Margot's blog

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Dulce de Leche Macarons, Defense Catering Part II

If cupcakes were typically glazed with dulce de leche instead of piled high with too-sweet buttercream, I might feel differently about them.

According Bon Apetit, NPR, Salon, and The New York Post, macarons are “the new cupcake.” I, for one, welcome our new, smaller, less frosting-dominated confectionery overlords.

Unlike the American macaroon, usually composed mostly of shredded coconut, the French macaron is a little sandwich cookie made from two airy disks of sweetened almond meal and beaten egg whites stuck together with buttercream or jam. The meringue-like shells usually aren’t flavored, although they are often tinted to match the filling. Traditional filling flavors include vanilla, chocolate, raspberry, and  pistachio. I decided to fill mine with dulce de leche, which I prefer to even the most delicious cooked buttercream. Dulce de leche is basically the apotheosis of the Maillard reaction—milk cooked down with sugar until it forms a thick, sticky caramel. You can start with fresh milk if you prefer, but most people just use sweetened condensed milk.

I baked the dulce du leche in a water bath this time; in the past, I've used the dangerous boiling-a-whole-can method. Both detailed below.

If you cover the dish, you won't have to pull off the burned layer...if you forget, like I did, don't throw it away. That part is almost more delicious than the regular stuff. 

I used a recipe from Tartelette, which appeared to be studded with some kind of caramelized sugar. That turned out to be a praline. However, it wasn’t clear from the recipe when the almonds were supposed to be added to the sugar or in what form (whole? chopped? all it said was “not blanched”). For my first attempt, I added whole almonds to the praline, but once I chopped it up in a food processor as instructed, it just looked like regular chopped up almonds, not at all like Tartelette’s pictures. So I made a second hard caramel without the almonds. That looked right…but then, in the oven, the bits sprinkled on the macaron shells melted and made half of the shells collapse.

I later discovered a much more thorough write-up on all things macaron at Not So Humble Pie. In the future, I’ll use that recipe and skip sprinkling the shells with anything.

The shells, before baking. As they bake, the meringue rises up and forms the little ruffled "feet"

Anyhow, despite being half-collapsed, they were pretty delicious, although they are intensely sweet. You can make them significantly in advance of serving—the quality doesn’t begin to degrade noticeably for at least a few days. We’re still enjoying the leftovers, a full week after the defense. Also, any leftover dulce de leche is incredible on ice cream, pancakes, apple slices, or just licked off a spoon. Read more »

Vegan White Chocolate Truffles: Defense Catering, Part I

the matcha powder made the green tea ganache more solid than the almond-orange ganache 
Green Tea and Almond-Orange White Chocolate Truffles

I catered a luncheon before my defense because it gave me something to pour my nervous energy into. Also, I like feeding people. Also also, doing the cooking myself enabled me to make sure there were options for people who prefer vegan or gluten-free food.*

First up: dessert.

I kind of like how you can see the green a little bit where the white chocolate coating is thinner I used the cheap plastic molds and was afraid they'd be harder to deal with than the flexible silicone ones, but the truffles popped right out when the molds were inverted.

Challenge #1: Vegan White Chocolate

Vegan white chocolate is hard to come by. You can get vegan white baking chips, but they’re usually made with hydrogenated oil rather than cocoa butter, just like the white candy coating that was often labeled “white chocolate” before 2004. Since then, only products consisting of at least 20% cocoa butter can be sold as “white chocolate” in the U.S. and the only other fat can come from milk—none of that hydrogenated oil nonsense. Many premium brands have 40%+ cocoa butter, so they’re basically just like premium milk chocolate without the chocolate liquor.

I’m not a fan of white candy coating, and I suspect that white chocolate’s lousy reputation owes primarily to a residual association with the flavorless, waxy, oil-based, pre-2004 “white chocolate.” The difference between oil-based white candy coating and cocoa butter-based white chocolate is as stark as the difference between chocolate-flavored hydrogenated palm and soybean oil (like the coating on candy bars like Whatchamacalit) and real chocolate made with cocoa butter (like Ghirardelli squares).

