Saturday, December 22, 2007

Daring Bakers challenge: Buche de noël

This month’s Daring Bakers challenge, is, appropriately, a bûche de noël (a yule log: cake wrapped rolled and decorated to resemble the log of a tree). The recipe was developed from Perfect Cakes by Nick Malgieri and features a plain genoise cake (which I elected to flavor with chocolate) with buttercream frosting. The additional twist: the log had to be decorated with either marzipan or meringue mushrooms. I was up for the challenge, and, as usual, left the baking to the very last moment. Next month I swear I’ll get a head start on whatever is thrown our way! Looking at the recipe, all seemed straightforward except for the mushrooms (the recipe, btw, called for 48 mushrooms, I’m still not sure why!). I am no stranger to buttercream so that seemed like a snap. I’ve never attempted genoise cake, but the Bostoni cream pie of two challenges ago called for a chiffon cake that is not that dissimilar from a genoise cake, and that turned out beautifully so I figured if I broke down the components and made the recipe over a three day period, leaving the most time and room for error for the mushrooms, the recipe would be easy enough to accomplish.

I was dreading the mushrooms, but surprisingly they turned out to be to be fairly easy and not terribly time-consuming (I went with meringue). They were even, well, pretty cute. I figured I’d licked the worst part. I made the buttercream on day two and loved the coffee / rum flavoring. I could have eaten the frosting alone but I held back and pushed on. Then it was on to the cake. Overconfident at this point, I decided to make two cakes. I certainly had enough mushrooms to decorate a small army of cakes. This morning, I embarked on the cakes. I whipped, flavored, folded, poured, leveled and baked. I followed all the instructions to a T. Everything looked ok. At least, there was no obvious sign of impending doom. I read and re-read the cautionary note that warned that over-baking would result in a dry cake that would be difficult to roll. I was committed to not over-baking.

And that, my friends, is where the happy story ends. My cake never quite reached that perfect balance of spongy-most but not over baked. It sagged in the middle. It crisped on the edges. I was never able to resuscitate one of the cakes. The other, I coaxed. I cajoled. Gosh darned I was going to get that baby to roll. R stepped in to talk me down: “Just get it to a state you can photograph,” he offered. I frosted. I decorated. It was a dry, sad, decidedly un-springy cake. I stepped back and looked at my creation objectively. It really didn’t LOOK that bad. I photographed. I was bummed. There was no time and no energy left to try it again. Maybe it was the fact that I doubled the batter. Maybe it was the fact that I baked the two cakes simultaneously. Maybe it was the fact that my oven is well, really cheap, and never held a constant temperature in its life.

As every good Daring Baker should say, “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

Joyeux Noël, everyone. I look forward to many new cooking and baking adventures in the new year.

For the recipe and more details, please see the hosts' (and the Daring Bakers founders) websites, Lis (La Mia Cucina) and Ivonne (Cream Puffs in Venice). Thank you for hosting and for the challenge!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Curried pumpkin soup

Last month, Heidi from 101cookbooks wrote up a recipe for Thai-spiced pumpkin soup that looked and sounded delicious. I must admit, in general, soup is not my favorite. I much prefer a more varied, crunchy meal to soup: I get bored quickly. But as the weather has turned, and knowing my husband is a soup-aholic, I have found my thoughts wandering toward soups. This particular soup sounded wonderful.

When I do go for soup, I am generally drawn to spicy and flavorful. It’s the spices that attracted me to Heidi’s pumpkin soup. Trolling down the produce aisle last weekend, I noticed that pre-sliced, packaged butternut squash was in abundance. I immediately remembered the pumpkin soup and decided to put my own spin on the recipe based on what was available and easy. I snatched up a few packages of cubed butternut squash and a fresh, crusty baguette and set off to whip up a batch of soup.

My take on the recipe uses (as mentioned) butternut squash and a combination of powdered Indian curries vs. the red Thai curry paste that I did not have. I followed Heidi’s method but ended up with a soup that looks thicker than her version, and garnished it with crème fraîche (and scallions), which provided a nice counterpoint to the heat.

