Friday, December 31, 2010

Christmas and Truffles

I generally plan and prepare the meals for my family’s Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations, and over the years I’ve grown tired of preparing turkey-centered feasts for both holidays. You see, my wife doesn’t eat red meat, which is fine, but it puts us in the position of having to figure out the main dish for our Christmas meal. For many years we’d have turkey and all the trimmings for Thanksgiving and again for Christmas, but then I started fishing around for a different Christmas main course, a task that hasn’t been as easy as it probably sounds.

La Grande Insalata Mista

Our Christmas celebration tends to be small: besides me, there’s only my wife, my 18-year-old son, and my 78-year-old father in attendance. But pleasing the palates and dietary needs of just four people can be difficult, especially when it’s Christmas and you want everyone to be happy.

Focaccia topped with rosemary and sage

A couple of years ago we landed on Chicken Parmigiana as our main course for Christmas, which seems to fill the bill all around. In case you’re not familiar with it, this classic Italian dish features boneless chicken breasts pounded flat, breaded, and pan-fried in olive oil. These are placed in a baking dish and topped with Italian tomato sauce, mozzarella, and parmesan cheeses, then baked for a half-hour. This year I upped the people-pleasing quotient by adding turkey meatballs to the tomato sauce, giving us two types of poultry in the same dish(!).

Chocolate-Dipped Hazelnut Caramel Squares

The Chicken Parmigiana got me thinking about appropriate side dishes and led to an entire “Italian Christmas” theme for the dinner table (not including desserts). I relied heavily on Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking for recipes and inspiration, a cookbook I highly recommend.

For the record, our 2010 Christmas repast consisted of the following:
  • Chicken Parmigiana with Tomato Sauce and Italian-style Turkey Meatballs
  • Whole Wheat Linguine
  • Focaccia – Italian flat bread topped with rosemary, sage, kosher salt, and olive oil
  • Sweet and Sour Onions – small cipolline onions slow-cooked with butter, salt, vinegar, and a bit of sugar
  • La Grande Insalata Mista – a big Italian salad with Bibb lettuce, watercress, fresh spinach, artichokes, fennel, carrots, red bell pepper, and green onions
  • Panettone – Italian holiday bread studded with dark and golden raisins, toasted pine nuts, and orange and lemon zests

Coconut Biscuits. Slightly nutmeggy and very crisp.

In addition we made two different cookies—Chocolate-Dipped Hazelnut Caramel Squares and Coconut Biscuits—which aren’t Italian but complemented the other dishes nicely.

Italian Sweet and Sour Onions

Because my son insists on a devastatingly rich chocolate something for Christmas, I also made Bittersweet Chocolate Truffles. This was the first time I had ever made truffles and they were extremely good, so good that every time I ate one I was amazed at how good it was. If you love chocolate and have even rudimentary skills in the kitchen, you should make your own chocolate truffles. Friends and family you share them with will love you deeply for it, and you will love yourself.

Bittersweet Chocolate Truffles, some dipped in cocoa and some not.

I used a recipe originated by Katrina Markoff, founder of Vosges Haut Chocolat, that appeared in an issue of Bon Appétit a few years ago. There are two ingredients: bittersweet chocolate and heavy cream. With so few ingredients, use the best chocolate you can afford. I used a one-pound block of Callebaut chocolate that cost $20.00. With a yield of 25-30 truffles, we’re talking $.75-.90 per truffle, depending on how big you roll them. That’s not inexpensive, but believe me, you will not regret it.

Bittersweet Chocolate Truffles
Adapted from a recipe by Katrina Markoff
Makes 25-30

Truffle Base
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
9 ounces bittersweet chocolate (70% cocoa), chopped

Truffle Coating
7 ounces bittersweet chocolate (70% cocoa), chopped

Unsweetened cocoa powder (optional)

For Truffle Base 
Bring cream to simmer in heavy small saucepan. Remove from heat and let cool to lukewarm, about 10 minutes.
   Stir 7 ounces chocolate in metal bowl over pan of simmering water until smooth (don’t let bottom of bowl touch the water). Remove from heat and add remaining 2 ounces chocolate. Stir until completely melted and smooth. Stir in cream. Chill truffle base until firm, 2-3 hours.
   Line baking sheet with waxed paper. Using your hands, roll about 2 teaspoons truffle base into a ball. Transfer to prepared sheet. Repeat with remaining truffle base. Chill until firm, about 1 hour.

For Truffle Coating 
Line a second baking sheet with waxed paper and set aside. Stir chocolate in metal bowl over pan of simmering water until melted and smooth. Remove from heat and let cool slightly.
   Dip balls of truffle base into bowl of melted chocolate to coat; you may use your hands to do this. Place on prepared sheet. Roll in cocoa powder if desired.

Store truffles in airtight container and keep chilled. Let stand at room temperature one hour before serving. Will keep for about one week.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Adventures in Baking 101: Finale

The last two sessions of the baking class are devoted to making four items without assistance from Chef Dennis or classmates. At the end of the last class, the four items will be presented to the chef and to outside friends and relatives, who are invited to the classroom for a look and tasting before we pack up for the semester.

The students' final dishes arranged for presentation.

The final items are the same for all students, and must be made according to the recipes distributed by the chef. They are:
  • An 8-inch white cake, split in half horizontally, iced and decorated in a manner of our choosing. The icing is a vanilla Swiss meringue butter cream.
  • An apple streusel pie, including a flaky pie crust, apple filling, butter-and-brown sugar streusel topping, and pastry "leaves" for decoration.
  • A 9-inch fresh fruit tart. A sweet tart dough is prepared, rolled out and placed in a tart shell, then prebaked without filling (“baked blind”). The cooled, baked shell is filled with vanilla pastry cream, then decorated with fresh fruit.
  • Crèmes brûlées.

