Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Daring Bakers' October Challenge: French Kissing & Macarons

The 2009 October Daring Bakers’ challenge was brought to us by Ami S. She chose macarons from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern as the challenge recipe.

This was a doozy!

Amy challenged us to "practice our French kissing." Trust me, I would have preferred to practice my French Kissing during the endless hours I spent trying to produce a handful of proper French Macarons, those delicate Parisian cookies filled with luscious creams, jams or mousselines.

They're delicate alright.

Throughout the month we had to complete this challenge, fellow Daring Bakers were posting their comments and results in the private forum.  Very few achieved success right off the bat.  Very few achieved success after several attempts.  After reading all the problems experienced and troubleshooting tips, I felt like I was walking on egg shells when I finally embarked on this nightmare.  Believe me, I had enough egg shells to carpet my kitchen, and enough egg yolks to make about nine gallons of ice cream (the recipe calls for egg whites, almond flour, powdered sugar, and granulated sugar).

By Saturday night, I was just too tired to deal with another batch.  I was unsuccessful with the recipe provided for the challenge, and had similar failures with a few other recipes.  All the recipes I reviewed were so different in the ratios of ingredients, baking temperature, and methods.

My macarons displayed most of the visible signs of disaster...too flat, too puffed, irregular shape, cracked shells, guts left on parchment paper, overcooked, undercooked and, the most disastrous sign of all, which they all shared...NO FEET.  You know, the little frickin' frilly ruffles they are supposed to grow around the edges!  None.  Not even a toe.

I won't bore you with too many ghastly details and photos.  On Saturday night, I photographed the most presentable of the bunch:  Espresso and Chocolate Buttercream Macarons, my Macarons of Darkness...Macarons of Despair...

They tasted fairly delicious and some seemed to have the right texture, but they were still missing the characteristic feet.  With our Halloween party only a week away, I was able to borrow a few black roses for the photo shoot.  Seemed appropriate considering the result.

I was ready to succumb to defeat (defeat, get it?) and went to bed.  But I tossed and turned all night about my Macarons of Defeat.  I woke up Sunday morning with a new, refreshed attitude, and was ready to give it another go.  These cookies can't be THAT difficult to master.  I forced myself to work on our Gingerbread City 2009 entry most of the day, but had that nagging feeling in the back of my mind.  I must produce a batch of macarons, with feet, by the end of the following day!

As I sit here Monday night, preparing the remainder of this post for the official "reveal" tomorrow, my kitchen counter is covered with cooling macarons.  The good news is they finally have feet.  However, they are  browned and spotted and the insides are gooey.  Some have cracks; others have "caved in" shells due to too much attic space (don't ask).  I'm learning the lingo.

I had such high hopes for this final batch.  The batter was flavored with a little Pomegranate powder (I even practiced the molecular gastronomy I learned from our past Daring Cooks' Challenge to obtain this powder), and I envisioned a pomegranate mascarpone buttercream filling.  Everything seemed to be going along quite nicely.  I pulsed my almond flour and powdered sugar a few times in the food processor, sifted it to make sure it was nice and fine, aged the eggs whites, whipped the egg whites to a shiny meringue, folded in the almond flour mixture with the suggested number of strokes, made sure the batter flowed like lava, carefully piped out small circles, let them sit on the counter to form skins, used a double baking sheet, tried various oven temperatures, blah, blah, blah.  I just wasn't able to find the right set of criteria to make the stars align for me.

I know I have oven and/or oven temperature issues, as well as high humidity on the island.  Humidity is not my friend; it frizzes my hair and ruins my macarons.  I'm convinced, when we build our rustic, but elegant, Tuscan farmhouse, in the mountains of Montana or Colorado, complete with a gourmet kitchen and Wolf convection oven, my Macarons will emerge from the oven as if they came out of a Parisian bakery.  For the time being, I am forced to accept this batch of unsandwiched macarons.

However, in my quest for macarons with feet, I did find some comfort, inspiration and smiles from the following....

