Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Daring Bakers Challenge: Filbert Gateau with Praline Buttercream

In A Lather Over Layers

I first read about the daring bakers on the blog of my favorite baker and cookbook author, Dorie Greenspan.

A little digging led me to the daring bakers blogroll and its amazing members. I contacted one of the co-founders to see if I could join their growing ranks.

Started by Lis of La Mia Cucina and Ivonne of Cream Puffs in Venice, in 2006, the daring bakers blogroll has since grown to more than 1000 bakers worldwide. Click here to read a recent interview about them and the daring bakers.

Each month, members of the daring bakers community all bake the month's baking challenge. Designated hosts pick challenges each month. The host issues the challenge and gives any additional rules to the challenge. There is assistance for all the bakers on the daring bakers website. I posted several questions during July's challenge and always received a prompt reply from one of the many bakers.

All the bakers taking the challenge post on the same day at the end of the month.

I call Saturdays at my house -- Test Kitchen Saturday -- because I enjoy the challenge of a new baking project so joining the daring bakers seemed right up my alley -- I especially like their tagline: "We Knead to Bake!".

I waited until July to join the daring bakers so that my calendar would be relatively free for my baking experiments. I nervously waited for the challenge to be posted.

The host for July is Mele Cottee and the challenge was Filbert Gateau with Praline Buttercream from "Great Cakes" by Carole Walter.

I wasn't exactly thrilled that my first challenge was a layer cake -- one of the weakest areas of my baking skills. So this would certainly be a challenge for me.

The cake also called for filberts -- or hazelnuts, as I call them, which is one of my least favorite ingredients. I mean really, how many of you actually get the skins to come off after baking them and rubbing them in a kitchen towel?? I remember throwing away a great salad recipe that called for hazelnuts after making it for a dinner party almost drove me nuts!

But again, this was a CHALLENGE.

This recipe had numerous steps so I knew I better give myself several days to complete the challenge.

I wanted to get a copy of the book even though the host had posted the ingredients and instructions online. My local bookstore didn't have a copy so I biked down to the used bookstore. They had a copy and I was in business.

My next trip was to Sur La Table where I purchased the required pan, cardboard cake round, pastry bag and tips.

I was excited to get started.

The base recipe is a Filbert Genoise. So besides those pesky hazelnuts, there was also butter to be clarified. The Filbert Gateau with Praline Buttercream also included four additional steps in addition to baking the cake:
A sugar syrup
An apricot glaze
A praline buttercream, which also included an additional step of preparing a praline paste
A ganache glaze

All but the praline buttercream and the ganache glaze could be prepared a day ahead. My plan was to shop for the ingredients, bake the cake and prepare the praline paste, sugar syrup, apricot glaze all in the same day. The next day I would assemble the cake.

Skinning the hazelnuts was just as difficult as I remembered. I surfed the internet and scanned my large collection of cookbooks for newer ways to skin hazelnuts but most of the sources agreed that the toast and rub them method was the most successful.

My finished cake was beautiful but I was alarmed that it was only about three inches tall. I posted an inquiry on the daring bakers site asking if this size was correct. I noticed that others had posted the same inquiry so I breathed a bit easier. The responses back reassured me that my cake was the correct height. I couldn't see how this short cake was going to be divided into three layers!

The next day I once again turned to the internet and my cookbook library for the best way to divide a cake into layers. The author of the recipe actually had the best-written instructions and diagrams. I dutifully marked off my first layer by inserting toothpicks into the sides at 12, 3, 6 and 9 o'clock. Because of the hazelnuts, the cake wasn't soft and spongy but instead had a strong framework. I hoped this would give me a better chance at successfully dividing the cake.

I gingerly picked up my long serrated knife and started sawing. And sawing. And sawing. This was one tough cake.

As I lifted the first layer off with what I though was the flush of success, I was shocked to see that there was a hole in the bottom of my cake!

I emailed Lis of La Mia Cucina to see if I was the only failure in the history of the challenges. "Of course not," she assured me. "And as proof, I will email you a photo of my finished cake"! Lis is a very gracious person!

So, where did I go wrong? I think that although my serrated knife was long enough to go through the cake, it still wasn't long enough. A longer knife would have given me a bit more leverage in dividing the layers.

