Friday, April 18, 2014

Strawberry Rhubarb Cream Cake

Nothing says spring like strawberries and rhubarb.  After a long season of winter, the bright pop of color and tart acidity of this fruit combination is more than welcome.  It's time for our annual spring pies, galettes and shortcakes!

This is a pretty simple cake but one that really delivers on the promise of spring.  It starts with a basic white cake.  I've tried lots of white cake recipes but they always seem to fall just short of what I'm looking for.  Sometimes they're too dry or too sweet or too dense or crumbly.  I set to work on a basic white cake formula and with just a few little tweaks and a couple of test runs, I'm pleased with these results.  The cake has a soft and tender texture with an open crumb.  The flavor is subtle and wonderful, just the sort of backdrop for all your favorite fillings and frostings.

The rhubarb in this recipe is cooked briefly on the stovetop with some sugar, orange zest and vanilla, flavors that really complement both fruits.  The strawberries are sliced and folded in fresh to brighten the mix.  It's an easy compote to layer in the middle of the cake.  Then the whole thing is slathered in whipped cream.  Light, fresh and simply delectable.

Happy spring!

Bench notes:
- It's important to use cake flour for this recipe to produce a lighter and more tender cake.  I buy it at my local bulk grocer where it's much less expensive than the box at the supermarket. You can also make your own cake flour using regular flour and cornstarch, which inhibits the formation of gluten.  Here is the basic formula: 1 cup of cake flour = 1 cup all-purpose flour minus 2 tablespoons plus 2 tablespoons cornstarch.  For the 1 1/2 cups of cake flour in this recipe, measure 1 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour and remove 3 tablespoons.  Add 3 tablespoons of cornstarch and sift a couple of times to be sure it's completely blended.
- This technique for mixing cake batter is called the "two-stage" method made popular by Rose Levy Beranbaum in The Cake Bible.  It's different from the creaming method in that all the dry ingredients are mixed with the butter and some of the liquid.  This mixture gets beaten for 1 1/2 minutes and then the eggs, vanilla and remaining liquid are added in three stages and mixed for 20 seconds after each addition.  The creaming method results in more aeration of ingredients and therefore cakes made using that method usually have a stronger structure and turn out with a higher rise.  This two-stage method results in less gluten development and yields a more tender cake with a delicate crumb, exactly what we're looking for in a basic white cake.
- For those who don't own a scale, I base my metrics on the "dip and sweep" method of measuring flour with the following important condition: Flour gets very compacted as it sits in our cupboards.  So when measuring flour by volume, it's important to first take a fork or a whisk and fluff the flour thoroughly to aerate it before each dip of your measuring cup.  Overfill it just a bit and then use a spatula to level the cup.  So, to measure by weight, my 1 cup of all-purpose flour = 5 oz (142 grams).  My 1 cup of cake flour = 4 oz (113 grams).
- "Room temperature" butter means the chill has been take off and it's pliable but not soft to the touch.
- The cooked rhubarb will taste sweet but the added strawberries don't have any additional sugar.  You may want to use less sugar if your strawberries are sweet.
- I recycle a 3" piece of dried vanilla bean from my vanilla sugar jar to use for this compote.  If you don't have a vanilla bean, substitute 1/4 teaspoons vanilla.
- If you don't have creme fraiche,  just use an additional 2 tablespoons of heavy cream.
- What's the difference between heavy cream and whipping cream?  Heavy cream contains 36% milk fat; whipping cream has 30%.  For finishing a cake like this, use heavy cream because it whips up with a stronger loft and will hold its shape longer than whipping cream without weeping.  Cream whips best when it's very cold.
- Use a serrated knife and a gentle sawing motion to cut the cake into two layers. Start by making a small 1" cut into the side of the cake all the way around.  Then bring your knife around again, sawing a little deeper.  The cake will be cut in half very quickly.  If you try to cut straight across in one fell swoop, you'll wind up with a lot more crumbs.  Once the cake has been cut into two layers, I use a removable tart pan bottom to lift off the top half layer and set it aside.
- The cake can be made a day ahead and stored in an airtight container at room temperature.
- For a simpler presentation, dollop the cream on top of the cake and serve the compote on the side.  Or prepare individual servings by layering cake, fruit and cream in parfait glasses.
- For a larger cake, double the recipe and use two 9" cake pans.  These will bake for a bit shorter time, about 25 - 28 minutes.  You'll probably need about 1/3 C more whipped cream and a few more strawberries.
- Another very delicious cake along the same lines: Angel Food Cake Roll with Strawberries & Cream.  Or if you prefer chocolate: Chocolate & Balsamic Strawberry Cream Cake.

