Friday, March 27, 2015

Madeleines & eating well

It's all about the hump

Medeleines are the French iconic small sponge cakes. Marcel Proust had a famous “episode of the Madeleine,” in his widely respected novel, In Search of Lost Time (Remembrance of Things Past), published in early 1900s. A flashback caused by the exquisite pleasure of tasting a madeleine returned Proust to his childhood at Combray. The drama of the novel unfolded from then on.

“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me.”

Madeleines have a way of transporting me back to Paris

My episode with madeleine is nothing quite like what Proust had described, but madeleine invariably transports me back to Paris. I had the most cherished and vivid gastronomic experiences in (and outside of) Paris. If I have to reduce my French food experiences to one sight or thought: it would be the revelation when I read this menu posted in front of an elementary school on the Left Bank. This luncheon menu has made an indelible impression on me. It's clear that young children in France eat very well, everyday during the school-week! Eating well and healthfully starts early in life. What better time to start conditioning your palate and habits? A compelling approach, but not as common as we'd like elsewhere.

Eating well starts in elementary school in France

Corn, tomato, Emmenthal cheese salad with grape-seed oil
Breaded filet of fish and lemon
Cauliflower in white sauce
Raspberry apple compote
Vanilla flan

See what's on the menu? How I wish I could join in for lunch.

Too brown?
Madeleines not only evoke memories in the past, but also the hopes and dreams for the future of our modern food culture.

Enough diversion. Let's get back to the lemon madeleine recipe which comes from Dorie Greenspan.

I made these mini madeleines in batches, with and without the lemon glaze. I like them both. I baked two batches in two different ovens. With the second batch, I mistakenly selected the conventional oven setting – not convection. It took a few minutes longer, the cakes did not brown as much and the humps were not as pronounced as those baked with the convection setting, at which hot air circulates continuously. The dough inside was cooked; the toothpick came out clean. I guess thermal shock is critically important in searing the crust quickly, pushing out the bumps while keeping the inside of the cakes moist.

Dorie Greenspan's recommendation to load the madeleine pan in a preheated sheet pan in the oven works well. Honestly, the recommended 400°F temperature is too high for these mini cakes in my ovens. I lowered it to 375°F and may be it's still too high. The baking step is mission critical. The proper look of a madeleine depends on it. A convection oven seems to do a better job in baking madeleines. Recipe like this also reminds me how crucial it is to ensure the precision of oven temperature each time you bake. That’s on my to-do list: calibrating the oven temperature.

Note: This is my first time baking along with Tuesdays with Dorie (TWD) group. TWD is an active and diverse community of bakers. Good to know there is always someone out there with the right tips in decoding and perfecting the recipe. It's worth a visit to check out other lovely madeleines baked by other participants. Click here.

Time for tea

Monday, March 23, 2015

Marsala-baked Pears

So many things have to be done right before you can get a perfect pear from farm to market to kitchen to table. First of all, the pear must be picked when it is mature, but not fully ripe. Unlike other fruits, pears (the European varieties) are better ripened off the tree so they’re usually sold unripe. Every step of the way, pears need to be packaged and handled gently to avoid bruising. Bartlett, Anjou, or Bosc pears we find at the market all need time to cure and ripen after purchase. At home, I put pears in the pantry to be ripened at room temperature in a loosely closed paper bag. It takes at least a week.

How do you determine the point of perfect ripeness? The Bosc pears I used for baking here don’t change color at all as they ripen. The signal is a slight give to a gentle pressure at the neck. A ripe pear will often smell sweet at the blossom end when you sniff it.

From late summer through the winter months, I like to have a bag of pears around to be eaten fresh, or for salad and cooking. Their juiciness and sweetness makes good partner with bitter greens, winter squash or grilled meats, such as pork or duck. Slices of ripe pear pair well with prosciutto, blue cheese, as well as walnuts and hazelnuts. They make an appetizing dish anytime of the day. I come to love and appreciate the versatility and deliciousness of pears as I find more ways to use them.

Marsala wine is another pantry item I always have around. Made in Sicily, in the city of Marsala. It’s a naturally sweet, fortified wine with woody, subtle molasses-like flavors, which come from being aged in oak casks. Marsala lends sweets a unique Italian flavor: in biscotti, tiramisu and zabalione. If you don’t have Marsala, Madeira makes a good substitute.

