Pierre Herme’s Awesome Rich Chocolate Cake

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Pierre Hermè makes desserts with flavors that really pop. If it is a fruit dessert then it sure tastes like that fruit. If it’s a rose litchi macaron then it is the essence of the flower and the tropical fruit.  His book on chocolate desserts with Dorie Greenspan is a classic and I’ve been cooking from it for years. This one is pure chocolate, deep rich cocoa flavored moist cake for real chocolate lovers.

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The original recipe is for what is called a Pavè. This literally means a paving stone or large brick. It refers to the shape of the smallish cakes. Instead of making two cakes I went with one round cake. It’s more convenient and less labor intensive and it was to be taken to a friend’s house for a dinner. So it made more sense and it worked out great.

The cake layers are made with whipped egg whites, egg yolks, all purpose flour, cocoa powder and potato starch. The potato starch is not essential but it is that extra layer of precision I mention with Hermes recipes. It has no gluten and no real flavor. So it helps make the cocoa flavor pop and contributes to a lighter more tender cakes. I think it also helps the cakes suck up more of the caramel syrup.

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Seems odd to have caramel syrup in the cake. Wha??? Well, again, it’s a building block. The cake does not taste of caramel. The sugar in the syrup is cooked to almost burnt and then loosened with water and enriched with a bit of butter. When brushed over the cakes and allowed to soak they add bitterness and richness that makes the chocolate more “chocolate-y”.

Apricots are not the first fruit that I think would go with chocolate, black pepper though makes sense. Turns out combined together they both work with chocolate. I simmered dried apricots in water for a few minutes then diced them up. Then I tossed them with ground black pepper and lemon juice.

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Last component to make is the rich chocolate ganache. This one is made with a mix of bittersweet and milk chocolates and whipped with a good bit of softened salted butter. Now the cake is ready to assemble.

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I sliced the two round cakes in half to get four layers and brushed them generously with caramel, then a layer of soft ganache. I sprinkled some of the apricots over the frosting topped it with a layer of cake and kept going.

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The frosting is very rich and gets trickier to apply if it warms up. So before frosting the outside I put the cake in the fridge to let the ganache set very well then I spread the remainder on the outside. After another rest in the fridge I used a fork to “decorate” the edges of the cake with some neat striations. One apricot that I saved after poaching got glazed with a touch of syrup and sat on top of the cake. The cake is best served at room temperature when the ganache is at the perfect creamy texture.  So, we let it rest for a bit and dug in.

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The French Laundry: Pear Strudel with Chestnut Cream and Pear Chips

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Back to that endless well of inspiration and technique, The French Laundry Cookbook. It’s like a small mini cooking course for every…course. I refine, learn and always end up with an awesome dish or two. This dessert was from a couple months back when pears were at their most abundant. I had some of the fruit and wanted to make some kind of pastry with them. A quick search against my cookbook database using -the very useful- Eatyourbooks.com resulted in several recipes using pears in a pastry including this lovely and refined version of a strudel.

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The first component I prepared was the fruit. I cut the neck from the pears and peeled the remaining rounded part. I used two different round cutters to make even cylinders and to hollow them out. These got poached in a syrup of white wine, vanilla, sugar and water. Once cool they went in the fridge until baking time.

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With another large pear I made the crystallized pear chips. Using a mandolin, I sliced it into paper thin slices. I poached these in a syrup of sugar and water, heavy on the sugar, until translucent. I laid them carefully on a Silpat and dried them in a 275 F oven until perfectly crispy. I reserved these in a container with a pack of silica to keep them crispy.

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This is by and large a classic recipe with classic components like the crème anglaise. It is really one of my favorite sweet treats. It’s just egg yolks, sugar, vanilla seeds made into a velvety custard with hot milk. I have made this using my sous vide precision cooker many times but this time i went old school and made it in an old fashioned pot and whisk. It is so delicious that I can eat it by the spoonful.

Chestnuts are not as beloved in the US as they are elsewhere and that’s a shame. They have a rich nutty and sweet flavor with a great buttery texture. Here roasted chestnuts get cooked with heavy cream and vanilla for an hour or so. Then they get pureed along with a bit of the pear poaching liquid and strained to make a luscious smooth puree.

