Salted caramel Rice Krispies treats

A few years ago many Seattle coffee shops started carrying salted brown butter rice crispy treats. YUM. I discovered that they seem to be based on this smitten kitchen recipe. I was intrigued! However, I am nearly incapable of leaving a recipe alone, and since this isn’t technically baking (where precise measurements of chemistry and timing matter a ton) I figured I could get away with putting my own spin on these and making them EVEN BETTER.

Every time I’ve made them, I refer loosely to this recipe but I also make up a batch of proper caramel and mix it into things, and sometimes drizzle a bit on top. It’s definitely an improvement on an already delicious treat. And this week, when I made a batch for my new motherhood group, I have to say they are the best batch I’ve made yet! A few people asked for the recipe, so even though I’m not a recipe person I’m gonna do my best to write up what I did so we can all recreate it. :)

 

A salted caramel Rice Krispies treat on a marble plate

 

Virginia’s rough not-too-sweet caramel recipe, make this first:

1.5 sticks of butter
1 c sugar
1 c heavy whipping cream, plus more to even out texture if needed
Optional add-ins to taste—vanilla bean caviar, fancy salt

Melt butter in a saucepan on medium heat, then add sugar and cream.

Bring to a weird looking boil. Keep cooking 20-60 minutes until a dark amber color, scraping the bottom occasionally but largely avoiding stirring/agitating the mixture manually (stirring causes an unpleasant crystallized texture).

Keep close watch but know that it can take nearly an hour, depending on your cookware and stove type. Your goal is to have the mixture get caramelized but not truly burnt on the bottom. How dark you go is up to you; darker color will impart a more caramel-y flavor.

When you suspect it’s ready, remove a dribble with a spatula and place on a plate, allow to cool to room temperature and test. If the texture is very stiff and veering towards toffee, add a bit more cream to the mixture, taking care to pour slowly and stir it in carefully to avoid a dangerous boiling over from the temperature change. If the texture is crystallized but holds firm at room temperature, pour mixture into a blender to smooth out crystallization. If the texture is runny and doesn’t hold firm at room temperature, cook a bit longer.

When caramel is the desired flavor and texture, remove from heat and set aside. If it separates stir to combine just before adding to bar mixture.

If you want to include vanilla bean caviar or salt directly in your caramel (nice if you plan to drizzle some on top), save this until the very end and fold it in gently once cooking is completed. Small particles encourage crystallization so you should avoid adding these during the actual cooking process.

Note: these proportions make a deliberately not-very-sweet caramel, in order to avoid competing with the sweetness of the marshmallows. If you prefer a sweeter caramel, add more sugar.

Here is the smitten kitchen recipe portion, with my notes in italics:

Makes 16 2-inch squares or 32 1- x 2-inch small bars

4 ounces (113 grams) unsalted butter, plus extra for the pan (you can totally use salted though)
1 10-ounce (285-gram) bag marshmallows (the small ones are easier to melt)
Heaping 1/4 teaspoon coarse sea salt (or kosher diamond flake salt, or rock salt—sea is best but any fancy salt will work. You can also add more or less to taste, or sprinkle it on top instead of mixing it in if you prefer.)
6 cups (160 grams) crispy rice cereal (about half a 12-ounce box)—I like to get a non-Rice Krispies brand because not only are they cheaper, they tend to be less sweet and use less sketchy ingredients. Trader Joe’s makes a great one.

Butter (or coat with non-stick spray) an 8-inch square cake pan with 2-inch sides. (I get away with skipping this because my version is inherently butterier.)

In a large pot, melt butter over medium-low heat. It will melt, then foam, then turn clear golden and finally start to turn brown and smell nutty. Stir frequently, scraping up any bits from the bottom as you do. Don’t take your eyes off the pot as while you may be impatient for it to start browning, the period between the time the butter begins to take on color and the point where it burns is often less than a minute.

As soon as the butter takes on a nutty color, turn the heat off and stir in the marshmallows. The residual heat from the melted butter should be enough to melt them, but if it is not, turn it back on low until the marshmallows are smooth.

Remove the pot from the stove and stir in the salt and cereal together. Also stir in the caramel at this time. If you’ve added a lot of salt to your caramel, reduce the amount of salt in the rice crispy mix; taste constantly until you like the flavor. Reserve a bit of caramel if you want to use it for decoration. Quickly spread into prepared pan. I liked to use a piece of waxed or parchment paper that I’ve sprayed with oil to press it firmly and evenly into the edges and corners, though a silicon spatula works almost as well.

