Reine de Saba

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Reine de Saba (Queen of Sheba) is essentially a chocolate almond torte and reportedly one of Julia Child’s first French gateau experiences - one that helped launch her into what would become a fantastic culinary adventure for life.

There are a bevy of different recipes out there for this one - most involve melting dark chocolate with butter, separating the egg whites and yolks, whipping the whites with a portion of the sugar to create a meringue, adding almond flour along with your choice of a small amount of all purpose flour or alternate flour like teff and folding everything together.

After my review of a half dozen or so recipes I ultimately landed on two of Alice Medrich’s - one from “Seriously Bittersweet” and one an alternate grain version from “Flavor Flours” which uses teff flour (gluten free!) in place of all purpose. Dense, dreamy, creamy yet light and chocolate-y all at the same time. That woman KNOWS her chocolate boy oh boy! Thanks A.M.

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In “Seriously Bittersweet” A.M. dedicates a page to the “versatility and the role of ingredients” in creating these chocolate gateaux. She says “This type of torte is essentially an extremely buttery chocolate egg custard given texture with ground nuts and maybe a little flour. The basic ingredients are standard, but the quantity of each is almost infinitely flexible”.

She goes on to explain how the eggs (whether separated or not) help bind the rest of the ingredients whether you use 3, 4 or 5 eggs; how even a small amount of flour adds a smoothness to nutty tortes by affecting the way the eggs cook; how nuts can be used un-blanched , blanched, toasted or raw as well as in different quantities - a lower measure of nuts will give you a less cake-y and more mousse-y custard like torte, while whole ground nuts will provide a coarser texture than more finely milled nut flours.

Butter adds flavor, contributes to texture and provides moisture as well. Brewed coffee or different liqueurs or spirits like rum, bourbon, kirsch, Frangelico or Amaretto add flavor too. So many possibilities.

While each of these two recipes uses practically identical ingredients, the teff version (below) keeps the eggs whole and everything is blended together in one bowl - easy-peasy. You can even use a hand held mixer. Ms. Medrich points out that the secret to a fluffy batter for this one is chocolate not too warm, butter not too soft and eggs cold!

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Here goes!
Heat the oven to 375ºF. Butter the bottom of an 8” springform pan then line the bottom with parchment.
Mix 70 g almond flour with 35 g teff flour and set aside.
Melt 170 g dark chocolate (70% recommended) over a barely simmering water bath, set aside and let cool to lukewarm.
Have 150 g sugar, 140 g unsalted cubed butter softened (not too!), 1/8 teaspoon salt and 4 cold large eggs at the ready.
Add almond-teff flours, sugar, butter chunks and salt to the chocolate and beat on medium with the hand held mixer until well blended and the batter thickens and lightens in color.
Beat in the eggs one by one then beat on high speed for a minute or so until fluffy and lighter in color, like chocolate frosting.
Scrape batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly.

Looks like chocolate frosting to me!

Looks like chocolate frosting to me!

Bake 30-35 minutes until a tester inserted in the center comes out with a few moist crumbs.

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Slide a thin knife or small offset spatula around the sides to allow the cake to sink slightly as it cools. Cool completely.

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For the more traditional version using all purpose flour, the process involves separating the eggs and whipping them separately with portions of the sugar. Rather than almond flour, whole natural almonds are processed with the flour to a coarse texture, giving the end result a toothy, nutty-textured chew.

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For the second version heat the oven to 375ºF, butter the bottom of an 8” springform pan and line it with a round of parchment paper.

Place 170 g coarsely chopped chocolate (66-70%) and 140 g unsalted butter in a medium heatproof bowl set into a wide skillet with barely simmering water. Stir periodically until melted then, off the heat, stir in 3 tablespoons brandy (optional - I added some vanilla extract instead), 1/8 teaspoon almond extract and 1/8 teaspoon salt. Set it aside.

Pulse 70 g unblanched whole almonds and 15 g all purpose flour in a food processor to a cornmeal-like texture. Set aside.

