Sunday, September 27, 2009

Daring Bakers' September Challenge: Vols-Au-Vent

And, once again, it’s time for the monthly Daring Bakers’ Challenge!

The September 2009 Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Steph of A Whisk and a Spoon. She chose the French treat, Vols-au-Vent based on the Puff Pastry recipe by Michel Richard from the cookbook Baking With Julia by Dorie Greenspan.

I’m travelling at the moment, so I appologize if I don’t comment on everyone’s creations right away. To be honest, it was tight squeezing in this month’s challenge before leaving (and it’s been hard finding time to type this write-up). However, I’ve never passed on a challenge yet, and this was one I really, really wanted to do : homemade vols-au-vent.

Puff pastry has always been something of a Holy Grail of Baking in my mind. The two main culinary influences in my life, i.e. my mother and my father-in-law, have each made their own puff pastry at some point in their lives – and both have told me everyone was better off buying good frozen puff pastry at the bakery. Nevertheless, the process intrigued me, and attaining the Holy Grail for myself was something that had been stored in the back of my mind for quite some time. Something to do when I would have the time, and the accumulated skill.

Well, this month’s hostess, Steph, forced me to reach for the Grail a bit sooner than expected – and a good thing, too, because it really wasn’t as horrifyingly difficult as I had been led to believe. Plus, vols-au-vent are one of my favourite meals ever. We usually buy the little puff pastry casings already made, and Laurent always makes the traditional Belgian (and French) filling : tiny veal meatballs cooked in homemade chicken broth, lemon-soaked mushrooms sautéed in butter, and shredded chicken breast (used to make the broth), all combined with a thick roux. It’s decadent, but oh so delicious.

With a whole pound of butter, this recipe was not for the lipid-conscious (even though a third of the resulting pastry was enough to generously serve two people). The first step consisted in making a quick flour-and-water dough. Then we had to beat the butter flat with a rolling pin, wrap it in the rolled-out dough, and roll the whole thing out into a kind of “dough-butter sandwich” that was three times as long as its width. From there on, the process was simple : fold, turn, refrigerate for 30-60 minutes, and repeat 5 more times.

Now, the one big piece of advice that kept popping up in the instructions we were given was the same one my mother had told me time and time again : keep things cool at all times. Avoid having things get too sticky or oily – and if they do, refrigerate at once. The instructions recommended using a marble surface, because marble remains cool. But since I didn’t own anything made of marble, I just used my usual pastry board (which is really a giant cutting board that I only use for baking). In a cruel (but not that cruel) twist of fate, someone gave us a beautiful marble board mere days after I had completed the challenge. Yes, they just gave it to us; we have awesome connections.

Anyways, I got off to a rocky start, because I couldn’t figure out how to beat butter flat without causing it to soften too much. I was so afraid of overworking the butter into an oily mess that I ended up cutting it into equal slices, rather than rolling it out. This was a mistake, because as a result the butter didn’t spread evenly between the dough when I rolled it, but rather formed isolated chunks. I was very worried that this would lead to an uneven pastry. However, it didn’t – I’m told that in the end, after 6 turns, the butter usually ends up evenly spread anyway, even if you mess up the first turn.

Since it was warmish in my kitchen, I refrigerated the dough after every turn, rather than every other turn. This meant that the process took me most of a day. I didn’t mind, though : I love this kind of kitchen project that spreads out throughout the afternoon, with long resting or refrigerating periods. It’s such a nice way to spend the day, alternating between baking (or cooking) and working.

Nothing much more to report on the puff pastry part of the challenge : shaping the vols-au-vent with cookie cutters wasn’t very complicated, and neither was brushing them with egg wash. For the filling, there wasn’t time to make the traditional recipe (the broth alone takes two hours), so I improvised something different. I heated some ready-made chicken broth and poached some leeks, carrots and salmon chunks in it. Then I made a milk-based sauce and flavoured it with fresh dill. I wasn’t too satisfied with the result : the sauce was too thin and weak. I think a roux would have been the right way to go. I added some sautéed lemon-flavoured mushrooms as well.

