My Favorite Kind of Failure: Another Caramel Corn Catastrophe

If I were to move to France, study under Alain Ducasse for a year, then intern for Thomas Keller in California, getting my master chef certification the next year, I would still suck at making caramel corn. It is the bane of my existence. When it comes to caramel corn, I am cursed.

So why oh why oh why do I keep doing it? Isn’t this a psychological thing—the same sort of logic that sends the battered wife back into her husband’s arms? What makes me want to make caramel corn when I know it won’t come out?

I’ll tell you what. HOPE. A DREAM. A dream of fresh homemade caramel corn. It started well enough…

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Sugar, water, boiling away. I used Gale Gand’s recipe from the Food Network site. I won’t link to it because it didn’t work, but I used it with the very best of intentions. (Which, incidentally, the road to hell is paved with…)

Then I added the homemade popcorn and toasted pecans. Stirred it around. Poured it out on my Silpat sheet:

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I was buzzed with excitement. This would be it—the perfect recipe, the perfect caramel corn. Then I went to break it apart—it wouldn’t break. I flipped it over:

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A giant blob of caramel and a lemon. THAT LEMON WASN’T THERE BEFORE I STARTED.

Luckily, I was able to break little pieces away and they tasted good. Maybe some day all the pieces will break away and they’ll all taste good. A man can dream, can’t he?

A Very Weird Snack

Since making my spontaneous salad creation the other night, my leftovers have provoked a very weird snack. This snack is: radishes dipped in dressing.

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Laugh if you will, but “Radishes Dipped In Dressing” is a lesser known Julia Child cookbook and a hiphop song by Jacques Pepin.

There is nothing particularly wonderful or exciting to recommend about dipping radishes in dressing. It’s just something you can do if you have leftover radishes and dressing. Secretly, I think it’s all about the dressing. [This is the dressing I made the other day.] I wouldn’t want to, say, dip a radish in ketchup. But I would dip a french fry in the dressing. The dressing is really good.

Party Planning Day 2: Pan-Fried Onion Dip

There are three parts to every cooking experience:

1. The planning.

2. The cooking.

3. The result.

It is during the planning stages (1) that you anticipate the result (3). During my planning stages (1) for the Pan-Fried Onion dip (see title) I expected that it would come out tasty. In fact, the actual result (3) far surpassed my expectations during (1). Thus 3 > 1.

But first (2). The cooking. I took two onions, I sliced them, and then caramelized them in oil and butter using The Barefoot Contessa’s recipe. (I’m not going to share this recipe because I shared the other two and I feel like that’s generous enough. This poor Contessa’s gotta live, damn it! How else can she make payments on her BMW and her Hamptons estate?)

Here’s the onions cooking:

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[Hey, that worked! I was able to make the picture bigger by typing width=400 after entering the rest… thanks Andrea T and everyone else who offered their help on this matter!]

The onions were cooked with salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper. After 30 minutes, I let them cool and then added them to the electric mixer with cream cheese, mayonnaise and sour cream. (Those last 3 products form the basis of many Barefoot Contessa dips.) Their union is miraculous. Behold the pan-fried onion dip:

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It’s salty, creamy, a little sweet and it has a nice little kick. It’s a winning dip. Which dip will be gone the quickest? Your choices are: pan-fried onion, hummus, eggplant spread, sun-dried tomato, and guacamole. Place your bets now!

Party Planning Day 1: Hummus and Eggplant Spread

I am SO Martha Stewart.

Lauren and I are having our traditional psychic twin birthday bash this Friday (for those late to the game: we were born 3 hours apart in the same hospital and didn’t meet until college) and with 16 people already RSVPed and other late bloomers, I felt I better get cracking on food ideas. So I decided to make 5 different dips. Dips are good party food because you and your conversation partner can have a shared visceral experience–the lowering of the arm, the scoop, the lift, and the bite. Dips bring people together.