Separate 4 large eggs: in a large bowl whisk the yolks with 100 g sugar until well blended then stir in the chocolate mixture.

In a clean, dry bowl whisk the whites and 1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar on medium to soft peaks then sprinkle in 50 g sugar and beat at high speed to stiff but not dry peaks.

Now place 1/4 of the egg whites and all of the nut/flour mixture on top of the chocolate batter and fold them in with a large rubber spatula. Fold in the remaining egg whites.

Combining everything

Combining everything

Spread the batter into the prepared springform pan. Can you see the nut particles?

Ready for the oven

Ready for the oven

Bake 25-30 minutes until a tester inserted into the center is still moist but one inserted ~1.5 inches from the edge is almost clean (whoa - talk about nuance!)

All baked up

All baked up

A light dusting of confectioner’s sugar sets off the dark chocolate nicely.

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As usual, Steve and I did our mandatory taste test. We first tried the teff version which had a great chocolate flavor and smooth, creamy texture. But we gave the nod to the second version, enjoying the melt-in-your-mouth custard like center and the mouth feel of the coarser nuttier texture. Deelish!

Served with a honey-tinged Scandinavian yogurt and some fresh strawberries it was, in my estimation, superb (even though Mr. Steve is not a big yogurt fan).

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The longer you bake, the more you begin to realize how much variation and play can happen from recipe to recipe. Even though we accept the fact that not everything always turns out as we had hoped, it’s a beautiful thing to try your own version and make it fun!

Happy summer!!

A couple of autumn tarts

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Apples! Pears! Berries! What better way to celebrate autumn, eh?

On the prowl for a couple of Sunday desserts, as well as a way to use some of the local Michigan pears and apples I had on hand, tarts were definitely on my mind. Natch! This project involved two versions of tart, one apple/pear/blackberry with classic brown sugar crumble topping and one apple/pear/raspberry with crunchy almond topping. Ooooohhh how delicious.

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I’ve been a fan of Bosc pears for some years now, and, on the apple side of things, this season I’ve taken quite a shine to Jonagolds too.

I typically poach my pears soon after purchase as a way to avoid the ripening wait as well as to hold them in the fridge for use when needed. But after reviewing some of my numerous pastry books I opted for the slice/dice/sauté in a little butter and sugar approach. Works like a charm!

For a couple of full sized tarts I peeled, halved, cored and thinly sliced about 4 pounds of apples. That would normally be a decent quantity for one tart, but, since I was mixing in pears and berries, it worked very nicely for two.

Then on medium heat melt 2 ounces/56 g unsalted butter in a sauté pan or Dutch oven large enough to hold all of the apples, then stir in the slices until coated. Add 100 g dark brown sugar, a large pinch of salt, the zest of one lemon and a large squeeze (a tablespoon or so) of lemon juice, increase heat to medium high and stir about a minute.

Now here’s where I took Elisabeth Prueitt’s advice from her “Tartine all Day” book - cover the pan, reduce the heat to low and let the apples cook for about 10 minutes until softening and juice-releasing has happened. Then scoop the apple slices out with a slotted spoon (I placed them in a large strainer over a bowl to allow dripping then transferred them to a clean bowl) and cook down the juices for a few minutes until very thick - apple caramel! Mix the thickened juices in with the apples and you’re good to go. You can add a little cinnamon and nutmeg here if you’d like - I kept mine au naturel. Set aside to cool until you’re ready to fill your tart shell.

For the pears, again using about 4 pounds, I peeled, halved, cored and diced them into 1/2 inch cubes then followed a similar sauté approach in butter and sugar. For these, simply cook them over medium high heat until they start to soften and become lightly caramelized (maybe 5-8 minutes) then set them aside to cool until ready to fill the tarts. No juice reduction here.

I used two of my favorite tart doughs - pâte brisée for the blackberry version and pâte sucrée for the raspberry - blind baking them before filling. Once baked I brushed the bottom with egg white and popped ‘em back in the oven for a couple of minutes to “dry”. That provides a seal to the dough and reduces the chance for a soggy crust.

