August 28, 2012

La Grenouille's Grand Marnier soufflé

For my birthday this year, my husband and I had a romantic dinner at New York restaurant, La Grenouille.

I used to work in midtown and pass by La Grenouille often as I rushed to and from work or zoomed past on my lunch break (because you are constantly rushing in NYC, it seems), but I've never eaten there.  The restaurant is something of a New York City hallmark having been in business for 50 years and is known for classic French cuisine as well as its amazing floral arrangements.  I used to peer into the window when I walked past and see glimpses of flowers and people.  And for whatever reason I thought of this and wanted to go there for my birthday this year.
Grand Marnier Soufflé
When I walked into the restaurant, my first impression was the smell.  It wasn't the aroma of food but flowers.  There were small arrangements of white roses at each table and more dramatic, towering floral arrangements in tones of white and green placed around the dining room.  Setting foot in there felt a bit like stepping into a little oasis.  I may not have been totally at ease at first as my husband and I were seated side by side at one of the red banquettes and tried to figure out the protocol of this iconic French restaurant, but the combination of polite service, good food, and terrific company had me relaxed and enjoying the meal more and more as the night went on.  It was a memorable birthday husband and I shared a lot of whispers and laughs as we snuggled up in our little banquette.

Now, I think I better get to the soufflé.  It's not often I see soufflé on a restaurant menu (and I mean real soufflé, not just a flourless cake) and if it's there, hopefully, there's a good reason.  La Grenouille is known for theirs and I certainly intended to order one for dessert.  I was surprised to hear a wide selection to choose from (Grand Marnier, coffee, caramel, pistachio, and lemon were among the few I remember) but of course I went with chocolate, in a medium size, which is more than enough for two. 

Let me tell you we were not disappointed (and glad we didn't order a small)!  Our chocolate soufflé was rich, warm, moist, chocolaty - really as good as a soufflé is going to get.  The waiter came to show us the lofty creation and then stepped aside to plate it for us.  I was struck by how relatively firm (in a good way) the soufflé was - the way it maintained its structure on our plates despite being cut and split - while being fluffy and moist.  The warm soufflé was served with chilled whipped cream, which I took liberal portions of.  Each bite was heavenly and a wonderful cap to the meal.  We also had a vanilla eclair and sampled some petite fours but those pale in comparison.

As you can tell, I can talk about food all day or for pages on end!  For the sake of brevity (maybe too late now), I'll tell you that I found the recipe for La Grenouille's Grand Marnier soufflé when it was published 10 years ago on its 40th anniversary.  Even though we opted for the chocolate when we were there, I couldn't resist giving the recipe a try and paying a little homage to our recent dinner.  It wasn't very smooth sailing for me when it came to this recipe but all's well that ends well...although what was intended to be 3 soufflés ultimately turned into just one.
Maybe dividing the recipe in half wasn't a good idea in this case.  Or it could've been rushing to make the pastry cream in the middle of the afternoon before heading out that messed things up.  I couldn't get the pastry cream to thicken as I imagined it should from previous experience and, let me tell you, hiking up the heat and trying to rush things truly does not work!  So I ended up with far less pastry cream than I intended.  It never quite thickened up as much as I figured it should but as you can see, a lone Grand Marnier soufflé did materialize.  Much like the one at the restaurant, I noticed the soufflé from my oven was likewise firm and sturdy on the top and moist in the center so maybe I wasn't too off the mark.
This calls out to anyone who enjoys Grand Marnier.  With no other major accompanying flavors other than vanilla in the pastry cream, the Grand Marnier is quite distinct.  On the other hand, if you like a softer touch and, say, chocolate with Grand Marnier, check out this recipe.
Thinking back to my birthday dinner with my hubby at La Grenouille puts a smile on my face.  I'm always grateful to make happy memories. 

August 25, 2012

Philadelphia-style (no egg) vanilla ice cream

One of the reasons I wanted to buy an ice cream machine was so I could make American, or what's called "Philadelphia-style", ice cream. 

