"Reclaiming Homemade in a Small Space"

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas Cookies- Third Time's a Charm: Chocolate Crackles

These are a new Christmas staple in our house this year.  I had to try a new Christmas cookie recipe simply for my middle child, Brandon.  He really isn't much of a dessert kid.  He likes ice cream, icing (but not the cake), straight chocolate and a limited array of cookies.  He tolerates the Dipped Vanillas, but I think it is only because they are drizzled in chocolate and he won't eat the Pumpkin Cookies. This year, Matt suggested that I make a cookie just for him.  Instead of making chocolate chip or snickerdoodles that I make year-round, I decided to try a new cookie that I knew Brandon would love.  I chose the Chocolate Crackle.

I love the way these cookies remind me of a snow fall and they look so pretty on a tray of Christmas cookies.  I've made them twice so far this holiday and we are down to our last three!  They are simple to make and yummy.  Matt loves them with a hot cup of coffee.

Chocolate Crackles:
Printable Version
 4 oz. unsweetened baking chocolate  OR    3/4 c. cocoa  + 1/4 c. canola oil
1 t. vanilla extract
1/2 c. butter, softened
1 3/4 c. sugar
3 eggs
2 c. plus 2 T. flour
2 t. baking powder
1/4 t. salt
1/2 c. confectioner sugar

Taking my own advice, I read through the recipe first and found I didn't have the 4 oz. of baking chocolate.  What I did have was cocoa and oil, a suitable substitute.  (One square of baking chocolate equals 3 T. of cocoa and 1 T. of oil. I needed four squares so I did the math and came up with 3/4 c. cocoa and 1/4 c. oil).  I combined those two ingredients in a small bowl.  If you have the 4 oz. (or 4 squares) of baking chocolate, melt the chocolate in a microwaveable bowl.  Then add the vanilla and set aside.
In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar.  The resulting mixture will look a little more grainy than most cookie batters.
Add your eggs at this point and mix well.

It will look a little wetter than normal cookie batters do at this point.  Now, add the set aside chocolate and mix well.

In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt. (Notice my batter paddle???  It has flexible edges...perfect for scraping the side of the bowl for you.  I use it a lot with cookie doughs!)
Then, add the dry ingredients to the bowl, 1/2 c. at a time, mixing after each addition only enough to blend the ingredients.

After it was all mixed together, it really reminded me of a brownie batter (tasted like it too!), just a bit stiffer than normal brownies.  The next step is to cover the bowl (I did this with wax paper) and chill it for two hours.  This hardens the dough and makes it easier to shape into balls later.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  After your dough has chilled out..take a #60 scoop and scoop out some dough.  Roll into 1 inch balls with your hands.
The first time I made these, I used a #40 scoop.  That is the one that I normally use for snickerdoodles or chocolate chip cookies, but I found it made these cookies too big for what I was looking for.   If you don't have a #60 scoop, just use a teaspoon and roll into 1 inch balls.  Now, drop them in the confectioner sugar.
Roll them around in the sugar until well coated.  DO NOT knock off the extra sugar.  I did that the first time and though they were delicious, they didn't have the white coating I was expecting.  Place them 2 inches apart on a siplat (or parchment paper) lined baking sheet.  Bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until the tops are puffed and crackled.  Do not over bake these.  They need to be slightly crunchy on the edges and soft in the middle.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Christmas Candy Take Three: Chocolate Toffee

 If there is one thing that I can't stop eating, it is homemade toffee.  I call this stuff Christmas crack.  It is the perfect combination of sweet and salty; crunchy and creamy (from the chocolate). 

It isn't the list of ingredients that makes toffee a little difficult, it is basically sugar and butter.  It is the cooking time and technique that can be a challenge.  Candy making can be tricky, you have to know terms like soft ball stage and hard crack stage.  You really shouldn't make candy on humid days because the humidity affects the candy's texture.  BUT, don't let those things keep you from trying.  I have made plenty of batches of toffee that were sub par....each time I learned something from the experience.  I will let you know my pitfalls so hopefully you can avoid them.

There is some equipment you will need:
A candy thermometer or an instant read thermometer like the one above.  You will have to cook your toffee to 310 degrees F.  This isn't something you can guess at.
You really need a heavy pot, like this Dutch oven.  I have used a run-of-the-mill pot for this and have had success, but plenty of failures too.  A thin pot has a tendency to heat too fast.  This causes the candy to burn on the bottom while the mixture on top is still too cool.  The heavy pot keeps the temperature steady.  Make sure your pot is big enough.  The sugar will boil and expand...I learned the hard way that it WILL boil over if it doesn't have adequate room.  Nothing smaller than 2 1/2 qts. 

