Monday, May 31, 2010

ZUCCHINI RICOTTA FETA TART

LITTLE ELVES IN THE NIGHT


Who doesn’t remember the lovely Grimm Brothers’ Christmas story about the poor shoemaker? “(He) worked very hard and was very honest: but still he could not earn enough to live upon; and at last all he had in the world was gone, save just leather enough to make one pair of shoes.” He carefully cut out the leather for one last pair of shoes and lovingly laid the pieces out on his workbench before retiring for the night. “His conscience was clear and his heart light amidst all his troubles; so he went peaceably to bed, left all his cares to Heaven, and soon fell asleep. In the morning after he had said his prayers, he sat himself down to his work; when, to his great wonder, there stood the shoes all ready made, upon the table.

Of course, one night he decides to wait up, hoping to surprise whoever was sneaking into his workshop and making the beautiful shoes in his place. And, lo and behold, he spies 2 little elves, merry as can be, rushing into the workshop, “stitching and rapping and tapping away at such a rate, that the shoemaker was all wonder, and could not take his eyes off them.” Until, just at the break of day, the shoes finished, off they bustle as quick as lightening.


Well, I have elves. They may not be naked (the shoemaker makes little clothes to thank his elves for their help), or at least I hope they are not if they are sitting on either my kitchen chairs or livingroom sofa, and they may not whip up a gorgeous pair of shoes or even a cake for me to discover the following morning, but elves they are, silent as the night, tiptoeing into the kitchen at the stroke of midnight (or later) and helping this housewife clean out her refrigerator. Yes, they devour great quantities of food, leftovers, macarons by the dozen, bowls of pasta and slices of cold pizza, even surreptitiously making bottles of wine disappear. I am sure that they feel that they are doing me a favor, and happy mother I am knowing that no little elves are going hungry, but darn if I’m not anxious to do as the poor shoemaker and his wife and stay up all night concealed behind the curtains hoping to catch our own little elves in the act of selfless gorging that they do so kindly on my behalf.

And last night was no different. I had carefully wrapped up the last slices of the delicious Zucchini Ricotta Feta Tart and placed them in the refrigerator before I took myself off to bed. This morning I awoke and straggled into the kitchen, rubbing sleep out of my eyes, and put the water for coffee on to boil. Breakfast table laid, husband joined me and we began the breakfast dance, the ritual around the morning meal, the same foods, the same gestures, sharing the first words, the first smiles, the first laughter of the day. And that was when I noticed it: the tart pan sitting alone and empty on the countertop. Tonnerre de tonnerre! It happened again! Sapristi the elves have struck again!

"Good morning, darling, what would you like for breakfast today?"

2 young gentlemen, architecture students both, sometimes joined by a third, spending evenings sitting at desks side by side, working on projects of paper and cardboard and glue and scissors, or clicking and clacking away on their computers, images twisting and turning and floating on screen, far into the night and often into the wee hours of the morning. Like little elves, working best in the dark quiet of night away from parental prying eyes. Growing boys, needing energy to push those brains to work long hours, needing nourishment to keep their bodies going, young men singing along to the music echoing in the night feeling a hunger sneak up and rumble low in their tummies, a hunger growing, disturbing their thoughts. A sign passes between them, a look, a nod of the head, and off they go, tiptoeing silently from one end of the house to the other, past the dog (Pray that he does not wake and, anxious to join them for a midnight snack, begin to bark!) and they slip noiselessly into the kitchen. Foraging in the refrigerator, savory or sweet or even a little of both, making no noise with the cutlery or as they slide one ceramic plate off the shelf at a time, slicing the knife through a dense slice of chocolate cake or cutting off sliver after sliver of rich Zucchini Ricotta Tart, tangy with feta and cool with mint. Silent as the shadows, they eat to their hearts’ content and, tummies full, off they skip back to their little elves’ lair to finish their own important work or, if not, simply to close their books and put away their pencils and crawl off to bed.

Feeding all of the little architecture student elves of Nantes...

Now, if those little elves would only do the dishes!


