Thursday, January 31, 2008

Old-fashioned candy: January Thaw

Among my fondest memories of growing up in an Appalachian holler is the food, specifically the sweets. Late last year, foodie trend watchers predicted old-fashioned candy is going to be hot this year. I have yet to see Google return this recipe in response to my request for "old-fashioned candy." Trust me, it's a goodie.

As a kid, I never gave much thought to why January Thaw was called that -- we sometimes made it in months other than January -- but a Web site that printed a recipe similar to my mom's says it’s because it looks like muddy slush. I assure you it's much tastier. And as the foot or so of snow outside my house has melted this week, the candy doesn't much resemble what's in my yard.

Nor does the batch I made tonight exactly match what I remember from 25 years ago. I chalk that up to ingredients and technique and I'll throw in different elevation for good measure. While not "perfect", it's still pretty good -- who could find fault with two cups of brown sugar and butter in any configuration? I prefer mine without nuts so the flaky hunk of sugar and butter melts smoothly in my mouth without obstruction. Think cake of maple sugar. But I'm getting ahead of myself. While still good, when I make January Thaw next time, I'm going to try to do things more like Mom did -- except drive down the mountain to her kitchen, which is about 800 feet closer to sea level than mine. We both use Domino Brown Sugar, but it occurred to me too late that when she says "butter" she means "margarine", specifically Parkay or Blue Bonnet. I used 1 percent milk tonight and then I realized that she used canned evaporated milk.

In the meantime, let's talk about technique. I think I have a handle on the forms-a-ball-when-dropped-in-cold-water method of judging candy temperature so I think my error lies in not beating it long enough. My candy failed to set up into the firm, flaky wafer I remember. Beating the sugary syrup traps air in it to cool it and thicken it. It's been a long time since I watched my mom make January Thaw so I'm not sure what it's supposed to look like before it's poured. This batch I whipped with a fork initially and brought out a wire whisk that I later handed off to the husband. (No, my mom never used an electric mixer for this, I'm sure.) Tongiht I probably gave in too soon -- maybe because we were anxious to lick the pan. It's gooey but still good.

This home candy-making attempt was not as disastrous as one from my childhood. I'm not sure how old I was -- maybe 11 or 12, definitely old enough to be allowed to cook on the stove. Perhaps I should've been more closely supervised during serving. I was making sour cream candy -- something our family had never made and hasn't tried to make since. I boiled and poured and waited for it to set up on the old (as in antique) platter we poured candy on. It did. So hard I couldn't cut it. Though I expected its texture to be more like January Thaw than fudge, it was closer to hard-tack. Well, I thought, "no problem, I'll just stick Mom's butcher knife in the middle and rap it hard on the end of the handle." The candy broke. So did the platter. My mom tried hard not to laugh while she was yelling at me.

Here's that January Thaw recipe y'all -- stay warm and look for more old-fashioned candy recipes from me in the near future.

2 cups brown sugar
1/2 cup canned evaporated milk
Butter the size of a walnut (about 2 1/2 tablespoons I reckon)
1 cup nuts, such as black walnuts (optional)

Put sugar and milk in a saucepan and let it dissolve slowly. Add butter and let boil until it forms a ball when dropped in cold water. Remove from stove and add the chopped nuts and beat well. Pour into a buttered pan and when cooled cut into squares.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Bella's chopsticks debut

My 4-year-old decided she wanted to eat with chopsticks for the first time. So today we met my friend Karen for lunch. Bella did great picking up rice and OK with a crispy noodle and broccoli, but she quickly grew tired of the endeavor. She's not demonstrating the best form here, but she's cute!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Bulgogi's just another name for stir-fry, Korean-style

This yummy little meat main dish is just as good on a cold night (temps here are in the teens) as it is on a warm evening when you don't want to heat up the kitchen. In the first case, you can add red pepper to make it as hot as you can stand; in the second, it's a stir-fry so it's time on the stove or grill is minimal.

It's called Bulgogi in Korean (and alternate spelling abound) and translates literally as "fire meat" (if you believe Wikipedia.) My roommate the second semester of my freshman year was from South Korea, but as we lived on campus in a city with a population of about 5,000 people and I wasn't the foodie then that I am now, I didn't learn about Korean stir-fry from Min. Nope, I had it at a Fifty Miles Fresh potluck Morgantown Farmers Market hosted a couple of years ago. Then it was prepared with venison, though the recipe calls for beef -- use either, they're equally delicious!

