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.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Chocolate crepe cake

Believe it or not, I had never made a crêpe until this past week.  And, since I was experimenting, I thought I'd take it a step further than just the simple crêpe - why not make a crêpe cake!

I must say I've contemplated this for awhile, after one of my former customers, Ting-Ting, asked me about making a matcha (green tea) version for her.  Needless to say, it never happened, but I was nonetheless intrigued.  She had such a focused interest on pastries and would often come into the shop with loads of questions about what I was offering that day, as well as reporting on various pastries she had discovered in Manhattan.  The crêpe cake was one of them.

I began my research and opted for a chocolate version.  I found a number of recipes on line and soon realized how easy the batter is for this classic treat - milk, melted butter, flour, vanilla, egg, a little sugar, chocolate - ingredients that most of us have in our pantries and fridges on any given day.

my notes
I chose two different recipes, one using Dutch process cocoa powder and one using melted chocolate, thinking it would be good to compare the flavors.

ingredients for Dutch process version
ingredients for melted chocolate version
 I put the two batters together with no muss nor fuss and refrigerated them overnight.

getting ready to blend ingredients for the melted chocolate version
bringing it all together with an immersion blender
When it came time to make the crêpes, I chose to make a 4-5" size, thinking I wanted a petite cake for my first attempt.  Steve and I have a small sauté pan (I think it's Calphalon) that we've had for years and rarely use.  It seemed just the thing for what I was about to do.

I heated the pan and started the process.  I soon understood what to watch for as the crépes began to set.  It didn't take long before I was into the rhythm of crêpe making - one after another I piled them onto the plate.

starting to set
after flipping, finishing it off 
Especially when making small crêpes, I realized the seemingly inordinate amount of time it took to finish off all the batter (and I had made only half a recipe!).  At this point I could imagine having 3 or 4 pans going at once, flipping crêpes one after another in assembly line fashion!

I made a couple of crêpes from the Dutch process cocoa batter first.  I then switched over to the melted chocolate version, and, after doing a tasting of the two, decided to abandon the cocoa version, since it didn't have nearly as rich a flavor.

Once all of my crêpes were finished I layered them between sheets of parchment and put them in the fridge, since I was planning my assembly for the following day.

I decided to make a simple whipped chocolate ganache filling, using 3 parts cream to 1 part chocolate by weight.

Boil the cream, pour it over the chocolate, whisk gently, cover (plastic wrap directly on the surface to eliminate air) and refrigerate until nicely chilled.  It couldn't be easier!

When I was ready to begin the assembly, I pulled my plate of crêpes and my ganache from the fridge.

I whipped the ganache to medium firm peaks so it would be nicely spreadable . . .

and began the process . . .

it's a start

getting higher
until I had 21 (or was it 24?) layers (OK just try to count them!)

Into the fridge it went to set up before glazing.  My chocolate glaze is 113 gm of chocolate and 42 gm of butter melted over a bain marie.  Trés simple!

all glazed
I held the finished cake, covered, in the fridge overnight.  When it was time to serve, I sliced it and garnished with caramel spiked chantilly and chopped toasted hazelnuts.

If I haven't mentioned this before, I toast nuts before using, no matter what I'm doing with them.  It brings out the flavor and adds so much to the final experience!

a cross section

all plated up
A note about chocolate:  for this project I used Valrhona's 64% Manjari, the chocolate I used regularly when working at Gracie's.  Since then I've come to really enjoy the flavor (and the price!) of Trader Joe's Belgian chocolate, typically mixing half-and-half of their "dark chocolate" and "72% dark chocolate".

I had made a mini-cake with leftover crêpe pieces and ganache for Steve and I to sample.  We both felt that the chocolate was too acidic and not necessarily an agreeable taste, so I was anticipating how we and our Saturday evening dinner guests, Magali and Guy, might react to the piéce de resistance.

We all enjoyed the texture and flavor, particularly with the chantilly and hazelnuts mellowing out the acid of the chocolate.  But, it was Magali who suggested a bit of orange, which reminded me that I had some candied orange peel in my fridge from an earlier project.  I put a couple of pieces of the peel on our desserts et voila!  It made ALL the difference.  What a delicious combination!

Thanks Miss Mag!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

More than you'll ever want to know about shortbread

When asked what my favorite baked good is, my thoughts usually turn to a lovely, buttery shortbread. There is something so genteel about a cup of tea with a delicious crisp cookie along side.

The basic dough for classic shortbread is 1-2-3 dough, or 1 part sugar, 2 parts butter and 3 parts flour (by weight).  The word short refers to the high fat content of the dough as well as the limited mixing, which prevents long gluten strands from forming and keeps the dough tender.

In French the word sablé (sand) is used to describe this type of dough, and the sablage process involves simply mixing flour and sugar together, then blending (or "sanding") in diced, cool butter with your finger tips until a coarse, sandy texture is reached.  At that point the dough can be pressed firmly into a pan and baked.

