From Gloop to Souffle

The last of the recipes picked out for August was the liqueur souffle.  I meant to do those while it was August.  That didn’t happen.  I also meant to do them before I did any of the September recipes.  Also didn’t happen.  Oh well.  They got done.

Souffle is a thing with a reputation for being very difficult.  This has not been my experience of souffles, and this time around did nothing to change that.  The recipe even came with an ingredients list scaled down to four servings, and instructions for a la carte style prep in case you weren’t serving them all at once.  How useful!  So you’ll understand that I was worried about this recipe from the outset.

There were basically two phases to making the souffle: The early prep and the final assembly.  The early prep involved mushing butter and flour into a paste, mixing some sugar and corn starch, and then throwing all of these together with some scalded milk, egg yolk, vanilla and liqueur to form a custard.

 

This is about how much I mix dry ingredients with butter when I’m making pie crust, which means this was dough more than anything I’d classify as “paste.”  But it wasn’t going to get pastier without adding more flour.

The recipe is quite specific about the order things get put in and how much stirring to do when.  It says to scald the milk, then add the butter paste and bring the mixture to a boil, while stirring, and cook until it thickens.  I added the butter paste.  Then I ignored the rest of the instructions.  Here’s why:

 

That’s what I got when the butter paste incorporated with the milk.  Now it’s paste!  I double-checked the recipe to make sure I hadn’t shorted the milk.  Nope, 3/4 of a cup is what it called for, and that’s what I used.  No biggie, says I.  The next several things I add are all liquid.  That’ll turn this back into something resembling what the recipe seems to expect.

 

Or not.  This is what I had when it was time to add the sugar and cornstarch mixture.  The recipe refers to the final product here as, I kid you not, “custard.”  Even if you don’t cook, if you’ve been reading this you’ve seen what a custard looks like.  It’s liquid.  This is not.

Whatever.  I have people expecting souffle.  Time to move to the second stage of the process: Assembly.

This was really straight-forward.  Whip eggs to soft peaks, add sugar, whip to stiff peaks.  You’re going to be seeing a lot more of this because September’s chapter is meringue, and what you’re doing here is making meringue.  

Look at those glossy stiff peaks.  This took no time at all, unlike some other egg white whipping experiences I’ve discussed here.  Yay for civilized autumn weather!

And that brings us to the part where the gloop from the first stage has me worried.  I need to fold the gloop into the egg whites such that I don’t have souffles that are basically baked meringue with strips of thing in them, but also without collapsing the whites.  Spatula powers: Activate!

 

From there it was just a matter of putting the batter into ramekins.

 

Then baking and serving.  The cookbook called for making a sabayon sauce, but given how every time it has me make a sauce I wind up with eighty bajillion times what I need, I was disinclined to do that.  I used the Calvados as the liqueur and I had home made apple sauce.  These bad boys got served that way.

 

I sprinkled some nutmeg on, too, just to make it extra pretty.

Despite the confusing gloop, these turned out pretty well.  They were tasty, and the applesauce was a great pairing.  These weren’t worth waxing rhapsodic over, but given how easy (and relatively fast) they were to make, I wouldn’t rule them out as a go-to if I were trying to impress somebody.  Then again, I’ve made souffles I was more impressed by, so I’d probably go back to one of those recipes first.

Next time: Blackberry tartlets with Lemon Curd.

Ginger Custard: Wherein I Flagrantly Disregard the Instructions

The second of August’s recipes I picked out was the ginger custard.  This is basically a ginger flavored créme caramel, for anybody wondering where we’re headed with this.  And after the rice pudding weirdness, you’d be right to wonder.

Créme caramel is a thing with which I have experience, especially since it is the superior of the three major custards (flan, créme brulee, and créme caramel).  Sorry egg yolk and burnt sugar fans: you’re wrong.  There’s nothing to be done about it save admitting your error and acknowledging the correctness of my view.  Don’t worry if you can’t manage this just yet – people who like Dr. Who for the wrong reasons are making a bigger error and I’m coming for them first.

The recipe claimed a yield of 16 custards.  I took one look at that, one look at the number of people I was going to see between cooking and leaving for WorldCon, and decided to halve the recipe.  Then I went to the cupboard for clean ramekins, only had 7, and decided that the yield on the recipe was probably wrong anyway and 7 would work just fine.  You’ll note a theme for this project and it was this: Blatantly disregarding the recipe.

For example, I did not halve the amount of ginger I chopped up to put into the custard.  In fact, I’m pretty sure this is more than the 2TB the full recipe called for.

 

I realized what I’d done in plenty of time to take corrective measures.  Just because I’d chopped way more ginger than I needed didn’t mean I had to use it.  Then again, just because the recipe said I only need 1TB for 8 7 custards doesn’t mean it has any idea what it’s talking about.  There wasn’t enough rice in the rice pudding.  And there wasn’t enough ginger in that tea cake I made in May.  Sure, I’d screwed up and misread the recipe, but you know what?  Screw the recipe.  I’m only still cooking out of this book for the sheer spite of not letting it defeat me.  I’m using all the ginger.

Throw that in with some milk in a pan and bring it up to scalding temperature.  Then, let that sit to cool and infuse while you make the caramel.  The caramel making was a bit weird to me.  For example, the first step was basically to massage lemon juice into the sugar.

Oh baby. You can massage lemon juice into my sugar any time.
Wait…actually, don’t.

Does that sugar look happily massaged?  I mean, I have a pretty good idea of what I look like when I’ve been properly massaged, but I’m entirely too bitter to be a good reference for massaged sugar.  There was no hint of lemon in the caramel at all, so either I should have gone ahead and doubled the lemon juice, too, or my sugar massaging skills need work.  I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine which explanation I’m leaning toward.

