custom cakes/cookies

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Pièce Montée, it's a showpiece and a lesson in vocabulary

Classic French centerpiece desserts, like the croquembouche, are usually reserved for important occasions, such as weddings or baptisms or communions. But when your favorite hip hop artist, who just happens to adore caramel, invites you to his birthday party, I can think of bringing nothing more appropriate.

The first time I made one of these, I learned that croquembouche meant "crunch in the mouth" since each individual pastry is drenched in hard caramel. This time around I have a new French vocab word to share: pièce montée. Used as a synonym for croquembouche, it translates as "mounted piece". Think pastry architecture, or rather, the deft assemblage of sugar and cream puffs into an impressive, sculpted form.

While a lofty tower of profiteroles is pretty amazing to look at, cutting into one to serve is another challenge entirely. The profiteroles are physically "glued" together with hard candy, making it tough work to gracefully disassemble. Last time, we attacked it rather clumsily with a serrated knife. I've read that others have taken a chisel and hammer to crack the hard surface. YIKES!

This time around, to facilitate sharing as an eat-out-of-hand casual party dessert, I decided to keep the caramel-dipped profiteroles separate (not touching) and flat on a single sheet tray. No sticking together (which, turns out, is pretty hard to unstick) montée...just pièce. The height would come, at least I was hoping with fingers crossed, from the fancy sugar work spun on top. I spent a few nights studying sugar techniques in this textbook as preparation, hoping to create something extraordinary.

But when the day came to make this, it rained. That brings me to another vocab word: hygroscopic. Sugar is hygroscopic meaning it will absorb water from the surrounding air. See those beads of liquid on the sugar strands in the photo up above?! It was dissolving faster than I could finish! I decided to cut the decoration short, and instead poured JD's initials with the remaining caramel and sprinkled the finished piece with crystallized lilacs. Not quite the pièce montée I envisioned, but I was told it was delicious all the same.

The May 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Cat of Little Miss Cupcake. Cat challenged everyone to make a pièce montée, or croquembouche, based on recipes from Peter Kump’s Baking School in Manhattan and Nick Malgieri. Instead of the suggested recipes, I followed closely the instructions in Bo Friberg's The Advanced Professional Pastry Chef with great success. I was particularly proud that my profiteroles did not deflate.

Vanilla Crème Patissiere
yield: ~3 cups

2 cups (480 ml) whole milk
4 TBS (32 g) cornstarch
1½ cups (200 g) granulated sugar
2 large eggs
4 large egg yolks
4 TBS (60 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 TBS vanilla bean paste

Dissolve cornstarch in ¼ cup of milk. Combine the remaining milk with the sugar in a saucepan; bring to boil; remove from heat.

Beat the whole egg, then the yolks into the cornstarch mixture. Pour ⅓ of boiling milk into the egg mixture, whisking constantly so that the eggs do not begin to cook.

Return the remaining milk to boil. Pour in the hot egg mixture in a stream, continuing whisking.

Continue whisking (this is important – you do not want the eggs to solidify/cook) until the cream thickens and comes to a boil. Remove from heat and beat in the butter and vanilla.

Pour cream into a bowl. Press plastic wrap firmly against the surface. Chill immediately and until ready to use.

Pâte à Choux
yield: ~60 (1-inch) profiteroles

2 oz (57.5 g) cake flour
2¾ oz (77.5 g) bread flour
1 cup (240 ml) water
6 TBS (85g) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
¼ tsp (1.25g) salt
5 large eggs (1 cup), at room temperature

Sift the flours together on a sheet of parchment paper and reserve.

In a heavy-bottomed medium saucepan, bring the water, butter, and salt to a full rolling boil so that the butter droplets are dispersed throughout the liquid. Form the ends of the parchment into a funnel/cone shape; use this to pour the flour into the liquid while stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Add the flour as fast as it can be absorbed, but avoid adding it once, which may create lumps. Continue cooking, stirring vigorously until the mixture forms a smooth, dry mass and pulls away from the sides of the pan, about 2-3 minutes.

Transfer the dough into the bowl of a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (you can also continue by hand). Let the dough cool while mixing on low for a couple of minutes so that the eggs do not scramble.

