Tuesday, May 25, 2010

No Beginner's Luck Here

Sometimes, a recipe goes exactly the way you want it to the first time around. Then, the second time, you think it's going to be just as great as the first. And somehow, it just screws up. Strange oven parameters or even the weather outside can account for this type of situation--whatever the reason, it usually leaves you extremely frustrated. "But I did everything right!". Well, maybe, but maybe not.

Oh, frustration. Frustration is my stalker right now. See, I'm learning how to drive, and no, this doesn't have anything to do whatsoever with baking. I take that back. Yes it does: I would rather be baking than stalling right in the middle of intersections. Just because, you know, all you can do to harm yourself when you bake is pick up a baking sheet from the oven with your bare hands (which, granted, hurts a lot). Stalling in an intersection? I guess you could harm much more than your hands. Thankfully, I came out of that physically unharmed, but with a great sense of frustration. I thought I had done everything right, and I didn't stall so much last week. I'm supposed to take my license exam in a little under two weeks. At this point, learning to chop vegetables at the speed of light seems like a more simple task. 

Back to baking: my point is that it's good to know when something you used to be doing right goes wrong all of a sudden. Many cooking blogs out there showcase a recipe only once, and don't focus on how great it is in the long run. (Some blogs do though, and thank you to them!) Difficult pastries, for example, are easy to mess up the second time around, even if the first time worked out great. Beginner's luck?

Remember my lemon macarons? They were pretty amazing the first time around. Last week, I made them again, using American ingredients and without a piping tip. I was scared, at least for a few minutes. Then, I tasted the lemon cream. I tasted a macaron top. And I breathed a sigh of relief.

So, just to let you know, this macaron recipe really does work. And what's a better way to celebrate the arrival of Summer than a bite of creamy lemon heaven?

You'll find the recipe right here, taken from Pierre Hermé's book Macarons. Great book!

On a side note, I'm leaving tomorrow for the island of Vieques for a long weekend with my sister. When I get back on Monday, be ready to hear about failed lemon sticky buns and how to maybe make them magical, baking cookies with twelve year-olds, and who knows, a Puerto Rican specialty dessert?

Happy end of the week to everyone!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Accumulator

Hi. My name is Lucie, and I...

...I accumulate things.

That movie ticket stub from four years ago? Got it.
Oh, remember that note you passed me in Chem class back in 10th grade? Have that too.

But it gets worse. See, I had actually forgotten about how much of an accumulator I really am, until I came back to Illinois for part of the Summer. I have two things to accomplish before I leave: learn to drive (that's a topic for another day) and declutter. This last part has been lingering around for a few years now, and I'm finally ready to get on with it.

This is how I realized maybe, just maybe, my food obsession started a long time ago.

Exhibit A: A mini box of Frosted Flakes from a trip to Mexico when I was eight. That is, nearly sixteen years ago. Cereal is great, and even better when the box is in Spanish, but really? Oh, and believe me, I held on to this like a treasure for years.

Exhibit B: Let's delve even deeper into the weirdness. Back in the late 90s, I went to a restaurant with my parents where I must have ordered some sort of salad. In between two bites, I noticed a bright blue-green caterpillar staring at me from my plate, and I guess I was pretty shocked.

Stunned enough, at least, to document the event on a packet of sugar and keep it for over a decade. I really wonder what went through my mind at that point. "A caterpillar! Woah! I have to keep a trace of this moment with some sugar and store it in my vault!"

The vault in question. It may be dusty but it kept that sugar safe from harm.

Exhibit C: Now this is priceless. A cookie credit card that actually gave me a free cookie every time I went to Jewel grocery store. Don't you wish that 1/ credit cards actually let you get things for free and 2/ that these still existed for the over 10 year old crowd? You can bet that's plastic I'd be whipping out in a flash.

And, finally, I bring you Exhibit D, found in the red "vault".

Apparently, keeping a printed drawing of Caligula--you know, the very dead, very mean Roman emperor--was vault-worthy. Nine year old girls wanting to be swept away by one of those is normal, right? Just say yes. We'll get along better that way.

Anyway, maybe this way you can understand why I might not be posting and/or commenting as much these days. Decluttering takes time, patience, and a pretty good sense of humor when looking back at how so impossibly weird I've always been.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Double Chocolate Cookies

...doesn't this sound like something you would find in a grocery store? 

