Archive for October, 2006

Cranberry Curd Tartlets

Wednesday, October 25th, 2006
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Finally, cranberries are back in the markets. So, I made cranberry curd, and thinking that it could be used like lemon curd in a tart, I took this opportunity to experiment more with my idea of transforming cookie dough into tart dough. I worked with the Molasses Cookies from the Lucques cookbook that are made into a plum sorbet sandwich… and these tartlets happen to share similar magenta and brown colors.

I made regular tart dough, too, to get a more balanced idea of the possible flavors and textures.

I also decided to use some of the mini-tart tins that I bought in NYC because these tartlets would be packed full of flavor and one pungent bite seemed like a more realistic eating plan than many pungent bites. The tart tins were easier to work with than I’d thought. I did unmold the shells while warm, though, so that I wouldn’t have to pinch/rip them out more; and I didn’t want to have to spray the tins themselves to make ejection easier.

Overall, just about all the flavors worked very nicely together. The curd was a bit sweeter than I wanted, but the orange slices perked it up well, the pecans brought it down to earth, the apples lent a tart crunch, and baby kiwis lent an exotic tartness.

And okay, they’re a bit gaudy, hm? But at least they’re naturally gaudy, and not gaudy like food coloring-modified desserts.

Cranberry Curd: Ah, Nigella Lawson again. It only had a moderate tartness and a kick of cranberry flavor at the end. It was too sweet and not firm enough for my liking even though it tasted of butter and a little of yolks… and I swear I cooked it long enough. Next time, I’d decrease the sugar and the water.

And it was important to pick through the cranberries; there were quite a few damaged ones.

And I got to use my mini-food mill that I got at Zabar’s for the first time. It worked like a charm. The cranberry skins got stuck in the little holes… which was good b/c the tough skins would have ruined the consistency — though they probably would have added more flavor.

Molasses Tart Dough: Lucques cookie recipe adjusted with clarified butter instead of melted shortening; normally for plum sorbet sandwiches. Since this is the first time I’m adjusting a cookie recipe to a tart dough recipe, I wanted to see what would happen if I just omitted the baking soda. Although the flavor was good and it held it’s shape better than short dough, it was predictably a bit tough/chewy. As I compare it to short dough recipes, next time I’ll try halving the sugar and doubling the butter as well as omitting the baking soda. I’ll also try mixing it like tart dough, rather than like a cookie; that is, dry ingredients first, rather than last, and butter cubed, not melted or creamed.

Classic Sweet Pastry: Flo Braker’s recipe. My favorite short dough recipe, and held up the tarts well.

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Pecans, chopped. Tasted very good, and looks good, too; a bit more understated.

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Pecans Halves, halved.

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Valencia Oranges. I segmented the fruit, and chopped the segments into triangles.

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Baby Kiwis. These have been at Trader Joe’s lately. They’re juicy and a little sweeter than normal kiwis. You can eat them whole.

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Apple, thinly sliced. This actually worked really well. The ratio of apple to cranberry to crust seemed even.

To deal with the oxidation issue this time, I tossed them with the apple syrup leftover from the caramelized apple skins in the Fresh Apple Pavlova. It was a very temporary solution, though — they turned a bit translucent after a while.

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Apple, cubed.

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Apple, rectangularized.

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Apple, cut with a small biscuit cutter.

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Apple, shredded with a wavy peeler. Weird.

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Ginger, chopped.

The Bourbon Cupcake

Friday, October 20th, 2006

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Bourbon Cupcake: Crystallized Mint Leaf, Lemon-Bourbon Frosting, Lime-Bourbon Syrup, Burnt-Butter Brown-Sugar Cake.

Ever since I had a drink at Fat Fish made with Vanilla Whiskey, Lemon, Lime, and Mint, I’ve wanted to translate it into a dessert. Namely, a cupcake. The biggest challenge was just trying to find a way to fit all those flavors into textures that would constitute one l’il cake. It’s no coincidence that the components require no less than four hyphens altogether.

