Saturday, December 22, 2007

Daring Bakers Challenge: Yule Log or Buche de Noel

Ahhh, la buche de noel. I've been teaching French since the early 90's, talking to my classes about the lovely buche, eating buche from patisseries in France and some places in the U.S., but never daring to make my own buche. Enter the Daring Bakers and their challenge for December: make yourself one yule log with genoise, coffee buttercream and meringue mushrooms.

I had the the desire, I had the recipe, I had the occasion: one of my best girlfriends, who is French, was moving away (sniff) so for her party I would present my very first buche ever. Problem was, she is no fan of the coffee buttercream. No worries, I made a few changes. I made the buttercream chocolate and I covered the buche with chocolate ganache.

The recipe was super easy to follow. The day before I made the cake, I tackled the mushrooms. I had never done this before, and it was amazingly easy. As long as you have a pastry bag and large round tip, you're good to go. My husband even thought they were real mushrooms, so that was a bonus!

The genoise baked up with no problem. After baking it, I flipped it onto a moist dishtowel covered by a piece of parchment paper and let it sit in the fridge till I was ready to fill it.

My buttercream was a breeze to make, I just make sure that I add the butter piece by piece and not get too antsy if it looks curdeled. It all comes back! It was light and fluffy and delicious.

I thought "this is a breeeeeeze!"

Until I filled and rolled my genoise.

Filling the cake was easy, no problem. Although I probably over-filled it. When I went to roll it up, it did not really form a formed a sandwich, folding over onto itself. Buttercream went ooooozing everywhere. I had an oozing yule sandwich. But from the outside, it looked log-esque, so I continued.

My ganache idea backfired at first. I cut stumps off the ends of my cake and attached them to the side and top of the log (next time I will forgo this step, it just made it more cumbersome to deal with). Then I tried to frost the entire thing. Perhaps my ganache was just too stiff, but it would NOT stick to this cake to save my life. I had a yule mess on my hands. It was ugly, too. I was cursing the buche and that has to be blasphemous in the yule log world.

So I made ANOTHER recipe of ganache (this thing was chocolatey!) and simply poured it over the cake while it was still liquidy. That worked!!

I added some "fir branches" by crystalizing rosemary branches, put on a candy star and some candy canes, and adding my mushrooms (WARNING, don't store your mushrooms in the refrigerator or freezer, and DON'T add them until you are about to serve your cake. They mush up fast).

So, here's the recipe according to the Daring Bakers! Go check out their results as well!!

Yule Log

(from Perfect Cakes by Nick Malgieri and The Williams-Sonoma Collection: Dessert)Daring Bakers Challenge #14: December 2007Hosts: Daring Baker Founders Ivonne (Cream Puffs in Venice) and Lisa (La Mia Cucina)

Recipe Quantity: Serves 12
Cake should be stored in a cool, dry place. Leftovers should be refrigerated
Plain Genoise:

3 large eggs
3 large egg yolks
pinch of salt
¾ cup of sugar
½ cup cake flour - spoon flour into dry-measure cup and level off (also known as cake & pastry flour)
¼ cup cornstarch

one (1) 10 x 15 inch jelly-roll pan that has been buttered and lined with parchment paper and then buttered again

1.Set a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees F.
2.Half-fill a medium saucepan with water and bring it to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat so the water is simmering.
3.Whisk the eggs, egg yolks, salt and sugar together in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer. Place over the pan of simmering water and whisk gently until the mixture is just lukewarm, about 100 degrees if you have a thermometer (or test with your finger - it should be warm to the touch).
4.Attach the bowl to the mixer and, with the whisk attachment, whip on medium-high speed until the egg mixture is cooled (touch the outside of the bowl to tell) and tripled in volume. The egg foam will be thick and will form a slowly dissolving ribbon falling back onto the bowl of whipped eggs when the whisk is lifted.
5.While the eggs are whipping, stir together the flour and cornstarch.
6.Sift one-third of the flour mixture over the beaten eggs. Use a rubber spatula to fold in the flour mixture, making sure to scrape all the way to the bottom of the bowl on every pass through the batter to prevent the flour mixture from accumulating there and making lumps. Repeat with another third of the flour mixture and finally with the remainder.
7.Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.
8.Bake the genoise for about 10 to 12 minutes. Make sure the cake doesn’t overbake and become too dry or it will not roll properly.
9.While the cake is baking, begin making the buttercream.
10.Once the cake is done (a tester will come out clean and if you press the cake lightly it will spring back), remove it from the oven and let it cool on a rack.

Coffee Buttercream:
4 large egg whites
1 cup sugar
24 tablespoons (3 sticks or 1-1/2 cups) unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons instant espresso powder
2 tablespoons rum or brandy

1.Whisk the egg whites and sugar together in the bowl of an electric mixer. Set the bowl over simmering water and whisk gently until the sugar is dissolved and the egg whites are hot.

2.Attach the bowl to the mixer and whip with the whisk on medium speed until cooled. Switch to the paddle and beat in the softened butter and continue beating until the buttercream is smooth. Dissolve the instant coffee in the liquor and beat into the buttercream.

Meringue Mushrooms:
3 large egg whites, at room temperature
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
½ cup (3-1/2 ounces/105 g.) granulated sugar
1/3 cup (1-1/3 ounces/40 g.) icing sugar
Unsweetened cocoa powder for dusting

1.Preheat the oven to 225 degrees F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment. Have ready a pastry bag fitted with a small (no. 6) plain tip. In a bowl, using a mixer on medium-low speed, beat together the egg whites and cream of tartar until very foamy. Slowly add the granulated sugar while beating. Increase the speed to high and beat until soft peaks form when the beaters are lifted. Continue until the whites hold stiff, shiny peaks. Sift the icing sugar over the whites and, using a rubber spatula, fold in until well blended.

2.Scoop the mixture into the bag. On one baking sheet, pipe 48 stems, each ½ inch (12 mm.) wide at the base and tapering off to a point at the top, ¾ inch (2 cm.) tall, and spaced about ½ inch (12 mm.) apart. On the other sheet, pipe 48 mounds for the tops, each about 1-1/4 inches (3 cm.) wide and ¾ inch (2 cm.) high, also spaced ½ inch (12 mm.) apart. With a damp fingertip, gently smooth any pointy tips. Dust with cocoa. Reserve the remaining meringue.

3.Bake until dry and firm enough to lift off the paper, 50-55 minutes. Set the pans on the counter and turn the mounds flat side up. With the tip of a knife, carefully make a small hole in the flat side of each mound. Pipe small dabs of the remaining meringue into the holes and insert the stems tip first. Return to the oven until completely dry, about 15 minutes longer. Let cool completely on the sheets.

Marzipan Mushrooms:

8 ounces almond paste
2 cups icing sugar
3 to 5 tablespoons light corn syrup
Cocoa powder

1.To make the marzipan combine the almond paste and 1 cup of the icing sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat with the paddle attachment on low speed until sugar is almost absorbed.

2.Add the remaining 1 cup of sugar and mix until the mixture resembles fine crumbs.

3.Add half the corn syrup, then continue mixing until a bit of the marzipan holds together when squeezed, adding additional corn syrup a little at a time, as necessary: the marzipan in the bowl will still appear crumbly.

4.Transfer the marzipan to a work surface and knead until smooth.

5.Roll one-third of the marzipan into a 6 inches long cylinder and cut into 1-inch lengths.

6.Roll half the lengths into balls. Press the remaining cylindrical lengths (stems) into the balls (caps) to make mushrooms.

7.Smudge with cocoa powder.

Assembling the Yule Log:

1.Run a sharp knife around the edges of the genoise to loosen it from the pan.

2.Turn the genoise layer over (unmolding it from the sheet pan onto a flat surface) and peel away the paper.

3.Carefully invert your genoise onto a fresh piece of parchment paper.

4.Spread with half the coffee buttercream (or whatever filling you’re using).

5.Use the parchment paper to help you roll the cake into a tight cylinder.

6.Transfer back to the baking sheet and refrigerate for several hours.

7.Unwrap the cake. Trim the ends on the diagonal, starting the cuts about 2 inches away from each end.

8.Position the larger cut piece on each log about 2/3 across the top.

9.Cover the log with the reserved buttercream, making sure to curve around the protruding stump.

10.Streak the buttercream with a fork or decorating comb to resemble bark.

