Bonne Nuit Ma Petit Éclair

Chocolate and Vanilla Eclairs

I am exhausted and hot. My right arm is sore and my hands are pruned. Before you jump to all sorts of wild conclusions, I’ll come right out and tell you. It’s all thanks to the Daring Baker’s. These Daring Baker’s sure know how to make you sweat, especially in the height of summer on a particularly steamy day in August. That day would be today. Yes, today – meaning I left this challenge to the last possible day, the same day I had to post it. The challenge? Chocolate Éclairs by none other than the god of pastry himself – Pierre Hermé – chosen by Tony Tahhan of Olive Juice and MeetaK of What’s for Lunch Honey? This challenge involved copious amounts of vigorous stirring and whisking which led to a very sore right arm. It also left me with a heap of dirty dishes to wash, leaving me with the kind of pruned fingers you’d get after an hour long bath.

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Panna Cotta Dreams

Clockwise from left: Honey-Almond Panna Cotta with Macerated Peaches, Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta with Strawberry Coulis and Cappuccino Panna Cotta with Cocoa Whipped Cream

I always look forward to throwing dinner parties. There’s something magical about gathering around a table with great friends, enjoying delicious food and fine wines together as the hours slowly pass. Before you know it, it’s midnight and your guests reluctantly start to leave because it’ll be an early start to get to work in the morning. You linger at the door saying good-bye for another half hour before anyone actually leaves. You shut the door still smiling, because of course all the fun has blocked your memory of the dishes waiting to be done.

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Holla!

Challah Bread

Last week on Project Runway, Blane managed to get the ever-poised and articulate Tim Gunn broaden his near perfect vocabulary. “Holla! Holla at yo boy!” To hear Tim struggle to drop his R’s and sound ‘urban’ was absolutely hysterical. Once I wiped the tears of laughter away I started to think about how bizarre it must seem to someone so utterly correct. “What does it mean?” he asked. No one could explain, they just kept repeating “Holla, you know? Holla at yo boy?!”

According to the Urban Dictionary:

Holla
1. A word used to acknowledge the presence of a fellow companion
2. For a man to express interest in a particularly impressive female specimen
3. To contact via telephone
Eg.
1. Is that mah boy ova there? HOLLAAAAA!
2. Watch out, I’m bout to holla at this fine bitch.
3. Boy, it was absolutely magnificent to see you again. Holla at me this evening, we can have tea and crumpets.
It’s amusing to me how these words become such a part of our culture yet no one truly asks why. Then they are eventually instated in the dictionary. Bling-bling can now be found in Webster’s Dictionary as of 1999. Will Holla be next? Will Tim replace “Make it work” with “Holla”?
All this talk of Holla got me thinking about Challah. I grew up eating this traditional Jewish bread every Friday at Synagogue and to this day it reminds me of my childhood. My dad would always tear off an enormous chunk and hand it to me to nibble on and wash down with lemonade from the punch bowl. The toasted crust contrasted the sweet and fluffy custard yellow innards. Sometimes they’d have raisin Challah too, but I’ve never been a fan of raisins in bread. I like my Challah plain, I find it’s sweetend eggy flavour perfectly satisfying without any additions.
Last week I happened upon a lovely Challah post on Tastespotting from Dine and Dish. Just the sight of the Challah made me salivate and I could almost smell the fragrant honeyed scent. The recipe was for a bread-machine Challah dough and I knew I had to immediately pull my abandoned bread machine out of retirement to give this a try. I mean, how could I resist attempting to make Challah with minimal effort? The bread machine would do all the hard work of making the dough, and I would get to do the fun part of forming the braid!
The results were far superior to what I could have ever wished for. The scent of freshly baked Challah filled the house, much to my husband’s delight upon his return from a hard day at work. The crust transformed into a perfectly shiny, golden brown speckled with poppy seeds. The innards were light and airy, the colour of custard and just sweet enough. I think this was the best Challah I have ever eaten and I am delighted to have found such an easy recipe to bring a bit of my childhood into my home as often as I please. The leftovers made the most delicious french toast the next morning, just one more reason to bring the bread machine permanently out of retirement!
Braided Challah Bread (Bread Machine) – from Recipezaar

Dough:
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 2 1/2 cups bread flour
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 7 teaspoons vegetable oil
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 2/3 cup water

Egg wash:

  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 tbs water

Place ingredients into bread machine according to manufacturers directions.
Set on dough cycle and run until end of cycle.

Place dough onto a lightly floured board and divide into three equal parts. Stretch or roll each part into 9″ ropes and braid. Place on greased cookie sheet, cover and let rise for about 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 350°.