At my party, though, hummus eaters will be forced to stick together—there’s so much garlic in here, they’d have to suck a mint tree to ever make themselves kissable again. But check out the contents of my hummus: (well not my hummus, The Barefoot Contessa’s hummus–all my dips come from her cookbooks! She’s the ultimate party food go-to person):

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I made this picture really big and clickable because (a) I really like the way it came out and (b) it tells you everything you need to know about the BC’s hummus. Here’s what goes in it. Just take all the following, throw it in your food processor and process and then you have it:

2 cups canned chickpeas, drained, liquid reserved

1 1/2 tsps kosher salt

4 garlic cloves, minced

1/3 cup tahini (sesame paste)

6 Tbs freshly squeezed lemon juice (2 lemons)

2 Tbs water or liquid from the chickpeas

8 dashes Tabasco sauce

That’s it!

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Now when I tell you this hummus is packed with flavor, I mean it more than Seal means it when he sings: “I’VE BEEEN KISSED BY A ROSE ON THE GRAVE.” (What does that mean, anyway?) It positively crackles with lemon and garlic and tabasco–but in a great way. In fact, I’m scared I barely made enough for the party. I think this is going to go WAY fast. I better buy more chickpeas tomorrow.

(Then again, I have 4 more dips to go. Well the Eggplant spread is done too—let’s talk about that now.)

Eggplant spread. This is the healthy dip. (It’s not a dip, it’s a spread.) Quiet, they don’t know that. (Respect your audience, punk.) Sorry.

This one’s also really easy to make. You cut up vegetables, roast them, and put them in the processor. Since I’m feeling generous, I’ll give you the specifics.

1 medium eggplant, peeled

2 red bell peppers, seeded

1 red onion, peeled

2 garlic cloves, minced

3 Tbs good olive oil

1 1/2 tsps kosher salt

1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

1 Tbs tomato paste

(OOH SHIT I FORGOT TO ADD THE TOMATO PASTE AT THE END THAT’S WHY IT DIDN’T COME OUT TASTING RIGHT I’M A TOTAL IDIOT)

Umm.

Ok. With that said, you preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Cut the eggplant, bell pepper, and onion into 1-inch cubes. Toss them in a large bowl with the garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper. Spread them on a baking sheet.

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Roast for 45 minutes, until the vegetables are lightly browned and soft, tossing once during cooking. Cool slightly. Place the vegetables in a food processor fitted with a steel blade, add the tomato paste (SHIT I TOTALLY FORGOT TO DO THAT) and pulse 3 or 4 times to blend. Taste for salt and pepper. (I DID THAT.)

Well here’s the pretty result, minus tomato paste. I think it tastes really good. Maybe I can work the tomato paste in there somehow before the party:

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And those are tonight’s dips. What dip will I make tomorrow? Well, if I can find cayenne pepper somewhere in my day (I have a busy day tomorrow) it will be pan-fried onion dip. Then, the day of, I’ll make sun dried tomato dip and guacamole. And maybe an almond cake. I’m the most generous party thrower ever. (Well, I have a reputation to uphold! Now everyone’s like “You have a fancy food website, let’s see you cook, cookboy!” So I have to do it. I must. Ok, it’s late. I’m off to bed.)

P.S. I forgot to include this picture in the above post, but at Gristedes tonight there was this crazy corn puppet show that took place over the produce. Lisa was terrified by it:

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The corn came alive and said “Eating fresh vegetables is part of a healthy diet!” How and when and why this was thought up, I have no idea, but it’s really–umm–quirky marketing. David Lynch meets Walt Disney by way of Orville Redenbacher.

Adam Potter and the Pickles of Azkaban (Plus a Tiny Spell of Family History)

There comes a point in every young man’s life where he must make a decision. For Harry Potter these decisions are frequently epic: how might I pursue the man who killed my parents? How can I learn the secrets of my past? Potter’s decisions, however, pale next to the heart-wretching decision I had to make myself this afternoon: should I use the jars I just purchased from The Container Store to make nectarine jam or garden pickles?

Ever since Mes Confitures arrived in my mailbox, I’ve been plotting my first foray into jam-making. Clotilde’s been coaching me via e-mail, preparing me both intellectually and emotionally for the task at hand. I even have the recipe picked out: nectarine-apricot-ginger. Whole Foods has the freshest looking nectarines you’ve ever seen.

