Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Not a trifling matter.

Cheater, cheater, cheater!

Trifle is the most divisive of desserts. Well, that and tiramisu - everyone loves it, I hate it with a seething hatred. Tiramisu is the Rachael Ray of the dessert world.

Anyway. Ask anyone from the UK or Commonwealth countries about their favorite trifle, and each response will be completely, and sometimes horribly, different. Everyone is utterly convinced that their way is the "right" way, the way their mum or Nan or Aunt Matilda used to make it. As many of these "right" ways include such things as canned fruit cocktail, canned peaches, bananas, pineapple, candied cherries, ratafia biscuits (whatever the hell they are) and most often a layer of "jelly" (read: Jello), I feel I must reject them utterly.

You see, rampant Anglophile that I am, I'm a purist when it comes to trifle. By purist I mean: "I like to make it the way I imagine they did in Victorian times in England," which to me means a lowest-common-denominator trifle: cake, spirits, raspberry jam, custard, fresh berries, whipped cream. That's it. Not a speck of Jello in sight. Sometimes I flick a few sliced toasted almonds on the top, but nothing else. I also draw the line at candied violets or candied angelica (whatever that is - possibly a root) as decoration - I may be enamored of Masterpiece Theater, but I stop short of extreme re-enactments.

All of this is to say I've made dozens and dozens of trifles in my day, even aberrant ones like an all chocolate trifle (bleah!) and the Italian zuppa di Inglese. I've made from-scratch custard, creme anglaise, pastry cream and mousse for these trifles. I've made pan di spagna and genoise and butter cakes for them until my fingers bled (well, not really). But I'll let you in on a secret: the best trifle I ever made was a last-minute jerry-rigged one containing leftover pound cake, tricked-up Bird's custard and Knott's seedless raspberry jam. I mean it. It was the best, most unctous, most trifle-y thing I've ever tasted. I couldn't stop eating it, and wanted to prevent my guests from finishing it so I'd have some all to myself later (leftover trifle is a ghastly, wonderful mush).

So My Ultimate Trifle Recipe isn't one really -- it's more of a general bunch of directions, because it will depend on how much of this stuff you have on hand. It can grow exponentially to feed however many people you want to feed, too.

You will need:

Pound cake - leftover homemade is best, but you may also use the kind you get from a bakery, or Trader Joe's or Whole Foods. Please for the love of God DO NOT use thawed Sara Lee - it is like a horrible sweet sponge. OK, I lied -- use it if you have to. Pfttt.

Brandy and/or sherry (optional, but I use both)

Raspberry jam (seedless or not, you make the choice)

Custard made from a Bird's Custard mix (which is available now in all good supermarkets), only use half-and-half (single cream) instead of milk and add a tablespoon of vanilla extract.

Fresh raspberries, or blackberries or blueberries or redcurrants , or all of them. Use what's cheapest, but don't use strawberries because they are vile in trifle. They weep.

1 or 2 pints heavy cream, stiffly whipped with a tablespoon of powdered sugar and vanilla if you want. Please do not use the stuff from a can. It won't hold up.

Optional garnishes: sliced toasted almonds, more berries, arcane candied flowers or roots, etc. Some people use colored jimmies/sprinkles/hundreds-and-thousands, but I think this is naff. Use them if you must, though.

Method (if you can call it that):

First, make the Bird's Custard according to the package directions, but use half-and-half instead of milk and add a tablespoon of vanilla extract. Make a lot. I never make less than one quart. Don't let the "on the hob" direction throw you -- this is just the quaint British way of saying "on the stove burner." Cover finished custard and set aside - you can use warm custard to make this trifle.

