Saturday, November 9, 2013

Chocolate Clusters

When I was young, my mother gave me a lot of liberty in our kitchen. I was given nearly free rein to cook, bake, experiment, and try whatever new recipes interested me. Through this process, I learned what I liked and what I didn't like. And if I didn't like something, I would simply make it again, but with a little this or that added. My tastes evolved, my cooking skills improved, and now my mother prefers when I cook, even though she is a fine home cook herself! However, there are a handful of dishes that both my mom and my dad prepared regularly that have stuck with me, either as unchangeable classic tastes that remind me of home, or as inspiration for me to develop a more grown-up version of a childhood favourite.

Chocolate clusters fall into the second category. I remember the recipe my mom used very clearly: She would melt 1 bag of butterscotch chips and 1 bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips in an oversized glass measuring cup (think 1-2 quarts!) in the microwave. Then, she would add salted Spanish peanuts and stir until everything was mixed and coated. Then, we would drop this mix onto waxed paper by the spoonful, and put the trays in the fridge. Rarely would I be able to wait until they were firm enough to handle.

I had nearly forgotten about this recipe until a year ago, when my mother gave me her oversized glass measuring bowl. She was a little reluctant, saying, "How am I going to make my chocolate clusters now?" But I reassured her: "I'll make them for you, Mom."And I did! But using the old childhood recipe, I found these candies too cloyingly sweet. And I had a variety of nuts and other fun ingredients in my cupboard that simply wouldn't be passed over.

So this recipe is my grown-up riff on a childhood favourite. I hope that perhaps, it can be the same springboard for you to make your own version of these candies.

Chocolate Clusters
These candies need to be kept in the fridge or they will become a big mass of messy chocolate. I prefer to eat these straight out of the fridge, while they are still cold. But, it's probably good - if you decide to be benevolent and share these with other people - to let them sit at room temperature for about 5 minutes. 

1 cup butterscotch chips
2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
Optional: 2 squares (2 oz.) of unsweetened baker's chocolate
3-4 cups of your favourite nuts and dried fruit

I like to use:
1 cup whole almonds
1 cup of peanuts, walnuts, or pecans
1/2 cup of pumpkin seeds
1/2 cup of shredded coconut (unsweetened)
1/2 cup of dried cranberries
1/2 cup of dried apricots, chopped or golden raisins

Melt the chocolate in a microwave safe bowl for 1 minute at a time, stirring until the chocolate is completely smooth with no lumps. Add in your fruits and nuts, and stir until coated. Drop by teaspoonful onto baking sheets lined with parchment, wax paper, or plastic wrap. Put trays in fridge or freezer until candies are firm. Store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3 weeks.

Makes a bunch, depending on how big you make them. This batch covered two large trays!

Homemade Hummus

Last weekend one branch of my husband's family had a little get together. We offered to bring snacks, so I made a plate of my homemade hummus and veggies. I make this hummus all the time at home, and it takes me less than ten minutes to make, so I was pleasantly surprised with rave reviews and requests for the recipe.

One batch of this hummus will supply nearly a week of healthy and delicious afternoon snacks or easy lunches. Spread on a rye cracker, topped with pumpkin seeds, this hummus makes a light lunch that still manages to sustain me until dinner. Crisp celery dipped in hummus is my favourite afternoon snack combination. Served with good olives, cheese and crackers, and a dry white wine, any hour instantly becomes Happy Hour!

I make this in my food processor, but you could easily adjust the order in which you add your ingredients to work with a blender, or even a immersion (or stick) blender in a big mixing bowl. Once you master the method, you can make all sorts of variations! Blend in some roasted red peppers drained of their oil; add 2-3 cloves of roasted garlic; or, add some pitted black olives and pulse just enough to combine.

Enjoy making your own hummus and knowing exactly what goes into it! Many storebought hummus brands include ingredients that make the hummus shelf stable, or make them last a long time. And if they are flavoured (like red pepper, for example), the flavour often doesn't taste nearly as fresh or rich as if you made it yourself. But the biggest problem with storebought hummus is the high levels of unnecessary sodium. When you make it yourself, you can add more lemon juice, vinegar, or garlic to bump up the flavour before you add extra salt.

Homemade Hummus
1 can (19 oz) of no-salt-added chickpeas, drained and rinsed well
1/4 cup of sesame tahini (you can find this near other Mediterranean foods)
1/4 cup of lemon juice (bottled is fine)
1/4 cup of olive oil (reserve some of this if you are using a food processor)
2 Tbsp apple cider vinegar (white vinegar is fine)
1/4 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp salt, or to taste

Optional (pick one):
3-4 pieces of roasted red pepper, drained of oil
2-3 cloves of roasted garlic, peeled
1/3 - 1/2 cup pitted black olives, drained

In a food processor or blender: 
Add all ingredients, but reserve some of the olive oil. Process all ingredients until smooth. While the motor is running, stream in the remaining olive oil. (This will emulsify the olive oil and make the hummus a bit lighter and fluffier.) Scrape down the sides of your food processor and taste the hummus for consistency and flavour. If it's too thick but the flavour is right, add a splash of water. If the flavour is flat, add a splash of lemon juice or vinegar. If the flavour is too sharp, add a splash of olive oil. If there are no "low notes" in the flavour, add another pinch of garlic powder.

Makes about 2 cups of hummus.