Sunday, December 23, 2007

Daring Bakers: Yule Log

Happy Christmas, friends! The December challenge for the Daring Bakers was, in the spirit of the holidays, a recipe for a yule log or buche de noel. It was far more challenging than the potato bread from last month! Somehow I managed to pull it off but not without my brother and refering to The Cake Bible.

The yule log cake is an ancient tradition, probably pagan, but now associated with the Christmas holiday season.

The Daring Bakers' challenge comprised three main components: a genoise cake, buttercream frosting, and meringue or marzipan mushroom decorations. None of these elements are easy on their own and in combination I have to confess that this recipe was a bit daunting, especially right before Christmas.

I decided to try this recipe with my brother, who is an accomplished cake baker, with assistance from his two little girls ages three and five. We made the cake at my mother's house. That added another layer of complexity because neither of us were cooking in our own kitchen.

We experienced two major yule log disasters: the genoise didn't quite roll up and the buttercream tasted awful! We realized the pound of butter in my mom's fridge was SALTED! (Salted butter is only good melted and for dipping lobster in). So we had to start that over, but that wasn't a bad thing because we decided to make a frosting without butter so lactose intolerant among us could eat it. Neither the genoise nor the mushroom decorations contain dairy.

First I made meringue mushrooms dusted with cocoa powder. They look adorable and exactly like real mushrooms complete with dirt.

The next day we made the genoise. It is made without dairy or a leavener. It relies solely on eggs to make it light. We poured it into a jelly roll pan so it was very thin and only cooked for 10 minutes. When we rolled it up we ran into trouble. The cake didn't quite want to roll up, but we easily remedied that with a liberal use of frosting.

We made the buttercream while the cake was cooking but next time we will make the buttercream before making the cake. It takes longer than 10 minutes to make buttercream. Our first batch of buttercream was an umitigated disaster. We decided to do a non-dairy buttercream for the second batch. It turned out great, though not as great as real buttercream would have been, and it was very easy to spread.

Before rolling up the cake, we drizzled it with sugar water, a treatment for genoise that my brother learned in The Cake Bible. Then frosted the flat cake, rolled it up, and frosted the outside. We used the tines of a fork to give the log a bit of rustic texture. Then we dusted it with powdered sugar for a bit of snow effect and garnished it with the meringue mushrooms. We will eat it on Christmas Eve.

Meringue mushrooms:
3 large egg whites, at room temperature
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
½ cup (3-1/2 ounces/105 g.) granulated sugar
1/3 cup (1-1/3 ounces/40 g.) icing sugar
Unsweetened cocoa powder for dusting

1.Preheat the oven to 225 degrees F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment. Have ready a pastry bag fitted with a small (no. 6) plain tip. In a bowl, using a mixer on medium-low speed, beat together the egg whites and cream of tartar until very foamy. Slowly add the granulated sugar while beating. Increase the speed to high and beat until soft peaks form when the beaters are lifted. Continue until the whites hold stiff, shiny peaks. Sift the icing sugar over the whites and, using a rubber spatula, fold in until well blended.

2.Scoop the mixture into the bag. On one baking sheet, pipe 48 stems, each ½ inch (12 mm.) wide at the base and tapering off to a point at the top, ¾ inch (2 cm.) tall, and spaced about ½ inch (12 mm.) apart. On the other sheet, pipe 48 mounds for the tops, each about 1-1/4 inches (3 cm.) wide and ¾ inch (2 cm.) high, also spaced ½ inch (12 mm.) apart. With a damp fingertip, gently smooth any pointy tips. Dust with cocoa. Reserve the remaining meringue.

3.Bake until dry and firm enough to lift off the paper, 50-55 minutes. Set the pans on the counter and turn the mounds flat side up. With the tip of a knife, carefully make a small hole in the flat side of each mound. Pipe small dabs of the remaining meringue into the holes and insert the stems tip first. Return to the oven until completely dry, about 15 minutes longer. Let cool completely on the sheets.

3 large eggs
3 large egg yolks
pinch of salt
¾ cup of sugar
½ cup cake flour - spoon flour into dry-measure cup and level off (also known as cake & pastry flour)
¼ cup cornstarch
1 t vanilla extract
1/2 t almond extract
one (1) 10 x 15 inch jelly-roll pan that has been buttered and lined with parchment paper and then buttered again

1.Set a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees F.

