Monday, December 17, 2007

Buche de Noel

This was one of those culinary exercises that showed me why I'm part of the Daring Bakers. I took calculated risks and overcame resistance on a number of fronts. I progressed from hesitation to flow in the 4 hour process (from shopping to frosting).

Among the things I did at the planning stages included: buying a good jelly roll pan, considering if I needed parchment paper (since I had foil), and making the *gasp* executive decision to make the marzipan mushrooms with my own recipe instead of the one recommended! I plead guilty, and I hope I'm not going to be booted from the DBB's for this.

I mean, I live right by the Mediterranean Warehouse - a store that, arguably, ranks among the top for Wellingtonian gourmands (not that I am one, but...) - and if they don't carry almond paste, I don't know that New World would.

Anyway. The genoise is the best part of this recipe - especially since I kept it plain and added no flavourings. It is truly excellent and is definitely to be recommended. The texture was perfect - as Mark said, neither too dry nor too moist. I made a dark chocolate, instead of the suggested coffee buttercream - which worked well.

But not to keep the suspense any longer, here is the final product from multiple pictorial perspectives.

It will not be an exaggeration to say that Mark was impressed - he felt that the pictures don't quite do the cake justice, thought at first that those were real mushrooms (which were made with ground almonds with their skins on, so they were very brown indeed), and immediately whipped out his camera to get a couple of shots of it for posterity.

So the cake scored positively with user testing within its first 15 minutes. This Buche also reflects the sort of Christmas we have in the Southern Hemisphere. It's the sizzling summertime (with the occasional gusty spell), when people have BBQs, salads and ice-creams by the beach. So, instead of snow, there are shaved woodchips (chopped hazelnuts with gianduja shavings) instead. And crystalline slices of green glazed cherries for the grass, red for the symbolic fruit, and of course, the mushrooms.

But the overall food experience in which the cake featured is also relevant to the experience of the cake.

Mark and I made dinner before eating the log - a green curry fish dish with rice -that completely failed with my over-zealous addition of fish sauce. We corrected the dish with the ad-hoc addition of pulpy orange juice, which amazingly enough, actually worked well. Imagine two people hunkered over a small coffee table, pouring orange juice into platefuls of gravy puddles.

I can only say that the fish was saltier than salty salmiakki (liquorice). However, the excellent provolone with crackers we had with the New Zealand Gerwurz did partly compensate for the failure.

The dinner experience was also awkward because the conversation revolved around a fairly candid discussion of (pretty much) "is something going on between us?", which ended on a doubtful note. It was one of those types of dinners where stuff was put out on the table - imperfections, soft spots, inauspicious timing.

And as the conversation wore on, the cake got chucked into the fridge and forgotten.

My kitchen is the size of a closet, and is therefore not made for multi-tasking. There's just no space for two things to be done at once. In fact, I do a lot of the preparation on the stove top itself, the surface of my washing machine which sits alongside, and the space by the sink which is merely the size of a respectable chopping board. So, the cooking, setting the table, and transferring of dishes from sink to table, all took place within that tiny square foot of space in which we waltzed in a strange culinary dance, interspersed with a song about friendship, life and love all at once.

Then, Mark ate way too much of the green curry fish, and had to stand around for much of the night digesting the "baby". I had a stuffy nose, and kept rubbing at my dehydrated contact lenses.

We talked til late, but he remembered the cake just before he left. We took it out of the fridge, carefully sliced it, and ate a couple slices each. While the cake looked and tasted good, it was too cold really. Much too cold.

My journey has only just begun.

