Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Tuesdays with Dorie: Chocolate Cream Tart

Oh, Chocolate Cream Tart, I wanted to love you. I thought I would love you. But I guess we're just not meant to be together.
See, usually I'm a big ole chocolate freak. I'm always adding extra ounces of chocolate to recipes, or sneaking in an extra layer of chocolate ganache, or stuffing my mouth with chocolate while making a nutritious dinner...ahem. But this tart was...can it be..I didn't even think this was possible...too chocolatey for me.
Something about the combination of not-very-sweet chocolate tart dough, and the SUPER INTENSELY CHOCOLATELY pastry cream (it's true, capital letters wouldn't lie) and then the barely sweetened whipped cream on top made it all too much for me. I didn't think it tasted bad, but I wasn't able to eat a whole slice of it.
It's funny--I love chocolate, but I never really like chocolate tart dough. I just think it's unnecessary! It's like, if you're going to make a dessert chocolate flavored, go ahead and use real chocolate instead of a dough with a few spoonfuls of cocoa powder. Quit pretending and man up. Even weirder, I actually really loved the taste of the unbaked dough (maybe a little too much, since I barely had enough to make the shell. *innocent whistling*) But once it was baked and composed with the other elements, it kind of lost me.
If I were to do this again, I would use a regular sweet tart dough, and fold in a little whipped cream to the chocolate pastry cream to lighten it a bit. And I would definitely sweetenen the cream on top a bit more. I can also see this being nice with another flavor element--maybe a drizzle of raspberry coulis, or the addition of a coconut cream layer, or topped with caramelized bananas, or studded with toasted hazelnuts for a Nutella vibe. SOMETHING. But as it was, it was too much of a good thing, which I didn't even think was possible when it came to chocolate.

My world, it is upended.


Sunday, April 26, 2009

Daring Bakers Challenge: Just Say Cheesecake

Lately I have started to suspect an ugly truth about myself. No matter how much I like to think the opposite, it is possible that my heart is not into being a Daring Baker. (Note the very important capital letters. I will forever be a daring baker--many burned pans and discarded desserts will attest to that--but I have my doubts about my membership in this baking group.) I just haven't been excited about the monthly challenges lately. I skipped last month, and I was strongly tempted to skip this month as well. Which, if you are familiar with the stringent DB rules, is kind of a big no-no, without a doctor's note or a phone call from Mom. So, out of a sense of guilt and obligation, I decided to participate in this month's challenge: Abbey's Infamous Cheesecake.

I would describe my general attitude towards cheesecake as profound apathy. If cheesecake was a pupil of mine, I would give it a solid C, maybe a C+ if it put in some extra credit at the end of the semester. If cheesecake was a contestant on American Idol and I was Randy Jackson, I would say it was "aiiiiight, dawg." If cheesecake and I were stranded on a desert island, I would first eat all the tropical fruit I could shake down from the surrounding trees, then eat the cheesecake, then begin eyeing any fellow unfortunate castaways. You get the idea. Add to this the fact that my usually hungry hungry hubby hates cheesecake, and it just never makes an appearance in my kitchen.

However, for this challenge we were given a lot of creative freedom and told to go crazy with our cheesecake flavors, so I sat down and did a little cheesecake math.

And you know, I actually think the end product was fairly tasty! High praise, I know. But keep in mind this is a major upgrade from cheesecake's usually "moderately passable" status.

My first change was to cut the recipe by 1/3. I hate, hate, hate really tall cheesecakes. It's so overwhelming to be served this massive slab of rock-hard cheesecake as big as my head. Maybe it's the baker in me, but I end up looking at these wedges of mile-high cheesecake and calculating how many ounces of cream cheese must be in there...and how many calories that adds up to...and pretty soon I'm carrying ones and moving decimal places and ending up with really, really big numbers that put me off dessert for the night. So! A slim, trim cheesecake it is.

Next order of business is to give it some flavor. I know there are purists who love the unadulterated taste of cream cheese, maybe with just a little lemon juice or vanilla, but unless that stuff is slathered on a hot toasted bagel, I need me some flavorings. I decided to do a twist on a turtle cheesecake. I added chopped Mexican chocolate to the crust, and I swirled melted bittersweet chocolate, cinnamon, and cayenne into half of the cheesecake batter. I topped the whole thing with a creamy caramel sauce and sweet and spicy candied pecans.

The end result was really, really nice. I liked that only half of the batter had the flavoring, so that it wasn't overwhelmingly chocolatey or spicy. But there was enough chocolate and spice to add depth and just a little bit of a kick. The caramel added a dark sweetness, and the pecans brought a much-needed crunch to the silky cheesecake. (A note about the texture--this is a really beautiful, smooth cheesecake. I used a food processor to make it, which I think helps eliminate any lumpiness, but I think the water bath and the cream also contribute. It's a really solid recipe.)

