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

    04 February 2011

    La biscuit jaconde imprime

    First, please allow me to apologise for the delay in posting, but for the last few weeks I have been traveling through Europe, and posting from the the road is not without it's challenges.... I know, feel bad for me, okay? (PS it's due to these challenges that there are no photos with this post, a situation I am trying to correct)
    Jacode Entremets.. not perfect, but pretty good for my first try!

    The January 2011 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Astheroshe of the blog accro. She chose to challenge everyone to make a Biscuit Joconde Imprime to wrap around an Entremets dessert.

    When I saw the challenge for this month's Daring Bakers, I was at the same time both excited and terrified.  I first joined the group so that I could learn new skills and recipes that I had never tried.  For the most part, that's exactly what it's done for me - aside from the odd one here and there.  But this challenge, to make an entremets complete with a biscuit jaconde.  Well, let's just say that this seemed to be way beyond my range of skills.  Like, way, WAY beyond...

    One of my recent cookbook acquisitions is a book that I found in Paris a couple of years ago; La Pâtisserie de Pierre Hermé.  It is a large, beautiful book that details many of Pierre's creations from the Fauchon days - long before he had his own shops.  Like most cookbooks (the good ones at least), it has stunning pictures of the dessert, but then it goes deeper.  In this book, Pierre also has illustrations detailing the actual construction of the dessert, as well as every single step you will need to do to create the gorgeous finished product (or something close to it).  And, he offers all of this in both Français and English.  When I first found this book at Mora, a great little cookware supply shop near les Halles, I fawned over it and carried it around with me while I perused the rest of the store.  You see,  at almost $200 CAD, it was just a tad over my cookbook budget.  But it was so amazing and so pretty, and it held all of Pierre's secrets, I couldn't just put it down and walk away.  Nor could I justify spending that much money on a cookbook.  In then end, I reluctantly put it back on the shelf and left the store without it.  I never forgot about that book, and from time to time, would search the internet for a copy of it.  I was able to find plenty of copies of the French/German version, as well as the French/Japanese version, but the French/English copy always eluded me until I recently received it as a birthday gift from my brother-in-law and his wife (assisted by friends who were visiting Paris).  Now, with this month's DB Challenge, I had my chance to really put it to use!

    Immediately, but not surprisingly, I learned a couple of things about la biscuit jaconde; that it's important to prep your silpat sheet so the biscuit does not stick like mine did, and that this is not a dessert that can be made in a hurry.  To properly make this dessert, you need time, and planning.  I started in the morning and served it that evening for dessert, and I can tell you, it definitely needed more time to properly set.  While it looked pretty spectacular (especially for my first and somewhat hurried attempt), and it tasted fabulous, as soon as we cut into the entremet, it became nothing more than a tasty mess.  Another piece of advice I have for any of you brave enough to give this dessert a try: make only a half- or even quarter-recipe for the jaconde pattern.  I ended up with a ridiculous amount left over, and unless you plan on making a whole bunch of these, it's an awful waste.

    The inspiration for the entremet came from a trip to the grocery store.  I found a jar of Peach-Passionfruit Curd that I had never seen or tasted before.  I picked up a jar of that, some canned peaches (since fresh ones are long out of season), and some cream for a mousse.  Using La Pâstisserie de Pierre Hermé for inspiration, and the recipes that Astheroshe gave us for the biscuit jaconde, I was able to create a dessert that tasted fabulous and was a huge hit with our friends at dinner.  Next time I attempt this dessert, however, I will definitely give myself an extra day for proper chilling and setting, so the dessert can turn out as anticipated, and hold up to a knife.

    Below is the recipe and instructions, as posted by Astheroshe for this challenge:

    Joconde Sponge

    YIELD: Two ½ size sheet pans or a 13” x 18” (33 x 46 cm) jelly roll pan

    ¾ cup/ 180 ml/ 3oz/ 85g almond flour/meal - *You can also use hazelnut flour, just omit the butter
    ½ cup plus 2 tablespoons/ 150 ml/ 2⅔ oz/ 75g confectioners' (icing) sugar
    ¼ cup/ 60 ml/ 1 oz/ 25g cake flour *See note below
    3 large eggs - about 5⅓ oz/ 150g
    3 large egg whites - about 3 oz/ 90g
    2½ teaspoons/ 12½ ml/ ⅓ oz/ 10g white granulated sugar or superfine (caster) sugar
    2 tablespoons/ 30 ml/ 1oz / 30g unsalted butter, melted

    *Note: How to make cake flour: http://www.joythebaker.com/blog/2009/09/how-to-make-cake-flour/


    In a clean mixing bowl whip the egg whites and white granulated sugar to firm, glossy peeks. Reserve in a separate clean bowl to use later.
    Sift almond flour, confectioner’s sugar, cake flour. (This can be done into your dirty egg white bowl)
    On medium speed, add the eggs a little at a time. Mix well after each addition. Mix until smooth and light. (If using a stand mixer use blade attachment. If hand held a whisk attachment is fine, or by hand. )
    Fold in one third reserved whipped egg whites to almond mixture to lighten the batter. Fold in remaining whipped egg whites. Do not over mix.
    Fold in melted butter.
    Reserve batter to be used later.
    Patterned Joconde-Décor Paste

