Thursday, July 30, 2009

Deconstructing Food Bloggers (also, a focaccia)

For once, this post will not revolve around food… but around food bloggers.

When I started this blog a few months ago, I didn’t tell my friends and family right away: I wanted to get things rolling and have some content first (and, if possible, hone my photo skills a bit). But recently, I gave my father-in-law The Chocolate Bunny’s URL. Yes, the same father-in-law who helped me out on the last Daring Cooks’ challenge: it was only fair to show him what I’d been up to with the powders we’d made.

He had some very nice things to say about the blog itself, but one of his appreciations concerns you guys: having read most of your comments, he told me he was impressed by how nice and friendly everyone is.

This got me thinking. It’s true that I have never read a nasty comment on a food blog, or even on a food forum. I think we take it for granted, but think about it: have you ever read something along the lines of “Ewww, that soup looks gross!” or “i hate ur writing, ur blog is boooooring” on a food blog? I think I’d be shocked if I did.

And God knows there are plenty of nasty comments on other parts of the Internet. I have a private blog on LiveJournal, and there are loads of quarrels between members over there. And, as my father-in-law has shown me, even something as apparently innocent as an opera video on YouTube can lead to really horrible comments: not just disagreements, but downright offensive insults.

So what is it about the food blogosphere that makes people so gosh-darn nice? Why is this place such a haven? I can think of three hypotheses, some of which don't quite work:

Hypothesis 1: Food is not a controversial topic.

Most often, when I see people arguing (or hurling insults at each other) on the Web, it’s usually because of social, political, or otherwise intellectual reasons. I’m sure you can all think of touchy topics that generate aggressive comments: pro-choice vs pro-life, gay rights, political opinions, religious opinions, and even tastes in books and music (e.g., Wagner being associated with anti-Semitism, and so forth).

Compared to such topics, food seems like a pretty tame subject. Because it’s more sensual than intellectual (even though we all know a lot of concentration goes into some recipes), people are less likely to see it as a point of contention. You either like zucchini, or you don’t. And it would be pretty ridiculous to write something like: “Glargh! You made Russian stuffed cabbage! You must be a Communist!”

And yet… Is it really that much of a stretch to imagine someone getting upset about food for socio-political reasons? My above example was intentionally ridiculous, but what if someone posted a recipe featuring an ingredient that came from a country under a totalitarian regime? After all, food boycotts are not all that uncommon. Or what if someone made a dish featuring endangered ingredients or wildlife? Food choices do not exist in a vacuum, and they are closer to controversy than we might think.

But despite that, I have never seen vegans make aggressive comments about meat-based recipes on food blogs, for example. Despite the potential for controversy and disagreement, people just don’t seem to go there. Why?

Hypothesis 2: People who like to spend time in the kitchen are happier in general.

I don’t really believe in this one, but I thought I’d mention it anyway. Food bloggers cook, bake, and write about food because they enjoy it. By all logic, people who can indulge in something they enjoy would tend to be happy, and happy people don’t spit venom all over the Internet.

But then, where did the stereotype of the Temperamental Foodie come from? You’ve all seen representations of him/her in pop culture: I can think of the main character in the German movie Mostly Martha (remade in the US as No Reservations), or the food critic in Ratatouille, or even Conan O’Brien’s satirical portrayal of Martha Stewart as the Devil. That stereotype must have some grounding in reality. As much as we would like to imagine that cooks and bakers are all happy and nurturing, that’s probably not true: foodies can be nasty, just like any other group of people. (Not that I personally know any mean foodies, but there must be some out there.)

Hypothesis 3: People who care about food are more sensitive to decorum and etiquette.

Or, in other words, food bloggers are more civilized. Again, the Temperamental Foodie stereotype goes somewhat against this idea, but it still seems like the most plausible theory.

My reasoning goes: if food bloggers go to the trouble of making elaborate, tasty dishes, arranging them with care, photographing them from every angle, and then writing a long, entertaining post about it, it’s because they care about how it will come across to other people (their readers). They care about what people will think of them and of what they do. And this probably shows through when they comment on other foodies’ blogs (because only foodies look at food blogs): if you go around degrading others gratuitously, chances are people will not have a very positive image of you. It’s not hypocrisy – it’s manners. Foodies have manners.

Well, that’s my take on it, anyway. If anyone has other ideas or thoughts on this, I’d be more than happy to hear them.

