Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Homemade Marshmallows!

What? That doesn't look like marshmallows to you? Oh yeah, sorry but I forgot to take a picture of the final fluffy little marshmallow cubes. You'll just have to use your imagination. I was too busy packaging them up to send to our neighbors with hot cocoa mix on Christmas Eve while four of my kids were cutting out gingerbread cookies and eating the icing. At least I don't try to do too many things at once! Ha ha. These make perfect gifts for people because they are so surprised by them, I mean, whoever heard of homemade marshmallows? If you don't tell them how easy they are they can keep on thinking you are Martha Stewart, which is where I got this recipe, by the way. So they are fun, easy, inexpensive and full of healthy things like egg whites. We do need our protein! Really they aren't full of much healthy but for Pete's sake, their marshmallows. At least they have no blue dye. It's in those jet puffed babies, read the label. The only thing you'll need besides pantry items is unflavored gelatin. You can find it by the Jello at the grocery store. It comes in a little box with 4 packets in it. You will need 3 of the packets. This irritates me because now I have a box with 1 packet in it lurking in my cabinet. But what can I do? I guess I'll have to get over it.

Homemade Marshmallows
2 Tablespoons 1/2 teaspoon unflavored gelatin (3 packets)
1/2 cup cold water
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup corn syrup
1/2 cup hot water
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
cornstarch for dusting the cut marshmallows

Soften gelatin in the cold water. This will turn into a fairly solid clump of gelatin but never fear, this will go away. Mix sugar, corn syrup, hot water and salt in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Cook to soft ball stage (234 degrees on a candy thermometer). My mom taught me to test my candy in a cup of cold water and that is the most reliable way for me. All you do is dribble a bit of the mixture into a small cup of cold water and see how it hardens. For soft ball, you should be able to gather the syrup into a ball that slightly flattens when you lift it up out of the cold water. This is much easier for me than testing a thermometer and fiddling with trying to keep it in the pan right. Besides, with the cold water method you can sample the tests as you go along. Can't exactly throw out that little ball of syrup can you?
While your syrup is cooking, beat the egg white to soft peaks. If you have a stand mixer you want to use it for this or find a strong man to help you. Flatter or bribe, do whatever you need to do because you are about to need some help! After you decide the syrup is soft ball stage, take it off the heat and stir in the vanilla and the gelatin. It will bubble up when you stir it in but stir on. As soon as the gelatin is well mixed pour it into the beaten egg white with the mixer running. That is why you need a stand mixer or helper, that syrup is super hot!

Once you get the syrup mixture beat in, beat for 10 minutes (see I told you would need help). The marshmallows with triple in volume and be very fluffy. Pretty isn't it?

After 10 minutes, pour into a buttered 9 x 13 pan and cover with a piece of buttered waxed paper. If you do not butter it you will hate me and come looking for me, so butter away my friend. The paper smooths the top and gives the final marshmallow a nice square shape. After several hours you can remove the paper and sprinkle the top with cornstarch. This keeps it from sticking. Turn it out onto a cutting board and cut into strips then cubes with a knife. I put a 1/2 cup of cornstarch in a big bowl and toss the marshmallow in the cornstarch after I finish cutting a strip. This is very messy and sticky but fun. I keep them in a gallon ziplock bag and use them for smores and hot cocoa. Really, they are great, you have to try them!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

A White Christmas and The Man Mug

On Christmas morning we awoke to a winter wonderland. During the night as Santa made his yearly trip to visit all the good boys and girls, snow fell on our part of the world. I can't remember ever having a white Christmas so it was as exciting for me as it was for the kids. Growing up in the south doesn't give too many opportunities for snow on Christmas. After breakfast the kids bundled up to tromp and play and of course, eat snow. My favorite way to enjoy snow is on the warm side of a window with a mug of hot cider. That is precisely what I did.
Speaking of mugs, every year I hunt for a Man Mug for Joe and this year I think I hit the nail on the head. It just happened to fit my requirements for the ideal Christmas gift, handmade. The mug below was made by a friend of mine in her pottery studio and it is the perfect size and weight for a man. In fact he was so inspired by the manliness, he made himself a manly coaster for it to sit on. Oh, and if you could see inside the mug you would see a yummy homemade marshmallow floating in the hot cocoa. Just the thing to warm someone who comes in from a snowy walk with a companionable four year old boy. The marshmallow recipe is coming up soon!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Cheese Straws. Party time!