We have a total of 8 1/2 hours to prepare all of the above from scratch. In the first session, which is 5 hours, I prepare the cake, frosting, pie dough, tart dough, pastry cream, and crèmes brûlées, leaving all items frozen or refrigerated. The following week we have 3 1/2 hours to finish everything, including decorating the cake, preparing the apple pie filling and streusel, baking the pie, baking the tart shell, filling and decorating the tart, and caramelizing sugar on the crèmes brûlées.

My final cake. It looks a bit rough around the edges,
and I wish I had been more creative with the decoration.

I knew it was going to be a stretch to finish everything on time, and many students, including me, didn’t quite make it, though I came very, very close. My last step before total completion was caramelizing the sugar on the crèmes brûlées. This is done with an acetylene torch and should take only a couple of minutes. Unfortunately, like me, several students left their crèmes brûlées to the end, and I had to wait for a torch. When I finally got one it wasn’t working properly and I spent precious minutes trying to get the flame going. Time was called as I was fiddling with the torch. I didn't quite finish, but I still feel pretty good about what I accomplished.

Apple Streusel Pie. This turned out nicely.

All in all the baking class has been a good experience. I have a much greater appreciation for the science of baking and all the little tweaks that go into making a dish properly. For example, if you look at the photo of the fruit tart, you’ll notice that the crust underwent shrinkage during baking, i.e. it no longer conforms to the sides of the tart pan. Had I let the unbaked crust rest for 15 minutes before baking, this probably wouldn’t have happened, or at least the shrinkage would have been less. Little things like this separate the novice from the pro. (I meant to rest the tart dough before baking, but I was in a hurry and forgot.)

The final fruit tart. You'd eat this, wouldn't you?

I’ve enjoyed the class, but have decided to give cooking classes a break and just cook at home for a while. Next semester I’m taking a course in database management. Au revoir! :)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


I’ve had this recipe for Italian cornmeal cookies, or zaletti, sitting around since last summer when I saw it on David Lebovitz’s site ( In case you’re not familiar with David he is a former pastry chef who worked in the San Francisco area for many years, notably at Chez Panisse. David is now a food writer/bloggist living in Paris (my favorite city!).

Anyway something about zaletti appealed to me, but for various reasons I didn’t get around to making them at the time. Then the Introduction to Baking class started in August, and since I DO try to have a sense of balance about my diet, I haven’t been inclined to make sweets outside of those I’ve brought home from class each week.
For various reasons the baking class has yielded no take-home treats for the past few weeks, and I guess I'm getting into the habit of having baked goods around (I know that's bad). So last weekend I decided to finally make those cornmeal cookies. They’re exactly what I wanted: buttery, crispy, not-too-sweet cookies that go well with coffee or a cup of tea. My wife, whose heritage is at least half Italian, seems to really like them.

The rolled logs of dough, wrapped and waiting to be sliced into individual cookies.

I think of zaletti as “everyday” cookies: you can eat two or three every day and not feel like you’ve overindulged. Of course indulging is good too, but sometimes it’s nice to have a plainer cookie you can just sit and relax with, and zaletti do that for me.

Rather than fine cornmeal I used polenta, which gives the cookies a crumbly crunch and texture. For half the batch I used currants (which David’s recipe calls for), and
for the other half chopped dried cranberries. The currants seem to hold their own a bit better. FYI.

Since I essentially made David’s recipe verbatim, I offer the link below to the recipe at his site. Hope you enjoy.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Cranberry Sauce from Scratch

One thing I like to do in this blog is make readers aware of dishes or ingredients that I love, but that seem to be overlooked or disliked by people I come into contact with. It’s two days after Thanksgiving and I’m reminded that from-scratch cranberry sauce falls into this category, which is puzzling.

It’s puzzling because, of all the dishes I serve for Thanksgiving—including roast turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, corn pudding, biscuits, a green vegetable—cranberry sauce is the easiest and quickest to make. It generally takes about 20 minutes, and can be made up to four days ahead. Fresh cranberry sauce is so rich and flavorful that it’s perennially singled out as being especially delicious at the Thanksgiving table. Why would anyone serve the canned version?

For the last several years, any time I've participated in a Thanksgiving or end-of-year potluck, I've opted to bring fresh cranberry sauce. It’s the perfect pitch-in dish: quick to make, inexpensive, and you don't have to heat it before serving. (I tend to be a bit lazy about my potluck contributions.) There are always a few poor souls who have never tried cranberry sauce made from scratch, and it's nice to make them aware of something good they didn't know about.

Preparing a basic cranberry sauce is easy. Combine a 12-oz. bag of fresh cranberries, two cups of water, and one cup of sugar in a non-aluminum saucepan. Bring this to a boil and simmer 10-15 minutes until the cranberries burst and the sauce has thickened somewhat. Remove from heat, let cool, and refrigerate until cold. Right there you've got a sauce that's better than the gelatinized canned versions.

But you can go much farther. Like orange flavor with your cranberry sauce? Use orange juice for some or all of the water, or add minced orange zest. Boost the cranberry flavor by using cranberry juice instead of water, or dried cranberries in addition to the fresh. Toss in some golden raisins, fresh ginger, or chopped fresh pear. Flavor it with cinnamon, cloves, or cardamom. It's endlessly adaptable.

Leftover cranberry sauce never goes to waste in my household. Of course it can be served with Thanksgiving leftovers or in one of those monster sandwiches with turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy. But in recent years I’ve taken to using cranberry sauce like any other fruit compote or chunky jam, which opens additional possibilities. It’s delicious with leftover biscuits and a pot of tea for breakfast or in the afternoon. It’s also good on pancakes, dolloped on a bowl of oatmeal, or just by itself for a refreshing snack.