As sugar cooks, it loses moisture.  The amount of moisture in the cooking sugar has actual properties we can recognize.  At 240 degrees F, enough moisture has left the sugar to form a soft ball when some of the syrup is dropped into cold water. This is called the soft ball stage.  Fudge must come to this temp.   At 265, you reach the hard ball stage.  Syrup dropped into cold water will form a hard ball.  Marshmallows and gummies have to come to this temperature.  At the soft crack stage, you have reached 290 degrees and a lot of moisture has left.  Cold water will reveal threads that will bend.  Salt water taffy gets to this stage.  The hard crack stage is where we are going and you reach it at 310 degrees.  By this point, most of the moisture has left and syrup dropped in cold water will make threads that are brittle.

The last thing we need is time...it takes a good 15 minutes of constant vigilance and stirring to get to the hard crack stage.

Let's get started, shall we?

1 c. butter (no margarine!)
2 c. sugar
1/4 c. water (the water is insurance...it helps the butter and sugar not to burn before you reach 310)
1/2 t. salt
2 c. semisweet chocolate chips
1/4 c. shortening
1 c. toasted chopped pecans

Line a large baking sheet with foil.  In a Dutch oven (or other large heavy saucepan), combine sugar butter, water and salt.  Bring to a boil, stirring, over medium heat.  Set your timer to 15 minutes just for insurance.  I start taking its temperature at around 10 min.  Also, do NOT walk away from this.  Sugar burns FAST.
Below is what it looks like after 5 minutes of boiling...a little thicker.....keep stirring!
This next pic below is after about 10 minutes, thicker and darker.  I start taking its temperature now.  Don't let the thermometer touch the sides or bottom of the pot.  It will give you a false reading.
This next picture below is what butter and sugar look like at 310 degrees.
It is ready to come off and be poured onto that lined baking sheet. 

(I would have loved to take pictures of me pouring this molten candy onto the sheet but I was by myself....and the pot was heavy!  I couldn't pour and snap a pic at the same time.)  After you pour your candy onto the prepared sheet, spread it out with a metal spatula to about 1/4 to 1/8 of an inch.  You'll need to work quickly, it will cool fast.
At this point, let this cool to room temperature.  Sometimes, after it cools, I find that some oil has come up on the top of the candy.  If that happens, just take a clean paper towel and wipe this off. Otherwise, the chocolate will have a tendency to separate from the toffee.  After the toffee has completely cooled, place the chocolate chips and shortening in a large microwavable bowl and cook for 30 second increments in the microwave until melted.
 Pour the chocolate onto the toffee and spread all over.

  Then sprinkle with toasted pecans, pressing the nuts into the chocolate.

Let the chocolate harden, then take a sharp knife and press through to cut it.  It will take a bit of pressure to go through.  Cut into 3 inch squares.  This candy makes terrific gifts....that is, if it makes it out of the house. 

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christmas Candy Take Two: Chocolate Truffles

My husband Matt's facebook status update said it all today:  "The day Jenny makes chocolate truffles just might be my favorite day of the whole Christmas season. #lickingthebowl"  It is nearly everyone's favorite thing I make.  My daughter, Emma, was has been hounding me for these for a couple of weeks now.  For me, this is a true Christmas time treat.  They add a little bit of elegance to our Christmas candy dishes and of course, they are delicious.  I made these one year for some friends and they were convinced that I bought them from a fancy boutique!  These make absolutely wonderful gifts and the best thing is they are not complicated to make.

I found the recipe over 10 years ago and of course, I couldn't leave it alone.  I've tweaked and perfected it for my taste.  It really is very basic....chocolate and heavy whipping cream with flavorings.  That's it.  Over time I have made orange truffles, rum truffles, mocha truffles, ganache truffles, etc.  The sky is the limit on the flavorings you can use.  First, I will give you the basic recipe for truffles and then discuss flavors at the end.

Chocolate Truffles
printable version 
1 package of milk chocolate chips
1 c. semisweet chocolate chips 
3/4 c. heavy whipping cream
2 c. semisweet chocolate
1/4 c. shortening

Place the package of milk chocolate chips and the 1 c. of semisweet chocolate chips in a large bowl.
(Really, you can use whatever chips you want here, depending on your taste.)

Next, bring your whipping cream to a boil.  I like to do this on the stove top simply because I can keep my eye on it.  But you can do this in the microwave if you'd like, just make sure it doesn't boil over.
Pour this hot cream over the chocolate chips and let it set for a minute or two.  The hot cream is melting the chocolate.
Next, take a whisk and mix up the cream and chocolate.
Now you have what is called ganache!  Stick this in the fridge for 35 minutes. After the ganache has chilled, pull it out of the fridge and beat it with a hand held mixer for 10 to 15 seconds.  It will lighten and thicken slightly but make sure not to over beat it.
Next, take a #60 scoop and portion out the ganache.  (If you don't have a scoop, use a teaspoon.)

