Thursday, December 15, 2011

Dark Chocolate Covered Almonds with Smoked Sea Salt

These treats are so good that I have to give them away.  I can't have a lot of them in my house because I will eat them all, which is why they are the perfect little gift to give friends and family this time of year.  However, as far as holiday treats go, they are among the "healthier" treats out there without tasting healthy at all.  While they are loaded with things that are amazingly good for you, they are still somewhat high in calories so sharing or gifting is the way to go.  And if you're going to indulge in a holiday treat, why not make it something that is actually good for you?  They are flour/wheat/gluten free and contain no added white sugar, no butter or oils.  You just need to make sure you use dark chocolate and start with raw, unsalted almonds and roast them yourself.  Store-bought roasted almonds can contain (bad) oils you don't need and you are able to control the amount of salt they are seasoned with.    

Cocoa is loaded with minerals and vitamins, and has a higher amount of antioxidants than many other foods.  So chocolate can be healthy for us as long as we stick to around 1 ounce per day and choose dark chocolate that is 70% cocoa or higher.  Dark chocolate of this caliber has a much lower sugar content which is why it's considered healthier than milk chocolate.  I eat an ounce of 90% dark chocolate everyday.

Almonds are one of the most nutritious nuts around:  they are a great source of protein, fiber and healthy fats; they contain vitamin E, magnesium, calcium, iron, and a variety of antioxidants and phytochemicals, which may help protect against cardiovascular disease and even cancer.  Almonds can help lower blood pressure and also have anti-inflammatory properties which can prevent wrinkles and other signs of aging even at the cellular level.

One ingredient I've recently discovered that has enhanced these lovely nut clusters is smoked sea salt.  Of course you can use regular sea salt, but if you can get your hands on this stuff - please do.  Some specialty food stores will make you think you have to pay $10, $12 or even $14 for a small jar, but you don't.  Trader Joe's sells a 4 oz jar for $1.99 complete with attached grinder.

Please note when making these almonds, it's not an exact science.  The amounts can vary depending on how much you have in your pantry and how much you want to make.  As far as the chocolate goes, I use a combination of Ghirardelli 60% cocoa chocolate chips and 4-6 squares of a Ghirardelli 100% cocoa bar - you can use what ever % of chocolate you like.  Even if you don't give them away, be forewarned, they won't be around for long.

Dark Chocolate-Covered Almonds with Smoked Sea Salt

1 1/2  - 2 cups  raw, unsalted almonds
 10 - 12 oz dark chocolate chips and/or squares
sea salt or smoked sea salt

1.)  Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F.
2.)  Line a baking pan with parchment paper and spread almonds over the pan.  Season with a few grinds of sea salt and bake for about 6-7 minutes or until you start to smell them and they start to crack.  Let cool.
3.)  In a 3 quart pot/sauce pan, add 1 inch of water and heat over a medium flame.  Place a glass bowl on top making sure the water does not touch the bottom of the bowl as much as possible, (creating a double-boiler).  Add the chocolate and stir until all is melted and smooth. 
4.)  Turn off the heat and add the cooled, roasted almonds.  Stir until all almonds are covered with chocolate.  With a fork, lift a cluster of almonds out and place onto a parchment lined baking pan or plate.  Grind the smoked sea salt on each.  Let set for a good hour or two - you can put them in the refrigerator if you can't wait!  Store in an airtight container.  Enjoy.

"The Greatest Wealth is Health" - Roman Poet Virgil

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Grandma Nettie's Biscotti 2.0

almond-cranberry biscotti

My maternal grandmother was an excellent baker.  Born in Racine, WI to Sicilian immigrants, she spent a lot of time in the kitchen cooking and baking.  I remember as a child helping her clean her house and taking coffee breaks which always produced a large tin of homemade cookies.

One of her favorites that I always bake around this time of year is her biscotti.  Over the years I've played around with and tweaked the recipe quite a bit.  I use extra-virgin olive oil instead of canola oil or butter, I toast sliced almonds with a few grinds of coarse sea salt before incorporating them into the batter, and I add finely chopped dried cranberries and lemon zest. 

Biscotti recipes are easy to customize to suit your taste.  My grandmother sometimes used anise to flavor her biscotti, I prefer almond extract.  You can use any kind of nut you like or add dried cherries, chocolate chips, orange zest, even finely chopped rosemary or thyme.

In Italy, it's customary to eat biscotti with your morning cappuccino or espresso; truly a match made in heaven.  I could eat them everyday although I don't; but if you look at the ingredients in my recipe, you'll find these cookies healthier than most holiday cookies (please keep in mind we are talking about cookies, so healthy is relative here).  These biscotti come in at about 60-70 calories per cookie, depending on your add-ins, and contain olive oil, eggs and almonds - all of which make your hair shiny and your skin glow!  So if you find yourself having a few biscotti breakfasts, a la Italia, at least you've got that going for you.

Another great thing about these cookies is that they have a long shelf life, making them great for holiday gifts.  I ship these cookies to family and friends on the East Coast every Christmas.  A friend once told me he was still eating the cookies in April - four months after I shipped them - and they were still good.  I'm not sure why, but these biscotti get better with age. 

Grandma Nettie's Biscotti 2.0

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3/4 cup sugar
2 Tablespoons pure almond extract
2 eggs
1 3/4 unbleached flour (can use 1/2 whole-wheat pastry flour and 1/2 white flour)
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
zest of one lemon
1/2 cup dried cranberries - finely chopped
1 cup sliced almonds
coarse sea salt

1.) Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees.  Spread sliced almonds on ungreased baking sheet and season with coarsely ground sea salt.  Toast almonds for 6-8 minutes or until golden brown.  Remove from oven and set aside.  Once they are cool, give them a rough chop.

2.) In a medium bowl, combine flour, salt and baking powder and set aside.  

3.) In a large mixing bowl, combine olive oil, sugar, almond extract and lemon zest; stir until blended.  Beat eggs into mixture until smooth. 

4.) Slowly stir the dry flour mixture into the wet mixture until well combined. 

5.) Add cranberries and almonds, and mix until they are well incorporated into the batter.

6.) Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and dust with flour.  You may need to flour your hands as the dough may be sticky.  Divide the dough in half.  Mold each half into a rectangular log and place each on the baking sheet.  Bake for 35-40 minutes or until lightly browned.  Remove from oven and let cool for at least 20 minutes.

7.) Slice biscotti on the diagonal with a serrated knife into 3/4" slices.  Place the slices back on the parchment-lined baking sheet and into the 325 degree oven for 6-7 minutes on each side.

Enjoy these light & crispy cookies with coffee or tea.

"The Greatest Wealth is Health" - Roman Poet Virgil