And also, I know this is superficial, but it photographed beautifully. The swirls turned out nice (although not as nice as I imagined them in my head, sigh), the caramel sauce was workin' its way down the sides like a champ, and the pecans were, as my friend Tyra Banks would say, fierce. And let's face it, these challenges always have an element of the beauty pagent to them anyway, so why not embrace it?

Work it, girl.

So, I guess I'm Daring for at least another month. Thanks to Jenny from Jenny Bakes for choosing this recipe and allowing me to reconsider my cheesecake apathy. I would give this here cheesecake at least a B+ on its final exam. If this cheesecake was on American Idol and I was Paula Abdul, I would say, "You can't put a porcupine in a barn, light it on fire, and expect to make licorice." (Well, it's not my fault Paula never makes sense.) I might even eat it before the tropical fruit on the desert island.

Boilerplate: The April 2009 challenge is hosted by Jenny from Jenny Bakes. She has chosen Abbey's Infamous Cheesecake as the challenge. Keep reading to get all the recipes...

Sweet & Spicy Candied Pecans

2 cups raw pecan halves or pieces
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
3 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

1. Spread the nuts on a baking sheet and roast in a 350 degree oven for 12 minutes, stirring once for even toasting.

2. In a medium bowl, mix together the melted butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, cayenne, and maple syrup. Add the warm nutsand salt, and stir until the nuts are completely coated.

3. Spread the mixture back on the baking sheet and return to the oven for 10 minutes, stirring twice during cooking. Remove from oven and cool completely, separating the nuts as they cool.

Creamy Caramel Sauce
Adapted from Sherry Yard's The Secrets of Baking

1/4 cup water
1 cup sugar
2 T light corn syrup
1/2 cup heavy cream, heated to 100 degrees
1/4 cup full fat sour cream
1 T sugar
1/2 tsp fresh lemon juice
Pinch of salt

1. Wash and dry your hands. Combine the water, 1 cup sugar, and corn syrup in a large saucepan. Stir them together with your fingers, making sure no lumps of dry sugar remain. Brush down the inside of the pan with a little water.

2. Cover the saucepan and place over medium heat for 4 minutes. Then, remove the lid, increase heat to high, and bring to a boil. Do not stir. The mixture should be very bubbly. When sugar crystals appear on the side of the pan, brush them down with a clean, wet pastry brush.

3. The bubbles should get larger as the sugar cooks. When the temperature reaches 300 degrees on an instant read thermometer, reduce heat to medium to slow the cooking process. Continue cooking until the caramel reaches 350 degrees, and then remove from the heat and let sit 1 minute, or until the bubbles have subsided.

4. Add the cream very carefully as it will bubble vigorously. Whisk to combine. Vigorously whisk in the sour cream, sugar, lemon juice, and salt. The sauce can be served warm or cool.

Abbey's Infamous Cheesecake
My changes are in bold, and I used 2/3 of the recipe to get a smaller cheesecake, but I've included the full recipe here.

2 cups / 180 g graham cracker crumbs
1 stick / 4 oz butter, melted
2 tbsp. / 24 g sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 ounces finely chopped Mexican chocolate (I used Ibarra brand)

3 sticks of cream cheese, 8 oz each (total of 24 oz) room temperature
1 cup / 210 g sugar
3 large eggs
1 cup / 8 oz heavy cream
1 tbsp. vanilla extract (or the innards of a vanilla bean)
3 ounces melted bittersweet chocolate
Dash cinnamon
Dash cayenne

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (Gas Mark 4 = 180C = Moderate heat). Begin to boil a large pot of water for the water bath.

2. Mix together the crust ingredients and press into your preferred pan. You can press the crust just into the bottom, or up the sides of the pan too - baker's choice. Set crust aside.

3. Combine cream cheese and sugar in the bowl of a stand-mixer (or in a large bowl if using a hand-mixer) and cream together until smooth. [I used a food processor]. Add eggs, one at a time, fully incorporating each before adding the next. Make sure to scrape down the bowl in between each egg. Add heavy cream and vanilla and blend until smooth and creamy. Separate the batter in half and mix half with the melted chocolate, cinnamon, and cayenne to taste.

4. Pour batter into prepared crust in batches and swirl together with a knife. Tap the pan on the counter a few times to bring all air bubbles to the surface. Place pan into a larger pan and pour boiling water into the larger pan until halfway up the side of the cheesecake pan. If cheesecake pan is not airtight, cover bottom securely with foil before adding water.

