Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Hawaiian Shave Ice

Recently I was on a beach vacation on Topsail Island, N.C., a truly beautiful location. The water is warm, the waves are perfect, it's always sunny, and there's hardly anyone on the beach. It's as if the spot was designed by the chamber of commerce, down to the adorable hermit crabs. Anyhow, one day I stopped at a local produce stand to get some fresh fruit and veggies. What got my attention is that next to the stand was a little yellow trailer with 'Hawaiian Kine Shave Ice' painted on the side in bright colors, along with a list of 24 flavors, which included a lot of varieties, including classic ones like cherry, orange and strawberry as well as more exotic ones like coconut, tigers' blood, banana and pina colada.

I couldn't resist. I've been to Hawaii, but I never tasted a real Hawaiin shaved ice treat. Mary, the proprietor of the trailer and Hawaiin native, explained the difference between shave ice and a snow cone. "A snow cone," she said, "is like eating little pellets of ice. The Hawaiian shave ice is like thin wisps of ice that immediately melt on your tongue." I ordered up a watermelon one and bit in. Aloha!! Boy is that refreshing. (You bite it and then, as it melts, sip the juice through a straw.) For a hot climate, this is the ideal thirst quencher. Not sure why I traveled all the way to Hawaii and never tried it, but, luckily, Mary came to the rescue when she settled in North Carolina and brought a little bit of paradise with her. Thanks, Mary.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Great Gazpacho

I get a huge amount of pleasure out of food, and I've always been a big eater. Because of this, I've always struggled with my weight. I probably should've rethought the whole notion of specializing in desserts at some point, to make things easier on myself. But I didn't, and I do, so there you have it. I try to compensate by playing a lot of tennis--3 or 4 times a week--and this certainly helps. But the calculus of how many calories I ingest versus the amount of energy I expend doesn't always come out in my favor. That's when I get a little on the desperate side and try to cut back in the calorie department. Tonight, for example, I am having one of my favorite summer meals, and it happens to be a completely healthy, low-fat one: gazpacho.

I love the fresh flavors of this substantial soup, and the fact that it can (and should) be prepared hours in advance. Using V-8 juice (a trick I learned as a garde manger cook in a French restaurant years ago) gives the veggie flavor another boost. If you happen to have some top-notch aged balsamic vinegar on hand, add a drizzle to the top right before serving.

Great Gazpacho
Makes 10 servings

5-6 perfectly ripe tomatoes
2 European cucumbers (the long ones that are wrapped in plastic), peeled, halved and seeded
1 large yellow pepper
1 large red pepper
1 large red onion
3 garlic cloves, minced
6 cups V-8 juice
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup chopped chives
Salt and pepper to taste

Hand chop tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and red onion into evenly sized pieces, about 1/4-inch cubes. Transfer all vegetables to a large bowl and add garlic, V-8, vinegar, oil, chives and salt and pepper. Mix well, cover and chill a few hours before serving. Serve with toasted baguette slices.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Queen of Cakes Does it Again

When Rose Levy Beranbaum's classic cookbook The Cake Bible came out in the late 1980's, I immediately became a huge fan. I have always marvelled at the amount of work and effort that went into that book. I didn't make all the cakes in The Cake Bible, but I made most of them, and continue to use it today. I've since gotten to know Rose (we even went on a press trip to Switzerland together at some point) and I've learned to love her quirky personality and dedication to the art of dessert. Rose goes to great lengths to find the best techniques for making whatever it is she's making, whether it's a cake, tart or bread. She is, quite simply, a perfectionist. And now she's written another cake book, Rose's Heavenly Cakes, and, from what I can see, it is also destined to be a classic.

I randomly chose a cake to bake from it--the Black Chocolate Party Cake. It's a simple cake, very easy to make. Nothing special, I thought. Boy, was I wrong about that. One taste, and I knew that this cake was nothing short of extraordinary. The finest crumb, lightest texture, and an intense chocolate flavor. Pure genius. That's Rose--she never disappoints. Order this book now (it will officially be out in September).

