Saturday, November 27, 2010

Daring Bakers November Challenge - Crostata

The 2010 November Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Simona of briciole. She chose to challenge Daring Bakers’ to make pasta frolla for a crostata. She used her own experience as a source, as well as information from Pellegrino Artusi’s Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well.

I love pies and tarts. I really do. I think, in most cases, I’ll choose them over cake. So this month’s Daring Bakers’ Challenge, crostata, was good news for me! Crostata is a traditional Italian tart, made with short crust pastry. I’ve been wondering what the difference is between short crust pastry and short pastry (or pâte brisée) Apparently, the main difference is that short pastry contains water. And then, you have pâté sablée, which is closer to short crust pastry, but has a higher butter content. So many doughs, so little time.

I made my first ever crostata a few months ago, to bring to a dinner party; while I obviously didn't make it as part of this challenge, I thought I might as well included it here, since I haven't posted about it yet. I used pâte brisée, and made an apple filling. I quite like the rustic look of free-form crostate, and they’re so easy to make. But, although the dough was perfect, I found that the apples were undercooked to my taste.

The challenge required us to make pasta frolla (short crust pastry), which was easy enough to make. It was very crumbly, and I had trouble rolling it out evenly, but it was also quite forgiving, in that it allowed me to patch up any holes or tears very easily.

We were giving free range for the filling. Our hostess, Simona, suggested filling the tart with jam, or pastry cream, before baking it. But I wasn’t in the mood for a jam tart. As for pastry cream, I already knew how to make it, and I tend to prefer it unbaked. There was the possibility of blind baking the crust entirely and then filling it with fresh pastry cream and fresh fruit. That last option was most appealing to me, but it also had the inconvenience of not keeping very long. What to do, what to do?

In the end, I used a recipe from Marcy Goldman’s A Passion for Baking, a variation on the traditional French chocolate silk pie. Traditionally, silk pies require no baking – but since they contain eggs, they are considered a little risky that way. I’m not too afraid of raw eggs (coming from a country where people have regularly freaked out about mad cow disease and dioxin-contaminated chicken, I think I’ve grown a little blasé about food poisoning in general), but I did want my crostata to keep for at least a few days. Marcy’s version features slightly non traditional ingredients, such as sweetened condensed milk, and is baked long enough to ensure safety. “Sounds good to me,” I decided.

Having never used sweetened condensed milk before, I didn’t know what to expect. The thick, gloopy mixture that poured out of the can wasn’t particularly appetizing, but then I’ve learned not to judge an ingredient based on first impressions. And I was right, because this was one of the best tarts I’ve ever made. There was a distinctive malty taste from the condensed milk, but it wasn’t too invasive, and the chocolate was still definitely the star. The crostata was sweet, but not cloying (although I was glad I’d cut out some of the sugar in the crust), and the filling was creamy and almost fudge-like. Fudge in a crust – who wouldn’t love that?

Speaking of the crust, I’d blind baked it for 15 minutes before filling it, as I often have trouble with underbaked pie bottoms. I had rolled it out quite thinly, and it was evenly baked, with a nice, sandy texture that nonetheless held together. I did try to decorate the top with the traditional lattice pattern of dough strips, but because my filling was so liquid before baking, the strips looked like they were sinking into it. It just seemed like a bad idea, so I removed them.

This was a very pleasant challenge, and the pasta frolla recipe is a keeper. Also, the Untraditional French Chocolate Silk Crostata will from now on be one of my go-to recipes for dinner parties. Thank you, Simona, for these discoveries!

Don’t forget to check out the challenge recipes, and to go through the Daring Bakers’ blogroll!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Product Review - Dried Chanterelle Powder from O Gourmet

I was recently asked to do a product review for O Gourmet, an online food store physically located in Montreal. As their name indicates, they specialize in fine products. They have quite a selection, and their site is also very informative, even offering detailed guides about berries, plants, vinegars, mushrooms, and pâtés. They also offer a variety of local foods, which of course deserves a thumbs up.

Because I mentioned that I love cooking with mushrooms, they offered to send me some dried chanterelle mushroom powder. (By the way, these pictures were taken after I’d used up more than half of the powder for my test recipes – sorry about that.)

