Soft & Chewy Salted Caramel

homemade caramel

Two years ago, I made my dad caramels for his birthday. They were hard and crunchy, like gold-wrapped Werther’s, the kind that would crack like glass when you bit them.

While I’d been after something a little more chewy that time, since that’s how Dad likes them most, it turned out candy-making could be something of an art, especially when you were new to it, so all I could muster were those smooth caramel stones, best for placing between your tongue and the roof of your mouth and slowly melting away. I gave them to him, presenting them proudly, and I put my candy thermometer away.

cooking caramel

But then this year, when Tim and I were up visiting a few months ago, talking to my dad in the kitchen about dinner plans or about something we’d baked, Dad, almost out of nowhere, asked if I’d thought about trying caramels again. Maybe soft and chewy this time? he’d asked, hopefully, like it would really mean something to him if I could.

caramels in pan

Now I know a lot of people would say their dad is great, the best, the guy they always looked up to, but my dad, who continually surprises me with his generosity and compassion and ability to think of other people more highly than himself, really is something special. And since he so rarely asks me to make him anything, I didn’t just want to make him these caramels—I had to.

Which meant it was time to revisit the art of candy-making.

caramels to cut

There’s a reason they call things an art, you know? The art of painting, the art of marriage, the art of caramels—you can’t just check some tasks off a list and expect genius. There’s some skill involved. Some creativity and some adjusting and some finding a rhythm. And usually, art isn’t easy.

For me, as if trying to make candy in the first place wasn’t challenge enough, I also wanted to do it with better ingredients: without corn syrup and without white sugar.

But while art isn’t easy, it is worth it.

caramels, wrapped

Because guess what? It worked.

It took three tries and two bonus trips to the grocery store, but last Wednesday night, while Tim and my brother-in-law and I drove up to Chicago for the holiday weekend, it was with more than thoughts of turkey and sweet potatoes and homemade cranberry sauce: It was with these soft and chewy salted caramels, created with sorghum syrup and sucanat, sitting in the back seat, individually wrapped and tucked inside a burlap-covered mason jar.

Happy birthday, Dad.

(He was worth it, too.)

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Orange Crostatas

orange crostatas

I can’t believe it was almost a month ago already that I clicked through my Google Reader, the way I do most afternoons, and saw these gorgeous blood orange crostatas. We made them the following weekend, for our weekly Sunday dinner with friends, and had just enough so every person got one crostata, alongside homemade vanilla ice cream. But then what happened?

I say I can’t believe it was almost a month ago already because, honestly, I don’t know where the days have gone between then and now. I mean, I know—into work, into buying furniture, into daytrips to Chattanooga and long weekends like this last one that I spent back home in Chicago for a wedding and to see my family again. But it’s just that the time is getting away from me! I’m blogging less, I’m taking fewer pictures (sad fact: I lost my camera charger; good news: a new one is in the mail), I’m looking at the calendar and going, I’ve lived here for two months? What?

palm sugar

So before another month disappears, I guess now is as good a time as any to tell you about a new ingredient I’ve introduced into my pantry, especially because it’s an ingredient I’m really excited about in terms of a sugar substitute: palm sugar.

chopping up palm sugar

Rich in nutrients like potassium, zinc, iron, and vitamins B1, B2, B3 and B6, palm sugar looks and behaves almost exactly like regular sugar, but it’s lower on the glycemic index (so it absorbs into the blood stream slower) and is totally natural and unrefined. Like the name suggests, it comes from palm trees—several different types of palm trees, meaning there are different types of palm sugar.

I’ve found blonde coconut palm sugar at Whole Foods, all broken up and packaged in neat bags. But it’s also available at international or Asian food marts, which is where I first bought some. At these stores, you’ll find it in a large, hard sphere that is tough to crack but significantly lower in price. With a big knife and some muscle (note who’s doing the hard work in the photo above), you can turn it into the granules we’re more used to seeing as sugar.

oranges for crostatas

oranges for crostatas

In the days since those crostatas, I’ve had two kinds of cookies with palm sugar, including another batch of the ones we like in ice cream sandwiches. In each case, this sweetener behaves beautifully, giving you the right texture and strong sweetness that is hard to find in sugar substitutes. What’s more, unlike Sucanat with its distinct molasses flavor, the flavor of palm sugar is virtually indistinguishable in recipes.

making crostata dough

But back to the crostatas: for the most part, we stuck close to The Kitchn’s original recipe, just substituting the flour and sugar for nutritional reasons and then the mascarpone and almond extract for convenience. The dough was probably my favorite part: kind of like good strudel dough, it was very easy to work with, soft and pliable, great for stretching into rustic shapes and folding over fruit and cheese. Next time, I’d definitely try a different fruit, maybe berries, because while the oranges tasted great here when cold, they were kind of bitter fresh out of the oven.

