Sunday, October 19, 2008

Dirty Almonds

Yesterday evening, we were heading into DC to have dinner and see a movie with some friends. One of them was driving down with us, so I invited him to stop by early and have a martini. I have already put down for posterity my thoughts about martinis, so I will do my best not to bore you with yet another diatribe about people who try to pass off vodka-based drinks as martinis. Nor will I rail yet again against the attachment of the -tini suffix to places where it clearly ought not to be.

Instead, I'll just say that when you're going to be serving someone a martini, it is a considerate and usually appreciated gesture to serve him or her an accompanying nibble. A dish of nice olives will suffice, and if I'd had no time to do anything, I'd certainly have opened a jar of Kalamatas from Trader Joe's and called it a day. But I wanted to do a little bit more than that, and I hadn't really planned ahead far enough to make marinated olives, and I had (as I always have) a large bag of almonds from Costco in the pantry, so I figured I'd make some spiced nuts.

The easiest (and possibly the best) spiced nuts are Laurie Colwin's Rosemary Walnuts. But I wasn't sure my walnuts were quite up to snuff. One of the best characteristics of the almond is its relative slowness to turn rancid. When your walnuts or your hazelnuts might have started to take on an off flavor, your almonds will still be just right. That's one of the main reasons (along with their relative inexpensiveness) that I use almonds instead of hazelnuts when I make lebkuchen. Anyway, I also wanted to do something a little more involved than the Rosemary Walnuts, so I spiced up my almonds.

I've made several recent attempts at spiced almonds, and the results had all been pleasant, but none of them had been exactly what I wanted. Even with this attempt, I had to make adjustments as I was going along, mostly to fill out the flavor profile, but what I ended up with seemed just right to me, even if it wasn't necessarily what I was going for when I set out.

Dirty Almonds

1 T. butter
1 dash Liquid Smoke
3 cups raw almonds
1 t. salt
1/2 t. cumin
1/2 t. ground dried chipotle
1/2 t. smoked sweet paprika
1 T. sugar
1/4 cup dry red wine
Black pepper, to taste

In a nonstick skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the Liquid Smoke and stir. Add the almonds and toss well to coat.

Mix together the salt, cumin, chipotle, and paprika. Continue to cook the almonds, tossing frequently, for three or four minutes. Sprinkle on the sugar, toss well again, and continue to cook and toss for another two minutes.

Pour the wine over the almonds. It should begin to evaporate immediately. Continue cooking and tossing until the wine has completely evaporated. Grind some pepper over the almonds, and toss again. Taste and add additional salt if necessary.

Transfer the almonds to a lined baking sheet (I use a Silpat) and put the almonds in a slow (250 - 275 Fahrenheit) oven for about ten minutes, or until dry. Let cool.

A few notes: while I generally favor kosher salt in cooking, in this case, you don't want a salt that's too coarse. You could whirl your kosher salt in your spice grinder of course. I happen to have a small collection of fancy salts that I almost never use, so I used some pink salt that I bought about eighteen months ago when I was in Manhattan and drunk. It was a ridiculous amount to pay for a container of salt, but it was probably cheaper than having another drink, and now it's sort of a souvenir. In the same vein, I have a small amount of very coarse pink salt that I picked up last year in Florence, and which I may never get around to using. But I think it's cooler than, say, a snowglobe. I also picked up a fake Rolex while I was in Florence when I happened to be sober.

I was going for a smoky flavor here, obviously, but there are other flavor profiles that would probably work equally well, so I encourage you to play around with spice combinations. The sugar caramelizes and works as a glue to make the spices adhere to the almonds. It also adds something to the flavor, but there isn't enough sugar to make the whole thing sweet. I tossed the wine in because there was a part of my palate that felt like it was being ignored, and I reasoned, correctly, that wine would give that spot some attention. It also seemed to help with the caramelization.

I'm not sure the oven period is really necessary, but it seemed like a good idea after adding the liquid to the recipe. If you put these in a bowl or container right out of the oven, they'll stick together a bit, but when they're cool, they'll break apart again easily and then they'll stay separate.

These made an awfully good accompaniment to the martinis yesterday, but I think they might be even better today. I also think they'll make a good addition to Christmas baskets. It's mid-October, so it's really getting to be time to start on my Christmas baking.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Orange Blossoms

It's fall here in the anapestic kitchens (and, one presumes, elsewhere), and that means that it's time to candy orange peel. As I've mentioned, ad nauseum, in my infrequent recent posts, I'm trying to watch what I eat, so I haven't had much of a chance to try to make something inspired lately. And candying orange peel might not seem like the ideal place for inspiration: I make it myself only because what I find in the supermarket is highly overpriced and, more to the point, of dreadful quality compared to what I make myself (or what you can find in the supermarket if you happen to live in Germany, but I happen to not, more's the pity, though I'm not sure that I have an especially Teutonic temperament). Still, the thought of spending two days (off and on, mind you: when you candy orange peel, there's a lot that goes on that takes much time and little attention) making the same old, albeit excellent, candied orange rind didn't, ahem, appeal, so I wondered what I could do differently. And, really, it didn't take me long to think that what I probably wanted to do was to candy the orange peel in a cardamom-flavored red wine heavy syrup. It just seemed like a good idea. And [spoiler alert!] it was. The result was not only divine, and something that L. now asks to eat whenever she's over, but something I really couldn't get anywhere else, even in other countries. I mean, as far as I know. I suppose it's perfectly possible that there's an entire cardamom-wine-flavored candied orange peel industry in Peru or some place, but if there is, they aren't exactly beating down my e-mail inbox to sell it to me at a reasonable price.

