Sunday, March 30, 2014

A valiant effort

Sometimes, things don't turn out exactly the way you envisioned them.
As I mentioned in my last post, yesterday my friend Kristie came by to help me attempt to recreate the Courtesan au Chocolat, the pastry seen in Wes Anderson's latest movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel:

While not a complete disaster, I'm afraid our humble little creations left something to be desired:
True, we could have put a little more effort into the decoration, but I'll have to admit, once that too-thin icing was made and rapidly absorbing into the pastry, we felt we had come far enough. There's a certain point when you simply want to forego all that fussing about and get to the eating. And eat them we did. Let's face it, chocolate custard-filled pastries with a sugary glaze are not going to taste bad, no matter how they look. I think I'll just leave that fancy decoration to the professionals for now.
More important than the final outcome, though, is the pleasure of spending a rainy Saturday baking with a good friend. Now, isn't that what it's all about?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Last week I had the pleasure of seeing Wes Anderson's latest creation, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and as a lover of everything Wes Anderson does, I was not disappointed. The movie was a whimsical delight - visually stunning, subtly witty, and poignant in all the right places. Then, a few days ago, I happily stumbled upon this video, which details the method for making a Courtesan au Chocolat, the pastry specialty of the film's fictional bakery, Mendl's. Stay tuned for my documented attempt at recreating it!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

How I love the start of spring. The yard starts to look lush and green, daffodils start to pop up from their winter hiding places, and new leaves start to adorn the trees' bare branches. Best of all, though, is the bright, fresh produce that begins to appear in the markets - asparagus, greens, artichokes, tender young pea shoots, even the very first berries, a tantalizing preview of summer, my favorite season of all. I love my hearty soups, squash, and potatoes, but after a while you can only eat so much kale. By the time winter winds down, I'm ready for some new life in my food.
Produce somehow always seems to taste better when it comes from your own backyard. I don't have my own vegetable garden, and with our impending drought, now isn't the ideal time to plant one. That will be a project for another year. In the meantime, though, there are a few little goodies growing in my yard. For example, the wild onions that we never planted, but pop up of their own accord every spring. I've always enjoyed looking at them, but have never gotten around to harvesting or trying to eat them. Until today, that is!
They're lovely, aren't they? I think those little white bells just scream spring.

After a bit of research to ensure that I'm not poisoning my family, I whipped up a cauliflower and wild onion frittata. I cooked the cauliflower florets in my cast iron skillet, letting them audaciously walk the line between burnt and deliciously crispy brown, then I set them aside for a bit. I threw the onions in the same pan with a bit of butter, turned down the heat, and let them caramelize for a good while. Once that was done, I beat 6 eggs with a dash of nutmeg, and added everything back into the skillet, along with a sprinkling of parmesan, of course. I let it start to firm up around the edges, then threw it the 400 degree oven for somewhere between 5 and 10 minutes. Since my research tells me all parts of the onions are edible, even the flowers, I sprinkled them on top as a garnish, so if you don't hear from me for a while you know to call poison control.

Happy Spring!

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Leavened Life

I may have finally come across a name for this little project of mine. While my musings so far have not been entirely about bread, my love for the stuff was something of a catalyst for what has turned out to be a passion for all things culinary. Spending a semester in Paris in 2012, I discovered a culture where a good meal always involves great bread - the staff of life. The age-old art form of bread-making has such deep cultural and historical roots that my anthropology-studying self couldn't help but want to delve deeper. After also travelling to Italy and finding nothing but amazing food, I came home and started cooking.

Leaven - the stuff that makes bread rise - whether it's yeast or natural starter, is what brings it to life. Different leavening agents can give bread its own own flavor, its distinct character. And so I have titled my blog, The Leavened Life, bringing flavor and character to my world through food.

Speaking of leavening agents, today is St. Patrick's day! I made Irish soda bread, which rather than yeast uses baking soda as leavening, and is a little more like a giant biscuit or scone than bread, but delicious nonetheless. And to pay further homage to my Irish heritage, corned beef and cabbage is on the menu for tonight, cooking away in the oven as I write.

