30 May 2010

Chocolate Blinis

For May's Chocolate With Francois challenge, Linda at Diva Weigh selected Chocolate Blinis. Traditionally, blinis are made with yeast and are served with caviar and sour cream, but in this case, they are leavened with whipped egg whites, and are definitely more sweet than savoury. Essentially, these are light, fluffy little pancakes, that are incredibly chocolatey.

The batter came together quite easily; melted chocolate and butter is stirred into an egg and sugar mixture, dry ingredients and ground hazelnuts are folded in, followed by whipped eggs whites. A short rest in the fridge and the blinis are ready to be cooked!

Cooking the blinis proved to be a bit more challenging than expected though. Even with the pan over the lowest flame, they had a tendency to burn, or if they weren't burnt, they were still too raw to flip. That picture up top?  Ya, that's the only blini that turned out presentable... that's why ther's only one on the plate.  After almost a dozen blinis turned out mishapened and burnt, I changed gears and started heating up the waffle baker. The waffle blinis turned out much much better. They were crisp and light and perfectly browned.

Since these were going to be a dessert, I whipped up a bit of cream to serve on top. Then inspiration called and I remembered the new flavour of jam that I had recently spied at the grocery store. Bonne Maman's Mandarin Jam is a lovely marmalade, yet it's not overly bitter like so many marmalades can be. A few tablespoons of this jam whipped into cream, turned out to be a stellar topping for these very chocolatey waffles.

The complete recipe can be found on Linda's blog DivaWeigh.

Happy Baking!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

26 May 2010

Piece Montée -also known as Croquembouche

Even the name sounds yummy.... cro-kemmmmmmm-booooooooshhhhh.

The May 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Cat of Little Miss Cupcake. Cat challenged everyone to make a piece montée, or croquembouche, based on recipes from Peter Kump’s Baking School in Manhattan and Nick Malgieri. I was super excited when I this month's challenge, for a bunch of reasons...
  1. I won't have to make anyone cry with my Daring Bakers' Challenge this month
  2. It's French, and I adore all things French
  3. I *love* pastry cream filled choux - one of the tastiest things on the planet in my opinion.
  4. I am a stickler for real, honest-to-goodness, made-from-scratch pastry cream, and not powdered vanilla pudding.
  5. I have made this dessert before (for my sis-in-law's wedding), and have always wanted to try it again, because I wanted to perfect it (word of advice - don't try and make/assemble a never-before-made dessert for 150 people an hour before you're supposed to beat a wedding, dressed-up and not covered in chocolate. Oh - and maybe make sure you have enough little choux to actually finish the piece montée, so you don't have to lop off the top and end up with a croquembouche that looks like this ------>)
  6. I love French desserts.  Pretty much all things French, actually, but my absolute favourite are French things you can eat.
  7. I've always wanted to do the proper spun caramel technique for it (you can guess why that didn't happen the first time - no time, and it's even less attractive to show up at a wedding with molten sugar burns on your arms)
  8. It's stunning AND delicious, and that's a pretty killer combo in my books
  9. It's FRENCH... wait, did I already say that?
So, first of all, I'm a little bummed that April's & May's DB challenges weren't switched, because I had a dozen events in April that this would have been perfect for, and I have none of those in May.  While I love girly, pretty French things, most of my co-workers are more...ummm (how do I say this?) ....they're more not into girly, pretty French things.  A big culture shock for me was to go from working in an industry with mostly women and a lot of gay men, to working with very few women and a lot of men who aren't even all that comfortable being around gay men.  So bringing this in for what have now become known in the office as "Baking Mondays", well, it won't get quite the same level of appreciation a dessert like this deserves.  (but boy oh boy, it would have at the flower shop...)

Anyway... I sat down with a good cup of coffee and began reading all about the challenge - no sweat, I can totally do this.  When it came time to actually make it however, I gave it a second read and noticed that "You must use the recipe provided for the the pate a choux batter however".  Sure thing, Cat, not a problem.  Your recipe doesn't look all that different from the recipe I normally... wait a second....NO MILK???????  Oh great, here we go again......

You may recall my recent, still-very-fresh-in-my-mind, battle with brioche and recipes that omit crucial ingredients.  Namely: milk.  Well, as soon as I saw this recipe used only water, I began going over and over the recipe, looking for some hint that this was a typo.  Nope, just water.  Hmm.  Ok (here's where I owe Little Miss Cupcake an apology ), I googled pâte à choux recipes to see if this was in fact an accurate version of the recipe.  Huge sigh of relief when I found several other recipes that were sans le lait.  whew!  Carry on.

I started out by making my pastry cream - exactly the same one I made for my Perfect Chocolate Éclairs. Tried and true and tasty.  Once the pastry cream was chilling in the fridge, I took a deep breath and started on my batch of choux.  Much to my delight, it worked and behaved exactly like the recipe I usually use avec le  lait, so I was worried for no reason.  My piping skills have even improved  considerably, thanks to the techniques Mardi at Eat.Live.Travel.Write. shared from her macarons class at Lenôtre.  (my piping skills really needed still need work - I've graduated to the lever where I can pipe blobs now... not much else).  Into the oven my petit choux blobs went.  When the timer finally went off, I took a deep breath and looked in the oven.  They were beautiful - I would have to say they were even bigger than mine normally are, so maybe milk-less is the way to go.  Filling them up with that lovely pastry cream didn't take very long, which meant I was soon ready to move on to the next step.

The Caramel.  I have made caramel sauce before - many times in fact - and each time seems to be a bit different.  But this isn't caramel sauce - this is just caramelized sugar.  That's all.  No water or added cream or vanilla or butter.  Just sugar.  However, one thing you should know about me is that I am a complete woos when it comes to the idea of burning myself, and playing with molten sugar scares the bejeezus out of me.  But I persevere, in hopes that eventually I will be able to do it and not hold find myself holding my breath the whole time - cuz that only makes you lightheaded and dizzy, which *significantly* increases your chances of getting a 3rd degree sugar burn.  Also, one of my goals for this year is to improve my caramel and sugar caramelizing skills (stay tuned for future posts and you'll get to see how that turns out).  This was as good a time as any to get in some practice time, right?  Besides, if you're going to participate in a baking "challenge" then there should be some aspect of it that challenges you.  (yeesh - that sounds more conceited than intended - let me elaborate)  Yes, so far I've lucked out two months in a row with DB Challenges that I already have experience making, but I also believe that luck is going to run out soon.  

