Sunday, June 21, 2009

Microwave Caramel Corn

This is for Valerie…

Remember Cracker Jacks? There was no mistaking the box with its bright red and white label, little blue sailor and dog. As a kid, I wasn’t overly fond of caramel corn but I loved the peanuts. Of course, the hidden toy was the biggest draw and I would always dump a little out, and then dig through the rest, until I found it. Invariably it was at the bottom. It didn’t work to open the box from the bottom either—the toy would be on the top! You never knew what you would find—tattoo or stickers, maze and ball puzzles, rings, toy cars or animals. Compared and sometimes traded, it was magical to get the coolest one.

These days the toys that come in Cracker Jacks aren’t nearly so fun. I asked my husband this morning if he had liked Cracker Jacks as a kid. His reply; “you bet. But now the prize is just some stupid riddle on a piece of paper.” Clearly, I was not alone in my love of those little prizes.

This recipe for caramel corn came from Nana. It’s been in our family practically since the invention of the microwave. Now you too can make Cracker Jacks at home…the prize at the bottom as creative and cool as your imagination will allow.

Microwave Carmel Corn

6 quarts Plain Popcorn—no salt or butter

1 cube Butter

1 Cup Brown Sugar

½ teaspoon Cream of Tarter

¼ Cup Karo Corn Syrup

1 teaspoon Baking Soda

1-2 Cups nuts—your choice (Almonds or Peanuts work well) optional

Pop corn and place in a brown paper grocery bag. (We use an air popper to pop our corn, and 6 quarts is about two poppers.) Add nuts to popcorn. In a 3½-quart saucepan, melt butter. Add corn syrup, brown sugar, and cream of tartar. Bring to a rolling boil. Add soda and stir like crazy for 10 seconds. (The caramel will foam up so be ready to pour over popcorn in a hurry if it looks like it might overflow your pot.) Immediately pour onto the popcorn and mix well.

Fold top of bag down tightly and place in the microwave for 6 minutes, stirring after each minute. Dump the cooked caramel corn out on to parchment paper and spread to cool. Enjoy!

Thursday, June 18, 2009


What’s not to love? A crunchy, chewy crust, loaded with cheese, artichoke hearts, sundried tomatoes and feta. Just writing those words sets my mouth to watering. On the other hand, maybe you prefer the Combo, loaded with spicy pepperoni, sausage, olives, and mushrooms, the Hawaiian, or the simplicity of fresh basil, garlic, tomatoes, and mozzarella—whatever your pleasure, pizza never fails to entice the soul to rapture.

We have always made pizza at home. This is not to say we don’t order in now and again, but for the most part, it is a homemade labor of love. Fresh ingredients and the freedom to be creative have given us a better pie than any a chain pizza store could produce, and that quality, taken together with our current economy, makes homemade pizza an awesome choice.

Homemade pizza is not hard. The crust is simply flour, water, oil, salt, and a little yeast—or if you’re feeling very creative, as I have been lately—sourdough. Often we will make pizza the night after having spaghetti and use the leftover sauce on our pizza. The toppings can be as simple or complex as your imagination allows. You don’t even need a red sauce if you don’t want—Italian herbs and garlic in olive oil is just as tasty. Here is a simple but wonderful recipe for pizza dough. It makes four small pies (~8 inch).

Pizza Dough
1 cup warm water
1 Tbs extra virgin olive oil—can us any oil really
1-2 tsp honey or other sugar
3(+/-) cups flour
1 tsp kosher salt—less if you use table
1 package yeast (2 ½ tsp)

In a small bowl, mix the yeast and honey with ¼-cup warm water –let sit for 5 minutes. In a mixer with a dough hook, combine remaining water with the flour, salt and oil and your yeast mixture. Mix on low until the dough comes away cleanly from the sides of the bowl, about 5 minutes. Turn dough out onto a floured surface and knead for 2-3 minutes. Place in oiled bowl and cover with a piece of plastic wrap or damp tea towel. Allow to rise for 30 minutes.

After rising, divide the dough into 4 pieces, shaping it into smooth ball like clumps. Allow to rise for another 20 minutes. Your dough is now ready to use. Preheat your oven to 500 degrees. If you have a pizza stone, place it in the oven to heat.

