Friday, June 29, 2012

Almond Dacquoise with Nectarines & Cream

If you're in the market for something to do with those spare egg whites, I have an idea for you. Now that stone fruit is in abundance, it's just about time to celebrate our bounty with an almond dacquoise.

Dacquoise is a meringue that contains toasted nuts. It's another versatile pastry component for your repertoire that is very simple to make. It's classically used as a layer in cake construction along with buttercream. I was first introduced to it in pastry school in the form of Gateau Marjolaine, a complex French cake created by Chef Fernand Point and made of layers of dacquoise, hazelnut and almond praline buttercreams and finished with chocolate ganache. A very big project.

For something much easier and not so rich, I like to layer dacquoise with a billow of whipped cream and fruit or serve with ice cream and a drizzle of chocolate. The toasted nuts provide depth of flavor and texture to the sweet crunchy chewy meringue.

The method for this dessert is simple. Just whip the egg whites with sugar to stiff peak and fold in the almonds, which have been ground with sugar and a touch of cornstarch. Bake the disc until it's nicely browned, then compose the dessert with cream and fruit. You get a nice crispy/creamy dessert with a good dose of freshness and acidity from the nectarines.

This almond dacquoise would be good with just about any spring/summer fruit: apricots, plums, peaches, cherries, raspberries or figs. Or pair it with vanilla, caramel or coffee ice cream and garnish with a dark chocolate sauce. So keep this dessert in mind the next time you have some egg whites waiting on your refrigerator shelf looking for something fun to do.

Bench notes:
- To toast the almonds, place them in a single layer on a baking sheet in a 350 degree oven for about 10 minutes. Cool.
- Raw egg whites can be stored in an airtight container in your refrigerator up to four days. Each egg white is 1 ounce, so weigh out 3 ounces for this recipe if you have a stash in your refrigerator.
- Egg whites will whip with greater volume if they are at room temperature. Begin the process by whisking the whites with a pinch of salt until they are foamy and opaque. For a stable meringue, slowly add the sugar and then keep whipping until they are glossy and form a stiff peak. You test this by lifting your whisk with a dollop of meringue. It should hold its peak without slumping over. If the meringue starts to look dry and grainy and begins to separate, you've gone too far.
- Use brown sugar instead of granulated in the dacquoise for a richer, caramel taste.
- Substitute walnuts or hazelnuts for the almonds for a different flavor profile.
- For a Coffee Almond Dacquoise, add 1/2 t instant espresso powder to the dry ingredients.
- As an alternative, add a dash of cinnamon or a splash of rum to the whipped cream.
- Use a sawing motion with a serrated knife to cut into the finished dessert.
- I baked my dacquoise in a springform pan for a more finished presentation but you can simply spread the meringue on a parchment lined baking sheet in whatever shape you wish. Individual meringues are nice, too.

Almond Dacquoise with Nectarines & Cream
Serves 8 - 10

1/2 C almonds, toasted
1/2 C sugar, divided
1 1/2 t cornstarch
3 egg whites @ room temperature
pinch salt

4 fresh ripe nectarines
1/4 C dark brown sugar, packed
1 1/2 t fresh lemon juice

3/4 C heavy cream
1 T sugar
1 t vanilla

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line bottom of a 9" springform pan with a round of parchment.

Place the almonds, 1/4 cup sugar and cornstarch in a food processor and process until most of the almonds are finely ground with a few larger pieces.

Whip egg whites with a pinch of salt until foamy and opaque. Slow add the remaining 1/4 cup sugar and beat until the meringue is stiff, glossy and holds a firm peak. Fold the dry ingredients into the meringue. Pour into the prepared pan, spread out to the edges and smooth the surface.

Bake for 35 - 45 minutes until dry and golden brown. Place on a wire rack and cool. Release the springform ring and gently remove the dacquoise from the parchment paper. Place on a serving platter and set aside.

Cut nectarines in half and remove the pit. Cut into thin slices and toss with brown sugar and lemon juice. Set aside to macerate for about 20 minutes, stirring once or twice to distribute the juices and coat the fruit.

Whip the heavy cream with the sugar and vanilla to soft peak. Spread evenly on top of the almond dacquoise. Layer the nectarines on top of the cream. Serve with a spoonful of the fruit juices.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Chocolate Pudding

Chocolate pudding is most likely something you order off a retro menu or purchase in small cups at the market. It's usually an impulse buy that reminds us of a childhood memory when maybe it was produced from a box. But making chocolate pudding from scratch isn't difficult or overly time consuming, so you just might want to give it a try for the pleasure and satisfaction of a silky chocolate dessert produced in your own kitchen.

Pudding is the kind of dessert that seems like the answer to all our problems. It's definitely a comfort food to rescue you from the doldrums. This recipe isn't too heavy or too rich, just enough to provide a nice reminder of the gratifying luxury of good pudding to enjoy in the comfort of your own table.