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To complete the strudel I brushed 4 layers of filo with clarified butter and sprinkled each with sugar. I stacked them and cut them into strips a bit wider than the pear cylinders. I laid the cylinders on the filo and rolled them up to make neat packages. I baked these at 350 F until golden brown and let them cool slightly before serving.

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I plated the pear strudel and dusted it with a bit of powdered sugar. I poured some dollops of the custard next to it and each got a bit of reduced pear poaching liquid in the center. Then a scoop or thick smear of the chestnut puree went next to the strudel. This is a delicious dessert with contrasting textures, temperatures and flavors. I was a bit skeptical about how the chestnut puree would work with the rest of the dish other than that it has the perfect texture to hold the pear chips. However, it was delicious and added a great almost-savory accent to the dish along with a rich creamy texture.

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Boneless Stuffed Chicken Wings with Black Bean Sauce

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Superbowl and wings are perfect party companions. I made wings this Superbowl Sunday but I did not just fry some wings and toss them in hot sauce (as delicious as that is). These are boneless wings stuffed with zippy pork dumpling filling and tossed in a fermented black bean sauce. Boneless chicken “wings” have been a  popular item at various fats food restaurants in the U.S. over the past few years. The problem is they are not wings! They are just boneless chicken chunks, fried and tossed with the same sauce as regular wings. I know my kids love them and could not care one bit when i complain that “These.Are.NOT.Wings!” Ah, the power of marketing.

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I had been thinking of making true boneless wings for a while but only got the motivation i needed when I saw this recipe in the modern Chinese book, A. Wong The Cookbook by Andrew Wong. The combination just sounded delicious. As expected, getting those two pesky bones out of the wing is the most time consuming part of this recipe, but after a couple of them the rest get a bit easier.

I briefly marinated the wings in a mixture of maltose, sugar, rice wine and vinegar. The marinade is poured hot over the wings to tighten them. They are then removed, dried and set on a rack in the fridge uncovered. This will thoroughly dry the skin and aid in crisping them in the hot oil.

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Removing the bones from the wings will obviously make them lose their structure and they will be…well..floppy. So, stuffing them becomes obvious. It adds a ton of flavor, additional texture and helps them retain their shape. The filling is a classic dumpling filling made from ground pork, ginger, potato starch, chives, soy and sesame oil. I used a small piping bag to fill the boneless wings.

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In the meantime I prepared the sauce from sauteed red peppers, fermented black soy beans, garlic, ginger, scallions, rice wine and chicken stock. I reduced the mixture by half and adjusted the seasoning. To serve, I fried the wings in plenty of oil till crispy and the filling is cooked through (I used a thermometer to make sure of that). We made a meal of these delicious, crispy juice delicacies with a bit of steamed rice and topped them with plenty of the sauce.

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Lowcountry Hoppin’ John and Cotechino

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Cotechino with lentils is the classic, but in the American south eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day is the tradition. So, here the Hoppin’ John stands in for the lentils and a mighty fine stand-in it is too.

Making Hoppin’ John is not difficult but it does pay to have a solid recipe to follow and a good set of ingredients, namely the peas and rice. Ever since seeing chef Sean Brock on the excellent PBS show “The Mind of A Chef” and then reading through his book, Heritage, I have been ordering various grains and legumes from Anson Mills. The Sea Island Red Peas from them are as delicious as they are beautiful and they are great in Brock’s recipe for Lowcountry  Hoppin’ John.

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I soaked the peas overnight in water before cooking them in homemade ham stock along with chopped carrots, onions, celery, a jalapeno, thyme and bay leaves. They simmer until tender and really hold on to their shape. A cup or so is removed and blended with butter to make a red pea gravy. This gravy stays separate and gets seasoned with red wine vinegar, salt and pepper. At service time the Hoppin’ John is dolled out into bowls with rice and the gravy gets added to each bowl as needed. It’s a very comforting and delicious bowl of food and just feels very nutritious. Yeah, I know, “feels nutritious” is a pretty silly term…but well, not sure how else to describe it. It just does….and I can describe it any damn way I want on my little blog anyways.

