Another kind of nostalgia

My last post about Chicago was intended to be reminiscent about food but as I typed, the story took on a life of it's own and I decided to let it stay that way. So today it's back to the business of food.

I was indeed thinking about my trip to Chicago that day but specifically about my and Toni's experience at oENOlogy. If you took the experience and picked it apart piece by piece then yes, it was a bit pricey for what we got. Toni had a total of 15 ounces of wine and I had 10 ounces, 1-1/2 ounces of cheese each, about the same amount of charcuterie each, and 3 pieces of chocolate for each of us for a grand total of $136, not including tip. Sheesh! That's almost my grocery bill for the entire week.

But sometimes it's best to focus on the big picture and not the minute details, I tell myself. We enjoyed the atmosphere, we enjoyed each other's company, and we enjoyed the experience as a whole. I, myself, particularly enjoyed the chocolate flights called "The Devil Wears Chocolate" and "Cocoa Cabana." We cut each piece in half so we could share and we took our slow, sweet time tasting each piece. As I savored the chewy, rich piece of chocolate covered caramel with sea salt, it brought to mind a blog post by Anita of Dessert First for Honey and Sea Salt Caramels that I bookmarked some time ago. I knew that very soon after I returned home from vacation it would be at the top of my list of things to try.

Caramel is one of my favorite things - I love it as a smooth, warm drizzle over ice cream or eaten straight from the jar with a spoon, and of course caramel popcorn from the now defunct Caramel Corn snack shops that used to fill our shopping malls with sweet smelling aromas (more nostalgia here). Having never made caramel candy before, Anita's adapted recipe was perfect for a novice. It required very few ingredients - ones that are staples in any well-stocked pantry - and the technique was fairly simple. The most difficult part of the recipe was the amount of patience it required waiting for the candy to reach the proper temperature for each cooking stage. I have ZERO patience when it comes to...anything, really, so it was hard for me not to get impatient while waiting for the candy to reach temp. I thought it should happen in like a minute or two, but as it started heading into more like 5 minutes, 10 minutes, infinity...well, I hurried the first batch and it didn't set up quite like it should have.
Anita gives a great tip that if your caramel doesn't set up then you can reheat it to the proper temp for a quick save. In my effort to hurry my caramel along to the proper stage, I kept increasing the temperature and in the end could taste a faint hint of "burnt" in my candy so I chose not to reheat for a save. It didn't taste entirely bad so I just poured it into a bowl and deemed it fit for ice cream topping.
After a couple of deep breaths and a few yoga-like moves, I approached my second batch of candy with a clear conscience and renewed patience. Once my caramel reached the proper temperature (and without monkeying with the heat source), I let it sit there for just another minute or so. It was hard to do, but well worth it... my caramel set up perfectly! And after exercising even more patience by letting it sit on my counter for a full day to cool and set up, I was rewarded with a buttery smooth confection and the little extra sprinkle of sea salt on the top gave it just the right combination of sweet and salty. The only thing that would have made this (much less expensive) trip down memory lane more perfect would have been a glass of the 2006 Valter Barbero "Serena" wine.

Head on over to Dessert First and see what it's all about!

Honey Butter Caramels with Sea Salt
adapted from Alice Medrich's Pure Dessert
makes about 80 caramels

1/4 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup honey
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
2 cups heavy cream
3 Tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces, room temperature

Line the bottom and sides of an 8 or 9 in baking pan with foil or parchment paper. Let the sides of the foil or parchment hang over the sides of the pan; this will make it easier to remove the caramels.

In a large saucepan (use at least a 3 quart saucepan, as the boiling caramel will increase in volume), combine the corn syrup, honey, sugar, and sea salt, and bring to a boil. Let the mixture continue cooking until it reaches 305 degrees F.

Meanwhile, place the cream in a small saucepan and warm on the stove until it is just at a simmer. Turn off the heat and cover the saucepan to keep the cream warm (you do not want to add cold cream to the hot caramel or it will seize up and harden.)

When the caramel is at the right temperature, take it off the heat and add in the butter, stirring until it is melted and combined.

