Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Best Waffles

I love making special treats for Sunday breakfast. With two young kids around the house, waking up early and giving us just as much work on weekends as during the week, I need the ritual of the special breakfast to make weekends feel different from week days.

Among these special breakfasts are pancakes, popovers, biscuits and waffles. Waffles are the most festive. In addition to being very tasty, they are prepared the night before and baked at the breakfast table, which is much more relaxing than pancakes. Popovers are lovely, requiring little preparation, and low in butter or sugar, but they need too long in the oven. Biscuits are good and quick to make, but somehow for all that butter I would prefer to eat waffles.

The best waffles are yeasted waffles. There's no two ways about it. Below is the recipe I've been making for many years. I once copied the recipe from a friend's coobook, so I'm not sure of the source. I believe it comes from a cookbook of America's Test Kitchen, or Cooks Illustrated, but looking up on their web-site I found a slightly different version of the yeasted waffle recipe. Which I might try as it suggests letting the dough rise in the fridge, with the eggs in it, which makes mornings even more relaxed.

Recipe: Overnight Waffles
Original source: Cooks Illustrated?

This is how the recipe described them, and I agree entirely: "super-crisp on the outside, light and tender inside, with complex flavor of yeast risen batter, these are the best waffles you can make."

- 1/2 tsp instant yeast
If your yeast packet has been open for more than a week, consider doubling the amount.
- 2 c flour
I often use up to 1/2 cup wholewheat flour for a healthier (!) nuttier waffle
- 1 tbspn sugar
- 1/2 tspn salt
- 2 cups milk
- 8 tbspn butter, melted & cooled
This is a lot of butter. I've made them with 6 tbpsns and they tasted yummy. I might try with even less.
- 1/2 tspn vanilla (optional. I don't bother)
- 2 eggs

Before going to bed, combine dry ingredients and stir in milk, butter and vanilla. Mixture will be loose. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside overnight at room temp. I usually put the bowl in the cold, turned off oven, and close the door.

In the morning the dough will have bubbled and risen, as shown here. Brush waffle iron lightly with oil & preheat. (Note: my waffle iron doesn't require any oiling so I don't do this.) Separate eggs and stir yolks into batter. Beat whites to soft peaks. Fold in gently.

Pour into hot waffle iron. The batter is a bit runny, so I often close the iron, flip the entire machine over to fill the top cavities as well, then flip it back to its normal position. Bake waffles until steam has subsided and waffles are golden brown (it's OK to peek). You may want to try different shades of brown to see which you like best: darker makes them very crunchy, lighter golden and they'll be very moist and tender inside.

This makes about 12 waffles, or enough for two (hungry) adults and two (very small) children.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Bake Sale Goodies

I had hoped this blog would encourage me to try more ambitious recipes. Indeed, I keep bookmarking elaborate dishes I want to try, such as this or this. Or I fantasize about trying my hand at baking bread.

But while I manage to steal of bit of time from my daily responsibilities to bake simple cakes, I can't seem to put everything on hold long enough to try something challenging. The vacherin was an exception, but I can't say I was encouraged by the result.

So without further apology, here are two more simple recipes. These were made for a bake sale, and as I've learned the hard way, you really don't want to make anything finicky or elaborate for a bake sale. It's not worth it and doesn't sell any faster. You make big batches, bake them in pans, chop them up and done.

I made lemon cake, maple pecan bars and brownies.

The brownies were a failure, (hence no photo), because I doubled all quantities except the sugar. While the flavor was good (not as cloyingly sweet), reducing the sugar seemed to make them very dry, despite the daunting quantities of butter used, and even though I baked them for less time than usual. So I learned something interesting: sugar provides moisture. Still, they sold well enough, marketed as "cakey brownies." That would be another rule for bake sales: anything chocolate sells.

The lemon cake was a success, and I'm definitely adding it to my regular repertoire. It makes a lovely-textured loaf, but also pretty stars (yay, another recipe to use with my silicone molds). I kept the stars for home consumption, as they were too time-consuming for the bake sale. Sure it's no effort to pour batter into a mold, but you can only bake a few at a time.

