Something in Paris has turned horribly wrong. It’s called ‘the weather’, or to be more specific…winter has arrived.
Which means it’s gotten cold, gray, and dreary. In fact, it’s so cold that I refuse to go outside until spring. Believe me, all those romantic photos of Paris you see are taken during the spring and fall are very deceptive and although beautiful, it would take a mighty big levier (crowbar) to get me outdoors.
So when to do when you’re stuck indoors for three or four months? Make candy!
If you’ve never made candy, this one is really simple and incredibly delicious so there’s no reason not to try a batch. And truthfully, doesn’t it make you feel happier just looking at it?
My recipe for Chocolate-Almond Buttercrunch Toffee is easy: You chop nuts, you make a syrup, and then you pour the syrup over the nuts. Sprinkle some chocolate over it, spread it out, and finish it with more nuts. That’s it. There’s no fancy techniques and the only special equipment you’ll need is a candy thermometer; they’re easily found online, and in most supermarkets. (Yes, really. Take it from someone who lurks in supermarkets, searching for things like candy thermometers, late at night.)
I like to add a sprinkle of fleur de sel, French salt, which gives it a pleasant salty edge which is divine with the dark chocolate and toasty nuts (any coarse salt can be used). Although you can use chips, you can also chop up a block of chocolate, instead.
When making candy, here are a few tips that will help:
- Read the recipe thoroughly before proceeding and have everything ready.
- Make sure your thermometer is accurate. If you’re not sure, bring a pot of water to a boil. It should read 212 degrees if you live at sea level. I use a glass candy thermometer, although the digital ones work as well.
- Be careful dealing with hot syrups. A good precaution is to have a large bowl of iced water handy. If you spill syrup on your hand, plunge it immediately into the water to stop the burn.
- The best way to clean a caramelized pan is to fill it with water and bring it to a boil. Let stand until the syrup melts away.
- Every once in a while, candy doesn’t work. Sometimes it’s too humid, or the sugar decides to crystallize (don’t encourage it by overstirring), or the planets aren’t aligned. Don’t get discouraged; it happens even to professionals.
Chocolate-Almond Buttercrunch Toffee
Adapted from The Perfect Scoop
- 2 cups (8 ounces, 225 g) toasted almonds or hazelnuts, chopped between 'fine' and 'coarse'
- 2 tablespoons water
- 1/2 cup (1 stick, 115 g) salted or unsalted butter, cut into pieces
- a nice, big pinch of salt
- 1 cup (200 g) granulated sugar
- 1/4 cup (50 g) packed light brown sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 5 ounces (140 g) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped, or 1 cup chocolate chips
optional: Roasted cocoa nibs and fleur de sel
1. Lightly oil a baking sheet with an unflavored vegetable oil.
2. Sprinkle half the nuts into a rectangle about 8″ x 10″ (20 x 25 cm) on the baking sheet.
3. In a medium heavy-duty saucepan fitted with a candy thermometer, heat the water, butter, salt, and both sugars. Cook, stirring as little as possible, until the thermometer reads 300 F degrees. Have the vanilla and baking soda handy.
4. Immediately remove from heat and stir in the baking soda and vanilla.
5. Quickly pour the mixture over the nuts on the baking sheet. Try to pour the mixture so it forms a relatively even layer. (If necessary, gently but quickly spread with a spatula, but don’t overwork it.)
5. Strew the chocolate pieces over the top and let stand 2 minutes, then spread in an even layer.
If using, sprinkle with a small handful of cocoa nibs and a flurry of fleur des sel. Sprinkle the remaining nuts over the chocolate and gently press them in with your hands.
Cool completely and break into pieces to serve. Store in an airtight container, for up to ten days.
Related Recipes and Links
-David ‘Paris’ Lebovitz
Watch David and Adam à Paris…
Yup, I’m back in Paris…home for the holidays.
- For a dose of hilarious holiday humor, listen to Xmas in Frisco (if you have iTunes, it’s under the Radio listings; click: ‘Holiday’ to listen). The songs are some of the funniest things I’ve ever heard and softens the edge from any holiday stress.
- The Menu for Hope II has barely concluded and Pim’s highly successful fundraiser has raised over a whopping $21,000!. Funds are going to UNICEF to help the people of Pakistan affected by the natural disaster. Many thanks to the food bloggers and companies who participated and I look forward to meeting whoever wins the big scoop (or two…or three!) of glace Berthillon we’ll be sharing here in Paris.
- You’ll find me a few places around the web:
On NPR, I take Jim Fleming, host of To The Best of Our Knowledge on a tour of Paris chocolate shops. We explore the best places in Paris and you can listen to it by clicking on the link.
(Warning: Shoving a microphone under my face mysteriously turns me into a dork.)