Then, find a large glass bowl. I use a footed straight-sided trifle bowl, but then again I have about 9 because, Crazed Anglophile. You can get them cheaply at Target or K-Mart (Martha Stewart?). Anyway, place a single layer of sliced pound cake in the bottom of the bowl. Sprinkle with as much brandy or sherry as you see fit (of course, you can leave this part out, or you could use orange juice as a substitute). Spread raspberry jam on cake in a thin layer. Pour on enough of the custard to cover the cake in a thinnish layer. Scatter on some berries. Repeat. I usually make at least three layers -- just make sure you end up with custard/berries on top. Another secret: even if you mess up the order it will still taste good. This is a true no-brainer recipe.

Cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate until serving time.

When ready to serve, whip heavy cream and sugar in a Kitchenaid mixer or with a hand mixer or hand blender until stiff peaks form. Remove trifle from refrigerator, remove plastic wrap, and spoon whipped cream over top in decorative mounds. Sprinkle with garnish of choice. Serve immediately.

Really, trifle (and especially this one) is like a once-a-year dessert blanket, immersing you in creamy fruity boozy goodness. I'm sorry I turned into Nigella Lawson there for a second, but it's true.

Happy holidays.

© 2007 Sandy Soto Teich

All rights reserved. No part of this blog may be reproduced anywhere without the author's express permission.

Monday, December 3, 2007

My very favorite truffle in the whole wide world.

And I don't like Spam...er...truffles! And I'm sorry this picture is blurry.

Anyone can tell you that chocolate truffles are the most brainless of all confections to make. You take a cold flavored ganache, roll it into balls and then in some sort of coating, or, if you're really a lunatic, enrobe it tempered chocolate. I say "lunatic" because tempering chocolate is one of those activities which will take years off your life. But I digress.

I've gladly made truffles voluntarily for the weddings of people I love a lot, and at virtual gunpoint for those chefs for whom I worked. While truffle making is relatively easy, making more than two or three dozen at a time is the most deadening work imaginable, and invariably some chef would come to me with a jolly order for truffles for a party of six hundred - oh, and five different flavors, please. Augggh. Those were the days, my friend.

Horrible flashbacks aside, truffles can be quite delicious, as long as they're simple and made with excellent chocolate. A long time ago my decidedly brilliant and not-crazy executive chef Claude Koeberle taught me one of the guiding tenets of life regarding chocolate desserts (such as ice cream and truffles) and that is: always use a 70-75 per cent quantity of semi- or bittersweet chocolate and a 30-25 per cent quantity of excellent milk chocolate when making a chocolate dessert. For some reason the smaller amount of milk chocolate smooths out and inexplicably deepens the flavor of the bitterer chocolate. This really works, and I hate milk chocolate, and would normally would never have it anywhere on my turf. But Claude comes from a family of expert chocolatiers from Lyon and I have never contradicted his sage advice, something which has always been to my benefit.

So. The following recipe is ridiculously easy, even if you do have to roast the almonds yourself. Just make sure they are very salty and chop them by hand (which is a bitch, I know, but it looks a lot better). This is the only truffle I will eat after making them. The rest - ptui, especially the white chocolate ones.

Chocolate Truffles with Brown Butter Salted Almonds

Makes about 3 dozen 1 1/4" truffles

For the almonds:*

2 cups unblanched raw almonds

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1-2 teaspoons excellent sea salt (I always use Maldon)

In a large dry skillet, toast almonds over low heat until they start to puff up a little and start showing golden spots on the bits without skin. This will take anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes -- watch carefully and stir them constantly. They will also start to smell toasty when ready. At this point, add the butter -- it will foam up and start to brown immediately. Keep stirring, letting the almonds sizzle in the brown butter, but don't let the butter get too dark. When it is a deep nut brown (this will only take a minute or two), pour the almonds on a cookie sheet lined with paper towels to drain. Immediately sprinkle with salt. You want these to be on the salty side. Let cool completely, then chop fairly finely. Place in bowl, cover and set aside.

*If this almond rigamarole is too much trouble, just buy the perfectly good roasted salted almonds at Trader Joe's or Whole Foods and chop 'em up. They are completely serviceable.

