Saturday, February 27, 2010

Daring Bakers' February Challenge: Tiramisu

The February 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Aparna of My Diverse Kitchen and Deeba of Passionate About Baking. They chose Tiramisu as the challenge for the month. Their challenge recipe is based on recipes from The Washington Post, Cordon Bleu at Home and Baking Obsession.

I’ve always had a special fondness for tiramisu. I remember the first time I ever tried it: I was still quite small, and my mother had ordered it at a restaurant. I eyed the thick, white, cocoa-dusted concoction with some suspicion: it looked a lot like whipped cream, which I didn’t like. But I tried a bite – and then asked for another. It was one of the first times I found myself enjoying something without having the faintest idea of what was in it.

Tiramisu was also the first dessert Laurent ever made for me. His father has a killer tiramisu recipe, although it’s quite different from the traditional one. Most tiramisu recipes I’ve come across consist in ladyfingers dipped in espresso, and stacked with a mixture of mascarpone cheese, raw egg yolks, and whipped egg whites. Laurent’s family version, however, is egg-free: the filling consists only of espresso-flavoured mascarpone, folded with sweetened whipped cream. It has the advantage of freezing very well, and if you eat when it’s only half-thawed, it’s like eating a really fancy ice cream.

But Aparna and Deeba, our hostesses for this month’s Daring Bakers’ challenge, gave us yet another kind of recipe. And to make it even more challenging, they asked us to make our own savoiardi biscuits (a.k.a. ladyfingers) and mascarpone cheese. Talk about making it from scratch!

This was definitely one of the most interesting challenges I’ve ever taken part in. It was also one of the weirdest ones, as far as my experience was concerned: it’s like practically every isolated part of the challenge ended up slightly wonky and flawed – and yet, when combined, they yielded a perfectly respectable – dare I say delectable – dessert.

First, the savoiardi biscuits. I have a hard time with cookies: they rarely come out perfect. Still, I was less nervous about these, since they were destined to be hidden away inside the tiramisu anyway. I knew I wanted to make individual dessert portions, rather than a full-sized cake, so I customized my biscuits to fit my serving bowls and made them itty-bitty: they were more like ladypinkies, or babyfingers, than ladyfingers.

Making the batter and piping it was no problem: I managed to not crush my whipped egg whites, so the batter was nice and light. I sprinkled it twice with icing sugar, as indicated. However, I failed to properly shake the excess sugar off the baking sheet… You know that feeling, where you not only know something is going to go wrong, you know exactly why it will go wrong, and yet you still choose not to do anything to prevent it? I knew that the excess sugar would caramelize and burn in the oven – everyone knows that. But for some reason, I left it there, as if I wanted to see for myself.

So, inevitably, my savoiardi biscuits ended up with a layer of burnt caramel on the bottom. But the top part was still acceptably light and puffy. Good enough for me!

Next, the mascarpone cheese. Heating the heavy cream in a makeshift double-boiler took much longer than it was supposed to, but apparently I wasn’t the only to have this problem. In the end, I got tired of waiting, poured in my lemon juice, and let everything thicken. Then I drained the concoction and let it hang out in the fridge for 24 hours, hoping for the best. When I took it out, my “cheese” was as hard as ice-cold butter! Fortunately, it didn’t taste like butter… It would have to do.

Next came the zabaglione, an egg yolk-based custard, flavoured with Marsala wine. This also involved a double-boiler. I hadn’t made custard of any kind in a long time, and had forgotten how much they can set overnight in the fridge. So while there were no significant problems with the zabaglione, it was, in fact, slightly overcooked.

I had the same problem with the pastry cream: I overcooked it, and it ended up with something that was almost more like flan, the way it held together.

So, in the end, none of my individual tiramisu components would have been acceptable if they had been meant to be eaten on their own, or as a star ingredient in a dessert. Fortunately, there was no “star” here. As it turned out, the components balanced out each other’s flaws, and came together in harmony. First, I mercilessly beat the stiffness out of my mascarpone with a fork. Then I energetically whisked in the zabaglione and pastry cream, until I had something that was actually almost creamy, instead of mostly lumps. And when I folded it the sweetened whipped cream and saw how smooth and silky it made everything, I knew this was going to be OK.

