I received a pleasant surprise in the middle of last week when I discovered the winners for September’s Does My Blog Look Good in This had been announced by Katherine of ToastPoint- and I was sharing the top spot with the lovely Bea of La Tartine Gourmande! Of course, Bea is one of the standard-setters for gorgeous (not to mention prolific) food photography in the blogosphere, so I have to say I’m quite humbled to be mentioned alongside her!
And, just to round out the weekend, I came home to find that Emma of Laughing Gastronome had put up the winners for the October round of DMBLGIT – and I had been chosen for Most Originality in a Photo! That setup was a stroke of luck – I had just purchased the polka-dotted placemat the weekend before, and when I made the meringues, they fit perfectly with the dotty scheme! Another secret – the sorbets started melting as I was shooting and when I removed the meringues, there were red and orange drips all over the placemat! Thank goodness it washed out!
Be sure to check out the other winners on Katherine’s and Emma’s sites! Many thanks again to them for hosting these rounds of DMBLGIT and for organizing the judging- I’m immensely flattered to have been chosen out of somanybeautiful and drool-inducing entries!
Of course, with petit fours, the question, whether you’re making or eating them, is not which one? but which ones? I think one of the most enticing things about petit fours besides their diminutive stature is the sheer variety of choices, the panoply of possibilities. Allow me a few shots from a party we threw during my pastry school days to illustrate the joys of too much to choose from:
For the dessert lover who agonizes over the dessert menu and wishes she could try a bite of each, the petit four spread is like falling into Aladdin’s cave of wonders – every sweet thing you can imagine in a dazzle before your eyes – and you can have it all, as long as you’ve got room in your stomach.
So it should be no surprise that upon learning on the theme for this month’s Sugar High Friday I spent several days buried in cookbooks, wishing I could make every adorable little tidbit that caught my eye. Compounding the dilemma was the realization that not only are there many recipes for petit fours to be found, but just about any recipe can be turned bite-size if you have enough miniature cookie cutters, tins, ramekins, icing tips, etc., etc….
Finally awakening to the fact that I did not actually have several hundred mini tartlet tins or infinite time, I winnowed down my choices to an autumny trio of sweets:
Taffy Lady Apples
How adorable are lady apples? They are like apples dreamed up in a child’s imagination: perfectly round, sweetly blushing red, and just the right size for the palm of your hand. They look so much like toys that I wanted to line them up on my shelf at home like I did with my dolls. Sweet and tart at once, lady apples are in season during the winter months, which is why they are also known as Christmas apples. They have just started appearing in the markets, and I thought them perfect for a tiny version of a caramel apple, as dreamed up by Gale Gand in her Just a Bite (incidentally, just about every recipe in that book could have been submitted for this month’s theme!)
How to make something already delicate and cute even cuter? Make it smaller, of course! These mini-madeleines are adapted from Claudia Fleming’s recipe in The Last Course, and are a sterling example of the beloved cakelet: rich, buttery, and sweetly mellow from the addition of some honey. Perhaps it’s difficult to gauge scale in the photos, but these really are cuties – about an inch long, you can pop them in your mouth like candy, although it might be nicer to savor them with a cup of lime-flower tea à la Proust. Just about every madeleine recipe I went through advocates eating them right away, and I must concur – they have an ethereally light, spongy texture that quickly fades upon cooling to a more simply fluffy mouthfeel. However, I have found that warming them up in an oven for a few minutes will restore them to almost-new so you can still enjoy them for a day or so after baking, at least.
Hazelnut Crème Brûlée
Finally, an example of how a regular-size recipe can be rendered into the diminutive simply by changing the container: instead of presenting crème brûlée in the traditional ramekins, this creamy dessert is served by the spoonful, so you can experience the delightful crunch of the caramelized sugar crackling with every bite. This version of crème brûlée, taken from Regan Daley’s In the Sweet Kitchen, has a sublimely rich and nutty flavor from the hazelnuts added to the custard. She also adds crushed hazelnuts to the sugar for caramelizing, turning it into a praline that adds another dimension of flavor to the end dessert. Adapting the recipe to petit four status was surprisingly simple: by storing the finished custard in a container, you can easily scoop out portions with dessert spoons and torch them before serving time.
Any one or all three of these would work beautifully for tea time, pre-dessert, or dessert itself. Alas, I’m already musing over the other recipes that I didn’t choose this time. But that’s part of the seduction of petit fours: you’re always wishing you had room for just one more.
Taffy Lady Apples
from Gale Gand’s Just a Bite
makes 12 apples
12 lady apples
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
5 tablespoons cream
12 pointed wooden skewers, about 6 inches long
Remove the stems from the lady apples. Push the skewers into the apples from the top, lollipop-style.
Place a silpat on a baking sheet, or grease the sheet well.
