Entries from August 31st, 2007

La Festa al Fresco: Lemon Verbena, The Scent of Summer

August 31st, 2007 · 28 Comments · Custards, Ice Cream, Recipes

Lemonverbenaicecream2 

I can’t believe it’s already been a year since the last Festa al Fresco, the blog party to end all parties, hosted by the lovely Ivonne and Lis, two of the friendliest and most enthusiastic ladies in the blogosphere.

My choice of ingredient for this go-around of la Festa? Lemon verbena. I had seen this fabulously fragrant herb before but never baked with it. Once it came into season and started appearing in the farmers’ markets, I was determined not to lose my chance this time!

It is nearly impossible to miss, or ignore, lemon verbena when you encounter it. Just brushing by its brilliant green fronds will release an intoxicating lemony fragrance; sharp, citrusy, and herbal at once. Almost involuntarily you will lean in to get another whiff – and then you will end you buying a whole bunch and walk home trailing its heady scent behind you. Summer is lemon verbena; it tastes like sunshine and smells like happiness.

With its clear resemblance to lemon, without the strong acidity of the fruit, so it’s not surprising that lemon verbena can be substituted in many recipes that call for lemons. However, lemon verbena really shines when the unique qualities of its flavor are explored and highlighted; beyond the initial lemon impression, it has a bright, distinctly floral edge that lingers in the mouth. Steeping lemon verbena in hot water will create a fabulously aromatic tea that allows you to appreciate the distinctiveness of this herb. Indeed, infusing lemon verbena in any number of liquids, from water to cream to oils is one of the best ways to capture its flavor and utilize it in a multitude of recipes from drinks to desserts to sauces.

So how did I use my lemon verbena, which was rapidly (and wonderfully) scenting my apartment? I chose two recipes I’d been meaning to try, and which I think make delightful summer party contributions.

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Lemon Verbena Ice Cream

First, Claudia Fleming’s lemon verbena ice cream from The Last Course. This is such a perfect, most indulgent way to enjoy lemon verbena – you must try it if you’ve got your hands on the herb. Satisfyingly creamy, zesty and refreshing, taste it and you are transported to the middle of green fields, warm summer wind in your hair and sunshine on your shoulders. This would pair well with another berry dessert – lemon verbena plays nicely off fruit. Or you can just enjoy another scoop of this ice cream all on its heavenly own.
Lemonverbenaparfait

Vanilla Bean and Lemon Verbena Parfait with Summer Raspberries

At first glance, this seems quite similar to the ice cream. But I thought it was interesting experiment to compare the two. Since the parfait is made with lemon verbena-infused whipped cream folded into a pâte à bombe, which is then frozen, it has a much lighter, mousselike texture that gives this dessert an airier feel. The intensity of the lemon verbena is also muted here; it serves as a tantalizing undertone to the vanilla, giving a parfait an elegant complexity and subtlety. Topped off with some ripe raspberries, this dessert is a most fragrant toast to summer.

Whether as a leading note or supporting player, lemon verbena works its surprising magic. As one of the joys of summer, it’s not to be missed – I’ll certainly be sad when this year’s crop is over and I’ll have to wait for it to show up again next year. For now, please enjoy – and thanks to Ivonne and Lis for hosting the festa! I’ll see you all there on Monday – this weekend, I’ll be at my sister’s wedding!

Lemon Verbena Ice Cream

adapted from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course

makes about 1 quart

3 cups whole milk

1 cup heavy cream

1 1/4 cups sugar

1 ounce of fresh lemon verbena leaves

12 large egg yolks

Combine the milk, cream, 1 cup sugar, and lemon verbena leaves in a heavy saucepan. Heat on medium-high until the mixture reaches a simmer.

While the mixture is heating, whisk the egg yolks and 1/4 cup sugar together in a large bowl until smooth and thick.

Remove the milk mixture from the stove and pour a little into the eggs to temper it, whisking constantly. Pour the eggs into the milk mixture, whisking all the time, and put the saucepan back on the stovetop.

Cook the mixture over low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. When the mixture has thickened enough so that it coats the back of the spoon and can hold a line drawn through it, remove from the heat.

Pour the mixture into a clean bowl and let cool. Strain to remove any lumps and then cover the mixture with plastic wrap and let chill in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.

Freeze in an ice cream maker per manufacturer’s instructions.

This will keep in the freezer for about a week.

Vanilla Bean and Lemon Verbena Parfait with Summer Raspberries

adapted from Kate Zuckerman’s The Sweet Life

makes 2 quarts

1 vanilla bean

3 cups cream

4 fresh lemon verbena leaves

8 egg yolks

2/3 cup sugar

pinch of salt

Slice open the vanilla bean and scrape out the seeds onto a plate. Combine the vanilla pod, cream, and lemon verbena leaves in a saucepan.

Heat the mixture on medium-high until the cream is about to boil, then remove from heat, cover the saucepan, and let infuse for about 20 minutes.

Strain the mixture and chill it in a refrigerator for about an hour until it is completely cold.

Combine the egg yolks and 2 tablespoons sugar in a mixer bowl and whisk on medium speed.