For Thanksgiving this year my son and I made a cranberry sauce with dried cherries, dried cranberries, and cloves (recipe below). The original version called for one cup of sugar, but we prefer our sauce less sweet, and cut the sugar to 1/2 cup. (I’ve used as little as 1/4 cup sugar per 12-oz. bag of cranberries, which results in a more tart sauce that is still sweet enough for our tastes.) The cherries add a bit of sweetness and complement the cranberries nicely. You’ll need about 8 oz. of dried fruit, which can be any ratio of dried cherries and cranberries.

Cranberry Sauce with Dried Cherries, Dried Cranberries, and Cloves
(Adapted from Bon Appétit magazine)
Makes about 4 1/2 cups

2 1/2 cups cherry juice, cherry cider, or cranberry juice cocktail
6 oz. dried cherries
2 oz. dried cranberries
1/2 cup sugar
12 oz. fresh cranberries
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

Bring juice to simmer in heavy large saucepan. Remove from heat. Add dried cherries and dried cranberries and let steep for 10 minutes. Mix in sugar, then fresh cranberries and cloves. Bring to a boil, then simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until cranberries burst and sauce thickens slightly, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat, let cool, and refrigerate until cold, about 4 hours. Sauce will thicken as it cools. (Can be prepared 4 days ahead. Cover and keep refrigerated.)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Adventures in Baking 101: Stollen, Coconut-Cream Cheese Brownies

Baking class, week thirteen. Stollen (pronounced “shtollen”) is a traditional German bread, usually served during the Christmas season. Our instructor, Chef Dennis, was raised in Germany and used to eat stollen as a child, so perhaps he has a fondness for it. After trying it, I know I do.

The final stollen, dusted with powdered sugar.

Stollen is sometimes described as a cake but it strikes me as more of a bread, as it’s made with yeast and has a bread-like crumb. It’s not very sweet, except for all the additions studding the loaf, which in our case included dried cherries, raisins, candied orange peel, and toasted almonds. The recipe calls for the raisins to be soaked in rum, and I’m sure that would have been terrific, but no alcohol is allowed on school grounds so I’ll have to save that for when I make stollen at home (which I will).

Stollen cut open to show the raisins, dried cherries, and almonds inside.
The large chunk in the lower right corner is marzipan.

Stollen’s real kicker is a log of marzipan, or sweetened almond paste, that runs through the center of the loaf. After mixing and rising, the stollen dough is rolled into an oval about 3/4” thick. A chunk of marzipan is shaped into a log about an inch thick, then placed on top of the dough. The dough is folded over—completely encasing the marzipan—brushed with egg wash, then baked.

Europeans have a fondness for marzipan, which they consume in various forms throughout the year, especially during the Christmas holidays. On the other hand many Americans, including some of the students in the baking class, seem to be wary of marzipan, like they consider it a bit weird. I assume Chef Dennis is intentionally exposing us to foods outside our comfort zones.

After the stollen was baked, we cut open a loaf and had a taste test. Fresh from the oven, it was so delicious I could have eaten half a loaf myself (especially since it was 8:30 p.m. and I hadn’t eaten for seven hours). However I sensed a lack of enthusiasm among some of the students, and a few didn’t even try it. One or two who did try it commented that the orange peel was too strong and overshadowed the other flavors, which I did not find to be the case. Perhaps in their minds stollen is too similar to that much-despised holiday treat, the fruitcake.

Chocolate brownies with coconut-cream cheese filling swirled on top.
They were delicious, but we need to work on our decoration skills.

I’m sure I’m in a minority here in the Midwest, but I think fruitcake gets an undeserved bad rap. It’s become a cliché to dislike fruitcake, even among those who have never tried it. A well-made fruitcake, with a good balance of fruit and nuts, is a rich and wonderful thing. Perhaps, like marzipan, it appeals more to European tastes. I make a fruitcake that includes fresh or frozen fruit (I generally use frozen cherries), nuts, dried fruit, and coconut. Rather than candied fruits I include golden raisins and dried cherries. It’s simple to make and REALLY good. Let me know if you’d like the recipe.

Coconut-cream cheese brownies. It's hard to see in the photo but there is
a layer of coconut filling running through the center of the brownies.

For our second endeavor of the class, Chef Dennis challenged us to make a batch of brownies, stipulating that the recipe had to be altered in at least one significant way, i.e. not just adding nuts. My partner and I decided to make a coconut-cream cheese filling, which we spread in the middle and on top of the brownies before baking. They turned out really well. With all my talk of “European” tastes in this post, I’m reminded that the brownie is an American invention, and, when made with good ingredients, is one of the most satisfying pastries on either side of the Atlantic.

Take home: one loaf stollen, about twelve coconut-cream cheese brownies.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Adventures in Baking 101: Puff Pastry

Baking class, week twelve. Puff pastry, like croissants and Danish pastry, is prepared from what’s called laminated dough. The word “laminated” means layered, and when I say layered I mean, literally, a thousand or more layers in a properly-prepared pastry. The layers consist of butter, dough, and pockets of air, which make the final pastry slightly crisp on the outside, but tender inside and easy to bite through.

Top: Bear Claws. Bottom: Feuilletées. All filled with almond cream, some of which
spilled out during baking. These looked much better after the burned bits were
cut away; unfortunately we devoured them so quickly I didn't get another photo.

The process of making classic laminated dough involves rolling out a solid block of chilled butter until it’s about 8” x 11” and 1/4” thick. This is sandwiched between layers of prepared dough that are slightly larger than the block of butter. The edges all around are sealed to completely encase the butter in dough. This sandwich is in turn rolled out into a long rectangle measuring 10” x 24”, then folded over twice so there are four layers measuring about 10” x 6”. There’s a “spine” on one side, sort of like a book.

The process of rolling and folding is repeated three to five more times, and is what gives the finished pastry its characteristic layers. The dough needs to be handled quickly to keep it as cold as possible. As it warms it becomes stickier and more difficult to work with; to avoid this it’s chilled for an hour between each turn of rolling and folding. After all the turns have been completed, the dough is chilled overnight before shaping and baking.

