Tag Archives: snacks

Quick Snacks: Puff Pastry Straws

The unexpected White Thanksgiving we experienced here in Seattle certainly threw us all some curve balls. The end result at my house was that–for the first time in many years–my Thanksgiving dinner table didn’t include any of my blood relations. Brother sick, niece working, sister stuck on Queen Anne hill, nephew on the east coast….. I was surprised how much that fact bummed me out. I guess it just proves how much emotional attachment I have to this holiday! But I was thrilled some dear friends (who might as well be family) were able to join us. So that 13-pound turkey I brined and grilled out in the chilly garage certainly didn’t go to waste!

But it did mean that my supplier of pre-dinner snacks suddenly wasn’t showing up with the goods. Time to improvise. Time to grab some frozen puff pastry out of the freezer. You DO have some puff pastry in the freezer, right? No? Well you should. It’s one of the cook’s very best-best friends. Need a dessert in no time flat? Cut it into squares, add a small mound of jam to the center of each, fold over, pinch edges and bake. Voilà, turnovers for dessert!

Or, in the case of a dinner party with no cocktail-hour snacks, in a matter of minutes you can have these puppies in the oven and be serving your guests an elegant nibble sooner than you can say “where’s that bag of Doritos?” Who needs Doritos when you’ve got these?

Now, I realize that some–if not most–commercial puff pastry sheets come folded up in little packets. Which, ideally, should be thawed slowly in the refrigerator to maintain the dough’s integrity. Those folds are pretty brittle in frozen form and you risk breaking the dough rather than unfolding it if attempted while still chill. If you try to thaw it too quickly–like at room temperature, maybe under the hot lights of your stove?–the dough becomes pretty soft pretty quickly and the layers risk sticking together. So those commercial packets only help so much in terms of spontaneity.

 

My answer? I buy puff pastry in flat sheets that thaw in a matter of 15 to 20 minutes on the counter. No worry about persnickety folds. I happen to find mine at Big John’s PFI in Seattle, a beloved destination for all types of specialty foods from bulk cranberry beans to vanilla extract and amazing cheeses. Check out specialty or gourmet food shops in your area; an added bonus may be finding all-butter puff for the very best flavor. I always pick up a sheet of puff pastry when I’m at PFI, whether it’s officially on my shopping list or not. As is the case with about half the things in my cart by the time I’m checking out. Some cool cookie from England. San Marzano tomatoes. Quince paste. Loads of things I didn’t know I needed until I got there…..

So, Thanksgiving morning, I pulled that emergency puff pastry out of the freezer. After a bit of  distraction from other dinnertime prep, the sheet was thawed. I beat an egg with a bit of salt in a small bowl and lightly but evenly brushed the surface of the dough with the egg, creating a foundation for the next step. (Egg works best, but a light brushing of water or melted butter will do in a pinch.) I then grabbed a few jars from the spice rack. In this case sweet paprika, poppy seeds, sesame seeds. But it could just as well have included cumin (ground or seeds), fennel seeds, curry powder. Two or three items that add aroma and flavor is what you’re shooting for. Quickly sprinkled a relatively even dusting of each over the dough, then grabbed my handy pizza cutter. The rolling blade makes really easy work of cutting strips from dough in cases like this (or making lattice for a pie topping, any similar situation).

Arrange your 5-minute creations on a baking sheet that’s lined with a silicone baking mat or parchment paper. Bake in a 400 degree oven until puffed and nicely browned, 5 to 7 minutes. Let cool a few minutes, pop them into a tall glass or other serving dish. And friends will marvel at your creativity and start feigning guilt after they reach for the third or fourth one of these easy-to-love pastry straws.

Matter of fact, you might want to bake up two puff pastry sheets’ worth. They’re going to go fast!

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Cooking at Home: Caramel Corn

This is an old friend I hadn’t visited with for some time. The subject of caramel corn came up in a recent conversation and it set me on a nostalgic trip back to when I used to cook up batches of the stuff at home. So I dug out this yellowed, stained recipe from my files and reconnected with a favorite snack. I originally got the recipe from my cousin, who told me she can still picture her source: a recipe card that had come in the mail as part of a magazine promotion or something along those lines.  It’s a pretty standard combination of ingredients and a no-fuss recipe to make.

