Wednesday, July 2, 2014

How to make souvenir sea salt

1407_CPE-salt-6 We brought home a special souvenir from our recent vacation: sea salt collected at our newest favorite beach.

The north shore of Kauai is one of our happiest places. We visit Hanalei Bay every year or two, swimming and snorkeling and waking up early to the sound of roosters.

This year, we tried something new. One of my fantastic editors insisted we get boogie boards and head to Kalihiwai Beach, a beautiful little crescent of sand with a river running to the sea.

So we did. And it was all that she promised and more. My boys — often timid in the waves — took to the water like dolphins and rode the surf for days. My husband and I loved it too. I can't believe we waited this long to try it!


It was the perfect place to experiment with making sea salt. My 10-year-old son enthusiastically helped make two batches. He was so happy with the results he's added "making salt" to his grand plan for some sort of hybrid invention/manufacturing commune he expects to launch with his friends.

We ended up with large crystals of salt with a pleasantly briny bite. They'll make excellent finishing salt.


Harvesting salt is a simple process, provided you have a few resources: a container to carry salt water, something to filter the water, and a stove (or several weeks to let the water naturally evaporate).

A common sense warning up front: Only use sea water you think is reasonably clean. I'm no expert, but my feeling is that anywhere you're OK letting your kids swim and swallow a bit of water is probably OK for harvesting salt. And since flavors are unique to each location, be aware that your final product might be good, amazing, meh, or blech.

With that out of the way, here’s how we did it:

We filled empty bottles with ocean water. (From what I've read elsewhere, it's generally advisable to do this on a good-weather day.) Back at our room, we first poured the water through a paper towel-lined strainer and then through a coffee filter to remove sand, bits of seaweed, and other tiny debris. After the second straining, the water looked perfectly clear.

Next, we put the filtered water into a small pot and began boiling it on the stove top. Boiling of course speeds up evaporation, but it also kills any nasty things in the water. Since the Kalihiwai River flows into the bay where we gathered our batch, I wanted to be sure to eliminate any potential leptospirosis contamination.

Once the water was reduced by about half, I lowered the temperature and let it simmer until it was reduced by half again. Be careful not to burn the salt! Better to let it go too slow than too fast.

I poured out what was left into a shallow plate and put it in the oven on the lowest setting — for us, that was 170 degrees. I have no idea how long it took for the water to fully evaporate. It was at least a few hours. There's no need to baby-sit the salt. I simply turned the oven on when we were around, then turned it off when we went out for an adventure or turned in for the night.

Eventually the crystals were completely dry. We carefully scraped them loose from the plate, stirred them with a fork, and packaged them to take home.

Alternatively, you could set the salt water in the sun to dry, which can take weeks, or try a dehydrator. Make do with whatever you have.

We ended up with fairly large crystals, like kosher salt. And they're delicious. About five cups of sea water yielded about a third of a cup of salt.We sent some home with my mother, and took an itty-bitty amount home with us. But it's OK: We know how to make more.


Monday, June 2, 2014

Coconut Corn Brazilian Bread (Gluten Free!)

Every year we have a special day to show off a bit of our country of origin at the International Faire at school. Years before we brought brigadeiros, ants house cake and even Carioca black beans to share with the students. This time we brought Bolo de Fubá,  one of the traditional foods prepared in the month of June -,  and sometimes throughout the year in some regions-  in most parts of Brazil.

This corn bread is one of the corn based staples of Festas Juninas. It's time to celebrate the harvest of the corn, to dance old folklore songs and to dress up like a caipira - a peasant style which includes a raffia hat, some make up to pretend that we are country people and gingham shirts. It's also the month of Saint Anthony, Saint John and Saint Peter.

Baking this cake was a great opportunity to share stories and food with my children and their colleagues about this very special time of the year which makes part of my childhood. It was so much fun that we even improvised a little fishing game, also typical on those parties. Kids "fish" numbers of prizes from a decorated cardboard box with a bamboo rod having a magnet on its end. That way they all had to fish for cake!

Bazilian Cornbread with Coconut
Yellow cornmeal was my choice to make this, and I used unsweetened coconut to make sure that it wouldn't be over sweet, a common taste in the Brazilian cuisine, inherited from the Portuguese traditions.

