Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Storm Update

Dear Readers,
I hope everyone in the Northeast is safe this morning.  Most of us who were in the path of Hurricane Sandy are just beginning to assess the damage done to our homes & surroundings.  Here in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, we had a lot fallen trees & branches as well as power outages Monday night; some of my neighbors are still without power.  Many streets and roads are impassable at the moment as a result, so I urge everyone to travel with great care and caution if you must be out.   

Thankfully our house is intact and nothing was damaged as the storm passed through on Monday.  Trees, branches and debris are being cleared from our home as we speak, so I won't be up and blogging for several more days.  Take care everyone. 


Friday, October 26, 2012

Crème Caramel ~ Flan

Made throughout Latin America and Spain, Flan can be found at many reputable restaurants or pastry shops in these regions that sell the best of the best.  This popular dessert is also loved in France where it is called Crème Caramel and is made into individual servings or into one large custard.  It's no mystery to me why it's so popular, because it is such a perfect dessert to end just about any meal.  Light, smooth & silky in consistency, Flan is crowned with a most delicious caramel that glistens when it's unmolded.  But, whether you call it a Flan or Crème Caramel, I think every home baker ought to make this showstopping dessert at least once or twice during the year.  The only thing that may seem intimidating about making the custard is the caramel itself.  With a few tips and things to remember, it too is quite easy.

Crème Caramel ~ Flan

I first had the pleasure of tasting a good, homemade Flan many years ago while traveling in Mexico with a group of friends.  Our hostess, Mrs. Hernandez, treated us to some pretty amazing food from the region we were visiting at the time, and it was on one of these occasions that her daughter, Hilda, presented us with this tasty dessert.  Like a professional, Hilda effortlessly unmolded the Flan onto a serving plate and what came out was a most spectacular custard covered in the sweetest of caramels. 

A slice served on a lustre ware plate.

That particular Flan has stayed in my food memory for over a decade and it is one I will never forget.  Over a decade later I was finally able to catch up with Hilda and get the recipe from her without a moment to lose; I did not want to pass the opportunity to have it in my files!  I'm so thrilled that she kindly allowed me to have it and was willing to have me share it with you.  Let's go step by step through this simple, but utterly scrumptious dessert which has been in Hilda's family for many years.  I think you're going to like it!

The Ingredients
  • 1 cup pure cane, granulated sugar {195 grams}
  • 5 large eggs, room temperature
  • One 12 oz. can {354 ml} evaporated milk or 1 1/2 cups whole milk, room temperature
  • One 14 oz. can {396 grams} sweetened condensed milk
Note: although Hilda doesn't add it to hers, her other siblings who make this dessert add a 1/2 teaspoon of pure vanilla extract to the custard.

Equipment: 2 quart saucepan, 2 quart baking dish (souffle dish, pie plate, 8" or 9" round cake pan), large roasting pan to set the baking dish in.

Center oven racks and preheat to 325° F (163° C)
Fill a kettle with water & bring to a boil.

I like using a deep/narrow 2 quart saucepan with a long handle to make the caramel.

For making caramel I prefer to use pure cane sugar because it doesn't have the impurities of beet sugar, which may crystallize and ruin your caramel.  Pure cane sugar is labeled as such on the packaging.  Beet sugar is simply labeled 'Sugar'.  By the way, there are two methods for making caramel: wet & dry.  The wet method involves adding water to the sugar and bringing it up to a boil.  The dry method uses sugar & nothing else.

Place the sugar in the saucepan and set it over medium-high heat.  Keep a couple of kitchen towels handy or pot holders in case your handle gets hot.  After a few minutes, you will begin to see the edge of the sugar liquefy.

DO NOT walk away from this procedure; keep pets & children away from the area you're working in. 

After a few more minutes you will begin to see the sugar start to melt.  Begin tilting & swirling the saucepan and under no circumstances should you use any implement to stir it.

The caramel will take on a dark amber color.  You can see that several pieces of my sugar have not melted completely.  Tilt & swirl the pan as you do this to get everything melted evenly.  If you need to move the pot away from the heat as you do this, by all means do.  You don't want the caramel to burn or else it will be bitter and you will have to start over.

 I'm tilting the pot here to get everything melted evenly.

