Sunday, September 27, 2009

Vols-au-vent - Daring Bakers Challenge

I joined the Daring Bakers exactly one year ago, for several reasons. I loved the idea of a whole bunch of people all baking different interpretations of the same thing at the same time. I wanted to challenge myself with recipes that I wouldn't have thought/dared to have made otherwise. I wanted to improve my baking and expand my repertoire. And a part of me also just wanted to be able to say things like "Homemade puff pasty? Oh yeah, I've done that. No problem!"

This month's challenge - vols-au-vent, which are light-as-air french puff pastries that can be filled with almost anything you desire - was a perfect embodiment of all the reasons I joined the Daring Bakers. It's something I don't normally make (I tried the pastry once before, somewhat disastrously, and likely wouldn't have tried again if not for this challenge), it involves new baking techniques, and it allows for so much creativity.

The September 2009 Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Steph of A Whisk and a Spoon. She chose the French treat, Vols-au-Vent based on the Puff Pastry recipe by Michel Richard from the cookbook Baking With Julia by Dorie Greenspan.

It's been fascinating to see what everyone filled their vols-au-vent with. So far, I think my favorite is julieruble's description of her peach crisp vols-au-vent filled with baked peaches, brown sugar, toasted pecans, oats, and warm butter and topped with whipped cream - yum!!

As I was preparing mine for a dinner party, I opted for a savory filling, and roasted some tomatoes with feta, fresh herbs, and lots of olive oil. I had also planned to fill half with a zucchini flan I made, but it turned out that I had more than enough of the tomato-feta dip to fill the 16 pastries I brought, and the zucchini flans looked so cute on their own, it seemed a shame to chop them up to stuff them in the pastry!

Vol-au-vent filled with roasted tomatoes & feta

The day of the dinner party, I was actually fairly sure the pastries would be a disaster. I had run into some issues with the first pastry rolling, and I was afraid the butter had managed to seep into the flour and so all the other rollings would be futile. I warned my friend ahead of time that the pastries, while certain to taste good (with a pound of butter in them, how could they not?), might not look particularly elegant. So I was beyond delighted when I put in the first batch and lo and behold, the little things rose right up!! Pastry magic happening right in my own oven =)

So if I could make them, then I'm pretty sure that almost anyone can, and I have to say that I have rarely felt as excited baking something as I did with these. So, on to the recipe (puff pastry recipe below instructions for making vols-au-vent, my notes in purple):

-food processor (will make mixing dough easy, but I imagine this can be done by hand as well) *I mixed the dough by hand - not a problem, although I may not have mixed it as thoroughly, as I didn't want to get it too warm
-rolling pin
-pastry brush
-metal bench scraper (optional, but recommended)
-plastic wrap
-baking sheet
-parchment paper
-silicone baking mat (optional, but recommended)
-set of round cutters (optional, but recommended)
-sharp chef’s knife
-cooling rack

Prep Times:
-about 4-5 hours to prepare the puff pastry dough (much of this time is inactive, while you wait for the dough to chill between turns…it can be stretched out over an even longer period of time if that better suits your schedule)
-about 1.5 hours to shape, chill and bake the vols-au-vent after your puff pastry dough is complete

Forming and Baking the Vols-au-Vent

Yield: 1/3 of the puff pastry recipe below will yield about 8-10 1.5” vols-au-vent or 4 4” vols-au-vent

In addition to the equipment listed above, you will need:
-well-chilled puff pastry dough (recipe below)
-egg wash (1 egg or yolk beaten with a small amount of water)
-your filling of choice

Line a baking sheet with parchment and set aside.

Using a knife or metal bench scraper, divided your chilled puff pastry dough into three equal pieces. Work with one piece of the dough, and leave the rest wrapped and chilled. (If you are looking to make more vols-au-vent than the yield stated above, you can roll and cut the remaining two pieces of dough as well…if not, then leave refrigerated for the time being or prepare it for longer-term freezer storage.)

On a lightly floured surface, roll the piece of dough into a rectangle about 1/8 to 1/4-inch (3-6 mm) thick. Transfer it to the baking sheet and refrigerate for about 10 minutes before proceeding with the cutting.

