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Something to try

Smoky Spruce ButtercrunchSmoky Spruce Buttercrunch

I have an announcement to make: I have a new favorite flavor. It’s related to chocolate – what great foods aren’t? – and it comes from a tiny little sweets shop a couple miles from home. Friends, I am officially in love with smoked chocolate.

It’s not something I could have predicted, because typically, I’m almost completely anti-smokiness. I’m not a particularly avid fan of smoky barbecue. I can’t stand smoked cheeses. Smoked sausages? No way. But once the wisp of an alderwood fire crosses over to the sweet side, it seems like my taste buds forgive and forget.

I first tasted smoked chocolate in chocolate chip cookies from Hot Cakes, a newish sweets shop in Seattle run by Autumn Martin, the pastry genius once behind the confections at Theo Chocolate. When I was writing Dishing Up Washington, she gave me her recipe for smoking chips in a cold smoker, and together we adapted it so anyone with a standard-issue grill and the kind of box boots come in could replicate her cookies at home. But then. Then. Then she put her smoked dark chocolate chips up for sale, and suddenly it seemed perfectly reasonable to spend $15 on what amounts to less than a grocery store-sized bag of chocolate chips. Why? Because they taste like a campfire would smell if you drowned it at the end of the night with a fountain of dark chocolate. Because our fireplace is now home to the dog’s bed, and somehow, having an edible equivalent to that winter fireplace aroma makes up for it. Because this is Seattle, which means it’s raining outside and my grill is already hibernating. And, well, because time is money.

But last week, innocently enough, I ambled into Hot Cakes to run an errand for Santa (which I can’t mention here, for fear of exposure), and I ordered a smoky hot chocolate. There, underneath the house made marshmallow, hid an accent that surprised me. It tasted a little bit like pine trees. It was like drinking thick sipping chocolate that had taken a spill onto a forest floor covered with a soft, fragrant bed of needles – albeit remarkably clean ones. Autumn told me I was tasting fir essential oil, and that I could get all sorts of similar things at Dandelion Botanical, a shop across the street, so I wandered over. I went home with spruce tree essential oil. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Since the year I spent a December testing recipes for a cookbook for Kathy Gunst, about a decade ago, holiday baking has meant one thing most strongly: buttercrunch. In her family, the secret family recipes is . . . well, secret, but I’ve made it enough times that a) I have to make some new version every year and b) I never seem to be able to make enough of it.

As soon as I tasted Autumn’s hot chocolate, I knew I’d be making a version redolent of smoke and that forest floor – spruce trees, it turned out, produced the essential oil I liked best. I folded Hot Cakes’ smoked chocolate chips and a few drops of that oil into my version of Kathy’s buttercrunch recipe, and added a bit of toasted coconut for texture (and okay, yes, I was flirting with the idea of making candy that looked like a campsite).

This ain’t your grandmother’s Christmas candy, people. But if you wanted to distill the smell of camping in a Northwest forest into an afternoon snack, and you want something delicious to crunch on in wintry weather, I got you covered.

Smoky Spruce Buttercrunch

Smoky Spruce Buttercrunch (PDF)
Crunchy, chocolaty candy with the smoky, pine-filled allure of a campfire? Sign me up. But let’s not kid ourselves: this is not a low-maintenance holiday treat. It requires two ingredients you might have to mail order, but both, in my opinion, are intriguing enough to be worth the time and money. Order smoked chocolate chips from Hot Cakes Molten Chocolate Cakery in Seattle (www.getyourhotcakes.com) and spruce extract from Dandelion Botanical, which is actually just across the street (www.dandelionbotanical.com).

TIME: 30 minutes active time
MAKES: about 3 dozen pieces

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
2 tablespoons water
3 to 6 drops spruce or pine essential oil
7 ounces smoked chocolate chips
2/3 cup toasted sweetened coconut
7 ounces high-quality bittersweet chocolate (I prefer 70%), finely chopped
2/3 cup toasted sliced almonds

Line a baking sheet with a silicon baking mat (or greased foil) and set aside.

Combine the butter, sugar, corn syrup, and water in a medium non-reactive (not aluminum) saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the temperature reaches 290°F on an instant-read thermometer. (It will take 10 to 15 minutes, but this is not the time to wander around the kitchen, as overcooking the caramel will cause it to separate. Be patient.)

At 290°F, stir in the essential oil (3 drops for a hint, or up to 6 for a super piney flavor, depending on how strong you want it), then carefully pour the toffee mixture onto the lined baking sheet, tipping the sheet and/or spreading the mixture with a small offset spatula until the mixture is just a bit bigger in size than a piece of paper. Let cool completely, about 30 minutes.

