Monday, February 28, 2011

Pear and Amandine Tart

January in France marks the month where everyone is entitled to indulge in the traditional Galette des Rois for thirty days straight (or only one, whatever suits them). Essentially, it is a buttery and flaky pastry crust filled with buttery almond cream. Yes, buttery describes it, and so does delicious. 

After January, you'd think we've had our fair share of creamy almond filling, right?

Think again! Almond cream is quite a versatile creature, transforming itself like a cameleon each time it is paired with a new ingredient. Besides the French king cake, crème amandine has another best friend: pears. Pear and almond tart is a staple in French baking, appropriate for an elegant dinner or a casual afternoon snack--and any excuse for an afternoon snack is a good one in my book.

Setting out to keep almond cream in everyone's mind for the month of February, too, Eleni (you might remember her from our chocolate macaron experiment) and I had dreams of eating a whole pear and almond tart one afternoon. To switch things up, we tried a new tart crust recipe, and kept the rest classic with a cream recipe from Ladurée and Eleni's signature raspberry poached pears.

The dough, well... the dough didn't really live up to our expectations. It was rather crumbly, with an overpowering nuttiness that was distracting and didn't let the pears and almond shine like they should. The rest, however, was pretty amazing. The poached pears were perfectly melt-in-your-mouth, and the almond filling is a great pairing.

As tempting as it may seem, wait until the tart really cools down to get your first bite: we couldn't wait and were disappointed by the first results. Good things come to those who wait... An hour or two later, however, and it was just as good as we could have imagined.

Maybe even worth making all February (or for the day that's left, at least). What's next for March--almond cream turnovers? We'll see...

Pear and Amandine Tart
serves eight

Preheat oven to 350°F / 180°C.

for the crust, to be prepared a few hours before baking: recipe here (this is not the recipe we used, but would work out much better and be great with the rest of the ingredients)

Once tart dough is ready to be baked, bake with parchment paper and pie weights until edges of the crust are golden, approximately 20 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool.  

for the pears, courtesy of Eleni:
2 large pears (we used the Conference variety and they held up great)
1 c. raspberry liqueur
1 TS lemon juice
2 TS sugar (adjust to the level of sweetness you want)
1/2 TS cinnamon
1/2 TS vanilla
a few drops of almond extract
If you want to make the flavors more subdued, i.e. for a tart like this,  add a little water (1-2 TB).

Bring all ingredients except pears to a simmer.

Peel, cut in half, and core pears. Place flat side down in liquid and cook, spooning mixture on top of pears regularly, until softened yet still firm (a knife inserted into the center of a pear will be a good indicator) for the needs of the tart.

Remove from heat, and when cool enough to handle, slice pears. Set aside to place on filling.

for the filling:
1 c. + 3 TB ground almonds
7 TB butter, softened
3/4 c. confectioner's sugar
1 TB cornstarch
2 eggs
1 TB rhum (optional, we didn't use it)

With a wooden spatula, mix softened butter, confectioner's sugar, almond flour. and cornstarch one by one. Add eggs and rhum (if using) and mix thoroughly.

Note: prepare the filling as late as possible, ideally right before baking it for a lighter texture.

Pour filling into tart shell, spread until level. Arrange pears on top of filling in a rose pattern.

Bake until top of the tart is golden, approximately 30 minutes. Let cool before serving.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

An Ode

You've heard it before; I know I'm not the first.

Everyone wants to take a bite out of you. You're coveted around the world, and seem to be in many places at the same time. In several countries, you appear rather brittle, dry, easily shattered. It's your fragile side, I believe, that makes you act this way. You hide your deep chocolate undertones, preferring to give them all a few fleeting tastes of long-lost chips.

I don't very much enjoy you in those places. If I were to meet you in one single place in the world, it would be in my kitchen. I'm more of the intimate, almost timid kind, you see. I'd rather we kept our dealings to ourselves--nobody else has to know about us. I know you probably have this type of arrangement with many others, but I don't mind: I can share at times.

Just promise me one thing: when we do meet, I want you to be all I've ever wanted you to be. I want to feel your warmth, your friendliness. I like to see the real you, multifaceted, always hiding something. From the outside, you're smooth or bumpy, I don't really have a preference this time around. You know best. I'm sure you remember I enjoy how diaphanous you are, letting your true self show through. Beneath the paleness lies a treasure trove of suave boldness, unassuming yet noble: your dark side.

