Mexican Chocolate Ice Cream

As much as I like Mexican chocolate, I've always preferred to nibble on a little piece rather than make hot chocolate with it, which is what it's most known for. The combination of dark chocolate, cinnamon, and coarse sugar is unusual and spectacular, but that should come as no surprise, since it was the Aztecs, after all, that gave chocolate to the world. They ought to have known a thing or two about what to do with the stuff. The Aztecs had adopted it from the Mayan Culture, and drinks made of chocolate combined with honey, nuts, seeds, and spices were used in rituals by priests and nobleman. Chocolate was so valued that it was even used as a currency. Naturally, the Spaniards fell in love with it (who wouldn't?), and upon taking it back to Spain, it became the official drink of the King. Europeans began preparing it with milk and sugar, and hot chocolate became all the rage.

This chocolate, with it's rustic and earthy appeal made for some incredible ice cream. If you're not familiar with it, you'll find it in the international aisle of most markets. It's sold under the name Abuelita or Ibarra, and comes packaged in boxes of discs that are made up of small triangles.

                    1 1/2 discs Mexican chocolate
                    2/3 cups sugar
                    4 large egg yolks
                    1 cup heavy cream
                    2 cups milk
Put the chocolate and cream in a large, heat-safe bowl. Set it over a saucepan of simmering water and stir occasionally until the chocolate has melted and is smooth. Remove the bowl from the heat and set a mesh strainer across the top.

In a medium saucepan, heat the milk and sugar over medium low heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar.

In a separate medium bowl, beat the egg yolks, then gradually add some of the warm milk-sugar mixture, whisking as you pour. Pour the warmed eggs back into the saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly until the custard is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Strain the custard into into the chocolate mixture and stir until smooth.

Set the bowl over a large bowl of ice water. Stir the custard until cool, then cover and refrigerate until thoroughly chilled (3 hours or overnight).

Freeze in an ice cream machine according to the manufacturer's instructions.

Makes about 1 quart.


Baked Risotto with Spinach and Pine Nuts

Because risotto is rather buttery and decadent, I limited myself to just a small serving of this indulgent dish. And I really wasn't left wanting more. The stock, parmesan, and butter made for a rich and flavorful combination, so a few luxurious bites was satisfying and perfect. I'm not one for a whole plate of risotto as an entrée - the thought alone overwhelms me. But as a side dish I'm all in.

Never having made it before, I was pleasantly surprised at how simple the preparation was. Baking risotto is as easy as combining the arborio rice with stock in a baking dish, covering it with foil and popping it in the oven for 35 to 40 minutes. Then a little butter and parmesan gets stirred in, as well as whatever else you are in the mood for - mushrooms, tomatoes, etc. Baby spinach and pine nuts were delightful, but for me they always are. I'm adding this to my "perfect for entertaining" list.

                    1 1/2 cups arborio rice
                    4 1/2 cups chicken stock
                    1 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
                    1 1/2 oz unsalted butter
                    sea salt and cracked black pepper
                    2 oz baby spinach leaves
                    1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted

Preheat the oven to 350.

Place the rice and stock in an 8 1/2 x 12" baking dish. Cover tightly with foil and bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until most of the stock is absorbed and the rice is al dente. Add the parmesan, butter, salt, pepper, spinach, and pine nuts and stir until the butter is melted. Serve immediately.

Makes four servings.

Adapted from Donna Hay.


Homemade Strawberry Preserves

A couple of weeks ago as I was enjoying some orange breakfast muffins with strawberry jam, the thought of braving homemade preserves occurred to me. Last week the strawberries were too abundant and inexpensive to not follow through with the idea. Plus, Mother's Day was coming up, and I knew (that if successful!) it would make a beautiful and unique gift. And it did. The jars were a hit at brunch last Sunday, as well as in our own house. I certainly can't claim all the credit - Dan came home from work last Thursday evening and was up for last minute weeknight preserving. Lucky wife, indeed. After I prepared the strawberry concoction, he jumped right in and helped with the tough part: processing.

Homemade preserves were a lot easier to pull off than I thought they would be. I chose to use unsweetened pectin instead of lemon juice or gelatin, and was very pleased with the results. The preserves definitely turned out a bit runnier than store-bought, and I had the option of adding more pectin, but didn't really think it was necessary. The runnier consistency feels more natural to me, and makes for the added benefit of slightly easier spreading. I more than halved the sugar that was called for in the recipe, and substituted agave nectar as well as evaporated cane juice sugar for the granulated sugar. The strawberries are currently at their peak and very sweet on their own, so 7 cups of sugar to me seemed not only over the top and completely undesirable, but also somewhat criminal. You can any sweetener you like - honey, fruit juice, etc. Play with the amounts and find the ratio that works for you.

Dan processed the jars by placing them in  briskly boiling water in a large stockpot for five to seven minutes. We don't have a canner, so lifting the jars out of the boiling water was tricky. Definitely use extreme caution when you're doing this part. Tongs made for jars would have made for a much easier (and safer) method. Because we are now preserving enthusiasts, I've added them to my shopping list!

                    4 pints ripe strawberries (about 4 cups crushed)
                    2 cups evaporated cane sugar
                    1 cup agave nectar
                    1 3oz pouch of unsweetened fruit pectin

Wash the jars in hot, soapy water and rinse. Place them on a rack in the sink and pour boiling water in and over each jar. Drain. Alternatively, you can sterilize the jars by running them through the dishwasher. Transfer the clean jars to a cookie tray and place them in a 200-degree F oven.

Prepare the lids by placing them in a saucepan of gently boiling water for five to ten minutes. If you plan on processing your jam (sealing the jars to ensure freshness and a longer shelf-life), be sure you are using new lids. If you don't process, your jam should last a little over a month in the refrigerator. If you do process the jars, they will last for 18 months unopened and unrefrigerated.

