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Saturday, November 8, 2014

Countdown to Thanksgiving, Day 19 - Homemade Marshmallows

Complete with Myspace Angle and all
Happy Saturday, Kansas City! I have to bang this out quickly, since I work at 9am today. 

There's frost on my window this morning, and it reminded me of the (very seldom) cold mornings in Tucson. I know that I keep going on and on about Tucson, reminding you all that I'm "not one of your own", but I would like to continue believing that the Midwesterners are known for hospitality, and really are some of the nicest, friendliest people in America. Certain displays and behaviors I've witnessed here have made me believe that this bipolar weather has made a whole of Kansas City to be unfriendly and miserable and God-awful, but(fortunately) the friends I have made here have proven otherwise. So, in reality, it's just like everywhere else! Some people are miserable and some people are friendly. The friends I have made here are warm and welcoming and hospitable, more than happy to usher in the new, which brings me to my point.

What fights winter/fall weather like hot chocolate? Not a lot.

Thanksgivings at home would usually begin with cooking breakfast together, stuffing our faces, then going over to Grandma's house to help cook and set up. My dad and I would make pancakes, sometimes in the shape of saguaro cacti, and watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade together. He wouldn't want to watch it(his thing was football), but he would turn it on for me. Pancakes are a big part of families being together, I think, but the family that you make(your friends) is just as important. If you're hosting an Orphan's Thanksgiving, like me, be hospitable. Make hot chocolate with homemade marshmallows as a breakfast offering for those coming over to help you cook.

With breakfast, Dad would have coffee and I would have hot chocolate. Nothing would sooth a cold morning away quite like hot chocolate would, and it brings back fond memories, indeed. We preferred the Swiss Miss Hot Chocolate Mix with the mini marshmallows, but Dad knew how much I loved marshmallows so he would always have the Jet Puffs at the ready.

This was my dessert, all finished! Not bad for a 1st year
culinary/savory student!
Fast forward to Culinary School and my Baking & Pastry Midterm is coming up. We worked in groups, and each group would reproduce a dessert from our textbook as best we could, following technique and skill, but form and presentation were entirely up to us. The dessert was a brownie, and it had to include mandarin sorbet, ganache, marshmallow, and a chocolate decoration in some form. My love affair with marshmallows had only increased in intensity during my college years, especially since I was so broke that I practically lived off of them. Kansas City was expensive for me at the time, but housing was exponentially cheaper here than it was when I lived in Los Angeles, so that was helpful. The thought that I could make them at home, on my own, without having to buy them was almost too exciting to bear.

The point of this whole introductory spiel into marshmallows is to let you know that if they mean this much to me, they might mean this much to  somebody else, and making some at home for your kids, your family, your friends might be that extra thing that sticks with them. The Jet Puffs stuck with me for years, without my Dad ever knowing how important they were to me. Maybe someone who is coming to your Thanksgiving dinner in a few weeks will be touched by this? You could have them for breakfast, or save them for your after dinner/after pie coffee. It's all about making memories and sharing things together, right? The best marshmallow recipe I've come across is from Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bakery Cookbook. I've adapted the method just ever-so-slightly to work for home cooks. Enjoy!

Vanilla Marshmallows
  • 1/2 cup each powdered sugar & cornstarch
  • 2 tsp powdered gelatin
  • 4 lg egg whites
  • 1 cup + 2 Tbsp granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 1/2 Tbsp light corn syrup
Line an 8″ square baking pan with parchment paper and/or plastic wrap. Sift half of the powdered sugar/cornstarch mixture generously in the pan and set the rest aside for later. Sprinkle the gelatin over 1/4 cup of cool water and about 1/2 tsp vanilla extract to allow to “bloom”. Blooming takes three or four minutes, and once it’s bloomed, blast it in the microwave for 15 seconds. Set aside.