So I’d just like to close by thanking each and every one of you for being so friendly and encouraging. I’m really having a blast with this blog, and it’s all thanks to you.

And to reward you for reading all the way through, here are pictures of the focaccia I made this weekend:

I used Marcy Goldman’s recipe for Summery Tomato, Zesty Olive and Onion Focaccia, topped with fresh basil.

It was really addictive, a crispy, stronger-tasting take on our usual, traditional caprese salad (oh, basil and tomatoes, how I love thee). Happy days!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Daring Baker's July Challenge - Milans and Mallows

The July Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Nicole at Sweet Tooth. She chose Chocolate Covered Marshmallow Cookies and Milan Cookies from pastry chef Gale Gand of the Food Network.

When I first saw this month’s Daring Bakers’ challenge, I thought “Oooh, goodie, cookies! I can handle cookies, no problem!” After all, everyone’s made cookies at some point, right? How hard could this be? After the Daring Cooks’ challenge, it was nice to be back on familiar territory. In the end, it wasn’t quite as easy as I had expected – this was a challenge, after all! But, as always, I learned from my mistakes.

I was quite excited at the idea of creating homemade versions of two of my favourite childhood storebought cookies: Milan cookies (a.k.a. Milanos) and mallows (a.k.a. Whippets). I hadn’t tasted either in a long time, and was very much looking forward to the experience.

I made the Milans first, because they seemed easier: just regular egg-white cookies, sandwiched together with a bit of orange-flavoured ganache.

However, I had forgotten that I’m a horrible piper. I hate using pastry bags, and the pastry bags hate me right back. As a result, none of my cookies were the same shape or size, and pairing them together was like playing a game of Match the Cards (or its laundry variation, Match the Socks). Also, I had to put a rush on this job, hence the scarcity of pictures.

The Milans were a big hit with everyone – which surprised me a little, because I really thought I could have done a better job. I really liked the citrus note, which came from the orange zest in the filling and the lemon extract in the cookies. I had never used lemon extract before, and I loved the fresh taste it added. However, I wish my cookies had been a bit less chewy: even though I had left them in the oven as long as I could without burning the bottom, the center felt like it was underbaked. I definitely remember Milanos to be crispier than that.

I would have liked to make the Milans again, this time trying to bake them longer at a lower temperature – but I still had to make the mallows. Our host had told us we could settle for just one recipe, but I did want to try my hand at both.

There are three components in mallows: the cookie base, the marshmallow center, and the chocolate glaze. The cookies were unproblematic, although I think the oven was too hot in this recipe as well. I ended up with way more cookies than the recipe had indicated (about 150, as opposed to 24), but apparently this happened to most of the other Daring Bakers. Plus, I may have made them smaller than I should have: they were literally bite-sized. I didn't have enough marshmallow to top them all, but I had enough chocolate... Weird, but not too big a deal.

However, when I tackled the next step, I experienced a giant MARSHMALLOW FAIL. I had never made marshmallows before, but I soon discovered that they are rather like meringue with gelatin and corn syrup; I’ve made meringue very often, so there shouldn’t have been a problem. Despite that, something went terribly wrong: my mixture simply refused to stiffen. My guess is that I didn’t whisk the egg whites enough, a rookie mistake that I hadn’t made in ages. But, there you have it. I came out of the kitchen sore, humbled and terrified of egg whites forever.

OK, maybe not forever. A couple of days later, I tried again, this time being careful to whisk the whites stiff and add the syrup slowly, and everything went perfectly: I obtained a thick mixture that held its peaks. Since I still hate pastry bags, I used a tiny spoon to top the cookies with marshmallow.

Two hours later, the marshmallows had set enough for me to dip the cookies into the chocolate glaze. It was a lengthy process, and it took even longer for the chocolate coating to set: in fact, I left the cookies out overnight, and some of them still hadn’t set by morning!

There seemed to be two kinds of cookies: those whose coating had set, but which had developed “spots”, and those which were still shiny, but hadn’t set. There didn’t really seem to be a logic to it, either. But I know from experience that chocolate coating can be tricky, and I’ll save that particular challenge for another time: just making proper marshmallows was enough for now. I ended up popping the mallows in the fridge, and the glaze finally set. Obviously, I kept the nicer-looking ones for the pictures.

The final result really surprised me: these cookies really do taste like the storebought ones! I was a bit skeptical of incorporating cinnamon into the cookies, but it turned out to be necessary to complete the flavour. The texture was pretty darn close to what I remembered from the last time I ate a Whippet, except that my cookie/marshmallow ratio was a litte off. Next time, more marshmallow!

