Confectionery, Dessert, eggs, Fruit, Random Thoughts

It’s so cold in Alaska.

There’s a certain WTF quality of pre-1980s color photography that automatically makes the food of that era look gruesome. We’ve all seen the evidence. A certain percentage of the internet is devoted to the horrors of post-WWII cuisine, whether it’s the recipe cards of the 70s, cookbooks, or the horrors of gelatin. Many of these websites even mock retro food by actually preparing and eating it.

The famed Betty Crocker Recipe Card collection.

The famed Betty Crocker Recipe Card Library.

It was only a matter of time, given the attention-whoring properties of the internet and the perpetual ironic stance a certain sector of the population has adopted, before people would express their ironic detachment by engaging directly with the object of their detachment and posting accounts of these amusing encounters on the internet. This is an interesting phenomenon, as it places the practitioner in proximate, intentional contact with the subject of derision and scorn, for the specific purpose of reinforcing and publicly expressing those feelings. It isn’t just interesting, it’s perverse – and ironic as well. I hate goat cheese, for example. To me it tastes like teabagging an unwashed goatherd. But you don’t see me ordering roasted beet and chèvre salads or digging into great oozing wedges of crottin to prove that point. I stay away from things I don’t like.

My husband is fond of relating a story from his boarding school days of a number of guys who, rallying around a shared disdain for heavy metal, would spend hours on end hanging out in each others’ rooms, listening to heavy metal, playing air guitar and throwing devil horns. I once heard a piece on NPR about a group of friends who took up bowling as a form of amusement based on a shared belief that bowling is a particularly gross relic of the Happy Days era. They would regularly visit bowling alleys, wear the shoes, roll the ball, drink the PBR, the whole thing. “That’s great and all,” the raconteur observed, “but when all is said and done, you’re actually bowling.” Point, game, match. Is it really worth walking into an elevator in a public building carrying a single bicycle wheel, wearing knickerbockers, a newsboy cap, and a curling, waxed handlebar mustache (this is a true story), just to make the point that anachronistic clothing looks kind of insane today?

When it comes to actually cooking and eating retro foods as part of an exercise in mockery, one of two possibilities exists. Either the cook cannot be trusted to make and serve something he or she truly believes is delicious, calling his or her judgment into question, or the cook secretly craves the food in question but is afraid to admit it for fear of losing valuable sophistication credentials. It’s got to be hard for the urbane foodie who aspires to know the origins and living conditions of every heirloom pig that ends up as chops in the market, and makes a point to know the difference between the foodways of Tuscany and Umbria, to admit to a fondness for hotdish, or the old-fashioned meat lasagne made with those ruffle-edged Creamettes noodles, or crock pot meatballs in barbecue sauce. Here’s the thing, though. Put those items on a table at your next party alongside some expensive locally sourced baby vegetables and see which one goes first. The answer may surprise you.

Baked Alaska “Egg”

Baked Alaska is one of those desserts you almost never see on menus, although it has made the rare appearance during the last few years on the menus of a certain type of restaurant, usually the kind that serves expensive versions of meatloaf and fried chicken. By the time I learned about it, when I was a kid riffling through my mother’s Betty Crocker Recipe Card Library in the mid 70s, it was already well on its way out of fashion, discarded as a midcentury relic in favor of pineapple upside-down cakes and crêpes Suzette. But the prospect of a baked dessert that somehow maintained a cold ice cream center was irresistible. To my six year-old conception of the world, it sounded like magic. “American Classics” card 15, “Individual Brownie Alaskas,” displayed a fetching mound of candy-pink peppermint ice cream atop a brownie layer, frosted with pillowy meringue tipped golden from the oven, a slight wedge removed as proof the inside remained frozen. “Seasonal Favorites” card 2, “Orange Baked Alaskas,” was even more glamorous, a hollowed-out orange capped in swirling meringue, encasing orange sherbet. “The first Baked Alaska was created at famous Delmonico’s restaurant in 1867 to honor the purchase of the new territory,” the card recites. How did they do it? Was it both hot and cold?

The beauty of the Baked Alaska.

The beauty of the Baked Alaska.

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The easy way to make Baked Alaska is to buy a pint of ice cream, put it inside or atop something insulating (like a layer of cake), freeze it rock solid, frost it thickly with meringue and pop it in a ragingly hot oven. But then you’re left with all the egg yolks, and have to make pudding or something to use them up. Rather than doing that, why not use the egg yolks to make the ice cream for the Baked Alaska? And then make the entire thing look like an egg?

Assemble the Baked Alaskas by freezing a small sphere of passionfruit sorbet (the yolk) inside vanilla ice cream (the white) in spherical molds. Once frozen hard, place the spheres inside a baked meringue shell and top with piped-on meringue. Be absolutely sure there is no gap in the margin between the meringue shell and the meringue topping; you want to insulate the ice cream completely from the hot oven air. Bake at 500F/260C for about 2 minutes or just long enough to brown the meringue somewhat. This sounds an insanely hot oven temperature, but the goal is to blast the outside meringue so quickly the interior ice cream does not have time to heat up.

Ready to come out of the oven.

Ready to come out of the oven.

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Recipes for each component are below.

Rich vanilla ice cream

Usually, I prefer ice creams without egg; to me, the egg yolk lends its own flavor and competes unfavorably with the taste of the cream. But egg-enriched vanilla ice cream is a pretty good thing; it’s really more like a frozen crème anglaise. If using for Baked Alaska rather than just eating on its own, you must make this at least one day in advance and probably two.

