Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Summer Baking: Cake Night {Class 6}

Cakes come in so many shapes, sizes, flavors, and colors. Every culture has its signature cake. For cake night we baked three very different cakes and threw in some maple scones for added fun (and added butter). The first two cakes screamed for a cold glass of milk on the side – sticky toffee pudding and chocolate decadence cake.

Sticky toffee pudding is just as it sounds – a rich cake flavored with dates, brown sugar, and coffee. After baking it is perforated and doused (smothered? drowned?) in a sweet sticky toffee sauce. The sauce is pure sugar (brown, corn or golden syrup), butter, and heavy cream. This cake is for the sweet lovers out there. Baking the sticky pudding helped teach the importance of knowing the proper cooking vessel. The size and material will determine the cooking time. Thin aluminum baking cups will cook much differently than thick ceramic ramekins. It is also important to match the sweetness of the dish to the serving vessel. This sticky toffee pudding was perfect in small amounts.

Moving from sweet to rich, the next dessert for the evening was a Chocolate Decadence Cake, a recipe from Pierre Herme. The method was fairly straightforward but he result was as the title suggests – decadent. Bittersweet chocolate and four other ingredients come together for a fudgy treat.

With a well-stocked pantry, this cake could easily be thrown together for last minute guests. While it was tempting to eat this right from the oven it was even better after cooking. The secret to this cake’s success is using high quality ingredients. With so few ingredients it really makes a difference.

Next we jumped from fudgy and dense to light and nutty. Financiers are something that might appear on a dessert menu with no explanation – the diner is expected to know what the cake is by the name. I had never had these before and they are delightful. Financiers are named for their original eaters – the financiers of France. They are a petite cake baked into a rectangle, reminiscent of a gold bar. The cake base contains ground almonds, pistachios, and brown butter, and egg whites. The finished cake is a nutty and light two-bite treat. The recipe we used was by Paris baker Eric Kayser. Some of the takeaways from the cake baking portion of the night were technique focused. Things that seem easy are actually integral to the final result (don’t take them for granted). Whisking the batter just enough, but no too much. The more you mix the flour, the more gluten develops and the tougher the cake will be. Folding the dry and wet ingredients together is an art. Done right it is a fluid motion between spatula and bowl, perfectly combining the ingredients into a smooth batter. Paying attention to the little details makes all the difference in the end result.

Now even though scones aren’t a cake this was my favorite part of the night! I love biscuits and scones and just can’t get enough. And I love maple just as much as biscuits. The recipe we prepared was maple oatmeal scones – adapted from an Ina Garten recipe. Even though these had a full pound of butter, the oatmeal made it feel just slightly healthy. The glaze on the other hand….

 What was great about preparing these scones was learning an easy technique for producing layered, crumbly scones. Rather than cutting the butter in with a pastry cutter we took advantage of the food processor to quickly cut the butter. Instead of shaping into a perfect circle, rolling and cutting into wedges we used our hands to shape the scone dough into a large even rectangle. A bench scraper cut through the dough easily to make a lot of cute little scones. Cutting straight down and lifting straight up keeps the edges clean and allows the scones to rise high when baking. The large pieces of butter melt and release steam producing a crumbly texture. It could be easy to forget the amount of butter in these and eat a handful for breakfast (shh, don’t tell). This recipe will be added to my favorites list. 

These cakes (and scones) came together fairly quickly and easily. There really is no reason to buy cake mix or store bought cakes. All you need is a few high quality ingredients and attention to detail. I think my family is looking forward to my newly acquired skills!

My classmates and I glazing our scones
and marveling over all the cakes!

Monday, August 3, 2015

Summer Baking: Sweet and Savory Tarts {Class 5}

This summer I'm enrolled in the Culinary Lab: Baking course as part of my graduate program - the Master of Liberal Arts in Gastronomy at Boston University. For 6 weeks I'll be spending 2 nights a week in the professional kitchen learning all about baking. The course requires students to keep a journal of the experience and I've decided to record my adventures here on the blog. I hope you enjoy! You'll get the calorie-free version of my decadent baking experience. 

