Thursday, December 21, 2006

Cookie Baking and Merry Making

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I did the rest of my baking this past weekend, using the same butter cookie dough that I used for this recipe. (In fact, I even baked another batch.) For the rest of the dough, I decided to go easy on myself and skip the cut outs this year. Instead I went the slice and bake route with two flavors - pistachio and cranberry (for a little green and red flair) and cocoa nib and orange zest. I also did a batch of little thumbprints with chopped almonds and cherry jam. The flavors worked really well, and I was pleased with the tiny bite sizes. (I actually didn't make them quite small enough the first time around and had to adjust the size of my "rolls" accordingly.) I did the pistachio cranberry in little squares, and the cocoa nib and orange in rounds. They got good reviews at work, and we have been nibbling on them all week. One tip I can share - I used raw pistachios in baking instead of toasted - they have a nicer bright green color. Learned that from my pastry class.
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I also made another batch of brownies, using this recipe. I was in a hurry when I started mixing up the batter, and forgot to add the vanilla. It affected the taste a little, but they are still very good. I used Scharffenberger unsweetened chocolate this time (it was on sale at Whole Foods for $5.99) and Valrhona Amer Noir (55% I believe?) for the semisweet. I couldn't believe how gorgeous the big plastic-wrapped bar of Scharffenberger was when I opened it. It will be hard (maybe impossible) to go back to Baker's Unsweetened now. Even if Scharffenberger is owned by Hershey's, it's still better than that stuff.
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Last weekend we also attended one of my favorite holiday events, the Solstice Dinner hosted by James' mother Francena. foodblog 1390
As always, the meal was delicious - Francena served pot roast, smoked turkey, couscous, green beans, zucchini with bacon, and gravy, cranberries and bread on the side. Perfect for a mid-winter's meal. The champagne and conversation were free-flowing and a good time was had by all.

As Roibin toasted, "Here's to friends and family, may they be one and the same." Here's hoping that you and yours also have a happy, memorable and indulgent holiday, filled with champagne, hot chocolate, fires in the fireplace, and lots of wonderful presents!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Gingerbread Souffles with Warm Caramel Sauce

Of all of the recipes we made in my baking and pastry class, I think this one was my favorite. It is certainly the most impressive payoff given the work involved. Not that it's easy - but it's certainly not as complicated as you might think. It is a recipe that was devised by my instructor, and I hope he doesn't mind my giving it away here!

A baked souffle is basically a recipe for pastry cream (the custard filling for eclairs and pate a choux) lightened with meringue and then baked. It involves a two part process - the first part, the base, can be prepared well in advance. At the time of preparation, all you need to do is make your meringue, fold the base and the meringue together and bake. Souffles must be served immediately - hot from the oven, because they deflate almost immediately.

In addition to the recipe, we learned that there are a few basic rules that are essential to making a good souffle. One, grease and sugar the the ramekins - so that the souffle can rise evenly. Two, do not overbeat your egg whites before folding into the base. If you do, they will be dry and difficult to fold, and the mixture will be more likely to deflate. They should be beaten only to soft peaks.

This recipe is delicious, and perfect for the holidays. We prepared a burnt caramel sauce to serve with it, which is also very simple as long as you are careful in the process. The two of these together would make a phenomenal dessert for a Christmas or New Year's celebration. Though I haven't had time to make them myself (hence the lack of pictures) I really encourage you to try it if you have the time. I guarantee your guests will be in awe.

Gingerbread Souffles with Caramel Sauce

Makes 10 4 oz servings

6 egg yolks (save the whites for the meringue)
5 oz brown sugar
2 oz milk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 1/4 oz All Purpose Flour
1 T. ginger powder
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground clove
1 tsp cinnamon
9 oz of scalded milk, hot

8 egg whites
2 1/2 oz of granulated sugar

For the base, whisk together the egg yolks, brown sugar, milk and vanilla. Sift the dry ingredients together, and gradually incorporate into the wet. Temper in the hot milk by adding a small amount to the egg yolk mixture, then adding the rest. Whisk together and set aside. This mixture can be refrigerated for several hours or even a couple of days.

