28 February 2009

Chef Wan's Flourless Chocolate Valentino

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.*

My first thought when I saw this monthly challenge was relief. Relief that I wasn't going to have to go to three grocery stores trying to find ingredients and spend two days in the kitchen dirtying every bowl and utensil we have. Not that I don't love the challenges that really test my skill in the kitchen- I would have never known how much I love a Swiss Meringue buttercream without the Praline Cake or that cracker can be made at home without the Lavash, but with my comprehensive exam rapidly approaching, I didn't think I could handle such an intense challenge so I was pleased to see a (fairly) simple flourless chocolate cake on the list for this month.

The recipe comes from Chef Wan, a Malaysian super-star chef, but it very unfussy. Wendy and Dharm warned us that with so few ingredients (chocolate, butter and eggs), the flavor of the chocolate really matters, so I immediately though of buying the chunks of Ghiradelli chocolate that Trader Joe's sells in the baskets near the register. We made a trip out only to find out that TJ's no longer sells them since Ghiradelli doesn't sell them the huge chocolate bars anymore. I really didn't want to go to another store to look for chocolate (and wasn't sure I could even find anything better for a reasonable price) so I got two TJ's pound plus chocolate bars, one semi-sweet and one 72% and came home to bake.

The cake comes together remarkably quickly. Melt chocolate and butter, whip egg whites, mix yolks into the chocolate, stir it all and bake. That's it. I let the simplicity guest the best of me and attempted to do a little kitchen multitasking while I was whipping the egg whites and when I came back to them, they were just, just on the far side of stiff peaks. I didn't want to use a whole extra 5 eggs though, decided it would be fine and kept going. I baked the cake, let it cool and then, at the appointment time attempted to release it from the springform pan.

I should mention that almost all of my baking supplies were my grandmothers and are from the 1960s, so my springform has been around a while. Its age means that the pin sticks, sometimes a lot. As I was yanking on the pin while trying to keep the whole cake from falling on the floor, the pin suddenly shot free and my thumb, which had been on the rim of the pan to keep it steady, slipped loose and plunged down into the cake, making a huge crater along one side of the cake. I attempted some emergency repairs but the nature of the cake (while warm it's very light and almost foamy) prevented it.

The next day, I took a few pictures, trying to keep the crater out of the shot, then cut the cake to take it to a party. I expected the cake to cut like a big block of fudge, but it sort of crumbled all of the place and kept braking apart. I sampled one of the broken pieces and while it had a very deep, rich chocolate flavor, it was a bit dry and had an almost mealy texture. I'm pretty sure this was due to my over-beating the egg whites but am really curious to see what other bakers thought of the cake.

*You'll notice I don't talk about making ice-cream in this post because I didn't. As much as I would love to make it, I don't have an ice-cream machine and without it, I was pretty sure I'd end up with a frozen block of sweetened cream, which just doesn't appeal to me.

Chocolate Valentino

Recipe from Chef Wan
Preparation Time: 20 minutes

1lb. (454 g.) of semisweet chocolate, roughly chopped
10T (1 stick plus 2T or 146g. ) unsalted butter
5 large eggs, separated

- Preheat oven to 375F/190C

- Melt the chocolate and butter in a small bowl in the microwave, stirring often. Set aside to cool.

- While your chocolate butter mixture is cooling. Butter your pan (8in. springform please) and line with a parchment circle then butter the parchment.

- Separate the egg yolks from the egg whites.

- Whip the egg whites in a medium/large metal or glass bowl until stiff peaks are formed (do not over-whip or the cake will be dry).

- With the same beater beat the egg yolks together.

- Stir the egg yolks to the cooled chocolate.

- Stir 1/3 of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture. Then carefully fold in the remaining egg whites until no white remains. You want to do this as gently as possible so you don't deflate the batter.

- Pour batter into prepared pan, the batter should fill the pan 3/4 of the way full, and 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.

- Cool cake on a rack for 10 minutes then unmold and cool completely. Serve plain or with berry sauce, whipped cream or ice cream.

