Monday, September 27, 2010

FROSTED SUGAR COOKIES

BLACK & WHITE


So many see the world in black and white, true and false, right and wrong. Maybe it is time to start thinking in shades of gray.

A very long time ago, out of college and working an utterly lousy job in New York City, I decided that it was time to pack my bags and head out. Tired of working for barely enough wages to pay a New York rent and the bills with nothing at all left over with which to enjoy the city, frustrated by the Reagan “Me Years” and the constant talk of money, money, money swirling around me, fed up by all of my wealthy classmates who could afford the interesting jobs that paid exactly zero dollars for the privilege of working at this gallery or that museum while those of us without the support of our parents had to settle for the less than interesting or simply low-paying jobs, angry by all of the social injustice I saw, and maybe even upset with myself for the string of bad career choices I had made, I knew that I had to find a new life. So I gave my month warning, quit my job, ripped up my rental contract, gave away as much of my furniture as I could, wrapped up bags of old clothing and dumped them on the sidewalk for whoever wanted to take them away, packed two suitcases, emptied my meager bank account and left. Ah, Paris awaited on the other side of the ocean, only the first leg of what has turned out to be a very long journey.


To many of my friends this appeared to be the ultimate in cool bohemian adventure, able to pick up and move on a whim, choose a new city, a new country, slip into a new life with ease and pleasure at will. Others, not so much. One conversation struck me so forcibly that it still lingers in my mind today: I remember a friend, upon learning that I was quitting my job in a New York art gallery, packing up my bags and leaving for Paris, declaring with a sigh “Ah, I wish I could leave everything behind and move to Paris….” and felt his thoughts “if only I didn’t have a serious job, a real job, responsibility and obligations” hanging in the air between us like some unspoken rebuke. The world as he saw it, in black and white.

A few years later, my young husband decided to change professions, leave behind one that was unsatisfying, unrewarding and often mind bogglingly crazy for another that he found more exciting and better suited to his character and to his dreams. One day, he came home from a dentist appointment and related how he had casually explained to the dentist that he was leaving his profession to start another and how the dentist actually turned on him, furiously screaming that it was impossible and irresponsible to change professions like that! My husband was stunned by the dentist’s absolute outrage! It was as if our ability to turn our back on society’s expectations of us and to grab at our dreams was a personal affront to him! That wistful voice from my past, my friend’s statement on the eve of my first trip to Paris, came back to join this other, angrier voice in a chorus of disapproval, of judgment! And we were found guilty! But guilty of what?


Both my husband and I have changed professions, jobs, homes, cities many times. Cool Bohemian adventure or irresponsible whim? Black or white or something in between? We often discuss the ways of life and what role we have to play in the scheme of things, our responsibility as adults, parents, citizens. Do we follow one path, choose a career, create a cozy, secure home, have children, never say die until the end of our days? We are surrounded by so many who think so, we live in a society, a culture that sets strict rules of behavior and expectations, yet there has always been something stronger at play from my first voyage to France and JP’s long ago choice to spend two years in Morocco in lieu of performing the traditional military service to our moves from country to country, city to city. People often ask me to tell them how I ended up in Paris, how I met my husband, and this is the rather simple story.

Maybe we have simply both been bitten by the same strain of wanderlust? But when the urge to move and change kicks in, maybe it is less out of a sense of adventure as it is a need. We seem, both of us, to be on a continuous search for ourselves, for a life that suits, a society that fulfills our wants and soothes our hunger for a better life. Maybe there is nothing wrong with defying expectations and bending the rules, refusing to buy the whole Black is Black ideology. Our sons have often vilified us, accusing us of “not being like the other parents!” Acquaintances often try and amuse us with understanding smiles, interested curiosity in this wanton life we have chosen, all the while treating us as children who know no better. But life is too short for misery or discontent. And life is too short to not go after one’s dreams. Why the heck not? Maybe rules are meant to be broken, or at least bent. Are we the Black Sheep of this otherwise White Society of people who surround us? Strangely enough, once I got involved with the fascinating world of food, first as a culinary tour guide and interpreter, now as a food blogger and writer, I see that we are not alone. The world is filled with people who choose to live their passions even if it is risky, people who change and evolve not with what is happening outside but responding to what is happening inside. I sound like a preacher, like I’m declaring only what is so obvious to so many, but life is full of so many interesting possibilities and, as they say, life is too short to stick to just one thing, to live by somebody else’s rules.


For now, we are content. I am undertaking what I hope will be an entirely new career, absolutely committed to having fun while pursuing a passion. We pat ourselves on the back and suppress a grin as we watch our sons embark on their voyage into adulthood in the most unlikely, unexpected ways, following their passions rather than following the crowd. All four of us have learned that life is not merely black and white, rather it is full of a rainbow of bright, intriguing colors.


