Life, as usual, gets in the way of finishing all the half-completed entries on cholesterol, trans-fats, cherry-almond oatmeal muffins, butternut squash soup, pie crust with and without lard, how to make your own sourdough starter, etc. It’s folly to start yet another series of entries I’ll never get around to finishing, but I tried cramming all the things I made for New Year’s Eve into one post, and I just couldn’t do it.
Roughly clockwise from the upper left corner, that’s matzoh toffee, peppermint bark, spicy cheese straws, spiced nuts, goat cheese and fig jam crostini, smoked salmon rolls, more nuts and cheese straws, bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with chorizo, warm crab florentine dip with flatbread and sourdough, flourless chocolate-orange cake, shortbread bars with strawberry-raspberry, peach-apricot, and blueberry preserve fillings, more cheese straws and nuts.
There’s no way I could have made and served that many different things by myself if many of them couldn’t be made in advance. So that’s the theme of the first entry in the NYE 2010 series. These are all things that I made before Christmas. In most cases, I doubled or tripled the recipes and packed most of them into tins and boxes to give as gifts. But I set aside enough to put out on New Year’s Eve. In short, these are handy recipes to have, especially around the holidays.
More pictures and recipes below for Spiced Nuts, Matzoh Toffee, Peppermint Bark, and Spicy Cheese Straws.
Spiced Nuts (adapted from Smitten Kitchen)
One of the things I miss most about living in New York City is the smell that wafts from the street vendors who sell their version of these: nuts encrusted in cinnamon and sugar. I would occasionally cross the street just to pass a walk by one of the carts or linger a little downwind. But I rarely bought them—partially because they’re kind of expensive, but also because the taste doesn’t quite live up to the smell. They’re not very crunchy, which I assume is an inevitable cost of keeping them warm. And maybe that’s an acceptable trade-off, not just because of how the heat augments the smell, but because the heat makes the wax paper pouches they come in kind of soft and flexible, and especially in winter, walking down the street holding a warm little bundle of nuts that smell like grandmothers’ kitchens probably smell in heaven is basically sublime in the full sense of the word—like, it really does inspire the kind of immediate awareness of your own happiness and well-being that gives meaning to the cliche, “so happy I could die.”
Making these at home will never be able to compete with that experience. But on just the level of taste, these win hands down. It’s the bite from the cayenne and extra hit of salt in these and the fact that they stay crunchy—I’m actually not allowed to make them again until next Christmas because they’re so irresistible.
I used a mixture of pecan halves, hazelnuts, almonds, and cashews, and I can’t think of a nut that wouldn’t be even better this way. This recipe uses a beaten egg white to adhere the spice mixture. Some recipes use butter, some add an herb like rosemary, some forego the sugar. I don’t think there’s a bad way to make spiced nuts. This is just one way that is very, very good.
- 1 lb nuts (like almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, pecan halves, or walnut halves)
- 1/3 cup dark brown sugar
- 2/3 cup white sugar
- 1 1/2 t. kosher salt
- 1/4 t. cayenne
- 1 t. cinnamon
- 1 egg white
- 1 T. water
1. Preheat oven to 300F. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper or foil.
2. Beat the egg white and water until the the mixture is frothy, but not stiff. Add to the nuts and stir to make sure they’re all moistened all over.
3. Combine the brown sugar, white sugar, salt, and spices. Pour the mixture over the nuts and toss until they’re evenly coated.
4. Bake for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
5. Let cool and break apart.
If they’re still sticky after they cool, which happened with one of three pans I made (it got the dregs of a triple batch, so I think it had more of the egg white than the other two), you can just put it back in the oven for another 10-15 min.
Matzoh Toffee (from David Lebovitz)
The function of the Matzoh here seems to be to add structure and snap to the toffee, which is baked instead of finished on the stovetop. That means no candy thermometer necessary, no washing down the sides of a pan with water to prevent crystallization, etc. As with most things involving caramelized sugar, a healthy pinch of salt does a lot to enhance the flavor. I made three batches, which used almost exactly one box of Matzoh and made enough to fill three large tins with more than enough left over to serve on New Year’s Eve.
- ~4 sheets unsalted matzoh
- 1 cup butter
- 1 cup light brown sugar, packed
- 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
- pinch of salt
- 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
- 1 cup chopped, toasted sliced almonds
1. Preheat the oven to 375F and line an 11”x17” pan with foil. Cover the bottom of the pan with parchment paper.
2. Line the baking sheet with the matzoh, breaking them as necessary to fit.
3. Melt the butter and brown sugar over medium heat until it boils. Boil for 3 min, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and add vanilla and salt.
4. Pour the mixture over the crackers, using a spatula to spread evenly.
5. Put in the oven and lower heat to 375. Bake for 15 min, checking occasionally to make sure it’s not burning. I turn the pans about halfway through because my oven’s uneven.