For the chocolate truffle ganache:

8 oz. bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped**

3.5 oz. excellent quality milk chocolate, roughly chopped**

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

Place chopped chocolates in a medium stainless or glass bowl. In a small saucepan, heat cream until it just starts to boil -- watch carefully or it will rise up and overflow all over your burners.
Pour 1 cup hot cream over the chocolate and allow to rest for 30 seconds (yeah, this is Jacques Torres' method, and I'm sorry to say it works). Add remaining 1/2 cup hot cream and stir gently with whisk until all chocolate is melted. Now, if you want to make these relatively quickly, pour the ganache onto a clean jellyroll pan (a cookie sheet with a 1/2" rim), cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate until completely cold, about 2 or 3 hours.

Line a sheet pan with parchment paper, and have the prepared almonds handy in a nearby bowl. Using a 1/2 ounce ice cream scoop or just a teaspoon, scoop up rounded portions of the ganache, roll them briefly in the palms of your hands if you want very round truffles (you don't have to do this because yes, it is very messy -- rounding the mixture with a spoon is enough) and then roll quickly in the prepared almonds. Place coated truffles on the cookie sheet. If truffle mixture gets too soft while you're working with it, return it to the refrigerator to firm up. When all truffles are coated, place them in one layer in an airtight plastic container, cover and refrigerate. When you serve these, they will keep at room temperature for about an hour, but after that will start to wilt, especially if the room is warm. Act accordingly.

Again -- if you give these away (and they make a fabulous present), tell the recipient that they must be refrigerated.

** For the purposes of this recipe I used two four ounce bars of Ghirardelli 60% cacao bittersweet chocolate and one 3.5 ounce bar of Lindt Extra-Creamy milk chocolate, because they are easily available in most nationwide supermarkets. Not everyone has access to high end chocolate (or even Trader Joe's) so I thought I'd use these perfectly fine supermarket brands. They worked very well.

© 2007 Sandy Soto Teich

All rights reserved. No part of this blog may be reproduced anywhere without the author's express permission.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

A dearth of lime products.

Very nice indeed nonetheless.

I love lime marmalade, particularly Wilkins & Sons Ltd. Tiptree Lime Marmalade, and I can't find it anywhere. Woe.

I searched for it in vain in San Francisco last Thanksgiving weekend, but no go -- not even at that shrine to arcane food, the Saturday Ferry Market. Nowadays I only go there to buy Acme bread (the pumpernickel raisin rolls are the closest I've found to Orwasher's in NYC) and Bariani olive oil, because I'm one of those contrary persons who think it lost all its soul when it moved from that funky parking lot on Bay and Green (or wherever the hell it was) to the hotsy-totsy indoor Ferry Marketplace, so it was a big deal for me to go there amongst the bridge-and-ferry people and all the tourists. Feh.

Anyway, not even the fancy jam makers had anything approximating the lime marmalade of my dreams. June Taylor (which always makes me laugh, as I admit I'm old enough that I automatically append "Dancers!" to her name) had a Rangipur lime jelly, which was really a marmalade and while appropriately astringent, bitter and sweet (those little orange Rangipur limes are killers), it really wasn't right. Sigh.

So I came home and in keeping with the theme of this blog, made the mindless lime curd from the recipe I stole from Trumps many years ago. I used to make gallons of this stuff every week, and the beauty part about this recipe is that you don't need to nursemaid it, unlike some curd recipes people were always trying to foist off on me that required constant whisking or stirring. You put this over simmering water and give it a stir every now and again until it gets thick, then you strain it and chill it. BFD. Believe me, when you're making twelve other desserts plus cookies and bread and whatnot, you really appreciate a recipe which requires little or no attention.

