While some may ask, “Why make chocolate when it’s so much easier to buy it?”

I ask, “Where’s the fun in that?” Plus I really love gourmet dark chocolate bars, the ones made with exotic flavors and textures. But, they can cost five dollars a bar, sometimes more.

I set out to see if it was even possible to make chocolate from scratch. Now, because the chocolate used for candy-making sometimes requires heat tempering, (a special process which preserves the shiny, dark appearance), I figured that making it was going to be complicated and time-consuming. Wrong! No kidding – you can easily whip up a batch in under 30 minutes. Mind. Blown.

And, creating chocolate from scratch allows you to tailor ingredients to satisfy your own personal tastes, and you can modify it in so many ways!

For instance, I’ve been reducing my intake of refined sugar lately. It has really worked wonders for me, in eliminating cravings, and keeping post-treat crashes at bay. I’ve found that honey and maple syrup work really well as sugar replacements. So I’ve used them in this recipe.

As for the rest of the ingredients, there are only 3 basic elements in chocolate: cacao/cocoa powder, cacao/cocoa butter and sweetener.

Cacao butter

What’s the difference between cocoa and cacao? Put simply, cocoa and cacao butters are both vegetable fats derived from the cacao bean. Cacao powder differs from cocoa powder in that it’s less processed, considered more pure, and is also processed under lower heat, therefore is considered a “raw” food. There is a barely-noticeable difference in taste and texture, and cocoa does cost a bit less. Also, some say that cacao is more nutritious. They use words like flavonoids and phytic acid… but… snore… I went to sleep after reading about those. If you’re interested, check out this site.

From there, any flavors or extras are what make your chocolates your signature. Do you like peanuts better than almonds? Add some! Or add raisins or craisins. Swap out the vanilla with mint, orange or rum flavorings. You can even add spices or powdered flavors: instant espresso, cinnamon, red chili powder, etc.

However, this is IMPORTANT:

Do not let even one drop of water get in your chocolate mixture. If you do, it will seize and become a gritty, nasty, mess. Also, don’t add things like brewed coffee, non-alcohol-based liquid flavorings, etc.

Now let’s make some chocolate!

Gourmet Salted Almond Dark Chocolates – makes 20 to 30 pieces

(Click here for printable recipe)

1 cup cacao butter (100 grams)

1 cup cacao powder  (70 grams)

1 tsp. vanilla extract

½ cup honey or maple syrup

½ cup chopped almonds, toasted

½ tsp. flaky salt

Chop almonds, and toast in a sheet pan in the oven, 350° for 8 to 10 minutes, or until light golden brown.

Melt cacao butter in a glass bowl (or double boiler) over a barely simmering pot of water. When most of the solids are melted, remove the bowl from heat. Place on a dishtowel on the counter to cool for a few minutes.

If using honey, heat in microwave for 15 seconds. This helps with incorporating the honey in the mixture, as they will have similar viscosities.

Add honey (or maple syrup, if using) to melted cacao butter, and mix well with a whisk. **It takes several minutes for the honey/syrup to combine with the cacao butter – longer than you might expect. Be sure to take the time to ensure the sweetener is well combined with the butter. If you skip this step, you will end up with unevenly sweet chocolate. You can see the honey is well mixed when it goes from being a two-toned mixture to one with tiny bubbles, or “globs” of fat, to finally being slightly cloudy.

Once the sweetener is fully incorporated, add cacao powder and vanilla. Stir well.

 

Add almonds and mix to combine.

Scoop a tablespoon or so of mixture into candy cups or mini cupcake wrappers. Top with a few flakes of sea salt.

Refrigerate until set.

Enjoy!

Click here for a printable version of the Gourmet Salted Chocolates Recipe

20140710_193103

The Best Blueberry Pie Ever

I have a super cute 2-year-old nephew who absolutely is obsessed with blueberries. (Or as he pronounces them, bloo-bewwies.) He would, and has, eaten them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. So this summer, when we were all visiting my family in berry-land, I thought it might be fun to take Mr. Super Cute to the local berry picking patch for a treat.

20140710_113514

We arrived and he started going to town on the bushes, shoveling ripe as well as unripe blueberries in his mouth by the handful. It was a proverbial kid-in-a-candy-store afternoon.

20140710_114953

After about 30 minutes of picking, we had as much as we could carry, and headed back to the house to see our haul. Nearly every year I make jam while in the San Juan Islands berry-country, but this year I wanted to do something different. I hadn’t had pie in a long time, so Blueberry Pie it was!

20140710_120322

I must say, this pie turned out to be one of the best desserts I’ve ever made. The crust so tender and flaky, and the filling… divine. Probably because of the pickers! We had the pie for dessert that night, unfortunately for Nephew, it was after he had gone to bed.

