Monday, December 27, 2010

BLUEBERRY-HIBISCUS PANNA COTTA with Blueberry Chocolate Macarons

‘TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE…


We pushed our way through the mad rush at the market, having hoped to avoid the Christmas Eve crowds by arriving early enough, but it seemed like half of Nantes was packed into the limited space, crawling up and down the alleys and lining up at each and every stall, only the best, most holiday-spirited of them not going all Scrooge on us and each other. My son trailed after me, having had enough of Christmas goodwill to drag himself out of bed and accompany me, making suggestions in his own 22-year-old style: slight sneer, rolling eyes in disbelief that his old mom and resident food blogger did not have the wherewithal to decide on a menu by herself. Phone stuck to the side of his head, hair elegantly brushed up, pearl gray scarf knotted at his neck and tucked into his designer jacket, looking for all the world like the chic young man about town and budding businessman that he is, growling out his suggestions as if each one was as obvious as the next, he followed me ten paces behind until we met up at the fish counter: smoked salmon, only the best, the price of gold ingots, and lovely little smoked haddock blinis, luxurious. Further down, we queued at the “fat lady’s” stand, as we so rudely yet lovingly refer to our favorite fishmonger, keeper of all things wonderful: oysters, mussels, crabs and lobster, and we snapped up a dozen plump, shimmering sea scallops amid the noise and bustle around us, closing in. We made sure that a chilled bottle of white fruity wine, the perfect partner for seafood, was nestled cozily deep in our basket and then fresh linguine at the Italian stand with a thick, creamy slice of gorgonzola, a swing by our fruit stand for a crisp paper bagful of sweet clementines and it was all we needed for our festive menu à trois. Popping into the warmth of our favorite boulangerie, breathing in the fragrance of a thousand warm-from-the-oven loaves and one round, dense, crusty pain bûcheron perched on the top of our provisions and we headed back out into the cold and home again. Even the lack of snow, the White Christmas I had been praying for, could not crush my holiday spirit. As I glanced up at the pewter sky, squinting against the misty drizzle, I smiled to myself, excited that this would turn out to be a wonderful day, a magical joyous weekend after all.


Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse on this beautiful inky black Christmas Eve. Clem and I bustled around the house, setting a glamorous table as is rarely seen chez nous, laying out platters of glistening olives and tiny marinated baby artichokes alongside the tray of smooth, smoky salmon and lining up the gaily-wrapped gifts on the mantel as we waited for JP to arrive home from work. Excitement filled the air as we glanced out into the quiet night, watching for his familiar stride. Our evening would be spent en famille, only Simon missing and missed, as we enjoyed a wonderful meal of Sea Scallops with Champagne Cream Sauce served over fresh pasta after the plates from our first course had been cleared away. After the meal, we adjourned to the livingroom with the last of the wine and exchanged gifts, many gifts, mostly thanks to Clem who, in the satisfied and happy glow of having finally received the new computer that he had been campaigning for for months, broke the bank and splurged on a mountain of gifts for his old folks. We settled in for the evening, sated and content, awash in the true pleasure that a happy family can give, pouring another glass of wine, passing around the sachets of chocolate-covered candied fruit and marrons glacés. No television was needed to pass the time as we chatted, flipped through our new books, admired all that we had received and listened as Clem talked about his around the world trip being planned for next summer, Marty digging happily through the gift wrap and ribbons at our feet.


The following day, Christmas day, the city slept on and on, nothing open, no sign of life in the streets below, silence hanging heavy under skies dawning cold, bright and clear. After a lazy morning in bed, our well-deserved and welcome grasse matinée, we hung around the house enjoying the calm. JP prepared me a lunch fit for a Roi Mage, a king, a magnificent Farfalle al Salmone, using up the last of the smoked salmon, some white mushrooms, garlic and cream he found to make this fabulous pasta dish, and we enjoyed yet another great meal. A stroll through Nantes left us in a funk, sad that the city wasn’t alive and noisy, festive and full of color and music. The only thing open was the cinema so we ducked inside, found a movie we had both wanted to see and ended the afternoon satisfied. We returned home in good moods all around to another cozy evening inside.

We tiptoe towards a new year (always just a little nervous about what may be in store for us) and this week between Christmas and New Year is the time most of us take a wistful look back, counting our blessings, adding up all the good things that have happened, analyzing the less than savory “incidents” that may have befallen us, the sad lined up next to the good like Santa’s list of Naughty and Nice. We think of the friends we have made and the loved ones we have lost, the many doors to adventure and opportunity that have been opened as well as what has passed us by, quite often due to our own reticence in reaching out and turning the doorknob ourselves. 2010 has been an exciting, albeit sometimes bumpy ride for us and, all in all, we end the year with a bang, a shower of glitter and tinsel, a veritable fireworks display! We haven’t had the white Christmas that I have been dreaming of, but the holiday weekend was filled with love and laughter and Santa brought me the gifts any girl would be thrilled with. And I smile as I think of the real gifts I have received, the happy marriage, the sons turning into bright, smart, productive young men, and the best, most truest friends I could have ever hoped for. I look towards the new year, 2011, with hope and excitement, projects galore and the wish of reward for passion and hard work, with hopefully a bit of adventure thrown into the bargain as well.


And we finish off the holiday celebrations with a wonderful dessert duo, a velvety smooth, luxuriously creamy, delicately and surprisingly-flavored Panna Cotta made using delicious, fragrant blueberry-hibiscus sugar, paired with chewy, flavorful macarons, a perfect match of cocoa and more blueberry-hibiscus sugar, filled with a rich ganache made from Blueberry Dark Chocolate, one of Lindt’s new fabulous array of flavored chocolates. As I sit back and dip my spoon into the Panna Cotta, take a bite out of a macaron, I wish you all a fabulous and happy holiday season and wonder what each of you will wish for in the year to come.


BLUEBERRY HIBISCUS PANNA COTTA



3 cups (750 ml) heavy cream, or a combination of heavy cream, light cream/half-and-half and/or whole milk
2 tsps (1/4 ounce, about 8 g) unflavored powdered gelatin
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup (50 g) white granulated sugar
¼ cup (50g) blueberry-hibiscus sugar or other flavored sugar

In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, place 1 cup (250 ml) of the cream mixture and sprinkle the gelatin on top. Allow to sit for 5 minutes to soften the gelatin. Turn on heat to low and allow to slowly heat and cook for a couple of minutes until the gelatin dissolves completely, whisking gently. The gelatin, until dissolved, will be golden shimmering splotches on the surface of the white cream. When the gelatin is dissolved these splotches will disappear.

