Candy making and baking are my happy places. I love cooking, too, but I am rarely as content in the kitchen as I am carefully measuring ingredients on my food scale, brushing pastry lightly with egg, or spreading icing oh-so-precisely. On stressful days at work, I fantasize about leaving nursing to work in a pastry shop. I imagine myself waking up early to pipe frosting onto striking layer cakes, to whip eggs into towering peaks, to bask in the sheen of my perfect chocolate ganache.

I can see the toddlers storming in, begging their mother for just one more cookies. Ladies who lunch gawk at my beautiful fruit tarts and are stunned to find they taste even better than they look. People ask…no… BEG the cashier to allow them to meet the culinary genius who created these marvelous treats! But time cannot permit such mingling. All the while I chuckle quietly in my corner, my face and hair streaked with pastry flour, wondering why anyone would ever want to be Santa Claus when you could be a pastry chef! The pastry chef brings the true meaning of joy to all who enter her store. The toddlers! The ladies! The plucky old woman who loves my perfect caramel–

Aaaand the fantasy stops here. Caramel is one of my favorite all time desserts. It is also my Everest. I have never made a good batch of caramel. My caramel always tastes great but it always comes out too hard, too chewy. Make that jaw-achingly chewy. Which some diplomatic friends point out, “That means it lasts longer!” Aw, I have such nice friends.

I adjust for altitude. I make sure my pan and spatula are spotless. I watch the stove like a hawk. Still too chewy. But when I looked in my fridge to find some heavy cream and salted butter, I thought I’d try a nice salted caramel sauce to indulge my caramel craving.

In the 6 previous times I’ve made caramel, it has never, ever crystallized. When I made this sauce, it crystallized. Like crazy. And the part that wasn’t crystallized was way too thin. I tried to let it set in the fridge, but that only resulted in a half-soupy, half-crystallized (but great tasting!) mix. I really wanted to use it, but I couldn’t figure out how to mask the imperfect texture. But then I remembered some toasted coconut left over from brigadeiros I made last week. A few pretzels in the cabinet. And some almonds. And I recalled David Lebovitz’s recipe for Chocolate-Covered Salted Peanut Caramel Cups. And lo and behold, a delicious use for my imperfect, crystallized caramel was born.

I filled some cups with toasted coconut caramel, some with toasted almond caramel, and others with crushed pretzel caramel.

Maybe someday I’ll conquer my caramel disability. But until then, these will do just fine.

CHOCOLATE-COVERED SALTED CARAMEL CUPS (adapted from David Lebovitz’s Chocolate-Covered Salted Peanut Caramel Cups)

Ingredients

12 ounces (340g) chopped bittersweet or semisweet chocolate

1/2 cup (125g) Caramel Sauce (recipe to follow of the one I used)

3/4 cup fillings for cups (I used crushed pretzels, toasted coconut, and toasted almonds)

Recipe

Melt chocolate in a double boiler. Drop a little of the chocolate (about the size of a hazelnut) in a small paper baking cup. Use a pastry brush or a little spoon to evenly coat the bottom and sides of the cup. Chill at least 45 minutes in the fridge (this will get the chocolate firm).

While the chocolate firms, mix your caramel with your fillings. Save a little of each filling to decorate the top of the cup (this will also signify which filling is in which cup).

When the chocolate is firmed up, fill each cup about 2/3rds full of caramel filling. Smooth out the top using a spoon.

Put another dab of chocolate on top of the filling and spread it evenly across the top of the cup.

Refrigerate until the chocolate firms back up again (about 30 or 45 minutes), and take out of the fridge no more than 30 minutes before serving.

RICH CARAMEL SAUCE (from David Lebovitz’s Ready for Dessert)

Ingredients

1/2 cup (4 oz/115 g) unsalted or salted butter, cut into pieces

1 cup (200 g) sugar

1 cup heavy cream

1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon salt, or more to taste

Recipe

Place a dutch oven or large and heavy saucepan over medium heat and melt the butter. Add sugar. Stir every now and then, and cook until the sugar begins to caramelize and turns dark amber in color (David Lebovitz mentions that it should smell as though it’s just about to burn).

