Thursday, May 27, 2010

Daring Bakers Returns! PIECE MONTÉE

I have finally completed a Daring Baker challenge again. It has been a long absence, and I have definitely missed it. I miss the challenge of trying something new, learning a new technique, being inspired by the amazing work of fellow bakers...and it keeps me blogging.

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.

When I decided I would get back into the swing of the challenges and checked in at the site, I was very excited to see what was selected for this month's challenge. Croqeumbouche is something I have wanted to make for a long time, and one of those fun desserts that looks like a lot more work than it is.

Then I decided I would make it for a brunch with some great friends who, like the DB challenges, we had also been missing for some time, and that's when the nerves started to set in. The only time I had ever had a croquembouche was at one of the Blair's amazing holiday dessert parties. And because my friend is such a wonderful baker, it was of course gorgeous and delicious. I had a lot to live up to if this was going to be my audience. Overall I was quite pleased. My final result was not as dramatic or show stopping as Mrs. Blair's (my sugar work certainly leaves a bit to be desired), but it was delicious.

I have made choux pastry before - for the Daring Baker's eclair challenge - and it came out fine, if a bit eggy. This recipe however, was awesome! Very easy, fast, and fool proof. It will certainly be my go to choix recipe in the future. The pastry cream was also fantastic. I made the espresso version, and R and I could have eaten a bowl full of it all by itself. The beautiful thing is that this recipe is also easy and fast. My sincere thanks go out to this month's hosts for putting together a great challenge with some wonderful recipes. The recipes are so good, I'm going to go ahead and include the whole thing for you.

My notes for the recipes: I followed them to the letter (which I often do when baking something new). I would recommend doubling the Pastry Cream recipe for the amount of choux. The recipe was written as a half batch, but I think it needs the whole batch...did I mention we could have eaten a gallon of this stuff?

Vanilla Crème Patissiere (Half Batch)
1 cup (225 ml.) whole milk
2 Tbsp. cornstarch
6 Tbsp. (100 g.) sugar
1 large egg
2 large egg yolks
2 Tbsp. (30 g.) unsalted butter
1 Tsp. Vanilla

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 beat in the butter and vanilla.

Pour cream into a stainless steel/ceramic bowl. Press plastic wrap firmly against the surface. Chill immediately and until ready to use.

For Chocolate Pastry Cream (Half Batch Recipe):
Bring ¼ cup (about 50 cl.) milk to a boil in a small pan; remove from heat and add in 3 ounces (about 80 g.) semisweet chocolate, finely chopped, and mix until smooth. Whisk into pastry cream when you add the butter and vanilla.

For Coffee Pastry Cream (Half Batch recipe)
Dissolve 1 ½ teaspoons instant espresso powder in 1 ½ teaspoons boiling water. Whisk into pastry cream with butter and vanilla.

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

Preparing batter:
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.

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).

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, but best used right away.

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.
Use one of these to top your choux and assemble your piece montée.

Hard Caramel Glaze:
1 cup (225 g.) sugar
½ teaspoon lemon juice

Combine sugar and lemon juice in a saucepan with a metal kitchen spoon stirring until the sugar resembles wet sand. Place on medium heat; heat without stirring until sugar starts to melt around the sides of the pan and the center begins to smoke. Begin to stir sugar. Continue heating, stirring occasionally until the sugar is a clear, amber color. Remove from heat immediately; place bottom of pan in ice water to stop the cooking. Use immediately.

Assembly of your Piece Montée:

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.

When you have finished the design of your piece montée, you may drizzle with remaining glaze or use ribbons, sugar cookie cut-outs, almonds, flowers, etc. to decorate.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Foodie Fight Win

Thanks again for all of the support and votes. With the Tangy Shallicot Infused Feast we were able to win the popular vote, and got a split decision from the two judges: one win, and one runner-up. All together it is currently the high score overall for the new season of FoodieFights.

This Battle was a lot of fun! Great food, great competitors, and great friends. And of course a great local farmer (thanks again KMK Farms! Go sign up for their delicious and customizable CSA.)

