Saturday, March 28, 2009

March Madness - Homemade Lasagna

The Daring Bakers have struck again. This challenge was new to me so I was very excited. Homemade Lasagna - pasta and all!
The March 2009 challenge is hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande. They have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge.

This challenge was going to require time, patience, and a little arm strength. We were allowed to use a pasta maker, but I wanted to make this authentically, by hand with an old fashioned rolling pin. Was I mad?!?

Having never made pasta from scratch, I was a little intimidated. Thank goodness for YouTube. Believe it or not, there are many videos of very experienced Italian Nonna's rolling out pasta by hand. It is truly an art. After enough research, I was ready. Because this recipe is truly authentic, I chose to make my ragu and bechamel a day early. That allowed me to have a day to focus on the pasta making and layering. This could have been a one day endeavor, but I chose to make it over a lazy weekend.

I was either out of my mind, or super confident, but I invited a group of friends over for a Sunday lunch of lasagna and salad. My friends were not only very brave, but very gracious. I knew it passed the test when folks went back for seconds! It was a success.

All recipes below from The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food by Lynne Rossetto Kasper (published by William Morrow and Company Inc., 1992).

Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna (Lasagne Verdi al Forno)
(Serves 8 to 10 as a first course, 6 to 8 as a main dish)

Preparation Time: 15 minutes to assemble and 40 minutes cooking time

10 quarts (9 litres) salted water
1 recipe Spinach Pasta cut for lasagna (recipe follows)#1
1 recipe Bechamel Sauce (recipe follows)#2
1 recipe Country Style Ragu (recipe follows)#3
1 cup (4 ounces/125g) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Working Ahead:
The ragu and the béchamel sauce can be made up to three days ahead. The ragu can also be frozen for up to one month. The pasta can be rolled out, cut and dried up to 24 hours before cooking. The assembled lasagne can wait at room temperature (20 degrees Celsius/68 degrees Fahrenheit) about 1 hour before baking. Do not refrigerate it before baking, as the topping of béchamel and cheese will overcook by the time the center is hot.

Assembling the Ingredients:
Have all the sauces, rewarmed gently over a medium heat, and the pasta at hand. Have a large perforated skimmer and a large bowl of cold water next to the stove. Spread a double thickness of paper towels over a large counter space. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius). Oil or butter a 3 quart (approx 3 litre) shallow baking dish.

Cooking the Pasta:
Bring the salted water to a boil. Drop about four pieces of pasta in the water at a time. Cook about 2 minutes. If you are using dried pasta, cook about 4 minutes, taste, and cook longer if necessary. The pasta will continue cooking during baking, so make sure it is only barely tender. Lift the lasagne from the water with a skimmer, drain, and then slip into the bowl of cold water to stop cooking. When cool, lift out and dry on the paper towels. Repeat until all the pasta is cooked.

Assembling the Lasagne:
Spread a thin layer of béchamel over the bottom of the baking dish. Arrange a layer of about four overlapping sheets of pasta over the béchamel. Spread a thin layer of béchamel (about 3 or 4 spoonfuls) over the pasta, and then an equally thin layer of the ragu. Sprinkle with about 1&1/2 tablespoons of the béchamel and about 1/3 cup of the cheese. Repeat the layers until all ingredients are used, finishing with béchamel sauce and topping with a generous dusting of cheese.

Baking and Serving the Lasagne:
Cover the baking dish lightly with foil, taking care not to let it touch the top of the lasagne. Bake 40 minutes, or until almost heated through. Remove the foil and bake another 10 minutes, or until hot in the center (test by inserting a knife – if it comes out very warm, the dish is ready). Take care not to brown the cheese topping. It should be melted, creamy looking and barely tinged with a little gold. Turn off the oven, leave the door ajar and let the lasagne rest for about 10 minutes. Then serve. This is not a solid lasagne, but a moist one that slips a bit when it is cut and served.

#1 Spinach Egg Pasta (Pasta Verde)

Preparation: 45 minutes

Makes enough for 6 to 8 first course servings or 4 to 6 main course servings, equivalent to 1 pound (450g) dried boxed pasta.

2 jumbo eggs (2 ounces/60g or more)
10 ounces (300g) fresh spinach, rinsed dry, and finely chopped; or 6 ounces (170g) frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry
3&1/2 cups (14 ounces/400g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour (organic stone ground preferred)

Working by Hand:


A roomy work surface, 24 to 30 inches deep by 30 to 36 inches (60cm to 77cm deep by 60cm to 92cm). Any smooth surface will do, but marble cools dough slightly, making it less flexible than desired.

A pastry scraper and a small wooden spoon for blending the dough.

A wooden dowel-style rolling pin. In Italy, pasta makers use one about 35 inches long and 2 inches thick (89cm long and 5cm thick). The shorter American-style pin with handles at either end can be used, but the longer it is, the easier it is to roll the pasta.
Note: although it is not traditional, Enza has successfully made pasta with a marble rolling pin, and this can be substituted for the wooden pin, if you have one.

