Thursday, December 24, 2009

Dec 24: Daring Bakers Home Construction

The December 2009 Daring Bakers’ challenge was brought to you by Anna of Very Small Anna and Y of Lemonpi. They chose to challenge Daring Bakers’ everywhere to bake and assemble a gingerbread house from scratch. They chose recipes from Good Housekeeping and from The Great Scandinavian Baking Book as the challenge recipes.

Anna: The recipe I tested is from Good Housekeeping - I chose it because it was simple and required only ingredients I personally always have in my kitchen. Plus, it was so funky I HAD to try it, and luckily that worked out. I made my house around Halloween and decided to take advantage of the spooky goodies I could only get at that time of year.

Y: I tested a Scandinavian recipe from The Great Scandinavian Baking Book. I chose a Beatrice Ojakangas' recipe because I love her book, and usually have great success with her recipes. I was also attracted to the ingredients she had in her gingerbread. If you're using this recipe, please be aware that in general, gingerbread for houses are usually designed less for taste and more for it's ability to be sturdy and long lasting. My house is titled, "Steve the StormTrooper comes home for the Christmas holidays".

[I've always wanted to make a gingerbread house. It sounds like a fun thing to do especially with children or those that are young at heart. This month's challenge I'm baking on the road and have enlisted the help of Little Miss Kris... who is now a senior in high school. Time sure flies! Yikes!]

Mandatory for this Challenge:
Your house can be as big or as small as you'd like, but it MUST meet these requirements:

1. Everything needs to be edible - no glue or inner non-food supports allowed.

2. You must bake the gingerbread yourself, whichever recipe you choose. No graham cracker houses please!

3. You must use some sort of template. If you don't use ours, take a picture or link to what you do use in your final post. It doesn't have to be super technical - Anna didn't even measure hers, she just cut out shapes from parchment and made sure the edges matched up.

4. Your house must be able to stand on its own. If you want to go adding balconies with candy stick buttresses or whatever go right ahead, but the main house itself must be free-standing.

We feel that by having these simple ground rules in place but giving you the freedom to run with the challenge otherwise, anyone with a few hours of free time this month can tackle this. And if you have a bigger chunk of time, you can REALLY tackle it.

[I choose Y's recipe since the recipes required only 5 cups of flour and spices.]

Y's Recipe:
Scandinavian Gingerbread (Pepparkakstuga)
from The Great Scandinavian Baking Book by Beatrice Ojakangas

1 cup butter, room temperature
1 cup brown sugar, well packed
2 tablespoons cinnamon
4 teaspoons ground ginger
3 teaspoons ground cloves
2 teaspoons baking soda
½ cup boiling water
5 cups all-purpose flour

1. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until blended. Add the cinnamon, ginger and cloves. Mix the baking soda with the boiling water and add to the dough along with the flour. Mix to make a stiff dough. If necessary add more water, a tablespoon at a time. Chill 2 hours or overnight.

The sugar and butter are creamed together. The flour was added to the butter/sugar mixture and rubbed together to form a course mixture. I treated the gingerbread dough similar to a pie crust - where the water is slowly added to bring he dough together with minimal kneading.

I found it easier to mix all dry ingredients - flour and spices.

2. Cut patterns for the house, making patterns for the roof, front walls, gabled walls, chimney and door out of cardboard.

The pattern was based upon the book (referenced by Y), but when I rolled out the dough I wasn't sure if I had enough so I reduced the length of the roof and sides.

How the pattern looks in real life at full size before the trimming back the sides.

3. Roll the dough out on a large, ungreased baking sheet and place the patterns on the dough. Mark off the various pieces with a knife, but leave the pieces in place.

4. Y: rolled out the dough on a floured bench, roughly 1/8 inch thick (which allows for fact that the dough puffs a little when baked), cut required shapes and transferred these to the baking sheet. Any scraps I saved and rerolled at the end.