The next day, Sister, Nephew and I were driving home, so Mom had us take the remaining pie with us. “Car Pie,” we named it. Mom packed up the pie in a bag, adding utensils and bowls, so whenever we wanted it, the Car Pie would be ready.

20140711_122734

We headed south and stopped in Seattle for a little detour on the big Ferris wheel there on the pier.

20140711_113340Gorgeous day, great view and a fun adventure.

20140711_115327

P1070443

20140711_115125

Before we got back in the car, Sister and I decided that we needed drinks to accompany our tasty treat. We kept telling Nephew that we were going to have Car Pie in a few minutes. He had no idea what that was, but we assured him it would be wonderful.

Sister, holding Nephew, approached the nearest restaurant… a crab-shack sort of take-out spot. We walked up, the guy behind the counter asked, “What can I get you?” Nephew declared, “Car Pie Please!”

20140711_123015

We about wet our pants as we laughed and told the counter-guy we wanted iced teas and milk. Still laughing, we went back to the car and served up the pie.

P1070477

20140711_123207

20140711_123624

Nephew was very serious as he experienced his first taste of Car Pie, and in the end it was a huge hit. Even now, after nearly every meal, he still asks for Car Pie. I’m a happy Auntie! Click here for the Car Pie, I mean, Blueberry Pie Recipe.

20140710_154423

To make the flowered crust, I used these cutters:

20140710_160425

20140710_173116

20140710_211640

Click here for my Blueberry Pie Recipe. Update: You can always use frozen blueberries in this pie. Same measurements, just pop in frozen for fresh.

The Best Blueberry Pie, the Tamara Blog

Happy end of summer! It’s been a wonderful one!

20140709_094425

If your mother lives nearby, why not bake her a cake for Mother’s day?  It’s a simple gift that is beautiful, everyone will enjoy, and is easy to make… it begins with a boxed cake mix!

Cake Pic

Chocolate Cake

1 boxed chocolate cake mix (see package for additional ingredients.  Usually oil, water and eggs)

1 Tbs. Instant espresso

1 tsp. cinnamon

Prepare cake mix according to instructions on box.  Add espresso powder and cinnamon to water before mixing.  Bake and cool.

Chocolate Ganache:

1 cup heavy whipping cream

12 oz. semi-sweet chocolate, chopped

3 Tbs. liqueur, (optional)

Place chocolate in a heat-safe glass bowl (pyrex).

Heat cream in a pan on medium-high on the stove until it begins to boil.  Pour hot milk over the chocolate, and stir carefully until smooth and glossy and silky.  Add liqueur.

Let ganache cool and pour over cake.  The longer you let it cool, the thicker the glaze, so I let mine cool for at least ten minutes.

P1040406

P1040407

P1040411

Slice strawberries 1/4″ thick and arrange in concentric circles to form a rose design.

P1040412

Refrigerate before serving.  Enjoy, and happy Mother’s day… or any day!

20130507_145256

 

Panorama Sugar Eggs Tutorial

I’ve been making these sugar eggs since I was a kid… in fact, I still have one that I made back then!  It’s a bit faded, and my kitties licked off the frosting in a couple spots, but I’ve kept it all this time, because I love it.

P1030782

The origin of the panorama – or diorama – egg is unknown.  Some folks say they’re German, some say they hail from Italy, others claim they possess Ukrainian or Russian roots.

P1030793

An interesting article from 1987 (!) on the subject can be found here: http://bit.ly/10eDYbq   Another, from the New York Times, notes that while current commercial eggs must be entirely edible, early models had paper scenes inside.  http://nyti.ms/14AcxOL

P1030781

No matter their provenance, I adore these little sugared gems.

P1030791

A few years ago I made some eggs that were more modern and updated, using bold colors, whimsical themes.  They were fun and festive, and something I could keep out year-round.

Sugar egg... ladies with hats.

Sugar egg… ladies with hats.

This year I wanted to go back to the traditional Easter sugar panorama eggs.  They’re classic, beautiful, and have a particular charm.

Materials Needed:

20130328_141816

Egg molds – found in craft stores, cake decorating shops – I found mine at Marshalls.

Cornstarch

Superfine sugar

Meringue powder

Water

Food coloring

Spoon

Cookie sheet

Royal icing (recipe below)

Piping bags

Scissors

Candies

Shredded coconut

Sugar eggs:
4-1/2 C super fine sugar
2 tsp. meringue powder
3 Tbl. water

Place sugar and meringue in a large mixing bowl, whisk to combine.  Add water and mix with electric mixer or spoon.  If you are coloring your eggs, add color to water.  For light pastel eggs — which work best for light diffusion — use only 1 or two drops of liquid food coloring.

Mix until well combined, knead with hands if necessary.  Keep an eye out for meringue powder- or color-lumps, which sometimes form.  Work them into mixture with fingers, if necessary.

