Readers, this was an unusual Christmas for me. Why? Because for the first time in over a decade, I wasn't working on Christmas Day! When I had my estate cooking job, that was just part of the gig--Christmas Dinner--and before that, at the Emerson Inn, I offered to cook because our family always celebrated on Christmas Eve.
And all of these years I've also been applying my considerable cooking skill and energy to Christmas cookies, fruitcakes, and confections--all on the job, to be consumed or given as gifts by my employers. Nothing wrong with that--it's what I do!
But this year, I found myself primed at the beginning of December, ready to go--and hey, guess what? This year all of that skill and energy could be channeled to making yummies for my own friends and family. Even more exciting? I had the new Gourmet cookbook in hand, Gourmet Today, to mine for new Christmas confection ideas. Woo hoo! Line up those candy boxes!
My first confection was actually a tried-and-true favorite from the Gourmet Cookbook--one that has proven wildly popular over the past three or four years--Candied Citrus Rind.
When I first made this I quickly realized that the paltry 2 grapefruit they mention (in the book, not the online recipe) would never be enough, and further, that one couldn't stop at just tossing these with sugar--they should properly also be dipped in bittersweet chocolate. So it kind of grew into a candy-making monster. Imagine a soup pot filled to the brim with grapefruit, pomelo, orange, lemon and lime peels (bring to a boil and drain off water FIVE TIMES to draw off bitterness)...make a simple syrup using a whole bag of sugar...what I end up with is many racks of candied peel drying over trays and taking up a lot of room!
This photo is pre-sugar coating/chocolate dip stage, but aren't they beautiful? Oh readers, these are so tasty. It's a very good thing I only make them once a year.
My second confection was the Truffle Fudge from Gourmet Today (the rest are all from that book). Sadly, this is not online, but happily it's so easy I can tell you in two seconds how to make it--melt a bag of bittersweet chocolate chips, 1/2 stick butter, a pinch of salt and a can of sweetened condensed milk together somehow (I used a microwave), pour into an 8" pan lined with parchment paper, and cool in the fridge.
That's it. Super easy!
The third confection was Chocolate Earl Gray Truffles. Here I had a little supermarket quandry, trying to find just the right form of Earl Grey tea. The cook's notes point out that "loose tea leaves have a fresher, more distinctive flavor than the leaves in tea bags", and though I couldn't find loose tea, I did find whole leaf tea in tea bags which seemed like an OK compromise.
If you've ever made a flavored creme brulee this is the same idea--you let the tea leaves steep in hot cream, and then use that cream to go forward and make a ganache. The recipe asks you to roll ganache balls in your hands and then dip those in cocoa powder, but since I have an aversion to goopy hands I used a mini-scoop with a release bar.
The bergamot flavor is very subtle in these truffles and although I liked them (a lot), I couldn't help comparing them with Robert Linxe's truffle recipe in The Gourmet Cookbook, which has you smear a thin layer of melted chocolate on the ganache balls before you toss them in cocoa powder--this fussy little extra step adds a thin snap when you bite into the truffle.
Speaking of Robert Linxe, Don and I visited La Maison du Chocolat while we were in NYC! I got a big box of dark chocolate just for us and I will never tell you how much I paid for it! Here's some history on this fellow for your reading pleasure.
My fourth confection was Toasted-Coconut Marshmallow Squares. My shopping quandry here was finding coconut extract--I could find only artificial extract at Market Basket, but then found real (organic) coconut extract hours later at Common Crow. Of course I went with the latter, only to find out that the 1/2 tsp. didn't add any noticable coconut flavor to the marshmallows--oh well!
I'd never made marshmallows but it's pretty easy if you have a stand mixer--they are essentially meringue + unflavored gelatin. I suppose standard marshmallows are tossed in corn or potato starch so they don't stick--here they are tossed in toasted coconut. Pretty!
The fifth confection was Pumpkin Seed Brittle. On the surface this looks like a simple recipe, requiring only sugar, water, sea salt and green, raw pepitas. But the technique is so odd I'm going to show you action photos--I was quite sure the whole thing was a wash at least twice but they came out beautifully. You start off with sugar, salt and water and bring it to a boil:
When it reaches 238 you take it off the heat and add the pepitas, stirring until the sugar recrystallizes:
Then you put it back on the heat, stirring until it becomes grainy. This is one of the places where I was sure I'd be pitching it because I stirred for a lifetime without it getting to the next stage, where the sugar "turns a deep caramel color" and at the same time, the seeds get all brown and toasty:
Then you pour it onto parchment paper you've got taped down, throw another piece on top and roll it out super thin. I burned my hands here in my enthusiasm to work quickly.
I was in love with this gorgeous candy. Look at it!
Also so good. I think for adventure + flavor this one was my favorite.
And now we come to confection 5 1/2, which was a twice-failed recipe--Fleur de Sel Caramels. On the surface, this seems like another easy one--basically caramelized sugar plus cream. What could go wrong?
A lot, it turns out. The first batch (made by O'Malley, with my supervision) although it cooked to the proper temperature (248) set up far too hard and was essentially a lot like the middle of a Heath bar (not a bad thing, but not caramel!) The second batch, cooked to a temp I found online (236) came out too runny and turned into apple dip.
I'm not sure what exactly went wrong here but I'll try it again next Christmas and see if I can't get it right.
And fyi now-nonexistant Gourmet staffers, where the heck am I supposed to find unsweetened passion fruit puree? I had planned to also make Passion Fruit Gelees but never could find any and since I've never had passion fruit I didn't even know what to sub in. Another confection for next year!