Wednesday, July 27, 2011

July Daring Bakers' Challenge - Fraisier

Man, it has been hot recently! Seriously, record breaking heat in these parts. What could be better, in the midst of a heat wave, than a Daring Bakers' Challenge?

Jana of Cherry Tea Cakes was our July Daring Bakers’ host and she challenges us to make Fresh Frasiers inspired by recipes written by Elisabeth M. Prueitt and Chad Robertson in the beautiful cookbook Tartine.

The fraisier has three main components - the cake, the filling and the fruit. As the name of the dessert is derived from the French word for strawberry, that is the most traditional fruit to use. The final dessert consists of two layers of cake, each of which is brushed with simple syrup, and between which is a layer of cream and a decorative arrangement of strawberries.

Aside from the actual baking and construction of this dessert, it was evident after reading through the recipe and directions that time management would be a very important factor in creating the fraisier. To help myself, I gave myself two days to complete this challenge.

Day one involved making the chiffon cake and the pastry cream.

Chiffon cakes, as I tend to describe them, are kind of a cross between a regular (batter) cake and an angel food (foamy, made from whipped egg whites) cake. It is a very light, very lovely kind of cake. Making the chiffon cake is straightforward, but requires precision, lots of bowls, and the ability to separate eggs. I thought I had all three. But apparently my egg separating skills decided to take a vacation that day. Seriously frustrating. It took, I kid you not, nine eggs (and a not insignificant amount of angry muttering) in order to yield the three egg yolks and five egg whites required by this recipe. On the bright side, we had delicious omelets for breakfast the next day.

Anyway, once the eggs were separated, little miss helped me to first mix the dry ingredients, then the wet. The only modification that I made to the recipe was to make it a vanilla chiffon cake, replacing the lemon zest called for in the recipe with the seeds of a vanilla bean.

Then we combined the wet and dry ingredients to create our base batter.

Batter mixed, it was time to carefully incorporate the stiffly-beaten egg whites.

The resulting batter was beautifully light and airy. Quickly and carefully, the batter was poured into a springform pan.

About 50 minutes in the oven and voila!

And, to my relief, the cake didn't even deflate after being removed from the oven, which sometimes happens to these delicate and temperamental cakes. Yay!

We set the cake aside to cool and got to work on our pastry cream. Following the modification that I'd made to the chiffon cake recipe, I added the pod from the vanilla bean in to my pot of milk as it heated, to infuse the milk, and thus the pastry cream, with extra vanilla flavor.

The scalded milk was then added to my mixer, in which eggs and sugar were actively being whisked. The mixture was then to be returned to the saucepan in order to cook and thicken. I am not sure if I was whisking on too high a speed or what, but when the hot milk was carefully added into the eggs and sugar, the resulting mixture became very, very foamy.

At this point, I was a little nervous as to whether my pastry cream would even out and become, well, cream, but within a few minutes, everything looked much more as I'd hoped they would.

Once the pastry cream was removed from the heat, the final step was to whisk in some butter, which, from what I have read, is traditional for pastry creams prepared especially for fraisiers.

Cake cooling, pastry cream covered with plastic wrap and placed into the fridge, day one of the fraisier challenge was finally complete.

The next morning, I awoke refreshed and ready to go on day two of this challenge.

To begin with, I made the simple syrup that would be brushed onto the layers of chiffon cake during the construction of the dessert. Like the cake and the pastry cream, I decided to up the vanilla flavor by adding a split vanilla bean to the sugar and water in the pot.

While the syrup cooled, I prepared the rest of my components for the construction phase.

The pastry cream was stabilized with softened gelatin, and then combined with freshly whipped cream to create a very light cream.

Next, the chiffon cake needed to be sliced in half to create two even layers. On my sister's suggestion, I used toothpicks to serve as a guide from my knife, then carefully cut around the cake.

I then prepared the strawberries themselves, washing, stemming, hulling and slicing them.

And then it was time to build.

The bottom cake layer was brushed with simple syrup:

And then a ring of strawberries was carefully arranged around the perimeter of the cake.

Using a piping bag (okay, a ziploc bag with the corner cut off), a layer of cream was piped around the strawberries:

And then more cream was piped onto the cake to cover the bottom layer.

On top of the cream, I sprinkled a layer of smaller cut strawberries.

And then came another layer of cream, which I smoothed over the whole thing to create a flat surface.

The second chiffon cake layer was carefully placed onto that flat cream surface, then brushed with more of the vanilla simple syrup.

The recipe called for the cake to then be covered with a disc of almond paste. I am not a big fan of almond paste, so I opted instead to use more of the whipped cream-pastry cream to cover my cake, and to use more halved strawberries for decoration.

To fill the middle of the cake, I decided to create a flower type design out of chocolate. I melted down some chocolate chips in a double boiler, then started drawing out designs. Little miss, never one to miss out on an opportunity to play with food, decided to help me draw with the chocolate. She said she had a special message for us. Look what she wrote:

So proud of that kid.

