Friday, March 30, 2007

Macaron Classes at Shermay's

It's taken quite a few months to plan, but I'm really psyched about teaching a new class at Shermay's Cooking School ... Macarons & Biscotti, a demo class, will be held on 12 May 2007 (Saturday) and 13 May 2007 (Sunday). The May schedule has all the details; for inquiries, call +65 6479 8442 or email

There are many reasons I feel both excited and privileged to be doing so, but chiefly, it's because I am a bit fixated on macarons, those jewel-like confections that take pride of place in the lavish window displays of Paris' best pâtisseries. Whether it's being on the constant lookout for the ultimate fix, hinting to a loved one to do so on one's behalf, losing sleep over glitches, losing sleep over the quest for new best practice, there are few things I won't do in the name of eating or making a better macaron.

I learnt how to make macarons by making mistakes aplenty and learning from those mistakes. A distillation from my own experiences, I hope to show not just how to make macarons, but how to avoid those potential pitfalls that give macarons a largely undeserved rep as a tough cookie for home bakers to do. In truth, it really isn't rocket science, but macarons do demand of you time and patience - both of which are richly rewarded when you behold perfectly smooth domes with their frilly skirting (referred to as the "foot") and sink your teeth through that eggshell-thin crust to find a moist and utterly luscious interior.

The class will cover 4 classic macaron flavours:

Chocolate Macarons filled with Valrhona Araguani 72% Dark Chocolate Ganache

Hazelnut Macarons filled with Valrhona Jivara Lactée 40% Milk Chocolate Ganache

Vanilla Macarons with Vanilla Bean Buttercream
(buttercream made via method using
pâte à bombe)

Coffee Macarons with Coffee Buttercream
(buttercream made via method using
pâte à bombe)

When it comes to cookie-like things to go with tea or coffee, she who is apt to make her own macarons is also apt to make her own biscotti. So to round off the fairly intensive class, a light, crisp and delicate biscotti recipe that, by comparison, is a real doddle to pull off so long as a few essential pointers (which will be covered during the session) are kept in mind.

Hazelnut & Cinnamon Biscotti
(with other ideas for easy flavour variations, and optional Chocolate Glaze)

Friday, March 23, 2007

Cocoa Leaves and Cocoa Butter Cream with A Touch of Milk and Licorice

A Michel Bras recipe, from Essential Cuisine: Michel Bras. Despite its unusual appearance, it's probably one of the less time-consuming desserts to make from the book, something like this multi-component number being more typical of the section.

With dessert in particular, I tend to eat with my eyes first. But really, looks aside, there were a number of things I found rather exciting about the recipe.

That's cocoa butter cream, as opposed to cocoa buttercream. In other words, the filling uses pure cocoa butter as an ingredient, something that, much like cocoa nibs, has been recently introduced to the home baker's horizons. Chocolatiers have long used it to manipulate the texture and mouthfeel of ganache centers, and increasingly, its uses are being explored in the rest of the pastry kitchen, primarily as a natural thickener for mousses and such like in lieu of gelatine (for the definitive book on the subject, check out Philippe Bertrand & Philippe Marand's L'Eveil des Sens).

And of course, the recipe presented the perfect excuse to go buy a big bunch of long slender metal tube molds, which were of course, absolutely necessary for shaping the pastry leaves. I didn't plan far in advance enough to hunt down the 14mm diameter tubes specified but quite happily settled for the more readily available 25mm ones - in other words, cannoli molds. This resulted in bodacious waves rather than delicate ripples.

Last but not least, it, like several of the other recipes in the book, is a refreshing take on the millefeuille, bringing the classic contrast between crisp and creamy to a heightened level thanks to its ultra-crispness/ultra-creaminess and a brand new cast of flavours.

The trickiest part comes with handling the single-ply phyllo leaves. Each phyllo rectangle is brushed on both sides with melted butter then sprinkled with a sugar flavoured with cocoa, coffee and licorice extract - a certain sense of urgency must inform the proceedings if the phyllo is not to dry out, lose its pliancy, and generally become too brittle to handle. The flavoured phyllo rectangles are modelled by interleaving with the tube molds and baked briefly in a hot oven until the sugar caramelizes. Extricating the "cocoa leaves" intact from the molds takes a bit of practice - while very crisp, they are also very fragile - but the initial broken shards make for excellent cook's perks, so one need not feel too aggrieved.

