Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Once Upon a Tart....

Provençal Tart with Gruyère and Herbes de Provence

This tart is awesome. AWESOME. And it comes from a cookbook that makes me think everything in it might be just as good. This is my first recipe from Frank Mentesana and Jerome Audureau's Once Upon a Tart... and I guarantee it won't be my last. The Herbes de Provence weren't exactly cheap (~$15/jar), but I think you can avoid the price hike of having them imported from France by buying the individual spices (basil, fennel seed, lavender, marjoram, rosemary, sage, summer savory and thyme) and mixing them yourself. Wow, I'm getting hungry just thinking about how delicious this tart was...

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Tasty Cracker, but a Cracker Nonetheless

Daring Bakers September 2008 Challenge: Lavash Crackers and Vegan Spread

(Lavash Cracker recipe from The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread by Peter Reinhart)

I did actually complete September’s challenge in September, but now it is half-way through October and I am only posting about it now. This could be because I prefer cooking to writing, so if I have a free hour it’s more likely that I’ll be making a new recipe than blogging about an old one. It is also possible that is this particular case, there was nothing particularly thrilling to write about. It was a perfectly fine challenge, new to me, relatively quick, tasty, but it was neither a smashing success nor harrowing failure. I mean, it was a cracker.

But on with the story. I made the cracker recipe as described and added dehydrated onion and garlic, sea salt, poppy seeds and sesame seeds. I tried to add them in stripes, but this ended up not being noticeable once I broke up the sheet into individual crackers.

The cracker sheet baked slightly unevenly, and bubbled in one spot, but neiher of those were a deal breaker. I cracked the cooked sheet into pieces and it was done. I was not happy with how much of the seasoning fell off during handling, but enough stayed on to serve the purpose.

The vegan dip is really where the excitement was this month. I decided to make caponata, which is sort of like a concentrated ratatouille. I used vegetables from the farmers market and the following recipe from The Victory Garden Cookbook by Marian Morash (my vegetable bible):

2 lb eggplant


3/4 plus 2 Tb olive oil (but I recommend you use less)

2 cups chopped onions

1 cup chopped celery

1 cup peeled, seeded, and chopped tomatoes

1/2 cup pitted, halved green olives

1/4 cup rinsed and drained capers

1 Tb pine nuts

1/3 cup red wine vinegar

1 Tb sugar

Ground pepper

Peel eggplant and cut into 3/4 inch pieces. Salt and let drain for 30 minutes. Fry eggplant in oil until golden, about 6-10 minutes (this can be done in 2 batches if your frying pan isn't large enough). Transfer to strainer and let drain. Fry onions and celery until just tender, then add tomatoes. Cover pan and cook 4-5 minutes, uncover, and cook 5 minutes longer. Add eggplant, capers, olives, and pine nuts. Heat vinegar in a separate dish, and dissolve in the sugar. Pour over vegetables. Simmer, covered for 5-10 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste and cool. Serve room temperature or cold.

It was a bit oily but delicious. My tasters raved.

I have to add, I served these crackers and the caponata as an appetizer that I followed with a tomato tart, greens, and roasted fingerling potatoes. See my next post for pics of the tart!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Baked Alaska

To me, birthday cake is baked alaska. So this year when my birthday rolled around, there was no decision about which cake I would make. (Some people tease me for making my own birthday cake, but honestly, why would I want someone else to have all the fun?)

I use an easy baked alaska recipe:

(1) boxed white cake mix prepared in two 8 or 9" rounds
(2) vanilla ice cream from a rectangular gallon box, sliced into 2 inch thick slabs
(3) simple meringue: 6 egg whites + 3/4 tsp cream of tartar, beaten. Add 2 tbls sugar. Whip until peaks form.

I cook the cake the night before to allow it fully cool before continuing. The next day, I layer the ice cream between cake layers, wrap with foil, and freeze the whole stack.

Just before I want to serve it I make the meringue, spread it over of the entire frozen cake, made peaks on the top, and then pop it into a pre-heated 400 degree oven. Somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes later, the meringue is browned and the cake is done. Served with strawberries it's always a crowd pleaser! Be careful of candles, though. They tend to melt onto the hot meringue (see top pic!).

