Saturday, August 27, 2011

Daring Bakers' August Challenge - Candy

The August 2011 Daring Bakers’ Challenge was hosted by Lisa of Parsley, Sage, Desserts and Line Drive and Mandy of What the Fruitcake?!. These two sugar mavens challenged us to make sinfully delicious candies! This was a special challenge for the Daring Bakers because the good folks at offered an amazing prize for the winner of the most creative and delicious candy!

Oh, boy. This month’s Daring Bakers’ challenge was a doozie. Candies, including one mandatory chocolate candy. Everyone knows working with chocolate is a bitch on any given day, but working with chocolate on a humid summer day? Really? Not to mention boiling sugar and the like…

Ok, I’m done with the complaining… at least for now. The truth is, even though there were many reasons to skip this challenge, there were also plenty of reasons to go for it. One of them being the amount of work our hostesses put into it: the instructions were so detailed and they left us so many recipes and options, I would’ve felt bad wimping out just because “chocolate is hard.” And another reason was… well, precisely that chocolate is hard. It’s a challenge, one that I was supposed to tackle a long time ago.

A few years back, Laurent’s dad was preparing a conference on chocolate, and we all got dragged into the research and trivia. We were all kind of obsessed with it, really. That’s how I got to be fairly well informed about the tempering process. Tempering consists in melting chocolate, cooling it down to a certain temperature, then heating it back up slightly. The aim is to obtain a specific type of crystallisation, which leads to a finished chocolate that is smoother, snappier, and shinier. Yup, I knew all about tempering… but I’d never actually done it. This was because I also knew how difficult it is to control the temperature of chocolate.

So, with that in mind, I started off with a non-chocolate candy: pâte de fruits. I’ve always liked these chewy squares of fruit paste, and the recipe looked pretty simple. I made a citrus grapefruit version, although the pink coloring I used makes it look more like strawberry. Unfortunately, I was pretty disappointed by my result. Maybe I didn’t use enough pectin, but my pâte de pamplemousse never solidified as much as I would have liked. I had to store it in the fridge, and it didn’t have that satisfying chewiness I love. Also, the humidity made it absorb too much sugar, making it too sweet.

With that, I decided to man up and tackle the chocolate. Truffles would have been an easy way out, as Laurent and I often make truffles in the winter. But if I was doing this, I was doing it right. I decided to make bonbons with a caramel filling: they would highlight the tempered chocolate, and allow me to use those cute little moulds we’d bought during our chocolate obsession. With a good supply of Alto El Sol chocolate disks of the Barry brand and a marble slab which was graciously given to us a while back, I was ready.

As predicted, it was difficult and frustrating. I waited until all the chocolate had melted in the double boiler to test the temperature, only to find that it was already past the recommended limit. I then transferred most of the chocolate to the marble slab, and started spreading it and flipping it around. But the temperature simply refused to drop lower than 28.5ºC, even going back up at times, never anywhere near the required 27 ºC. Finally, I got bored and decided that this would have to do. I put the chocolate back over barely simmering water, and this time the temperature shot back up and was past its limit before I could do anything. That’s when I stopped using the thermometer, as it was seriously screwing with my mind.

Moulding the bonbons was an exercise in frustration as well. Despite being apparently too hot, the chocolate was thick, and didn’t spread very well. Next time, I’m definitely using a pastry brush to fill the moulds individually, rather than trying to ladle chocolate over all the cavities: it’ll be slower, but definitely less messy. I’m sure professionals can pull it off, but I’m just not there yet.

Prior to this, I had made a filling of salted caramel (the original recipe was passion fruit, but I didn’t have any on hand). I have a habit of burning caramel, so I was careful this time, and the result was light and liquid – maybe a little too liquid, thus making the moulding even more difficult.

