Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Kicking it with Caramel: Lavender Fleur de Sel Caramels

I was talking to a neighbor (and fellow baker) recently who was telling me she had been on a candy making kick lately. I nodded knowingly as I’ve been on that “kick” before myself. I’ve long been smitten with Michael Recchiuti’s Chocolate Obsession cookbook and break it out from time to time to try another of his delicious recipes for chocolate truffles, caramels, and other indulgent treats. His recipe for Fleur de Sel Caramels was the first iteration of sea salted caramels I ever made. I highly recommend trying his recipe, or even better, if you’re in San Francisco, look up his store at the Ferry Building Marketplace.

Around the time that I first fell in love with Mr. Recchiuti’s cookbook, I was shopping in Cissi’s Market and happened upon a local chocolate maker, Fat Turkey Chocolate Company, offering tastings of their handmade chocolates. I tried the Lavender Caramel with Black Sea Salt from the Dolce de Leche Collection. It was so good I couldn’t get it out of my mind. So I looked up Fat Turkey’s website to check out all of their chocolate offerings and was excited to see all of the amazing and varied flavors. Before I could help myself, I had clicked on the Contact page of the website and sent an email praising their scrumptious chocolates and asking if they ever accepted volunteer labor.
Happily, Jennifer emailed back shortly and graciously offered to let me come and work with her and her husband, Steve, for an afternoon. Flattery will get you everywhere! On the appointed date, I donned an apron and joined them to make varied caramel fillings and learn to dip and coat truffle shells. Steve offered good advice on making caramels and Jennifer counseled me on tempering chocolate. Plus, I got to sample plenty of chocolates and made a new favorite- the lemon basil caramel is amazing! When I left I was covered in chocolate and a little queasy from all the sugar I had ingested, but I had a blast and was sent home with a goodie bag of chocolate pools and barks. I wish all work days were so productive and rewarding!
Inspired by Fat Turkey’s Lavender Caramel, I decided to attempt a home version. I found a recipe on Desserts Magazine and the result was delicious. When the candy conversation with my neighbor reminded me what a treat these caramels are, I decided to make another batch. I’ve coated these caramels in chocolate in the past but they are just as yummy naked. Either way, I guarantee you won’t be able to eat just one! 

Lavender Fleur de Sel Caramels
Dessert Magazine
*I deviated from the original recipe a bit and increased the amount of cream and lavender

1 1/2 c heavy cream
3 t lavender buds
2 c sugar
1/2 c light corn syrup
1/3 c honey
6 T unsalted butter, cubed
1 t vanilla extract
1 t + 2 t fleur de sel
vegetable oil

1. Line an 8 x 8 inch baking pan with parchment paper, crisscrossed and extending over the sides of the pan. Grease the parchment lightly with vegetable oil.
2. In a heavy 4 quart sauce pan, bring the cream, lavender, and 1 t fleur de sel to a boil.
3. Add the sugar, corn syrup, and honey and stir constantly with a wooden spoon until the mixture comes to a boil. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture reaches 257 degrees Fahrenheit on a candy thermometer, approximately 15 to 20 minutes.
4. Remove the sauce pan from heat and carefully stir in the butter, vanilla, and remaining 2 t of salt. Pour into prepared baking pan and let cool. Sprinkle additional fleur de sel on top of cooled caramel.
5. When completely cool, invert the caramel onto a cutting board and peel off the parchment paper. Coat a chef's knife lightly with vegetable oil and cut the caramel into eight 1-inch wide strips; then cut each strip into 1/2 inch pieces. 

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Gateway Effect: Meyer Lemon Cake

I've been combing through old recipes lately and found one that made me realize that my baking obsession has been going full-tilt for over three years now. While I had always made homemade treats for holidays or special occasions, my baking habit was not the the fever pitched frenzy that it has turned into at this point. At Christmas, I would pull out tried and tested recipes to make Jan’s biscotti or a classic gingerbread recipe from my mom’s old copy of a Southern Living cookbook. Back then I never felt strange pangs in the market when I saw the perfect ingredient, spent (too many) hours reading food blogs and researching recipes, or remade and reworked recipes to the point of making myself (and others) thoroughly sick of the offending baked good. 

