Posts filed under Food gifts

Chocolate whiskey truffles: a Christmas memory

Chocolate truffles

Whenever I catch a glimpse of this dainty Chinese bowl tucked behind other odd and pretty things in the back of my cupboard, I think of Nane Bernard.  Holidays inspire sentimental walks down memory lane, so bear with me as I wax nostalgic about a special couple and my first real chocolate revelation. That revelation came from a handful of chocolate truffles in the very bowl pictured here, a Christmas gift from Nane, the wife of my chef-mentor Eugene Bernard.

A young Jersey girl in the seventies had a limited lexicon of taste to draw upon in the chocolate department. There were milk chocolate Hershey bars or chocolate-with-almonds Hershey bars. Or possibly my favorite: Chunky bars. Wow. Things were a lot simpler back in the day. In addition, there was fudge. Starting at about the time I was eleven, thanks to an indulgent aunt, my cousins and I made fudge incessantly to satisfy a raging pre-adolescent sweet tooth. None of this had prepared me for a bite of a real chocolate truffle.

Bernard.jpg

After much moaning and pleading, Chef Bernard paid a visit to our restaurant kitchen to pass on the secret of heaven on earth in the form of chocolate. Chocolate for grown-ups.  I was sworn to secrecy, promising to keep the formula from Certain People who may have tried to use this special recipe to their own advantage and to my detriment.  Thirty years later, I think it is safe to say that the secret is out, and you shall have it, dear readers.

The recipe may seem long, but it takes almost as much time to explain how to make these as it does to make them.  There are basically 3 steps: see the pictured tutorial below the recipe.

Bernard’s Chocolate Whiskey Truffles

Bernard’s Chocolate Whiskey Truffles

Makes 45 to 50 truffles

The recipe can be doubled or tripled. If you are making these for gifts you will be sorry not to have at least doubled the recipe, as I am now.

Chocolate needs to be chopped in small pieces in order to melt evenly. If you can find these chips of real 60% to 70% bittersweet chocolate  (NOT the same as Nestles chocolate morsels) it beats having to chop it from a block. If you do have to chop it, use a serrated knife.

INGREDIENTS

CENTERS:

12 ounces bittersweet chocolate (60 to 70% cacao), finely chopped

2/3 cup heavy whipping cream

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

3 tablespoons whiskey

FOR THE COATING

12 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped (optional)

Flavorless vegetable oil (optional)

About 1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder to coat the centers

TO MAKE THE CENTERS

1. In a saucepan that will accommodate a heatproof bowl, bring 2 inches of water to a boil. Turn off the heat and leave until needed (see step 2.) This is a makeshift (and effective) double boiler.  

2 .In the heatproof bowl, place the chopped chocolate.

3 .In a small saucepan (or in a Pyrex measuring cup in the microwave,) bring the cream to a simmer over medium heat. Pour it over the chocolate and, with a rubber spatula, begin stirring the cream and chocolate together in a small circle at the center of the bowl. Gradually widen the center to incorporate the cream. If bits of chocolate remain, place the bowl over the saucepan set above the hot water, and stir for 30 seconds. Remove the bowl and stir gently off the heat. Repeat if necessary, until the chocolate is melted. This back and forth on and off the heat allows the chocolate to melt gradually and keeps the mixture creamy.

4. Add the soft butter in tablespoon size pieces and stir until smooth. Add the whiskey one tablespoon at a time, stirring after each addition until incorporated.

5. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 50 to 60 minutes, stirring from time to time, until the mixture is firm but not hard.  It should be the consistency of creamed butter.

TO SHAPE THE TRUFFLES

1. Line a baking sheet with parchment or wax paper. Have on hand a small cookie scoop, a melon baller, or a pastry bag. On a baking sheet or in a 9 x 13-inch baking dish, sift 1 cup  unsweetened cocoa powder.

