Friday, September 30, 2005

In the Mood for Coconut

We came back a couple of days ago from a short break in Bangkok, where eating, drinking and shopping till you drop are in order. Unfortunately, no pictures - one can never have too much luggage space thanks to the superlative retail therapy available in the City of Angels, so the camera stayed back. No matter how much geng dtaeng bpet or hor mok pla we inhale whilst there, I always come home from a visit longing for the heady flavours of Thai food. Here, a pair of coconut-rich desserts, which while not Thai, sweetly end any piquant Southeast Asian meal on the right note.

Little Lime Syrup & Coconut Loaves
My Mum had passed me some gorgeous kaffir limes and leaves from her garden, which I used in the lime soaking syrup for the cakes. The recipe is based on one from Regan Daley's lovely book, In the Sweet Kitchen. I used my beloved mini loaf plaque for these dainty wonders which manage to pack a mighty flavour - made with both desiccated coconut and coconut milk, the cakes are moreishly moist and comfortingly close-crumbed. Once they emerge from the oven a rich burnished gold, proudly risen with cracked tops, they are laced with the sticky syrup tart with lime juice and perfumed with both zest and leaf.

Coconut Panna Cotta with Passion Fruit Coulis & Coconut Tuiles
This recipe comes from Craft of Cooking by Tom Colicchio, the chef and co-owner of the celebrated Gramercy Tavern and Craft restaurants in New York. I used freshly extracted coconut milk (thankfully, an ingredient readily available from our neighbourhood wet market), which is significantly different in flavour terms from the canned variety. To accompany the quivering little creams, a puddle of passion fruit coulis and a crisp coconut tuile.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Adult Cookie Sandwich

While I have quite a few dessert volumes dedicated to chocolate, the one I consistently turn to time and again is Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Herme, written by Dorie Greenspan. No other book fills me with the same excitement, the same urgent need to go rustle something up in the kitchen. And despite the fact that I've stayed up nights pouring over its exquisite pages, I never fail to spot yet another recipe I simply must try or revisit or tinker with.

In looks, this pair of treats are elegant and decorous. But in terms of taste and texture, they very much remind me of cookie sandwiches - the crisp and chewy without affording the loveliest contrast to the creamy and lush within.

Triple Chocolate Meringue Puffs

The original recipe is a unique take on meringue glacée, with whisper-weight chocolate meringues anchoring a scoop of chocolate ice cream or bittersweet chocolate sorbet, crowned by an extravagant swirl of chocolate whipped cream. I've used the pastry chef's Deep Chocolate Cream recipe instead of ice cream as the filling (thus making it closer in character to a meringue chantilly rather than a meringue glacée) so the dessert can be assembled ahead of time - a useful trait in a dish if, like me, you get unnecessarily stressed by the prospect of last minute work. My favourite part was piping out the Botero-esque meringue rounds - plump, peaked poufs resembling chubby chocolate kisses. As Dorie Greenspan advises, deconstructing the dessert (a messily delicious affair, incidentally) requires both spoon and fork.

Chocolate and Hazelnut Dacquoise

Here, discs of hazelnut and almond dacquoise - a cross between meringue and cake in texture - sandwich an intense bittersweet chocolate cream ganache. To maximise the crunchy circumference-to-chewy centre ratio, not to mention succumb to my obsession with miniaturisation, I piped out the batter in small rounds intended for individual servings instead of the 9-inch circles called for.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

A Pair of Flower Scented Jellies

I love using floral essences like orange blossom and rose waters to impart a note of Arabesque mystique to certain sweets and savouries. I've noticed, however, that most men don't fancy such flavours much - W ("Sweetie, have you been spraying the food with Ce Soir ou Jamais again?"...I adore Annick Goutal's Turkish rose perfume...) certainly doesn't, however subtle the application. I've long stopped attempting to sneak these flavours into our meals, indulging my weakness only when I'm cooking for myself. However, as I've discovered, jams and jellies may well be an excellent outlet for my compulsion even when I'm not alone - they keep, and given the array of other non-scented spreads available, nobody need feel excluded whether at breakfast or tea-time.