My descent into baking battiness began with a particular recipe that I spied in Domino Magazine way back in the January 2007 issue. I had always been a shelter magazine junky and would peruse the recipes in the more staid glossies, but the chefs’ creations in those magazines were way too intimidating to me. Domino made their recipes look so much easier and more accessible. When I saw their Meyer lemon cake recipe, it caught my eye and I decided to give it a go.

Let me just say up front that my first foray into untested recipe territory was not a resounding success. I managed to assemble the ingredients into a semblance of the tempting picture in the magazine, but the cake’s consistency was way too dense. I literally felt like I was picking up a brick when I moved the cake from the cooling rack to a plate. If memory and a little more experience serve me correctly, I’d say the brick-like consistency was due to my not knowing how to make a meringue properly and pouring the entire 2 cups of glaze on the cake while still hot from the oven (the cake soaked it up like a sponge). But something magical happened after I applied the candied lemon peel topping and stepped back to appraise my work... the cake actually looked almost cute enough that I could ignore it’s heft (and the fact that it had fallen as flat as a pancake). I began to re-evaluate my effort and started feeling much better about the result in light of its more attractive appearance.

Such is a recurring theme in my life; I’ll often set aside practicality and function in favor of “cute factor”. This explains half the shoes in my closet and a couch that I curse every night when I sit on it. An old, dear friend (Ms. Crawford, I am calling you out on the interweb! I miss you!) and I used to have a saying between us when the going got rough. If one of us were complaining about some perceived slight or everything going to hell in a hand basket, the other would interrupt and remind the complainer, “But you look good!” It was our amalgamation on “showing up is half the battle” and “looking good is the best revenge.

Sometimes you don’t hit it out of the park on your first attempt but there is some small, redeeming quality that makes you want to keep at it. And I’m still at it 3+ years later, so I decided to revisit the Meyer lemon cake recipe to see if I could improve on my original attempt. My second attempt was still a little on the dense side, even though I now know what soft versus stiff peaks are (I so had no idea the first time) and waited until the cake was thoroughly cool before spooning on the glaze. I don’t think this recipe is ever going to make my “greatest hits list.” In fact, I have another lemon cake recipe that I much prefer but I couldn’t resist giving this one another try. After all, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post today if this cake hadn’t started the addiction.  

Meyer Lemon Cake – makes one 9-inch cake
from Domino Magazine
I didn’t change any of the recipe’s ingredients but I did rearrange the instructions a bit. I was so uptight about following every step exactly as listed when I first started baking, I would have been halfway through the recipe before I got to the step on buttering and flouring the cake pan per the original instructions. I spent considerable time and money in pastry school to learn to always read the recipe twice before starting. That, and stopping mid-production to complete a step that should have been done when setting up the mise en place isn’t an efficient use of time. When I re-reviewed the recipe, I noticed other steps that were combined or ordered in a manner that I wouldn’t have found helpful as a novice baker. I hope some other newbie baker will benefit from my tweaks.  

8 T unsalted butter
4 large eggs, separated
1 1/4 c sugar
2/3 c buttermilk
1/3 c Meyer lemon juice
1 T Meyer lemon zest
2 c cake flour
1-1/4 t baking powder
1/4 t salt