Mother’s Day has once again come and gone and Son #1, whom I thought had forgotten the day, arrived in the afternoon arms filled with beautiful plants, a kitchen garden: mint and rosemary, basil and chives. Lovely, just lovely. Thank you, Clem.

I am sending this delicious tart to Ivonne of Creams Puffs in Venice for her Magazine Mondays!


ZUCCHINI RICOTTA TART with feta and mint
From June 2010 Saveurs magazine (Tarte aux Courgettes, Feta et Ricotta)

Short crust pastry for one 8- or 9-inch pie plate (recipe follows), chilled
2 medium zucchini
7 oz (200 g) ricotta (I used fresh ewe’s milk ricotta)
7 oz (200 g) feta cheese
2 large eggs
A few branches of mint (about 2 Tbs or so chopped leaves)
Olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper


Make the short crust pastry and wrap in plastic and place in the refrigerator to chill so it will be easier to roll out.

Before preparing the filling, roll the pastry out to fit in your buttered pie tin, press it into the tin, trim and poke all over with a fork. Place back in the refrigerator while you prepare the filling.

Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).

Wash and trim the zucchini. Slice into ¼-inch coins. Sauté the zucchini, one layer at a time, in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Lightly brown each batch on one side, flip the slices, salt and pepper and continue cooking for a few minutes until lightly browned on the bottom and the zucchini is tender. Continue until all of the zucchini is golden and tender. Allow to drain on paper towels.

In a large mixing bowl, beat the ricotta using a whisk or a wooden spoon until smooth. Add the eggs and continue whisking or beating until well blended and smooth. Chop the feta until small cubes and add to the bowl, beating in until part of the feta has dissolved into the mixture and is creamy and part are left in small chunks. Finely chop or scissor cut the mint in a glass. Add to the cheese mixture with salt and pepper to taste.


Remove the pie shell from the refrigerator. Line the bottom of the shell with about half or a bit less of the zucchini slices. Pour the ricotta, feta, mint mixture in the shell and spread evenly. Place the rest of the zucchini slices all over the top of the cheese mixture, slightly overlapping.

Bake in the preheated oven for 35 – 40 minutes. The filling should be slightly puffed up and firm to the touch (like a quiche) and golden around the edges. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly, allowing the tart to settle.

Serve with a mixed green salad or fresh, ripe, sweet tomatoes with a tart vinaigrette. And a glass of wine.


SHORT CRUST PASTRY perfect for savory tarts and quiches
From Mastering the Art of French Cooking (by you know who, of course)

5 oz (150 g) flour
Scant ½ tsp salt
Big pinch of sugar
4 oz (120 g) unsalted butter, cubed
4 – 4 ½ Tbs cold water

Place the flour, salt and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Add the cubes of butter, tossing to coat with flour so they don’t stick together. Using the tips of your fingers and thumbs, rub the butter and flour together rapidly as if pushing the butter into the flour until the mixture is crumbly and it resembles oatmeal. Do not overwork this mixture as the butter will melt and start to clump; it will be blended better later.

Add about 3 tablespoons of the cold water and blend very quickly with a fork. Add more water, as much as needed, onto the dry flour and continue to stir up from the bottom until all of the dry ingredients are moistened and the dough begins pulling together.

Scrape the dough out onto a floured work surface. With the heel of one hand, rapidly smear and push the dough onto the surface and away from you, about a tablespoon of dough at a time, smearing it onto the work surface. This will complete the blending of the butter and the flour.

Scrape the dough up and gather it into a ball. Knead gently and briefly just enough to make a smooth, homogenous ball of dough. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate until firm enough to roll out easily.