Strawberry Rhubarb Cream Cake
Serves 8

White Cake
3 large (3 oz) egg whites @ room temperature
1/2 cup (4 oz) whole milk @ room temperature, divided
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups (6 oz) cake flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 oz (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter @ room temperature
3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons (6 1/4 oz) sugar

Strawberry Rhubarb Compote
4 stalks (about 9 oz) rhubarb, cut into 1/2" pieces
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons (2 3/4 oz) sugar
zest of 1/2 orange
1/3 vanilla bean or 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
12 oz fresh strawberries

1 cup (8 oz) cold heavy cream
2 tablespoons (1 oz) cold creme fraiche
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Lightly grease an 8" x 2 1/2" cake pan and line the bottom with a circle of parchment.

Whisk together egg whites, 1/4 cup milk and vanilla and set aside.

Combine cake flour, baking powder and salt in a mixing bowl and mix on low speed for 30 seconds to blend.  Cut the butter into 1/2" pieces and add to the flour mixture with the 1/4 cup remaining milk.  Mix on low speed until moistened.  Increase to medium speed and beat for 1 1/2 minutes.  Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl.  Gradually add the egg white and milk mixture in 3 batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition to incorporate the ingredients and strengthen the structure.  Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly to level it.

Bake until golden brown and a tester inserted into the center comes out clean, 30 - 32 minutes.  Place on a rack to cool for 10 minutes.  Run a knife around the edge to loosen. Invert the cake.  Carefully remove the parchment and invert again.  Cool completely.

For the compote, place the sliced rhubarb in a saucepan with the sugar, orange zest and vanilla bean.  Cook over medium low heat for about 10 minutes or until the fruit softens but still holds its shape.  Take off the heat and remove the vanilla pod.  Slice the strawberries into bite-sized pieces and toss with the rhubarb.

To assemble, whip the cold cream, sugar and vanilla to a medium stiff peak.  Chill until ready to use.

Place the cake on a cake board, removable tart pan bottom or a serving platter.  Slice the cake in half horizontally and set the top half aside.   Spread the fruit compote on the bottom half to within 1/2" of the border.  Place the top of the cake over the fruit and press gently to secure.  Slather the cake with the whipped cream and chill until ready to serve.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Oatmeal Pecan Thins

I've been experimenting with oatmeal again in search of my idea of a great thin and crispy cookie.  I wanted the cookie to be full of toasty oat flavor along with a tinge of butterscotch, brittle but also a little chewy, buttery without being too greasy.  I also wanted to make a cookie without the use of flour or corn syrup.  This is the result of several iterations and tinkering.

I added nuts as a texture contrast to the chewiness.  There's honey and just a touch of molasses to lift the flavor and a hint of salty as a counterpoint to the sweet.

These are one of my favorite cookies.  Super easy to whip up a batch, they bake off very quickly in just 7 - 8 minutes and cool on the baking pan.  Savor them as an afternoon treat with a hot beverage or alongside a good bowl of ice cream.

A technical note: It appears I'm having problems with my email subscription service once again.  All of the fixes I've tried before don't seem to be working this time around.  Sincere apologies to all my subscribers.  I hope to get it resolved soon.

Bench notes:
- Toast pecans on a baking sheet in a single layer at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes.
- Finely chop the pecans so they fit nicely in the flat cookie.
- I like the texture of old-fashioned oats rather than the quick-cooking variety.
- I used a #40 scoop (1 tablespoon) to portion the cookies.
- These cookies bake very fast, just 7 - 8 minutes.  They'll look a bit wet and pale when you remove them from the oven but they continue to dry and darken as they cool on the pan.  You may want to run a small test batch first to gauge the results in your oven.  Watch them closely.  With these types of thin cookies, it's easy to go from perfect to burnt in just an extra minute.
- The baked cookies store well in an airtight container in the freezer.