1/3 c Meyer lemon juice
1 2/3 c confectioners' sugar

Candied Meyer lemon slices:
2 Meyer lemons
2 c sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 325° F. Butter and sugar or flour a 9-inch cake pan or Bundt pan.
2.  Melt butter in saucepan. Set aside to cool.
3. In a large bowl, sift together cake flour, baking powder and salt.
4. In a mixing bowl, using an electric mixer, beat egg yolks with 1 cup of the sugar until thick and light in color, about 2 to 3 minutes. Beat in buttermilk, Meyer lemon juice, and zest.
5. In a separate bowl, beat egg whites with an electric mixer until they hold soft peaks. Then add the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar and continue beating until stiff peaks form.
6. Gently, so you don't deflate the batter, fold half of the flour mixture into egg-yolk mixture, followed by half of the egg white mixture. Repeat with remaining flour and egg white mixtures. Stir approximately 1 cup of the batter into the melted butter. Gently fold butter mixture into the rest of the cake batter. Pour into cake pan and bake for about 50 to 60 minutes or until cake is lightly brown and pulling slightly away from the edge of the pan.
7. While the cake is baking, make the glaze and candied Meyer lemon slices. For the glaze, combine Meyer lemon juice and confectioners' sugar in a saucepan. Heat, stirring occasionally, until sugar is dissolved. Set aside. For the candied slices, cut Meyer lemons width wise, in 1/4 inch slices, and discard end pieces. Remove seeds. In a saucepan, combine 2 cups of water with 2 cups of sugar. Bring to a gentle boil and simmer five minutes. Add lemon slices and simmer about five more minutes, until fruit is soft but not falling apart. With a slotted spoon, remove slices and place on waxed or parchment paper.
8. When the cake is done, cool in the pan for 5 minutes, and then invert onto a cooling rack. With a long toothpick, poke the top of the cake to make about two dozen small deep holes. Slowly spoon the warm glaze over the cake, allowing the glaze to sink in before adding more. Poke extra holes if needed, eventually using all of the glaze. Arrange the candied lemon slices in a random pattern on top. Cool the cake completely and serve.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Pie for a Potluck: Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie

I am so kicking myself for not joining the Austin Food Blogger’s group sooner!

Last month Vanessa (my fellow Austin compatriot from Le Cordon Bleu) and I went to the Austin 360 Food Blogger Bash held during SXSWi. We met a couple of lovely ladies, Beth at Belly Bulletin and Birgis at Hot Sweet Spicy Recipes, and had a great time. When Addie Broyles, group organizer and food writer at the Austin American-Statesman, sent out an invite to a potluck picnic, I knew I wanted to meet more of the Austin food blogger community.
To contribute to the potluck, I enlisted Le Chef (Eric, my husband and favorite chef) to cook up some barbeque and I baked a strawberry-rhubarb pie.  Due to a snafu with importing the invite into a calendar app, we almost didn’t make it in time. We showed up two hours late but still got to enjoy some yummy food and great company. I was so busy stuffing my face with food I forgot to take pictures, but fortunately the event was well documented by the other bloggers. Check out pics here and here of the delicious food we enjoyed!
All of the bloggers Eric and I met were sweet, friendly people who are amazing cooks and bakers. In fact, I’ve spent the last few days compulsively reading group members’ blog posts and ogling photos. I now have a great reference for Austin restaurant reviews from Michelle at Foodie is the New Forty. I am totally enchanted with Kathy Phantastic’s adorably cute cake pops and amazing styling abilities, and Aimee’s photos have inspired me to keep snapping pics in hopes of one day capturing an image as beautiful as hers. (I ran the pics I posted here through the CameraBag instant photo filter app to disguise the fact that I need to work on lighting - and should probably invest in an actual camera and stop relying on my iPhone!)

I’m looking forward to the next food blogger group event and am rapidly filling my bookmarks bar (and spare time) with new blogs to read from these very talented folks!
Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie

This was my second attempt at an old Epicurious recipe I had tucked away. My first attempt was too soupy and tasted like a syrupy (canned) cherry pie – not exactly what I was going for. So I started researching rhubarb recipes and hit pay dirt on David Lebovitz’s site. His suggestions on making a rhubarb-strawberry compote using raw sugar and adding orange peel sounded terrific. Eric suggested adding cardamom to complement the orange flavor. After tweaking the Epicurious pie filling recipe a bit to incorporate these additions, I was definitely more pleased with the results. Also, I ditched the shortening-laden pie crust recipe from Epicurious and used the flakey tart dough recipe from Tartine’s cookbook.

