Friday, December 16, 2011

Jiggly Bits

Back in the day (which, thanks to my non-native English speaking friend who once stopped me in mid-conversation to ask why I always talk about "bacon days", is now and forever referred to as such) I worked in the produce department at our local grocery store.  My shifts were spent sweeping up onion skins, promising customers that we honestly weren't hiding more tomatoes in storage and keeping my eye on the apples (and removing the many with toddler sized bite marks).  My best friend (The Other Hannah) worked in the bakery, conveniently located at the far end of the produce aisle (which wasn't very far, because the store was very small).  When she wasn't busy squeezing fillings into danish or spraying imitation kirsch on black forest cakes, she'd wander in to my section to see what was new and good.

Apart from the typical fresh fruits and vegetables, our produce department sometimes stocked specialty items, often some sort of confectionery, and, for a long while, we two Hannahs debated whether sharing the cost of some Aplets & Cotlets (apparently a Pacific Northwest delicacy) would merit each of us chipping in thirty minutes of wage.  The packaging promised tidbits of apples or apricots and pieces of walnuts that were magically suspended in a glistening gel candy then dredged in a powdery sugar coat.  They were totally intriguing - in a not exactly appetizing kind of way.  But still...

apples, walnuts, powdered sugar

This memory resurfaced last week as I passed by the dining room table, our fruit basket filled with apples aside an overflowing bowl of mixed nuts.  Out of sheer curiosity I returned to my laptop, Googling "Aplets" to see if they were still in existence (they are) and, to my surprise (or perhaps my demise), I also found an online recipe.  Figuring that Aplets might be a possible way to integrate a tiny taste of home into my Christmas treat baskets this year, I read through the ingredients in this posted version and, with great excitement, confirmed that I had everything on hand that I'd need to make them.  Then I got cracking...

And when I say I got cracking, I should eliminate your notion that I ran to the kitchen and whipped up a fantastic batch in the 25 minute prep time as listed.  No, when I say I got cracking, I mean I got cracking; sack of walnuts in one hand, nutcracker in the other, I extracted and chopped until I reached one cup of nuts.

cracked walnut

one cup of hand cracked walnuts

The next morning, while sipping my first cup of coffee, I re-read the recipe, consciously aware of the footnote suggesting that lemon juice, of which I have an endless supply, would be a suitable substitute for rose water, of which I have none.  My half-caffeinated brain argued otherwise. Replace roses with lemons?  While lemons and roses are both deliciously aromatic and both have quite distinct flavours, they are so far from being the same that I just wasn't buying the trade.  And so, before coffee number two, I was Googling "how to make rose water".

fresh cut red rose

I know what you're thinking.  Oh my-lanta!  She made her own rose water!  Yes, and I could let you go on believing that I'm some culinary chemist wizard, but instead I'll tell you the truth.  I learned, through a terrific tutorial at We Like Making Our Own Stuff, a blog with straight forward instructions and a helpful pictorial, that making rose water is a cinch.  Using six basic items (a pot, water, roses, ice, a bowl and a rock - it doesn't get much simpler than that), and with my lovely assistant, "honey" (to keep the lid from getting pushed off the pot), I distilled myself a batch.

pot with inverted lid, ice pack and my lovely assistant, "honey"

Now that I had my rose water, I was ready to go nuts with my Aplets.  I peeled my apples, simmered and pureed them, and continued to follow the recipe as instructed.  When all was said and done, I had a shimmering pan full of apple-walnutty goodness; I couldn't wait for it to set.

I waited...

And I waited...

And I waited some more.

Humidity and gelatin are not good playmates.

pan of apple walnutty goodness

The next day (and more than 24 hours after I'd poured my jelly to set), I decided that whatever will be, will be.  With a sharp, oiled knife I began to slice and carefully lifted the long strips of confection out of the pan.  I chopped each strip in to bite sized squares and started to roll them in sugar.

Here's when things got sticky.

After the first few pieces were rolled, they immediately soaked up the sugar.  Observing my syrupy mess of squares, I opted to leave them to set for yet another day.  Perhaps they'd firm up, or dry out... or something?  I placed them gently on a paper towel lined tray, covered them with a mesh dome and left them alone 'til tomorrow.  

sugar coating:  round one

One week (yep, you heard me) and one roll of paper towel later, my Aplets were ready (in other words, I was sick of seeing that tray).  My patience had prevailed.  They had (sort of) firmed up.  As I finally began to roll them in sugar, I rewarded my own perseverance by plucking a finished-as-it's-ever-going-to-get candy from the cup and popping it in my mouth.

