Sunday, August 28, 2011

Petit Fours--Tiny Bites of Sugar

photo by Anthony Palatta

Ever since I was a kid, I've been fascinated by petit fours, tiny layered cakes covered in royal icing, usually decorated with candy flowers or frosted messages.

Since we were stuck at home this weekend thanks to "hurricane" Irene, I thought I'd take advantage of all that free time to try out this recipe from Anne Thornton, host of Desserts First on the Food Network. It was funny to go to the grocery store and while everyone else was loading up on water and energy bars, I was buying boxes of confectioner's sugar and raspberry preserves. The lady at the checkout took a look at my basket and started laughing.

The recipe is rated as difficult, but it's not too bad, merely a lot of steps. The cakes themselves are mostly almond paste, with a bit of sugar, flour, and two sticks of butter. Anne suggests adding almond extract to the almond paste, which I found overkill. I'd skip that next time.

Divide the batter into three quarter sheet pans and bake at 350 for about 12 to 15 minutes. You want a cake tester to come out completely clean.

When the cakes are cool, which doesn't take that long, you stack them up with raspberry jam between the layers, and then refrigerate them for at least an hour to set, weighed down by another cookie sheet and something heavy. I used a cookbook.

After they're chilled, you can cut the cakes into cute little sandwiches. I went a bit bigger than Anne suggested, and I think next time, I'd go smaller. These are INTENSELY sweet.  You only need a bite or two to be satisfied.

The icing recipe calls for 17 1/2 cups or 5 boxes of confectioner's sugar, mixed with corn syrup, water, and almond extract. I found 4 was plenty. Just add until you get a slightly thick consistency. I noticed that the icing was starting to harden on the sides of the pot I was mixing it in, so I knew it was ready.

Divide the icing into three heatproof bowls and keep them on double boilers over simmering water so the icing doesn't harden.  Color them as desired, then begin to cover your cakes. I placed one on a fork, held it over the icing, then used a spoon to douse it with icing. Try to go thin along the sides. A little icing goes a long way and it's easy to overdo it.

photo by Anthony Palatta
They are very pretty and you get a lot out of desserts out of this one recipe. They are also incredibly sweet, like biting into an almond flavored sugar cube!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Lemon Pop Tarts

Regular followers of this blog know I like making "pop tarts" from scratch. (In fact, next week, I'm teaching a baking course in which we'll make the tarts, along with homemade versions of other boxed treats.)

Recently, I wanted to try a couple of experiments with my homemade pop tart recipe. First, I found a Wilton "mini filled pie" press, the red plastic tool you see in the picture, at Sur La Table.  I checked online, but I can't seem to find any more, so they may have been discontinued.

Usually, I roll out my dough in a big rectangle and then cut the tarts by hand. With this tool, you use the bottom of the press to cut rectangles. Next, you place one rectangle of dough on the toothy part of the inside of the press, fill it with whatever filling you like, top it with a second rectangle, and then close the machine to crimp and seal.

I haven't decided if I like this press or not. The big disadvantage to me is that I had to keep rerolling the dough, which got softer, stickier, and harder to work with after each roll. Also, sometimes I like making smaller or bigger tarts, but if you use the press, you're stuck in terms of size.

I also experimented with fillings. Usually I simmer some jam with a bit of cornstarch to thicken it so it's not so watery. This time I tried using jam straight out of the jar to see if that would work and save time. Big mess in the baking stage. A lot of the tarts were too soggy on the bottom. I won't do that again!

What did work was using jarred lemon curd as a filling, completely undoctored. Not only did the tarts bake well, but also they were lemony perfection, a sweet and tart accompaniment to the golden crust of the tart. I'm curious if homemade lemon curd would work too. (I notice that the jarred curd is often thicker and less watery than homemade.)  Another experiment in the future?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Blueberry Tarts

I bought some new kitchen equipment, and it's blueberry season:  two very good reason to make blueberry tarts.

First, the kitchen equipment:  a rectangular tart pan and a 4-cup lift and serve tart pan, which you can use to make four mini tarts at once, each with removable bottoms. Unfortunately, I discovered that the removable bottom is the perfect size to fit into the drain of my kitchen sink. I had a devil of a time trying to get it out until Anthony suggested I use a magnet.

Next, blueberry season. It's virtually impossible to screw up any blueberry flavored dessert when it's summertime, and now that blueberries are so cheap, if you do screw up, you can always buy more. I love the grapelike, slightly sour taste of blueberries, especially when they melt into a gooey sauce. Doctored with a dash of cinnamon, some sugar, and lemon zest, they're perfection.

For these tarts, I used a blueberry tart recipe I saw on Martha Stewart's blog. What I like about it is that the blueberries are used in three different ways:  one part gets cooked down into a goo, another part gets folded into the warm goo to partially cook, and the final part is scattered on top as a garnish.

What I didn't like about this recipe was the press-in crust, which was delicious but a pain in the neck to press into my irregularly shaped tart pans. Plus, it kept sticking to my hands and then to my plastic cup measure when I tried to shape it. I'd rather just roll out a crust.

If you're willing to fight sticky buttery crumbs, however, this recipe is definitely a winner!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Gingerbread Cake with Lemon Sauce

photo by Anthony Palatta

I found this recipe in a Penzeys Spices catalog. I was in California when I first visited Penzeys, which is a fun place to browse for spices, and I was surprised to find out they have a branch in Grand Central here in New York.

Their catalog comes with several recipes, and this gingerbread cake with lemon sauce recipe looked delectable, so even though it's probably the wrong season for it, I thought I'd give it a try.

I also wanted to check out my new bundt pan.

The cake came out much lighter than in the illustration in the magazine. However, it has a strong, deep molasses flavor that's pretty intense. The lemon sauce to accompany it was quite light and subtle, as well. Separately, I thought each of them were just okay, but together, they were a wonderful combination. I'm not sure if I'd make this again, but I might use this combination of flavors of cake and sauce in some other form...

Gingerbread Cake:
1 cup boiling water
1/2 cup shortening
1 cup molasses
2 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ginger
1 tsp cinanmon
1 tsp ground cloves
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla

Lemon Sauce:
1/3 cup sugar
4 tsp cornstarch
1 cup cold water
1 tbsp cold butter
1 tsp pure lemon extract
1-2 drops yellow food coloring (optional)

Preheat oven to 350.  In a large mixing bowl, pour boiling water over shortening and stir until dissolved. Stir in molasses.  In a separate bowl, stir together all dry ingredients, then gradually add to molasses mixture, followed by egg and vanilla. Beat just until incorporated.  Pour into a lightly greased and floured 10-inch fluted tube pan. Bake about 45 minutes until cake tester comes out clean.  Cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then invert and cool completely.  Serve with sauce.

For the sauce:  Combine sugar, cornstarch, and cold water in saucepan.  Cook and stir over MEDIUM heat until thickened and bubbly, about 5 minutes.  Cook a bit longer until glossy and clear.  If too thick, add more water. Remove from heat and add Lemon extract, butter, and yellow food coloring if desired.  Stir until butter melts.  Cover surface with plastic wrap and cool.  Drizzle over cake before serving.  Add whipped cream if desired.