Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The trouble with Christmas trees that they can take over your life. And you garage, and your closets...

I have a friend who puts up eleven trees. She starts the day after Thanksgiving and has a crew.They are beautiful (the trees, not the crew), and the ornaments are so thick that you almost can't see the trees.

I'm not in her league, but I do have three trees and I'm contemplating a fourth. The main tall tree...
a kitchen tree (in the kitchen, of course)
with food-ish ornaments. Don't laugh, this is the season of ish. 

and a garden tree, of course.

I wonder how this guy really trims this tree? I'm guessing a much taller ladder...and someone to climb it.

 All just out of camera rangeWhen I first saw this shot, I thought the tree was on the table and he was a really tiny guy. 

And you think I have a Christmas tree problem!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Christmas Party, or Thank God for Ron Morgan

We had a Christmas Party. I had a blast planning the table, going to the San Francisco Flower Mart with Ann at dawn. Leslie of The Three Pinks is right, the magic that is the Flower Mart disappears when the sun comes up.

I think all those Monday mornings spend watching Ron Morgan work his magic are paying off. Ron always says "Just play and have fun!" and I did. I think it turned out well...but you can see for yourself.
The reindeer and silver leaves are from Ron Morgan's shop in Lafayette, Loot.
The hollow birch logs and the glass vases are from the Flower Mart. Beads and balls from Target.
And the inspiration is from Ron, from Cathy, from Ann. Thank you for making my life more beautiful...and more fun. 

Monday, December 13, 2010

cooking up a storm

Cathy and I made butter toffee for our friends, and I just keep making it. Some of it I even give away.
So here are the secrets, and the recipe.

First secret: A really heavy pan. This is Bourgeat French copper, 2.7 quart size. I got it from PCD and altho it is hard to hold the pan with one hand and use a spatula to scrape out the goodies with the other, it is the pan I use most. For candy, for soup, for just a little popcorn...and for toffee.
Butter and sugar, salt and a little water...and you don't have to take notes the recipe is below.
First the butter will melt...
...then the whole thing will foam up. Note the candy thermometer - more on that later.
While the toffee is cooking you chop the roasted almonds. You have to have roasted them before you start the recipe, there is not enough time to roast and let them cool and chop. 

About the chopping: you can't do this in a Cuisinart. Not even the new Elite Cuisinart (fabulous but takes up a lot of space in the cupboard and in the dishwasher). If you use a food processor you will end up with some pieces too large, some pulverized, and a few just the right size. So get out your Henkels or Wusthoff knife and chop. By hand. You can do it. Some almonds will spit out from under the knife and onto the floor, to the delight of the dog. Some will refuse to be chopped and just skittle around the cutting board. Be firm. If you cut them in half (yes one at a a time) they are much more cooperative.
Cook the toffee to 285 on your  candy thermometer. If you are really good and comfortable with sugar you can do this by sight, but I highly recommend a thermometer at least the first few times. If you don't have one and think this all may be just too much trouble, borrow one. Soak it in warm water to clean it - don't scrub. I scrubbed all the numbers off my last thermometer. Not good.

At 285 it will look like this:
Remove from heat and stir in 3/4 cup chopped almonds (put down that pen. I told you the recipe is at the end of the post.)
Then pour onto the buttered parchment which is sitting on a rimmed baking sheet. Spread the toffee with a spatula - I like it about 1/4 to 3/8 inch thick, and I hold up the left side of the parchment as it's cooling to keep it from turning into an amoeba and having one very thin side. But you don't have to - I like even thicknesses and square pieces, but my therapist says they can medicate for that.

My original recipe said to let the toffee cool, melt the chocolate in a double boiler and then spread the melted chocolate on the toffee. I think that is too many dishes, too much work, so I take a 250 gram (8.82 ounce) bar of Valrhona chocolate, 68% or 61%, break it into squares, and just drop the squares onto the hot toffee. I used to chop it...
...but I discovered you don't have to. I'm the person who will break fingernails, tweezers and nail clippers trying to tighten a screw in the bathroom rather than just walk out to the kitchen and get the darned screw driver. So maybe you shouldn't be taking advice from me - but if there is a simpler way that is just as delicious I am there. This is one. 

It takes some patience, you have to wait a minute for the chocolate to begin to soften, spread what you can with a rubber spatula, wait for the hard bits to get all melty and spread again...but it's faster than the double boiler and requires less pulling out of pans and washing of rims and edges smudged with chocolate. I'm a big fan of less clean-up. 
After the chocolate is all even you dump about a cup and a half of those skittish chopped almonds onto the chocolate. You have to do this while the chocolate is still soft enough to grab the almonds but not too soft or they will sink into the chocolate never to be seen again.
I let it cool, then try to cut it into squares or diamonds. In reality it has a mind of its own (remember those recalcitrant almonds?) and it sort of half cuts/half breaks. 
Bag it up, put a ribbon on it (you're on your own in the ribbon department - I'm not Des, the Queen of all things ribbon).

