Herbal Desserts Class with Michael Laiskonis; Musings

March 12th, 2009

Michael Laiskonis is at the forefront of contemporary pastry. He is the executive pastry chef at famed three Michelin starred Le Bernardin in New York, James Beard award winner for Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2007, and was featured on “Iron Chef”, “Martha Stewart Show”, etc. Michael generously documents his experiments in molecular gastronomy and creative processes in a blog, Workbook which is a paragon of excellence, in both thoughtfulness and content. While much of his writing may be orientated towards restaurant professionals, it is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the intersection of science, pastry and art. So when I perused the latest catalog from the ICE and saw he would be teaching this session, I immediately stopped what I was doing and registered for his class (or two!).

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(Left) Michael Laiskonis tempering chocolate; (Right) “les herbes du jour”: basil, tarragon, rosemary and thyme

Admittedly, I write this post with a vague sense of apprehension, conflict, questioning. I feel apprehension over the thought of writing about molecular gastronomy, of which my experience is non-existent. Michael Laiskonis drew molecular diagrams and and presented various percentages or equations for the perfect ice cream, somewhat reminiscent of watching an Alton Brown show. I was simultaneously taken back to chemistry classes at Stuyvesant High School in New York, where I struggled to grasp a scientific concept while secretly marveling at the demos. I feel conflict over the dichotomies of the much-debated role of “molecular gastronomy” in light of my current reading of Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, where the deconstructionism of the modern diet and somewhat anti-science stance seem at odds with this movement of molecular gastronomy (I may get in trouble here and could expound upon this at greater lengths, but will perhaps save this for a later date). And I question the direction of this little blog o’ mine, as really neither a food critic nor professional chef, wondering – is this blog really a reflection of me – what has my life morphed into? At times, I have felt that I am not quite this and not quite that, never really following a predetermined path. Sometimes I just have to remind myself that I am what am, where I am, that I am the cumulation of my experiences, and that is just fine.

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Roasted Pineapple, Sesame Pain de Gênes, Rosemary Ice Cream: I loved this black sesame seed cake with almond paste and can’t wait to try this again on my own. The white rectangles are neutral caramel – a sugary, pineapple dust that fuses to create the ethereal crisp that tops the dessert in the upper left hand photo.

In my experiences taking recreational classes at the ICE, there has always been such a diverse range of students, but there was a roster of more serious students this time, from culinary school graduates to chefs at The Modern, Bouley Bakery and other establishments. I was concerned I might be in over my head, especially after seeing ingredients like trimoline (an invert sugar used to retain moisture), locust bean gum, and glucose atomisé (powder) listed in the recipes.

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Vanilla Parfait, Tarragon Meringue, Grapefruit Sorbet: The green disks are tarragon meringues “baked” in a dehydrator; there was also a separate batch baked on silpats in ovens, but those meringues were more brittle and difficult to work with. The dessert was tart and refreshing, the flavors were so nuanced and refined.

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Greek Yogurt Panna Cotta, Basil Seeds and Foam, Strawberry Pearls, Lemon Purée.

The glassblower in me still holds an affinity for bright, shiny things and translucence, so I was a bit assertive or ambitious in choosing to do the above dessert, which entailed creating strawberry pearls. The ingredients in the pearls included fresh strawberry juice and agar agar (a gelling agent derived from seawood). The salmon roe-resembling pearls certainly have a great ‘ooh’ factor, and are incidentally rather addictive. Another dessert component that resembled caviar, or the black specks on the spoon, was actually basil seeds hydrated in sweetened water.

Part of the appeal of pastry and working with my hands is being immersed in action unfettered by the mind. Taking Michael’s class, however, has been thought provoking, challenging the symbiotic use of the mind and hands. What I take away from this class will remain to be seen – sometimes there is a potential disconnect between knowledge and experience, in that knowledge and ideas can get ahead of your hands…And sometimes knowledge inspires, and forces development.

For more about Michael Laiskonis, visit his blog.

Pichet Ong’s Carrot Cake with Lime Cream Cheese Frosting

February 18th, 2009

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This is going to be a quick “cook the book” post. I am all for incorporating vegetables into cakes, be it zucchini, sweet potatoes, or in this case, carrots. On an whim, I purchased a juicer not too long ago and would like to incorporate the pulp of my fruits and veggies into a cake some time. If anyone has recipes for this, please do drop a note!

