"Food: Science, Art, Passion, Pleasure, Adventure & Exploration"

Friday, July 30, 2010

Baking Adventure 15: Spiced Double Cherry-Vanilla Pie

Have you ever gone a few days or more with a childhood nursery rhyme or folk song stuck in your head?

Well, I have.

The song was "Billy Boy". It just popped up out of nowhere and made itself a sturdy guest vacationing in my head like my mind was a well-needed motel, spotted by a weary traveler, off the side of a dust-ridden, barren road.

No doubt the earworm was inspired because of the business of baking a cherry pie. I couldn't get the song out of my head if someone paid me a million dollars. That's how insistent it became...and a bit amusing.

Anyway, I indeed baked a cherry pie a few days ago, completely from scratch. The only thing I didn't do was grow the cherries myself, make the butter from cream via ownership of a cow, and so forth. Ha!

The idea originally started with a entry I read on the blog, Chez Pim: The One Pie Dough to Rule Them All

Now, I've made pies in the past, but I always purchased my pie crusts and started from there. I hadn't made a pie crust from scratch until I decided to try the simple recipe listed in that entry. However, as usual, I did put my own spin on the recipe.

How so? Well...

If you've been reading my blog for awhile, you know how I've gone completely mad for the smell, use and taste of brown butter. As a result, I figured I'd employ the use of brown butter in this pie dough recipe. It's commonly said that in order to get a very flaky pie crust, cold butter must be used and kneaded into flour. We know that butter that is browned is heated, so in order to execute my idea of using brown butter, I browned the butter, infused it with a split vanilla bean and its seeds, to give it a very warm, nutty, vanilla aroma and taste, and I chilled the beurre noisette (French term for brown butter meaning "hazelnut butter") in the refrigerator. I left the vanilla bean in the butter, too, so that it could continue to work it's fragrant-setting magic. I made sure that the butter was chilled to become very cold and solid, the way butter is right out of store-bought packaging, otherwise.

When brown butter is chilled, it still keeps that wonderful nutty smell it's known for. I also kept the dark milk solids that separate out in the melted butter, for deeper flavor.

Anyway, here are some pictures of the process and my result (click images for larger view):

^Chunks of cold vanilla bean-infused brown butter (you can see the aromatic dark milk solids mixed in)

^Further mixing in the cold brown butter so that it's evenly dispersed throughout the flour

^Added water and worked the dough further into a large dough clump, which was wrapped and chilled for half an hour, to keep the dough cool to work with

^Dough taken out of the fridge, rolled out and folded onto itself stacked layers. Process repeated several times. This creates "layers" of solid butter pieces within the dough so that the crust comes out very flaky

^Dough was separated into two balls. One for top crust and the other for bottom crust. The second photo shows the bottom crust fitted into the glass pie baking pan. I coated it with eggwash.

The inside of the pie was filled with a spiced cherry filling, which contained two kinds of cherries: Rainier cherries and Bing cherries. The filling also contained sugar, freshly squeezed lemon juice, cornstarch (as a thickener), nutmeg, cinnamon, clove and ginger.
The top crust was placed over the pie and radial-patterned slits were cut into the pie. It was also eggwashed. I sprinkled a generous amount of cane sugar over the top. The granules were coarse, beige, and raw. Just the kind of sugar needed for the top crust. The slits cut into the pie certainly result in oozing of the filling during the baking stage. I had to clean the oven out later because some of the filling dripped onto oven floor. I tell you, that's not very easy to clean out. But, I was so happy with my results that I didn't care. I accepted it as part of the process. Kind of like a rite of passage, if you will. LOL

Finished result. The smell (and taste) of the crust strongly resembled those classic Royal Dansk Butter Cookies in a tin container, especially the pretzel ones that are heavily crusted with sugar. The brown butter idea is a winner for pie crust. It really makes the crust something quite special.

The recipe for the pie filling is also from Chez Pim: Spiced Cherry Pie.  