So, there you have it. I didn’t do any daring variations this month, due to lack of time, so I’ll just point you all to the Daring Kitchen to go look at the wonders everyone else came up with. A big thank you to Nicole for this fun challenge!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Yummy Resources - Blueberry and Apricot Almond Tart

In my last post, I said I would post about fruit some other time. The time is now.

I wouldn’t really call myself a sucker for a bargain. I do try to favour items that are on sale, but I won’t go as far as to buy something I don’t really need or particularly like, just because it’s half-price (unlike one of my relatives, who has been known to buy unnecessary things in bulk for that very reason).

Food, however, is a little different. Not that I would ever buy something I don’t enjoy eating. But if it’s on sale, I might buy a little more than I need – because, I figure, food is rarely wasted around here.

And that’s how I ended up with five packages of blueberries. At “5 for 5 dollars”, I just couldn’t resist.

I’ll admit it was a little overboard, and I’m having trouble finishing them off. I nibble a few with my breakfast, try to sneak some into my lunch, but the stack of berries doesn’t seem to be diminishing much. Laurent isn’t helping me at all, because he’s busy eating cherries, these days. I would also like some cherries, but unfortunately I have five packages of blueberries to finish.

So, I decided to do something a little more proactive. It’ll take a few projects to really finish off these berries, but at least this one has put a nice dent into them. It’s a recipe I took from Louis-François Marcotte’s Simple et Chic, a lovely little book I got for Christmas and haven’t used nearly enough yet.

This Almond and Berries Tart is in many ways similar to the Bakewell Tart we had to make for the last Daring Bakers’ Challenge. In fact, I used the shortcrust pastry recipe we were given for that challenge, because it comes together so beautifully (the recipe in the book had a weird flour/butter ratio, and I had a feeling it would come out hard). The almond cream filling is made slightly differently, and is less puffy and cake-like than the Bakewell version, but the underlying principle appears to be the same.

The book’s recipe called for blueberries and raspberries, but I substituted fresh apricot for the latter. Yes, on top of the mountain of blueberries, I also had a bag of apricots to finish – I couldn’t help myself, they smelled so good in the market stalls! And apricot is always a good match with almond flavours.

I also played around with the almond filling. The book asked for 2 cups of whole almonds to be ground, but I only had almond meal on hand. I estimated that 2 cups of whole almonds would probably yield 1 cup of powder, which in retrospect was probably a little too much (this is why cookbooks should always incorporate weight equivalents!). On top of that, I added a little more, to compensate for the fact that I had put in less sugar than indicated.

So, really, I tweaked a lot of things. Often, when I improvise too much, disaster is in the air, but this time, it honestly came out quite delicious! It was not too sweet, the flavours went well together, and the ultra-moist texture was delightful. Laurent is usually not too happy when I make big tarts or cakes: since it’s just the two of us, it takes us a long time to finish them off, and he gets tired of them. So we usually give away a large portion of the desserts. But in this case, he seemed more than happy to keep most of the tart for the rest of the week (although we still gave a lot of it away).

Only four packages of blueberries to go!

Blueberry and Apricot Almond Tart

Adapted from Simple et Chic

Makes one 23 cm (9 inch) tart, serves about 8

For the sweet shortcrust pastry:
225g (8oz) all purpose flour
30g (1oz) sugar
1/2 tsp salt
110g (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, cold and diced
2 egg yolks
1/2 tsp almond extract
1-2 tbsp cold water (or more if needed)

For the filling:
175g (6 oz) almond flour
190g (7 oz) sugar
150g (5 oz) unsalted butter, softened and diced
2 whole eggs
2 tbsp amaretto (almond liqueur)
1 tsp vanilla extract
250ml (1 cup) fresh blueberries
3 apricots, pitted and diced

To make the pastry:
Sift together the flour, sugar and salt. Add in the diced cold butter. Working quickly, use your fingertips to rub the butter into the flour, until the mixture resembles bread crumbs. Lightly beat the egg yolks with the almond extract and incorporate them into the flour mixture. Add in the water slowly, putting just enough to obtain a dough that holds together, but is not sticky. Form dough into a disc, cover tightly and refrigerate for at least one hour.

