Wednesday, January 21, 2015

T Is For Tarts

A tart shell is a blank slate, an empty canvas waiting for color and cream and crunch, an opportunity for a few fantastic forkfuls of heaven to end a meal or to get you through the afternoon or to destroy your however-many-weeks of carb avoiding ridiculousness.  

A tart shell is a delicate little open box.  It can hold the simple, the complex, the exotic, the rare, the common, the few, just enough, or too many.  It sits there on the counter silently waiting to be filled with the next best thing, whatever that may be.  Waiting, available, blank.  

And that's the thrill and that's the problem.  That's the thrill and the problem with all opportunities for potential greatness.  The tart shell, like other blank slates, offers no clues, contains no hidden hints as to what would best fill it, what would take it from being just that thin fragile circle of crust to spin it into something memorable, exquisite, or sublime (or at least just really really good).  It doesn't tell you.  It sits there, empty, quiet, ready, and waiting.  Waiting for you to make the next move.  

A tart shell, a blank page, a sketchpad, a vacant lot, a long stretch of empty road.  They all offer the same tight-lipped promise.  And that excites me and drives me crazy at the same time.  The blank slates of the world are everywhere.  They are the potential that gives us that eager-anxious quiver in our stomachs before we start a new adventure.  They are the trigger for creativity.  

You feel it, that inner urge to make something good, something new, something interesting, and it nags you and pushes you and teases you.  It's standing on a precipice, and that first step, that first word, that first idea, which so often feels like a leap, takes you out over the beach and the waves, on the wind, in the sky, and you are soaring and writing and drawing and moving and nothing can stop you and it's exactly as good as you were afraid to admit that you thought it would be, and you can't stop, won't stop, until you do, but it's okay because you started and the page is no longer empty, you already broke trump, and picking up where you left off, even if it's tomorrow or the next day, is easier than starting over or starting from scratch.

It's going from nothing to something that is difficult.  The blank page carries with it a sense of responsibility, to do it right, to do it justice, to make it honest.  Maybe it is that weight that so often presses on the brake, that blocks the flow, when facing the empty page.

How many times have I opened the laptop and stared at the grey-white emptiness on the screen, fingers poised above the keyboard, frozen.  How many nicely bound journals and notebooks have I purchased to hold my ideas and sentences, only to pile them in the drawer, unfilled, unused, waiting.  How many maps have we bought without taking the trip.  How many seed packets lay on the shelf, unopened, unplanted.  

The toga-clad Romans thought that we entered the world as blank slates, tabula rasa, ready and primed for life and experience to become etched onto our minds, to create who we would become.   But in that model we are passive, breathing and watching and absorbing the world around us, waiting for our selves to emerge.  Creativity is not passive; it is generative; it is transitive, it is hard.  Some composers claim to be merely conduits for their music, and that may be true, music may be different, but in the world of words that has not been my experience.  We are not the shell.  We are the filling.

Beginning a project, discovering the story, the meaning, the what and the why, that is Step One, and Step One is hard.  Discovery is hard, it isn't scary, but it is hard.  But it is also satisfying, every step of it.  A new phrase, even if it is pretentious and will later be deleted, can make my day.  So too can watching egg whites grow as they are sweetened and whipped into clouds of meringue.  Stirring hot cream into chocolate to make a ganache filling, few things make me happier.  

The page isn't the goal, the canvas isn't the product.  A poem can be written on the back of a receipt and still bring you to tears.  Masterworks have been painted on cardboard. Not so the tart shell.  Even though the crust isn't the treat, it has to be tasty, it has to be good.   Pie dough sounds homey and rough, and I love it.  But a tart is different.  It is finer, more fussy, or at least that's how it seems.  Mix it, chill it, roll it, bake it, fill it, that's the process, those are the steps.  But the finest moment of the tart is the final bite, when a few small crumbs of almond-flecked crust adhere to a juicy blackberry, or a nickel-sized piece of the shell adds just the right crunch to that last swirl of chocolate and cream.  

I hold my breath when I'm looking at empty Page One.  When words are flowing and ideas won't stop I am not at all aware of my breathing.  Rereading and editing and rehearsal is exciting and my heart is racing, and I need to stop and make myself breathe to get a clearer picture, to see it in focus.  And at the end, after the final change has been made, the final word and the final period are in place, that is the best moment of all.  My favorite moment when making a cake is when it is delivered, and I'm driving away, and it is no longer in my hands.  The page is full.  That's when I take the deepest breath.  

Tart Dough (Pate Sucree)
All-Purpose Flour                2 cups
Powdered Sugar                 1/4 cup
                                           3/4 cup
Almond Meal                      1/2 cup
Butter, unsalted                8 oz, room temp
Egg                                     1
Vanilla                               1 tsp extract OR
                                           seeds from 1 vanilla bean

  1. Beat the butter in a stand mixer for several minutes, until it is creamy.
  2. Add the 1/4 cup powdered sugar and beat until combined.  (Add the vanilla seeds now if you are using them)
  3. Sift together the flour, remaining powdered sugar, and the almond meal.  
  4. Add the dry ingredients in two parts, mixing briefly between additions, scraping the bowl as necessary.
  5. Add the egg and the vanilla extract (if using).  Mix on low until the wet ingredients are combined and the dough holds together.
  6. Dump the dough onto the counter and, using the heel of your hand, press forward into the dough.  
  7. Fold the dough over once with a dough scraper and repeat the maneuver.  The dough should look smooth.
  8. Form into a disk, wrap well in plastic wrap and chill for at least an hour.