Thursday, May 27, 2010

CROQUEMBOUCHE or PIECE MONTEE

ONE WEDDING LEADS TO ANOTHER


Our wedding was small, barely a dozen attended. A simple affair, a stroll to city hall, sitting in those gilded chairs fit for royalty, the sun streaming into the large, bright hall, the festive floral murals gracing the pale golden walls made for a celebration. My soon to be husband, glowing in his joy, sitting in his black brocante zoot suit looking rather stunned in disbelief and I, sitting happily, nervously next to him in something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, a bit stunned myself at the wonder of sitting here in Bois Colombes marrying * gasp * a Frenchman. M. le Maire Adjoint walks in, seemingly as giddy as the soon-to-be-newlyweds, bringing with him an unexpected added gaiety to the party, his infectious booming laughter, and an electric buzz shoots through the room and we are off! With much less solemnity than we had expected, we are married by this rotund, funny gentleman who, in no uncertain terms, imparts his pleasure in joining a Frenchman and an American, his first American in 20 years of performing marriages. Sacrebleu!


His words washed over me like warm water and whenever he glanced in my direction, his eyes meeting mine, and he paused I simply stuttered “Oui” as if on cue. He prattled on, his words a lovely, incomprehensible jumble of French, or so I assumed, but nary a word did I understand. No matter. I knew what I was there for, I understood the gist and the huge, fatherly grin splashed across his face gave me the confidence that whatever he was having me promise must most certainly be for my own good.

After the ceremony, the exchange of rings, the fumbling kiss, the signing of the papers with shaking hands, we paraded back home in all of our married glory to a wedding brunch that we had cooked and prepared ourselves the day before. Champagne flowed amid the flowers, we ate and drank and I, in my stumbling schoolgirl French met many of his friends for the first time, giggling at their amazement and disbelief that he had actually, formally tied the official knot. And amongst the guests was one, his witness, his best friend, the one who came to the wedding decked out in red and green tartan plaid from head to toe for a laugh, carrying a baby stroller as a good joke, Olivier. Crazy, wild, funny Olivier with whom JP shares some wild and crazy stories of their adventures together. Well, this is a tale of his wedding, not our own humble affair. Our marriage was no traditional fête, no storybook Parisian wedding, no affair spread out in the dreamy pages of some American women’s magazine; no elegantly dressed guests, no top-hatted gentlemen nor women in extravagant, frothy hats, no fancy white car decked out in flowers to whisk us off to church, no sophisticated string quartet entertaining us as we nibbled on catered fare. No, not even an engagement ring nor les fiançailles, no bridal shower nor stag party, and for dessert on that most special day of our lives? Homebaked Vanilla Sponge Cake with coulis de fruits rouges and a dense, decadent Chocolate Cake with Cognac Buttercream whipped up by the bride herself in her future Mother-in-Law’s kitchen.


But Olivier’s marriage, for a rather simple, low-key affair, pulled out all the stops and whistles. We arrived, two tiny sons and my older brother in tow, the day after their small, private City Hall knot-tying ceremony. We settled into the hotel in time to change and make it to his parents’ huge, aristocratic stone pile for the pre-wedding party: lots of food, laughter and loud music as we wandered in amazement from room to room, avoiding small talk with people with whom we had very little in common. The next morning, we found our way to church for the traditional religious ceremony. Bride in a simple beige suit, groom sitting next to her, they listened to the priest for what seemed like hours, the ceremony long and solemn, much more solemn than I would have imagined for something as joyous as a marriage, and totally incomprehensible to me.

But what sticks in my mind most vividly of this entire weekend was the wedding dinner. We arrived as the sun was setting and were led into an unusual, pretty renovated mill all in dark wood and elegant lighting. Guests were milling about (sorry for the pun), admiring the romantic country setting, the beautiful surroundings, finding their way into the reception room. Gold tablecloths, glittering chandeliers, sophistication and charm as the stars lit up the sky outside and the bottles of champagne were opened, pop, pop, pop, one after the other, glasses filled and crystal clinking as the toasts to the newly married couple began. And then the food: oysters, platter upon platter of oysters, began arriving. We joined the line at the table up front and began loading down our plates with oysters and the other wonderful seafood that was carried out and placed amongst the bottles of bubbly. And we ate and we ate and we ate to our fill. And the platters of oysters and smoked fish and all of the delectable treats kept coming. And champagne, of course, to wash it all down. What seemed hours flew by and, completely sated, we simply were left wondering how late the party was to go on for and then it dawned on us. With horror did we realize, much too late, that in fact, the oyster and seafood bar was simply the appetizer. Yes, the appetizer. Just as we were pushing our seats away from the table we turned around and saw waiters carrying in the first course. Well, as polite as we were and as gauche as we were afraid of appearing, we put on our “yes, of course I know what’s going on” faces, picked up knives and forks and dug in. First course, second, third, that huge traditional French wedding feast.