Once the dough has slightly cooled, begin to add the eggs one at a time. The dough will separate in the beginning, but it should come back together after the 3rd or 4th egg.

While the dough is still slightly warm, transfer it to a piping bag and pipe onto parchment lined baking sheets into shapes slightly larger than a cherry. Use a finger dipped in warm water to pat down any peaks.

Bake at 425° F until fully puffed and starting to show some color, about 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to 375° F and bake about 10-12 minutes longer or until golden brown and dry. Turn off oven and leave door open with puffs remaining on the oven racks puffs. Allow them to cool completely to room temperature before removing. This should encourage steam to escape and prevent the puffs from deflating.

Once cool, make a small hole in the bottom of each profiterole. Using a pastry bag fitted with a No. 2 tip, fill each with the pastry cream.

Caramelized Sugar
yield: 2¼ cups

1 cup (240 ml) water
2 lbs (910 g) granulated sugar
¼ cup (60 ml) light corn syrup

Fill a bowl large enough to hold the pan used for cooking the sugar with enough cold water to reach halfway up the sides of the pan. Set this aside.

In a medium saucepan, combine 1 cup water and sugar and set over medium-high heat. Stir until the sugar dissolves and use a brush dipped in water to wash down any sugar crystals that stick to the side of the pan. Bring to a rolling boil, add the corn syrup, then lower the heat to medium. Do not stir once the sugar starts boiling. Instead, continue brushing down the sides of the pan with water as needed until the sugar reaches 280° F. Keep boiling until the syrup is amber in color. Quickly remove the pan from heat and dunk the bottom in the bowl of cold water to stop the cooking process.

Using 2 forks, dip the tops and sides of each cream-filled puff into the caramel, and arrange puffs as desired.

To make a spun-sugar web to decorate the croquembouche:
Cut the looped ends of a wire whisk with wire cutters, or use two forks held side by side, and dip the ends into caramel. Wave the caramel back and forth over the croquembouche, allowing the strands to fall in long, thin threads around it. Wrap any stray strands up and around the croquembouche.

Serve within 2 hours.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Chinese Tea Eggs - 茶叶蛋 (cháyèdàn)

I often contribute recipes to the blog of my friends' tea company, Arbor Teas. Here is the latest recipe I developed using one of their teas.

A tea egg is a traditional snack food commonly sold by street vendors or in markets throughout Chinese communities. It's a hard-cooked egg steeped with tea leaves and traditional Chinese spices, which adds a savory, slightly salty tone to a normally neutral flavored source of protein. The shell cracking method is an important feature in this recipe that not only lends to a beautiful design, but allows the tea and spices to seep into the egg white. The tea used for making tea eggs is usually high in dark-brown tannins. Pu-erh is commonly used, but it can be substituted with any black tea leaf. Green tea is often considered too bitter, but may be worth trying if you'd like to explore the effects of the marbling pattern from an entire color palate of organic loose leaf teas from Arbor Teas.

I like the idea of imparting unique flavors directly to a hard-cooked egg, but I'm not one to eat such things directly out of hand. A quick poll of the egg-eating habits of some friends, however, confirms that I seem to be in the minority. In any case, if you're like me and prefer to incorporate hard-cooked eggs into other recipes here are a few suggestions to take tea-steeped eggs to the next level:

  • Sieved over roasted fresh asparagus or a salad of spring greens. Press the eggs through a strainer, or grate on the finest facet of a box grater to create mimosa flower-like bits.
  • Deviled with whole-grain mustard and cream fraiche to serve at you next picnic or barbeque
  • Mashed with olive oil and sea salt. Enjoy as creamy sandwich filling between slices of crusty bread
  • Stirred into a sauce gribiche, a vinaigrette bound with chopped hard-cooked egg, shallots, capers and herbs that makes a fine complement to roasted potatoes or grilled fish

Chinese Tea Eggs

6 eggs
2 TBS organic loose leaf Pu'erh
¾ cup soy sauce
2 tsp sea salt
2 tsp dark brown sugar
4 pieces star anise
1 cinnamon stick
1 tsp cracked black peppercorns
2 strips dried tangerine or mandarin orange peel (optional)

Place the eggs in a medium-sized pot with enough cool water to cover by 1-inch. Bring the water to a boil, then lower heat to simmer for 3 minutes.

