Sunday, November 24, 2013

Caramel Popcorn

I suppose I should feel guilty but I didn't intentionally lure one of my closest friends by way of caramel sauce to a deadly sin. My particular dalliance with this intoxicating taste sensation started in my childhood at the feet of my mother, near the largest Tupperware bowl filled with caramel popcorn every Christmas...laughing at the new white fuzz ball of a puppy pulling a popcorn bowl across the floor....with buttered hands shaping the warm, velvety confection into balls. Doing as my mother had done, I tutored my own children in the craft. They took the experience to new literary heights with the creation of a simple rhyme to help them remember the ingredients of the basic recipe, the words to which went: "1/2 Cup, Cup, Cup, Can, Squirt ...I believe there was even a dance that went with it to a Latin Calypso beat. 

This recipe not only creates the caramel for popcorn, but is the basis for a sauce for ice cream and cake, and for caramel toffee or pecan turtles. But back to my friend; she recognized in it other, more deadly possibilities. Featured as the sauce for a moist gingerbread cake for refreshments for a theatrical production she took home a pitcher of leftover sauce. Then in a frenzy of creativity, boredom or desperation (perhaps we will never know exactly what drove her to this) she found that the caramel sauce served equally well as a beverage, which did indeed eliminate the nuisance of utensils or cake and ice cream as a conduit. To Trina, I apologize. I should have applied a warning label, "May be injurious to your health if consumed in large quantities." But oh, what a way to go! Whether served as loose unformed clumps or as balls the popcorn purrs to this soft, creamy and intoxicating did Trina.

Ruthie's Caramel Sauce:
1/2 cup butter
1 cup white karo syrup
1 cup brown sugar
1 can sweetened condensed milk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
(for salted caramel, add 1/2 tsp. coarse salt or fleur de sel)
10 cups popped corn

-In a heavy bottomed, large saucepan, melt butter.  Stir in karo syrup, brown sugar and sweetened condensed milk.  Over medium-high heat, stir ingredients until sugar is melted and mixture is smooth.  Continue stirring constantly until mixture comes to a boil.  Lower heat slightly to medium and continue cooking and stirring until sauce reaches 232 degrees on a candy thermometer, just shy of soft-ball stage (it will take 10 - 12 minutes at a boil to reach this stage.).  Remove from heat and stir in vanilla and salt if used.

-Pour caramel sauce over the popped corn in a large bowl.  Stir until the sauce is well distributed.  Let the caramel corn sit for 5 minutes then pour out onto a sheet of waxed paper.  Break clumps apart or with buttered hands, take a baseball size portion of caramel corn and press into a firm, solid ball.  Set on paper and allow to cool completely, about 1 hour.  Place each popcorn ball in a sandwich bag or wrap each in a square of waxed paper.  Tie packaged balls with ribbon.

-Makes about 20 popcorn balls.

***For sauce for ice cream or for fondue, cook sauce until
      slightly thickened, about 5 minutes.
***For caramel candies, cook sauce to 246 degrees, firm
      ball stage.  Stir in nuts and pour into buttered 9x13 inch
      pan.  Allow to set at least 8 hours.  Cut into 1 inch squares
      and wrap each in square of waxed paper.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies

Halloween was a challenge in the Middle East.  First of all, no random trick-or-treating allowed for fear of startling the neighbors.  Instead, we had to arrange a round-robin sort of progressive trick-or-treating with Halloween savvy Americans.  Secondly, costumes were eyed suspiciously- one of our Hungarian guests at a Halloween party saw me working in the kitchen in my Palestinian costume and assumed I was a village woman we had hired to make dinner. Consorting with witches, goblins and ghosts just seemed weird to them - it does to us at times!  The biggest challenge was finding the pumpkin for the Jack-O-Lantern.  

