denise 12-19

When we first moved to Connecticut all those years ago, we landed in a postcard perfect community of large Colonials framed by manicured lawns and towering trees, set back from a quiet shady lane that belied the bustle just moments away.

I started writing about food in that rented house; my writing career had at that point consisted of a semi-autobiographical bomb of a novel, bizarre science-fiction escapades, and a handful of poems. Not long after we set up house, I wrote one poem called, “Coffee with the Girls.” It chronicled my marginally successful attempts at making new friends, largely by inviting neighbors over and offering food. Not a bad strategy for introverts and those of us who find the holidays and the round-robin socializing overwhelming. Here are a few recipes to help ease the anxiety and win friends and influence people at the same time. The chocolates whip up in an afternoon for gift giving, but you’ll want to plan in advance for the amaretto, which must set, ideally, for four weeks before bottling.

Chocolate Truffles

  • 12 ounces best quality semi-sweet chocolate
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • Up to 2 tablespoons liqueur, optional
  • 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2 tablespoons confectioner’s sugar

Semisweet is the preferred chocolate for truffles in this house, ensuring a rich, luscious truffle, though substitute bittersweet if you’d like something darker, with a bit of bite. Warm together the cream and butter in a small saucepan, and mix with chocolate melted according to package directions. Or place chocolate in a metal or glass bowl and set aside. Place butter, cut into pieces, and cream in the top of a double boiler set over medium heat. Stir together as butter melts, bring to bubbling, then remove from heat. Add to chocolate and stir until melted and well blended. If the chocolate is stubborn, place the bowl over the simmering water for a few moments, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Stir in the vanilla extract then the liqueur if desired. If not, add an additional teaspoon of extract. Cover and chill for one to two hours.

Remove from refrigerator. Using a teaspoon or the larger end of a melon scoop, form rough balls and drop onto a baking sheet lined with plastic wrap or parchment paper. Smooth by rolling quickly between the palms of your hands. Pop the baking sheet into the refrigerator for a few moments, should the chocolate become too warm to work without a huge mess. Sift together the cocoa powder and confectioner’s sugar. Roll each truffle in the cocoa mixture and place in a paper mini-muffin cup liner for a lovely presentation. Place in an airtight container and chill. Will keep about seven to ten days under refrigeration.

A note about chocolate, cream, butter, and liqueur: The chocolate chips you turn to for cookies might not do for truffles. Splurge on the best, in bar form when possible, coarsely chopped. Some recipes eschew butter and increase the cream, but I prefer the addition. I also prefer salted butter here. Less cream yields a firmer truffle, of course, so if your candies must travel or sit out for several hours, you might opt to lessen the amount slightly. And finally, liqueur: it’s hard to go wrong with Grand Marnier, brandy, amaretto, or cognac; my mother’s handwritten recipe calls for Peppermint Schnapps, and rather a great deal of it (6 tablespoons for the above proportions). Jack Daniels found its way into her truffles as well.

Amaretto Buttercreams

  • 3 1/2 cups confectioner’s sugar
  • ½ cup butter
  • ¼ cup heavy cream
  • 2 teaspoons Amaretto
  • 12 ounces dark or semi-sweet chocolate
  • 2 tablespoons butter

Sift the confectioner’s sugar into a large bowl. Set aside.

Place the butter and heavy cream in a small saucepan over medium heat. Heat, stirring, until butter melts. Allow to cool slightly. Stir in the Amaretto, then stir the mixture into the sugar until very smooth. Cover tightly and refrigerate for about 2 hours.

Line a baking sheet with parchment or plastic wrap. Using a tablespoon or similarly sized measure, drop rough balls of the butter cream onto the baking sheet. Smooth them between your palms. As with the truffles, return the baking sheet to the refrigerator should the buttercreams become too warm to roll without a mess.

Once the buttercreams are formed to your satisfaction, place in the refrigerator or even the freezer to harden before covering with chocolate. Melt the chocolate in the top of a double boiler. If you’re improvising by melting chocolate in a bowl placed over a saucepan, be sure to keep the heat at medium and do not allow the boiling water to touch the bowl. Stir constantly until chocolate is half melted, then remove from heat right away and continue stirring. Add 2 tablespoons of butter and stir until melted and smooth.

Time to coat the buttercreams. You can insert a toothpick into each and dip into the melted chocolate or use two forks to submerge them. Work quickly but allow any excess to drip back into the bowl or double boiler before setting on the tray. Create a swirl on top of the candy if desired.