Anyway, I went home for my dad’s birthday, and rather than making a vegan cake for him as I have done in the past, I tried a carrot cake from Pichet Ong’s The Sweet Spot. This recipe calls for canola oil in addition to butter in the batter. The frosting has some cream cheese, sour cream and lime zest in it, and prior to spreading it, the cake is sprinkled with rum-soaked raisins. I decorated the top with carrot slivers soaked in a sugar water syrup for a very rustic look.

i heart chocolate and ginger…and valentine’s wishes

February 10th, 2009

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Phew! I was in quite a bit of a baking frenzy this weekend, preparing these cake bites for a recent Arts to Grow charity event.  With refrigeration and transportation being a concern, I ultimately decided upon chocolate raspberry ginger cake bites which are dipped in dark chocolate, and dusted with gilded cocoa nibs and crystallized ginger slivers. The event was also Valentine’s Day themed, which also influenced by decision.

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Up to my eyeballs in cake bites! Two of three boxes pictured here.

These were a lot of fun and the sheer quantity was a great challenge, but most importantly, I’m happy to have contributed out a great cause, namely children’s arts programs in New York City. For more info or to donate on the program, click here.

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Happy Valentine’s Day!!

January Daring Bakers Challenge

January 29th, 2009

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Has it been a month already since the last challenge? Time seems to have passed so quickly, yet the yule log and the holidays associated with it seem at once long gone…I’ve been a bit preoccupied with time lately (the recent season premiere of LOST has something to do with it, no doubt), or just preoccupied in general, perhaps. I had visions of “Rock Band” inspired guitar tuiles that never materialized thanks to various projects I’ve got going on, but oh well…

January’s Daring Bakers challenge was all about keeping it light. A tuile, either sweet or savory, or nougatine, were all options this month. Inspired by my recent class with Johnny Iuzzini, I decided to recreate certain elements from the class, partly to see if I could indeed successfuly execute the recipes again. This month, I made peanut nougatine with rum and coke ice cream, and caramelized bananas flambeed with rum.

I tried two shapes for the nougatine – one free form and one cut out in circles. I did not want my nougatine to be too dense, so I chopped the peanuts instead of keeping it whole or halved. They were still a bit dense after introducing the caramelized sugar, so I manually stretched the nougatine to intentionally create holes or a lighter effect. The bananas were caramelized and flambeed with a bit of rum, and the rum was further emphasized in the rum and coke ice cream. Incidentally, the recipes for the caramelized bananas and ice cream are available in Iuzzini’s new book, Dessert Fourplay.

This month’s challenge is brought to us by Karen of Bake My Day and Zorra of 1x umruehren bitte aka Kochtopf. They have chosen Tuiles from The Chocolate Book by Angélique Schmeink and Nougatine and Chocolate Tuiles from Michel Roux.

Desserts Class with Johnny Iuzzini from Jean Georges

January 21st, 2009

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Johnny Iuzzini teaches students to “respect the curves of the fruit”

ICE‘s catalogue has some choice offerings this session, including (but definitely not limited to!) classes with chef Michael Laiskonis from Le Bernardin, and this recent class I took with Johnny Iuzzini from Jean Georges restaurant. Iuzzini is a James Beard award winner for Outstanding Pastry Chef of the Year, and has trained with Francois Payard, Pierre Herme, among others. He’s also made TV appearances on Paula’s Party, Top Chef as a quickfire challenge judge, Martha Stewart and, oh yeah, also happened to be twice voted NY’s sexiest chef in a Daily News poll. Iuzzini’s book, provocatively entitled Dessert Fourplay, has just been released, so the desserts in the class were based on his book.

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Iuzzini is quite a rock star in the pastry world, so I was a bit starstruck meeting him and some members of his team at Jean Georges, who were on hand to assist students throughout the class (they were all so great and helpful, by the way!). I just got a new camera lens a few days prior to the class which I am not yet accustomed to, so I feverishly snapped away throughout class hoping to get a few decent, in-focus shots – in between chopping fruit, piping cake batter, flambeeing bananas, etc.

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Various stages of creating the Polenta-Pineapple Cake, from caramelizing sugar, filling with pineapple and piping cake batter; akin to creating flan or an upside down cake.

Chef discussed his dessert quartet concept used at Jean Georges, or how a single element is carried out in a complementary plating of four mini desserts. We would be working in teams to create the numerous components to ultimately plate our own “fourplay” (har, har).