Add in the cream slowly - when you pour it in it will bubble up violently, so don't add the cream all at once or it might overflow. When you have added all the cream, stir the mixture until combined.

Return the saucepan to the stove and cook on medium heat until it reaches 250 degrees F.

Pour the caramel into the prepared pan. Let it set overnight before removing and cutting into individual pieces.

Same Place. Different Time.

God created Sundays as a day of rest but in this fast paced world that we live in today, very few people slow down long enough to even know what day it is let alone to take the time to rest and relax. Finding myself home sick this weekend and tired of staying in the house, I ventured outside to take up residence in the hammock. It was a gorgeous day - no humidity, a light breeze and just a hint of impending Fall in the air....perfect for relaxing and recuperating. My thoughts started wondering and soon I found myself reminiscing about times past.

A few weeks ago, my friend and I took in the sights and sounds of Chicago for what was my first time there. I invited all of my friends and family to view the photos from my trip on my Flickr account. A few days later, my grandmother sent me an email because it seems that my photographs evoked some memories of her first trip through Chicago with my grandfather and his sister. Back in 1952, my grandparents were in their mid 20's and newly married. Being from a small rural town, my grandmother hadn't traveled all that much herself but my grandfather made frequent trips between their home in Tennessee and his job in Michigan. I'm positive this was not my grandmother's very first trip out of her hometown, but it was quite possibly one of the first through a major metropolitan city such as Chicago. She said my grandfather didn't want to take the time to stop so she snapped photos from inside the car while they passed through the city streets. I can just imagine her bouncing from side to side in the car snapping photos, pointing and being amazed at the scene before her. Ironically, one of the photos that she snapped was very similar to of one of mine at Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park. Seeing the picture gave me an odd sense of comfort knowing that we both had been in the same place for the first time, but certainly a different time.

It has been two years since my grandfather left us for a better place and his memories still bring tears and sadness but I have great comfort in knowing that later in his life he found the time to enjoy a Sunday such as this one today. Taking time to relax, to stop along those city streets and take in the view. My grandmother told me that one evening, when they were much older, they had a conversation about the fact that he had pretty much seen and done everything that he had set out to accomplish and experience in life. If we could all only be so lucky!

So, just take a moment and remember what it is you're here to do and what it is that you want to do.....

Sugar High

With the aroma of peanut butter fudge filling my kitchen, I'd think it was Christmas time if I didn't know better. Candy making is done usually only during the holidays, and in recent years, mostly done by my mother. Peanut butter fudge, chocolate fudge, peanut's enough to make my thighs bulge and my pants tighten just thinking about it!

Mom hosted a dinner party not long ago and invited some new-found friends, Malcolm and Jennifer. Jennifer brought along a batch of her famous peanut butter fudge for dessert. Mother raved about it and I, of course, had to have the recipe, sight and taste unseen. I have my own recipe for PB fudge that was one of the very first things that I learned to make around the holidays when I was younger, but in recent years I've had problems with getting the candy to actually set up. I think the problem lies in the fact that the recipe measurements are written as "one small can" of cream, peanut butter, marshmallow creme, etc. and through the years "one small can" has become even smaller (not to mention more expensive) and the ratio is out of balance. Mom seems to have no problems with it, so PB fudge making duties fell into her lap. And let's face it, it always seems to taste better when Mom makes it.

I'm thinking that maybe I need to invite Jennifer to my house. Sure, it's an 11 hour drive but maybe she'll bring me a batch of her fudge, because it turned out perfectly. It set up nice and firm and had a smooth, creamy texture. It makes a 9x12 pan and I warn you, containing 5 cups of sugar, it is not for the faint of heart! This will definitely become my new favorite, no fail, fudge recipe but don't tell my mother...what would be the point of going home for the holidays be if not for the hordes of homemade candy and gifts? Just kidding, mum.....

Peanut Butter Fudge
by Jennifer Molley Wilson

4 cups white sugar
1 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 (12 fluid oz.) can evaporated milk
1 tablespoon light Karo syrup (Jennifer claims this is the secret)
1 (7-ounce) jar marshmallow creme
1 (16-ounce) jar creamy peanut butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Grease 9x12 inch baking dish. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine sugar, brown sugar, butter and evaporated milk. Bring to a boil. Once boiling, add Karo. Stirring constantly, let boil for seven minutes. Remove from heat; stir in marshmallow creme until well incorporated and melted. Stir in peanut butter and vanilla until smooth; spread in prepared pan. Let cool before cutting into squares.

