Homemade Cracker Jacks

September 25, 2015

While Cracker Jacks are available in every supermarket in America, it only takes a little effort to make homemade. Of course, fresh cooked popcorn taste so much better than popcorn that was popped in a factory 6 months prior. The freshness will become immediately apparent with your first bite. Each box of Cracker Jacks is only 1-ounce, and provides as natural stopping point. The biggest problem is that you will have a hard-time stopping. This recipe yields the equivalent of 28-boxes, so I have learned to break it down into 6 or 7 zip-lock bags. It’s absolutely delicious. 5-stars.

Freshness makes it better

Freshness makes it better

Chris Kimball does have a similar recipe for Butter Toffee Popcorn, but my goal with this recipe was to make something special for my kids (for kids Cracker Jack’s are better than Butter Toffee Popcorn). The main differences are that Chris Kimball calls for 1/2-stick more butter and 1/4-cup less corn syrup. Plus Cracker Jacks include molasses.

Comment:

  1. You can pop your popcorn in any way you want. I prefer to use a hot air popper, since it doesn’t add any oil.
  2. I found it very easy to coat/bake the popped popcorn in a large roasting pan. But you could use anything: a disposable aluminum pan, a large metal bowl, or two cookie sheets.
  3. While I used lightly salted cocktail peanuts, the most Cracker Jack-like peanut is to use Spanish Peanuts (with red skin still intact). I have even used dry-roasted peanuts; but I recommend using lightly salted nuts. Full-salt Planters will taste much saltier than Cracker Jacks; but perhaps a more gourmet balance of sweet to salty.
  4. Cleaning up after making caramel doesn’t have to be difficult. I boil water in the pots and the caramel stuck to the bottom of the pan will eventually dissolve. To clean my roasting pan I set over two burners to boil the water.

Rating: 5-stars.
Cost: $3.75 for 1-3/4 lbs (4-quarts).
How much work? Low/Medium.
How big of a mess? Medium.
Start time 4:00 PM. Ready at 5:15 PM.

Chris Kimball’s original recipe for is here. My descriptions of how I prepared it today are given below:

4 quarts popped popcorn (made from 2/3 cup kernels)
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) butter
1-1/2 cups brown sugar (7-3/4 ounces)
3/4 cup light corn syrup
3 tablespoons molasses
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1-1/2 cups Spanish peanuts (7-1/2 ounces); I used lightly salted cocktail peanuts

  1. Adjust a rack to the middle of your oven, and preheat to 250-degrees.
  2. Pop the popcorn (my preferred method is with a hot air popper). Grease large roasting pan, and use your hands to evenly spread the popped popcorn in a large roasting pan; leaving behind and discarding any “old maids” (un-and-under-popped kernels). Place in oven until ready to coat in Step 4.
  3. In a 2-quart saucepan, combine butter, brown sugar, corn syrup, molasses and salt. Set over medium burner, bring the mixture to a boil; stirring frequently. Cook for 12 to 14 minutes until the mixture reaches 255-260 degrees; using a cooking thermometer to take the temperature.
  4. Remove the popcorn from the oven. Working quickly, remove from heat and add vanilla extract and baking soda. Mix together and you will see the color change as the baking soda incorporates air into the mixture. As evenly as possible, pour the caramel mixture over the popcorn and toss well to evenly coat all the popcorn (use two heatproof spatulas or wooden spoons; lightly buttered or sprayed with a non stick spray).
  5. Sprinkle with 1-1/2 cups of peanuts; continue to toss until become distributed.
  6. Return roasting pan to 250-degree oven and bake for 45 minutes, stirring well every 15 minutes. Try to evenly coat popcorn and gently break up slightly into smaller pieces.
  7. Allow to cool, and then break into smaller pieces.
  8. Evenly distribute between 6 or 7 zip-lock bags with as much air removed as possible.  Chris Kimball says that it can be stored in an airtight container for 5 days; but it will never last that long.
Your kids will love you even more if you make this for them

Your kids will love you even more if you make this for them


Ultimate Flaky Buttermilk Biscuits

September 20, 2015

While necessity has dictated that I make them on occasion, I have never loved biscuits. My heart lies with the wonderful flavor of yeasted rolls. Of course, chemical leaveners such as baking soda/baking powder have an advantage over yeast in that they are quick. But today’s biscuits take two full hours from start-to-finish; an hour of which is related to chilling the butter/dough to allow for the nice definition of the layers. As biscuits go; these are better than most. The flaky layers lighten the crumb, and they have nice buttery flavor. But biscuits are inherently dry, and they would have been better if I served them with a main course with gravy. 4-1/2 stars for the recipe; ignoring the flaws in my execution.

