Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Soup for a Sicky

Well, after all my praise about the fall season approaching, the weather that I so love has turned on me. Actually I think it's more of the fact that the weather can't make up its mind about what season it wants to be. A week ago it was a perfect 67 degrees and sunny, 88 and sticky a few days later, then a trip to Wisconsin over the weekend brought a 36 degree overnight low. My sinuses have given up trying to adjust and are now revolting. I have a mutiny going on in my face, and it's not even winter yet.

Feeling like this makes it hard to get motivated to cook anything for dinner, I had trouble bringing myself to make a sandwich last night. Thank god for my productive weekend two weeks ago in which I spent the morning making a huge pot of soup, and stored most of it in the freezer for just such an occasion.

This corn and potato chowder is a perfect soup for a sicky like me. It is comforting, hearty, and creamy, but not super thick, so it doesn't leave you feeling like a big lump if you accidentally eat two giant bowlfuls. If you use corn off the ears like I did, be forewarned that it is a bit of work, cutting the kernels off and milking the cobs takes some time and patience.

In my opinion, it would have been very much worth it had the corn been better quality, unfortunately, it wasn't the greatest. I would make this again before next year's sweet corn season comes around, but will probably take the easy route and go with frozen. If you do use frozen corn, I would recommend taking about 1 - 1 1/2 cups of the corn and puree it in a food processor before adding it to the soup, this will simulate the corn pulp that you would have extracted from the cobs.

Corn and Potato Chowder
recipe adapted from Foy Update

10 ears sweet corn
1 large vidalia onion, diced
1 1/2 lbs baby red potatoes, cut into 1/4 inch pieces
6 oz pancetta, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
4-5 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
6 cups chicken stock
2 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons minced parsley
2 teaspoons minced thyme
1 bay leaf
1 heaping tablespoon sugar
salt and pepper to taste

Prepare the corn first. Using a sharp knife, cut the kernels off the cobs and place in a bowl. Be sure not to cut too close to the cob, you want just the soft crisp nuggets of corn. Then you want to "milk" the corn cobs. This basically means you want to squeeze all the pulp and juice out of the cob, this will help make the soup nice and creamy. I used my microplane to gently grate the cobs of corn over a bowl. After I went over the entire cob with the microplane, I quickly ran the back of my knife down each cob to squish out the rest of the juice. This can get a bit messy, so use a large bowl and wear an apron.

In a large stock pot or dutch oven, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil over medium high heat. Add the pancetta and saute until most of the fat has rendered off and it is starting to get crispy, about 6-8 minutes. Remove the pancetta and set aside. Reduce heat to low and add the onions and butter. Cover and cook until onions have softened, stirring occasionally, about 12 minutes.

Add the garlic and saute for 1-2 minutes. Make a roux by sprinkling the flour over the onions and whisk for a minute or two until the flour has heated and is combined with the butter and onions. Slowly whisk in the stock and bring to a simmer.

Add the potatoes, bay leaf, thyme, corn pulp/juice, whole milk, and the cooked pancetta. Bring back to a simmer and cook over low heat for about 15-20 minutes, until potatoes are nice and tender. Add the corn, heavy cream and sugar, bring to a simmer again, and cook until corn kernels are tender but still crisp, about 10-15 minutes. Take out the bay leaf and serve topped with the chopped parsley and even some grated parmigiano reggiano.

The winter is coming, along with the colds, flu's, and sinus infections that come with it. I suggest you make this soup right now so you are armed and ready to battle it out.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

My First, and Hopefully Not Last, Wedding Cake

It ain't perfect, but in my opinion, it ain't too shabby for my first attempt. This was my first time working with fondant, my first time making a multi-tiered cake, my first time handling a 60-year old vintage cake topper and attempting not to break it. Early on this summer, two of my friends from college asked me if I would be so kind as to make their wedding cake. At first I laughed...then I realized they were serious.

These two blindly trusted my baking skills, and I thank them for it. This was an amazing learning experience, starting from scratch, with only a few online video tutorials, back episodes of "Amazing Wedding Cakes" from WE tv on my DVR, and a giant fondant rolling pin to assist me in this endeavor.

I spent a few months planning for this thing. I met with the bride and groom to discuss what they were looking for in their cake (size, shape, flavors, buttercream vs. fondant, colors, decorations etc.). From there we decided on a simple, two-tier, small-ish square cake. They were serving a tiramisu dessert at the end of dinner (they did get married at the Italian American Sports Hall of Fame after all) so they wouldn't need cake for everyone, just those who wanted a little extra something after a night of dancing and drinking. Also, we wanted to keep it simple because they were using the cake topper that their grandparents used back in 1954, and wanted to keep the focus on that, rather than any fancy decorations on the rest of the cake (not to mention that I have no business getting fancy on my first cake). Look at this thing, how awesome is this cake topper?

