At our house, a box of See’s chocolates was standard holiday fare. They were special – the white box, the ruffled, rustling brown wraps that made it all but impossible to sneak a selection without someone overhearing – and all too quickly gone. But they were special for good and for bad reasons. As Forrest Gump so wisely told us, you never knew what you were going to get. It might be a luscious square of soft, fudgy dark chocolate studded with walnuts, or it might be the dreaded maple nougat. My cousin J. loves caramel, and when she was little she developed a surefire way to determine which mysterious See’s square to choose: bite the bottoms off, and if you don’t like the filling inside, put it back in the box. No one could see the intrusion, at least not until that piece was selected again.

For the past few years, I’ve made truffles for my officemates at the end of the term. Squares of ganache flavored with fruits, nuts, and liqueurs, robed lovingly in melted chocolate and stuffed carefully into pretty little boxes make excellent, always well-received holiday gifts. I’ve experimented with ginger, apricots, amaretto, peppermint, almond butter, dark, white, and bittersweet chocolate. To my delight, Bittman has a truffle (or at least a truffle-like) recipe among his 101. With no officemates to share with this year, I decided to make a selection of truffles for my husband to give his department at his school.

I went a little overboard.


Cranberry Truffles: Heat ½ cup simple syrup and ½ cup bourbon or water; add 2 cups dried cranberries and steep until soft, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain, reserving the liquid. Pulse the fruit in a food processor, adding just enough liquid so the mixture comes together. Roll spoonfuls of the cranberry filling into balls, then roll them in cocoa, mixed with pulverized nuts if you like.”

This sounded decadent and very adult – an excellent addition to truffle flavor combinations I was planning like Chambord with dried raspberries and Grand Marnier with candied orange peel. I used:

Food%2520Blog%25202011-2013-0182½ cup bourbon (I used Knob Creek)

½ cup simple syrup (I had some ginger syrup kicking around, so why not?)

2 cups dried cranberries (use reduced sugar, if you can find them)

½ cup cocoa powder

½ cup hazelnuts (optional)

I was pleased to find reduced sugar Craisins to use here – the bourbon has its own kind of sweetness, and the ginger syrup I was using instead of a simple syrup was tooth-twingingly sweet. I heated the liquids together in a small pot over medium heat until they came to the barest simmer.

As Bittman directs, I steeped the Craisins in the bourbon and syrup for fifteen minutes or so. I wasn’t sure what temperature “steeping” actually is, so I decided on a barely bubbling simmer. The syrup seeped into the cranberries, giving them a slightly fleshy texture. The bourbon wafted headily through my kitchen, making me think 10am might have been on the early side to take on this project so clearly meant for a Friday evening.


Fifteen minutes of simmering down, and I dumped my swelling craisins into a strainer over a pot to catch the liquid. Don’t lose all the liquid; you’re going to need a tablespoon or two of it later. Let the craisins drain and cool for at least ten or fifteen minutes. While they cooled, I put half a cup of hazelnuts in my food processor and let it rip until they were almost all pulverized into a powder.

When they were cool and had (emitted) plenty of bourbon infused syrup, I moved the craisins to the clean-scraped food processor and let it run. The little ruby jewels came together into a whirring relish of red, and as the bits began to clump in the bowl of my food processor, I added a tablespoon of the bourbon syrup, and then another. The cranberry bits now clung stickily together and I decided they were stable enough to scoop.


I mixed my powdered hazelnuts with cocoa powder in a shallow bowl, then laid out a piece of wax paper for the finished balls. I spooned out rounds slightly smaller than ping-pong balls and rolled them gently in the nut and cocoa mixture, then set them gently on the wax paper to set or firm up or whatever it was they were going to decide to do.


When I let myself taste one (I waited until after lunch, out of respect for the bourbon), I was glad to have waited. These, folks, are strong. They are utterly delicious, but extremely intense. The cranberries absorb all the flavor and warmth and musty floral overtones of the alcohol, and the cocoa adds just the right hint of matte bitterness to combat the sweetness and tartness of the cranberries. I set them gently in mini cupcake wrappers.


