Homemade candy and cookies are a nice touch for Valentine's Day
Want to show loved ones that they are worth a little extra effort?
Handcrafted cards are nice, but on Valentine's Day, nothing is better than homemade treats.
Who wouldn't be wooed by hand-dipped chocolates? Or reminded of fond affections with sugar cookie missives?
Homemade confections are as perfect a gift for the teacher who cares for your child as they are for your mom or dad. And you can create an assortment of goodies just the way your sweetheart or friend or firstborn likes them best.
Although basic, buttery cookie dough serves as a perfect canvas for many a Valentine love note, DIY candy takes it up a notch.
With a few simple tools - a good thermometer, at a minimum - you can make many candies at home: truffles, fudge, nut bark and clusters, peanut butter cups, even lollipops.
But it is caramel - in all its variations - that best conveys love in my family. Everyone clambers for it.
My basic caramel recipe, much like the sugar cookie one, is easily altered for variety: plain vanilla; vanilla with sea salt; vanilla with sea salt dipped in milk or dark chocolate; or topped with a nubbin of candied ginger or finely minced toasted pistachios or candied orange peel.
I've devised a straightforward method to make your own vanilla caramels - delicious on their own, wrapped in waxed paper and tied up like a little gift - but ever so much more decadent when enrobed in bittersweet chocolate and sprinkled with some fine sea salt crystals. While time intensive and tricky to master, caramels are a little luxury well worth the investment.
Don't scrimp on the ingredients, as the flavor is based on the quality of the cream and butter. I always opt for local farm fresh.
Like many home-cooked candies, the texture of the final product is completely dependent on the temperature to which they are cooked. Success can be ensured only with an accurate thermometer or a fair amount of experience.
(The easiest way to test the accuracy of your candy thermometer is to submerge it in boiling water to verify a 212-degree reading. Add or subtract degrees as needed based on this calibration. I had two brand new candy thermometer which were widely inaccurate.)
While working on this recipe, I ended up relying on the old "firm-ball" test of dropping a ¼ teaspoon of bubbling caramel into cold water until it reached the firmness I desired. But I do recommend an accurate thermometer. This is not the easiest way to judge your first batch.
Melting chocolate for dipping can be tricky; what keeps many competent cooks from making chocolates at home is the challenge of tempering.
Tempering is a process that encourages the cocoa butter in the chocolate to harden into a specific crystalline pattern, which maintains the sheen and texture. When chocolate isn't tempered, it will need to be chilled to set up hard to the touch.
There is one innovative shortcut to tempering - melt the chocolate in a fashion so that it doesn't loose its temper. If you never heat chocolate over 91 to 92 degrees F, your melted chocolate will remain tempered. Because chocolate begins to melt at about 89 degrees F. this can be done by grating or very finely chopping the chocolate so that it melts quickly and evenly.
I bring a pan of water to a boil and then turn it off, place my metal bowl of finely chopped chocolate on top and rely on the residual heat, while stirring constantly until about two-thirds of the chocolate is melted. Then I remove the bowl from the heat and continue stirring until all the chocolate is melted.
If you are not up to the challenge, sugar cookies are a much simpler expression of Valentine love.
After mixing the relatively easy dough, you can roll and cut into heart shapes of various sizes. For a super simple slice-and-bake heart, create a cylinder of basic sugar cookie dough approximately two inches in diameter. Roll to coat completely in red- or dark-rose- colored decorative sugar. Using your fingers, gently press a small indent along the length of the cylinder and shape the opposite end into a bit of a point. Slice one to check the "heart-ness" of your shape and adjust accordingly. You can turn out dozens of glitter edged casual heart shape cookies in minutes.
For a more professional look - bring out the heart-shaped cookie cutters. Bake unadorned and use white or colored Royal icing to embellish once cookies have cooled. Outlines, dots and swirls on some and valentine wishes on others.
Evoke the seasonal conversation heart candy with cookies that read "Be Mine," "Hug Me" - or if you are ready: "Marry me."
This same basic cookie dough can be pressed into mini-muffin tins, topped with any red jam for fruity glistening tea cakes.
So, embrace the spirit of the season and follow these recipes: You are sure to win a few hearts.
And although it may not be easy to fall (or stay) in love, how sweet it is to try.
Vanilla and/or Chocolate Dipped Caramels
Makes 60-80 caramels, depending on size
1 stick (8 tablespoons) good-quality butter
11/2 cups heavy cream
2 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/3 cup light corn syrup
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Coarse sea salt
If dipping use 11/2 pounds bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1. Butter an 8-by-8-inch baking dish. Line with a piece of parchment paper long enough so it hangs over two sides of the dish (for later removal of entire block of caramel). Press the parchment paper flat into the baking dish, creasing the edges and corners with your fingernail. Coat the parchment-lined pan with more butter and place it on a wire rack.
