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

Zucchini Tart The Tamara Blog

It’s squash season! Know how I know? This.

Zucchini Tart -- The Tamara Blog

Yep. I harvested this 8 pound+ monster summer squash from my garden. And that was one of 4 harvested that day. Actual size: 8lbs. 12.1 0z. My nephew was smaller when he was born. Just sayin’.

Big Zucchini the Tamara Blog

Garrison Keillor, the host of the radio show, Prairie Home Companion, about the small, fictional town Lake Wobegon says, The town is so small that people lock their car doors at church only in July during the zucchini harvest—to prevent others from adding a bag of squash to the front seat. Yep.

With that kind of yield from my garden, I have to get creative with the squash. I love making zucchini soup, bread, and this tart is one of my all-time favorites. It’s adapted from a recipe in Better Homes and Gardens magazine. You’ve probably seen those pretty little apple tarts shaped like roses in pastry shops. I thought it would be fun to try a larger version. It’s not at all hard, looks very fancy, uses a fair amount of squash (key!), and this galette is seriously delicious.

Floral Zucchini Galette -- The Tamara Blog

Lemony Ricotta Zucchini Galette

  • 1 – 2 medium zucchini
  • 1 – 2 yellow summer squash, both thinly sliced (3 1/2 – 4 cups)
  •  Salt
  • 1 unbaked piecrust (you can use store bought)
  • 3/4 cup part-skim ricotta cheese
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil — separated
  • 2 teaspoons lemon zest (finely shredded lemon peel)
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 egg yolk
  • Fresh dill — chopped

Directions

Cut the squash in half lengthwise. Then, using a mandoline (or sharp knife and patience), slice squash thinly, on a diagonal.

Floral Zucchini Galette -- The Tamara Blog

Floral Zucchini Galette -- The Tamara Blog

Sprinkle zucchini lightly with salt. Transfer to a colander; drain for 15 minutes. This helps remove some of the moisture, so you don’t have a soggy galette. Pat dry with paper towels.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Meanwhile, on a large piece of lightly floured parchment paper, roll pie dough to a 12-inch circle. Transfer parchment and dough to a large baking sheet; set aside.

For ricotta filling, in a medium bowl whisk together ricotta, Parmesan, mozzarella, garlic, 1 tsp. of the olive oil, lemon peel, lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Using a spatula, spread over dough, leaving a 1-1/2 inch border.

Take one of the smaller zucchini half-ovals, and roll it in a sort-of-spiral or tube, with the round edge facing up. Place in the center of the galette.

Zucchini Galette -- The Tamara Blog

Add half-ovals around the center ‘rose,’ working toward the outside edge tilting up, and alternating colors.

Zucchini Galette -- The Tamara Blog

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Zucchini Galette -- The Tamara Blog

Zucchini Galette -- The Tamara Blog

Zucchini Galette -- The Tamara Blog

Zucchini Galette -- The Tamara Blog

Zucchini Galette -- The Tamara Blog

As you go, fill in layers with more “petals.” I also add folded or curled ones to give the galette a more organic look. Continue until the cheese is covered.

Zucchini Galette -- The Tamara Blog

When the surface is covered to your liking, drizzle squash with remaining 2 tsp. olive oil. Gently fold over pastry edge, pleating as necessary.

Zucchini Galette -- The Tamara Blog

Zucchini Galette -- The Tamara Blog

In a small bowl, whisk egg yolk and 1 tsp. water. Lightly brush pastry edges with egg mixture. Transfer galette to oven. Bake 35 to 40 minutes or until edges are golden brown. Sprinkle with dill weed. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Zucchini Galette -- The Tamara Blog

Zucchini Galette -- The Tamara Blog

Floral Zucchini Galette -- The Tamara Blog

√

Floral Zucchini Galette -- The Tamara Blog

I’ve even added carrots to the galette (and baked in a pie plate when I took it to travel), to add some more color. Click here for a printable version of the recipe.

Floral Zucchini Galette -- The Tamara Blog

I’m pretty happy I have this baby! Enjoy.

Zucchini tart -- The Tamara Blog

 

Fruit Shaped Cheeseballs The Tamara Blog

Come on… who doesn’t love a cheese ball? They’re fun to eat, and easy to make. Being a bit of a cheeseball myself, I have a particular affinity for these orbs o’ dairy.