Unlike French custard-base ice cream, Philadelpha-style ice cream has no eggs in it.  Because of that, you can quickly and easily whip up the ice cream base(no custard to cook) but I think it's harder to get a smooth, creamy result doing it by hand for the same reason.  But thanks to my new ice cream machine, I easily made my first batch of Philadelphia-style vanilla ice cream recently.

Without any egg yolks (leaving it white in color versus a distinct yellow hue in French vanilla ice cream), Philadelphia-style ice cream isn't quite as rich (which isn't such a bad thing in my book) and I think it also allows a more "clean", pure vanilla flavor to shine through.  Each style has its own merits.  Interestingly, I've never been a fan of "French vanilla" ice cream that you buy at the supermarket (I thought it was too rich) but I adored the homemade version.  Luckily, there's room for both kinds and I am a fan of diversity.
I had heard that homemade Philadelphia-style ice cream may be grainier than its French counterpart and more difficult to scoop as it hardens in the freezer.  I agree that the custard-base ice cream is smoother and creamier but my homemade Philly ice cream was definitely not hard and actually quite easy to scoop even after 2-3 days in the freezer (there was no more after that).  So I guess it boils down to this trade-off:  Philadelphia-style ice cream has an arguably stronger vanilla flavor but French vanilla is creamier, with more of a luscious mouth feel. 

If I had to pick a favorite...after making and tasting both versions made in the ice cream maker, I've decided (at least, for now) that Philadelphia edges out as my preference.
If you are a fan of true pure vanilla bean ice cream, I think it's best to enjoy a scoop or two of this all by itself.  The flavor is delicious but I have to admit I'm not much of a plain-vanilla type girl (when it comes to ice cream...although I wonder how "vanilla" became synomous with "plain" in the first place since the flavor is actually so complex and robust).  I'm a big fan of mix-in's, crunchy add-on's and chocolate thrown into the mix so I plan to play around with this vanilla base in the future.  Since I rarely eat vanilla ice cream all by itself, I made a few individual flourless chocolate cakes to go with it.  My favorite way to "deploy" vanilla ice cream is to have it with warm molten chocolate cake (I paired them up recently with a batch of French vanilla ice cream made in the machine.)

August 23, 2012

Fudge pops

Even though I've loved them since I was a child, I hadn't planned on making fudge pops (or fudgsicles, fudge bars, etc.) since I was very happy with the lighter chocolate popsicles I made just last month.  But since I noticed my 7-year old keeps picking the fudge pops when we hit the snack bar at the community pool (plus, it's one of his favorites at school on ice cream days), I figured I'd give it a go.
While the lighter chocolate popsicles were icy, full of chocolate flavor but relatively light using water, fudge bars are creamier using milk.  I think the fudgy, chewy texture is a big part of its appeal.  I was surprised (and at the same time not all that surprised) that there's very little chocolate in these fudge pops - just 2 tablespoons of chocolate chips for about 3 of my popsicles.  I opted to keep things lighter by using 1% milk, which is what the little guy drinks.  I was perfectly satisfied with the low fat version but go the route of whole milk and I'm sure you'd get an even creamier result.
Just like my son, I'd often go for the fudge bars at school or from the ice cream truck when I was a kid.  I may be a lot older now but I still love them!

August 19, 2012

Langues de Chat (Cat's Tongue cookies)

I recently celebrated a birthday.  I shamelessly love my birthday and, particularly, the time leading up to it where I constantly remind my husband it's coming up (not that he needs reminding). 

