Sunday, December 13, 2009

Chocolate Candy Cane Cookies & Christmas Baking Traditions

Normally, I don’t do very much baking. The reason is not because I don’t enjoy baking because I do, very much; it’s more because I don’t enjoy eating baked goods all that much. Sure, I like the occasional muffin with my coffee, and sometimes I’m in the mood for something sweet after a meal, but it really is a rare occurrence for me to eat desserts. Sweets just don’t appeal to me the way savory foods do.

However, there is one time of year when my non-sweet-loving nature completely changes, when I have a healthy appetite for sugary delights. That time of year is Christmastime.

When December rolls around, I’m in full baking and cookie-craving mode, and I stay that way until January 1st. I love holiday baking, the memories I associate with it, the way it fills the house with the most tempting aromas, and, of course, the scrumptious results it produces. Holiday baking brings me back to childhood Christmases, and baking with my Mom. One of the highlights of the season was always making Christmas cookies: classic shortbread, soft ginger cookies, fun, marshmallow-filled “church windows”, and elaborately decorated sugar cookies. Though we made cookies often, none compared to these special, sacred baked goods that we could only make once a year. We would start baking around mid-December, but we were not allowed to eat anything we made, not a single glittery sprinkle, until the evening of December 24th. After dinner on Christmas Eve, my mother would fill a platter with a variety of our baked masterpieces, and we were allowed to dig in. After days of anticipation, those cookies seemed like the best ones we had ever tasted.

I speak about these things as if they are in the distant past, but that isn’t the case at all. In fact, my Mom and I still do holiday baking together, and we still save the fruits of our labor to enjoy on Christmas Eve. At the moment, we live more than 2000 miles apart, and though I will be home for Christmas, I decided to get a jump-start on the holiday baking on my own. I am making a few different cookies to bring home to my family, and none are the ones I listed above. I’ll save those to do with my Mom when I get home. Instead, I’m trying out some new recipes because though my family is all about tradition at Christmastime, we’re like to create new traditions as well.

The cookie recipe I want to share with you is one that I made for the first time last year. As soon as I sampled it, I knew that it would become an annual tradition. I cherish the Christmas traditions of my childhood, but it’s also exciting to be creating traditions of my own.
So, on with the baking. This little bit of heaven is called Chocolate Candy Cane Cookies. Imagine this: pink, peppermint buttercream, frosting squished between two chocolate cookies that are not too hard, and not too soft, then rolled in crushed candy canes. Now, make it: the recipe is from last year’s December issue of Bon Appétit, and you can find it here. But I have shiny pictures, so I recommend that you keep reading …

First, you make the chocolate cookies. These consist of a very simple combination of flour, unsweetened cocoa powder, sugar, butter, egg, and a pinch of salt.

While that chills, you make your peppermint buttercream frosting. Have you ever made buttercream frosting before? If you haven’t, I am warning you, it is rather shocking to discover what a sinful combination of fat and sugar this sweet indulgence actually is. In fact, you may just want to stop reading right now. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss, and you may want to stay ignorant of the true nature of buttercream frosting in order to enjoy eating it in the future.
No? Really, you want to know the truth? All right, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. Buttercream frosting is pretty much half butter and half powdered sugar, whipped up together. For our recipe, we will also be adding peppermint extract and red food coloring to get the color and flavor we want.
So, now you know the truth, and hopefully you have processed it and you are able to move on with the recipe. Yes? Here, this might help: I love the pink fluffiness of it. I have to say, as much as I love to cook, it is very unlikely that I would ever create anything this pretty when I am making something savory.

Now, before you put your frosting to work, you’ll need to bake your cookies. You do this by scooping out tablespoons of dough, forming it into a ball, and flattening it into a two-inch round on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. The recipe says to place them two inches apart, but I don’t find that this much space is necessary. The cookies don’t really expand while they bake, so as long as they aren’t touching to start with, they will stay separate in the oven.

Once the cookies have baked and cooled, you can assemble your sandwiches. That starts with a cookie, placed flat side-up.

