Sunday, March 20, 2011

Easy as 1-2-3

Lately, I've been reading Michael Ruhlman's book Ratio with a lot of interest.
See, I wish I could storm into a random apartment and shout "Hey! You would all be happier with a slice of cake!", and then start baking up a storm. Just like that. 

More often than not, I turn to recipes. New or tried-and-true, they serve as a guide to make sure I know where I'm going. For some things like cookies, or quiche, I don't use recipes any longer, but that isn't the majority of my baking. Now, if I were to learn all the Ruhlman ratios by heart, I could finally live out my Extreme Makeover: Baking Edition of spontaneous cake production...right?

Let's start out with the basics: the 1-2-3 cookie. Ruhlman explains that by using the ratio of 1 part sugar to 2 parts fat and 3 parts flour, you get a pretty nice cookie. A crisp, buttery cookie: sounds nice, right?

However, as a person who used to wear three watches at once when she was four years old, I couldn't leave it at that. I wanted chocolate peppermint cookies, coated in chocolate. The "keep it simple" thing never really worked for me.

I did follow the Ruhlman ratio, though, but substituted a quarter of the flour for cocoa powder and added a few drops of peppermint extract. As much as I tried with my bare hands, I couldn't get the dough to come together. It was dry and didn't stick...not really an ideal cookie dough. I added two tablespoons of milk, and finally had what I wanted. After a quick chill and slice, I baked the cookies and coated them in melted chocolate mixed with a tablespoon of butter. I would have sprinkled the cookies with multicolored non-pareils (what a funny word, right?), but I'd already gone far enough with the customization.

Given the choice between a chewy chocolate chip cookie with eggs in the dough and this easy-peasy 1-2-3 cookie, I'll admit I might choose the chewy ones sometime. But these cookies are satisfying in their simplicity and clean, buttery taste. They're nice on their own, but can also be a great base for sandwich cookies.

Now that opens up another world of possibilities. I think I'm on the right track to successfully barging into strangers' homes to whip up an array of baked goods. Thanks, Michael! Plus, with my three watches, you can be sure I'll be right on time. They might not let the crazy in, though.

Chocolate-Peppermint 1-2-3 Cookie
infinitely adaptable!

Note: The best way to proceed with the Ratio recipes is to weigh your ingredients--a kitchen scale is always a great tool to have!

1 part granulated sugar
2 parts butter, softened
3 parts dry ingredients: 3/4 all-purpose flour, 1/4 cocoa powder
pinch salt
a few drops of peppermint extract
for each part butter, 1 TB milk

Cream butter and sugar. Add dry ingredients and mix until combined. If needed, stir in milk to obtain a ball of dough.

Chill dough in a log.

When ready to use, preheat oven to 350°F / 185°C. Cut dough into slices and bake approximately ten minutes.

Coat with melted chocolate (with a little bit of butter), if desired. Place on parchment paper to cool and set.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Slather It On

Americans have peanut butter slathered on bread, on a banana, or on a branch of celery: it shines by its versatility.

It can be salty, sweet, or both. It can be crunchy, it can be smooth. Best of all, it's even (somewhat) good for the human body. Peanuts pack a lot of protein, I hear, making good old PB a guilty pleasure in disguise.

In many European countries, peanut butter is seen as one of two things. Either it comes across as an American novelty sold next to Newman's Own popcorn and barbecue sauce, or it is consumed as a staple in Asian and African cooking. Whatever way you look at it, peanut butter doesn't come near the tabletop when it's time for the four o'clock goûter.

That isn't to say that children don't spread anything on their tartine besides butter and jam--which, if you ask me, is already heavenly enough. Specialty spreads are making it big these days in the Old World, and I'm staying around to get a piece of the action.

One of them doesn't need an introduction: you all know Nutella. Loved by kids and teenage girls alike, it comes in multiple sizes, hoarding a substantial chunk of the grocery store aisle. The chocolate-hazelnut combination is hard to resist, and there are many great artisan versions made with milk or dark chocolate.
Nutella isn't the only one out there, though. New spreads are trying to get "leur part du gâteau" and secure a spot in family cupboards. New addictions may just see the day sometime soon.