Mix together egg yolk and water and brush evenly over bread, then sprinkle with sesame or poppy seeds, if desired. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until golden brown.
Cool on wire rack.

I dare you not to like this

Almond Gateau with Praline Buttercream

Hello? Is anybody there? It’s me – Merav. I know I haven’t been here for a while. I am trying to change that. With the backlog of food I have to blog about, it really shouldn’t be too difficult to start. So please have a little more patience – perhaps this chocolate covered gateau will keep your attention for a while longer?
Once again, the Daring Baker’s have dragged my ass out of seclusion and dirtied my kitchen with yet another multi-pot/utensil recipe. Not that I’m complaining – when the end result looks like this it somehow erases the memory of a sink full of dishes. This month’s challenge comes courtesy of Chris from Mele Cotte who chose a Filbert Gateau with Praline Buttercream from “Great Cakes” by Carol Walter. Upon first sight of the challenge, I was both excited about the decorating potential but also a little disappointed that in the height of summer (90+ degree days here) we would be creating an intensely rich cake and not utilising the bounty of fresh fruits available. I got over it pretty quickly though and eventually set out to make the cake.
We were permitted to replace Hazelnuts with any other nut if we preferred. Since my food processor died and I have yet to replace it, I knew there would be no way to grind the hazelnuts smooth enough by hand. I went ahead and used the pre-ground almond meal I had on hand. To be honest, almond is my favourite nut so I probably would have chosen it over hazelnut regardless of my food processor predicament. I also decided to halve the recipe and make mini-cakes, as I knew that one large layer cake would sit uneaten in my fridge for weeks. The recipe also called for a Swiss buttercream but I could just not be bothered this time to stand over a bain-marie whisking away in this heat. I decided to use a cream cheese based buttercream, which I also much prefer flavour-wise. I used sliced almonds in my praline. Once cooled, I broke it into pieces, smashed it up in a bag with a rolling pin as much as I could, and then ground it further in a mortar and pestle. This step was a royal pain! Obviously I couldn’t grind it enough to become a smooth paste but I mixed the powder into the buttercream with delicious results! For the soaking syrup, I used Amaretto liqueur which helped to bring out the delicate almond flavour. I stuck with the apricot glaze as I love apricots and believe they pair beautifully with almond. In the end, I omitted the whipped cream layer because I just felt it wasn’t necessary.


In conclusion – though this cake took 3 days to make – the results were divine! The cake was moist, delicate and had a slight chew to the texture thanks to the almonds. The buttercream had a hint of caramelly praline but wasn’t cloyingly sweet, in part thanks to me leaving out 3 cups of the sugar it asked for! All in all, I still think this cake is suited better to colder days and climates, but it was a joy to bake and those who ate it licked their plates! Check out all the other Daring Baker’s creations for more jaw dropping gorgeousness.

Filbert Gateau with Praline Buttercream – From Great Cakes by Carol Walter:
Click here to see the Original recipe

Genoise:

Because of the amount of nuts in the recipe, this preparation is different from a classic genoise.

  • 1 cup ground almond meal
  • 1 tbs cornstarch
  • 4 large egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup sugar, divided ¼ & ¼
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • ¼ tsp grated lemon rind
  • 3 large egg whites
  • 1/8 cup warm, melted butter (100 – 110 degrees)

Position rack in the lower 3rd of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 9-inch round cake pan and line the bottom with greased parchment paper.

Whisk together the almond meal and cornstarch. Set aside. Put the yolks in the bowl of an electric mixer, with the whisk attachment, and beat until thick and light in color, about 3-4 minutes on med-high speed. Slowly, add 1/4 cup of sugar. It is best to do so by adding a tablespoon at a time, taking about 3 minutes for this step. When finished, the mixture should be ribbony. Blend in the vanilla and grated lemon rind. Remove and set aside. Place egg whites in a large, clean bowl of the electric mixer with the whisk attachment and beat on medium speed, until soft peaks. Increase to med-high speed and slowly add the remaining ¼ cup of sugar, over 15-20 seconds or so. Continue to beat for another 30 seconds. Add the yolk mixture to the whites and whisk for 1 minute. Working quickly, sprinkle the nut meal in about 2 tablespoons at a time – folding it carefully for about 40 folds. Be sure to exclude any large chunks/pieces of nuts. Again, work quickly and carefully as to not deflate the mixture. When all but about 2 tbsp of nut meal remain, quickly and steadily pour the warm butter over the batter. Then, with the remaining nut meal, fold the batter to incorporate, about 13 or so folds. With a rubber spatula, transfer the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the surface with the spatula or back of a spoon. If collected butter remains at the bottom of the bowl, do not add it to the batter! It will impede the cake rising while baking. Tap the pan on the counter to remove air bubbles and bake in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes. You’ll know the cake is done when it is springy to the touch and it separates itself from the side of the pan. Remove from oven and allow to stand for 5 minutes. Invert onto a cake rack sprayed with nonstick coating, removing the pan. Cool the cake completely. If not using the cake right away, wrap thoroughly in plastic wrap, then in a plastic bag, then in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. If freezing, wrap in foil, then the bag and use within 2-3 months.

