Monday, December 29, 2008

Daring Bakers December 2008: Murphy's Law Edition

This month's challenge is brought to us by the adventurous Hilda from Saffron and Blueberry and Marion from Il en Faut Peu Pour Etre Heureux. They have chosen a French Yule Log by Flore from Florilege Gourmand. I have few pictures for you this month, mainly due to the fact that this month's challenge was pretty much a complete failure. It seems that this month, my baking mojo left me to fend for myself. Believe me, it was not pretty. After what seemed like the ten-billionth thing to go wrong, I found myself in a ball of tears on the kitchen floor around 9:00 pm on Christmas Eve. But even though this was the challenge that made me want to rip out my kitchen and give up baking forever, I completed it. And it was edible (if not pretty). And this month, that in itself is quite an accomplishment.

A quick preface: A French Yule log is different quite different from what I consider to be the more traditional Yule log. The French version is more of a frozen entrements, or "creamy dessert," as opposed to a cake. It includes a variety of different elements, each surrounded by an insanely rich and delicious dark chocolate mousse. So...without further adieu, here's the story of the dessert that got the best of me.

We were given lots of freedom to play with flavors, and I quickly settled on a chocolate and hazlenut dessert with a hint of coffee. So, I started baking the dacquoise. I decided to use hazlenut meal instead of almond meal. I made my own meal, but ran into trouble when I just couldn't seem to grind my hazlenuts into a fine enough meal. It worked, but my dacquoise was grainer and thinner than I would have liked, partially because the larger pieces of nuts deflated my heavily whipped egg whites, which is what normally would give the biscuit its lift. But, since it tasted fine, I didn't worry too much about it.

Second was the dark chocolate mousse. The mousse recipe involved making a pate a bomb which involved beating egg yolks with a sugar syrup. This gives the mousse added structure to be able to support the other elements of the cake. On my first attempt, I heated the sugar too hot, and when I added the syrup to the beaten egg yolks, it hardened and left a lump of yolk covered rock candy at the bottom of the mixng bowl. (Though the little bits of syrup that hit the whisk as it was mixing turned to cotton candy, so I accidentally made cotton candy with my Kitchen Aid). After cleaning the bowl, I went back for take two. Instead of waiting for the syrup to reach 244 F, I just let it go until it reached the lower limit of the "softball" range indicated on my candy thermometer. This time it worked, and the rest of the mousse came together really well. (Did I mention that it was insanely rich and delicious?)

Next, I made the creme brulee insert, which is what really did me in. When infusing the cream with the vanilla bean, I few in a few coffee beans as well. This was an experiment, and flavor wise, it actually worked out really well. The coffee flavor was more subtle (which I wanted) and the beans didn't discolor the creme brulee, which was also good because I wanted the contrast of the light custard against the dark chocolate of the rest of the dessert. It was in the baking and setting of the custard that I ran into trouble. The recipe said to bake at 210 F degrees, but I read that many daring bakers had trouble getting the creme brulee to set at that temperature, so they increased it. So I started out baing it at 245 F. After an hour, it was still liquid. So, I bumped the temp up to 270 F and baked for another hour. When I pulled it out, I gave it a jiggle, and it seemd "firm on the edges and slightly wobbly in the center." So I covered it and put it in the fridge to continue setting.

The next day, I went about finishing the dessert. I started by making the praline feuillete, or crisp. Knowing my own limits, I knew better than to attempt to make my own praline, and instead decided to use Nutella instead. I'd read that it worked really well for some other DBs, and it went very well with my chocolate-hazlenut flavor. But I did intend to make my own gavottes (very thin lace crepes which are used to make the crisp part). It seems I wasn't able to spread the batter evenly, so while I got nice crisps in some part of the pan, the rest was softer and more crepe like. Unusable. So I tossed those and went to Plan B: Rice Krispies. Not as elegant, but they worked. And really, I discovered that chocolate and Nutella covered Rice Krispies are a treat unto themselves.

It was finally time for me to start assembling my Yule Log. I assembled it upside down in a loaf pan, not having the more traditional half-pipe mold. I put down a layer of the dacquoise and topped with a third of the mousse. So far so good. Then, I went to get my creme brulee, and when I unmolded it to place it in the mousse, I discovered it hadn't set at all. Still runny. And since I unmolded it unto my loaf pan mold, I couldn't take it out. This caused me to turn to Psycling and inform him that it was ruined, and it looked like we wouldn't have dessert for Christmas dinner. But, already having put so much time and effort into this dessert, I soldiered on. So I added the next third of the mousse and my Rice Krispie feuillete, followed by the last of the mousse. Then I put it in the fridge to stay cool while I made the ganache insert.

(Convinced this dessert was totally ruined, I made a back-up dessert, which also totally failed when my cake didn't rise enough, so that ended up in the trash too. It was not a good night.)
When I think of ganache, I think of chocolate melted together with some cream and butter. But this ganache was done differently. I started by making a caramel. When the caramel was just about ready, I realized I hadn't started heating the cream yet, and when I went to go get it started, I bumped the glass and spilled it everywhere. There was cream all over the kitchen floor, under the oven, everywhere. At this point (about 9:00 pm Christmas Eve) that was the last straw. I collapsed in a big pile of tears convinced I would never be able to do anything right agian. Once I had that cleaned up, the sugar caramel was burned, and I had to start over. So,m I threw that out and started over again. This time, I manged to not spill the cream, cooked the caramel to a nice dark amber, (darker than I made it for last month's challenge), and when I whisked them together, and added my chocolate and butter, I got a wonderful smooth ganache with a deeper flavor thanks to the caramelized sugar. I added it to my log, topped with another layer of the dacquoise, and stuck it in the freezer for the night.

The next day, after a nice breakfast, and a quiet and low-key Christmas with Psycling, my mom, my brother, and of course, the Munchkin, I set out to make the glaze. This was the only element that I completed without a hitch. It was a beautiful shiny glaze that set just right.

I ended up bringing this dessert to our Christmas dinner with friends (with a pan of uber-yummy brownies just in case) with the caveat that they might not be edible. When I sliced it open, it wasn't very pretty (more marbled than layered thanks to the runny creme brulee), but it tasted great, and it got lots of compliments. Though to be honest, I didn't particularly enjoy it. It tasted good. But I was so jaded by how much trouble it gave me that I didn't particularly want to eat it.

I'd like to try this again sometime, and get it right. But I think it will take a while before I work up the guts to go for it again.

I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas (or whatever holiday you celebrate) and that you have a wonderful 2009!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Daring Bakers: Mmmmm...Caramel

I love caramel. I find the sweet, creamy, gooeyness to be irresistible. So it is quite appropriate that I officially end my Daring Bakers maternity leave with Shuna Fish Lydon's signature Caramel Cake with Caramelized Butter Frosting, as published on Bay Area Bites. There was an optional challenge of Alice Medrich's Golden Vanilla Bean Caramels from Pure Dessert. This month's challenge was co-hosted by Delores, Alex, and Jennny, with Natalie helping out with the gluten-free option.

I have to admit that I was a little intimidated when I read what Shuna had to say about this recipe:

"This is one of those cakes that is truly about baking. It may sound strange because aren't all cakes about baking? What I mean is that getting this cake to bake is about balancing fat with acid and protein JUST RIGHT...It would be very easy to get various other flavours in the caramel cake but what's tricky is making sure the flavour does not screw up the liquid-fat-flour ratio too much...Various flavouring ingredients and agents carry with them their own acidity and moisture contents...But I will say this about flavours: you will hide and lose the subtlety of the caramel flavour in the cake and that's what this cake is about."

I initially was thinking about trying to add a little coffee flavor to this cake, as I LOVE the coffee and caramel flavor combination (my guilty indulgence at Starbuck's is a Caramel Macchiato, and my standard order at Cold Stone involves coffee ice cream and caramel), but after reading Shuna's warning, I decided that this cake would probably pose enough of a challenge as is.

I decided to make this cake for Thanksgiving. I started Wednesday night by making the caramel syrup. It's amazing how just sugar and water (and heat) can turn into such a wonderfully flavored syrup! Following the warning of the DBers who'd already made their cakes, I wore long sleeves and a heavy oven mit to pour in the water to stop the caramelization process. I think this was wise. There was lots of sputtering and spitting of molten hot sugar. The instructions said to cook until "dark amber" which I realized as I was making it is a rather subjective term. In retrospect, I think I could have let the syrup cook a little longer before stopping it, and let it develop a richer caramel flavor.