Caramel making is one of those things that’s theoretically very simple, and actually requires a bit of technique.  All you have to do to make caramel is burn sugar.  The trick is, you have to do it correctly, or you have, well, burnt sugar.  Lots of recipes will have you add a bit of water or corn syrup to the sugar to reduce the odds of screwing up.  This recipe basically told you to put the sugar in a pot over medium heat, stir, and pray.

The picture is blurry because taking one handed photos while stirring is hard.  But I really wanted process photos, since caramel is all about spotting when you’ve reached different stages by eye.  This is early on in the caramelization stage, where things are starting to liquefy enough that you get clumps of sugar.  Honestly, until things start to liquefy, there’s no reason to stir.  Once they do, stir, stir, stir.  Especially if how hard your caramel is will matter.

This caramel is done.  Get it off the heat and to where it needs to go, now.

Except the cookbook said to shock it with cold water first.  This makes sense in theory, because it saps the heat, keeps the caramel from continuing to cook, and thereby stops you from crossing from the land of tasty into the land of OMG WHY WOULD YOU BURN SUGAR?!  I say in theory, because what it also does is immediately harden the caramel.  Which you don’t want.  Because it’s going into the ramekins.

I followed the instructions in the cookbook.  I got six of my seven ramekins filled, then put the pan back on the burner to get the caramel liquid enough for the seventh.  That barely worked.  I would not have managed enough for an eighth, as the rest of that caramel was very, very done.  It would have overcooked before melting again.  So, good thing I had already decided we were only making seven.  Or bad thing I keep following the instructions when they’re obviously stupid.

Then it was time to go back to the milk and ginger to finish off the custard.  That involved whipping some eggs and sugar together, reheating the milk to scalding, then pouring the hot milk into the egg mixture.  This was all too simple to bother taking pictures.  But that brought us to a stage which, after the rice pudding, suddenly looked way more exciting than it should: straining the ginger out of the custard.  I definitely didn’t want little bits of ginger cooked into my custard.  I also definitely didn’t want to jump through the straning-hell I went through with the rice pudding.  This step almost talked me into switching up to a different custard recipe when I was doing my grocery planning, but I stuck it out.

And was rewarded with success.  It strained without problem.  Yay!

It’s smooth sailing to the finish from there.  Just pour the custard into the ramekins, slap those into the oven in a water bath, and we’re…oh, wait a minute.  Water bath.

I went on at length about water baths when I did the cheesecake, so I won’t repeat myself.  You’ll recall the giant turkey roasting pan I use for cheesecakes.  It’s a pain in the ass for an 11 inch spring form pan.  That goes treble for 3 inch ramekins.  So I was planning to use a glass roasting pan instead, which is much easier to handle, and proportioned more reasonably for the smaller dishes.  Except this:

 

Six is like sixteen, right?  Right?

I had a quick decision to make.  Either switch everything over to the giant roasting pan, or leave little exile custard out and see what happens.  I’m lazy.  And curious.  One of those custards got left out of the bath.  For Science!

This is what it looks like when you come out of the oven and you’re one of the in-crowd.

And this is what happens when you’re left out on your own, with no body of water to thermo-regulate for you.  Poor little bugger.  The difference is even more striking once you unmold them.

 

That looks like what you’d expect from a créme caramel knock-off.

And that looks like a custard that needs a hug.  Or possible that was hugged and shouldn’t have been.  Either way, wow.  Water baths, they are a thing for a reason.

As it turns out, the ginger content of these custards was exactly right for something claiming to be ginger custard.  The caramel needed to be more lemony or, really, anything at all – it was underwhelming.  And the technique described in the recipe gets a big fat No.  I’m probably not going back to this recipe ever, but it has inspired me to, the next time I make créme caramel, experiment by infusing it with something like ginger.  Or something very tart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The World’s Most Pretentious Rice Pudding

It’s August, which means we’re in the Mousses, Souffles and Custards chapter.  My grandparents are visiting, which means doing anything too weird will be politely eaten, but not particularly enjoyed.  So when it was time to break out something tasty, I went for something I know they like because I’ve made it for them before: rice pudding.

Except, of course, The Professional Pastry Chef doesn’t want to do just any rice pudding.  This one is called Riz l’Impératrice, which I take to be French for, “Giant pain in the ass.”  It’s possible that’s a loose translation.

The first step was to make a Melba sauce.  This was really where most of my frustration with the recipe stems from.  It starts off simple enough.  Take a ton of raspberries and puree them with some red currant jelly.  (My jelly collection after cooking with this book is becoming truly frightening.  I should make more biscuits)

That was easy.  Is the next part that caused all the trouble.  Melba sauce is apparently too good for seeds, so you need to strain the pulp to get the juice out but no of the insufficiently Imperial bits.  We want four cups of juice.  No problem!  I’ll just pour the puree into a straining set over my four cup measuring glass.

Er.

Yeah, it wasn’t going through the sieve.  At all.  Even with stirring.  Vigorously.  Threats, insults, imprecations, pleading, bribes, and offers of sacrifice were equally useless.  “I’d never work this hard just to make dessert,” Nannie says as she watches me from the dining room.  No sane person would.

I wound up demonstrating my fantastic acrobatic skills to Nannie, climbing onto counters to get to a spare sifter we keep in the very back of the very top of a cabinet.  I mean, I could have gone all the way downstairs for the step stool, but where’s the fun in that?