Here’s my tried-and-true method for making it (with thanks to cousin Pita for the original inspiration!):

popperPut about 4 quarts of popped corn (which I make in my trusty Whirley-Pop popper) in 2 large shallow baking dishes (I use the bottoms of broiler pans).

caramelIn a medium saucepan, combine 1 cup packed brown sugar, 1/2 cup butter (I use unsalted) and 1/4 cup light corn syrup and set over medium heat. Stir gently as the ingredients melt and blend. When it comes to a boil, time for 5 minutes and stir almost constantly. Take the pan from the heat and stir in 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda; the mixture will puff up and lighten in texture (good reason to not use a small saucepan). Fun culinary science going on, I wonder if Alton Brown has tackled this recipe on Good Eats!?

Pour the caramel over the popcorn in as even a fashion as you can. It’s rather pouring caramelgloppy at this point, but don’t worry. Stir to coat as much popcorn as you can (the popcorn invariably flips out of the pans; be prepared with clear counter space to easily retrieve it). Put the pans in a 250 degree F oven for 1 hour. Every 15 minutes, take the pans out and gently stir to distribute the caramel, including scraping up what’s stuck to the bottom of the pan. Switch pan positions at each interval.

popcornWhen done, let the caramel corn cool in the pans but stir every couple minutes to avoid the caramel corn bonding with the pan. Do your best to not eat one whole pan’s worth in the first half hour. I dare you.

This recipes makes for about 2 to 1 popcorn-to-caramel ratio. If you want more caramely corn, I’m sure a double batch of the caramel will easily do the job. I’m happy with this version, since my sweet tooth is a small one.finished

Although I’d always made the recipe in its pure and basic form, this is an ideal platform for variations. The one new twist I did yesterday was tossing French sea salt on the caramel corn after its last turn in the oven. Outstanding! You can certainly vanilla extract and any number of spices (from cinnamon and nutmeg to cardamom and cayenne) to the caramel mixture, and toss nuts with the popcorn and caramel. Maybe toasted coconut? Now that I’ve dug up this recipe again, I may have to do some experimenting.

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Rediscovering Tater Tots

“You gonna to eat your tots?” – Napoleon Dynamite

I tried making it through the movie Napoleon Dynamite a couple of times. I just never quite got it, the humor and the appeal of this indie flick. But in missing the point of ND, I clearly also missed something of a culinary resurgence that the movie seems to have helped launch: “tots.” The little nuggets of potato goodness were, apparently, a favorite food group in the movie.Tots

Once again, NPR set me up with the information I needed. I not only learned, driving around a few weeks ago, of the tots’ role in the movie. I learned a little food history (the nuggets of compressed potato bits was devised at Ore-Ida using trim from their French fry production) and that tater tots were making their way into the fine dining circuit. You can catch a clip from the film here, linked with a piece a couple years ago also on NPR about the Napoleon Dynamite Festival in Preston, Idaho (which includes a tater tot eating contest, natch).

This recent story particularly caught my attention because not a week earlier I’d been nibbling on a tater tot for the first time in many years. Not a Tater Tot® out of an Ore-Ida bag, instead a housemade version at Ten 01 in Portland. It was happy hour and I’d ordered their tots, embellished with bacon and shallot, to accompany my Alaska cocktail (gin with yellow chartreuse and a couple dashes of Regan’s Orange Bitters; wonderful). Unapologetically served with classic Heinz ketchup, those tots were outstanding.

I broke down and bought a bag of Ore-Ida tots last night and served them, a bit sheepishly, alongside the lamb stew and asparagus. It’s usually all-from-scratch around here. My husband didn’t miss a beat, “I’ve always liked tater tots,” he tells me. Guess I’ll have to pick up a bag now and then. They honestly are pretty tasty, especially with a few extra minutes in the oven to get perfectly brown-crisp on the outside, still tender on the inside. I suppose I could try to come up with my own homemade version. But sometimes, it’s good to stick with a classic.

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