27 February 2009

Southwestern Spiced Beef Tenderloin with Chipotle Mashed Potatoes, Lemon Crema and Wilted Spinach

Long name but what if I told you that you could have all of this on the table within 40 minutes? You might be doubtful at first, but with a little planning you can do it quite easily.

I couldn't decide what to make for Valentine's Day dinner, but after getting the recipe for the
spiced flourless chocolate cakes I thought that the main course should have a similar flavor profile, a bit spicy, to make it seem like a real menu, not just things thrown together for dinner. I went through my old issues of Cuisine at Home, looking for inspiration and came across the recipes mentioned above. It seemed like more fuss than I usually bother with, but as it was Valentine's Day I decided it would be worth it. Once I started cooking though, I realized that this menu is deceptively simple.

Nothing about it is hard, tricky or complicated and it's easy to keep components warm as you make them, so there is no last minute freakout as you realize that the steaks are done but your potatoes have 5 minutes to go. The chipotle mashed potatoes add a new flavor to an old standby and the lemon crema tames the heat and brings a bit of richness and extravagance to the party. Garlicky wilted spinach adds a burst of bright green color and texture contrast and serves as the perfect nest for a piece of spice encrusted beef tenderloin.

I'm usually a bit nervous about butchering a decent cut of steak since I only make it twice a year, but the cooking technique I used (a mash of America's Test Kitchen and Alton Brown's methods) makes it foolproof. I hope that you'll try out this menu for your next dinner party, or special occasion at home dinner- I will definitley be making it again.

When I was cooking I wished that I had a breakdown of when to do what, instead of 5 recipes on a page without any direction so I've put together this timing list. I hope it's helpful

Southwestern Spiced Beef Tenderloin with Chipotle Mashed Potatoes, Lemon Crema and Wilted Spinach
Adapted from Cuisine at Home
Serves 2, with room for dessert

Timing Notes:
-1 hour before cooking, put beef on the counter to take the chill off
-15 minutes before cooking, turn oven on to 200F, take out all your ingredients and line them up on the counter
Cooking starts:
-Put steaks in oven
-Peel potatoes, chop and set to boil boil
-Make lemon crema
-Make compound butter
-Prep additions to the potatoes
-Drain and mash potatoes, reserving the liquid.
-Take steaks out of the oven and sear on the stove, set aside to rest.
-Wilt spinach.
-Plate and enjoy.

For the Beef:

1 t. brown sugar
1/2 t. kosher salt
1/2 t. paprika
1/4 t. chili powder
a few grinds of pepper
2 beef tenderloin filets, about 4oz (120g) each
1 t. vegetable oil

- Preheat oven to 200F.

- Mix the sugar and spices and press the top and bottom of each fillet (leave the sides unseasoned)) in the mix. Insert a probe thermometer into one of the filets and set the alert temp. to 95F (for very rare). Bake filets on a wire rack above a pan for 20-30 minutes, or until the internal temperature is achieved.

- Heat a cast iron skillet over high heat with the vegetable oil until it begins to smoke. Sear the steaks for about 45 seconds on each side or until they develop a brown crust. You can sear the sides as well if you like. Set the filets aside to rest for a few minutes and serve.

For the Spuds:

1/2 lb (500g) potatoes
1/2 C. half and half
1 T. scallion, thinly sliced
1 chipotle en adobo, minced (start easy on the peppers, they're spicy)
salt and pepper to taste

- Peel the potatoes and cut into uniformish chunks. Put in a pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil and cook for about 20 minutes or until tender. Drain the potatoes (I drained the water into a metal bowl so I could pour it back into the pot and use it as a double boiler to keep the potatoes warm)

- Let the potatoes dry in the pot for a minute or two. Heat the half and half. Put the potatoes in a heat safe bowl and then mash them with as much cream as you like and chipotle as you dare. Mix in the scallions and add salt and pepper to taste.

- Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set over a double boiler to keep warm.