Does this look "Dark Amber?"

Despite that, the syrup still had a wonderful caramel flavor.

Once the syrup was made and cooled, I got started on the cake. I have to admit that I got a little distracted, and realized as I got into it that I added some of the ingredients in the wrong order. I'd started adding my dry ingredients and milk when I realized that I'd forgotten to add the caramel syrup (only the key ingredient to the cake). So I went ahead and added it as soon as I remembered, but I was a little nervous, as Shuna's warning about this cake was floating around the the back of my head. Fortunately, this little lapse did not affect the final product in any way. (Side Note: One of my favorite kitchen tricks involves the measuring out sticky things like honey, molasses, or caramel syrup. If you spray the measuring spoon or cup with cooking spray before measuring out the sticky stuff, then it slides right out when adding it to whatever you are making. It makes things so much easier!)

I made the Caramelized Butter Frosting on Thursday afternoon. I was quite wary when I saw that the first step in this recipe was to brown the butter. I've always been scared of browned butter as everything I've read is that it's easy to burn. And the recipe did not give much direction as to how to go about it. So, I did what I always do in such situations, and I asked Google. Google provided me with several good links, and after reading through a few web pages, I decided it was time to bit the bullet and conquer my fear of browned butter. (The best tip Google gave me was not to use a dark bottomed pan to brown the butter, because it makes it too difficult to see the color of the butter and the milk fats as it's cooking. So I figured I'd share the love and pass that tip on to you!) My butter browned successfully on the first try. And it was nearly as scary as I'd been making it out to be. Once the browned butter had cooled, I started beating in the powdered sugar, and thinning with cream and caramel syrup as necessary. After frosting the cake, I used some of the left over caramel syrup to decorate the cake.

With all the warnings and sputtering caramel and browning butter, it actually came together really easily for me. It seems that the DBs have all had different experiences with this cake. Some said it was dense like pound cake, others said it was light and airy. Mine was somewhere in between. But it was very moist, and DELICIOUS!! It got rave reviews from everyone at the table. I'd read from the other DBs that this cake, particularly the frosting, were very sweet, and I was worried that they might be a little too sweet for me. But they weren't. It was perfectly balanced. The cake was sweet, but not in the gave-me-a-tummyache-and-sent-me-into-a-sugar-coma kind of way. The subtle yet rich flavor of the caramel was just right. Not over powering, but enough to really infuse the cake with that little something extra. And it was even better the next day, after the flavor of the caramel had time to mellow and deepen.

While I could go on and on about how wonderful this cake was, it boils down to this: simply amazing! Go find it and bookmark it. This is definitely a recipe you want to try!

P.S. I didn't get to the caramels, but those that did raved about them, so I'm going to try to get to them before Christmas.

P.P.S. I've been cooking and even remembering to photograph, but I haven't had time to blog. Hopefully I'll get to some of these backlogged recipes soon. But it's so hard to tear myself away from this:

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Black Bean and Butternut Squash "Lasagna"

I got the idea for this dish when I was looking for something fun to do with the butternut squash we got in our CSA bag. As I was browsing through various recipes, I noticed lots of black bean and butternut squash combos. I decided to see what I could do with it. I ended up with a yummy and filling vegetarian entree.

I was planning on doing either tacos or buritos or something along those lines, but this is one of those dishes that just evolved as I was making it, based on the things things I had on hand. I'm glad I made this "lasagna style." It worked really well, and was quite tasty. Psycling and I both went back for seconds. The spiciness of the pepper jack cheese complimented the sweetness of the squash, which was enhanced by the hint of cloves. This lasagna makes for a filling vegetarian main dish, and

Black Bean and Butternut Squash "Lasagna"

olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 butternut squash, peeled, seeds scooped out, and cut into ~1/2" pieces
1 tbsp. oregano
1 tbsp. cumin
1 1/2 tsp. chili powder
1/4 tsp. cloves
1 c. vegetable broth
2 15 oz. cans black beans, rinsed and drained
10-12 small corn tortillas (depending on the size of your dish)
1 1/2 c. grated pepper jack cheese

1.) Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat olive oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add onions and sautee until soft. Add garlic, squash, and spices and cook about 30 seconds.

2.) Add vegetable broth to skillet and cook, covered until liquid has evaporated and squash is tender (add more vegetable broth if needed to get squash to desired softness). Add beans to skillet and cook until heated through.

3.) Grease a baking dish (I used a smaller one, about 8 x 11, but a 9 X 13 would work too) with cooking spray. Cover bottom of dish with tortillas, tearing them if necessary to fit. Spoon half of the bean mixture over tortillas, and sprinkle with 1/2 c. cheese. Place another layer of tortillas on top of this. Add rest of bean mixture, and sprinkle with another 1/2 c. of cheese. Top with another layer of tortillas.

4.) Cover with aluminum foil and bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes, until hot and bubbly. Remove foil and sprinkle with remaining cheese. Bake uncovered for another 5 minutes until cheese melts.


P.S. Sorry, no pictures because 1) I'm lazy and 2) the software we use to upload them crashes Psycling's new computer. We're working on fixing that...

Monday, November 10, 2008

Menu Planning Monday -- 10/10/08

Last week, despite my best intentions, we didn't do a very good job of sticking to the menu plan. Here's the week in review:

Monday: Planned -- veggie loaf; Actual -- veggie loaf (YAY!!)
Tuesday: Planned -- sweet potato and squash shepherd's pie; Actual -- pizza for an election night party
Wednesday: Planned -- vegetable soup; Actual -- squash and sweet potato shepherd's pie
Thursday: Planned -- eat out; Actual -- left overs
Friday: Planned -- Squash and black bean quesadillas; Actual -- last minute invite out for dinner

Given that, this week I'll be recycling some of these meals. So here's the plan for this week:

Monday: Left overs (Psycling is working late on a paper deadline)
Tuesday: Vegetable Soup
Wednesday: Squash and black bean quesadillas, turnip greens with chipotle vinaigrette
Thursday: Doggy class -- eat out or left overs
Friday: Stuffed Acorn squash, salad
Saturday: Fried Green Tomato BLTs
Sunday: left overs or something easy I'll throw together.

We'll see if we do a little better this week on sticking to the plan.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Menu Planning Monday

Life is busy. I'm sure that's nothing new, for you or for me. But you know how sometimes, you just have so much going on, and it seems like there's no way you can add yet another thing to the mix. Then something else comes up. And you have a really full plate. And then more stuff comes up, and you wonder how in the world you'll handle it. Then eventually you realize something's gotta give.

That's how things have been around here. There is just too much going on, and I realized that the pace of life as I was living it was unsustainable. And something had to give. That something was my job. So now, I am a full time, stay-at-home-mom to the Munchkin. My new "work" will be very different from the office job that I've been used to, but it was the right decision for me and my family, and I'm looking forward to starting this new chapter in our life.

I'm also hoping that I'll have a little more time to pay attention to this blog. I'm going to start with Menu Planning Monday. This is something I've seen around the blogosphere, and I like the idea. I'm hoping it will also provide the impetus I need to get a little more organized, and get back into the swing of things in the kitchen. So, without further adieu, here is what we'll be eating this week:

Monday: Veggie Loaf, roasted radishes
Tuesday: Sweet Potato & Squash Shepherds Pie, salad
Wednesday: Vegetable Soup
Thursday: Doggy class -- Eat out
Friday: Veggie, Sweet Potato, and Black Bean Quesadillas, turnip greens with Chipotle Chile Vinaigrette
Saturday & Sunday: some combination of winging it, left overs, and/or dinner with family

Our menus are very much planned around the produce we get in our CSA bag every week. Right now, our fridge is bursting with hydroponic lettuce, radishes, sweet potatoes, turnip greens, butternut squash, green beans and broccoli. While I may not stick to this exact schedule (in fact, I very likely won't), I do know that this is what we'll be eating over the next week or so. And I will do my best to blog about some of these recipes, and get back into the swing of things here.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

I'm Alive! With a Recipe!