Green tea just does not go with milk or dark chocolate for meIf I had to pick one kind of chocolate to eat for the rest of my life, gun to my head, it would be dark and bitter—something like 70% cacao, barely sweet. But especially when I’m making homemade candies, I’m deeply grateful for the unique properties of white chocolate. It’s softer, creamier, and has a much more delicate chocolate flavor. It really lets the vanilla in chocolate shine, which I love. It also pairs beautifully with flavors that tend to get overwhelmed by chocolatlier chocolates, like green tea, blueberry, jasmine, and any citrus other than orange.

I’ve only found one company with national distribution making vegan white chocolate: Organic Nectars in Hudson Valley, New York. They use cashew and coconut milk in place of the dairy. However, one of the Amazon reviews said it was excessively sweet, possibly because there’s more sugar than cocoa butter in the final product. Also, it’s expensive: 1.4 oz bars are normally 3 for $17 (though currently discounted to $10.27). Cocoa butter itself is far less expensive (you can get a pound for just under $10 and organic for $16)** and the other ingredients—sugar and milk powder—are even cheaper.  Bittersweet blog implied that making your own at home was pretty easy—just melt some cocoa butter and whisk in powdered sugar and milk. So I decided to try it. Read more »

Pho Ga with Cilantro or Anise Stock

The bottom left is the lighter cilantro broth; the upper right has the more heavily-spiced anise & clove broth

If I had to pick just one of the international varieties of chicken soup to eat for the rest of my life, I’d probably pick phở  (pronounced “fuh”). Phở doesn’t always involve chicken; in fact, phở bò, with beef, is probably the most popular version. But phở gà is the one I crave when I’m feeling sick or sad or anxious. I think the reason I like phở better than all the other cure-for-what-ails-you chicken soups out there is its tangy, spicy edge. It has all the familiar comforts of chicken noodle soup plus the sweet heat of charred ginger and bite of lime and freshness of basil and kick from hot chilis and crunch of bean sprouts, all in perfect balance.

I’m sure dissertation stress is probably the main reason I’m on such a chicken stock kick lately. But another part of it is that although stock is time-consuming, it’s not too labor intensive. With just five minutes of work here and ten minutes of work there, I end up with the something that feels like really nourishing homemade food.

Plus, once you’ve got the stock made, phở is an almost-instant meal. All you have to do is soften some rice noodles in hot water and put them in a bowl with some cooked meat (or a substitute) and greens. Heat the stock to a simmer and pour it on top. Garnish with bean sprouts, lime, basil or cilantro, green onions, and as much rooster sauce as you like. If you combine the garnishes into a little salad, you can keep it in the fridge along with separate containers of chopped, cooked meat and greens, and then each serving of phở takes less time to prepare than a bowl of instant ramen.

noodles, chicken, shredded bok choy & a few thin slices of onion

add stock, garnish as desired; voila: pho

Do the prep on a weekend and you can feast on rich, spicy, tangy, steamy phở at a moment’s notice anytime that week. If you make two batches of stock at once, which only takes a tiny bit more effort than making one batch, you can freeze anything you won’t eat immediately in pint jars or 2-cup tupperware containers, which are perfect single-serving sizes for any future phở needs.

Another fun thing you can do if you make two versions of the stock at once is play with the flavor profiles. Last weekend, I made one batch with cilantro and coriander and one with anise, cloves, and cinnamon. Both were great. The cilantro version was grassy and bright, and the anise one had rich, elusive layers of spice. In addition to using a whole chicken for each batch of stock, I also used turkey necks and chicken feet—about a pound  of each in each batch. That dramatically increases the collagen content, so after 8 hours of simmering, it was rich enough to become a solid gel in the refrigerator. 

anise stock, just after adding all the spices

Chicken and Star Anise Jell-O!

If you’re not quite up to making the stock from scratch, you can improve a canned stock or even diluted bouillon by simmering it for an hour or so with a big piece of smashed ginger and the same spices or herbs (anise/cloves/cinnamon or coriander/cilantro).

Pro tip: A friend of mine tells me that Tsingtao is an excellent pairing for pho. Although he was talking about phở bò, the chicken version has same kind of spicy, savory, multi-layered flavor thing going on, which I think would certainly complement a pilsner in that addictive refreshing light beer + spicy food way.

