Entries from June 16th, 2006

Peach Tarte Tatin

June 16th, 2006 · 22 Comments · Fruit, Ice Cream, Recipes

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The farmer’s markets are overrun with stone fruits now, baskets tumbling-full of gold and rose hued peaches, nectarines, apricots and plums. There was a particularly gorgeous display at the Crocker Galleria market yesterday that made me wish I hadn’t left my camera at home, a vibrant stripe of summer sunshine piled across the table.

Biting into a ripe peach, juice trickling down your chin, must be one of summer’s quintessential pleasures. I always cup one in my hands before I eat it, savoring the honey-rich fragrance, marveling at the perfect layer of fuzz. When I hold a sun-warm peach to my cheek, it’s like holding the beating heart of summer.

If you do manage to set any aside (perhaps cleverly buying some not-quite-ripe ones so they can survive the first few days), stone fruits can of course be made into any number of pies, tarts, cobblers, cakes, and other luscious desserts. Generally, the earlier peaches of the season have a lighter, sweeter flavor that are best showcased in a simple dessert, while later ones have a richer, deeper flavor that would go well in baked items like pies. To celebrate the warm weather and keep things light, I decided to make individual peach tarte tatins, an airy combination of just-caramelized peaches and flaky puff pastry. I took the recipe from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course, where she describes how she adapted the recipe for home cooks by baking the peaches and pastry in a muffin tin.  I found it worked fairly well, although I had to watch the oven carefully to make sure the peaches didn’t burn. Also, the caramel came out a little dark for my taste – I think next time I would make the caramel lighter so it doesn’t overpower the flavor of the peaches as much.

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To go with the tarte tatins, I also made a pair of ice creams. The first, a white peach sorbet, captures their delicate flavor in a pure and simple form – just peaches with some sugar added. It came out the most gorgeous pastel hue as well.

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For contrast, a roasted cinnamon ice cream from Regan Daley’s In the Sweet Kitchen. Her recipe uses both ground cinnamon toasted on the stove and a cinnamon stick infused in the cream, insuring a hefty dose of the spice.

White Peach Sorbet

adapted from epicurious.com

2 lbs white peaches (about 6), pitted and cut into pieces

3/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup light corn syrup

1 teaspoon powdered ascorbic acid (helps prevent discoloration)

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Puree the mixture in a blender until smooth. Pour through a strainer into ice cream bowl, discarding solids. Freeze according to ice cream maker’s instructions. You will probably have to freeze it further in the freezer for it to really firm up.

Makes about 1 quart

Roasted Cinnamon Ice Cream

from In the Sweet Kitchen

2 teaspoons ground cassia or cinnamon

2 cups half and half

1 large cinnamon or cassia stick

6 large egg yolks

3/4 cur granulated sugar

1 cup cream

In a nonstick skillet, toast the ground cinnamon over low heat. Keep stirring it around to prevent it from burning. When it is warm and fragrant remove from the heat and set aside.

Combine the half-and-half with the cinnamon stick in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove the saucepan from heat and let it sit for about 5 minutes to let the cinnamon stick infuse the cream.

Meanwhile, whisk the egg yolks and sugar together in a bowl. Pour a little of the hot cinnamon cream into the bowl and whisk to temper the eggs, then pour the rest in and whisk until combined.

Return the mixture to the saucepan and put back on medium heat, stirring with a wooden spoon to prevent eggs from scrambling. Cook about 7 to 10 minutes until the mixture thickens and coats the back of the spoon. Remove from heat and strain into a bowl.

Add about 2 tablespoons of the 1 cup cream to the toasted cinnamon and combine to make a paste. Add 2 more tablespoons and work it in until it is combined. Whisk this cinnamon paste into the hot mixture until combined. Put a piece of plastic wrap over the mixture, pressing the wrap to the surface, and place in the refrigerator until very cold, at least 4 hours but preferably overnight.

Freeze in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions.

Makes about 1 quart.

