Saturday, December 22, 2007

Christmastime is here...

As you may have known already, I approach Christmas with mixed feelings. I despise the over-the-top commercial feel that the season now has but I love that it is the time of the year that everyone (and I mean, everyone!) tries to be kind. Growing up in Indonesia, my family never celebrated Christmas. We usually had a Christmas tree in the house though. Kinda weird, isn't it? Raised in a Muslim country, with Chinese parents and educated in a Catholic convent, it's little wonder that I'm confused! :)

It's unfortunate that I'm stuck in Chicago for the holidays, with my family so far away. I'm quite jealous of my friends who are going home to be with their families. If only my family didn't live so far away... Also, I'm going in to the lab this weekend, on Christmas Eve and day. I know, I know, pathetic, I know.

Fortunately, I have this month's Daring Bakers' challenge to console me: the Yule log or the buche de Noel. As you may know already, it is a traditional Christmas dessert in France and Quebec. According to Wikipedia, Napoleon ordered Parisians to keep their chimneys closed during winter due to the belief that exposure to cold air causes health problems. This perevented Parisians from using the fireplace and engaging in traditions involving the hearth. Supposedly, French bakers invented this sweet log-shaped dessert as a symbolic replacement around which families can gather and continue their traditions.

I have actually made a chocolate buche de Noel for a friend's Christmas gathering a few years back. It was super rich, chocolatey and decadent. Anyway, I just remember really liking it! Ivonne and Lisa are kindly hosting this month's challenge and the besides the basic genoise, dark buttercream (one strict rule is that it has to be dark!) and mushroom decorations, we're free to go crazy! Yippee!

The sources of the recipe are from Perfect Cakes by Nick Malgieri and The Williams-Sonoma Collection: Dessert.

Unlike the previous 3 DB challenges I've made, I managed to fudge this one up real bad. And I mean, pretty badly. I had to make each component of the yule log twice! Yes, the genoise, buttercream and meringues. Twice! Fortunately, they improved the second time I made them otherwise, I would've totally given up! The genoise cake recipe seems simple enough with the usual ingredients such as eggs, sugar, flour and cornstarch. The first time around, I spread the batter too thinly and baked it for too long. As you can see below, the sides were browned.

As a matter of fact, the cake nearer to the sides was baked to a crisp. I only made 2/3 of the genoise recipe and I think I might've spread it too thinly on the jelly roll pan. Big mistake! The second time around, I made followed the recipe as is and baked it for only 10 minutes. I also let the batter expand even more in volume before adding the flour mixture. Even though it looked allright, the genoise was a tad dry for my taste. I added a splash of vanilla extract into the batter, which made it very fragrant, but other than that, it's rather bland.

I decided to try out a luscious-looking raspberry jam I bought from the local grocery store as the filling. I mean, check out the label! It says "More Fruit than Regular Preserves". Now, who doesn't want that? Talk about raspberry, I miss summer already not because of the heat (oh, I hate summer heat and humodity!) but because of berries, which are my absolute favorite things in the world! So anyway, after spreading the filling oh-so carefully on the genoise, it's time to roll!

Unlike the thin, elegant yule logs I made previously and that I've seen on TV and in magazines, I decided to do something different (and a little crazy. Well, maybe a lot crazy). I though it would be interesting to make a thick log. I guess looking at my creation now, it's more like a stump than a log. Haha! To do so, I cut the genoise into 4 strips length-wise.

Rolling the genoise was a tad tricky but I manages to not ruin it, fortunately. The first strip was rolled into a tight cylinder. The next strip of cake was then just rolled around the first cylinder of genoise and so on, until all the cake is used up. Check it out!

Next, comes the buttercream. The recipe supplied was for a coffee buttercream. I personally have an aversion to coffee. I also don't like coffee flavored stuff (with the exception of coffee ice cream), so I decided to go with a chocolate buttercream. My first attempt was pure nightmare, with the buttercream curdling and looking totally gross. After realizing that the meringue has to be totally cooled and that the butter has to be at room temperature, the second try went smoothly.

