Sunday, October 30, 2016

Holiday Soiree: Dia de los Muertos

The Holiday: El Dia de los Muertos (Mexico)
Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, in English, is the time of year that Mexicans celebrate the dead, and as with Halloween in Europe, is thought to be the one time of the year where the dead can return to this realm to visit the living. It is a pre-Columbian holiday that has changed and expanded over the years, particularly after the Spanish invasion and the mixing of Catholicism with the original holiday. As with Halloween in Ireland(see last week's post), the Catholic church kept the main rituals of the original holiday, but changed some of the meanings to make it fit in better with their belief system. Now, Dia de los Muertos, is a two day celebration beginning on November 1st and ending on November 2nd. Each day has a different focus. November 1st focuses on children who died young, stillborn children, and miscarriages. This is a day to honor these children. November 1st also coincides with All Saints Day in Catholicism. November 2nd coincides with All Souls Day in Catholicism, and this is the day for adults who have died. Families will go to cemeteries and clean off graves and bring food to share with one another. The mood is festive and joyful, and the idea is to invite your deceased loved ones to spend the day with you.

Dia de los Muertos is something I've known about for a long time, since my Spanish class days in middle and high school, but I never celebrated it until a few years ago. My family and extended families have been steeped in untimely deaths over the last few years, and I wanted a way to honor them, particularly my cousin, for whom Mexico was his favorite place on Earth. The holiday landed about a month before the first anniversary of his passing, and it seemed like the perfect way to help deal with my grief. I researched the holiday and set up an ofrenda (altar) with some of the traditional items, including an apple and pan de muerto (bread of the dead) that I made myself. It was lovely. So lovely that I did it the next year too, and had a larger ofrenda, with items to honor and entice even more of my loved ones.
 My first ofrenda devoted to my cousin
Last year's ofrenda, includes pan de muerto and black licorice wheels as well as objects and photos associated with all of my loved ones.

Unfortunately, this year, Dia de los Muertos lands on a weekday, which makes it really difficult to make fresh bread, so I will not be doing an ofrenda this year. But, I made pan dulce (sweet bread) today to celebrate.

Dia de los Muertos involves other things as well, like sugar skulls (calaveras) and skull make up (like the picture at the top of this post). Some people wear costumes too. With the concerns about cultural appropriation, this is the line I have drawn for myself, personally. I partake in the food element of the holiday, and the remembrance of my loved ones, but I don't dress up or put on make up. To me that feels like taking something that isn't mine.

This is fast becoming one of my favorite adopted holidays. There is a lot of information about it on the internet, and if you want a visual to go with your research I would recommend the movie The Book of Life, as well as the Dia de los Muertos episode of Elena of Avalor. Both handle the subject with care and respect and will help you learn a lot about the holiday and the true meanings behind it. The biggest thing to do, when partaking in a holiday that isn't one of yours originally, is to be respectful of it. And to actually bother researching it. Dia de los Muertos isn't "Mexican Halloween" or an extension of Halloween, it is it's own holiday, rich with meaning. It has managed not only to maintain its original meaning, but to adapt to the new rituals that have come out of it over the years as well.

The Food: Conchas

I have made pan de muerto for the last couple years now, and the point of my blog projects are to try new things, so I didn't want to make it again. I wanted something different, and I had just found this recipe(I can't remember the source, unfortunately) recently and was really excited to get to try it out.

I have always been interested in this item. I have seen them in pictures and on TV before, and in panaderias(Mexican bakeries) but didn't actually know what they were. They were bread of some sort, but the topping is what intrigued me the most. It's like a brightly colored topping with lines all through them and I had no idea what it was made of, what it tasted like, or how you made them. They were a complete mystery to me. Conchas, are rolls made to look like seashells which is why they have those wavy designs on top, to make it look like a seashell. This recipe takes all the mystery out of it and it turns out, they aren't that complicated to make. They are a lot of fun to make, actually! Here's the recipe:

3 tsp. active dry yeast (this is about 1.5 of the yeast packets)
1/2 cup warm water
1/3 cup lukewarm milk
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup butter, room temp.
1 tsp. salt
1 egg
3 1/2 cups flour, plus extra for dusting

Sugar Paste Topping:
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup margarine (I actually used margarine for this. Since butter is used in the bread, I figured there was a reason for using margarine here, and it wasn't my place to second guess.)
1/2 cup flour, plus more for dusting
1/2 tsp. vanilla
Assorted gel food colorings (I used the liquid kind, not the gel kind, and it worked just fine. Just use whatever you have on hand.)