Let cool, drizzle with reserved caramel sauce and/or pretty salt if desired, cut into squares and get ready to make new friends.

Enjoy!

Supafine? No, ULTRAfine

ULTRAfineKnow how I was all cocky about my great cookies the other day? Well, ONE coworker gave me a less glowing but more helpful piece of cookie feedback: my bud Cristina mentioned that she could detect the large crystal size of the sugar I used. I tend to go for organic bulk evaporated cane sugar, which does indeed have a noticeably large crystal size. In fact, said crystal-crunchiness had always bugged me too, but even the finer organic evaporated sugars I’ve found have still been kinda chunky like that. I’ve occasionally been precious enough to grind it down to a supadupafine size in a coffee bean grinder in order to, say, sugar a cocktail rim, but never have I done this with enough sugar to bake anything. Who has time for such frivolities?

A: The C&H company. (OK, by “time” we should probably round up to “massive industrial complexes and machinery and infrastructure” or something.) So check this out: you can buy supafine and also ULTRAFINE (“baker’s”) sugar in the grocery store! I knew that sexy fine cake flour existed, with a creepy name that makes it sound like knockoff Dove Body Wash, but I never realized that a fancy sugar also existed. I bought some recently, mainly because I was at a sketchy little mini-mart that didn’t have great selection, but I’m SO GLAD I did. Its deceptively weird milk-carton packaging is actually way easier for storage, and the stuff inside is amazing.

Cookie jarrrI’ve been using it to make the odd cocktail, such as my standby Sidecar or more recently, an Old Fashioned, which I started enjoying thanks to the most recent The Talk Show with Marco and Gruber. Anyway. Great for Old Fashioneds because you want something that dissolves quicker in less water, so you can move on to filling the majority of the drink with the important part (the whiskey). And today, I tried making white chocolate chip macadamia nut cookies with it—delish! I actually under-estimated the amount I would need, since I thought my cookies from before were both too sweet AND too crystally-crunchy. Turns out they may have only been the latter. But I daresay the texture is much improved now!

I can’t wait to try this stuff for cakes, as well as any recipe where I need sugar to dissolve fast. I think I’ll always keep a carton on hand. However, I do wish that I could get a luxury product like this in a less processed format—I know, what a brat, right?—because I do think organic sugar tastes better. It’s kind of like how I wish they made unbleached recycled Charmin, or unbleached recycled Bounty, ya know? It’s a real shame when natural products are inferior products. If I ever get windfall-rich and accomplish all my other many MANY windfall-rich goals (get a Ph.D. in linguistics; pitch a movie about online dating and actually get hired to do something with it; buy the silly ice cream joint by my house and turn it into a combo ice cream joint/neighborhood pub; get a legal pet ocelot somehow; ever fix our goddamn deck; start up a natural skincare line; buy the overpriced .com equivalents of all my silly domain hack websites; the list goes on and on) then I totally plan on making a company that makes Luxury Natural Products. Eh, maybe I will grind up a bunch of organic evaporated large crystal sugar for my next confection, just to see how it goes.

Oh, and isn’t my new foxy cookie jar adorable? It’s still on clearance at West Elm if you hurry. (Curse the lack of affiliate link.) We’d been wanting a sleek, mod-looking yet fun cookie jar for ages, and this could not fit that description better. They have some other cute animals too. Happy baking!

foxy

Tweaked rich banana bread

I made this banana bread, also to rave reviews from Cassie and Brigittie in particular. I admit it turned out very nicely and super moist. No pics fanciness, but here were my deviations from the recipe, for posterity:

  • I doubled it, so quantities adjusted accordingly.
  • I added enough molasses so that it was like using dark brown sugar.
  • I used two big bananas and two tiny ones which I think are a sweeter species.
  • No walnuts, a tad more vanilla than called for, and my usual pinch of xanthan gum with the dry ingredients.
  • Added about 1.5 tsp cinnamon, 1/4 tsp allspice, 1/4 tsp nutmeg, and 1/4 tsp ground cloves.
  • Didn’t quite have enough sour cream, so I supplemented with about 1/3 cup leftover cognac-spiked vanilla-bean-infused sugar-sweetened whipped cream from Thanksgiving. Shut up; it worked great.
  • I wound up needing to bake mine for at least 10 min. longer than she called for.
  • If I did it over I might experiment with cutting back on the sugar. Didn’t seem like it truly needed it all, esp. with the richness of flavor that my other additions contributed. (No offense, dear anonymous Internet Janet! Your recipe was a badass base for my compulsive experimentation.)

