Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Daring Bakers - Milk Chocolate Caramel Tart

Help, I am being stalked by milk chocolate and caramel. Seriously.

First, it seems that every local school, junior orchestra and under-10 sports team is fundraising at the moment, and they have all chosen these little beasties as the best means of extracting cold hard cash.

Like all desperate parents everywhere, my work colleagues have decided that the office is the best place to flog these things off. There are currently four boxes stationed within 5 seconds of my desk. They have me in a pincer movement. I generally hold out until about 4pm and then I cave. I must have personally funded at least a dozen soccer balls by now.

And then, as if that's not enough, this month's Daring Baker challenge turned out to be a milk chocolate and caramel tart. I am starting to dream about this stuff. Just as well it is so delicious.

Resigned to my fate, I buckled down and made the tart over one weekend. There are four key elements.

Element 1 – Pastry

The base for this tart is a shortbread pastry flavoured with chocolate, hazelnuts and cinnamon.

I mixed up the dough and left it in the fridge to rest. Then I went off to a cooking class which just so happened to be on tarts and pies. And the problems began.

The pastry chef who taught the class used alfoil sprayed with oil to line his pastry cases for blind baking. He folded the alfoil over the sides of the tin to protect the edges of the pastry. Naturally, I thought 'What a teriffic idea!' and decided to do the same for my own pastry.

Unfortunately, my pastry took to the alfoil like a limpet to a rock. The only way to get it off was to peel off the top layer of the pastry. Luckily, there were no holes. Unluckily, it was now quite thin. I was really worried that the caramel would just soak right into it and I would be left with a soggy mess.

But it turned out surprisingly well. The pastry was lovely and light and crisp. It was quite delicious. I’m actually quite glad to say that I couldn’t taste the cinnamon at all. Cinnamon and caramel is just not natural I think.

I also have to admit that I couldn’t really taste the hazelnuts either. I totally forgot they were even in there. Glancing through the recipe again a few days later, I got quite a shock when I saw them listed. In a total panic I raced back into the kitchen to check the packet. It was half empty. Whew!! I had put them in there alright, they were just not particularly perceptible.

Element 2 – Soft Caramel

The recipe specified using the dry method to make the caramel. Basically, putting sugar into a pan dry and heating it until it melts and caramelises. Veronica and Patricia, this month's hosts, had kindly given permission to use the wet method instead (adding water to dissolve the sugar before caramelising).

But the solid gold Daring Baker rule is to follow the recipe. To honour this, I felt that I had to at least try the dry method. I was scared stiff. I admit it. With an overwhelming feeling of impending doom, I got stuck in. It did not go well.

What I did was to set out an even layer in the pan with about half the sugar. I set a low temperature and waited. As the sugar melted I sprinkled over the remaining sugar and kind of poked at it with a wooden spoon. What I ended up with was a solid layer of unmelted sugar over the top hiding a burning molten mess underneath.

Well that was that. Almost swooning with relief that it was over and done with and my kitchen and I were still intact, I tossed it down the sink. Now I could get cracking. This time I set out all the sugar and added a few tablespoons of water. I left it to boil and pretty soon I had some lovely molten caramelised sugar. Much better.

I added cream, which I had gently warmed. While it fizzed and crackled it remained lovely and smooth. I quickly mixed in butter and left it to cool. Finally, I stirred in some flour mixed with eggs. I had no real problems with this. I sprinkled small amounts of the flour around the very edge of the bowl and then whisked the eggs in the middle, allowing the flour to ever so gradually incorporate itself. No lumps, no problems.

I had caramel. The next step was to get it cooked. This just did not want to happen. The recipe said 15 minutes at 160C. At that stage it was still perfectly liquid. 40 long worrying minutes was what it took. Finally, it was set.

Element 3 – Chocolate Mousse

This was the easiest part of the whole tart. It was simply a case of melting chocolate and folding it into some heavy whipped cream. The mousse in the photo above had only had short time in the fridge and was still quite soft. Due to time constraints, I simply could not wait any longer to take a photo.

Another few hours in the fridge and it had set beautifully, and gave a lovely clean smooth line when cut.

