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.

Poached Pears

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.

Custard-Chestnut

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.

Pears-Filo

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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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Plums and Pistachio: Olive Oil Cake, Pistachio Gelato, Poached Plums, Yogurt

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This is the second installment of the Plums/Pistachio pairing and this one has a much better gelato. This one is an easier plate to pull together and delivers excellent flavor and texture. We have a fragrant Italian olive oil rosemary cake, excellent pistachio gelato, plums poached in a juniper syrup and a yogurt vanilla sauce. I took all the pictures using natural light for this post too and..well…I think I can use some improvement (and maybe a new camera!).

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I prepared the gelato following my usual method based on Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream template. Jeni Bauer’s formula of milk, cream tapioca (or corn) starch, sugar and corn syrup rarely fails and is very simple to make. I allowed pistachios to infuse the cream mixture and then blended it all together. The final gelato had the right flavor and creamy texture I was after.

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The cake is a classic Italian pastry. It’s one of those dry (in a good way) cakes that I love. This one is based on a recipe from Mario Batali’s Babbo Cookbook. The cake is made from flour, chopped rosemary, eggs, sugar and a fruity olive oil. It’s a very forgiving and flexible recipe that can be flavored in any number of ways (great with orange/lemon zest and ground almonds). I baked it in a small loaf pan and sliced it into neat rectangles.

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The plums I prepared with the previous plum/pistachio post were awesome. Not sure why I wanted to try a different method, but I did. Maybe I wanted to prove that my sous vide method is much better? Anyways, this time I poached the plums in a pot with blueberries and some juniper berries. I figured the juniper flavor would play off nicely against the rosemary in the cake. The flavor was pretty good and the juniper was a nice touch. However, I did not get nearly the nice ruby red color, the barely tender texture or the blueberry flavor that infused the plums that were cooked sous vide.

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The dish needed a bit of freshness some sharp notes. So, I made a quick sauce from whole milk yogurt and vanilla sugar. I added a dollop of the sauce in a bowl and topped it with a slice of cake. On that went a few slices of the plums and right next to it a scoop of the gelato. I gently poured some of the poaching syrup to finish off the dish.

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Plums and Pistachio: Dacquoise, Blueberry Poached Plums, Ice Cream, Chantilly Cream

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This is a very good combination of flavors that I tried out in two separate desserts, both are delicious, both imperfect and need some tweaking. The first one is another lift from Daniel Bouloud that features a disk of crunchy chewy pistachio dacquoise with whipped cream and poached plums with a scoop of pistachio gelato. The original recipe uses cherries instead of plums.

Making a pistachio dacquoise is pretty much the same as the dacquoise for one of our favorite cakes. A mixture of pistachio powder, pistachio paste and sugar is combined with whipped egg whites. This mixture is baked until browned and mostly crispy but not brittle. When done I cut it into roughly 2 inch circles and a few smaller ones for  the ice cream.

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Bouloud actually does not cook the cherries in his recipe. He just marinates them in a hot syrup. That would be fine for cherries but I had other plans for the plums. I cooked them sous vide with blueberry syrup.  The syrup is just blueberries, water and sugar simmered, mashed and strained. I bagged the sliced plums with the purple syrup and cooked it at 82 C for about 30 minutes.

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I liked how this worked out very much. The plums took on the amazing color from the syrup, they cooked perfectly without being mushy and had nice hints of the blueberry. It is obvious from the pictures that the plum took on a much deeper ruby color after cooking. I strained the cooking liquid and reduced it as well to make a simple sauce for the dessert.

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Now where the recipe failed is the pistachio ice cream. Bouloud’s recipe makes for a very thick ice cream base with lots of pureed pistachios. The end result had a good flavor but was closer to frozen pistachio butter than creamy smooth ice cream. To plate it I put a disc of the cookie and layered the poached plums in top. I whipped some cream with cherry liqueur and vanilla sugar then piped a nice rosette on top of the plums. A scoop of the mediocre ice cream goes along the side and a few drizzles of the reduced plum sauce.

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A Superb Pineapple Upside Down Cake

The saying “Tastes like Sunshine” has to be one of the most clichéd terms in the food writing and TV world and its pretty damn stupid. What does sunshine taste like anyways? Maybe I’ll ask the next food critic who puts it in their review of a restaurant and its cooking. So, I’ll avoid saying it but I’ll admit that this was the first thing that came to mind when I unmolded this fragrant cake out of its baking pan. Sunshine. It sure looks like sunshine.

It’s also a bit of a cliché to state that this is the ultimate example of its kind. However, in my opinion, it sure is. I have never tasted a better pineapple upside down cake. It’s not too sweet, has none of those shitty fake-tasting “Maraschino” cherries and just brims with the flavors of ripe fresh pineapple, a hint of rum and soft vanilla cake. It really amazed me how good it turned out, especially since making it was sort of an afterthought. I had a pineapple and needed some dessert for a dinner of pork chops and bbq chicken and I remembered seeing it in Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home book (that book has never disappointed yet). It came together in no time. Keller proves that to make the best pineapple cake all you need is fresh fruit and a handful of pantry staples. Canned sugary fruit be damned.

I first cut up the pineapple into wedges about a 1/4 inch thick and maybe 2 inches wide. Then I made a “shmear” from brown sugar, butter and rum. That gets spread in the bottom of a cake pan in an even layer with a sprinkling of salt. The pineapple pieces get shingled on top of the “shmear”. The cake portion is a straight forward vanilla cake made by creaming butter and sugar then adding eggs and flour. That gets spread on top of the fruit (I sprayed the pan with a little “Pam for Baking” before adding the batter since I was not using a silicone pan) and the pan gets baked (and smells great) until the cake is firm and light brown. After it rests for 20 minutes or so, you turn it over on a cake stand or plate and there it is: the most amazing Pineapple Upside Down Cake ever. It went so well with both kids and adults, that I barely was able to sneak a slice and save it for myself to taste it.