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Here we are at the end of another month and posting another Daring Bakers Challenge. It’s the first time that I haven’t procrastinated on doing the challenge, but I’d never let that stop me from posting late. It’s still February 28 for a couple more hours, though, so here you go!

The February 2009 challenge is hosted by Wendy of WMPE’s blog and Dharm of Dad ~ Baker & Chef.
We have chosen a Chocolate Valentino cake by Chef Wan; a Vanilla Ice Cream recipe from Dharm and a Vanilla Ice Cream recipe from Wendy as the challenge.

We served this cake as dessert at a semi-impromptu dinner party we hosted last weekend (more on that tomorrow). While we’re on the theme of lateness, I will admit to you that we served this cake at midnight (gulp) because I didn’t start making it until after dinner. It did, however, come together very quickly, and it’s totally possible to throw this together at the last minute.

I used Green and Black’s Maya Gold chocolate for the cake, pairing it with a David Lebovitz-recipe coffee ice cream. The ice cream was fantastic (it’s Carlo’s favourite). The cake tasted like– well, it had 4 and a half chocolate bars in it. It tasted like chocolate. Carlo and I found the cake to be a bit too heavy and rich for our tastes, but then we’re not big cake fans, period. Our guests went back for seconds, though, so I think that means it was a success!

Thanks to Tony for taking the cake photo. Considering that it was taken at midnight (=NO LIGHT), I think it looks pretty great.

If you’d like the recipe, check out Wendy or Dharm’s blogs (links above).

I’ve been so busy lately that I haven’t even had time to get my usual winter blahs. Maybe they’re still coming, but I don’t know. I don’t know much of anything anymore, not having any time to stop and think.

But there. Complaining over. After all, I’m at home today on a beautiful sunny afternoon, trying to enjoy sitting around. One of the side effects I’ve noticed of being super-busy is monkey mind. It’s a Buddhist term that I learned from reading Nathalie Goldberg, who used it to talk about that restlessness of mind that makes it difficult to slow down, concentrate, and write. Well, in case you can’t tell by the previous awkward sentences, I am having difficulty with that writing part. But beyond that I’ve gotten so used to running around that I’m having a hard time staying put at home and just appreciating my leisure time. I keep looking around for something to clean, something to panic about, something to put on my to-do list. When I find something, I do it halfway and then get distracted by another thing that I really should be doing instead.

I thought I’d pin myself down at home for a while by focusing on  monkey bread. This is a long overdue recipe preparation, as it’s from a blog I was paired with a long time ago for a taste & create event: The Vegetarian Hausfrau. She writes twice a week from Germany, and her site offers many wonderful, healthful recipes,  so of course when I was browsing through it, I got fixated on something unhealthy. Monkey bread has sweet dough, slathered in butter and heavily layered with sugar and cinnamon. Just what I need to calm (or, um, sedate) my monkey mind.

This is a lovely old-fashioned recipe that’s easy to assemble. The only time-consuming part is the rolling of little dough balls, which must then be dunked in melted butter then coated in a sugar/cinnamon mixture. It’s like mini cinnamon rolls when it’s baked. And it’s so good that my monkey hands couldn’t resist pulling pieces out to put in my monkey mouth before I even finished photographing. Take that, monkey mind! Thanks to The Vegetarian Hausfrau for a great recipe!

Now that the celebrations (and thus the expectations) are over, I can tell you that I love New Year’s. Sure, I understand that it’s a totally arbitrary celebration, that the difference between December 31 and January 1 is nonexistent, that all those ambitious resolutions we make are a little bit silly, and getting blotto just because one day turns into another one is stupid.

Minus the getting too drunk to think part (which is never a good idea), though, I don’t think the ritual is dumb at all. Okay, so it’s arbitrary and it fakes a pattern onto what is essentially randomness. But that’s our whole lives, isn’t it? I love how people  make order out of chaos, I love that people make the effort to mark the passage of time, I love the ambition and hope of resolutions. Even if they’re unattainable, they’re sweet, don’t you think? I (or you, or that armchair explorer who decides this is the year he’ll run a marathon) love believing that I can fix the things that are wrong, that I can wipe the slate, start something new, be better faster stronger.