After more time than I care to admit going to work with the sifter, I had two cups of raspberry juice and a ton of raspberry goo.  There was definitely more juice to be gotten but you know what?  My hands hurt.  And I’d already been at this long enough that everybody was going to be in bed before the puddings were ready.  Also, the kitchen looked like it had lost a gruesome battle with a Barbie doll.  Embarrassing.

I added enough water to get four cups of juice, mixed in some corn starch, and set the sauce to boil.  I took the downtime to turn the leftover raspberry goo into sorbet because, hey, I promised the grandparents dessert and by golly, they were getting something.

That was basically it for the sauce.  Some of it got mixed with some gelatin to go in the bottom of the pudding ramekins, and then put into the fridge to set up.

The recipe claimed it made enough for 16 4oz puddings.  I only have 12 4oz ramekins.  But, knowing this cookbook I figured it had either massively underestimated how much it made, or massively over estimated it.  The portion of gelatinized Melba sauce indicated an underestimation, since I barely had enough for the 12 ramekins.

Cook some rice in milk.  This is where I started to suspect something was up because this was about a quarter the amount of rice I usually use for rice pudding, and this cookbook usually makes way, way more than what I’m used to.  But I carried on, like you do when you’re in an abusive relationship with your cookbook.

Mmm, gelatin-filled liquor water.

Normally for rice pudding, I’m used to cooking the rice with some milk and cream, then throwing in a bit of vanilla and some raisins and calling it yummy.  This recipe had me whip up some boiling corn syrup and egg yolks, and then some cream.  Then mix those into the rice.  There was about four times as much cream and egg yolks as rice.  Maybe Riz l’Impératrice is French for “too good to actually be rice pudding.”

I had just barely enough to fill twelve ramekins.  They were all a touch overfilled, but not enough that I’d have had any hope of filling a full sixteen.

Two hours in the fridge and then it’s time to see what all that work was for.  Nannie was long since in bed.  Pappa is who I blame for my night owlery, so he was still awake and ready to eat the promised rice pudding.

The Melba sauce was super tasty, and I’d be all over doing that again.  I’m not convinced it wouldn’t be just as tasty chock full of seeds, and that would make it easy enough to be worth doing as a regular thing.  The rice pudding itself…er…I really wish it would make up its mind and either be rice pudding, or be a custard.  It was rather boring as it was.

I’ve got a Gingered Caramel custard and a Liquer souffle earmarked as the other recipes for this month.  Let’s see how those go.

Maple Pecan or Chocolate Cream, These are Both Some Frozen Food Things

I don’t own a bombe shell and have no interest in buying one, so that cut out pretty much all the rest of the types of frozen dessert options from this chapter.  There are two mousse recipes, but I’ve made mousse before, it turned out great, and neither of these recipes looked worth doing.  So instead we’re just doing more ice cream, and since the process is pretty much the same every time, I’m rolling these two into one entry.

With bunches of people coming over for pre-Dark Knight Rises Batman marathoning, I went ahead and made a full recipe of the Maple Pecan ice cream.  This recipe was also custard style, involving eggs and the need to dodge food poisoning via cooking them.  

That’s a pot of warmed milk product.  The recipe called for half and half.  I don’t keep half and half in the house because 1) I believe in fat and 2) I despise coffee and don’t let that in the house, either.  So I’ve been faking it by doing half 2% milk and half heavy cream.  It works quite well.

 

This recipe called for ten egg yolks.  That’s what they looked like when I decided they’d been whipped to “foamy” as described in the recipe.  The recipe said 2 minutes, this was as foamy as they got after eight.  That doesn’t look like what I’d expect, and I contemplated whipping them some more in hopes of getting something that would match the description.  I’m glad I didn’t, because here’s what happened when I added the hot cream.

 

I’m not sure how well the pictures convey it, but it foamed in a major way.  It foamed up so much that when I put it in the double-boiler to heat until it got to the thick-enough-to-cover-the-spoon stage, it was more or less already there.

 

Oh goody, I’ve ruined Batman ice cream.  How does that even happen?  I did what I always do when things seem to have gone horrifically wrong with recipes from this cookbook: I pretended everything was fine and carried on. Tossed in the last ingredients, poked at the distressingly foaming custard, then slapped it into the fridge to cool over night.

By the next day the foam had collapsed and it was back to liquid.  It was also not thick enough to cover the spoon anymore.  Tragedy? The recipe called for adding heavy cream after getting to the thick stage, which I’d done, so that could be why it’s thinner now.  Or those egg yolks had some extra foam-oomph they were hiding from sight just for spite.  Or maybe this was an omen for the mild disappointment I was in for at my midnight showing.

 

It turned out just fine.  Nice flavor, good texture, and the pecans mixed in post-ice-cream-maker very easily.  That’s a picture of the first half of it before I mixed in the pecans.  The ice cream was a big hit, and almost all of it got consumed despite copious quantities of pizza consumed earlier in the evening.  I’d make it again, but probably just a half recipe unless it was for another large event.

For the last recipe, I decided to mix things up and go Philadelphia style, which doesn’t use eggs.  This was even easier than the other recipes.  There are a whopping two recipes for Philadelphia style ice cream in this book: Chocolate and vanilla.  I hoped for chocolate, because, why not?  Then I committed a classic act of lazy, and didn’t bother to go to the grocery store when we were four ounces short of the sweetened dark chocolate called for in the recipe.  Instead, I augmented with a dark chocolate with orange peel bar that’s been hanging around the kitchen hoping somebody would eat it.  That’s a very foolish place for it to do that; chocolate gets eaten in the living room, or the den, or at my desk.  Much better places for it to lurk.

