caramel (just a bit...).  And...  the caramel is slightly softer (but still slices neatly and cleanly).   

The softness comes from the addition of a touch of honey, which adds to the flavor as well (making them reminiscent of my favorite recipe for caramels).  The crust is still chewy...but not at all hard....  They are just what I wanted when I set out to revise the recipe:  a cookie bar in which all the good things about the old are even better.

For those of you who have never had my Christmas cookie class:  If you like caramel...and chocolate...and nuts...and crunchy-chewy oatmeal crumble, you will love this cookie.  It is almost more of a candy bar than a cookie.  And like the original it is dangerously and addictively delicious (only more so...).  A batch makes a great gift (they are sturdy enough to ship).  If you make them, I think you will find they are wonderful the day they are made...and even better the day after.  In fact, they just seem to keep getting better with age.  How long these cookies will keep I really can't say...  They never seem to hang around for long.

Chocolate Caramel Bars

(a.k.a. Danger Bars)
1 1/4 c. (145 g.) all-purpose flour
1 c. (100 g.) quick oats
1/4 t. baking soda
1/4 t. salt
3/4 c. (170 g.) unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 c. (150 g.) packed light brown sugar

1 1/2 c. (300 g) sugar
1 1/2 T. unsalted butter
3/4 c. Heavy cream
2 T. (41 g.) honey
1 t. vanilla
1/8 t. salt

1 c. (6 oz.) bittersweet chocolate—either chips or bar chocolate, cut into 1/2-inch squares
1 c. (4 oz.) coarsely broken toasted walnuts

Prepare the Cookie Base:
Combine the flour, oats, baking soda and salt; set aside.

Cream butter and sugar just until smooth.  Stir in the dry ingredients just until the mixture is homogenous and crumbly/clumpy.  Scoop out 1 cup of the “crumbles” (140 g.) and set aside.

Butter a 13x9-inch baking pan—focusing mainly on the sides.  Line the bottom of the pan with a rectangle of parchment (don't butter the parchment).  Press the remaining crumbs of dough into the pan in an even layer.  Bake in a 350° oven until set and golden...about 10 to 15 minutes.  Remove from the oven and cool for at least 10 minutes.

Prepare the caramel
Place the sugar in a heavy medium-sized saucepan.  

Place the pan over medium-high to high heat.  Watch carefully—the sugar will immediately turn to caramel as it melts.  Shake the pan occasionally to prevent the melted sugar from burning and to expose more dry sugar to the heat.  If the sugar begins to smoke, lower the heat a bit.  Eventually there will be a few hard lumps of sugar floating in liquid caramel.  Remove from the heat and stir until all the lumps are dissolved and the caramel is a clear golden amber—returning the pan to the heat briefly if the lumps don’t dissolve.  This whole process will take less than 5 minutes.  

Off the heat, add the butter, stirring until incorporated.  Slowly pour in the cream while stirring with a long-handled wooden spoon (be very careful when adding the cream and butter as the caramel will sputter and boil vigorously).  Add the honey.  Return the pan to the heat and boil over medium-high heat until the caramel reaches 238° (soft ball stage).  

Working quickly, remove the pan from the heat and stir in the vanilla and salt.

Immediately pour the hot caramel into a greased, heatproof 2-cup measuring cup.  You should have 1 1/2 cups of caramel.  Let the caramel cool for 10 minutes.  You may use the caramel immediately, or let it sit up to an hour at room temperature (warm the caramel slightly before using if it is no longer pourable).

Build & Finish the Cookie Bars:
Pour the caramel evenly over the cooled crust.  

Scatter the walnuts, chocolate chunks and reserved crumbs of dough evenly over the caramel.  

Return to the oven and bake until the caramel is bubbling—about 20 to 22 minutes.

Allow the bars to cool completely in the pan.  Use a small sharp knife or metal spatula to separate the bars from the sides of the pan.  Invert the bars onto a cookie sheet, remove the parchment and then re-invert them onto a cutting board.  Cut the cookies into bars—anywhere from 32 to 64 depending on the size bar you want.  You will get 32 2x1½-inch bars, 48 1½x1½-inch bars 

or 64 1x1½-inch bars.  Place the bars on 2 or 3 layers of paper towels for at least 15 minutes to absorb excess butter before storing air tight between layers of waxed paper.

