Thursday, December 30, 2010

Challah Bread

Okay, so I know it's been a long long time since I wrote on here, but I have good excuses (moving into my new apartment, preparing for teaching high school, graduating college, etc.) I think I am justified in not writing in a while!
So, with that out of the way, I'm pulling a recipe that I did for Thanksgiving; Challah Bread. It is so very good. It's sweet and had a little bit of a crunchy top.
What literary work could I use for Challah Bread? Well, now that I've graduated and I have a little bit more free time on my hands, I have been able to start reading for fun! I gave into the peer pressure and I have begun to read The Hunger Games. Now, I've JUST started reading it, so I don't know what happens so don't tell me! But so far, a big part of the book has to do with bread in one way or the other. Let's get some quotes in here:

"'Look what I shot.' Gale holds up a loaf of bread with an arrow stuck in it, and I laugh. It's real bakery bread, not the flat, dense loaves we make from our grain rations. I take it in my hands, pull out the arrow, and hold the puncture in the crust to my nose, inhaling the fragrance that makes my mouth flood with saliva. Fine bread like this is for special occasions". -pg. 7

"It was a boy. In his arms, he carried two large loaves of bread that must have fallen into the fire because the crusts were scorched black...The boy took one look back to the bakery as if checking that the coast was clear, then, his attention back on the pig, he threw a loaf of bread in my direction. The second quickly followed and he sloshed back to the bakery, closing the kitchen door tightly behind him. I stared at the loaves in disbelief. They were fine, perfect really, except for the burned areas. Did he mean for me to have them? He must have. Because there they were at my feet. Before anyone could witness what had happened I shoved the loaves up under my shirt, wrapped the hunting jacket tightly around me, and walked swiftly away. The heat of the bread burned into my skin but I clutched it tighter, clinging to life." -pg. 30-31

So bread is obviously a big part of this book. I don't want to give the story away but a lot of things come back to bread or the bakery or the baker and especially the baker's son. In the first quote, Katniss says "fine bread like this is for special occasions" and I think Challah Bread is just that!

Challah Bread
4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/3 cup sugar
1 cup warm water (about 110 degrees)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
3 eggs
3 1/2 to 4 1/2 cups flour
1 tablespoon salt
Place the yeast, sugar and warm water in a mixing bowl. Stir and let stand for about 10 minutes, until creamy and foamy. Add the melted butter and eggs and mix well.Combine the flour with the salt. Add it to the yeast mixture, 1 or 2 cups at a time, until it forms a soft dough. Place the dough on a well-floured board and knead until the dough becomes smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Place the dough in a large, well-greased bowl, then flip the dough over to coat with oil. Cover with plastic wrap or a towel and let stand in a warm place for about 1 hour, or until doubled in size.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Punch the dough down, form it into a loaf and place in a greased loaf pan. Bake for about 1 hour, or until the bread is golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped. Let cool before slicing.

This was incredibly easy to make and so so sooooo good! Eat it warm with some butter and it is money money money! You really don't need jam or honey or anything else.

This recipe made these two loaves. Delicious!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Roasted Chestnuts

Please enjoy The Christmas Song while you read this post:

Because of this song, which I thought was called “Chestnuts Roasting” until a couple years ago due to the opening line, I always wondered what roasted chestnuts tasted like.  

Here in California, chestnuts are very rare and very expensive ($7.99/lb!).  My mom never bought them for that reason.  I grew up thinking that buckeye nuts, which are native to the NorCal foothills, were the same as chestnuts, because their shells look pretty similar.  The only differences are that buckeye nuts are a lot bigger and, unfortunately, poisonous.

Anyway, the point is, I was clueless in the chestnut department, so I felt I had to try them.  

As I was reading up on how to roast chestnuts (and getting sad that people didn’t actually roast them over an open fire as the song indicates), I heard people mention how sweet the chestnuts were, and how divine they smelled while they were in the oven.  Reviews on recipes gushed about how it wasn’t the Christmas season without chestnuts, and yada yada yada.  

So this is where I get to be the stuck-up westerner who disagrees.
Stuck up, not stickup!  And not that kind of westerner!

Yes, I really am that nerdy. :)  Moving on.

First off, yes, roasted chestnuts are sweet.  Barely.  Like a sweet potato is sweet.  In fact, that’s the best description for both their flavor and texture.  They’re starchy and heavy like a sweet potato, with that pleasant but subtle sweet flavor.  Only you’re eating it plain, with no butter or sugar added.  Try taking a bite out of a plain baked sweet potato – it’s not bad, but not all that exciting either. Maybe California chestnuts are just defective, but I doubt it. If there's one thing California is good at, it's growing good produce.

And maybe it’s because I wasn’t cooking very many, but I could barely smell them while they were in the oven.  Just a faint woody odor.  So that was a bit of a let down after all the reviews lauding the sweet chestnut aroma filling the whole house.