When you are ready to bake the souffles, grease and sugar your ramekins, and preheat the oven to 375. Bring the custard base to room temperature and stir it to loosen it up.

Place your egg whites in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, making sure the bowl and whisk are perfectly clean. Beat the egg whites until they are foamy, and gradually add the sugar, beating only until the meringue forms a soft peak that holds it's shape but flops over instead of standing straight up.

Using a spatula, thoroughly but gently fold the meringue into the base mixture. Place the ramekins on a cookie sheet, and evenly divide the mixture among the ramekins. Bake at 375 for about 25 minutes, or until the souffles are fully risen and dry on the top. They shouldn't really brown very much. (This is approximate since we used convection ovens, so watch them carefully!) Post Script: Based on feedback below, I'd recommend baking an extra one or two so you can poke them with a tester (in case they deflate.) The tester must come out clean.

Dust with powdered sugar and serve immediately. If you are using the warm caramel sauce, encourage guests to poke a hole in the souffle with a spoon, and drizzle the caramel directly inside. Mmmmm.... it makes me swoony just to think about it.

Warm Caramel Sauce

10 1/2 oz of sugar
1 oz corn syrup
1/2 cup of water
1 cup cream
1 1/2 oz of butter
1/2 t vanilla paste (or 1 tsp extract)
1/8 tsp sea salt (or a bit more if you like a salty caramel)

Have everything measured and ready to go before you begin - timing counts in this recipe!

In a medium saucepan - between 2 and 3 qts, cook the sugar, corn syrup and water until the mixture reaches a deep golden amber color. The depth of color and flavor here will determine the flavor of your caramel sauce. The darker you go, the less sweet and more intense the flavor will be. You don't want to burn it though - if that happens it will become irretrievably bitter and you will have to start over. If you see it starting to become reddish in color, it is in the danger zone.

When your caramel is deep amber but not burned, tilt the pan and carefully pour in the cream. It will foam and bubble and release steam, so keep your hands and face away from the pot at this point. Stir until the mixture is incorporated and the bubbling has subsided. Add the butter, vanilla paste and salt, and bring the mixture to a boil. Remove from heat and allow to cool.

Makes two cups (one pint.)

**You can also make caramels from this recipe, by simply cooking the mixture to the soft ball stage, about 240 degrees. You have to be careful here though, because if it continues to cook after it is removed from the heat, the caramels will be too hard when cool which makes them difficult to cut -not to mention chew. I am still working on mastering this technique!

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Eggnog Mousse and Gingerbread Cake with Pecan Caramel Rum Sauce

This semester is coming to a close, and for our pastry class final exam, we were tasked with creating a plated dessert with three elements - one of which was required. Our required element was mousse, so in keeping with the season we decided to do a holiday themed dessert - a plate for Santa with a cup of eggnog mousse. The class is divided into five teams, and each team had to make one dessert for presentation, and four others to share with the group.

The original idea for the "Plate for Santa" was a cup of the mousse, some cookies and a slice of an Italian fruitcake confection called "panforte" - but one of our team members tested the panforte and we decided we didn't like it so much - so we switched to gingerbread. Just to be safe, our team got together this past weekend to test the recipes and do a "dry run" with our display. As a result of our testing, we decided the mousse had too much white chocolate flavor and not enough eggnog, and we added fresh ginger to the cake in place of the dried - which turned out to be a fantastic idea. We tested two caramel sauce recipes, and decided we liked one sauce better than the other - but we liked the nuts, so we added nuts to the sauce that we liked.

I made the cut out cookies using my favorite butter cookie dough that I made earlier this week (I baked it at 300 degrees so they wouldn't spread or brown) and the curly cookies are tuiles, which we learned to make in class. The cookie sticking out of the cup is also a tuile, flavored with cinnamon and a little molasses - the molasses colored it, and helped make it more flexible and easier to mold into the cinnamon stick shape.