 

Waiting for the chocolate to melt was the hardest part of this recipe.  I peeled 20 hard boiled eggs in the time it took for the chocolate to melt.  Oh agony.  Oh struggle.  Oh…yeah, a monkey can do this.

 

In case you ever need to know, this is what eight ounces of sugar looks like.  Because I had time to measure it out ahead of time, while waiting for the chocolate to melt.  And, you know, because if I didn’t take a picture of this, I wasn’t going to have many pictures for this recipe.

 

Once the chocolate is melted, you add the dairy (home-made half and half for me) and the sugar, stir and, er, that’s it.  You’re ready for the ice cream maker.

This turned out quite nice, and I didn’t miss the eggs.  Neither did any of the people at the potluck I took this to.  Using the orage peel chocolate bar was inspired and made this much better than it would have been otherwise.  If I go back to this, I’ll probably toss in the other chocolate bar that’s been lurking in the same corner which is chock full of crystallized ginger.

And this makes July the first month I’ve finished early.  This probably means August is jinxed.

Mango Eat Ice Cream

July marks the first month I start doing chapters out of order.  I did this, because it makes July ice cream month.  Mmmm, ice cream.

I’ve made ice cream before.  You may recall that turned some leftover calvados custard into ice cream way back during tart month.  But I haven’t made a lot of ice cream, and I definitely wouldn’t consider myself an expert on the craft, so this is a great month.  Also, the hot.  Ice cream is good for dealing with the kill-me-now-why-is-it-so-hot-don’t-I-live-in-Wisconsin?-seriously-WTF.  Come to think of it, maybe I should be eating more.

Anywho, after intense consultation with the cookbook and my actual bandwidth (this particular ice cream project was overlapping with some of the eclair prep, because I’m timely that way) I settled on the mango ice cream.  I haven’t worked with mangos much, but it was fairly simple recipe, so there’d be learning but little opportunity for disaster.

I’d never worked with a ripe mango before.  May I suggest that you always, always work only with ripe mangos?  Mega-tasty, even if they were much more prone to squish and cling to the stone in the center like a fiend.  So there was peeling and de-stoning and pureeing.  And then there was fun with mixers and double boilers.

Lots of ice cream recipes involve eggs, because they add richness and body and some solid-ish fats.  But, that means that you need to get those eggs cooked because killer ice cream is only fun under very specific circumstances.  So you mix together your cream and milk and sugar.  Then you add your eggs and break out a double-boiler type setup.

From there, be ready to whisk.  A lot.  You want to make sure the heat stays evenly distributed through the mixture, but that it doesn’t get hot enough to boil while still getting hot enough to cook the eggs.  Easy, right?  Actually, it is pretty easy.  You can tell as the mixture thickens, it’s mostly cream and you’re whipping it – and there’s a really handy guideline for when it’s done.

That’s what it looks like when it’s thick enough.  You want it to coat the spoon thoroughly enough that you can’t see the grain of the wood through the cream anymore.

At that point, you’ve got the base for just about every egg-including ice cream ever.  Now it’s time to add your flavoring.  In this case, two pureed mangoes.

Let it cool off in the fridge over night, put it in your ice cream maker and voila, mango ice cream.

This was really well received, but it was also 80° inside when I served it, so the audience was just a touch biased toward frozen things.  I think it could have been a bit more mango-y, or possibly a bit more lime-juice-y and gone from cromulent to fab.  In the Professional Pastry Chef‘s defense, it was original written in the 40’s the subsequent editions have very clearly not changed a thing.  I suspect having mango at all was edgy for the American pallet at the time.

I’d Eclair

If you want to know a fun answer to give when people ask what you’re making for x event, let me tell you, “Eclairs,” is a great one.  I was having fun with this recipe pretty much the minute I decided to make it.  And, it didn’t shaft me too badly, so that was awesome!

The first step was to make the pâte à choux for the eclair shells.  This involved helpful instructions like listing “a pint of eggs” in the ingredients and then, “add as many of the eggs as the dough will hold.”  I wound up using nine eggs.  Then I left the dough in the fridge until the day I was actually going to make the eclairs, since I didn’t want stale shells.

You may have heard about the uncharacteristically hot weather we’ve been having in Madison.  There are a great many things on the list of things you do not want to do when it’s so hot your air conditioner literally cannot cool the house faster than the weather heats it.  Top on them is “turn on your oven before inviting over a crowd of people.”  But I’m really, really smart, so guess what I did?

We actually had the exact right tip prescribed in the recipe for piping out the shells.  Now, piping out 72 eclair shells is not exactly what I’d describe as a thrilling way to spend your morning, so I get a little creative with some of the piping, doing all sorts of swirling instead of just piping out a fat puffy ribbon.  Don’t do that; the creative ones were much harder to work with and tended to fall apart.  Also, 72 is a lot.  Even if you’re throwing a party, you can probably get away with a half recipe.

Since I had leftover apricot jam in the fridge, I actually glazed the tops to keep them from getting soggy.  I skipped making the chocolate glaze.  This may have diminished some of the potential awesome of the final product, but it saved me about two hours of time and a whole lot of tedium.  Nobody noticed, so I call that a win.

I made the chocolate cream for the filling the night before.  This was a bit of a different process from what I’m used to with any of the other creams in this book, or my general whipped cream and mousse knowledge.  It involved whipping the cream “until thickened.”  Soft peaks I know.  Stiff peaks I know.  “Thickened” was new for me.  I decided it looked like that.

Then came folding the chocolate into a portion of the cream.