The September 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Mandy of What the Fruitcake?! Mandy challenged everyone to make Decorated Sugar Cookies based on recipes from Peggy Porschen and The Joy of Baking. In real life I am as colorful as the rainbow yet I dress the world around me in black and white. And what goes better with vanilla than chocolate? Perfect, buttery sugar cookies frosted in pure white decorated with a luscious Rorschach of chocolate squiggles. Kind of like what it looks like inside of my head.


FROSTED SUGAR COOKIES IN BLACK & WHITE

½ cup + 6 Tbs (200 g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1 cup (200 g) sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 large egg, lightly beaten
3 cups + 3 Tbs (400 g) flour


In a large mixing bowl, cream together the butter, sugar and vanilla until smooth and creamy. Do not overbeat; incorporating too much air into the batter may lead to the dough spreading in the oven thus losing their shape.
Beat in the egg until combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Gradually sift the flour onto the butter/sugar mixture, beating it in on low speed. If you add it all at once it may fly out all over the counter. Scrape the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead lightly just until you have a smooth ball of dough.

Divide the dough into two or three even pieces. Gently sandwich each ball of dough between baking sheets of parchment paper until it is about 1/5- to 1/8-inch thick. Slide the parchment onto baking trays and refrigerate the sheets of dough for about 30 minutes.

Once chilled, peel off the top layer of parchment and use your favorite cookie cutters to cut out shapes of dough, carefully transferring the shapes to a baking or cookie sheet. Reroll dough scraps, roll out again and cut, using up all of the dough. Chill the trays of shapes for an additional 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).

Bake the cookies for 8 – 15 minutes, depending on the size and thickness of the cookies, until golden around the edges. If your oven bakes unevenly (as does mine) rotate the baking sheets halfway through the baking time. Remove from the oven, gently slide or lift off the baked cookies onto cooling racks and allow to cool completely before frosting.

The quantities given for both the white and the chocolate icings are good to frost all of the cookies. Feel free to cut either or both recipes in half.

WHITE ROYAL ICING

3 cups (375 g) Powdered/Icing/Confectioner’s Sugar, or more as needed
2 large fresh egg whites
2 tsps lemon juice
1 tsp either vanilla or almond extract, optional

Whisk the egg whites with the lemon juice just until foamy. Sift the powdered sugar over the egg whites and beat on low speed until smooth and creamy. Beat in the flavoring if using. Add more sugar if the frosting is too thin and runs. It should be spreadable.

CHOCOLATE ROYAL ICING

2 cups (125 g) Powdered/Icing/Confectioner’s Sugar, or more as needed
1/6 to ¼ cup (40 - 60 ml) boiling water
1 oz (30 g) unsweetened or very bittersweet chocolate (I used Lindt’s Dessert 99%)

Gradually add enough of the boiling water to the powdered sugar, stirring, until the mixture is thick but smooth and speradable. Chop up the chocolate and add it to the icing and stir (over very low heat if needed) until the chocolate is melted and the icing is smooth.


Friday, September 24, 2010

NECTARINE CRISP

EATING MY WORDS


I spend my days at the computer click-clacking across the keyboard, playing. You see, since I began my blog I have fallen in love with writing. Oh, I have always loved words, sentences, ideas, searching them out, chasing them, grabbing them as if they were butterflies and I was romping across fragrant, wind-tousled fields, butterfly net in hand. I have always been a great reader, spending most of my childhood, youth, adulthood curled up with a book. I love a great plot, fascinating characters, but not only. Mastery of language is a rare skill; making words dance in the reader’s head like music is a treasure rarely found. Many aspire to greatness, so few achieve it. But when they do, it is exceptional, stunning! Placing word after word, just the right ones in just the right order, is magic and I have read such stories that simply the words chosen, the ideas created, the mastery of the language has taken my breath away. I must close the book, lay it gently beside me, shut my eyes and catch my breath as I savor the beauty.


Yet I never wrote. Oh, don’t think that I didn’t try! Grade school reports, high school assignments, university creative writing classes, diary, stories, yes, I’ve tried. Many times. But it was always a chore. Should writing really be this difficult, I wondered? I didn’t think so. I saw others around me churn out poems and stories, letters and papers as easily and quickly as I can push soft mounds of dough off of a spoon onto a cookie sheet, creating something tender, warm and scrumptious or tart, crispy and intriguing. “Ah,” I decided, “it is obviously genetic!” and I thought that I had come to some grand truth! “One must be born with the talent, like my brother was born with the talent to draw or my sister to make straight A’s.” So be it. Yet something was churning inside of me, something aching to get out.

