Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Filling Up on Chocolate and Red Wine

Transcending the limits of place and time, food can take us anywhere we want to be, all while sitting stationary at one single table. It can be our roundtrip passport to all of the countries and places in the world, or the time machine back to our great-grandmother’s kitchens; and sometimes, food can even be our spaceship, shooting us far beyond the surface of this earth like an express ticket to the heavens. Such is the case with red wine and dark chocolate.

Props to Koci at the blog, La Kocinera, and her lovely strawberry paté de fruits. I had never heard of the sugar-dusted jellies before seeing them on her blog, but I was instantly drawn to them. The idea of homemade gel candy really spoke to me because it reminded me of something I love to eat very much: chocolate covered raspberry jelly rings.

If you’ve never had them before, think chocolate covered gummy bear. And if you’ve never had a chocolate covered gummy bear, you need to get on that ASAP. We have a slight obsession with jelly rings in my family—like a go through two boxes in two days kind of slight obsession. And they are usually waiting right at the grocery store counter, so there is no avoiding them. Oh well!

As soon as I saw those lovely paté de fruits I pretty much immediately envisioned them being dipped in chocolate. I thought to myself, “I could make my own jelly rings!” Then, I had a gastronomical flashback of eating a Jacques Torres Grand Cru fine red wine and dark chocolate truffle, and suddenly, I remembered the jar full of coarse pink Himalayan sea salt in my cabinet. Can you tell where this is going, yet? Yep, dark chocolate covered red wine and raspberry jelly candies—with sea salt.

They start out like this: Sugar coated gummies

And end up like this:

What I made was not exactly paté de fruits, but something similar: a variation of Lemon Gumdrops as found in The Essential New York Time Cook Book: Classic Recipes for a New Century, by Amanda Hesser. The red wine and dark chocolate combination is so deeply indulgent and the few grains of sea salt on top make it even more so. A tablespoon of seedless raspberry preserves adds a touch of sweetness, but if you prefer a deeper red wine flavor, use two tablespoons of red wine in the gelatin mixture and eliminate the raspberry all together.

The inner gummy texture contrasts with the outer chocolate coating for a fun candy, that is a lot lighter than a truffle would be. Beware, these can be consumed in dangerous amounts—but they are definitively a trip to heaven every single time!

Chocolate Covered Red Wine & Raspberry Jelly Candies:
Yield: about 40 pieces
- 4 packets powdered gelatin
- 1 cup water
- 2 ½ cups sugar
- 1 tablespoon red wine
- 1 tablespoon seedless raspberry preserves
- 10 ounces dark chocolate
- Coarse sea salt
• Butter an 8-inch square baking dish. Dissolve the gelatin in ½ cup water and let stand for 5 minutes.
• Combine 2 cups sugar and the remaining ½ cup water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring constantly and washing down the sides of the pan with a pastry brush dipped in water to prevent crystallization. Add the gelatin and continue boiling and stirring until the mixture thickens, about 15 minutes.
• Add the red wine and raspberry preserves and boil for 5 more minutes. Pour the mixture into the prepared dish and let set up for about 1 hour. Once set, run a knife around the rim of the gelatin to help release the entire mold from the dish; place on a cutting board dusted with sugar.
• Put the remaining ½ cup sugar in a shallow bowl. Butter a large chef’s knife and cut the gel into squares; coat the pieces with sugar to prevent them from sticking as you would flour on dough.
• Melt the chocolate in a bowl set over a pot with only a ½-inch of water (double boiler). Once the water comes up to a boil, remove the pot from the heat and stir the chocolate until smooth.
• Place the gelatin square on a fork and dip into the chocolate until evenly coated; tap the fork to let any excess chocolate fall through. Line the chocolates on a baking sheet and sprinkle each with a few grains of coarse sea salt. Refrigerate to set the chocolate.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Focaccia Bread + Tomato Confit = Love

The term “confit” usually describes a meat that has been slowly poached and preserved in its own fat. You have probably seen or heard of goose, pork, or the most common, duck confit. When this method is applied to meats, the result is melt-on-the-tongue tenderness. But this word can also be used to describe vegetables that are prepared and stored in oil in a similar way. Tomatoes are a perfect example.

Once quickly blanched and shocked to remove the skin, and the seeds are taken out, the tomatoes are laid out on a tray with seasonings and aromatics such as garlic and herbs, and then doused with olive oil. To balance the bitterness and acidity, a dusting of confectioners’ sugar is powdered over the top. As with meat confit, they are cooked low and slow until tender. The oil, which has been nicely infused from cooking, is then poured over the tomatoes to store under refrigeration, allowing them to marinate and become even better tasting over time.