Plastic wrap to wrap the resting dough and to cover rolled-out pasta waiting to be filled. It protects the pasta from drying out too quickly.

A sharp chef’s knife for cutting pasta sheets.

Cloth-covered chair backs, broom handles, or specially designed pasta racks found in cookware shops for draping the pasta.

Mixing the dough:
Mound the flour in the center of your work surface and make a well in the middle. Add the eggs and spinach. Use a wooden spoon to beat together the eggs and spinach. Then gradually start incorporating shallow scrapings of flour from the sides of the well into the liquid. As you work more and more flour into the liquid, the well’s sides may collapse. Use a pastry scraper to keep the liquids from running off and to incorporate the last bits of flour into the dough. Don’t worry if it looks like a hopelessly rough and messy lump.

With the aid of the scraper to scoop up unruly pieces, start kneading the dough. Once it becomes a cohesive mass, use the scraper to remove any bits of hard flour on the work surface – these will make the dough lumpy. Knead the dough for about 3 minutes. Its consistency should be elastic and a little sticky. If it is too sticky to move easily, knead in a few more tablespoons of flour. Continue kneading about 10 minutes, or until the dough has become satiny, smooth, and very elastic. It will feel alive under your hands. Do not shortcut this step. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, and let it relax at room temperature 30 minutes to 3 hours.

Stretching and Thinning:
If using an extra-long rolling pin work with half the dough at a time. With a regular-length rolling pin, roll out a quarter of the dough at a time and keep the rest of the dough wrapped. Lightly sprinkle a large work surface with flour. The idea is to stretch the dough rather than press down and push it. Shape it into a ball and begin rolling out to form a circle, frequently turning the disc of dough a quarter turn. As it thins outs, start rolling the disc back on the pin a quarter of the way toward the center and stretching it gently sideways by running the palms of your hands over the rolled-up dough from the center of the pin outward. Unroll, turn the disc a quarter turn, and repeat. Do twice more.

Stretch and even out the center of the disc by rolling the dough a quarter of the way back on the pin. Then gently push the rolling pin away from you with one hand while holding the sheet in place on the work surface with the other hand. Repeat three more times, turning the dough a quarter turn each time.

Repeat the two processes as the disc becomes larger and thinner. The goal is a sheet of even thickness. For lasagne, the sheet should be so thin that you can clearly see your hand through it and see colours. Cut into rectangles about 4 by 8 inches (10 x 20 cm). Note: Enza says that transparency is a crucial element of lasagne pasta and the dough should be rolled as thinly as possible. She says this is why her housekeeper has such strong arms!

Dry the pasta at room temperature and store in a sealed container or bag.

#2 Bechamel

Preparation Time: 15 minutes

4 tablespoons (2 ounces/60g) unsalted butter
4 tablespoons (2 ounces/60g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour, organic stone ground preferred
2&2/3 cups (approx 570ml) milk
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg to taste

Using a medium-sized saucepan, melt the butter over low to medium heat. Sift over the flour, whisk until smooth, and then stir (without stopping) for about 3 minutes. Whisk in the milk a little at a time and keep the mixture smooth. Bring to a slow simmer, and stir 3 to 4 minutes, or until the sauce thickens. Cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, until the sauce thickens. Season with salt, pepper, and a hint of nutmeg.

#3 Country Style Ragu’ (Ragu alla Contadina)

Preparation Time: Ingredient Preparation Time 30 minutes and Cooking time 2 hours

Makes enough sauce for 1 recipe fresh pasta or 1 pound/450g dried pasta)

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (45 mL)
2 ounces/60g pancetta, finely chopped
1 medium onion, minced
1 medium stalk celery with leaves, minced
1 small carrot, minced
4 ounces/125g boneless veal shoulder or round
4 ounces/125g pork loin, trimmed of fat, or 4 ounces/125g mild Italian sausage (made without fennel)
8 ounces/250g beef skirt steak, hanging tender, or boneless chuck blade or chuck center cut (in order of preference)
1 ounce/30g thinly sliced Prosciutto di Parma
2/3 cup (5 ounces/160ml) dry red wine
1 &1/2 cups (12 ounces/375ml) chicken or beef stock (homemade if possible)
2 cups (16 ounces/500ml) milk
3 canned plum tomatoes, drained
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Working Ahead:
The ragu can be made 3 days ahead. Cover and refrigerate. It also freezes well for up to 1 month. Skim the fat from the ragu’ before using it.