And yet an owl swooped through my window this afternoon with a note. “Make Pickles,” it said.

It just so happened that I had Nancy Silverton’s Sandwich book on my desk and that I recalled a recipe for garden pickles in the last section. These were the sort of pickles I’d always seen on people’s countertops or in gourmet groceries and never really thought to try: the kind with carrots and celery and cauliflower instead of cucumbers. The kind I always thought looked gross.

The recipe itself would require the purchase of a slew of ingredients I would probably never use again. Fennel seeds. Mustard seeds. Eye of newt. [Kidding. About the fennel.]

The jam recipe required only three ingredients: nectarines, apricots and ginger.

Yet the owl hooted. John Williams’ music played. Lolita morphed into Maggie Smith. I knew I had to make pickles.

* * * * * * *

Pickles are, in a way, part of my family’s heritage.

You see, I am the proud product of three highly unique maternal grandfathers that peppered–either genetically or emotionally–my childhood. Let me explain. My grandmother (mom’s mom) has been married thrice, widowed twice. Grandpa #1, Arthur, is my mom’s father and therefore my genetic grandpa. He died before I was born and I was named after him. The evidence suggests that I get my writing skills and my humor from him.

Grandpa #3, Roy, is alive and well and living with grandma currently in Delray Beach, FL. You can see him in my video “What Retired Folks Eat.” His charm and light-hearted touch add a warm glow to all family gatherings. I love to see him whenever I go home.

But it’s Grandpa #2 that concerns us now. Grandpa Joe, my childhood grandfather (for he was “grandpa” when I was born and stayed grandpa until he passed when I was 11) owned a pickle factory on Long Island: Stern’s Pickles. This article appeared in The New York Times in 1997 and was written by a member of the Stern/Steur family. It’s a great (and not terribly long) biography of the factory’s history and its place in the community:

“It was a red, barn-like structure with shelves stocked with several varieties of pickles and sauerkraut at first, but later with additional pickled products as hot peppers, tomatoes, onions and cauliflower and other specialty items as olives, mustard, Maraschino cherries, ketchup and jams. “Pickle Products for Particular People” was their slogan, and as their reputation grew, people traveled from all over the metropolitan area for a shopping expedition to this wondrous place.”

I actually remember going there several times with my grandmother in my chidlhood. The memories are hazy, but I know for sure their context: while my grandfather manned the factory, my grandmother sold superflous pickles at the Roosevelt Field Flea Market. This was my grandma at her most industrious: she sold pickles like no one else. She recalls these memories fondly and someday we’ll do an interview about it for the site.

Suffice it to say that pickles are part of my family’s heritage. And also suffice it to say that my family would collectively moan in dismay if they learned that I spent $26 to make pickles that don’t even look anything like pickles. But first the jars.

* * * * * * * *

You would think jars would be easy to find here in Atlanta. Since I was in the neighborhood the other day I went to the Cook’s Warehouse in midtown. They apologized. No jars.

“Any idea where I might get some?” I asked.

“Kroger,” they answered.

So I went to Kroger.

“Jars?” I asked.

“Sorry,” they said, “Don’t carry them anymore.”

Neither did several other places. And then it occurred to me:

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The Container Store is one of those stores that’s great when you’re in it, but when you’re not in it you never think to go there. I never think to go to the Container Store. But it dawned on me today that they sell jars. See:

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So I bought three: two for jam and one for pickles. When I payed, the cashier actually shared family history of her own.

“Making jam?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Ahh, my grandmother used to make jam,” she said sweetly, “She made everything.”

“That’s sweet,” I said. “Did she make pickles too?”

The woman looked thoughtful for a second. “No,” she said, “I don’t think so.”

“Booyah,” I said, and got on my way.

