Entries from February 28th, 2006

4×8 Meme

February 28th, 2006 · 6 Comments · Uncategorized

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The lovely Bea of La Tartine Gourmande tagged me for this meme:

Four jobs I’ve had in my life:

1. Front counter at the local Chinese takeout place.

My very first "real" job  – taking orders over the phone, bagging orders, working the cash register, and filling hundreds of little individual containers with sweet and sour sauce. The cooks actually made really good "non-takeout" Chinese for us employees, but I can tell you exactly what 90% of the customers ordered: lemon chicken, sweet and sour pork, house special chow mein.

2. Clerk at the local library.

The perfect job for an incorrigible bookworm. The best part of the job, of course, was being able to see all the new releases first, and hiding them away so I could check them out first!

3. Research Assistant at University of Hong Kong

This was only a summer job – the biggest benefit was that my Chinese improved tremendously.  Also I remember being asked, "Why do you want to be a civil engineer?  Women don’t do that." To be fair, I think they thought I wanted to be in the field, working out of the trailer, dealing with construction workers. Guess what? I still do that as part of my job.

4. Structural engineer. 

What pays for my increasingly expensive cookbook and baking equipment habit.  The best part of the job is that my firm is international and thus we get a constant flow of visitors from our other offices around the world.  You never know when you’ll see Jaffa Cakes or Japanese biscuits in the kitchen.

Four movies I could watch over and over:

1. Before Sunrise/Before Sunset

2. Fellowship of the Ring

3. Hero

4. In the Mood for Love

Four places I’ve lived:

1. San Jose, California

2. Berkeley, California

3. Hong Kong

4. New home TBD in the Bay Area – yes I’m a California girl!

Four TV shows I love:

1. Lost

2. Scrubs

3. Battlestar Galactica

4. Sex and the City

Four places I’ve been on vacation:

1. Paris

2. Rome

3. Canada

4. Japan

Four websites I visit daily:

1. Salon

2. NYTimes

3. Television Without Pity

4. Egullet

Four of my favorite foods:

1. Anything from Pierre Hermé’s pâtisserie

2. Miso black cod

3. Dim sum (from Hong Kong, preferably)

4. Either chocolate chip cookies or shortbread – I go back and forth between which is my favorite cookie

Four places I would rather be right now:

1. A beach on a remote tropical island

2. Baking in the kitchen

3. On the couch reading a book

4. Anywhere with my sweetie

Four tags to continue this meme:

Kiki of Kiki’s Midnight Bakery

J.T. of Pastry Life

Nicky of delicious:days

Hanna of Cooking with Chopsticks

*The picture at top is from a dessert class I took at the CCA last year.

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IMBB #23: Paris-Brest

February 23rd, 2006 · 4 Comments · Pastry, Recipes

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As the theme for this month’s Is My Blog Burning was Vive La France!, I thought it a wonderful opportunity to revisit all the French pastries I made in pastry school.  I decided on one of my favorites, the Paris-Brest.

The Paris-Brest was created by a baker in 1891in honor of the Paris-Brest-Paris bicycle race, which was a precursor to the Tour de France.  The pastry is made of a ring of pâte à choux filled with praline pastry cream and topped with whipped cream, almonds, and powdered sugar – really, a very elaborate version of the cream puff.  The ring shape of course is meant to resemble a bicycle wheel – a delicious one, at that!

The Paris-Brest-Paris (or "PBP") race was started by a Pierre Giffard as a way to promote the newfangled bicycle as an effective and reliable means of long-distance travel.  Originally held every ten years, about the 1950s it started being held every four years; the last one was run in 2003 and the next one is planned for 2007. The route is grueling: 600 km (about 375 miles)from the nation’s capital to the port city of Brest by the Atlantic Ocean and then back, in under 90 hours. The winner of the first race, Charles Terront, accomplished the feat in about 72 hours.

The race is no longer open to professionals and is instead attempted by hard-core amateurs as a randonnée - another of those charming French words with no direct English translation. Roughly, the word means an excursion or ramble – in the cycling world a randonneur has come to mean someone trying to finish a randonnée within a certain amount of time. A randonnée is not a race – it a test of your abilities, and not against others.  Fitting with this philosophy, randonneuring emphasizes self-sufficiency, and riders are expected to bring or procure their own food and supplies along the route.

