Triple Layer S'mores Brownies | Tara O'Brady + Seven Spoons

I have no intention of relying on phone photography here, but I am a bit in love with this shot. It wasn't my plan on sharing this recipe either, as snapping the pic was a spontaneous thing, and the recipe was a bit thrown together, in the aim to perfect a birthday wish. But we'll get to that. First, to explain.

My freezer storage is divided into three distinct, but unequal zones. The largest is ingredient storage. It's where I keep nuts and grains, plus seeds and cacao nibs, and things like wheat germ and bran. Flours and shredded coconut. There's fruit from the summer stacked in flat packs, and bananas black-ripe and ready for bread. Ginger root I grate while still rock hard, chiles, and lime leaves. I am rarely without frozen spinach and sweet peas.

The smallest category is full of odds and ends; ice cubes, egg whites, and parmesan rinds. A package of homemade puff pastry, unbaked streusel from when I made too much, discs of pie dough, and bones for stock.

Between the two are the prepared leftovers. There is enough tomato sauce for one pizza, cooked rice, some savoury hand pies, Julia's turkey meatballs, and cakes. A lot of cake. It's not just that the pace of our consumption rarely keeps up with the celebrations around here. It's also one of those rarely-discussed byproducts of recipe testing. The spoils are regularly parcelled for giving away, but a small stash is always kept behind. Right now, my inventory includes the thinnest slice of walnut cake from Divali, a quarter of a vanilla bean cheesecake, bagged muffins, a coffeecake that's a work in progress, and s'mores brownies.

Those brownies though, they're celebratory through and through. Benjamin turned 11 in January. He's all knees and elbows now, and has strong opinions. He's had a thing for s'mores for years, and this birthday wasn't any different. He asked for a repeat of last year, brownies with chocolate ganache and a seven-minute frosting to billow on top. When I've made s'mores cupcakes in the past, the inclusion of graham crackers added essential contrast against all the dense-chocolate-marshmallowyness going on. I like them as rebar in the ganache rather than rubble in the brownie itself. Somehow they make more of an impact that way. Toasting the grahams in the oven crisps them up, the process and effect amped up with a sugar syrup glaze. 

I use my own brownie recipe, but as it was included as a preorder inclusive for my book, I made the squares this week with another favourite, from King Arthur Flour. As advertised, their brownies exist ideally between squidge and cake. You can use my recipe, if you have it, or theirs, or your preferred. One thing I'll say though, is resist the urge to use an intensely fudgey one. When combined with the ganache and the meringue frosting, it is a combination that can careen into headache-inducing real quick.

The brownies are over the top. They bring out the childlike and exuberant, and are the antithesis of refined. They are unbridled and unrestrained, and remind me of the happiest days. Don't let the fact that there were leftovers steer you into thinking they went unloved. Sometimes, you want to make the good things last. And, as brownies never fully freeze, a skinny slice on a Monday midmorning with coffee, falls into that category. 

For the record, that was exactly what I was planning when I took the photo.

Have a great week, pals. xo

 

TRIPLE LAYER S'MORES BROWNIES

The brownie recipe is this recipe from King Arthur Flour, halved.  The marshmallow frosting owes it loft and stability to Stella Park's revolutionary Easy Swiss Meringue

Makes an 8-inch pan

FOR THE BROWNIE BASE

  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons | 55 g dutch process cocoa
  • 1/2 teaspoon medium grain kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon espresso powder
  • 2  teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup | 115 g unsalted butter
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons | 225 g sugar
  • 3/4 cup | 95 g all-purpose flour

FOR THE GRAHAM CRUNCH AND GANACHE

  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 8 graham crackers
  • 8 ounces | 225 g bittersweet chocolate, 70% cocoa solids
  • 1/4 teaspoon espresso powder, optional
  • A good pinch medium grain kosher salt
  • 2/3 cup | 160 ml heavy cream

FOR THE MARSHMALLOW FROSTING

  • 4 egg whites
  • 3/4 cup | 150 g granulated sugar, preferably toasted
  • Generous 1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • A good pinch medium grain kosher salt
  • Seeds scraped from a vanilla bean, or 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

METHOD

Make the brownies. Preheat an oven to 325°F | 165°C.

