June 28, 2012

"Punishment" cookies

I recently made a batch of these butter cookies for my son's 7th birthday.  I took them to his party at the bowling alley as a little snack alongside the chips and pretzels. 
When we went to Paris this past Spring, Poilâne Bakery, with their world-famous rounds of sourdough bread, was a must-visit destination for me.  We got a little lost along the way on a rainy afternoon but we eventually made it.  While I was eager to try the bread, I kept an eye out for their punitions®, or "punishment" cookies, which you can reportedly find in a basket at the counter and help yourself to a sample when you pay for your purchases. 
Sure enough, these thin, little 1 1/2 inch cookies were sitting in a bread basket on the table and I got the chance to try their famous butter cookie (they are also available for purchase in small sacks).  The story goes that these "punishments" or "punitions®" were called such because grandmothers in Normandy would make these and jokingly call out to the children to come "get their punishments".  It's such a good story and part of the charm to these cookies, I think. 

The cookies at Poilâne were excellent - simple yet spectacular in a quiet sort of way.  The flavor was subtle - not overly sweet or buttery, just simple and harmonious.
At home, I made these 4-ingredient cookies plain, sprinkled a few with sanding sugar, and even filled some with ganache a la Smitten Kitchen (it was for a children's birthday party, afterall). 
I think my homemade version came pretty close to the real thing - but not quite.  I'm sure it's the ingredients (French butter, for one) as well as the fact that they're made by very experienced hands at Poilâne versus a food processor at home.  But even though you may not be able to replicate the exact experience, these are still very good.  The cookies are crisp, buttery, and not too sweet.  I'd take this kind of "punishment" any day.

June 24, 2012

Chocolate-coffee (or any flavor) ice cream cake

I have a thing for ice cream.  Maybe because I was born in August, I think I've always wanted ice cream parties for my birthday as a kid.  This could be why I keep finding myself making ice cream cakes for my son for his birthday in June (I worked in an ice cream theme party favor for the little one's party this year too). 
I recently made this cake for the little man's 7th birthday.  It starts with a base layer of dark chocolate cake that's roughly half-baked since we're going after a fudgy effect.  My cake came out a bit more well done than I wanted even baking it a couple of minutes less than the suggested time so I need to pay more attention to that next time.  I can't tell you how great the house smelled while this very chocolaty cake was baking.  It was delicious (think: chocolate bar, brownie, fudgy intense chocolate) but I have to warn you - it hardens quite a bit after freezing so it takes some muscle to slice through.  Next time, I'm going to bake it for even less time and see if that helps keep it softer.
Over the cake, spread on the ice cream flavor of your choice.  The little guy picked coffee ice cream - he likes coffee flavored desserts more than I do and one of his favorite sweets is coffee macarons!  But use any flavor ice cream you love.  The original recipe uses raspberry ice cream.  For me, I might've gone with vanilla here or mint would be delicious. 
Finally - to really take things over the top - add a layer of luscious dark chocolate ganache over the ice cream.  The ganache firms up but remains relatively soft and smooth even after freezing.  The overall effect is fudgy ganache, icy cold ice cream, and fudgy, almost-chewy dark chocolate cake.
This cake certainly makes a great summer birthday cake.  It's also great for a nice crowd after a barbecue or any summer gathering.

June 20, 2012

June is for Jalen

I mentioned that June is a busy month for us (and probably for you too), and that's mainly because we celebrate the little guy's birthday this month.  So because of that - for us - "June is for Jalen".  He just turned 7 so he's not quite so little anymore...
The birthday boy's Chocolate-Coffee Ice Cream Cake - recipe to follow in upcoming post
You know the saying, "The days are long but the years are short"?  I feel the truth of that as my son marks each birthday at what feels like warp speed sometimes.  So here we are at another year, with another milestone to celebrate.  I thought I'd post some highlights here, starting with this birthday cake I made him. 

