Naturally Leavened Panettone

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This is another recipe from this past holiday season and it is worth recording for reference (and I got it posted before the end of January!). It worked very good but I will need to change a few things next time around, so a quick record of it is a good idea. Usually I make a Panettone or Stollen for Christmas but never with a 100% natural leaven. The idea to make a Panettone with natural levain is something that I wanted to do as soon as I saw the loaves made by Roy.

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I used my regular 100% rye starter to make the levain as always using 50-50 mix of white and whole wheat flours. For the recipe, I used Peter Reinhart’s from Artisan Breads Everyday as a reference. Seeing pictures of Roy’s bread I decided on chocolate and cherry as my flavors.

I soaked the cherries in dark rum while I worked on the starter and dough. To make the levain I mixed roughly 40 gr of the rye starter with 170 gr of 50-50 white and whole wheat flours. After about 6 hours it was bubbly and good to go. The dough in Reinhart’s recipe uses commercial yeast in addition to the levain, I opted to stick only with the natural starter and skip the yeast.

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Since the dough is enriched with soft butter and egg yolks it is a good idea to make it in a KitchenAid mixer to get everything well incorporated and the gluten developed. I decided to bake it in one large loaf using a bundt pan that I sprayed with non-stick oil. The dough, like most Panettone is too slack to really shape it so I just transferred it from the bowl of the mixer into the bundt pan and evened it out as much as possible.

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The dough rises slowly for about 12 hours and develops a lot of flavor. After baking and cooling it is ready to slice. The shape, look and texture of the finished loaf are all excellent. Due to the levain and the long fermentation time, the bread had a great robust flavor. This however did not really work as much as I would’ve liked with the tart cherries and dark chocolate chips.  There was almost too much flavor in there and the bread needed more sweetness and mellow flavors. Next time I’ll go with some almonds and some sweeter fruit like currents, apricots, prunes and maybe just a few cherries.

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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Cronuts at Home

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According to Chef Dominique Ansel when he created the Cronut he had no clue it would be such a huge phenomenon. He wanted to put a donut on his pastry shop’s menu and figured he’s put a spin on it, thus the Cronut was born. If you have never heard of a Cronut (never heard of it?? Have you been living under a rock?!) it’s a pastry that combines a laminated croissant dough with the shape and cooking process (frying) of a donut.

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In his book, The Secret Recipes, Ansel pens down the various creations that made his shop in NYC so popular including the Cronuts. One of the smartest business moves that Ansel did is to trademark the name “Cronut” so now you see a lot of knockoffs out there but none bear that name at least in the US. This is simply a smart business move and he claims that the recipe itself is not really a secret and he lays out a version of it in the book. I’ve made a quiet a few laminated doughs like puff pastry, danish and croissant dough recipes over the years so I was pretty comfortable working with Ansel’s pastry. If you have never made one of these doughs before it might be a bit more of a challenge to get the Cronuts right on the first try. One mistake with my version was not to roll the donuts thick enough in order to get more lofty Cronut.

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The recipe as outlined in the book takes a total of three days, but really most of it is the dough cooling or resting or proofing in the fridge. To make the dough, a hefty square of butter is encased in a yeasted dough and rolled several times and folded. This is done more in the style of puff pastry rather than croissant since the butter block in laid on the dough in a diamond shape as opposed to having its sides parallel to the dough.

Laminated Dough

After several rolls and folds we get a dough with lots of butter/dough layers. When the pastry is fried the water in the butter turns to steam and lifts the dough layers creating the flaky texture that is the hallmark of these pastries.

On the day of frying, I rolled the butter laminated dough and stamped out donut shapes from it. Now, Mr. Ansel does not tell us what to do with the donut holes we get from this process. I was not throwing them away so they got proofed next to the Cronuts. I fried them up as well and rolled them in vanilla sugar.

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While the dough was resting and proofing, I made the fillings or ganaches. These are very similar to what Pierre Hermè uses for his lovely macarons. They are basically a type of mousse based on white chocolate and heavy cream, flavored with anything from lemon to chocolate and set with gelatin. I like those a lot because they deliver a bright flavor without being overly sweet or heavy. I prepared two different fillings, one with raspberry jam folded in and the other one a simple vanilla bean flavored ganache.

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After frying the Cronuts their sides are rolled in a vanilla sugar mixture. Then the filling is piped in from the top of each one in four spots. This leaves you with holes on the top, so to cover these up Ansel matches a glaze with each pastry that goes right on top. It does not hurt at all that the glaze adds a bit of flavor and looks great too. I created two glazes, the chocolate one went on the vanilla-filled Cronut and the vanilla one went on the raspberry pastry.