After I mixed the chocolate portion into the rest of it, I made the executive decision that it was way too runny and put it back under the whisk to turn into something more like cream and less like soup.  Final product:

This was a pretty tasty cream.  It’s light, not too sweet, and not too chocolate-y.  I’d actually find it handy for filling cakes at some future date.

There were four main steps to assembling the eclairs: prepping the shells, filling them with jelly, filling them with cream, putting them together.  Prepping the shells involved cutting off the tops and coating them with apricot glaze.  This is where I discovered the problem inherent in swirly shell piping.  Woops.

Then came the part where the recipe kinda screwed me.  It called for “smooth” strawberry jelly in a #5 tip followed by the chocolate cream from a #6 tip.  I had neither of those tips, and opted to use the smooth cherry jelly we had in the fridge rather than buy Yet Another Jar of Jam™.  It gave me the width of the tips, though, so I surveyed the tips I did have and picked the closest I had, which were slightly larger.

The jam needed to be smooth to prevent the chunky bits from clogging your tip while you’re trying to pipe.  The way, say, an errant bit of cherry skin did on the first tip I tried.  And the second.

Can I take a moment to plug the little rings you can put on your pastry bags that make switching out tips easy?  I think I just did.

I’m pretty sure I wound up with a lot more jam on the bottom of the eclairs than the recipe meant for me to.  I’m equally sure that’s totally okay.  The cherry-chocolate combo was quite tasty.  And I learned from the jam problems and went a head with a Big Ass Tip™ for piping the cream.

I think it says a lot both about me and my friends that when it came time for the final step and there were eighty-million things going on in my kitchen because people were arriving and we’d declared a heat emergency and decided to move the BBQ indoors, not only did I find somebody willing to donate their hands as auxillary counter space, but they didn’t bat an eye when I stopped to take one-handed pictures.

I’m not sure I’d made these again, just because there was such a process involved for something that doesn’t really keep well.  However, I will almost certainly pilfer the chocolate cream recipe for something else in the future, and making pâte à choux for the first time was a good experience.  Overall, it was nice to have a project that was new to me, and where the drama and adventure came from the circumstances around the cooking, not the craptastic recipe guidance.

Also, now I can tell people that once, I made eclairs, just cuz.  That’s a shortcut to cooking cred as good as any other I’ve got.

The Pretzels that Weren’t

If you ever get me talking about my neighbors, you’ll inevitably hear the story about the time the gentleman across the street told implied that Nick and I didn’t deserve to live in the neighborhood and maybe we ought to move back to Chicago.  When I tell this story, it always concludes with me sharing my utter confusion at such bald rudeness.  I’m Southern.  When we don’t like our neighbors, we go about being nasty to them entirely differently.  That was one of the few moments of genuine culture-shock I’ve ever had.

In the last couple months, we’ve acquired new neighbors.  One house just around the corner and another just up the street have been sold and the new people have moved in.  I was determined to make sure relations with these new neighbors took a more Southern approach.  I mean, sure, passive-aggressively calling the cops is a perfectly valid way to open channels of communication, I suppose.  Me, I’d rather use cookies.

So it was that the next recipe out of the Individual Pastry chapter was the “Brandy Pretzel.”  The recipe itself looked fairly straightforward, but came with technique requirements that would force me to stretch my skills and make the recipe worth playing with.  Plus, the yield was big enough on the recipe that I could give batches to both sets of new neighbors, and have leftovers for Crit group and pleasing the roommates.  Everybody wins.

The base recipe was basically just a sugar cookie dough with brandy added.  The hardest part was remembering to take out the butter in time for it to be soft when I was ready to make the dough.  Popping it into the microwave is always an option if you screw up, but it’s not quite the same, the outside getting meltier and the inside staying harder.  It did occur to me that since the first step of the recipe was to slap the soft butter into the mixing bowl, I could have done that while it was hard, making portioning partial sticks easier and leaving less residue on the wrappers.  Details like that are what experience is good for.

The recipe then described a complicated technique for portioning out the dough.  Divide it into four 9 oz portions.  Roll each portion into 8 inch logs.  Cut each log into eighteen pieces.  Turn each piece into a cookie.  I read through that a couple times, started to follow the instructions, then got lazy.  “So each cookie needs half an ounce of dough?” I said to myself.  “Let’s just do that.”  This was, perhaps, particularly clever since portioning eight inches into eighteen cookies is rather challenging to my visu-spatial acuity.  (I have none)

Now it’s time to cue the part where I bitch about the recipe.  There’s a note to, “Chill the dough if it is too hard to work with.”  This is common so I thought nothing of it, and happily tucked the dough into the fridge for twenty minutes when it was being ornery with me.  Then I put it in for a little while longer, because it still wasn’t cooperating.  Then it took a brief trip to the freezer, because I was impatient and the dough had to chill into compliance eventually, right?  Right?

No.

You’ll note a learning curve as the cookies go across the tray.  I started with the one in the upper left.  The bottom right was the last of this tray that I shaped.  Part of the learning curve was definitely me.  I’ve never made pretzel-shaped things before, so getting the dough to twist into the right shape was not immediately intuitive to me.  The more important element, though, was that the chilled dough would break, rather than bend, or just plain fall apart as you rolled it.  This got better the longer I worked, because the dough warmed up, and I started to figure out the relationship between squishy dough and, you know, it behaving.  Chilling the dough?  Absolutely the wrong thing to do to make it behave.  Thanks, Professional Pastry Chef, for once again being full of useful tips.

I did learn things.  By the time I was done, my pretzel cookies were reliably looking like pretzels.

Tricks I learned:

1) Warm up the ball of dough in your hands until it’s pliable

2) Start to roll it out between your palms, but stop before it gets long enough to go all the way across them.