As a dessert, the Paris-Brest is a fine tribute to this idiosyncratic event.  It is based on the equally unique French creation, pâte à choux.  It’s magic to me how a simple batter of butter, water, flour, and eggs can produce these light, airy shells ready to be filled with any number of luscious fillings. From pâte à choux comes the classic cream puffs, eclairs, profiteroles, beignets, and that other famous French dessert, croquembouche.

The Paris-Brest is surprisingly simple to create. A ring of pâte à choux pastry is baked golden brown and then sliced in half for filling.  A praline of almonds and sugar is ground up and added to vanilla pastry cream to make a sweet, nutty filling that is spooned into the bottom of the ring.  Then whipped cream is piped on top, and the confection crowned with the top half of the ring. A dusting of powdered sugar finishes off the dessert.  It is crispy and creamy, sweet and airy – all the best qualities of pastry.

I paired this dessert with an excellent 2003 Château Gravas Sauternes recommended by the very kind people at K&L Wine Merchants in the Ferry Building.  Rich and full, with honey and fruit overtones, it tastes even sweeter with the Paris-Brest, making for a fine dessert course.

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*If you would like to learn more, here is an excellent history of the PBP and randonneuring.

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CocoaBella Chocolates

February 21st, 2006 · 4 Comments · Chocolate, Sweet Spots

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What a weekend for chocolate! From the East Bay on Saturday we went to San Francisco on Sunday, where it was just as sunny and just as cold. Yes, as a native Californian I am regularly derided for my intolerance of temperatures below 75 degrees, but this weekend with temperatures hovering in the 30s, I think I could be forgiven for complaining a bit!

We braved the winds blowing off the bay in the Marina district to find CocoaBella Chocolates, a gorgeous little shop on Union and Webster that sells chocolates from around the world.  The interior is appealingly old fashioned, with marble countertops filled with chocolates behind glass partitions (to stop patrons who just can’t help themselves), and wooden tables piled high with boxes and boxes of more chocolate.

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CocoaBella has chosen some wonderfully intriguing chocolates from around the world; we happily spent at least 15 minutes looking at the displays before we could even think of what we wanted. It’s amazing to see such fine craftsmanship from so many different places, and compare different styles. 

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Two of the most interesting chocolatiers I saw were from the U.S.- Knipschildt Chocolates, made by Fritz Knipschildt, originally from Denmark and now working in Connecticut, makes visually striking pieces with clever flavor combinations.  His Antoinette was a beautiful white heart hand painted with red, filled with rosewater-infused dark chocolate ganache. The Patricia is a surprising narrow cone of dark chocolate filled with tangerine/chili ganache.  I chose a couple of other ones for tasting; see below.

Christopher Elbow Chocolates were definitely the flashiest of all the ones I saw, decorated with neon colors and psychedelic swirls.  Perhaps Elbow was influenced by his time working in the Las Vegas food scene; now he makes chocolates in Kansas City. His rosemary caramel is a truncated pyramid covered with splotches of primary color; his mint ganache looks one of those swirly glass marbles.

There are chocolates from France, Italy, Ecuador, Belgium, established chocolatiers, and exciting up-and-comers.  The question is not if you will find a chocolate you like, but how many you can limit yourself to buying at once.  CocoaBella also sells prepackaged boxes of their own selections; looking into one is like seeing a marvelously dizzying glimpse of heaven.

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We managed to restrict ourselves to eight chocolates and took home our goodie bag in great anticipation of dessert that evening.

Below, going clockwise and starting at top right (the red swirly chocolate):Img_4717

Christopher Elbow (USA): Exotic Fruit – Pate de fruit of mango, passionfruit, pineapple, and lime over coconut ganache.  This one was superb – delicate thin chocolate covering a perfect pate de fruit over a creamy coconut layer.  My palate was not distinguished enough to discern all the different fruit components but the entire chocolate had a clean, refreshing tropical taste.

Marquise de Sevigne (France): Tarte Tatin – apple puree and honey in dark chocolate.  Very interesting.  There was some kind of nutty note I couldn’t place – maybe it was the honey.  The filling had actual chunks of apple that made for a nice play of texture against the smooth chocolate. I can’t say it tasted like tarte tatin, since there was no pastry shell! but as chocolates go this was a fun one.