With several hours chilling time, it’s impossible to prepare classic laminated dough in a five-hour class period. Thankfully there is something called quick puff pastry, which does not rise as high as the classic version but is perfect for introducing students to the rudiments of laminated doughs. (Just as importantly, the students will have fresh pastries to take home at the end of the evening.) For the quick version, instead of using a solid block of butter, cold butter is cut into 1/2" cubes and briefly mixed into the flour. The rolling process is the same, but there are only three turns instead of four or six, with no chilling between turns.

Puff pastry can be shaped in many different ways. Classic shapes include horns (as for cream horns), and vol-au-vents, cylindrical pastries that are hollowed and filled. For the class we’re shaping the dough into feuilletées, which are kind of a funny diamond shape (see photo), and bear claws. Our filling is almond cream, a heavenly sweet mixture of ground almonds, flour, butter, eggs, and lots of sugar.

As you can see from the photo I over-filled my pastries. The dark brown bits are almond cream that flowed out and over the pastry during baking. I was disappointed when I first saw these, but cutting away the burned filling dramatically improved their appearance and made them look downright appetizing. They also tasted great.

Take home: four almond bear claws, four almond feuilletées.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Adventures in Baking 101: Pies and Tarts

Baking class, week eleven: finishing the pies and tarts. Two weeks ago we prepared a flaky pie dough and a sweet tart dough; last week we made vanilla pastry cream and lemon curd. This week the doughs and custards are coming together! Plus we’ll prepare fillings for Apple Streusel Pie and Pumpkin Pie.

Fruit tarts

Because the pies need to bake longer than the tarts, we start by preparing the two pie fillings. Both are uncomplicated but satisfying nonetheless. The apple filling is a mixture of Granny Smith apples, sugar, fresh lemon juice, vanilla, cinnamon, and a little flour. Since this is an Apple Streusel Pie, it has a crumbly topping of butter, flour, and brown sugar. The pumpkin filling consists of pumpkin puree, eggs, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and evaporated milk. Pretty simple stuff.

Chef Sandy does a demonstration of rolling out pie dough. The trick is to work quickly and keep the dough as cold as possible. If it warms too much the butter in the dough will start to melt, diminishing the flaky, tender quality of the final crust. Roll the disk of dough from the center to the edges until it’s a circle about two inches larger than your pie pan. Plop it into the pan, crimp the edges, and you’re ready to fill and bake.

Apple Streusel Pie. The convection oven can't seem to bake evenly.

For Thanksgiving, at home, I usually prepare two pumpkin pies: a “standard” version, and a second pie with a layer of chocolate on the bottom. Has anyone else discovered the magic of pumpkin and chocolate? I got the idea from Jeff Smith, aka The Frugal Gourmet, who suggested spreading a layer of melted Hershey’s milk chocolate bars on top of a pumpkin pie. I prefer dark chocolate, and got the idea of sprinkling a layer of semisweet chocolate chips UNDER the filling, which is easier than spreading melted chocolate on top. Of course the chips melt during baking, but the drawback is that dark chocolate solidifies more than milk chocolate as the pie cools. Milk chocolate stays softer at room temperature, and the texture is more pleasing. I’m sure I could improve the application of dark chocolate if I put my mind to it. Maybe swirling a chocolate sauce into the pumpkin filling?

Pumpkin Pie, decorated with pastry "leaves." I got kudos from the chef on this one.

The last class activity is preparing the fruit tarts. These are a little more complicated than the pies. The tart dough will be “blind baked,” i.e., baked without a filling. The dough is rolled out, cut to size, and carefully placed in small tart pans. “Docking,” or pricking the bottom with small holes, helps prevent the formation of air bubbles in the crust. To further keep the bottom from puffing up and cracking while it bakes, each tart shell is lined with a small piece of parchment paper filled with raw pinto beans. The dough is thin and needs to bake only a few minutes. My tarts over-bake slightly, as evidenced by the browning on the top edges. It's dawning on me that I need to pay more attention during the baking stage.

After baking and cooling, the tart crusts are filled with vanilla pastry cream or lemon curd. An assortment of fresh blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries are available for decoration. A lot of the appeal of these little tarts depends on their appearance. I keep my designs simple but, I hope, appetizing. After the fruit is arranged, a coating of “tart glaze” is brushed on top to add shine. In this case the glaze is liquefied apple jelly, but it could as well be simple syrup (equal amounts of sugar and water brought to a boil, then cooled) or a gelatin-based glaze.

I’m too busy during class to sample my work, but have the chance later at home. I’m surprised by how wonderful these little tarts taste. The three components—crisp but tender crust, smooth custard, and fresh berries—go together remarkably well, creating a dessert greater than the sum of its parts. Why don’t Americans eat more tarts? Is the rustic, uncomplicated character of the pie more reflective of the American spirit? I don’t know; I like them all.

Take home: one Apple Streusel Pie, one Pumpkin Pie, six small fruit tarts.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Adventures in Baking 101: Custards

Baking class, week ten. I keep talking about how much I love this class. Despite the occasional failure (like those cupcakes from a few weeks ago), who wouldn’t love all the scrumptious desserts we turn out each week? I know my family appreciate it. But as much as I love it, I usually have a twinge of nervousness before class.

Ramekins of crême brûlée, without the sugar caramelized on top.
The one in the foreground is overbaked.

One reason for the nerves is that baking class is not a normal lecture-style class in which you slouch in a chair and listen to someone talk for an hour. It’s active and 90% hands-on. Each class is sort of a performance where you’re trying to work quickly and come out with the best product you can in the shortest amount of time. It’s easy to see why there are so many competitive cooking shows on Food Network; by nature, professional cooking is fast-paced and somewhat competitive, even if the competition is simply to serve 200 diners during a two-hour lunch rush.