When ready to bake the tart shells:
  1. Roll the dough to approximately 1/8-1/4 inch thick and place in tart rings, pressing gently into the corner.
  2. Trim the top and chill until firm.  
  3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  4. This dough need not have pie weights or beans in them during baking, but you can if you are worried about shrinkage or an uneven bottom crust.  
  5. Bake 25 minutes, until golden brown.  (If you have filled with dry beans, remove the parchment and beans after 25 minutes, and continue to bake another 5-7 minutes until the bottom crust is browned.
  6. Let cool fully before filling.
Suggestions for Filling:

Place a layer of caramel in the tart shell and chill until cold.  Top with chocolate ganache.

Berries And Cream:
Place a layer of pastry cream in the bottom of the tart shell.  Top with berries.


Saturday, January 10, 2015

S Is For Sweet And Salty

sip's been awhile.  

And how strangely appropriate that I should resume the ABCs of Baking with the fertile letter S. And, my goodness, fertile it is.  Just think about it...(no, nevermind, you don't need to think about it, I've already thought about it, this is the stuff that I sit and think about, so just keep reading)...sugar, spice, sweet, savory, salty, sour, sourdough, scones, strudel, streusel, sauces, shortbread, spelt, strawberries, and sprinkles.  You get the idea.  The S's of baking are many.  
So why, with the options so plentiful, have I not contributed the products of my oven and my left temporal lobe to the Wonderful And Wacky World of the World Wide Web since October 2011?  The list of possible reasons for this lapse is equally long, but they don't all begin with S, just some of the biggies do.  Suffice it to say that life and its many permutations can, at times, provide a perfect opportunity for creativity and imagination.   And for years the gooey fecund amalgam in the bottom of the petri dish of my life (pardon the somewhat disgusting metaphor) sprouted ideas, pearls, and gluten nearly nonstop.  

But fertilizer is really just shit.  The balance of events that makes life interesting and productive can quickly and easily tip to the bad side.  And just as Salt can kill yeast, two other Upper Case S Words...Stress and Sadness ...are potent creativity suckers.  Even just typing that sentence can stop the flow of ideas.  Don't freak out and stop reading because this is getting serious.  I am not going to go into detail that you don't want to read and that don't want to regurgitate, but neither do I want to be the mysterious and intriguing emo-man who disappears for a few years, then returns, drops a few bombs and moves on with a shrug and a smile.   Upper Case S words exist; they are a reality.  So learn how to deal with them, right?  It may take years, it has taken years, but it is possible to get the Upper and lower case words back in balance again.   Let us put a baking spin on this...sometimes cakes fall, sometimes bread dough doesn't rise.  Get over it, mix another batch, and move on.  Eventually, hopefully, the Salt of Life seasons instead of destroys.  

My absence from the blahggity-blah-blogosphere does not mean that the oven has stayed cold lo these past few years.  Not by any means.  I have continued to bake...a few wedding cakes, layer upon layer of layer cakes, and many trays of morning baked goods to keep my nurse friends happy. But the last couple of  years the oven on Hawthorne Street has produced rich, fudgy brownies more than anything else.  Dozens of brownies.  Dozens of dozens of brownies, in fact.  It began with a plate of plain brownies for my coworkers...I am not afraid to resort to kitchen-based bribery to make and keep friends.  That tray of brownies led to a few orders, which prompted some brownie R & D, so I tried Spicy Brownies, which people started asking for (and paying for) specifically...who knew?  In a judgment that falls into the Going for Broke, Gilding the Lily, More Is More category of decisions, I introduced the current bestseller into the brownie lineup...the Salty Caramel Brownie, which I am sure has more fat and rich chocolatey goodness per square inch than anything else I have ever made.  At this point I must give full credit to Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito, of the Baked bakeries and cookbooks.  They are the reigning brownie kings, my brownie idols, and the creator of this brownie recipe.  I humbly bow before them.

It starts with caramel.  Of course it does.  Here's how you make caramel:

Nearly Burn The Sugar
Add Fat
Add Salt

Ok, I can't help myself.  I just can't.  Caramel is the reason that I chose this recipe for the re-emergence of this blog.  What a friggin' perfect culinary metaphor for coming out of the ugly tunnel of the past few years.  It just takes a little patience and a little practice.  And don't be afraid  or timid when things get a little hot.  Fine, I will stop now with the symbolism and the figurative language, but you get the idea, right?  Now...on to the brownies.

Make the caramel first, because it has to cool before you put it in the brownies.

White Sugar           1 cup
Light Corn Syrup    2 Tbl
Heavy Cream         1/2 cup
Sea Salt                 1 tsp
Sour Cream            1/4 cup

  1. Combine the sugar, corn syrup, and water in a medium saucepan.  
  2. Stop stirring once the mixture is combined.
  3. Cook over medium heat until it begins to turn a medium brown.  
  4. Remove from the heat.  Add the heavy cream and the salt.  (Be careful: it will steam, hiss, and bubble up).
  5. Whisk in the sour cream.
  6. Let cool.

