Come eat chocolate with me!

chocolatexsmallChocolate lovers are invited to join me for a chocolate cooking class at Household China & Gifts cooking school in Waterloo on Thursday, Feb. 5th.

I’ll be demonstrating sweet and savoury recipes with the help of cooking school co-ordinator Donna-Marie Pye. There will be lots of chocolatey samples as well as tips on working with chocolate. We’ll be doing some chocolate tasting and, if we can fit it in, an easy hands-on chocolate “craft”, just in time for Valentine’s Day.

The class runs from 6:30 until 9 p.m. and costs $70.00.

Sign up for Chocoholics Rejoice by calling 519-884-2792 or visiting Household China at 300 King Street North in Waterloo.

Be sure to check out the other cooking classes in Household China’s Winter Cooking class schedule.

Take my chocolate poll below to vote for your chocolate preference – milk, dark or white. (Yes, white chocolate is technically not chocolate because it doesn’t contain cocao solids but I’m including it anyway since many people consider it chocolate.)

Chocolate Almond Toffee Bars. Good!

Chocolate Almond Toffee Bars

Chocolate Almond Toffee Bars

Here’s the recipe for Chocolate Almond Toffee Bars which I mentioned in my last post. It’s from Anna Olson, Food Network TV chef and cookbook author.

No doubt Anna’s original recipe is great, and I’ll have to try the recipe as written some time. When I wanted to make it recently, I didn’t have all the ingredients on hand and didn’t have time to go to the store to get what I was missing. Thankfully, my modifications worked out just fine.

Here are my substitutions:

  • quick oats instead of rolled oats
  • salted butter instead of salt and unsalted butter
  • 4 well-crushed Skor bars instead of Skor toffee bits
  • chopped walnuts instead of almonds
  • aluminum foil instead of parchment paper

These CAT Bars are good. No, very good! And, they make a great gift. If you’re giving them away, don’t forget to keep back a few pieces to enjoy yourself!

Chocolate Almond Toffee Bars
(Makes 25 to 36 squares – depending how big you cut them!)

1-1/2 cups (375 mL) rolled oats
1/2 cup (125 mL) graham cracker crumbs
1/4 teaspoon (1 mL) salt
1/2 cup (125 mL) unsalted butter, melted
1 cup (250 mL) Skor toffee bits
1 cup (250 mL) chocolate chips
1 cup (250 mL) sliced almonds
1 can (300 mL) sweetened condensed milk

Preheat oven to 350F (180C). Grease and line an 8-inch (2 L) square pan with parchment paper so the paper hangs over the sides of the pan.

Stir oats, graham cracker crumbs and salt in a bowl to combine, then stir in melted butter. Press crumbly oat mixture into the prepared pan. Sprinkle Skor bits evenly on top, followed by chocolate chips and sliced almonds. Pour condensed milk evenly over top (it will sink as it bakes).

Bake until top is golden brown and the edges are bubbling, about 30 to 40 minutes.

Cool to room temperature in the pan, then chill for at least 4 hours before slicing into squares.

Christmas Countdown: Chocolate fondue an entertaining option

fondued-orange

Mandarin orange segments make great dippers for chocolate fondue, as do pineapple chunks, apple wedges, banana slices, strawberries, pound cake cubes, pretzels....

Dippidity do dah!

Get out the fondue pot and forks. It’s time to gather ’round the glow of burning embers (make that a tealight) and dip yummy things into a vat (or just a small bowl!) of melted chocolate!

The nature of fondue makes it a special way to entertain, especially during the holiday season. This social, communal eating adventure allows participants to enjoy food and each other in a relaxed, leisurely way.

Chocolate is a favorite fondue choice. It’s fun! It tastes exceptionally good, especially if you use a fine quality chocolate. It’s easy. And a minimal number of ingredients (two!) are required – chocolate and cream (whipping cream or half and half both work). Liqueur can be added for flavour.

A good quality chocolate is essential and will definitely give the best flavour.