As I waited for the bonbons to set in the fridge, I cleaned up the kitchen, wiping melted chocolate off the counter, floor, walls, stovetop, and fridge handle. I was rather despondent at that point, as I was certain the result was going to be a huge fail. So when I banged the mould on the counter and a perfect, shiny chocolate candy popped out, I cursed in delight – which very rarely happens.

Of course, they didn’t all come out perfect. I’d say about half were edible, the others were either crushed or permanently stuck in the mould. Not great for a pound of chocolate, and I felt saddened by all the wastage. But I vow to be more careful next time, now that I have a better idea of how this works.

My tempering was most definitely not perfect, but it still seemed to have an effect: the chocolate had a distinctive texture as it snapped between my teeth. It remains to be seen whether the nice sheen of the bonbons will last over the days. But still, it’s nice to know all that trouble wasn’t a complete waste of time.

Lisa and Mandy, thank you so much for this challenge. Despite all my complaining, I really am glad that you pushed me to do this. Even though it didn’t go perfectly, tempering chocolate no longer seems like an impossible task.

Please check out the challenge recipes here at the Daring Kitchen, and take a look at the blog roll to see all the cute candies made this month.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake - Lemon Pound Cake

As mentioned before, I’ve been reading a lot of food books lately: chef memoirs, books about specific foodstuffs, but also fiction about food. I’ve decided to add a new partial focus to this blog: commenting on these books (I don’t want to say “reviewing,” because I don’t plan on being nearly that systematic or authoritative) and including a recipe taken from or inspired from the book in question. Basically what I did with Devil’s Food Cake Murder last month. This way, I get the best of both worlds I love: cooking and reading.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake was one of those books that I came upon accidentally at the store. The greenish-blue cover, quirky title font, and, of course, the title and the striking slice of triple-layer cake caught my eye as I was skimming the shelves, looking for Kate Atkinson’s latest novel. I had never heard of Aimee Bender, but after reading her book’s synopsis, I was too intrigued to leave it behind.

The narrator, Rose, is a happy, carefree nine-year-old girl at the beginning of the novel. The first scene is the kind of childhood memory everyone either cherishes or would like to have: she comes home from school to her smiling mother, who is just about to start baking her a birthday cake. But after one bite, Rose realizes something is very wrong: although the cake is objectively delicious and made from quality ingredients, she can taste something else in it, too. Hollowness, emptiness. Her mother’s mal-de-vivre.

Rose soon discovers, much to her despair, that, no matter what she eats, she can now taste the emotions of the person who prepared the food – even in something as basic as a sandwich. Imagine eating a bakery cookie and tasting the boredom and frustration of the person who made it. Or, even worse, finding out your mother’s deep, dark secrets by way of her roast beef.

The novel follows Rose through the years, as she deals with this gift/curse. The focus is also on her family, which appears fairly average, in that dysfunctional way that is so frequent in contemporary novels: her father, a pragmatic lawyer who seems to have achieved most of his personal ambitions, and who remains a distant figure most of the time; her mother, who struggles to discover what she wants in life and hides her inner void as best as she can; and her older brother, Joseph, a reclusive teen genius who grows up to be an even more reclusive young adult, with, as it turns out, a gift of his own.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, despite its title and premise, is much less about food than it is about human relations. Descriptions of food revolve more around feelings than flavours, which may disappoint foodies looking for mouth-watering depictions, but which also makes the mind wander to interesting places: what would depression, joy, infatuation, or excitement taste like?

Ultimately, the novel is about how people navigate around and with each other – a fairly common theme, but a seemingly infinite one. Rose’s problem is that, no matter how much she would like to shut the world out, she can’t: she has to eat, and although she relies as much as possible on vending machine snacks and factory-made food, she can’t forever avoid tasting other people’s feelings and having to deal with them. Her circumstances are unique, but she remains a relatable protagonist in that way. It also helps that, although her chipper personality takes a sarcastic turn after she discovers her gift, she never resorts to whining about her condition, and remains stoic, almost wise at times. I also very much liked her father, despite his complacency: he too, in his own way, is at heart someone trying to find his place. The character of Joseph was harder for me to enjoy (although you’d think I’d relate to an anti-social nerd who insists on reading at the dinner table), in part because of what his gift turns out to be: I won’t spoil it, but I thought it was a bit far-fetched, and not very useful to the story (or in the real world, for that matter).

