Jan 07 2011

Buying in Bulk

2 lbs of Camparis

I’m not great at grocery shopping planning. I know that is the secret of success in saving money and kitchen efficiency, but what can I say–I’m a rebel. I like to go with the flow of my moods, baking and cooking what I feel like instead of making a list and checking it twice, thrice, and so on throughout the week. I try to keep some things on hand, but beyond that, I shop the sales and improvise as I go.

For Christmas, my sister and brother-in-law presented us with a 1-year BJ’s membership. For the uninitiated, BJ’s is a warehouse club, selling food (and just about anything else you can think of) in bulk for a discount–as long as you’ve paid the $45/year membership fee. We used to be members several years ago when I worked full-time outside the house and was able to obtain a discounted membership through my employer. When that working relationship ended, I balked at the regular rate and refused to renew. I believed that I didn’t save nearly enough to substantiate the cost of being one of the cool kids.

I am grateful, however, for the gift. It allows me to shop by the seat of my pants without sticking to the sales so much. I can pretty much match sale prices without the planning, and even occasionally beat them. And the $0.03/gallon gas savings–whew, that’s a winner! ;) (Actually, I shouldn’t poke fun seeing as I only eek about 14mpg from my 12-year-old fully-paid-off-and-hence-why-I-still-have-it mode of transport…) Today, for example, I was able to pick up 2 lbs of Campari tomatoes–oh, let me count the ways I love you!–for $5.49. Do you ever buy Camparis? They’re something like $3.99/lb normally and this week they were on sale at Big Y for 2 lbs for $6! What other gold medal deals did I score? 18 oz of blueberries for $4.99 versus Big Y’s $6.49; 32 oz Chobani plain Greek yogurt for $4.99 (I think that’s regularly around $6); 4 lbs of unsalted butter for $8.99; 3 lbs of bananas for $1.49; $6.49 for 2 lbs of naturally-raised, hormone-free ground beef; 102 oz of crushed tomatoes for $2.99… Yeah, that one’s kind of funny. Have you ever seen a can that big before? It’s the equivalent 3.62 28-oz jars of spaghetti sauce, all in one can. But heck, it was only $2.99!!

Now that's a can of tomatoes!

So buying in bulk can save you money, but don’t forget to factor in those membership fees… At the very least, that $45 saves you searching ads for 52 weeks of the year. I never really thought about it that way before, but your time is worth it, right? And if you still want to clip coupons, they’ll take ‘em.

Huge Container of Pretzels

Jan 06 2011

Simplicity and Irony

Peanut Butter & Jelly Rugelach

Peanut Butter & Jelly (& Fluffernutter) Rugelach

It’s easy to get caught up in the search for the latest and greatest of everything. Why wouldn’t we? We’re in the 21st Century–we have so much available to us that we should be taking advantage of. Why settle for less? There’s always something better, faster, smarter, sharper, sleeker out there–new, new, new!

Sometimes, however, it’s the simple things that work best.

Like peanut butter and jelly. Harkening back to the days of Rainbow Brite lunchboxes and trading sandwiches with friends across a communal table, peanut butter and jelly is the epitome of simplicity. Two slices of white bread + a smear of smashed peanuts + a smear of grape jelly=pure bliss. Well, as long as you don’t have peanut allergies. And don’t have problems with the bread sticking to the roof of your mouth. (That’s for you, little bro!) It doesn’t get any better than this.

Now that I’m an adult, I should have moved on to more high brow choices, exemplifying my enlightened place in the world. But peanut butter and jelly will always have a special place in my heart. And so will these cookies, an inspired combination I discovered at Baking Bites. Sophistication meets simplicity…

Peanut Butter + Marshmallows = <3

Peanut Butter + Marshmallows = <3

Sometimes when you try to improve on a classic, though, it falls flat. Literally. You need to make sure you chill this dough for as long as the recipes calls for and I’d venture even longer for the shaped rugelach before you bake them. I rushed the first batch to utter ruin. The second batch sat in the fridge for about 30 minutes before I popped it in the oven, and even then I had some problems with them falling over. Also, you need to go easy on the fillings themselves. Lots of filling doesn’t=even better taste. It ends up all over your baking sheet. Parchment paper is highly recommended. Lastly, you  need to roll tightly. I thought I had this covered since I’ve worked with cinnamon rolls quite a few times before, but they were still too loose. It could have been from the extra filling oozing out…

On the other hand, experimentation is fun. Despite the setbacks, on my 3rd batch, I tried a new variation: the fluffernutter rugelach. I had some homemade marshmallows in the cabinet that needed to be used up anyway, so why not? I smeared 2 rows of peanut butter, cut up the marshmallows for the other 2 rows, and stuck this batch in the freezer for 10 minutes, then the fridge for another 20 minutes. I wasn’t taking chances with this one not being chilled enough, especially with the marshmallows. Granted, I kind of expected a flop here–marshmallows, by nature, melt in heat, which would only recreate the problems I was already having. But since it wasn’t coming out all that great anyway, why not go down in a blaze of glory?

Marshmallows Melting Away

Marshmallows Melting Away

The verdict? The taste is amazing: the cream cheese dough is mellow enough not to overpower the peanut butter and jelly flavors, and they’re fantastic right out of the oven. The fluffernutter rugelach were even better. But they’re kind of a pain–not to mention, a lot of dishes–for what I could have accomplished in a few minutes time on a piece of bread. Maybe next time, I’ll stick with the simpler delivery system. It was a worthwhile experience but I don’t think I’ll make these again.