So Carlo and I had a good New Year celebration, just the two of us at home, and I made him talk about 2008 and all the good things that happened/we did during the year, and we made some plans for the next year too (a lot of them blog- and food-related–hold on to your hats!). And I decided that the ritual needed some tradition, so we ate 12 grapes at midnight. Arbitrary choice, yes, but I made it mostly because I had a recipe I wanted to use. It’s all random anyway, so who cares if it’s not our tradition? The act matters less than its symbolism. Plus I really wanted to make these grapes.

Of course, because I am who I am, these were no ordinary grapes. This is a recipe from Michel Richard’s “Happy in the Kitchen,” a whimsical book with lovely ideas. Richard says  that when you offer these grapes to people, they invariably say “‘No thanks, I’m full already,’ no doubt thinking that you are presenting a dense chocolate bonbon. Then, when they bite in and get a juicy, tart squirt of flavour, they always reach for another.” Sounds perfect, right? This description is right on. The finished product looks like craggy little truffles, and the combination of the sweet juicy pop of grape and the smooth richness of dark chocolate is fantastic. It was a great first food for the new year, but don’t let the New Year stop you. Like any good resolution, these grapes shouldn’t be tied to a particular moment. They’re so easy to make and so charming, I think you should have them anytime at all! I know I’ll be eating more of them very, very soon.

Chocolate Grapes
Adapted from Michel Richard

1 pound cold firm seedless grapes, stemmed
4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate (I used 70%), melted and slightly cooled (Richard advises checking the temperature of the melted chocolate by touching it to your lip. If it feels the same temperature, it’s a good temperature to be used)
1 to 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

1. Rinse and dry the grapes well, then place them in a large bowl. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. Add the chocolate to the grapes a spoonful at a time, tossing the grapes to coat them evenly (I used my spatula both for tossing the grapes and for adding the chocolate).
3. The chocolate will begin to set and harden a bit. When this happens, use a small fine-mesh strainer to sprinkle cocoa powder over the chocolate-coated grapes. Gently toss/stir the grapes so that they’re evenly covered in cocoa powder (be sure to do this step after the chocolate has sufficiently cooled, or else the cocoa will just be absorbed into the chocolate instead of coating it).
4. When the grapes are all coated and separated, remove them to your waiting baking sheet and place them in the fridge to cool until the chocolate is set. When you want to eat the grapes, leave them out to sit for about 10 minutes or so before you eat them, or else the chocolate is too cold and doesn’t taste as good.
5. A final note–the bowl you used for your grapes will be coated with cooled chocolate. Don’t waste it! I scraped it out and saved it to melt for hot chocolate.

One of my talents (if you can call it that) is my ability to synthesize. I notice things here and there, collect ideas all over the place, and then they marinate in my brain until two or three things connect and suddenly I have a new idea, argument, thought, or, in the case of the kitchen, recipe. Now, you can call this stealing, if you like. I prefer to think of it as borrowing, or on those days where I’m really full of myself, a really derivative form of genius. Okay, I’ll be the first to admit it, I’m not the most original thinker in the world.

Anyway. That idea-marinating is the source of these crispy, buttery, not-too-sweet, slightly herbal little cookies. I recently spotted a recipe for rosemary cookies at ellenfork. This idea popped into my mind when I was contemplating our indoor rosemary bush, which I’m trying to take advantage of now, before it dies (every year we try to winter our rosemary indoors, and every year it makes it to January before dying. I’m hoping for a change this year, but I’m not too hopeful). So, that’s the first bit.

As I contemplated rosemary cookies, I remembered a Laurie Colwin recipe for rosemary toasted walnuts that I made  (and Carlo loved) last year. When I was thinking about those walnuts, I remembered that Tim at Lottie + Doof recently posted a rosemary cashew recipe. Thinking about Tim reminded me of another recipe he posted recently, for walnut sandwich cookies. Thus: rosemary–>cookies–>nuts–>walnut cookies–>rosemary walnut cookies. A perfect recipe for cookies that, though they might be a bit derivative, are super- pleasant. Call me a genius, or call me a slightly boring thief. It’s up to you. Either way, I do suggest you try these. They’d make a lovely accompaniment to tea, or a nice simple addition to a holiday cookie platter.