Browning the Ragu Base:
Heat the olive oil in a 12 inch (30cm) skillet (frying pan) over medium-high heat. Have a large saucepan handy to use once browning is complete. Add the pancetta and minced vegetables and sauté, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, 10 minutes, or until the onions barely begin to color. Coarsely grind all the meats together, including the prosciutto, in a food processor or meat grinder. Stir into the pan and slowly brown over medium heat. First the meats will give off a liquid and turn dull grey but, as the liquid evaporates, browning will begin. Stir often, scooping under the meats with the wooden spatula. Protect the brown glaze forming on the bottom of the pan by turning the heat down. Cook 15 minutes, or until the meats are a deep brown. Turn the contents of the skillet into a strainer and shake out the fat. Turn them into the saucepan and set over medium heat.

Reducing and Simmering: Add the wine to the skillet, lowering the heat so the sauce bubbles quietly. Stir occasionally until the wine has reduced by half, about 3 minutes. Scrape up the brown glaze as the wine bubbles. Then pour the reduced wine into the saucepan and set the skillet aside.

Stir ½ cup stock into the saucepan and let it bubble slowly, 10 minutes, or until totally evaporated. Repeat with another ½ cup stock. Stir in the last 1/2 cup stock along with the milk. Adjust heat so the liquid bubbles very slowly. Partially cover the pot, and cook 1 hour. Stir frequently to check for sticking.

Add the tomatoes, crushing them as they go into the pot. Cook uncovered, at a very slow bubble for another 45 minutes, or until the sauce resembles a thick, meaty stew. Season with salt and pepper.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Salmon Tartare Cornets

As the end of January looms, it is yet again that time to share this month's Daring Baker's Challenge with you. The Daring Bakers were kind enough to present two options: one very sweet and one very savory. I know this may shock all of my faithful readers out there, but I chose the savory route! That's right, no sugar in this recipe. What I will tell you is that it was delicious! It was a crowd pleaser and one that I will keep in my bag to do over and over again.  And here is a secret:  It was easy.

This month's challenge is brought to us by Karen of Bake My Day and Zorra of 1x umruehren bitte aka Kochtopf. They have chosen Tuiles from The Chocolate Book by Angélique Schmeink and Nougatine and Chocolate Tuiles from Michel Roux.

Now for those of us that really wanted to create a savory dish, they offered up Cornets by the renowned Thomas Keller. As soon as I saw this as an option, I knew that I had to attempt to feebly walk in Mr. Keller's footsteps and try those cornets. They were the same cornets  that I had enjoyed in a distant memory at the French Laundry. Would mine disappoint or stain my most glorious dining experience?

In the end, they were scrumptious. Due to my finicky oven, I didn't achieve the all-over golden brown color that Mr. Keller always delivers.  However, I will tell you, they tasted awesome. The flavors were perfectly balanced and when paired with champagne, I almost swooned.  In fact, I may have to book another reservation at The French Laundry to do an adequate comparison........ In the wise words of Cher Horowitz, "AS IF!"

Savory Cornet's filled with Salmon Tartare With Sweet Red Onion Creme Fraiche
From Thomas Keller "the French Laundry Cookbook"

1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons (65 grams/2.1/4 ounces) all purpose flour
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt (= 2/3 teaspoon table salt)**
8 tablespoons (114 grams/4 ounces) unsalted butter, softened but still cool to the touch
2 large egg whites, cold
2 tablespoons black sesame seeds

In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, sugar and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk the softened butter until it is completely smooth and mayonnaise-like in texture. Using a stiff spatula or spoon, beat the egg whites into the dry ingredients until completely incorporated and smooth. Whisk in the softened butter by thirds, scraping the sides of the bowl as necessary and whisking until the batter is creamy and without any lumps. Transfer the batter to a smaller container, as it will be easier to work with.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Make a 4-inch hollow circular stencil. Place Silpat on the counter (it is easier to work on the Silpat before it is put on the sheet pan). Place the stencil in one corner of the sheet and, holding the stencil flat against the Silpat, scoop some of the batter onto the back of an offset spatula and spread it in an even layer over the stencil. Then run the spatula over the entire stencil to remove any excess batter. After baking the first batch of cornets, you will be able to judge the correct thickness. You may need a little more or less batter to adjust the thickness of the cornets.

There should not be any holes in the batter. Lift the stencil and repeat the process to make as many rounds as you have molds or to fill the Silpat, leaving about 1 1/2 inches between the cornets. Sprinkle each cornet with a pinch of black sesame seeds.

Place the Silpat on a heavy baking sheet and bake for 4 to 6 minutes, or until the batter is set and you see it rippling from the heat. The cornets may have browned in some areas, but they will not be evenly browned at this point.

Open the oven door and place the baking sheet on the door.*** This will help keep the cornets warm as you roll them and prevent them from becoming too stiff to roll. Flip a cornet over on the sheet pan, sesame seed side down and place 4-1/2 inch cornet mold at the bottom of the round. If you are right-handed, you will want the pointed end on your left and the open end on your right. The tip of the mold should touch the lower left edge (at about 7 o'clock on a clock face) of the cornet.

