Entries from December 23rd, 2009

Mendiants For Christmas

December 23rd, 2009 · 18 Comments · Candy, Chocolate, Recipes


How is it nearly the night before Christmas already? I hope you all are enjoying the end to another year. It's been a full, exciting one for me – I moved to a new home, gained a new kitchen, and wrote a second book, among other things. I think 2010 may have some more adventures in store – well, I hope so, at least! Before the new year gets here, though, I still have a bit of present-wrapping and candy-making left to wrap up. I needed a quick confection to make a couple nights ago, and realized I hadn't made any mendiants yet – the perfect Christmas candy!


I love the story behind mendiants: the word means "beggar" in French, and is related to mendicants -  religious orders that relied on charity, or begging, for income. Mendicant orders originated in Europe in the Middle Ages; it is from there that the classic image grew of the poor friar who has given away all his earthly possessions and lives off the charity of the faithful. The original chocolate mendiants had as their toppings four fruits and nuts meant to symbolize the colors of the robes of the four major mendicant orders of the Roman Catholic Church: almonds (Carmelites), hazelnuts (Augustins), dried figs (Franciscans), and raisins (Dominicans).

Further fascinating information: those four fruits and nuts are part of the 13 Desserts of Christmas, part of the Christmas tradition in Provence. At the end of the big Christmas dinner, thirteen sweets representing Christ and his 12 apostles, are served to finish off the meal. Honestly, 13 Desserts sounds a lot more appealing than the 12 Days of Christmas! The thirteen sweets can vary but usually include the four aforementioned fruits and nuts, dates, nougat, and more recently, a Yule log. (It's delightful the delicious information you dig up while doing research for a book on candy!)


Back to chocolate mendiants. A perfect example of how chocolate works as an ideal canvas and also just makes everything better. A disk of chocolate, a dollop really, sprinkled with toppings like a bedecked Christmas tree. The original quartet of toppings has long since expanded into a nearly boundless list of things that go with chocolate – and you know these days just about everything has been paired with chocolate.

So really, mendiants are now an exercise in aesthetic and gustatory creativity. Seeing the little blank circles of still-liquid chocolate in front of me is like seeing a fresh pad of blank paper, sheets ready to be colored however you choose. There's a certain art, you'll discover, in choosing and pairing toppings for mendiants, a careful balancing act of color and shape and flavor. Cranberries with almonds with cocoa nibs? Dried apricots with golden raisins with pecans? Pistachios with candied lemon with dried blueberries? You'll realize making mendiants is also a great way to use all the various dried fruits and nuts and other bits in your pantry. What I've also noticed is that the arrangements I make on the chocolate disks tend to end up looking like smiley faces. Do you see them too?

Making mendiants is so surprisingly simple, it's something you can do at the last moment. I found it almost hypnotically relaxing to be arranging bits of pecans and apricots and cocoa nibs on chocolate while Christmas songs were playing in the background.

In my last long piece about chocolate tempering, I mentioned that the easiest and most foolproof way I found of tempering chocolate was the seed method. I got a lot of questions asking about the seed method, so I thought I'd describe it here. This is also the method I describe in my Field Guide to Candy book. Note the temperatures given are for tempering dark chocolate; they are different for milk and white chocolate.

The Seed Method (for dark chocolate)

1. Temper about 1 to 1 1/2 pounds of chocolate at a time. It's harder to temper small amounts of chocolate because it's difficult to keep the temperature of the melted chocolate stable.

2. Chop the chocolate finely. The pieces don't have to be tiny, but smaller pieces that are roughly the same size will melt quicker and more evenly – you don't want one big chunk of chocolate that will take forever to melt. If you can find chocolate buttons, they are a great timesaver.

3. Place about two-thirds of the chocolate in a double boiler or metal bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water. Make sure the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water. Also, the water should be just at a simmer – one common mistake is to have the water at a bubbling boil – too hot water and it's easy to burn chocolate. You want a nice slow controlled melt.

4. Place a candy thermometer in the chocolate. As it starts to melt, stir with a rubber spatula to encourage even melting. Do not let the temperature of the chocolate exceed 120 degrees F.

5. When all the chocolate has melted, remove the bowl from heat and wipe the bottom of the bowl down to remove condensation. You want to avoid any chance of getting water in the chocolate or it could seize up into a chunky mess.

6. Stir in the remaining third of the chocolate a little at a time, letting each addition melt before adding more.

7. The chocolate will start cooling and thickening as you add more unmelted chocolate. When the temperature of the chocolate has dropped to 82 degrees, place the bowl back over the pot of simmering water.