2.Half-fill a medium saucepan with water and bring it to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat so the water is simmering.

3.Whisk the eggs, egg yolks, salt and sugar together in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer. Place over the pan of simmering water and whisk gently until the mixture is just lukewarm, about 100 degrees if you have a thermometer (or test with your finger - it should be warm to the touch).

4.Attach the bowl to the mixer and, with the whisk attachment, whip on medium-high speed until the egg mixture is cooled (touch the outside of the bowl to tell) and tripled in volume. The egg foam will be thick and will form a slowly dissolving ribbon falling back onto the bowl of whipped eggs when the whisk is lifted.

5.While the eggs are whipping, stir together the flour and cornstarch.

6.Sift one-third of the flour mixture over the beaten eggs. Use a rubber spatula to fold in the flour mixture, making sure to scrape all the way to the bottom of the bowl on every pass through the batter to prevent the flour mixture from accumulating there and making lumps. Repeat with another third of the flour mixture and finally with the remainder. Stir in vanilla and almond (or other flavorings).

7.Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.

8.Bake the genoise for about 10 to 12 minutes. Make sure the cake doesn’t overbake and become too dry or it will not roll properly.

9.Once the cake is done (a tester will come out clean and if you press the cake lightly it will spring back), remove it from the oven and let it cool on a rack.

Sugar water:
6 T sugar
2/3 c water
optional 3 T of liqueur

In a saucepan combine sugar and water. Bring to a rolling boil, stirring constantly. Cover and remove from heat. Cool completely. Transfer to a measuring cup and add liqueur. Use this sauce to pour over cake before frosting it.

Chocolate frosting:
4 cups confectioners' sugar
1 cup shortening
2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon clear imitation vanilla extract
1/2 cup cocoa powder

In a large bowl, combine sugar, shortening, water and vanilla. Beat on low speed to combine, then beat on medium speed for a full five minutes. It won't look like Icing at first, but keep the mixer going for a full five minutes. Stir in the cocoa. Add additional water if the frosting becomes too thick.

Assembling the yule log:
While the cake is still warm, turn it out of the pan onto a towl sprinkled with powdered sugar. Roll up the cake with the towl. Then unroll, remove towel, and drizzle with some sugar water. Frost it with a layer of chocolate frosting. Next, gently roll up the cake. If it breaks a little, don't worry, you can gently press them back into place. Put the cake in the fridge to rest for an hour or so.

Take the cake out of the fridge. Drizzle with more sugar water. Frost the exterior of the roll being careful to cover the entire cake. You can cover a multitude of sins with frosting. We dip our knives into hot water to make spreading easier. Once the cake is frosted, dip the tines of a fork into hot water and rake gently across the frosting to make a bark pattern on the log.

Dust with powdered sugar and garnish with the mushroom.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Nana's for dinner

Last night I went to Nana's for dinner. In need of vegetables, I had the field greens salad that included radish, fennel and cherry tomato in a lemon vinaigrette. The fennel with the lemon vinaigrette was a lovely combination. I might have to try some think slices of fennel the next time I make a salad.

My main course was an item listed under the starters. It was a bowl of wide pasta with a duck sauce. The duck had been ground and cooked for a long while. It was delicious, warm, comfort food, perfect for a cold night. My friend had venison. It was surely good because not a morsel was left on his plate.

The menu had several interesting game dishes: venison, bison, and wild boar. I'd love to try the wild boar. I like boar so much that I'm ready to go hunting for one!

For dessert we had gooey pumpkin cake with eggnog ice cream. The cake had a layer of dark ginger then a layer of lighter pumpkin. It was gooey indeed. The ice cream lived up to its billing and tasted exactly like frozen, creamy eggnog. YUM! The dessert was garnished with a ginger (I think) crisp.

We drank a big, bold red, a blend, from the Barossa Valley in Australia.

I cannot wait to eat there again! Besides good food, the service is always friendly and attentive.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Chocolate truffles

One of my blogger friends pointed out the chocolate truffle recipe and video from Mark Bittman in last Wednesday's NYT Food section. It had been a while since I made truffles and since I had a block of Caillebaut dark chocolate in the cupboard, I decided to make some. I cannot underscore enough how easy these truffles are, however, good ingredients are key. I used the French chocolate and some heavy cream from a local dairy. I also added a dash of cinnamon.

I put the finished truffles into gold foil candy cups, placed four in a little favor box, and wrapped a pretty green ribbon around each box. I am going to give these to my friends at work for Christmas.