11.Transfer the log to a platter and decorate with your mushrooms and whatever other decorations you’ve chosen.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Fresh Ginger Cake

My little girl's preschool was having an "International Dinner" where we were each supposed to bring in something from our heritage. Her school is riddled with people from every continent, so I knew it was going to be an interesting dinner and I didn't want to fail my heritage. But what should I make, I wondered. My heritage is basically Irish and French. Irish soda bread? No, it can be too hard. Irish Corned Beef and Cabbage? No, to cabbage-y, too hard to transport. French Crepes Suzettes? Too many flames. Chocolate mousse? Too typical French, I'd have to wear a beret and a striped tee-shirt while serving it. I had nowhere to go, pouring through magazines and cookbooks, everything was either too blah or too difficult.

So I relied on my American heritage...figured my clan has been here for just over 100 years, that has to count for something. By kizmet, I received my monthly email from David Lebovitz with a surprise addition: his most asked for recipe, the Fresh Ginger Cake. I had never made it before, and was weary that it called for oil instead of butter (I'm a firm believer that cake should be made with butter and butter alone). But I put away my petty butter prejudices and made the cake. It was easy as can be, and when I presented it on the table it was not only the prettiest dessert there, but it was gobbled up by the masses.

ONE WARNING: it is VERY gingery, this cake. Not for the weak of palate. At first I wasn't sure how much I liked it, but smothering it with fresh, homemade whipped cream did take a little of the ginger bite away. I had one piece left over and ate it for breakfast the next day (breakfast of Champions). By then, the ginger seemed to have mellowed a bit. So I recommend making this the day before you need it.

Some people serve it with whipped cream, like I did. Others use a caramel sauce or lemon curd. All in all, I do think it does need something "on the side", as only Sally Albright could order it....

Fresh Ginger Cake from David Lebovitz's Room For Dessert
One 9-inch cake; 10 to 12 servings

4 ounce (120 g) knob fresh ginger
1 cup (250 ml) mild molasses (sometimes called 'light' molasses)
1 cup (200g) sugar
1 cup (250 ml) vegetable oil, preferably peanut or colza (I used canola)
2 1/2 cups (350 g) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 cup (250 ml) water
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 large eggs, at room temperature

1. Position the oven rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350F (180C). Line a 9 by 3-inch (23 by 6-cm) round cake pan or a 9 1/2-inch (23 cm) springform pan with a circle of parchment paper.
2. Peel, slice, and chop the ginger very fine with a knife or food processor.
3. Mix together the molasses, sugar, and oil. In another bowl, sift together the flour, cinnamon, cloves, and black pepper.
4. Bring the water to the boil in a saucepan, stir in the baking soda, and then mix the hot water into the molasses mixture. Stir in the ginger.
5. Gradually whisk the dry ingredients into the batter. Add the eggs, and continue mixing until everything is thoroughly combined. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and bake for about 1 hour, until the top of the cake springs back lightly when pressed or a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
6. Cool the cake for at least 30 minutes. Remove from the cake pan and peel off the parchment paper.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Savory Shortbread: Blue Cheese and Pecan Shortbread

Now I know what you might be thinking: yuck, blue cheese. I am not at all a fan of blue cheese in its naked and natural state. Too strong for my delicate tongue! But these little shortbread cracker/cookies paired with a mango or ginger chutney are FABULOUS, the tastes blend together really nicely and the sweet of the ginger takes the bite out of the blue cheese.

I served these at a dinner party as an hors d'oeuvre. At first they were just looked at...people were not confident in the chutney part, I think. But then one person ate one...his eyes bulged (that was a good thing). The next person ate one, said "Wow, the tastes come at you one at a time!" and the next thing you knew my platter was empty.

I served them with a "schmear" of cream cheese (I love the word "schmear" and find it is not used quite often enough), then a toasted walnut and finally a "dollop" (gotta love the word "dollop" as well...) of ginger chutney. I bought my ginger chutney at the local Fresh Market in the jams/jellies section of the store. The tastes merged so well. First you taste the chutney, then the cream cheese and walnut, then "bam" you get a nice taste of blue cheese, but nothing too strong.

They make a gorgeous hors d'oeuvre for holiday parties, particularly if you cut them out with a small (1 inch) fluted, round cookie cutter. Very pretty.


1/2 cup blue cheese (I used Bleu d'Auvergne) at room temp.

3 Tb unsalted butter, room temp.

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup cornstarch

1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

1/4 tsp. coarse salt

1/3 cup chopped toasted pecans

for topping:

Ginger chutney (I used about 1/2 of a small jar)

1/2 c. walnut halves (you will need one for each shortbread)

Italian flat parsley for garnish

Combine blue cheese and butter in food processor and process until creamy.

Mix flour, cornstarch, pepper and salt together in a small bowl. Add to the blue cheese mixture.

Pulse to combine.

Add the chopped pecans, process until incorporated.

Remove mixture from food processor and shape into a ball, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least one hour.

Preheat oven to 325 F.

Place the chilled dough on a lightly floured work surface and cover with a piece of plastic wrap. Roll dough about 1/8 inch thick and cut into 1 inch circles using a fluted cookie cutter (or circular if you don't have can play with your shapes here, use a leaf cutter, a flower, as long as it's smallish). Place on a parchment or silpat-lined baking sheet and bake until golden brown, about 25 minutes. Let cool.

**Shortbread can be prepared up to 3 days in advance and stored in an airtight container. Assemble one hour before serving.


Spread a bit of cream cheese on each shortbread, top with a walnut half and a teaspoon of ginger chutney. Add a leaf of parsley for garnish.

Bon appetit!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Christmas Cut Out cookies

It's that time of year again, when I don't see my countertops from December 1 - January 2. Literally, they are covered in flour, confectioner's sugar, mixers, beaters, you name it, it's on my countertop. Having a smaller kitchen doesn't help.

I am one of those Christmas cookie freaks who literally bakes almost every day of the season. I give them as gifts, along with the macarons that I have just figured out! I make about 5 -6 types of cookie, but my most favorite is the colorful Christmas cutout cookie.

I use the Williams-Sonoma sugar cookie recipe, and it is so good people ask "what is in these to give them flavor?" They are delicious. Here is the recipe which I posted last month.

For the icing, I use some meringue powder and make royal icing. It gives a great result, although it is a bit of a hard icing.

Some cut out tips:

1. Be sure your dough is chilled but not so cold you can't roll it.

2. Roll your cookies thin. A thick and doughy sugar cookie is kind of blah. I roll mine to about 1/8 inch.

3. Use saran wrap when you roll. Just put a piece of saran wrap over the dough (and under also, if you choose, but I just use a floured countertop). Your rolling pin will NOT stick, no matter what.

4. Watch that oven, don't burn the cookies. But don't underbake them either. These take about 8 - 10 minutes or so.

5. Use silpats. They are a bit of an investment, but they last forever and make your baking SO successful!

6. If you want to make a lot of cookies during the season but don't want to be in the kitchen day in and day out, make a few recipes of the dough, cut out your shapes, freeze them on the silpat-lined cookie sheet, and the store them in the freezer in an airtight container. Then bake as you need. It's a great way to save on time.

Good luck! Enjoy your cookie endeavors, I'll be posting more as the season progresses!

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Christmas Macarons: Peppermint, Pistachio and Chocolate

To me, The greatest thing about the internet is that I can look up how to do just about anything. Got a question? Google it! (or Yahoo it, or whatever you use). One of my food blogging heroes is Helene from Tartelette. She's GOOOOD. Everything she bakes turns to yummy gold. And she knows what she's doing. Got a question? Ask the tartelette.

I'm a huge fan of French macarons, and I finally learned how to make them the French way (whipping egg whites adn then folding in the almond/powdered sugar mixture). Problem is, they didn't always turn out uniform, they were sometimes too hard, sometimes too puffy, there are just so many variables. So when I decided to tackle macarons using italian meringue, I went to zee famous Tartelette. Of course, there in her site was a number of wonderful recipes for foolproof macarons. Sure, they take longer to make than the French meringue method, but they are supposed to be the real deal, every time. And of course, Helene often prefers this method when she makes her fabulous macarons, so she had a fabulous recipe! But she's French, you see...her recipes are often in grams and whatnot. Silly rest of the world with their metric system...So I had to put my very non-mathematical brain to work and do some converting. Alas, I came up with a recipe that works.

The macarons that I got from this recipe are just about as Pierre Hermé/Ladurée worthy as I have ever done. And every pan turned out great. No misses, it was like the heavens opened and I was welcomed into the macaron paradise so few get to see...ahhhhhhh!!!

