Sunday, June 29, 2008

The hardest braid I ever made

When I first read that the June Daring Bakers Challenge was laminated dough I was filled with excitement followed quickly by dread; followed by immense excitement followed quickly by immense dread... I'd heard the war-stories from family of attempting puff pastry and croissants and all the pain and suffering that apparently came along with it. BUT, they didn't have hundreds of Daring Bakers at their fingertips from whom they could ask any myriad of questions. Mine was "do you end up rotating the block of dough 90° at every turn?" and within hours I had my answer: "yes".

Ahh thank goodness, 'cuz I was choreographing the dough turns in my head and it just wasn't working out right. Fortunately, I think this turned out right. My 2nd Daring Bakers challenge (post HEAVY on the pictures) - Danish Pastry Braid:
I think this was the most difficult single object I've ever made

The two women on this planet topping my list of people who have influenced me in my cooking would without a doubt be my mom 1st and Auntie Betty a close 2nd. I excitedly called each of them to let them know the June challenge was laminated dough -- a term neither of them knew by name but they definitely KNEW; "oh you mean like croissants? ugh..." "Oh gaawd did I tell you about when we made puff pastry?" I was even more scared now...

But if you FOLLOW THE RECIPE and don't rush anything and don't get too excited and don't skip any steps - it works. Beautifully.
Oooh just perfectly flaky on the outside

Kelly and Ben hosted this month's challenge of not just laminated dough but yeasted laminated dough! Not only did we have to worry about layers appearing (and butter not oozing all over the counter) but we had to worry if the thing would rise! Sheesh!

The recipe is from Sherry Yard's The Secrets of Baking, which we had to follow and from which were required to make at least one braid, but we could use whatever fillings we liked as long as they were homemade (no canned cherry pie filling here - eww). After making at least one braid (the dough recipe was enough for two) we could do whatever we wanted with the extra dough: another braid, a bunch of small danishes, "croissants" etc.
Kneading the dough ------------------ I love how you can see the vanilla specks in it!

Deciding on my fillings was the best part. A little daunting and a lot of fun. I finally decided to make pear and apricot with a dollop of pastry cream to lighten it all. I put a spin on the pear filling from a pear tart tatin I made last winter and created "caramelized pears with cinnamon & vanilla-bean". Then followed Julia Child's Danish Pastry authority Beatrice Ojakangas's very easy "apricot-almond purée".
Apricot-almond purée, vanilla pastry cream, caramelized pears with cinnamon & vanilla-bean

I did my braid half and half - pear with pastry cream at one end and apricot with pastry cream at the other end. My favorite was the apricot - but it was incredibly rich. In fact, we ate it with vanilla ice cream for dessert as opposed to breakfast! Oooohh it was good.
Pear half ------------------------------------ Apricot half

I called last month's Opera Cake the "most complicated single food item I've ever made". But I take that back now. This tops it!! Wanna see what it took?... Read on...

First things first... yeast and vanilla bean

The thing that's so difficult about laminated dough is that you're basically rolling layers of butter into the dough. As you fold it (aka "turning") you create 2, 6, 18, 54 layers of butter and end up creating flakiness as the dough bakes and the water in the butter evaporates. But working with that butter on each turn is challenging. The more layers you put into that dough, the more (obviously) buttery and dense it becomes. If your kitchen is at all warm - like over 70° (umm mine was about 83°) the butter melts quickly and sticks to the counter you're rolling it on. So you MUST pay close attention, use flour liberally and throw it into the fridge the moment you see butter seeping out. It can take a long time......

I ridiculously, started this late on a Saturday night and it took me over 4 hours to just get the dough made. A 3:30am bedtime for moi. During the time the dough rested in the fridge between turns, I made my fillings: pastry cream, pear and apricot. All was ready for tomorrow!

Roll out the dough ---- Spread butter/flour mix on 2/3 of it ---- Fold left third over

Fold right third over ---- A bubble of butter popped, eeks! ---- All four turns done

After the heavy, buttery, layered dough is completed - it must sit in the fridge for at least 5 hours; I chose to leave it there overnight which by 3:30am wasn't a whole lot more than 5 hours! At this point I cut my dough in half for the 2 braids it could make. If you look closely you can even see some layers in there.
See some butter layers?

I rolled out of bed way too early Sunday morning (try 5 hours of sleep? what a crazy baking freak I am!) to put this braid together - knowing that the hardest part was thankfully over!

I had plans for those corner scraps --- Cut the strips at an angle --- Pastry cream down first

Caramelized pears on half --- Apricot almond purée on half --- Fold up the ends first

Start braiding one side ------ Then the other ----- Little ugly in the middle but all was fine!

Whew - it was almost like a craft project! After brushing it thoroughly with egg wash and letting it proof for a couple hours - it went into the oven for about 25 minutes. Something about that humored me. ~8 hours of prep work for 25 minutes of baking. But oh was it worth it... especially after drizzling a powdered sugar glaze and toasted almonds all over it. GORGEOUS!