It's One Thing Or Another....

The title of this post serves two purposes. First, it describes why, on some days, I cannot seem to get my own dinner on the table after spending hours in the catering kitchen preparing dinner for other people. It's always one thing or another that gets in the way and I wind up throwing something together. And I'm not ashamed to admit that sometimes even I use a convenience product in order to get dinner on the table. *Shudder* Secondly, it describes what happens to the few odds and ends leftover scraps from catering jobs. They start out as one thing and then quickly become another....

Take this semi-homemade pizza for example. I found this prefabricated Boboli pizza crust in my freezer the other day, along with a jar of marinara sauce in the pantry. Coupled with some leftover already assembled ingredients from a catering job, I had dinner on the table in a flash. In an effort to follow along with Sandra Lee's Semi-Homemade mantra of 90% store-bought and 10% homemade (or whatever it is she touts), I did add some fresh basil and oregano from my herb garden.

Semi-Homemade Pizza

2.8 ounce can French-fried onions, crushed
3/4 cup crumbled cooked bacon
1/2 cup mayonnaise
3 cups shredded Swiss or mozzarella cheese
handful of sliced pepperoni, diced
your favorite marinara sauce or pizza sauce
1 Boboli pizza crust
fresh herbs, such as basil or oregano, chopped

In a bowl, combine the onions, bacon, mayonnaise, pepperoni and Swiss cheese. Set aside.

Spread marinara sauce on the pizza crust to within about 3/4" of the edge of the crust Top with cheese mixture and fresh herbs. Bake on a pizza stone or directly on oven shelf at 350 degrees F for 15-20 minutes or until heated through and cheese is melted.

Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

When I retire from the world of catering, I think I'll get my food kicks from entering cooking and baking contests. And just maybe I'll win a million dollars like Anna Ginsberg of Cookie Madness did in the 2006 Pillsbury Bake-Off competition and most recently Carolyn Gurtz,who is the 43rd grand prize winner of the Pillsbury competition. She won the $1,000,000 grand prize plus an additional $5,000 Jif Peanut Butter Award. Not bad, eh?

The winning recipe was forwarded to me in a email originating from my mother's friend, Jennifer. She gave it rave reviews, so it quickly moved to the top of my "Must Try" pile. I had the perfect opportunity last week when I filmed my latest (and what will be my last) round of cooking shows that air on a local TV channel here in Hot Springs. I'm always looking for quick and easy things since I only have about 7-10 minutes of air time and this recipe fit the bill. Carolyn's recipe can be found on the Pillsbury website, complete with reviews. It's no surprise that the 89 reviews were mixed from good to bad to ugly - different people like different things. But it always amazes me when people, who clearly did not follow the original recipe in the first place, leave a bad review. I mean, c'mon people, how can you deem something "not so good" if you didn't follow the directions in the first place! One reviewer said he/she was surprised that the recipe won because it used pre-packaged items. That's the whole idea of the contest!! To use a Pillsbury product!! The recipe won because, as one judge put it, Gurtz’s recipe surpassed the 99 other competitors as the grand prize winner for its simplicity and approachability, allowing the home cook to take a convenience product and turn it into an unexpected cookie that bursts with layers of peanut butter flavor.

I agree wholeheartedly. The cookies were easy to make and I'll admit that I did leave out one of Carolyn's steps. I used my fingers to smoosh (there's a nice culinary term) the cookies. I think her method of spraying the glass and using it was an attempt to add another product in her recipe that was on the approved list of products to use. My fingers worked just as well. If I found myself with a roll of prepared peanut butter cookie dough, I'd definitely make these again. Congrats Carolyn and thanks Jennifer for bringing this to my attention!

