Cotton Candy Maker is Awesome!

I got this particular cotton candy machine today (Nostalgia Electrics PCM-805 Hard & Sugar-Free Candy Cotton Candy Maker), and while I was initially skeptical, it totally works! After eating cotton candy at a kids' festival, I began searching to see if there were any DIY articles of how to make it at home. I was thinking maybe something like melting the sugar over the stove and using a blow dryer or something. I was hoping there was some technique that would be safe and not get melted sugar all over over the kitchen.

But I almost immediately started finding reviews of this machine. I was skeptical until I saw it on a news station where they were reviewing hot gifts for whatever year, and figured they wouldn't recommend it if they hadn't tried it and found it to work.

So I ordered it, and it arrived today. I had read reviews to be sure to get the model that used either hard candies OR sugar, so that's what I got. But I suspect I'll mostly use hard candies.

I tried it out tonight. I took it out of the box, read the extremely short instructions, and put the three top pieces together. I plugged it into an outlet and preheated it for five minutes, and while that was going on, I dug through the candy dish to find two matching hard candies (it's not necessary to use two candies of the same flavor, but that's what I wanted to start with). I found two cinnamon candies.

After preheating, I turned the machine off, waited until the middle stopped spinning, then placed the two candies opposite each other in the middle well. When I turned it back on, I expected it to take some time to start making floss, but it was nearly instantaneous!

I stuck my reusable plastic cone (two came with the machine) down into the bowl, and sure enough, strands of cotton candy started sticking to it! I mostly moved the cone around the bowl in a circle while simultaneously spinning it around with my fingers. The instructions said something about holding the cone horizontally once it got started, and I didn't understand that exactly while reading it. But after I got started, I could see that once you have some volume of cotton candy on the stick, you can hold it more horizontally than vertically and as long as some bit of the stuff on your stick is protruding down into the bowl, the floss will stick to it. Does that make sense? Other reviewers recommend finding a YouTube video to watch someone else's technique, but I haven't bothered to do that. I figure that a little experimentation and practice will help me perfect my technique.

When the floss stopped blowing out, I turned the machine off and ate my cotton candy. It was a novelty having cinnamon flavor! Next time I think I will try butterscotch, although root beer is also high on my list. Lots of people have indicated that Jolly Ranchers don't work. The instructions recommend the traditional-shaped round, flat candies. They say ball-shaped ones don't work. There are lots of flavors of the traditional hard candies that I like, so I don't have a problem limiting myself to those. Other people even have "recipes" where you mix various flavors together to get new flavors. I think there were a few ideas in the instruction book, too. Like Root Beer + Cream Soda = Root Beer Float. That sort of thing.

After I ate up my cotton candy, clean-up was very easy. There was a crust of cinnamon candy dust in a line around the inside of the bowl, and I actually chipped off the larger bits and ate it before washing it off in the sink. Sugar readily dissolves in warm water, so it was quick and easy to clean. Same with the candy well. There was only a few small spots of melted sugar left in the metal well, which also dissolved away in warm water. Then I put the whole shebang back in the box until the next time I want to make cotton candy.

Some other reviewers complained because it only makes a small amount of cotton candy per batch. I can see that being annoying if you wanted to make lots and lots for a big party. But I'm thinking I will just use it to make a treat for my family a few times per month. Maybe every week on Sunday, I'm not sure. To me, one of the beautiful things about this is that each cone cane be a different flavor! It doesn't matter if one person wants cinnamon and another wants caramel. Each cone is independent of the one before or after, so everyone can have whatever flavor they want.

And others also complained because each cotton candy "cone" was small. I actually viewed this as a positive. If I tried to eat an entire cotton candy thing from a fair, I'd give myself a tummy ache. One is enough for the whole family (although my boys are very young, I'm sure if they were teens it would be a different story). But two hard candies is less than 50 calories, so that seems like a very sensible indulgence per person, even if it is pure sugar.

I have only used the machine to make one cotton candy so far, so I don't have a lot of perspective in this review. But I will add to it later if I find that making four batches (one for everyone in the family) turns out to be a nuisance. But as long as I don't have to do this every day, I suspect it will remain a bit of a novelty. Besides, it goes really fast. This is waaay easier than making a batch of cookies. Maybe it involves an effort similar to making a batch of brownies from a box (which I personally think is ridiculously easy), but with this you can eat your dessert in a matter of minutes rather than waiting an hour for the brownies to bake and cool.

