Let Them Eat Brioche

This recipe may seem a little ill-timed, since tonight marks the end of the Carnival season and tomorrow is the beginning of Lent.  If you’re making any sort of Lenten resolutions, you probably won’t be baking this any time in the next forty days.  However, it was too good not to share, so I thought I’d go ahead and put it out there for you debaucherous souls who might want to give it a go.

Given that today is Mardi Gras, I wanted to treat the family to some traditional gumbo and a Gateau des Roi.  I didn’t grow up eating King Cake, or really observing Mardi Gras at all.  As such, I have no reference for what makes a good King Cake.  As an adult, I’ve seen a number of different (shortcut) variations, including cinnamon roll-based cakes and crescent roll based cakes.  While I knew that these recipes that used processed and pre-packaged ingredients were probably not the most traditional versions, they did give me a basic idea of what a King Cake entails – rich buttery dough, stuffed with a sweet filling and topped with a sugary glaze

With some digging, I discovered that traditional King Cake consists of rich brioche bread, filled with cinnamon, almond paste or cream cheese and glazed with simple icing sugar glaze.  They are often sprinkled with purple, green and yellow sanding sugar to reflect the colors of Mardi Gras.  I figured if I could find a good brioche recipe, the rest would be a piece of cake (ha-ha).

For the brioche recipe, I turned to a trusted and reliable source: Michael Ruhlman.  The tagline on Ruhlman’s website is “translating the Chef’s craft for every kitchen,” and he does a skillful job doing just that.  His recipes are well tested, and you can be assured that you will find success if you follow his instructions.  I knew that any brioche recipe I found on his site would be delightful.  When I saw that it called for five whole eggs and twelve ounces of butter (that’s three whole sticks), I figured it could not disappoint.

Since I followed his recipe almost to the letter, I’ll suggest that you click on over to his site if you want to make it.  I did substitute freshly ground hard white wheat flour for the bread flour that he suggests and I used honey granules in place of the sugar.  I also shortened the second rise, choosing to let the dough rise in a warm oven for one hour instead of in the refrigerator overnight.

To make the brioche into a King Cake, I made a cream cheese filling, combining eight ounces of cream cheese, 1/2 cup of honey granules, one large egg, three tablespoons of flour and the zest of one lemon.  I beat this all together until it was smooth.  After the dough had risen the first time (and doubled in volume – this took approximately three hours at room temperature), I punched it down and rolled it out into a long, thin rectangle.  I spread the filling evenly onto the rectangle and folded the dough over onto itself, pinching the edges to seal the filling inside.  I then formed it into a ring and placed it in a greased tube pan.  I covered it with plastic wrap, and let it rise in a warm oven (preheated to 150F, then turned off) for about an hour.

To bake it off, I preheated the oven to 350F, baked the cake for 20 minutes uncovered, then 25 minutes tented with parchment paper (to keep it from getting too brown).  Once it was fully baked, I removed it from the oven, turned it out onto a cooling rack and allowed it to cool completely.

For the glaze, I combined 2 cups of powdered sugar with a couple of tablespoons of heavy cream, stirring to combine.  I added a 1/2 a teaspoon of pure vanilla extract, then glazed the cake once it had cooled completely.

Even if you don’t make a king cake, I highly recommend this brioche recipe – it practically melts in your mouth it’s so buttery.  I can imagine using it for breakfast in french toast, or making a decadent croque-monsieur (or even more decadent croque-madame) with it.  In this instance, stuffed (albeit unevenly) with slightly sweet cream cheese and smothered with creamy vanilla glaze, it was the perfect way to top off our family Fat Tuesday celebration.

Now, what to do with the leftovers tomorrow?

The Economy of Puff Pastry

e-con-o-my \i-ˈkä-nə-mē\1. archaic: the management of household or private affairs and especially expenses; 2. a: thrifty and efficient use of material resources : frugality in expenditures; also: an instance or a means of economizing:savingb: efficient and concise use of nonmaterial resources (as effort, language, or motion) (source: Merriam Webster Online Dictionary)

I am moving toward economy in all aspects of my life.  Economy of resources, of words, of effort.  Minimal expenditure, maximum gain.  That old saying that sometimes less is more?  Yep – that’s what I’m going for.