Oh, I know what you’re thinking, “Cheese balls in Autumn?! Heaven forfend! Everyone knows National Cheese Ball day is April 17th. What kind of celebration enthusiast are you, Tamara?”

In truth, I have no idea why cheese ball day is in April. Makes no sense. These lactose spheres are perfect for football parties, I mean… in my family, we call October the beginning of cheese ball season! So, if you’re going to eat ’em in autumn, why not serve ’em in fall-fruit form?

Here I offer a simple and delicious way to ‘fancy up’ a cheesy classic. 

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Apple Cheese Ball

  • 8 oz package of cream cheese, softened
  • 2 Tbs. butter, softened
  • 8 oz. sharp cheddar cheese, finely grated (must be finely grated)
  • 1 Tbs. apple brandy
  • 1 Tbs. apple jelly or apple butter
  • 2 cups fried onions
  • 1 tsp. smoked paprika
  • branch and leaves for garnish

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Pear Cheese Ball

  • 8 oz package of cream cheese, softened
  • 2 Tbs. butter, softened
  • 5 oz. crumbled gorgonzola or blue cheese, softened
  • 1 Tbs. pear jam or jelly
  • 1 Tbs. pear brandy
  • 1 cup walnuts or pecans
  • yellow food coloring
  • branch and leaves for garnish

Ingredients note:

You can use flavored liquors instead of brandy — it’s just that the brandy has a richer, fuller flavor than a liquor.

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Process:

In a bowl, combine cream cheese, butter and cheddar or gorgonzola cheese. Beat with a hand mixer or stand mixer until fluffy.

Add in jam and brandy, and beat until combined.

Place mixture in refrigerator while working on next step.

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For Apple cheese ball:

Place fried onions in a ziplock bag and crush finely.

Add smoked paprika, and toss/knead to combine.

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For Pear cheese ball:

Toast walnuts/pecans in a dry frying pan over medium heat, or in the broiler, until golden brown. Set aside to cool. Once cool, chop nuts finely (you can use a food processor for this step). Add 8 to 12 drops of yellow food coloring, if desired.

Place mixed coating in a small bowl.

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Remove cheese mixture from the refrigerator and shape into desired form with your hands. Cheese mixture can also be placed in plastic wrap and molded, to keep hands clean.

Once a rough apple or pear form is achieved, drop cheese ball into bowl with coating, and press coating into the surface, refining fruit shape as you go.

After cheese ball is formed, add decorative leaves, and display.

Apple and Pear Shaped Cheese Balls printable recipe

These can be refrigerated for 2 days, or frozen for up to a month. Be sure to allow time to thaw before serving. No one wants a tooth chipped by chilled cheddar.

Enjoy these glorious globes of cheese, an homage to the fromage in you!

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DSCF0431 with Veg

I’m always looking for great snack and party ideas, and of course, the easier, the better. Here’s one of my favorites… Salami Chips. This isn’t haute cuisine, just a fun snack, and they’re a big hit at parties.

DSCF0482 Best holding Cracker

DSCF0472 HOlding Cracker

These are not necessarily healthy, but it’s okay to indulge every once in a while.  And they’re so good! They remind me of my childhood… I’d be the one burning my fingers to sneak the extra-crispy piece of pepperoni off the pizza before a slice even made it to my plate. Crunchy, salty, spicy, and now I don’t have to sneak them!

Plus, if you’re on a low-carb diet, this is a delicious substitute for crackers. And they’re gluten free.

There are two ways to cook these: microwave or conventional oven. If making a large batch, I recommend the conventional oven. But for a few pieces for snacking, the microwave is best.

 

DSCF0518 Salami Pkg

Here’s what you’ll need to make Salami Chips:

  • Dry Salami
  • Paper Towels
  • Microwave safe plate

Or

  • Parchment paper
  • Baking Sheet

The microwave process:

Place 4 to 6 pieces of salami on paper towel on a microwave-safe plate. Cover with another towel and microwave on high. For 4 pieces, 45 to 60 seconds. 6 pieces, 60 to 90 seconds.