1 1/4 c superfine sugar
2 tbsp bourbon smoked sugar
2 c heavy cream
1 1/4 c whole milk
1 vanilla bean, scraped
4 egg yolks, reserving whites for meringues below
scant 1/4 tsp smoked salt

Combine milk and cream. Separately, whisk together yolks, sugar, and salt until thick and lemony ribbons form.

Heat milk and cream with vanilla seeds and pod; bring to 180F and steep 10 mins. Strain.

Temper about 1 c milk/ with yolk/sugar mixture and whisk slowly back into the milk. Return to simmer. Cook custard to 180F until mixture coats back of spoon.

Cool in bain marie. Strain through fine chinois into ice cream maker. Process and then freeze hard.

Passionfruit sorbet

This is stupidly easy to make if you have access to a supermarket with a Latin foods section. Get yourself a bag of fruit pulp (Goya is the most commonly available brand) and spin it into sorbet.

Because fruit lacks the fat necessary to a good mouthfeel, I typically add gelatin to my sorbets. You don’t need much – this isn’t going to be a gelled pudding, after all – but the gelatin adds a little body and a slightly creamy consistency to the finished product.

1 14-ounce bag of Goya passionfruit pulp
3/4 c sugar
2/3 c water
2 leaves gelatin, silver strength

Bring the passionfruit pulp, sugar, and water to a simmer. Stir frequently to ensure the sugar has dissolved.

Soften the gelatin leaves in cool water and squeeze out. Whisk into the fruit base.

Cool in bain marie. Strain through fine chinois into ice cream maker. Process and then freeze hard.

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Vanilla ice cream encasing passionfruit sorbet spheres in a plastic mold.

Vanilla ice cream encasing passionfruit sorbet spheres in a plastic mold.

Meringues

This dish uses meringues in two ways: as an insulating base for the ice cream center, and as a pillowy topping. Obviously, since meringue is not stiff enough in its uncooked form to support the weight of the frozen ice cream center, you must bake some meringues first and let them dry out. If you don’t want meringues for your base, you can bake génoise or something similar instead.

Prepare the meringue in two stages. Half the egg whites go into making meringue bases; the other half should be reserved in the refrigerator and beaten just before baking the Alaskas. While you can beat egg whites and hold them for a short time, they tend to weep liquid (syneresis) if held too long under refrigeration.

Baked meringue shells

2 egg whites (75g)
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
75g each superfine (caster) sugar and powdered (confectioner’s) sugar

Oven 250F/120C.

Allow the whites to reach room temperature or warm slightly by whisking in a warm (not hot) water bath. Add the cream of tartar. Combine the sugars in a bowl.

Whisk the egg whites using a balloon whisk or a stand mixer until soft peaks form; slowly add the sugar in increments, whipping the whites until they are firm and glossy but not dry. Transfer with a silicone spatula to a pastry bag fitted with a round tip.

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Pipe onto a silpat-lined baking sheet in rounds approximately the size of the ice cream balls, with a lip at the top to hold in the ice cream. Bake for one hour; then turn off the heat and allow them to rest in the oven with the door closed to dry. Remove from the oven and cool completely. Hold in a tightly sealed container with silica gel packs for up to a week. Do not refrigerate.

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Meringue topping

2 egg whites (75g)
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
35g superfine sugar

Allow the whites to reach room temperature or warm slightly by whisking in a warm (not hot) water bath. Add the cream of tartar. Whisk the egg whites using a balloon whisk or a stand mixer until soft peaks form; slowly add the sugar in increments, whipping the whites until they are firm and glossy but not dry. If you like, transfer with a silicone spatula to a pastry bag fitted with the tip of your choice. (this is optional; you may simply use a flat or offset spatula to apply the meringue instead).

Note that this meringue is fluffier and less sticky than the meringue for the cookie base.

Note that this meringue is fluffier and less sticky than the meringue for the cookie base as it contains far less sugar.

Note that the meringue topping will not be completely cooked because it will not reach a high enough overall temperature during the final baking. If salmonella or other pathogens are a problem for eggs in your area, consider using pasteurized egg whites instead.

Note: This post was brought to you by the Creative Cooking Crew:

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Cocktails, Confectionery, Science, Summer

Ever green.

Anyone who’s ever maintained a culinary herb garden is familiar with this problem: what does one do with all those herbs? Here’s how it usually goes. You decide to make something like a sauce gribiche, which requires four kinds of herbs, and by the time you’re done, you’ve spent $15 on a bunch of little plastic clamshells so you can have a tablespoon each of parsley, tarragon, chives, and chervil. A couple of months later, you discover the remains of those herbs, reduced to foul slime, beneath the celery in the vegetable drawer. In disgust, you seek out the spinning seed racks at the supermarket or home and garden center and buy half a dozen packets of seeds, anticipating fresh herbs at tremendous savings, not to mention plenty of pesto and crisp fried sage leaves. A few years later, the rosemary and sage are the size of shrubs, the mint and marjoram have spread to half the garden, and your freezer is filled with tubs of pesto. What to do, short of clipping great bunches and abandoning them in the office coffee room with a “TAKE ME” note?

Consider preserving their aromas in spirits. Countries with a Mediterranean coast share a tradition of anise- or fennel-flavored spirits and liqueurs, scented with local herbs. My favorite comes from the Balearics, where monks and nuns have been collecting wild herbs to prepare a strong and allegedly medicinal tincture to mix with sweet anise liqueur for a drink called hierbas mallorquinas. Our first encounter with hierbas was in the dining room of friends who had recently returned from a trip to Spain. While in Barcelona, they visited a small shop called Caelum, in the Barri Gòtic, specializing in products made by nuns and monks. The tiny glasses of hierbas mallorquinas our friend poured glittered clear green and tasted of sweet fennel, chamomile, lemon verbena, and rosemary. A year later, we sought out Caelum and returned with our own small bottle of hierbas. It didn’t last long, but a number of companies – most famously Túnel – produce it for retail distribution. According to Túnel, the seven herbs essential to hierbas are fennel, verbena, lemon balm, rosemary, lemon leaf, orange leaf, and chamomile.

