Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Christmas and Cinnamon Rolls...

We spent Christmas in South Carolina at my parents' new house, and it was so wonderful to spend time with them, my sister and her husband, and their three beautiful girls.  The only person missing was my brother, but at least we'll get to see him this fall at our wedding.

I hadn't seen my parents since they moved back to SC a year and a half ago, and it had been longer than that since I'd seen my nieces.  The little girls really don't know me well since they're only 2 and 5 and they've only met me a few times over the years.  But my 14-year-old niece and I have always been close since she spent her first five years in Colorado before they moved to Indiana, and then I moved there, too, to be near them for a few years.  I miss them all so much.

After flying into Atlanta, GA on Sunday and spending the night with my aunt, uncle and cousins who I'd lived with for almost a year during college, we drove up Monday morning to South Carolina, where everyone was waiting for us.

I started the trip with good intentions of continuing my healthy eating plan, in which I've been limiting myself to one dessert a week, so I began the day with grilled chicken, scrambled eggs and tomatoes for breakfast  at the airport and even turned down the biscoff cookies offered on the plane.  But by the time we landed, I was starving and after a bacon cheeseburger smothered with sweet Jack Daniels sauce and fries for a late lunch, it seemed futile to try to resist the parade of pound cake, apple pie, caramel sauce, ice cream, granola, chocolate cinnamon loaf cake, pumpkin streusel coffee cake, ham and mashed potatoes, chili and cornbread, hot chocolate and round-the-clock pots of coffee.

And yet, I suppressed the urge to add artificially flavored creamer to my coffee since it's full of ingredients I'm trying to avoid.

That's right, hold the creamer.  But please pass the pie.

It was a delicious week.

Tuesday morning, Laura, her husband Chris, Jamie and I took off to go explore our old neighborhood and see the house where we grew up.  Driving down our old street, my mind was flooded with memories from childhood.

The house looked almost exactly like I remember it, the shutters and garage the same hunter green that my dad and I painted them so many years ago, the brick steps leading up to the front porch where we spent long summer days playing with Barbies, the front yard where we learned to hit softballs, celebrated birthday parties, chased fireflies and ran around in our bathing suits through the sprinkler.

The trees in the front yard, just sticks when my mom planted them over 30 years ago, towered over the house.  The chain link fence had been replaced with a wooden fence, and I wondered if the cement patio out back where we skated back and forth was still there.

I half hoped that if we lingered outside long enough, the owners would come out, and seeing as it was Christmas Eve and all, welcome us to come inside to take a look around.  But of course they didn't, so we walked down the street to the rickety bridge that crossed a stream into the woods.

The path that we had named "Lover's Lane" led up a hill into what used to give way to a clearing, where an old abandoned mansion sat, ramshackle and dejected.  We used to imagine that the house was haunted, and maybe it was.  A lonely horse we named Patches was fenced on the property, but we never knew who he belonged to or who took care of him.

Imagine our disappointment to find the clearing overgrown and full of thistles, and the house gone, completely torn down (or burned?) without a trace to indicate it had ever been there, other than a rusty old mailbox with the former owner's name.  I wish I knew the history of that old house.

The funny thing is that while our old house and the woods where we played looked much like I remember, they also looked just a little bit smaller.

My parents' new home backs up to 50 or so acres of woods, with walking trails wandering here and there through the trees, so we took the girls for a walk one afternoon.  It was almost sunset, and the warm, almost fall-like weather quickly turned cold under the shadow of the lush green forest.

I pointed out a wild mushroom to 5-year-old R., but instead of inspecting it closer like I thought she would, she squealed excitedly, "Let's kick it!", and then booted it with her foot, except that she pronounces 'k'' as a 't', so it actually came out as, "Let's tit it!"

After many Christmas movies were watched and games of Phase 10 and ping pong were played, cookies left out for Santa, presents opened and Christmas dinner eaten, it was time to say goodbye and go home.  My mom cried.

We got home Thursday night at almost 11pm, our Christmas presents for each other still waiting, unwrapped, under the tree, so we decided to celebrate our own Christmas morning the next day.  And even though it was late and I was tired, I wanted a special breakfast after opening presents, so I mixed up yeast dough before bed, leaving it to rise on the kitchen counter overnight, for cinnamon rolls the next morning.

I only make cinnamon rolls around Christmas, which makes them a special treat, and I added a little almond extract to the dough, as well as to the frosting.

After the present opening, we ate hot cinnamon rolls with coffee, made a quick grocery run, and then settled in for a long cozy weekend of watching the entire series of Harry Potter.

One Year Ago:   Apple Cider Poached Pears at Midnight
Two Years AgoEggnog Pudding

Cinnamon Rolls

  • 1/4 cup warm water (110-115 F)
  • 1 packet active dry yeast
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
  • 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus 1/4 cup if needed, and extra for rolling
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 egg
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons milk or cream
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract (or vanilla, lemon or orange extract)

To make the dough, pour the water into the bowl of your stand mixer and sprinkle with the yeast.  Let stand 10 minutes, until foamy.  Add the remaining ingredients and mix with the dough hook to combine.  Knead on medium low speed for about 8 minutes, gradually adding another 1/4 cup flour, if needed, until the dough is soft and pliable.  Place dough in a well-greased bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and set in a warm place to rise until doubled in size, about 2 hours (I left the dough on the counter overnight at this point).

When the dough has doubled in size, roll it out on a lightly floured surface into a large rectangle, about 1/4 inch thick.

For the filling, brush the dough with 4 tablespoons of the melted butter, then sprinkle with the sugars and cinnamon.  If you like, you could also sprinkle the dough with raisins or dried fruit, chopped nuts or chocolate chips.  Roll up into a log and slice into 12 rolls.  Place one inch apart in a greased baking dish.