When ready to use, roll out the dough on a floured surface, about 2-3 mm (1/8 inch) thick. Line a 23 cm (9 inch) tart pan with the dough, fold the excess dough over the sides of the pan and pinch all around to secure. Prick the bottom of the pan with a fork, repeatedly. Refrigerate for at least 15 minutes.

To make the filling:
In a large bowl, combine the almond flour and the sugar. Add in the softened butter and cream until smooth. Incorporate the eggs, amaretto and vanilla and continue mixing until the mixture is homogenous.

To assemble and bake the tart:
Preheat the oven to 190ºC (375ºF).

Spoon half the almond filling into the prepared tart pan, then evenly sprinkle with half the blueberries and apricot. Cover with the remainder of the filling and scatter the remaining fruit on top of that. Gently press the fruit halfway into the filling with your fingers.

Bake in the preheated oven for 20 minutes. Then reduce heat to 180ºC (350ºF) and continue baking another 30 minutes, until the top of the tart is golden brown. The center will still be quite soft, and a little jiggly.

Serve at room temperature, or cold. Refrigerate the leftovers.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Embracing Summer - Gazpacho

I’m really close to giving up on Summer 2009. The heat and sunlight just don’t seem to be reaching Montreal. We get a glimpse of blue sky and a hint of warmth every now and then, but then they disappear the very next day.

But, well… When the sun does come out, it’s lovely. I’ve taken to popping out for walks whenever the weather isn’t too menacing, which might actually mean that I’m getting out more than I would if it were sunny all the time. Plus, Q-Tip can’t stand heat very well, so I always worry about her when it gets too warm; the way it’s been so far, I can rest easy.

In the meantime, the crops of vegetables and fruit have been more than adequate. I’ll write about fruit some other time, but today’s star is tomatoes. Yes, I know, tomatoes are technically fruit. Whatever.

I’d been meaning to make gazpacho for a long time. I associate this cold tomato soup with the summer I went on holiday in Barcelona, and I remember loving its crisp taste, smooth texture and fresh aftertaste. Until recently, I’d only made it once, last year. I’d followed a recipe from a soup-themed book I have, but it hadn’t been a success: it tasted bland and too thick. My guess is that blending rye bread into the soup was not a good idea – even if it is the traditional way to do it.

I tried again recently, this time combining elements from two different recipes I had on hand. The result was much better: with a few slices of fougasse (which I wish I could say I had made myself, but no, I’m not quite there yet), it was a perfect summer dinner. I went a little heavy on the spices (especially the cumin), but it was just right for our taste. And I can honestly say it tasted even better when I had the leftovers for lunch the next day: the flavours had developed more.

Plus, it gave us a chance to use our brand-new blender! I’d never owned one before, and had always gotten by with a hand blender, but this new gadget certainly makes some tasks a lot easier!


Serves 3-4

For the soup:
4 red tomatoes
1 garlic clove
1/4 red onion
1/2 red bell pepper, seeded
1/3 cucumber, peeled
750 ml (3 cups) tomato juice, chilled
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp sugar
3/4 tbsp ground cumin
5 fresh mint leaves
A few dashes of Tabasco
Salt and pepper, to taste

For the garnish:
1/2 red bell pepper, seeded
1/2 cucumber, peeled
1/3 red onion
1 red tomato, or a handful of cherry tomatoes

Make the soup:
Coarsely dice the tomatoes, garlic, onion, bell pepper, and cucumber. Put them all in a blender and blend until smooth. Add the vinegar, sugar, cumin, Tabasco, mint, salt and pepper, and blend again until combined. Transfer to a large bowl and stir in the tomato juice. Refrigerate until chilled and ready to serve.

Make the garnish:
Slice the cucumber. Dice the bell pepper, onion, and tomato (if using a large one). Put each ingredient in a separate saucer or small bowl, and serve alongside the gazpacho, to incorporate as desired.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Daring Cooks' July Challenge - Fish and traditional powdered flavours

This month's Daring Cooks challenge, hosted by Sketchy from Sketchy's Kitchen, was certainly a challenge indeed! A lot of cooks, even the most daring ones, seem to have had a momentary freak out upon reading through the instructions the first time... myself included!

The challenge recipe, from Grant Achatz' Alinea , was based on molecular cuisine, something I've heard about, but have never been tempted to try out. Fortunately, there was no need for special chemicals or equipment in this case - although I did personally find myself woefully under-equipped.

The recipe consisted in two basic parts: homemade powdered flavours on the one hand, and fish poached in butter on the other. Add in some buttery green beans and slices of raw banana, and you find yourself with an unusual, but explosive combination of flavours and textures.

