24 December 2009

Happy, Happy Holidays!

Here is to more, friends!!

21 December 2009

One bold, stout imperative

Dear Reader, I don’t think I ever got as daring as to dictate to you what to do, but today, be warned, I’ll toss one bold, stout imperative around here. In fact, I’ll start with it.

My apologies for being so demanding, but you must make this hot chocolate. Like, now. Why must you, you wonder? For one, it’s impressively delicious. Two, Christmas is almost here, at our table, so start feasting we should. And most of all, because you’ll love it. Oh yes, you will.

Just make it, would you? Please.

I’ve always dreamt of having hot chocolate that would be more than just squares of chocolate drowned in hot milk. For a few years I drifted from one recipe to another in hope to find the one, which I finally found last week, seated snugly in a book The Secrets of Baking by Sherry Yard.

What gives this hot chocolate its distinguishing mark is ganache, unquestionably the heart of the beverage in question. So while you make the ganache – you take one part dark chocolate, which you finely chop and put in a heatproof bowl, and one part cream, which you boil, then pour over the chocolate, and stir gently, for two minutes, until the chocolate is married into the cream – let me also tell you, real quick, about my trip to Brussels last week. (Holy chocolate bar, it seems only fitting to talk about chocolate and Brussels, the world’s chocolate capital, all at once.)

Not so long ago, we, Anthony and I, two 'frenemies', figured it would be a good idea to take a two-day break from our respective duties to go to Brussels for no reason other than to eat, Brussels-style. Among the chocolate and macarons by Pierre Marcolini...

...and the Liege waffles, hot, right from the griddle (to be gobbled up on the city’s hilly cobbled streets),

our expedition also included a dinner at a local, one-hundred-and-four years old eating establishment, the restaurant Vincent specializing in fish and meat/poultry fare with hearty and heartful Belgian flair.

There I had my ‘revelation’ in the form of black pepper sauce. It was a diamond crowning a piece of fillet mignon, moist and rosy in the middle and flawlessly browned from the outside. It wouldn’t be a crazy thing to say that that sauce resembled me of peppery chocolate, not a single whisper of sweetness, God forbid – rather, a deep, savoury voice of cocoa beans. Goodness me, that sauce, I would kill for it.

Besides stirring a black papper sauce-maniac in me, Brussels made me feel nostalgic and heart-tickled.

Nostalgic, because grey clouds in Brussels are comforting and soothing, they didn’t rush from one corner of the sky to another like grey mice in a church. Instead, they resembled, in my mind, that smoky grey thick woolen blanket I got from my grandmother as a Christmas present when I was a kid, eternity ago.

Heart-tickled, even heart-stung, because I was already missing this city, its Christmas lights, its streets that bear food names, its air saturated with sweet wafts escaping the street waffle stands way before we even caught a train to take us to Brussels.

But I’m glad I’m not alone in this boat. Anthony confides he is missing Brussels too, in particular, its beers which God knows how many he managed to smuggle back to Amsterdam.

It was a nourishing trip. A Christmas gift to ourselves.

Now take whole milk and heavy cream, and bring to a boil. Add cocoa powder; whisk. Fold in the ganache you’ve just made; stir. That’s it. The way to elation has never been so short. Isn’t it amazing how something so decadent and luxurious is so elementary to make? I’m unfailingly astonished, too.

Merry Christmas, Dear Reader!

And thank you for being there, on the other side of the screen, so to speak, reading my stories and tasting with me all along -- I’m raising this steaming cup of chocolate to you!

Sherry Yard’s Hot Chocolate

Adapted from The Secrets of Baking, by Sherry Yard
Yield: five 8-ounces (250 ml) cups

2 cups (500 ml) whole milk
½ cup (125 ml) cream
2 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
8 ounces (250 gr) bittersweet dark chocolate (the best you can get) 1 cup (250 ml) cream
½ tsp vanilla extract (optional)

1. Make the ganache. Grind or finely chop the chocolate; big pieces will fail to melt. Put the chocolate in a medium bowl. Over medium heat, bring the cream to a boil in a small saucepan. Immediately pour the cream over the chocolate. Tap the bowl – this will help the chocolate to settle into the cream. Let sit for 1 min. With a rubber spatula, start stirring slowly, working carefully to avoid adding too much air to the ganache. Keep stirring until all the chocolate is melted, 2 minutes. Sherry says the ganache may look like it’s ready after 1 minute of continuous stirring, but don’t get tricked, she warns, and keep going to ensure a proper emulsification (the emulsification combines the fat in chocolate with the water in cream, a process the result of which, like I said before, is sanity-killing, silky, glossy ganache). Once done, set the bowl aside.

