Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups

I really love to make desserts. I never had much of a sweet tooth growing up (I was the kid who gladly handed over most of my Hallowe’en candy to my mum, or else left it rotting in a plastic bag inside my pumpkin basket until discovering it in time for the next years trick-or-treating.), but I’ve definitely developed one in the years since. One of the candies I have become attached to is the Reese’s peanut butter cup. I don’t know if they have them over here in the UK, but my experiences with local peanut butter so far have not been completely positive. In fact, peanut butter seems to be on the top of the lists of foods Americans bring back from their first return visit to the States. You’ll be happy to know, though, that UK peanut butter does just fine in these little guys; even the Americans give their thumbs up.

Ingredients:
1 bag of chocolate chips (around 200g) (milk or dark, sweet or semi-sweet, doesn’t matter much. The dark seems to be a big hit for me.)
1/2 cup smooth peanut butter
3 tablespoons graham cracker crumbs (digestives will substitute on this side of the pond)
1/4 powdered/confectioners/icing sugar
1 pinch of salt

Hardware:
mini muffin cup liners
glass or metal bowl
stove
pot in which the bowl can sit above water inside
microwave (optional)
clean tiny paint brush (optional)
mini muffin tin or silicon muffin cups (optional, but helpful!)
freezer
spatula
large mixing spoon
mixing bowl
2 regular spoons

Directions:
Pour a little bit of water into the pot and place on low heat on stove. Pour the chocolate chips into the glass/metal bowl and place over the pot. Stir the chips occasionally until they all melt. Alternatively, you can melt the chocolate in a microwave. Heat the chips for 20 seconds at a time, stirring between each interval, until they all melt.

If you have a small brush, use it to paint the chocolate up the sides of the muffin liners. Make sure the bottom of the cups are coated in chocolate as well. Placing the liners in silicon cups makes it easier to manipulate so the paper doesn’t flop around in your hands. A muffin tin also does the job, though it allows a little less flexibility. You should use a little less than half of your melted chocolate for this stage.

Place the cups in the freezer for about 15 minutes. This time allows them to set up and makes the final construction much easier.

While the cups freeze, mix the cracker crumbs, peanut butter, sugar, and salt in a bowl. Mix thoroughly, but do not whip. A slightly crunchy consistency makes for a better end product.

If your chocolate needs reheating, it’s time to do that. Remove the painted liners from the freezer and scoop a bit of the peanut butter mixture into each cup. The easiest way to do it is with two spoons scooping each other. Make sure not to spread it to the edges. Scoop more chocolate on top of the peanut butter to cover. Be as generous as you want and as your chocolate will allow.

Pop the finished cups back into the freezer to set. You can store them in the refrigerator after about 20 minutes, or just take them out and share.

Fried Pickles

To prove that I am from the South (you know, the one with the capital ‘S’), I’m offering up one of my favourite guilty pleasures. It’s been a few years since I’ve actually eaten any fried pickles, but my taste buds still go a little tingly just thinking about them. The first time I tried them, we were having dinner with my father’s brother and his family at Country’s Barbeque in Columbus, GA. When my cousin requested an order of fried pickles for the table, I was actually fairly disgusted at the very idea. I have always enjoyed good dill pickles, but why would anyone deep-fry them? The answer is likely the same as why novelties like fried twinkies and fried pizza exist: boredom, or the “hey guys, watch this” attitude. The combination of flavours in just one bite of fried pickles is immense, and, like any good Southern meal, ranch dressing is an integral part. So, enjoy some good home-cooking. Just don’t tell anyone where you got the recipe.

Ingredients:
2-2 1/2 quarts peanut oil
1 jar dill pickles, cut into spears or long strips
1 cup butter milk
2 cup cornmeal
1 tablespoon kosher salt
ranch dressing for dipping

Hardware:
cast iron dutch oven (4-5 quart size)
oil thermometer
stove
paper towel
2 shallow bowls/pans for battering
2 forks (easiest to control movement; tongs tend to damage the final product)
draining rack

Directions:
Fill the dutch oven about half with peanut oil and place on stovetop. Heat the oil on medium-high until it reaches 390-400°F/200°C.

Place cut pickles on paper towels and roll them up. This helps to remove excessive moisture from the surface of the pickle and allows the batter to adhere better.

Pour buttermilk into one of the battering bowls, and mix the cornmeal and kosher salt together in the second. Dust your hands with a little cornmeal if you plan on using them to move the pickles between batter ingredients (it’s easiest but messy). Otherwise, practice your use of those forks, grabbing in a V-shape.

Place a pickle into the buttermilk and then into the cornmeal. Make sure that the pickle appears to be covered. Repeat the dunking process. Wait until you have double-dunked about 4 or 5 pickle slices before introducing them to the oil. Using the forks (not your hands this time), gently place the pickles down into the oil.

Allow the pickles to cook for 2 minutes (1 minute if you chose to cut into strips), turning them with a fork if necessary. Remove from oil and place on draining rack for 5 minutes.

Serve hot with ranch dressing.

Pecan-Crusted Spinach Artichoke Dip

This recipe is one that I get requests for very often. It was always between this dip and my cucumber sandwiches for my honours society events. (I learned I like cucumbers when it was requested that I make hundreds of the little finger sandwiches. I spent about 7 hours preparing them, which is utterly ridiculous, but, as I’ve said before, I’m not so quick at the chopping.) The spinach and artichoke dip was also my main contribution to each years’ Thanksgiving dinner; I’m not sure how they got on without it. It’s not a difficult recipe, but the ingredients can run a bit expensive, so it’s certainly a special occasion type of dish. Of course, you can decide what a special occasion is to you. I have typically served the dip with water crackers, but it is also delicious on sliced French bread. I also use a food processor for the artichoke hearts and the onion because I prefer smaller pieces to integrate into the dip. I’m not a fan of finding big, incongruous chunks, but some people like it.

