Friday, January 27, 2006

Marshmallows

I was warned in August, that when cold weather rolled around it would be time for me to make marshmallows. I am not sure how I was supposed to use the advanced warning, or if Amy was just tired of the sunshine and daydreaming winter dreams. Soon enough, the grey days came, and shortly there after, the cold. Thus began my journey into marshmallows.

Amy brought me 3 recipes, one for standard white marshmallows, one for chocolate marshmallows, and one for old fashioned marshmallows. The old fashioned marshmallows stood out from the other recipes by calling for an ingredient I had never heard of.... marshmallow root.

Marshmallow root is the root of the Althea officinalis plant. The name is derived from the greek" Althe" which means, "to heal" referring to the plants medicinal value. Althea grows predominately in salt marshes, in damp meadows, by the sea, and on the banks of tidal rivers giving the plant it's common name, "Marshmallow". Tiny purple and white flowers cover the plant, and the young green leaves are said to be eaten in salads in France. During times of famine, the root was found to provide ample nourishment, and was considered a delicacy by the Romans. Even through the time of Charlemagne, marshmallow was cultivated for human consumption.

The plant is regarded as an herbal remedy to soothe sore throats and used as an expectorant for upper respiratory problems. In 19th century America, a throat lozenge made from whipped extract of the marshmallow root, sugar, and egg whites was given to children who suffered from chest colds. The flavor took on popularity and evolved from a hardened lozenge to the fluffy candy we know today. The binding properties of the marshmallow root were exchanged for those of gelatin, and the candy became sweeter, softer, fluffier, bearing little resemblance other than a name to the original.

While marshmallow root is readily available in capsule and liquid form, I chose to use a "modern" recipe which favors corn syrup and gelatin. The first recipe I made is representative of almost all recipes I have found. The sugar and corn syrup are boiled to 240 degrees, then whipped with gelatin for 15 minutes as high as your mixer goes. The resulting goop is spread on a greased, foil lined pan and let to set and dry out for a day or two.

I was quite pleased with the results until I tasted a marshmallow confection made by 3400 Phinney's chocolatier, Amber. I told her that her marshmallow was much fluffier than mine. She thought for a second, and rather than just accept the compliment, she ventured a question, "Do you use egg whites in yours?"

"No. I didn't know you could use egg whites!" I said.

"Oh," Amber said, "if you use egg whites, you get that melt-in-your-mouth texture."

Armed with this hot tip, I began to look for recipes using egg whites. It appeared easy, just whip egg whites and add the gelatin/sugar syrup after the whites have formed peaks. Just like an Italian meringue.

This method worked well. The texture is incredible light, melt in your mouth. I thought I was a genius, I must admit. But then I attempted to use them in a dessert I have on the menu. The dessert is a Millefuille of toasted marshmallow and chocolate cream with salted peanut ice cream. I got everything ready, toasted the marshmallow, and stacked it between layers of caramelized phyllo. Right before my eyes, they dessert collapsed, and the entire marshmallow spilled out the sides. Apparently, this method didn't hold up to heat well. In fact, it had completely liquefied, along with my "stay puffed" ego


I'll have to find out why, because logically, you can torch a meringue, and you can torch a marshmallow. So why cant you torch a marshmallow with a meringue base? There are many factors to play with, including, dare I say it..... human error?!?

While this dessert will be rotated off the menu shortly, a hot cocoa with home made marshmallows will remain as long as the cold rainy days create a longing for the warm beverage. Seattle's long rainy season should give me months more to perfect a marshmallow recipe.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Blogs givin' props to other blogs

In this little universe of food blogging, we for the most part write about food. Sometimes we write about ourselves, but mostly food. And after we put up our post for the day, or week if we are busy, we immediately start to read other blogs. And there are a LOT of other blogs.

It seems that I find a new blog every day, either through the links left on other blogs, or through the comments left behind.

If I find myself scouring other peoples link lists for a certain site often enough, I will eventually get around to adding it to my own list.

It's hard to pick favorites, I don't want to exclude great blogs by including some into my favorites. But I can't deny that I find myself tracking back to the same 10 or so blogs each day.

