Saturday, May 31, 2008

Guimauve Part Deux: Some Kosher Fluff

My foray into the world of guimauve became a lesson in gelling agents when Passover hit this spring, and I had the opportunity to contribute to a Syrian seder meal. The Mediterranean nature of the meal brought to mind the rose water-flavored marshmallows I had read about, and I thought that rose and mint guimauves would be a fun touch to the dessert tray.

I was previously aware that most gelatin (think Jello and Knox gelatin) was made from animal products, but the idea of cooking kosher for this one meal brought me to the point of looking at other gelling options. I learned that agar agar, a gelling agent derived from sea vegetables (seaweed, etc.), was a vegetarian possibility, and therefore a kosher choice. It was difficult to determine through online searches exactly how agar agar might be substituted for Knox gelatin, so I decided to just give it a try and plan back up desserts in case it didn't work out.

My first attempt was not a success (thank goodness for the back up desserts!); I used the amount of water suggested on the agar agar packet to soak the flakes, which ended up being such a large amount of water that it took a long time for the syrup solution to incorporate with the egg whites, and when it finally did, it was a foamy mass in the Kitchen Aid. Needless to say, this concoction did not solidify and ended up in the trash.

I was determined to make the agar agar work, so I went for it again the next week. This time I reduced the water to just enough to cover the flakes in a small bowl, and then heated the flakes and water for 30 seconds at a time in the microwave. After stirring and reheating the flakes and water until the flakes dissolved completely, I subbed them into the recipe I used before, and the result was much better than the fluff I got the first time.

When it came time to divide the mallow into individual servings, it was still quite delicate - it crushed to the touch and was rather wet. I decided to divide it up, but then roll it in a stiffer coating than the non-kosher marshmallows. Half of the recipe was rose, colored lightly with red food coloring, so I rolled these in a combination of powdered sugar, ground almonds, and sliced roasted almonds. The mint half of of the recipe, tinted with blue and green food coloring, I rolled in unsweetened cocoa powder and powdered sugar. The results at this point are pictured above.

I let this form of the marshmallows dry for a day or so, but they weren't firm enough to pick them up and eat them without them falling apart or sticking madly to the fingers, even though they tasted good. After some brainstorming, I decided to give them feet of chocolate: white chocolate for the rose, dark chocolate for the mint. I melted chocolate chips in the microwave (I know this is not considered the best method for melting chocolate, but I find it satisfactory for my purposes) and plopped 1 1/2 inch circles of it on parchment paper, which I topped immediately with the delicate fluff. And voilà, now I had airy bites of sweet delight!

So, agar agar can work, but it does not result in a chewy marshmallow. Instead, it makes a light, fluffy marshmallow that could almost pass as meringue. I would perhaps make it again this way, but I still am on a quest for a chewy kosher marshmallow.

Next step in the guimauve saga: putting into play the gelatin sheets I bought in Paris and the 2 kinds of kosher gelatin powder (fish & bovine) I purchased in Israel.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Tasting Paris

Friends, welcome to a tasting of my lovely Parisian weekend; these photos are highlights from the baked goods and pastries that I enjoyed. I'll write more on the stories behind my experiences at another time, but I just wanted to give you un petit goûter of my companions on this mini-vacation.

This first photo was of some wonderful macarons that I ate while lazing in the sun for three hours on the Champs de Mars. Left to right, we have caramel flavored with fleur de sel, chocolate-violet, vanilla, and raspberry. The shop guy threw one in for free, which really made my day! French people were so nice to me on this trip. My favorites were the caramel and the vanilla, plus the pistachio which I consumed before taking the picture...

This is an individual-sized kouglof at Notre Dame. The kouglof is an Alsacian speciality; it's a flaky sort of bread-cake with a moist interior and spiced and well-sugared outside. I'm thinking bread-cakes are something new I'll have to explore - I tried a few that were drenched in syrup or other flavorings, and they still have to grow on me before I rave about them. I did like this one, though.