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Túnel makes a special line – 14 Reserva – featuring fourteen herbs grown on the company’s family farms. The following recipe is inspired by that idea, and features all the herbs my husband has been growing in our back garden. The only one missing, in my opinion, is sweet cicely, which we aren’t growing right now but hope to have next year.

Hierbas

This is really a showcase for local herbs, so use what you’re growing in your garden. You can buy herbs, of course, but the point of this is to avoid costly herb shopping. Also, most of the really interesting stuff isn’t available in the market anyway. The recipe below sets forth the herbs from our garden (other than the citrus leaves); feel free to substitute whatever you have, in the proportions you like, as long as you include fennel, chamomile, and rosemary. A few caveats:

* Some herbs, like chives, dill, and Cuban oregano, are unsuitable in this liqueur. Consider whether you want the taste of the herb in your drink before adding it.

* Rosemary, cilantro, sage, and lavender are powerful herbs that can take over if you use too much. They are not out of place in hierbas (and rosemary is essential), but proceed with caution.

* For optimal results, the herbs and grain alcohol must infuse for at least a month. Stir or gently shake the mixture from time to time to redistribute the plant matter. After the first two weeks or so, the tincture will be bright green; with time, this brightness will fade to olive and eventually amber. This is normal.

A final note: true hierbas is distilled, not simply infused. Unless you have a still or rotovap, you’re not going to distill this. Once mixed, expect it to be slightly viscous from the sugar and cloudy, unless clarified, from herb sediment.

750 ml (1 bottle) grain alcohol, like Everclear (95% ABV (alcohol by volume))
1 head fennel, with flowers, stalks, and fronds
12 branches thyme
leaves from 2 12-inch stalks basil
leaves from 2 12-inch stalks mint
leaves from 2 12-inch stalks anise hyssop
6-inch rosemary branch
4 4-inch stalks of tarragon
12-inch stalk of lemon verbena
12-inch stalk of marjoram
2 12-inch stalks of lemon balm
12-inch branch of parsley
4 bay leaves
8 lime leaves
8 fig leaves
2 tbsp dried chamomile flowers or 1/4 c fresh
1/4 c Corsican mint leaves
4 inches of lemon zest (no pith)
1 tsp aniseed
4 juniper berries
1 tsp fennel seed

filtered water
white granulated or superfine sugar

In a nonporous, nonreactive container, combine all the herbs and the grain alcohol. Press down on the herbs so the alcohol covers them completely. Seal tightly with a lid or, if your lid is not tight-sealing, cover with plastic wrap, secure with a band, and then cover with a lid,

Infuse for at least 30 days. If the plant matter still appears green, not brown, continue to infuse until all the chlorophyll has dissolved.

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Strain the tincture through fine filters (such as a chinois, or several fine mesh tea filters stacked together) into a nonreactive clean container. The volume of the strained tincture will be greater than 750 ml, because the alcohol dehydrates the plant matter and adds water to the tincture. Measure the volume in ml. You should have nearly 900 ml. Do not add more grain alcohol to increase the volume; just note the amount so you can compute the ABV of the tincture.

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Make a simple syrup of 500 ml water and 500g sugar by combining the two in a pot over medium heat and stirring until all the sugar has dissolved. Cool to room temperature. Measure the volume in ml and note the total volume so you can compute the sugar concentration in the syrup. Note: If you hated/are not good at maths or are lazy, you can skip the computation steps and just skip to the instructions to mix equal portions of tincture, syrup, and water.

C(a): 712.5/Total volume tincture

C(s): Total weight of sugar (in grams)/Total volume finished liquid sugar syrup

There are three formulations of hierbas: one sweet (dulces, about 30% sucrose by weight and 20% ABV), another dry (seques, about 10% sucrose by weight and 35% ABV), and another medium-dry (mesclades, about 20% sucrose by weight and 25% ABV), which once was simply a mixture of the sweet and dry. If you haven’t tasted hierbas mallorquinas before, it can be hard to know which option you will like the most, so start with the mesclades recipe set forth below, and decide whether you want to add more alcohol or more sugar.

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For a medium-sweet liqueur, combine about 291 ml tincture with 324 ml sugar syrup and 395 ml water. Start with 300 ml water and taste; increase as necessary. Note: to be precise, you should compute the ABV of the finished tincture and the concentration of the sugar syrup before mixing so you can mix them correctly. If this is too much measuring for you, try equal proportions of water, syrup, and tincture (33% each by volume).

Once you have mixed your liqueur, you can decide whether to clarify or not. The sugar syrup captures and suspends the fine herb sediment present in the tincture, so it will be rather cloudy. This is normal. If it bothers you, clarify using hydrated gelatin finings and let the mixture stand in the freezer for up to two weeks before straining. Note: the hierbas used in the following candy recipe has been clarified. The advantage to not clarifying, though, is a more pronounced herbal flavor.

Hierbas wine gums

At Heston Blumenthal’s influential restaurant, The Fat Duck, the final phase of the tasting menu includes Whisk(e)y Wine Gums, an ingenious take on gummi candy that showcases the flavors of five different whisky (or, in the case of Tennessee, whiskey) producing regions, mounted onto a map of those regions. These have tremendous appeal for me, not just because I love whisk(e)y, but because I have a lifelong mania for gels. Given a choice between a gel- and non-gel formulation of any product, I will always choose the gel.