4 cups yellow fine cornmeal
2 cups unsweetened dry coconut flakes
1tbsp baking powder
2 cups milk
1/2 cup melted butter or canola oil
1 cup sugar
4 eggs

1 can sweetened condensed milk
1 cup milk
1/2 cup coconut
1/2 tbsp butter
1/4 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350F. Line a 8X13 baking pan with parchment paper. Mix all dry ingredients in a bowl and set aside. Mix eggs, sugar and oil (or butter) in another bowl. When the mix is creamy, add milk gradually. Add dry mix to this bowl mixing with the help of a spatula. Pour batter in baking pan and bake for about 45 minutes or up to when it gets golden on crust.
If choosing to use the topping, melt butter in skillet and add coconut. When coconut is toasted, add condensed milk and spices, and reduce it over medium heat stirrings constantly. When mix gets to a custard texture set aside and pour over the cake right after it comes out of the oven. Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Homemade sugar cubes — a sweet gift

My kids lead a sheltered life. My 10-year-old encountered sugar cubes for the first time just last month, at a café in Paris. His chocolat chaud was served with a small bowl of perfect little sugar cubes — he thought they were the best part of the drink. I let him believe it was an only-in-Europe kind of thing ... until I was inspired to make sugar cubes with the boys for Mother's Day and Teacher Appreciation Week.

Sugar cubes are such fun to make with kids! Minimal effort, big payoff — and you can make them at the last minute or ages ahead of time. The hardest part is keeping the kids from licking their fingers over and over and over.

Here's how you do it: Add a tiny bit of liquid — flavored extract, juice, water, coffee, even liqueur — into sugar. Then firmly press the mixture into small molds, or shape into a flat brick and cut into cubes or with shaped cutters. Let the cubes dry a few hours until they're rock solid.

Packaged in a little jar, they make a beautiful gift all on their own. They're even better presented with a mug and tea (or sparkling wine!).

The flavor possibilities are limitless. The boys decided to make heart-shaped vanilla cubes using a scraped vanilla bean and vanilla extract. I threw together a few more varieties: rose-scented hearts and stars, bright pink cubes made with grenadine, and hearts using lemon verbena-infused simple syrup I had made for lemonade and iced tea.

I added a dab of food coloring to the lemon verbena cubes. They came out VERY BRIGHT.

A few tips:
  • Don't add too much liquid. The mixture should be grainy. Think wet sand for castle building, or a good snowball. If you use food coloring, add just a teeny tiny dab so you don't end up with, say, Day-Glo yellow.

  • Keep them small. If you have tiny candy molds or cute little cookie cutters, use them. Big, thick pieces take longer to dry — and are a lot of sugar per bite. Mine are a little bigger than ideal, but the kids aren't complaining.

  • Pack firmly. Too loose, and they'll be crumbly.

  • Leave them alone to dry. Just let them sit on the counter, in the mold if you're using one, and resist the urge to poke them. After a few hours, check them carefully. When they're hard enough to handle, gently remove them from the mold and turn all of them upside-down. Ours were done within 3 to 5 hours, except for the grenadine batch. I put those in the oven at 200 degrees for half an hour to finish drying them. 
The colorful grenadine ones ended up being the kids' favorites — they ate them straight, and popped them in ginger ale for an instant Shirley Temple. But they took a full 24 hours to dry thoroughly. We kept poking them impatiently and mashed quite a few.

The small cutters were my favorite tool for crisply edged shapes, but the molds were easiest for the kids. I love our rough-cut cubes, but if you want something dainty and perfect, this silicone mini cube tray would be perfect. I'm loving the idea of using this tiny leaf mold for minty sugar cubes to serve with tea.

Homemade sugar cubes

To fancy things up, try rose water, orange blossom water, or extracts such as almond, mint, or lemon. Or you can make simple syrup infused with whole spices or herbs (follow this technique for lavender syrup). You can even add vanilla bean, edible flowers, or a bit of spice.

1 cup sugar
2 to 4 teaspoons water, infused syrup, extract, or a combination
optional: food coloring
molding equipment suggestions: candy molds, cookie cutters, spatula, dough scraper

Add 2 teaspoons of liquid to the sugar (and a tiny bit of food coloring, if using) and stir with a fork until well blended. Stir in more liquid, just a few drops at a time, until the texture is like wet sand. It should be almost slushy, but not so wet that the sugar dissolves.

For molded cubes, press sugar firmly into molds and smooth away loose sugar.

To make cubes or use cookie cutter shapes, pour sugar into a straight-sided square or rectangular container and press down to pack it in firmly. It doesn't need to cover the whole bottom — use a dough scraper, spatula, or even an old credit card to press it down and square off the edge (see photo at right).

For cubes, use a sharp knife to cut cubes. Leave them in place for an hour or so, until they're pretty firm, then gently separate them a little bit.

To use cookie cutters, press cookie cutter into sugar, then carefully lift up the cutter and drop the shaped sugar on a piece of parchment paper. If it doesn't slide out easily, use your finger to gently push it down.

Leave the sugar cubes in the mold or on the paper to dry completely. Once they're hard enough to handle, gently remove cubes from the molds and turn them over to finish drying completely. You can put them in a 180 degree oven for 30 to 60 minutes to speed things up.

Store cubes in an airtight container.


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