Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Delicious Giving

It is the season to give and it is the season to bake. I like to combine the two. This is time of year you’ll find me in my kitchen baking delicious and decadent treats instead of walking through the malls (not that you’d ever find me walking through malls any other time of the year).

The hardest part of making food gifts for the holidays is deciding what to make. As I prepared to write this article, I sorted through my cookbooks looking for a few good recipes. I filled an entire page with ideas (granted I was hungry when I did this).

Food gifts can range from simple cookies and breads to elaborate candies or homemade mustards and jams; or how about fresh made cheese; or handmade liqueur or infused wines and liquors; or flavored butters and honeys; or jars layered with all the ingredients for the receiver to bake up a batch of something yummy themselves. See what I mean, I just couldn’t stop. It all sounded good, fun to make, and even more fun to give (you should see the look of bliss and wonder when someone bites into one of your homemade marshmallows for the first time).

I usually decide to make a half dozen different items and give a few of each to everyone on my gift list. Once I’ve whittled down my list, I look for the perfect containers to give them in. It’s not fair to your delicious creations to be given on a paper plate with some plastic wrap thrown over it.

Look for containers that your recipient can use again. Consider using glass containers with lids or a bento box with all those compartments to hold each of your treats. A coffee mug stuffed with biscotti or a new baking pan already filled with sweet bread will bring back memories each time your loved one reuses it. Even a pretty flowerpot lined with plastic wrap or aluminum foil can be filled with goodies. Be imaginative and try not to buy cheap plastic crap that will end up in a landfill when the cookies are gone.

Include recipe cards printed on pretty paper so your friends can make any of their gifts over again and explain how to use anything that might not be self explanatory (like what the heck do you serve lemon rosemary butter on).

When it comes to actually making the food, use all organic ingredients and fair trade and local products when they are available. It’s like giving two gifts that way. One goes to the receiver and one goes to the earth and the people who grow your food.

Go the extra mile in making everything look beautiful. Don’t just make one kind of truffle, make four or five so they look strikingly delicious when the box is opened. Carve designs in the top of flavored butters. Make the cookies just a bit fancier by drizzling chocolate on them or rolling refrigerator cookies in nuts before slicing them. You get the idea (and if you don’t here are a few recipes to get you started). But most of all have fun and lick all the bowls!

Chocolate Truffles
8 oz Bittersweet Chocolate
1 ¼ oz. Butter
4 oz Heavy Cream
¾ oz. liqueur of choice (optional)

Finely chop chocolate and place in a heat proof bowl. Cut butter into small pieces and add to bowl. Heat cream to just boiling and pour over chocolate. Stir until chocolate and butter are completely melted and mixture is smooth. Add optional liqueur. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate. When mixture is firm but not hard, form into small balls using a small scoop, a teaspoon or your hands (work quickly so the chocolate doesn’t melt, this is the messiest method). Refrigerate again for 10 min. and roll into smooth balls. Chill again then roll in any of the following toppings:

4 oz. shaved bittersweet chocolate
2/3 c. finely chopped nuts
4 oz. toasted coconut
Cocoa Powder
or, for the truly daring, 22 carat gold dust

Makes 2-3 dozen truffles that will keep refrigerated for 1 week. Bring to room temp before serving. To extend the shelf life, dip truffles in tempered chocolate instead of rolling in toppings.

Coconut Marshmallows
5 cups toasted unsweetened coconut
½ c powdered sugar
2T + 2 ½ t. unflavored gelatin
½ c cold water
2 c sugar
½ c light corn syrup
½ hot water (about 115 F)
¼ t salt
2 large egg whites
¾ t coconut extract

Mix coconut and powdered sugar. Grease a 13x9x2” rectangular pan and sprinkle sides and bottom with 1 ½ cups of coconut mixture.
In the bowl of a standing mixer (you can make these with a powerful hand mixer but it’s hard on them, a standing mixer is best) sprinkle gelatin over cold water and set aside.
In a heavy 3-quart saucepan, cook sugar, corn syrup, hot water and salt over low heat and stir until sugar dissolves. Raise heat to medium and boil without stirring until an instant read or candy thermometer reads 240 F (this is a very important temperature, don’t quit early or you will only have a very sweet sauce. It takes at least 12 minutes) Carefully and immediately, pour sugar mixture over the gelatin and mix with the whisk attachment on low speed for 30 seconds then on high speed until tripled in bulk, white and fluffy and marshmallow-like. While sugar mixture is whipping, use a hand mixer to beat egg whites to soft peaks. Beat egg whites and extract into marshmallow mixture until just combined.
Pour mixture into prepared pan and sprinkle another 1 ½ c. coconut mixture on top, pressing down gently to make sure it sticks. Chill marshmallows at least 3 hours.
Invert pan onto cutting board and pry out marshmallows. Cut into squares and coat them in remaining coconut.
You can make plain marshmallows by substituting vanilla extract for the coconut and coating the pan and the marshmallows in powdered sugar and cornstarch. You can make other flavors as well. Try substituting half the coconut extract with almond extract and adding finely chopping toasted almonds to the coconut coating. You can add natural food coloring and blend it in completely or leave it partially blended to add a multicolored look.

Gravlax (salt and sugar cured salmon)

2 lb fresh wild caught salmon filet, skin on, halved lengthwise
2 T aquavit or an anise flavored liquor
½ c kosher salt
1/3 c organic sugar
2 T cracked, not ground, peppercorns (I use a Ziploc bag and a hammer)
zest of 1 lemon
1 t crushed fennel seeds
4 oz or more fresh dill

Mix the salt, sugar, pepper, lemon zest and fennel seeds together in a small bowl. Remove any bones from the salmon fillet. Line a baking dish large enough to contain the salmon with plastic wrap. Place the salmon skin-side down in the dish and sprinkle with the liquor. Rub the skinless side of the salmon with half of the salt mixture. Center one of the halves of the salmon on the plate and cover with the dill. Top with the other half of the salmon. Cover the top with the remaining salt mixture.
Seal up this salmon sandwich in the plastic wrap. Place a plate on top of the sandwich and add at least a pound of weight on top of the plate. Place in the refrigerator for at least 24 hrs and up to 3 days, turning the package over every 12 hours.
The gravlax is done when the flesh has lost it’s translucency and is somewhat firmer to the touch. Wash off the remaining salt, sugar and dill and pat dry.
Thinly sliced on the bias and remove the skin. Serve on pumpernickel or rye with lemon, capers and creme fraiche.