My husband always wants to buy me something "special" for my birthday but as I get older, there's not much that I want and what I do enjoy are ordinary things.  To head him off from buying anything remotely extravagant, I usually come up with a few things I'd like, such as cookbooks.  While he's usually disappointed with my simple requests and still comes up with some additional things to give me (which, the control freak in me doesn't necessary appreciate like I should), he always complies with my list.  One of the books I got this year was the Ladurée Sucré book, in English.
The little book comes beautifully packaged, like the famed macarons you might buy from the shop.  I was pleasantly surprised by photos for each recipe.  Admittedly, I won't be baking too much from this book but it is great to look through.  I did want to make something and a simple cookie recipe with a whimsical name caught my eye: Langues de Chat, or Cat's Tongues.  I'd never heard of these!  They're basically biscuit cookies, the shape of which (use your imagination with mine) are reminiscent of cat's tongues. 
I followed the recipe, which can be mixed by hand though there's piping involved.  I divided the recipe in half since I didn't need quite so many cat's tongues and couldn't resist adding some orange zest into the mix.  The cookies are thin, crisp, and buttery; I think the addition of the orange zest added a nice extra flavor beyond just butter.  My husband really hit the nail on the head when he said they taste like Pepperidge Farm's Milano cookies!

In the book, there's a beautiful photograph with the cookies dipped partway into dark chocolate and various colored white chocolate.  I couldn't resist doing the same, although dipping cookies in chocolate on a hot, humid summer day was not the greatest idea.  I really adored the dark chocolate coating against the orange flavor of the biscuits - the two flavors make each other pop.
The book suggests these biscuits are great accompaniment to chocolate mouse or fruit salad.  Of course, I thought of ice cream.  I served some of them with homemade chocolate gelato.  These little cookies could almost be used as little spoons.

August 16, 2012

Breaking in the new ice cream maker - chocolate gelato

I think I knew all along it was inevitable.  Yes, I am now the owner of an ice cream maker!  I tried to hold out, knowing that having one could/would lead to excessive ice cream consumption and an expanded waistline.  But in the end, I couldn't resist.  Those  homemade ice creams I made without a machine were delicious and I kept thinking how easy and better it would be if I had a machine.  I was also swayed by the idea of all the flavor possibilities and frozen treats I could explore for years to come.  So it's a good investment, right?
For my inaugural batch of ice cream from my new ice cream maker, I actually went with gelato - something a little lighter.  It's chocolate gelato, to be exact.  It may be nothing new but on a recent road trip to Vermont (Hello, Ben & Jerry's!) and Quebec, Canada, I kept noticing ice cream, or actually, gelato, everywhere.  In the hot touristy spots (it was "hot" literally), there was an ice cream/gelato/crème glacée shop on every block and every other person seemed to be carrying a cone or cup of it around.  That's what I love about summer vacations: ice cream!  And the blanket approval to indulge.
These days, gelato is as common as ice cream.  And the difference between the two?  "Gelato" is the Italian name for ice cream and the lines blur between the two but I've learned that, in general, gelato has a lower fat content (yay!) than ice cream, which allows the flavor to stand out and shine.  It is a little denser than ice cream, churned at a slower pace to give it a velvety texture despite the lower fat content, and stored at a slightly higher temperature than ice cream (at a gelateria).  Some gelato have egg yolks in them, some don't.  When gelato is thickened with starch instead of eggs, you might find it has a somewhat sticky texture.
Now what I personally like about gelato is the flavor choices.  I love a basic dark chocolate, like what I made here, but I'll usually find other favorites like gianduja (hazelnut and chocolate) and pistachio.  On a recent vacation in Quebec, we ate lunch in an airy self-service style cafe one day.  After our sandwiches, I made a beeline for the dessert and gelato offerings in the front of the shop.  I had a great dessert fix that afternoon.  The gelato was divine.  I was excited to score a scoop of chestnut gelato (the light-vanilla colored part of the cup below)!  I love chestnuts and it was my first taste of chestnut gelato.  It was subtle yet distinctly chestnut; I thought it was wonderful.  The other flavors I picked were dark chocolate and gianduja - the flavors really popped, a real trademark of good gelato.  Did I mention there was a slice of opera cake involved too?  It was a good afternoon...
This chocolate gelato recipe I made comes from the dessert/ice cream whisperer, David Lebovitz (of course!).  This batch I made was gobbled up in two days by the 3 of us.  We loved how it was rich but light at the same time; it truly is the lighter version of the chocolate ice cream recipe I made previously.  This gelato only contains milk, no cream, relative to its ice cream cousin.  I dare say we actually preferred this gelato to the richer ice cream but ask me next time I taste the ice cream and I might give a different answer.
Do you go for a cup or a cone?  I love sugar cones and I think a cone helps with portion control at home.  A cup is less messy though.  My son is strictly on the cup side.  He can be a surprising purist at times.