Rosemary Walnut Butter Cookies
Adapted from “The Sweet Life” by Kate Zuckerman

1 cup walnuts
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary (to taste, or use 1 tsp. dried, crushed rosemary)
2 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
16 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg, at room temperature 

1. Combine the walnuts, rosemary, and 1 tablespoon of flour in the bowl of a food processor, and grind until the walnuts are a fine powder.
2. Combine the rest of the flour (2 1/2 cups minus 1 Tbsp), the salt, and the walnut powder in a small bowl. Set the bowl aside.
3. Cream the butter at medium speed with a paddle attachment in the bowl of a stand mixer. You can do this by hand as well, if you use some elbow grease.  Add the sugar and continue beating until the mixture is light and fluffy. Next, beat in the egg, mixing until the batter is smooth.
4. Add the dry ingredients to the wet, folding them together with a spatula. Mix slowly in the stand mixer or stir with a wooden spoon  until ingredients are combined. 
5. Scrape cookie dough into a piece of plastic wrap, wrapping it tightly and then pressing it into a 1-inch-thich rectangle. Refrigerate for at least two hours or overnight.
6. When you’re ready to bake, line baking sheets with parchment paper and preheat the oven to 350 F. Slice the chilled logs of dough into 1/8-1/4 inch thick squares and arrange them about a half inch apart on cookie sheets. 
7. Bake until the cookies smell toasty and they’re golden on the bottom, about 12 to 15 minutes. Allow the cookies to cool on the sheets. These cookies store well in an airtight container, and I have a feeling they’d freeze beautifully too.

I’m sure you’ve noticed that Christmas is coming– and fast. I’m also sure that you’re more organized than I am. You probably purchased all your Christmas gifts months ao, and you’ve got them stored in a box in the closet, wrapped and tagged and provided with thoughtfully written Christmas cards, full of love and good cheer. Me… well, I’ve been waiting. Now, less than two weeks from the day, I’m ready to start preparing. Thank goodness for internet shopping (to those of you who will be receiving gifts, please don’t take this as a sign that we don’t care. We very thoughtfully clicked on the “add to cart” button).

Now, though, the best part of preparation is upon us–the recipe reading, and the food choices, and the cooking, and the baking.  I hope you’re having a wonderful time thinking about Christmas eating, whether you’re planning to make what you always make or whether you’re branching out and trying new treats.

If you’re thinking of trying something new, the Supper in Stereo test kitchen has something wonderful to offer. I think this is a perfect dessert. First, it’s perfectly pretty and Christmassy, with the rich, cream-white of the meringue complemented by the regal magenta of the cranberry curd. Second, it’s a medley of textures. The meringue is crisp on the outiside, velvety smooth and slightly chewy in its middle; the cranberry curd accents the slight chewiness of perfectly baked meringue with smooth, chilly, perfection. And that’s before your tongue even starts registering flavour: you’ll taste sweetness with a hint of vanilla before the astringent, rich curd hits your tongue to offset the sugar rush. These disappear quickly, so light that you register only delicious without noticing that you’re already full from dinner.

I made a variety of meringue shapes for this– it worked well in a meringue pie crust, which I created by spreading a smooth layer of meringue into a greased and lightly floured pie tin. I was worried about the runniness of the curd for serving, so I actually popped the meringue pie, complete with curd, into the oven at 350 F for 10 minutes, to set the curd a little more. That worked great, and though the pie collapsed into shards a little when I cut into it, it held its shape well, and made for easy serving.

I also made mini-pavs with a top that popped off easily after cooking, so that I could hide a velvety surprise of curd in the meringue’s bellies. This was my favourite serving technique, pretty and individually sized, so you could even set out a bunch of these on a platter. They’d still need napkins, though, as they’re two or three bite treats. To make a top that comes off easily, I made a smooth round of meringue and than dollopped an extra pyramid of meringue on top. When I baked them, the meringues split slightly at the edges of the top dollop, which then pulled of really easily, leaving a curd-holding crater in the middle. Put some curd in, put the top back on, and you’re ready to go!