Lightly grease an 8-inch square baking tin, then line with a piece of parchment paper with a 1-inch overhang. Press the paper into the pan and then remove. Line the pan with another piece of parchment paper, then place the first piece, buttered side up, across. Set aside.

Crack the eggs into a bowl. Sift in the cocoa, baking powder, espresso powder, and salt. Add the vanilla. Beat for four minutes on medium speed (you can do this while melting the butter in the next step).

Place the remaining butter in a medium saucepan. Pour in the sugar. Heat over medium low, stirring, until the butter is melted. Continue to cook until the mixture is hot but not bubbling, maybe 1 minute more. It should go shinier as it heats. 

Stir the hot butter and sugar mixture into the beaten eggs until smooth. Sift the flour over top and mix it in. 

Spread the batter into the baking dish, nudging it to the edges as needed. Bake until the top begins to crack, 32 to 35 minutes or so. Cool on a wire rack.

While that bakes, make the graham crunch and ganache. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. In a small, heavy bottomed saucepan, dissolve the sugar into the water. Bring to a boil over medium heat then simmer for 5 minutes. Brush both sides of the graham crackers with the syrup then arrange on the prepared baking sheet (there will be syrup left over. Save it as a sweetener for coffee, oatmeal, or fruit). Bake the crackers until toasted, 8 to 10 minutes, flipping once. Set aside to cool then snap into pieces, some small, some large bite-sized.

Tumble the chopped chocolate, espresso powder, and salt in a large heatproof bowl. Heat the cream in a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Once steaming, pour the cream over the chocolate and let stand 5 minutes, undisturbed. After the time is up, stir until smooth, starting at the centre of the bowl and working outwards. Fold in the graham crunch. Pour the rubbled ganache over the brownies and spread to an even layer. Cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until set.

Finally, make the frosting. In the bowl of a stand mixer, stir together the egg whites, sugar, cream of tartar, and salt. Set the bowl over a saucepan of simmering water, making sure that the bowl has some clearance. Heat, stirring attentively and scraping down the sides of the bowl periodically with a silicone spatula, until the mixture reaches 175°F | 80°C on a candy thermometer, about 8 minutes. Transfer the whites to the stand mixer with the wire whisk attached. Beat, starting slow and increasing the speed steadily, until the mixer is on full. Whip until the stiff, glossy peaks form, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the vanilla.

Retrieve the brownies from the fridge. Spoon the frosting onto the ganache layer. Use an offset spatula or the back of a spoon to swoop and swirl it to your liking. Toast the frosting with a culinary torch or under a hot broiler—watching it all the while. Let cool and set, then use the cross of parchment to lift the brownies from the pan, then slice and serve. Extras can be refrigerated in their pan, loosely covered with cling film, for 2 days. Or, frozen until firm and then transferred to an airtight container for freezer storage up to a month. 

NOTE: 

When I worked at a theatre company in my teens, one season there was a play that opened with Geroge Gershwin's “Rhapsody in Blue”. I fell for it at first listen, somewhere in between the flirting tumble of notes at the beginning and the arcing rise up the scale before the clarinet cascades in a sigh. It was summer, and the play was a love story. A friend of mine had a breathless crush on the production's male lead. One afternoon, the power went out in the theatre, so the show continued by candlelight.

It was all pretty romantic. 

I'm keenly aware of how strange it sounds but when I was trying describe these apple cider caramels, namely caramels spiced with chai masala, strains of "Rhapsody in Blue" kept coming to mind.

Untitled

Before I lose you entirely, it might be best to try to lay out what we have here. The recipe starts with reduced apple cider, bulked up with sugars and swirled with butter and cream. Then things perk up with a combination of spices; cinnamon, cardamom, clove, and ginger, flinty with black pepper, which taste to me how that Gershwin tune sounds.

Caramel can oftentimes be flat, all sugary heaviness, a dud. These caramels lilt; they flicker and spark. There are highs and lows, deep sweetness, prickling warmth, fragrance and flavour that rolls and develops. They're romance and drama wrapped up in brown paper, and totally worthy of infatuation.

spiced soft caramels

They are soft caramels, not the kind that stick to your teeth and threaten to pull out your molars, but yieldingly-so; they stretch only the tiniest bit when bitten, then relax, supple and dense as you chew. 