One word can sum up this class - butter. Butter, butter, and when you think you have enough, add a little more butter. Of course don't forget about the sugar and brown sugar.... Isn't it amazing that there are so many recipes that start at the same place - cream the butter and sugar together - and end up in wildly different directions?

First on this week's baking menu were tarts. Tarts can be sweet or savory and we tackled both in our time together. Pate sucree provides a sugar sweetened butter and flour tart shell. Pate brisee omits the sugar for a flaky buttery shell. Pate sucree provided a flaky base for a smooth, tart, brilliantly yellow lemon curd. Calling on our newly learned custard making skills we whisked, tempered, and whisked the ingredients into a luscious filling for a lemon almond tart. Not only is this curd perfect for filling a pie it would also be delicious as ice cream or mousse. One exciting learning from these classes is knowing that many of these recipes are quite versatile.

The next task of the evening was tartalettes aux pommes - individual apple tarts. Pate sucree is prepared and divided into four equal portions. A filling of sliced apples is sauteed with sugar until just browned in color. The pate sucree is gently folded around the apples, wrapping them like a little gift. Of course this couldn't be complete with out an additional sprinkling of brown sugar after coming out of the oven. The beauty of this recipe is in it's rustic appearance. Afraid that you can't make a perfect crust? Worried about rolling out the crust into an amoeba instead of a perfect circle? With this is doesn't matter - just fold, pinch, and tell you guests that you made them a rustic apple tart. They will think you are a baking genius and they will forget all about the appearance after they take a bite.

For both the pate sucree and pate brisee (sweet and savory) kitchen appliances are your friend. A few quick pulses will evenly distribute the butter into pea sized pieces. Although if you hit pulse one too many times, you might go too far. The idea is to have noticeable sized pieces of butter throughout to produce a flaky crust. The butter melts during baking and releases steam, giving the crust its flaky texture.

If butter was the theme of the week, it was included in all its glory in Julia Child's basic quiche recipe that we prepared. A buttery pate brisee was filled with caramelized onions and Gruyere. A rich, decadent filling of heavy cream and eggs was poured over the top. As if that wasn't enough the quiche gets dotted with 1-2 tablespoons of butter before baking. Wow. This is not a light lunch at all - usually you think quiche and a salad is a good choice! After baking the custard is light in texture but the taste is quite the opposite.  The additional butter caused our quiche to look like it was topped with an oil slick. It was quite decadent with the cream, eggs, Gruyere, butter, and butter crust.

Some of the takeaways from tonight's class:

  • It's not too early to plan for the holidays. Well wrapped pie crust can be kept in the freezer for up to 6 months.
  • Making the pie crust into a ball doesn't have to be a messy procedure. Dump the crumbs from the food processor directly onto a sheet of plastic wrap. Use the plastic wrap to push it together until it forms a ball. Flatten slightly and chill in the plastic wrap (or freeze) until ready to roll out.
  • With a little care it is easy to roll out an even crust. Roll just until the edge leaving a small lip. Turn 1/4 and repeat until the dough is the desired size.

  • Always make sure the crust is securely in the pie pan. If there are air pockets under the crust it could cause it to bubble up or crack. It is also important to seal any cracks and holes when making a tart with a liquid filling. Say goodbye to a crispy bottom if you don't do this! We tried using white sandwich bread to plug a few holes in our quiche crust and it worked quite well. 

This was a fun class and made tarts seem more accessible. There are a lot of techniques to remember but nothing so challenging that it can't be done at home. Do you have a favorite pie crust recipe? Any tips and tricks?

What is your favorite pie? I'm partial to fruit pies, pecan pies, and chocolate banana cream.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Summer Baking: Custards, Meringues, and Pate a Choux {Classes 3 & 4}

This summer I'm enrolled in the Culinary Lab: Baking course as part of my graduate program - the Master of Liberal Arts in Gastronomy at Boston University. For 6 weeks I'll be spending 2 nights a week in the professional kitchen learning all about baking. The course requires students to keep a journal of the experience and I've decided to record my adventures here on the blog. I hope you enjoy! You'll get the calorie-free version of my decadent baking experience.

