Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Three simply delicious autumn treats

I should begin by writing that I am not a culinary expert. I would say I enjoy kitchen crafts in the sense that if there is some creative process involved I enjoy developing my culinary skills. However, I have little interest in following a recipe and am seldom able to replicate the intended food item. My brother sent me the following chart of substitutions and though I'm sure it was as a joke, I can honestly say I'd like to make some chocolate chip cookies using all these substitutions.
I explain that to you only because I want to communicate that any successes in the kitchen are not only purely coincidental, but are often under the direct supervision and/or by the guidance and recipes of others.
Around the Christmas Holidays, my parents always had a tradition of making treat plates for neighbors, coworkers, etc. It is a tradition I would like to maintain, but it always seems to be so busy by the time December arrives that I almost develop a certain hostility for neighbors and coworkers because who are they that I should have to think of something I can make and then make it and deliver it. It creates animosity. The spirit of Christmas, right?
So this year I am being proactive and making and taking the treat plates early. Also, I'll be hosting a small Halloween party for around 30 people tomorrow and if you're going to make the mess, you may as well make it worth it.

My kids and I rolled, cut out, and baked over 150 sugar cookies. Sugar cookies are a lot of work and we didn't even frost all of them. For the other treats, I looked to simpler means of mmmm. . . mmmm. . . yummy.
For example, this first recipe comes from my sister, who probably got it from someone else.
Corn Flake Clusters
1 cup sugar
1 cup corn syrup
1 1/2 cups peanut butter
1 tsp. vanilla
6 cups cornflakes
Cook sugar and corn syrup until sugar dissolves and mix is clear.
Mix in peanut butter and vanilla.
Pour over corn flakes and stir.
Drop by tablespoon onto waxed paper and allow to cool.

Simple recipe, delicious results. To make it a little more festive I stuck pumpkins in the center of the cluster. If you opt for this embellishment, note that you'll need to sort of nest the corn flakes around the pumpkins to keep them from falling out when the cookie is jostled to be put on the serving plate - otherwise you have pumpkins falling all over the place like a low-budget version of the headless horseman.
Another classic recipe is that of the rice crispy treat. Surprisingly, today is the first time I have ever successfully made them. For the last eleven years the emphasis has been on the crispy and they shattered as I cut them. Several weeks ago I finally made a soft batch, but it ended up being too soft and as my husband put it "they were like eating bubble gum."

So this batch was truly remarkable in its consistency, texture and surprisingly, taste.

1/4 cup butter
Melt margarine in large sauce pan over low heat. Add marshmallows and stir until melted and well-blended. Cook 2 minutes longer, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Add cereal. Stir until well coated. Using buttered spatula or waxed paper or clean, buttered hands, press mixture evenly and firmly in buttered 13 x 9 inch pan. Cut into 2 x 2 inch squares when cool.
Well, as the story often goes, I didn't have one of the main ingredients, mini-marshmallows. I had a handful of leftover sizes and flavors from summer camp outs. Most of the marshmallows were the campfire size; those that are the sizes of four marshmallows or more. I also had a partial bag of caramel flavored marshmallows. Naturally, not wanting to store them, I chucked them all in. As I stirred my pot of brew, the scent of caramel wafted through the air and I considered that it might be delicious to have caramel rice crispy treats. I acted impulsively and tossed a handful or two of the individually wrapped, manufactured caramels in (I removed the wrappers before throwing them in).

Once the cereal had been added, I also threw in some candy corns. There was a time in my life when popcorn balls were the big thing. They were given out at church functions and on Halloween and at Christmas time. You knew you were something to somebody if you were give a popcorn cake. Currently, however, I can think of few confections more revolting than popcorn. Don't get me wrong, I love the flavor; the butter, the salt, the caramel. What drives me away is twofold.

1. The husks of the kernels get stuck between my teeth and between my gums and the roots of my teeth. Though I brush regularly, it seems these non-biodegradable, plastic like kernel coverings will emerge from seemingly nowhere.

2. No matter the process of separation, there is always an unpopped kernel or two left behind. This imperfection is compounded in the production of the popcorn ball. There you are, gnawing through sphere of sweet and salty brilliance like a beaver attacking its first hardwood tree when suddenly your molars splinter as they encounter what seems to be gravel inside this plastic wrapped gift.