3) Roll on the counter with the heels of your hands.  Fingers make the dough roll out in a very un-useful blorpular fashion.

4) Really do make sure it tapers at the ends.  Having the dough get thicker at the ends makes the cookies look weird.

Once all the cookies were baked, the next step was to dip them in chocolate.  I’ll confess, this is the point where I bailed on any pretensions of elegance or really caring about the presentation of the cookies.  Several of them were definitely the right shape, but I didn’t have enough really good ones for even one batch to go to the neighbors.  Also, it’s really hot.  Really, really hot.  I am disinclined to spend lots of time fiddling over the stove tempering chocolate when I could just be done.  So I didn’t temper the chocolate.  I didn’t leave the house to go buy pre-tempered chocolate, either as that would have entailed going outside.  That’s not safe; somebody let the sun out.

That’s me melting chocolate in a non-burny fashion.  I then very gracefully pressed each cookie into the melted chocolate, and put it on a cooling rack for the chocolate to harden.

I’m not going to lie; these cookies are far from beautiful.  They are, however, tasty.  And just as soon as the new neighbors are actually home when I knock on their door, they’ll agree with me.

Next time, eclairs…

You Tart 2: Revenge of the Tartlets

I think it’s safe to say that my enthusiasm for The Professional Pastry Chef has been, uhm, lacking for the last couple chapters.  I kept that in mind while perusing this month’s chapter, individual pastries, in search of a recipe that would give me something good for last weekend’s giant “Everybody is born in June” birthday party.  There are a ton of recipes in this chapter.  Enough, in fact, to be rather daunting.  But a surprising number of them call for almond paste, or other things that require almond paste to make, and one thing I have learned while cooking out of this book is that I don’t particularly like working with almond paste.  Being prejudiced against a common ingredient makes selection much, much easier.

Combining that with fond memories of how much I enjoyed March’s tarts, I went ahead and opted for the fruit tartlets recipe.  I already had short dough in the freezer leftover from the apple wine cake, so I even had a head start.  My biggest concern, actually, was that I doing yet another recipe where I wasn’t going to learn anything.  Being snide and pedantic when writing up these experiments can only stay amusing for so long, right?

That’s what the requisite amount of short dough, fresh from the freezer, looks like when you put it in a bowl on a cute little kitchen scale.

You may recall my triumph from my last tart experience where my secret pie crust skills trumped the technique advice from the pros.  Thus, I did not expect the learning challenge from this to come from the tart shell making process.  But oh, it did.  There’s a huge difference between rolling out the dough for one big tart, and rolling it out for thirty little ones.

For one, my usual, “only roll out the dough once,” policy did not hold, at all.  This wound up being okay, short dough is very forgiving of such things, but I found it a little frustrating.  For another, keeping the dough cool enough to work with was more challenging than I’m used to.

I could drop about 2000 words on the different techniques I went through to find a speedy, workable solution for getting the dough rolled out and in the tart pans, but I’ll skip to my final solution.

I wound up splitting the dough into two bowls.  One of them hung out in the fridge while I rolled out the other between two sheets of wax paper.  Then I peeled off one of the sheets, flipped the dough over a third bowl, and peeled off the second sheet.  From there, I tore off pieces to press into the tart pans.  This makes the process sound easy and straight forward.  Let’s all pretend that’s how it was.  I did discover that rolling out the dough, then putting it in the fridge to firm up so more does not work at all.  Sure, the dough stops tearing on you, but that’s because it cracks instead.  No good.

Despite lots of experimenting with techniques for getting the dough into the shells, I’m pretty pleased with how the shells turned out.  Some of them were prettier than others, but none of them were embarrassing.

I urge you if you try this to remember to prick the dough before putting it in the oven.  The puffiness only shows up on the inside of the shells, which gets hidden, but that also eats up some of the volume for holding tasty cream and whatnot.  I never did get a batch of shells that didn’t puff at all, but I got better across the batches.

The best part of this was that the shells can be made ahead of time.  So I did those on Saturday for the Sunday party.  Then, day of, I only had about an hour and a half of work to do.  The first bit was making apricot glaze for the shells.  This is a step I’ve been skipping in a lot of prior recipes, opting where necessary to just slather on unmodified apricot jam.  The glaze is just apricot jam with extra sugar and some water, cooked down to a near-candy stage.  Then you slather that into your shells, so the cream won’t make them soggy.

Then it was time to make the cream.  This time around it was Bavarian cream, which turned out to be super easy.  Whip egg yolks and sugar together, scald some milk, throw it all together and let it cool off.  I took this opportunity to turn the leftover egg whites into meringues, because that seemed easier than freezing them for later.  It’s possible I have a weird sense of how to be lazy.

Once the milk and yolk mixture is cool, you mix it into some whipped cream and viola!  Bavarian cream.

I took my cream, my shells, and some raspberries over to the party and then, at the appointed hour, slapped them together into confections of tastiness.  Look at the tasty.

These were nice.  I think that pastry cream is tastier than Bavarian cream, so I’ll probably go with that in the future.  Also, this recipe kicked my ass in a “making me a better cook,” as opposed to a “because the cookbook sucked” sort of way.  Win!

On the Cheesing of Cake

Realtor-me needed a bit of graphic design work done to make an ad I’d mocked up print like something other than a fuzzy, pixellated disaster.  So I asked one of my buddies who does graphic design work if he’d give it a once-over for me and he kindly accepted.  “How much do you want for the job?” I asked.  “I dunno,” he said.  “Bake me a cake?”

