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Archive for August, 2008

This month’s Daring Bakers challenge was Chocolate Éclairs.  Using a simple mixture of Pate a Choux pastry, pastry cream and a chocolate glaze, the challenge was to create our own version of this fancy treat.  I was really looking forward to this challenge since I’ve wanted to try Pate a Choux for some time.

I love the idea of making éclairs.  I got turned on to the prospect after watching an episode of ‘Good Eats’ on the Food Network called ‘Choux Shine’.  Alton Brown (AB) made the prospect of whipping up a batch of éclairs seem within my reach.  That being said, I never did take the chance to try it, until now.

Thanks to the Daring Bakers, I now had a challenge, one I couldn’t let slip by.  Thanks to Meeta and Tony for selecting this month’s challenge.

Overall, things went pretty well.  The dough was really no trouble.  I chose to use a food processor for the final incorporation of the butter into the mix as suggested in ‘Baking Illustrated’.  I also chose to use their recipe and instructions for both the pastry cream and the chocolate glaze.  Since chocolate and chocolate seemed bit too much for me, I decided to try both a chocolate and a vanilla pastry cream.  The creams and the glazes came together well.

My only real problem was the pastry.  Following some suggestions, I neatly lined out some marks on my parchment paper with a ruler so I could keep my éclairs in nice neat rows of the same size and length, while maintaining the spacing that is important for the rise of the dough.  I wasn’t certain how I wanted to do the piping, so I decided to follow AB’s suggestion from his show and did a kind of ‘s’ shape as I piped the pastry.  I think I missed one step though, and that was to smooth out the layers of dough into a more uniform tube shape.  As I pulled the puffs from the oven, I realized that because I didn’t do this step, the puffs were uneven and looked a bit like smaller tubes of dough stacked together, not one larger, puffier tube.  They did bake and rise well, but I shorted myself on another step – the rest in the oven.  That wasn’t a good choice.  Again, following another suggestion, I pierced the ends of the éclairs with a paring knife at the end of the baking to help release steam and placed them back in the oven with the door propped open to let them dry out.  Okay, that was fine, but I needed the oven to cook dinner, so I only let them dry for about 10 minutes – no long enough.  Most of my éclairs collapsed within the next hour, only a few survived.  I did pipe a few pastries in the classic cream puff shape and, aside from being a bit overcooked, actually turned out much better than the éclairs.

Filling and glazing were actually pretty easy – they all came together pretty quickly. 

The final results were okay.  I would have liked to have had prettier éclairs, but I wasn’t too disappointed for a first go.  As for taste, well, they were fantastic.  The dough was just right, the cream and the glaze were very good.  My wife and I both agreed that the vanilla cream and chocolate glaze combination worked better together than the double chocolate.  Just our personal preference.

Thanks again to the DB’s and to Meeta and Tony for this month’s challenge, it’s been fun.  If you would like to give this recipe a try, I’ve posted a copy of the complete challenge recipe here.

The Piped Eclairs

The Piped Eclairs

The Piped Puffs

The Piped Puffs

Eclairs..Before the Fall

Eclairs..Before the Fall

Whipping up some Pastry Cream

Whipping up some Pastry Cream

Filling the Hollow Puffs

Filling the Hollow Puffs

Finished Eclairs

Finished Eclairs

Finished Puffs

Finished Puffs

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Cool, Creamy, Pestoey

All right, maybe ‘pestoey’ isn’t really a word, but from what I’ve seen out there in the blogosphere, it’s perfectly fine to make up words that describe, in better terms than standard English, what you are trying to convey.  It’s really amazing how many words are not in the dictionary – just try playing an online word scramble and you’ll see all sorts of letter combinations that sound like they could be right, but, alas, don’t pass the dictionary test.  But enough for the English lesson, I must move on.

