It's A Marshmallow Misfit World

It’s official.

I saw my first snow flurry of the season when I was home in Syracuse (unofficial abominable snowmonster capital of the world) this past weekend.

I suppose this means it’s time to break out the spiked holiday drinks and relish in Burl Ives singing A Holly Jolly Christmas. (I can usually trick myself into thinking winter is fun with this kind of behavior until early January.) So, hot toddy in hand, I set out to fully embrace the season. And I’ve already had my first holiday revelation: marshmallows.

The marshmallow is a funny thing. It’s a bit of an oddity, well known and yet nearly impossible to describe in detail. Many eat them, but few can describe them.

Not that you can fault anyone for that. Marshmallows—by definition—are not meant to be pondered over. In fact, please don’t; best not to overanalyze, much like the origins of a hot dog or a man wearing a red wool reindeer sweater with blinking lights or a dentist-aspiring elf; I’d wager you don’t really need to know their back-stories.

Even though a marshmallow is nowhere near as concerning as say, a man in itchy, battery-operated holiday apparel, the initial anticipated bite of a homemade marshmallow can be a tad worrisome. I made homemade marshmallows to top twice-baked candied sweet potatoes this thanksgiving and ended up with a few extra confections to dole out to willing companions. Without fail, a serious look would fall upon the taster as the marshmallow neared the mouth.

The response was always the same: “they taste … like … marshmallow!?” A fact that was somehow oddly comforting. (It was also comforting to find that they bounced—much like Bumbles.) This being my first marshmallow-making attempt, I too was surprised at their legit marshmallow qualities.

Only a marshmallow could be described by saying it tasted like … itself. And misfit or not, pretty much everyone I know will eat a marshmallow in some form, whether it’s sandwiched between graham crackers, swirled into ice cream, paired with chocolate, caramelized on a sweet potato, or made into a rice crispy treat.

This makes the marshmallow somewhat of a magical nonconformist. And an easy one to make, at that. And a perfect way to ease into the snowy season ahead. (See lyrics below.) Hot chocolate with homemade vanilla marshmallows would be a particularly lovely holiday bribe for a shoveled sidewalk, especially if you throw in a little Baileys. They’ll keep quite well through the next month, so make a bunch to have on hand for every snowy evening (or red-nosed misfit) you meet.

Vanilla Marshmallows
Adapted from Alton Brown

3 packages gelatin, unflavored
1 cup ice cold water, divided
1.5 cups sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1/4 cup confectioners' sugar, plus more for dusting
1/4 cup cornstarch
2 tsp vanilla extract
Canola oil to coat pan

Place gelatin in the bowl of a mixer with 1/2 cup water. Combine the rest of the water, sugar, corn syrup and salt in a medium saucepan and heat covered on medium-high heat for 3-4 minutes. Uncover and cook until sugar mixture reaches 240 degrees using a candy thermometer, about 7-8 minutes. Remove mixture from heat, turn the mixer on low, and slowly add the hot sugar in a small stream down the inner side of the mixing bowl. Once all the hot sugar mixture has been added, beat on high until it turns white and resembles fluff, about 10-15 minutes more.

While the sugar is mixing, combine confectioners' sugar and cornstarch in a small bowl. Grease 9 x 13 pan with oil and lightly coat pan with sugar and cornstarch mixture, like you are flouring a cake pan (there will be extra). When marshmallow mixture is ready, pour into pan and spread evenly using an oiled spatula. Dust top with confectioners' sugar mixture (using a sifter helps) and let sit uncovered overnight (or at least a minimum 4 hrs).

Turn pan upside down and slide out marshmallow mixture, running a knife around the edges as needed. Cut into little squares and dredge in remaining confectioners' sugar mixture (may need additional confectioners' sugar).

Makes about 60 marshmallows

-I don't have a candy thermometer (are you listening Santa?!) so I winged it and used a meat thermometer until the dial could go no further and then I just cooked the mixture a few minutes longer. I don't necessarily recommend this, but it worked in a pinch.

-These marshmallows got a tad weepy and benefited from some additional time out in the open air to dry out a bit more (1-2 days). My sister, who has been schooled in pastry, mentioned that her marshmallows did not get weepy when she made them in school; her recipe used egg whites (and probably a candy thermometer). Should you want to try this route, you could check out Smitten Kitten's marshmallow posting from Gourmet magazine circa 1998.