Sugar Syrup:

  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/8 cup sugar
  • 1 tbs Amaretto or dark rum or any other flavored liqueur

In a small, yet heavy saucepan, bring the water and sugar to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, add the liqueur. Cool slightly before using on the cake. Can be made in advance.

Praline Paste:

  • 1 cup sliced almonds
  • 2/3 cup sugar

Line a jelly roll pan with parchment and lightly butter. Put the sugar in a heavy 10-inch skillet. Heat on low flame for about 10-20 min until the sugar melts around the edges. Do not stir the sugar. Swirl the pan if necessary to prevent the melted sugar from burning. Brush the sides of the pan with water to remove sugar crystals. If the sugar in the center does not melt, stir briefly. When the sugar is completely melted and caramel in color, remove from heat. Stir in the nuts with a wooden spoon and separate the clusters. Return to low heat and stir to coat the nuts on all sides. Cook until the mixture starts to bubble. Remember – extremely hot mixture. Then pour onto the parchment lined sheet and spread as evenly as possible. As it cools, it will harden into brittle. Break the candied nuts into pieces and place them in the food processor. Pulse into a medium-fine crunch or process until the brittle turns into a powder. To make paste, process for several minutes. Store in an airtight container and store in a cool dry place. Do not refrigerate.

Praline Buttercream: adapted from Bon Apetit, June 2006

  • 8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 2 cups powdered sugar, sifted

Using an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese and butter in large bowl until smooth. Add the powdered sugar 1/4 cup at a time, beating well until smooth. Mix in 1/3 cup of the Praline paste.

Apricot Glaze:

  • 1/3 cup thick apricot preserves
  • 1/2 tbs water

In a small, yet heavy saucepan, bring the water and preserves to a slow boil and simmer for 2-3 minutes. If the mixture begins to stick to the bottom of the saucepan, add water as needed.Remove from heat and, using a strainer, press the mixture through the mesh and discard any remnants. With a pastry brush, apply the glaze onto the cake. If the glaze is too thick, thin to a preferred consistency with drops of water.

Ganache Glaze:

  • 6 oz. (good) semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, like Lindt
  • ¾ cup heavy cream
  • 1 tbsp light corn syrup
  • 1 tbs Amaretto, or dark Jamaican rum (optional)
  • ¾ tsp vanilla
  • ½ – 1 tsp hot water, if needed

Blend vanilla and liqueur together and set aside. Break the chocolate into 1-inch pieces and place in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Transfer into a medium sized bowl and set aside. Heat the cream and corn syrup in a saucepan, on low, until it reaches a gentle boil. Immediately and carefully pour over the chocolate. Leave it alone for one minute, then slowly stir and mix the chocolate and cream together until the chocolate is melted and incorporated into the cream. Carefully blend in vanilla mixture. If the surface seems oily, add ½ – 1 tsp hot water. The glaze will thicken, but should still be pourable. If it doesn’t thicken, refrigerate for about 5 minutes, but make sure it doesn’t get too cold!

Assembling Cake:

Divide the cake into 2 layers and cut out as many circles as possible using a round cookie cutter. Using a pastry brush, moisten the layers with the warm sugar syrup. Spread the bottom layer with a ¼-inch thickness of the buttercream. Place the middle layer over the first, brush with sugar syrup, spread with buttercream. Moisten the cut side of the third layer with additional sugar syrup and place cut side down on the cake. Gently, press the sides of the cake to align the layers. Refrigerate to chill for at least 30 minutes. Brush the top and sides of the cake with warm apricot glaze, sealing the cut areas completely. Chill while you prepare the ganache. Place a rack over a large shallow pan to catch the ganache drippings. Remove the gateau from the refrigerator and put it the rack. With a metal spatula in hand, and holding the saucepan about 10 inches above the cake, pour the ganache onto the cake’s center. Move the spatula over the top of the ganache about 4 times to get a smooth and mirror-like appearance. The ganache should cover the top and run down the sides of the cake. When the ganache has been poured and is coating the cake, lift one side of the rack and bang it once on the counter to help spread the ganache evenly and break any air bubbles. (Work fast before setting starts.) Patch any bare spots on the sides with a smaller spatula, but do not touch the top after the “bang”. Let the cake stand at least 15 minutes to set after glazing. To garnish the cake, fit a 12 – 14-inch pastry bag with a tip. Fill the bag with the reserved praline cream and or ganache. Decorate as you please. Refrigerate uncovered for 3-4 hours to allow the cake to set. Remove the cake from the refrigerator at least 3 hours before serving. Leftover cake can be covered with foil and kept in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.