Classic chocolate chip cookies

This is my idea of the perfect chocolate chip cookie. It’s a variation of a combination of  recipes from Martha Stewart and the back of a Tollhouse chips bag, but with my own tweaks that personalize it.  If you experiment with the amounts of sugar, flour, vanilla, butter, and chips, plus oven temp and time and placement, you can customize it nicely to your liking. I find everyone has a different idea of “the perfect cookie,” but I hope you enjoy mine!

I brought these in to work today, and my coworker Cassie was so effusive and inquisitive in her praise that she finally motivated me to stick them in a proper post with proper instructions. Here ya go, Cassie!

Ingredients:

  • 3/4 cup white sugar
  • 3/4 cup dark brown sugar*
  • 2 1/2 cups unbleached white flour
  • 1 large egg (NOT Omega-3), room temperature if possible**
  • Up to 2 sticks salted butter, room temperature (I use somewhere between one and two sticks depending what I’m after – more butter = less fluffy/cakey, more crispy/chewy. Lately I’m a Full 2 Sticks kinda gal)
  • 1/2 tbsp (or less, if you like) real vanilla – don’t use imitation, buy a good but cheap real vanilla.***
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 12-oz package chocolate chips****
  • Optional – if you’re going to add nuts or dried fruit (dried sour red cherries make a wonderful addition), make sure to remove some chocolate chips to make room for them.  My advice is 2 parts chips, 1 part fruit/nuts/both, for a total of 12 ounces of add-ins.
  • See my personal baking tips for more detailed ingredient advice and techniques.

Directions:

  • Preheat oven to 350ish, and set out your baking sheets (but NOT on top of the oven). Cut up parchment or throw down the Silpat or whatever else you like to do to preserve your cookies’ asses.
  • In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar about two minutes, scraping sides and bottom well (especially if using a stand mixer).
  • Add molasses if you’re doing a brown sugar substitution, add vanilla and egg and keep beating.
  • Mix dry ingredients together lazily in a separate bowl, then add this mixture in about three parts, mixing after each addition. Don’t go overboard mixing once the flour is added, or your cookies will get all hard because you’ve teased the gluten out of the flour and accidentally started kneading the mixture like bread. Avoid that. Be lazy.
  • Stir in chips with a wooden spoon or paddle and try to make sure they’re evenly distributed.
  • For easy storage, use your hands to shape dough into balls or patties and keep loosely packed in Tupperware in the freezer for easy removal and baking of just one or two.
  • Chill dough if possible for at least 45 minutes, then bake at 350 degrees for 10-20 minutes, depending *very much* on your oven – check at 10, 12, 15, etc. minutes and remove at the first hint of browning on top.
  • Allow cookies to cool for at least 30 minutes.  For cookies you want to eat immediately, cook a bit longer (but leaving the ones for later to cool even if they seem a bit undercooked will make for softer, chewier cookies even after cooling – salmonella, shmalmonella, I say!)

 

*Best is if you do the whole white sugar but add molasses at egg stage thang.
**Duck is definitely best here! The biggest one in the dozen; be extra careful with shells since they’re thicker and even more unpleasant to bite into.
***An easy way is to do “vanilla sugar” — whenever you use vanilla bean caviar in a recipe, stick the hulls in a spice jar and fill with sugar. Use that sugar to bake things like these cookies. You’re welcome. (Still use the normal amount of vanilla bean extract as well.)
****I just use Trader Joe’s semi-sweet chips, but obviously, fancier chocolate makes for fancier cookies.

Tales of cocktails

Every once in a while, a strange invention will come out of needing to use up a certain ingredient. Two odd cocktails were born out of such circumstances over the winter holiday break, and I figured I might as well describe them since both turned out surprisingly tasty.

First was the scary greenish concoction pictured here, for which I am accepting name suggestions. (Ideas so far include Zombie Plague and Antifreeze.) This occurred because a bottle of my fancy Q Tonic had been erroneously opened the night before, and was about to go flat — and at nearly $2.50 per 8 oz bottle, I wasn’t about to let that happen. But we had no cucumber or lime, and thus could not properly enjoy a G&T with any sort of gin on hand.

So inventiveness reigned! I mixed fresh lemon juice, Hendrick’s Gin, Midori Liqueur, Cointreau, and shook them with ice, then combined with the remains of the Q. And threw in a couple ice cubes because I figured it might take me a while to down it all, and I like my drinks chilly.

