Entries from September 28th, 2006

Mooncakes in Mid-Autumn

September 28th, 2006 · 15 Comments · Travel

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Whenever my parents come to visit from Hong Kong, I can guarantee that at least half of their suitcases will be filled with little treats and gifts for us. They’re great parents that way. When they arrived last weekend I knew that among the clothes, candies, and baked goods (yes, my mother has been known to bring boxes of custard tarts and coconut buns from my favorite HK bakeries; now if only there were a way to get dim sum across the Pacific while it’s hot) there would be several beautifully decorated boxes of mooncakes to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival.

At its most elegant and poetic, the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrates the time of year when the moon is at its fullest and brightest – the harvest moon, or the autumnal equinox. Traditionally, families will gather together to admire the beauty of the full moon, eating mooncakes under the night sky, with children running about carrying colorful paper lanterns like errant fireflies.

There is another, bloodier aspect to the Mid-Autumn Festival and mooncakes which traces back to the 14th century when China was under the rule of the Mongols. Planning a rebellion against the Mongol emperor, Chinese rebels came up with the idea of hiding a secret message inside mooncakes, which the Mongols did not eat. These mooncakes told rebels to rise up on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival. The uprising was successful, and henceforth the Mid-Autumn Festival was celebrated with mooncakes everywhere in China.

Given the mooncake’s firm entrenchment in Chinese culture, it would be impossible to get through a Mid-Autumn Festival without giving or receiving dozens of these little puck-shaped pastries. Just like red envelopes are passed out to children and subordinates at Chinese New Year, so friends and family engage in a little hot-potato pass-around of mooncakes. If you are also detecting a resemblance to that dreaded Christmas fruitcake, you are not wrong. The traditional Chinese mooncake is an acquired taste for many; for me, suffice to say that it does not fall to the level of fruitcake but neither is it among my most favorite desserts. I blame my mother for this failure of my tastebuds; I was told that as a child her father offered her five dollars (quite a significant amount at the time) to eat a mooncake, and she refused.

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The traditional mooncake is quite dense for its size, with a soft, chewy, golden crust made of flour, sugar syrup, and lard enveloping a rich filling of lotus bean paste and a whole salted duck egg yolk to symbolize the full moon. The mooncake is formed in a wooden mold imprinted with the bakery’s insignia on top; since each bakery will have a different design for its mooncakes, those from the most reputable bakeries are highly coveted – orders for mooncakes are placed months in advance!

Because of its richness, the mooncake is typically meant to be cut into quarters and shared; if you can’t get enough of that egg yolk, many bakeries have a "super" mooncake with four egg yolks, one in each quarter. These are considered to be some of most luxurious and expensive of all mooncakes.

So the traditional mooncake is not quite to your liking? Bakeries must have realized there was a market for an improved, less calorie- and cholesterol-filled moon cake, and today the variety of mooncakes boggles the eye and wallet – some of them can hardly be called mooncakes save some tenuous similarity in form.

Substituting the expensive lotus bean paste with cheaper and sweeter fillings was a natural; you can find mooncakes with sweeter red bean pastes, fruit fillings, even ice cream. One of the most charming versions I’ve seen this year is Pappagallo’s Gelato Mooncakes, embossed with a design based on Saint-Exupery’s Le Petit Prince. Not that I recall the little prince eating mooncakes on his asteroid…

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A most popular variant of the mooncake is the unbaked, or snow-skin version, using a rice-flour, mochi-style wrapper around the filling. While these mooncake require refrigeration and are much less long-lasting than their baked cousins, their much more delicate texture and adaptability to a wide range of fillings have made them a great favorite among modernists. I will admit I love the rainbow of pastel colors they come in, as well the staggering heights of creativity to which the fillings have reached in recent years – everything from truffles to green tea custard to durian to birds’ nest.

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And final proof that mooncakes are adapting to the modern age: Häagen-Dazs and Starbucks have their own versions of mooncakes for Mid-Autumn Festival. The Häagen-Dazs sounds clever if not particularly moon-cakeish: The egg yolk has been replaced with a ball of mango sorbet, the filling with ice cream, and the crust with a chocolate shell, but the Starbucks coffee mooncake is one I think I’ll pass on.