Inevitably, the chocolate will become too cool to coat the candy evenly and without undue thickness. Return briefly to the heat, again stirring constantly. The goal is two-fold: keep the chocolate around 90 degrees for a uniform, shiny coating and also to avoid scorching, which can happen in a flash and will ruin the candy.

Triple Threat Chocolate Truffles

This is a variation of a recipe clipped from Gourmet magazine over 20 years ago.

  • 12 ounces quality milk chocolate
  • 12 ounces best quality white chocolate
  • 1 1/3 cups heavy cream, divided
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 6 to 12 ounces quality semi-sweet chocolate
  • 2 tablespoons butter

For this lovely layered convection, butter and neatly line a straight-sided 9 x 5 baking tin with plastic wrap, allowing wrap to drape over the sides. Set aside.

Melt and mix the milk chocolate with half of the cream as directed above. Pour into the baking tin and level with an offset spatula. Cover with wrap and place in the refrigerator to cool. Melt the white chocolate with the remaining cream as directed, then stir in the vanilla extract. Layer the white chocolate evenly on top of the milk chocolate and level. Cover and return to the refrigerator for several hours.

When chilled and firm, remove from the refrigerator and lift the chocolate onto a cutting board. Use a long, sharp knife to slice into squares slightly larger than an inch. Separate, place on a baking sheet lined with parchment, and return again to the refrigerator for 30 minutes or so, to firm.

Melt semi-sweet chocolate in a double boiler set over medium heat along with 1 to 2 tablespoons of butter, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat as soon as chocolate has half-melted and stir until smooth. Coat pieces as directed above. Set each truffle back on the tray. Allow topping to set before covering. All truffles should be kept refrigerated and are best consumed within a week to ten days.

Amaretto

Making liqueurs at home is fun and cost-effective, and when beautifully bottled, they make wonderful gifts. This is more method than recipe; you may find you need to “top off” your jars as the apricots soak up the vodka. Some recipes call for pre-hydrating the fruit with water before carrying on with the recipe. I prefer to lose some alcohol in the process rather than dilute the final result or introduce an unknown element into the long infusion. Easily doubled for a larger batch.

For the infusion:

  • 1 1/2 cups dried apricots
  • 2 1/2 to 3 cups whole or slivered almonds (see note)
  • 6 to 8 cups vodka, approximately
  • To finish and bottle:
  • 1 cup vodka, optional
  • 2 cups brandy
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • Or 1 cup each of granulated and brown sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • Vanilla and almond extracts, optional

A note on almonds. Most recipes call for chopped whole almonds with skins. This is of course the most economical option, but I will opt for slivered almonds with the next batch. Chop whole almonds and you get lots of tiny fragments and a certain amount of dust. I rinsed away as much of this as I could, but still found the infusion was immediately cloudy. Cloudiness will occur regardless, as the almonds will exude not just flavor into the vodka, but oil as well. Straining a few times through clean coffee filters will removed the oil.

Also, we should note that recipes often call for a small amount of apricot kernels as well as the dried fruit. I felt no need to include this not readily available and potentially hazardous ingredient. Purists may wish to include up to a quarter-cup, after doing their own homework.

To make the infusion, start with scrupulously clean glass jars with tight fitting lids. I like to scrub the jars then fill with boiling water in lieu of sterilizing, which is not really necessary, then empty and allow to cool before carrying on. Chop the dried apricots and set aside. Coarsely chop the almonds and sift or rinse in a sieve to remove small fragments and dust. Straining will be somewhat easier if you use separate jars for fruit and nuts but combining is fine. Set the ingredients in the clean jars and cover with vodka. Seal tightly and set aside in a cool darkened place for, optimally, four weeks. Gently turn over the jars like a snow globe now and then to mix the contents. There is some satisfaction in this activity, we might add.

When ready to bottle, make a dense simple syrup: place sugar and water into a small saucepan over medium heat, stir well, and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat and stir until sugar is completely dissolved. Set aside to cool.

Strain the infused vodka through coffee filters. This is a fairly slow process and should be repeated several times, to ensure all sediment is removed. Press lightly on the apricots to release more of the infused vodka.

When straining is complete, place liquid into a large bowl and add 1 cup of additional vodka, if desired, and 2 cups of brandy. Add half the simple syrup and taste for sweetness. Add more if desired, and up to 1 cup additional water. Amend flavor with a small amount of vanilla and almond extracts as well, should it seem necessary. Funnel into clean bottles and cap tightly. Store out of the sunlight. Amaretto should maintain its quality for several months.