Oatmeal Pecan Thins
Makes 30 cookies

2 1/4 cups (6 3/4 oz) old-fashioned oats
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 3/4 oz) pecans, toasted and finely chopped
4 oz (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons (2 3/4 oz) granulated sugar
1/4 cup (1 3/4 oz) dark brown sugar, packed
2 tablespoons (1 oz) honey
1/2 teaspoon molasses
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 egg @ room temperature

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Line baking sheets with silpats or parchment paper.

Place oats, baking powder, salt and chopped pecans in a bowl.  Toss together until thoroughly combined.

Cut the butter into 1/2" pieces and place in a saucepan with the granulated and brown sugars, honey and molasses.  Bring to a slow boil over medium low heat, whisking constantly.  When the butter is melted and the sugar is dissolved and thoroughly incorporated, take off the heat.  When the mixture is cool, whisk in the egg and vanilla.  Switch to a rubber spatula or a spoon and combine with the oats, stirring until all the ingredients are blended and there are no dry patches.

Scoop 1 tablespoon for each cookie, placing 2" apart, 8 cookies per prepared cookie sheet.  Dampen your fingers slightly and press on the center of the cookies to flatten to 2" in diameter, tucking in any stray oats around the edges to form a uniform border so they don't burn.

Bake until a light golden color, just 7 - 8 minutes.  Cool completely on the pan.  Remove with a small spatula.  Store in an airtight container at room temperature or in your freezer.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Chocolate Banana Cream Cake

The impulse to decide on which pastry or dessert to create in my kitchen is driven by various things.  Sometimes something just jolts my mood as I sift through my collection of ideas and recipes.  Sometimes it's a desire to work on technique or to evoke the beauty I've seen in a window or on the pages of a magazine.  Or maybe it's a distant sense memory of something delicious I've sampled somewhere.  And sometimes it's simply the urge to use fruit that is ripening a bit too quickly in my kitchen.  This is most often the case with bananas.  Maybe I should have a page dedicated to what to do with very ripe bananas to address our gnawing responsibility to rush to their rescue.

I know there are people out there who don't care for the combination of chocolate and fruit.  But when done in good proportion, the acidity of chocolate can be nicely balanced and matched with the acidity of berries, cherries, apricots, figs, pears and bananas.  I understand chocolate purists but I think fruit and chocolate often complement and enhance one another quite well.

Who doesn't love a bite of chocolate cake?  Add some ripe bananas and whipped cream and it becomes a dream dessert.  Although there are four components to this cake, each one is very easy to do.  The cake recipe is from Alice Medrich and is pretty foolproof.  It features cocoa powder and brown sugar, the butter is melted and everything gets whisked together in one bowl.  Then there's a thin layer of caramel sauce that's a quick simmer of brown sugar, cream, vanilla and a few grains of salt and cinnamon.  The cake is finished with an irresistible chocolate ganache.  I think it's a great balance of ingredients that works really well to produce a delicious cake that isn't too heavy or too rich.  There's definitely plenty there to fire all your chocolate pastry neurons.

Bench notes:
- My usual weight for 1 cup of all-purpose flour is 5 oz.  Alice Medrich's standard is 4 1/2 oz, so go with hers.
- Use natural cocoa powder for this cake rather than dutched.
- No need to sift the dry ingredients unless your cocoa powder is lumpy.
- Use a serrated knife to cut the cake into two layers using a gentle sawing motion.  Start by making a small 1" cut into the side of the cake all the way around, just enough to score a mark around the edge of the cake.  Then bring your knife around again, sawing a little deeper.  You'll see that the cake will soon be cut in half.  If you try to cut it in one fell swoop, you'll end up with a lot of crumbs.
- I use a removable false bottom from a tart pan instead of a cake board for the bottom of the cake.  Once it's been cut into two layers, I also use another removable bottom to lift off the top half layer and set it aside.  It will slide right off and back onto the cake when you're ready to place.
- You can bake the cake one day ahead and store it in an airtight container or plastic wrap at room temperature.  The brown sugar caramel can also be made ahead and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for a few days.
- When making the ganache, finely chop the chocolate so it melts quickly and evenly.  I usually chop mine into bits the size of mini chocolate chips.  Once you've added the hot cream, whisk slowly in concentric circles so you don't create air bubbles or cool the mixture down too fast before the chocolate is melted.  Cut the room temperature butter into small pieces and add while the mixture is still warm so it combines smoothly.
- If you use a 70% or higher bittersweet chocolate for the ganache, it might be slightly thicker so add an additional 2 tablespoons of cream.
- Let the chocolate ganache set up until it's spreadable.  Mine took about 25 minutes.  It will be soft as it spreads but will dry rather quickly once you've frosted the cake.
- Heavy cream whips best when it's very cold.  Add a couple drops of brandy or rum along with the vanilla for an adult variation.
- If you want a taller cake, use an 8" cake pan and bake the cake for 35 - 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Chocolate Banana Cream Cake
Serves 8 - 10

