Monday, December 28, 2015

Pear Crisps

There is only one ingredient in this recipe. One-ingredient recipes hardly exist in our style of cooking. Not even sugar or salt and pepper are needed to bring out the best in these pear crisps. Ellie Krieger's instructions are: slice the pear very thinly lengthwise, using a mandoline. The slices were cut so thin I can hardly pick them up in one piece and transferred them onto the baking sheet.

But I proceeded with all the necessary steps. Bake them in the low-temperature oven (225°F in a convention setting and 200°F with convection heat). When it came time to turn the slices, the pear slices were too delicate to be messed with. I knew they would not be able to withstand any man- or woman-handling. So I left them alone and let them finish baking in the oven.

I was a little deflated. Two hours have come and gone. Didn't look like there would be much to show for. Then I proceeded to start a new batch before the first batch finished baking. Feel free to experiment with different thickness in slicing the pear. Thinner slices get crunchier after baking. Thicker ones get more chewy. Slightly thinner than 1/8 of an inch seems to work best for me.

What I did not foresee was how beautiful and sturdy the crisps from the first batch (thinnest slices) turned out after they dried. The intricate pattern of the pear core was fully reviewed. These crisps were feather light. One gust of air would have blown them away. They are thin and light enough to be used like tuile cookies (but without the typical ingredients of sugar, flour, egg or butter) to adorn any dessert dish. A true revelation! One simple ingredient perfectly transformed into nature's spectacular and healthful treats, as well as candies to our eyes and palate.

Bosc pear crisps

Postscript: My husband was so impressed with these healthful 100% pure fruit crisps. He made four trays of Honeycrisp apple and Bosc pear crisps late at night, given the oven temperature and other details I might have mentioned. Next morning, I found dishes of these beautiful crisps in the kitchen. (I was impressed he knew how to operate the oven. First time he's ever used the dual-fuel convection oven.) They were perfection!

Friday, December 25, 2015

Lobster, Fennel and Grilled Grape Salad

This is what I came up with for a light fare for Christmas lunch. Fancy. Healthful. One-dish wonder. Don't come across that many lobster dishes like this in cookbooks, I wonder why?

This salad was first made in Sardinia for Yotam Ottolenghi's television series, Mediterranean Feast. I marked it as one of the dishes I wanted to cook when I got his new cookbook, NOPI.

With lobster prices cheaper (per pound) than most other fresh seafood, such as scallops, shrimps and fishes, there is no reason why lobsters shouldn't be making more frequent appearances on our table. Lobster is among one of my family favorites. Even the lobster heads and shells, the part we don't eat, would eventually be used and turned into a lovely, deep-flavored broth. I like using this homemade broth for seafood risotto. Yum!

I served the salad warm. The lobsters were steamed, slightly cooled and de-shelled. The fun part was grilling the grapes until split, smoky and charred, which gave them a sweet caramelized taste. Fennel slices were grilled the same way. As a result, the salad took on a charred flavor that went well with lobster and endive. I added radicchio, with a slightly bitter and spicy taste similar to that of endive, which made the salad a more substantial one for a light and special holiday luncheon.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Squash with Cardamom and Nigella Seeds

The last of the basket of butternut squash harvested in the fall was finally put into another inviting dish among all the wonderful squash dishes posted earlier since September. Over the weeks, I've found out that storing squashes in a cool place did wonder in intensifying their flavor.

The citrus flavor of cardamom balances exquisitely with the sweetness of squash. I won't have thought of putting the two together. The other Middle Eastern spices of cumin, coriander, turmeric and cinnamon literally dance in your mouth as a single unifying note, creating a warm and exciting dish that competes well with any holiday dishes. After one bite, you would never think twice about using vegetables as a main dish. Who says vegetables have to be boring. This squash with cardamon dish delights the senses and wins me over.

I had a difficult time finding nigella seeds, one of the ingredients in this recipe, in my neighborhood. I asked around for leads. The fact that nigella seeds are a confusing spice, and go by many names, does not help. In India, where nigella seeds are grown, they are known as kalonji. In the U.S, they are called charnushka. They are also frequently, and mistakenly, called black onion seeds, black cumin and black caraway. However, they have no relationship to onion, cumin or caraway, and are very much their own spice. Guess what, a bottle of nigella seeds from Sainsbury's (of UK) magically showed up on my doorstep. Remarkably, while not totally surprised, my dear friend (and angel) R brought it back from a recent trip to London. I was dumbfounded that Christmas came early this year!