Overall, I am already a big fan of this machine. It is hard to believe that homemade cotton candy could be so quick and easy to make. Two hard candies. That's the sum total of the ingredients you have to find. Nothing perishable, nothing to be refrigerated. Nothing to measure. The only thing you need to do is set a timer for five minutes to preheat, and master the art of getting the floss onto the stick. I would recommend this for anyone with space to store the machine in their house. It might not be the most practical thing for someone living in a studio apartment, unless they really love cotton candy.

Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Truffles

When I saw this recipe for chocolate chip cookie dough truffles, I knew I had to try it.

And they are everything I hoped they would be. I made the filling days ago, but ran out of chocolate so I just kept the balls in the freezer until I was able to finish the job tonight. By the way, the balls keep fine in the freezer, and if you're lazy they make a fine snack all on their own since they don't freeze solid you can eat them straight from the freezer. Don't ask me how I know this ;-).

The recipe (linked above) is straightforward and easy to make with pantry staples. If I made a large batch, I'd only keep them in the refrigerator for a week or so at most, but seriously, the original blogger is right in saying that you won't have to worry about it because no matter how many you have, they will all be consumed in a matter of days.

Which is why the next time I make these (and there WILL be a next time), I'll immediately put at least half of them directly in the freezer. There they'd probably stay fresh at least a month or more. And if I put them waaaay, waaay, down at the bottom of the chest freezer, there is a chance I will only take them out when I really, really, want some, rather than just eating one every time I walk past the refrigerator.

Actually, I've found an easier solution already. I just ate so many while I was making them that I gave myself a tummy ache. Now I really don't have an appetite for any more, and I think it will be a day or two before I'd want to gorge on them again. . .

Without further ado, here's a photo:

French Onion & Bacon Tart

I watched another episode of America's Test Kitchen from my Tivo, and this time was inspired to make the French Onion and Bacon Tart. I knew it would take a long time, but the ingredients are mostly household staples so I could make it whenever I had the opportunity without needing to get special ingredients.

This morning T let me sleep in until around 9:30am (since I had been up with the baby overnight) and I was feeling energetic after that, so I decided I'd start cooking and have the tart for lunch. I'm so glad I have the master cookbook with ALL the recipes to-date, since I never have to bother memorizing it from the TV show.

I started preparing this dish around 10:30 am, and it was ready to eat around 12:30pm. It is a fair amount of time to spend on one meal, but I think this tart is dangerously good. Sometimes when I glance down at my waistline I wish I weren't such a good cook. If only it was my nature to make bad-tasting food, I wouldn't want to eat so much!

At first glance you might think this dish would be just like a quiche, but it's not. The dough is pressed into the pan instead of rolled, and it is buttery and r-i-c-h. And the filling is mostly onions with just a little bit of custard to hold it together-- which is the opposite of quiche which is primarily custard with a little bit of filling for flavor.

The ingredients are simple-- the crust uses a stick butter and some flour, the filling consists of 3 onions, a spring of thyme, 2 eggs, 1/2 cup half & half, and 4 slices of bacon, seasoned with salt & pepper. So theoretically, most people could probably make this with ingredients on hand at any time. But the technique is the rub.

It wasn't a full two hours of active cooking time, but it was close, because even when things were cooking slowly (the onions) or in the oven (first the crust by itself, then the whole tart), you had to turn them or check them or cover them and uncover them at varying stages so you had to be in the kitchen every ten minutes even if you didn't have to prep anything during that time.

Nevertheless, I was able to make the whole thing while simultaneously carrying my infant in a moby wrap and watching my 2-year-old play nearby. There's nothing delicate to worry about technique-wise, but there is a lot to do. I would say this is great for company, but only if you can get it done before guests arrive, because I don't see how you'd get the timing right if you were trying to carry on hostess duties while this was being prepared. I might try to figure out the best way to prep parts of this in advance so all I'd have to do when company arrives is the last step, which is assembling the thing then just 25 minutes in the oven.

