Friday, March 26, 2010

Another food contest entry! Tea cakes for KO Rasoi!

I'd like to say it seems to be the season for food blog contests right now, but I think it's more of a matter of contests that have piqued my interest enough to go thru all the effort I inflict on myself in making my entries.  The creative pondering, flustered experimenting and the occasional mini-inferno I run into while submitting posts means it's gotta be good for me to do it.  When I saw Sanjana's contest over at KO Rasoi, I knew it was time to pull out the fire extinguisher again and get baking.

Sanjana's contest asked that you create a dish inspired by a super adorable charm bracelet...

The bracelet is almost as adorable as the cool blue sparkly nail polish you can see she's wearing in the picture... see it now?  Other than the polish, the thing that caught my eye was the little white and blue delft style china cup charm.  Seeing as it's a roughly "tea" themed bracelet (though I don't remember the last time I had a margarita at tea, sadly), I decided I'd make something I've always wanted to make - petit fours.

What I didn't realize is that "petit four" is actually a French phrase meaning "insanely difficult" or "frustrating to the point of drinking a 3 glasses of wine rapidly, on an empty stomach because these 'petit fours' refuse to provide you with something suitable to feed yourself with."  Or something roughly like that.

You see, I wanted these to be not just any petit fours.  Oh, no, that's just too dull (wise) for me.  I wanted to make the sort of cakes that you could write on with edible marker to create patterns - in this case patterns that match your tea service.  This meant coating them with something that dried hard enough to accomplish this.  Typical petit four icing is a little too fragile for this, I figured.  I first tried rolling on some of my trusty recipe for marshmallow fondant, but I didn't like the way it draped.  Next my mind turned to royal icing.  Royal icing was something I vaguely remembered using on sugar cookies my mother made when I was little, but I always remembered liking them better without it.  Despite that and the fact most recipes I read included warnings like "Use immediately or it will harden indefinitely" and "Good as a glue, but not pleasant to flavor with" I was not to be deterred.

An hour later I had coated a beautiful set of little chocolate cakes in a gloppy, uneven mess of what amounted to Elmer's glue... and it tasted about the same.  I honestly don't know if it was my recipes (I tried 2), the cook or a combination that did me in, but in the end I tossed the whole collection of useless lumps into the trash.  Enter wine.

The next day I did some more research and turns out it's not a great idea to coat entire cakes with royal icing.  I also realized I needed a denser cake - like a génoise or sponge.  Who knew?  Lots of people do, as my reading was leading me to understand.  Obviously I'm still new at this cake thing.  In the end the tea cakes shown in the pictures have a combination of petit four icing with a top piece of fondant.  Which works, but I think it's a bit too labor-intensive for such little cakes, don't you?  In fact, when Jason saw these and then looked at the sample I kept of the strictly fondant version, he said he liked the fondant version better.  It was my drive for perfectly smooth shapes that made me wish for the perfect icing.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized the fondant ones didn't look too shabby, I liked their little pillow-y edges... and they certainly were less conducive to reducing me to near tears.  Less tears = win in my book any day. 

How to Make: Blood Orange and Chocolate Petit Fours

Since I take the cake recipe directly from the Joy of Baking site, I'm not going to reproduce it here.  It's adapted from the Cake Queen: Rose Levy , so you know it's good.  The link can be found below...

Recipe for Chocolate Sponge Cake on Joy of Baking

Once you've made your cake and allowed it to cool, cut it into desired shapes using cutters or a serrated knife.  You'll want and even number of every shape since you'll fill w/frosting and stacking in doubles...

To make the Blood Orange Frosting...

 2 cups confectioners sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter (softened)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Juice and zest of 1 large blood orange
Orange food coloring (if desired)

With a hand or electric mixer, cream the butter until smooth.  Add vanilla and the zest and blend.  Gradually beat in sugar.  Add the blood orange juice and whip on high until fluffy.  You may add a drop of orange food coloring if you like.

For the icing...

Approx 1 cup by volume of marshmallow fondant
Various edible marker colors

To put it all together...

Roll out your fondant to an 1/8 inch thickness and cut into shapes that allow you to cover your stacked cake shapes.