    YIELD: Two ½ size sheet pans or a 13” x 18” (33 x 46 cm) jelly roll pan

    14 tablespoons/ 210ml/ 7oz/ 200g unsalted butter, softened
    1½ cups plus1½ tablespoons/ 385ml/ 7oz/ 200g Confectioners' (icing) sugar
    7 large egg whites - about 7 oz / 200g
    1¾ cup/ 420ml/ 7¾ oz/ 220g cake flour
    Food coloring gel, paste or liquid

    COCOA Décor Paste Variation: Reduce cake flour to 6 oz / 170g. Add 2 oz/ 60 g cocoa powder. Sift the flour and cocoa powder together before adding to creamed mixture.

    Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy (use stand mixer with blade, hand held mixer, or by hand)
    Gradually add egg whites. Beat continuously.
    Fold in sifted flour.
    Tint batter with coloring to desired color, if not making cocoa variation.
    Preparing the Joconde- How to make the pattern:

    Spread a thin even layer of décor paste approximately 1/4 inch (5 millimeter) thick onto silicone baking mat with a spatula, or flat knife. Place mat on an upside down baking sheet. The upside down sheet makes spreading easier with no lip from the pan.
    Pattern the décor paste – Here is where you can be creative. Make horizontal /vertical lines (you can use a knife, spatula, cake/pastry comb). Squiggles with your fingers, zig zags, wood grains. Be creative whatever you have at home to make a design can be used. OR use a piping bag. Pipe letters, or polka dots, or a piped design. If you do not have a piping bag. Fill a ziplock bag and snip off corner for a homemade version of one.

    Slide the baking sheet with paste into the freezer. Freeze hard. Approx 15 minutes.

    Remove from freezer. Quickly pour the Joconde batter over the design. Spread evenly to completely cover the pattern of the Décor paste.

    Bake at 475ºF /250ºC until the joconde bounces back when slightly pressed, approx. 15 minutes. You can bake it as is on the upside down pan. Yes, it is a very quick bake, so watch carefully.
    Cool. Do not leave too long, or you will have difficulty removing it from mat.
    Flip cooled cake on to a powdered sugared parchment paper. Remove silpat. Cake should be right side up, and pattern showing! (The powdered sugar helps the cake from sticking when cutting.)
    Preparing the MOLD for entremets:

    You can use any type of mold. I would suggest a springform pan, a trifle bowl, or any open-ended cylinder in whatever size you choose

    Start with a large piece of parchment paper laid on a very flat baking sheet. Then a large piece of cling wrap over the parchment paper. Place a spring form pan ring, with the base removed, over the cling wrap and pull the cling wrap tightly up on the outside of the mold. Line the inside of the ring with a curled piece of parchment paper overlapping top edge by ½ inch. CUT the parchment paper to the TOP OF THE MOLD. It will be easier to smooth the top of the cake.
    A biscuit cutter/ cookie cutter- using cling wrap pulled tightly as the base and the cling covering the outside of the mold, placed on a parchment lined very flat baking sheet. Line the inside with a curled piece of parchment paper overlapping.

    Cut PVC pipe from your local hardware store. Very cheap! These can be cut into any height you wish to make a mold. 2 to 3 inches is good. My store will cut them for me, ask an employee at your store. You can get several for matching individual desserts. Cling wrap and parchment line, as outlined above.

    Glass Trifle bowl. You will not have a free standing dessert, but you will have a nice pattern to see your joconde for this layered dessert.
    Preparing the Jaconde for Molding:

    Video: MUST WATCH THIS. This is a very good demo of the joconde and filling the entremets:

    Trim the cake of any dark crispy edges. You should have a nice rectangle shape.
    Decide how thick you want your “Joconde wrapper”. Traditionally, it is ½ the height of your mold. This is done so more layers of the plated dessert can be shown. However, you can make it the full height.
    Once your height is measured, then you can cut the cake into equal strips, of height and length. (Use a very sharp paring knife and ruler.)

    Make sure your strips are cut cleanly and ends are cut perfectly straight. Press the cake strips inside of the mold, decorative side facing out. Once wrapped inside the mold, overlap your ends slightly. You want your Joconde to fit very tightly pressed up to the sides of the mold. Then gently push and press the ends to meet together to make a seamless cake. The cake is very flexible so you can push it into place. You can use more than one piece to “wrap “your mold, if one cut piece is not long enough.
    The mold is done, and ready to fill.
    *Note: If not ready to use. Lay cake kept whole or already cut into strips, on a flat surface, wrap in parchment and several layers of cling wrap and freeze.

    Entremet- Filling Options:


    It is nice to have a completed dessert so you can unmold and see the Joconde working. Fill with anything you desire. Layers of different flavors and textures! However, it needs to be something cold that will not fall apart when unmolded.

    Mousses, pastry creams, Bavarian creams, cheesecakes, puddings, curds, jams, cookie bases, more cake (bake off the remaining sponge and cut to layer inside), nuts, Dacquoise, fresh fruit, chocolates, gelee.