Saturday, September 25, 2010

Double your Pleasure: Bouchons and a BLT

Can Thomas Keller be improved upon? No, of course not!

But that didn’t stop me from trying…

While perusing the food section on the Atlantic’s website, I came across a recipe that called for using bacon fat to give a savory edge to chocolate cakelettes. The idea intrigued me. And ever since Beth at Belly Bulletin’s post on bouchons reminded me of their yumminess, I’d been meaning to make a batch. Thomas Keller includes a recipe for the delightful treat that’s the namesake of his chain of restaurants and bakeries, Bouchon, in his same-named cookbook. So, I decided to do a mashup of the bacon fat cakelette recipe and TK’s bouchons.

I know my Granny is rolling over in her grave, but I don’t usually keep the leftover fat when I fry bacon. Between the lingering smell and the unappetizing appearance of congealed pork fat, I can’t bring myself to do so. Granny, however, kept a special grease can in the cupboard and I can vividly remember her pouring off fresh fat into that can. Corn bread fried in bacon fat was one of her many specialties. Another of Granny's specialties was spaghetti and meatballs in a ketchup sauce that she always served with a jug of purple kool-aid chock full of orange slices. (That spaghetti tasted a lot better than it sounds.) 

Thus, the need for rendered bacon fat meant I would have to fry up some bacon. Since I was going to have cooked bacon as a by-product of my experiment, I decided on a BLT for lunch. (I don’t make a BLT often but I should- it’s a damn fine sandwich.) I consider the two-for-one generosity of this recipe to be one of its best qualities. Perhaps the best quality because I wasn’t really crazy about the finished product.  
Maybe it’s due to my professed distaste, but I thought the addition of bacon fat clouded the deliciously rich, chocolately goodness of the bouchons. As soon as I raised a bouchon to my lips to take a bite, the smell of bacon fat turned my stomach. However, the bacon fat did lend a smoky, unctuous quality to the bouchons so maybe it’s just me. You might enjoy them. 

I learned my lesson - you just don’t mess with perfection. I’m sticking with Mr. Keller’s unadulterated bouchon recipe from here on out. 
Bouchons with Bacon Fat
adapted from the bouchon recipe in Bouchon cookbook by Thomas Keller

If you’ve ever been intimidated by a TK recipe, his bouchon recipe is one to try. It’s simple, quick, and so rewarding. Basically, it’s a fancy brownie recipe. I adapted the butter quantity in TK’s recipe to allow the addition of bacon fat. Approximately 6 strips of bacon yielded the three tablespoons of fat called for. I also added some freshly ground pepper when prepping the dry ingredients.  TK’s recipe calls for 2 or 3-ounce Fleximolds, such as is used at Bouchon Bakery. A popover pan works just fine, as would a muffin or cupcake pan. I reduced all ingredient quantities a bit as I only wanted to make enough batter to fill my popover mold’s twelve 2” diameter cups. You’ll want to polish these bouchons off the day you make them because they tend to get dry and crumbly with age. (Don’t we all?)
1/2 c all-purpose flour + additional for flouring pan
2/3 c unsweetened cocoa powder
3/4 t kosher salt
A few twists of freshly ground pepper
2 large eggs
1 c plus 1 T granulated sugar
1/2 t pure vanilla extract
6 oz unsalted butter, melted and just slightly warm
2 T rendered bacon fat + additional 1 T for greasing pan
4 oz semisweet chocolate (I used a 64% Costa Rican chocolate), chopped into pieces the size of chocolate chips
Confectioner's sugar for dusting