The tray of chocolate designs went into the fridge to cool, and, by the time we were ready to bring the dessert over to my in-laws' for that evening's dinner, I was pretty proud of the final results.

As impressed as the family was upon seeing the dessert in the pan, the reaction to the cake being unmolded was wonderful.

And as for the taste? Wow. This is an absolutely wonderful dessert. Each component on its own was delicious, but all together, the whole was even better than the sum of its parts. Neither the cake nor the cream was overly sweet, which made it very pleasant to eat, and also allowed the fresh, wonderful flavor of the strawberries to shine. The chiffon cake was deliciously light and the dessert was a huge hit.

Jana, I can't thank you enough for this wonderful challenge. I don't know that I ever would have had the courage to try such an ambitious dessert without this challenge, and the result was a cake more impressive than I ever would have believed came from my own kitchen. Thank you so much!

To see the other amazingly beautiful cakes baked in the Daring Kitchen this month, check them out here.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

July Daring Cooks' Challenge - Homemade Pasta

I have loved almost every challenge in which I have participated for the Daring Kitchen. There have been some challenges for which I have created multiple versions. Or, after having completed them, I have kept the recipes and made them again. But this is the first time that I have done a version of the challenge each week of the given challenge month. And I know that I will make many more variations, as it will become a part of my regular cooking repertoire.

What could I be referring to?

Steph from Stephfood was our Daring Cooks' July hostess. Steph challenged us to make homemade noodles without the help of a motorized pasta machine. She provided us with recipes for SpƤtzle and Fresh Egg Pasta as well as a few delicious sauces to pair our noodles with!

Homemade pasta.

I have long wanted to try my hand at making noodles, but it always seemed so... just out of reach. Like the mark of a better cook than I really am. And I don't have a pasta machine (motorized or not), and was afraid that the rolling and cutting of the noodles was just too far out of my abilities. But this was the challenge, and I was super excited.

I was further excited when I saw that Steph offered a recipe for Spatzle, a pasta dish I'd never tried before, but about which I had heard a ton. My mother in law has often spoken with great fondness about memories of watching her own grandmother make beautiful, delicious and perfectly shaped Spatzle. My sister in law always orders Spatzle when the opportunity presents itself. And now I had the chance to try to make it myself. How cool! So that is where I decided to start with this challenge.

Spatzle is an egg pasta, so it all begins with, well, eggs.

I added some garlic powder and dried parsley to my egg to flavor the pasta. Once the eggs (and spices) were well beaten, it was time to add in the flour.

Spatzle dough is not a very stiff dough - enough flour is added only to make it difficult to stir with a wooden spoon, but not nearly enough that you would have to knead it. Or that you'd even be able to if you wanted to.

As far as shaping the dough, there are several options. In the challenge write-up, Steph demonstrated a method involving two spoons, basically dropping small scoops of the dough right into a pot of boiling water. Traditional methods involve a very fast cutting of the dough right off of the edge of a cutting board. There are even Spatzle making tools, which, from what I have seen, resemble flat metal discs with evenly spaced holes which are placed directly on top of a pot of boiling water, and through which the dough is pushed, using a flexible scraping tool, dropping little bits of the dough into the water below. I tried to jerry-rig my own version of this tool, using my metal colander and my semi-flexible bench scraper.

I do not recommend this method. Effective? Surprisingly, yes. But it was also messy, time consuming and a little difficult to manage. But the results?

As I scooped the cooked pasta out of the boiling water to drain, I was pleased to see that they actually looked like I'd hoped they would!

As a "sauce" for these little noodles, I used the recipe that Steph provided for a butter and breadcrumbs topping. Interestingly enough, my husband's family makes a very similar topping, though they add sugar and cinnamon, to top leftover egg noodles to create an absolutely delicious breakfast treat.

The result was an absolutely delicious side dish for dinner.

So good, in fact, that little miss requested that we make them again the following week. Actually, she asked if she could make them. So I let her, and I apologize that I don't have photos of her doing all of the work. She cracked the eggs, sprinkled the seasoning, mixed in the flour - all by herself! I handled the shaping, trying alternate methods (rotary grater? box grater? neither is a good idea...), and simply topping them (at little miss's request) with melted butter and grated Parmesan ("sprinkle cheese"). We will definitely be making these semi-regularly. And I will definitely have to come up with a better method of shaping them.

For my third attempt at this challenge, I decided to go with something familiar, but to change it up a bit. Steph allowed for a very wide definition of pasta, and one of the options that was open to us was gnocchi. I have made gnocchi several times before, and it is always a hit with the whole family. So I thought that this challenge would be a great excuse to make it again. Only I decided to try making it with sweet potatoes this time.

Because of the high moisture content of sweet potatoes, I baked them, rather than boiling them, then, while they were still warm, I used forks to "rice" them, rather than mashing them with my potato masher, so that the resulting gnocchi would be as light as possible.

Once the potatoes had cooled completely, I began incorporating my flour and eggs to make the actual dough.