Different hydrocolloids yield different gel characteristics. Gelatin and certain pectins produce relatively soft, clear gels that melt at around body temperature and are responsible for the consistency of jelly, aspic, and ketchup. Using agar-agar makes for brittle gels like the almond jellies popular in Asia; gum arabic, firm, chewy gels like gummi bears. In the recipe below, developed from Blumenthal’s Whisk(e)y Gums recipe (Fat Duck Cookbook, 304-05), gelatin and agar combine for a soft but highly elastic gel that lets the hierbas shine.

15 g powdered gelatin
2 g powdered agar
30 ml hierbas

100 ml glucose syrup
55 g caster (superfine) sugar
1.4 g tartaric acid (substitute 2.5 g cream of tartar)
40 ml hierbas

35 ml hierbas

Combine the gelatin, agar, and 30 ml hierbas and wait 30 minutes to hydrate completely. Bag and seal in a chamber sealer. Drop into a 185F/85C circulator or in a pot of water on the stove at the same temperature.

Combine the glucose, sugar, tartaric acid, and 40 ml hierbas to hydrate completely. Bring to a simmer and then to a boil. When the mixture reaches 255F/124C, remove from the heat. Whisk in the hydrated gelatin mixture. The mixture will foam and appear opaque. Take the temperature, which should have dropped considerably. At 212F/100C, stir in the remaining hierbas. The mixture should become clear. Note: this entire mixing process should not take more than a minute or two.

Transfer immediately to small polycarbonate candy molds (to ensure easy unmolding, you can wipe a very thin film of neutral vegetable oil in each mold, but this may not be necessary). Cover and chill.

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Unmold not more than 30 minutes before service (or unmold and keep refrigerated). These gums can be rather sticky from the glucose but are not brittle, so if you need to use the tip of a knife to unmold, any scars will self-repair. To prevent sticking to the plate, dust the base of the gums with caster sugar before unmolding.

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Baking, Breakfast, Confectionery, Dessert

Nuts for potatoes.

I take a lot of guff from friends for not having a sweet tooth. It’s true. I’d rather have a cheese plate than pudding any day, and on my birthday, when my husband takes me out to dinner, he always requests that the restaurant bring me a platter of french fries instead of cake. Evidently people find this strange.

Birthday frites (courtesy Woodberry Kitchen).

Sugar has always been easy to resist. After dinner at a restaurant? Espresso, please. Leftover Halloween candy at work? No, thank you. Cookies on the plane? My seatmate may have my share. This holds true for all sweets, at nearly all times. The exception is doughnuts. As a kid, I ate a lot of doughnuts, since my parents were fond of breakfast pastry, and I’ve always enjoyed the bready puff of a raised doughnut and the lardy-cool cakiness of a golden brown cruller.

A couple of years ago, I traveled to Mobile, Alabama to give a speech, and, after consulting a map, realized that I was a mere two and a half hours from New Orleans. I emailed a friend from southern Mississippi who, thrilled to hear that I would be passing through his hometown of Ocean Springs enroute to Louisiana the next day, immediately responded:

If you’re there tomorrow morning you MUST go to my friend’s donut shop because he makes the BEST hand-made donuts in the world.

…the not-to-be-missed donut shop is the TatoNut Shop in Ocean Springs. Ocean Springs is the cutest town on the Coast (and not just because that’s my home town). A visit to the Walter Anderson art museum is very much worth it. Plus the shops and live oaks on Washington Ave downtown, and the cute harbor (where we always kept our boat), etc.

At 10 the following morning, after leaving the podium, I drove out US-90 to New Orleans via Ocean Springs and stopped for doughnuts. Tato-Nut is a small, square building on Ocean Springs’ main street, tucked between an outdoor equipment shop and the evocatively named Palmetto Place. Its owners, David and Teresa Mohler, produce the finest doughnuts in the world.

As its name suggests, Tato-Nut specializes in potato-based doughnuts. Potato doughnuts aren’t unknown – since the early part of the 20th century, potato doughnut recipes were published as a novel means to use leftover mashed potatoes. Their popularity was so great that, after the Second World War, a chain of potato doughnut shops, called Spudnut, popped up around the country, plying a particularly tender doughnut supposedly inspired by a traditional German yeasted sweet bread. Few Spudnut shops remain, the parent company having been bankrupted in the last days of disco by a fraud scheme involving tax free bonds and the Sacramento River Delta.

Tato-Nut

The hallmark of the potato doughnut is its tender, meltaway bite. This makes sense, as potato flour, being gluten-free, does not provide the elasticity and chew of wheat flour. Some wheat flour is essential or the doughnuts cannot be shaped – in fact, potato doughnuts still are primarily wheat flour – but the addition of potato flour not only reduces the protein-firmness of the doughnut, but somewhat inhibits gluten development.

Potato doughnuts

Nearly all potato doughnut recipes – in fact, all I found – rely on cooked and mashed or riced potatoes; many used too much egg, and many were cake doughnuts leavened with baking powder rather than yeasted ones. I’ve baked cakes before using riced baked potatoes, and although they were tender enough, I wasn’t sure that riced potato was fine enough to maintain the airiness of a great raised doughnut. Indeed, when I met owner David Mohler during my first visit to Tato-Nut, it was clear that he achieves his supremely tender doughnuts using potato flour and not cooked potatoes. Accordingly, I decided to substitute about 25 percent of the AP flour in my typical raised doughnut recipe with potato flour. The resulting dough is very floppy and not necessarily easy to shape, so I recommend cutting into simple and easy to manage shapes like small circles, which fry into balls, or rectangles, which can be filled with jam or cream.