Also the class is five hours long, running from 4:00–9:00 p.m. one day a week. That’s a long class, and because there’s so much to do it’s usually without a break. (The smokers manage to take ten minutes off.) It’s like plugging yourself in to an electrical socket and not unplugging for five hours. I love the class, but it’s definitely something I have to get psyched for.

Today we focus on custards, which are basically liquids thickened with eggs. Their consistency depends on the ratio of eggs to liquid: the more eggs in proportion to liquid, the thicker and richer the custard. Most of the custards Americans know and love are based on milk or cream, sugar, eggs, and vanilla, though there are many variations.

Custards fall into two categories: stirred and baked. Stirred custards include things like pastry cream and lemon curd, which we’re making in today’s class. Pastry cream is a classic custard—thick, smooth, and milky—and is used to fill pastries such as éclairs. Lemon curd is slightly sweet with the sharp flavor of fresh lemon juice instead of milk. As you might guess it’s used as a filling for lemon cream pie, and for those small lemon tarts the British like so much. Pudding is another type of stirred custard, as is sabayon, which is made with wine instead of milk.

Caramelizing sugar on crème brûlée is trickier than you might think.
The bottom center one had too much sugar on top and did not
caramelize properly. We used a propane torch for the caramelization.
Crème brûlée is a type of baked custard, and I’m very happy to be making a batch in this week’s class because it’s one of my favorite desserts. Flan and crème caramel, which are essentially the same dessert, are other examples. Surprisingly (at least to me), cheesecake is considered a baked custard. The filling for cheesecake is mostly a mixture of milk or cream, sugar, and eggs, so in terms of ingredients it falls neatly into the custard family. The addition of cream cheese makes the texture a little firmer, but soft cheesecake fillings can be very custardy indeed.

During the lecture portion of class, one of the things we’re warned about is not to make lemon curd, or anything acidic, in aluminum cookware. The aluminum will react with the acid in the lemon juice and change the color of the curd from yellow to green. I already knew this and didn’t think much about it at the time. Well, I should have listened more intently.

The green lemon curd. The French refer to this color as "goose shit" green.
The baking students are in a pinch any time we make things requiring a stovetop. For some reason there are no stoves in the baking classroom, only two small induction burners, each of which handles one pan at a time. These two burners and pans need to be shared among six or seven baking teams.

Not wanting to wait for an induction burner, I opt to make our lemon curd in the adjoining classroom, in which a cooking class is in session. The classroom is stocked with a full complement of industrial-strength gas stoves and cookware, and the chef and students are gracious about sharing the space. Unfortunately, the only pans they have are made of aluminum. I don’t realize this until I look down at our freshly-prepared lemon curd, which is pea-green (ugh!).

Now THIS is lemon curd, with a proper yellow color.
Chef Sandy, the baking chef, is happy about our error because it gives her a chance to show the class what NOT to do. She immediately takes the bowl of green curd around to show everyone in class. Understandably my partner Ned and I are less excited, and though the aluminized curd is edible, I do not want to eat green lemon tarts next week. I quickly gather ingredients and set about making a second batch. About twenty minutes later I have a lovely deep-yellow lemon curd, buttery and sweet without a hint of aluminum flavor. Good class!

Take home: six pâte à choux filled with vanilla pastry cream, six small ramekins of crème brûlée.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Adventures in Baking 101: Pie Dough, Tart Dough, Pâte à Choux

Baking class, week nine. This week we focus on pie and tart doughs. Unfortunately we’re only preparing the doughs and won’t be filling them for two weeks, so no pie to show or take home :(. At the end of class we’ll be introduced to an unusual dough called pâte à choux, used for éclairs and similar pastries.

Baked rounds of pâte à choux, to be filled with pastry cream next week.
I'm learning a lot in this class. Pie dough, known as pâte brisée in the pastry world, can be flaky or mealy. Flaky dough delivers the classic American pie crust, with tender layers of pastry. Mealy dough results in a crust that is denser and less flaky but resists sogginess better, making it a good choice for custard or cream pies.

Both doughs begin by cutting cold, solid fat (butter, lard or shortening) into flour. The different textures are achieved by the final size of the fat particles. For flaky dough the fat is left in pieces about the size of a pea. For mealy dough the fat is cut more finely, to the consistency of coarse cornmeal, making a denser dough that resists moisture better. Voilá!

Ingredients for the pie and tart doughs, waiting for a mixer to become available.
Tart dough, or pâte sucrée, is sweeter and richer than pie dough, and bakes into a crisp, cookielike crust. Shortbread tart dough (pâte sablée) has more fat and results in a rich, crumbly crust. This week we prepare two doughs–a flaky pie dough and a mealy tart dough–but the taste test will have to wait for two weeks, when we'll prepare the fillings.

Pâte à choux dough is unusual because it is cooked before baking. Milk, water, salt, and butter are brought to a boil in a saucepan, then flour is added. The mixture is vigorously stirred for several minutes until it dries somewhat and resembles mashed potatoes. It’s then transferred to a mixer, and eggs are gradually beaten into the dough until it’s shiny, at which point it’s ready to shape and bake.

Pâte à choux bakes into a light, delicate pastry that is mostly air inside, making it perfect for filling with custard, whipped cream, or fruit purée. The dough can be piped into rounds for cream puffs or profiteroles, or into long fingers for éclairs. It can also be deep-fried, and is the basis for beignets (the New Orleans specialty) and the Mexican doughnuts known as churros.

For our exercise we fill pastry bags with pâte à choux and pipe it into rounds, which puff up into crisp little spheres. They're not sweet but have a rich, buttery flavor, like popovers. The plan is to fill the baked spheres with pastry cream (sort of a creamy custard) next week, so they go into the freezer until then. (Freezing is an oft-used technique in baking; cakes, pastry, cookies, and doughs all freeze well with minimal sacrifice of flavor or texture.)

