Monday, May 29, 2006

Tahitian Vanilla Bean Marshmallows

After pulling a cruel prank involving a pail of writhing snails, a large handful of salt and a gaggle of crying girls, let's just say I was never given the chance to finish my education in becoming a girl scout proper - so no rose-tinted childhood stories of crackling campfires to recount here. This disgraceful lack of scouting notwithstanding, I do have a weakness for marshmallows.

Remember the very first time you successfully baked a loaf of bread, sheeted a batch of puff pastry, or rolled your own pasta? The thrill of making marshmallows is of the same magnitude - somehow, attempting that which one hitherto picked up from the shop aisles rather than looked up recipes for is a surefire formula for feeling quite, to borrow Robert May's immortal words, the accomplisht cook. Until recently, I never thought of these sugary puffs of lightness as the sort of thing to make at home. And when I did, I thought to myself, "What were you waiting for?" Then again, I dream of candy trollies.

Simply based on the fact that they're astoundingly easy to make and always a crowd pleaser, marshmallows should already have scored major brownie points with the home baker. But that's not all. They are tenderer, moister, and more delicate than the store-bought variety. You are now also no longer confined to a choice of say tartrazine or E133 where "flavours" are concerned. The Tahitian Vanilla Bean Marshmallow recipe is from Michael Recchiuti & Fran Gage's Chocolate Obsession. But classic vanilla aside, there's a wealth of options to explore. I'm keen to experiment with different honeys (there's a honey marshmallow recipe from Nancy Baggett's The All-American Dessert Book), exotic spice blends (check out the five-spice marshmallows from Flo Braker's Sweet Miniatures), and an orchard's worth of fruit purees (try the recipe for fresh strawberry and orange flower water marshmallows adapted from Ladurée in Dorie Greenspan's Paris Sweets). And speaking of Paris, doesn't guimauve sound that much more chic? While the marsh mallow in marshmallows has long since been replaced by gelatine, marshmallows - despite their cosy, toasty, nostalgic image elsewhere in the world - have always been offered by the very best confiseries and maisons de gastronomie as coyly coiled laniards in heavy glass apothecary jars, ceremoniously lifted out with silver tongs and cut to order. As for that indulgent conceit otherwise known as the candy trolley, guimauve is virtually ubiquitous at the city's most Michelin-starred establishments as part of the sweet, bite-sized and post-dessert dessert offering.

Aside from munching the marshmallows neat, there're quite a few neat things to do with them.

Rocky Recchiuti Brownies

Rocky road goes uptown what with the use of good chocolate, Tahitian vanilla bean marshmallows, and Michael Recchiuti's signature fudge brownie base - very fudgy, very chocolatey, and very habit-forming. In fact, I would go so far as to say this confection alone is reason enough to whip up a batch of marshmallows. The marshmallow topping, which goes all golden, crisp and chewy in the oven, and the walnuts (pecans also work really well) afford scrumptious contrast to the fudginess of it all, while morsels of chopped chocolate amp up the gooey quotient. W really approves of these - that, I can promise you thanks to many other not-so-warmly-received recipes I've tried and consequently had to finish all by myself, is the ultimate seal of brownie quality assurance. Recipe also to be found in the lovely Chocolate Obsession.

The recipe makes at least 40 marshmallows - all the better to think of what other treats to use them in...

Pierre Hermé's Spiced Hot Chocolate

Wouldn't you come up with every possible excuse to drink hot chocolate at every conceivable moment if you had marshmallows lying around? - I did. The vanilla bean marshmallows are a perfect topping for the spiced hot chocolate recipe from Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Hermé, infused as it is with cinnamon, vanilla, honey and citrus zest.

