Entries from February 27th, 2007

A Sweet Surprise

February 27th, 2007 · 9 Comments · Cookies

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I’m working on a post that will hopefully be up in a day or two, but in the meantime I’m finally getting around to a long overdue task, which is putting up a shot of the beautiful watercolor that Carol of Paris Breakfasts sent to me!

Back at Christmas I mailed Carol some of the gingerbread cookies I had made, along with some chocolate candy from Bittersweet. Little did I imagine that my humble baked goods would soon be immortalized in the Carol’s deft brushstrokes!

It was very exciting to received a mysterious envelope from New York City in the mail a few weeks later; cutting it open, I found carefully wrapped inside a beautiful rendition of my gingerbread sitting next to a cozy cup of tea with my bag of candy in the background! I never thought my creations could look so good!

I wanted to wait until I had the watercolor properly framed and placed to take a photo, but unfortunately the shot didn’t come out well, so you’ll have to take my word that the picture now lives in a lovely wood frame and is hanging – where else? – in my kitchen.

If you haven’t been to Carol’s site, you should hop over – not only is she a fabulously talented painter (and all her watercolors are for sale on her site) but she is a Francophile and dessert lover of the first order – oftentimes her mouthwatering shots of Parisian pâtisseries and cafes are just what I need when I’m dreaming of Paris.

Merci mille fois, Carol!

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Chinese New Year: Sesame Seed Balls

February 22nd, 2007 · 33 Comments · Chocolate, Pastry, Recipes

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The Sunday just past (Feb. 18) marked the first day of the Chinese New Year 4705, or the Year of the Pig. There have been firecrackers going off late into the night, lucky oranges and plum blossoms in shop windows, and a lot of red and gold decorations everywhere.

Many Chinese holiday traditions are heavily steeped in symbolism – beyond the typical associations between shapes, colors, etc., the large number of homophones in the Chinese language has made the Chinese particularly fond of puns and wordplay. For example, the word "fish" in Chinese sounds very similar to the word for "surplus" or "extra" – so if you eat fish at New Year’s you are hoping for a year of abundance, or surplus. Oranges and tangerines are often given as gifts at New Year’s since the words for these fruits sound like wealth and luck, respectively.

You will often see Chinese put up little red diamond-shaped posters with the character 福, meaning auspiciousness, on their doors. However, the poster is always upside down, which used to puzzle me as a child until my mom explained that the word for "upside down" sounds similar to the word for "arrive" – meaning you’re inviting good fortune and prosperity into your home.

There are many other New Year’s traditions, from not washing or cutting your hair on New Year’s Day (as it symbolizes washing or cutting away your luck), to the always enjoyable (at least for children and single adults) receiving of lucky money in red envelopes. But really, the best part of New Year’s, like any other holiday, is the chance to celebrate with your family and friends. You don’t need to know the meaning behind the plum trees or the noodle dishes to feel the festive spirit in the Chinatown streets. This year of the Pig is said to bring good luck and prosperity, although natural disasters increasing worldwide have also been predicted (hmm, rather typical of many horoscopes that like to cover all the bases??) Also, children born in the year of the Pig are said to have comfortable, easy lives (like the pig!) so there has been a noticeable baby boom reported in Asia as hopeful parents try to get every last life advantage possible for their offspring!

To celebrate this Chinese New Year, I made another traditional New Year’s treat – sesame seed balls, or jien duy. These sweet, deep-fried puffs of dough coated in sesame seeds are a mainstay of dim sum houses, but at New Year’s they take on special meaning. Their round shape and golden color are considered lucky, and the fact that the dough balls swell as they’re fried and increase several times in size is a happy metaphor for a small venture growing and bringing back a large return. Sesame seed balls are traditionally filled with a bit of sweet red bean paste – they’re pretty much the Chinese equivalent of a jelly doughnut, only lighter and fluffier – but I put a few discs of chocolate in some of my sesame seed balls, turning them into a profiterole-like dessert.

Best wishes for a happy and prosperous New Year – the celebration traditionally lasts for fifteen days, so you’ve plenty of time to bestow some good luck on your friends and family!

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Sesame Seed Balls

makes about 20

1 lb glutinous rice flour

1 1/4 cup dark brown sugar

1 1/4 cup water

1/2 cup red bean paste or 3 oz dark chocolate, chopped into small pieces

1 cup sesame seeds

oil for deep frying

Put the rice flour into a large bowl. Bring the water to a boil and add the brown sugar, stirring to dissolve.

Pour the sugar water over the rice flour and stir together with a wooden spoon to combine. You can add up to 1/3 cup more water if the mixture seems dry and isn’t coming together. Once the dough is cool enough to touch with your bare hands you can stop using the spoon and just knead the dough – don’t overwork it or it will become tough.

