Monday, January 28, 2008


Professor's Chocolate Cake and Victoria Sponge with Ganache

It is evident that I have to make a New Year's Resolution, even though we are already nearing the end of the new year's first month. You see, I have made a terrible mistake twice...and on the same day. I acted recklessly and baked cakes either by ignoring instructions or by not questioning them. Today's post is a lesson in rebellion and how wilful obliteration of time-honoured and tested principles will not yield light and fluffy cakes. Because you are infinitely more intelligent than I am, you will not do as I did and buck against your nature, which, for me, is to act with restraint and consideration - practically virtues in the world of baking.

The Resolution: just do as baking instructions say - no questions!

I wanted to surprise a beloved aunt with a birthday cake. I know, I'm terribly sweet. If only I could have lived out my day's goal of being nephew par excellence. I was in a bit of a tizz deciding what to bake...definitely something rich but also something unexpected. I am not really an online recipe-searcher, preferring instead to reach into my trove of cookery books and food magazines. I pulled out the magazines several days before the birthday celebration and got side-tracked re-reading articles and creating lists of restaurants to go to when I am next in the US. I decided looking through them was not a good idea and turned to the index of every cookery book I could get my hands on.

I chanced upon a previously unnoticed recipe for the Professor's Chocolate Cake in Beatrice Ojakangas' Scandinavian Feasts. Known as Professorin Suklaakakku in Finland and Professorns Chokladkaka in Sweden, Professor's Chocolate Cake is so-named because it is meant to appeal to "educated tastes." I suppose this comes from the density and gooey interior of the cake, different to traditional sponge-based cakes, which I turn to later in this post.

The first error rests with not clicking to the facts of the low amount of flour and the lack of baking powder. Somehow I had it in my mind that I would produce a generous-looking cake, overflowing with chocolate goodness - the properties of any respectful birthday cake. Alas, it was squat and more like a brownie than a cake. And this is how it was meant to turn out, I suppose. Perhaps directly translating it as a "cake" was a bit misleading, but I really should have thought about the ingredients and what they would produce before launching head-first (without brain) into it.

The Professor's Chocolate Cake (or Chocolate and Walnut Brownie)
(from Beatrice Ojakangas' Scandinavian Feasts)

180g/6oz 70% dark chocolate (recipe specifies semisweet)
170g/6oz unsalted butter
3/4 cup sugar
3 eggs, separated
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 chopped walnuts (filberts or pecans will also do)
1 tablespoon instant coffee
icing sugar, for garnish (optional)

1) Preheat oven to 180 C/350 F and prepare (butter and flour) a 23cm/9" springform cake pan.
2) In a small saucepan, melt chocolate, butter and sugar together, then set aside to cool.
3) In a stainless steel bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff (drier than soft peaks).
4) Stir egg yolks into the melted chocolate mixture.
5) Add flour, walnuts and coffee before folding in the egg whites.
6) Pour into the cake pan and bake for 35-40 minutes. This will be slightly gooey in the centre, so it will not completely pass the toothpick test, but you don't want the toothpick to come out all wet.
7) Once cooled, sift icing sugar over the "cake," if so desired.

In my mind I had concocted a gorgeous chocolate cake over which I was going to further celebrate with a ganache. You can imagine my surprise when a low-lying excuse of a cake came out of the oven. And after it had cooled down, it collapsed further. Bugger. Then the wheels turned and I realised I had been foolish to not look at the ratio of ingredients. Furthermore, the walnuts should have been more chopped, though not finely, for the "cake" did not easily cut into uniform wedges. If I had known that this would be a brownie, I would have been ecstatic with the result. The richness of the chocolate fills every mouthful; it is all things a brownie should be.

However, Professor's Chocolate Cake was not the birthday cake of my imagination, so, with some time still to spare, I set about baking something traditional: Victoria Sponge. These are the birthday cakes of my childhood. Soft, fluffy cakes with billowy cream and generous spoonfuls of delectable jam. I always preferred it to chocolate cake as a kid, a jam-connoisseur from way back. (Making jam is on my list of things "to do," but at the rate I'm going - disavowing conventional wisdom, the subject of this post - that should not happen until I have my sensible head back on again.)

A Victoria Sponge is a breeze to make providing you divide the batter into two pans, although Nigella Lawson does not say why this must be. This is no excuse, however, to put the batter into one pan. I have now been reminded that what happens with all cakes is that they collapse a bit as they cool down. Why this oft-witnessed act was effaced from memory at the time of my laziness, I do not know. I was acting as though I knew what I was doing, like I'd seen it all before. I also made a blunder with the flour, which is supposed to be self-rising flour. I just used all-purpose flour without adding 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder and 1/2 tablespoon of salt per cup of all-purpose flour to create a likeness. Finally, it seems that the idea of dividing the batter is so that it can rise as high as is possible given the little placed into each pan. The objective is to create a fluffy-as-can-be sponge. Not a cake.

