Mont Blanc chestnut tartlets

There are many pastries/desserts I love that I frankly never plan to make.  They are far above my skill level and it just makes much more sense to leave it to the professionals.  I would say Mont Blanc - a dessert I adore featuring pureed chestnuts - was one of them.  Somehow I'm able to say "was" because I recently made some in my very own kitchen!
I suppose it started with a jar of roasted chestnuts.  After the holidays, I look out for them at William Sonoma when they typically go on sale.  I was only able to get my hands on 2 jars this year and after using one to make a rag├╣, I kept thinking about two Mont Blanc recipes I'd spotted lately...one from Angelina's in Paris (which I have tasted and well-remember) and a feature in the November/December issue of Bake from Scratch.

I had particularly high hopes for the recipe from the magazine but upon looking at it, I was totally intimidated because it involved a good half a dozen steps - from making the pastry crust, an almond cream, then meringues, the chestnut paste, and whipped cream before assembling!  But I still couldn't stop thinking about it and I thought I could make a simplified version leaning on the Bake from Scratch recipe(s)...
So that's how mine came about - a simplified Mont Blanc in tartlet, or mini tart  form, each just a little over 2 inches in diameter.  And while there are variations on the Mont Blanc, mine starts with the almond pastry crust.  Inside the crust, I nestled a little sweetened chestnut puree or chestnut paste before I piped a peak of sweetened whipped cream on top.  Finally, I piped the chestnut paste all around the whipped cream.  
In essence, I skipped the meringue you sometimes find at the bottom of a Mont Blanc (it's not my favorite component anyway) and there's no almond filling.  Instead I just added some of the chestnut puree at the base of the tart for a little more chestnut flavor.

Since Mont Blanc means "white mountain" and that's what the pastry is supposed to resemble, a dusting of confectioners' sugar is very appropriate...but as I discovered, the confectioners' sugar melted very quickly on top of the chestnut puree, seemingly before I could lift the camera and focus. [Interesting tidbit: I just learned that there are 2 types of confectioners' sugar, 10x finely ground that we typically see in the supermarket, and 5x, which is coarser and what you'd use for garnishing when you don't want it to melt on contact with the food.  Makes so much sense!  Now I just need to find out how to get my hands on the 5x variety.]
If you could do me one favor, it would be not to look too closely!  If you don't scrutinize too hard, you might not notice the uneven piping and wiggly lines.  Needless to say, my version is not only simplified but rustic.  That said, I couldn't help but feel excitement - and a little sense of pride - at having made one of my favorite desserts, even if it is a simplified version.



Easy bagel recipe!

I found my first 2018 baking inspiration in the form of these incredibly easy - and tasty - homemade bagels!
I first saw them from Skinnytaste's Instagram account and when she posted the recipe, I barely waited a day to try them.  If you like bagels and wish you could eat them more often (like me), you'll surely be tempted because they are practically 2-ingredient bagels that takes very little time to make from scratch!

Even if you don't use self-rising flour and break down the components (adding baking powder and salt yourself), you only need 4-5 ingredients: flour, baking powder, salt, non-fat Greek yogurt, and an egg white to brush the top with, plus any optional topping you might like on them.  I had everything I needed to make these without going to the grocery store.  It sounds incredible but really, it works and it's tasty to boot!  
Did I also mention, they're only about 150 calories each, with 26.5 grams of carbs?  I don't know about you but though I adore bagels, I don't eat them very often as I try to watch my intake of refined carbs.  Making them myself and having this lighter option is a fabulous discovery.  Not to mention...I made bagels!  How neat is that!

For my inaugural batch of bagels, I used 2/3 all-purpose flour and 1/3 white whole wheat flour.  Next time (and there will be plenty of opportunities), I plan to increase the whole wheat proportion further.  
The non-fat Greek yogurt is key.  They work some kind of magic so that the bagels turn out with a nice soft texture and have a slightly tangy, salty bite.  These are not the traditional super-dense, heavy bagels.  My bagels were still very soft inside after 2 days sitting at room temperature.  
I toast them up and they're good plain, with butter, cream cheese, and almond butter - to name a few options.  All I can say is if you enjoy bagels and want a lighter option, try making these very easy ones!  These are going to have a place in our breakfast routine from now on.  I think that's a pretty great way to start of the new year in the kitchen!



Chocolate hazelnut toffee

Happy New Year!  It's that time again when I slowly float back down from cloud nine, and settle back into our everyday post-holiday life.  And believe me, I'm landing on some very freezing cold ground!  I sure hope you had a wonderfully relaxing and happy holiday!  We enjoyed every moment of it.  My family and I so look forward to the quiet time of that last week or so of the year and even with all the high expectations, it never seems to disappoint.  
It made me realize how wonderful the gift of time really is.  Not having to rush and having plenty of time to spend with each other, cozy and snug (which we were in general except for a 16-hour power outage), lingering over meals and savoring the calm for about 10 days straight is really as good as it gets for me.  I think my husband and I get recharged and live off of the annual holiday hiatus for months after.