When I came across Nigella Lawson’s recipe for Burnt-Butter Brown-Sugar Cupcakes, I knew it was now or never. It would diminish the role of the vanilla some since I wouldn’t be making the yellow cake that I’d been toying with, but it just felt right to match it with the bourbon. And the icing and cake would have vanilla extract in them anyway.

And I had some Jim Beam Bourbon Whiskey in the cupboard, so I decided that that would work.

So, yeah, it’s a good cupcake. The burnt butter and bourbon lead the way in flavor, and then sweet and sour of the citrus swirls in. And the bite with the mint leaf provides an intense twist. And there’s a respectable undercurrent of vanilla to it all.

Burnt-Butter Brown-Sugar Cake: This recipe that I used from the American version of the book (or this recipe for the British, metric version). These turned out nicely, even if their crumb was a little rough and they were very buttery. Next time, I’d decrease the butter by a couple tablespoons. Also, she says that the butter won’t take much time to re-solidify after being burned, but it does; I put it in the fridge and stirred it occasionally until it was solid but still soft.

So… about Lawson’s recipes… They don’t always work, do they? I’ve found her cake recipes to turn out excessively wet — with moist, steamy nooks filling the interiors and tough exteriors. When I noticed this in her Baklava Muffins, I thought she was either a baking mad genius or the opposite, because it was wetter inside than any other muffin I’d ever had, but it worked for the baklava style. When her Coca-Cola cupcakes just sank in the middle or never set, I wasn’t so contemplative.

But I’m beginning to see a pattern in all this. First of all, she often specifies slightly higher baking temperatures than most — 400F, instead of a more standard 325-350F. That would explain the wet inside/tough outside. But more importantly — and this is just my theory — I don’t think that much attention was given to translating her recipes from British specifications to American. There are scads of measurements like “1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons” and directions to use self-rising cake flour. And beyond that, I think that her flour is either different (flours can vary greatly among regions and countries), or it was converted to volume in a sometimes off way. So, what works for me is to a “dip and press” technique of measuring flour for her recipes — the technique that packs the most flour into the measuring cup because you dip the measuring cup into the flour and press it against the side to level it. Usually, I’d convert the recipe to grams or “spoon and level,” but the extra flour seems to help a lot. I wish that I’d just bought her book when I lived in London, so that at least I’d have consistent weight measurements.

Lemon-Bourbon Frosting: This recipe for the bourbon part. It’s a conf sugar buttercream, which I think of as American Buttercream (as opposed to French, Swiss, or Italian). Maybe I could have added lemon juice and/or peel to it for a lemon flavor, but I had some leftover lemon cream from the pavlova… so I folded them together. I tasted it, and added more bourbon. It worked well — it had the silky creaminess of a French buttercream with the comforting sweetness of an American buttercream.

And I’m not saying that you should make a batch of lemon cream just to make this wily frosting, but I’m not saying that you’ll be disappointed if you do, either.

The only catch about doing this is that the lemon cream, with all its eggs, needs to be refrigerated. So, once this frosting goes on the cupcakes, the cupcakes need to be stored in the fridge and brought to room temp before eating b/c the frosting gets pretty solid (especially with all the butter in the bourbon frosting). The crystallized mint leaf shouldn’t be chilled, though… so, sigh, keep those separately in an airtight container…. Or really, just make sure that the cupcakes get eaten before you even have to think about storage.

Lime-Bourbon Syrup: I wanted it to be pretty thin, so I used a 1p sugar: 1p water syrup, and then eyeballed in some lime juice and whiskey. I tasted it, and added more bourbon.

I brushed it on top of the cupcakes a few times before frosting them.

Crystallized Mint: I thought I could just make these like I crystallize grapes — brush with egg whites, coat in sugar, and let dry — but no. The leaves stay soft that way, and it’s pretty gross.

So, I found the recipe on this page, which advises baking them either slowly at a low temperature or quickly at a high temperaure. Baking them quickly resulted in this:

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That was also gross.

So, knowing that all I wanted to do was dry the leaves out some, I quickly prepared some more mint leaves, and put them on the hot baking sheet. When I checked them later, they were just dry and crisp. Woohoo.

