Monday, August 31, 2015

Recipe: Maple Nut Toffee

I don't fancy myself as much of a confectioner, considering how anxious I get over exact measurements and a big role of candymaking is boiling the syrup the right temperature.
Maple Nut Toffee / Brittle
So I was rather surprised at how this easy and delicious maple nut toffee turned out, since the recipe is fairly forgiving. Instead of a thermometer (which I don't have), I used the cold water candy test. And it's a lot less stressful than one (including myself) imagine. Just plunge a small spoon's worth of syrup into cold water and use your hand to see what stage the resulting candy is.

Maple Nut Toffee / Brittle
(adapted from California Walnuts' website)
about 50-60 bite-sized pieces

2 cups of raw, unsalted nuts, roughly chopped (I prefer walnuts, pecans or cashews since their softer crunch is a nice contrast against the snap of the toffee)
1/2 cup granulated white sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/4 cup grade B maple syrup*
1 cup (2 sticks) of unsalted butter, cut into smallish pieces (for faster melting)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 cup water
extra cold water for candy testing

*the grades of maple syrup is not about quality, but whether its color (& by association, "mapliness") — for cooking I prefer Grade B since it allows that distinctive busky, woodsy flavor to shine through.

1. In a non-stick pan over medium-high heat, heat the chopped nuts, stirring/tossing regularly. Once it starts getting toasty (you'll start smelling the nutty aromas, and the nuts will start to char around the edges), turn off heat and set aside.
2. In a stainless steel pan, combine all the other ingredients and bring to low, gentle boil over medium-high heat, stirring as needed to melt the butter and mix everything together into a syrup.
3. Once the mixture starts to boil, lower heat as needed to bring it to a simmer and allow it to heat for another 15-20 minutes. Do not stir during this time.
4. When the candy color is a medium brown, do a cold water candy test. When it hits the hard crack stage (or when it hits 300 degrees Fahrenheit — if you have a cooking thermometer), turn the heat off and remove the pan from the burner. (Per the linked page, be careful when working with the hot candy syrup)
5. Add the toasted nuts into the syrup and stir to evenly incorporate the two.
6. Pour the mixture into a baking pan (I used a 8"x12") and spread evenly to cover all edges & corners. You can use a larger pan for a thinner layer candy, making it more of a brittle than a toffee.
7. Set and allow to cool for a few hours (or overnight) at room temperature.
8. Break the sheet of toffee into bite-sized pieces to store and enjoy!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Before / During / After the Anime Expo

Since Anime Expo usually coincides with the July 4th weekend, it's been years since I've been able to go due to other holiday plans with friends & family (let's just say the last AX I went to was before its current home at the LA Convention Center.) But since this year's long weekend was relatively free of events, I snatched up a ticket and braced myself for a day of serious anime & manga nerding out.  Yes, I only got a one-day pass as opposed to the standard four-day weekender; I figured after a many years hiatus I'm better off easing myself back into this.
Grand Central Market Breakfast
To properly nourish myself before the Friday expo, I headed to Grand Central Market, where I skipped the weekend silliness of Eggslut and opted for lox on an everything bagel at Wexler's Deli with an iced almond-macadamia milk latte from G&B coffee. And it made for a divine breakfast - the translucent, silky pieces of salmon were perfectly highlighted, but not upstaged, by the lightly-pickled onions, puckery bits of capers and the perfect amount of cream cheese. Likewise, my latte was just sweet enough to show off the nut milks' natural flavors.

After the satisfying meal, I did a little urbanhike tos the convention center, where throngs of fans were already waiting for the doors to open. Just like the AX I remembered from years past... but larger.
Anime Expo collage
Some other AX observations from this old-school otaku:

Friday, May 22, 2015

Friday Nights & Caramelized Onions . . .

Whereas my friends and colleagues are planning dates, get-togethers or a headstart on a roadtrip (especially for this long weekend,) Friday nights for me mean busywork in the kitchen. Sometimes it could be batching up flavored syrups for cocktails & sodas. Or eke out a weekend dish from whatever leftovers I've stashed up throughout the week.

Or, more likely, spend the better part of an hour caramelizing onions to jar up & have on the ready for the next week or so.
I agree with Tom Scocca that there are simply no legit cooking shortcuts around caramelizing onions. It simply takes time and patience. (Yes, there's the "set it and forget it" slow cooker method too - but I always found the flavor & texture results subpar to the pan version, plus there's the room full of acrid rawish onion smell during the early stages of this method.)

However, one preparation shortcut I will take is buying pre-diced onions at the market, given my affinity for crying out a river whenever I have to cut them myself. I agree it doesn't have visual or tactile appeal of the long curls, but it's a compromise I can live with. And hey, these remind me of the grilled onions at In 'n Out!

Also — caramelized onions purists will balk at this — I do add a splash of maple syrup at the end of the process too. Not that the onions needed any additional sweetening after all that time caramelizing, but the syrup does give it a welcoming warm & woodsy depth. Oh, and a splash of balsamic or sherry vinegar to balance out the extra sugar.

But rather than lament about the time wasted on caramelizing onions, I make the best of those 45 minutes. I put on a lengthy podcast, pour a glass of wine or beer and flip through some magazines, with the occasional stir to reassure the onions that, "Yes, I'm here until you turn into burnished, brown morsels of deliciousness."

And that's more satisfying than any Friday night outing in a chaotic & crowded restaurant/bar/club can ever do.

Maple-Balsamic Caramelized Onions
Makes 12 oz of caramelized onions
Prep Time: Approx. 45 minutes

24 oz. diced white onions (or approximately 3 medium onions diced)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon maple syrup
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

1. Pour oil in a large skillet over medium heat, once it gets hot enough (the oil starts getting runny), add onions and salt. Stir until the onions and thoroughly coated in oil. Lower heat to medium.
2. Stir the onions occasionally (once ever 3-5 minutes) to distribute heat and prevent bottom layer from burning. If it looks too dry, add a splash or two of water.
3. In the meantime, relax! Enjoy a glass of beer/wine. Put on some music or a podcast. Get some leisure reading on.
4. About 40 minutes in, the onions should be a medium to dark brown. Stir in the maple syrup and balsamic vinegar. Taste and adjust as needed (more syrup/balsamic/salt).
5. Use immediately or store for up to two weeks in a fridge (if it lasts that long!)