Saturday, May 31, 2008

Easy as - strawberry rhubarb

Contrary to what you might see represented on my blog as of late, I am not a big fan of cakes. There are a few cakes I LOVE and for which I will go out of my way, but on the whole I prefer fruit pies. This is no doubt due to the fact that my family - Mom and her 4 sisters to be exact - love to make pies and are EXCELLENT at it. There is a homemade pie on the dessert table at every family get together. And by homemade pie, I mean a store-bought crust has never seen the inside of any family member's home. Apple, peach, apricot, black bottom, custard, fresh strawberry, pumpkin, pecan, banana cream, lemon meringue, blackberry, pumpkin-chiffon, strawberry-rhubarb... Heck, the story my father tells about his first experience meeting my mom's family even has to do with pie:

Dad has very recently been introduced to Mom's sisters, Betty and Fran
Scene: Betty's Kitchen

Fran: [forks and tastes her first bite of Betty's homemade apple pie. Pauses; continues chewing; pauses again]
"Betty - this is the WORST pie I've ever eaten."

Dad was completely floored at the blatant honesty and sat back to wait for fireworks - bracing himself for a fight, argument, raised voices in defense...

Betty: [waving a dismissive hand]
"Oh I know - I shouldn't have even served it."

And Dad, shockingly relieved, lived to tell the story...

My absolute favorite pie is a strawberry-rhubarb which I believe originated (in my immediate family) from my Dad's mother - that's right we get it on both sides! I've been wanting to make my first strawberry-rhubarb pie of 2008 ever since I saw those bright red stalks of rhubarb appear in my local grocery store sometime in the last few weeks.

Cutting shortening into flour & salt; Such simple ingredients make something so wonderful!

We have a barbecue at a friend's place tonight and I volunteered to bring a dessert. I started rolling out the dough and realized that I would most definitely have extra - now, I don't feel bad throwing out extra dough, but what I can't throw out is extra strawberries and rhubarb already cut and mixed with sugar and flour for the filling. Fortunately I bought those little tart pans last week. Made for a perfect sampling to "make sure it tasted okay" before taking to the BBQ! ;)

I get bored of doing the same plain top crust with each pie I make so I decided to try something new after seeing a similar style on an episode of Martha Stewart months back. It took a while but was really a lot of fun and almost felt like a craft project!

Cut little fluted rounds and "glued" to the top with egg wash

It was fantastic! The familiar flavors of my absolute favorite pie that I've been eating as long as I can remember. But fancied up just the perfect amount!

Oh my...

I could eat this pie every day - and fully intend to make more of them before this summer is up. Thank goodness for rhubarb and strawberry season!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

I tackled and completed an Opéra

This is a very exciting (and warning: long) post for me. Many of you will probably not understand the excitement. But excitement, I have! This is my first official Daring Bakers post! I mentioned the Daring Bakers briefly before, so please reread that post for an explanation.

My very first Daring Bakers post - Meyer Lemon Opéra Cake:
I just love looking at the side view of this cake

My first challenge was perhaps one of the more challenging assigned to the group. At least that's what it sounds like from reading through all the forums. But I welcomed and completely looked forward to doing this challenge. Its intricate, detailed, lengthy but thorough instructions are just the type of things I love to tackle.

Daring Bakers founders, Lis and Ivonne along with fellow DB members Shea and Fran chose this "elegant and polished French dessert that is believed to have been created around the beginning of the 1900s." Opéra Cake is traditionally flavored with darker flavors like coffee and chocolate, but the hosts this month ~ in honor of spring ~ asked us to keep the flavors and colors light. Beyond that we were free to do whatever we liked!

Oh yes - this moonlighted as Mother's Day dessert too

An Opéra Cake is made up of the following components - my "creative" flavor adaptations in the parenthesis:
-jaconde, aka French sponge cake, made with ground almonds (as called for by the recipe)
-syrup to wet the jaconde (Meyer lemon syrup)
-buttercream to fill the layers (Meyer lemon buttercream)
-mousse/ganache to top the layers (Meyer lemon mousse)
-glaze to cover the mousse (as called for by the recipe)

We were given recipes for all components (recipes based on Opéra Cake recipes in Dorie Greenspan’s Paris Sweets and Tish Boyle and Timothy Moriarty’s Chocolate Passion) but were also given the option of using different recipes as long as it didn't break any of "the rules" about keeping the colors light. Once I'd decided I was going to make this for Mother's Day - lemon was the quite obvious flavor for me (for Mom). And even easier - my cousin Stacey lives perhaps a mile away from me with the most bountiful Meyer lemon tree one has ever seen. So my first ingredient only cost me a few macarons which I left with her and her family!