2. To use a scoop: When the chocolate is firm (like malleable clay), dip a melon baller, or a small cookie scoop in hot water and scoop the chocolate into scant 1-inch balls. Set them on the parchment-lined tray, and if necessary, use the tips of your fingers to press them into truffle-like balls. They do not need to be perfect rounds. (The heat of your palms will warm the chocolate too much, so use your fingers.) Roll in cocoa powder. If you want to coat them with a thin layer of chocolate first, refrigerate for about 30 minutes and proceed to the next phase (see coating below)

3.To use a pastry bag: When the chocolate is creamy (like soft butter) load it into a pastry bag fitted with a 5/8-inch tip. Pipe out the chocolate into 1-inch blobs. If they have little candy-kiss peaks, lightly press them down. Refrigerate for 20 to 30 minutes and when the chocolate is firm but not hard, shape into uneven rounds with the tips of your fingers. Roll in cocoa powder or refrigerate for about 30 minutes and proceed to the next phase if you want to coat them with a thin layer of chocolate first.

COATING THE TRUFFLES WITH UNTEMPERED CHOCOLATE AND COCOA POWDER (for a crisp outer shell that preserves the creamy center) Hint: keep one hand clean while working with the chocolate.

1. Heat the oven to 200 degrees F, or the lowest setting.  Place a dinner plate in the oven to warm. Line a baking sheet with parchment and with a fine-meshed strainer, sift a thin layer of cocoa powder over it. Load the strainer with more cocoa and set it next to the baking sheet.

2. In a heatproof bowl over hot water, melt the chocolate. Stir in about 1 tablespoon (or a little more) vegetable oil to thin the chocolate slightly. The oil helps create a very thin chocolate coating that adds a subtle crispness to the shell when you take a bite of the truffle. (You can re-use leftover chocolate in baking.)

3. Spread a shallow pool of chocolate (about 1/4 cup) on the warmed plate and place 5 or 6 truffle centers on top. With your outspread hand, use a circular motion to roll all the truffles at once in the chocolate. Carefully place each one on the cocoa lined tray and sift some cocoa over the top.  Repeat with all the centers.  If the chocolate on the plate starts to harden,  use your clean hand to return the plate in the oven for about 30 seconds to warm it.

4. When all the truffles are coated and dusted, shake the tray back and forth to completely coat them, sifting them with more cocoa if necessary. Leave to set (10 to 20 minutes), and store the truffles at cool room temperature in a tightly closed tin. They will keep for up to 10 days. The also can be frozen, wrapped in several layers of parchment and then a heavy duty plastic bag, for up to 2 months.

5. Sift and reuse extra cocoa powder. Pour leftover chocolate onto a piece of waxed paper, let it harden and use it in baking.

LOOK AND COOK

1) Make the filling

Pour hot cream over the chocolate

Stir in a gradually widening circle

Gradually add soft butter

Slowly stir in the whiskey

Stir until creamy and refrigerate 

2. Shape and chill the centers.

Scoop with a small cookie scoop or pipe onto a cookie sheet with a 5/8-inch tip and then form into balls

 

3. (a) Coat them in cocoa OR 

3. (b) coat them in a thin layer of untempered chocolate and then roll them in cocoa.

This gilding the lily third (b) step saves you the trouble of tempering chocolate (which you must do if you want it to look shiny and free of streaks and gray spots) and also achieves a thin shell coating that keeps the creamy centers from drying out and prolongs shelf life for a couple of weeks. The cocoa covers up the untempered  chocolate, so problem solved.

Spread a pool of chocolate on a dinner plate and add 5 to 7 truffle centers

Place your outspread hand over the truffles and move it around in a circle to coat the truffles

Drop them on a cocoa lined baking sheet. Shake the pan to coat them with cocoa.

Santa should be so lucky

Chocolate Truffles

Footnote:  Special thanks to the maker of literally tons of truffles Terry Spencer, wherever you are, for the oil in chocolate trick. 

Posted on December 16, 2010 and filed under Food gifts, Sweets.

Kiss the cook: give the gift of preserved lemons

If you want to make someone happy, give her a jar of preserved lemons.

Make sure that said person is also a cook. If she is not much of a cook, you will not make her happy. You will perplex her. She will wonder, what the hell am I going to do with this little jar of sunshine? She will stick it in the back of her fridge where it will take up important real estate for months, perhaps even years. Then she will chuck it and feel guilty because she didn’t really appreciate your gift. On top of that, she will be reminded every time she sees that little jar taking up important real estate that she is a lousy cook. I predict she will feel tinges of guilt about that too, consciously or unconsciously.

