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One of my favorite things about the Christmas season is making offerings from kitchen and heart for friends and family.  A consistent favorite among recipients not just for gifts but also gatherings is my cashew bark, a confection of chocolate, salty nuts, butter, and sugar.  Heat transforms the butter and sugar into a crisp toffee.  The chocolate and nuts encapsulate everything.  The combination is genuinely addictive.  Thank goodness the recipe is simple!

Before you get started, make sure that you have a heavy-bottomed pot (stainless steel is good), a candy thermometer, and a jelly roll pan.  You can do without the latter, but the first two are absolute necessities.

Ingredients

I was able to get every ingredient listed in organic form.

  • 3 cups chocolate chips or chopped chocolate chunks (dark chocolate or semi-sweet; milk chocolate is too sweet for me for this recipe)
  • 3 cups roasted, salted cashews (option:  try other nuts, like almonds, for a toffee more like those candy bars that shall not be named)
  • 3 sticks (1 1/2 cups) real butter (no, you may not use margarine; it will not work)
  • 2 1/4 cups packed brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

Chop chocolate chips or chunks in a food processor, pulsing on and off to avoid the chocolate melting, until they are just bits of chocolate.  (You may, of course, do this step by hand.)  Transfer the chocolate bits into a big bowl and then chop the cashews roughly, pulsing again.  They should retain some characteristics of cashews, not be pulverized into nut butter.  Mix the chopped cashews with the chocolate bits and set aside.

Now put the butter and brown sugar in a heavy-bottomed, high-sided pot. (Electric burner users:  you may want to use a wire diffuser to avoid burning.) Let the butter and sugar melt together at first over medium heat, stirring to combine.  As the mixture combines, hook the candy thermometer over the side of the pot, making sure to keep the tip submerged but well away from the bottom of the pot.  Make sure that all of the sugar crystals are melting, and then increase the heat a bit, stirring regularly.

Meanwhile, grease the jelly roll pan (about 17×11 inches) and use half of the cashew-chocolate mixture to coat the bottom lightly but evenly.  Just gently sprinkle it on. Now go back and stir the butter and sugar, which should be starting to resemble rising, molten lava.  Add the vanilla.  Be very careful, as the mixture will feel like molten lava if it gets on your hand!

Keep stirring while you watch the thermometer edge toward 300 degrees F, also known in candy making as the hard-crack stage.   Increase the heat if you must, but watch that temperature!  As soon as it hits 300 degrees, pick up the pot and quickly drizzle the butter-sugar lava over your cashew-chocolate mixture, leaving gaps that the lava will mostly fill in for you.  If any sections are left uncovered, smooth out the lava with the back of a metal serving spoon.  You need to move fast, as the mixture will start to harden almost immediately.  (No, sadly I do not have pictures, as I never have time for photographing  at this stage.)  Now quickly sprinkle on the rest of the cashew-chocolate mixture, making sure to get to the edges.  Press the cashew-chocolate mixture into the pan with the back of the same metal serving spoon you used above.  The chocolate will start to melt and hold everything together.  

Let the pan sit for a couple of minutes and then put it in the refrigerator or freezer, depending on how much time you have.  Be sure that it is relatively flat or the cashew bark will be thicker on one side than the other.

After a couple of hours in the freezer or a few more in the refrigerator, the cashew bark should be thoroughly chilled and ready to break into pieces.  Lift one edge and start breaking!

Ultimately, you want pieces that one could eat in one to three bites, since the toffee is incredibly rich.  Any smaller bits will make a wonderful topping for ice cream!

Store in air-tight container in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks or the freezer for a bit longer.  You can package the cashew bark for gift-giving too, as you long as you forewarn the recipient to keep it cold, or simply set it out as your offering for the next potluck or party.  Just be sure to save some for home, or you’ll find your family protesting!

This cashew bark has become a holiday favorite among my friends, family, and co-workers since I started making it almost two decades ago.  Do you have a favorite sweet treat you share for the holidays?  What’s the dish or treat you look forward to at holiday gatherings and in gift baskets?

You may also be interested in last year’s chocolate gift recipe, chocolate chip gingerbread.