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Staging at Myth

June 14th, 2006 · 7 Comments · Personal

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photos from Myth website

I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to stage twice at Myth, a French/California restaurant in San Francisco’s Jackson Square area. I will get to the food very shortly, but I also wanted to mention that Myth is one of the loveliest restaurants I’ve been to, both cozy and elegant, grand and intimate at the same time due to the clever use of space and materials. The main dining room is pleasingly impressive, with its high ceilings and exposed beams over a sea of banquettes. Bookending the room are two rows of wood-paneled booths that add heft and geometric contrast. There is also a private "chef’s table" in the corner (see second picture), and space in the back of the dining room has been converted into some sexy, intimate alcoves that overlook the main space. I absolutely love the use of natural materials: the exposed stone and brick walls, dark gold wood paneling, the stained glass partitions, and those shimmering, ephemeral gold fabric panels hanging from the ceiling that help reflect and diffuse the warm golden light throughout the place. A perfect date restaurant indeed!

As if there wasn’t enough seats already, there is also a plush lounge area with a full bar, and Myth is also turning some additional space in the back (it’s like a magic cavern, how they keep uncovering more space) into a wine bar that will serve a separate tapas menu. Much of the staff here, including executive chef Sean O’Brien, hail from the renowned Gary Danko, but the food and atmosphere are a bit more casual and eclectic. Disclaimer: I haven’t eaten a full meal here yet, but I have eaten at the bar, and the food is elegantly presented and singularly satisfying.

Unfortunately, there are no tempting photos of desserts to follow, since I was staging, but I can say that Reneé Atkins is a wonderfully talented and generous pastry chef. She creates pastries for Myth Cafe (oh yes, did I mention they also have a cafe next door that serves lunch? This kitchen has some serious output!)and the desserts for the restaurant menu. I came once in the morning to help with production for the cafe and again at night to help with the dessert plating. Pastry is lucky enough to have its own little space out of the way of everyone else, with a big worktable and natural light from a wall of windows – one of the nicest areas in the kitchen in my opinion. Most of the savory items are fired in an open area at one end of the dining room – if you’re facing it, you can see the stairs going up to the rest of the kitchen and off to the left is the pastry area, partially partitioned off. Maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of Reneé and her staff working their magic:) The rest of the kitchen is actually rather serpentine, a series of corridors sandwiched between the restaurant and cafe, with numerous doors to the dining areas; really, this whole place is like a labyrinth!

Some things I have learned from working in kitchens:

- Always be aware of where you are and where everyone else is. Say "behind" and "hot" loudly to prevent collisions.

- Space is always at a premium. Don’t take up more counter space than necessary, don’t leave your dirty tools lying around – put things away as soon as you are done.

- Time is always at a premium. The more organized you are, the less chance of mistakes and running around willy-nilly. Always think of how you can work faster and more efficiently.

- Don’t be afraid to ask questions – it’s better than messing a whole batch of something up and having to redo it. At the same time, be observant. If the chef is busy, wait for the right moment to ask or talk to someone else. Also, you learn a lot just by watching – as a stagiere you’re meant to observe as much as do so take a look at how everyone is working.

Some of this stuff may seem really obvious but there’s a big difference between knowing and doing – as I’ve found out. Watching a good kitchen crew hit their stride, putting plates together without wasted motion, or multitasking several jobs while coordinating stoves/ovens/tools with everyone else, is a marvel to watch. Even in the luxury of my own home, where I can spend all day making one dessert and monopolize the oven and dirty as many dishes as I want, I’ve become much more aware, after going to pastry school, of how much more efficiently I could work. It makes everything easier and lets you concentrate on your product – which is what we’re all ultimately concerned about, anyway!

So which did I like better, AM production or PM plating? The two are pretty different but I enjoyed aspects of both. In the morning it’s more of a steady workflow, constant mixing and baking off of various cookies, tarts, and cakes for the cafe as well as components for the evening desserts. There’s a pleasant satisfaction in finishing off a big batch of fruit tarts or mini cupcakes, and moving on to another batch of cookies or ice cream. I definitely learned a lot about baking technique. Once late afternoon comes around, prep for the dinner service begins – making sure all the components are set up, garnishes are in the proper place, etc. Then it’s waiting for the tickets to come in and the plating fun begins! If everything is in its place, the process is quite smooth – assemble the various components on plate, drizzle sauce, add garnishes, send out the finished dessert. Of course there is a bit of artistry involved – I had to practice running vanilla caramel sauce in a straight line down a plate or arranging ice cream quenelles in a bowl. It’s more stressful since you have a specific window of time to get your product out, but it’s a good challenge to your skills.

