Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween Totem Pole Cake and More!

This is a special Halloween blog post!  A very good friend of mine who happens to be an extremely talented writer has teamed up with me to put an eerie voice to the equally spooky cake I've conjured into existence...


by Adam McOmber

It gets dark early these days.  The sky turns the color of a bruise and, soon enough, the whole world fades to black.  We know we should get inside where it’s safe and warm.  Sit in the lamplight and read a book.  We should be cozied under a blanket and listen to the wind as it hammers against our windowpanes. 

But this is October.  Halloween weather and Halloween feelings.  And in these late days, we’ve grown to appreciate the dark, haven’t we?  We can feel it there inside of us.  Feel the crackle of autumn leaves in our chest.  The odd flicker of a jack-o-lantern’s candle. 

We like the way the hair on the back of our neck stands up when we see a fat spider hanging in a web.  We appreciate our hearts beating a little faster when we walk down an empty street and hear something scuttling in the bushes.  It’s a reminder of the season.  A reminder that the green of summer is fading all around us—and there’s a certain pleasure in watching that life pass.  The end of the green is what reveals the dark, after all.  

And in the dark, there’s a whole world of imagination.  Watch it play like a film on the white screen inside our mind.  A projector bulb flickers to life and then suddenly a black and white horror movie appears.  The dead are rising.  The monsters are coming out.  We watch the mummy drag itself from a jeweled sarcophagus.  Its face is all bandaged, and its flesh looks like desert sand.  We watch zombies rot and stumble through a graveyard.  And there too, in the eldritch vapors, is Victor Frankenstein’s monster, perpetually questioning his own humanity.  

 And behind him, a common man who’s growing tufts of animal hair from his face.  Yellow eyed, long fanged wolf wearing shredded clothes, prowling the shadows.  They’re like old friends now, aren’t they?  And we walk with our monsters in the dark.  We forget our lives and our responsibilities for a while.  We feel the strange old desires well up in us.  We too are creatures from long ago.  And we spread fear through our little town.  We realize that tomorrow the sun will rise, sweeping all of this away.  But for now we have the dark.  And we love it, don’t we?  We love it just as it is.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Apple Pie Contest

 Apple Pie.  It's my favorite type of pie  Always has been.  Probably always will be.

For the second year I entered the Bucktown Apple Pie Contest.  Last year I tried to make a dulce de leche type crust AND a dulce de leche like filling.

Thanks to my nephew for being an excellent hand model
It was kind of a failure.  It looked great but tasted bland.  My idea totally bombed and I think in the end I was just shooting too big with the little pie making experience I had.  So I had intended to make a much simpler apple pie this year.  Until--of course--I read another bloggers post about a local pie shops apple pie with a vanilla-like custard and I was like.....mmm...damn...  So I had to try this.

I ended up adapting it a tad and actually combined it with another recipe from my Cook's Illustrated cookbook.  The main adaptation was that the pie contest requires a double crust and the original recipe had a crumb topping (which is my favorite because I actually don't really like double crusts that much).  Nevertheless, I had to abide by the rules.  I was a little nervous about creating a hybrid pie for this contest based on my past experimental pie making failure but I made a test pie first and it was damn fine.  Thus, I went with it.

See? There's a little sticker that says 'Semi-Finalist'!  Also, yes my pies name was Brunhilde, the female warrior.

And it paid off because I was a semi-finalist in the contest!  I think there were about 100 entries and I was one of 15-20 semi-finalists so I was very pleased with my progress.  I don't even care about the failed art-deco"esque" design I had worked out for the top crust that caused me to frantically start cutting out free-hand maple leaves with leftover pie dough and plopping them atop my mucked up design...  All that is water under the bridge because I made it to the semi-finals!!!!  I made a pie that was on the track to becoming an award winning pie!  It just boosts my confidence a bit so I am excited for next year now.


For the pie crust, I again used the one for my stone fruit pie post times and doubled it for two pies.

The first part of the hybrid recipe came from here. As I mentioned before, I combined it with a recipe in my Cooks Illustrated cookbook.  The following is my complete version and is only for one pie.

Apple Mixture

7 granny smith apples (I didn't weigh them but they were large apples)
3 1/2 oz granulated sugar
1 3/4 oz light brown sugar
zest of half a lemon
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cinnamon


8 oz creme fraiche
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/8 tsp kosher salt
2 tbsp all-purpose flour

Egg Wash

1 tbsp heavy cream
1 large egg yolk

1.)  Peel, core and slice the apples into 1/4" slices
2.)  Toss the apples with both sugars, the zest, salt and cinnamon
3.)  Place them in a large dutch oven, cover and cook over medium heat--stirring often-- until they are tender but still hold their shape when pierced with a fork.  This took me between 10-15 minutes.
4.)  Dump them out onto a large baking sheet until they cool completely.
5.)  In the meantime prepare the custard by whisking together the flour and salt in one bowl
6.)  In a second medium bowl whisk together the egg, creme fraiche and vanilla extract until fully combined
7.)  Pour the dry ingredients (flour, salt mixture) into the wet and stir/whisk until fully combined
8.)  Once the apples are cooled, pour them, without the juices, into your pie dish (I arranged them individually to pack them in tightly and neatly because I was hoping it would slice well in cross-section for the contest judges.  I think it did...but your call) that already has your pie dough rolled into it.
9.)  Pour the custard over the apples
10.)  Place your top crust over the apples and trim and pinch and crimp or fork or whatever you want to do to make it look pretty
11.)  For the egg wash, whisk together the egg yolk and cream and with a pastry brush apply it to the pie crust.
12.)  Place pie in the fridge to chill while you preheat the oven to 425
13.)  Once preheated bake the pie for 25 minutes, then reduce the heat to 375, rotate the pie 180 and bake for another 25-30 minutes or until everything looks nice and done.
14.)  Remove the pie from the oven and let cool completely before slicing into.