Applause then rose from the crowd, tipsy on food and champagne, as they wheeled in the pièce de résistance, le chef d-oeuvre de la soirée (the evening’s masterpiece): La Pièce Montée: an elegant pyramid of perfect little choux buns, filled with pastry cream and piled up into a sumptuous creation, a delicate, graceful tower of tiny pastries dripping with cascades of golden threads of caramel, the delicate shower of sugary caramel giving this elaborate “Assembled Creation” its other name “Croquembouche” or “That which crunches in the mouth”. This traditional wedding dessert is the French version of the American multi-tiered, frosted, flowered confection topped with tiny bride and groom figurines, a classic at all formal weddings. And we were now witnessing our very first. It is up to the bride to pull apart the tiny choux and pass them one by one to her guests, her way of sharing the happiness of the day. One version of the origin of this French wedding fixture dates back to Roman times when the bride would have a large crown of bread placed on her head. The bread was then broken as a sign of future fertility, a good luck token, if you will. The guests then picked up the pieces and ate them so they could enjoy the same good luck!


The May 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Cat of Little Miss Cupcake. Cat challenged us to make a piece montée, or croquembouche, based on recipes from Peter Kump’s Baking School in Manhattan and Nick Malgieri. I absolutely adored this challenge, as I so love making both pastry cream and choux. I usually use my dear old dad’s choux recipe, but this time I followed Cat’s recipes. Mathilde, my wonderful Macaron assistant, came and spent the day with me so she could learn how to make these treasures! She came with her grandfather’s choux recipe, too! We made both chocolate and vanilla pastry cream as they are both quite simple so Mathilde could learn. She was astonished that both the choux puffs and the pastry cream, although demanding careful attention, were quick and simple to make. This is such a perfect dessert to make when you want to impress family, friends and guests! And memories of my own marriage day as well as all of the weddings, simple and fancy, that I have been to flood over me….


PIECE MONTEE
Recipe from Peter Kump's Cooking School and chef Nick Malgieri

PASTRY CREAM
Vanilla, Chocolate or Coffee

For the Vanilla Crème Patissiere (Half Batch)
1 cup (225 ml.) whole milk (I used low fat)
2 Tbsp. cornstarch
6 Tbs (100 g) sugar
1 large egg
2 large egg yolks
2 Tbs (30 g.) unsalted butter (at room temperature makes it easier)
1 tsp vanilla


Dissolve cornstarch in ¼ cup of milk; whisk until smooth and there are no lumps. Combine the remaining milk with the sugar in a saucepan.Bring to a boil; remove from heat.

Beat the whole egg, then the yolks into the cornstarch mixture. Pour 1/3 of boiling milk into the egg mixture in a slow stream, whisking constantly so that the eggs do not begin to cook.


Add the rest of the hot milk to the egg mixture then return all of it back into the casserole and return to the heat.


Continue whisking (this is important – you do not want the eggs to solidify/cook) until the cream thickens and comes just to a boil. Remove from heat and beat in the butter and vanilla.


Pour cream into a heatproof pyrex or stainless steel bowl. Press plastic wrap firmly against the surface. Chill immediately and until ready to use.


For Chocolate Pastry Cream (Half Batch Recipe):
Bring ¼ cup (about 50 ml) milk to a boil in a small pan; remove from heat and stir in 3 ounces (about 80 g) finely chopped semisweet chocolate; mix until smooth. Whisk into pastry cream when you add the butter and vanilla.


For Coffee Pastry Cream (Half Batch recipe):
Dissolve 1 ½ teaspoons instant espresso powder in 1 ½ teaspoons boiling water. Whisk into pastry cream with butter and vanilla.