Turns out it takes online food competitions to get me blogging again. I actually completed this month's Daring Bakers Challenge too, so expect to see that post soon.

Thanks again friends.

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Shallicot Feast

Let them eat Shallicots! Battle Shallots/Apricots is here, and this meal was awesome! I love me some online food challenges – and FoodieFights in particular never disappoints. Think of it as the Iron Chef of online food challenges – 2 special ingredients are selected, food bloggers put on their thinking caps, create a great meal centered around those ingredients, post the results, and the world gets to vote for their favorite.

GO VOTE!!! at the foodiefights site

I of course have a little history with FoodieFights. I was fortunate enough to win the second ever FoodieFight challenge – Battle Rhubarb/Coriander. With the new and improved FoodieFights site up, it was time to throw my hat into the ring again and give it another chance. And when I found out what the ingredients were I was very excited. We are definitely an apricot (and shallot for that matter) loving family. So much so that we planted an apricot tree a few years ago and this is the first year it has started bearing fruit.

Unfortunately, our apricots are still green. Not to be deterred, I knew a certain local, organic farmer who would come through for us. You see, we live in the breadbasket, agricultural center of the world, and fresh produce abounds. Better still, we are fortunate enough to know our local farmers on a first name basis, and they are awesome. When our favorite farmer Kyle of KMK Farms found out about the competition, he generously donated over 3 lbs. of apricots for the feast.

These are not just any apricots. These are certified organic, locally grown, sweet as sin, juice dripping apricots, and I could easily make myself sick eating pound after pound of them. To anyone living even remotely near to me – rush out and sign up for the CSA from KMK – The Farmer’s Daughter. It’s a super cool CSA because you get to pick what goes into it, and it all comes from KMK’s amazing organic farm. It’s a fantastic way to enjoy the delicious bounty of the San Joaquin Valley and support a local organic farmer. THANK YOU Kyle, KMK, and Farmer’s Daughter CSA!

On to the meal!

Battle Shallot / Apricot = Tangy, Shallicot Infused Feast

There were shallots and apricots in the marinade.
There were shallots and apricots in the chutney.
There were shallots and apricots in the salad.
There were shallots and apricots in the flatbread.
The accompanying cocktail featured apricot alone.

The main course: Smoky Pork Loin Chops topped with Tangy Shallicot Chutney and Crispy Shallots

These babies were marinated and grilled, then topped with the chutney and crispy, fried shallots.

The marinade: a curry paste of apricots, shallots, garlic, jalapeno, tomato, cumin, salt/pepper, cider vinegar, and yogurt.

The marinade was blended together and the pork bathed in it overnight in the fridge. The thick chops spent about five minutes per side on the grill, just enough to get a nice char and some attractive criss cross grill lines, but not long enough to subtract the juicy tenderness in the middle. The pork took on some smoky notes (from the grill and cumin), a sweet touch (lent by the apricot), and a little kick in the pants (from the jalapeno). All told, the sum was richly delicious.

But the essential counterpoint to the pork chops' richness was the bright and springlike, intensely flavorful chutney sitting right on top, accompanying each bite. The chutney really played up the shallot-apricot relationship, made it right up front.

The chutney: a relish of apricots, shallots, raisins, cider vinegar, brown sugar, cumin, garam masala, coriander, dried mustard and ginger, and salt/pepper. Everything was mixed together and simmered down for nearly 30 minutes creating a rich and bold treat.

Although the chutney was front and center, the vibrant flavors managed to somehow still be quite subtle, revealing themselves slowly over each bite and throughout the meal. My wife continued to call out ingredients as we ate because the individual components came through with different mouthfuls. The chutney kept each bite novel, kept the palate curious for more.

On top of the nice dollop of chutney was a few pinches of fried shallot garnish. And this was not just for looks. In fact, we all agreed that the crispy, fried shallot rings made the dish. The crunchy texture, mixed with the velvety mouthfeel of the chutney and the warm and smoky sweet pork was a shallicot dream come true.