Place your egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Add another 1/4 tsp vanilla extract, if you really like the flavor. Add in a pinch of salt at this point, too. Combine 1 cup of the sugar, the corn syrup, and water into a saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring only once to dissolve the sugar, then continue to simmer for another 5 minutes, until your syrup reaches about 250 degrees F.

When this temperature is reached, turn on your mixer to medium speed. You’d like to have your whites at medium peaks when the syrup reaches somewhere between the 281 – 284 degrees F. When the egg whites start getting foamy, add in the remaining 2 Tablespoons of sugar. Once everything is at the right stage and your sugar is at the right temperature, slowly-slowly-slowly(and carefully, please) pour in the hot sugar mixture in a thin stream to your egg whites, pouring between the side of the bowl and the moving whisk.

Once everything’s in, pour in the gelatin mixture and increase the speed to medium-high, and continue to mix for about 5 minutes, until the mixture is thick, glossy,  and warm, but not quite hot.

Spray a spatula with nonstick spray if you have it, or simply butter the sides of it with super-soft butter. Pour out and spread the marshmallow evenly as you can into your prepared pan. Take a piece of parchment paper or wax paper and spray it with pan spray or butter generously. Lay it gently on top of your marshmallow mixture and press to create a uniformly smooth top. I usually like to let mine set for at least an hour before trying to handle, but you can let yours hang out over night at room temperature. You don’t have to worry too much, because the sugar has cooked your eggs, and this is basically a candy now.

In the morning(or in an hour), flip out your marshmallow onto a parchment-lined cutting board. Sprinkle the top of your peeled marshmallow with more cornstarch-powdered sugar if you need to. Fresh marshmallows can be difficult to deal with, so spray your knife with nonstick spray as you cut cubes. You can alternatively put the marshmallow mixture in a piping bag and pipe out little drop shapes and leave to set over night. This is all about the look and which looks you ultimately prefer. I personally prefer rectangles and squares, because they really give a distinct look, and when you plop them into piping hot chocolate, they seem to melt more evenly.
I snagged this picture from UseRealButter.com, another food blogger I love!

 If you make ambrosia or sweet potato pie for your Thanksgiving feast, you can make them ahead of time and use them in your recipe as your topping. If you have brownies, too, you can plop them squarely on top of them to serve them as a dessert. These can keep for quite a while in the fridge, but they probably won’t last too long.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Countdown to Thanksgiving, Day 20 - Salted Caramel

Caramel, once mastered, is a skill you will not
regret acquiring!
It's Friday morning. I'm sitting in my office, in the back of my bungalow, up on the hill which overlooks Armourdale, the river, and a sprawl of trees, warehouses, and towering hotels in the distance, directly to the Northeast. I've got some leftover pasta from last night, and it is just perfect for these blustery mornings. I must say, the idea of being a Midwestern girl is becoming more and more romantic by the day. Kansas City certainly is growing on me. I sit out and look at the changing golds, greens, browns...and all I can think of(aside from this pasta, of course) is caramel sauce. Warm, buttery, fantastic, caramel sauce. All of it, just drizzled over something. Maybe apples.

I love caramel. I love those delightfully chewy and sticky caramel confections that Brach's makes. I also love those hard toffee candies that you can just let sit and melt in your mouth. Caramel is complex, interesting, almost indescribable to a person who's never experienced it before. It's what happens when heat is applied to sugar, and there's just something about it that's so autumnal to me.

Perhaps it reminds me of the autumn because of its deep golden-brown color. Perhaps it's because it's complex, and it's what happens when sugar "changes", or "evolves", if you will, and the leaves on the trees change, too. The difference is that it happens to leaves when it gets cold. It happens to sugar when it gets hot. Also, there's nothing so autumnal to me than warm poached pears drizzled in a hot, salty caramel sauce. Or sticky toffee puddings. Or even caramel apples.

