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I’m nothing if not a project-lover. As if NaBloPomo weren’t enough, I decided at the beginning of November that this would be a great month to commit to working out.  I’m trying to exercise every day this month. Before you start cautioning me and advising Carlo to have me committed, no, I’m not running every day, or even lifting weights. I’ve got a wonderful yoga class once a week, and I count a good walk as exercise, and I’ve got a free month-long membership at the Y, so I can branch out a bit. I’m being smart about it. Yesterday, my plan was to go down to the Y and try out their yoga class, see if it was as good as my regular one.

Only… I decided I needed to make fudge. This urge was so strong, I couldn’t possibly wait until after the course. The sugar, the milk, the cream, and the cocoa were screaming to be tossed into a pot right now, and who am I to refuse? So instead of yoga, I made fudge. I wish I could direct you to the site that inspired me to do this, but alas, I can’t find it and can’t remember it.

Once my ingredients were simmering, and I was practicing patience and wielding my thermometer, waiting for soft ball stage (234-240 F), I started thinking– is fudge really worth skipping yoga for? If this particular fudge wasn’t spectacular, I was obviously going to feel guilty all afternoon. In self-defense, my mind started reeling through possible fudge-fudging possibilities, searching for something to add value to my candy. And then I remembered a chocolate bar that intrigued me recently: the Chocophilia Fleur de Sel chocolate bar that a fantastic local chocolatier, Kerstin’s Chocolates, makes. I thought about my fudge, and thought about how fudge is always so rich, and (if you do a good job, anyway), so smooth. And I thought, yes, salt in my fudge is a great idea. It would cut the richness of the fudge a little, add a bit of crunch to contrast the smoothness, and as we all know, a pinch of salt in sweets always ups the flavour.

My experiment was a success, the salt giving the fudge just an extra pop of flavour and a welcome bit of texture to what turned out to be a lovely, smooth confection. Of course, not just any salt will work for this. You really need a large-crystalled, pure-flavoured salt, something that won’t disappear into the fudge but will maintain its own character even swathed in chocolate (try fleur de sel or Maldon salt). And of course, you don’t need a lot. A little salt goes a long way. I used a little fleur de sel mixed into my fudge, but I found it had the most impact sprinkled on top.

I enjoyed my fudge, and then I went for a walk. Cooking and exercise. My projects are fulfilled.

Fleur de Sel Fudge
This recipe is easiest with a candy thermometer, but if you’re comfortable without, look for soft ball stage by dropping fudge into a glass of cold water. If it forms a soft ball, you’re ready to go.

1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup cocoa powder
2 Tbsp. butter
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. fleur de sel, divided

1. Grease an 8×8 square or 9-inch round cake pan with butter. Set aside.
2.Place milk, cream, sugar, and cocoa powder in a heavy-bottomed pot, and bring to a boil on medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. When the mixture is boiling, turn it down to medium to prevent it from boiling over. Monitor with a candy thermometer, stirring occasionally if necessary.
3. When mixture reaches soft ball stage, or 234-240 F, remove from heat and beat vigorously until the mixture has lost its glossy appearance. Stir in butter and vanilla, then gently stir in 1/2 tsp. fleur de sel.
4. Pour fudge into prepared cake pan, and sprinkle remaining fleur de sel on top. Leave to cool before cutting into small squares.

I’m having a hard time thinking of a way to write this without doing that strange anthropomorphizing the cookbook thing where I say something like “I’ve been spending a lot of time with Alice Waters lately,” and pretend that I’m hanging out in your kitchen with my new best friend Alice, trading tips and feeding each other and generally just being best buds. So, um… yeah, I’ve been spending a lot of time with Alice Waters lately.

Really, though, I’ve been dragging “The Art of Simple Food” around with me like a security blanket. When I go to bed, it’s there on my nightstand next to me. When I get up in the morning, I take it with me to the office (which is only 15 steps from the bedroom) to thumb through in slow moments. Today, we went to renew our passports, and I packed it in my backpack to come along to the passport office, then felt a little disappointed when I found out that our advance paperwork meant that we didn’t have to sit in a two-hour line. That would’ve been two hours with my new best friend! I’ve pretty much had it within arm’s reach at all times since it first came through our door. Like I said in my last post, I’m reading it cover-to-cover. I love this book! I think I’ll name it Red. That’ll get around the whole friends-with-the-author thing.