Fastest Fudge Cake
adapted from Alice Medrich

1 cup (4 1/2 oz) flour
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons (1 oz) cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 oz (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and warm
1 1/4 cups (8 3/4 oz) light brown sugar, packed   [I used dark brown]
2 eggs @ room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup (4 oz) hot water

Brown Sugar Caramel
3 tablespoons heavy cream
1/4 cup (1 3/4 oz) dark brown sugar, packed
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
pinch cinnamon, to taste
pinch salt, to taste

Chocolate Ganache
1/2 cup (4 oz) heavy cream
6 oz semisweet or bittersweet chocolate
1 1/2 oz (3 tablespoons) unsalted butter @ room temperature

2 large ripe bananas
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons (5 oz) cold heavy cream
1 teaspoon sugar
1/8 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Lightly grease a 9" x 2" cake pan and line the bottom with a circle of parchment.

Whisk together the flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt.  Set aside.

In a mixing bowl, combine the warm melted butter and brown sugar.  Mix in the eggs and vanilla until well blended.  Add all of the flour mixture at once and stir only until the flour is moistened.  Pour the hot water over the batter all at once and stir just until the water is incorporated and the batter is smooth.  Scrape into the prepared cake pan.  Tap the bottom of the pan a few times on a work surface to release any air bubbles.

Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, about 25 - 30 minutes.  Cool the cake in the pan on a wire rack for about 10 minutes before unmolding.  Run a thin knife around the edge to release it from the pan.  Invert the cake and gently peel off the parchment.  Turn the cake right side up and cool completely on a rack.

For the caramel sauce, place 3 tablespoons of heavy cream and 1/4 cup brown sugar in a saucepan over medium low heat and whisk to combine.  Bring to a slow boil for a minute or so until the sugar is fully dissolved, whisking constantly.  Take off the heat and add vanilla, a pinch of cinnamon and salt, to taste.  Pour into a dish and cool.

For the chocolate ganache, finely chop the chocolate and place in a medium heatproof bowl.  Bring the cream to a boil and pour over the chocolate.  Whisk slowly and gently until the chocolate is melted.  Cut the room temperature butter into small pieces and stir in until smooth.  Set aside to thicken until it's spreadable.

For the cream filling, whip the heavy cream, sugar and vanilla to a medium soft peak.  Chill until ready to use.

To assemble, place the cake on a cake board, removable tart pan bottom or a serving platter.  Slice the cake in half horizontally and set the top half aside.  Spread the brown sugar caramel on the bottom half to within 1/4" of the border.  Slice the banana in half cross wise and then split each half along the length.  Place the pieces in concentric circles on top of the caramel.  Cover the bananas with a layer of whipped cream to within about 1/2" of the border.  Place the top half of the cake over the cream and press gently to secure.  Chill until the ganache is ready to spread.

Finish the cake by frosting the sides and then the top.  Let the ganache set up before slicing and serving.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Lemon Blueberry Rolls

Today's mantra: when life hands you lemons, make lemon curd.  Which is to say, since I was recently gifted with a bagful of lemons from my mother's tree, I couldn't be happier to find ways to use them in pastries and desserts.  I have a sneaking suspicion she feels the same way.

Spring always puts me in the mood for lemon and berries.  And as we head into April, May and June, there likely will be several brunch opportunities so I thought I'd make some yeast rolls that would fit right in.  With each tart and luscious bite, these Lemon Blueberry Rolls are a little diversion from the usual cinnamon.  But they are made the same way: instead of smearing the dough with butter, sugar and spice, you spread a thin layer of lemon curd and blueberries.  Roll it all up, cut into slices and set them aside in a warm place to go through their second rise.  Then into the oven for about 25 - 30 minutes to fill your home with an irresistible aroma, a grand reward in and of itself.