I wanted to try something other than the usual espresso-flavoured tiramisu, so I made two versions. For the first, I dipped the biscuits in a mixture of blackcurrant liqueur (a.k.a. cassis), simple syrup and blackcurrant syrup (for extra aroma); we’re quite the cassis fans around here. Then I topped it with fresh raspberries – they were ridiculously expensive, but I really, really wanted them in this dessert. I didn’t add anything to the cream, so that I could sample the naked flavour; it was actually really, really good, with just a subtle note of Marsala. I was glad to have cut down on the vanilla extract here and there, as I’m not too fond of it when it’s overpowering.

For the second version, I dipped the biscuits in Bailey’s Irish Cream, and added a handful of melted dark chocolate discs to the cream. Combining Bailey’s and chocolate was a no brainer: they just go together. And this version was definitely better suited to winter.

A final word: normally, tiramisu is ready to be served 24 hours after it is made. But in my case, it tasted much better the day after that: the biscuits had absorbed more moisture, making the textures and flavours blend, leading to a smoother, creamier dessert, whereas the biscuits stood out too much after only 24 hours. But it could just be because my biscuits were a little odd to begin with.

I definitely learned a lot with this challenge. And I was also reminded of a lot (such as: custards and creams don’t need to be quasi-solid before going in the fridge). And I had fun – lots of fun. I want to thank Deeba and Aparna for this terrific challenge, and I recommend that you go to the Daring Kitchen to check out the challenge recipe and the other Daring Bakers’ tiramisu!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Feeling Fancy - Sweet-and-sour Duck Confit with Trimmings

Duck is one of those meats that I really love, but don’t serve all that often. Something about it just screams “special occasion” to me, and keeps me from thinking of it as a go-to ingredient. Chicken is a go-to ingredient; duck is not. That’s OK, though: we need dishes for special occasions.

Sometimes, however, the meal can just be the special occasion. Sometimes, I just feel like making something a little fancy, a little delicate, a little… pretty. On those days, I flip through my cookbooks. And it just so happens that Louis-François Marcotte’s latest baby, entitled Sexy: Cuisiner pour deux, is full of recipes that are simple, yet give you that fancy vibe. The concept of the book is that it’s all about cooking for two – preferably as a couple (hence the title). And the recipes we’ve tried so far have all been hits.

The book isn’t perfect, especially where cooking methods are concerned. Caramelizing a side-dish of endives took forever in the oven, whereas the same result could easily be obtained on the stovetop, in only a fraction of the time. Also, the book (which is only available in French at the moment) sometimes includes inexplicable vocabulary errors, such as using the word “roasted” when the ingredients are clearly being “sautéed” or “pan-fried.” Then again, I’m extremely finicky when it comes to using le mot juste (the right word), so maybe I’m the only person who is actually bothered by this.

But the beauty of Marcotte’s recipes is that they are inspiring. It’s probably not the best book for anyone taking their first steps in the kitchen; but if you can cook a little, or a lot, there’s definitely much to like about Sexy. As I said, the recipes are really quite simple, but the flavour and texture combinations are carefully - almost lovingly - crafted, and they will readily give you ideas for variations.

Like the recipe for duck confit with leeks and mashed celeriac. I didn’t alter the recipe the first time I made it, but you could probably take a guess at how it was made just by looking at it: the ingredients are cooked separately, then assembled inside a deep baking ring, and heated in the oven. It’s easy as pie (much easier than pie, really), it looks beautiful, and it tastes amazing.

The only thing I thought it was missing was a little moisture: some kind of sauce. So I decided to adapt one of my favourite duck breast recipes, and mould it to this concept. Usually, I simply sauté whole duck breast, coat it in a vinegar-and-honey shallot sauce, and serve it with sautéed apples and some sort of vegetable. This is basically the “stacked” version of this dish. And it worked out pretty well, if I do say so myself.