A ganache was made with semisweet chocolate, as I had envisioned it for the Professor's Chocolate Cake, when in hindsight it should have been made of dark chocolate in order to create a greater and richer contrast to the "sponge." Also, I played with the ganache too much when I should have just let it melt without my help. I should only have whisked it once it had cooled and set up a bit (per Linda Carucci). Nigella was a bit vague there, probably because she had made it a million times with great success, although mine looks like hers does in the photo for her Boston Cream Pie. I have seen ganache made a million times with great success but had not made it myself...All I had witnessed, again, went out the window as I merrily went on with my whisk-happy self. I think the reason for leaving the ganache alone is to prevent the appearance of little air pockets that will get trapped and create an effect resembling a chip in a windscreen...As you see below, I had many a chip in the glass screen of my ganache.

Victoria Sponge
(from Nigella Lawson's How to Be a Domestic Goddess)

125g/8oz unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 eggs
1 1/3 cups self-rising cake flour (see above note if you only have all-purpose), sifted
2 tablespoons cornflour
(1 teaspoon baking powder, do not add this if you are making this with a food processor)
3-4 tablespoons milk
4 heaped tablespoons of jam (I used black cherry jam)
1/2 cup cream/heavy cream

1) Preheat oven to 180 C/350 F and prepare two 20cm/8" cake pans (best done, in this case, with the aid of parchment or wax paper).
2) Cream the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy, then add the vanilla extract.
3) Add one egg at a time, but between each egg add one tablespoon of flour.
4) Fold in the remainder of the flour and the cornflour until fully incorporated.
5) Add as much milk as necessary to bind to a dropping consistency.
6) Pour into prepared cake pans and level with a butter knife or palette knife/offset spatula.
7) Bake for approximately 25 minutes, when the cakes should be pulling away from the edges. The sponge will pass the "toothpick/skewer test."
8) Turn out of pans after sponges have rested on a wire rack for about ten minutes, then leave them to cool completely.
9) Once cooled, put the jam on the top of one of the sponges.
10) Whip the heavy cream until voluptuous and billowy, then scrape it out on top of the jam.
11) Top with the other sponge. You can sprinkle sugar on top, if you so please, or make a ganache.

(from Nigella Lawson's How to Be a Domestic Goddess)

1/2 cup cream/heavy cream
1 teaspooon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon unsalted butter
150g/5oz semisweet chocolate (Ms. Lawson actually recommends dark/bittersweet), chopped into little pieces

1) Warm all of the ingredients in a saucepan over low heat.
2) Bring to the boil (bubbling around the edges; the chocolate should have melted by this point), then remove from the heat.
3) Whisk until smooth and thick.
4) Leave to cool before spooning over the Victoria Sponge. Don't let it set entirely because you need to pour it over the cake, but once it has been spooned over the cake you can let it set properly.

As you can see, my sponge did not fluff up (for lack of a better expression). This is not as I had hoped, but all fault rests on my unbalanced shoulders, tipping too much under the weight of my fallibility. Though delicious (what could not be with such glorious ingredients...especially the divine French black cherry jam), I am not content and vow to you that I will not act without reservation again. There is something to be said about thought and consideration, especially when it comes to baking. You really cannot just do as you please unless you understand the principles behind the methods of preparation. If an author does not give all the information, don't do as I did and just make it up. Stop and do some cross-referencing, or follow the recipes exactly.

Lessons learned.

Posted by Picasa

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Thursday, January 17, 2008


Fruit Tart à la française

For a while now, I have considered making a delectable fruit tart for my 30th, like the ones seen in a French pâtisserie: pâte sucrée, crème pâtissière, loads of fruit and a fruity glaze. After my second apple martini last night (seeing out the 20s), I decided to make pâte sucrée. Nigella Lawson reckons it's a nightmare; Tamasin Day-Lewis makes it sound like a breeze. My proper baking bible, Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook, is in the US, and so for the details of this tart, I relied on Tamasin Day-Lewis' Tamasin's Kitchen Bible.

Waking up very early after the two martinis, I pulled the dough out of the fridge to come to a pliable temperature. When I thought that had been reached, I started rolling. The pastry crumbled and then proceeded to stick to everything. Knowing that one can patch a tart base together, I decided to construct an entire pastry shell out of a patchwork. Anticipating more shrinkage than usual, I crammed as much as I could into the 25cm/10" fluted shell and put it in the fridge for an hour (to also prevent further shrinking). It didn't matter. When I removed the beans part way through the blind baking process, I could see that seams had been created along the base, creating gaps. There was no way the pastry was going to expand and fill those in. Into the bin the half-cooked tart shell went.