Element 4 – Hard Caramel

Now, I was absolutely determined that this tart was going to look nice. I have been inspired by my fellow Daring Bakers who turned out some truly beautiful cakes during the last challenge (see here and here).

If you have looked through my blog you will see that presentation is not my strong point. I am all care and responsibility during the cooking process. But once it is done I just want to eat it. My 'presentation' usually involves plonking on a plate.

Just once I wanted pretty. I wanted style. I wanted glamour. Substance is for the birds.

To achieve a beautiful effect, I decided to experiment with sugar art. I wanted to make spun sugar. I've seen French chefs doing it on TV. It looks pretty simple..............I can hear you all groaning from here you know!!!!!!

It does kinda have screaming great catastrophe written all over it, doesn't it.

Anyway, as I understood it, you simply caramelise some sugar, dip in a whisk and wave it madly over something non-stick. Right?..........Right?........There's that groaning again!!!!!!

The answer as it happens is no. No, not quite.

I started the process too soon. The sugar was so liquid all I got was a splattering of big droplets. I’m still picking them off the kitchen cupboards. Somehow, I ended with a lovely stalactite of caramel hanging down from the underside of my kitchen bench.

As the sugar cooled it started to work a little bit. Then suddenly it was too hard to do anything with. I had to chip the remaining caramel out of the pan.

But all was not lost. Like the great artist I would like to be, I saw potential. The droplets of caramel were really beautiful. They were all different shapes and sizes. I laid them around the tart in an interesting pattern.

The chipped out caramel I crushed into a rubble and added it as a centrpiece to the tart.

The little bit of spun sugar I managed to form into a few small but pretty balls. It still had lots of droplets mixed in with it though. I'm not sure how you prevent this. Anyway, I served these alongside slices of the tart.

Overall, I was very pleased with how it came out. It would never be the centrepiece in a french patisserie, but it wasn't too bad.

And how did all this taste. Delicious. I really liked it. The caramel and mousse were lovely and smooth and the flavours melded beautifully. The crunchy hard caramel added a great taste and texture accent. The light pastry also added a lovely crisp contrast.

I will make this again. I want to make it for my sister. I know she will just love it. It's almost like this recipe was written just for her.

Thanks to Veronica and Patricia for choosing a great task. The full recipe (which is adapted from Eric Kayser’s Sweet and Savory Tarts) can be found on their sites. My fellow Daring Bakers will also be posting their efforts over the next day or so. I encourage you to check them out, a listing can be found here.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

A face full of vegetables

'Mr Alph Ralph'

What the heck is this you are probably asking? Well it's my very own artistic endeavour, and here's the kicker, it's made entirely from vegetables. You would never have guessed that now would you? LOL.

There is a reason for this creative outburst. It's all because of Charlotte and Freddie over at the The Great Big Veg Challenge. It's a great site. Freddie is a seven year old vegetable hater and his Mum (Charlotte) is trying to reform him by working through the vegetable alphabet. They are up to M for Mushrooms.

Anyway, Charlotte and Freddie have now launched a new project - a mass movement of vegetable faces. I was more than happy to join in.

I wandered around the farmer's market this morning totally oblivious to quality and price. Instead I was pondering whether this or that was the right shape for eyebrows or whether parsley was a vegetable and therefore useable.

My first effort, at the top of the page, comprises alfalfa sprouts, broccoli, red capsicum, yellow split peas, carrots, green beans, red onions, pink mushrooms (name unknown), white mushrooms, star anise (it was vegetation once) and pine nuts (hey, its from a plant).

It was too much fun to stop at one. So I went onto my second effort, using much the same ingredients. I am more than happy to admit that this creation is derivative, being heavily inspired by Celia in Suffolk's effort on Charlotte and Freddie's site. She is clearly a highly creative and talented person.

'DJ Phalf'

If you feel inspired yourself, the details of the Vegetable Face Mass Movement can be found here. There also lots of other great faces to check out.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Chocolate Buttermilk Pancakes

These are my new favourites things - chocolate buttermilk pancakes.

