Saturday, October 24, 2009

Coffee Toffee Fudge

A very taxing and mood-souring week ended, finally and at long last, with a whimper on Friday night as I wearily filed the last piece of paper from my inbox, wrestled the kids to sleep, folded a final load of clothes, and threw myself, with great fanfare, into My Chair to page through the final issue of Gourmet which, now that I think about it, only adds to my sense of ennui. I'm really going to miss that magazine.

Things started to look up this morning though, after The Boy Wonder gently woke me from a solid, uninterrupted night of glorious sleep. I knew The Carnivore would be home all day, thus acting as the Pied Piper to his devoted children, Miss Hazelnut had slept for 14 blessed hours after a week of coughing and fretting every night, and my agenda was blissfully clear.

I had all the makings for a perfect day to piddle around in the kitchen, and just the framework from which to begin: a recipe I had unearthed, quite by accident earlier in the week, for coffee fudge.

Coffee fudge.

I love coffee. I sneak coffee liqueurs into cake batters, consider dark-chocolate coffee beans to have vitamin-like qualities, suffer midnight lustful cravings for coffee ice cream, and, of course, drink coffee like it's going out of style. Coffee fudge, then, seemed like an obvious necessity to a complete life well-lived, yes?

Thus, after a couple cups of coffee, I made pancakes for the rugrats and spent some time outside pondering the ideal location for The Boy Wonder's Spring science project (read: vegetable garden), and then snuck back into the house when it looked like The Carnivore and his spawn were happily ensconced in tree trimming, tree climbing, and whatever it is that Miss Hazelnut does when she hangs out with them.

A quiet house is a beautiful thing.

The idea of coffee fudge has intrigued me for some time, but because I had never actually run across any, even at candy shops, I would tend to brood obsessively on the subject for a while, and then forget all about it again. Come to think of it, I employ that strategy with many of my interests. One more thing to add to my list of character flaws.

Previous internet searches always ended abruptly with recipes that included, I kid you not, marshmallow cream. I probably don't even need to get into the list of reasons why this is such an appalling idea. A few days ago, though, while having a near meltdown about owning too much stuff and trying to purge more of the same, I flipped through a silly little gift book about coffee that I've been dragging around for umpteen years and, right before I tossed it into the 'donate' pile, I saw a recipe for a pistachio and coffee fudge.

And the obsession was reborn.

This recipe had the right jumping off point for me. I could easily sub instant espresso granules for the coffee, marshmallow cream wasn't involved, and I could do anything I wanted where the nuts were concerned. Pistachios, while lovely and addictive, weren't what I was looking for here. Hazelnuts seemed ideal - I can't count how many hours I wasted at the old Athens Coffee House with a tableful of friends and a pot of hazelnut coffee back in my early college days - but hazelnuts were nowhere to be found at the grocery store and I wasn't terribly inclined to do one of my drive-around-town ingredient searches. I briefly contemplated using cacao nibs, but was afraid they might be too bitter to match with the espresso, and dark chocolate chips seemed not to be the right texture. Then I remembered my old favorite Ben & Jerry's flavor, the now-retired (argh) Coffee English Toffee Crunch, and I dug a little deeper into the back of the fridge and came out with a bag of Heath Toffee Bits leftover from a Mocha-Kahlua Cake experiment from last spring.


The end result has a flavor reminiscent of pralines, with a nubby texture from the toffee bits, and just a hint of the coffee - not enough to repel those odd souls who aren't addicted to coffee (even my children liked it), but enough to attract those of us who smile even at the scent (I can't get my husband to stop eating them). Actually, if a Frappuccino were made into a candy, I'm pretty sure this is what it would taste like. Starbucks, consider this recipe copyrighted - you know how to contact me.


COFFEE TOFFEE FUDGE (makes about 3 lbs of candy)

Notes: I used natural cane sugar with great results, though white sugar is traditionally used in fudge. Cafe Bustelo makes an instant espresso that comes in a jar in most grocery stores. Heath Toffee Bits can be found by the chocolate chips, but feel free to substitute nuts.
  • 1 1/4 cups whole milk
  • 4 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
  • 2 Tbs instant espresso granules
  • 2 Tbs light corn syrup
  • 1 can (14 oz) sweetened condensed milk
  • 1/2 cup toffee bits
  1. Grease a small jelly roll pan or an 8x10-ish glass casserole dish. A larger dish can be used, and will result in a thinner piece of fudge (nothing wrong with that).
  2. In a large saucepan, continuously stir the milk, sugar and butter over low heat until sugar has dissolved.
  3. Add the instant espresso, corn syrup, & condensed milk, and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring often.
  4. Continue to boil the mixture, stirring very often, for about 20 to 30 minutes, until mixture has reached about 230 degrees (or soft-ball stage: drop small spoonful into bowl of cold water; a soft ball should form).
  5. Remove from heat and cool for 5 minutes.
  6. Stir in toffee bits, and beat mixture with a wooden spoon for 2 or 3 minutes, until mixture is no longer glossy and has thickened slightly. This is the only tricky step: if you stir too long, the fudge will begin to harden too much in the pan and will be a little grainier when it is cooled. When in doubt, stop stirring.
  7. Quickly pour into greased pan. Let stand for a few minutes, until cool to the touch. Cut into squares, then allow to cool completely.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Homemade Granola Bars