2. Bring the milk and cream to a boil in the same saucepan you used for boiling the cream for the ganache. Add the cocoa powder and whisk thoroughly to blend. Remove from the heat and fold in the ganache. Let sit for 1 min. Then stir until well combined, about 4 mins. Add the vanilla extract (if using), and stir once again.

3. Serve while hot. This drink, writes Ms Yard, keeps well, covered, in the fridge for up to 2 (!!) weeks. Just reheat it briefly before serving, although I don’t know who is in their right mind would ever stay away from it for as much as two weeks, gosh!

Restaurant Vincent
Rue des Dominicains, 8-10

Pierre Marcolini
Rue des Minimes, 1

3 December 2009

Serious measures

I always believed that pie-eating should be a friendship-binding, not a friendship-mudding, experience. I now realize I was deeply, deeply misguided. Past Thanksgiving showed me that dessert time can be – to quote my friend Anthony the Thinker, a pecan-pie aficionado -- ‘a dog-eat-dog environment where one must react in a micro-instance. It’s like the dog fighting in Top Gun’. True. True. True. Every crumb is going to be fought over.

This is what happened. You make a pecan pie with bourbon and chocolate for a quiet Thanksgiving gathering with friends, and the pie turns out so nicely that the speed at which it is devoured makes you realize that if you don’t take serious measures to procure yourself a piece, nay, a chunk soon enough before the whole thing disappears, you may end up staring at an empty pie plate. So when one of the eaters announces, mouth full and all, that he is going to take a piece to work the next day, you, weirdo, get barbarous, and greedy, and crazy -- you say no. Don’t touch my pie, for if you do -- the consequences will be formidable. I’ll poke you in your ribs, I’ll let you know you are garbage, you are an animal.
I’m exaggerating here, but not really.

Frankly, it’s hard to remain friendly to your dearest and nearest in the vicinity of this beggar, this bourbon pecan pie. Please, don’t get me wrong, cooking and eating with friends is a number 1 route to contentment, I know
that. And yet, and yet…there are moments when solitary eating is a must. Just imagine: you gingerly cut a piece of that bourbon pecan treasure, gingerly because the crust is so fragile your heart thumps at the thought you can ruin the pie. Phew, you don’t. You successfully crown with it your plate, and the plates of those around you, those who eye the pie like birds of prey. You take a dessert fork and drown it in the toffee-like filling color of amber, even darker, with speckles of melted chocolate and shards of pecan here and there. You – everybody -- take a bite. Silence. Your tongue rolls in silkiness and sweetness of the filling that gives away its rich, and buttery, and bright, and slightly bourbon-y taste. Warmth. Somebody says this is the best pecan pie they’ve had so far. You fret a little bit over the pie crust, it looks somewhat messy, you say. Oh but the taste...the taste is really, really good. That’s why your heart sinks when you think of sharing the rest. That’s why you turn into a pooper. You want the leftovers all to yourself, so you scribble down your ‘no’ on a piece of buttered paper to tell to a potential pie-snatcher to back off when you are not there to watch.

Apparently, some people can’t read. The pie is gone. You curse flamboyantly, and rejoice at the same time. Heck, people loved what you baked, people wanted more. Smashing.

Pecan Pie with Bourbon and Chocolate (a.k.a. Hoosier Pie)

Adapted from
A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg

I chose this recipe for past Thanksgiving dinner for a number of reasons. First, I wanted something fancy but not fussy. Second, I was itching to apply to practice my newly-born skills of pie-crust making that I’m learning in the bakery. Finally, it’s all about bourbon. I don’t know how about you, but if the recipe calls for that, I’m all sold. Hands down.