Also, I am totally proud of myself that I refrained from making in any stupid phonetic jokes (okay, groan, but even that’s a homonym not homophone!). Recipe below.

At least it doesnt's start with "Mother" new head asplode text! "PPPPPPHHHHHHHHHHOOOOOOOOO..."

  Read more »

Whole Chicken Stock Photo Tutorial

Do you really need a recipe or a photo tutorial for something this simple? Probably not. Simmer some chicken and vegetables and after a while, voila: stock. But I appreciated the images and time guidelines provided by the recipe I used

I usually just use leftover bones to make stock. But last weekend, I wanted to make a big batch of congee, and I wanted a whole chicken’s worth of meat in it. Roasting the bird first just to pull all the meat off and throw the bones in a pot seemed like it couldn’t possibly be the most efficient method. Plus, I kept reading (most recently here) that stock made with raw meat and bones beats the pants off the stuff made from a leftover, cooked carcass. So I decided to try the technique described in this recipe for pho ga.

Basically, you poach a whole chicken in 5 quarts of water for about a half an hour, and then remove most of the meat and reserve it so it doesn’t get over-cooked. The rest of the chicken goes back in the pot and gets simmered long and slow to draw all the flavor out of the bones and whatever vegetables and spices you want to use. Pretty simple, even with a few additional steps like charring some of the vegetables and parboiling the chicken. It takes a long time, but it’s mostly not active time—a good project for a weekend day when you’ll be around the house, but have other things you need to get done (like, for example, a dissertation).

Since I wasn’t looking for that distinctive pho flavor, I used leek tops instead of the cilantro and added a head of garlic, a few carrots, and a small celery heart—going for more of a typical European chicken soup flavor profile. The pho recipe also calls for 3 pounds of chicken neck and back bones, but I didn’t feel like making a special trip to a butcher and figured one whole chicken would provide plenty of flavor. I did crack the largest bones before adding the carcass back to the pot to expose the marrow, and I also added a little vinegar because supposedly that helps leach out the minerals. Trying to make the most out of those bones.

I think you could serve this like a consomme, super hot and poured over some diced vegetables and herbs. The flavor was so robust, I just kind of wanted to drink it.

The result was glorious: stunningly rich, almost like a consommé. Much cleaner-tasting and less cloudy than the stock I usually make. The flavor was heady and slightly sweet from the charred ginger and onion and semi-roasted garlic. Plus, the chicken meat turned out succulent, flavorful, and tender. Just what I was looking for. Click for detailed instructions & photos:

Happy St. Patrick’s Day: Soda Bread with Sourdough Starter and Seeds (or not)

Loaf in the foreground was refrigerated overnight, loaf in the background was baked immediately

Soda vs. Sourdough

Sourdough soda bread is kind of a contradiction. Soda bread was created in the mid-19th century after chemical leaveners became commercially available in Ireland. Ireland’s climate is best suited to “soft” or low-gluten wheat, which is not so great for producing networks of protein that trap the gas produced by yeast. What it is great for is tender, flaky or crumbly “quick” breads. Traditional Irish soda bread is a kind of like a loaf-sized biscuit or scone, except not so flaky, because there’s not as much fat in the dough. It does have the same tender, cake-like crumb and the distinctive flavor of baking soda and buttermilk. Some people also like to add caraway seeds, currants or raisins, although apparently that’s not an “everyday” bread for the purists.

As far as I'm concerned, "slather" means thick enough to see teeth marksAt its best, soda bread is moist, dense, and a little crumbly—an ideal accompaniment for any kind of soup or stew or a thick slice of aged cheddar. It’s also great slathered with good salted butter. I wanted to get some Kerry Gold, but my grocery store doesn’t seem to carry it so I went with Lurpak instead. Both Kerry Gold and Lurpak get high marks for being made from grass-fed cows and thus higher in omega-3s and for possibly being more delicious than regular butter. I’m honestly surprised how much better the Lurpak tastes to me, but will probably still do a blind taste test sometime to see if that’s just expectation bias. They both get low marks for being expensive and flown across the ocean. Screw you, polar bears! Actually, I’d like to see a life-cycle analysis on pastured butter from Michigan (heated barns?) vs. pastured butter from Ireland.

