February 25, 2010

Old-Fashioned Caramel Corn & Peanuts

The caramel coated popcorn and peanuts that we known as Cracker Jacks is a true American relic. The crunchy, addictive snack was introduced by German brothers F.W. and Louis Rueckheim who set up a booth at Chicago’s First World Fair in 1893 and sold “candied popcorn and peanuts” made with popcorn, molasses and peanuts. (Other notable firsts at the Fair include Juicy Fruit gum, Quaker Oats, Cream of Wheat, and Shredded Wheat.) In 1896, the first Cracker Jacks hit the market. Legend has it, the Rueckheim brothers got the name from an animated sampler who remarked, “That’s a Cracker Jack!"

Courtesy of candyfavorites.com

Cracker Jacks were virtually immortalized by the American classic baseball song “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” which has its roots of fans singing it at baseball games since 1908. Then, more than 15 years after Cracker Jacks were trademarked, the product included a feature that made it an instant indelible part of American culture: the prize in every box! The history of Cracker Jacks prizes warrants an essay in itself—there are books and websites dedicated to the history of the surprise toys, which became a part of childhood for many generations. Prizes ranged from anything from baseball cards, wooden trinkets, tin jumping frogs, and model trains, to name a few. But the question remains, how many kids were truly excited and how many secretly disappointed by the prize they received in their box? Also in the early 20th century, the mascots Sailor Jack and his dog, Bingo, first appeared on the package, inspired by F.W. Rueckheim's grandson.

Whether you are a fan of Cracker Jacks or not, it’s hard to deny their lasting popularity and influence on American pop culture. I came across this TV advertisement on youtube, which I found to be quite amusing. I like to picture my parents (and even grandparents) scrounging up money to by a box from a local corner shop, and then tearing up the box to find the surprise toy. I encourage you to watch the commercial by clicking here.

Personally, I totally get why Americans fell in love with the original Cracker Jacks. I especially love the salty-sweet combination, bite-size crunch, and peanuty taste. I have to admit though, I find Cracker Jacks to be much too sweet for my taste. (I would be curious to know if the recipe has changed overtime to include more sweetener.) The company was sold to Frito-Lay in the 1990's.

I came across several caramel popcorn recipes online and tweaked them to my liking. The recipe for my old-fashioned oven toasted caramel corn is quite good (and not as sweet as other versions!) with the reminiscent childhood taste of Cracker Jacks. I took a bowl to a recent dessert potluck and it was empty in no time. Next time I would like to try other add-ins…almonds and cinnamon would be delicious!

Old-Fashioned Caramel Corn

10 cups fresh popped popcorn (I prefer the stovetop method)
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
2 tablespoons molasses
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup lightly salted peanuts, roughly chopped
Special equipment: candy thermometer (recommended)

  1. Preheat oven to 250°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
  2. Pour popcorn into a large bowl and pick out any unpopped kernels.
  3. In a small saucepan, whisk together sugar, corn syrup, molasses, butter, salt and 2 tablespoons of water. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and whisk for 3-4 minutes (until the mixture reads 250°F on a candy thermometer).
  4. Working quickly, remove from heat and whisk in baking soda and vanilla. Pour mixture over popcorn, using a rubber or silicon spatula to gently fold into popcorn. Stir in peanuts and continue stirring until distributed fairy evenly.
  5. Transfer to prepared baking sheet, using hands to press down flat. Bake for approximately 1 hour, stirring every 20 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool.
  6. Gently break up (leaving some larger clumps). Serve or store in an airtight container for up to a week.

February 15, 2010

Linzer Cookies: A Very Special Treat

Linzer cookies are not just any cookie. Crunchy, rich cookies made with flour, ground nuts and spices are cut into ornate shapes and sandwiched between scarlet-red jam. The buttery and soft spice flavors, paired with the jam's zesty and sweet taste, makes for a truly memorable treat. I had been wanting to make linzer cookies for years after reading about Austria’s famous linzertorte dessert. Valentine’s day offered the perfect opportunity to make some dazzling heart-shaped treats.

Linzertorte is one of Austria’s most prized desserts, originating from Linz in the early 1700s. The torte crust is made up of a rich buttery dough with flour, ground almonds, sugar, spices, and citrus zest. The dough is slathered with currant preserves and then topped with a decorative lattice crust.

Linzer cookies use the same recipe but are presented in a different manner. Two cookies are sandwiched together with a layer of preserves. The top cookie features a small cutout of some sort, exposing the crimson-colored jam underneath, and is often dusted with confectioner's sugar. These special cookies have found their place in American holiday baking and the recipe has remained largely unmodified (because it’s SO good). The only exception is that most American cooks seem to prefer raspberry jam or preserves. (Currant products never really made it big here did they?). Some cooks also experiment with different types of ground nuts in place of the traditional almonds.

Below you will find a heavenly recipe for linzer cookies, adapted from the esteemed baker, Dorie Greenspan. This particular recipe didn't have any lemon zest, but feel free to experiment. I was very pleased with the product and can’t wait to make them again, featuring different cutouts depending on the occasion.