Add the remaining cream mixture and the sugars to the warm cream and gelatin in the saucepan and continue to heat gently, just until sugar dissolves; add vanilla. This should take a few minutes. Allow to heat thoroughly.

Carefully pour the mixture into glasses or small bowls (using either a soup ladle or, better yet, pour the cream into a heatproof measuring glass and pour) and chill for at least 6 hours, preferably overnight.


BLUBERRY CHOCOLATE MACARONS


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) white granulated sugar or half sugar + half blueberry-hibiscus sugar *
1 Tbs + 1 tsp (20 g) unsweetened cocoa powder

* I sifted my blueberry-hibiscus sugar in order to eliminate the solid bits so I ended up with only sugar. Then blend it with the white granulated sugar. Use any flavored sugar you like.

Prepare 2 large baking sheets. On 2 large pieces of white paper the size of your baking sheets, trace 1 – 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.

Sift the powdered sugar, the ground almonds and the cocoa powder together into a large mixing bowl. Set aside.

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. Gradually add the granulated sugars, both white and blueberry, as you continue to whip the whites until you obtain a glossy meringue and all of the sugar has been beaten in. The meringue will be very stiff (turn the bowl upside down over your head and they shouldn’t move) and be dense like marshmallow.

Gently but firmly fold the whipped whites into the powdered sugar/ground almonds/cocoa, using a silicon spatula or the equivalent, turning the bowl as you lift and fold, making sure you fold in all the dry ingredients completely. 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. You can also fold the powdered mixture into the meringue if it is easier for you.

Fill your 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 45 minutes to an hour. The top of each shell should form a “skin” (it will feel like it hardened a bit when gently touched and not stick to your skin). Bake the shells for 15 – 25 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 completely before sliding the shells very gently off of the parchment by slipping a metal cake spatula under the shell as you lift it up or by peeling the parchment paper from the back of the shells. Be careful or the center of the shell risks sticking to the parchment.


When the macaron shells are cool, pair the shells up evenly, each with a partner. Pipe a dollop, about a teaspoon, of ganache filling onto half of the shells, the bottom shell in each pair. Carefully sandwich the shells together.


BLUEBERRY CHOCOLATE GANACHE

½ cup (125 ml) heavy cream
4 ¼ oz (120 g) Lindt Excellence 70% Blueberry Dark Chocolate

Chop the chocolate and put in an appropriately-sized pyrex (heatproof) bowl. Heat the cream in a saucepan gently until it comes just to the boil. Pour the cream over the chopped chocolate and stir until all of the chocolate is completely melted and the mixture is smooth and luxurious. Allow to cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally. It should thicken to a spreading/piping consistency. If you need to, speed up the process by placing in the refrigerator until desired spreading/piping consistency, stirring occasionally.

Friday, December 24, 2010

MERRY CHRISTMAS STOLLEN

NAUGHTY OR NICE?


The snow has finally arrived, albeit in fits and bursts, bringing with her a true feeling of Christmas. The wind whistles and howls outside as the snow whips around in the wind, lighting up the square below and adding a festive luster to the treetops, while inside we sit cozy and warm. Like wide-eyed children on Christmas morning, we stare through the panes into the velvet night as the heavy plops of white thud against the glass and settle onto the inky black iron curlicues of the balcony railing for the night. The lamplight shimmers in the glistening snow blanketing the roofs of the cars and we snuggle up a little closer and whisper our prayers that it will last through the holidays.


One last day of shopping before Christmas and the gifts are all bought, piled up in secret places around the apartment. My baking has taken a festive turn and Stollen and cookies of all sorts have been tumbling out of the oven and lining themselves up prettily on the kitchen table. We’ve stocked the pantry with all kinds of simple, warming foods, enough to see us through the wintry weekend. My favorite Christmas films are stacked up on the coffee table, the old and the new, the real and the animated, each begging to be watched first, promising to fill our house with holiday music, laughter and good cheer!

Tomorrow morning, we will wend our way to the market, bundled up in heavy coats, arms wrapped close around ourselves to ward off the blustery wind and the tat tat tat of wet flakes stinging our cheeks. We’ll push our way through the Christmas Eve crowds and fill our basket with oysters and a slice or two of foie gras, and maybe, just maybe, he will make a wonderful seafood choucroute for two. I’m rather a sentimental old soul, and as I step out into the flurries and chill, memories of Christmases past whirl up like a snowstorm in my mind and visions of icy white nights in Milan pulling smoky chestnuts out of paper cones, warming our hands, and popping them one by one into our mouths, excited little boys dashing up to greet le Père Noël who magically appears laden with gifts at their grandparents’ house, arriving late Christmas Eve to a balmy Florida town and being driven around up and down every street just to ogle the gaudy, outrageous Christmas decorations and the romantic luminaries all aglow, hands clapping and faces brimming over with delight, all intermingle in one glorious dance! But nostalgia is not far behind and I remember the most amazing of gifts arriving from Uncle Michael, chosen special for each of the boys, a silly drawing, his own self-portrait scrawled across the card in guise of a signature, and personalized e-cards arriving in our e-mailboxes on Christmas morning, singing and dancing us awake, making us howl with laughter. My smile hides my sadness and I chatter on tirelessly to create an atmosphere of mirth while I am crying inside knowing that no more phone calls, no more gifts or cards, no more old black & white movies arriving by post to cheer up another Christmas season will be mine for the asking, no more brother to call, no more phone ringing on a holiday afternoon only to hear his cheerful Helloooo on the other end of the line, no more gossipy silly supportive chats, my big brother and I, whenever the need or the desire rush over me. I miss him.