How can you not love making caramel?   It seems like cooking on the edge of disaster, or on the edge of a volcano, what with all that hissing molten magma, but it really isn't.  Yes, you can take the sugar too far, and it will blacken and burn, but other than that (and the potential for ugly burns from steam and spattering 350 degree sticky stuff), it is really very easy to make.  
All-Purpose Flour                          1 1/4 cup
Salt                                              1 tsp
Unsweetened Cocoa Powder          2 Tbl
Dark Chocolate, chopped              11 ounces
Unsalted Butter                             8 ounces
White Sugar                                  1 1/2 cup
Dark Brown Sugar                          1/2 cup
Eggs                                              5 large
Vanilla Extract                               2 tsp

  1. Heat the oven to 350.
  2. Butter a 9x13 baking pan.
  3. Melt the chopped chocolate and butter over a double boiler. 
  4. Remove the melted mixture from the heat and whisk the sugars into it.
  5. Let cool to room temperature.
  6. Whisk together the flour, salt, and cocoa powder.
  7. Lightly beat the eggs.
  8. When the melted mixture is at room temp, whisk in the eggs in two parts.  Do not overmix.
  9. Fold in the dry ingredients.
  10. Pour half of the brownie batter into the prepared pan and spread it evenly.
  11. Drizzle the battter with approx 3/4 of the caramel.  Avoid the edges of the batter.  You don't want the caramel to burn against the edge of the pan.
  12. Cover with the remaining brownie batter and smooth the top with an offset spatula.
  13. Sprinkle with turbinado sugar and fleur de sel.
  14. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.  (When poked with a cake tester, it will have some moist crumbs but it will not be wet with batter.)
  15. Let cool before cutting.  I refrigerate them overnight before cutting them - the cuts are cleaner that way.
The added benefit of this recipe (thank you Baked boys!) is that it makes just a little more caramel than you need for the brownies.  And it is too good to throw it out (as if) grab a spoon, or a bowl of vanilla ice cream, or a few slices of Granny Smith apple and wipe that bowl clean.   

Spiced Brownies:
  1. Omit the caramel (What?! I know, but this is just a suggestion of what I do.  It's your kitchen; you can do whatever you want.)
  2. Add 1 Tbl ancho or guajillo chile powder, 2 tsp cinnamon, 1/2 tsp ground ginger to the dry ingredients.
Spicy Brownies:
  1. Omit the caramel.
  2. Add 1 1/2 tsp chipotle chile powder, 1 1/2 tsp smoked paprika, 3/4 tsp cayenne pepper to the dry ingredients.
Malt Brownies: 
  1. Omit the caramel.
  2. Add 3 Tablespoons barley malt syrup to the chocolate/butter mixture as it is melting.
  3. And/Or fold 1 cup crushed malted milk balls into the batter before pouring it into the pan.  
For a little bit of crunchy texture, coat the bottom and sides of the buttered baking dish with turbinado sugar before pouring the batter into it.  

Monday, October 31, 2011

R Is For Ratios

Every year, in late September or early October, I am surprised by the arrival of a bulky, plain-wrapped package.  Last year I found it, by lucky chance, on the doorstep of the house we had vacated a few weeks before.  This year it showed up in my mailbox at work.  It always arrives in the vicinity of my birthday, yet I never expect it, never assume it is a birthday gift, I don't know why.  Before I look at the return address, though I can feel the heft of the package and I assume it is a book, I am stumped, not knowing, not anticipating.  This year I figured it was marketing material for a support group, or maybe a Thank-You box of chocolates from a patient's family.

In the past the padded envelope has contained A Platter Of Figs by David Tanis, Once Upon a Tart by Frank Mentasana and Jerome Audureau, and Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson.  Wonderful books...books I return to for reminders and reference over and over again.  On my loosely organized bookshelf, I group these with others I consider to be "new classics." 

The source of these gifts?  Well, she always signs the card (with the adorable drawing of the dog inside) Great Aunt Margaret, though she is not my aunt.  But she is Margaret, my former boss, the owner (with Dennis) of Le Buzz.   For a little more than two years, I baked alongside Margaret, sharing laughs, dog stories, frustrations, and the repetitive yet satisfying work of a successful cafe/bakeshop.  She told me on my first day as a professional baker, "Don't worry about making mistakes, I've made every mistake possible."  Calming yet ominous words for this career-changing-new-graduate-from-culinary-school. 

This year's package contained two books.  The unusual and quirky Eat Me (The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin) by Kenny Shopsin and Carolynn Carreno...the cookbook with some of the most unappetizing photos of comfort food ever published.  Margaret wrote in her note that I could exchange it if it was just too odd.  Yeah, a cookbook?  Not likely!  Besides, it contains a very common sense approach to the kitchen, f'rinstance consider this bon mot from the book, "If you like your eggs more cooked, cook them more."  How can you argue with that?  This book is a keeper.  