Yet that creative writing class was an eye-opener. Each assigned subject, each time limit was a laborious struggle, a mind-achingly stressful task. But once I closed my eyes, slid into the body of a character and was able to capture in black and white every movement, the feel of a breeze on my skin, the smoothness of velvet as it brushed against my cheek, the brash odor of cigarette smoke in a roomful of men in fedoras, the vibrations of jazz music as they shimmied up from the floor through my body, each time I could dig down into my soul and pull up the perfect words, create the perfect sentence to describe each sensation, each sound, each scent as I experienced it in my own private inner world, I felt something indescribably satisfying, a feeling palpable and luxurious, temporarily slaking the thirst pulsing through me. But sadly I imagined that this effort should be no effort at all, that I simply was not a born writer. So I stopped.

And then I began my blog. The day my husband finally conceded that food was the driving force in my life, that my obsession was not to be controlled by anyone or anything, I knew that I had finally found my inspiration, my purpose, my goal. And I sat down in front of our computer and, well, started writing. And I’ve never looked back.


Food may be my obsession but writing, as I soon discovered, is my passion. With meals as a starting point, I take off, swimming through a sea of smells and sounds and sensations, flying through a world of tastes and textures, butting up and bouncing off of memories and images. I sit in what has become my office, my work space, and plunge into my private universe of words, a clean, white page my playground, adjectives and verbs my toys, description the music that gets me moving. Coaxing out just the right description, the right word, the right mixture and balance as I line them up one after the other is like caressing a secret out of a friend, teasing a smile out of a sourpuss. The page gets splattered with a smattering of words, lists of them, then slowly, carefully, the words, fragments of sentences, bits and pieces of thoughts get moved around, pushed up and down the page, paragraphs erased and replaced with others, and on and so forth until the magic happens, until that EUREKA! moment and every single detail has fallen into place. It is a vibrant, active endeavor and it is not always easy. No, I have learned that this is indeed a task, a job, and I often feel like Jackson Pollack standing over a tremendous canvas splattering paint this way and that in a seemingly incoherent, random way when in fact it is a well-thought out on-going process that takes hours, days or even sometimes weeks while the work unfolds. No, not one part of the process can be rushed and there are entire days when I spend more time pacing the floors, tugging at my hair in frustration, fixing myself snacks, talking aloud to myself than actually writing. But when it works, when the words flow, when the process has been a success, the result is so utterly satisfying, so incredibly exhilarating that all the stress, frustration and work are not only worth the effort but completely forgotten. I may never achieve that greatness that I so admire, but I certainly do have fun trying.


And so, with Mr. Roget’s Thesaurus within easy reach, my small stack of dictionaries close at hand, I pull my chair up to the table, flip open the laptop and click onto a clean, white page.

It saddens me to watch as the end of the summer stone fruit season draws closer because this has been the most amazing season I have experienced in years! I buy crisp brown bags of peaches, nectarines and plums four at a time, going back a day or two later for more. Cherries are long gone and now each day that I slip off to the market I see the autumn fruit, the tumbles of grapes in translucent, pale green and deep bluish purple, nearly black, figs and early apples gradually taking over the space so recently reserved for the pyramids of summer’s favorites. I have used the fruit to make cobblers and crumbles, cakes and even savory dishes, and I am being as insistent as I possibly can in enjoying them until the last single, lonely crate of peaches, nectarines or plums gets carried away.


A wonderful dessert, this Nectarine Crisp is a perfect layer of summer’s sweet, tender fruit, nectarines or peaches, cooked down to be wrapped in her thick, rich syrup with just that perfect hint of Amaretto, blanketed by a cinnamon-kissed crispy, streusel-like topping laced with the crunch of slivered almonds. Serve it warm with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream or freshly, barely-sweetened whipped cream.

NECTARINE CRISP

8 just-ripe nectarines (or peaches)
2 Tbs Amaretto
¾ cup (90 g) flour
½ cup (110 g) packed light brown sugar
½ cup (110 g) packed dark brown sugar
½ to 1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground nutmeg
¼ tsp salt
½ cup (8 Tbs, 115 g) unsalted butter
½ cup slivered almonds

Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).

Gently peel the nectarines if you like. Cut each fruit in half and cut into chunks. Put the chunks of fruit in a 1-quart (1-litre) baking dish. Sprinkle on the Amaretto, toss and set aside while you prepare the topping.


Stir together the flour, two sugars, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt in a medium-sized bowl, breaking up any lumps. Cube the butter and toss the cubes in the dry ingredients to coat and separate. Then, using only your fingertips and working very quickly, rub the dry ingredients and the butter together until the mixture resembles damp sand and there are no more pieces of butter visible. Toss in the almonds until evenly distributed. Sprinkle this mixture thickly and evenly over the fruit in the baking dish all the way out to the edges.


