Monday, April 6, 2015

why you should always toast your nuts

always toast your nuts

If I could spread the gospel of a single, tiny cooking trick that will immensely improve outcomes of an entire category of recipes, I wouldn’t even have to pause for a second before shouting from the highest rooftops: TOAST YOUR NUTS!

Of course, I live with boys, which means that this leads to all sorts of fits of giggling, and of course, I’m just blaming them, it’s mostly me. What? I never promised you maturity.

But once the snickering dies down, do know I am as serious as can be about this. Nuts — almonds, I’m especially looking at you — that have not been toasted taste like waxy nothingness. Those same nuts, spread on a tray and roasted until they’re faintly beige within and a toasty brown on the outside taste heavenly, with a depth of flavor, intensity and nuanced aroma unimaginable 10 minutes earlier. Think of the difference between granulated and caramelized sugar, or between straight-from-the-package and browned butter and you’ll begin to get the idea.

Toasting improves the texture of nuts too, so that they stay crisp whether buried in baked goods or on top of a salad.

And the best part is, it doesn’t cost a thing. You don’t have to buy “the best” or “artisanal” nuts for this to work for you at home; this is about taking a simple, everyday ingredient an amplifying it. You won’t believe the way it can transform the most bland, no-name grocery store pecans until something that reminds you of pie, even before you add the butter, sugar, eggs and vanilla.

Continued after the jump »

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

make your own vanilla extract

homemade vanilla extract, day 5

For years, I resisted making my own vanilla extract, trusting my extract needs to companies that did an exceptional job of it. I didn’t believe that I went through enough of it to justify the extra expense of vanilla beans. This went out the window a year ago when I realized I’d blown through a $20 8-ounce bottle of vanilla extract in one vanilla-fueled frenetic holiday baking season. Ouch. Taking a cue from The Wednesday Chef, I decided it was time to make my own and I haven’t looked back since. Here’s how you can do it too:

let's make vanilla extract!

1. Buy vanilla beans: David Lebovitz has a great explainer on vanilla beans and a bit about the industry worth reading before you get started, but if you’re eager to just get shopping, a simple Google search for “buy vanilla beans” will return more results than anyone will need. My recommendations are two-fold: If you can find a site with unfiltered outside reviews from customers (a clue is when not all will be glowing or 5-star), do so, and, Buy your beans by weight, not number because if the beans are smaller than average, you don’t want to feel shorted. A quarter-pound bag will yield enough for 2 to 4 16-ounce bottles of vanilla extract, depending on bean size. (My batch yielded 4 bottles, but the beans were on the small — but no less delicious — side.)

2. Get a bottle to store your extract: Get a couple extras, because this makes fantastic gifts. An old, well-sterilized vinegar or oil bottle will work here, or a small wine bottle, or even an old glass vanilla bottle. Or, you can buy new ones. An amber bottle will better protect the extract from light and heat, though I’ve used clear ones so that I can see how the steeping is coming along, and just store it in a dark cabinet. [I’ve gotten mine from Specialtybottle.com.]

Continued after the jump »

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

on butterscotch versus caramel

easy butterscotch sauce

You wouldn’t believe how often I am asked this, as if I’m some sort of know-it-all. Okay, fine, I am, but mostly thanks to Shuna Lydon, who I consider a butterscotch expert, as well as a booster for making it at home, as there’s absolutely no comparison with any butterscotch flavored confection you’d buy at a store.

Butterscotch and caramel are both cooked sugars, but regular caramel is made with melted granulated sugar and butterscotch with brown sugar. Butter and cream are usually added to make a caramel or butterscotch sauce, the pourable format most people with a pulse enjoy over vanilla ice cream. Both benefit from a pinch or two of sea salt, but butterscotch tastes especially lost without it. Vanilla extract is another magical ingredient in the butterscotch realm, one that lifts its excellent flavor into the exceptional. But I think the biggest confusion comes from “scotch” part of butterscotch, as there’s actually no Scotch in it and it has nothing to do with Scotland. “Scotch” is thought to originate from “scotched” or scorched (“to cut”) which made it easier to break the candy into pieces later. That said, a spoonful of scotch whiskey doesn’t taste bad in butterscotch sauce at all, it just doesn’t need any to taste good.

See also: Ridiculously Easy Butterscotch Sauce + A Deep, Dark Salted Caramel Sauce

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

la crème de la crème, literally

la creme de la creme, literally

Today, I was innocently going about making ice cream for a little project* and I noticed, as I often do, that the pull-seal under the round spout of the heavy cream container I was using had a film of thicker cream underneath it. I know that cream can sometimes separate a little but do you know what I’ve never done? I’ve never fully opened up the carton and looked within. Had I, I’d have discovered tablespoons of thick cream lining the carton at the top that gentle shaking hadn’t loosened, the kind of thing that in another time, one of our grandmothers might have spooned this off of the fresh milk delivered in glass bottles into their coffee (siiigh). A normal person might have said, “Huzzah! Look at all those calories I never ingested after all!” but not me; I was devastated. Think of how much richer our whipped and heavy cream confections could have been over the years if we knew this was lurking? La crème de la crème is a thing that literally exists, and most of us have been missing out on it.

So, for now on: When using heavy or whipping cream, open up the carton in full, and scrape any thicker cream that may have separated into whatever you were making. Not all brands** may have this, but if it’s there, as a rule, nothing used to describe “the best of the best” should ever be missed.

* A lie, by the way, ice cream is not innocent and the project isn’t tiny, so eat all the vegetables you can this week before I set it upon you, hopefully in a week’s time.

** I was using Organic Valley brand heavy cream.

Friday, October 5, 2012

how to make your own pumpkin puree

buck-fifty

Is it fall where you are? Are you dreaming only of thick scarves, rust-colored crackly leaves, hayrides and hot apple cider with a cinnamon stick? Are pumpkin dishes on your agenda? Wouldn’t it be great if you knew how to turn those adorable pumpkins at the market into the puree that most baking recipes call for? Well, look no further!

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Lightly oil a baking sheet. Halve a sugar pumpkin and scoop out the seeds. Place the pumpkin halves cut side down your baking sheet and roast the pumpkin until it is completely tender inside, about 45 to 50 minutes. Scrape the pumpkin flesh off the skin with a large spoon (metal is great here, because of the sharper edges) and puree in a blender or food processor until smooth. Let cool and use as needed.

1 15-ounce can of pumpkin puree holds about 1 3/4 cups of puree.

Don’t have a sugar pumpkin? Sweet potato, butternut squash and red kuri squash are all great substitutes for pumpkin puree in recipes. Sweet potatoes will roast faster and so will smaller squash, but the method is the same: halve, roast facedown, scrape the flesh off the skin and puree it until smooth.