Contrary to my popular opinion, one can eat too many cookies and homemade candies in a short period of time. This happened to me this week after the toffee/fudge therapy session and an open house we helped host. I developed a serious sugar overload and when faced with a Christmas party with the lovely women at our church there was one thing I knew for sure. A salty treat was desperately needed. My search began and ended with one of my favorite food blogs, Smitten Kitchen. Deb cooks fabulous food in her tiny New York City kitchen during her new son's nap times. She whips up some great and interesting dishes and her photography is beautiful. As I perused her appetizer recipe list I saw a post about cheese straws. I read the recipe, I copied it down on a handy notecard, I walked to the kitchen and dug out the food processor, I mixed, I dumped, I kneaded, I rolled, I ... well you get the point. My quest for a salty/savory snack was triumphantly fulfilled with a basket of crunchy, cheesy, surprisingly fast cheese straws. With a few simple ingredients you too can make cheese straws for your party or family or yourself. Just try not to eat them all before the party. It wouldn't be nice.

Cheese Straws
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen
4 ounces of sharp cheddar, shredded or chopped (I used 2 ounces cheddar and 2 ounces parmesan. That's what I had)
4 T softened butter
1 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 Tablespoons cream or milk

Put all the ingredients except the cream or milk in a food processor. Blitz for 5 second bursts, 5 or six times until the cheese and butter is finely chopped. Pour in the cream or milk 1 tablespoon at a time until the mixture holds together in a rough mass. You should be able to press a clump and it hold together. Dump the dough out on a floured surface and lightly knead to smooth out the dough. Roll the dough with a rolling pin, flouring it as you need to so it won't stick.
Try to roll it out perfectly straight like I did. Just kidding, I cut the edges with a knife so they would be straight. You want a rectangle about 6 to 8 inches wide and 12 or 14 inches long. I rolled it out on an awesome canvas cloth that my mom bought me. You flour it and use it for rolling out pie dough or cookies, anything really. I love it.

After you get it rolled out, just cut into strips and bake at 350 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes. I got all fancy and used the wavy side of my pastry wheel but you could cut them out with a knife just as easily. If the dough sticks while you are cutting, dust it with some flour and keep on cutting. They are quite brittle after they break so be careful when you are taking them off the baking sheet. If one breaks then you should probably eat it, one would hate to be tacky and serve broken cheese straws. That could really damage your reputation.

The more I think about it, the possibilities abound with this recipe. They would be fabulous with chopped pecans thrown in or with a little blue cheese or maybe some feta. This definitely needs some exploring! Happy baking!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Last Bite

This week I finally accomplished something I've attempted every year for longer than I would care to admit. I made a batch of english toffee. Every year about this time, I put an equal amount of butter and sugar in a pan and cook it as I feverishly watch the candy thermometer. Every year, I throw out a pan of greasy mushy butter saturated sugar. It makes me mad. Not as mad as it did eight years ago when I ruined my first batch of toffee. But still it chaps my hide. My mom said I didn't cook it long enough. Maybe my thermometer was off and showed the wrong temperature. Maybe the pan I used was the wrong shape, size, or material.
This week I found a toffee recipe on a great recipe blog called Prudence Pennywise. She doesn't use a thermometer at all but uses color as her gauge. Also, she says to watch for the candy to release a puff of smoke, then pour it into the pan to cool. So I tried it and it worked! I poured the caramelized sugar into a buttered pan with chopped pecans in it and waited seven minutes then sprinkled chocolate chips over it and spread them when they were melted. As soon as I was sure I wouldn't sear my tongue off, I cut a chunk out and popped it in my mouth. Tears filled my eyes, I told myself that Prudence Pennywise was indeed a wonderful person and thought of what I owed her. She has taken away the curse of bad toffee from me. I thank her.
Halfway through this week my man left on a trip and I have been here with our five delightful children. Here in the house, stuck inside because of the cold and drizzle. It has built character. They have gone to bed early so they can have plenty of rest so they can grow grow. I have eaten a pan of toffee and half a batch of Cherry Pecan Chocolate Fudge. I am thankful.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Sourdough Chronicles: Part II

Here is the next installment in the exciting Sourdough Chronicles. I can just see you riveted, on the edge of your seat. Over the years I have made countless recipes for sourdough bread. Most have been along the lines of a country bread with a thick crunchy crusts and chewy inside. This week I found a wonderful recipe for a soft slightly sweet sourdough that I just had to share. On the first go around I made the round loaf you see above. If we hadn't devoured it in 24 hours I would have been able to share it but after afternoon snacks, before bed cinnamon toast and an alarming amount of vanilla french toast this morning, there isn't even a crumb left. Today I made another batch for hoagie buns to make this for dinner and it was just as soft and delicious as the big loaf yesterday. Next I am going to play with the proportions and try it as loaf bread.
Over the weekend I read The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder and was interested in the descriptions of Ma's sourdough bread that they literally lived on for most of the winter and spring . She usually used yeast cakes and made light bread but out of necessity she made a starter and used that for her bread. If you've never read this book, do so immediately but make sure you have a quilt handy because it makes you cold to read it. Most pioneers used a sourdough starter and they are legendary in Alaska. You can even order a special wooden spoon from Alaska that has been dipped in starter and use it to make a starter for yourself. Or follow my starter recipe and make your own with your own wooden spoon. It's really easy and quite an interesting process. After you have a starter going and make a loaf of bread, you have to feed the starter to keep it alive. The yeast in the starter lives off the sugar in the flour and it can't go much longer than a week with out more flour being added to it. Sometimes when I can't get a chance to bake I will dump a cup of the starter out and feed it 1/2 a cup of water and a cup of flour to keep it alive. When I bake, I replenish the starter with the same amount of water and flour. So you see, it's easy and when you can make bread like this it's absolutely worth it.

