Thursday, May 27, 2010
As you can imagine, when the Daring Bakers saw that this month's challenge would be hosted by a baker who blogs about cupcakes, many of us were expecting this challenge to be, well, cupcake based. Imagine our surprise, then, when she announced that it would be a piece montée. What, you may as, is a piece montée? You may know it by it's other name, croquembouche. Or that might not help at all. The short version, then, is that we were challenged to make cream puffs. Not just to make them, though, but to then pile them into a lovely presentation, usually a pyramid of some sort, held together with either chocolate or caramel.
I had actually heard of croquembouche before, and am almost embarassed to admit where. It was mentioned on an episode of Desperate Housewives, where it was used as an example of a really hard, impressive recipe that the two (then) rival domestic goddesses were trying to use to prove their, well, domestic goddessness. So, despite the fact that I have actually made cream puffs of various sorts before, I was a little nervous.
The hardest part of this challenge for me, aside from getting over my own nerves, was figuring out just when to make it. It seemed like the kind of dessert that needed some kind of an occasion. As luck would have it, such an occasion arose last weekend, when a neighbor decided to host a dessert-only deck party to welcome the family who recently moved in next door to her. Now it was time to get to work.
There are three basic components to the croquembouche - the puffs, made from pate a choux, the cream, and either the chocolate or caramel "glue" to hold the finished piece together. I decided to tackle the pastry cream first, to allow it plenty of time to cool in the fridge while I worked on the other components.
We were given freedom to choose any flavor pastry cream we wanted. I considered several options, but decided on vanilla, since I was making this for a group of people, half of whom I had never met. To kick up the vanilla flavor, I added the seeds of a vanilla bean to the mix, and let the pod steep in the cream to infuse as much of the vanilla flavor as possible. The trickiest part of pastry cream is incorporating the eggs and cooking then completely without actually scrambling them or turning the cream into vanilla flavored breakfast. Consequently, I don't have many pictures of the process, but the cream came together and thickened beautifully.
Once the cream was safely cooling in the fridge, it was time to tackle the puffs themselves. Pate a choux is interesting dough to make, as it is cooked before it is baked. Confused? So was I the first time I made it. The dough is actually put together in a pot over medium heat, cooking the ingredients as the batter comes together. So while my butter, water, salt and sugar were slowly coming to a boil, I gathered up my remaining ingredients - eggs and flour, knowing that when it was time to add each, I would need both hands for mixing and making sure not to burn or overcook anything. The flour is added to the pot and mixed in while still on the burner, effectively cooking the flour as it is being incorporated into the other ingredients. The dough came together very quickly at this point into a cohesive ball. At this point, I transferred the dough to my trusty KitchenAid mixer, where, one at a time, four eggs are added and fully incorporated, resulting in a shiny, sticky dough.
In order to shape the puffs, the dough is supposed to be piped onto a parchment papaer covered cookie sheet. Not having a piping bag, I used the next best thing - a plastic bag with the corner snipped off. This worked really well for about half of the dough. At which point my bag split along one of the seams. Oops. No problem - I scooped out as much of the dough as I could into as close an approximation of rounds as I could. Using clean, wet fingertips, I was able to re-shape or fix up the puffs as much as possible, and they all looked okay. A quick coating of egg wash, and these were ready to go into the oven.
Let me tell you, these puffed SO well. So much better than when I made them in the past, which means that the next time I find myself needing to make any kind of puffs, this will absolutely be the recipe I use.
Puffs cooling, pastry cream in the fridge, it was time to start thinking about how my finished piece would be put together, and what I would use as the "glue" to hold the whole thing together. Many a traditional croquembouche uses spun, hard caramel as its garnish. It is beautiful and very impressive, but not something I realistically considered for my piece. I do, after all, have a four year old sous chef. Somehow, the idea of hot, melty sugar being spun into beautiful designs seemed a little more scary and dangerous that I was prepared for that afternoon. So I then thought to make a chocolate ganache, since, well, everyone loves chocolate. But I couldn't get the idea of caramel out of my mind, especially paired with my vanilla bean pastry cream. I decided to search for a middle ground.
This is what I came up with. A vanilla-infused caramel sauce that could serve as glue and glaze, yet did not require actual manipulation of the hot sugar. Caramel is a fascinating thing to observe. Still scary, since it is essentially sugar in various stages of burning, but really quite interesting to watch progress. It starts as sugar. As it cooks, it transforms into something much more. You have to watch it very carefully, because the transition from perfect caramel to horrible burnt sugar occurs very quickly, but when timed right, the results are fantastic.