The second book was Ratio by Michael Ruhlman.  This little book contains some of the gems that I failed to learn in culinary school (shame on me, shame on Cordon Bleu).   You see, with the possible exception of molecular gastronomy (e.g. liquified olives, parmesan air,  potato foam, and the like), most kitchen work is not rocket science...though it is a practical application of that most basic scientific principal:  find a formula that works, change a variable and observe (or eat) what happens.  Ruhlman's Ratio offers simple, easy-to-remember ratios for doughs, batters, sauces, custards, and more...with the idea that if you know the ratio of ingredients in a successful recipe (and understand a little of the science behind it), you can alter the ratio slightly to create dozens of other tasty goodies.  In other words, the trip from crepe to muffin is not that far.

Take custards, for example.  No, not that super-eggy quivering mass that you once grabbed by mistake when your in-laws splurged and took everyone out to Furr's.  No, not that...but custards, those rich, smooth amalgams of cream and egg and lusciousness.  So's just a Liquid : Egg ratio.  Works everytime.  But try adding some sugar and vanilla, and heaven awaits your tongue, or how about cook it on the stove to make a sauce rather than baking it in the oven, or...oh oh oh, try this...add some extra cream, some mashed strawberries and churn it in an ice cream maker.  HA!  Ben and Jerry ain't got nothing on you!  By messing around with the basic formula (and trying different cooking techniques) you end up with a completely different dessert.  It might be delicious and make you moan in a really good way, or it might be that eggy-fright they served at Furr's.

Think for a moment, as I have done countless times, about the spectrum of custards that can appear after a (relatively) quick trip to the kitchen (i.e. creme anglaise, pastry cream, pot de creme, creme brulee, and flan, to name a few).  Alter the ratio of ingredients (and a few other things) and the creaminess/richness changes, the savoriness/sweetness can vary, and the egginess can (sadly) vary.  It's that ratio, Liquid : Egg, which will dictate whether the custard is a sauce, or a dish of soft, rich cream, or a fantasticly wicked little puck of delicious richness that can stand by itself on a plate.  It's all about the ratio of one ingredient to the other. 
Which brings me back to Margaret and Le Buzz.  Before immersing myself in the stress and fatigue called culinary school, my good work : bad work ratio was tipping in the wrong direction.  Burnout had definitely set in...big time.  It was the world of healthcare and if your heart isn't in it, you shouldn't do it...period.  I'd always said that but realized that I wasn't living it.  The rest of the ratio of my life was pretty balanced (FUN : CREATIVITY : LOVE : MONEY : REST :  WORK), but the thing with ratios is this...too much of one thing can turn custard into scrambled eggs.  Having some background in the scientific method, I stood back, reassessed the formula to life as I was living it and realized that WORK needed to change.  The out of kilter WORK component threw everything else out of whack.  I came home from work everyday feeling like a big bowl of scrambled egg custard. 

Nine months (and thousands of dollars) later, I was a diploma'd Cordon Bleu baker/patissier and was standing next to Margaret at Le Buzz.  And it was just like you read about...long days, hot kitchen, fast pace (kinda - I was a baker not a cook afterall), sore feet, sore back...but happy happy happy.  Okay sure, I was making less money than when I went home after sitting in an air conditioned office for 8 hours, but the other parts of the ratio were solid.  Get this...Margaret and Dennis were giving me raises that I felt bad about accepting because I was having such a great time!

Yup, see how easy it is to forget the cardinal rule of ratios...all the parts have to work together.  Long Story Short...two comments summarize my brief dash in/dash out of the world of professional baking.  1.) I ran into a former hospital colleague with whom I also had gone to graduate school.  I was wearing my chocolate smeared chef's coat, was exhausted after a day next to the ovens, and was picking up something quick for dinner before collapsing at home.  This friend had heard that I had changed careers and she said something to the effect of "You are our role model," referring to the desire of the burnout crowd to leave it all behind and satisfy the other parts of the ratio.  2.) Later, when the MONEY part of the ratio had been ignored for too long and something had to change to get my life's ratio back in working order, after I had reluctantly left Le Buzz and returned to hospital work, a colleague said something like "we'd all like to get paid to do what we are passionate about (ugh), but that just isn't realistic."  I disagree with that sentiment wholeheartedly, but unfortunately, at the time, it was quite true.

Thankfully, having had a few years away from the sad work, and having changed the context in which I am once again doing the first career, the WORK and the MONEY components are on an even keel once again.  Of course, those of you who know me, or who have been able to read between the lines of this blog over the past year or so, are aware that some of the other parts of the friggin' ratio have been seriously off.  These damned ratios are kinda like a canoe...once it starts to tip there's gotta be some fast fancy footwork to keep it from going under.  (Okay, so I am mixing my scientific and nautical metaphors, but you get the idea).  I am happy to report that most parts of the life ratio are now bobbing along on the surface of the stream, and no great bowls of Furr's Cafeteria Rubber-Egg Custard are awaiting us. 

So I thank Great Aunt Margaret...for the books, the too-little-time next to the oven, and the boost of confidence that I still feel from her when those mystery packages arrive. 