8. Heat the chocolate back to 88 degrees F. Be sure to stir and check carefully, so you don't overheat one part while waiting for another section to heat up. Do not let the chocolate get over 91 degrees or the chocolate will be out of temper and you'll have to start over again.

9. Spread a small bit of chocolate on a piece of parchment or wax paper. If it dries shiny with no streaks, you're good to go!

By introducing a "seed" – the unmelted 1/3 of the chocolate that is still in temper, you are encouraging the rest of the chocolate to reform its melted cocoa butter crystals in a tempered state. This is easier and faster than tempering without using a seed, since then you have to wait for the proper crystals to form on their own in the melted chocolate.

Give it a try! And remember, if your chocolate doesn't come into temper, you can always redo the process, meaning no chocolate is wasted. Once you have a nice bowl of shiny tempered chocolate, it's the easiest thing to dip truffles, fill molds, or perhaps make the mendiants below!

Happy holidays, everyone! Thank you to all my lovely readers – I hope my site has been able to tickle your sweet tooth this year, and I wish you the sweetest this holiday season!



1 pound bittersweet chocolate

1 cup dried fruits and nuts (Go for variety and contrast – see my suggestions above)

1. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.

2. Melt and temper the chocolate – my preferred method is the seeding method (see above)

3. Drop small spoonfuls of tempered chocolate onto the baking sheets. The chocolate should spread out into circles; use the spoon to fix any misshapen rounds.

4. Gently place some of the toppings on each chocolate round.

5. Place baking sheets in refrigerator to let mendiants set, 15 to 20 minutes. 

Store in an airtight container between layers of wax paper in the refrigerator for up to one week.

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Shades of Pale: Brown Butter Vanilla Cake with Caramel Buttercream

December 11th, 2009 · 34 Comments · Cakes, Recipes


Here’s a little irony for you: when I went to the midwest for Thanksgiving a couple weeks back, I was told there might be a chance of snow, that I might get to experience the joy of the first snowfall. So I packed my suitcase full of woolly scarves and cable-knit sweaters, only to encounter crisp, clear skies and sunshine glazing the snow-free roofs of decoration-bedecked homes. FYI, I have seen snow before, but when you’ve got to travel miles from home to see it, “White Christmas” unfortunately becomes more of a pleasant, Norman Rockwell-ish fantasy rather than actual nostalgia.

So imagine my surprise when I was driving up northeast of San Francisco this week, on my way to Sacramento, and I discover the hills dusted with white! We received the briefest of visits from Jack Frost, his passage leaving powdered-sugar mantles draped across rolling hills, still green with grass underneath. Even though I’d driven up this way before, I slowed down, just like everyone else around me, marveling at this strange and wondrous fairy country we’d all wandered into. Only the cows remained unchanged, standing placidly in a world gone monochrome. Suddenly I realized why the boyfriend would wax wistful about the white Christmases of his midwest memories. I’m sure the rare snow I saw has already melted, but I’ll remember it in my mind’s eye as we move into the more familiar steel-grey skies and chilly rains of San Francisco winter.



All those wintry shades of pale inspired me when I came up with this cake. I wanted to take a basic vanilla cake and play around with the flavors. I decided to use one of my favorite techniques, browning butter, to oomph up the flavor. If you haven’t browned butter, I actually did a how-to video on Chow.com. Browning turn the simple taste of butter into a fabulous melange of caramel, nutty, and butterscotch, adding a lovely complexity to whatever you add it to. Depending on how dark you take your browning butter, you can get some really rich, caramelly notes – but be careful not to burn it! I always take my butter off right before it gets to the color I want, since it will keep cooking for a little bit afterwards. I was curious as to whether it would affect the color of the cake, but if you look at the final picture, you can see it’s a beautiful creamy yellow – probably because of all the eggs in the cake recipe! Making the cake was also a great chance to use some of my precious vanilla beans. The texture is nicely firm and tight-crumbed, perfect for making a layer cake. Don’t overbake this cake so it dries out – I think I would have pulled my cakes out a little sooner, maybe around the 35 minutes.

Since the boyfriend is a big fan of yellow cake with chocolate frosting, I filled the cake with my whipped chocolate ganache, using a nice Guittard 72% that would stand up to the richness of the browned butter cake. Don’t be shy about spreading the ganache on – your guests will thank you!

Finally, to frost the cake I wanted to add a third flavor so I took Dorie Greenspan’s reliable Swiss meringue buttercream and added in a generous measure of caramel. The result is a innocuously pale buttercream, its hue somewhere between antique lace and eggshell, with a sweet golden taste of caramel.

