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Holiday Giving: Oven Toasted Caramel Corn

jar of caramel corn

Back in the days when we were still allowed to bring homemade treats to school for holiday parties, my mom would make honey butter popcorn. She would pop enough corn to fill a clean brown paper grocery bag, and boil brown sugar, honey, butter, and vanilla extract together.

When it was thick, she’d pour the hot syrup over the popcorn, tossing vigorously with a long handled wooden spoon. The popcorn would also get a generous sprinkling of salt as she stirred the syrup in. As soon as the coated corn wasn’t molten hot, we’d be allowed a few tastes.

popping corn

When it was cooled enough to handle, but not entirely firm, she’d portion it out into plastic sandwich bags and tie them off with the colored ribbon that you could curl with a scissors blade. I was always excited to share that popcorn with my friends at school, thinking it the very best offering possible.

These days, I still think that crisp, sweet popcorn is one of the very best treats around. It’s one of those things that I love to make but only cook up a batch when I know I can move most of it out of the house immediately. My self control wanes when there is caramel corn within reach.

caramel popcorn sheet tray

Last Saturday, some dear friends had their annual holiday party. It’s an event that features a wide array of delicious, sugary, holiday-themed confections and I needed something worthy to add to the spread. After a quick appraisal of my pantry stores and the amount of time left before we needed to leave for the party, caramel popcorn was the winner.

These days, I use an approach that marries how my mom would make hers, with the low heat toasting that Molly Wizenberg wrote about some six years ago. It results in a crisp, deeply caramel-y corn that keeps its texture best if you stash it in jars or zip-top bags the moment it is cool.

top of caramel corn

This popcorn also makes a terrific addition to holiday cookie plates and gift bags. If you’re mailing out treat boxes, a quart bag of this corn bulks out your offering without increasing your shipping costs much. It can also serve as an edible cushion for more fragile baked goods and jars. Pair it with a bag of Eleanor’s roasted Chex Mix, for the pinnacle of sweet and salty.

Before we get to the recipe, a note. There is a suggestion in the very back of Food in Jars that you infuse flaky sea salt with vanilla beans. If you’ve made it and have a jar kicking around, make sure to use it on this popcorn. The subtle hint of vanilla you get from the salt makes a darned fine addition to the popcorn.

Oh, and just one last thing. If you are looking for a good way to make stove top popcorn, may I suggest the Whirley-Pop? It is definitely a unitasker (forgive me, Alton Brown), but I love mine with an unreasonable amount of passion. If you are a popcorn lover looking to break your dependence on the microwave stuff and have a sliver of spare storage space, you should get one.

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My Imaginary Menu: Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving cookbooks

Thanksgiving is approaching and Scott and I are attending two celebrations this year. We’ll will be spending the actual holiday with his mom down in Virginia and then on Saturday, we’ll gather with my family back up here in Philadelphia.

Because I’m not hosting either meal, I don’t get to have much of a say in the menu beyond bringing my assigned potluck items (pie and potatoes). And so, to satisfy my urge to sift through cookbooks and choose a selection of harvest-y dishes, I bring you my imaginary menu, Thanksgiving style (you last saw me do this last spring in anticipation of Passover).

lentil pate and semolina cracker sheets

To start out, I’d make a batch of the Lentil Pate from Kim O’Donnel’s fabulous book, The Meat Lover’s Meatless Celebrations. I made it last year for a story on Table Matters and it was seriously amazing. For dipping, I’d bake up a batch of the Semolina Cracker Sheets from Ivy Manning’s Crackers & Dips. I’d put out a few jars of pickles and preserves, along with a log of chevre and call the appetizers done.

pumpkin cozy rolls

Before we get any further, I must make it clear that the turkey is assumed. I haven’t selected a recipe for it because I’ve spent many a year roasting turkeys with my dad and so it’s one of those dishes that is ingrained in my muscle memory.

