Monday, October 23, 2006

Sweet Bay Ice Cream

As our eyes adjust to the subdued skies, greyed with autumn clouds, and the air nips at the tips of our ears and noses, our appetites begin to crave comforting flavors. Just as we cover our heads and wrap our bodies with warm and cozy, textile layers, we begin to wrap our desserts with comfortable layers of warm spices. Inhaling the aroma of spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove may not offer a radiant heat source, but none the less, it warms us.

My own desire for cinnamon scented warmth tempts me to add varying combinations of these spices to everything I make. Cinnamon dusted pears fill my Basque cake, a vanilla cream filled delight from the French Basque region. A caramelized cinnamon ice cream, made with a Herme technique of toasting sticks of cinnamon under slowly caramelizing sugar sits on the cakes side. An apple strudle carries the traditional "apple pie" flavors of cinnamon, allspice, and ginger. But enough will soon be enough, and I can't spend the entire autumn come winter cloaking my entire menu in these warm spices.

With the temptation to over use these common spices, I have been left to find an alternative, quickly. The question is posed, how can I add warmth to my autumn menu without reaching for these spices? I found an answer in a small, pale leaf called Bay.

This humble leaf, almost forgotten to stews and soups, has ancient roots in glory and prestige. The leaf of the common laurel tree, bay once crowned Greek and roman victors, Olympic athletes, and was given to scholars and poets ceremoniously upon receipt of earned honors. Modern victors now receive recognition through gold medals and oversized checks, and the bay leaf is left to crown small glory in our kitchens.

Too long held captive on the savory side of the kitchen, these green woody leaves have a pleasant, autumnal quality reminesent of tea, magnificent in desserts. Their distinct flavor is familiar to every palate, yet offers an unexpected surprise when featured in dessert. Deep and earthy, the flavor is best presented as a companion to rich, creamy desserts.

Infused into the cream for pumpkin pie, bay offers a elegant alternative to the combination of nutmeg, cinnamon, and clove so familiar that it has it's own container in the spice isle. It is also a beautiful flavoring for a custard like creme brulee or pot-de-creme, creme anglaise, and ice cream.

Sweet Bay Ice Cream

8 to 10 bay leaves
1 cup milk
2 cups cream
1/2 cup sugar
4 large egg yolks

1. Break the bay leaves and place them in a small, heavy bottomed sauce pan. Add the cream and milk, and bring this to a boil. Turn the heat to it's lowest setting, and leave this mixture to infuse for half an hour.

2. After the mixture is appropriately infused, remove from the heat and set aside.

3. Whisk the egg yolks and sugar to a thick ribbon. Slowly temper the cream with the eggs, adding a little bit at a time, whisking well between additions.

4. Return the custard to the sauce pan. Cook this over medium low heat, stirring constantly with a heat proof rubber spatula, until the mixture thickens.

5. Strain the custard into a bowl and chill. This can be done quickly in an ice bath, or overnight in the refrigerator, covered well.

6. Churn in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturers instructions.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Baking blogs on the rise

It's officially news, although I suspect we have been in on the secret for some time now. Baking blogs are on the rise, following a rise in the popularity of home baking! But as the following article was run in London's newspaper, The Guardian, perhaps this trend has yet to move across the atlantic. Which means you can start the trend right here at home! Be a trend setter, get your cake pans, mixers, and flour covered aprons ready for the new wave of home baking.

There is one fact I must correct, however. It's mentioned that this blog is written by a former pastry chef at The Fat Duck, when in fact, I was a stagiere, or an intern.

A cake
Baking is a popular subject for food
bloggers. Photograph: Getty
Reports out today reveal home baking is enjoying something of a revival, with sales of flour, dried fruit and cake decorations up 25% and the market expected to grow to £550 million by 2011, writes Bonnie Malkin.

Baking is also proving popular online with a growing community of bloggers posting recipes, advice and proud photos of their creations (as well as the odd flop).

There are beginners, like Ben Bakes a Cake, those that can only be described as experimental bakers, such as Cookie Madness (Guinness Stout Brownies anyone?) and, of course, the more highly refined.

