Sunday, December 26, 2010



Torrone is a feather-light Italian nougat typically made with sugar, honey, and egg white (although this brand uses gelatin rather than egg); toasted nuts or dried fruit are added to the mildly sweet matrix. Like its relative meringue, torrone's texture can range from gooey to brittle, with some regions or companies specializing in one format or the other.

Antica Torroneria Piemontese is based in the Langhe, a hilly rural area in northern Italy's Piedmont region. The area is noted for a number of agricultural products, among them the particularly delicious hazelnuts that make their way to many of Antica's confections.

At Antica Torroneria Piemontese they still do most steps in the process by hand, producing both hard and soft torrone. The base mixture cooks in a bain marie for at least seven hours, during which time the nuts are carefully toasted. Although the idea of torrone has been around for centuries--perhaps millenia--and the list of ingredients is short, making it continues to be hard and skilled work. The timing the final steps is particularly critical, since the mature torrone sets up quickly.

Known as montelimar in France and turrón in Spain, nougats of the torrone family are found all over the Mediterranean region as well as in far-flung former colonies; a few varieties even enjoy special trade protections under EU law. While many of these treats are associated with the Christmas holidays, the Catalan version, torró, plays a role in a particularly colorful tradition.

In many Catalan households, Christmas decorations include a short section of log propped up on two stick legs, decorated with a cheerful face, and draped in a blanket. The tió de Nadal or "Christmas log," is also known less formally as the caga tió or "pooping log." Children beat the caga tió with sticks while singing songs urging it to poop. When parents judge that the caga is whipped, they remove the blanket and reveal the treats that the children have beaten out of the log. Among these is usually a bar of torró, which is shared by all the celebrants.

Want to introduce a Catalan touch to your own family holiday? Check out this radio story on Catalan Christmas at PRI's The World.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Fig Jam

Fig Jam

Thinking about the holidays in England tends to make me swoon with false nostalgia for things I either never experienced at all or only saw on TV: cheerful churchyards and stately homes, snow-dusted cobbles and fires in cast-iron grates, pub sing-alongs and Scrooge smothering the Crachits in a group hug. When my imaginings snowball into something so ridiculously perfect that I'm tempted to run for the airport and the first flight to Heathrow, all it takes to bring me back down to earth are two little words: Christmas pudding.

And just like that, a sodden Seattle Christmas starts looking pretty good.

As a picky eater and pretty-much-vegetarian, I've never gotten too excited by the main thrust of holiday meals--but at least on American holidays, dessert saves the day. July 4th means blackberry cobbler, Thanksgiving is classic pumpkin pie, and Christmas, my mom's Frangelico-topped custard. And since I haven't eaten much else, I get usually get more than my share of dessert!

My first Christmas in England, I discovered that the traditional holiday meal is a succession of foods that I have no interest in eating, capped off by a dessert that I don't even like to look at. "Christmas pudding" is a venerable concoction of dried fruits, spices, treacle, alcohol, and suet (that solidfied fat that keeps birds from starving over the winter), steamed or boiled, and served either on fire or dribbled with runny white sauce. I
want to like it--it's archaic and labor-intensive and oddly chewy--but I just don't.

Yet there's something about the short dark days of mid-winter that makes me hunger for the combination of booze, spices, and dried fruit, so I went on the hunt for Christmas pudding's more palatable cousin. On Heidi Swanson's blog,, I found a recipe for "fig butter" borrowed from Kim Boyce's cookbook, Good to the Grain. The original calls for cloves, star anise, cinnamon, and port, but I made the following substitutions, then stuck to the recipe:

scant 1/2 c sugar
12 black peppercorns
3 cardamom pods, bruised
1 c red wine
1/2 cup marsala wine
12 oz dried Black Mission figs, destemmed
4 oz unsalted butter, softened
pinch of salt

The result is like the Christmas pudding of my dreams: rich, earthy fruit given a festive warmth by spices and wine. Straight out of the fridge it's dense and stiff and best eaten by the spoonful; at room temperature it's a toast spread, crepe filling, or a partner for cheese and crackers.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Yuzu Marmalade

Uwajimaya, $14.99/6

Yuzu is a delicious and distinctive Japanese citrus fruit that I will consume in almost any available form. Early last winter I heard rumors that fresh yuzu had been seen in the produce department at the Uwajimaya Grocery. I rushed right down but was too late. The produce guy explained that only a few growers in California sell yuzu commercially; most of their small output goes to local restaurants, with a few extras occasionally making their way north to Seattle. His advice: "Try again next year." I marked my calendar.

Come early fall I started calling Uwajimaya every week. One week it was too early for yuzu; the next week they'd just sold out and weren't sure if more were coming. Finally, the guy on the phone said he was expecting a shipment the next day, probably the last of the season. When I called around lunchtime there was only one pack left.

Knowing how much work I'd put into tracking these things down, the produce guy tried hard to give me an out: "They're expensive, you know, and to be honest, this pack is kind of sure you want 'em?"

I did.

When I stopped by the produce counter and gave my name, the guy handed me a styrofoam deli tray swaddled in plastic wrap. Inside there were six small balls,
rock hard and dark green. I resisted the urge to ask the produce guy if he was joking.

At "12 items or less" the teenaged checker did an indignant double take at my purchase; "What kind of limes are these?"