Raspberry and Apply Jelly with Rose
I've gone on and on about my fixation with Pierre Herme's Ispahan before, his dreamy rose macaron, lychee and raspberry signature confection. So as soon as I saw this recipe in Mes Confitures, Christine Ferber's fabulous book on the art of preserving, I knew I had to make it. An apple jelly infused with rose water and dried rose petals is layered over raspberry jelly - if a taste could be described as pretty, this would be it. Beyond being alluring to look at, keeping the flavours suspended in separate layers makes perfect sense; all the better to appreciate the exquisite coalescence of the distinct yet harmonious. Minus the lychee element, it comes close to the sensational taste of the glamourous Confiture Ispahan the fairy godmother of jams and jellies makes for Pierre Herme's boutiques. I've flagged her Raspberry and Lychee with Rose Water jam - which sounds promisingly like a chunky cousin of the Confiture Ispahan - to try making some time soon.

Aside from enjoying on toast, it makes an admirable filling for cookies. I made Linzer Cookies, setting aside some W-friendly ones filled with plain raspberry jelly.

Lavender Jelly
This recipe comes from The English Summer Cookbook by Thane Prince, which I simply had to make as soon as I laid eyes on the gorgeous picture in the book. Fortunately, the taste lives up to its jewel-like good looks. A plain apple jelly is infused with the intoxicating scent of lavender flowers (go easy here - lavender is an instance where less is more), while the fabulous garnet hue is courtesy of adding a few blackberries. A plain buttery cookie (I made vanilla bean shortbread) is good alongside.

Friday, September 16, 2005

SHF#12: Cooking Up Custard

I adore custard as much for its taste and texture as for its sheer versatility. Whether winging it alone as crème caramel and crème brûlée, or playing the part of perfect foil as crème anglaise and crème pâtissière, custard is the cornerstone of the sweet kitchen. The 12th edition of Sugar High Fridays is hosted by Elise of the wonderful Simply Recipes, and the theme is Cooking Up Custard. Here're some of my favourite ways of enjoying custard:

Vanilla Bean Pots de Crème
Thomas Keller's method as detailed in the Bouchon cookbook produces a luxuriously creamy custard, set so delicately it virtually melts in your mouth. The most magical thing, perhaps, is that it practically cooks itself. The pots (or ramekins) are coddled in a water bath before being baked in the oven. And thus, the simplest of ingredients - eggs, cream and vanilla beans - are transformed by the alchemy of very gentle heat.

Crème Brûlée Tart with Lavender Scented Crème Anglaise
This is based on an unusual recipe from Sherry Yard's The Secrets of Baking. I had first approached the preparation with trepidation but Ms.Yard's unconventional technique works a treat - by baking crème brûlée in sheets then freezing it, you are able to cut out any shapes you fancy (I used a fluted cookie cutter) and blowtorch the tops a la minute. The custard sits atop a fragrant white peach compote (the original recipe calls for sliced Royal Blenheim apricots) and some fabulously flaky almond pastry, accompanied by a classic vanilla crème anglaise intriguingly infused with lavender.

Île Flottante
Another Thomas Keller recipe, this time from The French Laundry Cookbook, and replete with spectacular twist, as you would expect. The slow-baked meringue swaddles a bittersweet chocolate mousse centre - a surprise hinted at by the garnish of chocolate tuiles and shavings. This featherweight island floats in a yolk-yellow pool of silky crème anglaise, picturesquely speckled with mint oil. The finishing touch? A few flakes of sea salt (I used Maldon instead of the fleur de sel specified) to round out the sweetness.

17 September 2005: Elise's rolling roundup is up!

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The Prescription Strength Chocolate Fix

I am an inveterate chocoholic. If I'm not actually stirring together some dark treat, chances are, I'm plotting the next recipe to try. And for those times when nothing but the most outrageously, gratifyingly, extravagantly chocolatey will do, I depend on the following favourites - potent shots in the arm for the incorrigible junkie. Given their extreme nature, modest doses are in order.