Dough- makes two 9-inch pie shells
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup water, very cold
3 cups + 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup + 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, very cold

1 orange, zest and juice
1 cinnamon stick
5-6 cardamom seeds 

3 1/2 cup 1/2 inch thick slices of trimmed rhubarb (1 1/2 pounds untrimmed)
1 16 ounce container strawberries, hulled, halved (about 3 1/2 cup)
1 cup raw turbinado sugar
1/2 cup cornstarch
1/4 teaspoons salt

1 large egg yolk beaten and blended with 1 teaspoon milk (for glaze)

1. To make the pie dough, in a measuring cup, stir the salt into the cold water until dissolved. Place the measuring cup in the refrigerator to keep the water cold until ready to use. Add the flour to a large mixing bowl. Cut the butter into small pieces and scatter over the flour. Use a pastry blender to cut the butter into the flour until large crumbs form. There should still be pea-sized pieces of butter visible in the mixture. 
2. Gradually stir the salty water into the flour mixture with a fork until the dough begins to come together. The dough will look shaggy. Using your hands, work quickly to bring the dough together into a rough ball. Again, you'll still see some butter chunks. Lightly flour a work surface and turn the dough out on the surface. Divide the dough into two equal pieces and shape each each piece into a one inch thick disc. Wrap each disk in plastic and chill in the refrigerator for at least two hours.
3. B
utter a nine inch pie pan and set aside. When fully chilled, roll one disk of dough out on a lightly floured surface to a 13 inch round of about 1/8 inch thickness. Lift and rotate the dough as you roll to prevent it from sticking, working quickly so it remains cold. Wrap the dough over the rolling pin to transfer it to the pie pan, roll out over the pan, and then lift and press gently into the sides and bottom of the pan. Trim the dough with a sharp knife, allowing a 3/4 inch overhang. Prick the bottom of the dough lightly with a knife and place back into the refrigerator to keep cool while making the filling. 
4. Preheat oven to 400° Fahrenheit. In a small pot or pan, over medium-low heat, reduce orange juice slightly with cinnamon stick and cardamom seeds to infuse flavors. Strain and reserve juice.
5. Combine the remaining filling ingredients and reserved juice in large bowl. Toss gently to blend.
6. Roll out second dough disk on lightly floured surface to 13-inch round. Cut dough into fourteen 1/2 inch wide strips. Spoon filling into crust. Arrange half of the dough strips, spaced evenly, over the filling. To form a lattice, place the rest of the dough strips in the opposite direction over the filling. Cut the ends of the lattice strips even with the overhang of the bottom crust. Fold the bottom dough overhang over the strip ends and press to seal. Use your thumb to crimp the pie edges for a decorative look.
7. Mix the egg glaze in a small bowl and brush over the top of the pie crust. Place the pie pan on a baking sheet and transfer to oven.  Bake 20 minutes on a rack placed in the lower third of the oven, then reduce oven temperature to 350° Fahrenheit. Continue to bake until the crust is golden and the filling has thickened- it may take about an hour and a half to fully bake but begin checking early at the one hour mark. When done, place the pie on a rack to cool.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Chocolaty-Chili-Nibby Chip Cookies

Chocolate chip cookies are kind of like the burrito of cookies- you can throw in everything but the kitchen sink and still call it a chocolate chip cookie. I really like this cocoa nib-chocolate chip cookie from Food and Wine that calls for cocoa nib chocolate bars in lieu of chocolate chips.  I use Dagoba Xocolatl 74% dark chocolate bars because I like the hint of chili it adds to the cookies. In fact, these cookies taste best the next day when the chili flavor settles in. Purists, like a certain chef I live with, may not really consider this a chocolate chip cookie- they're crispy like a sugar cookie and the dark chocolate and chili combo gives them a more savory than sweet taste. (My favorite purist seems to have put his objections aside as I just caught him nibbling on a cookie.) 

3 Dagoba Xocolatl chocolate bars  (6 ounces total)
2 1/2 c all purpose flour
1/2 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
2 sticks (1/2 lb) unsalted butter, softened
1 1/4 c sugar
1 large egg* + 1 egg yolk
1 t vanilla

* The original recipe calls for two egg yolks. I use King Arthur AP flour and found the dough to be too dry initially so I add a whole egg and one yolk.