I've mentioned how people can go a little overboard with the names they give their dishes, adding "luscious", "insanely decadent", or both at once. Although I'm usually able to brush those off and take a look at what's really being served, I always fall into the double-triple trap.

Not a real trap, obviously--I don't spend my weekends running around in the woods hunting for some wild game and getting my leg stuck in metal claws. And no, I don't wear camouflage trucker hats either, for that matter. Rifles, on the other hand... I'm kidding. I would probably end up shooting my foot, and we all know I've had enough limb invalidity for the next few years.

What I mean by the double-triple trap is all those boxes of cookies or bake-sale brownies that go by "Triple Chocolate Mocha Chunk Caramel Drizzle S'More Topping". No ridiculous adjectives here. No way. These names are 100% descriptive, and usually manage to get me running around in circles on my bed, jumping up and down until I realize I'm missing about twenty ingredients. In which case I resort to simpler fare, of the "Double" variety: "double chocolate blondies with a butterscotch swirl". Still missing some ingredients and just want to use what you have on hand? Don't skip the "double" effect and go for these: Double Chocolate Cookies.

They're not as simple as classic chocolate chip cookies, but not a strange overload of ingredients either. Did I just say strange? I'm just saying that for you, because I know a lot of people prefer the deceptively simple desserts. I love them too, but ingredient-packed makes me go into a frenzy. 

I made these with Dutch-processed cocoa powder and baking white chocolate--and they were enjoyed.  Did the "Double Effect" work its magic? Only one way to find out: bring it up a notch to something triple. Not like the baker here is complaining: double-triple dough is even better.

Double Chocolate Cookies
adapted from Martha Stewart Living
makes about 3 dozen

1 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 c. Dutch-process cocoa powder
1/2 TS baking soda
1/2 TS coarse salt
4 oz. chopped semisweet chocolate
1/2 c. butter
1 1/2 c. granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 TS vanilla extract
1 c. white chocolate, chopped into chunks

Preheat oven to 350 F / 185 C. 

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt. 
In a large heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water, melt chocolate and butter. Let cool about 5 minutes away from heat. 

Add sugar, eggs and vanilla to the chocolate mixture. Mix until combined, and gradually mix in flour mixture. Fold in white chocolate chunks. 

Refrigerate dough for 10 to 20 minutes. Drop balls of dough on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet spaced 2 inches apart. Bake until cookies are still soft but edges have firmed up, 10 to 15 minutes. 

Cool on a wire rack. Cookies can be stored up to 3 days in an airtight container.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Incursion into the Dangerous Land of Fudge

I've been to the Land of Fudge before. 

I've made classic fudge, and even Cookies n Cream fudge that turned out more like dulce de leche mixed with Oreos--not bad. Land of Fudge is a dangerous place, however. It actually gets increasingly dangerous as you cut your fudge into smaller squares. That's when you start thinking, "One or two squares can't hurt." And then you might be writing a thesis paper, or annoyed or particularly happy, or just watching television. Any activity becomes a sudden excuse for another square.

"They're so little, and I need one--it's not everyday I have to do the dishes." (Well, in fact, yes it is, but reach for that square anyway.)

You can try hiding the fudge in a closet, in a dark empty oven, or even under your bed: it just keeps calling your name. I'm not talking Ulysses and the sirens here. This is a much greater deal. I don't think Ulysses would ever be able to defeat Fudge. I'm certain he would go ahead, eat it all up, changing the fate of the world and culture as we know it.

I love fudge so much that I really could eat the whole pan, and feel a little sick afterwards. Chances are, though, I would feel just fine and want another bite. That's why my fudge-making is restricted to when I plan a party. Also, I know there are some serious fudge admirers out there, always game for heading into that Dangerous Land with me. 

I had memories of really good fudge bars from when I was younger, and asked Maman for the recipe. Turns out, the secret ingredient was one I hadn't yet encountered in my Fudge Incursions: almond extract. Trust me on this one: this is a fudge bar worth making. However, the recipe is for a 9x13 inch pan, and you really should stick to that. I didn't, and used a smaller pan. The shortbread was too thick and ended up being a tad crumbly and generally not as great as it would have been in its thinner version. With that said, I had no trouble gobbling these up--I'm no Ulysses, and this fudge certainly has powers no siren ever had.