For Christmas, I decided to do peppermint/chocolate, pistachio/chocolate with ginger (which I learned through Helene's web site), and David Lebovitz's recipe for chocolate macarons. I will try the Italian meringue method with chocolate macarons next, but I didn't tackle it this time since David's recipe is always so good.

I'm really happy with the results. I'm bringing them to a Christmas party tonight, and judging from how many my husband and I have already devoured, I don't think they will last too long!!

Here's the how-to:
1/2 cup egg whites
3 Tb. sugar
1 1/4 c. powdered sugar
1 c. almond flour (for pistachio, I did 1/2 c. almond and 1/2 c. ground pistachios)
2 tsp. flavoring if applicable (for peppermint, I used peppermint extract.)
Coloring (I used green for the pistachio and pink for the peppermint)

For syrup:
3/4 c. sugar
1/4 c. water

Begin by placing the 1/4 c. water and 3/4 c. sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Once the sugar syrup registers 170 degrees on a candy thermometer, start whipping 1/2 of your egg whites (so 1/4 cup of them). When the egg whites have started to froth, slowly add the 3 Tb. sugar.

When the sugar syrup gets to 230 on a candy thermometer, add it in driblets to your egg whites (which should hold soft peaks at this point).

Whip the mixture for 10 - 15 minutes, until fluffy and cool.

Mix the remaining 1/4 cup of egg whites with the ground almonds and powdered sugar. (I do this in a cuisinart food processor). Fold this mixture into the meringue mixture.

Fill a pastry bag with a 1/4 inch tip with your mixture. Pipe 2 inch circles on cookie sheets lined with parchment or with a silpat (I use a silpat).
Bake at 320 for 12 minutes (12 - 15 minutes, I do 12).

I filled all my macarons with chocolate ganache. The pistachio ones have about a teaspoon of ginger in them, for added zing. (Do this to taste). This recipe will fill about two macaron recipes.

4 oz. chocolate
1/2 cup cream
2 tsp. corn syrup
1 Tb. unsalted butter.
(added flavoring if you want (peppermint, coffee, ginger, etc.)

Chop chocolate in small pieces and place in a heatproof bowl. Heat cream and corn syrup in a small saucepan. Once it is hot and bubbles on the sides of the pan, pour it into the chocolate. Let sit for about 5 minutes. Add butter and stir until all the chocolate is melted and incorporated.

Refrigerate until ready to use. If necessary, let soften before using (I like it pretty soft so I don't break my macarons while filling them).

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Gingerbread House

Nothing says Christmas and kids much like a gingerbread house. I never had these growing up, I didn't have an artistic/culinary mom. Now that I have my own wee ones I wanted to add some fun Christmas traditions, so I went out and got a gingerbread house kit by Wilton at Sur la Table. (Yes, that's cheating, but when you have a 2 and 3 year old you cheat).

The kit is really nice. It comes with everything you need, down to the candies and the piping bag and tip for the icing. Putting the house together was a labor of love, it took some time and the house fell over more than once. But the final result is pretty good if I do say so myself! Don't look too closely!

The kids love it, they want to devour it. But I don't think we'll be eating this creation. For our gingerbread needs I'll make some little men... So we have our house on a shelf and we admire it from afar!

I have found that if you wrap a gingerbread house in plastic trash bags and then put it in a box and in a cool, dry place, you can use it as decoration the following year as well. Unless of course you want the gingerbread challenge every year!

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Sherry Yard's Panna Cotta Chocolate Cake

OOOOOOH MYYYYYYYY this was a HIT. A super duper uber hit. People wanted to lick their plates, that is the kind of hit this cake was.

I got the recipe for this cake out of the Christmas edition of Bon Appétit. It's a Sherry Yard recipe, and it looked phenomenal on the page. I was a bit nervous about it, it seems to incorporate a bunch of tricky steps, but it wasn't tricky at all. In fact, it was rather fool proof.

The cake presented so beautifully. People were wowed just looking at it. But then the taste is spot-on too. Very chocolatey but not too rich or heavy. I'll definitely make this one again for Christmas dinner.

A couple things about the recipe: it calls for two springform pans. Don't worry. I used one 9 inch springform pan and one regular 9 inch round cake pan. That cake fit perfectly well on top of the one in the springform pan.

Another change I will make next time: for the chocolate band, it says to make it 3 inches high. I found this only "just" came over the top of the cake. For a prettier visual, I will make it 5 inches high next time.

Do try the cake, it is really just fantastic.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Holdiay Entertaining: Gougères

PHEW. Between the Daring Bakers Potato Bread, Thanksgiving and my girl's fourth birthday, I'm a bit wiped out... I mean, a gal can only cook so much in the span of two weeks! I need a personal chef.
But a dinner party on Saturday night has me back in the kitchen yet again. I'm tackling the appetizers first, because I can store them and just bring them out on Saturday night.

I've decided to serve kir royale as an apéritif, and nothing goes with champagne quite like a good gougère. And as a bonus, gougères are such an easy appetizer. You can make them in advance and freeze them, reheat them for the party and make everyone go "ooooh". I learned how to make these yummy snacks in France, official home of the gougère. They are a light appetizer but really satisfying due to the gruyère cheese.

To make these, you should have a pastry bag with a 1/2 inch tip. If you don't have that, you can drop them by spoonfulls, but they won't have the same look to them. Although once they puff up they tend to get all out of whack, so it probably doesn't really matter much! You should also have a food processor or stand mixer.

This recipe made about 75 gougères.

3/4 cup water
5 1/2 Tb. unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1 cup all purpose flour, sifted
5 eggs
3/4 cup grated Gruyère cheese

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Put Silpat mats on three baking sheets. (or use parchment)
Place the 3/4 cup water, butter, and salt in a small saucepan and heat to a boil.
Remove from the heat and dump the flour in quickly.
Using a wooden spoon, mix the batter quickly until it starts to form a ball and pulls away from the sides of the pan. You will probably see a thin film on the pan.
Let this cool a touch, then put it in a food processor.
After it has cooled off a little, add four eggs, one egg at a time. Pulse until each egg is incorporated before you add the next egg.
Add the grated cheese and pulse again until well combined.
Transfer the batter into a pastry bag (you will want one that is about 16 inches long), fitted with a 1/2 inch plain tip.
Pipe 1 inch mounds on the baking sheets.
Beat the remaining egg and brush each gougères with some of the egg wash. Flatten pointy tips with your finger.
Bake until the gougères are puffed up and golden, about 20 - 25 minutes. Check for doneness by opening one up and being sure it is no longer wet inside.
Let the gougères cool a bit, and then serve warm.

***Do ahead: You can make the gougères ahead of time and store them in the freezer in an airtight container. From freezer, reheat at 350 degrees for about 5 minutes or until warm.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Daring Bakers Challenge: Potato Bread

While perusing through many-a-food blog, I kept noticing this logo for the "Daring Bakers". Digging in some more, I found out what this secret blog society is: almost 400 food bloggers (mostly bakers) who challenge each other once a month with a wonderful recipe. Everyone makes the same thing, and then posts on the same day! I wanted in! They let me in! So now I am a Daring Baker! Oh my...

So the challenge for the month of November was potato bread. I am someone who rarely makes bread. Ok, I never made bread in my life before this. But I was a DBer now, and this was the given challenge.

It didn't seem too terribly hard, to be honest. Nothing like the brioche sticky buns I made a while back. So I went for it.

The dough for this recipe is considered to be sticky. Since I had no previous experience with bread, I had no problem with the dough. I'm lucky that I have a kitchenaid mixer with a dough hook, that helped get me started. And then I just used plenty of flour while kneading and it came together beautifully.

I made 12 dinner rolls (which my kids devoured in two days) and a focaccia. I think this dough would work great for pizza as well, although it's a bit more dense than a typical pizza dough.

There's nothing like making something you've never made before and having it work, work well, and taste great! If you've never made bread before, try it out. You'll be surprised how easy it is, and fun as well. For Christmas I've already asked for The Bread Baker's Apprentice and some French bread pans.