Despite the book’s qualities, I closed it with a feeling of emptiness – maybe like the one Rose tasted in that fateful birthday cake. It had started out strong, a real page-turner, but I felt the book fizzled out in the end, with much potential left untapped. This is probably because the story ends just as Rose is starting to discover something her gift might be good for. I would have liked to see that part be more explored. In fact, I would have liked more development in general: the ingredients were there for a great story, and there are little gems scattered throughout, but somehow the richness was lacking to bring them all together.

Although the title lemon cake is explicitly a round cake, iced with chocolate, I took this as an opportunity to revisit an old favourite: lemon pound cake. My father-in-law gave me this recipe, and, although it is a classic, it’s still delectable. The syrup at the end is all-important, as it gives the cake its lovely moisture and terrific lemon flavour. I’m told it works best with margarine, but I refused to try this, as margarine make me shudder.

Lemon Pound Cake
From my father-in-law’s kitchen (possibly taken from somewhere else)

Yields one 22 by 11 cm (8.5 by 4.5 inch) cake

250g (2 1/2 sticks, 9 oz) unsalted butter, softened
250g (1 1/3 cup, 9 oz) granulated sugar
5 whole eggs, beaten
The zest of two lemons, grated
250g (1 3/4 cuo, 9 oz) flour
2 tsp baking soda
Pinch of salt

For the syrup:
The juice of 4 lemons
100g (3/4 cup, 3.5 oz) confectioner’s sugar

Preheat oven to 180ºC (350ºF).
In a large mixing bowl, cream the soft butter with the sugar, until pale yellow in colour. Gradually beat in the eggs and lemon zest. Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl, and gradually stir the dry ingredients into the butter and egg mixture.

Butter a 22 by 11 cm (8.5 by 4.5 inch) cake mould. Pour the batter into the mould, place it on a baking sheet, and bake for 60 to 65 minutes. The cake is ready when a knife inserted into the center comes out clean.

Meanwhile, make the syrup: gradually stir the confectioner’s sugar into the lemon juice, until all the sugar is dissolved.

When the cake is baked, unmould it and prick its top and sides with a fork while it is still very warm, and brush with syrup, until most or all of the syrup is absorbed. Let cool on a rack. Store at room temperature, wrapped in plastic wrap.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Food, Culture, and Friends - Matsuri Japon

Okay, Evelyne has put me to shame by posting about this days ago, so… I really need to write this now.

Last weekend, I hung out with two lovely gals and fellow food bloggers: Evelyne of Cheap Ethnic Eatz, whom I’ve seen on several occasions, and Mary of Mary Mary Culinary, who was in town for a few days, and whom I was meeting for the first time. Incidentally, Mary was hosting the August Daring Cooks’ Challenge, the deadline of which was only a day away. Fortunately, I’d completed the challenge the day before, so I could confront her guilt-free. :-)

It turns out there were quite a few things to do in Montreal that day, including Gay Pride-related activities, and Otakuthon, which I actually didn’t remember about until Monday. Not that I would’ve forced my two friends to attend an anime convention… But in the end, we settled for another Japan-themed event: the annual Montreal Matsuri Japon festival.

Every year for the past ten years, Matsuri Japon (a masturi is a traditional Japanese festival) has been celebrating Japanese culture. Despite my interest in the latter, I had never attended the event, and was looking forward to finally seeing it for myself.

Finding the location was easy enough: we just followed the throng of yukata-clad girls. You could actually borrow a yukata on site, and wear it around the festival (sadly, I didn’t have a good pic of people wearing the traditional garment, but you can see some in Evelyne’s post). Japanese dyed fabric, jewellery, stationery, toys, and other trinkets were on sale at various stalls.

