The Great Cupcake Extravaganza, part Wedding

26 08 2010

When we last left off, I was pondering the potential difficulties of baking nine dozen wedding cupcakes in a borrowed home kitchen in August.

Lemon and strawberry filled cupcakes, before icing.

It got more complicated before the job was done.  Instead of a kitchen 10 minutes’ walk from my hotel, I was booked in a different home kitchen, 15 minutes’ drive across town.  So I had to rely on family and friends of the happy couple to get me to and from my workspace.

Piping away

And then the caterer wanted the cupcakes early, to have them set up at the beginning of the reception.  This caused a small amount of stress when I didn’t know the weather forecast, but Mother Nature smiled on us and gave us a lovely day in the mid-70s – cool enough that I didn’t have to worry about the buttercream melting in the sun.

still piping...

While I did remember to pack my silicone molds for the fillings, and to bring over French cocoa powder and Turkish hazelnuts, somehow I forgot to bring along a piping bag and my trusty star tip.  Fortunately, one of the guests was able to bring in a set of tips from Boston; unfortunately, they were a bit too small for what I had in mind.  I am blessed with a very resourceful husband who managed to doctor one of the tips to make it closer to the one I had left behind.  Another crisis averted!

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The Great Cupcake Extravaganza, Part Financier

20 06 2010

Fortunately, it turns out that the easiest cake in the French repertoire is also one of the tastiest.  I mean it.  In terms of the effort-to-reward ratio, this is absolutely one of the best recipes I know.  We make a version of this at work, for use as the base of a more complicated entremet, and had I known before just how little effort this involved, I would have started making it at home a long time ago.

Sifting the powdered sugar and cocoa powder

Financier is a classic French bakery treat, traditionally baked in little rectangular molds that are supposed to represent bars of gold.  The name means “banker,” which is either a reference to said shape, or the supposedly expensive ingredients that go into it.  I’m more inclined to believe the former explanation, because when have egg whites ever been considered a luxury item?  Usually it is made with almond meal, brown butter, powdered sugar, and the aforementioned egg whites.  This one has cocoa powder sifted in with the sugar, and since I really like the robust flavor of hazelnuts with chocolate, I switched out the almond meal for hazelnut.  Besides, I love the symmetry of using noisettes (hazelnuts) with beurre noisette (brown butter).  It just makes sense.

Just until foamy

The main reason I had to test this recipe was to see if it would work in cupcake form.  The one we do at work is baked in a thin sheet, so I didn’t know if it would puff up into an attractive cupcake shape or if it would bake through before the top burned.  One test confirmed that it worked beautifully.

a rainbow of cupcake liners

If you read my other blog, you’ve already seen the results of this first test.  I also tested them for next-day-edibilty (still bangin’), and even a more traditional version, with almond meal and a bit of fresh fruit (in this case, cherries) baked in.  Those, in fact, I whipped up at midnight on a Saturday, after a long day of exploring Paris by foot with some friends.  We all enjoyed our dessert, and my friends still caught the last Métro home.  If that’s not quick and easy, I don’t know what is.

cherry-almond financiers

What I’ve learned from all of this testing (apart from the fact that they disappear as quickly as they bake) is that as long as you repect the 1:1:1:1 ratio of butter, egg whites, nut meal, and powdered sugar, with 10% of one part  (by weight, bien sûr) something dry like cocoa powder or cake flour, this cake is almost infinitely adaptable.  So try this one.  Make it suit your tastes or your mood.  I guarantee you’ll want to make them again and again.

Chocolate-Hazelnut Financier Cupcakes

When I realized how easy this classic French cake was to make, I couldn’t help but tinker with the recipe a bit to see if it would work as a cupcake.  And as long as we’re changing things, why not switch out the almond meal for hazelnut?  If you can’t find hazelnut meal, grind the same weight of nuts with the powdered sugar in a food processor. And if you want to go cocoa-less, substitute 20 grams of cake flour for the cocoa powder.