Not that you'd know it from this poor neglected blog, but I am still alive, and I have been cooking. The cooking has been much less time and labor intensive since the arrival of LC, but I'm working on getting back in the groove.

I have been planning our meals around the wonderful produce in our CSA. Since we often get the same things several weeks in a row as they hit their peak harvest, it's forced me to cook outside the box, and find new and creative ways to prepare veggies. Tonight, we we had Margarita Fish Tacos with Chipotle-Lime Mayo to use our arugula, and I wanted to make a side dish with our green beans (It seems like we've been eating green beans for months...and they're still coming!). Regular old steamed green beans can be kinda boring, and I wanted to find some way to tie the green beans in with the rest of the meal. So I did what I do best and I started playing. The resulting Chipotle Green Beens were surprisingly good.

Chipotle Green Beans (all amounts approximate)

1/2 lb green beans, trimmed
olive oil
salt and pepper
1/2 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp chili powder
1/4 c. water
1/2 c. cherry tomatoes, halved
1/2 tsp. adobo sauce from canned chipotle chilis

1. Heat olive oil over medium heat. Add green beans, and season with salt and pepper, cumin and chili powder. Saute for about a minute. Add water, cover, and steam for about 3 minutes or until crisp tender. Uncover, and cook until water boils off. Add adobo sauce and tomatoes and cook until mixed and tomatoes begin to soften and brown.

As I was making this, I was skeptical. I was planning on giving Psycling my standard disclaimer that this was an experiment and I wouldn't be offended of he didn't like it. But they were actually really good. I like using the saute/steam method for green beans because the sauteing really brings out the flavor, and the steaming gets them to just the right texture. I also really like adding tomatoes to my green beans. The flavors work well together, and they provide a nice visual contrast as well. The cumin (one of my favorite spices), chili powder, and adobo sauce were surprisingly good on the beans, and this made for a perfect side dish to our fish tacos.

Now...I just need to figure out what to do with the billionth bag of green beans we got today. And the arugula. Apparently it's arugula season. Any ideas?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A 9/11 Remembrance: Baking a Little Love into the World

On September 11, 2001 I was 23 years old, one year out of college, and working as an analyst with the Department of Defense just north of Washington DC. I remember that day like it was yesterday -- the intensity of the fear, the profound sadness, the confusion, and the incomprehensibility of what had happened.

I'd gotten into work early that day, by 8:00, which was highly unusual for me. I answered the phone when one of my co-workers (who was on leave that day) called in to say "Turn on CNN, someone just flew a plane into the World Trade Center." I remember thinking it must have been an inexperienced pilot who lost control of his little plane when out flying. It NEVER occurred to me that someone had intentionally flown a plane into the WTC with the intent to cause as much death and destruction as possible.

The one TV for our entire office was in my cubicle area, and I went and got someone who knew how to turn it on (with the way it was set up, you practically needed an advanced degree to turn the dang thing on!). When I saw what was really happening, that this was not an unfortunate accident, but rather a terrorist act, my jaw dropped. As word spread around the office, more co-workers trickled into the area, and before long, the entire office was standing around the television watching in a stunned silence, trying to comprehend what was happening.

I remember calling Psycling, who was a grad student at UMD at the time, and I asked him "are you watching the news?" He said he'd been trying to get to the CNN website for his daily news check, but assumed the server was down because the page wasn't loading. Then I told him what was happening. He and his friends found a television and joined the rest of the nation as we watched events unfold.

I remember watching CNN, a journalist reporting live from the Pentagon, when the third plane hit there. I remember hearing the fear and confusion in his voice (his initial assessment was that "a bomb just went off here at the Pentagon"). And I remember the intense fear I felt at that moment. This was not an isolated event in New York City, this was national. And it was happening near me. And they were targeting Defense facilities in the Washington DC area. And there I was, working in a Defense facility in the Washington DC area. It didn't take very long for me to realize "IT COULD HAPPEN HERE!!!" The fear I felt at that realization was deeper and more intense than any other I had ever felt up until then, or since. My legs were shaking, I was feeling nauseous.

At that point I decided to go home. I wasn't getting any work done, and I knew I wouldn't the rest of the day. We were all just standing around the television, and I figured I could do that much more safely from my apartment. After shutting down my computer and locking up my work space, I practically ran out of the building. And then I got outside, where the perfect fall weather seemed so eerily at odds with what was happening in the world. It was warm for September, sunny, with bright blue skies, puffy white clouds, and just a hint of red and yellow dotting the green trees that lined the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

I got home and Psycling arrived not too long afterwards, as did my roommate, who also worked for the DoD. It turns out they evacuated the facility. We were out of work for three days, as the powers that be figured out what was going on, and made sure everything was safe.

The next day, I was so overwhelmed with the death and destruction that I could not bring myself to continue watching the non-stop news coverage; I did not want to be continually bombarded with the image of the planes hitting the towers. As it is, that is something that is seared into my brain forever. Amid all this craziness, sadness, hatred, evil, I needed to do something good; I needed to create, to prove to myself that good can and will triumph over evil, and we will get past this. Not knowing what else to do, I baked. I'd recently been to a wedding where the favors were heart-shaped cookie cutters attached to a recipe for sugar cookies. Hearts represent love, and to me, love was the antithesis of the evil and hatred that perpetuated these terrorist attacks. Baking these heart shaped cookies was my way of saying "F$*K YOU" to the terrorists, of saying that despite this horrible thing that you have done, you HAVE NOT WON!! Because I still have love and soul and passion and those cannot be taken away. And those things will over come in the end.

This year, the 9/11 anniversary has hit me harder than it has in recent years. I had a hard time falling asleep last night, as the images and feelings of that day played through my head like a movie. And I knew what I had to do. I had to make cookies.

I still believe that in the end, love and compassion will win out. I have to believe that. So today was spent doing what I love with the people I love.

When I woke up this morning, Psycling agreed to watch LC while I got busy in the kitchen. I couldn't find my original sugar cookie recipe (I tore through all my folders of recipes looking for it), so I looked for a comparable one, one that uses confectioners sugar instead of granualted sugar, and includes Cream of Tartar. None of my cookbooks had an acceptable recipe, and couldn't find one on Epicurious either. So I turned to my friend Google, and after some searching found this recipe.

These cookies came out really well. They were soft and chewy; sweet but not overly so. In essence, exactly what I wanted in my sugar cookies. I baked these cookies in remembrance and honor of all who lost their lives or their loved ones on 9/11, and as an outward display of my faith that the goodness that is inherent in humanity is stronger than evil and hatred. What better way to demonstrate that than to share the love. So we took the entire batch of cookies into Psycling's lab at school to feed hungry grad students.

I may not be saving the world, but at least I can bake a little love into it.


* 1 cup butter, softened
* 1 1/2 cups sifted confectioners' sugar
* 1 egg
* 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
* 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
* 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
* 1 teaspoon baking soda
* 1 teaspoon cream of tartar
* 1/4 cup granulated sugar for decoration


1. In a large bowl, cream together the butter and confectioners' sugar until smooth. Beat in the egg and stir in the vanilla and almond extract. Combine the flour, baking soda and cream of tartar; blend into the creamed mixture. Cover and chill for at least two hours.
2. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). Divide the dough into two parts. On a lightly floured surface, roll each piece of the dough out to 3/16 inch in thickness. Cut into desired shapes with cookie cutters. Place cookies 1 1/2 inches apart onto greased cookie sheets. Sprinkle cookies with plain or colored granulated sugar.
3. Bake for 8 minutes in the preheated oven, until lightly browned. Allow cookies to cool on baking sheet for 5 minutes before removing to a wire rack to cool completely.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Daring Bakers: Better Late than Never

Though I'm not officially "back" from my Daring Bakers maternity leave, but the August challenge, Chocolate Éclairs by Pierre Hermé (hosted by Meeta and Tony), was calling my name. Besides, cooking and baking are things I enjoy, and getting back into the kitchen, even though it takes a lot more time and planning than it did before the Littlest Chef arrived, I feel less stressed and overwhelmed after some good kitchen time. So I made it work, but I couldn't have done it without Psycling (who is Super Dad) helping out with LC.