-Remember, it's your marshmallow world. Even Bing (and Hermey the Dentist Elf) would agree.

It's a marshmallow world in the winter.
When the snow comes to cover the ground.
It's the time for play. It's a whipped cream day.
I wait for it the whole year round.

-Bing Crosby from "(It's a) Marshmallow World"


A Stuffed Pumpkin to Silence all Inner Demons

I must admit, at various times in my life I’ve encountered a number of things that have brought out an inner demon or two. Luckily, I’ve never had to put pumpkin in the “demon antagonizer” category: that is, until last Tuesday.

I am usually quite at ease experimenting in the kitchen; unfortunately, I was not confident stuffing pumpkins, as I had heard Dorie Greenspan suggest to do on the radio last week. She was interviewed about her cookbook and described this dish in a way that begged me to make it, immediately. In a way that suggested that it was comfort food filled thoughtfully, effortlessly into a pumpkin and then forgotten about in the oven.

This is usually my kind of cooking. And yet, my inner critic was relentless. I mixed the bread with the cheese. “Are you sure this is all of the ingredients,” she taunted. “No eggs?” she questioned, imaginary eyebrow raised. “Your bread isn’t stale enough,” she whispered, breathing down my neck, “you need more nutmeg, more sweetness.” At the last minute, I chopped up an apple that seemed to be eyeing me suspiciously on the counter and added it in.

I am ashamed to admit this now, as I made two gloriously stuffed pumpkins, but this recipe brought out inner demons that are usually absent in my kitchen and had me second-guessing everything that was going into the oven that night. And I have no idea why.

It’s a lovely, simple recipe that should have had me visiting a place where I could reminisce about carving jack-o-lanterns and roasting pumpkin seeds. Yet, at the time I was pretty convinced this pumpkin would be a bland, lifeless, ugly squash-corpse: and it was taking me with it.

I had cut the top lopsided so it didn’t fit back on the pumpkin. Then, when I picked it up, the stem fell clear off. It was clear: this pumpkin was going to bring me down. And how timely, given that thanksgiving was around the corner. Talk about a time for inner demons.

Juggling thanksgiving issues is like playing whack-a-mole. You prevent the marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes from burning, just in time to dodge a drunk uncle, all the while basting the turkey (or fretting that you aren’t basting the turkey) and fielding questions about your love life—or lack thereof. It’s like a dysfunctional culinary opera. And yet, oddly enough, thanksgiving always turns out great. Even if the day doesn’t go perfectly (which it never does) there is usually a fair amount of laughs along the way, amid turkey gravy, pomegranate cocktails, and slices of pie.

What I suggest this year is to take the thanksgiving leftovers—definitely the day old rolls and perhaps the cranberry sauce—along with any demons you may be wrestling and shove them into a hollowed-out pumpkin and bake the hell out of them. Everything binds beautifully together (even without the eggs) and eating it you can’t help but lighten up a bit.

You’ve probably guessed by now, these stuffed pumpkins never did bring me down; in fact, they did quite the opposite. I wholeheartedly suggest you give this recipe a go. Even if you still feel a little like a stuffed pumpkin from thanksgiving dinner, at least it will be from pumpkin pie and not from your problems.

Stuffed Pumpkin

Adapted from Dorie Greenspan

1-2 small pumpkins, tops cut off (like you are carving a pumpkin), hollowed out with seeds removed
OR sliced in half, hollowed out with seeds removed (depending on the shape of your pumpkin)
3-4 slices of day-old bread, torn into pieces
1 cup shredded cheese, cheddar or swiss would work great
1/2 cup whole milk (heavy cream would also be lovely if you have it)
1 apple, diced (skin can be left on)
Pinch of nutmeg
Pinch of ginger
Pinch of allspice
Pinch of cinnamon
Kosher salt black pepper to taste
Olive or canola oil for greasing pan

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease sheet pan with oil. Mix all ingredients (besides the pumpkins) together in a medium-sized bowl, until bread is slightly soggy and mixture is fairly wet throughout. (You may need to add more bread or more milk until you get the right consistency and amount). Fill pumpkins with mixture, place on sheet pan and bake covered loosely with foil for about 30-40 minutes. Remove foil and bake uncovered 20-30 minutes more, or until pumpkin flesh is soft and appears cooked throughout. (Cover the pumpkins again with foil if they are browning too much and still need time cooking.)