Despite failing the challenge, I enjoyed the prep work and interacting with the other bakers. I'm also pleased to add "Great Cakes" to my baking shelf.

So, onward to the next challenge!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Tempering Chocolate: The Buckeye Experiment

Tampering with Tempering

Somehow the words "working" and "chocolate" don't seem to belong in the same sentence but in June I did just that -- attended a "working with chocolate" seminar taught by Anni Golding, owner of Gateau et Ganache -- an online chocolate boutique that offers a variety of handmade truffles, bonbons and marshmallows.

Also, Draegers, a gourmet grocery store chain located in the S.F. Bay Area just started carrying her handmade marshmallows at its San Mateo location -- go Anni!

The workshop was held at the Gamble House in Palo Alto, CA. There were about 12 of us crammed into the small kitchen of this beautiful mansion. Have you ever noticed when you tour old mansions how the kitchens are often tiny compared to the living quarters? Why is it the servants were expected to turn out dinner after dinner in such a small working spaces?

But I digress.

Our task today would be to learn how to temper chocolate.

But first, we were treated to quick tutorial on the history of chocolate and much to my delight, a chocolate tasting.

I never knew how complicated chocolate could be or just how little I knew.

These days chocolate is often talked about with terms that I've typically heard used to describe wine or coffee -- words like terrior, single origin, and organic.

And chocolate tastings are a trendy and fun way to end a dinner party -- especially if you pair it with fine port.

I was particularly interested to learn more about the percentage numbers that are becoming more common on U.S. produced chocolate. Most of the recipes I have encountered simply specify "fine-quality chocolate" which isn't much guidance.

Anni explained that the percentages on the bar of chocolate referred to how much chocolate in that bar comes from the cocoa bean as chocolate liquor (the ground nib of the cacao bean) and added cocoa butter. The rest is mainly sugar. So the higher the percentage the more chocolate there is in the product.

My own personal rule is the same rule I have for cooking with wine, never cook with chocolate you wouldn't deem suitable for eating.

But back to tempering chocolate.

We divided up into partners, donned our aprons and gave Anni our complete attention. In front of us were our tools for the day: instant-read thermometer, rubber spatula, parchment paper, 1-2 lbs of chocolate, knife and cutting board, small and medium microwave-safe containers.

What does it mean to temper chocolate? The tempering of chocolate is all about the fat crystals in chocolate. The tempering process consists of three steps: heat the chocolate to melt all of its fat crystals, cool it to form a new set of crystals and then heat it again to melt the unstable crystals so only the stable crystals remain.

Why learn how to temper chocolate? After all, purchased chocolate is already tempered, that's why it is shiny and has a nice snap when you break it. But chocolate loses its temper (so to speak) when it is melted (as do I).

That is fine if you are using the chocolate in a cake or as a filling. Certainly you can melt chocolate and use it to dip fruit or as a coating for cookies. The end result will taste fine but the finish will look dull and the coating will be soft instead of snappy.

But if you want a shiny finish with a nice snap to it when eaten, you need to temper the chocolate. Tempered chocolate can be used to make chocolate "bowls" to fill with fruit and cream, or to dip fruit. The fancy "chocolate box cakes" that you see in many bakeries are made using tempered chocolate. Tempered chocolate can even be painted on to leaves, allowed to harden then gently peeled off. These chocolate leaves can be the finishing touch on top of a cake to give it that professional look.

If appearance matters, and doesn't it always, then the chocolate must be tempered.

There are several methods for tempering chocolate but the method Anni likes best is the Seed Method (see "On Food and Cooking" by Harold McGee for a more in-depth look at tempering chocolate and the various methods).

The web site also does an excellent job of taking you through the steps needed to temper chocolate.

What did I learn? Well, tempering chocolate takes the cook's ENTIRE attention. Since you are constantly checking the temperature of your chocolate -- you must pay attention. So don't multitask while you are tempering chocolate. Anni uses a Raytek laser thermometer, which is fast and accurate and very Star Trek-like. I want one for Christmas.

I also learned that MOISTURE MATTERS. Even the smallest bit of water can make the chocolate seize up which is a graphic way to say that all that lovely chocolate is ruined. So if you are dipping strawberries, make certain the berries are completely dry.