When Chef Foran tasted our dessert, he liked the mousse so much he actually asked for the recipe. He was impressed that we had modified another recipe to come up with something original, and really liked the presentation with the glass cups. His only criticism was that there was too much whipped cream on top, which was my fault. I should have piped dollops on top instead of spreading it.

If I were going to make this at home, I'd probably shrink the portion sizes. You could also do either or, the gingerbread or the mousse just fine. I like the idea of the mousse by itself with cookies on the side too. The gingerbread recipe can be found here, on Epicurious, just substitute an equal volume of grated fresh ginger for the powdered. The sauce is here, we just added some chopped toasted pecans.
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Eggnog Mousse

1 packet of gelatin (2 1/4 tsp)
3 Tablespoons of whipping cream
4 egg yolks, lightly beaten
1 cup of eggnog
4 oz of white chocolate (by weight)
3/4 cup of chilled whipping cream
1/4 tsp of nutmeg

1/2 cup of chilled whipping cream
1 Tablespoon of powdered sugar
fresh grated nutmeg

Put one inch of water in a shallow pan and bring to a simmer. Set up a double boiler (preferably using a bowl) and melt the white chocolate - keep the water simmering. Set up an ice bath, and put your whipped cream bowl and beater in the freezer.

Stir together the gelatin and three tablespoons of cream together in a small bowl, and set in the shallow pan of simmering water to dissolve. (If your water isn't simmering,the gelatin will harden - as we learned the hard way.) Add the gelatin, egg yolks and eggnog to the white chocolate and whisk until dissolved. (It may have some lumps.) Remove from heat and stir in the nutmeg.

Sieve the mixture into a bowl and place in the ice bath. Stir until thickened to the texture of lemon curd. Transfer to a large mixing bowl. Whip the 3/4 cup of cream to soft peaks. Gently fold the cream into the eggnog base -being careful not to overmix. It should be slightly foamy and creamy. Pipe or pour the cream into cups or bowls, and chill for at least an hour.

Just before serving, whip the remaining half cup of cream to soft peaks, sifting in the powdered sugar about halfway through. Top each serving with a dollop of the cream and some fresh grated nutmeg.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Caramel Pecan Shortbread

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This is one of my very favorite cookies to make around the holidays - it's the first one to disappear off the tray every time, and always the most requested recipe. It all starts with this Basic Butter Cookie dough, from Gourmet's December, 1995 issue, which I have made faithfully every year since I discovered it. The recipe suggests a number of different creations, and over the years I've come up with a few of my own. I use it for cut outs, jam thumbprints (with finely chopped pecans in the dough), lemon curd sandwiches, toasted coconut sticks dipped in chocolate, and cranberry orange oatmeal rounds. This past weekend, I made a double batch to get a head start on holiday baking. I made one small change based on something I learned in my pastry classes - substituting one teaspoon of vanilla paste for the vanilla extract. It put lovely vanilla flecks throughout the dough and gave it a good flavor - both improvements in my book. (I found mine at Trader Joes.) One thing you should know, it's not terribly sweet, but this is a very rich, buttery short dough - not like a sugar cookie at all.

To make the caramel pecan shortbread, I used about a quarter of one recipe of the dough, and made the topping from this recipe - from 2003. (The 2003 issue also has a link to a different recipe for a butter cookie base, but I'm committed to my old one.)

The recipe says to bake this until the caramel is bubbling - but I find that I need to bake it a little longer - about ten minutes into the bubbling - 20-25 minutes total. The trick is to get the caramel and the cookie in the middle done, without turning the outer edges brittle. I cut these into teensy tiny pieces because they are so rich - and because I have a thing for small cookies - but you could cut these into any size once the pan comes out of the oven. Enjoy!