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Now, onto the rice. It’s Carolina Gold rice also from Anson Mills. It has a lovely nutty flavor and good texture. I followed Brock’s instructions to cook it as well. First I boiled it in plenty of water like pasta until barely cooked. I drained it, spread it in a small baking sheet and put it in the oven at 300 F. I dried it for about 10 minutes, dotted it with butter and gave it a stir. After another 5 minutes or so the excess moisture was gone and the rice was perfectly cooked. The grains were cooked through with a slight toothsome texture and separate.

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I made the sausages the day before. I rarely make them the exact same way every year. This time I based them on a recipe from the Napa butcher shop called The Fatted Calf and their book, In the Charcuterie. I’ve been cooking them sous vide for a while as well. I did a side by side this year though just to see if anything is gained by cooking the sausage in a pot of water in the oven at a low temp. Well, sous vide wins. The one that went in the oven lost a whole lot more volume and was not as evenly cooked as the sous vide ones. It was not bad by any means but I will be sticking with using my precision cooker for upcoming Cotechino cooks. 

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Greens, Pumpkin and Rice Torta

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If I had to pick all time favorite vegetarian meals they would have to be Mediterranean. They probably focus on lots of greens and wrapped in thin flatbread or dough (proper Falafel is probably on the top of that list). This Italian gem of a recipe from Paula Wolfert is one of those recipes and I’m happy to write about it at this time since it seems very autumnal.

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Ligurian cuisine is famous for the emphasis on herbs and greens. That’s where the beloved basil-pine nut pesto comes from, herb studded olive oil soaked Focaccia and all manner of simple pasta and seafood dishes. So, it is not surprising that Wolfert’s Ligurian recipe relies on large amount of greens sauteed in generous doses of olive oil and filled in a pastry enriched with more olive oil.

I prepared the dough first by mixing flour, water, olive oil and salt. The dough is very nice and pliable. It smells great due to the fruity extra virgin olive oil in it. That gets divided into two equal portions and can sit in the fridge wrapped in plastic for up to a couple days. It could seep some oil in that time but that is ok.

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Spinach and swiss chard made up the greens portion of the filling. The most important step is to make sure these are very very well washed. There is nothing more irksome than grit in an otherwise delightful dish (same goes for removing the poop “vein” from shrimp…I hate it when lazy cooks leave it in and we get nasty grit!) Anyways, back to the filling. I shredded a few handfuls of a small pumpkin using the coarse side of the grater and tossed these in some salt for a bit. The same salting treatment was used for the coarsely chopped greens. The salt draws out some of the water and helps reduce the astringency of the raw greens.

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After rinsing and draining the greens I sauteed them with onions and olive oil until wilted but still retained their firmness. I tossed in the shredded pumpkin and cooked that for a few minutes too. Once the mixture is cooled, I added a bit of short-grain rice that was soaked in water for 30 minutes, Parmesan cheese, fresh mozzarella and a couple of eggs. I rolled the dough into large 14-inch rounds and topped one with the filling before covering it with the second round. I debated building the whole thing on a pizza peel and sliding it on my baking steel directly. I decided against that and went with building and baking the torta on a round metal baking pan. Next time I might give baking it directly on the baking steel a shot and see what happens (hopefully no burnt dough or a huge mess). My favorite way to enjoy this pie is at room temperature, sliced into wedges and eaten by hand. It is delicious, satisfying and keeps well. It makes lovely meals for days if you do not polish it off the first night.

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Atelier Crenn: Kir Breton

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A Kir Breton is a simple cocktail made from apple cider with creme de cassis. Another “Kir” that is popular is the Kir Royal wich uses Champagne instead of apple cider. The Kir Breton as the name suggests is a specialty of Brittany, the French region famous for great seafood, salted butter and apples.