Marsala adds a bit of roasted, savory quality and richness to the baked pears which turn golden with wrinkles, and a glistening glow, on the skin. I prefer the look of baked pears with skin. Not a fan of the naked look. More to skin than what meets the eye. The skin tasted soft and added a textural contrast.

There are only four ingredients in this recipe. So simple and straightforward to make, yet worthy to be included in menus at top restaurants. You don't even need to peel the skin. Time in the oven may take close to an hour, but mostly unattended. Fruits for dessert are such brilliant options for the health conscious crowd. You can serve the baked pears warm with mascarpone or a dollop of cream. Unabashedly, I wanted my second!

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Squash, Quince and Stilton Quiche

I have made this quiche several times in recent weeks, but for the wrong reasons! I just did not seem to get the right camera shots. The pastry shell did not turn out the way I expected. Since the first time I tasted this quiche, I cannot forget how delicious it was. So it would be ashamed not to share it here. Reluctantly, I soldiered on. Version 2.0, 3.0… In retrospect, multiple redo was only a small price to pay. Everyone who had eaten this quiche enjoyed the fantastic and unusual balance of flavor among the butternut squash, Stilton cheese and quince. There was the indescribable drama unfolding in the mouth --– with the sweet nuttiness of squash, the inescapable fermented sting of Stilton, the tanginess of quince and the smooth creaminess of the custard -– all dancing to the tune of perfect harmony. I did not expect a quiche dish could be as exciting as this one. The squash, quince and Stilton quiche, evidently, is not just another quiche dish.

This dish can be as easy as pie if you don’t insist on making your own short-crust pastry. In my noisy head, there was that uncompromising voice of resistance every time I tried to pick up a piecrust at the store. To make the long story short, I ended up making the pie dough. I have to admit: that was not my idea of fun, to put it mildly. It was terrifying to see the dough shrinking away from the edge of the pan and cracks bursting up on the base as it emerged from the oven, after hours of laboring, between rounds of chilling and thawing. Since there are so many good-quality ready-made piecrusts out there, why struggle? I don’t see a problem buying store-bought pie shells. Dear readers please don’t let the piecrust shell deter you from making this quiche. This quiche is worthy of giving in to all the objections you might have, real or self-imposed.

In Plenty More, the recipe title reads “membrillo and stilton quiche.” Membrillo casero, as I’ve found out, is quince paste which you can get at the cheese department in your local market or wine store. I found it in Trader Joe’s. You guess it, with all the cheeses. From my experience, the quince paste (from Trader Joe’s) melts quickly. I resolved that by saving a few pieces to be dotted on the quiche close to the end of baking. This way, the quince in its solid form stayed intact before completely dissolved in the oven heat. The quiche looks vibrant and colorful with the purple red of the quince calling for attention. Better yet, a very satisfying eat.

Note: I'm bringing this quiche and a cauliflower salad dish, both from Plenty More by Ottolenghi, for the March potluck at IHCC. Please check what other amazing dishes are on the offer by visiting the site.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Cauliflower, Grape, and Cheddar Salad

I've always been a fan of cauliflower since childhood. Over the years, I've found recipes to dress up this plain vegetable or transform it into something quite different. Among my favorites are: cauliflower puree (a.k.a. low-carb mashed potatoes) or aloo gobi (Indian cauliflower in a curry sauce, served with potatoes or tomatoes). These are spectacular dishes just the way I like the crunchy meaty texture of cauliflower. Now cauliflower has become trendy in the food world, it's high time to explore new ways to add to the repertoire.

In Britain, cauliflower is mostly dressed in a cream sauce. Sicilians smother it with chopped anchovies, saffron, currants and almonds and douse it in olive oil. Moroccans put it in tagines. Greeks combine it with tomatoes and dill. Are there any limits what you could do with this vegetable?

What's more exciting: cauliflower does not have to be white, pale and demure. Besides white, I've been spotting green, orange or purple heads of cauliflower in the market. They have pretty colors that hold during cooking. On top of that, techniques from all over the world can work together and meld into a dish that'd satisfy food lovers everywhere.

This recipe is lifted from Ottolenghi's Plenty More after Sami (who is on his team) tasted a similar one at NoMad, a restaurant in New York city run by well-regarded Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park. With all the chef talents behind this, I know I'd get something special.