A few of my errors reduced their flakiness

A few of my errors reduced their flakiness

I have made these biscuits on two different occasions (the pictures are from the second time that I made them). Because it was the second time, I wasn’t reading the recipe as closely and made to errors in execution that affected their flakiness and made them denser than the first time I made them. Still, even at their best they cannot compete with the texture produced by yeast.

Issues/Comments:

  1. While the recipe calls for King Arthur’s flour; which has a slightly higher protein content along it’s entire line of flour; I used whatever flour I had on-hand. I did substitute one of the cups of flour for bread flour; but the biscuits will come out fine with 100% regular all-purpose flour.
  2. In Step 4, I forgot to grate the butter directly into the flour. Actually I made this recipe twice, and only forgot the second time. The results were not as flaky.
  3. In Step 8, After the fifth turn, I accidentally rolled it out into a 9×12″ rectangle again, so I ended up having to give it 6 turns. It resulted in layers being a little too thin (and not as well defined).
  4. In Step 10, when I trimmed the biscuits, I only trimmed them to make them edges uniform; not a full and uniform 1/4″. The results: where I trimmed away less than 1/4″, those edges did not properly rise and show their flakiness.

Rating: 4-stars.
Cost: $2.50.
How much work? Low/Medium.
How big of a mess? Medium.
Start time 4:00 PM. Ready at 6:00 PM.

Chris Kimball’s original recipe for is here. My descriptions of how I prepared it today are given below:

3 cups King Arthur all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2-sticks unsalted butter (16 tablespoons)
1-1/4 cups buttermilk, chilled

  1. Freeze butter for 30 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile line rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
  3. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
  4. After the butter is partially frozen, dip sticks of butter in flour mixture. Hold the box grater directly over the flour mixture and grate 7 tablespoons from each stick on large holes. The grated butter will fall directly into the flour; which will keep each grate as an individual piece. Gently toss to combine. Set aside remaining 2 tablespoons butter.
  5. Add buttermilk to flour mixture and fold with spatula until just combined (dough will look dry).
  6. Liberally flour a clean work surface, and turn out dough. Dust the surface of dough with flour, and use your floured hands to press dough into a 7″ square.
  7. Flour a rolling pin and roll into 9″x12″ rectangle (with the short side parallel to the edge of the counter). Use a bench scraper or metal spatula to fold the dough into thirds like a business letter. Press down firmly on the top of the dough to seal the folds.
  8. Turn dough 90-degrees and repeat Step 7 four more times (for a total of 5 folds). After the fifth fold, roll into an 8-1/2″ square (about 1″-thick). NOTE: Here is where I accidentally rolled it out and was forced into an extra turn.
  9. Move dough into the prepared sheet pan, cover with plastic wrap, and move to refrigerator for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, adjust a rack to the upper-middle of your oven and pre-heat to 400-degrees. I set my 2 tablespoons of butter (that you set aside in Step 4) in a pan over the oven vent to gently melt the butter in preparation for Step 11.
  10. After 30 minutes, set dough on a lightly floured cutting board (not your counter-top) Use a floured chef’s knife to trim away 1/4″ of dough from each side of square; discard (or form into an extra, mis-shappen biscuit). Cut the dough into 9 squares, flouring the knife after each cut.
  11. Arrange biscuits at least 1 inch apart on the same parchment-line sheet pan. Brush the tops of biscuits with melted butter.
  12. Bake for 22 to 25 minutes, rotating biscuits halfway through baking, until the tops are golden brown. Allow the biscuits to cool for 15 minutes on a wire rack before serving.

Sweet and Tangy Grilled Country-Style Pork Ribs

September 14, 2015

Usually ribs take all day to make properly; a long relaxing process that I love. I once tried Chris Kimball’s One Hour Rib recipe; the flavor was good (if somewhat nontraditional).  Today’s recipe speeds the process using a different cut of meat; Country-Style Pork Ribs. I looked forever to find country-style pork ribs in all my local supermarkets; and finally discovered they we not labelled as such; they were called “Pork Loin Rib End Bone-in for BBQ”. I updated some pictures.”. The browning time as prescribed by Chris Kimball in Step 7 of 2 to 3-1/2 minutes per side was completely insufficient; mine took over 5 minutes per side. But because the ribs also spend time cooking on the cool side of the grill, be sure to brown them sufficiently (assuming you have a meat thermometer, it’s no big deal to adjust the timing). My only other complaint is that the ribs were too slimy when coming off the grill; so I gave the sauce a quick char on the hot side of the grill. Overall, 4-stars.

Delicious BBQ pork with itty bitty ribs

Delicious BBQ pork with itty bitty ribs

Comments/Issues:

  1. While Chris Kimball’s original recipe say that you can apply the dry rub as little as 1 hour beforehand, its much better if you apply it the night before.
  2. As mentioned above; the cooking times were nowhere near correct. The original recipe calls for as little as 15 minutes on the grill; mine took almost 30 minutes to come to the correct temperature. I use their same chimney starter, their same Weber grill, and their same Kingsford charcoal. I’m not sure why there was such a big discrepancy.
  3. Be sure to use the small holes of a box grater; the sauce spends so little time cooking that otherwise the onion will not break down.