So, given my inexperience working with just plain old melted sugar, I was a little apprehensive.  But, I took a deep breath, put some sugar in a cooper pot and lit the burner.  While keeping a very steady eye on my pot of liquifying sugar, I began roughly "dry-fitting" together the pieces for my first layer of the croquembouche, preparing in advance so I would know where to put the little choux once it was covered with hot caramel.  Pretty soon, the sugar was just beyond the point when it starts to smoke, so I plunged the pot into a bowl of ice water to halt the cooking process, and quickly got to work.  Maybe this was the prefect dessert to help me get over my fear of molten sugar, I was so distracted with all of the fitting together the choux blob puzzle, that I completely forgot to be freaked out.  Before I knew it, I had two full layers done and had zero burns!  WooHoo!  This is cool!  Now I can see why they use this as pastry glue for those amazing pieces they make on tv.  It's awesome!

Another thing I learned was why the croquembouche is traditionally covered in a halo of spun sugar.  Because a frothy veil of golden caramel acts as a really good cover for the mess.  You're not exactly going to use your finger to wipe away any smears or drips of 200˚ sugar, and I certainly had a lot of drips and oozes happening.  So, while I was glueing together my piece montée, I asked hubby to take one of my very large whisks and sacrifice it for the spun sugar cause.  Well, it took a little more tweaking after he trimmed off the rounded top of the whisk - he had to also bend the individual wires back out a bit, as they immediately collapsed on one another once they were cut.  Full of caramelly confidence, I was excited to give my "new" toy a try, and dipped the wire whisk into to the hot caramel, lifted it above the completed tower of choux and proceeded to spray hot sugar onto every surface in my kitchen while almost nothing landed on the croquembouche.  Awesome.  I went back for another attempt, but didn't fare any better the second time.  I abandoned that idea and figured that would be a lesson for another day.  I did, however, play around a bit on some parchment paper and made a caramel Tour Eiffel for a decoration.  Because after all, it's FRENCH!

So here you have it - my Piece Montée, complete with caramel.  Thanks so much to Cat (whom I should hate, simply because she lives in Paris and I don't), I had a blast making this, and you helped me face my fear of molten sugar, and I even survived unscathed!  ZERO burns to show for it!  YAY!

Pâte à Choux (sans le lait)
(Yield: About 28) - I ended up with 40
¾ cup (175 ml.) water
6 Tbsp. (85 g.) unsalted butter
¼ Tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 cup (125 g.) all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
(directions are exactly the same as they are for my "Perfect Chocolate Éclair" post, which is also where you will find my recipe for REAL Pastry Cream)

Caramel aka Molten Sugar Glue
1 Cup (200g) sugar
Put the sugar in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, and place over medium heat.  Keep a watchful eye om the sugar, and as the crystals begin to melt and darken, gently stir (using a silicone spatula only) the sugar to move the dry sugar to the bottom to even the cooking.  As the entire pot of sugar melts and begins to darken, it will begin to smoke.  Once it begins smoking, immediately plunge the bottom of the pot into a bowl of ice water to halt the cooking process.  If, while you are assembling your piece montée, the pot of caramel begins to harden and become difficulty to work with, simply return it over a medium flame on the stove until it melts to the proper consistency again.  Repeat as needed.

24 May 2010

Nutella Biscotti

Growing up, Sis and I were probably considered luckier than most kids.  You see, when Mom went grocery shopping and bought cereal, she always allowed my sister and I to each choose one box of the "good" cereal.  You know, like Froot Loops, Lucky Charms, Franken-Berry, Count Chocula, or the mouth-shreddingly good, Cap'n Crunch.

Even today, my sister is a total and complete cereal addict.  To this day, she will happily have a bowl of cereal at any time of day - even for dinner if she doesn't feel like cooking.  As for me - sure I like cereal just fine, but I was always fascinated by the kids on the TV commercials who got to have Nutella for breakfast.  I mean c'mon!  It's chocolate on bread!  For breakfast!  How awesome is that?!?  To this day they still market it as "...part of a tasty balanced breakfast", yet Mom seemed to draw the line at Cap'n Crunch.  It would be many years later before I finally had my first taste of Nutella, and it was well worth the wait.

Now that I am all grown up, I can have Nutella for breakfast any time I want to (though I usually have some yogurt and a really good cup of coffee), but it still feels more like a dessert spread to me than breakfast food.  For this month's Nutella Challenge, hosted by Paula at bell'alimento, however, I am bringing this hazelnut-chocolate spread back to the breakfast table with Nutella Biscotti.  Technically, biscotti is a cookie and not breakfast, but it is meant to be served with coffee, and that first cup of the day is always my favourite.

I found this recipe in a new cookbook I recently picked up: The Art & Soul of Baking by Cindy Mushet for Sur la Table - this book has recently picked up an IACP Award and was nominated for a James Beard Award.  Cindy's book is filled with a tonne of fantastic recipes, lots of step-by-step photos for different techniques, plus most recipes also have little sidebars of tips and tricks titled "what the pros know" and "getting ahead" tips for making recipes in advance.  One of the things that drew me to the recipe, aside from the use of Nutella, is that she describes these twice-baked Italian biscuits as having a slightly softer texture than traditional biscotti.  I love that idea, as so often biscotti can be rock hard when dry, only to crumble and break off when you dunk them in your coffee - and that ain't a pretty thing to find in the bottom of your cup.  These turned out perfect in my opinion: a nice firm, crunchy texture, but they completely hold together when you dunk them.  Delicious.  One change I did make to this recipe was that I used Lindt's Fleur de Sel Chocolate in place of just regular bittersweet chocolate.  Mostly because I love the depth of flavour that the sea salt brings to Lindt's silky, rich chocolate, and I thought it would be a nice addition in these cookies, and I was very pleased with the results.  Cindy also says you can substitute any type of nuts you want in this recipe, but since I was making her Nutella variation, I decided to stick with the classic hazelnut.