This curd is great on toast, bagels, English muffins, scones or biscuits. It makes a dandy tart filling (just fill a prebaked crust and bake again at 325F for 10-20 minutes or until set; cool and chill). It makes the greatest no-brainer lime mousse: just fold equal parts curd and stiffly whipped unsweetened heavy cream together and dollop or pipe into serving glasses and chill. I first did this when I was making desserts at a tiny cafe/catering company in the Valley years ago, and one customer used to come in on a weekly basis to try to wrangle the recipe out of us. "I don't know how you do it!" she'd say, taking spoonful after spoonful. "It's so tart, but so buttery at the same time." No one ever told her the big "secret," because we were mean that way.

I will say that this recipe started out as a regular old lemon curd, but as that sage food writer Ann Hodgman once so astutely noted, anything made with lemons is automatically more interesting made with limes. Oh, and, unfortunately, this does not make a good cake filling. For that you'd have to shore it up with gelatin, which is disgusting.

Lime Curd

Makes about 4 or 5 cups

2 cups granulated sugar

5 extra large eggs

3 yolks

The zest of 4 limes

1 1/4 cups freshly squeezed lime juice

1 major pinch sea salt

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks

Have ready a medium bowl with a large sieve set over it. Also, fill a 3 quart or larger (preferably larger -- I use a small stockpot) pot halfway full of water and heat over high heat until simmering. Lower the heat at this point but make sure it's still simmering.

In a large-ish stainless steel bowl, whisk sugar, eggs and yolks together just to mix (don't overbeat and put a lot of air into it). Whisk in zest, lime juice and salt. Place bowl over simmering water and cook, stirring occasionally with whisk, until curd thickens and looks like, well, pudding. This will take anywhere from 15 to 25 minutes. When thick, strain through sieve into the waiting bowl. Using a metal or wooden spoon, stir in butter until incorporated.

Place a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the curd to keep a skin from forming, and cover the bowl with more wrap. Chill thoroughly.

You can put this curd into jars which you've sterilized in the dishwasher and give them to people who will love it, just so long you tell them to store it in the refrigerator. They will think you are just like Martha Stewart. The curd will keep, well refrigerated, at least a week.

© 2007 Sandy Soto Teich

All rights reserved. No part of this blog may be reproduced anywhere without the author's express permission.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Searching for Maida Heatter.

Very, very close.

Maida Heatter was the 1980s version of - well, I guess her closest approximation today would be David Lebovitz. She wrote what seemed to be a million dessert books, all with extremely detailed recipes she made up while she was working in her husband's restaurant in Boca or Palm Beach or some tony place in Florida. But for all her ubiquity at the time, I can't seem to find any of her books at my local libraries today (my own copies are probably buried in one of my myriad storage spaces). This is extremely frustrating, because I really wanted her Pumpkin Date Nut Bread recipe.

I remember first reading it in Maida's Best, Newest Dessert Recipes of All Time (not the title, but it was something like that) and being entranced by the circumstances under which she first found this pumpkin bread: she sampled it at a buffet in California which also featured fresh cracked crab and a string bean salad. Now I ask you, is that a West Coast menu or is that a West Coast menu? Seafood and string beans AND a sweet bread! Weirdly great, as if it were something out of some old '60s issue of Sunset Magazine, that bastion of pounded abalone, luaus and Guys' Galley (I just typed Goys' Galley, which isn't far off). Bleah, but also, yum.

Anyway, every other pumpkin bread recipe I've found recently turns out some awful pallid orangey loaf, and not the dark, spicy, damp thing Maida concocted. So -- I messed around with a couple of recipes I used to make in my catering days, and I came up with this. As with Maida's late lamented loaves, this recipe must be made the day or night before you plan to serve it. It sounds like a bit of work, but is really only measuring and dumping. You can measure, can't you?

Mess around with the amount or type of spices if you want, but please be sure your spices are fresh. And please PLEASE use your own cut up dates and not those horrible hard whitish date nubs they sell at the supermarket. It is very easy to cut up the dates with scissors for this recipe - for example, I did mine while watching my sweet blond Southern gardener boyfriend P. Allen Smith on my Tifaux. It was sort of soothing, actually.

