Sunday, December 14, 2014

Some small treats for a Friday morning meeting

I trust everyone is enjoying their holiday season and not getting too harried.  Just remember to slow down and take some deep breaths every now and then!

Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way . . . .

Early this past week I received a request to provide an assortment of small goodies for the annual board meeting of Urban Ventures, a state funded, non-profit organization that exists to assist micro businesses get started in Rhode Island.

I had worked with UV back in 2010-2011 as I was developing my small pastry business, so when the call came in, I was happy to oblige.

I turned to some of my tried and true favorites - financier, pain au chocolat, profiterole, and bouchon.

petite pain au chocolat

I also wanted to offer something else made using croissant dough (in addition to the pain au chocolat).  It just so happened that I had a small amount of crème d'amandes in my fridge just begging to be used, so I proceeded to make a small batch of crème pâtissière and blended equal parts of the two crèmes to make frangipane.  I had been envisioning an apricot-almond combo and finally settled on cutting the rolled out croissant dough into small rectangles, proofing, then topping with frangipane and apricot slices before baking.  And here they are!

apricot almond pastry - the hit of the meeting!

I've made a number of different financier over the years, including pear-ginger, chocolate-hazelnut, orange-cranberry, apple-cheddar, pumpkin, herbed goat cheese, lemon-berry, just to name a few.  It's such a delicious and versatile base - definitely one of my faves!

This time I went with matcha-raspberry, a regular (and very popular) offering in the past during my Saturday winter farmers market days in Pawtucket.  I love to bake them in different shapes too and find that the vast array of silicone flexi-molds currently available makes for all sorts of tempting choices.  Squares!  Thanks Joe!

matcha-raspberry financier, just out of the oven

My bouchon are based on a recipe I found in Portland, Maine's Standard Baking Company's book entitled "French Puffs".  Once I had made them I wasn't sure why the word "puff" was used, since they aren't at all puffy.  In fact they are a dense, moist cake, full of flavor.  I adapted the recipe, adding coriander and ginger to the nutmeg in the batter and then rolling the warm, butter-dipped nuggets in coriander sugar.

My sister Joyce once described these as "the best donut hole I've ever had".  I bake them in small, round flexi-molds, the result prompting Steve to name them bouchon 'cuz they kinda look like champagne corks.

coriander buttermilk bouchon

I happened to have some choux puffs in the freezer (a great item to have on hand for those unexpected requests!), so profiteroles here we come.  A truly delicious combo is to pair fresh fruit with whipped caramel mascarpone cream - what a marriage of fresh, sometimes tart with creamy, smooth goodness.

For the cream I combine equal weights heavy cream and mascarpone, add in some vanilla and, in this case, my homemade caramel sauce to provide a hint of sweetness, then whip it all to soft peaks.  I cut the tops off the puffs, pipe a swirl of cream into the bottom and top with fresh fruit.  In this case I used kiwi, orange and pomegranate seeds, primarily for the lovely seasonal color combination.  And don't forget - it tastes good too!

fresh fruit profiterole

The table . . .

The pain au chocolat and apricot almond pastries . . .

I anticipated the possibility of leftovers and had small, to-go bags on hand.  Many of the attendees took advantage of the "doggy-bag" option and left with an assortment to share with office mates, co-workers, friends or family.

A good morning indeed.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Christmas tea at Blithewold Mansion in Bristol, RI

It's been raining and dreary here in RI the past couple of days, so the timing couldn't have been better for Dor and I to add some holiday cheer and sparkle to an otherwise dismal day.

We had made reservations for Blithewold's Christmas tea some weeks ago, and, since December 9 was the date, we couldn't let the rainy, windy deluge stand in our way.  Dor picked me up in Providence and about 30 minutes later we were pulling into the parking lot at Blithewold, an English country manor style home on the waterfront in Bristol.

You can read more about the history of the place here:

Steve and I had visited Blithewold once before during the summer months and enjoyed touring the mansion and the grounds.  However, the place takes on an entirely different aura when it is decorated for the holidays.  And decorated it was!  What a sumptuous, lavish feast for the eyes!