That's the method I use when I have a craving for fresh shortbread and want to make it quickly.  I line an 8 or 9" square pan with parchment and weigh out 75 gm sugar, 150 gm butter and 225 gm flour.  I dice the cool butter and sand it by hand into the flour and sugar til crumbly.  I like to add the seeds scraped from one vanilla bean too - love to see those little brown specks!

I buy my beans in bulk from Beanilla

Once the dough is pressed into the pan I bake at 300º convection, usually about 20-25 minutes.  I like it lightly browned and well baked so it has a tender crumb but is still crispy too.

With this approach it's important to cut the shortbread in the pan soon after it comes out of the oven.  If you wait until it's completely cooled, it will tend to crack and won't cut evenly.  But don't worry, it will still taste great!

You can also take the sablage a step further until the dough actually comes together, although it's easier with a mixer, especially if you're making a larger batch.  Just put your flour and sugar into the mixing bowl, throw in your diced butter and mix with the paddle on low speed.  It usually takes about 5 minutes before it starts to form a cohesive ball. Then stop and don't over mix.

This allows you to shape the dough into a round, square or even triangular log or simply wrap and chill it for later rolling and cutting into desired shapes.

It's the best approach when you're planning ahead and want to have a variety of flavors of dough ready in your fridge or freezer.

Some of my shortbread are made using another common mixing method - that of first blending soft butter with sugar and THEN adding the flour.  Please note that this is NOT the traditional creaming of butter and sugar that is meant to aerate and lighten, as one might do for a cake.  You don't want to introduce air into the shortbread dough, just blend the butter and sugar together.

By now you're probably wondering why all this talk about mixing methods for such a simple cookie? It's the world of baking and pastry!  And why might I use one method over another?  It's really based on the various recipes I've discovered and adapted over the years.  The results are all still delicious no matter what method you use, so have fun with it!

I found the following recipe some years ago on Clotilde Dusoulier's blog, "Chocolate and Zucchini".  She attributes it to Parisian chef Yves Camdeborde of Le Comptoir du Relais in the 5th arr.

It varies a bit from the strict 1-2-3, using 90 gm coarsely ground raw sugar (gives it a great crunch!), 200 gm soft butter, and 250 gm flour (along with those important vanilla bean seeds).  The higher ratio of butter and lower ratio of flour give these cookies a nice crispy texture.

the ingredients

First I smear the butter with my trusty spatula until smooth, then blend in the sugar (that's a mixture of vanilla sugar and coarse raw sugar above on the right).  I scrape my vanilla seeds into the mix, throw in a pinch of salt and then add the flour by cutting it in with a bowl scraper and gently blending it by hand until it comes together.  You can see it still looks rough but holds together.

divided and ready to log up
When forming dough logs, I first shape roughly . . .

and then do the final shaping with the dough wrapped in plastic.

ready to be chilled before slicing

Once the dough has chilled, and you're ready to bake, heat your oven to 300º convection.  With this particular recipe I roll the logs in raw sugar before slicing, then space the cookies out on parchment lined sheets.


I've gotten into the habit of freezing the cookies on the sheet pans for 10-15 minutes before baking.  It keeps the butter firm and helps maintain the shape during baking.

Depending on your oven these may bake anywhere from 20 to 25 minutes - pay attention to what's happening in there, and don't forget to rotate and change shelf positions of your sheet pans about half way through.

nicely browned and just waiting to be sampled!

Let's talk a bit about flavors.  Once you have a base recipe down, use your imagination to create your own variations.

One of my favorites is to brush the just baked cookies with my homemade caramel sauce, sprinkle them with sea salt and pop 'em back in the oven for 2-3 minutes to set the caramel.  Deeelish!

Or brush with honey and sprinkle with herbes de provence (Steve's idea!) and sea salt.

You can add citrus zest and a squeeze of fresh citrus juice as you're mixing . . .

or mix some chopped crystallized ginger, dried tart cherries or cranberries into your dough . . .

or add chopped, toasted nuts and your favorite spice like cinnamon, ginger or nutmeg . . .

or replace 1/4 of your flour with ground nuts or cornmeal for varied textures . . .

or dip your finished cookie in melted chocolate.

You get the idea.

One of the most popular offerings during market days at my pastry studio was the shortbread bar - 12 different flavors, mix and match, pop 'em in a bag and go!

my shortbread bar
Mmmmmm - what an enticing array!

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Tarte Tatin

Before I jump into the topic at hand I'd like to share a photo of this gorgeous maple tree that we've been viewing from our window every day these past few weeks.  It's a beauty!

Making a classic tarte tatin has been on my to-do list for some time now.  So when a recent NYT article with the tatin recipe from Gotham Bar and Grill was published online, I felt it was time.

