Thursday, October 28, 2010

Super Sad True Praline Story

The display at Laura's Candy in the French Quarter.  These may have been my favorites, and the shop has a very generous sampling policy.

Last weekend, DH and I took our daughter on a whirlwind 36-hour trip to New Orleans to visit our son, a senior at Tulane, and while we were there, well why not have a praline or two.  If it isn't already the official candy of the city, it should be.

As we made our way around town, I stopped at every candy store (and every store selling candy) to buy a praline.  I collected about 15.* The idea was to bring them home, photograph and sample them, and then prepare a fascinating blog post.

Well, dear readers, that was not to be.  For while we were awaiting take-off at the NOLA airport, a fellow passenger had a panic attack and bolted off the plane. During the rather lengthy wait that ensued (all the luggage had to be unloaded in order to remove this passenger's suitcase), I decided to have just a small taste of one of my treasures.  Then, more time passed, and these candies kept calling my name,  and before you could say, "we're starting our final descent," I realized I had eaten nearly all of the pralines!



So there was only one thing to do (after joining Weight Watchers and Candy Anonymous) and that was to make a batch of pralines back in Brooklyn.  I didn't want to get my heart broken (as so often is the case when making candy from old, cryptic recipes), so I used a tried-and-true recipe from the Sunday New York Times Magazine from 2002, instead of an "original" from The Picayune's Creole Cookbook, c. 1901,  my friend Renee had lent me.

Boiling the sugars and milk.

These were easy and delicious, but a good candy thermometer is essential.  There are few things more satisfying than to watch as sugar and butter magically transform into something else, in this case a sweet and smoothly textured addictive candy.  The one addition I would make to the recipe (below) is to toast the pecans first.

Waiting for the candy to lose some of its gloss.

These look MUCH better in real life.
NOLA, it turns out, has quite a history with pralines:
Even before the Civil War and Emancipation, pralines were an early entrepreneurial vehicle for free women of color in New Orleans. In 1901, the Daily Picayune (a predecessor to today's Times-Picayunenewspaper) described in nostalgic terms the "pralinieres," or older black women, who sold pralines "about the streets of the Old French Quarter." They were often found patrolling Canal Street near Bourbon and Royal streets and around Jackson Square in the shade of the alleys flanking St. Louis Cathedral. And in the 1930s, the Louisiana folklorist Lyle Saxon, writing in the book "Gumbo Ya-Ya," documented praline sellers "garbed in gingham and starched white aprons andtignons," or head wraps, fanning their candies with palmetto leaves against the heat and bellowing the sales pitch "belles pralines!" to passersby.


This place offer classes in praline making and sells several varieties.   These are good, but have a brittle (as opposed to creamy) texture.






*These days, all sorts of pralines are sold -- rum and maple flavored, chocolate, sweet potato and more.  For my purposes of comparing, I bought only those labeled original, or classic, pecan pralines.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Lemon Drops in a Hail Storm


Last week, we had a real honest-to-goodness hail storm in Brooklyn so intense that the elephant ear plant in our front garden went from this:


to this --  in less than five minutes.


Of course, while all this was happening, I was busy baking from a recipe card labeled only "Lemon Drops."  It took me a while, but I finally decoded recipe which included some -- but certainly not all -- the instructions needed to make these.  I wasn't even sure if they were rolled cookies, bar cookies or drop cookies when I started, but I was drawn to the hand-written (in pencil!) recipe card and who doesn't like lemon.  Furthermore, I was excited to use my new-old lemon reamer (marked with the date July 10, 1888!) that I bought at an antique shop in Copley, Ohio.


These take a tiny bit of prep (zesting and reaming a couple of lemons -- always zest the lemon before reaming it), allowing time for the butter soften to room temperature and rolling the cookies into balls, but they are very quick and easy. And amazingly lemon-y.

I finally figured out how to make these.  My instructions follow the recipe below.


Cream the shortening (I always use butter) and sugar.  Stir in the egg, juice and peel.  Sift flour, baking powder and salt together and add to the butter-sugar mixture.  Refrigerate for about 15 minutes or so, until the dough can be easily handled.  Mix together the 3 tbs. of sugar with the cinnamon and reserve. Roll dough  into one-inch balls and the roll each until completely covered in the cinnamon sugar mixture.  Place on parchment covered cookie sheet and bake about eight minutes in a 350 degree oven.