Amedei (Italy): Cremino – Crunchy hazelnut in milk chocolate. I’m not a huge fan of milk chocolate – I picked this for the contrast of nuts and chocolate. While the hazelnut layer was pleasingly crisp, the chocolate had the same grassy overtone I find in many milk chocolates. Perhaps as a covering it might have worked; as a solid block there was just too much nondescript chocolate for me.

Christopher Elbow (USA): Honey Vanilla – Milk chocolate ganache with clover honey over white chocolate ganache with Tahitian vanilla, dark chocolate covering. This one was another winner. The faint tang of honey mixed with sweet vanilla, in silk-smooth ganache.  Some chocolates want to wow you with their fancy looks or complicated components; some, like this one, wow you by being so simply perfect all you have to do is close your eyes and savor.

Knipschildt (USA): Hannah – Caramel in dark chocolate with Hawaiian pink sea salt.  The vaunted combination of caramel, chocolate and salt executed flawlessly. The chocolate shell snapped cleanly under the first bite, the caramel center flowing out wonderfully liquid, combining with the flakes of salt to form a river of bliss on the tongue.

Knipschildt (USA): Keiko – Chocolate raspberry ganache in dark chocolate with pink peppercorns. I had to include one of those spicy chocolates. The peppercorns added a piquant top note to a rather straightforward chocolate raspberry filling. I was a little disappointed only because I expected something more; without the peppercorns it would have been just another raspberry chocolate. I would have preferred the filling be a little softer as well.

Marquise de Sevigne (France): Praline Noisette – Hazelnut praline in dark chocolate with a hazelnut. The lady behind the counter said this chocolate had won some award in Europe.  It is a very lovely version of the chocolate-hazelnut pairing. The chocolate is assertively dark, the hazelnut praline lusciously rich. The filling had an ever-so-slightly sandy feel on my tongue, which I actually liked; I felt the texture added to the weight of this very luxurious chocolate.

Yes, there are only seven chocolates there…I couldn’t wait and ate one in the car on the way home! It was an Aardbei, a dark chocolate strawberry cream by Valentino of Belgium. I have a weakness for strawberry in chocolates, ever since I had a fabulous one from Teuscher that actually tasted like strawberries and not some awful synthetic mess like most of them do.  This one was ok: the chocolate shell was perfectly crisp, the strawberry filling was pink and creamy, but it was just a little too sweet. Alas.  Fortunately, some of the other ones proved much more memorable that night!

CocoaBella Chocolates

2102 Union Street

San Francisco, CA 94123

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Ispahan

February 20th, 2006 · 12 Comments · Pastry

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Talk pastry and you must mention Pierre Hermé. The Ispahan is one of his signature creations, a startling combination of rose, raspberries and lychees that blend into a sum that is most certainly greater than its parts. It is also one of the most beautiful desserts I’ve seen as well, all shades of pink and red, from the lush raspberries to the velvety rose petal on top with the glistening dewdrop.

Ispahan is the name for a type of rose, although it doesn’t look the traditional red ones whose petals grace the dessert.  Pierre Hermé actually came up with the flavor combination when he was quite young – he produced an early version of the Ispahan for Ladurée (they still sell them in their boutiques) – and it appears to be one of his favorites; he continues to experiment with it in varying forms from his "Emotion" series (layers in a glass) to ice cream on a stick to a buche du Noel.

I finally managed to find a recipe (or some version – actually, the components are not too hard to figure out, it’s of course Hermé’s genius that makes the difference, as any pastry aficionado will tell you) in an issue of Art Culinaire.  Some of the instructions don’t quite add up, so I had to make a couple of adjustments, but this was the result: soft pink macarons sandwiching a layer of raspberries on rose buttercream, with a lychee in the center. The mixture of crisp macaron, smooth buttercream, tart raspberries and sweet lychee is transporting.

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The recipe called for making the macarons with an Italian meringue instead of the traditional way where you simply combine TPT with whipped egg whites.  A little more time consuming – I’m not sure if the result is any different for me.  The reason they have little specks though, is that I used ground almond meal from the store-obviously the almonds still had their skins on when pulverized.  Still, I’m fairly happy with results – it’s such a lovely dessert to put together.