Peanut Butter & Jelly Rugelach

adapted from Baking Bites

3 cups all purpose flour

1 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp sea salt

1/2 cup butter, softened

6-oz cream cheese, softened

1 cup sugar

2 large eggs, room temp

2 tsp vanilla extract

2 Tbsp milk

approx 2/3 cup creamy peanut butter

approx 2/3 cup strawberry preserves (or cut up marshmallows)

coarse sugar

In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and cream cheese. Add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, beating until fully incorporated. Add the vanilla and milk. Gradually add the baking powder, salt, and flour until completely mixed. Dough will be sticky. Set out 3 pieces of saran wrap and divide the dough amongst them, wrapping tightly and setting aside in the fridge for at least 1 hour.

When ready to work with the dough, preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Flour your work surface and lay out the chilled dough, working with 1 portion at a time. Roll it out to a roughly 12×8 rectangle, being careful that it’s not stuck to the work surface. Spread 2 rows of peanut butter and 2 rows of jam on the dough so you have alternating stripes of each. Be careful not to put too much filling on the dough. Roll tightly along the longer side and cut into 3/8″ sections. Sprinkle the tops with coarse sugar (you can brush a tiny bit of water on top first if you need to in order to get the sugar to stick). Place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper and let them cool in the fridge or freezer for at least 20 minutes before baking.

Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove to a wire cooling rack to cool completely.

Jan 06 2011

Cookbook Junkie

Cookbooks

Hi, I’m the Poet and I’m a Cookbook Junkie. I’ve tried to quit many times now–vowing over and over again that this would be the end–but I can’t seem to give them up. I already have dozens on the folding shelves in my too-tiny kitchen, overflowing with evidence of my addiction. Even though I promised I’d buy no more, 2 more showed up yesterday on my doorstep.

Admit it–you’re a junkie, too. If it’s not cookbooks, it’s food blogs, websites for food shows, daily emails, community forums, magazines, monthly publications at the supermarket checkout, so on and so forth. In this day and age, there are practically infinite sources for recipes. We have so many more options than our mothers and grandmothers did. But is this really a good thing?

I’m a girl who likes to have choices. I delayed graduation so I’d have more job options. I plan out multiple scenarios, trying to cover as many bases as possible. I like to be prepared. And I’m a recipe addict. I’ve looked through more recipes than I could ever make in my lifetime, and I keep on looking, never satisfied with what I already have at my fingertips. It’s almost paralyzing, this having too much to choose from.

It’s a disease.

You, my dear reader, get the benefit, however. With these 2 cookbooks comes the promise of new experiments–new material for this blog, which becomes a source of recipes for someone else. We’re all in this together. If I’m going down, I’m taking you with me! Mua-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!!!

Cheers!

Jan 05 2011

Burnt Sugar Dreams

vanilla bean caramel sauceLast week, I ventured into the new territory of making caramel candies–Apple Cider Caramels, to be exact. The experience taught me two things: leave yourself plenty of time and never underestimate the value of paying for pre-cut candy wrappers.

I’m not entirely new to caramel, however. I used to sell a nationally-known food brand at home demonstration parties and one of our products was a caramel sauce. When I parted ways with the company and finished eating up the remnants of my sales kit, I wasn’t sure what to do without that caramel sauce. I never bought it in the store before–the stuff in the ice cream aisle never really captured my heart–but this was different and I liked it, if only for a few recipes a year that I made that required caramel. So I sucked it up, did a search online, and discovered the world of burning sugar on purpose.

Let me clarify: we’re not talking turning it into a blackened goo welded to your pan. But the browning process that occurs is a burning of the sugar, much akin to what’s done with granulated sugar and a torch on top of the crème in crème brûlée. You add in some butter and cream for …well, creaminess… and voilà! Caramel sauce at home! It’s the temperature that the mixture boils to that makes the difference between caramel sauce, soft caramel squares, and hard caramel candies. So once you’ve mastered the sauce, you’re not far from figuring out the other confectionary variations.

David Lebovitz has some great tips on making caramel at home, utilizing both the dry and wet methods (dry being that you start with just sugar; wet involves a small amount of water in the beginning to make it easier not to burn, but it also takes longer because you have to wait for the water to evaporate before the caramel process will go on). The most important tip is that you should give it your undivided attention. Distraction=disaster.

Caramel and Ice CreamWhile there isn’t really a magic recipe (all being a variation on pretty much the same 3 ingredients), I decided to go with the Vanilla Caramel Sauce recipe from In Jennie’s Kitchen. The first time I tried it, I had problems (like David Lebovitz warned about) because I ran out of white sugar and had to use some raw cane sugar. The “impurities” in the raw cane sugar made it taste a little funky and it was harder to tell when it was done since the color was caramel-y to begin with. Yesterday, I tried again, using the vanilla sugar I “made” (you put dry, scraped vanilla bean pods into a jar and pour sugar on top, letting it sit so the flavor and fragrance disperse throughout the sugar crystals). The thing is that while it’s easy to make caramel sauce, it’s also easy to turn perfectly burnt sugar into overly-burnt sugar: the two are only mere seconds apart. So learn from my mistakes and pay attention. And if you’re concerned about missing the mark of perfection, go with the wet method instead of dry–it’s a little more forgiving.

Smitten kitchen’s ridiculously easy butterscotch sauce is another tasty variation–one that I found to be even easier to make, with more consistent results. I prefer the taste to straight caramel sauce, too. If you haven’t made caramel sauce before, you may want to start with this, then the wet method for regular caramel, working your way up to the dry method.

Regardless of which sauce you make and whether you’re enjoying it on cake, cookies, brownies, ice cream, or straight from the spoon, there’s one thing you can do: forget about the calories because you made it at home. No label=no calories, right? ;) Dig in!

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