Nutella Biscotti with Hazelnuts and Chocolate
The Art and Soul of Baking by Cindy Mushet

1/2 Cup (113g or 1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 Cup (134g) granulated sugar
1/2 Cup (172g) Nutella, at room temperature
3 large eggs, at room temperature
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 3/4 Cups (390g) all purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 Cup (75g) hazelnuts, skinned, toasted & roughly chopped
1 Cup (180g) chopped dark chocolate

Preheat oven to 350˚F and position rack in the centre of the oven
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (or in a medium bowl with a handheld mixer), cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Add the Nutella and mix until fully combined.  With the mixer on medium-low speed, add the eggs, one at a time, until well blended, scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt.  Add the dry ingredients to the wet mixture all at once, and mix on low speed until there are no more patches of flour visible.  Add the chopped hazelnuts and chocolate, and mix on low until incorporated.  Remove the bowl from the mixer and mix the dough by hand, using a rubber spatula, to evenly distribute the nuts and chocolate.
Divide the dough in half, and turn out onto a lightly floured surface.  Gently squeeze and roll the dough into a log about 13 inches long.  Transfer to a parchment lined cookie sheet, and gently press down and flatten the rolls until they are about 2 inches across on the top.  Repeat with the second half of the dough, allowing 4 inches of space between the logs.
Bake for 30-35 minutes, until the logs are firm to the touch and lightly golden brown.
Transfer logs to a cooling rack and allow to cool completely (if you slice the cookies while they are still warm, the chocolate will smear and you'll have ugly biscotti).
Reduce oven temperature to 275˚F, and position 2 racks in the oven, dividing the oven into thirds.
Once the logs have completely cooled, using a sharp, serrated knife, slice the logs on a slight diagonal into individual cookies about 3/8 thick (I sliced mine much thicker).  Place the sliced biscotti, cut side down, onto two parchment lined cookie sheets and place them back in the oven for another 30-40 minutes, rotating the cookie sheets about halfway through.  The biscotti should be dry and lightly golden brown.
Transfer to a cooling rack and allow to cool completely.
These cookies will keep in an airtight container, at room temperature, for up to 2 months... that's assuming they don't all get eaten right away.

23 May 2010

The Fastest Dessert You WIll Ever Make

Recently, I received a flattering invite from the fabulous Mardi at Eat.Live.Travel.Write., asking me to join in the fun for Hay Hay its Donna Day.  Denise at ChezUs, who organizes this monthly challenge group) announced Mardi had won April's HHDD event, and therefore gets to host May's challenge, and she selected Blackberry Cheesecake Pots.  It wasn't a hard decision to join in the fun - I love cheesecake (or pretty much anything with cream cheese) and I love blackberries - it's a win-win situation!

I will admit, I've seen Donna Hay Magazine on the racks at the bookstore, but I've never picked one up.  I think it's because I've heard she's been referred to as the Aussie Martha Stewart, and, well, I'm kinda Martha'd out  (don't get me wrong, there are a tonne of wonderful ideas in her magazines, and I admire her shrewd business-sense, but I just wish she'd give more credit to her talented staff and ease up a bit).  Shame on me for judging Donna so quickly on such a comparison, inflicted on her by others.  I've learned my lesson though; now that I've tried out one of her recipes, I think I'll have to pick up a copy and give her a shot.  For one thing, this is definitely the quickest recipe I have ever made!  I swear, it takes longer to scoop out a bowl of ice cream - "I don't have time, so I'll just pick up a dessert at the grocery store" has now become nothing more than a weak excuse.  It's also delicious, and ridiculously versatile - you could make this recipe with just about any seasonal fruit you happen to have on hand.  In fact, once I discovered that this dessert took longer to read than in did to make, I proceeded to whip up another batch using the bright red strawberries I had on hand - and it was equally delicious.

So then I got to thinking, what if you didn't happen to have any fruit on hand?  Or what if you weren't in a fruit-dessert kinda mood?  Well, a quick trip to the grocery store for more cream cheese and I was ready to rock in my cheesecake pot extravaganza.

First up (actually third up at this point), was my no-fresh-fruit-on-hand scenario.  I added a 1/2 Cup (125g) of cherry jam to the cheesecake base mixture.  The result?  YUM.  It's absolutely delectable and has a much more intense fruit flavour than the fresh fruit versions.

Finally, I went ahead with the not-in-a-fruity-kind-of-mood scenario, and replaced the fresh fruit or jam with 1/2 Cup (125g) of Nutella.  Another tasty flavour option has been discovered.  mmmmmm....good stuff.  If you're one of the few people on the planet that don't love the taste of Nutella, you can switch it out for an equal amount of room temperature chocolate ganache, and you'll end up with a lovely 5-minute chocolate cheesecake.

So if you find yourself in a pinch because of last minute dinner guests, or you just want to enjoy a fabulous dessert that takes little to no effort, then this is the recipe for you.  You can whip this up as soon as you receive the phone call or walk through the door, and it can firm up in the fridge while you cook and enjoy your dinner.  Voilà!  Elegant dessert is served!

Oh - and if you really want to see how to turn this into a dessert that will wow your guests, head on over to Jamie's blog Life's A Feast... yes it took her more than 5 minutes to prepare, but it was definitely time well spent!

So here you go: simple, elegant, delicious and ridiculously quick to prepare:

Donna Hay's Name-Your-Flavour Cheesecake Pots
serves 4, but is very easily doubled

1 Cup (250g) cream cheese
1/4 Cup (55g) superfine sugar (aka "berry sugar" in Canada)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 Cup (60ml) whipping cream
and 1/2 Cup (125g) of any one of the following:

  • fresh or frozen berries of your choice
  • jam or fruit preserves
  • chocolate ganache (room temp)
  • Nutella (room temp)

In the bowl of a food processor, blend cream cheese, sugar, vanilla and cream together until smooth.  Add in about 1/2 of the berries and process until just crushed, using 1-second pulses.  Spoon into 4 small 1/2 cup dishes and refrigerate for 1 hour or until firm.  Serve with remaining fresh berries.