I have a thing for ice cream and conveniently, so does my son.  His birthday falling in June really makes me think ice cream cake so I made another one this year for us to enjoy at home.  This ice cream cake (recipe to come in another post) is based on a layer of fudgy dark chocolate cake, coffee ice cream, and topped with a final layer of dark chocolate ganache.  I added some chocolate curls that I picked up from Buon Italia at the last minute.
The coffee ice cream was the birthday boy's choosing!  You could certainly use any flavor ice cream you like.  Happily, the cake was a big hit with the star of the day, who requested 2 slices in one seating.

The little guy's birthday coincided with Father's Day this year so we had his party the evening before.  It was again, as requested, a party at the bowling alley.  Even though you're having your child's party outside the house, there still seems to be a million details to attend to before the actual event.  But it was well worth it in the end to see the enjoyment on the birthday boy's face and to watch the kids have a great time together.  As they get older, the connections and friendships seem to grow tighter. 
Lightening McQueen was the star of the show at the bowling alley.  Little one once again rejected my overtures to make a cake or cupcakes for him at his party and requested another colorful supermarket creation in the form of the Cars characters this year.  I think I'm secretly relieved he wants one of these store bought cakes at his party; it's a lot of pressure providing and transporting the birthday cake for a big group of kids.
Not happy leaving well enough alone, I did make some cookies for the party.  Last year, I made sugar cookies (you'll see I made some ice cream cone ones) and this time, I went with butter cookies, or sables.  They're actually the recipe for Poilane Bakery's punitions®, or "punishment" cookies.  I know it's funny I choose to serve the children "punishments" but they're really quite tasty and a nice non-chocolate treat to go with the chocolate/chocolate pudding Cars cake.
Poilane Bakery's recipe for their punition® cookies - more details in a little post as well 

And I wasn't kidding when I say I've always got ice cream on my mind around this time.  June is a great month to celebrate a birthday - with summer's arrival, you think long days, vacations, barbecues, lemonade, and cold desserts.  I worked ice cream into the party favor theme.  The ice cream "shooters" were a big hit with the kids!
That's a wrap for this birthday...

June 18, 2012

Almond and hazelnut dacquoise

Come dessert time at a restaurant, if I see a dessert with the word "dacquoise" in it, there's a good chance I'm going to order it.  If it is also accompanied by the word "chocolate", then I am definitely going to order it.  Before I even knew what dacquoise meant, I realized that there's some element of crunch and nuts involved.  If we want to get specific, daquoise actually refers to a nut meringue (almond or hazelnut typically but could be other nuts as well) or it could be used to describe a dessert that has a component of nut meringue within.
My husband and I have a favorite Italian restaurant near our house that serves a hazelnut dacquoise dessert that I order every time we go (he has the tiramisu).  There's a separate chocolate section on the dessert menu  so you know this is the place for me.  And this particular dessert (I'm salivating as I think about it) is based on both hazelnut dacquoise and a praline croustillant (another nutty/crunchy creation) with what I think is chocolate mouse on top, which is then covered entirely by a thin coating of chocolate ganache.  There's some pistachio sauce drizzled around the plate and a sprinkling of raspberries, which admittedly, I skip.  This dessert is so good!

From what I can tell, a dacquoise (this nut meringue) is usually a layer within the components of a dessert - say, a cake.  Typically, it'll be layered between buttercream and/or ganache.  And I think it's that combination of crunch against creaminess that makes it work so well (the buttercream or ganache would keep it from getting to hard).  Here, instead of making large dacquoise layers for a cake, I pretty much made cookies.  Specifically, I wanted to serve them with ice cream - the homemade vanilla chocolate chip ice cream I made.
I couldn't decide between making hazelnut or almond dacquoise so I combined the two.  I played around quite a bit with a recipe for walnut dacquoise that I found from Martha Stewart.  I think it worked out well.  The dacquoise is not too hard or crispy and I particularly like the chewiness in the center.  Lightly toasting the nuts also brings out their flavor.  I'm not a huge fan of meringues but adding the nuts adds a huge amount of flavor (and some healthy fat that I embrace).

June 17, 2012

Happy Father's Day 2012!