I sprinkled the squash with kosher salt and wrapped it in a foil packet with a few generous pats of butter. I roasted the squash at 375° for an hour or so until the cubes were tender, and then, similar to the pumpkin soup recipe, put the squash in a large saucepan on the stove over medium heat, brought it to a simmer with a cup or so of coconut milk, 2 teaspoons+ of yellow (turmeric-rich) curry, a teaspoon+ of a spicy curry mix, ¼ teaspoon+ ginger, and some very generous pinches of salt. I used my immersion blender off-heat to purée the mixture, brought it back to a simmer, and added a little water to thin it out. I adjusted the seasonings until I had a flavorful soup I was happy with. The whole apartment smelled wonderful!

I could easily see a few additional variations on this soup. It would make a very nice amuse-bouche in a little shot glass topped with some crème fraîche. I could easily see a lower fat version made with plain yogurt vs. coconut milk or a yogurt-coconut milk combination. Of course, there are many different curry blends to experiment with and I’m sure all would work well. The addition of some fresh julienned ginger as a garnish instead of scallion would be nice too. Thanks Heidi for the idea!

P.S. My father-in-law made the mug I used for a soup bowl - isn't it lovely?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Lemon and garlic chicken

I was lucky to spend my friend Alison’s last day of maternity leave with her. We decided to cook dinner together and, even more fun, grocery shop at one of my very favorite New York places, Essex market.

Essex market is a 65-year-old covered market in New York’s Lower East Side that was originally opened to get pushcarts off the crowded streets. The market has been shaped by the population of the neighborhood’s inhabitants and the city’s history, initially catering to the Jewish and Italian residents, then adapting to a new Puerto Rican population and, in the 1970s, suffering a decline as supermarkets and other shops with street fronts offered a more convenient and popular way to shop. The New York City Economic Development Corporation assumed direct control of the Market in 1992 when a previous effort to develop and reinvigorate the market failed. The market has been in a state of transformation and resurgence, and over recent years, a spate of off-beat gourmet shops have moved in alongside some of the more traditional Hispanic green grocers and market stalwarts like the fishmonger and butcher.

The market is a wonderful, eclectic place full of high-quality products and great buys. Apart from the dreaded schlepping of groceries home after an excursion, I love any excuse to roam around and shop the small stores, grab lunch at one of the small counters outside a restaurant outpost, or just check out the interesting ethnic products on offer. I love the experience of dealing with shop owners directly and love that each shop is highly specialized. Some of my favorites include Formaggio Essex, an outpost of a Cambridge, Massachusetts Italian gourmet store, Saxelby Cheesemongers, run by a young and very passionate foodie who largely sources local cheeses, and the main Hispanic grocery store that sells the largest avocados I have ever seen.

Alison and I conferred about recipes at a table by the entrance. and then set off to shop. We picked up cheeses at Saxelby’s, a chicken at the butcher, shallots, herbs, salad greens, French beans and other vegetables at the grocer, and then headed home with shopping bags hanging from every finger. What was on the menu? New recipes from Donna Hay to try of course: A one-pot chicken with lemon and garlic that looked fairly simple, and hey, who doesn’t love a one-pot meal? A baked risotto that, yes, requires no laborious stirring, adding liquids, and re-stirring: just baking. A great green salad. Steamed French beans. Some Rancho Gordo beans slowly cooked with onions, celery, carrot and garlic and a dessert Alison brought from a bakery she likes in Brooklyn.

Lemon and garlic chicken (adapted from Donna Hay)

1 lemon, halved
1 1/2 lb whole chicken
2 tablespoons olive oil
sea salt and cracked black pepper
12 shallots, peeled
1 head garlic, halved (remove very papery outer layers but keep garlic head intact)
1/4 cup brandy
2 cups riesling
3/4 cup chicken stock
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons tarragon leaves
steamed green beans to serve

Place the lemon in the cavity of the chicken and secure the legs with chicken string. Brush the chicken with half of the oil, sprinkle generously with sea salt and pepper and set aside.

Heat a heavy-based saucepan over medium heat. Add the remaining oil, shallots and garlic and cook for 10 minutes or until starting to caramelize. Remove from the pan and set aside.