Constantly conflicting deep inside yourself; bittersweet chocolate tries to take the stage, but must be resigned to sharing the spotlight with the brown sugar comfort of hardly-baked dough. That is what I like the most. You yield easily, putting up a false fight with a tiny crunch on your outside. Softness follows, a comforting texture with an array of tastes. In one bite, sweetness takes over, only to be debased by the power of a good chocolate chunk in the next bite. By chance, I come across the perfect mouthful: dough and chocolate come together in a perfect alliance, the marriage dreams are made of.

Why do you always leave so soon, though? Is it something I did, something I said? You know I'm faithful, but I can only wish there were several of you. As strong as your flavor explosion may be, it remains evanescent. I can't seem to recapture our moment once you've departed. 

Your gracefulness, your charm, your perfect balance of power and abandonment...chocolate chip cookie, if I were a French king, you would be my favorite.

(PS: I found a new way to make you which is really pretty awesome. Lips sealed, though. Until next time, at least.)

Friday, February 18, 2011

It's Moka, not Mocha

Let's be clear from the start: I am not a coffee drinker. You won't see me sipping an artisan drip coffee in a cool-looking place; I don't even have the necessary utensils or ingredients to make coffee at home.

Somehow, that never stopped me from loving coffee ice cream when I was a lot younger. I then replaced it in my heart with straciatella, but I knew coffee would show up somewhere again.

One day, Moonstruck Café came along. Moonstruck was right smack in the middle of the University campus: the place cool people went to, or at least that's what my fourteen year-old self thought at the time. As University Laboratory High School students, we weren't very far away from Moonstruck and its dark blue décor. When we first walked in, I could have opted for hot chocolate, but I went for the mocha. Hey, that's what college kids drink, right? It has coffee! Well, a little bit of coffee and a lot of milk and chocolate, but that's beside the point. Fourteen year-old Lucie was more than happy to be drinking a "specialty coffee beverage" in a coffee shop, long before Starbucks became the ubiquitous chain it is today. Moonstruck made me the cool and confident person I am today. Maybe.

Nowadays, a frozen yogurt shop has replaced Moonstruck, but that's okay. I still like mocha, do not enjoy coffee, but have a renewed taste for coffee-flavored sweet things.

Jacues Pépin's Moka is just one of those cakes: coffee buttercream meets a silky dacquoise cake base. A mocha it is not: this moka has no chocolate, and that's not a bad thing. Coffee is the star, yet doesn't come across as overpowering. This is the type of dessert that can be easily appreciated by anyone. 

Even fourteen year-old teenagers who don't like coffee...but can't refuse a mocha. Or moka, in this case.

recipe adapted from Jacques Pépin
serves 12

3/4 c. strong coffee
for buttercream:
1/2 c. coffee
1/3 c. granulated sugar
3 egg yolks
3 sticks (1.5 cups) butter, softened

for hazelnut meringue:
1.5 c. ground hazelnuts
2 TB cornstarch
3/4 c. granulated sugar
7 egg whites

for rhum whipped cream:
1.5 c. heavy cream, very cold
2 TB granulated sugar
1 TB rhum

1.5 cups slivered almonds, for garnish

Bring coffee to a boil and reduce until you get 1/2 cup.

Prepare buttercream: bring coffee and sugar to a boil, two to three minutes, until syrup becomes sticky.
In a stand mixer, beat yolks together, slowly pour in syrup, and continue beating for approximately ten minutes. The mixture should quadruple in volume and be very creamy. Add butter, cut into chunks, until you obtain a smooth buttercream. Set aside.

Prepare hazelnut meringue: Preheat oven to 350°F / 180°C.

In a medium bowl, mix ground hazelnuts, cornstarch, and sugar.

Beat egg whites to stiff peaks, and delicately incorporate hazelnut mixture.

On a parchment-lined baking sheet, spread mixture evenly and bake until golden, approximately 20 minutes. Remove from baking sheet to cool. Once meringue is cool, cut into 2 rectangles of equal dimensions. Place one rectangle on an foil-covered piece of cardboard.

Cover with a very thin layer of buttercream. Next, place a third of buttercream mixture in a pastry bag and pipe onto the perimeter of the meringue, tracing an extra line along the middle (like the line in the center of a soccer field). 

