Most Wonderful Time Sea Salt Caramels

For the last few days I’ve had a song stuck in my head and it wasn’t until now that I realized why. Normally you’d think “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is all about the Christmas season. But when you are a devout sweet tooth it takes on a different meaning in October. Halloween is my most wonderful time and I can’t wait to steal from my nieces’ trick or treat haul.

By Labor Day jumbo sacks filled with autumn shades of Fun Size treats sat tauntingly on Duane Reade’s shelves. I was so tempted to start the holiday off early but kept to my rule—I’m not allowed to buy any celebratory candy until the month of the day being celebrated. So although bags of jelly beans are on display the day after Valentine’s, I have to wait until March or April 1st (depending on when Easter falls) to fill up my candy dish. But on October 1st I was allowed to buy a bag of Candy Corn. I normally like my chewier confections—Sour Patches, Kookaburra black licorice, Gummi Bears—on the stale side, but not candy corn. I like my corn fresh. I suffer from a sort of Ground Hog Day/candy corn amnesia: every year I forget just how cloyingly sweet it is and every year I buy it again. After the first handful I get the sugar jitters and then I need five pretzels to help me come down. Then I want another piece of corn, then another pretzel and so it goes until I give up, exhausted, surrounded by a ripped, half-eaten bag of candy corn and pretzel crumbs. It’s a good thing I live alone.
This year I did something different. After my October 1st binge I tossed the mangled bag of candy corn into the trash. I was really proud of myself—getting rid of the temptation helped me purge my shame. I was taking control. I made sure to immediately put the garbage bag down the chute since I don’t trust myself not to eat out of my own trash.

The next afternoon I was filled with regret. I wanted more corn so badly. Why had I thrown it out? Just three of the white/orange/yellow kernels would have been perfect. So I went to the deli on the corner to self medicate with an alternative. (Even I am not pathetic enough to buy a second bag.) I’ve often asked myself: when is it age inappropriate to stand in front of the candy display beneath the cash register staring at the selection while considering your sugary options?
I’ll tell you when: when your neighbor walks in and catches you. While I was scanning the shelves debating between a Mounds bar (something I always crave around Halloween for some reason) and a 100 Grand bar (another old Halloween favorite and I wish it was still called $100,000 Bar) the neighbor walked in, observed what I was doing and said, quizzically, “Hi...?” I panicked and went into hyper mode, “Hey! Oh, my nieces are coming for a visit—gotta get them some treats! The older one loves coconut!” (What? Where did I come up with that?!) and with that I threw both chocolate bars on the counter, paid quickly and ran all the way home. In my defense, I only nibbled on each bar a little and then tossed them too.
My relationship with candy started at an early age and there wasn’t a day after school when I didn’t somehow find enough change for a Nestle’s Crunch or a Three Musketeers or a Milky Way. Ironically, back in those days it felt like I was at the orthodontist weekly. But that didn’t stop me from buying three mini Peppermint Patties to enjoy on the Madison Avenue bus home. Even with a sore mouth I needed my fix. And I don’t just think about myself when it comes to my sweet memories. I remember my little sister nibbling on mini Reese's Peanut Butter Cups while sitting on a bench with my mother during my swimming lessons, or picking up my brother from a play-date and sharing a Heath bar on our way home. My father, ever the good boy, used to enjoy a Clark bar and a glass of water, as per the suggestion on the side of the wrapper, and my mother used to grab fistfuls of M&M’s from her mother’s candy dish when she wasn’t looking.

My recent humiliating deli candy purchases to one side, my go-to favorite is the Junior Mint. I always keep a box in my freezer and would never think of going to the movies without them. That’s another big thing, movies. I hate people who sit in the theater simply staring at the screen. Candy and popcorn are part of the experience! I’m lucky my friends agree and I can always count on Nick to have Milk Duds, Lisa to share her Twizzlers and Rich to switch back and forth between his bags of Sour Patch Kids and Dark Chocolate M&M’s.
Last week when I had dinner with Margot, another sweet-toothed friend, she told me about an exciting discovery she had recently made, a fabulous caramel from a small candy maker in the Pacific Northwest. Her description of the chewy, creamy, buttery and salty yumminess shoved candy corn out of my head and got me thinking, obsessively, about caramels. So I braved the corner deli once more, looking both ways before I went in, and grabbed a few Kraft caramels by the cash register.