Although I’ve cooked with dehydrated mushrooms before, I had never used them in this form. I did some pondering before deciding what kind of dish to incorporate the powder in. Chanterelles aren’t all that easy to find in my neighbourhood (although you can find them in season at open-air markets), so I haven’t had the good fortune of tasting them very often, but I did know they had a fairly delicate flavour (especially when compared to shiitake or porcini), so I wanted something that wouldn’t overwhelm it. In the end, I created two recipes.

The first was a mushroom bread. I’ve been taking up bread baking more or less seriously again, after a lengthy break, and have been indulging in sandwiches made with homemade whole wheat bread on a nearly daily basis (I bake two large loaves every two weeks, slice them and freeze them for future use). Mushroom bread has always been on my list of things to make, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity. It was also the first time I attempted to create an original bread recipe: until now, I’d merely followed published recipes, tweaking them here and there. I can’t say this is a particularly daring recipe (I followed generally accepted guidelines), but it was a great experience to find my own balance, and tweak the dough so as to obtain the kind of bread that I’m most fond of.

I chose to make rolls, crusty on the outside and soft on the inside. I incorporated the chanterelle powder directly into the dough, and also added some rehydrated dried wild mushrooms, to add some texture and flavour contrast. The result was very satisfactory (heck, I was pleased as a peacock with my first original bread), and while the chanterelles’ taste was subtle, you could definitely taste the hazelnutty hint in the crumb.

The second recipe I tried was a mushroom risotto. Once again, I tried not to overwhelm the chanterelles’ flavour. I sautéed some portobello and shiitake mushrooms separately, and sprinkled in the chanterelle powder as I simmered the rice in chicken stock, before tossing in the cooked mushrooms. The powder added some colour to the rice, and once again, the flavour was there.

I enjoyed experimenting with chanterelle powder. And, being a mushroom fiend, I have a feeling I’m going to be experimenting with other powders very soon!

Mushroom Rolls

Yields 12 small rolls

2 tsp instant yeast
500 ml (2 cups) warm water (about 37.7 ºC, 100 ºF)
2 tbsp olive oil
560 g (4 cups) bread flour
2 tsp sea salt
2 tbsp dried chanterelle powder
25-30 g (1 oz) dehydrated wild mushrooms (e.g. shiitake, oyster mushrooms, boletes etc.)

Rehydrate the dried mushrooms according to the package instructions.

Pour the warm water into a large mixing bowl, sprinkle the yeast into it and whisk to dissolve.

Combine 140 g (1 cup) of flour with the salt and chanterelle powder, and whisk it into the water mixture, along with the oil and the rehydrated mushrooms. Gradually add the rest of the flour, stirring with a wooden spoon. Switch to kneading with your hands when the tough becomes too sticky and tough. The dough should be smooth, soft, and tacky by the end.

Oil the bowl and the dough with olive oil, cover with plastic wrap and let rise for 30 minutes.

Knead the dough for about 20 strokes, oil and cover again, and let rise for 90 minutes, or until doubled in size.

Separately tack two baking sheets on top of two other baking sheets. Cover the top sheets with parchment paper.

Transfer the dough onto a lightly floured surface. Divide it into 12 equal portions and form each portion into a ball. Place the balls onto the prepared baking sheets, cover lightly with plastic wrap, and let rise for 45 minutes.

Place a rack at the center of your oven, and another just below. Fill a heatproof baking pan two-thirds of the way up with hot water, place it in the lover rack of the oven, and preheat oven to 220 ºC (425 ºF).

Spray your rolls with water and put them on the center rack of the oven. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until golden brown, rotating the sheets halfway through the baking time. Remove the rolls from the baking sheets and let cool on racks.

You can freeze the baked rolls for future use.

Mushroom Risotto

Serves 2-3

150g (5 oz) fresh shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and diced
200 g (7 oz) fresh portobello mushrooms, stemmed and diced
3 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, diced
200 g (7 oz) carnaroli rice
1 litre (4 cups) homemade chicken stock
2 tbsp dried chanterelle powder
Salt and pepper, to taste

Heat the chicken stock over low heat.

Heat half of the olive oil in a skillet or wok, over medium-high heat. Add the diced mushrooms, salt lightly, and sauté until browned. Transfer the mushrooms to a plate or bowl, and reserve.

