Friday, November 6, 2015

Summer Baking: Middle Eastern Night {Class 9}

This summer I completed the Culinary Lab: Baking course as part of my graduate program - the Master of Liberal Arts in Gastronomy at Boston University. For six weeks I spent two nights a week in the professional kitchen learning all about baking. The course required students to keep a journal of the experience and I 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.

The word of the night is syrup! To be fair, these desserts are made in a hot climate and sugar helps to retard the staling process. Middle Eastern desserts vary across cultures, but they also share similarities. The same dessert can be known by a different name across borders or ethnic or religious groups. Ingredients are shared across cultures as well. As different groups moved across the region they introduced ingredients and dishes. Over time they have been adopted and adapted. Historically desserts from the Middle Eastern region were strongly perfumed with ingredients like rosewater, orange blossom and orange flower water.

Ma’amoul are filled cookies. The dough is not sweet at all, just a hint of orange blossom water. The filling is lightly sweet. Traditional fillings include date, walnuts, pistachios and almond. Dates are chopped and mixed with orange flower water. Walnuts are chopped with sugar, cinnamon and orange blossom water. These are made in beautiful wooden molds. The design of each mold matches the filling inside. The cookie is stuffed and then placed into the mold. A good whack on the baking sheet releases the cookie and it is ready for the oven. The cookies do not brown in the oven and are dusted lightly with powdered sugar before serving.

Melomakarona are Greek – a dry cookie dipped into a warm honey syrup. These cookies are made with a fragrant combination of orange juice, brandy, orange zest, cinnamon and cloves. The dry texture is achieved with a combination of AP flour, semolina and ground walnuts.

The syrup packs quite a sweet punch here – 2 cups of sugar, 2 cups of honey, and 2 cups of water. The cookies take on the wonderful honey flavor and are quite addicting.

The ravani, or basbousa, is a Greek semolina cake generously doused in lemon soaking syrup. Ravani is made with yogurt which gives it a pleasant tang along with the lemon syrup. The yogurt and baking soda provide the leavening for the cake. The recipe instructs, “when the cake can no longer absorb the syrup, stop adding it.” This is how I feel about the class – I’ve hit my sugar absorption limit! The weight of this pan was incredible after we soaked it. Thankfully this is cut into small pieces – remember the importance of matching the sweetness of the dessert with the serving size. Although most American desserts are usually ‘bigger is better.’

Even though these were all so different, you can see the similarities in technique and ingredients across the recipes. What a delicious and fragrant part of the world!

Do you have a favorite Middle Eastern dessert? Favorite local shop for them? I love Sofra bakery in Cambridge and Seta’s CafĂ© in Belmont. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Summer Baking: International Night {Class 8}

This summer I completed the Culinary Lab: Baking course as part of my graduate program - the Master of Liberal Arts in Gastronomy at Boston University. For six weeks I spent two nights a week in the professional kitchen learning all about baking. The course required students to keep a journal of the experience and I 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.

The first of our dedicated international nights crisscrossed the globe with lamingtons, tres leches cake and Irish shortbread. Three distinctively different desserts.

The Tres Leches cake can be summed up in a word = Milky! Milk in the cake, milk, milk and cream poured over the cake, and whipped cream on top. Not for the lactose intolerant! The cake is made in a unique way – by whipping egg whites until frothy and then beating in the yolks. The result is an airy cake perfect for absorbing the tres leches. This was not my favorite, but I could see how others would enjoy the cake. While making the cake we learned a valuable trick. If not serving whipped cream right away, place it into a colander set over a bowl. Top with a layer of plastic wrap and put into the refrigerator. Any excess moisture will drip out and keep the cream light and fluffy until you need it.

Our Irish shortbread suffered from poorly calibrated ovens. It never quite browned or cooked all the way through. Have you ever tried to make shortbread and ended up with fingerprints all over the top? We learned a great way to erase them. After patting the shortbread dough into the tart pan, lay a piece of plastic wrap across the top. Using a small spatula smooth all the fingerprints away. Peel off the plastic and you are left with a perfectly smooth top. The shortbread get scored and poked pre-baking to prevent them from puffing up from the steam of the melting butter. An important note when making shortbread – the flavor will only be as good as your ingredients. Here we used Kerrygold salted butter which resulted in a rich and delicious flavor.

The lamingtons were the most fun. The texture of this coconut and chocolate coated sponge cake was amazing. The chocolate icing stays on the outside and the cake stays fully and pristine on the inside. We achieved this by sticking our cake in the freezer for a few minutes before icing.

One important takeaway here. The recipe called for lemon extract and initially we felt it smelled strong, almost medicinal. We followed the recipe and added it in anyway. We probably should have skipped it. The lemon extract is stored in a plastic bottle and either had gone bad or the plastic bottle was leaching. It is very important to check all ingredients before adding them in. If you get to the last item in your ingredient list and then realize it is no good the whole batch will be ruined! Another important task is to have your mise en place before starting – every ingredient measured and lined up ready to go. Read the recipe thoroughly and then dive in. You never want to find out you are out of cream when everything else is already mixed in the bowl!

International night takeaways:

  • Tres leches cake is a serious overload of dairy
  • Always crack and separate eggs individually so you don’t ruin the whole batter
  • Know your oven: have a thermometer to double check the temperature
  • Electric mixers make quick work of whipping egg whites and cream (save your elbows!)

What is your favorite dessert from international travel? Local international bakery? Favorite food destination?

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Summer Baking: American Night {Class 7}

This summer I completed the Culinary Lab: Baking course as part of my graduate program - the Master of Liberal Arts in Gastronomy at Boston University. For six weeks I spent two nights a week in the professional kitchen learning all about baking. The course required students to keep a journal of the experience and I 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.

