Saturday, February 28, 2009

Flourless chocolate Valentino cake with raspberry cream and vanilla bean ice cream - Daring Baker's Challenge

Of course, for Valentine's Day you have to have chocolate! And what could be more chocolatey and more Valentine's Day-ey than a super-rich flourless chocolate cake, baked into a heart shape and served with a heaping spoonful of pink raspberry cream and homemade vanilla bean ice cream?

Not too much, I think!

The February 2009 challenge is hosted by Wendy of WMPE's blog and Dharm of Dad ~ Baker & Chef.
We have chosen a Chocolate Valentino cake by Chef Wan; a Vanilla Ice Cream recipe from Dharm and a Vanilla Ice Cream recipe from Wendy as the challenge.

The challenge actually allowed you to make any kind of ice cream you wanted. However, due to the richness of the cake (it's just chocolate, butter, and eggs - mostly chocolate), I really couldn't bring myself to make anything other than vanilla ice cream. It was my first time making my own ice cream and it turned out fabulous, probably thanks to the usage of a real vanilla bean. In any case, now that I know I can make good ice cream without an ice cream maker I will certainly be making more once warmer weather arrives!

As for the cake, I decided to make two kinds - one with 70% Valrhona chocolate and one with 40% Valrhona chocolate. While the 40% cakes were pretty good, the 70% cakes were heavenly. Dense and moist and rich and soooo indulgent. Yum! If I were to make this again, I would definitely skip the 40% chocolate and just use the extra-dark chocolate.

I found some adorable little heart-shaped springform pans at Sur la Table and used them to make 4 little cakelets. My original plan had been to slice each cakelet into two and then layer them so that one half would be dark chocolate and one half would be not-so-dark chocolate, with raspberry filling in between and some more raspberry cream on top.

Unfortunately, the first little cakelet crumbled at my attempt to slice it so I had to give up on that idea and ended up mixing all my raspberry filling with the whipped cream to get a gigantic bowlful of bright pink cream, of which I used maybe a quarter... maybe.

However, everything tasted delicious, and even though Valentine's Day is long since past, if you want to show someone you really love them, this cake is a perfect way to do it!

Chocolate Valentino
Preparation Time: 20 minutes

16 ounces (1 pound) (454 grams) of semisweet chocolate, roughly chopped
½ cup (1 stick) plus 2 tablespoons (146 grams total) of unsalted butter
5 large eggs separated*

* I actually only made 4/5 of the recipe, after performing some complicated geometrical calculations involving my heart-shaped pans. For those who want to do so, the amounts are roughly:
120 g. butter
360 g. chocolate (or, when using 2 types of chocolate, 180 g. of each kind)
4 eggs

1. Put chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl and set over a pan of simmering water (the bottom of the bowl should not touch the water) and melt, stirring often.
2. While your chocolate butter mixture is cooling. Butter your pan and line with a parchment circle then butter the parchment.
3. Separate the egg yolks from the egg whites and put into two medium/large bowls.
4. Whip the egg whites in a medium/large grease free bowl until stiff peaks are formed (do not over-whip or the cake will be dry).
5. With the same beater beat the egg yolks together.
6. Add the egg yolks to the cooled chocolate.
7. Fold in 1/3 of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture and follow with remaining 2/3rds. Fold until no white remains without deflating the batter.
8. Pour batter into prepared pan, the batter should fill the pan 3/4 of the way full, and bake at 375F/190C
9. Bake for 25 minutes until an instant read thermometer reads 140F/60C.
Note – If you do not have an instant read thermometer, the top of the cake will look similar to a brownie and a cake tester will appear wet.
10. Cool cake on a rack for 10 minutes then unmold.

As for the vanilla ice cream, I mostly used Dharm's recipe, with a few variations. Namely: I did not add cornstarch because I didn't see a need for it, I strained the custard to get rid of clumps, and I did not whip the cream before adding it in because I wanted my ice cream to be as thick and creamy as possible - I am used to Italian gelato and don't want any airy, light ice cream! Here's the recipe, with notes on my variations.