For the Lemon Crema:

2 T. lowfat sour cream
2 t. lemon juice
zest of about 1/4 a lemon

- Mix it all together in a little bowl and chill till ready to plate

For the Compound Butter:

2 t. butter, softened
1 t. chopped parseley, or celery leaves
a bit of lemon zest (depends how much you like it)
a little squeeze of lemon juice

- Mix it all together and then stash it in the fridge until ready to use

For the Garlic Wilted Spinach

1 clove garlic, smashed
1 t. olive oil
6 oz (180g) baby spinach leaves
salt and pepper to taste

- Add the garlic and olive oil to a skillet large enough to hold the spinach. Heat over medium low until the garlic get lightly browned. Add the spinach and stir to coat with the oil. Cook until just wilted and then plate immediately.

For the assembly:

- Divide the spuds evenly between the plates.

- Top each with half of the lemon crema.

- Split the spinach between the plates and set it on top of the crema.

- Perch a filet of beef on top and finish it all off with a pat of the compound butter.

- Enjoy.

26 February 2009

Quick Apple Pear Crumble

It seems like I've been posting about a lot of desserts lately. I think it's due to all the studying I've been doing for my comprehensive exam (two more weeks to go--eeeek). I barely have time to cook us real dinners these days, but on the weekends I always want to bake or make some kind of dessert to make up for the fact that we ate veggie burgers and spaghetti for dinner most of the week.

The inspiration for this apple pear crumble came from my Abel and Cole cookbook. The original recipe is more of guideline so I felt free make a smaller portion and reduce the butter used for the topping. It's not much to look at, but its the perfect winter comfort dessert. The apples and pears keep their texture but the best part is the the spicy, sweet crumble. I still consider it a relatively healthy dessert though as 4-5 servings only has 2.5T of butter. Recipe after the jump.

Quick Apple Pear Crumble
Inspired by the Able and Cole Cookbook
Serves 4-5

2 apples, peeled in zebra stripes and cored*
2 pears, peeled in zebra stripes and cored*
1 T. rum or brandy
juice of 1/2 a lemon
1 T. sugar
1/3 C. (40g) flour
1/3 C. rolled oats
1/3 C. (60g) dark brown sugar
1/4 t. ground cinnamon
1/4 t. ground ginger
a few grates of nutmeg
pinch salt
2.5 T butter

- Preheat oven to 375F. Lightly great a casserole dish or pie plate.

- Chop apples and pears into 1/2in (1cm) cubes. Place in the dish, pour on the rum, lemon and sugar and toss to combine.

- In a small bowl, combine the flour, oats, sugar, spices and salt. Cut the butter into small pieces and drop into the bowl. Use your finger tips to work the butter into the flour mixture, rubbing it between your fingers like you are feeling the texture of a cashmere sweater at Neimans, until the butter is incorporated and the mixture looks like coarse breadcrumbs.

- Sprinkle the topping evenly over the fruit mixture and bake for 30-40 minutes or until the topping is golden and the fruit is tender. Serve hot or at room temperature.

*I like to leave on the peel for its nutrition benefits but leaving all of it on can give the crumble an unpleasant texture. My solution is to remove about half of the peel of the fruit by taking off stripes with a vegetable peeler. The zebra striping leaves enough peel that I at least feel like I'm getting some vitamins, but not so much that it affects the texture of the finished product.

21 February 2009

Spiced Flourless Chocolate Cakes with Dulce de Leche Sauce

It's funny how spot-on Shakespeare was when he wrote, "Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet?" Names for things, especially in the culinary world, convey the essence of what a thing. Truffle, mousse, souffle, all convey a specific type of food that plays on what we know. You don't expect to get Hershey's bar when you ask for a truffle or an ice pop when ordering chocolate mousse. In the same way, a souffle conjours up a light, almost ethereal dish, rising out of its ramekin in stately fashion yet ready to fall at the slightest wrong move. I say all this by way of introduction to a flourless chocolate cake I made despite its recipe's claim to end in a souffle.

The day before Valentine's day, a recipe for a Mexican Chocolate Souffle made its way into my inbox. I was imediatley intrigued, as I hadn't even begun to consider what to make Zach and myself for dinner the next night.  We really don't go big into these kinds of things, but I thought it would be nice if I actually made an effort on dinner, as school and work have kept me out the kitchen lately. The souffle recipe seemed easy enough and I had everything on hand it make it.

