Saturday, August 28, 2010

Chocolate Banana Bread

Does anyone ever make banana bread on purpose?

I would honestly like to know the answer to this question. If I could have it my way, I would lock a hundred people in a room and force them to answer. They would be forced to smell cinnamon buns without being able to eat them until they spoke up.

It seems to me that banana bread often comes as a consequence to buying too many bananas, or letting them sit for too long without eating them. One morning, you wake up and notice those bananas over there are...well, going bananas. Time for banana bread!
If you agree with this, you'll also agree that's not really a bad thing at all. Banana bread is a wonderfully versatile creature: it can be enjoyed for breakfast, a snack or for dessert. Add chocolate to the mix and you've got yourself a pretty nice combination. 

To take the banana bread experience to its fullest, I obviously only had one egg left. I started a scavenger hunt aroud my kitchen (which, I'll admit took about thrity seconds given its size) and got some ingredients together. Somehow, I ended up with banana bread. 

The good part is that I ended up with banana bread everyone at work seemed to like. Thanks, bananas, for becoming so ripe all of a sudden!

Chocolate Banana Bread
makes one large loaf

2 c. all-purpose flour
1/3 c. brown sugar
1/4 c. granulated sugar
1/2 TS salt
1 TS baking soda
3 very ripe bananas, mashed
1/4 c. vegetable oil
1 egg
1/2 c. sour cream, low or whole fat
1 TS vanilla extract
100g / 3.5 oz semisweet chocolate, melted and cooled

Preheat oven to 350°F / 180°C.

In a medium bowl, mix mashed bananas, sour cream, oil, vanilla and egg together.

In a large bowl, whisk flour, sugars, salt and baking soda together. Delicately incorporate wet ingredients into flour mixture. Stir until combined; do not overmix.

Pour into a greased or non-stick loaf pan.

Bake 40 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center of the loaf comes out clean. Invert onto a rack and let cool before slicing.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Summer was Back

Fleetingly, like all good things, Summer came back last weekend.

And when Summer returns, so does the ice cream sandwich craving. If you're in Paris, run--don't walk--and get your hands on this amazing black sesame ice cream sandwich from Japanese pastry chef Sadaharu Aoki! Creamy black sesame ice cream, reminiscent of chestnuts, is sandwiched between two perfect chocolate sablés.


Patisserie Sadaharu Aoki
35, rue de Vaugirard
75006 Paris

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Fig and Almond Tartelettes


Figs and almonds are a match made in heaven.

Not convinced? Let me show you.

Exhibit A: Say you like Fig Newtons. (Oh, come on, just pretend if you don't.) Now imagine a Fig Newton with an extra layer of marzipan inside. Alright? I got your attention, I hope.

Who still needs Exhibit B?

You might be convinced by now, but I would like to show you some fig and almond tartelettes just in case.

Last weekend, I got on the bus and headed to the Marché d'Aligre in the 12th arrondissement. Living in the 6th, I'm used to exorbitant fruit and vegetable prices, and was expecting pretty much the same at Aligre. I stepped off the bus...into another world.

A world of peaches, limes and heirloom tomatoes at under two euros a kilo. Heaven. (Well, also the result of this not being an actual farmer's market but rather a market where everything comes from Rungis, the "main market" on the outskirts of Paris.)

Which brings me back to figs--beautiful, dark purple and small. Just soft enough, with a deep, luscious taste. They were priced at a very reasonable two euros a kilo; I had no excuse not to buy them and get started on a tart. And really, does anyone ever need an excuse for figs and almonds? Please.

These individual tartelettes are a perfect way to showcase wonderfully in-season figs. Plus, if you've ever been a fan of crème frangipane--the traditional filling of almond and pastry cream for the galette des rois on Epiphany--this is for you.

As an optional but no less amazing extra, slather some salted buttered caramel on the bottom of the crust before adding the filling. It will add a hardly perceptible je ne sais quoi, and bring the "mmm" factor up a notch.
The pastry crust is the one used in the flan I wrote about last week, and once again a great pairing with the sweetness of the frangipane and figs.

If by now, you're not 100% sure that figs and almonds were made to be, then I'm lost. Unless...this might help?

Fig and Almond Tartelettes
makes two tartelettes

1/2 recipe for pastry crust
6 fresh figs, sliced vertically
1 TB salted butter caramel (optional)

crème frangipane:

50g / 1/2 c. almond flour
50g / 3.5 TB unsalted butter, room temperature
50g / 1/3 c. confectioner's sugar
1/2 TS cornstarch
1 egg
1 drop bitter almond extract (or regular almond extract)
60g crème pâtissière

crème pâtissière:

Note: This recipe will yield 125g, or twice the amount you need. I strongly recommend you don't halve the recipe, as making tiny quantities of crème pâtissière can get pretty tricky. Use the leftovers as a garnish for éclairs, or anything you want! I filled lebanese bread with crème pâtissiere and fresh figs, and it was delicious.