-If you cut the pumpkin top off with care, you can probably put it back on the pumpkin and bake everything in the oven, as
Dorie suggests. I did not execute this stage with grace.

-This recipe is open to interpretation, even Ms. Greenspan says is a "recipe-in-progress"; feel free to stuff it with whatever leftovers you think might mix in nicely. Cranberry relish and walnuts would both be lovely additions. Jello mold, perhaps not so much.

-Look for pumpkins that are about 2-3 pounds in size. As you can see, I tested two types of pumpkins. I preferred the round over the long variety. It tasted sweeter. And I enjoyed being able to cut slices of it.


Mushroom Flatbread Est Arrivé

The holiday season doesn’t start for me when I see little human pumpkins and vampires begging for snickers bars. Nor does it start at the first mention of pumpkin pie, pumpkin mousse or any other pumpkin dessert mutation.

Oh no, for me the holiday season officially kicks off each year on the third Thursday in November when the Beaujolais Nouveau bottles of wine arrive from France. I look forward to this event with such giddy consistency: few things about the holidays are as guaranteed as the arrival of this wine.

It shows up without fail in the company of festive persimmons and unshelled pecans, prepared to usher you into the holidays, like it or not. (If you’re in the latter camp, I suggest you buy a few extra bottles, because the holidays are coming.)

It’s been said that Beaujolais Nouveau is boring, but I like to think that it’s a wine that breaks all rules. It’s meant to be drunk young, as in within 6 months, and once it’s gone, it’s gone until the following fall: which—I admit—makes it a little precious.

It’s fruity, best served slightly chilled, and would be a great counterpart to something like mushroom pizza. As for the non-Beaujolais believers out there, I recently heard that mushrooms make “cheaper” red wines taste better. I’m just sayin’.

Though that is not why I’m planning on pairing this wine with some leftover mushroom flatbread come Thursday. I recently found a fabulous thin crust recipe, made even crispier through a generous donation of olive oil. I’m nuts over this dough.

What’s more is that I was able to find some local shiitake mushrooms at the Siena Farms stand at the farmers’ market. Nevermind that they were 20 dollars a pound. They served their purpose brilliantly sautéed with some herbs and sauced with cognac atop my crispy flatbread, scattered among a trio of cheese. I really can’t think of a better welcome party for the 2010 Beaujolais Nouveau.

Though, there are plenty of Beaujolais-themed parties happening in Boston this Thursday, should you feel so inclined. The South End Formaggio is offering a free tasting of an organic Beaujolais Nouveau from a tiny farm. Even more locally for me, Pierrot Bistrot Francais is hosting an all you can drink event (could spell trouble) and 75 Chestnut is tapping their first keg of the season. The Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé, as the French say.

Be forewarned: you could be entering the beginnings of a dark, downward spiral if you start using wine as a touchstone for consistency in your life. Though if this does prove to be the case, saddle up next to me at the bar. I’ll be the one drinking the Beaujolais Nouveau.

Shiitake Mushroom and Swiss Flatbread

1 tbsp butter
1-2 tbsp olive oil (depending on how much the mushrooms soak up)
About 3/4 pound shiitake mushrooms, sliced and stems removed
2 shallots, minced
1/2 tbsp fresh oregano, minced
1/2 tbsp fresh rosemary, minced
Pinch of kosher salt
2 tbsp cognac

1 thin crust dough (recipe follows)
3 tbsp parmesan cheese
About 1/4 pound fontina cheese
About 1/4 pound swiss cheese (such as Gruyere or Emmental)

Thin Crust Dough Recipe
Adapted from Nick Malgieri's cookbook Bake!
2.5 cups bread flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp active dry yeast
1 cup warm water (about 110 degrees F)
1 tbsp olive oil, plus more for greasing the pan

To prepare dough, stir flour and salt together. Whisk yeast into warm water and add 1 tbsp oil. Combine yeast mixture with flour and stir with rubber spatula until dough is moistened; fold dough a few times to make it smoother. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit until doubled, about 1 hour.

Meanwhile, heat saute pan on medium-high and add 1 tbsp butter and 1 tbsp olive oil to pan. Add mushrooms and shallots and stir until coated with oil. (Add additional olive oil as needed, if mushrooms appear dry). Add oregano and rosemary. Let mushrooms cook for about 5 minutes without stirring them, they will start to turn golden brown. Sprinkle with salt, add cognac, and let cook 2-5 minutes more until mushrooms are fully cooked. Set aside.

