Apple Cider Caramels

It has very quickly started feeling like fall around here. The other night I walked outside and it smelled exactly like a snow and the my first thought really was, “oh god, winter actually is coming.” Luckily I’ve been packing my weekends so full with fall activities (i.e. haunted houses at BuschGardens), college homecomings at schools I didn’t even go to, drinking beers while wearing flannel. You know, the usual stuff) that it kinda keeps my mind off that sad fact.

You know what else makes me forget about the impending horrors of winter? These apple cider caramels! So do apple cider donuts for that matter, but that’s a story for a different time. I know that the Internet has already said a lot about these caramels and they need no further verification that they taste like the actual essence of fall itself, but here I am doing just that.

The intense apple flavor is what makes these caramels so notable. It has both that rich, nearly buttery flavor of caramelized apples while retaining that tart aspect that really gets the salivary glands going. This comes from boiling 4 cups of apple cider down to about a half cup of pure apple syrup. The syrup then gets a hefty dose of sugar, butter, and cream and flaky salt and cinnamon help to counterbalance the richness and sweetness. The end result is what I can only describe as all things that are good in one single bite. I would go on about how it makes me reminisce about walking through a brisk park while admiring the changing colors of the leaves or something along those lines, but then I might start sounding like this guy. So, I’ll just stop here before things get too carried away and tell you to make these now.

Apple Cider Caramels
Recipe from Deb Perelman’s Smitten Kitchen

4 cups apple cider
½ tsp cinnamon
2 tsp flaky sea salt
8 Tbs (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1 cup granulated sugar
½ cup packed light brown sugar
1/3 cups heavy cream

Pour the apple cider into a saucepan and heat on high until boiling. Continue boiling until you have only ½ cup of cider remaining. This should take 30 to 45 minutes. In the meantime, measure out all of your ingredients since the process goes rather quick once the cider is ready. Also, line the bottom and sides of a square brownie pan with 2 pieces of parchment paper.

Once the apple cider has reduced, remove from the heat and add in the sugars, butter and cream. Return to a medium-high heat and stir until all ingredients are melted and incorporated. Stop stirring and attach a candy thermometer to the side of the pan. Let the mixture boil until it reaches 252 degrees Fahrenheit. This will take 4-5 minutes.

Once it reaches temperature, remove the caramel from the heat, quickly stir in the cinnamon and salt and pour the caramel into the pan. Set aside until completely cool. You can also place it in the fridge in you are in a bit of a rush. To cut, remove from the pan and peel off the parchment paper and transfer the caramel to a cutting board. Coat the blade of a large knife in vegetable oil and cut in to 1-inch squares. Wrap each in parchment paper if you are patient like that.

Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Brussels Sprouts and Pecans

Remember a long time ago when I wrote about how much I love orange colored vegetables in the Fall? Yeah, apparently that hasn’t changed at all. I went to Trader Joe’s today and somehow came home with 5, yes 5, different pumpkin flavored things. I in no way whatsoever needed any of them and I barely have any recollection of putting those items in my cart. And so they joined the pumpkin beer in the refrigerator. No complaints here though, pumpkin flavored cookie butter is the bomb.

Unsurprisingly the food that I actually had on my grocery list to make a sweet potato gnocchi dish still went along with the fall theme, which should be obvious because I am a female in her mid-twenties who wears flannel frequently and grinds her coffee beans by hand every day. And yes, I do frequently shake my head at myself.

But doesn’t sweet potato gnocchi sound so nice though? It’s the same light-as-a-feather dumplings we all know and love but just a tad sweeter with a hint of a caramel taste. And while a lovely pairing could be sage and brown butter or a nice peppery cream sauce, I went with roasted Brussels sprouts and toasted pecans, as inspired by Tara at Seven Spoons. The varying texture and flavors that already exist between those three things were made even more complex with a good dose of orange zest to brighten up the richness of the gnocchi and the bitterness of the sprouts and a hefty amount of Parmesan, because I really can’t think of anything that is not improved but lots of Parmesan.

Admittedly it is not exactly a recipe for the beginner cook and I will warn you that the number of dirty dishes involved is overwhelming, but with patience and good organization, the outcome will definitely be worth it. Plus the extra gnocchi can be frozen for up to several months, and makes for a very quick dinner on a lazy day. I know that gnocchi is certainly intimidating and the standard variety has given me more trouble than success, but somehow the sweet potato variety has never failed me yet.

Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Brussels Sprouts and Pecans
Serves 4-6
Inspired by Melissa Roberts and Tara O’Brady

1¼ lbs russet potatoes (about 3 medium)
¾ lb sweet potatoes (about 2 medium)
1 egg
1 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
1/3 grated Parmesan
1½ - 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 Tbs. butter
2 lbs Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved
2 Tbs olive oil
¾ cup pecans, toasted and roughly chopped
the zest of 1 orange
salt and pepper

Begin by making the gnocchi. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Scrub your potatoes clean use a fork to poke holes all around each. Rub with a little bit of olive oil and place on a baking sheet. Bake for 45 minutes to an hour until soft throughout. Remove from the oven, cut each in half and let cool for 5 minutes. Scrape the insides of the potatoes away from the skins and discard the skins. Press the potatoes onto a large sheet pan using a potato ricer. Allow to cool for 10 more minutes.

Combine the egg, nutmeg, a tsp. of salt and a half tsp. of pepper in a small bowl. Gather the potatoes into a mound, make a well in the center and pour the egg into that. Use your hands to combine. Add the parmesan and 1½ cups of the flour and knead it into a dough. Add more flour as needed until you have a smooth and slightly sticky dough.

Divide the dough into six pieces. Generously flour the counter and use your hands to roll one piece into a foot long rope. Use a bench scraper to cut the rope into about 1-inch pieces. Roll each piece over the tines of a fork to create the classic gnocchi look and place on a floured baking sheet. Continue with the rest of the dough and refrigerate the sheet pan with all of the gnocchi for about 30 minutes.

While it sits, preheat the oven to 400 degrees and prep the Brussels sprouts. Toss with the olive oil and season with salt, pepper, and half of the orange zest. Spread them out on another sheet pan and roast for about 15 minutes or until tender. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Once it’s boiling, cook two-thirds of the gnocchi in 3 separate batches for about 5 minutes each batch. Once cooked, transfer to a large bowl. The remaining gnocchi can be frozen for another time. Once all of the gnocchi are cooked, heat a frying pan over medium and add the butter. Once melted, add in the gnocchi and fry in the butter for 7-10 minutes, tossing frequently.

Transfer the gnocchi to a large bowl. Add in the Brussels sprouts, the pecans, and the remaining orange zest. Season with salt and pepper as desired and serve with more grated Parmesan. 

Buckwheat Crepes

Whenever I think back to the three days I spent in Paris back in 2010, my memories always seem to be one of two extremes. Some of them are wonderful and nearly surreal like cheese, baguettes, and perhaps a little too much wine beneath the Eiffel tower, walking for hours along Christmas markets, morning croissants, and gazing awestruck at the cavernous ceilings of the Notre Dame. Others are not quite as nice. Sleeping in shanty hostels with paper-thin walls and overtones of cigarettes and mold, viewing Versailles though an impenetrable blanket of rain and fog, oh yeah and getting cornered and screamed at by the metro police because they were certain I jumped the barriers (I did not, for the record).

With these memories, so profoundly great in their goodness and badness, I sometimes forget to note the smaller details of Paris, the nuances of its food, architecture and people that make it the amazingly beautiful and almost dreamlike city that it is. One of these small details of Paris are crepes. With a creperie booth in nearly every street corner, they appeared as commonplace as a hotdog cart in any US city. Yet, as it was Paris, the crepes seemed to transcend commonplace. I’m sure that there were most likely much better crepes in nice cafes and restaurants. I’m sure that the street versions were probably mediocre in the realm of all things crepe. Yet I happened to overlook the fact that the guy making looked bored out of his mind, cold, and tired of fulfilling tourist’s desires for this “authentic Parisian cuisine” and I instead enjoyed these crepes as if I were experiencing some rare and valued cultural treat.

I was in awe of the expansive cast iron crepe griddles and the way that the maker swirled the batter paper thin with a dowel rod. I was salivating in anticipation as he smeared heaping spoonfuls of Nutella and cut slices of over ripened banana overtop. He folded the crepe in half, then again and again and plopped this warm, oozing chocolaty cone of crepe into my hand, but not before swiftly taking his 4-euro payment, of course. The crepe was squishy and spongy and becoming nicely soggy every minute as the Nutella seeped into its pores. It warmed me to the core as the cold wind blowing across the Seine cut through all 5 layers of my clothing. The last bite, that little corner at the bottom of the cone was a molten pool of Nutella and sickeningly sweet.