- Be sure to read The Only 149 Chocolates You Need To Know About. It’s a very right-on take on chocolate; what’s new, what’s good (and what’s not…), and where to find them. It’s from Departures magazine, and I’m featured in the magazine, which the online article is excerpted from.
- A certain amateur came to Paris recently for a whirlwind tour of the city. Armed with a video camera, a bit of jet-lag, some nibbles of dark chocolate, a carafe of red wine, and a certain amount of chutzpah, there may be a funny video in our future. I’ll let you know when (and if) it appears for public viewing.
- Fox Television has agreed to pick up the pilot for my new reality show, An American Pastry Chef in Paris.
In each hilarious episode, an American pastry chef is forced to search the streets and shops of Paris, looking for odd ingredients (cranberries, cream of tartar, real vanilla extract, or corn syrup) for the final competition to determine if he can stay in the city longer. The goal is to create a dessert that meets the stringent standards set forth by the nastiest chef in town. Along the way, each contestant learns to dodge les dames with their shopping carts, masters the most effective way to cut in line, learns to distainfully sneer at any special request, finds a café that will let them use the bathroom, avoids being ripped off at the market by vendors sneaking rotten fruit into their bag (bonus points given if they can avoid being short-changed…), and triumphs only when he or she gets the chef to actually enjoy something with peanut butter in it…or can successfully snap a photo for their blog at Le Grand Epicerie without being tackled by security.
Ok, just kidding on that last one. But that’d make a fun gift for me, now wouldn’t it?
Here are some helpful tips to prevent cookies from spreading:
Don’t Overbeat the Batter
Far too many recipes advise bakers to simply “Cream butter and sugar until smooth”. So many people just turn on the mixer and go check their e-mail.
When you beat butter and sugar, those little crystals of sugar create air pockets between the butterfat. The more you beat, the more air you incorporate (those trapped air pockets steam open and expand in the oven). That’s great for a nice, light cake…but not for most cookies. So when the recipe says, ““Cream or beat butter and sugar”, just mix them for about 30 seconds, until well-combined.
Use Ungreased Baking Sheets
Measure Ingredients Properly
I know this is a big duh!, but adding more liquid or less flour than a recipe indicates makes a big difference. When people tell me, “I can’t bake”, I never understand that. I mean, how difficult is “8 ounces of butter” or “3 large eggs”? It’s not like a piece of meat that you need to guess and adjust cooking times. Baking is a no-brainer.
Don’t change ingredients either. Using extra-large eggs in place of large eggs means you’ve added more liquid. Using anything other than all-purpose flour (or whatever is called for) can also be problematic.
Check Your Fat
Most butter is about 80% fat, meaning the rest is roughly 20% water. When used in a batter, that water liquefies, and voila!. You can use a ‘European-style’ butter, which has a higher percentage of fat and remains more stable when baked. Examples of this include Plugra.
Some recipes use vegetable shortening instead of butter, which is another alternative (although I don’t personally use vegetable shortening). Vegetable shortening is 100% percent fat, which means there’s little water so things stay in place better when baked (it’s why pie dough made with shortening is flakier…there’s little water to saturate and toughen the flour.)
If you choose to replace butter in your recipe with vegetable shortening, find one without trans-fats, which are now available.
Check Your Oven Temperature
Every oven is completely different. I had a someone call me at 11pm one night to tell me her Peanut Butter Cookies took 10 minutes to bake instead of 9 minutes, as indicated by the recipe. Buy an oven thermometer and check the accuracy of your oven.
If you put cookies in an oven that’s not hot enough, they’ll droop and spread before firming up.
You can find more tips at my post: Tips to Keep Cookies From Spreading
Why you should use aluminum-free baking powder (and how to make your own)
Way back when, hotelier Leona Helmsley was charged with tax evasion and she became Public Enemy #1. A clever ad campaign lured guests back with the line…
That’s the way I feel about Los Angeles.
I don’t know why, but I used to harbor suspicions about the place, that it was all just a big phony façade.
But a peek underneath that glittery surface, like Jessica and Nick’s marriage, and you’ll find there’s more going on beneath that slick exterior than you might imagine.
Aside from the gorgeous fruits and vegetables available in markets, there’s terrific restaurants, easy parking, the World’s Best Movie Theatre (which also has freshly-made caramel corn), abundant sunshine, and some of the best examples of facelifts gone wrong to gawk at (Skip the Polo Lounge…the Whole Foods across the street from The Grove is by far the best place to get a closer look.) But the real LA, to me, is found in the juxtaposition of incredible wealth and over-the-top excess, just next to small Mexican food joints, and chest implants (on both men and women) so big they’re in another zip code.
And smack dab in the center of LA is the old Farmer’s Market. You’ll find old-fashioned ice cream parlors, candymakers pouring and slicing giant slabs of hot toffee, powerful mixers grinding deep-fried salty peanuts into peanut butter, and jovial butchers with a rather fine sense of humor.