I served it with a green salad, and it's perfect for brunch or lunch.

Fancy French Hash Browns

Well it happened again-- I watched another episode of Julia & Jacques Cooking at Home from my Tivo queue and had to try one of the recipes. I forget what this one is called, of course it's another one of Jacques' recipes, so it's labeled in French. It's basically hash browns, but it tastes very different than the typical American version. I find it very convenient to have the cookbook, since I don't have to memorize the recipes from the TV show-- I just look it up in the cookbook when I'm ready to make the dish that looked most delicious from each episode:

But for this dish, you don't even need a recipe, per se. Here's what to do:

First, bake some potatoes. I used small red potatoes, although the official recipe calls for baking potatoes. I doubt that it matters very much.

Next, peel the skins and roughly chop the potatoes. Jacques used a technique where he used a tin can cut open on both ends, the cookbook says you can use a 3" cookie cutter if you don't have an open-ended tin can handy. I just broke up the potatoes with the side of a fork. Whatever, the important part is that they should not be totally mashed, just broken up to 1/2"-3/4" bits.

Heat vegetable oil & butter in a non-stick ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat while the oven preheats to 425F (or if you just baked the potatoes like I did, leave the oven hot while you prepare them to go back in the oven). Put the potatoes in the skillet & toss to coat. Also season them with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. The nutmeg is important, it's what gives the dish it's special French flavor. I didn't measure any of them, I just seasoned to taste. Continue tossing the potatoes to make sure all are evenly seasoned. Once they taste to your liking, turn the heat down to medium-low, and press the potatoes into an even layer in the skillet, and let them brown on the bottom. About 5-7 minutes (I suppose it depends on how long you spent tossing and seasoning them).

Then put the skillet into the oven for about 15 minutes until the top is browned. When that is done, flip the pan over onto a platter so the potato cake (gateau) comes out, bottom-side down-- that side is brownest by now. This step is tricky since the skillet handle is very hot from being in the oven. It's easier if you have a something light you can hold right on top of the skillet and so flip them over together. On the TV show, Julia had some special tool she got in France specifically for that purpose. I've never seen one in stores here. My platter was too heavy to put over the hot skillet and flip both together (although I would have tried if the pan weren't so darn hot) so I just quickly flipped the potatoes out of the pan and hoped for the best.

They broke a little, and so I didn't have a perfect presentation, but most of the potato cake was intact (and once I smushed the broken bit together it wasn't that noticeable a break).

You could serve them as-is at this point, but to be fancy, cover the top of the potato cake with a layer of sour cream, and then a layer of shredded swiss cheese (of course Jacques used gruyere on the show, but Swiss is easier for me to find in our rural grocery store). Then stick the platter under the broiler for a few minutes until the cheese is melted. I think Jacques kept it under the broiler until the cheese actually started to brown a bit, but I had a hungry husband to feed so I didn't wait that long.

Cut into wedges to serve. And that's that. It was really delicious, and didn't use that many ingredients, and I didn't have to measure anything. My kind of recipe! In the future, I'll probably bake extra potatoes anytime I'm baking them, so I'll have some leftover so I can make this for lunch the next day. Serve some vegetables or a salad on the side, and it's enough for a light entree.

Lamb Rib Chops

The last set of rib chops I chose to broil, but they ended up a little bit overcooked. This time, I had recently watched a cooking show where the chef demonstrated how to pan-sear a beef rib-eye steak then finish it in the oven. He served his with hollandaise, but I made a sauce with mushrooms and onions.

I really stuffed the pan as you can see from the photo above, but it didn't seem to affect the process. I did get the pan very hot before I put the meat in, and used a generous amount of olive oil so it would brown quickly. When it was browned on both sides, I drained the extra fat from the pan before putting it in the oven.

The oven had been preheating at 375F. Per the cooking-show example, I topped the meat with fresh herbs, pats of butter, and garlic cloves before sticking it in the oven. I totally guessed at the amount of time needed, and figured 10 minutes ought to do it-- I was right, the meat was cooked perfectly.

Here's the finished meal. It was delicious. I will use the pan-sear & oven-finish method for future rib chops-- it wound up being far easier for me to perfect than the broiling.

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