Sunday, December 26, 2010

Profiteroles for the new year

I don't know why I got it in my head that I wanted to make profiteroles for Christmas; they are in reality a dessert I have enjoyed with varying frequency. Sometimes they can be too soft, lending little to no contrast to the ice cream within. On the other hand, I find hard profiteroles to be the absolute worst: hacking away at a tough shell, and watching your perfect scoop of ice cream shoot out the side is beyond frustrating. I always feel like pastry chefs should know better than to send out a crunchy profiterole.

However, when done well, profiteroles can be delicious and very elegant. So I decided to give them a go.

First I was going to use the detailed recipe from Baking Illustrated. But then I found Ina Garten's recipe which seemed even easier, and the lazy side of me (which is rather dominant, you may have noticed), won out.

Well, friends, this is probably not news to you, but profiteroles are ridiculously easy. I'd made pate a choux dough before, for gougeres, so I knew that in theory it shouldn't be difficult. But what a relief to find that profiteroles are even simpler than gougeres--no grating of cheese or chopping of herbs. Just butter, milk, flour, salt, and eggs. The dough takes 10 minutes.

In lieu of a pastry bag I used a ziploc with the corner snipped off, and it worked just fine to pipe the dough onto my baking sheet. I ended up with 20 puffs of medium size; in the future I'm going to make them smaller, because I like miniatures. I suppose you could also make several humongous puffs the size of hamburger buns.

I served the profiteroles with coffee and vanilla ice cream and good chocolate sauce. Of course, you could go the extra mile and make your own ice cream and sauce, but I like to keep things simple around the holidays. Really, this is the ideal dessert for entertaining: simple, quick, tasty, and while they look impressive, they require no skill or special equipment. Plus, you can make them ahead of time. In short, I suggest you ring in the new year with a batch of homemade profiteroles.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Pierre Herme's salty chocolate sables

This is most likely my last post before Christmas, and since I know you all are as busy as I am, I'll keep it short. These little beauties are another takeaway from my Tante Marie class, and boy are they a bestseller: buttery chocolate sables.

"Big deal, Hungry Dog,"  you're scoffing. "We can't throw a rock without hitting a buttery chocolate cookie this time of year. Next!"

I know. Me too. And no one thinks they need another cookie recipe. But these are different. They've got tons of bittersweet chocolate plus dark cocoa and brown sugar. And the piece de resistance--fleur de sel.

My rendition of these cookies did not turn out as nicely as the ones my classmate produced a few weeks ago. His were cut into the perfect thickness and held their shape while baking. Mine spread too much and did not look as fine and architectural as his.

The husband said, as he enjoyed a short stack of them, "Who cares what they look like?"

I suppose this is where the eater and baker diverge a bit; I actually do care what they look like.  I suspect my cookies, once sliced, should have gone back in the fridge to re-chill before sliding the cookie sheets into the oven. Oh well, next time I'll know better.

In any event, they are delicious plain, or with coffee, tea, or wine. They'd be dynamite nestled alongside some good ice cream, or used for little sandwich cookies.

So no matter what you say, how much you protest, I am 100% certain you can find room in your repertoire for one more (very) good cookie.

Pierre Herme's Chocolate Sables
Makes about 3 dozen

1 1/4 c. flour
1/3 c. Dutch processed cocoa powder (unsweetened)
1/2 t. baking soda
1 stick plus 3 T. butter, room temperature
2/3 c. powdered sugar
1/4 c. brown sugar
1/2 t. fleur de sel (or 1/4 t. fine sea salt)
1 t. vanilla extract
5 oz. best quality bittersweet chocolate, chopped into small bits

Sift together flour, cocoa, and baking soda and set aside. Put the butter in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat with the paddle attachment until very soft and creamy. Add the sugars, salt, and vanilla and beat for another 1-2 minutes. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the sifted dry ingredients. Mix only until the ingredients are just incorporated (it will look a bit crumbly). Work the dough as little as possible. Toss in the chocolate and mix to incorporate.