I'm not too crazy about this photo at Sacré Coeur, but I just had to include it because this is bread from Poilâne, called by my food guidebook the "Mona Lisa" of bread bakeries. Poilâne represents one of the first French bakers to revive the making of artisanal breads in the past few decades; it is a wonderfully-crusted, slightly sour bread with a marvelously textured interior. I ate it on its own, I ate it with creamed honey, I ate it with cheese. Yum.

Again, macarons, this time on the Pont des Beaux Arts, with Ile de la Cité (home of Notre Dame and more) in the background. Before this trip, I was a macaron virgin - something I did not want to admit to foodies. But now that I have eaten my first macarons from Pierre Hermé, I am ashamed no more. They were by far my favorite eats of the trip (hence the first picture at the Eiffel Tower, which were my second purchase of macarons). I have never eaten anything so amazing. Somehow the meringue halves are just crusty enough on the outside to hold things together, but give away delicately to a slightly chewy but soft and then ecstatically creamy center. These were even more delicate than the Eiffel Tower macarons (purchased at a less-renowned but still adequate bakery), as you will see by the slightly crunched one at the lower left - this from just having been carried in a plastic bag for a few blocks. I. Loved. Them. Clockwise from top left: vanilla, rose (my second favorite), bittersweet chocolate, and pistachio-raspberry (my favorite!).

One of the chocolate ganaches I purchased from chocolatier Christian Constant, pictured in the Luxembourg Gardens. This almond praline ganache is posed on a velum menu that describes each of the ganaches they sell, on top of one of the many green chairs available throughout all Paris public parks (a thing I love about socialism in France). Each of the ganaches was so smooth and melty...

And because I had to break the sweets up with some savory stuff, I got a sandwich grec to eat by the Seine - roasted lamb on a pita with some of the best french fries ever - in memory of my student days in Paris, when this was an expensive treat.

And, second only to the macarons, hand-made marshmallows accompanied me to the Louvre. Lightly flavored with rose and perfectly fluffy and chewy at the same time, these challenged my guimauve-making skills and primed me for my next attempt. I loved their uneven exterior and perfect texture with each bite.

I can only hope that my next visit to Paris will be soon and just as, um, productive.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Maman Je T'Aime: Almond Torte

Since I am in Paris and cannot be home on this Mother's Day - and La Fête des Mères is a big deal in France, after all! - I decided to compose a post to honor my mother.  I owe her completely for my love of food, and for my foundation in the kitchen arts.  She taught me to bake chocolate chip cookies long ago as my childhood speciality (which were the top sellers of my not-for-profit "Kid's Bakery"!) and gave me a solid education in cooking skills, from cutting up whole chickens to measuring flour properly.  She is trained in nutritional science, but always said that she really learned to cook from her mother, and not her university food classes; I can truly say that I also really learned to cook from my mother, and so the tradition continues.

While my mom is quite skilled in cooking, and successfully creates a wide range of foods that continually expands, her most remarkable use of the kitchen is for the purpose of hospitality. One day I hope to have a kitchen like hers: welcoming to all, generous to a fault, always abundant with fresh and tasty food.  I don't always tell her this, but I love the fact that I never know who will be in my home when I set foot in the door, and that I never have to hesitate to invite more people, no matter who they are.  Because of her, I see food as something to be shared and enjoyed with others.  When I've considered starting a bakery or catering business, I have always backed away from it because it removes the essence of what I enjoy about cooking: giving the food away.  And Mom continues to have patience for the smallest kitchen questions, which always seem to worry me for hours.

To celebrate my mother, I would like to share a recipe that she has made famous in our town - and it will only do her justice if the recipe is given out as generously as the tortes themselves. This almond torte recipe was given to her by a family friend, and ever since then it is a constant presence in our house.  Its simple sophistication works well as a gift and for special occasions, as it may be made ahead of time, stored at room temperature wrapped in plastic for weeks, frozen for longer, or mailed without incident.  As it sits, over time it becomes more chewy (a quality I value), and it fits perfectly in a gallon-size freezer bag.  It should be served sliced in very small wedges, as it is quite rich.