Going with the theme of preparing for your ultimate Thanksgiving feast, I hope that this is argument enough to include caramel sauce in your meal somehow. Maybe with an apple crumble or apple cobbler, you could use the caramel powder I've recently discovered how to make? Just substitute it with half of the sugar you would normally use. I'll post a recipe for that one later(possibly tomorrow), but today let's just focus on caramel sauce and the fundamentals of that. I cannot stress how delectable a warm, homemade caramel sauce is, especially when poured over ice cream. The best part about caramel sauce is that you can make it at home, in large quantities, and just stock it in the fridge until you need it. If you have sufficient canning skills, you can also process jars of it by the batch and keep them in your cabinet, or give them to your neighbors as gifts. It is the season of harvest, of giving, and nothing says "I care" quite like a homemade gift. This is a basic caramel sauce that I use at work. You can take this sauce/base and use it to create whatever you wish. I'll put some variations in, too, if you'd like to get creative.

Salted Caramel Sauce

  • 4 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup light corn syrup
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp vinegar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 7 oz butter, unsalted
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • Kosher salt to taste
Find a heavy-bottomed pan and have a whisk ready. Have your cream and butter at the ready, too, since this is the kind of thing that goes fast. Measure your corn syrup directly into a heavy-bottomed pan instead of using a cup measure. Honestly, if it looks like half a cup in the bottom of the pan, it's probably fine. You don't have to be 100% exact with this particular one. Then add the water, vinegar, salt, and sugar, in that order. Cover your pot and put it on medium-high heat for 2 minutes, at least. After 2 minutes, check it. 

The sugar boils and dissolves into the water, and the lid helps to create steam, which washes the sides of the pan down for you, so you don't have crystallization to worry about. The vinegar also helps to prevent crystallization, but you don't want to really agitate the pan at this point. Just check on it every minute or so, leaving it alone. You can increase your heat as you boil, but don't go too far away. I would check on it every 2 minutes or so. My caramel at work takes about 10 minutes to get to the color I want, but your stove might be different. I also have a really sensitive sense of smell, so I seldom worry about burning it, as I can smell it. 

After some time of you diligently checking your caramel sauce, you should see it start to turn color around the outsides. It's generally safe, now, to give your sugar a tiny swirl, since the sugar crystals are now at a point where crystallization isn't really in the cards much anymore. You can lower your heat to medium, now, and keep an eye on it. The trick to caramel is having the confidence to let it become that nice, dark, gorgeous color. I personally like it to be a deep amber color, as I think it's a more complex flavor, but if you like the lighter stuff, by all means do it. This is your recipe, now, and you may use it as you wish. 

When the caramel reaches the color you desire, turn off the heat and add the butter. Stand back for a second and let it sputter, but keep your whisk at the ready. Its basically stopping the cooking process for you as well as cooling the hot sugar syrup. You must be very cautious, though, because this is a substance that's probably somewhere between 300 - 350 degrees F depending on how dark you had it. The worst part is that it sticks to you when you get it on your skin, which takes off layers. So don't be careless, please. 

When the butter has stopped sputtering, carefully stir with your whisk, nice and slowly. Add in your cream a little bit at a time. You can use cold, room temperature, or warm, but I prefer on the lighter side of cold. It helps cool your caramel faster, and though it will rise up and steam, it's better to have that, I think, than to have it expand too far and boil over with the heat. So, it's my advice to use cool-to-room-temperature cream for this particular juncture. Add in a big fat pinch of salt now, too, as you stir. When it's cool enough to taste, add more salt if you like. I like it when you can actually taste the salt in the caramel. It's a component, you see, in this stage, and not a stand-alone thing. 

Making a fancy brownie sundae is an option, too.
If you'd like to make it a stand-alone kind of thing, simply line a sheet pan with parchment paper or a silpat and omit the heavy cream for a fat tablespoon of creme fraiche(or just sour cream, the fattiest you have). Pour your caramel mixture onto your prepared pans and allow to cool before cutting. These can be individually wrapped in wax paper and left in a candy dish on the coffee table. If you leave the warm buttered caramel mixture in the pan, however, you can dip apples into it and make your own caramel apples. You can also pop the mixture between shortbread cookies while it's still warm (use a cookie cutter to stamp out the shapes, and some latex disposable gloves to help protect your hands) to really dress up some store-bought cookies.