So make these. They are very easy and if you start tomorrow, they will be ready right after the holidays when we return to the sanity of eating good, clean food, but need something to perk it up from time to time. Like tuna salad. Or add to any Moroccan recipe like David Lebovitz's tagine .Paula Wolfert's books are full of enticing recipes that use them, too.

Just be certain to carefully choose the recipient of your precious jar of these beauties. A person you love who has reverence for food. That's you, too. Give yourself a jar and a hug. Happy holidays!

Preserved lemons have a deep, intense lemony flavor that goes in a completely different direction from the zesty sourness you expect from a fresh lemon. You may have seen giant, fancy jars of these with whole lemons in salty brine. Those lemons are almost quartered (the bottom of the ‘flower’ cut stays intact) but practically speaking, you might as well cut them in quarters. The quarters are easier to get into the jars and more importantly, easier to retrieve from the jars as you need them (with a clean fork, never fingers) than the whole lemons. It is helpful to use jars that have “shoulders” so that the lemons stay submerged in liquid. I found a mesh bag of organic lemons at Whole Foods last week—you will be eating the rind, so use organic.

Preserved lemons (Makes 3 pint-size jars)

9 small organic lemons for the jars, plus about 9 more extra lemons for juice

About 1 cup coarse Kosher salt

3 bay leaves

3 sticks of cinnamon

A few whole cloves

1. Scrub the lemons and cut off the stem (pointy) end if it is very prominent. Quarter the lemons.

2. Place a heaping tablespoon of salt in the bottom of each squeaky clean jar. Cram in some lemon quarters to fill the bottom of the jar and sprinkle with a rounded tablespoon of salt. Continue to layer the lemons with the salt. If you want to be fancy, add a bay leaf, a cinnamon stick and a few cloves to each jar. Press down on the lemons so that they release some juice. Eventually they will soften and be easier to press down. By eventually I mean about a week or so. Top off the jar with lemon juice so that the lemons are completely submerged in brine.

3. Close the jars and let stand at room temperature overnight. The next day, open the jars and press down on the lemons to encourage them to release more juice. Close the jars and tilt them a few times to begin to dissolve the salt. Repeat this routine for about 5 days; then store them in the refrigerator. Top off with more lemon juice as needed. The lemons are ready to use when the rind softens. This will take 3 to 4 weeks.

Note: The most taxing part of this recipe is squeezing the lemons for extra juice. If you have an electric juicer, it will go a lot faster. In any case, use lemons at room-temperature and roll them back and forth vigorously before squeezing them, or zap them in the microwave for about 10 seconds.

To use:

Remove a lemon quarter from the jar with a clean fork. (Remember, fingers contaminate!) Scrape out the pulp and rinse if necessary. Cut in strips or small dice. One quarter adds a lot to normal, everyday tuna salad, or use them in a Moroccan tagine. You could also add them to this chicken dish from the Boston Globe. They are not listed in the recipe because this would leave too many readers scratching their heads or being annoyed because they don’t have any, but I suggest using 2 to 3 quarters (depending on the size), cut in small dice.

Posted on December 7, 2010 and filed under Food gifts, Condiments and Jams.

Take back theholidays, part two: Ice box cookies

Well, I haven’t got a tree up, or a tree at all, and I haven’t done any shopping either. It’s not as if it’s a big surprise. ‘Guess what! Christmas is on December 25th this year!’ Maybe it is the sudden cold, or the darkness settling in at 4:30, or the full comprehension of everything I haven’t done and will probably not do, that makes me want to lie down and take a long, long nap. Can somebody, please, wake me when it’s over?

I just put on some wacky Christmas music (Gene Autry singing ‘Merry Texas Christmas Y’all’) and I am making my list. Now I am crossing out most of it. I feel much, much better. I am not going to clean the house, because, what’s the point? When we do get a tree, there will be a mess everywhere, so I might as well wait until later. And I just thought of something else I can put off: sending cards. It worked last year. I put it off until this year. So why not do it again? No one will be disappointed. Actually, that’s been my strategy for the last four years, since we moved. I’ve dropped off the radar. If you are one of the few people reading this, I apologize for that. Let’s just say, this is my Christmas card to you. It’s a scattershot approach, but some of you may be reading this. Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!

I just thought of another thing I am not going to do: wrap other people’s presents. Yes, I am a chump. The men in my family, which means, my whole family, claim they are no good at wrapping presents. They look at me pathetically, pleadingly. This year I will say, ‘practice makes perfect, the paper, scissors and tape are in the second drawer, help yourself.’