Meanwhile, combine the rest of the sugar, 3 tablespoons water, and the vanilla bean seeds in a saucepan. Cook on high heat until the syrup reaches 248 degrees F.

With the mixer still running, pour the hot syrup down the side of the bowl into the egg yolks. Add the salt.

Let the mixer keep whisking for about 7-8 minutes until the bowl has cooled to warm, and the mixture is light and thick and has tripled in volume.

In a clean, chilled mixing bowl, whip the cold infused cream to soft peaks.

Scrape the whipped cream onto the egg mixture and carefully fold in with a rubber spatula until fully combined.

Pour the mixture into glasses, molds, dishes of your choice and freeze for at least 4 hours.

This will keep in the freezer for up to a week.

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Daring Bakers Challenge: Milk Chocolate and Caramel Tart

August 29th, 2007 · 59 Comments · Chocolate, Events, Pastry, Recipes, Tarts

Choccarameltart

One of the best things about joining the Daring Bakers is the chance to meet so many other passionate bakers from around the world –  fellow pastry lovers who love talking about (and making) dessert, are marvelously creative and talented, and who also happen to be some of the nicest and sweetest people I’ve ever met. I was lucky enough to meet up with one of the hosts for this month’s challenge, Veronica from Veronica’s Test Kitchen, when she made a visit to my hometown on SF, and we had a fabulous evening talking shop (and about other things as well!) I also got to tell her how excited I was about the recipe she and Patricia chose for this month’s Daring Bakers’ Challenge, as it comes from one of my favorite new acquisitions, Eric Kayser’s Sweet and Savory Tarts

The challenge this month was to make Kayser’s milk chocolate and caramel tart: a layer of milk chocolate mousse over a caramel base in a cinnamon-spiced chocolate shortbread crust. I admit I took advantage of this situation to buy myself another tart pan: the classic 14”x4” rectangular pan I’d been eyeing for a while. Using this size pan with the recipe, you will definitely have leftovers from the recipe fillings, enough to fill another tart pan or some individual ones. But I am loving this new pan and have many plans for using it in the future!

Choccarameltart2

It was mentioned when the recipe was revealed to us that a big part of the challenge would be interpreting the rather brief instructions. This was something I’d noticed in Kayser’s book; it assumes a level of baking knowledge and proficiency above that expected by the average home baking book. For example, in making the tart dough, the recipe says simply to “line a baking pan with the chocolate shortbread pastry and bake blind for 15 minutes.”  It does not mention that this is a particularly soft and delicate dough (out of the mixing bowl, it resembles cookie dough more than tart dough) and that overworking it or leaving it out of the refrigerator for too long will turn it into a melting mushy mess. I was working in a rather warm kitchen that day, which might partly explain why this dough was not on its best behavior for me. I found the easiest way to work with this dough is to let it soften no more than necessary out of the refrigerator, then roll it out between two sheets of plastic wrap to prevent sticking (Using two Silpats works too – roll out the dough on one Silpat, place the second mat on top of the dough and flip the stack over, then peel off the first Silpat). If it becomes too soft and sticky, it’s best to place it back in the refrigerator and let it chill and firm up a bit before rolling out again.

On the plus side, this dough seems to take patching very well, so if you can’t get it to roll out to a large enough sheet for your pan, you can always patch up the missing bits, being sure to pat the dough in gently. And I was very pleased with how the dough baked up – firm and shapely with minimal cracking or shrinking, and wonderfully tender to the bite, as shortbread should be. I confess to using a small trick that has worked wonders with my tarts in preventing soggy bottoms: After the tart shell comes out from the oven and is cooling, brush a light layer of egg wash over the bottom of the shell. As the egg wash dries, it forms a nice impermeable layer that protects the tart shell from berry juices, pastry cream, or whatever filling you have. The caramel filling for this recipe didn’t seem particularly “juicy”, but I think the egg wash is always a nice extra step to help ensure your tart stays flaky and crisp as it ought to be.

Speaking of caramel, the directions for making the filling were also amusingly haiku-brief: caramelize granulated sugar using the dry method. The most common method in making caramel involves dissolving sugar in water and heating it. But it’s possible to cook just sugar itself in a pot over heat. I’ve been warned that it’s typically more difficult because you run a greater risk of burning the dry sugar if you’re not watchful. Strangely, I have never had a problem cooking sugar dry – I do try to keep a close eye on it and make sure to stir it to let it caramelize evenly. The bonus is that without water sugar caramelizes much faster, and you don’t have to worry about problems with crystallization.

(Nota bene: None of these comments are meant to disparage the recipe or the cookbook. None of the instructions were actually incorrect; it was just interesting to note how much is implied in what is not specifically spelled out. It made realize how much technique I’ve learned that I take for granted now, and that I knew nothing about just a few years ago. I would have had no idea back then how to cook sugar properly or how to tell when a custard was done. The fascinating part of this challenge was in reading the recipe and drawing on my baking experience to tell me how best to accomplish all the parts of the tart, even when it wasn’t spelled out for me. Challenging and satisfying indeed!)