I don't have many pictures of the actual making of the dough or shaping of the gnocchi because, well, it is a super messy process and my hands were very, very sticky. Little miss was quite a help. But after a while, we kind of gave up on shaping them authentically (little pillow puffs rolled against the tines of a fork to give them ridges) and just decided to make whatever shape puffs we wanted.

While the gnocchi cooked, I made the sauce. My original plan had been to melt some butter, sautee some chopped apple in the butter and add brown sugar and cinnamon for flavor. As I started melting the butter, I thought, hey, why not go one step further and brown the butter. So I did.

Oh. My. Goodness. This was like dessert, disguising itself as a side dish. The flavors of the sweet potato and the apple, the nuttiness of the browned butter and the richness of the brown sugar - little miss and I each had seconds. And thirds. And finished the (very little bit of) leftovers for lunch the next day.

Oh yes. This dish will be made again.

Three pastas down, one week remaining in the challenge month, I went for just one more. I really wanted to try my hand at making some actual, regular noodles. Steph provided us with a recipe for egg fettuccine, so I decided, why not?

The recipe calls for two ingredients.

Flour and eggs. And I decided to attempt to be traditional and made this right on my counter top.

Want to blow a five year old's mind? Dump a bowl of flour right on the counter. Then pour beaten eggs into the middle of it. I think little miss thought I was going to follow that by giving myself a time-out for making such a mess... We used our hands to incorporate the ingredients together (and needed to add a bit of water to finish the job), and ended up with a smooth but stiff ball of dough.

After the dough took a brief rest, all snuggled into a blanket of plastic wrap, we were ready for the fun part.

The dough was divided into four semi-equal pieces, to make it easier to work with.

Each piece was then rolled out:

Then rolled up:

And then each roll was sliced:

Then little miss helped me to unroll each little mini-roll:

Until what we had was:

Holy smokes! A plate full of actual, fresh noodles!!

I boiled mine fresh, rather than drying them first, and I may have over-cooked them by about a minute, but let me tell you - fresh pasta is absolutely amazing. And not even all that difficult to make. I topped our fresh pasta with a dinner of chicken thighs cooked with diced tomatoes, corn and black beans and the resulting meal was delicious.

If you have actually read all the way down this whole monster post, you deserve a prize. Or a bowl of pasta. Come on over and I'll make you some.

Steph, I cannot thank you enough for giving me the courage and opportunity to try something that has been on my cooking-wish-list for a very long time. This was a tremendous challenge and I loved every bite of it!

To see some of the amazing, creative and absolutely delicious pastas cooked up in the Daring Kitchen this month, check them out here.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Carrot Soup

We spend quite a bit of time in libraries. I have been taking little miss to the library since she was very little, and we've loved going ever since. Yesterday we were cruising the stacks looking for some new reads and came across a fun book called Carrot Soup. It's about a rabbit who plants and tends his garden in anticipation of making his favorite meal.

Since taking it out yesterday, we've read it... well... many times. And little miss requested that we use it as our inspiration for dinner tonight. Since there is a recipe in the back of the book and I had just picked up three pounds of carrots at Produce Junction, I said sure!

The longest part of this recipe was the prep work - shredding up two pounds of carrots and chopping celery and onions. We tried a couple of different methods for shredding up the carrots - rotary grater, box grater, and we finally settled on the food processor attachment for the immersion blender.

The celery and onions were sauteed in the soup pot until nice and tender. The recipe called for them to cook down with the cover on, just softening them, rather than actually caramelizing them. Once the onions and celery were ready, the carrots were tossed on top and then the liquid was added. The recipe called for chicken broth, but I actually don't have any in the house right now. I know, right?? How does that happen?? So I improvised, using water and a package of dried onion soup mix. Hey, it worked.

Once the soup came up to a boil, it was set to simmer for half an hour, during which time we re-read the book. Just to build anticipation. Once the soup was all simmered, it was time to puree it. The recipe says to let it cool a bit, and then puree it in either a blender or food processor. But with the help of my beautiful immersion blender, it was much easier. Little miss was fascinated by it, and, well, to be honest, so was I. It worked absolutely beautifully, and we soon had a wonderfully smooth soup, all ready for dinner.

I actually really liked this soup. Little miss did too, but told me that she doesn't think she likes it as much as the rabbit in the book does. I am just happy that she is reading, and that her books inspire her to try new things

Rabbit's Favorite Carrot Soup
(from John Segal's Carrot Soup)

2 pounds carrots, washed, peeled and shredded
4 14-ounce cans chicken broth
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
1/4 cup butter
salt and pepper
5 sprigs fresh dill or parsley, minced (optional)

Saute the onion and celery in butter in a large, covered pot until tender. Add the shredded carrots and chicken broth and bring everything to a boil.
Reduce the heat and simmer the soup, covered, for about half an hour.
Let the soup cool slightly, the puree it in a blender or food processor (or with an immersion blender) until smooth.
Add salt and pepper to taste. Add dill or parsley (if desired, or you can use it as garnish, or you can omit it, if you would like). Serve.
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