Production note: The cookies in the top two rows (in the first pictures) were done before I figured out that you are supposed to roll the cookies in a ball and roll in the cinnamon sugar.  They look a bit more "rustic," but if you don't have the time or inclination to go the extra mile, they work fine like this.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Baking a Demon Cake with Two Angels


On Saturday, my niece Zoe and her little brother Miles had a sleepover here while their parents enjoyed a night out.  And as usual when this dynamic duo comes to visit, we baked a cake.
After some debate and a look through several children's cookbooks, the pair decided on a three-layer chocolate cake with orange frosting, complete with purple, green and black decorations.  The c. 1934 recipe we found was called Demon Cake (another name for devils food?) which made it ideal for the Halloween holiday season.


The cake was a bit complex; it required the separation of five eggs, for one thing.  Miles had a fun time doing so, and now I have a bunch of broken eggs for my omelet tomorrow morning. Thanks, Miles!  But he finally got the hang of it and quite enjoyed the squishy feeling of the whites slipping through his fingers.


Zoe proved herself a natural pastry chef by her innate ability to beautifully decorate the cake.  Not only could she handle a pastry bag with ease, she was able to write Happy Halloween quite legibly even though writing legibly with frosting is very challenging.


As always when I bake, there was a near disaster of sorts when the someone bumped into the oven and accidentally moved the dial from 350 to 450 degrees.  The design of my oven (the nob sticks way out from the panel) invites this sort of thing all the time.  Luckily, I checked the cakes after 15 minutes and not only were they done, they were almost charcoaled.

But, once the frosting was on (I used the buttercream recipe from the Magnolia Bakery), the cake was delicious, and quite gorgeous.

ZOE SAID: SEE NO EVIL, HEAR NO EVIL, EAT NO EVIL (EXCEPT FOR DEMON CAKE)

Vanilla Buttercream

1 1/2 cups unsalted butter
8 - 10 cups confectioner's sugar
3/4 cup milk
1 tbs. vanilla extract

Place the butter in a mixing bowl.  Add in five cups of sugar, then the milk and vanilla.  On medium speed of an electric mixer, beat about 3-5 minutes or until smooth and creamy.  Gradually add the remaining sugar, 1 cup at a time, beating about 2 minutes after each addition, until the icing is thick enough for good spreading consistency.  You may not need all the sugar.




Friday, October 15, 2010

The Charm of the Unfamiliar


I almost always buy  food at farmer's markets, and usually eat what's in season and grown within driving distance of New York City.
But sometimes, the exotic has an allure that's hard to resist.
Imagine the thrill of going to your local green grocer and discovering (among the pears and apples) a fruit that you've never seen before, one you had no idea existed until that moment.  And that fruit and brand new taste could be yours for just $2.57.
That's what happened to me a few days ago when I encountered something labeled "Jujube, Korean Date." They look a bit like fresh (not dried) dates and taste a a little like them too, but aren't as sweet and the texture is a much firmer, and almost crispy.
I learned (thanks, Google) that they are Asian imports, are often used medicinally and the dried ones can be substituted for dates in baking recipes.  I found one recipe for the fresh fruit --- jujube butter (think apple butter) -- but I"m probably just going to keep it simple and eat them raw.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Popover Magic on Sunday Morning


While DH was at yoga this morning, I decided to whip up some popovers in order to add back all the calories he burned in the vinyasa class.  I'd never made them before, despite the fact that I'd bought a c. 1940s cast iron popover pan years ago.  But I have eaten them -- twice.  Once at Jordan Pond House, a restaurant in Acadia National Park in Maine, and again at New York City's Popover Cafe -- both restaurants specialize in this magical treat.

How I wish I had made a time-lapse movie of these in the oven.  For within about 30 minutes, they went from this:

to this:

These were pretty good, kind of eggy-tasting and absolutely perfect with strawberry jam.  They're best eaten hot from the oven, as they tend to deflate as time goes on.  (And, in attempt to deflate my popover-filled belly, I think I'll join DH at yoga tomorrow morning.)

Here's the recipe I used from the c. 1951 Settlement Cookbook.  It couldn't be easier and these very common ingredients provide quite an impressive and entertaining show.

Friday, October 8, 2010

"Account Past Due" Nuts


Say it's 1961 and you owe money to a department store, and they send you a letter suggesting a payment plan. What's the next step?
In this case, the recipient cut the letter up, turned it over and wrote a lovely recipe for sugar nuts on the back. Intrigued, I made these.



They couldn't be easier, and they are quite delicious, but they're a bit sticky.  Don't know if that's because the sugar syrup should be cooked beyond the soft ball stage or that my candy thermometer needs to be calibrated (easily accomplished by sticking it in boiling water to see if it registers 212 degrees F). 