I let my caramel get fairly deep amber before I added in the cream and butter. It may be helpful to note that the cream and butter should be at room temperature, which helps them combine better with the hot caramel. Dumping in anything cold will make the caramel seize up and harden – this can be saved by rewarming the mixture over the stove again, but it’s probably less frustrating to have your dairy at a more agreeable temperature and let them combine smoothly with the caramel into a golden, thick, luscious soup.

The caramel baked up in the tart shell into a gorgeous, perfectly smooth base – lovely for pouring on the milk chocolate mousse. Now, perhaps to balance out my odd cosmic luck with caramelizing sugar, I am frustratingly prone to burning chocolate in the microwave, especially milk and white chocolate since its milk proteins can overheat and go grainy quite quickly. I think part of the problem is that I have a freakishly high-powered microwave that can boil water in seconds. I’m quite happy to melt my milk chocolate (I used Callebaut 31%) safely over a bain-marie.

The finished tart is sugar-spun, chocolate-dipped poetry: sweet, airy mousse giving way to a rich, buttery-gooey caramel, encased in the tenderest of crusts lightly spiced with cinnamon. It’s a most soigné version of the Twix bar, one of my favorite candy bars when I was little. I felt the flavors worked beautifully together; it may be a little sweet for some, but taking the caramel darker and giving a deeper, almost-burnt edge helps create a little contrast, and the milk chocolate can always be substituted for a darker one. I myself found the recipe plate-scraped-clean delightful without any alterations – judging from how quickly the tart disappeared, I’ll assume others felt the same.

Adding bits of hard caramel to the top of the tart makes for a lovely, sugar-strewn decoration and gives a nice extra crunch to the smooth tart filling. It’s always nice to have an excuse to play with sugar and make some fantastical decorations.

Choccaramel3

For the recipe, take a hop over to Veronica’s or Patricia’s sites, and be sure to take a look at all the other Daring Bakers’ beautiful takes on this fantastic little tart.

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My Own Remembrance of Things Past: Dan Tats

August 24th, 2007 · 21 Comments · Custards, Recipes, Sweet Spots, Tarts

Dantat_2

Johanna of The Passionate Cook announced a most interesting theme for this month’s Sugar High Friday: local specialties. While living in the Bay Area affords me the luxury of having many famous local goods to choose from, I really wanted to pick one that was close to my heart: Chinese egg custard tarts, or dan tat.

When I was young, my family lived about an hour south of San Francisco, and back then they didn’t have many stores around that sold Asian groceries – Chinese vegetables, dried herbs and mushrooms, fish and meat fresh and butchered to the customer’s order. (As a lifelong resident of this area, it’s amazing to me how much the gastronomic landscape has evolved over the years – now Asian shopping centers dot the Bay Area like pearls along the necklace of highways that encircle the bay.) So every weekend our parents would pile us kids into the station wagon and we would drive up north on the highway to the big city, and to the venerable Chinatown on Stockton Street where they could find the ingredients to make the dishes they remembered from Hong Kong, their homeland.

I remember Chinatown being a cacophonous kaleidoscope to the senses: boxes overflowing with lychees and Chinese broccoli and all sorts of things I never saw in my local Safeway; shoppers jostling and bumping around the stands, assiduously picking through the produce to select only the best specimens; tiny old ladies in smocks unloading even more produce from the back of delivery vans, proclaiming the quality and inexpensiveness of their goods (if you walk through Chinatown and you don’t speak Chinese, you may wonder why the grocers appear to be screaming at the top of their lungs at you – they’re actually urging you to buy their cherries/peaches/item of the day, which are of course much better and cheaper than any other place on the block, so why don’t you buy some now?)

Chinatown was a sort of farmers’ market before farmer’s markets came into vogue: although nobody threw around words like "sustainable" or "organic" back then, everyone who went shopping in Chinatown showed a passion and care for the food they bought that mirrors the spirit of sustainable agriculture today. No one would be caught buying ragged, limp greens or bruised, unripe fruit or less-than-fresh fish; indeed, the person who tried to sell such inferior goods probably wouldn’t be patronized for very long!

My mother would adroitly navigate the streets of Chinatown, going to the places she knew and trusted: the stand with the best bok choy and lotus roots; the butcher who gave her the best chickens and cuts of beef; the dried goods store with the bins of dried shrimp and scallops and seaweed she used in her soups. I’m embarrassed to admit that although I spent years watching my mother bargain with and haranguing the shopkeepers in her quest for the best, I have nowhere near her shopping skills; even today, when I go to Chinatown with her, I always stand back and watch her mastery on display, as she somehow cajoles and convinces the grocers to give her the good stuff they’re holding back, and to charge her just a little less.

It was fun, as a child, to see the incredible excitement and bustle in Chinatown, but sometimes I would get tired of getting bumped around by pushy shoppers, or waiting as my mother conducted another interminable bargaining session. I would start tugging on her arm and whine about when we would be done, or better yet, when we would get to eat. My mother would tell me to be patient, just one more stop, and then we would go the bakery and I could get something sweet (I have always, always had a sweet tooth).