You could also just make smooth circles of meringue, making the edges slightly higher than the middle so they can hold a tablespoon or so of curd, like pretty costume jewellery. It’s up to you.

Cranberry Curd
I was pleased to find this recipe in Nigella Lawson’s “How to be a Domestic Goddess,” as when I had the original idea for cranberry curd, I thought I’d have to make my own recipe. I followed Nigella’s recipe exactly, and it turned out perfectly. I’m providing volume conversions, but can’t guarantee them as I followed the weight measures provided in the cookbook. The only other change I made was to scale the recipe for the size of the bag of cranberries I bought, which was 350 grams, unlike the 500 called for in the book.

350 grams cranberries, fresh or frozen (this is the size of a package of cranberries in my supermarket–probably about 3 cups)
140 mL water (1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon)
70 grams unsalted butter (5 tablespoons)
350 grams granulated sugar (1 1/3 cups)
4 large eggs
a food mill or, if you’re me, a fine-mesh strainer

1. Combine the cranberries and water in a saucepan, and cook over medium-low heat until the cranberries split open.
2. Push the cranberries through a fine-mesh strainer with the back of a wooden spoon, or if you’re lucky and have a food mill, pass them through that. Return the seedless puree to the saucepan.
3. Add the sugar and the butter, melting them into the puree at low heat.
4. Next, add the eggs, which you have beaten in a separate bowl. Make sure the sugared puree isn’t too hot, so you don’t cook the eggs on contact (it’s a good idea to remove the cranberries from the heat to cool slightly while you beat the eggs).
5. Cook slowly over low heat, stirring constantly. Do not allow the mixture to heat up too quickly, and never allow it to boil, or your eggs will curdle. Your curd is ready when it coats the back of a spoon. Cool slightly before transferring to jars to keep in the fridge. This recipe makes about 3 cups of curd.

Meringue for Pie Crust or Mini-Pavlovas
This is another Nigella Lawson recipe, for which I changed temperature and time settings slightly. My meringues didn’t come out perfectly white, so if you’re after that, go ahead and lower the temperature and lengthen the time in the oven (eg. 1 hour at 225 F, followed by several hours drying time). Other than those time considerations, this recipe is fantastic. The vinegar really makes a difference for texture, as does the cornstarch. I used the weight measurements, so I can vouch for those, but like above, I’m also providing volume conversions. This recipe made one pie crust and 18 good-sized (about 3 inches wide) meringues.

8 large egg whites
pinch of salt
500 grams granulated sugar (3 cups)
3 teaspoons cornstarch
1 scant teaspoon vanilla extract (optional– omit if you want snow-white meringues)
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar (white vinegar also works)

1.Preheat the oven to between 250-275 F. My oven runs a bit cold, so I went with 275. Remember you can go cooler and extend the cooking time if you wish. Prepare a pie pan by greasing and lightly flouring it if you are making a meringue pie crust. Line baking sheets with parchment paper for the mini-pavs.
2. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or with a hand-held mixer) whisk the egg whites until they hold peaks, but aren’t stiff.
3. Add the sugar by spoonfuls while you continue to beat. When the sugar is added, continue beating until the meringue is stiff, glossy. A good test is that a bit of meringue pressed between your fingers no longer feels grainy from the sugar.
4. Dust with cornstarch, and sprinkle the vanilla and vinegar over the meringue. Gently fold to combine.
5. For pie crust, gently spread a thin layer of meringue into the pan, building it up along the edges, taking care not to overlap the edges of the pan (remember it will puff slightly). For the meringues, use a spoon to smooth out 3-inch circles on the parchment paper.  If you’d like a cap that pulls off easily, dollop a bit of meringue on top of your smooth circles. The meringue should crack at the seams between the round bottom and pyramid top.
6. Bake for 45 minutes to an hour, then turn off heat, stick a wooden spoon in the oven door to hold it slightly ajar, and allow meringues to “dry” in the oven for several hours or even overnight.