Copyright 2010 Ozarkhomesteader.

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Spring is in the air, and the chickens know it.  Small-scale chicken farmers across the country are finding themselves with an overabundance of eggs.  Let’s use them!  If you don’t raise your own chickens, now is a great time to buy eggs grown on a small farm.  Today we’re going to use the egg whites to make meringue cookies.

Meringue cookies are exceptionally light, crispy clouds that dissolve in your mouth as you bite into them.  Vanilla meringue cookies are fat free (about 19 cals per cookie!), but adding almond meal or miniscule gratings of dark chocolate scarcely change the fat ratio while adding to the nutrition, making them still a healthy choice for a sweet bite.  They are also cholesterol free, wheat free and gluten free.  We’re going to make all three kinds (vanilla, chocolate, and almond meringue cookies) today.  These cookies are easy enough to make for kids to join in the fun, and they could become as much of your spring family tradition as Easter eggs or Passover* favorites.

Meringue cookies are made with egg whites (fat free:  hooray!), cream of tartar, sugar, and flavoring, like vanilla.  You’ll also need parchment paper.  That’s it.  And meringue is super easy to make as long as you remember one basic principle:  egg whites will not whip into fluffy masses unless you keep them absolutely free of any fat, including residual fat on prep equipment or tiny bits of egg yolks from improperly separating the eggs. (Don’t worry about wasting the egg yolks; we’ll be using the yolks from this project to make custard, a.k.a. American pudding, later this week.)

Ingredients

  • 4 egg whites
  • 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla (use a whole teaspoon if you are not making variations)
  • 1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar  (I have seen recipes for these cookies with half the egg whites and 150% the sugar I’m recommending here.  I guess you could go to 3/4 cup sugar if you’re transitioning to a healthier diet but aren’t quite there yet.)

Optional ingredients:

  • 1/2 ounce dark chocolate, grated
  • 2 tablespoons almond meal
  • 2 tablespoon sliced almonds and bits
  • drop of almond extract or orange extract

Method

Begin by lining a large cookie sheet with ungreased parchment.  Remember:  fat is the downfall of meringue.  We’re going to peel the parchment off the cookies at the end, because peeling the cookies off an unlined, ungreased cookie sheet is not an option.  That’s the way the cookie crumbles! Preheat the oven to 225 degrees F.

Now separate your egg whites from the yolks.  I recommend the 3-bowl method.  Each time you crack an egg, let the white fall into a small bowl (the little white one here).  Then put the yolk in a small yolk gathering bowl (the measuring cup here).  After you’ve checked the white for any signs of yolk, put it in your mixing bowl (the medium-sized peach-cased bowl here).  Now crack the next egg, letting the white fall into the small whites bowl, and so on.  That way, if you do mess up the separation, you’ll mess up one egg, not the whole batch.

Now mix the whites on low speed until they get frothy.

Add the cream of tartar.  Up the speed and whip until the whites form stiff peaks.  Now add the vanilla and sugar, a little bit at a time.  Whip to stiff peaks.  Do you see the stiff peaks?Are your kids home for spring break?  Are they going stir-crazy?  Are they driving you crazy?  Let them whip the egg whites using an old-fashioned, hand egg beater.  They’ll have much less energy when they’re done.

Now, drop about one third of the meringue onto the parchment-covered cookie sheet as is.  If you want, you can do what I did here and make a few meringue shells, pretty receptacles for things like fruit and dark chocolate pudding.

Now separate out about another third (half of what’s left, that is).  Grate extra-dark chocolate into one of the remaining thirds, pausing in between to scoop spoonfuls onto the parchment.

For the record, I used a portion–about half–of a square of 88% cacao Endangered Species chocolate. I ate the rest.  It’s okay; it’ll lower my blood pressure.

Now add two tablespoons almond meal and two tablespoons sliced almonds to the remaining third.  If you want to, add a drop (no more!) or almond extract or orange extract.  Fold gently to combine.  You know the drill:  spoon out the rest in dollops on the parchment, wherever you can find room.  I like to push a slice of almond into the top of these cookies to let people know how they are flavored.