At this point, I finally had all three of my components ready. Time to put them all together. First came the filling of the cream puffs. This task is most easily accomplished using a pastry bag fitted with a small, plain tip - this leaves an almost undetectable hole and allows each puff to be filled evenly. Unfortunately, as I mentioned before, I don't have a pastry bag. Instead, I once again used a plastic baggie with a corner snipped off. The cut corner is not nearly a sufficient replacement for a solid pastry tip, so I merely used a paring knife to make a big enough incision in the side of each puff to shoot the cream into each. It worked pretty well.
Once the puffs were filled, it was time to construct my tower. I built layers of cream puffs, and drizzled each layer with the warm caramel sauce. Working quickly, I then built the next layer of puffs, letting the cooling caramel serve as the glue to keep the structure from toppling in on itself. I was a little wary as to how this would hold up, but I was pleasantly surprised as to how well it all came together.
I have to say - for as nervous as I was to attempt this, I was really impressed with the finished product. Definitely not professional grade, but it was a very fun dessert to bring to a party. And it was a huge hit, too - especially with the kids. They loved being about to just grab a piece of the pyramid and have a complete dessert right in their hands. And little miss loved saying the word "croquembouche" whenever anyone asked what it was, so it was a fun dessert all around.
Thank you, Cat for such a truly fun challenge. I will definitely keep this one in my bag of tricks for another dessert occasion, since it was both fun to make and fun to share!
And you should definitely take a look at what the other Daring Bakers came up with this month. Click here to see some of the amazing creativity.
Monday, May 24, 2010
When Sunday morning rolled around, I asked little miss to pick between her two choices, and she chose waffles. Which was what daddy and I were hoping she would pick.
Believe it or not, I don't actually have a go-to waffle recipe. I have a really good one, but it is a lot of work, so I only pull it out on super-special occasions. I also have a banana waffle recipe that is delicious, but it is much less special without the bananas. So I did a quick search and picked a new recipe to try. Little miss did as much of the prep work as she could. We each had a little mishap, me with separating an egg, her with a minor spill when pouring in the milk, but all's well that ends well and these cooked up beautifully. The recipe just might make it into my collection...
Anyway, things got interesting when it was time to "dress" our waffles. We set out bowls with strawberries, blackberries and sliced bananas, as well as the traditional syrup. And the can of whipped cream. Because it was Sunday.
Everyone prepared their own waffle. Little miss took the job very seriously, piling it high with fruit, drizzling on the syrup (okay, I helped with that - it's a big jug of syrup and it pours fast) and even putting on her own whipped cream. Then daddy gave the whole thing a sprinkling of cinnamon, just for added measure.
But guess what happens when little miss gets to prepare her own waffle?
She eats every. single. bite.
I'd call that a successful breakfast.
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
I have made chocolate chip cookies before. I usually use some variation of the recipe on the back of the package of chocolate chips - doesn't matter the brand - you'll notice that most of the recipes are about the same. This recipe is nothing like that recipe. No all purpose flour here - half cake flour, half bread flour. And two and a half sticks of butter, too. How bad could it be? The only hitch was that the recipe calls for the dough to be refrigerated for 24 to 36 hours prior to baking. Wait a minute - you can't promise me the world's best cookies and then make me wait?!?! But I trust. So I proceeded.
Little miss helped make the batter yesterday. She took the process very seriously, measuring, whisking and making sure that I did everything right. She watched the mixer very diligently, too, and wouldn't leave its side while it did its thing.
We then put the dough in the fridge and tried to forget about it for an entire day.
Tonight, just before dinner, we pulled the dough from the fridge so that we could have fresh-baked cookies for dessert. The dough was a little tough to scoop, being so cold, but together we scooped out the six biggest cookies I have ever made (the rest of the dough went back into the fridge), and popped them into the oven just as we sat down to dinner.
I have to say, little miss ate her dinner very well and in record time. I think the scent of cookies baking is great incentive... I mean, it doesn't hurt that I served a guaranteed-hit dinner, but I definitely think that the cookies played a part. Anyway, by the time the timer beeped, she was definitely ready for dessert. And once I pulled these out, so was I.
I must say - these were delicious. Crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside, super chocolatey - definitely worth the wait. I can't guarantee that these are the best in the world (though have no objection to being put on the judging panel to officially make that determination...), but these are definitely the best chocolate chip cookies that I have ever made - much better than the standard package recipe.
And in case you are curious, little miss took the eating of these cookies just as seriously as the making of them, breaking off just the right sized pieces, dunking them into her milk just so...
I think six more of these will be baked tomorrow.
Sift flours, baking soda, baking powder and salt into a bowl. Set aside.