For easy melting, chop the chocolate into small pieces. You can use your microwave instead of a double boiler on the stove top to melt the chocolate, but do so carefully, at Medium (50%) power. Melt the chocolate partially, then remove it from the microwave and stir until the remaining chocolate melts.

A chocolate fondue should be served in a small earthenware or ceramic bowl instead of the larger stainless steel or ceramic pots reserved for cheese, oil or broth fondues. A small votive candle or tealight will provide enough heat to keep the chocolate warm without burning it.

Dark Chocolate Fondue
(Makes 4 servings)

3/4 cup (175 mL) whipping cream (35% M.F.)
12 oz (375 g) dark chocolate, chopped
2 tbsp liqueur (e.g. Kahlua, Amaretto, Grand Marnier, kirsch), optional
Fondue dippers (e.g. slices or pieces of fruit, angel food or pound cake cubes, marshmallows, cookies, pretzels, potato chips)

In the top of a double boiler, heat cream over hot (not boiling) water until warm. Add chocolate; stir constantly until melted and smooth. Remove from heat.

If desired, stir in liqueur. If chocolate mixture is too thick, stir in a little more cream. Transfer mixture to a dessert fondue bowl and place over a lit tealight.

Enjoy by spearing fruit or cake and dunking dippers in chocolate mixture.

Christmas Countdown: When things get busy, chill out with a cup of soothing hot chocolate

For me, the perfect antidote for a hectic day during the busy pre-Christmas season is a few solitary moments spent savouring a cup of good quality hot chocolate.

Chuao Chocolatier Winter Hot Chocolate

Chuao Chocolatier Winter Hot Chocolate

While shopping for Christmas gifts at HomeSense a few days ago, I found a brand of hot chocolate mix I hadn’t heard of – Chuao Chocolatier. (Chuao is pronounced Chew WOW.)

Packaged in an attractive container, the contents rattled slightly when I turned the tin over to check the price of the mix. I was curious about the rattling noise (hot chocolate mix doesn’t usually make much of a sound), but the sticker price made me temporarily forget any unusual sound effects – $12.99 for 340 g or 12 ounces! (The  original price was $18.00 but HomeSense sells things at 20 to 60% off.) Hmmm…if price was an indicator of quality, this would make one mighty fine cup of hot chocolate!

I ignored the price and examined the three types of Chuao Hot Chocolate on the shelf: Winter, Abuelo, and Spicy Maya. The text on the green and brown tin of Winter Hot Chocolate said the mix was made from bittersweet Venezuelan chocolate. It promised a rich, velvety flavour with the spices of winter: ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove and pepper.

Abuelo was described as silky rich hot chocolate, “made from Grandma’s strict recipe”.

A rediscovery of an ancient Mayan recipe, Spicy Maya was made from premium dark chocolate, chiles, cayenne peppers and cinnamon.

I was curious about Chuao Chocolatier and its hot chocolate offerings, especially the Winter mix with its combination of spices. If it tasted good, it could make a great Christmas gift for the chocolate lovers on my list. I tucked a tin into my basket, burying it under a couple other items so I couldn’t see it and stress about the price. Out of sight, out of mind, I rationalized. At least until I had to pay for it!

chunky-hot-chocolate-mix

Shake, rattle and...voila! The chocolate is obvious in this hot chocolate mix!

At home later that evening, it was time to find out what $18.00 hot chocolate tasted like! When I removed the lid from the tin, the reason for the rattling noise was immediately obvious. Instead of a powdery smooth mix, this mix contained chunks of chocolate. Cool! Who wouldn’t want to actually see the chocolate in their hot chocolate mix?

I read the directions and proceeded as instructed, first boiling some water, then measuring 1/2 cup (125 mL) of  it into a small cup. Three tablespoons (45 mL) of the chunky chocolate mix were stirred into the water. The chocolate melted easily with the heat. I then placed the mug in the microwave to bring the hot chocolate to a boil. About 30 seconds later, the mixture was boiling. (I kept a close watch on what was happening in the microwave as I didn’t want the hot chocolate to boil over.) I was then to whisk the hot chocolate for 30 seconds; instead, I used my battery operated hand-held frother to churn things up a little.

