Sunday, February 27, 2011

Baking to Mark the Milestones

Will had a milestone birthday this past week, and I had plotted for weeks for how to adequately mark the occasion. (Plus, I'd been a bit of a washout over the last gift-giving opportunity, so I had to make-up some lost ground...)

Birth week was going well, and I was still riding the sun-high of San Diego, followed by tummy- and soul-warming success of chicken Vindaloo (see previous post.) For his actual birthday, I was excited to see my plans for a party coming together. I had reserved a private room at a downtown Vietnamese restaurant, to follow-up one of his most favorite Asian dishes: Vindaloo, with his second favorite: pho. We had a fun group of friends ready to join us, and I was really pleased with my idea for the celebration cake. I wanted something that would coordinate with the menu theme of the restaurant, so I went with the tropical flavors of lime, mango, and coconut.

For you dedicated followers, this might sound slightly similar to the mango coconut cheesecake I made for Diwali back in November, and I wanted to be certain this was a complete departure from those flavors, even given the similar palatte.

I started with the Genoise Classique recipe from The Cake Bible, but added lime zest to the batter. Then I made my own soaking syrup, steeping it Thai basil leaves and then flavoring with light rum instead of liqueur. For filling, I used a fresh mango curd, and frosted the layers with coconut cream whipped cream. The result was light, moist, and tasted like a sucking the sweetness from a cool tropical rain cloud.

When I make this again - because I WILL be making this again - I will make an extra cake layer so that the finished cake will be taller and more dramatic. I had a problem with my first layer that I baked, because I had to open the oven partway through baking, and the layer came out short and tough. I was able to trim it, and use it for the middle of three layers in the finished cake. This cut slice shows the layers of cake, curd, and cream.

I wasn't able to trim the layers very evenly, which is why the top is so thick. The middle is thin because it was salvaged from a mistake layer. I left the top crust on the bottom layer because I wanted the cake to be as high as possible, but you can see where it shows darker... typically this would be trimmed off the top of the cake so all the cake is the same color and provides greater contrast against the color of the filling.

Lime Genoise
Make this recipe twice. You can try doubling it, but it might be more difficult to get the final batter well-incorporated without deflating the volume of the eggs, so I don't recommend it.

3 tablespoons cooled browned butter (Take 4 tablespoons butter, heat over medium in a pan with lid partially on to catch spatters. Allow to simmer until sputtering slows and browned bits have sunk to bottom of pan. Remove and strain. You will have about 3 tablespoons of butter with a rich brown color and nutty flavor.)
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 eggs
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup sifted flour
1/2 corn starch minus one tablespoon
2 teaspoons finely grated lime zest

Mix vanilla and butter.
Beat together eggs and sugar on high speed until tripled in volume (about 5 minutes.)
Sift together flour and corn starch.
Whisk one cup of beaten egg into the butter until well mixed.

Sift half of flour mixture over remaining egg mixture and whisk together until incorporated. Repeat with remaining flour. Add butter mixture and whisk until blended. Stir in zest.
Pour batter into 9x2 inch round pan, greased and lined with parchment. Bake at 350 for 25-35 minutes until edges pull away from side. Note, standard baking pans are 1 1/2 inches high. This will still work, but your finished layer will be more domed on top.
Invert from pan immediately to cool on racks.

Soaking Syrup
This is a double quantity, enough for both cake batches from above.
2 cups water
1 cup sugar
.5 ounce Thai Basil (about 4 large sprigs)
4 tablespoons light rum

Mix together sugar and water over medium heat, stirring constantly until sugar is dissolved. Bring to boil. Remove from heat and stir in Thai basil leaves (large stems removed). Cover immediately. Cool, and steep overnight in the refridgerator. (Can be made up to a week in advance. If making ahead, strain out basil leaves and store in fridge.) Stir in rum before using.