Eclaires are something that I have been wanting to try for a long time, so this seemed like the perfect excuse! This particular recipe is great for chocoholics like Psycling and me. In addition to the traditional chocolate glaze on top, they are filled with a chocolate pastry cream as well. Since I had to fit this baking project in between LCs feedings, I had to break it up and make each component separately (the choux, pastry cream, chocolate sauce, and glaze), then assemble them later.

I noted that the recipe stated that the choux could be made in advance, shaped, and then frozen. So I made that first:

While Psycling took Thea and LC for a walk, I had *just* enough time to make the choux and get it piped out onto some parchment and into the freezer. I've never made a choux before and it took a couple of tries to get it right. The first time, something seemed off. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but it just wasn't behaving the way the recipe said it should. So...I grabbed Psycling's laptop and went to the DB forums to see if anyone else had trouble with the choux (something I probably should have done *before* starting to cook), and saw that a few people had trouble with the choux leaking oil. I saw their pictures and they looked how mine was starting to look. It seems that this is the result of the milk/water mixture not being at a full, rolling boil before adding the flour. So I tossed that batch and started over. This time, I made quite sure that the liquids were at a rolling boil before adding the flour. This attempt seemed to go much better, though I was still a little nervous because a crust never formed on the bottom of my pan like the recipe said it would.

Then I went to pipe out the dough. The recipe called for using a 2 cm tip to pipe the dough into little fingers, but the largest tip I had was 1.5 cm. So, I went with it, and decided we'd just have mini eclaires. After I piped out the dough, I stuck the baking sheets in the freezer. The next day, I transfered all the little frozen choux-fingers to a zip lock freezer bag for use later.

The next day, while Psycling was holding a fussy baby, I made the chocolate sauce, which would be used in the glaze. It was pretty straight forward, and there was no real trouble there. But, it was quite yummy! We have a fair amount left over, which other DBs say is really good in chocolate milk. I'll have to give that a try!

Then I made the pastry cream, which for me ended up as more of a pudding. But it still worked, it was just thicker than I expected it to be. I have to admit to taking a little shortcut...LC was getting increasingly fussy and hungry, so I needed to finish up so I could feed him. So, I didn't strain the mixture after tempering the eggs and before putting it back on the heat. Fortunatley, everything worked well, and there were no scrambled eggs in my pastry cream. Once the pastry cream was finished, Psycling helped by "cleaning" the chocolate-covered bowls, spoons, and whisks, and I took over baby duty.

We were planning on unloading these eclaires at a labor day cook out with some friends, so on Monday, I skipped my normal afternoon nap (they say you should sleep when the baby sleeps, but that's surprisingly difficult sometimes) to bake and assemble the eclaires.

While the choux was baking, I made the glaze. It was very easy and stright forward, and also very yummy. It was basically a ganache thinned with the chocolate sauce I'd made the day before. I was a little worried about how the choux would bake up. I know that several of the DBs had trouble with the pastry either collapsing, or just not puffing at all. Because mine were smaller, they needed less cooking time than the reicpe called for, but in the end, I was very happy with how well the puffed up.

See? Nice and puffed and golden, just like they're supposed to be!

Then it came time for assembly. I sliced each eclaire in half and piped on some of the pastry cream.

I then dipped the top in the glaze, and placed it on top, then put them in the fridge until time to eat. They were a big hit at the cook out, with some guests stationing themselves next to them and just eating one after the other. There were hardly any left by the time we left, but with so many volunteers to take home any left overs, we just left them there. I would bet there weren't any left overs to take by the time all the guests left.

The verdict: these eclaires were really good, and fairly straight forward to make. I also liked it that this was a recipe that could easily be broken up and made in stages, making it easier to complete it, even if your life is controlled by the feeding schedule of a new born ;-)

Speaking of LC, look how much he's growing!

He's already 6 1/2 weeks old, and is lifting his head, smiling, gurgling and all the cute stuff babies do. Now, if only we could work on the sleep thing...

Pierre Hermé’s Chocolate Éclairs
Recipe from Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Hermé
(makes 20-24 Éclairs)

• Cream Puff Dough (see below for recipe), fresh and still warm

1) Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). Divide the oven into thirds by
positioning the racks in the upper and lower half of the oven. Line two baking sheets with
waxed or parchment paper.

2) Fill a large pastry bag fitted with a 2/3 (2cm) plain tip nozzle with the warm cream puff dough.
Pipe the dough onto the baking sheets in long, 4 to 41/2 inches (about 11 cm) chubby fingers.
Leave about 2 inches (5 cm) space in between each dough strip to allow them room to puff.
The dough should give you enough to pipe 20-24 éclairs.

3) Slide both the baking sheets into the oven and bake for 7 minutes. After the 7 minutes, slip the
handle of a wooden spoon into the door to keep in ajar. When the éclairs have been in the
oven for a total of 12 minutes, rotate the sheets top to bottom and front to back. Continue
baking for a further 8 minutes or until the éclairs are puffed, golden and firm. The total baking
time should be approximately 20 minutes.

1) The éclairs can be kept in a cool, dry place for several hours before filling.

Assembling the éclairs:

• Chocolate glaze (see below for recipe)
• Chocolate pastry cream (see below for recipe)

1) Slice the éclairs horizontally, using a serrated knife and a gently sawing motion. Set aside the
bottoms and place the tops on a rack over a piece of parchment paper.

2) The glaze should be barely warm to the touch (between 95 – 104 degrees F or 35 – 40
degrees C, as measured on an instant read thermometer). Spread the glaze over the tops of
the éclairs using a metal icing spatula. Allow the tops to set and in the meantime fill the
bottoms with the pastry cream.

3) Pipe or spoon the pastry cream into the bottoms of the éclairs. Make sure you fill the bottoms
with enough cream to mound above the pastry. Place the glazed tops onto the pastry cream
and wriggle gently to settle them.

1) If you have chilled your chocolate glaze, reheat by placing it in a bowl over simmering water,
stirring it gently with a wooden spoon. Do not stir too vigorously as you do not want to create

2) The éclairs should be served as soon as they have been filled.

Pierre Hermé’s Cream Puff Dough
Recipe from Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Hermé
(makes 20-24 Éclairs)

• ½ cup (125g) whole milk
• ½ cup (125g) water
• 1 stick (4 ounces; 115g) unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces
• ¼ teaspoon sugar
• ¼ teaspoon salt
• 1 cup (140g) all-purpose flour
• 5 large eggs, at room temperature

1) In a heavy bottomed medium saucepan, bring the milk, water, butter, sugar and salt to the

2) Once the mixture is at a rolling boil, add all of the flour at once, reduce the heat to medium
and start to stir the mixture vigorously with a wooden spoon. The dough comes together very
quickly. Do not worry if a slight crust forms at the bottom of the pan, it’s supposed to. You
need to carry on stirring for a further 2-3 minutes to dry the dough. After this time the dough
will be very soft and smooth.

3) Transfer the dough into a bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or using your
handmixer or if you still have the energy, continue by hand. Add the eggs one at a time,
beating after each egg has been added to incorporate it into the dough.
You will notice that after you have added the first egg, the dough will separate, once again do
not worry. As you keep working the dough, it will come back all together again by the time you
have added the third egg. In the end the dough should be thick and shiny and when lifted it
should fall back into the bowl in a ribbon.

4) The dough should be still warm. It is now ready to be used for the éclairs as directed above.

1) Once the dough is made you need to shape it immediately.

2) You can pipe the dough and the freeze it. Simply pipe the dough onto parchment-lined baking
sheets and slide the sheets into the freezer. Once the dough is completely frozen, transfer the
piped shapes into freezer bags. They can be kept in the freezer for up to a month.

Chocolate Pastry Cream
Recipe from Chocolate Desserts by PierreHermé

• 2 cups (500g) whole milk
• 4 large egg yolks
• 6 tbsp (75g) sugar
• 3 tablespoons cornstarch, sifted
• 7 oz (200g) bittersweet chocolate, preferably Velrhona Guanaja, melted
• 2½ tbsp (1¼ oz: 40g) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1) In a small saucepan, bring the milk to a boil. In the meantime, combine the yolks, sugar and cornstarch together and whisk in a heavy‐bottomed saucepan.

