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wasabigelatine’s 2013 holiday gift guide

My husband likes to amuse himself by sending me clickbait-style texts on his way home from work: “This Cabbie Knows How To Save the Day — But Will It Cost Him His Life?” I’m a bit behind updating this blog, so in the spirit of playing catch up and because my favorite finds this year are totally sensational, I present to you:

12 FABULOUS FOODIE GIFTS YOU SHOULD BUY NOW

Middlewest is a new food publication founded by two former Time Out Chicago staffers. Self-described as “a modern food magazine, deconstructed”, Middlewest sets itself apart from the current abundance of indie gastronomic periodicals by printing its content on oversized recipe cards, making it easy and convenient to use in the kitchen. The innovative yet practical design and bold photography is a delight to look at and play with. As a big enthusiast of food journals, Middlewest offers something truly original and is one of my very favorites. $18 for issue 1, $20 for issue 2 at middlewestmag.com

 

I’m a sucker for tea in pretty packages and this gift set includes two crowd-pleasing blends, Earl Grey and Royal Air Force English Breakfast teas, as well as an over-the-cup strainer which I greatly prefer to giant sloshing mesh tea balls. $45 at Provisions by Food52

photo credit: Food52

 

Paula Haney, owner of Hoosier Mama Pie Company, has real culinary street cred — she was the pastry chef at Grant Achatz’s former restaurant Trio — yet she admits that years ago (before starting her business, of course) she’d sometimes resort to store-bought pie crusts because they were difficult to make. This disarming anecdote, along with detailed step-by-step pie crust instructions and troubleshooting tips, is one of the many reasons The Hoosier Mama Book of Pie is a must-have reference for any baker and/or fan of the Chicago pie shop. And naturally, there are lots of pie recipes. $29.95 at Hoosier Mama Pie Shop, 1618 1/2 Chicago Ave. or $22.54 at amazon.com

 

Paul McGee’s underground (literally, it’s in a basement) tiki lounge Three Dots and a Dash is the kind of magical place that’s so thoroughly relaxing and transformative you want to take a piece of it back with you into the real world. And you can by purchasing any of the tiki mugs you see there. Following the tradition of other long-ago tiki lounges, Three Dots releases exclusive, limited-edition mugs several times a year, a wonderful gift for the avid collector or a jolly knickknack to brighten up your cube at work. $15-$20 each at Three Dots and a Dash, 435 N. Clark St.

photo credit: Three Dots and a Dash

 

The problem with macarons is they’re so light and airy and tasty they disappear almost instantly. Lucky for us, Chambre de Sucre offers these adorable macaron trinket boxes made of Limoges porcelain, perfect for storing little treasures. $13.95 each at chambredesucre.com

photo credit: Chambre de Sucre

 

When my three year old complained that grown up forks were too big and I grumbled that kids’ utensils were too plastic, I grabbed a set of these lovely gold cocktail forks as soon as I saw them at West Elm despite the slightly steep price tag. Then I learned they’re 24 karat gold electroplated, so they’ll be fancy enough for oysters at your New Year’s Eve parties. $28 for a set of 4 at West Elm stores (1000 W. North Ave.), sold out online

photo credit: West Elm

 

Another example of great object, great packaging: this Letherbee spirits gift pack includes a bottle of limited edition Autumnal Gin made with Lapsang Souchong tea and mace, a flask of the original label gin, and another one with their rendition of the bracingly bitter Chicago hipster favorite Malört, all done up in a handy wooden crate with leather strap. $65 at Provenance Food & Wine, 2528 N. California Ave. and 2312 W. Leland Ave.