For example, if you in an order for a raspberry souffle, strudel, chocolate cake, and ice cream, you’ll want to put the souffle in the oven first because it takes the most time to bake off. The strudel takes less time but in the meantime you can plate the other components of the dessert. You can scoop the ice cream, but don’t leave it out for too long or it might start melting while the souffle is baking. The most important thing is that everything has to go out at once, so it’s always a matter of juggling items so they finish at approximately the same time. And, of course, anyone who’s ever worked in a service position knows that you’ll have no customers for a while, and then all of sudden ten orders will come in at once! That’s when the importance of having everything prepped and in its place suddenly becomes very apparent.

You can see Myth’s dinner menu here (note for many dishes you get the option of small or large plate size – very nice! And may I say the scallops were fantastic!) and the dessert menu here. The flourless chocolate cake is the one that requires the line of vanilla caramel sauce, along with the cake, some caramelized bananas, some butterscotch brittle, and a quenelle of vanilla ice cream. Really fun to plate. I also really liked the strawberry rhubarb strudel, which is looks like a little flaky pyramid on top of a little sandwich of honey-lavender ice cream between pistachio tuiles, resting on more strawberry and rhubarb in pool of strawberry essence. Strawberry and rhubarb – some of my favorite flavors!

My thanks to Reneé, Ryan Scott, and the rest of the staff at Myth for giving me such a great staging experience. They are a very warm and friendly crew, and I had not only an educational but a fun experience working in the pastry kitchen. I will certainly be going back for the full dining experience soon, and I encourage you to go too – it’s a lovely place in every way.

Myth Restaurant

470 Pacific Avenue

San Francisco, CA 94133

415.677.8986

open Tuesdays through Saturdays

The Myth Cafe is open next door from 8 AM to 4 PM Mondays through Fridays and serves breakfast and lunch.

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Chocolate Caramel Mignardises

June 9th, 2006 · 13 Comments · Chocolate, Cookbooks, Cookies, Recipes

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It is probably no surprise to anyone that dessert is one of my favorite parts of any meal, which is why I was so delighted the first time I was treated to mignardises at a restaurant. Mignardises, from the old French word mignard, meaning pretty or delicate, is the perfect word to describe the little after-dessert desserts that accompany your coffee, allowing you to extend the pleasure of the evening just a bit longer. And who could argue against more sweets? It’s added an additional layer of challenge to my satiation-judging abilities: I’ve always saved room for dessert, not having the endless stomach of some other foodies, but to save extra room for mignardises? On a couple of occasions at some very fine establishments, where the sweets almost literally came to the table in a shower, I’ve had to admit defeat, nearly in tears that I couldn’t fit one more nibble in my mouth.

Mignardises were perhaps more commonly known as petits fours in the US several years back, even though there is some debate over whether they mean the same thing. My understanding is that petits fours refer to small, bite-sized cakes, cookies, or other baked items, not necessarily served after dinner and dessert. In fact, what usually comes to mind when I think of petits fours are those dainty little multi-layered cakes of genoise and buttercream, covered with icing in pastel colors. Mignardises can include baked items as well as chocolates and confections, but they are always served at the end of the meal after dessert. Variety counts, as this is the pastry chef’s last chance to display his skill -you’ll see caramels, pates des fruits, truffles, tuiles, candied nuts -it’s like opening up a fabulous jewelry box full of the most perfect little treasures.

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While flipping through Michael Recchiuti’s Chocolate Obsession I was inspired by several of the recipes to make a little plate of mignardises, to serve after tonight’s dinner. Although usually chefs go for a variety of flavors, I chose to focus on a chocolate-caramel theme.