Over the years I've tried my hand at a couple of variations, one being a few summers ago when I made petite versions in mini muffin pans with plums and peaches.  They were messy but deeeelicious.

More recently, a second attempt involving a mango version from Christophe Felder's book Les Folles Tartes, turned out OK, but something about the flavor of the mangoes put me off.

As is my wont, when I'm planning to make a classic of anything, I compare a number of recipes to see how different chefs approach the process.

In addition to Felder's I reviewed recipes from Dorie Greenspan, Michel Roux, Philippe Conticini, Sherry Yard, Francois Payard and the above mentioned Gotham B&G.  Each had a slightly different take on the process.

The recommended apples ran the gamut from Golden Delicious, Gala, Braeburn, Granny Smith, Cox and Honeycrisp, typically requiring 6-8 apples for a 9-10" tart.  I opted for a mixture of Braeburn and Granny Smith, partly because I had never baked with Braeburns and thought it a good test.  I like G. Smith because they hold their shape, and their tartness goes so well with buttery pastry and caramel.


Most recipes call for pâte feuilletée (puff pastry), although a couple used pâte brisée.  Sherry Yard likes to use croissant dough as her tart base.  Go figure.  The quantity of dough is generally about 8 ounces.  This is another one of those times when it's great to have some puff pastry already made and in your freezer!

Typically sugar and butter (amounts vary from recipe to recipe) are used to create a caramel.  Some variations involve making the caramel, pouring it into a moule à manqué (cake pan) and temporarily setting it aside.  The prepped apples are then placed over the cooled caramel and baked in a 350-375 oven for perhaps 30 minutes to soften and caramelize them.  They are then topped with a round of pastry and placed back in the oven to continue the caramelization and bake the pastry until golden brown.

Alternatively some recipes have you bake the pastry round separately and then place it onto the baked apples.  The whole thing is then turned out onto a platter before serving.

After a while all these variables become a bit overwhelming.  I decided to go the classic route, starting on the stove top and then moving into the oven.  I followed the guidelines in Dorie Greenspan's "Paris Sweets" recipe, although I did not make the vanilla tea version as she does.

First I rolled out my puff pastry to about 3 mm thick, and using a cake circle as a guide, cut a round slightly larger than my pan.  I pricked it with a fork, covered it and held it in the fridge until later.  Interestingly, both Michel Roux and Gotham B&G have you put the raw pastry over the apples while still on the stovetop before even going into the oven.  To each his own.

Then I took my new 10" Lodge cast iron pan (can't believe it took me so long to buy one!), coated it in 113 gm (4 oz) soft butter and sprinkled 150 gm of sugar over it.  I used a mixture of my own vanilla sugar and granulated sugar.

partially coated
all the butter and sugar in place
 I had peeled, cored and quartered a total of 6 apples . . . .

  which I layered over the butter/sugar:

The pan is placed over medium heat on the stovetop until a light to medium caramel develops.  The time for that will vary, and one must keep on eye on things and adjust the heat as needed to prevent burning.   

sugar and butter bubbling away

caramel becoming more golden
Here is where one must use judgement about the extent of the caramelization.  I thought this was looking nicely ready so I retrieved my pastry from the fridge and placed it over the apples:

ready for the oven
 Recommended baking times varied from 30-50 minutes with the ultimate goal being a nicely browned pastry.  I baked mine about 35 minutes and thought it had achieved just that very look:

I gave it just a minute or two to let any bubbling subside, then, placing a flat platter over the pan, handily flipped the tart out with nary a hitch (I was a bit worried as to how I would faire with that step).  Imagine my disappointment when I saw before me a much paler version than what I had anticipated!  Plus the Braeburn apples, while actually still holding some shape, were on the verge of mushy applesauce!!

the disappointingly pale version
Even the edge of the pastry looked underdone, and I dreaded biting into a doughy mouthful (the worst).

But have no fear.  Steve arrived home soon after the tart came out of the oven and said "why don't you put it back in?"  So I slipped the whole thing back onto a parchment lined sheet pan, apple side up and baked it for a good 30 minutes more.  The fix was in . . .

much better

check out the caramelized pastry now!

Lesson learned.  Next time I would let the caramel on the stove top go a tad further and would definitely extend the baking time to a decent 50-60 minutes.  Since one can't see what's going on with the apples underneath the pastry, it takes practice to understand the timing of it all.  Other than that I found the whole thing really very straight forward and wondered why I hadn't made this long ago.

In preparation for this tarte tatin I had made a classic vanilla bean crème anglaise ice cream base the day before which had spent the night chilling in the fridge.  I processed it in my good old Cuisinart canister model ice cream maker and held it in the freezer until serving.

starting to thicken up

oooh so creamy

Nothing fancy . . .

but delicious and well worth it!

Yes, I would definitely make this again.