Monday, May 31, 2010

Mother's Spanish Cream

Another week, another party. That's how we roll here in Pontlevoy. Claire and I have decided that since we're stuck here (well, she feels stuck. I love it here!), we should make the most of it by spending time with friends. So on Friday we had a garden party with friends--some expats, some true Ponteleviens. One friend made a vat of sangria, others brought food--and Sami showed up just in time to man the grill so that we could have delicious lamb in pita. And then we had Spanish Cream.

This is a really nice warm weather dessert. It has a bit of oomph to it, but it seems light and cool and refreshing and goes well with fruit and whipped cream. But people weren't sure what to make of it--is it a cream? a custard? a flan? Well, I'm not sure myself. I saw a recipe for vanilla Bavarian cream that resembles this one a lot, except for the almond cookies and the egg whites. And I remember that there's a restaurant in Tuscaloosa that serves "Swedish cream" that's also pretty similar. I guess what makes this Spanish is the almond cookies.

Maida raves about the layering in this dessert: custard, then cookies, then fluffy egg white. Mine didn't separate all that much--the meringue especially wasn't much of a layer--but it was still delicious, and more important, GONE by the next morning. I like that in a dessert.
Here's the recipe. Make it for your next garden party or whenever you don't feel like turning on the oven.

Mother’s Spanish Cream

Dry almond macaroons like amaretti, to make 1/2 c. crumbs
3 c. milk, or half and half, or a combination
2 envelopes (or 5 leaves) unflavored gelatin
1/2 c. cold water
3 large eggs, separated
1/2 c. (3.5 oz.) sugar
1/2 t. vanilla
1/4 t. almond extract
generous pinch salt

Find a Jell-o mold or a silicone form; if you don’t have one, a big bowl would probably work. Also get out a medium saucepan, a medium bowl (the egg yolks can go in there), and a smallish bowl (the egg whites can go in there). Crush the cookies coarsely (put them in a Ziploc bag and pound them with a hammer) and set aside. Heat the milk in a saucepan over medium heat until scalding. While it heats, dissolve the gelatin in the cold water. Also, whisk the egg yolks with 6 T (3 oz.) sugar for a couple of minutes, until they are somewhat lighter in color. By this point, your milk should be nice and hot. Pour some of it gradually into the egg yolks, whisking all the while. Then pour the egg yolk-milk mixture back into the saucepan, return to medium-low heat, and heat to 180 or until the mixture coats the back of a spoon: the famous crème anglaise. Pour through a fine sieve back into the original bowl and add the vanilla, almond extract, and cookie crumbs. Set aside for a minute. Add the salt to the egg whites in the smallish bowl and beat them with an electric mixer until they are very foamy; then add the remaining 2 T/0.5 oz. sugar and beat until the egg whites hold stiff peaks. Ladle some of the hot custard into the egg whites and fold it in carefully, then pour the mixture into the egg yolk bowl and fold it together as best you can. It’s going to separate out anyway, so don’t worry if it doesn’t incorporate well. Get the Jell-o mold and run cold water over it; shake it dry. Now pour the cream in there and put it in the fridge for at least 3 hours.
When it’s time to serve, get out a basin or pan that’s bigger than your mold and fill it with hot water. Dip the mold in there for a few seconds, then cover it with a plate, turn it upside down, and hope for the best. Mine came out just fine.
Serve this plain or with fresh fruit and whipped cream.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Hollywood Honey "Cake"

Yesterday was the hottest day we've had so far this year: it was up in the high 80s. For France, little northern un-air-conditioned France, that's hot. Fortunately, we live in an old stone house. We were actually quite comfortable. Which is why I felt perfectly comfortable about baking.
Yesterday was also a national holiday (Pentecost Monday, to celebrate the separation of church and state), which meant that the stores were closed. That meant that I needed a recipe that could be made with ingredients I had on hand. Since I had no eggs, this was the perfect one. In theory, I was supposed to make a blueberry sweet bread this go-round, but blueberries are not in season. In about a month, I will be making a cavalcade of seasonal fruit desserts.

But let's stay focused on this bread (I'm not quite sure why Maida calls it cake). It's dead simple. It takes 5 minutes and no mixer to put together. Note the healthy ingredients: whole wheat flour, raisins, nuts. No butter or eggs. I'm sure it's quite low-cal. Not.