A Fresh Apple Pavlova

Tuesday, October 17th, 2006
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Fresh Apple Pavlova with Lemon Cream, Honey Creme Fraiche Whipped Cream, Pomegranate, and Caramelized Apple Skin.

I love crunching into a good apple. Most desserts that use apples call for them to be cooked in some way, and even though they gain a lot of earthy goodness down that road, they lose that sprightly crunch. So, I devised this pavlova to try to incorporate it into a dessert.

I considered experimenting with the bottle of ascorbic acid that I picked up in New York to prevent the apples from oxidizing, but since I usually like the tang of lemon juice on the outside of an apple slice, I decided to use lemon juice to control oxidation and to try to incorporate more lemon flavor into the rest of the dessert. The other elements came to mind as good companions.

And the result… It’s probably the most intense fresh fruit-based dessert that I’ve ever had. It manages to be very sweet and very tart. The lemon, apple, and meringue flavors were very strong… and all but covered up the pomegranate and honey creme fraiche whipped cream flavors. At least the pomegranate pips and HCFWCream contribute very well to the overall texture — which was like a great cloud enveloping the turgid bits of fruit.

One nice effect was that the caramelized apple skins and the meringue contributed to a kind of caramelized apple flavor that was a little lighter and more complex than the norm. I liked that.

Overall, though, I think that its major downfall was its rampant sweetness… The kind that makes your teeth hurt a little the next day…. Maybe some sort of cake component instead of the meringue would mellow it a bit, but I don’t think the texture would fit in well w/ fresh sliced apples… Maybe just plain whipped cream could be used, and maybe fold it into the lemon cream instead of spooning them on separately. It would be less sugar and less intense lemon, but the cloud structure would be maintained.

Plating-wise…. On the one hand, I like how the colors and scattered design give it a vibrant Autumn theme, with the bits of caramelized apple skins almost like fallen leaves (and the pomegranates like fallen apples, if you feel like making that stretch). On the other hand, it’s very cluttered. That may be the nature of a pavlova, but I think it could still be put together in a way that looks better and eluded me.

Specific Notes:

Apples: I had gorgeous apples on hand from the St. Helena Farmer’s Market for this… Mutsus, Sierra Beauties, Spitzenburgs, Jonagolds, and Hawaiians. I like the idea that every wedge of apple on top could have a different flavor, and that came through.

I just cut them into wedges, and tossed them in a bowl with a little lemon juice to coat them. I did this at the last moment of assembly, since they oxidize eventually.

Lemon Cream: This recipe. Technically, a lemon sabayon, so you get to whisk it like mad over a boiling water bath for about 12 mins.

Oh, and ever thought about using that recipe to make pomegranate curd by substituting Pom juice for the lemon juice? It doesn’t work. Doesn’t set up. And turns purple. And then brownish.

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At least I got to whisk like mad for a total of 24 mins when I decided to make the lemon curd instead… and so helped maintain the pride of my life: my baker’s biceps.

Honey Creme Fraiche Whipped Cream: I whipped 1/2 c cream until it started to set up, added a couple squeezes of Star Thistle honey from the Honey King in Napa, whipped a little more, added 1/4 c creme fraiche, whipped a little more, tasted, added some more honey, and finished whipping it to medium peaks.

Meringue: Baked at low temp for a long time, and then sat in the off oven for a long time. Very easy, but really ties up a home oven.

Pomegranate: To open it, I cut about an inch into the top of it with the tip of my knife, and twisted. You can then pull it open without brutally cutting through the seeds.

Blackberries could have been used instead.

Caramelized Apple Skins: These are super cool, and are like little slivers of caramel scented with apple. They come from a recipe for Apple Puree with Crisp Apple Skin and Spiced Syrup by Claude Colliot in the October edition of Gourmet magazine (so the recipe should be on epicurious.com at some point). I was just after the skins, but you kind of have to go through the whole recipe to get them. But it’s an interesting one — you start by cooking the quartered, unpeeled Gala apples in a lot of sugar on low heat with a cover (kind of similar to a tarte tatin; no butter, though), but you only melt the sugar to a delicious apple-infused clear syrup and the apples until they’re soft. Then you scoop out the pulp (which is mashed with butter), and sprinkle sugar on the skins before baking them until they look caramelized (don’t touch to test) and then they crisp up more out of the oven.

