Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Apricot Walnut Lavender Cake

Best cake I've ever eaten

Desserts with a distinctly French accent have quickly filled up the page for sweets on this blog. Not clearly knowing why! It just happened. These are the delicious goodness of bouchons, eclairs, financiers, macarons, Madeleines and soufflé. I have to admit I can’t be happier making these delectable pastries, much less eating them.

What do you bake when the apricots are in season and the lavender plants are almost in bloom?

The apricot, walnut and lavender cake is yet another French dessert. Of all the chefs out there, I least expect this recipe to be coming from Ottenlenghi. Given his middle-eastern roots and style of cooking, it is easy to forget that he got his basic training at Le Cordon Bleu. In Plenty More, Ottolenghi wrote: “I seriously urge you to try this cake and not just as a French classic. It has a moist and soft crumb and a delicate fruity topping, and it will keep well for a few days.”

He has definitively delivered on all that. Ditto to his entire claim except, perhaps, the last part. Half of the cake was gone in record time before it has barely cooled down. It was insanely good. Sweet and tart. Nutty. Intensely moist. The faint scent and taste of lavender reminds you of French countryside. I’d seriously urge you to make this cake!

The best bite is the caramelized edge

This cake is gone in record time

Note: This cake can be made gluten free by substituting the small amount (90g) of all-purpose flour in the recipe with rice and quinoa flour. If you don't have apricots, other stone fruits may be worth a try. I made a cupcake version with this recipe. The cupcakes were just as good. But I tend to like the bigger cake which takes longer to bake and the caramelization on the crust gives more depth of flavor.

A gluten-free cupcake version

Apricot in season and lavender in bloom

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Quinoa and Sourdough Salad

This salad isn’t much short of a full meal served with the most loved items in my pantry: quinoa and sourdough bread. These are your everyday food — simple, wholesome and nourishing. They are not only good for the body, but the soul. Making sourdough breads, a tradition so ancient and universal, is what I firmly embrace as the essence and ritual in my kitchen.

This is the Memorial Day weekend, marking the arrival of easy summer living and with it, the glorious array of heirloom tomatoes, fresh fruits and vegetables. When tomatoes are sweet and delicious, not much is needed to dress them up for a salad dish like this. Ottolenghi put together this dish with a deft and restrained hand only he can muster.

There are a variety of fantastic sourdough recipes posted on this blog: overnight country blonde, Vermont sourdough and Tartine basic country loaf published by acclaimed master bakers around the country, Ken Forkish, Jeffery Hamelman and Chad Robertson, respectively. They are levain breads with very similar characteristics baked with 65-78% hydration dough and about 10% whole-wheat flour. I’ll be happy to serve up one of these artisanal breads to top off the salad bowl on any given day.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Matcha Financiers: Wheat/Almond Flour or Gluten-free

Wheat and almond flour version
When it comes to the choice between coffee and tea, my preference is not always clear. I like a strong cup of café latte in the morning and a more soothing green tea later in the day. When it comes to dessert, I do prefer a matcha financier than a coffee one. They are perfect sweet indulgence for an afternoon tea or coffee break or as after-dinner dessert.

In essence, financiers are almond cakes with brown butter. Don't be afraid to leave some dark bits of browned butter in the batter. They add flavor and give financiers a speckled appearance. The batter can be made ahead and chilled in the refrigerator. It won't take long before these cakes show up on the table.

I have used matcha in cheesecakes, which is one of my favorites. If you’ve never used matcha before, you might want to give this exquisite ingredient a try.

Matcha is Japan's oldest tea, brought back to Kyoto by Buddhist monks in the 9th century from China. Today the highest grade of matcha is still harvested there in the ancient tea gardens in Kyoto, where most all of Japan's best tea are grown. Matcha is a powdered tea made from shade-grown tencha leaves. A few weeks before harvesting, the tencha leaves are shaded over to boost the chlorophyll and other flavor compounds.

There are several grade levels of matcha tea. The top grade is called "thick tea," made from the finest shade grown spring tencha leaves harvested and is reserved for tea ceremonies. The next level of matcha produced is called "thin tea” for everyday use. A third, and least expensive, grade is the culinary or commercial grade matcha, used in baking to add color and flavor to cakes, ice cream, lattes, and other green tea flavorings.