Bench notes:
- Use your favorite, very delicious chocolate. I use only 2 oz of chocolate to avoid graininess but you can add more if you want more of a depth charge. It will have a slightly thicker texture.
- I used bittersweet (60-40) chocolate. For a sweeter taste, use semi-sweet.
- I like the way the caramel notes of brown sugar and a back note of coffee enhance chocolate. Use all granulated sugar and omit the coffee beans if you prefer.
- Keep the pudding on a low boil for about 4 - 5 minutes, stirring constantly, to be sure to cook out the flour and cornstarch.
- After chilling, give the pudding a quick whisk to loosen up and smooth out the texture.
- For the whipping cream garnish, use vanilla extract or flavor with a splash of your favorite rum, brandy, kirsch, amaretto or Kahlua. Or add a pinch of cinnamon.

Chocolate Pudding
Makes 4 - 6 servings

2 C milk
2 T coffee beans
1/4 C dark brown sugar, packed
2 oz bittersweet chocolate
2 oz (4 T) butter @ room temperature
4 egg yolks
3 T granulated sugar
1 T + 1 1/2 t flour
1 T + 1 1/2 t cornstarch
1 1/2 t vanilla
1/8 t salt, to taste

3/4 C heavy cream
1 T granulated sugar
1 t vanilla or rum, brandy or favorite liqueur

Place the milk, coffee beans and brown sugar in a saucepan. Bring to a slow simmer over medium low heat until sugar is dissolved. Take off heat, cover and steep while you assemble and prepare the other ingredients.

Finely chop the chocolate and place in a medium bowl. Cut the butter into very small pieces and add to the chopped chocolate. Set aside.

Whisk together the egg yolks and granulated sugar until combined. Add the flour and cornstarch and whisk until thoroughly blended. The mixture will be thickened and lemon-colored.

Re-warm the milk and bring to a simmer. Strain half of it into the egg yolks, whisking quickly and thoroughly. Strain the remaining milk into the bowl and whisk. Return the mixture to the saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until it comes to a slow boil and begins to thicken. This will take about 1 - 2 minutes. Continue stirring and cooking for another couple of minutes until smooth and thick. Pour into the bowl with chopped chocolate and butter and let it sit for a minute or two. Then slowly whisk to incorporate everything. Add the vanilla and blend. Add salt, to taste. Pour through a strainer into a clean container. Press a piece of plastic into the surface and refrigerate.

To serve, whip the heavy cream with sugar and flavoring of choice until it holds a medium soft peak. Whisk the pudding to loosen. Dish into bowls and dollop with whipped cream.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Banana Sauce Cake

This is another one of those cakes that you make when you're staring at a couple of bananas in your kitchen that are about to blow. It's also one of those really easy self-saucing comfort food cakes that remind us that baking is sometimes like a crazy science experiment. These recipes have two basic components: a cake batter and then a liquid topping that sits on top of the batter. As the cake bakes, the liquid gets absorbed into the cake but also somehow produces a sauce on the bottom. Weird, I know.

Along with our very ripe bananas, this cake has all the usual elements as well as quite a lot of leavening to help make all the magic work. I browned the butter for added flavor, which I think goes nicely with the whole mixture. My liquid concoction includes ingredients that love to hang out with bananas - brown sugar, molasses, cinnamon, nutmeg, a pat of butter for richness and just a few grains of salt to coax out every inch of flavor.

The cake smells great as it's baking. I served it with some caramel ice cream. Vanilla, of course, is always welcome.

Bench notes:
- Bananas should be very ripe. You know the ones!
- Browning butter takes just a couple of minutes with this small quantity. Here are some tips: 1) Use a stainless steel pan so you can best gauge the color of the butter as it starts to brown. 2) Cut the butter into small uniform pieces so it melts consistently without spot scorching. 3) I use medium heat. As the butter starts to melt and heat up, you'll notice small bubbles on the surface that get larger. At this point, lift the pan off the heat and swirl the butter. Put it back on the heat and lift the pan repeatedly to control the cooking. You'll notice the milk solids starting to brown on the bottom of the pan very quickly. Keep your eyes on this and keep swirling because it will be done very quickly after you notice the first brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Stop when you think it's almost there and it just begins to smoke a bit. It will continue to brown. 4) Have a small heatproof bowl near the stove so you can immediately pour off the butter when it's done. I use a clear Pyrex custard cup so I can see the color. Set aside to cool. 5) When adding the browned butter to the rest of the ingredients, use a rubber spatula to scrape in all the brown bits.
- If you've gone too far with the butter, it will look very dark and taste bitter, so you'll have to start over again. You're looking for a medium brown butter.
- I meant to add a tablespoon of brandy or rum to the liquid topping but I forgot. It might be something you want to try to deepen the flavor.