These are all the lovely spirits (or spirit-specific mixers) I used. Sometimes I just want to look at liquor bottles all day long -- so elegant.

The verdict? Surprisingly not terrible. (High praise, I know — but when you look at the thing, you can understand my skepticism, right?) I might actually make this in the future — the end bitterness of the tonic has a nice contrast to the normally-too-candy-like Midori, and I like pretty much anything that has Hendricks and/or Cointreau poured into it. (Yes, I know Cointreau is über sweet, but it’s also “spirited” so hush.)

Next up was what I guess is a variation of a Creamsicle. See, for this one, we had planned a ladies’ night out… but one pal forgot her wallet, which contained her ID (and she’s babyfaced and infallibly gets carded). Through some creative problem solving, we were able to enjoy a night of revelry anyhow, but after the fact I was left with a stainless steel flask that had about a shot and a half of Absolut Mandarin in it. Not wanting to let that stuff go to waste (or take on a metallic taste as it sat too long in said flask), I decided to put it to good use in a cocktail.

Another massive leftover we have is San Pellegrino Aranciata (and Limonata) soda, because we bought them as refreshments to include in the hotel welcome bags for out of town wedding guests this summer. We certainly don’t mind having a handful of cans left over, but we don’t often drink these normally so they haven’t disappeared yet. So I went ahead and repurposed one for this cocktail invention.

Now, so far we have orange vodka and natural orange soda. Those go fine when simply combined together, but I’d had enough of SP soda-based half-assed cocktails in lazier moments that I wanted to really jazz it up a bit and go a bit dessertier. So I juiced a satsuma, added a dash of our old friend Cointreau, and shook the alcohols and juices with ice, then poured them with the soda and added a generous measure of half and half and an orange slice to garnish.  Rich, creamy, yummy, and stealthily potent!

And the best part is, I didn’t waste a single drop of anything.

One night, two very different foods

#1: Red Velvet Cupcakes. Only old-school, cocoa-heavy, extra-tangy ones. #2: Kale chips. (Told ya they were different!)

For item #1, I sought out a recipe that was a bit chocolatier than most store- or bakery-bought red velvets and, well, apparently I was also seeking out tangy without meaning to. I heard from our wedding cake baker that a cake with cocoa and vinegar is the more traditional Red Velvet origin, but I managed to forget that I’d made one like that once before in that fashion and it was kind of weird and unpleasant. So! Once again! Kind of weird and unpleasantly tangy, especially with my more-tangy-than-most cream cheese frosting. But also kind of good, in that not sickeningly sweet, maybe I’ll pass these off on my coworkers kind of way. (Tee hee, in case any are reading this.)

And here’s my favorite bit: filling cupcake tins is so much easier with my Pancake Pen, which is in turn best filled by my Wide-Mouth Funnel (both of which appear on my Favorite Tools page). Also, I forgot to add sugar at first, and when I dipped my finger into the batter I got a nasty surprise. Good thing I taste tested! o_O

And for item #2, I used smitten kitchen’s kale chips recipe, only I had crazy curly kale (cale?) so the proportions and times and temps were off. Plus, we broke our Oxo Salad Spinner apparently, so I had to hand dry it. Luckily, there’s a website to fix it, but so far no luck. :( And my hand-dried curly-ass kale was sort of imperfectly crisped, like the outer bits too crisp and parts still chewey. I’m planning on letting it sit out overnight and seeing how I like it for weird breakfast, at which point I may just pop it back in the oven for a bit more crisping.

And there you have it! A night of odd choices, to be sure, but both yummy enough in their own way I hope.

Whipping cream mystery

So I’d really like to get to the bottom of my whipping cream woes! I’ve briefly mentioned it before, but not in detail. Here goes: When I buy whipping cream from ANY OTHER natural happy hippie farm, it whips up just fine. But when I buy whipping cream from Sea Breeze at the farmer’s market, it WILL NOT WHIP.

Any foodies out there know the ins and outs of cream science? (For what it’s worth, I do always make sure it’s plenty cold.) I’m wondering if this has to do with some aspect of the homogenization process (or lack thereof), not that full cream should need that. Help. I do not understand the science behind it enough to know, but it’s happened enough now that I don’t think it’s a coincidence!

Maple walnut ice cream (no chunks!)