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease and flour popover pan. Set aside.
2. Sift the flour, cocoa powder, freshly ground pepper, and salt into a bowl.
3. In the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix together the eggs and sugar on medium speed for about 3 minutes, until thickened and pale in color. Mix in the vanilla. On low speed, add about one-third of the dry ingredients, then one-third of the butter, and continue alternating with the remaining flour and butter. Add the chocolate and mix to combine. Batter can be refrigerated for up to a day.
4. Put the greased and floured popover pan on a baking sheet. Using two teaspoons, scoop enough batter into each individual popover mold to fill approximately two-thirds full. Place in the oven and bake for 20 to 25 minutes. When the tops look shiny and set (like a brownie), test with a toothpick. The toothpick should be clean but not dry; however, there may be some melted chocolate from the chopped chocolate.
5. Transfer the popover pan to a cooling rack. After a couple of minutes, invert the pan and let the bouchons cool upside down in the molds; then lift off the pan. Dust bouchons with confectioners' sugar to serve.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Baked Walnut and Cinnamon Doughnuts

I ran across a baked doughnut recipe in the July edition of Food & Wine Magazine that was adapted from Chef Robert Jörin, lead baking and pastry instructor at the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone Campus in Napa Valley. I had the pleasure of learning from Chef Jörin during a weeklong introductory baking course I took at Greystone back in 2008. The course is designed for those thinking about making the jump into baking and pastry school but who want to give it a trial run first. CIA will credit the tuition you pay for the introductory course to your first semester’s fees if you decide to enroll in their program. It was an excellent experience and the fact that I chose to go to Le Cordon Bleu in Paris for further instruction is no reflection on CIA.

I would have loved to drop everything and move to the California wine country to spend 30 weeks in CIA’s program but practical considerations pretty much negated the idea. I chose LCB for flexibility and expediency. LCB offered the convenience of completing courses over time as well as an accelerated session which made it possible for me to take time off from my job while still holding down a position that enabled me to pay for tuition. Although I still believe Sonoma County is heaven on earth, Paris wasn’t exactly a bad trade off.
But back to Chef Jörin-  the man is an excellent instructor and he has the patience of Job. My classmates and I were all novices and a bit timid but he kindly led us by the hand and showed us the ropes. The whole experience was just so pleasant - the school is housed in a gorgeous old winery, the vineyard views from the school windows are amazing, the pace of the class so laid back, and the chef so accommodating- it felt more like a vacation than school.
If you’ve read the early posts on my experience at LCB in Paris, you’re probably thinking I must be sorry I choose LCB over CIA. But I’m really not. While LCB was more of a trial by fire than a class, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. Working in a professional kitchen is hard, dirty, not so glamorous work and you’d better be prepared for such if you really want to work in the field. My husband had tried to tell me this before I left for LCB but hearing it is one thing and experiencing it is a whole other ball of wax.

LCB removed my blinders. And that’s a good thing- I realized that I’m not the type of person who would thrive in the pressure-cooker environment of a commercial kitchen and that perhaps the professional route isn’t the path for me. 

In addition to the personal satisfaction of making it through a difficult, yet exhilarating life experience, LCB taught me a lot about myself. I learned that there are other ways to enjoy a passion- for me, writing about my thoughts and taking photos to chronicle my baking pursuits is really rewarding. If I never work professionally in baking or pastry, I’m o.k. with that. I’m not ruling it out but I’m not particularly pursuing it either. My journey to LCB led me to start this blog - I probably would never have done so otherwise. Learning that I enjoy writing, by far, has been my favorite lesson.

Baked Walnut and Cinnamon Doughnuts

This recipe came from a Food & Wine Magazine feature, "The Year of the Pastry Chefs." I adapted the recipe that Christy Timon and Abram Faber adapted from Robert Jörin. The recipe as published called for dried currants and nutmeg but I was out of nutmeg and I don’t keep currants around the house. I think the walnuts, extra cinnamon, and clove I compensated with worked pretty well.