Dharm's Ice Cream Recipe
Classic Vanilla Ice Cream
Preparation Time: 30 minutes

Recipe comes from the Ice Cream Book by Joanna Farrow and Sara Lewis (tested modifications and notes in parentheses by Dharm) further modifications by me in purple

1 Vanilla Pod (or substitute with vanilla extract) *You can substitute with vanilla extract if you realllly have to, but using a real vanilla bean makes a huge difference. As my Mom said, after you eat this you sort of recognize why other vanilla ice creams are called vanilla, but their flavor simply pales in comparison!
300ml / ½ pint / 1 ¼ cups Semi Skimmed Milk – in the U.S. this is 2% fat (or use fresh full fat milk that is pasteurised and homogenised {as opposed to canned or powdered}). Dharm used whole milk. *I also used whole milk
4 large egg yolks
75g / 3oz / 6 tbsp caster sugar {superfine sugar can be achieved in a food processor or use regular granulated sugar}
5ml / 1 tsp corn flour {cornstarch} *Left out without encountering any significant problems
300ml / ½ pint / 1 ¼ cups Double Cream (48% butter fat) {in the U.S. heavy cream is 37% fat)
{you can easily increase your cream's fat content by heating 1/4 cup of heavy cream with 3 Tbs of butter until melted - cool to room temperature and add to the heavy cream as soon as whisk marks appear in the cream, in a slow steady stream, with the mixer on low speed. Raise speed and continue whipping the cream) or use heavy cream the difference will be in the creaminess of the ice cream. *I just used the heavy cream as I couldn't find any double cream. Like I said, I didn't whip it to make the ice cream denser and creamier, but I'm sure that had I been able to find double cream, it would have been even better!

1. Using a small knife slit the vanilla pod lengthways. Pour the milk into a heavy based saucepan, add the vanilla pod and bring to the boil. Remove from heat and leave for 15 minutes to allow the flavours to infuse
Lift the vanilla pod up. Holding it over the pan, scrape the black seeds out of the pod with a small knife so that they fall back into the milk. SET the vanilla pod aside and bring the milk back to the boil.

2. Whisk the egg yolks, sugar and corn-flour in a bowl until the mixture is thick and foamy. 3. Gradually pour in the hot milk, whisking constantly. Return the mixture to the pan and cook over a gentle hear, stirring all the time
4. When the custard thickens and is smooth, pour it back into the bowl. Cool it then chill. *At this point, I strained the custard to get rid of any lumps
5. By Hand: Whip the cream until it has thickened but still falls from a spoon. Fold it into the custard and pour into a plastic tub or similar freeze-proof container. Freeze for 6 hours or until firm enough to scoop, beating it twice (during the freezing process – to get smoother ice cream or else the ice cream will be icy and coarse) *I did not whip the cream and just mixed it in. I also beat the ice cream more than twice while it was freezing - I tried to beat it every half hour for the first 2 hours and after that I think I beat it 2 or 3 more times before the 6 hours were up.
By Using and Ice Cream Maker: Stir the cream into the custard and churn the mixture until thick (follow instructions on your ice cream maker)

For the raspberry cream, I strained a package of frozen raspberries through a sieve, mixed with lemon juice, sugar, and some cornstarch, brought to a boil and then let cool while stirring with a whisk. Once the mixture was cool, I whipped up some cream and stirred in the raspberry mixture. Very simple, and very pink!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Milanese-style asparagus (asparagi alla milanese)

The asparagus have arrived!! I know it's only February, and it's still gray and rainy (at least on some days), but to my mind Spring begins the same day those wonderful cylindrical bunches of asparagus stalks start appearing at the markets, and this past Sunday there they were!

Of course, the stand with asparagus was all the way down at the end of the market, so by the time I saw it, I had already loaded up my shopping bag with various wintery vegetables - spinach, arugula, etc. But as soon as I saw the asparagus, I knew I had to have some and I simply could not wait another week.

Then of course, I had to figure out how to prepare them. Though my first ideas were to make an asparagus risotto or perhaps a frittata, I felt that since these are the first asparagus of the year, I really shouldn't chop them up and serve them all mixed up with other things; I needed a dish where the asparagus played the starring role - something simple enough to let the flavor and texture of the asparagus shine through and yet also satisfying enough to make up a meal. A quick internet search brought me to this dish - asparagi alla milanese - which fit all my requirements, made quite a dramatic display on the plate, and tasted absolutely wonderful in this cold, wet, not-quite-Spring weather.

1 bunch of asparagus (about 20 stalks - serves 4 people as a side and 2 as a main dish)
Eggs, roughly 1 every 7 stalks - I only used one for 10 stalks, but that was because eggs don't come in halves
30-50 g of butter
Lots and lots of good parmesan

In general, when you see "alla milanese" in the name of a dish, it means the dish involves high quantities of butter, lots of frying, or both! Recipes for this dish varied in their recommendations on how much butter to use, but most called for significantly more butter than I used - about 100 g or so. You can use more or less, depending on how rich you want this to be.

Fill a large pot with water up to about 3/4 the height of your asparagus stalks (hopefully, your asparagus are all roughly the same height and width - otherwise they will cook at different speeds which will result in some being either undercooked or overcooked). Bring the water to a boil. While the water is heating, wash the asparagus and chop off the bottoms, so that the most fibrous parts are removed.

