Friday, March 23, 2012

lemon gumdrops

Yesterday was my birthday.

It was one of those strange, mid-week birthdays where I had the day off but everyone around me was going about their daily work like it wasn't one of the most wonderful days of the year. (Seriously, I even had to wait to back my car out of the driveway while the municipal truck was trimming trees out front.)

I believe that climbing small mountains on my birthday sets a good precedent for the year, so I found a willing friend and her two daughters to climb with me. We fortified ourselves with tea and just-made chocolate chip cookies, and set off.

We walked up the road, thinking the path might still be too muddy. But when we reached the rocky, mossy top, we could see that at least one side of the mountain would be dry enough and oh-so-much-prettier than the paved road.

We began clambering down the rocks, telling the girls to go backwards and put one hand on the mountain so you don't fall off it and so on.

Sometimes, we found the path. And sometimes, just as quickly, the path stopped and we were scouting our own way down through the rocks and moss. This was the best part, actually, because we had to look at the ground so carefully.

We spotted dark purple flowers that looked something like camas and we found rosy sedums blooming. There was a cleft of rock that was particularly inviting to a five-year-old girl. They tried to pick up everything: from baby flowers to hairy moss to heavy rocks.

 In short, it was a perfect birthday morning. I thanked them with a little packet of lemon gumdrops.

I have only recently learned how to make these gumdrops and I am thrilled that I can now make candy without a candy thermometer. (Although I do have one. I'm just a bit scared of it.)

These little drops are old-fashioned and subtle. Their flavour comes from lemon juice, orange rind and sugar. They are soft and jiggly in a way that commercially-made candy can't be. They are lovely.

I wonder what I'll learn to make by my next birthday?

Last year: Grand Forks borscht and Up Island
Two years ago: sophisticated marshmallow squares and red lentil coconut curry soup

lemon gumdrops
via The Essential New York Times Cookbook by Amanda Hesser

4 packets powdered gelatin
1/2 c. + 1/2 c. water
2 c. + 1/2 c. sugar
juice of 1 lemon
grated zest of 1 orange
3 drops yellow food colouring

Butter an 8-inch square baking dish. Set aside.

Mix the gelatin into 1/2 cup water in a bowl. Let it stand for 5 minutes. Set aside.

In a medium pot, stir 2 cups of sugar and 1/2 cup of water together carefully. Bring it to a boil, stirring often. Use a pastry brush dipped in cold water to keep crystals from forming on the sides of the pot above the liquid. Once it boils, add the gelatin mixture and whisk in. (Don't worry if the gelatin is very clumpy; patient whisking will incorporate it into the sugar mixture.) Again bring it to a boil and stir often until it thickens, about 15 minutes.

Pour in the lemon juice and orange zest and bring to a boil for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and quickly stir in the food colouring. Pour it into the prepared dish. Chill in the refrigerator for about 2 hours.

Put the remaining 1/2 cup sugar in a shallow bowl. Butter the tip of a large chef's knife and keep the butter handy to re-butter when necessary. Drag the knife tip through the lemon gel to make 1/2-inch squares. (Don't worry if you don't see the gumdrops pulling apart from each other at this point. They will once you're done cutting and you start pulling them up.) Butter a butter knife and work it along the edges of the pan.

Butter your fingers and pull a couple gumdrops up (possibly with the help of the butter knife at first). Pull them apart and coat them in the sugar. Repeat until you're all done.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

cheddar corn chowder

This recipe has quite the claim to fame: it won the church bake-off back in 1994. (It was submitted by a parishioner named Michelle Henseleit and I think she is a genius.)

Well: wouldn't you want to try a recipe that comes first in a church bake-off?

Right, I would. And I did, back in the mid '90s when it was hot off the presses.

And you know what?

It has never let me down. It is the best corn chowder I have ever had the pleasure to slurp up . . . even without the crumbled bacon bit garnish. (That was back when I was an ideological teenage vegetarian and didn't know what I was missing.)

This recipe has served me well: for dinner and for leftovers for lunch.

I made it in university in Halifax and Victoria.

I made it when I lived in Vancouver in a house with five adults and a baby, and the men who sat around the dinner table shocked this sheltered girl with their giant appetites.

I made it in our apartment in Ottawa when we had forgotten how cold a real winter could be and needed something warm and creamy to defrost our fingers and toes.

Now, I make it in our little apartment back in Victoria and my husband says with a happy sigh, "I always like chowders." (I take it this is a hint.)

It's an easy-going recipe: fry a bit of this, add some stock and cream, cook a bit, add the corn and wine, stir in copious amounts of aged cheddar. Oh, and a bit of freshly-grated nutmeg. Crumble bacon bits on top.

Did you hear all that?

Cream. Corn. Wine. Nutmeg. Aged Cheddar. Bacon bits.

Right. So now you know why this won the bake-off and why you probably need to make it for dinner tonight.

One year ago: Grand Forks borscht
Two years ago: Canadian boterkoek and sophisticated marshmallow squares

cheddar corn chowder

feeds 4

3 tbsp. butter
1 onion, chopped
1 large potato, diced
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/4 tsp. ground sage
2 c. (500 ml) chicken stock
1 c. (250 ml) 10% cream
1/2 c. (125 ml) milk
1 1/2 c. corn (frozen or canned)
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 c. white wine
2 tbsp. parsley, chopped
2 tbsp. green onion, chopped
 1 1/2 c. aged cheddar cheese, grated
4 – 5 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled

Heat heavy-bottomed pot over medium-low heat. Melt the butter, and add the onion, potato, bay leaf, cumin and sage. Cook, stirring often, for about 5 minutes or until the onion has softened.