I really liked this peanut phyllo crisp, for example, with a peanut flour/sugar layer, which was later used to garnish one part of the quartet. After an initial baking, a layer of confectioner’s sugar is dusted and the phyllo crisp is reheated, allowing the sugar to caramelize (though unevenly in the second photo below – you want to avoid that). This creates a delicate, flaky crisp, which is later broken into shards and used for garnish.

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Peanut phyllo crisp

One of the other quartet components was the flambeed bananas with rum and coke ice cream, which Iuzzini is demonstrating below.

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Fire and Ice: flambeed bananas and rum and coke ice cream quenelle

After working in groups the whole night, we each had the opportunity to plate our own desserts. Here’s Iuzzini’s plated demo. I loved the way he balanced and delicately offset the quenelles atop the phyllo crisp/bananas. He also created carrot foam using fresh carrot juice and an immersion blender.

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Clockwise from left: Chef Iuzzini’s plated demo of pain perdu (brioche French toast) with cream cheese ice cream and papaya lime compote, pineapple polenta cake with pineapple spice sauce, mango lhassi with diced fruits and carrot foam, flambeed bananas with rum and coke ice cream, peanut phyllo crisp and caramelized peanuts.

Wow, I hadn’t realized all that we accomplished in class until I just detailed all the components in that lengthy description. The class was really well-orchestrated in this respect. Also, while the components are certainly numerous, none were especially difficult. We were all left to plate our own arrangements using the desserts we created in class.

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My plating arrangement with overfilled lhassi, deflated carrot foam, half-assed melting quenelle, sans specialized, compartmentalized Jean Georges dinnerware.

In perusing my copy of Iuzzini’s Dessert Fourplay, I’m quite surprised by the relative accessibility of the recipes. Though I haven’t tried them yet outside of class, I think they would appeal to a wide range of pastry cooks. The recipes and flavor combinations are really quite compelling and I imagine this will be a great go-to book. I particularly like how each of various elements of the quartets can really stand on their own, should the idea of creating four mini desserts at once be daunting, as I imagine it would be to many. Also, the desserts are beautifully photographed, which is always appreciated.

My one minor complaint was that I wish there were a little more of a color contrast in the final dessert – but this is more of a personal photography issue (though the photo of the same dessert in the book is quite stunning). Class was a blast and the mere hours spent there were inspiring, edifying. Iuzzini was a really charismatic, generous and playful instructor, even poking fun at students who burnt their caramelized sugar (tsk, tsk). Good times!

fortunately, not a fluke…

January 6th, 2009

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I tried making another batch of macarons, this time adding some matcha powder, just to see if my last successful attempt was a fluke. I was relieved when the feet came out again! Hopefully, I’m starting to get the hang of this and am developing the fundamentals upon which to build.

finally it happened to me…

January 2nd, 2009

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I’m talking about macarons!

Emboldened by my recent success with the French Yule Log (and needing something to do quite a bit of leftover egg whites), I decided to try my luck once again with the humble macaron. I’ve tried making green tea and chocolate macarons before with mixed success. They certainly met the requisite “tasty” factor, but fell short in the “pretty” aspect. Namely, they were lacking the frilly feet so coveted by macaron makers. Well, with expectations low, I tried a basic recipe for practice and lo and behold…a New Year’s gift…success!

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These macarons are filled with praline whipped cream (again, ingredients from my last Daring Baker’s challenge).
This time, I decided to plop myself in front of the oven window and watch the whole baking process (it only took just over 10 minutes), so I determined that the most critical factor that had been throwing me off was the oven temperature. I’ve been bemoaning the oven that came with our condo ever since we moved in and the temperature fluctuations and their effect on the little feet became quite apparent during my observation. It was an illuminating discovery. I haven’t had problems with larger cakes, but little macarons are quite the sensitive little things. Hopefully, I’ll get a convection oven one day.

I should also note that I was able to determine this by piping two sheets of macarons. I decided to hold off on baking the second sheet until after I made the first one. The first sheet was not as successful. The oven was too hot and the tops cracked, but the ones towards the front of the oven came out fine with frilly feet, leading me to believe the temperature (where the front of the oven is cooler) was the culprit. I know about oven hot spots from working with glass, and there were certain tests you could do to determine their exact locations by suspending glass rods across the annealer to see where the rods were sagging. Perhaps I should try a comparable experiment with my oven!

I also tried something I had read about – to place one sheet on top of the other to prevent the bottom from getting too hot. That is also likely a factor in the success of the second batch. Anyway, these were my personal notes. I guess no matter how much you read about making macarons, it’s just a matter of actually making them and developing your own experiences. For me the most interesting thing about this process was developing an increased awareness of heat. Anyway, I’m happy the year is off to a good start!