Give it to your friends...if you can. Save the little crumbly bits to go on top of ice cream, with or without Maida Heater's Hot Fudge Sauce (recipe later, my arms are tired form all that chopping).
And no, the pill bottle in the background is not to help me with my desire for square-cornered toffee of even thickness. So here it is - the recipe for:

Butter Toffee
2  1/4 cups sugar
1  1/4 cups good butter - I use Strauss 
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup water

about 2 cups whole almonds, roasted (see below) and divided
one 250 gram (8.82 ounce) bar Valrhona chocolate, either 61% or 68%

Preheat oven to 375. Roast almonds on rimmed sheet pan until darker and fragrant. Watch carefully - you want them just a few shades darker and they will get a bit darker after you take them out of the oven. 

Let cool, then chop. I prefer a medium chop, you can make it finer or coarser according to your taste or you patience. Or your arm strength.

Butter a sheet of parchment big enough to cover a rimmed baking sheet.

Place sugar, butter, salt and water in a heavy saucepan. Clip a candy thermometer to the side of the pan and bring to a boil. Do Not Stir!

Cook to 285 on the candy thermometer, swirling occasionally if the edges are darkening faster than the center. Again, in case you weren't paying attention the first time: Do Not Stir.

Remove pan from heat and stir in 3/4 cup of the chopped almonds. Immediately pour the toffee onto the buttered parchment and spread with a rubber spatula. I like it even and about 1/4 inch thick but this isn't brain surgery so don't get too stressed.

Now take the chocolate, break it into squares, and sprinkle it over the hot toffee. Wait until you see signs of melting, then spread what you can with a rubber spatula. There will be big lumps, you will be thinking I steered you wrong and you will never make toffee again - or anything I recommend. Be patient. Spread again - and again. Eventually all the chocolate will melt, there will be an even shiny layer on the toffee and you will feel like a star. 

Wait a few minutes for the chocolate to set a little, then lightly sprinkle the nuts evenly over the still-soft chocolate. It they are not sticking you can press them in gently with the palm of your hand, but use a light touch. We're looking for adhesion here, not submersion.

Let cool (this can take a few hours) then cut into squares about 1 by 1 1/2 inches (or diamonds if you're feeling frisky). Toffee keeps airtight for more than a week. Okay, that's the theory. The reality? In my house it rarely lasts more than a day. And not because it spoils. Hey, who ate the last piece? 

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Hot Time in the Old Town, or All's Well That Ends Well

Stephen (of Stephen Saiz Salon, a magical place of miraculous transformation in San Francisco) was just blowing my hair dry when a loud "Woo-err! Woo-err! Woo-err!" filled the salon.

"What's going on?" Stephen, Dwight and several patrons said in unison, looking at each other and around the salon. "A car alarm?"

"Not on the tenth floor" I said. "I think it's the smoke alarm."

Stephen said to Michelle, his assistant, "Honey, look out in the hall and see what's going on."

Michelle came back very pale. The noise had stopped, but you could see a bright flashing light through the door to the hall. "It smells like smoke out there" she said.  We could hear people coming out of the other salons on the tenth floor, hear their excited chatter as they gathered in the hall.

Stephen nodded, and picked up his blow dryer.

"Stephen" I said, "I think we should get out of here."

He looked at my thoughtfully and felt my still damp hair.

"Are you alright going out not quite dry? It will only take a minute to finish."

I thought about the Titanic and said "I'm fine!" as I leapt from the chair and grabbed my purse and coat. I was heading for the door when Stephen asked Michelle "Have you collected?"

Oops. Not. I threw my credit card at Michelle and pulled the smock off before I even hit the changing booth by grabbing a handful of the front and pulling hard. I yanked my sweater over my head, scribbled my name on the charge, stuffed the credit card in my pocket and ran for the door.

There were so many people streaming down the stairs I had to wait for a break. I slipped in behind a woman still wearing a smock and foil in her hair, and just ahead of a very handsome (and unhappy) hairdresser. We spiraled down ten flights of tiny narrow stairs. A man ahead of us said "You should have been here for the earthquake - we did this in the dark." Sobering thought. Note to self: Put tiny flashlight in purse.

As we went down the last flight of stairs we could hear the fire engines pulling up outside, their sirens  grinding down. "Hurry!" I said. "There's not room for us and the firemen on these stairs." True - they were so narrow some people were going down sideways, like crabs.

We dashed down the last few stairs and slid through the tiny lobby into the cold night air, and almost into the arms of the charging firemen, in full battle gear armed with extinguishers.

I stood in the dusk and watched for Stephen and Dwight. Nothing doing. Finally I called.

"Stephen Saiz" a calm cool voice said.

"Stephen, it's Jill. Firemen are charging up the stairs, there is smoke coming out of the top of the building. Grab your dog, grab your man and get the heck out of there!"

I got an e-mail from Stephen a day later.  "The HOT Firemen said it was a tiny electrical fire on the top floor. No flames (except for the hairdressers!) No fire sale today."