This puff pastry embodies the concept.  Few ingredients, simple technique, maximum impact.  Elegant, flaky, delicate. Impossibly thin layers – thousands of them –  shatter and melt in your mouth.

When I saw a similar product at the market for $12, I thought to myself “how the hell can this lump of flour and butter cost $12?” Surely I could create something just as good for pennies on the dollar, and I could do it using whole grains rather than refined white flour.

The recipe is adapted from the good old Joy of Cooking.  I used freshly ground soft winter wheat, ground it fine, and then passed it through a medium-mesh sieve to remove the largest bits of bran and germ.

  • 2 1/3 cups freshly ground flour
  • 3/4 teaspoons salt
  • 4 tablespoons cold butter cut into 1/2 inch cubes
  • 1/2 cup ice water (the original calls for 3/4 cup, but I didn’t use it al)
  • 1 3/4 cups butter, cut into 1/2 inch slices
  • 1 cup flour
  1. Combine the first 2 ingredients in the bowl of a food processor, pulse to combine
  2. Add 4 tablespoons butter and pulse until mixture resembles coarse crumbs
  3. Add ice water and pulse just until dough comes together in a ball.
  4. Form a 5-inch square, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 1 hour.
  5. Freeze 1 3/4 cups butter for 2 minutes
  6. Place in the bowl of the food processor, along with 1 cup flour
  7. Process mixture until it looks like fine gravel.
  8. Scrape down sides of bowl and process until smooth.
  9. Scrape onto a sheet of plastic wrap, form a 6-inch square, wrap and refrigerate while you roll out the dough.
Illustration of puff pastry technique - through the first double fold

From here, it’s all about technique.  Handling the dough as little as possible, yet creating layer upon layer of buttery, tender pastry.  First, you roll the 5-inch square of dough out to a 13×8 inch rectangle.  You place the 6-inch butter block at one end, and fold the other end of the dough over it, crimping the edges to seal all around it.  Roll this out to a 17×7 1/2-inch rectangle.  Fold the bottom third up over the center of the dough, and fold the top third down over the bottom third, like folding a business letter.  Turn this so that a short side is facing you, and roll it out once more to a 17×7 1/2-inch rectangle.   Fold the top 1/4 down and the bottom 1/4 up to meet in the center.  Then fold this in half, creating four layers of dough (this is a “double fold” – you will be repeating this step two more times). Refrigerate for 45 minutes.

Roll dough to 17×7 1/2-inch rectangle again, do a second double fold, and refrigerate for another 45 minutes.  Do the same again, and refrigerate for another 45 minutes before using (or freeze if not using immediately).

To test the success of this simple pastry, I decided to pre-bake a tart shell.  I rolled about a third of the dough out to a 1/4-inch thickness, creating a long thin rectangle.  I created a border by trimming about 1/2 inch of dough from each of the four sides and adhering them to the edges with an egg wash.  I brushed the entire thing with egg was and sprinkled it with sea salt.  I docked the center with a fork, to keep it from puffing to much, and I baked it at 375F for 10 minutes.

I made a filling by sauteing 8 oz. of button mushrooms and 1/2 a thinly sliced yellow onion in 2 tablespoons of butter until golden brown and soft.  I seasoned with a pinch of salt and pepper, and finished it off the heat with an ounce of good goat cheese and a tablespoon of heavy cream.  I spooned the filling into the shell and sprinkled a few sprigs of fresh thyme over the top.

The final product was something I’d be proud to serve as a first course at the finest of dinner parties.  Sliced into two-inch square servings and placed atop my grandmother’s fine china, it was the epitome of refinement.  The earthy, musky mushrooms paired with the sharp chevre and the sweet, buttery onions, spooned in thrifty measure onto the golden brown pastry – it was a memorable marriage of flavor and texture.