In a large saucepan, heat the remaining olive oil, over medium heat. Add the onion, and cook until soft and translucent, stirring quite often. Add the rice, and stir until the grains are coated with oil, about 1 minute. Pour in a ladleful of chicken stock, and stir constantly until all the stock has been absorbed. Pour in another ladleful of stock, then add the chanterelle powder, still stirring constantly. Continue adding the stock gradually, always stirring, until the rice is cooked al dente (if you run out of stock, add water instead). Toward the end of the cooking process, toss in the cooked mushrooms, and stir to combine and heat through. Adjust seasoning and serve immediately.

Daring Cooks November Challenge - Soufflés

Dave and Linda from Monkeyshines in the Kitchen chose Soufflés as our November 2010 Daring Cooks’ Challenge! Dave and Linda provided many of their own delicious recipes plus a sinfully decadent chocolate soufflé recipe adapted from Gordon Ramsay’s recipe found at the BBC Good Food website.

We had a great challenge this month, for the Daring Cooks: baking soufflés! It’s been a few years since I made my first soufflé, but perfecting a recipe or a technique is also part of the DC group.

Our hosts gave us several recipes and options, both sweet and savoury. Although the chocolate soufflé sounded mouth-watering, there have just been too many sweets around here lately, so I opted for the crab and artichoke recipe, which really jumped out at me. However, while we are fans of artichokes, we prefer them fresh (Laurent is always disappointed with the canned ones – except when they’re directly imported from Italy), and those aren’t really in season right now. So I substituted the artichoke with an equal amount of corn, as crab and corn are one of my favourite flavour combinations.

Overall, I don’t have much to report for this challenge. My soufflé certainly didn’t rise as much as others soufflés I’ve seen, but it was light and airy, and I loved the flavours. I was glad for the opportunity to experiment on that level, as I’ve tended to make the same old soufflés over the years. Although I didn’t have time to try more than one recipe, I did think of quite a few, and I’m hoping to test them out over the winter.

Thanks, David and Linda, for this challenge! Don’t forget to check out the challenge recipes at the Daring Kitchen, and to take a look at the Daring Cooks’ blogroll!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Family Jewels - Cha Gio (Vietnamese Imperial Rolls)

Today’s recipe is very special to me: it’s a treasured family recipe, passed on to me by my mother, who got it from my grandmother. It’s our recipe for Vietnamese imperial rolls, and it is spectacular.

I know every food-loving person goes around saying “My mother/grandmother (occasionally father) makes the best *insert homey, usually culture-specific food here* in the whole world!”, and swearing on my blender that in my case, it’s the pure and simple truth probably won’t convince anyone. But that fact is that I’ve been to more than my share of Vietnamese restaurants, and I have never found a cha gio (the Vietnamese word for imperial rolls) that even comes close to my grandmother’s. Well, okay, once: at my uncle’s restaurant in Brussels. And guess whose recipe he was using? My father agrees with me on this one: his mother-in-law’s rolls are unequalled worldwide (and we mean that literally: we’ve eaten Vietnamese food in a lot of different countries).

What makes a good cha gio? Well, for one thing, it has to be made with rice paper: wonton wrappers are for Chinese egg rolls, and have no place here. It also has to be crispy. And the rest of the secret lies in the filling. A few years ago, when I first expressed an interest in making cha gio, my mom made a few phonecalls to her siblings, nephews and cousins to get their input, and they all had different advice for the filling. Finally, she just gave me her own recipe – because who would use a recipe they weren’t convinced was the best ever?

This version uses a mixture of pork and veal, which actually isn’t entirely traditional: Vietnamese cuisine doesn’t normally use veal. However, my mother argues that using different meats makes the flavour more interesting, and I, having made versions with pure pork, pork-beef-veal, and pork-veal, agree that the latter is the most balanced one: pure pork was comparatively bland, and the version with beef was too fragrant. Did my grandmother use veal? Probably not in Vietnam, but given that she’s been living in France since before I was born, it’s likely that she did include veal in the later versions of her recipe.

Now, the big question: do my rolls measure up to my grandmother’s? Of course not. However, they are as close as I’ve ever tasted (except for my mom’s and my uncle’s). The method and ingredients are all there, now it’s just a question of tweaking and intuition – something I’ll only achieve with more experience. But in the meantime, I’m happy to share the basic formula with you all.