No, my friend, popcorn balls are not for me. One of the techniques of the popcorn ball was the add-ins; gumdrops, cinnamon-flavored red hots, and candy corns. When I finally swore of eating the popcorn landmines, I still tore away at the flesh on my fingertips as I dug through to get to the candy.

Rice crispy treats don't have unpopped kernels and adding the candy corn just made them all the more desirable. The final step before cutting them into squares was drizzling candy melts haphazardly over the top.

The last treat of this post is also simplistic in the initial phases. The recipe is also from my sister and I'm guessing she got it from elsewhere.

1 large can of pumpkin
2 spice cake mixes
12 oz. bag of chocolate chips

Mix pumpkin with spice cake. Stir in chocolate chips. Drop by tablespoon on a greased cookie sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes.

I followed that recipe except I used half chocolate chips and half butterscotch. Then, instead of making cookies, I made cake balls that I turned into pumpkins.

My mother-in-law got me this fancy device last Christmas. I never would have purchased it on my own, but I've actually used it on several occasions. My family and I made 93 cake balls for my grandma's 93 birthday and stacked them much like the Mayan temple formations. I made a caterpillar birthday cake complete with tennis shoes for my nephews birthday. When I read The Princess Bride with my English class I made edible ROUSes complete with swords stabbing them through the back. As I am hosting a Halloween party tomorrow, I made the pumpkins.

If you don't happen to have a cake ball iron (it's a waffle iron, so I'm assuming the word transfers), I know there are alternate means to make cake balls. Search a bit, you'll find something.

Once the pumpkin balls were removed from the cooker, I gently pressed them between two plates because pumpkins aren't perfectly rounded. For most, it worked. Some cracked beneath the pressure.

And some just. . . not sure what happened there.

I trimmed the flanges of cake crust and stuck all of them between sheets of waxed paper and left them in the freezer for several days.

Side note: If you are going to insert stems, do it before you freeze the cake balls. I thought I was being quite clever by not putting them in because it made them easier to stack. However, pretzels are not solid enough to penetrate frozen masses and I ended up having to use a drill to bore a hole into the cake and insert the pretzels. Before you get all up in arms about it, I washed the bit in soapy water and then boiled it. And although there are certain male parties of the residence that might disagree, power tools should not be limited to the garage. Don't food processors, blenders and mixers all have equivalent motors? Don't you use your hair dryer to dry paint? Don't limit yourself by the department in which an item is sold in stores.

Once the pretzel stems were in the pumpkin balls, I began to dip them in the candy melts. I would have taken pictures of the process, but it's always too messy, so I don't. I've found that what works for me is using a fork. I allow all the excess melt to drip off through the tines of the fork and then gently easy the covered ball onto the waxed paper.

My daughter then placed a slivered almond at a 45 degree angle next to the stem to serve as a support for the leaf. (Okay, she's five, and not in geometry. Some of her angles were a bit off.) It is important to do this while the candy melts are still in a semi-liquid state so that the support can be cemented in as the coating hardens.

As I progressed in the process, I began to run out of candy melts. I would estimate that the above recipe would need 3-4 bags of candy melts and I used just 2. So I began making orange lines to represent the creases in pumpkins. I would imagine this makes for a healthier treat because it has less of the coating.

Finally, partly out of boredom with the process and partly out of hmmm. . . I wonder what that would look like, I stopped with the orange all together. After all, I needed some to drizzle over the caramel-flavored-candy-corn-laced-rice-crispy-treats. I would imagine this to be the healthiest of the three pumpkin ball treats and I think it has sort of a natural beauty to it. (You don't see it? Brown isn't beautiful on a pumpkin?)

The final step is to pipe the leaves onto the almond supports. The green leaves make all the difference in the world, so to speak. The orange was too pale and the brown too blackened, but that green, OH THAT GREEN!

As you can see, the three treats together create quite a winning combination of Autumnal/Halloween desserts. It is a bit monochromatic, but if you opened your door to your neighbor standing holding this plate, wouldn't it make your day even if only in a small way?

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