Sunday, November 26, 2006

Sweet Honey, Sour Cherries

A frozen dessert hardly seems the way to finish a warm, cozy winter meal. Never the less, a wildflower honey semifreddo sits on my menu. Perhaps it's the "semi" that secures this cold dessert, a perpetual state this city suffers through all winter; Never frozen solid, but always cold.

What this dessert lacks in temperate warmth, it makes up for in richness. Honey, cooked with the smoky Madagascar vanilla bean and rich egg yolks, is folded into softly whipped cream before being moved to the freezer. Because of the invert sugars in honey, the dessert never freezes completely. Always cold, but never frozen solid.

The recipe for the honey semifreddo was introduced to this blog on a sunnier day. Earlier this year, when the summer sun had yet to grow hot, the recipe was given as a perfect foil to summers abundant fruits. Named "frozen wildflower honey mousse" this dessert was covered with a scattering of fresh berries or compote.

This month the dessert is dressed for colder days, with a thick coat made from sour cherry compote, warmly layered with a balsamic drizzle. Appropriately big flavors to hold our rich honey dessert to the season.

This compote was developed first for a goat cheese-cheesecake, but has found many homes since it's introduction into my recipe book. It's tart intensity lets it sit aside rich creamy desserts, perfect for a scoop of vanilla ice cream. If you are interested in recreating the entire dessert, you can purchase a nice, thick aged balsamic to drip around the edges, or take a cup of balsamic vinegar and simmer it with 1/4 cup of sugar until it begins to thicken a bit and streak the pan when swirled. When it cools you will have a nice balsamic syrup.

Sour Cherry Compote

3 cups dried sour cherries
2 cups water
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup amaretto
2 tbsp cornstarch

1. Place the dried cherries in a sauce pan and cover with the water, balsamic vinegar, and sugar. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. When the mixture boils, reduce to a simmer and cook for half an hour. The cherries should plump up, absorbing much of the liquid. Remove from heat temporarily.

2. Whisk the amaretto and cornstarch together until all lumps of starch are dissolved and the slurry is even. Slowly add the slurry to the hot cherries, stirring constantly to avoid the starch from clumping.

3. When all the starch has been added, return the compote to a medium heat. Cook, stirring constantly until the mixture begins to bubble and the starches thicken and become translucent. When your compote has thickened, remove from heat and transfer to a bowl to cool.

4. Let the mixture cool at room temperature. Store the compote at room temperature for up to 3 days.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Lemon Shortbread

As we trudge through grey of the Seattle days, growing ever shorter, the nip in the misty air drives us inside towards comfort. Rushing for the warmth of our homes, damp layers are peeled off and traded for thick rich fabrics, layered generously with less concern for outward appearances than inner satisfaction. A favorite sweater pilled beyond repair, a much loved pair of sweat pants that should have been replaced last year, thick wool socks asymmetrical and lumpy but made by a friend with love; we are not only reaching for comfort, but for the familiar.

Wrapped thick and nested inside, preparing for a long winters hibernation from the wet, cold, daunting grey that is Seattle's winter, mother nature sends us a surprise. The clouds break, the rain stops, and through our squinted eyes, we see the sun. For a moment, the skies gleam with azure joy and the sunlight spills on the lush foliage kept evergreen by our 8 months of drip. Eyes quickly accustomed to the extra light excite at the world brightened by a rare sunny day.

The flavors of the season, a reflection of our desire to comfort ourselves, are rich, subtle, warm, and familiar. Meals created this season satisfy our mood by nature as much as by design, the seasons offerings as much a reflection of these qualities as our own desires. From the muddy soil, we are pulling hearty greens, subtle potatoes, and rich squashes. But beside these cold weather gems, slowly filling the produce section in shops is another of mother natures surprises. A bright ray of light from places sunnier than Seattle, citrus is now coming into season.