2) Once the milk has reached a boil, temper the yolks by whisking a couple spoonfuls of the hot milk into the yolk mixture.Continue whisking and slowly pour the rest of the milk into the tempered yolk mixture.

3) Strain the mixture back into the saucepan to remove any egg that may have scrambled. Place the pan over medium heat and whisk vigorously (without stop) until the mixture returns to a boil. Keep whisking vigorously for 1 to 2 more minutes (still over medium heat).Stir in the melted chocolate and then remove the pan from the heat.

4) Scrape the pastry cream into a small bowl and set it in an ice‐water bath to stop the cooking process. Make sure to continue stirring the mixture at this point so that it remains smooth.

5) Once the cream has reached a temperature of 140 F remove from the ice‐water bath and stir in the butter in three or four installments. Return the cream to the ice‐water bath to continue cooling, stirring occasionally, until it has completely cooled. The cream is now ready to use or store in the fridge.

1) The pastry cream can be made 2‐3 days in advance and stored in the refrigerator.

2) In order to avoid a skin forming on the pastry cream, cover with plastic wrap pressed onto the cream.

3) Tempering the eggs raises the temperature of the eggs slowly so that they do not scramble.

Chocolate Glaze
Recipe from Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Hermé
(makes 1 cup or 300g)

• 1/3 cup (80g) heavy cream
• 3½ oz (100g) bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
• 4 tsp (20 g) unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces, at room temperature
• 7 tbsp (110 g) Chocolate Sauce (recipe below), warm or at room temperature

1)In a small saucepan, bring the heavy cream to a boil. Remove from the heat and slowly begin to add the chocolate, stirring with a wooden spoon or spatula.

2) Stirring gently, stir in the butter, piece by piece followed by the chocolate sauce.

1) If the chocolate glaze is too cool (i.e. not liquid enough) you may heat it briefly
 in the microwave or over a double boiler. A double boiler is basically a bowl sitting over (not touching) simmering water.

2) It is best to glaze the eclairs after the glaze is made, but if you are pressed for time, you can make the glaze a couple days ahead of time, store it in the fridge and bring it up to the proper temperature (95 to 104 F) when ready to glaze.

Chocolate Sauce
Recipe from Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Hermé
(makes 1½ cups or 525 g)

• 4½ oz (130 g) bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
• 1 cup (250 g) water
• ½ cup (125 g) crème fraîche, or heavy cream
• 1/3 cup (70 g) sugar

1) Place all the ingredients into a heavy‐bottomed saucepan and bring to a boil, making sure to stir constantly. Then reduce the heat to low and continue stirring with a wooden spoon until the sauce thickens.

2) It may take 10‐15 minutes for the sauce to thicken, but you will know when it is done when it coats the back of your spoon.

1) You can make this sauce ahead of time and store it in the refrigerator for two weeks. Reheat the sauce in a microwave oven or a double boiler before using.
2) This sauce is also great for cakes, ice-cream and tarts.

Monday, August 25, 2008

CSA Bounty

I believe I mentioned that this year Psycling and I decided to join a CSA. I have really enjoyed cooking with so many wonderful fresh, local, and organic ingredients, and we have made some really good stuff! Earlier this summer, I made a wonderful meal out of the fresh patty pan sqush, cucumbers, and tomatoes that came in one of our CSA bags.

When we got such beautiful fresh tomatoes and cucumbers in the same bag, they were crying out to be turned into a tomato and cucumber salad.

Unfortunately, I don't have an actual recipe to pass on, but this was so simple to throw together that you don't really need one. I chopped up some tomatoes and cucumbers, drizzled them with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and tossed it all together. Then I topped it with some chopped basil fresh from the garden. It was delicious!

The same week we got all those gorgeous tomatoes and cukes, we got some patty pan squash, so I made Sauted Baby Squash with Basil and Feta.

Psycling isn't a huge fan of feta cheese to I used goat cheese instead...and, really, how can you go wrong with goat cheese? To go with these two wonderful vegetable dishes, I just did a simple lemon and olive oil marinade for some grilled chicken breasts. It was a perfect meal!

P.S. I apologize for the bad photos. During my pregnancy, just getting the meal made was a big accomplishment. Getting nice pictures after just wasn't happening. Hopefully, as I get back into the swing of things, I'll be able to work on my food photography, as well as my cooking!!

Monday, August 18, 2008

I saw this over at Dispensing Happiness, and thought it was neat. What to do:

1) Copy this list into your blog or journal, including these instructions.
2) Bold all the items you’ve eaten.
3) Cross out any items that you would never consider eating.
4) Optional extra: Post a comment at linking to your results.

The VGT Omnivore’s Hundred:

1. Venison
2. Nettle tea
3. Huevos rancheros
4. Steak tartare
5. Crocodile
6. Black pudding
7. Cheese fondue
8. Carp
9. Borscht
10. Baba ghanoush
11. Calamari
12. Pho
13. PB&J sandwich
14. Aloo gobi
15. Hot dog from a street cart
16. Epoisses
17. Black truffle
18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes
19. Steamed pork buns
20. Pistachio ice cream
21. Heirloom tomatoes
22. Fresh wild berries
23. Foie gras
24. Rice and beans
25. Brawn, or head cheese
26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper
27. Dulce de leche
28. Oysters
29. Baklava
30. Bagna cauda
31. Wasabi peas
32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl
33. Salted lassi
34. Sauerkraut
35. Root beer float
36. Cognac with a fat cigar
37. Clotted cream tea
38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O
39. Gumbo
40. Oxtail
41. Curried goat
42. Whole insects
43. Phaal
44. Goat’s milk
45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$120 or more
46. Fugu
47. Chicken tikka masala
48. Eel
49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut
50. Sea urchin
51. Prickly pear
52. Umeboshi
53. Abalone
54. Paneer
55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal
56. Spaetzle
57. Dirty gin martini
58. Beer above 8% ABV
59. Poutine
60. Carob chips
61. S’mores
62. Sweetbreads
63. Kaolin
64. Currywurst
65. Durian
66. Frogs’ legs
67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake
68. Haggis
69. Fried plantain
70. Chitterlings, or andouillette
71. Gazpacho
72. Caviar and blini
73. Louche absinthe
74. Gjetost, or brunost
75. Roadkill
76. Baijiu
77. Hostess Fruit Pie
78. Snail
79. Lapsang souchong
80. Bellini
81. Tom yum
82. Eggs Benedict
83. Pocky
84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant.
85. Kobe beef
86. Hare
87. Goulash
88. Flowers
89. Horse
90. Criollo chocolate
91. Spam
92. Soft shell crab
93. Rose harissa
94. Catfish
95. Mole poblano
96. Bagel and lox
97. Lobster Thermidor
98. Polenta
99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee
100. Snake

As you can see, there are very few things that I would NEVER eat. Even though I generally don't eat red meat, it's because I don't like it. But, I'm willing to try *almost* anything at least once. So what about you? Is there anything you'd NEVER eat?

*Also, I have to admit that there are some things on this list that I was unfamiliar with. Wikipedia helped broaden my food knowledge.

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Dinner A'Fare

When the Littlest Chef was born, I knew I would need time to recover before jumping back into the kitchen. So my mom went to A Dinner A'Fare and ordered several meals for us. A Dinner A'Fare is one of those meal prep stores, in which you can go in and use pre-prepped ingredients to assemble 12 meals in about two hours. Or, if you're really short on time, you can just order the meals already assembled. This is what my mom did.

I had heard about places like this, but as someone who loves to cook, I've never felt compelled to check them out. But in the couple weeks since LC was born, it has been a wonderful, and Psycling and I have been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the meals. We've had tuna steaks with a roasted red pepper sauce, chicken with mushroom alfredo, Italian shrimp wraps, chicken fingers with honey mustard sauch, hickory chicken with a plum sauce, and more that I can't even remember. And all have been very good.

I'm just now starting to feel the itch to get back into the kitchen, and I'm looking forward to getting back to meal planning based on the loot from our CSA. And while I don't see us using a service like A Dinner A'Fare on a regular basis, I would definitely recommend them if you find yourself in a situation where you need quick, easy, relatively healthy homecooked meals. And several meals pre-made would be a great gift to any new mom just finding her feet upon returning home from the hospital.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

He's Here!

