Saturday, December 24, 2011

We've Moved

In more ways than one! First, I've graduated from Caltech and have now moved on to my postdoc at Harvard in Cambridge, MA. Chris has gotten a job at Dow in Marlborough, MA and will be starting in April after he finishes up at Caltech. Finally, we'll be moving our blog over to a tumblr website: Be sure to check there for new posts soon!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

An Unexpected Favorite

If you had told me last week that the Raspberry Charlotte Russe would be the first dessert gone at our lab holiday party, I would have laughed at you.  It's a very simple dessert, consisting of a raspberry Bavarian cream surrounded by Ladyfingers.  My recipe was adapted from "The Fundamental Techniques of Classic Pastry Arts."  The Charlotte Russe in general is a versatile dessert that can be prepared with various fruit flavored, vanilla, or chocolate Bavarian creams; in fact, my recipe for Bavarian cream simply says "flavor as desired."  I prepared my own fresh Ladyfingers in a continuous strip and in a round disc shape to easily line my cake ring.  You could use pre-made Ladyfingers instead though if you prefer.  Just line a springform pan or a cake ring (on a baking sheet) first with parchment paper and then with the Ladyfingers; I first placed my strips of the biscuits around the edge of my ring and subsequently pressed the round into the base of the mold.  The Bavarian cream was the poured into the prepared pan and either refrigerated for several hours or frozen until you wish to serve it (up to a week!).  To finish the dessert, Chantilly cream was piped in rosettes inside the edge formed by the ladyfingers.  The final presentation detail I added was a pretty holiday ribbon around the dessert.


Friday, December 10, 2010

My Favorite Dessert...EVER

My favorite dessert is this perfect little pastry called Napoleon.  It sometimes goes by other names, such as mille-feuille, meaning "thousand leaf."  While the name of the Napoleon is not believed to be related to the famous emperor of the same name, this is definitely the king of pastries to me.  It consists of three layers of puff pastry alternating with two layers of either creme patissiere or the lighter creme legere.  The top puff pastry layer is usually glazed with a white icing, piped with chocolate stripes, and combed (see photos below).  

Last night we had our annual lab holiday party and I prepared the desserts.  I originally planned on 8 different desserts (more posts to follow!), but had a little extra time (!) for once in my life.  So, I decided to make a Napoleon!  Because of the last minute nature of the dessert (not recommended), I used frozen puff pastry.  I assure you though, it would be better with freshly prepared puff pastry.  The recipe I followed is from the book "The Fundamental Techniques of Classic Pastry Arts."  Anyway, I rolled the sheet of puff pastry to a thickness of about 1/8" and placed it on a parchment-lined baking sheet.  After pricking the entire surface of the pastry with a fork, I then covered the puff pastry sheet with another piece of parchment and another baking sheet to hold it down.  Bake it for 15 minutes at 350 °F, remove the top baking sheet and parchment, brush with light corn syrup, and return to the oven for 10 minutes.  The tricky part is that upon removing the pastry from the oven, it's essential that you cut it in to the three equally sized pastry layers immediately.  If it cools, it will break when you try to cut it.  I used a template to get the three pieces of equal size and used a pizza wheel to cut the pastry quickly and evenly.  Worked like a charm.  I let the three sheets of puff pastry cool while I prepared my filling.

I prefer the creme legere in my Napoleons because it has a wonderfully light fluffy texture.  It's not much different from the more common creme patissiere; in fact you make it from creme patissiere by folding in some whipped cream.  To be honest, I wasn't thrilled with the ratios I used for my creme legere.  The next time I do this, I will add more whipped cream and maybe even a touch more sugar.  I will also omit the rum.

Before assembling, I glazed one of my puff pastry sheets with a royal icing, piped chocolate stripes lengthwise along the pastry, and then ran the edge of my thinnest spatula through the stripes in an alternating pattern to get the desired effect.  This is the classic napoleon glaze, but feel free to get creative!  Finally, the cream and pastry was layered to give the final product.  If you make a Napoleon, keep in mind that it doesn't keep well for long periods.  In fact, it should really be eaten within 8 hours of preparation.  Otherwise, the pastry becomes soggy and the pastry begins to compress a bit.  It definitely tastes best fresh. 

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Holla for Challah!

I've been waiting to use that title line since I decided to bake these Challah rolls.  Last weekend, I had a significant bread victory when I prepared some brioche sticky buns using a recipe from a fantastic bed and breakfast in Cambria, CA, called Olallieberry Inn.  When Marjorie, one of the innkeepers, prepared these sticky buns for breakfast one day, I thought I was going to die.  So I bought her cookbook and tried them at home.  I had some yeast leftover and a little more bread-making confidence after making the sticky buns, so I decided to try Challah bread.  

I've had this book on my shelf for a while that I found somewhat intimidating.  It's called Baking Artisan Bread by Ciril Hitz and is a very thorough and detailed description of the bread baking process and several different bread formulas (French, Brioche, Croissant, Challah, Bagel, Pizza, etc.).  After reading through all the formulas, I noticed that the Challah bread looked like a good place to start.  I could do it all in one day (not over two days), I had all my ingredients, and it seemed very straightforward.

I began with a sponge starter: a mixture of some of the flour, all the yeast, and most of the warm water.  Once that was ready (after about 30 minutes), I prepared the dough using more flour and water, plus oil, honey, eggs, salt, and sugar.  All the mixing and kneading could be done with my KitchenAid mixer equipped with the dough hook.  I can't tell you my delight when I was able to form a true gluten pane with my dough!  Just like the pictures in the book!  After a rise, division of dough into six 100g parts, a quick 20 minute resting period, and shaping my rolls, I had an assortment of Challah knots.