Chinese bakeries are like any other business in Chinatown: microcosms of incredible chaos and efficiency at once. While I am inspired and delighted by the pâtisseries of Paris, I have the utmost admiration for my local bakeries in Chinatown, which produce a staggering amount and variety of breads, cakes, tarts, and other pastries day in and day out. Every time you walk in the door of a bakery, you are greeted with case upon case of meat-stuffed pastries, custard-filled buns, elaborately frosted cakes, fruit-covered tarts, loaves of bread…and there are more trays coming out of the kitchen in a constant stream.

Although you may want to stand there goggle-eyed at the overwhelming array of choices, the counter staff and regular customers are seldom indulgent; it’s best to know what you want or the salesgirls will most likely move on to someone in less of a dither. Stepping up and speaking your order loudly will usually get you fast service; if you hover indecisively in the background you might never get served at all. However, the staff will usually give a quick description of any item you are curious about, and they are also quite good at pushing freshly baked items on you; if you’re not careful, you may end up walking away with a dozen piping hot something-or-others in a pink box.

The most amazing thing is, though, how inexpensive everything is. Most of the buns, which are usually a soft, fluffy, sweet bread with either a sweet or savory filling, are less than a couple of dollars. Other items in the cases are similarly priced, which is mind-boggling considering they are all homemade and you can find coffee shops selling a factory-made cookie for 4 dollars or more. To me, this affords one the incredible freedom to try almost anything since it will only cost you a dollar or two and you will quickly find your favorites. My boyfriend, who does not speak Chinese, has successfully bought many things at Chinese bakeries simply by pointing; he’s often come home with a six or seven different items which I have to explain to him and then he will happily try them all and decide which one he likes best.

My favorites? The cocktail bun (named not because of when it’s meant to be served but because its oblong shape resembles a rooster’s tailfeathers), a plain little bread filled with a creamy, coconut-flecked custard, and the egg custard tart, the actual subject of this entire post – thank you for your patience, dear reader!

Egg custard tarts are thought to have sprung from the British influence in Hong Kong; custard tarts with a smooth milky filling in a shortcrust pastry are a classically British dessert. There is also a Portuguese variant, the lovely pastéis de nata, which have a similar custardy filling but a caramelized, crème brûlée style top. Hong Kong residents often go on day trips to Macau, a former Portuguese colony about a 45 minute hydrofoil ride from Hong Kong, and a can’t-miss activity there is to sample the authentic pastéis de nata still made by local bakers. However, egg custard tarts in Hong Kong have evolved into their own unique and delicious creature, and a staple of Chinese bakeries and dim sum houses everywhere.

What distinguishes an egg custard tart is its flaky, tender shell (the most authentic ones are made with lard)that resembles puff pastry at its crisp and buttery best, cradling a bright yellow custard that teeters flan-like, just on the edge between set and gooey. Fresh from the oven, it is the sunniest, most comforting piece of bliss I can think of.  An old dan tat, with limpid gummy crust and rubbery Jello-y filling, is a tragic thing indeed.

In San Francisco’s Chinatown, one of the oldest and most famous Chinese communities in the world, there are many bakeries and restaurants selling egg custard tarts, but there is one place that stands above the rest – one that people in the know like my mother would go to – Golden Gate Bakery on Grant Ave.

Such is the reputation of the egg custard tarts at Golden Gate Bakery that lines r outinely snake out the door into the street. As the scent of butter and vanilla wafts outside, you can see people shifting their feet, hoping to reach the front of the line soon enough to snag some of the freshly baked tarts before they are gone. I know of no other bakery in Chinatown that has the audacity to close down for several weeks at a time while the owners go on "extended vacation"; making excellent egg custard tarts must have proven very profitable for them indeed!

Golden Gate Bakery’s egg custard tarts are considered on the "expensive" side at about $1.25 a piece – this is one of the reasons very few people make them at home because it really is so much cheaper to buy them. The tart shell pastry is also notoriously difficult to duplicate – although most recipes for Chinese flaky pastry involve a "water dough" and "oil dough" similar to the détrempe and beurrage used in puff pastry and the execution seems straightforward, somehow the tarts from the good bakeries always seem to have a supernatural flakiness and crispness that is, so far, out of my reach. If anyone has managed to penetrate the secrets of the egg custard tart, let me know!

If you do make it to San Francisco and visit Chinatown, do wander down Stockton Street and take in the amazing bustle of its denizens shopping, working, and living shoulder to shoulder in one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the US. You’ll see stores and restaurants that have been around for years with yellowed menus taped to the walls, delis with whole barbecued pigs and roast ducks hanging in the windows, giant delivery trucks unloading produce at all times of day to the hands of waiting shoppers. Don’t go onto neighboring Grant Street unless you want a hefty dose of cheesy touristy silliness; wait until you get to Jackson Street to turn onto Grant, because Golden Gate Bakery will be just a few stores down. There will probably be a line, and be sure you bring enough cash because that’s all they accept. But it’s worth it for those sweet happiness-inducing handfuls – I’m as enamored of them now as I was years ago as a small child.

Dantat2

Golden Gate Bakery

1029 Grant Avenue

San Francisco, CA 94133

415-781-2627

For those of you wanting to brave egg custard tart making at home, here are a few online recipes as well as a dedicated eGullet thread. Several of these recipes use a shortcrust pastry, which is considerably simple and can yield delicious results as well – I’ve had more successes with them than with the flaky pastry.