Cover with a sheet of aluminum foil and bake for ½ hour then uncover and bake for an additional ½ hour. The top should be crisp – thus a “Crisp” – and the fruit syrup should be bubbling all around the edges.


Eat warm with ice cream or whipped cream. This is still wonderful with a crispy top for a day or two, even refrigerated.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

SWEET & SOUR CHICKEN WITH PEACHES

Every sweet has its sour; every evil its good.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson


Sweet and sour; delight in the sweetness, let the sour intrigue with its sassy bite, blend the two opposing forces into something so savory that it takes your breath away. Sweet as the air that shimmers with the golden glow of autumn as we turn the page of summer and settle down to a new chapter. The bright sun has that eerie, mysterious beauty that one only finds in autumn as it filters through the leaves and bounces off of the white stone of the prefecture standing majestically, grandiosely overlooking the square caddy corner to our apartment building. Laughter and delighted screams from the little school around the corner float through our open windows as we enjoy the gentle breeze as one season opens the door to the next, bowing gracefully, accompanying her in.


Sweet is the season, sweet as being with old friends, sweet as the flowers surrounding us on the lush, green lawn of the Parc du Grand Blottereau. Strolling among the plants with Isabelle and Dominque, JP and I snapped photos, admired the strange and unusual flowers, secreted out the culinary herbs, admired the abundance of cacti and palms. This was La Folie des Plantes, Plant Madness, or maybe Folly, as you like, the annual flower and plant extravaganza held in this, one of Nantes’ gorgeous botanic gardens. Sweet with the fragrance of all this beauty, alive and breathing the end of summer, vibrant with the sensation of autumn in the air.

Et voilà! We stumbled upon a huge Fouace Nantaise!

Savory is the magic performed by 9 delightful chefs. Two days sitting, watching, amazed, entranced as these great chefs strutted their stuff, slicing, dicing, mincing, sautéing, showing us endless possibilities for our own local products, peas and asparagus, cêpes and mâche, fish and seafood. Le Festival qui Cuisine la Cuisine: Les Goûts Uniques: and unique were the flavors of this wonderful gastronomic weekend which feted the art of cooking, the creation of dishes and pleasure. Michel Troisgros, Philippe Vételé, Eric Guérin, Vincent Guerlais, Pascal Favre d’Anne, William Ledeuil among others shared secrets and recipes, shared their passion and their jokes, and I walked away savoring every second, understanding just what makes these great chefs so absolutely grand.


Sour is as sour does and as summer crept into autumn and the warm air turned chill against my bare skin, the political scene turned sour and the French threaten to take to the streets, to turn the country on its head. Amid the sweetness of this season of festivities in Nantes, the jazz festival along the river blowing her sweet, sweet words through our window, luring us outside to savor the rhythm, while the art scene stirs into action around our lovely city, the pungent scent of strikes and marches looms on the horizon, hovering around the edges of this beautiful season, threatening to turn the sweetness sour and leave a bad taste in our mouths.


But this is the season to mix it all up. Take the sweetness of warm, summer days, the scent of flowers in the air, the taste of ripe fruit on your lips, lingering on your tongue and pair it with the tangy freshness, the zip of something sour and create a dish so savory, so intriguing, so exotic that you clean your plate and beg for more.


I adore the savory and the sweet in one bright, vibrant dish. I love pairing meat with fresh, seasonal fruit at the peak of sweetness. I searched high and low for the perfect savory recipe, the ideal marriage of sweet and sour in one intriguing dish. And I longed to cook with the fabulously sweet peaches we have had this year before the summer stone fruit season has ended. And I found a wonderful recipe in my brother’s much-loved The New American Cooking by Joan Nathan. I adapted it, teased it to fit with what was in my cupboard and threw in the peaches to bring a dash of summer to this rich, warming dish. Sweet & Sour Chicken with Peaches was the ideal recipe with which to finally use the wonderful bottle of Pomegranate Molasses given to me by Beth of Dirty Kitchen Secrets and the saffron threads from my sister Deeba of Passionate About Baking. Thanks, ladies, for these fabulous, exotic gifts! The peaches are optional here: this dish is fantastic with no added fruit at all, or I think that either pomegranate seeds, raisins or even grapes would be divine!


The chicken tumbles off of the bone, tender and moist, filled with the wonderful flavors of far-off lands. The peaches melt on the tongue while the almonds add the perfect, necessary crunch. The sweet and sour mingle, play off of one another and create an incredible savory sensation of Middle Eastern flavors, vibrant and colorful, making for one of the best dishes we have ever eaten.

