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Not your ordinary Apple Crisp

Sunday, January 28th, 2007

We’ve been fans of Ina Garten since we first saw her show, Barefoot Contessa, on the food network. Her recipes are simple to follow and emphasize flavor. The way I see it, if you are worried about calories, eat a smaller portion or make it less often. This apple crisp recipe is based on Ina Garten’s “Old Fashioned Apple Crisp” recipe from her book, Barefoot Contessa Parties! The first time my wife made this we knew we would be making it again and again. What sets this apple crisp apart from your average apple crisp is the presence of orange zest and nutmeg.

A lot of apple crisp recipes have nutmeg, but usually only a fraction of a teaspoon. An entire teaspoon would be overpowering were it not for the added zests and juice of orange and lemon, which carefully balance the freshly ground nutmeg flavor. This isn’t apple-nutmeg crisp—the citrus, nutmeg, cinnamon and apple flavors balance each other very nicely and are complimented by a buttery brown sugar and oatmeal topping. We’ve altered the original recipe in several ways:

  • We reduced the orange zest by half to keep the orange presence a little more subtle.
  • Since we prefer Meyer lemons, which are not as sour as most lemons you find at the store, we doubled the amount lemon zest called for.
  • We substituted Granny Smith apples for McIntosh apples since we like a tart crisp.

We have been making this recipe for several years now and even made it in a dutch oven while camping in Yosemite. We couldn’t get the crust to be crispy like it gets at home, but I think on our next camping trip we’ll experiment with more coals on top. Baked in a regular oven, the topping is crispy and remains so even after refrigeration.

Ingredients for making Apple Crisp.

Finely grate the rind of two Meyer lemons.

Finely grate the rind from one orange.

Add freshly ground nutmeg to apple mixture.

Mix topping ingredients slowly to reduce chilled butter cubes to pea sized chunks.

Bake until topping is golden brown.

This quick and easy recipe is great cold, but it is best enjoyed served warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The recipe, with detailed instructions and complete photo gallery, can be found on the Apple Crisp recipe page.

Mocha Roca: I’m going to make my own!

Sunday, January 21st, 2007

I promised myself I would steer clear of reviewing commercial candy on this site, but I had to mention Brown & Haley’s Mocha Roca. I almost bought some over the holidays while shopping at Costco, but it was part of a variety pack that included four separate tins: almond, cashew, peppermint candy and mocha. Given that I was about to make more than ten pounds of my own English toffee and two of the other flavors did not sound appealing, I decided not to buy it.

Earlier this month I was recently browsing some food blogs and came across an entry on Tweet Sweet’s blog entitled, “Almond Roca – It’s Not Just for Old People.” I had a good chuckle since, well, it’s true. Just about anyone not allergic to nuts has had Almond Roca, but it usually was not being given to you by your best friend in third grade or while trick or treating on Halloween. I recall being introduced to Almond Roca by my mother, who liked to joke that it looked like little cat poops rolled in kitty litter. Was that to scare me away so she could have more for herself? Anyway—I digress.

Last week, while crusing my local supermarket’s candy section looking for Reeses pieces Peanut Butter with Peanuts—turns out it was a limited edition—I came across a small tin of mocha roca and took it home to try. The flavor is very reminiscent of Ben & Jerry’s Coffee English Toffee Crunch; may it rest in peace in their flavor graveyard. Like so many people, coffee toffee crunch was ultimately done in by a diet high in fat. I think if Ben & Jerry had used a coffee ice cream like Swensen’s Turkish coffee, which I think has a leaner cream base, the life of their toffee coffee crunch might have been saved. The coffee flavor in this mocha roca is pretty good.

Taking matters into my own hands
If I could change one thing about the mocha roca it would be to roll them in almonds instead of cashews. The good news is that I actually have plenty of chopped almonds and dark chocolate left from my holiday candymaking marathon to make this myself. A quick search for recipes online has yielded no true coffee flavored English toffee recipes, but I think I can come up with my own without too much fuss using espresso powder or actual espresso in the recipe. I plan on making my own mocha toffee by Valentine’s day so look for an update and recipe in the coming month.

Bake until the buzzer goes off: Thirty years of baking cookies

Sunday, January 14th, 2007

I just celebrated my birthday last month and realized that I can honestly say I have been making cookies for thirty years. I first started making cookies with my mom in the mid 1970’s when I was five or six years old. My first grade teachers put together a cookbook filled with student recipes ranging from, “scabetti” (spaghetti), to the popular, “how to make a bowl of cereal”. My recipe was for M&M Cookies, one of my favorites at the time.

The teacher instructed each child to draw a picture of the finished recipe. They then wrote down the recipe as each child recalled it from memory. Of course, nearly all the recipes omitted key steps and ingredients, but this is what truly gives the cookbook character. Logistical details are not noticed by children, and reading the recipes you see the world as children do. The final instructions for my cookie recipe ended with “bake until the buzzer goes off”. That is when you know the cookies are done baking, right? Time’s up.

Baking cookies during adolescence
By the time I was 11 or 12, my mom entrusted me to make cookies when she was away at work. My sister and mom would both frequently grab spoonfuls of dough from the bowl or unbaked cookie dough as it sat on a cookie sheet. I was convinced—rightly so—that taking some dough before all ingredients were assembled would adversely affect the quality and consistency of the finished cookies. My best defense was to wait for the two of them to leave the house before finally assembling ingredients.