 Stick these in the fridge for another five minutes just to firm them up a bit.  Then, pull them out and roll them with your hands to make a uniform shape.
Now it is time to make the coating.  Place the chips and the shortening in a microwave safe bowl.  Melt the 1 c. of chocolate chips and shortening in the microwave 30 seconds at a time, stirring after each time.  It took me three 30 second spins in the microwave
 If you just melt the chocolate without the shortening, it will not harden again unless you temper it.  Tempering chocolate is a long and involved process of re-aligning the sugar crystals up again...you have to keep it at a certain temperature, can't overheat it....  I've done it, but I find it is a pain unless you are working with a large amount of chocolate.  I suggest, just use the shortening.  It doesn't affect the flavor at all.

Next, dip each truffle in the melted chocolate and shortening mixture with a tablespoon. Cover it with the chocolate and the tap the spoon hard against the side of the bowl to shake off the excess.  Then drop it carefully on a waxed paper lined cookie sheet.

Now, let it harden for 10 min. or so. (You can get really creative with the chocolate swirls!)

If you'd like to add a flavoring, it is really easy to do.  Add one of the following to the hot cream:
Orange: 2 1/2 t. orange extract and 1 1/2 t. orange zest
Rum: 2 T. good quality rum
Mocha: 2 T. instant coffee
Cherry: 2 t. cherry extract
Mint: 2 t. mint extract
I encourage you to use your imagination!

Today, I made three flavors:  rum, orange and mocha. (Notice the coffee bean on the mocha ones!)
You know...if you have extra dipping chocolate....remember the orange balls?  You could dip them in the extra chocolate too....
Happy Dipping!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Tips for Success: Christmas Baking

One of the things that so many people look forward to during the Christmas season is the holiday baking!  Even people who don't bake much during the year, have certain recipes that get dusted off just for the occasion.  There is just something about the cold weather, the decorations  and warm cookies straight from the oven that is just so inviting.  But inevitably, something happens that puts a damper on the activity.  The cookies burn or melt into one giant cookie.  The cranberry bread sticks in the loaf pan or the crunchy cookies went soft while the soft cookies got stale.

I've come up with a list of suggestions to make your holiday baking a success!

1. First and foremost, start with a clean and clutter free kitchen. 

This may seem overly simplistic but I know how fast a fun project can go down hill when the counter tops are cluttered with yesterday's mail, the kids lunch boxes and the breakfast dishes.  When you are holding a scalding hot sheet of cookies, it is not the time to try to clear counter space.

2. Read through the entire recipe first before you start baking.  Make sure you have all the ingredients on hand and understand all the instructions.  Also, make sure you have time to do all your baking. 

3.  When assembling your batter or dough, make sure all the ingredients (like eggs and butter, especially) are at room temperature. 

4.  Accuracy is imperative in baking.  Measuring is important.  Don't pack down your flour but do pack down the brown sugar!  Use a timer and an oven thermometer.

My oven tends to over heat a bit...in this picture, the temp. was set to 350.  You can see it was a balmy 400 in my oven.

5.  When you bake two racks of cookies at the same time, make sure there is plenty of room between the racks.

Also, rotate from top to bottom half way through the cooking.

6.  Did you notice my Silpat?  It is silicone baking sheet...I love it. I HIGHLY recommend one for you if you don't have one.  Cookies never stick and don't over-brown.
Both cookies were baked in the same oven for the same amount of time.  The cookie on the left was baked on a Silpat; the one on the right was baked on a regular cookie sheet. 

7. When you are portioning out cookie dough, try to make each cookie the same size.  One of the best ways to do this is to use a cookie scoop. 
I have three scoops in different sizes.  The one shown is my #40 scoop; it is a medium size.  I have a small one (#60) and a large one (#20).  The #20 scoop is great for muffins or cupcakes.  I use the #60 for meatballs and smaller cookies.

8.  Don't open your oven constantly at the end of baking.  Use the light from your oven to check the color of cookies, cupcakes and bread.  You will have to check quick breads and cakes from time to time.  Make sure to use a cake tester, like this:

Most toothpicks aren't long enough.  Also, to remove quick bread from the loaf pan, I find using a small metal spatula to scrap down the sides of the pan makes the loaf come out easier.

9. Don't store different kinds of cookies in the same container.  Otherwise...your chocolate crackles will end up tasting like your cherry thumb print cookies.  Grandma's cinnamon wreaths will soften the neighbors crispy anise cookies.  And you might have some adorable Christmas cookie jars, but if they aren't air tight, don't use them.  Your cookies will go stale and no one will want to eat them.

10. Give your cookies plenty of space when you place them on the cookie sheet to bake.
This certainly isn't an exhaustive list, by any means, but it is a start. This is a great time to spend with your kids and loved ones making Christmas memories.  I wish you much success in your holiday baking adventures!