I have been wracking my brains to think of a lively anecdote to relate about them. But I've got nothing. No mishaps, no funny stories, no great revelations. Nada. I just like them. A lot. A whole lot. A whole big lot.

They have a texture that is lovely and soft and tender and almost cake like. And they are intensely chocolatey. They have no added sugar and, as well as the cocoa, I usually add some finely grated chocolate.

On their own they are a touch on the bitter side I guess. I rely on toppings to bring the sweetness. Here I used a gorgeously rich raspberry sauce and whipped cream. Other times I have served them with an orange sauce, roasted orange slices and whipped cream. Absolutely droolworthy.

If you really want sweet pancakes a few tablespoons of castor sugar can be added into the pancake batter with no ill effects.

So there you have it. Yum.

Buttermilk Pancakes
(adapted from Cooks Companion by Stephanie Alexander)

Beat 3 egg yolks (with a few tbspns of sugar if sweetness is required) and whisk in 2 cups of buttermilk and 6ogm of melted butter. Sift over 250gm of plain flour, 50gm of cocoa, 1 tspn salt and 1 tspn of bicarbonate soda and fold in gently.

Whisk 3 egg whites to soft peaks and fold in. Pour 1/4 cup batter into lightly greased heavy pan. Cook until bubbles form and flip. Continue until the pancake is cooked through. Serve warm.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Meme - The Fantastic Four

I have been tagged for the Fantastic Four meme by Fiona - keet breeder, gardner and cook extraordinaire from The Cottage Smallholder. It seems I have to list four points in the following five areas of interest.

I like this meme. It bought back lots of happy memories. Thanks Fiona.

4 jobs I’ve had in my life:

1. Breakfast waitress – up at 5am, juggling hot plates of sausages, eggs and bacon. Can’t say I enjoyed it.

2. Customer service in a Tourist Information Office – nobody ever seemed to ask questions like “What is there to do around here?” No, it was always something hopelessly obscure like “Does this town have any buildings dating from the early 1920s?” I hummed and haaaad a lot.

3. Tutor – teaching economics as a compulsory subject to engineering students who were bored stiff and just wanted a pass. I obliged, sometimes.

4. English as a second language teacher – teaching Vietnamese children a US curriculum. I’m sure they found all the exercises about canoeing, birdwatching and swim camp really meaningful.

4 places I have lived:

1. Brisbane – I went to University there. It’s a fun, relaxed place to live.

2. Canberra – where I live now.

3. Hanoi – Beautiful, vibrant, fascinating. Riding around on the back of motorbikes. Eating delicious meal after delicious meal on tiny stools in the street, little family run hole in the wall restaurants in the back streets, and five star restaurants run by internationally renowned chefs.

4. ? – who knows where I will go next.

4 places I have been on holiday:

1. Noosa – my parent’s holiday location of choice when I was growing up. It was a quiet little beach town in those days. We would spend all day on the beach. We had foot long hot dogs for lunch. On the way home we went to the 100 flavours ice cream parlour. What more could a kid ask for.

2. East Africa – mountain gorillas, game parks, UN refugee camps, red dust and smiling people.

3. Tibet – temples, devotion, turquoise, yak burgers, breathtaking scenery.

4. Iceland – ice, steam, waterfalls, skyr, endless daylight, stark emptiness.

4 of my favourite foods:

1. Chicken Pie

2. My Mum's trifle

3. Bangers and Mash with onion gravy

4. Risotto

4 places I would rather be right now:

1. On my comfy couch, tucked under a doona, with a mug of hot chocolate and a good book, with the rain pouring down outside.

2. On a yacht cruising the Greek islands

3. Snorkelling over brilliantly coloured coral and fish in crystal clear waters off a deserted pure white beach on a Pacific Island.

4. Nibbling away at a table full of yum cha with a table full of my friends.

So there you have it. Now I have to tag four blogs. I have chosen the following terrific bloggers, who may or may not have done this meme already.

Molly at Batter-Splattered
Tara at Seven Spoons
Anh at Food Lover's Journey
Norah at Life's Smorgasbord

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Banana Cream Pie

Dorrie Greenspan is true star of the blogosphere. I have read so much about her and her recipes, I had to get hold of some of her books. I simply cannot bear the thought that I'm missing out on something (my inner child and all that). I chose this one and Amazon duly delivered it to my doorstep.

