02 April 2011

Blog renos

Whew... It's taken a lot longer than I expected it would, but I finally have my brand new home for my blog!  That means, http://leave-room-for-dessert.blogspot.com/ will no longer be updated.  Instead, www.alwaysleaveroomfordessert.com has a brand new look and some new features, and will be the permanent home for this blog.

I want to thank you all for you readership and support (and patience) throughout my first year and a bit on the web, and sincerely hope you will all come along for the ride at the new site!

Sweet things are in store for us all!

Happy Baking!


07 March 2011

Florentines Cookies & Panna Cotta

florentine cookies and coquelicot panna cotta

The February 2011 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Mallory from A Sofa in the Kitchen. She chose to challenge everyone to make Panna Cotta from a Giada De Laurentiis recipe and Nestle Florentine Cookies.

A true cookies and cream combination!  Silky panna cotta, served alongside a chewy oatmeal sandwich cookie filled with rich chocolate.... sounds like the perfect coffee break indulgence to me.  I was immediately curious about Giada's panna cotta recipe, and if it was closer to the thick, velvety strawberry panna cotta hubby and I tasted in Sausalito, or like the thinner, wobbly nectarine-basil panna cotta I made after we got home.  One thing I knew for sure, it wouldn't take long to make.  As for the florentines, I was surprised to see they were what I have always known as Lace Cookies, something completely different from the thicker, caramel and almond treat with a shortbread base, dipped in chocolate.  Regardless, it's a new recipe to me, as I've never made either one - and you know how I like to try new recipes!

Coquelicot Panna Cotta with an extra drizzle of syrup

I whipped up the panna cotta, knowing full well that it needs hours of chill-and-set time in the fridge before it can be served, whereas cookies are always better when they're warm and fresh.  Given the fact that winter still has a vice-grip hold on this part of the world, fresh nectarines were out of the question, so I dipped into my stash of edible souvenirs that I managed to fit in my luggage from my recent trip through Europe; chocolate, chocolate, pistachio nougatine, french butter, more chocolate, french mustards, bacon flavoured potato chips for hubby, violet sugar, dutch caramels.... bingo!  The bottle of sirop de coquelicot that I picked up in a gourmet market in Dublin!  When I purchased this syrup, the translator part of my brain was on strike after being in so many countries, each with a different language, so I couldn't immediately remember what coquelicot was (it's French for poppy).  I bought it anyway, knowing I'd be able to find a use for it.  When I returned home and Shannon & her hubby came over one evening, she and I were poking through these treats, and started opening bottles, smelling and tasting the latest additions to my pantry.  She cracked the seal on this small bottle of syrup, inhaled deeply and her eyes opened wide, "Ooh, smell this! It smells like cream soda!"  I took a whiff, and could almost feel the carbonated bubbles of sweet pink cream soda on my tongue.  We pondered the possibility that cream soda was in fact poppy soda, but we were wrong - turns out cream soda is actually vanilla flavoured, though poppy seems far more accurate to me.  Faced with still-unflavoured panna cotta for dessert, I found the syrup and knew the pairing would be perfect.  After all, if it smells and tastes like cream soda, it must taste good with cream!

sirop de coquelicot...  poppies are delicous!
I added about a tablespoon of poppy syrup to the warm cream base and tasted... nothing.  Another tablespoon and then another.... before I knew it, I had poured in almost the entire bottle (don't panic - it was a pretty small bottle), but the flavour was finally coming through.  That said, this recipe makes an enormous amount of panna cotta, a half-batch would have been more than enough.  I poured the custard into cups and put them in the fridge to chill for a few hours and got to work on the cookies.

florentine batter - so simple!