(as close to Maida Heatter’s recipe as I can get)

4 eggs

2 cups brown sugar, packed

½ cup granulated sugar

¼ cup molasses

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons tasteless vegetable oil (I use peanut, but use what you have – anything except olive, of course)

1/3 cup water

1 tablespoon vanilla

1 15 oz. can pumpkin (not pumpkin pie mix)

3-3/4 cups sifted all purpose flour

2 teaspoons soda

¼ teaspoon baking powder

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 teaspoon ground allspice

½ teaspoon ground ginger

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

1-1/2 to 2 cups moist pitted dates (cut up a bunch with scissors, then measure)

1 cup walnuts, lightly toasted and coarsely chopped (optional, but I think it’s better with them)

Note: This must be made the day or night before you plan to serve it. Trust me. If you try to cut it the day you make it, it will crumble into unattractive (if still tasty) gobs. You will only be able to slice it the next day.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray two large loaf pans (at least 5-1/2" by 9-1/2" each) with nonstick cooking spray. I line the bottoms with parchment paper cut to fit (just place the pan on parchment paper, trace around the bottom with a pencil and cut out). Set aside.

In a medium sized bowl, toss together flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and spices. In a large bowl, beat eggs with whisk until just broken up. Whisk in brown sugar, granulated sugar, molasses, oil, water, vanilla and pumpkin, stirring just to mix. Add flour mixture all at once and stir just to combine thoroughly – don’t over-mix (batter will look slightly lumpy). Fold in cut-up dates and walnuts (if used).

Pour batter into prepared pans and level the tops with a spatula, offset or otherwise. Bake for 30 minutes, then using an oven mitt, turn pans back to front. Bake again for 15 minutes; at the end of this time check breads and if they are browning too fast, cover pans loosely with foil. Continue to bake for another 10 to 15 minutes or until a skewer inserted in the center of each loaf comes out mostly clean, with just a few moist crumbs sticking to it, and the top springs back when touched. This is the time my oven takes to bake one 12"x4-1/2" pan and one 5-1/2"x9-1/2" pan -- your baking time may vary, more or less.

Remove pans from oven and cool on a rack for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, turn breads out carefully onto a wire rack, or, if you can’t be bothered with that, onto a cardboard cake board or other serving plate, turning right side up very carefully (cover with another plate or rack and invert). Cool thoroughly; wrap tightly in plastic wrap and allow to mellow at room temperature or in the refrigerator until the next day. Then and only then may you unwrap them and slice them with a serrated knife into perfect, clean slices. Eat plain, or with soft sweet butter or plain cream cheese.

© 2007 Sandy Soto Teich

All rights reserved. No part of this blog may be reproduced anywhere without the author's express permission.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

"Pure, mind-spinning indulgence."*

*Well, that's what Chuck Taggart of the Gumbo Pages once called it.

There comes a time in the life of every professional pastry chef (well, at least the non-obsessive ones) when, after the executive chef has approved the dessert menu and has stopped hocking you already about it being "a true reflection of his/her culinary vision" or some such thing, said pastry chef is left casting about for a viable dessert special - ANY damn special, as long as it tastes good, can be made with whatever is at hand and won't be too taxing for the dinner shift pantry guys to serve (they can get really pissy if they're taxed too much). Oh - and is ridiculously easy to produce by an extremely tired person.

The following recipe is exactly that, and something upon which I relied more than I care to say. It's dead easy, as the Brits say, it requires a minimum of embellishment, and even the crankiest of waiters loved it, would sell it and then fight each other over the scraps. In other words, it was the perfect dessert special: 86'd every damn time!

I came up with this pudding because when I was a child I loved a similar recipe in Mrs. Coverlet's Magicians, and because I loved the bread pudding from the late, lamented Chez Helene in New Orleans. This dessert is their strange love child.