I had the most fun with the meringue mushrooms and other decorations. I simply adore meringue. They're light, fluffy and never fails to please the palate. I wanted to try out something that I saw on the Food Network show, Sugar Rush. In the special holiday episode, host Warren Brown visited the DC restaurant Citronelle, and learned from chef Michel Richard who to fashion snowmen out of fluffy meringue. In addition, he stuffed the snowmen with ice cream. How decadent is that? Unfortunately, I somehow burned my meringues the first time I made them and by the time I had to make the meringues a second time around, I was quite discouraged and decided to just make simple meringue shrooms :)

Even though I didn't have the gumption to make the ice cream-filled meringue today, it's something I will definitely try out in the future. As a matter of fact, I got ahead of myself today and purchased the ice cream I was planning on stuffing the meringue with. Check it out!

Creme brulee ice cream by Ben & Jerry! I've never really been a big fan on B&J mostly because I think their toppings can get too damn chunky! So chunky that I can't fully enjoy the actual ice cream. I suppose that might be the whole point of B&J ice cream but I actually like the frozen cream part better than the toppings. I'm a purist, I know. But this creme brulee ice cream isn't as chunky as the typical B&J creation. It has a nice amount of swirls of caramelized sugar and a super rich custardy ice cream.

So, this DB challenge didn't go as well as I expected. I probably wouldn't make a buche de Noel using this recipe again. But thanks to this challenge, I've uncovered a new addiction: meringue! I loved the meringues so much that I ate about half of them! Not good, I know. I'm kind of expecting a stomachache soon, but they are sooo good!!! I suppose it's not too bad of an addiction, considering I need to lose a few pounds. After all, meringues are low in fat and high in protein! Anyway, I hope all of you have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Please check out my uber talented fellow Daring Bakers' creations here!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Can you say "Chocolate"?

It is the stuff made of legends, this thing they call "La Bete Noire". Its literal translation is "the black beast" and a black beast it is. In the English language, the phrase can also refer to something one dreads or hates. Not only has there been a movie of that name, there has also been a comic book of the same title.

But among us cooks, bakers and chocoholics, it is simply (or not so simply) the flourless chocolate cake, the ultimate dose of pure chocolate. La Bete Noire first captivated my imagination when it occupied the cover of the September 2006 issue of Bon Appetit magazine. I've heard planty of this mythical creation; so rich, velvety and yet so deadly. I've always wanted to try out the recipe, but there never seemed to be enough time or the appropriate occasion for such a monumental dose of chocolate.

Finally, a lab friend's birthday on Tuesday has offered the perfect excuse. La Bete Noire was simple enough to make. Although it only has merely 5 staple ingredients, I must warn you that this cake is not for the faint of heart (or gut!), for this creation has a little more than 1.5 pounds of chocolate, half a dozen of eggs and a stick of butter in it!

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

The cake was super dense and had a nice, thick, fudge-like texture that softens up if left at room temperature. I agree with some reviewers of the recipe of Bon Appetit's website, that serving it with whipped cream would "lighten" it somewhat, ironically. However, I served it with some luscious raspberries and it was pretty awesome.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Upon the first bite, you wouldn't know what hit you. Seriously, this super chocolatey cake would knock your socks off! It is the perfect dessert for a chocoholic and it would definitely blow your guests away at the holiday table. A slice of this black beast is enough to assuage my chocolate addiction for the week. Yes! Seriously, it's THAT chocolatey.

Would I make it again? Probably, some time in the future. This cake was a cinch to make and turned out delicious. I would totally recommend this for your holiday table, especially if you're a chocolate-lover!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Bah, humbug!

I'm in a funky mood thesedays. Despite being barraged by a constant cacophony of Christmas-y messages, I don't feel particularly merry. I suspect it's the combination of experiments not working in the lab, being single and having my family sooo far away during this season that celebrates together-ness. To counteract this negative energy, I decided to try to get into the holiday mood by writing up Christmas cards and baking some homemade gifts.

I recently saw an entry on Jenjen's blog about Martha Stewart's double chocolate cookies and was salivating at the sight of those decadent goodies. And what better way to get into the holiday mood than baking some cookies for friends? Although it's a simple recipe, I managed to fudge it up a bit by not reading it completely before starting to whip the butter with the sugar. After whipping, I noticed that the consistency of the butter-sugar mixture didn't look right. Upon re-reading of the recipe, I realized that I had to melt the butter with the bittersweet chocolate before mixing in the sugar. Fortunately, I didn't have to start from scratch and the batter turned out ok even if I just added the melted bittersweet chocolate into the whipped butter-sugar mixture.