Classes 3 and 4 introduced the class to some classic dishes. The menu for our third class included Pavlova, clafouti, and almond orange bread pudding. These three recipes provided us with an introduction into the world of custards and meringues. How interestingly different egg yolks and egg whites can be! 

Before we headed to the kitchen we learned about all the different options for puddings (starch thickened, baked, steamed), custards (stirred or baked), Bavarian cream, mousse and souffles. Similar ingredients - very different results!

The Pavlova was first on the prep list. This graceful dessert is named for a ballerina and her signature role as a white swan. These are not a traditional meringue that crumbles when you bite into it. The addition of vinegar makes the inside chewy while the outside is crisp. The whipped egg whites are spread into circles on parchment with a slight well in the center. These don't puff up when baked and the well is the perfect spot to layer in fresh berries with raspberry sauce and fluffy whipped cream. The individual size bakes in half the time and also makes for an elegant presentation. Imagine a summer luncheon with these individual Pavlovas - no one has to share! 

The next recipe is courtesy of Julia Child, one of the founders of the program at BU. Clafouti is a custard dessert traditionally made with cherries. Custard and fruit are cooked together until it puffs and browns. A sprinkle of powdered sugar is added before serving. The dish is pretty straight forward, but Julia has a great technique that she incorporates. Rather than just dump and bake, she instructs the reader to pour 1/4" of batter in the bottom of a pie plate and hold over moderate heat until the batter has just set. The cherries are set on top before the remainder of the batter is poured in. This prevents the cherries from sticking to the bottom of the dish. Another interesting note - the cherries are added whole (don't serve this to children!). The pits contain a chemical that when baked have the scent of almonds. I have to admit, this one was not my favorite. The soft custardy texture is not my preference. But it was easy to make and would make for a great party dish as it can be served at room temperature.

A last minute addition to the night was Zabaglione. We each got a double boiler, egg yolks, sugar, sweet Marsala, and a whisk. Over a slight simmer, we whisked and whisked and whisked until the mixture was aerated and slightly thickened. It took more than the 4 minutes called for in the recipe and I felt the burn! Proper whisking technique is definitely a learned art. Thankfully my eggs didn't scramble and I ended up with a delightfully smooth custard to pour over fresh berries.

Here's a look at the group at our end of class tasting. The casserole dishes contain David Leibovitz's recipe for almond orange bread pudding. Pictures and then tasting!

It was hard to contain my excitement over class four - Pate a Choux! This is the base for some really great pastries. Pate a Choux is one of those things that I thought was going to be a real challenge to make. We used a recipe from Jacques Pepin that was easy to follow and produced fantastic results. We elevated these with a craquelin topping and a generous filling of pastry cream and nougatine. Making Pate a Choux requires a lot of observation. Adjustments have to be made depending on the size of the eggs, the dryness of the flour, or how much the dough dries when you cook it (and even the weather). The beauty of these profiteroles is how the eggs and steam puff them up leaving a perfectly hollow inside waiting to be filled with something creamy.

Before we baked them we topped them with craquelin - butter, sugar and flour that is rolled out and cut into circles to top the profiteroles. These bake into a crisp, sugary topping. This reminded me of Japanese melon bread - a delicious airy bread that is topped with a sugar cookie like crust. Now that I made these I see the resemblance and I am inspired to see if I can recreate them.

Gougeres are made in a similar way, though these got a dash of bacon, thyme and Gruyere before being piped into adorable little blobs on the baking sheet. They baked up light and fluffy and perfect for any occasion. Knowing that all of these freeze well is dangerous. I might be eating up all my frozen vegetables and filling my freezer with profiteroles and gougeres to have whenever the urge strikes!

It is a lot of fun to learn the basics and building blocks of pastry - from the doughs to the pastry creams to even just a good whipped cream. The good news for my family is that I'll have to keep making these so I don't lose the knowledge!

What dessert have you always wanted to learn how to make?


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