In the two years that have passed since my Parisian crepe experience, I have not attempted any sort of European pancake at home. My general lack of the obligatory 14-inch diameter crepe pan may be to blame as well as a sense that I could never achieve the same sort of perfection, the soft sparingly texture and unearthly thinness.  Yet in the last few months, I’ve seen crepes everywhere, especially savory buckwheat versions (more properly called galettes). On television I watched as they were filled with ham and Gruyere, I read about a lovely cream cheese and smoked salmon interior, and ate, with much enthusiasm, a wonderfully curious ensemble of pulled pork, vinegar slaw, and blueberry compote all tucked inside. And then, after finally purchasing a bag of buckwheat flour, I made my own crepes with much success.

The recipe is from Alice Waters and is just about perfect. It has an unexpected addition of beer, which accentuates the lightless of the finished crepe. And even using a very old nonstick pan that has nearly reached the end of it nonstick capabilities, I was able to lift them straight off the pan with my fingers without a glitch. They are certainly savory themselves but lend well to both savory and sweet fillings. For dinner, I filled them with small cubes of maple roasted sweet potato and sharp cheddar cheese, rolled them into cylinders, popped them into the oven to let the cheese melt, and topped them with toasted walnuts and a drizzle of real maple syrup. The sweetness of the potatoes and the syrup contrasted the slight bitterness of the buckwheat and the salty cheesiness. They were comforting and filling. I had plenty of plain crepes leftover too and enjoyed them for breakfast, heated briefly in the microwave and smeared with cream cheese and pumpkin butter (jam would be great too). It may not have been quite like paris but hey, at least I got to eat these in the warm comfort of my home. That must be a plus, right? 

Buckwheat Crepes (and filling)
Makes about 10-12 medium sized crepes with filling recipe from The Bojon Gourmet via Alice Waters

A quick note that the batter, like all crepe batter, NEEDS to rest in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours after mixing. This allows the gluten to relax which make for the optimum thin, chewy, and pliable crepe. Also, the crepes, once cooked, keep well in the refrigerator if they are folded into quarters and placed in a covered dish. You could also assemble the entire dish the day before and reheat in the morning for a quick and easy brunch.

For crepes
1 cup milk, divided
½ stick (4 Tbs) unsalted butter, melted
½ tsp salt
½ tsp sugar
¼ cup plus 2 Tbs buckwheat flour
¼ cup plus 2 Tbs all-purpose flour
¼ cup plus 2 Tbs spelt flour
2 eggs
1½ tsp vegetable oil
½ cup beer (lager would be best but I only had wheat beer around and used that…it worked just fine)

For filling
3 sweet potatoes, cut into ½ inch cubes
1 Tbs. olive oil
1 Tbs pure maple syrup (plus extra for drizzling)
salt and pepper
6 oz shredded cheddar cheese
toasted walnuts

Combine ½ cup of the milk with the melted butter, salt, sugar, the three flours, eggs, oil, and beer in a blender. Blend on high until very smooth. Pour the batter into a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and place in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours (can sit overnight too).

Once the batter is rested, remove from the refrigerator and stir in the remaining ½ cup of milk. Heat a medium (8” to 10”) nonstick skillet over medium heat. While it’s heating, pour some vegetable oil into a bowl and get a pastry brush. Once the pan is evenly heated, brush a small amount of oil onto the pan. While holding the pan in one hand, pour ¼ cup of batter into the center and immediately start swirling the batter around the pan until it coats the entire surface. If there is extra, pour the remaining back into the bowl of batter. If it doesn’t spread around the pan easily, add a little more milk to the batter.

Place the pan back onto the heat and let the crepe cook for about 30 to 45 seconds. Once the top surface looks a little dry, its ready to flip. Use a spatula to loosen an edge and quickly use your fingers to flip the crepe to the other side. Let it cook on the other side for just another 30 seconds. When it is done, fold the crepe into quarters and place on a large plate and cover with a large pot lid to keep warm and soft. Continue the process, brushing the pan with a little oil for each crepe, until the batter is used up.

For the filling, preheat the oven to 425. Toss the sweet potatoes with the oil, maple syrup, and salt and pepper and spread out on a baking sheet. Bake for 20-25 minutes until tender. To assemble the crepe, place a spoonful of the sweet potatoes in a line across the center of the crepe and sprinkle with some of the cheddar and some toasted walnuts. Roll into a log shape and place in a casserole dish. Once all assembled in the casserole, you can sprinkle with any remaining cheese overtop and place in a 350 degree oven for about 5 minutes to let the cheese melt. Remove from the oven and serve the crepes with a drizzle of syrup and a nice salad

The Orange Season

Today was the first day of this year where I woke up and I could finally sense fall. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and the weather went from being 85 degrees on Tuesday, to rainy and 70 degrees on Thursday, to dry, crisp, and 55 degrees today. I honestly had a little extra spring in my step. I had a fleeting urge to listen to Christmas music (it went away fast though) and while standing outside, I closed my eyes and felt like I was back in London.

