Thursday, December 22, 2011

Cookies Galore - Sweet, Salty & Spicy!

Dear Foodies,

Is your baking done, kitchen cleaned, gifts wrapped & mailed ? Sigh! My kitchen counters are still covered in flour, sticks of butter softening and the to-do list has a few more pending things on it. Since this is the one time I take up baking I try as many recipes as I can and there's just soooo many tempting treats popping up all over. It's extremely difficult to stop myself from trying just that o.n.e more cookies recipe. So if like me you have a few more batches to make, I've put together a very easy recipe that you can customize to your liking and crank out goodies in just a few hours!

The next three cookies are based on my shortbread cookie recipe here & here, both fantastic by themselves. This has become my go-to recipe because its really easy to create variations. The basic formula  used for all of these is - 1 stick (1/2 cup) Butter, 1/3 cup Sugar,1 cup AP flour + 1/2 cup Almond meal (or 1.5cups AP flour), a pinch of Salt  - then I add flavorings to make each batch unique.

Lets begin with chocolate, shall we...
3Tbsp unsweetened Cocoa powder + 1/2 tsp Instant Espresso powder + 1/2 cup toasted Walnuts +1tsp Vanilla extract

1/4 cup each chopped apricots & cranberries + 1tsp Vanilla extract

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese + 1Tbsp chopped Rosemary + 1/2 tsp Sea Salt + 1Tbsp Sugar (instead of 1/3 cup) + substitute 1 stick butter with 3/4 stick butter + 1/4 cup extra virgin Olive Oil

You can make so many more combinations of these shortbread cookies - different fruit & nut combo's -Apricot & Walnut, Cranberry + Pistachio, Cherries + Almond - Thyme + Parm cheese, toasted Cumin, Lemon zest & poppy seed, Deb has one for margarita cookies!!

Another great thing about this cookie dough is that it freezes really well. If you don't want to bake them right away then freeze the dough wrapped in cling wrap. Bring the log out whenever you want fresh cookies and slice just as many as you want. A fresh baked cookie will never be far off with a log of these in your freezer. For the detailed recipe see this post.
Chocolate Crackle Cookies
This is a recipe I tried the same day that Jen @Use Real Butter posted it, and the cookies were fantastic! Soft and chewy in the center with a crisp crust of sugar on the outside. It has a rich chocolate flavor and isn't overly sweet at all despite the outer coating.

I meant to post detailed recipes for the Linzer cookies & Gingerbread but with all the other stuff going on I was pressed for time. I wanted to at least share the ideas here before everyone gets busy with celebrations, so here you go....

Linzer cookies were based on Ina Garten's recipe, the only change I made was to substitute with 1.5 cup of almond meal for AP flour and added zest of 1 Lemon & Clementine. The best part though - homemade Raspberry jam & Peach Ginger jam.

My first batch of gingerbread cookies! This recipe is from Deb @smitten kitchen. I halved the recipe, added 1/8 tsp All Spice powder & 1Tbsp finely grated crystallized Ginger - fabulous! I also tried her recipe for goldfish crackers and they were sooooo good and easy to make and taste so much better than the store bought ones, but that's obvious I guess.

Homemade Cookie Sampler
I saved up to-go plastic containers that came with my sandwich lunches and turned them into the perfect cookie box. The savory cookies get their own little bag so they don't get a coating of sugar. And voila! You have a fantastic selection of cookies to please everyone. A little round of fruit cake wraps up the gift box and its ready to delight a loving family or friend. I think I'm done working with butter and sugar for another year, phew!

Have a beautiful holiday season filled with the things you love!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Clementine & Vanilla Marmalade

Dear foodies,

Next stop on our series of jams and preserves enroute to making home-made gifts is a vibrant Clementine marmalade. Marmalade is the general term given to (citrus) fruit preserves made by cooking citrus fruit, peels included, in a sugar syrup. The acidic & tart citrus fruit alongside sugar is a tantalizing treat. I very recently became a fan of orange marmalade because the sweetness of the jam is perfectly offset by the tart fruit and its a refreshing bite with bread or just by the spoonful :)

Those who've watched TV over the last few weeks here could not have missed the Cuties' ad for california clementines doing the rounds. California is blessed with the perfect weather of citrus fruit almost all year round. Clementines are currently in season and you better not miss out on the chance to get a boxful of them home. I don't know about kids loving their cuties but I surely do. I don't like the white pith that wraps around the fruit and have to go through the long-winding process of segmenting oranges or painfully peeling out the stubborn pith in order to get to the juicy goodness. I know the pith is good for us, but well, that's my bit of weird. And so clementines are ideal for me. They are a variety of mandarin orange and are easy to peel and almost always seedless. the pith is tender and not as fibrous and I eat them like candy each time I enter the kitchen. Its easy to eat 3-4 of them without giving it much of a thought.