No one would have mistaken the signature vibrant touches of Yotam Ottolenghi all over this dish. This recipe is another one of Ottolenghi's creations from his book Plenty More. Serve it with risotto or rice. Dinner is complete.

Squash is twice cooked on stovetop and oven

Friday, December 18, 2015

Macarons with Whipped Lemon Ganache

This is the season of cookies making – and giving. I make these special macarons once a year for friends whom I don't get to know as much as I should. That's my way of making connections, beyond mere words, to say how important they are to me and my family.

A baking class in macarons in Paris marked one of those bonding experiences between my daughter and I that I'd never forget. Last year, I posted how I bonded with my niece over, guess what, making macarons. You endured the challenge together and saw the beauty and light at the end of the tunnel. A rather special experience. It never ceases to amaze me how food can be such a powerful glue that binds our human experiences.

Making macarons can be daunting, especially if you don't make them frequently. It demands exactitude. It requires the full force of your attention, heart and mind, to have the cookies turn out the way they are intended. The way you remember the first bite into these awesome cookies. Sifting all the flour. Whipping the meringue to medium peaks. Piping individual cookie with steady hands. Chilling to age them. The process simply can't be rushed. I'd smile my happiest smile when these finicky cookies come out perfectly.

In midstream, I questioned the recipe and second-guessed whether I was using the right technique. French meringue vs. Italian meringue? I managed my impatience and frustration well enough to stay focused on the task. In the end, a fine batch of macarons had emerged one more time using the same recipe as last year's.

Additional tips from this bake:
  • An insulated cookie sheet works better than a single sheet pan. Stacking two sheet pans together is a viable option.
  • Silpat, or silicone mat, works better than parchment paper. Easier to peel cookies from a Silpat.
  • Smaller cookies bake more evenly than the bigger ones. No hollow shells.
  • Sift and sift the almond flour some more for a smoother surface texture.
  • Convection bake works better than conventional oven bake cycle.
  • Dry days work better than humid days.

Happy baking!

Acidity in lemon ganache tempers the sweetness of the cookie

Rest for 30-60 minutes before baking

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Whole-grain Buckwheat Waffles

"Despite its name, buckwheat is not a form of wheat at all. It is a seed in the rhubarb and sorrel family — not even technically a grain, botanically speaking. But because it is eaten like a grain and is rich in fiber, B vitamins and antioxidants like one, it is fair to call it a whole grain. And a gluten-free one at that."

This is the whole kernel of truth: the benefit of buckwheat as part of the whole-grain healthful eating is overwhelming. I grounded whole buckwheat groats in a Vita-Mix blender to a meal/flour consistency to make these waffles. I like milling my own grains, which gets me closer to the source than the powder that comes in a bag.

I used whole wheat pastry flour, for the rest (50%) of the total flour, to attain the softness in texture that some may prefer. You also have the option to use rice flour instead for a gluten-free waffle.

What better way to set the tone of the day than a healthy breakfast? Making breakfast for a crowd can't be easier with waffles. The batter can be made the night before. You're all set to go the next morning. This recipe comes from Ellie Krieger, nutritionist and IHCC featured chef. (Per serving: Calories 360; Total Fat 15g (Sat Fat 2g); Cholesterol 50mg; Sodium 580mg; Total Carbohydrates 49g; Dietary Fiber 9g; Protein 12g). Buckwheat waffles look darker than those made with all-purpose flour. I made it even darker by swapping ground flaxseeds with black sesame seeds.

Preheat the waffle iron. Set the cooking time for four to five minutes, depending on the equipment manufacturer's instructions. The crispy and dark golden-brown waffles that emerge would surely brighten and energize your day.

Health benefits aside, I strongly prefer the texture of these whole-grain buckwheat waffles over those made with all-purpose flour. There is a certain bite that's satisfying, and you want more of it, with the full-body and crunchy texture of these waffles. They are crispy and dry. Hold up well against any amount of syrup or sauce you might want to put on them.

I like serving them with varieties of berries on the side, another super foods. Drizzle with some extra maple syrup. (The basic ingredient in maple syrup is the sap from the xylem of sugar maple. It consists primarily of sucrose and water. Accordingly, sugars comprise 90% of total carbohydrates which contribute nearly all of the calories per serving.)

Sprinkle some cinnamon on top, if your prefer some warm holiday spice and aroma. Lather with softened butter, if you crave creamy richness. Why not? Pleasure should be part and parcel of healthy and mindful eating.