“We have not wings we cannot soar; but, we have FEET to scale and climb, by slow degrees, by more and more, the cloudy summits of our time.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“Keep your eyes on the stars, and your FEET on the ground.” Theodore Roosevelt

“Eve was not taken out of Adam's head to top him, neither out of his FEET to be trampled on by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected by him, and near his heart to be loved by him.”  Matthew Henry

“Ah, the patter of little FEET around the house. There's nothing like having a midget for a butler.” W. C. Fields

“I just put my FEET in the air and move them around.” Fred Astaire

"Where we love is home, home that our FEET may leave, but not our hearts." Oliver Wendell Holmes

and my favorite... 

“And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare FEET and the winds long to play with your hair.” Kahlil Gilbran

Have a Happy Halloween!

Thank you, Ami, for testing my patience and ultimately kicking my butt on this challenge.  I did learn more than I cared to about Macarons, and I did give it my best shot.  This was truly an excellent Daring Bakers' Challenge.  I won't give up.  I simply prefer to take a little break to practice my French kissing instead. 

Many of the Daring Bakers performed incredibly on this challenge.  Please go visit the Daring Bakers forum and check out some of the trials and tribulations in mastering the French Macaron!  Thank you also to Helen at Tartelette, and Audax, at Audax Artifex, for all their inspiration, tips and support.  And here's the recipe provided for our challenge.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Way to a Man's Heart - Bucatini Carbonara

John requested Pasta Carbonara last night for dinner.  I couldn't deny him such a simple request.  I've made Tyler Florence's Ultimate recipe countless times.  This pasta is truly one of life's ultimate pleasures.  I used Bucatini pasta and uncured Pepper Bacon in my version.  Don't deny your man.

The Ultimate Spaghetti Carbonara
Slightly adapted from Tyler's Ultimate: Brilliant Simple Food to Make Any Time
Serves 4


Kosher salt
Extra-virgin olive oil
8 slices Uncured Pepper Bacon, cut crosswise into thin strips
1 medium onion, chopped
1 large shallot, chopped
4 large eggs
6 tablespoons heavy cream
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 lb. Rustichella Bucatini pasta
Cracked black pepper
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Bring a big pot of salted water to a boil for the bucatini.

While waiting for the water to boil, heat a 3-count of olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the bacon, onion, and shallot, and cook for approximately 10 minutes, or until the onion and shallot is caramelized and the bacon is crisp.

By now, your water should be boiling.  Add the bucatini and cook for 8-10 minutes, or until al dente.

While the bucatini is cooking, whisk together the eggs, heavy cream, and cheese in a medium bowl.  When the onion-shallot-bacon mixture is done, transfer it to the egg mixture, along with the bacon fat and whisk again to combine.

Cook the bucatini 8-10 minutes or until al dente.  Scoop out about 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water and add that to the bowl with the bacon and eggs. Drain the bucatini, put it back into the pan you used to saute the onions, shallots and bacon, and pour the egg mixture over the top of the pasta.  Gently toss the pasta to combine and cover the pan for 5 minutes.

Plate the pasta, and add a sprinkling of parsley and Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Part III: Gingerbread City 2009 - Rice Krispie Treats Landscaping, Tin Woodsman's Cabin and Dorothy's House

This is Part III in the creation of our gingerbread entry for The Epilepsy Foundation of San Diego County, Gingerbread City 2009, competition.  Please see our Introduction, and Part II.  The gingerbread structures will be auctioned off at the Gala on December 1, 2009. This year's theme is The Greatest Stories Ever Told.

We're making progress, but it's hard to get motivated about gingerbread in October, and I'm not in the mood, most weeknights, to come home after work and put in a few hours of baking.  So, that leaves the weekends.  Our goal is to have all of the main gingerbread structures completed by Halloween and then we will have ONE month to work on the details.  There are so many details planned for our Land of Oz!  I just hope we can pull it all off in time.

A large portion of our kitchen and breakfast nook area is now dedicated to this project and our house has the lingering aroma of gingerbread spices, intermingled with sticky, buttery, Rice Krispies Treats.

Yes siree! Approximately 28 batches of Rice Krispies Treats now covers our wood base, forming the ground cover, rolling hills, cliff supporting the Witch's Castle, and tiers of Munchkinland (remember, our base is about 3 x 4 feet).

