Bitter Cake and a Swimming Pool of Ramen

19 Feb

Being sick can really mess up your whole week! I got whatever superbug has been going around and two weeks later, I’m still in recovery mode (but back in my routine for the most part, thankfully). Not all was lost last week while I took time off to rest though. For starters, I had some crazy dreams while on Nyquil PM, including an awesome food-related one:

In a spacious banquet room, a large, silver platter of various vegan sandwiches sits atop a round dining table covered in white tablecloth. As I go to reach for one, Rainn Wilson as Dwight Schrute keeps on grabbing my arm and stopping me from taking one of these delicious, veggie-packed sandwiches. I’m super frustrated, but Rainn/Dwight is much too fast for me, so I move on.

I walk through an indoor/outdoor courtyard and spot ahead — can it be!?– a swimming pool of vegan ramen! Fresh wheat noodles floating in a dark, shoyu-based broth. I excitedly inhale the savory aroma and anticipate the taste on my tongue as I jump in. There are already two other women in the pool and we all happily float about in the warm broth — me on my back, with long, soft strands of noodles flowing between my arms and legs. I look up and on the deck overlooking the pool is none other than Desi Arnaz, one of my favorite actors/producers of all time! The drama of the vegan sandwiches behind me, I am in bliss.

I’m so not kidding; that was the exact dream that I had. And in my dream, I knew that sandwiches and ramen were vegan (I’m not just making that up now). I was so excited about my dream, I actually woke up my partner to tell him about it. He looked at me like I was crazy…

While I was sick,  I also started reading Spiced: A Pastry Chef’s True Stories of Trials by Fire, After-Hours Exploits, and What Really Goes on in the Kitchen, which was recommended to me by one of my mentors. Though far less overt in my previous experience working at nonprofits, I could relate to the sexism in the workplace that Dahlia Jurgensen writes about. I’m a little more than half way through and so far, it reads more like a memoir than a detailed account of the experience of being a pastry chef. Her experiences are definitely eye-opening, however, and provide some insight into how things work in a fast-paced professional kitchen (e.g., be prepared for long hours, low pay and a high-pressure, high stress environment). Jurgensen’s story of her ascent from a bored office worker to a pastry chef thus far has been both entertaining and inspiring and I’d  recommend it to anyone curious about career in the culinary field.

Lastly, I managed to bake one thing last week (I have a hard time doing nothing, even when I really need to): a chocolate olive oil cake from one of the dessert recipes in Great Chefs Cooks Vegan. The use of cake flour gives the cake a soft, delicate crumb that I liked, but I found the finished product to be much too bitter. When I scanned the recipe, my gut told me that it called for too much baking soda — two teaspoons for one-and-a-half cups of flour! — but I decided to go with it since it was created by a famous chef and I figured it must have been tested. I did, however, reduce the teaspoon of salt it called for. Turns out, my gut was right and the cake had a noticeably bitter taste. I was planning to take a photo for the blog, but since I wasn’t happy in how it tasted, I scrapped it. I’ll have to try the recipe another time with some adjustments and see how it turns out.

Masala Chai Truffles

8 Feb

When I’m not baking, I play with chocolate. This past weekend, I decided to make masala chai (spiced tea) truffles. The first step was cold infusing tea into my ganache. Cold infusion basically means you let your ingredients slowly release their flavors and aromas in the liquid you’re trying to flavor without using heat. In this case, I soaked black tea leaves in coconut milk overnight and strained them out before using the milk to make my ganache. Though you do have to use more tea to draw out the flavor, the benefit of cold infusion is that you get the great flavor of the tea without any bitterness that you might get from seeping it in hot liquid.

To make the ganache, I used approximately equal amounts of coconut milk and chocolate by volume (if I were using something less fatty and more watery such as soy milk, I’d decrease the milk-to-chocolate ratio).  I simply heated the tea-infused milk until it just began to boil and then poured it over my bowl of dark chocolate. I let it sit for a moment and then whisked it until completely melted and smooth.

Next, the ganache went in the fridge to cool and harden for a couple hours. Once it hardened, I scooped small balls of the ganache and coated the balls in a mixture of cocoa powder, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, ginger and peppercorn. I don’t have exact measurements to provide, unfortunately, because I just winged this. Luckily, truffles are very easy to make! And the fun part is that you can improvise with flavors — both with the ganache filling and the coatings.

