pretzel toffee with chocolate and almonds

pretzel toffee with chocolate and almonds

I’m sorry. I know you’ve probably reached your threshold for holiday sweets at this point. But I feel like I would be doing you a huge disservice if I didn’t share this with you.

pretzels

You might already be familiar with cracker toffee. I’ve been making it every year since I first encountered it here. Crackers (saltines or matzo), swimming in brown sugar toffee and topped with dark chocolate, toasted almonds, and sea salt – it is dangerously addictive. I make at least one batch of cracker toffee every holiday season because people love the stuff. It’s the right thing to do.

chocolate and pretzels

I brought the matzo toffee to a Secret Santa party last week and the entire tin was empty by the end of the day, which is always the sign of a winning treat. Even though I’ve had it a million times, I had to try a piece (quality testing). As I munched, I started thinking about pretzels. I’ve had pretzels on the brain the past few months, and have been meaning to make a toffee covered pretzel of some sort. And then I realized that the matzo could very easily be swapped out for pretzels.

pretzel toffee with chocolate and almonds

So that’s exactly what I did a few days later. I picked up a bag of pretzel sticks and went to town. I decided that cellophane bags filled with hunks of pretzel toffee were going to be a nice little surprise for the peeps this year. I packed up most of it, but made sure to save a few pieces for myself. Salty, sweet, crunchy, nutty, chocolatey – all the bases are covered. Just do it.

pretzel toffee in bags

pretzel toffee with chocolate and almonds 

adapted from smitten kitchen

makes one 11×17-inch sheet of toffee

1/2 pound pretzel sticks 

1 cup (2 sticks or 8 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into a few large pieces

1 cup packed light brown sugar

a big pinch of sea salt

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2 cups semi- or bittersweet chocolate chips (or a combination of both)

1 cup sliced almonds, toasted

extra sea salt for sprinkling (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line an 11-by-17-inch baking sheet completely with foil, and then line the base of the foil with parchment paper, cut to fit.

Line the bottom of the baking sheet with pretzel sticks, covering as much of the pan as possible.

In a medium heavy-duty saucepan, melt the butter and brown sugar together, and stir it over medium heat until it begins to boil. Once it has begun boiling, let it bubble for three more minutes, stirring it well. It will thicken a bit as it cooks. Remove from the heat and add the salt and vanilla, and then quickly pour it over the pretzels. You’ll want to spread it quickly, as it will begin to set as soon as it is poured.

Bake the caramel-covered pretzels for 15 minutes, watching carefully as it will bubble and the corners might darken too quickly and/or burn. You can reduce the heat if you see this happening.

Remove from oven and immediately cover with chocolate chips. Let stand five minutes, and then spread them evenly across the caramel. An offset spatula works great here. If you’re using them, sprinkle the chocolate with toasted almonds and/or sea salt.

Once completely cool, break it into pieces and store in an airtight container.

best of (a holiday round-up)

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Season’s Greetings! It’s really happening. Since I’ve adopted the tradition of giving mostly food gifts, my kitchen becomes a factory of sorts this time of year. While I really love to do a little bit of experimenting during the holidays, I have a few go-to treats that I can’t do without. Here are a few of my favorites. If you’re looking for some last minute gift ideas, this is for you.

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granola – I’ve heard that this granola has become somewhat legendary in certain circles. People tell me that it’s become their favorite and that they’ve passed the recipe on to others, which makes me incredibly happy. Granola is surprisingly easy to make and totally customizable – add whatever seeds or nuts or dried fruit you like. I love this granola mixed in with a big dollop of plain Greek yogurt. And if you put it in a Mason jar and tie it with some pretty ribbon or fancy twine, you’ve got yourself the perfect gift.

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vanilla marshmallows – The first time I made these marshmallows, I was shocked by how insanely good a plain marshmallow could be. These are perfection. Pair them with a tin of hot cocoa, or some graham crackers and a bar of dark chocolate and you’re all set.

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fleur de sel caramels – I could not let a holiday season pass without whipping up at least one batch of these caramels. Rich, chewy caramels topped with a sprinkle of fleur de sel – need I say more? I know a handful of people who look forward to seeing these caramels every Christmas, and I can’t say that I blame them.