After a dinner with a Southwest theme, I set out to make the souffles. The recipe had been scaled back to serve 2 and as I read through the ingredients, the proportions just seemed off. 60g of chocolate to only 1 egg white? I didn't seem like enough egg white base to me, but as it was 9pm on Valentine's Day, I couldn't quite go off on a recipe search so I soldiered on. Everything for the souffle came together quickly. I used an improvised double boiler to melt the chocolate mixture, managed to use another half teaspoon on the instant coffee powder that Zach hates but I have on hand from recipes like this one and used my handy new immersion blender with wisk attachment to beat the egg white. I carefully folded the mixture together, much more calmly than the last time, spooned the souffle into the prepared ramekins and set them in the oven.

Ten minutes later I peeped in the window expecting to see my little souffles popping over the top of their molds. Instead they had barely risen half an inch. 'Maybe they are late risers', I thought and decided to wait. By the time the appointed cooking period was over, the hadn't even risen to the top of the ramekins. I still hoped they would taste like souffles, and took them out to the table to serve. I went to take a bite. My spoon encountered some resistance, not easily sliding through as it would with a souffle. I took a taste.  Chocolately, a little dense, with hints of cinnamon, coffee and maybe a tiny taste of coconut. Good. Really good. But not a souffle. I had made a flourless chocolate cake. 

Shakespeare was right in that a name for anything, imbued as it is with all of one's past experiences, influences how satisfied we are with it. I had made a terrible souffle, but a great chocolate cake. By changing the name of the recipe, and calling it was it is, and not what it wants to be, it tastes even sweeter.

Spiced Flourless Chocolate Cakes with Dulce de Leche Sauce
Adapted from Cuisine at Home
Serves 2

Unsalted butter and sugar
60 g. bittersweet chocolate (about 1/3C. chocolate chips)
2 T milk
1 t Malibu or coconut rum
1/2 t instant coffee powder
1/2 t cornstarch
1 t sugar
Pinch of ground cinnamon
Pinch of ground cayenne pepper
1 egg, separated
Splash vanilla extract
Dulce de leche sauce (recipe follows)
Cocoa powder for dusting (optional)

- Preheat oven to 400F.

- Butter and sugar 2, 6oz (180ml) ramekins.

- Melt chocolate, milk, rum, coffee powder, cornstarch, sugar and spices in a double boiler until chocolate is completely melted.  Stir to combine. Remove from heat but leave the double boiler on.

- Wisk together the egg yolk and vanilla then temper in to the chocolate mixture. Return the chocolate mix to the double boiler and cook for 3 minutes, wisking constantly. Remove from heat, cool to a warm room temperature.

- Whip the egg whites (in a metal or glass bowl- no plastic please, it will inhibit the whipping) until stiff peaks form. Stir one quarter of the whites into the chocolate mix to lighten it. Gently fold in the rest of the whites- its ok to leave the mixture a little bit streaky.

- Bake for 20 minutes or until the top looks dry but the sides have not pulled away from the ramekins. Remove from oven and let cool for 5-10 minutes. Dust with cocoa and drizzle with dulce de leche sauce and serve.

Dulce de leche sauce

1 T. dulce de leche (check out Vera's easy recipe if you'd like to make it yourself)
1 T. half and half or milk

- Microwave ingredients for about 20-30 seconds until they are hot and easily combine into a sauce

19 February 2009

Tomato Vegetable Soup

I never much liked tomato soup growing up. I always thought of it as the sharp, slightly metallic tasting stuff the school cafeteria ladies served us from huge vats on grilled cheese day. I didn't hate it, but I wouldn't ever choose to eat it either. Then, a few years ago, I decided to give tomato soup another try. I found a recipe that looked good and went for it. It was delicious. Sweet from sauteed onion and carrots but with a distinct tomato taste enhanced by roasting the tomatoes. It's still the only recipe I make, though I have adapted it over the years to make much more than the original called for (why make only one meal worth of soup?) and to take out about 2/3C of oil. Don't worry- you won't miss it at all. Recipe after the jump.

