Thursday, May 27, 2010

Daring Bakers Piece Montée (Croquembouche)

The May 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Cat of Little Miss Cupcake. Cat challenged everyone to make a piece montée, or croquembouche, based on recipes from Peter Kump’s Baking School in Manhattan and Nick Malgieri.

I wanted to make this dessert for one of my best friends (hi Nancy!) who was visiting a few weekends ago and my goal was to minimize the amount of work I had while she was here. Since there were several steps to this recipe, I started early -- made the pastry cream 3 days in advance, baked the pâte à choux the day before, and filled and froze them overnight. The next day, I assembled the Croqembouche while the choux were still frozen. I think freezing them actually made the assembly easier. The choux were much easier to handle, and the glaze hardened quickly which helped them stick together. Nancy is a fan of fruity desserts and chocolate, so I filled the choux with a banana pastry cream and assembled the Croquembouche with a chocolate glaze.

I had never made a pâte à choux before but had been longing to try it for some time. Cat's recipe for the choux was absolutely perfect. These little babies puffed up so beautifully I almost couldn't believe I actually made them. I ate one right out of the oven - no filling, no frosting, completely unadorned, and it was simply amazing. Like the most delicious fluffy little pillow you could ever eat.

For the pastry cream, I started with Kat's recipe for vanilla pastry cream, reduced the sugar a bit, and added a mashed banana. The cream was good but not spectacular. It was a bit too sweet and not very flavorful. I scraped in some vanilla beans, which helped enhance the flavor a bit, but I still wasn't in love. I would have preferred a creamier, maybe even gooier, filling for the choux.

Assembling the Croquembouche was probably the step I was most intimidated by, but it actually turned out to be much simpler than I had imagined. As I mentioned, I think working with frozen choux made it much simpler, and my Croquembouche came together pretty easily.

All in all, I really enjoyed making, and even more so eating, this dessert. Cat's pâte à choux recipe has opened up a world of possibilities -- I've been dreaming about eclairs, cream puffs, and profiteroles. This will be my go-to recipe the next time I want to make a pâte à choux, and there definitely will be a next time.

Piece Montée (Croquembouche)

For the Banana Crème Patissiere:
*1 cup (225 ml) whole milk
*2 tablespoons cornstarch
*6 tablespoons (100 g) sugar
*1 large egg
*2 large egg yolks
*1 small banana, mashed
*2 tablespoons (30 g) unsalted butter
*1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
*1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise

Dissolve cornstarch in ¼ cup of milk. Combine the remaining milk with the sugar in a saucepan; bring to boil; remove from heat.

Beat the whole egg, then the yolks into the cornstarch mixture. Pour 1/3 of boiling milk into the egg mixture, whisking constantly so that the eggs do not begin to cook.

Return the remaining milk to boil. Pour in the hot egg mixture in a stream, continuing whisking.

Continue whisking (this is important – you do not want the eggs to solidify/cook) until the cream thickens and comes to a boil. Remove from heat and stir in the mashed banana, then beat in the butter and vanilla extract. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean and stir in to combine. Finally, for a smooth consistency, strain the creme through a sieve.

For the Pate a Choux (Yield: About 28)
*¾ cup (175 ml.) water
*6 Tbsp. (85 g.) unsalted butter
*¼ Tsp. salt
*1 Tbsp. sugar
*1 cup (125 g.) all-purpose flour
*4 large eggs

For Egg Wash:
*1 egg and pinch of salt ( Instead of egg wash, I brushed the choux with a bit of milk)

Pre-heat oven to 425◦F/220◦C degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

To prepare batter: 1. Combine water, butter, salt and sugar in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil and stir occasionally. At boil, remove from heat and sift in the flour, stirring to combine completely. Return to heat and cook, stirring constantly until the batter dries slightly and begins to pull away from the sides of the pan. Transfer to a bowl and stir with a wooden spoon 1 minute to cool slightly. Add 1 egg. The batter will appear loose and shiny. As you stir, the batter will become dry-looking like lightly buttered mashed potatoes. It is at this point that you will add in the next egg. Repeat until you have incorporated all the eggs.