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A Tale of Three Tastings

August 20th, 2007 · 11 Comments · Events, Sweet Spots

Rubicon_2

By happy coincidence, I was party to a number of chocolate-centric events these last couple of weeks (or perhaps it was no coincidence – it would be a felicitous development indeed if everyone started embracing the joys of chocolate more!)

The first was an invitation by the fabulous Marcia of Tablehopper to a chocolate tasting session hosted by TuttiFoodie and Scharffen Berger. In the intimate dining room of restaurant Rubicon, a group of chocolate lovers was treated to a chocolate tasting led by John Scharffenberger and then a parade of chocolate desserts prepared by Nicole Krasinki, Rubicon’s pastry chef.

Johnscharffen

A chance to hear master chocolatier John Scharffenberger speak about his experiences with chocolate is not one to be missed, and Scharffenberger gave a fascinating talk about cacao bean varieties around the world and how they are combined into Scharffen Berger’s different chocolates.

Scharffenberger guided us through a tasting of chocolates of varying cacao percentages and origins, helping us detect flavors and notes. The most interesting part of this was how he compared tasting fine chocolate to tasting wine – one has to note how the chocolate flavor develops and changes as it melts in your mouth. So as with wine, there is a progression in tastes from the beginning to the middle to the end that can be experienced when you are fully immersed in the "chocolate moment".

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After this edifying experience, we were treated to another: Nicole Krasinki, one of the stars of the pastry scene, demonstrated her expertise in working with chocolate with a trio of inventive and delectable desserts.

Chocolatemousse                                                                   

A quenelle of bittersweet chocolate mousse on bed of honey crumbles with a streak of meringue and slice of fig was her offbeat version of s’mores – creamy, gooey, crunchy.

Chocosorbet

Silky cocoa nib panna cotta with a scoop of chocolate umeboshi sorbet and a chocolate chip tuile – the dessert that got the most comments by far, an unusual pairing of chocolate with the Japanese pickled plum – piquantly tart, wonderfully offset by the mild panna cotta.

Choccroquette

A warm chocolate croquette with lemon, madras curry, and Blue Bottle coffee gelee – this was my favorite, a crisp-wrapped present of a truffle in a pool of flavors that sound unconventional but mesh together beautifully, and deliciously.

Krasinki is as sweet and down-to-earth in person as she is inspired in her pastry work, and I highly recommend you visit Rubicon for her ever-changing desserts, as well as the rest of the excellent menu – new American food at its sublime best.

This chocolate tasting was also the kickoff for the Chocolate Adventure Contest being co-hosted by TuttiFoodie and Scharffenberger. You (yes, all of you out there!) are invited to come up with a recipe that combines chocolate and one or more of the 20 ingredients listed on the Chocolate Adventure website – ingredients ranging from lavender to star anise to mastiha(a spice made from mastic gum). The winning recipe will net its creator $5,000 and will be featured on the menu at Scharffen Berger’s Cafe Cacao in Berkeley, CA for month. So if you fancy having your recipe served at one of the most famed chocolate factories around, here is your opportunity! Many thanks to Marcia, TuttiFoodie, Scharffen Berger, and Rubicon for hosting this highly entertaining and enjoyable event!

Choctasting1 Choctasting4

photos from CMA’s flickr photostream of the 2007 Chocolate Symposium

It was definitely fantastic to have a chocolate expert like John Scharffenberger teach us how to taste the nuances of chocolate, but for the rest of you eager chocoholics, don’t fret. The Chocolate Manufacturer’s Association contacted me with the ideal resource for chocolate lovers: the online guided chocolate tasting.

Rachelle was kind enough to send me a chocolate tasting kit containing the chocolates used at a chocolate tasting session held at the CMA’s Annual Chocolate Symposium in New York. The CMA has put up a webcast of the tasting session on their website, so anyone can watch Rose Potts of Blommer Chocolate and Ed Seguine of Guittard Chocolate lead a group through three flights of chocolate and describe the differences between milk, dark, and single origin chocolates.

Chocolate tasting in the comfort of my own home! With the chocolate arranged in front of me, I clicked on the webcast and was able to follow the tasting session and make my own observations on the different pieces. It is interesting how much context can help in unlocking the tastes of a particular chocolate – knowing its percentage and origins gives you clues on flavors to look for. I also found that after eating fine chocolates like Scharffen Berger, Cluizel, or Guittard, it becomes much easier to note the progression and development of flavors as you eat a piece of chocolate, as they are deliberately created that way. Cheaper chocolate, like Hershey’s, becomes startlingly flat and one-dimensional in comparison – even if you know it is not good quality chocolate, it is surprising how vast and evident the differences are the more fine chocolate you eat.

Even if you don’t have the exact chocolates used in the tasting webcast, I suggest watching it as a very useful tool in learning how to taste and describe chocolate. There are many other excellent resources on the site, including a tasting guide, glossary, and news about the world of chocolate. Thanks to the CMA for providing this indispensable guide to learning more about chocolate.