Lesson to be learned: Read the whole recipe from start to finish before starting! You'd think that I would know to do this after some years of baking. Tsk, tsk!

I love that Jenjen also added bittersweet chocolate in addition to the milk chocolate, thus yielding a richer, more chocolatey cookie that isn't as cloyingly sweet as it might've been. As usual, I underbaked the cookies slightly, giving it a chewy texture with an ever-so-slightly-crisp outside that I enjoy.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

These cookies were so awesome that if I hadn't had the willpower to pack most of them in tins to be mailed to my friends, I would've consumed all of them within the next few days, which wouldn't have been good. The recipe is perfect as it is and doesn't need any adjustments, except maybe, changing the type of chocolate chips that you might enjoy more, eg. white chocolate chips or butterscotch, etc.

I must say that nothing gets you in a holiday season faster than cookies and milk!

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

I Love Mitsuwa!

Mitsuwa is a Japanese grocery chain in the US that I've been patronizing over the last few years. Besides groceries, the Mitsuwa in the Chicago suburb, Arlington Heights, has a food court comprising of numerous Japanese, Chinese and Korean vendors selling cheap and fresh hot food. They have recently added a tea house-style vendor who also sells ice cream. My last excursion there was particualrly eventful because they had a tuna carving performance that afternoon, which I knew of in advance. Mitsuwa flew in a fresh, never-frozen, 500-lb tuna from the coast of Spain to be carved in front of their patrons. Being a sushi-phile, I planned for weeks in advance to journey 30 miles (and back) in order to procure fresh tuna. Specifically, I wanted o-toro, the desired super fatty stomach of the tuna!

Despite the promise of horrid weather, I was able to convince a dear friend to come along with me. And boy, was I glad that we went! The tuna was absolutely beautiful, with its dark-colored flesh and yummy-looking marbling. The fish may not look impressive in these pictures, but keep in mind that it was already gutted and beheaded. Remember that this is all pure meat!
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Even though I already had lunch (unagi from the food court), the sight of fresh o-toro made me hungry all over again.
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

I was able to purchase about $15 worth of pure o-toro, which is considerably cheaper than what I would'be probably paid at a sushi restaurant. The "chef" was kind enough to slice them into sashimi for me and I had it with a sprinkling of soy sauce for dinenr at home. I was simply amazed at the richness and the purity of the flavor. I had never seen such extensive marbling of o-toro and this was definitely the richest o-toro I've had by far. At $15, this kind of deal is definitely not to be missed if it ever came to town again :)

My friend got a piece of the "chuck" tuna, which was also delicious. We coated it with roasted white sesame seeds and seared it on a pan. It was served with lettuce, tomato, some mayo on toasted shokupan. The sandwich was simply heaven on a plate!

As if all this fishy decandence wasn't enough, I also had dessert from the new stand in the Mitsuwa food court, Re Leaf. I had their special, which was the Matcha parfait, a layered concoction served in a clear, tall plastic cuo. It starts with matcha jelly at the bottom, a scoop of vanilla ice cream, red bean paste, some pie crust-like cookie chunks, mochi balls, more red bean, matcha soft-serve ice cream and a thin slice of buttery cookie.
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

The pastries that they added were total misses. The parfait would've been way better without the pie crust-like cookies and the slice of cookie that they topped it with. Other than that, I absolutely loved it! The presentation was very pretty and the combination of jelly, mochi, red bean and matcha soft serve made me think of similar dessert creations that I had while travelling in Japan. The flavors were very strong and authentic. In combination, they marry very well together. If you're in the Arlingto Heights area, don't miss Mitsuwa. That place is an absolute treat and I always leave happy!
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Alice Waters' apple tart

Despite not having had the privilege to dine at Alice Waters' ground-breaking restaurant in Berkeley, recipes for her famous apple tart has been circulating both on the internet and in numerous magazines for some time now. I was inspired by a post on Smitten Kitchen, and made the apple tart for Thanksgiving dessert.

The recipe is simple and very straightforward. I took the liberty to arrange the apple slices in concentric rings, to create a flower-like appearance. The crust turned out perfectly crisp, which made me imagine that I was eating apple pizza. Served with a scoop (or two) of light vanilla ice cream, it was the perfect ending to a decadent Thanksgiving meal.
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Click to Join the Foodie Blogroll

Click here to join