Take home: sixteen extra large brownies (baked last week); balls of baked pâte à choux for freezing at home.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Adventures in Baking 101: Cherry Almond Pinwheels

In the last baking class we were given a homework assignment: choose a cookie recipe, change at least two things about the recipe (either ingredients or method of preparation), and bring thirteen cookies to the next class for critique and discussion. The cookies were to be evaluated on overall appearance, taste, and modifications.

I chose to modify a recipe called Fig Pinwheels that I found in a Martha Stewart holiday cookie periodical from 2005. The cookies are spirals of buttery dough with a figgy filling, and look like small cinnamon rolls. They have a dramatic appearance that I thought would make a good impression.

The filling for the original cookies called for dried figs, golden raisins, apple juice, and orange juice. I substituted dried cherries for the figs and–to kick up the cherry flavor–pure cherry juice for the orange juice. The other significant modification was adding almond extract to the dough.

The modified recipe is below. For those intrepid souls who are contemplating making these, I'll warn you that if the dough warms up it becomes very sticky and almost impossible to work with, so it needs to be kept COLD. You can always put it back in the freezer for a few minutes if necessary. Rolling the dough into a log is tricky and it was only with the second batch that I was able to accomplish it to my satisfaction. Also the dough requires at least 2 1/2 hours freezing time in three stages, so these are not quick to prepare.

Looking back it was a bit crazy to choose this recipe for the homework assignment, but I learned a lot and have no regrets! The family and I were pleased with the outcome, and the cookies were well-received in baking class too.

Cherry Almond Pinwheels

For the dough:
2 1/2 c. all purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 t. coarse salt
1/2 t. baking soda
1 c. unsalted butter, softened
1/2 c. granulated sugar
1/2 c. packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 1/2 t. almond extract

For the filling:
1 1/8 c. dried cherries
2/3 c. golden raisins
2/3 c. apple juice
2/3 c. pure cherry juice
  1. Make dough: Sift together flour, salt, and baking soda into a large bowl; set aside. Put butter and sugars in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on medium speed until smooth, about 3 minutes. Mix in eggs and almond extract. Reduce speed to low; gradually mix in flour mixture. Divide dough in half; wrap each half in plastic. Freeze until firm, about 1 hour or overnight.
  2. Transfer one of the dough halves to a lightly floured piece of parchment paper. Roll out to a 10-by-12-inch rectangle; trim edges with a knife. Repeat with remaining dough half. Transfer each rectangle on parchment to a baking sheet. Freeze 30 minutes.
  3. Make filling: Bring cherries, raisins, and juices to a simmer in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium. Cook, stirring often, until fruit has softened and only a few tablespoons of liquid remain, about 25 minutes. Let cool completely. Transfer mixture to a food processor, and purée until smooth.
  4. Spread half the filling over each rectangle. Starting with a short side, roll dough into a log. Wrap each log in plastic; freeze until very firm, about 1 hour or overnight.
  5. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cut logs into 1/4-inch-thick slices using a sharp knife, transferring to baking sheets lined with parchment paper (and reshaping into rounds, if needed) as you work. Bake cookies, rotating sheets halfway through, until edges turn golden brown, 12-15 minutes. Let cool on sheets on wire racks. Cookies can be stored between layers of parchment in airtight containers at room temperature up to 3 days.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Adventures in Baking 101: Cookies and Brownies

Baking class, week eight. Half way through the semester! This week we’re delving into the delicious, magical realm of cookies. We’ll also be making brownies, which are sort of a cake and sort of a cookie. I think they fall a bit more on the cookie side because they’re easy and quick to make. Either way I see good eating ahead.

The finished chocolate chip cookies. These were GOOD.
Did you know? There are eight different types of cookies:
  • Drop cookies are spooned into mounds on a cookie sheet before baking (e.g. chocolate chip or oatmeal cookies).
  • The dough for icebox cookies is shaped into a log, chilled, then sliced into individual pieces before baking.
  • Bar cookies are rolled into a log, baked, then sliced. This category includes biscotti, which are baked a second time after slicing to make each cookie extra crisp.
  • Sheet cookies are pressed or poured into a shallow pan before baking, then cut. Brownies and lemon bars are examples.
  • For cut-out cookies the dough is rolled out, then cut into shapes before baking. This category includes holiday favorites like sugar cookies and gingerbread cookies.
  • Pressed cookies, also known as spritz cookies, are made from a soft dough that is piped through a pastry tip or cookie press (into star shapes, for example).
  • Rolled cookies are made from a firm dough that is rolled out, often spread with a filling, then cut and shaped into crescents, spirals, or other shapes. Rugelach are an example.
  • Wafer cookies are very thin and delicate, made from a base of whipped eggs rather than creamed fat like most of the other cookies. They’re usually crisp. Sometimes wafer cookies are rolled into tubes when still warm. Tuile cookies and pirolines are examples.

Weeks like this make me glad I got into this class. I love the science associated with baking and there’s plenty to learn about cookies. We discuss factors that make cookies crisp or soft, chewy or brittle, pale or dark, spread more or spread less.

Like almost all baked products, cookies stale most quickly at 40 degrees F., which is the temperature at which your refrigerator is set (or should be set, to retard the growth of bacteria). So cookies are best stored at room temperature in an airtight container; they should stay reasonably fresh for about a week. Cookie dough and undecorated baked cookies freeze well if wrapped tightly.

The plan is that each team of two students will make two batches of chocolate chip cookies. The first batch will use melted butter, the second will use butter softened at room temperature. It’s a nifty little experiment to illustrate how the treatment of butter affects the texture of finished cookies. Unfortunately the mise en place crew discover that there isn’t enough butter in the walk-in refrigerator to make fourteen batches of cookies plus seven batches of brownies. So the class is divided into two groups, one of which will use melted butter and the other softened.

My partner Chris and I are on point to use softened butter. The recipe is not difficult and our cookies turn out spectacularly. Bloomington folks may remember a long-standing downtown establishment called Red Chair Bakery that had terrific cookies, and our cookies remind me of those. They’re large–five or six inches across–sweet and substantial. Very satisfying.

