Pick of the Month, December ’07

I know, I know. I’m doing what I said I wouldn’t — but sometimes it’s the freedom to not do something that gives you the very desire to do it. Not to mention the fact that I found inspiration, or more accurately, remembered recent inspiration. It doesn’t hurt that, as I’m typing, I can hear the comforting sound of my ice cream maker, churning away at its second inaugural batch: Roasted Banana ice cream. And no, today’s post is not about bananas, but I’m just saying — anything could be churning in that machine, and I would be willing to write about food.

Today’s subject is the cranberry. Although you never really eat just one, do you. So, the plural it shall be — cranberries — and I don’t mean the ones in the bag labeled with the cute play-on-the-word raisin. I mean the ones in the bag in the produce section — the ones you can really only find during the holidays. Or, even more specifically, Thanksgiving — I went looking for fresh cranberries when planning our Christmas day brunch, and my local chain grocery store had nothing to offer.

I’ll be honest here — other than the dried version (which I do happen to love), the cranberry is a bit limited in its usability. Their inherent sourness make them an unlikely snack in the raw, unadulterated form. But they don’t necessarily have to play a secondary role, either — they can hold their own quite nicely with the addition of good old fashioned white sugar. A few years ago, I made a beautiful and surprising discovery: that’s all it takes to make homemade cranberry sauce (well, you need a little water, too). Forget those years of slicing into a perfectly canned-shape mold of jellied cranberry “sauce.” The recipe is right on the back of the bag. And you can get fancy, too, by adding just a tablespoon or two of orange liqueur (c’mon… you know you have that dusty bottle of triple sec sitting around, from that time you made margaritas) and the zest of an orange, you have cranberry-orange sauce (loosely adapted from a Cook’s recipe). I made this for a holiday dinner party, and I have rarely gotten so many compliments on a dish. And it was so simple. And so fast: from opening the bag of cranberries to scooping the finished sauce into a serving dish took about 10 minutes.

Another discovery this holiday season: roasted cranberries. I took this idea from a recipe for a roasted fruit and arugula salad, just leaving out the arugula and salad part. Take a cup each of cranberries and red grapes, and add a couple of pears and plums, sliced into eighths. Toss the fruit together with 2 Tbsps each of melted butter and fresh lemon juice, plus a Tbsp of sugar. Spread the fruit on a parchment-lined baking sheet, and bake in a 425ยบ oven for about 25 minutes, until the fruit is browned on the edges. This was absolutely delicious as a topping for pancakes, and would I’m sure work just as well with belgian waffles. The tartness of the cranberries was a perfect balance for the sweetness of the other fruits. And it made our Christmas brunch taste, well, Christmas-y.

So, long live the fresh cranberry. Investigate the possibilities, and please — if you are happy with the results, do share. Happy New Year, blogland — now if you’ll excuse me, I have a batch of hot fudge sauce to make…

I just can’t stop eating it, it’s that ridiculously good.

Ok, before I reveal exactly what it is I can’t stop eating, let me first address the fact that I’ve not yet written a Pick post for December. And the reality is staring me in the face: I’m skipping this month. If I could write about chocolate, I would have plenty to say. But since the monthly column is supposed to address a seasonal fruit or vegetable, and since all the activity of the holidays has me swimming in a pool of exhaustion, grumpiness, and overall lack of inspiration, I’ll just take the freedom I have as creator of this blog and say that I hope to be more inspired by produce in the month of January.

In the meantime, did someone mention chocolate? Oh, right, that was me. No, I’m not pregnant, but might as well be, judging by my recent fascination with this heavenly by-product of the cacao bean. A while back, I read a post at Chocolate & Zucchini that stuck in my mind. Clotilde wrote about her new ice cream maker, and described one of her first ventures in the art of frozen-dessert: chocolate sorbet. Skeptical? So was I. I just didn’t like the sound of it. As I was reading, and imagining an icy, weak, chocolate snow cone, the trusted author wrote something that stopped me dead in my tracks:

Chocolate ice cream is all right, I guess, but I find that the dairy gets in the way of the chocolate…

The thought had never occurred to me. The dairy gets in the way of the chocolate — of course! I’ve never been a huge chocolate ice cream fan, and never really could put my finger on a reason why. But I think it was because it just couldn’t be chocolate enough. So a sorbet (chocolate, sugar, and water) is the answer (insert cartoon lightbulb floating over my head).

In the few months since reading the post, I’ve frequently daydreamed about chocolate sorbet, and accordingly put at the top of my holiday gift list two items: an ice cream maker, and a copy of The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz (it’s his recipe she used). I was thrilled to receive both, so this week I broke in the new machine with the Lebovitz-prescribed combination of Ghirardelli bittersweet chocolate, Droste cocoa powder, sugar, water, and vanilla. The process is easy, but not necessarily quick: you cook the ingredients on the stovetop, and then must thoroughly chill the mixture before pouring into the machine. I was impatient, so I used an ice bath to chill it in about half an hour, then made dinner while the machine did its work. About 20 minutes into the churning, I could see the silky, creamy texture coming together. I couldn’t resist: I stuck a spoon into the top of the machine and scooped out a taste.

Really and truly: I could not believe how good it was. Totally not what I was expecting. It was smooth and thick, not icy at all, and delivered the kind of dark chocolate satisfaction that usually only comes from a really good truffle or bar. I reread the original post today, and see that the texture is helped a good bit by the butterfat content of the bittersweet chocolate. Even after a day in the freezer (in an airtight container, with plastic wrap pressed onto the surface of the sorbet) the texture is remarkably like ice cream.

If you are into frozen dessert, I heartily recommend the book, even after making just one recipe. The options are seemingly endless, and include some over-the-top combinations that I’m dying to try. My goal is to make every flavor in the book, and this could take several years — so if you’re coming for dinner anytime between now and the summer of ’09, you can take a good guess as to what’s for dessert.

Chocolate makes it all better

It’s been a particularly frustrating day today, and I was having a nice little pity party for myself while running into the grocery to buy the can of stewed tomatoes that I need to make tonight’s spaghetti sauce. Why can I not manage to get everything I need during my big grocery trip each Monday? (Yes, this was but one small source of my overall grumpiness, purely of my own doing — but I’m beginning to wonder if some larger law of grocery dynamics is at play here, with my shocking ability to forget at least 2-3 needed items every single week, causing multiple unnecessary trips to the store, which drives the efficiency-obsessed part of me absolutely batty.)

It just so happens that at our grocery store, the candy aisle is next to the canned vegetable aisle. A bit ironic, yes, but today quite convenient. On the way to the canned tomatoes, my eyes landed on some chocolate bars that were sporting the bright yellow sale sign underneath. So in my current state of mind I couldn’t resist purchasing the Hershey’s Cacao Reserve 65% Dark Chocolate with Cacao Nibs. And I wasn’t expecting much, because it’s Hersheys, and they just do kisses and such, right? But friends, this is a good bar of dark chocolate. Smooth, round flavors, with the fabulous crunch of the bean nibs. If, on the way home, I could have been hooked up to a mood-o-meter, the little needle would have visibly moved from the red zone to the nice, happy shade of sky blue.