Two weeks ago, I had a lovely Friday lunch in a cute neighborhood cafe with a friend. The food was comforting (mmm wild boar shepherd's pie), but the real attraction was the baked goods piled behind the glass counter. The whole display was, well, rather American. There were buckets of cookies bigger than my head and five different types of bundt cakes. Despite my usual preference for feather light sponge cakes and delicate custards, I have a soft spot for moist, buttery cakes, especially when they are richly perfumed with citrus and spices.
The slice of lemon bundt cake I bought was...disappointing. I could taste the lemon, but it was missing the lemon fragrance. As commonplace as they are, lemons and oranges have surprisingly elegant aromas (Close your eyes the next time you smell a lemon). Forget passionfruit and lychee, citrus fruits need to take back their status as exotic fruits!
I went home and consulted my trusty America's Test Kitchen Cookbook. It might not be fancy or European, but when it comes to American baked goods, ATK rocks. I used their recipe for lemon bundt cake and added some blueberries to the batter. The cake at the cafe had a soaking syrup, so I made up one with some vodka added for extra flavor (I'm sure lemon has alcohol soluble flavonoids...). I didn't have enough lemon juice left for a glaze, so I made up an almond glaze, which complements the lemon very nicely.
The cake was moist and fragrant, with a tight crumb. It was fantastic paired with a cup of Earl Grey tea.
I know sometimes I seem schizophrenic, but really, I just like variety. In college, I went from singing Brahms in choir to playing guitar in a rock band, sometimes in the same day, even. (In hindsight, I totally should have rocked out in my choir outfit. Nothing says "stick it to the man" like a high-waisted, floor-length skirt.) The second birthday cake was a complete opposite from the tiramisu cake. Whereas the tiramisu cake had bold, popular flavors, the charlotte was delicate and floral and complex, with a name that only pastry buffs would recognize.
So what is Ispahan?
Ispahan is one of the signature flavors of celebrity pastry chef Pierre Hermé. It consists of raspberry, lychee, and rosewater. I've actually never had any of the Ispahan desserts, but the name is so evocative of Arabian Nights (it'd make a great cocktail too, I need to remember that next time I go out). I was going to make a pear charlotte, but then I remembered that I had all the ingredients for Ispahan on hand. I do love my pantry.
I'm used to making birthday cakes for other people, so when it came to my own birthday, it seemed natural that I'd be making it too (a friend told me he was too intimidated to make me a cake, hah.) I ended up making two joint birthday cakes. One was a joint birthday cake with my sister, and the other one with a friend at work.
(Incidentally, does it seem like you know a lot of people whose birthdays are close to yours, or it just me?)
The first birthday cake was a tiramisu cake because my sister adores tiramisu. The recipe comes from Dorie Greenspan's Baking: From My Home to Yours. The recipe is fairly straight forward: soak two disks of gorgeous yellow cake in coffee syrup, sandwich with mascarpone cream and chopped chocolate, and top with espresso-flavored whipped cream.
Making the cake was interesting, especially as I had to bring half of my baking equipment across the border to Canada. It's a good thing I didn't fly, because I don't think security would be too happy with my Le Cordon Bleu knife set...
People usually ask me what my favorite bakery in Seattle is, to which I usually firmly but gently assert that I've been spoiled by the great pastry shops in Paris* and refuse to visit any in Seattle. But when my friend Edilyn (of Le Cordon Bleu fame) came to visit, we went to a few local bakeries "for research". The results were rather surprising.
Can I find good pastry in Seattle? Why yes!
*Actually, I had my moment of ideological despair in Paris where, surrounded by half-eaten pastries from Pierre Hermé, I realized that I can no longer be enchanted by any pastry. I was saved by some ripe peaches and a deceptively humble teacake from Pain de Sucré, but that's another post.
I've been meaning to check out Hiroki bakery for a while now. I'm a big fan of Japanese/French fusion bakeries, their products are usually less offensively sweet and there are often interesting flavor combinations. Let's just say that I was really glad I went with another pastry aficionado, of course it was normal to order five things between the two of us so we can try everything!
A friend had the brilliant idea of hosting a homemade ice cream party last week, which gave me the chance to try something unusual. My original idea was to make a peanut stracciatella gelato, but while I was leafing through The Perfect Scoop, I landed on a recipe for kinako ice cream.
Kinako is Japanese toasted soy bean powder. I first learned about the term while reading Clotilde's blog entry on warabi mochi, although in hindsight, I've eaten it in pastries while growing up in China (there's a famous Beijing specialty that's basically red bean-filled mochi dipped in kinako). Maybe my palate is biased - after all, I was raised on soy products - but I'm a big fan of kinako's nutty, toasty, unmistakably-soybean taste.