If the theme of previous classes have been butter, the theme for American night was SUGAR! Our menu for class took us from New England maple syrup pie and old-fashioned donuts down to Texas for a Texas sheet cake.

Along with the hands-on part of class we are also reading a few books. The book, Invention of Sweet, is giving us an overview of desserts and sweets in history and across cultures, where some cultures like French and Italian treat desserts and pastries as a professional art. In America desert tended to b more of a homemade item.

The Texas sheet cake is a casual serve from the sheet pan type of cake. The fudgy cake, made with buttermilk, is baked and then topped with chocolate frosting. The combination of the cake and frosting was over-the-top sweet. Whether it is so big to feed the state of Texas or it is as big is the state of Texas it was too sweet for me when it was frosted. Interestingly, after making this cake in class I saw it make the rounds on various food blogs and cooking sights. Texas sheet cake revival?

Pouring a full pan full of warm frosting right onto the cake to let it really soak in.

The maple syrup pie was probably equal in terms of sweetness. But the rich maple filling paired with the buttery pie crust made it irresistible to me. My partner and I had a mishap with our pie. After boiling and reducing our syrup we were too quick to add the batter the milk and eggs. Scrambled eggs! Straightening them out would throw off the ratio and the filling wouldn't set. It was back to the range for another boil - and then tempering the eggs. An important lesson! Look beyond the recipe and trust your instincts and pie knowledge.

While this was a little bit of an expensive mistake it was well worth it for a final result. Each night or two teams each produce a version of the recipe. Here the result was noticeably different. Ours was reduced a little more and took on an almost smoky flavor. The other teams with a little lighter in color and texture. Both were delicious, but I really enjoyed the deeper maple flavor of ours.

Have you had an old-fashioned doughnut? This was a recipe test for our instructor's upcoming class on brunch.

One recipe had more sour cream and nutmeg. We opted for doughnut holes to our frying skills. These get a crackly top, crunchy on the outside but soft and pillowy on the inside. Surprisingly, these did not puff up as much as we had expected. They were good - but not great.  But the takeaway was that frying at home isn't too challenging. It takes preparation, concentration, and a big pot of oil. Potentially messy, but not impossible.

Takeaways from the American night class:
Wow! Americans really like sugary sweet desserts without sugar glaze on top!
Don't stick to the recipe technique if you know better.
Have a big glass of milk on hand if you make that sheet cake!

What is your favorite "American "dessert?

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?

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Summer Baking: Cookie Night {Class #2}

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. 


Cookie night! There are infinite cookie recipes out there. Probably many in your family and an endless array of choices in cookbooks and online. Tonight's task in class was to tackle some of the more variety of cookie techniques and produced a set of delicious delicious results. From mix and drop cookies to precisely piped cookies. We produced a delicious sampling of cookies to taste.

First up was cookie that was pretty much just chocolate and macadamia nuts. These drop cookies are exactly as they sound  - mix and drop! Start with smooth melted chocolate and butter, stir in a minimal amount of flour (3 tablespoons), a little sugar, and then a generous amount of macadamia nuts. Drop on the tray, cook for about 10 minutes and eat immediately.

 They almost had a brownie like consistency with that shiny exterior. These could last a day or two, but realistically you'll finish them off pretty quickly with no need for storage.

Our next task was a sheet of cantuccini - or what we think of as biscotti. These are from the Tuscany region and traditionally would be dunked. They are twice baked and especially hard and crunchy. 

It was hot in the kitchen - we opted out of our formal chef coats for the night.

One thing to note on these cookies - notice the different colors of almonds in the photo below. Even though the instructor ordered raw almonds, the supplier delivered a batch that included both raw and roasted notes. While that might not be a problem in some recipes it was a problem here. Because you are baking these twice, by the time the final cookie is done the roasted nuts are overcooked. This leaves a bitter flavor behind. As a result these cantuccini were not as good as they could have been. The bitter flavor was just too much.

My absolute favorite cookie of the night started off not looking like a cookie at all. These Jan Hagels combine butter, sugar, brown sugar, an egg, flour, and vanilla and almond extracts. The dough is pressed into a jelly roll pan, topped with frothy egg whites and sprinkled with sliced almonds. A generous sprinkle of cinnamon sugar completes the cookie.

According to the recipe, these are a traditional Dutch holiday cookie that is light, thin, and flaky. After baking the cookies are cut into diamond shapes before eating. It was hard to stop eating these! These were simple to make but would impress as a gift for the holidays. 

The last cookie of the night was a late addition to the menu. We had worked so fast that we had time to try out one more cookie type - piped cookies! This is one type of cookie I have not had any experience with and was a little nervous about. It turns out that it wasn't as hard as I thought. The recipe we used was from Pierre Herme. The Viennese Sable Cookies are shaped into a W in homage to the Wittamer Pastry Shop from Brussels.

We decided on this recipe at the end of the night but it calls for very soft butter (in order to have pipe-able texture). A great tip we learned - grate the butter! By grating it on a box grater cold butter will soften very quickly and be ready for a spur of the moment baking urge.

Not bad for a first attempt!

It was a lot of fun to make 4 different cookies that I have never made before. When I make cookies I usually make something from my tried and true recipes. I experiment with a lot of different savory dishes, but when it comes to cookies I usually have a specific craving. How about you? Do you try a lot of new cookies?

After tonight, I'm looking forward to adding these Jan Hagels to my cookie recipe rotation.

Delicious take home work.

What is your favorite cookie? Do you have a tip that helps you be more efficient in the kitchen? I'd love to know!


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