Remove the eggs with a slotted spoon and place in a bowl of cool water. Reserve the simmering water in the pot for use in the next step of the recipe. When cool enough to handle, take the back of a spoon and gently crack the eggs evenly all around the shell. Take care when cracking to leave the shell intact. This allows the dark steeping liquid to seep into the egg white, staining it with a marbled design. The more you crack, the more intricate the design will be.

Add the remaining ingredients to the pot of simmering water, stirring to combine. Return the cracked eggs to the pot as well. Bring the liquid to boil again, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 40 minutes. Turn off the heat and cover the pot with a lid. Let the eggs steep for a few hours to overnight. The longer the eggs steep, the more intense the flavor and color will be.

Drain the eggs, peel and serve. Unpeeled eggs can be refrigerated in a covered container for up to 4 days.

Friday, May 14, 2010

In defense of dried beans… and an ancient recipe

A friend recently said she didn’t see the merits of using dried beans. I used to feel the same way. Mostly I think because cooking beans seemed laborious and intimidating. It was so much easier to hurry the food prep process along by just cranking open a can. Then I stumbled upon Rancho Gordo and their amazing variety of heirloom beans. Almost instantly, I was converted. Yes, yes dried beans are economical and by cooking them yourself you can control the use of additives (like sodium or MSG). But beyond the well-worn black bean and pinto, etc., that are so easy to come by in a can, heirloom varieties offer a unique flavor and visual profile that hasn’t yet made its way to tins on grocery store shelves. If you want to partake in consuming these beauties, you’re gonna have to learn to cook them yourself.

There are many different methods/philosophies for cooking beans. But they all come down to a matter of simmering the pot until the beans are soft. A pre-soak speeds up the process but isn’t absolutely necessary. The cooking time will just take a lot longer. Adding a few savory vegetables, sautéed in some kind of fat or braised in stock, will make them more flavorful. Although, heirloom and heritage varieties really don't need a lot of fussing if they are used fresh. If you do soak the beans, keep the soaking water and continue to use it to cook the beans. It contains vitamins and flavor, leeched from the beans during the soaking period, so it’d be a shame to just throw that down the drain. I usually set the beans to soak overnight and then keep them at a gentle simmer in the background of morning spent doing other things. They hardly need any supervision and fill your house with a welcome, heady aroma. All this for the price of a little pre-planning! I’ve decided it’s completely worth it.

Last week, I cooked up Ayocote Morado beans, a rare Mexican runner bean, for use in a favorite Budín Azteca recipe I clipped from a Martha Stewart magazine several years ago. Budín Azteca, which translates into “pudding or pie of the Aztecs”, is a casserole-type dish that has roots as far back as the 16th century. My version has roasted poblano chiles and fresh, steamed spinach layered between corn tortillas dressed with a homemade salsa verde and bound with Mexican crema and queso fresco. I chose this because the Daring Cooks challenge this month was to make a stacked enchilada with homemade salsa verde:

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 and written by Robb Walsh.

One look at the given recipes for this sent me straight to my personal cookbook shelf. Funny how a picture shapes your perspective on how appetizing food will be. No matter how much cilantro you sprinkle as garnish on top, drab colors just don’t photograph well!

I firmly believe that some things are well-worth bending/breaking the “rules”. So this month, I did things a little differently. Here's my interpretation of the challenge:

Roasted Salsa Verde
makes 3 cups

1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
4 fresh Anaheim chiles (about 6 to 8-inches long)
1½ pounds tomatillos, husks intact
1 medium white onion, cut into ¼-inch thick rounds
4 large cloves garlic, unpeeled
2 serrano chiles
1 jalapeno
juice from one lime
cilantro for garnish

In a large dry skillet over medium heat, toast the oregano until fragrant, 1-2 minutes, then remove from skillet and set aside.

To the same skillet, add the tomatillos, onion slices, garlic cloves, and chiles. (If not all fit at once in the same pan, then roast in batches.) Place the garlic at the hottest part of the pan as it will take the longest to cook. Cook slowly, turning occasionally, until soft and aromatic. The timing for each vegetable will be different, so keep a close watch that they don’t burn. As each item is finished remove it from the heat. Once cool enough to handle, peel the garlic cloves, cut the stems from the chiles, leaving the seeds if you prefer a spicy heat to your salsa, and remove the husks from the tomatillos.