200 g / 7 oz. powdered sugar
20 g / ¾ oz. cocoa powder
200 g / 7 oz. hazelnut meal (Or any other nut meal.  Peanut would probably be awesome.)
200 g / 7 oz. egg whites
200 g / 7 oz. butter, browned with ¼ of a vanilla bean (vanilla bean optional, but worth it)
Pinch of sea salt

  1. Preheat oven to 200 C / 395 F.  Grease a muffin tin or line it with paper liners.
  2. Sift the powdered sugar and the cocoa powder together.  Whisk in the hazelnut meal.
  3. In another bowl, whisk the egg whites with the salt just until frothy.  Whisk in the sifted sugar, then the browned butter.
  4. Fill the prepared muffin cups about ¾ full.  Bake 25-30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with just a few crumbs clinging to it.
  5. Cool about 10 minutes, then remove from the baking pan.  Continue cooling, or devour the cupcakes warm.  They will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for 2-3 days, but they’ve never lasted that long in my house.

Makes 10 cupcakes.

On this day in 2008: Apricots and Ginger and Butter, Oh My!

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

The Great Cupcake Extravaganza, Part Banana

15 06 2010

Or, “Goldilocks” and the Three Banana Cakes

In addition to Battling the Big Bad Internet Provider, I’ve been keeping myself busy lately with cupcakes.  I know, I know, cupcakes are SO 2005.  All the same, some dear friends of mine have asked me to bake the cake for their wedding this summer, and given that I will be working in a home kitchen, a lavish, multi-tiered, fondant-covered showpiece isn’t really in the cards.  Besides, these friends care much more about how their cake tastes than how it looks (which is one of many reasons we’re friends).  I sent them a list of about ten flavor combinations, which I asked them to whittle down to six or so for a tasting.  After much debate (so I’m told), they sent me their final choices, and I got to work testing recipes.

Mise en place for banana cake

First up, banana cake.  I started with this one because while I have a number of great recipes for banana bread, I didn’t necessarily have one in my repertoire for banana cake.  I found three different recipes I wanted to try, which used three very different methods.  I was geekily excited to see how varying the mixing method would change the final product, especially when the ingredient lists were remarkably similar.

I chose the simplest of the recipes to get going, because it was Saturday morning and banana cake sounded like an excellent breakfast.  Also because if it worked, then yay!  The recipe had serendipitously fallen into my Google Reader a few days prior, and I was seduced by its promise of speed and deliciousness.  My only reservation was that seeing as this cake employed the Muffin Method, I feared it would be more muffin than cake, especially when baked in cupcake form.

Banana "cake?"

And they were.  Moist, tender, and a scrumptious breakfast, but not what I was looking for.  Too Heavy.

So Goldilocks (or Brunettelocks, as the case may be) moved on to the next recipe…

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A Sourdough Attempt, and Why I Cook

23 02 2010

Michael Ruhlman recently posed the question, “Why do you cook?”  I believe I touched on a bit of the answer in my post about his rolls, and I definitely remember having to write an essay in the topic towards the end of my tenure as a culinary student.  I’d like to go back and read that now, seven years later – I’d be interested to see how my answers have changed, and in what ways they remain the same.

Why do I cook?  Well, that’s actually a complicated question, as cooking is both my job and my hobby.  But it was a hobby first, one I developed a passion for to the point of making it my career.  I guess the most interesting question, to me anyway, is “Why do I still cook at home when I do it all day at work?”

I know plenty of chefs, cooks, and bakers who don’t do any cooking at home, which is perfectly understandable.  Me, I come home and cook because it relaxes me, believe it or not.  After a day filled with deadlines and production goals, it’s nice to come home and cook what I want to cook, not what the schedule or the orders or the inventory say I need to cook.  I like being able to make all the decisions, and making last-minute changes when the mood strikes.  I cook because it’s relaxing and fun.

Another thing I enjoy about cooking, that I don’t always get to enjoy at work, is the creativity.  Being able to cook at home keeps those creative muscles in shape.  From coming up with dinner every night, to the challenges posed by the CSA grab-bag, to the wacky ideas that I simply must give shape because they won’t leave me alone, cooking at home prevents me from getting bored with food.  I cook to stretch my imagination.