I once read an article where confiting tomato was described as something like, “cooking the life out of it.” In a way, this is true, and I would never suggest applying this method to garden fresh summer tomatoes. But now that summer is coming to an end, it may just be the best way to make a not-so-great tomato taste amazing. Rather than sucking the being from a tomato, it incorporates new life, bringing flavor to what is otherwise lacking out of season.

Tomato confit (and its oil) can be used in a number of ways, either as the star ingredient or a base for something else. My favorite is baked on top of focaccia bread:

Having only a few basic ingredients and a short list of steps, both focaccia and tomato confit are incredibly simple—in essence. I’m not going to lie, they both take forever to make. Between having a total three hours rising time for the focaccia and the arduous peeling and seeding of the tomatoes for the confit, each requires a whole lot of patience and love. But in the end, I can promise you that your efforts will resonate in the taste.

I usually make this tomato confit focaccia for the holidays when there are already a ton of other things going on in the kitchen. All of the rising and confiting happens in the background between getting a bunch of other things done, and before you know it the bread is coming out of the oven. You can bake it in either a small sheet tray or a round pie pan; I prefer the round shape because you can slice it like a pizza and everyone gets a wedge or two. With all the right elements in place—tomato, garlic, olive oil and delicious bread—the taste is very similar to pizza as well.

You can use the tomato confit as an actual pizza topping, or for a great appetizer or snack, serve as is in a bowl with the oil and spoon it on top of fresh or toasted bread or crostini. As I mentioned earlier, it can also be a used as a base for soups, sauces, or vinaigrettes. To make a vinaigrette, puree about ¼ cup of the tomatoes in a food processor with a splash of sherry vinegar and a tablespoon of Dijon mustard, then add the oil in a slow stream; season with salt and pepper.

Asparagus with tomato confit vinaigrette.
However you choose to enjoy your tomato confit, it is smart to always make a ton in advance, especially since it takes a while to make. It will keep for at least a couple of weeks in the fridge and the flavor will only get better over time—if it even lasts that long. Chances are you will go through this pretty quickly.

Here are the recipes for the confit and the focaccia. The yield for the confit is estimated and as for the focaccia, I apologize that my recipe is all in grams.

Tomato Confit:
Yield: about 2 cups
- 10 plum tomatoes, blanched and shocked
- 4-5 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
- About 1-2 cups olive oil
- Confectioners’ sugar for dusting
- Salt and pepper to taste
• Preheat oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
• Peel, quarter and seed tomatoes and lay them out flat on sheet tray(s). Sprinkle garlic slices and thyme leaves evenly over the tomatoes; season with salt and pepper. Pour the olive oil over the tomatoes until they are all submerged. Dust confectionary sugar over top of the entire tray.
• Place the tray(s) into the oven carefully as not to spill any of the oil. Cook the tomatoes until they appear to be slightly shriveled or dried up, about 1 hour. *Keep an eye on them for the first 15 minutes or so. If the oil appears to be getting too hot, you may need to lower your oven, which will result in increased cooking time.
• Remove from the oven and cool. Spoon tomatoes into an airtight container and cover completely with the olive oil from the pan. Refrigerate. Serve as is with bread/crostini, or bake on top of foccacia bread.

Focaccia Bread:
Yield: 1 loaf
- 20 grams yeast
- 75 grams warm water (105-155 degrees Fahrenheit)
- 17 ½ grams sugar
- 112 ½ grams bread flour
• In a small bowl, whisk yeast with the warm water.
• In a stand mixer, mix flour and sugar on low speed until well incorporated. Add the yeast mixture until a pliable but sticky ball forms.
• Put the ball into a lightly oiled bowl and cover tightly; let rest for 1 hour in a warm place until it doubles in size.
- 200 grams warm water (105-115 degrees Fahrenheit)
- 85 grams olive oil, plus extra for oiling the pan
- 42 ½ grams sugar
- 15 grams salt
- 227 ½ grams bread flour, plus extra if needed
• Oil 1 half sheet pan or a round cake pan.
• In the bowl of the stand mixer, add the warm water to the sponge with olive oil, sugar and salt; mix on low speed, slowly adding the flour in parts. Continue to add more flour if needed, until the dough is smooth and no longer sticks to the bowl.
• On a lightly floured table, roll the dough into a ball; cover with a lightly damp kitchen towel and let rest for 1 hour until doubled in size.
• Once the dough has doubled, slice an “X” into the top and spread it out into the prepared oiled sheet pan, lightly punching down the dough with the tips of your fingers as you go. Add toppings at this stage such as caramelized onions or tomato confit. Tightly wrap the pan with plastic and let rest in a warm place for 1 hour.
• Set the oven to 475 degrees Fahrenheit. Put the bread dough into the oven and immediately reduce the heat to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake for 15-20 minutes.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Brownies Have More Fun