Here is what I AM going to do: make a few cookies, and cook a nice Christmas dinner, though I don’t know what any of it will be yet. College Boy comes home tonight. We will probably make his favorite gingerbread cookies and I will make my mom at least one of the family traditional cookies. My grandmother made infinitesimally small cookies. I used to marvel at the size of them. She painstakingly dropped what looked like hundreds of tiny blobs of dough using the two-spoon method on each cookie sheet. Everyone got a plate filled with her assortment. She didn’t bake often, but her cookies were legendary. I am including a recipe here for one of the family favorites (also in my book of food gifts, Food for Friends.) These came from Grandmother’s sister Rose.

This year I discovered a neat trick for making icebox cookies. My rolls were always disappointingly imperfect and the cookies came out square-ish rather than round. Not so important, but the neat-freak in me decided to find a solution. I wrapped the dough (rolled into a cylinder) in plastic. Then I slit the cardboard tube from a paper towel roll down the center to open it up. I plopped the plastic-encased dough into it and rolled it back and forth. Voila! A nice, even, round cylinder. You could probably use a sushi rolling mat, if you have one. Pop it into the freezer on a flat tray for an hour or so and it is ready to be sliced and baked. Keep turning the cylinder of dough as you slice to prevent it from flattening on one side.

Auntie Rose’s Brown Sugar Icebox Cookies
(Makes about 9 dozen small cookies)

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar

1 egg

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

1.  In a mixing bowl, combine the butter and sugar. With a wooden spoon or electric mixer set on medium speed, beat until creamy. Beat in the egg and vanilla and mix until smooth.

2. In a separate bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt together until thoroughly mixed.

3. Gradually add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture, stirring just until the flour disappears. Stir in the walnuts.

4. Divide the dough in thirds and shape each third into a log about 1 1/4-inches in diameter. Encase each log in plastic wrap and roll it back and forth several times to make a round, even roll. Twist the ends to close them. Place them on a flat tray in the refrigerator until firm enough to slice (about 3 hours) or overnight. If you prefer, freeze the logs for up to six months.

5. Heat the oven to 350°F. Line baking sheets with parchment.

6. Slice the logs into 1/4-inch thick rounds (frozen or cold from the fridge.) Place them 1 inch apart on baking sheets. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, or until golden brown. Transfer to a rack to cool. The cookies will keep for 2 weeks in a tightly closed tin.

Look for wrapping supplies at hardware stores, Staples, The Container Store, drug stores, gourmet shops (e.g., Sur La Table) or wherever you might be in your shopping travels.

May your days be sunny and bright, may your hearts be happy and light!

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah!

Posted on December 18, 2009 and filed under Cookies, Food gifts, Sweets.

Take Back the Holidays: Blueberry Sauce Recipe

I was blobbing out in front of the TV the other night when Tim Gunn appeared in an ad. I can’t for the life of me remember what it was for. All I caught was Tim standing in a doorway festooned (the doorway, not Tim) with a giant red bow: “A homemade gift says ‘cheapskate’.” He actually said that!! Tim, Tim, I’m really disappointed in you. I am such a big fan, but where’s your Christmas spirit?

I wasn’t actually losing sleep over this statement, but later, lying in bed, I started thinking about it. Isn’t a homemade gift a gift of love? Do we have to go mad every year with shopping, spending and generally agonizing over the holidays?

Will she like it? Is it too cheap? Is it too expensive? If I buy it now, will I end up regretting it and buying yet another gift later? Am I a binge spender?

Isn’t a homemade gift more in step with the true spirit of the holidays? Further reflection uncovered memories of past homemade gifts I have received. There was the baggie of six little spice balls of mystery fruit, tied up with a wisp of slightly used curling ribbon. Then there was the tiny jar of tired looking dilly beans someone had tried to foist off as a present. Oh, and I should not leave out the marmalade from Uncle Joe—the jar only half-full and schmutzed on the side, dripping with bits of orange. Maybe Tim has a point. I get it! That’s what it means when someone says, “It’s the thought that counts.”

Still, I haven’t abandoned the notion that a homemade gift can be really special so I have come up with a few pointers. I agree with Tim Gunn, your gift does make a statement about you. Don’t let it say ‘cheapskate.’