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Finally, a chance to learn more about another exciting chocolatier in the Bay Area’s burgeoning chocolate scene: this last weekend, chocolatier Anthony Ferguson of Cacao Anasa opened up his kitchen to a group of visitors to tour the place and make several chocolate desserts.

Ferguson’s story is as fascinating and inspiring as his exotic chocolates: leaving his 9-5 job to travel around the world and absorb the cultures of Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe, he combined the myriad tastes he’d experienced with his training in chocolate making to create his own line of artisan chocolates.

Ferguson professes a love of jazz fusion, and his chocolates reflect the joyful improvisation and technical virtuosity of this musical style. His truffles are compositions of complex flavors, ranging from fruits to flowers to spices. Far beyond the typical choices of raspberry or mint or coffee, you may encounter fig and ginger, or Chinese five spice, or bergamot, or ollalieberry and merlot. Infused chocolates are particularly in vogue these days, but I find Cacao Anasa’s to be inventive and expertly executed – the ganaches are smooth and silky, the chocolate partnering harmoniously with a layer of fruit pate, or a sprinkling of spices. My favorites included a intoxicatingly fragrant rose truffle, and a pleasantly tingly curry truffle.

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Ferguson remained remarkably calm amidst a crowd of 30-some people storming his spacious kitchen, eager to play with chocolate. Over the next couple of hours, he instructed us on how to make chocolate bars, a coconut chocolate soup, cookies, truffles, and even chocolate martinis. Somehow Ferguson found time in the chaos to give an impromptu lecture on the chemistry of tempering (incidentally, I ducked out of joining the group in charge of tempering chocolate, as it was so warm in the kitchen that doing it properly was a huge challenge indeed!)

A store’s worth of chocolate treats was created, devoured, and packed away for later enjoyment at home. I must say that Cacao Anasa’s chocolate kitchen is one of the happiest and most delightful I’ve encountered – and I would urge you to get your hands on his chocolates wherever you can find them. Many thanks for Anthony for giving us a chance to glimpse inside his workplace!

I hope all of you have been enjoying the days of August – and if you haven’t had some chocolate today, may I suggest you not refrain any longer?

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{Book Review} Dreaming of the Mediterranean

August 12th, 2007 · 23 Comments · Books, Cakes, Chocolate, Recipes, Reviews

edited to add recipe!

Chocolatecapri

Do these look like boats on the clear blue sea?

Summer is slowly drawing to a violet-and-rose sunset of a close, but is it too late to dream of one more vacation? I didn’t get to travel to Europe this summer, but I did the next best thing: I read David Shalleck’s Mediterranean Summer.

Shalleck’s book combines the best aspects of cooking memoir and travelogue, along with an utterly irresistible premise: sail the Mediterranean on a luxurious sailing yacht, stopping at the most beautiful villages and ports along the French and Italian coastlines, while eating classic Italian food prepared by the talented ship’s chef. As I am not planning on buying my own yacht complete with private chef any time soon, this was pleasurable daydream-fulfillment of the highest order.

Shalleck stumbles upon the job of ship’s cook at the end of a series of culinary internships he undertook in Italy, while he was seeking the experiences that would inspire and elevate his cooking skills. When he finds out that a wealthy Italian couple is looking for a chef to cook aboard their newly purchased yacht Serenity for the summer, he accepts – one of those impulsive decisions that leads to a seminal life experience – and an absorbing, fascinating story for the reader.

Cooking aboard a yacht presents challenges undreamed of by the cook on land. The galley is tiny and underequipped; there is barely any counter space, and the storage space for food is minimal. There are no gimbals installed beneath the stove to keep it horizontal against the motion of the yacht, meaning Shalleck has to watch out for sliding pans and sloshing water. Oftentimes the Serenity will be at sea for days, so food shopping must be planned carefully – there’s no where to go if an ingredient is forgotten! Finally, Shalleck must serve as one of the crew members when he’s not cooking, so he has to be able to perform all the same backbreaking tasks like lowering and raising the sails as everyone else, along with feeding the owners and crew.

Add in that the owners of Serenity are extremely sophisticated and demanding gourmands, and it sounds like the most daunting of challenges. Shalleck chronicles his fears at the beginning of the season, as he struggles to adapt to life at sea and refined palates of his bosses. He especially worries about coming up with dishes that will please the wife, or la Signora, as she is called. Shalleck portrays her as the kind of elegant, assured woman for whom only the best would ever do, and he comes to fear her standard greeting to him, "Cosa c’e di buono a mangiare?" – What good things are there to eat? as a sort of constant warning to stay on his toes.

However, as the yacht travels across the Mediterranean, stopping at ports famous and sigh-inducing, like Saint-Tropez, Monte Carlo, Portofino, Capri, Corsica, and Sardinia, Shalleck finds his footing and draws on his training and determination to become a inspired and confident chef. You see him seeking out the best of local delicacies at every stop, and turning them into elegant meals that have the owners applauding in admiration. He becomes a competent member of the crew, making friends with the charming, rakish steward. And when he is not cooking furiously away in the steaming hot galley, he manages to capture the romance of sailing on one of the most beautiful bodies of water in the world.

