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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Chocolate-covered peanut & sesame caramel bars

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I guess I should just come out and admit it.  My name is Pim, and I just made a vegan an almost-vegan dessert - peanuts/sesame/rice puffs/palm sugar caramel bars, to be precise.  And I dipped them in chocolate - Valrhona Araguani 72%, because there's nothing good that's not made better by a dip in Valrhona Chocolate.  The results?  They are totally crack.  I tell you, they are.

Like many great discoveries in this world - Columbus discovering "India" par example - I came upon these morsels of unworldly deliciousness entirely by accident.  Last weekend being Chinese New Year and Valentines day all rolled into one, I was looking some kind of traditional, celebratory sweets to make for the parties I was attending.  For the New Year celebration in Thailand, we make a sort of caramel we learned from the Portuguese, probably in the 16th century.  We call it ga-la-mae, a telling bastardization of the word caramel.  Galamae was, however, not my favorite dessert, but it got me thinking about another celebratory sweets that is also a caramel base, but this one, called Grayasat in Thai, has added nuts, puffed rices, and sesame seeds.  Crisp, chewy, nutty, darkly sweet, and ever-so-slightly salty, all at the same time, now this would be the perfect dessert to celebrate with this weekend. 

Well, I probably should admit that I'd never once made Grayasat.  I've never even seen it done.  It's one of those things that we would always buy, and usually from merchants that make and sell them in giant quantities.  Recipes I've managed to find on the interwebs have the same problem, they're mostly in massive quantities entirely infeasible in a modern kitchen.  Plus, being a traditional Thai recipe, an imprecise record at the best of times - Thai cooks are notorious for not writing things down - then haphazardly translated into English, the results, shall I say, are as precise as the recipe booklet that came with your EasyBakeOventm when you were a kid. 

No matter, I found enough information to go by, and it's basically nuts, puffed rice, and sesame, bind together by caramel made with palm sugar in place of white sugar, and coconut cream as the matériel gras instead of butter.  That sounds easy enough to do.  It also happens to be Vegan and rather "healthy" - with no refined sugar and not even dairy.  The recipes I found also called for glucose syrup, which, oddly enough, is more readily available in Thailand than it is here.  The glucose syrup, which we call Bae-sae, is there to prevent sugar crystals from forming just like in any other caramel.  Frankly, I didn't like the sound of it.  I usually avoid corn syrup or glucose syrup in my recipes anyway, preferring to substitute with honey or other more palatable ingredients such as Lyle's Golden Syrup.  In this case honey would do.

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In Thailand, the traditional Grayasat กระยาสารท is made for a Saat สารทไทย festival, which is best described as a harvest festival, celebrating the end of the rainy season and heralding the beginning of harvest.  The ingredient list is telling, two kinds of new rice (one green, not fully ripened rice grains that are flattened and removed from the husked, and the other freshly harvested whole grains of rice, roasted until popped out of the husks like popcorn), nuts, and honey, all signaling a successful and abundant harvest.

In the US, finding those two specific rice is challenging, Thai harvest being thousands of miles (and months) away.  I actually have one kind with me, the flat green rice called Khao Mao, I brought some back with me from the last trip home.  Finding the popped rice Khao Tok was a little more tricky.  I couldn't skip it all together since it's important to have two textures of rice: one slightly soft and puffy, and the other crispy.  Experimenting with four different kinds of brown rice turned out spectacular failures - instead of puffed rice I got burning hot grains of rice so tiny they're practically unseen by naked eyes but for the vapor trails they left as they went projectile in my kitchen.  Final solution?  That'd be a bag of organic puffed rice from the store, no sugar or anything, just plain, hippie puffed rice.  (If you couldn't find the Khao Mao, I'd substitute with a crispy rice cereal, preferably not -or very lightly- sweetened.)

Once I made the first batch, I realized this recipe was infinitely adaptable.  Start with the accidentally-vegan caramel base, then you can add just about any nuts or cereal you feel like.  You can even coat it with good chocolate, I dipped mine in dark Valrhona Araguani chocolate and dusted with Valrhona cocoa powder.  Those are oh-so-good and instantly addictive they might as well be crack.  Really.

Grayasat - Thai nuts & sesame caramel bars

1.5 cup (300g) palm sugar 

1 cup (250ml ) honey

1 cup (250ml) coconut cream

1 cup sesame seeds, roasted

1 cup unsalted peanuts, roasted

1.5 cups Khao Tok, or substitute organic rice puffs (I used this one.)

1 cup Khao Mao, roasted in a dry pan until slightly puffed and crispy (substitute with an organic rice flakes)

First, take an 8x8 cake pan, cut two 8x12 pieces of parchments and line one horizontally and the other vertically so you completely cover the inner surface of the pan with parchment overhangs on all four sides. 

Then you make the caramel, in a large 6-8qt pot over medium heat, add the palm sugar and the honey.  (Put out a bowl of cold or iced water near the pot to test the readiness of the caramel.)  Bring the sugar and honey mixture to a boil and reduce the heat a little bit, continue to cook, stirring to make sure you don't have hot spots, until the mixture turns a deep, dark color and thick.  Drop a couple droplets of the mixture into the bowl of water to test, when it's ready the caramel shouldn't dissolve or spread in the water but should stay in a somewhat round ball. 

Add the coconut milk (watch out for the splash), stir to mix, and let the mixture cooks down until thicken again.  Refresh the cold water in the bowl and test the caramel again, as soon as the drop in the water keeps in the round shape and not just splay out, turn the heat off and add the about 3/4 cup of the sesame (reserve the rest for a bit later) and all the peanuts, stir to blend well.  Add the puffed rice, stir again to distribute evenly.  If the mixture hardens too quickly, making it difficult to stir, just put the pot back over the heat to warm up the caramel and loosen up the mixture a bit. 

Pour or spoon the mixture into the parchment-lined pan, pressing down and spreading evenly.  Let it cool down, uncovered, until room temperature.  When ready to cut, dip a knife into hot water, wipe it off, and then use the warm knife to cut the Grayasat into desired sizes.  I first cut mine into quarters, then each into 6-8 pieces.  Dip just the bottom part of each piece into the bowl of (the rest of your) sesame seeds, the seeds will prevent the bars from sticking to whatever they're sitting on.  Serve or store in airtight container.  If you stack them, line each layer with a piece of parchment so they don't stick. 

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If you want to coat them in chocolate, melt about 350g of dark chocolate in a medium bowl, let cool a bit, then dip each piece into it until completely coated.  Place them on a sheet pan lined with parchment or wax paper.  When all the pieces are coated, put the sheet pan in the freezer to quickly harden the chocolate, just a few minutes will do.  Meanwhile, put 4-5 tablespoons of cocoa powder in a bowl, when the chocolate hardens, toss each piece in the bowl until coated.  Shake off the excess cocoa powder and serve or store in and airtight container. 

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