Oh yah, and remember those scraps from the corners? I made a chocolate "croissant" that might just have been my favorite! Yah, yah doesn't look like a croissant but it sure tasted good!
My chocolate "croissant" looked like a hot dog bun ---- But it was WAY tastier... mmm!

I plan to use the rest of the dough to make some more pastries sometime in the next week. There will most definitely be some more chocolate filled ones and I'll probably use up my apricot and pear fillings as well as perhaps trying my hand at an almond filled one. I absolutely adored this challenge and the myriad of possibilities we had to play with. It's truly the epitome of doing something together while still being creative to make it your own.

I think this post is long enough as it is without my including the 2 page long recipe here but if you visit the Daring Bakers' Blogroll and click on a few of the other talented bakers - someone will have the recipe so you can see it (and all the intricacies) in its entirety.

Friday, June 27, 2008

350 miles

This puppy-finding thing has been one of the harder things I've had to deal with lately. Obviously not in a super horrendous way, but since it's such a permanent thing - adopting a puppy - it has to feel perfect to me. And because I'm my father's daughter, I think things through once, twice, three times, worry about my decision then think it through again and again... it's been so stressful!!

Apparently yellow female Labradors are in HIGH demand and LOW supply in Northern California. I have contacted something like 23 breeders (I'll explain later why I'm going to a breeder and not to a shelter/rescue facility) and the best prospects I have are 3rd in line on a waitlist (bad odds) and near the top of another list but not even sure if the mother is pregnant yet! Sheez! And this is very typical - if anyone wants a purebred dog, they typically have to be on a waitlist before the pups are even born... possibly prior to them even being conceived!

So why am I going to a breeder versus rescuing a poor doggie from a Humane Society or other rescue organization? Well if I was at home all day every day and had a lot of time on my hands (wait...? that sounds familiar) to train/re-train a dog who is older than 8 weeks - sure I'd certainly look into it. But a good breeder knows their dogs very well and can give me a lot of consistent, historical information about a dog's temperament and ability to calm down and learn. My dog will have to deal with "parents" who work all day long, will need to get comfortable in a relatively small home and also one day (hopefully) will need to be comfortable with young children. I want to be able to train and socialize my puppy from the day she can come home from the breeder and never stop! So I want a "clean slate" with which to do this. It's perhaps a selfish thing - but it's also what's best for us and the dog... she'd be happier and we'd be happier.

So, like I said - the hunt has been rough. But it appears this "demand for yellow females" is only crazy in Northern California. I found a breeder south of Santa Barbara who has a couple... and they'd be ready to come home NEXT WEEKEND! My brother and I are doing a sibling road-trip tomorrow to go take a peek. Gotta meet the parents to make sure they're sweet and friendly and all of those important things... and then we decide. And if all goes well - I will return next weekend to bring home a little baby puppy.


I didn't want to rush into this but logistics on the other potential litters make bringing one home a lot easier now than in the Fall. Stay tuned - and until then, enjoy some adorable pictures of the pups we're gonna visit tomorrow!

Monday, June 23, 2008

What a tart

My birthday was weeks ago - and I'm really still enjoying it. Or perhaps I should say... enjoying my generous gifts.

I arrived home from work one night last week to find a green-wrapped package on my doorstep with a note indicating it was a belated birthday gift from YG. That girl somehow always gets me gifts that fit me PERFECTLY. And this birthday gift was no different. I have literally had "Tartine" in my Amazon shopping cart twice and each time removed it deciding that I just didn't need another cookbook. I've even flipped through it two different times while relaxing in a Borders Books cafe. For some reason I still hadn't bought it for myself. And YG did. Thanks YG! I love it!!

Tartine's Sweet Tart Dough -------- Baked shells (I love extras!) ---------- Mmm pastry cream
Add to that a Williams-Sonoma gift card from Wendy and Henry which I traded for a 10" tart pan and my beloved new mixer. With the dawning of summer this weekend, and the knowledge that all the local stores have so much delicious fresh fruit right now, I put these components (and myself) to work making fruit tarts for a friend's BBQ! What better way to finish off a 95° day than with softly sweetened crust, a cool creamy custard and sweet refreshing fruit.

The cookbook gave me the sweet tart dough recipe...

The mixer helped with the dough and the pastry cream...

And the tart pan held it all together!

I only wish I could have shared it with all of you who made it possible! (what, I'm winning an Oscar now?) YG, Wendy, Henry - I owe you one...

Oh and one little "trick" I enjoy? If you need to err on the side of making just enough dough or just a bit more - make just a bit more... 'Cuz you never know when you might need extra dough with which to patch your crust. And umm... you never know when you might need some sweets a few days later too...