Spread a layer of blood orange frosting between two layers of sponge cake.  Frost the outside with a thin crumb coating of frosting to allow the fondant to adhere evenly.

Drape your cakes with fondant pieces and smooth tops

Using your food-coloring pens, draw patterns based on your tea cups on the tops of your cakes.  Done!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Inspired by Renoir: Roasted strawberry/arugula couscous + Greek lamb loukaniko

If you've never checked out Feasting On Art, you should do so immediately.  It really is one of the most inspired food blogs you'll find.  So when it's creator, Megan Fizell, posted a recipe contest, I was SO there.  The challenge?  To create a recipe inspired by Renoir's still life titled, very appropriately, Strawberries.  Creating recipes like this is the theme of Megan's blog and what makes it so wonderfully unique is her fantastic imagination.  I decided if I were to participate, I'd have to pull out all stops and leave caution at the door.  Thankfully, that's my favorite way to cook...

The inspiration: Renoir's Strawberries

I spent some time thinking about not just this painting, but the life of Renoir at the time of painting it, and the man himself.  This piece was done near the end of his career, a time when he abandoned elaborate design and focused on the simple and ruffled beauty of natural still lifes of roses and fruit.  There's a rustic and lush brightness in Strawberries.  Something in it makes me think of  a man that was content with his accomplishments and diving in to the simple pleasures within reach for us all, every day.

The PLC version of Strawberries

For me, the mention of Renoir recalls my Greek grandfather.  He loved the impressionists, as he loved good food.  He'd lived in Paris for years, worked in kitchens and as an apprentice tailor.  I remember him drawing shaky renditions of art he'd seen, then in his 80s, on scraps of paper and explained in frustrated broken English.  I also remember him bringing home loukaniko - a Greek sausage made with fennel seeds and orange rind.  So I thought making some for this would be perfect, made with ground lamb.  Seeing as I wanted to keep this simple, I wouldn't be going thru a full sausage-making process, however.  Just some simple patties seasoned the right way would do.

Of course, the loukaniko patties by themselves really don't show much Impressionist Era inspiration (brown lumps, not really art-worthy). I used couscous because it reminds me of the daubs of paint impressionists use, and of the pointillism works of the time.  I added the strawberries, roasted first to give them smokiness, and wild arugula to give it a nice peppery boost.  I used a Lebanese couscous I found at a grocer - it's the largest I've ever seen and I just couldn't pass it up.  Israeli couscous would work just as well, I'm sure, and be easier to find.

Recipe: Renoir's Roasted Strawberry and Arugula Couscous with Lamb Loukaniko 

What you need to get...

For the loukaniko patties...
1 pound ground lamb (other ground meats work as well)
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
The zest of one orange
A splash of red wine (1 tablespoon or so)
Red pepper flakes (to taste)
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon fennel seeds

For the couscous...
2 cups cooked Israeli couscous
1/2 cup shallots, sliced
2 cups wild arugula
1 cup hulled and halved strawberries
Juice of half a lemon
Salt and pepper to taste

On the side... Greek-style yogurt

What to do with it all...

For the loukaniko, combine all the ingredients and form patties or links depending on your preference
I recommend broiling or pan frying on high heat (or grilling if available) until desired done-ness.  Set aside, loosely covered in tin foil until ready to use.  Reserve meat juice and fat to cook shallots. 

For the couscous, cook shallots on low heat either in meat juices from loukaniko or olive oil until translucent (4 -6 minutes)
Meanwhile, scatter strawberries in a cookie sheet with a lip, or onto tin foil (create a lip to catch juices) and place under broiler on highest setting.  Watch strawberries carefully and remove as soon as there is some blackening.  The time varies widely based on your broiler.  Remove and set aside until plating your finished dish.
When shallots are translucent, add your cooked couscous, arugula, lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste.  Turn burner up to medium and toss.  Cook until heated thoroughly and arugula is slightly wilted (a couple of minutes).

Plate cous cous, top with loukaniko, strawberries and a dollop of yogurt!

Friday, March 12, 2010

On being away...

