Friday, January 31, 2014

Chocolate Pecan Toffee Bark

Chocolate Pecan Toffee Bark. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
 It's been a snowy week here in Georgia, and because it only happens every few years, we go a little bit crazy. When the weather forecasters start with the "perfect storm" prognosticating, I make sure the minivan has a full tank of gas, and that I have bottled water and granola bars stashed away just in case I'm in the car a little longer than I want to be. As for groceries, while everyone else heads for the bread, milk, Spam and frozen pizza, I make sure I have plenty of butter and eggs, because the extra time at home means time to bake.

And that's why I had three pounds of butter during this week's Snow Jam. And here's one way I used 1/2 of one of those pounds of butter ~ chocolate pecan toffee bark. This recipe is five-ingredient simple, and hits on all points of the butter-chocolate-salt-crunchy matrix. 

It begins with, of all things, graham crackers:

 And a buttery syrup:

That is poured over the crackers:

The crackers are baked, then topped with semi-sweet chocolate chips that melt into the crackers:

The toffee is finished with a sprinkling of chopped pecans. 

The mixture is popped into the fridge or freezer to cool, then is broken into a beautiful, bark-y puzzle.

Chocolate Pecan Toffee Bark

2 sticks (1/2 pound) unsalted butter
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated (white) sugar
1/2 box plain graham crackers
2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips   
1 cup chopped pecans or other nuts

1. Heat oven to 350. Line a cookie sheet with foil, nonstick if you have it, making sure the foil goes up the sides of the pan.

2. In a medium sized pot, melt butter and sugars together. Let mixture come to a boil over medium heat, reduce heat, then let simmer for five minutes. 

3. While sugar syrup is bubbling away, line the foil covered pan with graham crackers, no spaces in between. Break crackers to fit edges of pan. 

4. When syrup is ready, pour over graham crackers. Place pan in oven and let bake at 350 for 10 minutes.

5. Remove pan from oven and let cool for just a few minutes. Sprinkle and spread chocolate chips over crackers. Use an offset spatula to smooth the melted chocolate over the crackers. Sprinkle nuts over the top of the chocolate. Let toffee cool for about an hour or so, then break into pieces. (If your fridge or freezer can hold the tray, pop it in for about 15 minutes to speed up the cooling process.) Store bark in an airtight container at room temperature.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Cold fried chicken and potato salad

Roses by Laura Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Cancer is a journey, that’s what they tell you. When they tell you anything at all. In the past year of my mom’s illness, I’ve learned a lot of things, but it mostly comes down to this ~ cancer sucks. Even in these precious cancer-free months, it’s pretty clear that life will not go back to the before, the lunches and shopping trips, the big family dinners and small vacations. They’re gone, replaced by counters of pill bottles and corners filled with medical supplies, a calendar filled with doctor appointments.

How did we get here, I ask myself in low moments. A summer of feeling lousy, the initial doctor visits and tests. On an oppressively hot and humid August day, Mom gave me the heads up and told me she would call after her meeting with the doctor. While she was out, on my break from work, I ran to the store, picked up a wrapped bouquet of bright pink Gerbera daisies and brought it to her house, just around the corner from my office. In the quiet, dark house, I knew that if I sat down, I would bawl my eyeballs out. But I had to face the folks at work, so I reached onto the top cabinet for the pretty blue pitcher. It was dusty. There is never dust in my parents’ house. They have vacuumed, swept, bleached and polished every square inch of this home for 37 years. If there was a smidge of dirt, it was because someone wasn’t able to reach to the top shelf . I guess I knew mom hadn’t felt good that summer.

I left the flowers. Later, Mom called while I was waiting with my girls at their dentist appointments. Because bad news kind of doubles up that way. Yes, it was cancer. And we would get through this. And please don’t cry, Lucy.

* * *

Roses. Laura Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

When I think about the house I grew up in, about the comforts of home, there’s an intense longing to look inside the refrigerator. There was always something good in there. The pantry was handy, too, but we didn’t keep a lot of chips and snacks on hand. The Harvest Gold refrigerator held Tupperware containers of  chicken salad, potato salad, tuna salad, pasta salad, usually mayonnaise based, the eggy spread being something of a religion in our family. Not that we were partial to any one brand. We were polytheistic in that way.

I always knew that I could come home from work or school late at night, open the refrigerator and find a picnic in plastic. Even in the darkest days of winter, cold fried chicken and potato salad would be so sweet. If it was late, I’d fix a bowlful, creep upstairs to my room, read a book and nibble.