Bittersweet Decadence Cookies (based on a recipe from Bittersweet by Alice Medrich)
"Ultrachocolatey and richer than sin, slightly crunchy on the outside with a divinely soft center, these are not delicate or subtle, but the jolt of bittersweet is irresistible." says Alice Medrich of her phenomenal cookies in her fabulous book, Bittersweet. For the best effect, please skip the packaged chips (which will neither taste right nor be the ideal size) in favour of craggy chunks hewn from a premium bar you like. While winningly fudgy when cooled, the cook deserves to eat one (or more) warm from the oven, generously rippled with seams of molten chocolate.

1/4 cup plain all-purpose flour; 1/4tsp double-action baking powder; 1/8 tsp fine sea salt; 8oz bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped; 2Tbsp unsalted butter; 2 large eggs; 1/2 cup caster sugar; 2 cups pecans, broken into large chunks; 6oz bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped into chunks approximately the size of a hazelnut

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Farenheit and line several cookie sheets with baking parchment. Mix together flour, baking powder and salt. Sift and set aside. Melt the 8oz of chocolate and butter in a large heatproof bowl over a pan of barely simmering water and stir till melted and smooth. Remove bowl from pan and set aside. In another heatproof bowl, whisk together eggs, sugar and vanilla. Set bowl over the pan of barely simmering water and stir till mixture is lukewarm to touch. Stir eggs into the warm (not hot) chocolate. Stir in flour mixture, followed by pecans and chocolate chunks. (Note: The batter is fairly liquid and not unlike a brownie batter in consistency. This is correct.) Scoop slightly heaped tablespoons of batter onto the prepared cookie sheets 1.5 inches apart and bake till surface is dry, set and glossy, but the centre is still gooey - about 12 to 14 minutes. Let cookies firm up on baking sheet for a minute before transferring them to racks to cool completely. Store in air tight containers.

Makes 36 cookies

Crème Chocolat (based on a recipe from La Maison du Chocolat by Robert Linxe)

La Maison du Chocolat is the quintessential Parisian chocolatier. Whether in Paris, Tokyo or London, the boutiques are exquisitely appointed, cocoons clad in sumptuous shades of cocoa brown, praline beige and caramel blond where the chocolate lover can indulge in the crème de la crème of confections. The packaging - sigh, the packaging - is without peer, the hue of the silkiest ganache and precisely trimmed in the recherche brown of the best bittersweet chocolate, crafted by the same box maker to that other venerable Parisian doyenne, the house of Hermès. The book, La Maison du Chocolat by Robert Linxe, as you would expect, is breathtakingly lush. Unfortunately, in the English edition published by Rizzoli, quite a few details and instructions appear to have been lost in translation (incidentally, not an uncommon occurrence in most of the French-to-English cookbooks I've come across). The Crème Chocolat recipe is one such instance in which a little culinary sleuthing is necessary to make sense of the instructions - the egg yolks mysteriously disappear after a cameo in the recipe's step 2. However, I am sufficiently enamoured with the book to overlook the oversights - viewing them as a practical opportunity to apply a soupcon of commonsense rather than a cause for grumbling makes my time in the kitchen that much more pleasant. Based on the deduction that the egg yolks should be stirred together with the hot milk to make a crème anglaise that's poured over the chocolate results in an unctuously rich cream that can only be described as onctueuse. Serve with a cookie-like thing on the side; I made some black-and-white sugar cookies, which being unobstrusive, know who's the star.