Mango Curd
1 large (15-ounce) ripe mango, peeled and pitted
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
pinch of salt
4 large egg yolks
1/4 cup butter, softened and cut into small pieces

Puree first four ingredients in food processor. Add yolks and process until combined. (Optional, but preferred: strain mixture through a fine sieve to remove pulp.) Transfer to top of double boiler, and stir continuously over a pan of simmering water until mixture reaches 170 degrees (approximately 10 minutes.) Remove from heat immediately to prevent curdling. Stir in butter, one tiny piece at a time. Chill overnight to thicken.

Coconut Cream Whipped Cream
2 cups chilled heavy whipping cream
1/4 cup coconut cream (not coconut milk)
2 tablespoons sugar (or to taste)

Beat cream until soft peaks form. Stir in sugar and coconut cream. Continue beating until stiff peaks form.

To assemble cake:
Cut both layers of cake in half horizontally, and trim top and bottom crusts so there is a cut edge to better absorb the syrup. Place one layer on a cake/tart pan bottom. Brush with 1/4 of syrup. Spread with 1/3 of curd. Brush 2nd layer of cake with some syrup, invert syrup side down onto 1st layer, and brush with additional soaking syrup. Spread 2nd layer with 1/3 of curd. Repeat with remaining cake layers. Be sure to use all the soaking syrup. Even if it seems like too much, be sure to use all the soaking syrup. I have a large plastic and rubber syringe I got at an art supply store in the painting section which makes a great tool for applying syrup. You can also use a pastry brush, silicone brush, baster, or spoon. Frost cake with cream.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Birthday Week Build-Up: Chicken Vindaloo

I wasn't originally going to post about this meal, because it doesn't include anything original or creative, I simply followed a recipe. But to stay true to my title, not everything can be a "munching," there ought be some "musings" as well, and this recipe led to a cute story about Will. Besides, this is a recipe that is worth passing along to anyone who already enjoys ordering Vindaloo at a restaurant.

I have a long-standing tradition of celebrating "birthday week" instead of just my birthday. I think it began from the days of having a family party on my actual birthday, and a party with friends on one of the surrounding weekend days. But like any self-respecting only child, whether or not that was the origin, I quickly learned how to milk my birthday for all the attention it is worth. Will, while also an only child, was [fortunately??] not cut from the same 'only-child-cloth' and his first exposure to such a tradition came when we were dating. He has fully embraced the pattern every October - and even endorses it - but I have never seemed able to reciprocate for his birthday. But this year I wanted to be different. He was turning 35, and we'd been joking about it for years. Now that it was here, it didn't seem as much of a joke, and full-blown birthday week was just the way to take-off the edge of aging.

We started with a terrific weekend getaway to San Diego to visit some great friends and see some sun. Always a great way to kick-off birthday week, but especially if you're a Pisces and live in the Northern hemisphere. (The trip wasn't technically part of my plans for his birthday, but I'll take my guilt by association.)

Mid-week, I wanted to him to have his favorite Indian dish: chicken Vindaloo. Since we'd eaten out most nights on our trip, I didn't want to go out again. I also wanted to put the time into making it myself. I have purchased the bottled Indian curry sauces at the market before and used them with stir frys to make fast and easy meals that have some of the flavors of India, but they are never anything like what we've had in restaurants or prepared for us by Indian friends. Curries can seem overwhelming due to long lists of ingredients with lots of measuring of spices and sometimes exotic ingredients that I don't typically have around. After reading this recipe, I felt empowered because I already had every ingredient called for. I asked Will if he wanted to help me make dinner, and while some husband's might not consider this a birthday-week-gift, for us, it really is. I usually feel he gets in my way in the kitchen, and I don't have much patience for helping him learn new things. But I have been trying - and improving - and this was a great chance for us to work together trying out one of his favorite meals.

