Thursday, August 27, 2009

Torte-lini (A Mini Dobos Torte)

The August 2009 Daring Baker's challenge was hosted by Angela of A Spoonful of Sugar and Lorraine of Not Quite Nigella. They chose the spectacular Dobos Torte based on a recipe from Rick Rodgers' cookbook Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Class Caffes of Vienna, Budapest and Prague.

The traditional Dobos Torte is seven layers of sponge cake filled with chocolate buttercream and topped with a decorative layer of caramel topped sponge. I decided to make a few smaller cakes rather than one large one because there is no way we would ever eat a whole big cake. Somehow, four little cakes seemed more manageable.

Good thing I made that decision because it allowed me to practice until I got it right - or at least as right I was going to be able to manage!

I made very thin sponge circles, cooked on a Silpat, for the layers. I used a cookie cutter on the circles to assure a uniform size. The chocolate buttercream was just standard issue - followed the recipe they gave us. The problem was the weather. Despite my lovely air-conditioning, it was warm in the kitchen and the buttercream quickly became too soft when it sat out. Finding the optimal temperature was tough: soft enough to spread without tearing the delicate sponge cake yet firm enough not to melt.

I also learned that the Food Network, despite its detractors, does provide useful information. I've watched all those cake challenges and I know that real bakers use an internal support system when building layered cakes. As I struggled to keep my first mini-Dobos upright while adding layers, I realized I needed some way to keep the layers even. So, mini number 2 had a skewer inserted in the center of the layers. This made it immensely easier to frost the sides and top without having the thing turn into the Leaning Tower of Dobos.

The other struggle I had was the caramel topping. The original recipe calls for the caramel to be poured on the top of one layer, which is then cut into pie-shaped slices and made into kind of a whirl-i-gig topping by supporting the wedges with either a hazelnut or some piped buttercream. This seemed too complex for my little cakes, so I decided to do some fancy caramel swirls or ribbons or whatever to top the little darlings. Nice plan and they always make it seem so simple. Believe me, making caramel into lovely shapes requires skill and probably hours of practice. Caramel is HOT when it is poured. Letting it cool a little is essential (one large blister established it had not cooled enough); letting it cool too long results in brittle rather than pliable caramel. Suffice it to say, timing is critical. I did manage some swirly things and some thin strands and other shapes. Not what I was going for but I recognize my limitations. I like to think of the decorative topping of my Dobos Torte-lini (I made that up) as abstract. Perhaps it is symbolic of the merger of the traditional dessert with a modern variation. Or maybe it is just weird.

The torte was very rich. It did taste good, but small bites were more than adequate. Once again, we tasted but did not indulge. I saved the pretty one for Nick and he had about two bites before he was sated. For some reason, my sweet tooth has pretty much disappeared. I'm hoping Daring Bakers will choose some challenges that are not so desserty - maybe croissants or an interesting ethnic bread.

I'm unable to do the Daring Cooks challenge this month, but if I make anything interesting, I'll post. Otherwise the next Daring Baker challenge will pop up on September 27. And by the way, if you want to see what a serious pastry chef can do, check out This woman's work - both pastry and photography - is incredible. Her variation on the Dobos challenge is absolutely gorgeous and creative.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Remains of the Day

Nick has been home from Boston for a brief summer vacation before starting back to dental school in a few days. He was a busy person - very active social life - so I saw him mainly for meals. We have a ritual when he is home: He gets to choose the dinners he wants from his favorites. We had the welcome home New York strip steak with baked onion rings and salad (his dad actually grilled the steaks, so this was an easy one for me); the Caesar salad with grilled chicken; the dinner with friends which included a variety of dishes plus a homemade rustic peach tart (rustic because the crust, while delicious, was incredibly hard to work with so there were lots of patches); homemade pizza with a dough I had frozen some time ago - excellent result when cooking on the pizza stone in the oven; jerk chicken with papaya and pineapple salsa; and tonight, ribs with a fruit barbecue sauce, corn fritters (from Michael Ruhlman's book, Ratio) and watermelon.

The picture is the remains of that meal - not much left! The ribs were so tender they literally fell off the bone. I use a recipe that calls for brining them overnight, then marinating them in a mustard/spice rub for an hour or two, then slow cooking wrapped in foil with a little pineapple juice to steam (in the oven), then another brown sugar/spice rub and finished off on the grill. I find doing the major part of the cooking in the oven makes for a more predictable timeline and better control (for me) of temperature, so I modified this recipe to include the oven time vs. additional time on the grill.

Nick leaves tomorrow, but I'll probably start thinking about the Christmas vacation dinners the next day!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Not Paella - But the Pan Works

Olga from Las Cosas de Olga chose the August Daring Cooks Challenge. This dish, rice with mushrooms, cuttlefish and artichokes, is a Jose' Andres recipe. Andres is a Spanish chef who lives in Washington, D.C. and owns several restaurants there. I've seen him on TV - quite a character!

Since I make paella regularly, the basic approach to this dish was familiar. A critical part of the dish is the sofregit, a sauce of olive oil, tomatoes, garlic, onion and mushrooms. The condiment is an allioli, which is a Spanish version of aioli - a garlic and olive oil emulsion.

The sofregit cooks for a long time, until the tomatoes are broken down and everything is soft. It is added to the cooked cuttlefish (I used calamari), artichokes and mushrooms, which are sauteed in olive oil. White wine is added and then the rice, water, and saffron. It cooks until the rice is done and is served with the allioli.

This dish was okay, but I have to say I prefer my paella. I think using water (I could have used fish stock, but didn't have any) meant a loss of a layer of flavor. And while the calamari were fine and were something I could conceivably use in paella, I didn't think they added enough to flavors - compared to prawns, clams, chicken and chorizo. I also struggled with the allioli. The directions were a little vague - 4 garlic cloves, salt, some drops of lemon juice and then olive oil "until you have the consistency of thick mayonnaise." This was all done by hand, with the mortar and pestle the primary tool for smashing the garlic to paste and incorporating the olive oil "drop by drop." While some people on the Daring Cooks forum reported great success with this labor-intensive approach, some of us had less luck. I should have used the food processor. As it was, I referred to Michael Ruhlman's "Ratio" to get an approximation of how much olive oil I would need since the recipe was not at all specific.

While it is interesting to explore other Spanish foods, I'm going to stick to my standard paella, which I think is more flavorful and more versatile. With family and friends with various eating taboos (no seafood, prawns but not clams, no meat, nothing spicy), a good paella with prawns, chicken, chorizo, clams, lots of veggies has options for everyone - and the rice is especially appealing.