Ready-made duck leg confit is available at most grocery stores around here. But I was in a gung-ho mood when I made this, and decided to make my own duck confit. It was surprisingly easy, and not time consuming at all: granted, the cooking time is lengthy, but it doesn’t require you to actually do anything. And it’s worth it, as storebought duck confit tends to be slightly more expensive, yet skimpier on the meat.

Anyways, enjoy the recipe. I know I did!

Sweet-and-sour Duck Confit with Celeriac Mash, Sautéed Apple, and Stir-fried Shiitake

Serves 2

For the duck preparation:
2 raw duck thighs, or 2 duck confits (cooked duck thighs preserved in fat)
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
2 shallots, finely chopped
3 tbsp raspberry vinegar, or sherry vinegar
3 tbsp mild liquid honey
Salt and pepper, to taste

For the celeriac mash:
1 small celeriac, peeled and cut into chunks
1-2 tbsp butter
1/4 cup milk
Salt and pepper, to taste

For the sautéed apple:
1 Golden Delicious apple, sliced
1 tsp butter
1 tsp olive oil

For the shiitake:
250 ml (1 cup) shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and sliced
1 tbsp olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tbsp flat leaf parsley, chopped

Make the duck confit (if using raw duck):
Preheat oven to 140ºC (275ºF) and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Trim the duck thighs of any excess fat, but leave the skin on. Brush with 1 tbsp olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Place thighs on prepared baking sheet and bake for 2 to 2 1/2 hours. For a crispy skin, raise heat to 200ºC (400ºF) during the last 20 minutes of baking. Let cool. (This can be made a day in advance and refrigerated, then reheated when ready to use.)

Make the celeriac mash:
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Boil the diced celeriac for about 15-20 minutes, until you can easily penetrate it with a fork. Drain, return to pot, then add the butter, salt, and pepper. Mash by hand with a potato-masher, gradually incorporating the milk, until you obtain the desired texture. Keep warm over low heat.

Prepare the duck:
Shred the cooled duck confit with a fork (or your fingers), and reserve. Heat the remaining 1 tbsp of olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat, then add the shallot and sauté until it begins to turn translucid. Deglaze with the vinegar and cook for 1-2 minutes, letting the shallots absorb the flavour. Stir in the honey, then the butter. Finally, stir in the duck, making sure to coat it well in the sauce, and heat through. Keep warm and reserve.

Make the stir-fried shiitake:
In a wok, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the garlic, and cook for about 2 minutes. Throw in the shiitake mushroom slices, and stir-fry, stirring often, until they are browned and tender (try not too overcook them). Stir in the chopped parsley, reduce heat, and keep warm.

Sauté the apple:
Melt the butter with the olive oil in a small frying pan, over medium-high heat. Toss in the apple slices, and sauté, stirring and flipping occasionally, until they are browned. Do not let them get too mushy. Reduce heat, keep warm and reserve.

Assemble the final dish:
Put two deep baking rings on a baking sheet. Press a layer of shredded duck on the bottom, then top with the celeriac mash. Set the oven to broil, and bake for 3 minutes, to heat everything through. (NOTE: If you do not have baking rings, you can use ramekins and serve your dish in them.)

Carefully unmold the duck and celeriac rings onto individual plates. Serve with a side of shiitake mushrooms and sautéed apples.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Bloggers' Meeting at The Sparrow

Two weekends ago, I had the pleasure of joining other Montreal food bloggers for brunch. This was the third time we were meeting, and although not everyone was able to attend every time, we’ve gotten to know each other bit by bit.

This time, we met up at The Sparrow, a restaurant on Saint-Laurent Boulevard. The last time I was in this place, it was a bar/lounge called the Mile End – quite a long time ago, really. Now, it’s a British-inspired pub.