Of course, being food bloggers, we were (not solely, but mostly) in it for the food. There was quite a bit to choose from, including prepared bento, curry, and noodles. Mary and Evelyne went for the okonomiyaki.

I never understand why the okonomiyaki is so often described as a “Japanese pizza.” “Japanese pancake” is a comparatively better fit, but anyone looking for the fluffy texture of a pancake will be sorely disappointed. The only way I can really accurately describe okonomiyaki is: pan-fried batter with stuff in it, topped with katsuoboshi (dried bonito shavings), aonori (nori sprinkles), special brown sauce, and mayo (and, ideally, pickled red ginger, or beni shoga). The “stuff” you put in it can vary, but usually includes cabbage and shrimp.

The girls had some trouble eating their okonomiyaki with chopsticks (normally, it should be pre-cut into wedges). Meanwhile, I was happily slurping refreshing hiyashi udon, chilled noodles served in a cold light sauce.

I also splurged on a couple of takoyaki, or octopus balls.

It seems to take quite a bit of time to make takoyaki, and they need to be frequently turned over. I really want that apparatus, though.

All of this was happening against a background of entertainment, including traditional dancing and taiko drums. The latter were really impressive, and the players looked like they were having a real blast.

How cool would it be to have one of these in your living room? I can think of a lot of uses for those mallets, too.

There was also the traditional carrying of the shrine. I kind of like that they didn’t even try to make it look like a real, ancient shrine, and just went for a simple design.

The kids had their own shrine (as happens in real matsuri), and they also performed on the drums (I have pics, but they’re sub-par).

I don’t think all matsuri have a dragon, but it never hurts to have one.

It was a very fun event, and it was even better sharing it with my foodie friends. Thanks for a great afternoon, girls!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Daring Cooks' August Challenge - Appams and Curry

Mary, who writes the delicious blog, Mary Mary Culinary was our August Daring Cooks’ host. Mary chose to show us how delicious South Indian cuisine is! She challenged us to make Appam and another South Indian/Sri Lankan dish to go with the warm flat bread.

This month’s hostess’ blog is one of my regular and favourite hang-outs, so I couldn’t wait to find out what she had planned for us. Mary didn’t disappoint.

I’ve made naan bread many times, and I’ve also had the unleavened bread chapatti in Indian restaurants, but appams were entirely new to me. They are basically yeasted pancakes, except that they are egg-free. And made from ground rice instead of wheat flour. And shaped more like a crêpe.

There was a lot of resting time, but overall the preparation was mostly similar to pancakes or crêpes. And, since I can almost never manage to make perfectly round crêpes, there’s no reason why I should have expected to be able to make perfectly round appams.

The appams tasted very mild, and I loved their light, slightly spongy texture.

As a main dish, I chose the chemeen pappas, or shrimp in coconut milk. I thought I had all the necessary ingredients on hand, but then realized I had no curry leaves. I searched and searched my (admittedly very cluttered) pantry, but couldn’t find any. I ended up using dried basil instead – not a substitute by any means, but the result was surprisingly palatable.

The shrimp were great, spicy with just the right amount of heat, and a great sauce that was just begging to be mopped up with the appams – and naturally, we obliged.

Thank you, Mary, for this instructive challenge! The rest of you, please check out the challenge recipes at the Daring Kitchen, and click through the Daring Cooks’ blog roll to see the tasty dishes served this month!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Totally Worth It - Momofuku Ramen (or close enough)

I promised you a post about ramen. This is it.