Using a mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream butter and sugars together until very light, about 5 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in the vanilla. Reduce speed to low, add dry ingredients and mix until just combined, 5 to 10 seconds. Drop chocolate pieces in and incorporate them without breaking them. Press plastic wrap against dough and refrigerate for 24 to 36 hours. Dough may be used in batches, and can be refrigerated for up to 72 hours.
When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a nonstick baking mat. Set aside.
Scoop six (6) 3 1/2-ounce mounds of dough (the size of generous golf balls) onto baking sheet, making sure to turn horizontally any chocolate pieces that are poking up; it will make for a more attractive cookie. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt and bake until golden brown but still soft, 18 to 20 minutes. Transfer sheet to a wire rack for 10 minutes, then slip cookies onto another rack to cool a bit more. Repeat with remaining dough, or reserve dough, refrigerated, for baking remaining batches the next day. Eat warm, with a big napkin.
Monday, May 17, 2010
About a month ago, little miss and I picked out some seeds for our this-year attempt at some container gardening (oh, to one day have a real yard with a real garden...). I read somewhere that radishes are among the best vegetables to plant with kids - they are quickest to reach harvest, so require slightly less patience than other crops. So on a sunny April afternoon, little miss and grabbed some planters, some shovels and some dirt, and got down to work. Little miss loves to dig in the dirt, and is actually very patient about waiting for her plants to grow. She is very diligent about watering her plants, too, as well as those of any neighbor who gives her the go-ahead.
I will admit that I knew nothing about radishes other than that they grow fast and that they are red and round. So imagine our joint surprise and excitement this week, when checking on our little pot, when I saw some red round bulges at the bottom of our sprouts! Little miss was so excited to (carefully!) begin our harvest.
And look what we wound up with! I know they are small - our pot is a little over-crowded. And, best of all? Little miss loves them.
Friday, May 14, 2010
Our hosts this month, Barbara of Barbara Bakes and Bunnee of Anna+Food have chosen a delicious Stacked Green Chile & Grilled Chicken Enchilada recipe in celebration of Cinco de Mayo! The recipe, featuring a homemade enchilada sauce was found on www.finecooking.com and written by Robb Walsh.
A Cinco de Mayo challenge? Sweet! I love Mexican food! Chicken enchiladas? Yum. I am totally up for this challenge! I planned on making it for Cinco de Mayo, but my husband's work travel dictated that we celebrate on siete de Mayo. No problem - two extra days to study the recipe!
This recipe challenge had many components, so this will be (as usual) a long and picture heavy post. It was so much fun, though, so I hope you enjoy reading about it.
The first aspect of the challenge was the green chile enchilada sauce, which was new to me on several fronts. The sauce is made with tomatillos, which I had never tried before, and Anaheim peppers, a variety of pepper with which I was unfamiliar. I knew this would be interesting. I scoped out our local Produce Junction to make sure that they had those items in stock, and my confidence grew when I consistently saw them on the board. Until, that is, the day I finally went in to purchase them. That was the day that they were out of tomatillos. Of course. And Anaheim peppers? Not even listed on the board that day. Uh oh. I am not a pepper expert, but knew that Anaheims are relatively mild, but flavorful. I was pretty sure that poblanos, which were listed on the board that day, would fit the bill. I asked for poblano peppers, and the man pointed me towards the front table. Uh oh. I have no idea what different peppers look like. I grab the bag it looks like he is pointing to, and when he nods, I assume that I have the right thing. Good to go for one of the two key ingredients...
Back on the search for tomatillos, I headed over to one of the five supermarkets that I am fortunate enough to have in easy driving distance. I chose the one that has the biggest, most varied variety of produce, knowing that tomatillos are not a common ingredient in the Northeast. As luck would have it, they had plenty of tomatillos at a reasonable price, so I thought I was back on track. Out of curiosity, I strolled by the pepper section, where I found that they had Anaheims as one of their varieties. And poblanos. Poblano peppers that looked nothing like what the man at Produce Juntion had pointed out to me. Uh oh. After a quick perusal of the other pepper varieties, it soon became clear to me that what I had been sold was, in fact, a two pound bag of jalapeno peppers. Hot, spicy, jalapeno peppers. Not mild, flavorful, poblano peppers. I quickly grabbed a few of the Anaheims.