We made them by the trayful for gifts this December, in both a straightforward cinnamon version and this fussed up one. They were so popular, I'll be making them into January as well. I am not one for candy, usually, but found it easy enough to make an exception in this case (this being my other). And speaking of ease, these are a cinch as far as candy making goes; some boiling and stirring, then pouring out. Just make sure to keep an eye on the bubbling pot towards the end — when it comes to temperature the caramel will be a smidge lighter in colour than these photographs show, as the shade deepens with the addition of the spices, and even further when the candy cools. 

apple cider caramels spiced with chai masala

And for that ease, you get something stunning. A candy that's interesting yet familiar, and altogether dreamy. Candlelight not required.

Happy new year.

APPLE CIDER CARAMELS WITH CHAI MASALA

Modified slightly from Deb Perelman and her book The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook (Appetite by Random House, 2012), rewritten by me, except as noted.

Cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, clove and black pepper are fairly standard for chai masala — the mixture used, as you might gather, to flavour masala chai. I think the assortment of spices brings further complexity to the caramels, and works nicely with the apple cider. And, as it's evocative of gingersnaps and gingerbread, the blend matches well with the echoes of the holiday season. While it's not traditional in masala chai, if so inclined, seeds scraped from 1/2 a fresh vanilla bean can be added to the spiced salt.

The original caramel recipe calls for cinnamon alone, so feel free to use 1/2 teaspoon of the ground stuff if that is your preference.

Deb says: Apple cider (sometimes called sweet or “soft” cider), as I’m referring to it here, is different from both apple juice and the hard, or alcoholic, fermented apple cider. It’s a fresh, unfiltered (it has sediment), raw apple juice — the juice literally pressed from fresh apples. It’s unpasteurized, and must be refrigerated, because it’s perishable. In the Northeast, I usually find it at farm stands and some grocery stores. I occasionally find vacuum- sealed bottles called apple cider in the juice aisle, but none of the bottled varieties that I’ve tried has the same delicate apple flavor as the more perishable stuff sold in the refrigerator section.

INGREDIENTS

  • 4 cups (945 ml) apple cider
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger 
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom 
  • A good pinch ground clove
  • A few turns of freshly-ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons flaky sea salt, less of a fine-grained one
  • 8 tablespoons (115 grams or 1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
  • 1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup (110 grams) packed light brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup (80 ml) heavy cream
  • Neutral oil for the knife


METHOD

Bring the apple cider to a boil in a large saucepan over high heat. Continue to boil, stirring occasionally, until transforms into a dark, thick syrup and is reduced to about 1/2-1/3 cup in volume, which should take around 35 to 40 minutes. 

Meanwhile, set out the other ingredients, as the candy comes together pretty quickly at the end. Line the bottom and sides of an 8-inch, straight-sided metal baking pan with a cross of parchment. Set aside. In a small bowl, stir together all the spices with the sea salt. 

Once the apple cider is reduced, remove it from the heat and quickly stir in the butter, sugars and heavy cream. Return the pot to medium-high heat and let it boil until a candy thermometer reads 252°F, about 5 minutes. 

Immediately remove the caramel from the heat. Add the spiced salt mixture, and give the caramel several stirs. Pour the caramel into the prepared pan and set it aside to cool; around 2 hours at room temperature, or faster in the fridge. Once the caramel is set, use the parchment paper sling to transfer the block of candy to a cutting board. With a well-oiled knife, cut the caramel into 1-by-1-inch squares. Place the cut pieces onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and place in the fridge for 10 minutes before wrapping. Once firmed up, wrap each in pieces of parchment or wax paper, twisting or folding closed. 

The caramels will be soft at room temperature, or can be kept firm in the fridge. They'll last about two weeks, either way. 

MAKES 64 candies. 

First photo taken from my Instagram. For those who asked about the recipe, this is for you. I hope you enjoy them. xo!

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peppermints

There was a lady I used to know who always kept candies in a bowl on her coffee table. My oldest nephew, who’s now 12 years old and almost as tall as I am, sometimes visited her with me - he was maybe three at the time? He’d toddle over to her knee, ask politely for a candy, and then, manners dispatched, gleefully help himself.