August 13, 2012

Chocolate chip cookies inspired by DoubleTree

It's back to basics today, with a batch of chocolate chip cookies - preferably, warm and fresh from the oven.  It may be hot outside but I think there's always a need for some good cookies around the house.  I know I feel better seeing a jar of homemade cookies on my kitchen counter.  And with the busy (albeit fun) summer schedule right now, let's remember to take a breather and have a cookie break once in a while
This is a cookie I've only made one other time in the past that was inspired by a stay at the DoubleTree hotel about two years ago.  Having never stayed at a DoubleTree until then, I was really (pleasantly) surprised when we were handed a few small bags, each with a warm chocolate chip cookie tucked inside, upon check-in.  I started munching on the way to our room and, boy, were they delicious!  I know it probably helped that I was hungry and tired at the time but seriously, it was good stuff.  I asked the front desk if I could have the recipe when we checked out but, of course, that wasn't possible.  They did offer me a few more cookies for the road but I gratefully declined (for some reason) and was hoping to dig up the recipe somewhere online when I got home.
Unfortunately, the actual recipe seems to be a secret.  The cookie dough itself is apparently made by The Christie Cookie Company in Nashville.  But from my online search, the closest replica to the DoubleTree cookies seemed to be this one.  I decided to make them again last week since I've been thinking about them - possibly because we just returned from a road trip and it was on another one that we tasted those cookies. 

The cookies that come out of my home oven might not be exactly the same as the one I remember but I think it's a close copy and a very good cookie.  I particularly like the little bit of finely ground oats in the dough that gives the cookies a bit more bite and chew (although it is an extra step).
The other interesting or unusual things about this recipe is a bit of cinnamon and a splash of lemon juice in the dough, which you should chill in the refrigerator overnight.  Those additional ingredients are not very discernible, adding just a little something in the background.  I divided my batch and made half with toasted walnuts (above picture, right) and the other without nuts (above, left) for the little guy. 

I'm glad I re-visited this recipe.  It's better than I remembered.  Cheers to the American chocolate chip cookie! 

August 11, 2012

Scharffen Berger (one bowl) brownies

There are lots of brownie recipes out there.  Much like with chocolate chip cookies, or, for that matter, most popular desserts.  One might call for a little more/less butter, chocolate, or flour and, oftentimes, the differences can be quite minute.  I want to stay faithful to a good recipe (and I certainly have my favorites) but I like to try something new in hopes of stumbling upon a great combination.
I've mentioned before that I've yet to meet a brownie that I didn't like.  We can count these Scharffen Berger brownies among the list.  The recipe is from the late Robert Steinberg, of the American chocolate company Scharffen Berger (now owned by Hershey).  It's a simple, one-bowl recipe, that just requires a little muscle power because you must mix the batter rather vigorously by hand (but it only takes about a minute). 