Fold the bottom of the cornet and around the mold; it should remain on the sheet pan as you roll. Leave the cornet wrapped around the mold and continue to roll the cornets around molds; as you proceed, arrange the rolled cornets, seams side down, on the sheet pan so they lean against each other, to prevent from rolling.

When all the cornets are rolled, return them to the oven shelf, close the door, and bake for an additional 3 to 4 minutes to set the seams and color the cornets a golden brown. If the color is uneven, stand the cornets on end for a minute or so more, until the color is even. Remove the cornets from the oven and allow to cool just slightly, 30 seconds or so.
Gently remove the cornets from the molds and cool for several minutes on paper towels. Remove the Silpat from the baking sheet, wipe the excess butter from it, and allow it to cool down before spreading the next batch. Store the cornets for up to 2 days (for maximum flavor) in an airtight container.

Salmon Tartare
4 ounces salmon fillet, skin and any bones removed, finely minced
3/4 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
3/4 lemon oil
1 1/2 teaspoons finely minced chives
1 1/2 teaspoons finely minced shallots
1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt
small pinch of freshly ground white pepper

With a sharp knife, finely mince the salmon filet. Do not use a food processor. Mincing by hand will ensure the right texture. In a small bowl stir in the remaining ingredients and toss with the salmon. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, or up 12 hours.

Sweet Red Onion Creme Fraiche
1 tablespoon finely minced red onions
1/2 cup creme fracie
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground white pepper to taste

Place the red onions in a small strainer and rinse them under cold water for several seconds. Dry them in paper towels. In a small metal bowl, whisk the creme fraiche for about 30 seconds to 1 minute or until it holds soft peaks. Fold in the chopped onions and season to tastes with salt and white pepper. Transfer the onion cream to a container to cover and refrigerate until ready to serve or up to 6 hours.

To Assemble:
Fill just the top 1/2 inch of each cornet with the onion cream, leaving the bottom of the cone empty. Spoon about 1 1/2 teaspoons of the tartare over the onion cream and mold it into a dome resembling a scoop of ice cream.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Use Your Words

It's not like I'm an award winning author for goodness sake!  It seems impossible that I'm suffering from writer's block with my little ol' blog.  But, I am, sigh.  I baked these little gems for the holidays - twice.  They were that good.  I've been wanting to share them with you, but I just couldn't find the words.  

The first time I tasted these cookies I was utterly giddy, ridiculously happy, and quite anxious to write about them.  They were awesome.  When baked, the result becomes a buttery tender cookie that pops with the taste and the color of cranberry.  If you're not a cranberry fan, I imagine that you could substitute the cranberries for another fruit, though I couldn't do it.  Not after I tasted them.  The cranberries add the music to the dull dinner party.  

So, I can't explain why I had such writer's block.  Sometimes, I suppose, you just need to curl up in a comfy chair, close your eyes as you remember the aroma of fresh baked cookies, and then use your words.

Cranberry Walnut Cookies

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon of coarse salt
2 sticks (1 cup) of unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups dried cranberries
1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts
1 1/2 cups sweetened shredded coconut

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt in a bowl. Set aside.

Cream butter and sugars in a mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time and mix until just combined.  Reduce speed to low and slowly add the flour mixture. Mix until just combined. Don't over mix. Stir in cranberries, walnuts, and coconut.

Drop batter by heaping tablespoons onto baking sheets lined with a silicone mat or parchment paper, spacing 2 inches apart. Flatten slightly. Bake cookies until golden brown, 12 to 15 minutes. Transfer to a wire wrack to cool.

Monday, December 29, 2008

French Yule Log

Is 2008 really coming to an end?  When I look back on the year, it's hard to believe that we're about to close this chapter in our lives.  I can't imagine a better way to say goodbye to 2008 than with a challenging day in the kitchen, courtesy of The Daring Bakers, of course. 

This month's challenge is brought to us by the adventurous Hilda from Saffron and Blueberry and Marion from Il en Faut Peu Pour Etre Heureux. They have chosen a French Yule Log by Flore from Florilege Gourmand.

What is a French Yule Log? 

In France you can buy two kinds of Yule log, either the Genoise and Buttercream type, or what is more commonly purchased which is a frozen Yule Log very reminiscent of an ice cream cake, only often it’s not made of ice cream but rather frozen mousse of some sort. In French this is called an entremets which is sometimes loosely translated in English as simply a cream dessert. This also means that this recipe is not holiday-specific, it is also just a scrumptious dessert recipe.

This recipe comes almost entirely from the website, Florilège Gourmand, which belongs to Flore. Her website is in French and different portions of the recipe have been pulled from the recipes in the entremets section.

When I first read through the recipe, I was filled with trepidation.  It was intimidating at first.  After a deep breath or two,  I reread the recipe.  The second time through eased all anxiety.  It is a long recipe, but the individual elements are quite easy.   Organization is the key to making this elegant dessert.