When dough has doubled in size, handle it with floured hands, folding it over upon itself until a smooth, seamless dough is facing towards you. At this stage, you can cover and refrigerate the dough for up to 24 hours. About 20 minutes before baking, preheat oven to 475 degrees. Generously oil a baking sheet pan and stretch dough to fit pan.

Toss parmesan cheese on dough (and drizzle with a little additional olive oil, if desired). Add mushrooms and shallots and cook in oven about 15 minutes. Add remaining cheeses and cook 10 minutes more or until bottom of crust is golden and cheese is melted and bubbly.

Makes one flatbread or about 8 slices.

-This crust defies all logic and remains crispy even after being refrigerated.

-The flatbread would also be great with a little arugula salad on top of it.

-Beaujolais Nouveau is made from a gamay grape and comes from the Burgundy region of France. Burgundy also produces pinot noir, which would be a great pairing for this flatbread, as well.


Secrets of Vanilla Pear Jam and Patience

I should warn that even though vanilla pear jam gives the impression of sugar and spice and everything nice, I’m not going to sugar coat things: making this jam takes time, patience, and some forethought. Heck, it took me two years for the pieces of this recipe to fall into place, which I’ll explain in a bit.

That said, it’s not a difficult recipe and once the jam is on—say—a biscuit, it’s quite a moment. Still, I’d be remiss if I didn’t caution: if you lose interest easily or don’t have the heart for jam making you should turn back. No need to sacrifice unsuspecting pears or innocent vanilla beans please, just move on.

And if I can be frank, sometimes I forget that having a killer jam recipe doesn’t solve all your problems, which is too bad because life is making me a little testy at the moment. That said, this jam comes as close to an opioid as any fruit could and even two years later, when I taste it, clouds part.

This all began when I was in Old Montreal, a few years ago. I was staying at a hotel that offered a full spread for breakfast, which included a trio of artisan jams. All three flavors I can’t recall, but the vanilla pear variety stuck with me; so much so that I happily forked over 10 dollars to take a jar home: and so began my obsession.

Now, this was not without overcoming hurdles. I dislike peeling fruits with edible skins. I have an unsubstantiated distrust of supermarket pectin. And I’ve been buying Red Bartlett pears for years because of their rosy come-hither complexion. Turns out, these hang-ups combined make for pretty lousy pear jam. Eventually they provided closure as to why (again, for years) I could never quite get it right.

The stars started to align for me recently when I came across a recipe for homemade pectin from pastry chef Maura Kilpatrick of Sofra. I also was forced to buy Bosc pears at the farmers’ market, which—don’t tell—I usually don’t purchase … because they look ugly. I know. Turns out these ugly pears hold up quite well under heat and make for lovely jam, providing a smooth texture with hints of honey. I know. Serves me right.

And so it goes, you can’t judge a fruit by its skin, nor can you rush making jam. Good jam takes time, and though it can’t directly decrease life’s bitterness, it can certainly sweeten your day a bit, if you are willing to put in the effort.

Vanilla Pear Jam

6-7 small Bosc pears (about the size of light bulbs), peeled, cored and cut into small 1/2 inch pieces
~1/4 cup sugar (may vary depending on the sweetness of your fruit)
Pinch of salt
1 vanilla bean, split with seeds scraped out
Juice of 1 lemon
3/4 cup green apple pectin (recipe follows)

Heat pears, sugar and salt in a saute pan on medium heat until slightly soft, about 5 minutes. Add vanilla bean (seeds and pod), lemon juice and pectin and let simmer until mixture thickens. Remove vanilla bean pod. You can test to see if your jam is the right consistency by putting a little jam on a plate and then sticking it in the fridge for a few minutes. It should be slightly thick and pretty firm, but still a tad runny. It took me about 10-15 minutes of cooking once the pectin was added to achieve this.

Makes about 2 cups

Green Apple Pectin
Adapted from Maura Kilpatrick

3.5 pounds of green apples (about 7)
6.5 cups water
4 cups sugar
Juice of 1 lemon

Core apples and cut into quarters, leaving skins on (yah!). Bring water and apples to boil in a large sauce pan. Reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes. Pour into fine mesh strainer and then strain again through a cheesecloth, removing apple pulp. Pour apple liquid back into saucepan and combine with sugar and lemon juice. Bring to a boil and heat 10-15 minutes; skim off foam as needed.

