Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Comfort Dessert

Certain themes are recurrent among food bloggers. Currently I seem to read many posts about macarons, financiers, Pierre Hermé recipes, caramel au beurre salé, matcha-tea flavored anything, and more simply, "petits pots de crème".

This last theme attracted me by its simplicity, a dessert that is easy to make, that you can curl up around, and that your kids will like (though mine didn't get much of a taste of them I have to admit). I don't have anything new to contribute on the subject. I can only testify that yes, they are easy to make, and are very satisfying, the way childhood desserts once were. Also, a friend asked me for the recipe, which I might as well post here.

I actually first tried a recipe from Pierre Hermé's Larousse du chocolat, which I received for my birthday and which I've been drooling over these last few weeks. But the pots de crème I made from the book were runny. Did I make a mistake? Probably. Still, the recommended baking temperature of 100°C seems very low. But it didn't help that I used cold water for the water bath, and for some silly reason I added an occasional cup of cold water here and then during the baking, which certainly cooled the oven temperature too much.

My second and successful try was based on a recipe originally from Gourmet magazine, which I found on this blog.

Recipe: Petits pots de crème au chocolat

I won't write it up again as you can view it in both links above (the first is in English, the second in French). I'll just add my two cents:

- Next time I think I'll skip the vanilla bean. It's an expensive ingredient which honestly I couldn't really taste behind the strong chocolate flavor. And I found the grittiness of the vanilla seeds distracting from the smooth texture of the cream.

- I didn't have Valrhona 61% cocoa chocolate. I used Lindt 70%. It still tasted good.

- I used a 150g of chocolate rather than 130g. The result was strong but not excessively chocolaty.

- I did as one commenter recommended: I skimmed the bubbles off the top of the cream (using a soup spoon) before ladling it into the pots. The creams are more esthetic without bubbles. Using a ladle rather than pouring them also helped keep them smooth.

- Also as per this commenter's recommendations, I loosely covered the creams with tin foil during baking and let them cool in their water bath with a clean towel loosely placed on top. This is supposed to prevent on the one hand the formation of a crust, on the other drops of condensation falling back on the creams. It seems to have worked, but I might try without to see if these efforts are truly necessary.

- If they seem to wiggle a lot after an hour of baking, don't worry, they'll firm up in the fridge. Still, they should look quite set along the edges.

- Don't eat them when they're still warm (as I did one...). The texture is nothing like the cooled product. They're a bit runny and glibbery when warm, but silky creamy when cold.

- I might go back and try the Pierre Hermé recipe again as it called for only whole milk, no cream. If I could make the dessert a bit lighter without sacrificing taste, why not.

- A nice container really dresses up these simple desserts. I think you can use your good coffee cups to bake the creams in. Don't come after me if this turns out to be bad advice, but I believe the oven temperature is low enough, and the water bath protects the cups from cracking. I tested with one of my pretty Japanese bowls and it survived well.

The question is, what to do with the leftover egg whites? I hear it's OK to freeze them, which I did (simply put them in a tupperware, and label with the number of egg whites and date). When you need them remember to defrost them in the fridge several hours earlier.

Or else you could make these delicious financiers. (Another recipe in English here).

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Chocolate Raspberry Cake

Inspired by a recipe I saw in video on the PBS web site, "Julia Child - Lessons with Master Chefs," I tried my hand at a fancier cake than usual. I was overall pleased by the result. The genoise was light, and complemented the rich mousse and icing nicely. Rasperries added a touch of freshness.

The chocolate raspberry ruffle cake demonstrated by Alice Medrich was a lot more elaborate, and I do hope to follow her instructions fully one day. But for a first time I decided to omit her elegant chocolate decor as well as a layer of whipped cream-covered raspberries. I tucked the raspberries into the chocolate mousse layer sandwiched between two layers of chocolate genoise, and topped the cake with a ganache icing decorated with a white chocolate swirl and raspberries.

The icing is a recipe from Our Pâtisserie. I wasn't sure how the end result would look given I didn't ice the sides, but I like the way you can see what's inside the cake, even if it doesn't look as finished as it might.

Actually I made two of these cakes, one without raspberries or any liquor for children. On the children's cake I tried icing the sides, but either my genoise was too crooked or I don't have the technique down, it looked a little lop-sided. But I had fun writing the birthday girl's name on the cake in white chocolate.

Recipe: Chocolate Raspberry Cake

Source: the cake is inspired by a video demonstration by Alice Medrich.

