What’s for Dinner 20091205: Christmas Treats!

Well, it is the time of the year for holiday cooking.  You know, those things that we all love but do not often eat.  I suspect that if we ate throughout the year like we do during this season, we all would be more corpulent.  However, eating heartily during the cold season has a biological function, or at least it did as we evolved.  We need energy to produce body heat, and, not that long ago, caves, hovels, tents, cabins, and other dwellings were just cold in the winter, so we needed the extra energy.

Unfortunately, our lifestyle has become in conflict from our biology, so we must eat these highly calorific foods with caution.  That is no reason to avoid them, but certainly it is a good idea to eat them in moderation.  None of the recipes that follow are what you would call low sugar nor low fat.  By the way, dinner for me tonight is homemade beef stew with lots of vegetables added.

Today seems particularly appropriate to discuss Christmas treats, because this is what I found this morning on my back deck here is the Bluegrass:

Candy making seems to scare lots of folks away.  It is not really that hard, but takes some technique.  This time we will look at making fudge and the wonder of wonders, chocolate truffles.  We will also look at a couple of sweet breads, and give a nod to Toll House cookies, with a twist.

There is a link here to a prequel to this essay about black walnuts and persimmons, and it may be of use to you after you finish this essay.

Fudge

Lots of folks do not like home made fudge, either because it is too dense or too grainy.  That is easy to understand when one examines the traditional recipes.  They normally call for whole milk, cocoa or baker’s chocolate, granulated sugar, butter, and flavoring (and nuts, if desired).  It is extraordinarily difficult to make a stable, non grainy fudge that is not dense this way, but it is possible with lots of beating the cooked mix to entrain air to make it light, but not so much that sucrose crystal growth is promoted.  The modern recipes are easier, and are one of the few that I find to be superior to traditional methods of preparing a dish.  Here is the recipe that I use for fudge, and I will explain the differences between it and traditional fudge as we go through the steps.

1 cup (two sticks) butter (Margarine produces a vastly inferior product)

4 cups granulated sugar

1 can (12 to 15 fluid ounces) evaporated milk

2 cups (12 ounces) semi-sweet chocolate morsels, or broken up semi-sweet baker’s chocolate  (This is one bag of morsels)

1 pint (a 7 ounce jar) marshmallow creme

1 teaspoon vanilla extract (use the natural kind, the artificial kind makes your fudge taste like the kind that you buy that folks do not like)

1 cup coarsely chopped nuts (optional)  The fudge is fine without nuts if you prefer it that way

Here is a picture of my starting ingredients.  Notice the smart looking sugar canister, a cleaned Prince Albert tobacco canister.  Chop the nuts coarsely before you get started, because you will not have time later.  You want bits and pieces, not half nutmeats, but you do not want them to be pulverized, either.  Black walnuts are the best (fudge has a strange affinity for them), but pecans are good.  Toasted almonds are fine, but raw ones do not develop much flavor.  Hazelnuts would probably be good, but I have not tried them.  Under no circumstance will I use a Persian (English) walnut in anything, but if you like them, go ahead.

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Here is a picture of the equipment.  Be sure and use a very heavy cooking vessel, or you will scorch and ruin the product.  A wooden spoon is essential for stirring, and the rubber spatula is used for getting the marshmallow creme from the jar.  The other one is the 13″ x 9″ pan, lined with waxed paper, to receive the final product.  You can use different dimensions, but this works well with size of a batch.  Some recipes recommend that one use aluminum foil, or to butter the pan, or to use plastic wrap.  I have made many scores of batches of fudge, and waxed paper seems to me to be the superior product.  I think that part of it has to do with the fact that the wax melts on contact with the hot fudge, smoothing out any nucleus for sugar crystals to begin to form.  It makes scientific sense.

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The technique is very important.  First, warm your cooking vessel until that butter will melt and coat the walls.  Here is a picture of me doing just that.  This is important for the modern recipes, and absolutely essential for the traditional ones.  Since I write a lot about science, here is why.

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Fudge gets grainy because tiny “seed crystals” of sugar get mixed into the batch after it is cooked.  Coating the wall of the vessel with butter makes those seed crystals tend to slide back into the boil, and thus dissolve.  No seeds, no graininess.