And for those who are interested, here's the recipe for the Buche:

Plain Genoise:
3 large eggs
3 large egg yolks
pinch of salt
¾ cup of sugar
½ cup cake flour - spoon flour into dry-measure cup and level off (also known as cake & pastry flour)
¼ cup cornstarch
one 10 x 15 inch jelly-roll pan that has been buttered and lined with parchment paper and then buttered again

1.Set a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees F.
2.Half-fill a medium saucepan with water and bring it to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat so the water is simmering.
3.Whisk the eggs, egg yolks, salt and sugar together in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer. Place over the pan of simmering water and whisk gently until the mixture is just lukewarm, about 100 degrees if you have a thermometer (or test with your finger - it should be warm to the touch).
4.Attach the bowl to the mixer and, with the whisk attachment, whip on medium-high speed until the egg mixture is cooled (touch the outside of the bowl to tell) and tripled in volume. The egg foam will be thick and will form a slowly dissolving ribbon falling back onto the bowl of whipped eggs when the whisk is lifted.
5.While the eggs are whipping, stir together the flour and cornstarch.
6.Sift one-third of the flour mixture over the beaten eggs. Use a rubber spatula to fold in the flour mixture, making sure to scrape all the way to the bottom of the bowl on every pass through the batter to prevent the flour mixture from accumulating there and making lumps. Repeat with another third of the flour mixture and finally with the remainder.
7.Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.
8.Bake the genoise for about 10 to 12 minutes. Make sure the cake doesn’t overbake and become too dry or it will not roll properly.
9.While the cake is baking, begin making the buttercream.
10.Once the cake is done (a tester will come out clean and if you press the cake lightly it will spring back), remove it from the oven and let it cool on a rack.

Coffee Buttercream:
4 large egg whites
1 cup sugar
24 tablespoons (3 sticks or 1-1/2 cups) unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons instant espresso powder2 tablespoons rum or brandy

1.Whisk the egg whites and sugar together in the bowl of an electric mixer. Set the bowl over simmering water and whisk gently until the sugar is dissolved and the egg whites are hot.
2.Attach the bowl to the mixer and whip with the whisk on medium speed until cooled. Switch to the paddle and beat in the softened butter and continue beating until the buttercream is smooth. Dissolve the instant coffee in the liquor and beat into the buttercream.

Filling and frosting the log:
1.Run a sharp knife around the edges of the genoise to loosen it from the pan.
2.Turn the genoise layer over (unmolding it from the sheet pan onto a flat surface) and peel away the paper.
3.Carefully invert your genoise onto a fresh piece of parchment paper.
4.Spread with half the coffee buttercream (or whatever filling you’re using).
5.Use the parchment paper to help you roll the cake into a tight cylinder.
6.Transfer back to the baking sheet and refrigerate for several hours.
7.Unwrap the cake. Trim the ends on the diagonal, starting the cuts about 2 inches away from each end.
8.Position the larger cut piece on each log about 2/3 across the top.
9.Cover the log with the reserved buttercream, making sure to curve around the protruding stump.
10.Streak the buttercream with a fork or decorating comb to resemble bark.
11.Transfer the log to a platter and decorate with your mushrooms and whatever other decorations you’ve chosen.

Meringue Mushrooms:
3 large egg whites, at room temperature¼ teaspoon cream of tartar½ cup (3-1/2 ounces/105 g.) granulated sugar1/3 cup (1-1/3 ounces/40 g.) icing sugarUnsweetened cocoa powder for dusting

1.Preheat the oven to 225 degrees F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment. Have ready a pastry bag fitted with a small (no. 6) plain tip. In a bowl, using a mixer on medium-low speed, beat together the egg whites and cream of tartar until very foamy. Slowly add the granulated sugar while beating. Increase the speed to high and beat until soft peaks form when the beaters are lifted. Continue until the whites hold stiff, shiny peaks. Sift the icing sugar over the whites and, using a rubber spatula, fold in until well blended.
2.Scoop the mixture into the bag. On one baking sheet, pipe 48 stems, each ½ inch (12 mm.) wide at the base and tapering off to a point at the top, ¾ inch (2 cm.) tall, and spaced about ½ inch (12 mm.) apart. On the other sheet, pipe 48 mounds for the tops, each about 1-1/4 inches (3 cm.) wide and ¾ inch (2 cm.) high, also spaced ½ inch (12 mm.) apart. With a damp fingertip, gently smooth any pointy tips. Dust with cocoa. Reserve the remaining meringue.
3.Bake until dry and firm enough to lift off the paper, 50-55 minutes. Set the pans on the counter and turn the mounds flat side up. With the tip of a knife, carefully make a small hole in the flat side of each mound. Pipe small dabs of the remaining meringue into the holes and insert the stems tip first. Return to the oven until completely dry, about 15 minutes longer. Let cool completely on the sheets.
4.Garnish your Yule Log with the mushrooms.

