Grand Gianduja Stracciatella Gelato.

I’ve met people who eat chocolate every day, survive on chocolate when depressed, and smoke chocolate after sex. You know those people. Perhaps you are one. Well, not me, I’m stronger than that. Chocolate can’t take me on its own—it takes two to take me down. Caramel plus chocolate works. Almonds can help out. Recently I tried a matcha dark milk chocolate bar that made my knees wobble.

Gianduja Stracciatella GelatoAnd God help me when chocolate teams up with hazelnut. If chocolate and hazelnut ran a cult together, I’d shave my head, buy a robe, and get a tattoo. Chocolate and hazelnut make me run in circles and howl at the moon. Tease me with gianduja or Nutella and I’ll transform into a raving chocelnut girl, a hazelolate slut, a nutty drooling wench powerless in the face of my desire. You know you can dip strawberries in Nutella? You can dip anything in Nutella. Believe me, I know. My cats are still pissed.¹

It never occurred to me to combine chocolate and hazelnuts myself until my cookbook ban lifted and a sexy copy of David Lebovitz’s The Perfect Scoop finally arrived. I happened to have a bulk quantity of shelled whole hazelnuts and a supply of Green & Blacks milk chocolate and Michel Cluizel milk chocolate in my pantry. Since the word “fate” gets thrown around too casually, I won’t claim that I made the gelato due to fate. I made the gelato because I love chocolate with hazelnuts and had the stuff around to make it. It’s not a romantic story, but when your most enduring love affair so far has been with a sweet creamy chocolate nut spread, you work with what you have.

By the way, if you live near an Aldi, they sell an excellent trans fat-free chocolate hazelnut spread for a third of the cost of Nutella. I mention this because if I’m going down, damn it, I’m taking everybody with me.

Gianduja Stracciatella Gelato in ice cream makerI’d post a recipe, but others have already done so with yummy pictures of their own, so by all means, give them a visit. It’s not a simple recipe. The hazelnuts must be toasted and skinned, then ground and soaked in milk. Then you strain the nuts out and throw the nuts away. I can’t tell you how traumatizing this is. You spent all this time with them and then…toss them? Well it turns out that their flowery fragrant spirit is still there, steeped into the hot milk mixture, so just do what I did—wipe away the tears and steel yourself with the knowledge that it will all work out for the best.

David recommends 5 ounces of melted chocolate for the straccciatella, the melted chocolate that is poured into the churning ice cream where it hardens and breaks into delicious little bits. I found that much dark chocolate a little too overpowering. Next time I make this—and there will definitely be a next time—I plan to drop amount that down to 3 ounces. Then I’ll dip everything, including myself, into a vat of Nutella.

· David Lebovitz on gianduja from the source
· David’s gianduja gelato at butter sugar flour with rippled chocolate sauce
· …at Cookie Baker Lynn in its simplest form, sans straccciatella
· …and at Cafe Fernando between crisp wafers

¹ Kidding.

Fruitcake, fruitcrack.

I like fruitcake, but not just any fruitcake, no, I only like—

Wait, what am I saying? I like all fruitcake. All fruitcake. If you ever wonder who buys those stale cakes at the grocery store every year, that would be me. If you spit out fruitcake because of the artificially-colored cherries and scream, “Who the [bad word] eats this [bad word]?!” the answer is me. If you don’t know what to do with the box of lead weight that your Aunt Marge sent you this week, send it to me. Cheap fruitcake, dense fruitcake, light fruitcake, boozy fruitcake, mass-produced fruitcake, homemade fruitcake, it doesn’t matter; I’ve made it, I’ve bought it, I’ve inherited it, and I’ve eaten it all. Heck, I even love colored candied fruit, and I’m sorry, but I’m not going to apologize for it.

Fruitcake, Fruitcrack, windowpaneIt comes down to being human. Something instinctively draws me to fruitcake like honey draws a bear. A bite of fruitcake makes every cell holler with gratified desire. This, the body knows, is the ultimate sustenance. Fruitcake is among the densest caloric foods without being pure fat or pure sugar. My brother took the remains of a brandy-soaked fruitcake I made one year and saved it to eat before and after he ran a marathon. He understood its value. I eat it because it’s delicious. I know many (in the U.S., at least) don’t think so, or that many people only like homemade aged fruitcakes or Christmas puddings, but I like them all. So yeah, blame people like me for propping up the day-glo fruitcake industry.

This reckless lack of discrimination among fruitcakes eventually came to an end. I remember it like it was yesterday. Actually it was last week, on December 8, with a recipe I’d been saving called “Smith Family White Fruitcake” from Jeffrey Steingarten’s delightful The Man Who Ate Everything. I wanted to make it because of Steingarten’s loving descriptions of the cake’s “frolicsome mosaic of yellows, reds, and greens.” Then he said you were supposed to refrigerate the cakes “before cutting them into thin slices while they are still cold.” I just can’t resist sexy talk like that. On December 7, I baked the recipe with modifications. On December 8, despite the instructions to let it age at least three days in the fridge, I shaved off a slice because it smelled so so so good.

Fruitcake, FruitcrackThings instantly changed. I still like all fruitcake, but now I love only this one. By all objective standards, I messed up the cake because I changed the recipe too much. I chose to soak the dried fruit ahead of time and substituted some of them. Instead of two loaf pans, the batter went into one extra long 16-cup pan. Knowing the large pan would take longer to bake, I baked it at 275 instead of 300 to avoid the dark crust that Steingarten warned is a “fatal flaw”. After two hours of baking, it didn’t look done, so I added another hour or two. By the end, the long low temperature had created a thick firm crust around the cake. This fatal flaw was…so not.

