Sunday, November 29, 2009

Homemade Treats

I love to make my own presents for the holidays. Not only is it cheaper, but it is much more enjoyable for me than shopping, and people appreciate the extra effort. From the actual baking to the packaging of the goodies, I love it all. It's always nice to have help; my neighbor has more craft-savviness in her little finger than I do in my whole body. I recently went to a cookie exchange. Before this year, I had never heard of a cookie swap. The month before, we did a soup exchange; Christmas seemed to warrant something more festive. We had nine women and fourteen different kinds of cookies at our exchange. I brought snowballs, the recipe at the end of this entry. They went fast, but all of the cookies did. It was a lot of fun; I highly recommend having one every year.
On a trip to Birmingam, Elizabeth and I stopped at Williams-Sonoma, one of my favorite stores. E picked up a box of Fleur de Sel Caramels. One word: wow. The dark chocolate-enrobed caramels are dusted with a tiny sprinkle of fleur de sel, which crunches in the teeth. At first you taste the caramel: rich, smooth and sweet. The fleur de sel crystals melt, mixing with the bittersweet chocolate. The result is smooth, salty, rich, and velvety. I decided I simply had to recreate them at home.
You don't have to have fleur de sel, but it helps. I used a mixture of Himalayan pink salt and Fleur de sel for my testing.
My first attempt at making a caramel went terribly awry. While caramelizing the sugar, I became engrossed in Food Network Humor and was brought back to reality by a cloud of smoke and black lava bubbling in my Calphalon saucepan. The second attempt was much more successful:

Sea Salt Caramels
Makes about 3 dozen
1 cup heavy cream
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 teaspoon good quality large-crystal sea salt
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1/4 cup water

8 ounces dark chocolate, melted

Line bottom and sides of an 8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper, then lightly oil parchment. Bring cream, butter, and sea salt to a boil in a small saucepan, then remove from heat and set aside. Boil sugar, corn syrup, and water in a 3- to 4-quart heavy saucepan, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Boil, without stirring but gently swirling pan, until mixture is a light golden caramel. Carefully stir in cream mixture (mixture will bubble up) and simmer, stirring frequently, until caramel reaches the soft ball stage,* 10 to 15 minutes. Pour into baking pan and cool 2 hours. Cut into 1-inch pieces. Dip each piece in melted dark chocolate, then let harden on a wire rack.

*This stage can be determined by dropping a spoonful of hot caramel into a bowl of ice cold water. If it has reached soft-ball stage, the caramel easily forms a ball pinched between fingers while in the cold water.

Snowball Cookies
Makes 2 dozen cookies

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup powdered sugar, sifted

In a medium sized bowl whisk together the flour, cornstarch and salt. Set aside.In the bowl of your electric mixer (or with a hand mixer), cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy (about 2 minutes). Beat in the vanilla extract. Add the flour mixture and beat until incorporated. Form a ball of dough. Turn dough out onto a piece of wax/parchment paper. Wrap paper around the dough and place in the refrigerator for 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and place rack in center of oven. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. When dough is firm, form into 1 inch balls and place the cookies on the prepared baking sheets spacing about 1 inch apart. Bake for about 12 - 14 minutes or until the cookies start to firm up. Remove from oven and place on a wire rack to cool for about 5 minutes.Meanwhile, line another baking sheet or tray with parchment or wax paper. Lay the cookies out on the sheet. Sift the sugar over the cookies, rolling the side in the sugar to completely coat.

*Side Note:  After making the caramels, if you have extra melted chocolate and Halloween Oreos you got at Winn-Dixie for $1 on hand, try this.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Quest for Ooey-Gooey

Every family has holiday rituals. I come from a long line of bakers; therefore, our holiday rituals usually involve sugar, flour, and butter. Some may even look forward to certain holidays because it’s the only time one can get that special dish. For me, it’s my father’s cinnamon rolls. Too loaded with delicious fat and delectable sugar to be breakfast staples, these softball-sized pastries are the highlight of my visits home. Every Christmas morning, I know I will awake to a buttery, gooey, and absolutely decadent treat. Calorie-wise, no one should eat even a whole one, but by noon the entire pan is licked clean.

There’s something comforting about making something as labor-intensive as a batch of cinnamon rolls. I was yeast-phobic up until recently, when I realized if I accidentally kill it I can just open another packet and start over. You combine some ingredients and watch as they transform into a cohesive, silky ball of dough. The dough magically doubles in size, after which you tenderly roll it out. After filling, rolling, slicing and baking, you have a labor of love so delicious that after one bite, you’ll hear moans of delight from your family and friends. They’re also addicting. If you make them once, you’ll make them year after year, if only because of the flood of requests.
Now, the following recipe will provide some pretty good cinnamon rolls, but they're not my dad's. It's a good starter recipe: a sweet, flaky roll with a delicious center. Back to my dad, I have no idea what he does that makes them so ridiculously gooey. We're talking melt -in-your-mouth, sweet delight. Apparently I don't have the touch. I have a plane ticket to go home for Christmas, and as God as my witness, I will never be hungry for a gooey cinnamon roll again.

Yummy Cinnamon Rolls

1 packet active dry yeast

1 cup warm milk
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup butter
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
4 cups flour
1 cup packed brown sugar
3 tablespoons cinnamon
1/3 cup butter, softened

Cream Cheese Icing

8 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1/4 cup cream cheese
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/8 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. For the rolls, dissolve the yeast in the warm milk in a large bowl. Let it sit for 5 minutes. Add sugar, butter, salt, eggs, and flour, mix until the dough is elastic and smooth. Knead the dough into a large ball. Put in a lightly greased bowl, cover and let rise in a warm place about 1 hour or until the dough has doubled in size. Punch the dough down. Roll the dough out into a rectangle on a lightly floured surface, about ¼-inch thick. To make the filling, combine the brown sugar and cinnamon in a bowl. Spread the softened butter over the surface of the dough, then sprinkle the brown sugar and cinnamon evenly over the surface. Working carefully, from the long edge, roll the dough down to the bottom edge. Cut the dough into 12 even slices, and place in a lightly greased baking pan. Bake for 10 minutes or until light golden brown. While the rolls are baking, make the icing. Beat all of the ingredients well with an electric mixer until fluffy. When the rolls are done, spread generously with icing.