Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Festive Cookie-Bar/Brownie/Blondie Round-Up . . .

In keeping with the season's seemingly endless baking fest, I thought I'd gather up a nice sampling of bar-cookie/brownie/blondie recipes from past posts to share with you. I'm going to launch into an all-day baking marathon tomorrow and I need to get my ducks in a row. Thought reviewing these recipes might help get me in the mood. It's always wise to have the option of pan-baked items on the agenda along with the inevitable drop cookies, roll-out cookies, refrigerator cookies, and every other kind of cookie bound to make an appearance on the holiday platter. So, without further ado, let's plunge right in with ten favorites from days of yore . . .

Cranberry Snowdrift Bars

Nanaimo Bars

Layered (Hungarian) Apricot Bars

Peanut Butter & Chocolate Cheesecake-Swirl Brownies

Peanut Butter and Jelly Bars

Merry Mocha Streusel Bars

Strawberry Mascarpone Bars

Cream Cheese Blondies with Milk and Dark Chocolate Chips and Honey-roasted Almonds

Okay, I think that ought to keep the baking marathon on track, for a while at least. See you when we both come up for air!

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Monday, December 17, 2012

Cactus-Pear & Cherry Sorbet . . .

Just last week, I made the personal acquaintance of a cactus pear. Actually, several of them. They were purplish, slightly soft, and a wee bit spiky. I had no choice but to get to know these cactus pears, because they were one component (out of seven different components) that I was forced to confront as part of the "practical final" in my most recently concluded pastry arts class, Plated Desserts II. This final, which I'd been dreading for weeks if not years (undoubtedly since I first heard about it shortly after starting culinary school, ages ago, and witnessed the terror it invariably invoked in the advanced pastry students), required me and my classmates to create a visually striking and tasty dessert within just a couple of hours from start to finish. Not so difficult, you say? Well, consider the fact that a bona fide plated dessert--composed of various textures, temperatures, colors, and flavor types--typically consists of several individual recipes, and the need to combine all the mysterious ingredients into one coherent and comely dessert in that period of time is actually a rather tall order.

The other six ingredients we had to make use of besides cactus pears were unblanched brazil nuts, unpopped popcorn, quinces, cardamom pods, brick dough (also known as feuilles de brick, this is kind of like a tougher and more transparent version of phyllo dough), and coconut sugar.

The fact that I completely forgot to photograph my dessert, once finished, helps illustrate how frazzled I must have been by the time I presented my finished plate to my teacher, a fellow we'll simply refer to here as Chef R. It was not what my husband would describe as "a triumph"--a phrase he often likes to use in reference to especially well-prepared and delicious food. No, it was a partial success and that's all it was. The part of it that was a complete success, was the sorbet portion. That sorbet, which was somewhat similar to today's recipe, was brilliantly pink and made a dramatic impression on the plate. It was zesty, sweet, and tart. It was positively psychedelic.

There was also a cactus pear sauce, equally vivid, neatly dabbed onto the plate like a tiny path, that served as a dividing line between the dessert's two main components. To the left was a perfectly egg-shaped scoop of sorbet (also known as a quenelle), with a delicate golden tuile balanced on top. The sorbet sat on a circle of crumbly streusel that I'd made from a ground combo of toasted brazil-nut brittle and popped, salted popcorn. That sorbet and tuile construction was parked near my attempt at a warm, spicy, stewed quince concoction enclosed within a crisp, baked, brick-dough basket. A cute basket, no doubt, but with sticky, sugary contents that were barely edible. Really. I joke you not. Something went terribly wrong with my stewed quince. The whole thing became gritty and grainy and wasn't at all becoming. And the cardamom in there seemed overwhelming . . . too much cardamom. As I brought my plated creation up to Chef R. at the appointed hour so he could render judgement, I knew I was a girl with a problem.

Chef R. was not impressed with the right side of the plate. Alas.

But, he did say he really liked the sorbet and thought the whole concept, at least in terms of looks, was attractive and appealing. Overall, it could have been worse. I suppose I was just glad all those weeks/months/years of anxious anticipation were over. I'd completed Plated Desserts II and, really, that was reward enough.