(This assumes you will be using round cutters, but if you do not have them, it is possible to cut square vols-au-vents using a sharp chef’s knife.) *I actually didn't have any round cutters, but I found a handy substitute in a cocktail shaker!! It was nice and sharp, and the two circles it gave me were just the right sizes. For smaller, hors d'oeuvre sized vols-au-vent, use a 1.5” round cutter to cut out 8-10 circles. For larger sized vols-au-vent, fit for a main course or dessert, use a 4” cutter to cut out about 4 circles. Make clean, sharp cuts and try not to twist your cutters back and forth or drag your knife through the dough. Half of these rounds will be for the bases, and the other half will be for the sides. (Save any scrap by stacking—not wadding up—the pieces…they can be re-rolled and used if you need extra dough. If you do need to re-roll scrap to get enough disks, be sure to use any rounds cut from it for the bases, not the ring-shaped sides.)

Using a ¾-inch cutter for small vols-au-vent, or a 2- to 2.5-inch round cutter for large, cut centers from half of the rounds to make rings. These rings will become the sides of the vols-au-vent, while the solid disks will be the bottoms. You can either save the center cut-outs to bake off as little “caps” for you vols-au-vent, or put them in the scrap pile.

Vols-au-vent cut-outs

Dock the solid bottom rounds with a fork (prick them lightly, making sure not to go all the way through the pastry) and lightly brush them with egg wash. Place the rings directly on top of the bottom rounds and very lightly press them to adhere. Brush the top rings lightly with egg wash, trying not to drip any down the sides (which may inhibit rise). If you are using the little “caps,” dock and egg wash them as well.

Refrigerate the assembled vols-au-vent on the lined baking sheet while you pre-heat the oven to 400ºF (200ºC). (You could also cover and refrigerate them for a few hours at this point.)

Assembled vols-au-vent, ready for baking!

Once the oven is heated, remove the sheet from the refrigerator and place a silicon baking mat (preferred because of its weight) or another sheet of parchment over top of the shells. This will help them rise evenly. Bake the shells until they have risen and begin to brown, about 10-15 minutes depending on their size. Reduce the oven temperature to 350ºF (180ºC), and remove the silicon mat or parchment sheet from the top of the vols-au-vent. If the centers have risen up inside the vols-au-vent, you can gently press them down. Continue baking (with no sheet on top) until the layers are golden, about 15-20 minutes more. (If you are baking the center “caps” they will likely be finished well ahead of the shells, so keep an eye on them and remove them from the oven when browned.)

Remove to a rack to cool. Cool to room temperature for cold fillings or to warm for hot fillings.

Fill and serve.

*For additional rise on the larger-sized vols-au-vents, you can stack one or two additional ring layers on top of each other (using egg wash to "glue"). This will give higher sides to larger vols-au-vents, but is not advisable for the smaller ones, whose bases may not be large enough to support the extra weight.

*Although they are at their best filled and eaten soon after baking, baked vols-au-vent shells can be stored airtight for a day.

*Shaped, unbaked vols-au-vent can be wrapped and frozen for up to a month (bake from frozen, egg-washing them first. See the “Tips” section below for more storage info.).

Michel Richard’s Puff Pastry Dough

From: Baking with Julia by Dorie Greenspan
Yield: 2-1/2 pounds dough

Steph’s note: This recipe makes more than you will need for the quantity of vols-au-vent stated above. While I encourage you to make the full recipe of puff pastry, as extra dough freezes well, you can halve it successfully if you’d rather not have much leftover.

There is a wonderful on-line video from the PBS show “Baking with Julia” that accompanies the book. In it, Michel Richard and Julia Child demonstrate making puff pastry dough (although they go on to use it in other applications). They do seem to give slightly different ingredient measurements verbally than the ones in the book…I listed the recipe as it appears printed in the book.

2-1/2 cups (12.2 oz/ 354 g) unbleached all-purpose flour
1-1/4 cups (5.0 oz/ 142 g) cake flour
1 tbsp. salt (you can cut this by half for a less salty dough or for sweet preparations)
1-1/4 cups (10 fl oz/ 300 ml) ice water
1 pound (16 oz/ 454 g) very cold unsalted butter

*I added a spoonful or so of lemon juice, which was recommended to help relax the gluten in the dough, making rolling easier

plus extra flour for dusting work surface

Mixing the Dough:

Check the capacity of your food processor before you start. If it cannot hold the full quantity of ingredients, make the dough into two batches and combine them.

Put the all-purpose flour, cake flour, and salt in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade and pulse a couple of times just to mix. Add the water all at once, pulsing until the dough forms a ball on the blade. The dough will be very moist and pliable and will hold together when squeezed between your fingers. (Actually, it will feel like Play-Doh.)