In any given cooking job, there are always tasks you do more often, and ones you don’t do at all, and these change from job to job.  When I cook at home, I practice those techniques that I am not using at work, because you never know when you’re going to need to butcher a chicken, bake bread, or chiffonnade some basil in a future job.  I cook to hone my skills.

Finally, I love to eat, and I love to eat well.  I certainly can’t afford to dine out every night, and cooking at home is a much cheaper option.  (The downside to this is that after a certain price point, I get irritated if the food is nothing better than I could cook myself.)  I also like knowing where my food came from and what’s in it, and I feel good serving lovingly made food to my family and friends.  I cook because I care what goes into my body.

All of which ties in nicely with my attempt to bake sourdough bread last weekend.  I got it in my head Saturday night that Sunday would be a good day for bread baking.  I asked Nick what kind of bread he wanted (“You can have ANYTHING you want!”) and he asked for sourdough.  My starter was healthy, so I fed it to bulk it up and while it waited on the counter, I looked into some recipes.

I ended up winging it, using Ruhlman’s ratio (5: 3 flour to water), assuming that my starter was 1:1.  I didn’t use any commercial yeast, only the starter, and it didn’t take nearly as long as I thought it would.  (Must finally be getting warmer out!)  But here’s the thing: I had no idea if this recipe I had slapped together would work the way I wanted it to, but I did it anyway.  I paid close attention to the development of the dough – I didn’t let it get too excited because I wanted a fairly dense crumb, something good for sandwiches.  And you know what?  It worked.  It didn’t taste very sour, but the texture was just what I was looking for.  In fact, it tastes a lot like French pain au levain, which I guess it technically is.

fresh-baked bread

But there you have it: I experimented, I learned something, and I was rewarded with tasty homemade bread.  Plus the immense sense of satisfaction I get from turning ingredients as simple as flour, water, yeast, and salt into something as wonderful as a loaf of bread.

On this day in 2009: When in Alsace…

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

Belated Birthday

19 02 2010

Yesterday, this blog turned two.  Time sure flies when you’re having fun.  It would appear that I have also just passed the 300 post mark, which, wow.  who knew I was so prolific?  (Granted, in Croque-Camille’s first six months I posted five times a week, so I’m sure that helped.)

Like I did last year, I want to celebrate with a rundown of favorite posts, month-by-month.  It’s fun to go back through the archives now and again, because there’s always something I’d completely forgotten about!  So without further ado…

February 2009: Well, it was Alsace month, so I baked flammekueche and went to Strasbourg, but the meal down the street at Astier was probably the highlight of the month.

March 2009: Ah, Savoie month, with its potatoes and cheese.  And more cheese.  A light, lemony dessert was just what the doctor ordered for Nick’s birthday.  (If you click that link, be sure to go to the next post when you’re done.  It’s Enchiladas Robuchon!)

April 2009: Exploring the regional cuisine of Brittany (Bretagne, en français) yielded many fun finds, including a very interesting and delicious buckwheat soup, but my favorite post of the month is the one where I fail and then succeed in making cauliflower into a main dish.

May 2009: Un peu de dépaysage.  I wrote about Basque cuisine and my trip to London.  And fell in love with Fergus Henderson.

June 2009: Posts were sparse, because I was on vacation in the States, but I did manage to write my most popular post ever – Cheesy Poofs Kick Ass.  (If you haven’t already read it, do.)  The highlight of the month for me, though, was cooking a fabulous meal for my dad for Father’s Day.

July 2009: We spent a weekend in Rouen for Normandy month, and discovered the delights of Norman cheese and cider.  I also battled the WiiFit and my jeans after excessive vacation eating.  (And sitting!  Nobody walks anywhere in the USA!)  This key lime tart didn’t help, but it sure was good.

August 2009: The month of Provence (boules!  bouillabaisse!) and baking with tea.

September 2009: We ate some delectable Corsican charcuterie, cheese, and honey.  I also caught pork fever, which resulted in homemade breakfast sausage as well as xiaolongbao.