Normally, I don't think you need to use your best chocolates to make brownies (though it never hurts) but in this case, I thought it appropriate to use Scharffen Berger.  I realize that you really can taste the difference in the end result.  I'm not totally convinced it's necessary for everyday, particularly if you intend to down your brownie in ice cream and chocolate sauce, for example, but you really do taste what you put in.  That's particularly the case here because this recipe is heavy on the chocolate, lighter on the butter and other accompaniments.
The fun part of making this particular batch of brownies were the little helpers I had in the kitchen with me: my 5-year old niece and my little guy!  We'd just gotten home after a five-day road trip together and the next morning, I thought it would be fun to try this simple recipe together and have a little project in the kitchen.  My little niece was an enthusiastic and excellent helper!  She wanted to do each part, watch everything, and would wait patiently for instruction.  And ironically, she does not even like chocolate (sigh...) and most sweets in general.  My little guy was more interested in playing that particularly morning but he also helped and is my very reliable taste-tester.
These brownies came out fudgy in the center and deep in chocolate flavor.  Texturally, I prefer the brownies from Baked, which are just sinfully moist, but these have a more pronounced chocolate flavor.  Next time around, I'd use a smaller, 8-inch, rather than 9-inch, baking pan.  Partly since I didn't use nuts, these brownies were thinner than I like.  Better yet, I'd use some toasted nuts next time (despite the little guy's likely protest) since I think some crunchy nuts would be a great balance against the dark chocolate flavor of these brownies. 

August 8, 2012

Chocolate amaretti cake

After making a batch of amaretti cookies, I thought I'd use some of them to bake a chocolate amaretti cake.  I love it when things tie together or there's more than one good use for an ingredient. 
I remembered a chocolate amaretti cake recipe from one of Dorie Greenspan's books that I wanted to try; there was a chocolate glaze and optional almond whipped cream you could make to go with it.  But in the end I settled on a version from Giada de Laurentiis that sounded simple and appealing to me.  Everything gets blitzed in a food processor so it's very easy (as long as you have the equipment).
I had the most wonderful time making this cake because I had a special helper!!  My little guy deigned to help me, so long as it wouldn't be "too messy".  I think I've mentioned he doesn't quite share my enthusiasm in puttering around in the kitchen.  But the appeal of working the food processor hooked him in.  It's always the equipment that appeals to the boys.  He had a great time turning the machine on/off and hitting that "pulse" button to his heart's content.  Before long, he wanted to pour the eggs and everything else in and started making fun of how the egg yolks looked.  It was so much fun working in the kitchen together!
My little guy and I made a good cake!  I'm quite partial to single layer/no frosting-necessary cakes, particularly when it's moist and there's chocolate involved like in this case.  Its flavor reminds me of the holidays somehow.  I think it's the fragrance and taste of almonds mixed with chocolate (a combination I love) and the bit of orange zest infused into the whole thing.  The cake came out moist and fudgy, with a grainy, nutty texture from the amaretti as well as additional ground  almonds in the batter.  I'm craving another slice right now as I think about it.
Reading some of the reviews on this cake, I tweaked the recipe a tiny bit by adding a touch more chocolate and a dash of espresso powder to amp up the chocolate flavor.  The cake is decidedly but not intensely chocolate.  I think it helps to take it out of the oven a few minutes before you think it's fully done so that it's nice and moist inside.  We liked the result very much and for me, it's just satisfying yet light enough for everyday.  The other good thing about a cake like this is it holds well for a few days either stored at room temperature or in the refrigerator.  Ours only lasted two days but I thought it tasted even slightly better on day 2.

