Saturday, December 10, 2005

Peppermint Patties

Bar Bark. This is what I was imagining when I was hungrily lying in bed last night: a candy bark that would be the usual layer of chocolate, but then covered with every conceivable kind of salty bar snack--peanuts and corn nuts, wasabi peas, pretzels and goldfish crackers and Chex mix, even Fritos and barbeque potato chips. How fantastic would that be? I actually think I'm going to try making some with just barbeque potato chips. And maybe also corn nuts. And Fritos.
But, somehow, that just doesn't seem like the right thing to give the teachers at the kids' school: here's this superfreaky chocolate weirdness that goes really well with a nice big pint of beer! 

Anyways: peppermint patties, which have been our go-to holiday treat on and off for years. I love making them because they have that nearly magical "we made these?" quality of being the most excellent version of a thing that is already so beloved even in its store-bought state. Plus, if I can speak plainly, they're really inexpensive to make--especially if you already have the peppermint extract. If you don't already have the extract, it's worth buying because sometimes you might want to put a few drops in your hot chocolate or your hot fudge. Or maybe you want to make candy canes! Not that I've ever made candy canes, given that it looks like it takes forever and results in a not-as-good-as-storebought version of something I don't like to begin with. (But feel free to prove me wrong! Send me your homemade candy canes in the mail, and I will post here about the debunking of my foolish beliefs.)

Once you've made your peppermint patties, there's the issue of presentation. A lot of the dramatic oomph of homemade treats comes, and I'm sorry to sound so shallow, in the way they're packaged. In an old shoebox with wads of used tissue paper, they're just not going to delight the same way they will if you splurge on the take-out containers from Michael's (or, if you're smart and plan ahead, from the take-out supply company, where it's $5 for fifty of them) and decorate them with nice labels or stickers and string or ribbons. I've also had good luck packaging them in clear candy bags with decorated cardstock tags stapled across the top. I bet you could even stack up a row of them and wrap them in colorful tissue paper to look like a Christmas cracker--the kind that pops open to reveal a toy, not, like, a red and green Saltine--and that would be festive and inexpensive. Silver-paper wrappers would be nice too, of course, and could evoke that whole York "get the sensation" sensation you had when the commercials game on in the middle of the Charlie Brown Christmas Special you were watching.

Let me know if you have other thoughts on these. When I was working on this recipe for FamilyFun (it's in the November issue, along with a bunch of other awesome gifts you can make), it was July, and honestly--the thought of Christmas was almost nauseating. I had to have a fan blowing in the kitchen so they wouldn't melt while I was making them, and then I had to go to the Christmas Tree Shop to brainstorm various holiday wrapping ideas. Who goes to the Christmas Tree Shop in July? Well, lots of people, it turns out, not just people on funky off-season magazine deadlines. Who knew?

Peppermint Patties
Makes about 3 dozen
Active time: 45 minutes; total time: 1 1/2 hours
These are the addictive classics with a snappy, minted middle dunked in deep chocolate. Packaged by the dozen in Chinese take-out boxes, they make perfect no-cook gifts--but first you should whip up a test batch for yourself just to make sure they're really, really good.

1 1-pound box confectioners' sugar
1 tablespoon shortening
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon water
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
3/4 teaspoon peppermint extract
10 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips
6 Starlight mints, unwrapped and crushed in a Ziploc with a rolling pin (optional)

Sift the confectioners' sugar into the bowl of a standing electric mixer and beat in the shortening on medium speed. In a small bowl stir together the water, corn syrup, lemon juice, and extract, then beat it into the sugar mixture until combined.

Knead the mixture into a ball (it will be very stiff), then use the bottom of a glass pie plate and firm, even pressure to flatten the ball between sheets of wax paper into a 9-inch disk that's about 1/4 inch thick (if you try doing this with a rolling pin, you will be much more frustrated, I assure you). Place the disk (with the wax paper) on a cookie sheet and freeze until firm, around 15 minutes.

Place the frozen disk on a cutting surface, remove and reserve the wax paper, and cover the cookie sheet with parchment. Use a 1-inch round cutter to cut out patties, moving them to the parchment as they're cut. Gather the scraps into a ball, use the pie plate and wax paper to flatten it again, and cut more rounds until all of the filling is used. Freeze the rounds for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt the chocolate in the top of a double boiler over barely simmering water. Coat the patties one at a time, balancing each on a fork and dipping (use another fork as needed to flip the patty in the chocolate), then shaking excess chocolate and scraping the bottom of the fork against the edge of the bowl before returning the coated patty to the parchment. Make a ridged pattern one each patty by pressing a fork into the chocolate and lifting it straight up. Reheat the chocolate as necessary until all the patties are coated, then allow them to sit until set, about 1 hour. Optional: sprinkle patties, as they're coated, with the crushed mints.

Peppermint patties keep, layered between sheets of wax paper in an airtight container and chilled, 1 month.