OK, here's my oven. Note the 30-degree variations. I found on the iPhone that 275 F is 135 C. Fortunately there's a 130 on the oven. But who knows if it's really 130...

But my "cake" baked up fine, except for the funky volcano thing. And what's with the powdery white residue? Is it extra baking soda? Ashes from the Icelandic volcano? That needed to be scraped off. It was weird.

But inside, it's all chewy, sweet health-foody goodness. Claire of course wouldn't touch it because it involves raisins, but I was able to find some takers for most of it, and I think they appreciated it. I enjoyed it toasted and spread with cream cheese for breakfast, and I think it would also set off a Brie really nicely. It's a bit sweet (especially so since I made a math error and ended up putting 6.5 ounces of honey instead of the 5.9. Always use the calculator, Maria!), but not cake sweet. More like raisin bread sweet.
So if your kitchen is not too hot, you like raisins, and you're looking for a healthy breakfast treat, give this one a try!
Here's the recipe:

Hollywood Honey Cake

3.5 oz. (3/4 c.) raisins
3.5 oz. (1 c.) walnuts
1 c. (4 oz.) sifted flour
2 c. (11 oz.) unsifted whole wheat flour
Scant 1 t. salt
3/4 t. baking soda
2-1/2 t. baking powder
1-1/2 c. (12 oz.) milk
1/2 c. (5.9 oz.) honey (or a touch more)
Heat the oven to 275. Get out a loaf pan and grease it. You won’t need a mixer for this recipe—just a large-ish mixing bowl.
If your raisins are dry and puny like mine, soak them in boiling water for a few minutes while you get the rest of the bread ready. If they’re large and soft, I think you can skip this step.
Chop or break the walnuts into medium-sized pieces.
Put the flours, salt, baking soda, and baking powder into your mixing bowl and whisk them well to distribute the leavening. Now add the milk and honey (I can’t say enough about measuring honey by weight!) and stir well. Add the (drained) raisins and walnuts. That’s it!
Pour that into the loaf pan and put it in the oven. Bake for 1 hour 20 minutes—check after an hour (mine took about 1 hour 10 minutes). The tester you put in should come out completely clean and dry.
Cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then unmold onto a rack and let cool completely. Slice and enjoy—it’s good for you!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Prune and Walnut Layer Cake

Welcome to my third (and final!) kitchen in Pontlevoy! This one is not as well equipped as the last one, and I sure do miss the microwave, food processor, and dishwasher! But this kitchen is fairly roomy and has a large table for prep work. It will do.

So blurry. Note the flea-market collection of furnishings.

One of my favorite parts of this kitchen is the refrigerator! I can actually fit some stuff in there, including a cake! Of course, it's now completely full. Note that we've just moved in and already it's full and cluttered. As our friend Dirk said as we settled in for dinner the day we moved, "You would never know you hadn't been here for weeks." Thanks--I think.

OK, ignore the clutter. Note the fireplace in the kitchen. No, I haven't had the guts to try it out. The stove is electric and the oven is pretty small. Also, it has very imprecise temperature markings, which should make things a bit of a challenge. But hey, it works. And so I made my first blog dessert here last week.

Let me just say a word about prunes. I love the prunes of France. So sweet and juicy. Julia goes through bags of them. So I was pretty stoked to make a prune cake, actually. But this one calls for stewed prunes, and I wasn't quite sure how to stew prunes. I ended up just soaking these in boiling water until they were soft. I think the result was very good.
Note also that while the recipe calls for buttermilk and sour cream, I used mostly plain yogurt and a bit of crème fraîche. That seemed to work fine.

Here are the frosting ingredients. Cream cheese plus butter plus cream plus eggs. And chocolate. Over the top, anyone? But it's really delicious. I couldn't get my cream to whip properly, so the frosting was perhaps not as mousse-y as it should have been. But let me repeat--it was delicious. It could be a dessert unto itself.

Um, a few deviations from the recipe worth noting. First of all, the recipe is for a three-layer cake. I have one cake pan; thus it became a one-layer cake once I'd halved the recipe. No problem. Second, if I had read the recipe correctly, I would have seen that I was supposed to have separated my egg (my one-and-a-half egg) and whip the egg white. Oops! Maybe my cake would have been a bit lighter had I done that. I think the texture was just fine, though.
Finally, as you see in the picture, I really need to learn that silicone pans do in fact need to be greased and floured. However, with enough frosting, no-one has to see the mess, and this way I could taste-test the cake.

