Monday, June 20, 2011

serve with strawberries and cream

The summer I worked in the pastry kitchen, I began each morning by preparing the day's strawberries.

 The pastry kitchen went through a lot of strawberries. Our routine requirements - tarts for the hotel's cake shop, garnishes on all the single-serving Earl Grey chocolate cakes and tiramisu for the set lunch menus, and a small mountain of fruit to accompany the chocolate fountain at the afternoon tea buffet - added up to a case each day. Additional requirements - strawberry desserts for catered functions, special requests from room service, unexpected ingredient borrowing by one of the restaurant kitchens - could easily mean a second round of strawberry prep in the afternoon, and day's tally somewhere in the range of forty pounds of strawberries, cleaned and hulled and cut.

 (Not my photo. This is Alex's work.)

Every morning, I'd collect a case of two-pound boxes from the walk-in. I'd fill the sink full of very cold water, and tip in the berries, swishing the water to rinse off the dried strawberry flower petals and their fine, fuzzy stamens. I'd scoop the berries out into a big prep bowl, and then I'd set out our big, boxy plastic storage containers. I'd hull the strawberries with a paring knife, and when the last berry had been trimmed, I'd clear away the heap of green calyxes and the stack of plastic clamshells, and stack the storage containers in the walk-in.

We'd cut the hulled strawberries into halves and quarters and slices for tarts and garnishes as we needed them, and in the afternoon, after we'd piled warm cream scones into napkin-lined baskets and arranged tea cakes and tiny tarts on tiered salvers, I'd take two big white china serving bowls and heap them high. At the afternoon tea buffet, the strawberries would be the prime attraction of the chocolate fountain, speared on cocktail skewers and placed underneath the rippling flow of chocolate.

The chocolate fountain didn't inspire any fond memories (the "chocolate" was a ready-to-pour commercial mix, stabilized with vegetable oil and soy lecthin so that would stay smooth and unctuous without gumming up the fountain's moving parts), but hulling all those strawberries left its mark. When it comes to pleasing a crowd, my thoughts easily turn to desserts that can be served alongside small mountains of berries and whipped cream.

Chocolate may be the most popular pairing when it comes to a match for strawberries, but it's a relatively recent arrival. Desserts with fruit and honey date back to the Roman era, and summer is both bee and berry season. Whip cream with a touch of orange blossom honey, and it's a lovely accompaniment for strawberries. For something a little more unusual, however, there's medovnik.  

Medovnik is a honey cake, often referred to as Russian, but found throughout the former Soviet Union. Like borscht or golubtsi, there is no single fixed recipe for medovnik, but it all comes down to one basic concept: the cake is flavored with honey, made up of many thin layers, and sandwiched with a creamy filling. It works on the same principle as a chocolate icebox cake: the layers are fashioned from dough rather than batter, and baked until crisp. After being spread with filling and left to sit overnight, the layers soften and take on a moist, delicate texture. When cut into slices, the golden color and individual layers are reminiscent of puff pastry, which accounts for the cake's other name, napoleon cake. 

There is no set number of layers (five or eight are popular), but the more layers, the more impressive the finished results. I've gone for fifteen, which is a lot of rolling and baking, but the extra effort produces a tall, dramatic cake. Serve with a mountain of strawberries and a big bowl of cream, and listen to the oohs and aahs. It'll be gone before you can say "chocolate fountain."

Medovnik (Napoleon Cake)

Traditionally, this cake calls for buckwheat honey (a very strong monofloral honey), but if you can't obtain any, use the darkest honey you can find. While I'm fond of pairing it with strawberries and honey cream, I suspect you could also serve it with poached apples for a nice Rosh Hashanah dessert.

The quantities given in this recipe will make a lot of cake, but the recipe is easily halved. You can also use biscuit cutters to produce rounds for individually-sized cakes - just keep a close eye on the layers when they're in the oven.
(Adapted from this recipe and this recipe. Makes one tall nine-inch cake, which will serve at least sixteen people. Cake will keep for up to a week, wrapped tightly and refrigerated.)