SWEET & SOUR CHICKEN WITH PEACHES

1 chicken, cut into pieces (I used 2 thick breast filets, 2 thighs, 2 legs) or equivalent in your preferred pieces
1 medium onion, chopped
¼ cup (60 – 65 ml) pomegranate molasses, syrup or concentrate
2 Tbs prepared ketchup
1 Tbs freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/3 cup (65 g) sugar
1 tsp salt
Pinch saffron threads
½ cup whole, blanched almonds or walnut pieces, coarsely chopped
3 cups (750 ml) water
4 ripe peaches, peeled, each cut in half then each half into 3 or 4 thick slices.
Olive oil for browning and sautéing

Heat a couple of glugs of olive oil in a large heavy pot or Dutch oven with a lid (less if your chicken is fatty). Rinse and pat dry the chicken pieces and then brown lightly on all sides in the hot oil. Remove the browned pieces to a plate.

While the chicken pieces are browning, combine the pomegranate molasses/syrup/concentrate, the ketchup, the lemon juice, the sugar, salt and a pinch of saffron threads.


In the same oil (the chicken may have released enough fat to fry the onion in, but if not add a tablespoon or so more olive oil if needed), sauté the chopped onion until golden. Return the chicken pieces to the pot with the onion, add the mixed ingredients and the coarsely chopped almonds and add enough of the water to just cover the chicken. Stir, bring just to a boil, lower the heat to low and cover the pot loosely, allowing just a crack to allow steam to escape so the juices can thicken. Allow to simmer for one hour. Check the level of the liquid every now and then. It should be thickening but don’t let all of it evaporate. Add water as needed, if needed. I did not.

About halfway through the cooking time, add the thick peach slices, stirring them into the sauce very gently so as not to break them.


Serve over Iranian or Basmati rice.


Saturday, September 18, 2010

COTTON CANDY MACARONS

SIMPLE SUMMER PLEASURES


I must have been about 8 years old and it must have been a typical steamy Florida summer evening. Dad thought to treat us kids to something special – he always did – and this time it was a trip over to some shopping center or gas station parking lot to take a trip down the huge slide. You remember those things? Three story or so tall monster slides where one would grab a burlap sack, climb about a million steps up to the top, sit on the sack and slide down, up and down, up and down over metal waves like some futuristic ocean until one reached the bottom? Well, I was hesitant to begin with, not really liking high places, not really trusting unexpected things. I had scary 8-year-old visions of my burlap sack flying out of control, slithering this way and that on the sleek aluminum of the slide, heading down faster and faster until I crash-landed in a lump at the bottom, unconscious, at my dad’s feet. Someone handed me one of those scratchy mats and pushed me towards the steps. Up and up and up I climbed following along behind my sister and brother, trying to work up the courage, convince myself that it was all okay, that it would even be fun. I finally made my way to the top landing and watched as my siblings gleefully slid away into the distance. I grabbed hold of the railing as someone called to me, told me that it was my turn and gently tried to steer me towards the slide. I saw my father tiny as an ant smiling up at me from the parking lot. He seemed miles and miles away. I shook my head and turned back towards the steps and, pushing my way down the narrow, narrow stairway wide enough for one, I worked my way down, clutching the hated burlap bag close to my chest, holding on to the railing for dear life and trying not to cry. My dad took me into his arms and assured me that it was okay, and we left.


My childhood was filled with special moments like this one – although not all of them flavored with my unpredictable, irrational fears. My youth was far from pampered and luxurious, but my father loved to fill our weekends with kid-sized fun. Winters would mean trips over the bridge to the Indian River Orange Groves where we could pick bagfuls to bring home. Februaries found us knee-deep in strawberry plants at U-Pick-Em, tiny hands filling little wooden boxes and tummies with ripe, sweet, juicy fruit. Summers found us piled into the old green station wagon, dad behind the wheel, off to spend a Saturday in the deep end of the high school swimming pool or a Saturday night at the drive-in, dressed in our pajamas and eating popcorn watching The Love Bug, The Ugly Dachshund or The Absent-minded Professor. He took us for ice cream treats at Dairy Queen, seafood dinners at Peg Leg’s or The Lobster Shanty, to the park for picnics on the 4th of July, sparklers in hand. We squished into the car, the 4 kids and him, and visited St. Augustine and her fort, walking up on the ramparts, drinking from the famous Fountain of Youth and getting to pick out one souvenir from the gift shop each (plastic, bejeweled swords!) or over to the Antique Car Museum and The Barnum & Bailey’s Circus Hall of Fame in Sarasota. And all those trips to Disney World after it opened. We were teens by then, but those family trips were the most special, days dashing from ride to ride, eating to our hearts content, and always leaving with a souvenir, those Mickey ear caps, boxes of candy or a lollipop, a huge swirl of colors, or even something with our name engraved or painted on the side. And he drove us down to visit his brother in Miami Beach! Lunches at Wolfie’s deli, afternoons dodging in and out of the towering palm trees that lined the street in front of Uncle Eli’s house, always coming home with our prize: a magnificent coconut that we would then spend hours tossing down the driveway and hammering at with a screwdriver until it finally gave way to our efforts, cracked open and offered us her sweet, sweet meat.