After the sides of the vessel are coated, throw the remaining butter in, add the evaporated milk, and the sugar.  Turn up the heat and bring to the boil.  Make sure that you coated the outer surface of your thermometer with butter, too.  Turn down the heat to medium high, and stir occasionally until your thermometer nears 225 degrees F.  Then stir, stir, stir, or the mix will spite you by burning on the bottom and being ruined.  If your thermometer reaches 225 degrees, do not answer the telephone.  You have only a few minutes to get this right.

Keep stirring and adjusting the heat so that it does not scorch until you get to the soft ball stage.  At altitudes near sea level, that is 236 degrees F IF your thermometer is accurate.  To correct for both altitude and your particular thermometer, put it into a pan of water and bring to a rolling boil (note that most thermometers need at least three inches of immersion to be accurate) and note the temperature indicated.  Be sure to avoid the parallax error by holding your eye level with the fluid in the thermometer.  I have to take off my glasses to see that close to my face.  Write down the reading, and for the soft ball stage, add 22 degrees F.  This works very well for all altitudes and thermometers.

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Now that you get the mix to the soft ball stage, snatch it from the heat immediately, still stirring because the vessel is still hot of the bottom.  Immediately pour in the chocolate morsels, and stir them whilst adding the nuts (if you use them), still stirring.  Add the marshmallow creme, still stirring (it is helpful to have someone to assist here, but you can do it by yourself).  Stir until only a few streaks are left, then add the vanilla extract.  Always add the vanilla last, because its flavors are rapidly dissipated by high temperatures.  Keep blending until the mix becomes homogeneous in color.

Working rapidly, pour the hot mix into the wax paper lined pan, and DO NOT scrape it out of the cooking vessel.  If done deftly, the entire mass should pull away from the sides of the vessel into the pan.  Before pouring, look to see if there is a part of the cooking vessel with little or no residue, and pour it out over that part.  Residue means seed crystals, and scraping means forming them too.  Quickly, using your wooden spoon, even out the top of the fudge in the pan.  Do not worry about getting it completely even.  If you try to flatten it too much, you introduce seed crystals.

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Allow the fudge to cool, undisturbed, in a cool room until it is firm.  Then you can cut it with a thin, hot knife into whatever sized pieces that you like.  I prefer smallish ones, because fudge is so very rich.  Allow fudge containing nuts to ripen for at least a few days to blend the flavors.  Store in tight containers in a cool room, and it will keep for months.  Never refrigerate it, because that tends to cause the sugar to crystallize and make it grainy.

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There are several reasons why these modern recipes are more successful than the traditional ones, and actually taste better.  First, the traditional ones generally call for whole milk, whist the modern ones call for evaporated milk.  Since evaporated milk has twice the protein content of whole milk, several things happen.  First, a deeper flavor is developed during the cooking stage because of much greater Maillard browning reactions.  As you cook the fudge from 225 degrees F to the soft ball stage, you will smell a difference in the aroma and see a subtle darkening in the color.  By the way, if you see little flecks of darker material, turn down the heat and turn up the stirring.  If caught as these little overcooked bits form, they go right back into the mix.  Let them accumulate on the bottom, and they blacken and bitter the fudge, ruining it.  The higher protein of evaporated milk also interferes with the sugar molecules from forming a stable crystal structure, reducing the potential for graininess.

The traditional fudge recipes called for cooking the milk, sugar, and chocolate (or cocoa) together to the soft ball stage, then allowing it to cool to 110 degrees F, adding the butter, and stirring it until it “loses its gloss”.  Actually, at 110 degrees F, the mixture becomes acceptable for beating air into it, and, just like egg white, when the gloss disappears, there is a significant amount of air in the product, making if fluffy.  In practice, it is extremely difficult to do this in a reproducible manner.  I have tried, and some batches come out very nicely, whislt others are flat and hard, or grainy.  The marshmallow cream solves the problem, because it is mostly air (and egg protein), and merely has to me blended, not beaten, into the fudge to make it behave.  I suppose that one could use very stiff egg whites for the same effect.

There is yet another reason why the very old, cocoa based recipes are difficult to have consistent success.  There are essentially no emulsifiers in cocoa, whilst in chocolate there are, and also in the marshmallow creme.  Cocoa, in the traditional recipes, is almost impossible to use to make a light, non grainy fudge, but if used with marshmallow creme can make a pretty good one.  Fudge two hundred years ago was more like chocolate flavored sugar, not anything like this ambrosia that I have described to you.