1/2 TS vanilla extract
8g / 2.5 TS cornstarch
20g / 5 TS granualted sugar
10cl / 1/3 c. + 1.5 TB milk, preferably whole
1 egg yolk
10g  / 2 TS unsalted butter, room temperature


Make crème pâtissière. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, mix cornstarch, half of the sugar, and vanilla extract. Whisk in milk and bring to a boil.

In a small bowl, beat egg yolk and remaining sugar for a minute. Add a little of the hot milk and keep whisking.

Pour everything back into the saucepan and cook, whisking constantly. Remove from heat when the mixture begins to boil, and place saucepan in a larger pan or sink filled with cold water.

Once the cream has cooled to about 50°C / °F, add butter and whisk briskly.

Use pastry cream as soon as possible, and do not keep it more than 12 hours in the refrigerator.

Make crème frangipane. Cut butter into chunks and place into a medium bowl. Mix and soften with a spatula. Add, in this order, the confectioner's sugar, almond flour, cornstarch, eggs and almond extract, beating after each addition.

Add crème pâtissière and mix until well combined. Use immediately or cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Assemble tart.

Preheat oven to 180°C / 350°F.

Butter two tartelette pans and set aside. Roll out dough and pinch into tartelette pans. Make small holes on the bottom of the dough with a fork. If using, spread caramel on the bottom of the crust. Add filling. Place fig slices in a petal pattern on top of the cream.

Bake approximately 30 to 40 minutes, until crust is golden and frangipane is set. Cool for five minutes and gently remove tartelettes from pans. Let cool completely before serving.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Weekend Fare: Pierre Hermé's Flan à l'Eau

Oh look, it's the weekend!

Back when my weeks consisted of two days of classes and three hours of English tutoring, the term "weekend" didn't actually mean much to me. When someone came along rejoicing and screaming "It's almost Friday night!!!", I would usually think one of three things:

- I can finally see my friends!,
- I thought today was Monday for some reason,
- Wait, what? Friday night? The beginning of my 48-hour shopping-free spree!

Since most stores are closed on Sundays in Paris, Saturday is a pretty awful day to do any shopping, if you ask me. Stores are crowded, and people get cranky because it's their day off and there are too many people around. Consequently, I used to shop on Tuesdays--nobody in sight, the store to yourself. Sigh  Those days are long gone.

Now, when someone starts a heated conversation about the approaching weekend, I think the same thing every time: I want to go on a weekend trip.

Obviously, if you're not really planning on going anywhere, you can just pretend. Pretend like it's not raining, pretend like that loud group of tourists standing in front of your door for the past twenty minutes (with no plans to move to accomodate your passing through with grocery bags) doesn't even exist.

I mean it: it's actually quite easy to convince yourself that they aren't really saying "Oh my god, Kevin, look at how old this building is. Maybe the king even went here."

Here's my solution to all this brouhaha: plan a mini-staycation and get a picnic going. 

It can be a picnic in your own apartment, but that doesn't really matter: I traveled to the South of France this weekend with a tasty tomato salad. You don't even need a toothbrush, unless you're planning on eating quite some garlic, I guess. There's only one thing you can't forget, and that's dessert. Specifically, Pierre Hermé's recipe for a Flan à l'Eau. This is pretty much your typical Flan Pâtissier (also called Flan Parisien at times), except it substitutes half of the milk for water. Sounds strange, but it's incredible. The taste is lightly sweet, the texture creamy, yet it holds its shape like a nice flan pâtissier should.

And when I mean incredible, I mean picnic-in-the-woods incredible. (That explains the terrible picture and aluminum foil.)
Even better: Picnic-in-your-apartment incredible.

Flan à l'Eau
adapted from Pierre Hermé

Note: The pastry crust may seem like a hassle to make, especially if you've got a tried and true recipe. Trust me on this, though, and give it a try. It isn't too sweet, which is a great counterpoint to the sweet filling.

for the crust:

180 grams / 12.5 TB unsalted butter, softened
1 TS coarse salt
1 TS granualted sugar
1/2 egg yolk
50 ml / 1.7 fl. oz., or a scant 1/4 c. milk, room temperature
250 grams / 2.5 cups all-purpose flour

Place all ingredients except flour in a food processor, and pulse several times. Add flour, and pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal. Work dough into a ball and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.

Roll dough out on a floured surface to a thickness of approximately 2 millimeters. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Remove from refrigerator and press into a buttered 9-inch springform pan. The flan will be high, so leave at least 1.5 inches of dough on the sides of the pan. Refrigerate at least 2 hours before filling and baking.

for the filling:
375 grams / 1.5 c. + 2 TS milk, preferably whole
370 grams / 1.5 c. water
4 eggs
60 grams / scant 1/2 c. vanilla pudding powder
210 grams / 1 c. + 1 TB granulated sugar

Bring water and milk to a boil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Remove from heat and place in a bowl.