Again, I strayed by using two kinds of cherries. I was fascianted by the light coloring of the rainier cherries, as well as their sweet and creamy texture and taste, and figured they'd look and be very lovely mixed in with the dark, red hues of the Bing cherries.

I must mention that this pie was gone the next day. It did not last long at all and there were many comments on how outrageously tasty the crust was. I decided to make the pie again, just a day later, and add dark rum in the cherry pie filling. Again, another one of my own takes. I knew that by the taste and smell of the cherry filling, dark rum would be a perfect addition to the flavor profile.

Indeed it was!

The second pie also didn't last long.  The day I baked the cherry pie again and added rum, I also baked a second pie because I had many fresh blueberries (and red currants just purchased from Pavilions) in my fridge and I doubled up the pie crust recipe (again using my take on it with brown butter and vanilla). I baked a blueberry pie (my own version) and will be posting my results in a baking adventure update soon.

^A slice of the spiced double cherry-vanilla pie, but with rum.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Baking Adventure 14: "Quagmire" Cookies


Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word as:

Pronunciation: \ˈkwag-ˌmī(-ə)r, ˈkwäg-\
Function: noun
1 : soft miry land that shakes or yields under the foot
2 : a difficult, precarious, or entrapping position : predicament

The word quagmire sounds intriguing doesn't it? It's always been one of my favorite words. I love the way it sounds, the way it looks, and the way it feels. As someone who is a full-blown synesthete with the condition synesthesia, outside of the word's denotative meaning, I get my own associations and feelings from the word. I get a strong sensation of a custom blend of colors and shapes that the word triggers through its spelling and arrangement of letters. Dark blue-purple or deep indigo is one of the prominent colors or color overlays that the word conjures up for me.

Quagmire also sounds like it could be the perfect name for:
  • an epically intense, mysterious, medieval-fantasy film
  • an introspective, darkly-cerebral music track on a breakthrough album titled the same
  • an addictive and unique adventure-strategy console role playing game with complex quests and compelling characters
  • a high logic board game for serious thinkers with quirky and puckish imaginations
The name is also great for a sweet treat. So, I decided to use the name for a cookie recipe I concocted in the kitchen a couple of days ago because of the look and texture of the cookies, and because of their enslaving  complex flavor.

I haven't started on my mock Twix bar experiment because I've yet to purchase a new supply of quality chocolate to practice tempering with.  In the meantime, I wanted to come up with a tasty cookie recipe using some of my favorite ingredients in the kitchen...and share it here. :)

The cookies have a distinctive texture with circular streak patterns on the surface. This is because I piped the cookie dough using a large 2-inch star tip. The photo below shows the first batch of piped cookie dough. Later I manually placed small bittersweet chocolate chips within the swirled recesses to make a spiral pattern. Spiral as a shape, reminds me of addiction, entrapment, and complexity. Also note a modest appearance of the small plastic container of those chocolate chips in the upper right corner of the photo.

When I baked the cookies, they spread out very evenly into generously-sized, peculiar-looking circles with a definitive pattern and characteristic texture. The texture of the cookies is chewy, soft, highly moist (due to the heavy brown butter content), and lush against the tongue with each bite indulgently swooshed around in the mouth. You get layers or swirls of flavor. First you note vanilla-infused brown butter, then almond richness, next brown sugar enrapturement and last, curious, slight hints of bittersweet chocolate as they dissolve with the masticated medley of flavors.

These cookies contain egg yolks, golden brown sugar, flour, almond meal/flour, heavy cream, brown butter (beurre noisette), and vanilla bean essence. Rich, dense and decadent, they certainly are.

Here is my recipe for these cookies. It was an experiment but the results are very successful. I definitely took down notes and placed it in my culinary "book of shadows".