This is not NEARLY as hard to make as the description says, and I hope that the pictures help.  You can not really mess up until you have the butter, milk, and sugar to around 225 degrees F, then thing happen fast.  You have to watch that thermometer and stir, and then at soft ball stage essentially mix everything together simultaneously in only a few minutes before it begins to harden.  I had the camera turned on and ready, but could not stop long enough even to snap a shot.

Just another couple of things about fudge:  as I said, let it ripen to blend flavors in a cool place for a few days if you used nuts.  After you cut it, place it in a tin or a plastic bag, but if you use a bag, do not seal it completely.  Part of the curing process allows excess moisture to escape, and if in a completely sealed bag it will sweat, ruining the surface.  Fudge should be sort of dry on the surface, but wonderfully moist in the interior.  The large amount of butter is responsible for that.

The high sugar content preserves fudge from microbes, but not from oxygen.  The butter in fudge will become rancid if exposed to air for very long, and if you used nuts it will go even faster because they are high in unsaturated fatty acids.  If you want to keep it for over a month of so, do not cut it (that exposes many surfaces to oxygen), but rather wrap the slab in a polyvinylidine chloride film (either Saran or Sam’s Premium) that stretches.  Most wraps are polyethylene, and it is no oxygen barrier, but polyvinylidine chloride is an excellent oxygen barrier.  It will keep for months in a cool room covered that way.

As an aside, black walnuts have one of the highest contents of polyunsaturated fatty acids known, so they sort of protect against the highly saturated fatty acids in the milk and butter.  Who would have guessed?

Finally, if you used unsalted butter, throw in a heaping 1/4 teaspoon of salt into the mix whilst it cooks.  In very low concentrations, salt is a very efficient flavor enhancer for sweets, and your fudge will taste better for it.  If you used salted butter, you are there already.

You can use this general recipe for other flavors, like butterscotch, white chocolate, peanut butter, or other flavors.  Just use the technique and experiment.  Each product will be different, but if you take care not to allow crystal formation or to scorch it, I suspect that it will be really good.  If you have a product in which you are particularly proud, I would be happy to provide you with my mailing address.  My email one is in my profile.  By the way, do NOT try to double this recipe.  If you want more fudge, make two batches.  With normal kitchen equipment it is hard to keep up with more than the recipe at a time.

Truffles

Chocolate truffles are a wonderful thing, very delicate in texture but intense in flavor.  The former Mrs. Translator and I have developed this recipe over the years,and they are outstanding, and nothing like the commercial kind.  The tools are similar to those for fudge, but the technique is completely different because there is no added sugar.  Here is the recipe.

4 tablespoons heavy cream

2 tablespoons dark rum (we are talking Myers)

6 ounces semi sweet baking chocolate

4 tablespoons butter

One tip, and this is also a difference that the former Mrs. Translator and I have, is the question of salted or unsalted butter.  The original recipe whence this one was derived called for unsalted butter, but I find that salted butter provides a better product.  Try it yourself, and if your truffles are lacking, throw in a pinch of salt into the next batch if you are using unsalted butter.

Here are the ingredients:

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Put the cream in a shallow, heavy pan and reduce it by half.  Stir constantly or it will stick and scorch.  The easy way to tell when you have reduced it by half is to put half of the cream in the pan, note the level, then put in the rest and cook it down to the level that you noted.

Remove it from the heat, and add the chocolate, broken into pieces until blended.  If yu have to put it back on the heat to finish melting the chocolate, that is OK.

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Add the rum, and blend again.  If the mix gets too stiff to mix well, you can heat it gently until you can stir it freely.

Whisk in the butter until the mix is homogeneous and light in texture.  You want it cool enough to entrain some air for lightness, but you do not need to do it for more than a couple of minutes after the mix is homogeneous.

Take two small glass or ceramic bowls and divide the mix between them.