This challenge was given by Tanna of My Kitchen in Half Cups:

Tender Potato Bread(from Home Baking: The Artful Mix of Flour & Tradition Around the World by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid; who also wrote Hot Sour Salty Sweet)

Makes 1 large tender-crumbed pan loaf AND something more; one 10X15 inch crusty yet tender foccacia, 12 soft dinner rolls, or a small pan loaf

4 medium to large floury (baking) potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks. Tanna Note: For the beginner bread baker I suggest no more than 8 ounces of potato; for the more advanced no more than 16 ounces. The variety of potatoes you might want to use would include Idaho, Russet & Yukon gold, there are others. I USED 2 MEDIUM YUKON GOLD POTATOES

4 cups(950 ml) water, reserve cooking water

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons active dry yeast

6 ½ cups to 8 ½ cups (1 kg to 1350g) unbleached all-purpose flour (King Arthur's is good)

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened

1 cup (130g) whole wheat flour

Making the Dough (Directions will be for making by hand, although I used my Kitchenaid mixer):
Put the potatoes and 4 cups water in a sauce pan and bring to boil. Add 1 teaspoon salt and cook, half covered, until the potatoes are very tender.
Drain the potatoes, SAVE THE POTATO WATER, and mash the potatoes well. I ran mine through a potato ricer.

Measure out 3 cups(750ml) of the reserved potato water. Add extra water if needed to make 3 cups.

Place the water and mashed potatoes in the bowl you plan to mix the bread dough in.

Let cool to lukewarm (70-80°F/21 - 29°C) – stir well before testing the temperature – it should feel barely warm to your hand. You should be able to submerge you hand in the mix and not be uncomfortable.
Add yeast to 2 cups all-purpose flour and whisk.

Add yeast and flour to the cooled mashed potatoes & water and mix well.

Allow to rest/sit 5 minutes.
Note about Adding Yeast: If using Active Dry Yeast or Fresh yeast, mix & stir yeast into cooled water and mashed potatoes & water and let stand 5 minutes. Then add 2 cups of flour to the yeast mix and allow to rest several minutes. If using Instant Dry Yeast, add yeast to 2 cups all-purpose flour and whisk. Add yeast and flour to the cooled mashed potatoes & water and mix well. Allow to rest/sit 5 minutes.
Sprinkle in the remaining 1 tablespoon salt and the softened butter; mix well.

Add the 1 cup whole wheat flour, stir briefly.
Add 2 cups of the unbleached all-purpose flour and stir until all the flour has been incorporated.

At this point you have used 4 cups of the possible 8 ½ cups suggested by the recipe.

Turn the dough out onto a generously floured surface and knead for about 10 minutes, incorporating flour as needed to prevent sticking. The dough will be very sticky to begin with, but as it takes up more flour from the kneading surface, it will become easier to handle; use a dough scraper to keep your surface clean. The kneaded dough will still be very soft. Place the dough in a large clean bowl or your rising container of choice, cover with plastic wrap or lid, and let rise about 2 hours or until doubled in volume.

Turn the dough out onto a well-floured surface and knead gently several minutes. It will be moist and a little sticky.

Forming the Bread:

Divide the dough into 2 unequal pieces in a proportion of one-third and two-thirds (one will be twice as large as the other). Place the smaller piece to one side and cover loosely.

To shape a large loaf: Butter a 9 x 5 x 2.5 inch loaf/bread pan. Flatten the larger piece of dough on the floured surface to an approximate 12 x 8 inch oval, then roll it up from a narrow end to form a loaf. Pinch the seam closed and gently place seam side down in the buttered pan. The dough should come about three-quarters of the way up the sides of the pan. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for 35 to 45 minutes, until puffy and almost doubled in volume.

To make a small loaf with the remainder:Butter an 8x4X2 inch bread pan. Shape and proof the loaf the same way as the large loaf.

To make rolls: Butter a 13 x 9 inch sheet cake pan or a shallow cake pan. Cut the dough into 12 equal pieces. Shape each into a ball under the palm of your floured hand and place on the baking sheet, leaving 1/2 inch between the balls. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for about 35 minutes, until puffy and almost doubled.

To make focaccia: Flatten out the dough to a rectangle about 10 x 15 inches with your palms and fingertips. Tear off a piece of parchment paper or wax paper a little longer than the dough and dust it generously with flour. Transfer the focaccia to the paper. Brush the top of the dough generously with olive oil, sprinkle on a little coarse sea salt, as well as some rosemary leaves, if you wish and then finally dimple all over with your fingertips. Cover with plastic and let rise for 20 minutes.

Baking the bread(s):
Note about baking order: bake the flat-bread before you bake the loaf; bake the rolls at the same time as the loaf.

Note about Baking Temps: 450°F(230°C) is going to prove to be too hot for the either the large or small loaf of bread for the entire 40/50 minutes. Put the loaves in at 450°(230°C) for 10 minutes and then turn the oven down to 375°F (190 °C) for the remaining time.

Note about cooling times: Let all the breads cool on a rack for at least 30 minutes before slicing. Rolls can be served warm or at room temperature.

For loaves and rolls: Dust risen loaves and rolls with a little all-purpose flour or lightly brush the tops with a little melted butter or olive oil (the butter will give a golden/browned crust). Slash loaves crosswise two or three times with a razor blade or very sharp knife and immediately place on the stone, tiles or baking sheet in the oven. Place the rolls next to the loaf in the oven.

Bake rolls until golden, about 30 minutes. Bake the small loaf for about 40 minutes. Bake the large loaf for about 50 minutes.

Transfer the rolls to a rack when done to cool. When the loaf or loaves have baked for the specified time, remove from the pans and place back on the stone, tiles or baking sheet for another 5 to 10 minutes. The corners should be firm when pinched and the bread should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.

For foccaia:Place a baking stone or unglazed quarry tiles, if you have them, if not use a no edged baking/sheet (you want to be able to slide the shaped dough on the parchment paper onto the stone or baking sheet and an edge complicates things). Place the stone or cookie sheet on a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 450°F/230°C.

If making foccacia, just before baking, dimple the bread all over again with your fingertips. Leaving it on the paper, transfer to the hot baking stone, tiles or baking sheet. Bake until golden, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a rack (remove paper) and let cool at least 10 minutes before serving.

I put herbed feta cheese, roasted tomatoes, rosemary and olive oil on my focaccia. It was fabulous.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Sugar Cut Out Cookies for Thanksgiving

Well, I really didn't make these yummy cookies for Thanksgiving, they were for my daughter's fourth birthday party. I love these sugar cookies. They are made with a vanilla bean which gives them a fabulous flavor, and they are thin and crisp as well. People usually say "Wow, this actually tastes like something" when they bite into one of these cookies, I suppose they have grown used to the doughy or flavor-less sugar cookies that are so abundant now.

How did I decorate them? Royal icing and disposable pastry bags. Yes, it took a while, but it's a great creative outlet and they turned out ok if I do say so myself! They flew off the plate at the party, and I included some in the goody bags each guest took home (along with a gingerbread man and two chocolate macarons!)

The recipe for the cookies comes from the Williams-Sonoma Holiday cookbook, which I bought over 10 years ago so I don't even know if it's in print anymore. But it's a fail-safe cookie and I refuse to use another recipe. Try it out for the holidays!

Williams-Sonoma Holiday Cut Out Cookies:
1 cup (8 oz./ 250 g) unsalted butter at room temperature
3/4 cup (6 oz./ 185 g) sugar
3 egg yolks
1 piece vanilla bean, about 2 inches long
2 1/2 cups (12.5 oz/ 390 g) all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt

In a bowl, using an electric mixer set on medium speed, beat together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes.

Beat in the egg yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Cut the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape the seeds into the butter mixture. Mix well.

In a sifter, combine the flour, baking powder and salt. Sift the flour mixture directly onto the butter mixture. Reduce the mixer speed to low and beat until well mixed.

Divide the dough into 4 equal portions. Shape each portion into a ball and then flatten the balls into disks. Wrap the disks in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. (Can be prepared up to 3 days ahead). Let it soften slightly at room temperature before continuing.

Position a rack in the upper third of an oven an dpreheat to 350 degrees F (180 C). Butter two large baking sheets (I use silpats, they are great). On a lightly floured work suface, roll out a dough disk 1/4 inch thick. (I usually cover the dough with a piece of plastic wrap, so my rolling pin won't stick to the dough). Using cookie cutters, cut out desired shapes. Transfer the cutouts to the prepared baking sheets. Gather up and reroll the scraps to cut out more cookies. Repeat with remaining dough disks.

Bake until the cookies are golden on the edges, about 8 minutes. Transfer to racks and let cool completely. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to one week.

**Do-ahead tip: Make the dough and cut out the shapes ahead of time, freeze the shapes, then bake them as you need them. Always have fresh cookies!