Pate a Choux (Yield: About 50)

¾ cup (175 ml) water
6 Tbsp. (90 g) unsalted butter
¼ tsp salt
1 Tbs sugar
1 cup (125 g) all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
For Egg Wash: 1 egg and pinch of salt


Pre-heat oven to 425°F (220°C) . Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Combine water, butter, salt and sugar in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. As soon as it boils, remove from the heat and sift in the flour, stirring to combine completely.


Return to heat and cook, stirring constantly until the batter dries slightly and begins to pull away from the sides of the pan.


Transfer to a bowl and stir with a wooden spoon 1 minute to cool slightly.

Add 1 egg. The batter will appear loose and shiny.


As you stir, the batter will become dry looking like lightly buttered mashed potatoes.

It is at this point that you will add in the next egg. Repeat until you have incorporated all the eggs.


Scoop teaspoonfuls of batter and push off the spoon with your finger, leaving about 1 inch between the choux. Choux should be about 1 inch high about 1 inch wide.


Using a clean finger dipped in hot water, gently press down on any tips that have formed on the top of choux. You want them to retain their ball shape, but be smoothly curved on top.

Brush tops with egg wash (1 egg lightly beaten with pinch of salt).


Bake the choux in the preheated oven until well-puffed and turning lightly golden in color, about 10 minutes.

Lower the temperature to 350°F(180°C) and continue baking until well-colored and dry, about 20 minutes more. Remove to a rack. With a small sharp paring knife, slice a small slit in the bottom side of each choux to allow steam to escape or the choux may moisten. All to cool on a cooling rack.


Can be stored in a airtight box overnight.

Filling:

When you are ready to assemble your piece montée, using a plain pastry tip, pierce the bottom of each choux. Fill the choux with pastry cream using either the same tip or a star tip, and place on a paper-lined sheet. Choux can be refrigerated briefly at this point while you make your glaze. (We put equal amounts of vanilla and chocolate pastry cream side by side in the pastry bag so each choux would be filled with a marbled swirl of both flavors.


Chocolate Glaze:
8 oz (200 g) finely chopped chocolate (use the finest quality you can afford as the taste will be quite pronounced; I recommend semi-sweet)

Melt chocolate in microwave or double boiler. Stir at regular intervals to avoid burning. Use the best quality chocolate you can afford. Use immediately.

We dipped only half of the choux in the chocolate because it became matte as it dried and though delicious it gave the choux a very heavy appearance. Next time we will prepare a lighter chocolate glaze.


Sunday, May 23, 2010

STRAWBERRY MASCARPONE CHEESECAKE

A LOVELY DAY IN ANNECY TOWN


Annecy. Maybe I was expecting too much. I had seen the pictures, you know. Stunning, green, romantic, pictures of a hideaway town glittering in the reflection of the lake, empty, cobbled streets, delicate bridges perched above trickling canals, boats lazily crossing the lake. Maybe it was like meeting someone you have heard so much about, expectations high, or meeting someone for the first time face to face after having written pretty little billets doux back and forth…. The idea was formed in my head, pictures of the perfect lover, the city of my dreams, before I had ever stepped foot out of the car. And when I did, that first morning, map in hand, meandering in out of narrow, winding, shady lanes occasionally stepping out into a bright circle of sunshine in a town square, church to my left, bistro to my right, disillusionment washed over me like that one blind date gone wrong. Reality smacked me in the face! There was something Disneyesque about Annecy, I felt as if I had stepped onto some Sixtie’s family film set, all faux rusticity and costumed romance.