There’s nothing quite like a homemade brownie to give sight to all that is right in the world. No matter if you prefer them chewy and dense or soft and cakey, the rich chocolate center of a freshly baked brownie can lighten up the worst of days and make the best ones even better.

With the addition of both chocolate and peanut butter chips, this Hershey’s brownie recipe pays delicious homage to the genius flavor combination of the Reese’s peanut butter cup—another simple taste experience that can right all wrongs.

I made them a couple of weeks ago while stuck inside the house during the anticipation of hurricane/tropical storm Irene’s visit. Through all of the news hype and mandatory evacuations happening only a few miles away, I figured everyone could use a brownie.

Full of chocolate goodness and smooth peanut butter surprises on the inside, with a respectable crackle on top, each bite of the cakey brownies instantly deafened the sound of the harsh winds rapping against the windows. And I can tell you that the craving for these perfectly simple dessert bars lingered long after the last crumb was devoured and the storm had washed away.

So whether there is something you want to forget for a few minutes or something that needs celebrating, have a brownie and add peanut butter: it is a recipe for deliciousness that never fails—unless, of course, there is something wrong with your taste buds and/or brain ;-).

Here is a good place to start:

Peanut Butter and Chocolate Chip Brownies
Recipe adapted from Best-Loved Hershey’s ® Recipes, Publications International, Ltd., 2006
Yield: about 36 brownies
- ¾ cup cocoa
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- 2/3 cup butter, melted and divided
- ½ cup boiling water
- 2 cups sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ cup peanut butter chips
- ½ cup milk chocolate or semi-sweet chocolate chips
• Heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a 13 x 9 x 2-inch baking pan.
• Stir together cocoa and baking soda in a large bowl; stir in 1/3 cup butter. Add water; stir until mixture thickens. Stir in sugar, egg and remaining 1/3 cup butter; stir until smooth. Add flour, vanilla, and salt; blend thoroughly. Stir in chips. Pour into prepared pan.
• Bake 35-40 minutes or until brownies begin to pull away from sides of pan. Cool completely in pan on a wire rack. Cut into squares.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Olive Oil: The Wonder Fat

Olive oil is a many splendored thing.

Did you know that when taken in the proper dosage, extra virgin olive oil can be as good a dressing for you as it is your salad? Rich in vitamins and antioxidants, its various properties have been found to help prevent a myriad of ailments from hangovers and wrinkles, to heart disease and certain kinds of cancers.

Here is an article I wrote that was recently published in a brand new Long Island health and wellness magazine called Raw Beauty. In it, olive oil expert and author of the book, The Passionate Olive—101 Things to do with Olive Oil, Carole Firenze, and Controller of Veronica Foods Company/Delizia Olive Oil, Leah Bradley, tell us all about how olive oil is made and processed, what exactly the “extra virgin” label means, and various benefits the fat can provide to our bodies, inside and out.

Here is a recipe (if that’s what you want to call it) that just wouldn’t be the same without a healthy dosage of EVOO: marinated feta cheese. It’s a quick and easy appetizer/snack that is especially great to put out for company with assorted olives and crostini. The creamy cubes of feta cheese saturated with bright lemon and smooth extra virgin olive oil flavor are hard to resist.

I’ve never measured ingredients for this, so here is just a basic guideline. I’d say that this is more of a quick, throw-it-together kind of dish more than a follow-a-recipe one, anyway. Adjust as you please!

Marinated Feta Cheese:
- 1, 8 oz block feta cheese, cut into medium-sized chunks
- 1 lemon zested and juiced
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- ½ teaspoon dried oregano
- ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
• In a small bowl, mix together the lemon zest and juice. Slowly whisk in olive oil to form a basic vinaigrette. Add dried oregano and pepper.
• In a medium bowl, add the feta cheese and toss with the vinaigrette until well-coated. Refrigerate for at least an hour before serving.