Summer is waning, the warm air turns chill and the sun now has that special glow of my long-ago Florida winters, dazzlingly bright, tinged with nostalgia. As Autumn arrives amidst a shower of golden leaves, Mactweets has asked us to turn back the pages of time and conjure up the best memory of our childhood summers. The freedom of my youth spent outside in the heat, biking, hopscotch, shooting baskets, the grill fired up and ready for the hot dogs and hamburgers to be tossed onto the flames or dad in the kitchen making his amazing foot-long submarine sandwiches or waiting for the butter to start to sizzle on the pancake griddle, this was my childhood summer, filled with road trips and good food, sweets and dad’s homebaked cakes. He denied us nothing, was thrilled to watch us discover the joys of everything.


So for this month’s Childhood Summer Memory Mac Attack challenge, I have made Cotton Candy Macarons filled with creamy chocolate ganache. What says a kid’s summer more than Cotton Candy, Candy Floss, Barbe à Papa: huge feathery light pom poms of fluffy sugary sweet silk? Take a huge mouthful and let it melt on your tongue all bubble-gum sweet, the floss sticking in your hair, onto your face and all over your hands. I still get excited when I see a Cotton candy stand and beg for a pale pink cloud on a stick to eat, of course, as I stroll through a street fair, a festival or a circus. And chocolate? Ah, the best summer memories I have are bottled up in icy cold Yoohoos as they clunk down from the depths of the soda machine and out the slot into my waiting, eager hand, cooling down a hot, miserable day of grade-school summer rec or a bowl of dad’s chilled chocolate pudding topped with whipped cream just waiting for me to pull it out of the fridge.


COTTON CANDY MACARONS
filled with Heavenly Chocolate Ganache is a play on my usual macaron recipe:


7.2 oz (200 g) confectioner’s/powdered sugar
4 oz (115 g ) ground blanched almonds
3 large egg whites (about 3.8 – 4 oz/ 110 – 112 g)
1 oz (30 g) granulated sugar *
1/8 tsp pink gel food coloring (the Cotton Candy sugar adds pink coloring too)

* I replaced all of the granulated sugar with granulated pink Cotton Candy-flavored sugar

Prepare 2 large baking sheets. On 2 large pieces of white paper the size of your baking sheets, trace 1 ½ inch-diameter circles (I used the wide end of my pastry tip) evenly spaced, leaving about ¾ - 1 inch between each circle. This will be your template to help you pipe even circles of batter onto the parchment paper. You will be able to reuse these endlessly. Place one paper on each baking sheet then cover with parchment paper. Set aside. Prepare a pastry bag with a plain tip (Ateco #807 or #809).

Sift the powdered sugar and the ground almonds together into a large mixing bowl.

In a standing mixer or with a hand mixer, whip the egg whites for 30 seconds on low speed then increase speed to high and whip until the whites are foamy and opaque. Gradually add the granulated sugar as you are whipping the whites until you obtain a stiff glossy meringue.

Gently but firmly, using a plastic or silicone spatula, fold the whipped whites into the powdered sugar/ground almonds mixture, turning the bowl as you lift and fold, scraping up the dry hidden at the bottom, making sure you fold in all the dry ingredients completely. If adding gel food coloring, add it in as you begin to fold the whites in with the dry. Once all of the dry ingredients are moistened, give several good, firm folds to smooth out the batter. When the batter is ready to pipe, it should flow from the spatula like lava or a thick ribbon. To test to see if you have folded it enough, drop a small amount onto a clean plate and jiggle it slightly. The top should flatten, not remain in a point. If it doesn’t flatten, give the batter a few more folds and test again, but do not overfold or the batter will be too runny.

Fill your prepared pastry bag with the batter. Pipe circles onto the parchment paper, using the traced circles on the template sheets to guide you, holding your pastry bag above each circle and piping into the center. DO NOT FORGET TO CAREFULLY REMOVE THE WHITE PAPER TEMPLATE FROM UNDERNEATH THE PARCHMENT PAPER. YOU DO NOT WANT THIS TEMPLATE TO GO IN THE OVEN!


Preheat your oven to 280°F (140°C).


Allow the macarons to sit out for 30 minutes to an hour. The top of each shell should form a “skin” (it will feel like it hardened a bit when gently touched). Bake the shells for 15 – 20 minutes, depending on their size (when I touched macs that were not quite done, the top jiggled a bit as if there was still a bit of liquid batter between the top and the “feet” so I let it continue to bake another minute.) I turn the trays back to front halfway through the baking.