Royal Icing: I used Ateco's meringue powder to make a great royal icing. I used gel coloring (Wilton makes a ton of colors) to color the icing, and my pastry bag with various tips to get the designs I wanted.
If you want, you could use simple confectioner's sugar and cream.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Pumpkin Pie with Toffee and Pecans

Two weeks ago I did something I've never done before: I entered a pumkin pie contest. I don't know what came over me, but for some reason I needed some unknown third party to taste and judge my baking. And I'm not even an avid pie-baker!

So I made this really nicely spiced pumpkin pie, following a recipe I found on Epicurious, and using Martha Stewart's dough recipe. One thing about pumpkin pie crust, you have to be sure it is COLD before prebaking it. If it isn't cold enough, it will shrink up to 1/2 its size! And use pie weights, they will help with that shrinkage as well.

The recipe is extremely easy, that's what I love about pumpkin pie. The biggest challenge is the crust. I made my crust in a pretty French quiche tin, and people raved about the look.

How did I do in the contest, you ask? Second place. Not bad, but not first! (My guess is they didn't like the spin on the classic pumpkin pie: toffee and pecans around the top). Ahh, a challenge for next year. I won two tickets to the aquarium that we already belong to, the irony of it all.

So, on to the pie:

Martha Stewart Flaky Pie Dough:
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tb granulated sugar
1 1/4 tsp. salt
2 1/4 sticks cold unslated butter, cut into small pieces
1/2 cup plus 1 to 2 Tb. ice water

-Pulse flour, sugr and salt in a food processor to combine. Add butter and process until mixture resembles coarse meal, about 10 seconds. With machine running, add ice water in a slow, steady stream until dough just holds together (no longer than 30 seconds).

-Divide dough in half. Shape each half into a disk and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour (or up to 2 days). Dough can be frozen for up to one month, thaw overnight in the refrigerator.

-On a lightly floured surface, roll out one disk of dough to 1/8 inch thick. Cut into a 12 inch round. Fit dough onto the bottom and up sides of a pie dish. Roll and pinch the overhang.

-Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Prick bottom of crust all over with a fork. Freeze until firm, about 15 minutes. Line with parchment paper and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Bake until edges begin to turn golden, about 15 minutes. Remove weights and parchment. Return to oven and bake unti the center is golden brown, about 15 minutes more. Let cool completely on a wire rack.

For Pumpkin Pie Filling:
1 15 ounce can pure pumpkin
2/3 cup packed golden brown sugar
2/3 chp whipping cream
1/3 cup whole milk
2 large eggs
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
3/4 tsp. ground ginger
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. ground allspice
1/2 cup chopped and toasted pecans
1/3 cup English toffee bits (I used Heath bits)

Position rack in bottom third of oven and preheat to 375 degrees. Whisk first 12 ingredients in a large bowl. Pour into prepared crust. Bake until filling is set, about 55 minutes. Transfer to rack. Sprinkle nuts and toffee around the edge of the hot pie, forming a border. Cool completely. (Can be made 6 hours ahead, let stand at room temperature. I made mine the day before and it was very good, the crust got more tender overnight as well.)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Joseph Beth's Bronte Bistro

Today was a rainy Sunday in Cincinnati, my husband had to work all day so I was stuck with entertaining two very small children. My thought was to go play with Thomas the Train at Joseph-Beth Bookstore, followed by brunch at their café. I had never had brunch there, only lunch and dinner, and it's usually pretty good. Perfect plan, I thought...perfect plan!

So out we went, under the rain, on our adventure. After about an hour of Thomas antics (my limit) we headed for the bistro...there was a wait. Ask any parent, being told there is a "15 - 30 minute wait" at any restaurant when you are stuck with a 2 and 3 year old is like being told "and our waiting room is in the bowels of hell, right this way...". But it took 20 minutes and we perservered (after a million "do you want to go home?" threats made by yours truly)...
The hostess, by the way, was delightful and tried to help me entertain the wee-ones.
We got to our table and I could feel the eyes of my fellow brunchers upon us..."Oh GREAT, KIDS!" I know that's what they were thinking. Oh well...One must eat.
Our waitress arrived. You know that feeling when your waitress arrives and you are CERTAIN she hates your very existence and that of your offspring? That's the kind of waitress we got. Greeeaaat. I should have made the same threat to her as I did my kids: "Do you want to go home?" But that would have gotten spit in my coffee, so I refrained.

So I took a look at their brunch menu. This café is known for serving from the store's cookbooks, so you got to see the inspriation for various menu items. They had all sorts of things on the menu: omelets, scrambled eggs, creme brulée french toast, fritattas, you name it. It all looked good, but I settled on the scrambled eggs, which came with Paula Dean home fries (read: fat fat fat fries), bacon, toast and a fruit cup.

When "Debbie Downer" the waitress came back, I asked her for two chocolate milks for the kids, a cup of coffee for me, and a pumpkin muffin, pronto! I wasn't demanding, but I needed something to entertain the "petits monstres" until our meals were ready. I think she rolled her eyes and off she went to pour a couple chocolate milks.

She returned with a blueberry muffin. Although I had ordered pumpkin, I made zero fuss. First of all because she scared the hoo-ha out of me, and secondly because I just needed food to entertain these babies of mine. I think this is what is behind the obesity epidemic in America...moms shoving food at their children so they won't make a fuss in restaurants. Debbie took my order, and I ordered the scrambled eggs, a grilled cheese and silver dollar pancakes for the kids.

My cup of coffee began running low. I figured someone would be by to magically fill it up again...It never happened.

We got our meals. Immediately I was confused. My scrambled eggs were not scrambled. Are scrambled eggs supposed to be a mass of egg with cheddar cheese melted on top? Isn't that an omelet, or some version of an omelet? I saw no evidence of scrambling going on in this egg. But no way was I going to say anything to dear old Debbie, an egg is an egg. But to make matters worse, they had no taste. That was a downer. First it's Debbie Downer and now Scrambled Egg Downer. The fruit was rather tasteless, and the bacon wasn't great either. It wasn't fatty, which was good, but it didn't have much going on. Kind of like eating a greasy salt lick. I would suggest they invest in some Applewood bacon, that stuff is the pork product of the Gods. Love it.

I had been nursing my coffee, which was now 7/8 gone. My waitress looked so everyone. I tried to flag her a couple of times to get more coffee, but she flew right by me every time. I swear, she hated my existence. Some elderly woman next to me had a question about her bill and WOAH boy I had to divert my was like watching Medusa herself in the process of turning human flesh to stone. This gal was either having a bad day or a bad life, I wasn't sure which. So I didn't ask for more coffee, I just wanted out.

I ate 1/2 the eggs, one piece of enormously dry and cold toast, a few pieces of tasteless melon and bacon and some YUMMY home fries. Leave it to Paula Dean to put cream cheese in her breakfast potatoes, but that works. It was the best part of my meal. You can't really go wrong with home fries and cream cheese.

Near the end of the meal, I glanced over at my 2 year old son. He was covered in syrup. Uh-oh, I was going to need help from dear old Deb. When she came back to the table, I nicely asked her for a glass of water (shouldn't I have had a glass of water already?) so I could douse my son and she absolutely glared at me and just nodded yes. No words. No facial expression (maybe she had just had Botox injections??) I couldn't believe it as she walked away to satisfy my incredibly demanding needs.

Needless to say, Deb got much less than my usual 20% tip.

I go to Bronte Bistro often, since I go to Joseph-Beth Bookstore often. For lunch it is pretty good, they have great salads. But this brunch, with its solid scrambled eggs, dry and cold toast, non-refilled coffee, bland bacon and tasteless fruit, I have to give it a C-.

First Watch is right down the street from here, they have the best brunch in town. I should never have strayed.....

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

YUMMEEE Spice Cake with Blackberry Filling

This cake was truly a labor of love. All of my girlfriends get together during the year to celebrate each others' birthdays, and we rotate being hostess with the mostess. I was lucky enough to be the hostess for my very dear friend Rhonda. She's the kind of friend who really notices the efforts, the details, the deliciousness of my (or anyone's) cooking. It's always so fun to bake for someone who appreciates it. So I couldn't wait to get cracking.

She was married one year ago, and her wedding cake was a spice cake with blackberries. Lo and behold, I found it in July 2001 Bon Appetit. I think this is much more of a fall dessert than a summer dessert, but there it was, smack dab in the middle of the summer's issues of BA.