Marzipan Mushrooms:
8 ounces almond paste2 cups icing sugar3 to 5 tablespoons light corn syrupCocoa powder
1.To make the marzipan combine the almond paste and 1 cup of the icing sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat with the paddle attachment on low speed until sugar is almost absorbed.
2.Add the remaining 1 cup of sugar and mix until the mixture resembles fine crumbs.
3.Add half the corn syrup, then continue mixing until a bit of the marzipan holds together when squeezed, adding additional corn syrup a little at a time, as necessary: the marzipan in the bowl will still appear crumbly.
4.Transfer the marzipan to a work surface and knead until smooth.
5.Roll one-third of the marzipan into a 6 inches long cylinder and cut into 1-inch lengths.
6.Roll half the lengths into balls. Press the remaining cylindrical lengths (stems) into the balls (caps) to make mushrooms.
7.Smudge with cocoa powder

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

My first attempt as a Daring Baker. . .

October this year is a very special month - not only is it the month of my birthday, it's also the month of my first attempt as a Daring Baker. So, I made the Bostini Cream Pie for a small birthday celebration with Jasmin and Irene - both of whom are October babies too.

I really wouldn't say this was a good attempt. . .I mean, I've done better (even though I'm no expert baker). This cake is basically composed of three parts - a custard base, sponge cake layer, and finally topped off with chocolate sauce. I decided in the end to make one large cake rather than small-sized dainty desserts, because a) I wondered if it could stand as an actual cake, and b) I needed an actual birthday cake.
That Sunday (21 Oct) was terribly busy to begin with (fortunately, it was the Labour Day weekend). I started the day giving a presentation in the morning, literally dashed off to yumcha lunch, then dashed home to make the cake. I was hatching the plan at the back of my mind the whole time on the way home - I would make the first two layers at home, then make the chocolate sauce at Jasmin's house.

The sponge cake recipe is really a keeper. Sponge cake is normally a real challenge for me, but this turned out really well. But I screwed up the custard - I did follow the recipe, but I'm sure I mismeasured the cornstarch. It was just too stiff, and while it did chill quickly, it started sweating in the fridge.

Undaunted, I packed it all up in a cake box, dashed off downtown and hoped for the best.
At Jasmin's house (and we were joined by David and his fiancee), I made the chocolate sauce. Now, the chocolate sauce I TOTALLY screwed up, even though it clearly is the simplest part of the whole deal. Just two ingredients - what could go wrong?

Me: "Jasmin, do you have any butter at home?"
Jasmin: "Yes I do!"

As it turned out, the "butter" lovely Jasmin had was some sort of a butter spread. Neither she nor I knew that fake butter wouldn't work in a chocolate sauce. So, the "sauce", as I stirred the pot of chocolate plus fake butter, became a sort of oily black crumby muck. Weird. That's a lesson learnt, but what chemistry was responsible for this oily black product is still unknown to me.

So, I poured it out and was forced to improvise (I hope I'm not going to be denounced by the DBBs!). I was by then totally focussed on making the sauce work - "The sauce will work, dammit!" -while the bunch merrily chatted away in the dining room. I tore through the fridge, found some Yellow milk (skim), and snatched at that. I still had some Whittaker's chocolate left, and thankfully, I actually made a fairly respectable chocolate sauce out of that.