• Make it extravagant. By that I mean, make it precious. Even a few truffles, wrapped in a special box with gorgeous ribbon trump a giant tinful of crumbling cookies made with shortening.

• Make it thoughtful. Don’t give a bag of cookies, no matter how fabulously buttery and delicious, to your friend who has been struggling with her weight all year. Give her a jar of homemade mustard or some roasted, spiced pumpkin seeds that she can throw on a salad instead of something sweet. If you don’t know the person well (a teacher or a neighbor), give some thing neutral and classic, nothing containing anchovies or jalapenos.

• Give as much thought to the wrapping as to the gift itself. DO NOT USE BAGGIES to wrap your gift. Use beautiful, wide ribbon and cellophane bags or sheets. Go to the Container Store, the Five and Ten, or Sur La Table and find some neat little gift bags, boxes and tins.

• Ask yourself, would I pay good money for this if I saw it in a store? If the answer is no, then regroup and pick something else.

• Pace yourself. Pick one or two gifts to make. If you are making two kinds of cookies, make the dough one night, bake them the next night, and wrap them on the third night. You will not start resenting this process if you take it in chunks, and you can still stay out of the stores, stay home and listen to music.

To be continued next week…

For now, here is a recipe for blueberry sauce, a pleasant summer memory in a jar. Of course you can cheat and use frozen blueberries. I particularly like the small wild blueberries from Maine. This sauce is good for pancakes, ice cream, and my personal favorite, plain yogurt. If you are feeling ambitious, it would pair nicely as a gift with the muffin mix I posted last week.

Blueberry Lemon Sauce
(Makes 3 pint-size jars)

8 cups fresh or frozen blueberries

Zest and juice of 1 lemon

1 to 1 1/4 cups sugar

1/2 cup orange juice

1. Pick over berries to remove stems and any soft berries. If using frozen berries, don’t bother to defrost them.

2. Combine the berries, lemon zest, lemon juice, 1 cup sugar and orange juice in a large (4 quart) pot. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar. Bring to a boil over medium heat, decrease the heat and simmer for 1 to 2 minutes, until sugar is dissolved thoroughly. Taste and add more sugar if the berries are very tart.

3. Ladle the sauce into clean jars and refrigerate for up to 3 months. If you don’t wish to refrigerate the sauce, pour it while still hot into clean, warm jars, leaving a 1/4-inch headspace. Seal and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. “Canned” sauce will be best if used within 6 months

BOILING WATER BATH

1. Fill a large, deep pot with water and bring it to a boil. The water must be deep enough to cover the tops of the jars by 1 to 2 inches.

2. Inspect the canning jars for cracks and discard defective ones. Wash them well and fill them with hot tap water until you are ready to use them.

3. Wash the lids and screw bands. (Use new lids each time to ensure a proper seal.)

4. Drain the water from the jars and fill them to within 1/4 inch of the top (headspace.) Wipe the tops and the inside of the rims with a wet paper towel and cover with the lids. Screw on the bands.

5. Using a sturdy pair of tongs, set the jars in the boiling water bath, on a rack or a thickly folded dishtowel. Process the jars for the prescribed time.

6. Remove the jars from the water bath and allow them to cool. After 12 hours, inspect them to make sure they are sealed: press the center of the lid; it should remain concave. Label and date the jars.

Posted on December 10, 2009 and filed under Breakfast, Food gifts, How To, Canning.

I Love/Hate Shopping/Ikea: Apple Oat Cinnamon Muffin Mix

Do you ever wonder why Thanksgiving, our national day of excessive eating, is followed by a national day of excessive spending? Maybe on the Friday after Thanksgiving we are collectively in a food coma, propelled, arms stretched out zombie-fashion, straight to the malls for more. More of something. More of anything?  This has always mystified me, since it is only logical that the best day to shop is the day after Christmas. If you play your cards right, and just ask for cash, you can buy a 70%-off cashmere sweater. Now that is shopping. Otherwise, I’m ambivalent.

The week before Thanksgiving I determined to beat the rush and head to Ikea on an ongoing mission. It started in September on a trip to drop off our college freshman at school. Guided by the contents of our car, I deemed it impossible that my son would need a single thing more for his room. I was wrong, so wrong.