 

Moose bottle stopper. $13 at potterybarn.com

photo credit: Pottery Barn

 

I don’t usually care for chocolate and caramel sauces because they’re typically too sweet or too heavy, but this year I discovered Fran’s Chocolate & Caramel sauces and always keep a jar of each in the fridge now. The chocolate is smooth, bittersweet and not too thick — nice melted for dipping strawberries, drizzling on ice cream, or even straight out of the jar. I’ve used the caramel on apple pie and oatmeal, and it’s just the right amount of buttery and salty. $20 at franschocolates.com

photo credit: Fran’s Chocolates

 

It seems that every year I include some sort of dish towel in my gift guide because, well, you can never have too many. Nourishing Notes, based here in Chicago, creates Food Philosophy kitchen towels screenprinted with witty and inspirational phrases such as “Trust your gut, not the recipe” and my personal favorite “When life gives you lemons, make limoncello”. They’re sturdy enough for every day use and pretty enough to put on display. $15 each at etsy.com

 

These clever Icelandic sea salt flasks by The Reluctant Trading Experiment remind me of one of my first foodie obsessions years ago — Dean and Deluca’s iconic test tube spice rack. What I love about this design is that the flask serves as a salt cellar but you can easily grasp it and shake a few grains into whatever you’re cooking. Speaking of, the website says they’re Walter White approved. $13.50 for 3.5 oz, $20 for 9.17 oz at reluctanttrading.com

photo credit: The Reluctant Trading Experiment

 

Short Stack editions are wonderful stocking stuffers for people who love to cook. Each booklet focuses on one ingredient and provides a wide variety of recipes, emphasizing the versatility of that particular food. They’re authored by well-known food writers and professionals so the directions are easy to follow and enjoyable to read. $12 each, $35 for a trio, or $75 for a 6-edition subscription (includes free shipping and additional goodies) at shortstackeditions.com

photo credit: Short Stack

 

 

My year in canning

I started canning in late 2011 because my favorite grape jam had been discontinued. Actually, I hadn’t been able to find American Spoon grape jam for at least four years and everything else I’d tried, from mass market to small batch artisanal varieties, just didn’t stack up. The one closest to ideal was a big disappointment — $10 for a half pint that developed a nasty white fuzz in less than three weeks.

Earlier that year, a couple of friends and I decided we’d teach ourselves to can, but our kids were really little and it was impossible to find a time we could all meet up and a place where there wouldn’t be toddlers in close proximity to boiling hot sugary liquid. Summer came and went and we never did get together, but as I walked through the farmers market one Saturday morning in September, intoxicated by the musky sweetness of Concord grapes, I was determined to have a pantry overflowing with my very own, homemade grape jam to make up for the years of deprivation.

It was a daunting endeavor. Canning isn’t in my bloodline and I didn’t have any friends in the area to show me how to do it. There are certain things you can learn on your own, from a book or video (rolling out a pie crust, patching up a bicycle tire) but for other activities it’s much better to have hands-on instruction (the entire process of baking bread, knitting). I thought canning would certainly fall into the second category but it was literally as easy as stirring fruit and sugar in a pot. Of course, I had excellent resources — particularly Liana Krisoff’s Canning for a New Generation — and encouragement from out-of-state canners who assured me I wouldn’t kill anyone with botulism as long as I adhered to proper sanitation.

Concord grape jam is one of the trickiest, most time-consuming jams for a beginner since it involves skinning the grapes and straining out the skins and seeds in addition to figuring out when your jam has reached the gelling point. Call it beginner’s luck, but by the end of the week I had three half-pints of lovely, thick, intensely flavored grape jam. Not exactly a pantry’s worth, but that would be my goal for the following summer.

When I learn something new and it clicks with me, I tend to get a little obsessive. I canned 20 batches of jams, preserves, and fruit in 2012, beginning with little jewel-bright strawberries in June and wrapping up the year with tiny Seckel pears bathed in spiced vanilla syrup.  I hadn’t planned on canning that much, just strawberry jam, more grape jam and maybe blueberry, but curiosity got the best of me. Every time I stopped by my favorite fruit stands at the farmers market, I’d pick up a few baskets of whatever was in season, meaning to enjoy some immediately and also thinking “What sort of jam can I make out of this?”