When cool, melt the smoked chocolate chips: Place them in a saucepan over very low heat, and stir constantly until almost all the chunks are melted. Remove from heat and stir until smooth. Set aside.

Spread the melted smoked chocolate in an even layer over the cooled toffee, and sprinkle evenly with the coconut. Cool until the chocolate is dry and completely firm (this may take a few hours), then carefully flip the toffee. Repeat the melting process with the bittersweet chocolate, over low heat, then repeat the spreading process with the remaining chocolate and sprinkle the almonds on top. Let cool completely, then break into bite-sized chunks. Store in a tightly sealed container up to 3 weeks.

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Filed under Cookies, dessert, Dishing Up Washington, gluten-free, kitchen adventure, recipe

Religious Freedom

Sufganiyot with Clove Marmalade

Consistency has never really been my strong point, so it’s not surprising that when I think of December, I think of three very different things. I think of skiing on Christmas day, when the crowds are thin and Santa’s finally been able to bag off work and take a few quick runs. I think of the menorah I must have forgotten to clean last year, like I always do, with a week’s worth of wax crammed into the little candle holes, waiting patiently for an hour of my time and a Swiss Army knife. And I think of my freshman year in college, when my friend Abby gathered a bowl of little Satsuma oranges, studded them with whole cloves, and put them on top of her bureau. I thought she was Martha incarnate; I didn’t grow up with décor. The sweet, spiced smell from that one bowl snuck under her dorm room door, and wafted down the hall, and planted itself deep within my psyche as the smell of Christmas.

Clove-Studded Satsumas

I grew up the blessed child of two religions. You hated me, remember? I was the one who got to celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas. Latkes and Christmas cookies. Eight days plus one.

Only, in reality, we didn’t really celebrate either—not in the way some families do. We swayed to the whims of two calendars, fitting gifts and meals around them, often forgoing one or the other if school events or ski races or a really good snowfall got in the way. And in the kitchen, our holiday rituals were even less dependable.

For Hanukkah, I think there were always latkes. And if we were home for Christmas, my mom would roast beef, and use the drippings for Yorkshire pudding, always marvelously puffy and lopsided, eliciting a seldom-heard insistence on getting to the table now, while it’s hot. But for a long time, instead of gathering my family’s odd holiday habits in a little bouquet of thankfulness, I was embarrassed by them. We were Jewish, but I’d never tasted sufganiyot, the little jelly-filled doughnuts traditionally served during the Hanukkah season. I didn’t know the prayers; I didn’t usually get Chinese food on December 25th. We celebrated Christmas, but we only had stockings every third year, and my mother never labeled the gifts, like I’m sure Abby’s mother did, so there was an equal, if not greater, chance that I’d open my brother’s Game Boy when I was supposed to be cracking into my Caboodles. And we certainly didn’t eat peppermint stick ice cream every Christmas Eve, or leave cookies out for Santa.

Now, though. They tell me I’m an adult. They tell me it’s my turn to pass my own traditions down. A decade ago, I might have said I’d just pick one avenue, one holiday. I’d have said I’d write down a list of Best Traditions, my own personal holiday declaration of independence, and stick to it, making the same foods every year, singing the same songs, smiling the same smiles. Now, though, having the freedom to celebrate however I want to each year, and to always do it differently, seems like the blessing.

A confused household

Now, my two-year-old is old enough to see the Star of David on top of our little Christmas tree, and to look up at me with a jammy grin as we sit on the floor in front of it on the first night of Hanukkah, stuffing our faces with sufganiyot made with leaf lard and filled with Christian-smelling sacrilege. This year, I’ll show him how to stick cloves into little baby oranges, and how to pile latkes with applesauce and sour cream, and how to set out cookies for Santa. (I’ll use Santa’s all-powerful presents as a threat, if I need to.) We’ll make pork-filled tamales on Christmas day, and steam them in the light of seven candles.

When he’s older, I’ll show him how to light the menorah one year, and the next year, we’ll forget where we put it, and stick to Christmas and roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. But every year, if we’re lucky, we’ll be with our families, and we’ll share food with friends, and we’ll smell something special—something with orange and cloves and winter.

If we’re lucky.

Sufganiyot with Clove Marmalade

Spiced Buttermilk Sufganiyot with Orange-Clove Marmalade (PDF)
Recipe by Jess Thomson, inspired by Top Pot Hand-Forged Doughnuts: Secrets and Recipes for the Home Baker (by Mark and Michael Klebeck with Jess Thomson, Chronicle Books, September 2011)

Traditional sufganiyot are fried each year during Hanukkah to celebrate the miracle of light, when oil burned for light lasted eight days instead of the expected one. They’re often filled with strawberry or apricot jam, or a mixture of jam and custard. This version strays toward more typically Christmassy flavors, with a bittersweet filling made by spiking marmalade with ground cloves.