Buche de Noel and Happy New Year!

December 30th, 2008

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I was very happy with the selection of this month’s Daring Baker’s challenge. I’ve made the traditional yule log cakes before with a genoise that is rolled up and I’ve been wanting to try the more modern French style cakes which I saw everywhere in Paris last winter. The challenge cake is comprised of an almond dacquoise, chocolate mousse, praline crisp, creme brulee, ganache, and chocolate glaze.

I’m going to keep this short and sweet. I’m once again down to the wire, as I’m preparing for a party tomorrow, where I’m presenting this lovely cake. Hopefully I can write a bit more…erm, after the New Year? Yikes. I pretty much followed the given recipe exactly, but incorporated a bit more orange essence, by infusing the creme brulee insert with orange rind and vanilla, using orange chocolate for the praline crisp, and grand marnier in the ganache.

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This month’s challenge is brought to us by the adventurous Hilda from Saffron and Blueberry and Marion from Il en Faut Peu Pour Etre Heureux. They have chosen a French Yule Log by Flore from Florilege Gourmand.

Thank you for a wonderful, challenging challenge!

Happy New Year to all and best wishes for a wonderful 2009!!

Tiered Caramel Cakes with Caramelized Ginger Butter Frosting

November 29th, 2008

After hosting a hectic Thanksgiving gathering, I erm, didn’t get to complete this challenge until today. I wasn’t sure I could find the time or the room in my stomach, but I couldn’t skip a cake challenge! November’s challenge, caramel cake with caramelized butter frosting, comes from Shuna Fish Lydon, from Eggbeater and the original recipe is posted here. The cake was made following her recipe exactly, but after reading about some Daring Bakers complaining about the overly sweet nature of the frosting, I added ground ginger and a bit of cinnamon to the frosting.

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I decided to go with a stacked mini cake this time, well, just because. Now, I underestimated the difficulty of this mini cake. I found it a much more painstaking process to frost these little babies as opposed to a larger cake because you don’t have the weight of the cake to anchor it as you frost. Well, I had to see my idea it to its completion, so I stuck with it.

Admittedly, my mini cake resembled a wedding cake. My wedding anniversary has passed, so we found some other friends who were celebrating their anniversary. In case you don’t know who they are, they are Moomins, adorable and adventurous Finnish characters from books my husband grew up reading.

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CARAMEL CAKE WITH CARAMELIZED BUTTER FROSTING

10 Tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature
1 1/4 Cups granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 Cup Caramel Syrup (see recipe below)
2 each eggs, at room temperature
splash vanilla extract
2 Cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup milk, at room temperature

Preheat oven to 350F

Butter one tall (2 – 2.5 inch deep) 9-inch cake pan.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream butter until smooth. Add sugar and salt & cream until light and fluffy.

Slowly pour room temperature caramel syrup into bowl. Scrape down bowl and increase speed. Add eggs/vanilla extract a little at a time, mixing well after each addition. Scrape down bowl again, beat mixture until light and uniform.

Sift flour and baking powder.

Turn mixer to lowest speed, and add one third of the dry ingredients. When incorporated, add half of the milk, a little at a time. Add another third of the dry ingredients, then the other half of the milk and finish with the dry ingredients. Take off mixer and by hand, use a spatula to do a few last folds, making sure batter is uniform. Turn batter into prepared cake pan.

Place cake pan on cookie sheet or 1/2 sheet pan. Set first timer for 30 minutes, rotate pan and set timer for another 15-20 minutes. Your own oven will set the pace. Bake until sides pull away from the pan and skewer inserted in middle comes out clean. Cool cake completely before icing it.

Cake will keep for three days outside of the refrigerator.

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caramel syrup (though probably darker than it should be)

CARAMEL SYRUP

2 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
1 cup water (for “stopping” the caramelization process)
In a small stainless steel saucepan, with tall sides, mix water and sugar until mixture feels like wet sand. Brush down any stray sugar crystals with wet pastry brush. Turn on heat to highest flame. Cook until smoking slightly: dark amber.

When color is achieved, very carefully pour in one cup of water. Caramel will jump and sputter about! It is very dangerous, so have long sleeves on and be prepared to step back.

Whisk over medium heat until it has reduced slightly and feels sticky between two fingers. {Obviously wait for it to cool on a spoon before touching it.}

Note: For safety reasons, have ready a bowl of ice water to plunge your hands into if any caramel should land on your skin.

CARAMELIZED BUTTER FROSTING

12 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 pound confectioner’s sugar, sifted
4-6 tablespoons heavy cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2-4 tablespoons caramel syrup
Kosher or sea salt to taste

Cook butter until brown. Pour through a fine meshed sieve into a heatproof bowl, set aside to cool.

Pour cooled brown butter into mixer bowl.

In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle or whisk attachment, add confectioner’s sugar a little at a time. When mixture looks too chunky to take any more, add a bit of cream and or caramel syrup. Repeat until mixture looks smooth and all confectioner’s sugar has been incorporated. Add salt to taste.

Note: Caramelized butter frosting will keep in fridge for up to a month.
To smooth out from cold, microwave a bit, then mix with paddle attachment until smooth and light

Thank you Dolores from Chronicles in Culinary Curiosity, Alex from Brownie of the Blondie and Brownie and Jenny from Foray into Food for hosting this month’s challenge. To see what other Daring Bakers have come up with this month, please visit the Daring Bakers site.

Culinary Demos from the Chocolate Show

November 12th, 2008

I’m still getting over my sugar rush from this weekend’s 11th Annual Chocolate Show. Now that the chocolate dust has settled a bit, I wanted to post some pics from the culinary demonstrations. Some might regard the demos as secondary to all the chocolate samples from the show, but personally, I think they are valuable experiences in themselves. And you get desserts at the end!

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Pictured above are François Payard and his domed layer cake with chocolate ruffles. I caught the tail end of this demo so unfortunately, I’m not sure what the actual creation was. The recipes from the show are supposed to be up on the Chocolate Show site soon.

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Jacques Torres is always a popular attraction. Here he is making a chocolate bowl, dipping a balloon in chocolate in a tulip-like pattern to create the bowls pictured below. They were filled with a chocolate sauce and chocolate caramel popcorn. The man works with such lightning speed, he also demonstrated this tiered chocolate cone with two-toned shortbread cookies. (Pieces were assembled beforehand, of course, but I’m still in awe over what he accomplished in under an hour.)

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On Sunday, a representative from the Italy based Amedei presented a guided tasting of some of their chocolates. Amedei is regarded as some of the best chocolates in the world, and is relatively difficult to find in the US. It was created by quality-obsessed brother-sister team Alessio and Cecilia Tessieri, with Alessio scouring the earth to source the best cacao and Cecilia creating the chocolate.

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We were instructed on the proper way of tasting chocolate: 1. Look at the piece -the color should be uniform with no trace of grey, or cocoa butter separation 2. Snap – there should be a sharp snap. 3. Smell the aroma. 4. Taste

Some of the aromas/tastes evoked from the various chocolates were tobacco, green tea, forest, exotic fruits, spices, nuts, etc. The Madagascar chocolates are one of Amedei’s more exotic types, with traces of minerals from the volcanic soil from which the cocoa is grown.

Another highlight was watching Rich Capizzi from Bouchon Bakery and famed restaurant Per Se. He demonstrated an uber-sophisticated “Chocolate S’mores” dish. In the photo below, he is making marshmallows and gauging the temperature of the boiled sugar by dipping his hand in cold water, and then into the melted sugar which he rolled into a ball to test its pliability. I think I’ll just use a thermometer, thank you.

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Rich brough a very generous sampling of five of Bouchon Bakery’s cookies: Nutter Butters, TKO’s (Thomas Keller Oreos), Oatmeal, Shortbread, and Chocolate Chip. (It wasn’t until we were halfway into the cookies that I remembered to take photos, as you can see.)

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Afterwards, we sampled the exotic s’mores plated dessert. There are several components here including a chocolate brownie, graham cracker crunch, marshmallow, chocolate cremeux shaped into quenelle and dipped in “magic crack” or chocolate shell, cocoa nib coulis, and chocolate emulsion. Phew – I hope I got it all. I’d say the cost of the desserts we sampled in this demo alone were equivalent if not more than the entrance fee to the Chocolate Show.

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I also managed to squeeze in one more demo from Kate Zuckerman from Chanterelle restaurant in New York, and author of The Sweet Life. Kate demonstrated a chocolate caramel tart with crushed caramel decorations.

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A very edifying and inspiring show! Now that I’m about armed with all this new found knowledge and inspiration, I’ve got to make use of the ahem, over 20 pounds of couverture that I purchased from the show…