Copycat Recipes: Cuckoo For Cocoa Bombs

This is episode one in a new “Take Back the Kitchen” segment centered on making your favorite restaurant meals and pantry/refrigerator staples from scratch.

Welcome back, readers! It’s January 3, 2014, and, where I live, it’s an ass-biting 14ºF and is going to hit 5º by nightfall (and feel like 14 below). It’s times like this I wish I were back in San Francisco, where their winter weather is no different than what it’s like in early spring (mild and a little rainy).

But, this blog isn’t about the weather or where I’d rather be. It’s about food…and, in this case, drink.

In weather like this, hot drinks are the way to go, be it tea, coffee, cider, toddies, or cocoa. Nestlé, Swiss Miss, Ghiradelli Premium, Trader Joe’s, some Save-a-Lot no-brand — whatever your taste (and your budget), there’s nothing like a hot mug of hot cocoa (especially with marshmallows, but I’m not a marshmallow person, unless it’s roasted over a fire and sandwiched between a chocolate bar and some graham crackers or melted down and used to make Rice Krispie treats). But what if I told you that you can actually make hot cocoa mix and save yourself the time and money? Initially, you’d give me an incredulous look or dismiss me as being crazy, and, prior to that, I’d agree with you, but, yes, it is just as possible to make hot cocoa mix just as it is to make herbed crackers, egg foo young, or Fruit Roll-Ups (which I will touch on in later installments of “Copycat Recipes”). And this take on hot cocoa mix won’t leave a gritty, powdery aftertaste, which is one of the things I don’t like about hot cocoa.

The first thing you’ll notice about this is that it’s not a powdered mix, more like melting chocolate, then chilling it and turning it into pseudo-truffles or an edible fizzing bath bomb. That’s to reduce the mess you get with powders and to put you in control of how you want it flavored. What if you want some mint hot cocoa, or nutmeg, or cinnamon or Mexican-style (with dried, ground chiles)? Yes, you can flavor the powder with spices or add a flavored syrup, but it won’t mix well. Here, you get a better blend of chocolate plus whatever you’re flavoring it with (and, yes, you can use your favorite dessert liqueur, like Remy Martin, Kahlùa, Bailey’s Irish Cream or crème de mènthe if you want to make your hot cocoa adults only).

Instant Cocoa Bombs
(adapted from American Test Kitchen’s recipe)

Ingredients

12 oz (1 bag) semi-sweet chocolate chips*
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 tsp salt
Optional flavorings (mint extract, vanilla extract, crushed peppermint candy, smoked sea salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, pumpkin spice, dried ground chiles, your dessert liqueur of choice, ground coffee, etc)

1) Combine the chips, heavy cream, whatever flavoring you’re using (if any), and salt in a microwaveable glass bowl (I swear by Pyrex).
2) Microwave for 2 minutes (your microwave time may vary). If you don’t have a microwave, then melt the chocolate in either a double boiler or place the bowl with the mixture in it over a boiling pot of water (or the flame on your gas oven if you’re feeling ambitious). Either way, you’ll want to stir your melting mixture until it’s smooth. If you’re flavoring it, taste it to see if the flavored chocolate is where you want it to be.
3) Wrap the bowl tightly with plastic wrap (or use a shower cap and some rubber bands) and refrigerate for two hours or until firm.
4) After the mixture has hardened, take the bowl out of the refrigerator and unwrap.
5) With a tablespoon or a small disher scoop (Disher scoop is what laymen call “an ice cream scoop”. In restaurant supply stores, their sizes range from #6 to #100. A #6 or #8 [which is small and used for cookies] is ideal for this recipe), scoop the mixture into balls.
6) If you’re not going to use the cocoa bombs right away, wrap them in plastic and put them in a resealable freezer bag (or just put them in a freezer bag if you don’t have plastic wrap). They’ll keep anywhere from five days (refrigerator) or two months (freezer)
7) To use the cocoa bombs (either right away or later), place a cocoa bomb in a microwaveable mug (material doesn’t matter. It just has to be able to handle microwave temperatures), add milk (doesn’t matter if it’s cow, goat, soy, or lactose-free), and place in the microwave for 2 minutes (again, your microwave cooking time may vary). Stir until the cocoa bomb melts into the milk. Enjoy either with marshmallows, by itself, with whipped cream, or with a warm pastry, cookie, or brownie of some kind.

*You don’t have to use semi-sweet chcolate. Experiment with milk chocolate chips and white chocolate chips, or use Nutella (or any type of chocolate-hazelnut spread, whether store-bought or homemade)

As an added bonus, I’d like to include this video of how to make homemade marshmallows, along with the video illustrating how to make the cocoa bombs. The marshmallows take a bit more time to make, so you are better off getting store-bought, but, if you hate store-bought or have the time and energy to make homemade, then give this a try:

Instant Cocoa Bombs Video:

Homemade Marshmallows Video:

Happy New Year and happy eating!