The result? A truly splendid cup of hot chocolate!

cup-of-chuao-hot-chocolate

A cup of spiced Chuao Winter hot chocolate.

As promised, Chuao’s Winter Hot Chocolate was indeed a rich smooth drink and my small cupful was all I needed. I found the drink’s spicy nuances of clove and nutmeg and the bit of heat from the pepper to be most balanced when the hot chocolate had cooled a little.

The verdict? I may have to ration it so I can afford to drink it, but Winter Hot Chocolate might well become my drink of choice over the long, cold months ahead, especially when I just want to take a few minutes for a time-out during a busy day.

Because of the addition of spices, Chuao’s Winter Hot Chocolate might not be enjoyed by traditional hot chocolate drinkers. If you’re a hot chocolate purist, you might want to try the Abuelo mix.

You can visit Chuao’s web site to see what other kinds of chocolatey products they have for sale, but be aware the company does not ship outside the U.S. If you’re interested in sourcing Chuao’s hot chocolate mix, check the shelves of food products at your local HomeSense (or Winners), or try a gourmet or chocolate shop.

Chocolate flows in Vegas

“What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”

I was reminded of this by friends and colleagues at least a dozen times prior to my recent trip to Las Vegas to attend a conference. It was my first time visiting what some consider the entertainment capital of the world.

Well, this is one time when what happened in Vegas will be shared!

Any one who has visited this city of a gazillion slot machines and equally as many lights knows that Las Vegas is a place where things are more than a little over the top. Prior to my trip, I had read somewhere that inside the Bellagio Hotel on the Strip one would find what some consider the “8th wonder of the world” – – the tallest chocolate fountain on the planet! As a die-hard chocoholic, a visit to see free-flowing chocolate falling from the heavens was a must while in town.

The Bellagio Hotel, Las Vegas - with dancing waterfalls!

The Bellagio Hotel, Las Vegas - with dancing water fountains that perform every 15 minutes!

And so, one evening, after the day’s conference sessions were over, I made a pilgrimage to the Strip where I easily found the Bellagio.

On the lake in front of the hotel, the Bellagio’s signature dancing water fountains performed routines to music every 15 minutes. Amidst a throng of tourists, I watched a couple routines, then ventured inside the grand hotel to track down the chocolate fountain.

Assuming the chocolate shop would be in the Shops area, I followed the signs which took me through the hotel’s casino to a series of high-end stores. No chocolate store or chocolate fountain to be found. After some fruitless searching, I thought it best to ask for directions. I was advised to return to the lobby, then veer right into the Spa Tower. After retracing my steps through the casino (every path through every hotel in Vegas takes you through a casino!!) to the front desk, then wending my way down an elegantly appointed hall, I soon found Jean-Philippe Maury’s Patisserie.

Chocolate Shop in Bellagio Hotel

Jean-Philippe Maury's Patisserie in the Bellagio Hotel

Can you see the chocolate fountain on the right side of the picture? It’s quite a sight – an architectural and culinary marvel created by the Bellagio’s Executive Pastry Chef Maury.

The Patisserie sells chocolate (of course) and cakes and other baked treats as well as gelato and savoury dishes such as sandwiches, salads and crepes.

Triple Chocolate Fountain in the Bellagio Hotel, Las Vegas

Nearly two tonnes of chocolate are pumped through this fountain.

Chocolate Fountain

The chocolate fountain is housed in a climate-controlled enclosure where the temperature is kept at 95 degrees F.

The chocolate fountain is a star attraction with many visitors stopping to admire the clever design. Nearly two tonnes of white, medium and dark chocolate circulate through six pumps and 500 feet of stainless steel piping. The chocolate rises 27 vertical feet from a lower level pump room. It is dispensed through six spouts in the ceiling, 14 feet above floor level, and falls into 25 handmade glass vessels.

The world’s tallest and largest volume chocolate fountain took two years to plan, design and create. Its creator, Executive Pastry Chef Jean-Philippe Maury, talks about it in this video.