Now put the cookies in the oven at 225 degrees F for at least two hours.  Why such a low temperature?  We’re not really baking the meringue; we’re drying it.  Take out the cookies.  Let them cool a bit and then peel them off the parchment and store them in an airtight container (that is, those that don’t get eaten right away).

You can also use meringue to pipe baskets to fill with other confections, and you can make freeform meringue bowls to hold ice cream, macerated fresh fruit–like strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries–, or even pudding, which we’ll make in a later post, to use up the leftover egg yolks.  Just be sure to wait to fill meringues until you are ready to serve them, because they’ll start to collapse almost immediately when they are touched with anything damp.

Now that you’ve had your meringue primer, we’ll make a chocolate or key lime or lemon meringue pie in the near future.  I think was a key lime meringue pie I made when my father was visiting earlier this year.  Or maybe it was a chocolate pie.  Either way, yum!

*I’m not Jewish and no expert on kosher cooking, but it’s my understanding that meringue cookies are kosher (or, rather neutral:  pareve or parve) for Passover, as long as your vanilla and chocolate pass.

Let me know if you have questions about separating eggs or making these cookies.  And if you make them, let me know what you think!  Are they really crispy clouds?  What are your favorite spring holiday dishes and desserts?

Summer baking note:  If you live in an area of the country that gets humid, I would not even attempt to make these meringue cookies, any peanut brittle, or any crisp toffee during the humid times of the year.  You will get soft, sticky meringues and chewy, sticky brittle that’s not and toffee that’s just annoyingly gooey.

Copyright 2010 Ozarkhomesteader.  Short excerpts with full url and attribution to Ozarkhomesteader are welcome.  Contact me via the comment section for permission to use photographs.

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Somehow when you combine a few ingredients and a few spices from the pantry in a Dutch oven, you can get a dish that is much greater than the sum of its parts:  it comes out golden brown, with its own sauce and a blend of flavors that are comforting and tangy and potentially a little exotic.  I call this version Golden Chicken.  It has dried apricots and  mushrooms, and it’s delicious served over a good rice blend, quinoa, rice pilaf, or whole-wheat couscous.  All of the ingredients work seasonally too, since dried fruit is every season.

serves 2-4

Spice blend:

  • two pinches each of paprika and cayenne pepper (ground fine)
  • one pinch each of salt, freshly ground black pepper, allspice, cinnamon, coriander, turmeric, and cumin–you can use more or less depending on how you like the spice, but just remember to go light with the allspice.

The Rest of the Ingredients:

  • 2 chicken leg quarters, whole or cut into drumstick and thigh (or 4 chicken thighs, two chicken breasts, each cut in half, etc.)
  • olive oil
  • 1 medium sweet yellow onion, quartered and cut into thin wedges
  • 8 dried apricots
  • 8 portobellini mushrooms, quartered
  • 1 heaping tablespoon of potato flour
  • scant half cup dry white wine (pour a half cup, take a sip, and call it scant!).  Option:  If you do not drink alcoholic beverages, you can mix half white grape juice with half apple cider vinegar for a similar flavor–that is, 1/4 cup of each.

Begin by heating a 2-quart cast iron Dutch oven over medium high heat.  Sprinkle the spices on the chicken on both sides.  Add just enough olive oil to the Dutch oven to coat the bottom lightly, and put in the chicken, skin side down.  Brown well and then turn to brown the other side.

Add the onions, wedges broken up.  Put about half of the onions under the chicken and about half on top.  Let the onion cook a few minutes while you cut the apricots into halves or quarters, depending on size.  Now turn off the heat and add the apricot pieces on top of the chicken and onions.  Sprinkle the potato flour on the dish. Now pour on the wine, making sure to use it to wash off any flour that is unattractively sprinkled.  Toss on the mushrooms too. Bake at 325-350 degrees for about 40 minutes, or until the internal temperature of the chicken is 165 degrees.  If you want, toast some almonds for garnish.

Mmmmmmmm.  Here’s the chicken, out of the oven.

I like to serve this chicken and its fruity, mushroomy golden sauce over a nice rice blend, like brown rice with wild rice.  You can make your own blend or buy one like Lundberg’s. (They are not paying me.  They don’t even know who I am, but they do grow good rice.) If you serve rice with beans, you can increase your protein from veggie sources and eat less chicken.No, I did not overcook the beans.  They’re wax beans.  Mmmmmmmm.