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quince jam – My obsession with quince is relentless. Every Christmas, I make some sort of quince treat; whether it’s membrillo or jam or jelly, I just love this stuff. Since quince pairs really nicely with cheese, I like to give jars of quince jam with a wedge of Manchego. It’s the perfect gift for the foodie(s) in your life.

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rugelach – Rugelach is one of my all-time favorites. These little crescent-shape pastries are one of those treats that really get me going, especially because they’re not super easy to come by in these parts. A tin of ruggies is such a treat. Your friends and family will be impressed.

I know we’re nearing the big day, but I might have one or two new goodies to share with you before then. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that I get everything done over here. In the meantime, I hope you’re getting all of your holiday shopping and/or treat-making taken care of and enjoying these days with loved ones. I’m hoping to sneak in a little down time – I’m so ready for some warm, spiced apple cider (with a nice big splash of bourbon). Happy Holidays, my dears!

 

candied orange peel and orangettes

As promised, a recipe for candied orange peel to go along with that pumpkin layer cake.

If you’re a citrus person, you will love candied orange peel. It’s the grown-up version of Orange Slices, the orange-shaped gummies that you find at gas stations and the candy aisle of Walgreen’s. Real candied orange is a little less sugary and just a touch bitter with a pure orange flavor.

In my opinion, homemade candied orange is far superior to what you’ll find in most stores. And it’s easy to make with the help of a candy thermometer. And a little bit of patience.

Speaking of candy thermometers, I’ve graduated to the world of digital candy thermometers. I broke two glass thermometers this past year, so I figured I would go digital. I chose this one based on its ability to read a broad range of temperatures, which makes it perfect for tempering chocolate, deep frying, and candy making.

I absolutely loved the candied orange on the pumpkin layer cake, but I think it would also be a really lovely served with a chocolate cake, or maybe even a custard or pudding. It adds a nice contrasting texture and citrusy brightness. And the sugar coated orange is very pretty when sliced thin. You might also consider dipping them in melted dark chocolate for orangettes. Totally addictive. And the perfect late afternoon pick-me-up or after dinner treat.

candied orange peel

adapted from foodnetwork.com

makes about 1/2 cup peels

2 thick skinned Valencia or navel oranges

2-1/4 cups sugar + 1/2 cup for rolling

3/4 cup water

Cut tops and bottoms off of the orange and score the orange into quarters, cutting down only into the peel and not into the fruit. Peel the skin and pith of the orange in large pieces, use the orange for another recipe. Cut the peel into strips about 1/4-inch wide. Put the orange peel in a large saucepan with cold water to cover, bring to a boil over high heat. Then pour off the water. Repeat 2 more times. Remove the orange peels from the pan.

Whisk the sugar with 3/4 cup water. Bring to a simmer and cook for 8 to 9 minutes. If using a candy thermometer, it will be at the soft thread stage, 230-234° F. Add the peels and simmer gently, reducing heat to retain a simmer. Cook until the peels get translucent, about 45 minutes. Resist the urge to stir the peels or you may introduce sugar crystals into the syrup. If necessary, swirl the pan to move the peels around. Remove peels from syrup and transfer to a plate of sugar (save the syrup for ice tea). Roll the peels in sugar and dry on a rack for 2-4 hours. Return to the sugar to store.

orangettes

1/2 cup candied orange peels

4 ounces dark chocolate, chopped ( I like 70%)

Prepare a parchment lined baking sheet and set aside.

Place 2/3 of the chopped chocolate in a heat-proof bowl. Place over a pan of simmering water and stir often, making sure not to let any steam or moisture come in contact with the chocolate. Continue until chocolate is completely melted and has reached a temperature of 110-120°F. Remove from heat and add the reserved chocolate and stir until it cools to 90°F.

Dip candied orange 2/3 into melted chocolate and let the excess drip back into the bowl. Place the dipped peel on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining peels. Leave dipped peels on the lined baking sheet until the chocolate has set. Carefully remove the peels from the parchment and transfer to an airtight container.

pink popcorn balls

Halloween is less than a week away and I’m without a costume. I have serious love for Halloween, so not having a costume (or plans) makes me feel like I’m dying inside.