TO ASSEMBLE CRANBERRY CURD PAVLOVAS

-to make a cranberry-meringue tart, spread curd about a centimetre deep in prepared meringue pie shell. Bake at 350 F for about 10 minutes to set the curd a bit more
-for capped meringues, gently pull or cut off the top of your meringues, dollop a few tablespoons of curd inside the belly of the meringue, and replace the cap
- for smoother buttons of meringue, spread a layer of curd over the top of the meringue, and top with a swirl of whipped cream, if desired

This month, the Daring Bakers took on a super-caramel cake, a recipe from Shuna Fish Lydon.that was originally published on Bay Area Bites.

I say super-caramel, because it really was. Caramel cake, caramel icing, and in my case, caramel drizzle. This cake was moist, and I think probably in my case, too dense. I’m not a cake-lover or a cake baker, and it seems that more often than not, my cakes are heavy. Why? I don’t know. I guess because I don’t adore cakes, I’m not putting the love into them that they deserve. They fall flat out of resentment. I did, however, adore the icing. With browned butter and dark caramel and a pinch of salt, the icing was rich, sweet and delicious. If it weren’t totally inappropriate, I could eat this icing straight out of a bowl. Of course, then I’d probably end up very, very sick.

This wasn’t my first time making caramel, so I didn’t have any problems with it, though I’ve ruined many a caramel to get to this point. What I love most about making it is the suspense– standing over the pot watching the sugar syrup boil in thick bubbles that look like alien eyeballs, and worrying as it gets darker and darker that I’ll wait too long, just a second too long, and I’ll end up with burnt muck instead of dark, rich, bittersweet syrup. I feel so accomplished when I don’t ruin it. I love any opportunity to make a caramel!

So, that’s my caramel cake report. The cake itself was nice but I probably won’t make it again. The icing… that I can’t wait to recreate. Maybe on top of carrot cake next time!

Thanks to Dolores at Chronicles of Culinary Curiousity and her co-hosts Alex of Blondie and Brownie,  Jenny of Foray into Food and gluten-free adapter Natalie of Gluten-a-Go-Go for a fun caramel-laden challenge. For the recipe, please see the above Bay Area Bites link. And if you want more caramel cake (I know you do!), check out the Daring Bakers Blogroll!

Carlo’s usually the video poster, but I thought this was a funny postscript to our cheese-making post. I found it while browsing around looking for cheddar recipes (so I can make cheese curds, so I can make poutine). This is definitely NOT how cheese is made. Carlo and I are big fans of these guys, Mitchell and Webb, star in a hilarious (vulgar) sitcom called Peep Show and this sketch comedy show (WARNING: some NSFW language).

After watching the above video this morning, I was browsing my feed reader and found this lemon and fresh cranberry scone recipe at Smitten Kitchen. That got me out of bed (yes, I browse in bed) and into the kitchen. I didn’t have a lemon in the fruit bowl (especially not my favourite meyer lemon, which Deb recommends–we obviously need to plan a trip to LA so we can raid my uncle and aunt’s tree), so I made lime-cranberry scones. I think the lack of lemon was a convenient circumstance, because I loved the slightly flowery lime aroma. The scones themselves were perfect, crisp at their edges and tender, almost meltingly so, at their heart. With or without cranberries (go with!), this is an excellent base recipe. Check out the above link to Smitten Kitchen to try it out yourself.

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.

Please excuse my groan-worthy title. I’ve got a pun/cliche theme going for this NaBloPoMo, so I’m hoping to make you roll your eyes every day for the next 26 days. Are you excited? I sure am.

If you’re not thrilled about puns, maybe you’ll be interested in a grape sorbet and almond cookie combination. I used the last of the huge pile of coronation grapes we bought at the market to make this sorbet. It’s delicious! The grapes are so flavourful, they don’t need any adulteration–just some sugar to sweeten them and keep the sorbet from getting icy. And this sorbet has a perfect, almost creamy texture that lasted for three days in the freezer without getting icy (maybe it would have lasted longer, but we ate it all up!). My theory is that it stayed smooth because these grapes had a lot of pectin in their skin. This is pure speculation, because I can’t figure out how to confirm it. Maybe there’s some other chemistry at work that I don’t understand.