This dish is perfect for families that want to branch out from traditional chicken.  Not counting the rice, it’s an easy one-dish meal that even the younger family members can make.  If you’re cooking with kids, let them try the spices before they add them to the blend and decide which ones they want to include.

Camping Dutch Oven Directions (2-quart Dutch oven)

I made this recipe on the stove top this time, but you can also take it camping.  Follow the directions above, but start out with 5-6 coals on the bottom only, to brown the chicken on both sides.  Then add in the rest of the ingredients (taking care to put half the onions on the bottom, as noted above, to prevent the chicken from burning), put on the lid, and add 7-9 coals to the top.  You’ll need to rotate the whole Dutch oven a quarter turn every 10-15 minutes and the top a quarter turn every 10-15 minutes to avoid hot spots.  Remember, the number of coals you’ll need and your cook time will be dependent on your coals; they’re not all created equal. Do you need a beginner camping Dutch oven recipe first?  Try this one.

Copyright 2010 Ozarkhomesteader.  Short excerpts with full URL link and attribution to Ozarkhomesteader are welcome.  Please contact me for permission to use photographs.

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We eat a lot of salad around here with various permutations and combinations, but two have come to have names.  One we call “favorite salad #1.”  No, I have not posted about it yet.  You’ll just have to come back to find out about it.  (Grin.) Tonight I’m talking “Favorite salad #2.”  Favorite salad #2 is Mediterranean in influence, incorporating some things we grow and some things we buy.  Actually, this salad has a larger percentage of non-local products than we usually eat; maybe that’s what makes it name worthy.    The ingredients are sweet, tangy, salty, and ever so slightly bitter, making for a wonderful blend.  For each individual salad, layer the ingredients from top to bottom in roughly this order:

  • 1-2 cups mixed baby greens, big pieces gently torn, or in summer chard and/or mustard greens
  • optional if in season:  cucumber, quartered lengthwise and then sliced thinly–put on outside edge of greens
  • course grated carrot (a couple of tablespoons per salad)
  • 1-2 thinly sliced radishes
  • 1-3 dried tomatoes, cut into thin strips
  • 1 tablespoon of feta cheese (goat cheese feta makes it really special)
  • a few sliced pitted kalamata olives
  • optional if in season:  halves or quarters of cherry tomatoes
  • 1-2 tablespoons slivered or sliced almonds, toasted (325 degree F for 5-7 minutes)
  • 1-2 tablespoons dried black currants
  • optional:  chives, thin slices to garnish (I cut these with kitchen scissors straight over the salad)

You can serve this salad with a homemade oil and vinegar dressing or get even more non-local and try it with a store-bought Mediterranean-inspired dressing like Drew’s Lemon Goddess Tahini or Annie’s Goddess Dressing. Both of these are tahini-based dressings, the sesame paste featured in  hummus (chickpea dip). We like the salad with Italian, Greek, and Middle Eastern food.  In the winter it may be a part of a big meal.  In the summer, it may be the meal all on its own (or maybe with some watermelon, mmmmmm).

Give it a try and let me know what you think!  Do you have a favorite salad combo?  We’d really like for you to share it with us.

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Catalan is the language spoken in Catalonia, near the border of France and Spain, and in the tiny country of Andorra (which was so small it was excluded from the Treaty of Versailles that ended WWI and therefore remained at war until the 1950s!).  The food from this part of the world is rich in flavor, inspired by the conquistadors’ travels in the Americas as well as the influence of north Africa and even Asia.  Catalan food was fusion food long before fusion became cool.  Catalan stew over Spanish rice with quinoa draws on the flavors of the old world and new world.