JP had slunk reluctantly off to his conference meetings that morning, loathe to leave his vacation – and me – behind, so I was on my own. But this town is small enough to handle on one’s own and on foot, so I waved him off and turned in the direction of the Old Town. It isn’t easy to get lost here as you are always sure to find yourself sooner or later on the edge of Annecy’s gorgeous lake, the sun reflecting sharply off of the surface so that even at 9 in the morning I found myself shading my eyes as I stared in utter disbelief at the picture postcard beauty spread out before me, the backdrop of lush mountains, her peaks kissed by snow, setting off the lovely lake, the boats, the swans making lazy circles in the water, the majestic old mansions lining the opposite side of the lake. The old center of Annecy is tiny, a doll’s town, easy enough to cross back and forth several times in the course of one morning. And cross back and forth I did, afraid that I must have missed something. But no, that’s all there is. I looked up, my eyes scanned the ancient facades of Centreville, all mustard-colored walls and chocolate brown beams, buildings leaning into each other, holding one another up, pushing against time who seems to be pushing back yet losing the battle. These elegant old ladies seem to be holding their own. But when I lowered my eyes I felt like I had been swept off to Disney World: “authentic French” bistros, gift shops, souvenir tourist traps lined up side by side, back to back, like school children jostling each other as they wait impatiently in line, like vulgar painted women luring unsuspecting couples to sample their wares, promising heavenly delights. Ogling tourists come to get a taste of the romance of Annecy trundle excitedly up and down the streets, popping in and out of shops, perusing menus written in bad English posted outside every restaurant and seem taken in, enchanted with the quaint, Main Street air of this town, but I had seen enough of this kind of thing before and found myself frustrated, angry and just a tad disgruntled. So I bought a sandwich from a streetcart vendor and ate lakeside, the calm breeze and the bright, warm sun easing the pain just a bit.


After lunch, I found my way a bit off the beaten track and in front of the pastry shop/chocolatier I had been looking for, La Marquise des Anges of patissier Paul Collet. And after wandering back and forth in front of the window, nose pressed against the glass, hemming and hawing, I finally went in and bought a small sachet of Roseaux du Lac d’Annecy, liqueur-filled chocolates, and a sachets of gorgeous, deep violet and garnet colored pâtes de fruit, gumdrops. Happy with my purchase, I headed off, uphill, to visit the Chateau.


Well, after my day of tourism and darling JP’s day of meetings, we met back at the hotel and prepared for an evening of elegance and gastronomic delight: a meal at L’Auberge du Père Bise. JP had thoughtfully, lovingly reserved a table at this Michelin-starred restaurant as soon as we began planning our trip, making sure that we would taste the delights of Sophie Bise, daughter of her famed Père. And delights, tremendous delights they were. This was easily one of the best meals I have ever eaten. Ever. Discreet luxury surrounded us, an attentive yet unobtrusive team waited on us, the food silently yet pleasurably placed before us, empty plates whisked away after a slight hesitation, nod of the head looking for a word of approval from us after each course.

(I must interject a small aside here before I begin sharing our meal and drooling over the memories of each taste, scent, the lovely vision of the lake at night: we left the hotel a tad bit early but really in good time to make our reservation. As this is most definitely a haut lieu gastronomique we wanted to be neither early – how gauche! – nor late – just plain rude! We began our drive and, knowing that the restaurant was only a few kilometers from the hotel, we began to sense that something was wrong when we had been driving for quite some time with absolutely no indication that we were approaching the town of Talloires. At JP’s request, I grabbed the map, not something I am happy doing in normal times, and realized with horror that we had started out in the wrong direction! We were driving the long way around the lake! All around the lake! Yipes! How long? We both panicked and, sweating, started searching for road signs, looking to see if we could perceive the end of the lake, but all we saw was water, water that seemed to go on forever! So, to make a long story short, it took us maybe an added half hour to drive all the way around the lake and we walked into the restaurant at exactly our reservation time. To the minute. And only slightly worse for the wear.)