June is a busy month, filled with celebration!  One of the most important days of the month is Father's Day (it's also our little guy's birthday - more on that soon).  So I want to wish all the terrific dads out there a wonderful day.  In particular, I send a gigantic "Thank You!" to my husband, who is the best dad a little boy can hope for.  Thank you for all your hard work, for your enduring patience, positive outlook, and general can-do attitude!
I hope you have fun plans in store for your day.  We're going to start with a brunch in the city and cap the day off with a combination Father's Day/7th birthday dinner at home.  Dessert - including a cake - is bound to make its appearance before the day is out.
I don't know about you but as I get older, there are fewer and fewer material things I want.  My husband's never wanted much so he's very difficult to shop for.  So for the most part, I do what I do best - cook and bake.  He requested a couple of treats, including the tri-color cookies you see in the pictures.  They're one of his favorites...and mine too.  And in true Father's Day spirit, I am positive that he will share the majority of his treat with his now 7-year old son (who is also a big fan of these and is known to say "I love you, cookie" as he devours them).
Have a great Father's Day!

June 14, 2012

I made ice cream (without a machine)!

I am very excited to show you my first batch of authentic homemade ice cream!
I made it by hand, without a machine, using the freeze and stir method described by David Lebovitz (whose recipes have yet to steer me wrong).  It sounded like the simplest option to me, somewhat similar to making granita.  And for my first endeavor, I stuck with a basic flavor, vanilla, and stirred in some dark chocolate at the end to make what's called "Stracciatela" (the Italian name for a vanilla based ice cream with small pieces of chocolate bits in it).
This isn't very eloquent but let me say that homemade ice cream is like "woah!"  It is some serious deliciousness and tastes a lot better than what you'd find in the freezer aisle.  In this case, I can really taste the pure vanilla flavor that comes from the fresh vanilla beans.  The vanilla ice cream is the star of the show but the bits of crunchy chocolate is a nice added bonus.  I love incorporating chocolate somehow into my dessert and I love having some crunch in my ice cream.  Is anybody else with me?
And I do love ice cream.  You probably know how I feel since I can't think of a single person I know who doesn't.  When I used to work in midtown, I'd sometimes take a walk during my lunch break and occasionally, I'd just grab an ice cream cone with mint chocolate chip ice cream for lunch while roaming around.  It made me very happy.  Nowadays, I may be better at portion control and no longer enjoy the soup bowl variety (those were the days!) but I still love myself some ice cream!
And that brings me to the fact that I've wanted to try making my own ice cream.  Just for fun.  I guess you just want to make things you love to eat.  I don't have an ice cream machine, however, and I really don't want one mainly because it would encourage too much ice cream making and eating on my part.  Secondly, I don't want to invest in another piece of equipment that I have no space for.  So if you're like me and interested in making a batch of ice cream without a machine, check out this post from thekitch.com which addresses that very question submitted by yours truly.
I was a little nervous about this ice cream when I was making it but in the end, my family and I agree that it came out great.  I had a nagging concern that maybe I didn't cook the custard long enough and for some reason, the ice cream didn't seem to firm up very well.  But I guess homemade ice cream doesn't firm up the way you might expect and you need to scoop it into a container and let it freeze further for several hours.  I did that and it turned out great in the end. 

Handmade ice cream done this way may not be as smooth and creamy in texture as the kind churned by machine but we have no complaints.  My son proclaimed it "really good" - eating the majority of the batch - and that makes me so happy.  I highly doubt I'll be able to resist taking another go at homemade ice cream before the summer's out.

Update (August 18, 2012):  I know it defeats the purpose of this post somewhat but I did, inevitably, buy an ice cream maker recently.  Here is this French-style vanilla ice cream churned by the ice cream maker.  The benefit to using the machine is clearly time savings and texture.  But both handmade and machine-churned taste delicious!