One of my primary goals as of late has been to demystify the modern world to my children. I have taken them to farms and shown them the plants that grow our food and the animals that provide us with dairy products and eggs, they have seen the machines that roast our coffee, and side-by-side we have huddled together over the stove to make our own play dough. Next month, I will begin a knitting class, and have thus promised to make The Big Boy as many hats and scarves as his little heart desires (partly to placate him because he is so devastated that he cannot go to the lessons with me).

Something has been lost over the past few decades where, in the interest of modernizing ourselves, we have turned into consumers instead of producers. I think it a bit silly that I do not know how to sew, and far more absurd that I was thirty years old before I even attempted to bake bread. It isn't that I want to adorn myself with a bonnet, eschew makeup (God forbid), give up my car, and relinquish my Blackberry at the door, but more a desire to regain some independence that is driving me towards some of these more simple pleasures.

It would just be nice to know there is an alternative to automatically and blindly heading to a store when I need something, you know? As household items have broken recently, we have tried to see if we can make do or do without instead of mindlessly replacing everything, an exercise in which we have had wildly mixed results. The coffeepot and the laptop were both replaced within hours (and upgraded to boot), but it turns out that a lingerie bag and a little bit of manic cardio can take the place of a salad spinner, and a cast iron grill pan makes a more than adequate pizza stone. This is a work in progress, obviously, and is sure to be tested further.

It was in this spirit that I decided we needed to add some more snack foods to our cooking repertoire, mostly in the interest of demystifying those over-packaged and nutritionally impotent geegaws that so tempt young children. So far, so good on this front: French fries were fun to learn, as were onion rings, spicy dill pickles and, of course, all desserts we've made to date (truth be told, I would love to master potato chips as well, but I'm petrified of using a mandoline - my lack of grace could be to my detriment in this instance). And as soon as I can get my hands on a used food dehydrator, we will test our fruit drying skills to see if there is some way to convince my skeptical son that gummy candies are unnecessary to a happy childhood.

This week, to supplement our learning activities and to pad The Big Boy's lunchbox for his weekly four hours at 'school,' I snagged a recipe from Serious Eats for homemade granola bars. The post's author had already done much of the dirty work, substituting here and there in the original recipe to make for a more healthful bar and since that particular website is a little less, ah, crunchy than some of the others I read, and the ingredients were all items that I keep in our pantry at any given time, I was fairly confident from the get-go that this would appeal to the whole family.

I was also, it should be noted, willing to throw in a small handful of white chocolate chips to make these more palatable to children who might not yet be able to appreciate their mama's moral neuroses.

The recipe was surprisingly easy - I'm not sure why I assumed granola bars were either time-consuming or labor-intensive - and the end result was nothing short of addictive. I keep swearing I'm going to wrap them up and put them away, but I just can't stop eating them.

The bars are dense and chewy, ever-so-slightly rich, and just sweet enough that their healthfulness can be overlooked (I love it when that happens). The texture is heavier than commercial chewy granola bars, but less crispy-crumbly than the old-fashioned original kind. Even better, they are filling enough to make a lovely breakfast on the go. I will be eating a lot of these, I can tell. Actually, um, I've eaten three in the last hour alone - they're that good.


GRANOLA BARS (adapted from Serious Eats, makes 15 2x2 bars)
  • 2 cups rolled oats (the extra-thick ones from Bob's Red Mill are particularly good)
  • 1/2 cup unpacked light brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup wheat germ
  • 3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 2/3 cup dried, sweetened cranberries
  • 1/4 cup slivered almonds
  • 1/4 cup white chocolate chips (optional, to the purists)
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 2 large egg whites
  • 1/4 cup canola oil (or roasted nut oil)
  • 1/4 cup very mashed banana
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  1. In a 325 degree oven, toast the slivered almonds on a baking sheet until pale golden, about 8 to 10 minutes.
  2. In a large bowl, stir together the oats, sugar, wheat germ, cinnamon, flour, cranberries, toasted almonds, white chocolate chips, and salt.
  3. In a medium bowl, whisk together the honey, egg whites, oil, banana, and vanilla.
  4. Make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients, pour the honey mixture into the well, and stir together with a wooden spoon until everything is moistened.
  5. Pour mixture into a well-greased 9x13 glass baking dish, and pat into a rectangle. The rectangle may not reach all sides of the pan. Don't let that stress you out. Mine was short about 2 inches at one end.
  6. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 to 35 minutes, until edges begin to brown.
  7. Remove from oven, cool for no more than 5 minutes, and cut into squares (if you wait too long to cut them, they will not cut well). Let cool completely before removing from pan.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Peanut Butter Cookies (aka The Easiest Cookie Recipe in the World)