My canning sessions quickly became the solace of long, busy summer weeks working and caring for my darling, lively daughter who doesn’t like to sleep. On canning days, when she’d finally drift off around the time most adults are turning in for the night, I’d my haul out my preserving pan, dump in the fruit and sugar, fire it all up, and stir and stir and stir and let the repetition and warm sweet simmer lull me into a Zen-like calm. And in the morning, I’d be greeted by the sun illuminating the brilliant reds and purples and golds of the jars resting on the table, almost as beautiful as my daughter’s smile when she’d wake up and run into the kitchen and know that she would have fresh jam on toast for breakfast.

 

June: strawberry Pinot noir, strawberry, strawberry rhubarb vanilla jams
 

July: blueberry Meyer lemon jam
 

July: spiced bourbon cherries
 

July: Rainier cherry + white nectarine preserves
 

August: chocolate raspberry jam
 

August: peach oolong butter
 

September: Concord grape jam
 

November: spiced apple butter
 

December: Mountain Rose apple butter
 

December: Seckel pears in vanilla, pink peppercorn, and star anise syrup

 

Sweet mung bean soup

One of my favorite summer meals is a simple, refreshing bowl of chilled soup — gazpacho, cucumber-avocadocurried carrot and other veggie-based soups are lovely ways to enjoy the season’s bounty. When my sister and I were growing up, our mom would serve us sweet, cold mung bean soup in the summertime. We were fond of it since it was basically dessert to us; I’m guessing my mom preferred its nutritional value. It’s filling, satisfying, and has been my breakfast staple for the past few days in this ridiculous Chicago heat.

Mung beans are used in many Asian cuisines; you may be familiar with them in the form of bean sprouts or cellophane noodles, made from its starch. They’re high in protein, contain a significant amount of calcium and iron, and according to traditional Chinese medicine, have a cooling effect on the body by flushing out excess heat, which is why mung bean soup is typically eaten during summer.

Unlike a lot of dried legumes, mung beans don’t require soaking so they’re quick to prepare. Just stick in them in a pot with some water, start the rice cooker, and walk away. You can use all that extra time to whip up a batch of ice cream or another cool treat. In fact, they make great popsicles — they’re exactly like the red bean variety except they’re green, of course. After the soup is done, pour and freeze in popsicle molds. The frozen beans add a delightfully crunchy texture.

Sweet mung bean soup (and/or popsicles)

1 part dried mung beans, rinsed (you can buy them at any Asian grocery store or Whole Foods)
3-4 parts water (use the lower end if you’re making popsicles)
natural sweetener of your choice (I use brown sugar but white sugar or agave nectar would be fine, too)

Combine beans and water in rice cooker pot. Start rice cooker. When it shuts off, it’s done. If the beans aren’t tender enough to your liking, cook another few minutes. Add sweetener to taste (you may want to add a little more if you’re freezing this into pops). Serve cold (or frozen).

Thin Mint ice cream

When my sister and I were little, we were friends with three brothers whose parents owned a Baskin-Robbins. Once in a while they’d invite everyone over to the shop for unlimited free ice cream. As we watched their mom scoop mountains of rainbow sherbet and jamoca almond fudge, the rest of us kids thought about our engineer and accountant parents and wondered where we’d gone wrong.

The other day I stopped by Grange Hall Burger Bar in the West Loop — not for a burger, but because I’d heard their monthly ice cream special was Girl Scout Thin Mint. I don’t need to tell you how good it was because it’s a no-brainer. What truly impressed me was that it perfectly blended our favorite ice cream flavors growing up: mint chocolate chip for me, cookies and cream for my sister. So I re-created this treat in homage to childhood BR binges, when calories didn’t exist, and the Yapp brothers, wherever they are now.

Grange Hall Burger Bar Girl Scout Thin Mint ice cream. Not mine! I wish!