Dissolve the yeast in warm water in the bowl of a standing mixer fixed with a paddle attachment. Add the milk, sugar, butter, salt, egg, and 2 cups flour. Stir together until just combined. Switch to the dough hook attachment. (I used the dough hook attachment the whole time and it worked just fine. Don't bother getting another item dirty that you'll have to wash later on when you don't really need to.) Add an additional cup of flour on medium-low speed. When the flour is incorporated, knead at medium speed for 5 minutes. The dough should be elastic and slightly sticky, but easy to handle. If the dough is very sticky, knead in additional flour. (I did this step by hand. I took the dough out of the bowl and kneaded it by hand. I enjoy kneading by hand and seeing what the dough feels like. But, do what you like most!) Place the dough in a large greased bowl and turn the dough over to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 1/2 hours.

Meanwhile, make the sugar paste topping: Beat the sugar and margarine together until light and fluffy.
Stir in flour and mix until a thick dough forms. Add additional flour, if needed. Divide dough into 3 or 4 pieces and tint with food color. If the dough becomes sticky from the food color, add more flour. Cover pieces with plastic wrap until ready to use.
When dough is ready, turn it out onto a slightly floured surface.
Divide the dough into 16 equal pieces. Shape each dough piece into a ball by tucking the corners over. (Don't roll between your palms, as this will cause the dough to deflate and become tough.) Place the dough balls on a parchment-lined baking sheet.
Roll out the sugar paste pieces on a lightly floured surface. Cut into 2 1/2" rounds with a cookie cutter. Use the cutter to score lines in paste to resemble ridges on a seashell. Transfer to scored sugar paste rounds to the bun, using an offset spatula.
(Here is what I did with the paste, as opposed to the instructions: I rolled each color out and cut it into quarters. From there, I used the offset spatula to pick up each piece and put it onto the bun but didn't attempt to make it into a shape. This was really hard dough to work with. I then used the back of a knife to draw the lines on each piece. Just score, you don't need to cut all the way through. This seemed to work pretty well.)
If the paste won't adhere naturally, use a pastry brush to apply dots of water on the underside before applying to the buns. Allow the buns to rise on the baking sheet for 40 minutes.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Bake buns for 18-20 minutes (I did mine for 18 and it was perfect), or until they are fragrant and lightly brown on the bottoms. Store the leftovers in an airtight container.
Makes 16 buns
These look just like the ones I have seen in the store and online! I was really excited to see them. I was even more excited to taste them. The topping is crunchy and adds a great texture to the bread. It's not overly sweet. The bread is really soft and I could have probably eaten 5 or 6 if I had wanted to, which I sort of did, but I made myself use restraint.

I can't wait to take these to work tomorrow to share with my coworkers. One of my coworkers is from Mexico and was excited when I told her about making these over the weekend. Hopefully they will taste like she remembers!

Well, if this is the first you are ever hearing about this holiday, take some time to research it. You might just find that you want to try it out yourself next year!

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Holiday Soiree: Halloween

Holiday Soiree:
The Holiday: Halloween
Halloween is a strange holiday to me. I've never been a huge Halloween person, though I enjoy watching spooky movies at this time of year, and occasionally dressing up in a costume. Halloween's meaning has changed a lot over the years, as have the rituals involved with it. From carving turnips to carving pumpkins, from soaping windows and throwing flour at people to trick-or-treating. Originally, Halloween, or All Hallow's Eve, was a pagan holiday in Ireland known as Samhain. It was sort of a harvest celebration and a celebration to honor the dead. It was thought of the one day a year when the link between our world and the world of the dead was the weakest, and would allow for the dead to leak through back into our world. When the Catholic church came to Ireland, they assigned their own meaning to the rituals, though the rituals continued. It became a sort of hybrid holiday of two cultures. When Irish immigrants came to America, they brought the holiday with them, and Halloween eventually became Americanized. Trick-or-treating, jack o'lanterns, bobbing for apples. All of those had specific meanings at one point, but now they're mostly thought of as fun, autumnal traditions. Scaring yourself, embracing your dark side for one day a year, I suppose it's good for balance! Assigning a meaning for a holiday for yourself is one of the most important parts of a holiday. It's what allows it to live and grow and evolve over the years. It's what allows it to survive. So, whatever Halloween means to you, that's what it means! Enjoy it in the way that makes the most sense to you.