I’m pleased to see that this ancient delicacy that could have been easily mothballed has instead benefited from the innovation of pastry chefs, evolving to suit ever-changing times and tastes.But however much I think I would enjoy a mooncake-shaped ice cream, I still smile when my mom uncovers those traditional glossy brown mooncakes that she brought all the way from Hong Kong. To me, they represent the real meaning of Mid-Autumn Festival and the exchanging of those little pastries: to celebrate family and being together, under the warm light of a glowing moon.

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The Mid-Autumn Festival is always on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month. This year it falls on October 6th.

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Cupcakes of Love (Sugar High Friday 23)

September 18th, 2006 · 28 Comments · Cakes, Events, Recipes

edited on 9/19/06: added the SHF links.

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I’ve always been a bit of a dreamer. As a child, I was the one with her head buried in books, lost in faraway countries and fantastical adventures, or scribbling in her notebook, making up her own stories of imaginary places. It wasn’t that I was unhappy with real life; it was that I always thought it would get more interesting over the horizon, in some hazily imagined future where I was grown up and smart and knew the answers and everything would be happily ever after.

As I grew older, I kept looking to that ever-elusive horizon, waiting for that future to arrive . When would my happily ever after get here? It certainly couldn’t be now, when I was still so naive and confused and making mistakes. I couldn’t be when I wasn’t able to answer questions as seemingly simple as "what do I want to do with my life?" or "where in the world do I want to live?" or even that most awful of questions, "why can’t I find a decent guy?" Surely, when I had everything figured out, life would be as it should be: After bringing about world peace, I would be living in a fabulous house with a fabulous guy, traveling the world eating great food, and always have perfect hair.

Flash forward to two weeks ago, and I’m standing in the kitchen cooking dinner with my boyfriend on a lazy late Sunday afternoon. The San Francisco fog hasn’t quite reached his apartment yet, so it’s still warm and sunny. From his window you can see past Coit Tower all the way to the bay, spread with its usual lacework of slim white sails. We are talking about the American dream of the house in the suburbs, the children in the yard, and why this represents the ultimate goal for so many.

And then I said, it’s not that it’s wrong to want such a goal, it’s just that what would happen once you reached it? What if we were in that house one day, with the kids and the dog and the multiple cars in the garage? Don’t you think that once we were there, we would look back on the days when we were young and poor and could only afford tiny apartments in the city, and we would try to budget out how many restaurants we could go to every month, and then argue about which ones to go to, and how we’d stay up really late watching TV even though we knew we’d pay for it the next morning, or how I really hated the hills around your place, but grew to begrudgingly accept them because they gave me a really good workout, especially when I could only find a parking spot at the very top of the hill, or how you had your totally rockin’ band and I would go to your gigs and then try to think up lame names for your next songs, or how we would stand on your balcony after dinner, drinking wine and looking at the sunset over the bay?

But all this is now, I said, this is us, and I can’t think of anything better than knowing how wonderful your life is at this moment, there’s no need to wait for the future to arrive, and how horrible is it when you can’t take a moment to realize and appreciate that?

And he smiled and said he was glad I felt the same way.

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These cupcakes were born of serendipity in my pastry school days, when I would go through my refrigerator and find containers full of leftover pastry cream, tart dough, and other things from class that I was sure I could find a use for. I had some hazelnut mousseline left over from a cake, some coffee buttercream from an opera cake, and decided on the spur of the moment to combine the two into a decadent cupcake. The result has become a favorite of my boyfriend, which is why they are called Cupcakes of Love, and a reminder of the unexpected happiness you can find when you appreciate the good things you’ve already got.

edited to add: This is also, of course, my entry for Sugar High Friday #23, hosted by the fantastic Alanna at A Veggie Venture. The crown of coffee buttercream hides a creamy center of hazelnut mousseline inside the chocolate cupcake. I love the mousseline – it’s smooth, creamy, richly nutty, and makes a nice counterpoint to the rich, dense chocolate cake. It also complements the coffee notes in the buttercream surprisingly well, creating medley of very adult flavors in a decadent little package.

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Cupcakes of Love

Chocolate Cupcakes

Makes 12 regular cupcakes

1 stick butter, room temperature

3/4 cup sugar

2 ounces bittersweet chocolate

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup cocoa powder

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 eggs

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a muffin tin with muffin papers, or you can also butter and flour them.

Melt chocolate in a double boiler. Meanwhile, sift flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together.