1 pound thinly sliced round steak
(slice it when partially frozen/defrosted for easiest handling)
1 tablespoon peanut or vegetable oil for stir-frying
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons Mirin (sweet Japanese cooking wine) or sherry
2 tablespoons sesame oil
(I used walnut oil today in a pinch)
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1 bunch green onions, cut into 1-inch pieces
6 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 teaspoon to 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes

Mix the marinade, add the thinly sliced meat and marinate at least 30 minutes (up to overnight) in the refrigerator.

Bring to room temperature. Stir-fry the meat over medium-high heat in the oil until the meat is nicely browned. Be careful not to overcook. It should not need to cook more than 1 minute. You may need to cook it in batches.

Serve over brown rice with a side of Greens in Peanut Sauce. This is how I first had this dish.

From "The Grassfed Gourmet Cookbook" by Shannon Hayes.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Raising dough: The new generation of school fundraisers

I bake to battle the cold. Last night wasn't as bone-chilling as the night before when the mercury dipped to below 0. But I had to clean out the fridge to make room for two weeks' of groceries so I had added incentive to bake the remaining white chocolate macadamia nut cookies I purchased in a school fundraiser. It reminded me of a column I wrote two years ago that was published in the local newspaper. I've pasted it below.

"Do you want to buy some cookie dough?"
"Oh, sure, how much? Six? Eight dollars for a pail?"
"They're break-and-bakes and you get ... uh ... '48 one-ounce cookies.' "
"Oh, OK, I guess. If it means the class can go to the Pittsburgh Zoo. How many do you have to sell anyway?"
"Twenty-four?! And he gets to go to the zoo?"
"No, twenty-four and he gets the Shaking Monkey Motion-Sensor Door Alarm."

Do the math with me. I just paid 30 cents per cookie for no-name dough when Nestle Toll House place-and-bake cookie dough costs $3-$4 for two dozen cookies.

But ... it's for the kids.

Like the vegetable peeler and dip mix I bought. And the chances on a side of beef. And the box of oranges.

It's always something.

And sometimes it's always from the same kids.

Or at least their parents. It's just not safe anymore for kids to peddle pizzas door-to-door for band like I did, so it falls to their parents to take the brochures to work and call up relatives.

A lot has changed about fundraising since I was in school.

Remember TomWat?

I was equally excited and embarrassed once a year when the little boy I had a crush on from prekindergarten through sixth grade came to my house with his cardboard box of demos to get my mom to buy something. Excited because he was in my house! Embarrassed because my mom would inevitably buy something like a toilet paper roll filled with scented beads. God forbid he know we use the bathroom.

Back then we were restricted geographically. If your grandma lives across the country, how will you deliver her order, let alone get her to look at the catalog?

But the sales pitches have evolved to make sure no relative misses a chance to support Junior's school or Scout troop.

I think turning in the addresses on your Christmas card list was just showing up when I was moving from junior high to high school. The companies send your friends and relatives a list of magazines at discount prices and an order form that the student has filled out (clearly it's his mom's handwriting) with his T-shirt size (for the prize, should he sell two subscriptions) and a "personalized" message he's picked from a list of suggestions including "I love you" and a smiley face. I've received, no exaggeration, seven of these this year. More than one from the same family in some cases.

A couple of years ago, I was indoctrinated into another cross-country fundraiser. The nephews in Arkansas let us know by e-mail that we could log on to a Web site, buy something that would be shipped to us, and they'd get credit for their school, and presumably, prizes.

The pitch may have changed, but the prizes have kept pace. One company's reward for top sales is an iPod Nano. The best prize when I was a kid for selling the most of anyone in your school was the iPod's entertainment equivalent in the '80s: a "boom box." The few lucky kids who reached that level had parents who worked at a hospital or a factory like Sterling Faucet.

So for the sake of a monkey that alerts you to someone near your bedroom door, I'm helping out.

"Want to buy some cookie dough?" I asked my mom.
"Sure, we just bought off ... "
"But wait till you hear how much it costs."
"Doesn't matter," she said, pulling out an 8-ounce box of waxy chocolate studded with stale walnuts that set her back $8.50. "Have a piece of fudge."

Copyright 2006 The Dominion Post.
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