Next up is a batch of fudge brownies; again, not difficult to prepare.

Half-sheet of fudge brownies.
It’s decided that we’ll freeze the brownies and discuss them at next week’s class. For some reason the designers of the cooking facility have installed only two small freezers, which are always completely crammed, so there’s not enough room to freeze seven pans of brownies. We have the option to refrigerate the brownies for a week, by which time they will be stale, or take them home and freeze them. Since I definitely want to eat my share of brownies, I opt for the latter. The catch is that I’ve got to remember to bring them back to the next class or Chris and I get zero points for the exercise.

After everything’s out of the ovens and cooled, the class does a quick comparison of the cookie batches. It’s generally decided that the cookies made with softened butter have a better texture than those made with melted butter. Note to self.

Take home: nine large chocolate chip cookies, one sheet pan of fudge brownies (for freezing).

Friday, October 8, 2010

Adventures in Baking 101: Icing Cakes

Baking class, week seven. This week we’ll be making icings for the two cakes we made last week: a Swiss meringue buttercream, and a chocolate ganache.

The Swiss buttercream begins with a mixture of egg whites and sugar, whisked over a double boiler until it reaches 130 degrees F. At that point it’s transferred to the mixer, where it’s whisked for fifteen minutes until light and fluffy. (“Light and fluffy” comes up a lot in cake making.) An enormous amount of cubed softened butter is then added, slowly and rhythmically, while the icing is being flagellated with the paddle attachment for another fifteen minutes.

Cubed butter for the Swiss meringue buttercream.
The final concoction is so bright and thick it doesn't seem possible that it was made from natural ingredients. The whipped egg whites and sugar give the icing an almost unnatural sheen. There is just the slightest tinge of pale yellow from the butter. The texture is thick and viscous, like an industrial plastic. It is very, very delicious when applied to cakes.

The Swiss meringue icing before the addition of butter.
The chocolate ganache is simpler to prepare but equally delicious. Heavy cream is brought to a boil and poured over chunks of semisweet chocolate. The chocolate melts and, after some whisking, the mixture is removed to the refrigerator until it reaches spreading consistency.

Chocolate ganache. The next day I rolled this into balls and made some incredible truffles.
Preparing the icings takes a while but the tricky part is yet to come. The white butter cake from last week needs to be trimmed and cut horizontally into three layers. Icing will be applied between the layers and on the top and sides. To make a nice looking cake, the three round sections should be flat and as equal in size as possible. That’s not easy to pull off, especially when your cake is neither perfectly round nor perfectly flat to begin with.

At times like this I begin to understand the attention to detail required to be a good baker. I see that imperfections at one stage lead to challenges later on. Not that mistakes can’t be overcome, because part of being a good baker is learning to mask imperfections so they become indiscernible. It’s just that things tend to go more smoothly if care is taken at every step in the process.

The butter cake, iced with Swiss meringue buttercream, before decoration.
The genoise cake is in the background.
The class is divided into groups of two students per cake, but my partner has had to leave early so I do the cake trimming and icing on my own. I don’t imagine myself as being particularly good at this kind of thing, but somehow I pull it off with acceptable results and get kudos from Chef Sandy. The cake is not perfectly round but at least it’s flat. The icing has a smooth texture with no hint of graininess (from undissolved sugar crystals), and tastes buttery and rich. Not bad for my first time.

Impromptu "cornets," made from parchment paper. In a pinch these can be
filled with icing and used for cake decoration. They fall apart easily.
Ten minutes before the class ends, things are running late. Most people are packing up but I decide to stay and put a few rudimentary swirls and decorations on my cake. It’s amazing how even the simplest decorations improve the delectability of a cake.

The final decorated butter cake.
I don’t have time to ice the second cake (the genoise), so take it home with the ganache, which by this time has solidified to the point of not being spreadable. The next day at home I roll the ganache into one-inch balls, then dip each into either cocoa powder or chopped hazelnuts to make impromptu chocolate truffles. They are SO good.

Take home: one white butter cake with lemon buttercream icing, one plain genoise cake, chocolate ganache.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Adventures in Baking 101: Baking and Mixing Cakes

Baking class, week six. This week we'll be making two cakes: a basic white butter cake and a genoise. The genoise is a classic French cake leavened only with whipped eggs (i.e. no baking powder or baking soda to help it rise). I’ve never made a genoise and, because it’s not a typical American-style cake, find the prospect intriguing.

Chef Dennis is absent this week; I believe I heard that he’s on a cruise. Leading the class in his stead is Chef Sandy, Chef Dennis’s sous chef (i.e. second in command).

We start with the white cake and break into teams of two. My partner is Zed, a former journalism student who recently dropped out of college in his senior year with just a few hours to complete. Now he’s pursuing a cooking degree. Having just quit my job of twenty-one years without another job lined up, I can relate to Zed’s mindset; college just wasn’t working for him.

I start separating fifteen eggs while Zed gathers the other ingredients. Pretty soon our butter and sugar are getting a vigorous whipping in the bowl of the electric mixer. The recipe is not particularly difficult, but you have to watch for signs that the butter and sugar mixture is ready: it should lighten in color and have a fluffy consistency. Undermixing or overmixing will undermine the texture of the final cake. In the cakes I’ve made at home I’ve never been entirely sure when the proper stage is reached, i.e. how fluffy it should be or what it should look like, so we consult Chef Sandy to make sure it's OK.

The butter cream for the cupcakes.
With the chef’s blessing, we complete our batter and proceed to the “panning” stage. I fill the cake pans two-thirds full, as indicated by the recipe. Zed fills the cupcake tins two-thirds full (or so), and everything goes into the oven.
The final edible cupcakes, with attempts at decoration.
The ingredients for the next recipe, the genoise, are simple: eggs, sugar, vanilla and cake flour. The technique, however, is a little tricky for a novice baker. Whole eggs are gently whisked in a mixing bowl while being heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit over hot water. When they reach the proper temperature they’re removed from the heat and whipped into a wondrously light, foamy mass, about triple in volume. The little air bubbles whipped into the batter help the cake rise and make the texture light and tender. Again, the recipe isn’t difficult but you’ve got to pay attention to what you’re doing.