Give this recipe a try and let me know what flavour you made!

20 May 2010

My "When Harry Met Sally" Cake

Harry: "The first time we met, we hated each other"
Sally: "No, you didn't hate me, I hated you.  The second time we met, you didn't even remember me."
Harry: "I did too!  I remembered you.  The third time we met, we became friends"
Sally: "We were friends for a long time"
Harry: "And then we weren't"
Sally: "And then we fell in love.  Three months later, we got married"
Harry: "Ya, it only took three months"
Sally: "Twelve years and three months"
Harry: "We had this... we had a really wonderful wedding"
Sally:  "It was... it really was a (laughing) beautiful wedding"
Harry:  "We had this enormous coconut cake"
Sally:  "Huge coconut cake, with the tiers, and there was this, this very rich chocolate sauce on the side"
Harry: "Right, 'cause not everyone likes it on the cake, 'cause it makes it very soggy"
Sally:  "Particularly the coconut, soaks up a lot of that stuff, so you really... it's important to keep it on the side"
Harry:  "Right."

I'm willing to bet that everyone reading this remembers this movie - after all, When Harry Met Sally is the iconic Nora Ephron romantic comedy, the one that really turned her into a household name before she went on to write Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail.  There are certainly a number of memorable scenes, but the mental imagery of their enormous tiered wedding cake: moist coconut cake with rich chocolate sauce on the side - that stuck with me for years.  To the point where, years later, when I finally came across a recipe for a decent coconut cake, I knew I absolutely had to serve it with a nice rich chocolate ganache.

Most coconut cake recipes I come across are little more than a white cake with a sticky frosting covered in shredded coconut.  Such a combination does not a coconut cake make.  After all, a white cake covered in chocolate icing is not a chocolate cake, so how come coconut cake gets to break the rules?   So I was very excited when, years ago, I came across a recipe for a coconut cake, made with {gasp!} actual coconut!  Not just shredded coconut, but coconut milk too!  You can imagine my surprise, and sure enough, when I gave it a try, and it was a pretty damn good cake.  It had to be if it was going to live up to the imagery from When Harry Met Sally.  Over the years, I have fine-tuned that recipe here and there, changing up the frosting from a too-sweet Italian meringue to a delicately flavoured Coconut Cream Icing, playing around with different syrups for the sponge, and adding the above-mentioned chocolate sauce.  All of this tweaking has brought me to the perfected coconut dessert I share with you today.  In fact, this cake is so good, it has become my signature dish, and I have even been hired to bake this for various special occasions,  and birthdays - for people who say they don't like cake, yet apparently love this coconut cake, and even a wedding (naturally).  My friend Shannon loves this cake so much, that when I presented her with her gift last Christmas, a lovely cake plate and a coupon for a cake of her choice for any occasion, she shouted out "Coconut Cake!" before I could even finish telling her what the gift was.  And it's at her request that I make this cake again tonight.  If I want wow factor, or a dessert with nice summery flavours, this is the cake I make.

Normally, I make this cake in round cake pans, and go for a traditional layer cake presentation, however, given the type of event this was being served at, I decided to go for an elegant loaf style cake.  To do this, I baked the cake in two 8x8 square pans, then trimmed the crust edges from the cakes, and split each cake in half, so that I ended up with a nice long, rectangular cake 2-layer that is easier to cut and serve. Serving it with a liquid chocolate sauce was also going to be a challenge for this event, so I made the ganache well ahead of time and allowed it to chill in the refrigerator while I baked.  When it came time to assemble the cake,  I added a generous layer of ganache between the cake layers, along with some of the frosting.  This meant that I had a nice chocolatey truffle-type layer of chocolate sauce built right into the cake, and I can't think of a reason why that would be a bad thing.

Fluffy Coconut Layer Cake with Chocolate Ganache On The Side
Cake adapted from Williams-Sonoma Baking 

2 1/4 Cups (280g) cake flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 Cup (186g) unsalted butter, at room temp
1 1/2 Cups (301g) sugar
3 large eggs, separated, at room temp
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 Cup (250ml) coconut milk (you can use "light" coconut milk, but really, why bother at this point?)
1 tsp coconut extract
1 Cup (125g) shredded sweetened coconut

6-8 Tbsp (90-120ml) Mailbu coconut rum or coconut syrup

Coconut Cream Icing

2 Cups (500ml) whipping cream
1/2 Cup (100g) confectioner's sugar
4 tsp (20g) cornstarch
pinch salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp coconut extract
1 1/2 Cups (150g) sweetened flaked coconut

Coconut- flavoured Ganache  aka "Very Rich Chocolate Sauce"
1 Cup (250 ml) heavy cream
1 Cup (250 g) dark chocolate, chopped (or, if you are lazy like me, dip into your enormous stash of Callebaut callets)
2 Tbsp Malibu Coconut Rum (or 1 tsp coconut extract)

Preheat oven to 350˚F and place oven rack in centre position.  Prepare two 9-inch round cake pans.

In medium bowl, sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside
In bowl of mixer, combine butter and sugar, beat on medium-high until mixture is light in colour and fluffy. Beat in the egg yolks, vanilla and coconut extract. Remove the bowl from the mixer.
Gently fold in 1/3 of the dry ingredients until almost fully incorporated. Fold in 1/2 of the coconut milk. Fold in another 1/3 of the dry ingredients, followed by the remaining coconut milk. Gently fold in the final 1/3 of dry ingredients and the shredded coconut until just incorporated.  Take care not to stir too vigorously, or the cake will be tough. Transfer batter to a clean, large bowl.

In clean mixer bowl, using a balloon whisk, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form (peaks should fall over gently when the whisk is lifted).
Gently fold the egg whites into the batter, just until no white streaks remain. Divide batter evenly between 2 prepared baking pans. Bake the cake layers until a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out cleanly, about 20-25 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let them cool in the pans for about 3 minutes. Using wire rack, invert both layers and remove pans. Let cool completely on the racks, covered by a clean slightly damp kitchen towel so they do not dry out.