One of my favorite chapters juxtaposes the luxurious life enjoyed by the very wealthy owners with the rather torturous experiences of the crew belowdeck. The Serenity has docked in Monte Carlo for the Grand Prix races, a favorite event of Europe’s jet-set and also considered the official start of the yachting season in the Mediterranean. It is utterly exciting and glamorous, the town filled with the beautiful and chic, the thrill of the races filling the air, but for Shalleck the weekend turns into one huge nightmare when he is told by la Signora that he will be cooking for a party of a hundred of her friends – out of the tiny galley. The logistics of creating a multi-course meal by oneself in a kitchen barely equipped to cook for ten was enough to make me break out into a cold sweat. Yet, Shalleck acquits himself admirably with the help of the stalwart crew, in an amazing, I’m-glad-it’s-not-me recounting of pasta, sauce, and dirty dishes everywhere.

Mediterranean Summer satisfies on many levels: you see Shalleck gain confidence in his skills as a chef, you taste the beauty of the French and Italian Riviera and the seasonal local cuisine that Shalleck learns to make, and you get the thrill of vicariously experiencing the privileged life the owners of the Serenity lead. Thoroughly enjoyable, the book is an instant vacation, a taste of la bella vita – and who couldn’t use a little more of that?

Shalleck thoughtfully includes several recipes in the back of the book for dishes he described in his narrative, all classic Italian and all mouthwatering. One of them was for a torta di ciccolato caprese, or Chocolate Capri Cake – a dense, nearly flourless chocolate cake that is slightly nutty with ground almonds and intensely, sublimely chocolatey. Shalleck notes it was a favorite of la Signora – and I can see why.

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Chocolate Capri Cake

adapted from Mediterranean Summer

serves about 12

12 Tbsp (172 g) unsalted butter, room temperature

8 oz (226 g) unsweetened or semisweet chocolate

3 oz (88 g) whole almonds, toasted

2 Tbsp(16 g) all purpose flour

6 large eggs, separated, room temperature

7 1/2 oz (200 g) sugar

confectioners’ sugar for dusting

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Butter a 9-inch cake pan and line with a circle of parchment pan. Be sure the pan has sides at least a couple of inches high as the batter will fill the pan almost completely!

Melt the butter and chocolate together in a bowl over a bain-marie. Set aside and let cool.

Grind the almonds together with the flour in a food processor until fine – do not let it turn into a paste.

Beat the egg yolks and sugar together in a stand mixer until light colored and fluffy, about 3 to 4 minutes.

Scrape yolk and sugar mixture into a large mixture. Fold in the melted chocolate mixture carefully.

Add in the almond flour and fold in carefully just until combined.

In a clean stand mixer bowl, whip the egg whites to soft peaks. Carefully scrape them over the batter and fold in gently.

Pour the batter into prepared pan and bake in oven for about 35 to 40 minutes, until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean.

Let cake cool on rack, then invert onto a plate and remove parchment. Invert cake back onto a serving plate. Dust with confectioners’ sugar before serving.

This cake will keep for a couple of days at room temperature. I suggest keeping it in a covered cake dome as plastic wrap tends to stick to the top.

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From Simple to Sublime: Hazelnut Cake with Roasted Glazed Peaches

August 6th, 2007 · 19 Comments · Cakes, Fruit, Recipes

Hazelnutcake_3

Whenever I get a new cookbook, I always go through it from beginning to end once, eager to fill my senses with all the recipes contained within (I admit I am one of those people who has, on occasion, skipped to the end of a book to find out the ending, although I’ve resisted that temptation for quite a while now – even with Harry Potter!). Then I go back for a leisurely re-perusal, reading all the recipe headnotes, making notes of all the ones I intend to try next in the kitchen. Sometimes I’ll pull out my other cookbooks to compare similar recipes or look up ones I’ve suddenly been reminded that I still need to make. Oftentimes, at the end of of evening I’ll find myself inexplicably surrounded by a dozen cookbooks, all open to various mouthwatering pictures, desserts dancing before my eyes, and I’ll be surprised there isn’t actually anything coming out of my oven!

As I leaf through my cookbooks I notice I mentally categorize recipes. There are, of course, those showstopper creations, the ones whose photos might have made me buy the book in the first place, the ones that go on my must-do list.  There are the recipes that are unusual, some new combination of flavors or techniques that make me also want to test them out. Then there the simpler, quieter ones, a version of basic shortbread or chocolate cake, that I tuck away in the back of my mind for when I need something easy to make, for when I’m running low on inspiration.

The last category may seem unglamorous, but in fact it’s turned out to be one of the most surprising and rewarding ones. There’s just as much art and pleasure to be found in the perfect chocolate chip cookie as there is in successfully executing puff pastry. Case in point: those heavenly chocolate Korova cookies by Dorie Greenspan and Pierre Hermé. Who would have thought a simple chocolate cookie could be refined to such divinity? It reminds that in the art of baking, it always comes back to basics and doing them well. If someone like M. Hermé puts a recipe for lemon curd in his book, you can bet it’s a damn good lemon curd.