Staying in the realm of chocolate, remember Ovaltine? Called Ovomaltine in French-speaking Europe, the chocolate malt powder is very polarizing: you either love it or hate it. For those who enjoy it, take chocolate, malted milk powder, and imagine them turned into a paste. A paste with crunchy, malted chocolate bits. Enough said, right? Slathered on a large slice of fresh rustic bread, it becomes phenomenal and complex--this isn't just for the K-12.

Another paste has been making the rounds lately. Speculoos, the traditional Northern European spiced cookie, has become the object of a media frenzy, judging from a recent New York Times article. Lotus, the famous speculoos brand, has started producing and selling speculoos spread based on a winning recipe from a consumer contest. If you're lucky, your European grocery store will stock both versions, à la peanut butter: crunchy and smooth. 

Speculoos paste is exciting for its taste, but also its versatility. Let's take a look at flavors first. If you've ever bitten into a speculoos cookie, you're probably familiar with the warmth the crisp, buttery treat exudes. Cinnamon is the dominating spice, with a cast of characters that would make any gingerbread swoon: star anise, cloves, ginger and nutmeg, to name a few.The spread, surprisingly enough, is an amazing way to highlight this warmth: a spoonfull of the smooth version is silky, as buttery as the cookie, and really lets the medley of flavors shine through. 

That same spoonful should also be enough to evoke a flurry of dishes where speculoos paste would be right at home. On the sweet side, it goes without saying that any kind of bread would be happy to have speculoos spread as a snack-time date. Thinking a little further, it could easily be incorporated into a mousse preparation, or slathered onto ladyfingers for a new take on classic tiramisu. When it's time for dinner, keep the jar by your side: it could easily turn a coconut-shrimp curry into a culinary prowess. One paste, a million ideas--this is no gadget. Word out there is Galak, a white chocolate sub-brand of Nestlé, is launching a white chocolate-speculoos paste of its own. Visions of spoonfuls making their way onto fresh baguette are budding in European minds everywhere...could Nutella be in danger?

Not for now, it seems. European children will always love a four o'clock snack, and the snack, in turn, seems to have a thing for spreads. Looks like we're going to need larger cupboards.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Light Lemon Frozen Mousse

There are a few times a year when I decide I should stop eating so much chocolate and cookies, at least for a little while. In anticipation of a trip to the U.S. and Mexico, where food would obviously be a central part of my life, I felt that letting chocolate go for a few days was the right thing to do (a few days into the trip, I can confirm that). 

Oh, it was difficult, all right. At least in the beginning: going from two squares of chocolate per day to two in ten days is a feat by my standards. As for savory dishes, it wasn't as trying: I was back in Saint Dié and we had lean meat and an all-you-can-eat blowout of vegetables. Sounds good, doesn't it? It was. 

However, as much as I enjoy non-fat fruit yogurts, there came a moment when I just needed a real dessert. (That's excluding the chocolate-specked brioche I had as a snack one day, but it sure was worth it.) I thought of all the real desserts I felt like eating. Layer cake: not an option. Strawberry tart: come on, it's not the season. Ice cream: none now = more later. Chocolate mousse: I wish. Oh, but mousse... 

For a while now, Mary over at One Perfect Bite has been featuring recipes with lemon. If there's one thing I love as much as chocolate, it just might be lemon. I had bookmarked her frozen lemon parfaits, and decided they would be a great, light dessert. Well, except for the heavy whipping cream. I definitely agree that de temps en temps, it feels good to have something a little indulgent. I was also intrigued by how I could tweak her recipe and use fat-free fromage blanc (like a thicker yogurt) in place of the cream.

The result hit the spot. I'll admit I used Splenda instead of sugar--hey, I was taking this diet thing all the way--and that may not be the best idea, especially when you're whipping up a meringue, albeit uncooked. Even with the fake sugar, though, we really enjoyed our mousse. It felt like a true dessert, completely guilt-free and filled with a fresh tang that seemed to be a perfect prelude to Spring.

