Wednesday, August 29, 2007

More Daring Baker Derring-Do - the Milk Chocolate Caramel Tart Edition

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One of the things that I have loved most about joining the Daring Bakers is that it has given me a fantastic excuse (and the motivation) to buy fun baking supplies that I've been wanting and/or needing for a long time. This month, given the challenge of a Chocolate Caramel Tart - I had a ready excuse to duck into Williams Sonoma and purchase some fluted tart pans and a jar of ceramic pie weights. Pies and tarts are not something I make often. Actually, never is more like it - but that's mostly because I don't have much experience. That's what puts the "Daring" in Daring Bakers though -making something you might not otherwise. Now that I have the supplies - you just might see more tarts coming this way.

This particular tart is a three layer confection, with a shortbread crust, a layer of caramel, and a top layer of milk chocolate mousse. The recipe, from Eric Kayser's "Sweet and Savory Tarts," is very bare bones, and requires a little creativity and improvisation in order to make it work - at least it did in my case. Given that our hostesses acknowledged the need to "read between the lines" hopefully my few little liberties won't be construed as disobedience.
chocolate caramel tart 007
First off, we were allowed to modify the crust by leaving out the cinnamon - I used less (a lot less) in order to just give it a little flavor, since many said it was overpowering. I also went ahead and used ground almonds instead of hazelnuts, A) because I had them on hand and did not have any hazelnuts, and B) because I was fairly sure the almonds would compliment the cinnamon better than hazelnuts. The almonds seemed to work well, though they didn't provide much flavor. I think a little extract - either vanilla or almond - would have helped here, along with a dash of salt and possibly a little more sugar.

I did the whole thing in one marathon session - so instead of chilling the crust overnight as the recipe suggested - I divided it and flattened each piece into a disk - then threw them in the fridge for an hour or so. They were both plenty chilled for rolling at that point, so I rolled them out and lined the pans and then put them in the freezer to chill thoroughly before baking. I did the bottoms only, since I had heard that the crust tends to puff. I lined the crusts with foil and my brand new pie weights and baked for 15 minutes as suggested. I thought the crust was a bit dry and crumbly, and probably not as sweet as it could have been - but this may have been intentional, since the top two layers are so intensely sweet and rich.

When I heated the sugar for the caramel, I couldn't resist the temptation to stir it up a bit as it started to melt. Unfortunately, even after adding the cream and butter, I still had some clumps - but I strained the mixture into the beaten eggs and flour - leaving the remaining pieces behind. The recipe didn't specify to temper the eggs into the caramel, but I did it anyway. Here it is ready to pour into the shell.
chocolate caramel tart 009
I baked the caramel until it set - which took a few minutes longer than the 15 minutes specified. It looked a little strange at first, but it set up nicely when it was cooled. I used about 1/3 creme fraiche and the rest cream. The caramel had really good flavor - it was probably my favorite part of the recipe.
chocolate caramel tart 010
I was worried about using milk chocolate for the mousse - but I discovered that there is a huge difference in flavor between the different brands. Scharffenberger's 41% Milk Chocolate is far and away better than the other brands, including Valrhona, even though their cocoa contents are very similar. I wound up using a little less cream than called for because I ran out after making the caramel - but I still had plenty of mousse for my two tarts.

Milk chocolate is more fragile than dark, so I melted it over the double boiler and allowed it to cool before folding in the very thoroughly chilled whipped cream. I also cheated a bit here, and added some bloomed and melted gelatin (one envelope or 2.5 tsp) so that the mousse would hold up a bit better, since it's been incredibly hot here lately. It worked really well - at room temperature the mousse had just the right texture but didn't melt. The tart shell also came right off the chilled filling - since it's a bit flexible I just sort of pulled it back. I didn't do the dry caramel decorations. I had already stayed up till 2 AM to finish this project, and simply didn't have the energy for more molten sugar. I sprinkled the tart wth a few toasted almond slivers and called it a day. The smaller oblong one was a huge hit at work yesterday, and I'm going to freeze the square one and serve it at a party in a couple of weeks - I may do the caramel decorations then, if I have time.