Grapefruit Marmalade

Thank goodness for easy, homemade holiday gift recipes! You’ve got some, right? Because this isn’t actually one of them. In fact, this is almost bizarrely time-consuming and fiddly. So why would you make it? Well. I’ll tell you. If you get in the right mood, it will actually be one of the loveliest couple of hours you’ve ever spent. You’ll get your kids in on the zesting of the fruit, for one thing, and your home will fill with the unutterably delightful fragrance of citrus. (It’s grapefruits, for heaven’s sake! It’s not like I’ve got you shucking clams or stuffing cabbage.) Plus, you’ll put some holiday music on (Try the Christmas station on Pandora!) and you’ll feel relaxed and happy knowing that, at the end of this afternoon of peeling and cutting and measuring and boiling, you will have jars and jars of gorgeous, glowing marmalade. And if it’s not on the top of everyone’s wish list this year—well, next year it will be, so I hope you enjoy making it. Because you’ll be making it again, I guarantee it. (When I threatened not to make it this year, my father sighed and said, “But what will we eat with our New Year’s Eve paté?” Okay, okay.)

Note: If you have never canned anything before, don’t feel pressured to start now. Do this instead: make sure your jars and lids are scrupulously clean by running them through the dishwasher and filling them while they’re still hot. And then you can simply refrigerate the marmalade until you’re ready to give it. It’s not crazy-perishable or anything: it would definitely do fine in the car on the way to, say, Buffalo.

Grapefruit Marmalade
Yield: 8 (or so) half-pint jars

2 large grapefruits (about 2 pounds total) organic ideally, and scrubbed well and dried
4 large lemons, organic ideally, and scrubbed well and dried
7 ½ cups water
5 cups sugar
¾ cup honey

Special Gear
A cutting board that doesn’t smell like onions
Clean cheesecloth and kitchen twine
8 half-pint canning jars with lids

1.     Start by laying a large square of cheesecloth on your work surface. Everything you would typically toss in the trash or compost is going to go on the cheesecloth. Make sure your jars are clean; get them boiling if you’re doing the full-on canning. Put a clean saucer in the freezer. Put a pompom in the cat’s water bowl. (You can skip the last step: he’s already done it himself!)

2.     Supreme the grapefruit. Do you know what that means? It means slice off the top and bottom, then lay it on a now-flat end, and cut down all around the outside of the grapefruit to remove the peel and expose the flesh. Deal with the flesh first: cut the segments free from the membranes, chop them roughly, and put them in a large, non-reactive pot. Squeeze the juice from the membranes over the pot, then add the membranes to the cheese cloth, along with any seeds you may have come upon. Now deal with the peel (along with the top and bottom you cut off): cut and scrape as much of the pith (the white part) from the rind (the colored part) as you can. Add the pith—you guessed it!—to the cheesecloth and use a sharp knife to shred the peel finely (I stack it up and cut across it to make super-skinny shreds). Add the peel to the pot.

3.     Onto the lemons. Use a very sharp peeler to removed the rind (a great job for a child who won’t peel his fingers in the process!) then stack and sliver the rind with a sharp knife. Add it to the pot. Now supreme the lemon like you did the grapefruits, adding the roughly chopped flesh to the pot and adding the pith, seeds, and membranes to the cheesecloth.

4.     Pour yourself a glass of wine, because the hardest part is behind you now.

5.     Pull the corners of the cheesecloth together, and tie this bag up with a length of twine. Add the bag to the pot, along with the water, bring it to a boil over high heat, then lower the heat to low, and simmer for an hour to an hour and a half, stirring occasionally just to check in on it, until the peel is tender and there’s about half of what you started with left in the pot. Remove the cheesecloth bag to a strainer, and use a wooden spoon to press and mash it and extract all the juice you can back into the pot. Discard the bag, or compost its contents. If you need to, you can cover the pot and stop now for a couple of hours, then resume a bit later.

6.     Over low heat, stir the sugar and the honey into the marmalade until it’s dissolved, then turn the heat to high and bring the marmalade to a boil. Boil hard for 10-20 minutes until the setting point is reached. This means that when you pour a spoonful of it on the frozen plate and return it to the freezer for a moment, it will seem a little gelled and wrinkly when you push it with your finger, rather than running right off the tilted plate in a liquidy way. If it’s not done when you first check it, check it every five minutes until it is. But don’t wait for it to seem completely set, or it will set up too thick when it cools. A little loose is fine.

7.     Turn the heat off and use a large metal spoon to skim any scum that’s formed. (“Throw away” the scum, by which I mean eat it when nobody’s looking.) Let the marmalade stand, off the heat, for 15 minutes, then ladle it into the prepared jars and seal them. If you are actually canning it, and are new to canning, consult a site like the Ball one:

8.     Allow the marmalade to cool overnight. Then prepare to be adored.