Saturday, December 31, 2005

honey candy

My uncle tells me that only a "blue blood" can make honey candy the right way. The blue blood he is referring to is my grandmother's blood, the Johnson blood, hearty pioneer-stock blood. And the part of the candy-making process that requires the blue blood is the pulling, not the cooking of the candy mixture (anyone can do that, he says, as evidenced by the fact that he always makes his wife do that part).

Honey candy is a simple mixture of honey, sugar, and cream boiled to the soft crack stage (about 290 degrees) and then pulled like taffy. It is not, however, much like taffy. It becomes quite hard and brittle, but as you eat it the texture softens into a sticky, sometimes dangerous (my mom just lost a crown) mass. The texture and the sharply sweet taste of the candy make it strangely addicting.

This Christmas I decided that I needed to learn how to make honey candy, since none of my siblings or cousins ever make it. Only one uncle and one aunt are keeping the tradition going. I made my uncle make it at our family party so that I could watch and learn and then I tried it on my own for the first time this week. It didn't turn out perfectly, but I'm pretty proud of my efforts (especially since I've never made any kind of candy before).

When my dad and his siblings were growing up, honey candy was a cure for colds and such--always a winter treat. Whenever anyone got a little sniffle, my grandmother made honey candy. She kept the long, unbroken rope of candy in the house's breezeway and they'd hammer off bits as desired. Little bits of the candy would fly onto the floor (imagine already brittle candy in a cold room); one of my aunts talks about how'd they'd always get little shards of the candy stuck to their feet.

Now, the family candy making is a bit more ordered. The long rope is scored when still soft. Then it is broken up into one inch pieces and wrapped tidily in wax paper. This makes less mess, but it also alters the texture of the candy. If you make honey candy just right, it sort of looks like a honey comb, full of air pockets. But scoring it pushes out much of this air, condensing everything into a solid mass.

If you want to try honey candy (don't blame me if it doesn't work out--I warned you about the blood requirement), here's the recipe:

Mix together 1 cup honey, 2 cups sugar, and one cup cream (there is some disagreement in the family about whether to use half and half or cream; from what I can tell, cream creates harder candy). Boil over med/med high heat until mixture reaches 290 degrees (takes about 20-30 minutes). Pour mixture onto a buttered, rimmed baking sheet. Let cool until you can handle it (about 10 minutes). Gather into a ball and pull until the mixture is light in color and you can't really pull it anymore. Stretch into a long rope and place on wax paper. Score and break into one-inch pieces.

I've also seen recipes that use 2 cups honey and 1 cup sugar. I've thought about trying that version, but I don't want to offend the ancestors.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

deep, dark (and spicy!) chocolate

Have you ever wanted to pour a chocolate ganache into a cup, make sure nobody's looking, and just drink it? That's what this amazing hot chocolate is like:

Mark's sister Leila gave me this for Christmas -- it's Wicked Hot Chocolate from Jacques Torres in Brooklyn. When you make it the way the package directs, it's one part mix to two parts milk, so you get this intense, thick beverage that's sort of the hot chocolate equivalent of espresso -- a little goes a long way. (You could make it in more traditional hot chocolate proportions, I guess, but personally, I prefer the quick hit of a just a little really good chocolate.) And it's got cinnamon and chilies in it, so it's like Ibarra with a kick. I haven't been this excited about a chocolate product since that Trader Joe's sorbet I found. whee!

Wednesday, December 28, 2005


My cookbook collection has grown to two long shelves (which includes Mr. Tart's cookbooks, and he had quite a few when we married), plus all the loose recipes that I've clipped from newspapers and magazines, printed off the web, and photocopied from friends and library books. About a year ago it reached critical mass when I couldn't find recipes I loved and had to call my mother and ask her for the proportions she uses when making crepes.

I clearly needed a better system of organizing my loose recipes. Little boxes of index cards and a three-subject notebook with recipes glued to the pages and folders of clippings wouldn't cut it anymore. So I decided to get a three-ring binder with dividers and plastic sheet protectors. I labeled all the sections and subdivided them into plastic pockets which I also labeled. Thus the "Appetizers" section had a pocket for cheesey concoctions, dips, and "other." "Poultry" had "chicken," "turkey," and "other" (in case we feel like duck or cornish hen some day). In fact, I ended up with lots of "other" in just about every category. "Foreign foods" created quite a conundrum. Where to store fish tacos--with seafood or with Mexican? Should shrimp pad thai fit in with pasta or seafood or Thai? Chicken lasanga: with poultry, with pasta, or with Italian? Do I even really need separate "pasta" and "Italian" sections? And will I remember where I put it two months from now?

One binder soon became too fat, so I graduated to a second one, and then a third, when I discovered that I had clipped so many new recipes that I couldn't find the ones I had made before and liked. So the smaller third binder is devoted to the recipes I've tried and want to keep.

I made all sorts of other discoveries. I tend to clip the same sort of recipe about half the time: vegetarian pasta entrees, roasted vegetables, similar types of soups, recipes for ethnic dishes that often require ingredients unavailable at King Soopers. I don't save a lot of dessert recipes. On the other hand, if it involves cheese, I probably clipped it. Some of the recipes aren't even for food--I seem to think that someday I'll be making my own potpourri, bath salts, drain cleaner, and face paint.