I did manage to buy six – yes, six pairs of false eyelashes from the craft store last weekend. So if nothing else, there will be crazy eyelashes this Halloween. And popcorn balls. Make that pink popcorn balls.

One of my favorite childhood treats was Wright’s Pink Popcorn, the sweet, slightly stale bar of popcorn sold at zoos and amusement parks in and around the Bay Area. My mom would buy it for us at Fairyland when we were kids, so I associate youth and good times with pink popcorn.

I’d been thinking about pink popcorn for a few weeks and decided that I had to do something about it. I hadn’t made popcorn balls in over ten years, and the idea of pink popcorn balls put a smile on my face. Freshly popped stove-top popcorn lightly coated in a sugary syrup with a hint of vanilla and sea salt is my kind of party. The pink is optional, but so much fun. This one is definitely for the kids, big and small.

pink popcorn balls

adapted from karosyrup.com

makes 12 balls

16 cups popped, unsalted popcorn (2/3 cup kernels)

non-stick cooking spray

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup light corn syrup

1/4 cup butter

1 teaspoon sea salt (I used Maldon)

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 or 2 drops pink or red food coloring

Spray a large mixing bowl with non-stick cooking spray. Pour the popped popcorn in the bowl and set aside.

Combine sugar,  corn syrup, butter, and salt in a small, heavy saucepan. Stirring constantly, bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat. Continue stirring and boil for 2 minutes.

Remove the sugar mixture from heat and add baking soda, vanilla, and food coloring, stirring, until desired color is reached.

Pour the hot syrup over the reserved popcorn; stir together with a wooden spoon until all the kernels have been well coated. Spray your hands with non-stick cooking spray. Working quickly, use your hands to form a 3-inch-diameter ball. Transfer the ball to parchment paper, and let cool completely. Repeat with remaining the popcorn mixture. Wrap individually in plastic wrap or store in an airtight container up to 2 days.

 

pecan and almond chocolate toffee

New York was more than fantastic. But before I share with you the highlights of my trip (which will happen after I sift through 800+ photos), I want to give you this toffee.

I made this toffee for Jon right before I left for New York in exchange for an ipod full of True Blood Season 3. I was hoping to catch up on my vampire soaps on the flight out. Sadly for me, things didn’t quite work out with my ipod. Which was actually fine because I was totally preoccupied with all of the in-flight music, tv and snacks courtesy of Virgin America.

And this toffee is pretty great, so all was not lost. It’s crunchy and buttery and studded with toasted pecans. It has a nice coat of chocolate and is dusted with a blanket of finely ground almonds. And it is extremely easy to make. I threw this together one morning before work and it took about an hour from start to finish. Not too shabby if you ask me.

This little number comes from the Baked cookbook, which has yet to let me down. Baked was on my list of must-eats in New York. But there were only so many days and only so much room for sweets in my belly, so I didn’t make it. But that just gives me another reason to get back out there.

pecan and almond chocolate toffee

adapted from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito

makes 1-1/2 pounds

1 cup sliced almonds

1 cup toasted pecans

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 cup sugar

5 ounces dark chocolate (60 to 72% cacao), coarsely chopped (I used bittersweet chocolate chips)

4 ounces milk chocolate, coarsely chopped (I used semi-sweet chocolate chips)

Butter a 9x13x2-inch glass or metal baking pan (do not use nonstic spray).

In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the almonds until they are a fine powder. Transfer to a small bowl and set aside. In the same food processor bowl, pulse the pecans for just 1 or 2 seconds, or until they are coarsely chopped. Set aside.

Put the butter in a medium pan over low heat. When the butter is halfway melted, add the sugar and 1 tablespoon water and cook overlow heat, stirring gently with a spatula until completely combined. Clip a candy thermometer onto the side of the pan, turn the heat up to medium-high, and wait for the mixture to reach 300 degrees F, about 15 minutes. If the browning of thr mixture seems uneven, swirl the pan while cooking, but do not stir.

Meanwhile, toss the chocolate together.

When the mixture reaches 300° F, remove the pan from the heat and remove the candy thermometer. Stir in the pecan pieces and pour the mixture into the prepared pan. After the mixture has evened out in the pan, wait 1 minute, then sprinkle the chocolate over the toffee. Wait about 3 minutes for the chocolate to melt, then use an offset spatula to spread the chocolate into an even layer. Sprinkle the almmond powder over the melted chocolate, then carefully put the whole pan in the freezer for about 30 minutes.