The Art of Simple Food is, in fact, one of those books that makes you feel that the writer is someone who knows you very well. Waters’ voice is authoritative and inspiring, with a clear instructional style that makes it hard to believe any of the recipes could possibly go wrong. And the recipes! They’re straightforward but exciting, and Waters offers variations on each theme in the 19 “lessons” she offers in the first half of the book, so that you feel comforted and supported by a strong backbone, but free to wiggle in your own direction too. I’m convinced that this book will be a classic.

Breaking my cover-to-cover reading a little bit, I flipped to the index last night to see if I could find a good use for a particularly beautiful vanilla bean. I found a nice simple vanilla custard recipe that I thought would marry well with a recipe from another great (albeit completely different– again, no wonder we identify with these people as friends) food writer– Nigella Lawson. She calls these cookies “Granny Boyd’s Biscuits.” The recipe is super-simple. It’s essentially shortbread with cocoa added to it.

These cookies’ crumbly texture and smoky cocoa flavour was a great match for the incredibly smooth vanilla custard. We tried the custard warm and cool, but my favorite was the cooled custard. The vanilla flavour was easier to detect, and I appreciated the velvety texture of it.

Thanks, friends!

ALICE WATERS’ VANILLA POTS DE CREME adapted from “The Art of Simple Food”

4 egg yolks
3/4 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup half-and-half
1/4 cup sugar
1 two-inch piece of vanilla bean
4 custard cups or ramekins

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Whisk the egg yolks together in a medium bowl. Pour the heavy cream into another medium bowl.

Put the half-and-half and sugar into a small pot. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with the back of a knife. Add the seeds and pod to the half-and-half. Put this pan over medium heat and warm it until it begins to steam. Do not bring it to a boil.

Remove the half-and-half mixture from the heat and whisk it into the egg yolks in a slow stream. Strain the yolk/cream mixture into the bowl of heavy cream, and discard or set aside the vanilla pod (Waters notes that at this point the custard can be refrigerated for up to 2 days. I would also like to note that you can rinse and dry the vanilla pod and use it to grind up with your coffee or put in a jar with some sugar to make vanilla sugar).

Pour the mixture into 4 custard cups or ramekins. Put the cups into a deep pan and pour hot water into the pan until it comes about halfway up the sides of the cups. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and seal it well. Bake the custards for 25 to 30 minutes. You’ll know they’re done when the edges are firm but the middle is still a little wiggly.

Remove the custards from their pan and cool them. You can eat them warm or put them in the fridge to eat cold later.

COCOA SHORTBREAD COOKIES adapted from “How to be a Domestic Goddess”

2 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
3 Tbsp. cocoa powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup softened unsalted butter
1/2 cup sugar

Preheat the oven to 325 F.

Stir together the flour, baking powder, cocoa and salt in a medium bowl. Set the bowl aside.

In a larger bowl, cream the butter and sugar together. When they are pale and fluffy, stir in the dry ingredients. This part takes a bit of patience. It will appear that the mixture needs more liquid, but just keep mixing, it will come together into a dough. I used my hands a bit, because I got impatient.

Roll the cookies into balls (about the size of a walnut) and place them on a greased or parchment-lined baking sheet. Press them down with the back of a fork.

Bake the cookies at 325 F for five minutes, then turn the heat down to 300 F for the last 10-15 minutes. The cookies are done when they are firm but not hard on top. Make sure not to bake them too long or they’ll turn into mini hockey pucks as they cool and harden. When the cookies come out of the oven, transfer them to a wire rack to cool. They’re probably best consumed cool, but I bet they’d be great still warm and crumbly with a cooled custard.

COOKING NOTES:

-I used bread loaf tins to hold the water bath for the custard. One was metal and one was glass. The glass cooked the custards much more evenly and they came out smoother.
-I halved the cookie recipe with no problem. Also, the original recipe calls for self-rising flour. As I don’t have it, I just added baking powder and salt and made one cup of flour slightly scant. If you do have self-rising flour, you can use that instead and omit the salt and baking powder.

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