  1. Finely chop chocolate bars. In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking soda and salt. In a standing electric mixer fitted with a paddle, or using a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter with the sugar at medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in the egg, yolk, and vanilla, scraping the side and bottom of the bowl. Beat in the dry ingredients at medium-low speed, then fold in the chopped chocolate. Divide the dough in half. Pat each half into a round, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 1 hour.
  2. Preheat the oven to 350°. Position the racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven. On a lightly floured surface, roll out each piece of dough 1/8-inch thick. Using a 2-inch biscuit cutter, stamp out rounds as close together as possible. Arrange the rounds on large baking sheets, about 1 inch apart. Gather the scraps and re-roll, cutting out more cookies.
  3. Bake the cookies in batches for about 12-15 minutes, until the edges are golden; shift the pans from top to bottom and front to back halfway through baking. Let the cookies cool on the sheets for 5 minutes, then transfer to racks to cool completely. 

Thursday, April 1, 2010

A Slip of the Tongue: More Macarons

So I've told this story a few times now hopefully I’ll get tired of it soon, but right now it still tickles me. 

When I was writing the macarons versus macaroons post a few weeks back, I decided to do some “research” on locally available macarons. I stopped in at a new, hip little bakery known for its French confections. I checked out the selection in the case but couldn’t ascertain the flavors since there weren’t any labels. There was a young girl working behind the counter so I asked for her help. She sweetly told me the three “macaroon” offerings that day were vanilla, pistachio, and cocoa. By now I don’t even bat an eye over people calling them macaroons. Potato, potatoe, whatever... I’m not one to get picky about terminology when there are delicious confections waiting to be eaten. She helpfully added that the cocoa version had a “chocolate grenache filling." Sounded good to me! Being accustomed to the variety and diversity of Parisian macaron flavors, I assumed the bakery had added grenache (a grape often found in Spanish red wines) to a chocolate buttercream to come up with a unique flavor combination. I requested one of each flavor, paid the ridiculous $2 (and some change) price per macaron, and I was on my way.

Later, I excitedly unwrapped my purchases and made a beeline for the cocoa macaron with the “chocolate grenache filling." After a couple of bites, I still didn’t taste any grenache in the chocolate. I was puzzled for a few moments until I realized the macaron was sandwiched with a chocolate ganache not chocolate grenache! The girl in the bakery was trying to help but she totally missed the mark. I giggled a little over how the omission or addition of a letter or two can totally change one's meaning. It reminded me of the Washington Post’s Style Invitational asking readers to take a word from the dictionary and submit a new definition based on the addition/deletion of a single letter. My favorite of past winning submissions is sarchasm: the gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the recipient who doesn't get it.

After having a laugh and finishing off the rest of the macarons, I realized I was a little disappointed with the pedestrian look and taste of the bakery’s cookies. So I decided to make a batch myself...

While I wasn’t really bowled over by the entire product, the caramel fleur de sel filling in the vanilla version of the bakery’s macarons did pique my interest so I researched caramel fleur de sel recipes to pair with the CIA recipe that I always use as a base for any macaron iteration I bake. I decided to go with the traditional almond version instead of my preferred hazelnut version as I didn't want the hazelnut flavor to compete with the caramel. As for the caramel, several baker's blogs referenced using a caramel fleur de sel recipe developed by Chef Pang Kok Keong, the pastry chef of Canele, a well regarded pastry shop in Singapore. I used an adapted version of Chef Pang's recipe from Veronica's Test Kitchen. The end product was quite tasty.

One a related note, I'd been meaning to check out iPhone camera filter apps for a while now. When no less an authority than Dooce touted the merits of a couple of apps, I was spurred to action. And now I'm in love! Here's a blow-by-blow pictorial of the macaron process in easter egg-hued images taken with Hipstamatic.  


                                    Shells drying
vanilla and sea salt for caramel