For the actual gingerbread structures, the rules allow, and encourage, structural support.  The support can be made with non-edible materials, so we use white Foam Core Board White, 3/16 inch, which cuts cleanly with an X-ACTO ® knife.  This is the Tin Woodsman's Cabin taped together. 

We then label the pieces, take off the tape, and use each piece as a template to cut the gingerbread dough.  We roll the gingerbread dough 1/4 inch thick, using two pieces of wood as a guide.

Cooking time for the gingerbread pieces varies.  You don't want to burn the pieces, but you definitely need to cook it much longer than you would if you were going to be eating it.  Here are all the cooked pieces of the Tin Woodsman's cabin.  Don't forget to cut out doors and windows before cooking!  I didn't worry too much about the appearance of this basic structure because it will be covered with logs to resemble a rustic log cabin.

We made the logs by rolling out the gingerbread and then ever so gently carving some lines and knots to give the logs some texture.  It took us three times to get the right size logs and we came up with the texturing idea on the third try.  It also helps to freeze the gingerbread pieces for 5-10 minutes before baking.  This helps  prevent spreading.

If necessary, you can trim the edges of your structure with a zester for cleaner lines.

The foam core board has to be trimmed a little, to allow for the thickness of the gingerbread, before putting the house back together.  At this point, you may also need to decide on your window coverings.  We plan on inserting lights (from underneath the base, through holes drilled into the base, and up through short pieces of copper tubing).  Therefore, we don't want to be able to see into the structure through the windows, but we want a thin layer of window covering so the light illuminates behind the windows.  This year, on some windows, we are using a piece of edible frosting paper.  Gelatin sheets also work nicely.  All visible portions of the completed gingerbread structure must be made of edible materials.  For example, you are not allowed to use clear plastic for windows.

The gingerbread structres are glued together with Royal Icing, which is extremely hard and strong when it dries.  Here's the very basic cabin, before the roof pieces go on.  I have alot of detail work to do yet.  In the background, you can see a little mound of Rice Krispies in the earlier stages of landscaping.  In the lower right corner, you can see a copper tube for one of the lighting strands.

This is Dorothy's House, in foam core board

And Dorothy's House in gingerbread.  We glued the pieces together somewhat crooked.  It survived the tornado and landed in Munchkinland, but it's going to be cracked and broken in places.  Again, the white appearing in the windows is edible frosting paper.  This will be partially covered by window coverings of some sort, when we figure out what to use.

When we woke up this morning, we discovered some minor Rice Krispie avalanches on the Witch's Castle cliff.  This week, we will start covering the landscaping and cliffside with icing and fondant to help keep things secure until we are ready to cover the board with poppies, trees, corn fields, etc.

Happy Monday, everyone.  I need to go practice some law now.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Leisurely Drive to Julian, CA and Quick Apple Strudel

Julian is a quaint town in the Cuyamaca mountains, about an hour east of San Diego.  John and I needed a temporary diversion from our Gingerbread Land of Oz, and decided to take a leisurely drive.  As a little side note, our first date was Bond's Discovery Run to Julian, with the San Diego BMW Z Car Club.  Yep, that's where it all began, almost three years ago ;-)

Julian is famous for apple pies.  But now that Julian apple pies are readily available via the internet and at almost every grocery store in San Diego, Julian should think about revitalizing the tourist flow to the town with a new culinary gig.

Looking back at our photographs we took that day, I'm thinking Turducken!  You've heard of it by now I'm sure, the dish consisting of a partially de-boned turkey stuffed with a de-boned duck, which itself is stuffed with a small de-boned chicken. 

We were surprised to see so many wild turkeys on the drive there...

Lake Cuyamaca, another nearby attraction, is home to many ducks

And a bunch of these cute little guys were running around outside one of the antique stores.  Tur-duck-en!  I'm just sayin'...

Or, Gooducken, substituting Goose for the turkey

We had lunch at one of the more popular restaurants in Julian, Bailey Wood Pit Barbeque.  I surely would have ordered a Turducken or Gooducken plate if it had been offered!

