Friday, January 25, 2008

Banana Cake

Alice Medrich had it right when she said bananas are under-rated. They form the base of a lot of great pastries and desserts. But today I’m thinking of a very, very simple afternoon snack cake to share with some friends over a cup of coffee or tea. Something light but flavorful to give us a little lift as the storm clouds head our way.

This cake is not terribly sweet. I choose cake flour to lighten it up a bit more than a banana bread. Lemon zest perks it up a little, too. So if you love bananas as I do, dive in. Your friends will be glad you did.

Bench notes:
- Use very ripe bananas to achieve the full flavor.
- The measurements for this cake look funky because I halved the recipe. When you double the recipe, you have a great layer cake that can be finished with sweetened crème fraiche or whipped cream flavored with vanilla or rum and sandwiched with thinly slice bananas. Or you can finish it with a chocolate ganache. Or a caramel mascarpone cream. Hmmm.

Banana Cake
Serves 8 to 10

1 1/4 C cake flour
1/4 t + 1/8 t baking powder
1/2 t baking soda
1/4 t + 1/8 t salt
1/8 t cinnamon
pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
3 oz butter @ room temperature
1/2 C + 2 T sugar
1 egg @ room temperature
3/4 C mashed ripe bananas
3/4 t vanilla extract
1/4 C + 2 T buttermilk
1 t lemon zest

Prepare a 9” pan with butter, parchment and a light dusting of flour.
Sift together the cake flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and spices.
Mash bananas with a fork and combine with buttermilk, vanilla and lemon zest.
Cream butter. Add sugar gradually and beat until light and fluffy, about 2 to 3 minutes. Scrape down the bowl. Add egg and beat until thoroughly incorporated, scraping down the bowl to be sure you have a good emulsion. Alternate adding a third of the dry ingredients and half of the buttermilk mixture, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Mix just until combined.

Pour into prepared pan and smooth out the batter evenly.

Bake @ 350 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes or until a toothpick tests with a moist crumb. Cool for 10 minutes and remove from pan. Cool completely. Store in an airtight container or tightly wrapped in plastic.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Pain d’Amande

If you love the simple flavor of toasted almonds and the texture of a thin, crisp, crunchy cookie, this is your ticket. A recipe long replicated in the pastry kitchen of Chez Panisse, this cookie is delicious all by itself or as an accompaniment to your favorite ice cream. Or maybe take a handful, crush them into small pieces and line the bottom of a juicy fruit galette or top a sundae or trifle or fool. Or turn them into a streusel or fruit crisp topping or..….whatever you please. You’ll love the rich yet simple flavor. In the Kingdom of Crazy Good Cookies, Pain d’Amande is a permanent resident.

For the busy person in you, this cookie dough is a very quick mix. However, the dough must be frozen in order to slice thin wafers effectively. So plan ahead a bit and you’ll have a great supply.

Bench notes:
- This recipe calls for raw washed Hawaiian sugar, which adds to the cookie's crunchy texture and delicious flavor. C & H produces this type and it can be found at most large supermarkets.
- The dough can be stored in the freezer up to 1 month. It should be tightly double wrapped.
- Because they are sliced so thin, be careful not to brown the cookies too much or they will taste bitter.

Pain d’Amande
adapted from Sweet Miniatures by Flo Braker
Makes 4 dozen

2 1/3 C flour
1/4 t baking soda
1/4 t salt
4 oz (1 stick) butter
1/2 t cinnamon
1/3 C water
1 1/2 C raw washed Hawaiian sugar
1 C sliced almonds

Sift flour, baking soda, and salt together.
Heat butter, cinnamon, and water just until butter is melted. Do not boil.
Remove from heat and stir in the Hawaiian sugar.
Stir in the flour mixture and the almonds until well blended.
Place the dough on a large piece of plastic and form into a rectangle block 3 1/2” wide and 1/2” thick. Freeze overnight.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Remove the cookie dough from the freezer and let it sit for about 5 minutes to take the chill off.
Using a thin sharp knife, slice the cookies about 1/8” thick and place about 1/2” apart on a parchment or silpat lined cookie sheet. Bake for 10 minutes or until almonds just begin to take on color.