When the water starts to boil, add salt and then the asparagus, leaving the tips above the level of the water, so they won't cook too fast.

The asparagus should cook until tender, about 20 minutes. Keep an eye on them as they're cooking to make sure the tips stay above the water, and check them every so often for doneness - you definitely don't want to overcook them!

Once the asparagus are done, remove them from the water and lay them in bunches on your serving plates. Grate the parmesan over the asparagus stalks, making sure to cover them in great heaps of it!

Place the butter in a frying pan and heat the pan. When the pan is hot, crack the eggs directly into it, so that the yolk stays intact as it fries (in Italian this is called making an egg all'occhio di bue - like an ox-eye). Make sure to fry only as many eggs at a time as will fit in your pan - if necessary, fry the eggs in batches.

When the egg white has set and the yolk is still soft, use a spatula to slide the egg from the pan onto the asparagus so that it covers the roots, like a little blanket. Do this for all your bunches of asparagus, and then drizzle them with any butter left in the frying pan.

Serve immediately with some bread to mop up the plate.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Fennel and orange salad with black olives and pearl couscous

At its most basic, this salad is a simple mix of fennel and orange slices drizzled in olive oil and served with a bit of salt and pepper. The combination of fennel and orange is delightful and quite different from your usual salad flavors.

Because I wanted to make this salad a main meal and not just a side to something else, I decided to liven it up with some olives and sweet onions. I added a hearty batch of pearl couscous (also called Israeli couscous or Lebanese couscous), which is quickly becoming one of my favorite grains, and voilà - a wonderful Winter salad that makes a nice contrast to all the soups and stews and other hearty fare that's generally on the table at this time of year!

Fennel is another one of those vegetables that I had never even heard of, let alone tasted, until I went to Italy. In Italy however, fennel is everywhere, and though I don't think I ever actually ate any fennel while I was there, I did become a big fan of fennel tea.

Fennel has a lovely anise flavor that mixes perfectly with the sweet, very slight tartness of oranges. Though I could only find baby fennel at the market this week, the salad is usually made with full, grown-up fennel. It is supposedly of Sicilian origin, though I've also read that the salad, or at least something very similar, is a traditional Greek food. In any case, it's delicious and I'm sure you can come up with lots of interesting variations on it, should you so desire.

1 bulb of fennel
2 smallish oranges or 1 large orange
2 green onions or 1 red onion
A handful of kalamata olives
100 g pearl couscous
Olive oil

Fill a small saucepan with about a cup of water and bring to a boil. When the water is boiling, turn the heat off and add the pearl couscous. Cover the pot and let sit while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Wash the fennel, chop off the very bottom, and trim off the leaves, reserving some to garnish. Chop the onions into medium-thick slices. Rinse the olives and pit them if necessary by crushing them with the flat side of a knife.

Combine the fennel, onions, and olives in a large bowl. Peel the orange(s) over a bowl to catch their juices and divide them into sections.

When the pearl couscous has absorbed all the water (takes about 10 minutes), fluff it with a fork and add it to the fennel, onions, and olives. Combine the orange juice (hopefully you'll have at least a couple spoonfuls - if not consider adding a bit more, or alternatively, use some lemon juice) with a spoonful or two of olive oil. Drizzle the olive oil and orange juice over the salad, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and stir well to combine.

Spoon the salad into your serving dishes, then add the orange slices and finally, garnish with the reserved fennel leaves.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Risotto alla Milanese

This is the quintessential Milanese dish and, you might also say, the quintessential risotto!

For me, it typifies the cuisine of Northern Italy perfectly - rich, creamy, simple to make, and delicious to eat! Risotto is especially common in Lombardia, as the short-grained rice used to make it grows well around the Po valley. Be sure to get high quality (Italian if possible) rice for this - Arborio and Vallone are two good brands that I know of.

Though it's probably little more than legend, there is a nice story about the origins of this dish. The story varies a bit from one source to the next, but in essence, it claims that risotto alla milanese was invented towards the end of the 16th century, when a Dutch stained-glass artist working on the windows of Milan's Duomo (cathedral) added some of the saffron he used for coloring the glass to his risotto. Several accounts say the bright yellow risotto was served to guests at a wedding, perhaps the artist's daughter's, in order to impress them. Another version says simply that the artist was eating his lunch up on the ladder where he was working and some saffron fell in, coloring his rice with its signature hue. This seems a little more far-fetched to me, but in any case, whatever its origin, there is no doubt that this classic risotto is a delight to both the eyes and the stomach!

