Sunday, June 27, 2010

Daring Bakers' June Challenge - Chocolate Pavlova

“That looked like an easy challenge,” said Laurent as he took another bite of dessert.

He was more or less correct. It wasn’t that this month’s Daring Bakers’ Challenge had been easy (although it was definitely less work than several previous ones), it was more that I had approached it with a much more relaxed attitude than usual.

The June 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Dawn of Doable and Delicious. Dawn challenged the Daring Bakers’ to make Chocolate Pavlovas and Chocolate Mascarpone Mousse. The challenge recipe is based on a recipe from the book Chocolate Epiphany by Francois Payard

A lot has been going on these past couple of weeks. We came home from Japan, only to find our apartment a complete mess. We had been warned beforehand: our building had discovered a bed bug problem in several apartments, and had ordered several measures, which Laurent’s parents had carried out in our absence. All our clothes had been taken out of the closets and drawers, and had been put into plastic bags. The furniture had been moved around, and our mattress had been thrown out (with our permission). So it took a few days before we were able to really settle back in.

And then, there have been several things to catch up on: school, a translation job, and my best friend’s wedding coming up very soon. I also had to get used to cooking again. It sounds strange, but a month without touching a whisk or a skillet can really take its toll on you. It was like getting to know my kitchen all over again.

Since we do have to eat dinner every evening, I got back into cooking fairly quickly. But when I tackled this challenge, I hadn’t baked anything sweet in a very long time. I decided to keep a “que sera sera” attitude about the whole process.

I’ve made meringue before, but never pavlova, although I had heard about this dessert. There were several components, but none of them seemed too daunting. And really, it all came together beautifully. It’s possible my chocolate meringue was overbaked, but I like it crispy. At first, I was somewhat afraid that my chocolate mascarpone mousse would be too liquid, but it ended up setting nicely – in fact, the next day, it was actually a bit too hard!

The part I was most skeptical about was the mascarpone cream. When I saw that it consisted of crème anglaise, mascarpone and heavy cream, I thought: “This is going to be the heaviest thing in the world!” But I gave it a chance and followed the recipe (although I halved it, as I had the mousse recipe), and it actually turned out to have a very light texture.

The combination of all the elements was excellent. The sweet, crispy meringue, the slightly bitter mousse, and the ethereal cream made each mouthful a delight.

So thank you, Dawn, for this laid-back, delicious challenge!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Daring Cooks' June Challenge - Pâtés and Bread

This month’s Daring Cooks Challenge was very special to me, as I had the immense privilege of co-hosting it with fellow Montrealer and friend Evelyne of Cheap Ethnic Eatz. It was a wonderful experience. But first, the blog-checking line (which looks a little strange here):

Our hostesses this month, Evelyne of Cheap Ethnic Eatz, and Valerie of a The Chocolate Bunny, chose delicious pate with freshly baked bread as their June Daring Cook’s challenge! They’ve provided us with 4 different pate recipes to choose from and are allowing us to go wild with our homemade bread choice.

So, why pâté? Well, we brainstormed back-and-forth for a bit, before Evelyne came up with the idea. Coming up with something that is stimulating, versatile, season-appropriate, and potentially vegan and/or gluten free is a challenge on its own! Pâté just seemed to fit the part. As soon as we agreed on it, the possibilities almost overwhelmed me. But since pâté is rarely eaten on its own, we added homemade bread to the challenge, to complete the dish.

Despite being a big fan of meat-based pâté, I had never made it myself before this challenge, and I knew I wanted to try a traditional recipe. Unfortunately, such recipes often involve cooking with liver, which I am not a fan of: I’m a little squeamish around offal in general (except tongue: I love tongue!), and the texture of liver, whether raw or cooked, has never appealed to me. But hey, if the hostess isn’t daring, how can she expect the participants to be? So I rolled up my sleeves, stifled my instincts, and made Stéphane Reynaud’s Chicken Liver Terrine.

Trimming the livers was pretty much as unpleasant as I’d expected. I also disliked the smell that emanated from the cooked livers, even after flambéing them in brandy (another first for me, as I had always been too scared to flambé anything before). And puréeing them in the food processor… ew. By that point, I was wondering what I’d gotten myself into.

However, once the vile mixture had been mixed in with the ground pork, cream, bacon, and spices, my optimism returned. And I was so happy with the baked result: it tasted better than the store bought variety, which I will never buy again! Rich, creamy, and yes, you could taste the livers, but they now blended with the other ingredients for a wonderful flavour. And I still have enough frozen leftovers to make lunch sandwiches for weeks to come!

However, not everyone likes meat-based pâté. So we made sure to test alternative recipes. Evelyne, who made a wonderful spiced pork liver pâté, also tested a layered veggie pâté (both of which I got to sample – and they were things of beauty), while I tried a seafood version. The recipe I used was actually suggested to my by my father-in-law, who got it from someone else. It’s a trout and shrimp terrine, very simple, but elegant, with clean flavours. I could eat this every week.

For the bread, Evelyne volunteered to test a baguette recipe. A nice, crusty baguette really is the best thing to serve with pâté, in my opinion. But baguettes can be difficult and time-consuming to make, especially if one has never baked bread before. So I tested a quicker loaf recipe, that was very versatile: you can make it all-white or whole wheat, in loaf form or as rolls. In the end, many Daring Cooks ended up going for the baguette, which I can only applaud: there really is nothing like it.