And honestly, if you’re going to make a crostata, don’t you want to eat it a la mode? I thought so.

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Accidental Chocolate Trifle

Here is something I’ve been thinking about for a while now: it seems for the most part that the home cooking world is divided into two camps. You see it when you’re a guest in someone’s home, you see it on cooking shows and books and blogs, you see it in yourself if you think carefully enough.

First, there are those with skills; then, there are those with kindness.

Let me explain what I mean—or maybe I’ll start with what I don’t mean. I don’t mean that the cooks with skills aren’t kind or that the cooks with kindness aren’t skilled. They aren’t mutually exclusive. I don’t mean that cooking well makes you a snob or that wanting to have a nice dinner party means you’re a monster.

I think what I just mean is this: There are people who wow you and there are people who love you. And sometimes I wonder which one I’m trying to be.

The first group is successful, you know? They are highly organized, on top of things—the kind of people who have you over and you are awed by every picture-perfect thing they give you. I know a lot of people like this. I admire them.

The second group, well, they might not impress you as easily. They bake you something they know you like—it might be simple, it might be complex. Their kitchen might be messy when you come over, and they’re quick to confess they dumped a tray of cookies in the trash before you got there. You don’t leave their house talking about the amazing recipe; you leave talking about the amazing night. I know a few people like this. I admire them, too.

Of course the world is rarely black and white, and so there’s a good chance most of us fall somewhere in the midst of these extremes. I’m glad for that. Because while I think I’d rather be the second person, the one who loves people with the way she cooks for them, I spend an awful lot of time forgetting that and trying only to be the first.

This weekend for example, I baked two cookie recipes Friday night, changing four or five ingredients along the way: disaster. Saturday, I baked two trays of chocolate cupcakes; they overflowed the tins. I went to the store for heavy whipping cream and didn’t buy enough. I went back to the store for more heavy whipped cream and forgot what I needed to buy for lunch. I made so many silly mistakes, did so many things I wish I hadn’t—and don’t get me started on the ice cream I’d made Thursday that was so bad, someone spit it out when she tasted it.

chocolate trifle

You could say the saving grace was this trifle, the perfect way to salvage eight cups of cupcake crumbles, but even more that that, it was the party I took it to, where this trifle (and another one of these strudels) that I’d spent so much time on blended in with a table filled with other birthday desserts. There were Happy 50th Birthday cookies, with dough from a 5 and a 0 set together before baking to make perfect 5-0s. There was one of the best cakes I’ve ever had, three layers and super moist, topped with chocolate frosting and decor.

And mostly, there was the person we were celebrating, as a surprise, and all the people who came together to show her love. I want to remember that when I think about this weekend and also, when I think about this trifle.

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The Best Pumpkin Bread You’ll Ever Have

Remember what I said before about pumpkin being the kind of fall you could eat? Well, it’s still true—only, OK, listen: this hasn’t just been any fall.

This year in Chicago, fall’s gone above and beyond. Literally. Yesterday was the third day in a row where temps soared into the 70s. Yes, you read that right: 70s! In late October! While the trees are already ten shades of orange and red! I went somewhere last night and had to take my sweater off, that’s how warm I was. It’s the kind of thing people talk about wherever you go—church, the grocery store, chatting on the phone—as if, no matter what your feelings or indifference about this crazy gorgeous season that transitions from the long daylight of summer into the snow and frost of winter, one thing remains, at least this year, at least where I live: autumn’s got your attention.

loaf of the BEST pumpkin bread

I guess the same could be said of many things, from football to TV shows to the pleasure of reading a good book: the die-hard lovers will take the good and bad alike. They’ll cheer for their losing team. They’ll watch when no one else is. That’s like me and fall: rain or sun, cold or warm, thick and thin, I’m already sold. It’s many of us and pumpkin, especially this time of year, when we can have the pancakes and the muffins and the carving and the Jack O’ Lanterns. But just like it’s more fun to watch a winning team and just like some Octobers are easier to love than others, some pumpkin recipes are more impressive, more endearing, more oh-my-gosh good.