It was a tiny consolation, to be honest, that the other members of the class seemed to have a less than complete triumph as well. We all felt, though, that we tried the best we could given the limitations we were forced to work with. And Chef R. was only encouraging in his closing comments to us, as we gathered up our belongings and prepared to offer our fatigued goodbyes. Before we left the room he urged us to keep taking baking/pastry classes even after we complete the formal requirements of the program (I have one more class to go). Because, after all, there is always more to learn. Indeed.

Cactus-Pear and Cherry Sorbet

(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

4 very ripe cactus pears
1 pound sweet cherries
12 ounces simple syrup, cooled
1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 teaspoons cherry (or other fruit-flavored) liqueur (I used Heering cherry liqueur; you could use Kirschwasser, or Chambord, or even Limoncello would probably be good.)

Cut the cactus pears in half, lengthwise, and scoop out the pulp with a large spoon. (Be careful; the outside of a cactus pear may have tiny spines left on it that you can't really see.) 

Pit the cherries and cut them in half.

Put the pulp and the cherry pieces into a deep straight-sided container and blend them with an immersion blender until no large chunks remain. Strain the mixture into a medium size bowl. Rinse out the deep straight-sided container. Pour the mixture back into it, along with all of the simple syrup.

Blend the mixture again until all lumps are gone and it looks smooth. Strain the mixture again into a bowl, this time with a fine mesh strainer. You're trying to catch any seeds from the cactus pears; they are very hard and black.

Stir the smaller amount of lime juice, along with the liqueur, into the strained sorbet mix. Taste the mix, and add more lime juice if you prefer. Don't add more liqueur; too much alcohol will make it difficult for the sorbet to firm up in the freezer.

Chill the sorbet mix until extremely cold and churn it in your ice cream freezer according to the manufacturer's directions.

Put the churned sorbet into a chilled container that can be tightly covered and freeze it for at least several hours. I froze mine for over a day before serving it; it needs time to get really firm, and for the flavors to ripen.

Serve in small portions. Nice as a very light dessert, or as a palate cleanser between courses.

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Thursday, December 13, 2012

Triple Citrus Panettone . . . Fragrant Bread with a Tender Crumb

A few short weeks ago, I was sitting in a dim and cozy restaurant gabbing with my pastry-school pal, Michelle. She'd just handed me about six luscious pounds of thin couverture-chocolate disks that she'd acquired wholesale through one of her mysterious culinary connections. Two big bags of the disks were parked on the table when the waitress came over to greet us. She glanced curiously at the bulging sacks and said, "What's this?"

I think she may have feared we brought our own bag-lunch because, for an instant, she got that wary-waitress gleam in her eye. You know the gleam I mean? Anyway, Michelle, who is smart as a whip and takes no guff from anyone, quipped, "I'm a drug dealer." Then after a pregnant pause she added, "It's chocolate."

The waitress immediately chuckled, smiling in understanding. Chocolate. Of course. We were speaking the universal language.

One of the nicest benefits of attending culinary school has been the opportunity to meet kindred spirits, Michelle being one of them. It was from her that I got the notion to make panettone this Christmas season. (Michelle, you constantly generate good ideas for baking and pastry shenanigans. I love that about you!) 
And, I had another incentive to make panettone this holiday season as well. I received a complementary case of chopped candied fruit a couple of weeks ago from the Paradise Fruit Company of Plant City, Florida. I'm pretty sure I yelped in surprise when I unsealed that cardboard carton only to find all those containers of candied orange peel, lemon peel, citron, and crystallized ginger. I don't know what I thought might be in there, but it wasn't candied fruit.

I opened one of each. They all looked and smelled so fresh. I tried citron first. I'd never tasted citron before, candied or otherwise, and the first thing I noticed is that it's beautifully translucent. Light shines right through.

As I nibbled each variety of fruit, my preconceived candied-fruit notions were blown out of the water. All of the lovely, sticky, little cubes were so bright. The orange- and lemon-peels were so chewy, and the candied ginger was just right--not too peppery, and not at all bitter.

I'm now officially a candied fruit believer, and panettone is the perfect vehicle for quality candied citrus. Many, many thanks to Paradise Fruit for offering me this wonderful sampling. I love it!

About this recipe . . .

The recipe I chose is pretty elementary compared to the more elaborate, old-school panettone versions out there. This is an I-don't-have-all-the-time-in-the-world-but-I-really-want-to-make-panettone formula. Adapted from a recipe in the latest issue of the King Arthur Flour catalog, this citrus panettone begins with a starter that you toss together the night before.

What did I change? Well, the main recipe calls for 1/4 cup of potato flour, but I didn't have that so I substituted 1/2 instant potato flakes; this is a common substitution used in bread recipes, and not to be feared. I didn't have the special flavoring called for (Fiori di Sicilia), so I made my own tiny mixture of vanilla, lemon, orange, and almond extracts. I didn't have one of those traditional paper panettone pans in the correct size (though I drove around metro Detroit looking for them, to no avail!), so I used two high-sided metal cake pans (6" x 3") and they worked out just fine. And, of course, I rewrote the instructions to reflect exactly what I did.

This panettone is slightly sweet with a gloriously tender crumb of the palest yellow. Yum.

Triple Citrus Panettone
(For a printable version of this recipe click here!)

Yield: Two smaller loaves (mine were 4" tall and 6" wide); or one larger loaf

Ingredients for the starter:
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/16 teaspoon instant yeast
1/2 cup (4 fluid ounces) cool water

Ingredients for the dough:
2 cups (8.5 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup instant mashed-potato flakes (I used Hungry Jack brand, natural flavor; alternately, you can use 1/4 of potato flour.)
1/4 cup granulated sugar

1 and 1/4 teaspoons salt (I used fine sea salt.)
2 teaspoons instant yeast

1/4 cup (2 fluid ounces) lukewarm water
2 large eggs, room temperature
6 tablespoons (3 ounces) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
A couple drops each of orange extract, lemon extract, and almond extract (enough to equal 1/4    teaspoon total)
1 cup mixture of candied orange peel, lemon peel, and citron, all chopped into very small cubes (I used Paradise Fruit brand; it's already cut to the perfect size.)

Make the starter the night before you make the bread dough:
In a medium-size bowl, combine the flour, yeast, and water. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Leave at room temperature, undisturbed, until the next morning. The starter will get slightly bubbly.

Make the bread dough:
Measure all of the dry ingredients for the dough into a large bowl; whisk them together lightly.

Add in the wet ingredients (except for the candied fruit; that goes in last) and stir until well combined combine.

Mix in the candied fruit until well distributed.

Mix by hand for a couple of minutes (I easily did this by hand with a dough-whisk; you can use a mixer with the paddle attachment, on low speed, if you prefer) then dump the dough out onto a floured surface and gently knead it for another minute or two. It should be soft and sticky.

Put the dough into a large bowl that's been sprayed with vegetable spray or lightly oiled with vegetable oil.

Cover the bowl with a sprayed/oiled piece of plastic wrap, and top that with a lightweight dish towel. Let the dough rise in a warmer-than-room-temperature spot for up to 90 minutes, until it's almost doubled (don't expect to see dramatic rise).

Turn the risen dough out onto a very lightly floured work surface. Gently deflate it. If you're making two smaller loaves, divide the dough now with a bench knife or sharp chef's knife. Shape the dough pieces into smooth balls and pinch closed any bottom seams.

Place the dough balls into pans that have been well greased with shortening (I used two 3"x 6" metal cake pans), or into paper panettone pans. Cover the pans with sprayed/oiled plastic wrap and top that with the lightweight dish towel.

Put them in a warm spot and let them rise for up to 2 hours, until almost doubled.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Remove the plastic wrap carefully so as not to deflate the dough and place the pans in the middle of the hot oven (I placed my pans atop a baking sheet to help ensure the bottom of the loaves wouldn't burn).

Bake for 15 minutes, then turn the oven down to 350 degrees. Continue baking for 15 to 20 more minutes, or until the loaves are deep golden all over. If you're baking one large loaf, you may need to bake for 35 minutes longer.

Remove the finished loaves from their pans immediately and cool them completely on a rack before slicing.

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