To give a hint to this I tried my hand at a few caramel spirals to decorate the top of the cake. I recently had someone ask me how to keep their kitchen clean when working with sugar, and my response was that I was still trying to figure it out myself! Caramel threads have a way of floating everywhere, like fairy floss. I just try to stay in one area as much as possible to avoid trailing caramel all over the place. Silicone mats are also your friend – easy to rinse off and clean up. You can also spray any metal tools you’re using lightly with cooking spray, so the caramel won’t stick to it.

The soft, snowy appearance of this cake reminds me of those hills so briefly shrouded in white.  I like this cake so much, though, I don’t think I’ll wait until the next snow in the Bay Area to make it!


Browned Butter Cake

adapted from Kate Zuckerman’s The Sweet Life

makes (2) 9-inch round layers


1 vanilla bean

12 ounces unsalted butter

1 2/3 cups sugar

2 eggs plus 4 egg yolks, room temperature

2 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons flour

3 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 1/4 cups milk, room temperature


To make the cake: Split over the vanilla bean and scrape out the seeds.

Place bean and seeds in a medium saucepan and add in the butter. Cook on medium-high heat until the butter begins to turn brown and smell nutty. Swirl the pan so the butter cooks evenly.

When butter is rich brown (you can leave it lighter for a more subtle flavor, but don’t let it get too dark and burn). remove from heat. Take out vanilla bean and place melted butter in a container. Refrigerate for an hour until butter has resolidified.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour two 9-inch round pans.

Place solid browned butter in a stand mixer. Beat on medium until it softens and becomes creamy,

Add sugar and beat until it goes from dry and clumpy to fluffy and smooth. It may take a few minutes.

Add in eggs and egg yolks one at a time, beating between each addition until fully incorporated.

Combine flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl.

With mixer set on slow, add in flour mixture and milk in 5 additions, starting and ending with the flour. Beat just until incorporated.

Divide batter among the two pans and bake for 35-40 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Remove and place on wire racks. Run a knife around the edges for easier removal. Let cool for about 20 minutes and then invert pans to remove cakes. Let them finish cooling before decorating.




Whipped Chocolate Ganache

8 ounces semisweet chocolate, finely chopped

1/2 cup heavy cream


Place chocolate into a medium heatproof bowl.

Place cream in a medium saucepan and place over medium heat. Heat just until it comes to a simmer.

Pour cream over chocolate and let sit for a minute before stirring to combine. Stir until chocolate is fully melted and the mixture is smooth.

Pour into a container and chill in refrigerator for an hour until it is firm.

Place ganache in a stand mixer and whip with whisk attachment until it is ligh
t and fluffy. Do not overwhip or it will become dry and crumbly, just like overwhipped cream.


Caramel Buttercream

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup heavy cream

To make the caramel: Place sugar to a small saucepan and add enough water to give it the texture of wet sand.

Cook sugar on low heat until it has dissolved.

Raise heat to high and let cook until it turns golden. Do not leave it unattended – it can burn very quickly.

Meanwhile, place cream in glass measuring cup and microwave for about 30 seconds just until the cream is warm. Or, you can heat it on another saucepan on the stove.

Once the sugar has turned golden brown, remove from heat. Pour in cream in a slow stream and whisk to incorporate. If any hard chunks of caramel form you can place over medium heat to melt.

Let caramel cool and thicken while you make the buttercream.

3/4 cup sugar
4 large egg whites
1 ½ cups unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into 1-in pieces

Combine the sugar and egg whites in a medium metal bowl and place over a pan of simmering water.

Whisk the sugar mixture constantly over heat until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture looks smooth and shiny. Continue whisking until the mixture reaches 160 degrees F.

Remove mixture from heat and pour into a stand mixer bowl. Whisk on medium speed for about 5 minutes until the mixture has cooled.
Switch to the paddle attachment and with the speed on low, add the butter a few pieces at a time, beating until smooth. Do not add the butter too quickly or beat too quickly or the buttercream may break.
When all the butter has been added, beat the buttercream on medium-high speed for about 6-10 minutes until it is very thick and smooth. It may appear to separate briefly but continue beating and it should come back together.

Be sure the caramel is still liquid and flows thickly. If it has cooled too much and solidified, warm it up slightly on the stove. Add the caramel to the buttercream and beat to combine.

The buttercream is ready to be used. Place a piece of plastic wrap against the surface until you are ready to use it to prevent it from drying out.


To assemble the cake: Level off cake layers if necessary. Place one cake layer on a cake board or cake decorating stand.

Spread the whipped chocolate ganache over the layer evenly. You can reserve about half a cup for decorating the top of the cake if you want.

Place the second cake on top.

Spread a crumb coat of caramel buttercream over the top and sides of cake (see here for tips on doing a crumb coat). Refrigerate for about an hour to let the frosting set.

Spread the rest of the caramel buttercream over the top and sides of cake with an offset spatula.


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