Better late than never…

Danish Braid filled with Cream Cheese, Nectarine and Blueberry

Hellooooo? Helloooo? Is there anybody out there? I know I have been missing for a while now but I am determined to blow the dust off my keyboard and get back to work! My poor, desolate and deserted blog is not happy with me at all however. At long last I was finally ready to make my way back into the world of blogging and take on the June Daring Bakers challenge. I had finally completed the challenge on time but once again – Blogger was down and would not let me post on time! Excuses, excuses, I know. But like they say, better late than never, right? And it would truly be a shame not to share this delectable pastry with you.

Thanks to Kelly and Ben‘s wonderful choice, I was truly challenged this month to make Danish Pastry and a Danish Braid. Though the task seemed daunting at first, it came together in a breeze and truly made me look like a pro to my husband and friends! The dough was supple and soft, extremely easy to work with. Speckled with orange zest, cardamom seeds and vanilla beans – the flavour and aroma were to die for! I decided to fill my braid with a homemade fruit filling and cream cheese. I made a delicious ‘jam’ of nectarines, blueberries, vanilla bean, cinnamon and sugar which I spread atop a layer of cream cheese whipped with sugar and an egg. After braiding the dough, I realised I made an incredibly stupid mistake – I forgot to assemble it on top of a piece of parchment paper for easy transportation to the baking sheet! It took me a while to pick up the long, delicate braid from the counter andplace it on the baking sheet but I somehow managed with minimal damage. Once proofed, I brushed the braid with an egg wash and baked it until golden brown. The scent in the air was irrisistable! We devoured the braid with copious cappuccino’s and espresso’s – the perfect accompaniement if you ask me! Make sure you check out the other Daring Baker’s braids for a myriad of fillings and shapes!

Danish Braid – inspired by Sherry Yard, The Secrets of Baking

For the dough (Detrempe – Makes 2-1/2 pounds dough):

  • 1 ounce fresh yeast or 1 tablespoon active dry yeast
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • Zest of 1 orange, finely grated
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1/2 vanilla bean, split and scraped
  • 2 large eggs, chilled
  • 1/4 cup fresh orange juice
  • 3-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt

For the butter block (Beurrage):

  • 1/2 pound (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour

Dough: Combine yeast and milk in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and mix on low speed. Slowly add sugar, orange zest, cardamom, vanilla extract, vanilla seeds, eggs, and orange juice. Mix well. Change to the dough hook and add the salt with the flour, 1 cup at a time, increasing speed to medium as the flour is incorporated. Knead the dough for about 5 minutes, or until smooth. You may need to add a little more flour if it is sticky. Transfer dough to a lightly floured baking sheet and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Butter block: Combine butter and flour in the bowl of a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and beat on medium speed for 1 minute. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and the paddle and then beat for 1 minute more, or until smooth and lump free. Set aside at room temperature.

After the detrempe has chilled 30 minutes, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll the dough into a rectangle approximately 18 x 13 inches and ¼ inch thick. The dough may be sticky, so keep dusting it lightly with flour. Spread the butter evenly over the center and right thirds of the dough. Fold the left edge of the detrempe to the right, covering half of the butter. Fold the right third of the rectangle over the center third. The first turn has now been completed. Mark the dough by poking it with your finger to keep track of your turns, or use a sticky and keep a tally. Place the dough on a baking sheet, wrap it in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30 minutes. – Place the dough lengthwise on a floured work surface. The open ends should be to your right and left. Roll the dough into another approximately 13 x 18 inch, ¼-inch-thick rectangle. Again, fold the left third of the rectangle over the center third and the right third over the center third. No additional butter will be added as it is already in the dough. The second turn has now been completed. Refrigerate the dough for 30 minutes. Roll out, turn, and refrigerate the dough two more times, for a total of four single turns. Make sure you are keeping track of your turns. Refrigerate the dough after the final turn for at least 5 hours or overnight. The Danish dough is now ready to be used. If you will not be using the dough within 24 hours, freeze it. To do this, roll the dough out to about 1 inch in thickness, wrap tightly in plastic wrap, and freeze. Defrost the dough slowly in the refrigerator for easiest handling. Danish dough will keep in the freezer for up to 1 month.