Making lemon curd takes about 10 minutes.  Simply whisk together lemon juice, zest, sugar and eggs and cook over a double boiler or bain marie for about 3 - 5 minutes until thickened.  Add butter and let it cool.  It can be made ahead and stored in your refrigerator.  It's great spread on toast, scones or biscuits or used as a topping for vanilla ice cream or plain yogurt.  Fold it into whipped cream and serve with fresh strawberries or gingerbread, swirl it into cheesecake or use as a filling for sandwich cookies, a lemon tart or between cake layers.

If you're leery of working with yeast, this is a pretty simple formulation and one that isn't likely to cause any panic.  The simple and most important rule to follow is to dissolve your yeast in liquid that is 110 - 115 degrees F.  It should feel warm, not hot.  I usually just let my tap water run to its hottest temperature, measure out what I need and place a thermometer in the measuring cup.  I let it cool just a bit and when it reads 110 - 115 degrees, I whisk in the yeast and then a pinch of sugar.  (Yeast feeds on sugar but yeast activity may decrease if it comes into direct contact with sugar or salt, so dissolve the yeast in water first, then add the sugar.)   I then set it aside to proof for about 10 minutes while I prepare my baking pan and assemble all the other ingredients.  By the time I'm set to work on the recipe, the yeast is foamy and ready to go.

I do hope you'll stretch your pastry skills and get into the swing of working with yeast.  It's such a joy to experience the magic of seeing how it transforms and then finally pulling out a luscious pan of freshly baked yeasted pastry.

Here's to the coming of Spring!

Bench notes:
- The recipe for lemon curd makes twice as much as you'll need for this recipe.  Store in an airtight container and press a piece of plastic wrap onto the surface.  Cover and refrigerate up to 1 week.
- If you like lemon curd with less pucker, add the zest of just 1 lemon.
- Be sure to use a non-reactive heatproof bowl when cooking the lemon curd, such as stainless steel or glass.  Acidic or alkaline ingredients cooked in aluminum will pick up a metallic flavor and discolor.
- Cook the lemon curd, stirring constantly, until it coats the back of a spoon but is still liquid enough to pour (It will continue to thicken as it cools).  Unlike pastry cream, which has flour and/or cornstarch to stabilize it, do not let lemon curd come to boil or it will curdle. Cooking it over a bain marie helps to control the temperature.
- Lemon curd can be frozen in an airtight container for several months.
- Don't be tempted to use more than about 1/2 cup of lemon curd in this recipe or your rolls will be too gooey and the centers won't bake thoroughly.
- Everything you wanted to know about working with yeast is here from Red Star.  Lots of links and troubleshooting info.
- If you're not sure whether the dough is ready after the first rise, just press your index finger about 1 1/2" into the dough.  If the indentation stays, the dough has completed the first rise.
- After the first rise, the dough is "punched down" to release the carbon dioxide and even out the temperature.  But rather than punching, gently press the air out with your hands.
- If you're using a glass pyrex baking pan, check the rolls after about 20 minutes in the oven.  Glass conducts heat more efficiently than metal.
- I place the pan on a baking sheet before it goes into the oven to prevent the bottom of the rolls from getting too brown.
- More really delicious yeast breads: Chocolate Orange Cardamom Pull-Apart, Whole Wheat Honey Oatmeal Rolls, Challah Knots and Pumpkin Cinnamon Swirl Yeast Bread.

Lemon Blueberry Rolls
Makes 12 rolls

Lemon Curd
Makes 1 - 1 1/4 cups

1/2 cup (4 oz) lemon juice
zest of 2 lemons
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons (4 1/2 oz) sugar
2 eggs yolks
1 egg
2 oz (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter @ room temperature

Yeast Dough
1 pkg (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
1/4 cup (2 oz) warm water (110 -115 degrees F; warm but not hot on your wrist)
pinch sugar

1/2 cup (4 oz) milk
3 oz (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2" pieces
1/4 cup (1 3/4 oz) sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
2 eggs @ room temperature
2 3/4 (13 3/4 oz) - 3 cups (15 oz) flour

1/2 cup lemon curd
1 1/2 cups (11 oz) fresh blueberries

1/3 cup (40 g) powdered sugar
1 tablespoon milk
1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice
few grains salt

For the lemon curd, whisk the lemon juice, zest, sugar and eggs in a non-reactive heatproof bowl.  Place the bowl over a pan of simmering water, making sure the bottom of the bowl isn't touching the water.  Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture begins to thicken, about 3 - 5 minutes.  Pour through a strainer into a bowl and add the butter.  Stir thoroughly to combine.  Press a piece of plastic wrap onto the surface and set aside to cool completely.  Refrigerate.