I cannot tell you how relieved I was to drop the topper off with the cake. The groom was teetering on one leg, and the bride was chipped at the hip, and I did not want to be responsible for destroying a family heirloom. I think I was almost more nervous about dropping the topper than the cake itself. Luckily none of the above occurred and everything got there in one piece.

We did a tasting about a month out from the wedding day. I presented them with four flavors of cake and four fillings, and they were able to mix and match and decide exactly what their wedding cake would taste like. The groom picked flavors for one tier, a devil's food dark chocolate cake with amaretto buttercream, and the bride picked flavors for the other tier; a banana cake with a banana cream filling. Hows that for cooperation? Now came the fun part...the baking!

Since I am no expert at this yet, I will show you my pictures and walk you through my schedule instead of going into detail with recipes and methods. Someday I hope to show you an exhaustive, detailed, perfect to the T, explanation of how to make a wedding cake, but I fear we are a long, long way from that day. So for now, here goes.

The wedding was on a friday at 3:00 pm. I needed to drop off the cake by noon that day to have enough time to go back home, get ready, and be presentable with no visible frosting in my hair in my pew at the church before the ceremony started.

Two weeks before the wedding, I began baking the layers. Cake freezes wonderfully, as long as you wrap it up well. Two to three coats of plastic wrap and a final layer of tin foil will do the job. One week before the wedding, I made and froze the buttercream, and made the fondant. Two days before the wedding, I made the banana cream filling and refrigerated it. I also cut all the cake boards to size and cut the ribbons to the correct length.

Crunch time. The day before the wedding, I torted, filled, and crumb coated both tiers. I also put the final, smooth-as-I-could-get-it layer of buttercream on each tier and left them in the refrigerator overnight.

If you are using non-perishable fillings such as a buttercream or ganache you can fondant your cakes a day ahead and leave them at room temp overnight. Since I had the banana filling, I had to refrigerate them up until right before the delivery.

It is apparently not a good thing to put a fondant covered cake in the the fridge. Bad things will happen, or so I hear. I chose not to push my luck.

I also made a little stand for the cake topper with a small round cut out of cardboard, covered with a piece of ribbon.

The morning of the wedding I woke up around 6 am to finish the cakes. I let the tiers sit out at room temp for about 20 minutes before covering them with fondant so that the buttercream underneath would have a little give and I would be able to smooth it better. I rolled out my fondant with a generous amount of powdered sugar, and covered my cakes. I had a good amount of air bubbles, so I got out a sterilized needle and went to town. I chalk this up to it being my first time using fondant if you don't count the styrofoam 'cakes' I covered a few months back for practice.

Using a small amount of hot glue, I secured the ribbon around the base of each layer. I then stuck some plastic dowels into each tier of the cake, removed them and cut them to proper size, the replaced them back into their holes. This helped support the second tier and the topper, making sure it they didn't sink down into the layer below.

Then I held on for dear life in the back seat of the car, yelling at my boyfriend every few blocks to drive slower and more carefully (in reality, he was doing a fine job, I was just really tired and scared that we were going to hit a pothole and the cake would going flying into the back of the driver seat. It didn't).

The cake was delivered without a hitch, and about fifteen minutes later I was a happy little clam with a strong bloody mary in my hand. I firmly believe that if you successfully make a two tiered wedding cake in your two-bedroom apartment kitchen, you deserve to drink hard alcohol before noon.

The wedding was beautiful, the reception amazingly fun, and the cake, delicious. Of course I was in the bathroom during the cake cutting...that just figures. Its okay though, hopefully, in time, there will be many more couples cutting into one of my cakes.

Here are the wonderful recipes I used:

Chocolate Devil's Food Cake
Banana Cake
Swiss Meringue Buttercream Frosting
Banana Cream Filling
Marshmallow Fondant

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

It's Fall Somewhere

The weather is finally starting to cool here in Chicago, I actually had reason to put on a turtleneck last week, and that excites me more than it probably should. My boyfriend made me watch a horror movie which, even more than the changing leaves or the brisk wind, signals that fall has arrived.

This past Saturday, I actually had a few hours to myself. I have been working crazy long hours between the design firm and the restaurant, so to be able to spend some quality time in the kitchen this weekend, was just what I needed. Up early, with the window open letting the chilly air and the sound of the rain into the kitchen, I, with my coffee in hand, spent the day making a giant pot of chowder, and an amazing pasta dish. It was the epitome of a perfect autumn morning, and it makes me look forward to many more to come.Unfortunately the temperature climbed back up near 80 Sunday and Monday, forcing me to put my turtlenecks and sweaters back into the closet, at least for the time being. This won't, however, stop me from cooking all things fall, I can tell you that much.