Having never made florentines before, I didn't know how labour-intensive they might be, but as I read the recipe through, I was surprised at how little work they seemed to be.  I read the recipe through a couple more times, just to be sure I hadn't missed anything, and got started.  In about 5 minutes, I had the first batch of cookies in the oven and immediately sent a text to my sister, who has very little patience for complicated or time-consuming recipes.  She'd love these - there weren't even very many dirty dishes, just one saucepan and a cookie sheet or two.  I took a peek at the oven to see how the cookies were doing and found the only problem I had with this recipe.... if you try to bake 12 cookies on one sheet like you do with most cookies, you actually end up with one very large, rectangular florentine.  Ok, lesson learned.  When I took them out of the oven, I let them cool slightly and then cut them into cookie-sized squares before they set up too much.  For the next batch, I put only 6 spoons of batter on the cookie sheet, and they turned out perfectly.  After that, it was just a matter of melting some dark chocolate and spreading a thin layer on the underside of half the cookies.  Topped with a second cookie and allowed to cool, I had a stack of beautiful florentines in no time.

almost ready.....

sweet, chewy and chocolatey
As for the recipes, my only advice would be to cut the panna cotta recipe in half, unless you have at least 12 people to serve, and portion out smaller amounts of the cookie batter than you normally would with other cookies.  Using the same #70 disher I usually use for cookies turned out florentines that were a full 4-inches in diameter, but these cookies are so rich that one cookie is more than enough to tackle a sweets-craving.  Less is more in this case.

There you have it.  I am attaching the recipes as posted by our host Mallory so you can give these both a try.

Oh, and on a final note, this still isn't the velvety panna cotta of Sausalito... much closer to the wobbly version I made before, but it still tastes divine!

Happy baking!

Giada's Vanilla Panna Cotta

1 cup (240 ml) whole milk
1 tablespoon (one packet) (15 ml) (7 gm) (¼ oz) unflavored powdered gelatin
3 cups (720 ml) whipping cream (30+% butterfat)
1/3 cup (80 ml) honey
1 tablespoon (15 ml) (15 gm) (½ oz) granulated sugar
pinch of salt

  1. Pour the milk into a bowl or pot and sprinkle gelatin evenly and thinly over the milk (make sure the bowl/pot is cold by placing the bowl/pot in the refrigerator for a few minutes before you start making the Panna Cotta). Let stand for 5 minutes to soften the gelatin.
  2. Pour the milk into the saucepan/pot and place over medium heat on the stove. Heat this mixture until it is hot, but not boiling, about five minutes. (I whisk it a few times at this stage).
  3. Next, add the cream, honey, sugar, and pinch of salt. Making sure the mixture doesn't boil, continue to heat and stir occasionally until the sugar and honey have dissolved 5-7 minutes.
  4. Remove from heat, allow it to sit for a few minutes to cool slightly. Then pour into the glass or ramekin.
  5. Refrigerate at least 6 hours or overnight. Add garnishes and serve.

Hope you love it!

Nestle Florentine Cookies

Recipe from the cookbook “Nestle Classic Recipes”, and their website.

2/3 cup (160 ml) (150 gm) (5.3 oz) unsalted butter
2 cups (480 ml) (160 gm) (5 2/3 oz) quick oats
1 cup (240 ml) (230 gm) (8 oz) granulated sugar
2/3 cup (160 ml) (95 gm) (3⅓ oz) plain (all purpose) flour
1/4 cup (60 ml) dark corn syrup
1/4 cup (60 ml) whole milk
1 tsp (5 ml) vanilla extract
pinch of salt
1½ cups (360 ml) (250 gm) (9 oz) dark or milk chocolate

Preheat oven to moderately hot 375°F (190°C) (gas mark 5). Prepare your baking sheet with silpat or parchment paper.
  1. Melt butter in a medium saucepan, then remove from the heat.
  2. To the melted butter add oats, sugar, flour, corn syrup, milk, vanilla, and salt. Mix well. Drop a tablespoon full, three inches (75 mm) apart, onto your prepared baking sheet. Flatten slightly with the back of your tablespoon, or use a spatula.
  3. Bake in preheated oven for 6-8 minutes, until cookies are golden brown. Cool completely on the baking sheets.
  4. While the cookies are cooling melt your chocolate until smooth either in the microwave (1 1/2 minutes), or stovetop (in a double boiler, or a bowl that fits atop a saucepan filled with a bit of water, being sure the water doesn't touch the bottom of the bowl).
  5. Peel the cookies from the silpat or parchment and place face down on a wire rack set over a sheet of wax/parchment paper (to keep counters clean).
  6. Spread a tablespoon of chocolate on the bottom/flat side of your cookie, sandwiching another (flat end) cookie atop the chocolate.
This recipe will make about 2 1/2 - 3 dozen sandwiched Florentine cookies. You can also choose not to sandwich yours, in which case, drizzle the tops with chocolate (over your wax paper).