For the dough, whisk together 1/4 cup warm water (110 - 115 degrees F), yeast and a pinch of sugar.  Set aside for 10 minutes.

Place the milk, butter, sugar and salt in a saucepan on low heat just until the butter is melted, whisking to combine all the ingredients.  Take off the heat, add the vanilla and cool to room temperature.

Combine the proofed yeast with the milk mixture.  Whisk in the eggs.  Switch to a fork and stir in 2 3/4 cups of flour.  Keep adding 1 tablespoon of flour at a time until the dough is no longer sticky.  Transfer to a lightly floured work surface and knead until the dough is soft and elastic, about 8 - 10 minutes.

Wash and dry the mixing bowl and lightly grease with canola oil.   Place the dough in the bowl, turning it over once to lightly coat the entire surface with oil.  Cover the bowl with a piece of plastic wrap and set in a warm draft-free place to rise for 2 hours.

Lightly grease a 10" round cake pan or a 9" square pan and line the bottom with parchment.

When the dough has completed its first rise, press down on it to release the air.  Transfer to a lightly floured work surface and dust the dough lightly with flour.  Roll out to a 12" x 15" rectangle, lightly dusting with flour as needed.

Using 1/2 cup of lemon curd, spread a thin layer over the surface of the dough to within 1/2" of the top of the long edge.  Evenly distribute the blueberries.  Starting with the long side nearest you, roll the dough into a log.  Slice into 12 equal pieces using a serrated knife.  Arrange them in the prepared baking pan, leaving enough space around each one for the second rise.  Set the pan in a warm place for 1 hour.

When the rolls are just about finishing with the second rise, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Place the pan on a baking sheet and bake until the rolls are a golden brown, about 25 - 30 minutes.  Place the pan on a wire rack to cool for about 15 minutes.  Remove from the pan and let cool completely.

For the glaze, whisk the powdered sugar, milk, lemon juice and a few grains of salt until smooth.  Drizzle over the top of the cooled rolls.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Coffee Caramel Frozen Mousse with Chocolate Crunch

Placing a spoonful of mousse on your palate is one of the most ethereal experiences on earth.  Light and foamy, creamy without being too rich or too sweet, it's one of my favorite desserts any time of the year.

Don't let the elegance and the French throw you off.  Mousse is incredibly easy to prepare.  All you need is a few minutes and your favorite ingredients and you're off and running.

Since coffee, caramel and chocolate are among my cherished tools, this mousse makes me swoon.  It's simply egg whites whipped with brown sugar to deliver some caramel notes and whipped cream folded together with instant espresso powder and Kahlua.  For some texture, I melted chocolate and mixed in Rice Krispies.  Easy peasy.

This is a dessert for those moments when you find yourself desiring luxury without a lot of guilt attached.  It's simple and sure to send you straight to heaven.

Bench notes:
- You will get more loft if your egg whites are at room temperature.  To start, whip the whites on medium speed to a foamy soft peak to unfold and stretch out the proteins before adding the sugar.   Increase the speed and drizzle in the sugar a few sprinkles at a time to ensure they are stabilizing the foam.  Beat the meringue to a stiff peak, which means it should stand up when lifted without falling over.
- Fat is the enemy of egg whites, so beat them first to ensure there is no fat remaining on the whisk.  If there is even a speck of fat, egg whites will not whip.
- Heavy cream should be beaten when cold.  Whip the cream just until soft peaks form.  The cream should have a soft lilt that is droopy.  If you go too far, it will become grainy.  Folding whipped cream also stiffens it more.
- I used 54% semisweet chocolate.  You can also use 72% bittersweet or 2 oz of each.
- Replace the Rice Krispies with toasted chopped almonds, hazelnuts or walnuts.
- As always, exercise caution when using raw egg whites.  They should be not served to small children, pregnant women or individuals who are at risk due to compromised immune systems.
- For more mousse pleasure, try the exquisite Pierre Herme's Chocolate Mousse and Lemon Mousse Tartlets.