Banana Sauce Cake
Serves 10 - 12

2 oz (4 T) butter, browned
2 ripe bananas
1 C flour
1/2 C granulated sugar
2 T dark brown sugar, packed
1 3/4 t baking powder
1/4 t baking soda
1/4 t salt
1 egg
1/2 C milk
1 t vanilla

Liquid Topping
1 C water
1/3 C dark brown sugar, packed
1 1/2 T molasses
1 T butter
1/4 t cinnamon
pinch of freshly ground nutmeg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter an 8" square glass baking dish. Slice one of the bananas and distribute on the bottom of the pan.

Brown the butter and set aside.

Whisk together the flour, granulated and brown sugars, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

In another bowl, whisk the egg. Whisk in the milk and vanilla. Add the browned butter and combine thoroughly. Mash the banana into the liquid mixture using a fork and stir to combine. Add the dry ingredients and use the fork to mix until you don't see any streaks of flour. Pour the batter into the prepared baking dish and over the sliced bananas. Gently spread the batter to the edges.

For the topping, place the water, brown sugar, molasses and butter in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Whisk in the spices and boil for a minute until the mixture is fully blended. Take off the heat and carefully pour over the cake batter. Do not stir or mix in the liquid in any way. The liquid should just sit on top of the cake batter.

Bake the cake for 25 - 30 minutes or until the cake is golden brown and springs back when touched. Serve warm.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Strawberry Sour Cream Ice Cream

It's strawberry season and time for some ice cream!

This is another very easy recipe from David Lebovitz that can be put together in just a few minutes. If you can locate some beautifully ripe and sweet strawberries, the only thing left to do is to slice them, toss them with sugar and let them sit for an hour to create some delicious juices. Then puree them and whisk in equal parts sour cream and heavy cream and a splash of lemon juice. Chill thoroughly, run the mixture through your ice cream machine and you're set to enjoy some creamy and refreshing strawberry ice cream. It doesn't get much easier!

Bench notes:
- Avoid strawberries that have green or white tips. They are unripe and will not have any flavor. Ripe strawberries are uniformly red and have a high sugar content.
- Taste the strawberry puree to see if the sugar level is right. It should be slightly sweet to accommodate the sour cream.
- Strawberries are high in water content. The vodka or kirsch in this recipe helps to keep the strawberries from being too icy or slushy.
- When you pour the finished ice cream into an airtight container, pack it down gently to eliminate air pockets and press a piece of plastic wrap onto the surface to help prevent ice crystal formation.
- Since homemade ice cream doesn't contain any commercial emulsifiers, let it sit out for a few minutes to soften before serving.
- For another incredibly easy and super wonderful strawberry indulgence, try Strawberry Balsamic Sherbet or Strawberries and Cream Ice Cream.

Strawberry Sour Cream Ice Cream
Makes about 1 1/4 quarts

1 lb fresh strawberries
3/4 C sugar
1 T vodka or kirsch
1 C sour cream
1 C heavy cream
1/2 t lemon juice

Hull and slice the strawberries and toss them in a bowl with the sugar and vodka or kirsch. Stir a few times to help the sugar dissolve and coat the fruit. Let stand at room temperature for 1 hour, stirring occasionally.

Place the strawberries and their juices in the bowl of a food processor or blender and puree the mixture. Add the sour cream, heavy cream and lemon juice and blend until almost smooth. Refrigerate until thoroughly chilled.

Freeze in your ice cream maker according to manufacturer's instructions. Pour into a container, press a piece of plastic onto the surface, cover and freeze to firm up.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Olive Oil Sponge Cake with Apricots

Sponge cake is a basic pastry tool to add to your repertoire, a light cake to soak up all those delicious juices from our luscious fresh fruit of the spring and summer season. It's also used to create trifles, charlottes, simple jam cakes or tiramisu. So it's a good versatile cake to master.  Yet a lot of bakers aren't very comfortable working with genoise or sponge cake recipes because they can sometimes be fussy to produce. However, this recipe is one of the easiest cakes I've ever made. With just a few ingredients and the substitution of olive oil for butter, it assembles in no time and bakes off beautifully with no collapsing or excessive dryness.

The key to success with sponge cakes, or foam cakes as they are also called, is beating the eggs. Because there's no leavening in the cake, a lot of air must be beaten into the eggs and sugar until the mixture reaches a ribbon stage, which is a thickening of the batter and a tripling in volume. You test for the ribbon stage by stopping and lifting the whisk up and if the batter streams down from the whisk and forms a cascading ribbon on the surface that holds for a few seconds, you're there. This method ensures a maximum of air is beaten into the egg and sugar mixture so the structure of the cake will be stable.

