Let the chocolate chips fall where they may

Each year by this point in January, I’m getting mighty tired of all the commercials for gym memberships and advertisements for nutritional supplements.Instead of working out and eating steamed fish, it all makes me want to lie immobile on the couch and eat milk duds.

I might feel that way, but the truth is I do still try to move around some, and eat reasonably well.  But just because I consume fresh fruit and veg and whole grains doesn’t mean I never eat anything just because it tastes good.

And I really do sleep better when I have a few bites of something sweet before bed.  So last Friday night, when, because of the snow and ice I wasn’t sure if we’d have electricity in the morning, I made a pan of brownies.I started with a mix, which I usually do.  But this batch was the best batch I’ve turned out in years.  The Kid and I loved them, which isn’t very surprising.  But the shocker was that Petey really liked them as well.  Not being a self-indulgent choco-phile, he doesn’t usually eat my brownies anymore.  He says they’re “too much” (but where chocolate is concerned, please explain to me what is too much).

I think these were better received because I didn’t go overboard on any one ingredient.  I added espresso, but just enough to heighten the flavor, not give you a coffee-favored punch in the nose.  There were chocolates, but not a surfeit of any one type.  They were salted, but only enough to give each bite the tiniest little salty crunch.

As a woman I can testify to the fact that some days only a satisfying chocolate treat can keep me from committing mayhem on loved ones and strangers alike.  These mahogany-colored confections, accompanied with copious amounts of red wine, would be a huge hit when shared by a group of women.

Best.Book.Club.Night.Ever.Boxed up and tied with a pretty red silk ribbon, then handed over for Valentine’s Day would ensure extra credit (I actually started to write ‘brownie points’ here) for the next 364 days.

I call these “Golf Brownies” because there are 4 (fore, get it?) kinds of chocolate in them.  Unfortunately, Petey doesn’t appreciate the humor of the moniker.  But bless his heart, he’s got lots of other very good qualities.

*Recipe note-For chocolate extract, I use Nielsen-Massey.  It’s available online and at local fancy cooking stores.  Maldon salt, found at the same kind of places, and lately some mega-marts, is a very large, flaky finishing salt for sprinkling.

Golf brownies

golf brownies

1 13X9 family size package Pillsbury milk chocolate brownie mix

1 teaspoon instant espresso powder dissolved in ¼ cup very hot water

2/3 cup vegetable oil

2 eggs

2 tablespoons Hershey Special Dark cocoa powder

1 teaspoon pure chocolate flavor

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

½ teaspoon kosher salt

1-11.5 ounce bag Ghirardelli milk chocolate chips

1-2 teaspoons Maldon salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Put all the ingredients except Maldon salt into large bowl.  Mix well.  Pour into 9X13 pan sprayed with cooking spray.  Liberally sprinkle Maldon salt on batter and bake.

Bake 13 minutes, spin pan 180 degrees and bake for 14 more.

Remove to cooling rack and allow to cool completely.  This recipe makes 2 dozen reasonably-sized pieces, or 6 extra-large PMS pieces.

Truly, brownie mix is one of the greatest benefits of living in this great country of ours.

usa brownies

Mmmmm…America…

You can have them ready for the oven in minutes, and they will obediently bend to your will, mood, and pantry.

For texture, try adding broken pretzels, nuts, or Oreo pieces.  Before baking, drop dollops of dulce de leche, peanut butter, or Nutella on  top.  Then using a sharp knife, swirl it enough to produce a marble-like effect.  Go a little sideways, and mix in crispy bacon, cracked pink peppercorns, or diced, candied ginger.

My point is that sometimes, like when it’s day three of being trapped in in the house with your entire family by snowmageddan, there’s nothing in this word that will do but a freshly baked brownie.                                                       Thanks for your time.

Nuts to you

The long awaited successful batch of roasted garbanzo beans.

The long awaited successful batch of roasted garbanzo beans.

First, let me start by saying that I am cognizant of the fact that neither peanuts nor chick peas are nuts.