Yet the sadness is tempered with joy as we bustle around the house preparing for the festivities. No, I do not celebrate Christmas, but this year the pleasure is for JP. He called me up a couple of weeks ago in the middle of his workday and declared that maybe this year, this Christmas, we should exchange gifts. Which, of course, also means a special dinner. So as the last day of shopping and preparations begins, as the sun just begins to peek over the rooftops, as the day dawns not so much clear and bright as steely gray and hauntingly mysterious and smelling of snow, I make my market list, place the last of my gifts on the mantelpiece and pour myself another cup of coffee to accompany yet another slice of Stollen.


I wonder if I shall be considered naughty or nice? I suspect that this old elf ain’t the only one who has been buying presents, and joy and merriment fill the house from end to end. December’s Daring Bakers’ Challenge was hosted by Penny of Sweet Sadie’s Baking and she chose to challenge Daring Bakers’ to make Stollen. She adapted a friend’s family recipe and combined it with information from friends, techniques from Peter Reinhart’s book.........and Martha Stewart’s demonstration. Now, as many of you know, I made Stollen last year, a recipe quite unlike the one Penny has offered us. Last year’s was cake-like and, truth be told, not one of us was enchanted with either the texture or the flavor. It had, sadly, an unhappy ending. The Daring Bakers’ Stollen had me jumping for joy as it was a yeast recipe as well as an allure of something much more bread-like. I loved it before I even began. I followed the directions to a tee, yet I did alter the flavors to suit our taste more: no candied fruit, the bane of our gastronomic existence, adding a cupful of fabulous, tangy, fruity dried cranberries along with the citrus zests and the slivered almonds instead. I added a few tablespoons of ground almonds to the batter, soaked the cranberries in rum and added only vanilla extract. I sprinkled several tablespoons of cinnamon-sugar over the flattened dough before rolling it up, creating a decorative and flavorful swirl throughout the baked, barely sweet, delicate Stollen. I must say that this Stollen was absolutely one of the best things I have ever baked, ever eaten, and I have been eating slice after slice since I removed it warm and fragrant from the oven. Half was taken to the office, the other half enjoyed at home. This will be a favorite holiday recipe every year from here on out, although next time I will increase the quantities of rum, cranberries, almonds, both slivered and ground, and I will definitely double the amount of cinnamon sugar in the gorgeous swirl. Thank you, Penny, for a simply stunning holiday recipe!


I would like to share this wonderful Stollen with Yeastspotting, my favorite yeast baking event created and hosted by Susan of Wild Yeast!


I also want to share this for December's Bread Baking Day #35, a fabulous bread event created by Zorra of 1x umrühren bitte. This month's theme was Bread with Dry Fruits and was hosted by Taste of Pearl City!


STOLLEN WREATH
And a joyous holiday season to you one and all!

Prepare the Stollen dough the day before baking:

¼ cup (60 ml) lukewarm water (110º F / 43º C)
4 1/2 tsps (1/2 oz/14 g) active dry yeast
1 cup (250 ml) milk
10 Tbs (140 g) unsalted or salted butter, cubed
5½ cups (770 g) flour + more as needed (measure flour before sifting)
½ cup (115 g) sugar
2 – 3 Tbs finely ground almonds
¾ tsp salt (if using salted butter there is no need to alter this salt measurement)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 cup (100 grams) slivered almonds
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
Grated zest of 1 lemon and 1 orange
2 tsps very good quality vanilla extract
¾ cup (135 grams) mixed candied peel, optional
1 cup (170 gms) firmly packed dried cranberries
3 Tbs (45ml) rum
4 – 6 Tbs cinnamon sugar for the swirl, optional but fabulous!
Melted unsalted butter for coating the wreath
Confectioners’ (icing/powdered) sugar for dusting wreath

Note: If you don’t want to use alcohol, double the lemon or orange extract or you could use the juice from the zested orange.

Notice the cinnamon-sugar swirl and the dried cranberries!

Soak the dried cranberries in the rum in a small bowl the time it takes you to prepare the dough.

Pour the warm water into a small bowl, sprinkle with yeast and let stand 5 minutes. Stir to dissolve yeast completely. In a small saucepan, combine the milk and 10 tablespoons (150 ml) butter over medium-low heat until butter is melted. Let stand until lukewarm, about 5 minutes. Lightly beat eggs in a small bowl and add the vanilla extract.

In a large mixing bowl or in the bowl of an electric mixer with paddle attachment, stir together the flour, sugar, ground and slivered almonds, salt, cinnamon, orange and lemon zests. Stir in (or mix on low speed with the paddle attachment) the dissolved yeast, the lightly beaten eggs, the lukewarm milk/butter mixture as well as the soaked cranberries with the rum in the bowl. (Some people add the almonds and the dried fruit in after the dough has come together and knead in, but I find that extremely difficult and slippery. I now always add all dried fruits and nuts directly to the dry ingredients before incorporating the liquids and forming the dough). I added another half cup or so flour to the dough as I was stirring in order to have a working consistency. This should take about 2 minutes. It should be a soft and most likely sticky dough. When the dough comes together and all of the dry ingredients are moistened and everything is well blended, cover the bowl with either plastic or a clean kitchen towel and let rest for 10 minutes.

Scrape the dough out onto a well-floured work surface and knead the dough for 8 minutes until you have a soft and satiny, smooth, bread-dough consistency, flouring the dough and the work surface as needed. It may be slightly tacky but not sticky and the dried fruit and nuts should be evenly distributed.

Lightly oil a large bowl and transfer the dough to the bowl, rolling around to coat it with the oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator overnight. The dough becomes very firm in the fridge (since the butter goes firm) but it does rise slowly… the raw dough can be kept in the refrigerator up to a week and then baked on the day you want.

Shape the Dough and Bake the Wreath:

Remove the dough from the refrigerator and allow to rest at room temperature for 2 hours before shaping. Line a large baking sheet with parchment or oven paper.

