Category Archives: Confections and Candies

Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups

Three chocolate peanut butter cups 1Peanut Butter Cups and I have a bit of a love-hate relationship. I love to eat them, but sadly my hips and thighs protest quite loudly when I inhale too many. My hatred of Halloween likely stems from what I refer to the “Peanut Butter Cup Incident of 1985.” It was my first time giving out treats as an official grown up. I bought several large bags of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups in the snack size a week before Halloween. They disappeared within 2 days. I purchased several more replacement bags and discovered that I suffer from a chromosomal abnormality that affects my ability to control my willpower.

Luckily, now that “Big Butts” are back in style, we can all eat Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups with abandon!

These chocolate peanut butter cups are a variation on the original. When I saw Anna Olson make them on her Food Network show, Sugar, I knew I had to try them. The cups themselves are crafted from chocolate cookie dough. Once baked these cookie cups become a crunchy vehicle to hold the chocolate ganache filling and the peanut butter and cream cheese mousse topping. These are a very decadent, sophisticated peanut butter cup. mise en placelining mini muffin tinsfolding whipped cream into peanut butter creamcheesepipingon wood and marble tray 625 sq

Click here to print recipe for Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups.

chocolate peanut butter cup on server

Caramel Chocolate Dipped Pretzels and a Labour of Love!

on tray 625a sqAbout 6 months ago, my sister Jody asked me to make caramel dipped pretzels for her daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. She wanted to use them as place cards for lunch. Of course I quickly agreed. I love my niece and my sister very much. Besides, when it was my oldest son’s Bar Mitzvah, 10 years ago, she laboriously snipped twigs from her garden and fashioned them, with a hot glue gun and incredible manual dexterity, into numbers for the table cards for our dinner.

Another sister (I have four of them plus one bother!), Bo, baked and iced 225 of these adorable sugar cookies to give out to guests. They were created to look like the Bar Mitzvah boy! My siblings and I hail from a genetic pool of hard working and deeply creative folks! table numbersNicky cookies 2With the long lead time she had given me, I had ample time to research and test recipes so that we would have the perfect pretzel. My sister has a finely developed sense of aesthetics and we spent many hours discussing the appropriate colour shape and size of the tag to tie onto the pretzel bag and the colour of the ribbon. We debated fonts as well as font weights and sizes. We looked at the pros and cons of dipping all in dark chocolate or half in milk and half in dark. We contemplated coloured sprinkles vs. Skor bits. No option was left unconsidered.in brown vase 3Fast forward to a week before the Bat Mitzvah and I had yet to produce a single dipped pretzel. Somehow I just hadn’t gotten around to it. There was no shortage of caramel chocolate dipped pretzel rods on the Internet for inspiration.  I found these and  these and these. However, most of them used ready-made caramels and just melted them for dipping. I needed to make 140 pretzels! By the time I finished unwrapping enough tiny caramels for melting, the Bat Mitzvah would be over. Besides, my niece deserved better than store bought caramel.

During my research I discovered that most recipes for homemade caramel followed a fairly similar ingredient list and methodology. I settled on a caramel recipe from Mrs. Fields’ blog (of the cookie fame).  Following the methodology of most of the recipes I found, I dumped butter, brown sugar, corn syrup and sweetened condensed milk into the pot, brought it to a boil and started stirring. I ended up burning the bottom of the pot.  Dumped that mess out and started over again. Here is an excellent tip to remove burnt debris from the bottom of your pot: fill pot halfway with water, add a few tablespoons of powdered dishwasher detergent and bring to a boil. Rinse and scrub and most of it should come off.

Attempt # 2: I melted the butter, and then stirred in brown sugar until it dissolved. Then I added the corn syrup and condensed milk and boiled until my candy thermometer read 245°F. Once I started working with the caramel and it began to cool, it hardened too much for dipping.

At this point I suspected that my candy thermometer was off. I decided to test it by bringing a pot of cold water to a boil. Once the water was at a rolling boil, I checked my thermometer. It read 202°F.  If you recall from science class, water boils at 212°F. My thermometer was off by 10°F!

For my third attempt, I made the mental math adjustments and took the caramel off the heat at 235°F. Perfect!

making caramelspooning on caramel

I prepared a little video to show the coating and decorating process.

