Thursday, December 30, 2010

How the Chef Aced Christmas

So, how was your Christmas?

Mine was pretty great. I did miss my parents, but the cheery atmosphere at my in-laws’ on Christmas Eve was strong enough to lift my spirits. With good food and cool gifts, it was a good time.

But let’s focus on the food. As usual, my father-in-law, a.k.a. Super Chef, had made a thousand different kinds of appetizers.

Puff pastry straws

Parmesan crisp and pesto "lollipops"


There were a lot more, like blue-cheese-and-pear-chutney bites, mushroom duxelle tarts, red pepper croutons, creamy asparagus-and-ham rolls, stuffed cherry tomatoes, and more that I’m forgetting, but the photographs didn’t turn out too well due to lighting conditions. Just use your imagination.

Dinner was *comparatively* simpler. Super Chef not being a fan of turkey, he chose a non-traditional route: meatloaf. However, we’re talking three different kinds of meatloaf: cranberry, kirsch, and truffled foie gras, all served with the best gravy I’ve had all year. And, of course, there were side dishes: potatoes à la dauphine, and broccoli au gratin.

And finally, the bûche (which, as you can tell, was photographed in a completely different environment. So much for visual harmony in this post...). Usually, he makes a cassis-flavoured one, but this year he went for orange liqueur. And when he realized that the bûche was kind of boot-shaped, he decorated it with an Italian theme. I wonder where he got all the tiny Italian flags…

But there’s more to come. Right now, I’m baking for the New Year’s Eve party, using one of my Christmas presents: Nick Malgieri’s Bake! Essential Techniques for Perfect Baking. Gotta love the holidays!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Daring Bakers' December Challenge - Christmas Stollen

Sorry about posting this a day late… You know how the holidays get.

The 2010 December Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Penny of Sweet Sadie’s Baking. She chose to challenge Daring Bakers’ to make Stollen. She adapted a friend’s family recipe and combined it with information from friends, techniques from Peter Reinhart’s book.........and Martha Stewart’s demonstration.

I was curious about what the Holiday-themed December Daring Bakers’ challenge would be. Last year’s gingerbread house challenge was a blast, albeit a lot of work. However, when I caught my first glimpse of this month’s challenge, before properly reading the recipe and ingredients list, my initial reaction was: “Oh no, it looks like fruitcake.” Fruitcake, you may have guessed, is not m favourite holiday treat.

Thankfully, upon closer inspection, the challenge was revealed to not be fruitcake, but stollen, a German bread served for Christmas. Technically, I suppose it is pretty close to fruitcake in spirit, with its dried fruit and nuts. But it’s also crustier, with a less dense dough, closer to bread than to pound cake. At any rate, after reading the full recipe, I was feeling pretty enthusiastic about the whole thing.

I kept close to the recipe we were given, only substituting dried cranberries for raisins. The recipe also called for candied citrus peel, which presented a special kind of dilemma for me. Candied orange peel is one of those things I know how to make, but don’t enjoy making. It’s a hassle to me. In fact, anything to do with cooking or stewing fruit tends to bore me, including making jam. Fortunately, my father-in-law, an expert in the matter, was nice enough to make a batch for me. Lucky me!

After letting the dough rise overnight in the fridge, rolling it to the required thickness turned out to be somewhat a challenge. Rolling the whole thing into a log shape, and then moulding it in a wreath was also a little tricky for me, as the seams refused to fuse together. But all in all, there weren’t too many problems with this challenge.

With its hefty dose of cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, the stollen smelled divine in the oven, and it was hard to resist not slicing into it immediately after it was done. But I coated it in melted butter and icing sugar, as required, and waited patiently.

It was good. The dough was very rich, with a lot of butter and eggs, but it didn’t feel too heavy. Despite all the sugar and dried fruit, it was far from cloying. The stollen also toasted beautifully, and made for a delicious, filling breakfast. I ended up freezing half of it, for mornings when I need a little warmth and sweetness.

Happy holidays and happy new year to all the Daring Bakers out there! Thanks to this month’s hostess, Penny, and please take a look at the Daring Kitchen to see the challenge recipe and, and the Daring Bakers' blogroll to admire all the festive stollen that were made this month. Until next time!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Seasonal Cheer - Buttered Rum Meltaways

Only two days until Christmas celebrations begin! As usual, December flew by. However, I’m reasonably on top of things, this year. For one thing, I’m neither travelling, nor having relatives visiting. On the one hand, it's rather sad, as it’s the first Christmas I’ll be spending without my parents: usually, I fly over, and they flew in a couple of years ago. But this year, no one seemed to be able to get away. On the other hand, when I looked at how chaotic the airport situation is in Europe right now, I think we’re all a little relieved that none of us had to go through that this year. Having known my share of delayed flights and missed connections, my heart goes out to all the people who are stranded at the airport.