To prepare the Coconut Cream Icing: In a small saucepan, combine the sugar, corn starch, salt and 1/4 Cup (50ml) of the whipping cream.  Bring mixture to a boil, over medium-high heat, while stirring continuously.  Immediately transfer the hot mixture to a small bowl.  Gently stir in the vanilla and coconut extracts, and set aside to cool to room temperature.
In a clean mixer bowl, whip cream to very soft peaks.  With the mixer running on medium speed, slowly pour in the cooled sugar starch mixture.  Turn the mixer up to medium high speed until the mixture is well combined, but be careful not to over-whip.  Gently fold 2/3 of the coconut into the cream.

To assemble and decorate the cake:
Gently place one cake layer on cake plate and brush layer with Malibu rum or coconut syrup.  (If going with the truffle-like layer of chocolate as I did for this occasion, now is the time to apply it).  Evenly spread a generous amount of the coconut cream icing onto the bottom cake layer. Top with the second cake layer, and brush layer with remaining Malibu or syrup.  Evenly coat entire cake with remaining coconut cream, and garnish with remaining coconut.  Chill until ready to serve.

Serve chilled with warm chocolate ganache.  Stand back and graciously accept the ooh's, ahh's and yumm's.

17 May 2010

Brioche... My Nemesis. Part II

Since my less-than-stellar attempt to make brioche a couple of weekends ago, I have moved on to a couple of other more successful recipes.  I soothed my bruised ego with a batch of good ol' back-to-basics Chocolate Chip Cookies, put together a pretty decent Bread Pudding from the least disastrous batch of brioche, and padded down memory lane with some paw-printed Macarons for my May Mactweets challenge.   All of these have helped to boost my confidence and fade the memory of defeat just enough  to make it possible for me to head back into battle once more.

As you may remember, I attempted three batches of brioche, from two different recipes - one of which that had omitted one very necessary ingredient:  MILK.  The second recipe had all the ingredients listed, but it was still a bust - unless you like warty hunks of unmixed dough in your brioche, and I'm suspecting you don't.  For attempt #4 I decided to go with yet another recipe for this pesky little dough, and I am pleased to say - SUCCESS!  This dough turned out tender and buttery and exactly the way I wanted.  Whew!  I can finally check this one off my list!

I again read through the recipe a full three times before starting - once bitten, twice shy, you could say.  It all looked very simple and straightforward, and wildly different from the other two recipes I had failed with before.  As far as I could tell, this was a good sign.  I should mention I had also decided it was time to consult the fine folks at Cook's Illustrated for some extra insurance - their recipes never seem to fail for me, and thankfully this was no exception.

Once the dough was behaving properly, I improvised and used it to make some lovely cinnamon rolls for my mum.  She loves cinnamon buns, and I like baking treats for my mum, no special occasion necessary.  I made a spread from unsalted butter, dark brown sugar, cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg, along with some vanilla and salt to polish up the flavours a bit.  For a contrast of texture, I toasted & chopped up some lovely fresh walnuts and sprinkled them over top of the cinnamon-sugar-butter spread out on the rolled out dough.  Then it was a simple matter of rolling it all up, slicing into rolls and tucking them into the pans.  Left to their own devices for an hour, they were plump and puffy and all cuddled up to one another, and ready for their trip to the oven.  Breathing a huge sigh of relief at having finally won the Battle of the Brioche, I tidied up the kitchen while enjoying the warm, spicy smells from the oven.  Thankfully, once they were done baking, they didn't take too much time cooling down to a temperature that hubby and I could enjoy a taste without scalding the roofs of our mouths.

These cinnamon brioche rolls tasted wonderful - as good as I could have hoped for.  I'm sure they would still have been good had I not struggled my way through 3 botched batches before this one, but I was certainly savouring them so much more after all the hard work I put into them.

So, for those of you who haven't been completely scared off by my initial defeats, I hope you will give this recipe a try.  It's pretty easy, and a much quicker recipe than the first three.  Most importantly - it actually lists all of the ingredients you need to make it.

Happy Baking!

Quick Cinnamon Brioche Rolls
(adapted form Cook's Illustrated)
makes 12 rolls

2 1/2 tsp (1 envelope) dry active yeast
1/2 Cup (120ml) whole milk, warmed to approximately 110˚F
2 1/4 Cups (320g) all-purpose flour
6 Tbsp (90g) unsalted butter, room temperature
3 Tbsp (45g) granulated sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2 large eggs

1/2 Cup (113g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 Cup (100g) dark brown sugar
1 tsp (5g) cinnamon
1/8 tsp ground cardamom
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/8 tsp salt
1 tsp (5ml) vanilla extract
1 Cup (75g) walnuts

Begin by making the sponge:  in a small bowl, whisk together the yeast and the milk, then stir in 1 Cup (142g) of the flour.  Cover with plastic wrap and set aside in a draft-free area.

In the bowl of a food processor, combine butter, sugar and salt until well blended and smooth.  Add the eggs, one at a time, processing after each addition.  Scrape down the sides of the workbowl and process again for several seconds until well blended.  Don't worry if the mixture looks curdled at this point.  Add the remaining 1 1/4 Cups (178g) of flour and process in 1-second pulses until thoroughly combined.  Finally, add in the sponge, and pulse again until a smooth dough forms.  Then process continuously for 15 seconds.  The dough will be quite sticky at this point.

Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and gently knead until smooth and elastic.  Form into a smooth, round ball and place in a large, buttered bowl.  Cover with plastic wrap or a slightly damp towel and let the dough rise for about 1 hour or until it has doubled in size.

While the dough is rising, make the filling.  In a small bowl, cream together the butter, sugar, spices, salt and vanilla, and whisk until fluffy.  In a saute pan over medium heat, toast the walnuts, being careful not to let them burn.  The nuts are done when they are fragrant and lightly toasted.  Immediately remove the nuts from the pan, onto a chopping board and allow them to cool slightly.  Finely chop the walnuts, and set aside.  Generously butter a 9x13 baking pan and set aside.