But why stop there when shallicot is so good? And after all, one dish does not a feast make.

The salad was a perfect companion to the richness and warmth of the pork. It was a cold watermelon salad, with grilled apricots, thinly sliced shallots, feta and tons of chopped mint (from KMK Farms, of course). The dressing was a very simple olive oil, white wine vinegar, salt and pepper mix just to bring out the crispness of the fruit and tie it all together. It was a refreshing and delicious addition to the festive plate.

And because we love carbs, and because no meal is complete without some homemade bread, we went with a shallicot flatbread – naanesque if you will – to compliment the slightly Indian flavors of the pork and chutney. This was a simple yeasted flatbread cooked on a hot stone in the oven for just a few minutes on each side. I incorporated diced dried apricots and butter sautéed shallots into the dough, which was a really nice way to round out the meal. I reserved the butter that the shallots sautéed in, and brushed it onto the flatbreads as they came off the hot stone. The flatbread was perfect for sopping up the juices of the meat and any extra chutney you may have.

Finally, this meal was a celebration of the season’s bounty, the online and local food communities, and general deliciousness of springtime everywhere... and we all know that every celebration needs a cocktail. I pureed some of the fresh apricots with a touch of water and mixed it in a cocktail shaker in a 1:1 ratio with vodka and a bit of powdered sugar. I then strained that into a cocktail glass and added a little more apricot puree. It was topped off with sparkling lemon soda.

And that my friends, is a Tangy Shallicot Infused Feast!


Friday, May 21, 2010

The Foodie Fight is On...Again!

I've been bad at blogging. We've moved, kids are busy, etc. No excuses. Except maybe the move - still getting used to not having a gas range - but the double oven is definitely a plus for baking.

Well, while I was taking my online break, so was Foodie Fights. They took a few month hiatus, and are now back with FoodieFights 2.0. Having had so much fun, and done so well, with the last foodie fight challenge Battle Rhubarb and Coriander, I definitely wanted to throw my hat in again as soon as possible.

Well, this weekend, it's on. Welcome to Battle Shallot and Apricot. I'll be creating and cooking the dish this weekend, posting to the blog at the end of the weekend and then voting begins on Tuesday the 25th. So please stay tuned for another post soon, with pictures, recipes and voting instrucitons.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

In Search of Pizza Perfection

It's a thankless job, but someone has to do it :) We've been having pizza every now and then lately in order to try to really dial in our pizza recipe and technique.

The problem, of course, with making pizza at home is that your oven just doesn't get hot enough. My oven's top temp is 500 degrees F, some go up to 550, but still, that doesn't come anywhere near the temp needed to recreate the great Neapolitan/neo-Neapolitan etc. pizza's coming out of all the great artisan pizzerias with their schmancy wood fired ovens (which, seriously, as soon as we are settled in a house I know I am staying in, I will be building one). Those ovens are typically cooking pies at upwards of 800 or 900 degrees. Some have tried to replicate this by disabling the locking mechanism on their oven and cooking the pizza using the self-clean function, but I'm not willing to blow through a few ovens in this endeavor - I know, fair weather baker indeed.

So, working with what tract housing has given us, one should still be able to eat some great pizza. A large part of that is wrapped up in how one is preparing their dough. As this is all a work in progress, I will update with specifics of the dough once I feel comfortable with a recipe. The key is, sourdough and a slow, cool fermentation to bring out the flavor in the dough. This has the added bonus of making it easier to prep. You mix the dough the night before you plan to make pizza, knead it up a bit, form it into dough balls, and store in the fridge overnight. The next day, just take them out about a hour before you plan to bake (and while you preheat the oven) and you're good to go.

We've been saving some dough for the next morning and making breakfast pizzas. This one has sausage, thyme, and an egg. Just crack the raw egg onto the other toppings and cook as usual. It will firm up just enough and still have an awesome yolk run over the pie. It may sound a bit weird at first, but it's awesome.

The other key is of course toppings. Make a simple but vibrant sauce, source quality ingredients, and don't over do it. Most pizzas suffer from topping and cheese overload. Use a light hand, let the real flavors come through, you want to taste that delicious crust after all.