 Voilà!  The caramel is done when it looks like this.  Quickly, but carefully take it off the heat. 

Immediately pour the caramel into the baking pan (set the baking pan into a large roasting pan), which should be nearby.  I like to make sure I get it all the way around the bottom of the baking pan.  Do not scrape out the pot of whatever is left in there.  Take two oven mitts or kitchen towels and quickly tilt & swirl the pan with the caramel so that it is evenly coated on the bottom.  

Note:  the baking pan will get extremely hot, so use those pot holders. 

Immediately add cold water into the saucepan that had the caramel and let it soak in your sink.  

DO NOT be tempted to stick your finger in the caramel to taste.  It is HOT & will cause severe BURNS

Set the baking pan aside as you combine the other ingredients.

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs until well blended.

Add the milk & sweetened condensed milk; whisk to combine thoroughly.  If adding vanilla extract do it now.

Pour the custard through a fine mesh sieve into the baking pan with the caramel.  You will immediately hear it hiss & crackle.

Add boiling water to come halfway up the sides of the baking pan, being careful not to splash any onto the custard.  This is a bain marie!

Carefully place the roasting pan into the oven and bake for approximately: 50 minutes to 1 hour & 10 minutes

When done, the custard will jiggle slightly (like jello) and a knife inserted in the middle will come out clean. 

Carefully place the custard onto a rack & let it cool completely.  Once cool, cover the pan in plastic wrap & chill in the refrigerator for several hours or overnight.  The Flan has to be served chilled.

When ready to serve, place the baking pan in a pan filled with hot water for about 30 seconds.  Run a sharp pairing knife around the edges of the custard to loosen.  You will see the caramel come through the sides as you do this.  If you swirl the pan, the caramel should rotate freely.  When it does, you know it will release effortlessly.

Find a nice cake stand with a lip around the plate or a serving plate deep enough to catch the caramel.  Place it over the baking pan.  Quickly flip everything.

The Crème Caramel ~ Flan will release & drop onto the serving plate.  This is what you will end up with.  Beautiful!

The custard will keep in the refrigerator, well covered, for up to 2 days.  This should make 8 to 10 servings.

Slice as you would a cake and serve immediately.  A good custard will slice perfectly and will be ultra smooth. 


Enjoy every bite of this classic dessert.  Thank you Hilda!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Good Things by Mail

As I'm busy doing everything that needs to get done around the house and testing recipes that I plan on posting, I'm also taking some time to send a care package to some special kids.  It's nice for me to be able to spoil my niece & nephews with a few homemade treats every once in awhile, because I know they always love whatever I send their way.  The moment they see the postman delivering one of my famous boxes, the kids are jumping up & down waiting to see what I've sent from Pennsylvania.  I do it for their birthdays and for the holidays, with Christmas being the biggest extravaganza of them all.  As a kid, I was spoiled by a few of my aunts & uncles whenever we'd pay them a visit & vice versa, so in a way I want my little ones to feel the same kindness and love I had growing up.  There are moments, however, when I don't wait for a special milestone event or for a holiday to send a box full of cheer.  If I know that someone isn't feeling well or is a little down for some reason or another, I get to work.

Some of you may know that my niece is going through her battle with leukemia at the moment.  Just last week she had one of her gruelling treatments which always take their toll on the days that follow these hospital visits, so as you can imagine it breaks my heart every time she has to endure one.  As much as I would like her battle with this disease to be done & over with, I know that it isn't going to be the case for several more months.  In the meantime, this uncle is going to try his best to make sure she smiles, laughs & is happy even on those days when she doesn't feel too well.  

A sampling of cookies getting packaged for gift giving.

My little one has a penchant for homemade cookies pushing store bought ones aside if she has the choice.  This smart cookie adores shortbread in all its versions, but truth be told, she loves Martha's Cranberry Coins to no end.  I simply have to include a batch of these every single time I send a care package; I also decided to make a batch of my Blueberry Cookies, minus the icing, because they have a hint of lemon which she loves.  Naturally, she shares with her siblings, parents & grandparents, so I make sure to make a lot of them. 

Even my kitties send their love.  Here is Mistress taking an afternoon rest from all that baking.  She's in charge of overseeing my work as I mix, slice & bake the cookies. 

