Monthly Archives: March 2009

English Toffee

Candy making kind of scares me.

Thread stage, soft ball, hard crack. It just all sounds like it could go horribly wrong with little or no notice. And the thought of burnt sugar (or, perhaps, more importantly, trying to clean up burnt sugar) is enough to put me completely off the idea entirely.

But when I went home at Christmas (and yes, that’s how long I’ve procrastinated on this post. I have no idea why.), my mum and I thought this would be a good afternoon project. Considering about three feet of snow was surrounding the house and even the four-wheel-drive SUV was having a hard time making it up the narrow gravel road, staying in to do some baking and candymaking seemed like a grand plan. Not to mention the newly renovated kitchen was ideal for photos. Hello natural light!

We’re both big fans of English Toffee, even though I’m generally not a huge fan of almonds. My mum is more of a connoisseur than me, though; she can judge good toffee from bad. So, it was entertaining to think we could have a go at making our own.

English Toffee

It was great to cook with someone else. Since I have no tripod, my photos tend to be very static. Just too tricky to try to pour or stir and shoot at the same time. Not to mention that my cave-like kitchen is terrible when it comes to lighting. I actually take things out of my kitchen and shoot them by the window to get the best light. So, I took full advantage of having another pair of hands.

Also, frankly, I wasn’t going to attempt this recipe without having someone there who has some expertise.

But this has made me feel that I could attempt candy again in the future.

It’s essentially a waiting (and stirring) game. Keeping an eye on the temperature and watching as two basic ingredients transform themselves into something completely different. I liked the molten lava look of the toffee as it grew closer to being ready and then how it changed again when it was poured into the sheet pan, taking on an almost stained glass type look: coloured and glossy and flat.

Mostly, though, what I enjoyed was a chance to hang out, catch up and just spend time together. I only get back to Vancouver once or twice a year and I’m usually rushing around to see old friends and poke around some of my favourite stores.

The giant piles of snow that continued to fall almost the entire time I was there over the Christmas holidays were a blessing, in the end. There was no reason to rush off on errands or to visit. Instead, we had the perfect excuse to stay in and just spend time in the kitchen, bonding over a bubbling pot of sugar and butter.

Butter and almonds

Butter

Bubbling hot toffee

Pouring the toffee

Smooth Toffee

Adding the chocolate chips

Making the chocolate layer

Spreading the chocolate

Almonds

Finished Toffee

Breaking it up

Smashed up

English Toffee

  • 3 cups salted butter (1.5 pounds)
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 3 cups roasted, unsalted almonds crushed

In a heavy bottom stock pot, start to melt the butter, adding the sugar after it has started to melt. Stir to emulsify the mixture, then add the candy thermometer, making sure there is enough of a gap between it and the bottom of the pot. (A wooden spoon should just be able to sweep underneath it.) Keep stirring the mixture. As it gets hotter, the mixture will thicken and start to darken. Keep cooking until the mixture reaches 294 degrees F. Caution, the temperature will climb quickly through the final 20 degrees.

Let the mixture cool slightly and then pour into a 13×18″ pan. Let cool for about 10 minutes, then sprinkle on the chocolate chips. The heat of the toffee should be enough to melt the chocolate. It didn’t for us, so we threw it in the oven (warm from roasting the almonds) for a minute or two until it was spreadable and then used a spatula to get the chocolate covering the toffee.

Sprinkle on chopped nuts and press into chocolate.

After it has cooled to room temperature, put another pan of the same size over the toffee and invert. It should pop right out.

We used a meat mallet to break it into manageable pieces.

Penne alla Vodka

I don’t cook much with alcohol.

Vodka

Sure, there’s been the odd wine reduction sauce, a shot or two of brandy to a roasted tomato soup to round out the taste or a splash of sherry in my chicken tetrazzini. But the goal in these recipes is to add that hint of flavour, to enhance the other ingredients, not to dominate the dish.

So, I was a bit intrigued the first time I heard about Penne alla Vodka. There was no way the liquor was taking a back seat in this recipe; it’s in the name, after all. But how would the drink I associate with martinis and Caesars work over a plate of steaming pasta?

Vodka II

Let me be frank: it worked like a charm. So charming, in fact, I made it twice in one week–the sign of any good recipe, as far as I’m concerned.

I was a bit worried at first, because the instructions call for the vodka to be poured over the hot drained pasta instead of letting the alcohol cook out in the tomato part of the sauce. I feared it would be like eating a Bloody Mary for dinner with a scraping of Parmesan over it.

The tomato sauce

But a strange sort of alchemy happens once the butter starts to melt over the hot pasta and mingle with the boozy vodka.The flavours smooth together. (Because, yes, for experimentation purposes I did try a piece of penne with just the butter and vodka. You know, for scientific reasons and certainly not because I was getting hungry and curious.)

Adding the butter

Dumping in the tomato mixture, delicately perfumed with garlic and scattered with bits of soft, slightly caramelized onions, transformed some very basic pantry ingredients into a rich, guilty-pleasure type dish.

It should be said here that I like it saucy–as in, the pieces of penne should merely act as sauce conveyors. Spiked on the end of my fork, the pasta is swept around the bowl to pick up the last bits of onion and tomato, the last dribble of rich sauce.