Another way to dress up store-bought chocolate chip or sugar cookies using this recipe, omitting the heavy cream all together and reducing the butter amount to four ounces. The trick is to keep the caramel on a super-low heat so it keeps your sauce suspended in a liquid form. Carefully--and I do mean carefully--dip the bottom of the cookies in the sauce and place them on a parchment sheet to set. This creates a candy-like caramel coating on the bottom and gives it that little extra something special. 

Or, like I said, you can make this large batch of sauce and can it, and then give it to your neighbors and friends as holiday gifts. This stuff can say safe for weeks in the fridge, since it's so high in sugar and fat. I hope that this, at very least, gives you a stand-by recipe for your repertoire. 

Happy Cooking and Happy eating. And check out my syndicated blog at LookyLocal.com/KC!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

DIY Autumn Lantern Centerpieces

Happy November 6th!

It is 21 days until Thanksgiving, and what a beautiful Thursday morning it is! I love Thursdays. It's garbage day on my block, and there's just something so oddly therapeutic about taking out the garbage in your house. It's almost like it's readying you for the week, you know? You get a fresh start. You take all of the trash cans out of your bathrooms, kitchen, basement, and then pile them neatly on the curb. Then some wonderful truck with some wonderful men(or women) come and take away all that you no longer need/want/use. They take out your trash. They ready your home for the new week. Am I reaching? I feel like I'm reaching...

Anyway, it's too early to really plan out Thanksgiving in a huge way(i.e., do any cooking), but you can get ready by planning who will be there, what activities to do, and how you'll decorate. You might even come up with some wonderful new Thanksgiving tradition!

Thanksgiving in your 20s is interesting. I haven't been home for the last couple of years, and this year will be no different. Sometimes spending it with the families of lovers or friends is a way to do it, but why not throw your own "Orphan's Thanksgiving" at your apartment? It can be a pot luck. But since you're hosting, take it upon yourself to do the main course. Everyone else can bring a side, the drinks, the napkins, etc. It can be big or small. But a Thanksgiving wouldn't be complete without those in your life you are thankful for.

The first Thanksgiving in the New England colonies most-likely had game birds, eel, oysters, beer, roasted nuts, venison, etc. You can take a nod to them by adding those things to your menu, but most will associate turkeys with the holiday. Plan your menu around your entree, and have fun with it. But today's blog post won't just be about planning; let's have some fun!

I found this DIY project on my Tumblr. I have an abundance of brightly colored leaves in both my front and bac yard, as well as on my walks with Howl. The leaves at Liberty Memorial are my favorite, since the colors just can't be beat...and it's less than a five minute drive from my house. When doing DIY projects, you shouldn't have to spend a ton of money. You can spend the money on fake leaves if you want to, but I choose to use what's natural. So here's an easy centerpiece/decoration idea for your Thanksgiving table, via CraftRiver.com.

DIY Leaf Lanterns
What you need:

  • Leaves of varying colors(real or fake)
  • Mason jars, vases, anything that can hold a candle
  • Mod Podge(you can pick this up at any arts & crafts store)
  • Sponge brush/paint brush**(this is optional, but it makes it easier)
Choose colorful leaves, the bigger and brighter, the better. That is, of course, unless you're doing smaller glass objects. If your mason jars are little, use little leaves. But try to find leaves that are whole and intact if at all possible. You can buy leaves, of course, at the local arts & crafts store, but I find it to be more fun to find your own. Think of it as a fun little scavenger hunt, especially if you have kids for the afternoon! Nothing beats the after-school blues like getting outside in the crisp autumn air, playing around in crunchy leaves! Kansas City has no shortage of foliage, so why not take advantage of it? Rosedale Park also has some great ones, and you can even find a few perfect specimens in the Briarcliff Park, right off of Mulberry Drive in the Northland. The point is to look around and pay attention, really enjoy the autumnal season and be a part of it. Even if you're not an outdoorsy person, you can have fun with this. You can't say a few hours spent outside would hurt someone. Unless they have photosensitivity or lived next door to a pit of rattlesnakes or something. But you don't see a lot of those in Kansas City. 