To Pipe:
Transfer batter to a pastry bag fitted with a large open tip (I piped directly from the bag opening without a tip). Pipe choux about 1 inch-part in the baking sheets. Choux should be about 1 inch high about 1 inch wide. Using a clean finger dipped in hot water, gently press down on any tips that have formed on the top of choux when piping. You want them to retain their ball shape, but be smoothly curved on top.

Brush tops with egg wash (1 egg lightly beaten with pinch of salt) or milk.

To Bake:
Bake the choux at 425◦F/220◦C degrees until well-puffed and turning lightly golden in color, about 10 minutes.

Lower the temperature to 350◦F/180◦C degrees and continue baking until well-colored and dry, about 20 minutes more. Remove to a rack and cool.

Can be stored in a airtight box overnight.

To Fill:
When you are ready to assemble your piece montée, using a plain pastry tip, pierce the bottom of each choux. Fill the choux with pastry cream using either the same tip or a star tip, and place on a paper-lined sheet. Choux can be refrigerated briefly at this point while you make your glaze.

For Chocolate Glaze:

*8 ounces/200 g. finely chopped semi or bitter sweet chocolate (use the finest quality you can afford as the taste will be quite pronounced)

Melt chocolate in microwave or double boiler. Stir at regular intervals to avoid burning. Use immediately.

Assembling the Piece Montée:
You may want to lay out your unfilled, unglazed choux in a practice design to get a feel for how to assemble the final dessert. For example, if making a conical shape, trace a circle (no bigger than 8 inches) on a piece of parchment to use as a pattern. Then take some of the larger choux and assemble them in the circle for the bottom layer. Practice seeing which pieces fit together best.

Once you are ready to assemble your piece montée, dip the top of each choux in your glaze (careful it may be still hot!), and start assembling on your cake board/plate/sheet. Continue dipping and adding choux in levels using the glaze to hold them together as you build up.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Panzanella Salad

My lovely readers, I know I have been away for a while. I have been traveling on a road trip for the last week with no internet access and therefore have been unable to update this site and read up on all my favorite blogs. I finally have internet access (woot!) now and I promise I will catch up on all the posts I have missed.

I also have some news...I got a job! Yes, in a few months, I will be finishing up graduate school and moving to the Midwest to teach at a small liberal arts college. I am excited and terrified at the same time. Happy and sad. Relieved and nervous. I'm definitely feeling a mix of emotions right now and this is only the start. It is crazy for me to think about how remarkably different my life will be in a few months, how so many changes are about to take place. And as excited as I am about this opportunity, I sometimes wish things wouldn't change.

I've spent the last 5 years of my life in California, and although I'm ready for a change, I know there are many things I will miss about this place. I've mentioned before how great the local farmer's market is here, and I feel almost at a loss when I think about not being able to have fresh and local produce all year long. The best thing about this farmer's market is the variety of produce stands avaialble. Sure there are the ridiculously pricey vendors who try to sell you a tiny basket of organic strawberries for $7, but there are also several vendors that sell pesticide-free produce at prices that are reasonable even for a cheap and poor graduate student like me.

Shopping at the farmer's market gives me opportunities to make things like this panzanella salad which was inspired by one of my favorite food sites. The original recipe called for asparagus and leeks, but I substituted spring garlic for the leeks and added fava beans. That is the beauty of this salad. It can be easily tweaked to accommodate whatever vegetable you're craving or, in my case, happens to be on sale!

Spring Panzanella Salad (adapted from Smitten Kitchen)
For the croutons:
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
5 cups day-old bread, crust removed, cubed (I used whole wheat)
6 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan or Pecorino cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the vinaigrette:
Half a red onion, finely diced
2 to 2 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Juice of half a lemon
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard

For the salad:
2 cups shelled fava beans (from about 2 lbs of unshelled beans), steamed or blanched
1 pound asparagus, cut into 1 inch pieces
2 bulbs spring garlic (optional)
1 19-ounce can of white beans, rinsed and drained or 1 1/2 cups cooked white beans

Preheat oven to 400°F.

