Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Peachy Keen

The 2009 October Daring Bakers' challenge was brought to us by Ami S. She chose macarons from Claudia Fleming's The Last Course: The Desserts of the Gramercy Tavern as the challenge recipe.

Macarons are a French cookie which are enjoying some popularity. They are beautiful to look at and come in a variety of flavors and colors, limited only by the imagination of the baker. We were to make the basic macaron, color and flavor it as we wished and then make a filling - again, our choice.

One of the reasons I joined Daring Bakers was to push myself to try new things. I don't do much baking, largely because my two-person household doesn't need any temptations around, but also because I love to cook, but my baking talent is pretty limited. This challenge pushed me a little.

The macarons are basically an egg white, sugar and almond flour batter which is piped into little circles. Since it is pretty much a blank canvas, adding color and flavor is the fun part. I had already decided I was going to use peach in my filling, so I decided to use a little orange powdered food coloring to bring some peachiness to the cookie. I also consulted a wonderful book, The Flavor Bible, for ideas for flavoring the cookie with something that would enhance the peach. I'd thought about some ginger, since ginger and peach are a good pairing, but I'm not a huge ginger fan. I then thought about grilled peaches, seasoned with black pepper. The Flavor Bible confirmed that black pepper is a pairing that works, so that was my choice.

I knew I wanted a subtle color, so I only added a small amount of the food coloring. The pepper was tougher. I had read that about a teaspoon of flavor, whether spices, herbs, lemon zest or whatever, was about right. I was a little reluctant to add that much freshly ground black pepper - it is pretty potent! I think I ended up with about 1/2 teaspoon, which was probably not enough to make a significant contribution.

The filling was a modification of a cream cheese buttercream I found on Tartelette's blog. In addition to the meringue, huge amounts of butter and cream cheese, I folded in some organic peach preserves. They added not only a wonderful flavor, but also a little color to coordinate with my cookies.

I think these cookies were largely successful, although I've not had an "official" version, so I'm just guessing. I found the basic cookie way too sweet for my taste, but the cream cheese peach filling balanced that out. I don't know that I would make these again unless I needed something pretty for a party. The process was a bit time-consuming for the number of cookies I made and the cookies themselves are extremely fragile.

I gave most of these away because they need to be eaten quickly. So another learning experience! Once again, Daring Bakers achieves its aim in pushing me to the new frontiers.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Fi, Fie, Pho!

The October 2009 Daring Cooks' challenge was brought to us by Jaden of the blog Steamy Kitchen. The recipes are from her new cookbook, The Steamy Kitchen Cookbook.

I have read about the glories of pho (actually pronounced "fuh") on various food sites for a long, ong time. But, as is often the case, I've never gone to one of the many pho restaurants in the area to try it, so this challenge was a welcome one.

Pho is a clear broth, usually beef, but sometimes chicken, as in this case, augmented with noodles, meat, and various condiments. Making the broth is time-consuming but not difficult - just like making chicken stock. Instead of standard chicken stock veggies, however, there are Asian flavors: ginger, star anise, coriander, clove, fish sauce, and cilantro.

The spices - coriander seeds, star anise, and cloves - are toasted in a fry pan for extra flavor. The ginger and onion are charred under the broiler and then peeled and cut up. A whole chicken is cut up, the breast meat separated from the rest of the chicken, and the rest of the bird cut into 3" pieces. The chicken is quickly parboiled to remove impurities. The pieces plus the breast are then simmered in fresh cold water for about 90 minutes with all the spices. The breast meat is removed after about 15 minutes and shredded for serving. Once the broth is done, it is strained, all the solids are removed and the broth is kept warm.

The rice noodles are prepared, along with such condiments as bean sprouts, fresh cilantro, thinly sliced red onion (I soaked the onion in cold water to remove some of the sharpness), lime, Sriracha, hoisin, and sliced chili peppers (from our garden!). I also sauteed some chanterelle mushrooms, which is not at all traditional but turned out to be a good addition.

Bowls are filled with noodles, the shredded chicken breast is added, and the broth used to fill the bowls. Condiments are added to taste.

This was a very subtly flavored broth which enhanced the noodles and the chicken. The condiments added additional flavors and colors.

But wait! There is more. That was not all of the feast that night. I also made what I have always called hum bao, which are Chinese buns made with a yeast dough and stuffed with char siu pork. They are steamed about 12-15 minutes and arrive on the plate plump, soft and flavorful.

The bun itself is neutral and thus a perfect vehicle for the tasty pork. The pork is basically Chinese-style barbequed pork with a sauce of sugar, salt, pepper, soy, oyster sauce and water. It is mixed with scallions and rice wine in a skillet and then slightly thickened with cornstarch. This recipe is from Asian Dumplings by Andrea Nguyen, a fantastic book filled with information about Asian ingredients, including the author's favorite brands, techniques and equipment. I could cook my way through this book and eat nothing else!

And then, the final touch. With help from Bob, who is more comfortable with the deep fryer than I, we assembled dessert wontons. The wrappers were filled with various combinations of chocolate, caramel, peanuts, strawberries (more garden goodies!), and peach. I devised a Snickers-bar wonton - chocolate, caramel and a few roasted peanuts, deep-fried and dusted with powdered sugar. It was intense! The chocolate and strawberry combos were also excellent. We experimented with different shapes and had a good time creating our little treats.

Many thanks to Sarah and Ron, my favorite guinea pigs, who are always willing to come try my experiments. They were enthusiastic contributors to the wonton dessert project. Even though there is always pizza in the freezer, it's still risky business!