The blend of spices and hint of tea in the ganache give these truffles a subtle but sophisticated flavor that I love. What’s your favorite truffle flavor that you’ve made or eaten?

M.I.A.

6 Feb

I gone without posting for much, much longer than I intended. I’ve just been dead tired. I’m tired from doing work that I love though, so it’s all good. Even so, sorry for being missing in action for so long. I hope to get back on schedule this week. In the meantime, here’s a photo of some French bread I baked recently. Not a dessert, but delicious nonetheless!

Apple Strudel

13 Jan

 

Oh — strudel, strudel, strudel,
I made you out of dough
And when you’re baked and ready
In my tummy you’ll go

I’m not kidding, that’s exactly what came into my head as I put my apple strudel into the oven. I crack myself up sometimes! But seriously, if you’ve ever had apple strudel, you know it’s frickin’ delicious! And you know what? It’s pretty easy to make, too.

For those of you who followed the show Top Chef: Just Desserts, you may remember the quick-fire challenge that involved the two competing groups having to pull strudel dough as fast as they could without tearing it. It’s like that, but without the pressure of the clock, or judgment from teammates if you tear a hole or two. Really, it’s not that bad at all.

To make the dough, what you need is a big table, a clean tablecloth that you don’t mind getting oil stains on and your knuckles. I did my best to provide directions below. If you’d like detailed photos illustrating what the process, however, the bloggers at Chef in You do a fabulous job here.

Anyway, I like to play around with ingredients in the kitchen so I decided to flavor the strudel filling with currants and garam masala, a blend of spices that is commonly found in Indian cuisine. My blend, which I found at a local Indian store down the street, includes coriander, chili, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, amchur, salt, anise, fennel seeds, black pepper, mace and bay leaves. The flavor ended up being more subtle than I intended, so if you’d like more of a spice kick, I’d suggest adding a little more. The strudel dough recipe is from The Pie and Pastry Bible, and is already vegan (score!).

Apple Strudel

Ingredients

Strudel Dough
(from The Pie & Pastry Bible)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp salt
1 Tb + 1 tsp vegetable oil
1/3 cup warm water

Apple Filling
1 pound of apples (I used 3 large Granny Smith)
1/4 cup dried currants
2 Tb lemon juice
1/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
2 tsp garam masala
1/2 tsp cinnamon
Pinch of salt

Streusel Topping
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
3/4 cup chopped walnuts
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp salt

For brushing
1/3 cup refined coconut oil, melted

Directions

For the strudel dough:
Mix ingredients in a stand mixer until thoroughly combined. If needed, add water by the teaspoon. On a floured surface, knead dough for a couple minutes. Lightly oil the dough and cover with plastic wrap. Let the dough sit at room temperature for 30 minutes. While your dough is sitting, prepare your filling and streusel topping.

For the apple filling: Peel, core and slice apples into 1/4″ slices. Combine with rest of ingredients in large bowl and toss to evenly distribute ingredients.

For streusel topping: Combine ingredients in a bowl and using your hands, mix ingredients together until they form course crumbs.

Putting it all together: Preheat oven to 400* F and have a sheet pan lined with parchment paper or a silicone mat ready. Spread out a clean tablecloth on your table. Roll out your dough to a large round (how large? I didn’t measure exactly, but so the dough is about 1/4″ thin). Brush the top of your dough with some melted coconut oil to keep it from drying out. Slide your hands under the dough and using your knuckles (not your fingers!), gently pull the dough. Continue to stretch it from every side to a rectangular shape, as thin as you can get it–until it’s almost transparent if you can–while being careful not to tear it. It’s OK if there are a few small holes, but you don’t want too many because the filling will poke through. When you’ve stretched it as far as you can, using your brush, sprinkle some coconut oil across your dough.

Next, leaving a few inches around the edges, sprinkle your streusel topping  across your dough. On one of the short sides of the rectangle–again leaving a few inches around the edges–spread your apple filling in a thick layer. Now, using the tablecloth, flip the edge of the dough over the apple filling layer. Lightly brush the layer with oil. Flip the strudel over itself again and oil the next layer. Repeat until you get to the end of the dough. Brush the ends of the dough with oil and tuck under the roll. Brush the top and sides of the strudel with more oil and top with brown sugar. Cut a few steam vents in the roll. Transfer to your baking sheet and bake for 30-35 minutes, until the strudel is a dark golden brown.

Serve warm with ice cream. Yum!

