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A crunchy crust, a gooey caramel layer and a ganache topping--the perfect toffee bar at last.

By Laurie A. Perry
I’ve been making toffee bars since I was nine years old–but not the same toffee bar. I’ve tried a dozen recipes by that name, and I started numbering the ones I liked enough to make twice. Toffee bar number one had coconut and brown sugar. Toffee bar number two had a brown sugar and butter crust and a topping of melted Hershey’s milk chocolate (milk chocolate–no wonder that one fell by the wayside). Number three, from an ancient Better Homes and Gardens cookie cookbook, calls for a sweetened condensed milk filling and a fudge frosting. I liked it–and Mel really liked it–but it never quite worked.

So I’ve been tinkering with the recipe, and I think the current version is pretty darn good. Try it; see what you think. I’m taking a batch to a New Year’s Day gathering. Because, you know, there just aren’t enough sweets this time of year.

GANACHE-TOPPED TOFFEE BARS

Crust
2 cups flour
1 cup melted butter
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla

Filling
1 can sweetened condensed milk
2 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons vanilla

Ganache topping
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate
1 cup cream

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9×11-inch baking pan with foil.*
Make the crust: stir together the dry ingredients. Melt the butter; add the vanilla to the butter, and mix both into the dry ingredients. Pat the mixture into the prepared pan; it will be soft and easy to spread out. Bake for about 20 minutes, until lightly browned.
While the crust is baking, make the filling. Pour the sweetened condensed milk into a medium saucepan, add the butter and bring to a simmer. Simmer for about five minutes, stirring to keep it from burning. The mixture will thicken. Add the vanilla.

Pour the filling over the baked crust, making sure to cover all of the crust. Bake for another 20 minutes. It will bubble and turn a lovely golden brown (toffee-colored, in fact).
Remove from the oven and let cool for about half an hour. Make the ganache: break up the bittersweet chocolate and place in a heavy-bottomed saucepan; pour in the cream, and put the pan over low heat. Melt the chocolate, stirring. When the mixture is nice and smooth and glossy, it’s ready to pour gently over the first two layers. Once again, go for coverage–you want the ganache to cover the entire surface.

Chill. Remove the confection from the pan, using the overhanging foil as a handle. Cut into bars. These are rich, so don’t make the pieces too large.

*Maida Heatter’s fool-proof method for lining a pan with aluminum foil: Turn the pan upside down. Tear off a large piece of foil and press it over the pan, so you have the basic shape. Then press the foil into the pan, using a dish towel to keep the foil from tearing.

Today we have a guest post from our nephew Ryan Moore, who came up with this yummy quinoa dish. It’s a nice change from all of the rich foods of the winter holidays, and it’s very pretty too.

By Ryan Moore
Quinoa is a wonderful, soft, light, fluffy, grainlike seed that can easily be tossed into salads or serve as a replacement for other grains. It’s so easy to prepare too. My mother, in her explorations of healthy gluten-free alternatives to wheat, introduced me to quinoa, and it quickly became a favorite.

The ingredients for a simple, delicious and healthy salad.


I started out thinking I would create something like tabouleh with it, but the homogeneous nature of traditional tabouleh doesn’t suit fluffy quinoa, so I broke it into two parts: the warm nutty quinoa and a delicious seasonal mixture of pomegranate and cucumber. I liked that combination a lot, but I thought it needed something just a little richer and sweeter than the traditional olive oil and lemon juice as a dressing, so I came up with a yogurt-honey dressing.

Quinoa Cucumber-Pomegranate Salad

Quinoa:
•1 cup dry quinoa
•1tbs butter or ghee
•1/2tsp ground cumin (whole Cumin can also be used)
•2 pods black cardamom, ground
•1 clove garlic, pressed
•2 cups water
•Salt to taste

Pomegranate-Cucumber salad:
•1 pomegranate
•½ English cucumber, or 2-3 Persian cucumbers, diced
•½ red onion, quartered and finely sliced
•flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
•1 clove garlic, minced (optional)
•juice from 1 lemon, plus some of the lemon zest
•1-2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt to taste

Yogurt-Honey dressing:
•Greek yogurt
•Mint, chiffonade or finely chop
•Honey to taste