Quagmire Cookies

2 sticks (8 oz.) of butter (browned)
1 vanilla bean
1 and 1/4 cup of brown sugar
3 egg yolks
1/4 cup of heavy cream
2 cups of flour
1/2 cup of almond meal/flour
1 teaspoon of baking soda
1/2 teaspoon of cream of tartar

  1. Brown the butter in a saucepan. Halfway through the process, carefully slice open a vanilla bean and place it into the browning butter to infuse vanilla flavor.
  2. Preheat the oven to 300-350 degrees (ovens vary) and line 2-3 baking pans (depending on size of piped dough) with parchment paper
  3. While leaving in the vanilla bean and also retaining the butter solids, slightly chill the brown butter in the refrigerator in a small bowl, until it is near room temperature.
  4. Cream the vanilla brown butter and brown sugar in a bowl until smooth
  5. Add in the egg yolks and blend well
  6. Stir in the heavy cream
  7. In a separate bowl, mix the dry ingredients together thoroughly: cream of tartar, baking soda, flour, almond flour
  8. Add the dry ingredient mixture into the wet ingredients (yolks, sugar, butter) and stir (manually or with paddle attachment on a stand mixer)
  9. Using a plastic pastry bag and a 1/2 inch - 2-inch star tip, evenly pipe out swirls of cookie dough onto  parchment-lined baking bans
  10. Bake each batch for 8-12 minutes depending on your oven settings or until light golden brown. (Watch cookies carefully)
  11. Use wide spatula to remove cookies from the baking pan onto a cookie rack for cooling.
  12. Cookies should be somewhat delicate but not flimsy when done, but firm up further as they cool, while retaining a chewy, softy, dense texture throughout.
These cookies are sweetened well by brown sugar, but they have a savory appeal, in a sense, due to the deep nutty, brown butter flavor and the almond flour inclusion. Think of just the amount of sweetness that Animal Crackers, well-known childhood cookies, have...or shortbread cookies. These are full-bodied cookies.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Sugar Notions: Candy Bar Cloning

(click to enlarge photos: Taken at Granville Island public market in Vancouver, BC. BELOW-
 Taken at Knott's Berry Farm)

Everyone loves candy. More or less, that is.

I personally enthuse over candy a great deal, but I don't have it often. Retail shops (including many of the small mom and pop stores in quaint areas) like Dylan's Candy Bar, Sweet Factory, Candy Warehouse, Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, and The Swiss Colony give me a complete sugar rush emotionally.  I'm literally THE kid in the candy store when I either browse online or walk into one of these places.
However, when I go to my local supermarket and walk down the aisles and one of them happens to be the candy aisle, I almost always slow down a bit to browse what's there -- to see all of the enticing, sugary delights displayed in assortments of colorful and blithe packaging styles. These days, from supermarkets, I rarely drop any candy into my basket.

Picky, I am. Candies are edible opiates, all with different properties, and each proper for consuming during a particular mood.  More often, I find myself gravitating toward gourmet and homemade pastries and confections over the refined stuff, but once in awhile, when I get a desire for something commercial and sweet, I go for Twix candy bars.

Without sounding like a commercial, I must say that Twix bars have this undeniably addictive texture. It's quite easy to engorge on several of these candied cookie sticks. When you first bite into a Twix candy bar, your tongue experiences a thin, delicate, and luxe milk chocolate coating. Then your teeth plunge into and your taste buds begin to experience a gooey second layer of rich, elastic, buttery caramel that envelops around your tongue. Last, you get a satisfying crunch of a crisp, cookie biscuit. Altogether, these sacchariferous textures create a decadent, full-bodied, velvety experience that leaves you wanting residual fixes.

So, I got to thinking, "What if I tried making mock Twix bars at home?" I've never made anything like this and there are so many ways to approach such an honorary recipe. I know I'd have a lot of fun trying, regardless of my results. It'll be my time to play mad sugar scientist.