October 2009: Celebrated Burgundy month with a trip to Dijon, a beautiful city filled with delicious food and wine.  It turns out they even make tasty beer in Burgundy!

November 2009: Thanksgiving may have been overshadowed by Languedoc month, my homemade duck confit, and the resulting cassoulet.

December 2009: Perigord month was a gutbomb.  Mouthwatering, but a gutbomb.  (Still, I’m not sure I ever want to do Christmas without a whole lobe of foie gras again.)  I also got started on a pickling kick, one of the results of which was an awesome (if I do say so myself, and I do) loaf of jalapeño-cheese bread.

January 2010: Trying to get back into simpler cooking.  And I started a new series, Around Paris, thanks to which I discovered a wonderful Korean restaurant in Paris.

And that’s the year in clips!  I hope you had as much fun with it as I did.  I have one more treat for Croque-Camille’s second birthday – This Day in History.  From now on, providing there is one, I will post a link to a previous year’s post that fell on the same date as the current post.  (Wow, that was a lot harder to explain than I anticipated.)  So…

On This Day in 2008: Cuban Stuff is Legal Here (my first full-length post!)

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

Put the Lime in the Coconut…

29 07 2009

Reservoir Dogs Pie

This dessert started life as a mock key lime tart.  “Mock” because have you ever tried to find key limes in France?  And then juice them?  So I was using juice from regular limes (with a splash of lemon juice, as suggested by Jenni, who is to be blamed- or thanked – for my key lime craving).  I also hadn’t really planned on writing about it, until inspiration struck while I was at work doing something completely unrelated and the ungarnished tart was sitting helplessly at home in the fridge.

“COCONUT!!!” The dessert center of my brain screamed.  Put the lime in the coconut!  And then that songwas stuck in my head for the rest of the day.  I’d already decided to go with a meringue topping, as Jenni suggested, because I was dubious as to the quantity and age of the cream I had on hand.  And toasted meringue makes me happy.

Coconut-key lime pie, pre-toast

Topping it off with a sprinkling of unsweetened coconut sounded like the right thing to do.  And as you can see, the tart turned out to be very photogenic.  (Delicious, too, obviously.)  The pictures came out so well, in fact, that no sooner had I posted them to my Flickr photostream than I received a threatening email demanding that I post the recipe at once.

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The Long-Awaited French Fruit Tart Recipe…

4 05 2009

…can be found today over at Andrea’s delicious blog, Cooking Books.  It combines recipes from Chocolate & Zucchini and Desserts by Pierre Hermé, plus a little of my own know-how.  Here’s a taste:

Crisp, buttery crust, creamy filling, and sweet fresh fruits - the perfect dessert!

For the full details, head on over to read my guest post!

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

Brownies Are So Hot Right Now

10 02 2009

I know that the combination of chocolate and chili is old news.  (Hey, they were doing it in Mexico before the Europeans came along and insisted it be sweetened.)  But that doesn’t stop these from being some of the most seductive brownies I’ve ever made.  It was Super Bowl Sunday and I needed something Mexican to bring to the party we were attending.  Nick was busy stewing beef and making corn tortillas (!!!), and I perused the cupboards, looking for some inspiration.  I had quite a bit of chocolate, and four kinds of chili powder, and chocolate-chili brownies were starting to sound pretty good.

With a little help from Dorie Greenspan, Mark Bittman, and David Lebovitz, I figured out the basic proportions I wanted to use and went from there.  For the chili powder, I used half guajillo and half chile de arbol, which I thought would give a nice, mellow heat with distinctive chili flavor.  Once the brownies were baked and cooled, it was time for the taste test.  (You don’t think I’d serve something I hadn’t tasted, do you?)  The first bite was soft and deliciously chocolaty.  I was worried that I hadn’t put in enough chili powder, but then the spice stole up from behind a grain of salt, and I knew I had hit just the right balance.

In other chocolate-related news, I have finally found an artisan chocolate producer in France!  I’m talking small operation, with lots of single origin chocolate bars to choose from.