If you're interested in giving it a try, check Veronica's or Patricia's blogs for the recipe, and be sure to check out the creations of the other Daring Bakers!


Monday, August 27, 2007

Pizzas, People and Places to See - San Francisco - August.07, Chapter I

Whew, I'm back!

Sorry, I didn't expect to be gone so long. This past week was a busy one. It's probably going to seem a little anticlimactic now after the wait, but I'll do the best I can.

My trip to San Francisco last week did not get off to a good start, to say the least. I just missed my outbound flight because the check-in line was twenty minutes and the security line was another twenty. Ok, that and I left fifteen minutes later than I had planned. But still - it was ridiculous. I waited two hours for the next flight, only to discover later that I had somehow left my plastic baggie with about $100.00 worth of makeup in it at the security checkpoint - since I was running to catch the plane of course. Grrrrrrr...

The only saving grace of the whole experience was that I picked up a copy of Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle at the airport to read while I waited. The book, written by a gossip columnist for MSNBC, tells the story of her experience growing up with horrendously irresponsible parents. And that's an understatement. Her father was an inveterate alcoholic dreamer, (the Glass Castle was the home he fantasized about building for the family) and her mother was an artist who viewed homelessness as an "adventure." It was a perfect airport read - sad but also funny and utterly engrossing. I was three quarters of the way through it by the time I got off the plane in Oakland.
College Avenue
At that point, I rounded up my luggage, collected my rental car and headed straight for Oliveto Cafe in Rockridge - a lovely little neighborhood on the border between Oakland and Berkeley. Driving down tree-lined College Avenue I remembered my desperate apartment search in that area several years ago. Literally 100 people would show up for a ten minute showing of an apartment, and first, last and deposit were due up front - a minimum $2400.00 investment. I probably should have just bitten the bullet and taken a room in a house with some roommates. Hindsight and all, ya know.
What a cool sign
It was after 2 PM when I snagged a parking spot on College, just past the Bart station, and headed into the restaurant. Just a few tables were occupied, and it was tranquil and welcoming, with a lazy afternoon vibe. The short menu warned that each dish was only on offer "while available." Only one out of the four sandwiches on the menu was still available, but I didn't care. I had already decided to order a pizza from their woodburning oven. I chose a small one with Pancetta and Italian Frying Peppers - described as similar to a green pepper with a bite - and a green salad to round it out.
Mmm..... Pizza with Pancetta and Peppers
When the food arrived, my day improved immediately. The pizza was perfect, with a paper thin crust, light smear of sauce and thin layer of melting cheese. It was speckled with the peppers (which tasted like un-pickled pepperoncinis), draped with thin slices of the pancetta and showered with thin shavings of Parmesan. The salad was also gorgeous with perfect Lolla Rossa and green lettuces, dressed in a shallot vinaigrette. If only every simple meal could be so good.
Gorgeous Lettuces
I savored every bite, paid the bill, and headed over to La Farine Bakery - further down on College toward Berkeley, for what I remembered as the best Chocolate Chip cookies around. I was pretty full by that time, but I picked up half a dozen cookies to go, mostly to share with Tommy as a host gift. (Nobody likes chocolate chip cookies better than Tommy - except maybe me.) They were ok, but not as good as I remembered. I'm not sure if it was just an iffy batch, a "rose coloured glasses" type memory, or if I have simply learned to make better cookies in the meantime.
La Farine
I had hoped to swing by and see Shuna at the Berkeley Farmers Market that afternoon, but alas the delays did not allow for that. If I wanted to get to the City in time to shower and change before meeting friends for drinks and dinner, I'd have to skedaddle over there, and so I did.
Champagne at Cafe Bastille
The main reason for my visit on this particular weekend was that my good friend Tracy was in town for a conference. She came to meet me at Cafe Bastille, where we also met up with some other friends - Tommy, Janine and Gregg and their gorgeous baby boy Felix, and fellow food bloggers Amy and Sam. After a few glasses of champagne, some frites and some good conversation - four of us - Sam, myself, Tommy and Tracy, headed up the street to Bar Crudo for dinner.

To be continued...

Monday, August 20, 2007

Places to Go, People to See

SF 8.16.07 001
I'm back from San Francisco - no time to write now, I'm already late for work, but here are the photos.