Now, spread on about two teaspoons of frosting.
Then, top with another cookie, flat side-down, of course. Now, you’ll need to crush up some candy canes. Choose candy canes with the best colors. I did two types, actually: red and white, and red, green, white, and brown. You don’t quite want them to be crushed to a powder, but you don’t want the chunks to be too big, or they won’t stay stuck to the frosting.

Roll the edges of the cookie sandwich in the crushed candy cane so that the pieces stick to the frosting. Now, you have a Christmas treat that is sure to tempt and impress friends and family. I mean, doesn’t this look enticing? These cookies freeze really well, by the way. You can assemble them completely, then place them in parchment paper-lined containers and freeze them for up to two weeks. When they thaw out, you can’t tell that they were ever frozen. In case you missed it, here’s the recipe again for Chocolate Candy Cane Cookies.

This is my newest Christmas tradition. Do you have one too?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Classy and Simple Hors d’Oeuvre

Wouldn’t you say that one of the highlights of a great party is delicious hors d’oeuvres? And think about it: which course do you remember most vividly of the more memorable meals you have eaten? Chances are it’s the first course. And there’s a good reason for this: we have hors d’oeuvres and appetizers when we are the hungriest and anticipating a good meal the most. Our mouths are watering for something to surprise and delight our taste buds. Usually, we don’t feel full after a few hors d’oeuvres or an appetizer, so we are left wanting more, and having the highest perception of what we just ate. Appetizers and hors d’oeuvres were a major topic in my Garde Manger class (remember that?) this quarter, so they also played a major role in our final practical exam, where we had to create twelve identical appetizers, one appetizer large enough for two people to share, and one composed salad. I’m happy with what I did for all three components of the assessment, but I think my most creative choice was what I did for my hors d’oeuvre, so I’m going to share that recipe with you. With the holiday season coming, these are a great option of something to bring to a party!

First, I can’t help but show off the rest of my exam. My composed salad was a Crab and Avocado Timbale with Crème Fraîche and Red and Yellow Pepper Coulis:

I was very happy with my timbale, but my coulis did not come out the way I wanted at all. I will definitely be doing a post on making a coulis so that I can work on that skill!

For my appetizer, I made Chicken Satay and a Petit Salad with Sesame Vinaigrette:

Everything came out quite well, though I should have used a smaller bowl for my satay sauce. I could have made the plating a little nicer as well. Plating is not my strong point.

As for my hors d’oeuvres, I made Mini Potato Latkes with Smoked Salmon and Crème Fraîche. The idea is not completely original—it has definitely been done before, but I like the use of the latke as a base rather than the expected bread or cracker.

These are very simple to produce. The quantities I give will give you around 30 hors d’oeuvres, so go ahead and adjust as needed. Whisk together two eggs, ½ cup flour, a teaspoon of Kosher salt, and ½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper. Then, stir in the white parts of two chopped scallions, and two medium russet potatoes, peeled and grated. This is your latke batter.

To fry the latkes, pour about two tablespoons of canola or vegetable oil in a medium skillet and heat over medium heat. Remember, you’re making mini-latkes, so take just a teaspoon of batter for each latke: Place the batter into the hot oil and flatten it slightly with the back of a spoon. Repeat about four times without over-crowding the pan and continue to cook in batches. Let these sizzle away for about two minutes per side. They should be golden brown when you flip them over.
When you take them out of the pan, let them drain on paper towels and sprinkle them with a tiny bit of Kosher salt. Keep them warm in a 200 F oven until all the latkes are made.
To assemble the hors d’oeuvres, start with your lovely golden latkes:
Drop about a half teaspoon of crème fraîche on each latke, and spread it slightly with the back of a spoon.
Next, place a thin slice of smoked salmon, about 2 inches or 5 centimeters long on top of the crème fraîche. Roll or fold it gently so it fits.

