Saturday, March 27, 2010

March 2010 Daring Baker's Challenge: Orange Tian

The 2010 March Daring Baker’s challenge was hosted by Jennifer of Chocolate Shavings. She chose Orange Tian as the challenge for this month, a dessert based on a recipe from Alain Ducasse’s Cooking School in Paris.

I was initially skeptical of the dessert; it seemed so stiff and old-fashioned - I think the ring molds and "Alain Ducasse" threw me off. I was blown away when I tasted it, it was clearly one of the best desserts I've ever made!

According to wikipedia, a tian is both the name of a French braised vegetable stew and the tall conical clay pot it was cooked in. Nowadays, it just refers a layered dish, both savory or sweet. The orange tian in this recipe has several contrasting layers:

(in bottom to top order)
1. Crumbly pâte sableé (butter cookie) base
2. Smear of tart homemade marmalade
3. Orange whipped cream
4. Orange segments marinated overnight in caramel sauce
5. Orange caramel sauce

Whew. That's a lot of layers. Yes, this is a fussy dessert, but it's worth the effort (especially if you have someone to impress). I fed it to my boyfriend while he was operating a drill press, very romantic non?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Opera Cake, a Step-by-Step Guide

I gave myself a challenge last week.

When some departing coworkers requested a cake, I immediately thought of opera cake. To me, it's the epitome of French pastries - grand, complex, and decadent. As with many desserts, I had an idea what I wanted it to taste like, but I've never had a good one. In fact, I've only ever tasted one opera cake, at a culinary institute bakery in Vancouver, but I was sorely disappointed by the harsh sugary ganache and bone-dry sponge cake. Opera cake should be rich and complex, with each layer contributing both flavor and texture.

I. The Anatomy of Opera Cake (bottom up):

1. Almond Sponge (Jaconde): The sponge should be dry, so it can soak up liberal amounts of coffee syrup. Syrup drenched cake is luscious and moist and very, very delicious (it's my favorite part of the cake). The bottom piece of sponge is coated with melted chocolate on the bottom, to keep it from being soggy and to help hold up the cake.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

My Kind of Brownies

Ladies and gentlemen, may I present apricot-walnut-cocoa brownies. 

After the last batch of French-style brownies, I wanted something bolder, chewier, more, well, American. Recently, there's been a resurgence of chewy brownie recipes that try to mimic the texture of box mix brownies without the box. The recipe from Smitten Kitchen looked promising. I added a touch of Pierre Hermé by tossing 3/4 cup of chopped apricots into the mix, along with the 3/4 cup of walnuts. Ever since making his Linzer tart, I've been a huge fan of mixing fruit with chocolate - the acid cuts through chocolate's richness, and the fruit echoes floral notes in the chocolate. Okay, it just makes the dessert so much more interesting and balanced, very good compliments in my book.

The batter was a cinch to whip up, and you can do it all in one pan (a very welcoming change after making buttercream and jaconde for opera cake).

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Happy Macaron Day!

I'm not making this up, the 20th of March is Macaron Day! In Paris (and apparently New York*), bakeries give out free macarons. In honor of the occasion, I'll post some pictures of my latest (4th) attempt at making macarons.

Not to be confused with macaroons, macarons (I always get made fun of when I use the I'm-choking-on-broccoli French 'r') are almond and egg white cookies that sandwich buttercream, ganache, jam, even ketchup. The little cookies should have a delicately crisp shell on the outside, fluffy and slightly chewy on the inside, and most importantly, have a frilly skirt or "feet" on the bottom (otherwise they can't be called macarons). They're notoriously difficult to make, since they require precision and accuracy in temperature control, beating time, moisture, etc.

My first attempt was a total disaster, the cookies turned out crisp and flat as a pancake.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Le Cordon Bleu

My acceptance letter came in the mail today for Le Cordon Bleu's intensive Basic Pâtisserie program. I'll be spending a month in Paris this summer, learning the art of French pastry-making and clumsily making use of my forgotten high school French. There'll be plenty of "research" trips to pâtisseries and lots of picture-taking and (hopefully) blogging.

My biggest concern (other than paying an arm and a leg for a month's stay in Paris in the summer, or jostling with sneaker-wearing tourists for Pierre Hermé's macarons) is that I'll have to work with butter-laden pastry dough in the blustering July heat. I hope they have air-conditioning at Le Cordon Bleu.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Cream Puffs

You know how sometimes, things just work out? That's what happened between me and choux pastry.