 In any case, it was fun turning a sow's ear (dunning letter) into a silk purse (sugar nuts).


Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Why Are These Cookies Called Chinaman Chews?


On Sunday, DH and I went on a "three hour tour" aboard a tugboat in New York Harbor.  And in the spirit of Gilligan's Island, this lasted a *bit* longer than anticipated.  Once home (after a lovely and oh-so-welcome glass of wine at Acqua, an excellent Seaport restaurant), I couldn't wait to turn on the oven, for it was cold and windy aboard the tug near the end.


I found an intriguing recipe called, I thought, Cinnamon Chews, in a recipe box I got recently in Akron.  These are very unusual: the batter is baked in one piece, cut into squares and then those squares are rolled into balls.  Quite a bit of geometry going on in one baked good.

The batter with dates and nuts incorporated.
Sometime during the making of these, I realized that there wasn't any cinnamon in them and took a closer look at the handwritten recipe.  The recipe's author, Ethyle (note the exotic spelling!) called them Chinaman Chews and I can't figure out why.  A Google search turned up not one clue. (I typically find some information on Google, like when I made Strawberry Rival Pie, my search revealed that rival is another term from crumb topping.)  If anyone out there can illuminate the origins of Chinaman Chews, please let me know.

The baked bar, which was cut into squares and each square was rolled into a ball, steps I forgot to photograph.
In any event, these unique cookies are delicious, easy and fun to make (you get to play with your food). They were a VERY big hit at work, though they are quite sweet. Not that there's anything wrong with that!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Ten Baking Essentials


Let's just say that nothing is essential but, if you are lucky enough to get a gift certificate to great cooking supply store, you might consider the following:

1) One of those big rubber oven mitts 
Professional cooks get lots of burns on their hands and arms, but us home cooks like to keep our scars to a minimum.  These mitts are particularly useful when reaching into a hot oven or making candy, which requires one to heat the sugar to such a high temperature that the pan gets extremely hot.
2) A large offset spatula
In addition to making frosting a cake much easier, this handy tool does double and triple duty getting baked goods (like pie) out of the pan neatly, scraping "stuck" cookies from the cookie sheet and so much more.
3) KitchenAid standing mixer
This allows one to mix up a batter easily and frees the cook to attend to other tasks like chopping walnuts while the mixer works its magic. (Of course, if we hand mixed everything, we wouldn't have to spend time at the gym!)
4) A candy thermometer
This tool takes the guesswork out of candy-making and frosting-making involving sugar syrup.  If you don't have one, you can still make these treats -- you just need to continually drop a bit of the syrup into a glass of cold water until it "spins a thread," "forms a soft ball" or "cracks," --- or whatever the recipe calls for.  I'd rather just read the number on the side of the thermometer.
5) Hotel pans and good (heavy) cake pans
Hotel pans are large, heavy aluminum cookie sheets with a rim around all sides.  These are great for baking cookies,  for putting under a pie while baking to catch overflowing juices and make an ideal platform for roasting vegetables.  Good quality cake pans, with straight sides, will increase your success with cakes as they will heat evenly.
6) Electronic kitchen scale
Having one of these around allows you to weigh (instead of measure) ingredients like flour, sugar, chocolate and more.  For example, I buy blocks of chocolate and also the extra rich Plugra butter in one pound blocks and just weigh out what I need --- no need to rely on the measurements printed on the paper surrounding sticks of butter.
7) Metal strainer 
Forget traditional flour sifters.  Just use this for flour, confectioner's sugar, cocoa powder and more.  Pile the dry goods in the strainer, give it as shake (or push the goods through with a large tablespoon).  Later you can use it to strain the green beans for dinner.
8) Wet and dry measuring cups
There's a difference between these.  Wet measures are those glass ones that have the amounts printed on the sides, so you can measure out anywhere from a 1/4 cup of milk and up (depending on the size of the container).  Dry measures are more amount-specific -- they usually come in 1/4, 1/3, 1/2 and 1 cup sets and you fill each to the brim with the dry ingredients (like flour or sugar) and run the flat side of a knife across the top to make ingredients level with the container.
9) Large rubber spatula and wire whisk
OK, I know I'm sneaking two items (again) in one post, but both of these are really helpful in mixing and baking almost everything. The wire whisk is great for everything from beating eggs to mixing dry ingredients together.  And the spatula is an excellent vehicle for scraping the batter from the bowl into the pan (and for licking clean a few moments later).  If you can, get a spatula that can withstand high heat -- I recently melted one at my mother's house while making frosting.
10) A sense of adventure 
This may be the only essential item on the list!