1. Make the génoise (chocolate sponge cake)

I'll try to be detailed but remember you can view a full demonstration on the link above. I made 1 1/2 recipe to fill two 18 cm molds rather than one 8 inch mold. These increased quantities are in parentheses, in grams. Other than this change I followed the recipe scrupulously, as I know a génoise leaves no room for improvisation.

- 1/3 cup + 1 tbspn flour (74g for 150% of the quantity)
- 1/3 cup + 1 tbspn cocoa (55g)
- 4 eggs (6)
- 2/3 cup sugar (200g)
- 3 tbspn butter (64g)

Preheat the oven to 350°.

Line an 8 inch springform pan with a circle of wax or parchment paper. Don't butter it though. (I think the dough needs to cling to the walls of the pan as it rises).

Sift the flour and cocoa together three times. Doing it into a sheet of parchment paper makes it easy to pour back into the bowl or sifter.

Melt the butter in a bowl that's a bit larger than strictly necessary for the butter (I believe it's supposed to be clarified, I didn't bother).

Whisk the eggs and sugar in a heat-proof bowl large enough to hold them when they triple their volume. Over a hot water bath (make sure the bowl doesn't touch the surface of the water), whisk them until they reach about 105-110°F. This is lukewarm, so they will expand as much as possible. Then beat them with an electric beater until they triple in volume and form a ribbon that keeps its shape for a few seconds. It's quite important not to stop too soon. I would say with my hand-held mixer I beat them for about 8 minutes. Some recipes suggest beating over the hot water bath, I'm not sure if that's necessary.

Add half the flour and cocoa mixture and fold it in very gently, taking care not to deflate the eggs. When the color is roughly uniform, add the rest and fold in. Take a big spoonful of this batter and add it to the melted butter. Carefully fold this in with the butter so that it's homogenous, then add all of this to the main batter and fold gently. A few strokes are sufficient. (This prevents the butter from falling to the bottom of the batter, which has happened to me in the past with my lemon cake).

Gently pour into the prepared pan and bake for about 30 minutes, "give or take 5." Ms. Medrich checked for doneness simply by touching the cake, saying something like "this seems cooked through, it springs back gently and there's not too much moisture beneath the surface." I had trouble guessing at the right time. With my smaller molds, I thought 22 minutes might be enough, but the tops felt very wobbly. Perhaps opening the door too soon made the cakes deflate a bit. I ended up leaving them in for 28 min., which may have been more than enough.

Take the cake out of the oven and let it cool on a rack. Only once it's cool should you try to unmold it. First run a thin plastic spatula around the edges to separate them from the pan. I didn't have one, so I used a thin knife, which may explain the ragged edges on my cakes. Then turn over the cake and peel off the parchment. Be gentle as you do this as the bottom of the cake will become the top when you're done with it.

2. Make the syrup

- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1/3 cup water
- a shot of framboise liqueur (I used Mandarine as I don't have framboise). This is optional. It can be replaced by liquid vanilla and a bit of water if it's too sweet, or by nothing.
Bring the water and sugar to boil. When it cools down, add the liqueur, if using it.

3. Prepare the layers

Cut the cake in two layers. To do this, run a serrated (bread) knife around the cake simply to score it, then cut through (this is demonstrated in the video).

Place the top layer in the spring-form pan, cut side facing up. Dab it with syrup using a pastry brush. I tried to avoid "soaking it silly" but may have had too light a hand, as I didn't really taste it. But I'm not sure it was a loss.

Cover the cake layer with
- 250g? 500g? raspberries,
leaving some room for the mousse to sink between the berries.

This is when you make the chocolate mousse. According to A. Medrich it "can't wait" so it should only be prepared when the layers are ready to be spread with it.

4. Make the chocolate mousse

- 5 ounces good bittersweet chocolate
- 3 tbspn boiling water
- 3/4 cup heavy cream or crème fraîche
Actually, it's 3/4 cup once it's whipped, I don't know how much you need to start with. But if you have some leftover whipped cream, what's the harm? I used heavy cream as I thought some of my guests might not like the sour flavor of the crème fraîche. I forgot to multiply these quantities by 1.5 but ended up with sufficient mousse.

Chill a large bowl in the freezer for 15 minutes. Chill the cream a few minutes in the freezer as well. Then beat to make soft whipped cream.

Chop the chocolate in small pieces. Boil the water and pour on to the chocolate. Mix. The chocolate should be melted and lukewarm (test on your upper lip). Gently fold in 1/4 cup of the whipped cream, then the remain 1/2 cup.