With both mom and sister gone, I could safely bake the cookies without fear of attrition. After cooling the cookies on paper towels—really should have used cooling racks—I carefully put three cookies in a sandwich bag and line them neatly on the counter. I would then do my best to clean the kitchen up as it was before, only the smell of the cookies giving away my covert operation. My mom, in order to not destroy her diet, would frequently share the cookies with her friends and coworkers. For one or two years my Mom’s best friend actually hired me to make several batches of cookies for her during the holidays.

The college years
Attending college in the early 90’s I would frequently make cookies for eating and sharing with housemates or classmates at school study groups. Many female students—incredulous that a guy could (or would?) bake cookies—demanded recipe details as evidence that I had actually baked the cookies myself. Even today I have to convince some coworkers who incorrectly assume that my wife makes the cookies I frequently bring in to share.

Cookies in the workplace
When I started working for Backroads, I would bake cookies and bring them along as a nice treat for guests to pack before cycling. The home-made cookies were a welcome substitute for the half dozen store-bought cookies we typically stocked. A guest from Tennessee ate one of my cookies and then told me in a nice southern drawl, “Damn, Brian, someday you gonna make someone a fine wife!” I actually met my wife while working at Backroads. A fellow trip leader, she was well known for her kitchen sink cookies.

Passing the torch
So after 30 years I am now making cookies with my two kids, ages 5 and 7. When they see me get my KitchenAid mixer out to make cookies, they run down the hallway to fetch the stool and stepladder so they can ‘help’ daddy. With so much help, it takes nearly twice as long, but the kids and I enjoy making cookies together, particularly on Saturdays when Mom is at work.

At a recent parent-teacher conference, the teacher read a sample from my son’s writing assignments. “My dad likes to bake cookies” she read, pausing to look up at us and ask, “Really? Is that true?” Yes, it’s true.

Like chocolate turtles? Check out chocolate dipped pecan maple caramels.

Saturday, January 6th, 2007

The first year I made candies I only made mocha truffles. The following year saw the addition of classic cream caramel and English toffee. Those three reigned for more than 5 years before I added gianduja truffles and chocolate caramels (I may make these chocolate caramels again, they were good, but my son hated the way they smelled when cooking). Last year saw the introduction of espresso caramels and a second failed batch of maple pecan caramels. This year I was again determined to add another candy to my repertoire.

Discovering the obvious
I spent some time looking for another type of candy to make. Although there is a lot you can do with truffles flavor-wise, I finally decided on a peanut caramel. It sounded like a home made pay-day candy bar, except I would be dipping mine in dark chocolate. When it came time to buy nuts for candies at Trader Joes, I suddenly realized I could substitute pecans for the peanuts.

My wife has been bugging me to make caramel pecan turtles, which she loves. I made a dozen about five years ago, but the problem with turtles is that they are difficult to package with other candies since they are very fragile. This past year I have been brainstorming on how I might combine these three ingredients that go so well together. I originally envisioned just making the classic cream caramel recipe and wrapping a pecan half inside before dipping in dark chocolate. For this recipe, the pecans are coarsely chopped and you just stir them in rather than wrap them. What could be easier?

A great way to jump into candymaking
This caramel is so easy to make, I would say it was the easiest candy for a person with no experience making candies to make (undipped truffles previously held that title). The cream does not need to be heated separately and the temperature only needs to be monitored once, so it was a very quick recipe to make. I wasn’t too sure about the temperature targets in the original recipe, it looked much higher than I like for most caramels. To be safe I lowered the target temperature a few degrees, but this still produced a caramel that was more firm than I like for dipping in chocolate, which I like to be just a little gooey. It was getting late and I debated just going to bed, but these caramels are so quick and easy to make I decided to go for another batch, this time adding some maple syrup.

Since it was late and I wasn’t sure whether adding maple syrup would result in crystallization like the failed maple caramels from last two years, I decided to just shove a silpat mat in my one remaining baking dish rather than line with foil coated with safflower oil. I quickly cooked the caramel with the added maple syrup to a lower target temperature than the first batch and poured it into the silpat lined dish. Once covered in plastic wrap, I headed to bed. The next morning I removed the caramel from the silpat I was pretty thrilled to have the entire slab just peel right off with no effort. This was much easier than peeling bits of foil. Sometimes the foil peels off in tiny slivers and takes 15 minutes or more to remove.

Combine the sugars, syrups and cream and boil until target temperature is reached.

Stir in pecans and pour into prepared baking dish.

Caramel cross section shows off the delicious pecan bits.

Caramels can be wrapped in wax paper if you prefer not to dip in chocolate.

For decorating with tempered chocolate, simply snip the corner off a plastic bag and begin piping.

Simple stripes of contrasting chocolate makes the candy look as good as it tastes.

I dipped these delicious caramels in Valrhona 72% Araguani chocolate. My wife was thrilled with the neat, bite sized turtles and I had several candy recipients say that these caramels were their new favorite—the English toffee still holds a comfortable lead. The maple flavor in these caramels is subtle and I may experiment with exchanging corn syrup for maple syrup next year. The recipe, with detailed instructions and complete photo gallery, can be found on the Pecan Maple Caramel recipe page.