Ingredients:
18 ounces frozen creamed spinach, defrosted (you can also cream your own spinach, but I like the shortcut)
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup mayonnaise
14 ounce can artichoke hearts, drained and coarsely chopped
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
1/3 cup chopped onion
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/3 cup crushed herb stuffing
1/2 cup chopped pecans (I hold four pretty pecan halves back for decor)

Hardware:
large spoon
oven
large mixing bowl
food processor for chopping onion and artichoke hearts
2 quart glass baking dish

Directions:
Preheat oven to 400°F/200°C.

Add cream cheese and mayonnaise together in the mixing bowl and stir to combine. Stir in the creamed spinach, artichoke hearts, parmesan, onion, and cayenne pepper.

Transfer the mixture to the baking dish and level the top as much as possible. Pour the stuffing and pecan onto the mixture. Try to cover the entire dish with an even coating of the pecan/stuffing.

Place dish in the oven for 20-25 minutes or until the mixture is heated through and the topping has browned. My tip for decoration is to remove the dish about 5 minutes before it is done and add the four reserved pecan halves in the center, then return the dish for the remainder of the cooking time. Rarely do I put any extra effort into making a “pretty” dish, but this is simple enough.

Serve the dip in the baking dish if possible.

Blueberry Soda

Blueberries, to me, represent the ultimate comfort. I’m not entirely sure why, as the process of collecting the berries before the birds get to them isn’t so pleasant. The house where I lived while finishing my undergraduate degree had mature fruit growing in the backyard; a pear tree loomed over the neighbourhood, allowing two broad fig trees to grow in its shade, but my favourite of all was hidden behind the toolshed. I’m not sure whether it was an accident that the blueberry bush was planted between the chain-link fence and the shed, or whether either was added without much thought after the fact. All I know is that I would squeeze myself between the two structures to get to the plump fruit, ducking under branches, avoiding the bees that guarded the area, and referring to my great producer as a “blueberry tree”. It’s very hard to find blueberries here in Northern Ireland. I fully expect to return with my arms full of blueberry syrup after my next trip back to the States. The blueberry soda is light and refreshing enough that I don’t even remember the mosquito whelps and sun blisters I encountered while slaving away in such a tight space. What reality?

Blueberry Soda
I'm Thing 1 because I'm in charge. :)

I’m Thing 1 because I’m in charge. 🙂

Ingredients:
20 ounces whole blueberries
2 cups water
7 ounces sugar (vanilla sugar makes a nice touch if you have it)
the juice of 1 lime
8 fluid ounces carbonated water/seltzer water for each glass

Hardware:
medium saucepan
stove
cheesecloth
colander
bowl in which the colander can sit suspended by the edges
wooden spoon
glass jar with lid or other canning/heatproof storage vessel

Directions:
Place blueberries in the saucepan with water. Place on medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and allow it to simmer for 15 minutes.

Remove the saucepan from the heat. Line the colander with the cheesecloth and suspend in the bowl. Drain the berries/water through the cheesecloth and colander. Allow it to sit for 15 minutes to cool.

Gather up the corners of the cheesecloth and use your hands to squeeze out as much of the blueberry juice as possible. This is the good stuff.

Return the juice to the saucepan and add the sugar and lime juice. Bring this mixture to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly until the sugar has completely dissolved. Once the sugar has dissolved, allow the mixture to boil for two minutes before pouring it into the glass jar. Let it cool completely before lidding.

Store the blueberry syrup in the refrigerator and make sure to close the lid tightly after each use.

For the soda, combine 1/4 cup of the syrup with 8 fluid ounces of carbonated water. Add some ice and maybe a slice of lime — dress it up however you like.

Oven-Roasted Root Vegetables

As strange as it may sound, I had never heard the term “root vegetable” used in any sort of dish until I moved to the UK. I knew certain foods were root vegetables, but I’d always heard them referred to by their individual names when it came to things I actually ate. Recently, I’ve fallen for root vegetables, especially in dishes where I can mix them together. This dish is a relatively simple one, once you take the time to prepare each of the veggies. I’m particularly slow at chopping and peeling (call it “careful” and “meticulous”), which is the main reason I never truly thought about becoming a chef. I’d have to move directly to the point in my career where I would have someone to do my chopping for me and presented as a mise en place; I never want to be the person responsible for someone else’s.

Ingredients:
Cooking spray (or oil for greasing)
3 medium red potatoes, cut into 1 inch chunks
1 rutabega, peeled and cut into 1 inch chunks
2 cups whole baby carrots
2 medium red onions, each cut into 8 wedges
1 pound celery root (celeriac), peeled and cut into 1 inch chunks
2 medium parsnips, peeled and cut into 1 inch chunks
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary or thyme
5 cloves garlic, cut into thin slices
1 cup vegetable broth

1 tablespoon olive oil

Hardware:
oven
large roasting pan (or shallow baking sheet)

metal spoon

Directions:

Preheat oven to 425°F/220°C. Spray to grease the roasting pan.

Add potatoes, rutabega, carrots, onions, celery, parsnips, rosemary, garlic, and olive oil to the pan and stir together. Place into the oven and roast for 30 minutes.

Remove the vegetables from the oven. Pour the vegetable broth over the vegetables and stir to coat. Return to the oven and roast for an additional 20 minutes (or until the vegetables are all fork-tender).