I made the cake lovingly, decorated it to the best of my abilities (must take a course in this) and presented it to my friends. Rhonda was beside herself with joy. She said "This is better than my wedding cake"...which I doubt, but it was a wonderful compliment. It was moist, had the perfect amount of spices, and the cream cheese frosting recipe is a keeper. Needless to say, we all got up from our birthday cake extravaganza groaning. But a good groan.

The cake itself is really easy. You just need a springform pan. Oh, and I cheated on the filling. Instead of buying 1/2 pint baskets of blackberries (at $4 a pop!) I used a really good quality blackberry jam. It worked just fine.

Spice Cake:
2 cups cake flour
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground allspice
1/4 tsp. ground ginger
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature
1 1/2 cups packed golden brown sugar
3 large eggs, separated
1 cup sour cream

For filling:
3 1/2 pint baskets blackberries
1/4 cup sugar
(But I used 1 1/2 cups blackberry jam)

For frosting:
1 1/2 8 oz. packages cream cheese, room temp.
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temp.
5 cups powdered sugar
2 Tb sour cream
1 tsp vanilla extract

1 1/2 pint basket blackberries

Preaheat oven to 350 F. Butter and flour 9 inch diameter springform pan with 2 3/4 inch high sides. Sift first 7 ingredients into a small bowl. Using the electric mixer, beat butter in large bowl until fluffy. Ad brown sugar and beat until well blended (about 3 minutes). Beat in egg yolks. Beat in flour mixture in 3 additions, alternately with the sour cream in 2 additions. Using clean and dry beaters, beat the egg whites in a medium bowl until stiff but not dry, fold inot the batter in 2 additions. Transfer the batter to a prepared pan.

Bake the cake until the top is golden and tester comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Cool cake 10 minutes, cut around pan sides and release. Cool cake completely on rack.

For Filling:
Mix berries and sugar in bowl and mash with a fork. Let stand 20 minutes - 1 hour
OR: like I said, a good blackberry jam works just as well.

Beat cream cheese and butter in a large bowl until fluffy. Beat in sugar, then sour cream and vanilla. Beat with paddle attachment to get rid of
any air and make smooth as batter.

Cut cake horizontally into 3 equal layers. Place bottom layer, cut side up, on platter. Spread 1 cup frosting over. Spread half of filling (about 3/4 cup) over frosting, leaving 1/4 inch plain border at edge. Top with second cake layer and 1 cup frosting, then remaining filling. Top with third cake layer, cut side down. Spread remaining frosting over top and sides of cake. Refrigerate until frosting sets, about 1 hour. (Can be made 1 day ahead, cover loosely, keep chilled until 1 hour before serving.) Garnish cake with 1/2 pint berries.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Cinnamon Macarons

The best thing about making homemade ice cream is that you have a bunch of egg whites left over and you can experiment with macarons. Macarons need a lot of experimentation and practice to get them right. I still find that no two batches are alike, but I'm still working on it! To date, my most successful ones have been chocolate which almost never fail. But these turned out pretty good if I do say so myself.

To make these, I made a basic macaron batter and mixed in two teaspoons of ground cinnamon. I had no clue if that would be enough for a good flavor, and it turns out I was on target. They taste really good...

Of course, my macarons were not perfect. The first batch had HUGE feet. Way to big. They ooked like little hats with enormous rims. The second batch turned out just right...smooth dome, frilly feet, perfect consistency inside.

I filled them with a swiss buttercream. I made a basic vanilla swiss buttercream and added a bit of pumpkin pie filling to it. The end result is a cinnamon/pumpkin extravaganza of a macaron! Perfect for the fall!

Basic macaron recipe:
1 1/4 cups powdered sugar
1 cup almond flour
2 tsp. cinnamon
3 egg whites, room temperature (I let my eggs sit out overnight)
1/4 cup granulated sugar

Pulse first three ingredients in a food processor, set aside.

Beat the egg whites in a stand mixer until foamy. Add granulated sugar and beat until you get stiff peaks.

With a rubber spatula, blend the powdered sugar mixture and the egg white mixture. Mix until a peak in the batter disappears within a few seconds. It should "flow like magma" so they say.

Pipe onto parchment (or silpat) in 1.5 inch rounds. Bake for 12 - 15 minutes (depending on the heat of your oven, my oven cooks hot so I do 12 minutes).

Let cool on silpat, and then peel cooled macarons off.

Spread buttercream on bottom of one macaron and top with another. Store in a air-tight container at room temperature for 3 - 5 days.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Restaurant Review: Seny Tapas Bar

Ok, I know a lot of you who are reading this are not from Cincinnati. But I also know that many of you have had the experience of being so excited about eating at a new restaurant, only to be disappointed in the end. Such was my experience at Seny, a new Spanish tapas bar/restaurant in Cincinnati.
Call me a tapas snob, if you will. But I love love LOVE real Spanish tapas. I lived in Madrid as a college student, and was introduced to some of the best tasting cuisine in the world. They can do a lot with a tapa, and they are really not complicated to make. But I never make them for myself for some reason. So when I saw that there was a new tapas restaurant coming to town I was thrilled. And when I read the web site for this tapas restaurant, I read that they guaranteed the real more chips 'n dip called "tapas" like you find in so many restaurants these days. Ay caramba, I was going to have some tapas!!

I had visions of Madrid, of the jamon serrano hanging from the ceiling, or of the manchego being cut from huge rounds. I even had visions of my favorite States-side tapas restaurant: Café Babareeba in Chicago. I couldn't wait to experience that joy in my hometown.

So, my husband and I got a sitter (at $8/hour you want to have a GOOD meal) and headed out to Seny. And it went downhill from there.

First, we were terribly early for our table, so we got a drink at the bar. What else but sangria? I couldn't wait for a good, authentic sangria. Ok, some problems here. The sangria was being tapped from a huge sangria pitcher. Well, when you tap sangria, you don't get the fruit. And sangria served without fruit is like Sonny without Cher, Gladys Knight without her Pips, etc. Something was terribly missing, there was no va va va voom. The sangria tasted like red wine and seltzer water. It was refreshing, but there was a kick missing, a fruitiness, a sweetness, something was just not there. I asked the very accomodating bartender for some fruit, and he gave me a plateful, which I immediately squeezed into my drink. Thank goodness for nice bartenders, they keep the customers happy.

Once we were seated, we took a look at the menu, which was fairly limited for a tapas place (again, I am partial to Café Babareeba or Café Iberico in Chicago, who have enormous menus). The menu was split in four groups: Cold tapas, warm tapas, traditional tapas, and main dishes. The cold and warm tapas were all fancy-schmancy small plates of food. They looked good, but nothing spoke to me like a traditional tapa. Looking at the list of traditional tapas, my mouth watered. I remembered reading on the Seny web site that they planned to serve REAL traditional food from Spain, no fooling around with the tried and true. And so we ordered. Our first round was Spanish Tortilla, Gambas al Aioli and a Spanish charcuterie plate.

The Spanish tortilla was served warm. WARM. OK PEOPLE, everyone knows that in Spain your Spanish tortilla is a cold tapa. It is served cold, always. The aioli they served it with was excellent, but the tortilla itself was without flavor, and it was WARM. I've never had a flavorless Spanish tortilla. I tried and tried but could not locate the flavor. Thank goodness for the aioli, which I schmeared all over my poor hot tortilla. When I asked the waiter "Why is this warm?", he said he didn't know, and ventured to guess it was a Cincinnati thing. Hmmmm....

On to the gambas (shrimp with garlic butter). They were excellent. The shrimp were perfectly well cooked and seasoned, and the garlic sauce was very flavorful. Points for gambas.

Charcuterie platter: this had chorizo, cured meat and jamon serrano on it. This was the best thing we ate during our dinner. It was also the only thing that wasn't prepared in the kitchen. Ay ay ay.

We were still hungry, so we got three more tapas: shrimp fritters with mint sauce, patatas bravas and ham and spinach croquetas.

Shrimp Fritters: this was on the fancy schmancy side of the menu, so I had nothing to compare it to in Spain or elsewhere. They were good, but nothing to get too excited about.

Patatas Bravas: (fried potatoes served with spicy aioli sauce) These were good, but I felt like I was eating breakfast home fries with aioli sauce. Patatas bravas are usually large wedges of potato, not little squares. The spicy aioli sauce was great though.

