Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Peanut Nougatine & Chocolate Millefeuille; Toasted Peanut Infusion

We were privy to the most stupendously delicious pizza lunch hosted by Chubby Hubby and his fabulous wife S. Hand-crafted by S (ever met a Manolo-shod fashionista who also happens, amongst other things, to be one fine pizzaiola? here you go), each and every of the sublime pies was strewn with an insanely generous shower of summer truffle shavings. Surely, the very definition of casual luxury.

Knowing what was on the menu, I couldn't turn up empty-handed. Knowing what was on the menu, I also knew we would all be very stuffed (and very happily so) by the end of lunch. So dessert would need to be something decadent but pretty much over in two bites.

Or, as it turns out, two bites and a gulp.

Based on another Michel Bras recipe, this time from Essential Cuisine: Michel Bras. A beautiful volume, the dessert chapter is truly something else. While the recipes are written in the same crisp, succinct fashion as those of The Notebooks of Michel Bras: Desserts, the presence of dreamy photographs extravagantly sprawled across double page spreads makes the book that much more inviting to pick up and use.

If you enjoy mucking about with caramel, the nougatine layers are really fun. First make a peanut pâte sablée. This dough is rolled out, baked till golden, then crumbled and rubbed through a medium sieve - try to resist eating too much of it as it emerges from the oven, short, buttery and deliciously spiked with sea salt. Then caramelize some sugar and mix in the pâte sablée crumbs. This mixture is thinly spread between two pieces of baking parchment then reheated in the oven so it once again becomes pliable. Working quickly before it gets a chance to cool too much and stiffen, roll the nougatine between the parchment pieces to get the sheet even thinner before peeling off the topmost piece of parchment and scoring the nougatine into rectangles each measuring a mere 4 by 8 cm - a long metal or wooden ruler is very useful here.

The original recipe alternates the nougatine layers with a crème fromagère made with fromage blanc. But as I love the combination of peanuts and chocolate, and happened to have on hand chocolate crème pâtissière flavoured with Amedei's Chuao - my new favourite bittersweet chocolate - made earlier in the week for filling éclairs, I decided to use it in place of the crème fromagère.

The peanut nougatine millefeuille is accompanied by a chilled toasted peanut infusion. Rich and creamy, it's best served in shot glasses.

The flavour of the infusion really depends on the degree to which the peanuts have been toasted. So a bit of care needs to be taken when the shelled peanuts are in the oven; they need to be turned regularly to ensure even colouring. Otherwise, the infusion is really simple to make. Simply heat milk, cream and sugar together. When it comes almost to a simmer, take the pan off heat and add the toasted peanuts, then cover and let stand for at least 10 minutes before straining and chilling. For a more pronounced flavour, you could grind the toasted peanuts to a fine powder first before adding to the milk, and letting the mixture steep for longer (as long as overnight; let cool to room temperature before storing in the fridge ) before straining.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Le Biscuit de Chocolat Coulant

Molten chocolate cake, utterly ubiquitous in many a restaurant menu. And for good reason - few things are bigger crowd-pleasers and make for better pupil-dilating menu hyperbole. If you've been seduced by sexy menuspeak into eating more than your fair share of the at best moist and certainly not molten, you now probably avoid ordering it. The molten chocolate cake being essentially underbaked cake batter, you know all it takes is a split-second of inattention in the kitchen for the stuff to go from oozing to overdone.

Yet, when actually molten, I know of no other dessert as capable of making most adults as gleeful as children...there's something about that self-saucing pudding-ness that's immensely satisfying. Much as with risotto, molten chocolate cake is one recipe with which the home cook has the advantage over the harried restaurant kitchen minion. Chances are, one's not struggling to cope with a flurry of order tickets and one's attention is less likely to wander, thus ensuring an ideal mi-cuit state of runniness.

However, if you happen like me to have the attention span of a gnat, a part-baked moelleux au chocolat may not prove goof-proof. You may have to take the results-guaranteed approach. Such as that for Michel Bras' biscuit de chocolat coulant, which seekers of 3 Michelin-starred thrills will intone is the oft imitated, never bettered original, first created in 1981 and interpreted in endlessly brilliant variants since then at the legendary inn in Laguiole, Southwest France. Sure, the approach is a tad more finicky, requiring the stirring of two separate components rather than one and an extra bowl to wash up- a ganache, which you freeze into squat little cylinders, to be enveloped within a cake batter, which you pipe into the individual metal ring molds (of greater depth and diameter than the ganache cylinders) to completely surround the ganache.