While I was there last fall, I was disappointed that I would miss out on the entire fall season here in Virginia. No pumpkin patches, Halloween, scarecrows, and harvest festivals. No drives through the mountains for the sake of looking at leaves. But as it turned out, fall in England was quite wonderful. Fresh apples were still everywhere as well as a gorgeous fall fashions that only a true Londoner can pull off. By lucky chance, our tour of a traditional English village in the countryside fell on an absolutely quintessential fall day and it was honestly the one of the most perfect days I think I will ever have. Coloring leaves, Sunday church bells, thatch-roofed cottages, and a big bowl of hot, pumpkin soup. Which brings me back to my main point. England’s fall season still provided a plentiful bounty of orange root and squash vegetables. And if there is one thing you should know about me and my food obsessions, orange root vegetables and squashes are my ultimate weakness. I crave them incessantly during all seasons and all weathers. Carrots, pumpkins, butternut squashes, golden beets, sweet potatoes. England was all about them…and that made me happy.

Though, on second thought, this does not explain why UK Starbucks neglected to offer the Pumpkin Spice Latte. But that’s okay; I actually had my first one of the season today and it was most definitely worth the wait. But regardless of that, I was lucky to not have to give up my favorite food for a year for the sake of a study abroad trip. Because I don’t think I could have waited.

I also noticed that with the strong influence of Indian cuisine in London, many orange vegetables were prepared with a Middle Eastern style. Butternut squashes popped up in many vegetarian curries and carrot salads spiced with raisins and coriander were ever popular. But my favorite was the sweet potato falafel. I would get this amazing sweet potato falafel sandwich from Pret with spinach, yogurt dressing, red onion, parsley, and hummus on whole wheat bread.. And though I regretfully didn’t try it there, the food chain Leon also offered a sweet potato falafel wrap. Luckily, however, they have a cookbook with the recipe and with the help of a blog post from Heidi Swanson, I retrieved the recipe and tried it out on my own.

They were delicious too and I love that they are baked rather than fried so that the sweet potato flavor shines through rather than being clogged by oil. The sesame seeds add a nutty crunch that gives way to a warm and creamy interior. The spices give an aromatic warmth but I dipped the falafel in some plain greek yogurt which provided a cooling contrast. These little morsels were really easy to make too, which makes London and fall memories a quick meal away.

Sweet Potato Falafel
Adapted from Leon and 101 Cookbooks
Makes 18 falafel

Note: When I say easy I don’t necessarily mean quick. Though they dirty hardly any dishes and require little labor-intensive work, they do take some time. My suggestion is to bake and mash the sweet potatoes the night before and refrigerate them overnight. Then, the next morning, mix with the rest of the ingredients and let it hang out in the refrigerator all day. That way, when it’s time to make dinner, all you have to do is shape and bake the falafel. You’ll notice that they are actually vegan and gluten-free too so it’s a great way to treat people with any dietary restrictions.

2 medium sweet potatoes
2 cloves minced garlic
1½ tsp. ground cumin
1½ tsp. ground coriander
handful of chopped parsley
1 cup garbanzo bean flour
½ lemon
salt and pepper
sesame seeds (about 1-2 Tbs)

In a 425-degree oven place the whole sweet potatoes directly on the rack for 45 minutes to 1 hour until they are tender in the center. Remove from the oven and let them cool. Once cool, remove the flesh from the skins and either refrigerate until ready to use or move to the next step.

Mix the cooled sweet potato flesh with the garlic, cumin, coriander, parsley, garbanzo bean flour, and lemon juice in a bowl. Mash with the back of a fork until quite creamy and smooth. Season with the salt and pepper. Place the mixture in the refrigerator for at least an hour to firm up.

When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 400 degrees and oil a baking sheet. Using two large spoons, scoop up a mound of the mixture and pass it back and forth between the concave sides of the spoons to form a football-like shape, but with three curved sides. Sprinkle the outside with the sesame seeds and place on the tray. Bake for about 15-17 minutes until the sides are golden and slightly crispy. Serve immediately while warm with toasted pita and a good dipping sauce like tsatziki or, if you want to keep it vegan, and lemon tahini sauce.