I was thrilled how this dish turned out. The white cauliflower florets were roasted until golden brown and caramelized. Using grapes, cheddar cheese and hazelnuts was simply brilliant, adding just the right amount of acidity, creaminess and crunch to the dish. I won't change or add any ingredients to this recipe. This dish is perfectly and expertly composed. Whatever you may do, hold on to the grapes. They just about to steal the show with their unexpected sweetness.

A good Vermont aged cheddar cheese with a spicy chili flavor was my choice for this dish. Put in any of your favorite cheeses. Clearly, the quality and character of the cheese does matter to each bite. Manchego, aged Gouda, feta and Havarti are good companions for cauliflower.

From start to finish, the whole dish can be completed in less than half an hour. After roasting the cauliflower in the oven for 20-25 minites, the salad was dressed and assembled. The star ingredient bronzed, gorgeous and scrumptious. Ready for primetime!

Added Vermont aged cheddar cheese with chili flavor

Note: I'm bringing this salad and the squash, quince and Stilton quiche, both from Plenty More, for the March potluck at IHCC. Please check what other amazing dishes are on the offer by visiting the site.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Sourdough seeded bread

Naturally leavened seeded bread
This is a naturally leavened seeded bread with so much seeds in there, it reminds me of crackers. Deliciously good and nutty! The depth of flavor is delivered by a large heap of seeds: sunflower and sesame seeds and flaxseeds. (I added a small amount of pumpkin seeds as I ran out of sunflower seeds.) What's the key in bringing out the nuttiness? Roasting the sunflower and sesame seeds and soaking the flaxseeds.

This bread is closely related to the whole-wheat multigrain bread I've posted recently. Both recipes came from Jeffrey Hamelman's Bread. I like that he offered variations of similar kinds of bread in the book. You can really explore the differences in the many nuances of bread making. The differences between these two breads are in the ingredients and final proofing.

There are greater varieties of grains and seeds (upward of nine), but slightly lower in percentage (18% of amount of flour) in the multigrain bread. The sourdough seeded bread uses only three seeds (sunflower, sesame and flaxseeds), but with higher concentration (25%). The nuttiness of seeded bread comes through loud and clear. If you love seeds, this bread is for you.

There is no whole wheat flour in the seeded bread, although there is a small amount (8%) of whole rye flour in it.

The sourdough seeded bread was leavened by wild yeast. No commercial yeast was added to the dough. It doesn't mean you can't. That will speed up fermentation, but at the expense of flavor. Conversely, this naturally leavened bread requires longer proofing time which allows fuller flavor to develop. The tangy flavor of sourdough adds more oomph to this bread. Naturally leavened at full throttle vs. adding some instant yeast. Time vs. flavor. You have the control dial in your hand. The choice is yours between these two recipes. Or try them both!

I divided the dough in two and shaped them in two rectangular baking pans, lined with parchment paper for easy transfer into the final baking vessels. After the final rise, I transferred the first loaf into a similar size preheated cast iron rectangular pan. It went into the oven with a lid on. The other loaf had to be transferred into a slightly bigger oval preheated cast iron dutch oven. The dough flattened out somewhat in the middle, following the contour of the oval pan. Did not invert or score the dough this time. Sometimes you just want to leave the loaf to do its own thing. There you have it after 40 minutes of baking: two beautifully toasty brown seeded loaves.

Paired with some good extra-virgin olive oil, the flavor of this sourdough seeded bread really shines.

Shaped and baked in a cast iron rectangular pan
Shaped and baked in an oval dutch oven

The nutty full flavor of this bread pairs well with olive oil

Toasted seeds add a nuttiness to the flavor profile

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Whole-Wheat Multigrain Levain Bread

You can't judge a book by its cover. You can judge a loaf of bread by its look.

Start at the crust: a dark color, indicative of good caramelization, and a nice crunch. The ear on top by the score (where dough is cut before baking) should show dark and distinct layers with color variation. These are markers of proper dough treatment. On the inside: the open, large and irregular holes are signs that the bread had a long natural fermentation. If you are the baker, the nutty aroma wafting from the oven is an early signal that a good loaf is underway. Finally, it’s all about taste. All of the above crust and crumb characteristics should translate into remarkable bread flavor.