Eating my way across Europe, part II

Café Norden's Caramel Latte

As you'd expect, when you visit so many great countries, you get exposed to a lot of really great food, and this trip was no exception.  I found a fabulous and super sexy resto-café in Copenhagen, called Café Norden, that serves a killer mushroom pasta with grilled chicken, or, if you're only in the need of a hot drink to warm you up, sit back in one of their pillow-lined window banquettes and enjoy a caramel latte that had me drooling while I watched them make it... thick, homemade caramel, smeared around the inside of a tall glass mug, a shot of espresso, topped off with some frothy steamed milk and served with a couple of delicious chocolate almond cookies.... it's the perfect way to warm up if the wind has gotten to you.  If you ever find yourself in Copenhagen, I highly recommend you stop in at Café Norden.

Dutch Stroopwafel 
Delft was where I finally tasted my first stroopwafel, a thin, crisp waffel, halved and then glued back together with a cinnamon-caramel syrup.  I have seen these for sale in gourmet markets locally, but my friend Nicolette, who was born in the Netherlands, says that the ones here just don't taste the same, so I decided it was better to wait for the real deal.  What I didn't know, until I tasted one, was that there was cinnamon in the syrup, which gives it a unique and pleasant flavour that I wasn't expecting.  I also learned that these are best served fresh and warm, when the syrup is nice and gooey, and that a small stroopwafel is more than enough of a sugar-buzz for the average adult.

les gaufres des Liége.... pure heaven!
Belgium - home of the Belgian Waffle.  Naturally I had to try a gaufres liégeois, especially when my chocoholic friend Kerrin said that she loved these even more than she loves chocolate.  Whoa - that's really saying something.  Luckily, gaufre vendors are not hard to find.  The first one I tried was au naturel and fresh from the iron - so hot in fact, that I had to keep my gloves on to keep from burning myself.  Ohhhhh myyyyy..... I knew immediately why Kerrin says she loves these so much.  This is unlike any waffle, Belgian or otherwise, that I have ever had.  For those of you who only know waffles from breakfast-all-day diners, you are seriously missing out.  The most noticeable difference is the large pieces of pearl-sugar strewn throughout the waffle.  When the waffle is baking on the iron, these chunks of sugar melt and caramelize and create... magic.  While savouring each bite, I was admiring the texture and crumb of this decadent treat, and that's when I noticed the second difference; these had to be made with yeast!  The food-geek in me noticed that the crumb was more similar to that of a dinner roll than it was to the typical breakfast waffle I'm familiar with.  Sure enough, one mention of this to Kerrin and she immediately sent me this link to a recipe.  Bingo!  I know what I'm making when I get back to my waffle iron!  

the crumb texture of gaufres liégeois - you don't get that crumb without yeast

Many vendors also offer a variety of toppings for their gaufres, but, having tasted them on their own, I feel it would be a crime to hide these babies under a mound of whipped cream and chocolate (I can't believe I'm saying it either), though judging by the crowds, scarfing them down on the street, I might be alone in that thinking.  Ironically, I also saw gaufres de Liége being sold at many places in Florence, Italy - which is how I learned that these are only good when they are fresh and warm.  My craving suckered me into buying what had to be 3-day old waffles, re-heated in a microwave... lesson learned!  Let's just say that the pigeons in Florence aren't quite as discerning as I am (Kerrin: ahem... told ya so)