I had a fun time coming up with something to pair with the kinako ice cream. A certain photographer from Scotland suggested caramel, so I made a batch of David Lebovitz's salted butter caramel ... and enhanced it with soy sauce. I learned that trick from Alton Brown, and it just makes so much sense to pair soy with soy.
Anyway, I absolutely loved the ice cream. It's one of those flavors that I'll definitely make if I ever opened my own ice cream shop (for the record, it'll also have strawberry rhubarb and lemon speculoo flavors).
I think that next time, I'll follow the latest NYC trend and flavor my caramel with miso instead...
I was on birthday cake duty last Friday, when three friends hosted a spectacular joint birthday party. There were no allergies, but chocolate had to be involved. I briefly toyed with the idea of making three cakes, each one with a different spin on chocolate cake (chocolate sponge with fresh fruit and whipped cream for a modern look, chocolate cake with malt buttercream for the five-year-old in everyone, and a hefty chocolate and stout pound cake for the "too cool for birthday cake" crowd). Alas, all the recent moving and tango classes left me with very little free time, so I settled for one cake - a towering concoction with four layers of tender chocolate buttermilk cake and strawberry-filled chantilly cream in between.
Speaking of moving, the cake matches my new furniture quite well, don't you think?
I got the cake recipe from an old article in America's Test Kitchen for the old fashioned chocolate cake. I improvised a little by adding two teaspoons of espresso powder - it just adds that depth to chocolate desserts without tasting like coffee (for all the coffee connoisseurs out there, yes I know espresso powder doesn't taste like "real coffee", but I like the taste anyway!) I was really pleased with the way the cakes turned out; I was afraid they would be too tender to be sliced and handled, but these were very sturdy after a quick chill in the fridge.
The August 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Elissa of 17 and Baking. For the first time, The Daring Bakers partnered with Sugar High Fridays for a co-event and Elissa was the gracious hostess of both. Using the theme of beurre noisette, or browned butter, Elissa chose to challenge Daring Bakers to make a pound cake to be used in either a Baked Alaska or in Ice Cream Petit Fours. The sources for Elissa’s challenge were Gourmet magazine and David Lebovitz’s “The Perfect Scoop".
Having missed out on the July challenge (I was doing enough baking in Paris), I'm very glad I chose to do this one. Why? Because the browned butter pound cake is the most delicious cake I've ever made. I don't know why I don't use browned butter more - it caramel, nutty smell is amazingly seductive. Honestly, it's one of my favorite smells. And it's so easy to make too! Just melt some butter until the milk solids are caramelize and turn brown. Here's what browned butter looks like after you let it set (which you'll need to do for the pound cake recipe):
The pound cake recipe is very simple. You cream the butter with sugar and eggs, then whisk in flour and baking powder. The browned butter is the star here.(Don't worry, the recipe is at the bottom. This isn't one of those medieval recipes where you just "styre everything togither").
I had the privilege of making wedding cakes for my friends Kathy and Colin's wedding on Sunday. I spent all weekend working on two cakes and a batch of mango-mint macarons - I don't think I could work as a pastry chef full time, it was very hard work - but it was super rewarding to see the cakes sitting prettily on the table.
I made two cakes inspired from La Pâtisserie de Pierre Hermé. I felt so grown up using a real professional pastry book, but it's actually kind of difficult working with recipes that deal with kilos of butter...
Regardless of scale, both cakes had fantastic flavor combinations; one was a mango/litchi/coconut/caramel cake, and the other a chocolate/coconut/banana cake. I had some mishaps on the way (mango mousse will stick to parchment paper like nobody's business), but I was happy with the way both cakes came out in the end. I especially like using flowers for decoration, it's much prettier than marzipan or fondant!
The wedding itself was gorgeous, small and intimate and very unique. The groom had button nosegays and the bride had a gorgeous handmade ribbon bouquet.
Since I posted about my first meal in Paris, it's only appropriate to bring things full circle with a description of my last meal in Paris. Both meals took place in my tiny kitchen, but whereas my first meal was entirely purchased and quite traditional, the final one was prepared entirely from scratch and took a stretch of the imagination.
I returned to Paris from Edinburgh Sunday afternoon. I had just one more night to spend in Paris, and I wanted to make it memorable. I had plans to meet up with friends for dinner, but on the (very slow) train ride from CDG, I decided I wanted to cook instead. Going out to yet another French restaurant on my last night seemed...impersonal.