2/3 c roughly chopped walnuts
1 envelope active dry yeast
Granulated sugar, for dredging
3 c all-purpose flour
1/4 t clove
1 t cinnamon
3/4 c milk, warmed
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1 stick unsalted butter, softened, plus 4 T melted butter for sugar coat
2 t kosher salt

1.    Stir the yeast with 2 tablespoons of warm water and a pinch of sugar in a small bowl, and let stand until foamy, approximately 5 minutes.
2.    In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the dough hook, combine the flour, clove and cinnamon with 1/4 cup of sugar. Add the milk, egg, egg yolk and half of the softened butter; beat at low speed for 3 minutes. Beat in the yeast, then add the salt. Beat the dough on medium speed until smooth, about 8 minutes until the dough pulls cleanly away from the bowl.
3.    While the machine is on, add the remaining softened butter to the dough in teaspoons, beating at low speed between each addition until incorporated. Beat the walnuts into the dough on low speed. Transfer dough to a greased bowl, cover and let stand in a warm spot until doubled in bulk, approximately 1 hour. After the dough has doubled, punch  down, reform into a ball and return to the bowl. Cover and let stand another hour.
4.    Butter 2 large baking sheets or line with parchment or a silpat. Turn the dough out onto a work surface and cut into 12 equal pieces. Pinch each piece into a ball and arrange 6 balls on each of the prepared baking sheets, smooth sides up. Cover and let stand for 10 minutes. Press each ball into a flat 4-inch round. With a 1 1/4-inch round cutter, cut out the centers of each round and return the holes to the baking sheets. Cover loosely and let stand for 1 hour, until slightly risen.
5.    Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake the doughnuts and holes for 15 minutes, shifting the pans from top to bottom and front to back at the halfway point. If needed, continue to bake the doughnuts until done - they should be golden and puffy and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part should register 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
6.    Spread sugar in a shallow bowl. Brush the hot doughnuts and holes on both sides with the melted butter and dredge in sugar. Allow to cool slightly, then serve.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Watermelon Pâte aux Fruit and Melon Pops

There are two types of people in this world- those who salt their watermelon and those who don’t.

I was raised believing that salting watermelon complements the natural flavor. I’ve never challenged that belief and see no reason to. For me, salt and watermelon go together like peas and carrots. I just assumed that the rest of the world ate their watermelon salted as well so color me shocked when my own husband told me he thought salted watermelon was gross. Now, I tend to make allowances for his occasional strange behaviors because he had somewhat of a nomadic childhood, parts of which were spent outside of the South, so maybe he just didn’t learn the usual customs that I take as gospel. I laughed it off as another of his charming peccadilloes. Mostly, I felt sorry that no one introduced him to this delicacy as a child and that he would now, as an adult and of his own accord, pass up the opportunity to taste the divineness of a piece of freshly sliced, succulent, chilled watermelon with a light sprinkling of salt.

I had no idea salting watermelon was such a controversial subject until I Googled it and saw the back and forth on multiple forums. The Kitchn even did a readers poll on salting watermelon- yes's out ranked no's but almost as many people had never even heard of putting salt on watermelon. It’s saddens me that such deprivation exists in the world. A few survey respondents even relegated the idea that salt complements the flavor of watermelon to just another crazy Southern notion. Fortunately, other respondents came to the South’s defense to point out that salting many varieties of melon (or pairing with salty foods) is common practice in other countries and cultures, as well. After all, we have Italians to thank for introducing us to the delectable prosciutto and melon salad. After further research, I found that WikiAnswers confirmed that salt enhances the flavor of watermelon by opening up the taste buds to the sweetness of the fruit. 

As far as I’m concerned, the argument can be laid to rest - salted watermelon is best!

Watermelon Pâte aux Fruit and Melon Pops

Because I can never walk past a watermelon in high season without picking it up, and due to the fact that I’m the sole melon eater in our household, I tend to have an over abundance of the cloyingly juicy fruit around during the hot summer months. This year I decided to get creative and use up the melon remnants taking up precious real estate in the fridge so I made watermelon pâte aux fruit and melon pops (watermelon juice popsicles). The pâte aux fruit were a success, the melon pops, not so much. For the melon pops, my husband introduced me to the homemade way of making popsicles. As kids, when their parents refused to buy them popsicles at the grocery store, he and his brother got inventive and concocted homemade popsicles from Kool-aid. Small wonder both of them went to culinary school as adults. I describe his method below.