Immediately pour onto raspberries on cake. Push down gently with spatula so the mousse squeezes in between the berries. Careful add the top layer, cut side down. Press a little then refrigerate while you make the icing.

5. Make the icing

Source: Our Patisserie, who used a recipe from Cocolat by... Alice Medrich.

"Mocha Glaze
I am giving you the amount Alice gave in the book for a 8"-10" torte. But I must add that we always have quite a bit left when I am done with glazing. Needless to say, nobody complains. You can always remelt the glaze and use it in a different project. I used semisweet chocolate although Alice says milk chocolate works better with coffee.

- 10 oz milk chocolate, cut into tiny bits (Astrid: I used dark chocolate)
- 3/4 c heavy cream
- 1 tbs light corn syrup (Astrid: I have some (dark) corn syrup from the US. It gives a shiny gloss to the icing. I wonder what I'll use when it runs out.)
- 1 tbs plus 1 tsp powdered instant coffee, dissolved in a few drops of water (Astrid: I left this out)

Put heavy cream and light corn syrup in a pan and bring to simmer. Add the coffee and stir to mix. Take off the heat, add the chocolate and stir until it is smoothly melted. Use at 100F to glaze your torte."

To make the white swirls, gently melt some
- white chocolate
in a small plastic sandwich bag in the microwave. Snip off a small corner, and use as a pastry bag for making a spiral. Then take a toothpick or sharp knife and draw lines in opposing directions. Decorate with raspberries.

Zinnur recommends not putting the cake in the refrigerator if you want to keep the shiny gloss. Given how hot and humid it was the day I made the cakes, this wasn't an option, but the hour or two they spent in the fridge didn't ruin the effect.

For a different decoration on this cake, see this post added later.

PS In reference to my last post, I had no problems with the use of cocoa in this génoise. Perhaps cocoa works best for mild-flavored chocolate cakes?

Monday, June 12, 2006

Cocoa-Based Recipes

I'm beginning to think I'm not a fan of chocolate cake or cookie recipes that rely on cocoa. I've recently tried cocoa-based brownies and cocoa cookies but in both I found the cocoa flavor a bit violent without the richer nuances of chocolate.

I then bought myself yet another silicone mold, this time a bundt cake pan. I looked for a recipe to try it out, and came upon this one from Cooks Illustrated, which relies on both bittersweet chocolate and cocoa. I thought the two together would be the right combination.

The result was successful in terms of shape and texture. The cake looked impressive and had a moist tender crumb. But it looked too black, not chocolate-brown, and the flavor was not as chocolaty as you might expect from the dark color (but perhaps my cocoa was a bit passed its prime? Oh and also I don't know if it was natural cocoa or dutched cocoa. Probably the latter).

I'll include the recipe even though I have reservations, because our guests seemed to like it, and it does make a pretty-looking cake. Also, I didn't use real brown sugar, juste sucre "vergeoise", no espresso powder and my cocoa may not have been up to par. So perhaps if I remedied these three things, the result would be more satisfying. I haven't given up hope on cocoa but I'm a little skeptical.

Recipe: Chocolate Bundt Cake
Source: Cooks Illustrated (1/2004)

From Cooks: "Natural (or regular) cocoa gives the cake a fuller, more assertive chocolate flavor than does Dutch-processed cocoa. In addition, Dutch-processed cocoa will result in a compromised rise. The cake can be served with just a dusting of confectioners' sugar but is easily made more impressive with Tangy Whipped Cream and Lightly Sweetened Raspberries (recipes [do not] follow). The cake can be made a day in advance; wrap the cooled cake in plastic and store it at room temperature. Dust with confectioners' sugar just before serving."

Serves 12 to 14

Cake Release
- 1 tablespoon butter , melted
- 1 tablespoon cocoa

- 3/4 cup natural cocoa (2 1/4 ounces)
- 6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
- 1 teaspoon instant espresso powder (optional. I left it out)
- 3/4 cup water (boiling)
- 1 cup sour cream , room temperature
- 1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (8 3/4 ounces)
- 1 teaspoon table salt
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 12 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), room temperature
- 2 cups packed light brown sugar (14 ounces)
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- 5 large eggs , room temperature
confectioners' sugar for dusting

1. FOR THE PAN: Stir together butter and cocoa in small bowl until paste forms; using a pastry brush, coat all interior surfaces of standard 12-cup Bundt pan, see illustration below. (If mixture becomes too thick to brush on, microwave it for 10 to 20 seconds, or until warm and softened.) Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position; heat oven to 350 degrees.