The maple pecan bars were quite good, but I felt there was a little something missing. I read in some recipe that a few teaspoons of lemon gives a little kick and undercuts all the sweetness, which I might try next time.

Recipe: Lemon Cake
Source: Les Cakes de Sophie, by Sophie Dudemaine

The recipe isn't very detailed so I'll add my thoughts as I go...

- 3 eggs
I would recommend these be at room temperature so they can incorporate as much air as possible when you beat them with the sugar
- 150g sugar (original is 170g)
- 160g flour
- 1 tspn baking powder
I'm not sure that's the right amount, since the recipe only said "1/3 de sachet de levure" I believe a "sachet" usually holds 12g, so 1/3 would be 4g of baking powder.
- 1/4 tsp salt (omit if you use salted butter)
- 150g melted salted butter
The recipe specifies salted butter, but I never have it on hand so I use sweet butter and add salt. I would like to try with a little less butter. Update: I tried with 125g, you wouldn't know the difference.
- 2 lemons.

1. Preheat oven to 180°C
2. Whip the eggs and sugar until the mixture turns white. I beat this for a good 4-5 minutes with an egg beater so the eggs really turn frothy and pale and form a ribbon.
3. Incorporate the flour and the baking powder.
I mixed the baking powder and salt in the flour first. I believe you don't want to beat the flour in so as not to deflate the eggs.
4. Mix the butter into the batter.
5. Prepare the lemons: Wash them, remove the zests with a potato peeler and cut them length-wise. Plunge them in a little boiling water for 5 seconds, drain them, then plunge them in ice cold water. Drain them and dry them.
6. Squeeze the lemons and delicately mix their juice into the batter along with the zests, with a spatula.
A word of warning. I must have been too delicate, as I found a fair amount of lemon juice and butter stayed at the bottom of my bowl, making the last muffins I made very greasy and sour. Perhaps this was because I made a double batch. But since the main cake came out well, it made me think it might be possible to reduce the quantity of butter somewhat, provided it all gets mixed in correctly.
7. Pour the batter in a buttered and floured loaf pan (about 26 centimeters long, though I think French loaf pans are a bit narrower than American loaf pans).
8. Bake for 40 minutes. Don't open the oven before the cake is fully set, as I did the first time I made this: opening the door and turning the cake around after 20 minutes made it deflate in the center. Not pretty, but still good.

Recipe: Maple Pecan Bars
Source: Bon Appétit/Epicurious

For the crust
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 large egg yolk
- 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
- 1/8 teaspoon salt

For the filling
- 1/2 cup pure maple syrup
- 1/3 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
- 1/4 cup whipping cream
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped pecans

Making the crust:
1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
2. Butter 9x9x2-inch metal cake pan
Note: I lined the pan with parchment paper, which turned out to be a good idea, as the filling was very runny and slipped under the edge of the crust. I also made a double batch and used both a 9x9 inch pan and a 9x13 inch pan, which resulted in relatively thin bars. I had added flour to the crust, which was not a good idea, but it made more dough. If you want to do this maybe make 2 1/2 times the crust recipe.
3. Beat butter, sugar, and egg yolk in bowl using the electric mixer.
4. Add flour and salt; beat until moist clumps form. Gather dough together.
5. Press dough over bottom and 1/2 inch up sides of pan.
Note: I didn't bother pushing the dough up the sides of the pan since I had lined it with parchment paper.
6. Bake crust until golden, about 20 minutes. Cool.
Note: I thought dough was too moist so I added about 1/2 cup of flour if not more. I regret doing this, it made the crust a bit too dry.