Make sure you're working with clean jars/vases/whatever. Glue sticks to clean, dry surfaces, and mod podge is no different. Also, it might not hurt to cover your work area with old newspaper, especially if you're working with small children. If you don't want to go out and get mod podge, you can use Elmer's glue, too, but it won't last as long. Either way, prepare your work space.

Using a sparing amount of the chosen adhesive, paint your leaves on. Be random with it. Overlap them. But be sure to leave a little negative space, for the light to go through. This works beautifully on colored glass, if you find a vase at a garage sale that you really like. A green glass or brown glass vase which could use a little revival would be a wonderful vessel for this project. You can even use this technique on the bottoms of glass serving trays or cutting boards, anything that you don't have a problem with. Just make sure it's not going to go on a surface that you'll be eating off of, since, you know, it's actually leaves and glue.

I've noticed that it takes about an hour or so to dry, so just leave them alone to dry before using. You can finish with ribbon, pieces of straw(as pictured) or maybe some rustic-looking straw/string/twine. This can be a great idea for a centerpiece or for place settings. Maybe tiny mason jars with candles in them, with your guests's names tied on with a nametag? Little things like this that only take an afternoon really put a special touch on your evening. Your guests will walk in and say "Holy Pinterest!" 

My friend JJ works at Yankee Candle Company, and suggest spicy cinnamon candles for the insides! Something about cinnamon is homey, and it is considered to be the spice of making friends in India. It also livens up the party instead of relaxes, so it makes it not as easy to go into a food coma afterwords. 

If you give this a try, please don't hesitate to send in your photos! I will reblog them with great pleasure! And make sure to check out Pinterest and CraftRiver.com for more fun DIY projects!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Countdown to Thanksgiving

Is it Thanksgiving yet??
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It is a true American holiday and I am in the ranks of its #1 fans. Christmas is cool. Halloween is a blast. But Thanksgiving? Oh, Thanksgiving.

You roast a giant bird and eat a giant amount of food without any underlying pretense, other than just eating, eating, and eating. Abraham Lincoln was the one that was really made it the American holiday it is today, with, you know, proclaiming it and all...but the point is that it's an American holiday. Nobody else in the world does it! I mean, I'm sure that they have some version of it in Australia, but it's pretty much the All-American Holiday, and I just adore it.

So, today is November 5th, and Thanksgiving is the 27th. That means we have a mere 22 days until then!

So let's band together, keep Christmas back to its own month--December--and come together for a best Thanksgiving ever!

I won't be home for Thanksgiving. But I will be here, in Kansas City, my new home. I'll be planning something fun for my own foodie family and friends. Maybe a pot luck. Maybe I'll make myself some pizza! But today is the 5th of November. I won't start posting recipes yet, but my goal is to post one every day until Thanksgiving Day. Should be fun!

Happy eating and happy blogging.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Dia De Los Muertos Pumpkin

Last night, I attended a fantastic Samhain ritual via Mrs. Witchy Words. I was pretty excited to go because she always does the best parties/rituals, but even moreso because of my pumpkin. (I love pumpkins. Remember my blog on pumpkins and pumpkin soup? Of course you do.)

Every year, no matter where I am at, or who I am with, or if I have kids even remotely around me, I carve a pumpkin for Samhain/Halloween. I don't know why, but I always do it the morning of, and I always light it up. It brings me joy to do this little thing every year, and I don't see the harm in it...unless, of course, I'm clumsy and stick myself with a knife. Then there's harm.