We’re finally experiencing a break in the weather here in the Northwest.  After some very hot days, followed by a run of cooler, but very humid, weather, I’m finally starting to think about baking again.  With the deadline for Daring Bakers rapidly approaching, that’s a good thing.  In the meantime, I’ve been working with ‘cool’ recipes – those that require minimal or no time on the stove or in the oven.  Such was the past weekend when we spent last Saturday at a small family gathering.  We were told we didn’t need to bring anything, but I just can’t show up empty-handed.  I flipped through my warm weather recipes and set my eyes upon one of my favorites:  Tortellini Pesto Salad ala Haggen.

If you’re not from Oregon or Washington State, you probably have not heard of Haggen.  Haggen is a Northwest based grocery/pharmacy chain that was started in Bellingham, Washington in 1933.  While most of the locations are found in Washington, they began to expand into Oregon in the last decade.  For those around the U.S., you can think of Haggen as similar to Albertson’s or Safeway, but with a more ‘gourmet’ feel.  The stores are less antiseptic that the bigger chain grocery stores and the folks that work there are some of the most helpful you will find.  Their deli section houses a fine selection of cold and hot foods  from a nice olive bar to Panini sandwiches, Chinese food, fresh deli meats and salads. 

One of our favorite selections has been the Tortellini Pesto Salad.  Any time I saw this dish in the case, I would bring some home.  Primarily a side dish, it actually does well in the main dish slot, often making for a tasty lunch or dinner.  Unfortunately, this pesto pasta goodie is often sold out.  Frustrated by this, I wrote Haggen a couple of years ago requesting the recipe.  I’ve requested recipes from a number of places in the past and I’m used to one answer: ‘No’.  I understand.  When you’re in business to sell things, you don’t want to give away your secrets.  So, I politely ask, and if they say ‘no’, I thank them and move on to try and duplicate the recipe on my own – sometimes with less than stellar results.  Imagine my surprise when I received a very kind email response containing the recipe I had requested!  They were very kind in their response and were all too happy to share their recipe.

The recipe itself was written for a large batch, which makes sense considering how much they must sell when they make it available.  I recalculated the recipe for a smaller batch and began to make it for family and friends.  Let me tell you, this is no slouch salad.  It’s unique in comparison to the typical Italian Dressing, Rotini Pasta adorned salads typically found on a buffet table.  This dish never fails to please.  I’ve shared it with only a few others to date, mainly because I want to be the one lauded with praise when I bring the star dish of the party!  That probably sounds a bit snotty, which I don’t mean to be, because I do really love to cook for enjoyment of others.  And so, for that reason, I have chosen to share with you what Haggen was kind enough to share with me.  I’ve debated whether or not to share this recipe, but since anyone can request it and get it themselves, I’m going to do it here and give credit where credit is due.  So, in fairness to the originator of this recipe, please be sure to stop by your nearest neighborhood Haggen the next time you’re in the Northwest, give them a try, I’m sure you’ll be pleased.

Click here to see a copy of this recipe on my site.  I’ve adjusted the amounts down to a more manageable level as well as included my favorite recipe for homemade pesto, should you prefer to make your own.

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A Canadian Goodie

I may have mentioned before that the best thing about baking/cooking for me is when I get to do it for the enjoyment of others.  Such was the case this past weekend.  A friend of ours was celebrating a milestone birthday (I won’t say which one) and I wanted to bring something along for everyone to enjoy.  With the string of hot days we’ve had around here, something from the oven didn’t sound too appealing.  It needed to be something that could be done with a minimal amount of heat.

I seemed to recall a no-bake, minimal cook recipe I had read about in the past.  Then I recalled that our friend had mentioned recently that her favorite dessert was Nanaimo Bars.  Our friend proudly hails from Canada, and from what I’ve heard, Nanaimo Bars are a pretty big deal for Canadians, so much so that they even enjoy the distinction of being kind of an ‘official’ dessert of Canada.  I knew of these bars, but I had never had, much less made one before.  So, I hit the web to see what I could find. 