The Food: Halloween Candy
Halloween and trick-or-treating would be nothing without candy. Instead of finding harvest-related savory dishes, or something to represent the pagans of ancient Ireland, I thought I'd embrace the American tradition of candy. Candy-making is something I have very little, to no, experience with. Cooking with sugar can be intimidating, especially when it comes to making it very hot. It's been known to burn people, after all. You have to know what you're doing, and I don't even own a candy thermometer! I sifted through my recipes and found two that I thought I could handle. It took a lot of work and was surprisingly a lot of time, but it was so worth it. Both succeeded, I am happy to say!

Buttery Almond Crunch:
1 Tbsp. plus 1/2 cup butter, softened, divided
1/2 cup sugar
1 Tbsp. light corn syrup (This isn't the high fructose kind, and no it's not healthy for you, but this is candy. Get over it!)
1 cup sliced almonds

Line an 8" square pan with foil; butter the foil with 1/2 Tbsp. butter. Set aside. Spread the sides of a heavy saucepan with 1/2 Tbsp. butter. Add the butter, sugar, and corn syrup. Bring to a boil over medium-height heat, stirring constantly. Cook and stir until mixture is golden brown, about 3 minutes.

(Note the difference in texture and color as it cooks. I should have let it brown a little bit more but it was smelling so caramelized that I was worried about it burning. PS-the action shots are courtesy of my sister. I couldn't hold the pan, stir, and take pictures at the same time, but I wanted to show how the texture of the sugar changes as it cooks.)

Stir in almonds. Quickly pour into prepared pan. Chill until firm. Invert pan and remove foil. Break candy into pieces.
Yield: 10 oz.
Recipe courtesy of Taste of Home magazine
This is seriously one of the best things I have ever made. I thought it would be like peanut brittle, but with almonds, but it was completely different. It tastes just like, and has a very similar texture to an Almond Roca, but without the chocolate. It would be easy enough to melt chocolate and drizzle it over, or dip it in, if you were so inclined. This is also very addictive, so make sure you share it with others, or you will probably sit and eat the entire thing and make yourself sick.

This was not very difficult to make and the result is so luxurious and delicious that you might wonder why you ever spent money on the store-bought version of this candy. And I'm not making any promises, but there is a strong chance that those who spend Christmas Eve with me, might get to try out this recipe because this is too good not to try again!

Almond-and-Pistachio Candy:
4 tsp. ghee(the oil part of melted butter, without the milky solids), divided
1qt. milk
1 cup sugar
1 cup ground almonds
1 cup unsalted pistachios, ground (I could not find shelled pistachios in bulk, so I had to buy the expensive bag of shelled pistachios. They were salted, but I tasted them and decided they weren't too salty so I didn't rinse them off.)
1/2 tsp. almond extract

With a pastry brush, spread 1 tsp. of the ghee on a 7 1/2" pie tin.
In a heavy 3-4 qt. saucepan, bring the milk to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to moderate and, stirring frequently, cook for about 35 minutes, or until the milk thickens to the consistency of heavy cream.
 Add the sugar and stir for 10 minutes. Then add the ground almonds and pistachios and continue stirring 10 minutes longer.
(Note the towel wrapped around my hand. This stage of the candy-making process is precarious. The mixture bubbles and spits and is scalding hot, so a towel helps. Please also note, that the mixture will tighten up during this stage and actually become difficult to stir. Your arm will be sore by the end of this process.)