Chocolate truffle recipe from Mark Bittman:

7/8 cup heavy cream

8 ounces good quality bittersweet chocolate, chopped

Unsweetened cocoa powder as needed.

1. Heat cream in a pot until it steams. Put chocolate in a bowl, pour hot cream on top, and stir until chocolate is melted and incorporated into cream.

2. Chill until solid all the way through, 1 to 2 hours. Using a chilled melon baller or latex gloves to prevent the ganache from melting or sticking to your hands, scoop out about a tablespoonful and quickly roll it into a ball. Repeat, lining truffles on a plate or a baking sheet.

3. If truffles become too soft to handle, place them in refrigerator or freezer for a few minutes. Roll them in cocoa powder, confectioners’ sugar or a mixture of sugar and ground cinnamon. Serve immediately or store, wrapped in plastic, in refrigerator for up to four days.

Yield: About 1 1/2 cups ganache, or 24 truffles.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Truffle oil and mushroom pizza

On Friday I headed over to A Southern Season to pick up a gift for my cousin who is a bit of a chocolate connoisseur at the tender of age of 23. I really like to wander around the store looking at everything. But this is dangerous to my wallet! I left the store with chocolates and a $30 bottle of black truffle oil.

I've been wanting to cook w/ black truffle for a long time but I cannot bring myself to pay $185 for one mushroom no matter how delicious. Having said that, I will marry any man who brings me fresh black truffles and a Judith Leiber evening bag!

Truffle oil is, relatively speaking, a much less expensive alternative. The good news is that a little goes a long way so a 3.5 oz, $30 bottle will last awhile.

Last night I made mushroom pizza and drizzled a few drops of truffle oil over the slices. It was perfect! The oil imparts an earthy richness. Tomorrow I am making some mushroom risotto and I'll put some truffle oil on that too.

Mushroom pizza w/ truffle oil:

Pizza dough, enough for a large pie (homemade, frozen, canned, doesn't matter)
1lb sliced white, shitake, cremini, whatever combination you like
4 T. olive oil
3 or 4 cloves of garlic finely minced
8 oz of shredded mozzarella
8 oz of shredded Parmesan or Swiss or whatever you like
Salt and pepper to taste
Truffle oil to taste

Preheat oven to 400F. Roll out the pizza dough and brush with 2 T. olive oil. Scatter the garlic on top of the oil. Bake the pizza dough for 8 minutes. Meanwhile saute the mushrooms in the remaining olive oil for about 8 minutes. Top the half-baked pizza dough with mushrooms and cheese. Season with salt and pepper. Bake for 15 minutes or until crust is brown and cheese is melted and golden.

Slice into pieces and drizzle each slice with a few drops of truffle oil.

Friday, December 14, 2007

No more onion tears!

Onions and shallots make me sob, not a couple of tears but full on gushing. Even just peeling and cutting in half to throw into the food processor makes my eyes start running. I've tried a variety of techniques: wearing contacts, wearing goggles (now that's pretty), keeping onions in fridge, cutting them in a bowl of water (messy and too hard), and finally I just gave up and let the tears and mascara run down my face...until now!

I read a tip in Cooks' Illustrated to cut onions near an open flame such as a candle or a gas burner. Since I have a gas stove and my cutting area is right next to it, I decided to give it a try. If I am cooking the onions anyway, I figured I could warm the pan and the oil while the burner is on thereby killing a couple of birds with one stone.

Et voila! It worked. The fumes from the flames counteract the fumes in the onion that burn the eyes. So put a candle nearby or get that skillet warmed up next time you have to cut up an onion.

I love those Cooks' Illustrated people! They have such good ideas. If you know of other techniques that work, let me know.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Watts Grocery: Dinner

Last night my dive buddy and I went to Watts Grocery for dinner and to exchange Christmas gifts. He gave me a gorgeous book called Reef by a team of photographers called Scubazoo. I gave him a very useful tool, a hammer with a bottle opener, and 16 bottles of beer that I bought from Wine Authorities: Dogfish Head 90 Minute Imperial IPA, Bell's Cream Stout, and Prima Pils.

Dinner was as usual very good. We didn't order starters but we did share some hushpuppies. My friend was skeptical about them but I liked them. I've never met a hushpuppy I didn't like. They were formed into balls, crisp on the outside and soft and breadlike inside. There were specks of green onion and parsley visible inside. They were served with a cilantro mayonnaise.

