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.