Note: the heavy cream and whipped cream are almost essential as garnishes, although this pudding isn't bad with excellent vanilla ice cream either. If you're going to die from heart failure or a stroke, might as well go all the way. It's also amazing eaten cold straight from the refrigerator. I mean it. It's better than hot from the oven and that's saying a lot.

Chocolate Brandy Bread Pudding

6 cups cubed sweet (not sourdough!) French bread, lightly packed, hard crusts removed (may also use brioche or challah)

9 large eggs

1 to 1-1/2 cups sugar (depending upon how sweet you want it)

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

1 pint (2 cups) half and half , plus possibly up to 1/2 cup more (this is single cream in the UK and Commonwealth)

1 tablespoon excellent quality vanilla extract

1/2 cup good brandy or cognac (I play pretty fast and loose with this)

3 cups plus 3/4 cup chopped excellent quality (Valrhona, Callebaut, Scharffenberger, etc.) semisweet or bittersweet chocolate OR, in a pinch, good-quality chocolate chips

3 tablespoons crystal or sanding sugar (or regular granulated)


Butter (or spray with non-stick cooking spray) a deep 2-quart metal, ceramic or glass baking dish. Set aside.

In a large bowl, beat eggs, sugar and salt until combined; add half and half, vanilla and brandy. Add bread cubes and mix thoroughly. Add 3 cups chocolate (or chips). The bread should sort of float in the custard; if it not, add a bit more half-and-half. Cover with plastic wrap and place in refrigerator to soak for at least 3 hours or preferably overnight.

One half hour before you're ready to bake the pudding, preheat oven to 325°F. Pour mixture into buttered baking dish and bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until starting to puff around the edges and browning a bit. Remove from oven, scatter remaining 3/4 cup chopped chocolate over top and sprinkle with 3 tablespoons sanding or crystal sugar. Return to oven and bake another 15 to 20 minutes or until barely set in the middle and golden brown. Serve warm with heavy pouring cream and/or whipped cream.

This may also be baked in individual ramekins -- just place them on a sheet pan and shorten the baking time accordingly. The baking dish version serves 10 to 12; individual servings will depend on the size of your ramekins.

© 2007 Sandy Soto Teich

All rights reserved. No part of this blog may be reproduced anywhere without the author's express permission.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

To set the tone of this thing...

Yes, this was still a bitch to make.

Another argument I have with serious food people is that they're always talking about how creative cooking is...but [this] also misses the whole point of cooking, which that it is usually totally mindless. What I love about cooking is that after a hard day, there is something comforting about the fact that if you melt butter and add flour and then hot stock, it will get thick! It's a sure thing! It's a sure thing in a world where nothing else is sure; it has a mathematical certainty in a world where most of us who long for some kind of certainty are forced to settle for crossword puzzles."

-- Nora Ephron, Heartburn

When Nora's right, she's right.

I'm a professional pastry chef and food consultant, and I'm tired of food blogs which deify carrot salads and arcane cupcakes, and make you feel guilty if you're not ferreting out some bizarre unknown ingredient and torturing it into something rare and strange. After slogging away in restaurant kitchens for more years than I care to admit (15), I'm ready for the simple -- hell, I was ready then.

Sure - in the professional culinary world there are plenty of lunatics who will sear their hands pulling molten sugar and make desserts with twelve different elements on the plate, but they're really not normal. I'm kidding; artists are artists no matter the medium, and if someone wants to mix tobacco and rosemary and caramel on a dessert plate, who am I to criticize? It's just that this sort of culinary wanking no longer interests me, and, like Nora, these days I am much more in the mood for things that are simple and surefire and don't require a lot of thought.

That's it! Thoughtless food! I think I've just coined a phrase.

Recipes to come shortly.

© 2007 Sandy Soto Teich

All rights reserved. No part of this blog may be reproduced anywhere without the author's express permission.