S'Mores Kit

This picture was taken a few months ago, when I offered to make some party favours for a good friend's celebration of her little girl's birthday. For some reason, I seem to have misplaced the picture of the DIY kit's contents - homemade graham crackers and marshmallows, as well as squares of bittersweet chocolate. Anyways, the idea was inspired by this box of fun from Recchiuti Confections, and happily, seeing as it was a poolside barbeque, kids and adults seemed equally entertained by assembling their own S'mores.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

"Peanut Butter & Jelly"

To be perfectly honest, many of my favourite foods are often choices based not just on taste alone, but on nostalgia. Take peanut butter. Till this day, I can't eat it without recalling those scrumptious after-school sandwiches. Neither can I shake off that residual feeling of guilt (which also, now that I think about it, makes anything taste better) I associate with the stuff - whenever my mother's back was turned, I would sneak a large spoonful or two to consume neat. This, of course, required some artfulness on my part - being sure to scrape right in the centre of the jar without touching the sides, thus maintaining the crafty appearance of a full jar for the purposes of any casual exterior inspection. It goes without saying that my deception was found out soon enough - I opened the fridge one day to discover that my mother had quietly switched to peanut butter and jelly. As anyone who has dug into one of these jars will know, it's virtually impossible to swipe an illicit helping without distorting the stripes, thus shattering the illusion of fullness. Much to the poor lady's dismay, I found another way to amuse myself - how to twist the knife at precisely the right angle so as to emerge triumphant with the optimal ratio of peanut butter to jelly. This, of course, made for good eating, but left behind a very unsightly mess.

Thomas Keller's "Peanut Butter & Jellies"
I love The French Laundry Cookbook for many reasons, not least of which are the many recipes boasting familiar, comforting flavours presented in wholly unexpected and delicious ways. In the dessert chapter alone, seemingly innocuous treats like "Coffee and Doughnuts", "Banana Split", "Candied Apple", and of course, "Peanut Butter and Jellies" are given the signature Keller treatment. The spectacular results promise to tempt both kid and adult alike, and more pertinently, the kid in every adult.

The "Peanut Butter" component in the Keller pairing is actually a peanut butter truffle - small balls of milk chocolate and peanut butter ganache dipped in bittersweet chocolate then dusted with cocoa. Presentation-wise, instead of this elegant and grown-up manner, I opted for an alternative route, inspired by everybody's favourite peanut butter cups, as well as a recipe for Peanut Butter Pucks from Michael Recchiuti's Chocolate Obsession. Using great chocolate and great peanut butter ensures all the difference - think of these as Posh Peanut Butter Cups. I used Valrhona's Guanaja 70% to create the bittersweet chocolate shells. As for the filling, I went with Jivara 40%. The peanut butter that's blended with the melted milk chocolate should be a creamy, natural one made from roasted nuts (and without added salt and sugar) - I like this organic nut butter. To finish, a few grains of fleur de sel for a salty burst of flavour and subtle crunch.

The "Jelly" part of the equation (Keller offers recipes for both Yuzu Jellies and Concord Grape Jellies) is, ingeniously enough, in the style of a very French and very chic pate de fruit, those delicate translucent squares - intensely flavoured and brightly coloured - gleaming like so many precious jewels from the most bijoux of Parisian confiseries. If, like me, you love yuzu (which, incidentally, makes a mighty fine citrus curd), these jellies offer a brand new way to enjoy the flavour.

PB & J Macarons, a.k.a. The Chubby Hubby
Neither chunks of chocolate covered peanut butter-filled pretzels in vanilla malt ice cream nor deep ripples of fudge and peanut butter to be found it's not this Chubby Hubby, but this Chubby Hubby I'm naming the macaron after. Quite aside from the fact that he likes his peanut butter and jelly, this PB & J bender I've been on was sparked by a conversation we had some weeks back about whimsical macaron flavours. As any fan of his fabulous blog will know, the man has an uncanny knack where matters gustatory are concerned, even when suggesting things half in jest.

Part of the reason I've been so keen to learn how to make macarons is that they are the perfect, bite-sized, fun yet elegant vehicle for experimenting with a whole spectrum of flavours - so PB & J it was. For the cookie component, I substituted part of the quantity of ground almonds called for in a typical macaron recipe with ground peanuts, tinkering with the ratio until the taste was right (I finally settled on 2 parts peanuts to 1 part almond). As for the jelly, it's a soft-set grape number based on a recipe from Christine Ferber's Mes Confitures.