Croquetas: NOOOOOO! How can you destroy the staple of all Spanish Sunday dinners, the croqueta?? They made them with WAY too much beschemel sauce (I think it was beschemel) so that when you bit into one it just oozed white sauce. I didn't see any ham in my croquetas, and very little spinach. So I'm not quite sure what I was eating. Beschemel croquetas? They weren't very flavorful either, they needed something to accompany the sauce. How I yearned for a good chicken and ham croqueta at this point of my meal. Those are so yummy....

When asked if we wanted dessert, I jumped at it...obviously I do enjoy my desserts. The chocolate croquetas we asked for at first were sold out. So we asked for the "tapas desserts", which we understood would be a few different small versions of their desserts. I've had this at Babareeba and it's excellent (mini flan, mini rice pudding, etc.). We also asked for decafs.

The decafs came toute de suite. Too fast. I still had half a croqueta in my mouth and the waiter is giving me a decaf. No cream or sugar. I asked for both. I got the sugar immediately. I asked again for cream, I got a little pitcher of wasn't cream. I poured it in my was skim milk. Now, I realize this is a new restaurant and there are kinks and all...but cream? Come on, folks. I took a sip of the coffee....watery, flavorless, blech. Thank God they didn't charge us for it.

The desserts arrived. I kid you not when I describe them this way: Little Debbie meets Dunkin Donuts. DIOS MIO! I couldn't believe what I was eating and seeing. I should ask for a job making desserts there, because Deb and Dunkin' are just not getting the job done. There were four little cakes on a long, pretty dish. Two tasted EXACTLY like the Little Debbie strawberry snack cake. One was a chocolate "pastry" (aka Munchkin donut) covered in glaze (aka Munchkin donut glaze). It tasted like a Munchkin, to the "t'. I HATE a chocolate dessert that doesn't taste like chocolate. There was one cake on this plate that was worth the calories, it was an almond based cake with a hard sugar glaze. It was good. The me gusta, nada.

So, will I go back to Seny? Not sure...I want to believe they will work things out, locate the spice rack, give the food some flavor, refrigerate the tortillas, add fruit to the sangria glasses and hire a new pastry chef. If those things happen, and my husband and I find ourselves with $65 to spend on dinner (this was our bill), maybe I'll go back. Until then, I'm off to Honey!

Thursday, November 1, 2007

"How'd You Do That?" Apple Pie

Ok, this is really Martha Stewart's Spiced Apple Pie from the November issue of her magazine. But if you make the fluted round cutouts instead of a traditional crust, everyone who sees it will shout "How'd you DO THAT?" It's like clockwork, every time. Anyway, to get this result is really not that hard...and it turns out so gorgeous.

(Note to a Martha Stewart Living subscription. I keep buying them at the grocery store check out, a huge rip off. Although worth every penny.)

So about my pie: I brought this for dessert at a friend's house, and paired it with the salted butter caramel ice cream (previous recipe). It was a great pairing. I baked the pie the day before, and we warmed it up during dinner at 350 for 15 minutes, which was perfect. It was a plate-licker.

The following day my husband and I reheated the few leftovers we had in the microwave. I don't suggest that technique, it destroys the flakiness of the crust. One must not destroy a Martha pie.

Keep in mind, this pie requires a lot of time. Not energy, but time. You spend a lot of time refrigerating things for one hour, and then an eternity in the oven. Don't do what I did and start when you are supposed to be meeting someone at the park with your children will be held hostage at home by your pie. Be sure you have some free time.

So, here's the recipe...enjoy it!

Pâte Brisée:
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, chilled
1 1/2 teaspoons course salt
1 Tb. granulated sugar
2 1/4 sticks cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
7 - 10 Tb ice water (I used 8)

Pulse flour, salt and sugar in a food processor. Add butter nd pulse until you get course crumbs, about 10 seconds.

With food processor running, add ice water slowly in a steady stream, until dough holds together and is neither wet or sticky. About 30 seconds.

Divide dough into two portions, and shape each into a disk. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or overnight. It can be frozen for up to one month, just thaw it in the refrigerator overnight before using.

To make the fluted piecrust:

You will need a fluted round cutter (1 3/4 inch or 2 1/2 inch)

Roll out one portion of the dough to 1/8 inch thick and fit it into the pie plate. Roll out the remaining dough to 1/8 inch thick and use a 1 3/4 inch fluted round cutter to cut out about 70 rounds, re-rolling the scraps. (I used a 2 1/2 inch cutter and made 40 rounds).

Place the filling in the pie plate, mounding it in the center. Lightly brush the edge of the crust with an egg wash of 1 Tb. heavy cream and 1 egg yolk.

Arrange the rounds around the perimeter (all the way to the edge) of the piecrust and on top of the filling, overlapping them slightly. Lightly brush the top of each round with egg wash as you work so they will adhere to one another.

Repeat the process, overlapping rounds in a spiral all the way to the center, until the pie is covered. Lightly brush the entire surface with egg was and sprinkly with fine sanding sugar. Refrigerate for one hour before baking.

Spiced Apple Pie:

Makes one 9 inch double-crust pie

Pâte Brisée (above recipe)
4 pounds Granny Smith apples
1 Tb finely grated lemon zest
2 tsp. fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 tsp. coarse salt
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
3 Tb. cold unsalted butter cut into small pieces

Egg wash:
1 large egg yolk
1 Tb. heavy cream

Sanding sugar

On a lightly floured work surface, roll 1 disk of dough to 1/8 inch thick. Fit into a 9 inch deep dish pie plate. Trim edges flush with rim, refrigerate for one hour.

Roll remaining disk of dough to 1/8 inch thick. Cut out 70 rounds with a 1 3/4 inch fluted round cutter. Place rounds on a parchment-lined baking sheet and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Peel and core apples. Thinly slice half of them, cut remaining apples into 1 inch pieces.

Toss together the apples, lemon zest and juice, sugars, flour, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg in a large bowl. Place filling in the piecrust, mounding in the center. Dot with butter. To make the egg wash, whish the egg yolk and cream in a small bowl. Lightly brush the edge of the piecrust with the egg wash. Arrange the dough rounds over the filling, working in a spiral from the outside in to the center, overlapping as you go. Use the egg was to help them stick together. Once the filling has been covered, brush the entire top of pie with egg wash and sprinkle the top with sanding sugar. Refrigerate pie for 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F., with racks in the middle and lower positions. Place a foil-lined baking sheet on the lower rack to catch any juices. Place the pie on the middle rack and bake until the crust begins to turn golden brown, about 25 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 375 and bake until the crust is golden brown and juices are bubbling, about 1 hour 10 minutes (I did 45 minutes and it was done, my oven runs hotter I think). Tent with foil if the crust browns too quickly. Let cool completely on a wire rack.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Salted Butter Caramel Ice Cream

Ever since I purchased my second-hand Cuisinart Ice Cream machine for $10 the other week, I have been perusing various ice cream recipes looking for one to hit the spot. Those that keep coming back to me are David Lebovitz's...probably because he wrote an entire book devoted just to ice cream, The Perfect Scoop, and probably because he has the best ice cream recipes around.

So, I had made a bunch of salted butter caramel macarons (post to come soon), and I had so much caramel and so many egg yolks left over I thought I would make an attempt at the salted butter caramel ice cream from the book. Keep in mind, until now the only place I had ever eaten this flavor of ice cream was in Paris, at the famed Berthillon. And boooooooy is it good. Sinful. Decadent. Impossibly good.

So, off I went to my mini ice cream maker and my ingredients, and I actually created salted butter caramel ice cream from scratch. Not only that, but it was EASY. Bien sûr, it may not have been as good as Berthillon's (I think I went too heavy on the salt in my hard caramel), but it was delish nevertheless. I served it with homemade deep dish apple pie (post to come soon) and folks swooned. The mixture of sweet and salty is just perfect. My two year old licked his bowl clean. But two year olds do that, so maybe it wasn't the compliment that I took it as. I'll take what I can get.

My advice: 1) Don't eat this ice cream immediately. The pieces of crunchy caramel have to soften up before you dig in, otherwise you'll be digging them out of your teeth all night. Wait overnight and watch how they soften and ooze. It's yuuuummmy.
2) Be patient while making your caramel. Don't stir too much. Just relax.
3) Use good course sea salt (sel de mer). Not table salt. Trader Joe's sells course sea salt for rock bottom prices.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Trader Joe's Frozen Chocolate Croissants

Ahhhh, le pain au chocolat. Once you've had a "chocolate croissant" or "pain au chocolat" in France, it's so hard to find a good one elsewhere. You immediately become a croissant snob. Le snobisme du croissant. What's wrong with foreign croissants? Too often, they are either bready, or dry, or use too little chocolate or the wrong kind of chocolate, I could go on. I've been more than disappointed with the pain au chocolat I've found in the U.S. The absolute worst are the ones with chocolate sauce or caramel sauce drizzled on top. Blasphemy!