We gathered for brunch at around 2 p.m. It was lucky we had made a reservation, because the place was full. However, it didn’t have that unpleasant feeling of being packed: we had plenty of personal space, and we could talk quite comfortably. The decor was cozy, with an added touch of class brought by the dark wood panels and furniture.

The brunch menu was short, but diversified, albeit always on the hefty side. Service was very friendly: our waitress promptly brought us coffee or tea as members of our group trickled in, and also explained the menu in detail. Our food came within a reasonable delay, and all of it together, which was quite impressive given that there were about 12 of us. Actually, they did forget Laurent’s main order (eggs florentine), but to their credit they brought it out very soon after we pointed the oversight out to them: Laurent barely had any catching up to do.

Of course, it helped that no one was allowed to eat until everyone had taken pictures of everyone else’s food. It’s always hilarious seeing everyone whip out their cameras, and passing plates around. Sometimes, when I’m at a restaurant with just one other person, I’m a little embarrassed to take pictures of the food (especially when it’s a classy place, where people tend to behave). But, strength being in numbers, there was no reason to be embarrassed here.

There were two “appetizer” dishes: donuts or a crumpet. I had the crumpet, because I hadn’t had one in years, and the last one had been of the stale supermarket variety. This one was satisfyingly thick, with a lovely milky flavour, a beautiful colour, and a moist-yet-chewy texture. I could have eaten it plain with butter, although the strawberry jam was quite tasty and homey, with chunks of fruit. I bullied Laurent into ordering the chocolate-filled donuts (which were more like donut-holes, really), and they were fluffy, not too sweet, and not greasy at all.

I ordered the baked eggs with celeriac mash and oyster mushrooms. The eggs were perfectly cooked (and I'm incredibly picky about eggs), and I simply loved the flavour combination. I will definitely be attempting to reproduce this dish at home.

Others had the English breakfast, by far the heartiest dish on the menu: eggs, bacon, sausage, beans, bubble and squeak (which I wasn’t familiar with, but consists of potatoes and cabbage), and blood pudding. I hadn’t had blood pudding in ages, but I seemed to remember that I hadn’t liked it the last time. Plus, I was under the impression that there was at least some sausage-like meat in there, but my tablemates informed me that it was, in fact, just congealed blood. The person who had ordered it was kind enough to let me have a taste, and it really wasn’t bad at all. I have a borderline iron deficiency, so this is the kind of food I should be eating anyway.

There was also a very nice-looking sausage-and-egg sandwich, which was almost more like a very tempting burger. And then more ubiquitous dishes, like French toast (which I heard very good things about), scrambled eggs, and eggs Benedict.

Honestly, apart from the swiftly corrected oversight concerning Laurent’s order, and the fact that the restaurant only accepts cash (it's very reasonably priced, though), I have nothing bad to say about this place. I just really hope it won’t be a victim of its popularity, like so many restaurants are. It was great seeing the bloggers again, and I was very happy to discover The Sparrow. I will definitely be going back.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Daring Cooks' February Challenge - Mezze

The 2010 February Daring Bakers challenge was hosted by Michele of Veggie Num Nums. Michele chose to challenge everyone to make mezze based on various recipes from Claudia Roden, Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Dugid.

It’s no secret that we’re fans of appetizers around here. We’ve been known to have entire suppers composed of nothing but little bites – in fact, it’s what we’re having for Valentine’s Day. So I was quite pleased when I found that this month’s challenge was mezze, Mediterranean appetizers that can either precede a meal, or be the meal.

I’ve had mezze many times in Lebanese and Greek restaurants, but this would be my first time making these specific appetizers at home. There were two mandatory recipes: homemade pita bread, and hummus. But we were given several optional recipes, along with permission to add just about any dish we wanted to.

Hummus is one of my favourite snacks, but the storebought one I get is so good that I’d never gotten around to making it myself. It was easy, and I quite liked the recipe Michele gave us, although I was a bit heavier on the lemon juice (we’re citrus fans). I didn’t add any flavourings during the preparation itself, but I added some chopped green olives when serving.