Beat butter and sugar together in a mixture until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add in the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the bowl as needed. Add in the vanilla. Add in the melted chocolate and mix until combined.

Add in the sifted dry ingredients and buttermilk, alternating in 3 additions, ending with the dry ingredients. Mix just until combined.

Divide the batter among the muffin cups. Bake in the oven for about 20-25 minutes, until a tester inserted into the cupcake comes out clean and the tops feel firm. Place on a wire rack to cool.

Hazelnut Mousseline

makes about 1 1/2 cups

4 1/2 ounces butter, room temperature

3 ounces hazelnuts, finely ground

3 ounces confectioner’s sugar

1 tablespoon Frangelico

1 cup pastry cream

Pastry cream:

makes 1 cup

1 cup milk

5 tablespoons sugar

3 large egg yolks

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

To make the pastry cream, heat 3/4 cup of the milk and 2 tablespoons of the sugar in a saucepan over medium heat until small bubbles appear along the edge of the pan.

Meanwhile, whisk together the egg yolks and remaining sugar in a bowl. In a separate bowl, combine the remaining milk and cornstarch, then add to the egg yolks.

Pour the hot milk mixture into the egg yolk mixture, whisking constantly. Return the entire mixture to the saucepan and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until it thickens. Whisk in the vanilla.

Pour through a strainer into a bowl. Let it cool to room temperature for the mousseline recipe, or you can cover with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.

To make the mousseline, cream the butter in a mixer until very soft and creamy. It is important the the butter is at room temperature for this recipe.

Add in the hazelnuts and confectioner’s sugar and combine, scraping down the bowl as necessary.

Add the Frangelico.

Add the pastry cream and combine at medium speed until light and creamy.

Coffee Buttercream

makes about 3 cups

1 1/2 cups butter, room temperature

1/2 cup milk

3/4 cup sugar

5 egg y olks

1 tablespoon granulated coffee flavoring

The butter should be very soft but not melting for this recipe.

Heat the milk and coffee flavoring and 1/4 cup of the sugar in a saucepan over medium heat, until small bubbles appear around the edge of the pan.

Meanwhile, beat the egg yolks and remaining sugar in the mixer bowl with the whisk attachment until pale and thick (ribbon stage). Reduce speed to low and pour in the hot milk mixture. Return the entire mixture to the saucepan.

Cook the mixture in the saucepan over medium heat, whisking constantly, until it registers 170 degrees on a thermometer. Pour the mixture into a clean mixer bowl and beat with the whisk on medium until cool, about 5 -10 minutes. Add in the butter in 4 additions, allowing each addition to incorporate before adding another.

The buttercream can be used immediately, or stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. If you store it in the refrigerator, let it soften first and whisk by hand or in the mixer to bring back to proper consistency.

To assemble: cut the centers out of the cupcakes and fill with the hazelnut mousseline. Using a pastry bag and a star tip, pipe the coffee buttercream over the tops of the cupcakes.

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My Favorite Cookie Ever

September 11th, 2006 · 50 Comments · Cookbooks, Cookies, Personal, Recipes

edited on 9/19/06: I had to add this in – two days ago I received a very kind e-mail from Ms. Greenspan herself!!! See end of post.

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Saying I have one favorite cookie seems like a bold and potentially disingenuous claim; after all, variety is the hallmark and joy of the cookie world, and why there are dozens of cookie cookbooks on the market, to address when you have chocolate-chip-cookie-days or macaron-days, Christmas-sugar-cookie-days or tea-time-shortbread-days, or even those guilty I-really-want-an-Oreo-days.

But I have to say I fell in love with this cookie the first time I made it, everyone I’ve ever shared them with has loved them, and it keeps appearing in my kitchen on a regular basis. It is a cookie that makes you realize that the cookie, or koekje in its original Dutch, is not a minor sweet to be munched mindlessly out of a bag or snacked on as a poor substitute for a fancy dessert, but a full and proper member of the pastry world.

Of course, with a lineage tracing to Dorie Greenspan and Pierre Hermé, who would expect anything less? This cookie first appeared under the name of Korova Cookies in Greenspan’s darling Paris Sweets, her charming, intimate ode to Parisian pâtisseries. Being the rabid fan of Hermé that I am, I made a batch, and true to the headnote, had to keep myself to consuming them all that evening. These cookies have made their return in Greenspan’s new book, Baking: From My Home to Yours, which appears to not be in general release yet but which I have been lucky enough to find! In her new tome, the cookies have been renamed World Peace Cookies, an indication of Greenspan’s continuing infatuation with these little handfuls of joy – and her recognition that they have won fans everywhere!

