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.

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