Along with the grape sorbet, I served almond haystack cookies, a simple treat that complemented the sorbet very well. The almonds were rich, as opposed to the sorbet’s tartness, and just barely sweet. These little cookies are so tasty and low-fat, I’ve been thinking they’d be nice to have around as a little afternoon pick-me-up alternative to something like a granola bar, especially horrible, cloyingly sweet store-bought bars. Course, you’d really only be able to eat one at a time if you were thinking of your health. In any case, whether you rationalize them as health food or save them for the dessert platter, these simple, elegant, almond-vanilla flavoured cookies are so easy to make. Carlo actually found them too simple, so I was thinking that next time I might put a pinch of spice in when I mix up their egg coating. Or maybe just use brown sugar or panela instead of white sugar?

Grape Sorbet
Don’t try making this sorbet with ordinary table grapes. It won’t have enough flavour. I used Ontario Coronation grapes, which are very similar to Concords. I think I read somewhere that you can substitute high-quality grape juice if you haven’t got grapes at hand. If you try that, let me know. I’d love to know how it works! My sugar guidelines are approximate here. I like my sorbet tart, so I held back a little. But don’t hold back too much on the sugar–desserts taste less sweet when they’re frozen, AND sorbet needs sugar to keep it from getting icy.

4 lbs. purple grapes, stemmed
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup water

1. Put all ingredients into a pot and bring to a boil. Simmer, stirring and crushing occasionally, until the grapes are breaking up, about 10 minutes.
2. While the grapes are simmering, prepare an ice water bath by filling a large bowl with ice and placing a smaller stainless steel bowl over it.

3. Remove grape mixture from heat, and strain it into the stainless steel bowl with a fine-mesh or cheesecloth-line strainer. This might take a while. If it’s really thick, feel free to walk away and let the mixture strain itself, stirring and mashing it occasionally.
4. When mixture is strained, transfer it to the fridge to cool completely, at least a few hours or overnight.
5. Transfer grape sorbet base to your ice cream maker, and freeze until it’s the consistency of thickly whipped cream. Get that sorbet into the freezer quickly, and let it get solid for at least a couple hours before serving.

Almond Haystack Cookies
Adapted from Bonnie Stern’s Essentials of Home Cooking

2 egg whites
1/2 cup sugar (you could probably cut back on this a little, if you want)
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
3 cups slivered almonds

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Stir egg whites and sugar together in a large bowl. Don’t beat them. Stir in the vanilla and then the almonds, making sure the almonds are well-coated.
3. Drop teaspoonfuls of the almond mixture into small mounds on a parchment-lined baking sheet.
4. Bake for about 15 minutes, and then begin checking the colour of your cookies–they should turn golden brown. When baking is done (18-20 minutes), turn off the oven and open the door, leaving cookies in the oven for another 10 minutes.

Yes, I know Halloween is over. I don’t care. I think you should make these anyway.

When my sister-in-law asked us to help her make candy apples for a work bake sale, I said yes because she’s fun to be with, but I wasn’t exactly excited to eat candy apples. Frankly, every candy apple I’ve ever tasted has been unpleasant. Give me an apple, or give me candy, but the combination? I always figured there was no point in poisoning your tongue with gross candy just to get to a mushy, tasteless apple.

Oddly enough, though, making these gave me an incredible high of self-sufficiency. They’re so pretty, so charming, I had a hard time believing they came out of my kitchen. And, as it turns out, making candy apples at home ensures that the pretty-looks/gross-taste disconnect isn’t an issue.

We used nice crisp granny smith apples for the caramel ones, and the sweet buttery caramel perfectly complemented the apples’ tartness. Plus, the caramel was thick enough that you actually got a bit of it in every apple-bite.