Lion, well, he's in charge of making sure I do a great job of packaging the treats. 

This time around I had to include toys for my niece as well as for my nephews because no child should be left out when sending surprise packages like this one.  Everyone will have a little something to open by the end of the week.  To us adults it may not seem like a lot, but I can assure you that for the kids, it means everything in the world to them.  How do I know?  Well, without prompting from anyone the kids always tell their mom & dad that uncle David makes the best cookies ever. 

Perhaps I'm doing something right!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Capturing 2012 Fall Colors

Toward the end of the week we got drenched with so much rain that I thought we'd surely have our trees stripped bare of all their leaves before getting to enjoy the Fall colors.  Luckily, we seem to have been given a break by Friday afternoon, much to my relief.  As I was having my coffee Saturday morning while looking out the dining room window, I was amazed to see everything ablaze in such beautiful hues.  It literally felt as if our deciduous trees had decided to switch colors in the blink of an eye.  The large maples and lindens which divide the house and the barn, gave me the first clue as to the change.  Now was the time to begin photographing, capturing & cataloguing the changes around me, because otherwise I would completely miss my chance to do so.  Nature waits for no one.

The Driveway

After having a delicious brunch of wild-caught Alaskan salmon, oven roasted pommes frites, an escarole-romaine salad and some blueberry juice spritzers, I grabbed my camera and headed outdoors to inspect.  Leaves were strewn about everywhere, making that pleasant crunch as I walked over them going up the hill.  Since our driveway curves, it isn't always apparent what's happening beyond the barn until one reaches the bend a quarter of the way up.  I literally gasped when I reached that spot, because I was confronted with the colors I yearn for every single year around this time.  I can never tire of the beautiful spectacle that Fall brings to the Northeast and probably never will.  It's my favorite time of year. 

Just last week I showed you how our trees were slowly beginning to see a bit of their departure from the deep greens of spring and summer.  It is pretty amazing to me to think that within a matter of one week everything changed to what it is now.  Very soon all of our plant material will go dormant as the weather gets colder and the daylight gets shorter, but for now, let's enjoy Fall's beauty while it lasts!

I began my walk up the hill before noon on Saturday.

It always amazes me when I see this in October.

The barn driveway.

 This was such a different scene only a week ago

 Looking down the driveway you can see the 18th century colonial. 

The stone bank barn rests along this incline.  Dogwoods are so breathtaking to me that I consider them among my favorite trees. 

 Another view of the same spot just behind the annex.

 Look at the large specimen trees which surround the meadow!

Aren't they gorgeous?

A view down one end of our winding street with maples in bright colors.

This neighbor across the street whose house is shielded by a bank of evergreens is also experiencing Fall's splendor. 

 A quick look down the leaf-covered driveway, one would never guess that a house lies at the end of it.

 Here is a quick glance as I made my way through a trail back home.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Apple Muffins

Incomparably moist muffins made with freshly grated apples and a healthy dose of spice are just the thing to have right now with a large cup of coffee or a small espresso.  These somewhat innocuous-looking muffins may seem a bit squat & unassuming when they come out of the oven, but I warn you, they're addictively good.  Made with a large amount of the season's best apples along with delicious brown sugar & tangy buttermilk, my muffins have just enough batter to hold them together.  Cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg are naturals with apples, but so is cardamom.  Adding just a small amount of ground cardamom enhances the batter and really makes the flavor of the apples shine through.

Many varieties of apples are in season right now, and I highly encourage each & everyone of you to seek out the most flavorful and juiciest at a farmer's market near you.  If you want these morsels to taste of apple, the fruit must be delicious to begin with or else you may end up with bland muffins.  While testing the recipe I used a mix of apples that I enjoy eating (smokehouse, honeycrisp, golden delicious just to name a few), but I also made sure to test one batch using all granny smith apples.  Much to my surprise, the muffins made with granny smiths had the most apple flavor, while the ones made with a mix of apples had a more subtle, but equally delicious taste to them.