Once the dough has rested, scrape it out onto a floured work surface, punch it down and roll out into a large rectangle of about 16 x 24 inches (40 x 61 cm) x ¼ inch (6 mm) thick. Sprinkle the dough generously with cinnamon-sugar all the way to the edges. Starting with a long side, roll the dough up tightly, forming a long, thin cylinder. Transfer the cylinder to the sheet pan. Pull the two ends around together, forming the dough cylinder into a ring and join the ends together, trying to overlap the layers to make the seam stronger and pinch with your fingers to make it stick. You can form it around a bowl to keep the shape. Using clean kitchen scissors, make cuts along outside of circle, in 2-inch (5 cm) intervals, cutting 2/3 of the way through the dough (to make this easier and to make sure that the slices were evenly spaced and that I had an even number of sections, I used a sewing tape measure. Once sliced, gently pull the sections out from each other so they will stay separated once risen and baked. Either spray the wreath lightly with spray oil or tap gently with a vegetable oil soaked paper towel. Cover lightly yet completely with plastic wrap and a clean kitchen towel and allow to rise at room temperature for 2 hours until at least 1 ½ times the original size.


Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).

Bake the stollen for 20 minutes, then rotate the pan 180 degrees for even baking and continue to bake for 20 to 30 minutes until the bread is a dark mahogany color and should sound hollow when thumped on the bottom.

Transfer to a cooling rack and immediately brush the top with melted butter while still hot then tap a generous layer of powdered sugar over the top through a sieve or sifter. Wait for 1 minute, then tap another layer over the first. The bread should be coated thickly with the powdered sugar. Let cool at least an hour before serving.



Tuesday, December 21, 2010

CHOCOLATE CHIP ZUCCOTTO & CHRISTMAS BISCOTTI


“(Scrooge was as …) hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster… External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, nor wintry weather chill him”
- (all quotes by Charles Dickens from A Christmas Carol)

There seems to be a pre-holiday grumpfest, a sulkorama amongst the menfolk hereabouts. Husbands slouched on the sofa, remote in hand, sliding from one channel to the next in the hopes of being entertained, losing themselves in a mindless horror or adventure flick or, better still, a rugby match. Or husbands slumped in front of a computer screen, grumbling almost, but not quite, inaudibly about their workload, the need to bring it home with them of an evening or weekend. While we women can rant and rave or moan and wail to our sisters, allowing for that much-needed occasional release of stress and tension, the men, well, they tend to hold it in and go all grumpy on us.

“Bah!” said Scrooge, “Humbug!”


I’ve been huddling with my girlfriends, keeping low and discreet, out of the way of the husbands. We all seem to have experienced being married to Scrooge lately and have found solace and laughter through our connections with each other. Last week, as the men roamed around our respective houses feeling peevish and discontent, like wayward schoolboys being punished unfairly by a stern schoolmarm or like a Scrooge amongst the gay and giddy holiday preparations, we women gathered together and organized a group movie night. And although we were spread across three different countries and five different livingrooms, we turned on skype, stuck the same film at the same time into our respective dvd players and watched, commented, chatted, gossiped and laughed together. We sighed over the same leading men, cried in sisterly compassion for the same heroines, ogled or booed the same actor or actress as one and felt as if we were all sitting together in the same cozy den sharing this movie night like girlfriends should do. We already have two more films selected, and a date set for our next group skype movie night. And this next time, pizza and wine will be included.


“It is a fair, even-handed noble, adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor”

This past Saturday, Mathilde came over for the day to bake macarons for her grandfather’s surprise 80th birthday party. Mathilde is all that is sweet and adorable, the daughter I never had, and we measure and sift, stir and bake together amid chattering and laughter. She is as gourmand as I, and we take turns sticking our fingers into the batter and the ganache to taste and we each end our day with sticky batter, dough or filling stuck in our hair, tummies full and content. Our macarons did not, this time, come out picture perfect, but the flavors we concocted were fabulous and worth another day’s testing and perfecting. Her boyfriend came over to see Clem’s new computer and to pick up Mathilde, and when the boys joined us in the kitchen and I pulled out my Zuccotto with Straccatella Whipped Cream Filling boy oh boy did two pairs of eyes light up! Huge wedges were carefully sliced and placed on plates, forks were pulled from drawers and handed over, and two young men, like ravenous animals falling on their prey, like excited children falling on piles of Christmas gifts, finished off their servings in seconds.

“I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A Merry Christmas to everybody! A Happy New Year to all the world! Really, for a man who had been out of practice…. it was a splendid laugh, a most illustrious laugh.”


Sunday was slow and lazy. Scrooge had left the apartment and made way for Jolly Old Saint Nick who claimed his spot on the sofa and enjoyed a day of total coziness and relaxation, watching rugby and cracking jokes. The air had cleared and the atmosphere was lighter as I jogged around the apartment cleaning, straightening, making bread dough. We talked about a visit to Paris, purely for pleasure, ordered the books we wanted and even took that long-awaited stroll around town late in the afternoon. We have happily already given the boys their Christmas gifts and only have each other to think about, which, truth be told, is both exciting and nerve-wracking. What does one get a man who doesn’t quite have everything but rather has everything he wants? He has so many interests, but when he wants something he often prefers just choosing it and buying it for himself. Yes, books are always on the list as are sweaters. And from there? Well, I have another few days to think about it, don’t I? So I shall call forth my inner Mrs. Claus and pray for a little elfin inspiration and will come through with the goods in the end, as I always do.

And I am back doing a bit of baking. Lovely crunchy biscotti, studded with Christmassy red dried cranberries and green pistachios, flavored with a spoonful of holiday spices and drizzled with dark, orangey chocolate ganache, the perfect gift to wrap up all pretty and tie with a bow. And my Zuccotto. A light, just-sweet whipped cream filling full of the crunch of finely chopped dark chocolate and a touch of rum or Amaretto and almond all wrapped up in vanilla sponge like the perfect Christmas gift. Someone broke down from his good resolution to watch his sweet intake as soon as he spied this magnificent temptation and ate a slice. Or two. He just couldn’t resist. And Clem, well, I haven’t seen Clem attack something I’ve baked with such glee, such uncontrolled, joyous abandon, for so long! It makes a wife and mother proud.