There is a lesson to be learned here.  It doesn’t require a lot of money, or a laundry list of ingredients, to create elegant food.  Simple, real ingredients, treated with care and minimally processed, can result in the most elevated of pastries.  A case where less truly is more.  Flour, butter, water, salt.  Four ingredients, that’s all.  It’s what you do with those ingredients that makes all the difference.

Nice: Salade Niçoise

Yesterday, before the sun had risen too high in the sky and pushed the temperatures into the stratosphere, I wandered down to the garden, toddler in tow.  As the 18-month old chased the chickens (bock-bocks as he calls them) in and around the cypress trees, I examined the various plants to see if any were bearing fruit.

Two of our ten tomato plants are laden with green orbs, and the two jalapeno bushes are weighted down with inch-and-a-half long pods.  The butternut squash vines are in full bloom, and many of the blossom ends are beginning to swell with the promise of delicious golden flesh.  Our infant asparagus patch has successfully gone to seed, and our cucumbers are rife with fuzzy little fingerlings.  The lacy tops of the rainbow carrots are waving in the breeze, and the melons are creeping along the ground stealthily, their little yellow flowers smiling smugly in the sun.

Continue reading “Nice: Salade Niçoise”

Whole-wheat Croissants

I went shopping last week at one of my favorite places in Atlanta, Your Dekalb Farmers Market.  I needed some coconut oil, and I knew they were supposed to carry expeller-pressed coconut oil at a very reasonable price.

Unfortunately, it is not near my house.  At all.  So it’s not like I can just run down there whenever I need something.  It’s kind of a special treat.  And when I go, I have to explore every aisle, and peruse all of the exotic produce.  I check out the cheese selection, and see if there is any fabulous seafood I can’t live without.  It’s quite the expedition.  And I always end up putting things in my shopping cart that I didn’t plan on when I started.  In fact, on this particular visit I had only one thing in mind when I went – coconut oil.  Guess what they didn’t have?  Right – coconut oil.  Sold out, I was told by the friendly Ethiopian man who was stocking shelves on that aisle.

Continue reading “Whole-wheat Croissants”

>I’m a lucky lady

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Today is Mother’s Day, and what a wonderful day it has been.  Not only did I get to spend the day with my beautiful children and doting husband, I also got to spend it with my own mother, from whom I have garnered so much valuable insight into motherhood and life in general.
Having a day with family is certainly gift enough, but I was also surprised with a brand new copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking by the quirky and fabulous Julia Child, along with Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck.
How I’ve managed to survive all these years without this quintessential tome is beyond me; but suffice it to say, I’ll be featuring several recipes from this classic in the very near future.
So, happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there.  I hope yours was as peaceful and satisfying as mine has been.  We were blessed with fabulous weather, fabulous food (both at my breakfast out with the boys and our lunch at Mom’s house) and a fabulous virtual visit (via Skype) with my husband’s family, including his mother and grandmother (who got to see the newest addition to our family live for the first time today – isn’t technology amazing!).

>Slow that bandwagon down so I can jump on!

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First, a confession:  before today, I had never tasted a French macaron.
Gasp!
So really, I had no frame of reference for the macaron phenomenon that is happening all over the interweb.
I decided, though, after months of seeing adorable photos of macarons in every color of the rainbow and every flavor imaginable on Tastespotting and Foodgawker, it was time to do some investigating into this mysterious little cookie.
From the various posts I read initially, it sounded as though this was an extremely difficult cookie to master.  Oh, the tales of woe from bakers whose macarons failed to grow feet, or failed to grow at all for that matter.  I read recommendations that said you needed to “age” your egg whites in the refrigerator for 48 hours, or that you needed to let your macarons sit for 30-45 minutes before baking to allow a skin to form on the outside.  Then I’d click over to another site and read that none of that was necessary.  Seriously.  What’s the story here?
I decided to take my cue from Helen at Tartelette.  She seems to be the go-to lady for everything macaron related.  She also has numerous versions of this tasty treat on her site, so I figured I could find at least one basic recipe to start with.
I really wanted to use her recipe today, but all of her measurements are in grams, and when I went to get down my digital scale, I found the batteries were dead.  So, I used another recipe she had on her site – the one that the Daring Bakers used in their challenge a while back.  It seemed straightforward enough for a beginner.
I have to tell you – I was feeling pretty cocky.  I mean, how difficult could this really be?  I really couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.  So, I didn’t age my egg whites (they weren’t even at room temperature).  I didn’t let the macarons rest before baking (at least not for the amount of time that was recommended).  I just jumped right in and made them, willy-nilly like.