Danish Braid: Makes enough for 2 large braids

  • 1 recipe Danish Dough
  • Filling of your choice

Line a baking sheet with a silicone mat or parchment paper. On a lightly floured surface, roll the Danish Dough into a 15 x 20-inch rectangle, ¼ inch thick. If the dough seems elastic and shrinks back when rolled, let it rest for a few minutes, then roll again. Place the dough on the baking sheet. Along one long side of the pastry make parallel, 5-inch-long cuts with a knife or rolling pastry wheel, each about 1 inch apart. Repeat on the opposite side, making sure to line up the cuts with those you’ve already made.- Spoon the filling you’ve chosen to fill your braid down the center of the rectangle. Starting with the top and bottom “flaps”, fold the top flap down over the filling to cover. Next, fold the bottom “flap” up to cover filling. This helps keep the braid neat and helps to hold in the filling. Now begin folding the cut side strips of dough over the filling, alternating first left, then right, left, right, until finished. Trim any excess dough and tuck in the ends.

Proofing and Baking – Spray cooking oil onto a piece of plastic wrap, and place over the braid. Proof at room temperature or, if possible, in a controlled 90 degree F environment for about 2 hours, or until doubled in volume and light to the touch. Near the end of proofing, preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Position a rack in the center of the oven. Bake for 10 minutes, then rotate the pan so that the side of the braid previously in the back of the oven is now in the front. Lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees F, and bake about 15-20 minutes more, or until golden brown. Cool and serve the braid either still warm from the oven or at room temperature. The cooled braid can be wrapped airtight and stored in the refrigerator for up to 2 days, or freeze for 1 month.

It’s time to Party!

The Perfect Party Cake

The first thing I thought of upon seeing this month’s Daring Bakers challenge was that it could not have come at a more opportune time. Morven, of Food Art and Random Thoughts chose Dorie Greenspan’s Perfect Party Cake and as luck would have it, I was about to throw a Birthday party for my best friend who had just flown in from Holland. You see, she had already ordered me to make her favourite Chili con Carne and Patacones and we were still debating over the dessert when I discovered our new challenge. We both agreed this was it (and well, I had to make it anyways). How much more fun can you have than a day spent in the kitchen with your best friend, swapping stories, drinking wine and licking buttercream off of the spatula?

Dorie’s cake is scented with lemon zest and the buttercream is brightened with a splash of the juice. Though we were allowed to play around with the flavourings, we both adore lemon and decided to stick to the original recipe for both the cakes and buttercream. Both the cakes and the buttercream were a breeze to whip up – no curdling involved! Though Dorie uses raspberry preserves for her filling, I knew I wanted to make the most of the gloriously ripe Florida strawberries I had on hand. After slicing the cakes in half I began to assemble the masterpiece. I spread a thin layer of strawberry preserves on the bottom layer, followed by the buttercream and slices of fresh strawberries. This was continued until the last layer was set on top and the entire cake was enrobed in the snowy white, glossy buttercream. We then liberally pressed on shredded coconut, stepped back and admired our work. It was done – a masterpiece of a cake stood before us basking in its perfection. But even though she was a sight to behold, being beautiful on the inside is what really matters. So when at last it was time for dessert, we lit the candles and sang the tune and my friend made her wish and blew out the candles.

Coconut debris

She also blew off a good amount of coconut! Hmm…we hadn’t really considered that being an issue but hey, we all had a good chuckle!

The perfect slice

But boy was she beautiful on the inside! The cakes were moist yet fluffy, with the most delicate a crumb – almost dissolving on your tongue. The scent of lemon worked beautifully with the strawberries, balancing their sweetness with a hint of tart. The coconut added a note of the tropics and a slight chew to the texture. It was unanimous – everyone agreed it was indeed the Perfect Party Cake! It is such a versatile recipe that you really can have fun with the flavour pairings. Be sure to check out the Daring Bakers blogroll to see the creativity in action.

Demolished cross-section

Perfect Party Cake – adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours (makes 12 to 14 servings)

Cake:

  • 2 1/4 cups cake flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 ¼ cups whole buttermilk
  • 4 large egg whites
  • 1 ½ cups sugar
  • 2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
  • 1 stick (8 tablespoons or 4 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • ½ teaspoon pure lemon extract

For the Buttercream:

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 4 large egg whites
  • 3 sticks (12 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • ¼ cup fresh lemon juice

For Finishing:

  • 1/2 cup seedless strawberry preserves stirred vigorously or warmed gently until spreadable
  • sliced strawberries
  • 1 1/2 cups sweetened shredded coconut

Centre a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350F. Butter 2 9-inch round cake pans and line the bottom of each pan with a round of buttered parchment or wax paper.

Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. Whisk together the buttermilk and egg whites in a medium bowl. Put the sugar and lemon zest in a mixer bowl or another large bowl and rub them together with your fingers until the sugar is moist and fragrant. Add the butter and working with the paddle or whisk attachment, or with a hand mixer, beat at medium speed for a full 3 minutes, until the butter and sugar are very light. Beat in the extract, then add one third of the flour mixture, still beating on medium speed. Beat in half of the buttermilk-egg mixture, then beat in half of the remaining dry ingredients until incorporated. Add the rest of the buttermilk and eggs beating until the batter is homogeneous, then add the last of the dry ingredients. Finally, give the batter a good 2- minute beating to ensure that it is thoroughly mixed and well aerated. Divide the batter between the two pans and smooth the tops with a rubber spatula. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the cakes are well risen and springy to the touch – a thin knife inserted into the centers should come out clean. Transfer the cakes to cooling racks and cool for about 5 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the cakes, unfold them and peel off the paper liners. Invert and cool to room temperature, right side up.

To Make the Buttercream: Put the sugar and egg whites in a mixer bowl or another large heatproof bowl, fit the bowl over a plan of simmering water and whisk constantly, keeping the mixture over the heat, until it feels hot to the touch, about 3 minutes. The sugar should be dissolved, and the mixture will look like shiny marshmallow cream. Remove the bowl from the heat. Working with the whisk attachment or with a hand mixer, beat the meringue on medium speed until it is cool, about 5 minutes. Switch to the paddle attachment if you have one, and add the butter a stick at a time, beating until smooth. Once all the butter is in, beat in the buttercream on medium-high speed until it is thick and very smooth, 6-10 minutes. During this time the buttercream may curdle or separate – just keep beating and it will come together again. On medium speed, gradually beat in the lemon juice, waiting until each addition is absorbed before adding more. You should have a shiny smooth, velvety, pristine white buttercream. Press a piece of plastic against the surface of the buttercream and set aside briefly.

To Assemble the Cake: Using a sharp serrated knife and a gentle sawing motion, slice each layer horizontally in half. Put one layer cut side up on a cardboard cake round or a cake plate protected by strips of wax or parchment paper. Spread it with one third of the preserves. Cover the jam evenly with a layer of buttercream. Layer the sliced strawberries in concentric circles. Top with another layer, spread with preserves and buttercream and strawberries and then do the same with a third layer. Place the last layer cut side down on top of the cake and use the remaining buttercream to frost the sides and top. Press the coconut shreds into the frosting, patting it gently.

Storing: The cake is best the day it is made, but you can refrigerate it, well covered, for up to two days. Bring it to room temperature before serving. If you want to freeze the cake, slide it into the freezer to set, then wrap it really well – it will keep for up to 2 months in the freezer; defrost it, still wrapped overnight in the refrigerator.

Banana-fana-fo-fana

Banana Bread

I love a fresh banana, truly I do. There is something so satisfying about peeling back the thick, crisp skin only to reveal the pale flesh with a delightgfully creamy texture and natural sweetness. Why is it then, that whenever I succumb to buying a beautiful bunch, they simply while away the time in my fruitbowl? Their perfect complexion slowly deteriorates until the dreaded signs of aging begin to show – brown spots. And it doesn’t stop there. Soon enough, the spots join forces until the entire skin is covered in blackened patches. The once firm, smooth and flawless skin is rendered saggy, wrinkled and blemished. Does this mean that they should be tossed aside for a new bunch of fresh-faced bananas? Most certainly not! Whilst they might not look as pretty as their younger counterparts, their honeyed flesh more than makes up for their sad appearance. The luscious, ripened bananas are destined for glory – in the form of baked goods.

Though I often experiment with other banana-based baked goods, I can always count on my tried and trusted Banana Bread recipe to hit all the right notes. The candied banana flavour pairs exceptionally well with the aromatic cinnamon. Walnuts add an unctuous crunch to an otherwise, moist, delicately crumbed loaf.

Banana Bread

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 4 very ripe bananas
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts plus 5 halves reserved for the top

Preheat the oven to 350F and grease a loaf pan.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt and mix well to combine. In another bowl, cream together the eggs and sugar. Mash the bananas and stir into the egg mixture along with the oil, vanilla and cinnamon. Whisk well to combine. Stir the flour into the egg mixture in thirds, incorporating it well, then mix in the walnuts. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and press the walnut halves in a line into the top. Bake in the center of the oven for 45 minutes to an hour, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

South of the border.