Chocolate Pear Napoleon

30 Dec

The end of the year is always a little bittersweet for me. It’s a time when I start reflecting on the year past, looking back fondly on some experiences, with regret for others. It’s also a time filled with both hope and fears for the year ahead. Of all of the desserts I’ve made these past few months, the chocolate pear napoleon best reflects the mood of this experience for me with the melding of flavors of dark chocolate, sweet pears and tart cranberries.

This dessert is also a reminder of my favorite experience this year, which is when I took the plated dessert class at Laney College in the fall. In this class, all students were responsible for creating a menu item for the bistro on a weekly basis, and preparing and plating that item daily for the week. The program at the school isn’t catered towards vegan baking at all, but the chef instructor of this class allowed me to do all vegan desserts, which was very exciting! The plus side of this was that I was given free reign to experiment and had access to culinary professionals and students to critique my work on a daily basis. The negative was that every Monday morning–when we had to figure out who we wanted work with for the week–felt like being chosen last for the dodge ball team at recess. Actually, more like not being chosen at all because I ended up working alone a lot of the time.

It’s not so much that I minded working alone (a lot of the time, I prefer it) or that anyone was rude or mean to me (everyone was actually very, very nice), but being The Vegan Who Uses Her Special Ingredients Stored in Her Own Cabinet and Doesn’t Use Eggs or Dairy or Gelatin or Even Milk Chocolate Like the Rest of Us means the non-vegans automatically assume they can’t or shouldn’t work with you. When I did work with someone, it was almost without exception with my longtime-vegetarian classmate, Irene (us veggie folk have a way of finding each other!).

Vegan baking is still an icky, foreign concept to most people and seems to intimidate even the most confident and experienced baker. In attempts to combat any negative preconceptions about vegan desserts (of which there are usually many), I tried to pick desserts that were sophisticated and visually appealing but would also have a familar feel to non-vegan desserts. Basically, challenge people’s ideas of what vegan desserts can be, but nothing too out of the norm that may scare people off.

The chocolate pear napoleon with cranberry compote, derived from a recipe by acclaimed pastry chef Gale Gand, was one of the desserts I worked on. To create a vegan version, I adapted various components of the recipe that called for butter or cream. Also, rather than using poached pear, I decided to use pears that I caramelized in a pan with sugar, vanilla bean and brandy. I was skeptical of serving cranberry compote with a chocolate and pear dessert at first, but the tartness of the compote worked really well with the chocolate and sweetness of the pears. It was a delicious combination, and apparently a real hit with the omnivores as well. If I recall correctly, this was one of the desserts that completely sold out during the week. One of the bistro workers came up to Irene on the second day to verify the ingredients in the dessert, saying that one customer didn’t really believe that it could be vegan!

Give this napoleon a try and let me know what you think!

Chocolate Pear Napoleon with Cranberry Compote
Adapted from Chocolate Napoleon recipe by Gale Gand

Serves 5

Ingredients

The Phyllo

1/2 cup refined coconut oil, melted, or canola oil
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
3 sheets phyllo dough (9″x14″)
1/4-1/2 cup evaporated cane sugar
Powdered sugar, for dusting

Caramelized Pears
8 ripe, medium-sized pears, peeled, cored, halved and cut into 1/4″ slices
1 cup sugar (you can adjust depending on how sweet your pears are)
pinch of salt
seeds from 1 vanilla bean, or 1 Tb vanilla bean paste or extract
2 Tb lemon juice
splash of brandy

Ganache
8 ounces dark chocolate, coursely chopped
1/2 cup non-dairy milk
1/2 cup regular-fat coconut milk
1/4 c  agave nectar

Cranberry Compote
1 cup fresh or thawed frozen cranberries
1 cup fresh-squeezed orange juice
1/4 cup sugar

Directions

For the phyllo: Preheat oven to 350* F. Mix together the melted coconut oil or canola oil with the cocoa powder. If using coconut oil, you can keep this mixture over a bowl of hot water to keep it liquid while you’re working with it. Lay a piece of phyllo on parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Brush a light layer of the oil-cocoa mixture and sprinkle some of the sugar. Top with another layer of phyllo and repeat the process with remaining layers. Using a cutter or knife, score the the phyllo stack into 2″x3″ pieces (21 pieces total). Bake for 8-10 minutes, or until the phyllo layers are crisp. *Tip: The cocoa makes it difficult to tell when the phyllo has baked long enough so include a plain phyllo layer on your baking sheet and use it to gauge when they’re done.