And I was instantly reminded of the ending to the story of us coveting those cotlets 'bacon days' at the store.  We did end up buying them.  We did end up eating them.  I did not end up liking them at all.  And why would I? Jell-O makes me gag.  Molded salads scare me.  I obviously don't. like. gelatinous. foods.  Double U Tee Eff was I thinking? ...


In all fairness, there are a plethora of people who adore Aplets & Cotlets and my personal distaste should not reflect poorly on the original product as sold.  If jiggly bits are your thing, the recipe I used is probably even adequately delightful;  but, defeated by humidity and (still!) dissolving sugar, I just could not bring myself to gift these away.  Suddenly, like the eight year old me who once begged my mom for a can of TaB, even as she insisted I wouldn't like it, and only because the can was pink, I was stuck with a tray of nutty applish jelly goo squares that, one cup of hand cracked nuts and a small bottle of homemade rose water later, I couldn't let go to waste and would need to choke back on my own.  Ugh.

At least I learned how to make rose water.  I'll be using the rest in our New Year's Eve champagne.


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Monday, December 12, 2011

Holiday Goodies

My greatest pleasure during the holiday season has always come from creating special edibles to pass around to my nearest and dearest.  Adhering to the adage 'the more, the merrier' (because, what better way to be at Christmas time than merry?), what began, way back when, with a single batch of peanut butter fudge grew, over time, to a gross amount of gastronomic goodies as I continually lengthened my annual list of recipients and added new recipes to divvy up amongst the pretty packages for delivery to their doors.  I took pride in ensuring treats of both sweet and savory, with a wide range of flavours and textures, to guarantee smiles on all of my favourite mouths.  Yes, I definitely prefer to spend my December buried in butter, mixed with flour, sugar dusted and double chocolate dipped.

Homemade Holiday Goodies - Christmas 2006

I have to admit that, here on the island, it is difficult to fall in to the holiday spirit.  Our trees, while beautifully decorated, are not adorned with glass baubles, flashing lights and delicate ornaments, but instead are dripping with brightly coloured bulbs in fresh citrus flavours of mandarin, grapefruit, lemon and orange.  Our redheaded cactus, Spike, is blooming a wreath of pretty pink flowers and our nasturtiums and marigolds, self seeded in last year's pots, are beginning to sprout through the soil.  Given our spring-like environment, and far detached from pre-Christmas pandemonium (though, my mom and my sister may argue the second point as they continue to receive new emails from me listing various shipment tracking numbers and instructions on who should be wrapping what for who), it is easy to let time slide by and virtually forget that 'tis the season. In fact, last year, I did.

Our "Christmas Trees" decorated with mandarins, oranges, grapefruits and lemons

Ok, I didn't actually forget Christmas last year but, the lack of snow certainly numbed my brain and, for the first time in years, I didn't make anything.  It made me sad.  I vowed that this year would be different.

And so I am, once again, making a very merry mess in my kitchen and am up to my elbows in yum.  Undeterred by the reduced number of names on my recipient list (not because they've been naughty, but because I don't actually know that many people on the island at this time of year, we have very little storage space for extra goodies and cross border food shipments are frowned upon) and the fact that I can't always find the necessary ingredients for my regular repertoire, I've emptied my bag of tricks, totally scratched my usual lineup and am going with all things new.  Using readily available foods, this year will be less chocolate, more citrus and completely corn syrup free.  It will also be 100% Christmas, with all the love, the joy and the spirit of the holiday.

Spike (with his holiday attire)

The bad news is, there is less than two weeks until Christmas and, since I tend to be flaky as pie crust when it comes to my posting regimen, the likelihood that I'll share my goodies with you before you're sick of sugar is probably pretty slim.  The good news is, the holidays are always full of surprises.  The better news is, you are likely too swept up in your own seasonal frenzy to notice new posts anyway.  The best news is, I've made it easier than boiling eggs to subscribe to my blog (by email or in your favourite reader) - no missed surprises, no more waiting and wondering and no checking the page for new posts ever again.

Until next time, please promise me you'll play in the snow, drink plenty of eggnog, shop with local small businesses, artists and craftspeople and support your hometown food banks.

Be merry.

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