The Littlest Chef (LC) has arrived! He caught us off guard and decided to enter the world two weeks early!

He was born Sunday July 20 at 11:18 am, weighing in at 7 lbs 1 oz and measuring 20.5 inches long. He is doing great, and mom and dad are falling more in love every day!

Cooking and knitting have kind of fallen off the radar, but before long, I hope to be back in the kitchen, cooking and baking for my new (larger) family.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Me as a Flickr Mosaic

I've seen this a few places in the blogosphere, and it seemed kinda fun, so I figured I'd go with it. Here's how it works:

Go to Flickr, and type in your answer to the following 12 questions in the Flickr search box. Using only the pictures returned on the first page of results, pick and image, and copy it's URL into the Big Huge Lab's Mosaic Maker.

Here is my mosaic:

And here are the questions that generated it (and my answers):

1. What is your first name? Sara

2. What is your favorite food? I had a hard time with this, but ended up going with dark chocolate. I picked this particular picture because blueberries are my favorite fruit, so what's better than chocolate with blueberries?

3. What high school did you go to? North Atlanta

4. What is your favorite color? Purple. I found it interesting to see what kinds of pictures pop up when you just search for a color. I had the hardest time choosing from this set.

5. Who is your celebrity crush? I don't really have one, but figured if I did, it would be Bono. Not only does he make amazing music, but I love how active he is in making the world a better place. And really, I'm a sucker for anyone who speaks in an Irish brogue.

6. What is your favorite drink? I had a hard time on this one too, but ended up going with dry red wine. Though gin and tonic is a close second. Not that I've been able to drink either in the past 8 months. I'm looking forward to a nice glass of wine as soon as I can!

7. What is your dream vacation? Patagonia. I've always been fascinated by it, and by Chile in general. But if I could only ever take one vacation , that would be it. Reykjavik, Iceland would be a close second.

8. What is your favorite dessert? I had to go with ice cream. I love it! I'm one of those people who will eat ice cream, no matter the weather...any kind (though love the chunky Ben & Jerry's), any time. I just love ice cream!

9. What did you want to be when you grow up? A dolphin trainer. For as long as I can remember, that's what I wanted to be. Dolphins are still my favorite animals, and I get a twinge of envy when I see the dolphin trainers doing their thing at an aquarium.

10. What do you love most in life? Unconditional love. It's amazing. Almost all the pictures that come up when you type "unconditional love" into the search function are animal pictures. I guess given how much I love animals, it made sense that I'd pick one of those.

11. What is one word that describes you? Whimsical. I loved this picture of the little girl, which was entitled whimsical. It seemed to capture all the imagination, creativity, and hope that I think are part of whimsy.

12. What is your flickr name? I don't have my own Flickr account. Psycling and I share one, and Surprise! Our user name is Psycling!! This is the only picture that comes up when you tupe "psycling" into the search function (I was searching for photos and not people) this came up. I have no idea who these two girls are, or what their association to psycling is, but I went with it.

And because I want to give credit where credit is due, here are the photo credits for my mosaic!

1. Sara Longwing, 2. Handmade chocolate cupcakes filled with blueberry cream and topped with dark chocolate ganache and some more of these absolutely delicious wild blueberries, 3. Interstate 85 North, 4. purple haze, 5. Bono @ Leonard Cohen I'm Your Man Premiere, 6. Dry red wine, 7. Cuernos del Paine, 8. Chocolate white chocolate chip cookie and vanilla bean ice cream sandwich with chocolate chip trimming, 9. Working Together, 10. Unconditional Love II, 11. Whimsical, 12. The birthday girl

So if this looks fun to you, go for it. And because photos get uploaded and tagged so quickly, the mosaic you make today could look quite different from the one you make next week.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Creamy Goat Cheese Pasta with Squash

I scan many different food blogs...mostly for new ideas for things to cook and bake. But, even though there's LOTS out there that looks yummy, I'm actually pretty selective about which recipes I "star" in my google reader. If my only criteria is "that looks yummy" I'd star more in a day than I could make in a month. So I really try to limit to the recipes I think I will actually make (and I *try* to be realistic in this assessment...).

All this lead-up is to say that the other day, I found a recipe on Cupcake Muffin for Creamy Goat Cheese Pasta with Zucchini and Sausage. Given that I love love love goat cheese, and it looked like a simple weeknight meal, I starred it. Later that day, I went to pick up our CSA bag and discovered some gorgeous yellow summer squash!! I knew immediately that it was destined for this recipe!

I made a couple of slight modifications, based on what I had on hand...though to be honest, many fewer modifications than I might normally make to a recipe. I have to say, it was really good (and with all that goat cheese, how could it not be?). In my opinion, the freshness of our straight-from-the-farm squash made a huge difference in this dish. I can honestly say, it is the best squash I have ever had! Psycling and I both really enjoyed it, thought we also had different assessments of it. For instance, I thought the hot sausage almost overwhelmed the delicate taste of the squash, and thought it might have been better with mild sausage (or at least a mix of the two). Psycling, on the other hand, thought that the spiciness of the hot sausage added a punch to the dish that was critical, and that maybe it would be too bland with out it. Either way, we both quite enjoyed the meal!

I'll put my "tweaks" in italics. The tweaks I made were based almost solely on making the dish with what I had on hand, to avoid a shopping trip and make a quick and easy weeknight meal.

Creamy Goat Cheese Pasta with Zucchini and Sausage (adapted from Fine Cooking)
Serves 3

Kosher salt
1/2 lb. dried rigatoni (I used penne since it was what I had on hand)
1/2 lb. hot Italian sausage (I used turkey sausage)
2 medium shallots, finely chopped (I used leeks, since we also got those in our CSA bag)
1 1/2 cups yellow and green summer squash, cut into 3/4 inch dice (I just used the yellow summer squash from our CSA bag)
3 oz. fresh goat cheese, crumbled
1 tsp finely chopped parsley (I added a little bit of chopped fresh oregano too...I had some, and thought it would taste did!)
Freshly ground black pepper
Parmigiano-Reggiano to serve (I actually left this out...I may have used a little extra goat cheese, and the pasta seemed cheesy enough without the parm. It may have been good with the extra cheese, but I didn't miss it at all.)

So there you have it. For a quick and delicious weeknight meal, this recipe definitely deserves a star. I would highly recommend giving it a try, and tweak it based on what you have on hand. I bet it will still be yummy!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Oprea, anyone?

This month, our Daring Baker's hostesses Lis and Ivonne treated us to an opera...cake, that is. While I may have once or twice heard the term "Opera Cake," I really had no idea what it was. Fortunately, they provided a very thorough description. For those who are as clueless as I was, an Opera Cake is

"an extremely elegant and polished French dessert that is believed to have been created around the beginning of the 1900s. Many people credit a gentleman by the name of Louis Clichy with inventing the cake and that's why it's sometimes referred to as Clichy's a cake that is made up (usually) of five components: a joconde (a cake layer), a syrup (to wet the joconde), a buttercream (to fill some of the layers), a ganache or mousse (to top the final cake layer) and a glaze (to cover the final layer of cake or of ganache/mousse)."

Clearly I had my work cut out for me. if this wasn't challenging enough, Lis and Ivonne decided to throw in another twist:

"Traditionally, a joconde is flavoured with darker flavours such as chocolate or coffee. But in honour of the season (spring in our neck of the woods) and as part of our decision to tie our posts in with the LiveSTRONG theme, we are making Opéra Cakes that are light in both colour and flavour."

Wow. After some pondering, I decided to make a lemon and raspberry opera cake. I wanted a lemon flavor cake, with the raspberry butter cream. Being close to 8 months pregnant, I knew that I was going to have to break this challenge up into smaller pieces if I was going to complete it. So on a Monday, I made the syrup, flavored with just a little vanilla extract to enhance the lemon and raspberry I was planning. Because this was a simple syurp, it was, well, simple, and within about 1o minutes, I had step one done!

On Tuesday, I made the mousse:

As you can see, the ingredients were quite simple...cream, white chocolate, and to make it that much more decadent, a splash of Godiva White Chocolate liqueur. The cream whipped up nicely in my kitchen aid, while the white chocolate (with more cream) melted. I added my splash of Godiva and folded everything together, and before too long, I had a very rich white chocolate mousse. Step two was done.