To make the caramel, put the sugar and 1/3 cup water into a saucepan. Be sure the sugar is covered by water and do not let sugar grains get on the saucepan walls. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat and cook until deep amber in color (be very careful as the sugar will be very hot at this point).
Remove saucepan from heat and stir in butter with a wooden spoon. Slowly add the cream and stir in. The mixture will start bubbling like crazy and then calm down. Let the caramel cool until it thickens a bit.
Holding the apples by the skewers, dip them into the pot of caramel and swirl to coat. Place the apples on the baking sheet to let the caramel set.
adapted from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course
makes about 2 dozen regular madeleines, or about 4 dozen mini madeleines
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) butter
4 large eggs
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1/4 cup honey (Fleming uses chestnut honey; other suggestions are clover, lavender, or wildflower)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
Make beurre noisette: melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat until some white milk solids separate and cook to a deep brown and the butter takes on a nutty scent. Don’t let it burn! Strain the butter into a bowl.
In an electric mixer, combine the eggs, sugars, and honey together with the whisk attachment until the mixture is pale and foamy, about 3 minutes.
Sift the flours, baking powder, salt over the egg mixture and carefully fold in with a rubber spatula. Add the beurre noisette and fold in gently. Cover the batter and refrigerate for at least 8 hours. This is important in helping the madeleines form that distinctive "bump".
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. If you don’t have a nonstick madeleine tray, butter your trays well. Spoon the batter into each mold – about 3/4 full is good, or your madeleines will overflow!
Bake for about 5 to 7 minutes, until the madeleines are golden brown. Let cool on a rack for a few minutes, then unmold and let them finish cooling. Madeleines are best served the same day, but you can store them in an airtight container and refresh them by placing in a 300 degree oven for a couple of minutes.
Hazelnut Crème Brûlée
from Regan Daley’s In the Sweet Kitchen
makes 20 to 30 spoonfuls
1/2 cup hazelnuts, toasted and skinned
1/2 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar
1 cup cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large egg yolks
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cold butter, cut into small pieces
1/2 tablespoon Frangelico
Turbinado sugar for caramelizing
Put the hazelnuts and confectioners’ sugar in a food processor and pulse until the mixture is smooth and creamy, but not too oily.
Bring the cream and vanilla extract to a boil in a saucepan over medium heat. While you are waiting, whisk the egg yolks and sugar together in a large bowl and place over a bain marie (water should be just simmering).
Keep whisking the egg yolks and sugar together until they have thickened slightly. The cream should be coming to a boil at this point. Add the cream to the egg yolk mixture in small increments, whisking constantly. When the cream is all added, switch to a wooden spoon and continue stirring the mixture over the bain marie until the custard has thickened and coats the back of the spoon.
Strain the custard into a bowl and add the butter, stirring to help it melt and combine. Add in the hazelnut paste and stir to combine. Add in the Frangelico.
Let the mixture cool to room temperature, then pour into a storage container. Place in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or overnight, until set.
To serve, fill spoons by scooping into the chilled custard. Round the tops with an offset spatula or your finger. Keep the filled spoons chilled (else the custard will start sliding off the spoons).
Cover the surface of the custard with a layer of turbinado sugar. Place the spoons on a baking sheet or other surface that won’t get damaged by a blowtorch. Torch the spoons until the sugar is melted and browned but not burnt. Let cool for a minute before serving.
Kochtopf kindly brought it to our attention that today is World Bread Day – surely no baker could let this day go by without a tribute to the staff of life?
While I have a deep reverence for the magic that can be spun out of just flour, yeast, water, and salt, I admit I fall more into the pâtissier than the boulanger side of baking. There used to be quite a strict distinction, even rivalry, between these two disciplines in France, with the pâtissiers disdaining the physical drudgery of kneading and baking bread doughs, the boulangers scorning the frou-frou excesses of butter, sugar, and other frippery in the pâtissiers’ creations. Happily a truce was reached between the two factions over the years, to the benefit of all the French, and today almost all bakeries you find in Paris are pâtisseries-boulangeries. Even in Pierre Hermé’s chic shop you will find, behind the macarons and the eclairs and cakes, baskets of croissants and pain au chocolat. Similarly, though you may be drawn to Poilâne for their baguettes, their bâtards, their pain au levain, there will be some charming apple tarts and chocolate bouchons tempting you at the counter.
I can think of no better fusion of pastry and bread than that glorious creation known as brioche, that fluffy, sweet, golden breakfast delight. Some of my favorite bloggers have alreadywritten about the glories of this bread; I can only add that it’s worth every minute you have to wait while it is mixing in the bowl, proofing in the refrigerator, and baking up into a buttery-fragrant, burn-your-fingers-while-pulling-it-apart pocket of heaven.