Once baked (from frozen), the ganache liquefies into bittersweet nectar, dammed by a shell of soft cake with a delicately crisp crust. Once pierced with spoon, the cake languidly discharges its molten heart of darkness - interactive installation art on a plate, surely.

The recipe can be found in The Notebooks of Michel Bras: Desserts. With line-drawings and a pithy style (this ostensibly being conceived of as a "notebook") in lieu of photographs and lengthy instructions (which you'd probably expect for recipes of a fairly complex nature) it's neither desserts-for-dummies, nor does it claim to be. Nonetheless, of the recipes I've attempted, measurements are precise to the last gram and temperatures accurate, although I've on occasion had to adjust baking times - not because of erroneous instructions, but because many of the recipes specify the use of molds (with given dimensions) and the dimensions of mine differ slightly. But more importantly, the book gives a very insipiring insight into the thought processes and emotions behind Michel Bras' divine compositions, masterly orchestrations of flavours, textures and temperatures in quest of sensorial delight, replete with charming, often whimsical, presentation - sweet fuel for the reader's own flights of fancy, promising to evoke a childlike wonderment both in the means and the end.

Back to the cake. Topped with a scoop of ice-cream, you couldn't be happier. And as the snow white melts and spills unto warm ebony depths, all ooze and puddle, you can't help but fleetingly glimpse its muse - the wintry horizons of the austere Aubrac plateau. And if you ask me, lazy uncoordinated urban dweller that I am, le biscuit de chocolat coulant presents all the après-ski chalet cosiness sans the hassle of a cross-country ski trip, and much, much more fun.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Baked Chocolate Mousse with Mandarin and Anise Seed & Almond Croustillant

I've tried many times, unsuccessfully, to get a copy of Dominique & Cindy Duby's Wild Sweets - it never seemed to be available. It's finally been re-issued as a paperback edition, which I ordered faster than you can mouth "click". Has it been worth every nail-biting moment of the long wait? Having stayed up all last week way beyond my bedtime engrossed in the book, I can only say a resounding "yes".

The concise, clearly written instructions and explanations make the elaborate fantasy sweets DC Duby is acclaimed for seem accessible. For the curious cook, the approach to pâtisserie as both art and science is a deeply alluring one. As is the genius, positively symphonic use of unconventional ingredients and flavour pairings. And the attractiveness of the final composed desserts? The chapter on ''The Art of Presentation" opens with that old adage, "We eat with our eyes first." Indeed - just take a look at the full-page photographs that lavishly illustrate the volume and feel hungry. Very hungry.

While intrigued by some of the more outre creations - Red Curry Squash Flan with Gnocchi & Coconut Curry Foam, anyone? (really a postmodern pumpkin pie) - I finally settled on a twist on the classic chocolate-and-orange combination. The recipe calls for mandarins - I used unshū mikan - but good old navel oranges can be used as a substitute.

The juice flavours the baked chocolate mousse, the mandarin sorbet, as well as the citrus reduction.

If you happen to have a bit of a plated dessert fetish, this book is a profoundly inspiring source of ideas. I chose a recipe involving klutz-proof construction and assembly - pipe lines of chocolate gelée and citrus reduction, arrange segments of peeled mandarin, top with plank of baked chocolate mousse, finish with scoop of mandarin sorbet sandwiched between pair of anise seed and almond croustillants. But for the adroit and nimble of finger, there's plenty of architecturally challenging fodder (see Keiko's perfect rendition of lemon crépaze with red lentil confit and crispy apple pasta).

The croustillant recipe is an extremely useful trick to have up the sleeve. Very versatile, ring the changes by varying the combination of seeds and nuts used - it's exactly the sort of crisp, delicate and elegant cookie-like thing to serve as a chic accompaniment to any number of sorbets, ice creams and mousses.

Desserts, for me, can be classified into two categories - easy everyday stuff, and what I like to think of as weekend projects. The recipes in this book definitely fall into the latter category, involving as they do several components. But if and when you have the luxury of a long afternoon to yourself, or can steal the occasional moment over a couple of days to check off the components one at a time, it's just the thing.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Chai Spice Cake

I'm a bit of a, erm, bibliophile. Just how huge of a geek am I ? One of my favourite things to do is to scrutinise a cookbook's bibliography (and it's shocking how many don't have one). I find it's very often, especially in the case of a book or author you trust, an excellent source for "leads" - smart potential cookbook buys. Like I said, geeky.

