>Orange Curd Tart with Dark Chocolate Ganache and Candied Orange Slices

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Growing up, my idea of dessert was pretty much limited to the occasional bowl of ice cream; or, if I was really lucky, a chocolate-fudge cake from our neighborhood Kroger grocery store.
At holidays, we would bake special treats – pies, red velvet cake, the occasional caramel cake.  
When it snowed, which didn’t happen very often in Georgia, my mother had this super easy microwave brownie recipe she’d break out.  They were so rich and fudgey, and could be mixed up in one bowl and cooked, as the name suggests, in the microwave. 
Every so often, we’d splurge and get something special.  One of our favorite treats was one of those orange-shaped (and flavored) chocolate things.  You know the ones I’m talking about – they’re wrapped in foil, about the size of a medium navel orange, and you’re supposed to whack them on a table or countertop to break them into sections.  The flavor combination of chocolate and orange is still one of my favorites.

This tart is a slightly elevated version of that childhood favorite.  It combines an almond-crumb crust with a light orange curd and dark chocolate ganache.  The whole thing gets topped with candied orange slices and drizzled with some thyme infused cream.  If you’ve never paired thyme with chocolate or orange, I recommend you try it.  The citrusy, grassy notes of thyme marry quite well with both.
I began by candying my orange slices.  I used a combination of sucanat and honey granules for this, but you could just as easily use granulated sugar.  The dark color of the sucanat definitely affected the color of the final product.  It doesn’t bother me, but if you want a more traditionally colored candied orange slice, then you might want to go with a more traditional sugar.  I sliced two medium oranges in 1/4-inch slices.  In a medium saucepan, I combined one cup sucanat, one cup honey granules and 1 1/2 cups water.  I brought this to a boil, added the orange slices once the sweeteners had dissolved and reduced it to a simmer.  I let this simmer, covered, for about 45 minutes.  Then I let the slices cool in the syrup.
For the crust, I placed two cups of blanched almonds in the bowl of my food processor and processed them until they were a relatively fine powder.  To this I added 4 tablespoons of melted butter and pulsed to combine.  I pressed the mixture into a 12-inch tart pan and baked it at 350 for about 15 minutes, just until it began to brown.  I removed it from the oven and allowed it to cool.
The orange curd is a combination of 5 whole eggs, 2/3 cup honey granules, the zest of one orange, 2/3 cup orange juice and a stick of butter cut into small pieces.  Combine the eggs, honey granules and zest in a medium saucepan and use a handheld mixer to whip it until it is light in color and honey granules have dissolved.  Add the orange juice and butter and stir over medium heat until the butter melts.  Continue stirring/whisking until the mixture begins to thicken.  Transfer to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate to cool.
For the ganache, chop 2 oz. of unsweetened chocolate and place in a heat-proof bowl.  Combine 1 cup heavy cream, 2 tablespoons sucanat and 10 sprigs of fresh thyme in a heavy bottomed saucepan.  Place over medium heat and allow it to just simmer.  Remove it from the heat and pour all but 1/3 cup of it through a strainer and into the bowl with the chocolate.  Reserve the remaining 1/3 cup and refrigerate it.  Stir the chocolate and cream mixture until it is smooth and no lumps of chocolate remain.  Allow to cool at room temperature.
To assemble, pour the chilled curd into the cooled crust.  Pour the ganache over top and gently spread using an offset spatula.  Place the candied orange slices in a decorative pattern on top.  Refrigerate to set the ganache and the crust.  Slice into single serving-size slices and drizzle with the reserved thyme-infused cream.
Enjoy!
For a printable version of this recipe, click here.

Holiday gift ideas: Pink Peppercorn Sea Salt Caramels

Every year, I try to come up with interesting and flavorful homemade holiday gifts to give my friends, colleagues and family.  I usually bake a variety of cookies, cakes, shortbread and crackers, package them up and give them away in decorative tins and boxes.

This year, I wanted to try something new.   Don’t get me wrong, I’m still baking (as is evidenced by the 80 or so cookies cooling on my kitchen counter right now), but I thought it might be fun to try my hand at something different and unique. I looked through cookbooks, websites and magazines, and the one recipe I kept coming back to was for Salt and Pink Peppercorn Caramels from Better Homes and Gardens‘ December issue.  The photo in the magazine was so beautiful, and the description that accompanied the photo was equally as lovely.  I just knew I had to try this flavor combination.

I decided, though, that I would make my own caramel recipe, and just add the pink peppercorns and salt at the end.  The BHG recipe was fine, but it used brown sugar, and I prefer my caramel made with white sugar.  I know that this is one of those super-refined ingredients, and I would love to experiment with candy-making using unrefined cane sugar, but at this point I’m comfortable with the familiar.  And I just don’t make candy all that often, so when I do, familiar is important.  Candy-making is a fickle art, and I’m not yet knowledgeable enough to be totally experimental, especially since I need these to give as a secret-Santa gift tomorrow.