2. FOR THE CAKE: Combine cocoa, chocolate, and espresso powder (if using) in medium heatproof bowl; pour boiling water over and whisk until smooth. Cool to room temperature; then whisk in sour cream. Whisk flour, salt, and baking soda in second bowl to combine.

3. In standing mixer (I used a wooden spoon) fitted with flat beater, beat butter, sugar, and vanilla on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Reduce speed to medium and add eggs one at a time, mixing about 30 seconds after each addition and scraping down bowl with rubber spatula after first 2 additions. Reduce to medium-low speed (batter may appear separated); add about one third of flour mixture and half of chocolate/sour cream mixture and mix until just incorporated, about 20 seconds. Scrape bowl and repeat using half of remaining flour mixture and all of remaining chocolate mixture; add remaining flour mixture and beat until just incorporated, about 10 seconds. Scrape bowl and mix on medium-low until batter is thoroughly combined, about 30 seconds. Pour batter into prepared Bundt pan, being careful not to pour batter on sides of pan. Bake until wooden skewer inserted into center comes out with few crumbs attached, 45 to 50 minutes. Cool in pan 10 minutes, then invert cake onto parchment-lined wire rack; cool to room temperature, about 3 hours. Dust with confectioners' sugar, transfer to serving platter, and cut into wedges; serve with Tangy Whipped Cream and raspberries, if desired.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

New Sources of Inspiration

I've added two blogs to my list of favorites on the right: Kuidaore and The Traveler's Lunchbox. Both feature exquisite photos, inspiring selections of dishes, and great writing. Too bad there aren't many recipes on Kuidaore, but there are lots of tips and explanations that will help when making a recipe found elsewhere. For instance, should I ever want to attempt macarons there are some great tips here. And the photos are more than mouth-watering.

The Traveler's Lunchbox has excellent writing and recipes from all over the world. I recently tried one with great results: sweet potato salad (see photo above, which sadly could have used more lighting).

This is not a recipe for meek taste-buds. Feta, black olives, raw onions, cumin, cayenne and cilantro are assertive counterpoints to the sweet potato's mellowness. But for those who aren't frightened, these strong flavors don't compete with each other. It's a bit like when my talkative friends and I have a lively discussion: we all manage to get a word in at the same time and the effect is perhaps noisy but somehow joyful and harmonious as well.

So without further ado, here is the recipe. I'm copying it here, but do read Melissa's original post, as it contains a very amusing ode to the sweet potato.

Recipe: Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Spicy Feta-Olive Salad
Copied from: The Traveler's Lunchbox
Recipe Source: Inspired by a recipe in Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons
Serves: 2 as main course, 4 as side dish (can easily be multiplied)

- 2 large sweet potatoes, 3/4-1 lb each
- 200g (about 1/2 lb) block good feta cheese (sheep's milk is the best - try feta imported from Greece or France), cut into 1/2-inch (1 cm) cubes
- 2/3 cup black oil-cured olives (or other high-quality olives), pitted and chopped
- 1/2 red onion, chopped
- 1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
- 1 clove garlic, minced (optional)
- 1/2 cup (packed) chopped fresh coriander/cilantro
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds (ground ok)
- 1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds (ground ok)
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 2-3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- juice of 1/2 lemon
- salt and pepper (Astrid's note: salt may be unnecessary due to saltiness of feta and olives)

Something cool and creamy to dollop on top: sour cream, yogurt, tzaziki... even hummus! (Astrid's note: I forgot the dollop, but no one complained)

Preheat the oven to 375F/190C. Wash the potatoes to rid them of any dirt and place on a foil-lined baking pan in the oven (no need to prick them). Bake until they are completely soft, about 45-60 minutes (depending on their size).

While the potatoes are roasting, make the salad. I like to toast the cumin and coriander seeds before using them, but you don't have to. If you do, just heat them in a dry pan, stirring often, until they smell fragrant and toasty. Set aside to cool, then crush them coarsely in a mortar or with the back of a heavy knife (if using whole seeds). Mix together all the salad ingredients in a bowl and leave to marinate in the fridge until the potatoes are done (add a little more olive oil if it seems dry). When they are, remove them from the oven and place on plates. Slice them lengthwise down the center, folding open to reveal the orange flesh inside. Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper. Pile half the feta salad on each potato, and eat!