With the turkey taken care of, I’d bake off a batch of the Pumpkin Cozy Rolls from Tara Matazara Desmond’s fantastic new book, Choosing Sides. A great number of my recipe selections are from this book, so prepare yourself to see it a lot in this post.

caramelized onion and roasted garlic herb stuffing

No turkey centered meal is complete without some kind of stuffing. I love it when it’s cooked inside the bird, but know that it’s a method that gives food safety folks the shakes. Whether cooked inside or out, I think this Caramelized Onion and Roasted Garlic Herb Stuffing sounds like a winner.

arugula with sugar cranberries and pancetta

I’m a big believer in having lots of lighter vegetables on the Thanksgiving table and so some sort of salad is a must. I’m something of a fool for arugula and so think that Arugula with Sugar Cranberries and Pancetta from Choosing Sides sounds like just the thing. If was cooking for my Jewish family, I’d skip the pancetta and sub in some toasted nuts instead.

green beans with smoky pistachio dust

Buttered green beans topped with slivered almonds are a Thanksgiving requirement in my family, but if they allowed me to tweak things ever so slightly, I’d do so by making these Green Beans with Smoky Pistachio Dush from Cheryl Sternman Rule’s Ripe instead.

browned brussels with maple butter

For my husband, I’d do a batch of these Browned Brussels with Maple Butter from Choosing Sides. He cannot abide the green bean but loves sprouts, maple syrup, and butter. The combination would make him thankful indeed.

roasted butternut and spuds

If the table could handle just one more dish, I’d add a batch of the Roasted Butternut and Spuds from Choosing Sides. I have a casserole of mashed potatoes, winter squash and a mountain of cheese that I dearly love, but it is HEAVY. This version sounds lighter but still delicious.

pear and chocolate oat crumble

For dessert, I’m turning to Nigel Slater’s newest work, Notes from the Larder. He has such a nice way with seasonal desserts. This recipe for Pear and Chocolate Oat Crumble looks both restrained and decadent. I bet it’s perfect with a little bit of vanilla ice cream and a post-dinner mug of tea.

That wraps up my fantasy menu for the coming holiday. Now your turn. What dish do you long to make for Thanksgiving this year?

Disclosure: All the cookbooks mentioned here were promotional copies, sent to me for review. However, all opinions expressed here are mine alone. 
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My Imaginary Seder Menu

Jewish cookbooks

One of the joys of living in a city with a huge extended family is that our holidays are chaotic and deliciously boisterous. These days, my cousins regularly host just the kind of Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Passover gatherings I longed for when I was young and lived far away from any grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.

However, there is just one (very small) downside to these large, collaborative holiday meals for me, and that is the fact that I never get to be in charge of the menu. I certainly always make contributions to the buffet and over the years have graduated from bringing secondary side dishes to the main course. But, as a food writer/blogger who reads cookbooks for recreation, I often find myself longing to craft the entirety of a celebratory menu.

kippered salmon snacks

I could certainly have secondary holiday gatherings and next year, when I’m not working on a book and life isn’t quite so frenzied, I hope to do just that. This year though, with Passover (and my cookbook deadline!) fast approaching, I thought that I’d indulge in a little fantasy menu planning instead of tackling the real thing. This way, I get all of the pleasure of flipping through cookbooks and imagining a meal, without any of the work of shopping, cooking or cleaning.

For my imaginary Seder, I pulled out four cookbooks. The Jewish Festival Cookbook (first published in 1954, but available in more modern editions), The Kosher Carnivore (a particularly good resource if you have kosher friends), The Mile End Cookbook (classic Jewish food with pages and pages of pickles), and The New Jewish Table (beautiful food). After a couple hours of reading, marking and stomach rumblings, here’s what I’d serve if I was hosting my family for Passover this year.

pickled heirloom beets with hard boiled eggs

For when people first arrived, I’d put out the Kippered Salmon Snacks and the Pickled Heirloom Beets with Hard-Boiled Eggs, both recipes from The New Jewish Table. Kippered fish has been salted and hot smoked, so that it’s fairly dry and meaty (more like the smoked salmon you get in the Pacific Northwest than the moist Nova salmon you put on bagels).

The pickled eggs with red beets are traditional in a number of cultures and are a nice symbol of the fresh, newness of spring. I did a version for Serious Eats last year that was quite tasty and very easy (you cheat with already-pickled beets). Chances are good that I’d also pull out a few jars of other pickles and chutneys that would complement these two official recipes.

Matza Knaidlach

After we made it through the Hagaddah, we’d move on to Matzo Ball Soup. I’ve long meant to make matzo balls according to the directions in the Festival book and this could be my chance (I love the line in the headnote encouraging young housewives to develop their knaidlach skills to win laurels as a cook). I’d use homemade chicken broth that was cooked ahead and pressure canned to save space in the fridge.

gefilte fish

I think gefitle fish gets a bad wrap. Most of the time, the stuff served at Passover comes from a can and tastes a little stodgy, fishy and funky. But homemade gefilte fish? It’s actually incredibly delicious and deserves a spot on the table. I’m hankering to try this recipe from The Mile End Cookbook.