Pour in the stock, cream and milk. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat so it simmers. Cook until the potato is tender, about 10 – 15 minutes.

Add the corn, nutmeg, wine and most of the parsley and green onion. Simmer for 5 more minutes until it's heated through. Take the bay leaf out.

Stir in the cheese, a bit at a time. Heat until the cheese is melted, but don't let it boil (or it might be difficult and separate on you). Serve with crumbled bacon bits and some of that parsley and green onion you kept.


Sunday, March 4, 2012

caramel chocolate mousse

If there's one thing I long for, it's counter space.

When we were visiting my dad last weekend, I kept looking longingly at the expanse of counter space in his kitchen. Of course, we made good use of it, with this chicken curry and then buttermilk pancakes with frozen huckleberries and brambles.

Oh, and did I mention the caramel chocolate mousse?

Because that's what I really want to tell you about.

On Sunday afternoon, while Scott and dad were out pouring concrete for a gate (seriously!), I got to hang out in my dad's sunny little house and do my two favourite things: cook and read.

I started with the mousse. As you see, the sun was pouring in and everything was going swimmingly.

Well, it was . . . until I got a bit cocky about melting the chocolate and this horror happened.

What is that monster, you may ask?

That monster is overheated chocolate, where the cocoa has divorced itself from the cocoa butter.

(I don't know how they convince them to join up in the chocolate factories, but let me know tell you, they will never reunite in your kitchen. Goodness knows I tried.)

After that horror – in which my main panic was that my mousse would be a goner and I wouldn't get enough time to read before the boys got back – I found some more chocolate and got back on track. Dear readers, follow these instructions for melting chocolate carefully and don't let it get too hot!

It should look more like this:

Now, back to the whole idea of caramel chocolate mousse. It's a good one, don't you think?

Chef Michael Smith thought it up, and I saw it in his new book when I was flipping through it at the bookstore a couple weeks ago.

I have been intrigued with the idea of using caramel as a deep, dark base for chocolate ever since I saw this video about chocolate ice cream last summer. (Also check out Melissa Clark's cool sunglasses.)

This mousse is dish-heavy – pot to make the caramel, double boiler to melt the chocolate, bowl to whip the cream – but it's actually pretty simple. Also, I am relieved to finally have a reliable technique for caramel.

(Before this, I had a 50% chance of my caramel seizing into grains of horrible hard sugar. Which is not pretty. I'm fairly sure I'll have a 100% success rate of smooth, lovely caramel with Michael Smith's technique.)

I decided to mix the caramel and chocolate cream together before folding it into the whipped cream. I was afraid the sticky caramel would take too much mixing and deflate the whipped cream. Pre-mixed with the chocolate, the caramel folds in like a dream.

After a couple hours in the fridge, it takes on that airy, dense texture that I want in a mousse. (Do  you know what I mean: substantial but light?)

As for the taste – well, let's just say the caramel is worth it. It lends a deeper base of flavour, almost the way a homemade stock does for soup.*

In the end, I got my mousse into the fridge within less than an hour, and had lots of time to get back to my other important goal for the afternoon: sitting in the reclining chair next to the window and reading my book with a cup of tea.

*I will note that the original recipe calls for milk chocolate instead of dark chocolate, so as not to overpower the caramel base. I didn't have any milk chocolate, so I used dark and I think I'll keep it that way. I may also be influenced by the fact that I make my caramels pretty dark so they can stand up to the dark chocolate base.

 Last March: grand forks borscht
Two Marches ago: dahl for dinner, dahling

caramel chocolate mousse
slightly adapted from michael smith

1/4 c. (62.5 ml) sugar
1 c. (250 ml) whipping cream (separated to 2 tbsp + 2 tbsp + 3/4 c.)
2 oz. (62.5 g.) dark or milk chocolate, chopped finely
1/2 tsp. (2.5 ml) vanilla extract

Take out a small saucepan with a heavy bottom. Pour in 1/4 c. of water. Sprinkle the sugar over the water, making sure the sugar doesn't touch the inside edges of the pot. Do NOT stir. Turn on the heat to medium. Keep an eye on it, but don't touch it. Eventually, the sugar will melt and the water will boil. As it begins to lightly brown, you may swirl the pot gently to help it brown evenly, although I don't find it necessary. Once it starts browning, keep an eagle eye on it. When it's deep golden brown, take it off the heat. Get out a shallow bowl and a whisk.

Stand back and get ready for some spattering. Carefully pour 2 tbsp. of cream into the caramel. Whisk until smooth. Transfer the caramel into the shallow bowl. (It is important to do this because the caramel will keep cooking and hardening in the hot pot.) Cool to room temperature, about 20 minutes. Set aside while cooling.

Now, it's time to melt the chocolate and cream. The important part here is not to overheat the chocolate. Get a clean whisk ready. Heat water to a simmer in the bottom of a double-boiler, or nestle a bowl over (but not in) a pot of simmering water. Keep the heat down to minimum so the water only simmers and doesn't boil. Put the chopped chocolate in the bowl. Pour in 2 tbsp. of cream. Whisk until the chocolate is just melted, then take the bowl off the heat and keep whisking until it's smooth. Set aside to cool somewhat.

Whip the remaining 3/4 c. of cream with the vanilla until it's whipped cream. Set aside.

Whisk the caramel and chocolate cream together. Gently fold it into the whipped cream until it's all a nice chocolate brown colour. Leave in bowl or put into serving glasses. Chill for at least two hours or even one to two days. Serve as is or with a bit of shaved chocolate on top.