Pear apple blackberry waiting for assembly

Pear apple blackberry waiting for assembly

I mounded the apple/pear mix in first then tucked my blackberries into the various nooks and crannies. These were plump frozen berries that I broke up into pieces for more efficient cranny-ing.

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The brown sugar crumble is equal weights flour, brown sugar (you can use light or dark, whichever you prefer) and diced cold butter sanded into the dry ingredients. I usually make a bunch and store it in a zip-top bag in the freezer to use at a moment’s notice.

Loaded with crumble!

Loaded with crumble!

Since the crust is already baked and the fruit “cooked”, the primary task here is to brown the crumble and get the fruit to juicy-up. Bake at 350ºF for 20-25 minutes until the crumble is golden and some juicy bubbling is visible.

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The approach to the raspberry version is pretty much the same. Fill the blind baked crust with the pear/apple/raspberry mix.

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But this time the topping is made with 2 large egg whites, 100 g/1 cup confectioner’s sugar and 125 g/1.25 cups sliced almonds all mixed together and spread over the fruit.

Ready for the oven

Ready for the oven

This one also bakes at 350ºF for about 25-30 minutes until the nuts are browned and have taken on a certain luster and there’s some fruit juiciness visible around the edges.

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Talk about a treat! Whether it’s crunchy toasty almonds or a more classic crumble that melts in your mouth, both of these tarts delivered with the lovely fall flavor of pears, apples and berries. And a side of vanilla ice cream doesn’t hurt either!

Now don’t hesitate to make your own version of a delicious autumn tart.

Happy baking!

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Cran-oat-almond shortbread

Before we jump in, don't forget to check out this month's specialties - Valentine's goodies and my favorite chocolate ganache tart!

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Recently inspired by Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh's book "Sweet", I put together these absolutely wonderful shortbread cookies (or biscuits as the Brits would say) full of cranberries, oats and almonds. You can choose whether you'd like a white chocolate garnish or prefer them au naturel. Either way they are SO GOOD.

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Some of the ingredients require a bit of prep before putting the final dough together - chop cranberries and soak them in OJ; toast, cool and chop almonds; have butter at room temp - that kind of stuff. Simple but requires some planning on your part. It comes back to that important and well worn advice - always read the recipe through at least twice before you begin.

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I tweaked the recipe, which calls for both all purpose and whole wheat flour, to create my own version using white whole wheat flour and whole wheat pastry flour. As I continue to experiment with different whole grain flours, it's fun to learn about the various nuances of each.

White whole wheat flour is ground from hard white whole wheat, whereas whole wheat pastry flour comes from whole grain soft white wheat. Each contains all the nutrients that come from the whole grain, including the outer bran full of fiber, B vitamins and trace minerals and the small central germ containing antioxidants, vitamin E, B vitamins and healthy fats.

Whole wheat pastry flour is softer and thus lends itself well to things like scones, biscuits, flaky pie and tart crusts and fluffy pancakes. I'll be playing around with different combos and variations as time goes on. Cool. Always so much to learn.

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Now for my version of the recipe and many thanks to Yotam and Helen!

1. Heat your oven to 350ºF. Have a couple of 1/2 sheet pans lined with parchment at the ready.
2. Chop 125 g dried cranberries in half (unless they're already chopped), place them in a microwave safe bowl in 25 ml of orange juice and zap for about 10 seconds. Let them soak while you're getting other things ready. 
3. Place 150 g natural raw skin-on almonds on a baking sheet and toast for 10 minutes. Let cool, rough chop and place in a large bowl.
4. Add 175 g white whole wheat flour, 50 g whole wheat pastry flour, 150 g old fashioned oats and 1/4 teaspoon salt to the bowl with the almonds. Set aside.
5. Put 227 g room temperature unsalted butter, 100 g granulated sugar into which you've rubbed the zest of one or two large oranges (use two for that extra citrus zip!) into a mixer bowl with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium about 2 minutes until blended and light.
6. Add the nut-oat-flour mixture and beat on low to bring it together.
7. Add in the cranberries along with the orange juice and combine on low to mix in.
8. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface, bring it into a ball and divide in half. Roll each half to about 1/4 thick. I find it works well, particularly with a slightly sticky dough, to roll between two pieces of film wrap - keeps things neat!
9. Chill the dough for an hour or so before cutting out. Choose whatever shape and size you'd like, cut and place on the parchment lined sheets. As you can see I tried some different versions.
10. Bake about 18 minutes until lightly browned. Cool completely.