Still stirring, add 3 tsp. ghee and cook for another 5 or 10 minutes, until the mixture is thick enough to draw away from the sides of the pan in a solid mass.
Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the almond extract. Pour the candy into the pie tin, spreading and smoothing it with a spatula. Let the candy cool for 30 minutes or so, then cut it into about 24 small squares or diamonds. It will harden to the consistency of fudge as it cools further.
Makes 24 squares

This is a lot of work, but it was worth it. Keep this one refrigerated. This morning I tried out an idea I had for them. I had some leftover ground almonds and I took some of the pieces, rolled them into balls, and rolled those in the ground almonds. They looked like truffles, kind of elegant.
Here is a picture of both styles. They each have their strengths. I think I actually like both of them and would probably do half and half. My coworkers tomorrow will have a chance to try them out and let me know which version they prefer.

I have made candy a couple times in my life before last night, but not as successfully as these were. I am really impressed with the recipes. They aren't that complex, and are worth the time and effort. Just note that the nuts can be a little expensive, so keep that in mind when working on your meal budget!

Happy Halloween, everybody!

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Holiday Soiree: Pumpkin Extravaganza

Holiday Soiree: Pumpkin Extravaganza
So, like last week, there wasn't a specific holiday for this week either, but I decided to continue with the use of autumn and Halloween-themed ingredients. This week was pumpkin, in canned form. I looked through my recipes and found a really interesting recipe for pumpkin French toast that used canned pumpkin in the egg wash. It called for a hearty bread, and when I ran across another recipe for pumpkin egg bread, I knew I'd found what I needed. Pumpkin French toast made with pumpkin bread? That so needed to be a thing! This turned out to be a great meal, and none of it was very difficult to do.

The first recipe is for the bread. Most pumpkin breads are quick breads, meaning there is no yeast and it has more of a muffin-like texture. Think zuccchini bread, or banana bread. This recipe was more unusual in that it was a traditional bread, with yeast. It was quite like a Challah bread, but with the addition of canned pumpkin,which gave it an amazing color, and pumpkin pie spice, which added more flavor than the pumpkin actually did. It also called for bread flour which I have never worked with before. I'm glad I had a chance to try it out because I think it created a superior product. Here's the recipe:

Pumpkin Egg Bread
1pkg. active dry yeast
3 Tbsp. warm water (110-115 degrees)
1/2 cup canned pumpkin
1 egg
2 Tbsp. brown sugar
2 Tbsp. butter, softened
1 tsp. pumpkin pie spice
1/2 tsp. salt
2-2 1/2 cups bread flour
Egg Wash-
1 egg
1 tbsp. water

1.) In a bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water. In another bowl, combine pumpkin, egg, brown sugar, butter, pie spice, salt, the yeast mixture, and 1 cup flour; beat on medium speed until smooth. Stir in enough remaining flour to form a soft dough (dough will be sticky).
2.) Turn dough onto a floured surface; knead until smooth and elastic, about 6-8 minutes. Place in a greased bowl, turning once to grease the top. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 hour.
3.) Punch down dough. Turn onto a lightly floured surface; divide into thirds. Roll each into a 16" rope.
Place ropes on a greased baking sheet and braid. Pinch ends to seal; tuck under. Cover with a towel; let rise in a warm place until almost doubled, about 45 minutes. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
4.) For egg wash, in a bowl, mix egg and water; brush over loaf. Bake 20-25 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from pan to a wire rack to cool.
Makes 1 loaf, 12 slices. 126 cal, 3g fat, 1g fiber per slice

As you can see, this bread looks really amazing when it's finished! It's very much like a Challah bread, but the color and flavor are different. It has an amazing flavor and texture and as far as bread goes, was pretty simple to make. The bread flour is the key. Bread flour has more gluten in it than regular flour, so it's really only suited for bread-making. It was tougher to knead because of the extra gluten, so don't worry if you are kneading it and wondering why it's taking a little extra strength to get it to work. And sorry to the gluten-intolerant folks out there, but this recipe isn't going to work for you...Though, if you are able to adapt it to gluten-free flours, please let me know, I'd love to her how it turns out!