I've made plenty of cupcakes in my life and
NOTHING like this has ever happened before.
Eventually our white cakes and cupcakes come out of the oven, and they’re not pretty. The cupcakes look like the scorched aftermath of a nuclear bombing. Most have overflowed their paper liners; in two instances the batter is completely blasted out of the tin. The coloring is uneven and they’re sort of flat instead of rounded. Not good. The round cakes are slightly better, but one cake overflowed and won’t come out of the pan cleanly, resulting in some messiness on one side. Hopefully we can make that look better next week when we decorate.
Hopefully these will improve with some decoration.
While I’m trying to figure out how these travesties took place, Chef Sandy is unphased and says we should look at this as a learning experience. Of course she’s right, but I have high expectations for myself and can’t help feeling disappointed. The chef speculates about what could have caused the blasted out cupcakes: 1) we didn’t mix the butter and sugar enough, 2) we didn’t scrape the bowl adequately, and there were unmixed ingredients at the bottom, and/or 3) the cupcake tins were overfilled (the most likely culprit in my opinion). Of course there’s also the fact that the oven doors were opened and closed a lot, which certainly didn’t help our little cakes rise.

In all the brouhaha about the butter cakes, we forget to check the genoise cakes in the oven, and they come out overbaked. Not inedible, but overbaked. That’s zero for three in my book.

Our last activity of the evening is to make a simple butter cream to decorate the cupcakes. I break out my pastry bag, and Zed and I try our hands at decorating the edible cupcakes we’re left with. The cakes and butter cream are rather generic in flavor but, after an evening of baking, taste pretty good nonetheless. If you served them at a kids birthday party or an office pitch-in I'm sure people would gobble them up. I guess that’s something.

Take home: six decorated cupcakes.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Adventures in Baking 101: Challah and Cinnamon Rolls

Baking class, week five. White bread, whole wheat bread, baguettes and similar breads are made from what are called “lean doughs,” in that they consist of little more than flour, water, yeast and salt. A little butter or oil may be added, but the doughs are very simple and generally not sweet. “Enriched yeast doughs” or “sweet doughs,” the subject of this week’s class, have similar ingredients but more fat and sugar (yum!). Products made from enriched yeast doughs include sweet rolls of various kinds, sticky buns, doughnuts, brioche, babkas, panettone…basically all my favorite baked goods. This is promising to be a good class.

The plan is to make challah, a traditional Jewish bread, and cinnamon rolls. For each of these the dough is shaped before baking, i.e. not just plopped into a pan in a single piece. For challah the dough is divided into strands and braided. For cinnamon rolls the dough is rolled into a spiral, from which individual rolls are cut. I’ve never made either of these so this is new territory.

Chef Dennis has decided that instead of preparing dough for individual loaves by hand, we’ll break out the large industrial-size mixer to mix and knead the dough for 16 loaves of challah all at once. This is feeling more like a professional enterprise. We go through the steps of mixing, and I notice that the dough requires an enormous amount of butter and eggs, which I find encouraging. After it’s kneaded, the dough is set aside to rise for an hour and a half.

Next is preparing dough for the cinnamon rolls. Once again we’re using the floor mixer, this time to make dough for an estimated 16 dozen cinnamon rolls. The dough takes 9 pounds of butter, 32 eggs, 16 pounds of flour and 2 1/2 pounds of sugar. Good stuff! The filling takes another 3 pounds of butter, 3 pounds of brown sugar and 4 ounces of cinnamon. That’s two or three of those little cinnamon canisters you’d buy in a supermarket. I love baking on an industrial scale!

When the challah dough has finished its first rise, Chef Dennis plops it on a work table to give it a little hand-kneading. At this point it has doubled in size and is the biggest mass of dough I’ve ever seen, measuring more than two feet in diameter and about a foot and a half high. It has a presence and attraction that is hard to describe, like a strange being in the middle of the room. The yeast in it is alive so technically the dough contains life. We all take a turn touching it; it feels soft and slimy and buttery, like nothing I’ve ever felt.

Challah is traditionally braided or formed into a turban-shaped loaf, so the chef cuts off a chunk of dough and demonstrates the simple braiding technique we’re to use. For each loaf the dough is divided into three equal parts. Each of these is rolled into a long strand, like an Italian breadstick but longer. These three strands are then braided together to form the loaf. After braiding, the dough is left to rise a bit more, and we turn our attention back to the cinnamon roll dough.

Once again the dough is plopped in a mass on a worktable, and sections are cut off for individual batches. Instead of braiding, the dough is rolled out to an 18” x 30” rectangle, then spread with a thin layer of brown sugar and cinnamon filling. This is rolled up length-wise to form the spiral shape characteristic of cinnamon rolls. Individual rolls are cut from the spiral and placed on a baking sheet to rise a second time.

My heart leaps when I see my loaf of challah come out of the oven. It’s beautiful. I tell Chef Dennis that this is why I took the class. At this point in his career he’s a little jaded about baking but I think he understands. Not only is it beautiful, it tastes terrific: heavenly light texture, moist, wonderful yeasty aroma. Next time I’ll give the surface a different wash to make it darker and shinier, but it’s a very satisfying first loaf.

The cinnamon rolls are another success. Considering the generic character of the recipes we’ve prepared up to this point, I’m dumbfounded by how utterly good the cinnamon rolls taste. I’m a big cinnamon roll fan, and I don’t believe I’ve ever had a better one. And there’s eight more to take home!

Take home: one loaf challah, eight large cinnamon rolls.