For the rest, the tree is trimmed, and the gifts are bought, wrapped, and labelled. The big Christmas dinner will be hosted by Laurent’s parents, so all I have to take care of is baking or cooking for the odd pot luck or pre-Christmas party.

These little beauties are destined to a party tonight. Martha Stewart’s buttered rum meltaways. Just the name radiates Chrismas. With cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and a strong dose of dark rum (which, I discovered, is great for baking, but not for drinking), it’s the kind of cookie which I believe can only be appreciated around this time of year. Between the richness of the dough and the thick coating of confectioner’s sugar, these cookies really do melt in your mouth. I hope the people at tonight’s party will agree.

You can find the recipe here. A word to the wise: when the cookies are baking and you open the oven door to rotate the sheets, beware of the cloud of evaporated rum that will float out. I accidentally caught a good whiff – not something I was prepared for at ten in the morning!

Happy holidays, everyone!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Taking on the Double Down - Sicilian Sandwich

Today, my friend and fellow blogger Victor of Random Cuisine celebrates his blog’s second anniversary. Happy blogaversary, Victor, keep up the good work and the good cooking!

For this occasion, Victor asked some of us to take part in a very unique challenge: to make our own version of KFC’s infamous Double Down. This much talked-about breadless sandwich consists in two fried chicken filets, surrounding a filling of bacon, two kinds of cheeses, and “secret sauce.” While not quite as humongous as Friendly’s Grilled Cheese Burger Melt (a burger in which the bun has been replaced by two grilled cheese sandwiches), the Double Down is still an impressive piece of decadence.

My first thought after agreeing to take on Victor’s challenge was “How on Earth am I going to make this nutritionally acceptable?” I love me some fried food, but something about eating two stacked fried filets makes my stomach quiver in fear (oddly enough, this does not apply to burgers, as I’ve eaten my share of Bic Macs). So, I tried to think of something that could be stacked, and that wasn’t bread – because, of course, that would just result in a sandwich, and would defeat the purpose.

I finally stumbled on an idea while flipping through Stefano Faita’s Entre Cuisine et Quincaillerie: the Sicilian sandwich. Two thick slices of eggplant, breaded and grilled (or fried), and sandwiched around a slice of prosciutto and melted cheese. It sounded like a worthy Double Down substitute.

I followed the principle of the Double Down and used two different kinds of cheese: parmesan and smoked cacciocavallo. I replaced the bacon with crispy pancetta, and my “secret sauce” was a basil coulis. It was a pretty good combination, and very satisfying.

Thanks for the challenge, Victor, and congrats!

Sicilian Sandwich
Adapted from Stefano Faita’s Entre Cuisine et Quincaillerie
Serves 2

One large eggplant
6 slices of pancetta
Two slices of smoked cacciocavallo cheese
A few shards of parmesan cheese
A big handful of fresh basil leaves
Salt and pepper
Olive oil
Bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 180ºC (350ºF).

Make the coulis: Put the basil, salt and pepper in a food processor. Pulse until finely shredded. Gradually pour in olive oil, until you obtain a smooth, liquid sauce. Set aside.

Cut four 1 cm (1/2 inch) slices into the eggplant. Brush both sides of each slice with olive oil, then coat them in bread crumbs. Heat some more oil in a pan over high heat, and fry the eggplant slices until cooked through and browned on both sides. Remove from heat and reserve.

Fry the pancetta in a pan over high heat, until crispy. Remove from heat and reserve.

Divide the parmesan, cacciocavallo and pancetta in two and place them over two eggplant slices. Drizzle with basil coulis, and complete the sandwiches with the remaining eggplant slices. Place on a baking sheet and bake in the oven until cheese is melted. Drizzle more basil coulis, and serve immediately.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Daring Cooks December Challenge - Poached Eggs

Jenn and Jill have challenged The Daring Cooks to learn to perfect the technique of poaching an egg. They chose Eggs Benedict recipe from Alton Brown, Oeufs en Meurette from Cooking with Wine by Anne Willan, and Homemade Sundried Tomato & Pine Nut Seitan Sausages (poached) courtesy of Trudy of Veggie num num.

I absolutely loved this month’s Daring Cooks challenge. Poaching is one of my favourite ways of preparing eggs. Often, I serve them for weekend brunch, on top of smoked salmon- or goat cheese-topped English muffins. Sometimes, I make them for dinner. I just love the texture of the firm white, and runny yolk – and it’s just about the healthiest cooking method you can think of.

It took me a really long time to master the poaching technique, but it’s been a while since I’ve had a real failure. The secret really does lie in adding vinegar to the water, which prevents the whites from spreading all over the place. For the rest, it’s really just a question of practicing and getting a feel for it.