To make bread cubes:
Mix the bread cubes with the garlic, olive oil, cheese, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Toss to coat well. Transfer bread to a baking sheet and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake stirring once or twice, until the croutons are crisp and lightly colored on the outside but still soft within, about 10 to 15 minutes. Set aside and let cool.

To make vinaigrette:
Whisk together red onion, vinegar, lemon juice, olive oil, and mustard in a small bowl.
Set aside.

To prepare salad:
Combine the beans, asparagus, spring garlic (if using), and white beans in a large bowl. Mix in bread cubes, pour in vinaigrette, and toss well.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Classic Yellow Cupcakes

Oh goodness me. Can someone teach me how to frost a cupcake? Apparently, I suck at this. These cupcakes were so cute out of the oven, and then I pulled out my piping bag, tips and all. Next thing you know, there I was, "piping" globs of frosting on them, desperately trying to maintain some coherent design, but really just creating what I can only describe as poo-like piles. Sorry for the description, but I need some pointers! Fellow bakers, how do you frost your cupcakes so beautifully, and why do mine always look so...strange? I read all the tips in Joy of Baking, even watched some videos, but something always goes astray. Either I pull away too quickly and end up with skinny tubes, or pipe for too long and end up with big puddles. Maybe I just need a different piping tip. Yup, that must be it. Blame it on the tools, not the handy man woman.

Luckily, I was able to somewhat salvage these cupcakes by using the frosting as more of a glue and sticking on some little chocolate chips (another reason why I love chocolate chips!). And in all seriousness, these cupcakes were rich, moist, and just sweet enough with a subtle hint of vanilla. Utterly delicious - botched-up frosting and all.

Yellow Cupcakes with Chocolate Frosting (adapted from Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook, makes about 18 cupcakes)

*2 cups all-purpose flour
*1 1/2 cup sugar
*2 teaspoons baking powder
*1 teaspoon baking soda
*pinch of salt
*6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
*1 cup whole milk
*2 eggs
*1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Chocolate Buttercream Frosting
* 2 1/4 cup confectioner's sugar
* 8 Tb cocoa powder
* 6 Tb butter, at room temperature
* 1 tsp vanilla
* 2 Tb milk

1. In a large bowl, sift together the confectioners sugar and cocoa, and set aside.
2. In another large bowl, cream butter until smooth. Gradually add in one quarter of the sugar mixture, 2 Tb at a time. Add in all of the vanilla, then another quarter of the sugar mixture, two tablespoons at a time. The mixture should be firm. At this point, gradually add the milk, about a 1/2 tablespoon at at a time, alternating with 2 tablespoons at a time of the rest of the sugar mixture.

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Put the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and butter in an electric mixer with a paddle attachment (or use a hand-held electric whisk) and beat on slow until you get a sandy consistency and everything is combined. Gradually pour in half the milk and beat until the milk is just incorporated.
3. Whisk the eggs, vanilla extract, and remaining milk together in a separate bowl for a few seconds, then pour into the flour mixture and continue beating until just incorporated (scrape any unmixed ingredients from the side of the bowl with a rubber spatula). Continue mixing for a couple more minutes until the mixture is smooth. Do not over-mix.
4. Pour the mixture into a muffin pan lined with paper cases until two thirds full and bake in the preheated oven for 20–25 minutes, or until light golden and the sponge bounces back when touched (smaller cupcakes will need 3-5 minutes less baking time).
5. A toothpick inserted in the center should come out clean. Leave the cupcakes to cool slightly in the tray before turning out on to a wire cooling rack to cool completely.
6. When the cupcakes are cold, frost with chocolate buttercream frosting. To