I think he thought her lovely, and possibly magic, as he should have - because she was a lovely person, and really an ever-full candy dish does seem a little magic, doesn’t it?

The candies on offer would change with the season; Hershey’s Kisses on Valentine’s Day, chocolate eggs at Easter, hard butterscotch rounds come Thanksgiving. In winter, the candies were often flavoured with mint. There would be swirled peppermints, soft-centred mints enrobed in chocolate, and hard mints with truffled fillings.   

Of all the minted variations, my favourite were these chocolates flavoured with peppermint through and through. They were blocky things, made at a local shop that’s now gone, and they came wrapped in foils the colour of jewels left out in the frost. They were mild - the chocolate wasn’t too bitter, the mint wasn't too sharp. They were gentle and beguiling, with a right hit of pep, much like our host.

I adored those chocolates. I adored them enough that the other night, after hours of driving in rain and gloom, I sought out some peppermint chocolates in the dusty corner of a dodgy shop and, with full knowledge they were not the right kind and were probably going to be comparatively horrid and would never be considered coffee-table-eligible, I bought them anyway. Then promptly ate three, ignoring their inferiority and happy for their existence because they unexpectedly reminded of her, and that was nice.

I even brought a modest stash of those terrible chocolates home and ashamedly nibbled my way through the supply in the days since. So maybe it’s time to break out a double-boiler and do things up right.

* * *

While Layered Peppermint Crunch Bark isn’t exactly the candy from memory, it is a darn swell substitute and far better than my sorry replacement of recent history. This triple-layer affair has texture and a retro appeal which those clunky, cubist darlings didn't, but it is similarly ideal for ice-capped days.

They are a cinch to make, a melt-and-spread routine of white and dark chocolates, alternated with crushed peppermint snowfalls worthy of Willy Wonka himself. If you have a few hours planned around the house (the chilling takes some time),  knocking together a batch of bars isn't too much by way of supplementary effort. If there's a group of you together, bulk batches are easily accommodated, and boom! Instant candy factory.

It is an old-ish recipe I’m handing over. One, in fact, published only a year before that nephew of mine was born. This recipe is one that's been already introduced and is deservedly well-loved, but I’ll stop short of apology for the encore - familiarity and a hint of kitch needn’t diminish enthusiasm. Therein lies the magic of traditions I think; they bear repeating. We talk about them over and over again, fall into their movements year after year, like the well-worn memory of an old friend who always kept her candy dish topped up.

Merry times to you.

LAYERED PEPPERMINT CRUNCH BARK

Slightly tweaked from Epicurious. This bark is surprisingly restrained; it isn't exceptionally sweet, and there's enough mint to redeem the waxy blandness of the white chocolate. (I've been known to pour the peppermint extract generously, approaching a full teaspoon in total.)

For the dark chocolate, I aim for the middle of the road and use mostly semisweet and some bittersweet if I have both on hand. The combination seems to be the most universally appealing, which is an asset if you're making these for gifts or a party. Use whichever suits your fancy or your audience. Since semisweet chocolate is quite a bit softer than bittersweet, in that case I cut the cream down to 4 1/2-5 tablespoons.

I have discovered that the red swirly peppermints called for are named "Starlight Mints" - could that be more charming? Pounding the pretties to an uneven dust affords the texture we like best. The tiny shards snap and the larger chunks crunch, but no piece is so large as to give any real resistance. 

30 red-and-white-striped hard peppermint candies, crushed fairly fine (about 6 ounces)

17 ounces good-quality white chocolate (such as Lindt or Baker's), finely chopped

A good pinch kosher salt

7 ounces bittersweet (not unsweetened) or semisweet chocolate, chopped

6 tablespoons whipping cream

3/4 teaspoon peppermint extract

Run the peppermints through a coarse sieve. Reserve the dust to one side, and keep the larger pieces in the sieve itself. 