I would try to describe it, but every time I come up with an adjective I come up with another, then another: buttery, glorious, chewy, moist, heady. No one flavor dominates—you can’t even taste the raisins, which is good because I don’t really like raisins. This is a living fruitcake. It’s not the same from day to day, week to week. That thick crust starts out like a nutty crispy caramel fruitcake cookie encasing a soft fruitcake center. I couldn’t stop eating it. After four days, the whole thing became fudge-like and sweeter. I couldn’t stop eating that either. I can’t wait to see what it’s like by Christmas, when it will probably sprout wings and ascend to heaven, taking me with it where I’ll dance through fields of fruitcake flowers and sleep on fruitcake beds with fruitcake pillows. I can’t even wait to see what it’s like right now, but I’ve triple-wrapped it and sealed the package with multiple layers of packing tape because I COULDN’T STOP EATING IT AND VISIONS OF FRUITCAKE DANCED IN MY HEAD.

God help me, I want to make another one following the directions exactly this time just to compare, but what I really want is an excuse to rip off that packing tape and eat the rest of the first cake because, after all, I’m going to make more! But that would be wrong and make me so very, very fat. Besides, I can’t imagine anything better than the way I made it, mistakes and everything. So here’s my version. If the original turns out better, I’ll post an update, but I’m not counting on trying it again this year because my scale has threatened to pack its bags.

Adapted from The Man Who Ate Everything, by Jeffrey Steingarten
Makes two large loaves, ideal for bicep curls

The original recipe is “white” because it uses no spices or dark fruit, just a pound of golden raisins and about a pound each of candied cherries and candied pineapple in assorted colors. My cake used some darker fruit and so was more brown than white. Personally, I think candied fruit is what makes this cake so fantastic, but any fruit should be fine as long as you have three pounds of it, more or less. The ingredients I’ve listed are simply what I had on hand and are not set in stone. Despite the cake’s denseness, the caramelized flavor and the citrus touches make this a relatively light fruitcake that I suspect would not benefit from spices, alcohol, or even brown sugar, but it’s your fruitcake now, do what you will.

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Eggplant: exciting at last.

Bon Appegeek posts dropped in number this summer, mostly because I haven’t been doing much of that that thing you do where you take food and mix it with other food and heat it. What’s that called…oh yeah, cooking. A combination of fresh fruit, microwaved sweet corn, tomato salads, and hot temperatures killed my desire to turn on the stove. Bad enough that I keep having to turn on the oven or boil sugar syrup in my ongoing October wedding cake preparation.

Eggplant with spiced peanuts, cookedOne big exception is this spiced eggplant recipe. In past summers, eggplant always depressed me. That vibrant purple bald vegetable should give you something exciting, but it always seems to end up mushy, flavorless, and, at its worst, bitter. I’ve escaped the bitterness and tedious salting by using Japanese eggplants or baby eggplants like these from my CSA box. But despite baba ganoush, ratatouille, and eggplant parmigiana, I never pick up eggplant and think, “Ooh, Eggplant! I can’t wait to eat this!” It’s more like, “Oh, eggplant. Damn.”

Well, things have changed. Take some roasted ground peanuts, a heady dose of Indian spices, halved baby eggplant, a hot frying pan, and you have a zesty finger food you’d never think could come from the bland little eggplant. Granted, it’s the spices and peanuts that make the flavor, but the eggplant provides the perfectly silky, slightly sweet base. It’s worth heating up the kitchen for it every week.

Adapted from Raghavan Iyer’s Indian Home Cooking
Serves 2-4 as an appetizer or serves 2 as part of a meal

Eggplant with spiced peanuts, uncookedThe skin keeps the eggplant from soaking up too much oil, but you could make this with sliced larger eggplants, if you like. A non-stick pan will let you get away with a minimum of oil. I prefer the flavor of home roasted raw peanuts, but to save the most time, you can do what I do now and use natural peanut butter or, better yet, The Heat Is On peanut butter from the fabulous Peanut Butter & Co. (If you have a chance, give their Dark Chocolate Dreams peanut butter a try too, because, my God. I eat it straight out of the jar. Just don’t use it in this recipe.)

· 1 pound small or slender eggplants, halved
· peanut oil or other frying oil
· water
· chopped cilantro (optional)
· 1/2 cup peanuts, roasted and ground to a paste
     OR 4 Tablespoons unsweetened natural peanut butter
     OR 4 Tablespoons The Heat Is On peanut butter
· 1 Tablespoon amchoor (green mango powder)
     OR juice of 1 small lime
· 1 teaspoon ground toasted cumin seed
· 1/2 teaspoon ground toasted coriander seed
· 1/2 teaspoon table salt (cut to 1/4 if you use salted peanut butter)
· 1/2 teaspoon garam masala
· 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
· 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or to taste, can omit if using The Heat Is On peanut butter)

1) Mix all but the first four ingredients in a small bowl. Add enough water to make a thick but spreadable paste.

2) Spread the paste onto the cut side of the eggplant halves.

3) Over medium-high heat, heat about 1 teaspoon (for a non-stick pan) or 1 Tablespoon or so of oil in a pan just large enough to hold all the eggplant halves. (It’s okay if the eggplant will be crowded, but they shouldn’t overlap too much.)

4) Carefully place the eggplant into one even layer in the pan, paste-side up. They should sizzle a bit. Cover the pan and lower the heat to medium-low.

5) Steam-fry the eggplant, covered, for about ten minutes, or until a skewer slides right into the eggplant but the eggplant still holds its shape.

6) Slide eggplant out onto a paper towel to drain. Let cool. Serve warm or at room temperature. Sprinkle with chopped cilantro, if desired.