So here is to another holiday season! We raise our glasses in a toast to our best girlfriends, the ones with whom, no matter how close or how far, we can sit down and enjoy a gossip and a movie together to ease the winter blues, chase away the grumpies, forget that we are anything more than a gaggle of giggly 16 year olds at heart and to our men, whom we love with all of our heart no matter whether going through the Scrooges or ho-ho-ho-ing like the pot-bellied, red and white-clad Holiday Dude. I pull out the Chocolate Chip Zuccotto from the refrigerator and cut a slice for myself in the calm of a quiet house this Tuesday morning, pull out a pen and two pieces of paper, one for my letter to Santa and the other for my New Year’s Resolutions, and smile to myself as thoughts of the past year rush through my head, the friends I have made, the laughter we have shared, the projects that I have had the great opportunity to see through or participate in, the time I have spent with my family. As I peek over the edge into the New Year to come I see only wonderful things, family and friends, work, projects and plans, yet I am not quite there! I have Christmas and New Year’s Eve still to conquer, gifts to buy, cards and boxes to send, meals to prepare.

CHRISTMAS BISCOTTI

Find the basic recipe and instructions here. Read below for my Christmas version and find the recipe for Chocolate Ganache at the end of the post:

I made my wonderful, favorite Biscotti studded with jade green whole pistachios and bright red dried cranberries and added a bit of Christmas zing by adding a spoonful of the German Spice Mix I used in my Decadent Chocolate Cake. You can use a mixture of ground cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg (light of the ginger and nutmeg, please) or gingerbread spices. I then drizzled Dark Chocolate Orange Ganache over the top of the finished and sliced Biscotti: simply line the biscotti up (pressed together) on aluminum foil and drizzle with the ganache. Allow to cool and completely set before storing in a metal container or wrapping up to give as gifts or the chocolate will stick and smear.


CHOCOLATE CHIP ZUCCOTTO


A Chocolate Chip Zuccotto is an easy treat to prepare and both JP and Clem simply went wild for it! Even though it didn’t quite turn out what I had pictured in my mind, they absolutely loved it and devoured it (as did Mathilde and Valentin)! My simple vanilla sponge, cut out anyway you wish, whether in simple strips or in more decorative shapes – I cut out stars for Christmas – lining a bowl or pan then filled with a simple whipped cream filling, stabilized with a dash of powdered gelatin and flavored with chocolate chips or finely chopped or grated chocolate, as milky or dark as you like, a bit of ground almonds and spiked with rum or Amaretto, this is a dessert to please even the grumpiest of souls. And put a smile on his face. Cheers!

A truly simple Zuccotto, no syrup, no complicated filling, just a stabilized whipped cream flavored as you please and a wonderful, simple vanilla sponge cake. Quick and easy, this is a great dessert to have on hand and which will please young and old alike.

1 vanilla sponge sheet cake (find the recipe and step by step instructions here)

Chocolate Chip Whipped Cream Filling:
3 Tbs water, rum or Amaretto or a combination of water + either alcohol
2 tsps powdered gelatin
2 cups (500 ml) heavy cream
2 Tbs sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup finely chopped or grated chocolate *
½ cup (50 g) ground almonds or hazelnuts

Chocolate Ganache (optional but fabulous!) **

* Feel free to use any chocolate that you like best, bittersweet, semisweet, even milk. Or you can use one of the flavored chocolates (mint, orange, spiced….)

** You can make one recipe of Chocolate Ganache for both your Zuccotto and your Christmas Biscotti

Have a large glass or pyrex mixing bowl and beaters chilled, at least 15 minutes in the refrigerator.

Place the water, rum or Amaretto and the powdered gelatin in a small saucepan and allow the gelatin to soften for 3 to 5 minutes. Place over low heat and, stirring, heat thoroughly until the gelatin is completely dissolved, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from the heat.

Pour the cream into the chilled glass bowl and, using the chilled beaters, beat until it begins to thicken. Add the sugar and continue to beat on high until the beaters leave traces in the cream. Add the gelatin in a stream followed by the vanilla as you continue beating until soft peaks hold when the beaters are lifted. Using a spatula, fold in the chopped or grated chocolate and the ground almonds. Cover the bowl with plastic and place in the refrigerator while you prepare the mold.

Line a 6-cup (1 ½ liter) bowl or mold completely and as smoothly as possible with plastic wrap, leaving overhang. If you want a base for the Zuccotto, as I did, place the bowl upside down on one side of the cake and, using a very sharp or serrated knife, cut out a bottom circle. This will leave you less cake to line the bowl and serve as an outside casing for the Zuccotto, so strips will not be possible. Cut either strips of cake or, as I did, decorative shapes from the vanilla sponge and line the bowl, pressing the cake onto the plastic wrap lining the sides of the bowl.

Remove the Chocolate Chip Whipped Cream Filling from the refrigerator and very carefully spoon it into the bowl, careful that the cake pieces don’t become unstuck from the sides and fall under the cream. Fill the cream up to the top and smooth, pressing down to make sure your cream completely fills every space in the mold. If you have cut out a bottom layer of cake, press the cake down onto the surface of the cream, trim any overhang and then tuck the edges inside the edge of the bowl. Pull up the overhanging plastic and use it to cover the bottom of the Zuccotto. Place the Zuccotto in the refrigerator for a few hours to set completely before serving.

To serve:

Remove the bowl from the refrigerator and remove the plastic from the bottom of the Zuccotto (the top of the bowl). Flip your serving platter over onto what will be the bottom of the Zuccotto making sure it is centered, then carefully invert the platter and the bowl containing the Zuccotto over in one quick movement. Lift off the bowl, remove the plastic and voilà! You have your Zuccotto.


CHOCOLATE GANACHE

½ cup (125 ml) heavy cream
¾ cup (about 100 g) chopped dark chocolate (I use Lindt Excellence 70% or Lindt Excellence Doux 70% and sometimes one with flavor such as mint or orange. The Orange-infused Dark Chocolate is fabulous on both the Zuccotto and the Biscotti, giving it a very Christmassy flavor)

Place the chopped chocolate into a medium-sized mixing or other heatproof bowl. Pour the cream into a small saucepan. Slowly heat the cream until it comes just to the boiling point. Pour the cream immediately over the chopped chocolate and stir until it is smooth and creamy.