Turn a large, sturdy baking sheet face side down. Cover securely with foil. Mark a 12x9-inch rectangle on the foil. Place the chopped white chocolate and kosher salt in a metal bowl over a saucepan of barely simmering water, never allowing the bottom of the bowl to touch the water. Stir until chocolate is melted and smooth, and registers 110°F on a candy thermometer. Remove the bowl from the water. Pour 2/3 cup of the melted white chocolate within border of the marked rectangle on foil. Using an offset spatula, spread chocolate to fill the rectangle. Mix some of the larger peppermint pieces into the dust to make up 1/3 cup. Sprinkle this over the white chocolate and chill until firm, about 15 minutes.

Stir the dark chocolate, cream and peppermint extract in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat until smooth. Cool to barely lukewarm, around 5 minutes. Pour the bittersweet chocolate mixture over the white chocolate rectangle. Using a clean offset spatula, spread the bittersweet chocolate to form an even layer. Chill until very cold and firm, around 25 minutes.

Rewarm the remaining white chocolate in bowl set over barely simmering water, again to 110°F. Working quickly, pour the white chocolate over the firm bittersweet chocolate layer, spreading with a clean offset spatula to cover. Immediately sprinkle with remaining crushed peppermints. Refrigerate until just firm, about 20 minutes.

Lift bark off the foil onto a large work surface, with a metal spatula as aid if needed. With a thin bladed knife, trim edges. Cut bark crosswise into 2-inch-wide lengths. Cut each strip crosswise into 3 sections and each section across into squares. 

Can be kept, in an airtight container in the refrigerator, for up to 2 weeks. Seperate layers with wax paper to keep candies from sticking. 

Serve straight from the fridge or allow to sit at room temperature for 10 minutes or so if a softer candy is preferred. For the record, if you stash some in the freezer and then bash it to smaller shards, it makes a fine topping to a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Makes 36 pieces.

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About four years ago, or one house and one baby ago to be precise, one of my dearest friends visited from overseas. Amongst the treasures she brought along there was glassine bag full of sweets in rose petal hues. Marshmallows. FromParis

Through my childhood I liked marshmallows well enough. Out of a package, sometimes fascinatingly elastic, sometimes with a faint leathered quality to their exterior if the bag was left open too long. Parisian marshmallows were a world apart from those. They were a confection in the truest sense; soft sponges, delicately sweet and pleasantly supple. I ate them plain, as they were, plucked from their packaging, pinched gently between two fingers and nibbled, daintily.

If I were the sort to swoon, I would have.

I haven't forgotten my declaration that you all deserve a treat. True to my word, and with that memory in mind, I'm here with marshmallows. They're as close to hers as I can muster, tender in the middle and ethereally fluffy. They seem to defy nature with their suspension of bubbles held in cloud-like stasis.

Marshmallows do have an amiable mystery, since they seem much more complex to make than they actually are. While there is the matter of working with gelatin and a candy thermometer, those aspects are footnotes to the method really, only taking few minutes of consideration. 

First you take the gelatin and let it soak in some water to until soft. Boil a sugar syrup on the stove until it reaches 240°F, called the "soft-ball stage" in candy making if you're into that sort of thing, and stir in the now-pliable gelatin. Pull out a stand mixer, whip up egg whites, then (carefully!) pour in the syrup. Leave the machine beat away until the batter is cool, thick and voluminous, then pour it all out into a prepared pan to set for a few hours. Once the timer dings, you turn out the pan, grab a knife, and behold! Marshmallows. 

As I believe that in the lifespan of a marshmallow that the highest honour is a blistering, fiery send off, I think it is best to start at the basic. And the basic is beguiling - vanilla. These are exceptionally, pronouncedly vanilla marshmallows. There is that flowered quality of the vanilla bean I think is at its best here, propped up in a way that shows its full breadth of attributes, marvelously positioned halfway between perfume and cream soda.

They can of course, be the subject of variation. Use cold espresso to start the gelatin off, add some cocoa powder and finely-ground espresso beans to the end of beating and you have a caffeinated, speckled version. They can be spiked with peppermint or burnished with ground cinnamon, sploshed with rose water and orange flower water to create the marshmallowed imagining of Turkish Delight - tinged a gentle pink with some food colouring to achieve their felicitous blush.

I imagine round-cheeked cherubs snacking upon those.