The blog awards are great, but limited. They include a handful of candidates to vote on, chosen by a few people. Therefore, we are forced to choose " the best" based on someone else's idea of "the best". My humble little blog wasn't included within any of the award categories, but I did receive preliminary nominations from Nicky and Sam, two of the bloggers I respect the most. This is more of a compliment to me than being given an award.

I thought instead of voting for "the best", I'd just talk about the blogs that I find myself tracking back to over and over. I, like the rest of us, have no real reason to label one blog better than the rest. But I know what I like.

I love Delicious Days. It's humble approach, amazing photography, all capture a simple love and excitement for food. While the pair of writers frequently post, they exhibit their talent, and share their culinary adventures and growing knowledge of food. Within the writing there is never anything exclusive or snobbish at all. It's the purity with which they love food that shines through and keeps me coming back.

I also love Tasting Menu. And I must admit, tasting menu was my first love of all blog loves. And what a way to start loving blogs! Much like Delicious Days, Hillel's pure and simple love of food is what shines through. He manages to eat at many of the worlds top restaurants and writes humble and honest reviews of them. His reviews are absent from the "critiques" that most reviews suffer from and instead share with us his joy and pleasure in a meal. The worst thing you will hear him say is that plain and simple, it didn't taste good to him. Nothing is out of reach, Michelin stars, and the taco truck down the road all get the same respect from this man.

While I don't live in San Francisco, I still fully enjoy Becks and Posh. It was Sams British sensibility, or sense of humor that first drew me in. It was the immense amount of writing and information she includes in her writing to that kept me hooked. And it is in her ability to celebrate everything food and all other bloggers that makes me love this blog. With her "blogger of the week" column, and her constant organization of blogging events inside and outside the world wide web, I think it's safe to say she is the patron saint of bloggers.

This is the newest of my blog loves. I don't even really know how to pronounce it or what the heck it means, but none the less, I love Nordljus. It's not just the quality of the photography that draws me in. It's the quality of everything with in the photograph. It is clearly executed perfectly by Keiko, which is a feat in itself. But to take it further, she styles the photographs to look like they belong in a high end cookbook, and then sets the to one of the most attractive and functional templates I have found. The writing is simple, clear, direct, and like all the blogs I love, abstains from any negative or overly critical statements. And who can resist that beautiful cat that shows up from time to time.

I can't help but love Moveable Feast. I love the posts Luisa writes so much, that I miss it when she doesn't post. Mostly, it is the adventures through the trenches of high end cooking that I love. It's a life I longed to live once, and while I ended up dragging myself away from my own European gastronomic adventure back to Seattle, I still delight in seeing another girl succeed in that path. While she can boast with names like Ducasse and El Bulli on her resume, her writing is absent from any bragging. Instead, she shares with the world the wonder and joy of living the life she does.

And while Orangette, an extremely well written Seattle based blog, is on my frequently checked blog list, it's the column "cook and tell" written for Saucy magazine that I love about this writer. It seems that anything written by a female that is witty and intelligent is likened to Carrie Bradshaw these days, but to liken this column to sex and the city is not far off. A lot of food, a lot of men, and an honest sassy wit that has me rolling with laughter at times, this column doesn't come out nearly often enough to satisfy my hunger for it.

This list in no way categorizes these blogs as better than the blogs not on the list, and certainly doesn't encompass the vast number of blogs I enjoy reading every day. But it does share the blogs I love, and why I love them.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Tinkering with Tarts

Tarts have a special place in the hearts of both chef's and home cooks alike. They are elegant, visually stunning, and can be filled with a myriad of delightful fillings for any season. Lacking the top crust of their rustic cousin the pie, the filling is open to display the wonders of the flavors within. And lets be honest, tarts make it possible to prepare 16 deserts at once. This is a time saving remedy that I utilize for both my restaurant menu and dinner parties. When preparing for a dinner party, the ability to prepare the dessert in one stroke, even the day before, is a god send.

Pictured here is my latest menu addition, a baked orange tart. The filling is made with 2 and a half cups of fresh squeezed orange juice that has been reduced to 3/4 of a cup. This concentrated orange flavor is mixed with zest, sugar, and eggs and baked just enough. The crust is perfumed with a hint of orange flower water to compliment the tangy orange in the filling. A slice of the tart is served simply with a rich vanilla bean anglaise for a desert that brings back memories of a creamsicle.