Classic Brisket

For the meat eaters, I’d make brisket. And actually, this is the one thing I actually am making this year. I will take some cues from this recipe (she uses lots of aromatics for flavor) from The Kosher Carnivore and combine them with my own tricks (lots and lots of sauteed onions).

I’m also a believer in making brisket the day before you plan on serving it, so that it can rest in the fridge over night and develop more flavor. This also gives you an opportunity to skim the fat from the sauce and make a luscious puree from the juices and vegetables in which to gently reheat the brisket.

vegetable kishka

For vegetarians, the Vegetable Kishka with Sage and Paprika from The New Jewish Table seem like a good fit. And ever since watching a recent episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives in which they made kishka, I’ve been a little bit obsessed with it.

Along with those main course options, I’d also make a big salad with baby arugula, sheep’s milk feta, and pomegranate seeds. Because any big meal needs a mountain of greens to balance things out.

homemade matzo

If there was time, I’d also make a batch of homemade matzo (I may actually make a batch of this in the next few days, with half whole wheat flour and some finely chopped rosemary. Because it sounds awfully good). For dessert, my beloved flourless chocolate cake.

For those of you who are hosting holiday meals in the next couple weeks (Easter is coming up soon, as well), what are you planning on serving? Are there any cookbooks that you’re using particularly heavily?

Disclosure: I received review copies of The New Jewish Table, The Kosher Carnivore, and The Mile End Cookbook for consideration. I bought my copy of The Jewish Festival Cookbook years ago. All opinions are my own. 
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Salted Rye Cookies from Whole Grains for a New Generation

salted rye cookies

My cookie output has been woefully low this holiday season. There was a batch of rugelach for Hanukkah, a celebratory round of pumpkin seed brittle on my first full day in Portland and these salted rye cookies.

Both the rugelach and the brittle are old favorites, the rye cookies were a recipe that had jumped out from the pages of Liana Krisoff’s new book Whole Grains for a New Generation. I spent a few days cooking from it a couple weeks back for a Table Matters piece (publishing soon!) and found everything in it incredibly appealing and inspiring.

salted rye cookie

These cookies did not let me down. They are buttery, sweet (but not obnoxiously so) and pleasantly sandy from the rye flour. A classic slice and bake style cookie, the only garnish they need is a quick roll in chunky sugar and flakey salt.

I left half at home for Scott and brought the balance out to Portland with me in my luggage. They were forced to compete for attention with the brittle and have still managed to disappear first.

If you’re looking for one final cookie to make this year, or simply need something to eat with a mug of tea, this is such a good one.

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Homemade Gifts on Saveur + Easton Winter Mart

Several months back, I got an email from an editor at Saveur, asking if I’d be interested in working on a holiday piece for their website. After several conference calls, dozens of emails, and lots of recipe testing in my tiny kitchen, the finished piece is now live.

It features eight preserves and treats that all make fantastic holiday gifts. Make sure to check out the ginger curry candied almonds and the dried fig compote (so good with cheese!).

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This Saturday, December 1, I’m going to be at the Easton Winter Mart in Easton, PA from 10 am to 2 pm. I’ll be doing a jam making demo at 11:30 am and will have plenty of books with me to sign and sell. If you’re in the greater Philadelphia and have been thinking of treating yourself to a book, please do come out and say hi!

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In Deep Autumn

One of the things I’ve discovered since become a full-time freelancer is that it’s really important to reach and out find people with whom to collaborate. When you work in an office, teamwork is often assumed. When you work from the solitude of your living room, it takes intention to forge alliances.

What I have to share with you all is the product of one of these intentional alliances. A few weeks back, Tenaya Darlington (author of the blog Madame Fromage and the forthcoming book Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese: A Guide to Wedges, Recipes, and Pairings), Jason Varney (he blogs at Fussing with Forks, makes some of the most enticing food photography I’ve seen and is an Instagram wizard) and I teamed up. The results of our efforts are these four digital pages. They contain cheese suggestions, preserves and drinks to go along with those cheeses, and really gorgeous images.

Our hope is that you’ll take this mini-magazine, and try out the pairings and recipes. Gather your friends around a table, fill jelly jars with port, balance persimmon chutney atop a few crumbles of Stilton and appreciate the autumn.

You can click on the viewer above to expand the image or you can download a PDF by clicking here.

Many thanks go to Jason and Tenaya, as well as to Di Bruno Brothers for providing the cheese and to Sara Varney, who played a pivotal role in the layout and design.

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