I had molasses chili glazed salmon with collard risotto in its pot likker. For those of you who are not from the south, pot likker is the resulting broth from cooking collards in water with onion, salt, pepper and fat back or ham hock. I know some Southerners who save the pot likker, pour it into cups and make their children drink it because it's full of nutrients that boil off the collards.

The salmon was perfectly cooked to medium. I really liked the molasses chili glaze. The sweet glaze complimented the bitterness of the greens.

My dive buddy had the pork. The portion was huge and it looked tasty. I always want to pick up a pork chop like that and gnaw on the bone, but I spared my dining companion my atavistic impulses.

We were too full to get dessert. The portions were huge. I'm glad we didn't order starters.

Our waiter was helpful. He made a good wine recommendation.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Chocolate peanut butter candy

One holiday tradition in my family is that my maternal grandmother makes tons of candies and cookies every year. After her pralines, this recipe is my favorite. It is dead easy and it reminds me of Reese's peanut butter cups, only better.

1 c. creamy peanut butter (I have never tried it w/ crunchy)
1 c. powdered sugar
1 T. butter, softened
Dipping chocolate, melted

Mix together all ingredients but the chocolate. Roll mixture into small balls. Using a toothpick, pick up each ball and dip into the melted chocolate. Place the balls on waxed paper to allow the chocolate to set and dry. Remove toothpicks.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Gambas a la plancha

On Saturday at the Durham Farmers' Market, I found some small, round, sweet, slightly spicy Puerto Rican peppers like the ones I had at Jujube. Inspired by Charlie and Josh's dish at the 20 course tasting menu, I thought I'd buy the peppers and try my own version of the dish because I happened to have freezer full of shrimp from Ocracoke and I love these little peppers!

It turned out well, especially the shrimp, but the peppers were not quite as delicious as the ones made by the geniuses at Jujube. They were still good. I think I didn't get the oil hot enough and I let the skins on the peppers get a little brown which made them somewhat bitter, I think. Not sure though.

Gambas a la plancha:

24 shrimp not peeled (shrimp cooked w/ the skin on is SO MUCH BETTER)
juice from 1 lemon
1/2 c. olive oil
salt and pepper
several Puerto Rican peppers (they have another name but I forgot it)

Rinse the shrimp and pat dry. Whisk together the lemon juice and olive oil until emulsified. Add salt and pepper. You could add some minced garlic too. Stir in the shrimp until they are well-coated.

Heat a cast iron skillet until it is very hot. Add the shrimp in a single layer. Cook shrimp for 1 minute on each side and then for another minute or two. Remove to a plate. Cook shrimp in batches and hold in a warm oven.

Once all the shrimp are cooked, add canola oil to the pan, enough for about 1/2 inch of oil in the pan. Once the oil is hot, add the peppers. Cook for a minute or two until the skin blisters. Remove to a plate to drain the oil from the peppers.

Arrange some shrimp and a couple of peppers on each plate and season with salt and pepper. Drizzle with some olive oil if you like. Be sure to give your guests big napkins because peeling the shrimp is messy!

I am thinking of what else to do with the little, fried peppers. They might be good served on a plate w/ a slice of fresh goat cheese, drizzled with oil and seasoned with salt and pepper. Next time I find some, I will try this. I am determined to perfect cooking these peppers.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Splurge! The Umstead

Since I work in the Park, I venture to Cary every once in awhile. Last night I went to a meeting after work in the bar at the luxurious Umstead off of Harrison on the SAS campus.

The place was full of corporate suits and elegant ladies, but I guess that is no great surprise given its location. The bar has comfy chairs and sofas and interesting art. The staff are friendly and helpful. The atmosphere is understated elegance and warm. The N&O review from last January when the place opened is on target.

The cocktails are dazzlingly expensive. Last time I paid $14 for a cocktail was in Manhattan. The good news about such prices is that you'll only drink one so you'll make it home safely! Instead of peanuts or pretzels, each tables gets snacks like wasabi peas, pickled okra and olives.

The bar menu looked good. I had an app for my dinner. It was a crab cake on a bed of black-eyed peas with red and yellow pepper topped with a fried green tomato. It was yummy. The tomato needed a bit more salt but the rest of the dish was perfectly seasoned. The crab cake was mostly crab without a lot of filler.