Lastly, they’re kind of a lot of effort for such a little treat.  It wasn’t a big deal for me, because I only made four, but if you made over ten (and sometimes people make like 50!), it would be a gigantic pain, particularly since you only have a certain amount of time to peel the shells off before they cool and become impossible to work with.

With that being said, roasted chestnuts aren’t bad.  They taste soft and sweet while they’re warm and they are fairly simple to roast.  I’m glad I decided to make them, because I learned something new and now relate better to “The Christmas Song.”  I would even go so far as to recommend that those who have never eaten a roasted chestnut try them.  Just don’t expect too much, and you’ll be perfectly satisfied.

And now, without further ado, here’s how you roast chestnuts (source: Kathy Maister at

Roasted Chestnuts
-Salt (1 tsp for every 4 chestnuts)
Make sure your chestnuts are healthy-looking before purchasing (no holes or mold, not squishy).

Oven temperature: 425 degrees Fahrenheit

1. Using a small, sharp knife, cut large Xs on the top of each chestnut (the flat side is the bottom) through the thick brown shells.  
*This step is important!  It lets out the steam as the chestnuts cook.  Otherwise they will explode as they bake.  It also makes them easier to peel.
2. Put salt in a bowl or pot (depending on how many chestnuts you’re using), fill with enough water to dissolve the salt and submerge the chestnuts.  Add the chestnuts to the water, Xs face down, and let them soak for at least 1 hour.
3. Remove the chestnuts from the water and dab them dry.  Place them on a cookie sheet flat side down and put them in a preheated oven.  Bake for 20-30 minutes, or until the brown shell peels back and the nut becomes a light golden brown.  Do not overcook them, or they get chewy and gross.
4. To peel, wait until they are just barely cool enough to touch (be careful!) and then start pulling the shells off.  Don’t wait too long, though, because once they cool, they get much more difficult to peel.
~~ I actually didn’t wait at all – I picked each nut up with a hot pad and used my knife to break away the shell.  It was really easy that way, and I didn’t risk burning my fingers.

When they’re peeled, pop ‘em into your mouth!  They’re great warm!

Cutting the X
Soaking in salt water
The shell peeling back after it's cooked

Peeling the chestnut with a knife

All peeled
Trying it. Mmm... sweet potato.
Apparently there are street vendors in New York who sell boiled chestnuts that are really good.  According to a comment made by Anthony P. on’s “How to Roast Chestnuts” page,
“The secret is to cut the X on the chestnuts, then boil them (in unsalted water) for about 15-20 min. Drain and let them cool.  That’s it you’re done.  If you like you can broil them for a few min to give them the ‘roasted look’ like the vendors do.”   
Maybe someday I’ll try that, because apparently they’re juicier that way (so they would taste less like a potato).  I might consider roasting them with cinnamon, too.  For this year, though, I’m fine without any more chestnuts.  I'll just stick with my caramels and Austrian nut bars this Christmas. 

What is your favorite Christmas treat?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Truth about Sugar Plums

It’s Christmastime!  I love this time of year.  It’s an excuse to bake constantly.  I’ve got a list of a million wintery treats I want to make, such as peppermint bark, gingerbread, Austrian nut bars, chocolate truffles, and so on.

As I was on the prowl for a treat I could make for the blog, I ran across something simple and yet completely unfamiliar in the classic poem, “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” by either Clemente Clark Moore or Henry Livingston Jr. (Mysterious author... How intriguing).  That treat would be sugar plums.

I had a hard time chopping out a quote from this poem, because I love it all so much.  So you can listen to the narration of the entire story on this youtube video if you're like me and want to hear the whole thing. Otherwise, see the quote below the video.

I'd like to highlight the important line: “The children were nestled all snug in their beds, / While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads” (Twas the Night Before Christmas).

As a child, whenever I read or heard this story and thought of sugar plums dancing in children’s heads, I would picture something like this:

You know, plums with sugar on them, dancing.  The ballerina bit might be The Nutcracker's Sugar Plum Fairy getting in the way, but this is mostly what I pictured.  Oh how inaccurate I was. As it turns out, the name of this Christmas treat is extremely misleading.  Sugar plums have nothing to do with plums.  They have no plums in them, and they bear little resemblance to the pre-pruney fruit.  Apparently in the old days, plums referred to any dried fruit.  So I guess it kinda makes sense that sugar plums consist mostly of almonds, dried apricots, and dates.

Now, if you are like me, you’re probably wrinkling your nose right now.  I despise almonds, along with almost every other nut, and dried apricots are far too sweet.  Not to mention dates, which taste alright, but every time I look at them, I can’t help but picture this:

Don't worry, this is photo-shopped. But still gross.