So we decided to take a trip to Ikea. Before we even entered the store my husband bowed out, putting himself in charge of finding a fan for College Boy’s furnace of a room elsewhere. College Boy and I exchanged tacit looks of relief. The only thing worse than two people trying to focus in a mega-maze is three people trying to focus in a mega-maze. We emerged with an embarrassing amount of stuff, admittedly kind of nifty. One such nifty item was a futon chair that folded down flat for naps or visiting guests. The only problem was that the futon was white and the navy blue covers were only available online. Never mind, I assured College Boy; I will order the cover from home and have it sent to you.

And so ensued an epic saga worthy of an epic Scandinavian shopping outlet. The covers were not available online as promised. A phone call yielded an answering message stating that there would be no phone calls to real live people. Online communication revealed that the futon covers were not available online. Uh, I knew that. 

‘So what do I do for a college boy with no car who needs a cover?’ I asked (online.)

‘Futon covers are not available online,’ they replied (online.)

Hmm, I registered a complaint, but it didn’t make me (or anyone, if they actually care) feel better, or, more to the point, solve my problem. 

Frustration fueled resignation fueled non-action. Two months later, however, news from College Boy that the futon was showing signs of grime triggered a renewal of mom-on-a-mission-mode. I decided to make the 35-minute trip to the local Ikea to purchase the cover. I checked (online) to see if it was available in that particular store and the answer was no. Was I skeptical? Yes, I was. Did I decide to go anyway? Yes, I did. As I was about to leave, I announced my intentions to my husband. “Don’t you think you should give them a call first to see if they have it?” he asked, reasonably. I replied, rather heatedly, “IT WOULD BE EASIER TO CALL THE WHITE HOUSE AND ASK TO SPEAK TO THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES THAN TO TRY TO SPEAK TO A LIVE PERSON AT IKEA!" I was about to launch into a rant, when I noticed a familiar look on his face. It was the look that says,

Please don’t tell me. I really don’t want to know the details right now. Or ever. If you start to tell me, I will back out of this room on my way to an urgent phone call in my office.

There are some things a mother just has to bear on her own.

After the 35-minute drive that turned into an hour’s drive because of roadwork, I pulled into the parking lot. It took a while to locate the entrance to the store and then a parking place within walking distance to said entrance. I parked in row H. I know myself in these situations. I know that when I emerge from the vast desert of a shopping outlet that I will have no idea where I left my car. I will be asking myself, where the hell did I park?  Hence, row H. Before I left the car, I told myself that I would go straight to the futon chair department and immediately proceed to the checkout if I was successful. Forty-five minutes, tops. I am such big, fat liar.

First of all (I warned you this was a saga,) after a long drive, I needed to locate the ladies room. This took at least one-third of the allotted time. Then, I needed to fortify myself with coffee. I entered the food section and was immediately distracted by the cafeteria. Cafeterias, especially in foreign countries (and Ikea is practically a foreign country, right?) hold a mesmerizing fascination for me. I considered the Swedish meatballs, and I confess, I was tempted. Then I saw a large, gray mass of them on a fellow diner’s plate. I decided to pass and settled for a piece of almond cake and a cup of coffee to the tune of about $2.75. You have to hand it to them; they stick to their bargain mission. The almond cake was better than expected, with a pleasingly thin layer of slightly too bright yellow buttercream on top.  It was not, ‘I’ve got to buy this and bring it home good,’ but restorative nonetheless.

Now I was ready to take on my mission. I found the futon chairs right away, and low and behold, yes, there were the covers, and they were available to purchase in the store! That was so easy, I thought, oh I’ll just take a quick peek in the house wares department.  Ha!

Soon—I couldn’t say after how long—my sense of time ebbed to the fuzzy edges of my consciousness. I worked my way through the rest of the store on the way to the pick-up area. I came away with pretty paper napkins, blue potholders, gray linen dishtowels, glass storage jars, small glasses to hold little cocktaily gifts, cute paper cones for hanging on the Christmas tree, and the most adorable red muffin tin I had ever seen. No, I did not need another muffin tin, but I succumbed after considering how much time I was wasting arguing with myself. There were many, many things I resisted. I must have spent a full ten minutes debating the purchase of place mats. They were so cheap! And in the end, I thought, they look so cheap! I know I will regret it in a few weeks and they will lie around for years reminding me of impulsive shopping follies.