Both are legumes, but they possess a certain nutty quality.  And not just because they think Jaws 2 was the better than the original and sandals with socks are a good look.

Yeah…not so much.

The chickpeas were the toughest, taking the most tinkering.  I’d made them (badly) in the past and was not impressed.  I thought they were just another healthy food that folks had convinced themselves were tasty, so they would munch on them, and not the potato chips.

But when I finally got a batch in which most were correctly roasted, I understood.  They are uber-crunchy (Petey has never actually tried them, because to him, they sound “too” crunchy—not even sure what that is), and flavored with lots of lemon, garlic, and Puerto Rican spices.

The goal when cooking is to roast them until all the moisture is gone, but they aren’t burned.  Which isn’t as easy as you’d think.  I tried lots of different combinations of heat and time, re-baked ones that weren’t done, and tossed many that were blackened nuggets of despair.

Last week, I finally cracked the code.  They take two hours in the oven, but when they’re finished the entire batch is cooked to uniform doneness.

My recipe produces a citrusy, garlic-y result.  But please, flavor them any way you like.  Go Chinese with toasted sesame oil and five spice powder.  Do a spicy Southwest version with cayenne, paprika, and chili powder.  Or make them Jamaican with some jerk spice.  That’s why making your own is so darn satisfying; you’re the boss of your own chick peas.

Trial and error roasted garbanzos

1 15 ½ ounce can chick peas

1 tablespoon garlic oil

Juice of ½ lemon

2 teaspoons Goya bitter orange adobo

Preheat oven to 325.  Drain and rinse beans.  Put into sturdy, dark, 9 inch round, or square metal pan.  Drizzle on oil and juice, sprinkle on spice.  Roll around to evenly coat and put in single layer.  Bake 30 minutes, then remove from oven and roll around and toss.  Do this every 30 minutes for a total of 1 ½ hours.  Then give them one last jiggle, turn off oven and let sit inside, undisturbed, for 30 more minutes.  Makes 1 ½-2 cups.

When I worked for Bosco, we had a customer who was a caterer and each year at Christmas would bring us homemade Buckeyes.  For the uninitiated, they are delicious little peanut butter balls coated with chocolate.  They are to Reese’s cups what steak is to a Mickey D’s quarter pounder–they both come from a cow, but that’s where the similarity ends.

I often give these as gifts.  I make up the balls, and then freeze.  When I need some, I just coat them with the chocolate, without even thawing them.  Use a toothpick to dunk them, then smooth out the little hole you’ve made.  The wax keeps the chocolate glossy, but you won’t taste it.

Buckeyes

5 ½ cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted

1 c. peanut butter

1/2 lb. (2 sticks) butter, softened

1 teaspoon salt

Caviar from 1 vanilla bean

½ bag semi-sweet chocolate chips

½ bag milk chocolate chips

About 1/3 cup canning paraffin wax, finely chopped

Blend butter, peanut butter and vanilla. Add sugar and beat to dough-like consistency. Form into balls with small scoop and chill or freeze. Melt chocolates and wax in microwave on 20 second intervals, stirring after each, until almost fully melted.  Then stir until completely smooth. Double-dip balls in chocolate, leaving circle of peanut butter showing.  Makes about 6 dozen.

My last recipe is crazy-simple.  But you won’t be able to keep your hands out of these pecans.

Obsessive-compulsive Pecans

Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in skillet on medium.  Add 2 cups whole, shelled pecans.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Stir constantly until they’re lightly browned and smell nutty.  Drain on paper towels.

So here you have it.  Three recipes that are perfect to put out for visitors, or give as gifts.

And, if somebody tells you to go nuts, you can say, “Don’t mind if I do.”

Thanks for your time.