Making the Sugar Egg Shells:

To prepare molds, dust lightly with cornstarch.  This will help the sugar release from the mold.

P1030720

Mound sugar into molds, and press firmly against the sides and bottom, creating a thin shell — about 1/4″ to 3/8″ thick, depending on the size of the mold (with a larger mold, thicker sides).

P1030721

P1030717

Straighten the edges by running your finger along the rim.

Using a spoon, cut out a ‘window’ in the narrow end of the sugar eggshell.

P1030719

Gently turn eggs out onto a cardboard square, and place onto a cookie sheet.

P1030723

Remove plastic molds.

Bake at 200 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes.

Allow shells to cool.  If the insides are not hard, return to oven with inside exposed for another 15 minutes.

After shells are set and completely cool, decorate with royal icing.

P1030741

Royal Icing:
4 C powdered sugar
3 Tbl. meringue powder
1/2 tsp. clear-colored extract — almond, lemon, etc.
1/2 to 3/4 C warm water

In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat sugar and meringue powder until well combined.  Add extract and water, beginning with 1/2 C.  Beat on medium until thick and glossy, and stiff peaks form – about 5 to 7 minutes.

Consistency can be adjusted by adding more water or sugar, depending on use. Color as desired.

coconut grass

Colored Coconut Grass

Place shredded coconut in a glass bowl, add a few drops of green liquid food coloring.  Stir with a fork for several minutes until the coconut is the desired color.

Assembling the Eggs:

Pipe a layer of green icing in the bottom of the egg (the side with a flattened surface).

Stick decorative items into the frosting – chicks, bunnies, flowers, etc.  If they start to lean, use q-tips to hold in place until the icing fully cures.  Before the icing is dry, sprinkle with green coconut.

P1030744

When the inside is perfect, pipe a thick line of icing along the edge of the egg.  Place the top on the egg, and press down.  Remove any excess icing with your finger.

Embellish the exterior of the egg using cake-decorating tips, covering the seam and opening edge with a decorative piped line.  Attach flowers or pipe designs on the top.

P1030792

P1030796

P1030795

P1030794

Allow the egg 1 hour to dry completely.

P1030786

Tips and tricks:

Royal icing is like sweet cement… once’ it’s cured, It’s not going anywhere.  And it smells much better than it tastes.

Meringue powder in the sugar-mixture makes the eggs super strong.  Some people recommend filling the mold completely, curing for some time to create a shell, and then scooping out the interior.  I tried this method several times, and never had one survive.  With the mold-and-press method I describe above, I didn’t have one fail – and I made nearly 40 shells!

The eggshells can be made weeks ahead, stored in a dry place.  Don’t throw them away if you get tired.  Store them well and you may be able to complete the eggs next year!

Interior shapes can also be made days in advance – I piped bunnies, chicks, flowers and carrots onto parchment paper, let them dry and stored them for use later.

P1030799

Candy -covered almonds look like giant eggs inside your diorama!

I collect little pretties – tiny ornaments, small silk flowers, stickers, etc. year –round.

20130328_141835

20130328_150253 - Version 2

Enjoy, make something beautiful, and Hoppy Easter!
20130328_150242 copy - Version 2

P1030693Bonus St. Patrick’s day post… a cookie!

The Irish are known to bring us the promise of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, so this is a good not-entirely-green cookie that can commemorate the day.  But it can just as easily be made for a child’s birthday, a spring party, or anytime a lucky or happy symbol is needed.

 

Rainbow cookies

I got the idea from polymer clay canes, and the process is similar.  You can use any cookie dough that’s easily formed into a log.  I used my brown sugar shortbread recipe, click here.

I doubled the recipe, and made two logs shapes for my batch of rainbows.  Here’s how:

P1030651

Portion your dough into 6 pieces, each one a bit larger than the last.

In a bowl, color each portion with paste food coloring, starting with the smallest, from purple, to blue, then green, yellow, orange and finally, red.  Begin by mixing color into dough with a fork, and knead by hand if you find it easier.

P1030653

P1030655

Take the purple piece of dough, and form it into a small log, about 4 inches long.

Next, on a floured board, roll out the blue dough into a rectangle the length of the purple log, and wide enough to encircle it.  Place the purple log on top, and roll the blue around it.

P1030657

Continue the process with the different colors of dough, rolling each into progressively larger rectangles, until the log contains all the colors.

P1030658

P1030659

Don’t worry if the log seems to get too thick, as when working with clay, you can roll it to a thinner diameter after all the layers are in place.

P1030660

Next, roll the log in coarse sugar, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

P1030665

Slice in 1/4″ to 3/8″ thick slices, then cut in half, and bake per the recipe’s instructions.

P1030673

CCP1030677

Whatever the occasion, enjoy!