This marmalade is very easy to put together and probably takes just 2 hrs with very little hands-on time. You dunk whole clementines in water and boil them until softened. When cool to handle you coarsely chop them up, return to the saucepan and cook down with sugar and vanilla. Let it cook for 30more mins and its done. Boiling the clementines to soften them also leeches out some of the bitterness in the skin leaving you with a milder fruit for the marmalade.

Clementine & Vanilla Marmalade
Yield - 2 Cups
Cooking Time - 2hr
  • 15 - Clementines, whole
  • 2 - Lemons, juiced and zest of one
  • 2 cups - Sugar
  • 1 tsp - Vanilla Extract or seeds from 1/2 vanilla bean (optional)
  1. Wash the clementines and add them to a non-reactive saucepan with water just enough to immerse them. Bring to a boil and simmer for 15-20 mins until the clementines are soft.
  2. Drain water and allow fruit to cool. When able to handle, chop them whole as coarse/fine as you desire, discarding any seeds in the process. Return to the pan along with zest of a lemon and juice of 2, vanilla bean seeds or extract and sugar.
  3. Simmer on low heat for about 30mins until the fruit mixture comes together as a jam.  I was going to use this in a recipe for fruit cake and so let the mixture cook for 40-45mins to a point where the fruit is essentially candied and not jam like. Check on it, more towards to end, to ensure that the sugar does not burn. 
  4. When you are happy with the consistency, remove from heat and cool completely before transferring to a clean, air-tight jar.
Notes: You can also flavor your marmalade with whole spices like cloves, cinnamon, star anise, cardamom, ginger or even chillies. Drop them in along with sugar and make sure you fish them out once the marmalade is done.

A pretty bottle filled with this jam and a hand-written tag would make a beautiful gift. With clementines in season its also a good thing to make and keep on hand. If you plan to make a larger batch or store it long term do follow proper canning procedures. The marmalade could be used to flavor cake/cupcake frosting's specially a cream cheese based one. It would be great stirred into a chocolate cake batter since chocolate and orange go really well together. I used about half the yield in my fruitcake this year for a perfectly intense citrus flavor. I reserved half for a batch of linzer cookies too, but that is if it lasts long enough. This is what my breakfast looked like....

Nutella & Clementine Marmalade on whole wheat toast

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Decadent Chocolate Truffles

Dear foodies,

Any celebration is incomplete without chocolate. I know very few people who dislike chocolate and am glad for those few cos it gives us chocolate lovers more to enjoy :) In India, Cadbury's fruit & nut was my absolute favorite chocolate bar and still continues to be. Kitkat, Crunch etc were picked up once in while but Cadbury's was always the most sought after. When I shop at the Indian stores here, they very sneakily have the little bars right next to the register and its tough to ignore the call of chocolate :)

My aunt (mom's sister) once gave us homemade chocolate as a gift and it felt like pure magic to me. Chocolate. at home ?! It couldn't get any better, she'd stir in raisins and cashews at the very end before spreading it out on a greased plate replicating our beloved fruit & nut combo. For years after that the recipe was requested over and over again when we visited her place. My mom learned it from her so she could appease our cravings at home. Even to this day chocolate holds a special place for me and brings the same joy and warmth that it used too and that's magic of chocolate.

When I saw the recipe for chocolate truffles on one of the cooking shows a few years back I was surprised it was that easy! I couldn't believe I was paying 20-30$ for 6/10 pieces at the store when I could just as well make many more at home! Tricked yet again! I've been making them during Christmas for the last 3 years and it never fails to surprise & delight those I gift it too. Every year I experiment with different dried fruit to coat the truffle's. Last year my entire counter top and utensils were covered in chocolate because I tried my hand at tempering chocolate for the outer coating. The end result was good but I chose to keep my sanity this year and focused on the other things. When the chocolate is good you don't need to mess around with it.

With more and more people baking at home and preferring made-from-scratch homemade goodies, good quality chocolate it not hard to find. Specially this time of the year most specialty food stores sell them in bulk and I take advantage of that. All you need are two key ingredients - chocolate and heavy cream, so the quality of the end result depends heavily on the kind of chocolate you use. I prefer using bulk baking chocolate rather than chocolate chips. Chocolate chips also contain stabilizers and are not recommended for truffles in most recipes. I bought semi-sweet Callebaut blocks, Valhrona milk & dark chocolate chips and cocoa powder from Whole Foods this time. I like that they sell them in smaller quantities making them more affordable. I tend to use about 80% semi-sweet and 20% milk chocolate to balance out the sweetness in these truffles.