Ingredients (for 2 large servings):
150 g short-grained white rice (I used Arborio)
One small yellow onion
30-50 g butter, depending on how rich you want the risotto to be
Beef broth
A half-glass of white wine
Saffron powder or threads
A generous quantity of freshly-grated parmesan

Like many Italian dishes, this dish really requires that you use top-quality ingredients (except for maybe the wine). If you substitute a bouillon cube for the broth, it will definitely show. I strongly recommend using real broth; if you can't buy any, it's very simple to make your own - just throw a marrow bone into a pot of water along with a carrot, an onion, a stalk of celery and some spices, bring the water to a boil and let simmer for an hour or two. When the broth is done, strain out the pieces of vegetable and the bone and freeze whatever you don't use in the next few days. If you freeze the broth in small tins, you can then put those frozen broth-cakes into plastic freezer bags and simply take them out of the freezer as you need them - they'll last for months.

As for the saffron, I used threads and ground them up with my mortar and pestle, but already-ground saffron works just as well. Though I doubt anyone uses them anymore, if you happen to have actual saffron petals, make sure to add them about 2/3 of the way through the cooking, instead of at the end.

One final note about ingredients - many recipes actually call for both butter and ox marrow. As I don't generally have much ox marrow around the house, I just use butter, but if you do have some, then by all means go ahead and use it!

Dice the onion and heat a large sauté pan. While the pan is heating, put the broth in a smaller saucepan and heat that too.

Once the sauté pan is hot, add 3/4 of the butter (or butter + ox marrow) and then add the onions. Sauté the onions until tender and then add in the rice. Mix the rice around until it's fully coated with butter and then pour in the white wine. Let the wine evaporate; meanwhile your broth should be coming to a boil. If the broth starts boiling before the wine has fully evaporated, simply turn the heat off and cover the saucepan so the broth will stay hot.

Once the wine has evaporated, add a bit of the broth, stirring to combine. Continue to add broth a bit at a time, making sure not to let the rice dry out. Reserve a bit of broth and add the saffron to this.

Once the rice has absorbed all but the last bit of broth, add the last bit of saffron-infused broth and stir well so that the risotto turns a bright yellow. Just before serving, add in the rest of the butter and the parmesan. Mix well and serve warm. I've seen this risotto served with bits of sausage added in which makes it even more indulgent and also very tasty!

As an homage to the city of risotto alla milanese, below is a picture of the Duomo di Milano and also a picture of one of its stained glass windows - perhaps the same window whose saffron yellow colored the very first plate of risotto alla milanese!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Toasted bread with pecorino and honey

Sharp pecorino sardo and sweet honey complement each other in this super-tasty toast - a perfect snack for a cold, wet afternoon.

I got the idea of pairing pecorino with honey from a friend of mine who in turn got it from a friend of his, who said the combination was incredible. Unfortunately, this friend couldn't remember what kind of pecorino to use and so I had to do some experimenting to figure out which one went best.

There are 4 main types of pecorino that I'm aware of (pecora, by the way, means 'sheep' in Italian and unsurprisingly, pecorino is made from ewe's milk, which is higher in fat than cow's milk, thus giving the cheese a delightfully creamy texture when it's soft, and a rich flavor both when it's soft and fresh and when it's aged and hard). The two most common types of pecorino are Pecorino Romano, which is well-aged, sharp, and generally used in a manner similar to parmesan (grated over things, etc.); and Pecorino Toscano, which is usually not aged a very long time and is much softer and sweeter than Pecorino Romano. This kind of pecorino works well in sandwiches.

Pecorino Sardo

The other two types are Pecorino Siciliano and Pecorino Sardo. I have never tried the Pecorino Siciliano, but the Pecorino Sardo is similar to Pecorino Romano - just a bit less sharp - and it seems to work the best for this recipe. The Pecorino Romano tends to be too hard and burns easily, while the Pecorino Toscano is not as sharp and so doesn't complement the honey as nicely. The addition of the bread was my own idea, because what dish cannot be improved by good bread?

If you have a toaster oven, just use that, but if you are without one, you can toast the bread under the broiler of your oven. Turn the heat up very high and be sure not to let the bread sit in there too long - about a minute is all you need; any more time and it will burn.

Not-too-thick slices of good crusty bread. This is a great use for bread that's about to go stale and won't work for sandwiches anymore.
Pecorino sardo

Turn the broiler on your oven to high, or alternatively, preheat your toaster oven. Place some aluminum foil on a baking sheet/toaster tray and place the bread on it. Cut the pecorino into thin slices and cover the bread with the pecorino.