According to Serious Eats:

Pink peppercorns lend foods a different kind of heat, closer to chiles than black pepper. They have the same peppery bite, but it’s wrapped in a sweet fruity flavor reminiscent of a berry with an attitude. The peppercorns have a thin, fragile skin that can easily be rubbed off (a great lightly-flavored colorful garnish for fish or chicken).

Based on this description, it only makes sense that you’d pair them with something sweet, and when you enhance the whole thing with some French Celtic sea salt, you’ve got a perfectly balanced bite.

Pink Peppercorn Sea Salt Caramels
prep time: 5 minutes
cook time: 40 minutes
rest time: 2 hours
yields: 60 pieces
Ingredients
2 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups light corn syrup
1 cup salted butter, cut into pieces
2 cups heavy cream, divided
1 teaspoon crushed pink peppercorns
1 teaspoon French Celtic sea salt
  1. Prepare a rectangular baking pan by lining it with aluminum foil and spraying with oil or greasing with butter.  Set aside.
  2. Combine sugar, corn syrup, butter and 1 cup cream in a large, heavy-bottomed sauce pan over medium heat.
  3. Stir until sugar is dissolved, about 5 minutes, then wash down sides of the pan with a pastry brush dipped in warm water.
  4. Place a warmed candy thermometer in the pan and cook the mixture over medium heat, stirring constantly, until it comes to a boil. 
  5. Wash down any crystals that form on the sides.
  6. Continue to cook until the mixture reaches 244F, or Firm Ball stage.
  7. Remove the pan from the heat and with a clean wooden spoon, gradually stir in the 2nd cup of cream.
  8. Return to the heat, bring back to Firm Ball stage, or at least 245F.
  9. Remove from the heat and pour into your prepared baking pan.
  10. Allow to cool for 10 minutes. 
  11. Sprinkle crushed peppercorns and salt evenly over the surface.
  12. Allow to cool completely – you may want to put it in the fridge to speed this process.
  13. Once cool, remove the caramel from the pan by lifting the foil liner.  
  14. Peel off the foil, and cut into pieces.
  15. Wrap with waxed paper.

Aren’t they pretty?  And I can tell you, the flavor is just as nice.  These are a great little holiday treat for your friends and family.  The pink peppercorns add a unique dimension to the flavor profile, while also adding a touch of holiday color to an otherwise ordinary salted caramel.  Try them and let me know what you think.

Enjoy!

>Marshmallows for Toasting, and a Reminder to Vote

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The days are getting shorter, and the air has that distinct clarity to it that can only mean that Fall has arrived.  The temperature outside is growing cooler, so now’s the perfect time to build a fire in your outdoor fireplace, chimenea, or fire pit and toast marshmallows with the family. 
For a few years now, I’ve been making homemade marshmallows at the holidays, as a gift to accompany packets of cocoa, or just for my friends’ kids to enjoy.  They’re so easy to make that I decided this year that they’re not just for special occasions anymore.  
You really should try these – you’ll never go back to store-bought once you do.
Oh, yeah – today voting opens for round three of Project Food Blog.  Between 6AM Pacific time today, and 6 PM Pacific time on October 8, you can click on that widget over there to vote for me.  Here’s a link to my entry post for the competition, in case you missed it.

Now, onto that marshmallow recipe:

Ingredients
2 1/2 tablespoons powdered gelatin
1/2 cup water
1 1/2 cup sugar
1 cup corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Powdered sugar for dusting.

You do need a candy thermometer for this. And a stand mixer. Without these two kitchen implements, this would be a very daunting task. With them, it becomes a 20-30 minute operation.

  1. Begin by putting 2 1/2 tablespoons of powdered gelatin in the bowl of your stand mixer and pouring 1/2 cup cold water over it.
  2. Let this sit for 20 minutes while you work on your sugar mixture.
  3. Put 1.5 cups of sugar, 1 cup of corn syrup, 1/4 teaspoon of salt and 1/2 cup water in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Stir until the sugar has dissolved. Brush down the sides of the pan with a wet pastry brush.
  4. Insert your candy thermometer and let cook without stirring, until it reaches the firm ball stage (244 degrees Fahrenheit).
  5. Once it reaches firm ball, remove it from the heat immediately and pour it into the mixer while it is on low speed. Increase the speed to high and let run for 15 minutes.
  6. Turn mixer off, add 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, and mix until incorporated.
  7. Prepare a baking pan – I used a half-sheet pan lined with foil – by generously coating it with powdered sugar.
  8. Pour the marshmallow mixture into the pan. Right now it looks like a big mess – don’t worry. Wet your hands generously and spread it out flat. Dust the top with more powdered sugar and let sit for an hour or overnight to dry.
  9. Using a heated knife (I just turned on one of the gas burners on my stove and ran my knife through the flame a couple of times) cut into squares.  Dust with more powdered sugar and store in a zip-top bag.