The other day I tasked my husband with buying “Organic Grade B Maple Syrup, but only if you can find it for cheap,” and he came home with this enormous jug for something like $12. Yahtzee! Clearly, I needed to use it for everything. Including ice cream. But while maple walnut was the first obvious choice, I wasn’t so sure about that…

See, thanks to growing up with my nut-obsessed dad, I finally developed a taste for the flavor of nuts, even though I didn’t care for the texture as a kid. I’ve figured out how to tolerate the texture as a grown-up  — both the texture of nuts themselves, and the fact that chunks of nut would ruin for me the texture of an otherwise perfectly creamy and smooth dessert (think fudge or ice cream). However, I generally prefer to avoid them unless I’m having a weird protein craving.

Hence, I desired to make maple walnut ice cream that tasted like maple walnut, without actual pieces of walnut in it. I remembered that I had come across a recipe that involved simmering the maple pieces in milk and then straining and using that milk to make the custard, so I decided to do the same. I Googled around and loosely based my concoction on this About.com recipe, but I swapped around the proportions a bit. Here’s roughly what I used:

1 1/2 c 2% milk, non-homogenized (this may have been a mistake)
1 cuppish chopped walnuts, covered in butter and sea salt and toasted in the oven for a while
3/4 heavy cream, which I whipped and folded in later
4 eggs, separated — I used the yolks in the custard but beat the whites and folded them in later

Well, I didn’t read the recipe so closely, and I wound up combining the maple syrup with the milk and walnuts to simmer. (Fun fact: if you Google “Does maple syrup curdle milk?” the first hit is this. Confusing, yet helpful.) That was an awful, ugly, curdled-up mess! But I managed to salvage it somehow, though the ice cream had a weird texture in which the fat sort of stood out from the other liquid. I think this is a function of both the curdling and the fact that my milk wasn’t homogenized. (I’m trying to only buy the hippie milk in the glass jars on which you pay a deposit, but I might reconsider for certain purposes after this adventure!)

Either way, it all turned out OK in the end! (And I’m omitting photos of the nasty curdled nutty mess because it looked kind of like someone threw up in a saucepan.) Thank goodness for eventual ice cream success — and no added sugar!

Leftovers, sweet leftovers

In addition to, you know, eating nothing but turkey and stuffing for like a week, we had a few other leftovers to contend with in terms of ingredients aftermath. I had asked Grant to pick up buttermilk even though I don’t think I actually used it for any of my recipes, and I also had a bunch of chives, a tub of sour cream, various veggies and of course a giant turkey carcass. What to do?

One of the obvious answers is “make buttermilk chive biscuits,” but that just seemed too easy. Besides, we have loads of leftover pumpkin cheesecake which I actually don’t much care for, and I was jealous of Grant eating dessert without me. (And while I usually just eat delicious tangy cranberry sauce with a spoon, well… it’s almost all gone now.) So I wanted at least the buttermilk or sour cream to go towards something sweet.

I eventually settled on David Lebowitz’s recipe for Lemon-Buttermilk Sherbet, from The Perfect Scoop. I modified it slightly by straining out the lemon zest and whisking in a tiny bit of lemon curd from a nearly-empty jar, so I imagine my version is a tad richer and smoother than his.

There was some leftover gingersnap-pecan crust crumbles from my Thanksgiving pumpkin cheesecake that I had saved in the freezer, so I mashed those with some melted farmstead butter to make some little crust-cuplets. The combo, as I suspected, was lovely (though I think I might also try the sherbet with some cranberry sauce!).

I also made a proper stock out of my turkey carcass and remaining drippings, which eventually became a hearty turkey barley soup with carrots, onion, herbs (including chives), and spinach. This was even better with our short and heavy but delicious whole wheat homemade bread. And I have loads of stock and even a glaze to freeze and season my cooking for the next few months, yay! I’m glad I took the time to save the bones and everything after our meal. Leftover success!

My personal baking tips

They say there are two types of cooks — bakers and chefs. Bakers are generally thought to be methodical and rule-abiding, and they deal mainly in chemistry. Chefs are innovators and risk-takers, and they deal more in physics. I had always thought myself to be more of a chef than a baker (as evidenced by my complete inability to follow a recipe exactly) — but I believe one can learn to bake even if one’s heart sings a main-course song.

I’ve received lots of compliments and inquiries about my baked goods, and I think I’ve managed to put my finger on the specific chef-like risks that I’ve incorporated into my baking practices with great success. (This is not to say I haven’t had MANY failures — I just don’t blog about those!) So here’s a list of some of the specific tweaks I tend to apply to most baking recipes.

Continue reading “My personal baking tips”