Tomato Vegetable Soup
Adapted from Michael Chiarello
Makes 10 cups

1, 28oz (800g, it doesn't need to be exact) can diced tomato
2 T. olive oil, divided
1 very large or two medium onions
2 carrots
2 celery ribs
4 C. (1L) chicken stock (or veggie stock)
2 small bay leaves
1/2 t. dried basil
2 T. butter
salt and pepper to taste

- Preheat oven to 450F. Drain the tomatoes from the juice, reserving the juice for later use. Spread the tomatoes out on a baking sheet and drizzle with 1 T. olive oil and roast for 15-20 minutes until the tomatoes are starting to brown.

- While the tomatoes are roasting, dice the onions, carrot and celery. Heat 1 T. olive oil in a soup pot and sweat the vegetables on medium-low heat for about 10 minutes or until the onion in translucent. Add the reserved tomato juices, chicken stock, roasted tomatoes, bay leaves, basil and butter to the pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 20-30 minutes- you want the veggies to be very tender.

- Puree the soup using an immersion blender or by transferring it in batches to your blender (don't forget to take out the center plug in the blender lid and cover it with a folded towel or silicon oven mitt so the steam can escape). Taste the soup and add salt/pepper to your liking and serve. Also keeps very well in the fridge for a few days.

16 February 2009

I Saw Chef Spike!

Yes, it's true. I saw Chef Spike today [an aside- just in case you are not Top Chef obsessed like I am, Spike was a contestant on season 4 and charmed us all with his quirky style and delicious looking food] Towards the end of season four of Top Chef, we started to hear some rumors here in DC that Spike would be opening up a restaurant. Pretty soon a website was up for Good Stuff Eatery. It didn't have much besides a concept- burgers, fries and shakes but made only with the best ingredients, and a prospective opening date, Spring 2008.  DC already has a lot of burger joints but this one would have a semi-celebrity at the helm and  K* and I immediately made plans to go, but, as the best laid plans are wont to do, they got delayed.

Finally, we made specific plans for our pilgrimage.  Presidents' Day, since we were both of from school and work, was it.  On the way, K* and I had debated to likelihood of Chef Spike being at Good Stuff.  She was more hopeful than I, as I imagined that Spike would be, well I don't know what else exactly he might be doing other than running his own restaurant but I figured there must be something.  We walked in to the converted row house and joined the bunch of people standing near the cashier and then I saw him. I will admit, I squealed a little. Spike was behind the counter, expediting the orders, wearing his trademark fedora. I felt a bit better for behaving like a 13 year old at a Jonas Brothers concert when a woman who walked in behind us did the exact same thing.

As I tried to concentrate on the menu instead of the pseudo-celebrity chef, I saw there were about 8 burger choices from the plain to jacked up versions with options of egg, bacon, cheese and assorted other toppings, along with fries, Chef Spike's fries (seasoned with thyme), onion petals and milkshakes. I like to keep it simple with burgers and got the Farmhouse Cheddar along with an order of Chef's fries and K* got the Colletti's Smokehouse with fried onion, bacon and BBQ sauce and the famed marshmallow milkshake. A few minutes later we got our orders, found a table and got ready to try our first taste of a Top Chef worthy meal.

As I pulled my burger out of the bag, I noticed it was on the smaller side and had been squished a bit into the wrapper which seemed rather odd- I mean, why would anyone squish a bun on purpose? I took out the fries, heavily seasoned with the thyme and managed to control my excitement and appetite just long enough to take the above photo and then dug in.

The burger was delicious. Really, really good. Juicy, cooked medium-rare and had the perfect amount of toppings, enough to taste everything but not too much to overwhelm the meat. The fries could have been crispier but had a great flavor and were cooked well on the inside. The milkshake though, was a revelation. Normally I don't love milkshakes (why not just eat ice cream?) or marshmallows (chemicalized sugar just doesn't appeal to me) so I was quite skeptical when K* wanted to get the toasted marshmallow milkshake. I expected to try a sip and then politely pass the glass back to her. I couldn't have been more wrong. The milkshake was so smooth and creamy it was like drinking liquid creme brulee. It had a subtle toasted sugar taste, not at all like a commercial marshmallow even though it had on sitting on top. I loved the burger but hands down I would go back and have a milkshake. For lunch. By itself.