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If you choose to garnish your cookies with white chocolate, either drizzled, edge-dipped or spread in a layer, I found it worked best for me to microwave my Guittard wafers at half power for 30-45 second bursts, stirring until melted. My results are rustic for sure, but I. LOVE. THESE. COOKIES.

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Praliné et sablés

Some of you know how much I love shortbread cookies (les sablés, en français) and am often playing around with new flavors and ingredients to create something unique and tasty.


There is an ingredient in the pastry world called praliné which consists of toasted nuts coated in caramel that are then cooled and ground into a paste. It is often made with hazelnuts or a 50/50 mix of almonds and hazelnuts, although any nut (nuts in general are referred to as fruits sec, en français) or combination thereof can work.


One of the first sets of recipes we were given in the basic pastry course at Le Cordon Bleu contained a recipe for do-it-yourself praliné or praline paste.  One can buy this particular delight ready made in fairly pricey tubs from companies like Valrhona, but I thought it was high time I made it myself.  Why not?!

What inspired me to take on this project was a recipe for sablés au praliné from Thierry Mulhaupt (a well known patissier chocolatier in the Alsace region) recently published on the French blog La Cuisine de Mercotte.  The recipe for les sablés contains a link for DIY le praliné and I went for it!

Toast 125 g almonds and 125 g hazelnuts in a 325º oven for about 10 minutes. Make a sugar syrup with 165 g of sugar and 45 g of water and cook it to 121ºC (250ºF).  Off the heat stir the warm toasted nuts into the sugar syrup until the sugar crystallizes.  


Then put the pan back on medium heat and stir continuously until the crystallized sugar melts and caramelizes to a golden amber.

I must admit that I should have cooked mine a little longer to bring ALL the sugar to a beautiful caramel stage, but sometimes impatience takes over.  Still - the nuts were looking pretty good.


Turn them out of the pan onto a Silpat, spreading them into a single layer and separating the nuts as much as possible.

Once cooled place them in the bowl of a food processor and whiz away!  


Still a bit grainy above, but I gave it a few more minutes of processing and was pretty happy with the result. All in all it takes a good 8-10 minutes to arrive at the end result.


This stuff will keep in a covered container at room temperature for several weeks.

Next comes the cookie dough.


Dice 300 g cold butter and sand it into a mixture of 300 g all purpose flour, 65 g almond flour and 65 g powdered sugar. Add 175 g praliné and a large pinch of fleur de sel and blend to create a smooth dough.


Divide the dough into five 180 g pieces and form logs about 25 cm long. I made mine into triangle logs for something a little different. Wrap and chill.

When it's time to bake, heat the oven to 325ºF.  Brush the logs with a bit of water, roll in raw sugar and slice into 7-8 mm slices. NOTE: the recipe actually suggests 15 mm slices, however I was going for a thinner cookie.


Place cookies on parchment lined sheet pans and bake about 16 minutes until nicely browned.


I must say these are tasty little morsels. Although the nuttiness is subtle, the butteriness is superb and the texture is melt in your mouth.  And the raw sugar crunch adds just the right touch.


Of course, making the praline paste is a time commitment which I suspect many would choose not to take on, and going the "store-bought" route is fairly prohibitive cost-wise. 

For me it was worth the effort to make my own, especially since so much of this stuff is about tackling something new, experiencing the process and enjoying the tastes that come along with it.

The good news is that once you make it you can use it for other things like ganache or as an addition to mousses or creams.  And remember - it keeps!  Only you can decide.