fleur de sel caramels

I don’t know about you, but to me, the holidays seemed just a bit more crazy this year. This past week has been filled with candy making, gift wrapping, pie baking, family functions and so on, and so on. I am spent!

I decided early on that this was going to be a happy homemade holiday. I just can’t deal with the crowds and the lines and the department stores the way I used to.  I also wanted to avoid staying up until the wee hours of the morning baking dozens of cookies like I normally do every Christmas. So I took the easy route: handmade caramels.

Earlier this year I went to a birthday party where a friend of mine brought Ina Garten’s fleur de sel caramels, which were totally the foodie highlight of the day. It’s probably not a huge surprise to anyone that I am an Ina Garten fan. I adore her approach to cooking and entertaining and find her recipes extremely user friendly. So when it came time to think of homemade gifts, it was obvious to go for the caramels. I am so glad that I did! They are surprisingly easy to make and they are so much more exciting and decadent than a cookie. And from what I’ve been hearing, I’m pretty sure the caramel recipients were also happy with my decision to skip the cookies this year.

fleur de sel caramels

yields 16-20 caramels (depending on size)

from Ina Garten via foodnetwork.com

1 1/2 cup sugar

1/4 cup light corn syrup

1 cup heavy cream

5 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 teaspoon fleur de sel, plus more for sprinkling

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Line the bottom of an 8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper, then brush the paper lightly with oil, allowing the paper to drape over the sides.

In a heavy saucepan combine the sugar, corn syrup, and 1/2 cup water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Continue to boil until the caramel is a warm golden brown color. Don’t stir – just swirl the pan to mix.

Meanwhile, bring the cream, butter, and 1 teaspoon fleur de sel to a simmer in a small pan over medium heat. Remove from the heat, set aside and keep warm.

When the caramelized sugar has reached the proper color, slowly add the cream mixture to the caramel – it will boil up violently. Stir in the vanilla with a wooden spoon and cook over medium heat for 5 to 10 minutes, until the mixture reaches 248°F (firm ball) on a candy thermometer. Very carefully pour the hot caramel into the prepared pan and refrigerate until firm.

When the caramel is cool, use the parchment paper to lift from the pan onto a cutting board. Starting at 1 end, roll the caramel up tightly until you’ve rolled up half of the sheet. Cut the sheet across and then roll the second half tightly. You will have 2 (1 by 8-inch) logs. Sprinkle both logs lightly with fleur de sel, cut each log into pieces. Cut parchment papers in 6 by 4 1/2-inch squares and wrap each caramel in a paper, twisting the ends. Store in the refrigerator or at room temperature.

lebkuchen

One of the things I look most forward to with the arrival of the holidays is lebkuchen. If you like spiced cakes and cookies, you are in for a treat! Lebkuchen are German soft gingerbread cookies that are only available stateside during the holiday season. I have been somewhat obsessed with them ever since we were first introduced many, many years ago. Until now my sister is the only person aware of my lebkuchen habit and my ritual of buying several packages of these goodies (and not really sharing) year after year. I  have tried a few variations of store bought lebkuchen over the years, which include sugar glazed and chocolate dipped, but my favorite has always been Bahlsen’s Grandessa, lebkuchen baked on a thin wafer base (oblaten) and covered in dark chocolate.

It never occurred to me until very recently that I should try to make my own lebkuchen. A little research and lots of recipe sifting lead me to a recipe that I thought resembled the cookies I have come to love. The ingredients that were universal to all the recipes were honey, cinnamon, candied citrus and hazelnuts. And because Grandessa is my favorite, I thought I would include dark chocolate and the oblaten base, which are difficult but not impossible to find (check local specialty stores or the internet). If you live in the Bay Area, the Pasta Shop in Berkeley is a great resource.