5. Bake 45 to 55 minutes, until it is almost done - this can be hard to judge, but you're looking for the cake to hold together, but still have a lot of jiggle to it in the center. You don't want it to be completely firm at this stage. Close the oven door, turn the heat off, and let rest in the cooling oven for one hour. This lets the cake finish cooking and cool down gently enough so that it won't crack on the top. After one hour, remove cheesecake from oven and lift carefully out of water bath. Let it finish cooling on the counter, and then cover and put in the fridge to chill. Once fully chilled, it is ready to serve.

Pan note: The creator of this recipe used to use a springform pan, but no matter how well she wrapped the thing in tin foil, water would always seep in and make the crust soggy. Now she uses one of those 1-use foil "casserole" shaped pans from the grocery store. They're 8 or 9 inches wide and really deep, and best of all, water-tight. When it comes time to serve, just cut the foil away.

Prep notes: While the actual making of this cheesecake is a minimal time commitment, it does need to bake for almost an hour, cool in the oven for an hour, and chill overnight before it is served. Please plan accordingly!


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Tuesdays with Dorie: Chocolate Bread Pudding

My name is Elizabeth, and I'm a bread pudding-holic.

Hi, Elizabeth!

I first experimented with bread pudding in college, at a cozy restaurant called The Press in Claremont. I enjoyed it and ordered it on a regular basis, but I was able to control my intake and considered my bread pudding consumption to be at a healthy level. I was what you might call a recreational bread pudding eater.

My actual addiction started a few months ago, when we introduced bread pudding to our menu at the bakery. Our bread pudding is made with toasted croissants, soaked in a vanilla and almond-scented custard and baked with semi-sweet chocolate chunks until golden and crunchy on top, and moist inside. Making bread pudding involves mixing the bread in with the custard by hand, so I constantly found myself elbow-deep in huge bowls of soaking croissants. The first time I made it, I gave myself a little taste, purely as a quality-control measure, you understand.

I was immediately hooked. When first mixed, the croissants retain much of their texture, so you get buttery, slightly crunchy bread soaked with a sweet vanilla-almond liquid. The contrast of tastes and textures is amazing. I had one, two, three bites at a time. I literally couldn't put it down...and this was the unbaked mixture! Soon all I could think about was my next bread pudding fix. If I didn't have any for several days I became nervous and irritable, jonesing for my next bite of that sweet sweet nectar.

I would like to say that I've recovered, but the truth is that I'm still in the throes of addiction, and this week's TWD recipe didn't help matters. I love bread pudding so much, I'm not even put off when it comes out of the oven looking like the vomit of Satan:

Seriously, could there be a more unappetizing picture in the history of desserts? Matters improve only slightly with a cosmetic dusting of powdered sugar:

On to the recipe itself. In my extensive bread pudding baking experience, I would say that this recipe is in the Top 5 of those I have tried. It's much wetter than most bread puddings I've made in the past, and I thought the addition of a water bath was unique (and maybe unnecessary?). If I were to make it again, I'd cut the liquid by at least 1/3 and try omitting the water bath, to simplify the recipe. I added chunks of chocolate to the bread, and I liked the resulting pockets of chocolate in the pudding, but I wished for more texture, so next time I might add toasted pecans or walnuts.

Dorie recommends eating it cold, but I liked it much better warm, actually--and it reheated like a dream. I used croissants in mine, since they were easier to find than brioche, but I think brioche might have kept its texture better with all that liquid, so I'll try and track down brioche next time. Still, the croissants performed admirably:
I tried to eat as much of this bread pudding as possible, going by the theory that I would get so sick of it, it would cure my addiction. I am sorry to report that this course of action didn't work, and I was left with an empty bread pudding dish, a full stomach, and an intense craving a mere 12 hours later. However, I am currently 2 days clean and am trying to live one day at a time. Thank you all for your support.

[Confidential to my fellow LA-ites: I must warn you about the worst bread pudding I've ever had. Last month I had the misfortune to try some from a Santa Monica restaurant that shall remain nameless, but it starts with an "H" and ends with an "uckleberry Cafe," and it is, believe it or not,well known for its bread pudding. Unfortunately, the bread pudding was more like a bread flan, it was so extremely eggy. And it was not sweet, at ALL, so the end result was like the mutant baby of a sponge, an omelet, and chewy paste. Am I conveying how awful this was? To add insult to injury, nearby tables were happily gumming their way through this bread pudding, and no doubt rushing home to yelp about how rad and retro it is and lure more innocents into paying for the privilege of not eating it. Consider yourselves warned.]