A note on mung bean vermicelli: in their dried state, they look like rice vermicelli, but are much tougher. Their purpose here is to absorb some of the filling’s moisture. If unavailable, don’t try to replace them with rice vermicelli, as the resulting texture might be too mushy – just leave them out and add only one egg to your filling.

Chinese wood ear mushrooms are easy to find in Asian grocery stores. In Montreal, they are usually labelled “black mushrooms” or “black fungus” – which doesn’t sound very appetizing, I know, but let’s face it, that’s what they are. They don’t have a lot of flavour, but they’ll add a slightly squishy texture to the filling, in a very good way.

Cha Gio (Vietnamese Imperial Rolls)

Yields about 30 small rolls

200g (7 oz) lean ground pork meat
200g (7 oz) ground veal
One 120g (4 oz) can of shredded crab, drained
One whole egg
One onion, very finely minced
1-2 cloves garlic, very finely minced
One medium carrot, very finely chopped
2-3 tbsp dried Chinese wood ear mushrooms
Dried mung bean vermicelli
1 tbsp nuoc mam (fish sauce)
1 tsp sesame oil
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Rice paper discs (bành tràng), 15 cm (6 inches) diameter
Canola oil

For serving:
Romaine lettuce leaves
Fresh cucumber slices
Fresh soybean sprouts
Fresh coriander leaves
Fresh mint leaves

For the nuoc cham (dipping sauce):
5 tbsp nuoc mam (fish sauce)
5 tbsp tepid water
1 tbsp white vinegar
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp hot chilli paste (optional)
1 clove garlic, finely minced or crushed

Cover the dried mushrooms in water and let them rest for about 20 minutes, or until fully rehydrated. Drain, pat dry, and mince very finely

In a large bowl, combine the pork, veal, crab, onion, garlic, carrot, and mushrooms, by stirring with a wooden spoon or by clean hand. Then stir in the egg. Your filling should be slightly wet, and hold together well. If it still seems too dry, add another egg.

With a strong pair of scissors, cut off 1 cm (1/2 inch) pieces off the tip of the mung bean vermicelli. Take care to protect your eyes, as the pieces have a tendency to fly in every direction. As you go along, mix the vermicelli pieces into the meat filling (don’t worry if they crack or break). Quantities are variable: your filling is ready when enough moisture has been absorbed by the vermicelli to give it a significantly drier feel; it should still hold together.

Stir in the fish sauce and sesame oil, and season with pepper to taste. At this stage, you can take a small piece of filling, form it into a ball, and cook it in oil, to check the seasoning.

Take a sheet of rice paper, dunk it into cold water for 10 seconds, then lay it down flat. It will soon soften and become pliable. Place a heaped tablespoonful of filling on top of the rice paper, about 2.5cm (1 inch) away from the edge closest to you. Shape the filling into the form of a small cigar. Fold the edge of the paper closest to you over the filling and roll the filling over once. Then fold both edges of the paper over, and finish rolling. Try to roll as tightly as possible, and avoid leaving air pockets inside the roll.

Set the finished roll aside, and repeat until you run out of filling. Take care not to let the finished rolls touch each other, as they will stick and tear.

To make the dipping sauce: Combine all ingredients in a small bowl, making sure to dissolve the sugar. Taste and adjust seasoning (if too salty, add more water).

In a large skillet, heat 1-2 tablespoonfuls of canola oil over medium high heat. Working in batches, place as many rolls as you can into the skillet, without letting them touch each other. Fry turning over as needed, until nicely browned and crispy on all sides. Serve hot, and eat each roll by wrapping it in a lettuce leaf and dipping it in the sauce. You can also serve do chua (pickled daikon and carrots) alongside. For a good do chua recipe, check out Andrea Nguyen’s website.

You can easily freeze the cooked rolls by putting them in a single layer on a baking sheet and putting them in the freezer for an hour, then put them in a Ziploc bag and keep frozen until needed. To reheat, bake the rolls in a preheated 200ºC (400ºF) oven, about 10 minutes per side, turning over once, until they are warmed through and crispy on the outside.