Making the filling:
1. Combine first 4 ingredients in medium saucepan.
2. Bring to boil, stirring until butter melts and mixture is smooth. Boil filling 30 seconds.
3. Remove from heat; mix in vanilla, then nuts.
4. Pour hot filling into crust.
5. Bake bars until filling is bubbling in center, about 15 minutes.
6. Cool bars completely in pan on rack (filling will become firm). Chill at least 1 hour and up to 2 hours. (Can be made 3 days ahead. Cover and keep chilled.) Cut into 30 bars.
Note: Though I didn't chill the bars, I was able to slice them without difficulty. But this was perhaps because they were so thin.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Pecan Sandies

I tried a new cut-out cookies recipe recently and was pleased with the results. Again, these are nut-based, but they're more delicate than my usual almond recipe. They probably wouldn't be as suitable for intricate shapes, as the confectioners' sugar makes them more fragile, I suppose. Yet they have a strong pecan flavor from the roasted nuts. Delicate yet flavorful, what more can I ask?

I'll make this recipe again. I found it on Cookie Madness, and was convinced to try them by this sentence: "These are unbelievable. After trying these, I stopped looking for a better pecan cookie."

Recipe: Pecan Sables
Original source: Epicurious

- 3/4 cup pecans (3 oz), toasted and cooled, plus about 32 pecan halves (3 oz)
Toast the nuts in a 180° oven (350°F) in a single layer on a cookie sheet, until they become fragrant, 6-8 min.
- 2/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons confectioners sugar
- 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
This I found to be too much salt. I would vote for 1/8 of a teaspoon.
- 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
As usual, I used vanilla sugar instead.
- 1 large egg, separated
Special equipment: a 2-inch round cookie cutter
(I think mine was smaller).

1. Preheat oven to 325°F.

2. Pulse toasted pecans with 2 tablespoons confectioners sugar in a food processor until finely ground.

3. Whisk together flour, salt, and baking powder in a bowl.

4. Beat together butter, remaining 2/3 cup confectioners sugar, and vanilla in a bowl with an electric mixer at high speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes.

5. Add egg yolk and beat well.

6. Add flour and ground-pecan mixture and mix at low speed until just combined, 30 seconds to 1 minute. (Dough will be crumbly but will hold together when squeezed.)

7. Halve dough and roll out 1 half between 2 sheets of wax paper (I think I used parchment paper) until 1/4 inch thick (about a 9-inch round).
Note: I roll the dough thinner, and chill it after rolling it out: half an hour to half a day. These tend to dry out quickly so you don't want to leave them in the fridge too long with only the parchment paper as protection.

8. Cut out as many rounds as possible with cookie cutter and arrange about 2 inches apart (Note: I put them much closer together, which doesn't seem to be a problem) on buttered large baking sheets, reserving scraps. Roll out and cut remaining dough in same manner. Gather scraps, then reroll and cut in same manner.

9. Beat egg white until frothy, then brush tops of rounds lightly with egg white.

10. Put a pecan half (or fragment) on top of each round, then brush pecan lightly with egg white.

11. Bake cookies in middle of oven until tops are pale golden, 15 to 20 minutes (a little less if cookies are super thin). Cool cookies on sheets on racks 2 minutes, then transfer to racks to cool completely.

Cookies keep in an airtight container 1 week.
Makes about 32 cookies.
Gourmet, November 2002

Note: Since I rolled the dough out quite thin again, I felt the entire pecan half recommended by the recipe in way of garnish would be too much. So instead I decorated most of these cookies with fragments of pecans. Perhaps a little less esthetically-pleasing, but I didn't want to overwhelm the cookie. Also, make sure you don't apply too much egg white wash or you may see white chalky streaks on the nuts, as evidenced here.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

I Love Silicone

Another subject I like to read about in food blogs is equipment. What people use, what they like about it, what they recommend. So here's my contribution on silicone bakeware.

Why do you buy so many silicone molds?
I love baking in pretty shapes (you should see my cookie-cutter collection), and every time I see a new mold in the store I'm tempted to buy it, whether I have a use for it or not. It's the kid in me making sand castles...

What do you use them for?
I use them for baking as well as for freezing. Ice cream can be served in pretty shapes. I'm still working on shaping mousses: I tried with a gelatin-based recipe but I didn't like its texture. I'll keep trying.