Black Chocolate Party Cake
Makes 12-14 servings

2/3 cup walnut halves
1 cup sour cream
3/4 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder
3 large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups bleached all-purpose flour (sifted into the cup and leveled off)
1 1/4 cups turbinado sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature

Cocoa Syrup:
1/4 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup boiling water
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 teaspoons walnut liqueur or Kahlua (optional)

Make the cake:
1. Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Coat a 10-cup metal fluted tube pan with baking spray with flour.
2. Spread the walnuts evenly on a baking sheet and bake for about 7 minutes to enhance the flavor. Stir once or twice to ensure even toasting and avoid overbrowning. Turn the walnuts onto a clean dish towel and roll and rub them around to loosen the skins. Discard the skins and cool completely. In a food processor, pulse them until they are medium fine. If they start to become a little pasty, add 1/2 cup of the flour.
3. In a medium bowl, stir, then whisk the sour cream, cocoa, eggs, and vanilla until the consistency of slightly lumpy muffin batter.
4. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the flat beater, mix the ground walnuts, flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt on low speed for about 30 seconds. Add the butter and half the cocoa mixture. Mix on low speed until the dry ingredients are moistened. Raise the speed to medium and beat for 1 1/2 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. With the mixer off between additions, add the remaining cocoa mixture in two parts, starting on medium-low speed and gradually raising the speed to medium. Beat on medium speed for 30 seconds after each addition to incorporate the ingredients and strengthen the structure. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Using a silicone spatula or spoon, scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the surface evenly with a small offset metal spatula.
5. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until a wooden toothpick inserted between the tube and the side comes out clean and the cake springs back when pressed lightly. Make the cocoa syrup shortly before the cake is finished baking.

Make the Cocoa Syrup:
6. In a small saucepan, whisk together the cocoa and sugar. Add a small amount of the boiling water and whisk until all of the mixture is moistened. Whisk in the remaining boiling water. Bring the mixture to a full rolling boil over low heat, stirring often. Remove it from the heat and allow it to cool slightly. Whisk in the vanilla and liqueur, and use while still hot to brush on the cake. If necessary, add water to equal 2/3 cup of syrup.

Brush and unmold the cake:
7. As soon as the cake comes out of the oven, place the pan on a wire rack, poke the cake all over with a wooden skewer, and brush it with about one-third of the syrup. Let the cake cool in the pan for 10 minutes. Drape plastic wrap over the cake in the pan, overhanging the pan by a few inches. Place a 9-inch cardboard cake round or plate on top of the plastic wrap and invert the cake. Remove the pan and flatten the plastic wrap overhang onto the work surface. Brush the top and sides of the cake with the remaining syrup. Bring up the sides of the plastic wrap to apply any little puddles of syrup to the cake. Cool completely. When ready to serve, invert the cake onto another cardboard round or plate lined with plastic wrap. Gently remove the plastic wrap sticking to the cake, being careful not to tear or break off any of the fragile edges of the cake, and reinvert the cake onto a serving plate.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Key Lime Cheesecake

Years ago I worked as a pastry chef at Club Med in Port St. Lucie, Florida, and I became an expert in making Key Lime Pie. The guests at Club Med (a.k.a. "Club Dead Above the Waistline" or "Club Bed") couldn't get enough of the stuff. They shoveled it down for lunch and dinner and any other time they could get their hands on it. The supreme irony here is that it's probably one of the easiest desserts to make. A can of sweetened condensed milk, some limes, a few eggs, and Bob's your uncle! Well, in homage to my days at Club Med, here's a cheesecake that features the flavors of Key Lime Pie, and is just as simple to prepare. I like to garnish this cake with some lime zest powder. To make it, just grate some zest with a rasp and place it in a microwave-safe container with a flat bottom. Microwave it uncovered at 10-second intervals, stirring after each interval, until it is dry (just over a minute, usually). Then simply process the dried zest in a spice grinder. This technique can be used with any type of citrus zest.
Key Lime Cheesecake
Makes 12 to 14 servings
1 1/4 cups graham cracker crumbs
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Key Lime Filling:
1 1/2 pounds cream cheese, at room temperature
One 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
3 large eggs
2 teaspoons lime zest
1/4 cup Key lime or Persian (common) lime juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Make the crust:
1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Cut an 18-inch square of heavy-duty aluminum foil and wrap the foil around the outside of a 9-inch springform pan.
2. Combine the crust ingredients in a bowl until well blended. Spoon the mixture into the prepared pan and pat it evenly over the bottom. Bake the crust for 8 minutes, or until lightly browned. Cool completely. Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees F.
Make the filling:
3. In the bowl of an electric mixer, using the paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese at medium-low speed until creamy, about 2 minutes. Gradually add the condensed milk and mix until blended, using a rubber spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl. Add the lime zest, lime juice and vanilla and mix until blended.
4. Pour the filling into the cooled crust and place the pan in a roasting pan or large baking pan. Pour enough hot water into the roasting pan to come 1 inch up the sides of the springform pan. Bake the cheesecake in the water bath for 50 to 55, just until set.
5. Remove the cake pan from the water and place it on a wire rack to cool completely.
6. Refrigerate the cake for at least 4 hours before serving. Serve with a dollop of whipped cream and a sprinkle of lime zest powder.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Dark Victory

I’ve known chocolatier Norman Love for many years, back to the time he was working as the Corporate Pastry Chef for the Ritz-Carlton. Today he is one of the country’s premier chocolatiers, and he produces some seriously stylish, delectable chocolates. If you’re a lover a dark chocolate, I recommend his Black line. Each of the five chocolates in the Black collection is made with cocoa beans from one of the world’s five premium growning regions: The Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Boliva, Venezuela and Madagascar.