One thing has plagued me through out my various tart endeavors. They never look like the picture. I have had the hardest time getting the crust to be perfectly even all the way around. Inevitably, part of the dough will shrink during baking, creating a low lip in the crust. Then, to avoid the filling spilling out,the shell can only be filled to the lowest point leaving a portion of the shell raised and uneven.

I know, it's not a huge deal. Especially when you cut the tart into portions and no one will ever know of the tarts original "wabi sabi". But just as wabi sabi, or beauty in imperfection, (not a green firey paste), is the Japanese interpretation of aesthetics, perfection is the western interpretation. Within these western roots of mine I am bonded.

When I flipped through Gordon Ramsey's dessert book, I found a technique for a perfectly level tart shell. "Rejoice!" I thought, perfectly even tarts, here I come!

The method is simple. Roll the tart dough out 2 inches larger than the diameter of the tart pan to be used. Transfer the dough to the pan, centering it. Rather than trimming the dough and shaping it against the edge of the tart pan, gently fold it over the rim of the pan, letting the edges sit against the outside of the tart pan and rest on the parchment lined sheet pan sitting below.

Bake the tart shell with the overhanging dough.

When the shell cools, carefully trim the baked dough evenly along the top of the rim!

Now the filling can be poured in and set or baked. A second advantage, close behind the aesthetic value of this technique is the increased volume allowed of the filling. Because there are no recessed portions of the dough, the filling can come up to the very top of the tart, increasing the amount of the filling in the tart. While a nice tart shell is a key factor in a beautiful tart, the tart is truly about the filling. The more the merrier, so they say.

A third atvantage are the cookie shards that are trimmed from the shell. These tasty treats are never hard to give away, or devour all by yourself.

Thanks to this improvement, my tarts (and yours!) can incorporate wabi sabi in the uneven browning of a filling, the unique shape of individual fruits, the random sizes of nuts that fill the tart, all the while satisfying my western desire for perfection with the clean lines of a perfectly even tart shell. I found a deep eastern satisfaction in the uneven puckering of this orange tarts surface. It resembles the dimples of a real orange!

I wonder if Seabass likes tarts.....

Phat duck's addition 2/1/06 answering the question left in the comments,

"
Dana-I noticed you used a dark tart pan for this. I always understood dark pans to brown too quickly and to be avoided. Can you comment on your experience and/or preference?"

So here I get back to you on the pan. The black pans absorb radiant heat in the oven, increasing browning on the surfaces touching the pan. Shiny pans reflect the radiant heat. What you see my tart siting on is obviously not a shiny pan, but not a black pan either. It was a shiny pan at one time but has lost it's luster with years in the oven and become a darker grey. The poor lighting in the photograph makes the pan look even darker, when infact, it is not a black pan and still has the ability to reflect the radiant heat rather than absorb it. You are correct in recognizing that a dark pan does brown too quickly.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Concepts in infusion

Christmas brought my Santa through town. His name is Chris and he came directly from the atomic workshop of Heston Blumenthal in Bray, the north pole of molecular gastronomy. Just like the intelectual gifts he filled my culinary brain with on my last birthday so far from home, he brought with him a big bag filled with ideas and inspiration, and a few memories I almost forgot I had.

Durring the dinner we shared, one word brought back a concept I started to grasp at The Fat Duck. Not a method, not a recipe, not a new food I have never seen. The simple word "tea" reminded me of a new way of thinking about infusing flavors.

Imagine the way we make tea. Boiling water, a relatively large amount of flavorful leaves, and a resting period to steep. Now take this gentle treatment of beverage, and apply it in thought to other liquid infusions.

"We tea our stocks" Michael told me at midnight one late evening as we stood in the rain preparing to store the cooling stocks made that day. The bones and aromatics are infused with the water over a low heat, and then left to steep. After this is done, the stock is strained from the top down, leaving the sediment, bones, and what not on the bottom. The last 2 inches of liquid are also left. It is the pure clean liquid on the top that is of value. The pot is never tipped, the sediment never disturbed or redistributed into the stock.