To end, while these marshmallows come along by way of my kitchen instead of the City of Light, if you would be so kind as to imagine them in crystalline bags with an elegant black bow and labelled en français, maybe you'll get the a glimpse of effect from those years ago. Fingers crossed you'll think they're swoony too.

toasted

FLUFFY VANILLA MARSHMALLOWS, TWO WAYS

The ingredients are fiddled from this recipe from Epicurious, but the method departs from theirs. In this version, the hot sugar syrup is poured directly into the egg whites as they are beaten, as is done with Italian meringue. A note on the egg whites: if you want an all-around marshmallow, good for toasting over a campfire let's say, use 2 egg whites. For a marshmallow destined for hot-cocoa greatness, one that melts evenly but slowly, use 3.  

INGREDIENTS

  • Nonstick cooking spray, for pan
  • 1/2 cup cornstarch
  • 1/2 cup confectioner's sugar
  • 1 cup water, divided
  • 3 packages unflavoured gelatin
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup light corn syrup
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2-3 egg whites, see above
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

METHOD

Spray the bottom and interior sides of a 9x13-inch metal baking pan with cooking spray. Sift together the cornstarch and confectioner's sugar in a small bowl, then dust an even layer of the mixture over the prepared pan, making sure to coat thoroughly. Set aside. Reserve the rest of the cornstarch and confectioner's sugar.

In a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over 1/2 cup of the water and allow to sit until softened and all the water is absorbed.

Meanwhile, in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the remaining 1/2 cup water, granulated sugar, corn syrup and salt. Stir using a wooden spoon, over medium low heat, until the sugar has dissolved, around 3-4 minutes. Bring the mixture to the boil over medium heat and cook, without stirring, until it reaches a temperature of 240°F (115°C) on a candy thermometer, around 10-12 minutes. Remove from heat and add the gelatin. Stir until dissolved.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. On medium speed, pour a thin, steady stream of the hot sugar syrup down the side of the bowl into the egg whites (if poured directly onto the beaters, the insanely hot syrup might splash). Slowly increase the speed to high and beat until the batter has nearly tripled in volume and has cooled to room temperature, around 12-15 minutes. Pour in vanilla and beat for about a minute more. Pour the marshmallow into the prepared pan, using an oiled offset spatula to smush into corners and smooth the top. Sift over another generous layer of the reserved cornstarch and confectioner's sugar mixture (you should still have lots left over). Let stand until set, at room temperature and uncovered, around 3 hours.

Onto a large board, sift some more of the cornstarch and confectioner's sugar. Run a thin knife around the edge of the marshmallows to release from the pan then invert onto the dusted work surface. Use an oiled knife or cutter to divide into your desired shapes. Coat these with a sifting of the last of the cornstarch and confectioner's sugar to keep them separate.

Store in an airtight container with parchment paper between layers, for up to one week.

Makes 1 9x13-inch pan.

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Canadian Thanksgiving was two weeks ago. It landed perfectly, squarely, on the start of a week that was particularly fine. On that day, my father carved the roast bird, my brother made a mushroom gravy for which I immediately begged the recipe, the house was full, and despite some autumn coughs nagging little ones, it felt a grand affair.

It felt like a herald. It felt like my favourite holiday of the year, which it is.

The next day, in that funny routine of the morning after, I puttered about the kitchen considering a bout of dietetic austerity to balance out the (glorious) feast of the night before. 

Fueling these virtuous ideas in my tired mind were immodest handfuls of candied pecans. It wasn't even nine o'clock in the morning and I was crunching my way through a jar in the pantry like a crazed chipmunk. Temperance has never been one of my strong points.

The nuts had been a late entry onto our celebratory menu. On a last-minute run to the market I'd decided additional provisions were required for guests to crunchily munch while we tasked ourselves with the preparation of the main event. I settled on pecan halves without a set inspiration; an unspecific thought of roasting and salting was about as far as I'd gone.

It was the abundance of herbs on the counter and a long-standing addiction that took the pecans further than that initial route - all the way to New York city, into a wardrobe of sugar and rosemary with the addition of thyme, and enough cayenne for some downtown sparkle. As an ensemble the combination hints at boskiness against an urban sensibility - a woolen dress paired with a bright red lip.