For the recipe, I'd need:
  • a milk chocolate ganache for the coating
  • a chewy, but frim caramel sauce or nougat for the middle
  • a nice crunchy, stiff, sweet cookie or biscuit layer for the core
For the ganache, I'd need to incorporate just enough cream into the milk chocolate, so that it is ideal for dipping, and firming up at room temperature. The caramel sauce recipe would also have to be one where the caramel solidifies enough at room temperature but keeps a malleable and chewy texture, like a traditional caramel square or chew that comes in a customary candy wrapper. A hard shortbread or butter cookie recipe would be perfect for the innermost layer. I've seen some people use dessert or club crackers, but I prefer a cookie recipe. I normally go for chewy cookies with crispy edges, but this kind of texture would not be best for what Twix candy bar rendition. Having that finishing crunch texture is important as the last but integrating sensation. Plus, this cookie dough would have a mellowed, salty sweetness to balance the uber sweetness of the chocolate and caramel..

When I make the cookie dough, I'll try shaping the cookies into small sticks or logs, either by hand or with an appropriately-shaped cookie cutter. If I purchased some lollipop sticks, it might be a good strategy to place them halfway into the center of each cookie stick once they are taken right out of the oven, which is when they are still pliable. Not sure if this would work, as I might not be able to remove the sticks later, after using them as dipping aids. As the cookies cool down, they might become firmly fixed. I guess I'll have to see what happens. I don't have the luxury of factory grade machines that effortlessly and seamlessly coat candies all over.

If this works, then when each cookie is cooled, I can begin dipping each stick into a warm caramel sauce. Once that layer is firm and room temperature, the last task would be to dip each caramel-coated cookie stick into a waiting pool of milk chocolate ganache.

Hopefully, all of these steps will lead to a successful result that pays at least somewhat of a respectful homage to the original Twix candy bar. If not, I'm still going to be swinging like a candy-coated, chocolate monkey on a peppermint bark tree...with a lab coat on donning pink cotton candy insignia.

Stay tuned...

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Baking Adventure 13: Vanilla Macarons With Beurre Noisette Buttercream

Did you know that I was able to hear the pitter-patter of little feet today? That's right! My raw, infant macaron circlets quickly graduated to toddler status once a little bit of time and heat love was applied to them. 

I took the plunge and finally made macarons at home. I've made them several times in workshops, but this was my first domestic try. I think many bakers, whether they are seasoned, somewhat experienced, professional, or brand-spanking new to the game, fear making these small, wondrous, French treats. The recipe is oh so simple, but a number of things can go wrong in the preparation stage, especially if the recipe calls for a more complex flavor profile. 

Chocolate macarons, for example, are notoriously moody and said to be the hardest to make. They crack often, oven doors must be propped open so that they develop just right, and many people often burn them because of the camouflage nature of their dark coloring.

Macarons are quite the expensive sweet fare in bakeshops all across the globe. In North America, macarons individually range from $1.40 to $3.00, depending on extra special ingredients added to them, and their size -- from mini, to standard, to big round whoppers that resemble miniature pastry hamburgers with creamy dessert "patties."

Almond flour is the main ingredient in macarons that makes these treats pricey, regardless of the inclusion of any other specialty ingredients. I also think the price is adjusted for the level of elegant precision that goes into making them. After all, making perfect-looking macarons is a science and an art.

There are so many parfums (flavors) that I can make macarons in, but I decided to stick with a basic flavor in my baking adventure. That was vanilla. They are the simplest to make and are great paired with any filling flavor. At first I was going to make salted caramel filling because I love the stuff, but I decided to hold off and use my own beurre noisette (meaning "hazelnut butter" in French because of the toasty nutty aroma) buttercream as a filler. You can't go wrong pairing the addictive, nutty flavor of browned butter with the intensity of natural vanilla.

I am in need of a new food processor AND an electronic digital scale, so that increased the apprehension that I felt about making these. So many people have emphasized that they need to be made with sharp precision. Alas...using Pyrex measuring cups and whisking the dry mixture by hand was going to be as precise as I could be this night.

I found space challenging while making these. I needed enough room to pipe out several sheets of macarons and let them stick around on my kitchen island and counters for drying out, and I say this with a kitchen on the larger side. You can't just leave macaron batter sitting in a bowl for a long time. The meringue's weight will collapse onto itself, this taking away the batter's texture quality, so it all needs to be piped onto parchment sheets or silmats right away.