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Chocolate Macarons

Macarons.  Yes.  There are like 5 ingredients that go into macarons and they take less than a half hour to make.  Yet they still manage to frustrate the hell out of me.

I've made them four times now.

The first was disastrous and they looked more like potato chips than any sort of cookie I know of.

The second time was in a pastry making class and of course, due to a group effort and guidance from our instructor, they came out splendidly.

So, naturally being fully educated on the secrets of macaron-making I headed home to give them another shot surely knowing all that there possibly is to know about making them.

And I rejoiced when they came out of the oven for the first minute.  They looked pretty--and actually tasted great but I decided to make giant mega macarons (like the mouth-watering ones I gobbled down at Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bakery this past summer) and didn't account for the extra baking time (I think this is what went wrong?) needed to bake them so they were more marshmallowy and had the thinnest shell imaginable.

But I did not stop there because I was fairly determined and irritated that I couldn't get a good macaron on my own.  So I went for a fourth try.  And these were definitely an improvement.  I did end up throwing out a batch but I ended up saving two--one being better than the other but both being better than the one I trashed.

I think the biggest problem I have with making macarons is getting the right consistency with the batter and not deflating the merignue.  I always read that it should be a "lava-like" flow...  Well, perhaps I need to start watching some Youtube videos of more lava flows because I'm having trouble with this.  Or maybe it just takes some more practice...  I'm going with I just need more practice--and I'm willing to accept that.  They are kinda fun to make and even more fun when they come out magnifque (that's French! like macarons!).  Plus, you can add just about any type of filling and flavor you can think of--buttercream, whipped cream, chocolate, ganache, fudge....  Get it?

My favorite is buttercream but I was actually making these for a friend who is anti-buttercream (he's cray cray) and pro-fudge (well, maybe not that cray cray) so I made a chocolate fudge filling.

Like I mentioned earlier--due to my lava-like batter troubles--these came out kind of flat which I think was a result of deflating the meringue.  I also had to adjust the baking times a tad between the batches because the first batch that I made and threw away had the same sort of marshmallowy under-baked texture that the mega macarons I tried to make had.  So I increased it ever so slightly by a couple of minutes.

Despite these ones being a vast improvement from my first batch (I dare call them a success), I actually can't wait to go another round at them.

This is the recipe from the Cook Au Vin pastry making class:

200g egg whites (our instructor believed chilled egg whites was best which I abided by but I've also read conflicting arguments for using room temperature ones)
200 g almond flour
350g powdered sugar
75g granulated sugar
1/2tsp cream of tartar
2tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder (I might add more or some food coloring if you want them darker or with more chocolate flavor)

Any filling of your choosing that amounts to about 2 cups

1.)  Combine almond flour and powdered sugar in a food processor and process until well combined (you can also just whisk the two together but I wanted a smooth shell and so I didn't want any big particles of almond flour so I tried to get the mixture as fine as possible.  However, I did read somewhere once that if you process the almond flour too much you could end up releasing some of the oils and apparently that spells trouble for the batter so I guess just beware...
2.)  Set aside flour/sugar mixture
3.)  Combine in a mixer the egg whites and the cream of tartar and whisk on high speed until foamy.
4.)  Add the granulated sugar and whisk on high until stiff peaks form
5.)  Add the flour/sugar mixture in three separate additions until just combined using the lowest setting on your mixer.  Do not over-mix or you will deflate the meringue.
6.)  Add the cocoa powder in and mix on the lowest setting for 15-20 seconds
7.)  Remove the bowl from the mixer and use a spatula to fold the rest of the cocoa in until it's evenly distributed and hopefully you will have a lava-flow like batter
8.)  Pour the batter into a piping bag and pipe out 1 1/2 inch circles onto prepped baking sheets (I prepared templates and put them under some parchment paper/slipmat to better help my piping endeavor)
9.)  Let the piped out macaron circles sit out at room temperature for 1 hour.  This dries them out and helps them form their shell.
10.)  About ten minutes before the hour is up, preheat the oven to 315 
11.)  Bake for 5 minutes at a time turning the baking sheets 180 degrees after the first 5 minutes and then leave them in for another 5 minutes (10 total).  As I mentioned previously I kept my last two batches in for an extra two minutes (12 total for me) which I think helped them form a sturdier shell/bake through.
12.)  After they are done baking remove from the oven and you have two options here--let them cool at room temperature or do what my instructor recommended and put them in the freezer directly and leave them there for a day before filling.  Apparently this helps maintain a moist interior for the macaron and a hard shell.  I did this and it worked just fine.  If you don't have time, just let them cool completely and fill when ready.

So the next day I made the fudge and filled them.  I keep them in an airtight container in the freezer.  I've read often that they taste better as time passes so if you don't have to eat them right away then this might be a great option. Bon Ap├ęttit!