So, I was in the Trader Joe's frozen food section the other day, gazing lovingly upon their vast array of frozen treats. It seems as though every week they have something new, and very often it is French. (Their French apple tart is fantastique, by the way.) So last time I saw something I had never seen before. There between the puff pastry and the pie crust (both are also new from what I know) was a tiny little box of joy...chocolate croissants. Boy, did they look good on the box. But I know how that goes...nothing ever turns out as good as it does on the box.

So I bought them, took them out of the freezer last night before bed (they have to rise for 9 hours from frozen) and we had them this morning with coffee. Let me tell longer do I have to make the trip to my favorite French café for my "pain au chocolat"...(Greenup Café in Covington, Kentucky if you must know)...these will do JUST FINE. They are light, they are a touch crisp on the outside, the chocolate is high quality and there are TWO BARS of chocolate! They are buttery and divine. I highly recommend these for anyone who has a craving for an authentic chocolate croissant, you won't be disappointed.

Oh, and when in France, please ask for a "Pain au chocolat" (literally "bread with chocolate"), not a "chocolate croissant". The latter is an anglophone invention and doesn't work in French!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Williams-Sonoma's Toasted Pumpkin Seeds

We made our annual Jack-O-Lanterns today, and that means a table-full of sloppy pumpkin innards to contend with. But nothing is left to chance with those folks at Williams-Sonoma, they are right on top of our pumpkin-carving-day needs: there was a recipe for toasted pumpkin seeds included in their pumpkin carving kit (beware, the saws break very easily...).

So after cleaning all the goop off the seeds, I quickly stirred together this concoction. I can't say it's the best thing in the world, I might prefer simple salted pumpkin seeds, but the house does smell like a dream.

2 cups fresh pumpkin seeds (pulp removed)
1 Tb. unsalted butter
2 Tb. brown sugar
2 Tb. honey
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/8 tsp. cloves
1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper (I skipped this)
Salt to taste (I used corse sea salt)

Preheat oven to 350.

Use a dry, non-stick saute pan that is oven-proof. Over medium heat, toast the pumpkin seeds stirring often to avoid burning, until lightly golden (5 minutes or so).

Add the butter and cook until seeds are evently coated in melted butter.

Add the brown sugar and all other ingredients, mix well.

Spread the seeds in an even layer in the pan. Bake in the oven until the entire mixture is coated and the seeds are crunchy, about 15 minutes.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Martha Stewart's Chocolate Chip Cookies

A rainy day and two four year old girls running around my house sent me straight to the kitchen to a) get away and b) create a diversion for the kids that didn't involve listening to Barney or the Wiggles. God love 'em.

So, out came the tried and true Martha Stewart Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe. With two giggling girls sitting on stools around the KitchenAid mixer, we beat and blended and tasted raw (yes raw) cookie dough to our heart's content.

Trouble with 4 year olds, they want to touch everything...from the dough you are trying to ball up and bake, to the hot oven, to the hot pans, to the hot cookies, you get the drill. There was a lot of "No, don't touch! Hot!" going on in my kitchen today. And then they don't quite understand that you can't grab a scorching hot cookie straight from the oven and scarf it down immediately. Let's just say their 4 year old cookie patience was being pushed to the limits with all these regulations.

Anyway, back to the recipe. Let me tell you that these cookies are excellent. The Martha Stewart chocolate chip cookie recipe creates the perfect consistency for a chocolate chip cookie: crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside, with nice soft and melty chips. I used 1/2 white chocolate and 1/2 semi-sweet this time, because I was low on semi-sweet. They are also excellent with chopped walnuts.

Her original recipe calls for a 18 minute cooking time. I found mine were just about done at 13 minutes, though. You don't want to over-bake these cookies, or they will be too crisp.

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed dark-brown sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 large whole egg, plus 1 large egg white
2 oz. semisweet chocolate chunks (about 2 cups)

Preheat the oven to 375F, with racks in the upper and lower thirds. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper; set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt; set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and both sugars on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.
Add the vanilla, whole egg, and egg white. Beat on low speed until well combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed, about 1 minute. Add flour mixture in two batches; mix until just combined. Mix in chocolate.

Shape 2 heaping tablespoons of dough at a time into balls and place about 1 1/2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets. Bake, rotating sheets halfway through, until cookies are golden brown, about 18 minutes ( I did 13). Transfer parchment and cookies to a wire rack to cool completely. Cookies can be kept in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 4 days.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Mmmmmm....French Macarons!

Anyone who has tried the beloved French macaron while visiting Paris knows why these little cookies are such big deals these days. Bite into one Pierre Herme or Laduree macaron and your foodie life has suddently taken a turn for the better: you experience a crisp shell that cracks as you bite into it, giving way to a light-as-air, moist interior. It is a sandwich cookie resembling a burger of all things, and the filling in the center is always creamy, often adding a very unexpected kick of flavor to your macaron.

The problem with macarons is finding them in the U.S., where most people think of a "macaroon" with its coconut-y chewiness. No, French macarons are not at all the same. They are made with egg whites, confectioners sugar and almond flour.

The difficulty in making your own macarons comes down to the mixing. It has to be done just perfectly....if you mix your batter too much or too little you won't get the perfect result (shiny dome, no cracks, little frilly feet). A rule of thumb in making French macarons: once you see the batter "flow like magma", or the tip of batter disappear when you pull out the rubber spatula, you know you are ready to pipe.

To be successful in this endeavor, you need to have the right equipment: a stand mixer, a food processor, parchment paper or silpats and a pastry bag with a 1/4 inch wide round tip.

For Chocolate Macarons, I tried a number of recipes but find my greatest success with David Lebovitz's recipe. With his, you get the perfect frilly feet, the crisp shell, and the interior is the perfect consistency. I have never had a failure with this recipe, which is not the case with so many others I've tried. I have tweaked it a bit, by lowering his temperature and cooking time (this is probably a difference between my oven and his, I think my oven cooks hotter than it should). Good luck, and if it doesn't work the first time, try try again!

French Chocolate Macarons:
1/2 cup almond flour (or you can grind your own almonds very fine)
1 cup confectioners sugar
3 Tb. dutch process cocoa powder
2 egg whites at room temperature (let them sit for a few hours up to one day)
5 Tb. granulated sugar

Preheat oven to 350 (the original recipe calls for 375, but 350 works better for me).
Line cookie sheets with parchment paper or silpats.

In a food processor, process the almond flour, confectioners sugar and cocoa powder until combined. Set aside.

Beat egg whites until they begin to froth. Add the granulated sugar gradually, and beat until stiff peaks but not dry. It is important that you don't over beat or under beat your egg whites.

Remove bowl from stand mixer and add the dry ingredients. Using a rubber spatula, fold the ingredients together, the egg whites will fall and that is ok. Mix until the batter "flows like magma" or a peak dissolves into the batter.

Fill pastry bag with batter and pipe 1 inch rounds on your silpat or parchment paper (some people draw circles on their parchment, but it's pretty easy to pipe out the circles without). I also like to sift some cocoa powder on top of my macarons, it makes them look beautiful.

Let the macarons sit for about 20 minutes before putting them into the oven. Only bake one pan at a time, in the center of your oven. I bake mine for 12 minutes (the original recipe calls for much more). Remove from oven and let sit until cool, then peel from parchment or silpat. Once cool, the shells can be filled immediately or frozen in an airtight container and filled later. I don't like to freeze filled macarons, but I know you can.
What you are looking for: a rounded and shiny dome with no cracks, little frilly feet (not too big) around the bottom and a slightly chewy interior.

1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tsp. light corn syrup
4 oz. bittersweet chocolate finely chopped (I use Valrhona 56%)
1 Tb. butter, cut into small pieces

To fill the cookies, you can either use a pastry bag or an icing spatula. I've done both and there's really no difference, but the pastry bag is less messy. Just fill one shell and put another shell on top. The macarons should be left to sit at least one day and up to 3. They get softer as they sit, and the result is a Laduree-worthy macaron!

Bon appetit!