One word: Yuck. I’d forgotten how lame they are. They don’t even have any caramel flavor. The fake vanilla aftertaste is hideous and the texture is so creepy. Clearly, I was on my own here. I’d seen Ina Garten make Fleur de Sel Caramels on the Barefoot Contessa and they looked incredible. Funnily, but not surprisingly, her recipe and the one I found on epicurious were identical except she seemed to think hers yielded 16 pieces while epicurious said to cut their batch into 40 squares. If you listened to Ina you would literally have an entire mouthful of caramel that would take a half hour to get through, and you’d resemble a cow chewing her cud. Not pretty.
This recipe is incredibly easy and you really can’t let yourself be intimidated by words like “candy thermometer.” The thermometer is your friend and only helps you achieve a fantastic result. These caramels are exactly what I was imagining when Margot described her new-found treats. I can’t believe there was a time when I didn’t know about the beautiful marriage of salt and caramel. After just one I vowed never to buy cheap candy again, at least until December 1st when my dish will be filled with pretty red and green Hershey’s Kisses. Until then, Happy Halloween!
Most Wonderful Time Sea Salt Caramels
Adapted from Barefoot Contessa, How Easy is That?, Ina Garten 2010
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Vegetable oil
1½ cups sugar
¼ cup light corn syrup
1 cup heavy cream
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon fleur de sel or Maldon sea salt, plus extra for sprinkling
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Line an 8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper, then brush the paper lightly with oil, allowing the paper to drape over 2 sides.
In a 3-4 quart, heavy saucepan, combine ¼ cup water, the sugar and corn syrup and bring them to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil until the mixture is a warm golden brown. Don’t stir – just swirl the pan to mix. Watch carefully, once it turns golden it will burn really fast!

In the meantime, in a small pan, bring the cream, butter, and 1 teaspoon of fleur de sel to a simmer over medium heat. Turn off the heat and set aside.
When the sugar mixture is a warm golden color, turn off the heat and slowly add the cream mixture to the sugar mixture. Be careful - it will bubble up violently. Stir in the vanilla with a wooden spoon and cook over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes, until the mixture reaches 248 degrees (firm ball) on a candy thermometer. Very carefully pour the caramel into the prepared pan and let sit undisturbed for several hours or over-night until completely cool.
Once cool, lift the sheet of caramel out of the pan onto a cutting board. Cut the sheet in half. Starting with a long side, roll one piece of the caramel up tightly into an 8-inch-long log. Repeat with the second piece. Sprinkle both logs with fleur de sel, trim the ends, and cut each log in 20 pieces.

Cut wax, glassine or parchment papers into 3 1/2 x 4-inch pieces and wrap each caramel individually, twisting the ends.For longer shelf life, keep in the fridge but allow to come to room temperature to really enjoy them.
Yield: 40 pieces


Accepting Reality Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

Most of us don’t have time for a lot of navel gazing. We’re busy living life: working, taking care of others, thinking about dinner, paying bills, remembering to pick up the dry cleaning and trying to get some exercise. The busy-ness of life is wonderfully protective when it comes to facing realities we might otherwise prefer not to face. But then we all have moments when our lives are disrupted by something that pricks our busy bubble, taking us off auto-pilot and forcing us to confront what we work hard to avoid. I’m not talking about tragedies or illnesses. Obviously they cause a major rearranging of priorities and thinking. I’m talking about seemingly small issues that make a large impact. Maybe you’re dating someone who is wonderful when you’re alone but then you’re invited to a dinner party and you’re reminded of your partner’s social anxiety. You find yourself doing all the heavy lifting while he or she recedes and your friends wonder why you are together. And so do you. Have you been in denial about your other half? The world will intrude eventually, unless you move together to Walden Pond which isn’t very realistic unless your partner knows how to build a winterized house.

