Sunday, December 27, 2009

Daring Bakers' December Challenge - Gingerbread House

The December 2009 Daring Bakers’ challenge was brought to you by Anna of Very Small Anna and Y of Lemonpi. They chose to challenge Daring Bakers’ everywhere to bake and assemble a gingerbread house from scratch. They chose recipes from Good Housekeeping and from The Great Scandinavian Baking Book as the challenge recipes.

“Hoooo boy” is what I thought when I first saw this month's Daring Bakers' challenge. A gingerbread house. It sounded exciting, but it also sounded like a lot of work. And I had precious little time to get this done before leaving on my trip.

But eventually, excitement took over, and I have to say, I had a blast doing this challenge. I had never made gingerbread, let alone built a house out of it. But it was such a fun seasonal activity, I think I'll make it a Christmas tradition!

We had two choices, for the dough. The one from Good Housekeeping called for molasses and cream, while the one from The Great Scandinavian Baking Book called for butter and boiling water. I chose the first one, because it seemed more straightforward, and I'd been looking for an excuse to use the molasses in my cupboard.

A lot of Daring Bakers complained that the dough was too dry, and I have to agree. After resting it in the fridge overnight, I found that it was absolutely impossible to roll: it kept crumbling in all places. I didn't want to start over and waste all the ingredients I had used, so I tried to salvage the whole thing by adding water. I knew my dough might come out tough, but I was willing to take the risk.

I let the dough rest another night, and it was much easier to work with the next day. Using the paper template I had made, I cut up the separate roof and wall pieces, and used the leftovers to make mushrooms and bunnies. Why mushrooms and bunnies? Because those were the only more-or-less appropriate cookie cutter shapes I had on hand. I figured I would make this a forest-themed house. Call it “Bunnies on Mushrooms,” or something.

I made the mistake of making my roof exactly the same size as the corresponding pieces of the house, when in fact I could have made them bigger, to ensure a more comfortable fit. As a result, with the uneven shrinkage and bloating my pieces suffered in the oven, my roof came up a little short. I had to fill the gap with royal icing, which was what I used to glue the rest of the house together. I was afraid it wouldn't hold, but I have to say, royal icing is solid stuff.

For the decorations, I used marshmallows and Holiday M&M's for the roof. Predictably, the marshmallows dried up and were inedible within a few hours. But I wasn't really planning to eat the house anyway. To be honest, the mushroom-shaped cookies I nibbled didn't taste very good: they were tough, and rather bland. But we had been warned that the dough was more suitable for decorating than for snacking on. Usually, my baked goods taste good, but look bad. For once, it was the opposite.

Overall, I'm fairly pleased with my House of Bunnies on Mushrooms. It's a little rustic (more of a shack than a house), but not bad for a first try. I did have a little bit of trouble assembling it, and it even fell apart a couple of times when I tried to manipulate it before the icing had set (which is why one of the walls is a little damaged). But it held together in the end, and I really couldn't ask for more this time around.

I have been asked what the bunny on the roof is doing. It isn't about to commit suicide, if that's what you were thinking (although I have to admit, it did end up tumbling off the roof at the end of the photoshoot, breaking its ears off in the process). I figure it's either being the lookout, or it's planning on stealing the chocolate carrot the other bunny is standing on (you can't really tell from the picture, but yes, it's a giant chocolate carrot leftover from Easter). My interpretation depends on how cynical I'm feeling.

So thank you, Y and Anna, for this lovely holiday challenge! Thanks to you, my apartment looked a little more Christmas-y this year.

Check out the other Daring Bakers' gorgeous gingerbread houses here. And if you feel up to making a post-holiday gingerbread house of your own, you can find the challenge recipe here at the Daring Kitchen.

Happy holidays to everyone!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Official Holiday Greetings

Greetings from Central Europe!

It feels like I was here not that long ago (in early October). I usually don't travel so often, but it just worked out that way this year. I have been here a little under a week, mostly lounging at my parents' house in Bratislava and enjoying my mother's cooking - as well as her taste in restaurants. :-)

We've made a couple of trips to nearby Vienna, which is very nicely decorated this year.