This is my emotions eating, what the Germans call kummerspeck, appropriate for this great granddaughter of German immigrants Otto and Wilhemina . Kummerspeck is literally, “grief bacon,” I truly understand this. And so at my house in 2014, I make a big bowl of potato salad, divide it between my  1990s powder blue Tupperware bowls, save one for Mom and one for those late night cravings.

Cold fried chicken and potato salad

As you will see, these are not really recipes. This is the way I learned to make these two dishes, without real measurements, just following along at mom’s apron strings.

Potato salad

Take three pounds large red potatoes, peel and dice them into ½ inch pieces. Put a pot of water on to boil, add a teaspoon or so of salt, then boil the potatoes for about 15 minutes or until tender when tested with the tip of a knife.

Hard boil three eggs. Place a steamer basket inside a pot, place the eggs on the basket, cover them with water, then set to boil. When it’s bubbling away, cover the pan, turn off the heat and set the timer for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, pour out the hot water, add cold water and ice and let the eggs chill. After a few minutes, peel and slice the eggs.

In a large mixing bowl, add a ½ medium sweet onion, finely chopped; 3 stalks celery, diced; the potatoes and eggs. Stir in mayonnaise. Begin with about a cup of mayo. Add a squidge of Dijon mustard. Season with salt and pepper to taste, remembering that some brands of mayo can be quite salty.

Place in your finest Tupperware and then in the fridge.

Fried Chicken

I like to use dark meat and I start with a buttermilk brine. I usually buy a small package of legs and a small package of thighs, but this method can be easily adapted to larger quantities of meat.

1.      Place chicken pieces in buttermilk to cover in a Tupperware container and let soak for a few hours or overnight in the refrigerator.

2.      Season flour with salt, black pepper, onion powder, granulated garlic. Lawry’s seasoning salt is optional, but an essential flavor of my childhood. Dredge chicken pieces in flour and let sit on a plate or tray while the oil is heating up.

3.      Heat oil in Dutch oven on cooktop. I use a combination of vegetable oil and leftover bacon grease, if I have it. Olive oil will do, but is best in combination with vegetable oil, due to its low smoke point.

4.      Fry chicken, being careful not to crowd the pan, and adjusting the heat when adding pieces. Cover the pan while the pieces are cooking, and flip after about 5 minutes. Drain chicken on paper towels.

Place any leftovers in your best Tupperware.

This story is part of #LetsLunch, a monthly Twitter party. This month’s topic is Kummerspeck, or grief bacon, the comforts of food in times of great grief. Take a few minutes and explore the world of kummerspeck with the tasty offerings of this talented group of writers:

Annabelle‘s Evil Grief Brownies at Glass of Fancy
Betty Ann‘s Mung Bean Soup with Bacon at Asian In America
Karen‘s Maple Candied Bacon at GeoFooding
Linda‘s Dark Chocolate Vanilla Pomegranate Parfait at Spicebox Travels
Lisa‘s Caramel, Chocolate and Salted Peanut Ice-Cream at Monday Morning Cooking Club
Lucy‘s Slap-Yo-Mama Brownies at In A Southern Kitchen
Margaret‘s Chicken Noodle Soup at Tea and Scones
Rebecca‘s Comforting Toasts at Grongar Blog
Tammi‘s Pot Stickers at Insatiable Munchies

Vivian‘s Hug-In-A-Bowl Noodles at Vivian Pei

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Scrap Gardening on Home Depot's Garden Club blog

Windowsill garden. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
A view of my windowsill garden ~ rootings of a Christmas cactus, green onions that I'm too frugal to part with, and the great avocado pit experiment. I've never tried to root an avocado pit before, but I've known plenty of folks who claim success with it. I certainly make enough guacamole to acquire sufficient pits to try.

This windowsill garden is the topic of my latest post for The Home Depot's Garden Club blog. Earlier in the month, they ran my story on repurposed rain boots planted with sprightly pansies. The pansies are just about the only thing blooming in the garden these days, and that's why my garden comes indoors and settles on my wide windowsill. Blue glass bottles and Mason jars, plus antique saucers are some of my favorite things, and they brighten up the view beyond the porch. In the post, I write about how to never run out of green onions and how root pineapples and avocados from kitchen scraps. I even throw in my famous guacamole recipe, because you've got to have a culinary excuse to root the pit.

Green onions. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books.
Do stop by the Home Depot Garden Club blog ~ it's packed with information for gardeners of all types and stripes, urban or suburban, plots measured in square feet, yards or miles. And if the mood strikes, a little social media love for my post would be so appreciated ~ pinning, sharing, stumbling, etc.  *thanks*

Happy 2014, everyone! Thanks for reading my little ol' blog!