Sorry, I’ve probably ruined dates for everyone now.  Just be thankful that I didn’t go all OCD on you and get really detailed in my cockroach representation.  I almost did.

Anywho, despite my dislike for the three main ingredients, I decided to make a very small batch, so that I could say I had actually tried sugar plums.  And also so I would have something to post this week.  Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised.  They weren’t overpoweringly nutty or apricotty.  The flavors blended together well and once I finished one, I immediately wanted another.  The sugarplum recipe is nearly universal on every site.  My source is the Use Real Butter blog.  I cut the recipe back to a third, which is why the measurements are a little odd.

Sugar Plums
(Servings: 7 large sugar plums or 12 small ones)

2/3 cup whole almonds
1 tbsp + 1 tsp honey
1 tsp grated orange zest
1/8 - ¼  tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 – ¼ tsp ground allspice
1/8 – ¼ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/3 cup dried apricots, finely chopped
1/3 cup pitted dates, finely chopped
1/3 cup confectioners’ sugar
Optional: whole cloves, for stems

Preheat oven to 400F. Arrange almonds on a baking sheet in a single layer and toast in oven for ten minutes. Set aside to cool and then finely chop or blend in a blender.  Meanwhile, combine honey, orange zest, cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg in a small bowl. Mix almonds, apricots, dates and spice mix in a large bowl. Mix well, using you hands (make sure they’re clean!). Pinch off rounded tabelspoon-sized (for large) or teaspoon-sized (for small) pieces and roll into balls. Dust the sugar plums with powdered sugar, place a clove in each as a stem, and refrigerate in single layers between sheets of wax paper in airtight containers for up to one month.


As luck would have it, I already had toasted almonds, so I just tossed them into a blender.
Blended almonds
Grating the orange peel.
Due to my own idiocy, I accidentally grated 2 tablespoons of orange zest instead of the recommended 1 teaspoon.  I didn’t realize it until I’d already mixed in the honey.   Surprisingly, this wasn’t such a terrible goof.  It just made the sugar plums have a stronger citrus flavor.  If you’re worried about not liking sugar plums, but you like orange, try grating a ½ tsp or so extra orange zest.

Honey mixture.  Imagine this with significantly less orange zest

Chopping apricots.  I only used about 7 of each fruit.
All ingredients.  You will have to use your hands to mix beyond this point.
Now, I have an issue with sugar plums being called such when they look nothing like plums.  The original recipe doesn’t even have the cloves for stems.  So I took the liberty of adding the stems, as well as dying the confectioner’s sugar a light purple.

In order to dye the sugar, stick it in the blender.  Then make a small well in the center of the sugar and drop in a couple drops of blue and red food coloring.  I used a tiny bit more blue than red.  This actually works way better if you have the watery food coloring instead of the fancy gel colors.  Blend the powdered sugar a minute at a time and keep adding coloring until it gets to a tint with which you are satisfied.

I used gel coloring, and I got little chunks of coloring that didn’t blend, which you can see sitting in the sifter.

Finished!  There's a traditional white one in the center with the purples
Presenting sugar plums.  I promise they're actually purple.
It was exciting to make something I had only heard about in a children’s poem (and seen as a fairy in a ballet).  I’m happy to be a little less ignorant about traditional Christmas treats.  And despite my assumptions when I read the recipe, it actually turned out to be really good!  Not to mention very easy to make.  I definitely recommend it.

“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Pumpkin Smash Bars

Alright, sorry I haven't been posting lately. You probably won't hear from me for the next few weeks because I'm graduating and you know...finals...etc.
Anyway! I had a fabulous Thanksgiving. I had the opportunity to make an entire Thanksgiving dinner with my brother and sister-in-law. It was so fun! I love to cook =)
This post has nothing to do with literature, I just wanted to brag about the fact that I MADE UP A RECIPE! That's right, on the spot, no list. I saw things, and threw them in the bowl and baked it. I'm not even sure I remember all of what I did, so these will be estimates. I didn't take many pictures because I wasn't sure how it would turn out. However, I loved it and my brother loved it too! Kayla said it was kind of like a fudge almost, but I like the name Pumpkin Smash Bars! Here we go!

Pumpkin Smash Bars
3/4 Can of pure pumpkin (this was a leftover I had in the fridge)
approx. 1/2 cup sweetened condensed milk (also a leftover)
approx. 2 cups of flour (I didn't write down measurements...I just kept throwing it in until I was satisfied
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1 egg
1/3 cup of sugar
vanilla extract?
coconut flakes (also a leftover)

So what I did was throw everything into a bowl and mix it together except the coconut. I spooned the mixture onto a greased baking dish and topped it with the coconut flakes. I baked it at 350 for...30 minutes? I have no idea.'s the picture proof! It was really yummy and I was/am proud!