Preparation: Heat butter/ghee (I like to use ghee because it tolerates high) in a pot over medium to medium-high heat. Add the cardamom, cumin and salt. Stir or swirl that together; it should become fragrant almost immediately–just make sure it doesn’t burn. Add the pressed garlic and when you can smell the garlic, pour in the dry quinoa. Stir that around for 30-60 seconds. Add water, cover, bring to a boil and then simmer until done.
While the quinoa is cooking, mix together the yogurt, mint and honey; set aside. You’ll notice there are no amounts given–that’s because your taste buds must be the guideline. Start with a cup of yogurt and a dollop of honey, plus a tablespoon of mint chiffonade. Add more of any single ingredient until you have a flavor you love.
Separate out the pomegranate kernels. If you’ve never done this before, it’s easiest to completely submerge the pomegranate in water, split or cut it in half, and then liberate the kernels (yes, I do mean liberate; they are delicate). The pith will float to the surface and the kernels will fall to the bottom. Combine the pomegranate kernels and the remaining ingredients in a bowl and toss them together gently.
As far as presentation goes, the only important guideline is the separation of the three components. For single servings, simply place a serving spoon’s worth of quinoa into a bowl or onto a plate, top with a generous dollop of mint yogurt and top with the pomegranate-cucumber mixture.
These great colors and flavors make a fabulous presentation
Hazel served it at her holiday party in a large shallow bowl, mounding the quinoa in the bowl and then creating a well in the center for the yogurt sauce, with a festive wreath of the pomegranate-cucumber salad circling it.

I never thought this day would come, but somehow it has. Many of my sisters have grandkids. There’s a reason I bring this up. In the past, my house was Thanksgiving central. My sisters who lived in town would come; my aunt would come and my mom would be there.

Before I knew it, I’d have 35 for dinner.

Colorful vegetables dress up any party platter


Everyone contributed. We got my aunt Mary’s wonderful broccoli casserole, my sis-in-law Vicki’s sweet potatoes – well, you get my drift – a feast! When the dining room table was fully loaded, we would announce dinner and the line would form. Laurie and I usually collapsed and let it; we were rarely hungry after the hours of cooking. Everyone would find a place to sit with their plates perched in their laps, a glass of wine resting precariously wherever they could find room, we’d eat, chat, help with the dishes and depart. Usually leaving me with a table still laden with food. I’ve gotten smarter over the years. I encourage everyone to take leftovers. That way I’m not stuck with the duty of “not throwing away perfectly good food.”

But this year, it’s happened; my sisters are preparing their own Thanksgiving dinners with their own new traditions for their grandchildren to remember. Their own recipes to pass down and teach. Their own tables to design and fancy plates to wash. Thus we find ourselves with a very rare occurrence – a sit-down Thanksgiving dinner at my house. Dinner for eight. Wahoo!

Let in-season locally grown fruit be part of your appetizer platter

Normally, we expect our guests to arrive anywhere from noon to six, so we make sure there are appetizers out all day. This year, Laurie and I are whittling down our enormous repertoire of hors d’oeuvres to accommodate our six guests. We usually worry about how to keep starvation at bay while other guests are still driving from fifty miles away. (Something of a challenge, let me tell you: We would tell everyone that dinner was at six, my brother and his wife and brood would arrive at 6:30 with their side dish that needed an hour in the oven, and my brother would tap his foot, asking sarcastically when dinner would be ready. “You said six!”) This year – nope! We’re wondering which few appetizers will appeal the most and which will be expected and missed if we don’t trot them out. How fun is this!

So to kick off the holiday season, we’re giving you our appetizers. You can get the main Thanksgiving dinner from every cooking show on TV, you don’t need us to give you hints. Although, let’s face it: it’s me and Laurie – it’s what we do!

There’s one appetizer that we absolutely insist on. It was published years ago in Bon Appetit. Here’s the link to Black Pepper Almonds. Sometimes these never make it out of the kitchen–cooks get first crack at them.

Hazel

Perfect for Halloween. Or Thanksgiving. Nut-topped pumpkin bars are luscious and so easy to make.


Are you surprised? Once again, we bring you a dessert that will never be recommended by the American Heart Association. But these pumpkin bars are perfect for Halloween parties, and I’m making dozens of them for my sister Allis’s housewarming Halloween bash. (I also made bunches of them for a recent Molly’s Mutts & Meows fundraiser.)