Wash and hull the strawberries. Mash them in a bowl, or use a food processor to pulse, but be sure not to overdo it - you want your jam to have pieces of fruit in it.

Place the strawberries into a 6- or 8-qt. pot. Stir the sugar and agave into the fruit and mix well. Bring the pot to a full rolling boil over high heat, stirring constantly. Don't skimp on the size of the pot - the strawberry mixture will GROW when you add the pectin and the mixture is boiling.

Add the fruit pectin and return to a full rolling boil. Boil hard for 1 minute, stirring constantly to prevent scorching.

Remove the jam from the heat and skim off and discard any foam using a metal spoon. Ladle the jam into a liquid measuring cup and fill the hot jars immediately to within 1/8 inch of the tops.

Wipe the jar rims and threads with a clean, damp cloth.

Remove the jar lids from boiling water using tongs and place them on a paper towel. Wipe them dry. Place the lids on the jars and screw them on tightly.

If you don't plan on processing and will be enjoying your jam within a few weeks, you can skip the next part. If you do want to process, proceed with the following step.

To process:
If you don't have a canner (like us), bring a very large pot of water to a boil. Be sure the pot is deep enough so that the jars will have at least an inch or two of water covering them when placed inside. Process the jars for 5-7 minutes and then leave undisturbed for 12-24 hours. The lids will have curved down if properly sealed. If you find that one of your jars did not seal, you can reprocess right away, but not after 24 hours have passed.

Makes six 8oz. jars of preserves.

Adapted from ehow.com.


Wheat Berry Bowl with Greens and Feta

Nothing fancy here, admittedly, but this simple bowl of wheat berries and wilted greens made a tasty and satisfying meal. Just to mix things up, I've started using the soft or "pastry" wheat berries, instead of the standard hard or "red" that I normally buy. This sort of minor change makes for a lot of excitement in my life. It doesn't take much, folks.

I used collard greens because that was what I had on hand, but chard, spinach or any other green that you love would be just as wonderful. Sprinkle with feta and a generous scattering of pine nuts for a little added texture and nuttiness. I tend to go overboard with the pine nuts...slivered almonds might be a yummy alternative. Oh, and olive oil. Just a little drizzled over the top. If you're short on time, this may not be practical, as the wheat berries take 45 minutes to an hour to cook. Mine were precooked and this bowl came together in a jiffy.

                    1 cup wheat berries
                    2 cups water
                    2 cups collard greens, washes and torn into bight sized pieces
                    feta and pine nuts to serve
To cook the wheat berries, wash and drain before placing in a medium sauce pan with the water. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 45 minutes to an hour. When they have cooked to your liking (they will have plumped up with some cracked open), remove from the heat and drain. These can be cooked beforehand.

Blanch the greens in simmering water for just a few minutes until bright green and wilted.

Combine the greens and wheat berries in a bowl and top with feta, pine nuts, and drizzle with olive oil.


Meyer Lemon Petites Madeleines

Yesterday was my neighbor's birthday and I wanted to make her a little treat. I knew I wanted to flavor the goods with the Meyer lemons James and I picked from my girlfriend's tree last week, and I wanted to make something that was feminine and sweet and would make the birthday girl feel special. Being such a sucker for specialty kitchen goods, I had bought a madeleine pan a few months ago and it had just been sitting there. Lonely. Unpurposed. It was time for it's kitchen debut.

I turned to the blogging hemisphere for madeleine recipes and ended up choosing and adapting Heidi Swanson's. Heidi's recipes are always pretty simplified and generally yield fine results. I feel confident and secure when going by her instructions. She's a wonderful partner in any culinary effort. You do need a madeleine pan to make these, of course, but if you don't have one, or the idea of buying one never entered your mind, I encourage you to go get one. If you like madeleines, that is. And make sure it's metal, and not the newer silicone kind. It will make much prettier cookies.

                    1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter (6 ounces)
                    2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter (for greasing pan)
                    3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
                    4 large eggs
                    a pinch fine-grain sea salt
                    2/3 cups sugar
                    zest of one large lemon
                    3 tablespoons lemon juice from the lemon
                    1 teaspoon vanilla extract
                    powdered sugar
                    a little flour for dusting the pan
         Special equipment: A madeleine baking pan, any size
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Melt the 1 1/2 sticks of butter in a small pot over medium heat until it's brown and smells nutty and fragrant. About 15 to 20 minutes. Strain with a mesh strainer and discard the solids. Cool the butter to room temperature.

Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and use it to brush the madeleine molds. Dust with flour and invert the pan tapping out any excess flour.

Whisk the eggs and salt on high speed with the whisking attachment in an electric mixer until thick, and the eggs have doubled or tripled in volume (about 3 minutes). Continuing to whisk on high speed, and slowly and steadily add the sugar. Whisk for 2 minutes or until the mixture is thick and ribbony. Then, fold in the lemon zest, 3 tablespoons of lemon juice and vanilla with a rubber spatula, just until combined.

Sprinkle the flour on top of the egg batter, and gently fold it in. Next, fold in the butter. Stir gently, only enough to bring everything together.

Spoon the batter into the molds, filling each mold 2/3 -3/4 full. I used a 1/2 teaspoon measuring spoon for the petites madeleines and it worked perfectly.

Bake the madeleines for 12 - 14 minutes (7-10 minutes for smaller cookies), or until the edges of the madeleines are golden brown. Remove from the oven and invert the madeleines onto a cooling rack immediately. Cool on racks and dust with powdered sugar.

Makes 2 -3 dozen regular madeleines.

Adapted from 101 Cookbooks.