Perfect for a weekend brunch to eat at one's leisure, the muffins are also great to have during the week, either for breakfast or as an afternoon snack.  Completely optional but highly delicious is a cream cheese spread sweetened with a bit of brown sugar to top the muffins.  The tang of the cream cheese pairs nicely with the flavors of apple & spice, at least in my opinion.  What's more, using a low fat cream cheese (neufchâtel) takes away a bit of the guilt from icing them with it, but none of the indulgence.


Apple Muffins with Brown Sugar Cream Cheese.

Apple Muffin Ingredients
  • 1 1/2 cups {200 gm} all purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons {10 ml} baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon {2.5 ml} baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon {1.25 ml} fine sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon {5 ml} ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon {1.25 ml} freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon {1.25 ml} ground cardamom
  • 6 tablespoons {85 gm} unsalted butter
  • 1 cup packed {250 gm} dark brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs, room temperature
  • 3/4 cups {200 ml} buttermilk, room temperature
  • 1 lb {.455 kg} baking apples, peeled & grated (about 2 1/3 cups)
  • 1/2 cup {65 gm} coarsely chopped walnuts (optional)
Brown Sugar Cream Cheese
  • 8 ounces {227 gm} low-fat cream cheese (neufchâtel)
  • 2 tablespoons {30 gm} dark brown sugar

Yield: approximately 18-20 standard muffins
Equipment: Two standard-size muffin pans with 12 cavities each

Center racks & preheat the oven to 375° F (190°C)

In a large bowl sift the all purpose flour, baking powder, baking soda, fine sea salt, ground cinnamon, freshly grated nutmeg and ground cardamom; stir to combine thoroughly.

In a 2 quart saucepan, melt the 6 tablespoons of unsalted butter over low heat and set it aside to cool to tepid.

Note: in the ingredients picture I was using a 1 qt. saucepan and found it too small, so make sure you use a 2 qt. sized one.

Core & peel the apples.  Grate them into a medium bowl and pour in the buttermilk; stir to combine.

Add the eggs to the room temperature melted butter and whisk to combine.  Make sure the eggs are well blended.

Add the dark brown sugar and whisk to combine thoroughly.  Eliminate any lumps that may be found in the brown sugar.  The mixture will lighten, thicken and take on a dark caramel color.

Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients.

Add the melted butter, egg & sugar mixture.

Stir to combine with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon until almost blended; you still want to see a bit of flour.  Add the reserved apples & buttermilk.  Stir to combine.  Add the chopped walnuts (if using) and blend evenly.

This is what the batter will look like.  Thick, fragrant and quite delicious.  Go ahead, have a small taste.

Spray your muffin tins with a nonstick cooking spray or line them with muffin liners if you prefer.  Portion out the batter filling each cavity at least 3/4 full.  I would even venture to say to fill them all the way to the top because this batter will not spill over.  It's much too thick to do that.

Place the pans in the oven &
bake for approximately 15 to 20 minutes.

The muffins should feel set & spring back when tapped in the center.  A toothpick inserted in the middle of a muffin should come out clean.

When you remove them from the oven, let the muffins sit in the tins for 5 minutes before removing them onto racks to cool down.

Storage: the muffins will keep for up to 2 days at room temperature in an airtight container.  To freeze for up to 1 month, set the muffins on a large cookie sheet & freeze until completely solid.  Transfer them into zip top freezer bags and seal well.  Thaw at room temperature or in a small toaster oven.

To make the cream cheese spread, mix the cream cheese & dark brown sugar in a small bowl with a spatula until completely smooth.  The spread will keep for up to 1 week, well-covered, in the refrigerator.

Warm muffins are placed in a yellow ware bowl lined with yellow & black linen napkins to keep them warm.

 Suitable for breakfast, the muffins are very delectable with afternoon tea.

Most muffins are best eaten the same day they are made, but these apple muffins stay perfectly moist and edible for up to 2 days.  If you plan on spreading the muffins with the brown sugar cream cheese, do so right before serving.  Any leftover ones that happen to be iced should be refrigerated.  If you're having guests over for a weekend brunch, place the muffins in a large bowl lined with a kitchen towel and have a smaller bowl of the cream cheese at the table set & ready.  I can almost guarantee that everyone is going to devour these tasty morsels in no time.  Enjoy them with your favorite hot beverage or even with some cold milk if you prefer.  Apple muffins are delicious, very much of the season and great any time of day.