Lets talk about this pasta. This may be the best pasta dish I have ever made. At the very least, it's up there competing with the lasagna I made last winter. Rich, hearty, deep, cozy flavors, pungent cheese, creamy sauce, it really has it all. This was the perfect dish to usher in fall.

Homemade Tagliatelle with Brown Butter & Butternut Squash
serves 4-6

1 batch homemade tagliatelle, or about 1 pound of any dried or fresh pasta
(click here for pasta recipe, instead of cutting into rectangular sheets, cut into 1 1/2-inch wide strips)
1 small-medium butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
3-4 medium-large shallots, peeled and quartered
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon minced sage
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
salt and pepper to taste
crumbled Gorgonzola and chopped parsley to garnish

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Toss the cubed squash and shallots with the olive oil, season generously with salt and pepper, and spread evenly on a silpat lined baking sheet. Roast on the middle rack for 45 minutes to 1 hour, flipping the squash a few times, until browned and starting to caramelize.

Transfer 1/2 of the squash and all of the shallots to a food processor, (set the remaining squash cubes aside) along with the heavy cream and pulse until you have a smooth paste. If needed, add additional hot water and process until sauce has thinned enough to be able to coat the pasta. Set aside.

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Cook the fresh pasta for 4-5 minutes, or until just al dente.

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, melt the butter and cook for a few minutes until just starting to brown. Add the sage and fry for about a minute, stirring, until butter has turned a amber brown, and sage is fragrant. Reduce heat to medium-low and whisk in the squash puree to combine with the browned butter.

When the pasta is cooked, transfer directly from water to the skillet with the squash sauce and toss to combine. If sauce seems very thick or clumpy, add pasta water by the 1/4 cupfuls until sauce has evenly coated the pasta. Toss in the reserved cubed butternut squash, transfer to individual serving bowls and top with a generous amount of crumbled Gorgonzola cheese and fresh parsley.

Please make this sometime, but invite friends over to eat it with you. The reheated leftovers, while still very good, were much more dry and lacking that silky smooth texture that the sauce had when it was fresh from the skillet. Try it with a pumpkin beer for the full fall effect.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Creme Brulee Tartlets

How do you make creme brulee better than it already is? Add some cinnamon and vanilla bean, and put it inside a buttery, flaky pastry tart shell. That's how. Plus there is always the added bonus when making creme brulee of using a kitchen torch. There is nothing like a little pyrotechnics at 7:00 am on a saturday morning, am I right?

It may be a little more involved than your typical creme brulee, but it is so so worth it. Someone commented on the post I did about the mini fruit galettes, praising/giving me the crazy eye for taking the time to roll out each little disc of dough, and meticulously crimping each tart. Well folks, its true, I am kinda crazy. I will be the first to admit that. I take pleasure in the little things in life, and by 'little things' I mean teeny weeny food items. Making them is all part of the fun. Do most people like to sit at their center island for 12 hours rolling and re-rolling, filling and chilling, baking and cooling, freezing and thawing? No. But I do. I realize I am getting into Dr. Seuss territory here, so lets get on with the recipe.

I used the same pate brisee (short crust) recipe as I did for the mini stone fruit galettes. This made the baking marathon much easier by utilizing one component in two desserts, but they were so different from each other, that I don't think it was obvious. These rich little morsels are a fantastic addition to any dessert table, and next time you make creme brulee, think about putting it in a pastry shell, your taste buds will thank you.

Cinnamon & Vanilla Bean Creme Brulee Tartlets
adapted from Bourke Street Bakery Cookbook via AlmostBourdain.com
Makes about 20-24  3.25" Tartlets

720 ml heavy whipping cream
1/2 cinnamon stick
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise to expose seeds
10 egg yolks
80 grams granulated sugar, plus extra for torching
1 batch pate brisee, recipe below

In a large saucepan over medium-low heat, combine the cream, cinnamon stick, and vanilla bean and bring just to a simmer. Remove from heat, pour into a glass or metal bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for about 4 hours or overnight.

Reheat the cream mixture just to a boil, then remove from heat and set aside.

In a large metal or glass bowl, whisk the egg yolks and sugar for about a minute until the sugar is mostly dissolved.

Pour about 1/4 of the hot cream mixture through a sieve into the egg yolk mixture and whisk well to combine. Pour the rest of the cream through the sieve into the egg yolk mixture, and discard the leftover cinnamon stick and vanilla bean pod. Whisk well to combine.