But apart from that, the vols-au-vent tasted absolutely wonderful. The puff pastry was light and crispy, although I had to bake it a bit longer than indicated. It only rose about twice its initial size, which was enough for this challenge, but not as high as I’ve seen store-bought rise. However, I remember that I once made blitz puff pastry (following these instructions from Dessert First) and that, although the pastry hadn’t rise much at all when I used it immediately, it was much more cooperative after spending a couple of weeks in the freezer. I have tons of dough left, so I’m hoping it will rise more when I decide to use it.

I would have loved to take a second stab at this challenge. Maybe bite-sized appetizers, or a funky dessert version. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time this month. However, the leftover dough is frozen and waiting, so you can be sure it’ll pop up on this blog again!

So, I finally attained my Holy Grail… and found that it was just a really nice teacup that happened to be stored on the highest shelf of the cupboard : challenging to reach, but by no means mystical or mystifying. But definitely satisfying nonetheless. My thanks to Steph for this opportunity to get over the fear!

I may be short on time, but it doesn’t mean everyone else is : so head on over to The Daring Kitchen and check out the recipe for vols-au-vent, as well as the other Daring Bakers’ write-ups.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Good Times - A meeting and peppered lemon macarons

Do you remember when I wrote about how nice everyone in the food blogosphere is, and how rare that is for an online community?

It turns out, food bloggers are nice in person, too! At least, the ones in Montreal are…

Last weekend, Laurent and I were fortunate enough to attend a get-together with several other food bloggers living in the Montreal area. It was wonderful to meet these people, some of whom I had been reading for quite some time now. It was also comforting to be around people who are equally passionate about food, and who don’t think it’s weird that you obsess over making the perfect chocolate pastry cream, or that you take pictures of everything you eat. I unfortunately didn’t get to talk to everyone, but hopefully there will be other opportunities for that, because the people I did get better acquainted with were absolutely charming!

And guess who was the loser-foodie who forgot to bring her camera to the restaurant? Yours truly, of course! So, no pictures of the yummy omelet I had, or of the good company I was in.

In other news, The Chocolate Bunny will be on hiatus for a little bit, while “the crew” recuperates, stocks up on sleep, and gets a little sunlight (as opposed to neon kitchen lights and the glare of the computer screen). I probably won’t be able to resist popping in every now and then, but there won’t be any major, croquembouche-like culinary achievements during this time.

So, with that in mind, I thought I’d leave you with something pretty: peppered lemon macarons. Macarons are among my favourite things to bake, but sometimes, as I’ve already demonstrated, they don’t come out quite as planned. I try to make them as often as I can, hoping I can eventually feel my way towards getting the perfect batter consistency. Good macarons are not difficult to make; pretty ones are. It’s often about intuition, at least for me. I’m getting better, though.

More to come!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Daring Cooks' September Challenge - Vegan Indian Dosas

For the first time since I joined the Daring Cooks, I completed a challenge more than two weeks before the deadline! Even better: I’ve also already finished my Daring Bakers’ challenge for this month! What’s with the sudden efficiency, you ask? Well, I just knew I wouldn't have time to do it later. Besides, it's nice not to rush things last-minute, for a change.

Anyways, you’ll hear about the Daring Bakers’ challenge in time, but today is all about the Daring Cooks. This month’s DC challenge was hosted by Debyi from The Healthy Vegan Kitchen , and she chose Vegan Indian Dosas as a recipe.

I admit I didn’t know what dosas were – turns out, they are a type of pancake, served with a savoury filling. However, I love Indian food: I make curry regularly, and I’ve tried my hand at making naan bread (a pathetic failure – the flatbreads came out looking more like pitas). Moreover, I recently went against a waiter’s warnings by ordering chicken vindaloo at an Indian restaurant. It was definitely one of the spiciest things I’ve ever eaten, although it didn’t quite beat whatever it was I had at that Thai restaurant in Vienna (of all places!). Anyways, I like it hot.

This month’s challenge, however, wasn’t particularly spicy, at least not necessarily. The one requirement (apart from actually making the dosas) was that the meal had to be entirely vegan. This was definitely a first for me, as I’ve always been an omnivore. Still, it’s not so rare for me to inadvertently cook vegetarian meals, so it didn’t feel like going vegan for a day would be too much of a stretch.