Since May just happened to be cake month, I handed him The Professional Pastry Chef and told him he could have anything he wanted out of the decorated cakes chapter, except an Apple Wine Cake.  He chose the New York Cheesecake.  Like pie, I’ve been making cheesecake for years, but this recipe was a bit different from what I’m used to and, hey, after the Chocolate Decadance cake, I was all over making something I’d still respect in the morning.

 The ad was a smashing success, and I was generally smug and over-the-moon with good news and things going right.  Also, my roommates weren’t home, and I started around 11pm.  This means I had Hot Fuss blaring too loud over the stereo while I bounced around the kitchen like a maniac, baking.  This is absolutely the best way to do all of your cooking and enhances the flavor of the end product by 12.547%.  (You know it’s scientifically valid because I used five significant digits)

It’s possible that part of the reason I like making cheesecake is that you start by crushing graham cracker souls.  You smash them beneath your mighty fist, breaking them down until they accept your will as their own, before drowning them in boiling oil melted butter and shaping them according to your own vision.  Seriously, cooking is awesome.

Normal people probably just use a food processor.  Lame.

Cheesecake, for all that it’s a rich dessert with a billion froofy variations, is actually really simple to make.  If you’ve got a good recipe, it’s just a matter of making sure all your ingredients are at room temperature and letting your mixer do the work.  If you’re being efficient, you can make the crust while the mixer works.  I wasn’t efficient, because that left me more time to bounce around the kitchen like an idiot while the cake batter mixed.  “Somebody told me that you had a boyfriend who looked like a girlfriend…”

The cookbook had an interesting discuss about cheesecake, its history and the differences between the different types of cheesecakes, but it didn’t say anything about pans used to make cheesecakes.  I suspect this means it assumed you’d use a regular cake pan.  Given past experience with this cookbook, I trusted my own expertise and ignored that bit.

Cheesecakes are tricky, but it’s not a technique thing, it’s a process thing.  You can do them in cake pans, or pie plates (though I’d then argue it’s a cheese pie…) but what’s most common is a spring form pan.  That’s a pan in two parts, a metal disc bottom, and sides that can expand enough to drop the disc out of the bottom.  This is handy because then you can get the cake out of the pan without having to flip it, or doing any of the other complicated things that involve more prayer and finesse than is really practical.  They’re particularly awesome for cheesecakes and other custard-y style cakes.

Unfortunately, they suck for water baths.  And water baths are the important part of the “process thing” that’s tricky about cheesecakes.  As long as you use the right ingredients in the right proportions, your cheesecake will turn out.  But you can seriously screw up your texture or structure by baking it too long, or too hot, or too fast.  So you want to be confident your oven is at the right temperature, that it’ll maintain that temperature, and you want to slap your cheesecake into a tub of hot water for the baking process.  Except, your pan has seams at the bottom, and hot water sorta likes going in at seams and soaking your preciously crushed crust.  That is bad.

Tin foil.  It’s not just for the crazies.

Of course I’m not one of the crazies.

Shut-up.

The Professional Pastry Chef will not tell you anything about spring form pans or the magic of tin foil water-barriers, so now I’ve told you.  And I’m never taking on cookbook projects that have “Professional” in the title again.  I know what kind of a disaster I’d have had on my hands if I’d only had it to guide me.  *Shudder*

Here’s some more advice about the water bath.  Let’s just assume I’ve already learned all of this the hard way.  First, make sure the pan you use for it is actually bigger than your pan.  You do not want to start rearranging pans full of hot water because things don’t quite fit.  Then, open the oven, slide out the rack you’re going to use, and put the pan in the center of it.  Have a kettle of hot water on hand.  You want the water hot because otherwise it’ll pull down the temperature of the oven, and you’re already letting all the heat escape by opening it and dallying with setting up the bath.  You are, right now, begging fate for cracks in your cheesecake.  Move!

Put the cheesecake in the pan.  Pour the water from the kettle into the pan.  You want to fill to about halfway up the sides of the cheesecake.  Have more hot water on hand than you think you’ll need until you’ve done this enough to know.

This is ostensibly for roasting turkeys. It’s totally my cheesecake-water-bath pan.

Slide the rack back into the oven, close the door and DO NOT TOUCH.  That oven should not open again for at least half an hour.  The water will make sure the cheesecake heats evenly, and it’ll help the oven hold its temperature, but there’s no reason to handicap your oven – it has to do all the hard work of making sure you don’t wind up with a dry and or cracked cheesecake.  Frolic around the house to inexplicably catchy pop music instead.

Or do as I did and read N.K. Jemison’s new book.  It’s hard to compulsively check a cheesecake while compulsively tuning pages.

The cookbook said to bake it until it was done, then pull it out of the oven.  You could do that.  Or you could do something that works.  When it looks mostly set up, turn off the oven and crack the door.  Leave it like that for about an hour.  It’ll finish baking and cool off gently, which stops it from cracking.  It also means you’re not dealing with a roasting pan full of hot water when you take the cake out of the oven.

I would like to take this opportunity to, for no particular reason, introduce you to Poke.  Poke is an aloe plant.  I’m firmly convinced that anybody who does a lot of cooking should own an aloe plant.  You can cut off bits and put them on burns and they work wonders.  Poke lives in my office, where he makes threatening gestures toward the guest bed and waits, patiently, for his next mutilation.

Anyway, leave the cheesecake on a counter until it’s room temperature.  Then you can either serve it, or put it in the fridge for later.  I prefer my cheesecake chilled.  There is controversy on this point.

And so it was that the Killers finished serenading me, and I paid my graphical design debt.

