You can't make everything from scratch

...but you can sure try!

Monday, October 06, 2008

Peanut brittle

I was in Williams-Sonoma recently and noticed that they were selling peanut brittle. Now, I love browsing in Williams-Sonoma, dreaming of being able to afford all the shiny copper pots and pans, or the full line of Le Creuset products. But peanut brittle is one product you should never have to buy there - or anywhere else, for that matter. It's just too easy to make it yourself. The only special equipment you need is a candy thermometer, and if you like peanuts as a snack (or cook a lot of Thai food), you probably already have all the ingredients in your pantry.

The recipe I use is from David Lebovitz's The Perfect Scoop, mostly because I know where to find it! I'd be surprised if I didn't have other recipes for it elsewhere in my cookbook collection, but this one has been consistently successful for me, so it's the one I turn to. It's pretty heavy on the peanuts compared to some I've eaten (presumably because it's meant to be an ice cream mix-in), so I imagine you could cut back if you want a higher candy-to-nut ratio.

First, assemble your ingredients. Clockwise from top: 1/2 cup corn syrup, 1/2 cup granulated sugar, 2 Tbsp. water, 1.5 cups peanuts, 1/2 tsp. baking soda. Make sure you have a sheet pan standing by, lined with a silicone baking mat.

Attach your candy thermometer to a medium saucepan and add the corn syrup, sugar and water. Bring it all to a boil.

Once it's boiling, add the peanuts.

Stir them in (I'm using a silicone spatula here) and keep stirring until the mixture reaches 300F to 305F, being careful not to let the peanuts burn!

Once it reaches 300F to 305F, remove it from the heat, add the baking soda and stir well. The mixture should start to foam.

Quickly pour the candy onto the prepared sheet pan...

...and spread it out as thin as you can. It will start to harden pretty quickly as it cools.

Once it's spread out, wait for it to cool completely, then break it into pieces and enjoy!

If you've never made candy before, this is a great place to start, because it's not finicky, and presentation isn't a big deal, since it's just going to end up broken into irregular pieces anyway. And if you still want to spend money at Williams-Sonoma (or your favourite kitchenwares store), you can always pick up a candy thermometer!

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Concord Grape Fruit Jellies

This summer has been very rainy around here, so when I asked my favourite fruit vendor at the farmers' market about Concord grapes, they were a little skeptical. "They need more sun! Ideally about 10 days more. Check back in two weeks." Two weeks later, still no grapes. Fortunately, the entire week after that was warm and sunny, so I finally laid my hands on some Concord grapes last weekend.

You may not know it, but you're already familiar with the taste of Concord grapes. Think Welch's grape juice or grape jelly. In fact, given how incredibly "grapey" the flavour is, I have a hard time believing anyone would bother using artificial grape flavouring.

A fresh, whole Concord grape is a slightly different matter. They don't smell like Welch's. They have an aroma that's musky and wonderful and all its own, that can be detected from several stalls away at the market: I knew the grapes were in before I even saw them. These grapes are not the easiest to eat, either, though they taste great. The skins have a tendency to slip off easily, but the flesh clings tightly to the seeds. Yes, grapes with seeds!

We bought 10 litres.

The first 8 were destined for grape jelly, which went off without a hitch. Grape jelly is easy, if you're comfortable making jam: take 4 pounds of grapes and half a cup of water. Crush the grapes and simmer for 10 minutes with the water. Strain through a jelly bag (without squeezing, if you want a clear jelly), then measure out 4 cups of the juice. Put in a pot with 6¾ cups of sugar and bring to a good rolling boil. Then add a pouch of liquid pectin, boil for 1 minute, and pour into sterilized jars and seal. The hardest part is waiting for the juice to strain.

The rest of the grapes were a bit more of a personal challenge. You see, during Concord season last year, I tried to make the grape jellies, also known as p√Ęte de fruit, from The French Laundry Cookbook. I followed the recipe as closely as I could, but the end product was an indistinct mass of grape-flavoured ooze. (Apparently, I'm not the only one to have this problem.)

So I spent the intervening year doing a little research so that I would be ready when grape season rolled around again. I decided that the jellies needed to be cooked to a slightly higher temperature than is specified in the recipe: it calls for 219F, but the consensus seemed to be that 224F was closer to the mark for a standard fruit jelly recipe, so that's what I did.

The end result was certainly far from perfect, but it was a vast improvement over last year. For one thing, this year's batch of jellies can be picked up in your fingers, rather than having to be eaten with a spoon. The flavour is great, but the texture is a little too firm. Next year, I'll try it at 223F and see how it goes. Which really gives me a good reason to look forward to Concord grape season next year!