Like the best pumpkin bread you’ll ever have for example.

pumpkin squash bread

I am so excited about this pumpkin bread. To put it another way, if pumpkin is fall, this pumpkin bread is these last few days of October. It is weather warm enough to mean no jacket. It is driving home with the windows open. It is comfort and daylight and the best of summer with the best of the months after, where the lawns are covered with crunchy leaves and you just step outside and feel the sun on your face.

It doesn’t last long, despite yielding two loaves, but that’s only because it tastes so good and maybe because that’s how the best things go. And over the next few days, as the weather returns to low 40s (or lower! did someone say snow?), I’m going to hold onto the last few slices, savor them the way I do October, and enjoy every bite.

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and here we are, with babka

kite blowing in the breeze

I’m not going to ask where the time went. That’s what everyone says, halfway through summer, after the fireworks and before back-to-school, when we’re finally settled into the heat and humidity, when our arms are bronzed and our long-daylight days have begun to seem commonplace, when we’re looking at the calendar and saying, July 20? July 20! More than halfway through 2010? I am just getting used to it not being 2009! and we think of all the things we still want to do and we think of all the people we want to do them with, and our hearts start to race a little bit. OK, hang on.

How about instead of rushing ahead we just stop, right here and now, and take a look at this day, this July 20, this Tuesday we have and will never get again, and appreciate what’s brought us here?

I’ll start. With chocolate babka.

braided chocolate babka

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the sneaky one (sweet potato brownies)

sweet potato brownies and milk

You know what food trend I’ve never fully understood? The one about the hidden vegetables. The puree-something-your-kids-won’t-eat-and-bury-it-in-brownies! Add spinach to chocolate cake! Sneak cauliflower in pasta! Do whatever you can to trick them into eating nutrition!

I mean, I think I kind of understand it, or at least the premise of it: if you can add good-for-you foods to what someone normally eats without them noticing, then you get them to eat what they should while also eating what they want. Everybody wins! OK. But the problem is your kids still don’t like vegetables; they like chocolate cake, a chocolate cake that’s lying to them. Maybe I don’t get it because I don’t have kids? You can feel free to tell me what I’m missing.

brownies in pan

Anyway, that said, you’ll see the irony in the recipe I’m about to give you, for what else but sweet potato brownies. Yes, they’re exactly like those crazy sneaky recipes I don’t understand. Yes, they use a pureed vegetable in the middle of a normal dessert. But, I made exception for them and baked them for two reasons: 1) The recipe already called for whole wheat pastry flour, and I like using whole wheat pastry flour in baking, and 2) I was curious, I’ll admit it, to see what a pureed vegetable could add to a chocolate brownie.

(Plus, bonus reason! I had a lone sweet potato in the fridge, begging to be used.)

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for mid-February

chocolate crunchies

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but: I think I like February.

I mean, sure, here we are, with 49 out of the 50 states having snow somewhere. And sure, being outside too long still makes my nose run and my ears burn, like it did this weekend, when on Sunday afternoon, every! train! seemed to take five extra freezing-cold minutes to arrive, but listen: it’s not all bad.

mixing batter

To start, LOST is back. If February brought us LOST, February is good. I don’t think I need to say anything more than that.

Then there’s the light. I realized last week that the days have hit that point where the sky is still light when I walk to my car at 5:30 PM every night. How fantastic is that? No, really. Dwell on this with me: (almost) DAYLIGHT when I begin driving home, the kind that gradually diminishes and colors the sky and only becomes darkness as I’m parking my car again. This means not needing to turn my desk lamp on at work at all if I don’t want to. It means being able to see my hands in front of my face when I scrape snow off my car. The first day it was like this, I am not ashamed to tell you, I almost cried, that’s how happy I was. People. It only gets better from here! The days will keep getting longer! And then warmer! We are close! We are close!

morsels on baking sheet

And of course also, it was just Valentine’s Day this last weekend, and while I know every blogger has already said something about how much he or she does or doesn’t love this day all about love, I’ll just throw my two cents in: it’s hard to hate a day filled with chocolate. I mean, right?

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