Oh yea - Monday night dessert!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Mom's bread

Back in elementary school I recall very clearly sitting on the picnic benches at lunchtime observing (and envying) my classmates as they pulled items out of GI Joe and My Little Pony lunchboxes. Sandwiches made of Wonder bread and slathered with Skippy and Smuckers. Fruit Roll-Ups and a Hostess cherry pie with a Capri Sun lemonade to wash it all down. Overcome with a desperation to be like everyone else - I was embarrassed of what I'd then pull out of my own: Fluffy sandwiches of homemade molasses wheat bread covered in peanut butter and homemade strawberry jam. Pineapple apricot fruit leather made from only fruit and sugar then dried in the sun. Half-moon shaped cherry pies with crusts made of shortening and butter. And a small bottle of hand-squeezed lemonade. And believe it or not - I dreaded it! I wanted that Wonder bread and the Fruit Roll-Ups and ohhhhhhh the Hostess pies. But Mom, lovingly made us these things at home while looking down her nose at anything with preservatives and chemicals. It also didn't hurt that making food from scratch was much more cost effective for this coupon-cutting Chinese woman!

I've been eating Mom's whole wheat molasses bread since about the time I learned to chew. It's actually pretty famous among friends and family so I knew this was one thing I had to learn to make to feel "complete". The whole reason I started cooking so much more in college than I had in high school was because I missed Mom's cooking and wanted to replicate it while being far from home. But bread was one thing I wasn't willing to attempt.

However, college was long ago *sigh* and with my newly gifted stand-mixer I was ready to tackle those ever intimidating granules called yeast. So apropos that the first thing I mixed in this mixer was Mom's bread. I had luck on my side this night though...

She was staying with me for the evening and I was ready for her to teach me to make her famous bread. It's one of those things where you can't just read a recipe to know what a perfectly kneaded dough should feel like. Someone has to be there to knead it and show you exactly how it's supposed to be. And Mom was there:

Her hands are not attractive, but they're my mom's hands and therefore - beautiful

It was perfect. It rose to a puffy softness that I knew would turn into the perfect loaves of bread. I could hardly wait to slather it with butter and bite into a piece just moments out of the oven.

They rise and they rise!

If you haven't eaten fresh baked bread before - you have no idea what you're missing. Toasty and light on the outside; soft and hot on the inside. You can cut it as thick as you want and eat as much as you can. My brother can eat a half a loaf when it's still warm from the oven like this.

Hot buttered bread, right from the oven

I've been eating toasted molasses whole wheat bread smothered with (Mom's) homemade pineapple-peach jam for breakfast all week.

Oh and the best part? I replicated these loaves perfectly, all by myself just a couple days later! Thanks Mom.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

High tea in the city

I love going to the city. I used to do so a lot more often than I do now - but it doesn't mean I love being there any less (I just get lazier about fighting traffic on most given days). This past Saturday I spent most of the day in San Francisco. And yes - I even encountered traffic on my way in on a Saturday morning! The occasion was shopping and tea with Mom, my cousin Kathy and my Auntie Mary. It was a PERFECT day with PERFECT weather. 65° yet all was warmed by the bright sunlight. I even felt good about getting to the city since all of us, who live in different cities, carpooled or took public transportation to get there and ended up in 1 car!

The morning began with shopping. Ahh shopping. I don't care what anyone says - shopping in an internationally renowned city such as San Francisco is like nothing else. The selection of products and the concentration of different types of shops cannot be met even in a(nother) large shopping area like San Jose. No less than 10 minutes after leaving the car I'd already made my first purchase and at 50% off too! And with newly acquired Williams-Sonoma birthday gift cards burning a whole in my purse - at stop at the flagship store was eminent. Oooh it's like a candy shop in there for me! But don't worry, I didn't too much damage...

The primary reason for our get-together was for afternoon tea. I LOVE afternoon tea. Though, I doubt this will surprise you very much considering the "girlie-ness" of this blog. I've done afternoon tea in a number of reputable establishments - The Savoy in London, The Rotunda at Neiman Marcus in San Francisco, The Waldorf Astoria in New York City in addition to various Lisa's Tea Treasures around the Bay Area but I'd NEVER been to the Ritz. "High Tea at the Ritz". It just sounds classy and delectable!

Tea in the Lobby Lounge at the Ritz Carlton, San Francisco

It dawned on me that Mom hasn't ever been to afternoon tea. So I decided it was time to kill a couple birds with one stone and gave her the gift of "Tea at the Ritz" for her birthday gift this year. I asked my cousin if she wanted to take her mom too and soon enough we had this fun little day planned. Just two sisters and their adult daughters.

It was fantastic. And while we were all sort of bracing ourselves for the "expense" it really was very reasonable. $36 each for the platter you see above (we were all full) and an entire pot of tea per person after choosing off a list of eighteen! The best part: I mentioned when I made my reservation that the occasion was Mom's birthday and they brought out a complimentary plate of strawberries and vanilla cream! Oh and let's not forget that I finally got to sample some WELL MADE macarons. Banana and chocolate to be exact.

Complimentary strawberries and vanilla cream --- and well made macarons!!

Our trip to the freeway eventually took us past the Painted Ladies in Alamo Square. It's near impossible for me to NOT stop and take a picture when I drive by and today was no different. Clear as a bell with bright sunlight painting the fronts of those beautiful homes.
I love when it's clear enough to see St. Mary's Cathedral and the Transamerica Pyramid

If I only I hadn't ended up humming the "Full House" theme song for the rest of the day...