You look lonely and your crust is too thick, but I'll still have you

In honor of Mother's Day--which was yesterday in the US I know, but I was on a very long and delayed flight, and it's not till May 30th in France--I thought I would post two versions of this recipe. The first, as e-mailed by the Mother in question, and another in 100% English. Enjoy, and Happy Mother's Month to everyone!

chocolate fudge bars:
Crust; 1/2 CUP GROUND ALMONDS, 1 CUP FLOUR, 1/4 cup sugar, 1/2 teasp salt, 1 stick butter ( c est 8 TB = 110G ) 1 oeuf. Melange tout ça. cuire dans un moule 350 F 20 minutes. Fudge: 1 can sweetened condensed milk+2TB sugar+1/4 teas almond extract. Faire chauffer puis ajouter 12 oz semisweet chocolate et verser sur la pâte cuite et voilà! Bisou, maman

Chocolate Fudge Bars
makes a 9x13 inch pan

1/2 c. ground almonds
1 c. flour
1/4 c. sugar
1/2 TS salt
1 stick butter
1 egg

1 can sweetened condensed milk
2 TB sugar
1/4 TS almond extract
12 oz. semisweet chocolate, chopped

Preheat oven to 350 F / 185 C.

Make crust: mix all ingredients in a large bowl. Press into a parchment paper-lined 9x13 inch pan, using the bottom of a measuring cup or your fingers to make crust compact.

Bake 20 minutes, until crust is golden.

Make fudge: over a double boiler, heat condensed milk, sugar and almond extract. Add chopped chocolate and mix until combined. 

Pour over crust and let cool at room temperature. Refrigerate and cut into squares before serving.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Goat Cheese and Green Fig Wonton Cups

Have you ever gone into a frenzy in a tableware store or on target.com, staring at cake trays and serving platters? I'd say it happens to me about once every two weeks. I start deciding which platters I want, what I would put on them, and who I would serve it to. I end up with a "small selection" of ten or so trays, which somehow are completely unmatched but that's alright.

And once I've made my list, I...don't get anything. See, if I were to actually give in to my love for oversized serving dishes, I think I would just have to move out on the street. My apartment can hardly handle the three serving plates I actually have, so I'm thinking that four-tiered turquoise cake platter wouldn't make it in. Well, it would, but it would also be replacing my bed/couch. Then again, would I rather sleep on the floor if it means having a flurry of cake stands? I might, actually--you already know I'm a little strange. Plus, that would mean more space for my guests, for those serving platter-filled parties. Nobody would be able to sit down, but I'm sure they'd be too busy jumping face first into my cookie dough fondues to mind. Before you start saying I have Oompa-Loompa scale culinary fantasies, I'll gladly confirm that I do. 

For now, though, I don't give in to any of them. Just wait and see until the day I get a 200 square meter loft in the center of Paris. Um...I forgot to mention my real estate fantasies too, didn't I?

Having a small apartment doesn't really keep me from having parties: standing in the middle of a small cookie-filled apartment isn't so bad for most people. This time around, I wanted to celebrate the beginning of May...well, no. I actually had a few ideas for little appetizers I really wanted to test and try on a dozen guinea pigs. Sorry, guys! 

One of these recipes came all of a sudden when I was back in Saint Dié, shopping in a newly-opened Turkish supermarket. I came across green figs in syrup, and it all came together in a flash: wonton cups filled with fresh, creamy goat cheese, green fig syrup, and pink peppercorns. I had never tasted this combination before, but somehow I just had a feeling it would taste pretty good.

Back in my Paris kitchen, I rounded up all the ingredients and went to work--not that there was much work involved, because this is pretty much the easiest recipe ever. I taste one of the finished products and was pretty pleased. But since this was right in the middle of getting ready for a party, I also had red bean dip, fudge, and dirt cake (I know, I'm not eight years old anymore, but still) to taste. So it was good, but I couldn't have enough to actually decide if I loved it or not. 

Enter my first guests, which I could label the hungry ones. There were thirty-four little wonton cups set out, and fifteen minutes later, they were all gone. I think they pretty much averaged nine or ten wonton cups per person, so I'll let that speak for itself.

 Wonton cups, pre-disappearing act.

I'll also let it speak for the fact that next time, I should make a couple hundred more. New serving plates, anyone?