Custard Ratios

Creme Anglaise:  4 parts dairy : 1 part yolk : 1 part sugar + 1/2 vanilla bean
Creme Brulle: same as above, using whatever percentage of milk to cream that you care to indulge in.
Ice Cream: same as above, 1/2 milk and 1/2 cream, use the entire vanilla bean
Pots de Creme: 6 parts dairy : 1 part whole egg : 1/2 part egg yolk : 1/2 part sugar + 1/2 vanilla bean
Flan: 4 parts dairy : 2 parts whole egg : 1 part sugar + 1/2 vanilla bean + pinch salt

Basic Custard Method:
1.  Combine the dairy and 1/2 the sugar in a saucepan and heat to a simmer.
2.  With your fingers, combine the remaining sugar and the vanilla seeds.
3.  Just prior to the dairy coming to a simmer, combine the eggs and the sugar in a mixing bowl. 
4.  Slowly whisk a small amount of the hot dairy into the eggs, gradually adding it all to the eggs.  
For Creme Anglaise: Pour the sweetened dairy back into the saucepan over medium-low heat, and cook to desired consistency, stirring constantly.  Do not let it boil.  Strain through a fine strainer, chill thoroughly and quickly.
For Ice Cream:  Cook as above for Creme Anglaise, chill thoroughly, then churn per your ice cream freezer instructions.
For Creme Brulee & Pots De Creme: Prepare steps 1-4.  Pour into ramkins.  Bake in a water bath at 325 degrees, 30 minutes or until barely set. For Creme Brulee, sift a fine layer of sugar on top of the finished and chilled custards, then caramelize it with a blow torch just prior to serving.
For Flan: Prepare the custard through step 4.  Cook sugar until it turns amber.  Quickly pour the caramel into the ramekins, swirl to coat the bottom of each ramekin.  Then pour the custard mixture in the ramekins and bake at 325 degrees in a water bath, 45 minutes, or until barely set.  Chill, then turn out onto plate upside down.  The caramel will have created a delicious sauce that drizzles down the sides of the custard. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Q Is For Quatre Epices Croquets Bordelais/Four-Spice Almond Cookies

is a problem, you have to admit.
Whether you are playing Scrabble, Bananagrams, Boggle, or any of the other generative naming games that we word-nerds enjoy, Q is a problem, eliciting moans and groans when that tile is pulled from the pile. Yes, it is unique, being the only letter in the alphabet that cannot go unescorted, but in spelling (as in many other realms) uniqueness does not always mean desired.  (And what's up with that friggin' upper case Q we all had to learn in grade school...the one that looks like a fancy 2.)  So it is not surprising that choosing the representative Q recipe for this occasional series on alphabetical baking was a bit of a stumper.  Quince, Quenelle, Quiche, Queso - all potentially tasty choices, yes, but...well, I was uninspired. 

So I thought, and read, and pondered, and actually did go ahead and make a darn good quiche but forgot to take pictures of it, so much for that, until one day, during an afternoon cup of coffee, I was craving those little spicy Mexican pig-shaped cookies, but they (Marranitos) don't start with the dreaded letter.  Not one to quit, I did a little more research, combined a few ideas from an entirely different quisine, qulture, and quntry, and here we have it...a delicious crunchy cookie, whose name I cannot pronounce without sounding like Elmer Goes To Paris, perfect for dunking in your coffee or milk in the afternoon. 

But Tom, you may haven't posted anything on this blog since March.  Did it really take you 5 months to come up with a simple little cookie recipe?  Sure, Q is a bitch, but 5 months?  To which I reply...let's back up a few sentences to a q word I snuck into the previous paragraph, a little literary foreshadowing.  The word...quit.  A simple little word, quit.  Play fast and loose with an e and you have quite and quiet.  Stare at it long enough...q-u-i-t...and it looks misspelled or not even a word.  But it's a word that has dominated life in this household for not just 5 months, but more like 5 years. 

Stare at the word quit for 5 years, go ahead, you try doesn't just look like a typo anymore, it looks impossible.  It becomes huge and impenetrable and sneaky and humilitating.  But for those of us on the outside, those of us who aren't staring at those 4 meaningless letters 24 hours a day, quit looks easy.  But it isn't. 

I have been asked a few times, and I have asked myself at least a thousand when do I quit.  But that isn't easy either.  Because what is the question...quit hoping?, quit helping?, quit loving?, quit trying?, quit caring?  And the only answer I can come up with, after 5 months, after 5 years, is not yet.  Quit is a big word.

I spend hours reading cookbooks, researching recipes, finding out how to make things and make things better.  Recipes are lists of ingredients and techniques, which you hope all come together to make someting good.  But once the cookie has been made, if it isn't good, there aren't instructions for unmaking it, for taking it apart.   Instead, you have to look at what happened, look at what went into it, change something, and start all over again.  Make it again but do it differently.  Don't quit. 

It is so very French to give a name, and a nobel sounding name at that, to a seemingly simple combination of 4 spices.  Cinnamon, Cloves, Nutmeg...and Black Pepper.  But it's a combination of flavors that works on more than one level.  It's a situation where the personalities of each part, each spice, are present, individually, but they also work together to create something altogether unique...the flavor of Quatre Epices.  

