Saturday, February 20, 2010

Peanut Butter Cups

Well, these aren't technically cups, per se, more like little peanut butter, eh, squares, but they taste so much like Reese's Cups that I simply cannot refrain from calling them by the same name.

Our family has hewn to a commercial-free approach to Valentine's Day for the past couple years. I think we said something out loud the first time, something along the lines of, "Let's cease wasting money on greeting cards that don't say anything worthwhile," but our high ground may owe more to pure laziness than to a moral imperative. We've been married for nearly 10 years now, and we know where we stand. Shopping for a way to prove it just seems rather silly, after all.

That said, we have these two hilarious children to think about, and while I do not want to raise them to think every little holiday needs to be commercialized and that we need to run to the inner circle of Hell to purchase the socially-required accompaniments, I also would rather not take all the fun out of everything for them.

Finding that sacred middle ground is an ongoing process. See, I don't really get into cutting out paper hearts and gluing glitter on construction paper and that sort of thing, but cooking is a craft I can really get behind. So last weekend, while we were all sitting around the table together eating lunch, I approached the subject of Valentine's Day and suggested we do 'something special' to celebrate.

"Like get some new toys?" The Boy Wonder asked excitedly. "Um, no," I responded, "Like make a special treat for each other," at which point I explained that Valentine's Day is about showing your family how much you love them, and what better way would there be for us to show love than to get into the kitchen together and play with some chocolate...

I mean, right? What would you rather receive for a V-Day present, a stuffed animal or a homemade dessert? A goofy five-dollar greeting card or a piece of hand-formed candy?

So that is how the kids and I found ourselves in the kitchen on Valentine's afternoon, rifling through cookbooks and stacking up measuring cups. Of course, there was the small stipulation that we would need to bake with whatever ingredients we had on hand. A trip to the store, even for a raw material, would negate the Commercial-Free Valentine's Day Celebration, so it is rather fortuitous that I keep a lifetime supply of dessert ingredients in the pantry (a home is not a home without vanilla extract and sugar).

A peanut butter dessert seemed to be our best bet for Valentine's Day, that being one of The Carnivore's favorite things in the world and he, after all, being my true valentine, so when I fell across an easy-looking recipe in The Silver Palate Cookbook (thank you, Becky, you dear, wonderful kindred spirit for this lovely book) for Chocolate Peanut Butter Bites, I halted the search immediately and started gathering ingredients. I was a trifle nervous, not an unusual state of being for me when armed with a new recipe, and not least because there was neither a photo of the recipe nor any descriptives whatsoever.

But like I said, it looked easy, not even requiring the use of the mixer or the oven, and the list of ingredients was so small and pure (butter, sugar, peanut butter, chocolate chips) that it just had to be good, especially considering the source.

There is little suspense to offer here though, because, obviously, these were a complete and utter hit. And I swear, I'm not exaggerating when I say it tastes just like a Reese's peanut butter cup (only better and without the preservatives and the excess packaging). There are two layers, the bottom one being the tender peanut butter 'filling' and the top being an absolute Godsend of thick, hard chocolate coating. And since I was out of peanuts, and substituted chocolate chips into the peanut butter layer, well, the texture is a revelation, with the firm bits of chocolate in the filling providing a welcome foil to the soft peanut butter. Perhaps just as important as the luscious flavor though, is the fact that this makes a nice, giant pan of treats. There were enough to share with my mother and grandparents, and still plenty left over to last us all week long.

THIS is what Valentine's Day is all about: love for our new favorite dessert (and, ahem, for each other, of course).


CHOCOLATE PEANUT BUTTER BITES (adapted from The Silver Palate Cookbook), makes 50

Note: the original recipe calls for 1 cup of peanuts to be stirred into the peanut butter mixture, instead of the 1 cup of chocolate chips that I used. Do with this information what you will.
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1 pound confectioners' sugar
  • 1 stick PLUS 1 Tbs salted butter, divided
  • 2 cups crunchy peanut butter (natural peanut butter works great in this recipe)
  • 1 cup PLUS 12 oz semisweet chocolate chips, divided
  1. Mix brown sugar, confectioners' sugar, 1 stick melted butter, peanut butter, and one cup of the chocolate chips together.
  2. Pat mixture into an ungreased jelly-roll pan (or cookie sheet), about 15x10 inches.
  3. Melt remaining 1 Tbs butter and 12 oz chocolate chips, either in a microwave or a double-boiler, and spread melted chocolate mixture onto peanut butter mixture.
  4. Cut into bite-size squares (about 1-inch x 1-inch) and refrigerate for about 15 minutes.
  5. Serve chilled.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Burn Sauce and Baking Powder

I have no recollection of where I first heard the phrase "Consume Less, Create More," but it is something that has stuck with me - due in no small part to the fact that I have it written on a post-it note and stuck to my desk blotter where it refocuses my attention daily.

In a consumer-oriented culture, one in which money (or, ahem, credit) seemed to fall from the trees for a few years there, it can be counter-intuitive to NOT buy everything we need (and want), but this catchy little phrase grabbed me for other reasons as well when I first stumbled upon it. Namely, that I need to stop spinning my wheels and make things, you know? Not just to be less of a consumer in the financial sense (though that is often the driving force), but because I find such satisfaction, stillness and joy in making things. Hence the knitting, right?