Once had I my little paws on this precious treasure I decided to take a new tack. My usual approach with a new book is to read through it and bookmark all the things I would like to make. This time, as soon as it was unwrapped I would just close my eyes and open it up. The first thing I saw I would make. From all that I have heard, it was bound to be fantastic. A gazillion bloggers cannot be wrong.

So, with my heart racing with excitement, I pulled the book open and spotted...

Date and nut loaf............okaaaaaaay. I'm sure it's a terrific cake, but I hate dates and I hate walnuts. I shouldn't have to make something I don't like, right. So it doesn't count.

Round 2.........honey almond fig tart.......riiiiiight. Where am I going to get fresh figs at this time of year. If I can't do, I can't do it, right. Again, doesn't count.

Round 3.........marshmallows.......hmmm. I made some yummy marshmallows not long ago. The point here is to make somthing new and exciting, right. No counting.

Round 4 and becoming slightly worried.......banana cream that's what I'm talkin' about!!!!!!!!!!! Perfect. So, so perfect. Luscious and decadent and something that I have never tried before.

A few days later I got stuck in. I was so excited to make this.

There was an immediate problem. Dorrie uses her good for almost anything pie dough recipe which includes vegetable shortening. What is this? We have nothing here called that or that even seems to approximate it. The only thing I could think of was copha. But I just can't imagine that it would be very nice in pastry. I thought of using extra butter, but then I worried that it would make the dough too greasy. There must be a reason why Dorrie didn't just use all butter.

My instinct was to use an alternative sweet shortcrust recipe. But I noticed that the Dorrie's good for anything dough has no sugar at all. So in the end, I used Stephanie Alexander's plain shortcrust recipe from Cook's Companion.

In the final wash up, I think that a sweet shortcrust would have been a better choice. The pie filling is not overly sweet. And Stephanie's recipe is not a good one I think. Or more likely I am a terrible pastry cook. The pastry was way to hard and bland I thought. I will know for next time.

The rest of recipe, the actual Dorrie part, went very well. The pastry cream came together beautifully and was lovely and smooth.

Adding the sour cream to the cream for the topping was lovely, giving a slight tang. I did, however, add a bit more sugar. It was great in the way that the sweetness and flavour of the bananas was allowed to shine, but I thought that they needed a bit more support. I find this unusual for a North American recipe. I generally find myself cutting back on the sugar because they are so much sweeter than Australian or UK recipes.

Overall, the pie (minus the pastry) was delicious. Custard, bananas and cream . It doesn't get much better.

Having tried one Dorrie recipe, I am of course not going to stop there. I have employed the blind opening the book method again and come up with sour cream chocolate cake cookies. I can't wait.

Banana Cream Pie
(adapted from Baking From My Home To Yours)

Bring 2 cups of milk to the boil.

Meanwhile, whisk together 6 large egg yolks, 1/2 cup of brown sugar, 1/3 cup sifted cornflour, 1/2 tspn cinnamon, 1/8 tspn of nutmeg and a pinch of salt.

Whisk 1/4 cup of the hot milk into the egg milk and then, still whisking, add the rest. Return to the saucepan and place over medium heat. Whisk continually until the mixture comes to the boil. Whisk for a further 1-2 minutes and remove from the heat. Whisk in 1 tspn vanilla extract. Leave for five minutes and then whisk in 3 tbspn of cold unsalted butter. Leave until cold.

Spread 1/4 of the cold custard across the bottom of a 9 inch pie crust. Top with 11/2 sliced bananas. Add another thin layer of pastry cream. Top with a further 11/2 sliced bananas. Add remainder of the pastry cream.

Beat 1 cup of thickened cream to soft peaks. Add 1 tspn vanilla extract an 2 tbspn icing sugar (or more to taste) and continuing beating to stiff peaks. Sir in 2 tbspn of sour cream.