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Making a laminated dough pastry or fried donuts at home is certainly not something for an everyday breakfast. Making a pastry that combines the two is not particularly difficult and is really worth it if you have some practice and if you spread out the process. The end result was delicious and delightful. The At-Home Cronut Pastry™ (that’s the actual name of the book recipe) had a beautiful texture and flavors that really shined through. It was a perfect special breakfast for all of us and I will be making them again sooner or later. Maybe sooner rather than later since the kids are already asking for them…

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Cassoulet and Green Salad, Country Bread and Red Wine, Walnut Tart – A Dinner from Southwest France

A long titled post suitable to a properly labor-intensive and delicious cold-weather meal. Both the Toulouse-style Cassoulet and the Walnut Tart are based on Paula Wolfert’s recipes in her book “The Cooking of Southwest France“. The bread is the Pain de Campagne (country bread) recipe from Peter Reinhart’s “The Bread baker’s Apprentice“.

Making a proper Cassoulet is a good bit of work and to get the most out of this dish you really should not cut corners. Boiling some beans and adding in a couple of sausages might be good, but is really not the same animal. It’s almost “wrong” to make a Cassoulet that does not take a couple of days worth of work (mostly unattended simmering or resting). It’s part of the enjoyment that goes into it when you crack that crispy breadcrumb crust that you know how much work really went into making this sublime dish.

It helps a lot having a freezer and larder that is fully stocked. I already had home-cured pork belly (pancetta), home-cooked duck confit, good rich stock (venison in this case), trimmed and cleaned pig skins, home-made Toulouse-style sausage and a few pounds of wild boar. This means I could dive right into cooking the Cassoulet and putting these items together without having to worry about making confit or shopping for pig skins and duck fat.

So, what is involved in making a Cassoulet?

– Simmer pork shoulder (I used wild boar), pig skin, along with aromatics and vegetables (leeks, carrots, thyme, bay, a little tomato paste…)  until mostly tender.

– Add in a pound or 2 (Wolfert uses two for a HUGE Cassoulet, I used one to make half a recipe) of soaked white beans and cook until tender.

– Seperate the beans and stock from the meats. Store in the fridge overnight or for a few days.

– Enrich the stock by pureeing some of it with garlic and pork fat. Add that to the beans, rest of the stock and the pork chunks. Simmer for a little bit.

– Remember those Toulouse sausages I mentioned earlier? Cook those separately. I cooked them sous vide till done. Cut them into pieces.

– For the duck confit, just remove the skins, take the meat off the bones and leave it in big chunks.

– “Build” the Cassoulet by first laying the flat pieces of cooked pork skin (the one we simmered with the beans) in the bottom of a large pot. I used one of my Colombian Chamba clay pots.

– Top that with half of the bean mixture, then the duck confit. Top with the remaining bean mixture. Use a perforated spoon here so that you can control how much of the bean stock is needed. I ended up using all of it for the liquid to come up barely to the level of the beans.

– Bake the Cassoulet for an hour or two. A skin will form on the surface. Stir that “skin” into the Cassoulet. Bury the cooked sausage chunks in the beans leaving them slightly exposed. Top with a tablespoon or two of breadcrumbs and a drizzle of duck fat. Bake until crispy, bubbly and delicious.

– Let it rest for 5-10 minutes at least and dig in.

It really sounds like much more work than it is. Most of the cooking can be spread out over a couple of days and you will be rewarded with one of the most delicious of French comfort foods ever. It’s one of those dishes that if done right are satisfying and rich but not cloying. It should not be mushy or fatty. To get that result, one needs to pay attention to the small details.

Detail1: DO NOT let the beans boil like crazy. As soon as the stock comes up to a boil lower the heat to a very gentle simmer. This way you can control the cooking process better and can cook the beans perfectly. Rapid boil will almost insure burst beans. This will make for unpleasantly mushy beans, a thick cloudy stock and will emulsify the fat in it making it more difficult to de-grease.

Detail2: A key reason why a good Cassoulet should be stretched over a couple of days is de-greasing  the stock. Storing the beans in the cooking liquid in the fridge will form a thick layer of fat on the surface from all those meats. It’s easy to remove that before continuing with the cooking and baking.

What to serve it with? Other than red wine? You really don’t need much else, but a piece of good bread and a tart salad are excellent accompaniments. I shaped the bread specifically for the Cassoulet dinner into an epis (wheat tip) so we could just break off pieces instead of slicing…and it looks pretty neat. The salad was a simple mixed baby greens mix with a vinaigrette of raspberry vinegar and walnut oil.

It only seemed appropriate that to cap it all off, I would make a dessert from the same region. So from the same book, I made Wolfert’s walnut tart or as she calls it Walnut Tart from Masseube. This is not a typical tart, more of a cross between a cookie and a tart. The filling is a mixture of walnuts and a dark butter caramel. This gets poured into a tart shell lined with a sweet short pastry crust. Another layer of pastry goes on top and then it is baked. When the tart cools the filling sets pretty firm, like a pecan pie filling minus most of the “goo”. We really loved this with a cup of coffee and a touch of whipped cream.

Pistachio Waffle, Yeast Foam, Pear and Banana-Cinnamon Ice Cream

Anything that has to do with fermentation and yeast fascinates me. That why I love baking bread, brewing beer and even fermenting my own homemade salami. When I first saw a wierd congealed mass in my bottle of vinegar and later learned it was a “vinegar mother” that can basically make vinegar out of wine, I did not throw the bottle away. I cracked it open, harvested the mother and started making vinegar. fermentation just seems like magic! You combine a couple of things together, like grain and water, and let it sit for a while. Poof! you have a food or a drink.