Ideally, I would have made another pâté as a participant for this challenge. I certainly have a list of recipes I would have liked to try out, such as duck terrine, or wild mushroom pâté. Not to mention dessert terrines, involving fruit or chocolate! Unfortunately, as you know, I’ve been travelling nearly all month, and only just got back from Japan. If I hadn’t been a hostess, I probably would’ve had to skip this month’s challenge altogether! Funny how that worked out…

I’m going to go look at everyone’s challenge posts after this, but I’ve already gotten some insight on what people have been up to on the Daring Kitchen forums. As anticipated, some people were a little hesitant about making pâté (especially the meat versions), but everyone was a good sport and at least gave it a try. It especially warmed my heart whenever someone stated that they had been pleasantly surprised and were now pâté converts. And of course, some Daring Cooks threw themselves passionately into this challenge, and completely blew my mind! They’ve been experimenting, and have come up with some really beautiful, delicious-sounding creations, using really original ingredient combinations. I already knew the Daring Cooks were an awesome bunch, but I was reminded again with this challenge.

It was a real treat co-hosting this challenge, and I want to thank my awesome co-hostess and all the Daring Cooks who cooked with us this month. And, as always, thanks to Lis and Ivonne for being the heart of the Daring Kitchen and making all this possible!

Hop on over to the Daring Kitchen to check out the recipes we offered, an look through the blog roll to see all the amazing accomplishments this month.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

My kind of street food - Squid

I've always thought that “squid-on-a-stick” sounded like a good inoffensive swear. “Squid-on-a-stick, it's hot today!”

We're still in Tokyo. Last week, we were lucky enough to attend a free shamisen (Japanese guitar) class. We were awful, but it was still really fun. And I got to wear a kimono properly, for once, instead of sloppily wrapping it around me like a common dressing gown, as I have done on the few previous occasions I”ve tried putting one on:

After that, our hosts took us to a matsuri (festival) that was taking place all weekend. It reminded me a little of the street fairs in New York, with all the food stalls, the delicious smells, the games, and the noise. The festival's main event was to be the procession of the nearby temple's portable shrine, but that was taking place the next day, so we missed it. However, we did see the children's procession, as they practiced carrying a smaller, presumably ligher version of the shrine (the real thing weighs about four tons and requires the strength of two hundred men).

Now, I'm sure many people find the idea of squid-on-a-stick repulsive, but I love squid in any form, and this was definitely on my lengthy list of things to eat. Just charred on a grill, with a layer of sauce. It was the first thing I looked for when we hit the stalls, because I knew it was a typical matsuri street food.

Laurent went for a much more visually arresting version, with little octopi:

Everyone around the table thought it was quite cute. But it'd probably look a little weird eating this in Montreal, don't you think?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Tastes of Kansai - Takoyaki and Okonomiyaki

Hello all! We're still in Japan, and having a wonderful time!

We just spent a week in the Kyoto area, visiting shrines, gardens, and parks. It was quite a change from Tokyo, with its neon signs and trendy crowds. That said, I've always been a city girl, so the urban bustle doesn't bother me – especially when it's as stress-free as Tokyo. As my Dad reminded me: “If Americans lived in Tokyo, it would Hell on Earth – but the Japanese make it work, somehow.” Even Laurent, who had anticipated the crazy crowds, had to admit the city felt very peaceful.

We've both taken tons of pictures – too many for me to sort through right now. Thankfully, there are comparatively fewer food pictures, which makes my task of keeping this blog alive during our trip a little easier. So, on with the food!

We didn't just visit shrines in the Kansai region (the South of Japan): we also sampled the local food. Two of the specialties I was particularly keen on tasting were okonomiyaki and takoyaki. If you really want to be a regional purist, they are specifically Osaka's specialties, but you can also find them in Kyoto and other nearby cities.

Takoyaki (literally: grilled octopus) are little chunks of octopus, dipped in an egg-and-flour-based batter. They are then cooked in sphere-shaped molds, and traditionally served with mayonnaise, katsuoboshi (dried bonito flakes), seaweed flakes, and a special brown sauce that tastes a little like zippy teriyaki sauce. There are multiple variations, including takoyaki with extra octopus (shown below), and even octopus-free takoyaki, with cheese and bacon used as filling. The latter actually sounded kind of yummy, but we turned our noses at it, given the context.

Okonomiyaki (literally: what you like, grilled) is based on a similar batter, but is shaped into a large disc and cooked on a teppan (a iron griddle). All sorts of things can be added to the batter: meat, seafood, vegetables... Ideally, the okonomiyaki is served piping hot, crispy on the outside, and soft on the inside. There are also variations, such as the one shown below: a thin crepe, topped with yakisoba (which, ironically, contains no soba, but consists of sautéed ramen noodles), various garnishes, and an egg. Again, you can add mayonnaise and sauces, depending on what toppings you chose.

I don't think I've ever seen okonomiyaki or takoyaki on the menu at a Japanese restaurant in Montreal, so I was very glad to get a taste of them here. Seriously, I see a market for them in Canada, don't you?