Modern Baker Challenge: Swiss Walnut Crescents

Every so often I realize there’s a blog post that I’ve drafted, and maybe even redrafted, and then forgotten about. And then suddenly I realize that this was eight months ago. (Or longer. I have a post on a cranberry tart from last November that it went stale–I could hardly publish it in April–though I suppose that’s less of a problem).

I’m not that delayed on everything. Though I made these Swiss Walnut Crescents from the Modern Baker puff pastry chapter back in February, we are only now officially posting for this chapter in the Modern Baker Challenge. So, I’m on time after all.

And even though I made these a while back, I remember them well (and not just because they were delicious!) Making the filling was unusual–the first step is to soak and rehydrate bread crumbs in milk. Only then do you add the chopped walnuts, sugar, and other flavorings. Who would have thought that dried bread crumbs form the base for a rich filling?

As with most of the puff pastry recipes, once you have your puff pastry dough made, the rest is smooth sailing. Compared to pie dough, puff seems to roll out almost effortlessly and doesn’t need to be treated so gingerly. Making the little crescent-shaped rolls is one of those things that looks tricky and finicky but actually effortless. Fold the top two corners of your triangle towards the center to encase the filling, then roll up your packet towards the third point of your triangle. Make sure this tip is tucked under your final roll, flush against the cookie sheet, so your pretty crescents don’t unravel during baking.

Chill the rolls in the refrigerator for an hour (though less delicate than pie dough, puff pastry is subject to the same rules: cold cold cold), paint with egg wash, and bake.

Golden brown on the outside…

And on the inside: just look at these flaky layers!


Modern Baker Challenge: Perfect Pound Cake

There seem to be three sorts:  the people who celebrate their birthday the whole month long, the ones who keep mum but maybe hope for a bit of festivity, and those who actively try to keep it under wraps.

Someone I work with, who we’ll say was in “category three,” celebrated a birthday last week,  or rather had her birthday celebration foisted on her. (She was outed by facebook).  As word spread, a lovely bouquet of flowers appeared mid-afternoon.  Meanwhile, I was brainstorming about what to bake.  (You know us…we love an excuse, though Karen is the champion of the stealth work celebration–remember her posts here, and here?)

I figured it was an ideal chance to skip ahead a few chapters in the Modern Baker Challenge and make Malgieri’s Perfect Pound Cake. 

It was pretty perfect.

This recipe requires a bit more effort than your average pound cake, but when would you step it up if not for someone’s birthday? 

Malgieri adapted this recipe from his aunt, and while each step is easy, there are quite a few.  First you have to beat the yolk and sugar together, then beat the flour, vanilla and lemon extracts, and butter together, then whip the egg whites into a stiff-peak meringue, then stir it all together, and beat another five minutes.  I’ll admit this last step mystifies me–why go to the trouble to beat the egg whites into a meringue, only to beat the combined batter another five minutes?  Usually you are instructed to fold egg whites in very gently, so as not to deflate the batter–what’s going on?

I still don’t understand the science, but I can tell you the cake was worth it (and all the mixing bowls).  The texture is what really grabbed me:  not heavy like you often risk with a pound cake, but of course, not airy or spongy either.  It seemed almost like a dense foam baked into a cake.  (An odd description, I’ll admit, but I can’t think of a better way to put it).  What’s more:  tender, surely thanks to the cake flour, and rich, with all that butter.

The cake was a day late, of course, but I like to think that it just extended the birthday celebration.  I’d love to make this again, ideally toasting the slices and serving warm and fragrant with a bright, intense berry coulis.  Now that would be festive!

Modern Baker Challenge: Whipped Cream Layer Cake

As per usual, rather than complete the assignment of the day (pies!  this shouldn’t be hard!) I am jumping ahead in the Modern Baker Challenge.  I have been looking ahead at the Cakes chapter with excitement and trepidation.  Excitement because–well, do I have explain?  CAKE!  Trepidation because, who is going to eat all this sugary output?

I had a flash of inspiration when preparing for an upcoming family get-together over the 4th of July weekend.  A captive audience in a town of under 3000 in rural Vermont combined with the need to use up 2 cups of delicious Jersey cream from the Berkshires led to Nick Malgieri’s Whipped Cream Layer Cake (with Whipped Cream Caramel Frosting).

This cake is made by folding whipped cream into the batter, a method which instantly caught my interest for its departure from the usual butter and milk combination.   (In fact, the whipped cream fills the role of both).  You have the pleasure of making something unique without having to hunt down bizarre ingredients or successfully accomplish some complicated tour-de-force in the kitchen.  And it’s incredibly easy, especially if you ignore Malgieri’s instructions to whip 1 1/2c of cream by hand and use your hand mixer.

