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Dark Chocolate Hazelnut Pudding
With homemade vanilla extract on my mind (and growing increasingly darker on my counter), I have found myself craving homespun desserts of yore.  It is certainly this time of year too; our new pine-y tree perfuming the house has me tearing through files of stained recipe cards trying to recreate tins of cookies of my foremothers'.

I have had a few amazing meals at an outstanding humble restaurant, The Moosse Cafe, in Mendocino, CA.  The menu is a wonderful array of comforting classics, but so carefully prepared with impeccable ingredients you feel you are meeting them for the first time.  This was certainly the case with their legendary dark chocolate pudding.  Dense and rich and not too sweet, it was perfect.  But also...it was pudding.  Not custard or mousse, nor crème nor bruléed.

With all of the frothy, eggy, well-tempered desserts my french culinary background has given me, I am in love with the honest simplicity of pudding right now.  I even love the brief snap of the skin on top of the bowl as my spoon first dives in.

I brought this pudding recently to a dinner party and it was a lick-the-plate-clean hit.  Easy to transport and serve, in small ramekins (keep the portions small, as it is a rich one), accompanied by a bowl of whipped cream, and a bowl of an irresistible crunchy toasted hazelnut, shaved chocolate and sea salt topping.  This would also be festive and easy to set up on a holiday soiree buffet.  (psst...and all made in advance.)

Fa-la-la-la-la.


DARK CHOCOLATE HAZELNUT PUDDING
by Catie Schwalb
serves 8

1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 cups whole milk
6 ounces the best you can get dark chocolate, not chips, about 1 1/4 cups, roughly chopped (I used 72%)
1 1/2 teaspoon hazelnut liqueur, or extract, or vanilla extract

In a heavy bottomed pot, combine sugar, cornstarch and salt.  Over medium heat, slowly add in the milk, whisking to incorporate fully.   Continue to cook, whisking frequently, and also stirring to prevent burning in the corners and sides, for 5-10 minutes until the mixture starts to bubble slightly and thicken.  When the pudding fully coats the back of a spoon, remove from heat and add the chocolate all at once.   Whisk briskly for a few minutes to melt and incorporate the chocolate.  Add in the extract or liqueur.

Pour into a serving bowl, or ladle into individual cups or ramekins.  Cover with plastic wrap, pushing right down on the surface of the pudding if you want to avoid the pudding "skin".  Allow to cool and then chill in the refrigerator.  Will keep for up to 3 days.

TOASTED HAZELNUT, SHAVED CHOCOLATE AND SEA SALT TOPPING

1 cup hazelnuts
1/4 cup shaved bittersweet chocolate
1/8 teaspoon fine salt

Heat oven to 350. Spread hazelnuts evenly a baking sheet and toast in the oven for about 12 minutes. Keep an eye on them, as they'll go quickly from done to burned in the final minutes. Bundle nuts in a kitchen towel and rub vigorously to remove the skins. Allow to cool and then roughly chop.

Shave chocolate by running a vegetable peeler along the edge of the bar. Combine with cooled, chopped nuts, and salt. Sprinkle over pudding and whipped cream, or ice cream or as a decoration for a frosted cake. Store in an airtight container.



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Edible Gift Series: Homemade Vanilla Extract
There is little that will get me running to the kitchen faster than reading about a new (or most of the time, quite old) culinary trick to produce a food or ingredient that I had never thought about making by hand.  Food and Wine magazine has a great feature this month on the Best Handmade Gifts.  Included in that article is a recipe for homemade vanilla extract.  Who knew?

The procedure couldn't be simpler:
Combine 10 vanilla beans, split lengthwise, with 1 1/2-2 cups of vodka in a clean glass jar or bottle.  Add a 1/2 cup more vodka, if needed, to completely cover the beans.  Let sit for about 6 weeks in a cool, dark place.  The extract is ready when the vodka is a rich, dark color and knocks you over with vanilla wafting from the jar when opened.  If you'd rather not have the grainy vanilla bean seeds in your extract, pour through a coffee filter to strain.

I also read in another extract article online, that you can make a second batch of extract with the same beans.  Just fill up the container again with vodka when empty, and repeat the steeping process one more time.

Yes, Christmas is only 3 1/2 weeks away, and well, Happy Hanukkah already.  But I can certainly see giving this a start with the time you have, and then portioning it out for gifts, beans included in each bottle, with instructions to wait a week or two more before using.  It would also make a lovely Valentine...

Speaking of Valentine--

This year for Valentine's Day I gave my husband, the ice cream chef in the family, a half pound of glorious, moist, outrageously fragrant vanilla beans.  I found an amazing online vanilla bean resource, Amadeus Vanilla Beans, and the totally indulgent bundle of about 50 beans, for about 65 cents each, far exceeded my wildest expectations.  Start there.

And here are a few great options for packaging up your gift portion of bean and extract:
The Container Store
Save on Crafts
Specialty Bottle

And finally, with New Year's right around the corner, while you are working with these same ingredients, how about also getting a larger glass bottle, using a slightly less vanilla bean to vodka ratio (2-4 beans per liter of vodka, depending on desired strength), and make homemade vanilla vodka.  I mean, anyone can bring champagne to the party.

Ho Ho Ho!


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Catie Baumer Schwalb is a chef, food writer and photographer, who splits her life between the city and the country. Not too long ago Catie was a New York City based actress and playwright for more than a decade. She has her Master of Fine Arts from the National Theater Conservatory, and her Grand Diplôme in classic culinary arts from the French Culinary Institute in New York City. ... Read More

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