The next recipe is for French toast that calls for a more heavy-duty bread than just regular bread. I thought the bread I made would work perfectly, and I was right! This is also a super easy recipe, and I actually have a source listed for this one. This is courtesy of this food blog. Since I have the link for it, I am not going to write it out here. I will share the pictures, though!

This is the egg batter once you've whisked it very well. The pumpkin takes a lot of whisking to break down and incorporate into the rest of the ingredients. It will look slightly like the filling for a pumpkin pie when it's mixed properly.
Here it is cooking on the stove. If you use white bread, it probably won't look quite so orange because the bread I used was orange to begin with.
The finished product! I served it with other breakfast foods for a delicious breakfast-for-dinner. The store had some awesome country-style bacon on sale. It looks very different from regular bacon and I highly recommend it! You could use syrup on this French toast, but I prefer a small sprinkling of powdered sugar on mine. It adds a touch of sweetness but doesn't drown out the flavors you worked so hard to create!

My sister ate this too and loved it. She doesn't normally like stuff like this, so that is saying something! I had a lot of fun making these two recipes and was really excited that they both turned out so successfully. I had enough bread and egg wash left over to make more for my lunch today too! And the rest of the bread will be used as regular toast. I haven't tried that yet, but I have the feeling it will make amazing toast!

Happy Baking!

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Holiday Soiree: Autumn Celebration

I'm back with a new project! I have been researching holidays around the world and have found a lot to share with you all! I don't have one for every week, so in those weeks, I will work on other food-related things that I haven't had time to work on. I hope to have a similar structure to my previous projects, where I talk about the history of the holiday and/or the food I am preparing. Next week, there is no holiday either, so I will be focusing on Halloween for a couple weeks, but generally, I will only spend one week per holiday. Some weeks might have a single dish, and some weeks might have an entire meal. It just depends on how much time I have to put into it.

Last night, I made two desserts. I had fun picking out the recipes from my seasonal recipe card box. The first recipe is titled "Pumpkin and Walnut Spoon Sweet". I thought it was a fun name, so I had to try it out. I wasn't sure what it was going to be exactly, but it's basically stewed pumpkin. The second recipe is "Best Apple Custard Tart" and it was a pretty complicated recipe that took two recipe cards to write out. I wanted a challenge, so I took it! Luckily, I won!

Pumpkin and Walnut Spoon Sweet
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1 (2lb.) pumpkin, peeled and cubed
3/4 cup sugar (I cut this down to about 2 Tbsp. and found it to be perfectly sweet. The full amount of sugar would probably hurt your teeth!)
Zest of one lemon, cut in long strips
2 cinnamon sticks
6 whole cloves

1.) Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread nuts on baking sheet, and bake 5-7 minutes, or until toasted and fragrant. Cool. (If you are confident enough, you can toast them in a frying pan on the stove, but if that sounds too intimidating, just use the above method.)
2.) Combine remaining ingredients plus 2 cups water in a large saucepan.
Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook 1 hour, or until pumpkin is tender. Raise heat to medium-high, and cook 10 minutes more, or until almost all liquid has evaporated. Remove from heat, and cool. Discard zest, cinnamon, and cloves, and serve sprinkled with toasted nuts.
6 servings 184 calories, 6 g fat, 1 g fiber

This smells so good! It really smells like Thanksgiving. I wasn't sure what stewed pumpkin would taste like. The flavor was actually pretty good, but the texture was odd to me. Maybe I'm just not big on squash, but I didn't care for the texture. A couple of tips when you are done cooking this: Remember how many strips of lemon zest you put in, because it will be difficult to find them again. The color is nearly the same as the pumpkin and the zest bunches up and doesn't stay in long strips. You do not want to accidentally bite into one of those! Also, the cloves seem to come apart a bit, so make sure to dig through and pull out all the different bits you find before eating. Again, you don't want a big bite of a whole clove either!

I'm not sure I would make this one again. If you like the texture of pumpkin, then this is a great recipe showcasing it. The smell is amazing. You can't help but be happy. But other than that, I think I'll just eat my pumpkin in pie form...