Slightly more nervewracking was making the caramel concentrate for the frosting.  (First you make what you might think of as a “flavor base” of caramel mixed with a half a cup of cream; once cool you whip this together with even more heavy cream).  I always worry when making caramel thanks to an attempt making flan in high school which resulted in me splattering myself with burnt hot sugar. (Really, it wasn’t that bad, maybe a few tiny welts on my left hand, but the memory is vivid).  Even without the threat of self-injury, it’s really easy to burn your caramel as it continues to darken even after you’ve turned off the flame.

Once you make the caramel, you heat the cream and add it to the burnt sugar.  While the cream warmed, I ran the sides of the caramel pot under cold water to cool things down and stop the cooking as I was afraid I’d let the whole hot mess go too far.  I think it may have helped, and even better, adding the cream to the liquid sugar was surprisingly undramatic.  (Nick warns you to beware, as adding hot cream to hot caramel may cause a rapid foaming up of molten hot caramel over the sides of your pot!  Flashbacks!).  I did have to stir a bit to get things mixed, since the caramel was cooler than it might otherwise have been, but it all worked out.

Lest you think I am able to perform magic feats of keeping a frosted cake in perfect condition (and unmelted) on a 2 hour drive to Vermont, I’ll admit that I carried the baked cake up in the buff and held the caramel base in a small pyrex bowl in the cooler.  Two days later I mixed in two cups of cream into the caramel bases, whipped it up and frosted the cake. 

As you can see, my sous-chef was happy to help frost the cake and was very excited to help me carry the finished work to the table. 

Despite being baked on a Friday night and being served on a Sunday, the cake was perfectly fresh, light, and moist.  Its subtle vanilla flavor melded well with the golden caramel flavored icing, and with 12 at the table, it soon enough disappeared.

Modern Baker: Roman Almond and Pine Nut Tart

I thought I would be a much more active participant in this chapter of the Modern Baker Challenge:  Sweet Tarts and Pies.  Certainly more than the prior chapter, Savory Tarts and Pies.  Sugar!  Yet, for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, it’s not come to pass.  I like to offload much of my baking at work (sort of as a self-preservation strategy–I don’t trust myself with all those calories around) and considering I walk to the commuter rail and then have to switch to the T (Boston’s name for the subway), taking in pie is a bit of a pain.  And probably would turn to a crumble by the time I get there.   I should just take a cue from Abby and Renee–they’ve been making mini-versions of all the recipes in this chapter (and it’s not like I haven’t done the relatively easy math to figure out how to downsize myself either).  Who knows.

It might seem odd that one of the few tarts I’ve made, then, is the Roman Almond and Pine Nut Tart.  As opposed to say, a rich chocolate tart or a classic and homey apple pie.  But we know I’ll always go for something with an international pedigree.  Especially if it’s Italian.  The combination of Roman and pine nuts brings up memories:  my friend Raffaella, who lives in Rome and whose family has a small vacation home south of the city.  I was lucky enough to be invited to spend a few days there with her and her father one summer when I was visiting, and we sat on the steps of the rear patio in the waning evening snacking on pine nuts we plucked out of cones from the pine trees growing in the backyard.

I still hadn’t really appreciated don’t think most of us usually think of pine nuts as a dessert ingredient–it’s more associated with savory dishes, and in particular pesto.  But if you google a bit, it turns out they have their “sweet side” so to speak–make a cookie rolled it in pine nuts; make a cake or two or three; use it to enhance a crumble, or if you’re still sceptical, try a dessert with chocolate (on the undisputable theory that it’s got to be good if it has chocolate).   Have I, uh, made my point?

But enough about other desserts, and back to the task at hand!   Verdict is I loved this tart as much as I expected to.  The toasted nutty flavors, the sweet crust, the satisfying bite.  While the almond filling is the star player in this tart, the pine nuts play an important role–they provide a nice contrasting texture, as well as dressing it up a little.  (Frankly, this pie is a bit monotone, and a monotone tan at that.  I know looks aren’t everything, but tan isn’t exactly the most exciting of hues).

Probably because the filling is egg and nut based, this bakes up quite firmly, almost like a very moist cake (and very easy to transport to work, where it was well received despite a few questions as to exactly what it was.  Probably those pine nuts, and the fact that I forgot to sprinkle with powdered sugar).  I used canned almond paste (Solo brand, which was on special at Christmas, though you can make your own too) which is an attractive off-white gel with little brown specks in it.  Yes, lovely.  It’s almost pourable, so I didn’t know how it would turn out given that the recipe directs you to “chop” your almond paste.  Fortunately, it turned out perfectly.  As a bonus, I had 4 ounces left over, which is exactly what is needed for the raspberry almond mini-tarts later in this chapter.  That leftover waits to be used in the freezer.  And waits…

One final note–you may have been with me the whole time on this pine-nut-in-sweets concept, but were thinking to yourself, “has she seen how much pine nuts cost lately?”  I know:  $21.00 a pound is the most recent price I saw in the bulk bin.  But despite appearances, the amount of nuts you need isn’t all that much.  But if you’d prefer a substitute, I’d suggest slivered almonds.  They are similar in size to pine nuts (perhaps about twice as long), will clearly harmonize with the almond filling, and still provide the tender, toasty, contrasting bite on top.