A friend (of Japanese descent) gave me some high-quality matcha that I used to bake these financiers. You could notice that these financiers have a dark green color instead of a lighter shade of green we typically see in most green-tea flavored drinks or ice cream. The commercial grade generally contains addictives and other food coloring; hence a more vivid green. The finer and more expensive matcha would have been better presented in a small cup of tea instead of baked and combined with the dominating flavor of brown butter and almond flour. Lesson learned!

Gluten-free version

The color green is so appropriate for these little cakes named for the money crowd: les financiers of Paris. I came across a fig-hazelnut financiers recipe on the New York Times a few years ago and has adapted it for a gluten-free almond version using matcha powder for flavoring and color. David Lebovitz uses 1/4 tsp of baking powder (preferably aluminum-free) to leaven the batter and increases the amount of all-purpose and almond flour (using 60g and 75g, respectively). The rest of the recipe is the same. Won't hurt to give it a try next time. Recipes are guidelines. Feel free to diverge and take a path all your own.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Three-mushroom Pizza Pie

Mushroom mix gives visual and textural interest and jalapeno — shot of heat

Topped with 2 cheeses, 3 mushrooms, jalapeno & bechamel sauce
Jim Lahey’s no-knead home-kitchen bread recipes first published in the New York Times in 2006 by Mark Bittman. It was groundbreaking. His no-knead technique has been widely embraced by home bakers. Instead of kneading the dough, he adds a little yeast and extends fermentation to strengthen the dough. No kneading is needed. You don’t need a mixer either. All you need is a few ingredients: flour, salt, water, yeast and a preheated pot in a hot oven. More importantly, you need patience. The waiting time can be long. In the new paradigm, bread-making has more to do with the mindset.

Making Lahey’s three-mushroom pizza is a joy because I love all the ingredients in it: two kinds of cheese and three kinds of mushroom enriched by a velvety béchamel sauce. You might have noticed that I’ve been busy making white sauces lately (as in Rothschild souffle). Bechamel, a flour-butter-milk mixture, is a beautiful and versatile sauce that showcases the earthiness of the mushrooms without competing with them. (I don’t think the more assertive tomato sauce would work well here.) It is also light enough to enhance the taste of the dough without softening the bottom of the pie.

The mixed mushrooms include chanterelles, shitake caps and oyster. You could use one or any kind of mushroom you have around. The choice is yours. The three mushroom mix provides significant visual and textural interest. If you eat with your eye, like I do, you’d love all the notes like a small orchestra playing on this pie.

Another key component in this pizza not to be missed is the garlic confit — garlic cooked in oil to mellow it. This may involve another step to confit the garlic. But you’ll be happy to have the extra garlic confit on hand. It adds a less pungent garlic flavor to any dish, dressing or sauce. A big flavor booster without the sharpness and rawness of fresh garlic or ground garlic powder.

There is the elephant in the room: the pizza dough. The most impeccable toppings would not have a good pizza made. I have been making pizzas for a while and have not stayed with any single recipe. I kept on testing different flour, natural levain, fermentation technique and have not come up with the perfect dough recipe until this one. What works here is the simplicity of this dough. It uses all-purpose flour. It is a straight dough that uses active dry yeast and needs an overnight fermentation. The dough is well-behaved and stunningly easy to shape with your hands. The crust of the pie chars beautifully. I’ll be happy to make and eat this pie all day long.

To be able to make a thin crispy and terrific pizza like this, direct from your own oven to the table, is crazy wonder, no less.

Added feta cheese as well

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Sweet Ricotta with Mixed Berries

Diana Henry's Sweet Ricotta Cheese with Berries
Blackberry and Raspberry Tart in Puff Pastry
Berries with wine or liqueur

Mixed Berries with Riccota and Mint
This is so simple and yet so spectacular to pair fresh berries, with cream, pastry crust, herb or liqueur. Here I used ricotta cheese, beat it with confectioners' sugar. No recipe is needed. (I found a similar salad of blackberries, raspberries, melon and lemon thyme in Diana Henry's Plenty where she suggested sweet ricotta.) Taste the cream and adjust accordingly. Or you can use a combination of ricotta and mascarpone cheese, if you have some around. Creme fraiche goes well also. To make it a heathy dessert, or breakfast, use Greek yogurt with some honey instead.