The first batch had some cracked results, but they came out with a great flavor and I had absolutely no problem with any of the batches sticking to my parchment paper. They came off effortlessly and cleanly. I guess I can be proud of such an outcome since stickiness is a common complaint for many domestic, would-be macaron masters.

Anyway, the following batches were smoother results with clean tops and a nice eggshell coloring that varied only slightly between each macaron coque (coque is the word for the macaron shells). In utter baker's joy, I was able to see the development of little feet on each macaron and they all had that distinctive texture combination of crispy outer shell and chewy, rich center. That's just how I like them.

I will be making more macarons this weekend as I had tons of fun making these and my addiction for them has increased (if you can believe it), so there will be more photos. The batches I made are already gone! Everyone loved them.

Here is the recipe for the vanilla macarons:

Vanilla Macarons with Beurre Noisette Buttercream 


2 cups of almond flour
2 cups of powdered sugar
6 egg whites (room temperature)
1 cup of baker's sugar (super fine white sugar)
1 tablespoon of vanilla bean paste / vanilla extract 

  1. Crack 6 eggs and separate the whites. Leave egg whites out to reach room temperature. They can be left out just until they reach room temp., overnight, or for a day. Keep them covered if they are left out for a longer time period.
  2. Blend the almond flour and powdered sugar into a food processor for a few pulses or use a whisk by hand in a bowl. (I did the latter until there were no clumps and disparate spots in the dry mix)

  1. Use a metal or glass bowl to begin beating your egg whites. Beat until soft peak stage and then slowly add in the baker's sugar.

  1. Add the vanilla bean paste or extract and continue to beat the egg whites until the meringue forms stiff peaks.
  2. Fold the dry almond-sugar mixture in 3 parts into the meringue. Fold just until the macaron batter resembles a thick magma-looking texture and can form "ribbons" by letting the batter drop back into itself with a spatula spoon. However, make sure the almond-sugar mixture is loosely but thoroughly incorporated but not over-folded into the meringue (Yeah, this is an area where you can screw up by not getting the proper texture. You can wind up over-folding or under-folding rather easily).

  1. Take out parchment paper and fit sheets onto a large baking tray and begin piping out the meringue mixture into even circles (I eyed as I piped, but you can be more precise by creating circle templates and marking your parchment paper on the reverse side). 
  2. Let the circlets sit out for 30 minutes to an hour so that a soft "skin" can develop on top.

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 325. Turn the oven down to 300 after the macarons are in for a few minutes. Let them bake for a total of 12-15 minutes. Keep a watch on them as they bake quickly, so that they don't burn. Good luck on seeing any feet develop!
  2. Take them out and let them cool for 10 minutes and begin filling them with any kind of filling you desire. The best fillings are ganaches, buttercreams, jams, and caramels. 

Beurre Noisette Buttercream

4 cups of powdered sugar
5 oz. of butter
1 vanilla bean or 2.5 teaspoons of vanilla bean paste *
6 Tablespoons of heavy cream

  1. Brown the butter in a saucepan. (*You can slice open a vanilla bean, scrape out the seeds and place the entire pod in the browning butter to infuse a strong vanilla flavor)
  2. In a bowl combine your sugar and cream. If you chose brown the butter by itself, then add the vanilla bean paste or extract with the sugar and cream.
  3. Pour the hot browned butter into sugar-cream mixture and beat until a smooth consistency. 
  4. Spoon dabs of buttercream onto macarons.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The "Secret" Society of Closed-Door Restaurants

Picture dining at a cozy restaurant that takes place in the comfort and luxury of a chef's home -- where menus are forbidden and surprises are law, where guests are limited and invites are exclusive, and culinary themes can be as wacky and intriguing as the imagination will allow.

This is said to be the typical dining experience in a closed-door restaurant. Other names for closed-door restaurants are "underground diners", "secret restaurants", "pirate restaurants", "puertas cerradas" (meaning "closed doors" in Spanish), "hidden kitchens" and "supper clubs".