So, what went wrong? Ms. Day-Lewis states that she uses egg yolks to bind the dry ingredients together (as opposed to iced water, which is used for shortcrust pastry). In the list of ingredients for her pâte sucrée, however, is the suggestion of a little cold water. What? The sand-like combination of flour, butter, icing sugar and vanilla seeds seemed to come together after mixing in the cold egg yolks. The addition of water seemed unnecessary, and Ms. Day-Lewis did not explain when one should use that little amount of cold water. When the pastry crumbled, though, I knew it was too dry.

I had another go at it, but this time without the luxury of really cold flour and eggs because I didn't expect to have to make the pastry again (and one would hope not given the amount of eggs and vanilla already used in the failed pâte sucrée as well as the crème pâtissière). I added perhaps one tablespoon of ice-cold water after binding the dry ingredients with egg yolks. The pastry was supple and not soggy. After resting it for an-hour-and-a-half, I left the pastry on the kitchen counter for 20 minutes and then rolled it out. It still tore a bit and was perhaps a little too wet to transfer from the rolling pin. I got around this by making a tri-fold, which I opened out over the 25cm/10" fluted tart shell. Once baked blind, there was a tiny split seam...Grrr...So, I figured, one has to compile this tart just before eating, for the custard will make the tart shell soggy anyway, and I just went with it...

Pâte Sucrée
(from Tamasin Day-Lewis' Tamasin's Kitchen Bible)

1 1/2 cups flour, sifted
110g/4 oz butter, cut into a dice
1 tablespoon icing sugar, sifted
seeds from 1 vanilla pod
2 egg yolks
1-2 tablespoons ice-cold water

1) Lightly with fingers rub the butter into the flour, sugar and vanilla seeds.
2) Once a sand-like texture is achieved, add the egg yolks. Mix together. If the dough is not coming together and or is not supple, add ice-cold water, mixing only one tablespoon at a time, for you might not need all of the water. Too much water will make a sticky dough.
3) Wrap in cling-film and refrigerate for at least one hour.
4) Pre-heat oven to 200 C/400 F.
5) Bring pastry out of fridge and allow it to come to a pliable texture, about 15-20 minutes.
6) On a lightly floured surface, roll the pastry out, keep turning it so it does not stick to your cold surface.
7) Set pastry into your tart shell, cover with parchment paper and baking beans.
8) Bake for 15 minutes.
9) Take out of the oven, remove beans and parchment paper. Prick the base of the shell with the tines of a fork. Put back in the oven until cooked through and golden, approximately 10 minutes.
10) Allow to cool before filling with crème pâtissière.

Crème Pâtissière
(from Tamasin Day-Lewis' Tamasin's Kitchen Bible)

340ml/12 fl. oz milk
150ml/5 fl. oz heavy cream
vanilla seeds from 1 vanilla pod
1 egg
3 egg yolks
75g/2 1/2oz caster sugar (vanilla sugar works here, too)
1/3 cup cornflour, sifted

1) Into a saucepan pour milk, cream, vanilla seeds and split vanilla pod. Bring to scalding point over a low heat.
2) Whisk together the egg, yolks and sugar until pale and creamy.
3) Add one-third of the cornflour to egg mixture and mix thoroughly, then do the same with the remaining two-thirds. Ensure that all lumps are worked out.
4) Remove vanilla pod from milk. If you want, you can rinse it then dry it before adding to your sugar container.
5) Pour one-third of the milk to the egg mixture and whisk well. Pour this into the rest of the milk in the saucepan and continue to whisk over a gentle heat. The cornstarch helps stop the custard from splitting, but you do not want to ever boil the mixture, so whisk, whisk, whisk.
6) Once thickened, pour into a bowl, cover and cool. Once cooled, this can be stored in the fridge for about three days.

A bit of a trial, really. I didn't bother with glazing the fruit as I had planned, for I could see the fruit sinking in the pastry cream. Great. I thought it looked quite solid, but I suppose I should have seen if a spoon could stand up in it as that would have been a better measurement of how much the crème pâtissière had set. And I can see why people avoid making pastry altogether. Perhaps with a little more experience I will create a perfect pâte sucrée, which I feel might also be eased by checking other recipes. I was afraid that the cream would break the dams of the pastry, but it didn't. I must say, though, that life would have been made simpler with a shortcrust pastry because the crème pâtissière is so strong in flavour that the pâte sucrée had no chance of standing up to it - but it did look lovely, in the truest sense of the word: simple, natural, sweet. In all, though, an incredibly tasty tart, if a messy one. I only hope that is not too indicative of my year of being 30.

