This holiday season, let your taste buds be your guide
Purchasing holiday gifts is so 2012. This year, why not put a smile on your loved ones’ faces with delectable homemade sweets? A treat for both the eyes and the taste buds, edible gift giving is all the rage, and with the expert advice of Love Apple Farms’ Chef Maggie Cattell, you can’t lose.
“I come from a family that believes food is the first priority during the holidays,” Cattell says with a laugh. “I remember the kitchen smelling like homemade stock a week before. Everyone had a part to play.”
Since desserts weren’t her mother’s forte, Cattell was given free range on the post-dinner sweets as a young girl. It was during that time experimenting with baked goods, that she developed a passion for crafting ornate holiday treats that put a fresh spin on the classics.
Since her youth, Cattell graduated from the California Culinary Academy, worked in Paris with renowned Chef Christian Constant at restaurant Le Violon d’Ingres (one Michelin star) as well as with Chef Douglas Keane at Cyrus Restaurant (two Michelin stars) in Healdsburg, Calif. While she has only been teaching workshops at Love Apple Farms since February, she says she has enjoyed the transition from the kitchen to the classroom setting.
“In the culinary world, I’ve always found a niche in training people, so this feels really natural,” says Cattell. “I like getting people excited about doing something different—it’s really cool to be able to inspire students.”
In early December, Cattell did just that at two holiday-themed culinary workshops at Love Apple Farms: Holiday Treats & Sweets and Chocolate Truffles for Gift Giving. The former focused on adding some pizzazz to holiday baking with innovative recipes, gift giving, and creative packaging ideas. During the latter, Cattell taught the complicated art of chocolate truffle making.
Edible gift giving is an easy solution for hostess gifts and those hard-to-buy-for people on your list, according to Cattell. Some of her go-to recipes include Nougat, Soft Fleur du Sel Caramels, Pecan Mascarpone Shortbread, Pain d’Epice (French Gingerbread), and a Grand Marnier Truffle with Candied Orange Zest. They may sound intimidating to make, but Cattell believes that anyone with patience and determination can tackle her recipes.
When determining what to make for others during the holidays, Cattell says she follows her taste buds. “You don’t want to make things you don’t like,” she laughs.
“It can be hard when you’re giving food, because everyone has a different palate. I’ve received food gifts that I didn’t eat,” she admits. “So, when I’m giving a gift, I might just make fabulous chocolate chip cookies with very high-quality chocolate and organic dark brown sugar, so that they’re moist.” For the more adventurous edible gift giver, Cattell recommends thinking outside the box.
“Everyone likes granola,” she says. “That’s what I gave away last year. People kept asking if they could purchase some in order to give it to their kids’ teachers. What’s nice is that you can make it for a lot cheaper than what’s at the market. I usually pack mine with nuts and dried fruit.”
While chocolate truffles can seem daunting to less experienced chefs, Cattell has found that by simply eliminating the need for a smooth outer shell, truffles become increasingly easy (and fun) to make.
“Tempering can be such a headache—why worry about it if you don’t need to?” says Cattell, who suggests rolling the truffles in chopped nuts, toasted coconut or cocoa powder instead. “Especially if you’re making truffles for the first time and you don’t have a good feel for temperature, you should concentrate on a good ganache.”
Cattell suggests many different ways to experiment with ganache, including infusing the cream with your favorite tea bag, adding some lemon or orange zest, or using a hazelnut liqueur or Grand Marnier. However you decide to spice up your truffles, she recommends using only high-quality chocolate (70 percent cocoa and up) for the best results.
Last but not least, presentation is key. To make the edible gift more festive, Cattell uses vibrant packaging or mason jars and ribbons from the hardware store to give it a decorative look. For inspiration, she suggests using Pinterest or MarthaStewart.com. “It’s also a good idea to put a bake date on your gift, so that the person receiving it knows if it’s still good to eat,” she adds.
Bonus Recipe by Chef Maggie Cattell: Holiday Spiced Chocolate Caramels
2 cups (500ml) heavy cream
10 ½ oz bittersweet chocolate (high-quality like Guittard or Valrhona recommended), finely chopped
2 cups (400g) sugar
¼ cup (62.5ml) corn syrup
¼ cup (62.5ml) water
2oz (55g) salted “European” butter, room temperature (ie. Kerrygold or Strauss)
1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon (or whatever spice you prefer)
1. Line bottom and sides of an 8-inch straight-sided square metal baking pan with oiled parchment paper.
2. Bring sugar, corn syrup, and water to a boil in a 5- to 6-quart heavy pot over moderate heat. Boil, uncovered, without stirring but gently swirling pan occasionally, until sugar is deep golden, about 10 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, heat cream and cinnamon just to a boil in a 1- to 1 ½-quart heavy saucepan. Remove from heat and set aside.
4. Using a wire whisk, carefully pour the heated cream in a slow stream into the caramel while whisking. This will prevent clumps. Wear heat proof oven mitts and use caution as mixture will bubble up and the steam is extremely hot.
5. Continue to boil mixture over moderate heat, stirring frequently, until mixture registers 240°F on a thermometer, about 10 minutes.
6. Add butter and chocolate, stirring until completely melted, then immediately pour into lined baking pan. Let caramel cool completely in pan on a rack.
7. Carefully invert caramel onto a clean, dry cutting board, then peel off parchment.
8. Lightly oil blade of a large heavy knife and cut into 1-inch long rectangles that you will individually wrap using wax paper or parchment paper. Test by cutting one caramel first to figure out what size paper to cut.
Note: Caramels will keep in an airtight container at cool room temperature two weeks.
Don’t miss Maggie Cattell’s “The Art of the Soufflé” workshop at Love Apple Farms on Jan. 12, 2014. For more info and to register for all Love Apple Farms classes, visit growbetterveggies.com. Photos: Sal Ingram