Set bowl containing egg/cream mixture over a pot of barely simmering water to create a double boiler, making sure that the bottom of the bowl is not touching the water itself. Cook, whisking constantly (this will give you arm a fantastic workout) over the simmering water for 10-15 minutes. Note that if you double this recipe, you will be whisking for much longer, about 25-30 minutes.

Once the custard has thickened, remove from heat and whisk for another two minutes to start the cooling process. Let cool at room temperature for about an hour, whisking every 5-10 minutes or so to aid the cooling. Once it has cooled, set a layer of plastic wrap directly on the custard, this will prevent it from getting a skin, and chill overnight to set up a bit.

The next morning fill the tart shells (see directions below for pastry crusts) with the custard. You can overfill them a bit and then use a off set spatula to scrape any excess off the top, leaving a nice flat surface for the torched sugar. Once all the tarts are filled, chill them for at least 30 minutes before torching.

Sprinkle about a teaspoon or so of sugar in a thin layer over each tart, and use a kitchen torch to caramelize sugar. Concentrate mostly on the center, and torch gently around the edges being careful not to burn the edges of the pastry. Chill the tarts for another 30 minutes to reset the melted custard and sugar. You can sprinkle on some chopped nuts, or garnish with some fresh raspberries.

Pate Brisee Tart Shells
from Bourke Street Bakery Cookbook via AlmostBourdain.com
makes about 20-24 shells

400 grams (14 oz) unsalted butter, chilled, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 tablespoon white distilled vinegar
100 grams (3 1/2 oz) granulated sugar
2/3 cup water, chilled
665 grams (1 lb 7 1/2 oz) all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt

Remove butter from fridge 20 minutes before mixing.

In a small bowl, combine sugar, water, and vinegar, stir to aid the dissolving of the sugar. Set aside in refrigerator for 10 minutes. Then, stir again to completely dissolve sugar.

In a food processor, pulse the flour and salt together a few times to combine. Add the butter, and pulse in one second bursts about 3-4 times until butter is cut in and evenly dispersed. You should have visible chunks of butter in your flour mixture, this is where the flakiness comes from.

Pour mixture into a large bowl and make a little well in the middle of the flour. Pour the vinegar water mixture into the well and gently mix liquids into the flour with a fork. When liquid is evenly dispersed, dump dough out onto a clean surface and knead gently a few times, just until dough comes together in one cohesive ball. It may be a bit shaggy or falling apart, but that's okay, while it is resting the moisture will bind everything together.

Using a 4-inch round cookie cutter, cut 10-12 circles out of each disc of dough. Press each disc into a 3 1/4 inch fluted tart mould, being careful not to stretch the dough, as this will cause shrinkage when baking. Push the excess off the edge with your thumb, and make sure the dough gets into each nook and cranny of the tart mould. 

Freeze shells for at least 20 minutes before baking. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Line each tart shell with a small piece of tin foil and fill with beans, rice, or pie weights. This is called blind baking. It helps the dough to stay fairly compact and not puff up too much to give you ample room for your filling. Place tart shells on a baking sheet and bake for 20-25 minutes, until shells are a golden brown. You should flip the pans top to bottom and front to back halfway through for even baking. 

Let shells cool in moulds for at least 15 minutes, then gently un-mold and cool completely on a cooling rack. You can make these ahead of time, then freeze until ready to fill. 

Between these, the mini galettes, and the macarons, the bridal shower dessert table was a hit. The extra effort was absolutely appreciated by bride, groom, and guests alike. 

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

I Win

I win!! I feel the need to do a victory lap around the apartment. Maybe even around the block. I made a near perfect batch of macarons to serve at the most recent bridal shower I attended. I ate enough of them myself that I should probably extend that victory lap a few miles...

I had the feet, I had the cake-like interior with almost no air pocket, I had the shiny smooth shells, and for the VERY first time, they popped right off the baking sheet. I felt great, I was elated, I was feeling pretty good about myself, then the next pan exploded. Oh well, I will always have the memory of that first pan to cling to.

What did I do differently this time? Well a few things. First and foremost, I went back to the basics. I made plain ol' almond macarons. No other nut mixtures, no fruit powder, just egg whites, almond meal, sugar, and powdered sugar. That's it. No fancy stuff (well except for a bit of hot pink food coloring). This helped to rule out any inconsistencies that may have been caused by said additions. 