The "Mom" was piped in white chocolate - so it moved around ;)

This was perhaps the most complicated single food item I've ever made. I spread the work out over 3 days and started Friday night in order to have it done for Mother's Day dinner on the 11th. Read on if you actually have the time and patience. :)

Friday night:
1) See the picture below? Mmhmm, I did algebra to start this challenge. Since I halved the (serves 20) original recipe I needed to figure out how to make 3 equal sized layers of jaconde out of 1-11.75"x16.5" jellly roll pan. This could perhaps be the first time I've used algebra since Junior High!
2) Mixed up and baked the jaconde. Cut and wrapped it up for storage overnight.
3) Made Dorie Greenspan's buttercream from the Perfect Party Cake in Baking: From My Home to Yours flavored with lemon juice
4) Made a batch of lemon curd that I'll use for my lemon mousse tomorrow

Algebra in baking?---------Cooling jaconde

Wrapping up the cake for the night--- Lemon curd and lemon buttercream

Saturday afternoon:
1) Finished the lemon mousse by folding equal amounts of homemade lemon curd into stiffly whipped cream
2) Made lemon syrup with sugar, water and lemon juice
3) Assembled the layers: jaconde, syrup, buttercream, jaconde, syrup, buttercream, jaconde, syrup, mousse
4) Allowed it all to set in the fridge overnight

Working on the 2nd buttercream layer-------Topping with th lemon mousse

All done just needs to set---------Setting in the fridge

Sunday morning:
1) Candied some lemon slices
2) Made the white chocolate glaze
3) Finished the cake and decorated it

Candying lemon slices----------Topping with the white chocolate glaze

All that's left is trimming the sides!

~~Voilà! Opéra Cake!!~~

I love how you can see the flecks of lemon zest in the mousse!

Overall... sadly?... I didn't really like eating this. But I blame it ALL on the white chocolate. Before this challenge I was pretty sure I didn't like white chocolate. After this challenge I'm now certain that I really hate white chocolate. I should have done some type of a lemon gelatin glaze instead. Would have made it WORLDS better! But I'm still celebrating. Yay - my first Daring Bakers challenge down. Can't WAIT for the next!!

There are some truly beautiful Opéra Cakes out there in Daring Baker Blog-Land. They'll be popping up all over the place today on most of the blogs listed here. Here are some of my favorites I've already spied:

Helen at Tartelette never ceases to amaze me. Here she did an orange, vanilla and lavender cake.
Anita at Dessert First is another Bay Area girl with a beautiful blog to boot. Lemon and lavender cake.
Baking Obsession is another truly beautiful blog (can you see a pattern here?) Grapefruit cake.
Gabi at The Feast Within made a fabulously decorated cake covered with edible cherry blossoms.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Wine and a wedding

As promised - wedding pictures!! Our friends Steve and Sharon got married at Wente Vineyards yesterday. It was absolutely gorgeous and a wonderful time with lots of good friends and festivities and even fantastic food (and wine)!

There's something about an outdoor wedding and there's something about a winery wedding - and there's something about combining the two which is absolutely stunning. Flowers, twinkle lights, white linens, candlelight, glassware. Our only problem last night was - the cold. California has been rather confused lately in terms of where to set the thermostat. One week ago it was 85° at night. Last night it was about 55° instead. And the wedding was from start to finish - held outside.

Needless to say, this was one wedding where the men weren't sweating in their suits. At least, we girls did find one redeeming quality in the freezing cold night: no one saw our dresses since we kept our coats and jackets on all night. So we can wear them at the next wedding!

The food was fantastic and really rather generous. It's not very often that I step away from a [western, as opposed to Chinese] wedding feeling stuffed. Well okay, so maybe I wasn't stuffed but we were thoroughly satisfied. And even topped it all off with cups of hot tea and coffee - lots of cups of hot drinks (is it okay that we used it to warm our hands more than to drink?)The DJ brought hats, leis and sunglasses which was a truly BRILLIANT touch. It really fanned the flame of party spirit in everyone. As we neared the end of the evening everyone was dancing and wearing some type of silliness. Top it with a Bud or Corona and the night ended on an amazingly fun and carefree note.

I got to try out my new 50mm, f/1.8 lens - GREAT shots!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

A day in the life of - me

It seems that the most common, albeit rhetorical, question I have been getting lately is "where do you find the time?" and "do you sleep?" I have to agree that is has been pretty crazy lately. And I will also agree that I tend to take a lot on and have a hard time sitting still to just rest. But while my days seem busy - I'm always very satisfied by the end of them when I've gotten through so many things.

The pastry cream, at left hiding between the layers of strawberries, was my late-night project tonight.

Today was one of my busier days and it unfortunately started out with a morning at work - yet again. At least the atmosphere in the office on these Saturdays is an upbeat and fun one. There's music - good music - and food (*sigh*) and a lot of laughter in between the cursing of failed test cases and defects logging.

After putting in 3 hours, I fled the office just before noon for an [oh yes] deep pore cleansing facial. Facials, while sounding relaxing to an untrained ear can actually be quite painful. Or perhaps I am just particularly pore-clogged. But it felt good to have the cleansing even though my poor nose is actually sore now!

With a shiny, glowing face I then braved the crowds of shoppers scouting the Macy's and Nordstom's Memorial Day sales. Oh and let's not forget a trip to the adult cook's Toys-R-Us: Williams-Sonoma for which I had a gift card, perhaps left from last years birthday, burning a hole in my purse pocket. I was pretty proud of myself for walking out the door with an object that cost only 83¢ more than my gift card - these cute quiche pans which I'm going to use to make tarts and mini-pies. Oh and maybe some quiches too?

