Edible Holiday Gifts

So, for the last two weeks I have been terribly ill.  I usually adore the holidays, but this year a sore throat, a runny nose, a fever, and endless coughing really put a damper on my spirit.  I had planned an extensive list of edible gifts intended for my family, and luckily I had a head start on them before my health turned its back on me.  I managed to put together a nice collection of edibles; however, due to my eventual Day- and NY-Quil-induced state, I took very little, if any, photos of my creations.  So, for that, I am sorry.  I will share with you my list of gifts, as well as recipes for my favorites.  I think I bit off more than I could chew (let alone taste) but the experience was wonderful and I conquered some of my candy-making fears.

The Contenders:

  • Scratch Cherry Pie (x2)
  • Sea Salt and Pistachio Brittle
  • Gruyere and Hazelnut Crackers
  • Sweet and Spicy Rosemary Roasted Nuts
  • Chocolate Covered Vanilla Porter Marshmallows with Pretzel Garnish
  • Homemade Peppermint Patties

The List:

The Rundown:

After procuring all necessary ingredients and tools, I set out to accomplish my cooking goals.  I started with the cherry pies, and frankly, it went off without a hitch.  I still had some homemade lard in the freezer (yes, I rendered lard last year…in my kitchen…with 10 pounds of pork fat) and Scott had given me a marble pastry board for my birthday, so making the crust was a breeze.  I can’t believe I just typed that, but it’s true.  It’s amazing what a simple tool or ingredient can do for one’s confidence level.

After the cherry pies were assembled and placed gently in the freezer, I moved on to the pistachio brittle.  As a child, my mother would whip up several batches of peanut brittle around the holidays.  She made it look so easy.  I had never made brittle before on my own, and I just bought a candy/deep fry thermometer, so I felt I was well-prepared for the task at hand.  I’d made caramels before, but brittle is a whole other beast and I needed to be on top of my game.  Sugar can burn so easily and quickly, so I needed to fight off whatever urge I had to retreat to my bed and its soft, welcoming blankets.  Needless to say, I succeeded!  I made brittle!  It was easy, fun, and intensely delicious. 

Onto the marshmallows.  I seriously had no idea what I was getting myself into.  I don’t really gravitate to marshmallows, but the idea of making beer and pretzel marshmallows really appealed to me.  Besides, they’d be covered in chocolate!  I love the combination of salty and sweet, so this seemed like a marriage made in candy heaven.  I purchased a set of perfectly square silicone ice cube trays in the hopes that I could get perfectly square marshmallows.  After boiling the sugar, beer, and corn syrup (believe me, it’s a necessity) within an inch of its sticky life, I set out to turn it into marshmallows by whipping the mixture (along with the gelatin and more beer) into a frenzy and pouring it all into the molds.  Twelve hours later, the marshmallows had set and I was able to gently pry them out of the ice cube trays and toss them in powdered sugar.  I dipped them carefully in chocolate as Scott sprinkled the pretzel pieces on top.  Success!

The hazelnut and Gruyere crackers had to be one of the easier edible gifts on my list.  All I did was combine a little hazelnut flour, AP flour, salt, pepper, butter, cheese, an egg, and heavy cream in a food processor.  I rolled it into a log, wrapped it in cling film, and stored it in the freezer until I was ready to slice off cracker-sized pieces and bake them in the oven until crispy!  I sprinkled a little Maldon salt on top and voilà.  Delicious bite-sized snacks.

The sweet and salty rosemary roasted nuts were a collaborative effort.  Scott was an efficient and obedient assistant when it came to measuring, spooning, and mincing.  It was a hands-on dish, and I’m okay with that.  I say a cook’s best tools are his or her hands.  This dish required very few ingredients (a mix of cashews, walnuts, pecans, and almonds along with chipotle powder, maple syrup, orange juice, brown sugar, rosemary, and kosher salt) and only one sheet pan, so clean-up was relatively painless.  As they roasted in the oven, the house filled with the scent of one of my most favorite herbs – rosemary.  That, mixed with the sweet elements and the hint of spice from the chipotle powder, really started to remind me why I love to cook.  I was immediately placed back into the holiday spirit, illness be damned!