Crispy Wonton Cups with Goat Cheese, Pink Peppercorns and Green Figs
makes 35 small wonton cups

1 package refrigerated or thawed frozen wonton wrappers
1 1/4 c. fresh goat cheese
1/4 to 1/3 c. green figs in syrup, chopped (syrup is included in the measurement)--this depends on how much sweetness you want
2 TB pink peppercorns, plus 1 TB for garnish
1 TS salt
1/2 TS pepper

Preheat oven to 350°F / 180°C. With a large round cookie cutter, cut wonton wrappers into rounds. Lightly brush one side of each wrapper with oil and place in a mini-muffin pan, pressing down to form a cup. Bake 8 to 10 minutes, until browned. Let cool in pan or on a wire rack.

In a medium bowl, mix goat cheese, 2 TB peppercorns,salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate until use.

Note: Fill wonton cups the day they will be served--otherwise they might get a little soggy.

Spoon goat cheese mixture into cooled wonton cups. Using a very small spoon, top with green figs and syrup. Add one or two pink peppercorns as a garnish.

Delight in the contrast between the crunchy wonton, creamy cheese and figs, and the end pop of the peppercorns!

Sunday, May 2, 2010


The Winter holiday season always seems to be the time of choice for candy-making at home. It's cold outside, and a sweet little treat is a perfect gift for all those holiday parties. Well, it's also a time when you have a million other things to do, people to see, holiday shopping to do... so where does candy-making come in? 

See, homemade candy takes time, precision, and a whole lot of love. Don't worry--I'm not about to start channeling Carla from Top Chef a couple seasons ago (remember that? She was all about "putting love" into her dishes). However, candy and I make an interesting couple. I love candy, eating it and making it, but there's also a bit of tough love involved. The process usually goes through ups and downs, and at some points you think it's never going to work out. Before you break out a business card with a counselor's name on it, I'll have to admit that I kind of enjoy our love-hate relationship. Fearing the worst makes even the slightest success seem like a huge victory. 

So, Candy, I think I'll keep you a while longer--but I'll be changing the seasonality of things. Christmas is for eating lebkuchen, and I'm saving the candy-making for when the weather starts getting nicer and free time is abundant...meaning, now! Especially when it comes to making calissons, a regional treat from the South of France.

Calissons are made primarily with candied melons and ground almonds; if you're a fan of marzipan, you'll love these. They're traditionally almond-shaped, with a thin layer of white royal icing and a bottom layer of pain azyme--also used to make hosts in the Catholic tradition. Sure, calissons are a little time consuming, but a lot of it is about finding space to let them "dry" before icing, and dry again before eating...and that's the interesting part, right? Trust me, you won't be able to wait that long before trying them out (and you don't have to, really), and you'll see them disappear in a few short hours if you leave them. Watch out for those guests or family members! 

Even if candy-making isn't your thing, this is a great way to work out your frustration--pounding almond paste with a rolling pin and eating the scraps, anyone? I'll take that any day over relationship counseling. Oh, candy, I love you more than ever.

makes about 60

Note: this is the version without the bottom layer--the pain azyme may be hard to find in the U.S. and other places, and it's really only useful if you want to stack them up so they don't stick!

150g candied melon
50g apricot jam
300g almond powder
200g confectioner's sugar
1 teaspoon orange blossom extract
2 drops almond extract

for royal icing
1 egg white
150g confectioner's sugar

Chop candied melon and grind with apricot jam; texture should be very thick. Place mixture in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.

Add almond powder, orange blossom, almond extract, and confectioner's sugar. Mix for 5 minutes or so--the almond powder will start releasing its oils--until a ball forms.

Place resulting paste between two sheets of parchment paper and roll out until it is about 1cm or a half-inch thick. Remove top sheet and let paste "dry" for at least two hours, and preferably overnight.

Using a small round cookie cutter (about one inch diameter) or almond-shaped cutter if you have one, cut paste into shapes. Reuse scraps and repeat.

Place calissons on a baking sheet lightly sprinkled with confectioner's sugar. Let calissons dry overnight.

The next day, make royal icing: beat egg white to stiff peaks and add confectioner's sugar. The result should have the same texture as thick sour cream. Working quickly, dip tops of each calisson in icing and place back onto parchment paper. Let dry overnight (again!).

And finally...eat them all up! These also make great gifts, and will keep for a week to a week and a half if stored in an airtight container.