This cake needs to sit for at least twelve hours (preferably fifteen) after assembly, so you'll need to start the recipe the day before serving.

First, the cake layers. In a mixing bowl, beat together four eggs, one cup of sugar, four tablespoons buckwheat honey and two teaspoons baking soda. Set aside.

Place two sticks of butter in a large, heavy-bottomed pot, and place over low heat. Once the butter has melted, pour in the egg mixture; beat well to combine. Stir in four cups of flour, one cup at a time, to form a sticky dough.

Remove the dough from heat. Coat the inside of a mixing bowl well with flour, and scrape the dough into the bowl.

Preheat oven to 350F. Ready two baking sheets and several pieces of parchment paper.

Lay a sheet of parchment paper on a flat surface. Place a small handful of dough on the parchment paper, about one-third of a cup.

Top with another sheet of parchment paper. Roll the dough out as thinly as possible, then peel away the top sheet of parchment. Using a nine-inch dinner plate or springform tin base as a guide, cut a circle into the dough.

Gather up the trimmings and place them back in the bowl.

Transfer the dough and parchment to a baking sheet. Bake for four to five minutes, or until the round has risen and is golden brown in color. Use a small, sharp knife to trim any ragged edges, and save the crumbs in a bowl. Transfer the round to a wire rack to cool. (When cooled, the rounds will be hard.)

Lay out another sheet of parchment, set another lump of dough on it, and repeat the process as above until you have fifteen rounds. If you still have dough left over, roll it out thinly, and bake it like the rest. Once it cools, break it up into small pieces, and add it to the bowl with the crumbs.

Next, prepare the cream filling. Using a stand mixer or electric hand mixer, beat together two sticks of softened butter, one can (fourteen ounces) sweetened condensed milk, and eight ounces sour cream until smooth. The mixture might be a little on the runny side, which is fine.

Now prepare the topping: Take the crumbs and other broken bits (you can run them through a food processor to get them very fine, if you like) and combine with a half-cup of finely chopped walnuts.

(Note: If nut allergies are a problem, turn one of the fifteen rounds into extra crumbs instead.)

To assemble the cake, ready a cake platter or serving dish. Place a smear of cream on the platter and set the first layer down. Spread the layer with cream, making sure to go to the very edges. Top with another layer. Alternate layers and cream until all the layers are stacked.

Coat the cake with the remaining cream, then grab handfuls of the topping and sprinkle all over the top and sides.

Cover the cake with foil, and leave in the fridge to chill for at least twelve hours.

Remove the cake from the fridge an hour before serving. Immediately before serving, whip heavy cream with honey to sweeten.

Cut the cake into slices, and accompany with honey cream and fresh strawberries, and an extra drizzle of honey, if you like. A glass of mead might not go amiss, either.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

an education in bread and chocolate

For a month during my time in Paris, I didn't attend class.

I promise this wasn’t poor attitude on my part. I didn’t go out clubbing and sleep through morning lectures. I didn’t meet any charming locals who urged me to cut class and go on madcap adventures. I didn’t even get sick with something lingering and unpleasant, like mono, and spend my days in bed.

I didn't attend class because my classes weren’t in session. The semester I spent in Paris was during the year that the French government tried to push forward the contrat de premiere embauche, a sort of provisional contract intended to make it easier for employers to give younger workers a trial period before hiring them on permanently. Backlash was immediate and furious. The students rioted, the Metro workers went on strike, and the universities shut down. It was all very French.

I suppose I acclimatized easily, because not having class suited me quite well. Higher learning, French-style, is more about self-directed learning than formal instruction. Lecture attendance isn't strictly required, and indeed, the content of the lectures often has little or no bearing on the content of reading lists or - more importantly - the content of the final exams. And so, for the better part of a month, I made my own schedule.