It wasn’t. The only “unusual” thing I had to buy was soy milk, to make the dosa batter. The recipe didn’t require that much milk, so I had to finish the rest some other way. I tried it for breakfast, with cereal, and honestly, I don’t think I’ll be buying it again unless I have to: it was too sweet for my taste.

I’ve made crepes before, so making the dosas themselves wasn’t too difficult, except that I never did manage to get them as crispy-thin as I would have liked – I think it’s because I forgot to properly sift the flour. I was on a miniature-kick at the time, so I made fairly small pancakes. For the filling, I stuck with the recipe we were given: sautéed chickpeas with a few other veggies and a heavy amount of spices (especially cumin, which is one of my favourite spices of all times). The filling was very good, but a little dry: a few crushed tomatoes would have added some nice moisture (or some yogurt, had this been a non-vegan challenge).

I made a second version, this time foregoing the vegan requirement: I used regular milk for the batter, and greased my skillet with butter, rather than oil. The dosas tasted about the same, but it was definitely easier to peel them off the pan.

For my second filling, I borrowed various ingredient combinations from different curry recipes. I used diced chicken thighs, zucchini, eggplant and bell pepper, seasoned with cumin, tumeric, coriander seeds, garam masala, fresh ginger, and garlic. I also added crushed tomatoes, and a garnish of fresh coriander and cashews. Unfortunately, I added too many tomatoes, which drowned out most of the spices I had incorporated, and as a result my filling tasted more like ratatouille than curry.

Truly, my favourite thing about this challenge was the coconut curry sauce we were given the recipe for. It was seriously delicious, and I used it both times, for drizzling and dipping. It froze well, too. It tasted wonderful with the dosas, but was also amazing on plain basmati rice.

I’d like to try making dosas again, to hopefully get them to come out crispy. This was a fun challenge, and a particularly delicious one. I’m also glad to have gotten a taste of what vegan cooking can be like, thanks to Debyi.

Check here for the full recipe, and here to see what the other Daring Cooks did this month.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Bite-sized goodies (and a slightly larger one) - Cheese Crisps and Parmesan Salad Bowls

First of all, a big thank you for your birthday wishes! You are all very sweet!

And since we're still on that topic... I mentioned that Laurent made me a delicious birthday dinner this year. Well, perhaps “dinner” isn’t exactly the right word. There was no main course.

I’ve always been crazy for appetizers. In my family, when I was growing up, a pre-dinner drink was traditional for the adults: l'apéritif, in French (or l'apéro, for short). I, being a child, didn’t drink, of course – apart from the occasional tiny sip of wine or beer. Indeed, that is one way the Western European education differs from the North American one: children are not necessarily encouraged to drink, but they are not taught to see alcohol as a taboo, or a forbidden fruit. Instead, they are gradually taught to appreciate it in small doses, so that when they grow up, they know what it is like.

However, there weren’t only pre-dinner drinks in my family: there was also pre-dinner food. For me, a true apéritif needs some tasty snacks. For some reason, we called them zakouski in my family, which is the Russian word for appetizers – however, there is not a drop of Russian blood in my family, and there was nothing Russian about the appetizers themselves. It was just a habit of my parents to use that word. In fact, for the longest time, I thought it was a French word; in my head, it was spelled something like “les accousquis.”

So, as a child, since I couldn’t partake in the drinks, I would often indulge in the zakouski. They could range from very simple (cheese cubes and chips) to decadent (saucisson and stuffed olives) to fancy (salmon on puff pastry and vegetable-bresaola verrines), depending on whether we were entertaining guests or not.

The problem with appetizers is, it’s easy to have too many. I can’t even count the times I’ve overfilled on tasty zakouski and was left picking at my plate at the dinner table. The solution? How about a meal composed entirely of appetizers?

It just so happens that Laurent is especially fond of making appetizers. And he’s really good at it. He gets that from his father, the oft-mentioned Italian Gourmet, who can whip up some of the tastiest morsels I’ve ever seen. So, for my birthday, I requested an endless line-up of appetizers. I left the rest up to Laurent.