Pierre Marcolini in Brussels

Besides waffles, Belgium is most often associated with chocolates, and Brussels has more than it's fair share of chocolateries.  Sadly, not all of them are worthy of mention - too many chocolate shops have popped up in the tourist zones, cashing in on the action by selling what, in my books, equates to overly sweet brown wax, completely lacking in chocolate flavour.  However, true chocoholics need not worry - there are a number of shops that feature high-quality, gourmet chocolate creations; Pierre Marcolini, Wittamer, Neuhaus and Mary Chocolatier, to name a few.  I spent my fair share of € in these shops, selecting a passionfruit caramel here, a pistachio nougatine there, walnut marzipans, gianduja truffles... decadently dark and chocolatey morsels drawing me in from display counters.  While Brussels wasn't my favourite city among the twelve I visited, it has a lot to offer the chocolate-loving traveler.

Mary Chocolatier
Nantes, in the Loire region of France, a charming and vibrant city filled with ancient cathedrals alongside imaginatively modern buildings, and home to my friend and fellow food blogger Jamie of Life's A Feast.     It was a great treat to see Jamie and have a "girl's day out" of window shopping, good conversation, and getting to know this beautiful city.  As Jamie's birthday was just a couple of days away, we had an additional excuse to go out for a nice lunch to a restaurant that she and her husband enjoy going to.   Pizzeria Pinocchio is a quaint little place that served me the best pizza I have ever eaten in my life.  Thin, crispy crust, baked in a traditional wood-fired oven, with flavourful toppings... it was pizza perfection.  After lunch, we did some window shopping in a few of Nantes' fantastic kitchenware shops, checked out macarons at a local pâtisserie and bought a few kouign amanns to sample - a first for both of us (sorry folks - I dropped the ball, so no pictures).  I only wish I had known a bit more about these caramelized butter and pastry cakes before we had bought them - then we'd have known that they should be heated up and served warm, rather than cold like we had them.  Not only were they very sweet, but they were extremely sticky & chewy - almost to the point we feared we'd each lose some teeth!  Now that I've learned where we went wrong, I can imagine how decadent these traditional Breton cakes would be, served fresh from the oven.

Nantes - ancient and modern side by side

After a visit to her gorgeous apartment, and getting some much needed puppy love from their Boston Terrier, Marty, I finally met her charming husband, JP, and the three of us headed out for a wonderful dinner.  The plat du jour was a fantastic calamari dish unlike anything I have ever had - it was tender and so flavourful, and served as you would a pasta, tossed in a delicate sauce.  Great food, great wine and great conversation with two really great people... it was a perfect evening and just what I needed after 10 days of traveling alone.  The one thing I hadn't foreseen about my trip, was how much I would miss good conversation - something that consists of more than ordering dinner or checking-in at a hotel.  With our stomachs very full from dinner, Jamie & JP walked me back to my hotel and we said our good-byes and parted ways... for now at least, as I get to see Jamie again in a few months at From Plate to Page in Germany!!

The next morning, the pace of my trip thus far was staring to take it's toll on me.  I felt tired and achy all over, and I wanted nothing more than a couple more hours to snooze in bed, but I had a train to catch - one of the few I had booked in advance.  After trying to soothe my muscles with a hot shower, I found myself in one of the few hotel rooms on my trip that didn't have a hair dryer.  Ugh.  Fine.  I crammed a hat on my wet hair and headed off to the station to catch my train back to Paris.  As it turns out, most major train routes in France seem to pass through the City of Lights, and when I changed trains in Paris I would be departing from a different station than I arrived at.  Well, darn.  If you didn't know this already, Paris happens to be my favourite city in the whole world, so of course I took the opportunity to spend the night here before heading off to my next destination.  When I arrived at gare Montparnasse, with my wet-hair-hat-head, I was welcomed by the most brilliant business idea ever - The Beauty Bubble!  Let's face it, everyone has, at some point in their life, arrived after a long day of travel feeling less than stunning, and the French have come up with the perfect solution.  For just €10, you can get a haircut or blowdry and style in about 10-15 minutes, and then be on your way feeling like a million bucks.  Well, I whipped my hat off and plopped myself down in that chair faster than you can imagine, and 10 minutes later, left with my sleek and freshly styled do with a spring in my step.