The potato flour I selected was labeled “potato powder” and came from H Mart. Confusingly, H Mart sells another product, labeled “potato starch,” which appears indistinguishable from the powder. Both are snow white and light like cornstarch, but I believe the powder is simply dehydrated and finely ground potato, not the extracted starch. Your best bet will be to consult the organic foods section in your supermarket and look for Bob’s Red Mill potato flour. Do not use dehydrated mashed potatoes.

400g AP flour
150g potato flour
50g granulated sugar (if you like a sweeter doughnut you may use up to 75g)
4g salt
7.5 g instant yeast
1 egg yolk (17g)
75g lard or shortening
275g water (up to 300g depending on humidity)
vegetable oil or lard

Sift together all the dry ingredients in a stand mixer. Combine all the wet ingredients and add to the dry while running the mixer on low. Incorporate until just combined; do not overmix.

Sifted dry ingredients: AP flour, potato flour, yeast, sugar, salt.

Water, lard, egg yolk.

Cover the bowl and set in a slightly warm place. Rise for 60 minutes. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface (50/50 AP and potato flour, or all potato flour), and shape into a large rectangle or circle, turning over once or twice to coat in the flour to prevent sticking. The dough will be very soft and fairly floppy and should only take a few turns and a light rolling with a pin. Cover with a clean cloth and proof for another 60 minutes.

Dough.

Meanwhile, bring a pot of oil about 4″ deep to 365F/185C. When the oil is hot, cut the dough into small shapes just as you are frying (I used a 1.5″ biscuit cutter) and lower into the oil. Do not cut all in advance because the soft dough will spread as it sits and you will lose the leavening when you try to lift it. The doughnuts should almost immediately form airy spheres that float to the surface. Turn constantly using a spider to ensure even cooking. When golden, remove with a spider and drain on a rack lined with paper towels. You can fry the scraps as a cook’s treat; I wouldn’t try to reshape them or they will fall, so expect some irregular shapes.

Roll in granulated or caster sugar, cinnamon sugar (12:1 sugar to cinnamon), or dip in chocolate glaze (recipe below). Cooled doughnuts also may be filled with jelly or pastry cream; use a pastry bag fitted with a small round tip.

Plain sugar, chocolate glazed, and cinnamon.

Feel the lightness.

Chocolate glaze:

1/3 c whole milk
1 tbsp corn syrup
3 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1/2 tsp vanilla paste
2 tbsp butter
1 c confectioner’s sugar

Bring all the ingredients except the chocolate, butter, and sugar to a simmer. Add the chocolate and stir well until satiny. Add the cold butter and bring back to a simmer, stirring constantly. Add the confectioner’s sugar and bring back to a simmer, stirring constantly. When completely dissolved, remove from heat. The mixture should thicken; if it seems too thin, bring it back to a simmer for about 5-10 minutes and cool again.

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Confectionery, Dessert, Random Thoughts

The Kaiser.

I don’t know if you remember reading about this, but late last year, Hershey’s Kisses made their British debut. I did wonder how Hershey’s would be received in Britain – chocolate, and sweets generally, always seem to me such a culturally specific taste. The Cadbury bars sold in Britain taste totally different to the ones you can buy over here – more chocolatey and milky, less waxy. Of course, British candy isn’t uniformly superior – take liquorice allsorts, which are gross, although it’s debatable whether they’re grosser than jelly babies, which might taste fine but are shaped like babies. Babies! The whole idea is barbaric and deranged.

Hershey’s does have its partisans abroad, apparently, or at least has inspired imitations. Take the Kaiser, for example, whom we encountered three or four years ago in Taipei, shopping in the Carrefour. Recalling a time when I failed to stop the car at a sidewalk kiosk in southern Taiwan to buy a pack of “666 Cigarettes” and regretted it for years after, I put a few Kaiser items in the cart. When we returned to Baltimore, we contemplated the purchase. Most comically named Japanese chocolate tastes pretty good, so we thought the odds for Taiwanese candy bars were decent. Besides, the packaging made some bold claims. “Such best-quality.” “As good as other imported brands.”

The first clue that something was wrong was the texture. The Kaiser, perfectly intact and unblemished from his long journey, broke not with a crisp, glossy snap but a silent crumble. Mildly fazed, I handed a chunk to Nat. In the moments while we hesitated, the Kaiser did not melt between our fingers but shed only a thin coat of brown dust.

“Are you sure this is safe?” asked Nat.

I reminded him that Taiwan is a post-industrial country with modern food safety standards, and we popped the chunks into our mouths. “Best-quality,” my eye. I will give The Kaiser his “distinctive taste” claim, though – unlike most actual chocolate, it tasted exactly like Snack Pack. Chocolate-flavored Snack Pack. Pressed against the roof of the mouth, it flattened into waxy sheets rather than melting. It immediately called to mind the low-grade chocolate ration the proles receive in 1984 and the “Mockolate” featured on an episode of Friends (“this is what evil must taste like!”).

The second bar somehow turned up in the back of my car, possibly having escaped on the way to the dump. Having been through several summers, it should have melted and deformed. It did not, proving that the Kaiser is great and terrible. Mostly terrible. Worse yet, a recent inventory of our chocolate drawer turned up two bags of the kisses. I ate one upon discovery just to relive the horror. The Kaiser’s texture and flavor had not changed during several years in chocolate drawer purgatory.

Behold the Kaiser, in all his glory

KAISER chocolate is made from such best-quality. European raw material and automatic integrated machines imported from Europe. Because of its excellent quality and distinctive taste, this chocolate is as good as other well-known imported brands. Please enjoy the KAISER chocolate which is pleasing your taste most.