Next stop was a snack date with a friend at a brand-spanking-new Red Mango! Yul Kwon, famous Bay Area Asian and also perhaps the most popular Survivor winner to date, has started with a couple of friends, to open branches of this Korean frozen yogurt chain all around Northern California. The yogurt was fanastic - and perhaps my favorite of this style of yogurt after having tasted rival Pinkberry in LA and many of the other local similar style yogurt shops.I swung by my neighborhood camera shop for some accessories - and my neighborhood grocery store for some dinner ingredients. Pulled some aging cherry tomatoes out of the fridge, clipped some parsley from a pot on my patio and very shortly thereafter had Salmon with tomatoes, green onions and parsley baked in parchment paper:

Dinner going in.......Dinner coming out

My lack of sleep from the week almost caught up with me as I watched a [truly God awful] movie "Georgia Rule". But celebrating Mom's birthday on Monday was looming in the back of my mind. And I wanted to get a head start on prep for the cake I was planning to make for her. This is typically when I do most of my baking - LATE at night. I'm talking after 9pm or 10pm and usually finishing around 1am. Tonight wasn't an exception.

It usually starts with a tidying of the kitchen - in order to have an orderly workspace. And then I get started... tonight was:
Dorie Greenspan's Vanilla Pastry Cream from her book Paris Sweets

Letting the vanilla bean infuse the milk; Chilling the mixture after adding the yolks; Whisking in butter

I knew I'd have plenty for my cake so what harm would it do to sample some tonight? I had these beautiful strawberries too. They'd certainly taste better with a dollop of pastry cream, right?...

Friday, May 23, 2008

I {heart} my new flash!

My new flash arrived yesterday. I am THRILLED! Just in time for a friend's wedding this weekend! I realize I stated here that I hate using flash - but really what I should have said is that I hate using on-board flash.

So happy together!

The only limitation with the SB-400 is that it doesn't rotate so you can't bounce flash off the ceiling when taking vertical pictures. But as long as the wall is light enough - you can still get some good reflection. I'll be picking up a diffuser too for them high ceiling and outdoor shots. Anything to get away from the "miners light" that seems to always appear on oily skinned peoples' foreheads. :)

Straight on, 60 degrees, 75 degrees and 90 degrees vertical

I'm slowly becoming a big wanna-be-photographer nerd. You should see me showing up at weddings in my heels, dress, cute handbag with a big bulky camera bag slung over the other shoulder... It's perhaps not the best look. But it gets some good shots. One of the "gifts" I love to give a newly married couple is an online album of photos taken at their wedding - within 48 hours of its occurrence. So I think it's worth the fashion sacrifice. Stay tuned for some shots from this weekend's wedding!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Unlike most normal, dessert-loving Americans - I do not really like cheesecake. I like the first 1, maybe 2 bites but after that it's just too dense and thick and (without a thorough smothering of fruit sauce) blah to me.

However I really like Japanese/Asian cheesecake which is an entirely different confection. Japanese cheesecake doesn't have the shortbread or graham cracker crust at the bottom. It's very light and soft and not dense like the American one. It's actually not all that cheesey - more like cream cheese flavored sponge cake.

American Cheesecake:
richly sweet
dense and heavy
lip-smackingly thick

Japanese Cheesecake:
light and airy
barely sweet
almost melts in your mouth

I had a wonderful piece last month, at a high end Japanese restaurant here in the Bay Area and have been thinking about trying my hand at it ever since. I found a couple recipes online and decided to try one on Eupho Café. Only 1 package of cream cheese, but with SEVEN egg yolks (yikes!) and the most interesting ingredient: there's no flour in this cheesecake at all - it's ....... CORNSTARCH! This totally fascinated me. The cornstarch gives the cake a very airy almost cotton candy type texture. It makes it feel like teeny-tiny bubbles popping in your mouth. I love it! The cake itself is really not very sweet - not sweet enough at least, for my very sweet tooth. So I topped it with some melted raspberry jam and it was perfect!

I actually made this cake last week and attempted to swirl in some green tea - I took out 1/4-1/3 of the cheesecake batter before pouring it into the springform, added 1-2 teaspoons of matcha powder, put it into a pastry bag with a #3 tip (the batter is incredibly runny), then piped circles and swirls of the green tea batter into the top half of the cheesecake. That's the picture in the middle. It was good but definitely needed to be sweeter with the addition of the subtly bitter tea (and no extra sweetener like the jam).

Mmmm - Japanese cheesecake; Topped with raspberry jam and swirled with green tea...

Along with my perhaps best batch of macarons to date, I took this to my friend's place for a small dinner party last night. Another guest generously offered up that this was "the best cheesecake" he'd ever eaten. Either he doesn't get out much or I'm not the only one who really enjoys this very light version of an American favorite.

And did you know - when Japanese folks get ready to take a picture - they exclaim "cheese": "Chiizu!"