Alfred Crosby coined the term “Columbian Exchange” to bring the proper focus to the era of Columbus’s voyage.  To say that Columbus “discovered” the “new world” is inaccurate; the Columbian Exchange was not just about Europe finding the Americas but rather was people the world over discovering the rest of the world.  The era of the Columbian Exchange all comes together in this dish.  Turkey, avocado, and hot peppers all originated in the Americas yet were embraced by Europeans.  The original Americans also taught Europeans that not all nightshade plants (like tomatoes) were poisonous.  And from Africa and Asia Europeans learned to eat health-giving turmeric (popular in Indian cuisine), which I’ll use as a frugal substitute for saffron in my “Spanish” rice.  Even more recently the world has re-discovered the ancient South American grain quinoa*, which is rich is protein.  This fragrant, nutty stew full of familiar and exotic flavors is a great way to get your family to try new food.

Tip:  Start the onion for the stew first, and while it starts to cook you can prep the rest of the onion for the rice.  You can prep the peppers and garlic while the rice starts cooking.  Just keep working back and forth, and both dishes will be ready at the same time, about 45 minutes from when you start.

3-4 servings

Spanish Rice with Quinoa:

  • 1/4 cup sweet yellow onion, finely diced
  • 1-2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 1 small pat butter (about a teaspoon)
  • 1/2 cup nutty brown rice, like Basmati or jasmine
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/2 cup chicken broth
  • 1/2 cup water  (Yes, you can skip the chicken broth and just use 1 cup of water, but why?)
  • 1/2 cup quinoa (I used a combination of red and regular)
  • 1 cup water (again)

rice after sauteing

Begin by sauteing the onion in the oil and butter on low heat.  After the onion has sauteed for a minute or two, add the rice, and continue to stir regularly over low heat for about 5 minutes. Most of the rice should transform from translucent to opaque as it toasts in the oil.  Add the 1/2 teaspoon of tumeric, stir, and then saute a minute more.  Add 1/2 cup of chicken broth and 1/2 cup of water, stir, and put a lid on the pot for 20-25 minutes minutes.  Add the quinoa and another cup of water, and cook for 20 more minutes, stirring occasionally.

Catalan Stew:

  • 3/4 sweet yellow onion, roughly chopped
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped (or pushed through a garlic press)
  • 1 Hatch (Anaheim) chile, seeded and sliced lengthwise and crosswise
  • 1 jalapeno, roasted and seeded and finely diced
  • 14-16 ounces diced tomatoes (canned is actually best here, whether home canned or good organic store-bought canned)
  • handful of raisins
  • 1/3 pound cooked turkey (or chicken or raw shrimp, cleaned.  I used leftover turkey, frozen and thawed.  You’re family will never spot it as Tom from Thanksgiving!)
  • handful of toasted, slivered almonds (Toast the almonds in a 325 degree F oven for about ten minutes.  Since ovens vary, watch closely!  You can do this after the stew and rice go on autopilot in the last 25 minutes of cooking.)
  • avocado, sliced in half lengthwise twice and then into thin slices.  (You can do this after you start toasting the almonds.)

Saute the onion in  the olive oil over low heat for about 10 minutes.  Add the garlic and chiles and saute for about three more minutes, taking care to keep the garlic from burning.  Pour in the diced tomatoes with juice.  Add the handful of raisins.  Put the pot on a gentle simmer.  If you are using turkey or chicken, add it now. Otherwise, wait until the last ten minutes of rice cooking to add the shrimp to the stew.  The stew will be ready at the same time as the rice, about 45 minutes after you start.

To serve, fluff the Spanish rice with quinoa and pile it on each plate.  Make an indentation in the middle of each serving, and spoon on the Catalan stew.  Garnish with toasted almonds in the middle and avocado slices around the edge of the stew.  (Unfortunately, I covered the beautiful, nutty, yellow-tinted Spanish rice and Quinoa.  You can see a little of it on the lower right of the plate.)

*Quinoa is a nutty-flavored South American grain that, unlike other grains, contains a complete protein all by itself.  Quinoa is incredibly healthy and raises the protein quotient of Spanish rice.  If you haven’t cooked with quinoa yet, give it a try.  I think you’ll like it.  If you’d like to make this dish tonight and don’t have quinoa, go ahead.  Just use one cup of rice and two cups of water/chicken broth.

Copyright 2010 Ozarkhomesteader.  Reproduction of short excerpts (not full recipes) with attribution to Ozarkhomesteader and the full URL for the original post are welcome.

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