August 6, 2012

Amaretti and ice cream parfait

Yes, here I go with another ice cream related post - again.  But actually, it really started with homemade amaretti cookies.
My alter ego likes crisp and crunchy whereas I'd normally identify myself as the soft, chewy, warm, ooey gooey type when it comes to treats.  And take a look at my recipe index and you'll find a number of recipes featuring nuts and almonds, specifically.  Needless to say, I like them.  In this case, we have Amaretti, which is a crisp, lightly crunchy, dry cookie that's full of fragrant almond flavor.
I realized as I was making these that I've made them before in the guise of amaretti crisps.  The recipes are very similar but here we're going for the traditional round Italian Amaretti, which you readily see around the holidays though you should be able to find them in places like Whole Foods all year round.  It turns out that authentic amaretti are made with apricot kernels, not almonds - who knew!  So theoretically, the homemade version isn't actually the "real" thing, but I don't mind.  I thought it would be fun to make a batch to keep around the house (they keep well for a couple of weeks) - to munch on or use in, say, an ice cream parfait.  Now if you're thinking I made these as an excuse to make ice cream parfaits, you would be correct. 
For this parfait, think of a cup of coffee or espresso with a couple of amaretti cookies on the side.  To turn that idea into an ice cream parfait, I layered coarsely chopped amaretti cookies and chocolate covered espresso beans between  layers of coffee ice cream.  Needless to say, it helps to use good coffee ice cream; you know the usual suspects.  In this case, I used Starbucks coffee and espresso swirl ice cream.
The result was divine.  You have smooth ice cream with crunchy almond cookies that's just slightly softened by the ice cream.  Add to it chocolate and espresso beans that emphasize the coffee flavor and give it even more crunch, and we have a very good parfait indeed.  I think I now understand why parfait means "perfect" in French.  And make it perfect for you.  If you don't like the coffee idea, use vanilla ice cream or maybe vanilla ice cream with chocolate coated almonds and the amaretti.
This is another way to dress up some ice cream and make a simple dessert that's good enough for a dinner party.  And if someone doesn't like ice cream (are there such people?), you can offer coffee with amaretti cookies on the side.

Next up, I'm going to use some of these amaretti to make a chocolate cake!  Stay tuned...

August 2, 2012

Malted milk chocolate cookies (make a mighty ice cream sandwich)

I want to talk to you about a very delicious ice cream sandwich I made recently.  The ice cream is anchored by two thin malted milk chocolate cookies.  The fresh cookies themselves are slightly crisp and caramelized around the edges but soft and chewy in the center.  They sound delicious on their own but I confess that it was the idea of the ice cream sandwich that drew me in.  Happily, they turned out even better than I envisioned.
If you like to read cookbooks and visit food sites and blogs like I do, you'll have heard about using malt powder in baked goods.  The smell of malted milk powder vaguely reminds me of childhood - of Ovaltine, Horlicks type drinks.  I don't know how I re-stumbled upon this recipe for malted milk chocolate cookies from The Pioneer Woman but this last time really peaked my interest.  I'm sure you know The Pioneer Woman...I love her show and she strikes me as a woman with good taste but I've never tried one of her recipes until now.
And this idea of malt, milk chocolate, and ice cream wouldn't leave my brain.  It just sounded like a great match, like a milk shake from the old soda shops.  I kept thinking my husband would love it.  But I had some reservations; I wasn't sure I could trust a thin cookie to be soft and chewy, the way my family and I like it.  I don't think I'd ever made a truly thin chocolate chip cookie before and it didn't sound like there would be a whole lot of room for error.  But I really like the idea of thin cookies for an ice cream sandwich.  Before making them, I predictably considered using semisweet instead of milk chocolate, wondering if these cookies would be too sweet.  In the end, I used a little less sugar but stuck with milk chocolate because I wanted to trust the recipe and because milk chocolate, malt, and ice cream just sound right together.
You have to keep a watchful eye on these cookies to make sure they don't over-bake and go beyond soft and chewy to crisp.  On the other hand, if you like crisp cookies, all you need to do is bake them a few extra minutes.  They came out a bit greasy straight from the oven (that could've been my doing - maybe the butter was a bit too warm) but otherwise, the texture was spot on and the flavor delicious.  Just so you know, the malt flavor is subtle.  It's more a lingering hint of something rather than a distinct malt flavor and I'm okay with that.
I'm no ice cream sandwich expert but these are some mighty good ice cream sandwiches!  The cookies are soft and easy to eat even frozen and they're the perfect thinness to share the limelight with the ice cream.  I made both coffee and vanilla ice cream sandwiches with these cookies.  Both were terrific but I have to say that we really adored the coffee ice cream combination here (and I'm generally not a coffee ice cream person unlike the little guy).  My husband did indeed love this ice cream sandwich; we all did, and this is definitely something I'll be making again.  


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