Here lately, I have been digging a hole to the center of the earth when it comes to getting down to the basest of raw materials in consumption. It is all an effort to spend less on finished products, to better channel my meager funds into the local economy, to satisfy my own need to have a creative outlet, and really, to just flat out further my anti-establishment neuroses (of which I am quite fond); but what it means is that I have been lending enormous amounts of time and energy to thinking through each and every purchase I make.

Lest anyone think I've gone off the deep end, it isn't quite as neurotic as it sounds. To be sure, it is a little obsessive, but, well, I find it to be rather a fun challenge. And in the interest of full disclosure, I do still have cable television and plan to buy too many presents for The Boy Wonder's upcoming birthday. I am still an American, after all.

The thing is though, I want to whittle down my general household shopping list. It is the little things, really, that I'm devoting this kind of strenuous effort to, because we have long since shaken loose the sort of hangers-on like pre-made pasta sauce and bagged salads and other convenience items that encumber the typical grocery list, so my focus is narrowing, and now I'm being a bit spartan about the whole mess, even going so far as to try and make my own skin tonic (that was a disaster, by the way) in an effort to not purchase a particular type of skin cream that I do, it turns out, need to buy from the store.

Live and learn.

So I find myself somewhere in the middle, as usual. I'm simply not a purist - I'm just doing the best that I can. For instance, I will simply shrivel up and die a slow, agonizing death if forced to live without hair dye (I am a brunette this week, by the way), but I can, I have learned, live a full and happy life without commercial baking powder.

Have you seen the list of ingredients in a can of baking powder? What IS sodium aluminum sulfate? Calcium sulfate? Monocalcium phosphate? Do you really want those things in your dessert? A few years back, in an article on Scott Peacock in Gourmet, a recipe was printed for, get this, Homemade Baking Powder.

I had NO idea you could make it yourself. And it kind of pissed me off that I hadn't heard about it before. I mean, its no one's fault but my own that I didn't take Home Economics in school (and I will refrain from enumerating the details on the condescending attitude I held at the time), but why on earth aren't we all raised with this knowledge? Is it really so convenient to drive to the store to buy a package of baking powder when it takes all of three minutes to make it yourself?

This really steams my caboose, and I kind of want to stand in the baking aisle of the grocery store and pull a Michael Moore about the whole thing. I want a bullhorn and a camera guy, and I want to raise a big stink.

So it is kind of in that vein that I'm getting all slash-and-burn about our shopping list. And last month, when I reached up in the cabinet and pulled out the last of the bottle of Texas Pete or Louisiana Bull or Tabasco or whatever kind of hot sauce I had last purchased with a coupon, I got a little freaked out when I found myself just mindlessly writing 'hot sauce' on the shopping list. I mean, I can make homemade salsa. Why not hot sauce? Why should it be second nature to just go to the store and buy something without first even putting a few minutes of thought into whether or not I could make it myself? And, by the way, didn't I just see a recipe for pepper sauce in a recent issue of Food & Wine?

I did, of course. Right there, in the December issue that was lying open on the menu desk, was a recipe for Spicy Red Chile Sauce, and there I was, with a giant bag of red chili peppers that I had just picked up from Athens Locally Grown. Symbiotic moments like this are rare, I know. And this sauce, which I made on the spot, and which was not difficult and only took about 45 minutes total, has been a downright hit around here. Ours is rather spicy (we've taken to referring to it as 'Burn Sauce'), but the heat level can be tweaked to one's exact tolerance since, you know, it is homemade. The texture can be as thick or as fluid as you want, and the flavor, as I'm sure you can imagine, is so fresh and so pure that now I kind of can't imagine not having it around the house. Sort of the way I used to feel about bottled hot sauce. Funny, huh?

I may be neurotic, but in lieu of having a Michael Moore moment in the middle of the supermarket, I thought it might better suit my personality to just post these recipes here. Please share them; friends don't let friends buy baking powder.


HOMEMADE BAKING POWDER (from Scott Peacock, makes about 1/2 cup)
  • 1/4 cup cream of tartar
  • 2 Tbs baking soda
  1. Sift the cream of tartar and the baking soda together three times into a small bowl.
  2. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 6 weeks (mine has lasted for months, actually, with no detrimental effects on the finished product). It gets clumpy when stored, so just sift it again before using.

BURN SAUCE (adapted from Food & Wine, makes about 3 cups)

  • 1 pound fresh chili peppers (green or red), stems removed & discarded.
  • 2 cups (or more) water
  • 1 3/4 tsp salt
  • 2 1/2 Tbs rice vinegar
  • 1 1/2 Tbs sugar
  1. In a skillet, combine the peppers, the water and the salt, and bring to a boil.
  2. Reduce heat, cover the pan, and cook over moderately low heat for about 25 minutes, until peppers are tender. Check often to be sure water has not simmered off - in a cast iron skillet, more water will likely need to be added.
  3. When peppers are tender, stir in the vinegar and the sugar, and let the mixture cool.
  4. Puree the peppers and the liquid together in a blender, and taste the sauce. If too hot or too thick, more water can be added by the tablespoon until desired heat and texture is reached.