Creature Feature

Originally printed in the Herald Sun 10/19/2013
Maybe it’s the dump truck-sized dog, or maybe it’s the two weird looking old people that live here, but in all the years we’ve owned our house we’ve had a cumulative total of about six kids come to our door, trick-or-treating.
For the first five or six Halloweens, I’d optimistically buy bags of candy, decorate the front porch, and make sure the light over the front door was a bright, welcoming beacon.
And about 10pm every year I’d give up hope and turn out the light, just me and my 10 pounds of candy left all alone at the pumpkin altar again.
But this year we have two new young ladies in our neighborhood, Ali and YaYa. I’ve already checked with their mom, and on Halloween the girls will be dressed up and going door to door, including our own neglected portal.
This year though, I’m not buying any candy.
I’m making it. Quel scandale, no? I know, it’s almost unthinkable to give out homemade sweets, but the family knows me and my off kilter ways.
But even if you have costumed hordes at your house, you too can hand out candy that you’ve prepared yourself. When you package the goods, put your name, address, and phone number on each, and list any allergens (peanuts, dairy, gluten etc.). Then introduce yourself to the adult chaperone, and inform them of the nature of your daring distribution.
There might still be folks who are uncomfortable taking homemade stuff, so it would be wise to lay in a small stock of store-bought loot (dollar stores have a big selection of cellophane Halloween bags, party favors, and candy), so nobody has to leave empty-handed.
For our neighborhood ghouls, I’m making creature cookies, butterscotch spiders, and zombie brains.
Creature Cookies
You may know these as Preacher cookies. When very little, The Kid misheard the name, and asked for more “creature cookies”. The name stuck.
1/2 cup (one stick) butter
4 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 cups white sugar
1/2 cup whole milk
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 cups quick cooking oats
1/2 cup peanut butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Mix butter, cocoa, sugar, milk, and salt together in saucepan. Boil for 1 minute.
Stir in oatmeal, peanut butter and vanilla. Drop tablespoons of cookie preparation onto parchment paper. Allow to cool and harden. Makes 3 dozen
When having oatmeal at home, I eat steel-cut oats. But I’ve never seen any cookie recipes using them. A couple of weeks ago I decided that I was a genius, and made creature cookies with steel-cut. Because they’re basically gravel in their raw state, I cooked them before adding to the mixture.
Now I know why there’s a total lack of steel-cut dessert recipes. It was an abject failure; they never set up. My Mensa card was revoked the next day.
Butterscotch Spiders
One 11 ounce bag of butterscotch chips
One 5 ounce can chow mien noodles
½ cup salted nuts (optional)
Melt chips in microwave: Place chips into bowl, and microwave on high for 15 seconds. Remove from microwave, stir and repeat at 15 second intervals until completely melted. If they are almost totally melted, don’t continue to heat (it could burn and seize up). Just keep stirring until smooth.
Gently mix noodles and nuts into melted butterscotch, and place small mounds on parchment paper. Allow to cool and harden.
Makes approximately 2 dozen spiders.
Zombie Brains
One 11 ounce bag white chocolate chips
2 cups golden raisins (sultanas)
Melt white chocolate in microwave as instructed above. Stir in raisins. Drop small mounds onto parchment. Allow to harden.
Makes 3 or 4 dozen brains.
My parents live in a Greensboro subdivision with lots of families that make a big deal of October 31st. Because our Durham neighborhood exhibits a complete lack of Halloween spirit, we’d go to Gramma and Grampa’s for trick or treating. At 3 ½ years old, dressed as a pumpkin (and completely adorable), The Kid went out for the first time.
On the ride home, from the darkened back seat came the voice of our sleepy toddler.
“That was fun. Let’s come back and do it again tomorrow night!”
Thanks for your time.