Coffee Caramel Frozen Mousse with Chocolate Crunch
Makes about 6 servings

4 oz semisweet (54%) chocolate
1/2 oz (1 tablespoon) unsalted butter
1/2 cup (1/2 oz) Rice Krispies

1 tablespoon instant espresso powder
1 tablespoon Kahlua
3 large egg whites (3 oz) @ room temperature
1/3 cup (2 1/2 oz) dark brown sugar, packed
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup (8 oz) heavy cream, chilled
1 1/2 tablespoons (20 g) granulated sugar

Line baking sheet with a silpat or a piece of parchment.  Finely chop the chocolate and place in a heatproof bowl with the butter.  Set the bowl over a pan with an inch or two of barely simmering water, making sure the bottom of the bowl isn't touching the water.  Stir to combine until melted.  Remove from heat and stir in the Rice Krispies.  Pour onto the lined baking sheet and spread out to about a 6" x 5" rectangle.  Chill about 1/2 hour to firm up.  When the chocolate is set, cut it into small bite-sized pieces.  Set aside about a third of the chopped chocolate for garnish.  Keep chilled until ready to use.

Combine the espresso powder and the Kahlua and set aside.

Whip the egg whites until they are opaque and hold soft peaks.  Increase to high speed and add the the brown sugar a little bit at a time.  Add the vanilla and beat until the meringue holds stiff glossy peaks.

Whip the chilled cream with granulated sugar just until it holds soft peaks.

Using a rubber spatula, gently fold about 1/2 cup of whipped cream into the meringue.  Fold in the Kahlua/espresso.   Scrape the remaining cream on top and fold everything together until there are just a few streaks left.  Fold the chopped chocolate into the mousse until there are no streaks.

Pour the mousse into an airtight container.  Smooth the top until it's level and press a piece of plastic wrap onto the surface.  Cover and place in your freezer for 4 - 6 hours or overnight.

To serve, garnish with remaining chopped chocolate and serve immediately.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Best Chocolate Chip Cookies from J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

Does the world really need another chocolate chip cookie recipe?  To be honest, I've often wondered that myself.  But when you think about all the particulars of personal preferences for flavor, texture, density, edges vs. center, etc., etc., etc., it's clear we need different formulations that appeal to the myriad of individual must-haves.  And since chocolate chip is the quintessential American cookie, there's a billion solutions out there to answer the search for the perfect one.

It all started when I happened to notice a tweet from J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats and author of The Food Lab, which linked to a piece he'd written about his search for the perfect chocolate chip cookie.  The article reads like both a science experiment and a love letter, chock full of useful information and detailed notes about his process for tackling lots of questions about cookie-making.  At the end of his research, there's his recipe for the ultimate formula for The Best Chocolate Chip Cookie.  It's a fun read for pastry geeks and, if you're anything like me, his professed love for his final product will have you heading to your kitchen immediately.  When you see what a thorough and committed job he's done, you can't help but be persuaded to join in the fun and satisfy your own curiosity about his journey to cookie greatness.  I strongly recommend checking out his very useful discussion of all the elements that contribute to a delicious cookie.  His ideas and suggestions will likely affect the way you think about methods and ingredients.

To be sure, it's not essential or even likely that you choose just one and only one version of chocolate chip cookie to adore.  But I really love this cookie.  I think it has all the right ratios of ingredients.  The flavor is a really fantastic combination of buttery toffee with pockets of melted chocolate, hints of butterscotch and just the right balance of salty/sweet.   The texture is crisp around the edges with a chewy middle.  It's absolutely become my favorite recipe of its kind.

There are a couple parts of his method that some might consider a bit fussy.  But once you go through the process and taste the results, it won't seem like any fuss at all.  It does require extra time to let the cookie dough rest at least 24 hours in the refrigerator to break down the starches and proteins and develop the flavor.

Here's how these cookies are different: You start with browned butter, which is a BIG win.  It's one of my favorite techniques and adds so much extra flavor to the mix.  However, it does also add to the prep time because the browned butter needs to re-solidify.