The cookies were quite good immediately after they were glazed, but they were even better after being stored for a few days in an airtight container with a small wedge of apple (or orange) as instructed by lebkuchen experts. What I ended up with was a cookie that was a bit more chewy and dense than the store bought version I am familiar with, but very similar in flavor. I think this is the beginning of a new holiday tradition. And I can’t wait to share with friends.

lebkuchen

makes 2-3 dozen cookies (depending on size)

adapted from allrecipes.com

1/2 cup honey

1/2 cup molasses

3/4 cup light brown sugar

1 large egg

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

2 3/4 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground cloves

1 teaspoon ground allspice

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/3 cup candied orange peel, finely chopped

1/3 cup chopped hazelnuts, finely chopped

1/3 cup apricot kernels or almonds, finely chopped (optional)

1 package of back oblaten (optional)

1 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup water

1/4 cup powdered sugar

10-12 oz. bittersweet chocolate chips

In a medium saucepan combine honey and molasses and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and add brown sugar, lemon juice and lemon zest. Let cool slightly and whisk in egg. In a large bowl, mix together flour, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves, allspice and nutmeg. Add the molasses mixture to the dry ingredients and mix till well combined. Stir in the chopped nuts and candied orange. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper or silicone mats. If you are using the back oblaten, lay the wafers down to cover as much of the pan area as possible. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and divide in half. Roll one portion of the chilled dough on a floured surface to 1/4 inch thickness. Transfer dough to prepared cookie sheet. Repeat with remaining dough.

Bake for 10 – 12 minutes, rotating pans halfway through baking time, until no imprint remains when touched lightly. Remove cookies from oven and cut into squares or diamonds with a large knife. While still warm, brush the tops off cookies with icing. Transfer cookies to racks and cool completely.

To make the icing: Combine the water and sugar in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil until sugar reaches 240°F. Remove from heat and stir in powdered sugar. If icing becomes too thick while brushing the cookies add a little hot water to dissolve crystals.

Melt the chocolate in a bowl placed over a pan of simmering water. Take cooled cookie and place in the melted chocolate face down and coat evenly. Remove from chocolate and let set on a wire rack. When chocolate has hardened, transfer to an airtight container with a piece of apple or orange and store in a cool, dry place for a few days.  Check the fruit frequently to ensure it has not spoiled.


meyer lemon cream tart

My love for all things lemon dates back to when my Grandma was the chief baker in the family. Almost every get together ended with one of her fantastic cakes or pies, my all-time favorite being her lemon pie, which was topped with lightly sweetened whipped cream rather than meringue. Though she has since stepped down from her baking post, I still fantasize about Grandma’s lemon pie and have never really cared for any of the other lemon pies I’ve tried over the years. That is, until I discovered Tartine.

If you live in or near San Francisco, you’ve likely been to Tartine Bakery and have fallen in love. What’s not to love about their buttery croissants (especially the ham and cheese), selection of quiches and their to die for pastries? Naturally, one of my favorites is their lemon cream tart, which manages to be silky and decadent but not at all overwhelming. It is perfection.

I added the Tartine cookbook to my collection a few months back and have had the lemon cream tart bookmarked, waiting for an excuse to recreate it in my own kitchen. This past weekend I was finally presented with that opportunity and had planned to make the tart for a holiday party hosted by my dear friend/favorite hairstylist. But alas, things went awry in the kitchen that day (two crusts destroyed!) and I was forced to leave my dessert behind. Being that I had already prepared the lemon cream filling, I resumed my crust making the following day and was victorious. The tart was just as it is at the bakery… c’est magnifique!

meyer lemon cream tart

makes one 9 inch tart

adapted from Tartine

Pâte Sablée (sweet tart dough)

1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, room temperature

1/2 cup sugar

pinch of salt

1 large egg, room temperature

1 3/4 cup all purpose flour

Combine the sugar, salt and butter in the bowl of a stand mixer affixed with paddle attachment and beat until smooth.  Add the egg and mix until smooth. Add the flour and mix until just combined. Divide the dough into two balls and flatten each into a disk. Wrap in plastic and chill for at least two hours before use.