First, I preheated my oven to 200F.  I began by grinding two cups of raw almonds (skin on) in the food processor with a cup of confectioners sugar.  I just turned it on and let it go until it looked like fine cornmeal.  Then I added the other cup and half of confectioners sugar and pulsed a few times to combine.  This mixture I poured into my seive.
Then I whipped my egg whites to soft peaks.  I added the 2 tablespoons of granulated sugar, along with a few drops of orange extract and drop each of liquid red and yellow food coloring (next time I’ll add more food coloring – by the time they finished baking you couldn’t see any of the color).  I continued beating the whites until they formed stiff peaks.
I sifted the almond flour mixture over the egg whites and folded it in in about five batches.  When I got to the end of the flour, there was about a cup of almond meal that was too large to go through the seive, so I tossed it back in the food processor and let it run until it was a fine powder.  This I folded in to the rest of the batter.
I piped the mix onto a baking sheet lined with a silpat using a gallon-sized ziploc bag fitted with a 1/2 inch plain pastry tip.  I was able to get about 24-30 cookies on a half-sheet pan.
The recipe instructions call for you to start the macarons in a 200F oven (for 5 minutes), then take them out, increase the temperature to 375F and return the macarons to the oven once it reaches the higher temperature and bake them for 7 minutes more.
I did this with the first batch, and I sat and watched them through the oven door once I put them back in the hotter oven.  Seriously, I sat there for the full 7 minutes.  And you know what?  I saw them grow feet!  I actually saw it happen.  When the timer went off, I checked them and decided they needed another couple of minutes – the still seemed quite soft in the center.  So I left them in for 2 minutes more.
Some of the difficulties I encountered:  Almost all of them stuck to the silpat.  I had to let them cool very thoroughly before trying to remove them to a cooling rack, and even then, some of the centers stuck.  I remedied this with the very last batch by only increasing the oven temperature to 350F and leaving them in for 10-12 minutes instead of 7-9.  Also, with the third batch, I didn’t let the oven temperature come down all the way to 200F before putting the macarons in for the first cycle of baking.  
This resulted in a deflated center (see photo above).
All in all, though, I’d say it was a successful first outing in the world of macaron baking.  I filled my orange-scented macarons with whipped Grand Marnier chocolate ganache.
Next time, I’ll try to grind my almond flour even finer (and perhaps use blanched almonds so that I avoid the skins).  According to Serious Eats, mine probably fall into the “too chunky” category.  However, I’m quite pleased with my first attempt.  And, flavor-wise?  They’re wonderful.  Just enough orange flavor to peak through the almond and the chocolate, but not enough to overpower them.
Do I like them more than my favorite coconut macaroons?  I’m not sure – they’re certainly a lot more work.  I think I’ll try them again, though.  I’m thinking of trying a peanut version, since my husband is allergic to almonds.  I know that peanuts are a lot oilier than almonds, so I’m not sure how they’ll turn out, but I want to give it a go and see how they do.
I will say that I don’t find them nearly as difficult as I expected to.  I’m glad I tried them.  I’m glad I jumped on the macaron bandwagon.  I’m glad I got my “feet” wet – so to speak:-).

>My memories of Julia Child – and Coq au Vin for good measure!

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So, I just finished watching Julie and Julia, and can I just say – Nora Ephron? genius!  I think that Amy Adams is adorable, and Meryl Streep was quintessentially Julia in all of her mannerisms.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, and now you’ll have to excuse me as I proceed to gain 15 pounds traipsing merrily through the land of butter and cream that is French cooking.

