Saturday, December 11, 2010

Almond Shortcake With Macerated Strawberries, Sable Breton With Pistachio Croquant

Chef's Shortcake & Breton Creations

In case you're not aware, it's the last class of the term today! And so we bid the year a fond farewell with the American classic Strawberry Shortcake (not the cartoon, but just as sweet) and French Breton biscuit.

Rolling & Cutting Out Shortcake, Brushing On Cream

The American version of strawberries and cream comes with a sweet, crumbly shortcake, hence the name. Almond meal, flour, salt, sugar, baking powder and cream are mixed together to form a pliable dough, rolled out 5mm thick and cut into shape, brushed with cream and dusted with sugar for extra crunch before being baked.

Filling Breton Paste Into Moulds

For the Breton, egg yolk, sugar and butter are creamed together before vanilla, flour, baking powder and salt are added to form a paste so sticky it had to be slapped on to the greased ramekins to be baked.

Breton has a thick and soft texture more similar to cake then biscuit, heck it was even piled on like a cake today with Crème Diplomat and Cointreau-macerated strawberries. Sorry kids, this biscuit's strictly for the adults.

Rounds Of Creme Diplomat & Berries

Cooking & Rolling Pistachio Croquant

Similar to the nougatine we made for the Croquembouche, we caramelized glucose and fondant into a light amber liquid, stirred in crushed pistachios and a pat of butter, and while still searingly hot, rolled it out flat before cutting into shape for the garnish.

My Cookie Plate

Seeing it is so close to Christmas time, I made uno shortcake as instructed and cut the rest of my shortcake dough into festive little shapes: gingerbread men, Christmas trees, snowflakes, you name it, I  got it. And the best thing about this little plate of cookies? They're mine, all mine! So hands off, Santa.

So distracted I was cutting my cookies shapes I forgot about the caramel and burnt it, so the croquants turned out slightly on the dark side. It still tasted good, but I thought I'd improvise by smashing them into smithereens and sprinkling the jade green crystals onto my Breton instead. Quick and easy, and rather homely-looking too.
Berries & Cointreau, Somethin' For The Holidays

Friday, December 10, 2010

Chocolate Macarons, Piped Shortbread, Biscotti

Chef Gert's Piped Shortbread, Biscotti, Macarons

With the assessment behind us, the atmosphere today was noticeably more laid back, so what better way to suit the mood than with a big tray of cookies and biscuits?

Rolling Out Biscotti, Slicing For 2nd Bake

A centuries-old recipe from the Italian city of Prato, biscotti or "twice cooked/baked" refers to the unique way the biscuits are baked twice to dry them out, weathering them through long journeys and bitter wars. Far from being hard and tasteless, these biscuits are packed full of flavor and literally fat-free!

And they couldn't be easier to make: mix egg, sugar, citrus zest, honey, salt and vanilla essence for the flavor base, add whole almonds and pistachios for crunch, star anise for a hint of spice, flour and baking powder for structure and Bob's your uncle!

Shape into a long log and bake at a low 150'C for 40 minutes before extracting from the oven, slice thinly, lay face up back onto the tray and bake again at a lower 120'C to avoid burning the thin wafers. When they feel hard to the touch, you're in business!

Piping Macarons, Shortbread

Macarons are the increasingly popular meringue-based confectionery with almond meal as the star ingredient. Made right, they have a smooth dome, ruffled "foot" and a moist, crunchy interior. Although this sweet dessert varies throughout different regions of France, my personal benchmark of a good macaron would have to be by Pastry Maestro Pierre Hermé.

Shortbread is very similar to the Biscuit Viennois we made in basic; flour, butter, sugar, salt, icing sugar, vanilla essence and zest is mixed to form a paste and piped into shape. Once baked they are sandwiched with jam and dipped in chocolate, to make a good thing taste great.

My Biscotti Jar

I substituted star anise with ground cinnamon and nutmeg, these spices coupled with the orange and lime zest and a festive splash of rum made my biscotti smell very much like Christmas morning. They were very Moorish too, like rusks for adults, you may enjoy them plain, dipped in strong espresso, or a sweet dessert wine such as muscat. My tipple of choice? A good, strong Port.

Macarons & Shortbread

Making macarons for the first time, I wasn't sure how they would turn out, all the bad press about how tricksy they are to the amateur cook did nothing to inspire me, and I find them too sweet for my liking, not to mention too costly to buy ($2.50 for 1 macaron? Seriously??). But for me the real joy of being a pastry chef is in making desserts more than eating them, so I was anxious to see how my virgin macarons would turn out. With the close eye of Chef Gert as my guide, they came out pretty well, with the requisite smooth dome and ruffled foot. And I didn't mind the taste either, esp when sandwiched with not just any chocolate ganache, but a strong rum flavored one! 

