Soon after my first sausage-making experiment, I went ahead and bought the sausage stuffer attachment for the KitchenAid food grinder. Now, this piece of equipment has a pretty mixed review history online, so I was a little worried that I might be cheaping out by not committing to a full-sized sausage-maker. As a serious gadgetphile, this kind of anxiety is always lingering around! Well, I can now honestly say, those negative reviews are absurd. This $10 set of tubes produced perfect sausage with no problems whatsoever. Leaving aside the fact that many reviewers were clearly using the attachment incorrectly (with the grinder blades still attached, perhaps?) I can't imagine how people found fault with this thing! I had no trouble creating a seal with the filling that prevented air bubbles from developing and I found I could easily regulate the shape and size of the sausage just by gently holding the emerging sausage. I imagine there are things on the market that make sausage creation easier, but let me tell you, if you think producing sausage with one of these things is hard, I direct you to the spoons and funnels method.

So what did I make for my test batch of sausage? A simple, recipe-less pork sausage of tenderloin and fatback with lots of garlic and a little nutmeg. The whole project took about 40 minutes, and the result was richly garlicky with that perfect snappy bite and a slightly nubbled texture. I don't think we'll be seeing storebought sausages around here anytime soon!

 

The February 2010 Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Aparna of My Diverse Kitchen and Deeba of Passionate About Baking. They chose Tiramisu as the challenge for the month. Their challenge recipe is based on recipes from The Washington Post, Cordon Bleu at Home and Baking Obsession. You can find the complete recipes on either of their blogs.

I've never been that crazy about tiramisu. I don't dislike it, but it's just not on the top of my dessert list. That said, I thought it would be a lot of fun to make. And it was. But for me, the odd thing about making tiramisu was that almost every component was more delicious on its own than in the final product.

The creamy part of the tiramisu is a mixture of zabaglione, pastry cream, marscapone, and whipped cream. This is spread between layers of espresso-dipped ladyfingers. How could that combo go wrong, right?

Well, just listen to the wonderful contrasts between the components. My zabaglione was thick and custardy, with notes of rich rum and tart lemon. My pastry cream was supersweet, smooth, and just short of cloying with vanilla. The homemade marscapone was fresh, mild, heavenly. Whipped cream was... well, whipped cream. But mixed together, they were merely sweet, and very rich. Oh, the lemon was there, the rum and vanilla, but smooshed all together they became one round flavor, without the contrast of textures and flavors that I enjoyed tasting while I was cooking. Ladyfingers, fresh from the oven, were like fluffy sandcastles, but in the assembled tiramisu, they lost their delicate crunch and became merely a coffee-flavored interruption to the otherwise overwhelming sweet creaminess.

I still enjoyed the outcome, but if I do this again, I think it will definitely be tirimisu:deconstructed.

 

Did you know that there is an add-on you can buy for the KitchenAid meat grinder that stuffs sausage? And did you know that that attachment costs a mere $10? Well, April and I sure didn't when we started this project.

It turns out that pushing 6 or 7 pounds of meat through a funnel and into a temperamental tube of animal tissue by hand is quite tedious. But after several hours of fussing and many glasses of wine, we did manage to produce two batches of very respectable-looking sausages.

The meat starts out looking like this, diced and seasoned. Then you just grind it, and you're halfway done, right?

No, actually, not at all. You may be halfway though the instructions, but you are nowhere near the middle of your project — that's because the second half of the instructions involve casing. Somehow none of the recipes we read managed to mention that casings are somewhere between those holiday light strands that your *unnamed family member* was responsible for putting away last year and that over-oiled spaghetti that won't stay politely curled on your fork: incredibly easy to tangle, impossibly long and slippery, and just generally unmanageable.

The recipes call for flushing the casings with water, but just how do you fill what is essentially a slimy 10-foot-long balloon animal with water? We initially put the casings in a bowl and tried to run a little bit of water through them at a time, but as we lifted each section of casing, pushing the water along, the remaining sections twirled and twisted, creating impossible knots farther ahead. We eventually got things sorted out, but I think next time I am going to rig some kind of spools to keep the tangling to a minimum.

Once we got the casings bunched up on the base of the funnel, sort of like putting the world's longest nylons on the world's shortest leg, the procedure was much more straightforward, if a tad slow. We simply pushed the ground meat in, massaging out air bubbles and trying to neither over- or under-fill. The last step is twisting off the links — I broke the casing in a few locations, but it's easy enough to twist off a section and make a new link out of any escaped filling. Of course, after all that work, we couldn't resist frying and consuming our results right away. We were in such a fever to eat that I completely neglected to photograph the meal, so you'll have to settle for that cooking shot up top, but trust me, they were beautiful.

April made a rabbit sausage recipe from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, while I made bratwurst from Charcuterie. The flavor of the rabbit sausage was bolder than we expected, and the texture was velvety-smooth with the addition of eggs, cream, and breadcrumbs. It was made in lamb casings, which were slimmer and more tender than the pork ones we used for the bratwurst. The bratwurst was mild but richly porky, with a satisfying bite to the skin. Both were excellent sausages, certainly better than any off-the-shelf varieties I've tried. For the price and effort, even with the hand-coaxing of the meat into the casing, this project was satisfying and worthwhile. All the same, next time I'm investing in the sausage-stuffer.