Single-origin chocolate bars, produced in Le Mans, France

Chocolaterie Béline is located in Le Mans, in the Loire Valley.  I found their stand at a salon a few months ago, and was excited about the high cacao percentages and single-origin bars.  Luckily, I was not disappointed.  The chocolate is smooth, with deep, nuanced chocolate flavor.  I hope to see them at a future salon, but in the meantime, I can order bars online when I run out.

Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about the brownie recipe!  Click through and do try this one at home.

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Fennel Focaccia

29 09 2008

It kind of looks like an onion, with celery growing out the top, and dill instead of leaves.

I must admit, I was pretty excited when I saw the ingredients for this month’s Foodie Joust: Fennel, Dairy, and Parsley.  I’ve never been a fan of licorice or anise-flavored anything, but sometime over the last couple of years I fell in love with fresh fennel.  The anise-y-ness is mild enough to be tolerable, and it evolves into a subtle sweetness when the fennel is cooked.  So I immediately jotted down four or five recipe ideas – some old favorites, some new inventions – and ran them by Nick.  He wanted to try the focaccia with caramelized fennel, parsley, and goat cheese, so I started working on a focaccia recipe.

Dimpled focaccia dough

I have a little bit of starter going in my fridge for bread-baking purposes, and I thought it would give my focaccia the character that so many recipes seem to lack.  I have also determined that the potato in focaccia dough is by no means optional.  It gives the finished bread an unmistakable texture and helps to keep it moist, too.  And it turns out that focaccia is pretty fun to make.  Sure, it takes a while, but you can use all that rising time to prep your toppings, cook dinner, answer emails, do a little online shopping… or whatever it is you like to do in idle moments at home.


For this recipe, I essentially braised the fennel:  I sliced it thin, browned it in olive oil, then threw in some white wine and tarragon vinegar and let it cook down until the liquid was gone and the fennel was tender.  I figured the caramelization process could finish in the oven.  As for the parsley, I chopped it up with the fronds from the fennel andmade a sort of paste with a little olive oil.  And the cheese?  Well, I picked up an awesome little fresh raw-milk chèvre at the market.  It had a much fuller and more distinctly goat-y flavor than your average fresh goat cheese, and it stood up well to the bold flavors imparted by the fennel and the parsley.

So head on over to the Leftover Queen’s forum and vote for me!  (The voting should start on Thursday, October 2nd, and ends on the 5th.)  Keep reading for the recipe…

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Baked Chocolate Mousse

21 08 2008

Or, as the rest of the world calls it, warm flourless chocolate soufflé cake (using some, but not all, of those adjectives).  David Lebovitz wrote a post a short while back about what do do with some of the god-awful Xocopili balls from Valrhona.  He ended up using them in some little chocolate cakesthat looked mighty tasty.  I decided to make my own, without the disgusting pre-spiced chocolate.  I am generally opposed to the combination of chocolate and cinnamon – one too many bad experiences with oversweetened artificially flavored Mexican chocolates perhaps.  So for my cakes I used a combination of regular bittersweet 64% and the ends of a couple of Valrhona plantation bars.  Following Lebovitz’ recipe, I melted the chocolates with some butter, then whisked in sugar and egg yolks, followed by vanilla, but no spices.  Then I made a meringue with the egg whites and a bit more sugar.  By hand.

This is one of my favorite food pictures on this blog.

I folded the meringue by thirds into the chocolate mixture and stopped folding as soon as the streaks had disappeared.  Just like making mousse, without the whipped cream.

Lightening the batter

Then I portioned the batter into buttered and sugared ramekins.  Halfway through, I remembered that I’m a sucker for the melting center, so I put a couple of squares of Bonnat Hacienda El Rosario Venezuela in the center of each one, like this.  The little mousses puffed up beautifully in the oven, like the soufflés they were trying so hard to become.

Baked mousse = soufflé

I gave them a few minutes to cool, then inverted them onto plates and introduced them to some macerated strawberries.  They were fast friends.

Warm Chocolate Cake with Strawberries

Which is good, because they weren’t long for this world after that.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.


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