Friday came step three: the jaconde.

The jaconde is kind of a cross between a cake and an almond biscuit. In fact, as I did a little more research on Opera Cakes, I discovered that some people refer to the joconde layer as an almond biscuit. It was certainly unlike any cake I'd made before. There is very little flour, and uses almond meal instead (that's what's in the food processor). It also uses mostly confectioners sugar, and only a little bit of regular sugar.

Making the jaconde starts with whipping up some egg whites.

I think I may have whipped them a little bit beyond the "stiff peaks" stage, what do you think? Fortunately, it still worked for me. After that, I beat the almond meal, confectioners sugar, and egg until nice and light, before adding the flour. Then it was time to add my secret ingredients: lemon zest and lemon juice! This was to make my lemon jaconde. I then folded this mixture in with my overly stiff egg whites, and had a very airy batter to spread on my jelly roll pan.

Because my pan was slightly bigger than the one called for in the recipe, my cakes were a little thinner than the might have been otherwise. But I didn't worry (especially after looking at pictures of other oprea cakes) because the jaconde layer is supposed to be thin. It seems that the butter cream and mouse are the stars of the show!

See, look how thin! But, either way, step 3 was done!

Saturday was reserved for the final two elements and assembly of the cake. The day ended up being busier than expected, so I didn't really get any pictures of steps 4 & 5. I started on my butter cream late Saturday morning. I made the basic butter cream, but then folded in some pureed raspberries. My plan was to strain the raspberry puree to get the seeds out, but 1) I was running low on time, and 2) I felt justified being a little lazy given my physical state. So the seeds stayed in (no one seemed to notice or mind, by the way!). But after folding in the raspberries I gave it a taste and it was exactly what I was aiming for. I'd never tried folding something into butter cream like this, so I was a little unsure if the finished product would at all resemble what I was hoping for. However, I was not disappointed.

I then started layering my opera cake...jaconde, butter cream, jaconde, butter cream, jaconde, mousse. At this stage, the cake went into the fridge to chill, and allow the butter cream layers to firm up and set. Fast forward a couple of hours, and I pull the cake out of the oven just in time to head over to a friends for a Memorial Day Weekend cookout. Once we got there, I made the white chocolate glaze, poured it over the cake, and put it back in the fridge to chill until time for dessert. The happy guests got to pull out spoons and eat the left over glaze.

After our amazing meal, it was time to serve the cake!

The guests seemed to really like it (and took some of the left overs home), but Psycling and I thought it was just OK. For us, it was just too sweet. The jaconde layer itself (especially doused in the syrup) was quite sweet, and that was compounded but the sweetness of the two white chocolate layers (mousse and glaze). In fact, the jaconde was so sweet that even the lemon added to it couldn't cut it. In fact, we could hardly taste the lemon. It really tasted like a white chocolate-raspberry cake. Not that there's anything wrong with that, it just wasn't what I was hoping for. After trying this cake, I can understand why an Opera Cake is traditionally made with chocolate and/or coffee flavoring. The inherent bitterness of those two flavors would really complement the sweetness of the jaconde. I think I would have enjoyed a traditional opera cake much more. But with that said, the cake wasn't bad, and I do think it was a good challenge. It definitely forced me outside of my norm or my comfort zone, and I did learn quite a bit from completing this challenge.

Unfortunately, this may have been my last Daring Baker's Challenge for a while. It really took a toll on my pregnant body, and I can't imagine doing it again in a month. But we'll see. But when ever I do my next DB challenge, whether it's next month, or several months from now after settling into a routine with our new family of 3, I'm looking forward to it.

For those of you who made it all the way through, and would like to try to make your own opera cake, here is the basic recipe (feel free to tweak and flavor to suit your tastes):

A Taste of Light: Opéra Cake

This recipe is based on Opéra Cake recipes in Dorie Greenspan’s Paris Sweets and Tish Boyle and Timothy Moriarty’s Chocolate Passion.

For the joconde

(Note: The joconde can be made up to 1 day in advance and kept wrapped at room temperate)

What you’ll need:

•2 12½ x 15½-inch (31 x 39-cm) jelly-roll pans (Note: If you do not have jelly-roll pans this size, do not fear! You can use different-sized jelly-roll pans like 10 x 15-inches.)
•a few tablespoons of melted butter (in addition to what’s called for in the ingredients’ list) and a brush (to grease the pans)
•parchment paper
•a whisk and a paddle attachment for a stand mixer or for a handheld mixer
•two mixing bowls (you can make do with one but it’s preferable to have two)


6 large egg whites, at room temperature
2 tbsp. (30 grams) granulated sugar
2 cups (225 grams) ground blanched almonds (Note: If you do not want to use almond meal, you can use another nut meal like hazelnut. You can buy almond meal in bulk food stores or health food stores, or you can make it at home by grinding almonds in the food processor with a tablespoon or two of the flour that you would use in the cake. The reason you need the flour is to prevent the almonds from turning oily or pasty in the processor. You will need about 2 cups of blanched almonds to create enough almond meal for this cake.)
2 cups icing sugar, sifted
6 large eggs
½ cup (70 grams) all-purpose flour
3 tbsp. (1½ ounces; 45 grams) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

1.Divide the oven into thirds by positioning a rack in the upper third of the oven and the lower third of the oven.

2.Preheat the oven to 425◦F. (220◦C).

3.Line two 12½ x 15½- inch (31 x 39-cm) jelly-roll pans with parchment paper and brush with melted butter.

4.In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or using a handheld mixer), beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Add the granulated sugar and beat until the peaks are stiff and glossy. If you do not have another mixer bowl, gently scrape the meringue into another bowl and set aside.

5.If you only have one bowl, wash it after removing the egg whites or if you have a second bowl, use that one. Attach the paddle attachment to the stand mixer (or using a handheld mixer again) and beat the almonds, icing sugar and eggs on medium speed until light and voluminous, about 3 minutes.

6.Add the flour and beat on low speed until the flour is just combined (be very careful not to overmix here!!!).

7.Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the meringue into the almond mixture and then fold in the melted butter. Divide the batter between the pans and spread it evenly to cover the entire surface of each pan.

8.Bake the cake layers until they are lightly browned and just springy to the touch. This could take anywhere from 5 to 9 minutes depending on your oven. Place one jelly-roll pan in the middle of the oven and the second jelly-roll pan in the bottom third of the oven.

9.Put the pans on a heatproof counter and run a sharp knife along the edges of the cake to loosen it from the pan. Cover each with a sheet of parchment or wax paper, turn the pans over, and unmold.

10.Carefully peel away the parchment, then turn the parchment over and use it to cover the cakes. Let the cakes cool to room temperature.

For the syrup

(Note: The syrup can be made up to 1 week in advance and kept covered in the refrigerator.)

What you’ll need:

•a small saucepan


½ cup (125 grams) water
⅓ cup (65 grams) granulated sugar
1 to 2 tbsp. of the flavouring of your choice (i.e., vanilla extract, almond extract, cognac, limoncello, coconut cream, honey etc.)

1.Stir all the syrup ingredients together in the saucepan and bring to a boil.

2.Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature.

For the buttercream

(Note: The buttercream can be made up to 1 month in advance and packed in an airtight container. If made way in advance, you can freeze the buttercream. Alternatively you can refrigerate it for up to 4 days after making it. To use the buttercream simply bring it to room temperature and then beat it briefly to restore its consistency.)

What you’ll need:

•a small saucepan
•a candy or instant-read thermometer
•a stand mixer or handheld mixer
•a bowl and a whisk attachment
•rubber spatula


1 cup (100 grams) granulated sugar
¼ cup (60 grams) water
seeds of one vanilla bean (split a vanilla bean down the middle and scrape out the seeds) or 1 tbsp. pure vanilla extract (Note: If you are flavouring your buttercream and do not want to use the vanilla, you do not have to. Vanilla will often enhance other flavours but if you want an intense, one-flavoured buttercream, then by all means leave it out!)
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1¾ sticks (7 ounces; 200 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
flavouring of your choice (a tablespoon of an extract, a few tablespoons of melted white chocolate, citrus zest, etc.)