These chocolates are made with high-cocoa mass Swiss dark chocolate (Felchlin brand), ranging from 64 to 74 percent. The filling is pure, creamy ganache, with no infused flavor. This is chocolate for the chocolate purist, plain and simple. www.normanloveconfections.com.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Brownie Points

The brownie is a classic American dessert. It's a basic that every cook should have in his or her recipe arsenal, the little black dress of the dessert world. It can stand on its own, or be dressed up in infinite ways to transform it into an elegant dessert. Last year I did an article on caramel for Fine Cooking magazine, and this is one of the recipes I created for it. I actually make these brownies often, because they're so decadent and delicious, yet easy to prepare. They never fail to please. A sure way to score brownie points.

Caramel Pecan Brownies
Makes 36 brownies

1 cup unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch chunks
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
4 large eggs
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups pecan halves, coarsely chopped

1 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 3 pieces
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon heavy cream
1/2 cup pecan halves, chopped and toasted

Make the brownies:
1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease the bottom and sides of a 9 x 13-inch baking pan and set aside. Place the butter and chocolate in a medium heavy saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring frequently, until chocolate and butter are melted and the mixture is smooth. Remove from heat and set aside. In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs until well blended. Gradually whisk in the sugar and continue to whisk vigorously until well blended. Whisk in the melted chocolate mixture, salt and vanilla extract. Add the flour and whisk until blended. Stir in the pecans and scrape the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing it into an even layer. Bake for 22-25 minutes, until firm to the touch. Transfer the pan to a wire rack.

Make the topping:
2. While the brownies are baking, make the caramel topping. Fill a cup with water and place a pastry brush in it (this will be used for washing down the sides of the pan to prevent crystallization). In a clean, heavy-bottomed 2-quart saucepan, stir together the sugar, water and lemon juice. Place the saucepan over medium-high heat and cook, occasionally washing down the sides of the pan to wash away sugar crystals, until the mixture starts to color around the edges. Gently swirl the pan to ensure that the sugar caramelizes evenly. Continue to cook until the sugar turns deep amber. Remove the pan from the heat and carefully add the heavy cream -- the mixture will bubble up furiously. Once the bubbling has subsided, add the butter and stir until completely melted. Whisk in the salt and vanilla extract. When the brownies come out of the oven, let them cool for 10 minutes, until the top is no longer puffed. Pour the caramel topping over the hot brownies, using a spatula to spread it over the entire top. Let the brownies cool on the wire rack for 45 minutes, then refrigerate for at least 1 hour, until the caramel topping is set.

Drizzle chocolate:
3. Combine the chocolate and heavy cream in a small saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring frequently, until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth. Pour the chocolate into a small sealable plastic bag and seal the bag. Using scissors, snip a small hole in a corner of the bag and drizzle the chocolate over the brownies. Sprinkle the chopped pecans on top. Refrigerate for 30 minutes, until the chocolate is set.

4. Using a sharp knife, cut into 36 bars. Serve chilled or at room temperature. (Brownies will keep in refrigerator, well covered, for up to 5 days.)

Monday, July 6, 2009

AA Chocolates

It isn't often that I downright fall in love with a line of chocolates at first taste, but it's just happened. The object of my affection is Antoine Amrani Chocolates, a line that was created by the former pastry chef of Georges Perrier's Le Bec Fin in Philiadelphia. I met Amrani at the Fancy Food Show in New York, and I was immediately drawn to his chocolate line's beautiful brown and lime-green packaging with its distinctive logo. Then I saw the chocolates themselves, and they are pure poetry: shiny little jewels, beckoning for a bite. The bite was also a revelation--I first tried the Coconut Kaffir Lime and was beguiled by the flavors of Thailand, the texture of the coconut, the snap of the dark chocolate.

Other intriguing flavors in the line include Banana Rum, Raspberry Organic Cinnamon Honey, Coffee Sour Cherry (the red piece in the photo above), Banana Rum and Almond Crisp. The chocolates are made with natural, organic ingredients, and are preservative-free. Most are made with 70 percent chocolate. Check out the line at www.aachocolates.com or visit their store at 550 Foundry Rd., E. Norriton, PA; 877-267-2644.