Sprinkle some finely chopped mint on the plate. Lemon thyme is another nice herb to add to enhance the flavor of the berries.

When you are in the mood for it, add some wine or liqueur to the mixed berries. Ordinary wines are inevitably enhanced with the berries, and so are the berries. Add slices of strawberry in any red wine left in a glass at the end of the meal, you'd understand what I mean.

I use store-bought puff pastry. Bake it for about 40 minutes at a 400°F oven until the crust browns. Remove from the oven and cool slightly. Spread some berry jam on the pastry, then arrange fresh berries on top and serve. Minimal effort; maximum result.

Sweet, boozy, superfood and losses.... This post is dedicated to Deb from Hawaii (see IHCC post), whose mom just passed away. Our thoughts and prayers are with you and your family!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Pecan Pie in Puff Pastry

Lighter than conventional pecan pie, no sugar added
Pecan pie is such an American classic, but you seldom see it made in a puff pastry shell. Why not? I am curious to find out how a pecan pie in a French flaky buttery pastry shell would compare to its traditional counterpart.

The truth is: I am more inclined to make piecrusts than puff pastry shells. I’ve made puff pastry once, yes only once and that's enough, and concluded that I should leave that with the professionals in a temperature-control setting than to endure hours laminating a block of butter and floury dough in a home kitchen, turns after turns.

I have been buying Dafour puff pastry sheets. I found them very easy to work with and with good results. Much to my astonishment to see this store-bought variety with its perfect alternating multi-layers of butter and dough. Really neat! This takes months, if not years, of practice to master. Why bother? Good reasons to opt for a short cut instead of making my own dough.

I have made many crowd-pleasing tarts, sweet or savory, which can be casually assembled using pre-made puff pastry sheets. Almost a no brainer to toss in some nuts or fresh fruits you have around, filled with some cream or jam, you'd get something delectable as well as good-looking, in less than an hour, including time in the oven. I often find myself reaching for this easy and tempting approach, especially in a pinch.

This is my approach with this week's IHCC mystery challenge. (Visit here to see how more mysteries are being solved.) The pecan pie in puff pastry comes from Jacques Pepin and uses three mystery ingredients: vanilla, pecans and puff pastry. Mission accomplished!

As easy as pie to assemble with store-bought puff pastry

Adding lemon juice makes this pie less sweet
Substituted corn syrup with pure maple syrup

Friday, May 8, 2015

Overnight Country Blonde Levain Bread - Ken Forkish

I make bread on a regular basis at home. My breakthrough breadmaking came when I baked along with Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread. But that’s the start; I want to get better at it. I want to master the nuance and complexity that a quality loaf of crusty, earthy, supple bread entails. Meanwhile, I am still using store-bought flours and experimenting with and expanding on different bread recipes. Marveled at the crackling crust and the open crumb of some of my loaves and, at times, stumped and humbled by some sticky dough. That’s where I’m at!

Then I started reading Ken Forkisk’s Flour Water Salt Yeast. This gave me remarkable insights on how I can improve my bread-making skills. "Think of time and temperature as ingredients." "Use more water than conventional recipes allow." "Push the fermentation to just shy of the limits to get the best flavors." These are the guidelines I need to internalize. Forkish’s clear and succinct writing and couching style is reassuring. Now it’s time for some baking, starting with overnight country blonde, a basic natural levain bread that resembles Tartine’s basic country loaf.

Forkish methodology is a little different from Tartine’s that I’ve grown accustomed to. I have to put them side-by-side on a spreadsheet to better appreciate the similarities and differences in their individual approach. The comparisons inform how I could improve on my own working procedures and schedules. Keeping track of the details of what I did also help to fine-tune the breadmaking process. Fine-tuning while finding my own style is perhaps the hardest part of the journey!