The Pastry Department, a blog by a former Fat Duck pastry chef, fits firmly into the latter category with heavyweight recipes such as caramel macadamia tarts and late summer coffee cake.

Bakingsheet falls somewhere in the middle, and is worth a mention for its super-cute cake names (One Bowl Buttermilk Chocolate Cupcakes, Lime Chiffon Cake, Doubletree Chocolate Chip Cookies, to name but a few) that could not fail to impress even the most cynical visiting mother-in-law.

Then there are the more savoury bloggers, such as the Foppish Baker and his endearingly-named Ugly Breakfast Rolls.

One word of warning, most of these posts are likely to induce strong urges to eat cake - homemade or otherwise.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Autumn Cake

My bible contains the gospel of Herme, Baluger, Mason, Flemming, and I faithfully worship through the recipes in their books. I sing my hymns with a choir of whirring kitchenaids, the high rhythmic soprano of beeping timers, the constant alto of zipping blenders, and the baritone chugging of churning ice cream machines. My prayers are physical acts beginning with the holy bodies of butter, sugar, flour, and eggs. Sharing recipes is a cornerstone in my church of cuisine. I take so much inspiration from those who spoke the good word before me, no to give back would be a sin.

That said, occasionally a dessert is born in my own kitchen, begat by my own two hands, that tempts me to sin. I delight in it's existence so highly that I think to myself, just this once, I'll keep it. I'll say "Doesn't every hard working pastry chef deserve one cake that no one else can make? One little cake to call my very own?"

This week, a cake that sings praises of Autumn has been my temptress. She has a dark body, bittersweet with chocolate, sweetened only with golden honey. Pears, the fat bodied angels of the season, crown this elusive lady. A dusting of sweet cinnamon finishes the cake before baking, bearing the soul of the chilling season to come.

The first time out of the oven, the kitchen staff crowded around, drawing long nasal breaths in silent prayer, humming quiet songs of praise for Her. Jen, our youngest, said finally with eyes turned upward, "it just soothes my soul".

My love for this child of mine can not be selfish, tempting though it may be. A sinner she will not make of me, and the recipe I leave to you. May it find praise on your own autumn table.

My cake is being served aside a hazelnut ice cream whose richness was tamed by a hint of cocoa powder, and a golden honey sabayon. However, a simple scattering of toasted hazelnuts is highly complimentary to the flavors of the cake.

Autumn Cake

9 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped small (66%)
2/3 cup cream
3 eggs, separated
1 tbsp cornstarch
60 grams honey (just under 1/4 cup)
3 pears (I am using Bartlett)
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
toasted and chopped hazelnuts for garnish

1. Preheat the oven to 350 and prepare an 8 inch springform pan by greasing the sides and lining the bottom with parchment. Sift the powdered sugar and cinnamon together and set aside.

2. Peel the pears, halve them and core them. Slice the pears in 1/4 inch slices, keeping only the taller pieces from the center. Alternately, for a more rustic looking cake, cut the cored pear into large chunks. Set aside.

3. Place the chocolate in a large bowl. Scald the cream and pour it over the chocolate. Let this sit for one minute, then stir until even. If the chocolate has not melted completely, continue to melt it over a double boiler or in the microwave on 5 second intervals.

4. With a whisk, mix the cornstarch into the chocolate, avoiding any lumps. When this is mixed in well, whisk in the egg yolks until even.

5. In the bowl of a kitchen aid, place the honey and egg whites, and whip to stiff peaks.

6. With a whisk, fold in 1/3 of the whites to the chocolate mixture until even. Fold the remaining whites into the chocolate with a spatula in 2 additions until even. Transfer the batter to the springform pan and spread evenly.

7. Arrange the pear slices, fat side towards the edge, overlapping in a circular pattern around the outside of the cake. Dust the cake with the cinnamon sugar evenly.

8. Bake the cake for 40 to 50 minutes. Test for doneness by inserting a knife into the center of the cake where the chocolate is left exposed. The knife should come out clean.

9. Let the cake cool to room temperature for at least 3 hours. At this point the cake can be eaten, but I prefer to let it set in the fridge overnight.