Turn the dough on to a smooth work surface and divide in half. Working with one half at a time, shape the dough into a log that is 1 1/2 inches in diameter (as you're shaping the log, flatten it once or twice and roll it up from one long side to the other, making sure you get all the air out of the center). Wrap the logs tightly in plastic wrap and chill the in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour. Logs, wrapped airtight, can also be frozen for up to one month.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and place the rack in the center. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

Working with a thin, sharp knife, slice rounds 1/2-inch thick from the logs. Turn the logs a quarter turn after each slice to keep the cookies round (or make the log square, like I did.) Place cookies on the prepared baking sheet, 1 inch apart. (If possible, refrigerate sliced cookies for another 15- 30 minutes to guard against spreading.) Bake 1 sheet at a time for 12 minutes. The cookies will not look done nor will they be firm but this is okay. Transfer the sheet to a rack and let the cookies rest on the sheet, about 10 minutes. Remove cookies from the sheet and let cool completely on a rack. Repeat with second sheet of cookies.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Caramel-dipped pecan shortbread

A couple of weekends ago, my friend Lizzy (of the romesco sauce) and I took a baking class at Tante Marie. I've been obsessed with Tante Marie ever since I toured it five years ago when I was considering going to pastry school. While I decided against school, I've never been able to shake the feeling that spending multiple hours a day at this cozy little school would have been one of the best things in the world.

However, the life of the professional pastry chef is not for me. But that doesn't mean I can't take a class now and then.

We signed up for a Holiday Baking class, which promised that we would learn to make all kinds of delicious things, like layered chocolate peppermint cake and Thomas Keller's nutter butters.

The class was comprised of 14 people and for the actual baking we split off into pairs. Liz and I were in charge of gingerbread cupcakes with lemon cream cheese frosting, caramel-dipped shortbread, and a fennel and persimmon salad to be eaten as part of our savory lunch. When everything was done, we admired a spread of more than a dozen treats.

It was easy to pick out my favorites--Pierre Herme's chocolate sables with sea salt, which I will be posting about soon, and these gorgeous little shortbreads. In fact, these were the two kinds of cookies I chose to make for our family's annual baking day this past weekend.

The shortbreads are very simple to make, especially because our teacher told us not to bother rolling out the dough but instead to pinch it into pinkie-sized sticks. Easy peasy! This was also my first time making caramel, and why I was ever intimidated by it before I shall never know.

So if you're looking for a new holiday cookie, look no further. This one's a crowd pleaser.

Caramel-dipped pecan shortbread
From Tante Marie

1 1/4 c. flour
1/2 c. butter, room temperature
1/2 c. pecans, toasted and ground
2/3 c. powdered sugar
1/2 t. salt

1/2 c. dark brown sugar
1/4 c. butter
2 T. heavy cream
pinch salt
1/4 c. powdered sugar
1 c. toasted ground pecans

For the cookies: In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the flour, butter, pecans, powdered sugar, and salt. Mix until the dough just comes together when squeezed in your hand.

Shape the dough into a disk, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350 and set the racks in the top and bottom thirds of the oven.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Pinch off pieces of dough and roll to form little sticks about the size of your pinkie. Place the sticks on baking sheets, 1 inch apart from each other. Bake until barely golden, about 15 minutes, swapping the sheets on the oven racks halfway through. Place the baking sheets on racks to cool for 5 minutes, then take the cookies off the sheets and cool them completely on a rack.

For the caramel, combine the brown sugar and butter in a medium saucepan and bring the mixture to a boil. Let cook for 1 minute, then remove the pan from the heat. Stir in the cream, salt, and powdered sugar. Dip one end of each cookie into the caramel then immediately roll the caramel-covered end in the pecans. Transfer the cookies to waxed paper to let the caramel set.

Makes 3-4 dozen.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Flank steak with romesco sauce

The husband and I, while we share many interests and affections, have one area in which we diverge drastically: the sauce.

No, not sauce as in booze. We're both on board with that, silly! I mean sauces I make to go with food--tomato, cream, cranberry, fig-port, and now romesco.

He likes sauce. But I love it. I'm often at risk of drowning my food in it, if it's one I'm particularly fond of. I wonder if this is a very American tendency; I imagine the French and Italians use sauce sparingly, as a purposeful accent. Me, I sometimes return to the kitchen for another spoonful.