In a large bowl, beat eggs, pudding powder and sugar together and pour slowly into the milk-water mixture. Pour back into the saucepan and cook over low heat, whisking until the mixture starts to boil. Remove from heat and let cool thirty minutes.

Prehat oven to 190°C / 375 °F.

Place filling on top of chilled dough and bake for one hour. Remove form oven, let cool, and refrigerate at least 3 horus prior to serving.

The flan can be stored in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days after baking.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Red Wine & Fig Jam

Figs and I have a history.

Back in the day, figs used to hang out with my sister quite a bit. She liked them as Fig Newtons or their French equivalent, Figolu, so that was their deal. I used to let them do their thing--I didn't want to bother their thriving relationship in any way.

And then, at some point, figs starting spending more time around me, too. I was a lot older, I guess that's why--they didn't really think I was that cool when I thought I was Superman and tried jumping off the stairs. Gradually, figs and I became friends. I tolerated their presence, and they didn't seem to mind me, either. One day, we got a little closer when I discovered I really enjoyed figs in perfume. Also, when fig jam appeared alongside cheese, I didn't even glance further than the glass jar. Figs and I were just about to embark on what seemed to be a long-term relationship.

This summer, we were having drinks and a light dinner at our family friend Noreen's house, shortly before I returned to France. You may think it was me being all emotional about leaving the country, but my relationship with figs got really serious right then and there. Fig jam is one thing, but Noreen's red wine and fig jam?


I could have eaten it on anything--bread, scones, apples, celery, who knows, maybe even French fries. Imagine this with goat cheese gougères, or with anything your heart desires, really.

So, with Noreen officiating, I would like to show the world that my relationship with figs has bloomed. Yours will, too, if you give this recipe a try. Try to hide it from your significant other, though--they might start thinking about figs a little too much for your taste.

Red Wine and Fig Jam
recipe courtesy of Noreen

1/4 c. fresh lime juice

1 c. raw sugar
12 oz. Turkish figs, cut into large pieces (if using Black Mission Figs, you may need to decrease the sugar as they are noticeably sweeter)
about 1/3 c. Chardonnay

Place figs in a food processor and grind until you obtain small pieces.

Place ground figs, lime juice and raw sugar in saucepan. Mash together using the back of a large spoon, and let sit for an hour and a half to two hours.

Bring mixture to a boil over medium heat and stir. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes or so. If the jam begins to thicken before the 30 minutes, then remove and let cool. After jam has cooled, place in saucepan with chardonnay and heat until jam is thick but spreadable.

The jam may stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 months. If serving from the refrigerator and the jam is too thick place some chardonnay in a saucepan and add the jam until it becomes spreadable but not thin.

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Summer Weekend in the Vosges, and Fluffly Financiers

When my train rolls into the small town of Saint-Dié, in the Eastern Vosges region of France, my eyes automatically drift to the mountaintops.

Cue Sound of Music-type background tune. Wait, maybe not--it depends on the weather.

See, the Vosges region is generally one of the most beautiful regions out there. During the winter, it gets covered in snow and the pines glisten under the sunlight. When summertime rolls around and it gets warm, the mountains seem to be part of a lansdcape painting. These are the times when you could easily hear birds chirping and music from Heidi spring forth behind you. And then, there are the rainy days. On those days, when my train arrives at the station, I look at the mountains and think: "Gah. Not again. Cold and dreary...but cold and dreary means hot chocolate and viennoiseries! Sounds good!"

So, I guess you could have the background music all the time.

Last weekend was a perfect sun-filled "don't you wish you could stay here all year long" weekend, at least until Sunday noon rolled around--but that is beside the point. Saturday was a day Vosges-vacation dreams are made of: hiking in the mountains, picnicking by the lake, and picking wild myrtilles, or tiny forest blueberries.

(If my aunt Mimi were to read this, she would remind me yet again that I shouldn't pick those because you never know what came near it. I'm ready to take that risk.)

And because a perfect weekend is never really perfect without baking a little, there was a large family lunch planned for Sunday noon, before I returned to Paris. This was the perfect occasion to try a recipe from a new cookbook my Maman brought back to Paris, Ladurée's Sucré. Although the pastry 'maison' may be known for its macarons or rose-flavored pastries, I decided to try out a classic: the financier.

You may remember my post about Visitandine: well, the financier is its non-identical twin. They share pretty much everything except their shape, and the fact that butter is not simply melted for a financier, but browned. Browning the butter releases a great aroma--you'll know you've gone too far when that aroma starts being anything less than great.