Lulled by the muted atmosphere of the restaurant and the twinkling of the lights on the still, dark water of the lake, we began with a stunning “cake” of thin, stacked layers of smoked fish and foie gras served with the perfect tart Granny Smith apple jelly. Sublime! Blue lobster served atop tiny vegetable-filled cannelloni bathed in a wonderful carrot-infused cream sauce, a tender, peppery duck filet served aside its own kefta-inspired duck patty and crispy fried polenta, a selection of rhubarb and strawberry pastries and sorbets, a cheese course and finally, when we thought that nothing else could possibly come, the wonderful serveuse rolled over the magnificent dessert trolley. Wow! Everything was more than perfect, each dish filled with intense flavors playing off one another yet so perfectly balanced. It is truly difficult to describe and as some * ahem * refuse to allow me to carry a camera into any restaurant (escargot accepted), I have nothing to show you, only the link to their website to offer. Needless to say, this was the ideal, the perfect ending to a perfect week. Gastronomic delights, romance, fun and relaxation and we are refreshed and only waiting for that summer in Florida.

And Annecy had been forgiven….

My wonderful friend and fellow food writer Mardi of Eat. Live. Travel. Write. is hosting this month’s Hay Hay it’s Donna Day, a food blogging event started by my other good friend and cute person Denise of Chez Us in which one blogger chooses one recipe by Australian cookbook author Donna Hay (I have one issue of her magazine and my first Donna Hay cookbook Chocolate!) and the rest of us recreate the same recipe as we choose. Mardi chose a wonderful summer recipe, Blackberry Cheesecake Pots, highlighting my favorite of all berries, the blackberry. This cool and creamy dessert sounded perfect! Well, the recipe was so much like something that I had been craving lately and since Mardi is an especially good friend, I decided to play along.

Well, a couple of changes ensued… no blackberries to be found! At the best of times, blackberries are flown in from Holland, huge, plump and so deliciously sweet but way out of my usual price range. But it is still too early in the European fruit season. So I chose what is now in gorgeous, luscious abundance: gariguette strawberries. And as cream cheese cannot be found in Nantes (and I usually prefer a milder flavor anyway), I replaced the cream cheese in the original recipe with mascarpone. Perfect! And one more change? Three’s the charm, as they say! Instead of baking cookies to serve alongside the cheesecake pots, as Donna suggests, I baked a light, moist, flourless chocolaty sheet cake (which I normally make for my cake roll), cut out circles of the cake and created these individual desserts. Thanks Donna, Denise and especially Mardi for this fun event and wonderful dessert. Read all about how you can participate and see the recipe here.

The true test with anything I cook or bake is my darling JP. He scooped up a spoonful and tasted. And another. And another. He loved it! He thought it was so delicious, so perfect that it was worthy of a pastry chef. Ah, wonderful! I also found that leaving the dessert in the refrigerator 1 day and even 2 days before serving, it only got better: the cream thickened into more of a cheesecake texture yet thanks to this most perfect of cake recipes, the chocolate cake base did not get soggy at all! Rather the cake was now infused with a sweet hint of strawberry, which perfectly highlighted the bitter chocolate cake. The dessert was smooth, tender, creamy and just the perfect balance between sweet, chocolate and strawberry. Amazing!


The strawberry mascarpone cream can be served much more simply by spooning it into individual glasses and serving extra berries on the side. With your favorite cookie or biscotti on the side.

2 small asides, the latest updates:
If you enjoy my writing, my stories, I’d love to share with you my entry for the Independent/Bradt Travel Writing competition, “Return to Paris”, a white, icy, romantic tale of one day in Paris. And there is still time to vote! Simply click on the 5 stars below the story where it says “rate this entry”, register and click on the stars again. I would greatly appreciate your votes! Thank you!

And my latest article on Huffington Post Food is published: We are What We Eat: Putting the Cultural Back into the Global: finding the right balance of keeping our children at home culturally while letting them discover new worlds. Enjoy! And feel free to continue the debate by leaving your view and your experience as a comment after the article.


STRAWBERRY MASCARPONE CHEESECAKE
Wildly adapted by Jamie from a Donna Hay recipe

1 cup (250 g) mascarpone (can use cream cheese)
¼ cup (55 g) superfine sugar
1 tsp vanilla
¼ cup (60 ml) fresh heavy or double whipping cream (not ultra-pasteurized, long life cream)
½ - 1 cup (125 – 250 g) strawberries or your favorite berry
Chocolate Cloud Cake (recipe follows) or other cake base * (see below)


Chill a glass bowl and a set of beaters in the refrigerator for at least 15 minutes before beating the heavy cream. Put the heavy cream in the chilled bowl and, using the chilled beaters, whip the cream until it holds in soft peaks. Continue beating as you gradually add 1 tablespoon of the sugar. Beat until the cream is very thick and dense and holds stiff peaks.