The main requirement was to make the powders ourselves. This posed the biggest challenge for me, as I found that, despite my love of kitchen gadgets, I didn't have many of the necessary ones. Ideally, we were instructed to put the fresh herbs or condiments in a dehydrator, and then grind them in a spice-mill or coffee-grinder. Acceptable alternatives were a mortar and pestle and a microwave - the latter of which I don't have. I used to own a microwave, but then it died and I realized I only used it for heating water, melting butter, and making popcorn - all of which can be accomplished in other ways.

So I asked my in-laws, who live close by, if I could pop over and use their microwave for an afternoon. When I showed up, with all my ingredients in tow, I found my father-in-law waiting for me in the kitchen with books on microwave dehydration: apparently, he'd done this before. In fact, he was quite curious about this challenge, and insisted on helping me out.

Actually, I'll just come right out and say it: my father-in-law did most of the work. I hadn't intended to "cheat" on this challenge, but it just sort of ended up that way. After all, it was his kitchen, and he seemed to know what to do much better than I did. He even suggested skipping some of the instructions, such as poaching the lemon zest in syrup and blanching the parsley, assuring me it wasn't necessary. And he was right. He also suggested that we microwave the ingredients in 1-minute instalments, to make sure they didn't burn.

See, this is why I'm so territorial in my own kitchen: because I'm a wussy pushover in other people's. Still, I was really grateful for the help: the powdering process went by so much faster! And I was honestly prepared to go home and grind everything by hand with my mortar and pestle... until my father-in-law took out his coffee-grinder, which got the job done in seconds, and far better than I could possibly have managed by hand. Honestly, sometimes, it's just better to listen to your elders, especially when they have a well-equipped kitchen and have made just about every dish imaginable.

The original recipe (found here) called for skate. Once I had figured out what skate is, and had confirmed that it would be rather difficult for me to find here, I substituted it with tilapia, a firm fish which I thought would go well with the tropical banana. For the rest, I stuck to the suggested flavours (coriander, parsley, lemon zest, onion-caper, and brown-butter-banana), simply adding a touch of storebought paprika for colour.

As you can see, my plating skills need some work. But even with my crappy presentation, the dish still looked pretty and colourful, and definitely appealing. Although I admit I was a bit skeptical about how it would taste, I was very pleasantly surprised. The crisp buttery beans, the still-firm fish and the sweet, cool banana ensured that every bite was layered and complex. As for the powders, they were indeed packed with flavour, every single one of them. They were all good, but I think I preferred the lemon one.

Since I had some powders leftover, I made a variation on the challenge a couple of days later. This time, I served the powders with grilled shrimp-and-peppers skewers, with a side of quinoa - and I *tried* to make more of a presentation effort. I was reluctant to use the butter poaching method again, as it was a little too rich for me, but I didn't want to add too much flavour on top of the powders, so grilled shrimp seemed like a good solution. They also went well with the lemon powder, but were also a surprisingly good match for the strong onion-caper one.

I'm definitely glad I got to try this recipe out. While I still prefer fresh seasonings in general, and probably won't make my own powders again until I get a new microwave (which will not be for a while), it was worth discovering these flavours under a different form. And, at the very least, I got to bond with my father-in-law!

EDIT: I had jotted down the time it took to microwave each ingredient, but I thought I had lost my notes. However, I just found them, so here's the information, if anyone is interested. It was all done in a very old 900-watt microwave.

Lemon zest: 2 x 1 min on high
Parsley: 4 x 1 min, then 2 x 30 sec on high
Coriander: 5 x 1 min, then 2 x 30 sec on high
Onions: 2 min, then 6 x 1 min on high
Capers: 1 min on medium, then 5 x 1 min on high

For the "brown butter" powder, I used fat-free powdered milk and, as instructed, spread it on a baking sheet and baked it at 180ºC (350ºF). But rather than baking it for 4 minutes straight until it browned, I baked it in 2 minute instalments, then stirred the powder and put it back in. I did this 3 times, until the powder was acceptably browned (but not burnt).

That is all!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Grillin' on the Balcony - Garlic and Rosemary Lamb Chops

I've always been a city girl. The closest I ever came to living in the country was during my childhood, when we would stay with my grandmother during part of the summer. But my grandmother lives in Belgium. Belgium, as I am sure some of you know, is a very, very small country. So really, no matter where you are in Belgium, you're never very far from a large city. We would drive to Brussels at least once a week.