The evolution of a cookie, or Darwin was right

A jillion years ago, when Seinfeld was still on, Us magazine interviewed the caterer that fed the cast and crew onset. She talked about the favorite dishes of Jerry and the other stars. And she mentioned a kind of a chocolate chip cookie that she made that everybody adored. The recipe was printed within the article.
As with almost everything that exists, I have an opinion about chocolate chip cookies. The naked cookie, sans chips, should be chewy and delicious, or don’t bother. Don’t make a miniature piece of chocolate be the sole savior of a cookie. It’s like having a baby to save a faltering marriage. It just ain’t right. And it usually goes wrong.
The nice lady used mocha chips. I’m guessing they’re some kind of chocolate/coffee chip. They sound good, but I have never in all the years between then and now, found them on a store shelf. There are many foods that professional cooks use that home cooks can not get their hands on. It’s a pet peeve of mine. I guess those chips are on that list.
So, I made the cookies with regular Hershey’s milk (don’t like semi-sweet) chocolate chips. They ran all over the cookie sheet in a frenzy. These cookies were more like a tuile, an extremely thin crispy cookie that is often rolled into cigars when warm and stuck into ice cream.
Imagine chocolate chip ice cream cones (you know, that actually sounds interesting).
The cookie had too much fat without enough flour. I tinkered with the flour for a few batches, and finally found the amount that would give structure, without becoming cakey. After I found the right flour ratio, I switched the all-purpose I had been using to cake flour, the measurement of which had to be adjusted, as well. The cake flour lightens the feel of the finished cookie, and made the texture more layered and distinct, while keeping the sticky, chewy mouth feel.
As for the chips, I put in all kinds of things. Chocolate chips, toffee chips. Coconut and dried fruit. In fact, in this incarnation, we called them, “Whatever Kind of Chip Cookies.” This cookie was also the beneficiary of the discovery of cheap abundant vanilla beans at Costco. Instead of two lowly teaspoons of vanilla extract, this recipe had two lowly teaspoons of vanilla extract, and the caviar of an entire vanilla bean.
Then one summer, The Kid went to camp. Like any American mother who’s seen her share of Leave It To Beaver and The Brady Bunch, I sent my child off to camp with a big box of homemade cookies. My Whatever cookies.
I offered to make another batch, and asked what kind of chips were desired. Since the cookie-eaters (The Kid’s entire dorm floor), couldn’t come to a concensus, chipless was requested. The spotless treats were a huge hit. Without the chocolate flavor competing, the cookie became all about the vanilla. The campers loved it, and renamed it, “Vanilla Explosion”.
The Kid and I were planning on making the cookies one day, and were thinking about what would enhance the rich, buttery, caramelized taste. Simultaneously, we had the same thought. Brown butter. We already loved the nutty, complex flavor that browning imparted to regular, old butter. It’s terrific on pasta, but we just adore it on cauliflower. We hadn’t yet tried it in a sweet application.
The butter in the cookie dough is used softened. First I scraped my vanilla bean, and put the caviar aside. The empty bean, I put in a pan with the sticks of butter. I melted, then browned it with the bean floating alongside. I poured the newly brown butter into a bowl. After it has cooled for bit, I stir in the vanilla caviar. While the butter is cooling to solid, I stir it from time to time so it won’t be separated into layers when it hardens again. I do this the day before I intend on making cookies, so the flavors can intensify with a night in the fridge.
When I’m ready to make the cookies, I soften the brown butter, and use it just like normal.
I would never offer someone else’s recipe as my own, but this recipe has been through so many permutations that I don’t think the original caterer would even recognize it. So, here you go, this is what happened when I cut a recipe out of Us magazine.
Thanks for your time.

Vanilla Explosion Cookies

1 Cup brown sugar
1 Cup white sugar
8 ounces butter, browned with vanilla bean, and resoftened
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 1/4 cups cake flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 4oo degrees (make sure the oven is HOT when the cookies go in). In a large bowl, mix butter and sugar. You can mix this cookie dough by hand, but a stand-up mixer makes it much easier. Add eggs and vanilla. In a separate bowl, sift together dry ingredients. Slowly stir together wet and dry ingredients. Make the cookies any size you like, baking all one size together. A large cookie bakes for about 10-12 minutes, a bite-size cookie may only need 7-8. Bake until golden brown, the darker the chewier. Makes about 3 dozen large cookies.