The creation was not satisfactory, but nothing, absolutely NOTHING, could get me down that day. ;) Objectively, the custard was just too heavy (in hindsight, that was how the cake could hold together), but in this recipe, frankly it just won't do. It made the cake rather heavy and too rich.

But who cares about objective evaluation right? Life, as well as food, is all about the qualitative.
Irene and Jasmin gasped when they first bit into the cake, and loved it. They ent back for seconds, and Jasmin had a third (and happily accepted the remaining 1/5 of the cake when the day ended). We washed it down with some sparkling wine - somehow that seemed to go together - and we spent the rest of the afternoon talking up a storm. And man, did we talk! The cake definitely fuelled our conversation about all kinds of cuisines.

So, the cake may not have been exactly a baking triumph, but it certainly was a triumphant day altogether!

And if anyone's actually keen on trying the recipe out, here it is:

Bostini Cream Pie
(from Donna Scala & Kurtis Baguley of Bistro Don Giovanni and Scala's Bistro)

Custard:3/4 cup whole milk

2 3/4 tablespoons cornstarch
1 whole egg, beaten
9 egg yolks, beaten
3 3/4 cups heavy whipping cream
1/2 vanilla bean (EDITED:vanilla extract is okay)
1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon sugar

Chiffon Cake:
1 1/2 cups cake flour

3/4 cup superfine sugar
1 1/3 teaspoons baking powder
1/3 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup canola oil
1/3 cup beaten egg yolks (3 to 4 yolks)
3/4 cup fresh orange juice
1 1/2 tablespoons grated orange zest
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup egg whites (about 8 large)
1 teaspoon cream of tartar

Chocolate Glaze:
8 ounces semi or bittersweet chocolate
8 ounces unsalted butter

To prepare the custard:
Combine the milk and cornstarch in a bowl; blend until smooth. Whisk in the whole egg and yolks, beating until smooth. Combine the cream, vanilla bean and sugar in a saucepan and carefully bring to a boil. When the mixture just boils, whisk a ladleful into the egg mixture to temper it, then whisk this back into the cream mixture. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Strain the custard and pour into 8 large custard cups. Refrigerate to chill.

To prepare the chiffon cakes:
Preheat the oven to 325°F. Spray 8 molds with nonstick cooking spray. You may use 7-ounce custard cups, ovenproof wide mugs or even large foil cups. Whatever you use should be the same size as the custard cups.
Sift the cake flour, sugar, baking powder and salt into a large bowl. Add the oil, egg yolks, orange juice, zest and vanilla. Stir until smooth, but do not overbeat.
Beat the egg whites until frothy. Add the cream of tartar and beat until soft peaks form. Gently fold the beaten whites into the orange batter. Fill the sprayed molds nearly to the top with the batter.
Bake approximately 25 minutes, until the cakes bounce back when lightly pressed with your fingertip. Do not overbake. Remove from the oven and let cool on a wire rack. When completely cool, remove the cakes from the molds. Cover the cakes to keep them moist.

To prepare the glaze:
Chop the chocolate into small pieces. Place the butter in a saucepan and heat until it is just about to bubble. Remove from the heat; add the chocolate and stir to melt. Pour through a strainer and keep warm.

To assemble:
Cut a thin slice from the top of each cake to create a flat surface. Place a cake flat-side down on top of each custard. Cover the tops with warm chocolate glaze. Serve immediately.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

A new era of baking

Yesterday was a very special day. It marked the threshold for this blog between "the past" and a "new era".

This blog, which up til now had an audience of one (namely me), opened up when I joined the ranks as a Daring Baker! (Thanks Lis and Ivonne!) Someone said, a blog that's not public is a contradiction in terms, and I can see what that means, but I disagree. It's not really the opportunity to say what I want to say, but the opportunity for establishing relevant connections that interests me. Otherwise, I am quite happy logging my own cooking notes.

Well, that's not entirely true. I am not quite entirely happy just doing that, especially when I can be a culinary guerilla instead! Actually this is starting to feel a bit like my online gaming days. . .