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Refrigerate them for about an hour, and then, with absolutely scrupulously clean hands (or wearing vinyl gloves), take a spoonful of the mix and roll it into a sphere.  Experiment until you find the size that you like.  These are also very rich, so I prefer the smaller ones, maybe the size of a nickel.  Put each ball on a chilled plate, and put back in the refrigerator so that they do not deform as you use up a bowl.  If you are working alone, scoop up a dozen or two spoonsfull and put them on the chilled plate, then roll them.  I promise that you will make a mess as the chocolate melts in your hands.  Do not aim for perfect spheres.  After you have rolled them, put them back in the refrigerator to harden the surface, then roll in cocoa.  These are not the store variety of truffles, and are an intense chocolate experience.

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The truffle in the middle right has been rolled in cocoa.

Finally, if you have a better method or recipe for truffles, please let me know.  I am always on the lookout for that.  I will say that I do not prefer the coated ones (like with a chocolate shell), although they are fine.  I am like the owl with the Tootsie Pop from many years ago:  I want to get to the center fast.

You can double, or even triple this recipe if you have time.  Just use more bowls, and stagger putting them in the refrigerator so that you get the right consistency as they come out of the cold.  You want them to roll easily in your hands to a ball, but not be so mushy that they will not keep their shape.  Do not handle them too much, or you will knock out the air that keeps them light.

The former Mrs. Translator and I differ a bit in this recipe, but both variations are good, just different.  She prefers sweet baking chocolate (I think that Baker’s calls it German Chocolate now, please correct me if I am wrong) and a finely ground nut coating, whilst I prefer semisweet baking chocolate and a coating of cocoa.  Her recipe turns out a sweeter product, and they are fine.  My variation turns out a very bold bite, bitter with the cocoa on the outside and just a bit sweet in the inside.  It is up to you.  The basic techniques are the same, just the flavor is different.  Note that this is one of the few confections that does not contain vanilla, as the Myers rum picks up those hints from the barrel aging in oak, and the Baker’s chocolate has a little in it.  If you use a light rum, you should add a drop or two of vanilla extract.  They should be good flavored with other liquors, and I think that a coffee based one would be very good, since chocolate and coffee blend well with each other.

Toll House Cookies

These are really easy to make, and the recipe is on any bag of Toll House Morsels.  I varied the recipe by adding only 10 ounces of Toll House morsels and used chopped black walnuts.  The reason that I reduced the amount of chocolate was to allow more of the black walnut flavor to dominate.  Here is a picture of a tubfull of them:

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Cream Cheese/Black Walnut Pound Cake

This is a marvelous cake, and the recipe was developed by the former Mrs. Translator.  I made a single modification in that I substituted cake flour for the all purpose flour, giving it a finer texture.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.  Place a pan full of water on the lowest rack.

2.5 sticks butter (do not use margarine)

1 eight ounce block of cream cheese

2.5 cups white sugar

Cream together the butter, cheese, and sugar.  It is helpful to use a mixer for this, since the cream cheese does not soften like butter does.  After these ingredients are well blended, cream in

5 eggs

blending well after each egg.  When the eggs are all in, add

1/2 teaspoon salt and

2 teaspoons vanilla extract (use the real kind, not the imitation)

In another bowl, sift together

2.5 cups cake flour and

2 teaspoons baking powder

Blend the flour mixture into the egg mixture, then, after it is blended, add

1 cup chopped black walnuts

Mix the walnuts into the very stiff batter, then divide the batter into two standard bread pans that have been sprayed heavily with cooking spray.  I use Pyrex ones.  If you use dark metal ones, the bottom and side crusts will be pretty dark.  Bright metal pans are better.

It takes about 2 hours for this to cook.  For the first hour, do not go near the oven because a jar will cause the cakes to fall.  After an hour, observe the cakes.  They should be rising, more on the sides than in the middle.  After another half hour the middle will be risen but not done.  Unfortunately, the toothpick test does not work well for these cakes, so you have to use your judgment to tell when they are done.  The center of a cake will be firm when they are done.  Allow to cool until the cakes pull away from the sides of the pans, then remove and place on a rack until completely cool.  Do not let them cool completely in the pans or the sugar will harden and they will stick.

Here is the finished product.  I cut a loaf in half so you can see the difference between the inside and the outside in color.  You can double this recipe if you have enough bread pans.

This cake is really good, warm or cool, with coffee or milk.

Persimmon/Black Walnut Bread



Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.  Place a pan full of water on the bottom rack.