The original Jack-o-Lanterns were carved out of turnips and such, and were pretty scary. I mean, odd little faces just hanging somewhere in the middle of some misty Celtic field? Freaky. I much prefer the pumpkins.
"Dafuq are these doing on my lounging table?"
This year, however, was different because my family did a wonderful thing! They announced a Pumpkin Carving Contest, via my mom and dad, saying "To the victor go the spoils!!!" And the "spoils" was $100 donated to the charity of your choice. I've donated and sponsored kids with Children International off and on, and I always liked them. Plus, I'm already doing a fundraiser for the CCVI this year(Children's Center for the Visually Impaired, right here in Kansas City) and volunteering with Young Women on the Move...so Children's International seemed like a good bet. 

When I was a teenager, I spent a fair portion of my allowance on a little boy in Guatemala, who was about 4 years old at the time...let's call him Miguel. 

I remember when Miguel would draw me pictures in his letters of his family or grassy fields or whatever. I don't know why, but the thought of a kid being so happy even when having so little, always made me tear up a bit inside. I think Miguel would be about 15 right now. But I digress.

As an Arizona girl, I am a huge fan of Dia de los Muertos. This is the Mexican festival of the "Day of the Dead", on the 2nd of November, where everybody goes nutshit crazy in the graveyards, the bars, the streets, the churches... The Mexican culture knows how to throw a party. I will say that. The long and short of it is that it's a celebration to honor your dead, get drunk, leave tamales and sugar skulls on the graves, and eat like you'll die tomorrow(probably because of all of the stuff you ate). I used to love coming to school in Tucson on Halloween to see all of the Mexican girls dressed up like Muertitas, with their glorious make-up jobs and flowers in their hair. I must say, I was envious. This was the inspiration for my pumpkin.

Out of the three pumpkins I had on my porch, I chose the One Too Many Squash, which was large and impressive, and also had a great combination of warty green and dusty orange. Plus, the seeds and pulp were tasty, and plentiful, so I could eat half and then throw the other half in my backyard for the birds and animals to have...and hopefully for me to have more of next year, if you know what I mean!
If T-Mobile wants to send me money for having an impromptu
ad in my blog, I wouldn't be mad...

I typically don't use those cut-out things anymore for pumpkin carving. You know, the paper templates you can buy at most grocery/super stores? I just found a picture of "sugar skull" on my computer and used that to draw inspiration from. I drew with a red sharpie on the (relatively) smoothest side of my pumpkin, and proceeded to evacuate all of the guts. I would have taken pictures of that, but my hands were all gross, and such.

The trick to making those professional-like glow that seems so luminescent is to scrape the bejeezus out of your pumpkin flesh. I mean, seriously. This guy had a 2" thick rind at least, and I spent a fair amount of time just getting the flesh around the parts I wanted thin enough. But, to save myself some time, I only scraped around the parts I knew I would need it. You'll see why.

See those scraped parts at the top of the skull? I needed them thin on the inside so the glow would come from within. The carved flowers on the upper corner also needed a thin wall behind, so it could really show. I did a few test runs in the dark of my bathroom with the candle lit on the inside so I could really see how it looked. I must have stopped and scraped and re-scraped it about four times before I was finally satisfied with the luminescent glow from within. 

Not bad for me crouching in my tiny bathroom with my camera phone...

I submitted photos of the finished pumpkin to my parents and they announced, this morning, that I won! So Children's International can get some help, all thanks to my awesome knife skills! I could have just donated myself, but this was fun. Plus, I got the opportunity to practice some stuff I learned in college, so that's good. And it got everybody in the spirit of carving pumpkins! I was so proud, I took it in to work and popped it on the host stand for everybody to see. Guests were greeted  by my Dia de los Muertos pumpkin and delighted by housemade pumpkin seed brittle in a nearby bowl. Then, when I got off work, I snatched the pumpkin from its pedestal and took it to the party/ritual with me. Pictures to come on that one via WitchyWords.Blogspot.com! 

Felices Dia De los Muertos! Happy eating!