That’s where chef Dominique Crenn comes from. She is a proud Breton and chooses to serve all her diners this one bite “cocktail” as soon as they settle for dinner at Atelier Crenn in San Francisco. The recipe is from her book, Atelier Crenn: Metamorphosis of Taste and like dinner at her restaurant it is the first recipe in the book.

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I chose it as part of a three course dinner I prepared for Diana and I. It’s neat looking, delicious and really not terribly difficult.  The orbs are filled with liquid hard apple cider, encased in a thin shell of cocoa butter and topped with a gel of creme de cassis (black currant liqueur). Sounds daunting? It does, but really it is not difficult to make and requires mostly time in the freezer.

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First step is to prepare frozen spheres of the base liquid – the apple cider in this case. I cooked the hard cider down a bit to remove some of the alcohol or it will never freeze. I froze them in half-sphere molds. When totally solid I removed them and “glued” them together by gently melting the flat sides and attaching them to each other. Now I had frozen apple cider orbs. For the cassis part, I blended creme de cassis with Ultratex-3. This very quickly gives us a thick gel that is not heated at all so it retains the delicious taste and all the alcohol.

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A few hours before service, I made the shell mixture. This is mostly comprised of melted cocoa butter and very little white chocolate. The cocoa butter is relatively tasteless and not sweet. It also hardens very fast if anything cold touches it. So, I used a toothpick to pick up the frozen cider spheres and dip them in the melted cocoa butter. This instantly created a shell around them. With some practice I got some nice smooth ones. I let those rest in the fridge until service. This allows the cider to melt creating the liquid in the shell. To serve it I put the cider filled spheres on spoons and piped a good dollop of the cassis gel on top.

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Cod, Green Bouillabaisse and Aïoli

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It’s very much a stretch calling this mixture of spring vegetables a Bouillabaisse, but it gives you an idea at least about the flavor profile. In Happy in the Kitchen chef Michel Richard serves this “Bouillabaisse” with nothing more than the Aïoli and croutons (like a real Bouillabaisse). I’ve always loved the idea of this vegetable stew that is emblematic of spring but also wanted to make it more substantial. So, why not add a seafood element? While we are at it, a few pieces of ultra crispy roast potatoes a la Heston Blumenthal (really the best roast potatoes ever!) stand in for the crouton and are a natural with the garlicky aïoli.

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It’s really a more labor heavy project to make a good vegetable dish than what people might assume. There is a lot of washing, trimming, peeling, drying, chopping, slicing and dicing…far more than searing a piece of meat and serving it with rice. Making vegetarian food -good vegetarian food- with nuance, balance and variety is an admirable task. Here I trimmed and quartered large globe artichokes first and let them sit in a mixture of water and lemon juice.

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Other vegetables that went in here in a specific order so that they will cook perfectly include fennel, leeks, onions, tomatoes (pureed), minced garlic, zucchini, squash and leafy greens. The mixture, just like a traditional Bouillabaisse, is flavored with white wine, saffron and an anise flavored spirit; Pernod in this case.

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I wanted a mild light fish to go with the vegetable Bouillabaisse. Fresh halibut or turbot would have been great, but no luck this time. What they had at the fish counter are some good thick cod fillets. I bagged the fish with olive oil and cooked them sous vide. Cod has very little connective tissue, even for a white fish, that’s why it is great in fish and chips. Cooked sous vide though, we really have to be very careful to move the fish gently so as not to break apart.

Bouillabaisse is often served with a garlicky olive oil emulsion called rouille. This sauce does not contain eggs and relies on the gradual addition of oil to garlic and bread crumbs to maintain some stability. For this dish though, I went with a garlic aïoli. Homemade mayonnaise is ridiculously easy to make with a hand (stick) blender and a tall narrow container. It’s a trick I first saw Spanish chef Jose Andres do by dumping all the ingredients in the container, the oil floats to the top and the egg sinks. The blender goes all the way to the bottom and as it is whirring away you slowly start lifting it up as the mixture emulsifies into a perfect mayonnaise. Here is a video showing this method (go to about minute 3:00). This time I added extra lemon juice and a few cloves of minced garlic. It is awesome with the fish, the vegetable stew and the crispy potatoes.

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