I can remember as a child not having cable television and being relegated to the world of public television (not that I minded, nor do I mind now watching my share of PBS – love me some America’s Test Kitchen).  When Sesame Street and 3-2-1 Contact! were over, I often found myself watching The French Chef and the Galloping Gourmet and Nathalie Dupree and Justin Wilson.  Even when I was in elementary school, I was drawn to these types of instructional cooking shows.  The quirky hosts – somewhat unsure of themselves in front of the camera – were so much more likable than many of today’s t.v. “chefs”.  And when Julia and Jacques Pepin did their shows together – what fun was that!?  So cute together!

So, today I am cooking Coq au Vin from Larousse Gastronomique, as a sort of homage to the great and glorious Julia Child.  My husband gave me a copy of this illustrious tome for Christmas one year, just as Julia’s sweet husband gave her a copy ‘lo those many years ago (mine, thankfully, was in English).  Oddly enough, I don’t have a copy of The Art of French Cooking in my extensive collection, so I’ll have to rely on the historic recipes from Larousse to get me through.


There are actually three recipes for Coq au Vin in this encyclopedic volume.  The first is listed as an “old” recipe, the second is a “country” version, and the third I can’t remember off the top of my head, but included a woman’s name.  I combined the first two for my version.

Instead of cooking a whole chicken, I chose to use all thighs, since dark meat has so much more flavor than white.  Plus, it’s more chicken for less money, which is always better.  And, I couldn’t find pearl onions, so I used quartered white onions instead.

Otherwise, I followed these recipes pretty closely, and I must say – yum!

I started by rendering some bacon in a heavy enameled cast-iron dutch oven, and then I added the onions and let them soften and brown a bit.

Then I removed the bacon and onions and added six chicken thighs to the pot, skin down.

I let these brown on the skin side, then turned them to brown slightly on the other side.

Then I removed them from the pot and poured off most of the fat.

I added the mushrooms to the pot and let them brown before adding salt and pepper, which draws out some of the liquid and works to deglaze the pan drippings.

 

To this I added the chicken, bacon and onions that were set aside earlier, along with some carrots and a bouquet garni (thyme, bay leaf, rosemary, parsley).

I poured a bottle of red wine over the whole thing and covered it and allowed it to simmer for two hours.

 After two hours had passed, I removed the chicken and most of the veg from the cooking liquid.  I made a beurre manie and worked this into the liquid slowly, whisking to incorporate.

Once the sauce had thickened, I added the chicken and vegetables back (including some green peas, per Julia’s suggestion) and let it simmer a bit longer.

I served it over egg noodles with a rustic french loaf on the side.

Coq au Vin
6 chicken thighs
3 medium white onions, quartered
4 slices of bacon, diced
1 pound cremini mushrooms, halved
fresh thyme, parsley, rosemary
2 bay leaves
1 bottle red wine
salt and pepper to taste
carrots
peas
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour

1. render bacon
2. add onions, cook until softened and slightly brown
3. remove onions and bacon, add chicken skin side down.  cook until brown and most of fat has rendered out.  turn over and brown slightly on other side.
4. remove chicken and pour off most of fat.
5. add mushrooms and cook until they brown.  add salt a pepper, allowing mushrooms to release some of their liquid, deglazing pan.
6. return onions, bacon and chicken to pan, along with bouquet garni (herbs wrapped in cheesecloth or coffee filter and tied together) and carrotts.
7. pour entire bottle of wine over ingredients and bring to a simmer.  allow to simmer for 1.5 to 2 hours.
8. combine softened butter and flour in small bowl and knead with fingers until a paste is formed (beurre manie).
9, remove chicken and vegetables from cooking liquid and set aside.  drop pea-sided bits of beurre manie into liquid, whisking to incorporate.  as the liquid comes to a boil, it will thicken.
10.  add chicken and veg back to thickened sauce.  serve over egg noodles.