And finally, the homemade peppermint patties.  These were seriously so easy and infinitely better than the ones you might find in the store.  Even though the ingredients aren’t the best for us (sugar, butter, chocolate) at least when we ate these we knew what we were putting into our bodies.  I’d rather eat sugar, butter, and chocolate than a bunch of preservatives and additives.

So, that concludes my edible gift experience.  I seriously couldn’t see myself doing much else for the holidays.  Yes, I made a few purchases to give as gifts, but the vast majority of what I gave out was edible.  My family always says not to buy them anything because they have enough stuff.  I respect that and used this opportunity to exercise my culinary muscles. 

As for recipes, look for my Scratch Cherry Pie in upcoming posts.  From start to finish, I’ll give you my tips for making a great (foolproof) crust and my not-so-secret ingredients for a delectable cherry filling. 

Happy (belated) Holidays!

Overall, a pretty good article covering home bar essentials. I question a few of their liquor choices, but one can always substitute their spirit of choice. Still, great suggestions on equipment, technique, and recipes.

Essentials for a Home Bar

Homemade Chicken Stock

I have become a total convert when it comes to homemade stock.  Yes, I know…buying boxes of stock at the market is convenient, but if you’re not careful, all you’ll end up buying is sodium and preservatives, and that’s gross.  I like to know exactly what goes into my stock.  For me, making stock is a labor of love and completely worth the work I put into it.  Since I roast chicken often at our house, making stock is almost always an option.  And as a bonus, while it’s bubbling away, the house fills with the most delicious aroma. 

Chicken stock is dead simple to make and it freezes beautifully, so why not put forth the effort and reach for something homemade rather than a dreadful cardboard box full of stabilizers, preservatives, and additives.

Oh, and let me tell you this, don’t be afraid when you open your fridge after the stock has been in there overnight.  It’s supposed to be gelatinous, jiggly, wobbly…if you will.  The flavor is in the wiggly, semi-solid nature of the stock.  I promise you.  The gelatin comes from the bones of the chicken and when heated, releases all of that lovely flavor.  Fear not!  The more jell-o-like, the better!

You can use your stock straight away (after a night in the fridge) or save it in the freezer for a later use.  Be sure to skim the fat off the top either way before you use it in any dish.

Ingredients:

1 or 2 chicken carcasses, along with their giblets, etc
2 large onions, quartered
4 carrots, chopped into 3-inch sections
2 or 3 stalks of celery (and leaves), chopped same as the carrots
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
1 head of garlic, spilt in half crosswise
1 bouquet garni (mix of herbs tied together – I use parsley, thyme, sage, bay leaf)

***NOTE:  I do not add salt to the mix when making my own stock.  I like to add salt to future recipes as needed.  Besides, the chickens were salted when I roasted them.

Method:

– First I have to say that this recipe is the one I like to use.  However, if you have different herbs, by all means, use them.  Although, I would shy away from using strong herbs like rosemary, because then your stock will just taste and smell of rosemary.  If you like more onion, use more onion.  If you don’t like peppercorns, omit them.  Find what you like and use what you have.  Make it your own.

– Find the biggest stockpot you have.  If necessary, use two pots of different sizes and split up the ingredients.

– Break up the carcasses the best you can and throw into the pot along with all the other ingredients.

– Fill the pot with as much water as you can and place the pot on the burner over medium-high heat.  Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and let it go for 3 hours or so.  Make sure it’s at a simmer, not a boil during this time. 

– When the stock is the golden color you’re looking for, use a spider or a pair of tongs to remove the majority of the solids from the pot.  Throw those away.  Then, using a fine-mesh strainer, chinois, or cheesecloth, strain the remainder of the stock and throw away the solids. 