* * * * * * * *

Ok this piece is a little too epic in scope. It’s 3:16 am! Let’s get on with the pickles…

Here’s my $26 worth of ingredients:

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And here are the vegetables all ready to be pickled:

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First step? Cut up the cauliflower. I got to work:

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You know what’s interesting about this cauliflower? It’s not cauliflower. It’s iceberg lettuce. It was placed in the cauliflower section of the display. I assumed I would peel back the outer layer and see white brainy matter. I peeled back the outer layer. I peeled again. I kept peeling. No white brainy matter.

So much for the cauliflower.

It’s ok, I still had carrots, fennel, celery and a yellow pepper which I chopped up promptly:

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Next I toasted the fennel seeds and bay leaves (I skimped on mustard seeds and peppercorns):

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This went well until a bay leaf started burning. I promptly dumped it into a pot with water, champagne vinegar, sliced garlic, salt and Thyme:

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I let this boil and then reduced it to a simmer. And do you know what it smelled like?

Wizards!

I’m being serious. If you could scratch and sniff the Harry Potter movie (which I saw later on and really enjoyed) I think those cavernous magic shops would smell like vinegar, garlic, and Thyme–especially Thyme. This is what little old ladies smell like too. That is, when you scratch them.

Now, after 15 minutes of simmering add your vegetables:

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Let this cool and then add it to the jar:

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How pretty is this? Let’s get a closer look:

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Of course, I can’t taste it until tomorrow (these are 24 hour pickles) but I can hardly wait. And in the meantime I can always make jam. And now this wizard is off to bed.

All Work And No Play Make Jack Candy Kumquats

Reader, are you in for a whacky couple of weeks.

Welcome to finals season. This is where I, The Amateur Gourmet, go a little nutty (as if I weren’t nutty enough already) with crazy schedules, weird cravings, and inexplicable forays into the kitchen. Many law students smoke as they suffer their way through finals; I bake.

Or in this case, I candy. Kumquats. Tonight I candied kumquats.

Lauren said: “What are you making?”

“Not making,” I said. “Candying. Kumquats. I’m candying kumquats.”

Here’s how that works:

You get a bunch of kumquats and you slice them (according to the recipe I pulled up at foodtv.com):

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Weird how they look like tomatoes and yet they’re nothing like tomatoes.

Moving on: you boil some sugar and water:

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Add the kumquats:

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Simmer and drain ’em:

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And that’s it. What do they taste like? Soggy, sugary kumquats. Like candied kumquats. I candied kumquats.

The CURSE of the CARAMEL CORN

In my brief stint as an Amateur Gourmet there have been few genuine kitchen disasters. Let’s see: there was the time I burnt my Martha Stewart Coconut Cake frosting; the time I almost poisoned Lauren with Isaac Mitzrahi’s parchament paper fish; and the time I used 5 Tbs instead of 5 tsps of salt in a batch of what became known as The Salty Brownies.

But it can easily be said that with any of those disastrous kitchen episodes, I learned my lesson. Should I ever make Martha’s coconut cake again, I’d time the sugar syrup and the egg whites perfectly. And with Isaac’s fish I’d fold the parchment much tighter, and I’d cut down on the wine. And, of course, now I’m extra careful with the difference between a Tablespoon and a teaspoon.

Yet one cursed kitchen concoction haunts me; forcing me into failure every time I attempt it. There is no lesson learned, no improvement. Each time I have a go, it fails in its own dazzling way. The item in question–homemade caramel corn–is the bane of my culinary existence. And tonight’s good spirited attempt ended, as they all do, in miserable failure.

Here’s the deal: I know what I’m probably doing wrong. All the recipes I follow tell you to pop the popcorn in a pot with oil and plain popcorn kernals. I don’t have any plain popcorn kernals. I just have the kind you pop in the microwave. So I cheat and use a bag of Newman’s Own Plain Organic Popcorn (a good choice, one would think, because it’s plain and can carry the flavors you add later) popping it properly in the microwave.

The next part is where things always go wrong. This is the part where you make the hot caramel sugar syrup. The idea is you make the syrup, and then you dump the popcorn in and stir it around, pour it out on a cookie sheet and whala! you have caramel corn.

The first time I tried this, I dumped the popcorn into the hot syrup and whala! the popcorn immediately shriveled and died under the heat; the white part of the popcorn literally melted away. It was like watching a balloon deflate. Kind of funny, yet kind of sad.