Here's what was left over from the party I had--grilled burgers, potato salad, and cake. People seemed to like, not love the cake. One guest swore he could taste rum in it. I didn't mention the prunes, and no-one seemed to notice them. That could be good, since they're a controversial fruit for some.
I really liked this cake. With the heavy chocolate and all the walnuts, it reminded me of the rocky road eggs we used to get at Easter. And the prunes and spices added a nice touch. I think the cake recipe would make really good muffins as well.

Here's the recipe. If you have three cake pans and a lot of guests, make the full thing. Maida suggests decorating it with milk chocolate curls and powdered sugar. If you don't have quite so many pans or guests, cut the recipe in half.

Prune and Walnut Layer Cake

12 oz. pitted prunes, soaked until soft in boiling water
8 oz. (2 sticks) butter, room temperature
1 t. baking soda
1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
1 t. cinnamon
1 t. nutmeg
1 t. cloves (for the spices, I used a blend of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves)
2 T. cocoa powder
1 t. vanilla
1-3/4 c. (12 oz.) sugar
3 eggs, separated
1/2 c. buttermilk
1/2 c. sour cream
3 cups minus 2 tablespoons (11.5 oz.) sifted flour
8 oz. (2 cups) walnuts, cut, broken, or bought in medium-sized pieces

Heat the oven to 350. Get out three 9-inch cake pans, butter them, line them with parchment circles, then butter and flour them. (While you’re getting everything ready, now’s a good time to get the cream cheese and butter for the frosting out of the fridge)
Drain and chop the prunes with a knife or with scissors (I did mine with scissors).
Cream the butter with the baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and cocoa until soft and fluffy. Add the vanilla and then gradually add 1-1/2 cups sugar and beat for about 3 minutes. Add the egg yolks and give it another couple of minutes. On low speed add the flour in three additions, alternating with the buttermilk and then the sour cream. Finally, stir in the prunes and walnuts.
If you remembered to separate your eggs, beat them until frothy and then gradually add the sugar before beating them just to stiff peaks. Fold them into the batter. Divide the batter into the three cake pans and bake 35-40 minutes (my single cake pan that had a half recipe in it only took 25 minutes or so. But who knows what my oven temperature really was?). Let cool for about 5 minutes and then turn out onto racks. Take the paper off, then carefully flip each layer over. Cool completely.
Now it’s time to make the killer frosting:

14-16 oz. semisweet chocolate (I used 7.5 oz. for my half recipe)
8 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
8 oz. (2 sticks) butter, also room temperature
1 t. vanilla
1/2 c. + 2 T (4.4 oz.) sugar
2 eggs, separated
1 cup cream
Pinch salt
You’ll need one large mixing bowl and two small ones, as well as some willingness to wash dishes. Melt the chocolate either in the microwave, in 30-second bursts, or on the stove over low heat. A double boiler is not necessary if you use low enough heat and have a decent pot. Set aside to cool a bit.
Cream the butter and cream cheese together until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla and 1/2 cup sugar and beat some more. Now add the melted chocolate and beat until the sugar has dissolved. Then add the egg yolks and beat at high speed until the mixture is very smooth and somewhat lighter.
Now, rinse off your beaters or get out your hand mixer and whip the cream in one of the smaller bowls. Maida says to beat it until it’s almost but not quite butter.
In your last small bowl, you’re going to beat the egg whites. Make sure your beaters are really clean now. Add a pinch of salt to them and beat until frothy. Now add the remaining 2 T. sugar and beat the egg whites until they hold a shape. Now start folding in the fluffy stuff: first the whipped cream in two additions, followed by the egg whites. Try not to eat this stuff with a spoon.
Fill and frost the cake with this mousse however you see fit and refrigerate it. Serve it cold in small slices. And give some love to the prune.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Emilio's Cheesecake

My copy of American Desserts is beginning to fall apart. I guess that is a reminder that I've been working with this book seriously for a long time (and it's made a lot of trips!).
This cheesecake was the last Maida dessert I made in our second house in Pontlevoy; in the next entry, whenever that comes, I will post pictures of my new kitchen. It's definitely not as well equipped as the last one, and I'm not sure about oven temperatures and such, but I will manage. In fact, we have guests coming over Thursday. Sounds like a day for a prune-walnut layer cake...