2. Place the butter, cream, white and brown sugars and corn syrup into a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat and bring to a boil, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon or silicone spatula (my choice) until the sugars have dissolved, about 3 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium and keep the mixture at a gently rolling boil, stirring occasionally, until it reaches 245°F, about 30 to 35 minutes. (It will reach 225°F very quickly and take a while to rise to 245°F.)
3. Remove the pan from heat and add the vanilla and a small pinch of sea salt. Stir until the mixture is combined. Pour into the prepared dish and let cool without jostling until the surface of the caramel is set and the dish is only slightly warm, about 1 hour. (If using sea salt, sprinkle on the surface once the caramels are barely set before they are firm, about 20 minutes in a cool room.)
4. Place the dish in the freezer until the caramel is just firm, 15 to 20 minutes - no longer. Run a knife along the edges of the caramel. Using the overhanging parchment, pull the caramel slab from the pan, flip it over onto a work surface, and peel off the parchment.
5. Measure and mark lightly in the surface of the caramel into approximate ½-¾ inch increments. Cut caramel into ½-3/4-inch strips, and cut each strip into 1/2-inch squares. (I prefer a smaller caramel for dipping in chocolate, so that the finished candy can be popped in your mouth. For plain caramels a bit larger square ¾ to 1 inch works well.
6. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. If the room you are working in is warmer than 70 degrees, transfer the cut caramels to the baking sheet (making sure they don't touch) and place in the refrigerator to chill before dipping or wrapping individually in wax paper tied with baker's twine.
7. If you plan to make chocolate dipped caramels, this is the time to melt and/or temper your chocolate.
8. To dip: Dip each caramel by placing it on the edge of a fork or dipping tool, submerge it to enrobe in chocolate, lift and tap the fork gently with another fork (or on the edge of the bowl) to remove excess chocolate. Carefully slide the dipped caramel onto the prepared baking sheet. Sprinkle salt or toppings sparingly onto just dipped chocolates (they set up fairly fast if chocolate is tempered).
- From Anna Herman
Per serving (with chocolate dip, based on 20 servings):351 calories; 3 grams protein; 46 grams carbohydrates; 41 grams sugar; 18 grams fat; 32 milligrams cholesterol; 79 milligrams sodium; 1 gram dietary fiber.
Basic Sugar Dough
Makes up to 60 cookies, depending on size
1/2 pound unsalted butter, at room temperature
11/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons heavy cream or milk
3 cups flour, more for rolling if making rolled cookies
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1. In a mixing bowl, cream the butter and the sugar until smooth and completely blended. Add the eggs, one at a time, and blend until mixture is smooth and egg is fully incorporated. Add the vanilla and the cream or milk and mix well. Add the dry ingredients in a small bowl and stir gently to combine. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture and slowly mix until well-incorporated.
2. For conversation cookies, preheat oven to 350 F. Prepare one or more sheet pans with parchment paper to cover. Roll dough on a lightly floured board with a lightly floured rolling pin to ¼ inch thick. Cut with desired heart shapes and place hearts on prepared pan. Reroll the scraps for additional cookies, or use the scraps for Jam Filled Cookies (below). Bake 8-12 minutes until barely browned on the edges. In a conventional oven turn cookies once front to back (and one shelf to another if more than one pan is in the oven at once). In a convection oven there should be no need to turn the pans.
3. When cooked, cool on a baking rack. Once they are cool, make a batch of your favorite confectioner's sugar icing recipe. Color with various food colorings. Spread a thin layer of icing on each cookie for a base color and let icing set. Pipe words or decorations with contrasting colors using a pastry bag or parchment paper cone.
4. For jam-filled tea cakes, grease one or more mini-muffin tins. Add the zest of one lemon and/or ½ teaspoon of finely powdered dried lavender petals to the dough. Fill each muffin tin half way with dough. Using a damp knuckle press a circular indentation into the center of the dough in each tin. Fill this indentation with a scant ½ teaspoon of flavorful red jam (cherry, raspberry or some combination). Bake at 350 degrees until lightly browned around the edges, turning the pan very carefully midway through baking to ensure even cooking. The jam will be liquid when hot so move the pan carefully to prevent splashing.
Per Serving (for undecorated sugar cookie based on 60):71 calories; 1 gram protein; 9 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams sugar; 4 grams fat; 14 milligrams cholesterol; 28 milligrams sodium; trace dietary fiber.
- Anna Herman
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