It doesn't happen very often...why give it up. 
Quit - Stop - End.... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ...Start - Begin - Continue
Croquet Bordelais
Ground Almonds                 3 cups
AP Flour                            1 1/2 cups
Baking Powder                   2 tsp
Salt                                   1 tsp
Quatre Epices                     4 tsp (see below)
Butter, room temp              4 1/4 oz
Sugar                                 1 2/3 cups
Orange Zest                        from 1 orange
Eggs                                   2 (+1 for egg wash)

Quatre Epices
Black Pepper                       2 tsp
Ground Cinnamon                 2/3 tsp
Ground Cloves                     2/3 tsp
Ground Nutmeg                   2/3 tsp

1.  Mix together the ground almonds, flour, baking powder, salt, and spices.
2.  With mixer, cream the butter and sugar until smooth.  Add the orange zest and mix   briefly.  Add the eggs, one at a time - mixing thoroughly after each addition. 
3.  With mixer on low speed, add the almond mixture from Step 1, scraping the bowl as necessary.  
4.  Scrape the dough out of the bowl onto a pice of plastic wrap.  Pat the dough into a rectangle, 9 x 6 inches.  Wrap in the plastic, smoothing the edges of the dough after it si wrapped in the plastic.  Freeze overnight.
5.  Preheat the oven to 375.  
6.  Cut the dough into thirds (along the 9-inch side).  Return two of the pieces two the freezer. 
7.  Cut each piece into 13 pieces (they will be 3 x .5 inch cookies).  Place them on parchment (or Silpat) lined sheet pans.  Repeat with the 2 remaining pieces of dough.
8.  Brush with egg wash and bake for 18-20 minutes, until golden brown. 
9.  They will firm up into a delicious crunchy cookie - perfect for dunking - as they cool.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

P Is For Pastry Cream and Pate Choux

For about 18 hours in 1980 I considered going to medical school.  I decided against it based on two facts:  I had already recieved a B in a class and figured that would prevent me from becoming a doctor, and (more importantly) I read in the curriculum that I would have to take Chemistry.  Deal breaker.  Here's the thing with Chemistry...ask anyone who has taken a chemistry class about it and all they say is "math, lots of math"  To this day (because I still have not ever taken a chemistry class) when I ask people about chemistry, that is their response..."math, lots of math."  (Sometimes I will ask students what they think about their chemistry class just to see if they give me the same answer...and they almost always do.)

Math?  Really?  That answer has always frustrated me.  Firstly, because math has been a lifelong nemesis.  Numbers, no matter if they are in dollar form, ratios, percentages, sale prices, or weights and measures, apparently are processed in a part of my brain that is lacking in dendritic density.  No matter how simple the calculation, I have to write it down, study it, do it wrong a few times, get frustrated, do it again, and then it all makes sense...maybe.  (F'rinstance, yesterday Nik was explaining the cell phone plan options that he was considering...a $129 cancellation fee with a 10% monthly discount versus the new plan which was cheaper monthly but required an activiation fee of blah blah blah.  It was like he was speaking some illogical foreign tongue.  I felt like my brain actually turned off after about 30 seconds of listening to him.)

But the math conundrum is not the most irritating part of the chemistry=math answer.  Maybe I am naive, but I thought that chemistry was learning about the elemental components of everything.  For a fact freak like me, what could be more interesting than that?  To learn how a relative handful of stuff can be combined to create everything in the world...well that pretty much sounds like the key to all knowledge, doesn't it?  I admit that the numbers and letters on the Periodic Table of Elements are quite meaningless to me...but I do understand the basic concept behind it and that excites me.  It's a Table of What Could Be.  (So you can see my disappointment when someone throws cold H2O on this excitement by reducing it all to dreaded Math.)  I keep threatening to take a Chemistry 101 class at the local community college...just to prove to these Math Terrorists, and myself, that there is more to Creation than math, hopefully.

But hold on just a moment...a recipe is essentially a Table of Elements, a Culinary Table of Elements.  Replace articulatory mouthfuls such as Darmstadtium, Ununpentium, Seaborgium, and Xenon for bowls of more flavorful items such as Flour, Butter, Eggs, Chocolate, Yeast, and Salt and what do you have?  You have a very approachable and delicious Table of Potential.  Wandering the stalls at a farmer's market, or flipping through the pages of a cookbook or food magazine, I don't find myself drooling and thinking "I want to eat that."  I am saying to myself..."I want to make that."  And with  a pantry full of basic elemental ingredients - I can do that.

But the potential goes beyond even that, beyond individual ingredients...because if you make a batch of this and you make pan of that, you can put them together to make an entirely different and tasty this-and-that.  (Nik's pet peeve with the old Joy Of Cooking was it's tendency to list page numbers for other recipes in it's list of ingredients for a dish.  Different strokes.  I see a complex list of ingredients and preparations and I put a star next to that recipe as a Must Do.)  So while flour and eggs and butter are essential ingredients for thousands of baked goods, every baker also knows that equally important are fundamental preparations such as custards, and laminated doughs, and meringues, and shortdoughs.  And here's the irony to this tale...every baker needs to know a little bit of practical chemistry as well to make it all work. 