Microwave process, Baked Salami!

DSCF0424 Cooked Mic

Check the cooking progress after the shorter interval, as they can burn very quickly.

When done, allow to cool and serve!

DSCF0458 Mic on Dish

The conventional oven process:

Preheat oven to 325°. Cover baking sheet with parchment paper.

DSCF0489 Oven Before

Arrange salami pieces on parchment paper – they will shrink during cooking, so place them close together to maximize space.

Place in oven for 18 to 23 minutes, until crispy and browned.

DSCF0496 Oven After

DSCF0500 Oven on Paper Towel

Transfer to a paper towel to cool (and to absorb excess fat.). Serve.

When deciding on the cooking process, here are some things I noticed:

Microwaved ‘chips’ on left, conventional oven made ones on the right.

Microwave pieces come out a bit ‘drier’ looking. I suspect they have more fat removed. The conventional oven pieces are glossier and darker.

Can be made up to a day in advance, but humidity can affect the crispiness.

They work great as ‘crackers’ for cheese and dips, but are delicious all alone.

Lovely for a mixed tidbit platter. Enjoy!

Crispy Baked Salami Cracker

Salami Collage

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.

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

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

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You probably remember these from your childhood, or from your kid’s kid-hood.  They’re delicious, and when you make them at home, you control the sugar, and even give them a little boost of nutrition… for a candy, at least.



This is a supremely easy-to-make confection, with only three natural ingredients.  No chemicals, no kidding!  They are:

Granulated Sugar

Citric Acid

and, our secret ingredient – Freeze Dried Fruit!

If you’re not familiar with freeze dried fruit, it’s different from other dried fruit like apricots or raisins.  This is real fruit that is first frozen, and then pressurized to remove the moisture, so it ends up light and crunchy.  It’s completely natural; there’s nothing else in there – just fruit!

Citric acid is a substance naturally occurring in fruit like oranges, tangerines, raspberries and blueberries.  It’s the thing that gives the Twisty Sticks their sharp tanginess.  You can find citric acid on line, make sure you’re using “food grade” quality.

First take 1/4 cup of the freeze dried fruit, put in a blender and pulverize.  Pour that powder into a bowl, add 1/4 cup sugar and 1-1/2 tsp. citric acid.  Mix with a whisk and it’s finished.  Taste it, it tastes just like the ones you remember as a kid… better actually!  Adjust the fruit-to-sugar ratio if you like.

Next fill the straws.  I use biodegradable paper straws, because they’re more like the original.  (You can use plastic straws, just carefully use a torch or match to fuse the ends, hold with pliers.) Glue and fold the bottom end, holding the glued bit in place with a tiny binder-clip until it’s dry.  Then use a tiny funnel (make one with paper) to fill each straw with powder.   Fold and glue the top, and your Twisty Stick is finished!

Note:  if you’re using raspberries and rather thin straws, you may need to sift the seeds out of your mixture before putting in straws.  There goes most of any fiber benefits of your Twisty Stix, but hey… it’s candy.

Each straw holds about one teaspoon of powder, so one batch makes about 15 to 20 Twisty Stix.

They’re delicious, and when you let the kids have this treat you’re sneaking in real fruit into their diet!  Bravo you!

There are lots of different types of freeze dried fruit –strawberries, raspberries (my favorite!), even mangoes.  Think of the possibilities.  And… two in a glass of mineral water, wine or liquor makes a very nice sweet cocktail.  Tear off the ends of the straw, and you’ve got instant deliciousness, with real fruit.  Enjoy revisiting the classic.

Note:  If you live in a high-humidity area, or make these on a particularly damp day, the powder can clump and stick inside the straws. I’ve found that blueberries are particularly prone to this.  To prevent, don’t over-pulverize the fruit, make within a day or two of using Twisty Stix, and use plastic straws, to further prevent exposure to moisture.

Bonus Content:

Pixi sticks evolved from a drink powder called Frutola, created in the 1930s.  It was made to be mixed with water as a drink, but kids were more interested in eating the powder alone, so the manufacturers re-packaged it to be eaten with a spoon.  Eventually, the sugar-delivery system was streamlined into paper straws, which could easily be poured into kid’s mouths.  A candy classic was born.