Smooth cream over the top of the pie. Serve or refrigerate until needed.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Flourless Chocolate Cake

How many chocolate cake recipes do you think there are in the world? I reckon it must be in thousands, if not tens of thousands. Now how many of those recipes provide a cake that actually taste like chocolate? I mean the really deep chocolately taste you get from a block of old gold or Lindt dark wafer.

Not very many I would suggest. Sure, this is not the intent of every recipe. Some are meant to be light, some are meant to combine/contrast with other ingredients, some just don't cut the mustard. The cake is brown that's about it.

Not this recipe. Not by a long shot. I think this cake is about as chocolate as a cake can get.

This is a flourless chocolate cake. I found the recipe here on Epicurious. It is so simple to make. The only issue I had was that I found the baking time a bit off. I had to add on another 7-8 minutes for it to be cooked in the middle.

I made it for a friend's birthday party. It went down a treat. It is dense and fudgy and, as I've already mentioned, deeply chocolatey.

It has the added advantage of being gluten free. One of my close friends was recently diagnosed as coeliac, so I am slowly building up a repertoire of gluten free recipes. Summer desserts are easy. I just make ice cream. The depths of winter poses a few more challenges.

I served the cake with some whipped cream and sour cherries. I love the combination of chocolate and sour cherry. A match made in heaven. This cake is not particularly sweet. If this is not to your taste, I would serve it with sweetened whipped cream.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Blog By Mail - Look What I've Got!!!

Yesterday morning I came racing out the door, desparately late for work as usual, and almost ran down my friendly local parcel delivery guy. He is used to this (oh my aching credit card). The parcel he had for me was from my blog mail partner. I had signed up for the latest round - My Favourite Thing - hosted by Stephanie at Dispensing Happiness.

Unfortunately, I had to leave the parcel behind unopened for the sake of my future employment. It was torture. My poor colleagues had to listen to me going on and on all day about what could be in it.

Finally, after about ten years at work I got home, opened my parcel and found this delightful assortment of goodies sent by Chelsea at Tres Bon Vivant.

I knew as soon as I made the first dent in the parcel that there were chillies in there. The aroma just washed over me. Sure enough, Chelsea had included a huge bag of mild green chile powder.

And that wasn't all, there was also a bag of red cloud peak seasoning for use on venison, wild boar, ostrich, goose, duck or any dark red meats (salt, paprika, garlic, black pepper, ancho, onion, oregano, thyme, cumin, cayenne, green onion, chimayo chiles, and aleppo), la plata peak latino spice for use on pulled pork or chicken (toasted onion, garlic, salt, cumin, mexican oregano, aleppo chiles, balck pepper, chimayo chile powder) and mexican cocoa (dutch cocoa, ceylon cinnamon, vanilla powder).

Chelsea also sent me a lodo fresh adobo spice mix and a mexican mole spice mix. Unfortunately, these were confiscated by Australia's 'zealous' customs service. It seems they have something against cloves. What I don't know. Maybe they escape into the wild and choke wombats or something. Maybe they bring scribbly gum trees down with the galloping sniffles. Maybe there's a vast right wing foreign clove conspiracy to take over the floral kingdom. Your guess is as mine.

I'm sorry Chelsea. I really appreciate the thought and intentions you put into your parcel.

Anyway, along with the deliciously fragant spice mixes that did get through were recipes cards for a green chile sauce and a mole de pollo and a fantabulous cookery book 'Simply Simpatico - A Taste of New Mexico from the Junior League of Alberquerque'.

'For dessert' Chelsea included a box of chocolate orange sticks. Errrrrr....., sorry Chelsea, they didn't make it that far. They were simply too tempting and disappeared in short order. I love jaffa.

I couldn't be more delighted with Chelsea's choices. You may have seen from my mole adventure that I have made one small foray into mexican/southwestern cooking. This is an almost totally unexplored foodie area for me. There are so many dishes and ingredients that are totally alien. I am keen to learn and experience more and Chelsea has given me some wonderful tools with which to get started.

I have already picked out a first recipe to try from Simply Simpatico, Guaymas Salad which is made with avacodos, limes, oranges and jicama.

Thanks again Chelsea.

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