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Vegetarian Cassoulet

One of the most rewarding perks of living in California is the amazing produce we can get pretty much all year round. Many Californians are fortunate enough to have year-long farmers markets that are fully stocked with fresh and local fruits and vegetables. So it's not surprising that one of my main goals for this blog was to post recipes for foods prepared with these seasonal ingredients. Sounds simple right? Maybe for some, but for me? Not so much. Things come up. Interviews, presentations, deadlines. A certain advisor sends a certain angry email regarding a certain thesis that should have been finished some three weeks ago. See, things come up, and although I made this cassoulet a while back, when it was more probable to find fresh local leeks, here I am weeks later finally posting about it, and guess what? thesis is still not done (ssh...don't tell the advisor!)

I have been fascinated by cassoulets ever since I saw a Julia Child recipe in her Menu Cookbook. Julia's recipe is definitely not for the faint of heart. It requires 3 types of meat- pork, sausage, and goose (I'm not even sure I know where to buy goose from). The recipe also states that it requires more than 4 hours of cooking time (plus more for preparation). That's the required time for normal people, so for someone like me, this recipe would take oh, roughly...4 days. Yup, that sounds about right.

One of these days (I'm thinking maybe sometime around retirement?) I'll try Julia's recipe, but until then I will definitely be making this simpler vegetarian version often. It takes about 2 1/2 hours from start to finish - including preparation (and yes, even for me!) and is so delicious and hearty that even my carnivorous BF didn't miss the meat. Although I'm sure a few chunks of chicken or sausage wouldn't hurt a thing, and would certainly bring you one tiny step closer to Julia's version.

Vegetarian Cassoulet (adapted from Smitten Kitchen and Gourmet)
For cassoulet:
2 medium leeks (spring leeks work well, white and pale green parts only)
1/2 large onion, diced
4 medium carrots, halved lengthwise and cut into 1-inch-wide pieces
3 celery ribs, cut into 1-inch-wide pieces
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
4 thyme sprigs (I used home-dried thyme sprigs)
4 parsley sprigs
2 Turkish or 1 California bay leaf
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
3 (19-ounce) cans cannellini or Great Northern beans, rinsed and drained or 4 1/2 cups cooked dried beans
1 19-ounce can diced tomatoes, with their juice
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 quart vegetable broth

For garlic crumbs
4 cups coarse fresh bread crumbs
1/3 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1/4 cup chopped parsley

To make cassoulet:
Halve leeks lengthwise and cut crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces, then wash well and pat dry.

1. Cook leeks, onion, carrots, celery, and garlic in oil with herb sprigs, bay leaves, cloves, and 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper in a large heavy pot over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until softened and golden, about 15 minutes.
2. Stir in beans, tomatoes, tomato paste, then stock, and simmer, partially covered, stirring occasionally, until carrots are tender but not falling apart, about 30 minutes.

To make garlic crumbs while cassoulet simmers:
Preheat oven to 350°F.

Toss bread crumbs with oil, garlic, and 1/4 teaspoon each of salt and pepper in a bowl until well coated. Spread in a baking pan and toast in oven, stirring once halfway through, until crisp and golden, 12 to 15 minutes. Cool crumbs in pan, then return to bowl and stir in parsley.

To finish cassoulet:
Discard herb sprigs and bay leaf. Mash some of beans in pot with a potato masher or back of a spoon to thicken broth. Season with salt and pepper. Just before serving, sprinkle with garlic crumbs.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Swedish Visiting Cake

I'd seen this cake made by the Tuesdays With Dorie group a few weeks ago, and I just could not resist. Maybe it was the simplicity of the recipe, or the rustic but oh-so-pretty pictures in Dorie's book, but something about this cake just called out to me.

This cake is seriously one of the most delicious cakes I have ever made and it probably took me about 15 minutes tops to prepare. Am I tooting my own horn? Sure, maybe a little, but not really, since the deliciousness of this cake is not a reflection of the baker, it is a reflection of the recipe. It is so simple to make and just wonderful to eat. Butter, flour, sugar, vanilla, and can you go wrong? Plus, the batter is easily prepared in one bowl and doesn't require a mixer.