But let's talk about this cheesecake. This is a different kind of cheesecake than the ones I’m used to. First of all, it’s baked in a 9x13-inch pan rather than a springform. It’s actually very easy to serve a cheesecake in this form. Also, it has a lot of cream and quite a bit of cornstarch in it, which makes it seem lighter. Someone asked me what made the cheesecake so light. I don’t think they wanted to hear that the answer was cream. And butter.

You may wonder what's up with the "pattern" of the cheesecake. The answer is that you need a very large bowl to fit all the cream cheese and cream and such. I did not. So I poured part of the mixture in the pan before I had added all of the cream, and then I added the rest of the cream to the remaining mixture and poured that in. I didn't notice any density difference in the finished product...

Another difference of this cheesecake is that there’s no crust. I don’t think any of Maida’s cheesecakes so far have had a traditional crust. Ah, but I see that the next one does. Something to look forward to…
But in the meantime, B+. I liked this, and it certainly disappeared very rapidly at the party we took it to (and that’s saying a lot, since this is a lot of cheesecake!), but I guess I like a dense cheesecake with a crust. And a sour cream topping. In short, I like the cheesecake my mom used to make from the 1970s Joy of Cooking. But if you’re looking for a light (well, “light”) cheesecake to feed a crowd, you could do worse than this recipe. Did I mention that it takes about 10 minutes to put together (if you’ve remembered to get the cream cheese and butter out of the fridge)?

Here’s the recipe. Be sure to make it the day before you want to serve it.

Emilio’s Cheesecake
2 lbs. cream cheese, room temperature
4 oz. butter, room temperature
1 T. vanilla
Grated rind of 1 lemon (not in the original recipe, but I liked it)
1-1/2 c. (10.5 oz.) sugar
7 T. (1.8 oz.) cornstarch
7 large eggs (Maida doesn’t specify, but room temperature is probably good here as well)
2 c. cream
1/4 c. lemon juice (about 2 lemons)

Heat the oven to 350. Get out a 13x9-inch pan and also a roasting pan big enough to hold it and some water. Put on a kettle to boil some water. Butter the smaller pan. In a large bowl (bigger than mine), beat together the cream cheese and butter until smooth and creamy. Add the vanilla, lemon zest, sugar, and cornstarch, and beat some more until smooth. Beat in the eggs one at a time, and then add the cream on low speed. If your bowl isn’t big enough, you’ll have to be careful of splashing. Don’t ask me how I know. Finally add the lemon juice. The mixture should be thin and absolutely smooth. Put the buttered pan into the roasting pan, and then pour the cheesecake into the prepared pan. Put the pans in the oven and very carefully pour hot water from the kettle into the roasting pan. The water should come about an inch up the side of the pan. Now close the oven and set the timer for 30 minutes. When that time is up, turn the oven up to 375 and bake the cheesecake for another 10-15 minutes. The cheesecake will be brown on top and quite puffy. Remove from the oven, and very carefully (wet potholders will burn your hands!!) remove the cheesecake pan from the larger pan. Let sit on the counter until cool. Then cover a large cutting board with parchment or foil. Invert the cheesecake onto the cutting board. If you buttered your pan well enough, it should drop right out. Cover the cheesecake loosely with plastic and refrigerate overnight. Serve plain or with berries—I put halved strawberries all over it, and that made it look and taste nice. This should serve at least 16.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Connecticut Strawberries

It’s springtime in France, which means two things: white asparagus and strawberries. The white asparagus I can take or leave: I find it hard to get it just right with the peeling and all, so it’s either stringy or limp and lifeless. The strawberries, on the other hand, are something I can really understand. They’re ubiquitous and even the ones from the little supermarket are really delicious. We were at a party the other day, and one guest brought about 6 large baskets of what looked to be strawberries fresh from the farm. She set them out among the guests, and they disappeared rapidly.
All this to say that this was the perfect time to make the Connecticut Strawberries recipe from Maida’s book. This dessert had perfect timing in another way. I made this for a final gathering of participants in a conference Sami had organized. For the three days previously, we had eaten a ton of delicious, rich food and drunk what seemed like gallons of wine. We were all really ready for something a bit less. So when they came to our place, I made a simple pasta and served this for dessert. It hit just the right note: special and light at the same time.

