Saturday, October 29, 2011

Have Fun Storming The Castle!

In its October 2005 issue, Real Simple magazine ran an item on a simple, creative, fun Halloween dessert/centerpiece: a spooky, sugary castle composed almost entirely of highly processed chocolate junk food. Chocolate snack cakes, chocolate graham crackers, chocolate sugar cones, chocolate doughnuts, all held together with chocolate frosting and decorated with gummy worms, candy corn, Skittles and other treats of the season. (The castle was designed by Clare Crespo, author of The Secret Life of Food.)

Miss C and I first created this homage to trans fats a couple of years ago.

2009 Halloween Castle

Yesterday we revisited it, and Little Man joined in the fun. We don't ever make it exactly as written; it's more fun that way, and as Miss C informed us last night, "We don't need instructions; instructions just boss you around." And, really, who needs more of that?

This year's project was almost entirely kid-directed. For the main body of the castle, they opted to use eight large Entenmann's chocolate doughnuts, stacked in twos and cemented with homemade buttercream frosting. Each tower is composed of three small chocolate doughnuts, one upside-down Hostess cupcake and a sugar cone. (If you can find them in your area, Oreo Cones are specified in the article and would continue the chocolate theme. If you want to use the instructions, that is.)

Castle base
Using more frosting and some chocolate graham crackers, we created the outer walls of our castle. At the entrance stand two Oreo Stix, topped with candy corn. The castle and grounds were then decorated withh more candy corn; gummy worms, pumpkins and spiders; and Sunspire dark chocolate SunDrops (a natural M&M-type candy). We even have some "monster traps" made of pink ice cream cones, purple frosting and chocolate cupcakes.

2011 Halloween Castle

And here is a "witch." A gummy pumpkin head impaled on a candy corn. I love my kids' imaginations and senses of humor!

We used ours as a centerpiece for our annual pumpkin carving party, although the preface of the article was to create a no-bake Halloween party dessert. It was a good family project, and it will be fun to see how the castle evolves each year. And I will simply shove down the guilt I feel buying two types of chocolate doughnuts, Hostess cupcakes, Oreo Stix, ice cream cones, powdered sugar and candy. Ah, motherhood: So much guilt, so little time!

(Thanks to my sweet husband for taking tonight's photos!)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Dark Chocolate Cherry-Pepita Clusters

My paternal grandmother was known for her peanut clusters, creamy candies made on the stove and begun with a base of sugar, caramel chips and evaporated milk. They were a favorite of my father's and part of the family Christmas tradition, which my mother continued when my grandmother no longer could.

Chocolate clusters are a staple of my annual holiday baking, too, occasionally making an appearance for other fall and winter celebrations. They are the perfect foil to the requisite sugar cookies and gingerbread men on our goodie trays. They can be made ahead, and they don't require a candy thermometer or other special equipment. And they are so easy, you can display your awesomeness by whipping up a batch while another treat is baking!

My usual MO is to melt a big block of dark chocolate and stir in whatever sounds good: peanuts, pistachios with dried cranberries, slivered almonds with dried blueberries. Inspired by a bag of dried cherries in my cupboard and the pepitas left over from making the Sweet Maple Snack Mix, I created these for Little Man’s birthday party a few weeks ago.

Ridiculously simple and ridiculously good, this recipe will take you through Halloween, Thanksgiving and into Christmas with its rich, decadent flavors. I may have licked the spoons after making these. And scraped out the bowl. And licked the spoons again.

If you don’t have a Trader Joe’s in your neighborhood, Guittard Extra Dark Chocolate Chips are an excellent option. Of course, microwaves vary, so use the directions as a guide. I use a Pyrex bowl with a large, flat bottom, which allows for the chocolate to be in nearly one layer. The chocolate may still have lumps after 2 minutes of microwaving, but the residual heat from the chocolate and bowl will melt them as you stir. I use dried Montmorency cherries, also from Trader Joe’s.

Dark Chocolate Cherry-Pepita Clusters

1(17.6 oz.) Trader Joe’s 72% Dark Chocolate Pound-Plus bar, broken into several large pieces
1 (8 oz.) bag dried pitted tart cherries
1 c. roasted and salted pepitas

In a large microwave-safe bowl, arrange chocolate in as close to a single layer as possible. Microwave on HIGH for 2 minutes. Remove from microwave and stir until smooth. Stir in cherries and pepitas. Drop by spoonfuls on sheets of waxed paper and allow to set. Store in single layers on waxed paper in an airtight container.