Rating: 4-stars.
Cost: $20.
How much work? Medium.
How big of a mess? Medium.
Start time 5:00 PM. Ready at 6:15 PM.

Chris Kimball’s original recipe for the ribs are here. And the recipe for the sauce is here. My descriptions of how I prepare it are given below:

On Evening Before Dinner:
4 teaspoons packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon chili powder
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 pounds bone-in country-style pork ribs
1/2 cup barbecue sauce, plus extra for serving (See recipe below)

  1. Trim away any excess fat from the ribs. In a small bowl, combine 4 teaspoons brown sugar, 1 tablespoon kosher salt, 1 tablespoon chili powder, 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper.
  2. Rub the spice mixture all over the ribs, and tightly wrap is plastic wrap. Refrigerate overnight (or for as little as 1 hour, if necessary)

On Day of the Meal:
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/3 cup grated onion (1 small onion)
1 garlic clove
1 cup ketchup
5 tablespoons molasses
3 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

  1. Open your bottom vent halfway, and ignite a chimney starter filled with charcoal (6 quarts). When the top-most coals become partially covered with ash, pour evenly over half of grill, leaving the other-side empty. Replace the cooking grate, cover grill, and set the lid vent open halfway. Pre-heat for 5 minutes, then clean and oil the grill grate.
  2. While the charcoal ignites, make your sauce. In a medium bowl, add together ketchup, molasses, vinegar, Worcestershire, mustard, and pepper; whisk to combine. Set aside until Step 5 (only about 5 minutes).
  3. Use the small holes of a box grater to grate the onion, and mince your garlic clove. Heat oil in medium saucepan over medium heat until shimmering. Add grated onion and minced garlic; cooking for between 2 to 4 minutes until the onion is softened.
  4. Add chili powder and cayenne and cook for 30 seconds to bloom the spices.
  5. Whisk ketchup mixture into pan and bring up to boil. Turn down burner to medium-low; allow to gently simmer for 5 minutes.
  6. Add 1/2 cup of bbq sauce to a small bowl, which you will use to baste the ribs. Bring an additional 1/4 to 1/2 cup to the table for serving. The remaining cup of bbq sauce can be refrigerated for a week.
  7. Arrange ribs on the hot-side of grill. Cover and cook ribs cook the first side for 3 to 5 minutes until they become well browned. Flip the ribs and cook (covering again) for 3 to 5 minutes until they become brown. (My ribs took longer to become nicely browned, but wait because you can always reduce the cooking time on the cooler side of the grill, as necessary).
  8. Once browned, move ribs to cooler side of grill without flipping. Brush the tops with 1/4 cup of bbq sauce. Again, cover and cook for 6 minutes. Flip ribs and brush another 1/4 cup bbq sauce. Cover and continue to cook for 5 to 10 minutes until internal temperature of the pork reaches 150-degrees,
  9. Remove the ribs to serving platter, tent with aluminum foil, and allow to rest for 10 minutes.
  10. Serve, passing 1/4 to 1/2 cup extra sauce separately.

Pasta Frittata with Sausage and Hot Peppers

September 12, 2015

After returning from my nearly month-long trip to Africa/Europe, I am eager to start cooking again. I saw this recipe on America’s Test Kitchen which automatically recorded while I was away. The recipe has a few technical issues that prevented it from surpassing 3-1/2 stars, but those problems are easily rectified and this can make a delicious meal. The Frittata does not need to be piping hot, in fact, I enjoyed a slice after it had cooled for about 30 minutes more than my first slice. 3 Tablespoons of coarsely chopped cherry peppers was a little too overpowering; next time I will try two tablespoons of more finely chopped cherry peppers, to even out and moderate the heat. While the Parmesan cheese may play a more key role is the other variations of Frittata, it is lost in the bold flavors of sausage and peppers. Overall 3-1/2 stars.

Good, but a few flaws mar final meal

Good, but a few flaws mar final meal

Issues:

  1. 8 minutes was not enough time for the top of the frittata to set in Step 7, but the pasta was fully browned. I would recommend adding the eggs when the pasta is only lightly browned in Step 5/6, which will give more time for the egg to set.
  2. Because I lost some of the liquid egg when I flipped the frittata, the top did not brown to my liking, even after 5 to 6 minutes. I think the fix in issue #1 will rectify the browning issue as well.
  3. I am not sure why, but pouring the egg mixture concentrated the sausage and peppers in the center of the frittata. I would recommend redistributing it in Step 6.
  4. Parmesan cheese is too subtle and is lost among the other bold flavors. I would recommend either more Parmesan or switching to a bolder cheddar cheese.
  5. I think a few scallions or chives would complement that flavors of the existing ingredients.