Remove the pan from the heat and quickly add heavy cream (be careful, the sauce will boil up quite a bit). Stir sauce until it’s smooth, then stir in vanilla and salt.

Allow the sauce to cool, and taste to see if you’d like to add more salt. Serve warm.

Sauce will keep for 2 weeks in the fridge.

I have no idea how people work normal jobs. I spent the last two days in a classroom from 9-5 and went completely stir crazy. I like learning, but I could not stand sitting down all day. Or driving in rush hour traffic (I suppose there is some benefit to being out the door at 6am). Or becoming overwhelmed by intense food coma after lunch. Or noticing the most annoying subtleties in temperature change (jacket on, jacket off, jacket on). Or wondering how long before it was appropriate to take another bathroom break. What am I, a third grader? I somehow completed 4 years of college and a year and half long nursing program despite this. In hindsight, I have no idea how.

This class helped me realize that I need to constantly walk (or speed walk) around.  I need to have different tasks at hand, and I appreciate the occasional crisis that makes things exciting. Oh, nursing has its problems for sure, but I’m rarely bored. And even though I whine sometimes, I can’t imagine doing anything but nursing. And I really can’t imagine being a student again any time soon.

Another thing I realized in this class is that despite my best efforts, I always manage to sit next to the person that “adds on” to everything the professor says and answers questions from other students that were meant for the professor. This person also tends to nod vigorously (and with great frequency), and will often lay her head down on her desk in boredom except when she pipes up to answer a question before anyone else, without being called on. I really need to figure out how to prevent this from happening again

There was one very funny thing that happened in the classroom. The hospital said they would provide us with breakfast, lunch, and a snack. At lunch, they brought us a sheet cake for dessert. We ate about half the sheet cake at lunch. At 3pm, they cleared our lunch away. They took the half eaten sheet cake away, and replaced it with a brand new sheet cake (our snack). They did this two days in a row.

You’re probably wondering about this toffee, aren’t you? Well, occasionally, I make something so delicious that I say, “Shit, I’m awesome.” Out loud, to myself, in my kitchen. This toffee was an “Awwww shiiiit” moment (not to be confused with an “OH SHIT” moment, of which I have plenty).

Next post, I’ll be talking about a really easy, but very nice homemade gift you can give. Easier than this toffee but still thoughtful.

CHOCOLATE HAZELNUT BUTTERCRUNCH TOFFEE (adapted from David Lebovitz’s Chocolate Almond Buttercrunch Toffee)

Do yourself a favor and test your candy thermometer to make sure it works before you go through the trouble of making toffee. I lost a batch of caramel because of an inaccurate thermometer last year, and I don’t intend to ever do that again. It’s easy as boiling water. Boil water and stick the candy thermometer in. It should read 212 degrees if you live at sea level. If you live at altitude, check out this nifty chart to find out what temperature your thermometer should read.

My only alteration was to decrease the amount of nuts, since I don’t like things that are too nutty

Also, if I were you I’d add an extra tablespoon of water if you live at high altitude. I did and it worked well.

Toast hazelnuts for 8-12 minutes at 325 degrees, stirring occasionally

Ingredients

3/4 cup (8 ounces, 225 g) toasted almonds or hazelnuts, chopped between ‘fine’ and ‘coarse’
2 tablespoons water
1/2 cup (1 stick, 115 g) salted or unsalted butter, cut into pieces
a nice, big pinch of salt
1 cup (200 g) granulated sugar
1/4 cup (50 g) packed light brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 ounces (140 g) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped, or 1 cup chocolate chips

optional: fleur de sel

Recipe

1. Lightly oil a baking sheet with an unflavored vegetable oil.

2. Sprinkle half the nuts into a rectangle about 8″ x 10″ (20 x 25 cm) on the baking sheet.

3. In a medium heavy-duty saucepan fitted with a candy thermometer, heat the water, butter, salt, and both sugars. Cook, stirring as little as possible, until the thermometer reads 300 F degrees. Have the vanilla and baking soda handy.