I wasn't pleased with the tops of my financiers, which weren't smooth enough in my opinion. A generous coating of melted white chocolate was just what I needed to feel better about them. As it turns out, the taste was what could be expected from a Ladurée recipe--amazing. The financiers were fluffy, moist, and filled with a rich almond flavor. The white chocolate added a little something, although they really would have been great on their own.

And here's a bonus: see those flowers on the close-up shot of the financiers? They are called capucines, and make a delightful snack, reminiscent of peppery mint. Visions of eating flowers all day long, sitting on a lounge chair, quickly surfaced. So did my train ticket, and I was off to Paris--with a large tote full of fruits, vegetables, and herbs from the garden.

The hills are alive with the sound of music...

adapted from Ladurée's Sucré
makes 15 large to 30 small, depending on pan size

95 grams / 6.5 TB unsalted butter
65 grams / 3/4 c. ground almonds
195 grams / 1.5 cups confectioner's sugar
70 grams / 1/2 c. + 3 TB all-purpose flour
2 pinches baking powder ( approximately 1 1/2 TS)
6 egg whites
1 TS vanilla extract

White chocolate, melted (optional)

Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat until lightly browned--make sure it does not burn. Remove from heat and place directly in a shallow baking dish filled with cold water to stop any browning of the butter. Let cool.

In a large bowl, mix sugar, flour, and almond flour together. Add vanilla extract, baking powder, and stir to combine. Add egg whites one by one and gently whisk together. Finally, add cooled butter and stir until you obtain a uniform batter.

Refrigerate at least 12 hours or overnight.

When you are ready to bake the financiers, preheat oven to 410°F / 210°C. Pour batter into buttered and floured financier pan, 3/4 full. If you don't have a financier pan, don't fret--a muffin pan will do the job, though in this case you may want to fill it only halfway.

Bake 8 to 10 minutes, until golden. Invert onto a rack to cool.

Once cooled, you may dip the financiers into melted white chocolate to coat. Place on a cooling rack and let dry.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Lemon-not-Key-Lime Pie

Sometimes, it doesn't get better than introducing friends in France to a traditional American dessert. My maple pecan and pumpkin pies have always been a success, with everyone--myself definitely inclued--coming back for thirds. 

In my quest to show just how tasty American classics can be, my mind drifted to a summery pie. Fresh, yet creamy, key lime pie is a true traditional dessert. France is the country of tarts, and deep dish pies are something relatively unknown unless you're thinking of a thick, savory slice of quiche. Add the fact that a lot of pies are made with sweetened condensed milk, and you'll get the eyebrow raise. If you've ever spent some time in France (or with my Maman, the eyebrow champ), you've undoubtedly noticed just how expressive an eyebrow can be. Both can be raised when skepticism arises, but more drama comes from a single eyebrow lift. Apparently, I do this without even realizing it, even when I'm filled with trust and acceptance. Must be a hereditary thing.

Back to the pie: sweetened condensed milk, in France, rings a bell for many as "that sweet stuff in the Nestlé tube I used to scarf down when I was a kid". Few people this side of the ocean know sweetened condensed milk is the key to great fudge, and can even be a key component in Asian shaved ice desserts. 

So, there I was, pretty set on making a key lime pie. Then, it hit me: there are no key limes here. Not a problem, I thought. I'll just use normal limes. However, limes at the grocery store here are absolutely ridiculous both in price and in juice yield...ridiculous in a bad way. Not wanting to go all the way to the 13th to buy non-untreated (read, probably covered in chemical) limes from Tang Freres even though they are surprisingly juicy, I simply decided to use lemons.

I think I'm well on my way to trying out every single variation on a lemon pie / tart / bar that exist sin both countries, and I've got to say I've been pretty satisfied so far. Replacing the key limes with lemons yields a perfectly creamy, flavorful pie that I would make again anytime. But watch out: maybe you shouldn't tell anyone about the sweetened condensed milk, because then they will realize how easy this pie is to make. And then, nothing would be able to justify that raised eyebrow--well, unless you're French. In that case, it's just part of your heritage.

Lemon Pie
serves 6 to 8

Graham Cracker Crust
8 whole graham cracker sheets, finely crushed
5 TB butter, melted and cooled
2 TB sugar

Preheat oven to 350°F / 180°C.

Mix all ingredients together in a food processor. Press against a buttered pie pan with your fingers or a measuring cup. Bake approximately 15 minutes until golden and fragrant. Remove from oven and set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, prepare lemon filling.

Lemon Filling
4 egg yolks
1 (14 oz) can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 c. fresh lemon juice
zest of 2untreated lemons (approximately 4 TS)

In a medium bowl, whisk yolks and zest together. Add condensed milk and juice and stir to combine. Set aside for 30 minutes to let mixture thicken.

Pour mixture on top of pie crust and bake approximately 15 minutes until filling center still jiggles slightly. Remove from oven and set on a rack to cool for one hour. Refrigerate overnight if possible before serving.