My sister and niece were thrilled with the finished pretzels. My sister ended up labelling them with beautiful kraft brown tags and purple raffia ribbon. She displayed them in glass ginger jars, All the guests gobbled them up very quickly.

pretzels for Em 3 pretzels for Em 2 in shot glasses 1

Click here to print recipe for Caramel Chocolate Dipped Pretzel Rods.

in brown vase 1

A Ride in the Irish Countryside

mug and marshmallows 3

This morning I had the opportunity to bike the countryside of the Emerald Isle (Ireland). The lush pastoral landscape offered endless hills in 40 shades of green. The climbs were steep, with very little opportunity for cruising. My heart rate went into the red-line zone (gasping for air and unable to speak a coherent word) and I was dripping in sweat.

Sadly, this was just a virtual tour of the Irish countryside. Our instructor at today’s spin class, the very funny Roger, has quite the active imagination. He took us for a ride in the stunning Irish countryside and promised us that if we pedaled hard, there would be a pub at the end of the ride with a cold pint waiting as our reward. About halfway through the ride Roger sang out, “put your arms up in the air”. I raised both arms and gave him fist pumps. My husband and daughter looked the other way and pretended they did not know me. Apparently instructors always yell out these instructions, but no one ever follows them. Oops!

Roger kept talking about a bonus track. I had no clue what he was referring to until 45 minutes into the class, when we normally begin the cool down, he told us to ratchet up the tension on our bikes for one final hill. This was a special 60 minute class. Lucky me! I survived. Sadly there was no pub at the end of the ride. Just the dregs of my now lukewarm water bottle.

Annoyed that I didn’t get my visit to the pub, I decided that I deserved a treat when I got home. Hot chocolate and marshmallows seemed like the perfect way to cap off my morning.

To be honest, growing up,  I was never really a marshmallow fan. At overnight camp I would stick my marshmallow into the camp fire and set it on fire. I would remove it, blow it out and eat the carcinogenic burned crispy part and throw the fluffy inside away. I never did have the patience for toasting them golden brown. Yet another quality I admire in my husband. He will wait until the fire has burned down to low embers and hold his marshmallow just at the right height to obtain that perfect burnished bronzed colour.

I only recently began a love affair with marshmallows several years ago, after a lunch at Jean Georges in New York City. The meal was delicious but my favourite memory of that lunch was the Bon Bon trolley that they wheeled to our table at the end of our lunch. As the waiter approached our table with the trolley  he opened a huge glass jar filled with handmade pink marshmallows and lifted one out with tongs.  Then he proceeded to cut each one in half with very fancy silver scissors.  I inquired whether marshmallow cutting was a position you had to be promoted to.  He responded that it was an entry-level job. I am still thinking about applying! Just in case you are wondering, the Bon Bon trolley also held cotton candy, salted caramels and assorted chocolates. It was a pretty special day for me! Ever since that day I have wanted to try my hand at making my own marshmallows.

I knew that making marshmallows requires precision and a candy thermometer. I turned to my favourite culinary scientist for the how to, Alton Brown. Gelatin and ice-cold water are placed in the bowl of the stand mixer. Then sugar, water, corn syrup and salt are placed in a heavy bottom pot and brought up to 240° F. The mixture should then be allowed to cool to 210° F and then poured into the stand mixer bowl while it is mixing on low-speed.

adding gelatinadding cold water

boiling sugaradding sugar syrup

Then you turn the machine up to high-speed and mix for 12-15 minutes until the mixture cools to lukewarm. In the last minute of mixing you can add any flavourings you like. I added some vanilla bean paste. While it is mixing, prepare a 9 x 13 inch pan by spraying it with Pam and then coating it with a mixture of cornstarch and icing sugar. Then tip the goo into the pan and spread it out with an oiled spatula. This is a very gooey mixture. Dust the top with more cornstarch and icing sugar and put it aside to set for at least 4 hours or overnight. Resist the urge to lay your head down on this pillowy softness. It will not end well.

icing sugar and cornstarch

marshmallow mix pouring into pan

spreading marshmallow smooth

I topped half of my mixture with some toasted coconut.

half plain half coconut

A serrated knife does an excellent job cutting the marshmallows, once they have set up. You will have to wash the knife off fairly often while cutting.

cutting marshmallows

Now, onto the hot chocolate:

mug and marshmallows 2

When my kids were little the only way I could get them to go outside to play in the winter was to bribe them with hot chocolate when they came back in.

They would indulge me and play for about 20 minutes and then come inside on the pretext of having to go to the bathroom. After helping them struggle out of their snowsuits we were all sweating and no one was anxious for the dance that required getting back into all those layers. And then it was time for hot chocolate.

I will admit that I resorted to a packaged hot chocolate mix. Truthfully, the kids didn’t even like the hot chocolate either. It was really all about the marshmallows. They would scarf down the marshmallows I let them heap in the hot chocolate and I would end up pouring the hot chocolate down the drain.