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Tuesdays with Dorie: Chocolate Amaretti Torte

Today on Wild Culinary Kingdom, we study the elusive Amaretti cookie. Amaretti cookies, being naturally shy, are difficult to spot in the wild. Their endangered status makes them a rare sighting indeed, especially in the bustling metropolis of Los Angeles. If you are lucky enough to find one, approach it with caution, and do not make any sudden moves or loud noises. Once you are within touching distance, quickly reach out and grab the cookie package, and purchase it immediately. You will find that these rare Italian cookies make a truly wonderful chocolate torte.
Yes, this week's recipe was my first introduction to amaretti cookies. I traveled many a frustrating mile looking for a store that sells them, finally ending up at a random Italian deli in Burbank that carried not one, not two, but a half-dozen different brands. I decided to shell out the big bucks for the pricier, but recommended, Lazzaroni brand. I can't say how they compare to other amaretti, but I will say that they have a really strong almond flavor and a great crunchy texture. I didn't particularly like them on their own, but I certainly liked what they added to the cake!

This cake was, as promised, very fast to prepare. Just a few minutes in the food processor was all it took to bring the batter together. Because it was so slim, the baking time was fast, and even the process of glazing and decorating only took a few minutes.
It doesn't have the showiness of a towering layer cake, but I think this thin, sleek cake has a certain sophistication of its own. I especially loved how shiny the glaze was, giving the top a mirror finish that really enhanced the photos. This cake is still in the running towards becoming America's. Next. Top. Dessert.

I finished the top with a sprinkling of gold luster dust. I've been dying to get some gold leaf to decorate my chocolate cakes with (love that effect) but I can never bring myself to pay for it. Newsflash: gold leaf is seriously expensive! Go figure.
And the taste! I was afraid it would be way too almondy, as the cookies had almost an overpowering almond (or almond extract) taste. But I thought the balance between chocolate and almond was actually quite nice. The texture was dense and silky smooth, not too fudgy or sticky, just like a good flourless chocolate cake should be. Next time I might serve it with more whipped cream on the side, to lighten it a bit, but overall it was just about perfect.


Thursday, April 09, 2009

Baby, You Can Eat My Car

In these troubled economic times, people just want to save money. They shop at discount stores, quit frivolous spending, and drive teensy, fuel-efficient vehicles. Oh yes, and commission giant cakes in the shape of said vehicles. Ah, America.

It was recently the first anniversary of Smart Car's introduction to the American car market. A celebration was held that involved a parade of hundreds of the smallest, cutest cars you've ever seen, and this big (but equally cute) Smart Car cake.

Most of it is covered in fondant, but some of the details are actually plastic--the wheels, for instance, and the rear view mirrors.

You expected anything less from a Beverly Hills-based party?

I wish I could take credit for the car, but my boss, Esti--fondant fairy extraordinaire--actually did all the work. I served as creative muse, cheerer-upper, and birthday-plaque-writer-oner. All vital jobs!


Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Tuesdays With Dorie: Banana Cream Pie

Banana. [Pastry] Cream. Pie. Three things that I'm not usually psyched to see on my dessert plate. But, through the alchemy of Dorie Pixie Magic and a limitless love of sweets, no matter how mediocre, I ended up thinking this pie was pretty darn good.

I made a half recipe and made two mini deep-dish pies, because I was expecting us not to like this much and didn't want to commit to a whole full-sized pie. I've actually never made a banana cream pie before (see above re: not liking the ingredients) but I gather that this recipe was fairly typical. The only changes between this and a typical banana cream pie were that the pastry cream was slightly spiced, and the whipped cream topping had a little sour cream to give it tangy richness.
I'm not a custard person, but I did like this pastry cream. It was made with brown sugar and cinnamon and nutmeg, and had a great flavor. I halved the cornstarch (because seriously, that was WAY too much cornstarch!) and the resulting texture was gorgeously smooth, like a rich pudding. (Also gorgeous? The daffodils that have remained in bloom for the better part of the week. They have nothing to do with banana cream pie and everything to do with adding a bit of eye candy to the photos.)

I added a layer of melted chocolate to the bottom of the pie crust, because a) when does chocolate not improve things? and b) these pies were so deep, I could have stuck a whole pan of fudge and a pint of ice cream in there and there would still have been room for the cream and bananas.

So after all was said, done, and tasted, we liked it pretty well. I still had my usual complaints about custard and cream-based desserts (not enough texture, too slimy in the mouth) but the flavors were great, and the pie crust is consistently excellent. So I would bookmark this to make for a banana cream pie lover, but probably won't be revisiting it for myself any time soon.