Chocolate-Covered Caramelized Hazelnuts

Those little nuggets spilling out of the foil cup were a nice way to use up the hazelnuts in my pantry. Covered with a layer of caramel, then tempered chocolate, and finally a dusting of cocoa powder, they are addictively easy to pop in your mouth.

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Fleur de Sel Caramels

Certainly the trendiest sweet du jour, restaurants are all coming up with versions of this sweet-salty delight. Recchiuti’s recipe has fleur de sel in the caramels themselves, not just on top, to add a little extra crunch and flavor. He also suggests covering them in tempered chocolate; I tried that, and the results were even more delicious, although the warm weather made it difficult for the caramels to hold their shape and therefore they unfortunately just weren’t photogenic enough in their little chocolate coats!

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Chocolate Shortbread Cookies with Caramel Chocolate Cream Filling

A decadent little number, crisp chocolate cookies sandwich a rich ganache filling. Although the original recipe did not have caramel for the cream filling, I added in a bit of Recchiuti’s burnt caramel base to give it an extra dimension of flavor. Very rich and chocolatey!

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Pastries on Vacation

June 7th, 2006 · 9 Comments · Sweet Spots, Travel

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Last week I went on a brief baking hiatus and took a little trip down to southern California, where palm trees, beaches, and Hollywood awaited. Even though I can’t complain about the weather in San Francisco, the blue skies and endless sands down there fulfilled my vacation requirements perfectly. Maybe it’s also the ubiquitous presence of those sublimely silly palm trees – how could you stay serious looking at them?

Of course, no baking = dessert research. I took it upon myself to find what sweet things southern California had to offer. Since I wasn’t planning on eating at any fancy restaurants this time around, my research was limited to the bakeries and cafes  – and there were quite a few delicious ones to be found!

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First stop in San Diego: Michele Coulon Dessertier, tucked away on a little street in gorgeous La Jolla. I have to applaud anyone who has the job title of "dessertier"! The place serves both lunch and dinner along with a full selection of cakes, tarts, and cookies.

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My sister and I shared two of their miniatures: a "lemadamia" tartlet, which had lemon filling with a macadamia and white chocolate topping, and an Amareno cherry cakelet with cherries and chocolate.  It’s difficult to tell from the picture but the top of the cherry cakelet was actually dusted with iridescent powder that shimmered gorgeously in the sunlight. Both of them were quite moist and tasty; I especially like the tang of the lemon tartlet. A great place to stop by after strolling downtown or going to the beach.

Michele Coulon Dessertier

7556 Fay Street, Suite D

La Jolla, CA 92037

858.456.5098

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Back in downtown San Diego, we stopped by another popular dessert spot, Extraordinary Desserts. There are two outposts of this bakery, and we visited the one near Balboa Park, which is a collection of parks, gardens, and many of San Diego’s museums, and a great place to go on a weekend.  The Fifth Avenue location is the smaller of the two, and is a cozy, intimate space with one side of the room completely lined with Karen Krasne’s creations.

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The first thing you notice is the generous use of flowers in decorating the desserts; everything is almost bursting with vibrant color.

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They have a very wide assortment of pastries, and also an intriguing selection of teas and coffees. Definitely a nice place to have afternoon tea!

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Even the brownie we got had an elaborate crown of chocolate curls; I almost couldn’t bear to eat it!

Extraordinary Desserts

2929 Fifth Avenue                     1430 Union Street

San Diego, CA                           San Diego, CA 92101

619.294.2132                            619.294.7001

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Onto Los Angeles and beachfront views that make you wish you lived here year round. I was told that actually in June and July it can get cloudy-hazy near the beach, so I was lucky to get a postcard-perfect day when I arrived.

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So did I run out to the beach to enjoy the glorious sunshine? Of course not! I went looking for more pastries instead! And in Beverly Hills, I found cupcakes elevated to haute couture. Sprinkles Cupcakes is one of the most successful manifestations of the cupcake trend – it was amusing to see a long line of skinny-trendy Los Angeles natives in their sunglasses and chic clothes waiting to snag one these little dietbusters.