Bright orbs of color, this tart flavor brightens the comfortable cuisine we are layering ourselves with, refreshing our palates and enlivening our moods. Grapefruits, mandarins, Meyer lemons, limes, blood oranges, and kumquats, the first 4 colors of the rainbow paint winter's cuisine with exciting flavor. Like a sunbeam breaking through the clouds, I delight in welcoming citrus's return.

To begin my celebration of citrus, I am filling a cup with a rich lemon cream mousse. Blanketed in a huckleberry coulis, this intense mousse is served with a crumbly lemon shortbread. The shortbread is baked twice, much like a biscotti, to achieve a truly crumble-and-melt in your mouth quality, and packs a nice clean citrus flavor. It stores well in an airtight container and makes a welcome gift for the holidays.

Note, the butters texture and temperature are vital the outcome of the dough. It should be room temperature, soft, and pliable, but not shiny, runny, greasy, or squishy. Your finger should feel some resistance when pressing into it.

Lemon Shortbread

1 cup butter, room temp
2/3 cup powdered sugar
zest of 1 lemon
2 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
2 cups flour
1/8 tsp baking soda

Prepare a 8 by 8 inch square pan lined with parchment
Preheat the oven to 350

1. With the paddle attachment, cream the butter on a medium speed until it is of an even consistency. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and sift the powdered sugar over the butter. Mix the sugar and butter together until they are even and smooth, no more than minute.

2. Scrape the bowl well, and add the lemon zest, lemon, and vanilla. Mix until the wet ingredients are a smooth even mass.

3. Sift together the salt, flour, and baking soda. Add half this mixture to the dough and mix on low until mostly incorporated but still dry. Add the remaining half and mix on low until the flour has dissolved and the dough looks like large, very moist curds.

4. Turn the dough out onto a floured counter and finish the mixing process by gently kneading the dough. When the dough is even, press it into the prepared 8 by 8 inch pan and bake at 350 for 25 minutes.

5. After 25 minutes, remove the shortbread from the oven and let it cool for 15 minutes. Turn the oven down to 325 degrees. When the shortbread has cooled to a handling temperature, but not too much, invert the cookie onto a cutting board. Trim the edges from the shortbread, and cut the shortbread into even sized squares. Transfer the squares to a cookie sheet and bake in the 325 degree oven for another 20 to 30 minutes. The cookies should begin to turn golden, but remain fairly blond, and feel set and dry. If you are unsure, break a cookie open and check to see if the center is baked. To achieve a truly crumbly texture, the cookie must be baked through completely.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Pumpkin Cream Chiffon

Nary a soul can pass the autumn season without one taste of pumpkin. A fixture at the thanksgiving table, pumpkin pie assumes the holiday ideal. Baked into cakes and muffins, mixed into ice cream, filling ravioli, thick in soups, this orange gourd can be tasted anywhere and everywhere.

The quintessential autumn flavor, my November menu would not be complete without one dish centered around pumpkin. At Eva, a pumpkin cream chiffon is served on a chocolate crust along side cinnamon whipped cream and hazelnut praline. I call it a "cream chiffon" because I removed the airy, light egg-white meringue that is traditionally used to lighten a chiffon and replaced it with whipped cream. The richness of the cream tempered the slight bitterness of the pumpkin better than the egg whites, creating a more indulgent version of this light dessert.

In a recent post I boasted that Bay makes a fantastic companion for Pumpkin. This said, I have spiced my pumpkin dessert with a classic combination of cinnamon and ginger. Not only is this more aproachable for the massive hordes of diners coming in for 25 for 25, but it has allowed me to pair the pumpkin chiffon with a chocolate crust. Pumpkin and chocolate is a delicious flavor combination that I don't often see or get an excuse to use.

Now I have a confession to make. My pumpkin dessert has a secret ingredient. No it's not cool-whip, or a package of vanilla pudding mix, or anything that is better left a secret. The secret is the pumpkin. It's not pumpkin that I use in my pumpkin dessert. I use a squash called the Long Island Cheese Wheel. The pale dusty skin of this Cinderella shaped squash surrounds a denser, creamier mild flesh. I haven't seen it available at a grocery store, but have seen it lurking under piles of brighter colored squashes at the farmers market.