My colleague had the BBQ sandwich with fries. We laughed at him when he ordered because a place like the Umstead is not the place to order BBQ! But he got the last laugh. It was really good! The pork actually tasted and looked like pork. It had a great smoked flavor.

So if you are ever feeling rich or are on an expense account and in the RTP area, then try the Umstead. The Herons restaurant is supposed to be good but I've not been. It's not on the top of my list at the moment, but eventually I want to check it out.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Cranberry-onion confit

I made this recipe for Thanksgiving because I thought the standard cranberry sauce was a bit boring. The caramelized onions and wine really make these cranberries special. It makes about three cups which is a lot. I ate the leftovers with goat cheese on crackers. It would also be delicious spread over cream cheese.

Cranberry-onion confit from The Best Recipes:

6 T. unsalted butter
4 large onions thinly sliced (about 7 cups)
1/2 c. sugar
2 c. whole cranberries, picked through
1 c. red wine
1/4 c. red wine vinegar
3 T. grenadine (optional)
1t. salt

Melt the butter in a non-reactive pan or dutch oven over medium heat. Add onions and cook until the onions are very soft, about 30 minutes on medium low heat. Turn up heat to medium high and add sugar. Cook, stirring often, until the onions are golden brown and caramelized, about 15 minutes.

Add remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Simmer, partially covered, until most of the liquid is absorbed and mixture has a jam-like consistency, about 25 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007


My friend Joe reports about a certain local restaurant that planning to go to all disposable utensils by the end of the week in order to save water. I find disposable utensils objectionable unless they are biodegradable, but I'd rather a restaurant use disposable than have to close completely which is what may happen if we run out of water.

We have 53 days of easily accessible water left in Lake Michie. I've been thinking about what I'm going to do if one day no water comes out of the tap. Imagine the impact to how we live! Daily life would change dramatically. Lot's of businesses would have to shut down.

The most important thing is to have water to drink, but just think of how much water you'd need at minimum to get by for a day. Do you know how much water you could get by on? Bare minimum for living, I'd need two gallons for drinking, washing hands/face/teeth, flushing, washing a couple of dishes and my morning cup of coffee. Even if I go to biodegradable utensils and plates, there will still be a need to wash up some pots and pans. Maybe 2 gallons isn't enough. Who knows.

Imagine the pandemonium if 210,000 people in Durham don't have water coming out of their faucets. Does standing in line w/ a bucket or jug to get water at a FEMA truck sound fun or what?

I might just have to get out of Dodge. I'll pack the cats and computer into the car and go live at the coast for a while.

You need a plan B just in case this happens. You might also start praying for a week of nonstop rain.

Shopping fun: Trader Joe's opens

The new Trader Joe's opened in Chapel Hill at the weekend. My cupboards were bare, well at least my fridge was, so I headed over to check it out last night. I'm glad I wasn't there on the weekend because apparently it was a madhouse. They had trouble keeping the shelves stocked. That's a good problem to have if you are a supermarket! Apparently a delivery was coming today so this evening would be a good time to go.

All I really needed to buy was some milk, fruit, and cheese. Seventy-five dollars later I left the store with all kinds of interesting things at good prices, less than Harris Teeter and Whole Foods for comparable items: 8oz of goat cheese, smoked mozzarella, dried wild mushrooms, raw almonds, sugar coated macadamia nuts, a whole marinated pot roast, a block of Ghiradelli dark chocolate, a box of frozen profiteroles, frozen French green beans, coffee and more.

Other things looked good like the proscuitto and pancetta as well as the variety of inexpensive cheeses, nuts, dried fruits, coffees and the European butters Plugra and President (these take bread and butter to a whole new level of delicious). The frozen fish and seafood tempted me but my freezer is already full of trout and shrimp from the coast.

The nuts are a great value. I never met a nut I didn't like. My favorite are marcona almonds that are blanched and lightly salted. They are great with cocktails. In fact, all you really need to do is put some in a bowl and pour the drinks.

I'm looking forward to trying the profiteroles, small cream puffs filled w/ ice cream. Easiest, elegant dessert on earth: open a box of frozen profiteroles and arrange three on a plate. Make this chocolate sauce and drizzle generously over the profiteroles. YUM!

I bought some dried orange slices but I am not sure what to do with them. Maybe some mulled wine or tea. I know what I will do with the dried mushrooms: wild mushroom risotto with marrow.