Downsized Recipe for Mini-Tarts

I hate throwing food out.  Every week before our trash comes, I go through the fridge figuring out what’s gone bad, and guiltily throw it away. (How much food do most Americans throw away each year?  How many resources were used to grow that food, transport it, package it?  How much money am I wasting?  How many starving children are out there?  etc etc).  I love to stick things in the freezer sure that I’ll get to it later.  (My worst incarnation of this was when we lived in London and I was saving bones for soup stock–my friend Liz referred to our freezer compartment as “the morgue”).  But my good intentions are often no more than that–periodically I have to go through the freezer and toss frosty blocks of things that are, by that point, really old.

Nevertheless, whenever I make pie dough, I always save the scraps.  If I were a more expert roller of pie crust, I’d probably hardly have any trimmings, but I always have some rough-edged, slightly uneven, Pangaea-shaped mass that I’m putting into the pie pan.  I have this hope that I”ll later use the scraps to make a cute little mini-pie or tartlette.  But, I never do, because I’ve never taken the time to figure out the ratios; i.e. how much to reduce the quantity of filling.

Perhaps in a burst of New Years inspiration, I finally did something with the two tartlettes in my freezer.  The dough was six months old.  I know this precisely because it was leftover nut dough from making this (mmmmm).  I decided to keep things simple and make a chocolate ganache filling.  Easy-peasy, (despite the French name) especially since I already had the crust!  I poured my pie weights into the two tart tins, and calculated the volume (two cups, if you are wondering).  I roughly compared this to the volume of filling for a regular-sized pie or tart, and decided that 1/3 a recipe would give me enough for two tarts.  I melted dark chocolate from Santa (or, my father in law) in sweet cream, butter, and sugar, and added a splash of espresso brewed coffee to round out and intensify the chocolate flavor.  I pre-baked the pie crust, poured in the ganache, and allowed it to set until it was soft yet still solid.  And, voila, my husband and I had individual chocolate tarts for our New Year’s Eve meal.  And our New Year’s meal.  Glossy, smooth, rich, elegant–they may be small but they are more than enough for one sitting.  I’m not sure an over-the-top chocolate dessert is the expected conclusion of a post on kitchen thrift, but, then again, why not?  (Don’t mention anything about New Year’s Resolutions to me, on the other hand).

Chocolate Ganache filling (for two 4-inch tartlettes; triple this for a regular-sized tart)

  • 4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped (about one bar)
  • 1 1/3 tablespoons unsalted butter (1/2 stick), cut into small pieces
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
  • a pinch of salt
  • Pre-bake your pie crust.  While it cools, prepare your ganache:  Place chocolate and butter in a medium bowl; set aside.  Combine cream, sugar, and salt in a small saucepan over medium heat and stir until sugar dissolves and liquid is just at a simmer, about 4 minutes.   Pour cream mixture over chocolate and butter and let sit until melted, about 4 minutes. Gently stir until smooth.  (If you still have some lumps, you can microwave briefly on very low power.  I’m sure there’s a reason this is verboten, but I had no problems).  Pour ganache into the cooled tart shell and transfer to the refrigerator. Chill until set, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.  I think this is best served at room temperature, so that the filling is lighter-tasting and the chocolate flavor more intense.

    Modern Baker Challenge: Caramelized Onion Tart with Gorgonzola

    No secret that I love puff pastry.  Perhaps the greatest thing is once you’ve made it, you have a launching pad for a host of easy yet elegant dishes–savory and sweet. 

    It’s not just for napoleons, palmiers, and sweet pastries.  It’s also for a fantastic casual brunch for great friends you haven’t seen in ages.  One friend you’ve known for years, in a former life when you were both teaching English in the Czech Republic, and his wife who takes beautiful, luminous pictures of your children.  (Check out her fantastic work here, especially if you live in the Boston area, but even if you don’t!)  Maybe I should get some photography tips from her, eh?

    Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to get a photo of the finished product.  Take it as a testimonial!

    And as a bit of housekeeping, this is another entry in the Modern Baker Challenge.  Again, out of order, but I can’t just leave that puff pastry in the freezer without using it, can I?