And he completely delivered. He made me a line-up of old favourites which he hadn’t made in quite a while. Among them was the lemon and crab dip which was featured in one of my very first entries on this blog. And also these sausage-and-pastry bites, which he had also treated me with before.

There were also some delightful salmon and curried crab spreads, which have never failed to wow me. And there were these little cheese crisps, which were crumbly, rich, and salty (recipe below).

He also made me bite-sized variations of filo- and puff pastry-based first courses we’ve made in the past: smoked salmon with a creamy onion concoction, and pear with broiled Fourme d’Ambert blue cheese (one of my favourite cheeses ever).

And finally, he made me the one thing I had specifically requested: spinach salad in a parmesan bowl. This is not exactly an appetizer, but it’s not a main course either, and more importantly, it’s something I am definitely afraid to make myself. Indeed, the bowls require melting the parmesan in the oven under very high heat until it bubbles, then taking it out and letting it cool just enough so that it is still malleable but on the verge of solidifying, so that you can shape it into bowls. I like to think that I can manage quite a bit in the kitchen, but this handling of semi-melting, still-boiling cheese is beyond me right now. But Laurent can do it. And the result is not only beautiful, it is delicious. I’m including the technique (I wouldn’t really call it a recipe) for those of you who feel up to the challenge.

But what about dessert, you ask? There was some, but Laurent didn’t make it. And neither did I. Although I consider cooking and baking to be a vacation from work, I just didn’t feel like eating my own desserts for my birthday. I was also a little short on time, having just met a school deadline. So instead of frantically beating egg whites on my birthday, I went out to buy a couple of luscious individually-sized portions of cake from the nearby bakery, Première Moisson, which has some absolutely delicious pastries: croquant au chocolate, and chocolate-raspberry mousse cake. Just what I needed.

And that’s how I spent my birthday. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I am spoiled, spoiled, spoiled. I guess I’ll just have to try harder to deserve all of it.

Cheese crisps
Adapted from Apéro (Marabout collection)

Makes 40 crisps

125g (4.5 oz, 7/8 cup) flour
1 tsp curry powder
125g (4.5 oz, 2/3 cup) butter
75g (2.7 oz) parmesan, grated
80g (2.8 oz) cheddar, grated
20g (0.8 oz) blue cheese, crumbled
1 tbsp lemon juice
Paprika, for sprinkling

Combine the flour, curry and butter, in a blender or by hand, until you obtain a coarse mealy mixture. Incorporate the cheddar, blue cheese, 2/3 of the parmesan and the lemon juice. Shape the dough into a ball.

Roll the dough into a 30 cm (12.5 inch) log. Wrap tightly with plastic film and refrigerate for an hour.

Preheat oven to 200 °C (400 °F) and line a baking sheet (or two) with parchment paper. Take the dough out of the fridge and slice it into 5 mm (1/4 inch) discs. Arrange the discs on the prepared baking sheet, 1 cm (1/2 inch) apart. Sprinkle with remaining parmesan and the paprika. Bake for approximately 15 minutes, until golden. Let cool on baking sheet. Store in an airtight container.

Laurent’s Sweet Spinach Salad in a Parmesan Bowl

Serves one

Approximately 80 ml (1/3 cup) grated parmesan
1 tbsp paprika
360 ml (1 1/2 cups) fresh baby spinach
1 small ripe pear
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp wholegrain mustard (moutarde à l’ancienne)
2 tbsp cider vinegar (or balsamic, for a sweeter taste)
1 tbsp honey
Salt and pepper to taste

Combine the parmesan and paprika. Spread the mixture on a baking sheet, to form a 10 cm (4 inch) disc. Take another baking sheet and place a bowl on it, upside down.

Place a rack in the center of your oven and set on “broil.” Put the cheese mixture in the oven and keep an eye on it. After about a minute, the mixture will begin to spread and bubble. The bubbles will start off large and slow; when they are small and close together, take the cheese out of the oven.