Okay, not the most glamorous photos of food I've ever taken (I was busy enjoying my party!), but you get the idea!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Heaven in a Pastry

August 2008 Daring Bakers Challenge: Éclairs

(Recipe from Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Herme by Dorie Greenspan)

This was my favorite Daring Bakers Challenge yet. Fun, easy, quick, delicious and impressive: this is my kind of dessert. Don’t get me wrong – I not always looking for a quickie – I was just particularly impressed by the incredibly low input to output ratio of this recipe. I also learned quite a bit in the process.

Our requirement was to have one chocolate component in the éclairs, but did not have to do both the suggested chocolate custard and chocolate glaze. I chose to do a vanilla custard instead, and used a recipe from The French Chef by Julia Child:

6 egg yolks

½ cup granulated sugar

½ cup all-purpose flour

2 cups hot milk

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Mix egg yolks and sugar in a 2 ½ quart saucepan with a wisk until thick and pale yellow, several minutes. It should form a ribbon. Beat in flour, then beat in hot milk in a thin stream (slowly at first with vigorous beating to prevent egg scrambling!). Set over moderate heat and stir slowly and continuously with the wisk until it thickens. When lumps form, beat to eliminate them. Lower the heat and cook slowly, stirring all the time, to thicken the cream. Remove from heat, place saucepan in ice water water, and beat in the butter and vanilla. Film the top of the cream with ½ tablespoon milk to prevent from crusting. Chill.

I had never made custard before, but was thrilled to find that this recipe actually works, and the texture is excellent.

I made the pate a choux as described, but found it a little bit of a pain to work with. I don’t have a tip for my pastry bag as big as the recipe called for, so I used no tip at all, just the circular piece that should screw on the tip. This worked okay, but still felt a bit narrow. I made tubes back and forth for a few of them that came out particularly narrow, instead of leaving it as just one top to bottom squeeze. I also gave up towards the end and just used a spatula to shape a lump of dough. Surprising, all of these methods worked perfectly well, and when they came out of the oven I had a hard time figuring out which were which!

The chocolate sauce was easy and delicious. I dipped the tops of my éclairs right into the pan I melted the chocolate in. I then spooned the custard into the bottom half, and boom! the masterpieces were complete. It helped to refridgerate them for about 30 minutes before serving to allow the chocolate to completely harden.

I also reserved about half of the baked éclairs for a different filling. For these, I skipped the chocolate sauce on top, but added a line of fresh blueberries to the custard inside each éclair. I then added the tops and sprinkled generously with cinnamon and powdered sugar. These were fantastic! I had quite a few tasters who actually preferred these to the traditional chocolate and vanilla. As for me, I liked both.

Another tip: the next night I filled shot glasses with the left-over custard, spread the leftover chocolate sauce on top, and served them as mini-deserts. These were excellent, but it was key to keep them small – without the dough of the éclair to balance the custard it seemed much richer!


Monday, August 4, 2008

Best Cobbler Ever

So I was only going to use this space to write about my Daring Bakers challenges, but I had to make an exception. I find that there are few recipes involving fruit that manage to make the fruit taste even better than it did fresh, but this is one of them. This cobbler is one of the best things I've ever tasted. Seriously. I'm going to go to the fridge and take another bite right now.

From the NYT magazine, June 18 1995, discovered and perfected by my mom.

4 1/2 cups fresh blueberries
1/3 cup sugar
1 tbsp all purpose flour

1 1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/2 tsp kosher salt (but regular is okay too)
1 1/2 tbsp sugar
2 1/4 tsp baking powder
6 tbsp cold, unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch peices
3/4 cup heavy cream

Preheat oven to 375. Mix filling. Mix dry ingredients of dough in a food processor, then cut in butter until a coarse meal. Add cream and barely mix with a fork. Transfer filling to baking 1 1/2 qt. baking dish. Gently press dough into 6 patties, each 2 inches in diameter and 1/2 inch thick. (the more gentle you are the flakier the biscuits will be!) Add patties on top of berries, okay if touching. Bake until filling is bubbling and dough is light brown, about 35-40 min. Cool briefly and serve hot with ice cream.

By the way, can you believe how not-blue the inside of a blueberry is??

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Hazelnut One-Time Wonder

July 2008 Daring Baker’s Challenge: Filbert Gateau with Praline Buttercream

(Recipe from Great Cakes by Carol Walter)

This month’s recipe is not one I will be making again. The challenge contained a whooping 7 sub-recipes. It required a pan I didn’t own, and required 8 hours I didn’t have. The introduction of the recipe described a decadent hazelnut cake with buttercream topped with ganache. I don’t particularly like hazelnuts. But despite all of this, I thought I would give it a try, in an attempt to be open minded and expand my baking repertoire. My mom was visiting for the weekend, and she agreed to help me.