Some days I spent in the Bibliothèque Nationale, paging through brittle copies of 1920s food industry periodicals in search of useful sources for my independent research paper. Some days I camped out in my program office and typed up notes on the history and evolution of the French language.

And some days, days when the weather was unusually nice, I took advantage of not being stuck in a classroom, found a nice park, and did my nineteenth-century French literature reading on a quiet bench. By mid-afternoon, having had enough of Hugo - Notre-Dame de Paris is a hefty volume - I'd make my way to the nearest patisserie for a snack. 

I enjoyed all the usual suspects: brioche and pain au chocolate and croissants aux amandes. I ate palmiers and religeuses and eclairs and tartes aux fraises. And I developed a taste for viennoises au chocolat.

A viennoise au chocolat isn't quite as eye-catching as some of the other delights you'll see in the window of a patisserie. Shaped much like the humble baguette, it can't really compete with the graceful whorls of a palmier, or the pleasing roundness of a brioche à tête. It doesn't look any fancier beneath its unassuming crust, either: just a fine white bread studded with chocolate chips.

No-one (at least no-one in their right mind) ever bought a treat from a display case just to look at it, however. Taste-wise, the viennoise au chocolat can easily hold its own. Frankly, I think that if a chocolate chip muffin grew out of its sweetness and moved to France, it would be a viennoise au chocolat. The bread is soft, a little chewy, and only faintly sweet, and the slight resistance of the chocolate chips provides a textural contrast quite unlike that of the melting heart of a pain au chocolat or the voluptuous stickiness of a tartine au Nutella.

Maybe it's just me, but the viennoise au chocolat also seems conducive to learning: I found sitting on a park bench while tearing bite-size pieces off a viennoise au chocolat and pondering Hugo's thoughts on architecture a very effective study method. I think that Notre-Dame de Paris may even bear few chocolately smudges as proof. 

Viennoises Au Chocolate

(Makes two half-baguette-sized breads.)

In a mixing bowl, combine two hundred and fifty grams all-purpose flour, one teaspoon instant active yeast, a half-teaspoon of salt, and two tablespoons sugar. Add a hundred and fifty mililitres of warm milk. Stick your hand in the mixture, and stir until you have a soft, lumpy dough.

Turn the dough out on a clean countertop. Knead until the dough is smooth and elastic, then work in four tablespoons of unsalted butter, one tablespoon at a time. Continue to knead until the dough is soft and very smooth in texture.

Knead in three ounces of chocolate chips. Place back in bowl. Cover and leave in a warm place to proof. (One to two hours.)

Deflate the dough. Shape it into a tidy ball, pulling and tucking any stray bits underneath. Gently squeeze this ball until you have a long sausage of dough. Cut this into two equal pieces, and gently squeeze each piece into a long, skinny length.

Arrange the two lengths on a parchment-lined baking tray. Cover lightly with plastic wrap; allow to proof in a warm place for an hour.

Preheat oven to 400F.

To make the glaze, beat together one egg yolk with a tablespoon of milk and a tablespoon of powdered sugar. Brush the glaze on the baguettes.

Right before baking, take a straight razorblade or very sharp knife, and cut angled slashes along the top of each baguette.

Bake until golden brown in color, about twenty to twenty-five minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool. Enjoy plain or with coffee for an afternoon snack.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

when come back, bring pie

My absence for the past month has been largely inadvertent.

I didn't intend to wait until June to write again, but somewhere between leaving Beijing, watching Lucille graduate, and picking up fresh employment in Hong Kong, May disappeared like a conjuror's trick, roses to doves in one quick turn. There have been many, many items on the lists of things cooked and things eaten - croissants, cauliflower cheese, and a lovely lunch at Prune, to name just a few - but little time to sit and sort out my thoughts in writing.

I'm back, though. And I come bearing pie.

As much as I love playing with pastry, I don't bake many fruit pies. I like galettes and freeform crostata as quick, improvised desserts, but I can practically count the times I've made anything involving a pie dish and a top and bottom crust on one hand. The last pie I recall baking (about a year ago) had a fairly unremarkable mixed berry filling, and I did it largely for the fun of weaving a lattice top.