A Cake Without Flair…er…Flour

You know what I didn’t have time for this week?  Cake recipes with 25 steps, that’s what.  With one week left in May, an election eating all my time, and WisCon addling my brain, I decided that hosting a board game night on Tuesday was a good idea.  You may have noticed that my concept of good idea is fuzzy and often best described as, “Are you insane?  No, really, are you?” I was sensible enough to look through the chapter for a recipe that I could actually manage in an afternoon.  There were several chocolate cakes, but the Chocolate Decadence cake, aka flourless chocolate cake, was the only one that seemed safely doable.  How easy was it?  Well, you start by boiling some water with sugar in it, then tossing in chocolate, then tossing in butter.  There’s a bit of stirring.  Can you stir?  You can make this cake.

See the streaks of butter in that tasty tasty chocolate?  More stirring.  Or, you know, let it sit until the butter finishes melting while you move on to step two.

What was step two?  I’m glad you asked.  It involved putting gets in a bowl with some vanilla and letting my mixer do some stirring.  The goal was to stir until it was voluminous but not so voluminous that the cake would be crumbly.  Thanks, descriptive cookbook.

The hostility you’re sensing might be leftover crabbiness from the wine cake.  Also, I’ve never had much respect for flourless chocolate cake.  It always tastes like a failed brownie to me.  Verily, I made this cake because it was easy, not because I was going to buy it breakfast the next morning.

Why how very stirring it looks!

Next came the hard part.  Are you ready for it?  Here it is.  Fold the chocolate into the eggs.  Read: Stir some more.

Let me take this moment to diverge a bit and tell you a story.  Several years ago now I was going to Chicago every week for work.  This was awesome, because it meant I got to eat out in Chicago on somebody else’s dime.  I ate well.  I ordered dessert whether I wanted it or not, because my customer was obnoxious and racking up my dinner bill filled me with joy.  Early on I noticed a trend where everywhere I went, they’d have this delightful sounding chocolate dessert that I’d order because, hey, I’m ordering dessert out of spite; I’m clearly in desperate need of chocolate.  The first time I did this, I got a flourless chocolate cake with a fruit sauce.  I liked the fruit sauce.  The cake was meh.  The next time I ordered a completely different sounding cake, but what I got was a flourless chocolate cake, with a different fruit sauce.  The third time they’d put the fruit sauce in the cake, instead of on the plate next to it.

By the end of the month I’d stopped ordering chocolate desserts, for fear of getting yet another cleverly described flourless chocolate cake.  It was a giant dessert conspiracy, and the only way to win was to run far, far away.  I think I had ten different flourless chocolate cakes, and not one of them was remotely what I wanted when I ordered.  Now I understand why this happened to me.

Stirring.  This cake tests whether or not the person making it is competent enough to stir things together.  Shame on you, tragic series of restaurants in Chicago.  Shame.

The cake went into the oven in just enough time for it to smell really good when people showed up for board games.  This raised the stakes a bit, since now I’m not just throwing an untested recipe done at the last minute on a group of people, but there’s anticipation built.

You know how if you cook something at the wrong temperature the outside will cook and dry out before the inside is done?  Well, I made the devastating mistake of setting my oven to the temperature listed in the cookbook.  Why I believe a thing it says after the wine cake, we’ll never know.

For the record: Another reason to hate silicone baking things.

It was still gooey raw in the middle when the top was done enough to crack like that.  You have no idea what this did for Anaea/flourless-cake relations.  Unless you’ve heard me cuss while aggravated.  Then you know exactly what it did.

Despite the cruelty of making house guests wait while smelling chocolate cake, I followed the recipe and stuck that sucker in the fridge to chill.  The cookbook declared that “while this cake should be served at room temperature,” it needed to be chilled to be handled.  I left in for the full recommended two hours.  And while the broken top was annoying, I figured I’d flip the sucker over onto a cake plate and hide that, so it wasn’t really a big deal.

As crabby as I am with the Professional Pastry Chef as a guide, I’ve gotta lay the blame for that ugly beast on the silicone baking pan.  I mean, the recipe probably is borked, but I’m pretty sure a pan with actual structural integrity would have covered for it better.

We’ve now reached the part where the recipe says to whip a bunch of cream, put it in a pastry bag, and pipe it over the cake.  I’d read the recipe all the way through before going to the grocery store, and knew this step would be happening during game night.  I also knew that the last time this book had me use whipped cream as frosting, it massively misguided me about how much cream it needed.  So there I am, faced with the opportunity to subject half a dozen people to the siren whine of my mixer for several minutes, then follow it up with me ignoring them while I do some froofy piping.  I stare at the quart of heavy cream, contemplating the sheer awesomeness contained in this prospect.

Yeah, I bought a can of whipped cream and went to town on that ugly sucker.  And then, instead of carefully shaving chocolate over it, I tossed on a handful of semi-sweet chocolate chips.  Semi-sweet chocolate chips of apathetic spite!

People liked the cake.  Some went back for seconds.  One person had enough good taste to eat half her piece and go, “It’s not that I don’t like it, I just can’t handle that much chocolate.”  If she thought about it she’d realize the truth: this is a cake that wanted desperately to be a brownie.  Whoever told it that it could grow up to be anything it wanted, if only it believed in itself, was a malicious liar.

That said, while the wine cake did not get entirely consumed before I declared it expired and tossed it, this one was nearly devoured in an evening.  Part of that is certainly scale.  Part of that is that people will eat anything made of chocolate.  I didn’t really like this cake at all, but I wouldn’t, would I?

Next up is a cheesecake.  It’s been made, but I’ll save blogging it for next week.  That entry will be cherrier cheerier.