The first step in making the sauce, ingredients finally in hand, is to roast the peppers. I decided to roast a few of the jalapenos, too. Little miss helped me prepare the peppers for roasting, which involves coating them with an oil that can withstand high temperatures. I chose canola. Little miss painted the peppers with the oil while I placed the oven race in its highest position and turned on the broiler. Roasting peppers under the broiler can be a little scary, as it involves charring them on all sides very close to the heating element, keeping both the stems and, you know, the oven, from catching fire. Once the peppers were evenly charred, they are put into a bowl and covered tightly with plastic wrap, where they basically steam through until they are cool enough to handle. Once cooled, the stems and seeds are carefully removed, as is the charred outside skin. The resulting roasted peppers were then chopped and set aside.
The next ingredient in the sauce was the tomatillos. The recipe called for the tomatillos to be boiled to soften them up. I decided, instead, to roast them, along with the onions and garlic called for in the sauce. Never having worked with tomatillos before, I wasn't sure exactly how to proceed, so I decided to use a similar process as with the peppers, painting them with oil, but rather than broiling them, I roasted the vegetables in a 350 degree oven, checking them every ten minutes until they felt soft throughout.
As a side note, the tomatillos were very interesting to work with. When I first heard of tomatillos, I thought they were just a green variety of tomato. Turns out that, while the tomatillo is in the same family as tomatoes, it is not a variety of tomato. Also, unlike tomatoes, tomatillos have a papery husk that must be removed. Little miss was more than happy to help me with that. And it only took a couple for us to get the hang of it.
Anyway, back to the sauce. All of the ingredients peeled, roasted, de-seeded, chopped and ready to go, my trusty mini-blender handled turning all of the vegetables into sauce. After a quick spin, the puree was poured into a pot, simmered with some chicken broth, thickened with some cornstarch and presto! Green chile enchilada sauce! A quick taste told me that the one jalapeno that I was brave enough to include definitely added zing to the sauce, making a flavorful, though somewhat spicy sauce that went right into the fridge, to let the flavors meld until enchilada construction the next day. Yum.
Except that I would be serving these enchiladas to a four year old. Who doesn't always eat spicy things. So the next morning I decided to make a traditional red enchilada sauce, too. I chose this recipe, but used about half of the chili powder that was called for, since I was aiming for a mild, child-friendly version. The sauce came together really easily, and soon joined its green counterpart in the fridge in anticipation of becoming part of an enchilada stack.
The next component of the challenge to tackle was the tortillas. Homemade tortillas were optional to the challenge, but was something that I wanted to do. I had made tortillas once before and knew how tasty the homemade variety is, so thought that, this being a challenge, I might as well go all in and make them again for my stacks. Most flour tortilla recipes are pretty similar, but I chose this one, as I usually love the things I see on her blog, so I knew it was a trusted source.
Little miss was happy to help in many of the aspects of preparing the tortillas, and I was more than happy to let her. She mixed the dry ingredients:
Cut in the shortening:
And then helped me roll the dough into ping-pong-ball sized balls:
At this point, I took over, since the next steps involved timing and, well, a very hot pan. Each of the balls was carefully rolled into as close an approximation of a circle as I could manage. Each of these was then placed carefully onto a hot pan, where they cooked pretty quickly. It took a few practice tortillas to get the right balance of rolling, timing and temperature, but once I got the rhythm, they cooked up pretty easily. Once on the pan, the tortillas cook pretty quickly, and need to be flipped once the surface begins to bubble. Once flipped, the second side cooks pretty quickly and the whole tortilla inflates beautifully. It was fun to watch, both for me and for little miss. So glad I decided to make my own tortillas for this!
The last piece was the easiest to prepare - the chicken. Instead of grilling my chicken, I baked it, using only a little bit of broth in the pan to flavor it. I wanted the chicken to be both mild (to let the flavors of the enchilada sauces stand out) and moist (so that it could be shredded), so the oven was the simplest solution.
That was a lot of prep work, but I was finally ready to stack up some enchiladas! I decided to make one stack with each kind of sauce, so I used foil to divide my pan in half, and began the side-by-side layering process. Layering enchiladas is even easier than rolling them, since you don't have to worry about them unrolling in the pan. Sauce, tortilla, chicken, cheese, repeat - this was the easiest part of the process! The stacks went together quickly and easily, and went into the oven with enough time for me to, well, wash the mountain of dishes that resulted from the entire process. And make some rice, boil up some black beans, and cut up some tomato and avocado.
By the time these were ready to come out of the oven, I was so ready to see this meal finally come together. When I pulled out the pan of oeey, gooey, cheesy, delicious goodness out of the oven, I knew that all of the prep work (and all of the dishes) were worth it. The hardest choice was now which one to eat for dinner first! We chose the red, but would have been just as happy with the green. Both were absolutely delicious, and made for a fun, super delicious (though two days late) Cinco de Mayo celebration.