I cannot believe how stingy I have been with this recipe. I forget about it at times, and go for a year or so without even thinking of baking it, but then we go through phases where I'll whip a batch up every Sunday afternoon for a month.

I ran across it again this afternoon after a two-year or so hiatus, when a pile of cookbooks began to tip dangerously from their perch and I found myself having to do something constructive with the mess. I was excited to see it again, this recipe. It is just so easy, you see; nothing that will impress company or anything like that. A very unassuming cookie, really, with its rustic shape, simple texture and flavor. Nothing special. I probably didn't bother posting the recipe before now because these cookies just didn't seem like anything to write home about.

That ease and simplicity is precisely why I love this recipe though. There are only three ingredients. No pesky all-purpose flour to sprinkle it's nutritional worthlessness all over the kitchen, no baking powder with it's long list of chemicals. You don't even need to plug the mixer in. It takes one bowl, a single measuring cup, a spoon for stirring and portioning out dough, and whatever baking sheet can be reached the easiest without sending down a hailstorm of crashing metal pans that have been balanced precariously for weeks.

Not that I have a tendency to pile things into towers in my kitchen...

I found this recipe a handful of years back in A Taste of Thomaston, one of those lovely spiral-bound Junior Woman's Club cookbooks that all small communities seem to put together for fundraisers. My mother finds these little gems at yard sales and never fails to pick up a handful to add to my collection. The older, the better, in my estimation, and I am especially fond of the ones that come from towns I have never even heard of. It is here, in these simple recipes that you can find oddball desserts like Tipsy Squire nestled in amongst 15 imperceptible variations on Chocolate Chess Pie.

I live for this kind of thing.

Here in the South, everyone has some dish that they remember fondly from church potlucks, county fall festivals, or any luncheon preceding or following a wake, wedding or shower. You can chase people down and try to get these recipes from them years later, but these just aren't the types of recipes that get written down and more often than not, no one else remembers the dish in the first place. That, my friends, is where these community cookbooks come in. If you want to duplicate a molded jello salad with canned fruit from the 1970's, hit me up. I bet I can find the exact permutation in one of these little mimeographed books.

If I remember correctly, I was doing due diligence on Peanut Butter Balls (only two varieties in this particular compendium) when I stumbled across this recipe, a few pages to the left, titled 'Unbelievable Cookies' by Martha Bell. Of course all the cookbook perusing had piqued my sweet tooth already, so when I happened upon a recipe that called for nothing more than peanut butter, eggs and sugar, I reached right over to start preheating the oven. I figured I had little to lose, maybe four minutes would be spent on the three succinct sentences of instructions, and it is always better to have cookies than to have not, yes?

Of course we loved them. And so I made another batch that very evening, and the day after as well. We are slightly fanatical about peanut butter to begin with - I cannot count the number of times I have caught one of my children (and even my husband) eating out of the jar with a spoon - so these were right up our alley, and I found that leaving them in the oven until the edges start to turn golden brown gives just the right crunch to the outside of the cookie.

Best of all, my less-processed pantry staples do wonderfully here, without any compromises in texture. Natural cane sugar works well, as does all-natural old-fashioned peanut butter, either crunchy or creamy, but conventional ingredients will do fine if that's what you're into. Perfection doesn't even come into play with these cookies, which makes them a favorite of my children, since they can measure the ingredients themselves, do the stirring, and even spoon the dough out onto the baking sheet. Undercooking the dough will yield a slightly chewier result, while a slight charring will crisp them up a little more. As you can probably tell, I've never met a batch of these that I didn't like.

And when I threw a batch of these together while I was clearing the dinner dishes this evening, the whole family cheered.


PEANUT BUTTER COOKIES (from A Taste of Thomaston, makes a couple dozen small cookies)
  • 1 cup peanut butter, crunchy or creamy (conventional or all-natural)
  • 1 cup sugar (regular white or natural cane)
  • 1 egg
  1. Mix ingredients together in a small bowl.
  2. Drop dough by approximate teaspoonful onto baking sheet, flattening if you desire.
  3. Bake at 350 degrees for 8 to 12 minutes, until edges begin to brown.