The meringues had about an hour to go in the oven when these were ready to bake, so I kept them submerged in the syrup to prevent them from drying out until I could finish them.

They look like this out of the oven:

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By the way, the apple puree was pretty boring, and I’m bummed that I mixed butter with it, or else I could have blended it with the wonderful syrup and probably water to make a kickin’ apple sorbet.

Other: I originally planned on folding Nocello, a walnut liqueur, into the whipped cream or meringue, but I couldn’t find Nocello. Instead, I discovered this amazing Nocino della Cristina, which was seemed simply too good to do anything but keep it by itself, in a glass alongside the plate (article with cocktail recipes here). I’d thought that the bold walnut and kick of bright spice flavors would go well with the pavlova, but in practice, it seemed like it would have been too much to added yet another predominantly sweet element to the dessert. So, the Nocino stands alone for now.

After the jump are just pictures of my experiments with plating…

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My Coffee & Tea Émotion

Sunday, October 15th, 2006
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Coffee & Tea Emotion: Marcona Almond Ding, English Breakfast Bavarian Cream, Coffee Mousse, and Chocolate Pudding.

During my early years of high school, I loved coffee. I started off drinking it with lots of sugar and cream, but soon, I would only have it black. At that time, black teas were all that I knew of tea, and I loved those, too… Black. But, then, after a night of way too much coffee during my sophomore year of high school, both of them started giving me bad headaches… which haunt me still when I have them nowadays. Even green tea and dark chocolate affect me. I’d think that it has something to do with caffeine, but even most decaffeinated coffees and teas hurt me.

So, I’ve been drinking all sorts of herbal teas for over a decade, and have been happy for the most part. But I still sneak sips of my forbidden drinks every once in a while, in hopes that I can have them again without any payback. It hasn’t happened yet, but at least the flavors are blaringly strong to me since I’m not used to them anymore. That’s satisfying. And it got me to thinking… Coffee and black teas fall within a pretty similar range of flavors and consistency and astringency… and they both have an affinity for sugar and cream… Could they be reconciled into one dessert?

To test this, I went to a Peet’s Coffee & Tea. I ordered a coffee and an English Breakfast tea. First, I tasted them side by side, black. Not bad. I liked the contrast of them. Then I added some turbinado sugar to each. Even smoother. Then I added half & half to each. Very good. And I was hooked on alternating sips. Then I poured the rest of the coffee into my tea. And I got a weird look from a passerby. But it tasted interesting. I bought a box of English Breakfast, and was offered a free cup of tea or coffee to go with it. I ordered a Ti Kwan Yin, which turned out to be a “greener” oolong tea; the vegetal taste wouldn’t go with coffee. English Breakfast it would be.

That night, I endured a bad headache, shakes, anxiety, a 4am bedtime, and a burning desire to make this Coffee & Tea Emotion.

(I’m borrowing the “Emotion” term from the desserts layered in short glasses that I had from Pierre Herme’s shop in Paris. Its alternate name could be “Nina’s Headache in a Glass.”)

I wanted to include the whole gamut of flavors surrounding coffee/tea, so dark chocolate was a natural choice for an addition. And I had picked up notes of caramel by the end of my English Breakfast tasting, so I wanted to include that, too. I figured that a hard caramel garnish on top would provide a crunchiness to contrast with the creaminess of the layers that I had in mind, and the addition of Marcona almonds would add a dash of complexity, not to mention salt.

So, from the top down, I decided on: Marcona Almond Ding, English Breakfast Bavarian, Coffee Mousse, and Chocolate Pudding. I wanted the layers to go from lighter to heavier. I knew that it would be brown on brown on brown on brown on brown, but I decided to accept that as its nature.