Organizing my recipes into their binders is, of course, a never-ending process, as I subscribe to several food magazines and pick up any freebies I find on the the public library's give-away rack. I troll the Internet when I have a hankering for something specific. I borrow cookbooks and read them straight through like a novel, jotting down page numbers on a post-it note inside the front cover so I can photocopy the ones I want to keep. I take stacks of pages with me on car trips of half an hour or longer so I can use the time to cut and file recipes. And while it seems like I'll never be able to get through them all, I am noticing now that some recipes are pretty similar to each other, so I don't need to hang on to them unless they've got a gimmick that differentiates them notably from something I've already clipped.

The great irony here is that I don't cook directly from my recipes all the time. Often I look in the vegetable drawer and the cheese drawer, intending to make a salad, and then it evolves, maybe adding pasta and pesto to make a main dish or milk to make a soup or canned beans to make a side dish. All the recipes that have piqued my interest swirl around in my mind and I don't know if I'm doing something original with a chicken breast or replicating a recipe I read somewhere or just combining ideas from several recipes I've already seen (chicken piccata...Moroccan chicken with vegetables and couscous...why not chicken with orzo, zucchini, olives, and lemon?). Other times I'll find similar recipes and consciously overlap them, like last week when I wanted a non-starch side dish for empanadas. We had a box of clementines, a leftover red onion, and leftover cilantro, and avocados were on sale (and actually ripe the day I bought one). So I took elements from a guacamole recipe and another recipe that married oranges with cilantro and ended up with a salad of clementine wedges and chunks of onion and avocado, dressed with olive oil, clementine juice, and cilantro.

For a while I started to resent all the time I was spending clipping and filing recipes which for the most part I will never prepare as written, if at all. But Mr. Tart pointed out what joy I seem to take in reading about food and creating meals and even in organizing things in general, and I know I love it when he helps himself to seconds or suggest that I fix something again for his parents or when a friend requests a specific dish for a potluck she's hosting. I'm realizing that taking care of my recipes is a way to help me relax, to pass time in the car, to feel productive when watching tv, to fire up my imagination. I'm not ashamed to admit that my name is Sarah and I'm a recipeholic.

I am curious, though, to find out what techniques other foodies use to organize recipes. What works for y'all? And does anyone ever get around to cooking most of the recipes she owns?

Saturday, December 24, 2005

A Vanilla Bean Convert

Here's my epiphany for the season: vanilla beans are marvelous. I know, I'm 31 years old and love to cook, but I had never, ever used a real vanilla bean. (If it's any excuse, I don't bake much.) "They're too expensive," I thought. "If vanilla extract works for my mother and grandmother, then vanilla extract is fine." Plus I wasn't quite sure how to get the innards out of the bean. If a recipe called for a vanilla bean, I just substituted extract.

But since Tara gave us a gorgeous spice assortment, including vanilla beans, for our wedding, I had no excuse not to try them out! So as I picked out a recipe to serve for Christmas Eve dessert tonight--Epicurious' Ginger Creme Brulee ( --I decided that I'd break out the vanilla bean as the recipe ordered.

Oh my.

I have seen the light.

I have never licked the bowl the way I did today!

How amazing that such rich, warm, sexy flavor is hiding in that creepy, brown, withered, cut-off flower part. I now regret the previous 30 years spent without vanilla beans! I even regretted washing out the pot today and watching the last few fragrant flecks swirl down the drain.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Feasting, before and after

You know, I never did report back on how the big ol' Thanksgiving dinner went. I think I'll let these photos speak for themselves. I think they tell the story.



Monday, December 12, 2005

fancy cookies

I got a Silpat for my birthday, so yesterday I baked fancy cookies. Cinnamon chocolate cigarettes: paper thin cookies rolled into a cylinder with one end dipped in chocolate. I can't show you a picture because I seem to have misplaced the battery charger for my digital camera, but they are pretty. I have plans for more fancy cookies, tuiles and such. The Silpat is a genius thing, and I highly recommend getting one. There was no sticking! That's about all I have to say about the fancy cookie baking, except that it made me feel very skilled, like a much better baker than I actually am.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005


Last night, I read an essay in the latest edition of The Best American Essays. It was all about french cooking (esp. Julia Child), the writer's coming out as a lesbian, and her parents' marriage. At one point in the essay, Levy writes: "if you're not careful, you can forget that you ever hoped for something more than sustenance." The essay as a whole bothered me, but I found this sentence really annoying. What's so terrible about sustenance? Some of the best meals I've had, the most pleasurable meals, were those that provided basic sustenance. At the end of long backpacking days, I've had some amazing eating experiences with really terrible food--freeze-dried vegetables and powdery sauces. I eat oatmeal almost every morning. There's nothing spectacular about it--a food that's obviously more about sustenance than about pleasure. But it can still surprise me how good it tastes, how satisfying it can be day after day.