More juicy details to come!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

San Francisco Again

Ferry Building
I'm headed back up to The City this weekend, and I am just so excited. This time - unlike the last visit - the trip is purely for pleasure. I have no excuses for not hitting all of the spots on my list, other than time - I'm only there for three nights. I'm also really excited to see my good friend Tracy, who will be in town from the East Coast. It will be our first reunion since she moved! Here is my intended itinerary:
  1. Arrive at Oakland Airport - pick up rental car and drive to Rockridge - have a solo lunch at the Cafe downstairs at Oliveto.
  2. Go to the Markethall , La Farine and window shop on College Ave.
  3. If the timing works out, go visit Shuna at the Berkeley Farmers Market and buy some Amazing Peaches.
  4. Cross the bridge and head to Tommy's
  5. Meet up with Sam, Amy and a few other friends for a glass of champagne at Bastille at 6:30 (Any other takers? Come one come all!)
  6. Head up the hill for a sushi dinner at Bar Crudo
  7. Friday - meet Joy for lunch at Pizzeria Delfina - with Bi Rite Creamery to follow. Mmmmm....
  8. Friday afternoon - unscheduled time - Ferry Building perhaps??
  9. Friday night - dinner at Boulevard with Tommy and Tracy (my favorite restaurant and two of my favorite people - what could be better?)
  10. Saturday is unscheduled. Maybe the Farmers Market (depending on how many Boulevard Pink Limonades I drink the night before) Maybe flipping through records and concert posters at Amoeba in the Haight - maybe the De Young Museum - the Arboretum - Fillmore Street - Maybe a trip to Mill Valley to see some friends.
  11. Sunday - breakfast at Boulette's Larder or Cafe Fanny before heading to the airport at noon!

Don't worry Amy - I haven't forgotten you!!

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

I Heart Macarons

Opera Patisserie
I haven't had time to write much lately, but I thought this would be as good a time as any to tell you about my new venture - writing for the San Diego Eats It website. I've written four five recommendations thus far, you can find them here. Since I wrote the one for Opera Patisserie I've been in a few more times for lunch, and discovered that they have wonderful authentic croissants. (In case you're looking, another good place I've discovered downtown is the deli in the Westgate hotel.)

On one of our visits to Opera, my friend Jodi and I tried the grilled vegetable panini sandwich, and we were really impressed. A hot and toasty panini, filled with the perfect mix of thinly sliced vegetables and cheese. I'm a sucker for anything mini - so naturally I fell for these boxes of mini assorted pastries. I haven't seen them there lately - but I'm sure you could order one. Each and every item in there was delicious.
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Opera is the only place I know of in San Diego where you can get Parisian macarons. The chocolate is my favorite, filled with a dark rich ganache. It's the perfect after-lunch sweet with a cup of coffee.

Speaking of macarons, I noticed that Dorie Greenspan has a great post up right now about one of my favorite things in the whole wide world. If you've always wanted to be a pastry chef, make sure you check out the link to Fanny at Foodbeam (which might be my new favorite website) to get the inside story on making them at Pierre Herme. Her photos and descriptions of the individual macarons are almost as good as tasting them. I also loved Dorie's and David's posts about their day out together in the Marche d'Aligre.

Isn't the food blogging world just wonderful??

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to get one of those croissants!

Post Script - I forgot to mention that a new review of mine will be posted on San Diego Eats It every Sunday. Also, I had an almond croissant and a cup of Organic Caffe Calabria coffee at Opera this morning, and both were divine!

Friday, August 03, 2007

5 Years And Counting!

James and Alice
Today is our fifth wedding anniversary - my how the time has flown! I am a happy, lucky girl, thanks to my darling husband.

Do you know what he did today?

After securing my agreement that we wouldn't buy each other gifts, he went out and bought me a bottle of Dom Perignon (which I've never tasted before) and one of these. I did need a new phone, and a new iPod, so I guess it makes sense in a way, but still...

I probably should have known better since he's done this sort of thing before, but all I got him was a card.

I guess I'll just have to figure out a way to make it up to him!

Happy Anniversary Darling!