But as for freezing, the best use I've found is for storing unbaked dough. I pour the batter into the desired shape, flash-freeze it, and when the shapes are hard, just pop them out and into a plastic bag and back into the freezer. Then on the spur of the moment I can put the frozen muffins into the appropriate mold and into the oven. It works very well, I've tried it so far with both madeleines and chocolate cake muffins. You can have fresh-baked goodies in the time it takes to bake them, which is usually less than 10 minutes with these muffin shapes.

I even use these silicone molds for freezing things like soup in small portions. See the end of this post. In this case it's not the shape that counts, but the silicone's flexibility which makes it easy to produce giant ice cubes of stock. The different shapes do help me to tell different batches of stock apart. ("Oh, gotta finish the stars before I start with the hearts...")

Do they work with all recipes?
At first I had trouble finding a good recipe to use with the star and heart-shaped molds. A regular cake batter puffs up too much, and the resulting pot belly on the muffin distracts from the intended shape. Example: these popovers. They didn't pop as much as they should have, but still too much to make attractive stars.

And then I made tried this brownies recipe. These brownies are the real thing, a bit fudgy and very sweet. I find the little baby belly rising in the center of the star doesn't ruin the muffin's outline, it just makes it more sensuous! My slightly modified version of the recipe is posted below.

Update April 2007: Another good recipe for silicone molds is Financiers.

Are there any drawbacks?
These molds are easy to store, easy to unmold, and easy to wash. Still, for more intricate shapes, like the teddy bear's face, or the tips of the stars, I prefer to brush the mold with melted butter, as I've occasionally lost some bits to the mold. Also washing up can be tricky as the molds are wobbly to handle in the sink or in the dishwasher. The dishwasher doesn't always get all the baked-on crumbs off, and the molds can feel a little oily even after having been washed. However, these little drawbacks are not enough to make me kick my silicone habit.

Recipe: Dark Chocolate Brownies
Source: Cooking for Engineers.

- 170g dark chocolate (70% cocoa)
- 150g butter
- 275g sugar
I decreased the butter and sugar a little but the recipe is still rich and very sweet. I don't dare reduce these too much or the brownies may lose their fudgy chewiness...
- 3 large eggs
- 1 tsp vanilla extract or 1 pack vanilla sugar
- 125g flour
- 1/2 cup or more of chopped pecans or other nuts

1. Preheat oven to 160°C

2. Melt chocolate with butter.

3. Whip eggs with sugar and vanilla until frothy. This wasn't part of the original recipe but if you skip this step you don't get the characteristic shiny crust on the brownie.

4. Add chocolate & butter to eggs

5. Mix in flour

6. Mix in nuts

7. Pour into buttered 9x13 inch baking pan and bake for anywhere between 25 to 35 minutes. The original recipe said 35 but 25 worked for me.
For muffin shapes like the stars here I think 15 min. is ample, but I don't quite remember. Try sticking a toothpick in the dough. If it comes out dripping, then clearly the brownies aren't ready. If there are moist crumbs clinging to the toothpick then I would say they are done.

PS. Apparently I am not the only one with a thing for silicone...

Monday, May 08, 2006

Going Out on a Limb with a Raspberry Vacherin

When I read food blogs I like to read about failures, as these are always instructive. So it's my turn to contribute a semi-failure. Ideally I would aslo be able to describe how I fixed the problem, but I haven't found the solution yet. (Comments with suggestions are welcome)

It all started because I wanted to try something new and festive for a dinner party. I first tested a kind of chocolate mousse on almond dacquoise (meringue), decorated with ganache. Sounds nice, no? No. I put gelatin in the mousse to be able to unmold it, but it ended up... gelatinous. And the dacquoise was soggy. I thought the sogginess was because I hadn't baked it long enough, so I didn't give up on the concept.

My next and final attempt was a kind of vacherin. I didn't follow a single recipe, but I thought this would be simple enough: I baked three meringue layers, then filled them with homemade raspberry sorbet, and decorated the top with a mixture of whipped cream and italian meringue (the recipe for this garnish I found in my old Larousse dictionnaire de cuisine et de gastronomie, no longer in print).

