Friday, September 30, 2011

Creme Brulee for Chocolate Lovers

Yes, creme brulee is delicious, but its vanilla flavor also tends to be a bit predictable.

If you're interested in taking this dessert up a notch, it's pretty easy to adjust the flavor of the custard that lies beneath your burnt sugar crust. You could go with pumpkin (surprisingly velvety and luxurious), amaretto-flavored, or as in this dessert, a rich chocolate.

The cooking process couldn't be easier.  (Full recipe can be found here, thanks to Martha.)

Start by preheating the oven to 250 (this one's low and slow).  Then, in a medium saucepan, heat 2 cups of heavy cream and 1/4 cup of sugar over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved and the cream is simmering, but not boiling. Whisk in 3 ounces of bittersweet chocolate, either chopped or you can cheat as I did and use chocolate chips.

Next, in a separate bowl, whisk 3 tbsp of sugar with 5 egg yolks, then slowly add the chocolate cream mixture--slowly, so as not to create scrambled eggs. You want to gently bring up the temperature of the eggs in a process known as tempering. Strain the final mixture through a sieve into a 4-cup measuring cup if you have one.  (If you don't, it's well worth the 7-buck investment, as it makes pouring the mixture into the ramekins so much easier.)

Divide the custard evenly into 4 4-oz ramekins (I actually used 5 ramekins that are a bit smaller), and place them into a roasting pan.  Fill the pan with boiling water until it goes halfway up the sides of the ramekins, then bake until partially set, about an hour.

The only tricky part is having the courage to recognize what "partially set" means. Your custards will jiggle quite a bit, but they'll have a rubbery skin on the top. Take them out of the water, let them get to room temp, then chill for at least an hour, or even overnight, in the fridge, wrapped in plastic.  (This is a great make-ahead dessert.)

When you're ready to serve, remove the plastic, dab off any water you can from the top, sprinkle with sugar, and either broil until the sugar gets "bruleed" or use a mini-kitchen torch to burn up the sugar.

The custard tastes much like a rich chocolate mousse with just a hint of darkness from the bittersweet chocolate.  I suppose you could use dark or semisweet too to adjust the flavor, but I'm more than happy with bittersweet.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Glutein-Free and Passover-Friendly Treat

photo by Anthony Palatta
Last weekend I was making dessert for a dinner party that included a friend who can't eat glutein.

Luckily, I've been making a dessert for Passover for a while that fits the bill: lemon-almond meringues, or "almendrados."

The recipe has its origin with Jews from Spain and North Africa, known as Sephardim, and I found it in the New York Times several years ago. It's quite easy to make and has only a couple of tricks you need to know. It's also extremely delicious for a flour-free cookie.

You start with 2 cups of blanched almonds (the recipe says whole, but I've used slivered and sliced and even non-blanched almonds in a pinch). Grind them up in the food processor to a fine powder, then add 1 egg beaten, 3/4 cup of sugar, and the zest of 1 lemon (or two if you want extra lemon punch). Mix it all up.

By the way, I've halved this recipe with great results.  I've also made it using honey instead of sugar for a friend who can't eat sugar or flour, and they come out great that way as well. The liquid of the honey also obviates the need for egg as a binder in the recipe.

Be careful if you're using the recipe in the Times, as they list the ingredients as "1 cup of sugar." They do this because you need another 1/4 cup of the sugar later on in the recipe.  I hate when recipes are written this way.  Why can't they say "3/4 cup of sugar plus 1/4 cup for rolling the cookies" so you don't accidentally thrown in a whole cup into your dough?  Ugh!!!

The next step is important.  Refrigerate your dough for at least 12 hours.  If it's not thoroughly chilled, your cookies will spread too much.

Preheat your oven to 350.  Pinch off a bit of dough and roll it into a ball the size of a walnut, then roll it in sugar so it's covered.  Place the balls on a parchment-lined cookie sheet, about an inch apart.  In my experience, those double-lined cookie sheets make the cookies spread more, while a darker conventional cookie sheet gives you a more compact cookie.

