December 2009 Archives

 

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.

 

One of the first things I had to do to make the new kitchen feel like my own was start a batch of pickles or three. Last month I saw a bag of tiny purple pearl onions and picked them up on a whim, and by the time I was at the checkout counter I had decided to make some cocktail onions.

Cocktail onions have a reputation as, well, an old man's accoutrement. But when it comes to cocktails, I may be a little bit of an old man. Scotch on the rocks, gimlets, and martinis (both gin, how could you even ask?) are my favorites. I might venture into old fashioneds, pimm's cups, fizzes, and negronis if I am feeling adventurous. If I'm feeling specifically like an old Italian man, I might drink slightly warm lambrusco out of a juice glass. So yeah, bitter, herbal, spicy, I'm all about it.

Traditional cocktail onions apparently are made with tumeric and paprika, but when I googled for recipes, I came up with this intriguing page. I wanted to make brine, rather than vinegar, pickles, but I started from this list of spices. After trimming and peeling what felt like a million onions, I ended up with two cups of onions (and about four cups of skin). I added three bay leaves, a sprig of rosemary, a piece of star anise, three small dried chilies, and a sprinkling of juniper berries, mustard seed, cardamom, ground nutmeg, and peppercorns. I was fresh out of vermouth, and I just plain forgot about the sugar, so I just covered the onions and spices with brine — the standard 3 Tbs sea salt per quart of water, per Katz. I weighted the onions down with a dish to keep them well under the brine, covered them with a lid to keep in the rather potent smell of the fermenting onions, and left them to their devices for the next three weeks.

And this weekend, finally, I canned them. I drained off the brine and strained it through some cheesecloth, then added some sugar to the brine to make up for my earlier forgetfulness. Then I processed like standard pickles: hot sterilized jars, boiling brine and a ten-minute boiling water bath. Next week: the cocktail!

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