The pita bread was a little more problematic. I’ve made bread many times, including flatbread, so I was expecting this to go smoothly. But I mistakenly thought I could get away with using some old yeast I had forgotten to refrigerate – and as a result my dough barely rose. Fortunately, most of my individual pitas puffed up suitably in the oven. I did change the baking method, though: instead of baking the breads at 450ºF, I set the oven to broil, and flipped the breads when they were puffy and brown on top. This is the way I bake naan bread, and it’s rather quicker. I was pleasantly surprised by how soft the pitas were: so much easier to chew than the tough ones at the supermarket – even though I had used 1/3 whole wheat flour!

I made two of the optional recipes: raita, a cucumber and yogurt dip, and falafels, which are basically fried balls of mashed chickpeas. Well, actually, I made the raita (which was very refreshing, with lots of mint and a hint of cumin – it’s hard to believe I used to hate cucumber dip with a passion). Laurent did practically all of the work for the falafels, especially the deep-frying – I was busy wailing about my flat pita dough at that moment. He did a great job, too: the falafels were quite heavy, as they tend to be, but they really hit the spot, and went great with the raita.

I also added two dishes of my own. The first was dolmas, or stuffed grape-leaves. I had looked up several recipes, and had come up with a kind of hybrid stuffing, made with cooked long grain rice, sautéed ground veal, and various spices and herbs such as mint and coriander. I wrapped neat little cigars with the preserved grape-leaves I had bought. But when the time came to simmer them in a skillet with water, everything fell apart – literally. I put a large plate on top of the dolmas, as suggested, to keep them in place, but they floated around anyway, and water got into them. Even the ones that more or less kept their shape tasted watery and just plain bad. I put them on the mezze table for show, but we threw them out after a few bites.

The final dish, however, was quite a hit. I remembered having gone to Daou, a famous Lebanese restaurant in Montreal, and having eaten a concoction of ground raw meat with chopped onions and fresh mint. It was a long time ago, back when I was suspicious of raw meat, and this experience certainly helped open my horizons (I now swear by steak tartare).

I did some research, and found that the dish I was looking for was called kibbeh nayeh. The word “kibbeh” most readily makes me think of the ubiquitous fried meat croquettes in Lebanese restaurants, but the term can apply to the raw preparation as well. It can be made with lamb or beef, and contains soaked bulgur. The recipes I came across were made from home-ground meat (which I don’t have the equipment to make) and didn’t include chunks of onions, but I adapted them to fit my memory (see below). We ate the kibbeh nayeh by scooping it up with pita bread – and it definitely was as good as I remembered.

Obviously, since there were only two of us at the table, we had a mountain of leftovers. But we didn’t complain: that’s also the beauty of mezze, they make great snacks – well, except for the kibbeh nayeh of course, which didn’t keep.

So, thank you Michele, for the lovely meal you enabled us to enjoy! The rest of you, don’t forget to check the Daring Cooks’ blogroll, as well as the original challenge recipes, to get started on some mezze of your own!

Kibbeh Nayeh
(serves 4-6 as an appetizer)

200g (7 oz) very fresh extra-lean ground beef of lamb
1/3 cup bulgur
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp allspice
Salt to taste
1 small onion, chopped
A big handful of fresh mint leaves, chopped

Rinse the bulgur, cover it in water and soak for 30 minutes. Then drain it and squeeze out the moisture with your hands.

In a bowl, combine the ground meat and the bulgur. Stir in the salt, cinnamon, and allspice. Finally, stir in the onion and mint. (Note: you can chop the onion very finely, or leave it a bit thicker for a chunkier texture, if you wish.) Do not overwork the meat.

If not eating right away, cover and refrigerate. However, any raw meat preparation should be eaten within the hour it is made, for optimal freshness. Serve with pita bread.