December was in full swing and Jamie and I were having friends over for a little Christmas cheer.  I needed a dessert to compliment our dinner.  The French Yule Log was the perfect dessert.  It was stunning.  As you can see in the photo below, I was lucky to get a picture before it all disappeared!  My favorite layer was the praline crisp.  I had extra, so I used it to decorate the sides of this elegant dessert.

Be brave, take a deep breath, and give this French Yule Log a try.  

FRENCH YULE LOG OR ENTREMETS RECIPE by Flore of Florilège Gourmand

Element #1 Dacquoise Biscuit (Almond Cake)

Preparation time: 10 mn + 15 mn for baking.  
Equipment: 2 mixing bowls, hand or stand mixer with whisk attachment, spatula, baking pan such as a 10”x15” jelly-roll pan, parchment paper
Note:  Try to bake the Dacquoise the same day you assemble the log to keep it as moist as possible.

2.8 oz (3/4cup + 1Tbsp / 80g) almond meal
1.75 oz (1/2 cup / 50g) confectioner’s sugar
2Tbsp (15g) all-purpose flour
3.5oz (100g / ~100ml) about 3 medium egg whites
1.75 oz (4 Tbsp / 50g) granulated sugar

1. Finely mix the almond meal and the confectioner's sugar. (If you have a mixer, you can use it by pulsing the ingredients together for no longer than 30 seconds).
2. Sift the flour into the mix.
3. Beat the eggs whites, gradually adding the granulated sugar until stiff.
4. Pour the almond meal mixture into the egg whites and blend delicately with a spatula.
5. Grease a piece of parchment paper and line your baking pan with it.
6. Spread the batter on a piece of parchment paper to an area slightly larger than your desired shape (circle, long strip etc...) and to a height of 1/3 inches (8mm).
7. Bake at 350°F (180°C) for approximately 15 minutes (depends on your oven), until golden.
8. Let cool and cut to the desired shape.

Element #2 Dark Chocolate Mousse

Preparation time: 20mn
Equipment: stand or hand mixer with whisk attachment, thermometer, double boiler or equivalent, spatula
Note: You will see that a Pate a Bombe is mentioned in this recipe. A Pate a Bombe is a term used for egg yolks beaten with a sugar syrup, then aerated. It is the base used for many mousse and buttercream recipes. It makes mousses and buttercreams more stable, particularly if they are to be frozen, so that they do not melt as quickly or collapse under the weight of heavier items such as the crème brulee insert.

2.5 sheets gelatin or 5g / 1 + 1/4 tsp powdered gelatin
1.5 oz (3 Tbsp / 40g) granulated sugar
1 ½ tsp (10g) glucose or thick corn syrup
0.5 oz (15g) water
50g egg yolks (about 3 medium)
6.2 oz (175g) dark chocolate, coarsely chopped
1.5 cups (350g) heavy cream (35% fat content)

1. Soften the gelatin in cold water. (If using powdered gelatin, follow the directions on the package.)
2. Make a Pate a Bombe: Beat the egg yolks until very light in colour (approximately 5 minutes until almost white).
2a. Cook the sugar, glucose syrup and water on medium heat for approximately 3 minutes (if you have a candy thermometer, the mixture should reach 244°F (118°C). If you do not have a candy thermometer, test the sugar temperature by dipping the tip of a knife into the syrup then into a bowl of ice water, if it forms a soft ball in the water then you have reached the correct temperature.
2b. Add the sugar syrup to the beaten yolks carefully by pouring it into the mixture in a thin stream while continuing to beat the yolks. You can do this by hand but it’s easier to do this with an electric mixer.
2c. Continue beating until cool (approximately 5 minutes). The batter should become thick and foamy.
3. In a double boiler or equivalent, heat 2 tablespoons (30g) of cream to boiling. Add the chopped chocolate and stir until melted and smooth.
4. Whip the remainder of the cream until stiff.
5. Pour the melted chocolate over the softened gelatin, mixing well. Let the gelatin and chocolate cool slightly and then stir in ½ cup (100g) of WHIPPED cream to temper. Add the Pate a Bombe.
6. Add in the rest of the DWHIPPE cream (220g) mixing gently with a spatula.

Element #3 Dark Chocolate Ganache Insert

Preparation time: 10mn
Equipment: pan, whisk. If you have plunging mixer (a vertical hand mixer used to make soups and other liquids), it comes in handy.
Note: Because the ganache hardens as it cools, you should make it right before you intend to use it to facilitate piping it onto the log during assembly. Please be careful when caramelizing the sugar and then adding the cream. It may splatter and boil.