But the best attraction at the market is the Loteria Grill. Tiny Mexican women, barely able to reach the griddle, spend hours chatting and patting out fresh corn tortillas, tossing them on the hot grill, then piling on savory fillings such as cochinita pibil, or pulled pork with pickeled red onions.
My dining companions had the most beautiful plate of stuffed chilis I’d ever seen…
Unfortunately, I hate chiles (when cooked, they taste like acrid, wet cardboard to me), but I was convinced to have a bite of the filling, which was a mix of pork and almonds. It was very, very good, but I was getting full since I almost I single-handedly polished off a jumbo platter of chips and guacamole.
And like the crowded freeways, there’s lots of directions to go for something sweet…
Nibbling some crisp, buttery almond toffee, my friend Anne and I, took her big ‘ol Cadillac out for a spin in search of more.
Our first stop was boule.
Since I needed permission from the manager to take photos (permission denied!), I had to take our stash outside to give you a look.
But our first impression, before going in, was the place seemed to have a patina of something foggy on it. The ultra-modern interior perhaps needed a good Windex-ing.
Few of the sleek chocolates looked interesting; most were painted with edible colorings and the contemporary fruit tartlets failed to excite. The dude serving us was very nice and offered samples of the ice creams, such as Cocoa Nib (good, but the custard needed more oomph0, Caramel-Cardamom (nice), and bitter Chocolate Sorbet (a bit grainy.)
My fascination, of course, was with les macarons…
I liked the dense, creamy chocolate macaron the best, and had high hopes for the Pecan Pie, but the taste was no improvement over the real thing…so why bother? I ordered an espresso, which seemed to confuse everyone behind the counter. One little cup was made, then was passed around amongst the staff, while they discussed at length whether it was right or not.
It didn’t give me much confidence. (Pet peeve #85: Espresso not served immediately after it’s made.)
We then took a ride over to a Mateo’s ice cream shop, where we were literally dazzled by the selection of ice creams and fresh fruit ices our south-of-the-border neighbors come up with. In spite of all the weird crap that people are calling food these days, I’ll bet you’ve never seen…
Although the flavor was faint (perhaps thankfully?) I think it would be intriguing paired with sweet, juicy-ripe strawberries. I tried the Cajeta ice cream made from caramelized goat milk and a scoop of cafe con leche. There was also Queso (cheese) and Guanabana (or, cherimoya…which I had an regrettable experience with on a trip to Mexico some time back and was not to eager to, um, re-taste it, since I tasted it for several days after the trip…if you know what I mean.)
The last stop was in Beverly Hills to sample some treats from Sherry Yard, the pastry chef at Spago.
Sherry’s one of the brightest lights in the pastry world and never fails to impress me when the dessert is presented. On my last visit, she sent out tiny chocolates filled with a gelée of Concord Grapes. There was also a Huckleberry Custard that showcased the intensity of the tiny, powerfully rich berries that was memorable. When I stepped in the kitchen, Sherry was crushing peppermint sticks and wearing a pink chef’s coat in support of Cook For the Cure. When I asked where she got it, she described how she filled her hot tub with pink dye… tossed her chef’s coats in, then turned the jets on!
I can’t imagine anyone in their right mind doing that.
Except someone from LA.
6333 West 3rd Street
4222 West Pico Boulevard
420 North La Cienega Boulevard
The latest numbers are in!
So far over $11,000 have been raised for the Red Cross to help the victims of the earthquake in Kashmir. There are fabulous prizes to be had, and you could win any of them for a minimum donation of just $5. There’s a historic walking tour of New York’s Chinatown, a day with Michelin-starred chef Stéphane Molé of Les Ormes, tea with Clotilde, a giftbasket of spices from Kashmir put together by my pal Brett, a digital food photography lesson with Heidi, a Sonoma county wine-lovers tour, and the best gift of all…a copy of The Great Book of Chocolate and the chance to have ice cream with me at Berthillon here in Paris!
Menu For Hope at Chez Pim.
Tiny little heads of cauliflower, no bigger than a dolls-head. These were the most colorful I’d ever seen in magnificent shades of vivid purple and deep orange.
Although America is known as the land of HUGE food, these tiny baby carrots are tender and very sweet. My first week as a cook at Chez Panisse, I spent a few hours peeling a case of them…only to discover later they were going to be blended up and made into soup!
The actresses (and wannabes) trolling around Hollywood aren’t the only things nicely stacked in LA…
These are Improved Meyer lemons. The original Meyer lemons were disease-prone so they were re-hybridized, hence the name Improved Meyer lemon. They’re often mistakenly called a cross between an orange and a Eureka lemon since they’re as sweet, juicy, and aromatic as an orange, but with a lemony tang. But they’re not.
Beautiful winter squash
For more information on the market, visit the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market web site.