For truly excellent quality and distinctive taste, try making your own chocolate treats. I don’t mean literally from cacao beans – although that might be a project for another day. Just try working from high-quality bars, and incorporate your favorite flavors and textures. One of the best I’ve developed is a deep milk chocolate with honeycomb. Recently, I’ve been serving it at the end of meals, sometimes with a brown butter bouchon that you can eat in one or two bites.

Deep milk chocolate, orange flower honeycomb

I developed these chocolates for a Middle Eastern/Mediterranean-themed dinner last weekend. Chocolate isn’t really a Middle Eastern flavor, but orange flower water and honey certainly are, and a little creative license never hurt anyone. These are meant to have a deep milk chocolate taste, so don’t go crazy on the bittersweet chocolate. If you do, the chocolates will be harder, with more of a snap (assuming you temper them correctly), and won’t have the milky taste that works so well with the honeycomb.

I formed these using polycarbonate chocolate molds, but I’ve also used silicone ice cube forms (such as one might buy at IKEA), to good effect. The polycarbonate-molded chocolate has a cleaner and smoother surface, but I received no complaints about the silicone-formed chocolate.

8 oz milk chocolate (about 33%)
8 oz bittersweet chocolate (about 55%, not much higher), divided into 6 oz and 2 oz portions

1 c + 2 tbsp granulated sugar
2 1/2 tbsp honey
2 tbsp water
1 tsp orange flower water
2 tsp baking soda (sodium bicarbonate)

You also will need:
silpat and a sheet pan
food-grade silicone molds for chocolate or ice or whatever

Line the sheet pan with silpat.

Pour the sugar into a small saucepot and sprinkle the honey and water over its surface. Bring to a boil. The sugar will dissolve and combine with the waters and honey. Cook until the mixture reaches 300F/149C. Whisk in the orange flower water, remove from the heat, and immediately whisk in the baking soda. Don’t overmix – just combine enough that it foams aggressively, which will happen instantly.

Immediately pour into the center of the silpat. Do not stir or spread. Place in a blast chiller or a shelf in the freezer to firm up. When cold and solid (about 30 mins), pull the honeycomb off the silpat in one piece and break the honeycomb into chunks. Transfer about 1/3 the honeycomb to a plastic ziploc bag and crush with a rolling pin. Reserve the rest in an airtight container for another use.

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Meanwhile, temper the chocolate. In a double boiler, melt 6 oz bittersweet chocolate and the milk chocolate. Remove from the heat and whisk to reduce the heat. Once the chocolate reaches about 100F/38C, add the rest of the bittersweet chocolate. Whisk until it dissolves and the temperature drops to about 88F-90F/31C-32C. Stir in the honeycomb and spoon into chocolate molds.

Return to the blast chiller until solid. Pop out of molds.

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Brown butter bouchon

Sometimes I serve these with chocolates as part of post-meal petits fours/mignardises. Other times, I like to pair them with brown butter ice cream for dessert. Brown butter is one of my favorite flavors, and nothing is better than doubling up on a favorite flavor. For a surprising savory twist to the dessert, garnish with a sage leaf fried in butter and finish with a little sea salt.

2 sticks (1/2 lb) unsalted butter
1 1/2 c (6 1/2 oz or 187g) all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 c plus 2 tbsp milk
1/2 tsp double strength vanilla extract
1/3 c granulated sugar
a little more than 1/2 c firmly packed light brown sugar
2 eggs

325F/163C oven.

Prepare bouchon molds, or timbales holding about 1 1/2 oz, with nonstick spray and flour. Set aside in the refrigerator. In a pinch, you can use mini-muffin tins.

Sift together the dry ingredients. Combine the milk and vanilla in a separate vessel.

In a heavy pan, melt the butter. Once it begins to foam, watch it carefully as it turns toasted nut-brown. Remove from heat. If using cast iron or something similar, pour the butter out so it doesn’t continue to heat and burn. Refrigerate until solid.

Combine the sugars in a stand mixer and beat together. Add the brown butter, solids and all, and continue to beat, creaming until tan and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating completely after each addition.

Once the eggs are fully incorporated, add the flour and the milk mixture on low speed, alternating between the two, about 1/3 at a time.

Fill the prepared molds just short of full. Bake until a tester comes out clean from the center, about 10-12 minutes, depending on the size and shape of your molds.

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Brown butter ice cream

I owe the browning method in this recipe to Michael Laisikonis, who in turn attributes it to another chef. It is by far the best way to obtain a large volume of browned milk solids, and it makes total sense – butter comes from churning cream, but in butter-making most of the milk solids are left behind in the buttermilk, rather than the butter. So why not just start with cream? Once all the water boils off, you essentially have nothing but butterfat and plentiful milk solids.

The use of cream also resolves one of the problems with making brown butter ice cream – avoiding the palate greasiness that comes from incorporating actual browned butter, fat and all, into the milk. Once strained, the browned solids shouldn’t be terribly greasy. You can use the strained-off butterfat for cooking, where it subtly conveys that brown-butter savor.

4 c heavy cream, divided in 2c portions
1 1/2 c whole milk
1/2 c brown sugar, packed
1/2 c granulated sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla salt
2 tsp bourbon or scotch whisky

Place 2 c of the cream in a small, heavy sauce pot. Bring to a simmer and cook, whisking from time to time, until the cream separates to fat and milk solids. Continue to cook, whisking to ensure milk solids do not stick to the pan, until the solids are a deep nut brown. Do not burn. Strain through a chinois to remove as much fat as possible. Reserve the fat for another culinary use. The process should take less than an hour.