This dessert is no big innovation: it’s basically strawberries sweetened with jam and liqueur and served with a custard sauce. And since it was so simple, I felt free to innovate. I used red currant jelly instead of strawberry or raspberry because it’s already smooth and has a refreshing tartness, and I used cassis instead of kirsch because I had it, quite simply. And the combination was perfect, in my opinion.
The custard sauce that Maida called for in this recipe was the White Custard Cream I had made before (I should say that Sami had made before), and so I was ready to innovate. I used whole eggs and didn’t use a double boiler, and while the process went faster this time, it did curdle a bit and was not as smooth as it could have been even after straining. I’m going to need to tweak my custard-making skills, it seems. But if you wanted to go easy on yourself, this would probably be very good with whipped cream or sweetened sour cream. Just make sure your strawberries are in season, and the rest will take care of itself.

Here’s the recipe:
Connecticut Strawberries

Your favorite custard sauce (see the White Custard Cream recipe or this one)
2 large or 3 small baskets strawberries
1 10-oz. jar strawberry, raspberry, or red currant jam or jelly
1/4 c. kirsch or cassis

Make the custard sauce and chill. Wash the strawberries and cut in half (Maida has you leave them whole, but I think they’re easier to eat in somewhat smaller pieces). Microwave the jelly in a microwave-safe bowl (not the jar!!) until it’s melted and smooth, about 1 minute 30 seconds. When you’re ready for dessert, pour the jelly over the strawberries. Mix them and serve the strawberries in bowls, passing the custard to pour over.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Granny's Sugar Cookies

Wow, what an interesting few weeks it’s been: Julia has come and gone, as have Dad and Sharmyn; Sami’s on his way to the US, and here Claire and I sit in our new, small house with Dirk poised to leave at any minute. In the meantime, baking has been done and baked goods consumed at an alarming rate, but I simply haven’t had the time to write about it. Now that there’s no Internet and no Abbey students and it’s raining outside, I finally have time to blog about what I’ve been making.

I’m pretty sure I made these sugar cookies exactly two weeks ago. Julia was still here, and I wanted to make a treat for our “château,” whose members were presenting their experiences over the past three months. Sugar cookies seemed like the perfect treat, and these were really good sugar cookies.

I find that sugar cookies can be boring—they can have a mealy or dry texture, they can be hard and cardboardy, and they often have very little flavor. I also tend to avoid them since, as I’ve mentioned before, I don’t much enjoy rolling and cutting out cookies. Now that I have little to no counter space, rolling out cookies has become even more difficult. And thus I decided to do the slice and bake thing, which worked really well.

The texture of these cookies was nice and crisp, and the lemon and cinnamon flavors melded well, which actually rather surprised me. I may have overbaked some, but as you see, they disappeared quickly and everyone enjoyed them a lot.

So if you have a sugar cookie need, I would try these. Bridget at (sorry, can't seem to get the link to work) has done a sugar cookie comparison that I found very entertaining and informative, but I think this recipe could become a go-to. Try it out!

Here’s the recipe. Remember to make the dough the day before so that it has enough time to chill.

Granny’s Old-Fashioned Sugar Cookies

4 oz. (1 stick) butter, room temperature

2 t. baking powder

1/4 t. salt

Grated zest of 2 lemons

1 T. lemon juice

1 scant cup (6.5 oz.) sugar

1 large egg

2 T. (1 oz.) cream

1-3/4 c. (8.75 oz.) unsifted flour—I used some whole wheat, and it was good

About a tablespoon of cinnamon sugar—that would be 1 T. sugar to about 1/2 t. cinnamon if you don’t have any made up.

Cream the butter with the baking powder and salt, then add the lemon zest and juice. Beat in the sugar gradually and beat over medium-high speed for about 2-3 minutes or until fluffy. Beat in the egg and cream and give that another couple of minutes, and finally stir in the flour by hand or at low speed until it is completely incorporated.

Turn out the dough onto a piece of waxed or parchment paper and form into a cylinder. Chill overnight or freeze for 3-4 hours (I froze mine overnight, and it was really too hard to slice the next day). When you are ready to bake, heat the oven to 375 and line some cookie sheets with parchment or foil. Slice the dough about 1/4-inch thick and place on the cookie sheets about 1/2 inch apart. Sprinkle the cookies lightly with the cinnamon sugar and bake for 10-13 minutes or until the edges begin to brown. Cool and devour.