Beauty Bubble at Gare Montparnasse
One short metro-ride to my hotel to drop off my bags and I found I had the energy to go for a stroll and find a place for dinner.  Now, in Paris, you don't have to wander far to find a café, so I only went a block or two before I found myself with dozens of choices at hand.  Seeing places I've eaten at before, and some I hadn't, I decided on the latter, and grabbed at table at Les Éditeurs.  With it's beautiful, cozy decor and a relaxing vibe, I knew I'd made the right choice.  I ordered the risotto champignons and was absolutely blown away.  Of all my trips to Paris, I think this was the best meal I've ever eaten there.  It was incredibly creamy - almost like eating a savoury rice pudding - and so flavourful.... I was in heaven.  And on top of all that, my waiter was downright cheery and even asked how I was enjoying my meal - something that doesn't typically happen in France.  While I've never really experienced the "rude" French reputation the nation has been saddled with (with the exception of one particularly snooty shop owner in le Marais), I've always found French waiters are usually polite and efficient, and damn good at their jobs - a completely different breed from the saccharine-sweet and bubbly wait staff you often get in North America.  I stayed for a while, basking in the glow of a truly divine meal, ordered a coffee to follow my dessert of ananas gratinée (in a word: decadent!), before slowly wandering back to hotel for some sleep.  After all, I had an early train to Zurich to catch in the morning!

les Éditeurs risotto champignons

For the rest, you'll just have to wait for Part III!
(I'm such a tease!)

16 February 2011

Riding the Rails In Europe - or 8 reasons Trains beat Planes any day.

I'm back!  I've returned to the land of snow and ice and slush, from an incredible 24 days in Europe.  My Darling Hubby, knowing how much I hate our winters, sent me off to do some "research" abroad for what is typically the worst part of said winter (I know! In my opinion, he has a free pass for Valentine's Day, anniversaries, and birthdays and any other special events for the next year or so).  The only downside to this amazing trip was that he had to stay home and work, so I was all on my own.  We love traveling together and this trip I really missed being able to share all of the sights, smells and experiences with him - but not for too long - now I'll get to show him my favourite places when we return there, together, to start our new life.
24 days
12 cities
8 languages
7 countries
5 currencies
2702 photos
The Itinerary... which looks like sheer insanity thanks to Google Maps

Just where did I go?  Well, as my sister pointed out, it was a VERY ambitious itinerary.  Not that I didn't agree, but I wasn't really prepared for how exhausting it can be to pack up and change cities every 36 hours - though I sense I'm not getting a lot of sympathy here, am I?  In truth, trying to decide where to go was the hardest part of the whole trip. Once there, I adapted well and quickly became extremely adept at getting ready each morning while disturbing as little as possible in my suitcase, so as to avoid completely re-packing each time I moved on.  Eurail Pass in hand, was my itinerary:

Copenhagen, Denmark
Amsterdam, Netherlands
Delft, Netherlands
Brussels, Belgium
Paris, France (had to change trains enroute to Nantes.... darn)
Nantes, France
Paris, France again (same reason, enroute to Zurich, darn)
Zurich, Switzerland
Dijon, France 
Florence, Italy
Bologna, Italy
Dublin, Ireland
Copenhagen, Denmark again, in order to fly home
Malmo, Sweden (unplanned day trip-
because with one day left in my trip, why not squeeze in just one more country and city?)

The entire trip, aside from the jaunt to Ireland and back to Denmark, was taken on the train.  Train travel, in my opinion, is a million times better than flying, and I have at least eight points, backing my argument:
    Time: With the train, you can buy your ticket 10 minutes before your train departs, and still get on said train.  You don't lose the 2+ before your trip, just checking in and whatnot before you even board. 

    Cost: Even with dirt-cheap airfares available with carriers like RyanAir, train travel is quite inexpensive - and the price doesn't magically increase 1000% if you choose to buy your ticket 10 minutes before your departure.