Mom's Almond Torte
1 1/2 C sugar
3/4 C melted butter
2 1/2 T almond paste*
2 eggs
1 tsp almond extract
1 1/2 C flour
pinch salt
1 tsp baking powder
handful of sliced almonds

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line a 10" iron skillet or pie plate with foil.  Beat together sugar, melted butter, and almond paste until well combined (if the almond paste starts out soft enough, it shouldn't still be in clumps after being beaten in).   Add eggs and almond extract. Then mix in flour, salt, and baking powder.

Pour into foil-lined pan, even out the batter with a rubber scraper, and sprinkle the top with a light layer of granulated sugar and sliced almonds, which should be pressed in individually so that they do not fall off after baking.

Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes to 1 hour.  Once well browned on top and the edges are cracked all around, a chewier torte may be achieved by turning off oven, cracking open oven door, and leaving torte in the oven for another 10 minutes (Mom's discovery!  I've learned that mistakes can improve an item sometimes.).

Cool in pan.  Store with foil on the bottom until ready to serve.

So, Mom, I'm enjoying good food in Paris for you today.  Next year in Paris, Maman?  

*This is 1/3 of the Odensa 7-oz. almond paste tube; if you purchase this, you should squeeze the tube while in the store to make sure it gives to the touch - sometimes the paste can grow hard on the shelf, which is not ideal.  Almond paste can also be purchased in a can at Cost Plus World Market, and this can be a good deal.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Smoked Sausage, Spinach, and Flax Seed Noodles

From time to time it happens that I end up out to dinner with a guy who tells me that he likes to cook (me: "great!") Italian food (silence on my side of the table). My girlfriends have heard me rail against typical Italian food: I find it boring, tomato-based sauces make my stomach turn, cream-based sauces clash with lactose intolerance, pasta dishes leave me cold. All this plus carb- and cholesterol-consciousness makes an unattractive class of food for me. I will savor a good pizza or fresh fettucini on occasion, but I can certainly think of much more exciting things to make or try given the choice. I know I claim to be unpretentious, but I'm just voicing my preference for non-Italian food - even though I know other people have a right to love it (sorry guys, that wasn't the way to impress this girl).

So you will imagine my surprise when I was immediately drawn to this recipe in a magazine. I have a feeling that it was the photo of browned sausage with shiny vegetables that caught my eye. This savoriness just happened to be hosted by a tangle of fresh pasta, which I was willing to accept in a fresh or high-fiber incarnation if tossed with the sausage and veggies. Why not try this simple combination of fresh, healthy, and flavorful ingredients?

I was also happy to see the method employed in the recipe for creating a clear sauce for the dish (notice: no tomatoes or cream involved). I've been wanting to work on this kind of sauce, so I made up a grocery list and got to work with leftovers in mind. I chose a smoked sausage I liked, high-fiber noodles with flax seed, and doubled the meat and vegetables. The leftovers are great!

Smoked Sausage, Spinach, and Flax Seed Noodles
4 chicken sausages, smoked (about 10 oz. total)
1 small red onion
6 C fresh baby spinach
1 T balsamic vinegar or low-sugar, low-fat balsamic vinaigrette
1 tsp cornstarch
3 tsp olive oil, divided
1 C reduced-sodium chicken broth
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 12-oz. package of high-fiber pasta (flax seed spaghetti at Trader Joe's worked)

Bring a large covered pot of water to a boil over high heat. Reduce to low and simmer covered until ready to cook pasta. Meanwhile, cut sausage into 1/4-inch-thick diagonal pieces and slice onion. In a small bowl, mix vinegar and cornstarch.