When I sighted rhubarb at the supermarket, right next to strawberries, my first thoughts were of crumble, not pie. A crumble is a very quick dessert, however, and I wanted the pleasure of making something more involved. The answer? Add pastry, and turn crumble into a pie with streusel topping.

Of course, there was some tinkering along the way: when making the pastry, I switched out half the water for brandy, and gave it folds and turns in puff-pastry fashion to produce rough, or blitz, puff pastry. Baked unweighted, "rough puff" rises like puff-pastry (though not to the same heights), but baked blind (weighted) in a pie dish, it produces a particularly crisp and flaky crust.

Rhubarb and strawberries went into a pan with sugar, vanilla, and more brandy. After the fruit softened, I strained the mixture, and reduced the extra liquid to a thick syrup. Finally, I mixed up a very buttery streusel with walnuts for extra crunch. After assembling the components, I slid the pie into the oven and awaited the finished product. Would I regret not following my original idea for a simple crumble?

The pie came out golden brown and bubbling, and filled the kitchen with the scent of butter and bright fruit. We cut slices while was still a little warm, the sweet-tangy filling soft and almost jammy. The crust turned out satisfyingly flaky, and the nutty, shortbready streusel gave it a certain Linzertorte-like quality. I didn't miss the crumble at all.

Note to self: when come back, bake more pie.

Strawberry Rhubarb Pie with Walnut Streusel

(Inspired by Bobbie Sue's delectably tart, gingery rhubarb streusel pie. Makes one nine-inch pie.)

Start by making the pastry. In a mixing bowl, combine a cup of flour with a pinch of salt, and cut in one stick (four ounces) of chilled unsalted butter. Rub the butter into the flour until the largest pieces are pea-sized. Add two tablespoons cold water and two tablespoons brandy. Stir lightly until you have a dough that just barely holds together.

Turn the dough out on a sheet of parchment paper. Shape it into a rough rectangle, and top it with another sheet of parchment paper. Roll the dough out to a quarter-inch thick, and fold in thirds, like a letter. Turn the dough so that the seam side is down, and roll it out again. Repeat the folding process. Repeat the rolling and folding one more time, then wrap tightly in plastic film. Leave in the fridge for at least two hours to rest.

Meanwhile, prepare the filling. In a small saucepan, combine one pound of rhubarb (cut into one-inch pieces), one-and-a-half pounds of strawberries (halved if large), a half-cup of brown sugar, a teaspoon of vanilla, and two teaspoons of brandy. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the rhubarb turns soft. There will be plenty of liquid in the pan.

Set a sieve over a bowl and strain the fruit. Return the liquid to the pan; transfer the fruit from the sieve to the bowl and set aside. Reduce the liquid in the pan over medium heat until it foams and turns thick and syrupy. Pour it over the fruit; set aside to cool.

While you wait, prepare the streusel. In a mixing bowl, combine half a cup of flour with two tablespoons of white sugar (double the sugar for a sweeter topping) a fat pinch of salt, and a few drops of vanilla. Cut in half a stick (two ounces) of chilled butter. Rub the butter in until the mixture forms sandy clumps. Stir in a quarter-cup of chopped walnuts. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and leave in the fridge to chill.

Preheat oven to 350F.

Remove the pastry dough from the fridge. Roll it out to fit a nine-inch glass or ceramic pie dish, and trim the excess. Prick the pastry lightly all over with a fork (don't pierce it, or the filling will leak), and weight with pie weights or dried beans. Bake the pastry until it's lightly colored, about twenty minutes.

Remove the pie weights. Spoon the fruit mixture into the pastry shell, and sprinkle the streusel on top. Bake until the pastry is a rich golden brown and the filling is bubbling, about forty minutes. Cool on a rack. Serve warm. A scoop of vanilla ice-cream wouldn't go amiss.