I had him read through the whole recipe, so right away, he knew what we were making. I tried not to be disappointed when he didn't gush or exclaim "Oh goody! Vindaloo, my favorite!" and thought he would start to get excited when the pan sizzled, the curry simmered, and the sweet floral basmati wafted through the kitchen. He didn't. So, we grated ginger and garlic. We chopped potatoes and cauliflower (my only change to the recipe - I love it in curries!) We measured spices and seasonings. As we waited for the simmering to take it's full effect on our creation, I realized why I wasn't extracting more enthusiasm from him. I confronted him.
Vindaloo is your favorite dish. Why aren't you more excited that we are making this together? You're afraid that having this at home is supposed to 'quench' your craving for Vindaloo, and you're worried this isn't going to be anything like what you having in your taste memory of 'Vindaloo.' And then you're going to be stuck because you have to tell me you like it - and you might actually like it - but you won't be liking it as a replacement for Vindaloo.
He admitted that this was exactly right. He was interested to try what we were preparing and was confident it would be tasty, but knew it would be no replacement for 'real' Vindaloo.

As we sat down to eat, I had a second inspiration; I turned on Pandora and quickly found a pre-made channel for Contemporary Bollywood. I honestly think that made the food taste even better, although it really was quite a yummy curry.

When Will had the leftovers the following night, he cautiously disclosed that this might be one of the best things I've made. I reminded him we made it together, and that makes it taste best of all.

Chicken Vindaloo
1 large onion, halved and cut in wedges
4 roma tomatoes, quartered (I used canned)
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 large garlic clove, chopped
1/2 inch peeled fresh ginger root, sliced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1 serrano chili, or to taste

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
chicken pieces (or tofu, or just more vegetables)
2 medium yukon gold potatoes, peeled, cut into bite-sized dice
1/2 small head of cauliflower, cut into bite-sized florets
1-2 cups chicken broth (or vegetable)
splash of cream

Process first 12 ingredients in food processor until thick paste. In large saute pan, brown chicken in oil, then cut into bite-sized pieces. Add potatoes and cauliflower to pan along with curry paste and enough broth to cover vegetables. Cover pan and cook on medium until potatoes are tender when pierced with a fork, about 10 minutes. Remove lid and simmer until sauce is of desired thickness. Stir in a couple of tablespoons of cream for richness and heat through. Serve over rice (recipe below.)

Basmati Rice
serves 4
3/4 cup basmati rice
1 1/2 cups water
3 threads saffron
2 whole cardamom pods
1/4 cup green peas (I used frozen, rinsed but still frozen)

Add first 4 ingredients to rice cooker (or saucepan.) With about 5 minutes remaining to cook, stir in peas. Finish cooking, then fluff and serve with curry atop.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Browned Butter Brings Out the Best of the Blues

This is inspired by a green bean dish in Fine Cooking magazine, and would certainly adapt well to many other hearty green vegetables such as broccoli or brussels sprouts. The addition of colorful blue potatoes (or raddichio? or purple cabbage?) make it truly a visual delight, and are tasty too! It's always astounding what a layer of delicious complexity a simple step like browning the butter will do for the elegance-factor and flavor of a dish.

Brown-Butter Asparagus with Pine Nuts
serves 4
1 pound aspagarus (the thicker ones work better for this, if available), snapped at base and cut cross-wise into thirds
1/2 pound blue fingerling potatoes, the smallest you can find, cut into bite-sized wedges
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup pine nuts, chopped
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Steam the asparagus and boil the potatoes until your desired tenderness (about 8 minutes, and if you have the right-sized pot, you can probably steam the asparagus over the same water that the potatoes are boiling in!)