Heat 2 tsp oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add sausage, reduce heat to medium, and cook 1 minute. Turn sausage and cook another minute. Add remaining tsp oil, onion, and spinach and saute 1 minute. Add broth and 1/4 C cold water; bring to a boil over high heat. Stir in cornstarch mixture and pepper. Cook, stirring, until liquid is a little glossy, about 30 seconds. Set aside.

Return pasta water to a boil over high heat. Add pasta and cook according to package directions. Drain in a colander. Add drained pasta to sausage and sauce in skillet and toss gently to combine. Serves 4.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Recent Schemes: Spills, Thrills, and Laughs

This past week my scheming was focused on a Thai-themed office party; I have to share this experience, as it ended up being rather farcical in its execution - and I would love for you to laugh with me and learn from my mistakes!

The main entrees were catered, so I focused on providing the last touches: Thai iced tea with the meal, kiwi sorbet with mint chiffonnade and ginger snaps for the dessert.

The spills of the day started after everything was heated and in place on schedule.  I had made Thai iced tea to be tested by my fellow hosts; they gave it a thumbs up, but one minute later I went to clean up the kitchen area and closed a cupboard door that spilled one of the host's tea glasses nearly on top of my head.  To my relief, the guests had not arrived yet, so we mopped up that mess without an audience - but down one glass of tea and a bit of my pride.

The luncheon got to a start without other major hitches; food disappeared from plates, tea was enjoyed (although called "Boba" by some), and dessert time approached.

I pulled the kiwi sorbet from the freezer to find it already slightly melted, but proceeded to scoop it into the chilled plastic martini glasses and garnish it with the mint chiffonnade.  The garnish covered the fact that the sorbet could not hold the shape of a scoop, and I resolved to serve the dessert with confidence so that the guests would not know that it should be otherwise.  

I walked out of the kitchen with a tray of the glasses, initially met by oohs and ahs from the guests, followed by sudden gasps as the lovely martini glasses attempted to launch themselves off the tray.  The majority settled back into place, but at least four had scattered their innards on the tray and floor: a plop of kiwi sludge here, berries and mint leaves chiffonnading over there.  I wondered why the glasses waited until that moment to take action, since I had made it safely from the kitchen already, but it has become clear to me that the plastic ware that day was campaigning to humble my food-serving ego.

In any case, the remaining desserts were served; I do believe that the ginger snaps were a success, but I avoided watching the consumption of the melted sorbet.  So, here are the recipes, with my now-experienced recommendations:

Thai Iced Tea (derived from Emeril's Food Network recipe)
6 black tea bags (Awake from Tazo Tea works)*
3/4 C sugar
6 T heavy cream
6 T sweetened condensed milk

Bring 6 C water to a boil in a kettle.  Hang the tea bags in a tea pot or glass container (I used Pyrex liquid measuring cups).  Pour the water over the tea bags and let steep until strong.  If desired, loose leaf tea may be used to make 6 C tea; in this case, tea will need to be strained once steeping is complete.  Add sugar to the hot tea and stir to dissolve (this is a lot of sugar, so you'll need to keep stirring until you can no longer see sugar in the bottom of the container). Let cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.

At the time of serving, fill 6 tall glasses with crushed or cubed ice and pour tea evenly in the glasses.  Add 1 T cream and 1 T condensed milk to each glass.  Serve with iced-tea spoons or straws (as I did in this less-formal lunch) so that guests can stir the mixture themselves.

Beware of oddly placed glasses and enjoy one of your own!

Kiwi Sorbet (from previously mentioned Paris in a Basket)
1 C water
1 1/2 C (325 g) sugar
2 C (500 g) pureed kiwis (about 8 whole).** 
1 lemon
Chiffonnade of mint leaves and fresh berries, for garnish
No ice cream maker required

In a saucepan, bring the water and sugar to a boil.  Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved. Remove from heat.