Now my first go I should tell you, as seems habit with me, was not a unmitigated success. The seasoning was bang on but I'd rushed the baking - the coating was ever so slightly sticky. Thank goodness for my family, kind souls they are, nobody complained. 

Being ever the fusspot I felt that stickiness had to be addressed. After the plates were cleared and the house had emptied, the remaining nuts went back onto a sheet pan and into the oven. Five more minutes tacked on to the baking. This time, once cooled, they snapped.

That's the trick for early autumn. The coat you wear won't be down or duffle, and the same is true for pecans on Thanksgiving. Their dressing was thin, a sheer, shining wrap, that caught, pleating and folding around the craggy profile of the nuts. Tailor-made garb for an October evening. 

Or an October morning as well, if we're keeping track.

ROSEMARY AND THYME CANDIED PECANS

With inspiration from the spiced nuts served at the Union Square Café in New York City. It will look as though there too much glaze as the nuts go in the oven - don't fret. As they bake the syrup will thicken and gather around the pecans. By the time they're done pan will be almost dry.

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • 2 tablespoons demerara sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoon finely minced fresh thyme
  • 3/4 teaspoon finely minced fresh rosemary
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
  • Scant 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon, optional
  • 1 teaspoon coarse salt
  • 1 pound pecan halves
  • Fleur de sel or other sea salt, to finish (optional)

METHOD

Preheat an oven to 375ºF (190ºC). Line a standard half sheet pan with parchment paper.

In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter with the maple syrup and Demerara. Once melted, remove from the heat and stir in the herbs, spices and salt. 

Toss the pecans with the butter mixture in a large bowl, making sure to coat well. Spread nuts in a single layer on the prepared pan.

Bake in the preheated oven, turning occasionally, until the nuts are glazed and shiny with a deep golden colour, around 12 to 15 minutes. Upon removing from the oven, sprinkle lightly with fleur de sel if using and stir again.

Cool completely, then store in an airtight container.

Makes 1 pound.  

*******

Thanks to Sheri for inviting me to be a part of the "On This Fall Day" series over at The Stir. I am so happy to be part. You can read my entry here if you'd like!

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Images of a long weekend. Signs of spring; candy-coloured chocolate eggs and blooming red shoes.

I have my own little ritual to start the day.

Most mornings we get up just before the sun rises; we make our way downstairs in the dim predawn, drawn like moths to the glowing red eye of the coffee maker. My husband and I will chat quietly with pajamaed little boys cheerfully groggy, (relatively) quietly content to keep Mummy and Daddy company around the kitchen table.

But the day is not started yet.

My day truly begins about two hours after I get up. After coffee and orange juice and breakfast, we make our way back upstairs. This is when the day begins, as I move from room to room, pulling back the blinds which have hidden the sun from view. The windows, now unencumbered, welcome the light as it streams in.

Why, hello there World.

This is the most energetic light of the day, clear and true. Even in the winter, I anticipate this moment of revelation, this ceremony of bringing the day into our home. Now that spring has thankfully arrived on our doorstep, the morning light is even more radiant, growing increasingly-golden as the days go by.

It is a light that renders everything new, every day full of possibility.

There is a newness to childhood that I had forgotten. So many things that we grow to take for granted is bran-spankin-brilliantly new to a little one. William is in the thick of it, crawling and standing and exploring the boundaries of this new world of discoveries. There is glee in the discovery of the ability to clap, wonder at the skill of rolling a ball, unabashed joy at knocking down a block tower.

While our Benjamin has been through first teeth, first steps, first words already, he's not done yet discovering, not by a long shot. He's just getting started.

At three years of age, he has entered the world of reason. He asks questions. A lot of questions.

"Why do I need that?" (on wearing a coat)

"Who is that guy?" (in the grocery store)

"How does that work?" (too popular to pick one example)

"Where does this go?" (completing a puzzle)

"What is this?" (on oh-so-many things)

It is amazing to observe him as he considers his world. When Ben was very small, we were more concerned with the big picture, with labels like boy and dog and cat and apple. Now we also can consider the details, how he is a boy and a brother and a son and a Benjamin. And a bird can be brown and red and fat and a robin, too.