The other thing that makes a big difference in producing great flavor is the eggs and granulated sugar are beaten to the ribbon stage to be sure the sugar is completely dissolved.  Then the brown sugar gets added separately with the butter to heighten the caramel notes.

What I did differently:  I like cookies on the smaller side, so I used a #40 scoop (1 tablespoon).  And although I love chocolate, there was too much chopped chocolate for me.  I wanted to taste more cookie, so I cut back the chocolate from 8 oz to 6 oz.  I also added chopped pecans because NUTS.  I also scooped the dough before refrigerating.  As you can see from my photos, I got smooth rather than the desired jagged tops.  On my second testing, I made the suggested size cookies, let my butter cool until it was solidified and also tried bumping up the temperature of the oven to 350 degrees F.  But those alterations didn't seem to help. Nevertheless, my cookies were super delicious and wonderful.  I'll keep trying for the desired look and texture.

So go and have some fun delving into J. Kenji Lopez-Alt's lovely adventure.  And then try out his formulation and see what you think.

Bench notes:
- Be sure to read the comments section.  He answers a lot of questions there.
- For a good illustration of how to brown butter, see the guidance at Simply Recipes.  Use a stainless steel pan so you can watch the butter carefully; it can take just a moment to burn.  Once you begin to detect a nutty aroma, it's just about ready.  I lift the pan off the heat and swirl for more control if I think it's browning too fast or nearly done.  It will continue to brown once you take it off the heat.  Pour immediately into a heatproof bowl to stop the cooking.
- Since browned butter loses some of its water content, an ice cube (2 tablespoons of frozen water) is added back in to provide that essential moisture.
- The cooled browned butter should be opaque and firm around the edges.
- I didn't sprinkle any additional salt after they came out of the oven but I really liked the amount of salt in the cookie as is.  I'll definitely try a light sprinkle of coarse sea salt next time just to see what happens.
- I used 54% semi-sweet chocolate and table salt.
- Store cooled cookies in an airtight container up to 5 days.

The Best Chocolate Chip Cookies
adapted from J. Kenji Lopez-Alt at Serious Eats
Makes 28 cookies

Note: For best results, ingredients should be measured by weight

8 oz (16 tablespoons) unsalted butter
1 standard ice cube (2 tablespoons frozen water)
10 oz (2 cups) flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons kosher salt or 1 teaspoon table salt
5 oz (3/4 cup) granulated sugar
2 large eggs @ room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
5 oz (1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons, tightly packed) dark brown sugar
8 oz semi-sweet chocolate, roughly chopped into 1/4" - 1/2" chunks   [I used 6 oz]
1 3/4 oz (1/2 cup) pecans, coarsely chopped   [my addition]
Coarse sea salt for garnish   [I skipped this]

Cut the butter into small pieces and melt in a saucepan over medium heat.  Swirl the butter carefully as the foam subsides and the butter begins to brown.  The flecks on the bottom of the pan will turn golden brown.  Lift the pan periodically to check on the browning and to avoid burning.  When the butter has turned a rich golden brown, pour immediately into a heatproof bowl to stop the cooking.  Whisk in the ice cube and place in your refrigerator to cool completely.

Whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt.  Place the granulated sugar, eggs and vanilla in the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment.  Whisk on medium-high speed until the mixture is pale and thickened and holds a thick trail for a few seconds when you lift the beater, about 5 minutes.

Exchange the whisk attachment for the paddle and add the brown sugar and cooled brown butter to the egg mixture.  Mix on medium speed just until combined, about 15 seconds.  Add the flour mixture and mix on low speed just until barely combined with some dry flour streaks, about 15 seconds.  Add the chopped chocolate (and nuts, if using) and mix on low until the dough comes together, about 15 seconds.  Transfer to an airtight container and chill at least overnight or up to 3 days.

To bake, preheat the oven to 325 degrees F with oven racks in the upper and lower third of the oven.  Line baking sheets with parchment.

Scoop out 3 tablespoons of cookie dough and place 6 - 8 per baking sheet.  Bake, rotating pans half way through, until golden brown around the edges but still soft, about 13 - 16 minutes.

Place the baking sheets on a wire rack to cool.  While cookies are still hot, sprinkle very lightly with course salt and gently press to embed.  Let cool for 2 minutes, then transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.