What I discovered was that there are about as many recipes for Nanaimo Bars as there are Canadian bakers.  Everyone seems to have their version of this recipe, but they seem to come down to a few key factors (Canadians, please feel free to correct me if I get any of this wrong).  Nanaimo Bars (named after the city in Canada where they were invented) are a bar dessert consisting of 3 layers.  Layer 1 is a base of graham crackers, coconut, some kind of nut, butter and chocolate.  Layer 2 consists of a kind of sweet custard/frosting that can apparently be made with a number of different flavors and/or colors – the key to this layer, apparently, is custard powder, something I’ve never seen before.  Layer 3, the top layer, is a simple layer of melted chocolate or even a ganache.

Preparation is fairly simple.  Some stove work is needed, but it’s minimal, so this is a nice dessert to prepare in the heat of the summer.  Since I’m not much of a coconut fan, I decided to use my food processor to not only crush the graham crackers, but to cut the coconut down to tiny little pieces – the flavor was still there, but those somewhat difficult to chew shreds of coconut were easier for my mouth to deal with.

The results were great.  The recipe called for a 9 inch x 9 inch pan, but I was cooking for a group, so I doubled the recipe and used a 9 inch x 13 inch pan.  Since doubling a recipe designed for 9×9 is more than what you would get for a 9×13 pan, my bars turned out a little thicker than they would have been, but no one complained.  In fact, everyone raved about them.  The birthday girl, gave an official Canadian thumbs up.  I asked if they were ‘authentic’.  She said they were close.  What did she notice was different?  Well, remember that custard powder I mentioned?  I didn’t have any, so the recipe suggested that I could substitute vanilla pudding mix instead.  You know what?  She could tell the difference.  I don’t know how much difference this custard powder makes, but I guess I’m going to have to try it for myself sometime.

If you’d like to try this recipe yourself, I’ve posted it here.  Thanks to the good folks over at Joy of Baking for another great recipe.

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Baking in Oregon.  Today, that has a dual meaning.  It’s hot.  We’re not only baking in the kitchen, we’re baking in the living room, baking in the den, baking in the bedrooms.  You know, nothing can kill the desire to work in the kitchen over a hot stove like a scorching, sticky, summer day.  We don’t get a lot of really hot days here in Oregon, but we’re just coming off a run of 5 really hot days, 3 of which were over 100°F and rather humid.  These are the kind of days that just wipe you out, sapping all desire to do just about anything right out of your system.  Still, you gotta eat, and on days like these, quick, easy and cool are the way to go.

Not too long ago, we had some family over for an informal gathering.  We kept the menu pretty simple, with a few cool drinks to go along.  I made up a batch of my Strawberry Lemonade, which has been very popular in the past.  I started with a gallon, but it became apparent very soon that it wouldn’t be enough.  I whipped up a second gallon and it too, was quickly wiped out.  I threw together a third gallon and finally managed to quench everyone’s thirst.  Thankfully, I can prepare this simple recipe in just a matter of minutes.

The next day, I found at least 1/2 gallon remaining in the refrigerator.  Since my wife and I don’t drink the stuff too often, I wanted to put some of it to good use.  Looking around the kitchen, I noticed I had some fruit and yogurt I needed to use.  The fruit was just starting to look a little less fresh.  In the heat of the summer it wasn’t going to last too much longer.

So, I concocted a smoothie which I based on the Strawberry Lemonade and a few more items I had on hand. The result?  Thick, cool and refreshing as well as filling, but in a good way.  This was a tasty treat that made a warm day a bit more enjoyable.  The next day I tried a different variation, but stayed with the Strawberry Lemonade as my starting point.  Want to give it a try?  I’ve listed my recipe for Strawberry Lemonade as well as my 2 versions of fruit smoothies here.  Enjoy!

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One of the things I find frustrating is that for all of the restaurants out there, it seems like the ones I like the most manage to close up shop just when I really start to like them.  We’re don’t live in a large town, so we get mostly fast food places and the usual small pub type restaurants.  I’m not complaining, some of those little pubs/bars have some great food.   We do have the chance to go to quite a few good restaurants if we don’t mind driving awhile, but when we want the opportunity for a regular sit-down style family restaurant, we appreciate the chance to stay closer to home.

We’ve had restaurants come and go here before.  It seems they just couldn’t keep the doors open with the amount of business they could get in our area.  One such case was Cucina Fresca, an Italian restaurant that opened in our town some years ago.  They were in business for maybe 2 years before they closed.  Now, we have access to other Italian restaurants, but this place was a little different.  They had dishes we didn’t found at the other Italian joints.  My wife and I each had our personal favorites.  For me, it was the Spicy Chicken Alfredo – unlike any other I’d had before – it was hot, but not too hot and that heat mixed very well with the creamy sauce.  For my wife, it was a dish they called Balsamic Beef.

When the restaurant closed, we both lamented the passing of yet another nice place to eat in town.  Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, but these dishes were unique, and we just couldn’t find them anywhere else.  While I could (and probably should) live without the Spicy Alfredo, my wife was sorely lamenting the loss of her dish.  I decided to set out replicating that dish myself.  And so my quest was on.

I’m a fair cook.  I can follow a recipe fairly well and can even improvise from time to time.  But developing a recipe from scratch is not a particularly strong talent of mine. 

Balsamic Beef consisted of strips of beef, marinated and sauteed in a balsamic vinegar sauce and served over a bed of creamy risotto.  I wasn’t sure exactly where to start, so I started with the obvious – the Balsamic Vinegar.  Prior to sampling this recipe, I hadn’t even heard of Balsamic Vinegar before (I’m not exactly cultured when it comes to food).  I did some research and found what I was looking for.  I sampled some straight from the bottle and realized I needed to temper the acidity and bite of the vinegar.  I couldn’t decide what to use, so I went to the cupboard and started grabbing things.  I tried sugar, salt, honey, soy sauce, sweet and sour sauce – nothing worked.  I finally came very close to the taste of the sauce in the original recipe when I mixed 1/2 Balsamic vinegar with 1/2 Kikkoman Teriyaki.  Kikokkoman is not a particularly sweet teriyaki, but it was sweet enough to calm the flavor of the vinegar.  The taste was very similar to the sauce in the original dish.  I figured the meat must have been marinated, so I took some strips of beef (pre-cut stir fry beef from the store) and marinated it for about 1 hour in the balsamic/teriyaki sauce.  Next I cooked the beef in the marinade (yes, in the marinade) as that was the only way I could fully duplicate the taste of the beef and the sauce they used.  I checked a few sources and found that it would be okay to use the marinade as long as it was well cooked.  I succeeded in duplicating both the beef and the sauce, now I just needed to replicate the pile of carbs it was sitting on.

              

As I mentioned before, I’m not particularly cultured when it comes to food, so at the time, I could not figureout what they were serving with the beef.  It looked like rice, but tasted like pasta and was creamy in texture.  I looked around and asked questions, but didn’t get much help (this was before we had access to the internet).  I tried what seemed to be close, some cous cous I had in the pantry.  It was good, but it just wasn’t the same.  I kept looking around and came across a show on television where they were talking about risotto.  I’d never had risotto before, so I wasn’t sure what it was or how to make it.  Bobby Flay to the rescue.  He talked about stirring this stuff for the better part of 30 minutes.  Sounded like a lot of work, but it was worth a try.  Once I found that what I needed to buy was Arborio rice, I quickly snatched some up and hit the kitchen.  You know, it wasn’t too hard – it just needs some attention and tender loving care.

I combined the ingredients together and voila, I had managed to recreate, as closely as my wife could tell, the recipe from our dearly departed eatery.  Now if I could only muster the guts to try and re-make that tasty alfredo – maybe some day…

If you’d like a copy of my recipe, click here.

 

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