Enjoy!

    >How to make candied orange peel

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    I used to love those candy orange slices you could get in the Brach’s candy section of most grocery stores (what ever happened to the Brach’s candy section?). You know the ones I’m talking about – the neon orange, sticky sweet, rolled in sugar, orange-segment shaped, jelly-like candies?

    Well, this is like the grown-up version of that – huge orange flavor, sweet and sticky, sandy on the outside, with just a slight bitter finish (kind of like orange marmalade). And it’s sooooo much better than those fake orange-shaped candies!

     Ingredients: 1 cup sugar, the peel of two large oranges, 1-2 drops of orange extract, 3/4 cup water
     Begin by cutting the top and bottom off of two oranges. 
    Then make 5 or 6 vertical slices into the skin. 
    Carefully peel the rind off the orange, taking care not to break or tear it.
     I trimmed the excess pith off the inside (just the rough stuff that was right next to the orange segments), but this is not necessary.
    Cut the peel segments into uniform matchsticks. 
    Blanch in boiling water for 3-5 minutes. 
    Drain the blanched peel, add it back to the pan along with 1 cup sugar, 3/4 cup water and a couple of drops of orange extract. Let simmer for about an hour, covered. Let cool in the syrup.
    Roll the individual strips in granulated sugar. 
    Let them dry on a rack. 
    Package them up to give as a gift, or use them as decoration on baked goods, or dip them in melted semi-sweet chocolate, or just enjoy them as-is. 

     I actually used half of this recipe to top an Ultra Orange Cake that I made for some friends.

    >A Treat for your Sweet!

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    For the last few years at Christmas, I have made homemade marshmallows and given them as gifts to friends and co-workers along with a specialty hot-cocoa mix.  This past Christmas my time was taken up by a very hungry one-month-old, and I didn’t get my marshmallow-y fix in for the holidays.
    I thought it might make a fun project for Valentine’s Day instead, and so am sharing it here for anyone who might want to do something a little different for this love-ly little holiday.

    First, let me say that making marshmallows is one of the easiest and most fun things you’ll ever do in the kitchen.  From a child’s perspective, it’s fascinating to watch something as simple as sugar and gelatin become a light, fluffy confectionery delight.  From an adult’s perspective, well it’s pretty darn cool, too.  And, the clean-up is a breeze – gelatin and sugar dissolve very quickly in hot water.
    You do need a candy thermometer for this.  And a stand mixer.  Without these two kitchen implements, this would be a very daunting task.  With them, it becomes a 20-30 minute operation.
    Begin by putting 2 1/2 tablespoons of powdered gelatin in the bowl of your stand mixer and pouring 1/2 cup cold water over it.
    Let this sit for 20 minutes while you work on your sugar mixture.
    Put 1.5 cups of sugar, 1 cup of corn syrup, 1/4 teaspoon of salt and 1/2 cup water in a heavy saucepan over medium heat.  Stir until the sugar has dissolved.
    Brush down the sides of the pan with a wet pastry brush
    Insert your candy thermometer and let cook without stirring, until it reaches the firm ball stage (244 degrees Fahrenheit)
    Once it reaches firm ball, remove it from the heat immediately and pour it into the mixer while it is on low speed.  Increase the speed to high and let run for 15 minutes.
    Turn mixer off, add 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, and mix until incorporated.
    Prepare a baking pan – I used a half-sheet pan lined with foil – by generously coating it with powdered sugar.
    Pour the marshmallow mixture into the pan
    Right now it looks like a big mess – don’t worry.  Wet your hands generously and spread it out flat.  Dust the top with more powdered sugar and let sit for an hour or overnight to dry.
    When you’re ready, use fun cookie cutter shapes to cut out your marshmallows, or just slice them in squares with a knife.
    For Valentine’s Day, I’m doing heart-shaped marshmallows.  You can use liquid food-coloring to paint messages on them – similar to the candy hearts we’re all so very familiar with.
    Serve them to one you love in a hot cup of cocoa.
    Enjoy!
    Homemade Marshmallows
    2 1/2 tablespoons powdered gelatiin
    1/2 cup water
    1 1/2 cup sugar
    1 cup corn syrup
    1/4 teaspoon salt
    1/2 cup water
    1 teaspoon vanilla extract
    Powdered sugar for dusting.