At the time, it never occurred to me that you could make your own hot chocolate mix. But you can, and it’s spectacular! This recipe, from the folks at Cook’s Illustrated, makes enough powdered mix for about 20 cups of hot chocolate. It can be stored in the cupboard for about three months, so when the craving for a cup hits you, simply stir 1/3 cup of the mix into some hot milk!

The uniqueness of this mix is that it contains two kinds of chocolate. The first, of course, is cocoa powder. There are two types of cocoa powder, natural and dutched, (also known as Dutch processed). For this recipe you want to seek out the Dutch processed kind. Camino makes an excellent dutched process cocoa powder that is available in the organic section of the supermarket.

Dutched cocoa powder has gone through an alkalizing process, which gives it a darker color and makes it less acidic.  The result is a richer, more intense chocolate flavor and a nice deep chocolate color.  You will sometimes see Dutched cocoa powder called for in recipes for beverages or desserts that aren’t baked since the flavor is less bitter than regular cocoa powder.

The mix also contains white chocolate, which gives the final drink a soft creamy texture.

The final ingredients in the mix include skim milk powder, which adds a sweet dairy flavour, confectioners’ sugar, which dissolves more easily than regular granulated sugar and cornstarch, which is added to the powdered sugar to help thicken the cocoa. All the ingredients get pulverized in the food processor.

hot choc ingredients

jar and marshmallows

Click here to print recipe for Homemade Marshmallows.

Click here to print recipe for Best Ever Hot Chocolate Mix.

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Peanut Butter Sizzle Truffles

If you think you are about to read a sweet Valentines Day post, you would be wrong. This is not that kind of story.

As a parent, when your children are young, they idolize you. They think that you can do no wrong and that you have the answers to all of life’s mysteries. But then gradually, that paradigm begins to shift. And there comes that day, usually when your kids are in their teens or early twenties, that they suddenly look at you and think, “My parents are so clueless.” For me, I can pinpoint the exact moment it happened with my oldest son. It was yesterday morning at precisely 6:17 a.m.

Let me back up a minute and go to the beginning of this tale. Wednesday afternoon I was in the bathroom, washing my hands. I went to open the door, but the handle seemed jammed. I twisted, jimmied and turned the handle for several minutes, before coming to the realization that I was locked in the bathroom. I opened my hair accessory drawer and tried to MacGyver my way out. After breaking several hairclips, a comb and some bobby pins, I realized I needed help.

Luckily my oldest son was home. I yelled for him and banged on the door, and eventually he heard me. “How could you possibly get locked in there?” he asked. After explaining to him that kind of comment was not helpful, I sent him to find a screwdriver. He tried to unscrew the handle to get it off, but somehow the screws would not budge. He suggested that perhaps I climb out the window. I was on the second floor, and there was no ledge or roof outside the bathroom window, so I quickly nixed that plan. He offered to get a ladder. I told him to call our handyman. Peter, the handyman, arrived and somehow got the door handle off and rescued me. I left the handle on the bathroom counter to deal with it later.

That night, when my husband came home, I told him what had happened. He asked, “How could you possibly get locked in there?” Why do they ask the unanswerable? We discussed how we would get the lock fixed or replaced and then we went to sleep. Fast forward to 6:00 a.m, when I was roused from a deep slumber by a loud banging from inside our bathroom. I went to the door, and my husband was calling my name.

Unbelievably he had gotten locked inside the bathroom. Of course I could not resist asking, “How could you possibly get locked in there?” Apparently, Peter just removed the handle and not the locking pin mechanism. So when he closed the bathroom drawer, the locking pin got jammed again. We had left the screwdriver in the bathroom the day before so he began fiddling, but nothing was budging. I suggested he remove the hinges and we could try to open the door that way. This was followed by grunting and cursing, but he got the hinges off. I tried to push on the door, but it would not budge. I needed my oldest son’s muscle.

I knocked on his bedroom door, and apologized profusely for waking him up. I explained that his father had gotten himself locked in the bathroom and I needed his assistance. As the realization of what had happened began to dawn on him, I could almost see the little speech bubble forming above his head and the words forming…”These people are idiots!” However, I guess I raised him right because he never actually said the words. He slowly walked down the hall and used his shoulder and hip top give a few good pushes to the door. It finally gave way and my husband was free.

I spent the next few hours, on-line trying to find matching door handle sets, to no avail. I was feeling stressed! I needed to create and it had to be something chocolate.

I needed a complex project to take my mind off the whole bathroom door fiasco. Peanut Butter Sizzle truffles it was. This recipe hails from Andrew Garrison Shotts beautiful book, “Making Artisan Chocolates.” The sizzle in the title refers to a pinch of cayenne pepper in the filling. Just the thing to calm my nerves!