The higher the percentage of whole-wheat flour in the dough, the harder it is to maintain the open crumb structure. When I cut open this whole-wheat multigrain bread made with 50% whole wheat and found the relatively large irregular holes, I was overjoyed. One percent instant yeast was added to leaven the bread in addition to natural yeast. Sometimes it is convenient to reach for instant yeast. When you are short on time waiting for hours and opt for a shortened fermentation process. This bread took only two to three hours total for the initial and final rise. The addition of honey enhances the sweet note while tempering the tangy flavor associated with lengthy fermentation. There is a 100% naturally leavened version of this bread: please see sourdough seeded bread for details.

You can judge a loaf of bread by its look
The liquid levain and the soaker (adding water to the grains) were prepared overnight before mixing the final dough in the morning. I used a bag of King Arthur Flour’s grains blend, an assortment of whole oat berries, millet, rye and wheat flakes, as well as flax, poppy, sesame, and sunflower seeds. They are all suitable grains and seeds for the soaker. Whatever combination of grains and seeds you desire to use should be OK. Why not?

This bread is a real standout from a nutritional standpoint: 50% whole wheat flour and 18% grains. Not all the multigrain breads in the market-place are created equal. Check the ingredient list. For all you know, multigrain might mean refined wheat flour with a dash of refined corn flour. You’ll be surprised how small the percentages of whole wheat and grains are in the "multigrain" breads, unlike the real deal that comes out from your own oven.

The beautiful darker shade of brown of the crust came from honey. This breads were presented in two different looks: one round, one oval. Whatever shape it took on, each had an invariably complex flavor; every bite was as interesting as the last. Can't say the same about most breads out there of the whole-wheat varieties!

Yes, you are the judge.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Lemoniest Little Lemon Cake....or Not

Lemon lulu cake, by Mother Myrick’s in Manchester, Vermont, has been the unanimous choice for lemon cake among my family and friends for as long as I can remember. Lemon lulu is the bakery’s signature cake that can be mail-ordered anywhere in the world. I bought this cake more than I’ve bought any other cakes, for birthdays and dinner parties, for a singular reason: it has the most intense lemon flavor that I’m willing to pay good money for. Besides, it is light, moist and divine. We never have enough of it.

Over the years, I’ve tried baking an acceptable version of this cake. The closest I’ve come across is a lemon bundt cake recipe by Matt Lewis published by Food and Wine (F&W) magazine in 2012. It is a classic sort of “quatre-quarts” pound cake, but with less egg, like most bundt cakes. What stands out about F&W recipe is the amount of lemon zest. A third of a cup lightly packed zest from ten lemons, wait there is more, and lemon extract. The over-the-top lemon goodness set this cake apart as the lemoniest cake I’ve ever made in my kitchen. A friend of mine requested this cake for her birthday. No doubt, this is a winning recipe, safely tucked away on my hard drive. Still this is not the lemon lulu cake. Getting closer…

I can’t be more excited about baking what Christina Marsigliese from Scientifically Sweet (SS) proclaimed to be a perfect and the lemoniest loaf she has ever made, in the March challenge for ABC bakers. I followed the recipe with a few changes as well as with great expectation:

• Replaced 50% of all-purpose flour with white whole-wheat pastry flour
• Used 1/3 cup of finely grated zest from 10 Meyer lemons instead of 1 tbsp
• Baked the batter in two small bundt pans for 25 minutes, instead of a 9x5 rectangular pan
• Drizzled lemon syrup (made from equal weight of lemon juice and granulated sugar) on the cakes after 15-minute cooling, for extra lemon flavor

The SS recipe was easy to follow. The foaming technique: aerating the egg and sugar mixture by beating it more than five minutes until almost white, was similar to that used for a sponge cake. It probably helped build the light and flat top of the lemon cake. Other than that, I really can't tell the difference between this cake and those made using the creaming method (adding sugar and oil together).

What's most labor intensive? Grating ten lemons intended to intensify the lemon flavor. I was aware of the extra time it'd take since I have gone down that path a few times. How many recipes call for zest from ten lemons? I also knew the results would be worthy of my efforts. Unfortunately, it did not turn out to be the case this time. The lemon flavor came through loudly. Why shouldn't it, with more than double the amount of lemon zest and an extra dose of lemon syrup? The graininess of the cornmeal was off-putting. I craved creaminess, which was lacking in this cake, to balance the citrus flavor.

Don’t forget to check the lemoniest cakes other creative bakers from ABC have baked for the month of March.

Back to the drawing board, or visit Mother Myrick’s, or bake the F&W lemon bundt cake, for some lemon bliss!