Drain water, and add butter, salt, and nuts to empty pot. Cook over medium until butter is browned and nuts are toasted, 3-5 minutes. Remove pot from heat and stir in vegetables. Toss with lemon juice and and parsley and serve warm.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

First Foray into Gluten-Free

Cupcakes. So popular these days, so over-rated in my opinion - so much more about the frosting than about the cake that necessarily will become dried out due to the ratio of surface area per serving - yet nevertheless unbeatable in the smiles and delight they can bring especially to groups of classmates and coworkers on such holidays as Valentine's Day. I'm not typically a huge fan of cupcakes because I just don't think they usually taste that good, but I am a big fan of sharing my joy of baking with people I see regularly, and little morsels of bite-sized cakes with a flourish of frosting and some festive sprinkles are just right for showing some appreciation without the mushy romance that Hallmark hopes to inspire.

A few months ago, I came across a series of "healthier" cupcake recipes in NPR's Kitchen Window blog. Since cupcakes are not my favorite, I didn't rush to my oven to bake a batch, but the unusual ingredients called for in the recipes intrigued me enough to file them for the future. The approach of Valentine's seemed just the right time for experimentation... Will and I have never celebrated Valentine's Day, as I am a hopeless unromantic, and while I have been known to decorate heart-shaped doilies for cards for my grandmothers, and scarf-up the 50% off candy from Bartells on February 15, that is typically the extent of my worship of the patron saint of lovers. So, with nothing riding on my performance, I turned to these cupcakes. If they turned out, I would have something to share at the office. But with nary an expectation of gifts nor sweet signs of affection, if they bombed, no one would be the wiser (except you my dear readers).

Don't try this at home.

To truly appreciate this endeavor, you really must see the recipe first... I'm not sure if it was the author's intent to create gluten-free cupcakes, or if that was a byproduct of her bumping up the nutritional worth. Either way, the ingredients are quite bizarre for what you would typically expect to find in a cake. The chocolate ones use black beans, and the red velvet ones use garbanzo beans! Additional eggs replace the butter/oil, so the recipe isn't low (or even reduced) fat, but the protein, fiber, and other nutrition of the beans in these cupcakes certainly qualify them as "more-than-just-empty-calories." Sadly, that is untrue for most of my favorite items to bake.

Never one to set the bar low, I was willing to give these cupcakes my finest effort and benefit of all doubts. In my minds eye, I pictured an adorable platter of smartly decorated morsels of two varieties of cupcakes both thematically chosen for the holiday of love: rich, desire-inspiring chocolate, and sexy, mysterious red-velvet.

My chocolate cupcakes sank in the center making them highly unattractive, but as Will in his persistent optimism pointed out, "that leaves a place for the ganache to pool up." I cannot comment on whether this lack of structural integrity is due to the recipe, because I realized my oven was significantly under temperature during the baking, so I firstly blame that for the fall. But as you can see from the photos in the article, none of these recipes create cakes that rise much or dome in the center, so it's possible that in a repeat run the same thing could happen. I used my own standard recipe for ganache to finish the tops of these. I also had some chocolate buttercream, but Will felt that ganache would do more to cover the flavor the cake. Yes, cover over the flavor. While there was certainly an aspect of dark chocolate, and while these have a moistness I've rarely come across in a cupcake, there was also a distinct undertone of the beans. I would not call it unpleasant, but I would not serve these to an unsuspecting taster without warning them first of a "secret ingredient." Certainly the flavor could be misconstrued as them "going off" if someone was expecting a standard chocolate cupcake. The ganache did add to the enjoyment of the cupcake such that these might get a chance at a future vacation in my oven should I ever find myself needing a gluten-free cake.

The red velvet cupcakes did not fare as well in the taste testing. They were the second batch I made, and were far more promising as I transferred them to cooling racks, as they had much better shape without the sunked centers of the chocolate batch. I was also pleased with their color, red enough to indicate a happy heart holiday but not a chemically Mr. Sketch rainbow. I brought out some of my prized cream cheese frosting to top these off, and it is almost good enough to make anything taste good. But these cakes have both a disappointing and a disconcerting garbanzo bean flavor with a disagreeable aftertaste. And if that weren't enough of a turn-off, they have a most unusual melt-in-your-mouth texture that rather than impart an ethereal quality, serves instead simply to make them seem undercooked. These will definitely not receive a second chance.