1.Combine the sugar, water and vanilla bean seeds or extract in a small saucepan and warm over medium heat just until the sugar dissolves.

2.Continue to cook, without stirring, until the syrup reaches 225◦F (107◦C) [*Note: Original recipe indicates a temperature of 255◦F (124◦C), however, when testing the recipe I found that this was too high so we heated to 225◦F and it worked fine] on a candy or instant-read thermometer. Once it reaches that temperature, remove the syrup from the heat.

3.While the syrup is heating, begin whisking the egg and egg yolk at high speed in the bowl of your mixer using the whisk attachment. Whisk them until they are pale and foamy.

4.When the sugar syrup reaches the correct temperature and you remove it from the heat, reduce the mixer speed to low speed and begin slowly (very slowly) pouring the syrup down the side of the bowl being very careful not to splatter the syrup into the path of the whisk attachment. Some of the syrup will spin onto the sides of the bowl but don’t worry about this and don’t try to stir it into the mixture as it will harden!

5.Raise the speed to medium-high and continue beating until the eggs are thick and satiny and the mixture is cool to the touch (about 5 minutes or so).

6.While the egg mixture is beating, place the softened butter in a bowl and mash it with a spatula until you have a soft creamy mass.

7.With the mixer on medium speed, begin adding in two-tablespoon chunks. When all the butter has been incorporated, raise the mixer speed to high and beat until the buttercream is thick and shiny.

8.At this point add in your flavouring and beat for an additional minute or so.

9.Refrigerate the buttercream, stirring it often, until it’s set enough (firm enough) to spread when topped with a layer of cake (about 20 minutes).

For the white chocolate ganache/mousse (this step is optional)

(Note: The mousse can be made ahead and refrigerated until you’re ready to use it.)

What you’ll need:

•a small saucepan
•a mixer or handheld mixer


7 ounces white chocolate
1 cup plus 3 tbsp. heavy cream (35% cream)
1 tbsp. liquer of your choice (Bailey’s, Amaretto, etc.)

1.Melt the white chocolate and the 3 tbsp. of heavy cream in a small saucepan.
2.Stir to ensure that it’s smooth and that the chocolate is melted. Add the tablespoon of liqueur to the chocolate and stir. Set aside to cool completely.
3.In the bowl of a stand mixer, whip the remaining 1 cup of heavy cream until soft peaks form.
4.Gently fold the whipped cream into the cooled chocolate to form a mousse.
5.If it’s too thin, refrigerate it for a bit until it’s spreadable.
6.If you’re not going to use it right away, refrigerate until you’re ready to use.

For the glaze
(Note: It’s best to make the glaze right when you’re ready to finish the cake.)

What you’ll need:

•a small saucepan or double boiler


14 ounces white chocolate, coarsely chopped
½ cup heavy cream (35% cream)

1.Melt the white chocolate with the heavy cream. Whisk the mixture gently until smooth.
2.Let cool for 10 minutes and then pour over the chilled cake. Using a long metal cake spatula, smooth out into an even layer.
3.Place the cake into the refrigerator for 30 minutes to set.

Assembling the Opéra Cake

(Note: The finished cake should be served slightly chilled. It can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 1 day).

Line a baking sheet with parchment or wax paper.

Working with one sheet of cake at a time, cut and trim each sheet so that you have two pieces (from each cake so you’ll have four pieces in total): one 10-inch (25-cm) square and one 10 x 5-inch (25 x 12½-cm) rectangle.

Step A (if using buttercream only and not making the ganache/mousse):

Place one square of cake on the baking sheet and moisten it gently with the flavoured syrup.

Spread about one-third of the buttercream over this layer.

Top with the two rectangular pieces of cake, placing them side by side to form a square. Moisten these pieces with the flavoured syrup.

Spread another third of the buttercream on the cake and then top with the third square of joconde. Use the remaining syrup to wet the joconde. Spread the remaining buttercream on top of the final layer of joconde and then refrigerate until very firm (at least half an hour).

Make the glaze and after it has cooled, pour/spread it over the top of the chilled cake. Refrigerate the cake again to set the glaze.

Serve the cake slightly chilled. This recipe will yield approximately 20 servings.

Step B (if making the ganache/mousse):

Place one square of cake on the baking sheet and moisten it gently with the flavoured syrup.

Spread about three-quarters of the buttercream over this layer.

Top with the two rectangular pieces of cake, placing them side by side to form a square. Moisten these pieces with the flavoured syrup.

Spread the remaining buttercream on the cake and then top with the third square of joconde. Use the remaining syrup to wet the joconde and then refrigerate until very firm (at least half an hour).

Prepare the ganache/mousse (if you haven’t already) and then spread it on the top of the last layer of the joconde. Refrigerate for at least two to three hours to give the ganache/mousse the opportunity to firm up.

Make the glaze and after it has cooled, pour/spread it over the top of the chilled cake. Refrigerate the cake again to set the glaze.

Serve the cake slightly chilled. This recipe will yield approximately 20 servings.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day Cook-Out

What better way to celebrate a long weekend than with a cook-out? This weekend, Psycling and I went over to a friend's house for a Tech Chefs Memorial Day cookout. There were only 5 of us there, but seemingly enough food to feed about 30!

The main course was Beer Butt Chicken. We had two 5-lb chickens, which were rubbed inside and out with a rub composed of 1:1:1 paprika:sea salt:brown sugar with a little black pepper added in as well. Next, you drink (or pour out) half a can of beer, and throw a few Tbs. of the rub into the remaining beer. Then (excuse my vulgarity) you stick the can of beer up the chicken's butt.

You then very carefully move the chickens (keeping them upright) to the grill, where you set them over indirect heat, and adjust the legs so that the legs and beer can form a "tripod" to keep the chicken upright while cooking. See our chicken "tripods"?

Then, the chickens cook over indirect heat, with a grill temp of about 350F - 400F for about an hour, or until a thermometer inserted deep into the meatiest parts of the chicken register 180 degrees. At this point, you remove the chicken from the grill, and remove the beer can from the chicken's butt (this was a two person person to use tongs and a meat fork to hold the chicken, and another to use a second pair of tongs to remove the beer can).

While the chicken was the main attraction, we had so much other food, and a very crowded grill.

Along with the chickens you see our chili-rubbed corn and our grilled onions. THis is one of my favorite ways to make corn, and it comes from my Williams-Sonoma Seasonal Cookbook. For six ears of corn, you need:

2 Tbs. melted butter
1 tsp. chili powder
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/4 tsp. (or less to taste) cayenne pepper
salt and pepper

1. Peel husks back and remove corn silk. Pull husks back up over corn cobs and soak for about 20 minutes.

2. Mix together melted butter and spices. After soaking corn, brush each ear of corn with spiced butter mixture and pull husks back up over corn. Wrap each ear in aluminum foil.

3. Place on grill and cook for about 15 minutes, or until done.

But I saved the best for last...the grilled onions! By far the best onions I have ever had!! I'm glad I watched the preparation of these because I will definitely be making them again. Peel the onions, and cut a flat surface on both the bottom and the top.

Then, you cut a hole in the top of the onion, as you can (kinda) see in the picture above. Then fill each hole with bullion granules (we used beef...if I make these on my own, I'll probably use chicken, but any kind of bullion will work). Then top off with 1.5 - 2 Tbs. butter. Wrap each onion individually in aluminum foil and place on the grill for about 20-30 minutes, or until nice and soft and tender (you can test with tongs so as not to burn yourself). To eat, place the onion in a bowl with all it's wonderful juices and enjoy the best tasting onion you've ever had in your life!!

I wish I'd taken a picture of the table before we all dug in. In addition to the two chickens, the corn and the onions, we had a fruit salad, a potato salad (with sweet potatoes...yummy!), and a vinegar based slaw made from some cabbage fresh from our CSA share last week. And all this for just 5 people. But, by the time we sat down to eat, there was no time for photographing! We were starving, and couldn't wait to dig in. It was an amazing meal! One I will remember for a long time...and that has set the bar really high for future cook outs!

As for our'll just have to check back on May 28 to see what the Daring Bakers had in store for us this month ;-).