10 oz bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped; 3 egg yolks; 1/2 cup caster sugar; 2 cups whole milk; 1/2 vanilla bean; 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder; 1/2 cup heavy cream, very well-chilled

Place the chocolate in a large mixing bowl and set aside. Whisk together the egg yolks and sugar in another large heatproof mixing bowl till well-combined. Stir in 1 cup of the milk. Place the remaining cup of milk in a small saucepan, along with the vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped into the milk. Bring slowly to the boil, whilst gradually whisking in the cocoa, stirring diligently to ensure it's absolutely smooth. Once it comes to the boil, take the pan off heat. Whisk 1/3 of the hot milk into the bowl of egg yolks to temper it, then gradually add the rest of the milk. Place this bowl of eggs and milk over a pan of barely simmering water. Stir constantly until the mixture thickens sufficiently to coat the back of a wooden spoon. Push mixture through a fine-meshed sieve or chinois into the bowl of finely chopped chocolate, discarding the vanilla bean. Let sit a moment or two. Stir very gently until chocolate is completely melted. Let cool, stirring occasionally. Chill for 1 hour. Meanwhile, whip the cream till soft peaks form. Add 1/3 of the chilled chocolate mixture to the whipped cream and fold gently to combine. Transfer this cream-chocolate mixture to the remaining chilled chocolate mixture and fold gently until combined. Pour into pretty serving dishes. Serve chilled.

Serves 4

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Lemon Lime Meringue Tarts

Being borderline obsessive-compulsive and having little (if any) impulse control has several ramifications, not least of all on my wallet and the storage space (or lack thereof) in our apartment. This explains my cookbook compulsion, irrational behaviour characterised by the following misguided logic:

1.When in doubt, buy.
A girl can never have too many (this, incidentally, applies equally to shoes).
2.If it's pretty, buy.
As a result, I have heaps of books which I leaf through not so much to cook from but to sigh over the sheer beauty of their pages.
3.It doesn't matter if one is already in possession of similar books, buy.
In practice, this means a growing backlog of recipes I am A. Dying to try, or B. Would like to try, or C. Am dubious about, but curiosity is sufficiently piqued to give it a go sometime.

The Pastry Queen by Rebecca Rather is a classic case in point. Did I really need another compendium of as-American-as-apple-pie classics, a genre my bookshelf already very adequately represents? Afterall, how many ultimate brownie recipes can there exist? I was however fatally attracted to the cover picture, that of a brazen blonde of a lemon tart, replensdent in her flamboyant bronze-highlighted crown of meringue. I finally made the tarts today - having owned the book for close to a year now, it's certainly high time. Ms. Rather's signature Texas Big Hairs Lemon-Lime Meringue Tarts are a tongue-in-cheek reference to the more outre blowouts apparently popular in the locale of the Rather Sweet Bakery & Cafe. Their blowsy appearance is the perfect prelude to the drama of their taste - a tangy citrus curd encased by a delectably crumbly pastry case enriched with pecans, the whole rounded out by cloud-soft poufs of sugary meringue. The coif I went for in the end is more ingenue than diva, more a quirky mop of pert spikes rather than a hairsprayed helmet, but I can only imagine a platter full of different dos may be rather amusing.

The recipe below is based on the original, which calls for a straightforward egg whites-and-sugar meringue. This is fine if the tarts are to be served shortly after being assembled and browned(the pastry cases and curd can be made way ahead, only the meringue needs to be whipped last minute), not so fine if you plan to make them earlier in the day. Sitting out for a couple of hours, particularly in humid climes, results in weeping and puddling where the meringue meets the curd - unsightly, not to mention distasteful. I've stabilised the meringue with the addition of a tiny bit of cornstarch, a nifty technique I had gleaned from Baking Illustrated. This little bit of tricksy buys you greater make-ahead leeway. The tarts, nonetheless, should be eaten the same day.