The main things we have been working on lately is technique. Given the 500 degree limitation, how does one get nice charring on the bottom crust, cooked pizza, and bubbling hot toppings? I've gone through few different trials and think I am honing in on it.

One important element is the pizza stone. If you want to take your pizza seriously you need a baking stone. They store crazy amounts of heat, and are porous to wick moisture out of the dough and help it crisp up. I started by just preheating the heck out of my stone and baking the pizzas on them. With a thin crust pizza this is okay. Pies take about a 8-12 minutes to bake, and they are good. Really, they're fine. If this is all you do, you beat the socks off any delivery pizza just because you've used better ingredients and it's homemade. But it doesn't really begin to reach pizza nirvana.

The next trial was to move the stone to the very top of the oven (I use a gas oven) and preheat the stone with the broiler on. This gets hotter than the regular bake function on the oven. I haven't tested the temp, but the oven says it gets up to 525. Again, preheat the heck out of the stone and slide your pizza onto the stone and let it cook. This got the time down to about 5 minutes (not too bad) but by the time the top was done and starting to dry out even, we didn't have the gorgeous charring on the bottom crust. In fact it was a bit underdone. Hmmm, not quite there yet.

The best option so far is a two part process. Heat the stone under the broiler as before for at least 30 minutes. It will cycle on and off, but will still heat up. About 10 minutes before you are ready to bake the first pie, heat a cast iron pan (I use one with no sides, like a comal, makes it easier to get on and off) on your strongest burner on your stove. Crank that flame up to high and let that bad boy get scorching hot. Turn on vents, and open windows at this time (hey, I never said the process wasn't going to be messy, but the results are worth it). While the cast iron pan heats up, prep your dough - don't make it bigger than your pan obviously - top it with your chosen sauce and toppings and then slide it onto the pan.

Come on, that looks rad, right? Look at that nice char.

This is going to give you the nice leopard-spotting on the bottom, the charring in spots that crisps up the bottom crisp and gives you that wood fired flavor. Keep an eye on it, lifting with a spatula to take a peek often. It's not going to take long, maybe 2 or 3 minutes max. If it's burning all over you can turn the heat down, or just transfer it earlier.

Once the bottom crust is looking good, transfer the pie to the preheated baking stone under the broiler. This step will finish the top side of the pizza, which really hasn't been cooked at all while on the stove. Again, this will only take a few minutes, so keep a close eye on it. Once it looks bubbling and delicious, pull it out, slide it onto a cutting board, slice it up and eat.

I use a pizza peel to transfer the pizza around and I think it makes life much easier, but you can get by with a combo of good spatula and the back of a cookie sheet if you must.

If you are looking for great pizza, I recommend giving this technique a try. I'm still fine tuning but I think we're on the right path.

Another great breakfast pizza.

We've also made some crispy, thin crust pies based on Jim Lahey's no-knead method. It is super duper easy and makes a good pizza. The crust goes together in a few hours only, no kneading and it gets spread on an oiled cookie sheet, topped and baked in a hot oven. No special techniques need. R is a fan, I think it's okay, but I prefer the more labor intensive method above. But for a quick family pizza night, it ain't bad.

This is a sausage and fennel pie, using the Lahey method.

The crust gets crispy from the oiled cookie sheet. Not too shabby, for a quick pizza fix.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Fish Lovers

Can I just say that I love my kids? This dinner was for H (age 4) who when asked said her favorite foods are fish, green beans, and peas. This was a simple N. African inspired fish dish - Fish Algiers. Tilapia in cumin, lemon, tomato, parsley etc. with green beans in a traditional shallot dressing with toasted almonds and a touch of feta. We also had some rice cooked in veg broth with toasted pinenuts, raisins, and lemon.

I'll post recipes soon but wanted to get the silly iPhone photo up and play with mobile blogging. And to say how much I love that my kids scarfed this meal down and heaped some Daddy praise. My kids are rad!

- mobile update