Meanwhile, roast the Anaheim chiles over the open flame of a gas burner, under a broiler set close to the element, or on a grill. Turn occasionally until evenly charred. When black and blistered, remove from heat and place in a paper bag. Roll the bag shut and set aside until cool, about 10 minutes. Once cool enough to handle, peel away the skin and remove the ribs and seeds.

Combine the chiles, onion, garlic, tomatillos, and oregano in a food processor or blender or molcajete. Grind until well blended; yet allow some texture to be retained. Add the lime juice and salt to taste.

Budín Azteca (stacked tortilla pie)
serves 8-10

1 lb dried beans, picked over; I used Ayocote Morado but any Mexican-style bean will do
1 small white onion
2-3 garlic cloves

4 fresh poblano chiles
18 (6-inch round) fresh corn tortillas
7 TBS olive oil
10 oz fresh spinach, rinsed and tough stems removed
1 small onion, very thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup Mexican crema or sour cream
2¼ cups roasted salsa verde (see recipe above)
1½ cups queso fresco, grated

Rinse the beans in cool water and remove any debris. Place beans in a large pot and cover with several inches of cold water. Set to soak overnight or at least 4-8 hours. When ready to cook, do not drain soaking water, it has a lot of nutrients and flavor. Instead top off with more water to cover the beans by several inches and add a small white onion sliced into 3 parts and 2-3 garlic cloves smashed with the blade of a knife. Bring to a hard boil over medium-high heat. Keep the beans at a steady boil for 5 minutes, then reduce heat to low and cover the pot. Cook beans for 1 or so hours. When you begin to smell them cooking and as they start to soften, gradually add a generous heap (about a teaspoon) of salt to the pot. (Waiting to add the salt midway through cooking prevents the beans from splitting.) It takes awhile for the beans to absorb the salt, so go easy. Cover the pot and continue cooking for about 45 minutes or longer, until desired texture is reached. If the bean water starts to get low, add hot water from a tea kettle. These can be made several days in advance. Keep the cooked beans in their cooking liquid in a covered container in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Roast chiles under broiler or over gas burner flame, until blackened and blistered all over. Transfer to a brown paper bag and roll closed. Set aside for 10 minutes. Peel and discard skins. Remove stems, seeds and ribs. Cut into thin, bite-sized strips and set aside.

Preheat oven to 425°. Brush or spray both sides of tortillas with oil. Arrange on baking sheets and bake just until tortillas begin to bubble, yet still remain soft, 5-7 minutes. Reduce oven to 350°.

Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Wash the spinach and without drying add to skillet. Cover and cook until spinach has wilted, about 2 minutes. Season with a pinch of salt. Remove from heat, let cool slightly, then squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Coarsely chop and then set aside.

Heat about 2 TBS oil in the same skillet over medium heat. Add sliced onion and a generous pinch of salt. Cook stirring occasionally until translucent, about 3 minutes. Stir in poblano chiles cooking 1 minute longer. Transfer to a bowl.

Drain the beans, reserving the cooking liquid. Heat another 2 TBS of oil in the same skillet. Cook garlic for 30 seconds until golden and fragrant. Add beans and a generous pinch of salt. Cook, mashing and turning beans over in the pan to incorporate the garlic for about 2 minutes. If the mixture seems dry, add in a bit of the reserved bean cooking liquid and continue to mash until reaching the desired consistency. Remove the pan from the heat.

Line the bottom of a deep round baking dish with a third of the (~6) tortillas. I like to use two 6-inch round, 3-inch deep cake pans and stack 3 tortillas between each layer. Spread the chili-onion mixture on top of the tortillas, then distribute half of the bean mixture and half of the crema over this. Spread ¾ cup salsa on top and sprinkle with ½ cup of cheese. Repeat for the second layer using spinach instead of the chiles. Top with the remaining tortillas, ¾ cup salsa, and ½ cup of cheese.

Bake until heated through (45 minutes- 1 hour). Cover with foil if browns too quickly or is becoming too dry. Let stand 15 minutes before cutting and serve with extra salsa and crema.