Double-Delight Peanut Butter Cookies
by Carolyn Gurtz, Pillsbury Grand Prize winner

1/4 cup Fisher® Dry Roasted Peanuts, finely chopped
1/4 cup Domino® or C&H® Granulated Sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup JIF® Creamy Peanut Butter
1/2 cup Domino® or C&H® Confectioners Powdered Sugar
1 roll (16.5 oz) Pillsbury® Create ‘n Bake® refrigerated peanut butter cookies, well chilled

1. Heat oven to 375°F. In small bowl, mix chopped peanuts, granulated sugar and cinnamon; set aside.
2. In another small bowl, stir peanut butter and powdered sugar until completely blended. Shape mixture into 24 (1-inch) balls.
3. Cut roll of cookie dough into 12 slices. Cut each slice in half crosswise to make 24 pieces; flatten slightly. Shape 1 cookie dough piece around 1 peanut butter ball, covering completely. Repeat with remaining dough and balls.
4. Roll each covered ball in peanut mixture; gently pat mixture completely onto balls. On ungreased large cookie sheets, place balls 2 inches apart. Spray bottom of drinking glass with CRISCO® Original No-Stick Cooking Spray; press into remaining peanut mixture. Flatten each ball to 1/2-inch thickness with bottom of glass. Sprinkle any remaining peanut mixture evenly on tops of cookies; gently press into dough.
5. Bake 7 to 12 minutes or until edges are golden brown. Cool 1 minute; remove from cookie sheets to cooling rack. Store tightly covered.


What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Didn't we all have to write an essay on this subject right after school started back in the fall? I remember sitting in a stifling hot classroom listening to my classmates recite harrowing tales of being stuck in the back of a station wagon with their kid brother/sister during the drive to Disney World or some other far off destination. I could just imagine the 14 hours of poking and pinching each other, counting cars, and incessantly asking, "Are we there yet?" Ahhhh, family vacations......those were the days.

I can't believe it's almost time for school to start again - the summers seem to fly by. Heck, time in general seems to fly by! I don't have children myself, but I know when I start seeing all those brightly colored notebooks start lining the shelves of Walmart that very soon, every third grader in America will be nervously standing in front of the class reading from a Blue Horse notebook.....

What I Did On My Summer Vacation
by Alison Sturm

I went to Chicago for a long weekend with a friend of mine. But first, a little back story on said friend. When I was about 12 or 13 years old, I was given the gift of a subscription to a magazine called Teen Magazine. One of the issues had a questionnaire that you could fill out about yourself and when you mailed it in with 50 cents, you'd be matched with a pen pal with similar interests. Now, I'm sure they just took all the entries, threw them into a hat and pulled out two at a time and declared them a match, but either way I was matched with a girl named Toni who lived in Saginaw, Michigan.

Toni and I started writing to each other very frequently (this was way back in the time that people actually used pen, paper, and a 15 cent stamp to correspond with each other) and we shared secrets, stories of boyfriends, best friends, and growing up in general. We met in person for the first time in our early twenties when Toni came to Tennessee to be in my first of many wedding. Soon after, I went to Michigan to be in her wedding and we continued to visit and correspond with each other during the years. We eventually lost touch with one another as our lives took different paths and nearly 10 years would pass before we reconnected and decided to meet in Chicago for the weekend. Our lives have changed in many ways over the years but at the core we are still just two friends who have grown up together over the years.

We had a fabulous time in Chicago...walking, talking, shopping, eating, and catching up on the last 10 years. You can view all of my photos by clicking here. We went to the top of the John Hancock building and took in the view of the city during the day and then we took a dinner cruise on the Spirit of Chicago and had an awesome view of the skyline and fireworks at night. This being a food blog and all, I figured my essay should touch on the "eating" part of my summer vacation. We had a great lunch at the Park Grill in Millennium Park and a sinfully rich dessert at the top of the John Hancock, but it was our experience at a place called Oenology that is most memorable. The word oenology means the art and science of making wine and this place specializes in pairing wines, cheeses and chocolates and allows you to experience different tastes, varieties and regions individually or in flights (sets of three). It was definitely a fun experience for the both of us and one of the many highlights of our trip. We've decided to commit to meeting once a year during our summer vacation, so stay tuned for next year's adventure!


Wish Upon A Chef Template by Ipietoon Cute Blog Design