My busy bubble was pierced last week by the most average of incidents. My coffee maker died. Truthfully it wasn’t a complete death. More a degenerative illness that will ultimately result in a total shut-down; on the underside of the machine I discovered a rusty hole. (I’d been wondering where the puddle I found every morning was coming from!) I bought my 10- cup Braun with the non-functional “Pause and Serve” feature 15 years ago. I was having people for brunch (now you see how long ago this really was. First because I still ate brunch and second because my friends were still childless and able to enjoy three hours of uninterrupted frittata and the previously discussed Zabar’s babka) which was something I did often enough to warrant a normal sized coffee maker. I remember thinking it was so sleek and smart looking, all shiny and black. I felt like a grown up.
As we know all good things must come to an end and so I set off to Bed Bath and Beyond where my brother, who in another life must have been a barista for his way with the coffee bean, had recommended I replace Braun-y with a specific model of Cuisinart. Oh dear. It was enormous! When did coffee makers turn into bread machines? I searched the aisles but all I found were stainless and plastic behemoth monstrosities with built-in timers and/or grinders that would take up 1/3 of my minimal counter space. And then I realized something. I don’t need a 12-cup coffee maker. I don’t need even a 10-cup coffee maker. I haven’t had more than one other person for a meal in my apartment in years. And at the most I could accommodate only three quasi-comfortably.

But there it was, a four-cup baby version of the big Cuisinart mama. And I had to pause. Was this too depressing? Would buying the mini be a sign that I was giving up or would it show I was living in the moment and accepting my reality?
You know how people buy jeans a size too small to motivate weight loss? I don’t think purchases should be aspirational. First lose the weight then buy the jeans. You have to live the life you have today not the one you hope will come tomorrow. Right? I’ve been dealing with a similar sartorial dilemma. I can't stop thinking about a pair of 5-inch, platform wedge booties. I really want them. But who do I think I am? Rachel Zoe? Where am I going in my 5-inch, platform wedge booties and how do I think I am getting there? I don’t have a driver coming to whisk me downtown in an Escalade. I take the subway. And if I got stuck behind some idiot in 5-inch platform wedge booties teetering down the subway steps I’d probably shove her out of the way to get to the approaching train. But maybe there’s a part of me that wishes I did have the kind of life that would make purchasing fabulous ankle-breaking boots completely appropriate?
The coffee maker wasn’t my only "Come to Jesus" moment last week. In one day I received three pieces of mail designed to remind me that I am a singleton. First was yet another free copy of Time Out New York Kids—it went immediately into the recycling bin. Then Fresh Direct sent a solicitation to The Levenstein Family. I wouldn’t use Fresh Direct even if they’d addressed the envelope properly. When you live alone you don’t buy enough food at one time to warrant paying for delivery. And how lazy do you have to be not to walk home carrying two grocery bags? And then I got a letter from the managing agent of my building addressed to Mrs. Levenstein. And they didn’t mean my mother. What was happening?! Did I really need all this reality shoved in my face?

Well, maybe I did. You see every summer I am surrounded by people. The nieces, siblings, friends and I all descend on my parents’ weekend house on and off for three months. With all of us around there is so much busy-ness I never stop and really think about anything. It’s "What should we all eat for dinner?" And "Who's up for the beach?" And "It’s raining. Let’s take the nieces to the movies." And most importantly it is baking for all these people. The opportunity for cakes, pies, breads, muffins, and cookies lasts from my father’s birthday over Memorial Day through Yom Kippur break fast two weeks ago. That’s really when reality hits. And it hits where it hurts the most, my sweet tooth. I can't count on the leftovers from my summertime baking projects when I'm in the mood for a treat. Instead I have to face the fact that I'm on my own and anything I make will be just for me.