One year I had to use various melons which we found don't carve well.  But being determined to have a jack-o-lantern for our poor culturally deprived children, we eventually found a pumpkin. Yes, they had them but they were large, the wrong color and grown exclusively for their meaty flesh to be used in stews and ragouts.  Tunisians used them like we use a hubbard squash and hadn't visualized them as lanterns with scowling, grinning features.  At least the vegetable merchant didn't get it and we had to repeat several times that yes, we wanted the whole thing. which necessitated a jaunt to the meat market where the scale was big enough to weigh "the whole thing."  ("Crazy Americans!").  

This, the smallest of the pumpkins, 2 feet in diameter, weighed in at 50 pounds. One of my favorite images is that of my husband hauling it to the car, with Tunisians watching curiously after him.  But there was carving fun for all and it held several pillar candles.  Another perk - I cooked down the 4 inch flesh the next day to use as pumpkin pie filling - something else we couldn't find there, so it took care of two holiday traditions!  The soft, cakey cookies that follow are my husband's favorite: the combination of pumpkin with all the right spices - cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice- bespeak autumn holidays. And then consorting with chocolate chips and walnuts... no tricks involved, just plenty of treats!

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies
3/4 cup vegetable shortening
3/4 cup softened butter
1 1/2  cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups packed brown sugar
3 eggs
3 1/2 cups solid pack pumpkin
5 cups flour
1 tab. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. soda
12 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/2 - 1 cup chopped walnuts
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate
crumbled toffee bits

-Mix butter and shortening in mixer with both sugars, until creamed together.  Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each.  Stir in pumpkin.

-Add flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, salt, soda and vanilla extract to pumpkin mixture and gently stir together until smooth on low speed of mixer.  Add chocolate chips and walnuts and stir.  Chill dough for about 30 minutes in the refrigerator.

-Place dough by heaping tablespoons on cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.  Bake in 350 degree preheated oven for 15 to 20 minutes, until just starting to golden around edges.  Remove and let cool.

-Melt bittersweet chocolate in microwave oven for about 1 minute.  Stir and allow to cool about 5 minutes.  Drizzle chocolate over tops of cooled cookies from a spoon or place in a plastic bag with a small hole cut in the corner and squeeze chocolate ribbons over cookies.  Sprinkle tops of cookies with toffee bits.  Makes about 50 cookies.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Banana Cinnamon Cake with Warm Caramel Sauce

Bananas and I have a long and complicated relationship, one of unrequited affection on my part. This wasn't due to the heartlessness of the banana itself, but more particularly to circumstance, not so much the wrong time as the wrong place. Tunisia for starters....bananas did not exist in this North African clime, but we had already dallied with the banana enough to know what Tunisians were missing. And apparently, we weren't the only residents to have had experience lingering enraptured over a banana split, for when the banana boat came in, maybe twice a year, bananas were hawked from every city corner to avid customers who consumed their yearly requirement of potassium in a matter of a few days! And for a short time, we dined in banana heaven with banana milkshakes, banana pudding, banana cream pie and eventually banana bread which we froze to dole out in the banana-less months to follow.

Our only respite being when visitors came from Europe - at our request they would bring bananas and avocados as the gift I wanted most from home. From Tunisia, we moved to Jordan, where the banana existed, their water gorging trees quenched by the waters of the Jordan River, but alas, they were short, stubby, things often green and reluctant to ripen; no Chiquita worthy specimens these. But the flavor was right and after all, that is what we fell in love with in the first place. In the following recipe, I step aside to let caramel sauce take my place in this love affair with the banana. I can not imagine a more perfectly suited couple....and the cinnamon topping dresses the dish up for a night on the dessert table!

Banana Cake with Cinnamon Topping:
1 3/4 cups flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 ripe medium bananas
2 eggs
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup plus 1 tab. buttermilk
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. salt
1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
4 tab. butter, melted
2/3 cup brown sugar
2 tab. flour
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp. salt

-Preheat oven to 325 degrees.  Grease and flour an 8 x 8 inch square or 10 inch round baking pan.