4. Immediately remove from heat and stir in the baking soda and vanilla.

5. Quickly pour the mixture over the nuts on the baking sheet. Try to pour the mixture so it forms a relatively even layer. (If necessary, gently but quickly spread with a spatula, but don’t overwork it.)

5. Strew the chocolate pieces over the top and let stand 2 minutes, then spread in an even layer.

6. If using, sprinkle with a flurry of fleur des sel. Sprinkle the remaining nuts over the chocolate and gently press them in with your hands.

7. Cool completely (refrigerate 30 mins to speed things up) and break into pieces to serve. Store in an airtight container, for up to ten days.

And then, there were these. I asked Will to pick a birthday cake of his choice. From the top on down: Brittle, then PB Frosting, then more brittle, then milk chocolate ganache, then chocolate cake. Did they take 5 HOURS to make? Yes. Did the cupcakes sink? Yes. Was the frosting a little too thin? Yes. Did anyone care? HELL NO. Because they are Chocolate Cupcakes with Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter Frosting and Peanut Brittle. And they have rocked my world.

In the original recipe, the cake somehow fell apart completely on its own. So I decided to find a different chocolate cake recipe. During this search, I managed to find the BEST CHOCOLATE CAKE in the history of mankind. These cupcakes managed to sink (usually a problem that is the fault of either using too much leavening or baking at altitude). I attribute their sinking to the fact that while using eight 1/4 teaspoon measurements to attain 2 teaspoons baking soda, I stopped mid-count to belt along with the chorus of “Don’t Stop Believing” and then immediately lost count. I’m just being honest. It happens.

This actually turned out to be a very fortunate mistake. The cupcakes made little pools to collect milk chocolate ganache and brittle. Isn’t this the good part about cooking? Sometimes mistakes or lapses in foresight turn out more perfectly than what you’d hoped. The waffle cone, after all, was invented when a Coney Island Ice Cream Scooper ran out of bowls.

The last thing I will say about these cakes is that they were MESSY. I mean, seriously messy. So I would like to suggest that if you’d like to make these, they’d be best as a trifle. Instead of cupcakes, make 2 layer cakes and alternate the cake with the brittle, ganache, and frosting in a clear trifle bowl or glass bowl.

Summary: Make these if you really like cooking and don’t mind devoting a LOT of time to it. But they are ha-mazing.

Happy Birthday Will!

CHOCOLATE CUPCAKES WITH MILK CHOCOLATE PEANUT BUTTER FROSTING AND PEANUT BRITTLE (Cake from Double Chocolate Layer Cake by Deb at smittenkitchen, Frosting and Brittle (and idea) from Chocolate Cake with Milk Chocolate-Peanut Butter Frosting and Peanut Brittle at thebittenword)

Ingredients

BRITTLE

* Vegetable oil
* 1 cup sugar
* 1/2 cup light corn syrup
* 1/4 cup water
* 1 cup chopped lightly salted dry-roasted peanuts
* 1 teaspoon creamy (smooth) natural peanut butter (made with only peanuts and salt)*
* 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
* 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

CUPCAKES

* 3 ounces fine-quality semisweet chocolate such as Callebaut
* 1 1/2 cups hot brewed coffee
* 3 cups sugar
* 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
* 1 1/2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process)
* 2 teaspoons baking soda
* 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
* 1 1/4 teaspoons salt
* 3 large eggs
* 3/4 cup vegetable oil
* 1 1/2 cups well-shaken buttermilk
* 3/4 teaspoon vanilla

FILLING AND FROSTING

* 4 oz imported milk chocolate, chopped
* 5 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
* 2 1/4 cups powdered sugar
* 1 1/2 cups chilled heavy whipping cream
* 3/4 cup creamy (smooth) natural peanut butter (made with only peanuts and salt)*
* 3/4 cup chilled mascarpone cheese**

Recipe

BRITTLE

Line large rimmed baking sheet with foil; brush with oil. Bring sugar, corn syrup, and 1/4 cup water to boil in heavy medium saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Boil without stirring until syrup is deep amber, swirling pan occasionally, about 10 minutes. Immediately stir in peanuts and all remaining ingredients. Scrape out mixture onto prepared sheet; spread out to about 13×9-inch rectangle. Cool completely. Coarsely chop enough brittle to measure 1 cup and finely chop enough to measure 1/2 cup. DO AHEAD Can be made 3 days ahead. Store in separate airtight containers at room temperature.