It all started when I found out about a Food Film Festival at Cinéma du Parc. I immediately bought tickets for a few select films. Among them was Delicatessen, about which I seriously wonder why it was included in this festival: it’s barely about food at all, although I suppose cannibalism is a type of gastronomy (and no, there was nothing about cannibalism in the synopsis, which makes the movie sound like a cutesie rom com - which, I assure you, it is not). We also saw Kings of Pastry, a documentary about pastry chefs taking the Meilleur Ouvrier de France exam. We witnessed some spectacular displays of sugar-pulling and sculpting skills – and some really nerve-racking brushes with catastrophe. It really makes you marvel at what people will put themselves through for their passion. There were also films I’d already seen, such as Chocolat and the exquisite Babette's Feast.

But my favourite discovery was Tampopo. I’d heard of it, and jumped at the chance to see it. It’s mainly about a woman who owns a ramen shop and is on a quest to make the best bowl of noodles ever. She enlists the help of a gruff trucker who really knows his way around a ramen kitchen, and other experts join along the way. But more than a film about ramen, Tampopo is a film about food and people who love food. There are various, seemingly random scenes inserted in the film focusing on anonymous characters and their relationship with food. Many of these scenes are absolute gold. This is one of my personal favourites. It's in Japanese, but basically the women are trying to learn how to eat pasta the "Western" way, without making any slurping noises, and... Well, see for yourself.

Ramen are still a major part of this film, though. The secret ingredients in the broth, the ideal resting time for the noodle dough, the ideal thickness of pork slices: everything is important. Even the way you eat your ramen is important. And here, I can’t resist linking to one of the film’s opening scenes, which addresses just this very question (and this one has subtitles).

I walked out of there with not much more than a vague idea of how to actually make good ramen (except that one must never let the soup boil – which I already knew from making pho), but a very strong desire to tackle this seemingly monumental task. So, I did some research. I came across a lot of recipes about how to make good broth and cook pork, but all of them used either dried noodles, or homemade egg noodles – and from what I understood, ramen noodles are supposed to be egg free (more on that in a minute). I read some good advice on the Chowhound forums, and some great posts on the blog No Recipes. And then, I discovered that David Chang’s Momofuku cookbook includes everything you need to know to make ramen from scratch. I found the book, flipped through it, drooled at nearly all the recipes, and took it home.

I lived in New York from 1988 to 1994, and my parents lived there again from 2003 to 2006. I visited them a lot during the latter period, but even though Momofuku Noodle Bar was already well known at the time, I never went there (I wasn’t nearly as interested in food as I am today). Having read the cookbook, this place is now on my list of musts for my next trip to NYC. The recipes seem full of bold flavours and unusual combinations, without a hint of pretension.

But my first concern was the ramen. The process was even more daunting than I’d expected. The first task was to make taré, which is described as “Japanese barbecue sauce.” Upon reading the ingredients, I realized this was basically what I and most people I know refer to as teriyaki sauce, only more complex: in addition to soy sauce, sugar, and mirin, this reduction had to include fond de volaille, made from roasting chicken bones. Ever since I learned to bone chickens, I’ve been buying whole birds and saving the carcasses to make stock, and I just happened to have one in the freezer. I’d never made fond before, and wasn’t too happy with the small quantity I ended up with. I’m not sure it made much of a difference in my taré.

The broth was next, an elaborate process of simmering chicken, dried and fresh vegetables, bacon, and pork bones for a combined total length of over eight – yes, eight – hours. I wasn’t sure I would be able to find pork bones: I was told most butchers probably wouldn’t have them on hand, because Western cooking usually revolves around stocks made with chicken and beef bones, and fond made from veal bones. Thank heavens for Asian supermarkets! I went to Marché Fu Tai and got some awesome-looking pork bones (leg and neck, from the looks of it), which the butcher sawed into segments for me. After the full eight hours, the stock was truly a thing of beauty: rich and fragrant, and as it cooled it turned into a gelatinous marvel. I seasoned it with the taré, following David Chang’s advice to keep flavouring until it’s “not quite too salty but almost.”