Once the Ganache has cooled to room temperature and thickened just enough so, while still being smooth and pourable, it will hold its shape when drizzled and will not just run off the dessert or cookies and puddle onto the plate, carefully spoon ribbons of ganache over the Zuccotto and/or the Biscotti, as much or as little as you like.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

BEETROOT MACARONS both Savory & Sweet

IF TRUTH BE TOLD


We live in a fantasy world, a world of illusion. The great task in life is to find reality.
- Iris Murdoch

Life is an illusion and there are times we create that illusion ourselves. And how much is it worth? We cover up the flaws with a well-chosen outfit, a dash of makeup, draw attention away from this and that with a color and a new haircut. We plump up our resumé just a teeny tiny bit or stretch a truth just enough to impress. Or maybe we wash away the crazy episodes of yelling and stomping of feet, fold up and put away the dirty laundry and present a kind, gentle, almost perfect persona to the outside world.


Sounds boring, doesn’t it? Now why would anyone want to do this? And why would I be discussing illusion anyway?

I spend my time telling stories, weaving romantic tales or heartrending anecdotes. I paint sentimental pictures and offer up pretty memories tied up in ribbon, yet I create no illusions. I have never been a believer in deception, I am totally incapable of lying, I have little power to bewitch and understand that all of those illusions, no matter how simple, are as transparent as glass. And anyone who has met me in “real life” after knowing me through my blog understands that I am pretty much what I appear to be in glorious black and white. Yet….yet, when I mentioned in my last post that I was a pathetic hostess, that organizing even a casual lunch for friends has me frazzled and panicking, that I tend to select dishes I have never made before and several foods that all have to be prepared at the last minute so I end up absolutely freaking out, cursing for all the world to hear, throwing things at the walls in the kitchen and, in the end, serve mostly overcooked and badly managed food, well no one seemed to believe me. Dear readers, I kid you not.


For it is a land of illusion, a place in the mind, a shimmering mirage of riches and mystery and death. These illusions have distorted its landscape and contorted its history.
- Richard Lingenfelter

Have I given anyone the idea that I am the hostess with the mostess? That all runs smoothly chez nous, that I am an always-fabulous cook, that I have, as someone suggested, nerves of steel? I create no illusions, I beg for no compliments. I am not the kind of girl who sweetly bats her eyelashes in the hopes of being called out on her humble avowal, her modesty painting a pretty picture to attract hugs and warm fuzzy outpourings. Nah! My words may be poetic but the truth, my truths, are as bare as my soul. I am a lousy hostess. At any outside event, whether public or private, I am as cool and collected as the most cosmopolitan Holly Golightly while my husband, strong, smart, talented businessman crumples up into an embarrassed, bumbling, sidekick. At home, the roles are reversed. My meals are a disaster, I spill the wine and trip over the edge of the carpet, I always think I am misunderstanding the French rattling on around me and my mind goes utterly blank as I scramble for clever things to say, interesting topics to dazzle my guests. And husband’s smooth, suave man-about-town kicks in… he takes over the dinner table conversation, discusses and pours the wine like the best sommelier, expertly slides trays of nibblies and aperitifs onto the coffee table and then ties on an apron and takes over the kitchen. Opposites not only attract but they make for the perfect social couple.


Our two recent dinner parties went down like the best whiskey, warm and toasty, earthy and smooth. Days before the first lunch, JP took me aside, sat me down and planned the entire menu from aperatif through coffee and dessert. His brilliant plan of creating a dessert that could be made a day or even two ahead, pre-marinating chicken so it would only need to be slid into the hot oven just as the guests knocked on the front door and purchasing everything else ready-made at the market that morning was a plan made in heaven. Like clockwork…. So as the second lunch, this one with two couples rather than just one, approached, I waited patiently; Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday strolled by and I said not one word. My heartbeat stayed normal and I went about my daily business with no worries standing in my way trying to trip me up. I had already decided that my Decadent Chocolate Spice Cake would be the spectacular finish to our meal, but the rest, well, I was waiting for Da Man!

And Saturday morning rolled around and as we snuggled up in bed with the covers pulled up tightly around us, we started thinking. I suggested his amazing Beef and Carrot Daube. No. My Goulash with Biscuits? Nope. Hmmmm. A one-pot meal is always so easy. I hopped out of bed and ran to the bookshelves and grabbed an armful of cookbooks and about twenty cooking magazines. And then he had it! We would start with grilled Boudin Blanc, white sausage, served on a bed of sautéed apples and pears and simply glide into a Choucroute de la Mer, Alsatian Choucroute topped with monkfish and smoked haddock, plump mussels and crayfish with a rich, tangy Beurre Blanc sauce. Perfect. And so was the dinner party. He cooked, he organized, he entertained and it was fabulous.

So, the moral of the story? Trust your better half. Stay calm, cool and collected. Let someone else do the cooking. And never lie about your faults, weaknesses or foibles for it will surely, one day, catch up with you.

We must select the illusion which appeals to our temperament and embrace it with passion, if we want to be happy.
- Cyril Connolly


And I made macarons. On my recent trip to London, I bought a small container of powdered beetroot, a deep luxurious pink-red color, a natural sweetener, and just knew it was destined for macarons. This month’s Mac Attack challenge was Savory-Sweet Macs, creating the perfect macaron blending the sweet and the savory, something to be served with a glass of Champagne. So Mathilde and I, yes, Mathilde is back! made beautiful pink macs and filled half with a simple cream cheese whipped creamy and smooth with a dash of dill layered with a slice of smoked salmon, and half with chocolate-orange ganache. Sweet or savory, the beetroot macs are delicately flavored, seeming almost to temper the normal sweetness and nuttiness of the shells, which made for the perfect backdrop to both fillings. Serve them to expectant guests both before and at the end of the meal and no matter how the rest of the day went, they will surely go home smiling.


From Plate to Page is highlighting Food Photographer William Brinson this week. William has very kindly shared with us some of his stunning photography as well as a few words about himself, his photography and his profession. Don't miss this, our first in a series of Star Food Stylists, Food Photographers and Food Writers, each one tempting us with their images and words, giving us a taste of their talent and a hint of the wonderful things behind From Plate to Page.


BEETROOT MACARONS
Either savory or sweet

7.2 oz (200 g) confectioner’s or powdered sugar
4 oz (110 g) finely ground almonds
2 Tbs (1 oz/30 g) granulated sugar
3 large egg whites (about 4 oz/112 g)
1 tsp beetroot powder
dot red or pink gel, paste or powdered food coloring or a bit of each

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, the ground almonds and the beetroot powder together into a large mixing bowl. Set aside.