Peel the kiwis and puree in a food processor or pass through a food mill.  Add the juice of one lemon.  Pass through a sieve to remove the seeds (a few made it through the sieve into mine, but I left them to show what fruit this was made of).

Stir the kiwi puree into the sugar-and-water syrup.  Mix until homogeneous.  Pour into a stainless-steel bowl.  Cool to room temperature, and place in the freezer.  Leave a metal fork in the bowl.  It is essential that this mixture be in a metal bowl as the process continues, as the metal bowl will become much colder in the freezer than other materials would; my sorbet was already melting when I served it because I had removed it from the metal bowl to put it into an air-tight plastic container - an unnecessary and detrimental move.  I emphasize: both make and store the sorbet in a stainless-steel bowl.

Stir after 1 hour to break down the first frozen crystals.  Repeat every 1 to 2 hours, until the sorbet is firm.  Depending on your freezer, this can take between 4 and 5 hours.  Do not forget to give it a vigorous stir at regular intervals - otherwise it will freeze up into a solid block.  If you do stir it regularly, you will see the mixture grow thicker after each interval as the ice crystals harden and get redistributed by your stirring.  This is quite satisfying if you're spending an afternoon or evening at home and can return to the mixture every hour.

To serve, keep it in the metal bowl in the freezer until the last minute, and chill the serving dishes if possible as well.  I had the sorbet in a plastic container, in an insufficient freezer, served in plastic cups, so it was destined to melt early.  Form oblong scoops by using two spoons, dipping them into hot water between scoops.  Put 2 or 3 on each dish and sprinkle with mint chiffonnade (I used mint leaves, blueberries, and sliced strawberries).

When properly frozen, this sorbet is delightfully refreshing (as my earlier tastes revealed).  Avoid unbalanced serving glasses and try to eat it on a sunny day in comfortable chairs overlooking a lake/river/ocean.

Whole Wheat Gingersnaps 
These very closely followed the Chez Panisse Gingersnaps recipe on Chocolate and Zucchini.
I will just point out a few observations/adaptations I made:
  • I only had unsalted butter, so I added 2 tsp of salt.  I did feel that the salt was a nice complement to the spices.
  • It calls for 2 small or 1 1/2 large eggs; since most of us do not buy small eggs, I would encourage you to actually use the 1 1/2 large egg measurement; it worked for me to crack one egg into a bowl and then split the yolk in half (at least what looked like 1/2 to me) and dish about half of the white and half of the yolk into the batter, along with the other whole egg.  These cookies turned out great, so I would not mess with the liquid/dry ratio!
  • I substituted whole wheat flour for approximately 3/4 of the flour called for and it worked quite well, as whole wheat flour often does with molasses-flavored cookies.  I wouldn't be surprised if these cookies would turn out quite well with all whole wheat flour (I prefer King Arthur's White Whole Wheat flour).
  • I used a slightly smaller loaf pan than referenced in the recipe, which simply changed the shape of the cookies.  Do press it into the pan as evenly as possible, as my slices ended up somewhat uneven as a result of the frozen shape of the dough.  I left it in the freezer overnight, and in retrospect would have liked to return the dough to the freezer between baking batches to keep it from softening too much and changing the shape of the cookies - unless you're going for a randomness of form.  Slice the cookies almost as thinly as possible in order to get light and crisp snaps.  I also divided each slice of dough in half so as to get small square snaps rather than long rectangular ones.
  • Good luck not eating all the unbaked dough!
  • At least these can be cleaned up easily if spilled

*Some websites cite a special mixture of tea leaves for Thai tea that includes star anise; you may look in stores for "Thai" tea, but I had difficulty finding it at several stores without sugar and cream already added.  The orange color of Thai iced tea in restaurants comes from food coloring, which you may add a few drops of if so desired at the point of adding the sugar.
**The kiwis can be replaced by any firm fruit, such as strawberries, peeled peaches, bananas, or apricots.