It is best not to go to unaccompanied to a mammoth Scandinavian shopping warehouse.

By the time I arrived at the check-out I figured I was out of the woods. I made my purchases and then, just before the store exit, I saw the Food Section. I hadn’t counted on that. The first thing I spotted was a tin of ginger cookies. I had to have that tin. No matter how bad it gets over the holidays, those happy pictures of children in the snow just scream everything’s going to be all right.

And then there was an enormous tub of lignonberries. I needed that for my friend Kathy who makes enormous tubs of Swedish meatballs and gives us beautiful Swedish feasts. I thought of her husband when I passed by the refrigerated case with the herring: herring pickled in marinade, herring in dill sauce, herring in mayonnaise, herring in mustard sauce, herring in garlic sauce, herring in black currant marinade, herring in lemon marinade. Who knew? Claes would have a field day here. Alongside the herring I found assorted cheese spreads, one with crayfish even, and a variety of fish pastes. My favorite, “fiskbullar,” was a tube of creamed smoked roe imprinted with the smiling face a young blond boy. I wondered, do Swedish teenagers really love fish paste that much? Or was the grin saying, Mom, you are out of your mind if you think I’m going to eat that.

I bought some Swedish Fish, a staple of my son's childhood, and Jelly Rats, but decided against the salty licorice candy. There was more, so much more. Luckily I was too tired to make any more decisions. I grabbed the carton of Swedish Rye Bread Mix. The instructions say just add water directly into the carton and shake. That’s a new kind of shake and bake that I could not go home without. And guess what? Just to make life easier, there is a separate cash register right there by the exit. Now where the hell did I park?

Who wouldn't want a gift of these to make on Christmas morning? There’s a bit of measuring involved in the mix, which makes it even sweeter for the recipient to have most of the work done for him/her. You can make up as many of these as you wish at once if you have a big enough bowl. Just be sure to write out the doubled or tripled proportions to help you stay focused.

Bag and label the topping mix in a small plastic bag. Pour the rest of the mix into a coffee bag or pretty jar, then place the topping mix on top. I found this coffee bag at The Container Store—they have plain ones, too which you or your child could decorate with stickers.  Print out the directions and glue them to the bag or jar with glue stick so they don’t get lost.

Apple Oat Spice Muffin Mix: A Holiday Gift Idea

TOPPING (makes 3/4 cup)            

2 tablespoons flour 

1/4 cup rolled oats 

3 tablespoons sucanat or brown sugar 

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon         

1/8 teaspoon cloves  

3 tablespoons coarsely chopped pecans 

 1. Combine the topping mix ingredients and place in a small plastic bag. Label the bag "Topping." (Take no chances.)

MIX (makes 3 cups mix)           

1 cup all-purpose flour            

1/2 cup whole wheat flour           

2 tablespoons ground flax seed     

1 tablespoon baking powder            

1/4 teaspoon salt  

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger            

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves           

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon          

1/8  teaspoon nutmeg

2/3 cup sucanat or brown sugar            

1/3 cup old-fashioned rolled oats           

1/3 cup coarsely chopped dried apples

1/3 cup coarsely chopped pecans

1. Combine all the dry ingredients and spices in a large bowl and whisk well to combine them thoroughly. Stir in the oats, apples and pecans. Pour into a coffee bag or pretty jar.

2. Place the topping packet in the container on top of the mix. Attach the directions to the bag with glue stick.

DIRECTIONS

For this mix you will also need

1 stick unsalted butter

2 eggs

2/3 cup milk 

TO MAKE 12 MUFFINS:

1. Heat the oven to 375°F. Line a muffin tin with 12 muffin cup liners.

2. Melt the butter (in the microwave for 30 seconds or in a pan on top of the stove.)

3. Pour the topping mix into a bowl and add 1 tablespoon of the melted butter. Mix with your hands to thoroughly coat the topping with the butter. Set aside.

4. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs, milk, and remaining melted butter together. Add the mix and stir just until combined.  Divide the batter among the muffin cups and top each muffin with a scant tablespoon of the topping. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes.

Posted on December 2, 2009 and filed under Breakfast, Food gifts, Muffins and Tea Breads.