I have a weird policy when it comes to baking for myself. Whatever I make has to be bite-sized. Frankly I’ve never been the type to sit in bed eating ice cream out of the carton or digging a fork into a whole cake, no matter what kind of mood I am in. The dessert I want most of the time is some fruit and a chocolate chip cookie. Or three. This particular recipe is from Cook’s Illustrated and is made in an entirely different way than your average Toll House. The browned butter gives the cookies such a deep flavor and brings out the toffee of the brown sugar. They crack a bit on top and the texture combines the best of slight crunch on the outside and chewy on the inside. If willpower is an issue, the great thing about making cookies is you can portion them out and freeze them. Then bake them off when the craving hits. I just made a batch and enjoyed two with a cup of coffee from my new (drum roll please) Cuisinart four-cup coffee maker!
So I’m living in my reality and enjoying it one cup at a time while I flip through the November Food and Wine looking for holiday pie recipes, wondering if I could wear five-inch platform wedge booties to Thanksgiving…
Accepting Reality Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies
Adapted from Cook's Illustrated, May/June 2009
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1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (8 3/4 ounces or dip and sweep method)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
14 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 3/4 sticks)
1/2 cup granulated sugar (3 1/2 ounces)
3/4 cups packed dark brown sugar (5 1/4 ounces) (see note)
1 teaspoon table salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1 1/4 cups semisweet chocolate chips or chunks (I use Ghiradelli 60% Cacao Chips)
3/4 cup chopped pecans or walnuts, toasted (optional--I never use them)


Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper. Whisk flour and baking soda together in medium bowl; set aside.
Heat 10 tablespoons butter in 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat until melted, about 2 minutes. Continue cooking, swirling pan constantly until butter is dark golden brown and has nutty aroma, 1 to 3 minutes.

Remove skillet from heat and, using heatproof spatula, transfer browned butter to large heatproof bowl. Stir remaining 4 tablespoons butter into hot butter until completely melted.
Add both sugars, salt, and vanilla to bowl with butter and whisk until fully incorporated. Add egg and yolk and whisk until mixture is smooth with no sugar lumps remaining, about 30 seconds.

Let mixture stand 3 minutes, then whisk for 30 seconds. Repeat process of resting and whisking 2 more times until mixture is thick, smooth, and shiny. Using rubber spatula or wooden spoon, stir in flour mixture until just combined, about 1 minute.

Stir in chocolate chips and nuts (if using), giving dough final stir to ensure no flour pockets remain.
Using Tablespoon sized ice cream scoop, drop dough onto baking sheets. (Obviously just use two Tablespoons if you don't have a scoop)
Bake cookies 1 tray at a time until cookies are golden brown and still puffy, and edges have begun to set but centers are still soft, 8-12 minutes, rotating baking sheet halfway through baking. Transfer baking sheet to wire rack; cool cookies completely before serving.
Yield: 35 cookies


Dinner Time Chocolate Mousse

A few weeks ago I settled in to read the Times Magazine: Food and Drink Issue in the sun. Sometimes I feel pressured when a publication takes a comprehensive look at a single topic that is of interest to me. But the Times handled their examination into what sustains us in such a way as to make each article, essay and collection of recipes a joy to read.

I don’t like being yelled at by the zealots in the locavore-organic-sustainable foodie movement, but there were excellent pieces on policy and health that were handled in a way that piqued my curiosity. Michael Pollan answered readers’ questions on everything from finding healthy options while on the road to what our food system will be like in 100 years, while Mark Bittman deconstructed the components of several options for a dinner party menu and, Bill Buford’s disgusting tale of eating a bowl of pig’s blood to one side, in between there was so much more to enjoy.

Then I got to a photo essay that I found incredibly poignant. With an introduction by Sam Sifton it was about the importance of the family meal. Families of all cultures, shapes and sizes were enjoying whatever meal they were eating around their tables. It didn’t matter what the menu was, and the food ran the gamut from homemade everything to take-out pizza, the point was that everyone was together. While I found myself smiling at the cute faces of the kids in the various families there was something that irked me; when I was a child we sat down to The Family Meal regularly, only we called it Dinner.

Why does our culture have to take normal behavior and label it with something ripe for marketers? Or maybe it is the other way around. I hate that. It makes everything seem so forced. Shouldn’t it be commonplace for a family to eat dinner together? Now I know life has changed from when I was a child. Kids are over-scheduled, parents get home later from work and some don’t get home at all if they are juggling multiple shifts. But even if we are talking about fewer weekly meals eaten as a group, and even if those meals involve take-out fast food, the point of it is to be together. Not to stop what we’re doing and think, Time for the Family Meal. It’s all so self conscious.