Anyway, because candying orange peel is a production to begin with and because I was trying something special, I also decided that I wanted to go for a special shape. I had (note past tense) a small, six-petal-flower-shaped cutter with a diameter of just under an inch that I thought would make ideal candies. So after stepping out to Costco and buying a box containing three dozen navel oranges, and after carefully removing the peels from each orange in only three pieces (long, shallow cuts with a sharp paring knife makes this feasible), I began to stamp little flowers out of my 108 orange peel segments. Sadly, the flower cutter was not all that much thicker on the non-cutting side than on the cutting side, so the process was somewhat painful for the palm of my hand. So I covered the cutter with a folded up dish towel and applied more force. That worked for a while, but the cutter, alas, soon began to deform, so that my flowers were slowly morphing into amoebae. Eventually, I switched over to the smallest of my crenelated circle cutters, which is both sturdier and much more comfortable to use. The results are not quite as pretty, but they are pretty enough, and I had, fortunately, already cut a large number of flowers.

Traditionally, my main use of candied orange peel has been not as candy but as an essential ingredient in my annual mega-batches of lebkuchen. When you've gone to the trouble to cut out small pieces of flower- or near-flower-shaped peel, you don't want to turn around and grind it up. On the other hand, when you've cut out pieces of peel, you have all the negative spaces leftover, and it's an easy matter to quickly chop these up and process them to get the candied orange peel ordinaire that is so essential to my holiday cooking. Right now, I have two fairly large tubs of regular-shaped candy, and a huge container of irregular candied peel. And it's all good.

I'm going to give the recipe for the candy with prepared peel as the starting point, but I'll also tell you how to prepare the peel. After you've peeled the oranges and cut the peel, by whatever means necessary, into the shapes you want, you put them in a pot that's big enough to hold them easily (and with three dozen oranges, that's a realllly big pot: my eight-quart stockpot wasn't big enough), you cover them with cold water, you bring the water to a boil, you turn the heat off, you let the peels soak in the water for a few minutes, and then you drain the peels in a colander. Then you repeat the entire process until you have boiled the peels up to five times. I did five full boils this time, and the peel is delicious (and probably ideal for L.'s palate), but I wonder whether it wouldn't be even better with a tiny bit more bite. I let one of my boils (the third, if memory serves) go on rather longer than I'd planned. I might go with three or four boils next time, but it's hard to say, and the flavor is certainly still excellent after the fifth boil. What I'm trying to say here is that if you only did one or two boils, your orange peel would be very bitter, but beyond that, the procedure is very forgiving. I mean, I know that almost no one besides me ever actually bothers to candy orange peel, but I wish more people would. This recipe is really awesome, and if you make it, you'll be able to serve something that just isn't otherwise available. The red wine gives it a very dramatic color, and the red wine and cardamom both give it a wonderful flavor.

Orange Blossoms
Eight cups prepared orange peel
2 cups dry red wine
1/2 cup water
5 cups granulated sugar
20 pods cardamom
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 t. ground cardamom

Open the cardamom pods to get at the kernels inside. Discard the papery covering.
In a large, heavy saucepan, combine the red wine, the water, and the 5 cups of granulated sugar. Cover tightly, and place over medium heat. Bring the syrup to a boil, stirring if necessary to dissolve the sugar. Add the cardamom kernels and let boil, uncovered, for five minutes.

Add the prepared orange peel, stir well, and return to a low boil. Cook uncovered for approximately one hour, until the peel is translucent. You should not run out of syrup, and you do not need to cook the peel until the syrup is all absorbed. You can use the extra syrup (at full strength or diluted with a simple water-and-sugar syrup) for another batch.

Drain the peel and put it on a rack over a half-sheet pan. Set your oven to its lowest setting (170 degrees on my oven), and put the rack, pan, and peel in the oven. Leave it there overnight. If your oven doesn't go as low as 170 degrees, then turn the oven off and on occasionally so that you don't burn the peel.

Combine the last cup of sugar and the ground cardamom. Remove the peel from the oven when nearly dry and let cool. Toss the peel in the sugar and cardamom, return to the rack, and return the rack to the low oven until the peel is dry but still soft. Let cool to room temperature, and store in zipper-topped bags or sealed containers.

I still have a little bit of last autumn's peel left, and it's still tasty. Some of it's gotten hard, but some of it's still soft. If it gets hard, you can still use it in cooking, but if you're making candy, you're going to want to keep it well sealed so that it doesn't dry out. At the same time, you have to make sure that it's dry enough so that it doesn't get moldy if you store it for long periods. The best solution is to eat it or gift it before the end of the year, but with a very little bit of practice, it's easy to have your peel end up in the zone where it keeps well without getting too hard.

Some of your orange blossoms will have pieces of cardamom sticking to them from the candying syrup. This is very much a feature rather than a bug: the cardamom mellows and becomes even tastier during the long cooking.

I took the syrup that I had left over from making the orange blossoms and added additional sugar and water (2 to 1) to candy the rest of my orange peel. When I'm making peel for lebkuchen and other cooking uses, I go ahead and dry it more than I do for the orange blossoms. I usually make enough to last the whole year, and the flavor isn't hurt by extra drying. When it's time to use it, I soak it in a little rum or pour a small amount of boiling water over it so that it's easier to work with.