Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Inspiration from the Nearly Expired: Culinary Transformations before Heading Home

bacon, brie and spinach turnover
I don't know about you, but I take issue with the thought of knowing that items with a limited expiration date would be left behind and go to waste while away from campus. In my world, there are two things that should be done: 1) throw out everything that you should have consumed before it ever got to that point or 2) make a dish or perhaps even a meal out of it. I imagine that, especially if you're a returning reader, you know which route I chose.

After reconstituting with additional red wine and chicken stock some bœuf bourgignon I had made and froze ages ago (I promise, it was still good and I didn't get sick), I started to think of other items in my fridge I should probably use before they completely go to waste. Following a recent wave of inspiration to test my hand at homemade ice cream, I gathered half and half, a lemon, frozen berries, some fresh basil from my windowbox herb garden and the leftover berry coulis that had been frozen after this past October's DSF dinner.

Merging the above ingredients with those listed in this recipe and the technique of this one, I built my ice cream recipe on a standard ratio of 1/4 c granulated sugar for every cup of half and half (for vanilla ice cream, add 1 tsp of pure vanilla extract); I made two times this base. All of these ingredients went into a gallon-size zipper bag (though they'll certain fit into a quart-size one), along with chiffonaded basil, the zest of the lemon and half the lemon's juice. Zipped, this bag then went into another gallon-size zipper bag I had filled with alternating layers of ice cubes and table salt.

The exterior bag now carefully zipped, all that was left to do was shake the bag until the half and half churned and froze into ice cream. Typically, this is a process that should take 10 minutes.. if the bags were cold enough (I'm 80% sure this didn't happen because I used table salt rather than a larger grain like rock salt). But no worries, I got this bag into the freezer and alternated every 10-15 minutes with shaking it out of the freezer and then leaving it in again to freeze. In essence, the goal here is to incorporate air into the ice cream and prevent it from creating frozen water crystals. Eventually [I believe after about two hours of this... to be fair, I did have some time to pass and I needed my frozen berry coulis to thaw], the half and half bulked up in density and was ready for the next stage of freezing. Indeed, you'll know when it's ready when it begins to hold its shape as seen here.

For the final freeze, I transferred this to a larger plastic container, alternating the ice cream with frozen berries and the coulis (loosely piped out of a plastic baggy with the tip cut off). If the ice cream was too liquidy, the coulis would mix in too much and would run counter to the swirl effect I was seeking. With a bit of wax paper over the surface of the ice cream, I left this in the freezer to solidify.

The next day, I used up some of my reserved, rendered bacon fat and cooked (butter-style, as directed on the packaging) a box of overly frozen spinach (replacing the butter, of course, with the bacon fat). As that was going, I oven cooked a remaining open package of bacon and reserved even more rendered bacon fat for later use. Unfortunately, after the broiling stage, I burned quite a bit of the bacon; fortunately, I was able to save a substantial amount. Allowing a sheet of puff pastry to defrost (which, too, was on its way to being overly frozen and actually dry), I was setting up the stage to make savoury turnovers.

After sautéeing a small onion I had brunoised (this site shows a technique that cuts through the entire onion rather than petite dicing it as a whole), I added to it the sautéed spinach (the resulting liquid drained as much as possible) and allowed everything to cook together and evaporate as much moisture as possible without burning the spinach or onions. Of course, there's also the technique of pushing out the moisture. All told, if too much moisture got into turnover, spillage and overpuffing would be likely possibilities.

With the spinach mix not too moist, the bacon crisped and crumbled and the remainder of my brie log sliced, I was ready to assemble the turnovers. If the oven hasn't already been preheating, now would be a good time to do so (set it to the standard 350°F). Make a small pile on one corner of a pastry sheet (I ended up quartering each 1/3 sheet, for a total of 12 turnovers) with a bit of spinach, a slice of cheese and a bit of the bacon. Then, thinking "paper football, paper football," (or "fold the American flag") carefully shape each turnover into little pocket triangles. (In retrospect it may be better to start with the pile on one of the edges and bring a corner to that edge, rather than flip over the entire pile as expected above. However, you do it, transfer each turnover to a nonstick baking sheet (better to lightly grease the sheet if you're afraid of the turnovers sticking) and brush (read: paper towel) an egg wash (one egg yolk + 2 tbsp water) over the top of each turnover.

About 20-25 minutes later, twelve beautifully puffed up and golden brown turnovers come out of the oven ready to be plated and soonafter consumed (the interior will be quite hot!, so let the turnovers cool a bit). Flaky and crispy and layered with homey flavours, these turnovers are easily devourable; I'd hesitatingly say they're great appetizers for a group of 4, maybe 5.

For a small bite of dessert, I decided now would also be a good time to try the ice cream I had made the night prior. Indeed, equally flavoured and quite refreshing, homemade ice cream seems to easily justify its consumption. Plus, it's got fruit and an herb in it, so it's a healthier option than most, no?