Baker's Note: Bake only 6 rolls in a 9x13 baking dish, or all 12 rolls on a cookie sheet, to give them plenty of room to expand.  You can also bake half and freeze half to bake later, wrapped tightly in plastic.

Brush the rolls with the remaining 2 tablespoons melted butter.  Cover the pan with a clean kitchen towel and let the rolls rest and rise for 45 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350.  Bake the rolls for 25-30 minutes, until golden brown.

For the glaze, beat all ingredients with an electric mixer until smooth and fluffy.  Spread onto the hot cinnamon rolls for a glaze that drips into all the crevices, or wait for the cinnamon rolls to cool and then spread it on like frosting.

Baker's Note:  Like most homemade yeast breads, these are best the day they are made, but are still good warmed up the following day.

Yields 12 cinnamon rolls

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen

Sunday, December 29, 2013

English Toffee

A few years ago, I worked with a lady who always made the best toffee at Christmas.  And every winter after she cooked up a fresh batch, she'd send a small box to my department at work, where it barely lasted until the end of the day.  Her toffee was famous around our office.

Eager to try making it myself, I asked her if she would share her recipe with me, and I confidently plopped butter and sugar into a stockpot and started cooking.  What resulted was disappointment, as well as a few tears, over batch after failed batch that either burned, crystallized or separated.  I thought I was doing everything right, and simply had no idea if it was my electric stove, the high altitude, or just me.

After four attempts in one evening and a trashcan full of what began as perfectly good butter and sugar gone to waste, and only one batch that mysteriously succeeded but that I was unable to replicate, I put my attempts to rest.

And it wasn't until I began making my own salted caramel sauce, having discovered the secret use of a little corn syrup to counteract the crystallization of the granulated sugar, that I started daydreaming about making toffee again.  Maybe, just maybe, the same trick that helped me succeed at caramel making would guarantee a perfect batch of toffee.

But even though I was fairly certain it would work, it took me another winter to finally decide to try again.

Before our trip to see my family for Christmas, I wanted to cook up a batch of toffee to take along, as well as some seasoned almonds and pecans that I packed up in pretty little striped boxes a friend had given me for my birthday last summer.  So confident was I that the toffee would work this time, that I doubled my recipe and started with a whole pound of butter.

After melting the butter, I added the sugar, corn syrup, water and nutmeg.  I watched with bated breath as the sugar dissolved.  I carefully rinsed the sugar crystals off the wooden spoon, just in case.  I stirred the boiling sugar, ever so gently, my face hot and damp as I couldn't take my eyes off the toffee, my heart literally pounding for those 30 minutes, fearful that those beautiful bubbles would suddenly turn into grainy lumps.

As the timer ticked and the sugar darkened to amber and everything still looked as it should, I still couldn't relax.  It wasn't until I drizzled strands of toffee into ice water to check that it was at the hard crack stage, and then stirred in the vanilla and salted cashews and spread the toffee out onto the baking sheets that I knew.  It was, unarguably, a perfect batch of toffee.

One Year Ago:   Dark Chocolate Cherry Trifle with Grand Marnier
Two Years AgoA White Christmas

English Toffee

  • 1 pound unsalted butter
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup light corn syrup
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla
  • 2 1/2 cups chopped salted nuts, divided (I used cashews, but almonds or pecans are also good)
  • 2 cups bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate chips or finely chopped chocolate
  • 1/2 - 1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
  • 2 baking sheet pans
  • parchment paper
  • wooden spoon
  • heavy-bottomed stock pot
  • pastry brush

Baker's Note:
The addition of the corn syrup helps to prevent the sugar from crystallizing and/or separating from the butter while cooking.  Maintaining even temperature while cooking is important; a gas stove would be ideal, but I only have an electric stove, so a good quality, heavy-bottomed stock pot helps to maintain the temperature.

Line the baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.  Place the butter in the stockpot and melt over medium/medium-low heat.  Add the sugar, corn syrup, water, salt and nutmeg.  Stir gently with a wooden spoon, to dissolve the sugar, taking care not to splash the sides of the pan.  Use a wet pastry brush to wash down any sugar crystals that stick to the sides of the pan.  Rinse and dry the spoon to get rid of sugar crystals.

As the mixture begins to boil, continue to cook over medium/medium-low heat, stirring constantly but slowly and gently, just lazily trailing the spoon through the boiling sugar.  Cook until the toffee reaches the hard crack stage, about 25-30 minutes.

Baker's Note:
Candy thermometers have a recommended temperature for the stages of candy making from caramel to soft crack to hard crack, etc.  I find these to be unreliable, especially at high altitude, so I don't use a thermometer.  Instead, when the toffee begins to darken to pale amber in color, I drizzle a few strands of the toffee into a glass of ice water and then test the consistency between my teeth.  If it's chewy, it's not ready; continue testing it every minute until it crunches, and the toffee has reached the hard crack stage.

When the toffee has reached the correct temperature/hard crack stage, remove from the heat.  Quickly stir in the vanilla (the toffee will hiss and bubble) and 2 cups of the nuts.  Immediately pour onto the parchment-lined baking sheets, spreading it out to 1/4 inch thick.  Sprinkle with the chocolate chips; after a few minutes, when the chocolate is glossy and beginning to melt, spread the chocolate over the toffee.  Sprinkle with the reserved 1/2 cup nuts and the sea salt.

Let the toffee cool at room temperature for 30 minutes, then refrigerate to finish setting the chocolate.  With a sharp knife, break the toffee into shards and pack into containers.

Yields about 4 pounds toffee

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen