Sunday, November 26, 2006

A Very Special Carrot Cake

W is the very antithesis to the softer, gentler, new age man. As comes as part of the whole côte de boeuf-chewing, Montecristo-chomping, and Macallan-swirling package - the very red-blooded alpha-ness of which, very frankly, doesn't bother me in the least - he's, unsurprisingly, not terribly keen on vegetables. But if you were to ask him, he'll have you know that that's a false accusation - hey, aren't mashed potatoes, french fries, and gratin dauphinois three of his favourite things?

Of all the vegetables he's not terribly keen on, the carrot is anathema. But I exaggerate.

He will do the occasional Carottes Vichy - which, of course, is more about the taste of great butter than the taste of carrots. And it amuses me to no end that he loves carrot cake. So much so, in fact, that it ranks as my most frequently used means of sneaking carrots into our diet.

I'd earmarked a pretty spectacular-looking/sounding recipe from Boulevard: The Cookbook by Nancy Oakes and Pamela Mazzola as a special treat to attempt for some time now and finally found the time and energy to give it a go. Like many of the other recipes in the book, it's a multi-component extravaganza that, if you're painfully slow like me, is probably a weekend project.

This dramatic makeover of a beloved classic from homey to haute will appeal to anyone who believes that "the simple truth is carrot cake is our favourite excuse to eat cream cheese frosting" (as Nancy Oakes puts it). Here, thin, multiple layers of cake are filled with cream cheese frosting so each and every bite boasts the perfect cake-to-frosting ratio. The cake is accompanied by scoops of candied walnut ice cream, cream cheese ice cream and carrot sherbet, and finished with a sticky drizzle of walnut caramel and strands of candied carrots.

Time-consuming? Yes. Otherwise, each individual component is not in itself difficult to make (but because the cake is so moist, the trickiest bit comes when splitting the cake layers). Worth the time and effort? Absolutely.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Macarons au sucre cuit

Since this post, I've been tinkering with quite a number of macaron recipes. While generally satisfied with the results certain trusted recipes produce, I wasn't quite happy with the consistency. In particular, recipes based on whipping egg whites (even when the whites were aged for exactly 48 hours) to a stiff foam before adding the TpT (tant pour tant, or equal parts of ground almonds and confectioners' sugar), seemed too sensitive to variables such as humidity and temperature. Using exactly the same recipe (and hence weight of aged whites) resulted in batters that were sometimes thicker or runnier than usual, and macarons that sometimes had pronounced domes and sometimes had flat, even tops. Seeing as constructing a climate-controlled workroom was not an option, I sought recourse elsewhere.

Specifically, recipes based on Italian meringue, seeing as the loose cannon appeared to be the quality of the egg whites. There are a few ways to make macarons, with the two main ones being macarons au blanc monté (the aforementioned "macarons with stiff egg whites") and macarons au sucre cuit ("macarons with cooked sugar", aka the Italian meringue method). It may seem a bit more troublesome; Italian meringue is made by cooking a sugar syrup to 118 °C (245 °F), pouring it in a thin, steady stream over stiffly whisked egg whites with the whisk attachment of your stand mixer still whirring, and beating the meringue till very firm and cool to the touch, a task that takes a good 15 minutes but that your long-suffering KitchenAid will shoulder without complaint. Based on my recent experience, macarons au sucre cuit have several advantages over macarons au blanc monté. Besides consistency from batch to batch, there's no need to bother with ageing the egg whites (a practice you may be squeamish about), and you can make up a large quantity of Italian meringue, and divvy it up for use in several consecutive lots of macarons with different flavours (as opposed to doing the same with plain whipped egg whites, an unstable substance which waits for no woman).

The recipe for macarons au sucre cuit I've been enamored with as of late comes from Grand Livre de Cuisine: Alain Ducasse's Desserts and Pastries by Alain Ducasse and Frédéric Robert, the second in the Grand Livre de Cuisine series, recently made available in English (for more about the first in the series, and my compulsive book-buying patterns, see here). Delivering what in my macaron-making to date are the most delicately delicious macarons - and just as critically, ones that are consistently so batch after batch (yes, I have a bit of a thing for consistency) - has alone justified the purchase and bookshelf realty in my head. Also, the recipe does not call for powdered egg whites, a hard-to-find ingredient often specified in macaron recipes from other professional books.

Based on Frédéric Robert's master recipe, I recently made two flavours - vanilla and almond, and toasted hazelnut. In turn, these would be part of a composed dessert of 4 different ice cream sandwiches. Pragmatically speaking, the macaron-ice cream pairing represents very efficient use of the whole egg - macarons use lots of egg whites, ice cream lots of egg yolks. But if you've ever tasted a Miss Gla'Gla from here, you'll need no convincing as to why macarons make the ideal component in an ice cream sandwich. For whatever scientific reason (I'm guessing because sugar is hygroscopic, and sugar also lowers the freezing point of water, and macarons are crazy-rich in sugar), the macarons never freeze solid even when you assemble the sandwiches way ahead of time and store them in the freezer (which is not the case if you were assembling ahead ice cream sandwiches using sugar cookies or chocolate chip cookies say). Ahead-of-time assembly not only does away with last minute stress, it also does away with the issue of rapidly melting scoops of ice cream.

Below, the flavour combinations, with a soothing palette, all creamy ivory and eggshell beige, in mind:

Vanilla Macaron; La Crème Glacée à l’Italienne
(Picture at beginning of this post) The so-called "Italian Ice Cream" comes from The Notebooks of Michel Bras: Desserts. Despite containing no eggs, this ice cream has a very creamy texture. Made with only four ingredients (milk, cream, sugar and powdered milk), a stark snow white, it's a dairy purist's dream come true. Milk powder not only heightens the natural milk flavour, but serves a structural function - it adds protein a.k.a. large molecules that hinder the formation of ice crystals. By holding crystal size in check, the final texture is thus improved. Naturally, for the best taste, buy the tastiest milk you can find (I like Horizon Organic's Whole Milk). And no, don't bother with fat-free, 1% or 2%.

Vanilla Macaron; Vanilla Ice Cream
Vanilla on vanilla, a real crowd-pleaser (who doesn't adore the flavour of real vanilla?). Classic crème anglaise-based recipe, rich in cream and even richer in egg yolks, generously flecked with vanilla seeds.

Hazelnut Macaron; Cocoa Nib Ice Cream
This Cocoa Nib Ice Cream, from Alice Medrich's Bittersweet, is a magic trick unto itself, replete with pledge, turn and the prestige. Its pale countenance, all innocuous ecru, lulls you, makes you all the more vulnerable to the first taste - clean, full flavour that's instantly identifiable as chocolate, yet not exactly chocolate, like a haunting of chocolate if you will. To think all that's behind the bittersweet deception is cream infused with cocoa nibs!

Hazelnut Macaron; Gelato al Tartufo e Miele
Divine truffle honey ice-cream, recipe from Giorgio Locatelli's Made in Italy. As for the pairing, I was inspired by this signature Truffe blanche et Noisettes macaron. Chef Locatelli's book may be big (615 pages!) and beautiful, but what sold me was the ice cream and sorbet sub-section of the dessert chapter. It's one of the few books aimed at the home cook in which the recipes do not dumb it down, resembling closely the ice cream and sorbet formulas actually used in restaurant kitchens both in terms of make-up and accuracy (every single ingredient is specified in grammes). By make-up, I mean the use of different sugars like sucrose, invert sugar, dextrose and glucose, as their different sweetening properties and different abilities to alter the freezing point ultimately affect sweetness and texture.

PS: I'll confess to being fairly sniffy about vanilla. If a recipe calls for vanilla seeds, I don't think twice about dipping into my stash of Tahitian or Madagascar Bourbon beans, which I stock up on whenever I travel or through mail order - the general quality of beans available here, even if they have winged it from Tahiti or Madagascar, makes me weep (not tears of joy). Whether it's because they were of an inferior grade to begin with, or have been ruined through improper handling and storage, I wince. Which is why, whenever I run dangerously low on the bean-count, I would much rather turn to this amazing Madagascar Bourbon pure vanilla bean paste than resort to using sub-standard beans. This Nielsen Massey godsend should be a staple in any avid baker's pantry. While there is nothing to compare with the fragrance and flavour imparted by a freshly split quality bean, still pliant and moist, this bottle of genius has many things going for it - it is dead-consistent from bottle to bottle so you know what you'll get, you can measure precisely how much you need right down to the last drop so there is never any wastage, and the flavour is so good you might even feel guilty (well, just a tad) that it's spooned right out of a jar and ridiculously convenient to use. It can be ordered from this online baker's catalogue (where you'll no doubt also be tempted by the comprehensive array of pure vanilla extracts). Or, if you reside in Singapore, make a beeline for Shermay's Cooking School (where you'll no doubt also be distracted by a plethora of other nifty kitchen essentials).

Friday, November 10, 2006


If you've pretty much tried every recipe in Desserts by Pierre Hermé and Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Hermé - the two most readily available books by the French pastry demi-god in English - and await with bated breath the day they decide to translate ph10, what to do in the interim? Why, go backwards (chronologically) and find a copy of La Pâtisserie de Pierre Hermé of course. While it doesn't benefit from Ms Dorie Greenspan's generosity with exhaustive detail in a recipe, what this comprehensive tome does is chart the signature creations of his pre-ph, pre-Ladurée, 11-year reign at Fauchon - fascinating stuff, especially for dessert dorks. This being back in the day, most of the desserts are very classic in presentation. Nonetheless, despite their elegant, old school garb, they feature the unexpected yet brilliant combinations of tastes and textures that have become synonymous with the pastry chef.

Ever wondered how to achieve those snazzy special effects showcased in the window displays of Paris' haute pâtisseries? All the trucs of the trade are here. For instance, to "print" a striped design on biscuit joconde (used to line the sides of the Élysée), spread a thin, even layer of pâte à cigarette (which can be tinted any colour you wish, or coloured/flavoured with cocoa in this particular instance) over a silicone mat and drag a decorating comb across the surface to trace the lines, removing excess cigarette batter from the comb between each pass. Freeze this, then spread a thin, even layer of joconde batter on top. Once baked, the design you've created with cigarette batter is embedded in the joconde sheet. The sheet is cut to size to line the inner sides of the mold intended for your cake.

When I realized how biscuit joconde imprimé is far less tricksy to do than it looks, my mind boggled with the possibilities beyond straightforward stripes - move the comb this way and that to create wavy or diagonal markings, use combs with more widely or narrowly spaced teeth, get down with a piping bag, check out funky stencils at the craft and art supplies shops, or even go all Martha, make a trip to the hardware store, and customise your own stencils armed with nothing more than acetate sheets and a trusty Stanley knife...

The Élysée comprises of layers of chocolate cake soaked in an Earl Grey tea syrup, chocolate mousse, and Earl Grey tea mousse, and is finished with a chocolate glaze. I love the way Earl Grey goes with chocolate - the bergamot really enhances the flavour, particularly if you use a chocolate with fruity notes (I used Manjari 64%).

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Oriol Balaguer's Punta de Teno

I've been having a bit of a Spanish pastry moment lately. Aside from this big, beautiful book, I'm knee-deep in Oriol Balaguer's Dessert Cuisine. If Pierre Hermé is the Picasso of pastry, then Oriol Balaguer is surely the Dalí of desserts. Leafing through the pages handsomely bound by rotogravure covers and a silk-screened fabric spine is like entering an otherworldly realm, replete with surreal dreamscapes, dramatic vistas hewn not from stone and moss but butter, flour, sugar and eggs. In their forewords, both Francisco Torreblanca and Ferran Adrià (Chef Balaguer has had longstanding professional relationships with both) hail the book as an indispensable resource. After even a cursory glance, it's not hard to see why; his reformist methodology and extraordinary creativity have brilliantly bridged the traditional disconnect between shop patisserie and the restaurant dessert.

I was contributing dessert to a family lunch on Sunday. Originally, I had wanted to try one of his signature plated "dessert cuisine" spectaculars, to be finished à la minute and served immediately for optimum enjoyment of the various tastes, textures and temperatures at play. Well, the days prior flew by and I didn't quite get my act together enough for the fairly time-consuming mise en place. So I decided to choose a recipe from the cake chapter instead - in other words, something that could be virtually completed ahead of time, no eleventh hour faffing about required.

Named after Punta de Teno in Tenerife (many of the magnificent photographs in the book use volcanic rocks, sand and lava from Buena Vista del Norte as props), I found the presentation of this cake simply irresistible, as if sculpted by wind and wave into an organic form. More importantly, it boasted one of my favourite flavour combinations - chocolate and lemon.

First, make the chocolate bonbon cream flavoured with milk chocolate and hazelnut praline - this is layered with discs of light cocoa sponge cake soaked in an Earl Grey tea and lemon syrup and frozen in molds to form the centers of the individual cakes (or you can make one large cake instead). Next, make the lemon mousse with lemon juice, sugar, lemon zest, Italian meringue, gelatin and half-whipped cream. To assemble, spoon the lemon mousse into hemispherical molds (of a slightly greater diameter and depth than those used for the chocolate bonbon centers), insert the frozen and unmolded centers, fill to the top with more lemon mousse and level off the excess with an offset spatula. Once these are frozen, they're unmolded and ready for decoration - a stark white swathe of meringue applied in as abstractly chic an arc as you can muster, a dusting over the meringue with milk chocolate flakes, candied rose petals or caramelized beet flakes (I used cocoa nibs instead), and a sea glass-like shard of candy and milk chocolate shaving atop each cake. The whole shebang can be held in the fridge for up to 24 hours before serving.

I must say as I was making the various components and tasting them along the way, I became convinced I must have been sloppy with my measurements and grew increasingly dubious of the potential outcome. The bonbon cream was very rich and sweet, while the lemon mousse tasted like it could do with a touch more sugar. Right up to the point of actually tasting the completed cake, I psyched myself for the prospect of pulling an overnighter and starting from scratch on some other dessert. I took one tentative taste, and another, and then some, hesitating a little between each bite to surmise if it was really tasty or just rather novel. Before I knew it, I'd scarfed it down, making it safe to presume others may take pleasure in it too. I need not have fretted; the recipe had of course been precisely engineered for balance in the final reckoning. Ever eaten a dessert that made a terrific first impression but that you grew weary of half-way through? There's the law of diminishing marginal utility in action for you. Here, the two main elements not just combine harmoniously so no one flavour predominates, but the assembled dessert is one that's deliciously different enough for eating right down to the last crumb without breaching the sated threshold.