The whipped cream didn't take very well, but after letting it rest in the fridge I was able to scrape the top off and get something pipe-able. Then I realized I had no idea how to pipe cream, and didn't have the time to practice as I did this at the last minute. I hurriedly threw raspberries around the cake, as I was afraid the sorbet would melt before I served it.

The sorbet was very good. But the meringue layers vanished into thin air! I had thought the ratio of meringue to ice cream might be a bit excessive, but with the moisture from the sorbet they practically dissolved, leaving only a little bit of moist chewiness. Not what I had been looking for. I guess you should only assemble a vacherin at the last minute?

As a result, I'll just post the recipe for the sorbet. It's both delicious and very easy to make. I made it with an ice cream maker but the recipe seems to suggest a variant using egg white for still-freezing.

Recipe: Raspberry Sorbet

Serving Size : 4
- 450 g (1 lb) fresh raspberries or frozen raspberries thawed.
I always use frozen, it makes my life easier and there's no surprise in the flavor. However I use fresh raspberries for the garnish
- 100 g (3,5 oz) caster sugar
I think that means regular granulated sugar...
- 150 ml (Quarter pt) water
- Juice of one lemon
I used half a lemon
- 1 Egg white (optional)
I didn't use one, but I guess it helps the texture if you don't have an ice cream maker.

1. Puree the raspberries and sieve if preferred. I first pureed them with a vegetable mill (is that the term?) then sieved the results again.

2. Put the sugar and water in a saucepan and stir over a gentle heat until the sugar has dissolved. Turn up the heat and boil fast for 5 minutes until a sticky syrup forms. When the syrup has cooled,

3. Mix it with the fruit puree and lemon juice.

4. Let the mixture cool in the refrigerator (I left mine overnight).

5a. Freeze in an ice cream maker for 20 minutes. (I freezed it longer, more like 40 min. I think).

5b. (Variant if you don't have an ice cream maker) Alternatively, place the mixture in a bowl in the freezer until beginning to freeze around the edges. Whisk the egg white and fold into the part-frozen mixture. Return the sorbet to the freezer until frozen.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Cooking Videos on the Web

I was very happy to discover a mine of information on this PBS web site: hundreds of video clips of Julia Child's Lessons with Master Chefs. You can search on ingredients, chefs, key words... there's even a transcript of each video so you can start the playback from a given word (ah, so that's what metadata is for: skipping the boring bits!).

The photo above is an example of something I made after watching one of their videos: Potato Thyme Wafers, by chef Christopher Gross.

These are very tasty and light and crisp, and surprisingly thin. Will I make them very often? Hmm... not sure, it seems like an awful lot of effort to replace potato chips. But perhaps as a fancy garnish for a main course or something.

Recipe: Potato-Thyme Wafers
Source: PBS Julia Child Lessons with Master Chefs, Christopher Gross (I'll keep this recipe brief, the video says it all)

- Four parts mashed potatoes
Such as Idaho baking potatoes (no idea what that translates to in Europe, I used some kind of mealy potatoes)
- One part egg white
- One part melted butter
- Salt and pepper
- Thyme
I forgot to add the thyme, but they still tasted good

I assumed by parts they meant volumes. So I first measured how many egg whites I had (3 I think), then melted the same amount of butter and used four times that volume in mashed potatoes.

1. Boil and mash the potatoes in a food mill.

2. Add the egg whites without whisking (you don't want to add air).

3. Add the melted butter, making sure it's not too hot so it won't cook the egg whites. Add salt and pepper.

4. Preheat oven to 350°.

5. Make a stencil. I cut tear or pear shapes the size of a child's hand from a cereal cardboard box.

6. Lightly oil a cookie sheet with olive oil, using a brush.

7. Use the stencil to spread very thin layers of dough on the cookie sheet (it seems a bit messy but if you watch the video the chef has the same difficulties I did).

8. Sprinkle with thyme

9. Bake for about 10 minutes, or until nice and brown.