And a perfect prelude to the end of my sweet-tooth "diet". Bring on the chocolate!

Light Lemon Frozen Mousse
adapted from One Perfect Bite
serves four

1 TB lemon zest
1/3 c. strained lemon juice
2 medium eggs, separated
2/3 c. granulated sugar, divided (I used an artificial sweetener: if you do, you might want to use a little less)
pinch salt
pinch cream of tartar
2/3 c. thick yogurt or fromage blanc, any kind
1 TB confectioner's sugar

Whisk egg yolks, lemon zest, lemon juice, and half of sugar / sweetener in a saucepan. Whisk together and heat over medium-high until mixture reaches a temperature of 160-170°F, about 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from heat and pour into a bowl. Let cool completely.

Whisk egg whites, salt, and cream of tartar together on medium speed until soft peaks form. Keep beating, incorporating remaining sugar delicately until whites hold stiff peaks. Fold into cooled lemon mixture.

Clean out bowl and beat yogurt with confectioner's sugar for a minute on high speed. Fold into lemon/whites. Pour into glasses or bowls, cover, and freeze for at least two hours.

Remove from freezer 30 minutes to an hour before serving.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

On the Road to the US: Cornbread

Cornbread, in my opinion, is something you can't really have outside of the United States. It's a little like Pop-Tarts or a perfect chocolate shake: you can attempt to enjoy them in Italy, China, or Peru, but chances are they just won't taste the same.
Although I've never partaken in the North meets South debate of sweet vs. spicy, I've always loved cornbread. It has chew, but deep inside its attraction lies in an unforgettable buttery tenderness. My kind of cornbread has a light crumb--it gives me an excuse to "somehow" have leftover crumbs, that "somehow" disappear quickly.

With what do you enjoy your cornbread? I go with the classic answers: a warm bowl of chili, tortilla soup, or simply on its own: that's how I last enjoyed it in a seafood restaurant on City Island--not the Ile de la Cité, but the Bronx version. As I said, cornbread was strictly an American territory kind of dish to me. That is, until I decided to cook a stew of okra, green bananas, and chicken. 

When my thoughts turned to what I would soak up all that delicious sauce with, I knew it had to be cornbread, geography be damned. The thing is, you know I'm not a girl from the South: I don't have a skillet and recipe passed down from the 19th century to make decisions any easier. I really had to sit down this time around, grab a pen, and ask myself what exactly I wanted in my cornbread. Well, I wanted corn, for starters (good start, Lucie). A mix of kernels and polenta sounded good. Next up was sweetness. Yes, I wanted sweet...but not overwhelming sweetness and an overload of sugar. A kick of heat wouldn't hurt either.

A thousand books and web pages later, I had something that looked like a recipe in front of my eyes. Let me tell you this: I'm no Scarlett O'Hara, but I'm pretty sure that my cornbread was nice and that you would enjoy it, too. 

Those stringy, mushy okra sure seemed to like it. It just might prompt me to say "I'll never be hungry again!"

Overseas Cornbread
serves eight to ten

2 TB butter
1 c. all-purpose flour
3/4 c. polenta (or cornmeal)
1/4 c. raw cane sugar
1 TB baking powder
2 TS salt
1 egg
1 c. buttermilk
2 c. corn kernels, thawed if frozen
1/4 c. pickled jalapeno slices

Preheat oven to 350°F / 185°C.

Melt butter in an oven-proof skillet and swirl to coat. Place skillet in oven while it preheats.

In a medium bowl, mix flour, polenta, baking powder and salt.

In a larger bowl, whisk egg, buttermilk, peppers and corn kernels together. Delicately stir in dry ingredients.

Carefully remove skillet from oven and pour in corn mixture. Bake 30 to 40 minutes, until the edges are golden and the center is firm. Serve directly from skillet or flip over onto a plate to show the nice browning.