5. Preheat the oven to 375'F (190'C). Bake for 12 to 15 minutes until the cookie dough feels firm. After baking, again place the pattern on top of the gingerbread and trim the shapes, cutting the edges with a straight-edged knife. Leave to cool on the baking sheet.

[Based upon the complaints from other Daring Bakers, both recipes had a problem with dough shrinkage so for my runs I cut the dough a little larger than the pattern. After the dough is baked, I used a pizza cutter to trim the edges.]

Royal Icing:
For the royal icing, I used a powdered meringue instead of raw egg whites to avoid the raw egg and salmonella issue.

3T Meringue Powder
4C Powdered Sugar
6T Water

Mix with a hand mixer for 10 minutes.

The Royal Icing is the glue that will hold the gingerbread pieces.

Assembling the House!

First, as needed, fixing broken edges.
You'll notice extra bits stuck to the lower corner... that was a fix for a cracked corner. Ice the cracked edge with royal icing and reinforce with a leftover bit of gingerbread.

Joining the sides:

Generously, pipe both sides with royal icing and press together.

Piece by piece ice and join.

The finished but bare house.

Start applying candy! I kept telling Kris - my rule is if you mess up, just add candy. Of course, she didn't make mistakes. I'm the one that followed that "rule"... lol.

The Finished G-Bread House

The front of the house made by Kris. Neat, aligned and put together with dexterity.

My attempt on the other side... Window's need to be aligned? Note: My picture frame window was a mess so I followed my rule, "Put candy over it!"... lol!

K's side of the house. Nice neat lines and the candy covers the room is intentional, not to cover mistakes.

My side of the house... Hmmm... the piping wasn't quite diagonal so I added the candy canes to cover up the bad piping job. :-) I am proud of my icicles. lol!

Overall, this turned out to be a fun challenge. I've always wanted to make a gingerbread house, but I'm glad I had a helper who was patient and had the dexterity. I'm more of the old fogey-type who waves my arthritic fist to yell at young whipper snappers to "turn down their hippie music" or "slow down".

Happy Holiday and Merry Christmas to you all!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Dec 14: Daring Cooks - En Croute

The 2009 Daring Cooks challenge was hosted by Simone of Junglefrog Cooking. Simone chose Salmon en Croute (or alternative recipes for Beef Wellington or Vegetable en Croute) from Good Food Online.

Thank you Simone for hosting this month's challenge. Her blog, Junglefrog Cooking, should have the other options to this challenge.

Recipe source : Good Food online

Mandatory for this challenge is to cook with pastry!

If you do not like fish or are allergic to salmon, you can substitute the salmon for the Beef version, which is Beef Wellington. Recipe below. Salmon can be substituted for another type of fish, although I am not sure which fish would do well in pastry. Vegetarian versions are also allowed. For a vegetarian version check out this recipe on my blog and leave out the chicken

For this challenge, I chose to do a Salmon en Croute and after Thanksgiving I decided to make a Vegetarian en Croute. I made the shortcrust recipe included in this challenge.

Shortcrust pastry

While this is not mandatory to do, I highly recommend making your own shortcrust pastry as it is very simple to do! As mentioned in the notes; please make sure to not add too much water as that is the key to having a successful shortcrust pastry.

[Looking at the shortcrust recipe, it appears to be very similar to a typical pie crust. The main difference is butter is used as the fat of choice for the shortcrust.]


450 gr (15.8 ounces or 3.2 cups ) of plain all purpose flour
200 gr ( 7 ounce) cold butter
pinch of salt
2 to 3 T of Water [Note: I ended up using more water about 4 1/2 T. I suspect the water quantity is off by 1/2]

[I opted to use a food processor.]

Stir in the salt, butter chunks and flour.

Blend until the butter is incorporated - with the appearance of corn meal or bread crumbs.

Then add 2-3 tbsp of water and mix to a firm dough.
Knead the dough briefly and gently on a floured surface.
Wrap in cling film and chill while preparing the filling.

Salmon en croute:
Mascarpone or cream cheese 5.2 ounces/150 gr [I could only find cream cheese]
Watercress, rocket (arugula) and spinach - 0.6 cup/4.2 ounces/120 gr
Shortcrust pastry - 17.6 ounces, 500 gr.
Salmon fillet (skinless)- 17.6 ounce/500 gr [Instead of a large fillet, I cut into individual servings which were about 4 ounces. My reasoning... more crust per person.]
egg - 1 medium sized

Preheat the oven to 200°C/390 F.

1.Put the cream cheese in a food processor with the watercress, spinach and rocket and whizz the lot until you have a creamy green puree. Season well.

2. Roll the pastry out so you can wrap the salmon in it completely (approx. 2-3 mm thick) and lay it on a buttered or oiled baking sheet (it will hang over the edges). Put the salmon in the middle. If it has a thinner tail end, tuck it under. Spoon half of the watercress mixture onto the salmon. Now fold the pastry over into a neat parcel (the join will be at the top, so trim the edge neatly), making sure you don’t have any thick lumps of pastry as these won’t cook through properly. Trim off any excess as you need to. Make 3 neat cuts in the pastry to allow steam to escape and make some decorations with the off-cuts to disguise the join if you like. Brush with the egg glaze.

[The fillet was thin, so I doubled it over and applied sauce between layers. Also, the salmon was seasoned with salt and pepper.]

3. Bake for 30 minutes or until the pastry is crisp and browned. To test whether the salmon is cooked, push a sharp knife through one of the cuts into the flesh, wait for 3 seconds then test it against the inside of your wrist; if it is hot, the salmon is cooked. Serve with the rest of the watercress puree as a sauce.

[I played around with the folding. The "tuck-under" or the "crimp the edges" wrap.]

[While the salmon was baking, I embellished the sauce to make a basil-less pest. Is it still pesto without basil? lol! I added roasted pistachios and garlic to boost the flavor.]

Vegetarian en Croute
After Thanksgiving, I decided to use the remaining shortcrust to make a vegetarian en croute.

I used mushrooms, the remaining greens and ricotta.

The flavor of slowly sauteed mushrooms is wonderful. I think it has to do with the natural umami flavors that are brought out during the cooking process.

The mushroom were coarsely cut into quarters. The goal was to have some large chunks to give a feeling of heartiness. When mushrooms are sliced too thin, they eventually become too small.

8 oz Oyster Mushrooms
8 oz Button Mushrooms
1/4 (a couple pinches) Thyme
1 Shallot, diced
1 Green Onion, minced
2 Cloves Garlic, minced
2 T Butter or olive oil.
Salt and Pepper
2 C Fresh Spinach
2 C Arugula

The aromatics were sweated to flavor the oil/butter.

Next, the mushrooms and thyme is added and slowly cooked over medium heat.
The key is the slow saute will drive off moisture which will eventually lead to a nice golden browning of the mushrooms (as shown below).

Finally the greens are added... to cook down.
Allow the mixture to cool before using.

Making the en croute... add a layer of ricotta, followed with the mushroom mixture and sauce.

Another layer of ricotta and sauce... and wrap.

The Finished "En Croutes"

First the salmon... Surprisingly, the salmon was very moist and the crust held up to the moistness. I served with sauteed asparagus, glazed carrots and finally scalloped potatoes. I chose scalloped potatoes since they reminded me of fish scales. :-)

Finally, the vegetarian version.
I'm familiar with using mushrooms with meat dishes, such as a pot roast, but what was delicious surprise about the mushrooms was the "meaty" flavor. The cooking with the aromatics, butter and thyme (which is a common basis of a pot roast), plus the nicely browned mushrooms gave a terrific meat-like flavor. The flavor reminded me of the crispy brown bits on a seared steak or the pan fond after cooking a roast. That's the mysterious umami flavor at work. I was surprised by mock meat flavor that was achieved by the mushrooms. I learned something new. :-)

Friday, December 11, 2009

Dec 11, 2009: Birthday Caramels!

One of my favorite recipes from the Daring Baker Challenges is actually from a bonus challenge, Golden Vanilla Bean Caramels. The recipe was originally posted on the Nov 28, 2008 challenge.

- makes eighty-one 1-inch caramels -
1 C Golden Syrup
2 C Sugar
3/8 t Fine Sea Salt
2 C Heavy Cream
1 1/2 t Pure Vanilla Extract
3 T Unsalted Butter, cut into chunks, softened


Line the bottom and sides of the baking pan with aluminum foil and grease the foil. In hindsight, I should have used parchment paper.

Combine the golden syrup, sugar, and salt in a heavy 3-quart saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring with a silicone spatula or wooden spoon, until the mixture begins to simmer around the edges.

Ingredients ready to heat...

Stir over medium heat to melt the sugar and syrup mixture.

When you see bubbles on the edges, wash the sugar and syrup from the sides of the pan with a pastry brush dipped in water. Cover and cook for about 3 minutes. (Meanwhile, rinse the spatula or spoon before using it again later.) Uncover the pan and wash down the sides once more.

Attach the candy thermometer to the pan, without letting it touch the bottom of the pan, and cook, uncovered (without stirring) until the mixture reaches 305°F.

When the sugar mixture reaches 305°F, turn off the heat and stir in the butter chunks.

Gradually stir in the hot cream;
[WARNING: have a catch pan ready... when you stir the mixture with cream it will want to foam over. Place the pot in a large metal bowl to catch any overflow!]

Turn the burner back on and adjust it so that the mixture boils energetically but not violently. Stir until any thickened syrup at the bottom of the pan is dissolved and the mixture is smooth.

Stir, stir, stir!

Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, to about 245°F. Then cook, stirring constantly, to 260°f for soft, chewy caramels. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the vanilla extract, if using it.

Note: Over medium heat, cooking to 260F is a long process with constant stirring. If you don't stir, you risk a boilover which would be a mess to clean up. However, the results are well worth the effort!

Pour the caramel into the lined pan.
Let set for 4 to 5 hours, or overnight until firm.

Lift the pan liner from the pan and invert the sheet of caramel onto a sheet of parchment paper. Peel off the liner.

Darn! I didn't butter the foil enough. I'm getting stickage. I should have tried parchment paper instead of aluminum foil.

I found that a pizza cutter does great at cutting the caramels. I actually left the slab whole, but had to cut off an edge since the caramel was stuck in the foil.

Happy Birthday!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Dec 08: Tofu Tuesday Today!

Tofu has been on my mind... a lot.

I think my long hours at work and eating out has got my body wanting something healthier. I suppose my body is telling me something. :-)

There are many types of tofu, but the common types are firm - great for stir fry and braised dishes, and silken/soft tofu. Silken tofu has a custard like texture and is typically used in soups.

Today, I cooked with fried tofu... also known as tofu puffs.

Tofu puffs are easy to use. You can leave them whole, but I decided to quarter into bite size pieces.

There are many ways to cook tofu, but I wanted to make something easy.

Stir Fry Veggies with Tofu Puffs.
1T Oil
1 Clove Garlic
1 Green Onion, sliced
1 Package of Tofu Puffs, quartered
1 Carrot, thinly sliced
3 C Raw Spinach
3 C Nappa Cabbage
1 to 2 T Oyster Sauce
1 T of Soy Sauce
1/4 C Water

Actually any veggies will do.

1. Over medium heat, sweat the garlic and green onions to flavor the oil. I also started cooking the carrots since they take the longest. After a minute or two, add the tofu.

2. After 3 to 5 minutes, add the veggies, soy sauce, oyster sauce and water.
Give it a stir and cover to steam for about 5 to 10 minutes... until the veggies are done to your liking.

3. A healthy meal served over brown rice.

There's something comforting about eating something healthy. Nutritious and delicious, at least perceived to be healthy... lol.

However, I still have tofu on my mind... What to do with the other packs of tofu? Hmm...