Barbara and Bunnee - thank you so much for such a delicious, fun and festive challenge. I love Mexican food, and am so excited to have been able to try something so new.
To check out the amazing work of the other daring cooks, take a look here.
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Little miss was excited for two reasons. The first is that she could help me actually build the lasagna tonight, a task that, for obvious reasons, I don't usually let her help me accomplish - I don't want her burning herself on just boiled noodles! The second was that I had promised her that the next time I needed to grate cheese, I would let her try the "circle" (ie: rotary) grater. It was a little tricky for her little hands to get the knack of holding and turning all at the same time, but she did a great job. And while she grated, I mixed an egg into the ricotta and mixed up our sauce.
I did the first layer myself, to get a hang of how it would go, and then little miss helped me add each new layer of noodles. The toughest part, to me, was spreading the ricotta onto the dry noodles, as the noodles wanted to shift all over the place, but other than that, this went together exactly like I expected it to.
I found it interesting that the cooking time and temperature for this lasagna, according to the package directions, were identical to those of a standard, pre-cooked-noodle lasagna - I had expected it to need a little bit of extra time covered in the oven, but I followed the directions, and the noodles seemed to cook all the way through.
The lasagna tasted delicious - neither daddy nor little miss could taste a difference between this and my regular lasagna. Honestly, though, I wouldn't go out of my way to look for these noodles again. I am sure some people like the fact that you save a pot by not boiling the noodles first, but considering the amount of dishes generated by making this dish anyway, one more pot isn't really a big deal. And I found that, despite the fact that this lasagna had exactly the same amount of layers as my regular one, it just felt thinner... flatter... But I am glad I tried them, and it made a yummy dinner tonight.
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
In honor of Cinco de Mayo, I decided to make a festive dessert for tonight's dinner with the family - tres leches cake. I have never made tres leches cake before, but that has never stopped me from making something before. To take it a step further, though, I have never even tasted tres leches cake before. But I didn't let that stop me. It always looked so good, and I found a recipe that I knew that I could, without a doubt, trust, so I bit the bullet and went for it today.
There are a lot of steps to this (so, consequently, expect lots of pictures!), but it is really straightforward and SO worth the effort.
The first step is to separate five eggs. So you know this is going to be good. The egg yolks are mixed with sugar. They start out like this:
and after a few minutes on high, turn into this:
The yolk/sugar mixture is then folded into the mixed dry ingredients and set aside. Once the bowl to the mixer is washed out, it is time to work with the egg whites, which start out like this:
and are soon whipped into this:
The mixer worked hard for this cake.
The egg whites are then carefully folded into the egg yolk mixture. The resulting batter is so light and fluffy and airy, I was pretty confident about the decision to go for this one.
Halfway through the baking time, I did what you aren't supposed to do and peeked into the oven to check out how the cake was cooking. What can I tell you? I was curious. What I saw was awesome:
How cool is that? It rose so well, I was pretty impressed with myself.
I then closed the oven and didn't cheat again. Once the cake came out of the oven, I turned it out onto a rimmed cookie sheet (I didn't have a nice rimmed tray, so I used what I had) and let it cool. That's when it was time to work on those tres leches.
The tres leches in the cake's name refer to the three milk products that are mixed together and poured over the cooled cake - sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk and heavy cream. I was hoping to use my measuring cup to combine everything, then to pour the mixture onto the cake, but this was only two of the three milks, so I know I would need a separate mixing bowl to get the job done. No problem, and little miss was on hand to help with the mixing, so it all went pretty smoothly.
The next part was probably little miss's favorite - we used a fork to carefully puncture the cake all over so it could better absorb the milks. I think she is going to want to do this to all of our cakes from now on... oops. Hey, she had fun, so no worries.
The next step was the hardest to photograph - pouring the milks onto the cake. So this is the best picture I have of it, because then I tried to concentrate on actually getting an even layer of the milks all the way from end to end on the cake. I am glad the recipe stated not to use all of the milk mixture - there was a LOT of it. Once I had the cake good and soaked, I let it sit to fully absorb.
While waiting, I prepared the final component of the cake - the whipped cream frosting. Because, you know, what this cake needed was even more dairy. Cream whipped, milks absorbed into the cake, the whole thing was frosted. It looked like a fluffy cloud when I was done, and I was pretty excited to take a taste.
After a delicious taco dinner with the family, it was time to cut the cake. Wow. So worth the effort. Somehow, despite its custardy goodness and rich creaminess, this cake felt light and satisfying. Everyone loved it. Little miss asked for seconds. I can't believe I had never had this before. I will definitely make this again.