Remove the pan from the freezer and break the toffee into pieces with a sharp knife. Store the toffee in an airtight container, between layers of parchment. The toffee will keep for up to 5 days.

vanilla marshmallows

We’re back…

I really took it to heart when I heard someone say that this is the time of year for the Earth to rest. It’s not that I’ve actually done much resting, though I do like the idea of rest, but I have taken a bit of a break. Part of it had to do with my oven being out of commission. And I also burned out a little after all of those pies I made for Thanksgiving. But the holidays are officially here and I’ve been really anxious to get back in my kitchen.

Let’s talk about marshmallows. I like marshmallows. As an adult, I don’t typically find myself eating plain marshmallows. But when combined with other ingredients, marshmallows are one of my true loves. I love s’mores and rice krispy treats and scotch kisses and rocky road. These goodies would be nothing without marshmallow. After buying a package of fancy marshmallows at Whole Foods last year, I decided that I needed learn how to make my own.  And when I saw the marshmallow recipe in the Baked cookbook, I knew it was time.

Let me just say that eating a homemade marshmallow makes you feel like you’re eating a marshmallow for the first time. It’s like you’ve never had a marshmallow in your life prior to that moment, like those jet-puffed marshmallows you stuffed in your face as a child weren’t even marshmallows. Homemade marshmallows are soft, fluffy, and perfectly squishy and melty when you put them in your mouth. They make you say, ” OMG,” out loud, like it’s a reflex.

Making your own marshmallows is surprisingly easy, especially considering the payoff. The hardest part was waiting the six hours for them to set – I was dying to sample them! If you want to impress yourself and your loved ones this holiday season, make some marshmallows. I know I will. I can’t wait to distribute these bad boys. And I also can’t wait to throw one in a bowl of hot cocoa.

vanilla marshmallows

adapted from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito

makes 48 large marshmallows

vegetable shortening

12 sheets gelatin

2 cups sugar

1 cup light corn syrup, divided

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup sifted confectioners’ sugar, plus more for dusting

Grease a 9x13x2 inch pan with vegetable shortening. Set aside.

Fill a medium size heatproof bowl with very cold water and ice cubes. Place the gelatin sheets in the water and set aside.

Fill a medium saucepan halfway with water and place on the stove over medium-low heat.

In another medium saucepan, add the sugar, 1/2 cup corn syrup, and 1/2 cup of water and stir gently, making sure not to splash the ingredients onto the sides of the pan.  Put the saucepan over medium-high heat.

Put the remaining 1/2 cup corn syrup in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Set aside.

Check the temperature of the saucepan of water.  When the temperature reaches 220°F, drain the water from the gelatin and gently wring any excess water from the gelatin sheets. Place the bowl of gelatin over the saucepan of simmering water and stir until the gelatin is completely melted.  Remove the bowl from the pan.

Turn the mixer on low speed and slowly pour the melted gelatin into the corn syrup. Keep the mixer on low.

Place the candy thermometer in the saucepan with the sugar mixture. Bring the sugar mixture to the softball stage on the candy thermometer, 235-240°F. Remove the candy thermometer from the mixture and remove from the heat.  Turn the mixer to medium speed for 1 minute, then slowly pour the sugar mixture into the gelatin mixture. When all of the sugar mixture has been added, turn the mixer to medium-high and beat for about 5 minutes. The marshmallow mixture will begin to turn white and fluffy. Add the vanilla and salt and turn the mixer up to its highest setting for another minute.

Working very quickly, pour the marshmallow into the prepared pan. Use an offset spatula to spread the mixture evenly. Sprinkle with a bit of sifted confectioners sugar and let sit for at least 6 hours.

Run a knife around the edge of the pan to loosen the marshmallow and gently pull with your hands to remove. The marshmallow will come out in one large piece. Lay on a flat surface dusted with confectioners’ sugar.

Place 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar in a small bowl.

Using a chef’s knife, cut the marshmallows into a 6×8 grid. Roll each marshmallow in confectioners’ sugar. Keep in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

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.