Store in an airtight container for optimum crispness.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Pierre Hermé’s Chocolate Mousse

Sometimes the simplest things are the best. And after all of those holiday meals and endless temptations, what could be better than the incredible lightness of Chocolate Mousse?

I’m a texture freak. When I think about producing a pastry, the sensation of texture is always a very important element. Mousse has the lovely property of being so light and ethereal, which makes it a great way to show off the intensity of the central flavor. So I was more than gratified to discover that that my search for the perfect Chocolate Mousse has ended with revered Parisian pastry chef, Pierre Hermé.

Since Hermé is best known for his complex multi-layered flavor extravaganzas with a distinctly modern flair for design, it was a bit of a surprise to encounter this simplest of concoctions among his collections. While I’ve enjoyed executing his recipes, I sometimes find them far too rich and heavy for my palate. I always look for ways to use his ideas and assemblies in much lighter form. I’m beyond blissed to taste such a terrific version of an old French standard.

This mousse is neither too light, too fluffy or inconsequential nor too dense, heavy or cloying. The texture comes not from the addition of the usual whipped cream, but rather from a billow of egg whites. This means that as it settles on your palate, there is no extra fat to interfere with the essence of chocolate, leaving a very clean aftertaste. Hermé reveals the wonders of mousse and reminds me that it is one of my favorite mediums.

This dessert is all about the chocolate, so please splurge for highest quality. My recommendations for chocolate that you can likely source in places like good chocolate retailers or Whole Foods are Valrhona Manjari 67% (bright, bold and fruity) or El Rey Gran Saman 70% (earthy, fruity with a hint of citrus and nutmeg) or your very own favorite high quality bar. If you can get your hands on a Cluizel Maralumi 64% semi-sweet, do it! Reach for that peak experience. I promise you will not regret it.

Bench notes:
- If you’re not a huge fan of dark chocolate, you can of course use semi-sweet (reduce the sugar in the recipe) or a half-way-there of 3 oz of bittersweet and 3 oz of semi-sweet.
- Resist the temptation to garnish. It would be gilding the lily! OK, I did once plate this with a few fresh blackberries that had been spritzed with a bit of crème de cassis and it did elicit extreme moans of pleasure from a chef who said he wasn’t that partial to mousse, but that’s it! If you insist on a spot of whipped cream, make it a very, very little dollop.
- Hermé does suggest some additional flavorings if you’d like to change it up: grated orange zest infused in the milk or a spoonful of instant espresso powder, a shake of ground cinnamon or cardamom.
- As always, exercise caution when using raw egg whites.  They should not be served to small children, pregnant women or individuals who are at risk due to compromised immune systems.

Chocolate Mousse
adapted from Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Hermé
Serves 4

6 oz bittersweet chocolate
1/3 C whole milk
1 egg yolk
4 egg whites
2 T sugar

Chop chocolate into small pieces and place in a bowl large enough to contain all of the ingredients and accommodate the folding process. Place the bowl over a bain marie or a simmering water bath. Make sure the bowl is not touching the water and the water is kept to a low simmer. Take off the heat when the chocolate is melted.

Gently bring the milk to a boil. Pour over the melted chocolate and slowly whisk. Add the egg yolk and whisk until fully incorporated.

Whip eggs whites on medium speed until they reach a soft peak. Increase to medium high and gradually add sugar in a slow steady stream until egg whites are firm and glossy. The chocolate mixture should be cooled by the time the egg whites are ready.

Add 1/3 of whites to chocolate mixture and gently whisk to combine and lighten the chocolate mixture. Switch to a large rubber spatula and gently fold in remaining 2/3 egg whites until there are no streaks. Pour into individual servings or a large bowl. Chill for about 1 hour.

The texture of this mousse is lighter if served after the brief chilling. However, you can cover and store in the refrigerator up to 2 days. The texture will be much more dense.