We use ‘no-stick’ tin foil or parchment papers to prepare our pizza’s as it makes for easy cleanup. Gently stretch your dough into a circle. Add the toppings of your choice—be as creative as you like. Bake for 10-13 minutes or until crust is nicely brown and cheese is melted.

(This recipe can also be made in a bread maker. Put the ingredients in your bread maker in the order in which they appear. Use dough setting. Rise for 30 minutes, shape into balls and rise additional 20 minutes.)

One other note: Sometimes it is too hot outside to use the oven. We have used this recipe and baked the pizzas successfully on the grill. If you want to do this, my best advice is to limit the amount of toppings so they cook quickly and to use the no-stick tinfoil. You'll have a super crispy and delicious crust. Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Sour Reconnections

What is this longing to reconnect and acknowledge the past and those who came before? Is it a quest to understand—to remember? We study history. We read books about the past and try to place ourselves in the lives of the characters who lived there. We imagine what it would have been like to be a gold miner on our way to Alaska, a baker living in San Francisco before the Great Earth Quake, or a fur trapper in the wilds of Montana. We might imagine our great, great, great grandmothers on homesteads throughout America and wonder what delicacies were created in their pioneer kitchens. In some instances, we are lucky and those recipes are handed down through the generations. In others, they are forever lost. What fun then, to rediscover recipes long forgotten?

With that in mind, I’ll tell you about my new pet. It lives on my kitchen counter and is very well behaved. Aside from needing to be fed once or twice a day, it requires very little in the way of love and affection. I never have to take it out for a walk or do the pooper scooper thing. In all, not a bad pet. In return for my care, my yeasty beasties give me wonderful baked goods—the most delicious sourdough imaginable.

No one knows who first discovered the process of leavening bread with yeast but historians think it happened in Egypt. Imagine you are an Egyptian chef in the palace of the pharaoh. One bright summer morning, you’ve combined water and flour, maybe a little milk and oil to make the pharaoh’s hard, flat dinner cake, when in rushes a messenger.

“Baker,” he yells at you, “you must come quickly! There has been an accident. You are needed urgently at home.” The pharaoh’s dinner forgotten, you rush home. While you are away, natural yeasts present in the flour and milk, and maybe others floating in the air which land in your bowl, begin to ferment in the warm summer sun. The yeast uses the flour and water as food and produces carbon dioxide as a byproduct of their reproduction. When you finally return, hours later, you barely notice the bubbles now present in your mixing bowl. You go about making your flat cake as usual, mind preoccupied by the crisis at home. When you pull your cake out of the oven, you are horrified. Pharaoh is expecting his dinner and his cake looks nothing like it usually does. It is abnormally thick and deformed. However, you haven’t anything else to replace it, so with trepidation and remorse you set it before the king and hope for the best.


(Fabulous!) He shouts. “Promote this baker to head chef.” You sigh and return to the kitchen thankful to have escaped death and clueless as to what you did to make the cake so delicious. Thus began a series of experiments that gave us yeast and sourdough today, thousands of years later.

Sourdough and bread made with beer barm, (the yeast 'overflow' that rises to the top of fermenting beer or mead and obtained from the dregs when the beer is racked) were staple foods for the next 5000 years. It wasn’t until the mid 19th century that commercial yeast was introduced by Charles Fleischmann at the Centennial Exposition (Philadelphia, 1876). This marked the rise of modern bread making, and some would argue the decline of good flavor in our bread—think ‘Wonder bread’—as the incredibly complex flavors of sourdough and the techniques used by our great grandparents disappeared beneath the increasingly busy schedule of the modern family.

There are hundreds of strains of yeast and all give different flavors to bread. Wouldn’t you like to make a loaf of bread made with the yeast native to Egypt? Bread that would taste very much like the one you served to pharaoh all those many years ago. Since my pet was given to me, I have made innumerable loaves of breads, a batch of cinnamon rolls, and loads of hotcakes. I’m still learning…experimenting with ingredients, rise times, and reconnecting to the breads made by my great grandmothers. I don’t have a recipe for you but here are several links I’ve found helpful in my own explorations. If you don’t want to hassle with making bread yourself, I would at least encourage you to visit an artisan bakery and experience the wonder of great bread made the old fashioned way.

Sourdoughs International : a good place to get starters from around the world starters, instructions, and recipes
The Basics
History of Bread Yeast

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