Linzer Heart Cookies

1 1/2 cups finely ground almonds
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt

1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup sugar

1 large egg

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 cup good-quality raspberry jam or preserves (with a smooth texture)

Special equipment: a 2-inch cookie cutter and a 1- to 3/4-inch cookie cutter to make center cutouts*

1. In a medium bowl, whisk together ground nuts, flour, cinnamon, cloves and salt.

2. In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar together until smooth. Beat in egg and vanilla.

3. Add dry ingredients and mix until just combined. Knead slightly to incorporate any dry crumbs that remain at the bottom.

4. Divide dough in half. Put one half between two sheets of wax paper and roll out to 1/8-inch thickness. Repeat with second piece of dough. Place on a flat surface and freeze until very firm, about 45 minutes.

5. Preheat oven to 350°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

6. Peel off top sheet of wax paper and cut out as many cookies as possible using the larger cookie cutter. With the smaller cutter (or by hand), cut out centers of half of cookies. Gather dough scraps, reroll and chill.

7. Bake cookies until golden, about 11-12 minutes. Cool completely on sheets. Repeat until all dough is used.

8. In a small saucepan heat jam with 1 tablespoon water until boiling. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly.

9. Spread jam on surface of solid cookies and and top with cutout cookies.

10. Use a sifter to dust with powdered sugar.

*I didn’t have a small cookie cutter on hand, so I attempted to make my own cutouts with a sharp pointy knife. It actually worked quite well.

February 6, 2010

Hungarian Bean Goulash

Lately, I have been especially inspired by traditional dishes of Eastern Europe. Typical kitchen experiments have involved beets, potatoes, salmon, sauerkraut, dill and caraway seeds—ingredients that I consider to be distinctly Eastern European. I had been craving some good, hearty rye bread and decided to stop in my favorite bread spot, When Pigs Fly and take a look at their creations. My eyes were immediately drawn to a delicious looking loaf labeled “sauerkraut caraway rye”. A sample taste confirmed my first-rate expectations for this bread: hearty, dense, and distinctly rye tasting, with a brilliant touch of Eastern European flair from the heap of sauerkraut that is baked directly on the loaf. Now, what to make for dinner that highlights this remarkable bread…

Ever since I purchased a big tub of Spanish sweet paprika, I have been particularly interested in making Hungarian goulash. After all, the dish is defined by its deep, rich color and flavor owing to the generous addition of sweet paprika.

A little research informed me that the scarlet red spice is made from grinding dried paprika peppers. Paprika from Spain and the US are particularly mild, but Hungarian paprika, on the other hand, is known to be the finest—rich and robust. Paprika is central to Hungarian cooking and there are typically six varieties to choose from, each prized for its distinctive flavor.

Goulash originated as a simple herdsman’s stew—thick and spicy and made from heaps of paprika, onions and beef. Overtime, Hungarians discovered that paprika releases its color and flavor when heated with oil, a technique they employ when making goulash (but if the spice is cooked for too long, the sweet elements will turn bitter). While variations exist today, Hungarians maintain the following beliefs: the stew should be kept simple, the key is slow cooking, and one can never add too much paprika.

Given my affinity towards beans, rather than beef, I thought I would use navy beans, while preserving the traditional slow-cook techniques of the dish. The idea was alluring, as I am always seeking ways to uphold authentic ingredients and preparation methods of traditional foods and adapting them to my liking.

The result is a thick, hearty bean stew, with chunks of root vegetables, all slow-cooked in a rich, blazing red broth. The key is using dried beans since they have the ability to soak up the flavors of the savory broth. A big pot of bubbling, deep red bean goulash is a perfect warming treat to enjoy in the heart of winter. Plus, big-batch cooking such as this one allows you to ration out the leftovers to use later in the week or store in the freezer.

Hungarian Bean Goulash

Although any sweet paprika will do, if you can find imported Hungarian paprika, the flavor will be much more authentic and robust. The stew is heavenly with crusty rye bread and pairs nicely with a simple salad of greens, roasted beets and chopped dill.

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 small yellow onions, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
¼ cup sweet paprika (Hungarian is best)
2 bay leaves
1 tsp dried marjoram or oregano
1 ½ teaspoons caraway seeds
1 lb dried navy beans (or other small white beans), presoaked*
2 cups chopped root vegetables (carrot, parsnip, rutabaga, turnip)
1 teaspoon salt
1 Russet potato, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Freshly ground black pepper

Heat oil in a dutch oven or large heavy-bottomed pot. Add onions and cook, stirring occasionally until golden. Add garlic and stir 1 minute. Stir in paprika, bay leaves, marjoram, and caraway seeds and cook 1 minute. Add beans, root vegetables, and enough water to cover by about 2 inches. Cover tightly and cook until beans are nearly cooked through, about 1 hour. Stir in salt and potato, and cook partially covered 20 minutes longer. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve with rye bread, if you like.

* The quick-soak method works best: place sorted and rinsed beans in a large pot and cover with water by about three inches. Bring to a boil for a full minute, then tightly cover and turn off the heat. Let stand for one hour and then proceed with the recipe. Make sure the beans are always covered with water—during the soaking process, they can swell up to three times their volume.