Back at home I decided to try Anni's method on an old family recipe: Buckeyes. Buckeyes are peanut butter balls dipped in chocolate with just a small portion of the peanut butter left so that they resemble a buckeye nut from the buckeye tree. It is a very mid-western treat. Since I enjoy combining gourmet skills with down-home skills, I decided to temper the chocolate used to dip the peanut butter balls into. Typically, semi-sweet chocolate chips are melted with paraffin to create the coating for the buckeye.

I would like to tell you that I was successful but after checking the temperature of that chocolate obsessively like I do with a sick child, my chocolate ended up dull, not shiny and was definitely snap-free.

What happened? According to Anni, the most likely reason for my chocolate failure was that the peanut butter balls were too cold when they were dipped. "That would cause the temperature in your bowl of chocolate to drop faster than if you're dipping room-temperature items".

So, here is the original buckeye recipe. Many versions of this recipe can be found on the internet.

This recipe is from my mother
(see ringalings)

If you want to temper the chocolate just remember not to refrigerate those peanut butter balls.


1 pound butter

3 pounds powdered sugar

2 pounds peanut butter (not natural)

24 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips

1/2 block paraffin

Combine butter, sugar and peanut butter in a large bowl. Chill the dough for 30 minutes. Roll into 3/4 inch balls. Pierce with a toothpick and submerge into melted chocolate. Place on waxed paper on a cookie sheet. Store in refrigerator. Makes about four dozen.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Jessica Gilmartin, Founder of Fraiche Yogurt

Yogurt Evangelist of Emerson Street

Jessica Gilmartin wants to convert you. She wants to convert you from your obsession with frozen yogurts that are more of a dessert than a healthy snack. And she wants you to know the joys of both fresh yogurt as well as frozen yogurt.

And the converts are lining up -- often out the door and around the block since Gilmartin, along with her business partner, Patama Roj, launched Fraiche Yogurt in Palo Alto, CA in June 2007.

A typical day finds Gilmartin in her colorful and hip orange and white shop. Today she is ripping blue tape off the floor that a well-meaning employee thought would help customers queue in a more efficient manner.

She notices everything even though she is talking one-on-one with a customer: She corrects a staff member when he tells a customer they are out of fresh pineapple topping. She notices that someone left the store without buying anything and you feel like she just might run after them to find out why. Customers want a minute with her to give her a compliment. Parents of her young staff want to tell her how glad they are that their kid is working there. She greets most customers by name. You aren't surprised when she says that, "community is everything to me."

How did the thirtyish Wharton School of Business graduate find herself co-owner of not just a yogurt shop but also poised at the beginning of a market that is just getting ready to explode with competition?

Gilmartin spent the last ten years helping large corporations with their business restructuring efforts. When the New York native relocated to California, she decided to launch her own company. But she had two criteria that had to be met: she wanted to sell a healthy product that she was passionate about and she wanted to be in business with her fellow graduate and good friend, Roj.

While brainstorming business ideas, the two entrepreneurs realized that they were both crazy for the tangy yogurt they had experienced in their European travels.

"Most yogurt shops offer frozen yogurt that is, in my opinion, junk food," says Gilmartin. "That type of yogurt is usually a powdered mix blended with milk that contain none of the healthy live cultures that make yogurt such a healthy snack option. And we didn't find any shops that offered both fresh as well as frozen yogurts.

"We realized that there were very few healthy, delicious food options to enjoy on-the-go. We wanted to open a yogurt shop that had a cafe feel to it that health conscious people could enjoy."

In a first for a yogurt shop, the owners of Fraiche make and pasteurize their yogurt on-site with the help of a 50-gallon custom-fabricated steel tank that they imported from Italy.

Gilmartin's business savvy also helped her pick the location of her cafe. Fraiche is located near many startup companies including Facebook. And Steve Jobs and other Silicon Valley elite have been spotted in her shop.

When Gilmartin is asked about franchising Fraiche Yogurt, the high-energy field that seems to emanate from her subsides and she gets very calm and careful in her answer.

"Our heart and soul are in this shop and this community," sys Gilmartin. "Yet we have both made big financial commitments to this venture. So while we do want to expand from a profit standpoint, we want to make certain we don't lose our unique vision and our sense of community."

Sounds like an evangelist preaching to her choir.