A cooking website well worth a look

My friend Mike found a great cooking website recently which he shared with me and which I think deserves passing on.

Former home economics teacher Kathy Maister has created a website (and blog) – www.startcooking.com – full of instructional videos that contain helpful cooking tips and techniques and lots of sound and visual effects. The videos are fun to watch and educational too. The site also has a great selection of recipes with step-by-step directions and photographs to help both novice and experienced cooks perform better in the kitchen.

While poking around the site, I found a list of a dozen tasty ways to spice up instant hot chocolate. With cold weather moving into southern Ontario tonight (could snow be far behind??), hot chocolate seems especially appealing.

Chocolatey sweets make special treats

Chocolate Chip Cookies and Mars Bars Squares

Chocolate Chip Cookies and Mars Bars Rice Krispie Squares

A few weeks ago I attended the opening of my artist friend Carol Wiebe’s first art quilt show. (The show is on until the end of October at the Greenwood Quiltery in Guelph if you want to see some unique and visually stunning art pieces.)

Prior to the show, Carol had mentioned the gallery would be providing refreshments at the opening. I enjoy baking so I offered to bring a plate of ‘something’. The days leading up to the opening were particularly busy so my contribution ended up being something fast and easy, NOT an example of fine baking skills!

I had picked up a box of Ghirardelli Triple Chocolate cookie mix from Costco a few weeks earlier, curious to see how a cookie mix branded by a reputable chocolatier stacked up to homemade cookies. A batch of these cookies proved easy to whip up. (My assessment: the cookies tasted fine, but were thin and crisp/somewhat chewy – depending how long you baked them. My personal preference is a thicker, chewier chocolate chip cookie.)

I also brought Mars Bars Squares – a chocolatey version of Rice Krispie Squares. The recipe goes together very quickly and is always well received. An added bonus – it requires few ingredients – crisp rice cereal, margarine, chocolate chips and Mars bars (known as Snickers in the U.S.). I keep a well stocked pantry of baking supplies so I’m usually 3 for 4 on the ingredient list for these squares. I picked up a 4-pack of Mars bars on the way home from work one day, and was able to make these squares in minutes.

Here’s the recipe.

Mars Bars Squares
(Makes 36 squares)

The recipe calls for 50 g Mars bars, but Mars in Canada are 58 g bars. I made the squares without noticing the size difference (Has it changed recently? How unusual that the bar got bigger instead of smaller??) until I was just about to combine the melted bars and margarine mixture with the cereal so I tossed in another 1/2 cup (125 mL) cereal to balance out the ingredients. The squares turned out fine. You could do the same or reserve half of one of the bars for nibbling later – or while you’re baking!

I think the squares are chocolatey enough but for visual effect you could also drizzle white chocolate over top of the layer of melted chocolate chips.

4 (50 g/1-3/4 oz) Mars bars, sliced into 1/2-inch (1 cm) pieces
1/2 cup (125 mL) hard margarine
3 cups (750 mL) crisp rice cereal
1 cup (250 mL) semisweet chocolate chips
1/4 cup (60 mL) hard margarine

Heat Mars bars and 1/2 cup (125 mL) margarine in a large saucepan on low, stirring constantly, until melted and combined. (Mixture may look greasy initially but keep whisking until it blends together.) Remove from heat.

Add rice cereal. Stir to combine. Pack evenly into a greased or foil-lined 9 x 9-inch (23 x 23 cm) baking pan.

Heat chocolate chips and 1/4 cup (60 mL) margarine in a small saucepan, stirring often, until smooth. Spread over top.

Let bars cool. Cut into squares.

Recipe Source: Adapted from Chocolate everything by Jean Pare, Company’s Coming Publishing Limited, 2000

Mars bar - an energy bar

Mars bar - an energy bar, not a chocolate bar

Did you know…?

Mars bars are called “energy bars”, not chocolate bars as we typically refer to them and other similar snacks in Canada, or candy bars as I hear Americans call them.

Interesting!

Simply Minty Brownies!

You can turn plain brownies into minted brownies really easily.