The original version of this bar cookie used a spice cake mix as the base. Just between you and me, I thought it was disgusting. So I replaced it with the world’s easiest bar cookie base, created by Alice Medrich and published in her wonderful book Pure Dessert, as the base for the best lemon bars ever. The topping does have one healthy item in it: pumpkin. The rest of it–cream cheese, sweetened condensed milk, eggs… Well, I suggest when people ask what’s in them, you just mention the pumpkin.

Here’s the recipe.

Cream Cheese Pumpkin Bars

This makes a 9×13-inch panful, and it is made in two stages: first you bake the base, then the filling with the base. Total baking time is about an hour.

The base:
2 sticks of butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups all-purpose flour

The filling:

8 ounces cream cheese, softened
14 oz. can of sweetened condensed milk
16 oz. can pumpkin
2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice (or 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon cloves, 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, 1/2 teaspoon ginger)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1 cup chopped walnut or pecans

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Stir together the sugar, salt and flour. Melt the butter and pour it into the flour mixture; add the vanilla. Stir it together and dump it into the pan and pat it out to the edges. (Notice the elegant simplicity of this approach: no hauling out the food processor and cutting up cold butter and whirring it together with the dry ingredients and then pressing the crumbs into the pan. This is easy.) Bake it for about 25 minutes, until it’s well browned at the edges and golden in the middle.

In the meantime, make the filling. Beat the cream cheese until it’s fluffy, then pour in the milk and beat again. Add the eggs, pumpkin, spices and salt. Mix well. Pour over the baked crust and sprinkle nuts over the top. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until set. Cool and then refrigerate.

However, I think these bars are delicious warm, and I dig right in as soon I think they’ve cooled off enough that I won’t burn my mouth too badly.

For parties, I cut the bars about an inch square and put each one in a cupcake paper. There are lots of cute and seasonal cupcake papers around; I’m using black-and-white polka-dot ones for this holiday.

Many years ago, as a not so young bride, I received a wedding gift–the ice cream maker attachment for our new food processor. I’d never made ice cream before, so I started by simply opening the manual that came with the ice cream maker and then my trusty Betty Crocker Cookbook. My new spouse and I pored over the two sources of info and came up with coffee ice cream, which, under normal circumstances, we both loved. We chose the custard type and proceeded to follow all the instructions, which really were pretty simple.

The part that got us into trouble was the coffee.

All you need for coffee ice cream (plus the essentials - eggs & cream!

Being coffee press users, we always had fresh coffee beans of choice on hand. But the recipe recommended instant (instant? in my house? I think not!) espresso or coffee. Hmmm. What to do? Sure, you say, just run down to the market and get some instant. My closest market is two and half minutes from my house, but the lines are ALWAYS forever. So we did what any rational person would do – we fine ground coffee beans and tossed it in using the recommended amounts for instant coffee. It was delicious! A hit! Let’s write this variant down and make it again. Yay!

I woke, bright eyed, at 2:00 a.m. As I lay there WIDE AWAKE, I noticed my honey wasn’t snoring. So I whispered, “Are you awake?” He whispered back, “Oh yeah, I’m awake!” We gave up any notion of trying to go back to sleep, turned the lights back on and chatted for another couple hours until the coffee bean buzz finally wore off. There might have been wine involved too.

I’m a great one for changing recipes that I think I can improve. I usually try the original recipe first, and if I like it enough to mess with, I will. The next time I made that ice cream exactly as suggested and slept like a baby! I haven’t made ice cream in a while, because I have Handel’s right around the corner from me. There are only a few in the country, but lucky for me, I have one. If you’re ever near one, try their raspberry chocolate truffle ice cream – wow! Or make your own. I haven’t ever seen a recipe for it, but how hard could it be to invent it? Yeah, I thought so. I guess it’s up to me!

Hazel

By Mel Gilden

I have a close personal relationship with ice cream. Though summer is officially over, I don’t require hot weather to enjoy the king of hot weather treats. I like to eat it no matter what the weather. I don’t think it’s all the fault of my father, but he probably helped. My father and his partners owned a fleet of Eskimo Pie ice cream trucks.

He started work early, and he came home early, and so we always had dinner at 5:00 p.m. Often the family would be sitting at dinner when we heard the sound of the enemy entering our domain: the Good Humor truck.