The store is sleekly cute and there is a quite a variety of flavors to choose from. We chose a strawberry cupcake with strawberry frosting and a dark chocolate cupcake with bittersweet chocolate frosting. The chocolate one was better: very moist and rich dark cake, and the frosting a nice complement. I found the cake for the strawberry cupcake a little soggy and bland, but the frosting had a nice strawberry flavor and was not overly sweet. I also thought the ratio of frosting to cake was good; many times I find the amount of too-sweet frosting on cupcakes overwhelming. But for $3.25 a cupcake, you would have thought they could at least pipe the frosting out instead of just spatula-ing it on…

Sprinkles Cupcakes

9635 Little Santa Monica Boulevard

Beverly Hills, CA 90210

310.274.8765

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The next stop was not a bakery but a must-visit for any foodie: La Sanctuaire, a gourmet’s boutique filled with rare cookbooks, cooking tools, and ingredients. The space is spare and clean, and filled with all sorts of things to catch the foodie’s eye, like a gorgeous green clay teapot from China, or a chalkboard listing dozens of exotic spices for sale, or El Bulli’s latest cookbook, ceremoniously displayed in a glass case.

The picture is unfortunately fuzzy but hopefully gives an impression of the dazzling selection of cookbooks from around the world – my kind of bookstore, indeed! The whole store, for that matter.

La Sanctuaire

2710 Main Street

Santa Monica, CA 90405

310.581.8999

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Another must-visit is Jin Patisserie, which is almost exactly the kind of place I would like to have myself if I ever opened a pâtisserie. Kristy Choo’s gorgeous creations are served in an elegant, Zen-garden-like patio for the most relaxing of afternoon teas. The kitchen and retail shop are in what looks like a converted cottage, adding to the charm.

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I was impressed by the craftsmanship of the pastries and by the unusual flavor combinations – there is a definite Asian influence to Choo’s flavors, from green tea to jasmine. Choo is also known for her chocolates, which were displayed beautifully in silk boxes – unfortunately, because of the hot day I was afraid to take any home for fear they’d melt!

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We had the "Afternoon Tea" set, which is perhaps not showed off to best advantage in this photo but which let us sample a variety of her creations. Scones with cream and orange marmalade, quiche, orange pound cake, mousse cakes in flavors of passionfruit, raspberry, and green tea, and a bit of chocolate made for a quite a bit of decadence. I liked the passionfruit and green tea cakes the best – very light texture and surprisingly intense flavors. I wanted to try more but alas I was sugared out for the day!

Jin Pâtisserie

1201 Abbot Kinney Boulevard

Venice, CA 90291

310.399.8801

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One of the other things I like about Los Angeles is how lush it is. Everywhere you see trees and bushes flowering – like this street filled with purple blooms that smelled like summer.

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Just around the corner from one of those flower-filled streets is Boule, a very modern pâtisserie in pale blue. Opened by pastry chef Michelle Myers, it offers an array of chocolates, candies, pastries, and ice creams.

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One of their signature items is their fleur de sel caramels, which come wrapped in pretty iridescent paper. Soft and chewy and just the right bit of salty tang. The sweet saleslady offered me one when she heard I hadn’t tried it!

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What I got was a little cake of passionfruit mousse with coconut dacquoise. I was amazed by the texture of the mousse – it looks like solid cake, but yields to the fork and just melts in your mouth! I’m not a huge fan of coconut but it went very well with the passionfruit. Very nice!

Boule

420 N. La Cienega Boulevard

Los Angeles, CA 90048

310.289.9977

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Last stop: Susina Bakery, a beautiful little cafe with a mouthwatering array of pastries to offer. They also have a lunch menu, so it’s possible to spend a lazy Sunday morning here, as many people were doing.

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I really like their neatly wrapped bags of candies on the counter. The entire decor of the place is very warm and elegant. And those fruit tarts!…mmm.

Susina Bakery

7122 Beverly Boulevard

Los Angeles, CA 90036

323.934.7900

All in all, a very sweet and satisfying vacation with sun, surf, and sugar. I’m ever more inspired to get back in the kitchen now!

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