Make whipped cream: Beat cream, rhum, and sugar to stiff peaks.

Pipe whipped cream into the two empty rectangles on meringue. Place remaining layer of meringue on top and frost with remaining buttercream on the top and sides.

Toast slivered almonds on the stovetop until golden and fragrant. Let cool, and garnish cake. 
Refrigerate before serving.

Note: Although the cake layers are called a meringue, the consistency is more that of a dacquoise, and should be moist and soft.

Monday, February 14, 2011

It's the Bombe

I've got a plan: this Valentine's Day, I'm going to go through all the mailboxes in my building, grab the unwanted ads and flyers, and stuff them into a pink bag. 

Then, I'll bring the bag up to my apartment, open a bag of candy, and pretend like every single flyer is a neon pink Lisa Frank valentine with a scratch and sniff heart. No really, look: I can assure you that this isn't a coupon for ten percent off the locksmith. No way. This valentine has a purple unicorn on it.

And that one, the one that looks like it's advertising new opening hours for the grocery store? That one is the best: it's pink, with a skater girl on it, and graffiti writing that says "U R DA BOMB".

Am I stuck in 1995? Maybe. Truth is, those days when you came home with bags filled to the brim with bad candy and ugly valentines (except the homemade ones, you know, like mine) were pretty nice. When I think back, I remember that I would throw out the store-bought valentines and only keep my favorite--kind of harsh, isn't it?

You may not be ten years old anymore, but today's the day to let someone know that they're the bomb. Show them, quite literally: bake a chocolate bombe. Nothing explosive here, save the flavor explosion you'll get in your mouth from the strong, bittersweet chocolate. 

A bombe is easier to bake than it may seem; it's only chocolate génoise, chocolate mousse, and a chocolate ganache frosting. For the génoise and glaze, I used the America's Test Kitchen recipe and tweaked it a little. The génoise unfortunately dries up pretty fast, even with the mousse, so this dessert is best eaten the day of or the next day. 

By that, I mean please don't stuff it in your pink valentine bag. It will indeed weigh more that a few paper valentines, but keep it on the table. Your Valentine's Day will be une bombe, whether you're spending it with a friend, loved one, or a warm cup of tea.

Joyeuse Saint Valentin!

Chocolate Bombe
serves eight

for chocolate génoise (adapted from America's Test Kitchen):
1/8 c. Dutch-processed cocoa powder
6 TB all-purpose flour
1/2 TS baking powder
pinch of salt
3 eggs, room temperature
6 TB granulated sugar
1/2 TS vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°F / 180°C.

Grease a large baking sheet and line with parchment paper. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together cocoa, flour, baking powder and salt.

In a large bowl, whip eggs on medium-high speed with a handheld or stand mixer and add sugar gradually. Whip until thickened, about three minutes, and add vanilla extract.

Sift flour mixture over eggs and fold in until just incorporated. Spread batter on baking sheet in an even layer and bake approximately 15 minutes (check a few minutes before) until cake springs back to the touch.

remove from oven and immediately flip cake out onto another sheet of parchment paper. Peel top layer off and let cool.

Shape the bombe: line a medium bowl with plastic wrap.
Slice génoise into strips and line bowl with cake strips placed side by side until the surface is covered, hiding any holes with bits of cake as needed.

Save remaining strips of génoise to top the mousse mixture.

for chocolate mousse:
7 ounces bittersweet or semi-sweet baking chocolate, chopped
6 eggs, separated

Melt chocolate in a double boiler. Remove from heat, let cool, and whisk in egg yolks.

In a large bowl, whip egg whites to stiff peaks. Mix in one fifth of egg whites with chocolate, and delicately fold in chocolate into the bowl with egg whites.

Pour immediately into chocolate génoise "shell".

Top with remaining strips of génoise until well covered. Wrap bowl in plastic wrap and refrigerate until mousse sets, at least three hours.

for chocolate glaze (adapted from America's Test Kitchen):

2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
2 TB + 2 TS heavy cream
1 TB light corn syrup (I used maple syrup)
a few drops of vanilla extract

Remove cake from refrigerator, peel off plastic wrap, and unmold cake onto a wire rack placed over a plate or sink.

Whisk all ingredients together in a double boiler until smooth. Pour over cake and spread to cover the entire surface.