6. Sprinkle the chocolate chips evenly over the hot surface and let stand 5 min. When melted, spread into a thin, even layer. Then sprinkle the toasted almonds over the top.
7. When completely cool, break into pieces.
Peppermint Bark (from Orangette)
This is basically like a sheet of truffle: two layers of tempered white chocolate with a layer of dark chocolate ganache flavored with peppermint extract in the middle. Topped with crushed peppermints. You have to cool each layer before spreading the next and last year I had some problems with the ganache melting. So this year, I froze one batch before pouring the top layer of white chocolate. And for some reason, that batch eventually…sort of wept. A lot of the crushed peppermint became a sort of sticky pink goop. The other batch was lovely, I swear, but that all got given away as Christmas gifts. Thus the little picture: I’m ashamed of my goopy bark.
- 17 oz. white chocolate, chopped (I use Callebaut)
- about 30 striped peppermints, finely crushed
- 7 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped
- 6 T. heavy cream
- 3/4 t. peppermint extract
1. Cover the bottom of a baking sheet with foil and mark a 9”x12” rectangle.
2. Put the white chocolate in a metal bowl and set it over a bowl of simmering water. Stir until the chocolate is melted, but don’t let it get too hot. Should be ~110F. Pour 2/3 cup onto the prepared pan and spread evenly to the edges of the rectangle. This is much, much easier using an off-set spatula. Sprinkle about 1/4 cup of the crushed peppermints on top and chill for at least 15 min in the refrigerator.
3. Meanwhile, melt the bittersweet chocolate with the cream and peppermint extract in a saucepan over low heat just until the mixture is smooth. Let cook until barely warm to the touch.
4. Spread the chocolate layer over the chilled white chocolate. Chill at least 25 minutes in the refrigerator.
5. Re-warm the remaining white chocolate to 110F. Pour over the chilled ganache and spread to cover. Sprinkle with remaining crushed peppermints and chill until firm.
6. Lift foil from baking sheet to a cutting board and peel the foil away. Cut into 2” strips, cut each strip into 2-3” pieces, and cut those diagonally into 2 triangles.
Spicy Cheese Straws
(adapted from a recipe on GOD-DESS I think I found elsewhere)
These are basically thin strips of cheese-flavored pie crust spiked with cayenne, the homemade version of store-bought cheese crackers. These : Cheez-Its as Homemade Chocolate Chip Cookies : Chips Ahoy. The more you like the cheese you use, the more you will probably like the straws it produces, but as with most baked goods there is a ceiling. In other words, don’t use commodity cheese, but don’t use $16/lb cheese either. I shoot for something as sharp as I can get for around $8/lb. You can also make interesting variations using cheeses like parmeggiano, romano, and asiago and an herb like rosemary or thyme instead of the paprika/cayenne, but cheddar-blue-cayenne is my favorite.
- 8 oz. butter, cut into 1/2” cubes and frozen
- 8 oz. sharp cheddar, grated
- 2 oz. blue cheese, grated or crumbled
- 2 t. salt
- 2 t. paprika
- 1/2 t. cayenne pepper
- 1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
- 2 T. ice water
1. Cut and freeze the butter while you grate the cheese. I use a food processor.
2. If using a food processor, switch to the normal blade and add the flour, salt, spices, and butter. Pulse a dozen times or so, until the pieces of butter are the size of small peas. If mixing in a bowl, use a pastry cutter, fork, or two knives to combine the ingredients into a lumpy meal.
3. If using a food processor, let it run while adding the ice water in a slow stream. Stop as soon as the mixture begins to stick to itself and form a ball of dough. If mixing in a bowl, add the water 1 tsp. at a time until it begins to form a dough.
4. Spread a piece of plastic wrap out and dump the mixture onto it. Using the plastic wrap, press the mixture into a slab or a tube about 1” thick, wrap well and chill in the refrigerator for 30 min.
5. Preheat the oven to 350. Break the dough into 4 equal parts, re-wrap 3 and return them to the refrigerator. On a lightly floured surface, form the dough into a tube about 12” long and 1” thick. Flatten it so it’s a rectangle about 12” long, 2” wide, and 1/2” thick. Then, use a rolling pin or empty wine bottle or glass to roll it out to about 18” long, 3-4” wide, and 1/8” thick.
6. Slice the dough into strips about 3/8” thick and place on ungreased cookie sheets. You don’t want them to touch, but they can be pretty close together.
7. Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until the edges are just beginning to brown. Watch them closely towards the end of the baking time, and rotate the sheets so they bake evenly if your oven, like mine, is uneven. If you under-bake them, they won’t be crisp, but too much and they’ll taste burnt.
8. Cool on paper towels, which will wick away a little of the excess grease. When cool, store in airtight containers.