This recipe has a bit of a different approach to both ingredients and method. Most sponge cakes call for cake flour for a very delicate crumb. This cake uses all-purpose flour, which I think may help to keep it sturdy. Once the ribbon stage is reached, the olive oil is slowly drizzled into the mixer rather than the classic method of folding in the fat at the very end. The cake bakes in the standard 25 - 30 minutes in a 350 degree oven. Once it's placed on a cooling rack after 10 minutes, the ring of the springform pan is removed and the cake is cooled completely. If you haven't had success with foam cakes before, I suggest you try this one.

Since we're now luxuriating in apricot season, I thought it would be fun to pair this cake with a simple honey and vanilla apricot compote and cream. Fresh strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, peaches or any fresh fruit would also be perfect. Just macerate the fruit in sugar to produce some delicious juices.

This pastry is called a "sponge" cake because it's usually imbibed with a liquid. For the purpose of my photographs, I left the cake as is so you could see the beautiful crumb, but be sure to serve the cake with plenty of compote syrup and cream.

Bench notes:
- For best success with cake, eggs should always be at room temperature.
- When baked, this cake rises to the top of the pan, so be sure you're using a pan that is at least 9" x 2 1/2".
- The original recipe is presented by weight, which I've included here.
- The instructions are for a stand mixer. If you're using a hand mixer, it will take a bit longer to get the eggs and sugar to the ribbon stage. Just keep checking once you think you're there. I lift the beater about 6" and scrawl out my initials. If they hold for a moment by the time I've finished, it's ready.
- I added 1 teaspoon of vanilla and 1/8 teaspoon of salt to the recipe as written, which are necessary to add flavor to the cake. Or you can also add 1 tablespoon of brandy or rum or the zest of one lemon or orange or a dash of good almond extract.
- Folding the batter means running your rubber spatula around the sides and the bottom of the bowl and gently making a cutting motion through the center of the batter, while rotating the bowl with your free hand. The goal is to incorporate dry ingredients without sacrificing the airy loft of the batter.
- Simmer the apricots on very low heat to preserve their flavor and texture. They made need next to no cooking if they are very ripe.
- You can prepare the apricots ahead of time. Store the fruit and the syrup separately in the refrigerator.
- Sponge cakes are often imbibed with simple syrup combined with a flavoring. Bring 3/4 C water and 1/2 C sugar to a boil until sugar is dissolved. Add liquor, liqueur, lemon juice, coffee or other flavoring, to taste. When the cake has cooled, use a pastry brush to apply the syrup to the surface. Repeat until the cake is moist. When you press your finger into the surface of the cake, there should be a little bit of liquid that comes to the surface.

Olive Oil Sponge Cake with Apricots
adapted from delicious. Magazine
Serves 8 - 10

1 C + 1 T (150 grams) all-purpose flour
1/8 t salt [my addition]
5 eggs @ room temperature
3/4 C + 1 T (150 grams) sugar
3 T + 1 t olive oil
1 t vanilla [my addition]

powdered sugar, for dusting

Apricot Compote

2 C water
1/2 C sugar, to taste
1/4 C honey
1/2 vanilla bean
12 apricots
2 t lemon juice, to taste

1 C heavy cream
1 T sugar
1/2 t vanilla or other flavoring

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 9" x 2 1/2" springform pan and line the bottom with parchment.

Whisk the flour and salt together.

Using a stand mixer, whisk the eggs for about 3 minutes until pale and thickened. Add the sugar slowly and continue whisking on medium high speed until the mixture triples in size. This will take 5 - 6 minutes. It should be thick, pale and foamy and leave a ribbon trail that holds for a few seconds when you lift out the beater.

Continue to whisk while you add the olive oil a few drops at a time. Add the vanilla. Take off the mixer and sift 1/4 of the flour onto the batter and fold in gently with a rubber spatula. Continue sifting with 1/3 of the flour into the batter and folding, then half until it's all been added. Be sure to thoroughly scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl and fold only until you no longer see any streaks of flour.

Pour into the prepared springform pan and bake for 25 - 30 minutes until the cake is golden and springs back when lightly touched with your finger. Remove from the oven. The cake should immediately begin shrinking away from the sides of the pan. Run a thin knife around the edges to free any areas that may be sticking. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack. Carefully remove the parchment and cool completely.

For the compote, cut the apricots into 1/2" slices and discard the apricot pits. Combine water, sugar and honey in a saucepan. Split and seed the vanilla bean and add both. Bring to a slow simmer and add apricots. Cook on low heat for about 5 minutes or until the apricots just begin to become tender. Using a slotted spoon, remove the apricots to a bowl. Turn up the heat and reduce the syrup by half. Stir in lemon juice and cool.

Whip the heavy cream, sugar and vanilla to very soft peak.

To serve, dust the cake with powdered sugar and garnish each plate with fruit, a generous portion of syrup and a dollop of whipped cream.