Rating: 3-1/2 stars.
Cost: $5.
How much work? Medium.
How big of a mess?  Medium.
Start time 5:00 PM. Ready at 6:00 PM.

Chris Kimball’s original recipe is here. My descriptions of how I prepare it are given below:

Ingredients:
8 large eggs
1 ounce Parmesan cheese, grated (1/2 cup)
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped jarred hot cherry peppers (or 2 tablespoons finely chopped)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Salt and pepper
8 ounces sweet Italian sausage
2 garlic cloves
3 cups water
6 ounces angel hair pasta
3 tablespoons vegetable oil

  1. Grate Parmesan cheese until you have 1/2 cup. Coarsely chop 1 to 2 cherry peppers, and chop two tablespoons parsley. Peel 2 cloves of garlic and slice thinly.
  2. Add eggs, Parmesan, olive oil, cherry peppers, parsley, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper into a large bowl. Whisk until egg is an even yellow color. Set aside.
  3. Slice the casing on 8 ounces (about 3 sausages) and remove meat from the casing; crumble. Add neat to 10″ non-stick skillet and continue breaking up using a rubber spatula. In 3 to 5 minutes, the sausage will be half-cooked and the fat rendered, add sliced garlic, stir and cook for 30 seconds, then add to bowl with eggs from Step 2.
  4. Wipe out skillet with paper towel, and set over high burner. Add 3 cups water, 3 tablespoons vegetable oil, and 3/4 teaspoon salt. Break the pasta in half lengthwise and add to water. Stir occasionally until it comes up to a boil, then continue cooking for 10 to 12 minutes until the water has evaporated and the pasta begins to sizzle.
  5. Turn down burner to medium and continue cooking for 5 to 7 minutes more; swirling pan (but do not stir) and use a rubber spatula to loosen the pasta to prevent the pasta from sticking. Use the rubber spatula to lift and peek under the pasta to check its progress.
  6. When the pasta is lightly browned, use the rubber spatula to push some of the loose pasta up the sides of the skillet, until the entire sides of the pan are covered with pasta. Empty the egg mixture over the pasta, and use tongs to lift some of the loose strands of pasta, but being mindful not to disturb the crispy bottom of the pasta. Ensure that the sausage and peppers are evenly distributed throughout the frittata.
  7. Immediate cover and cook over medium burner for 5 to 8 minutes until the top of the frittata is just set. It is important that the top is set or the egg will spill everywhere.
  8. Slide frittata onto a large plate and invert onto a second plate. Slide back into skillet with the browned side upwards, and use the rubber spatula to tuck the edges into the skillet. Continue to cook for 2 to 4 minutes until the second side is lightly browned.
  9. Remove skillet from burner and allow to sit for 5 minutes. Use your hand or the pan lid to invert the frittata onto cutting board. Slice into wedges and serve.

Blyde River Canyon, South Africa

September 3, 2015
Allegedly the third biggest canyon in the world

Allegedly the third biggest canyon in the world

Our first stop in South Africa was in the north-east where the Great Escarpment drops away into the Lowveld; forming the third largest canyon in the world (according to the South Africans, behind the 4,400 feet drop of the Grand Canyon, and Fish River Canyon). The Canyon’s impressive drop of 2,400 feet happens quickly; one minute we are at river level then a few miles down the road the river lies far below.

The Great Escarpment is where Madagascar and Antarctica broke away from Africa about 200 million years ago. Another famous feature is God’s Window; just south of Blyde River Canyon, along the same panoramic route. If anyone remembers the 80’s comedy “The Gods Must Be Crazy”; this is where the story’s hero comes to throw the Coke bottle off the end of the world.

There are many waterfalls and other geological features in the area. We visited Sudwala caves; while not the biggest caves we’ve seen; they claim to be the oldest; forming over the course of 240 million years. They have been habited by our ancestors for about 1.8 million years.

We drove the Panoramic route in one day; from Sabie in the south to Hoedspruit in the north.  We ended up sleeping in the Bushriver Lodge, which turned out to be my favorite hotel in Africa. We were able to walk freely in their game reserve (no big cats or elephants), and enjoyed the beautiful deck overlooking the Oilifants river (we saw crocs, but no hippos).

TRAVEL WARNING WITH MINORS: Unfortunately, South Africa has very recently (June 2015) changed the rules when traveling with minors under 18 years old. You are required to travel with original, unabridged birth certificate. Because I am divorced the rules also require me to travel with the a court order proving that I have full custody (Because I only have shared custody, Immigration was not supposed to let me travel). And because my custody order is part of my divorce decree; the new rules require me to travel with a complete inventory of all my assets and accounts. These new laws seem like the were drafted by kidnappers and extortionist.


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