Once the dough has doubled in size, turn the dough out onto generously floured surface. Gently knead the dough and roll it out into a large rectangle, roughly 12 inches x 18 inches.  Spread the cinnamon butter mixture evenly over the dough, leaving about 1 inch of dough along the top, so the roll can be sealed.  Sprinkle the chopped walnuts over the butter spread and gently press the nuts into the mixture.  Gently roll up the dough until you are close to the clean edge of the dough.  Using your fingers and cold water and wet the clean edge of the dough, then finish rolling up the dough, and pinch along the seam to create a seal.  Using very gentle pressure and a serrated knife, cut the dough log in half, and then cut each half into half again.  Finally, cut each section into three rolls, and place each pice, cut side up, into the buttered baking pan.  Cover with plastic wrap or a lightly damp towel and allow to rise for about 45-60 minutes.

Move oven rack to the centre position and preheat oven to 350˚F.  Bake the rolls for 20-25 minutes, or until an instant read thermometer reads 180˚F when inserted into the centre of the pan. Turn pan upside down onto a service plate and immediately remove the baking pan.  Allow the rolls to cool for 5-10 minutes before devouring.

09 May 2010

Big Red Macarons

It's that time again.. MacTweets Challenge Time!  I have to admit, with April being little more than a blur to me, the date for our monthly macaron bake-off completely snuck up on me.

This month's challenge was a bit of a thinker for me; "MacTell Me A Story!  Storybook Macarons".  I really had a tough time wrapping my brain around this one, until this morning.  Waking up early to roll out and bake up some cinnamon rolls for my dear sweet mom on Mother's Day, somehow the dots all managed to wiggle through the cobwebs of my sleepy head and connect.  So as I stand here in my kitchen, quietly rolling out dough and thinking about my mom and books I loved to read as a child, my mind came to rest on memories of reading Clifford the Big Red Dog.

I was quite an imaginative child.  Though it was my big sister who always did all the bad stuff (DID TOO! Mom even said so!) my mom always said I just looked like I was up to something.  Well, now, that does not mean I was an angel... I certainly embarrassed the crap out of her on more than one occasion.  Ironically, those events often had something to do with my love for animals and going grocery shopping with my mom.

You see, I am an Animal Lover.  I always have been.  My mom has never been.  Most kids go through a stage of having an imaginary friend or two, but I had imaginary pets, and lots of 'em.  (Oddly, a large number of them were also named "Bart" - no idea why, this was 18 years before the Simpson's ever aired). For instance, it wasn't that I didn't want to eat the kidney beans on my plate - I simply couldn't!  How can a girl eat kidney beans, when there is an elephant sitting on her plate??  C'mon!  I'd like to see YOU try it!  It's an e-l-e-p-h-a-n-t... Then there's the time that I lost my "pet frog" in the produce section of the grocery store... (did I mention I was never considered a quiet child?).  Hysteria ensued in the broccoli section that day, searching for my amphibious green friend.  When I announced that I had found him in my pocket, everyone turned to see me holding out my two empty hands for all to see.  Then there was the fit I threw as we were headed down the food wrap aisle, which is where they also had all the pet food.  "Please Mommy!  Can we please buy some food for the puppy?"  "But we don't have a puppy, sweetie" my mother argued.  My already active imagination kicked into high gear and I wailed "Yes we do!  And he's STARVING!!!" Apparently my mother caught more than a couple of stares from passers-by, possibly contemplating reporting her to the local humane society.  I've often wondered why she stopped bringing me with her to the grocery store...

Growing up in a pet-free home meant I spent a lot of time reading stories about Clifford the Big Red Dog, Marmaduke and Garfield, dreaming of the day that I would have a dog or cat of my own.  It would be many years later before I would finally have a puppy of my own, one that would grow up to be my very own Big Red Dog.  Cairo, our Bullmastiff, was with us for 13 wonderful years before we had to let her go.  A year later, we brought home a furry little bundle of wrinkles named Molly.  Riley the goofball mutt joined our little pack a year after that.  

So, thanks to Clifford, and my real-life big red dogs, I was inspired to make these Big Red Macarons with a candied ginger ganache.  My macaron mojo was working today, as you can see, for my macs have feet, in addition to all the little paw prints.

06 May 2010

Salvaging Mediocre Brioche

April showers bring May flowers, but I don't know what the hell April snowstorms bring... misery perhaps?  An incredibly strong urge to head for the airport, passport and credit card in hand?  Ok, so technically it's May now, but that doesn't make a spring snowfall any more welcoming.  In just 24 hours, I went from wearing sandals & enjoying a coffee in the morning sun, to shoveling my car out from under a mass of heavy, wet snow, cursing under my breath the whole time.  It's true, winter is foe, not friend to I, and a heavy snowfall in spring just makes me downright cranky... just ask my hubby.  Just ask *anybody* who has seen me on a snowy day.

Of course, my mood is already fragile because of the weekend I killed, trying to make a simple brioche to enjoy for breakfast on Saturday.  I began right after work on Friday, and the ordeal ended at 11:59 pm Sunday night, when I finally pulled the final batch from the oven... not exactly how I had originally envisioned my weekend.  Well, the "good" news is that Batch #2, the batch that I added milk to, even though the recipe didn't ever call for milk... well, while quite bland, it did at least turn out to be edible.  When I bake, I am definitely aiming for more than "edible".  I want "OMG" "delicious" or just a simple groan of pleasure... and I was nowhere near that with this batch.  OK, so how do I make mediocre brioche into something that's actually enjoyable to eat?  Well, thanks once again to my unofficial brioche coach, Cecilia at OneVanillaBean, suggested french toast or bread pudding.  Haha!  Great idea!  I don't know why I didn't think of it sooner.  French toast is more a weekend thing for me, and we were now as far from the weekend as one can get, so Bread Pudding it is!

Like Carrot Pudding, Bread Pudding is one of those foods I typically associate with winter.  Three days ago, I was thinking more about fruit sorbets and BBQ than creamy, warm, custardy pudding and a nice hot cup of coffee, but Mother Nature changed all that the minute she dropped the first snowflake on my lawn.  Suddenly, cozy comfort food is looking just fine..