Take this concept and apply it to icecream. Mint icecream. Fresh mint icecream that immediately brings a garden to mind. You want a clean fresh mint flavor in your icecream rather than one that brings menthol and toothpaste to mind. While reason and often recipe dictate us to boil cream and add a handfull of chopped mint before we make our custard, lets take a step back. Lets "tea" the mint by making a custard and pouring the hot liquid over a larger amount of whole, unbroken mint leaves. After a steeping time of 10 minutes the custard is strained off and chilled. The resulting flavor is clean and bright, and rather than remind us of mint, will mentally transport us directly to a mint patch.

This concept does require a bit of added time. A last minute infusion, while effective, requires us to break the herb, crush the nut, crack the seed, to release more flavor in less time. This is fine and dandy for adding a bit of rosemary to your chicken dinner. But if you are looking for a gentle, true rosemary flavor to make a baked custard sublime, tea the flavor instead. Dont dammage the herb to extract it's taste, bathe it, washing its flavor into your food.

I am going to take one more step here. Think of the flavor of a hot cup of black tea. Thin, aromatic, and tannic. Now, remember the taste of sun tea, made by leaving tea leaves in cold water in a jar on your window sill. The flavor is cleaner, milder, and much of the bitterness, or tanic quality that marks tea is left behind.

Transport this cold infusion with a long period of time to cooking. Imagine steeping a cold stock with tarragon overnight. The result should be a refreshing bright herbal note rather than the dragons bite the herb is named for.

Now if you try this at home (by all means do) and you find that it results in a weak flavor, dont fret! Don't think, "well that was a waste of time." Don't give up and resort to last minute infusions with chopped leaves. Add more herbs. Double, tripple, maybe even quadruple the amount of fresh leaves. If we use 2 tbsp of dried, concentrated tea leaves for an 8 oz beverage, imagine the amount of fresh leaves you might want for a half gallon of liquid.

Wether we apply this concept on a regular basis, or just carry it around in our minds as a way of seeing flavor addition doesn't matter. Sometimes just seeing things from a different point of view is as valuable.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The eggs and I (and some tart dough)

We have all done it, one way or another. No, I am not talking about licking our fingers and sticking them back in the bowl! I am talking about Pate Sucre. Pate sucre is the fancy schmancy (frenchy schmenchy) word for sweet tart doughs, and roll out sugar cookie dough for cut out Christmas cookies. It's a very basic recipe that everyone who bakes has come across and used.

And for such a universally used recipe, it's a shock to see the broad scope of ingredient variations recipes use. Powdered sugar Vs. granulated is a common variation. Some incorporate milk, some incorporate water. And then there is the matter of the eggs.

Recipes that don't call for eggs at all are most commonly labeled as Shortbread. These recipes are a crumbly, buttery, rich, salty cookie. They tend to keep the shape suggested to them without shrinking much, or loosing defining lines from cutters and cookie stamps. This works well with tarts as the dough doesn't shrink much from the sides of the pan.

My favorite of all the shortbread recipes I have come across so far is Fannie Farmers Scotch Shortbread. With a short list of ingredients, butter, powdered sugar, flour, and salt, this is a snap to make and the taste and texture are good.

Within the category of recipes that do call for eggs is a little used method of hard boiling the eggs and passing them through a sieve before incorporating them into the dough. This is said to be an old Austrian trick (that I learned in England from a Scottish pastry chef). The resulting texture is the driving force behind this method. The baked dough becomes very delicate, almost melt in your mouth, which is heavenly next to a soft tart filling. But there is one snag, as Nicky from Delicious Days pointed out..... Sometimes the dough crumbles too much and fails.

The benefit of the cooked yolks is their lack of moisture. The cooking process has bonded the water molecules to the protein in the yolks, so while it is still present in the yolk, it no longer has the ability to wet and bind the dough.

The down side to raw eggs is the water in them. Water, when mixed with flour activates the flours proteins called gluten. With mixing and kneading, the wet proteins begin to bond to each other building a network of strong, flexible chains. Good for your chewey baguette, bad for a tart shell. Each time the dough is gathered and re-rolled, the chains become longer and longer, and the dough tougher and tougher. So by the time you have gathered and re-rolled the entire batch of dough, you have something closer to hard tack. The Austrians were wise to this problem and boiled their eggs to eliminate the water that caused the gluten development.