I've rewritten this post thirty times, nearly literally, and have realized the best way to say it, is just to say it.  I've been away from Peas Love Carrots because my father passed away, suddenly, early this month.  I rushed off to Enid, Oklahoma where he and some of my family live and have just recently returned from there.  I thought about not mentioning it on the blog, but well, it felt sort of wrong not to.
I don't intend this to be maudlin in any way.  The sadness I feel is mixed with the joy of memories of Dad.  Which is how I feel it has to be.  The years have been stripped away from thought and I am finding comfort in childhood recollection.  After hearing the news he was gone, several memories rushed immediately to mind that have not left it since.  One was of his large bristly mustache, which was an eternal source of amusement for me as a little girl.  The mustache had a personality all it's own and I would watch with curiosity as he groomed it every day with a little comb that reminded me of the one I used on my Barbie's hair.  It would tickle my cheek with every kiss goodnight.  It would twitch, Charlie Chaplin-style, whenever he knew I was watching him, just because he knew it would make me laugh.  As I would also giggle whenever he ate, as some crumb of food would inevitably get caught up in it in the process.

Another memory is of his spontaneous hijinks in the kitchen, whenever Mom would let him break into her domain.  My mother made food that made you know, in your bones, you were well cared for.  The sort that are comforting touchstones that in adulthood serve as Proust's Madeleine in their ability to whisk me back a decade ago to her kitchen as I now cook them.  My father, however, was a mad wizard at the stove.  If the notion popped into his head to cook, the best thing to do was to rush to the kitchen doorway and watch the fun.  There were no sweet moments of helping chop or stir like there was with Mom.  Just a flurry of flour, the rattling of odd pans and in the end, fantastical dishes I had never knew existed.  They were most often inspired by his Southern-American roots, though I don't know how much of that I realized at the time.  This meant Louisiana crab cakes stacked in high towers and made with mascarpone, étouffée with olives and saffron, and once, as I watched in awe, he stuffed apples with golden raisins and brown sugar and then, with his long fingers wrapped them whole in pastry dough to bake.

I now know these are called Apple Dumplings and the recipe is rather common in the South.  But to me they will always be magic, and they will always remind me of Dad.  Last night I had my first real desire to cook something since returning from Oklahoma.  The choice for me was clear.  It would be Apple Dumplings.  I realize I am truly biased here, but I have to tell you that this is the best version you are apt to taste in your life.  It's rich without being cloyingly sweet, and fun and easy to make, though you'll look like a gourmand when it's served at the table.  Please trust me on the crème fraîche, and leave it unsweetened for your first attempt, at least.  It's nutty and perfectly lush with the apple and crusty pastry.

Just remember to check your mustache, should you have one, for crumbs while rapturously enjoying this... I can nearly guarantee you you will have some.

Recipe: Apple dumplings with cardamom and crème fraîche

What you need to get..

For the dumpling base...
4 Granny Smith or other tart apple, peeled and cored, but keep whole
4 raw flaky biscuit dough rounds (premade and found in cans in refrigerated sections in the US) or 1 sheet puff pastry dough (make it yourself, or buy frozen and thaw)

For the filling...
4 tablespoons light brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
2 tablespoons golden raisins
2 tablespoons unsalted pistachios (optional)

Other ingredients...
1 egg, beaten, for sealing/glazing dough
White granulated sugar for dusting dumpling tops
AP flour for rolling biscuit rounds
Unsweetened crème fraîche for serving OR unsweetened whipped cream, or cream lightly sweetened w/honey

What to do with it all...

Preheat oven to 400˚F.

Place peeled/cored apples in a microwave safe dish and microwave on 50% power until fork-tender (5 - 7 minutes for most).  You can also bake for 10 - 20 mins at 400˚F lightly covered in tin foil for same results.  Once tender, remove to refrigerator to cool.

While your apples are cooling, mix the filling ingredients and set aside.

Roll out each biscuit to about a 7 - 8 inch round (depending on the size of your apples) on a floured surface.  Place one apple on each round and fill each with 1/4 of the filling mixture.

Brush beaten egg on dough around apple, then bring up the sides to wrap the apple.  Seal and finish with a twist at the top of the apple.  Brush outside of dumpling with a little more egg, then dust with white sugar.

Place your sealed dumplings on a baking sheet, and bake for 15 - 18 minutes, or until golden.  Serve with crème fraîche and a dusting of cinnamon.


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