June 12, 2012

Coconut tapioca pudding

I love the idea of a thick, smooth pudding as an occasional alternative to the usual cakes, cupcakes, muffins, and brownies.  I thought I'd try making a tapioca pudding since my husband and I love those Asian dessert soups with tapioca.  This coconut tapioca pudding, which happens to be vegan, peaked my interest when I first saw it on  thekitchn.com.  So on a recent dark and rainy morning, I was in the kitchen stirring up a batch of this pudding.  It's my form of relaxation...
Ironically, I'm not a big fan of coconut but love the scent and taste of coconut milk.  This pudding is made up of 2/3 almond milk, which nicely balances out the richness that comes from a ratio of 1/3 coconut milk while still allowing plenty of coconut flavor.  

This recipe uses agave syrup as the sweetener - a first for me.  To tell you the truth, I'm not sure I'm a fan of it right now.  I had to get used to what I'll call the caramel-like flavor to the agave, which I thought was a bit too overwhelming at first.  But once the pudding had a chance to sit and the flavors get to know each other, I was happy that the agave mellowed and the coconut flavor was able to stand out.  In all honesty though, I still prefer granulated sugar right now.
I love tapioca so I thought this pudding was a nice change up from the usual dessert.  This pudding can be eaten warm/near room temperature or chilled so it's nice any time of the year.  You add a little cornstarch slurry to thicken it up at the end and I think you could even do without that if you're familiar with and into that kind of dessert soup that we like. 

The recipe suggests a garnish of smoked black sesame seeds over the top of this pudding and I bet that would work wonders to give it a nice crunch and smoky flavor against the sweetness.  I didn't have smoked sesame seeds but the suggestion inspired me to add a little something crunchy alongside it.  On the day I made this pudding, I also made those hazelnut croquants so I paired them together.  Now, if I'd made almond croquants, I think it would've been perfect asa highlight to the to almond milk in the pudding.  But I made do and ate some pudding and followed it with a few crunchy bites of the croquants.
It's always nice to try something new...

June 9, 2012

Croquant cookies

Croquant means "crispy" or "crunchy" in French and that goes a long way towards describing these cookies.  I made hazelnut croquants here but you can also opt for the more typical almond version.  These cookies are - like their name - crisp and crunchy, made very simply with egg whites, sugar, a bit of flour, and the toasted nut of your choice.
I didn't come across these cookies when we were in Paris recently, although I guess it's possible I saw them but didn't think much of it given the array of colorful pastries everywhere.  I actually read about these online in an article about Parisian sweets and was surprised to find out that David Lebovitz has a recipe for them in his book, Ready for Dessert.  I'm a big fan of the man and that book but I never noticed this cookie recipe since there's no photo of it and the name didn't resonate with me (until now). 
There are a few things that appealed to me about these cookies.  1) They only take a handful of ingredients and are super easy to make.  You toast and chop some nuts and the batter is a simple stir and drop affair that you can bake immediately.  No need to whip the egg whites, either.  They remind me of tuiles but even easier, I think.  2) These are fairly low-fat, with no butter or oil in the recipe except for what's coming from the healthful nuts.  3) I love nuts and here's another chance to showcase it.  And 4) I'm told they're delicious and who am I to resist delicious and easy at the same time.
These are very cool cookies - slightly caramelized, while the egg whites create a crisp, crunchy but yet light and airy texture to them.  They really are utterly simple to make and I love the fact that you can store the batter in the refrigerator for up to a week and bake them a bit at a time.  The simplicity of the ingredients lets the flavor of the toasted nuts really pop against a backdrop of slightly caramel flavor.  I made them with hazelnuts but would gladly try almonds next time, maybe with a dash of almond extract thrown in.  Almond croquants would actually be very similar to the amaretti crisps I've made before - just a whole lot easier.

These cookies go quite well with a bowl of ice cream, as a crunchy and light contrast against the rich and creamy (just ask my son).  I'm glad I gave these a try.