Unfortunately, I don't have a spare million and a half sitting around, the current selling price for the restaurant, or I would seriously consider buying Bailey's. I don't mean to be negative, but that place could use a visit from Gordon Ramsay for a major facelift and some creativity in the kitchen. 

Rather than ordering a slice of apple pie for dessert, we decided to bring home a half peck of fresh apples and make a few apple creations of our own.

I perused a few of my recent cooking magazines, but wanted to make something other than the ubiquitous  pie, tart, or crisp.  I pulled out my Cook's Illustrated The New Best Recipe and found this Quick Apple Strudel - perfect for a foggy Saturday morning.

Quick Apple Strudel
Slightly adapted from The Best New Recipe
Serves 6


1/2 cup golden raisins, warmed in 3 tablespoons dark rum, Calvados, or apple cider (we just happened to have a container of rum-soaked raisins in the fridge)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup fresh white bread crumbs, lightly sauteed in 1 tablespoon butter
1 1/2 lbs. apples, peeled, cored and sliced into 1/4 inch slices
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/3 cup finely chopped walnuts (I used pecans), toasted
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon salt
Juice of one small lemon
5 sheets phyllo, thawed
Whipped cream, or confectioners' sugar

Toss the apples with rum-raisins, bread crumbs, 1/4 cup of the granulated sugar, pecans, cinnamon, salt, and lemon juice.

Melt the remaining 5 tablespoons of butter.  Place a large sheet of parchment paper on the counter.  Gently transfer one sheet of phyllo to the parchment and liberally brush with melted butter.  Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of suar.  Repeat with the remaining sheets of phyllo.

Place the apple filling in a 3 inch strip about 2 1/2 inches from the bottom of the phyllo, leaving about 2 inches on either short side.

Fold the short ends of the phyllo over the apples

Fold the end closest to you over the apples and loosely roll the strudel away from you.  Don't roll too tight, as it can cause some tearing during baking.  Mine was a little overstuffed.

Place the finished strudel, seam-side down, on an ungreased baking sheet.  Brush with the remaining melted butter and sprinkle with the remaining 1 teaspoon sugar.  Cut four, 1-inch vents in the top to allow the steam to escape.

Bake in the lower, middle rack of the oven, at 475 degrees, for about 15 minutes or until golden brown.  Cool on the baking sheet on a wire rack, until warm, about 30 minutes.  Serve with whipped cream, or a dusting of confectioners' sugar.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Daring Cooks' October Challenge: Vietnamese Phở bò tái

The October 2009 Daring Cooks’ Challenge was brought to us by Jaden of the blog Steamy Kitchen. The recipes are from her new cookbook, The Steamy Kitchen Cookbook.

We had the option of preparing Jaden's quick version of Vietnamese Chicken Noodle Pho, using store-bought stock or, for us who were particularly daring, the longer version of Chicken or Beef Pho from Jaden's Steamy Kitchen.  The full recipes and instructions for Jaden's Chicken Pho can be found here, and her Beef Pho, here.

I chose to be particularly daring and prepared the longer version of Vietnamese Beef Pho, using Buffalo filet mignon.

As an added incentive this month, Jaden and The Daring Kitchen teamed up to host a photography contest for the Best Looking Pho Photo, and the Best Creative Wonton Dessert.  Winners will receive a copy of Jaden's cookbook.  Jaden will chose her eight favorite photos and post them to her blog on November 15th. Daring Kitchen members and Jaden’s blog readers will then vote for the winners. Voting will commence on November 15 and will end at midnight (EST) on November 21st. Winners will be announced on Jaden’s Steamy Kitchen blog on November 26th.  Unfortunately, Jaden's book tour was extended and she decided to "forego" allowing her readers to vote for the winning Pho and Wonton and chose them herself.  It's a bit disappointing when the rules are changed after the fact.

I had a hard time deciding between the photo above, and the one below.  I went with the one below (apparently, it wasn't a good choice.  Tastespotting and Foodgawker both rejected it based on "unflattering composition" and "narrow depth of field").

Before I get to my Pho preparation photos, I have a confession.  Before reading about this Challenge, I was a Pho-gin.  Therefore, I thought it would be prudent to dine at a local Vietnamese restaurant and engage in a little Pho-Play.  The OB Noodle House & Sake Bar, in Ocean Beach, had good reviews and an extensive offering of 19 variations of Pho.