So, you'll pardon the short silence here at The Chocolate Bunny, at least until I return to Montreal in a few days.

I'm not sure how many food-related gifts I'll be getting this year. But this is definitely one I hope I don't get:

I spotted it in a window in Vienna. It's a silver casing, to cover up that tacky Tabasco bottle at the dinner table. I'm all for proper (or even snooty) table dressing, but this is a bit much, don't you think? At any rate, it made me smile.

Happy holidays to all of you! I hope the next few days are full of cheer and warmth!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Daring Cooks' December Challenge - Salmon en Croûte

The 2009 Daring Cooks challenge was hosted by Simone of Junglefrog Cooking. Simone chose Salmon en Croute (or alternative recipes for Beef Wellington or Vegetable en Croute) from Good Food Online.

As with last month’s Daring Bakers’ challenge, I was really happy to find that one of my favourite bloggers, Simone from Junglefrog Cooking, was hosting the December Daring Cooks’ challenge. Simone is an incredible cook and photographer: her recipes nearly always inspire me, by which I mean that they are both appetizing and accessible (which isn’t as easy a combination as you might think).

The recipe she chose for the challenge was a true reflection of her style of cooking: simple and fuss-free, yet visually impressive and full of possibilities. The concept of salmon en croûte is straightforward: a skinless filet of salmon, brushed with sauce and wrapped in shortcrust pastry, then baked. But it makes a great impression at the dinner table, because it just looks – and sounds – so sophisticated. “This evening’s menu features salmon en croûte.” See?

This may be the very first time I have no mishaps to report on a challenge. Everything went perfectly. Yes, I could have done a prettier job at folding my pastry around the salmon and brushing it with egg wash for that nice, even, golden colour. And yes, little hearts aren’t exactly seasonal – but I didn’t have any stars or Christmas tree cookie-cutters around. And hearts seemed like a better idea than rabbits or flowers.

But other than that, everything went just fine. I usually have trouble with baked fish: they often come out underdone and I have to pop them back in the oven. This time, however, the salmon was perfectly cooked: look at how nicely it flakes, while still being moist!

I didn’t innovate much with the sauce, because it’s hard to think of a better salmon-compatible combination than cream cheese, dill, and spinach. I used a little light sour cream to thin down the sauce and make it easier to spread (plain yogurt would also have done the trick). I served the dish with a side of sautéed asparagus.

Simone had provided us with an alternative recipe: beef wellington. I would have tried it if I’d had time, but it’s been kind of a rush, this month. Plus, although I love beef in nearly all its forms (tartare, carpaccio, steak, burger, stew), roast beef doesn’t rock my boat quite as much: I’ll choose baked fish over it on most days.

And that’s really all there was to this month’s challenge. The concept of anything “en croûte” is definitely appealing, and I’d love to adapt it with different ingredients and shapes.

Please check here at the Daring Kitchen for the challenge recipe, and here for the other Daring Cooks’ realizations. Thank you Simone, for this fun and delicious challenge!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Dealing with Winter: Beef Stew with Guinness and Leeks

We’ve had our first big snowfall of the season. While I love looking at fresh snow from the comforts of my couch, I have to admit I’m not much of a snow bunny: I don’t practice winter sports (I’m so clumsy, skiing would probably kill me), so to me winter mostly means cold feet, wet hair, and freezing ears.

Well, OK… It also means soft scarves and pretty hats, which I do like – I’m not much of a fashionista, but I do enjoy accessorizing. And winter also means Christmas, which I’m still un-cynical enough to enjoy.

But more important, winter means stews. It’s stew season, baby! Time to whip out the ol’ Dutch oven (or, in my case, painfully lift up the enormous, beautifully heavy monster I keep under the counter) and fill the house with the scents of slow-cooking!

I’ve made this beef stew several times. I saw the recipe by Eric Akis in The Gazette a while back, and have adapted it since then (the original recipe called for much fewer vegetables, among other things). Carrots and leeks are a fixture in stews, but they blend especially well with the Guinness beer, which gives this stew a deep, slightly tangy flavour. You can use any kind of mustard you wish, but I’m having trouble imagining a better fit than whole-grain moutarde à l’ancienne; it also adds to the stew’s visual aspect.