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. Gradually add the granulated sugar as you are whipping the whites until you obtain a glossy, stiff meringue.

Gently but firmly fold about 1/3 of the whipped whites into the powdered sugar/ground almonds. Add the rest of the whipped whites/meringue with the food coloring and fold, using a silicon spatula or the equivalent, turning the bowl as you lift and fold, making sure you fold in all the dry ingredients completely. 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.

You can also fold the powdered mixture into the meringue if it is easier for you.

Fill your 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. When you have piped all of your batter out into even rounds, you can sprinkle half of the shells with decorative sugar sprinkle or dried crushed herbs. These will be the top half of each “sandwich”. 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 and shouldn’t stick to your finger). 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. Be careful or the center of the shell risks sticking to the parchment.


Dark Chocolate Ganache Filling for the sweet


½ cup (125 ml) heavy cream
¾ cup (about 100 g) chopped dark chocolate (I used Lindt Excellence 70% and sometimes one with flavor such as mint or orange)

Place the chopped chocolate into a medium-sized mixing or other heatproof bowl. Pour the cream into a small saucepan. Slowly heat the cream until it comes just to the boiling point. Pour the cream immediately over the chopped chocolate and stir until it is smooth and creamy.

Allow the ganache filling to cool, stirring every so often. If need be (I do this) place the bowl in the refrigerator, pulling it out every 5 or 10 minutes and giving a good, hearty stir. When the ganache is ready to use to fill the macarons, it should be thick and creamy, not runny. You want to be able to pipe the filling onto the shells and have it stay there not run all over the place.

Prepare your pastry bag with a plain tip that will pipe teaspoon-sized dots of filling onto the macaron shells. Pair up the shells so you have sets that match (same size and shape). Pipe the ganache filling onto one shell of each pair. Sandwich with the second shell. Allow the filling to set.


Thursday, December 9, 2010

DECADENT CHOCOLATE CAKE with Christmas Flavors

LET IT SNOW, LET IT SNOW, LET IT SNOW!


Winter has arrived in a blustery, wet haze, stomping in like an uninvited guest leaving filthy black shoeprints all over the new white carpet without even a bouquet of flowers to ease her unexpected intrusion. The chill winds of the holiday season whipped in unannounced when my back was turned, when I had least expected it. Arriving home from a weekend in London, I caught a glimpse of white as the plane banked in towards the airport and my heart jumped with the excitement that snow still elicits in this forever-at-heart-Florida girl. Dragging my suitcase out through the sliding double doors into the parking lot and towards the waiting shuttle bus, I breathed in the crisp air, the iciness biting at my cheeks and the thrill of a long, bright, white winter fluttered through my body hand in hand with festive holiday joy.

Yet the gorgeous days came and went, just a good joke, and then the winter rain set in.

Marty tiptoes as elegantly as possible through the swathes of matted wet leaves outside in the square, lifting one dainty paw up and over, then the next, one chilly, now-damp extremity at a time as he tries to stay dry before spending the rest of his long, gray day curled up in front of his warm radiator as if he had been stretched out in front of a blazing fire, flames licking the tips of his ears. JP and I stare dismally out of the windows each and every dreary Saturday and then the following Sunday wondering if today we should finally take that stroll through town in order to breath in a little fresh air. But the metallic edge of the sky, the spatter of raindrops against the glass pushes us both back to our respective corners of the sofa and, as we snuggle down under comforters, curl up with our books, we promise ourselves and each other that tomorrow, or at least next weekend, we will leave the apartment and venture outside.


One blustery day leads into the next and as the rest of France is blanketed under an elegant stole of white, as images of Parisians standing amid flurries of flakes scroll across our television screens, we listen to the rain pound on the roof, watch it slide sadly down the glass panes, and the urge to warm up the kitchen with baking washes over me. The only feathery white powder I have the chance to feel against my skin is flour. Soft, fragrant flour blended with cocoa and sugar, eggs and cream, filling the house with the sweet scent of celebration. Thoughts of cinnamon and chocolate, nutmeg and orange fill my head as I skip into the kitchen and start pulling bowls and pans from the cupboard, as I sift through the drawers in search of teaspoons and tablespoons, measuring cups and zester. And as traffic in the City of Lights comes to a standstill in the frosty night, as grumbling tourists try and make light of closed roads and closed airports, as a warm glow emanates from a bustling workshop somewhere north of Lapland, I blend and stir, whip and fold. I toss in a little Christmas spirit in the form of mixed holiday spices: cinnamon and nutmeg, star anise, ginger and cloves, a dash of lemon and orange zest, the gift of a northern angel, and it smells as if I am living in a white-icing edged, candy cane and gumdrop-trimmed gingerbread house.

And just as I thought that the holidays would be a quiet, low-key affair, we have decided to invite company over for lunch this Sunday. I bustle around the house arranging and rearranging our never-ending stacks of papers and books, shifting piles of folders and magazines, swiping across this surface and that with a damp cloth to give the place at least an aura of cleanliness. I pull out the ladder so I can reach the top panes of glass in our floor-to-ceiling French windows and decide that it may be just about time that I mopped the kitchen floor. As I have written in a previous post, I am desperately abysmal when it comes to cooking for company. I am totally and completely lost, my blood runs cold as I wonder what I could possibly cook without ruining, my head spins and I break out into a cold sweat as I imagine the scene, knowing that I tend to badly organize, cook too many things all at once and at the last minute and panic, grow faint as language that would embarrass a sailor slips uncontrollably from between my lips. Our last dinner party – only one extra couple, mind you – went as smoothly as silk thanks to pre-planning and organization, and I am hoping that JP will take me calmly under his wing and together we will plan and organize this one on Saturday. But one thing is for sure, this Decadent Chocolate Spice Cake is what I will be proudly serving for dessert.