She rolled her eyes as I tried to make my case for why yuzu are so special; she'd clearly seen her share of crazies.

I was still rambling when she barked out my total: "Fourteen dollars and ninety-nine cents for six...yuzu. You need a bag for those?"

As I blushed and tucked the package into the pocket of my windbreaker I heard the guy in line behind me mutter, "Those better be some good limes."

At home with my booty, I began to feel twinges of buyer's remorse. Out of the wrapper, my yuzu were even smaller, harder, and greener. Worst of all, they smelled like nothing. A scratch-n-sniff sticker would have been more enticing. Discouraged, I stuck my yuzu in a corner and forgot about them.

As the weeks went by, the fruit began to come to life. As they softened and turned yellow, I cheered up enough to start looking at recipes. My original plan had been to candy the peels and drink the juice, but I just didn't think the yield would justify the fuss involved in candying. Remembering a homemade yuzu marmalade I'd had in Japan, I started to lean in that direction, but all the recipes I found called for a particular number of yuzu, as if "one yuzu" were a uniform unit of measurement. Fond as I was becoming of my little yuzu, I suspected that they were well below average.

Eventually, my fruit grew fragrant and I found a simple and sensible marmalade recipe based on the volume of raw fruit. The recipe can take up to three days to complete, but with the exception of one tedious chore (deseeding) the work is easy. I just did a step first thing each day, leaving the fruit to simmer while I did all my usual morning stuff, stirring whenever I happened to walk through the kitchen. It terms of its demands on your attention, marmalade is the outdoor cat of cooking projects.

Yuzu Marmalade

ingredients: yuzu, sugar, water

De-stem, halve and de-seed the fruit (seriously, this the most arduous part of the process; get through it and you're golden). Slice thinly or grind in a food processor. Add 1 1/2 c water for every cup of fruit and let the mixture stand 8-24 hours. Simmer in a heavy saucepan until the peel is tender (1-2 hours). Let the cooked mixture stand at least 8-24 hours. Add a scant cup of sugar (I used light brown evaporated cane juice; that hint of molasses mellows the citrusy sharpness just a little, without making it oversweet) for every cup of fruit, and cook just until the fruit jells. Cool and seal in sterilized jars.

Yuzu marmalade is amazing on buttered toast, and divine in full-fat plain yogurt with toasted walnuts. You can also make a restorative drink by stirring a spoonful into hot water, and I'm toying with the idea of making a small sachertorte and substituting yuzu marmalade for the layer of apricot jam.

If you share my out-of-season craving for yuzu, check out the products at Yuzu Passion.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Happy Goat Caramels

Happy Goat, $7/small box

San Francisco's Happy Goat company makes luxurious caramels that they characterize as "Better for You." By blending high-quality flavorings and organic sugar with milk from goats rather than cows, they deliver an artisanal treat that's lower in fat and friendlier to lactose-intolerant consumers.

Goat milk tends to be one of those love-hate things. Its gamey tang is aggressive in cheese, more delicate but still unmissable in baked goods or chocolate. And in caramel? Happy Goat's trendy chocolate and sea salt caramel is powerful enough to drown out any undertones, while the flavor of the more delicate vanilla bean variety (freckled with real vanilla seeds) shares the stage with soft but distinctive goaty notes.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Fine & Raw Chocolate

Crystals + Sea Salt Raw Chocolate Bar,
Fine & Raw, $7.99

In the past year and a half, I've tasted something like 200 different kinds of chocolate. Call it palate education, or snobbery, or whatever, but the simple fact is that many treats that once stoked my chocolate-loving furnace now leave me lukewarm. Worn down by all that chocolate, my tastes have been honed to a fine--and totally subjective--point.

It's very possible that if I had tried Fine & Raw eighteen months ago I might not have cared for it much; today it's one of the few chocolates I just can't get enough of.

Based in Brooklyn, Fine & Raw uses organic Ecuadorian cacao to make a range of raw chocolate bars and confections. "Raw" chocolate, as I discussed in a previous post, is manufactured using specialized techniques that don't allow it to get too hot, the idea being that high temperatures drive off many of cacao's natural nutrients. It's a fast-growing subset of the luxury chocolate industry, and, as trail-blazing pioneers are wont to do, many raw chocolate makers wander off into the wilderness, delivering a mealy, mucky product that I could just bring myself to gnaw on if I were snowbound and had already eaten the lint from my pockets.

I have no idea how they manage it, but Fine & Raw consistently makes raw chocolate that is buttery-smooth, flavorful but balanced, and a joy to eat. My favorite of the range is the Crystals + Sea Salt bar, a 70% dark chocolate. The bar is sweetened with crystals of palm sugar (derived from palm tree flowers) and made savory with a pinch of sea salt; this combination gives the chocolate a nicely gritty texture and a lively flavor, enhancing the fruity-earthy flavor of the cacao.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Panda TIle Cookies

Panda Tile Cookies
Kirakudo Honpo

Another treat from my Hyogo Confectectionery Event gift bag: a set of three crispy honey-sweetened cookies seared with the image of an adorable panda.

While cookies curved like ceramic roof tiles are pretty common in Japan (baked yatushashi for example) and the practice of branding sweets with icons or logos goes back a long way, the cuddly cartoon distinguishes Kirakudo's version of a run-of-the-mill sweet.