A Very Foodie Christmas: Novelty Need Not Appli-ance

On this side of the world (Western hemisphere), there’s only two more shopping days until Christmas – unless you’re like my family and decide that the after-Christmas/year-end clearance sales (which last from December 26th to around New Years’ Eve, maybe New Years’ Day, if a store decides to stay open then. Some stores will even stop the day before New Years’ Eve so they can differentiate between the after-Christmas sale and the year-end clearance sale) are the best time to buy Christmas presents.

Shopping for a foodie or a home cook is a lot like shopping for a child: there are a lot of new, shiny toys out there that everyone wants, some of which are good to have, while others are just novelty that no self-respecting home cook/foodie would want or need. A quesadilla maker does seem like a good idea, but, as the “Thanksgiving Leftovers” post showed, you can get the same results with a good cast-iron pan and a canned good or the back of a spatula pressed firmly, but not too firm or the cheesy filling will spill out (unless you like it like that). I guess I should be one to talk, since my grandmother recently got our family a breakfast sandwich maker from Hamilton Beach and that’s about as novelty as you can get on a kitchen appliance without it being a knock-off of something you’d find at a county fair or circus (cotton candy maker, snow cone maker that’s not the classic Snoopy one, or hot dog roller). However, my family hasn’t had a bread toaster in years, our toaster oven broke, and there are days where we (myself included) either don’t feel like using the oven or stove or can’t, because we ran out of vegetable oil. In that regard, I say, “Don’t pick a novelty kitchen appliance unless you have a good reason to use it and you will use it more than once,” like a pasta maker:

I had to work with one of these monsters in my Bistro class and my Fine Dining class at Job Corps. It seems easy and you’d think I’d get the hang of it just because of my quarter-Italian heritage, but it just didn’t happen, especially since the hand crank kept falling off. The only successful time I had with this machine was when I made kreplach noodles for my Jewish chicken soup, but that was because I had a partner who helped me hold down the machine. If you want to make fresh pasta and you don’t have anyone to be your spotter when hand-cranking it, then invest in an electric pasta maker, get a pasta maker attachment for a Kitchenaid standing mixer, like this one…

…or learn how to cut pasta by hand. The last one isn’t recommended unless you have the time, patience, skill, and a good kitchen knife or pizza cutter and ruler to do it.

So, what constitutes a “kitchen need” vs. a “kitchen want”? It all depends on whether or not you can see yourself using the appliance frequently or if you answer “Yes” to the question, “Could I do the same thing without this appliance?”

Like the panini maker/George Foreman grill. While you may jump down my throat and say that a panini maker is essential in the kitchen, it’s actually not (and this is coming from experience, as I have two broken ones). You get the same results with a cast iron skillet with a ridged bottom, whether you’re making a turkey and brie panini or a pan-grilled steak. On top of that, you can easily soak a ridged cast iron skillet in the sink and not have to worry about emptying the fat/oil reservoir every time you use it.

Then there are the specialized cutters (the ones used for one kind of food, like watermelons, corn, bananas and butter). The only kind of cutters you need in a kitchen are for cookie dough (though you can easily make stencils out of sturdy paper and not bother with those metal ones) and an apple corer. The knife kits they have in stores from Williams-Sonoma to Wal-Mart look almost like the ones that professional chefs use, and work just as well.

Coffeemakers: I’m not much of a coffee drinker, and, if I am, then it’s always cold and always sold at Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, or Cosi’s. I did have one in college, but that was because my sister and I also bought a blender so we can make cold coffee drinks and it ended up getting thrown out when we moved out. If you just have to have coffee, then don’t go for the needlessly complicated ones, like this one (yes, I know it’s a parody commercial from Saturday Night Live, but the Verismo is real. They’re just making fun of the crummy service of real Starbucks cafes): http://vimeo.com/62425881. Go for the ones that look like this:

So, what have we learned in this blog post? We learned that a foodie Christmas shouldn’t have to break the bank like a regular Christmas. It should be about what you need in the kitchen, not what you want (though if it’s not considered redundant and you plan on using it more than once, you can splurge on a “kitchen want”).

Thanks, and have a very foodie Christmas.

 

 

Avenue BBQ, part two: Crock(Pot) and Roll

Last time on Take Back the Kitchen, we looked at the history of barbecue and some regional differences. Today, we’re going to look at how you can have a barbecue in your own house if you don’t have a barbecue grill, if the weather is too damp or cold to cook outdoors, or if you’d rather not like your meat burnt from charcoal or gas flames.