Salmon Tacos
The latest slew of guests have left me now with a heap of laundry and and empty fridge – and of course fond memories of the time we shared. They have also left me with a smattering of dishes just dying to be featured and it is my solemn duty to fulfill their desires. They will naturally have to wait their turn as it’s not polite to cut in line. The archives are starting to get uncomfortably tight and tensions are rising. I fear that if I give some of these new dishes special treatment with an early post (bail) all hell will break loose. These fiesty Salmon Tacos are not happy about the delay in their release date and have been giving me the stink eye all week. So without further ado, I am releasing them into greater society in the hopes that they will behave and reach their full potential of pleasing mass palates.

La Sirena Grille in Laguna Beach, CA serves as the inspiration for these tacos. This tiny take-out shack with only a handful of tables serves up an impressive array high quality and made-to-order Mexican specialties. Their fish tacos and burritos are among my favourites and set the standard for what a top-notch, flavourful and fresh fish taco should be. I must give credit to my brother here for he is the genius who suggested to make fish tacos with my leftovers from Delia Smith’s Salmon with Black Bean Salsa. Let me tell you – these tacos did not compare to La Sirena’s – incredibly they were superior! Over the years I’ve perfected the dish and have come up with my own ‘secret sauce’. Though I prefer the flavour of corn tortillas, my husband swears by flour so we usually have both! Sometimes rather than tacos we’ll make giant, deliciously stuffed burritos. The flavour of these tacos continues to evolve as you chew – earthy, sharp, green, citrusy, bright. The earthiness of cumin, cinnamon and chili powder are elevated by the cilantro, ginger and lime zest. Though there are many strong flavours in this dish they come together in perfect harmony. I guarantee – after just one bite you’ll be transported south of the border sipping your cerveza.

Salmon TacosAdapted from Delia Smith’s Winter Collection

For the Salmon:

  • 4 salmon fillets
  • 3 fat cloves garlic
  • 2 level teaspoons sea salt
  • 1 1/2 inch piece of ginger root, peeled and finely grated
  • grated zest of 2 limes, reserve the juice for the salsa and guacamole
  • a generous pinch of ground cumin
  • a generous pinch of ground cinnamon
  • 2 tbs chopped cilantro leaves
  • 1 tbs olive oil
  • freshly cracked black pepper

With a mortar and pestle, crush the garlic and salt together to form a paste. Add the ginger, lime zest, cinnamon and cumin and mix well. Next add the olive oil, cilantro and a good grind of black pepper. Mix everything together well and spread evenly over each of the fillets. Cover with cling film and allow to marinate for at least half an hour. When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 400F. Bake the salmon on a sheet until just barely cooked through, about 15 to 20 minutes. Flake all of the salmon using a fork and mix together.

For the Black Bean Salsa:

  • 1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 2 to 3 ripe but firm tomatoes, seeded and finely chopped
  • 1 red chilli, seeded and finely chopped
  • a handful of cilantro leaves, finely chopped
  • half of a medium red onion, finely chopped
  • 1 tbs extra virgin olive oil
  • juice of 1 lime (reserved from salmon)
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • a good grind of black pepper

Mix together all of the above ingredients and adjust seasoning if necessary.

For the Guacamole:

  • 2 ripe avocados
  • a handful of cilantro leaves, finely chopped
  • half of a medium red onion, finely chopped
  • juice of 1 lime (reserved from salmon)
  • 1 small garlic clove, minced
  • 2 ripe but firm tomatoes, seeded and finely chopped
  • hot sauce
  • salt and pepper

Scrape the avocado into a medium bowl and mash with the back of a spoon until it is partly pureed but still retains some chunks. Season with salt and pepper, and add the lime juice and garlic. Mix well. Add the tomatoes, onions and cilantro and a couple dashes of hot sauce. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary.

For the Special Sauce:

  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • juice of 1/2 a lime
  • 1/2 tbs chilli powder
  • pinch of salt

Mix all of the ingredients in a small bowl and add more lime juice to adjust consistency. It should drizzle off of the spoon.

To Assemble:

  • Corn or flour tortillas
  • shredded cabbage (undressed coleslaw)

Take a tortilla and spread on a thin layer of guacamole. Next layer on some salmon and top with a spoonful of black bean salsa. Top with cabbage and drizzle with special sauce. Fold it and enjoy with a nice cold beer!

Dare to dream.

Le batard

I tend to dream of the South of France. Rolling hills decorated with neat rows of grape vines, the scent of lavender in the air, the cerulean blue skies with faint puffs of white cotton clouds and the warm touch of the Mediterranean sun upon my skin. And the food…oh how I dream of the food. The array of pungent, oozy cheeses, the pepper-flecked salamis and rough country style pâtés are all perfect accompaniments to the most outstanding baguettes you can lay your hands on. A crisp yet chewy crust gives way to light innards scattered with pockets of air throughout. I have yet to find such a baguette here in the US. They are often doughy and dense with a crumbly crust, a far cry from their French counterparts. So though I dream of walking to the local bakery and picking up a few fresh baguettes for the day in Plan de la Tour, it never occurred to me to attempt to make them at home. It did occur however to Breadchick Mary of The Sour Dough and Sara of I Like to Cook, the hostesses of this months Daring Bakers challenge (be sure to check out the other entries here). And for that, I owe them many thanks!