Once completed, the bourbon balls joined the rest of the bejeweled collection, which consisted of:

Apricot and almond bits in white chocolate, spiked with amaretto and then dipped in dark chocolate.

Bittersweet ganache with orange liqueur, threaded with candied orange peel, dunked in white chocolate and garnished with a piece of sugared rind.

Dark chocolate with candied ginger and ginger syrup, dressed with semi-sweet chocolate and topped with a piece of ginger.


Chocolate ganache flavored with chambord and studded with freeze dried raspberries, which contributed a really intriguing crunchy intensity.

Crunchy flaxseed and almond butter cups, topped with a sprinkle of sea salt.


Happy Holidays!


Fading light. And bourbon.

My home office – the room where grading, blogging, photo editing, and general work happens – has the most wonderful light in our house.  A huge sliding glass door lets sunlight pour in during the morning hours, and in the afternoon I get brightness mediated by the roof of the house.  Even when it’s overcast, there is still so much natural light that it makes for wonderful food shots.

But winter is a problem.  I’m discovering that if I make a dish for dinner, I’m not going to be able to photograph it from my office because it’s too dark by 5pm.  And wedded to this blog and this project as I am, there’s no way we’re having dinner at 4:30 in the afternoon just so I can get the best light in the house.  So I’m trying out new angles, and new placement, and new adjustments.  I’m learning more about artificial light: which arrangements I find glaring and which I find acceptable.  Bear with me, and look forward to the return of Daylight Savings Time!

“17. Sauté chopped onion in butter, then chunks of sweet potato and stock or water to cover. Simmer until the sweet potatoes can be pierced with a knife, then add chopped kale and cook until wilted.”

This was easy, and quick, and tasty.  I made a few additions to Bittman’s recommendations and think the soup really benefited from them.  I used:

4 TB butter Food blog 2011-0133

½ a medium onion (mine was yellow)

1 big sweet potato, peeled and cut into small chunks (the smaller the chunks, the faster they will cook, so make your decision based on how much time you have and what size is most pleasing to you)


Salt, pepper, ground nutmeg to taste

4 cups broth – vegetable or chicken, depending on your preference

6 oz. kale

1 tsp red wine vinegar

Heat the butter in a pot over medium heat.  When it has melted, add the onion and cook gently, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft and translucent but not bronzed.

Add the sweet potatoes and seasoning, stir to combine for a minute or two, then add the broth.  The quantity of liquid you need will depend entirely upon the size of your sweet potato.  You may need more or less than the 4 cups listed here.

Let the soup simmer until the sweet potatoes are tender but not falling apart.  Mine took about 15 minutes.

Add the kale and stir to combine.  You will be bewildered by how quickly it collapses on itself, wilting from smoky green to a brighter, more vibrant hue as it is immersed in the liquid.  Cook just until it reaches the texture you like against your tongue – I let it simmer for about 5 minutes, because I like my kale to still put up some resistance and retain its bright color.

I tasted and thought this needed something.  Extra salt to heighten the flavor of the kale, certainly, but there was a kind of dullness about the whole concoction.  Remembering my soup lessons from Alton Brown, I sprinkled in just a hint of red wine vinegar, and the difference was amazing.  The whole thing was brighter, somehow, even though you couldn’t taste anything harsh or stringent.

We consumed this happily with freshly toasted, garlic-rubbed slices of pugliese.  It was good, but could have been stuffed with even more flavor: I’d consider adding garlic, ginger, maybe even rice or ramen noodles.

Food blog 2011-0137

“4. Onion jam with bacon and bourbon: Thinly slice red onions and cook in olive oil with chopped bacon until soft. Add a little bourbon and brown sugar to taste and cook until the jam thickens.”

Bourbon is new for me.  N. has been enjoying the occasional scotch for a few years now, but we recently acquired a bottle of Knob Creek and I’ve been appreciating the floral notes of it – so much less musty and boggy than its British cousin.

4 slices thick-cut bacon, halved lengthwise into long strips, then sliced into small rectangles

½ large red onion, thinly sliced

¼ cup bourbon

2 TB brown sugar

Freshly ground black pepper

1 small sprig rosemary

Food blog 2011-0144

I used about a tablespoon of olive oil to start the pan, but I don’t think you really need it.  Just toss in the bacon slices over medium heat and let them work for about 5 minutes.  You will get a shimmer of fat across the bottom of the pan that is more than enough to start the onions sizzling in.