According to the July 23, 2008 edition of the Palo Alto Weekly, Gilmartin and Roj are opening a new store in San Mateo, CA. Stayed tuned for opening date.
Go Fraiche (or don't go at all)!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Baking Croissants with Jim Dodge

I recently sweated through a croissants class taught by pastry chef Jim Dodge at the Tante Marie cooking school in San Francisco.

Actually, the class was taught at Tante Marie's other teaching site -- owner Mary Risley's home. Mary was in China so I was sorry not to see her. I was especially sorry not to see Mario the orange cat whom I had been honored to name when I attended another class at Mary's house. Mario the cat was named after chef and carrot-top, Mario Batali. Rumor has it that Mario has moved on to other adventures (the cat, that is).

Anyway, I say sweated because this was hard work. Plus, San Francisco was experiencing a rare heat wave that made working the dough an adventure since the dough consists of butter, butter and more butter.

The class started at 10 and my partner and I mixed and folded croissant dough until 4 pm with only a quick break of 30 minutes or so to mix and bake brioche dough. So, about five hours to prepare those delectable bits of dough. I now have a new respect for bakers of croissants and now think the price of a croissant is extremely reasonable given the work involved!

I suffered through this class because I am a bit of a croissant addict. In the interest of science, I consider it my duty to test every croissant I come across. I have now compared the typical American croissant with croissants from Argentina (called medialunas), Italy, Spain and, of course, France.

My favorite so far are the medialunas from Argentina. They are smaller than your average croissant and are slightly sweet. You are generally treated to a plate stacked with six or seven croissants at breakfast. All the cafes we visited were set up with what looked like a convection oven busily at work baking these small delights.

Sadly, I have been unable to find a recipe for medialunas. I emailed a friend of mine who lives in Buenos Aires and she said that no one bakes them; they buy them at the corner bakery. She gave me a recommendation for a bakery in San Francisco to try. I will report back on that later.

Jim Dodge is best known as the long-time pastry chef at the historic Stanford Court Hotel in San Francisco. I have read that he was a favorite of M.F.K. Fischer. He has written two baking books: "Baking with Jim Dodge" and "The American Baker". He is now serving as director of culinary programs for Bon Appetit Management Company -- famous for their food offerings at such highflying companies as Google and DreamWorks.

But why did he leave the pastry world for management?? Baker's Lung. As we worked on our croissants, Jim sniffed and dabbed at his dripping nose. Yes, this pastry legend developed an allergy to flour! He recommended wearing a mask if we intended to make pastry/baking our career.

Jim is an excellent teacher and brimmed with good ideas that even the more experienced among us scribbled down in their notebooks. But he also has firm ideas and I could easily visualize him holding court and taking his assistants to task for their baking errors. He also doesn't hold back on what products to buy and from where.

We left the class not only with a bag of baked butter croissants (the chocolate croissants were consumed immediately out of the oven), but also with a bag of dough to bake at home.

I live about 30 minutes from S.F. so I put my dough on the floor of my car and blasted the air conditioner so my dough would survive the hot car ride home. I'm happy to report that I successfully shaped and baked the dough the next morning much to the delight of my happy family.

Baking Tips from Jim Dodge:
•Use a rolling pin without handles so it is weighted correctly
•Quarter sheet pans for the dough make it easy to roll into a rectangle

•Use sea salt
•Unbleached flour only -- do not use bread flour or bleached flour of any kind
•Buy European butter -- Pulgra is his favorite. American butter has too much water in it.
•Butter for croissants must be brick hard
•Ok to use instant yeast

•Only flour the dough, not your rolling pin
•Be obsessive about brushing flour off the dough. Excess flour will prevent the dough from fusing with the butter and that is what makes a great croissant.
•When rolling the dough, make sure you even out the dough because your dominant hand will make that side of the dough thinner.
•Roll the dough from the middle then to the edge then back and forth. Creates an even dough
•Make certain you roll out all the butter pellets because they can tear your dough
•Each time you roll the dough, pick it up and set it down again so that it reveals its true shape
•Every corner must be lined up
•When brushing on the egg glaze, make sure you scrape off excess glaze from your brush. Otherwise the glaze can roll down the croissant and form pools of egg that can burn

And never ever bake or eat the croissants that you can buy in your grocer's dairy case!