Finally, top with a chive spear.
That’s about all there is to it! Now, you have a classy and simple hors d’oeuvre that almost anyone will love, anyone who likes salmon. Well, anyone who likes salmon and crème fraîche. OK, anyone who likes salmon, crème fraîche, and potatoes latkes. Hopefully, that's a lot of people.Now, don’t go away just yet. If you’re interested, these are a couple of notes that my instructor gave me to improve these:

• To make the latkes look cleaner and be a more uniform size, use a small, round cookie cutter or ring mold to shape the latkes in the pan. Personally, I like the rustic look of the grated potato sticking out around the size of the latkes, but using a mold will definitely give you a sleeker look.
• To help hold the chive garnish in place, and to add more color contrast, place a small dot of crème fraîche on top of the smoked salmon before topping the hors d’oeuvre with the chive.
Have fun with these!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving to readers in the U.S.! I hope you celebrate it with good company, good food, and plenty of pumpkin pie!


Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Vegetarian Terrine

One of the three culinary classes I am taking this quarter is Garde Manger. Translated from French, the term means “keep to eat.” In the culinary world, it refers to the station in a kitchen that is in charge of preparing mostly cold foods. This covers some of the areas you might expect: salads, sandwiches, cold sauces and soups, and cold appetizers and hors d’oeuvres. It also covers preservation techniques and the fabrication of cured and smoked foods, terrines, pâtés, sausages, cheeses, condiments, pickles, and sometimes, hot appetizers and hors d’oeuvres. I love this class, and I’m learning a lot in it since a lot of the topics are new to me.

The most recent chapter we covered talked about terrines and pâtés, both of which I love to eat, but before about a week ago, I had no idea how to make. Of course, upon reading the chapter, I immediately wanted to make almost every recipe in it. However, other than lack of time, this would be impossible to accomplish since I also lacked much of the necessary equipment. To make most of these items, you must make a forcemeat which involves a meat grinder and food processor, neither of which I own. The solution? Make a vegetarian terrine! So, I decided to make Roasted Vegetable Terrine With Goat Cheese.

So first things first: what is a terrine? My book, The Art and Craft of the Cold Kitchen: Garde Manger by The Culinary Institute of America, defines it as “a loaf of forcemeat, similar to a pâté but cooked in a covered mold in a bain-marie.” Of course, there are exceptions to this definition as we’re about to see—a terrine, though traditionally made with meat, does not have to be made with meat. I think that the best way to understand what a terrine is, is to make one. I will warn you, though, set aside about four hours to make this recipe—it is very labor-intensive. Personally, I enjoyed the process, but it did take a lot of time.

You start with a whole lot of vegetables:As you might have noticed, these are all summer vegetables, so this recipe would be ideal to do in the summertime. I couldn’t wait, so I cheated and went totally un-seasonal on this recipe. All the vegetables get cut into 3 mm. Or 1/8” slices. That’s this small:
This step takes awhile, but was made much easier for me by having a very sharp knife. A mandolin would have made it even faster, so if you have one, use that.

So once everything is cut, you’ll end up with what might seem like way too many vegetables.
Don’t worry—it isn’t. Remember, you’re going to be roasting these vegetables, so they’re going to shrink down to a fraction of the size they are now.

Now, make you’re marinade, a mixture of olive oil, Dijon mustard, parsley, chives, garlic, rosemary, anchovies, and honey (see recipe below). Yes, the addition of anchovies makes this terrine not 100% vegetarian so if you want, you could replace them with more salt, or puréed black olives.Mix your vegetables with the marinade, and you’re set to start roasting. Roast the vegetables in a single layer on baking sheets, covered in oiled parchment paper at 215 F (the original recipe said 200, but I found 215 worked better for me), for about an hour, until they are dry, but not brittle.

This part takes a while because unless you have multiple ovens and enough baking sheets to fill them all, this step must be done in several batches. I was able to fit four baking sheets at a time in my oven, and it still took a long time. Since the vegetables all take different times to roast, and they weren’t totally uniform in size, I checked on them every twenty minutes or so and removed any veggies that were finished, replacing them with uncooked ones to start roasting. This way, I didn’t have to wait for an entire sheet to finish before starting more vegetables. Once again, let me warn you, this part is very time-consuming!