Anyhow, the whole essence of soda bread is basically antithetical to yeast leavening, because the former depends on not having gluten networks, which would make the texture chewy and bready, and the former depends on gluten networks to trap the gas the yeast produce. However, I’m trying to prevent Ezekiel from becoming another casualty of my push to finish the dissertation (along with my social life and regular blog posting and personal hygiene…). So I decided to try using starter as just another ingredient, instead of the primary leavener—basically just substituting sourdough starter for some of the flour and water. There is probably some way to make sourdough-leavened soda bread. According to The Food Timeline, Irish people did make something similar to soda bread using sourdough or beer barm before the manufacture of sodium bicarbonate. But I couldn’t find a recipe that seemed to fit the bill online in less than ten minutes.

Seduced by Seeds

I did, however, find a few gorgeous pictures of a “Six-seeded Soda Bread” from the cookbook River Cottage Everyday by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, proud owner of the world’s most British-sounding name. And I also came across this strange sourdough quick bread involving chemical leaveners and an egg.

Nigella seeds are also known as kalonji seeds or black cumin and used primarily in South Asian and Middle Eastern cooking.I decided to kind of combine the two, with some substitutions based on what I had on hand: I used 1 T. flax meal instead of flax seeds and nigella seeds instead of poppy seeds. I’ve been accumulating bacon grease faster than I can use it, so I decided to use that instead of vegetable oil. I also decided to use regular buttermilk instead of buttermilk powder and water. And then I decided to experiment with the rising time to see what the difference would be between baking it straight away (while the baking soda action is optimal) and letting it sit in the refrigerator overnight.

The Verdict

Thumbs up: Sourdough Starter and Overnight Refrigeration

Thumbs down: Whole Grain Flours and Fennel Seed

The dough was wetter initally, so spread more horizontally

I had to bake this one longer, either because the inside was still cool from refrigeration or because it stayed so much rounder it just took longer for the center to be done, or both.

 Left: baked immediately, Right: refrigerated overnight

The sourdough starter didn’t cause any problems—the bread wasn’t tough at all, and the flavor of the loaf I refrigerated overnight was great, aside from the overwhelming fennel. It also rose beautifully in the oven, despite Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s claim that you “need to get it into the oven while the baking soda is still doing its stuff.” (Never underestimate the power of Irish soda bread to rise, you limey bastard!) The refrigeration also enabled the flour to absorb more of the moisture, so it held the shape of the loaf better and turned out much prettier. Another view:

Refrigerated loaf is about 1/3 taller

However, the multigrain flour was a terrible idea, and in retrospect I should have known better. Remember how I said it’s basically a loaf-sized biscuit? In my experience, whole wheat biscuits suck. And to make matters worse, I got all ambitious about the whole-grained-ness and instead of using half all-purpose or white bread flour, I used half “white whole wheat” which is still milled using the whole grain, it’s just a made from a kind of wheat that lacks some of the phenolic compounds in normal wheat; King Arthur’s calls it an “albino wheat.” It turned out way too crumbly and disappointingly virtuous-tasting, which is basically how I feel about everything I’ve made that was inspired by 101 Cookbooks. She takes lovely pictures and seems to have a remarkable fidelity to her particular, soy-centric idea of “health,” but man, we just have different culinary aesthetics. In the future, I’ll stick to white flour for my biscuits and soda bread. Live and learn.

Also, even though I halved the amount of fennel seed in the River Cottage recipe, it was still overpowering. Quoth Brian: “There’s no such thing as ‘a little’ fennel.” Unless you love it, leave it out. The other seeds were okay, but I think they just made an already-crumbly bread crumblier without adding much in the way of flavor. They’re kind of pretty, but ultimately I just don’t think they belong in this kind of bread.

So below, I’ve written out both the recipe I used and the recipe I’ll use next year, retaining the starter and and overnight rise, but ditching the virtue-flour and fennel seed. Since it’s not sourdough-leavened, the starter doesn’t need to be active, meaning you don’t could just as easily get the same effect by substituting some flour and water or more buttermilk.

For all those who celebrate this Thursday, Irish or not, Beannachtaí na Féile Páraic oraibh! (Blessings of St. Patrick’s Day Upon Ye!). Drink a Guinness for me. Read more »