Mel says he never sold an Eskimo Pie to a woman wearing spectator pumps and an apron--but he wishes he had.

Forks were suspended in midair. Conversation stopped. Then my father would curse in Yiddish. Roughly his curses translated as, “Columbus should be so lucky,” and “He [meaning the Good Humor man] should have on his bones what he makes on this street.” As the Good Humor man truck’s music faded, we would begin to eat again, trying to pretend the whole situation had never happened

Every Good Humor bar the driver sold represented one fewer Eskimo Pie bar that one of our guys sold. The competition was terrific, especially during the winter when business was pretty thin for all.

I drove an ice cream truck myself one summer. Being the boss’s son, I was open to some gentle kidding. For one thing, most everybody called me Ace. But I didn’t mind. It made me feel like one of the guys — which was OK because during the summer some of the drivers were students and others were even teachers. One gentleman from England assured me that he liked “fast women and fast ice cream trucks.” Another gentleman was a cracker-jack salesman who sold more ice cream in a day than some drivers sold in a week.

Theoretically, each driver had a route where he would slowly roll the streets, watching for customers to wave him down, but sometimes there were arguments about who was supposed to drive where. I didn’t have this problem because, being the boss’s son, I was sent out to the good places, places that the other drivers might not even know about. I was sent to nice neighborhoods, and to Marina del Rey. In those days the marina was not so built up with fancy condos and restaurants, and I parked along the channel to service the men and woman who fished from the rocks. This was not only a pleasant way to spend a hot summer day, but it meant that I wasn’t using much gasoline.

For a while I sold ice cream at Roxbury Park, a fancy public space in Beverly Hills. A Good Humor man was also assigned to the same location, and we went round and round the park, chasing each other along an alley that ran behind it. Officially, each of us was supposed to stop only when actually doing business. But often one of us would stop and wait for business to come along. Though we both did this, only the Good Humor man had the lack of class and breeding to report me to the cops. I probably still have a police record buried in a file somewhere in Beverly Hills.

One of the problems with being an ice cream man was the tendency to eat up the profits. I did my best to limit my ice cream intake, but I found myself eating a lot of a novelty item called Papa Jino’s Italian Ices On a Stick. I ate a couple of these every day for a few weeks, and then one day I didn’t want another one. From that time on Papa Jino was safe from me.

My labors–and my restraint–paid off. I bought my first car, a used 1960 Chevrolet Belvedere, with the proceeds of my summer stint as an ice cream man.

making ice cream with a Cuisinart ice cream maker

Buttermilk gives this ice cream tang and reduces the fat content--a little. After all, ice cream is supposed to be delicious, not health food.

I’ve been promising myself all summer that I’d make ice cream. I even remembered to put the Cuisinart canister in the freezer…months ago. But somehow, one thing or another prevented me from spending a happy day creating a decadent, or even semi-decadent, treat. Finally, on the first day of autumn, I got around to it. Now, I know some people have fall weather by the end of September, but it hit 95 in the San Fernando Valley, so ice cream was definitely appropriate.

Some years ago I made an ice cream with sour cream that had a lovely tanginess, and I wanted to re-create that flavor with, ideally, a little less butterfat. Low-fat buttermilk sounded like a good substitute. No one could call this a low-fat dessert, but I guess you could describe it as a reduced-fat ice cream. After all, it’s only got two cups of heavy cream, not three. The brown sugar adds to the rich flavor, I think. And I think it would be pretty damned good on a late-season-peach cobbler for my next dinner party.

Buttermilk Brown Sugar Ice Cream

2 cups of heavy cream
2/3 cup brown sugar
4 egg yolks
2 teaspoons vanilla
pinch of salt
1 cup buttermilk

Bring the cream to a low simmer in a saucepan. In a mixing bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and brown sugar with the pinch of salt. Pour a little of the hot cream into the egg mixture to temper it, then slowly pour the remaining cream in, whisking until smooth.

Mel gave me this for my birthday a few years ago. It was not entirely a self-serving gift--but nobody loves ice cream more than Mel does.

Return the mixture to the saucepan and reheat gently, stirring continuously. Do not let it come to a boil. When the custard base has thickened somewhat, remove the pan from the heat and stir in the vanilla and the buttermilk. Chill in the refrigerator for a couple of hours, then process according to your ice cream maker’s directions.

Laurie