Buckwheat waffles can be made gluten-free by using rice flour

Cinnamon and butter are optional

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Carrot and Walnut Levain Whole-Wheat Bread

If you like carrot cake, you're going to love this carrot walnut bread. The taste of the carrot is very mild. But carrots give the bread the lovely orange tinge. You seldom come across carrot bread in the commercial world. Carrots are not commonly used ingredients in bread-making. I don't know why. I also did not know what to expect from this bread except a casual sense of indulging in the realm of "why nots?" I was duly rewarded in taking the path less-well traveled.

Quite to my surprise, the bread is amazingly moist with a slight sweetness from the carrots. Walnuts give the bread some crunch and a nutty character to the bread. Carrots and walnuts work well together.

This is a levain bread with a healthful 50% in whole wheat flour from Jeffrey Hamelman's Bread. He uses yeast in this recipe. I skipped that since my starter was quite active. My levain dough usually rises well without much help from dry yeast. I'll let the dough do its own thing. I followed its own schedule instead of imposing my own. Bulk fermentation took 3 hours instead of 1.5 hours when yeast had been added. The final rise also took twice as long, 2 hours instead of one.

In addition to shaping the dough to fit into the round and oval benettons, I shaped a third piece of dough in a small batard. Let it rest in the ubiquitous 9-inch rectangular cake/bread pan and baked it in a similar size dutch oven. That gave me a chance to work on different shaping techniques. And kept me on my toes.

Carrots add an orange tinge and moisture to the bread

Monday, December 7, 2015

Mushroom and Pea Farrotto

There are masculine dishes as there are feminine dishes. Farrotto, or farro risotto, is the masculine equivalence to arborio rice risotto. If I've lost you for a minute, let me explain. While risotto is smooth, silky and luxurious, farrotto is rugged, robust, and earthy. There is a difference in character, in food too, as you might have imagined. Rice risotto would complement well any fish, chicken or veal dish with a delicate sauce. Farrotto is meaty enough to fill in for a protein; it pairs well with braised greens. I found this dish, among other Italian recipes, from Giada DeLaurentiis, our featured chef for this week's IHCC rotation.

Rice and farro have always had a symbiotic relationship. Both are heirloom grains selected by farmers for their cultural and agricultural strengths over many centuries. The cultivation of farro as a protective winter cover crop in the vast rice fields of the Veneto helped it survive into modernity.

I started using ancient grains in my bread making. My favorite is the farro hazelnut bread for its exceptional nutty flavor. No reason why farro is not used more often in our everyday cooking. The bag of farro is eagerly waiting to be deployed in more ways than one.

A grain of farro looks and tastes somewhat like a lighter brown rice. It has a complex nutty taste, with undertones of oats and barley, and a firm, chewy texture. I like putting farro in soups or salads, which adds substance and an earthy note. Cooking farro like arborio rice, following the risotto path, perfectly captures the profound comfort quotient of the grain.

I prefer buying whole grain of any grain varieties for their superior nutritional value. They are not the quick cook version since the grains are still intact with the bran. Farro takes longer to cook than rice, all else being equal. Cooking risotto, the traditional way, takes time and patience. It is essential to keep stirring the grain and adding the stock, continuously with undivided attention, to create that desirable creamy texture. (This takes 45 minutes.) But don't let that deter you from making risotto.

Parcook farro in pressure cooker for 15 minutes

Here is a practical shortcut I've been using for a long time. Something that your Italian grandmothers may not approve. The technique is borrowed from Nathan Myhrvold's "modernist" approach, using a pressure cooker. The trick is to pressure cook the grains after the wine and stock have been added, for about 15 minutes for farro or 6 minutes for arborio rice. Skip step 4 of the recipe procedures listed below when you take the pressure cooker path.

Be sure to add the full amount of stock (3 cups for every cup of farro) needed in the pressure cooker. Begin timing as soon as the cooker reaches full pressure of 1 bar/15 psi. Depressurize the cooker quickly by running tepid water over the rim. Start stirring, after removing the lid of the pressure cooker, to create that creamy texture. Check the farro for doneness. It should be nearly cooked to a perfect al dente. You may need to add more liquid or to simmer it for a few more minutes. I finished the farrotto with grated cheeses and some finely chopped rosemary for an extra punch of fresh herb.

This method has worked well for me every time. You can turn out larger quantities (ideal for holiday meals) with the precision of a professional kitchen. It's a time saver and turns making risotto pleasurable or, should I say, easy!

