Saturday, November 26, 2005

SHF/IMBB Cookie Swap: Two is better than one

I appreciate the singular elegance and simple beauty of a plain butter cookie, say, as much as the next person. But if truth be told, my maximalist leanings more often than not point me in the direction of sweets where too much is, quite frankly, just about enough. In this spirit of gleeful excess, why have one cookie when you can have two? Even better if two are actually one, welded by a rich and creamy filling. Enter the cookie sandwich; few things excite the lily gilder in me more. So for this month's joint SHF/IMBB Cookie Swap event hosted by Jennifer, The Domestic Goddess herself, a threesome of twosomes based on citrus, nuts and chocolate respectively. I've given the recipe for the first, which has sufficiently meandered from its original inspiration (from a recent cookbook purchase) to merit writing down. Recipes for the second and third can be found in the referred books.

Sablés Diamant Vanille with Yuzu Curd

The sablé part of the equation comes from the magnificent The Cook's Book, edited by Jill Norman (yes, that legendary Jill Norman, the editor of Elizabeth David's classic cookbooks and current literary trustee of the David Estate). This is no ordinary how-to book - each and every lavishly photographed chapter has been contributed by a top drawer chef. Ever fancied the likes of Ferran Adrià teaching you how to make foams, or David Thompson guiding you through the intricacies of cracking coconut cream, or Marcus Wareing unveiling the secrets of Pétrus' signature Tourte de viande? It's all here; the roll call of 18 chefs reads like a veritable pantheon of the culinary demi-gods.

But, I digress. For me, the two chapters contributed by Pierre Hermé (Pastry & Sweet Doughs; Desserts) alone were worth the price of the book. A few of the preparations are repeats from his previous English books - but with the added benefit of goofproof step-by-step illustrations in classic Dorling Kindersley style. The sablé recipe is new. And its exceedingly short texture, thanks to the lack of eggs and the extravagant quantity of butter, the very definition of "sablé" (sandy).

Having found my new inimitably crumbly sablé benchmark, I contrived to use it in a cookie sandwich. The filling in my mind's eye would need to enhance, and be enhanced by, the melting butteriness of the shortbread, not dominate or overwhelm. Yuzu, the delicate Japanese citrus fruit, is in season, and has made its fleeting appearance on the aisles of the local Japanese supermarket. The ethereal fragrance of its zest and juice, utterly unlike any other, makes for the most voluptuous citrus curd. So distinct yuzu is, in fact, the curd tastes best when tempered with a proportion of lemon juice for balance. Bottled yuzu juice, available year-round, makes a decent (if decidedly less perfumed) substitute. And of course, if all this sounds like a whole lot of bother for a mere cookie, there's always lemon (or lime, or tangerine, or grapefruit...) curd.

Sablés Diamant Vanille
Adapted from The Cook’s Book, edited by Jill Norman

Makes 50 (for 25 pairs)

*225gm unsalted butter, cubed and softened at room temperature *100gm caster sugar *1 vanilla pod *Finely grated zest of a yuzu (substitute zest of a lemon if fresh yuzu is unavailable) *1/4 tsp fleur de sel or other sea salt, finely crushed *320gm plain all-purpose flour *Granulated sugar to finish

Make dough in a food processor, stand mixer, or by hand following the same procedure, taking care not to overwork the ingredients. Cream butter. Mix in the sugar, the seed scrapings from the vanilla pod (save the pod for another use), the yuzu zest, and the salt. Cream until well mixed. Sift in flour. Mix until just combined, no more. Chill dough well; an hour or so. Roll out to 1cm thickness. Stamp out rounds using a fluted or plain cutter about 5cm in diameter. If cut-out tops are desired, stamp out smaller inner circles from the centres of half of the rounds. Spread granulated sugar onto a sheet of baking parchment. Lightly press top of each cut-out cookie top into the sugar. Chill the cookies another hour or so, or even overnight; baking the cookies from a well-chilled state ensures good shape retention. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 180°C. Place the cookies onto a baking parchment lined baking sheet. Bake until the edges are just starting to colour, about 12 to 15 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container until ready to assemble; unfilled, the cookies keep at room temperature for 3 to 4 days.

Yuzu Curd

Makes 1 cup

*75gm caster sugar *1Tbsp finely grated yuzu zest (substitute lemon zest if fresh yuzu is unavailable) *2 eggs *2 egg yolks *60ml yuzu juice, freshly squeezed (used bottled yuzu juice if fresh is unavailable) *30ml lemon juice, freshly squeezed *75gm unsalted butter, cubed and softened at room temperature

Blitz the sugar and zest together in a processor or blender until the sugar is pale yellow and fragrant. Whisk the eggs, yolks and sugar together in a medium heat-proof bowl until smooth. Add the yuzu and lemon juices and whisk again. Place the bowl over a pan of gently simmering water. Cook the mixture, stirring constantly with a spatula and being sure to scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl, until it thickens (the consistency should be like that of sour cream), but do not let the mixture come to the boil. Immediately take the bowl off the pan, and push the mixture through a chinois or other fine-meshed sieve into a mixing bowl. Now add the butter, which should be very malleable but still cool, a few cubes at a time, stirring each addition until completely incorporated before adding the next. Press clingwrap against surface of the curd (this prevents a skin from forming) and chill until of a pipeable consistency; about 4 hours. Stores in the fridge for 2 to 3 days.