The same sort of diversity is explored in food. As much as we rely on our established recipes, variation is welcomed. Eggs can be fried and scrambled and poached and omelets and boiled; they need not be only one way.

Now and again I make it a particular point to seek out discoveries, just so I can see our boys process the new. I pretend to be casual, while slyly watching their expressions transform from curious to interested, then ponderous, and then finally wonder lights up their eyes - with this new thing, their world is forever changed. And it is marvelous.

Often, their grins match my own.

Lately we have been eating a lot of popcorn, since Benjamin declared it his favourite snack. We have always made it in relatively the same manner, with butter and salt, but sometimes with herbs and garlic or a grating of Parmesan. Curious to see his reaction, I thought I would try my hand at making caramel popcorn, one of my guilty pleasures and something he had never had before.

Pressing my luck, I chose a recipe outside the realm of the usual caramel corn - one that was salty sweet, with a hit of spice to add some interest. Last Halloween we roasted pumpkin seeds then tossed them in a heady mix of cumin, cinnamon and ground ginger. They were addicting, and Benjamin was a particular fan.

The result was more than I could have hoped for. At first the taste is sugary-sweet, then as the caramel dissolves the spices become evident. Each bite builds upon the savoury, but is never overpowering. My only trouble is, now that we've come upon this popcorn, I am not at all inclined to try another.

I might have to abandon my good intentions, at least as far as popcorn is concerned.

The publication in the photos is the ridiculously-brilliant Uppercasemagazine, from the exceptional minds behind the Calgary-based gallery of the same name. It is, in a word, gorgeous. This is their inaugural issue, and I highly recommend picking up a copy. You can thank me later.

Speaking of magazines, have you entered your name in the giveaway yet?

SPICY SWEET CARAMEL POPCORN

What you get when you mash up two recipes from Martha Stewart with a healthy dose of inspiration from David Lebovitz. Baking the popcorn makes for a thinner, crisper coating.

This recipe is technically a half batch; I find it an easy amount to handle, especially as there is only a modest amount of bubbling, scorchingly-hot sugar syrup to worry about. However, if you are making this for a crowd, or for any more than say two greedy adults and a toddler, I'd go ahead and double the quantities.

INGREDIENTS

  • 6 cups of popped popcorn (plain, without seasoning)
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/8 teaspoon red chili powder, or to taste
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon Demerara sugar (optional)
  • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 2 tablespoons light corn syrup
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • sprinkling of fine salt (optional)

METHOD

Preheat an oven to 250°F (120°C). Line a half sheet pan or baking pan with a nonstick baking mat (Silpat) and set aside. Have your popcorn standing by in a large, wide bowl.

In a small bowl, stir together the salt, cumin, cinnamon, ginger, baking soda and chili powder. Set aside.

In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the butter, sugars, corn syrup and water over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the butter is melted and the sugar is dissolved. Without stirring, bring to a boil. If necessary, use a pastry brush dipped in water to wash down the sides of the pan and remove any crystallized sugar. Swirling the pot gently now and again, allow the sugar to cook until golden in colour, around 5 minutes. Remove saucepan from heat and, working quickly, use a heatproof spatula to stir in the prepared spice mixture. Note that the sugar will bubble up due to the baking soda. Allow the foaming to subside slightly, it will only take a few seconds, before proceeding.

Quickly (and carefully) pour the caramel over the popcorn, stirring and tossing to coat. Spread the popcorn as evenly as possible over the prepared baking sheet and bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes. While baking, stir the popcorn occasionally, gently breaking up any large clumps and keeping the popcorn in an even layer. The last time you stir the popcorn, maybe about 5 minutes before taking the tray out of the oven, sprinkle with some fine-grained sea salt, if using.

Allow the popcorn to cool completely on the tray, then break up any remaining large clusters. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

Makes around 6 cups.

Notes:

• If I had not been out of light brown sugar earlier this week, I would have followed David Lebovitz's suggestion of using it instead of granulated.

• I use Kashmiri chili powder.

• While I like my caramel corn unadorned, nuts would most likely be welcomed in this recipe.

• See the link above to the Martha Stewart recipe for notes on popping popcorn on a stovetop.

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