Most of the time, I'm quite content being in the city. Especially in Montreal, where there are certainly places you can go to get your dose of grass, trees, and other green things. The only thing I sometimes deplore is that I usually have very little space to grow fresh herbs in. Because, as a cook, I depend on fresh herbs very much - and the storebought variety doesn't come cheap, most of the time.

The apartment we're living in now has a relatively nice balcony, but unfortunately it doesn't get a lot of direct sunlight, making it less than ideal to grow things on. Fortunately, Laurent's parents live close by, and are lucky enough to have a house with a garden. Not only that, but his mother has a degree in botany, so she knows how to get plants growing. So, every summer, she gives us healthy potted herbs that last throughout the season.

This year, the strongest plant is without a doubt the rosemary. Look at it, it's huge!

The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of rosemary is lamb chops. Beef burgers too, but mostly lamb chops. Ideally, I would grill them on an open-flame barbecue, but unfortunately, our building's regulations specifically prohibit us from keeping a barbecue on the balcony. Why? Probably for the same reason we're not allowed to hang laundry out to dry there, either: it makes the building look bad.

Now, I'm not sure whether anyone actually routinely checks our balcony for illicit barbecues. Probably not. But I'm reluctant to take the chance. Why? Because we're already sort of breaking a building rule, because of Q-Tip.

Who it Q-Tip, you ask? She's my pet rabbit. And no, she isn't white.

She's almost nine years old. She doesn't have a lot of energy these days, but to be honest, she hasn't really displayed much of that since she was three. I think she's been nine years old in her head for a long time now: grouchy and apathetic, except when you bug her too much, in which case she becomes absolutely fierce. Or if you threaten her food. She really likes her food, and will defend it with her life:

Nevertheless, there's something irresistibly endearing about a cantankerous, bad-tempered bunny. She's a prey that thinks she's a predator, and you just have to love that. In fact, all the staff at the veterinarian's are completely in love with her, even though she regularly tries to bite or scratch them. As for me, I think she's the best bunny in the world, and wouldn't trade her for anything.

Anyways, in theory, our building doesn't accept pets. Except I know for a fact that some tenants openly have cats, so I guess it's primarily noisy pets that aren't tolerated, like dogs and birds. So Q-Tip shouldn't be too much of a problem. Still, why take a risk? And that's why we keep her undercover and scrupulously respect all the other rules. (By the way, Internet: you'll keep this to yourself, right?)

So, no charcoal barbecue on the balcony. But we recently got one of those small electric grills that you can store indoors and briefly take outside when you want to use it. Sure, it's not quite the same, but it's better than nothing. And so, the other day, we officially inaugurated it with garlic and rosemary lamb chops.

There isn't much to explain about this dish: the lamb chops were coated in minced garlic, olive oil, and chopped fresh rosemary, then left on the heated grill for about 6 minutes per side (for medium rare); we also threw a couple of large rosemary sprigs directly onto the grill, for extra aroma.

I made a side of green kidney beans, briefly sauteed with olive oil and shallots. Green kidney beans, or flageolets in French, are a staple in Western Europe, and most frequently accompany lamb and red meat, but I had trouble finding them here. I'm glad I did, though: they are small and have a very delicate flavour that is difficult to replace.

I predict there will be more grilled meals to come!

P.S. Laurent has just brought to my attention that the way I've organized the photographs in this post makes it look like the last two are "before" and "after" pictures of Q-Tip... as in "before" and "after" being grilled over the barbecue. I can assure you that I have never had any serious intentions of making Q-Tip my dinner. I threaten her with it every now and then, but that's as far as it goes. :-)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Not-So-Hard Day's Work - Hard Italian Rolls

The urge to make bread has struck again!

I've officially asked for a copy of Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice for my birthday next month. I know quite a lot of bloggers are taking part in the current BBA Challenge, instigated by the wonderful Nicole at Pinch My Salt. These guys are working their way through every single recipe in that book, and I doing all sorts of impressive things. I may or may not decide to play along, but either way, I must have that book!

In the meantime, I'm still turning to the only book on my overcrowded bookshelf that contains any good bread recipes: Marcy Goldman's A Passion for Baking. This time around, I made hard Italian rolls. After all, I had promised to tackle a crusty bread this time.