Best of all, this cake is just a blank canvas for so many variations I have in mind - maybe adding a touch of cinnamon and nutmeg, or topping it with a fruit compote, or folding in a handful of... chocolate chips (bet you didn't see that one coming). So rebellious yet so delicious too. The possibilities are seriously endless.

Swedish Visiting Cake (from Dorie Greenspan, Baking: From My Home to Yours)

*8 tbsp (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus more for pan
*1 cup sugar, plus more for sprinkling
*Grated zest of 1 lemon
*2 eggs
*1/4 tsp salt
*1 tsp vanilla extract
*1/2 tsp almond extract
*1 cup flour
*1/4 cup sliced almonds (blanched or not)
*powdered sugar (optional, for serving)

1. Center a rack in oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Butter a seasoned 9-inch cast-iron skillet or other heavy oven-proof skillet, a 9-inch round cake pan or even a pie pan.

2. Pour sugar into a medium bowl. Add lemon zest and blend zest into sugar with your fingers until sugar is moist and aromatic. Whisk in eggs, one at a time, until well blended. Whisk in salt and vanilla and almond extracts.

3. Switch to a rubber spatula and stir in flour. Finally, fold in melted butter. Scrape batter into prepared skillet or pan and smooth top with rubber spatula.

4. Scatter sliced almonds over top and sprinkle with sugar. If using a cake or pie pan, place pan on baking sheet. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden and a little crisp on outside; the inside will remain moist. Let cook slightly, and sprinkle with a bit of powdered sugar before serving.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Chocolate Chip and Pecan Oatmeal Cookies

Boyfriends are fun to mess with. Especially mine. I have a simple trick that I like to play on him: I take some of our favorite dessert recipes, make some healthy substitutions (without him knowing of course), and innocently watch him to see if he notices any differences. Yes, he is the official guinea pig of MsMeanie's Test Kitchen.

I'll admit it though, some recipes don't fool him, and he can detect a hint of healthy, but these oatmeal cookies? They get him - every, single, time.

The first time I made these cookies, I followed the recipe exactly and they were amazing - rich and chewy and just sweet enough. A few weeks later I made them again, this time with a few healthy tweaks, and guess what? They were STILL amazing. Deliciously rich from the chocolate and pecans, with a balance of crispy on the outside and chewy in the center. My tastebuds loved me, my arteries thanked me, and my test kitchen guinea pig devoured them without suspecting a thing. Now, that to me is cookie perfection.

Chocolate Chip and Pecan Oatmeal Cookies (adapted from Smitten Kitchen and David Lebovitz, makes about 36 cookies)

*4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
*4 tablespoons unsweetened applesauce
*3/4 cup white sugar
*1 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
*1 teaspoon salt
*1 teaspoon vanilla extract
*2 large eggs
*1/2 cup all purpose flour
*3/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour
*1 teaspoon baking soda
*1 1/2 cup quick-cooking oats
*2 cups chopped pecans
*12 ounces semisweet chocolate chips

1.Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly butter a large cookie sheet or line with parchment paper.
2. Using an electric mixer, beat the butter and applesauce in a bowl until light and fluffy. Add both sugars, salt, and vanilla, and beat until well mixed, about three minutes. Stir in eggs, one at a time.
3. Sift together the flour and baking soda in a separate bowl. Stir in half of the flour mixture to the butter. Once the flour has been incorporated, add the second half. Stir in the oats, pecans, orange zest, and chocolate chips.
3. Place a small piece of plastic wrap over the dough and chill in the refrigerator for a few hours (at least 1 hour). This step gives the cookies a great texture and really enhances the flavor. The longer the cookies are chilled, the chewier and more flavorful they will be.
4. Allow the dough to sit at room temperature for a few minutes, then drop the dough, by the tablespoon, onto the cookie sheet and bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until golden. Remove from the oven and cool the cookies on a rack.