Meanwhile, combine the remaining ingredients except the alcohol in a sauce pot. Bring to a simmer to dissolve the sugars. Transfer to a vitaprep or blender and add the browned milk solids. Blitz until totally smooth and incorporated. Add the alcohol and chill in a bain marie or in the refrigerator until cool.

Transfer the cold mix to an ice cream machine and spin according to the machine instructions. Turn the frozen mixture into containers and chill for at least three hours to set.

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Confectionery, Fruit, preserving, Q&A

Buddha’s hand.

A reader wants to know what to do with those crazy yellow fruits with the gnarled fingers. On the mystery of Buddha’s hand, the four original citrus fruits of antiquity, and rescuing candied citron from its Day-Glo fruitcake past, on the Buddha’s Hand page.

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Confectionery, Duck, Frenchy Things, Leftover Recycling

Holiday Food Project 2010

Remember when we were kids, and we had endless wish lists of holiday gifts? Barbie Styling Head, Easy Bake Oven, Snoopy Sno Cone Machine, that sort of thing. I probably shouldn’t say any more, because I’m starting to sound like quite the retrograde feminine traditionalist, but you get the idea. Kids love stuff, and the winter holiday is primo stuff-buying season for kids. Adults too, as it turns out. When I first met my husband, I discovered that every holiday season, he and his mother engaged in the wholly pragmatic ritual of exchanging dog-eared catalogues with the desired merchandise circled within. I scoffed at this practice, of course, tarring it as an unromantic concession to the materialism of Christmas. We’re adults, I protested, and if you’re still buying holiday gifts for other adults, you should make an effort to know their tastes and interests. Really try to understand them as people, and buy them carefully chosen, meaningful gifts, not just turtlenecks from L.L. Bean and Borders gift cards.

I’m just going to tell this story about what a total load of bullshit my whole position on gifts turned out to be. Our protagonist doesn’t read this blog, so just let me have this, ok? Here’s what happened. Ever since my “thoughtful gifts” putsch of 2001, my mother in law and I exchanged gifts without any sort of holiday wish lists as a guide, with varying degrees of success or failure. Over the years, she bought me a series of mysteries – never registering that I hate mysteries and almost never read fiction. In 2005, I bought her a first edition of The World is Flat based on my knowledge that she reads the Times assiduously and admires everyone who writes in their pages (regardless of viewpoint, apparently), but totally ignorant of the fact that she already owned two copies. It kind of went like this every year. And then it was 2006. Right around Thanksgiving that year, my husband and I were sitting in his mother’s living room in suburban Philadelphia when my eye wandered over to a pair of two-dimensional copper cats in the window. The idea with these unbearably awful cats was that you could pose them in different ways so they could be attacking each other, frolicking, or just hanging out together. It’s possible she saw me looking at them. Does this seem like a nonsequitur? It’s not.

For a few years I had become increasingly uncomfortable with the idea that my mother in law was spending so much money on the holidays since, as an adult, it’s not as though I really need any of this stuff, and she was headed toward retirement. Anything I really need (a new slate roof, second floor bathroom refurbishment) or want (rotovap, chamber sealer, lyophilizer) is way out of the range of reasonable gift expectations, and nearly everything else I can buy myself. So that Christmas, when I opened the square white box and unfolded several layers of tissue paper to find a pair of two-dimensional copper cats – expensive, two-dimensional copper cats – you can imagine how excited I felt. “Oh,” I said. “Just like yours.”

I since have conceded to my husband that the wish list method is superior to my idealized conception of gift-giving. Sometimes coups-d’états end with the restoration of the establishment, after all. As a matter of fact, I have adopted the wish list with the zealotry of the convert, making Amazon wishlists, evangelizing to my husband about their use, and publicly humiliating myself (as now) by repeating the story of my conversion at every available holiday opportunity. Actually, it doesn’t come up all that often. The moral of the story, though, is that you should make lists and exchange them to avoid being given unaesthetic “works of art” for the holidays, which you may have to trot out on future family visits to avoid uncomfortable questioning. But when list-exchanging would be awkward or socially inappropriate, the gift of food is never wrong.

Most people love either sugar or fat (admit it or not). Things have become more complicated over the years, as meat eatership is down, and so is sugar consumption. But your odds of making one or the other of these items work as a gift are pretty good. And to know which one to give your intended target, or whether to go back to the drawing board, you really have to make an effort to know their tastes and interests. See? You really can have it all. Happy holidays.

Figs with brandied ganache

Full disclosure: I did not conceptualize these figs in the first instance. Nat and I were killing time at a farmer’s market in Swarthmore (where my mother in law lives) when we encountered a vendor selling figs stuffed with ganache in boxes from Williams-Sonoma. We bought a small wooden box holding six figs and they were gone almost immediately. I thought, how hard could these be to make at home? Not hard. I mean, I’m not a pastry chef or confiseur by any means, and I worked it out on my first try.

The most difficult part of this exercise is dipping in the chocolate coating If you don’t already know, chocolate must be tempered to achieve that glossy snap at room temperature. This means that, once you melt the chocolate, you need to bring the temperature back down to 88F/31C and keep it there while you use it to coat your bonbons or whatever. There exist a couple of methods to temper chocolate, but in my opinion, the easiest is to melt chocolate in a double boiler until it reaches roughly 110F/43C, and then stir in cold chocolate (couverture chocolate works best because it has been pre-tempered) until the mixture reaches 88F. Because you must not rush the tempering process, this process may take a surprisingly long time. Keep the chocolate at 88F (up to 90F is fine) and work as quickly as you can. Don’t worry; because chocolate is relatively thick, it won’t lose heat immediately.