I carefully, lovingly created this cake last weekend as the rain poured down around us. I hovered around the oven, basking in its warmth and the deep, rich, earthy scent of exotic spices, peering through the oven door like a worried mama; the cake must be cooked thoroughly yet pulled from the oven at just the right moment so not an edge is burned, not one mouthful dry. Once the cake was cooled and lifted out of the pan, I gently peeled back the parchment paper and placed the cake onto the white serving platter, as white as the snow that just refuses to drift down from the skies. I climbed up on a kitchen chair and held the pastry bag filled with orange-infused chocolate ganache aloft then drizzled it this way and that, channeling my inner Jackson Pollack in order to create the perfect visual effect. A perfunctory cleaning of the disaster that was now my kitchen (chocolate ganache drizzled not only on the cake but spit and spattered up and down the table, on my clothing and on the floor, much to Marty’s delight), I slowly cut wedges of this moist, thick, decadent confection and placed each lovingly on a pristine white plate, placing a fork alongside each dark slice. I carried the plates proudly into son’s bedroom and offered up my prize to each young man. Hesitant looks, hesitant words, two plates were accepted, one (guess who) refused. When I later returned to the Bat Cave to reclaim the plates, I was greeted with crooked smiles and questions “what was the strange flavor?” Needless to say, the Christmas spirit seemed to evade them, as they did not like the dash of spices I had added. The rest of the cake went to the office the following day where quick work was made of it and loved by all. One person succeeded in eating two thick wedges and exclaimed that it was fabulous and that the spices added something mysterious, a je ne sais quoi, a wonderful depth and festive taste to an overall perfect dessert.


So while others dream of a White Christmas, while visions of snow-dusted sugarplums dance in their heads, we sit inside in the warmth, snuggled up together, listening to the rain and watching the darkness come much too early every afternoon. We cook, bake, eat and watch old films and are overcome with that wonderful holiday spirit that wraps its arms around us no matter the weather and no matter what is happening outside in the world, outside of our own existence. So slice another piece of cake, pour another glass of wine and turn up the volume of the stereo or the television just a little bit more and maybe this year we will even exchange gifts.


I am sending this cake and recipe to Ria of Ria’s Collection who is hosting this month’s Monthly Mingle for Meeta of What’s For Lunch, Honey? with the perfect, brilliant theme Chocolate Extravaganza!

Which leads me to my Hotel Chocolat Giftaway! We have chosen one lucky winner of a Christmas Selection of Hotel Chocolat Luxury Chocolates. Each comment left and each tweet about the giftaway was given a number and then Clem (who had no idea what he was choosing a number for) picked a number, which led to the winner:

KatieZ, auther of the blog Thyme for Cooking, the blog….And Life in France

Congratulations, Katie! I will be in touch with you and enjoy your fabulous chocolates! Merry Christmas, it just got a whole lot sweeter!


CHOCOLATE SPICE CAKE
To flavor as you please…

1 cup boiling water *
3 oz (90 g) unsweetened chocolate
8 Tbs (115 g) unsalted butter, softened
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups (400 g) sugar
2 large eggs, separated
1 tsp baking soda
½ cup sour cream (I used creamy 0% fat fromage frais/quark)
2 cups less 2 Tbs( g) flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp mixed Christmas Spice **
Chocolate Ganache

* What I love about cakes that add water is that all or part of the water can be replaced with other liquids to change the flavor of the cake; you can replace part of the water with strong coffee, orange juice or even the juice from jarred fruit such as cherries or blueberries. Just taste before using more than half a cup of flavored liquid. And make sure if you choose to replace some of the water with another liquid it goes well with whatever spice you decide to add. Or leave out the spice completely. And a dash of Amaretto or rum never hurt anyone...

** I used a mixed Christmas Spice from Germany called Pflaumenmus Gewürz (Plum Jam Spices), a gift from Meeta. Feel free to use up to one teaspoon of ground cinnamon or a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and clove. Not more than one teaspoon combined. You could also add the zest of half or one whole orange. This cake is delicious even without added spices.

Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Grease and flour a 10-inch (25-cm) tube pan. I lined mine with oven-proof parchment paper as I was afraid that the batter would leak out the bottom of the pan.

Chop the chocolate, cube the butter and place them both together in a large heat-safe (Pyrex) mixing bowl. Bring one cup of water* to the boil then pour over the chocolate and the butter, allowing it to stand and stirring until completely melted and smooth. Stir in the vanilla and the sugar, then whisk in the egg yolks, one at a time, until well blended.

Stir the baking soda into the sour cream. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and ground spices together. First whisk the sour cream into the chocolate batter, then the flour, whisking until smooth and homogenous.

Using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks hold. Fold about a third of the whipped whites into the chocolate batter until most of the white has disappeared, then fold in the rest of the whites in one or two additions. Try not to overwork the batter as you will beat out the air incorporated with the egg whites, but don’t be afraid to really fold and make sure no white lumps of any size remain or your finished cake, gorgeously dark, will have white spots in it.

Carefully pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 40 – 50 minutes (depending on your pan and your oven), until the cake is set and a tester stuck down into the cake comes out clean. When I touched and gently pressed the surface of my cake at 40 and then 45 minutes I felt liquid or unset batter under the surface. After another couple of minutes, I touched and gently pressed the surface again and felt some resistance and knew that it was time to stick a tester (I use a long metal brochette spear) in. Done! Watch the cake carefully at the end as you neither want this cake underdone nor overdone and dry.

Remove the cake from the oven and onto a cooling rack. Allow the cake to cool completely before loosening the cake from the sides of the pan (and the inner tube) with a sharp knife and carefully lifting it out of the pan. If you have lined the pan with parchment, you can grip the edges of the paper and lift it off of the tube. Then place a rack on the top of the cake, flip it over, peel off the parchment from the bottom of the cake, place your serving platter onto the upturned bottom of the cake then flip upright.


Prepare the Chocolate Ganache :

Chop ¾ cup (100 g) dark chocolate *** and place in a medium-sized pyrex bowl.

Bring ½ cup (125 ml) heavy cream to a boil. Pour it over the chopped chocolate and allow to sit, stirring, until the chocolate is completely melted and the ganache is perfectly smooth.

Allow to sit at room temperature until it the desired consistency: to drizzle over the cake, it should retain its pouring consistency yet be just thick enough that it doesn’t all run off of the cake and puddle around the cake on the plate.


*** I usually use Lindt dessert 70% or Lindt Excellence 70%. I have also made ganache with one of the Lindt Excellence dark chocolates flavored with either orange, grilled almonds or mint. This Christmas Spice Cake is especially delicious topped with Chocolate Ganache with the hint of Orange.

And the Cake speaks for itself:


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