I'll share just a few examples of what we saw, since, if I included every photo of every room, it would be simply overwhelming.  The entrance hall was inhabited by a two story high tree - here is the view of the treetop from the second level balcony.

We were directed into the main dining room for our tea experience.

All of the rooms in the mansion were decorated with a different holiday theme, the dining room's being "A New Year's Eve Party".  All was white, bright and glowing - we could just imagine spending New Year's Eve in this festive setting.

Mounted on the windows at either end of the dining room were clocks whose hands were poised at 5 minutes to midnight, as though everyone was waiting to shout "Happy New Year"!

tables set for afternoon tea
 Dorothy and I were assigned to Table 8 . . .

 which was set with mix-and-match tea cups, saucers, and our own sugar and creamer.

We had a view out to the water, but, sadly, it was foggy and rainy and there was not much of a view to be had.

Soon the servers were bringing Yorkshire/Earl Grey tea and warm scones to each table.  We weren't given a menu, so we rendered a guess as to the scone's flavor - I thought it perhaps a pumpkin or ginger-spice raisin (?cranberry) version, but it wasn't totally clear.  It did have a delightful texture and nice crumb.

 Next we received our two-tiered server with sandwiches and sweets.

The tea cozy was a nice touch, something we felt was missing at our other tea experiences earlier this fall.

We had two sandwich offerings - one the classic cucumber cream cheese on white bread and the other a cheese/red pepper jelly on wheat bread.  Both breads were moist and flavorful, however the cheese on the red pepper sandwich was very thin and hard, almost as though it had been sliced from the end of the rind.

the sweets portion

The chocolate madeleine was a tad dry (why do you think Marcel Proust dipped his?) with a subtle chocolate flavor.  Of the two small cakes I believe one was a financier with a berry baked on top and the other a moist, sense-of-pumpkin cake.  The meringue peppermint kisses were a cute addition to the plate and had a typical crispy-outside-slightly chewy-inside texture, however the mint flavoring was too much for our palates.

We sat, sipped tea, relaxed and chatted until it was time to vacate the dining room and allow the staff to prepare for the 3 pm tea seating, the second of the afternoon.  So up and away we went.

We strolled past all of the themed, decorated rooms in the mansion - all so well done, absolutely stunning and a delight to behold!

the mantel in the living room, themed "An Engagement Party"

a tree in the living room

 The afternoon teas are offered Tuesday through Friday at 1 and 3 pm and continue on through the New Year weekend (reservations required), so, if you're looking for a fun, festive holiday outing, head over to Bristol and Blithewold mansion!


Sunday, December 7, 2014

Sportskage trial

I'm on a pastry detour to Denmark!  Who woulda thunk it?!

I recently received a request to make a sportskage (sports cake), which, as I've come to learn, is a classic "cake" created back in the late 1800's by La Glace, a pastry shop in Copenhagen, for the opening of a play entitled "Sportsmen".  It's been around ever since and continues to be a popular offering at the conditori.

It is basically whipped cream with chopped caramelized nuts (nougatine) folded into it, domed on top of an almond macaron type base, then topped with more whipped cream and caramelized choux puffs.  When I first saw photos of this pile of cream, I was curious, not only as to how one approaches the assembly, but also the slicing and serving of such a thing.  How does it hold its shape, I asked myself?

What better way to find out than to jump right in and make it.  My trial was underway!

Unlike the recipes I reviewed on line which use almond paste, egg white and sugar for the "cake" base, I opted to substitute one of my (and Steve's) all time favorite components.  Dacquoise is in the meringue family, made with ground nuts (almonds or hazelnuts or pistachios or walnuts - you name it), egg whites and sugar, much like the ever-so-popular French macaron.  

For me the beauty of a dacquoise is how much easier it is to make than the fussy macaron.  In this case I wanted to know if the small version of my go-to recipe would be enough for a 9-10" diameter base for the sportskage.