    Comfort: Train seats are comfy, clean and almost always have
    Big & comfy, complete with footrest
     more legroom than you can get on any plane (flying economy at least).  Also, you can keep your tray table down for as long as you want, keep your cell phone turned on, and even keep your electronic devices (laptop, iPod, iPad, whatever) going for the entire journey.  No one cares what kind of headphones you are wearing, or how long you keep them in.  That's your business, no one else's.

    Freedom: While food & beverages are not available on all trains, they are available on most - whether in the form of a café car, or actual food service at your seat if you're sitting in first class.  However, on every train, you have the freedom to bring along snacks and drinks of your own choosing, be it pastries from a decadent pâtisserie, regional cheeses from your last locale or a picnic lunch with a full 1 litre bottle of water, a bottle of wine, or a split of champagne - try doing that on a plane!  Not to mention the fact that you can crack open that picnic lunch or split of champagne any time you want, no need to wait for a flight attendant to bring your dried out "chicken or beef" meal when the flight schedule says you should be fed, whether you're hungry or not.  Quite simply, you can eat and drink what you want when you want on a train.

    Luggage: This is a big one with me.  Unlike flying, when you travel by train, your luggage is your problem and no one else's.  No one gives a crap how heavy your bags are (except you, since you're the only one carrying them), nor do they care exactly where your nail file or toothpaste are or if they're in a clear plastic bag.  Oh, and if you feel like taking along a full size, 250ml bottle of shampoo, go nuts - it can go in the very same bag that sits within {gasp} arms-reach of you during your journey.  Added bonus - when you get to your destination, you don't waste another 20-30 minutes waiting for your luggage to (hopefully) arrive, bruised and battered, possibly having been opened and "inspected" by god-knows-who.  The train traveler is long-gone, suitcase in hand, and already checking out the sights, while the flier elbows their way through the crowd, craning their neck to see if their bag has finally come down the chute, praying to the luggage gods that their suitcase is even on the right flight.  When your suitcase is carried onto the train by you, it's your job to take it with you when you arrive.

    Pack light or heavy - you decide.  It's no one's backache but yours!
    Nickles and Dimes: Yes, there are different prices for a second class rail ticket versus first class, but that's about it.  There's no surcharge for selecting where the seat you have already paid for will be, pre-purchasing mediocre meals, fee for a blanket or pillow, cost for in-flight movies, and most importantly, there is NO fee for your luggage, no matter how much it weighs or how many pieces you choose to take with you.  You will not be nickled and dimed to death riding the rails.

    Riding the rails in Switzerland
    Time (even more): Sure, most flights are shorter than the same journey would be on the rails, however, on top of being able to spend those last 2 hours watching the sunset in Florence instead of being x-rayed and felt up by airport security, when your train arrives at your destination, you really are AT your destination.  Not a single person I know of, actually wants to explore the area around Charles De Gaulle Airport... they flew to Paris to see the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower.  Too bad, they have to still catch that 20+ minute (and €50) taxi into central Paris before they can start enjoying their trip.  Train travellers go from city centre to city centre.  Step off the train in Paris and you are actually in Paris.

    The View: Take a train during daylight hours, and while going from A to B, you can sit back and stare out the enormous picture window and enjoy the beautiful scenery.  Who knows, maybe something catches your eye enough that makes you get off at the next town and explore a bit before continuing on to your destination.  A stunning view of a bridge and a peek of Bern, Switzerland has me wanting to go back there now and explore.  I would never have seen that from a plane.

    Are there some drawbacks to train travel?  Yes, there are.  It is said that there is a thief on every train, so you should never leave your belongings unattended.  So, what about all that luggage I brought along on my trip?  Well, if it doesn't fit near my seat, I can leave it in a luggage rack near the doors, and I can secure it to that same rack with my $16 retractable cable lock.  Now, I can relax and know that my stuff is safe, or at the very least, that there is an easier target for said thief.  Also, there is no entertainment system, so even if you wanted to pay $5 to watch a movie during your trip, you can't unless you have one with you on an iPad, iPod, laptop, portable dvd player, etc. That's it.  Those are the drawbacks that I can think of.

    For the food highlights of my trip, stay tuned for Part II.....

    Zürich Station