Monday, December 21, 2009

Christmas Used to Last Forever

When I was a child the holidays seemed to go on for months. At the beginning of December the decorations would go up and as schedules slowed and school let out, we were left with plenty of time to sit around the tree with a cup of cider or hot cocoa and take in the season.

Today, I’m lucky if it feels like Christmas the week leading up to the 25th. Usually I get in the holiday spirit as I run around town, fighting crowds in an effort to cross off my Christmas list. While I love finding gifts for the important people in my life, I find it somewhat sad that I can’t get in the spirit until the shopping begins.


I didn’t know this was true for me until my family decided not to do Christmas gifts this year. In an effort to focus on what’s most important – time together – this year we are cooking meals with each other instead of buying gifts. Though I did just receive notification that one Thomas H. Durff has sent me a gift subscription to The Atlantic Monthly (someone’s cheating!).

The sad news is that without the many shopping trips in search of the perfect gift, I found myself totally lacking in Christmas spirit. Determined to redefine Christmas traditions so I can get in the holiday mood without racking up a huge credit card bill, I turned to the kitchen.


I wanted to make something in bulk so I could use the resulting product as gifts, but I didn’t want to make cookies. Decorated cookies may look festive, but I don’t really care for the way they taste. Then I stumbled on an article about homemade truffles in one of the Martha Stewart publications. I knew I could get creative with flavored ganache fillings and really how difficult could they be? Note to self: If I ever think, ‘really how difficult could they be,’ again, I will clear my calendar for the weekend and prepare to make seven trips to the store for more toppings, chocolate and gift boxes. When you’re doing something for the first time and not really using a set recipe, look out, things are going to get ugly.

While Martha’s ganache truffles seemed to stay perfectly firm with no coating, mine melted on contact with any finger that was near room temperature. And while all the articles I could find on coating truffles with chocolate seemed to think it wasn’t really necessary to temper the chocolate, my coating turned into a clumpy glob when I did not. I’m still attempting to make up with the boyfriend who was the recipient of, “get the f*$% out of the kitchen,” when the coating wasn’t going on smoothly.


So, did I fail miserably at getting myself into the Christmas spirit? Not entirely. First, the crazed trips to the store seemed to bring back that sense of holiday urgency that had been missing from my December. Second, by the time I got through the fifteenth bag of chocolate and had the kinks worked out, I was left with some decent looking truffles and the feeling that I would be able to spread a little chocolaty holiday cheer after all.

If you have time left in your holiday schedule and want to try these at home, I’ve included the basic ratio of cream to chocolate for the ganache filling as well as the four variations I created to add more flavor. If you don’t want the truffles melting on contact, coat them with chocolate that has been tempered. You can read about how to temper your chocolate here. It’s not that difficult and worth the time.


Ganache Truffle Filling
Makes about 40 truffles

16 oz chocolate (dark, semi-sweet or milk – your choice)
1 2/3 cups heavy cream

To use these variations, add the flavoring to the cream right as it comes to a simmer, but before you turn off the heat:

Chile truffles – 3/4 t cayenne pepper
Peanut butter truffles – 3/4 to about 1 cup of creamy peanut butter
Mint truffles – replace 12 oz of the chocolate with mint flavored chocolate
Earl Grey truffles – place 12 bags of Earl Grey in the cream, turn off the heat and let steep for 20 minutes. Remove the tea bags and reheat the cream slightly before adding to the chocolate.

Place 16 ounces of the chocolate of your choice in a heatproof bowl. Place the cream in a small saucepan and bring just to a simmer. Keep a close watch as simmering cream will very quickly boil over. Add any of the flavorings included above to the cream or create your own variations. Pour the warm cream over the chocolate and whisk until fully incorporated. Allow the mixture to cool slightly and then let it set in the refrigerator overnight.

Cover a cookie sheet with parchment paper and use a small ice cream scoop or melon baller to portion out the ganache into small spheres, about 1-inch in diameter. Roll the ganache pieces between your hands to make a smoother circle. It’s not necessary, but I highly recommend using disposable, protective gloves for this part. It’s more sanitary if you’re giving the truffles as gifts and you’ll be washing your hands every five minutes if you don’t. Allow the ganache pieces to chill in the refrigerator again while you prepare the chocolate coating.