Perhaps my all-time favorite type of meal can be described with one word: toast. A good piece of toasty bread can be the perfect setting for any kind of topping, and can be made into a hearty meal or a light snack. Infinitely customizeable, you can have it for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or even dessert. Toast with peanut butter and banana slices, toast with sautéed spinach and a poached egg, toast with hummus, toast with avocado, toast with ricotta and fresh tomato, smoked salmon and capers, cream cheese and cucumber, nutella, I could go on and on.
Today I was faced with a couple of leftover zucchinis from dinner the other night. Not wanting to eat them right away, but not wanting to let them go bad, I came across a marvelous idea: zucchini butter! Yes, zucchini can be transformed into a condiment that works perfectly as a side dish, eaten straight out of the pan, in a sandwich, or simply spread atop - you guessed it - toast.
To begin, I shredded the zucchini with a box grater, then squeezed out as much moisture as possible through a clean kitchen towel. Meanwhile I sautéed a bit of onion and garlic in butter. Once the onion was softened and translucent, I added the zucchini and salt and pepper to taste, and let it cook down for a good while.
I would have taken more pictures, but this stuff didn't last long

Patience is a virtue here. The method is not unlike caramelizing onions - you let them cook over a long period of time over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally. You don't want your pan to be so hot as to let them get browned and crispy (this can also have delicious results, but is not our goal here), but rather so that they melt down into a spreadable, almost creamy consistency. If you can resist eating it all right away, you can put it in a jar and save it for lunch tomorrow, whether or not toast is involved.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Macarons - what is it about these little devils makes them so intimidating to home bakers? Is it the egg white whipping? The required sifting? The use of a piping bag? The fact that one of them purchased at the famous Maison Ladurée might cost $4? Or perhaps it's the fact that every recipe you come across seems to be a little different. I have made them in the past with varying levels of success, ranging from dear-god-what-have-I-created failure to something that was actually pretty darn good. It seems that the hard part is finding a recipe that isn't incredibly convoluted and and confusing. It also helps if you have all the right ingredients and don't end up replacing almond flour with slivered almonds that you and your friends have taken turns chopping as finely as possible, but I digress.
What better way to break in my new Kitchenaid mixer than to try my hand at macarons once more, and begin to perfect my technique? I think that to have the ability to whip out a batch of these guys is to have a go-to impressive gift for any occasion. Who wouldn't love to receive a box of fancy cookies with the added bonus of homemade love thrown in? So, without further ado, here are today's macarons:

I found that the hardest part is piping the cookies onto the baking sheet so they are all the same size and shape, and so that they don't end up with Hershey's kiss-like peaks on top. Mine ended up looking a little, shall we say, rustic? Nevertheless, they ended up being quite tasty, and I was very proud indeed.

French Macarons (recipe adapted from Martha Stewart)
250g almond flour
250g confectioner's/powdered sugar
190g egg whites (from about 6 eggs)
a pinch of cream of tartar
250g superfine sugar

Preheat your oven to 315F.
Combine the almond flour and the confectioner's sugar with a few pulses in the food processor. Then sift the mixture twice to ensure that it is nice and powdery soft. Set this aside for a now.
Whisk the egg whites in a stand-mixer on medium speed until foamy. Add cream of tartar and continue whisking until soft peaks form.
Reduce speed to low and add superfine sugar, then crank it up to high speed and whisk until stiff peaks form.

Gradually fold in the almond flour mixture with a rubber spatula, until the whole thing is smooth and shiny.
Transfer this mixture into a pastry bag with a 1/2" plain round tip*
Pipe 3/4" rounds onto a silicone- or parchment-lined baking sheet, leaving about 1" between them.
Tap the baking sheet on the counter (or drop it from a few inches up, as I did) to release any air bubbles, then let them sit at room temperature for 10-15 minutes, so that a dry-ish skin forms.
Bake in the oven for 8 minutes, then rotate the sheets and bake another 8-10 minutes.
Allow the cookies to cool on the baking sheet for 5-10 minutes before removing them, then allow them to cool completely before filling them.

As for the filling, I used three different kinds - home made lemon curd, raspberry jam, and Trader Joe's salted caramel sauce - all of which were delicious. Next time maybe I'll try a chocolate ganache or some kind of buttercream. And maybe if I'm feeling particularly fanciful I'll add some food coloring to the batter and make some pretty colors.

*In the absence of a pastry bag, I used a large ziplock bag with the corner cut off. This worked just fine for me, but I think using a pastry bag might have helped them look a little more uniform.
Like I said, rustic.