I still miss the real thing back in Paris though – I got this little memento from Pierre’s boutique when I was there to remind me of the delicious memories…

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Moonstruck Chocolate Cafe

February 20th, 2006 · 1 Comment · Sweet Spots

While driving through Walnut Creek’s posh downtown (where you can see a Pottery Barn next to a Williams-Sonoma next to Restoration Hardware, with a Tiffany’s across the street) this weekend, I stumbled upon a Moonstruck Chocolate Cafe, another addition to the growing number of chocolate-focused stores in the Bay Area.

Moonstruck Chocolates is a chocolatier based in Portland, Oregon, and have expanded their business online and to their "Chocolate Cafes".  The cafe I entered resembled a Starbucks in design and presentation, from the sleek polished wood floors covered with rugs and lounge chairs to the fancy drink-making apparatus behind the counter, to the side wall covered with various gift items to peruse. But Starbucks doesn’t have the sparkling display cases filled with truffles and chocolates, or a drink menu with selections that range from mocha lattes to milkshakes to hot chocolate.

Moonstruck does have an impressive range of chocolates – even if the flavors aren’t cutting edge the chocolates look very sharp and well made.  I had the Ocumarion, a little nugget of dark chocolate from the Ocumare Valley in Venezuela with chili pepper inside.  The shell was a little thick but the filling rich and smooth, with the chili kicking in well at the end.  Actually quite a spicy chocolate.

I also had the Mayan, a drink made with chocolate, cinnamon, and almond syrup. Although potentially tooth-achingly sweet, the chocolate was dark and rich enough that the cinnamon and almond worked as pleasant top notes – an altogether satisfying and hot drink to hold onto as strolled outside on a very nippy Saturday.

We also couldn’t resist picking up a little chocolate lab – he’s still sitting on the kitchen table, too cute to be eaten!

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Moonstruck Chocolate Cafe

1273 Locust Street

Walnut Creek, CA 94596

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Chocolate and Beer?

February 16th, 2006 · 1 Comment · Uncategorized

Full disclaimer: I am not a beer expert, or even a regular beer drinker.  I am pretty girly-girl in my choice of alcohol – Cosmos and Rieslings, if you please.  However, my sweetie is quite the beer aficionado, so when I saw the posting for a Beer and Chocolate Dinner at the Cathedral Hill Hotel in San Francisco tomorrow, I thought, what event could be more perfect for us?

Alas, the reservation date had passed, but the menu still sounds intriguing (and aphrodisiac – after all, Valentine’s Day was just three days ago!): butter poached lobster with chocolate sauce, ravioli of duck confit and cocoa nibs, short ribs braised in chimay with chocolate balsamic reduction, all paired with various Chimays, the famous beers from the Belgium Trappist brewery – one of my sweetie’s favorites, actually.

A bit of poking around on the net revealed to me that pairing beer and chocolate is an established practice.  Again, I’m not a beer expert by any means, but even I can tell the chocolatey, coffee flavors in a Guinness stout.  No surprise that some people might find matching a good stout to chocolate easier than finding a good wine to pair – see Claudia Fleming’s The Last Coursefor excellent explanations on how she found wines to go with her desserts.

Stouts and porters appear to be the most popular and easy of beers to pair with chocolate – their dark toasty flavors would match with dark chocolates.  There are also the lighter, more fruity ales which might go better with sweeter or filled chocolates. 

Here are some articles I found which describe the pairing process and some specific pairings: 

Sinfully Delicious: Beer and Chocolate

Chocolate and Beer Pairings

You could also cut to the chase and buy beer that already has chocolate in it.  Some of the most famous are Samuel Adam’s Chocolate Bock, which is infused with cocoa nibs from Scharffen Berger, Rogue Chocolate Stout (apparently they just hosted the 4th Annual Beer and Chocolate Tasting in Portland, Oregon), and Young’s Double Chocolate Stout, from the UK.

What about baking? Here are some intriguing recipes for a Chocolate Stout Cheesecake and a Fudgilicious Porter Cake.  I also remember one for a Guinness Stout cake in my files…will have to try that!

Seems like there are enough ideas for me to have my own beer and chocolate dinner at my own home:) Who knew it might be chocolate to help me overcome my lack of beer appreciation?

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