If you’re a really bad Jew that likes really good doughnuts, you could use leaf lard in place of the shortening.

Total: 1 hour 5 minutes active time
Makes 16 sufganiyot, or 24 if you reroll the dough
Special equipment: 2-inch round cutter, piping bag with medium round tip

3 tablespoons (four 1/4-ounce packets) active dry yeast
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup lowfat buttermilk, warmed
1/2 cup warm water
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cloves, divided
1/2 teaspoon ground mace
2 teaspoons iodized salt
4 to 4 1/2 cups (550 to 620 grams) bread flour, plus more for rolling and cutting
1/4 cup shortening (trans fat-free preferred)
3 large egg yolks
1 gallon canola oil, for frying
2 cups orange marmalade
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting

In the work bowl of a stand mixer, whisk the yeast and 1 tablespoon of the sugar with the buttermilk and water and let sit for 5 minutes, until foamy.

In a large bowl, whisk together the remaining sugar, baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves, mace, salt, and 4 cups of the bread flour. Set aside.

Add the shortening and egg yolks to the foaming yeast mixture. Mix with the paddle attachment on low speed for 1 minute, to break up the shortening. Add about a third of the dry ingredients and mix until blended on low speed, then repeat with the second third of the dry ingredients.

Switch to the dough hook and add the remaining dry ingredients, mixing on low speed until no dry spots remain, adding additional flour as necessary, until the dough is dry enough to clean the bottom of the bowl. Increase the speed to medium and knead for 2 more minutes. (It should be smooth like bread dough, but still a bit tacky.)

Transfer the dough to a baking sheet sprinkled with 1 tablespoon flour, shape into a flat disk 6 inches in diameter, dust lightly with flour, cover with a dish towel, and set aside.

Create a proofing box in your oven: Bring a large kettle of water to a boil. Pour about 8 cups of the boiling water into a 9-by-13-inch (or similar) baking dish, and set it on the floor of your oven. Place the sheet with the covered dough on the middle rack of the oven, close the door, and let the dough rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

While the doughnuts rise, combine the remaining teaspoon ground cloves with the marmalade in a small saucepan. Warm the mixture over low heat until it bubbles, strain through a fine-mesh strainer, then refrigerate. Transfer the cooled jam to a pastry bag fitted with a medium-sized round tip.

Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface and roll into a roughly 9-inch circle, about 3/4-inch thick, with a lightly floured rolling pin. Cut the dough into about 16 rounds with a 2-inch round cutter. (Reroll the dough for additional sufganiyot.) Gently transfer the sufganiyot to two baking sheets sprinkled with 2 tablespoons flour each, arranging them at least 2 inches apart, and let rise in the oven (with new boiling water), uncovered, for another 20 to 30 minutes, until doubled in size.

Using a candy thermometer to measure the temperature, heat oil (2 to 3 inches deep) in a deep fryer, large pot, or high-sided frying pan over medium heat to 350°F. When the dough has doubled, carefully place a few in the oil, taking care not to overcrowd them, and fry for about 45 seconds. (Note that the sufganiyot will look more brown when they’re done than they do in the oil. If you’d like, you can use scraps from cutting to test the oil.) Carefully turn the sufganiyot and fry for another 35 to 45 seconds, until golden on the second side, then transfer to a cooling rack set over a layer of paper towels to cool, rounded side up. (After the first batch, check to see that one has cooked through completely, and adjust frying time accordingly.)

When the first sufganiyot are cool enough to touch, poke the marmalade-filled pastry bag into the top of each pastry, and squeeze a scant tablespoon of filling into it. (The pastries are easiest to fill while they’re hot.) Repeat with the remaining sufganiyot and marmalade, dust liberally with confectioners’ sugar, and serve immediately.

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Filed under bread, Breakfast, jewish, recipe

Baking without the baked taste

Bittersweet Walnut Buttercrunch 1

I woke up with my high school’s fight song in my head. Fight for Boise, we are with you, with you all the way… Is that how it went? Or was the other verse first? And what was the other verse? Pondering such important things, I walked into the kitchen and poured the coffee beans directly into the filter without grinding them first. Oh, I see what kind of day it’s going to be.