Just prior to serving, the leaves are lined with the cocoa butter cream (gently whipped cream folded into a liquid mixture of cocoa butter and sugar) and stacked. To finish, milk reduction, cocoa licorice caramel and more of the flavoured sugar.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Caviar Wishes

Nope, not contraband gained through mysterious means. Instead, a very kind, incredibly thoughtful, and exceedingly generous gift from a visiting friend - not one, but several jars of the glistening black pearls. I won't go on too much about how much I love the stuff lest one incurs the wrath of caviar emptor vigilantes; suffice to say I will go on eating it even if it means camping out in a closet.

Beluga, osciotr and sevruga distinguish between the three species of sturgeon harvested for caviar. Malossol, on the other hand, is a Russian term referring not to species but to the preservation technique for packing and shipping caviar. Malossol - "little salt" - typically indicates caviar of particular distinction from sturgeon caught at the beginning of the season. Malossol caviar tastes of natural piscine saltiness, of the sea, but does not suffer from the surfeit of salt (added to preserve the delicate eggs in transit) all too often associated with lesser caviar.

Ever had to endure one of those precious, stiff-backed, starched-linen affairs where an entire table of hungry diners is supposed to share one tin or jar of caviar, and everyone self-consciously helps themselves to only a tiny teaspoon or two so as not to appear avaricious? Painful just about sums it up, not to mention pointless. To say the obvious, the only way to eat caviar is to eat plenty of it, preferably with a pearl spoon.

Some ways we enjoyed our windfall:

Scrambled Scallops

Super but also super easy, a puree of scallops and cream gently coddled in a bain marie until it acquires the appearance and texture of scrambled eggs. This egg-free scramble is then served in an emptied eggshell. Michel Richard's Happy in the Kitchen is bursting with such brilliant, mischievous and inventive recipes - food as trompe l'oeil, if you will. Many of the ingenious techniques and ideas in the book had me slapping my forehead and going, as Thomas Keller puts it in his foreword to the book, "Why didn't I think of that?". An awesome book, definitely one of my favourite releases from 2006.

Sweet Corn Madeleines with Caviar & Crème Fraîche

I'm a fan of François Payard's Simply Sensational Desserts, and I do think that small is beautiful, so I didn't hesitate springing for Bite Size, a slender volume on chic canapés for the cocktail hour. If you enjoy the labour-intensiveness of fiddling with and fussing over morsels not much wider than a thumb, it will probably prove a real page-turner. The recipe for these savoury mini madeleines made with fresh corn comes from the book, served warm from the oven with dollops of crème fraîche and caviar.

Prawn Custard with Cauliflower Puree & Caviar

The earthy flavour of cauliflower has a great affinity with fish roe, a signature Joël Robuchon pairing that has inspired many others. This particular number hails from Neil Perry's Rockpool. The quivering custards are made with an intensely flavourful prawn stock and eggs much in the fashion of Japanese chawan-mushi, served chilled in a puddle of cauliflower cream and accompanied by a drizzle of spinach oil and a healthy helping of caviar.

Yukon Gold Potato Blini

My palate hasn't quite acquired the taste for the pukka and authentic article, made solely with buckwheat flour. I much prefer the French-influenced lighter version, still yeast-leavened but using a mixture of buckwheat and wheat flours - in my mind, the definitive recipe is the Taillevent one, which can be found in Lydie Marshall's A Passion for Potatoes.

Then there's Thomas Keller's potato blini (from The French Laundry Cookbook). It does away with the buckwheat flour and yeast entirely, and the result is an incredibly refined pancake, a creamy and ethereal wonder that virtually melts in the mouth, the ultimate showcase for whatever luxurious garnishes you've chosen to use them as rafts for - here, crème fraîche, caviar and chopped hard-cooked eggs. The recipe calls for Yukon Gold potatoes - as the batter is itself enriched with crème fraîche, their greedily absorbent nature allows them to imbibe more cream than other potatoes thus resulting in the loveliest possible texture. Pressing the warm potatoes through a tamis rather than merely mashing them is another refinement to the trad that ensures blini quite in a league of their own.

Sorry, no El Bulli-esque dessert mimicking the look of caviar. But receiving the caviar did remind me that I had yet to open the tins of Kusmi Tea we had picked up from our recent visit to L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Roppongi Hills, Tokyo - I was simply too taken with the divine goûts russes packaging, which at the time, funnily enough, reminded me of caviar tins!