Copyright 2011

Monday, October 24, 2011

Lingering Summer

Summer is hanging on here in Northern California. The forecast this late October weekend was 83° and sunny. The children donned shorts and pleaded (again) for a sand-and-water table. Darling Husband decided it was perfect weather for pumpkin ice cream. We even contemplated turning on the air conditioning. (We resisted.) While waiting for autumn to assert itself, we are trying to enjoy these few last bursts of summer, including their perfect excuse for making Vietnamese-style iced coffee. 

I became smitten with the drink during one of our summer visits to my brother- and sister-in-law, who are friendly with the owners of a wonderful Asian restaurant. We dine there at least once during our stay, and always on order are the sweet, tangy, saucy house tofu and the sublime Vietnamese iced coffee, the bitterness of the brew tamed delightfully by the sweet creaminess of condensed milk.

Many months later, I have eschewed caffeine and realized a decaf version will be more difficult to find when dining out. I’d thought of making it myself, but it seemed wasteful to open a new can of sweetened condensed milk for one or two drinks, when I knew the remainder would languish in my fridge for weeks, alongside the box of almond milk no one remembers buying.

Enter Trader Joe’s. While browsing the aisles the other day, I came across this new gem: 

Sweetened condensed milk in a squeeze bottle. As Little Man would say, “That be perfect!” Now I can easily make something akin to Vietnamese iced coffee at home. Although traditionally the coffee is brewed in a phin*, which is similar to a French press, we make do with our Bunn. Which makes coffee in 3 minutes, so really, we can't complain.

On this warm, lazy Sunday morning, we brewed some extra-strong dark-roasted coffee, filled our glasses with ice, and stirred in a couple of tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk. I may have enjoyed mine with a slice of chilled pecan-pumpkin pie, content to wait a few more days for autumn to claim victory.

*For more information on traditional methods and a tutorial on how to use a phin, visit CoffeeGeek.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Sweet Maple Snack Mix

Recently we celebrated Little Man’s birthday with an afternoon party in the park: a delightful, casual tractor-themed bash on what turned out to be a gorgeous October afternoon. Happily needing to feed nearly 50 of our wonderful friends, we had drawn up a menu of easy-to-prepare snacks. Lots and lots of snacks. Savory bites such as salami, fresh mozzarella, olives, gherkins, crisp vegetables, and three types of homemade hummus, including pumpkin. We also had the birthday boy's favorite Cheese Crunchies and mini cheese sandwich crackers from Trader Joe's. (Cheesy carbs! He is his mother's son.)

Along with the tractor-shaped (theme!) birthday cake, we served a few sweet treats. One of the favorites among them was this snack mix, adapted from a recipe I found online. It was my mom who suggested I make snack mix for the large crowd we were entertaining. Every fall and winter, Mom would make Chex mix to have on hand for Husker game parties, family gatherings, the holidays, or to serve to family and friends who dropped by. On those crisp afternoons when it was fresh from the oven, I loved snagging some warm cereal bits, especially the extra-crispy, extra-coated ones, savoring the salty tang of Worcestershire on my tongue.

Mom always made Chex mix in a large, battered baking pan, the outside painted a lovely 1970s russet; it was a bridal shower or wedding gift, if my memory serves. It was perfect for the task. Roomy enough to make a big batch and with high sides so you could stir without spilling. Alas, I have no such pan. I baked this on two rimmed cookie sheets, but I had to bake it for longer than 25 minutes. Next time, I plan to divide the mixture into thirds for baking. And the dishwasher (aka my darling husband) says the sweet, sticky goo dissolves in warm water, so cleanup isn't too much of a chore, but you could line the pans with parchment paper.

Sweet Maple Snack Mix (adapted from Tanya's Sweet Chex Mix)

7 c. Kix cereal
7 c. Crispix cereal
2 c. roasted and salted shelled pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
2 c. pretzel sticks
½ c. brown rice syrup
½ c. pure maple syrup
1 c. sugar
¾ c. butter
Dash natural maple flavor
Pinch baking soda
¾ t. ground cinnamon

Preheat oven to 250°F. In a very large bowl, combine cereals, pepitas and pretzels. Set aside.

In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt together brown rice syrup, maple syrup, sugar and butter. Bring to a boil. Remove from heat. Whisk in maple flavor, baking soda and cinnamon.

Pour syrup mixture over cereal mixture and toss to coat. Spread mixture evenly on large, rimmed cookie sheets or jelly roll pans. Bake for 25 minutes. If mixture is still sticky, bake for an additional 5 minutes, or until mixture appears dry. Remove to sheets of waxed paper, breaking apart any large clumps. Cool completely.

Copyright 2011