So, first time making a hard-crusted bread, as opposed to the soft, spongy ones I've been making so far. It was also my first time using a sponge, which I suppose went fine. That's the thing I like about making bread: I know so little about the process that I have no idea what could really go wrong. After I get my hands on The Bread Baker's Apprentice, I'll probably be freaking out about molecules and yeast types, and what not. (It's like pies: sometimes I swear I wish I didn't know about gluten and what overhandling pie dough will do to your crust... Now I just panick every time!)

Another thing I love about making bread is that it's an afternoon-long process that nevertheless leaves me plenty of time to get my work done. In fact, it mingles very nicely with my schedule, allowing me to take short breaks and pace myself. It adds a rhythm to my day: start the sponge, do some reading, launch the first rise, do some writing, shape the loaves, read some more, pop them in the oven, finish your chapter.

I could have left the rolls just a tad longer in the oven, to allow them to brown a bit more. But they felt hard as wood when I tapped them after the suggested baking time had elapsed, so I thought for sure they were already overdone. They weren't, though: the crumb was dense, but still quite fluffy, and definitely not dry.

The rolls looked like they would only keep for a couple of days - but then, we didn't allow them to overstay their welcome in the bread basket! They were promptly devoured and never heard from again... until next time!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

An Old Milestone - Instant Chocolate Fondant

For Laurent's birthday, a couple of weeks ago, I had offered to make him any dessert he wanted, no matter how time-consuming or complicated. I was prepared to make him the most elaborate triple-mousse-layer cake, if that was what he wanted. Not that I've ever made triple-mousse-layer cake... but I was willing to give it a try, if he asked for it. After all, it was his birthday.

But he didn't ask for anything intricate. Instead, he asked me for one of the easiest desserts in my repertoire: instant chocolate fondant.

This warm, gooey dessert (which is akin to a lava cake, except that you do not unmold it) was actually one of the first ones Laurent and I ever made together. We had only been dating for a couple of weeks. We had returned to my place one evening, and he suggested we whip up a quick dessert.

Now, there are a few things you need to know about me in order to understand the context. Back then, I wasn't nearly as active a baker (or cook) as I am these days: I was only just starting to experiment in the kitchen. I had made a few batches of cookies for my friends, and had discovered the joy of walking into a room with a plateful of goodies to share with everyone. But I wasn't nearly as passionate about food as I am today.

Not only that, but I seemed to be on a perpetual diet, at the time. I had lost about 50 pounds over the previous couple of years and, while I certainly wouldn't say I had an eating disorder, I had a somewhat uncomfortable relationship with food: I loved it (I always have), but I feared it at the same time. I was afraid of what it might do to my body - especially desserts.

Laurent had even less baking experience than I did. But he had tasted my cookies, and he seemed to know that, despite my fear of calories, I did enjoy baking; he wanted to share that experience with me. So, because I liked him and didn't want to disappoint him, I perused my meager stack of cookbooks (which has considerably grown since then), in search of something fast and easy. And that was the first time we made this fondant.

Since then, we have made it quite a few times. There's nothing particularly refined or subtle about this dessert, but its strong taste of chocolate and warm, liquid center bring delight with every bite. Satisfaction garanteed. And, although it's not quite "instant", it really is very quick to make, with ingredients that are nearly always on hand.

As for me, I associate this dessert with the evolution of two relationships: the one I have with Laurent, and the one I have with food. Cooking and baking with my sweetheart is something I cherish now, and it more or less started then. But making that late-night dessert on a whim was also a first step towards my reconciliation with food: since then, I have gradually overcome my discomfort with calories. I try to eat healthy, but will splurge when I need to, because splurging is also a part of balance.

A simple dessert, but with layers of meaning for me.

Instant Chocolat Fondant
Adapted from Gâteaux gourmands

Serves 2

60g (2 oz) butter, plus more for greasing
80g (2 1/2 oz) dark chocolate
2 eggs
60g (2 0z) sugar
40g (1 1/2 oz) flour
Confectioner' sugar, for dusting

Preheat oven to 210ºC (410ºF). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Grease two medium ramekins with butter. Melt the chocolate and butter in a double boiler.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk the eggs and sugar, then add the flour. Pour the chocolate-butter mixture over the eggs-mixture, whisking constantly.

Divide the mixture into the ramekins and place on the prepared baking sheet. Bake for about 10 minutes, until the edges have set and a crust has formed on the top of the cakes, and the centers have risen, but are still very jiggly.

Dust with confectioner's sugar and serve immediately.