1.75 oz (4 Tbsp / 50g) granulated sugar
4.5oz (2/3 cup – 1 Tbsp/ 135g) heavy cream (35% fat content)
5 oz (135g) dark chocolate, finely chopped
3Tbsp + 1/2tsp (45g) unsalted butter softened

1. Make a caramel: Using the dry method, melt the sugar by spreading it in an even layer in a small saucepan with high sides. Heat over medium-high heat, watching it carefully as the sugar begins to melt. Never stir the mixture. As the sugar starts to melt, swirl the pan occasionally to allow the sugar to melt evenly. Cook to dark amber color (for most of you that means darker than last month’s challenge).
2. While the sugar is melting, heat the cream until boiling. Pour cream into the caramel and stir thoroughly. Be very careful as it may splatter and boil.
3. Pour the hot caramel-milk mixture over the dark chocolate. Wait 30 seconds and stir until smooth.
4. Add the softened butter and whip hard and fast. The chocolate should be smooth and shiny.

Element #4 Praline Feuillete (Crisp) Insert

Preparation time: 10 mn (+ optional 15mn if you make lace crepes)
Equipment: Small saucepan, baking sheet (if you make lace crepes).
Double boiler (or one small saucepan in another), wax paper, rolling pin (or I use an empty bottle of olive oil).
Note: Feuillete means layered (as in with leaves) so a Praline Feuillete is a Praline version of a delicate crisp. There are non-praline variations below. The crunch in this crisp comes from an ingredient which is called gavottes in French. Gavottes are lace-thin crepes. 

To make 2.1oz / 60g of gavottes (lace crepes - recipe by Ferich Mounia):
1/3 cup (80ml) whole milk
2/3 Tbsp (8g) unsalted butter
1/3 cup – 2tsp (35g) all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp / 0.5 oz (15g) beaten egg
1 tsp (3.5g) granulated sugar
½ tsp vegetable oil
1. Heat the milk and butter together until butter is completely melted. Remove from the heat.
2. Sift flour into milk-butter mixture while beating, add egg and granulated sugar. Make sure there are no lumps.
3. Grease a baking sheet and spread batter thinly over it.
4. Bake at 430°F (220°C) for a few minutes until the crepe is golden and crispy. Let cool.

Ingredients for the Praline Feuillete:
3.5 oz (100g) milk chocolate
1 2/3 Tbsp (25g) butter
2 Tbsp (1 oz / 30g) praline
2.1oz (60g) lace crepes(gavottes) 

1. Melt the chocolate and butter in a double boiler.
2. Add the praline and the coarsely crushed lace crepes. Mix quickly to thoroughly coat with the chocolate.
3. Spread between two sheets of wax paper to a size slightly larger than your desired shape. Refrigerate until hard.

Element #5 Vanilla Crème Brulée Insert

Preparation time: 15mn + 1h infusing + 1h baking
Equipment: Small saucepan, mixing bowl, baking mold, wax paper
Note: The vanilla crème brulée can be flavored differently by simply replacing the vanilla with something else e.g. cardamom, lavender, etc...

1/2 cup (115g) heavy cream (35% fat content)
½ cup (115g) whole milk
4 medium-sized (72g) egg yolks
0.75 oz (2 Tbsp / 25g) granulated sugar
1 vanilla bean

1. Heat the milk, cream, and scraped vanilla bean to just boiling. Remove from the stove and let the vanilla infuse for about 1 hour.
2. Whisk together the sugar and egg yolks (but do not beat until white).
3. Pour the vanilla-infused milk over the sugar/yolk mixture. Mix well.
4. Wipe with a very wet cloth and then cover your baking mold (whatever shape is going to fit on the inside of your Yule log/cake) with parchment paper. Pour the cream into the mold and bake at 210°F (100°C) for about 1 hour or until firm on the edges and slightly wobbly in the center.  Bake in a water bath.
5. Let cool and put in the freezer for at least 1 hour to firm up and facilitate the final assembly.

Element #6 Dark Chocolate Icing

Preparation time: 25 minutes (10mn if you don’t count softening the gelatin)
Equipment: Small bowl, small saucepan
Note: Because the icing gelifies quickly, you should make it at the last minute.
For other gelatin equivalencies or gelatin to agar-agar equivalencies, look at the notes for the mousse component.

4g / ½ Tbsp powdered gelatin or 2 sheets gelatin
¼ cup (60g) heavy cream (35 % fat content)
2.1 oz (5 Tbsp / 60g) granulated sugar
¼ cup (50g) water
1/3 cup (30g) unsweetened cocoa powder

1. Soften the gelatin in cold water for 15 minutes.
2. Boil the rest of the ingredients and cook an additional 3 minutes after boiling.
3. Add gelatin to the chocolate mixture. Mix well.
4. Let cool while checking the texture regularly. As soon as the mixture is smooth and coats a spoon well (it is starting to gelify), use immediately.
How To Assemble your French Yule Log

Depending on whether your mold is going to hold the assembly upside down until you unmold it or right side up, this order will be different.
You will want to tap your mold gently on the countertop after each time you pipe mousse in to get rid of any air bubbles.