Here is my takeaway comparing Tartine vs Forkish country bread, as shown below:

  • Both Tartine basic country bread (Tartine) and Forkish country blonde (Forkish) are excellent. It'd be akin to hairsplitting if I say that one is better than the other.
  • Tartine and Forkish have similar hydration level of roughly 77-78% using 90% white flour in the total flour amount. 
  • While Tartine uses one tablespoon of starter to build 400g of levain, Forkish uses 100g to build 1000g, which results in a greater amount of levain being discarded. 
  • Salt and small amount of water are added to the Tartine dough (levain and all) after 30 minutes of resting period, at which point the dough is relaxed, cohesive and easy to work with. Meanwhile salt and all of the 216g of levain are incorporated into the autolyse mixture to make the final Forkish dough, which I find much wetter and stickier to handle.
  • Bulk fermentation is 3 to 4-hr at 80°-85°F for Tartine and 12 to 15-hr at 77°-78°F temperature for Forkish. The longer fermentation of Forkish dough necessitates baking the bread the next day, spanning a two-day process from the time you mix the dough.
  • The longer bulk fermentation of the Forkish dough imparts a much sourer note in the finished loaf.
  • The higher oven temperature in baking the Tartine dough often results in a thicker and burnished crust, especially on the bottom.

I submitted this post to The Fresh Loaf.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Mollet Eggs Florentine (Foolproof)

Sous vide mollet eggs Florentine

Mollet, means soft in French, refers to eggs that are soft boiled in water to the texture when the yolks are creamy and the whites less watery than in soft-cooked eggs. Egg mollet is a stage between soft- and hard-boiled. How many times have I attempted to cook soft- or hard-boiled eggs and hit the mark? In less time than I'd like to admit. Timing is everything; those of us who toil, and play, in the kitchen know all too well.

Pepin gave very detailed instructions; I greatly appreciate that. Use a shallow saucepan about 8 inches wide and 3 inches deep. Puncture the round end of each egg with a pushpin to prevent the shells from cracking. Use a small sieve to lower the eggs into the boiling water and let it come back to a simmer. Cook for about 6 minutes. Pour the water out and shake the pan to crack the eggshells. Cool thoroughly.

So the key is 6-minute cooking time. Well and good! I've been relying on an even more precise and most forgiving cooking method. You'd get the same consistent results and with a high degree of confidence at that. No matter whether you are doing it for the first time or 100 times, provided you adhere to the same set of simple instructions regarding time and temperature. Think science lab. Better still, you can get the same predictable result whether you are cooking one egg or 100 eggs.

This cooking methodology involves modern equipment such as a water bath. I use an immersion circulator to hold the water bath at a specified and constant temperature, or a sous vide setup. Sous vide works for me: relieve me of any stress or anxiety of what could go wrong when I am not 100% at my game. Imagine having a reliable and trusty sous chef, with no attitude, as your assistant. Really cool!

I went right to the immersion circulator to make the mollet eggs. Set the water bath at 74°C /165°F and cook the eggs sous vide for 40 minutes. Eggs develop a fairly predictable texture when heated to a particular core temperature. After 40-45 minutes at around 140°F, the egg white begins to become opaque, whereas the yolk is not firmly solid until 165°F. You can dial in a core temperature and hit the texture you desire.

Both time and temperature are under control, mollet eggs are firmly at hand. The kitchen god is smiling, so am I!

When the eggs were slowly being transformed from pasteurized but raw to a solid state, of both whites and yolks, in the water bath, I prepared the mornay sauce and cooked the spinach as outlined in Pepin's recipe.

The outcome: a perfectly executed mollet eggs florentine that I know I can proudly put on the table with the consistency of what a seasoned chef could produce. Clearly, I don't consider myself a chef, let alone a seasoned one. I just have a super duper helper. I need all the help I can get!

This week's theme at IHCC is the incredible egg. Take away the eggs, I'll be at a loss. I would not be able to produce most, if not all, of my favorite brioche, scones, cakes, custards and savory dishes like this mollet eggs Florentine. Let's celebrate the egg, a rich source of life and nutrients. Please see the bounty IHCC's home cooks bring to the table by visiting the site.