The shortbread I keep in an air-tight container, and whenever I open it up the warm fragrance of zest and butter would come drifting up to whet my appetite. Pop one in your mouth and they melt with no resistance, which makes finishing a whole tray of these so very easy.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Judgement Day: Gateau Opéra

My Gateau Opéra!!

How time flies, before we knew it it's the last week of the term i.e. Assessment Week! I am glad to report I did pretty well this time around, thankfully, much better than my dismal performance at Basic Assessment.

Small Cuts

Lessons learnt from my Gateau Opéra dry run, I warmed up the glaze to ensure it was dark and shiny and the syrup properly soaked through the jaconde. The one thing I would have done differently would be to put less coffee in the soaking syrup, as it was too dark and somewhat indiscernible from the layer of chocolate ganache in between. 

In my defence I only added as much coffee as I did to compensate for lack of rum, as it was not in the recipe (sacrilege!) and I was strongly advised by Margarita and Sunny not to risk getting penalised for adding it in.

Good Things Come In Small Doses

A Spoonful Of Rum Makes Everything Go Down Better

Needless to say my principals were compromised with the omission of the rum, which I felt was an integral part of the cake; indeed of any and all cakes, it makes them complete. So I advised Head Chef Andre of my concerns and strong belief that LCB's recipe should henceforth be amended to include rum and/or Grand Marnier; after all, alcohol is what makes good cakes great.

To further right the wrong, I put my off-cuts into a container, added a big, healthy splash of rum and was immediately soothed by it's warm aroma and the sensual way it soaked through the layers and made eating them much more gratifying. Rum oh rum, you complete me.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Croquembouche (Part 2), Sugar Syrup

Chef Gert Looking Over His Croquembouche

If my ferocious whinging has put the fear of the Croq in you, I apologize for that was not my intent. Sure molten caramel burns like lava and when set cuts like glass, but it had me cussing in the kitchen little more than usual, and with my creme pat properly cooked and choux baked right with their trademark hollow interior, piping the profiteroles was a breeze too.

Truth is, it depresses me to know this particular creation I will so lovingly give life to is sadly ephemeral, for it stands no chance against the elements. Creme pat is highly perishable, left more than 4 hours at room temperature, it will go bad and KILL YOU, while the heat and humidity melts the caramel coating into a sticky mess and renders the glue holding the structure in place soft and unstable. Refrigeration? A double-edged sword, it may keep the creme pat from going off but the moisture-rich environment will only deteriorate the caramel with equal efficiency.

Yet as my Croq came to being, I started to appreciate why there are people (including friends of ours) who continue to request for this bastion of French tradition to mark their special day: a majestic tower of profiteroles each covered in a sheen of golden caramel, punctuated sparingly with intricate marzipan roses, wrapped in a blanket of delicate spun sugar that glistens like morning dew, all resting on a decadently edible platform of golden nougatine to match this proud symbol of grandeur and dramatic flair. Indeed there can be no cake more fitting of a celebration than the Croq.

Coating With Caramel, Filling With Creme Patisserie

Building The Cone, Demolding

The coated and filled roles are dipped in caramel to adhere them in place on a cardboard cone. Once the caramel hardens and sets the roles in place, the cone is carefully coaxed out so as not to damage the structure, which is then placed in the center of the nougatine stand.

Intricate Icing Sugar Lacework

Marzipan flowers are a popular decorative feature while icing sugar is piped on for a splash of white against gold, the classic matrimonial colors. Just another feature which makes this is a perennial wedding favorite.

Marzipan Oinks

Pour Claire & Ross

Yes, I built my grand centerpiece into the container for easy packing and transportation, as I needed it to survive the journey home and last till tomorrow when we have friends over for a barbie. I was quite taken aback when I saw my finished work, it didn't turn out too bad at all! I left the cone in to keep the profiteroles in place, as I did not cement them with as much caramel as Chef did; they held onto the roles so tightly it was impossible to pry them off without breaking.

So I may not be able to prevent the eventually and all-too-soon demise of my Croq, but it was a good experience making it and I finished with a great deal of pride and satisfaction.

Marzipan Roses

Friday, December 3, 2010

Croquembouche (Part 1), Choux Pastry, Nougatine, Creme Patisserie, Religieux

Chef's Religieux

This was not an enjoyable class. "It's gonna be fun, guys!" chirps a delusional Chef Gert. Sure, if you count caramel stab wounds and 3rd degree sugar-burns as "fun". But behind the trauma lies an important lesson: in addition to building character and a new layer of skin, Croquembouche an impressive but demanding dessert all pastry chefs should have in their repertoire, preparing them for the long, intensive hours in store whenever someone exclaims "Oh yes! We would lurve a Croquembouche on our wedding day!"