Let cool for about 1 minute. This stage is a little tricky, and the cooling time may vary. You want the cheese mixture to have solidified enough to hold together, but still be liquid enough to be malleable. Test the texture with a wide spatula a few times until it feels right. Then, quickly remove the mixture from the baking sheet with your spatula and spread it over the upside down bowl you prepared earlier. Shape the cheese into a bowl (or a deep dish of some sort). Let cool and harden completely.

When ready to serve, fill the bowl with fresh spinach. Peel the pear, slice or dice it, and arrange it with the spinach. Mix the remaining ingredients to make the dressing and drizzle over the salad.

Note: if making several bowls, make them one by one – no multitasking here!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Post-birthday Baking Bash - Peter Reinhart's Poolish Focaccia

It was my birthday last week. 26. The year you officially turn closer to thirty than twenty. It wasn’t as traumatizing as I thought it would be. After all, getting older also means I’ve had more time to accomplish things; and I’m looking forward to getting more things done for the year to come.

Laurent made me a scrumptious dinner to celebrate, and most of his presents also reflected my interest in food, as well as this blog. I’ve actually been using one of the presents for a few weeks now: a Lowel EGO light, for food photography. I’m still learning to use it optimally, but it has definitely made taking adequate pictures much easier: I don’t have to wait for the sunlight to hit my window anymore!

I also got Martha Stewart’s Cupcakes. I don’t make cupcakes very often, but I’ve always thought of them as a handy treat to bring to a party or gathering, and I have long thought I should learn to make good ones. I haven’t tried a recipe yet, but I will soon!

And the other cookbook I received was one I had been anxiously expecting: Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. Finally, the secrets of bread baking would be revealed to me!

Well, they may have been revealed, but I’m not sure I absorbed them all. I got the gist of what enzymes do, and why bread formulas are useful, but a lot of details were lost on me. But rather than go over them again, I decided to just go for it and try one of the recipes. I couldn’t wait to get my hands in the dough.

Well, I did have to wait a little bit, because I chose to make the poolish focaccia, which takes two days to make. I wanted to make a type of bread which I had already baked at least once, so that I could tell the difference between Reinhart’s version and the others. Also, Nicole at Pinch My Salt had so much praise for this particular focaccia, that I had to try it out for myself.

So, I made the poolish, which is a very wet pre-ferment composed of water, yeast and flour, and let it hang out on the counter for a couple of hours, as indicated. It bubbled and foamed so much that it looked like it was trying to escape from its bowl and eat my pet rabbit. I then let it chill out in the fridge overnight.

The next day, having dreamt about dough all night (yes, I was that excited), I got to work bright and early. Well, the first step consisted in bringing the poolish back to room temperature – which meant more waiting. After an hour out of the fridge, the poolish had definitely woken up, and was bubbling and trying to push its way through the plastic film I had covered it with. Scary!

After that, I was finally allowed to actually make the dough. I mixed it by hand, and felt that particular glee that you can see on little children’s faces when they’re playing in the mud. It took me a while to accept that cooking and baking are messy businesses – but now that I have, I revel in the clouds of flour and the sticky hands.

There wasn’t much kneading involved for this recipe, as the dough had to remain soft and sticky. I transferred it to the very large brand-new cutting board I had just bought, and proceeded to stretching and folding it every 30 minutes, three times over. Then I let it ferment and grow for an hour.

And boy, did it ever grow.

While that was going on, I was busy in the living room, garnishing the raspberry macarons I had baked the previous day (I literally spent two whole days in front of the oven). Laurent walked by while I was doing that, and gasped in delight at the sight of the lovely little bright pink jewels in front of me (which I will post about some other day). Then he walked into the kitchen – and gasped in shock.

The focaccia dough had risen to ridiculous proportions. I had already noticed that it seemed rather larger than the pictures in the book to begin with, but now it was officially a monster. I still have no idea what could have made it so… alive. Maybe it all started with that freaky poolish… But how would I know?

I transferred it to an oiled baking sheet, and let it proof. The point of this last rise was to have the focaccia fill the baking sheet entirely; but to be honest, it practically filled it from the moment I put it there – it was that big. Still, I let it proof some more, for as long as I could without panicking that my bread would come out too yeasty. But when it looked like this:

even after I had seasoned it and dimpled it with my fingers (a sensual experience if there ever was one), I decided enough was enough, and pre-heated my oven.

