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!