Thusly, I came across Marcy Goldman & Yvan Huneault's The Best of betterbaking.com via Nigella Lawson's Feast a few years ago. I was already a fan of Ms Goldman's A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking (Looking for the ultimate in rugelach recipes? You'll find it here...), so it really didn't take much to convince me I needed the compendium culling from that very special online resource, www.betterbaking.com - a remarkable collection of fail-safe, delicious recipes liberally peppered with the author's educational and entertainingly opinionated insights.

I finally made the Chai Spice Cake from the book, a recipe I had flagged some time ago for it sounded utterly delectable, using as it does brewed chai tea and headily scented with warm spices - good spice cake recipes are hard to come by, and this one promised to be both moist and moreish. Like all the very best sort of recipes, it's a template that invites tinkering - as the recipe suggests, in place of the chai tea, you could use a favourite spiced orange-flavoured tea blend. In addition to tea, you could heighten the zesty dimension with a few drops of Boyajian orange oil, which can be ordered from here (another site I can spend hours trawling). For an extra gingery kick, the tea could be steeped in hot gingerale.

The fabulous tea that occasioned the recipe was Gryphon Tea Company's Straits Chai , silken sachets of a delicately balanced blend of Sumatran black tea and spices. If the packaging looks familiar, it's because you saw the gorgeous picture that accompanied this post. Chubby Hubby and his lovely wife S had passed me the tea to try; suffice to say I am hooked.

I'm a big believer in grinding whole spices as needed in small quantities, especially if used as a flavour accent in baking - it makes all the difference between insipid and inspiring. Grinding serves to release the volatile oils of a spice, all of which are extremely sensitive to light, heat and moisture, thus explaining the often pallid bottled dust that passes off as ground spice - it's had ample time to sit around and deterioriate. This pulverization is easily done in an electric spice/coffee mill or mortar and pestle kept specifically for the purpose, although some larger spices (such as dried ginger or whole nutmeg) are best dealt with by grating with an implement such as a Microplane.

The original recipe calls for ground cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, allspice and mace; I added some ground cardamon seeds to echo the flavour of the tea. When it comes to cardamon, it's best to buy as whole, plump green pods - the white ones have been bleached of colour at the expense of flavour. Also, ready ground cardamon typically includes the hulls, a cost and labour saving measure if ever there was one. The inconvenience of podding then grinding as needed is a small price to pay for the smokily exotic flavour of pure, unadulterated cardamon - distinctive yet mellow, citrusy yet floral, with an effusive camphor-like inflection. Used judiciously - a little goes a very long way - it lends nuanced, bittersweet depth to all manner of spiced cakes, pastries and breads (those of Scandinavia come particularly to mind).

The weather recently has been downright depressing, oppressively muggy on a good day, thunderstorming otherwise. If nothing else, it's conducive for staying in and checking out a new recipe or two. Both in the making and the eating, the Chai Spice Cake provided exactly the sort of comfort I find myself craving. And in the baking, the perfumed plumes that waft and linger are so exquisite as to rival that of the most precious incense.

I couldn't resist busting out a recent addition to my burgeoning cake pan collection and adapting the baking times for the recipe accordingly. It's a baby-Bundt number from Nordic Ware, the folks behind the original Bundt pan. The Garland Pan features 2 one-cup versions respectively of the signature Fleur de Lis, Bavaria and Cathedral shapes - brilliant for creating miniature tea cakes that are beautiful to look at even when unadorned. The cast aluminum bakeware possesses a heft and solid feel that make it a thing of substance in every regard - the material and heat reflective exterior promote even baking and uniform browning, producing cakes with finely hewn detailing, while the nonstick interior ensures easy release. Excuse me if I sound like a total groupie here - I've lost count of the number of times I've ruined an otherwise perfectly mixed cake batter by using a cheap flimsy pan, which I've consequently sworn off. Sure, it's a quantity-quality trade-off, but just as once you've experienced that very first pair of life-changing Jimmys or Louboutins, there really is no recourse but to kick that hitherto cheap-and-cheerful habit.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Work In Progress: Xiao Long Bao

Whether or not you believe that rusty old fable about Marco Polo and pasta - and it's highly dubious given the archaeological evidence that the Etruscans and ancient Romans were avid consumers of the stuff - there's no denying certain culinary parallels where noodles and dumplings are concerned. Mian and spaghetti. Jiao zi and ravioli. Certainly, for the cook, be she and/or the recipe Chinese or Italian, the pleasure of rolling noodles and stuffing dumplings is a constant - a manual and methodical process that's all the more soothing for its labour. And certainly, for me, this pleasure explains my love of making noodles and dumplings, regardless of race, language or religion.