So why all the rhapsodizing? I humbly suggest the best way is to make the cookies yourself (and as a bonus, these are among the simplest of cookies to make; you have no excuse not to try them!) and take a bite of one minutes after it cools on the baking rack. They are a rich, dark, chocolately take on the classic sablé, and, as is Hermé’s trademark, he has perfected both texture and taste in this recipe. There is no other way to describe biting into the cookie other than it melts and crumbles in your mouth, the perfect sandy consistency. And the smooth, buttery chocolate taste that comes from cocoa powder and chocolate chunks is enhanced by the addition of fleur de sel, which takes the level of taste to a preternatural, addictive high.

I have added a few drops of peppermint extract to these cookies for Christmastime, and they are the ones that everyone always asks if I will make again.

So I’m doing my little bit to spread some world peace and happiness and send this cookie with the simple advice to Try it! and see if it doesn’t become one of your favorites as well.

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I am also adding a little song of praise for Greenspan’s new book, which I am sure you will see fully explored by me in the following months. She is forever my idol for translating Hermé’s genius and making his recipes available to English speakers and the home baker. Now she finally gets to share her own recipes from her home kitchen, and it’s a wonderful masterpiece that is homey, comprehensive, informative, and very delicious.

Korova Cookies

adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s Paris Sweets

makes about 36 cookies

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/3 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder (do not use natural; I find the taste too light. I prefer Scharffen Berger or Valrhona)

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 stick plus 3 tablespoons butter, room temperature

2/3 cup light brown sugar

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon fleur de sel

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped into little bits (I will admit I have used Nestle Toll House Mini Morsels before because they are nearly the perfect size; very tiny for this cookie is best. However, Greenspan does recommend chopping up your favorite chocolate for best results. If you see the mini morsels in the store, check them out for their size!)

Sift the flour, cocoa, and baking soda together in a bowl. Beat the butter in a mixer until it is soft and creamy. Add in the sugars, salt, and vanilla extract and beat for a few more minutes to combine. Add in the flour and combine on low speed just until the flour is combined. This is probably the trickiest part because the texture of the cookie depends on as little mixing as possible. The dough will be very crumbly; resist the urge to keep mixing until it all comes together because then the cookies will be too tough when baked. Add in the chocolate bits and mix just to distribute them.

If you have a scale, the easiest thing to do next is to divide the dough in half by weighing. If you don’t, just turn the dough out onto a flat surface, press together into a ball and roughly divide in two. With each half, press the dough together gently and form into a log about 1 1/2-in in diameter. In the past, for fear of overworking the dough, I would simply form rough cylinders, wrap in plastic, and chill. The cookies would not be perfect rounds but they tasted good! (There is actually opportunity to reshape the cookies when you’re getting ready to bake them). Now, I use the trick of rolling the dough into a log on a piece of parchment paper, folding the parchment in half over the log, and using a ruler to compact the log and smooth out its shape. Wrap the logs in plastic and chill for at least an hour; the logs will keep for up to 3 days in the refrigerator or you can freeze them for a month.

When you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silpats. Take out the logs and let them sit for a little while to soften up, otherwise I find they shatter into pieces when I slice them. Greenspan does not seem to be bothered by this and suggests you can just press the pieces back together. I have done this before and it does not appear to affect the result.

Slice the logs into rounds about 1/2-in thick; I prefer a little thinner.  Place the cookies on the sheets with about an inch between them. Bake them one sheet at a time in the oven for 12 minutes. They will not look done but that’s ok – again, overbaking will give the m a crispy texture instead. Let them cool on wire racks until just warm.

9/19/06: I received the best surprise two days ago – this e-mail in my inbox from Ms. Greenspan! Here it is:

Hi Anita,

I friend just told me about your blog and I was thrilled to visit and see your gorgeous photos of our favorite cookie, Pierre Herme’s Korova Cookies, now known as World Peace Cookies. Isn’t it extraordinary that something so simple and so easy to make can be sooooooooo good!