And this sauce is dangerously good — enough to make you want to lick the bowl when no one else is looking. Ahem, not that I’m condoning that. So, I’ve adjusted the recipe slightly to al-low for my preference for more sauce. Feel free to add more pasta if desired.

Before the mixing

Unexpectedly, this is fantastic cold the next day. Perhaps it’s be-cause vodka is best when straight from the freezer? I ended up eating most of the leftovers straight from the fridge rather than waiting for the workplace microwave to be freed up. After all, with a dish like this, who would want to delay taking a bite?

Penne alla Vodka

The original Nigella Lawson recipe calls for garlic-flavoured olive oil. I don’t tend to keep that around, so I’ve adjusted accordingly. Of course, if you do have it, just go ahead and use it and skip the part about sauteing garlic in the first step.

Penne alla Vodka

  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 2 tablespoons (25 ml) olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
  • Salt
  • 2 tablespoons (25 ml) whipping cream
  • 1 28-oz (796-ml) can diced tomatoes
  • 1 lb (500 g) penne
  • ½ cup (125 ml) vodka
  • 4 tablespoons (60 ml) unsalted butter
  • Parmesan

Add olive oil to large frying pan and bring up to medium-low heat. add garlic and saute for one or two minutes to flavour the oil. don’t let the garlic burn.

Remove the garlic and add the onion, along with a pinch or two of salt. Cook the onion, stirring occasionally until soft and just starting to caramelize. add the can of tomatoes and let simmer so the liquid has reduced. (this took about 10 minutes when i made it, so i put the pasta on to boil as the sauce was cooking.) when the sauce has thickened, remove from heat and stir in whipping cream.

Add pasta to salted, boiling water and cook as instructed until the noodles are al dente. drain and return the pasta to the pot. pour vodka over pasta and add butter and another pinch or two of salt. stir until the butter has melted, then add the tomato mixture. toss all together until coated evenly, then check for seasonings. add more salt if necessary.

Serve with fresh parmesan serves 5.

This story first appeared in the Real Life section in the Calgary Herald. For more delicious recipes, visit CalgaryHerald.com/life.

Chocolate Cake

So, I know I’ve mentioned before that I don’t drink coffee. I couldn’t brew a pot if my life depended on it and, for that matter, I don’t even have the supplies to make an attempt. So, noting that this Chocolate Cake recipe — like many others involving chocolate — called for brewed coffee, I knew I was going to have to resort to other measures. Yup, Starbucks. But, since I don’t drink coffee, I had no idea what to order.

Me: Um, can I get a tall, uh, um, Verona…?

Barista guy: Sure. (Starts to pour coffee.)

Me: Um, is that a dark roast? (It occurs to me that might be too much of a coffee flavour. I think? Isn’t that what dark roast means? Jesus, I need a coffee primer.)

Barista guy: Yup. (pause) Did you want something else?

Me: Uhhhhhh, yes…..? A medium roast…..?

Barista guy: (shrugs and dumps out dark roast, pours new one.)

Me: Um, I’m a coffee neophyte. (Wishes had stopped talking.)

Then, since the coffee had to be hot, I had to drive home immediately and start making the cake. Yes, I’m a baking nerd.

So, I found this recipe on the Cook’s Illustrated web site. I’ve always loved this magazine and now I love their site (thanks to my friend Julie for the birthday subscription!). The videos are especially great because sometimes you really do need to see what they are talking about. But it does crack me up that all the clips are about three minutes long. Anything looks easy when a) professional chefs do it b) they do it in three minutes.

But this recipe, actually is easy.

The other thing I liked about this recipe was that it isn’t unheard of to have all of these ingredients on hand. (Except, for me, coffee, of course.) And it bakes super quickly and it doesn’t really need frosting, so this would be easy to whip up any time.

This cake is really fantastic on it’s own, so I don’t suggest icing it. But I do feel that a little dollop of sweetened whipped cream is the perfect addition. It, possibly ironically, cuts some of the richness but without taking away from the chocolate-y goodness of the cake.

Chopped Chocolate

Chocolate and cocoa

Chocolate, egg and mayonnaise

Whisked together

The batter

What was left over

Chocolate cake topped with whipped cream

Easy Chocolate Cake

  • 1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon table salt
  • 1/2 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder (I used Fry’s)
  • 2 ounces bittersweet chocolate , chopped fine
  • 1 cup fresh black coffee, hot
  • 2/3 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • whipped cream — for serving, optional

Preheat oven to 350. Spray an 8″-square baking dish with nonstick spray.

Whisk flour, sugar, baking soda and salt in a large bowl. In separate bowl, mix cocoa and chocolate, then pour hot coffee over and whisk until smooth. Set aside to cool slightly. Whisk in mayonnaise, egg and vanilla. Add to flour mixture and stir until combined. Pour into baking dish, smoothing top before putting in oven. Bake until toothpick or skewer inserted comes out with a few crumbs attached, about 30 to 35 minutes. Let cool in pan on wire rack for one to two hours. Serve dusted with icing sugar or a little lightly sweetened whipping cream.