The recipe is unquestionably a keeper, be it Thanksgiving, Christmas or just a winter-cursed Monday. Next time I’ll only skip chocolate (oh the horror!). The reason behind is that chocolate’s soprano steals the show, it somewhat shoos the pecans and the bourbon offstage. It, even the bittersweet kind, makes the filling a tad too sweet to my taste, although Anthony, among the others, begged to differ. Better skip it. Rather, up the amount of bourbon, just a bit, to achieve a more homogeneous flavor. Whichever way you prefer, boldly sweet or politely so, just make this pie. Please. You are going to love it. You are going to fight for it.

And before I finally move to the recipe, a few nibbles of science. When I assist in the bakery, I keep a close eye on what my crafty colleagues do. So here is what I learnt: when making a piecrust, cold butter, as well as ice-cold water, is a must. This way the piecrust, once baked, will be tender and flaky. The butter has to melt in the oven, not earlier, since only this way the water from the butter will create steam. The steam, in turn will rise pushing the dough and thus creating tiny pockets of air in it. What will emerge from the oven will be flaky pastry.

Also – rather than using food processor to cut the butter into the flour (another reason to use the cold butter, or else you won’t be able to cut it in), give preference to two paring knives. It will help you to have a better control over the procedure, and also it’s fun. You might look like a maniac, but who cares when the flakiness of pastry is at stake.

Phew, now the recipe…

For the crust:

1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp confectioner’s sugar
¾ tsp salt
1 stick plus 1 Tsp (4 ½ ounces, or 120 grams) cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
4 Tbsp ice-cold water, plus more if necessary
¾ tsp apple cider vinegar (this will seize the development of gluten)

For the filling:

4 Tbsp butter (2 ounces, or 56 grams)
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
3 large eggs
¾ cup light corn syrup
1 tsp vanilla extract
¼ tsp salt
2 Tbsp bourbon (good enough to drink on its own)
½ cup bittersweet chocolate chips
1 cup pecans

1. Into a large stainless bowl, sift together the flour, sugar and salt. Whisk well to mix. Add the butter and cut it into the flour, making brisk criss-cross movements with two knives. The mixture should look sandy; there shouldn't be bits of butter larger than a pea.

2. In a small bowl, combine the ice water and vinegar. Sprinkle the water over the dough, and fold it in with a rubber spatula. This way the dough will get moisturized without being overworked. If the dough is dry – it should hold together if you squeeze it – add more water, start with 1 tsp at a time. It’s better to have dough that’s a bit too wet than too dry – dry dough is difficult to roll; it can tear.

3. Remove the dough from the bowl, form a ball, flatten it into a 1 ½ inches (about 3.5 cm) disk and wrap it up in plastic film. Chill for at least 1 hour. (The dough will keep for up to 3-4 days in the fridge and for up to 3-4 weeks in the freezer).

4. Bring the dough out of the fridge 10-15 mins before rolling out (the dough should soften – not get warm! -- a little bit).

5. Preheat the oven to 375 F (190 C).

6. Roll the dough into a circle, it should be wide enough to fit a 9- or 9 ½ inch (24cm) pie plate. Drape the dough over the pie plate, lift up the edges and tuck them gently into the creases of the pan. Press carefully to make the dough hold to the sides of the pan. Put the prepared pie plate back in the fridge while you are busy with the filling.

7. In a medium bowl, cream the butter and sugar. When the mixture looks creamy and the sugar is fully incorporated, add the eggs one at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition. Add the corn syrup, vanilla and salt. Beat well. Add the bourbon and beat again. At this point, the batter should look pale yellow and be thin.
8. Remove the pie plate from the fridge, sprinkle chocolate chips and pecans evenly over the base of the crust. Pour in the batter. Bake for 35 to 45 mins, checking every 5 mins after 30 mins of baking time have passed. The pie is done when the edges are firm and caramelized, the top is deep brown, and the center seems almost set (it might jiggle a little bit, though). Transfer the pie to a wire rack to cool.

9. For serving, whipped cream on the side will not hurt.