Upon seeing this months challenge, Julia Child’s French Bread, I took a sharp inhale of breath and held it for what felt like eternity. Countless doubts flitted about in my mind. Would it be possible to succeed in this challenge? A 17 page recipe?! Three rises? A simulated bakers oven? As I slowly let out the air, an immense sense of hope replaced the doubt as I imagined what joys would await me if this challenge would actually produce a bonafide, French baguette.

Though the recipe itself was not difficult, it was extremely time consuming – about a 10-hour process from start to finish. The dough came together in a breeze – soft, round and springy like a baby’s bottom. The time whiled away between the first and second rise. When it came to shaping, I chose to make batards, a slightly shorter cousin of the baguette. I set them in their linen hammocks and allowed them a final rise. I pre-heated the oven with tile stones to bake the bread on. My first snafu came in the slashing of the baguettes – I used a sharp chefs knife, which did not cut through clean, and I think I made the slashes too long rather than three shorter ones. As I placed the baguette in the oven, I didn’t shove it in far enough for there to be space for the others. I didn’t want to risk messing with it so I decided to bake it on its own and then try to bake the other two together – my second snafu. I brushed the dough with water every few minutes and anxiously waited until the timer went off. I opened the oven door and to my delight, there was a gorgeously tanned batard on the other side! It didn’t have the perfect slashes but it looked good enough to me for a first attempt. My next slashing attempt was worse than the first – jagged slits that deflated the batard! I attribute this to the fact that perhaps it was left out too long, and would not have occurred had I baked all batards at once. My second batard closely resembled an alligator’s snout. The third batard I turned into an epi, and to my utter glee, it was perfection! The hardest part then came in the waiting game, a 2-hour stretch of time that dragged on like a high school exam. By the time I was finally able to break bread, it was 10 in the evening! We sliced open the ‘alligator’ batard and served it with a cheese plate. Though the shape was not ideal, the innards were soft and airy, the crust perfectly crisp and chewy and the flavour – it was enough to transport us back to the South of France. I could not believe that here, in my own home, a batard worthy of Plan de la Tour was born!

The recipe can be found here, courtesy of Breadchick Mary!

Baguette and Epi

Flax lyrical.

Bran and Flax Seed Muffin

Not a month goes by without the appearance of a guest or two (or six) at our home. Take this February for example, we have been booked solid! At this point we have had to turn down requests and reschedule them for March, April and beyond. We seem to have become a bonafide Bed ‘n Breakfast – plus lunch and dinner too. It’s flattering really, to know that our hospitatlity and company is so highly regarded. As an added bonus, I have more mouths to feed and therefore more taste-testers! Never one to miss an opportunity to experiment in the kitchen, my stove, oven and mixer have been working overtime to keep up with the demand.

Breakfast during the week is usually a free-for-all since I go to work, but every now and again I like to throw in an element of surprise. This week, my in-laws happily arose to the smell of coffee and freshly baked Bran muffins. My worries that a dozen muffins would be too much were soon eased when only four were left by noon! I adapted this recipe from Gourmet magazine to include the uber-healthy Omega-3 benefits of flax seeds and walnuts. Moist, crunchy and just slightly sweet, these muffins are a delectable and healthy breakfast treat. I find they are best eaten when fresh from the oven – still steaming and aromatic and topped with a tiny dab of salted butter.

Bran and Flax Seed Muffinsadapted from Gourmet Magazine, October 1991
  • 1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 1 large egg, beaten lightly
  • 1 cup Greek yogurt
  • 1/4 cup dark molasses
  • 1/4 cup raisins
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup bran
  • 1/4 cup flax seeds
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
  • 2 tps poppy seeds
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
In a large bowl with an electric mixer cream together the butter and the brown sugar until the mixture is light and fluffy. Next, beat in the egg, the Greek yogurt, and the molasses. Stir in the raisins, flax seeds, poppy seeds and walnuts.
In a bowl whisk together the flour, the baking soda, the salt, and the bran, then add the mixture to the yogurt mixture and stir the batter until it is just combined. (The batter will be lumpy.) Spoon the batter into 12 well-buttered 1/3-cup muffin tins (I used non-greased silicone muffin tins) and bake the muffins in the middle of the oven for 15 to 20 minutes, or until they are golden brown and springy to the touch. Turn the muffins out onto a rack and let them cool.