These restaurants operate a few days a week and guest list numbers can range between 15-20 people. Because the dining events are so special, custom, and quaint, guests often pay between 100-200 dollars per visit. Some events even offer special entertainment such as spoken word poetry, wine tasting, live living room or outdoor patio music performances, and amusing food demonstrations that come with or lead into the meals that are served. Closed-door restaurants also offer unique opportunities for diners to meet others who are food and drink enthusiasts. Visitors can come from all over the world or from various parts of a particular country, province or state. Many guests who show up regularly eventually make friends or create connections with the chefs themselves.

The trend of closed-door restaurants is especially popular in South American cities such as Buenos Aires, Lima, and São Paulo. Several South American restaurants leading in this trend are: Casa Felix, Casa Saltshaker and Casa Sunae, to name a few.

My awareness of and interest in closed-door restaurants developed while viewing a CIA video podcast on the origins of ceviche, a delicious, citrus-marinated, seafood dish with roots in Peru.  A restaurant in Peru, Chez Wong, was featured in this episode. The chef of Chez Wong serves food only to friends and invited guests, and never offers a selection menu, because he believes menus restrain spontaneous culinary innovation.

According to sources like the blog of Cafe Saltshaker, closed-door restaurants are now all over the globe with secret and exclusive eateries in France, the U.S., Canada, England, and various parts of Asia. The trend has been growing outside of South America, and it started as an alternative to traditional, overpriced, high-end restaurants with static menus and customary dining arrangements. Some are even calling the trend "anti-restaurant". Foodies are basically looking into original ways to experience food and dining. They want inventive, personalized, and quaint dining spaces to indulge in, that offer high quality gourmet cooking outside of the usual restaurant setting.

Some closed-door restaurants take place in a variety of locations, preferring to switch up their dining sites on a regular basis. This form of closed-door dining is referred to as guerrilla dining. Guests can never be sure where the next dining location will be, which makes the culinary experience all the more alluring and adventurous. This kind of sensation is truly for the foodie with an intense passion for exploration and full-course living. Advertising is often done through word of mouth, friends of friends, or in various dining culture circles. Some hosts even use social sites such as Twitter and Facebook for spreading the word.

These are some videos I found featuring some of the closed-door cafes mentioned.

These types of ideas are utterly fascinating. It's like discovering a world within a world or peeping into portholes that reveal the mysterious goings-on of secret food societies. I can easily see how a foodie club could organically turn into a closed-door restaurant if the hosts of such a club had the place, skills and resources to establish the closed-door restaurant concept and transition.

I'd personally would love a chance to dine in any of these restaurants, whether they are local, abroad or somewhere else in North America. Apparently, there are some closed-door eating clubs happening in and around Los Angeles. I'll have to do more research and find out how I can eventually join in. The experience would also be wonderful to document by video, not just through photos.

I would recommend taking a look at the Saltshaker blog link I posted and finding out whether your local area offers any of these opportunities.

I do wonder how this all works legally. Should chefs be licensed to serve food at home to a variety of guests and strangers? Afterall, these chef hosts do make a profit from patrons, and they also must consider any health liabilities should a diner happen to become sick from eating any of the gourmet but home-prepared food. Guests should also have the security of knowing that the homes are well-prepped and outfitted for serving quality food to guests.

I've read that closed-door restaurants often have higher sanitation and preparatory standards than the common restaurant. Although that might be the case, I would imagine that chefs must cover themselves legally and also expect to pay taxes on any of their earnings. CYA always has to be considered.

In certain states, it's not even legal for a baker to run a bakery out of his or her home (I think California is one of these states), unless the kitchen used for the baking and cooking is completely separate from domestic dealings (as a dedicated baking business space) and has been approved by health inspectors and insurance companies. Most bakers can not afford such a luxury -- having not only two kitchens, but just the space to accommodate such an undertaking.

Regardless of whether one looks to eventually become a guest at a closed-door restaurant or is interested in started their own someday, it's all a alluring look into another facet of culinary escapading.