Lemon Cream

1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons Meyer lemon juice (any fresh lemon juice will suffice)

3 large eggs

1 large egg yolk

3/4 cup sugar

pinch of salt

1 cup unsalted butter, cool and cut into 1 tablespoon pieces

In a non-reactive bowl combine the lemon juice, eggs, egg yolk, sugar and salt over a saucepan of simmering water. Whisk constantly until the mixture becomes very thick and pale and registers 180°F on a thermometer. Remove from heat and let cool to 140°F. Using an immersion blender or countertop blender, add the butter one piece at a time and blend until each piece is fully incorporated before adding the next.

1 cup heavy cream

2 teaspoons sugar

candied lemon zest for garnish (optional)

Preheat the oven to 325°F. Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface until 1/8 inch thick. Cut out a circle that is 2 inches larger than your pan. Carefully transfer the dough to the pan and gently press into place. Be careful not to stretch the dough or it will shrink while baking. Trim the excess dough with a sharp knife or scissors and place pastry shell in the refrigerator until firm, about 20 minutes. Dock the bottom of the tart shell with a fork and place in the oven. Bake until golden brown, about 12-20 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.

When tart shell is completely cooled, pour lemon cream into shell and shake gently to smooth the filling. Chill before serving, about two hours or until cream is firm.

In a mixing bowl, whisk the heavy cream until thick. Add the sugar until soft peaks form. Top the tart with whipped cream and garnish with candied lemon zest.  Serve chilled.

Tart dough mishaps… to avoid this do not stretch dough when forming tart. And don’t attempt to use pie weights without first lining your tart with foil or parchment paper. woops!

brussels sprouts gratin

After a super-gluttonous Thanksgiving feast including turkey, ham, prime rib, countless sides and I don’t know how many desserts, I feel the need to eat veggies. And only veggies for a long, long time.  I managed to get my hands on a stalk of brussels sprouts during a recent run to Berkeley Bowl, produce mecca of the SF East Bay. I find the presentation of brussels on the stalk so impressive, and it might just be my imagination, but I swear they taste better too.

I know that some people are probably cringing at the thought of brussels sprouts because they’ve been scarred by the bad experiences of their youth, such as my father, who to this day insists that they are the only vegetable he does not like. Because I think brussels sprouts are really tasty, I feel inclined to clear them of their bad rap. I’ll be the first to admit that at their worst (i.e. undercooked) brussels are terribly hard and bitter. When cooked properly, however, they are full of flavor and have great texture.

While I love the simple preparation of roasted or sauteed brussels sprouts, I knew they would be even more glorious gratineed, because everything is better with a little cream and a crusty golden top, no? Needless to say, this Alice Waters recipe was so delish I practically licked my plate clean.

brussels sprouts gratin

adapted from Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food

1 pound brussels sprouts

3 slices bacon or 3 slices pancetta

1/2 cup half-and-half or a combination of half-and-half and heavy cream (my choice)

2/3 cup fresh bread crumbs

1 tablespoon butter plus extra for dish

1 clove garlic, chopped

1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme

salt

fresh ground pepper

To make the breadcrumbs:

Preheat oven to 350°F. Remove crust from day old levain or country style bread and cut into cubes.  Grind in a blender or food processor until coarse. Toss with pinch of salt and olive oil (recommended 1 tablespoon oil for every cup of bread crumbs). Spread crumbs on a baking sheet in a thin layer. Bake until golden brown, stirring every few minutes for even browning.

Butter a gratin or baking dish and set aside. Preheat oven to 400°F. Trim the stems and remove the outer leaves from the brussels sprouts. Cook in salted boiling water until tender, about 10 minutes. Drain well and coarsely chop.

Cut bacon into half inch pieces and cook in a heavy pan over medium heat until just rendered and limp. Add the garlic and thyme and stir until fragrant. Add chopped sprouts and season with salt and pepper. Cook until brussels are well coated. Transfer to buttered baking dish and spread evenly. Pour half-and-half over sprouts and sprinkle breadcrumbs evenly over the mixture. Scatter thin shavings of butter on top of breadcrumbs. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until golden and bubbling. Serve immediately.