At some point while our veggies are roasting, you can make a custard out of fresh goat cheese and egg. When everything is done roasting and has cooled, you get to start assembling your terrine. Hooray! So, if you have a terrine mold, use that. If you’re like me and don’t have a terrine mold, a basic loaf pan works just fine. Line that with plastic wrap, leaving an overhang.
To assemble, alternate layers of vegetables and the cheese mixture until your pan is full. Now, fold the plastic liner over.
Cover the terrine with the mold cover or foil, and then you’re going to bake it in a water bath (a bain-marie) in a 300 F oven until the terrine’s internal temperature reaches 145 F, about an hour. To make the water bath, place the terrine in a 2” deep baking pan and fill with hot water halfway up the sides of the terrine mold. The water should stay around 170 F.
When the terrine reaches 145 F, take the mold out of the water bath and let it cool slightly. Then, weigh down your terrine with 2 lbs. of weight. I used canned goods, simply placed on top of the foil covering. The terrine needs to be refrigerated for at least 12 hours, and up to three days.

When you’re ready to enjoy it, simply pull it out and wrap out. Now check out that:
See how nice and compact it is? See all those nice layers? If I had a proper terrine mold, it would have been higher and narrower, but I think that this works just fine. It’s best if the terrine is nice and cold when you slice it in order to ensure clean cuts.

And how did it taste? Honestly, delicious and better than I expected. I was worried that the marinade would not be enough to properly season the vegetables, so the resulting product might come out bland, but that wasn’t the case at all. The terrine was full of flavor, and those vegetables had reduced and concentrated so that only the good, delicious parts were left. I was surprised to be able to taste the various elements of the marinade—the spiciness of the mustard, the saltiness of the anchovies, and the distinctive taste of garlic.
This would make a great appetizer, as well as a main course. I served it as a meal in slices over quinoa, topped with a drizzle of rosemary-infused olive oil and it was absolutely delicious.

Roasted Vegetable Terrine with Goat Cheese
From The Art and Craft of the Cold Kitchen: Garde Manger 3rd ed. by The Culinary Institute of America, p. 338
Makes 1 3lb. terrine

2 lb zucchini (about 3)
2 lb. yellow squash (about 3)
1 lb. eggplant (1 large)
2 lb. tomatoes (about 4)
2 Portobello mushrooms

1 fl. oz. olive oil
1 tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 tbsp. chopped parsley
1 tbsp. chopped chives
2 garlic cloves, minced, sautéed, cooled
2 tsp. chopped rosemary
2 tsp. anchovy paste
½ oz. honey
2 tsp. salt
½ tsp. pepper

8 oz. fresh goat cheese
1 egg

1. Cut all the vegetables lengthwise into slices 1/8 inch/3 mm thick.
2. Combine marinade ingredients and mix with the vegetables.
3. Lay out the vegetables in a single layer on sheet pans, covered in oiled parchment paper.
4. Roast in 215 F oven for about an hour until dry, but not brittle, then allow to cool.*
5. Combine the goat cheese, egg, and a pinch each of salt and pepper to make a custard.
6. Line a terrine mold (or loaf pan) with plastic wrap, leaving an overhang, and assemble the terrine by alternating layers of vegetables and the cheese mixture until the terrine is filled. Fold the liner over.
7. Cover the terrine and bake in a 170 F water bath in a 300 F oven until the terrine reaches an internal temperature of 145 F, about an hour.
8. Remove the terrine from the water bath and allow it to cool slightly.
9. Weigh the terrine down with 2 lbs of weight, and refrigerate at least overnight, and up to 3 days. Slice and serve, or wrap and refrigerate up to 7 days.

*See details on how to roast in post above

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Rich and Delicious Chicken Stock

I did promise, didn’t I? Now that you’ve been breaking down chickens all week, you should have some chicken carcasses lying around, right? Well, hopefully they’re not just lying around. That’s gross. Refrigerate them, for goodness’ sake.

Wherever those chicken carcasses may be, I ask you now to pull them out and get ready to make some incredible chicken stock. I will warn you, though, you’re never going to be able to taste store-bought chicken stock the same way again. Even the best one will still have this slightly off background taste that tells you it isn’t quite the real deal. What is the real deal? The chicken stock I am about to tell you how to make, a staple every kitchen should have.