I decided on a hazelnut version and proceeded with my mise en place.  Very straight forward, no muss, no fuss.  When making a meringue I typically weigh out my egg whites and let them sit at room temp for an hour or so, since they mount better when no longer refrigerator cold.

Here I have egg whites (99 gm or about three), confectioner's sugar (75 gm), ground hazelnuts (99 gm) and granulated sugar (25 gm) at the ready.

Whisk the ground hazelnuts and confectioners sugar together . . .

Start the egg whites on low speed, using the whisk attachment, and, once they start to look foamy, add the granulated sugar . . . .

foaming up!

adding the sugar

then continue beating on high speed to firm peaks.

look at these peaks!

Now gently fold in the hazelnut/confectioners sugar mixture just until incorporated . . .

and pipe into a nice round!

ready for the oven
You can appreciate that my coil doesn't quite reach the periphery of my 240mm cake ring, so I might need a slightly larger recipe when it comes time for the real thing.  We'll see.

Out of the oven . . .

I was happy with the thickness, feeling it would nicely support the cream that would later be mounded on it.  But to give me a slightly larger base for the final dessert I'll consider a 15-20% increase in my base recipe.

Next I prepared the nougatine by making a standard caramel into which I stirred toasted hazelnuts. This mixture is poured immediately onto a Silpat and allowed to cool until hard.  BEWARE!  Hot caramel is dangerous!!  Wear protective oven gloves or hot mitts to prevent burns.  I know - I've been there.

I prefer blanched hazelnuts as a rule, but this time I used a mixture of blanched and natural hazelnuts. When I learned from my local nut vendor that blanched hazelnuts are currently very hard to come by and expensive due to a poor crop in Turkey, I opted for the skins-on version from Oregon to supplement the small supply of blanched nuts that I had in my freezer from earlier in the year.   I initially tried the toasting-in-the-oven/rubbing-the-skins-off technique, but boy-oh-boy, those skins did NOT want to come off, try as I might.  I just had to go with the flow and move forward, skins and all.

Once the nut/caramel mixture was cooled I ground it up to a coarse texture.  I want a nice crunch to the final dessert but am careful to avoid caramel pieces that are too big since they can be quite hard and difficult to chew.  No broken teeth allowed!

coarsely ground hazelnut nougatine

The next component is pâte à choux for the small profiterole style puffs that will be dipped in caramel (another CAUTION HOT!) and placed on the surface of the sportskage.  I used my usual base recipe (à la Michel Roux) which calls for 125 ml water, 125 ml milk, 100 gm butter, 1/2 tsp salt, 3/4 tsp sugar, 150 gm flour and 4 eggs.

I've found a number of recipes that use only water as the liquid, but I find the combo of water AND milk gives the puff a nicer flavor and more golden hue.  Granted the choux isn't really there to provide much flavor but serves primarily as the vehicle, whether for sweet or savory applications. Yet, it's good to have a puff with a bit of character, if you ask me!

mise en place for choux

The water, milk, butter, salt and sugar go into a saucepan on the cooktop and heated to melt the butter and bring to a boil.  Take it off the heat, stir in the flour in one fell swoop, then place it back onto the heat to dry the mixture out briefly.

You can mix the eggs in either by hand or in the mixer.  I opt for the mixer since it's easier.  Dump your hot panada (what it's called before the eggs are added) into the bowl and, using the paddle attachment, add the eggs one-by-one until each is incorporated.

This part of the choux making process is fascinating - with each egg addition the mixture looks all clumpy and lumpy, but it magically comes together, becoming a silky, shiny paste.

finished choux paste
OK, so mine looks a little lumpy, but it piped out beautifully and baked up just right!

piping choux

out of the oven, looking good

Most of the work is done!  As is the case with soooooo many baking projects, it's all about planning. The three components I've made so far can all be made ahead.  The dacquoise freezes beautifully, the nougatine will keep well in a closed container at dry room temp conditions for days, and the choux puffs can also be frozen. Now all I have to do is whip the cream and assemble.