Boys’ Night Out, Girls' Night Out, Date Night, and even Happy Hour all make my skin crawl. When you put a label on what you’re doing it takes you out of the moment and smacks it with a hyper-awareness. My friend Daisy and I used to have a phrase we’d say whenever we had spent time with someone with whom we weren’t completely comfortable or knew only slightly. We called it “I’m with [name of acquaintance goes here] now.” It referred to that feeling you have when you aren’t being totally yourself. That’s what I think Family Meal does to the act of having dinner with your family.

I blame Quality Time. And by that I don’t mean spending time with your kids doing activities you think of as high quality. I mean the term Quality Time. It seems to me it was designed to alleviate the guilt of driven parents who didn’t make enough time for their children during the week and had to carve out two hours a weekend to do something really intense in order to feel like they were giving their kids what they need. I object. And I know that because I don’t have kids I am opening myself up to, “What does she know?!” I don’t care. I still object. I was a child and some of the best times I had with my family were when we were just hanging out: eating pancakes on a Sunday morning and coloring while my dad did the crossword puzzle; singing “Jessie’s Girl” with my sister when we were doing the dishes; helping my brother build a skyscraper with Legos and mashing up the tuna while my mother toasted bread for lunch. The trips to museums and bike rides, stuff of Quality Time, weren’t nearly as much fun and are not what come to mind when I think of my childhood.

Even though my parents had an active social life, and there were plenty of nights I popped a Stouffer’s French Bread Pizza into the oven for my siblings while Mom and Dad were out painting the town red, the majority of dinners involved all of us sitting around the dining table. There were times I resented having such a long break in the evening when I had homework to do (or Dynasty to watch). Dinner started promptly at 7:30pm and by the time the dishes were done it was close to 9pm. (Thanks to Rick Springfield for the entertainment portion of the drudgery).

I’ve mentioned before that my father spent several years working from home and took over the running of the house from my mother. Think of Captain Von Trapp in the kitchen. Laundry was done on Mondays and we had to sort our clothes according to color and leave them in their appropriate pile on the floor in front of the machine. Grocery items were purchased only if they were written on The List. (The List, by the way, was a master inventory of all the items kept in the kitchen on a weekly basis. It was arranged by aisle as it corresponded to the lay-out of our local Gristede’s.) My brother set and cleared the table, my sister and I did the dishes and my father did the cooking. Before he took on this change in role he distributed a questionnaire to my mother and the three of us in which we had to name our favorite meal, vegetable and dessert and those foods we refused to eat. My brother was seven at the time and when I think of his little chicken scratch filling in the space next to Favorite Dinner with “bonles chicken and noodls” I could cry. (Translation--boneless chicken and noodles.) But it worked. My father cooked way too much really good food. And at the end of every meal was dessert. Sometimes it was Pepperidge Farm cookies and fruit, sometimes Sara Lee cupcakes and sometimes this chocolate mousse.

I look at this recipe as a way to make up to all those who complained that last week’s babka was too challenging. If you can’t make it then I really don’t know how to help you. It is beyond easy and can be made in five minutes and then left alone to chill for a few hours. Out of the fridge it is almost like a ganache, which was how we used to like it because the deliciousness lasts longer. For a lighter, mousse-ier feel, let it sit out for a bit. If you insist on Quality Time you can make a big production and prepare it with your kids and then serve it at your next Family Meal. But please don’t. Make it and have it for dessert and don’t put a label on it. Just eat it with those you love. That’s quality.

Dinner Time Chocolate Mousse
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1 cup semisweet or dark chocolate chips (I used Ghiradelli 60% Cacao)
1 egg, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or liqueur of your choice
1 cup heavy cream

Place chocolate chips, egg and vanilla/liqueur in blender and blend until chips are small and the mixture looks mushy pebbles. (Not appetizing to look at but don't worry.)

Set aside and remove the little stopper in the blender's lid, replace lid.

Heat cream in a small sauce pan until very hot but do not boil. It should be steaming and there should be little bubbles around the sides.
Turn on the blender and pour hot cream through the lid's hole in a slow, steady stream.

Blend until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth. Pour into small ramekins, custard cups or demi-tasse cups.

and chill until firm. About 2-4 hours.

Yield: 4-5 depending on cup size. I used four-ounce ramekins and this recipe served 5.