Friday, July 31, 2009

The pastry experiment

EATING all those fabulous French pastries, as well as reading about fabulous French creations, inspired me to try to tackle one of my great baking fears: pastry.
Yeast, I’m fine with. Meringue? No worries. But the thought of making pastry, for some reason, sends me all to water.
Or it did, I should say, until I sucked it up, set an afternoon aside and had a go at creating these apple frangipane tarts.
Before I even pulled my apron on, several hours were spent sitting in front of the bookshelf, surrounded by piles of cookbooks and the laptop, searching for just the right recipe for both the tart shell and the frangipane base.
Frangipanes appear to go one of two ways: cakey or creamy. Since I didn’t have any cream in the house and it was cold outside, I went with a cakey, Bakewell tart-style recipe from my favourite cookbook, The Essential Baking Cookbook.
Recipes for a basic shortcrust pastry are all very similar, so, armed with a mix of recipes from the baking bible and Tartelette, the other baking bible, I was set to go.
Five hours later, the kitchen looked like a bomb had hit it. There was flour on the floor, pastry scraps on the bench (and the floor) and I think I used every bowl in the house. I wish I’d taken a photo ... although on second thoughts, it's probably best not to have any photographic evidence. Geez it was fun though.
And how did they turn out? Well, the pastry was a bit tough in places (I got a bit nervous that it wasn’t coming together enough and I think I added too much ice water) and the frangipane rose more than I was expecting, turning my artfully arranged apple pieces into the Mongolian steppes rather than the delightful roses I was hoping for. But they tasted pretty good.

Apple frangipane tart

Quantities enough for one 20cm tart, or (as I did) two 9cm tarts and a freeform attempt with the leftovers

Shortcrust pastry

1 cups plain flour
90g unsalted butter, chilled, chopped
2 tsp caster sugar
2 tbs ice water
1 egg yolk

Sift the flour into a bowl and stir in sugar. Add butter and, using your fingertips, rub butter into flour mixture until it looks like breadcrumbs. (You can use a food processor, in fact most recipes suggest it, but I don't have one.)
Make a well in the middle and add egg yolk and almost all the iced water. Mix with a flat-bladed knife and add the rest of the water if it seems dry.
Turn out onto a floured surface, pat into a disc and wrap in cling wrap. Refrigerate for about 30 minutes.
Divide the pastry into three and roll it out between two sheets of baking paper to cover the base and sides of the tin you're using. Gently transfer into greased tin and refrigerate again to rest.
Blind bake shells in a pre-heated 180C oven for 10 minutes, remove the paper and baking beads and then bake again for 7 minutes or until golden and dry.
Allow to cool.

90g unsalted butter
1/3 cup caster sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
Several drops almond essence (amount to taste)
2/3 cup almond meal
1/3 cup self-raising flour

Cream butter and sugar with electric beaters until light and creamy and add the egg and almond essence, beating thoroughly after each addition.
Fold in the almond meal and sifted flour with a metal spoon.
Spoon the frangipane into the tart shells and arrange sliced apple on top. Brush apple with a little melted butter and sprinkle sugar over the top.
Bake for 35 minutes, or until risen and golden.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A religieuse experience

IT'S not just a bad pun (what can I say? Comes with the territory). I have had the closest thing to a religious experience I'm probably ever likely to experience and it was all down to - of all things - the French.

See, I went to France a little while ago and one of the highlights of a too-short trip was a visit to Laduree, a Parisian patissierie that's been in business since 1862.

When I visited, on a Sunday, the salon de the was packed with very excited-looking women munching their way through vast arrays of delicacies, while the queue for the cake store a emporter - or takeaway - was out the door. Since that gave everyone time to survey the magical range of goodness behind the glass counter, I've never seen people happier to stand in a queue.

Much frantic deliberating later, I walked out the proud possessor of a religieuse chocolat (on the right in the above picture) and a Saint-Honore pistache fraise; or, as the Laduree website describes them, cream puff pastry [with] chocolate confectioner’s custard and puff pastry, cream puff pastry, light pistachio confectioner’s custard, strawberry stew, strawberries [and] pistachio Chantilly cream.

I only know they were the best things I've ever eaten.

The pastry was crisp and flaky, giving way in the profiterole to a gush of smooth, chocolatey custard with the added bonus of a mini-profiterole filled with vanilla creme patissiere on top.

The Saint-Honore's layers of pistachio cream and custard were saved from being sickly-sweet by the fresh strawberries and a secret heart of strawberry coulis, buried under the mounds of green-tinged cream.

The only problem was, they weren't big enough.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Room for one more on the bandwagon?

SO I'VE been pondering starting a blog for a while now.
I'm not the kind of cook who whips up astonishingly good meals out of her head; I can't admit to making sweets so beautiful they make you sigh with longing. I can't take a beautiful picture and, God help me, I didn't even watch MasterChef Australia! What business do I have gibbering about baking goodness among such talent?
But baking makes me happy, it's as simple as that. Trying new things, playing with dough and icing, revisiting old favourites, is a joy that's guaranteed to leave me feeling at peace with the world (well, when things go well). It never fails to amaze me that you can take butter, sugar and flour and finish with something that's completely different each time, something that's greater than the sum of its parts. And so I'm jumping on this bandwagon despite my baking faults, despite the fact the rest of the known world started a blog about 10 years ago, because it seems like the food blogging community is wide, kind and (hopefully) very forgiving.

Anyway, enough philosophy; bring on the cake!

Among my many life quests is to find myself a go-to chocolate cake recipe, learn it off by heart and always have the ingredients for it in the pantry. Oh sure, I have specific favourites - the chocolate fondant, the flourless chocolate cake, the chocolate fondant, the citrus cake, the chocolate fondant - and there's always a go-to recipe of the moment; if you rang me right now and said "I'll be at yours in an hour", there would be a chocolate cake waiting for you (or at least in the oven) when you rang the bell. But is it the best cake ever? Is it MY cake, the cake I can go to my grave being known for? Not quite yet.

Of course, looking for MY cake means I have to make, and taste-test, a lot of cakes that could be contenders. Somehow I manage to cope with this crushing burden.

I made this cake for my brother's birthday (which is around Easter, hence the egg decoration ... I did say I'd been pondering starting a blog for a while) and judging by the speed with which it disappeared, it's a fairly solid contender for MY cake. But the search continues.

Basic chocolate cake (adapted from Donna Hay)

Makes 1 20cm round cake, 12 big cupcakes or 24 mini-cupcakes.

125g butter
3/4 cup caster sugar
2 eggs
1/2 cup milk
1 1/4 cups self-raising flour
2 tbs cocoa powder
100g dark chocolate, melted


80g butter
1 cup icing sugar
1 tbs cocoa

Preheat the oven to 160C and grease and line the tin of your choice. Beat the butter and sugar until light and creamy. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat well. Sift the flour and cocoa in and beat until combined. Fold through the milk and melted chocolate and pour into the tin. Bake until cake springs back in the middle and is cooked when you test it with a skewer.

To make the icing, beat the butter until light and creamy. Sift in the icing sugar and cocoa and beat until combined. If you make the cake as cupcakes, or want to layer the icing in the cake, make double the amount.