For my test case I decided on a smaller version, so I cut my base down to 16 cm size.

ready to assemble
 I folded the nougatine into the whipped cream and mounded it on the dacquoise with nary a hitch.  It was much easier than I anticipated and certainly held its shape.

interesting, eh?

My puff garnishes were way out of proportion, since they rather dwarfed this smaller base version.  I popped a few on anyway and attempted piping "petals" of whipped cream. 

just think of them as profiterole "tumors"

kind of like weird layered growths on the bark of a tree
Yikes!!  Needs work.

Let's just say I have to practice this part for the final - kind of like studying for a test.  Decorative piping has never been a big interest of mine - I think of a piping bag as a practical tool for dispensing, since it gives one control and direction to get the product exactly were you want it.  But I'm game for some decor - just need the right tip!

At any rate I put the whole thing in the fridge and, several hours later, Steve and I did a mini tasting.  I was delighted that it sliced very easily and held its shape to boot.  And it tasted good - yes!

we had already popped all the choux puffs off and eaten them

This test run taught me a few things - make a slightly larger base to achieve my 9-10" diameter; make sure the nougatine isn't too coarse or caramel pieces too big; make the choux puffs smaller; practice "petal piping".  Shouldn't be too hard, right??

I hope to share pictures of the final finished product with you in a couple of weeks.  Stay tuned!

In the meantime stay warm, enjoy December and may visions of sugarplums dance in your heads.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Thanksgiving weekend

Just a quick post today to wish everyone a quiet, peaceful close to their Thanksgiving week.  It was a busy one here, yet with time to relax and slow down too.

I was happy to have received a number of requests for desserts and goodies from a handful of folks. Since pumpkin flan, apple-cranberry/caramel nut/chocolate ganache tarts, shortbread, croissant, pain au chocolat and croissant aux amandes were on my to-do list for others for the holiday, I kept my personal dessert offerings for family and friends on the simpler side.

On Thanksgiving day Steve and I traveled up the road to brother Dick and sister-in-law Dorothy's home in Douglas, Massachusetts for our afternoon meal which included a turkey breast roulade (good job Dor!), green beans, a savory cranberry orange relish, baked sweet potatoes, Steve's potato-Gruyere galette and Cathy's pearl onions baked in a bread-crumb-topped, creamy filling.  Everything was deelish!

For dessert I brought a small ganache tart, but I also took the opportunity to create another treat with components I had on hand.  I still had a portion of the brioche loaf from my King Arthur bread class, plus some crème d'amandes in the fridge and berries in the freezer, so it was time to make a berry version of Bostock! 

After slicing, the brioche is imbibed in vanilla simple syrup and topped with berries, almond cream and sliced almonds.  It's then baked at 350º for about 20 minutes until the almond cream is nicely browned.

twice baked berry almond brioche
Now some might consider this breakfast food, but it was so delicious warmed, topped with a dollop of Chantilly cream and served along side a petite slice of chocolate ganache tart - a lovely duo!

For another weekend gathering at friend Barbara's home I was in a maple syrup mood.  Custards are one of my all time favorite desserts, so, after comparing a few recipes, I created my own version of a maple custard, baked in my favorite square ramekins.

maple custards with chocolate hazelnut caramel crunch

I mixed hazelnut nougatine, chopped toasted hazelnuts and my own chocolate cookie crumbs as a garnish, and the crunch added just the right touch to the smooth, cool, silky custard.  Definitely a hit!

It's been a good week.  And away we go to December and 2015!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Boston teatime No. 2

This past week on a sunny, but chilly November day I met up with sister-in-law Dorothy for another afternoon tea adventure in Boston. Our destination this time was the Langham Hotel on Franklin Street not far from Downtown Crossing.