The recipe recommended serving this stew with mashed potatoes, but since I add potatoes to the stew itself, I usually serve it with buttery couscous, for the ultimate comfort meal.

One more thing, though, before moving on to the recipe: what kind of meat to use. I had often been told that stews were a healthy and economic meal, because simmering the meat for hours meant that you could use the toughest, cheapest, leanest cuts of meat available, and still have a tasty dish. So, being both health- and budget-conscious, I used to buy extra-lean beef cubes, which were marked “for stewing.” However, I always found myself having to simmer the meat for much longer than indicated in the recipes, and it was never quite as tender as, say, veal osso bucco, or lamb shanks. But I figured it was because beef was inevitably tougher than other meats.

Then, one day, the butcher at my supermarket saw me browsing the meat aisle and asked me what I was looking for. When I told him I was making beef stew, he immediately steered me away from the extra-lean section. He came from France, and upon learning that I was from Belgium, he confided in me:

“People in North America are so afraid of fat. But you need a little fat in your meat, even for stews. Otherwise, your meat will be dry, there’s no getting around it. You can add all the juices and sauces you want, it’s still going to be dry. You want a nice, marbled cut of meat, like chuck. And don’t buy those pre-cubed packages, because the pieces tend to com from various cuts of meat that’ll cook differently.”

And so I bought a big, fat, marbled piece of chuck, which the butcher kindly cubed for me. And I have never looked back. The improvement was blatant: the meat was much more tender and tasty than the extra-lean beef had ever been, and with less cooking time. Really, there was just no comparison.

But if you still want to cut back on the fat, you can always do this: make the stew a day ahead and refrigerate it. Any excess fat will float up to the surface and congeal, making it easier to remove it. You’ll lose some flavour in the sauce, but your meat will already be nice and tender.

Beef Stew with Guinness and Leeks
Adapted from a recipe by Eric Akis

Serves 8

900g (32 oz) cubed stewing beef, such as chuck
3 tbsp vegetable oil
2 large leeks, white part only
5 carrots
5 celery ribs
5 large potatoes
2 onions
3 garlic cloves
4 tbsp flour
2 tbsp tomato paste
500 ml (2 cups) beef stock
440 ml (2 3/4 cups) Guinness beer
2 tbsp whole-grain Dijon mustard
1 tbsp chopped fresh rosemary
Salt and fresh-ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 160ºC (325ºF).

Slice the leeks lengthwise in two, clean them and cut them cross-wise in 1/2-inch slices. Peel the carrots and cut them into 1/2-inch slices. Peel the potatoes and dice them into 3/4-inch cubes. Slice the celery into 1/2-inch pieces. Slice the onions. Mince the garlic cloves.

Season the beef with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Brown the meat on all sides, in batches, and set aside in a bowl.

Add the onions, garlic, leeks, celery and carrots to the pot and cook for a few minutes. Stir in the flour and tomato paste and cook for 3 more minutes. Slowly stir in the beef stock, then the beer. Add the potatoes. Stir in the mustard and rosemary. Return the beef to the pot and bring to a simmer. Cover, place the pot in the oven and cook for 90 minutes to 2 hours, until the meat is very tender.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Disaster à la di Stasio - Eggs in Ramekin and Mushroom Cappuccino

Any foodie who lives in Quebec knows about Josée di Stasio. We often turn to her book Pasta Et Cetera when we’re short on ideas to make pasta interesting. Her Italian-inspired recipes are always simple and full of flavour, with lots of useful tips and variation ideas.

This is even truer of her previous book, À la di Stasio, which we purchased a couple of weeks ago. Two whole pages on how to roast specific vegetables may not be of much use to seasoned chefs, but I’m certainly grateful for all that information. The recipes in this book are more diverse and less exclusively Italian, with a few Asian-inspired dishes and a couple of decidedly Northern recipes (duck and turkey tourte, anyone?).