Secondly, I baked one pan at a time. I put an empty pan on in the lower third of the oven, put the macs in the top third oven the oven for the first 10 minutes. Then I took the empty pan out, and put the macs in the bottom third. This, I think, allowed the heat to the bottom of the pan be a little gentler for the first half of baking (thus not cracking/exploding shells) but still allowing the strong heat from the bottom for the second half of cooking to fully bake the guts of the cookie, achieving the cake-like interior. This is purely hypothesis, further testing and tasting may be needed. I think my neighbors and co-workers will be just fine with that. 

As soon as I figured this out, I went straight for the chocolate macarons. These are still pretty basic on the spectrum of never-ending macaron flavors. Just substituting a few tablespoons of powdered sugar for a few tablespoons of cocoa powder created lovely deep chocolate cookies. 

For the fillings this time, I used a dark chocolate ganache, a vanilla butter-cream, and blackberry preserves. The jam filled ones were actually my favorite. I only made them since the groom is lactose intolerant, but I sure am glad I did. 

Plain ol' Hot Pink Macarons
adapted from Tartelette

90 grams egg whites (aged, loosely covered at room temperature for 24 hours)
200 grams powdered sugar
25 grams granulated sugar
110 grams almond meal (I used Bob's Red Mill, but you can grind your own almonds as well)
a dab of gel food coloring (or a teaspoon of powdered food coloring)

In your food processor, combine the powdered sugar and almond meal, and pulse a few times to combine. Pour into a small bowl and set aside.

In the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites on medium-high speed until foamy, then gradually add the sugar and beat until a nice glossy meringue forms. This should take a minute or two on a medium high speed. Tartelette says it should look like shaving cream, I'd take her word for it, she is the master.

Transfer egg whites into a large bowl, add half of the powdered sugar/almond mixture, and your food coloring. With a large spatula, quickly fold the egg whites over themselves to let some of the air out, combining with the almond mixture. Add the rest of the almond mixture and fold gently until your batter has come together, no more than 50 strokes or so. You want a batter that if you let a clump fall off your spatula, it will spread and meld back into itself within ten seconds. If it stands up and does not spread at all, give the batter a few more folds until it does. My best advice here is to test it frequently when you think you are starting to get close to the end product, this will help you to not over mix your batter.

Line two rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper or silpats, and spoon batter into a piping bag fitted with a plain round tip (one with a fairly large opening). Pipe 1 1/5 inch rounds, evenly spaced, onto your baking sheet. Once all the macarons have been piped, pick up your baking sheet and drop it from about 6 inches above the counter. This impact will bring any air bubbles to the top of the macarons, and help them spread evenly. Do this a few times, then let the macarons sit at room temperature for about an before baking. This will create those nice shiny shells.

After the shells have rested, preheat oven to 300 degrees, place on rack in the top third and one in the bottom third of your oven. Bake one pan at a time, starting on the top shelf with an empty pan on the bottom shelf, and after about 10 minutes remove the empty pan and move the shells to the bottom shelf. bake for another 8-10 minutes (depending on the size of your shells), or until fully cooked.

Honestly the best way to tell if they are done, is to sacrifice one of you shells, pop it off the parchment and break it open. If it is gooey inside, bake for another few minutes, if it is done, take them out. If they are overdone, not to worry, after filling them and letting them age in the refrigerator for a day or two, they will most likely still be delicious.

Dark Chocolate Macarons

Same as above, omitting the food coloring and substituting 2 tablespoons of dark cocoa powder for 2 tablespoons of the powdered sugar. You can mix the cocoa powder in with the nut mixture before processing. 

Dark Chocolate Ganache

1 cup dark chocolate, chopped
1/2 heavy whipping cream

Place chocolate into a small glass or metal bowl. In a small saucepan over medium low heat, bring the cream just to a simmer and then pour over the chocolate. Leave the cream/chocolate mixture alone for two minutes. Gently whisk cream and chocolate together until smooth. Let cool until spreading consistency, about 5-10 minutes.

Vanilla Swiss Meringue Butter-cream
from Tartelette

1 cup of sugar
4 egg whites
3 sticks of unsalted butter, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a small metal or glass bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water, whisk together the egg whites and the sugar, whisking constantly until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture resembles marshmallow cream, about 3-4 minutes. Pour the mixture into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat on medium speed until the mixture has cooled a bit and has formed a thick, shiny meringue, about 5 minutes. Change over to the paddle attachment and beating on a medium speed, add the butter one tablespoon at a time, mixing until completely incorporated after each addition. After all the butter has been added, mix in the vanilla, then beat on medium-high speed for 8 minutes, until frosting is light and fluffy and smooth.

Fill macarons with about a tablespoon of butter-cream, ganache, or preserves, and refrigerate for at least 24 hours. This will fully develop the cookie, making them moist and cake-y, and most importantly, delicious. 

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