Whether I choose this squash, or a sugar pie pumpkin, I will follow a few extra steps to ensure a thick, dense puree. I might roast the pumpkin before pureeing, which allows for evaporation of much of the excess water. This also deepens the flavor by caramelizing some of the sugars on the surface of the squash. If I am in the mood for a simpler flavor, I will poach the squash in boiling water until tender, puree the pumpkin, and freeze it. Upon defrosting I will strain the puree, and let the water that has separated from the solids drain away.

Pumpkin Cream Chiffon

1 9-inch chocolate crumb pie crust

2 cups pumpkin puree
1 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp salt
9 egg yolks
3/4 cup milk
3 1/2 tsp gelatin
1/2 cup water

2 cups whipping cream

1. In a medium sized, heavy bottom sauce pan, combine the pumpkin, brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger and salt. Cook over medium-high heat for 3 to 5 minutes, until the mixture looses some liquid and becomes glossy.

2. While this is cooking, place the water in a small sauce pan and sprinkle the gelatin evenly over it. Let this bloom while you cook the pumpkin.

3. When the pumpkin has cooked enough, transfer it to the bowl of a food processor. Turn the food processor on and let it spin for 2 minutes.

4. With the food processor running, add the milk. When this is blended evenly, scrape the sides of the bowl down and add the eggs. Pulse the food processor just enough to incorporate the eggs, but no more.

5. Return the pumpkin mixture to the stove and cook over a medium heat until the mixture thickens like a custard. When the mixture has thickened, remove from heat and set aside.

6. Place the small pot with the bloomed gelatin over low heat and cook until the gelatin has liquefied. Pour the liquid gelatin into the pumpkin mixture and stir well. Return the pumpkin mixture to the stove and cook over medium heat just enough to thicken the mixture again.

7. Transfer the pumpkin custard to a bowl and place over an icebath. Stir occasionally to ensure it cools evenly and the gelatin doesn't clump. If the gelatin begins to set up too stiffly around the edges, whisk it until it disolves and is redistributed. If it still won't unclump, return the custard to a saucepan and cook over medium low heat until the gelatin melts and start the chilling process again.

8. While the pumpkin custard is chilling, whip the cream to soft peaks.

9. When the pumpkin custard is cool and starting to thicken, whisk 1/3 of the soft peaked cream in. When this is even, fold in half the remaining cream carefully with a spatula until nearly all the white streaks are gone. Add the remaining whipped cream and fold gently until the pumpkin is smooth and even.

10. Transfer the custard to the prepared pie shell and smooth the top. Place plastic directly on the surface and chill the pie for 4 hours, or over night.

Garnish with cinnamon spiced whipped cream and crushed toasted hazelnuts.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Cake Americana

I don't wave the stars and stripes, or know all the words to the national anthem. My American history is so-so, I can name about 10 presidents, and I stay as far from American politics as I can. I have seen the nations capitol, but don't scowl when I admit I was more interested in the gift shops than D.C herself. Worst of all, I have never been to Disney Land.

But don't write me off as un-American yet. I am as American as apple pie! A daughter of the pioneers, I come from a strong line of women who praised this country and their part of it through food. My deeper sense of Americana best translates through flavor.

Once a country criticized for a lack of cuisine, America is discovering it has more of a legacy of flavor than previously thought. And I, the proud daughter of this land of liberal cuisine, cling to flavors I was raised with. Peanut butter, brownies, milk chocolate, rice crispies, and chocolate pudding all deserve a star on my spangled banner, or better yet, a plate.

My chocolate dessert for the month of November is a tribute to my American childhood. A cake, layered tall, is called the Peanut Butter Chocolate Brownie Crunch Cake. Between two dense layers of fudgy brownie lies another two layers of milk chocolate ganache that sandwich a layer called peanut butter crunch. The peanut butter crunch is a rich combination of peanut butter, chocolate, and rice crispies. A sleek coat of dark chocolate glaze brings this childlike cake into the adult world, dressing it for the table.