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Stained Glass Holiday Cookies

An everyday cookie jazzed up and transformed into a holiday treat, imbued with seasonal theme, is what this stained glass cookie is all about. Ideal for giving. That's the intent at the start. The recipe came from Dorie Greenspan's Baking Chez Moi.

Making cookies, let alone decorating them, does not happen too often in my kitchen. But when you are in the holiday spirit, this project can be fun.

Not so much fun when you try to be ambitious, like using a large cookie cutter with an intricate pattern. The saying goes: "When ambition ends, happiness begins." What was I thinking?

Consider having to make clean cutouts, filling the cutout windows with crushed candy while keeping everything intact in one piece. That can be nerve wracking.

Dorie recommends freezing the rolled-out dough for at least an hour before cutting. The temperature and texture of the cookie dough has to be at its sweet spot: stiff enough not to crumble and soft enough to be cut into the preferred shape. That requires ton of patience. Forget about dexterity and skill and grace.

This cookie dough is not the most forgiving. It's fragile to the touch and crumbles easily, before and after baking. The finished cookies won't withstand handling or packaging. They are jolly good tasting cookies, nonetheless.

The recipe follows a typical 1-2-3 cookie dough, with one part sugar, two parts butter and three parts all-purpose flour. If I have to make more stained glass cookies with elaborate patterns, I'd have to find a sturdier dough! May be adding eggs or other binding agents. Any suggestions?

I want to find out how other bakers have experienced this dough, check TWD blogroll for details.

Crushed Life Savers produce stained glass effect

Green crushed candies turned brown after 10-min baking

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Brie in Brioche

I've been prolific with brioche postings. Who can resist playing with this rich, buttery, fine-textured, yeasted dough? When I find another glorious brioche creation, there won't be any resistance in going along with another test drive. Maybe I'll discover something new, that I don't know about, on the many techniques and uses of brioche.

So far, in a little over a year, I've made Chad Robertson's Tartine brioche with natural leaven, Tartine brioche with olive oil, Nancy Silverton's brioche tart with an overnight sponge, twice-baked brioche or bostock, and a one-minute microwave brioche. It is clear that I'm partial toward the Tartine leavened brioche due to its delicate complexity of flavor. Not counting the microwave quick dough, brioche dough requires intensive mixing, literally beating the dough to submission, in order to develop its smooth fine texture.

The brie in brioche recipe, contributed by Lora Brody in Dorie Greenspan's Baking with Julia, is no exception, when it comes to extended mixing time. That's where the similarity ends. What's different? The higher amount of butter in this dough. Two sticks of butter relative to 3 1/4 cups of flour or 60% to total flour weight. (I thought 45% of butter in Tartine brioche was high.)

While most brioche dough calls for cool butter, this recipe stands out in using melted butter. I guess with the melted butter, you gain in convenience of mixing all the ingredients (1T active dry yeast, 3T nonfat dry milk, 3T sugar, 1 1/2 t salt, 3 1/4 C all-purpose flour, 2 sticks of unsalted butter, 3 large eggs and 1/3 C water) in the standmixer all at once. This recipe is bread-machine friendly and among the easiest to make. The dough seems loose after mixing. It then goes straight into the fridge. Following a 24-hr chilling, the dough becomes firmer and ready to be shaped.

Layers of onions and one wheel of ripe brie are wrapped in the brioche dough and set in a springform pan. After a 40-minute final rise at room temperature until the dough doubled in volume, the pastry is ready to be baked in a 425°F oven for 15 minutes and 375°F for an additional 30 minutes. I worried that the brioche may be browning too much. Since taste or texture was the guide, not the color, my worry was misplaced. You do need to shield the edges to prevent uneven browning.

Cut open the beautifully browned pastry ....

and see the awesome sight of lava flow inside

There were several changes I've made to the recipe. I used bread flour for 50% of total flour weight instead of using all-purpose flour entirely, making the dough stronger and easier to roll. Instead of slow cooking three pounds of onion for 24 hours, I opted to caramelize three large red onions over the stovetop for about a half hour. I used a smaller wheel of brie, instead of a 9-inch wheel. Halved the brie wheel horizontally and packed the caramelized onions between the halves. Finally, I put the brie wrapped in brioche dough in an 8-inch, rather than a 9-inch pan, for a smaller package.

Braiding strips of brioche dough can be a pain. But the handsome parcel of brie in brioche is winsome. The sweet savory taste of the pastry with caramelized onion and brie is sublime, showcasing the versatility of brioche dough to the next level.

To see what other bakers thought about this recipe, visit TWD blogroll.

Happy Giving Tuesday!