Lemon Lime Meringue Tarts
(Adapted from The Pastry Queen by Rebecca Rather)

For the tart cases: 1.5 cups pecans, toasted for about 7 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit till aromatic then coarsely chopped; 1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus extra for greasing the tart pans; 1 cup confectioner's sugar; 2 tsp vanilla extract; 1.5 cups plain all-purpose flour; 1/4 tsp fine sea salt

For the lemon-lime curd: 1.5 cups caster sugar; finely grated zest of 2 lemons; 10 extra large egg yolks (reserve whites for meringue); 1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice; 1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice; 2 Tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature, cubed

For the meringue: 1 Tbsp cornstarch; 1/3 cup water; 1/4 tsp cream of tartar; 1/2 cup caster sugar; 4 extra large egg whites; 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract

Butter eight 3-inch tart pans or rings. Set aside. Cream butter and sugar in bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment till fluffy on medium high speed, about 3 minutes. Add vanilla, blend. Add flour and salt, mixing in on lowest speed until just incorporated. Stir in chopped pecans. Wrap dough and chill at least 2 hours. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Divide dough into eight portions. Roll each out to fit prepared pans snugly, dusting with flour as necessary to prevent sticking. Blind bake for 20 minutes, removing the parchment and rice, beans or pastry weights for the last 5 minutes of baking. Let cool completely. (These can be made ahead and stored in airtight containers for up to 2 days.)

Blitz the sugar and lemon zest together in a processor or blender until the sugar is pale yellow and fragrant. Whisk the yolks and sugar together in a medium heat-proof bowl until smooth. Add the lemon and lime juices and whisk again. Place the bowl over a pan of gently simmering water. Cook the mixture, stirring constantly with a spatula and being sure to scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl, until it thickens (the consistency should be like that of sour cream), but do not let the mixture come to the boil. Immediately take the bowl off the pan, and push the mixture through a chinois or other fine-meshed sieve into a mixing bowl. Now add the butter, which should be very malleable but still cool, a few cubes at a time, stirring each addition until completely incorporated before adding the next. Press clingwrap against surface of the curd (this prevents a skin from forming) and chill for at least 4 hours, and up to 2 days.

Mix cornstarch with water in a small pan. Bring to a simmer, whisking constantly to ensure it's lump-free. As mixture starts to simmer and thicken, remove from heat and set aside. Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Mix cream of tartar and sugar. Beat egg whites and vanilla till frothy with whisk attachment of mixer. Beat in sugar mixture, 1 Tbsp at a time, until sugar is incorporated and the mixture forms soft peaks. Add the cornstarch mixture, 1 Tbsp at a time. Continue beating till stiff and shiny. Now assemble the tarts. Spoon the chilled curd into the pastry cases, filling them 4/5ths of the way to the top. Now either pile the meringue atop freestyle, teasing into jagged peaks with your fingers or the back of a spoon, or use a piping bag fitted with a plain nozzle to create a spiky crown. Bake until meringue is golden brown, about 20 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack and serve the same day.

Makes 8 tarts

Sunday, September 04, 2005

White Chocolate Creme Citron Tarts

For a family lunch today, I decided to really blow out on dessert. For the platter of sweet miniatures, I made downsized portions of Espresso Orange Panna Cotta Parfaits with Coffee Gelee from Claudia Fleming's The Last Course, Triple Chocolate Mousses from Alice Medrich's Bittersweet, and White Chocolate Creme Citron Tarts from Fran Bigelow's Pure Chocolate. I've learnt from making the layered panna cotta previously that in order for the balance to work, the intense coffee gelee layer should be relatively thin so it doesn't overwhelm the creamily delicate flavours atop (orange panna cotta) and beneath (espresso panna cotta). As for the Triple Chocolate Mousses, Keiko of the breathtakingly beautiful Nordljus has recently posted the recipe, alongside the requisite exquisite picture.

