Saturday, April 22, 2017

A tasty trio for spring

A beautiful day at Fredrick Meijer Gardens here in Grand Rapids Michigan.  Spring is here. Delightful.

And now on to the baking portion of the program.

While I was preparing some sweet treats for a recent L'Alliance Francaise de Grand Rapids event, I was reminded of those days working as the pastry chef at Gracie's in Providence RI where I often created dessert trios for special events or private dinners.  I loved that. Three 2-bite experiences of different textures, creams, crunchies, fruits, nuts or what-have-you. No need to over do it - just some delicious little somethings to go with that after dinner coffee, tea or digestif - yes indeed.

For this menu I choose a petite apricot almond Breton cake topped with apricot caramel mascarpone cream and fresh raspberry, a delectable fudgy brownie with chocolate-graham-walnut crumble sprinkled over a ganache ribbon and my own sesame-cardamom shortbread cookie sandwiched with an orange honey buttercream. 

In this case it's not about a specific recipe or technique but simply the imagination of putting different flavors and textures together.  The more one bakes, the more one opens the mind to new ideas.

Interestingly, that's what I've found since teaching at Sur La Table here in Grand Rapids.  The recipes are chosen by the corporation and tested in the SLT test kitchen before being put on a nationwide schedule that's offered to the public.

Lots of croissant and French macaron classes to be sure, but every month or two some new topics pop up like crepes, soufflés and British baking, all of which prompt me to review and refresh my own knowledge and expertise.  It's all about learning! Plus I love figuring out what the problems might be when something doesn't turn out as expected. Keep trying!

So I've been doing things that haven't been in my typical scope of baking - Swiss meringue buttercream being one of them. Many of the macaron fillings for SLT classes are made using that technique with the flavors and fillings changing seasonally.  I had previously not been a big fan of buttercreams, yet having now made a number of Swiss meringue versions I find them quite appealing.  

There are many cake makers out there who do this in their sleep and many online resources presenting the process and all the delicious flavor variations that exist.

But just to review, a Swiss meringue is made by whisking egg whites and sugar over a bain marie to a temperature or 145º - 155ºF, then transferring it to a stand mixer and whipping to a nice glossy, stiff-peaked meringue.  Voila!

The meringue should be cool before adding the butter a few pieces at a time. The result should be a smooth, creamy buttercream.

I my case I blended orange zest and honey into the buttercream, and it was oh so wonderful with the lightly honey glazed sesame cardamom shortbread. Yum yum yum.

Of course, let's not forget that there's a lot of butter involved so my "everything in moderation" approach still applies, but somehow the meringue and butter combo is quite lovely as a filling for a cookie sandwich or a swirl on the top of a petite cake.

As for the petite Breton cakes, I used a standard Breton dough recipe from Christophe Felder, placed pieces of dough into round flexi-molds, topped 'em with almond cream, a dollop of apricot jam and a sprinkling of brown sugar streusel.  

After the bake, once cooled, I gave them a swirl of caramel mascarpone cream to which I had added some home made apricot purée, and topped 'em with a fresh raspberry.

The brownie bites were the recipe I've been making for Steve for some years, based on one from Fine Cooking magazine by Abigail Johnson way back when.  I gave them a ganache ribbon topping and sprinkled my chocolate-graham crumb- walnut crumble mixture on top. Yup.

All were delicious, delightful and appreciated by L'Alliance Française guests.

The moral of the story?  Use your imagination and keep creating your own flavorful treats! That's what it's all about.

Happy spring!

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter desserts, happy spring and one more chocolate babka

Happy Easter everyone.  Steve and I are in our second spring since our move back to Grand Rapids, and this has been the first burst of color in our little garden two years in a row.  The lovely primrose - ahhhhhhh.  

Our day began misty, windy and overcast and is winding down with glorious sunshine, lovely breezes and no humidity.  We'll take it, thank you very much.

We spent the afternoon with the Galloway and TenHave clan for a delicious Easter dinner and good conversation and companionship.  Thanks Scott and Jen - you're the best!

Of course I simply had to make dessert for the gathering, and what better flavor to choose than something lusciously LEMON.  

I turned to that tried and true (and now my favorite tarte au citron) recipe from Jacques Genin, topping it with a thin layer of crème Chantilly and some fresh raspberries.

A good lemon tart is one of THE best things in the pastry world à mon avis, but I wanted to throw something else into the mix for the holiday meal.  I'd been thinking about coconut and chocolate and ended up following Alice Medrich's coconut chocolate meringue recipe in her book "Flavor Flours" (a recent and exciting discovery for me). What better way to use up some of those egg whites I had sitting in the fridge.

Make a basic meringue, taking it to stiff peaks.