I’d hoped to wake up and bake cookies. We’re heading to San Francisco for a long weekend, to see my brother, and I wanted to make something without what he’s termed “the baked taste.” I don’t understand it, to be honest. It’s apparently a cross between burnt flour and old cinnamon; it crawls onto the bottoms of unsuspecting muffins and cakes and just loiters there, tasting dusty. The way he tells it, baked taste can kill a person.

But the coffee beans, they were a sign. Cookies were not to be. Besides, I’ve been cranky about cookies for days.

Have you seen the cover of Gourmet’s December cookie issue? They’re all different, so you may not have seen the same cover got, the one with lemon sandwich cookies, dressed up like little pink pompoms.

I love that we all got different covers, for sure. That’s exciting. But the cookies? I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but food coloring is so out. There should be a clear dividing line between something one gives to one’s neighbors, to eat, and something one hangs on a Christmas tree. Just my opinion.

But speaking of Christmas trees, did I tell you? Someone stole my neighbor’s California cyprus. Stole it. Just wandered over in the middle of the night, about a week ago, and dug it out of the ground. My neighbor knocked on my door in a tizzy the next day, after tromping all around the perimeter of my house to make sure I hadn’t fallen prey to the digger, too. We were lucky, I guess. But the neighbor was furious. I told him to write a eulogy, and post it on a sign where the tree had been. He did a good job, I think:

A natural beauty stood here
A tenacious tree known for withstanding the wild winds off the Pacific
Regrettably, it could not withstand someone’s stupidity
On the night of Dec. 2nd, someone dug this tree out of the ground, and took it

I nurtured you, shaped you, and watched you grow. You brought me great joy.
I fear you were taken for use as a Christmas tree.
I hope that instead, you may have a successful transplant and live on to show your beauty to others.
I know you will bring joy to those undeserving folks who now possess you.

Seriously.

Anyway. Back to that cover, with the cookies that look like they belong on trees.

Some covers say cook me. Or doesn’t this look interesting. But the one my mailman delivered just says Yes, Christmas cookies are a direct reflection of how perfectly you live your life. And, If your cookies don’t look like this, you’re a failure. And, worse still, If you don’t attempt to make cookies like this, you’re a sucking the life out of people you love. Who wants to make cookies after all that?

Course, all this internal turmoil over a magazine cover must be the result of hormones. I normally love Gourmet. But this month, I hate it. Hate. It morphs cookies from a symbol of holiday cheer into a contest. And instead of making perfectly round samples of the obsessive compulsive behavior I try my very best to avoid this time of year, I decided, after the coffee thing, that I will be boycotting cute cookies this year altogether. In fact, I will make an attempt at the very ugliest, least photogenic cookies bake-able, because darnit, it’s the thought that counts. I just want a lump of a thing, the kind of cookie you’re not afraid to put your whole hand on. Who wants a cookie you can only touch on the sides? Or worse, one you’re afraid to eat?

The lumps, though, they’ll have baked taste, which I happen to love. Which means today, for my brother, I’ll be bringing a classic version of the Altoids buttercrunch I made last year. (Even the ugly pieces.)

Bittersweet Walnut Buttercrunch 3

Bittersweet Walnut Buttercrunch (PDF)

This crunchy candy, based on a top-secret family recipe from someone else’s family, is my answer for the cookie-averse recipients on my holiday baking list.

TIME: 30 minutes active time
MAKES: about 3 dozen pieces

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon Karo syrup
2 tablespoons water
1 pound high-quality bittersweet chocolate (I prefer 70%), finely chopped
2 cups toasted walnuts, very finely chopped

Line a baking sheet with a silicon baking mat (or greased foil) and set aside.

Combine the butter, sugar, Karo syrup, and water in a medium non-reactive (not aluminum) saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the temperature reaches 290 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. (It will take 10 to 15 minutes, but this is not the time to wander around the kitchen, as overcooking the caramel will cause it to separate. Be patient.)

At 290 degrees, carefully pour the toffee mixture onto the lined baking sheet, tipping the sheet and/or spreading the mixture with a small offset spatula until the mixture makes a roughly 12” by 15” rectangle. Let cool completely, about 30 minutes.

When cool, melt the chocolate: Place it in a saucepan over very low heat, and stir constantly until almost all the chunks are melted. Remove from heat and stir until smooth. Set aside.

Spread half the chocolate mixture in an even layer over the cooled toffee, and sprinkle evenly with half the walnuts. Cool until the chocolate is dry and completely firm (this may take a few hours), then carefully flip the toffee. Rewarm the chocolate over low heat, if necessary, then repeat the spreading process with the remaining chocolate and sprinkle the remaining walnuts on top. Let cool completely, then break into bite-sized chunks. Store in a tightly sealed container up to 3 weeks.

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Filed under Cookies, dessert, recipe