Other scenarios had the syrup too sticky, or–worse–too watery. Nothing more horibble than drowned popcorn.

Tonight I thought I was in good hands because I used Nancy Silverton’s Sandwich book recipes for bar snacks. So far, her recipes have really come through and I figured: finally, I have a legitimate caramel corn recipe that I can trust.

Yet, the fact of my cursed caramel corn status prevented me from buying the vanilla bean she suggests you add to the sugar mixture. I couldn’t, in good conscience, pay $6 for something I knew would end up in the garbage.

So, instead, I added everything else to the pot: sugar, water and vanilla extract (<--well, I subbed that for the vanilla bean): IMG_1.JPG

Perhaps importantly, I was out of corn syrup and so I went online and found that you could sub corn syrup for more water and sugar. This probably contributed to the disaster.

Then I added Nancy’s special mix of spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, and ground cloves

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I turned up the heat:

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And after several minutes of swishing sloshing and bubbling, I nervously added the popcorn.

Did it deflate? No. Well, a little. But all seemed well. I stirred it around, like Nancy suggests, and then I dumped it out on a cookie sheet.

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It smelled good enough. It looked fairly decent. But then I tasted it.

Blech!

The sugar had crystallized on the outside of the popcorn, creating chalky sugary patches that stuck together, and making the first bite very similar to eating sand on the beach. I could see how the flavors–especially the apple pie spices–could make for some really dynamite caramel corn. Unfortunately, this caramel corn’s destiny was not my mouth, but the mouth of the garbage can:

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Oh woe is me. Will I ever succeed at caramel corn? Only time–and a lot more sugar–will tell.

Candied Walnuts

Nancy Silverton is my new food guru. First it was Sarah Moulton. Then the Barefoot Contessa. For a while it was Mario Batali. But now Nancy Silverton’s picked up the torch.

First some grievances. Her writing is pretty humorless and her recipes are wildly specific, almost to the point of inadvertent comedy. And some recipes–mostly the ones in her sandwich book–are just plain nasty. Like her egg sandwich with anchovy cream. Or something like that.

Anyway, negativity aside, Nancy’s the bomb. Those negative attributes, despite being negative attributes, are what make her a superstar. Her specificity, as painstaking as it may be, yields fantastic results. For proof, check out my sourdough. (<--If I only had a nickel for every time I said that). Tonight, I plucked out a recipe from the back of her sandwich book in the bar food chapter: Spicy Candied Walnuts. I chose this because, as it happens, I had a large bag of walnuts left over from another Nancy recipe experience: the walnut coffee cake that didn't cook all the way through. The other ingredients--sugar, cayenne pepper, vegetable oil--were already at hand, so I said: "What the Hell" and got to work. First I dumped my walnuts into a bowl: IMG_1.JPG

Then I added 2 cups sugar, 2 cups water, and 1.75 tsps of Cayenne Pepper to a saucepan:

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Then I rubbed my eye:

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A good tip when cooking with cayenne pepper is: don’t rub your eye. I ran to the sink shrieking: “I have pepper in my eye! Cayenne pepper in my eye!” Lauren continued doing her homework.

When I’d recovered, I continued on with my recipe.

The sugar-water-pepper mixture reached a boil, so I added the walnuts:

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They cooked down for 20 minutes while I added vegetable oil to a large heavy-bottomed sauce pan and brought the temperature up to 350 degrees:

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When the walnuts had cooked down:

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I drained half of them (as Nancy instructs, so you don’t overcrowd the oil):

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And added them to the sizzling oil:

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This part was scary, but I maintained. I remember my brother’s kindergarten teacher’s husband burnt his eyebrows off making french fries. But I digress.

After three minutes, I put the fried walnuts on a cookie sheet and added salt:

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I repeated with the other half:

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And here’s the final result:

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Honestly, they’re absolutely delicious and like Nancy says, addictive. They’re also kind of hot, so have plenty of water handy. And eye drops. For when you rub cayenne pepper in your eye. Because that can happen.