Earlier this spring, Heather Albrecht shared her super simple brownie recipe with me. I posted the recipe on my blog on May 31. Yesterday she suggested a great way to “mint” the brownies. (And it adds another hit of chocolate!)

Heather said her mom puts half the brownie batter in the pan, covers it with a single layer of After Eight mints, then adds the remaining batter. The brownies are baked as usual.

The result?

“Mmmmmmmmm!” says Heather.

Decadent, minted fudgey brownies! What’s not to like? I may have to make this brownie variation this weekend.

Thanks, Heather!

(For more brownie recipes, visit Brownie Lover’s Diary.)


My favourite new outdoor “cooking appliance”

What’s my favourite new piece of equipment for cooking outdoors?

Why, an “outdoor fire bowl”, as it’s so labelled on the box in which it was packaged. (There are pictures further down this post.)

When I was growing up, my family did lots of camping. I’ve roasted many a wiener and toasted many a marshmallow around many a camp fire in my day. But the fun came to a crashing halt when Murray and I made a trip to western Canada a few years after we were married. On our return, we stayed in a municipal campground in Edmonton for a night. As I recall, there were no other campgrounds in the area to choose from.

Campers were crammed onto the grounds like sardines. Our tent was pitched mere inches (okay, perhaps a couple feet) from the neighbouring campers’ fire. We could hear every word our neighbours said, and every breath they took, all night long.

This was not camping to Murray. He called it “alternative accommodations”. That night, he made a solemn vow never to camp again unless he was in a remote location, with none of the commercial accoutrements (like flush toilets, showers and other campers within too close proximity) that come with traditional camping. As I scanned his face that night (clearly visible from the glow of the flames licking at our tent), hoping he was just making a rash decision in the heat (!) of the moment, I knew he was serious. Although I was also not amused at spending the night wedged between a bonfire and another tent, I figured that never camping again was a rather drastic decision. Surely there had to be a happy medium somewhere in the camping world.

It’s been over 20 years since that fateful night. Although Murray has since done some “true camping” on fishing trips in northern Manitoba when we lived in Norway House and Cranberry Portage, Manitoba, the two of us haven’t camped together since.

One of the joys of camping I’ve really missed is the smell and sound of a campfire, and being able to roast and toast things over an open fire. Barbecues, fondues and flambes have their place, but they don’t quite provide the same ambiance or end result!

We’ve been talking about building an outdoor fire pit in our back yard for a few years now, but we’ve held off doing so for a couple reasons. For starters, we fancy ourselves to be law-abiding citizens and city bylaws haven’t allowed open fires until recently. Secondly, we want to extend our deck and figured we’d wait to put in the fire pit until that was done. Other home reno projects have somehow taken priority each summer.

This weekend we finally got tired of waiting for the deck to be redesigned. We decided to invest in an inexpensive outdoor fire bowl. Yippee! Find some matches and get out the wieners!! At long last!!!

We plunked the fire bowl in the middle of the yard on four sidewalk blocks we happened to have around. Aesthetically, the set up has left a bit to be desired. But the thought of sitting around a crackling fire quickly erased nearly all concerns about how things looked.

As luck would have it, the night the fire bowl was unveiled, we found wieners, cheese sausages and hot dog buns in the freezer, and chocolate in the cupboard. A quick trip to the store netted some graham wafers and marshmallows. We had plenty of fire wood as neighbour Dave had bequeathed a stash of it to us a while back since, sadly, he’ll be moving in a couple weeks. Neighbours Bryn and Judy were willing to help initiate the fire bowl.

Being a true camper(!), Murray knew how to make a fire. Once we had flames, the pressure was on to see if we remembered how to roast wieners and marshmallows so they actually were edible. Like riding a bike, apparently it’s a useful skill you learn for life (although admittedly, I will need a little more practice and a few more test samples before I can turn out a perfectly roasted wiener and marshmallow).