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I had the pleasure of finding another unexpected gem last week: the innocuous-sounding Hazelnut Cake from Kate Zuckerman’s The Sweet Life. I adore hazelnuts, so I always intended to try this out, but other recipes kept crowding their way to the front. Finally, last week, when I had some extra peaches and was wondering how best to use them, my eye fell on the end of the hazelnut cake recipe, where Zuckerman suggests serving it with some roasted peaches. Two things I had yet to try, both now too enticing to pass up.

And I have to say this has been one of my most resounding successes in the kitchen in the last few weeks. Fresh out of the oven, it perfumes the kitchen with its buttery-nutty fragrance. The most marvelous thing about it is that even though it looks quite rich, the crumb is fantastically light – it almost crumbles apart in your hand and collapses in your mouth into a melting dream of hazelnuts and butter and crème frâiche. The cake can be wrapped and saved for a few days, but I highly suggest eating this as soon as you can – the taste is infinitely better! I would this is one of my new favorite cakes to make!

The hazelnut cake is perfect on its own for breakfast or tea-time, but Zuckerman gives a few suggestions that take it up to the level of a restaurant-worthy dessert. Dusted with powdered sugar, garlanded with some hazelnut streusel, and crowned with a gleaming, just roasted peach half, it becomes, unexpectedly, one of those showstopper desserts that catch every eye.

Roasting peaches is a wonderful way to enjoy the fruit while it’s still in season. Placed in a bath of muscato, honey and sugar, they slowly cook and caramelize in the oven to a rich, gleaming orange. Distilled down to the essence of their sweetness, the peaches make a fabulous accompaniment to the lightness of the cake. If you don’t want to make the cake, the peaches are sensational on their own with a dollop of whipped cream.

It’s always a thrill when you take on a challenging recipe and you succeed. But sometimes it’s even better when a recipe turns out better than you ever expected. This is certainly one dessert I’ll be keeping in my repertoire for quite a while.

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Hazelnut Cake

adapted from Kate Zuckerman’s The Sweet Life

makes one 10-in cake or (6) 4 1/2- in cakes

1 cup (116 g) hazelnuts

1 tbsp (10 g) cornstarch

16 tbsp (226 g) unsalted butter, room temperature

1 1/3 cups (262g) sugar

2 tbsp (32 g) hazelnut paste or hazelnut butter

3 eggs, room temperature

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

2 cups minus 2 tbsp (272 g) flour

1 cup (234 g) crème frâiche

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease your desired cake pans and line the bottoms with parchment paper. I prefer to use springform pans.

Combine the hazelnuts and cornstarch in a food processor and grind until fine – do not let it turn into a paste.

Put the butter in a stand mixer bowl and beat for about a minute to soften. Add the sugar and hazelnut paste and beat on medium-high for about 6-8 minutes until it is very light and fluffy – this is important for the final texture of the cake.

Add the eggs one at a time to the mixer, letting each one mix in before adding in the other. Beat for another 2 minutes until the batter is completely smooth.

In another bowl, combine the remaining dry ingredients and ground hazelnuts.

Turn the mixer fown to low, and add half of the dry ingredients. Let it mix just until combined. Add in the crème frâiche and mix untill combined. Add the rest of the dry ingredients and mix until batter is completely combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl. Briefly turn the speed up to medium and beat for about 20 seconds.

Scrape the batter into prepared pans – it will be fairly sticky and heavy. If you are filling multiple small pans, do not fill more than 3/4 of the way up – this cake will rise quite a bit in the oven so you don’t want spillage!

Smooth down the tops of the batter with a spatula. Bake about 50 minutes for a large single cake or 30 minutes for smaller cakes, until a cake tester inserted in the middle comes out clean and the top is still a little springy.

Remove from the oven and let cool on a wire rack for about 20 minutes. Remove cakes from pans and let finish cooling to room temperature.

You can store the cakes for up to 4 days at room temperature, but wrap them tightly in plastic or they will dry out.

Roasted Glazed Peaches

adapted from Kate Zuckerman’s the Sweet Life

8 small to medium ripe peaches

1/3 cup white wine

1/2 cup sweet Muscat wine

1/4 cup honey

5 tables poons sugar

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Slice the peaches in half. leaving the pits in. Lay the peaches cut side up in a pan large enough to hold all the peach halves in one layer (you can do fewer peaches, just use a smaller pan so the liquids don’t spread out).

Pour all the remaining ingredients, except for 2 tablespoons of the sugar, over the peaches.

Roast the peaches for about 30 minutes. Take out of the oven and remove any pits with a paring knife. Turn the peaches over and roast for another 30 minutes.

Take the peaches out of the oven and raise the oven temperature to 400 degrees F. Turn the peaches over and ladle some of the cooking liquid over them. Sprinkle the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar over the peaches. Bake for another 20 minutes.

When the peaches have reduced in size, and are shiny with carmelized areas, they are done. If they are not finished, baste and continue baking in 10 minute increments until they are done.

When the are done, baste one more time, remove from oven, and let cool in the pan.

The peaches are best eaten the day of but can be kept in the refrigerator for 4 days. Reheat in a 350 degree F oven for about 10 minutes.

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