So, when I read on David’s blog that he added yeast and fermented some heavy sweetened cream to get a thick yeasty “foam”, I knew I’d be trying something with it. The process is easy enough. Mix in some yeast into sweetened cream and let it sit for a while before chilling the mixture. Right before I served it, I whipped the now fermented cream to a thick light foam. The taste is a bit difficult to describe, sweet, a little bread-y and feels extremely light on the tongue. This is a wonderful and versatile product.

The pistachio waffle recipe here is from “Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Herme“. The batter is definitely not like any waffle batter I’ve made before. It is rich with butter, cream and eggs. The batter is so thick a spoon can stand in it. The end result right out of the waffle iron is pretty soft as opposed to crispy and fluffy. However as soon as it cools slightly it firms up into a tender and slightly crispy waffle. There is no mistaking that this one is designed by a pastry chef for dessert as opposed to a breakfast staple. The best part is that unlike most other batters for pancakes or waffles, the pastry remains very tasty and crisp at room temperature the next day.

For a fruit component I used pears. Some of the pears were poached and pureed with bourbon and gellan to make a smooth pear butter. The rest I scooped into balls and marinated them (and tried to compress them) raw with turbinado sugar, bourbon and vanilla using the FoodSaver. They were not compressed, as I expected, but were very nicely marinated and loaded with flavor. The banana ice cream is flavored with coffee, vanilla and cinnamon. For garnish, I used roasted pistachios and some pickled blueberries leftover from the venison dish.

The combination of textures and flavors worked out very well. My problem with this dish boils down to aesthetics. Specifically the damn pistachio coulis. It was supposed to be green, or at least much “greener” than this drab olive color. The idea is the green color will offset the beige and brown all over the place. That vibrant green color is why Thomas Keller recommends using imported scrupulously peeled pistachios. I did not really peel mine and certainly did not fork over a lot of cash for the Sicilian stuff.

VDP: Black Bean Enchiladas with Tomatillo Salsa

Tuesday, January 13 , 2009

I love Mexican food but I do not cook nearly as much of it as I should. That’s probably because I live in Houston, and good real Mexican food or it’s descendent, Tex-Mex, is very easy to find. I’ve been planning to make Mole some time soon because that is one dish that is rare to find well made at your run of the mill Taqueria. Most of them use a paste that comes in a jar instead of making their own from dried peppers, nuts, herbs, raisins and chocolate among many other things.

No Mole this time though (which probably will not be vegetarian anyways), instead I made some zippy black bean enchiladas with tomatillo sauce. This green sauce is probably my favorite of the dozens of Mexican salsas. It is tart, from the little tomatillos which are NOT green tomatoes, but a sort of large berry. It is fragrant with cilantro and flavored with garlic and a little jalapeno. All the ingredients except for the cilantro are roasted and then pureed with the chopped cilantro. That’s it. I made it the day before and also cooked the beans.

To make the filling, I mixed the cooked black beans wit gently sautéed sweet peppers and chili powder. I heated the store-bought tortillas (It’s a weekday after all) in the oven after brushing them with a bit of corn oil then started rolling. The other ingredient in the filling was some plain melting white cheese. The rolled tortillas were placed in a baking dish that was smeared with some of the salsa and then topped with the rest of the green sauce. After baking till bubbly I crumbled some white farmer’s cheese on top. Served with Mexican tomato-y rice and sour cream.

VDP: Farinata (Socca)

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Another Americanized name for this pie is Chickpea Pizza. However, I just posted about pizza. Real pizza. Farinata my friends is not pizza. It does not taste like pizza nor look like one. It has no cheese, no sauce and no topping. Farinata is more like a pancake, or crepe really. It is simple, rustic, Italian and French (where it is known as Socca. Click here for David Lebovitz’s account of the best Socca in Nice) and very delicious if you eat it within minutes of baking. After that it tastes like what I imagine soggy cardboard would taste.

Farinata originates from the Italian region of Liguria. It is a street food and locals are very passionate about it. The proper way to make it is to cook it in a special type of pan that makes a large thin pancake. In my home I’ve made it successfully in a baking sheet and, with better results, in my seasoned cast iron pan. Other than salt and pepper, all a Farinata needs is chickpea flour, water and olive oil. I used to have to go to a specialty ethnic store to buy the chickpea flour, now my local supermarket carries it in it’s Ethnic foods section, more specifically the Indian/Pakistani section. The flour is very powdery and has a heady smell of chickpeas. By adding water and olive oil to the flour, I made a very loose batter using the recipe from Nancy Harmon Jenkins’ “The Essential Mediterranean” as a guide. Following the recipe, I baked the pie (divided into two) in lightly oiled cast iron pans in a very hot oven. The Farinata a bit crispy on the edges and the bottom, but soft on the inside. It needs to be seasoned with a good hit of black pepper as soon as it comes out from the oven, sliced and eaten to be appreciated. I love this as is and ate most of it all by itself. I did make a tomatoey lentil stew as a supplement to the Farinata as well though.