Awhile ago, we had dinner at our friends' house. Liz and Neal live down the street from us, which makes for easy and last-minute organizing, and even the occasional mid-week dinner party. We had grilled steak with romesco sauce, salad, bread, and cauliflower. I went a little nuts for the sauce, putting it on the steak and everything else. Nobody seemed to think that was weird, but maybe they were just being polite.

Liz might laugh that I still remember the menu, which we enjoyed at least six months ago, but my brain is a steel trap for food. Ask me what I read in the newspaper this morning and I have no idea, but I can tell you what I ate for lunch last Wednesday (leftover leftovers).

Anyhow, after a bit of of badgering on my part, she kindly provided me with the recipe for the romesco sauce. Or rather, she sent me a list of ingredients along with the singular instruction: "Dump it all in a food processor and let her rip."

And so I did. Aside from toasting the nuts and sauteing the garlic, it couldn't have been faster. I even had some bread crumbs I'd made the day before. The sauce turned out nearly as good as when we had it at Liz and Neal's house, but a little runnier than I would prefer. As I was dumping the entire jar of roasted red peppers in the food processor, I mused pointlessly, I wonder if I should have drained these. Well, yes. That would have been better. But the sauce still turned out gorgeously and it's the kind of recipe you can fiddle with and fix with oil, salt, pepper, bread crumbs, and vinegar as you prefer. Just my type of thing.

I'm also fairly sure it will last a little while in the fridge. So far, I've only dipped some crackers in it, but I think it would be great on pork or chicken, or in place of mustard in a sandwich, with green beans, or simply on crostini, garnished with a crumble of goat cheese. The options are endless.

Liz's romesco sauce

(ingredients are approximations; revise to suit your taste)

1 14-oz can fire-roasted tomatoes
1 12-oz jar roasted red peppers, drained
3-4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/4 c. olive oil
1/2 c. almonds, toasted and coarsely chopped
1/3 c. fresh bread crumbs
2-3 T sherry vinegar, or to taste
salt and pepper

Cook garlic in the olive oil until golden brown.

Dump all ingredients into a food processor and let her rip. Season to taste.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Penne with braised short ribs

I thought when I started working for myself, back in May, that I would be spending a lot more time in the kitchen. I had visions of rolling out pie crusts in the middle of the day, braving puff pastry from scratch, and at least once a week filling the house with the smell of good, yeasty bread.

It hasn't panned out like that at all. While I still spend more time in the kitchen than probably many people do during the week, I've always done that. Even when I was working in an office full-time, it was not unusual for me to roast up a pork loin to serve atop creamy polenta and a bitter green on a Tuesday night. I like to be in the kitchen, so it rarely feels like a chore to me. Few things relax me more than cooking leisurely while listening to the radio and drinking a glass of wine, with the husband and the other hungry dog periodically wandering in to check on me. It's the perfect mix of being alone and not being alone.

But now I'm busier during the day, with less time to daydream about what to make for dinner. And since I am working harder, sometimes I actually feel a little tired out by the end of the day.

The one way in which my new schedule has changed my cooking is that now I am able to make things that take a long time during the week--provided they are largely unattended. The kalua pig is a great example of this. It took five minutes to put together, and four hours later, dinner was served.

Yesterday I decided to make Giada's penne with braised short ribs. I'd seen her make it on TV awhile ago and had not forgotten how delicious it looked. The browning of the ribs and chopping the onion and garlic took a total of about 20 minutes; then, into the oven it went for two and a half hours.

The pasta was rich and deep in flavor, a result from long cooking as well as the fattiness of the short ribs. The recipe is a total hit, one which I will definitely repeat, although I must warn you, this is not for the delicate eater. If you aren't that into meat, or are squeamish about fat, skip it. Unfortunately, neither of these things bother me, so I dug right in.

A little goes a long way--as the husband pointed out, it's basically pot roast over noodles--not exactly light fare. But I really enjoyed it, especially on a rainy night, with the heat turned up and a bottle of Cabernet alongside. As you might have predicted, Frances also had the opportunity to sample some of the short ribs and she too deemed the recipe a blazing success.

The only change I made was that it called for fresh Roma tomatoes, which are nowhere to be found in December, at least not good ones. So I used whole canned tomatoes, and threw in an extra one or two, which turned out just to my liking.