Now, while the holiday baking frenzy has come and gone (and it was glorious while it lasted!), I wanted to share the last treat I made before the New Year.  I always like the idea of making toffee and candies because it's not only a lovely little nibble to add to all the Christmas cookies, it's great for gift-giving.  Pop some into a bag, jar, or tin, and you've got a lovely little hostess gift.  
This time, I made hazelnut toffee, with big chunks of whole roasted hazelnuts, topped with a coating of dark chocolate.  You can add a sprinkle of sea salt on top to finish but I kept it plain.  I'm always a little nervous when it comes to making toffee but it's so rewarding in the end.  If you use a candy thermometer and cook the mixture to 300 degrees, you'll end up with toffee that's just properly firm and crunchy but infinitely easy to bite into and eat.  

I'm a big fan of this since I love hazelnuts and there is obviously plenty of delicious hazelnut flavor and aroma in this toffee.  And the dark chocolate layer on top is a must-have in my book.  Honestly, a great homemade toffee isn't hard to make and maybe we shouldn't relegate it to the holidays.  I'm sure most people would enjoy a little homemade toffee in their life any time of the year!  Although with Chinese New Year coming up, I can't help but think this toffee would make a great sweet gift for the occasion as well.



Almond Roca shortbread

As I mentioned before, I tend to think of shortbread and icebox cookies at this time of year.  If you're like me, you've probably had quite a few batches of Christmas cookies coming out of the kitchen and been savoring plenty of holiday goodies in general.  That said, let's squeeze in one more recipe for this holiday season.
Have you ever had Almond Roca?  They are small log-shaped buttercrunch/toffee coated in chocolate and almonds.  Growing up, they were the only candies I can remember my mother liking.  I used to eat them, too, and while they weren't my very favorite, I certainly enjoyed them and loved scraping off the chocolate and almond coating and then biting into that crunchy toffee center.
Last month, I caught a cookie roundup over at Kelly's blog (I do enjoy seeing all the holiday recipe roundups and gift guides at this time of year) and saw a recipe for Almond Roca cookies...it made me think of all those red tins of Almond Roca we used to have around the house during the holidays or around Chinese New Year.  

So I thought it would be fun to make these cookies, which are essentially shortbread with sliced almonds and toffee bits folded in.  To simplify things a little bit, I used chocolate-coated toffee bits (instead of plain) and omitted the chocolate coating on top of the baked shortbread.  
These were a fun version of shortbread to make and eat!  They have that classic sandy texture with extra crunch from the almonds and toffee bits.  If you like nuts and crunch in your cookies, this Almond Roca shortbread is a great rendition to try one day.



Checkerboard icebox cookies

It goes without saying that the clock ticks on and that seems never more true than during the holidays, around December, when time is precious and it really flies.  That said, I've been making an effort to be organized and realistic in my December plans.  I think I'm doing well this year - I don't feel rushed and I'm savoring the season, which means simple things like family gatherings, an outing or two to see the lights and sights of the city, and time to enjoy all the wonderful seasonal treats.
I love seeing, buying, and enjoying all the festive holiday goodies at this time of year!  I can hardly resist a colorful box or any kind of foil-wrapped chocolates.  I make sure we indulge in plenty of that along with some homemade treats. Holiday baking is a real pleasure and I love days when the kitchen turns into a mini cookie factory and I churn out a batch or two of Christmas cookies.  
Come this time of year, I think of all kinds of cookies but particularly, I think of shortbread and icebox type cookies - the sandy, crumbly cookies that I frankly don't make too often otherwise.  They always seem to hit the spot - a great accompaniment to a cup of hot chocolate or coffee.  The slice-and-bake kind of cookies are also convenient, great for impromptu enjoyment or for gift-giving.   

For fun, I recently tried a batch of checkerboard icebox cookies.  Not only is the pattern fun (like that Battenberg cake I made a while back) but you also get to combine two classic flavors - vanilla and chocolate - in one cookie.  Best of both worlds!
I was afraid the cookie might be tricky to pull off but the recipe comes from The Perfect Cookie book by America's Test Kitchen, which gave me the convenience to tackle it.  It really was easy to do and the cookies came together like a charm.  I'm happy with how my first attempt turned out and the pattern of the cookie is not only fun to see but tasty to eat.  I think we were partial to the chocolate part of these checkerboard cookies but that probably doesn't surprise anyone who knows me.