1) Line your mold or pan, whatever its shape, with rhodoid (clear hard plastic, I usually use transparencies cut to the desired shape, it’s easier to find than cellulose acetate which is what rhodoid translates to in English) OR plastic film. Rhodoid will give you a smoother shape but you may have a hard time using it depending on the kind of mold you’re using.
2) Pipe one third of the Mousse component into the mold.
3) Take the Creme Brulee Insert out of the freezer at the last minute and set on top of the mousse. Press down gently to slightly ensconce it in the mousse.
4) Pipe second third of the Mousse component around and on top of the Creme Brulee Insert.
5) Cut the Praline/Crisp Insert to a size slightly smaller than your mold so that it can be surrounded by mousse. Lay it on top of the mousse you just piped into the mold.
6) Pipe the last third of the Mousse component on top of the Praline Insert.
7) Freeze for a few hours to set. Take out of the freezer.
8) Pipe the Ganache Insert onto the frozen mousse leaving a slight edge so that ganache doesn’t seep out when you set the Dacquoise on top.
9) Close with the Dacquoise.
Freeze until the next day.

If you are doing the assembly UPSIDE DOWN with ONE piece of Dacquoise on the BOTTOM ONLY the order is:
1) Mousse
2) Creme Brulee Insert
3) Mousse
4) Praline/Crisp Insert
5) Mousse
6) Ganache Insert
7) Dacquoise

Unmold the cake/log/whatever and set on a wire rack over a shallow pan.
Cover the cake with the icing.
Let set. Return to the freezer.
You may decorate your cake however you wish. The decorations can be set in the icing after it sets but before you return the cake to the freezer or you may attach them on top using extra ganache or leftover mousse, etc...
Transfer to the refrigerator no longer than ½ hour before serving as it may start to melt quickly depending on the elements you chose.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Snap, Crackle, Pop

There are so many wonderful things to say about a roaring fire. When there is a chill in the air, the warmth soothes your soul. Mesmerizing - watching the constant flicker of the flames brings calm.   The smell of a well-built fire brings memories of  childhood camping trips with roasted hot dogs and s'mores.  

The sound.  The snap, crackle, and pop of fresh logs on a fire becomes music to the audience intently watching the flickering flames.  

So, as I was sitting by the fire sipping my hot chocolate, the snap, crackle and pop of the fire reminded me of a favorite childhood cookie.  Chocolate Crackles.  I have it on personal authority that these little gems are Santa's favorite.  When I was a child, these cookies were my gift to Santa on Christmas Eve.  He always managed to leave a powdered sugar trail next to his empty glass of milk.   So as you contemplate your holiday baking, make sure you include a batch of these little wonders.  Once you taste these decadent treats, you'll never hear a fire the same way again.

Chocolate Crackles

8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon of salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cups packed light brown sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup milk

1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup confectioners' sugar

Melt chocolate over a double boiler, taking care not to get any water in the chocolate.  You can also microwave the chocolate in 15 second increments, stirring in between until melted.  Once melted, set aside and cool.

Meanwhile, sift together flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt.  

With an electric mixer with a paddle attachment, cream butter and brown sugar until pale and fluffy.  Add eggs and vanilla, beating until incorporated. Add melted chocolate and mix well.

With the mixer on low speed add 1/2 flour, then the milk, then the remaining flour.  Take care to mix well between each addition.   Divide dough into four equal pieces and wrap each one in plastic.  Refrigerate until firm, about 2 hours. 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Pinch off enough dough to roll into a 1-inch ball.  Roll it to completely cover it in granulated sugar.  Then roll it into confectioner's sugar to coat generously.

Space each cookie about 2 inches apart on a silicone baking mat.  Bake until the surfaces crack like the picture.  They take about 14 minutes.  Let cookies cool on wire wracks.  

Sunday, December 7, 2008

A Spoonful of Sugar

Baking with a child can be magical. Not in the enchanted forest way, but in a "fill your heart" happy way. Every little detail of the recipe occurs with presence. Whether it is cracking an egg or sifting the flour, a million questions are asked and hopefully patiently answered. There is total awareness of each step accompanied by thoughtful explanation. I am training another baker, after all!

So, when I found myself curled up on the couch with MaryJo, I was delighted when she wanted to bake. She really loves baking with her Aunt Nay Nay! I am so lucky. Our ritual is the same, she grabs a cookbook from my shelf and begins searching for the perfect recipe. She narrows it down to a few choices, and once we read the instructions, the pantry and timing help us make a decision. On this particular day, Molasses Spiced Cookies took the honor.

Baking is very therapeutic for me. When I am baking solo, there are times when I drift into the zone. It's more of a zen-like state, but nevertheless, I am baking and thinking - but not about each other. When you add a child to the mix, it's all about the baking. You are thinking about the ingredients, the techniques, and the "whys". And, at the end of the day, when it's time to sprinkle the cookies with sugar, the sugar becomes the pixie dust ending for this magical day.