Remove the tray from the oven and immediately slide the parchment paper with the shells off of the hot baking sheet and onto a surface, table or countertop. Allow to cool before sliding the shells very gently off of the parchment by slipping a cake spatula under the shell as you lift it up or by peeling off the parchment paper carefully from the backs of the shells. Be careful or the center of the shell risks sticking to the parchment.

Prepare your filling as your macaron shells cool.

HEAVENLY CHOCOLATE GANACHE

4 oz (120 g) chocolate, flavor of your choice, finely chopped
½ cup (125 ml) heavy cream
1 tsp unsalted butter

Place the finely chopped chocolate in a heatproof medium-sized bowl. Bring the cream and the butter just to the boil in a small saucepan over medium heat. When it comes to the bowl, pour the liquid over the chocolate and allow it to stand for 2 or 3 minutes. Stir until smooth and continue to stir until creamy and thick. Allow to cool to room temperature and piping consistency. If you need to (as I did) place the bowl in the fridge until the desired consistency is reached, taking the bowl out of the fridge and stirring every few minutes to check.


I sandwiched a stick into each macaron to be more like cotton candy.


Monday, September 13, 2010

PLUM BRIOCHE CAKE

ROMANTIC INTERLUDE


Still in my mind
At the end of the day

And soft on my shoulder

Where your head gently lays

Still with me now when I think
How I loved you so

And never through changes

Other people must go

Now people may change

Changes may come

There’s so many changes but I, I, I, I


I love you still

Now I ll, I ll, I ll, I ll, I ll, I ll

I love you still

I lala lala lala
I always will


If they dried up the oceans

And they blot out the sun

And the world
was torn into pieces
I know that we`d stay as one

- Willy DeVille

23 years together. Our son rolls his eyes and makes farting noises whenever JP and I go all romantic and start talking about love, but so be it. One day he’ll understand. We celebrated 23 years of marriage, 23 years of being together, this summer and what a ride it has been. Not always easy, sometimes downright bumpy, more like a rollercoaster ride, truth be told, a ride often leaving us breathless, hearts pounding, amazed that we have survived the ups and the downs, survived every thrilling spin, every crazy loop-de-loop, every dizzying drop when the earth is pulled out from under our feet, each summit of utter bliss when we feel like we can see forever. We’ve experienced births and deaths, attended weddings and funerals, seen wonders and marvels, the hackneyed the commonplace and the downright boring. But we are together still and getting loonier, sillier and more romantic as the years fly by. We’ve created a world for two where we are King and Queen, surrounded by our little princes, an island paradise of warm breezes and sunny skies, of good food and good books, and here we are still, rather pleased to be stuck together on this island of calm in the often rough sea of life.


Friday evening we decided to have dinner at our favorite pizzeria. Once we had reserved our table, we found ourselves with enough time to swing by the fête foraine, the carnival, just up the street. Hand in hand, we strolled through, dodging children, listening in on conversations, watching the teens standing below the most daredevil of rides and screaming up at their friends who had the guts to strap themselves aboard and get themselves flung up into the air. We breathed in the wonderful carnival odors of hot popcorn, sizzling sausages and sweet cotton candy, the colors and lights and sounds making us feel like kids again. I begged JP to win a stuffed animal for me never believing that he would actually play along, but play along he did. Much to my utter surprise, he walked straight up to one stand, handed over a five-euro bill and grabbed a bow – five arrows, three in the bull’s eye and he’d win a stuffed animal! Well, no need to say that I walked away empty handed, but thrilled and laughing that he actually hit the bull’s eye once and the red ring just outside it twice. That’s my guy! Hadn’t picked up a bow and arrow for years and years! Yet caught up in the moment, he gleefully played the gallant and we walked away giggling like giddy teens.


Sunday morning we were two little piggies who went to market, basket on his arm, and picked up what he needed to whip together a succulent beef and mushroom stew and freshly-shelled white beans with garlic and parsley. I love a man in an apron and mine stood at the stove all morning, chopping, stirring, simmering. A chilled bottle of Quincy completed the lunch and, satisfied and happy, we lazed around the rest of the day watching tv and catching up on this and that, all the little things we do on weekends. Three future architects in front of three computer screens spent all weekend hard at work down in the last bedroom, at least two of whom gleefully accepted macarons (the third grudgingly) and slices of plum cake, glad to help out this baker with too many home-baked goodies on her hands and not enough hungry mouths.