Once the dough is soft and smooth, break off a piece about the size of a golf ball and roll between your hands to form a ball. Place in a dish and cover with some plastic wrap, then repeat with the remaining dough.

Take one of the dough balls and make a well in it with your thumb. Place either a teaspoon of the red bean paste or a few pieces of the chocolate in the well, then push the dough together to cover up the filling.  Roll the ball between your hands again to make it smooth and round without cracks.

Wet your hands with water and roll the dough ball in a dish of the sesame seeds, pressing gently to get the seed to adhere to the dough ball. Place the ball back under the plastic wrap and repeat with remaining balls.

Pour the oil in a wok or other pan so it is deep enough to cover the dough balls when you fry them. Heat over medium heat until it is 350 degrees.

Place a few dough balls (about 4-5) in the hot oil and let cook. Use a ladle or wooden spoon to press the dough balls against the side of the pan to rotate them – this is important to help them cook evenly and prevent spots from burning.

When the seeds start turning golden and the dough balls start floating to the top of the oil, the balls should be done – about 5 to 6 minutes. You might want to fish one out and cut it in half to make sure the dough has cooked all the way through.

Remove the balls and drain them on paper towels, then repeat with the rest. The sesame seed balls should be served as soon as possible to preserve freshness.

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{Cookbook Review} Valentine's Day: Essence of Chocolate

February 13th, 2007 · 27 Comments · Cakes, Chocolate, Cookbooks, Cookies, Recipes, Reviews

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I recently received a copy of John Scharffenberger and Robert Steinberg’s sumptuous new cookbook celebrating fine chocolate, Essence of Chocolate. Befitting one of the best-known artisan chocolate makers, the book provides both a concise summary of the role of chocolate in food history as well as an exuberant embrace of all the culinary possibilities of chocolate.

This book reminds me a great deal of another chocolate classic, Alice Medrich’s Bittersweet. In her book, Medrich recounts how her love affair with chocolate blossomed and how it led it the opening of her Berkeley store Cocolat, interspersing her recollections with a trove of delectable and unique recipes utilizing higher-percentage chocolate. Similarly in Essence of Chocolate, Scharffenberger and Steinberg reveal how a doctor and a winemaker became obsessed with creating fine chocolate from scratch, and share many of their favorite chocolate-centric recipes.

If you love chocolate at all, it’s an absorbing read – not only for understanding of how chocolate is created from cacao beans, but for discovering the intricacies in cacao production around the world and speculations on what lies in the future for growers, processors, and consumers.

The collection of recipes is first-rate, with contributions from both the authors and a veritable who’s who of the culinary world, including Thomas Keller, Flo Braker, Rose Levy Beranbaum, Jacques Pepin, and Sherry Yard, among many others. There are unusual twists on the old standbys like cakes, tarts, and custards, and offbeat creations like a banana caramel cake or roasted squash with nib vinaigrette. All the recipes specify the recommended cacao percentage for the chocolate to be used, which is quite handy and not unexpected in a cookbook by chocolate makers!

Below, the first two recipes I chose to try from the cookbook, with a heart-shaped twist for Valentine’s Day.

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TKOs

This recipe was provided by Thomas Keller for Essence of Chocolate, and is nothing so much as a very grown-up, very addictive version of an Oreo cookie (Is this another example of Keller’s penchant for reworking childhood favorites into ne plus ultra masterpieces?). Wafer-thin chocolate cookies sandwich a creamy white chocolate filling. The cookies are fantastically delicate and crisp, with an added zing from the generous helping of salt in the recipe. Paired with the subtly sweet filling, you have the perfect companion for a glass of milk on a cozy afternoon.

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Chocolate Almond Cakes

Contributed by Jim Dodge, this is an elegant and versatile cake that is incredibly rich and moist from all the almond paste used in the recipe. Baked in a half sheet pan, you can cut it into any form you desire and layer with chocolate, jam, buttercream, or any other filling you like. The smooth, buttery-almond taste would work well with a number of flavors. In this recipe, the cake is layered with melted chocolate and then covered with a chocolate glaze to make a gloriously indulgent little treat.

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Both recipes were surprisingly simple to execute and undeniably scrumptious. Either would be a lovely part of a sweet Valentine’s Day! There are still many more recipes in the book I’m eager to try; it’s certainly a fantastic addition to any baker’s/foodie’s/chocoholic’s bookshelf!