This is the time of year when holiday baking goes into full gear. There are many cookies, cakes, pies, and confections to mix, stir, and bake. With Christmas parties and family gatherings, many goodies are expected, if not required.

So for the next few weeks, I will be posting more frequently. I have so much to share with you! Enjoy! And remember, when you need a little pixie dust, grab a child and get baking!

Molasses Cookies
adapted from
Baking From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon all-spice
Pinch of black pepper
1 1/2 sticks of unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup of packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup of molasses
1 egg

about 3/4 cup sugar for rolling and sprinkling

Whisk together the dry ingredients: flour, baking soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon, allspice and pepper. This ensures they are well distributed. With a mixer, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. And the brown sugar and molasses and beat until incorporated. Add the egg and beat until combined. Slowly add the flour, beating until just incorporated. Take care not to over mix once you add the flour. The last few turns of the spatula are best done by hand. You will have a creamy, soft dough. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for a least one hour.

When you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line your cookie sheets with parchment silicone mats. Put the sugar in a small bowl. Pinch off enough dough to form a 1-inch ball. Roll the dough between your palms to form a ball. Then roll the ball in the sugar to coat evenly. Place on the cookie sheet - two inches apart. Using a flat object, slightly press on the cookie dough to flatten. You are aiming for a thickness between 1/4 and 1/2 inch.

Bake the cookies for 12-14 minutes. When done, sprinkle the tops with sugar and transfer to a cooling rack.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

I Sometimes Ponder...

I can't believe it's been over 20 years since high school.  Where did the time go?  It seems like yesterday that I was sitting in Mrs. Goldstein's class taking a test about the structure of cells.  I will let you in on a little secret.  I never really enjoyed science.  In fact, other than human biology (and I'm sure you get my drift), science was really boring to me.  The truth is that I had very little interest in mitochondria, osmosis, and other such important topics.  That daily hour of science easily won the dubious honor of the worst hour of my day. For those who know me well, I'm sure you would have guessed math. You would be wrong, very very wrong.  Math was a close second, a very close second, but science won the prize.

I'm sure you're wondering what this confession has to do with baking. Well, I won't keep you in suspense any longer.   So, picture this scene.  Bellied up to my stove, I was lulled into deep thought by the rhythmic stirring.   As I was slowly stirring the very hot and fragrant mixture of butter and sugar in my saucepan, I was struck by the oddest thought, "Cooking is like science." I would have violently shuddered, but the sugar and butter smelled so good that it quelled the urge. Baking and Science in the same thought? In my thoughts? What is the matter with me!?!  How could my yin and yang collide in such glorious fashion?  

Well it did.  With all teasing aside, if you heat up sugar, you are not going to get hot sugar. With a little love and patience, you will have some form of caramel. If you add water, you will get a caramel syrup. If you add butter, you can coerce it into a warm toffee.  Add a little cream and you are on your way to chewy caramels.  Depending on the temperature and the length of time, your confection will either be chewy, crunchy, blond, dark blond, or - hopefully not - burnt.

My objective was to turn my confection into a wonderful toffee...hmmmm. Who doesn't love buttery, crunchy toffee?!?  If you hit the cooking time just right, you will have a wonderful flavored treat that will rival any Heath Bar out there.   The key to making toffee is not to cook it too long.  The color will turn from a toffee blond to a dark amber in a second.  You have to watch it carefully and be prepared to turn it out into your pan very quickly.  If you do cook it too long, not only will you get a burnt flavor, but the toffee will be way too chewy.  You will lose the toffee crunch.  The ingredients are simple.  And, it takes no time at all to make.  This is the perfect time of year to give it a try.  It makes a wonderful gift.  Who wouldn't love to unwrap a box of home made toffee?

The beauty with cooking and baking is the mere fact that you take simple foods and change their physical properties by adding heat and other ingredients. I sometimes ponder...if chemistry would have been this interesting, I may not have dropped it for accounting.


14 tablespoons (1 stick, plus 6 tablespoons) butter
1 1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons cold water
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Dash salt, fleur de sel if you have it
Semi-sweet chocolate chips
Chopped Pecans
Silpat on a baking sheet

Put butter, sugar, and water in a heavy pan on medium-high heat. Bring to a bubbling boil, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon for about 10 minutes. Remove spoon from pan, and cook until the toffee reaches a toffee color.  A little trick is to match the color to peanut butter. I know it is done when the color is the same as good ole' peanut butter. Some recipes will call for a candy thermometer, but I really found that once you achieve that toffee color, it is ready. Remove from heat and add vanilla and salt. Pour it directly onto the silpat and spread to a 1/4" thickness. Let it cool slightly. Sprinkle the top with chocolate chips. After about a minute, the chocolate chips will be soft. Take the back of a spoon and spread the chocolate. Immediately sprinkle the top with chopped pecans. Cool completely and break into pieces. Store in an airtight container.