Refrigerate until cake has set, about 30 minutes. Remove from refrigerator about 20-30 minutes before serving.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Mr. Sun, Sun, Mr. Golden Sun

Every single day, I get a call from the other side of the ocean, and the same subject comes up.

"What's the weather like?", Maman asks rather innocently. I'll usually say that it's kind of cold (zero degrees Celsius is rather cold in my opinion), but I think it doesn't really matter what kind of weather we have in Paris. The point is, the weather will be worse in the Midwest. This doesn't apply to the following seasons: Fall, Spring, Summer.

Winter, however, is cause for concern on the other end of the line. A few days ago I even got an e-mail about it. "GRRRR", it read. I can tell you exactly how many days of sunlight Illinois has had in the past two months: two. (Was that an exaggeration?) I can even tell you all about the ice and snow and terrible temperatures and when-is-this-going-to-end!

However, today, I've decided to tell you about the sun. Sorry, Maman! As I peer out the window, the bright light is almost blinding, and the sky is Crayola-blue. I've only done so much as open the window this morning, but from what I hear it's going to be thirteen degrees in the afternoon--that's 55 Fahrenheit. Can we keep it between us, though? I'm afraid if I call in these particular meteorological statistics, someone in Urbana, Illinois might be tempted to run away to warmer climates.

When the sun finally shines after a long winter, salad starts to seem like an appealing lunch once again. The chocolate bar disappears slightly more slowly, and tea-time isn't just to stay warm by drinking scalding hot mug-fulls.

Tea-time, however, becomes a great time to try out a pound cake just as bright as the Winter sky. I'm not going to try and sell this one to you because it speaks for itself.

Lemon + lemon + lemon + pound cake = eat this.

If you love lemon, you won't be disappointed. I've been on the lookout for a lemon cake recipe I would be satisfied with, and this is it. I adapted an Ina Garten recipe I've read a lot about, making slight changes by simplifying a few steps--without taking away any flavor.

I think it's time for me to go make some offerings to the Sun God in the Tuileries garden with a thermos of tea and some lemon pound cake. Word out there is he's a lemon person too.

Super Lemon Pound Cake
adapted from Ina Garten
makes one loaf

1/2 c. butter, room temperature
3/4 c. granulated sugar
2 regular eggs, room temperature
zest of 3 large lemons
1.5 c. flour
1/4 TS baking powder
1/4 TS baking soda
1/2 TS salt
1/4 c. lemon juice, divided into 1/8 + 1/8
scant 1/2 c. buttermilk
1/2 TS vanilla extract
confectioner's sugar

Preheat oven to 350°F / 185°C.

Grease a loaf pan and set aside.

Cream butter and sugar in a food processor or mixer until fluffy. Add eggs one at a time and zest--keep mixing.

In a medium bowl, sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together. In another bowl, mix buttermilk, lemon juice, and vanilla together. 

Add flour and buttermilk mixtures alternately to the butter; begin and end with flour. Pour batter into loaf pan and bake approximately 45 minutes, until a knife inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean. Cool for five minutes in pan, remove, and place on a wire rack above a piece of parchment paper or a cutting board.

Meanwhile, mix 1/8 c. lemon juice with as much confectioner's sugar as you see fit, to create a glue-like syrup. With a toothpick or very slim knife, poke holes on top of the loaf and pour syrup on top, rubbing it in if necessary.

Let cool completely before cutting (and eating!).

Monday, February 7, 2011

A Sea of Pearls

Cats are easily attracted to toys that move around a lot and smell like catnip. I'm like a cat, except I don't need the catnip: multicolored anything gets me excited.

A page in a magazine with a collage of shoes in many colors? I stare. A market stand with an array of fruits and vegetables? I'm transfixed. A sundae with multicolored sprinkles, now don't even bring it up. I go insane.

Imagine my happiness when, during my last trek to the Asian supermarket in Southeast Paris, I came across multicolored tapioca pearls. Teeny, tiny, tapioca pearls. In French, they're called perles de Japon, and since pretty much anything that comes out of Japan is cute, I'm a taker for the French name. 

As much as I loved looking at the pearls, I just didn't get around to using them. On some nights, I would think of simmering them in coconut milk, but never got around to it. Many evenings, I would just stare at the bag, wondering why they didn't make tapioca pearls I could just pop into my mouth. I mean those colors! Really! How much of a torture is it to have all those cute little pearls and not be able to dig into the bag and munch on a handful?