However, this challenge still had a lot to teach me, as one of the challenge recipes was eggs Benedict, which I’d never made per se. Somehow, just knowing what hollandaise sauce consists of (mainly egg yolks and a whole lot of butter) made me shy away from making it, even though I’ve had it in restaurants. But part of me has always wanted to give it a shot, and this challenge gave me that extra bit of incentive I needed.

Hollandaise is basically a hot mayonnaise, with butter instead of oil. I’ve always been lucky with homemade mayonnaise, in that it has rarely ever failed on me. Apparently, this luck applied to hollandaise sauce as well: the emulsion thickened and held together without any trouble. I also made English muffins for the first time, and, while they were a bit too heavy, they had the right taste and texture. I made the so-called Scandinavian version of eggs Benedict, with smoked salmon instead of Canadian bacon. It was really delicious, and the sauce was rich and creamy. I added a side of asparagus, which also go well with hollandaise.

Since I completed the challenge early, I had time left to experiment at bit. I tried something I’d been wanting to attempt for a long time, even though it’s not technically poaching: onsen tamago, or hot-spring eggs. In Japan, these eggs are left to cook, in their shell, for a long time in natural hot spring water, which is below boiling point. As a result, the eggs cook more evenly than when they are soft-boiled: the white is still quite soft, almost slimy, while the yolk is runny, but firm enough not to break when you crack the egg.

Since I (sadly) do not have access to a hot spring, I cooked the egs following these instructions. Onsen tamago are often served in soups, or sometimes just on their own. I served mine on rice, with stir-fried shiitake mushrooms. The egg mixed in with the rice for, giving it a rich flavour.

Finally, I tried poaching something other than eggs: salmon. I used this recipe, in which salmon is poached in a mixture of white beer and cream. It was pretty good, although next time I would alter the cream/beer ratio, as the beer flavour wasn’t all that obvious. Also, I had some issues with my camera that day, so the picture is a little icky.

This was definitely one of my favourite challenges. Thanks, Jenn and Jill!

Please check out the challenge recipes at the Daring Kitchen, and go through the Daring Cooks’ blogroll, to see what the other cooks have been up to this month.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Green with delight - Matcha Sablés

I have a tendency to want to put green tea in everything. Fortunately, with matcha powder, a little goes a long way. Also, it doesn’t come cheap, so I usually end up refraining myself. However, making matcha sablés was something I’d wanted to do for a long time.

We were having friends over for what you could call a “fancy pot luck.” Everyone had to bring something, and it had to be relatively gourmet. Amongst the tasty morsels were foie gras served on toasted pain d’épices, roasted peppers and chorizo, stuffed zucchini, and duck confit. For dessert, someone had brought homemade truffles, which Laurent and I complemented with homemade berry sorbet and green tea sablés.

I’d recently rediscovered the berry-and-green-tea combination at POP!, a Montreal wine bar. I’d indulged in a “Japanese-style” raspberry cheesecake, with a matcha-flavoured shortbread, and I just had to try to recreate the effect – at least the main flavours, if not the textures.

When I was a child, I used to find sablés quite boring, and too heavy. It took me a while to appreciate the rich, buttery taste, and the crumbly texture. As for these treats being heavy, I’ve reached an age where I don’t eat cookies by the handful anymore (except on a really, really bad day), so one of these babies is usually enough. And while I’ve learnt from experience that matcha powder doesn’t make everything better, it still manages to improve most baked goods.

Matcha Sablés
Adapted from Anita Chu’s Field Guide to Cookies

Yields around 25 cookies

200g (1 cup) butter, softened
140g (3/4 cup) granulated sugar
1/2 tsp salt
The zest of 1 lemon
2 egg yolks, room temperature
280g (2 cups) all-purpose flour
2 tsp matcha green tea powder

In a medium bowl, combine the flour and matcha green tea.

In a mixing bowl, beat butter until smooth. Add sugar, salt, and lemon zest, and beat until combined. Beat in the egg yolks.

Gradually stir in the flour and matcha mixture, until you obtain a smooth dough. Do not overwork the dough.

Divide the dough in two, and roll each half into a log that measures around 20 cm (8 inches) long and 5 cm (2 inches) wide. Wrap each log in waxed paper or plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight.

Preheat oven to 180ºC (350ºF). Stack two baking sheets on top of two other sheets, and line them with parchment paper.

Remove dough from fridge, cut the logs into 1 cm (1/2 inch) slices with a sharp knife, and set them on the prepared baking sheets.

Bake for around 15 minutes, or until the edges of the cookies begin to turn golden, rotating sheets halfway through. Let the cookies cool on the sheets for 5 minutes, then transfer them to a cooling rack. Store in a airtight container.