So I had two chicken carcasses lying around—I mean, in my fridge—so I put them into a big roasting pan.
I’m making a dark chicken stock, by the way. If you want a light one, skip the roasting step. The dark one will be much richer; the light one is good if you want a subtler flavor.

Roast the chicken bones at 375 F for about fifteen minutes so they get a head start on the vegetables you’re going to add.

Meanwhile, roughly chop your veggies. The basic essentials are onions, carrots, and celery, but you could also add leeks, parsnips, turnips, broccoli stems, mushrooms, or garlic—nearly any vegetable. Consider how it tastes and decide whether or not you want that flavor in your stock. I kept it simple this time, and used the basics:
Yes, keep all those skins, stems, and ends on. There is flavor to be extracted from every part of most vegetables, so use as much of them as you can. They go into the roasting pan with the now semi-roasted chicken, tossed with a couple tablespoons of vegetable or olive oil.
Now it all goes back into the oven for another forty minutes or so, stirring occasionally. You want caramelization—some browning—on both the bones and the vegetables.
Next, get your biggest stockpot and put the roasted bones and vegetables into it. Add some herbs; fresh is best, but dry works well too.
I used a small bunch of fresh parsley, about four whole peppercorns, a couple teaspoons each of dried rosemary, thyme, marjoram, and savory, and two bay leaves.

Now, cover it all with the coldest water you can. I add ice cubes and get my tap water as cold as possible. If you think of it ahead of time, put some water in the fridge and get it good and icy.
So, why cold? Starting food in cold water extracts flavor from the food and leeches it into the water once it begins to simmer. If you’re poaching or simmering food in liquid and you’re going to be eating the food itself, not the cooking liquid, start it in warm or hot water so that the flavors will all be concentrated in the food item. Good tip, eh?

Now, crank up the heat on that stockpot and bring the liquid to a simmer. Meanwhile, what about all that browned goodness stuck on the bottom of your roasting pan?
You definitely don’t want that to go to waste, so place your roasting pan over medium-high heat on the stovetop. Once it’s good and hot, add about ½ cup red wine and deglaze, scraping up all the browned bits on the pan. After two minutes, add the liquid to your stockpot.

From here on, it’s pretty straightforward. Once your stock gets up to a simmer, keep it there and let it cook uncovered for four to six hours. Occasionally skim the foam from the surface of the stock, and don’t let it boil—that will cause the impurities that have risen to the top of the liquid to be mixed back into it. Keep the bones and vegetables covered in liquid at all times, adding more water when necessary. Try not to add too much, though. If the stock seems to be evaporating too much, decrease the heat.

Here’s mine, early in the simmering process:
Here it is about two hours later. See how dark and delicious it’s getting?
When adequate time has passed, you’ll be ready to strain your stock. Having done this a few times, I’ve perfected my own method of doing this: first, I strain it through a colander, just to get out all the big pieces of bone and vegetable. Then, I strain it through a fine mesh strainer, and then again through the same strainer, this time lined with cheesecloth. That does the trick and gets all the bits and pieces out of my stock. Now, this might seem obvious, but I’m going to mention it anyways: strain your stock into another container, not into the sink and down the drain! I say this because every time I strain stock I’ve made, I always instinctually move to strain it into the sink—bad idea!

Anyways, so after straining, hopefully not down the drain of your sink, check out this incredible, lovely product you end up with:
Yes, it’s very dark, and in this case, that’s what we were aiming for. Again, if you want light chicken stock, skip the roasting process. That golden layer on top is fat, so I skimmed that off. When this product gets cold, it becomes completely gelatinous. This is a good thing. That gelatin is from collagen, extracted from the bones you used to make the stock, and equals rich, delicious FLAVOR!

Once again, let me just say, you will never be able to taste store-bought chicken stock the same way again.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Chicken Break-Down

Knowing how to break down a chicken is a very useful culinary skill. It's helpful for all kinds of recipes, and it will also save you money. How? Well, pull out your weekly circular for your local grocery store. Got it? Find the price for chicken breasts, thighs, wings and drumsticks. Now, find the price for whole chickens. Which one is the cheapest? The whole chicken, right? By buying whole chickens and cutting them into parts yourself, you will save yourself major bucks compared to buying the parts separately. Also, and I think that this is the best reason for always buying whole birds, is that you’re left with a chicken carcass, which you can use to make chicken stock that will be a hundred times more flavorful than anything you can buy in the store. I’ll be posting about that soon, so stay tuned.