And so that night, with the sometimes ear-splitting, always rapid-fire sound of firecrackers being detonated by neighbours celebrating Canada Day ringing in my ears, I enjoyed a perfect fire and the best hot dog I’ve ever eaten (or at least in about 20 years!), followed by more than my share of gooey, sticky s’mores. (For non-campers or those without fireplaces or outdoor fire bowls – a s’more is a roasted marshmallow stuffed with a piece of chocolate and sandwiched between two graham wafers.)

We’ll be doing this again very soon!

Murray builds a fire.

Murray builds a roaring fire. (OK, it became a roaring fire soon after this picture was taken!)

Grilling cheese sausages with the rotisserie attachment for our barbecue. Note to self: buy or whittle a few more sticks for roasting wieners. This gadget more closely resembles a dangerous weapon than a cooking utensil!

There's nothing like an ooey, gooey, sticky, chocolatey s'more

Photography by Bryn Donaldson.

Another winning Brownie recipe

Fudge-Iced Brownies

This Fudge-Iced Brownie recipe is courtesy of Heather Albrecht who works for the Kitchener Rangers hockey club. The recipe originated with Mary Moore, former food columnist for the Kitchener Record (now known as the Waterloo Region Record).

Heather says (and I’d concur) that this recipe is a winner – delicious and very easy to make. The brownies mix up in one bowl with no melting of chocolate required, and they taste very rich and fudgey. One bite and you’ll know why they’re called Fudge-Iced Brownies. Consider them a special treat!

Heather starts checking the brownies for doneness after about 20 minutes of baking because she doesn’t want them to dry out. She finds that the baking time varies with the outdoor temperature and humidity.

I baked these brownies in a Pyrex baking pan so I found the brownies took 40 minutes to bake to my liking. (Brownies will cook faster in a metal baking pan than in a glass pan.) They turned out very fudgey and moist.

Determining when brownies are done can be a challenge. Of course if they are overbaked, you run the risk of drying them out. But if really underbaked, they will be soft, sticky (almost gooey), and they won’t hold their shape well.

Often you can tell visually how close to done brownies are because the centre section of brownies in the pan may look wet and glossy. Start testing for doneness early as oven temperatures vary, and brownies can go from perfectly baked to overbaked in mere minutes. It’s best to underbake brownies rather than the opposite.

The easiest ways to test if brownies are done are the touch and toothpick tests. Gently touching the surface of the brownies with your fingertip will give you an indication of how set the brownies are. If the brownies feel set, insert a toothpick or cake tester into the centre. If the toothpick comes out wet, with batter clinging to it, the brownies are not ready. If the toothpick comes out with a few moist crumbs sticking to it, the brownies are done. For optimal flavour and texture, let them cool completely before icing and indulging!

Fudge-Iced Brownies
(Makes a 9 x 13-inch/3 L baking pan)

Brownies:
2 cups (500 mL) brown sugar
1 cup (250 mL) butter, softened
1 cup (250 mL) all-purpose flour
1 cup (250 mL) chopped walnuts (optional)
1/2 cup (125 mL) cocoa
4 eggs
2 teaspoons (10 mL) vanilla

Icing:
½ cup (125 mL) butter
5 tablespoons (75 mL) cocoa
1/8 teaspoon (.5 mL) salt
2 teaspoons (10 mL) vanilla
2 cups (500 mL) icing sugar
Hot water

To make Brownies: Combine brown sugar, butter, flour, walnuts (if using), cocoa, eggs and vanilla in a bowl. With electric mixer, beat at medium speed until smooth and creamy. Spread evenly into a buttered 9 x 13 (3 L) baking pan. Bake at 300F (150C) until a toothpick inserted in the centre of the brownies comes out with a few crumbs clinging to it, about 30 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool.

To make Icing: Melt butter in a saucepan; stir in cocoa, salt and vanilla. Heat mixture, stirring frequently, until boiling. Remove from heat and stir in icing sugar. (Mixture will be thick.) Add small amounts (1 to 2 teaspoons/5 to 10 mL) of hot water at a time and beat with a whisk until mixture is just thin enough to spread over brownies.

(For more brownie recipes, visit Brownie Lover’s Diary.)