June 6, 2012

Jacques Torres' chocolate chip cookies

I've tried a number of chocolate chip cookie recipes and their oatmeal and whole wheat variations in search of that magic recipe.  It's a fun process because even if the outcome isn't completely the stuff of your dreams, a warm, melty chocolate chip cookie out of your own oven is a real treat. 
Today, I'm adding Jacques Torres' chocolate chip cookies to my archives.  We visited one of his chocolate shops in Manhattan a couple of months ago and tried one his gigantic chocolate chip cookie creations.  My husband and I had a hard time prying any away from our 6-year old son but what we did taste was terrific - a warm cookie with great texture, filled with serious chunks of bittersweet chocolate.  I wanted to try his recipe at home to see if I could replicate it.  This recipe makes a very yummy cookie but admittedly, my effort doesn't quite compare to what I ate that day.  In my memory, the giant cookie I ate was just a bit firmer/harder, with a more pronounced crunch around the sides against a chewy center.
I think some of the changes I made at home explains why my cookies were different.  First, I made big cookies - about 2 ounce scoops - but his are meant to be BIG, as in large golf ball size, 3 1/2 ounce, scoops that turn into fairly huge cookies once baked.  A larger cookie allows for a more distinct textural contrast of crunch around the border and softness in the center.  Yes, my cookies were a little crisp along the edges and soft in the middle but the contrast wasn't quite as pronounced.  Knowing this though, I just couldn't talk myself into making the giant cookies.  Restraint won out because frankly, who can really share a single cookie, and I had a hard time accepting the consequences of gobbling one (or two) of them up all by myself. 

Also, I didn't use chocolate disks or fèves (rather large flat chocolate disks) that Jacques Torres sells and recommends for these cookies.  Instead, I chopped up chunks of bittersweet chocolate, which is a good alternative but doesn't leave me with those distinct, wide craters of chocolate pieces in my dough like his does.  Again, his is a gigantic cookie with gigantic, individual puddles of chocolate throughout.
Front and back of these chocolate chip cookies
Nevertheless, this interesting recipe (using cake and bread flour) makes a very tasty chocolate chip cookie.  A sprinkling of sea salt before baking adds a delicious sweet & salty contrast that makes things a bit more interesting.  Interestingly enough, I actually thought the cookies tasted better a day or two after they've been baked.  They stayed soft and seemed more flavorful somehow.

If you'd like to give these a try, I recommend big cookies, getting your hands on some chocolate disks if you can (or at least chop your bittersweet chocolate into large - even larger than I made - chunks), and lots of napkins to go with them when eating.

June 3, 2012

Easy homemade popovers

Popovers - they're one of those things I love to see and eat occasionally at a restaurant when I can find it.  There's a real "wow" factor with the very way they look, all puffed up yet hallow in the center when you cut it open.  Plus, they taste great - crisp and light but just a little bit custardy or eggy at the top.  I think they're an impressive alternative to bread or a biscuit to accompany your meal.  They look like they would be tricky to make but turns out, it's really easy!
Once in a while, my sister and I meet up for a little shopping and lunch on the weekends.  One particular department store we sometimes eat at serves up a fresh popover with strawberry butter that we look forward to.  Maybe that's why I associate popovers with something ladies have at brunch but I think their taste is popular with both male and female alike.

So my interest really peaked when I saw a tutorial on making popovers at thekitchn.com, my favorite food related site.  Turns out, making popovers only requires 4 basic ingredients, along with a pinch of salt.  You can mix the batter together in a blender, or food processor like I used for the dutch baby pancake.  But better yet, just grab a whisk and a large bowl and whip the batter up by hand; that's what I did and it worked beautifully.
And I almost forgot to mention you simply use your muffin/cupcake tin.  An authentic popover pan would certainly be nice and give you a taller product but if you're like me, you don't want to waste money on extra kitchen equipment that you only plan to use occasionally.
I invited my family over for breakfast over Memorial Day weekend and instead of pancakes, I made popovers with some eggs and breakfast meats.  I was so happy to see the dozen popovers disappear quickly.  It's great to have a group to share your food with and such a nice feeling when they clean their plates (as in eat the food on them, not wash them, although that'd be a nice gesture too).
Much like bread, you could get creative with how you eat your popovers.  Butter or jam are popular options, or you could consider filling them with some eggs and meat or cheese for a more savory twist.  They're certainly good enough plain fresh out of the oven.


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