Fold in a delightful mixture of chopped dark and white chocolate, coarsely chopped roasted, lightly salted almonds and coconut chips (the smaller bowl below is for sprinkling on the top of the scooped meringues).

Portion out generous tablespoons of meringue mixture onto parchment lined sheets, then sprinkle additional chocolate/nut/coconut mix on top.

Bake at 200ºF for 1.5 hours, then turn oven off and let cool completely.

Crispy, crunchy, nutty with almonds and coconut, chocolate chunks - what more does one need in a bite size treat? These are downright tasty.

I declare this a winning dessert day - yay!

But before I go, here's one final note. 

Just when you thought you'd heard the end of the whole babka thing, I'll finish up with one more experience with that oh-so-intriguing subject.  I baked one more babka the other day as part of a trial for an Easter class I was preparing to teach at the Breton Sur La Table here in Grand Rapids.  The process went well, the dough felt great, the plaits looked pretty good (in spite of a bit of messiness with the chocolate filling), and it went into the pan without much of a hitch.

It baked a bit longer than I expected but came out a deep golden brown and smelling heavenly.

The swirls were okey-dokey when sliced too.

And you know what? Delicious.

I promise that's it for this year's babka session. Enough.

Happy spring everyone and thanks for reading "Baking with The French Tarte". I appreciate it more than you'll ever know.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Babka trial Part 3 - another chocolate pecan

Well, I have another babka trial under my belt, and I have to say I'm excited about moving on to other baking adventures. I've learned a lot but feel there are still more practice sessions in my distant future before getting this down to a tried and true comfortable process.  If at first you don't succeed, try, try again - so true!

Granted, I used several different dough recipes in my various trials, so I can't say this is a purely scientific study with all variables constant. What I did accomplish was gaining a general understanding of how the process should go.

Here are just a few tidbits that I gleaned from my experience.

I found that the dough for babka can be a standard sweet dough (as one might use for cinnamon rolls), a laminated dough or a brioche-like dough. As they say, there's more than one way to skin a cat!

I discovered that the chocolate filling (if that's the version you're making) should be made ahead so there is time for the melted chocolate/butter with added cocoa powder and sugar mixture to cool to a room temperature spreadable paste.

I learned that there are many ways to shape babka - the length-wise sliced log plaited and tucked into a loaf pan or baked free form, a fat snake-like coiled log that sits in the pan perpendicular to the counter rather than lying flat or a log placed circularly around a tube or Bundt pan.

What I'm still working on grasping is how loosely or snugly to twist the plaits, the best way to fit them into the loaf pan, how long to let the loaf rise and how long to bake (it's very difficult to determine when the center is fully baked).

For this my third and last trial I used Yotam Ottolenghi's brioche like dough. I baked two loaves, one the classic plait which I placed into the pan like an "S" to try and give the dough enough room to rise and not be too squished in.

For the second loaf I went with Peter Reinhart's option of twisting the log a bit, then coiling it up like a snail.

Then the snail goes into the pan straight up, not with the coil flat.

Kind of looks like a big old cow's tongue! This version gets egg wash and a streusel topping before going into the oven.

Reinhart's instructions have you press the coil down to compress it into a loaf, but I didn't want to press down too hard, thinking the rise of the dough layers would be impaired.

I gave both of these loaves a three hour warmish rise since I wasn't certain my previous rises were long enough. Perhaps it makes a difference which type of dough one is using too.

Interestingly, of the many recipes I reviewed the recommended rising times (in a "warm" place) varied from 1-1.5 hours up to 3 hours. Some stated the dough wouldn't rise more than 10-20% and some wanted the dough to puff up and fill the pan.

I thought my plaited loaf became appropriately puffy, at least according to the 10-20% rise benchmark.

I had my doubts about the snail coil, but it seemed to have reached that 10-20% goal too, even though it was not filling the pan.  I suspect the rise I saw this time around had to do with the brioche type dough I used.

The snail coil received its wash and streusel.

I baked the plait for 45-50 minutes at 350º convection.  I attempted to check an internal dough temperature which reached over 185º but couldn't be sure if my temperature probe was in dough or chocolate.  When tapping the dough on the surface, it had a nice thump, and my inserted skewer came out clean. Out of the oven it came.

I baked the snail for the same amount of time and took it out after a resounding thump was heard when tapping the top and a 185º internal temperature was reached.

Let's hope for the best.

After a good cooling it was time for slicing.

First the plaited loaf.

Not bad! In spite of some chocolate gaps and a bit of doughy-ness in the bottom layers, this was delicious!!  Funny that even when the bake wasn't all that great, all of my attempts were tasty, tasty, tasty.

The streusel snail loaf had a big hollow pocket under the surface and the bottom thinner layers were under baked.  But again, joy of all joys - DELICIOUS!