So, what am I going to get to do as a Daring Baker? There will be a baking challenge once a month, where the Blogroll bakers will all participate by baking exactly the same thing AND then blog about it. I definitely have plans to get my baked goods tested.

I really like Mary of Alpineberry's description of the DBB: "Who are the Daring Bakers you may ask? Well, we're a group of rogue operatives strategically placed all over the world and secretly trying to conquer our baking fears one recipe at a time. At least that's how I see it. In actuality, we're a group of food bloggers who, once a month, make the exact same recipe and then blog about our experience on the same day. It's a fun way to try new recipes and techniques. Everyone has such a unique experience preparing the same recipe and the posts are always interesting to read."

Even as an avid experimenter, there are things I just won't be fussed enough to make unless something happens, like a mistake, that forces me to correct it (like macaroons).

I am far from an accomplished baker/cook, but I am so looking forward to the baking challenges that will be served up in October and the months to come!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The day I discovered truffle oil

Made a small beef roast last night that turned out too salty even though the flavours were good, so I tried to correct it. Or, I corrected them through a series of variations.

1) Made a cauliflower puree (with milk). Shredded beef roast (marinated with salt, rosemary, thyme rub, cooked in fruit juice and a bed of soft onions) and heated it in the puree.

2) Added a tsp of black truffle oil, then tossed pasta in it. At this point, this is a very good pasta dish.

3) Then, I shaved Neudorf Richmond Red (a prize-winning Manchego-style New Zealand hard cheese), and it became an absolutely, utterly perfect pasta combination.

I realised today - having never EVER liked cheese from sheep's milk because they always seemed to carry an odd sea-urchiny taste - that perhaps I've simply never had good sheep's milk cheese.

And truffle oil - that's like a whole new taste dimension altogether!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Corn fritters?

AnneMarie shared her corn fritter recipe with me in conversation - I memorised it and made it that weekend. This is truly addictive. Especially since I love golden syrup so much. I ate it with sauted apples, which is an excellent combination.

Lovely summer memories. . .

This salad really brings back memories of so many things. The freedom of moving into my own flat, going to the Willis St market every Sunday afternoon, getting fresh vegetables and making salads on the very afternoon itself, strawberry salsas, slicing radishes with my Henckels slicing knife, and all the other memories associated with that old flat. . .running, relationships, chanting, hours at the beach. . .
And then I was also so inspired by the mozarella+fresh basil leaf combination I had at Joanne's house, that I had to get a fresh plant and fashion it myself. Even though it wasn't the first time I've had fresh basil, it left a distinct, indelible impression that the experience of fresh basil is really nowhere near the dried.

It was also at the old flat that I rediscovered mangos in a new way (eating them in a 100% concentrated way, slicing and eating them with my paring knife, feet up), beautiful salad dressing combinations, and eating watercress fresh (rather than in a Chinese style soup).


I made some teiglach a while ago - a cultural experiment that is quite unlike the usual. The result was actually. . . nostalgic, even though it wasn't something I'd grown up eating. There's something about its super-sweetness, friedness, etc that reminds me of old-world confections, stuff I had as a kid that really aren't fashionable anymore. It has affinities to ma lao (puffy sesame balls with an airy centre), behlehgo (sticky malt on a stick that grandfather would buy from a peddlar on a bike), even pong pia or mahteesu (a dry pastry biscuit with a sticky malt/molasses/sesame filling). And so many others.

Admittedly these were too sweet for my taste, and I don't hardly get that sort of super-sweet cravings anymore that I used to in the past.

Next, halva.

Chocolate crackle cookies

Epicurious has got this perfect chocolate cookie recipe - which uses only cocoa powder, but is so very chocolatey to boot!
The problem is I dusted them with icing sugar and left them in the container - and this is what it looks like. Lesson: if the cookies are to keep, they should remain undusted, otherwise they'll just look dirty.