1. Extract the juice for both the pâte aux fruit and melon pops by cutting watermelon off the rind and pureeing it with the seeds. (I read that the seeds add an integral part of the desired flavor to watermelon juice and that it tends to taste too watery if the seeds are left out).
2. To make pâte aux fruit, see the recipe here and sub watermelon juice. I didn’t add salt to the watermelon juice I used for the pâte aux fruit, but when I dipped the jelly squares in sugar to coat, I added a bit of salt to the sugar.
3. For the pops, I recommend adding a simple sugar syrup to the fruit juice to help homogenize the liquid. The liquid in the pops I made with pure watermelon juice separated before freezing. To make a simple syrup, add a 1:1 ratio of sugar and water to a small sauce pan and bring to just a boil to combine. Allow to cool before using.
4. Add 2 parts lightly salted watermelon juice to one part simple syrup, stir to combine and pour into small disposable cups. Place the cups in a small baking dish and cover with plastic wrap. (The plastic stabilizes the sticks so that they remain upright in the pop when freezing.) Use a sharp knife tip to poke small holes in the plastic wrap and insert whatever is to be used as the popsicle stick. I used wooden coffee stirrers I cut to shorten the length. Wooden tongue depressors would work well also.
5. Place the baking pan in freezer to allow the pops to set up.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Best Laid Plans: Lemon Cream Cake

There’s a reason that mis en place is one of the first techniques taught in pastry school. It only makes sense that you should have all ingredients measured and at the ready before starting. I know this well, but sometimes...

When making lavender macarons for an Austin food blogger potluck brunch, after discarding the rejects, I realized I only had a couple dozen cookies to bring. So I decided to make a lemon cake as well. Unfortunately, this decision was made at the end of a long, trying day of macaron making when I wasn’t in the best frame of mind.

We had dinner plans that evening and I needed to clean up and get ready, but instead I started prepping. I figured I could whip up the cake batter, bake the layers, set them out to cool while at dinner, and then ice and finish the cake when I returned home. I hurriedly grabbed ingredients, started combining and mixing, poured the batter into cake pans, and rammed the pans into the oven. Voila! I was running out of the kitchen to take a shower while the layers baked when out of the corner of my eye, I spied the eggs that should have been mixed into the cake batter. Apparently, I neglected to bring them over to the work area where I mixed up the cake. Somehow, I failed to notice my omission when running through the recipe steps at breakneck speed. Damn it!

I pulled the cake pans full of eggless batter from the oven and exacted the small comfort of slamming them into the kitchen sink. Then, I poured a glass of wine went up to take a shower. The wine and hot, soothing water calmed my nerves and I recovered enough to concoct Plan B. Plan B involved picking up another pint of sour cream on the way home from dinner and getting up early the next morning to re-bake the cake before taking off for the brunch. This seemed like a perfectly fine backup plan to me so I went on to dinner and thoroughly relaxed and enjoyed myself.
The next morning, I started prepping to make the cake again and realized I should have picked up more confectioner sugar for the cake icing on my grocery run the previous night. (This is an ongoing saga in my baking trials and tribulations- I never seem to be able to compile a complete grocery list. There is always one key ingredient that I forgot to pick up.) Eric had forewarned me that waiting until the last minute wasn’t a good idea and he knows I’m not a morning person. After pointing out that he was right, he offered to help out in any way needed. So I switched to Plan C, wherein I had him make a lemon curd to spread between the cake layers since the lack of confectioner sugar meant I didn’t have nearly enough icing.