Many thanks for your kind and generous words about my cookbooks. I hope you will enjoy baking from my newest book, Baking, From My Home To Yours, as much as you’ve enjoyed Paris Sweets. (And, for your reader who asked, the book is now in stores and online.)

I’ll be visiting often to admire your beautiful work.

Again, my thanks — Dorie

Can I say I was floating in the clouds for the rest of the day??? FYI, I neglected to mention that I got my copy of Baking at my local Costco (called Sam’s Club in other parts of the country), although they do not offer it online so you have to go to the warehouse yourself. It should also be available on Amazon, Jessica’s Biscuit, and other online retailers at this point.

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La Festa al Fresco: Mini Meringue Baskets with Pomegranate and Peach Sorbets

September 4th, 2006 · 22 Comments · Ice Cream, Recipes

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I was quite excited to get an invitation from the lovely Ivonne to her La Festa al Fresco, especially as summer is fleeing San Francisco as quickly as the ocean fog advances over the hills.  If you’ve never been here, it’s an amazing (and inevitable) sight in the afternoon: a solid wall of swirly grey and white cresting over the western hills, pouring delicate wisps and tendrils around buildings and over streets, a tender avalanche upon the city, until you look up and the pale blue sunny sky from morning is gone, covered by a blanket of fog.

In this case, I’ll happily head to Ivonne’s place where the sun still reigns and enjoy some good food and company. For this picnic, I was inspired by another recipe in my current obsession, Emily Luchetti’s A Passion for Ice Cream. She has an adorable idea for little cups piped out of meringue and filled with tiny scoops of sorbet – a perfect little mouthful or two, and which will leave you plenty of room for sampling everything else at the table!

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The original recipe called for pomegranate sorbet, but really, I thought it would be more fun to have different flavors, and in honoring the picnic’s celebration of seasonal produce, I used some of the last golden peaches to make a peach sorbet as well. I find the two pair together well: the peach is all mellow sweetness in contrast to the tart piquancy of the pomegranate, and the sorbets have a very soft, melting texture that goes well with the slightly chewy meringues. A word of advice: make some extra meringues because they are addictively sweet, crispy mouthfuls out of the oven – it’s hard to wait to fill them with sorbet.

Buon appetito, and a fond arrivederci to summer!

Mini Meringue Baskets with Pomegranate and Peach Sorbets

from Emily Luchetti’s A Passion for Dessert

Meringue Baskets

2 egg whites

2/3 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon cornstarch

Pomegranate Sorbet

1 cup sugar

3/4 cup water

2 cups pomegranate juice

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/8 teaspoon salt

Peach Sorbet

3 lbs ripe yellow peaches

1/2 cup sugar

1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

large pinch of salt

To make the baskets: Draw about (18) 1 1/4-in circles about 1/2 inch apart on two sheets of parchment paper. Turn the sheets over and place them on baking sheets.

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Whip the egg whites in an electric mixer on medium-high speed until soft peaks form. Add about half the sugar and continue whipping until the peaks become very stiff and shiny. Add the rest of the sugar and the cornstarch and continue whipping to incorporate and tighten up the meringue. You want it to be fairly stiff so you can pipe it.

Place a 1/4-in star tip in a pastry bag and fill with the meringue. Pipe each basket by filling in each circle with a coil of meringue, then piping more coils on top in a continuous motion until your basket is about an inch high.

Bake the meringues for about 20 minutes or until they are dried out. Let them cool to room temperature and then remove from the parchment paper. If you are not using them right away, store them in an airtight container at room temperature.

makes about 36 baskets

To make the pomegranate sorbet: Heat the sugar and water together in a saucepan until the sugar dissolves and the liquid is reduced to 3/4 cup. Transfer the liquid to a bowl and add the pomegranate juice, lemon juice, and salt. Refrigerate the mixture overnight. Chill the mixture in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions. You will probably have to chill the sorbet further afterwards in the freezer as this sorbet is very soft.

To make the peach sorbet: Peel and pit the peaches, then cut them up into small pieces. Puree them in a blender or food processor until smooth, then strain. You should get about 3 cups of puree. Put the puree in a bowl and add in the sugar, lemon juice, and salt. Chill the mixture overnight. Chill the mixture in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions.

To serve: Using a very small scoop or melon baller, place a scoop of sorbet in the meringue baskets. Serve them immediately, or store in the freezer until ready to serve.

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