CUPCAKES

Preheat oven to 300°F. and grease cupcake pans. Line with cupcake tins

Finely chop chocolate and in a bowl combine with hot coffee. Let mixture stand, stirring occasionally, until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth.

Into a large bowl sift together sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. In another large bowl with an electric mixer beat eggs until thickened slightly and lemon colored (about 3 minutes with a standing mixer or 5 minutes with a hand-held mixer). Slowly add oil, buttermilk, vanilla, and melted chocolate mixture to eggs, beating until combined well. Add sugar mixture and beat on medium speed until just combined well.

Divide batter, filling each tin 1/2-3/4 full, and bake until a tester inserted comes out clean (13-18 minutes).

Cool cupcakes on racks. Cupcakes may be made 1 day ahead and kept, wrapped well in plastic wrap, at room temperature.

FILLING AND FROSTING

Place chocolate in medium bowl. Bring 5 tablespoons cream just to simmer in small saucepan over medium heat. Pour cream over chocolate; whisk until melted and smooth. Let stand until thick enough to spread, whisking occasionally, about 30 minutes.

Beat powdered sugar, 1 1/2 cups chilled cream, and peanut butter in large bowl just until blended. Add mascarpone; beat frosting just until thickened (do not overbeat).

Set out cupcakes. Divide milk chocolate filling evenly between them; sprinkle each cupcake with finely chopped peanut brittle. Spread with frosting. Chill 1 hour. DO AHEAD Can be made 1 day ahead. Keep chilled. Let stand at room temperature 2 hours before continuing.

Place coarsely chopped brittle over top of cupcakes and serve.

WHICH PEANUT BUTTER TO USE:

For this recipe, thebittenword used creamy (smooth) all-natural peanut butter. To make sure you’re buying the right stuff, check the label. There should be only two ingredients: peanuts and salt. This style of peanut butter may have a layer of oil (from the peanuts) on top. If it does, chill the jar for a few hours, then slowly mix until smooth. Don’t use freshly ground peanut butter: It can have inconsistent flavor and texture.

Chocolate Salted Caramels

February 15, 2010

When I was seven years old, I walked into the living room where my mom was watching TV and asked her, “Mom, what’s in caramel?” She said, “Mostly butter and sugar. Why do you ask?” And I said, “Oh, no reason…” Then I wandered off. And while my mother watched tv, I microwaved a bowl containing a stick of butter and a forkload of sugar. It didn’t take a seven-year old genius to figure out that this was definitely not caramel. But I ate some of it anyway. And didn’t feel so hot after (surprise!)

Fortunately, my next caramel making experiences were far more successful. Late one night, I was perusing my very favorite foodblog when I came across a recipe for Salted Chocolate Caramels. And suddenly, despite it being far too late to try something like this, my love of caramel overtook my desire to sleep and I decided to give it a whirl.

Caramel hardens as it cools. The flavor of my caramel was delicious, but I overcooked it and it was too chewy. I relied on my candy thermometer, which was cheap and, as I would later discover, off by about 20 degrees. If you have a really great candy thermometer, use it. If not, use the ice-water method to determine how firm your caramel will become when it hardens. This method involves dropping a spoonful of your caramel into a bowl of ice water. For detailed instructions on this method, click here.

Well, I’ll tell you what. My friends and I ate them all up before I remembered to take a picture of the finished product! Here’s as close to finished as I got to photodocument.

And in related news, if you couldn’t tell from the major upgrade in photo quality today, I found my camera cord!

The Recipe

SALTED CHOCOLATE CARAMELS (by Deb from smittenkitchen.com)