Posted by Picasa

Labels: , , , , ,

Sunday, January 13, 2008


Braised Lentils

My angelheart Eric and I welcomed in last year with a very simple yet rich lunch of Alaskan Colossal Crab Legs and Eggs Benedict. It made a nice change to dashing around to attend this, that and the other breakfast-brunch-lunch and sipping mimosas (which along with Bloody Marys seem to be the favoured brunch drinks in Southern California). This year, I couldn't even tell you what I ate on New Year's Day. No, I wasn't hungover; I just wasn't in the mood to mark the occasion. I simply ate (maybe a bulgur wheat salad?) and saw the day through. Perhaps the funk rested in the apprehension of the year to come - so many changes, all of which are exciting and nerve-wracking. I have finally decided that it is time to officially accept that the new year has begun, so now I must embrace the changes to come and get on with the show.

I have decided to start with adapting an approach to dish design that I read about in Skye Gyngell's seasonal celebration, A Year In My Kitchen. She has created for her restaurant menu a series of culinary accents that she uses to complement and round out her dishes: a "Culinary Toolbox". The items sit like notes on a scale, from woody herbs at the low end, bright herbs at the top, to agra-dolce (the sweet-sour application in Italian cookery), which sits in the middle. On the low end of the scale also sit Skye Gyngell's staple of Braised Lentils.

Lentils are legumes that develop an earthy and rich flavour when cooked. Making lentils is a fitting way to start my posts for 2008, for many cultures use them as symbolic representations of the year they hope to come. Shaped like a coin, lentils suggest prosperity; circular, they are a symbol of new beginnings and good luck. The most known of new year's dishes is Italy's cotechino con lenticchie - pork sausage and lentils.

Before embarking on any lentil recipe, first tip the amount of lentils you are going to use for your dish onto a baking tray or other flat container. Thus in a single layer, it is easier for you to sort through the lentils for any small stones, fibres and discoloured or misshapen lentils. Place the lentils into a colander or sieve and run cold water through them. For braising, you will need whole lentils, so Puy (sometimes called "French lentils" in New Zealand) or Castelluccio are best - you need them to be cooked through but retain their bite. Red, brown or yellow split lentils will quickly turn mushy; consequently, they are used for soup dishes.

Braised Lentils
(largely adapted from Skye Gyngell's A Year In My Kitchen)

345g/12oz Puy lentils
1 onion, peeled and quartered
1 carrot, peeled and cut into three chunks
1 red chilli, left whole
3 small cloves of garlic, peeled and left whole (use 2 if the cloves are large)
2-3cm/0.7-1" fresh root ginger, peeled (made easy with a teaspoon) and left whole
5 sprigs of parsley
3 bay leaves, fresh
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons sesame oil

1) Rinse lentils and place in a deep saucepan with all ingredients except the vinegar, tamari or soy and oil.
2) Add enough water to completely cover lentils and bring to the boil over a medium heat. Over too a high heat, the gentle flavourings of all the elements will not be encouraged to be extracted; instead they will be shocked.
3) Lower heat and simmer until lentils are cooked but still retain a bite, approximately 20 minutes.
4) Remove from heat, drain in a colander and tip lentils into a bowl.
5) While still warm, dress lentils with the vinegar, soy and oil.
6) Once cooled, the lentils can stored in an air-tight container in the fridge for up to one week. Bring them to room temperature before using.

The Braised Lentils are to be used when required. They can be scattered over a dish to lend depth and nuttiness when such elements are otherwise missing, or to complement other nutty elements of a different texture. You could also use the lentils as a base onto which you set the rest of the dish, as Skye Gyngell does with pan-roasted chicken supremes (breast with wing still attached), basil oil, slow-roasted tomatoes, topped with aioli.

There are other elements of Skye Gyngell's culinary toolbox, all are items which can be stored for a few days or up to one week. I think this is a good idea for the home cook, like myself, to "finish" or "dress" meals for the home cook. I'm excited to have tried this, and though I'm sure to tweak it further to serve as my own nutty and earthy low-note, the concept is inspiring. I wonder what other seasonal toolbox items I will create throughout the year to have on hand in the kitchen?

I thank Pille of Nami-Nami for recommending A Year In My Kitchen to me as a comforting and inspiring read during a particularly hard time of writing my thesis.

Posted by Picasa

Labels: , , ,

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?