Take pastry cream, for's all about chemistry.  Pastry cream is 1) a stirred custard and 2) one of a baker's multi-use items.  Peek down to the recipe below, step #5, and you will see that it instructs you to let this mixture of eggs and milk bubble and cook for a minute.  WHAT?  Anyone who has ever made breakfast knows that cooking eggs till they bubble will create scrambled eggs and not a luscious creamy custard.  Enter Chemistry. 

Pastry cream contains eggs, sugar, milk, and cornstarch.  While the temperature in the saucepan is rising, the egg proteins are unravelling from compact little pearls of albumin into long graceful strands that sweep and swirl around in the liquid surrounding them.  In a concentrated mixture, just a bowl of eggs say, these unravelled proteins would bond (a chemistry term) with each other quickly, firmy, and efficiently (think scrambled eggs).  But the milk in the pastry cream formula dilutes the mixture, putting more space and stuff between the egg-protein molecules (Molecules? Chemistry again).  Think of it like this...10 kids playing Marco Polo in a kiddie pool are bound to find each other quickly...Game Over.  Put those same 10 kids in an Olympic sized swmming pool and that game could go on all day (ugh).  But there's more chemistry here...the sugar in the mixture coats the proteins (there are several thousand sugar molecules for each lonely protein molecule) making bonding less likely when the proteins do get close to each other. 

Of course, ultimately the proteins will bond (because that's the whole point in cooking them) BUT, just like those kids in the pool, there is alot of liquid slopping around in the spaces between the proteins.  And that's why we add cornstarch to pastry cream.  As the mixture is heating and the proteins are unravelling and shouting out "Marco" and "Polo" to each other, the cornstarch is likewise getting hot and it starts to sweat its guts out.  Cornstarch sweats a thickening agent that floats through the pastry cream mixture and via "hydrogen bonding" (Chemisty!) it captures water molecules.  And the hotter it gets (until around 200 degrees) the more it sweats and the more water it traps.  The mixture thickens as the water is trapped and the proteins bond, and that's when you turn the heat off and chill those hard working, exhausted molecules.  Ahh yes, just as I thought...Chemistry is possible without Math, but Cooking is all about Chemistry.

So we start with eggs and butter and dairy and a starch, and we make a basic custard and a simple pastry dough, and to them we can add whipped cream or more butter or  chocolate or praline paste or cheese or any number of other ingredients or preparations and instead of a plate of eclairs, you can have cream puffs, or beignets, or gougere, buttercream, or crab puffs, or Paris Brest.  The possibilities are truly endless.

Pastry Cream
Whole Milk                  2 cups
Granulated Sugar          4 oz (or about 1/2 cup), divided
Cornstarch                  50 grams (or about 3 1/2 Tbsp)
Salt                            1/4 tsp
Eggs                           2
Vanilla                        1 1/2 tsp
Butter                        2 oz

1.  Combine the milk and approx 1/2 the sugar in a saucepan, and bring to a simmer.
2.  While the milk is warming, combine the remaining sugar, the cornstarch and the salt in a mixing bowl.  Set it on a damp towel or rubberized something - so it won't scoot across the counter when both your hands are busy and you can't steady the bowl.
3.  When the milk is almost hot enough, whisk the eggs into the sugar-cornstarch mixture until smooth.
4.  Immediately add a little of the hot milk mixture to the egg mixture, whisking constantly.  Keep adding and whisking until more than half the milk has been added, then return the saucepan to the heat, and whisk the warmed egg-milk mixture back into the saucepan.  Turn burner to medium-low. 
5.  Whisk or stir slowly until the mixture thickens (about 4-5 minutes).  Turn the heat down a bit if it is cooking too quickly on the bottom. (Nobody likes scorched pastry cream.)  Let it bubble for about a minute, stirring or whisking steadily. 
6.  Remove from the heat, stir in the vanilla and the butter.
7.  Put the pastry cream into a bowl, and put that bowl in a larger bowl of ice water.  Lay a piece of plastic wrap directly on the top of the pastry cream, to prevent a skin from forming.  Keep chilled in the refrigerator until ready to use. 

Pastry Cream - Chocolate Variation
Melt 7 ounces of buttersweet chocolate.
At Step 7 of the recipe above, reduce the amount of butter to 1 ounce and stir in the melted chocolate with the vanilla and butter.

Pate Choux
Cake Flour             4 oz
Bread Flour            5 1/2 oz
Water                   2 cups
Unsalted Butter      6 oz
Salt                       1/2 tsp
Eggs                      8

1.  In a saucepan, bring the water, salt and butter to a full boil.
2.  While the water is heating, combine the flours and set aside.
3.  When the water is at a boil, remove from the heat and add the flour, stirring thoroughly until all the flour is moistened.
4.  Return the pan to the medium heat and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture forms a mass, and the flour forms a light skin on the bottom of the pan.  Remove from the heat. 
5.  Let the dough cool briefly until it is very-warm to the touch.  (You can add the eggs by hand or put the dough in the stand mixer and let it do the work.)  Either way, add the eggs one at a time, mixing thoroughly after each addition, until the dough is soft but still holds its shape.  (Egg Test:  Take a blob of dough on your spatula and turn it upside down -- if it elongates and forms a "V" shape, you have added enough eggs.  It if is too stiff to elongate, you need to add another egg.)
6.  For mini-eclairs, use a 3/4-inch piping tip and pipe the dough into approx. 4 inch lengths on a Silpat.  If they have a little flip at the end (like the ones in the picture), wet your fingertip slightly and flatten the flip before baking.
7.  Bake at 425 degrees for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 375 degree and bake until they are lightly browned and have a slightly crisp exterior (about 20 minutes). 