We had decided that, before heading to Beantown, an IKEA stop was in order, so we met up in Attleboro MA, and partnered up in my Subaru.  We made it to Stoughton's IKEA in no time and, after a leisurely stroll through the store (which was not very busy on a Wednesday morning) we made our few purchases and then - on to the big city!

Driving north and exiting into Boston off I-93 has always been a challenge.  The nexus of interstate, Mass Pike, service roads, and poorly marked exits is soooo confusing!  Needless to say, we got all turned around and ended up heading west on the Mass Pike.  But, we were able to take the U-turn back into Boston and, with Dor's guidance, we exited at Copley and handily made our way to the Boston Common Garage to park.

A brisk stroll across the Common led us to Winter St. on through Downtown Crossing, where we saw the Macy's Christmas tree being decorated, and eventually to Post Office Square and the Langham.

a view of the State House from the Common

Macy's tree

the Langham's side view

We soon found ourselves in the lobby, which, as it turns out, is also home to The Reserve, where we would be enjoying our afternoon tea experience.  We found the ambience inviting with a casual yet elegant feel.  A very pleasant spot to while away a couple of hours.

I had made a reservation ahead of time, and it turned out that we were the only ones there at 2 pm for the "Tiffin Tea".  In the photo above you'll see in the far upper left corner our white table-clothed spot.

the view from our table
We were soon presented with the menu as well as the tea selections for the day.

the menu

tea selections from Harney and Sons
additional specialty tea offerings
After savoring the aroma of a number of the tea choices Dor opted for pomegranate oolong, and I went for one of the specialty blends, a black tea likened to an English Breakfast (the one on the top right above).

We were soon served two plates, one with our tea sandwiches and the second with our sweet treats. We wondered where the third plate was and were also disappointed in the lack of the classic three tiered server placed directly on the table, which typically serves as a center piece.

But, have no fear, a basket of warm scones soon arrived and was placed on the table-side server stand where we could access it easily.  And, of course, it was accompanied by three classic garnishes - strawberry jam, clotted cream and lemon curd.  Oh boy, we were in for a treat!

After the obligatory 3-minute steep (with mini hourglass timer table-side) our server poured our tea selections, and we started in on the sandwiches, which were presented simply and attractively on Wedgewood china.

The standard fillings of egg salad, chicken salad, cucumber and salmon were all delicious, although a couple of the breads were a bit dry.  Dor and I agreed that the highlight was the oh-so-moist and slightly sweet Boston brown bread with salmon - an unexpected but tasty combo!  It brought back memories of my mom baking Boston brown bread in cans oh those many years ago.

We paused a bit, sipping our delicious teas, before starting in on the scones.  They were just the right texture, broke apart nicely with a perfect crumb, just ready to be topped with the quintessential garnishes.

As I observed the somewhat pale exterior I thought a brush with milk or egg wash and a sprinkle of sugar before baking would have added that just-right final touch to these otherwise stellar scones. And, although the jam, clotted cream and lemon curd married nicely with the buttery crumb, the curd could have had a brighter,  more lemony flavor.

On to the sweets!

The tartlet was a pleasing combination of a smooth sweet potato custard filling, gooey marshmallow atop and a crisp crust, although the aftertaste of the crust was bland and not terribly flavorful.

The most disappointing of the group was the iced autumn spice cake - very dry with an unappealing mouth feel and little flavor.

The pecan shortbread was right up my alley - crisp, light and buttery!  Perfect with a cup of tea!

While the cranberry white chocolate cheesecake pop had a nice texture and flavor, the pop thing is a bit too trendy for my tastes.  But hey, that's just me!

All in all Dor and I found this tea experience a notch above the Boston Harbor Hotel (see my post from 9/24/14) in terms of the over all flavor of the food (especially the scones!).  The teas were delicious, but we noticed how quickly the hot water in our teapots became cold.  We missed the tiered food centerpiece and thought the service in general could have been a little more attentive.

Yes, The Reserve offers a calm and pleasant atmosphere, and afternoon tea is a great way to enjoy a relaxing couple of hours in Boston.