Since figuring out how to "inject" soup into a dumpling, the next logical step was to figure out how to make xiao long bao. This Shanghainese specialty, named after the small bamboo steamer (xiao long) it's typically served in, is without doubt the dumpling lover's dumpling. W is a bit fixated with it (I attribute this to his Shanghainese grandmother) - I don't know about you, but for me, living with someone who doesn't mind sampling and constructively critiquing the inevitable disasters that occur along the learning curve is a huge motivational factor in the kitchen.

Like a bite-sized version of its Cantonese cousin, kun tong bao (a big dumpling pouch enclosing a soupy stuffing), xiao long bao should be sheathed by a skin that's delicately thin yet resilient enough to encase its steaming, soupy contents. And in my unqualified if unbiased opinion - seeing as I am neither Shanghainese nor Cantonese - the pop-in-your-mouth presentation makes xiao long bao that much more fun to eat. Bite into a well-made specimen and there should be an explosion, a veritable gushing, of intensely flavoured broth in the mouth. Experienced xiao long bao eaters know how to wait for the right moment to eat the dumpling (not when it's scaldingly, tongue-searingly hot off the steamer, but carefully calculated moments after), and how to gracefully slurp the dumpling without wasting one precious drop of broth. Waste aside, broth dribbling down the chin, splattering across the table, and other general mess, are considered exceedingly gauche - consider such the novice xiao long bao eater's joyous learning curve.

The secret to this magical dumpling comes down to an extremely humble ingredient. So humble, in fact, that if you ask your friendly neighbourhood butcher very nicely, he's likely to give it away for next to nothing - although if like me, you find the sight of burly men wielding lethally sharp knives intimidating to say the least, you'll likely have bought something of relatively significant value before making your case. The skin of a pig, or pork rind, is a miraculous thing extremely rich in albumen and collagen, which convert into gelatine when simmered in water. When the water in question is highly flavoured to begin with, ie. a good chicken stock, there you have it - the formula for jelled stock, a naturally set aspic. You'll come across the odd recipe asking for the stock to be set with the refined, pure, colourless, odourless and characterless powder neat from the packet - please, don't go there. Lack of character is exactly what's required for a panna cotta, but for the purposes of xiao long bao, you would be shortchanging yourself in the taste department. Natural gelatine as carrier of natural meat flavour as opposed to mere jellification agent - it's precisely for this quality, for instance, that many traditional French daube recipes often call for the addition of pork rind.

The viscosity of a gelatine-rich liquid is related not only to the gelatine content per se but also to temperature. When chilled, the gelatine-rich stock (made by steaming chicken stock with the pieces of pork rind for several hours before straining out the spent rind) will set into a firm jelly. Jelly firm enough for you to turn out and dice into cubes.

The cubes of jelly are buried like so many nuggets of potential liquid gold in seasoned, fatty pork mince; the jelled stock liquefies when the dumplings are steamed. Thusly, you get soup-in-a-dumpling.

Science aside, there's an art to making xiao long bao - a dumpling nimbly crafted by the most expert dim sum chef should boast an amazing number of tidy little pleats. Count 'em - 18 at least, 24 if in good hands. The ability to manipulate the dough is a function of not just skill but the dough itself - pliable enough to be stretched very thinly yet with a sufficiently developed gluten structure to be so worked without tearing. After much fiddling and tweaking and the aforementioned inevitable disasters, I've arrived at a formula that's starting to look right - not a hot water dough (flour plus hot water), not a regular dough (flour plus room temperature water), but both. In other words, first make a hot water dough, separately make a regular dough, than finally combine the two (in the ratio of 1 part hot water dough to 3 parts regular dough) to form a smooth cohesive dough.

No recipe yet - it's definitely work in progress. While this latest batch has a sufficiently dramatic soup-spurting-forth effect, and I've worked up to the requisite bare minimum number of pleats thanks to the amateur-friendly dough, I have yet to learn the gesture for making evenly measured and spaced pleats, and for sealing the dumpling at its uppermost point without creating an overly thick and clumsy tip. If and when I do, I will hopefully have a recipe to post.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Lasagne Verdi al Forno and a few other Old School Favourites

We had friends over for dinner on Sunday, one of whom - as W was quick to gently remind me several times the past week, given my predilection for getting carried away - is partial to comforting and heartily old school food. No fuss, no muss, and certainly no frothy espumas.