To Assemble

Sandwich the cookies on the day you plan to eat them. Fill a piping bag fitted with a small plain nozzle with the yuzu curd. Flip the cookie tops over. Pipe a thin ring of curd around the circumference of the cut-out inner circle on the underside of each cookie top. Flip the cookie bottoms over. Pair off tops and bottoms, pressing them gently together, keeping edges aligned. Pipe a dollop of yuzu curd into each cut-out centre. Finish each cookie with a tiny piece of candied citrus peel, if you feel like. Store assembled cookie sandwiches in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 12 hours; any longer, and the sablés will soften too much. Bring to room temperature (about 30 minutes) before serving.

Hazelnut Sandwich Cookies

From Emily Luchetti's A Passion for Desserts, fat little discs of hazelnut shortbread are sandwiched with globs of Nutella - enough said, as far as the Nutella addict is concerned, no?

Chocolate Shortbread Cookies with Truffle Cream Filling

The recipe for these decadent dainties is from Chocolate Obsession by Michael Recchiuti and Fran Gage, a fairly new release that I've been eagerly anticipating, replete with achingly exquisite photographs by Maren Caruso.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Soupe à l’oignon gratinée

Comfort food at its soulful best, few things are as gratifying to make and eat as onion soup. Ever since acquiring the appropriate pot-bellied narrow-mouthed serving vessels (lion's head motif charming, if optional), I'm convinced it's all about proportion. What Phi is to Greek architecture, the pleasing balance of onions-to-broth-to-croutons-to-cheese is to French onion soup. And without the perfectly proportioned bowl, this golden ratio is virtually impossible to achieve.

The method I've been enamoured with as of late comes from Thomas Keller's powerful paen to bistro cookery, Bouchon, in which the simple is made sublime thanks to relentless refinement of technique. The most critical thing is the cooking of the onions. Caramelising merely the cut surfaces of the julienne won't do; to tease forth depth of colouring and nuanced sweetness - the result of natural sugars being gradually broken down and releasing their complex flavour compounds - the entire julienne right to its very core needs to be evenly caramelized. To this end, only very slow heat (about 5 hours in an enamelled cast iron pot over the merest flame and a diffuser) will do. After this, good beef broth, slowly crisped croutons, and a cap of aged Comté, molten beneath its gratineed crust, ensure good eating.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Coffee Pecan Éclairs

Not an éclair in the pâte à choux sense, but an éclair in the spirit of. These elegant confections, petit-fours if you will, come from Carole Walter's Great Cookies, one of my favourite books on the subject. She attributes the recipe to master baker Nick Malgieri. A rich little number, it yields a luscious array of flavours and textures in all of one succinct bite. Not exactly the fastest thing to whip up when you're in need of an instant sugar fix, more the stuff of leisurely preoccupation on a rainy afternoon, the best possible kind of project when you're in an un-harried frame of mind. Pecan meringues, scented with the warm whiff of cinnamon, sandwich a plush cushion of coffee buttercream. Good immediately, even better upon standing - the creamy filling softens the undersides of the crisp cookies, making for a deliciously deliquescent mouthful.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Comfort Baking

W travels frequently for work. As such, homecoming meals have become something of a ritual for us. And sweetening the deal, par on course. Understandably, he doesn't want to be greeted by some exotic result of a far-flung flight of fancy - a trip I am not unknown to take on occasion, which he otherwise indulges in the ordinary scheme of things. Devil's food cake, brownies, chocolate chip cookies and other such like - the comfort of the familiar is what he wants to come home to.

My taste in recipes is thus divided between two extremes. There's the thrill of the new - be it an unusual featured ingredient or technique or flavour combination. And there's the constant rediscovery of old faithfuls. Just when you think you may have finally baked the Holy Grail of brownie recipes say, along comes another that teaches you how to do it even better. A little less of this, a little more of that. A little extra something, skip it altogether. Temperature makes all the difference, baking time is key. The permutations and the possibilities they present ensure the quest for refinement alone will keep one plenty occupied.

To this end - a particularly compelling number in my litany of cookbook purchasing excuses - two recent additions, both of which are exemplary recipe collections of the sort of all-American sweet treats W enjoys, who is returning after a long week away - what better reason for a bout of comfort baking?

Devil's Food Cake

All too often, devil's food cake fails to live up to its wicked name. Bake through enough recipes and you'll know the pale (in colour and flavour) pretenders from the cardinally sinful with a quick glance at the instructions. Nancy Baggett's recipe in The All-American Dessert Book is a fine example of a devil's food cake with all the right attributes - richly rounded chocolate flavour, moist tender crumb, dramatically dark good looks. The requisite hue comes from combining baking soda with non-alkalized cocoa powder (as opposed to Dutch-process, which has had its acid neutralized) - bicarbonate of soda reacts with the natural acid present in untreated cocoa to intensify the colour and lend it a reddish tint. The icing on the cake? A fabulously fudgy frosting that spreads like a dream.

Chocolate Chip Butter Balls

Chocolate chip cookie-meets-snowball in this delicate hybrid from Lisa Yockelson's ChocolateChocolate that delivers on its promise to melt in the warmth of your mouth. Once baked, the plump buttery pillows dappled with chocolate chips receive a thick powdering of confectioner's sugar.