Add the chicken and cook, breast side down, until chicken skin releases from the pan and is golden brown. Turn and cook on each remaining side in the same manner. Return the garlic and shallots to the pan, add the brandy and stir, scraping the bottom of the pan. Add the wine, stock, and water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and cover with a tight-fitting lid and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove the lid and simmer for a further 30 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through. Stir in the tarragon and serve with green beans. Serves 4.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Chocolate pots de crème (in pretty little bowls)

My Mud Australia baby noodle bowls arrived (and did not disappoint). I couldn’t wait to use them for a baked dessert: what to bake? I knew right away where to look. I recently purchased a very lovely dessert cookbook from Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. Everything about the cookbook is appealing: it’s printed on delicious, thick, matte paper and has wonderful, mouth-watering photographs (my only complaint is that I wish there were more). It’s full of great recipes for sophisticated basics, most of which appear to be fairly easy to prepare. I knew it would not disappoint when I saw that Alice Waters wrote the foreword. I can’t wait to try their brioche bread pudding recipe (always looking for a good bread pudding) and some of their savory baked goods are very tempting too. The book is organized by theme (each chapter introduced by an explanatory foreword) and there is an entire chapter devoted to cream desserts that immediately drew me in. The chocolate pot de crème recipe (a baked pudding like a sophisticated flan) seemed like the perfect inaugural dish for my pretty little bowls. I’m also excited to try a classic chocolate pudding, a molten chocolate cake, and individual mini soufflés (if I can muster up the courage).

The dessert was very quick to assemble and fit into six baby noodle bowls perfectly. I shared all but one with neighbors and got great feedback. After all, who doesn’t like a creamy chocolate pudding? I served it with unsweetened whipped cream. You can make the desserts ahead and easily refrigerate them for several days. They can be served warm or cold.

For me, the pretty bowls made the dessert! I am a sucker for simple, white pottery with thin walls and an organic feel. There are so many beautiful hand-made porcelain and ceramic vessels I have discovered recently and would just love to collect. I have to hold myself back from loading up. For another beautiful alternative to the simple Mud bows, check out the oven-safe bowls by White Forest Pottery here. To check out a few other discoveries, see Anne Black’s pottery (particularly the tilt bowl) and Nathalie Derouet's line - so lovely!

Chocolate pots de crème (from Tartine by Elisabeth M. Prueitt and Chad Robertson)
(makes 8 individual custard cups or ramekins with 3/4 cup capacity)

6 oz bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
2 3/4 cups heavy cream
3 tbsp sugar
pinch salt
8 large egg yolks
Unsweetened softly whipped cream for serving

Preheat oven to 350˚F. Have ready custard cups or ramekins. Choose a baking pan or baking dish for a water bath large enough to accommodate custard cups or ramekins without touching, and deep enough to hold water that will reach three-fourths of the way up the sides of the molds once they are added. Pour enough water into the pan to reach about halfway up the sides of the pan, and place the pan in the oven while it is heating.

Pour water to a depth of about 2 inches into a saucepan, place over medium heat, and bring to a gentle simmer. Select a stainless-steel bowl (or other heat-proof bowl) that will rest securely in the rim of the pan over, not touching, the water. Put the chocolate in the bowl, place over the water, and heat, stirring occasionally, until the chocolate melts and is smooth. Remove from the heat.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, combine the cream, sugar, and salt, place over medium heat, and heat to just under a boil. Place the egg yolks in a mixing bowl and whisk until well blended. When the cream mixture is ready, remove it from the heat and slowly pour it into the melted chocolate, whisking to incorporate. Slowly add the chocolate-cream mixture to the egg yolks, again whisking well to incorporate. Pour through a fine-mesh sieve into a pitcher or large measuring cup. You should have about 1 quart.

Line up the custard cups or ramekins on the countertop, and pour the mixture into them, dividing it evenly. Pull out the oven rack holding the water bath and place the molds in the bath. Pour in more water if necessary to reach three-fourths of the way up the sides of the molds.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes. To test for doneness, jiggle one of the molds; the center of the custard should still be a bit wobbly, but the outside should appear set. Remove the water bath. Let cool. The custards will continue to cook and set up as they cool. Serve warm or cold with whipped cream. (Note: my baking time was considerably longer, probably because I used a large roasting pan and had more water to heat than was used in this recipe. I baked until the custard was set as described and the texture turned out perfectly)

(Note: save the unused egg whites for an egg-white omelet, might as well enjoy the dessert and have something virtuous the next day!)

p.s. Coincidentally, the current Sugar High Friday food blogging event's theme is "pudding" so I've submitted this post for the roundup which is being done by Kochtopf.
SHF #38 - The proof is in the Pudding!