-Combine 1 3/4 cups flour, 1 1/2 cups sugar, bananas, eggs, vegetable oil, buttermilk, baking soda, salt and vanilla extract in mixing bowl and mix well, until batter is smooth - 3 - 4 minutes.  Stir in walnuts if used.  Pour batter into prepared pan. 

-Combine melted butter, brown sugar,  2 tab. flour, cinnamon, nutmeg and 1/2 tsp. salt.  Sprinkle on top of batter in pan.  Bake in preheated oven until top is golden brown and splits slightly, about 1 hour and 20 minutes.  Test with knife to insure doneness. 

-Cut cake into squares and serve warm or at room temperature with caramel sauce.

(Optional Cream topping:  Place 1/2 cup whipping cream in mixing bowl and beat until stiff peaks form.  In another bowl combine 4 ounces of softened cream cheese, 1/2 cup powdered sugar and 1 tsp. vanilla extract until smooth.  Fold cream cheese mixture by hand into whipped cream.  Top squares of banana cake with spoonfuls of cream mixture and then drizzle with caramel sauce.)

The Caramel Sauce  (here's another love story....)
1 stick butter (1/2 cup)
1 cup white corn syrup
1 cup brown sugar
1 can sweetened condensed milk
1 tab. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. coarse salt (for salted caramel)

-In a heavy medium saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. 
Stir in corn syrup, brown sugar, and sweetened condensed milk. 
Slowly bring to a boil, over medium heat stirring frequently
(constantly if you have the patience...if stirring constantly, you
can edge the heat up a bit.) Once mixture begins to bubble,
continue cooking over medium heat, stirring constantly for
another 5 minutes.  Remove from heat and stir in vanilla
extract and salt. Let cool.  Serve warm or at room temperature.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Adas - Lentil Soup

"A Mess of Potage" is what my husband calls it and yes, sometimes it looks like a mess, or at least my kitchen utensils do after preparing it! My husband maintains that this earthy, humble lentil soup from Jordan (the land of the Bible) must have been similar to what the Biblical Esau sold his birthright for, to his brother Jacob. Even hungry modern-day nomads, after a day of unfruitful hunting and surviving the wilds of suburbia might be inclined to do the same for this satisfying bowl of sustenance. If Jacob's version included the fried bread croutons and lemon juice of this recipe, he might have had his pick of birthrights from those lined up outside his tent drooling for a "mess" from the "potage" pot!

Adas - Lentil Soup:
1/4 cup olive oil
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
2 carrots, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 1/2 cups brown lentils
1 tab. ground cumin
1 lemon, cut in wedges
3 pita loaves, cut into 1 inch squares
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tab. ground sumac
salt and pepper to taste
finely minced fresh parsley

-Rinse lentils then soak in large bowl of cold water
for 1 hour.  Drain and set aside.

-In large saucepan, heat 1/4 cup olive oil.  Add
the chopped onion and cook over medium heat
until onions are soft and golden, stirring
frequently (about 20 minutes.)

-Add carrots and garlic and sauté 2-3 minutes

-Add lentils, cumin and 4 cups water to the pot.
Cover and cook over medium-high heat until
contents come to a boil.  Reduce the heat to low
simmer and cook for about 30 minutes or until
lentils are very tender, stirring occasionally.

-Meanwhile, heat 1/2 cup olive oil in medium sauté
pan.  Add bread squares and cook over medium-high
heat until browned and crispy, stirring frequently.
Remove bread squares from oil and drain.  Salt
lightly while warm.

-Remove from heat and allow to sit for 10 - 15
minutes.  Place soup in blender and blend until
smooth (or if you prefer to keep some of the lentils
whole, for a coarser soup, puree just half of the
lentils.)  Return soup to pot.  Season to taste with
generous salt and pepper and ground sumac.

-Ladle into soup bowls.  On top of each serving,
sprinkle bread squares, a squirt of lemon juice,
minced parsley and additional sumac. 
Serve with lemon wedges.

**(for a richer broth, add chicken bouillon paste to
     liquid when cooking lentils)

-Serves 6 - 8