My ice cream recipe is really easy. It doesn’t use a custard base, mostly because I didn’t want to spend the time on one, so it doesn’t have that wonderfully silky texture. Besides, the best thing about homemade ice cream is (nearly) instant gratification. But if you’d like to cook a custard, try this recipe by Martha Stewart (which mine is based on); just omit the vanilla and add peppermint.

Thin Mint ice cream
makes 1½ quarts

2 cups heavy cream
2 cups whole milk
¾ cup white granulated sugar
2 teaspoons pure peppermint extract (I use Nielsen-Massey)
¼ teaspoon pure vanilla extract (optional; I think it rounds out the flavor)
1 sleeve Thin Mints, roughly crushed

Combine the cream, milk, and sugar and stir until dissolved. Add the extract(s) and mix thoroughly. Freeze ice cream according to your machine’s instructions. The ice cream will have the consistency of soft serve at this point. Mix in the Thin Mints. Transfer to freezer until the ice cream reaches desired consistency. If it’s rock solid, let it defrost for a few minutes to soften up before serving.

Coconut-lime bundt cake

Bundt cakes are the casseroles of the dessert world: quick, easy, large enough to feed a crowd. Adorned with just a dusting of powdered sugar or a translucent veil of icing, they’re the modest counterpart to fussy, heavily frosted layer cakes. And they’re practical, a cinch to transport and help yourself to at the buffet table. But sometimes the familiar prettiness of the girl next door can get boring, so she needs a bit of tarting up. That’s why I decided to make a coconut-lime bundt cake for an Easter potluck.

Our church is full of great cooks. We’re a pretty diverse bunch, and no one seems to have come up in a tuna casserole and green jello tradition. At our potlucks, we’ve had huge trays of creamy, gooey mac and cheese, sweet potato biscuits and cornbread, braised short ribs. A generous non-cook, I think, always brings in boxes of Popeye’s chicken. So it would be cheating if I just baked a pan of brownies and called it a day.

I like citrus in a dessert after a big meal because the acidity gives the impression of cutting through some of the heaviness, never mind that a cake loaded with butter and sugar isn’t really “light”. I’d been eyeing a key lime bundt cake recipe for a while and thought to dress it up with some coconut, inspired by this cake which I’ve never had but induces drooling every time I look at it.

I’m not a fan of coconut bits in the cake itself (it makes me run for the dental floss) so I substituted coconut milk instead of regular and decided that a shower of flaked coconut over the glaze would add the perfect amount of texture and crunch.

The final product: sweet and sassy, the coconut milk’s soft floral notes playing off the zingy lime. I don’t ask what people think of my food, but seeing the young daughter of our potluck hosts devour a slice of cake in about thirty seconds was quite a compliment. I hope you enjoy it, too.

Coconut-lime bundt cake
serves 16

Cake:
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 ounces unsalted butter at room temperature
2 cups sugar
4 extra large eggs
1 cup coconut milk
finely grated zest of 4 limes
3/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice (to be used in syrup and glaze)

Syrup:
1/2 cup lime juice
3/4 cup sugar

Coconut-lime glaze:
1/4 cup lime juice
1 3/4 cup powdered sugar
1 cup unsweetened flaked coconut (more or less based on your preference)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour a 12-cup Bundt pan.

Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt and set aside. In a stand mixer, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Beat in eggs one at a time.

On lowest speed, alternately add dry ingredients and coconut milk, scraping bowl as necessary and combining just to mix. Fold in lime zest. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake until tester comes out clean, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.

While cake is baking, prepare the syrup: in a small saucepan, stir together lime juice and sugar over low heat until dissolved. Set aside.

Prepare the glaze: in a small bowl, stir together powdered sugar and lime juice until completely smooth.

After cake is done, cool on wire rack for 10-15 minutes. Invert cake on rack over aluminum foil. Using a pastry brush, brush syrup over warm cake. Let dry for 10-15 minutes. Pour glaze over cake and sprinkle with flaked coconut. Let cake cool completely and transfer to cake platter. Let stand loosely covered for several hours or overnight before serving.