The traditional forms of brioche are either a loaf or the charming brioche à tête, which always looks like a child’s weeble-wobble toy to me, with its jaunty topknot perched atop a fluted base. If, however, even all the eggs and butter stuffed into a typical brioche recipe are not enough for you (and this is no diet food, believe me), there are numerous more ways to ratchet up the decadence factor.
One of my very favorite applications of brioche is the Tarte Tropézienne, a dessert from Saint-Tropez in the South of France. A circular loaf of brioche is sliced in half and filled with a mixture of whipped cream, pastry cream, and a touch of honey. The tart is intimidatingly tall but the components so feathery light you can consume an entire slice and be eyeing another. This version, taken from Desserts by Pierre Herme, substitutes a streusel-like crumb topping instead of the classic sugar crystals, which makes it even outrageously richer.
This coffeecake from Sherry Yard’s Secrets of Baking is another crazy-delicious use of brioche (Yard’s entire chapter on brioche is a fun little treatise on this bread and filled with enough recipes and variations to wear out your KitchenAid): Brioche filled with pecans, raisins, cinnamon and nutmeg, shaped and baked into a blossom of a ring. In the oven, the sugar and spices carmelize around the nuts and raisins to make a sweet, crunchy filling, all wrapped up in a warm yeasty brioche – the perfect accompaniment to a lazy Sunday morning.
Being a child of spring and of California, I have a predilection for sunshine like poured honey, flowers in burgeoning rainbows beneath scrubbed-blue skies, and berries ripe as promises, heavy with scent, tumbling through my fingers.
But over the years autumn has slowly worked its smoky, dusky spell on me. Surely if I’d visited more places where the leaves actually changed colors I might have come around sooner, but even in a place where Indian summer is expected in a few weeks and we haven’t put our shorts away yet, you can feel autumn creeping in with the breeze.
We had our first rain last week, a real rain and not just a sprinkling of drops from the sky. The clouds above my head as I drove home were massed, weighty, and dove-grey. As I walked into the apartment I could hear pattering on the roof, that slow percussive beat of soft rains where you can still make out individual drops. I stepped out on our balcony to feel the cool mist on my face, smell the newly earthy air, and watch a city softly muted to a murmur under a shimmering silver curtain.
A few nights later, I walked to my car in the early reaches of morning, that queer in-between pause inhabited by late-night denizens straggling home and insomniacs waiting for sunrise, and stopped to watch the full, round moon, glowing yellow and straddling the top of the hill, regarding me silently with the mysterious gaze of autumn’s eye.
And yet a few days later, we drove through the dense, wooded Santa Cruz mountains on a gorgeous windswept day in search of a winery secreted in the forest like Hansel and Gretel’s gingerbread house. Navigating twisting roads through towering groves of redwoods, sunlight barely penetrating the canopy, we felt deep in the heart of an autumn that had never left. In the cool, dark reaches beneath the trees, we were not surprised to see deer wander out in front of us, or a little cottage of a tasting room materialize around a bend of road, like something out of myth.
Autumn is slowly making her presence felt, she of dusty twilight, crimson sunsets, fallen leaves floating in slate-grey puddles, air scented with smoke and chestnuts, nights of cider and down comforters, the quiet winding down to the ending of the year.
Of course, there are so many things from the kitchen to celebrate autumn: roast turkey, fruit pies, sweet squash, simmering stews – that veritable cornucopia of delights. I chose a relatively simple dessert to welcome autumn, but one I feel sings of cooler weather perfectly. Taken from Emily Luchetti’s A Passion for Ice Cream, a tumble of apples and pears baked to just fork-tender, covered with a crunchy crown of spices and nuts, is accompanied by a quenelle of muscato ice cream. Warm, sweet fruit in its own bubbling juices, laced with cinnamon and almonds – what lovelier way to end to ward off the chill of a nippy evening?
The muscato ice cream is what prompted a visit into the woods and the wonderfully eclectic Bonny Doon Winery. Unable to find a suitable Beaumes des Venise as the recipe suggested, I found a more than worthy substitute in Bonny Doon’s honey-sweet Vin de Glacière. Yes, it does translate to "Wine of the Icebox" – they have quite a skewed sense of humor in naming their wines - but there is nothing funny about how quickly this bottle of muscato can disappear when you open it. While not a true eiswein, its gorgeous, potent mix of pineapple, citrus, and peach makes a more than a worthy dessert wine – and a lush partner to the apple-pear crisp in the form of a voluptuous, honeyed ice cream.
So with open arms and an oven-warmed kitchen I say hello to crisp apples and pears, hello to butter-hued squash and pumpkins, hello to pies and tarts and cobblers, hello to autumn.