The best crockpots are the ones for today’s busy idiot (no disrespect to anyone who’s busy or an idiot. It’s just that, in this quick-fix world we live in now, that’s the only way I can describe people who are slaves to wanting things done easy rather than putting a little effort behind a task, and that kind of mentality knows no skin color, ethnic group, religious preference, sexual orientation, body size, gender, or physical/mental disability) — the kind where you can set your ingredients in there and let it cook low and slow until tender (usually anywhere from 3 to 8 hours, depending on how tough your cut of meat is and what you’re cooking). Crockpots are what pressure cookers were back when they were first in vogue (I’m going to assume the 1950s. While pressure cookers are still around, they’re not as popular as they used to be…unless you’re a terrorist or have an old pressure cooker your grandmother or mom used to use and you want to keep up tradition): a big pot people can use to make thick,stews (especially beef stews), boiled dinners, and pot roasts and not have to worry about getting actively involved with what’s being cooked. Basically, it has the same emotional arc as a drama about a parent who abandoned his or her kid(s) in the past and is trying to get back in the child(ren’s)’s life (lives): starts out cold, but warms up very slowly, and you can expect a lot of boiling and steam.

Much like Kleenex, Chapstick, and Kool-Aid, “Crockpot” (actually spelled “Crock-Pot”) is actually a brand name that has come to generically describe the product. Crock-Pot’s claim is that it’s the original and everything else is a pale imitation, and I applaud them for taking pride in their work, but for those who don’t have the money for an authentic crockpot go for brands like Hamilton Beach (which is said to have a lot of good products that won’t put a hole in your wallet).

But let’s save the kitchen appliance chatter for a later day. We’re here to talk about crockpot barbecueing.

Crockpot-barbecuing meat is no different than braising (in fact, it’s a close relative of it). Both cooking techniques involve tough or large cuts of meat being cooked in a liquid (in this case, a thin, Carolina-style barbecue sauce, but you can use a less thick, Kansas City-style barbecue sauce if you’re making pulled pork for a pulled pork sandwich) after being browned for color and flavor, either in a brazier (a specialty pot used specifically for braising), a saucepot, a Dutch oven pot (if you’re not serving large groups of people), or a crockpot. The main difference between crockpot barbecueing and grilling is that there’s no fear of your meat coming out dry and burnt, since you’re utilizing a moist-cooking technique.

Slow cooking — be it with crockpot, brazier, or Dutch oven — touches on that want for warm, filling meals, especially in the winter months when no onereally cares about their waistline expanding. While others will tell you you can use a crockpot any time of the year (say, if you want to make chili for a summer barbecue), it’s the winter months in which slow cooking shines. Does beef stew appeal to you more when its ten below or 75 degrees and balmy?

With that, I’d like to introduce you to my family’s beef stew recipe:

Young Family Beef Stew

Ingredients

2 pounds beef stew meat (cut into bite-sized pieces)
½ cup stewed tomatoes or 1 cup tomato sauce
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 celery ribs, sliced
2 cups baby carrots
4-5 small potatoes, cut into bite-sized pieces (about 3 cups)
1 cup frozen corn
1/4 cup water
Whisper of cayenne
Pinch of garlic powder (or ¼ minced garlic)

Optional ingedients for this include peas, beans, bacon, mushrooms (white button), and frozen mixed vegetables (my mom uses canned and frozen vegetables because they cook faster and she doesn’t like to futz around with fresh vegetables, e. For a barbecued beef stew, we use either a bottled barbecue sauce or make a quick version using ½ cup tomato paste (or ketchup), ¼ cup brown sugar, few squirts of Louisiana hot sauce, some cayenne, and molasses to taste.

Always remember that the times listed are just suggestions, depending on what you use for slow-cooking. You may need more time; you may need less. I’m going by how my family makes this.

Instructions

  1. Combine beef, celery, carrots, onion, potatoes, salt,  pepper, and stewed tomatoes in a crock pot (my family uses a six quart, since that’s enough to feed the four of us and have leftovers for the next few days).
  2. Cook on low for  6-7 hours, eight at the most.
  3. About 30 minutes before serving, add water and seasonings. For a thicker stew, add ¼ cup of flour and enough vegetable oil to make a roux out of it. The roux is ready if it tastes more oily than floury.
  4. Mix until well-combined and let simmer for another 30 minutes.
  5. Serve immediately.

I also find that this tastes great when put in a hoagie roll and eaten as a bastardized version of a roast beef au jus sandwich. You really should try it this way.

Happy holidays and happy eating.