Twist and Shout

As my back heals and I try to follow the directions my physical therapist has laid out for me which include wearing a back brace, and not bending or twisting, Rich has done more than his fair share in the kitchen. This is a mixed blessing, as his repertoire consists mostly of cocktails and cooking large pieces of meat. Still, beggars can’t be choosers, and I do love gin.

Last week I heard him rummaging in the spice cabinet – my guess is to find the nutmeg for a hot toddy – and I heard him call out to me, “You know you have an unopened container of Ghirardelli baking cocoa back here?” I thanked him for the reminder and tucked the knowledge away for another time.

dark chocolate soft pretzels

When we heard that winter storm Hercules was coming our way, Rich went to the market to load up on supplies, which just meant more milk for White Russians and hot cocoa with the aforementioned canister. But I actually had a plan for that unsweetened cocoa, one I hadn’t had a chance to work on. And so, with both our offices closed on Friday because of the snow storm, and Lilli off taking her morning nap, I got to work on the dark chocolate soft pretzels I’d bookmarked in a cookbook that was sent my way a few months ago.

I’ll admit the title of the book captured my attention immediately. I mean, who wouldn’t be intrigued by a cookbook called Crazy About Chocolate? It contains more than 200 sweet and savory recipes written by Krystina Castella, author of Crazy About Pies, Crazy About Cupcakes, Crazy About Cookies and Crazy About Cakes. (There was a photo of her on the back cover, and no, she doesn’t look like she eats sweets all day long.)

There were the expected candy, cake and cookie recipes (a natural progression by someone who’s written books about those subjects) but there were also savory recipes like apple-smoked ribs with cocoa barbeque sauce, and grilled corn on the cob with milk chocolate butter. I also got a kick out of the holiday section, which ranged from chocolate-coated, almond-flavored Easter eggs, hamentashen for Purim and hazelnut meringues for Passover, and even chocolate pineapple moon cakes for the Chinese New Year.

But it was these dark chocolate soft pretzels that caught my eye. They were actually in the “Weddings” section of the book:

Celebrate tying the knot with soft chocolate pretzel twists. Based on recipes used by classic New York street vendors, these pretzels have a chocolaty, salty flavor combination that’s sure to please.

Or, as Rich noted after eating one, “They taste like the chocolate bread they serve at The Cheesecake Factory.”

There’s something nice about rising a yeasted dough on a heating vent on chilly winter days (so long as the heat is working). And yes, like last week’s rugelach, the directions might seem complicated but aren’t at all: Make a yeasted dough, let it rise, shape the pretzels, boil them and bake them. The rolling out the dough into long ropes and twisting them into pretzels would be a great task for young helpers in the kitchen. If you can’t find a ruler, do what I did and use a measuring tape.

Cowgirl Lilli

I will say that the author and editor slipped up a bit in the recipe, forgetting to include when the yeast mixture is added to the flour mixture, so I have included that step here. I also kneaded the dough with my dough hook on my Kitchen-Aid mixer, lightening the load on my back.

When I posted the photos of the finished product on Facebook, my friend Gayle asked where I’d found the lye, which is traditionally added to the boiling water when making pretzels. Goodness, no, I wouldn’t have lye in the house with a little one. Baking soda replaced the lye when it was time to boil these babies. Feel free to get creative with your toppings. The recipe makes eight pretzels, so I made two each of Maldon salt, Turbinado sugar, chopped mini peanut butter cups (a tub of which lives in my freezer, ahem) and mini chocolate chips leftover from last week’s rugelach.

Dark Chocolate Soft Pretzels from Crazy About Chocolate by Krystina Castella

Ingredients

1 ½ cups warm water

¼ cup plus 3 Tablespoons granulated sugar

2 ¼ teaspoons active dry yeast (1 package)

4 ¼ cups all-purpose flour

1/3 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder

2 teaspoons kosher salt

5 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Vegetable oil

2/3 cup baking soda

1 large egg yolk beaten with 1 Tablespoon water

Pretzel salt, sea salt or Maldon salt

½ cup nuts, sprinkles, nonpareils, or white chocolate chips

Directions

Combine the water, 3 tablespoons of the sugar, and the yeast in a small bowl. Let sit for 5 minutes, or until the mixture begins to foam.

Combine the flour, cocoa powder, salt, remaining sugar, and butter in a large bowl. Or, combine the flour, cocoa powder, salt, remaining sugar, and butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the foaming yeast mixture and mix it all together in an electric mixer on low speed until well blended. Transfer to a floured work surface and knead the dough until it is smooth, 8-10 minutes. Or, if you are using a standing mixer, switch over to the dough hook and knead the dough on high speed until the dough is smooth.

Grease a large bowl with vegetable oil and place the dough in the bowl. Cover the bowl with either plastic wrap or a clean dish towel and set in a warm place for 50 – 60 minutes, or until the dough has doubled in size.

Preheat the oven to 450F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and lightly brush with vegetable oil.

Fill a large pot with water (10 – 12 cups) and stir in the baking soda. Cover and bring to a rolling boil over high heat.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly oiled work surface and divide into 8 pieces. Roll out each piece of dough into a 24-inch rope. Make a U shape with the rope and, holding the ends of the rope, cross them over each other to form the shape of a pretzel. Press the dough to secure the shape, then place on the baking sheets.

Add the pretzels one at a time to the boiling water for 30 – 40 seconds, 15 – 20 seconds on each side. Remove the pretzels from the water using a slotted spoon. Return to the baking sheet, brush the top of each pretzel with the egg-water glaze, and sprinkle with the salt, nuts, sprinkles or candies. Bake for 12 – 14 minutes, until dry and dark. Transfer to a rack to cool for 10 minutes before serving.