Best Apple Custard Tart
1 cup flour
1/2 cup cold butter, cut into 1" pieces
2 Tbsp. sugar
1 egg white
1 tsp. lemon zest
3 med. Pink Lady or Fuji apples (I used honeycrisps because that's what I had on hand.)
1 cup apple cider (I used apple juice)
2 Tbsp. lemon juice or apple cider vinegar (I used lemon juice)
1 egg plus 1 egg yolk
1/2 cup sugar (I used the full amount. Because this is for the custard, you can't really mess with this.)
1/4 cup cornstarch
2 Tbsp. butter

1.) Preheat oven to 375 degrees and line the bottom of a two-piece, 10" springform pan with a circle of parchment or spray it with cooking spray.
2.)Make pastry: Put the flour, sugar, and salt in a mixing bowl, stir with a fork. Cut in the butter with two forks or a pastry cutter until the pieces resemble peas. Add the egg white and the lemon zest and mix until it just comes together. (It will seem really dry at this point. Resist the urge to add water.) Gently knead in the bowl for about a minute, just until the dough comes together and holds it's shape.
3.) On a floured surface, roll the pastry dough into a 10"circle and put in the springform pan. (This dough is actually really wet and crumbly. I found it incredibly hard to work with. I suppose I could have tried adding more flour to it, but I didn't think of that at the time. If yours is wet too, I would recommend rolling it on wax paper and using that to transport it. Mine fell apart and I basically pieced it back together in the pan. This was really hard and frustrating to do, especially for the sides.)
Line the pastry with parchment or foil and fill it with rice or beans. Bake the pastry until the edges are lightly browned, about 20 minutes. Remove the parchment with the rice or beans and bake until the center of the crust is dry and just beginning to turn golden, about 5 minutes more.
4.) While the crust is baking and cooling, poach the apples and make the filling. Start by poaching the apples. Peel and core the apples and cut each of them into 1/8ths. If some of them are very big, cut them into uniform pieces to match the smaller ones. Put them in a large saucepan on the stove and pour over the apple cider and lemon juice. Cook over medium-high heat until the cider is boiling, then reduce heat to low and simmer just until apples are tender, about 10 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer the apples to a large plate and allow them to cool while making the custard with the poaching liquid.
5.)To make the custard, whisk together the egg, egg yolk, the sugar, and the cornstarch in a medium-sized mixing bowl.
Whisk in about half of the simmering cider(this is called tempering and you do it to keep the eggs from curdling when you add it to the hot liquid on the stove), then transfer the tempered egg mixture to the pan and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture is boiling vigorously. (You will want a large whisk for this. It will get really frothy for a while and look like it's not doing anything. Be patient. Then all of a sudden, it will start to get chunky and you will be worried that you did curdle the eggs after all. This is when you'll want to whisk it as vigorously as you possibly can and remove it from the heat. What is actually happening is the cornstarch blooming all at once. It's kind of scary if you don't know it's supposed to happen, but don't panic. In the end, it will resemble the custard filling in a doughnut.)
Transfer the cooked custard back to the mixing bowl, whisk in the butter, and let it cool for 15 minutes or so. (I was so freaked out from how the custard sort of exploded into custard at the last minute and realizing I hadn't ruined it, that I forgot to add the butter. I have no idea what it would be like with the butter, but I'm sure it would be lovely!)
6.) When the tart shell has cooled completely, fill it with the apple custard and arrange the poached apple slices over the surface.
(I found the color to be a bit monochromatic, so I sprinkled cinnamon on top just for some contrast.)
Serve it at room temperature or chilled
The tart is really sweet, but it's mostly the fruit that makes it sweet. It's very apple-y too. I loved the tart crust. It's lovely with the lemon zest and I have never heard of making it with the egg white like that, but it worked really well. I think I might have cooked the apples a few minutes longer if I had to do it over again, because some of them were a little crisper than I wanted them to be.

This one is complex. I won't lie. It's intimidating and I am probably a moderate when it comes to baking, not a beginner. If you want a challenge, this is a great one to try out. It's really tasty!

If you try out either of these, let me know. I'd love to hear how they turned out for you!
Ok, that's it for me this week, we'll see what I come up with for next week. Until then!