Autumn is here and the market stalls are overflowing with gorgeous, fragrant plums: mirabelles and Reine Claudes (greengages), quetshes (damson, prune plum) and the tinier prune d’ente, a lovely pale red oval plum. The peaches and nectarines are still sweet and juicy, but the plums have been calling my name, begging for attention, practically throwing themselves in my path, crawling their way towards my basket, just waiting to be baked in a pie. Since my man prefers his sweets with breakfast, dunked in a hot cup of coffee, or in the afternoon with a cold glass of milk, and since my man prefers something just a tad less sugary allowing for the flavor, the sweetness of the fruit to shine through, I came up with this Plum Cake. Somewhere between a cake and a brioche, the yeast base is barely sweet, delicate and light as air, the perfect foil to highlight this wonderful fruit. As light as it is, this cake, whether prepared thick and tall using a whole recipe of dough or thin, using half a recipe, it is most definitely better eaten warm out of the oven while still fresh. And although some found it a tad dry the second day, I still thought it was perfect! So did the three young men. And we gobbled it up. And begged for more.


I am sending this over to be Yeastspotted by Susan of Wild Yeast, the Queen of all things yeast!


PLUM BRIOCHE CAKE
Gâteau de Quetsches

2 Tbs warm milk
0.21 oz - about 2 ¼ tsp (6 g) active dry yeast
2 Tbs (30 g) granulated sugar
2 cups (250 g) flour + more for kneading
1 tsp salt
7 Tbs (100 g) unsalted butter very, very soft
3 large eggs
½ tsp vanilla
14 oz (400 g) quetsches (oval purple plums)
1 tsp vanilla sugar
1 egg, beaten, for egg wash

Warm the milk for 5 to 10 seconds in the microwave. Pour the warm milk over the active dry yeast and ½ teaspoon of the sugar, which have been put together into a small bowl. Allow to proof, about 15 minutes, until there is a fairly thick head of foam.

Place the flour, the rest of the sugar and the salt in a large mixing bowl; stir to blend. Add the soft butter in cubes. When the yeast is proofed, pour it over the flour/butter in the bowl. Whisk the eggs until blended, add the vanilla and add this to the mixing bowl. Using a wooden spoon, fold the wet ingredients into the dry until all of the dry has been moistened and then begin to stir vigorously until all of the butter has been well blended into the batter and no large chunks remain. You will have a very thick, very wet batter-like dough.


Generously flour a work surface and scrape the dough out onto the surface. With the help of a dough scraper, begin folding and kneading the dough, adding more flour as you work and scraping up the dough off of the table, and knead until you have a soft, silky smooth homogenous dough, adding only enough flour as needed to hold it together into a smooth dough. Knead for 6 to 10 minutes. All of the butter will have been incorporated.


Lightly grease a clean, medium-sized mixing bowl. Place the ball of dough in the bowl, turning to coat with the grease. Cover the bowl with a sheet of plastic wrap and then a clean kitchen towel and leave to rise at room temperature for 1 hour. It will almost be doubled.


Remove from the bowl and wrap in plastic wrap (allowing enough plastic for the dough to rise and not burst out of the seams of the wrap!) and allow to rest and continue to rise in the refrigerator for 1 more hour.

Meanwhile, wash and dry the plums. Slice each plum in half lengthwise, remove and discard the pits and place the halves in a bowl. Toss with 1 teaspoon of vanilla sugar. Toss the plums occasionally while waiting for the dough; this will toss and coat the fruit in the melted vanilla sugar.

Butter the bottom and sides of a regular 10-inch (26-cm) pie plate.

After one hour, remove the dough from the fridge, take out of the plastic and place on a floured work surface. If you want a thinner brioche layer simply cut into two even pieces, wrap up one half and store in the refrigerator (to use within a day or two) or the freezer. Roll out the dough into a circle just slightly larger than the circumference of your pie plate. Gently lift the dough and place it in the buttered pie plate and pat it out evenly, pressing up a slight edge all around the outside. Brush the entire surface and edges with the beaten egg. Place plum halves, cut side up, in a rosace design all around to cover the surface of the dough, snuggling them closely together, leaving the edge free. Once they are all well placed on the dough, gently press the plums down into the dough a bit. Cover the cake loosely with plastic wrap and allow the dough to rise yet again for another hour.

Before last rising (full recipe dough)

After rise (full recipe dough) and ready to be baked

At the end of the hour, preheat the oven to 410°F (210°C). Remove the plastic wrap and bake the plum cake for 25 – 30 minutes if using only half of the dough, 30 – 40 minutes if using all of the dough. Keep careful watch and remove when the cake is puffed up and the dough around the edge and between the plums is a deep golden brown and the bottom of the cake is golden evenly across.


It is better to slightly undercook this cake rather than risk overbaking – it is a very light dough, less moist and dense than a brioche, so there is always the risking of drying out if overbaked.


This is a wonderfully light, delicate cake topped with sweet, tangy plums, perfect for a snack, breakfast or brunch. Best served warm although it is also great the next day for breakfast with coffee or tea, milk or yogurt.

Thick cake with full recipe dough

Thin cake with half of the ball of dough

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