In a separate bowl, beat the mascarpone with the remaining sugar and vanilla until light and creamy. Using a spatula, fold in the beaten cream until blended. Do not over-mix.

Crush about 2 oz (60 g) of the strawberries – about 10 or 12 medium – in a food processor. Crush them but do not liquefy. Gently fold them into the mascarpone mixture, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for several hours if possible. (I prepared these cheesecake desserts right away without pre-chilling the mixture).


With your ring molds, cut out circles of Chocolate Cloud Cake – about 5 medium, 6 small. Place the rings with the chocolate bases on a baking sheet or tray lined with parchment paper.

I flipped the cake over so the damper side was up.

Trim the top off of the remaining strawberries and slice each berry in half lengthwise. Cut sides out, line the rings all around with the strawberry halves, large end down, point upwards. Leave a tiny space between the berries for the cream to peep through.


Carefully place a heaping spoonful of the strawberry mascarpone cream in the center of the rings, inside the strawberries and with the back of the spoon press to fill, being careful that the strawberries stay in their places. Flatten the top of the cream. Once all the rings are filled, place a large piece of plastic wrap over the whole thing and refrigerate overnight. If you eat these the same day they are mighty delicious and meltingly good but after a day – and even 2 days – the cream sets and becomes denser, more like a cheesecake and the cake becomes infused with strawberry flavor. Gorgeous!


To serve, very carefully slide a wide, flat spatula under a ring, sliding it under the cake and lift onto a dessert plate. Dust the top with unsweetened cocoa powder and gently lift off the ring, lifting straight up. Serve immediately with extra strawberries. You can also crush the remaining berries with a little sugar and serve as a coulis.


CHOCOLATE CLOUD CAKE
From Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible

* For the Strawberry Mascarpone Dessert you can replace the Chocolate Cloud Cake with your favorite chocolate or vanilla sheet cake or genoise or even pre-baked sweet pastry crust or cookie, but personally I prefer a softer cake bottom than a crunchy pie crust or cookie as it is easier to eat and creates a uniform, elegant, tender and creamy dessert experience. And of course, I love the touch of chocolate this light yet densely moist cake brings to the strawberry cream.

1/3 cup (30 g) unsifted, unsweetened cocoa powder
¼ liquid cup (60 ml) boiling water
1 tsp vanilla
2 Tbs (30 g) unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
1/3 cup (35 g) finely ground toasted almonds
2/3 cup (130 g) sugar
6 large eggs, separated


Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Grease a 17 x 12” (@ 45 x 30 cm) jellyroll pan, line it with parchment or non-stick oven paper and grease again.

In a small bowl, stir together the cocoa powder with the boiling water until the cocoa is completely dissolved and smooth. Stir in the butter until it is melted and then the vanilla. Set aside to cool.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the 6 egg yolks with ½ cup (100 g) of the sugar and beat, using an electric mixer, for 5 minutes until light and fluffy. Add the chocolate mixture and the ground almonds and beat until incorporated and well blended, scraping down the sides as necessary.

In a separate, large, very clean bowl (preferably plastic or metal), beat the egg whites until soft peaks begin to form. Gradually, as you continue beating, add the rest of the sugar and beat until stiff peaks form. With a large whisk, slotted spoon or spatula, fold about 1/3 of the beaten whites into the chocolate mixture to lighten it before folding in the rest of the whites in 2 additions. Fold in the whites gently but until completely blended in. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly.

Bake in the preheated oven for 18 minutes. The cake will have puffed, faded in color and lost its shine and the surface will spring back when lightly touched. If in doubt, leave in the oven for an extra minute or two. Remove from the oven and slide the parchment off of the pan onto your work surface. Allow to cool completely before flipping over and cutting out your circles.


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