Monday, February 8, 2010

A Hand for Haiti: Now Available for Purchase

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that Lauren, from Celiac Teen, was issuing a call for recipes for an e-cookbook she was putting together to raise money for Haiti. She has been working very hard, and we're pleased to announce that the e-book is ready and available for sale.

Entitled A Hand for Haiti, this e-book contains 87 recipes, by 71 food bloggers. Each of us contributed recipes which symbolize home for us: they are recipes close to our hearts, that bring us comfort.

The minimum price for this e-book is $10 (Canadian). However, you have the option of giving more, if you wish. It is important to note that the Canadian government will match any donations received before February 12th (this coming Friday). The e-book will still be available after that, but the government's contribution will no longer apply.

All proceeds will go to the Canadian Red Cross.

If you wish to make a donation for Haiti, I urge you to purchase A Hand for Haiti. I also want to thank Lauren for the opportunity to take part in this. And I want to applaud her for her admirable kindness and all her hard work.

Friday, February 5, 2010

R.I.P Q-Tip: 2000 - 2010

Q-Tip, my wonderful, incredible pet rabbit, passed away this week. She was nine years old.

She was just a baby when I got her, a fist-sized little ball of fluff, with tiny ears and big, round eyes. She looked so small, vulnerable and scared when I took her home. She didn’t eat for a whole day. But then, when I gave her a baby carrot, she finally started to nibble on it.

Over time, her ears grew longer, and she grew stronger. At first, she only had access to my room when we let her out of her cage, but over the years, she gained access to practically the entire house. She learnt to run up and down the stairs – and chew up all the curtains and carpeting.

She also developed quite a personality. Whenever she was displeased, she would noisily tear up the newspaper lining her cage, or toss her food bowl around. She was never the cuddly type, and disliked being picked up most of the time. But she would often run in circles around me (a sign that she belonged to me – or the other way around), or would lie down next to my feet as I worked at my desk.

When I moved out of my parents’ house, she came with me, and later followed me every time I changed apartments. She got sick a couple of times, and I sometimes had to leave her at the vet’s for observation. The assistants working there all loved her: bunnies with an attitude are irresistibly endearing – and Q-Tip, who tried to pick fights with the rabbits in the cage next to hers, definitely had an attitude.

The other day, I noticed that she was having trouble breathing, so I took her to the vet. Before leaving the house, I gave her some flat leaf parsley, her favourite treat in the whole world. She ate it with enthusiasm, as she always did. Seeing her looking so pleased and satisfied made me smile, as usual.

But she turned out to be sicker than I thought. Or rather, she was old, and tired: her heart was giving out. We tried a treatment, but when it failed to give sufficient results, we knew it was time to make a decision. The decision.

We petted her, sleeked her soft, shiny fur, covered her with kisses, and told her she was the best, most beautiful bunny in the world. She was groggy from the drugs and sedatives, not much like her fiery self. But despite that, she still found the energy to nudge my hand with her head – something she always did whenever she felt I was petting her too hard. She remained temperamental to the end.

The end was quick, and painless. Honestly, we couldn’t have asked for more. She lived a long life, and the fact that the end came so suddenly means that she didn’t have time to suffer. Of course, it also means that the shock was that much greater for us – but that’s for us to handle on our terms.

We miss her. It’s the little things that catch us by surprise. Not having to buy romaine lettuce every other day. Not having to shut the living room door to prevent her from getting in and chewing the television wires. Not having to save up newspaper sections to line her cage with. Not being awakened early on the weekends by the sound of her wreaking havoc in her cage because she wanted to be fed. Not seeing her when we glance at her cage. Not seeing her skipping across the room. Not watching her happily eat parsley. Not having a permanent presence to talk to, even when we’re just thinking out loud. We miss everything: the fun moments and the chores.

But we will always remember the good times. And we will always remember her – if only because she is the reason there are bunnies all over the apartment: plushies, figurines, kitchen gadgets… And the reason this blog is called The Chocolate Bunny. But mostly, we will remember her because she was an amazing companion, the best bunny that ever lived.