This bread pudding is fantastically easy to prepare, though it's not an "instant gratification" recipe.  First, all that dry bread needs some time to soak up all that custardy goodness, before it has a nice long sit in a warm oven, and another rest on a cooling rack before you can dig in.  Rest assured, in return for your patience, you will be rewarded with the culinary equivalent of a nice warm blanket to soothe cold tastebuds.  You can also throw in a variety of extra goodies to suit your mood:  currants, some nice berries, toasted nuts, chunks of rich, dark chocolate... or simply play around with different liquors to flavour the pudding with.  This is a great time to let your cravings call the shots.  Oh, and don't worry if you haven't got any mediocre brioche lying around, pretty much any old bread will work.

Bread Pudding
adapted from Cook's Illustrated
serves 8-10

1 1/2 Tbsp (22g) melted, unsalted butter, plus more for greasing pans 
2 Tbsp (30g) demerara sugar, or dark brown sugar
1 Tbsp (15g) granulated sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
pinch of salt
4 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
3/4 Cup (150g) granulated sugar
2 1/2 Cups (600ml) whole milk
2 1/2 Cups (600ml) heavy cream
3 Tbsp (45ml) dark rum, or favourite liquor
1 Tbsp (15ml) vanilla extract
3/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/8 tsp ground cardamom
1/4 tsp salt
8 Cups stale bread, cut into cubes

Preheat oven to 350˚F and place rack in lower third of oven.  Brush baking pan or ramekins with unsalted butter and set aside.  In a small bowl, combine the demerara and granulated sugars with the cinnamon & salt and set aside.

In a large bowl, mix together the eggs, milk, cream, rum, vanilla, salt and spices, and whisk together until well blended.  Stir in about 6 cups of the stale bread cubes, reserving the rest for the topping.  Allow the bread to soak in the custard mixture for about 20-30 minutes.  Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, add the remaining bread cubes, the melted butter and about 2 tsp of the cinnamon sugar, and toss until the bread is well coated.   Pour the custard and soaked bread mixture into the prepared pan (if using several small ramekins, evenly distribute the soaked bread, then ladle custard mixture over top, dividing the custard evenly among the ramekins).  Scatter the buttered bread over the top of the puddings, and sprinkle the remaining cinnamon sugar overtop.  Bake for 45-50 minutes.  The Pudding should be golden brown, puffy and it should jiggle just slightly in the centre when shaken.  Allow to cool for 30-45 minutes before serving.

Happy Baking!

02 May 2010

Brioche... My Nemesis. Part I

Baking inspiration is all around me, and every where I look these days, I'm being inspired to make brioche.  Magazines, menus, blogs... I can take a hint - brioche is begging to be made!  So, after a less than spectacular day where anything and everything seemed to go awry, I came home and set about making some delicious, rich, buttery bread for hubby and I to enjoy in the morning.  I admit, it was an ambitious task for me to attempt when the universe was working against me.  BAH!  Mind over matter!  Suck it up, princess!  Get crackin' on that bread!!!

Did I mention that I've never made brioche before?  Not that it matters - I don't scare easily in the kitchen.  There's a first time for everything.

I thumbed through half a dozen different cookbooks, trying to decide which recipe was best.  I wanted a fairly large recipe, so that I would have something to share with the gang at work on Monday, and since they all looked pretty similar, I grabbed the recipe with the biggest yield and started gathering ingredients.  I made the yeast sponge, and set it aside to do it's fat & happy yeast dance and get all puffy, while I measured out flour and butter.  Flour, eggs and sponge all went into the mixer bowl and the dough hook began twirling around.  So far so good.  After a couple of minutes, I peeked into the bowl and saw a big heavy gob of dough was clinging for dear life to the dough hook and there was a *lot* of dry ingredients still sitting at the bottom.  Hmmm... that's weird.  I checked the recipe again - no mention of such a phenomenon.  I stuck my hand in the bowl and gave the stiff dough a couple of kneads by hand, making my best effort to incorporate the dry flour.  It seemed to improve a bit, so I turned the mixer back on and let it work the dough for another couple of minutes.  There wasn't a lot of improvement, but I decided that perhaps the next step would help: "cover the bowl with a moist towel and let it rest for 20 minutes".  That left me 20 minutes to try and problem solve.  That's when I noticed all of the other recipes called for milk, but the one I was working with did not.  I did think it slightly odd at first - in fact, when gathering ingredients to get started, I grabbed the carton of milk, expecting it would be needed - after all, I was making brioche, a bread well known for it's richness due to all the butter and eggs and milk involved.  But I saw it was nowhere in the ingredient list and put it back in the fridge.  Now, however, the absence of milk was making me suspicious... I re-read the entire recipe another three times, looking for something I had missed.  After all, this was a book written by a highly-respected chef and cooking instructor - *I* had obviously skipped a step or messed up somehow.  Nope, I had done everything the recipe had asked me to.  Something was just not right....... 

Twenty minutes were up, so I removed the damp towel, poked the still-stiff dough, shrugged my shoulders and turned the mixer back on.  Minutes passed but nothing changed.  Frustrated, I pulled the failed batch of dough from the mixer, threw it into a greased bowl and set it aside to do whatever it was going to do... magically become a soft, chewy "surprise bread", or a new stepping stone for the garden perhaps - who knew?

Still somewhat convinced that I had simply screwed up the recipe, I went back to square one and started on batch number two.  Batch two was going about as well as batch one.  Annoyed, I grabbed the computer and googled the cookbook title and "typo" to see if perhaps I was not the only person who had encountered problems with this particular recipe.  Bingo.  I was not alone.  Amazon even had a couple of reviews that mentioned typos in this book - not in the brioche recipe specifically, but a couple of others.  I was no longer simply frustrated - I was mad.  I felt betrayed.  This was a highly recommended cookbook!  It had quotes of praise on the sleeve from the likes of Flo Braker and Dorie Greenspan... how could this book have gone to print with what was turning out to be numerous error, typos and ingredient omissions?