And the result? Chad and I loved it. The combination of flavors works. You could taste each one individually, but they also came together with an agile affinity. It’s intense, to be sure, but the sugar and the cream keep it accessible and the flavor doesn’t seem crowded. It seems like an especially perfect dessert for someone truly torn between a dessert, tea, coffee, or hot chocolate to end a meal.

The only issue was that my coffee mousse didn’t set up as much as I would have liked. It was a little runny, like just this side of a sabayon consistency. It probably needed more gelatin, but at least the glass kept it contained so it didn’t ruin the dessert by any means; the dessert just wasn’t as “light to dense” as I’d planned. It had a nice coffee taste, though — neither too bitter nor too sweet.

Specific Notes:

Each layer should be chilled to set before you add the next one… and the ding can be made days in advance.

Chocolate Pudding: This recipe. I made this years ago, and loved it, especially since it’s not eggy like a lot of puddings. This time, I halved it and omitted the cinnamon and pine nuts. I think cinnamon would have fit in with the profile of flavors, but I was really going for a clean combination of the coffee/tea/chocolate flavors. I’d be interested in trying it out in the future, though.

I used Droste cocoa powder and leftover Ghirardelli chocolate that I’d let set into a blob after a chocolate tempering project.

I also thought about using a moist, dense cake or a 1p cream:1.5p choc ratio ganache (like for molded chocolates) instead; they may be interesting to try.

Coffee Mousse: I wanted to use either just coffee or coffee extract for flavoring (b/c that’s what I have easy access to, and didn’t want to buy a big bag of grounds or whatever that I have no other use for and would be a bag o’ headache for me), but I couldn’t find a recipe that fit that criteria exactly. So, I tried adapting a basic lemon mousse recipe to fit coffee instead: 1/2 env gelatin, 1/4 c coffee, 2 eggs, 1/4 tsp coffee extract, 1/4 cup sugar, and 1/2 cup cream. As I said, it was too runny. Maybe a whole env of gelatin would fix it. For this, I dissolved the gelatin in the coffee, so I didn’t add any extra liquid.

Maybe this layer could be a kind of gelee.

English Breakfast Bavarian Cream: I made an anglaise w/ a cup of cream and a cup of milk infused with 2 bags of English Breakfast tea (since the directions said to use one bag per cup of water). 4 ounces of sugar, 6 egg yolks, and some low heat later, I had an anglaise. I let that cool, and measured out 200 ml (I put the rest into my ice cream machine, and made ice cream). I measured 200 ml of cream, and whipped it. Since 1 sheet of gelatin goes with 100 ml of each for a bavarian, and 1 sheet of gelatin is equal to 1 tsp of gelatin, I used 2 tsp of powdered gelatin. I wasn’t exactly sure how much or what liquid to dissolve this in, but I knew that I didn’t want to add too much liquid… so I used .75 oz of water. Bloomed and melted gelatin, stirred it into the anglaise, folded in the whipped cream, and chilled it.

This may have been a touch too firm; maybe try descreasing gelatin just a little.

Maybe Earl Grey would be interesting here, with its citrus notes, but like the cinnamon in the original pudding, it could just be too much.

Other teas could probably work, too.

Marcona Almond Ding: This recipe. I just happened to have Marcona almonds instead of plain blanched ones, so that’s what I used. I was concerned that they were already roasted, but they didn’t scorch during the cooking of it in the caramel. And the almond ding is an addictive treat on its own; it’s like a nut brittle without the baking soda.

Alternately, maybe biscotti or shortbread, with hazelnuts, almonds, or walnuts, could replace the ding.

I’m Looking for a Full-Time Job…

Wednesday, October 11th, 2006

… in pastry around the Napa area, preferably at an establishment that leans towards innovative desserts made of fresh, seasonal ingredients… but I’m open to consider anything that comes up. I simply want to continue to learn as much as I can about desserts… and make delicious ones.  I’ve posted my resume on the sidebar and would be grateful for any leads emailed to me.
Thank you!