Oy, Tannenbaum

There’s a Christmas tree in my dining room. You can’t see it from the street, or even when you walk into the house, but you can smell it. In less than two weeks, that woodsy pine scent will be covered by the scent of fried latkes; perhaps we’ll do parsnip ones this year.

I put up a fight over the tree. I was worried the strings of lights would out-shine my Shabbos candles, turn the kiddush wine to eggnog and the challah into gingerbread. I wasn’t exactly on board with having one the first year we were together, even though we had agreed to share things we loved from our religions with each other. (Rich dances a very good hakafa, by the way.) But then December came. I flinched, I argued, I put up the good fight. But I wasn’t doing the sharing that we had agreed to.

I worried about my future children. Could they be good American Jews if there was a tree in the house? And what about Santa? I don’t know if I would call myself cynical about the jolly old elf, but if you asked a seven year-old me if Santa existed, I would probably have rolled my eyes. If you had asked me if it was possible for one drop of oil to last for eight days, I would have been as certain about its existence as my husband was about Kris Kringle. Not yet sure how we’re going to tackle that one, but Rich has pointed out that our children will have very well-behaved Catholic cousins who will certainly believe in Santa, and we will teach them nothing to the contrary.

The first year we had the tree, I refused to have anything to do with it. I told Rich it was entirely up to him to find it, bring it back to the house and decorate it on his own. But when I came home from work to find a tree covered in blue, silver and white tinsel, I let out a gasp. “It’s the colors of Israel!” Rich explained. “I thought you’d be happy.” Tinsel is not my style, and so, as I do with most things, I took over. Looking back, I realize I was being ungrateful, but oh Lordy, that was an ugly tree.

I was secretly happy when we skipped having a tree during Rich’s lay-off, and the next year I decided not to bring it up. Rich didn’t either, but by early February he let out a sigh and said he wished we’d had one. My good friend Shira put things in perspective: “Your husband can’t even have bacon in his own house. The Christmas tree makes him happy and reminds him of happy moments in his childhood. He needs the tree.” So this November, I found a sparkly bacon-shaped ornament and brought it home for Rich after a particularly hard week at work. “Does this mean we are having a tree?” he asked, wide-eyed. “Yes.” “Does this mean I can make bacon?” “Don’t push it.”

I told some of my friends a few weeks back that we were gearing up for our tree, and they all said the same thing: “Oh, I always wanted to trim a tree. It looks like so much fun.” And so I decided to start a new tradition: My Jews-only tree trimming party. I invited about a dozen friends, all frequent Shabbos dinner guests. (Rich was allowed one gentile guest, as if it were a birthday party for one of his younger brothers.) They were all thrilled to come, except one who explained he had no problem with a tree but didn’t like the idea of Jews feeling they missed out on something.

I plotted and planned my party. Rich was in charge of the drinks – eggnog, coffee, mulled cider and holiday beer — and I would take care of the cookies. I made whole wheat chocolate chip cookies, pumpkin whoopee pies, peanut brittle, popcorn, and some ginger snaps. I was going to make a macaroon from a recipe I found in last month’s Food and Wine, but when I ran the recipe by my classmate Joyce who is a professional baker, she shook her head. “Not enough egg whites to make a decent macaroon. They are going to be like lead.” I ended up making Molly’s macaroons – which translates to a great Pesach recipe, by the way – and Joyce gave me this recipe for fudgy cookies to use up the can of sweetened condensed milk I had purchased. (Side Note: If you’re as worried as I am about BPA, you can make your own sweetened condensed milk from scratch.) Because these cookies were so fudgy I left the ganache off the macaroons.

Our guests started trickling in after 8 last Saturday night. The table was covered in cookies. As our friend Sarah put it when she walked into the dining room: “This is the platonic ideal of what a tree trimming is supposed to be.” I smiled, happy to know I had achieved what I set out to do. Friends brought their own ornaments: Some had made their own. One friend brought a fancy glass ornament of Yoda holding a light saber. One friend brought me an ornament with a striking likeness to our cat. There was a Barack Obama ornament — “soon to be a collector’s item” Rich quipped.

One friend brought his new girlfriend who joked she thought she was going to a melavah malka – a special gathering on Saturday nights to escort the Shabbos Queen on her way out, which usually involves singing, dancing and tasty bites. We drank eggnog, and strung popcorn and cranberries. By the time everyone left, the most perfect Christmas tree that ever was stood in our dining room. Each ornament was perfectly placed, every rope of popcorn and cranberries was evenly hung.

Fudge Cookies

I actually halved this recipe and had great success with it.

Ingredients

24 oz. bittersweet chocolate

4 oz. butter

2 – 14oz. cans of sweetened condensed milk

2 tsp. vanilla (optional- could use mint or orange for the holidays)

2 cups flour

1 pound of nuts, chopped (optional as well).

Directions

Fill a saucepan halfway with water and bring to a simmer. Place a metal bowl on top, making sure the bowl does not touch the water, to create a double boiler. Melt the butter and chocolate and remove from heat. Stir in milk and flavoring, then flour and nuts. Using a small scoop, drop onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake at 350F for 7-8 minutes.

Cookies will not look done, but take them out any way. Let cool before removing from sheet. They should be like a ball of fudge when you bite them.You can freeze these cookies for up to 3-4 months with good results, otherwise keep in air tight container.

Enjoy!