When chopping chocolate a serrated bread knife is your best friend. The sawing action of the serrated knife does a great job in creating smaller chunks with less elbow grease. Having the chunks more or less uniform and in a small size ensures that they melt evenly when hot cream is added to them. Heat cream over stove top just until you start seeing little bubbles appear around the edges.

Using a strainer to catch any skin formed, pour cream over chocolate pieces and let stand for a few minutes allowing the heat to disperse and begin melting the chocolate. Gently stir with a spatula incorporating as little air as possible as this allows for a smoother, richer ganache.

Initially as you fold in the cream it might look like you are headed for a disaster but keep at it and soon you will be rewarded with a glossy, shimmering decadent ganache. At this point you can use the ganache to (a) fill little pastry tartlets, (b) dunk shortbread cookies and allow to set or spoon over a cake (c) whip it up with a hand-held mixer to make a wonderfully rich & airy chocolate frosting or (d) cover in plastic wrap and chill to make truffles later. Decisions, Decisions!

Don't let your OCD scrape out every bit of chocolate from the spatula into the bowl. After all this hard-work you've earned yourself the right to lick it clean!

As the chocolate ganache cools off in the refrigerator to harden we've got lots of chopping to do. I used chopped toasted - pecans, almonds, pistachios & walnuts. For dried fruit we have - chopped cherries, cranberries and for the surprise element mixed pineapple and crystallized ginger. And lets not forget the classic - cocoa powder.

Take a scoop of ganache, roll it between your palms to shape it and it also softens the exterior a bit making it easy for the coatings to stick. Dunk them in the nuts or fruits and cover them with evenly all around, then lightly roll them between your palms to press in the nuts.

Chocolate Truffles
Yield - approx 50, 1" balls
Prep Time - 1hr
  • 1 lb - Chocolate, (0.8lb semi-sweet, 0.2lb milk chocolate)
  • 1 cup - Heavy cream
  • 1/2 tsp - Instant Espresso powder 
  • tiny pinch of salt
  • Optional flavorings - 2 Tbsp of flavored liqueur (Orange/Almond/Hazelnut/Raspberry); 1/2 tsp Cinnamon powder, Cayenne;
    Toppings/Coatings - quantity depends on size of truffles & total no.of toppings used. You could start off with 1/2 cup and add more as needed.
    • Nuts - Toasted, chopped Pistachios, Pecans, Almonds, Walnuts, Hazelnuts
    • Dried Fruit - Cranberries, Cherries, Pineapple, crystallized Ginger
    • unsweetened Cocoa powder, powdered Sugar, 
    1. Break down the chocolate into smaller chunks by chopping it and place in a large bowl. Heat cream on medium heat until it begins to bubble around the edges.
    2. Gently pour the hot cream over chocolate using a mesh strainer to catch any skin that forms on the cream. Add espresso powder and let the mixture stand for a few minutes.
    3. Using a silicone spatula gently fold in the cream incorporating as little air as possible into the now melting chocolate. Now is the time to add flavorings as well.
    4. Once you arrive at the glossy ganache stage, wrap the bowl with plastic wrap and move it to the refrigerator to cool for as long as it takes to harden ~ 1-2 hrs.
    5. When ready, I use a small scoop (Size 100 - 3/8oz) or a teaspoon to get uniform truffles and shape them by gently pressing & rolling between your palms forming a ball. Roll them in our choice of toppings and roll again between your palms to help the nuts/fruit adhere to the chocolate. Arrange them on a non-stick baking sheet or wax-paper lined tray and allow to cool for 1-2hrs.
    6. Bring them to room temperature before serving.
    Notes: Last year I 'stuffed' the ganache with some of the drained, soaking fruit I had from the fruit cake, so you can definitely go that route and hide a treat inside the chocolate. Chocolate - I used Callebaut semi-sweet and Valrhona milk chocolate for these Storing - You can make the ganache and stash it in the refrigerator covered in plastic wrap for a few days and scoop out truffles when needed. I've also refrigerated finished truffles in an airtight container and they keep well upto a week. They never usually last longer than that and so I do not know how long they can be stored :)
    Homemade Truffles sampler bag
    When you serve it to friends & family I can assure you that it'll be followed by a moment of silence. They will want to focus on the magic unfolding in their mouth as the rich chocolate melts away. These are a chocolate lovers delight! The nuts and fruits offer a variation of texture and a counter balance to all the richness. But I guess I don't have to try to put the brilliance of these truffles in words, you need to try it for yourself. This is another fabulous gift that shows you care about the person receiving it.