(Recipe adapted from recipes in Rose’s Christmas Cookies, by Rose Levy Beranbaum and Midwest Living Magazine, December 1990)

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Sweet Potato & Carrot Purée

Every year I have intended to share the recipe for a sweet potato & carrot purée that has been a staple on our fall and winter table for longer than I can remember.  The original version is from Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins first collaborative cookbook, The Silver Palate Cookbook.  I have altered it only slightly.  If you have a food processor, it is easy very easy to make...and delicious with all kinds of fall and winter preparations, from weeknight steaks/chops/cutlets, to weekend roasts or braises/stews.  In short, perfect for almost any occasion...from casual to elegant. 

Two things will insure success with this dish: choosing the right kind of sweet potato...and cooking the carrots properly.  When you purchase your sweet potatoes, look for the moist-fleshed, "yam"-type varieties.  Nationally this will probably be those labeled "Louisiana", Jewel or Garnet.  In the Midwest (where I live), local growers almost without exception grow a wonderful variety known as Beauregard.  All of these varieties have high residual sugar (particularly if they have been cured properly) and are low starch (which is one of the reasons they can be puréed in the food processor without becoming gluey like a white potato).

Cooking the carrots involves a simple two step process.  First, the carrots are boiled (covered) until they are very tender (but not falling apart) in a small amount of water enhanced with sugar and butter.  Once tender, they are uncovered and the heat is increased so that the water can be boiled away.  The carrots are finished when the water is gone, the sugar has begun to caramelize in the pan and the carrots are sizzling in the butter. 

If the carrots are not properly cooked—that is, if they are either not soft enough, or there is water left in the pan—there will be a couple of problems.  First, there will likely be chunks of carrot in the purée.  As long as they are tender, this isn't the end of the world...but the purée will not be as suave and elegant as it is when perfectly smooth.   Secondly, if there is water left, the carrots will not only be water-logged, they will not have been able to caramelize.  Both of these things result in a less concentrated flavor.  Furthermore, if the excess water is added along with the carrots to the sweet potatoes, the purée will be too soft and won't be able to hold very much butter or cream....both of which add a great deal to the final texture and taste.

I love everything about this purée.  It is easy to prepare and requires very little attention during the cooking process...which allows me to focus on other, more involved, preparations.  And, it reheats beautifully...making it perfect for a holiday gathering.  Its sweet flavor profile makes a perfect companion for the slightly bitter green vegetables of winter:  Brussels sprouts, broccoli, kale and chard.  Best of all, everyone loves it.  People who like their sweet potatoes to be sweet are are those that think sweet potatoes are already sweet enough on their own.  I hope you will try it...and that it becomes a fall and winter staple on your table too. 

Sweet Potato-Carrot Purée

2 lb. Sweet Potatoes—preferably a moist-fleshed "yam"-type variety like Beauregard, Jewel or Garnet
1 lb. Carrots, topped and tailed, peeled and sliced 1/4-inch thick
4 to 6 T. unsalted butter, divided
1 T. sugar
Salt, Pepper and Nutmeg
1/4 to 1/2 cup hot heavy cream

Prick the sweet potatoes in several spots with a fork or paring knife and transfer to a baking sheet.  Bake in a 375° to 400° oven, until easily pierced with the tip of a knife and the natural sugars have begun to ooze a bit—about 40 to 60 minutes. 

While the sweet potatoes are roasting, place the carrots in a wide, shallow saucepan and add the sugar, 2 T. of butter and a pinch of salt.  Add water to almost cover the carrots.  Cover the pan and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat and cook the carrots (covered) at a rapid simmer until they are very tender—about 20 to 25 minutes.  

Uncover, increase the heat to medium high and boil until the liquid has reduced to a glaze, the sugar begins to caramelize and the carrots are sizzling in the butter—watch carefully when the liquid has evaporated, shaking the pan back and forth to coat the carrots in the buttery glaze. 

When the sweet potatoes are finished baking, cut them open and scoop out the flesh.  Transfer to the food processor along with the carrots and purée until very smooth.  Season to taste with salt, pepper and nutmeg.  Add butter and process in. Add heavy cream to obtain the consistency you prefer by adding it through the feed tube with the processor running.  Keep warm until ready to serve.   Serves 6 to 8.

Note:  If you are working ahead, cool the sweet potato-carrot purée and store covered in the refrigerator.  Bring to room temperature before reheating.  The purée may be reheated in a stainless steel bowl, set over simmering water (stir occasionally with a heatproof rubber spatula as the purée heats) or in the microwave.  When hot, taste and correct the seasoning and add more butter or cream if necessary.

Printable Version

As a side dish for a family Thanksgiving...