For the shiny red candy apples, we crushed up some hard cinnamon candies to melt into the sugar mixture, so that the coating tasted like something other than sweet. This worked well, and I was pleasantly surprised at the candy coating. I was worried because I was sure the candy was too thick and it would be impossible to bite into, and Amy’s $3 bake sale apples would be a huge disaster, and everyone would ask for their money back and she would blame me and I’d be humiliated. Yes, I am neurotic.

But the candy coating was perfect. It was easy to bite through (easier than the caramel, actually. I may have left that one on the heat about 5 seconds too long), and it gave the impression that the apple had the most crisp, sweet, delicious skin imaginable. The cinnamon candies were a great addition too, as they added just a hint of extra flavour. It was too late by the time I thought of it, but I realized afterwards that instead of using cinnamon candies, it would have been brilliant to use vanilla sugar in the sugar syrup. Next time.

One more stroke of genius was our apple-washing technique. When I was researching recipes, I read that the standard waxy supermarket coating often prevents caramel from holding to the sides of the apple. People advised quickly bobbing apples in boiling water to remove at least some of the wax. Here’s my technique: I put my large pot, the one with a pasta insert, on to boil, and I lined the pasta insert with apples. When the water was boiling, I dropped in the pasta insert, giving the apples a 5-second bath without having to risk my fingers with pouring and dumping boiling water. Then I transferred the apples to an ice-water bath to make sure they wouldn’t cook (thus compromising their crunchiness) even the slightest bit.

Final conclusion: pretty, tasty, infinitely edible. Don’t save these home-made candy apples just for Halloween!

Caramel Apples
adapted from Martha Stewart

candy thermometer
10 sticks (popsicle sticks are fine, but skewers grouped in threes look quite elegant)
10 tart and crunchy apples (smaller is better)
2 cups heavy cream
2 cups white sugar
1/2 cup golden corn syrup
1/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp unsalted butter
pinch of salt

1. Line a baking sheet with wax or parchment paper, generously buttered. Make sure you’ve got room in your fridge for the baking sheet. Stick skewers or sticks in the apples.

2. Combine all ingredients in a large (the deeper the better) pot, and bring slowly to a boil. Allow the mixture to continue simmering until it reaches 245 F.

3. Remove the mixture from the pot and stir it vigorously to cool it down and stop its bubbling action. Working quickly, dip each apple in the caramel. We used a spoon to pull the caramel up from the pan around the sides of the apple. Transfer apple to baking sheet.

4. Place baking sheet in the refrigerator until the caramel is cooled and set, at least 15 minutes or overnight. If you have leftover caramel (we did!), pour the caramel onto a buttered piece of parchment paper or wax paper and allow it to set. Then consume it enthusiastically.

Shiny Candy-Coated Apples
adapted from All Recipes
One of the secrets of this recipe is not to stir the sugar syrup while it’s bubbling and heating. This is hard to do, but leave it alone! It doesn’t need you. Just keep an eye on the temperature, because it gets hot quickly. You also need to work fast to coat the apples once you’ve taken the syrup off the heat. It cools really quickly.

candy thermometer
10 sticks/skewers
10 red apples (find nice crunchy ones)
2 cups white sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
1 1/2 cups water
1/4 cup cinnamon hearts or cinnamon hard candies, crushed (I put them in a plastic bag and hit them with a meat pounder)
8 drops red food colouring

1. Generously butter a sheet pan. Don’t try using paper–it will probably end up sticking to the apples. Put skewers/sticks in apples.

2. Combine sugar, corn syrup, water, and cinnamon candies in a heavy-bottomed pot and heat at medium heat. I stirred mine to help the cinnamon candies dissolve, but I stopped stirring once the mixture was boiling. Continue cooking your sugar syrup until it reaches 300 F, then remove from heat.

3. Working quickly, dip and roll the apples in the candy mixture to coat. Use a spoon to pull syrup over spots you missed, if necessary. Place apple on prepared sheet to cool (this happens quickly).

PS. I can’t get my images to centre in wordpress. Anyone have any hints? fixed

PPS. We’ve decided to participate in NaBloPoMo again this month. Despite the slight crazy-makingness of it last year, it was a rewarding experience that got us in touch with a lot of great people. We’re looking forward to doing it again!

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