I had planned to make homemade shrimp dumplings and chocolate passion fruit mousse. What I didn't realize, however, was that it's impossible to buy groceries on Sundays after 6 PM. I finally found one tiny corner store that was still open. No shrimp, but there was frozen Norwegian salmon fillets.
Last Thursday and Friday were kind of a blur. We had a final demonstration Thursday morning, followed by the practical final exam in the afternoon. Friday was spent rushing from Versailles to graduation to the airport (curse the malfunctioning RER trains), finally landing in Edinburgh.
The final demonstration was on chocolate bergamot mousse cake. It was the most complicated cake we've seen so far, with a sponge base, two mousses, and an orange almond crunch. Not that anyone was paying much attention, though. We were all madly revising, trying to memorize all ten recipes that we might be tested on that afternoon.
The chef seems to have guessed our intent, because the demonstration only lasted two hours - to give us more time to study, presumably. The cake itself was not too interesting - I would have included orange segments in the bergamot mousse and done away with the chocolate glaze - but we got champagne to go with our cake : )
(Sorry for the lull in the posts, life has been pretty crazy since the middle of last week, with the final exam, graduation, and a quick trip to my beloved Edinburgh before rushing back to Seattle and going back to work. I'll try to keep the posts in chronological order for the sake of completeness)
In the last week of class I started getting a little, well, rebellious. I made changes to the recipes to suit my tastes, like adding cinnamon to the pastry cream for the pithivier and increasing the ratio of pistachio to almond paste in the chocolate pistachio log above. I also became more creative in my decorations, abandoning the more classical styles for my own designs. I'm not sure if the chefs entirely approved of my decorations, but at least no one yelled at me for it (then again, maybe it was because chef Nicolas had already gone on holiday...).
Speaking of my designs, I think I've been on a nature kick. There's the flowering branch on the pistachio log above, and I turned my truffles into acorns for the Alhambra cake below.
We had another puff pastry class on Tuesday. This time, we made Pithiviers (puff pastry cake with almond cream) and Sacristains (puff pastry twists). Pithiviers are really like the Galette des Rois (kings' cake) that one eats during Epiphany, except without the ceramic baby jesus inside.
Pithiviers have a special place in my heart because that was the first "hardcore" French recipe I tried when I started this blog. Here's a picture from my first attempt at handmade puff pastry.
(My second pithivier is a lot more presentable, no?)
We made the Mogador cake on Monday. Apparently it's one of the classic French cakes, although I've yet to find where the name comes from... As far as I know, Mogador the place is a city in Morocco, and Mogador the dessert is a cake flavored with chocolate genoise, raspberry jam, and chocolate mousse.
I'm proud of my marzipan rose for this cake (it looks like a rose!), although the leaves turned out a little funky. Marzipan is a lot stickier and softer than plastic chocolate, so the leaves wilted in the heat. The star design might look familiar since I used the same tip for the Moka cake, I think I just like the whimsical look on cakes. (Update: after having made a pistachio chocolate log with flowering branches and a chocolate hazelnut cake with acorn-shaped truffles, I can definitely say that I'm a fan of whimsical designs).
On Friday, we actually made a dessert that doesn't contain butter! The pear charlotte contains a shell of pipped lady finger sponge, filled with diced pears and pear mousse.
It's certainly one of the prettiest desserts we've made so far. The pear decoration on top is quite clever. A pear is thinly sliced, then scorched with a blowtorch so the slices become clearly delineated. The leaves are made from plastic chocolate (cocoa butter, sugar, and glucose). I have to say, making leaves is a lot easier than making roses, although my marzipan roses are getting better. They look less like cabbages now!
During the pear charlotte demonstration, the chef showed several different ways of decorating the cake. The traditional way (which is what we did in practical) involves putting a lid of pipped lady fingers on top of the cake. The more modern way does away with the lid and just has pears on top. I prefer the cleaner look.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, we covered the subjects I was most looking forward to learning about - croissant and brioche. I've never worked with either dough due to my crippling fear of yeast. After having made croissants and brioche bread, I think my attitude has changed a little; I'll still pray to the wild yeast gods every time I make bread, but at least I know that sometimes yeast can be my friend. The brioche worked out fantastically, the croissants, er, not so much.
The croissant demonstration on Tuesday was really interesting for me because it allowed ample opportunity for illustration. I haven't mentioned this before, but as a visual thinker, I have a thing for making illustrations and diagrams. Fortunately, the croissant demonstration was, well, exceedingly technical.