Soft Sourdough Bread
2 teaspoons dry yeast
1 cup milk
1 1/2 cup sourdough starter (Replenish starter with 3/4 cup water and 1 1/2 cup flour)
3 Tablespoons soft butter
3 Tablespoons honey
3 Tablespoons wheat germ
1 Tablespoon salt
4 cups flour (I use 2 cups whole wheat and 2 cups unbleached white)

Stir together yeast, milk, butter and honey. It will be lumpy because of the starter but take heart, it's nothing a little kneading won't fix. Mix in the wheat germ, salt and flour and stir until the dough starts to come together. Dump it out on a floured surface and knead for 5 to 10 minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic. This dough may be sticky at the beginning so add flour as you need to work with it. Set the kneaded dough to rise in a large bowl in a warm place. If I am not using my oven, I set it in there with the light turned on. Rise until doubled in size. Gently deflate the dough and shape into a ball. Set on an oiled baking sheet and let it rise again. When it is about twice as big and looks puffy, preheat your oven to 4oo degrees. Bake the bread 25 to 30 minutes or until it is golden brown. Cool the bread on a rack at least 20 minutes before you slice it. Guard it from your family members if need be.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Perfect Gingerbread

Gingerbread is something I crave regularly in the winter, we have it several times a month, often for breakfast. This morning was one of those mornings and we devoured almost all of it straight from the oven. The recipe comes from one of my favorite cookbooks, The Dairy Hollow House Cookbook by Crescent Dragonwagon. She once lived here in Arkansas and helped pioneer the bed and breakfast industry in Eureka Springs. Two cookbooks were written during her ownership of The Dairy Hollow House, the copy above was purchased in their gift shop and autographed by the author the first time I visited Eureka Springs as a college student. It is one of my favorite cookbooks and I read it almost every year. I'm kind of weird like that, my preferred reading is usually a cookbook and there's always one on my nightstand. This recipe is adapted from her recipe for Elsie's Gingerbread and it's a great one. Not too molassesy, not too sweet, with a cake-like texture. The crumb topping makes it extra special and it is made as you make the batter so it's a one bowl treat. Gingerbread is not made all that often nowadays so people are surprised and pleased when you serve it. Try it and you will be surprised yourself!

Perfect Gingerbread
Adapted from Elsie's Gingerbread

1 1/2 cups flour (I use 1 cup whole wheat and 1/2 cup white)
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup butter
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 scant teaspoon salt
1 egg, beaten
4 Tablespoons molasses
1 cup buttermilk (or sour 1 cup of milk with 1 Tablespoon of white vinegar or lemon juice)

Stir together flour, sugar, ginger and cinnamon. Cut in butter until mixture is crumbly. Scoop out 1/4 cup of the crumb mixture and set aside. Add baking soda and salt and stir lightly to incorporate. Stir in egg and molasses, this won't mix in completely so don't worry. Pour in buttermilk or soured milk and quickly stir to combine. Pour into a buttered 9 inch baking pan and sprinkle with the reserved crumb mixture. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 25 to 30 minutes or until the sides start to pull away from the edge of the pan. Remove from the oven and serve hot, warm or cool. Anyway you serve it, you can't go wrong!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Our Advent

Last year was the first year our children were old enough to read through an advent book and we enjoyed it so much we decided to celebrate it every year. It's a wonderful tradition for kids and not so young kids so today we begin. In the summer I picked up this beautiful book called The 25 Days of Christmas at a homeschool book fair and stashed it away for December. Thankfully, I was able to remember where I put it. The artwork is beautiful and the daily readings talk about everything from God knowing us from the beginning to the meaning of gifts. Everyday we will read the devotion and sing a carol or hymn. I especially love the daily page for parents that offers ideas to make this busy season more meaningful and less stressful. This is a book I highly recommend, it would be great for any age child and something that could be used each year.
Another tradition we are starting is a miniature Advent Christmas tree. This tree is about a foot high and we have it set up in the dining room. I picked up a couple of sets of tiny ornaments and some felt to make a few more and every night one of the kids will get to choose an ornament to put on the tree. They are so excited for their turn and have several ornaments picked out for their night. I am excited to have such a fun way to share the joy of Christmas and teach them why we have that joy. Let Christmas begin!