He went to work on the curd and things seemed to be back on track. Then lo and behold, Eric proposes Plan D. (This from a man who trumpeted that he never has to resort to Plan B because he’s always prepared and on his A game.) Plan D was an experiment that was either going to work perfectly and save the day or fail miserably and potentially involve chucking the cake. After reiterating the risk to me and putting the decision in my hands, he explained that Plan D was to combine what little icing I had with the lemon curd he made and whip them together to create some semblance of a buttercream so that there was enough icing to cover the cake. At this point, I figured what the hell.
For a minute there, we actually thought our crazy plan might work. The curd and icing came together in the mixer and thickened up enough to be of spreadable consistency. We congratulated ourselves on our ingenuity and started to ice the cake. Unfortunately, before the job was even finished, the icing took on a sickening sheen that foretold it was only a matter of minutes before it totally melted and started running. So we stuck the whole cake, stand and all, in the freezer to cool it off a bit. Presumably, the icing would set up if chilled thoroughly.  Only we didn’t have much time. We were already running late and had to leave in 5 minutes or risk missing the small window of hostess politesse for guests who are tardy.

Fortunately, Eric had the presence of mind to remember that it was August in Austin and we had to transport the cake in a vehicle that, even this early in the day, would already have heated up to an uncomfortable temperature. No problem- we just turned on the car and blasted the A/C while we were getting dressed. We threw on clothes and were finally on our way, a little late, but still fashionably so; me, with the cake perched precariously on my lap, desperately trying to keep it from sliding around in the carrier. I swear that was the longest car ride of my life.

By the time we got to the brunch, I was worn out and ready to go back to bed. However, the sight of a gorgeous spread of food quickly perked me back up. Conveniently, there was an empty spot on the counter to place my cake, directly adjacent to bloody mary mix and a tall bottle of vodka. We took it as a sign and Eric poured us drinks while I unloaded the cake. Drink in hand, I dove into the food. By the time I had polished off a piece of delicious pizza hot from a mobile wood-fired pizza oven that Christian from Bola Pizza had brought over, that wreck of a cake had completely left my mind. When I checked back on it later, I had to laugh as the melting icing running down the sides and pooling at the base gave the cake a kind of Dalí quality, à la The Persistence of Memory.

          * note tell-tale sheen, a few minutes before total meltdown

We had a great time at the brunch and when we returned home a few hours later, instead of tackling the colossal mess we had left in the kitchen, we took a nap and relaxed for the rest of the day. Good food and great company are amazing stress relievers!

Lemon Cream Cake
adapted from attributed to Ruth Ann Stelfox 

This cake is pretty tasty so I decided to re-make it to redeem myself for the massive flop described above. Note that the batter will be very thick so don’t be tempted to only make two layers or the cake will be dense. The icing tends to set up so work quickly. If needed, you can add a little more milk to the icing to thin it. I think next time I’ll add some lemon juice and zest to a cream cheese icing - easier to spread and even more delicious!

1 c butter, softened
2 c sugar
3 eggs
2 t grated lemon peel
1 t vanilla extract
3 1/2 c all-purpose flour
1 t baking soda
1/2 t baking powder
1/2 t salt
2 c sour cream

1 stick + 1 T butter, softened
6 3/4 c confectioners' sugar
6 T lemon juice
2 1/4 t vanilla extract
1 t grated lemon peel
3 T milk

candied lemon zest, for topping

1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line three 9” cake pans with parchment paper and butter and flour the sides of the pans and parchment.
2. To make the cake, in a mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar and then beat in the eggs, one at a time. Add lemon peel and vanilla and mix well.
2. Combine the dry ingredients. Add dry ingredients to the creamed mixture alternating with sour cream.
3. Pour batter into cake pans and bake in the middle rack of the oven for 25-30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool in the pans for 10 minutes and then remove to wire racks.
4. If topping with candied lemon zest, in a small pan, add lemon zest to a simple syrup (1 part water:1part sugar) and boil for 1-2 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove the zest from the syrup and place in a small bowl of sugar to coat. Set bowl aside to allow the zest to dry.
5. To make the frosting, cream butter and sugar in a small mixing bowl. Add lemon juice, vanilla, lemon peel and milk and beat until smooth.
6. When layers have completely cooled, ice the cake. Sprinkle with candied lemon zest.