We're all human, and we all make mistakes.  I am not immune, and neither are chefs or people in the publishing industry, but I imagine that cookbooks likely go through a number of edits, re-edits, recipe testing, another edit, more testing... all in the name of quality control for a product your are putting out there with your name (and reputation) on the line.  They're certainly not immune to typo's either - in fact there was recent chatter about a very expensive cookbook typo (like, I'm talking $20K expensive), because one of the recipes called for "salt and freshly ground black people" instead of pepper.  Ouch!  Anyway - still peeved, I quickly turned to the front of the book and read the acknowledgement page: "much appreciation goes to XX, my copy editor, for her amazing attention to detail, as well as to proofreader XX...."  All I could do was laugh and wonder to myself if Chef still felt this way - or was he even aware of the errors in his book?  Surely the publisher would be correcting these errors and re-printing soon.  I was also alarmed at web reviews of the book that said it would be "perfect for the beginner" - ya sure, if you want them to give up baking forever because of horrible failures that are not their fault!  Once corrected, however, it really will be a great book for beginners, but not in it's current state.

Anyway, 10 eggs and 6 cups of flour into my attempts for warm, rich brioche, all I could do was shake my head and started calculating.  I scanned the other recipes I had and compared the ratios of ingredients for each.  From what I could tell, 1/2 cup should be approximately how much milk should be in the recipe I had - though I knew I wasn't adding it at the right stage of the recipe.  Oh well, I had nothing left to lose at this point, and it was past 11 pm...I was clearly NOT going to be having brioche with my morning coffee. 

Milk went in, mixer on, and I started cleaning the kitchen.  Every minute or so, I checked on the dough, and eventually, it began to look the way a proper dough should look.  I accepted this small victory, transferred the dough from the mixer to a buttered bowl and put it in the fridge for the night.  Exhausted, I loaded the dishwasher, wiped the counters and went to bed.

Day 2
I awoke this morning, refreshed and optimistic.  It was a beautiful, sunny morning, and I had slept well.   I made a quick trip to the store for more eggs and yeast before hubby headed out for the day, then the pups and I set out for a nice long walk to Starbucks for some coffee & sunshine.  Returning home with two tired dogs meant I could bake in peace.  The first step was to select a different recipe to use - the last thing I wanted was a repeat of last night.  As extra insurance, I read through it twice before gathering my ingredients and getting started.  I also removed the two failed batches of dough from the fridge and let them rest on the counter - after all without baking them, I couldn't accurately judge how badly they turned out.  

For batch 3, I began by combining the flour and yeast, then adding the sugar, milk and eggs and set the dough hook into action.  As the dough came together, it was looking mildly better than either of my previous attempts, but it still would not come together as one cohesive mass.  I rested the dough under a damp towel before incorporating the butter.  The butter was the recommended temperature, but the it never seemed to actually incorporate with the dough so much as coat the outside of the dough and break the dough apart into smaller chunks.  I scraped down the dough hook and bowl and turned the mixer back on, but nothing changed.  At this point, I could see a dark cloud creeping into my sunshiny good day.  Three more times, I scraped everything down and put the mixer through it's paces, but the only progress being made was that the bowl on my mixer was gradually becoming wrenched tighter and tighter onto the base - to the point that when I wanted to remove the bowl I couldn't.  Nothing I did could wrench the bowl free from the stand - I finally had to call hubby in to help.  Even then, it took the pair of us to finally pry it loose!

I worked the dough by hand in attempt to get it into one cohesive mass again, but no luck.  I returned the bowl to the mixer one final time, turned the mixer on medium and let the darn thing run.  Minutes later, I turned to see that my mixer was shimmying its way to the edge of the counter.   I pulled the machine back into place and scraped the dough hook down once more - see, I can be a bit stubborn sometimes, and there was no way I was going to be defeated by brioche!  About 15 minutes later, my poor mixer whining away and in danger of over-heating, the dough was finally starting to come together... HA!  Take THAT brioche!  I grabbed the ball of dough and set it on the counter beside my now-baked Batch #1, and my hand-kneaded Batch #2 (which was looking pretty good actually).  I started to work Batch #3 a bit by hand, just enough to get it into a smooth mound ready for a nice snooze in a bowl.  Only it never became a smooth mound.  It was smooth-ish dough with hunks of un-buttered dough dispersed throughout.  It honestly looked like my dough had warts!  And they just peeled away from the smooth dough.  It was pretty clear to me at this point that brioche and I were clearly not meant to be in anything more than a one-sided relationship.  I could be in love with brioche, but brioche was only going to smile politely and keep it's distance from me.  I could picture the scene in my head; brioche giving me the old "it's not you, it's me" routine... ya, sure, Brioche.  Whatever, at least have the decency to be straight with me!

At this point I shot a short video and sent it out to my food blog friends in Twitter-land.  A baking 911 call for help.  Batch #1 was in fact going to make a great stepping stone for the garden - rock hard.  Batch #2 was looking somewhat promising, and the warty science experiment that Batch #3 had become.  Meanwhile, I took #2 and tucked it into various sized molds for baking, put it into the oven and headed for a shower.  It was beginning to look like I wasn't even going to have warm brioche tomorrow morning... grrrrrrrrr.

Much to my surprise, #2 came from the oven and looked quite promising.  It certainly looked like the real deal.  It wasn't even rock hard like #1, it may even be edible!  The only way to tell for sure was to rip open one of the small brioche à têtes and give it a taste.  hmmmm.... well, not surprisingly, it was obvioulsy not the deliciously sweet brioches I had tasted in France, but it *was* edible.  Maybe with a bit of strawberry jam or cinnamon butter, it could pass.  No one would be repulsed by it, but this was merely a consolation prize for all my hard work. 

I won't give up.  In fact, the fabulous Cecilia over at OneVanillaBean, who has a nice batch of brioche resting on her counter, is making some notes for those of us who are clearly not up to snuff in brioche's eyes.  Hopefully I learn the tricks I need from her, maybe then I can win brioche's heart.  Fingers crossed.

One thing I know for certain;  It ain't over, Brioche.  You may have won the battle, but you will not win the war!

Now I'm going to go put some cookies in the oven, just to prove to myself that I *can* bake....