While Steve enjoyed the fruits of my labor, he wondered why I spent so much time on this project. I say "why not?!".  It's a challenge and fun to boot.

What's next? I just started reading Alice Medrich's book "Flavor Flours" and am intrigued with learning and experimenting with the different non-wheat flours out there.  So much to do.  

But before that I have to decide what to bake for Easter dessert. Oh boy!

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Babka trial Part 2 - chocolate pecan

Not to be deterred by a less than stellar result with my first pistachio version babka, I decided to jump right back on the horse and give it another go.  This time - chocolate pecan.

Before attempting this again I scoured books and online sources and reviewed babka (or kranz
cake) recipes from Yotam Ottolenghi's "Jerusalem", Packer and Srulovich's "Honey & Co. The Baking Book", as well as David Lebovitz's version of the Honey & Co. babka.  I had already done Peter Reinhart's dough with a "Bake from Scratch" pistachio filling.

I was ready.

I ultimately followed David Lebovitz's version of the Honey & Co. recipe with a few tweaks of my own based on all the recipe versions I had reviewed.

I'm not here to outline the recipe but to talk about my experience with the process.  The dough came together nicely and felt absolutely wonderful! So soft and pillowy with a hint of what the end product might bring.

I formed it into a ball, placed it in a lightly oiled container covered with plastic wrap and put it in the fridge overnight.

Below is what I had after the overnight rise - looks a bit puffier.  Remember this is a sweet dough and the rise may not be as pronounced as with a lean bread dough.

While the dough was warming up a bit I made the chocolate filling by melting 100 g unsalted butter in a saucepan, adding 150 g granulated sugar and blending to (mostly) dissolve the sugar. Off the heat I added 85 g chopped chocolate (70%), stirred to melt, then blended in 40 g Dutch process cocoa powder and a teaspoon of Vietnamese cinnamon. 

Please note!  The filling has to cool to room temperature so it's more paste like and easily spreadable on the dough, so plan ahead for that.

I decided to use pecans (rather than any of the other great nuts one might choose) so toasted and chopped 65 g of those.  I also followed David Lebovitz's path of using 65 g of my home made cocoa wafer cookie crumbs. Yum!

I rolled the dough out into an approximately 12" x 20" rectangle, spread the cooled, spreadable chocolate filling on, then topped that with the chopped pecans and cocoa wafer crumbs.  This was starting to look good.

This time I worked a bit harder at rolling a tight log.

Then I sliced it lengthwise down the middle and formed my braid.  Whew!  That went pretty well.

I was concerned that the braid was longer than my parchment paper lined loaf pan, but I plowed ahead and squidged (did I make that word up?) it into the pan to fit. By the way - this seems to be de rigueur in the various approaches I reviewed.

Will this turn out??!! Seems like a good deal of weight that has to poof up,  n'est-ce pas? 

During the two hour rise I went out for my daily walk and was happy to return to a decent looking pan of risen babka (or so I thought). 

I heated the oven to 350ºF (I used convection) then popped the loaf in for the recommended 30 minutes.  I generally check my goods about half way through the baking time and turn the pan to promote even baking.  It was looking pretty good.  After the 30 minutes I had my doubts as to how well the interior had baked.  I gave it another 5 or 10 minutes and thought the outside had browned quite nicely.

Even though my skewer placed into the middle of the loaf came out clean I was still a bit skeptical as to the extent of the bake - difficult to tell due to the chocolate filling/dough spiraled layers. But I took it out of the oven nonetheless.

Once out of the oven I brushed it all over with simple syrup which I had made a bit earlier with 100 g sugar, 125 g water and one tablespoon honey brought to a boil, boiled for about 4 minutes, then set aside to cool to room temperature.

I gave it a good 90 minute cooling before lifting it out of the pan by the parchment lining.  By that point the center of the loaf had collapsed, not usually a good sign.  Oh, oh. 

Slice into it I did and indeed found the center to be doughy and under baked.  Disappointing to say the least, but let's remember - it's all about learning.

I did have to wonder though - how DO those thin layers of dough and chocolate filling have the room to rise up under the weight of it all?

The good news is that I was able to salvage the exterior and end portions of the loaf so Steve and I could give this project a decent tasting.  In a word - delicious!!

The chocolate filling with the cocoa wafer crumbs was absolutely scrumptious, and the layers of dough were moist but not overly sweet.

I stored all the decently baked portions in a Tupperware container and we enjoyed them over the next couple of days - oh so tasty for a little sweet treat after lunch or for a mid-afternoon gouter with a cup of coffee or tea.

All in all not bad.  I'm considering one more babka go - they say the third time's the charm, right?

Why not - let's go for it!