Tuesday, February 8, 2011

O is for Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

Let me just say that I do not belive that there is such a thing as too many cookbooks. What a ridiculous concept.  Oh, sure, I have watched hours of television programming about hoarders; I have seen those people pushed out of their bedrooms and homes by their own collections of stuff, whose lives have become dominated by mountains of clothes, styrofoam containers, and plastic figurines...insignificant things.  But cookbooks?  No way.  
Not only are cookbooks the ultimate how-to manuals, but if you will allow me to be grand and only slightly overstated for a moment...cookbooks give us a way to recreate history.  Wow - really, Tom?  Yes!  Okay, not all cookbooks do that.  (I have one slim volume entitled The Classic Carrot Cookbook which may provide a counterargument to the whole history theory, but, if push came to shove, I'm sure that somebody could find some recipe on those orange-hued pages that elicits memories of picnics by the lake.)

Look through most any cookbook and you will see numerous references such as "a dessert I had on my first trip to Paris" or "my mother's never fail pie crust" or "the pot roast from countless Sunday dinners."  Food is a multisensory reminder of times past.  And not only when you eat it, but also when making it.  Hold a heavy wooden rolling pin in your hand and generations of bakers are lined up behind you.  The next time you make whipped cream, imagine how many times your mother or father, or grandmother, or greatgrandmother lifted the whisk to check the consistency of the cream before serving it on the pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. 

The French have a reputation for being all this-and-that about their cuisine, in part because they were the first culture to document their culinary techniques and traditions.  Sure, the Bedouins may have been stewing goat heads for thousands of years before the first puff pasty was made, but they never wrote it down...they are a nomadic culture, so no doubt toting boxes of goat recipes was not a first priority on their limited camel space.  With only recall to go on, little Mohammed can't be sure that the goat head he is eating in his tent is exactly like the goat head that his greatgrandfather stewed up.  But when little Pierre climbs up on the kitchen stepstool to make his first Tarte Tatin, he can follow the directions exactly and be confindent that it will taste just like Grandmama's. 

But I don't mean to minimize the oral tradition of the kitchen (or the tent).  We can probably all remember some tidbit of food knowledge that we heard from our mothers (don't cut lettuce with a knife; chill the bowl and beaters before you whip the cream; an open can of kidney beans is the most dangerous food there is), but these are generally technique remarks rather than specific recipes.  For recipes I turn to my trusty stack of index cards with Grandma's recipes on them (Sour Cream Coffee Cake, Baking Powder Biscuits, Rolled Molasses Cookies) or to one of my many treasured cookbooks. 

These Oatmeal Raisin Cookies are from "The Church Book."  There are probably thousands of similar books on bookshelves across the know, collections of recipes published by the women's fellowships from every church in every town in every state, providing generations of the devout with cholesterol and pot luck dishes for all eternity. (Despite their reputation for covered dishes containing condensed soups, these books are not restricted to midwest Christians.  I am the proud owner of the 1972 Edition of the Hadasah Cookbook from Rochester, New York.) 
 "The Church" from which my well-used "Church Book" hails, is the First United Methodist Church of Longmont, Colorado.  And amidst the questionable recipes on those pages are to be found some real keepers, often marked by my mother with a simple "good" in the margin. 
My sister tells me that in her copy my mother also identified some of the clunkers...apparently I was left to find those myself, not difficult in some cases.

Though these are called "Grandmother's Oatmeal Cookies," they aren't from my Grandmother.  But that doesn't matter because I've tweaked the recipe a little bit anyway, and that's not a sacrilege, that's how cuisine evolves.  But with the cookbook in hand, we can always return to the orginal, to Grandma's way, when the newer version turn out like hockey pucks...or fossils (which these didn't - they are delicious).

Grandmother's Oatmeal Cookies
Yield:  30 cookies

Eggs, well beaten                3
Vanilla                                1 tsp
Raisins                                1 cup
Butter, room temp               8 oz
White Sugar                        1 cup
Brown Sugar                        1 cup
AP Flour                              2 1/2 cups
Salt                                    3/4 tsp
Baking Soda                        2 tsp
Cinnamon                           1 tsp
Nutmeg                              1/2 tsp
Oats                                   2 cups

1.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2.  Combine the eggs, vanilla, raisins in a small bowl.  Let sit for 1 hour.
3.  Thoroughly cream the butter and sugars.
4.  Stir together the flour, salt, soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and add to the creamed mixture.
5.  Add the egg-raisin mixture and the oats and mix until completely combined - the dough will be stiff.
6.  Place heaping rounded Tablespoons of dough onto baking sheet.  Bake for 15-17 minutes (until lightly browned on top).