The little tarts, based on a recipe I've been meaning to try, combine white chocolate with lemon curd, two of my favourite foods - even on paper, I figured, how could it taste anything but divine? A classic lemon curd is enriched by the addition of white chocolate, which partially replaces the quantity of butter. I've added the additional step of flavouring the sugar with lemon zest before whisking it with the egg yolks - it's something I like doing when making citrus curd, finding that it heightens the flavour. To eliminate the possibility of lemony scrambled eggs, I cook the mixture in an improvised bain marie instead of over direct heat. After the curd is mixed with the white chocolate (but before the butter goes in), I also push the mixture through a chinois to ensure smoothness. And instead of the sugar tart crust called for, I've adapted the author's chocolate wafer tart crust, a cookie-like dough with a real depth of chocolate flavour. I've essentially halved her recipe; this still makes enough dough for a dozen tarts - you could either double the filling recipe below, or freeze the extra pastry-lined tart pans, carefully wrapped to protect against frostbite, for some future project.

White Chocolate Creme Citron Tarts
(Adapted from Pure Chocolate by Fran Bigelow)

1/2 cup caster sugar
1 Tbsp finely grated lemon zest
4 large egg yolks
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 ounces white chocolate, very finely chopped
4 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch cubes, softened at room temperature
6 Chocolate Wafer 3-inch tart shells, blind-baked and cooled (recipe follows)

Blitz the sugar and lemon zest together in a processor or blender until the sugar is pale yellow and fragrant; the heat helps release the aromatic essential oils into the sugar. Whisk the yolks and sugar together in a medium heat-proof bowl until smooth. Add the lemon juice and whisk again. Place the bowl over a pan of gently simmering water. Cook the mixture, stirring constantly with a spatula and being sure to scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl, until it thickens (the consistency should be like that of sour cream), but do not let the mixture come to the boil. Immediately take the bowl off the pan, add the white chocolate, and stir until completely smooth. Push the mixture through a chinois or other fine-meshed sieve into a mixing bowl, preferably one that's spouted. Now add the butter, which should be very malleable but still cool, a few cubes at a time, stirring each addition until completely incorporated before adding the next. The final texture should resemble that of mayonnaise.

Carefully pour filling into the baked tart shells and chill to set, about 4 hours. The filled tarts can be made up to 2 days in advance, stored in the fridge. Bring back to room temperature by taking them out 1 hour before serving. If you wish, garnish with dark chocolate shavings or lemon zest.

Serves 6

Chocolate Wafer Tart Shells
6 Tbsp unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup caster sugar
1/3 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder, sifted
1/8 tsp fine sea salt
1 large egg yolk
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/2 cups plus 2 Tbsp plain all-purpose flour

Cream the butter and sugar together in a mixer with the paddle attachment on medium-high speed until fluffy, about 4 minutes. Add the cocoa and salt, mixing on low speed till well combined, scraping down the sides of the mixing bowl. Add the egg yolk and vanilla, blending thoroughly, again scraping sides of bowl. Add flour on the lowest speed until the dough just comes together. Do not overwork. Divide dough into two equal portions, pat into fat discs, wrap in clingfilm, and let rest in fridge, at least 4 hours or overnight.

Use 1 disc of dough for 6 tart shells. On a board dusted with a mixture of half cocoa and half flour (this terrific tip from Fran Bigelow helps keep the dark crust, well, dark), and using a similarly dusted rolling pin, begin rolling from the centre out, lifting and turning constantly, until the dough is a uniform 1/8 inch thickness, keeping the board and pin dusted as necessary to prevent sticking. If the dough becomes unmanageable at any point, stick the whole set-up (board and all) into the fridge for about 15 minutes or so before picking up where you left off. Do this as often as is necessary - a cold spell cures most evils. Once rolled out, dust off excess flour with a pastry brush, and stamp out circles using a round cookie cutter before pressing into the lightly buttered 3-inch tart pans, making sure the pastry is an even thickness throughout bottom and sides. Trim excess dough along edges with a sharp knife. Chill lined tart pans for at least 2 hours, or until very firm. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Blind-bake using rounds of baking parchment weighted with rice, beans, or pastry weights for 15 minutes. Gingerly remove parchment and weights. Continue baking another 3 to 5 minutes, until tart shell bottoms are set and dry to the touch. As it's hard to tell when this pastry is done given its colour to begin with, it's best to keep a watchful eye.