Choux pastry, or Pâte à Choux, is a little scary. It's got an identity crisis. You cook the dough first over the stove top, like polenta, but then you stir in some eggs and bake the whole thing in the oven. What you get, though, are beautiful crisp shells ready to be filled and dipped in all the Good Things of Pastry, like custard cream and chocolate and ice cream.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Le Brownies

I have a love-hate relationship with brownies. To me, they rank on the same level as chocolate chip cookies. It has the potential to be amazingly good, but the typical result is sadly mediocre. It's so American. So blasé. So over produced. Sometimes I cave in and grab a piece, thick with grainy frosting and smudgy in its plastic wrapper. It satisfies my sugar craving, but I always regret it later.

Brownies is one of those foods that's best cooked at home. I used to eat box mix brownies, fresh from the oven, at middle school sleep-overs. We would playing Mario Kart, trade school gossip that more often involved the math club than cute boys, and help stir the brownie batter. We ate the brownies warm out of the oven - I made sure we made it to the kitchen in time - with mugs of cold milk. My friend's mom would always urge us to have seconds, and I always did. Looking back, I suspect I had a greater appreciation for food than most people my age, or maybe my friends had more refined palates that rejected the industrial stuff.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Mango-Nectarine Mousse Cake

I had a craving for mousse cakes last week, the type you find in Asian bakeries with bright flavors like strawberry or mango. I wanted to make something light and delicate, but with an intense fruit flavor (I also had a new springform pan I wanted to try out, so there).

I got fruit mousse cakes from two bakeries to do some background research. I learned that:

1) The mousse layer should be light, but well-flavored.
2) The sponge cake needs to have presence. It should be light in body, but the layer should be thick enough so that it provides contrast with the mousse layer.
3) The cake layer should be lightly soaked. 
4) A layer of fruit puree really boosts the overall flavor of the cake.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

A Baker's Pantry

Ever since I started this blog, I constantly found myself running out of pantry staples like sugar, flour, and butter. After one too many mid-whisking runs to the grocery store, I decided to stock up on supplies, Oregon-trail style.

Need to make three tart doughs, a batch of sables and a loaf of brioche? No problem when you've got a twenty five pound bag of flour! And speaking of bread, I've got a pound block of dried yeast : )

I didn't quite have the nerve to get the twenty pound bags of sugar, so just five pounds each of granulated and powdered sugar (it came in handy for the most wicked icing).

My only regret is that I only got one four-pound-pack of butter.

Blueberry Lemon Cake

I got the inspiration for this charming cake from Molly Wizenberg's thoughtful blog, Orangette. I found out about her blog writing workshop through the awesome food distribution list at work. (One of the quirks of working at a big company is that there's bound to be people who share your interests. Don't even get me started on the daily deluge of cute cat pictures in my inbox).

I've read Molly book, A Homemade Life, and was impressed by how she wove simple, heart-felt stories around themes of food. After signing up for the workshop, I decided to drop by her blog and see what's new on Orangette. I was intrigued by the Marmalade cake, which involves pureeing whole boiled citrus fruits and incorporating it, peel and all, to the cake batter.

Pioneer Woman's Chocolate Sheet Cake, Y'all

Howdy folks. For this cake, the Paris in Paris Sweets refers to Paris, Texas.

Once in a while, I need to embrace the fact that I grew up in the South. I love country music. Sometimes I fantasize about driving a rusty truck, or even a tractor! Okay, maybe more like a cabernet sauvignon harvesting machine than an International Harvester, but I digress.

Whenever I'm feeling particularly "homesick", I like to read Pioneer Woman's blog. I love her blog, especially the incredible step-by-step pictures she provides. When I first read about her Best Ever Chocolate Sheet Cake, I was at once repulsed and fascinated. The entire cake uses almost a pound of butter. On top of that, the icing itself uses a pound of confectioner's sugar. Sweet god.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Tarte aux Pommes au Four / Baked Apple Tart

"When life gives you apples, make apple tart."

A coworker brought a case of Fuji apples to the office last week. The nerve! With the goal of fattening coworkers in mind, I couldn't stand idly by while people helped themselves to healthy(!) snacks. I stealthily commandeered the last half dozen apples, resolving to return them back to the office in a more sumptuous and calorie-laden form.