Let’s recall trying to melt the sugar for the praline paste. Thirty minutes of frustrating pan
shifting and gas adjusting just to create a partly burned, deathly hot, carmel. Then add the
hazelnuts and “stir with a wooden spoon and separate the clusters.” See pic. In my mom’s words: “Well that’s a cluster fuck if I’ve ever seen one.” And then I burned myself on the caramel.

The cake itself took 20 minutes longer to cook than the recipe recommended. While cooling, the cake sunk into the cooling rack giving it a ¼ inch deep grid across the top. One sub-recipe after another became more painful, in the heat of my small, un-air-conditioned kitchen. Seven hours into it, there was no way I was going to try to make buttercream leaves on top. Even my attempt at a decorative circle failed. I finally opted for a more natural, crushed hazelnut garnish.

While transferring the cake from the cardboard round to a dish, most of the bottom layer of cake stuck to the spatula. Then, on the way to the concert picnic where I had promised 10 hungry students there would be “filbert gateau with praline buttercream,” the buttercream and ganache melted enough for the layers to slide off one another. Great. This is not a summer recipe.

Now I have to say that I did save half of the cake at home and was able to sample a still assembled, cold version of the cake late that night. And I can’t say I thought it was very good. The buttercream to cake ratio was way too high – I’ve never been a fan of creams or frostings, but I really think this is not a subjective comment. Each bite was too rich, and texturally unsatisfying. There was not enough sponge or crunch (even with the extra shopped hazelnuts on top) to balance the buttery mush of the buttercream.

This recipe was far too time intensive for the quality of the product. I don’t have very much extra time in my schedule – who does?! – and definitely won’t be making it, or anything like it, again.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Adventures with Laminated Dough

June 2008 Daring Baker Challenge: Danish Dough

(Recipe from Sherry Yard’s The Secrets of Baking)

I am what I would call a casual baker -- I bake once or twice a month and usually stick to simple recipes. I am not, however, a casual eater. I have an insatiable sweet tooth, and have been sampling pastries my entire life. A good bite of say, chocolate soufflé, or a cold piece of leftover pie for breakfast, are the types of things I dream about. My interest in tasting has inspired me to experiment with more serious baking from time to time, including a 4 month stint as an assistant baker at an adorable family-owned bakery just outside San Diego. But professional baking is not for me; I find the hours intolerable and the work physically taxing while mentally unstimulating. So I have chosen to pursue other topics for my career, and the time I spend baking now is minimal. I have recently joined the Daring Bakers - an online baking club - to challenge myself to more difficult recipes, even if only once a month. This was my first challenge.

I was really looking forward to this recipe because I absolutely love pastry, and particularly fruit-filled pastry. I had a few road-bumps early on in the recipe -- not able to obtain a vanilla bean and not having a proper mortar and pestle to grind my cardamom pods -- but both were solved easily enough. I skipped the vanilla and ground the cardamom pods as best I could with a regular household hammer. This worked reasonably well, but I have to admit my dough ended up faintly dotted with coarse cardamom shrapnel.

Once the dough was made, I was out of the woods. I had no trouble adding the butter block, folding, chilling, rolling, etc. It was time consuming (watching Inside Man with Denzel Washington helped with the wait periods) and slightly messy (a hot day in Los Angeles meant very mushy butter occasionally squirting out as I rolled) but not the end of the world. I found that flipping the dough every few rolls ensured that the bottom layers were not left behind – otherwise the top stretched further than the bottom. I let the completed dough chill overnight.

I chose 2 fillings for my braids. One is my favorite pie filling – a simple mixture of peeled peaches, blueberries, cinnamon, sugar, and a bit of flour, none of which are measured and each of which I could eat on its own. The other I found in one of the great pastry cookbooks of all time: Bernard Clayton’s The Complete Book of Pastry. I took the recipe for the filling for his almond tarts, and made it as listed. The recipe called for grated lemon rind, which I thought would go nicely with the orange zest in the dough. I spooned these into to center of my unfolded braids, and then crossed the arms of the dough over the fillings. I brushed with egg wash at the last minute and popped them in the oven.

My first bite of dough hot out of the oven was one of the best bites in my history. AMAZING. I was slightly less pleased 2 hours later when the braids had cooled a bit, but it was still delicious. My test tasters (a group of 7 family friends, plus my boyfriend) raved. It was a success!