It's like origami, except with dough.
Pain au Chocolat:
The chef made a dazzling array of croissant dough-based pastries. The best one, though, was the pistachio-cherry rolls made from leftover dough scraps. Cinnamon rolls don't even come close.
The demonstration last Saturday was on Moka cake. The cake itself is quite simple - a genoise sponge soaked with coffee syrup and topped with coffee buttercream. The interesting aspect was in decorating the cake, both in getting a perfect mirror-smooth finish on top, and in pipping the buttercream decorations. Of course, hand-whipping the eggs in the cake batter and the beating the butter into the buttercream took plenty of elbow grease, but we're used to hard work by now.
Here are the cakes the chef prepared for the demonstration:
This was my favorite one, I'm a fan of whimsical design (if you couldn't tell by the cover picture already...).
The demonstration and practical class on Friday was all about sweet tart dough. The chef made a variety of tartlets in the demonstration. I love the four inch tart rings; they're adorable and we don't have to painstakingly shape and crimp the dough once it's in the ring.
For the practical, we had to make orange tartlets and chocolate tartlets. With the petit four experience from the day before fresh in my head, I was skeptical if these dainty tartlets would be any good. The chocolate was, not surprisingly, boring. The chef had overcooked the tart crust with the soft chocolate cake layer, so the bottom of the tart was quite dry. The tartlet was saved by the creamy chocolate ganache layer on top, but I would have preferred if the ganache had a more pronounced chocolate flavor.
The orange tartlet was surprisingly delicious. The chef had brushed the blind-baked tart shells with eggwash and baked them a second time so they don't turn soggy against the lemon curd, and it really worked! The crisp dough was great against the soft, creamy orange curd within. The caramelized sugar trick on top was neat, although it didn't really add any flavor
The practical was a little bit of a disaster (well, maybe it was a good thing)
There's a heat wave in Paris, and even nights are becoming unbearable. What's worse is that the air conditioning in the school has been spotty. The normally cool demonstration room has been uncomfortably warm for the past few days, which makes it easier than usual to doze off. The locker room is toasty as always (maybe hellish would be a better description, after all it is in the basement). What really hit a nerve, though, was that the practical kitchen we were working in yesterday had absolutely no air conditioning. Even the refrigerators were not working.
Working with pastry in a stifling hot kitchen while in full uniform is no fun for anyone. Especially when the only thing you've eaten that day are pastries.
We only had two classes yesterday, a demonstration of petit fours followed immediately by a practical session. I thought it would be a quick day, but the heat and sugar-overdose made it seem much, much longer.
We had another 9 hour day yesterday - two practicals and a demonstration. The first practical (at 8:30 in the morning, no less) was on the basque cake the chef had demonstrated the previous night. We all thought it'd be a cinch, just roll out the dough and put some pastry cream inside, right?
Wrong. Basque cake "dough" was designed to make baking apprentices cry, I'm sure. It's not a dough, it's a cake batter that we're supposed to roll out as if it were dough. It's soft, sticky, and very difficult to handle. On top of that, the practical room we were in had almost no AC, so the dough softened at an alarming rate. After much cursing and swearing all around, we finally got the dough into the ring mold. I had to patch my upper crust because it fell apart when I was draping it over the ring - hence the crack you see down the middle of the cake. The dough is supposed to be worked super cold, so you can display a clear, pretty pattern on top. My talented neighbor had better luck : )
(Seriously, isn't it supposed to be hot in Basque country? How did they ever come up such a warm-weather-averse recipe?)
Today was the only 12 hour day in the entire term - two demonstrations, a practical, and a pastry shop visit. It was a long day, but I think I'm getting used to the rhythm of things - I made sure to eat throughout the day, and I didn't fall asleep in class!
The first demonstration was on meringues. It was definitely the prettiest demonstration so far, the chef made praline dacquoise cake and meringue-sorbet-whipped cream cake (there's a French term for it, but google came up empty).
The three brown cakes are the dacquoise cakes. A dacquoise is a French meringue with almond powder and flour mixed in. I expected something crisp and hard, but it actually makes a fairly fluffy cake. Here's what a slice looks like:
I absolutely love the praline-flavored buttercream filling. The rich, nutty, caramel flavor is just perfect with the light cake.
The chef made a marzipan rose demonstration as well. I'm not a fan of the unnatural colors and the concept of inedible decorations, but I guess it looks impressive (technically you can eat marzipan, but it's like play-doh). The chef's pipping job is top-notch, though. Look at those perfect round teardrops!