This recipe is pretty much the same one that Euell Gibbons published in Stalking the Wild Asparagus in 1962.  I doubled his recipe with no problem to have enough for two bread pans.  This is the doubled recipe.

3 sticks butter (do not use margarine)

2 cups sugar

Once blended, cream in

4 eggs

IN another, smaller bowl, sift together

4 cups all purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

NOTE:  The reason that this recipe uses baking SODA and the cream cheese pound cake uses baking POWDER is that there is enough acid in the persimmons to cause the soda to rise.  There is not enough acid in the other recipe.

Blend the flour mixture into the egg mixture well, then add

1 pint persimmon pulp

and blend well.

IMPORTANT NOTE:  If you have fresh persimmon pulp, add it directly to the mix.  If you are using canned persimmon pulp, put it by itself in a bowl and use a mixer until it is soft.  Canning persimmon pulp causes it to stiffen into a hard chunk, and it is impossible to blend it in if you do not break it up first.

After blending in the pulp, add

1 cup chopped black walnuts

and mix.  Divide into two bread pans heavily sprayed with cooking spray and cook for about two hours.  See the notes above for the sour cream pound cake to test for doneness, and remove from the pans in a similar manner.

Here is a picture of a half loaf.  Note the extremely dark color.  Persimmons undergo the browning Maillaird reactions very readily, making the bread very dark.  This bread is better warm, with coffee or milk.

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If you can not obtain wild persimmons, I would guess that the big Japanese kind that you can buy in the store would work, but to me that would be like buying catfish at the supermarket.

Lizzies

These are a family tradition.  My mum always made them for Christmas, and the recipe was almost lost until I was able to recreate it with the help of the former Mrs. Translator, my aunt (my mum’s sister), and my memories of watching her.

I posted a detailed essay about lizzies last year here, so you can use that link to find the recipe.  One change that I have made is that I substituted mace for half of the nutmeg, but I did that because my mace was fresh and my nutmeg was not.

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As you read the description of how the final batter should appear and feel, keep this picture in mind:

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This happened with the last batch.

One thing that I want to emphasize about lizzies is that if you do not have the time or patience to candy your own fruit, do not try to make them.  Commercially candied fruit has an off flavor to it (at home we called it a “whang”) that just does not make a proper lizzie.  The bourbon soak for the raisins is essential, too.

These are several of my Christmas favorites.  The lizzies and black walnut fudge are family traditions that predate me, whilst the truffles and the cream cheese pound cake are newer, and the persimmon bread the newest of all.

If you have recipes for Christmas treats, please feel free to post them in the comments.  If you have pictures, so much the better.

Warmest regards,

Doc

Crossposted at Dailykos.com

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  1. Christmas Treats?

    By the way, I give away about 90% of the treats that I make to friends and family.  Eldest Son is being married next week, and much of what I have made will go to Arkansas to feed the crowd after the afternoon ceremony Saturday.  Some I will take to my neighbors here who look out for me.

    Warmest regards,

    Doc

    • mango on December 6, 2009 at 1:37 am

    The truffles sound divine.  Thanks.

    • TMC on December 6, 2009 at 1:50 am

    The diary I have been waiting for…I’m in the midst of blogging and teleconferencing and trying to get dinner started. I will definitely back when things and I are better organized and quieter.

  2. the rec list, everyone!

    Warmest regards,

    Doc

  3. there is one specific pie (appropriate for both Christmas and Thanksgiving) that I consider spectacular: better than truffles even — no offense.

    The original recipe came from one of Paul Prudhomme’s first cookbooks.  It is: Roasted pecan-butter pecan pie.  And it was a revelation to me.

    *(nb: I increased the amount of pecans by at least 1/3 when I started making this pie regularly for the holidays)*

    By now, the recipe is readily available online, so I will just give an overview:

    You toast some pecans in the oven, turning frequently, and then put them in a food processor and make pecan-butter out of them.  This will be added to the filling so that the filling is not just a matter of a bunch of corn syrup, but actually has some pecan-y depth to it.  The remainder of the pecans will top the pie, as per normal.

    What I love about this recipe is that it isn’t as cloyingly sweet as the usual pecan pie.  Rich?  Certainly.  But when I eat it, I don’t come away feeling as though I need an insulin shot.

    (FWIW, I made this for a friend of mine who wasn’t a fan of pecan pie…until she tasted it.)

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