Add the onions and cook over medium or medium-low for at least ten minutes, until the onions soften and the bacon is mostly cooked.  Stir with some frequency to ensure even cooking.

Off the heat (especially if you are using a gas stove) add the bourbon and the brown sugar.  Stir to combine, then return to medium heat and simmer slowly for about 20 minutes, to let the flavors mingle and the bourbon soak into the onions and bacon.

After a few minutes of cooking, I added pepper and rosemary for additional flavor components, and I think they were a good choice.  The rosemary’s woodsy flavor was a nice contrast to the fatty bacon and sweet onions.  Everything cooked down into a sticky, caramelized jam that I draped across some baked rounds of polenta.

Food blog 2011-0148

This was delicious, but misplaced.  The meaty, smoky bacon was intensified by the bourbon, and the brown sugar and onions had a nice note of molasses.  It didn’t belong on polenta.  It belonged, I think, on a freshly toasted piece of crostini, possibly smeared with a thick slice of brie.  The funkiness of the cheese could stand up nicely to the sweet smoky strength of this jam.

We paired our misguided polenta with green beans, lightly blanched and then seared in a hot pan and deglazed with a bit of red wine.  These, too, were delicious, but not the ideal pairing for the sweet saltiness of my jam.  Apples, maybe, or red grapes would make better pairings.  Regardless, we ate with joy and returned to the pan once or twice for a final sweet chunk of sticky, gooey jammy bacon to sweeten our palates, even though dessert was still to come.


“91. Pears in Red Wine: Simmer 2 cups red wine with ½ cup sugar, 2 cloves, a cinnamon stick and a few slices of ginger in a pot for a few minutes, then gently poach peeled and cored pears (use a spoon to hollow them from bottom), until soft. Cool or chill, and serve with a bit of the poaching liquid.”

This is supposed to be one of the most sophisticated desserts you can offer: not overly sweet, laden with mulled flavor, perfect for a gourmet adult party in celebration of autumn.  Pears, with their temperamental habits and signature grainy texture, are perhaps the same kind of acquired taste as wine or coffee or any of those other “adult” tastes.  As dessert for our onion-jam-crusted dinner, I decided to attempt these.

Food blog 2011-0140

I used 2 pears, but followed the rest of Bittman’s quantities exactly.

Food blog 2011-0142Well, one exception to note: I thought about getting fancy and adding things like citrus peel or rosemary (apparently I’m hooked on the stuff these days).  But in the end, I just splashed in a bit of bourbon to link the flavor profile back to our dinner: red wine from the beans, bourbon from the jam, and this dessert would fit right in.

After the first simmer, in which I stirred gently to let the sugar dissolve and the spices mull gently into the wine, I prepared the pears.

The issue with pears is that inside their tender skins they are slippery little beasts.  You can’t grasp them too firmly or they sigh into bruises.  You can’t hold them too delicately or they slide out of your hands and threaten to slip from the edge of the kitchen counter.

I dove into my attempt to core the pears only after peeling them.  This, and the attempt to do so with a spoon, may have been a mistake.  The spoon tore through the tender flesh of the pear but was too wide to remove only the core.  Further, I wasn’t sure how much core I was supposed to be removing, so I ended up with two pale, naked, slightly mutilated pears, which I slid into their (hopefully) healing bath of alcohol.

I let them simmer, turning them occasionally to dye all sides a lovely burgundy, for about 15 minutes.  Then I turned off the heat and let them sit a further 20 minutes until we were ready for dessert.

Surrounded by a moat of spiced wine, these were achingly tender and nicely flavored.  I would choose pears that were less ripe if I attempted this dessert again, because a bit of additional texture might have done them good.  As it was, though, much of the graininess disappeared in the poaching, and the soft floral flavor was really nice against the wine and assertive spices.  A scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side would have made this a richer endeavor, but I think the creaminess would have matched well with the fruit and the wine.   Or maybe I just need the extra comfort as we roll into December…

Food blog 2011-0150