Choux Pastry & Creme Patisserie

We've been through this before, to make profiteroles you will need: a million choux puffs and 2 gallons of creme patisserie (you'll see why soon enough) to be put together tomorrow. You can fill a couple of choux with cream, placed one atop the other and piped more cream around to make Religieux. But for today we had to build the nougatine base for the Croquembouche.

Nougatine In The Making

Nougatine is a sweet almond brittle made by coating toasted almond in caramel with a pat of butter for shine. This is good enough to be eaten on its own, as they most often are, so rest assured any leftovers you may have will not be going to waste.

Constructing Nougatine Base

The little pat of butter is also helpful in extracting the sticky mix from the pot and rolling it out. Nougatine is hot, guys: hovering over as I was vigorously rolling it out, I could feel the heat emitting onto my face as the steam burned my throat and lungs with every breath I took in. All this I suffer in the name of good dessert.

Cut out a circular disc and a long strip to go around and under it. Work quickly while the nougatine is still hot and malleable, but try as you may not to burn your fingers (too much).

Finishing Touches...Are Just The Beginning

Next small triangles were cut and laid on a curved surface (wine bottle works well) to curl up as they harden, then attached to the base with more caramel. I caution extra care and focus at this step, or you'll risk burning your fingers off faster than you can scream Merde!

Elaborate Croquembouche Base

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Pizza, Calzone, Chicken & Mushroom Pide

Chef Luigi's Italian Feast Magnifico!

Today we produced Italy's most famous export, and for struggling students and single guys everywhere, what represents 90% of their diet: La Pizza. Done and done well, this everyday favourite can easily be transformed from junk food to gourmet extravagance in mere minutes.

Speaking of pizza, I was watching an episode of Alton Brown's Good Eats this morning and of all days and all things he could have been demonstrating, he was making pizza! Not just any pizza, but the thin crust I so love. It's a sign: I'm destined to eat well tonight.

Mise En Place For Sauce & Topping

For the all-important red sauce we sauteed blanched tomatoes, onions and tomato paste in olive oil. I took the liberty to spice things up a bit by adding dried oregano and rosemary and a good pinch of chilli powder to the mix, all of which I cooked down until well and truly disintegrated, as it was smooth sauce I was after, not chunky salsa. 

Mornay Sauce For Pide

Just as we did for the Vol Au Vents, we cooked flour and butter to form a roux before adding milk to combine. Last but certainly not least we mixed in cheddar cheese, and you have yourself a rich and creamy Mornay sauce.

Into the mornay goes sauteed chicken and mushroom, mixed well to coat and set aside while we contemplate the bread base.

Customary Italian Flair

Stuffed Crust, Plain & Plentiful

We made focaccia for the base, and I cannot think of any better. I asked for a cheese-stuffed crust pizza which Chef Luigi kindly obliged. He then went on to make pizza as they should be done: meat lovers' on one (yum) and vegetarian on the other (hum-drum).

Now we had some amazing produce for our toppings: bocconcini (Yum-o!), pepperoni, chorizo, baby spinach, fresh the Americans have showed us through great enterprising bodies such as Pizza Hut and Dominos, the sky's the limit. Not to be taken in the literal sense, you do not, I repeat, do not pile on the toppings sky high like you would at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Tempting as it may be, the load will not cook through in the oven, leaving you with cold and raw toppings and a miserably soggy base. So exercise some restraints here, folks.

Building A Pide

Pide is the Turkish take on the older Middle Eastern pita. The latter a slightly leavened wheat bread dry and malleable with a pocket to fill with, while the former is softer, chewier and pocket less, hence the need to top the top, not unlike a pizza, only with the edges crimped in to keep the toppings from spilling out of the small holding area.

We filled ours with the chicken-mushroom-mornay mix, folded up the sides, tucked in the ends and finished with a good drizzle of olive oil and sesame seeds. More grated cheese and/or parsley to finish if you wish before baking.

Creamy, Voluptuous Bocconcini

Chicken & Mushroom Pide, Calzone

We also made some calzones, built like a pizza, folded in half to seal, the result resembling a giant curry puff or the Philippine empanadas.

Now allow me a moment to demystify a romantic notion for you. Calzone does not mean "crescent" or "half moon" in Italian. Far from its misleading intention, it really means "trousers". Go figure.

My-ma Mia Pizza

What a stunning pizza. :p I stretched the dough as far as it would go for a thin crust base and a large surface area to accommodate more toppings (remember folks, you want more toppings but cannot pile them up high, so you gotta think outta the box) and coz I wanted a cheesy edge but a flat terrain, I sprinkled grated cheddar all around the outside for a crisp finish. 

Excess...Is Always Best

Did the same for my calzone, stretched it out thinner that Chef's to fill more filling in. As for the pide, well...probably went a tad overboard there, but I was going for rustic, you understand. Omitted the parsley (the smell puts me off) and went for an onslaught of sesame seeds and cheese. The result,  overflowing with goodness. 

Bon Appetit!