Remove the dough from the machine, form it into a ball, with a small sharp knife, slash the top in a tic-tac-toe pattern. Wrap the dough in a damp towel and refrigerate for about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, place the butter between 2 sheets of plastic wrap and beat it with a rolling pin until it flattens into a square that's about 1" thick. Take care that the butter remains cool and firm: if it has softened or become oily, chill it before continuing.

Incorporating the Butter:

Unwrap the dough and place it on a work surface dusted with all-purpose flour (A cool piece of marble is the ideal surface for puff pastry) with your rolling pin (preferably a French rolling pin without handles), press on the dough to flatten it and then roll it into a 10" square. Keep the top and bottom of the dough well floured to prevent sticking and lift the dough and move it around frequently. Starting from the center of the square, roll out over each corner to create a thick center pad with "ears," or flaps.

Place the cold butter in the middle of the dough and fold the ears over the butter, stretching them as needed so that they overlap slightly and encase the butter completely. (If you have to stretch the dough, stretch it from all over; don't just pull the ends) you should now have a package that is 8" square.

To make great puff pastry, it is important to keep the dough cold at all times. There are specified times for chilling the dough, but if your room is warm, or you work slowly, or you find that for no particular reason the butter starts to ooze out of the pastry, cover the dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate it . You can stop at any point in the process and continue at your convenience or when the dough is properly chilled.

Making the Turns:

Gently but firmly press the rolling pin against the top and bottom edges of the square (this will help keep it square). Then, keeping the work surface and the top of the dough well floured to prevent sticking, roll the dough into a rectangle that is three times as long as the square you started with, about 24" (don't worry about the width of the rectangle: if you get the 24", everything else will work itself out.) With this first roll, it is particularly important that the butter be rolled evenly along the length and width of the rectangle; check when you start rolling that the butter is moving along well, and roll a bit harder or more evenly, if necessary, to get a smooth, even dough-butter sandwich (use your arm-strength!).

With a pastry brush, brush off the excess flour from the top of the dough, and fold the rectangle up from the bottom and down from the top in thirds, like a business letter, brushing off the excess flour. You have completed one turn.

Rotate the dough so that the closed fold is to your left, like the spine of a book. Repeat the rolling and folding process, rolling the dough to a length of 24" and then folding it in thirds. This is the second turn.

Chilling the Dough:

If the dough is still cool and no butter is oozing out, you can give the dough another two turns now. If the condition of the dough is iffy, wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for at least 30 minutes. Each time you refrigerate the dough, mark the number of turns you've completed by indenting the dough with your fingertips. It is best to refrigerate the dough for 30 to 60 minutes between each set of two turns.

The total number of turns needed is six. If you prefer, you can give the dough just four turns now, chill it overnight, and do the last two turns the next day. Puff pastry is extremely flexible in this regard. However, no matter how you arrange your schedule, you should plan to chill the dough for at least an hour before cutting or shaping it.

Folded pastry dough

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Pearl couscous with cucumber and avocado

Soon I will be leaving California once again, and so it seemed fitting that before I head off on my next adventures, I should make something that features avocado, a fruit that always makes me think of California!

This dish combines avocado with just a few other flavors - cucumber, lemon juice, basil, and dill - and mixes it all up with pearl couscous, which is one of my favorite grains and is ridiculously easy to prepare. In fact, the whole thing hardly takes any time, tastes great, and is very refreshing both warm and cold.

Ingredients (for one serving):
75 g. pearl couscous (also known as Israeli or Lebanese couscous)
1 ripe avocado
1/3 of a cucumber
Fresh basil leaves
Fresh dill
A few spoonfuls of extra-virgin olive oil
Lemon juice

Wash the basil and dill. Chop the dill finely, and tear up the basil leaves by hand. Combine the basil and dill with the olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper; stir; and let sit. You can either prepare everything else immediately, or else let the herb mixture sit half an hour first.

Bring a small pot of water to a boil, and add the pearl couscous. Turn off the heat, cover the pot, and let sit 10 minutes or so, until the couscous have soaked up the water. Meanwhile, peel the cucumber, and chop it into thickish wedges.

Chop the avocado into wedges as well. I usually slice the avocado in half, then cut in a checkerboard pattern across each half, while leaving the peel on. After that, I can just turn the halves upside down, push the peel inwards, and the avocado wedges just fall out.

Once the couscous are done, drain any excess water, and combine them with the cucumber, avocado, and herb mixture. Stir well and serve warm, or else refrigerate for later.