Looky, no tasty.

When I started this blog, I had no intention of posting recipes that didn't work. And that is still counter to my objectives to maintaining my musings in this forum. But I chose to share my experience with this garbanzo velour to illustrate a grander theme of my baking philosophy:
Take one look at the photo of these cupcakes. Do you not want to literally lick your computer screen to get a taste of them? Would not holding one between your sticky fingers cause your mouth to water in anticipation of delightful cake bliss? Can you not feel the devotion of their creator oozing directly from her heart into each savory crumb? And yet, to take a bite is to experience a mild revulsion of the senses compounded with a much more serious repugnance based primarly on a feeling of betrayal. How could something so charming taste so... well, just STRANGE?
And yet, I feel this happens frequently. Less so with a result of "strangeness" but very often with adorable, expensive highly-billed treats disappointing the tastebuds with rough textures or unrefined and unbalanced flavors. And whenever my piping bag squirts out wiggly lines or globs, and my offset spatulat just can't quite get the finish fine and smooth enough, I can still hold my head high and proud and show my loved ones just how dear they are to me by passing around the forks and digging in to something that tastes extraordinary even if it doesn't look like something that's been sitting in the bakery case. And THAT is what makes for a Happy Valentine's Day.

Ginger & Soy-Glazed Salmon with Cilantro Cabbage Slaw and Wasabi Mashed Potatoes

These recipes come together very quickly for a delicious, impressive, attractive, healthy, and cohesive menu. I made it for two of us on a weeknight, but I would certainly prepare this for company as well. The salmon marinade gives it great flavor, but are strong enough that it doesn't need to rest - just brush it on and cook. The slaw can be chopped and mixed while the potatos are cooking, and the potatos can be mashed while the salmon is cooking and in 30-40 minutes, you have a fantastic dinner.

Ginger-Soy Glazed Salmon
serves 2
2 portions salmon fillet
1 clove garlic, minced
3/4" width fresh ginger root, grated or minced
2 teaspoons soy sauce (I use reduced-sodium)
1 teaspoon rice wine vinegar
2-3 drops sesame oil

Mix ingredients (except salmon) with small whisk and brush onto salmon fillets. Bake at 400 for about 15 minutes, or grill.

Wasabi Mashed Potatoes
serves 2
2 medium-sized red potatoes, or 6-8 red fingerlings
1 tablespoon wasabi paste, or to taste
splash of broth
splash of milk
splash of cream

If using larger potatoes, cut into smaller pieces so that they will cook evenly. Boil until easily pierced with a fork, about 8 minutes. Drain, add liquids and mash. Stir in wasabi to taste.

Cilantro Cabbage Slaw
serves 4
1/2 a head of napa cabbage, grated or thinly sliced crosswise
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 red bell pepper, thinly sliced into stripes and then diced
1 tablespoon seasoned rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil

Whisk together oil and vinegar. Toss with remaining ingredients.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Fingerling Potato Salad

Serves 8 as a side.

12 each of mixed fingerling potatoes (red, yellow, and blue)
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 ounces smoked turkey sausage (I used Jennie-O) [or bacon]
8 thick asparagus (or 12 green beans), raw, or blanched if not crisp-tender

1/2 a large shallot, finely minced
1 tablespoon stone-ground mustard
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon dried tarragon (or 1 tablespoon fresh)

Preheat oven to 400. Wash potatoes and slice crosswise into 1" thick rounds. Toss with 2 T olive oil in 9x13 pan, and roast until tender but still firm and not too golden, about 40 minutes. Stir every 10-15 minutes.

Meanwhile, chop sausage into tiny bits, and slice asparagus crosswise into 1/2" thick rounds.

Add sausage to potatoes for last 15 minutes of cooking.

Mix dressing ingredients together. Toss with asparagus and warm potatoe-sausage mixture. Serve warm or at room temperature.