Red velvet crackle cookies

"Operation: Make/Eat Christmas Cookies" is in full swing!  Basically, I make it a leisurely monthlong process at my house.  I make cookies, we eat cookies, and we repeat this simple process.  I know some people make Christmas cookies in one frenzied swoop right before the big day and I love this idea of turning my house into a cookie factory for a day with a massive output but I never could figure out how to make that work.  Stretching it out, generally enjoying it a batch at a time, works for us and that's what we do throughout late November and December.  
So in the spirit of making and eating cookies during the holiday season, here's my latest contribution.  No surprise "crackle" (or "crinkle") cookies make an appearance because they usually do.  Their snow-topped appearance makes them perfect for the winter and holiday time.  I've made a few versions and I'm always looking for another to try during this time of year.  When I saw this recipe for red velvet crackle cookies, I knew I'd found the one for this holiday season.
I saw the recipe in this lovely Holiday Cookies book.  Naturally, I liked the red velvet aspect - the color fitting for the holiday season.  I also liked that the recipe had not only cocoa in it but also melted chocolate.  And brown, rather than granulated, sugar suggested a nice soft, moist texture that appeals to us.  Sure enough, these red velvet crackles were very chocolaty and moist.  They are chocolate crackle cookies dressed in red for the holidays!



Chocolate peppermint sugar cookies

I hope you had a great Thanksgiving!  Now that the big meal is behind us, we can officially start making Christmas cookies!  I look forward to this moment all year long because the ritual of making cookies - filling the house with the aromas of sugar, butter, spice, and, of course, chocolate - and sharing these special morsels with loved ones, or to gift to others, is a big part of the holidays for me.
I'm so excited to be in my little kitchen baking cookies for the holidays.  Last year this time, we were living in a bit of a construction zone as we renovated our kitchen. Because of that, there was very little in the way of homemade cookies, or any cooking or baking in general, and I missed it dearly. 
It aways seems like there's so little time to make, eat, and share cookies during the holiday season so let's start early and savor it the best we can.  My agenda's pretty full with a few family favorites that I have to make but I also like to fit in a few new (to me) recipes.   So I started by making these chocolate peppermint cookies, which are delightfully soft and chewy on the inside while a coating of granulated sugar on them a light crunch on the outside.
These cookies are based on The Sweet and Simple Kitchen's chocolate espresso sugar cookie recipe.  I love the texture combination of a chewy interior and crackly exterior but as good as espresso sounds, I wanted to go for with peppermint flavor for the holidays (very much like these cookies).  I went fairly easy on the peppermint so that in the end, you have a soft and chewy chocolate sugar cookie with a cooling peppermint effect in your mouth.



Bicerin

Once fall arrives, I live in anticipation of the holiday season - that fairy tale world of twinkling lights, cozy family time, gift-giving, and gatherings over a good meal.  Sweets and treats are surely part of that image and regardless of how close reality is to fantasy when it comes to the holidays, I find myself impatient, with fingers tapping, wondering when I can start baking Christmas cookies already!  
Cookies are coming...but aside from cookies (and lots of chocolates - this is when I stock up on some extra special chocolates), I also think of warm indulgent drinks to sip and savor.  I tried Barcelona hot chocolate a couple of winters ago and it became our Christmas morning drink.  I recently auditioned another contender with this Bicerin (pronounced: bee-chair-EEN), a coffee and chocolate drink native to Turin (Torino), Italy.

Torino is a part of the Piedmont region in Northern Italy.  When I think Piedmont, I think hazelnuts and given my love of all things chocolate-and-hazelnuts, I always pay attention to anything associated with Piedmont.  Well, this drink, Bicerin, which translates into "small glass" in Piedmontese (for how the drink was originally served), has been around since the 18th century when it was served at the cafe, Al Bicerin.  But forget the small glass; after trying it, I want as big a glass as I can get my hands on!  
This delicious drink consists of three parts: a base layer of rich hot chocolate, followed by strong coffee or espresso, topped with a final layer of lightly whipped cream.  It's rich and absolutely delicious for any fan of the coffee and chocolate combination.  

I have been wanting to try David Lebovitz's recipe for Bicerin for a long time and I am very happy I finally have.  Even dialing down the amount of chocolate I used for the base layer and using my regular drip coffee, the drink turned out sensational.  It was a great accompaniment to breakfast on a cold morning last weekend.
The nice thing about making things at home is you can customize it to your liking.  Maybe you prefer your drink with a little less hot chocolate and a bit more coffee, or the reverse.  Use espresso instead of strong coffee if you have it.  And instead of whipped cream, you could top it with milk foam for a lighter version.  I prefer mine with plenty of rich chocolate flavor and the whipped cream was a wonderful treat.  It's great to see the layers in the drink (if you look closely) but I like giving it a stir before taking a good sip and enjoying that wonderfully robust chocolate and coffee combination.  It will warm and cheer you right up!



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