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Dec 02: Chicken Wing Salad

Chicken drumettes were on sale which got me thinking of fried wings or buffalo wings.
However, after feasting for Thanksgiving I was thinking of a "healthy" way to have the chicken.

Part of the fun with cooking is to try new recipes and making up stuff on the fly.

My inspiration is a spinach salad where I replaced the bacon with the chicken wings.

The drumettes (about 1 lb) were marinade with two cloves of crushed garlic, 3 T of soy sauce and 1 minced green onion.

The drumettes were fried at 370 F for 10 minutes. I probably could have cooked for about 7 to 8 minutes, but 10 minutes was a nice round number.

My idea as to fry the chicken, coat with a flavorful liquid and add the spinach so the ambient heat wilts the spinach.

The flavorful liquid...
2T Ponzu Sauce (since I didn't have lemon)
1 T Red Wine Vinegar
1T Olive oil
1 Garlic, crushed
1 Green Onion, minced
1/4 C Red Onion, thinly sliced

1. Toss the just fried chicken in the dressing. You can see the wisp of steam.

2. Add the salad greens and mix. Give it a minute to wilt the veggies. :-)

3. Plate and eat

The salad greens absorbed the ponzu dressing and the wings picked the extra flavor.
A flavorful way to eat deep fried food with less guilt... lol!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Nov 29: Panna Cotta

I was watching the TV show Top Chef where one of the cheftestants was eliminated for making a terrible panna cotta. The comments from the judges was that it's a very easy dessert and difficult to foul up.

What is panna cotta and what makes it easy?

Looking up a couple recipes...
The Perfect Panna Cotta by David Lebovitz
Panna Cotta on the Joy of Baking website.

Panna cotta is a dessert that's basically cream, sugar, gelatin and vanilla. Hmmm... That's all? That is very straightforward. In fact, add almond extract you'll make "Almond Floats" which is that white almond flavored gelatin served with fruit cocktail... often found in Chinese restaurants.

Based upon the recipes above, I backed out a very basic Panna Cotta recipe.

Panna Cotta
1 C Heavy Cream... That's all I had.
1 C Half and Half
1/4 C (50 g) Sugar
1/2 t Vanilla Extract
1/4 C Water
1 Envelope Unflavored Gelatine, powdered.

1. Grease custard cups with a mild oil or unsalted butter. I used vegetable oil.

2. Heat the dairy and the sugar until the sugar dissolves.

3. Bloom the gelatine in the 1/4 C of water for about 5 to 10 minutes.

4. Add the vanilla to the hot dairy mixture or, as I did, add to the gelatine.
The hot dairy was poured in and stirred until the gelatine was completely dissolved.

5. Pour equal amounts into a custard cup or a glass.
The custard cups are for unmolding while the glasses are meant to be part of the service.
Chill... I chilled overnight.

The plating...
Using a paring knife to trace the side of the custard cup, invert and unmold. Patience is required here. It's like trying to get a ketchup bottle started. Also, you can use hot water and heat the bottom of the cup. Eventually, the panna cotta will plop out.

The berries (1 C) were frozen... warmed in a small sauce pan with about (2 or 3 T sugar).
I also had some leftover ganache from my macaron making from a few days ago.

The panna cotta was very easy to make.

I wasn't sure what to expect... a firm milk jell-o like product or a smooth light custard?
Surprisingly, the panna cotta was light with a texture close to a custard, but a little firmer. However, it wasn't stiff like Jell-O.

The berries and chocolate overpowered the vanilla panna cotta. Without the sauce and chocolate, I would describe the panna cotta like a firm vanilla ice cream or a firmer creme burlee without the burnt sugar topping.

Based upon the firmness of the panna cotta, I was thinking I could have added another 1/2 C to 1 C of dairy. My goal is to still have a gelled dessert, but one that's soft like a custard... without having to go through the steps of making a custard.

Also, maybe just a touch more vanilla 3/4 t or using a vanilla pod in the heated dairy mixture.

Overall, a very simple dessert with lots of potential.