There are few things that denote time spent in the kitchen and special celebration better than a multi-layered, immaculately frosted cake. Next to tart dough, this was probably one of the most intimidating hurdles I faced in pastry school. The challenges in mastering this genre of dessert are manifold: to bake up nice even cake layers, and then to split them into perfect halves, so that all the layers are of equal thickness; to assemble the cake with the filling without the layers tilting off or one side rising higher than the other; to frost the cake without getting crumbs tangled in the frosting and without those unsightly ridges and edges in the finish from haphazard spatula-wielding. My teacher, who has a successful wedding cake business, of course split her cake layers with a few quick turns of the knife, assembled cake and filling layers with the ease of a toddler stacking rings on a post, and had the cake frosted with nary a stray lick of icing in the time it took to spin the cake stand around. Meanwhile, we students laboriously squinted at cake layers as we tried to saw through them evenly or worked the spatula over the cake again and again, trying to eliminate the last few errant swirls of frosting but never quite succeeding.
Creating an elaborate layer cake is a an exercise in patience, technique, and judgment: there’s no way to make one in a hurry; you’ll definitely see if you, like me, have not been keeping up on your frosting skills; and you also have to be able to step away and realize, after the umpteenth pass with your spatula, when to stop messing with your cake.
A few other lessons I took away from class?
A rotating cake stand is nice but not essential. Sure, it makes you feel all fancy and professional to have the spinny stand, and it does help in applying frosting, but you can do pretty well by putting your cake on any platter or stand that you can rotate by hand. If you’re super talented like my teacher, you can balance and rotate the cake on one hand and frost with the other – not for the faint of heart!
Use a cardboard cake round under your cake. A cake round will provide a nice solid base and will make moving the cake much easier. It will also allow you to balance the cake on your hand if you want to do the frost-the-cake-in-the-air trick. If you need to transport the cake, placing a dab of frosting between the cake round and the serving stand/platter will help anchor the cake securely. Be sure you choose a cake round that is the same diameter as your cake so it will line up properly and the frosting will hide it.
Level your cake layers with a serrated knife and a circular sawing motion. If your cake layers have domed, trim them level first, then cut the layers horizontally into even layers. Don’t try to slice straight across as you will most likely tear through the cake crumb and end up cutting unevenly. Instead, place the knife edge against the cake, cut in just slightly, and then start turning the cake while working the knife in a slow sawing motion. Once you make a complete circle and you’re sure the cake is being evenly split, you can continue this turning, sawing the knife deeper and deeper until you finish splitting the cake layer.
Do a crumb coat first. Apply a very thin layer of frosting to the top and sides of the cake; this is to help seal in crumbs so they won’t get mixed into the top application of frosting. After applying the crumb coat, put the cake in the refrigerator for a bit to let it set before you do the top layer. It’s also a good idea to have a separate bowl for wiping off excess frosting from your spatula that has been contaminated with crumbs. Keeping your main bowl of frosting crumb-free is key to a clean application and finish.
Finish frosting the sides, then do the top. Some people like to put a gob of frosting in the center of the top of the cake, while others like to just start on the sides. Regardless, it’s best to smooth and finish the sides first, holding the spatula vertical and parallel to the cake, letting any excess frosting at the top edge spill over onto the cake top. When you move onto the top of the cake, you can smooth this excess into the rest of the frosting with the spatula. And really, know when to stop. If you’re really unhappy with how the frosting is turning out, you can scrape it all off and try again; if you’ve applied a good crumb coat that set it should remain after you get rid of the rest of the frosting so you can have another go. But it’s best to keep stepping back to get an overall view of your cake, and realize at some point that you’ll only make things worse if you keep messing with the frosting. Honestly, most everybody will be in awe when they see your creation and not even notice a single flaw. That’s the magic of these cakes.
Of course, when an occasion comes up that demands a fancy dessert, I get super excited. The celebration in question this last weekend was a picnic reception in the Berkeley hills for the wedding of a dear friend. The recipe I’d been itching to try was the Black and White Chocolate Cake from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours. Layers of moist buttermilk cake are sandwiched between dark chocolate ganache and white chocolate whipped cream, then finished off with more white chocolate whipped cream. The cake is light and fluffy, the fillings smooth and rich, all the flavors blending together into a harmonious whole. I was quite pleased with the cake: it is surprisingly light in texture but satisfyingly substantial - you can taste the richness of the chocolate, the delicate crumb of the cake, the weightless give of the frosting beneath your bite. This is really a cake where using good ingredients will make it shine.
I am also fond of the elegant look of the interior, with its alternating dark and light stripes. With a crown of chocolate shavings, this makes for a very photogenic cake! I was determined to document the weekend of labor for my blog, although I did feel a little self-conscious explaining to the groom that I needed to take some pictures of the cake before the gathering crowd could eat it, and that, yes, I would have to cut into it, but rest assured that besides that the cake would be unharmed.
The skies may have been slightly overcast and the winds a bit nippy, but the barbecue was delicious, the guests merry, the happy couple glowing, and we had cake for dessert. Does it get any better than that?