But, if the recipe isn't balanced just right, you end up lacking the moisture raw eggs provided to bind your dough and your dough crumbles. Obviously you cant just take your favorite tart dough and cook the eggs. If it is a good recipe, it will be balanced to rely on the moisture the eggs provided.

What to do, what to do. On one hand, you have cookies fit for the dog's chew toys, and on the other, you have cookie crumbs. I have started to think about this in two ways.

First, you can add a minimal amount of moisture back. With a linzer dough that was crumbling on me, I found that the addition of 1 tablespoon of rum helped, but it was the addition of a single raw yolk that did the trick. The dough was still delicate but had enough strength to stand up to baking.

Second, you can think of it as a shortbread with the added richness of the cooked yolks. The recipe is balanced to lack the eggs moisture. So adding the hard boiled yolks is both flavorful, and rich without tampering with the texture. This makes for a dough that can be rolled thin and stay strong, or be left thick and still be delicate.

Third..... this has nothing to do with the eggs. It is important to remember that when a recipe calls for soft butter, it does NOT mean warm butter, or squishy butter. Your butter should be pliable, your finger should push into it easily and the temperature should be cool to the touch. (Unless you keep the furnace on full blast so you can walk around in your undies, room temp means about 65 degrees, and butter melts around 80 degrees.) If the butter is warm, and your finger slides through the entire piece with ease, you are in trouble. This means your butter is beginning to melt. If you start your dough with melting butter, it will fall apart while you are trying to roll it. Your dough will crumble whether you boiled your eggs or not. You will be amazed at the difference the butters initial temperature makes in handling and end result.

I think I may have just written the most boring blog post ever. But for those who can work through it, I hope it was informative and helpful.

Seabass


This is Seabass. Seabass loves the science of baking! I knew she was a genius.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

New Years Eve

New Years Eve is one of the biggest nights of the year for a dinner restaurant. I'’d say the biggest, but Valentines day rivals New Years Eve in popularity (but with an entirely different crowd.) The reservation book fills far in advance with patrons eager to celebrate the evening with the special menu planned by the chef. For an end of the year blow out the menu blatantly features items of luxury, in abundance.

Amy created a 5 course menu that humbly displayed decadence without the commonly used ingredients of luxury like foie gras, truffles, and caviar. Items like a smoked trout mousse and salt cod fritter started the menu along side a rillete made from duck. A very nice house made rabbit terrine followed as an "“in between"” course with a grain mustard aioli. The main courses included a wild boar chop and an amazing braised veal cheek. A cheese course was Amy'’s last contribution to the menu in a chevre tart with chestnut honey and fresh thyme. At this point in the menu I took over and provided 2 choices for dessert.

Of course, the first option was chocolate, and because I am fixated on my new discovery of ginger and chocolate together, I featured it NYE. I made a dark chocolate torte and layered it with a dense ganache that was studded with candied ginger. A fitting partner for the evening, the cake sat next to a slice of orange confit. Crowning the cake was a quenelle of whipped creme fraiche for a nice acidic balance to the rich of the chocolate, the bite of the ginger, and the sweet of the orange. Dotting the plate is a reduction of the orange confit syrup that has been infused mildly with clove.

The second option was a frozen winter spice parfait with dried cherry compote and linzer cookies. The frozen parfait was flavored with allspice, cinnamon, fresh grated nutmeg, and a pinch of black pepper. (As our server Kate put it, "“it tastes like everything I love in pumpkin pie, and but without the things I don'’t like about pumpkin pie. Which would be the pumpkin, I guess.”") The compote on the parfait was made from dried sour cherries. The cherries were simmered in balsamic vinegar, a splash of ammeretto, sugar, and water until plump again. After the cherries steeped for a spell, the juices were thickened with starch for a velvety “"goo" for lack of a better word. On the plate above the parfait was a preserved bing cherry puree underlaid with orange zest, cinnamon, and clove.

The cookies are what would be the crust for a Linzer Tart. They are made with almond, cinnamon, and brandy with a irrestable delicate mouth feel. The melt in your mouth texture comes from incorporating hard boiled egg yolks instead of raw yolks into the dough. This is an old Austrian trick that I first saw in a British restaurant and use a recipe from a French pastry chef. (Nicky.. I have a special post about these cookies and their method coming just for you!)