You can substitute another liquor for the brandy, but I chose a Spanish brandy (a Torres Jaime I solera) because it was a great pairing with the figs and the Spanish chocolate. Bourbon and some types of scotch whisky (particularly those aged in solera casks) would make excellent choices. Rum is a little cloying with the figs, in my opinion, unless you use something like Gosling’s Old or Santa Teresa 1792.

One thing: if choosing the second (injection) method below to fill the figs, you will need a syringe to fill the figs with ganache. This is not as deviant as it sounds. You can order an appropriately large syringe from L’Epicerie for about $4 or you can try to hit up your friendly neighborhood pharmacy. When I had my wisdom teeth out, years ago, I was told to keep my mouth clean with a syringe of warm water (there’s no needle). If you go the pharmacy route, the only difference is that you’ll have to refill the syringe more often, as it doesn’t hold as much.

One to two dozen dried figs, depending on size (I believe I used calimyrna, but see what you can find)
10 ounces bittersweet chocolate (I used Blanxart 80%), chopped
8 ounces (1 cup) heavy cream
1 tbsp corn syrup
2 tbsp brandy

6 ounces bittersweet chocolate (I used Blanxart dark), divided

Make the ganache:

Bring the cream to a boil. Allow to cool to about 120F; bring to a second boil and cool again. Bring to a third boil and add the corn syrup. Immediately pour through a fine sieve over the chopped chocolate. Stir well with a silicone spatula; do not overwork or beat in air. When cool (at room temperature), stir in the brandy and incorporate completely. You must wait to room temperature or the addition of cool liquid to warm chocolate may cause the mixture to seize.

Lay a sheet of wax paper in a sheet pan. Fill the figs. Full disclosure: I only ever have used the second method to fill the figs; the first one is a guess but I know it will work.

First method: place plastic wrap on the surface of the ganache to prevent a skin from forming, and allow the ganache to solidify somewhat. Slice the bottom off each fig and, using a small spoon, hollow out some of the flesh. Fill with ganache (using a spoon or butter knife) and place, bottom side down, on the wax paper to solidify further.

Second method: Fit an iSi ProfiWhip canister with an injector needle. Charge with nitrous. Blow out each fig with just a puff (not too hard!) until each one just puffs up. This pushes the fig flesh toward the walls and makes it easier to fill each one with ganache while leaving the fig intact. See before/after shots below.

Before.

After.

Fill the syringe with ganache while still warm. It helps to use the smallest possible spoon. Working quickly (because once you push the plunger, the ganache will come out quickly), fill each fig from the center of the flat, plump bottom. Inject from the blowout point and push until the fig is full. Set injection-side down on the wax paper.

Injecting with ganache.

Prepare the dipping chocolate:

Melt 5 ounces of the dark chocolate in a double boiler until it reaches 110F/43C, and then turn off the heat. Remove the top pot from the boiler but do not take the water off the stove. Stir in cold chocolate small piece by small piece until the mixture reaches 88F. Because you must not rush the tempering process, this process may take a surprisingly long time. Set the double boiler back on top of the water and keep the chocolate at 88F (up to 90F is fine). Working as quickly as you can, dip the bottom of each fig into the couverture. Don’t worry; because chocolate is relatively thick, it will not lose heat immediately. If it begins to set up, return to the double boiler and bring back to 88F. Place the dipped figs on the wax paper after dipping. Leave about an inch between figs.

Figs, brandied ganache.


Duck rillettes

Looking for something for the meat glutton in your life? Duck rillettes ought to do it.

Here’s the thing. Rillettes are the easiest of the pâté-like meat preparations to make, and yet anyone who receives a little jar of duck rillettes from you will act as though you flew to the Loire River valley and picked it up specially. They should – as easy as rillettes are to make, they taste like a million bucks. Traditionally, in the Loire départements, the rillettes were made from pork belly and shoulder. You can and should do that as well, but all I had handy was duck confit, so that’s what you’re getting this time. I do have a nine pound belly in the reach in, though, and if I get around to it this weekend, I’ll make some pork rillettes.

Pack your product in these lidded jars, complete with rubber gaskets. Not only do they look incredible, but they really keep the air out (in combination with the layer of fat on the rillettes). If you’re really motivated, you even can make labels. Once packed, they will keep, unopened, for a couple of months in the refrigerator, longer in the freezer. Once opened, consume within ten days. Best with toast points, excellent with pickled onions and cornichons.

One recipe (six legs) duck confit, from this recipe, fat and all, chilled solid
½ cup Dijon mustard (I like to use a green peppercorn Dijon by Maille or Edmund Fallot but you don’t have to do that)
About 1 tsp freshly ground black peppercorn

Lift the duck from the fat and measure out about 1 ½ c fat. Keep cold. Remove the duck meat from the bones and skin. In a bowl, combine all the duck meat, 2 tbsp mustard, a little black pepper (about ¼ tsp), and about ¼ c cold duck fat. Stir using a fork, incorporating the fat. Add another ¼ tsp pepper, another 2 tbsp mustard, and another ¼ c duck fat. Continue stirring. Taste at this point for texture, which should be rich and neither lean-meaty nor greasy. If it is too lean, add another 2 tbsp to ¼ c duck fat (or more) and 2 tbsp mustard. Otherwise, just taste for mustard and pepper.

Allow the remaining duck fat to melt until just liquid.

Pack into sterilized lidded jars and top with ¼ inch liquid duck fat. Insert rubber gasket into jar and close. Keep refrigerated and do not open until ready to serve.

All packed up.

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