I haven’t had much time to actually do many of the recipes in here, but there was one which I was particularly eager to make: her eggs in ramekin, where the ramekin is a flattened slice of bread lined with ham, buttered and baked in a muffin tin. Ever since I first saw this recipe (and the lovely pictures) over at Coco Bean, I’ve been curious to try it. Admittedly, since Christie and Ian were kind enough to post their adapted recipe, I suppose I could have just tried it then and there, without waiting to buy the actual book – I guess it sort of slipped my mind.

But, after I got the book, I procrastinated no more and made the eggs for Saturday brunch.

They were exquisite! So pretty to look at, and very tasty! It takes a bit longer than scrambled or fried eggs, but it’s still very easy to make, relatively healthy, and the presentation definitely makes an impression on people!

Not to be outdone, Laurent insisted on executing one the book’s recipes himself, the very same day. He opted for this:

You’re probably thinking he chose to make us cappuccinos, to go with that brunch. But no: this is actually mushroom soup, which we had for dinner that night.

“Mushroom cappuccino” had been on our radar for quite some time. We were first introduced to the concept at a potluck party, where a gourmet guest treated us to this lovely surprise. His version was quite different from the one in Josée di Stasio’ s book, consisting of a consommé, rather than a soup. The version we used is generally similar to the one found here, on Josée’s website (translation follows), except that the book recipe called for steamed milk, rather than whipped cream. We also added a sprinkling of Espelette chili pepper.

Laurent insisted on taking charge of supper, so I let him. Everything seemed to be going fine: the ingredients had simmered, and all that was left was to run them through the blender, and make the steamed milk with the espresso machine.

I was reading in the living room, when I heard the blender turn off, and Laurent gasp. It wasn’t a normal gasp. We often express ourselves vocally in the kitchen, whenever things go wrong, spill, or burn. But this sounded particularly drastic. When I asked what was wrong and got no answer, I dropped my book and ran into the kitchen.

The blender was covered in mushroom soup, which was slowly spreading across the counter, while Laurent was staring at it, in shock. It was as if the bottom of the pitcher had detached – which, as it turned out, was exactly what had happened. It had unscrewed at the worst possible time, just as Laurent was about to lift the pitcher from the base.

We stared in silence for a few seconds, then proceeded to doing something which I really shouldn’t be admitting to in public: we scraped the soup from the counter back into the pan and reheated it. Yes, it sounds gross, but… Laurent had spent over an hour working on that soup, in addition to shopping for all the ingredients, it would have broken his heart to throw it away! And honestly, haven’t we all done something similar when we thought no one was watching? Like scarf down the cookie that fell on the floor? Or taste the pastry cream with a finger? Besides, our countertop was clean… sort of.

At any rate, the soup didn’t seem too affected by this ordeal. It tasted delicious, and we will definitely be making it again – hopefully with less trauma. The steamed milk is definitely what makes this soup special. Next time, however, I might try to go with a consommé-type base, rather than a puréed soup, for a smoother, more cappuccino-like texture.

And in case you were worried about our blender… it made it out just fine. Laurent rinsed it and picked soup out of it for 20 minutes, and it’s as good as new.

Mushroom Cappuccino
From À la di Stasio

Serves 4

1 onion, minced
1 leek, white part only, minced
2 tbsp butter
450g (16 oz) mushrooms, sliced
1 small potato, peeled and diced
Salt and pepper, to taste
250 ml (1 cup) heavy cream
1 tbsp fresh thyme (or substitute with 1 tsp dried thyme)
30g (1 oz) dried porcini, ground (optional)
750 ml (3 cups) chicken broth

In a large saucepan, melt the butter over low heat and cook the onion and leek until soft. Add the mushrooms, raise the heat to medium-high and sautée until the vegetables release their liquid and it evaporates. Add the potato, salt, pepper and thyme.

Reserve 1 tbsp of ground porcini, and add the rest to the pan. Add the broth, bring to a boil and simmer half-covered for 15 minutes.

A few minutes before serving, stir in half the cream. Purée the soup with a hand-mixer or a blender, and keep warm.

Whip the remaining cream. Serve the soup in coffee cups, topped with a dollop of whipped cream and sprinkled with ground porcini.

Variation: Substitute half the cream, or all of it, with steamed milk, made with an espresso machine. Substitute the sprinkling of ground porcini with Espelette chili.