– Pour stock into storage containers and place in refrigerator to chill overnight.  Either use immediately or store in freezer for up to 3 months. 

In Paris today millions of pounds of bread are sold daily, made during the previous night by those strange, half-naked beings one glimpses through cellar windows, whose wild-seeming cries floating out of those depths always makes a painful impression. In the morning, one sees these pale men, still white with flour, carrying a loaf under one arm, going off to rest and gather new strength to renew their hard and useful labor when night comes again. I have always highly esteemed the brave and humble workers who labor all night to produce those soft but crusty loaves that look more like cake than bread.”
– Alexandre Dumas

(The Best) Roasted Chicken

Roasted chicken is a staple dish at our house.  In the colder months of the year I have been known to keep it on heavy rotation – sometimes preparing it weekly.  And after many years of basting, slathering in butter, stuffing with lemons, garlic, and herbs, I finally feel that I have settled on a foolproof method, all thanks to the genius that is Thomas Keller. 

Thomas Keller (in case you don’t know…how could you not know? ) is the chef and owner of per se in NYC, The French Laundry and ad hoc in Napa Valley, and Bouchon in Las Vegas.  I have yet to visit any of his wonderful restaurants, but someday, I tell you.  Someday I will sit down to dine and be in food heaven.

Despite his many accolades, Keller seems to me to be a regular guy who just wants to make good food.  And his roast chicken is no joke.  I have been using his method (with a tweak or two) for some time now, and I promise, if you follow it, you will not be sorry.  It will be the juiciest, crispiest, and most delicious roasted chicken you’ve ever eaten. 

Thomas Keller’s Outstanding Roasted Chicken

Ingredients:

One 3 1/2 to 4 pound chicken
Kosher salt
Freshly cracked black pepper
Fresh thyme
Any combination of root vegetables (whatever you have on hand)
    – I used Brussels sprouts, parsnips, carrots, garlic, and onion
Olive oil

Method:

Preheat oven to 450ºF

Set the chicken out and let it come to room temperature.  This may take 45 minutes, but is important for even cooking.  Also, dry the chicken (inside and out) with paper towels and let rest on a plate or silicone cutting board. 

If you’d like, you can remove the wishbone by scraping the flesh away from the bone, running your fingers around it and separating the cartilage from the breastbone.  It takes a little bit of practice, but the benefit is not having to cut around the wishbone when you carve your chicken.

Meanwhile, chop vegetables, put in roasting pan and toss well with olive oil, salt, and pepper.

When the chicken is dry and has come to room temperature, salt and pepper the cavity and then truss chicken with butcher’s twine.  If you’re unfamiliar with how to truss, either watch this awesome video, or just take a shortcut and tie the legs together.  Tuck the wings under the bird. 

On cutting board or plate, generously salt the outside of the chicken on all sides.  When I say generously, I mean make it rain on that bird.  Take a big pinch of kosher salt, hold your hand about 18 inches above the chicken, and let it go.  Don’t be shy.  The salt will ensure a gorgeous color as well as a moist bird. 

After you’re done salting, grind some black pepper on the chicken and sprinkle a little fresh thyme on top.  Place the chicken on the vegetables in the roasting pan and place pan in middle of oven.  Let roast for 50-55 minutes until the top is browned and the juices run clear when flesh at the thigh is pierced.  Depending on the size of your chicken, you may need to alter the cooking time.  As long as the thigh meat registers at a minimum temperature of 165ºF on an instant-read thermometer, you’re good. 

Take the roasting pan out of the oven and place the chicken on a cutting board.  Tent the chicken loosely with foil and let rest for 10 minutes.  At this point, you can cover your vegetables with foil and pour yourself another glass of wine. 

After the resting time has elapsed, remove your butcher’s twine, carve, and serve with roasted vegetables and a little bit of Dijon mustard on the side.