There are downsides to this. Of course, every chicken only has two breasts, two legs, and two wings, so what are you supposed to do when you need more than that? It doesn’t seem very economical to be buying three chickens just to get six chicken breasts, does it? Well, yes and no. What I do is I try to buy a chicken whenever they go on sale. I take it home and cut it into parts and freeze all the parts separately. Eventually, I have a collection of parts ready when I need them.*

Are you convinced? Hopefully so, because I’m going to launch into the how-to of this anyways. First, you’ll want to get yourself a boning knife. It looks like this:
Other knives of about the same size will probably be OK, but the boning knife is shaped in such a way to make the job easiest for you, so it’s ideal. It’s also known as a boner. Don’t laugh, I’m serious.

Next, you will need a chicken. This whole procedure is pretty pointless if you don’t have a chicken. Say hello to Miss Chicken:
Now, you’re ready to make your first cut. The cuts you’re going to be making will mostly be on joints. It is essential that you cut at the correct spot. Otherwise, you’ll be trying to cut through bone and not only will this be very difficult, it will also kill the edge on your knife. So what is that correct spot, you ask? Well, take our first cut, for example: the wings. You will be cutting on the second joint in from the tip of the wing. Take that joint between your fingers and give it a feel. You should be able to feel a distinct spot where the joint actually is (where the two bones connect). You want to cut right on that spot, right between the bones. Right about here:

If it seems like you’re sawing through bone, it’s because you are, so try again. You should only have to cut through the tendons and ligaments holding the joint together. You should end up with one of these:
Now, you’re going to separate the breast from the carcass. Find the chicken’s sternum. It’s the bone that goes down the front of the bird and separates the two breasts. Place your knife on one side of the sternum, as close to the bone as possible, just below the neck. Now, cut into the flesh, keeping as close as possible to the sternum and going as deep as you can.
To completely remove the breast, continue to cut along the carcass of the chicken, right until just above the leg. The breast should just be attached to the rest of the chicken by the skin, so simply cut through that to cut the breast completely away. You can leave the breast as is, or you can also remove the tender from it. The tender is the thin piece of flesh on the underside of the breast. You can remove it simply by peeling it away with your hand, no knife required.
Next, you’re going to separate the leg and thigh from the bird. This picture shows the general area you’re going to be cutting:
You’re going to be cutting at a joint again, so find the joint where the thigh attaches to the body of the bird. It’s pretty deep in there, but it’s there, I promise. Hopefully, this will help (sorry, this picture is a little gross):
Just like with the wing, you want to cut through the joint, not the bone. It should give easily. Once you’ve cut through the joint, you can simply slice the thigh the rest of the way off. Then, you’ve got yourself a chicken leg:
The next step is to separate the thigh from the drumstick. Actually, this part is optional, depending on how you intend to use the legs. Sometimes you want the thigh and drumstick attached. If not, here’s what you do: turn the leg skin side down. Find the joint that attaches the thigh to the drumstick, and cut through that.
You should be getting pretty good at this cutting through joints thing now. Once you’re through the joint, you should have something like this:
Now, just cut through the remaining flesh and skin to separate the thigh and drumstick completely.

Finally, repeat all of the above steps on the other side of the chicken, and ta-da!
You have successfully broken your chicken down into parts. Congratulations. Now, use those parts however you’d like, but DO NOT throw away that carcass! Next, I’m going to show you how to make fabulous chicken stock. Trust me, you’re going to want to get in on that. Really, trust me.

*Just a quick note to say that freezing and thawing fresh meat is not ideal. It is always better to buy meat fresh and cook it as soon as you can. However, this will cost you more and it isn’t always economical time-wise either. Thawing frozen meat for everyday use is fine, just don’t let that meat hang around in your freezer for too long. For special occasions, be sure you get your meat fresh.