So much for Peter Reinhart’s preference for a flat, cripsy focaccia. I knew this was going to be a puffy beast (or, in Reinhart's words, "obnoxiously thick") before I even put it in the oven.

Although, to be fair, it did come out quite crispy – at least on the outside. It had a beautiful colour, and a nice, thin crust. The whole thing was very puffy, to be sure, but it wasn’t as overly chewy as I had feared. And the crumb? It was without contest the best I had ever made: cool and flavourful, and full of airy holes. So really, it doesn’t matter so much that I didn’t get this exactly right the first time: it was still a damn good bread.

I chose not to use overly strong toppings, so as not to mask the taste of the bread itself. I just drizzled on some extra-virgin olive oil, and sprinkled some fresh rosemary, fleur de sel, dried red pepper flakes, and freshly ground pepper. But this is definitely a bread I will make again and again, with endless variations. It’s certainly a lengthier process than the focaccias I’ve baked before, but the improvement is noticeable. Not that the previous focaccias were bad (I will happily continue making them on days when I’m short on time) – but this one is better.

The first third was eaten with vegetable soup. The second was eaten two days later, in delicious BLTs. I’m not sure what will happen to the last third, but I have a feeling we’ll be fighting over it: even though the bread isn’t quite as good as on the day it was made, it will still make killer toast.

I am one spoiled kitchen princess.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

What happens in the kitchen stays in the kitchen - Torta alla Caprese

As I bake more often, I find myself growing a little better at covering up my little accidents.

For example, could you tell this cake exploded in the oven?

Actually, it didn’t explode: it erupted. Originally, this flourless chocolate cake is called a Torta alla Caprese, popularized in Quebec by the fabulous Josée di Stasio – but after this ordeal, we have renamed it Mount Vesuvius (you know, the volcano).

Laurent and I have often made this cake together. It’s often our go-to recipe when we need to bring dessert for a potluck. It’s both fluffy and rich, always moist, it keeps like a dream, and contains enough dark chocolate and caffeine to keep you jittery all night long. If I had to take one chocolate recipe with me on a desert island, this might just be it.

The Torta alla Caprese is also very simple to make. It has never let us down before, so I’m really quite confused about what happened this time. As the cake baked, the batter rose so much that it completely overflowed from the mould and covered it entirely. Laurent has been known to be a little heavy-handed with the baking powder, but this was ridiculous.

Well, a major trim with a small knife was enough to make the cake look just about normal again (and we got to eat all the leftover trimmings, tee hee). The people at the potluck never knew they were eating a wannabe-volcano.

Sorry for the poor quality of the picture, but we were in a hurry. I also wish I had a picture of a slice, so I could show you the cake’s wonderful texture. But it never made it back from the potluck, so you’ll just have to trust me: this torta is a pure delight. Go make it. Now.

The recipe is available here in French, but here’s a loose translation:

Torta alla Caprese
From Josée di Stasio’s Pasta et Cetera

Serves 8 to 10

200g (7 0z) dark chocolate, chopped
200g / 250ml (7 oz / 1 cup) butter
60ml (1/4 cup) espresso
280g / 500ml (9.5 oz / 2 cups) almond meal
1 tbsp baking powder
190g / 250ml sugar
5 large eggs
Cocoa or icing sugar, for dusting

Preheat oven to 180 ºC (350 ºF). Butter and flour a 25cm (10 inch) pie mould with a removable bottom.

In a double boiler, melt the butter and chocolate. Remove from heat, add the espresso and let cool.

In a medium bowl, combine the almond meal and the baking powder. Reserve.

In a large bowl, with an electric beater, whisk the whole eggs with the sugar until primrose in colour, about 5 minutes. Incorporate the almond mixture. Then incorporate the chocolate mixture.

Pour mixture into the prepared mould. Bake about 40 minutes, until the cake is firm to the touch. It will solidify further as it cools, so don’t worry if the center still looks a tad soft. Let cool in mould for at least 4 hours.

Dust with icing sugar or cocoa before serving.