TKOs

makes about 3 dozen cookies (or 18 sandwiches)

Filling

1/2 cup cream

8 ounces white chocolate, chopped

Cookies

3/4 cup sugar

1 1/2 cups plus 3 tablespoons all purpose flour

3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon cocoa powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

7 1/2 ounces butter, room temperature, cut into small cubes

For the filling: Place the white chocolate in a bowl. Bring the cream to a boil in a small saucepan over medium heat on the stove.

Pour the hot cream over the chocolate and whisk together to melt the chocolate. I find this is a pretty high chocolate-to-cream ratio, so if you are unable to get all the chocolate to melt, you can place the bowl over a bain-marie and stir until the chocolate is completely melted.

Transfer the filling to another bowl and let cool until it has thickened enough to spread – it may take a few hours. You can speed up the process by putting the bowl in the refrigerator. If the filling gets too stiff, you can heat it up again in the microwave.

For the cookies: you will make this dough and bake the cookies right away – there is no chilling time needed, so plan accordingly.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Prepare two baking sheets by lining them with parchment paper or Silpats.

Combine the sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt in an electric mixer. With the mixer still running on low speed, add the butter a few pieces at a time. Let the dough continue mixing until it comes together – it should go from looking like pebbles or cornmeal to a cohesive mass.

Turn the dough out onto a floured working surface and work into a solid block. Divide the block into two pieces.

Working with one piece at a time, roll out between two sheets of parchment paper until 1/8" thick. Using a 2-in cookie cutter, cut out shapes and place on the baking sheets about 1 inch apart (cookies will spread a bit in the oven).

Bake the cookies for about 12 to 15 minutes, rotating the sheets halfway through baking time. Remove from oven and let cool on wire racks for a few minutes (cookies will be too soft to move at first), then transfer cookies to wire racks and let finish cooling.

To assemble the cookies: Place half of the cookies upside down on a work surface.

Whisk the filling lightly to fluff it up a bit and make it spreadable.

Using a small spoon, scoop a small dollop of filling onto the center of each cookie. Top with another cookie right side up. Press the cookies together until the filling spreads out to the edges.

The cookies with keep in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

Chocolate Almond Cakes

makes about 24  2 1/2-in cakes

Cake

12 ounces butter, room temperature

1 pound almond paste

1 3/4 cups sugar

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons cocoa powder

8 large eggs

Filling and Glaze

4 ounces 82% dark chocolate, melted

6 ounces butter, cut into small cubes

8 ounces 70% dark chocolate, chopped

For the cake: You will need a half-sheet pan 12 in x 17 in x 1in. Line the pan with a Silpat or parchment paper. If you use parchment paper, butter and flour it after placing it in the pan.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In an electric mixer, beat the butter and almond paste together on medium speed for about 5 minutes until it is very light and fluffy, scraping down the sides as necessary.

Add the sugar and cocoa and continue blending together on low speed.

Increase the speed to medium and add the eggs one a time, letting each egg incorporate before adding the next.

Let the batter mixing for a couple more minutes until it has lightened in color.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly. Bake for about 25 minutes, until the center is just set – it may feel slightly spongy but a skewer inserted into the center should come out clean. Warning: the cake will rise above the top of the pan but it should not spill over – you may want to check halfway through the baking time and once afterwards.

Remove the cake from the oven place on a cooling rack. Run a knife all around the edge of the pan. After cooling about 10 minutes, turn the cake out onto the rack and let it finish cooling.

The cake should be chilled in the refrigerator for about 20 minutes before you cut it as it will be quite soft and moist.

To fill and glaze cakes: Using a 2 1/2-in cutter of your choice, cut out shapes from the sheet of cake.

Brush or pour some of the melted 82% chocolate over half of the shapes, and top with the remaining shapes. Let the cakes sit for a few minutes for the chocolate to set. Place the cakes on a wire rack over a sheet pan, spacing them a few inches apart so you can glaze each one easily.

Place the butter and 70% chocolate in a bowl over a bain-marie and melt over low heat, whisking occasionally. When the chocolate is mostly melted, take the bowl off the heat, and whisk gently to finish combining. Transfer the glaze to a measuring cup with a spout.

Pour the glaze over the center of each cake, using an offset spatula to spread glaze over the sides. The glaze does not need to evenly cover the sides. If all the glaze is used up, scrape the fallen glaze from the sheet pan below the rack and reheat to melt.

Let the cakes sit until the glaze sets, then serve.