It begins with the making of the “Caramel Crunch”. Sugar and corn syrup are cooked until amber and then poured onto a silpat sheet or some parchment paper. Cover with a second sheet of parchment and roll with a rolling-pin until flat. let harden and then pulverize in the food processor.

Melt some milk chocolate to 88° F. Add smooth peanut butter (not the kind you buy at the health food store), the caramel crunch, some cocoa butter and a pinch of cayenne. I tasted after adding a pinch but felt it needed more. I probably used almost half a teaspoon. It was that kind of day! Let the mixture sit for a few hours until it firms up a bit. Resist the urge to eat it out of the bowl, just like this.

Then spoon it or pipe it out into little mounds and chill for a while. Crush and toast some salted peanuts.

When the mounds are firm (I chilled mine all day), roll them between your hands to form round little balls. Get some bittersweet chocolate ready for dipping. Andrew says to temper the bittersweet chocolate for dipping. Since you are rolling them in peanuts after dipping, it is not absolutely necessary to temper the chocolate. If you are keen to learn to do so, here are some step-by-step instructions. Andrew Garrison Shotts explains the difference between tempered and untempered chocolate beautifully,

“Tempered chocolate sets quickly at room temperature, hardens as it dries, is shiny and brittle, shrinks slightly as it sets (and therefore releases easily from a mold), has a smooth mouth-feel, and once set, holds it’s luster and shape at room temperature for extended amounts of time without melting.”

Or if you actually have a tempering machine, now would be the time to break it out! I have been dreaming of having my own ever since visiting here, so I finally broke down and bought one.

The outside is salty and crunchy from the chopped peanuts. Then you bite through the dark bittersweet shell and inside you discover the sweet creamy peanut butter filling, with a bit of crunch from the caramel. It’s not until after you swallow that you get the bit of heat from the cayenne, right at the back of your throat. A pleasant little sizzle. Just the thing to calm the nerves! I think I may have to stash a supply of these in the bathroom, just in case!

Click here to print the recipe for Peanut Butter Sizzle Truffles.

Holiday Baking Day 5: Packaging

Last week I wrote about the joy of having 2 dozen pounds of unsalted butter neatly stacked in my freezer. However, this happiness is easily usurped by seeing 7 varieties of holiday treats (cookies, bark, brittle) neatly packaged and ready for giving. The sight of this never fails to fill me with delight and serenity.

After the hard work of the baking is done, it’s time for the fun part…packaging it all up to give away. I am always on the lookout all year for interesting, reasonably priced containers in which to package up my treats. Ordinary “holiday themed” cookie tins are a little too pedestrian for me. I like to think outside the box. One year I packaged Pecan Almond Caramel Corn into a cello bag and stuffed it into an outdoor lantern from Ikea. Another year, I packaged up all the cookies in cello bags and then presented them in a huge watering can.

This year, I found these adorable treasure chests at HomeSense. The problem was, they only had about 8 of them, and I needed 40. So, I spent an afternoon driving around to all the HomeSense stores in town. (There are 5 in the Ottawa area) By the end of they day I had enough. I attracted a bit of attention at the cash when I piled my 10 treasure chests onto the counter. Everyone felt the need to ask me what I was planning to do with them.

This year I was very excited to have some help doing the last bit of baking and packaging. My girlfriend and her daughter, (who is my god-daughter!) from Toronto, came for a visit. My god-daughter wanted to come and learn how to bake with me. She is 20 years old and has wonderful fine motor skills. Within minutes, she was piping the gingerbread snowflakes like a pro! With their help, I got everything packaged up in record time. I loved having their company and can’t wait for them to come back next year and help me again!

The treasure chests were black and white so I downloaded a black and white pattern to use on my labels. We played around with a few different accent colours (lavender, yellow, pink and turquoise) and the blue shade was voted tops! I use a software program from Broderbund called Print Shop. The circular labels are from onlinelabels.com.

It was a bit of a challenge to fit all the cookies into the chests, but my girlfriend is a deep thinker and very intelligent and she figured out the best way to do it in no time flat. My spatial skills are very weak so I was tremendously grateful for her assistance, as it would have taken me forever to puzzle it all out.

I used to tie up all the cello bags with ribbon but that caused a few different problems. Firstly, it was very time-consuming and secondly, it was way too easy to untie the bags, steal a cookie and then tie it up again, without anyone being the wiser. I finally invested in a bag sealer which has saved me money in ribbon, time in bow tying and calories in keeping my grubby little hands out of the bags!