    Sunday, December 11, 2011

    Homemade Raspberry Jam

    Dear foodies,

    Please don't be surprised seeing a jam recipe here right after my post claiming that baking season was upon us. This is all part of the plan :) Britannia had these little sandwich cookies with a dollop of jam in the center that I loved. The crumbly cookie with a chewy, gooey jam center was a special treat that I looked forward too. From the time that I spotted the recipe for Linzer cookies I've been meaning to make them. This past weekend,  with a 50% off store coupon for Micheal's I finally bought myself a linzer cookie cutter set. I searched online for recipes that did not use eggs and had all other ingredients on hand. The one thing missing was the center jewel - raspberry jam which makes the quintessential linzer cookie. To break up the red I already had my peach jam on hand and also made a batch of clementine marmalade to top the cookies(recipe coming up). I decided to try my hand at making a batch of raspberry jam at home after a quick search for recipes.

    When ripe, raspberries strike a perfect balance between tart and sweet. They are rich in antioxidants and vitamins making them a delightful addition to any snack/meal. I was lucky to find fresh berries that tasted really good at the store here but frozen would also work perfectly for this recipe. Raspberries have a moderate amount of naturally occurring pectin in them. With a bit of sugar and some citrus juice they can be turned into a beautiful jam without needing any additional pectin. One less ingredient to shop for...

    Homemade Raspberry Jam
    Yield -  1 cup
    Cooking time - 30-40mins
    • 12 oz - Raspberries (2 little boxes, or use frozen)
    • 1/2 cup - Sugar ( I used sugar in the raw, adjust final amount to taste)
    • 2 Tbsp - Lemon juice (~ 1/2 lemon)
    • pinch of salt
    1. Wash the berries and drain off any water. Place 2-3 stainless steel spoons in the freezer for testing doneness of jam in the end.
    2. In a non-reactive saucepan combine berries, sugar, lemon juice, salt and place on medium heat. Using the back of a ladle mash the berries along the sides of the pan. 
    3. Turn up the heat to medium-high and bring the fruit mixture to a rolling boil. Carefully skim any foam that appears on the surface. I try to push all the foam to one end and that makes skimming easier. Cook for 10-15mins while stirring frequently. 
    4. When the jam starts to thicken and acquires a gel like consistency, remove from heat and check for doneness. Take a spoon out of the freezer and transfer a half teaspoon of jam. Return it to the freezer and check on it after 2-3 mins. When tilted vertically if the jam stays put then its done, if not move the jam mixture back to the stove top and cook for a few more minutes. Test again until you get the desired consistency right.
    5. I chose to keep the seeds but if you want a smooth jam them immediately transfer to a thin sieve and push through as much of the jam as possible with the help of a spoon into a glass jar. (Or start off by first blending the berries in a blender to crush the seeds in Step1)
    6. Once cooled cover with a lid to make an airtight seal and store in the fridge for up to a 2-3 weeks.
    Note: Frozen berries can be easily swapped for the fresh berries here. Adjust the quantity for sugar to your taste, since its not made for long term storage the sugar here does not act as a preservative.
    I made a small batch and so did not bother with canning techniques. But to ensure that the glass jar is completely dry & sterilized I nuke it in the microwave for 30secs and cool it before filling it up with jam. Even when stored in the fridge check on it after the first week to make sure that its still good for use each time you take it out.

    For a recipe this simple the result is fantastic. Its amazing how quickly you can make small batches of jam right at home with so few ingredients. No chemicals or unpronounceable ingredients here. The jam was tart and sweet and the hint of salt balances out everything for me. They jam has deep jewel color studded with seeds all over. I enjoy the crunch of the seeds in this jam and it also makes for a gorgeous presentation. Use it simply on piece of plain bread for breakfast or make linzer cookies with it, either way you'll love it. Best of all it could easily make a pretty gift for someone you love or would like to thank this season. It does not take much effort but will surely make the person receiving it feel special.

    Which home-made gifts do you like the best ?

    Friday, December 09, 2011

    It's time to bake!

    Dear Foodies,

    Its that time of the year again where the kitchen fills up with the aroma of chocolate and vanilla and the warmth of the oven heats up our home...What are you baking this season ?
    What would I do without chocolate!
    Since tis' the time for special gifts I bought fresh vanilla beans to add extra pizzazz to the goodies...I'm excited to use them! :)
    the smell of vanilla is intoxicating!
    I've been making big batches of chocolate truffles, fruitcake cookies and ofcourse fruit cake over the last few years and it has become a tradition now. The dried fruits are happily getting drunk (macerating in red wine!) as we speak ... :)
     All the shopping is done and I'm all set to get started on the baking this weekend. I plan to make multiple batches of cookies based on my fruitcake cookie recipe, cranberry-pistachio biscotti, a dense fruit cake, chocolate truffles and the all time favorite world peace cookies! I've been meaning to make linzer cookies for a long time now and they will be the new addition to the goodies bag this year. The recipes and stories of my experiments will all be coming up over the next few weeks.

    all set for a baking marathon
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