Makes 1.5 quarts

-Don't overcook the apple pectin or it will impart an apple flavor to your pear. The pectin was more runny than I remembered pectin packets to be, but it was just fine in the end.

-This obviously makes extra pectin, so theoretically you can jam it up all fall and winter. I have the extras in my freezer. Fingers crossed.


The Crepe Complex

Travel to France really did a number on me; I rolled over at 6:15 am on a recent Saturday and decided it was time to proof my bread. At the time I could have probably claimed jetlag, but the sad truth is that warm bread is a major reason for my existence. Few things bring such pure pleasure as hot bread straight out of the oven.

Each week, I try to bake a new loaf as part of my master plan to enjoy life and this particular flavor-of-the-week was sea salt and thyme. I sprinkled some newly acquired sel marin gris (a natural, mineral-rich sea salt harvested from the coast of Brittany, France) and thyme from Siena Farms on its top and let it go quietly back to rising.

Then I got a ridiculous urge to make crepes. So I turned to David Lebovitz—pastry chef extraordinaire and Parisian transplant—to see if he had a crepe recipe in his arsenal. (He does.) Unfortunately, I wasn’t cooking for Napoleon’s grande armée.

I don’t know why crepe recipes tend to have lofty yields of 20 or more, especially because I don’t know 20 people that would be very tickled if I called at 6:45 am on a Saturday for crepes. One or two friends, at best. (Am I supposed to have more friends or am I supposed to take down more crepes in a sitting?)

You could certainly argue for freezing leftovers, but the delicate nature of a crepe and the lack of current space in my freezer caused me some anxiety at the thought. (I don’t need to add frozen crepes to the odd laundry list—currently including cartoons, antibacterial soap and cell phone ringtones—of things in life that already make me anxious.)

So I did what I do best (or arguably worst, in many dessert-related cases) and modified the recipe to yield fewer crepes. David also called for buckwheat, which I didn’t have (and don’t imagine there is a general need for before 7 am). Despite these obstacles—and defying all usual logic—the crepes came out lovely, light and airy. One of the best meals I’ve made in a while. I give Paris some inspirational credit for this.

In fact, the crepes (yes, I had several) were a fond reminder of my first meal in Paris, a galette au jambon et fromage. A galette is a crepe originating from Brittany, traditionally made with buckwheat flour. I chose to have mine filled with ham and cheese, though I was jetlagged and asked for it with jamon. You just can’t erase 6 years of Spanish. You say jambon, I say jamon: it was arguably one of my most satisfying meals in Paris. I was hungry, walking on Parisian cobblestone, and eating melted cheese.

This particular morning, I filled my crepes with … actually … I can’t remember what I put inside. They were that good. And easy. And fun to eat so early in the morning. In fact, I think I can safely add crepes to the list of things in life that do the opposite of trigger anxiety, including but not limited to freshly baked bread and apparently things that hail from Brittany, France.

In fact—now this is unsubstantiated—Napoleon may have waged fewer wars if he had been served a respectable quantity of crepes. Or at least felt less anxious about his height.

Adapted from David Lebovitz

2/3 cup milk (preferably whole or 2%)
1 tsp sugar
Pinch kosher salt
1 tbsp melted butter, lukewarm (plus additional for cooking the crepes)
~1/2 cup flour (start with less and add as needed)
1 large egg

Whisk together all ingredients and add additional flour, as needed, until batter is the texture of heavy cream. Let batter rest ~15 minutes. Melt additional butter (be generous) in a 8 or 9 inch saute pan on medium heat. Pour 1/2 cup batter and immediately swirl batter to edge of pan. Once crepe is fully cooked on one side (about 1 minute or until golden brown) gently flip with a rubber spatula and cook crepe about 20 more seconds until crepe is fully cooked and can be easily lifted from pan.

Makes 6 (!) crepes

-It's often recommended to let crepe batter sit overnight. I am not sure why this is necessary, my crepe-loving mind doesn't always have such foresight. It didn't seem to be necessary.

-I keep dreaming about filling these suckers with crab salad. Soon, very soon dear crab.

-Don't forget about nutella and bananas, either.