Put the bread into the oven or toaster oven and let cook about a minute. Do not overcook or you will get burnt toast and wasted pecorino!

Remove from oven and spread honey evenly over the toast. Eat right away!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Besan roti (Indian chickpea flour bread)

This must be the simplest and easiest bread I've ever made. I was a bit worried about the fact that no salt is used in this recipe, but the chickpea and whole wheat flours add enough flavor to make up for that, and the bread is a great and quick-to-make accompaniment to a meal, especially a spicy one!

This bread is unleavened and is made by rolling the dough into thin discs and heating them quickly on a griddle. Because the baking is so fast, I recommend baking the roti immediately before serving them - you can keep the finished bread discs warm by putting them on a plate covered with a clean cloth.

200 g whole wheat flour
200 g chickpea flour
A spoonful of oil or ghee if you have it (optional).

You can use more or less flour, depending on how many roti you want - this recipe makes 8-10.

Combine the whole wheat flour and chickpea flour in a bowl, making sure to mix the two flours together thoroughly. Add the oil/ghee to the mixture if using, and then slowly pour in the water, mixing until you get a slightly sticky dough.

Knead the dough for about 10 minutes. The dough will not become as resistant as more standard bread doughs, but it will firm up a bit as you go. After kneading, place the dough in a bowl and cover it with plastic wrap or a damp cloth. Let the dough sit in a warm, non-drafty place for at least half an hour.*

After the dough has rested, divide it into 8 equal portions. Roll each portion into a ball just a bit smaller than a golf ball.

Roll out the balls into thin discs, and then heat a griddle over the stove until it is hot enough that a drop of water will skip across its surface.

Place the first disc onto the griddle. As soon as it starts to bubble on top, flip it over with a spatula, and let it cook on the other side. The cooking times are very short - about a minute for the first side and just 15 seconds or so for the second side.

Remove the roti from the griddle, place on a plate and cover with a cloth. Repeat the process to cook the rest of the roti, stacking them up on the plate as you finish.

Serve warm with some good Indian food (or whatever your choice of cuisine is)!

*Most of the recipes I saw gave 30 minutes as the resting time for the dough, but I think this is the time needed in an Indian climate. If you live in an area without such a warm climate, you will likely need to let the dough rise a bit longer - an hour should be fine.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Bulgur with tomato and feta

A couple of weeks ago, the San Francisco Chronicle Food section ran a big article on bulgur, complete with 6 or 7 bulgur recipes. Always attracted by an interesting grain, I immediately clipped out all the recipes and vowed to buy some bulgur on my next grocery shopping trip.

Well, either I was looking in the wrong places, or the markets I went to were just out of bulgur, but it took until this past weekend for me to find some. And so today I was finally able to make the recipe which had first caught my eye and which I had been dreaming of (really!) since I saw it - a recipe for bulgur with onion, tomatoes, and feta.

It turned out to be just as delicious as I had hoped - the grainy bulgur was complemented by the tomatoes, and the spiciness of the pepper was cooled just enough by the feta. I made some slight modifications to the recipe, but the original, along with the article and all the other bulgur recipes, can be found here. For my version, see below.

100 g bulgur
4-5 San Marzano tomatoes, peeled and crushed (fresh when they're in season, canned when they're not)
A dollop of tomato paste
A cupful of vegetable broth
A generous chunk of feta - I really like the stuff, so I put in quite a bit but you can vary the amount to suit your tastes
Half a yellow onion
A pinch of red pepper flakes
A spoonful of mint flakes
A spoonful of salt
Olive oil
A sprig or two of fresh parsley

In a small saucepan, heat the broth, the tomatoes, and the tomato paste until boiling. Turn the heat down, add the salt and let simmer while you prepare the other ingredients.

Wash the bulgur if necessary (depends on where you got it - I think most commercial brands these days don't need to be washed). Dice the onion.

In a large saucepan, heat some oil. When the oil is sizzling hot, add the onion and let cook a couple minutes until the onion is soft and translucent. Add the bulgur, mint flakes, and red pepper flakes, and stir until all the bulgur grains are coated with oil.

Pour in the tomato-broth mixture and, once everything is boiling, turn heat down very low and cover.

Let the bulgur cook about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, wash and chop the parsley. Once the 10 minutes are up, check the bulgur. It should be of a similar consistency to risotto - tender but not soggy and still a bit resistant. When the bulgur has reached this consistency, turn off the heat and let it sit another couple of minutes.

Crumble most of the feta into the bulgur mixture, reserving a bit to put on top of the dish. Grind some black pepper over everything and mix well.

Serve the bulgur, topping with the remaining feta and the parsley.