Select your chocolate coating (again, your choice of dark, semi-sweet, milk, etc.). I found that it took about 24 ounces to coat 80 truffles. Temper the chocolate according to the directions found here and use a dipping tool or toothpicks to submerge the ganache in coating. I read everything I could find on the best way to dip, but trial and error seemed to be the most helpful. Just submerge the ganache in the coating and try to get the excess off before setting it back on the cookie sheet to harden. If you’re topping the chocolate coating in anything (chopped nuts, sea salt, candy cane pieces, etc.) do this right away before the chocolate begins to harden. Place the coated truffles in the refrigerator overnight or for at least four hours, if you’re in a hurry, to fully harden.

Package as desired and spread your own version of chocolaty holiday cheer.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Poutine, Freezing and Stewing


It is freezing and I am stewing.

As already established on this blog, I am aware that freezing is a relative term so please, don’t all you Midwesterners jump on me at once. It has dropped into the 40s at night this week and for Los Angeles, by definition, that is freezing. Not to mention that I just returned from Wisconsin where it was, ahem, in the low 40s at night.

As far as the stewing is concerned, it mainly centers on meat, not my emotional state of mind – a much more delicious alternative. I just can’t help myself; I don’t want to turn my oven off in this cold weather. Already there have been soups and stews; braises and bread baking; even pastries on one choice afternoon.

The most celebrated winter dish, new to my kitchen this year, is poutine. It’s only been celebrated by one person so far, but he has done enough on his own to earn it that designation. Poutine sounds pedestrian in theory – fries, covered with melted cheese curds, covered with gravy – but the right gravy can elevate the dish to something else entirely.

I originally created a poutine recipe of my own to avoid the $120 dinners at Animal that were threatening to turn into a weekly occurrence. My boyfriend had it bad for poutine and unlike the Canadian creators of the dish, we seemed hard-pressed to find it on many menus. As we would start planning for our weekend and the inevitable question of where to eat came up, I could see his eyes start to glaze over as he thought about the dish and subsequently pleaded with me to go to Animal, just one more time.

Not that I have a problem eating at Animal every weekend. It is by far my favorite restaurant in L.A. at the moment, but my pocketbook and my arteries started begging for mercy. So, into the kitchen I went determined to save our health and our finances and according to the boyfriend, I succeeded. He even thinks my poutine is better than Animal’s. I’m not certain about that but it is good enough to satisfy his craving and easy enough that I think you’ll enjoy making it at home.

Use this recipe only as a guide. I have varied it each time I’ve made it according to what I already had on hand and it is still delicious, even with modifications. Make sure you use real deal cheese curds - Trader Joes sells them if you have trouble locating them - and feel free to make your own fries, I just like to make the process slightly easier by using the frozen variety. I make my gravy with oxtails because that’s what Animal uses, but if you have a favorite recipe, by all means have at it. And finally, apologies in advance if this is your first introduction to poutine. I take no responsibility for resulting addictions.

Serves 2

1 – 1 1/2 pounds oxtail (4 – 6 meaty pieces)
1 quart chicken (or beef) stock, preferably homemade
1 onion, roughly chopped
2 carrots, roughly chopped
2 pieces celery, roughly chopped
1 bay leaf
2-3 sprigs thyme
2 T olive oil
Salt and pepper

To Serve:
French Fries (I use one bag of frozen fries from Trader Joes)
1/2 cup cheese curds

Preheat oven to 375*
Sprinkle the oxtails with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium high heat and brown the oxtails on all sides. Remove to a plate. Add more oil if the pan is dry and sauté the onions, celery and carrots for five minutes, until just starting to soften. Return the oxtails to the pan and add the stock, bay leaf and thyme. If the stock doesn’t almost cover the oxtails, add water until the tops of the oxtails are just peaking out of the stock (but no more than two cups of water). Cover and place in the oven. Cook for three to four hours until the meat is tender and falling off the bone.

When the meat is finished, turn off the oven, remove the oxtails to a plate and set the pan over medium high heat. While the remaining stock is reducing (it should already be significantly reduced after four hours in the oven) pick all of the oxtail meat off the bone. When the stock is looking thick and gravy-like, add the meat to the gravy to warm through.

If you haven’t already, and you should have already, make your French fries. Transfer the French fries to an oven-safe serving dish and sprinkle with cheese curds. Place in your cooling oven for five – 10 minutes until the cheese is melted. Top the fries with gravy and serve while piping hot.