I'm not quite sure how to describe this place, or some of the people who were dining there that evening.  Let's just say it wasn't my scene.  However, it was a new dining experience with interesting people-watching, and I left with a better understanding of this month's Challenge recipe.  OB Noodle House's Rare Beef Pho was good, but probably scarred my first experience by the over-abundance of cilantro...not one of my favorite herbs.

I was much happier with Jaden's recipe, served with all the condiments on the side so you can use what you like.  For my Rare Buffalo Pho, I offered Thai basil, cilantro, sliced fresh chili peppers, bean sprouts, red onion, mushrooms, lime wedges, Sriracha chili sauce, and Hoisin sauce.

The homemade beef stock absorbs its rich flavor from charred /roasted onions and ginger, spices, beef bones, fish stock, sugar, salt, and water.

Charred/Roasted onions and ginger

I toasted the spices (cinnamon stick, coriander seeds, fennel seeds, star anise, cardamom pods, and whole cloves) and made a little mesh bag out of cheesecloth.

I used some nice beef bones, which Dooley and Diver thoroughly enjoyed after I removed them from the stock.

The stock takes about three hours, including a brief parboil of the bones to boil off some of the fat and scum

After parboiling the bones, and then rinsing off the bones and the pan, you boil a fresh pot of water and return the bones and the remaining ingredients to the water.

In order to achieve a clear broth, you must periodically skim the scum and strain the stock at the end.  This photo won't be winning any beauty contests, but that scum's gotta go.  I strained the broth through a napkin and fine sieve.

I went an extra step and refrigerated the stock overnight. I then strained it a second time and brought it back to a boil just before I was ready to serve.
Here is my beauteous buffalo filet.  If you freeze the filet for about 15 minutes, it's much easier to slice thinly, across the grain.

It's important to have your condiment platter prepared, and your filet sliced, before cooking the rice noodles.  For serving, place some cooked noodles in serving bowls, cover with hot broth, and add the sliced filet.  The broth will cook the raw filet in a few minutes and you can then add your desired accompaniments.

I was very pleased with my first Pho attempt, and it most certainly wrapped noodles around the OB Noodle House Pho!  Thank you, Jaden, for expanding my culinary horizons!

Now, are you ready for dessert?  The second part of the Daring Cooks' Challenge was to create our own version of dessert wontons. The challenge was about being creative with filling and form, and then photographing the result for the photo contest.

I used the ricotta filling from Mario Batali's Cannoli de Ricotta and BABBO's White Wine-Poached Pears.

I formed cone-shaped wontons by brushing wonton wrappers with butter on both sides and then wrapping them around paper cones made with stock paper and stapled.

I baked the wonton cones at 350 degrees F for about 15 minutes, until lightly browned, and slipped them off the paper cones.  Just before serving, I filled a pastry bag with the ricotta filling and piped it into the cone.  I topped the ricotta with a few spoonfuls of chopped, wine-poached pears and piped a little star of ricotta on the top.  Originally, I envisioned a few pear slices, fanned out, emerging from my Lily-shaped wontons, but the pears weren't firm enough to cooperate.  However, my bouquet looked elegant arranged in a martini glass.

I played with a few more ways to present these for serving....in shot glasses

And drizzled with some of the reduced wine syrup and a dusting of powdered sugar and cinnamon

If you like cannoli, I do strongly recommend Mario Batali's Cannoli de Ricotta, which I made a while back, here.

That concludes my October Daring Cooks' Challenge creations!
Be sure to visit Jaden at Steamy Kitchen and try one of her versions for Vietnamese Pho, or some of her other fabulous recipes.  If you would like to participate in the voting for the most beautiful Pho photo and most creative Dessert Wonton, cast your vote on Steamy Kitchen from November 15 to November 21. 
Finally, please stop by the Daring Kitchen, and the Daring Cooks' blogroll, to peruse the fabulous array of Pho and Wontons from all of the Daring Cooks' kitchens! 
Now, I must get back to our Wizard of Oz gingerbread creation!