Chang uses two kinds of pork in his ramen, but I decided to skip the shredded shoulder and stuck to classic sliced pork belly. When I asked for pork belly at a butcher shop at Jean-Talon Market, the woman behind the counter apologetically said she only had a big, 4-pound slab, which was vacuum-packed and therefore couldn’t be divided. I lit up and told her that was perfect. The pork was rubbed with salt and sugar, then baked at high, then low temperatures (Chang writes that this method was born out of a mistake, but the result was so good he decided to keep doing it). It was mouth-wateringly tender and flavourful, and the leftovers were used for banh mi sandwiches.

And finally, there were the noodles. That was the part that had me most worried. I’d done research, and had learned that ramen noodles, contrary to what one may think, don’t contain eggs: they get their yellow colour from kansui, or alkaline water. Kansui also speeds up the production of gluten, and makes the noodles firmer. I found a comment on Chowhound that someone had managed to locate some of this hard-to-find liquid near Jean-Talon. I looked around and found some at Thai Hour. (On a side note, I was reminded never to judge a store by appearances: my first instinct was to check Marché Oriental, which is also in that neighbourhood. It’s the larger and better-lit of the two stores, so I thought I had a better chance. But no, I found the kansui across the street, at the much more modest-looking Thai Hour.)

I was tempted to hand-pull the noodles, as I had seen it done in the Oishinbo volume on ramen and gyoza (Oishinbo is an amazing manga about Japanese cuisine, which I have previously mentioned). The process just looks so bad-ass and impressive (this is unflipped manga, so read the panels right-to-left):

But I decided to save that experiment for another time, and just used the pasta roller, which is how Chang does it anyway. Incidentally, he commented on his own recipe by saying that the home cook didn’t really need to go to the trouble of looking for kansui, or even making noodles from scratch. But when people give me leeway in a recipe, I take it as a challenge to refuse said leeway. :-)

Okay, with all that done (it took about two days and a half), all that was left to prepare were the other toppings. Traditionally, ramen is topped with pork belly, half a hard-boiled egg, squares of nori, menma (softened bamboo shoots), scallions, and naruto (sliced fish cake). Naruto is usually storebought, and I knew where to buy some, but I could only get it in a relatively large chunk. Since I would only need a little bit, and have no use for this ingredient outside of ramen, the rest would have gone to waste. Besides, naruto doesn’t taste like much (although it does give ramen their distinctive “look”), so I had no qualms about skipping it. I also skipped the menma, mostly because I was tired of cooking and just wanted to eat the damn soup already.

I had to be reminded of how to boil an egg while avoiding that ugly grey ring around the yolk: put the egg in cold water, bring to a boil, turn off the heat, and let sit for 10 minutes, 8 minutes if you want the yolk to be ever so slightly creamy. (Chang tops his ramen with slow-poached eggs, which I also know how to make, but as I explained, I was kind of in a hurry to eat.)

It’s important for the broth to be hot when you ladle it, and the bowls should ideally be warmed in a low-temperature oven. The water for cooking the noodles should be simmering, not rolling: a full boil can strip away some of the flavour (Mind you, I haven’t tested this theory for myself, but that’s what Oishinbo says… Seriously, there’s a whole chapter about this). The cooking time varies depending on the noodles.

So, was it worth it? Oh hell, yes! It tasted out of this world. No, actually, it tasted like Japan, and took us right back to those narrow little ramen shops in Tokyo. The broth was amazing, the pork melted in our mouths… The noodles could have been more toothsome, but I’d had to improvise on them: the recipe called for alkaline salts, and all I had was alkaline water, so I had to guess the amount, and probably should have added a tiny bit more. But you can bet I’m going to keep tweaking this until I get it right.

So, that was my first foray into homemade ramen. I can’t wait to make more, and try other kinds of broths, especially miso. I faithfully followed the recipe for my first attempt, but now that I have a pretty food idea of the process, I want to come up with my own recipe, my own ideal ramen. Yummy days ahead!