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Ode to Citrus

February 6th, 2007 · 17 Comments · Custards, Fruit, Recipes

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Citrus, once a mainstay of winter desserts, will be sadly diminished this season due to the freeze in California that destroyed a huge portion of the nation’s citrus crop. I made a visit to the grocery to catch some of what remained before produce bins start emptying and prices start escalating. (Who would have imagined an orange becoming a rare and elusive thing?) I had looked forward to baking with citrus as a tart and colorful contrast to the chocolate-and-cream-heavy concoctions that cold weather favors, but instead this post will be a little lament for all the oranges and lemons we won’t see to brighten the last months of winter, or refresh and tickle our tastebuds for the rest of the year.

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Meyer lemons, those sweet droplets of sunshine, with their pearl-smooth skin and subtle, intoxicating perfume – whenever I smell Meyer lemons I think of irises poking through the snow, of life surging back into the landscape after the white of winter. Fiercely coveted even in the best of seasons, now I’m even gladder I got my hands on some of these beauties.

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A collection of ruby red grapefruit, blood oranges, and tangerines – spanning the spectrum from tart to sweet. I remembered a recipe in Emily Luchetti’s A Passion for Desserts that combined a lemon mousse with a citrus compote and I knew that was how I wanted to celebrate this sunny collection spilled across my kitchen table. Unabashedly simple and straightforward, it lets the essence of the fruit speak for itself: a clean, vibrant lemon mousse paired with a mix of the grapefruit, oranges, and tangerines, brushed with a hint of vanilla and crowned with a crispy cigarette curl of a tuile. The vibrant pinks and reds of the fruit citrus against the soft yellow of the lemon make this the cheeriest, sunniest bowl of dessert you’ll find in the dark winter months.

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The silver lining to the freeze that destroyed so much citrus? (Besides a greater appreciation for the ephemerality of nature’s bounty and the unpredictability of nature herself). The freezing weather is actually good for many stone fruits, which develop best when they have a certain number of "chill hours" (As my gardening boyfriend explains, it’s like the equivalent of getting a really good, restful night’s sleep). So come the end of this summer we should be looking forward to a gorgeous crop of cherries, peaches, nectarines and plums. I guess maybe the saying should be, when life doesn’t hand you lemons, see what else you’ve got in your pantry!

Lemon Mousse with Citrus Compote and Caramel Snaps

adapted from Emily Luchetti’s A Passion for Desserts

makes 6 servings

Lemon Mousse

5 large eggs

2/3 cup sugar

2/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

3/4 cup heavy cream

Caramel Snaps

2 ounces butter

6 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar

1/4 cup corn syrup

6 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Citrus Compote

2 medium Ruby Red grapefruit

3 large blood oranges

3 large tangerines

1 vanilla bean

sugar to taste

For the mousse: Whisk together the eggs, sugar and lemon juice in a bowl. Transfer the mixture to a small saucepan and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the mixture thickens, about 8 minutes. (You are making a lemon curd first. It is important to keep stirring the mixture or the eggs will cook!)

Strain the curd into another bowl, cover with a piece of plastic wrap placed directly on the surface of the curd, and refrigerate until cold, about one hour.

Whip the cream into soft peaks. Fold gently into the curd. Refrigerate until you are ready to serve. This will keep for about a day.

To make the vanilla snaps: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line three baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpats.

Put the butter, brown sugar, and corn syrup in a medium saucepan. Place over medium heat and let the butter melt, stirring to combine with the other ingredients. When the butter is fully melted, remove from the heat and stir in the flour and vanilla to combine.

Drop the batter by teaspoonfuls onto the baking sheets, spacing them about 2 1/2 inches apart (cookies will spread). It is probably best to fill and bake one sheet at a time as you will have to work with the cookies when the come out of the oven and you don’t want one sheet to burn while you are working on the other.

Bake the cookies until they are spread thin, bubbling, and golden, about 8 to 10 minutes. They should not look fully solid. Remove them from the oven and let them sit for about 30 seconds. They need to firm up slightly so you are able to slide a metal spatula beneath them and move them, but if you wait too long they will get too hard and will no longer be pliable.

Working with one cookie at a time, slide one cookie off the sheet and wrap it around the handle of a wooden spoon to form a curled shape, then place the cookie on a plate to cool. If the cookies have cooled too much and will not curl without cracking, you can place the cookies back in the oven for a minute to warm them back up. Repeat with the rest of the batter.

To make the compote: Using a sharp knife, cut the rinds off the grapefruit, oranges, and tangerines. Working over a bowl to catch and juices, separate the segments from the membrane with a paring knife. Place the segments in the same bowl.

Cut the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. Place the seeds into the bowl with fruit.

Taste the juice.  If it is too tart, you can add some sugar to taste. Refrigerate the mixture until you are ready to serve.

To finish, place some of the citrus segments in a bowl. Spoon some of the lemon mousse on top, and garnish with a couple of vanilla snaps.  Serve immediately.

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