Following a 1 hour secondary rise, egg wash, and sprinkling of poppy seeds, they were ready to go into the oven.  After 25 minutes, I ate one almost immediately after I pulled the tray from the oven.  We had the rest for dinner with our beef stew.  I'm seriously contemplating making these for Thanksgiving...

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Rockin' Drum Set Cake

Not everyone can actually say with seriousness that they have a cool boss. We can. Just last week, our boss turned 40 and we seized the opportunity to celebrate the occasion/embarrass him. I took on the responsibility of baking a cake suitable for the event. Our boss loves chemistry like nothing else, but this seemed too easy and obvious a choice for the cake. Instead I focused on one of his hobbies: drumming.

With the help of Chris, we designed and built a platform (using a sheet of plywood, 1/2" dowels, 1/4" dowels, and small wood discs) to hole several cake drums and fondant cymbals in a configuration including 5 drums (two toms, big tom, snare, and bass) and a "cushioned" stool. For the most part, the small drums for the various platforms were pretty straightforward; what was challenging was the bass drum. Cake typically hates to be turned on its side. It settles, crumbles, falls over, and never looks the way you want it in the end. I took a page from the Hometown Homage cake and constructed the bass drum of rice krispie treats. When covered in buttercream and fondant, it looks just like a cake but has better structural integrity. The other challenge for this cake were the cymbals. For these, I used fondant treated with a little gumtex (to firm it up more and help it dry out) and templated them with teacup saucers. I punched little holes in their centers and suspended them on top of the 1/4" dowels.

Overall, I was very very pleased with the outcome and I think the boss was pretty excited about it too. The only drawback to this design is that there isn't really enough cake to serve a large group. To make up for that, I prepared about 70 cupcakes in three different varieties.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Baby Oblad's Cake

We had a great day yesterday as we celebrated the upcoming arrival of Baby Oblad. Our friends Stephanie and Paul are expecting their first little boy this August and we couldn't be more excited for them. We had a lovely potluck-style luncheon in Victory Park; of course, my contribution was the cake. I chose to do a blue, white, and green striped fondant 12 in. round cake (white cake with vanilla buttercream) with a dome of white roses on top. To make the cake glisten, I brushed each fondant stripe and the top of the cake with some watered-down piping gel and then sprinkled on some sanding sugar. (It made the fondant more edible as well.) This might be the most technically perfect cake I've ever made; I credit the homemade buttercream for that. As with the banana pecan cupcakes, I made a vanilla Swiss meringue buttercream for the filling and as a coating under the fondant. The consistency of the homemade buttercream made a world of difference and gave me a super smooth coating under the fondant. The taste was superior as well. I would considering foregoing the fondant all together for a smaller cake and just using the buttercream; that's how smooth this stuff looks!

The dome of roses on top was inspired by a wedding in which I was a bridesmaid about a month ago. I took home a floral arrangement and after a few days completely took it apart and analyzed its construction. It seemed pretty straightforward: a shallow dish with a wet floral foam taped to the dish with waterproof floral tape. As long as the foam stays wet, the flowers inserted into the foam stay fresh! So I picked up some Oasis foam, a shallow dish, and waterproof tape from the craft store and whipped this little guy up with about 2 dozen white roses. I think the next time I have a party I'll definitely make some nice big dramatic floral arrangements with this technique. It was so easy!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Most Perfect Cupcake

This is (far and away) the most perfect cupcake I've ever had. It might even be the most perfect thing I've ever baked. Martha would call it "a good thing." It also represents a baking milestone for me.

First off, it's a banana pecan cupcake. By itself, it's just wonderful. The texture really makes the cake. Right out of the oven, I would say they are the perfect breakfast treat. More of a cake though, than a muffin. What takes these to the next level though is the frosting. Caramel buttercream. Fresh, homemade caramel buttercream. With more caramel drizzled on top. The recipes are both from Martha Stewart's Cupcakes cookbook and are much better than other cupcake recipes out there. The whole book is full of awesome ideas and well written recipes. Every cupcake I've ever produced from that book has been a home run, slam dunk, and touchdown all in one. You need this book.

Now, the baking milestone: I finally (FINALLY) figured out real, authentic buttercream. Like the kind with a meringue base and everything. Buttercream is always a bit of a disaster for me. Either my meringue fails to thicken and form stiff peaks, or it breaks when I add the butter. You name it, it's gone wrong for me. Martha's trick was essential to my success. I usually have trouble telling when the sugar has dissolved in my egg whites while gently heating them over a simmering pot of water. Because I'm never able to see through the foamy mess of egg whites, I usually heat them too much or don't get the sugar dissolved enough. But Martha suggests rubbing some of the mixture between your fingers until the "grittiness" of the sugar ceases. Once this happened, I heated them for a brief second longer, and pulled them off the simmering pot of water. After beating the egg white/sugar solution, I got the most beautiful, fluffy, stable (!) meringue I've ever produced. I quite literally danced around the kitchen. But, it wasn't done! I slowly added the butter portionwise with mixing. All looked well, but then, it looked like it was breaking! I was pretty heartbroken, but followed Martha and beat it into submission. After a few minutes on high with the Kitchen Aid, I had the most silky, smooth buttercream in history. And it only got better once I added the homemade caramel! I think I'm far less intimidated by this now than I used to be. I think I'll be making my own buttercreams for all my cakes from now on. All thanks to this most perfect little cupcake.