Though it would be a bit of a stretch to say that my final before heading home culinary experience (this time, the evening prior to my departure) yielded very healthy results, I will say it's one of the best uses of leftover/soon-to-be-expired ingredients. The end result: dark chocoalte salted caramels with... rendered bacon fat! I had thought about making these individual candies ever since I made my first batch of homemade caramel sauce last year for my dark chocolate salted caramel brownies. And I finally decided to test out just how wonderfully awesome and culinary versatile rendered bacon fat could be. To begin, I got about 1/3 c water boiling with 1.5 c granulated sugar and 3 T light corn syrup. As the sugar melts, use a form to carefully stir the water, sugar and syrup together until the mixture begins to boil; at that point, don't touch the sugar or else it will crystalise.

While the sugar was bubbling, I microwaved in a bowl--in 30 second increments, stirring each time--ten squares of Lindt dark chocolate (I think that's about equivalent to a 3.5 oz pkg). As the chocolate cooled, I added the rendered bacon fat I had saved from preparing for the turnovers (an amount equivalent to 1/3 c). Let me take a moment to tell you: the smell of warm chocolate and melting bacon fat was dangerously delicious.

Oof, and add a half pint of cream. Wow.

As you mix everything together (note: the end result will be something speckly, like this), lightly butter a heatproof dish. [I'll note know this wasn't enough, as I'll explain further below.] When the sugar starts to turn off-white and is boiling quite viciously, add to the lot 1/2 c packed light brown sugar. Rather quickly, the sugar will caramelise and turn light brown in colour. Lower the heat from medium to low and wait for the bubbles to slightly subside. Whisk at the ready, carefully pour in the chocolate-bacon fat-cream mixture and whisk.

With the rapidity of the bubbles (which are really escaping water molecules) coming to a near halt, add a great tablespoon of grey sea salt and a few teaspoons of pure vanilla extract (because that's all I had left of that). Give this a stir and then bring this back up to medium heat. Allow this to boil like mad (though, of course, be very careful as you're dealing with really high heat here). If you haven't been able to tell by reading a few of my posts, I'm an advocate for courage and guesstimation more so than worrying about measurements. Candy making, in my opinion, is something that I think could be guesstimated but only after a ton of experience, at which point you'd probably learn it's best to approach candy with a candy thermometer. If we take a look at the inspiration recipe, you'll note we're looking for 255°F before setting the sugar syrup experiment into the buttered baking dish. As noted in the aformentioned link, though, 255°F actually puts us somewhere closer to toffee. Though many definitions exist to distinguish caramel from butterscotch from toffee and everywhere in between and around, Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough via this site do suggest two principal differences: butter content and final cooking temperature. The point of sharing all this here is to impress how finnicky, scientific and courageous of a trade candy making can get. Interestingly, for example, given the ingredients put into the pot, making a chewy caramel should have been easy to do; by waiting for a more viscous product to be created by way of minimal moisture, I inevitably cooked my caramel too long, relegating it to being closer to a toffee, despite the overage of ingredients that run contracry to the basics of toffee identity. Further complicating the true naming of this dish is the fact that light brown sugar--a staple of butterscotches and by extension toffees--was thrown in.

Well, however you proceed (and again I encourage you to have with you a candy thermometer and refer to this site), I poured my mixture (you'll note where the "smoky" quality of these caramels most likely comes from) into my baking dish which I had since layered with wax paper. For those of you who just read "wax paper," you may know what you're about to read next. ...Using wax paper, without having buttered the facing side, was perhaps one of the worst materials (except for plastic cling wrap) I could have put in contact with the hot caramel. Thankfully, an explanation as to how I went from this to this, and more importantly, what I could do to rescue my caramels, could all be found on this site. In any case, I had topped off the warm caramel mixture with crushed Turkish Black Pyramid finishing salt and allowed for everything to cool. (As noted in the aforementioned site, it would be okay to use the wax paper if while still warm you removed the wax paper from the caramel.)

In any case, despite the misstep, I was able to warm up the caramel and wax paper enough to extract enough caramel to work with and shape. (You can see photos of that laborious process here. In the future, go with parchment paper.) Anyway, while the caramels are warm (not hot, and definitely impossible while cold, at this state, i.e., given the high temperature to which it was cooked), cut them into smaller pieces and leave them on a heat proof surface to cool (e.g., not on wax paper).

Once cooled feel free to transfer them and individually wrap each piece (this time, it's okay to use wax paper, as long as the caramel has cooled and hardened). I would suggest to buy individual wrappers or to make them all in advance, but the point here is that you spent so much time dealing with the candies that you might as well take them time to give them that one last personal touch. 126 individual pieces later (and a lot more if you evade the pitfalls described above), I sign off eager and ready for the Thanksgiving experiences that potentially lay ahead! For the complete album, click here.

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