After our trip to Vietnam, where tapioca pearls were part of our daily diet, and this post on Chocolate & Zucchini, I didn't think twice. I had almond milk, I had tapioca pearls. Time to get started.

The process is quick: cook and cool. I wouldn't say this blew my mind, but I think it's a great base to start experimenting more with tapioca pearls. Almond extract and crunchy slivered almonds would have been enjoyable, as would be upping the vanilla factor by a few drops.

Tapioca desserts are fun to make--a great idea for cooking with children--and probably one of the easiest ways to get a filling dessert on the table in no time. 

And, honestly, I would make these again, just to spill those tiny little pearls everywhere again. Did I say spill? I meant pour...into measuring cups. Maybe.

Tapioca and Almond Milk Pudding
makes four small puddings

1/4 c. small tapioca pearls
1/4 c. sugar
2 1/2 c. almond milk (or any other type of milk)
1/2 TS vanilla extract (I would add a little more next time)
1 drop almond extract

1/4 TS salt

Mix milk and flavor extracts. Bring to a simmer, add tapioca, and stir. Cover and cook for approximately fifteen minutes, over medium heat.

Remove from heat, add sugar and salt, and stir. Place in four small cups or one medium bowl and let cool.

If not serving soon, refrigerate and serve at (or near) room temperature.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Here's to You, Mrs. Newman

Remember my Latin teacher from Illinois, Mrs. Newman? I shared a mint bar recipe that came straight from her kitchen a while back, but the mint bar recipe was only one of two.

That's right, there's another recipe from Mrs. Newman that I need to tell you about. Need, that's right. 

Before I start, if you're planning on making these, try and make them at the same time as you order a pizza. If you want these to be authentic, Latin-club dessert treats, they must be preceded by a slice of delivery pizza. Or, a brown-bag lunch, but we all know that pizza can be a lot more fun than carrot sticks, at least once in a while.

As I may have mentioned, Mrs. Newman is Canadian. Can you think of a traditional Canadian treat? Ohh, I think you can. Especially if you hail from the marvelous town of Nanaimo, Canada. 

(Full disclosure: I have never been to Nanaimo, but any town that yields such a great treat can only be heaven on earth, right?)

That's what I'm talking about: nanaimo bars. Look at it like a rainbow: one color is a graham-cracker and coconut crust, the next is a creamy custard, and the top is smooth chocolate. That's a rainbow I'd like to see every morning when I wake up.

Nanaimo bars were sold one dollar by the Latin club, usually on the same days as pizza sales. I can't really think of a better way to end that kind of a meal, but then again, I don't think there's ever a moment when I wouldn't pounce on a plate of nanaimo bars.

See, back when I was fourteen, I used to get one, maybe two nanaimo bars at once. Never more. And then, a few weeks ago, I made a pan of them. One. whole. pan. After fainting, falling on the ground, and somehow getting back up again (must be the call of the nanaimo bar), I realized I should take it easy. Not all at once, Lucie, not all at once.

Alright then. I only had fifteen over the course of two days. I saved the rest for my Latin club friends, and even one for you, Magistra Newman, but I'm afraid it might be eaten up pretty soon. 

Oh, and to my friend Emily who sent me the prized recipe, if you stop by Paris sometime, there will be a plate of them waiting just for you.

Nanaimo Bars
courtesy of Magistra Newman, via Emily

First Layer
1/2 c. butter, melted
1/4 c. brown sugar
3 TB cocoa
1 beaten egg
2 c. graham wafer crumbs
1 c. coconut
1/2 c. chopped walnuts
Combine, press into a 9 in. square pan.  Chill for 1/2 hour.

Second Layer
2 c. powdered sugar
1/4 c. butter
1/4 c. milk
2 TB Bird's Custard Powder or vanilla custard powder 
Combine all ingredients, beating until smooth and fluffy.
Spread carefully on top of first layer. Chill for at least 1/2 hour.

Third Layer (I changed this from the original recipe, using a little less butter)
4 oz. semi-sweet chocolate
1 TB butter

Melt chocolate and butter together, then spread over 2nd layer and chill.  
Since this is a very rich square, cut into small 1 inch pieces (approx. 36).