Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Recipe Review: Chocolate Peanut Squares

i've loved Nigella Lawson for a long time, but for some reason, I never bought any of her cookbooks. This past weekend I decided it was long overdue and headed down to Barnes and Noble (with my nifty teacher discount card). I decided on Forever Summer since it had some fantastic pictures and lots of fresh simple recipes.

This particular recipe caught my eye because it didn't seem to be too summery, but rather fit for the wintry mix outside. Plus I was on a chocolate peanut kick. And so the saga began...

First the shortbread. I augmented this with a little vanilla and coconut, which I think helps any dessert.

2 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup softened unsalted butter
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 cup sweetened shredded coconut

Throw it all together in the food processor and buzz away until it looks mealy and starts to clump up. Press into an 8 x 8 pyrex dish and stab at it freely with a fork. Bake at 325 for 5 minutes, then 300 for 45 minutes.

Now came the frustrating part. The peanut caramel. I'm convinced this was supposed to be a chewy gooey center of goodness. That's not exactly how it worked out. Here's the story.

Nigella includes a recipe that uses condensed milk and she cooks it in the microwave. I have an unexplainable aversion to cooking (not just reheating) in the microwave. I can only guess it's the ingrained response my mother trained into me at a young age that microwaves cause cancer. So, I decided it would probably be just as good cooked over medium low heat in a saucepan, whisking constantly.

WRONG! My first sign that something had gone wrong were miniscule black specks throughout the creamy mixture. Then, in an instant it went from one creamy pool to a hideous suspension of curds in liquid butter. It was beyond help, and thus its fate - the drain.

Aaaahhhhh - curdled goo and no more condensed milk to start over with! But I can't let this sweet stuff beat me. i can cook up just about anything - I've got to be able to handle this.

So I start looking for something similar. I find a recipe in the Gourmet cookbook for cranberry pecan bars. The berries and nuts are suspended in a caramel. I think, "This isn't so bad after all - i knew there was a better way," and start feeling smug.

So I combine (in my freshly cleaned pot)
2 sticks unsalted butter (wow that's a lot!)
1 2/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup corn syrup
1/2 tsp salt

I should've known when I saw the ingredients that this was not a gooey caramel, since it lacked the heavy cream, but I pressed on obliviously, stirring occasionally over medium height until the thermometer said 245.

Now - the thermometer said 245 but I don't believe it. That means it should have been somewhere between soft ball and hard ball stage but it looked suspiciously close to hard crack.

After adding peanuts and spreading it out onto the shortbread and letting it cool, I discovered I had a caramel texture in between toffee and peanut brittle. Not what I was going for, but still decidedly tasty. Oh well.

To top it off, 9.25 oz of luscious Scharffen Burger bittersweet chocolate, melted and poured down over the candy. Unfortunately this did not stay attached to the caramel, but it was a nice contrast to cut through the sweetness.

The Verdict: The finished product was quite different than the original vision. This was a prime example of how I always want to mess with recipes too much. Since I din not actually follow the recipe, I can't really say either way. The jury's still out...

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