Here's the other trick:  bake the cookie for 9-11 minutes until it just starts to turn color and the outside crust of the cookie begins to set.  It will still seem very soft and you will probably freak out a little the first time you make them.  "They're not done!"  No, they are done, but they need to sit on the cookie sheet and firm up as they come to room temperature.  That way you'll end up with a cookie that's soft and chewy inside, and firm and crusty outside, with a fresh lemon and sweet almond flavor that will make you forget you've gone glutein-free.

Friday, September 9, 2011

More Brownie Testing...

I've been continuing my ongoing quest for my go-to brownie recipe, one that neatly straddles the line between fudgy and cakey, not too wet and not too dry, rich without being cloying.

I've learned a few things.

First, I don't like brownie recipes that use brown sugar instead of white sugar, like the brownie on the right in the picture. That recipe came from Nick Malgieri's excellent cookbook, The Modern Baker. I was intrigued by it because it contained sour cream, which I'd used in chocolate cake but never in brownies.

I didn't love this one, though not because of the sour cream but because of the brown sugar, which somehow made the brownie taste less than chocolatey.

The other problem with this and other brownie recipes I've tried was that it called for baking in a 9 x 13 pan. Maybe it's just me, but every time I've done that, I end up with brownies that are overdone on the edges and soup in the middle.

I much preferred this recipe, sent to me by poet Jeanne Marie Beaumont, one of my favorite baking partners (we do holiday cookies together every year). She got it from the Nestle Chip Bag, though I make it with Ghirardelli chocolate.  So far, this is the best
recipe I've tried, rich, satisfying, easy to put together, and reliable.  What I like about it (in addition to the use of white sugar and a square baking pan) is the addition of chocolate chips to the batter:

Double Chocolate Brownies
Preheat oven to 325 degrees
Step 1
3/4 cup flour
1/4 tsp  baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
Combine in a small bowl and set aside.
Step 2
In small saucepan, combine 1/3 cup butter, 3/4 cup sugar, 2 tablespoons of water, and bring JUST to a boil. Remove from heat and stir in 6 oz (1 cup) of Nestle’s Semi-sweet chips (ie, 1/2 a 12 oz bag) AND 1 tsp of vanilla. Stir until chocolate melts and it’s all smooth.
Step 3
Transfer to a mixing bowl and add 2 eggs, one at a time, beating well after each (I hand mix, no need to use electric beater). Gradually blend in flour mixture. Stir in remaining bag (6 oz/1 cup) of chips. Spread into a greased 9 inch square pan.
Bake about 30 minutes (35 max). Don’t overbake; these should be moist. Cool completely before cutting into squares. 

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Things We Do for Tarts

This innocent, lovely looking Nectarine Tart you see here illustrated might better be known as the Tart of Death.

I was tempted to make it by a recipe in Martha's Baking Handbook that called for slicing nectarines very thinly and then winding them into rosettes, which you then stuff into a tart shell.

I read a few websites that advised me, DO NOT MAKE THIS TART UNLESS YOU WANT TO DRIVE YOURSELF INSANE.  Or at the very least, that it's not the easiest in the world to make.  I thought I could pull it off anyway. Instead, I ended up almost slicing off my right pinky.

The crust is simple enough to make, and quite tasty. The problem arises when you start working on the nectarines. In Martha Stewart's world, they naturally allow themselves to be wound up into a rosette. (She even claims the recipe is "easy" to put together in her cookbook.) In the real world, there's nothing to hold these rosettes together, and they spring apart the second you fold them together.

Trying to slice the fruit as thinly as I could, I thought I'd make use of my mandoline slicer. Unfortunately, being a novice at mandolines, I sliced off a piece of my little finger, which didn't stop bleeding all night. After some bandaging, it's healed nicely, but the incident was enough to convince me that I'll never try the Tart of Death ever again. In fact, you'll have to get the damned book if you want to make it because I'm not bothering to post the recipe here.

If you do dare, however, note that the filling to pour on top of the nectarine makes half as much as needed.  You'll want to double it.

Here's another view: