Thursday, June 30, 2011

Hey, There's a Reason they Cost that Much! . . . Learning to Make Artisan Chocolates

Well, my Pastry II class is finally over, and I'm done with schoolwork until September. Boy, have I been craving the mellower pace of summer. To say I'm grateful for its arrival might just be the understatement of the year. I'm looking forward to pondering all that we did in class over the last eight weeks because we produced some of the most extraordinary and elaborate desserts I've ever seen. We also whipped up colorful French macarons, premium ice creams and sorbets, delicate candies, and sugar sculptures. At the half-way point in the semester, we assembled an impressive array of our creations and offered samples to all comers. From the whimsical to the ornate, they were dazzling desserts. It was something to see.

We made great stuff in that class, but I think the hours that we spent on chocolate may have been the most eye opening for me. In fact, one of the most fascinating aspects of culinary school overall has been the way that the veil of culinary secrecy has been pulled back. I'm talking about that invisible shroud that seems to shield us non-chef mortals from the knowledge of how particular food items are actually prepared. Specifically, the sorts of foods that most people would never even think to attempt at home.   

Case in point, the creation of artisan chocolate candies. I'm talking about handmade chocolates of absolute premium quality; think of the shiny treats you see for sale in high-end chocolate shops, sold for upwards of forty or fifty dollars a pound at minimum. Having now been exposed to some of the methods, equipment, and materials used to produce such candies, I have a far more complete and sympathetic understanding of why they command such outrageous prices.

It's not just because they're made from the finest ingredients, are labor intensive to produce, and the tools required to make them are prohibitively expensive. No, it's also because making them requires a significant amount of skill and training, and pastry chefs who are devoted to learning and perfecting those techniques are not a dime a dozen. I think anyone can call himself a "chocolatier" but then, anyone can call himself a rocket scientist, too. Calling yourself that doesn't make it true.

Anyway, after the last few weeks' immersion in chocolate, I am content to forgo artisan candy production in my own little kitchen and leave it for now to the experts. In the meantime, I present to you my chocolate-filled chocolate "box" (which was 100% edible in every way and, of course, we did eat it!) that I made in class, along with the variety of chocolates--nicely packaged in that gold box--that we produced there as well. We were each allowed to take home one packaged box of our candy, along with our own custom-designed edible chocolate box, also filled to capacity.

Pastry class, after all, does have its benefits.

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Friday, June 24, 2011

Strawberry Mascarpone Bars . . . and a Treasure from Far Away

You know that saying about money burning a hole in your pocket? When you're dying to spend it because, well, it's there? That's how I felt about a particularly precious jar of strawberry-champagne jam that I received recently for review from the East India Company. I could hardly wait to try it. Yes, I'm referring essentially to that East India Company--the one chartered in England over 400 years ago by Queen Elizabeth I, made defunct through British nationalization in 1874, and miraculously reborn  in quintessential 21st-century form in 2010.

To be perfectly honest, before being contacted by them via email I had no clue that the company was currently in existence in any form, or that the very idea of the East India Company still had anything but enduring historic value. In fact, I did a double-take when I saw their email message and thought to myself, "It can't be real . . . can it?" After all, I'm sure I first learned of the massive trading company in an elementary school history lesson.

I can vaguely recall reading in class about those legendary royalty-sponsored ocean voyages--the ones designed to expand international trade through the discovery of new and exotic spices, fabrics, timber, teas, cocoas, and thus enrich the sponsoring country. I can almost see the old textbook illustrations of foreign landscapes, with sailing ships charging through churning waves. (I'll bet merchant sailors had to have a lot of moxie in those days.) That's the kind of image that comes to my mind, in sumptuous color, when I even hear the words "East India."

Anyway, a few weeks after that email exchange, a snug little box appeared on my doorstep. Well-cushioned for its journey, this was clearly a treasure from far away. I unearthed the jar from its padding, admired the refined elegance of its label, and tucked it safely away until the right moment, as I didn't want to waste the precious stuff on a mediocre recipe. Finally, today, the moment was ripe.

After that long wait, it was with anxious anticipation that I twisted the cap off the jar. I held it up to the light, gave it a close look, and sniffed . . . mmmm, nice aroma. I inspected the texture of the jam . . . not too thick or remotely gelatinous. Both positive signs. The consistency reminded me quite a bit of homemade strawberry jam in that respect. Then I spooned out a dab and tasted . . . fine flavor, not too delicate nor at all harsh, and just the right amount of sweetness. So far so good. For a couple of seconds as I contemplated the flavor I thought, "That's lovely all in all . . . but what about the champagne?" And it was just then that the presence of champagne arrived on the back of my tongue.  First a subtle tingle, and then that distinctive sparkle . . . "Ahhh, there's the champagne!"

I smiled.

Strawberries and bubbly, married in a jam. What a charming and quintessentially English combo.  Thank you, East India Company, for sending me a jar of jam that lives up to your illustrious name.

About this recipe . . . 

I adapted this from a recipe by chef Scott Peacock that appeared in the May 2011 print issue of Better Homes and Gardens magazine. Peacock's version is made with fresh raspberries and raspberry jam, along with cream cheese and goat cheese. My version differs in that I used fresh strawberries, the strawberry-champagne jam, mostly mascarpone cheese along with some cream cheese, and no goat cheese at all.

I also dramatically dialed down the lemony factor in the crust, upped the vanilla there (I have a kid who detests lemon in any form within baked goods, and I tend to take pity on him in this regard), and reworded the instructions to reflect exactly what I did. This is a moist and creamy cookie-bar, with a tender shortbread crust, that's open to interpretation. I think it would be interesting made with any bright summer fruit.

Strawberry Mascarpone Bars

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

1 cup (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, in 1" chunks
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
About 1 Tbsp. of softened butter, to brush onto sides of foil
3/4 cup high-quality strawberry jam
1 and 1/2 cups hulled ripe strawberries, chopped into small chunks
8 oz. mascarpone cheese, at cool room temperature
4 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 Tbsp. unbleached all-purpose flour
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1 tsp. lemon zest
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
1 and 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 or 3 tablespoons powdered sugar to dust on the baked, cooled bars

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9"x13" metal baking pan with a long sheet of foil, extending it up over the short ends of the pan.

In the large bowl of your mixer, using the paddle attachment, slightly soften the butter by blending on medium speed for just about 30 seconds. Into that, add the brown sugar and kosher salt, mixing on low speed for no more than 1 minute.

Turn the mixer off and pour in the 2 cups of flour, then beat on low speed just until it's incorporated. Raise the speed to medium and beat until a cohesive, even dough forms; the dough should not be crumbly. Break the dough into small clumps and press it down evenly into your foil-lined pan.

Bake this for about 20 minutes, or just until the dough starts to set and look slightly puffy. Remove from the oven, leaving the oven on, and cool this on a rack for 5 minutes while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Brush the softened butter lightly onto the exposed sides of foil, above the crust, all around the pan. This will help the bars release from the foil when they're ready to be lifted out of the pan and sliced.

Evenly spread all of the jam over the cooled crust. Sprinkle the strawberry chunks atop that.

In the large bowl of your mixer, again with the paddle attachment, beat together the mascarpone cheese and cream cheese on medium/high speed for only about 30 seconds. Then add in the granulated sugar, still at the same speed, along with the 1 Tbsp. of flour, just until blended. Add in the egg, egg yolk, lemon zest, lemon juice, and vanilla extract. Beat the mixture until it looks smooth, stopping to scrape the bowl and beaters as needed.

Pour the creamy mixture evenly over the strawberry layer and tip the pan back and forth slightly to help distribute it evenly.

Bake the bars at 350 for about 30 minutes, until just set.

Cool on a rack for one hour, then cover the pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least two hours. When you're ready to cut the bars, firmly grasp the overhanging foil and lift up; if they stay flat and don't buckle then they're cold enough to cut. Peel the foil back from the sides once they're out of the pan, and slice them with a very sharp knife. 

If you like, sprinkle powdered sugar on top of the bars before or after slicing, using a fine mesh sieve held at least a foot or more above the bars (helps avoid the appearance of big drifts of powdered sugar).
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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

An Ending, a Beginning, and Blushing Peach Mini-Pies . . .

It's the end of an era and the birth of a new one. That's how it feels around here since my oldest son, Charlie, graduated from high school a few days ago in a beautiful and moving commencement. I realized only that night, as the processional music began to play, that I had been half-consciously trying to avoid thinking of the graduation ceremony as a real watershed moment, but that's what it was. A watershed in the life of my child, to be sure, but also for our family as a whole and for me as a mom.

Let's just say it was a good thing I remembered the Kleenex.

I find myself immersed lately in a whirlwind of emotions about Charlie. Extraordinary love and affection, pride at his accomplishments, a mixture of apprehension and excitement about him leaving home for college next fall, and curiosity as to what his future may hold. It's all just amazing to me that we've come this far in the journey.

When your babies are born, you imagine all of the landmark events that will likely occur in their lives, but for a long time that's all you can do--imagine them. When one of the big events actually transpires, and you're there to witness it in a formal and celebratory setting, it's a strange and wondrous thing.

About this recipe . . .

So, what does all this maternal sentimentality have to do with blushing peach mini-pies? Not a darn thing. But I figure  that's okay, because juicy little fruit pies don't need a special reason to justify their existence.

These were put together on a hot and steamy day. When I mixed the crust, I'd originally intended to make just one standard-size pie. The crust, what with the heat wave, wouldn't roll out all that cooperatively, so I went to plan B and formed these into casual mini-pies--much easier from the assembly standpoint on a blistering day. They look sort of free form and funky because I was trying to work swiftly and throw them in the oven without delay. I managed to get five minis out of the recipe.

Aptly named, blushing peach pie's moniker can be attributed to the girlishly pink, raspberry-based syrup that you mix with the sliced fruit. Made from fresh raspberries, sugar, and water, the syrup is cooked in a sauce pan, then strained. Combined with the peaches, this stuff's really good. Talk about something worth blushing over.

This recipe hails from The King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion, a solid and chunky classic that every home-baker needs to have around. I didn't change the ingredients or their proportions, but I completely reworded the directions to reflect what I actually did.

Blushing Peach Mini-Pies

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

Ingredients for the pie crust:

2 and 1/2 cups all-purpose flour or pastry flour (I used pastry flour, but I usually use regular flour for pie crust.)
1 tsp. salt (I used coarse kosher salt.)
1 cup cold butter, shortening, or lard, or a combo of these (Does anyone out there still use lard? I've never had the guts to even buy it, but I've always heard it makes for a darn fine crust. I used half butter and half shortening here.)
2 to 4 oz. ice cold water, as needed (1/4 to 1/2 cup)

To make the pie crust dough:

Whisk the flour and salt in a large bowl. With a pastry blender, work in half of the fat until the mixture resembles large peas. Then, work in the rest of the fat until the particles are about the size of rice grains. Sprinkle in the ice water, a tablespoonful at a time, while tossing the dough with a fork. You want the dough to be just moist enough to hold together when pressed in your hand. Don't let it become so wet that it feels sticky. Be judicious with the water. 

Press the dough into one big ball, cut it in half, press each half into a disk shape about an inch thick, and wrap the disks in plastic wrap. Chill them for at least one hour before attempting to roll them out. 

Ingredients for the fruit filling:
6 cups of peeled, sliced, ripe peaches
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
1/4 tsp. salt (I used coarse kosher.)
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
3/4 cup to 1 cup of granulated sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 cup raspberry syrup (See separate recipe for that below.)

While the dough is chilling, peel your peaches, and slice them into large bite-size chunks. Sprinkle them with a little lemon juice to help keep them from browning and set them aside. (If you prefer, you can blanch the peaches first and remove their skins that way, but it's not critical you do it that way. To blanch them, put the peaches into boiling water, boil for a minute or two; quickly remove them and plunge them into ice cold water to stop the cooking, then peel off the skins by hand. The skin should come off easily.) 

In a small bowl, whisk together the salt, nutmeg, 3/4 cup of the sugar, and the 1/4 cup cornstarch. Set aside.

To make the raspberry syrup: 

1 cup fresh raspberries
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup water

Stir together the raspberries, sugar, and water in a medium-size saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook for several minutes, stirring regularly, until the sugar is completely dissolved. 

Remove from heat. To remove all the seeds, pour the syrup through a fine mesh sieve that's been placed over a heatproof bowl. Set aside and let the syrup cool somewhat.

To roll out the dough, mix the filling, and assemble the pie:

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Place a rack in the middle of the oven.

If you're making mini pies have all of your pans nearby. Remove one of the dough disks from the fridge, unwrap it, and let it sit for about five to ten minutes to soften it up slightly. On a lightly floured surface roll the dough out no thinner than about 1/8" thick. For five minis, cut out five small circles slightly larger than the diameter of your pans, and set the scrap dough aside. Working quickly, place the dough circles into the pie tins, being careful not to stretch the dough. Do the same with the second disk of chilled dough. Press all of the scraps into one ball and reroll that out. Using a sharp knife or a pizza wheel, cut the dough into little strips that will fit across the top of your mini pies. 

Quickly add to the peaches the bowl of dry filling ingredients (salt, cornstarch, nutmeg, and 3/4 cup of granulated sugar). Stir well and taste the liquid; if it's not sweet enough add in the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar. Add approximately 1/2 cup of the raspberry syrup and stir into the fruit just to combine. Scoop the fruit mixture evenly into the pie shells. 

Lay 4 to 6 of the little dough strips in criss-cross fashion over the top of each pie, crimping the edges as you wish (with your fingers or with the tines of a fork, etc.). Brush the strips of dough lightly with milk and sprinkle the crust with coarse/sanding sugar or granulated sugar. Place the pies onto a parchment covered baking sheet.

Bake for 15 minutes at 425 degrees, then check the mini pies; if they're browning too quickly, lightly cover them with foil. Lower the temperature to 375 at this point. Continue baking until the crust is golden brown and the filling looks hot and bubbly, perhaps 15 to 20 more minutes more even for minis. Cool the finished pies on a cooling rack. They can be served while still in their individual pans, or you can try to remove them from the pans when they're completely cool by flipping them over into your hand and quickly reinverting each one onto a plate.

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