 

I've been having some bad luck in the kitchen: two batches of pickles came out tasting off, twice pans of caramels have burnt, my kefir grains are struggling to return from dormancy, and my freezer is just two darned small. Lately it seems like all I can do to make a decent dinner — like this lamb tagine with raisins and almonds, carrot salad, and tomato and pepper salad with preserved lemon. It's not much, but I did manage not to burn it.

 

Since the nice long holiday break gave me a couple days to run errands and fart around the kitchen, I decided to take on a project more time-consuming than any I've done since we moved — confit.

It may be time-consuming, but it's not exactly difficult. If you can set your oven for 200 degrees and leave it there for a few hours, you can make confit. I started by buying two ducks and removing their legs, saving the breasts and carcass for another meal. I also scavenged all the skin and fat from the ducks. The legs I cured with salt, pepper, cloves, garlic, and bay leaf for two days in the fridge, as per Ruhlman and Polcyn.

The morning I made the confit, I took the fat I had salvaged from the ducks and chopped it and rendered in the oven on low heat. As the guy at the butcher shop had suggested, the ducks I got were rather too lean to supply enough fat to cover the legs — luckily he also gave me a supplementary tub of duck fat. I added that to the fat I had rendered and poured it all over the rinsed and dried legs, making sure they were completely covered (I had to poke a few air bubbles out from underneath the skin to convince them to stay at the bottom of the pan). I turned the oven to 200, popped em in, and forgot about them until bedtime, approximately eight hours later.

But to really make confit, you can't just cook the duck in fat, you have to age it there too. The legs get transferred to a crock, and the fat is poured on top (carefully, so the settled cooking liquids don't make it into the crock), where it hardens and solidifies when refrigerated. Some weeks later, you remove the legs, heat them and crisp the skin, and enjoy - but that's for another entry.

 

Here's what I brought to the christmas table — clockwise from the top: malted milk honeycomb, chocolate covered turkish delight, molasses honeycomb, mexican chocolate caramels with chili and salt, Lillet marshmallows, turkish delight, and chocolate covered honeycomb. Sprinkled throughout are orange and peppermint ribbon candies.

And here's a selection of some of the treats that others contributed to the dessert table. I can't identify half of these cookies, but in there somewhere are pfeffernusse, crisp cherry chews, three kinds of sugar cookies, gingersnaps, and there are a half-dozen more I didn't get photos of!

It was a long, lazy, and sugar-filled holiday vacation, and I hope yours was as restful and joyous! Now it is back to the grindstone!

 

The December 2009 Daring Bakers' challenge was brought to you by Anna of Very Small Anna and Y of Lemonpi. They chose to challenge Daring Bakers' everywhere to bake and assemble a gingerbread house from scratch. They chose recipes from Good Housekeeping and from The Great Scandinavian Baking Book as the challenge recipes.

I, however, did not use any of those recipes. I did not use any recipes at all, in fact, as someone else did all the baking, while I simply sat on my tuckus drinking wine and waiting to swoop in for the fun part: the decorating.

See, I was planning on blowing off this challenge, as I had already spent most of the month making candy, and was frankly a little bit baked-out. But when two of my holiday hosts, April and Will, decided to take on the hard work, I was more than willing to do my part with the application of Necco roofing tiles and frosting stucco.

April's family gingerbread recipe makes a very thin and very sturdy gingerbread, perfect for construction, and melted-sugar glue creates a practically indestructible bond between the pieces. The freshly assembled house looked gorgeous on its own, but we were soon all drawn into brainstorming decorating ideas and rearranging bits of candy here and there, even running out to the pharmacy in the middle of Christmas Day to buy more Necco wafers so that the roof's colored stripes wouldn't be interrupted. We went with a classic half-timbered look, with plenty of gumdrop trim and tinted Rice Krispie treat greenery, and even a little garden out back. Unfortunately, I failed to take a photo of the house filled with candlelight, the stained-glass window illuminated from within, and the welcoming light spilling out the tiny door.

Bonus gingerbread house: here's the gingerbread pyramid that I helped my nephews and sister-in-law with over Thanksgiving. They won Most Creative at the local Ronald McDonald House charity gingerbread competition!

 

Now that DIY projects like homebrewing and canning are becoming so popular, it seems to me that it is only a matter of time before candymaking gets its moment in the sun. Most of the materials are inexpensive, the processes are simple enough to learn that you can get started in an evening, but they are difficult enough to master that it's never dull, and it's open to infinite variations. Best of all, the results can be damn near professional looking.

I've made nougats, fudges, chocolates, brittles, and caramels, but this is my first attempt at a plain hard candy. Ribbon candy is a particularly neglected variety of sweet; in fact, the only recipe I found is at about.com. That's the recipe I followed, and I was really delighted with the results.

Ribbon candy turns out to be fairly straightforward project, but surprisingly beautiful at times. After a few pulls and twists, the clear molten sugar becomes a shimmering, opalescent cord, reflecting light from every internal layer until it appears to glow. I used a less-refined variety of sugar, which resulted in the uncolored portions of the candy being a charming old-fashioned shiny tan sort of color that was particularly surprising: as it was pulled, it transformed from a brownish liquid to a firm golden-cream colored rope that glinted warmly.

As for shaping the pulled candy into ribbons, canes, or lozenges, it's a bit of an acquired skill — and one that I clearly haven't acquired. You have to move quick, and know how much candy you can shape at a time before it begins to be brittle and crack. Ok, so my results this time didn't exactly look professional, but they tasted fantastic, crunchy and bright with mint, and I think maybe next time I'll be able to manage a few more ribbon-shaped ribbons and a few less lump-shaped ones.

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