Beside this litany of praise I have 2 minor complaints. 1) You don't get to pick how you like your burger done and 2) there is little consistency with how the burgers are cooked. Mine was medium rare, far less done than I usually order it and K*'s was quite well done, much to close to incineration stage for her liking. It wasn't that huge a deal and both of us still really liked our meal, but a minor point, one that I think both of us expected Chef Spike would have taken care of. Overall though I'm glad I finally got to go and I'm thinking of what other Top Chef fans I can round up to justify another trip in the near future.

Good Stuff Eatery
303 Pennsylvania Ave, SE
Capitol South Metro
Closed Sundays
Burgers $5-8
Fries $2.75-$4
Milkshakes $3.50-$4.75 but totally worth it

03 February 2009

Chocolate Mousse

Chocolate mousse is not a dessert for the faint of heart or waistline. It involves copious amounts of chocolate, butter and raw eggs and has about a billion calories and grams of fat per serving. It is also impossibly creamy, melting in your mouth chocolately goodness. If you are going to splurge on a chocolate dessert, let this one be it.

A few weeks ago we had some friends over for dinner, friends who have been exceedingly kind in helping us move in the past, so I wanted to do something special for dessert (aka not something on the healthy dessert week list). The idea of chocolate mousse had been floating around in my head for some time so I decided to give it a go. I started searching for recipes online and found they seemed to fall into two general categories: those with whipped cream and those without. I was already leaning toward a cream-less recipe as I was worried about it weeping or separating when I came across David Liebowitz's version of Julia Child's classic recipe. After seeing Julia's kitchen in the American History Museum when my dad visited a few weeks ago, I felt I could not go wrong with one of her recipes.

I was right. The mousse was just what I had hoped for. Intensely chocolate yet not heavy which was nothing short of a miracle considering the amount of butter it contains. It was the perfect ending to the meal and since I made a full recipe for the four of us, Zach and I got to enjoy the leftovers for a few nights too.

David's version of the mousse recipe is so clear and I made so few changes to it (besides substituting orange rum in for dark rum as that's what I had on hand) that I'll leave you to him if you'd like to make it with two suggestions:

1) Ghiradelli makes very high quality chocolate chips that are much less expensive than comparable chocolate in bar form. Since the quality of the chocolate is very important in this recipe, you might want to think about chips as an alternative.
2) You can melt the chocolate and butter in the microwave instead of on a double boiler to save a little time and trouble.

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02 February 2009

Red Cabbage

Can I admit it? I like cabbage. A lot. It's seems shameful to own up to it as cabbage isn't sexy, trendy or quite frankly even very pretty. But I do like it.

Take red cabbage for instance. What else would brighten up a plate of meatballs, boiled potatoes and pan sauce quite so much? Nothing that would even remotely go with Scandinavian food, that's for sure. There's just something about slightly crispy yet tender cabbage with a hint of lemon and a pinch of sugar that makes me think of Denmark and my exchange student days... but getting back to more practical matters, red cabbage can go from cutting board to table in about 10 minutes- always a plus in my book. Recipe after the jump.

Red Cabbage
Serves 4-6 as a side

1 head red cabbage (about 2 lb/1kg)
2 cloves garlic, chopped
juice of 1 lemon
spoonful of sugar
salt and pepper to taste

- Remove the other leaves from the cabbage if they look dirty or beaten up. Split the cabbage in half from top to bottom and then cut out the root. Position one cabbage half cut-side-down on the cutting board and slice the cabbage thinly (1/4in, 1cm) parallel to the root. Repeat with the other half.

- Put the cabbage, garlic and 1/3 c (100ml) water in a pot with a tight fitting lid. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer for 4-8 minutes, depending on how cooked you like the cabbage. Personally, I aim for a just cooked but still a bit crispy stage that it close to the 4 minute mark.

- Remove from heat and add the lemon juice, sugar and salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.