Salmon with citrus-balsamic glaze

Found an amazingly simple recipe off Epicurious after buying some really fresh, good value salmon at the fish store down Adelaide road. Just sear salmon in an orange-balsamic mixture and voila! I used lemon instead, but the balsamic was just fantastic with the salmon. Got to try orange the next time.
Had in the same meal blanched choy sum tossed with hazelnut oil and roasted garlic. Perfect combination (with roasted garlic!), and I've really forgotten how good choy sum is (or even bok choy for that matter). But then, mum would never have made choy sum with hazelnut oil. This is a winner.

Chocolate-date cupcakes

These are not chocolatey enough, but they were very good. Ate them over the week and the texture stayed wonderfully chewy. Definitely a make again. Very satisfying, but not in the chocolatey way.
Tested them with black pepper, as shown in picture, which had a truly grown-up, gourmet effect.

Rosemary Stilton cookies

Can't remember which base recipe I used, but it resulted in tough cookies. However, rosemary, butter and stilton worked so well, I almost couldn't stop eating them!


Why don't I eat cauliflower more? Cauliflower is wonderful.

Sauted lemon peel, lemon juice, sundried tomatos and capers in oil - then added boiled cauliflower. Excellent combination, especially with capers. Capers added that zest to the mild cauliflower.

Would be terrific with toast, or something dry and starchy.

Fruit compote

Used Sally Schneider's recipe from The Improvisational Cook for pie fruit as a base

- blueberries+plums+thyme works. Added almond essence instead of vanilla. This was edible, but not good.

- Divine with KG's premium vanilla ice cream, but what it's really good for is toning down the acidity - which this compote really was (because I made it with leftover tamarillo-lemon jam).

Banana Bread

Used Epicurious' Low-fat banana bread as a base.

- Substituted oil with walnut oil
- Added heaps of orange peel, some cinnamon, bran and wheatgerm
- Used super-ripe bananas and brown sugar. Super-ripe almost black bananas make a HUGE difference.

Great dense texture, like brown bread and great flavour. Definitely to be eaten not on the day itself. It hardly tasted low-fat at all.

Froze half the bread and it was even better the following week. The centre was incredibly moist and dense, a texture that's hard to find a parallel to. Good on its own, would be good fried. Must make again.

Peach Ginger Cake

Used Epicurious' Maple Honey Cake recipe as the base

- Substituted honey and puree for 1 cup peach puree. Added lots of powdered ginger and almond essence
- Used butter as oil and brown sugar. Looked flat but had a wonderfully chewy, dense texture (the next day) - reminded me of the chewy little cakes (possibly with cornflour) I bought in a Japanese bakery in Singapore. Great combination of flavour. Definitely a make-again.

- Amazing with Killinghi's vanilla ice cream (good with ice cream alone) and tamarillo-peach syrup

*The ice-cream with the syrup is amazing!!!!

Tarragon-Nectarine Chicken with Sauvignon Blanc

- Sugar to sweeten sauce- Caramelised onion, no garlic
- Combination actually works, but I can't tell, because I've never liked tarragon much. Bitter of tarragon, sweet and sour of fruit and wine
- Surprised that nectarine worked so well with chicken, still ambivalent about tarragon working with chicken though.

- Mashed roast garlic in pumpkin with hazelnut oil. Roast garlic is such a great idea.
All cooked at medium to medium-low heat

*Carrot layered with the pumpkin mash is nice

- Don't know that I'd want all three in this combination this time, though each section worked in itself.

Asparagus might have worked better with the chicken.
Then I tested pumpkin soup with butter-sauted mushrooms, and this was absolutely the most awesome combination. To die for.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

dry apple laksa

This is a winner.

Dry-fried Yeo's laksa paste, chicken and apples.

Seasoned chicken breasts with salt and pepper. Fried laksa paste with the 3 treasures (garlic, ginger, onion) and lemon peel, followed by chicken (til brown). Remove.

Saute apple, with a touch of carrot and cabbage in same pan. Added lemon juice and brown sugar. When soft, added chicken back and cooked all til apple is slightly browned. More salt to taste.