Lasagne verdi al forno it would be for the main event. While I enjoy making pasta, and I enjoy making ragù, lasagne is not something I make as frequently as I would like demanding as it does an uninterrupted stretch of labour taking up the better part of a day to create and assemble all the various components. But when time does permit, there are few activities as rewarding. This sumptuous Bolognese classic from the heartland of northern Italian food, Emilia-Romagna, truly puts that epithet Bologna la grassa (Bologna the fat) in perspective - sheer films of a richly succulent meat ragù and velvety, delicate besciamella slick gossamer sheets of pasta verde, each layer dusted with Parmigiano-Reggiano. A whole truly greater than the sum of its parts.

I love the way the verdantly vivid pasta looks, virtually weightless kerchiefs flecked with mere specks of spinach. Spinach, unfortunately, that you'd have had to be at pains to carefully rinse, stem, cook, squeeze of every last drop of moisture and chop as finely as is possible with a very well-sharpened knife. If this vegetal business sounds like utter tedium, and the food processor beckons, resist - it draws out far too much moisture. Even more tempting, a box off the aisle - sure, you'll lose the need for time and elbow grease. Alongside the raison d'être; Emilia-Romagna, afterall, is the region where the sfoglina and her la sfoglia rule supreme. I've yet to master hand-rolling the dough "leaf" with nothing but a wooden dowel-style 35-inch pin and tremendous skill; so excuse the cranked pasta machine, considered heretical by emiliani and romagnoli pasta purists. Nonetheless, if, like me, you find it challenging to deftly execute the requisite stretching and thinning motion without resorting to pressing and pushing - one rolls pasta not as one rolls pastry - you're probably better off letting the parallel stainless steel rollers do the trick; better hand-cranked fresh pasta that's properly stretched and thinned than ineptly hand-rolled that's improperly stretched and thinned, proper stretching and thinning being key to the texture and character of good pasta. And it goes without saying, better hand-cranked than hand-to-cart.

The recipe for lasagne al forno can be found in any number of good Italian cookery books; I like Lynne Rossetto Kasper's The Splendid Table, quite arguably one of the most definitive cookbooks written in the English language on the food of Emilia-Romagna. Her chapter on ragùs alone - 26 pages including a grand total of not 2, not 3, but 9 fabulous recipes, each spectacular in its own right - is, for me, worth the price of the book. Another excellent ragù alla Bolognese recipe is that from Paul Bertolli's Cooking by Hand, found in the chapter entitled "Bottom-Up Cooking". A fabulous ode to the beauty of fondo di cottura, Chef Bertolli's ragù is based on "building a bottom" to the sauce, building a foundation of flavour, by encouraging residue development of the essential renderings settled on the bottom of the cooking vessel and multiple deglazings with a deeply flavoured brodo (meat broth).

The rest of the menu:


One of the first things I ever cooked for W when we first met, and it continues to feature with regularity on our table for reasons both sentimental and gustatory. Made in the lavish manner as was surely intended by Louis Diat, this chilled leek and potato soup always seems right when the mercury is rising, which over here means year-round! I like the classic recipe in Lydie Marshall's A Passion for Potatoes, using as it does unstintingly of cream and butter. The garnish of heavy cream and chives is traditional, the addition of a poached prawn, chilled, and a drizzle of prawn oil are not (but happen to be additions we very much enjoy).

Crab Cakes

The secret to great crab cakes lies, unsurprisingly, in the crab - freshly picked, from specimens that just moments ago were writhing in the sink. Bound by nothing but a little homemade mayonnaise, with absolutely no "filler" (bread crumbs should only ever feature in the coating of the cakes and not in the cakes themselves), it's an extravagance demanding of time and effort, and a luxury not lost on those who love the taste of crab but hate the work involved. The recipe I've used for the longest time comes from Chez Panisse Cooking; subtly flavoured with spring onion, lemon zest and cayenne, nothing distracts from the pure, sweet, briny flavour of the crab. I like serving crab cakes with a herbed mayonnaise (dill, chives and chevril together work a treat), although a garlicky aïoli is very good too.

"Brownies and Ice-Cream"

I wanted to serve brownies a la mode but wondered how to spruce up the presentation; it never occurred to me to make an ice cream cake until I flipped through Emily Luchetti's A Passion for Ice Cream and chanced upon her recipe for Chocolated-covered Pecan and Milk Chocolate Ice Cream Brownie Cake. It's a fantastic recipe; the only thing I did different was to mold individual servings rather than one large cake.