As I have known since childhood, the cake does not stand alone (that's the cheese's job). To accompany this cake Americana is another treat from my American childhood, chocolate pudding. A step up from the pudding whose life began granulated, in a small box marked Jell-0, this pudding is made by pouring a warm custard over chocolate. A billow of whipped cream crowns the top and a scattering of caramelized rice crispies creates the final tie.

Edit: the posts just felt naked without a recipe

Peanut Butter Chocolate Brownie Crunch Cake

1 recipe Brownies, baked in a half sheet pan. This must be lined with parchment, and kept chilled until assembly

1 cup chopped salted peanuts for garnish

Milk Chocolate Ganache

1 pound milk chocolate, chopped finely
1 1/2 cups cream

1. Scald the cream and pour it over the chocolate. Stir slowly until the mixture is even. Chill the ganache until it is thick and spreadable.

Peanut Butter Crunch

3 oz milk chocolate
1 cup peanut butter
2 tbsp butter
1 1/2 cups rice crispies

1. Melt the milk chocolate, peanut butter, and butter together. Stir in the rice crispies last minute, just before assembling the cake.

Chocolate Glaze

8 oz chocolate, 64 percent
6 oz butter, cut in cubes
1/4 cup water
2 tbsp corn syrup
1/8 teaspoon salt

1. Place all the ingredients in a large stainless steel bowl and place over simmering double boiler. Heat the ingredients without stirring until 80 percent of the chocolate and butter has melted. Remove from heat and stir until all the ingredients have melted and emulsified.

2. Let the glaze cool on the counter, stirring occasionally until it is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.

Assembeling the cake

Have ready the milk chocolate ganache, the peanut butter crunch, and the cooled brownie layer. You will need a piece of thick sturdy cardboard big enough to build your cake on, or a cutting board.

1.Unmold the brownie from the pan and cut in half vertically, leaving you 2 pieces of equal size, a top and a bottom for your cake. Place one layer of brownie on the cake board, papery side up.

2. Spread the bottom layer of your cake with half the milk chocolate ganache and chill in the refrigerator for 10 minutes.

3. Spread the all the peanut butter crunch on top of the ganache, and chill in the fridge for 10 minutes.

4. Spread the remaining ganache over the peanut butter crunch. Place the top half of your brownie over the ganache, papery side down. Chill the whole cake for half an hour. When the cake is stable, trim the edges evenly to make sharp corners.

5. While the cake is chilling prepare the chocolate glaze.

6. To glaze the cake place it on a wire rack set over a sheet pan. With the bowl of glaze held about 8 inches above the cake, carefully glaze the four corners first, making sure each corner is covered. Pour the rest of the glaze over the center of the cake in a steady stream. Either spread the glaze towards the sides of the cake with a long cake spatula in 2 or 3 quick motions, or tilt the cake to move the glaze over the edges evenly.

7. Transfer the cake to the cake board and press chopped peanuts along the bottom edge of the cake while the glaze is soft. When you are ready to present the cake, transfer it to a flat cake plate.

November Desserts

Durring the month of november 25 seattle restaurants participate in a promotion called 25 for 25. Each restaurant prepares a selection of dishes for a multi choice 3 course menu. The price, you guessed it, 25 dollars.

This promotion has caught me off guard, knocked the wind out of me, and caused insomnia in the past. But as I looked at the clock at 3 this afternoon, preparing for the first day of this hectic promotion, I realized I was kind of excited. I had thought, planned, prepped, tweaked, and perfected 4 desserts over the last month in preparation for this day. And when it came time to pull it all together, I was down right giddy.

The following 4 posts will highlight these desserts. I often include recipes so you too can make what is delighting me, but these posts will be void of instruction. My chores this month are comitted to massive reproduction fo these desserts rather than recipe composition.