For the caramelized  pears: Combine the sugar, salt, vanilla and lemon juice in a large skillet. Toss pear slices in the mixture until all pieces are coated. Heat over medium heat, stirring frequently to ensure even caramelization. Sauté pears until golden and softened. Stir in brandy at the end. Transfer pears to a pan and let cool to room temperature.

For the ganache: Place the chocolate in a small bowl. In a small sauce pan, combine the non-dairy milk of choice, coconut milk and agave nectar to a simmer. Pour over chocolate and let stand for a minute. Whisk mixture until smooth. Set aside and let cool to room temperature.

For the cranberry compote: Combine and mix all of the ingredients in a medium sauce pan. On medium high heat, bring the mixture to a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat and continue to simmer until the cranberries have popped and softened, and the juices have thickened. Transfer to a bowl and chill until cold. This can be made and stored a few days in advance.

To assemble: Place a dab of ganache at the center of each plate (this keeps the napoleon from shifting around when you move the plate). Place a piece of your 2″x3″ phyllo on top, gently pressing it down. Top with a thin layer of ganache and pear slices. Repeat until you have three layers of ganache/pear. Top with a fourth piece of phyllo. Dust top layer with powdered sugar. Spoon cranberry compote around the napoleon.

Bûche de Noël

23 Dec

"What's great for a snack and fits on your back? It's Log, Log, Log!"**

French colonialism in my motherland (well, my parents’ motherland) is to thank for my taste for European-style pastries today. Eclairs, profiteroles, bánh pâté chaud (a French-influenced, Vietnamese pastry consisting of puff pastry filled with a spicy pork meatball) and French fruit tarts were a part of my vocabulary and diet from a young age.  Bûche de Noël (AKA Yule Log), a traditional French cake, is something that my parents always brought home around Christmastime. It was usually a vanilla sponge cake filled with coffee buttercream and covered with ganache. As a child, I never really liked the flavors, and a cake that’s shaped like a log with mushrooms growing on it seemed odd to me. Now, as an adult, it sounds like a fun, kooky idea.

I’m not sure why, but at 10pm last night just before bed, I decided to attempt my first-ever Bûche de Noël.  I like fruity flavors, so my version consisted of a vanilla cake with apricot jam filling and a rum ganache frosting. For garnish, I made mushrooms, berries and leaves out of marzipan. I don’t know if it was because I’d used my regular vanilla cake recipe, which is really moist and not springy like a traditional sponge cake, or my rolling technique (I was trying to roll it pretty tight) but the cake cracked on me. Once I put the ganache on, though, you couldn’t really tell.  The roll held its round shape for a while, then collapsed to a sad-looking, flat log… Bummer. I think it’s because there wasn’t enough filling to hold the layers and keep them from collapsing (especially since I couldn’t roll the cake as tightly as I would have liked). Also, the ganache was not completely set, so it was a bit gloppy when I applied it. [Note to self: next time, don’t attempt new projects when you’re trying to go to bed!]

Eh, not my best work, but I had fun. Plus, vanilla cake + apricot + chocolate + rum = yum.

**If you were born after 1985 or had to babysit your baby brother like I did, you probably remember “The Log Song” from The Ren and Stimpy Show.

Bonjour!

17 Dec

Pastry display at La Boulange Bakery in San Francisco.

Okay, so I don’t really speak French (unless you count the few basic phrases I remember from high school French), but somehow it seems appropriate to kind-of pretend since this is a blog about desserts and nobody–and I mean NOBODY–does desserts like the French do. When I come across photos of Parisian pâtisseries and see the kinds of pastries French people have access to every single day, I cry a little inside that I wasn’t born in France. My mom–a total Francophile–has very openly told my dad and me over the years that she wishes she had found and married a Frenchman (instead of marrying my Chinky-eyed dad) when she lived in Switzerland. It’s annoying and insulting, but sometimes I wish she had as well, if by some biological miracle I could still be her child and receive the benefit of access to French pastries. But it just wasn’t meant to be I guess.

There are some decent French-style bakeries here in the Bay Area. But alas, I do not get to enjoy them either. Why, you ask? Because I am vegan–that means no meat, eggs, dairy or any animal products or by-products. I do this by choice (yes, it’s true!) and have zero regrets about that decision, but I still have fully-functional taste buds that like to be exercised every once in a while. I had a very diverse palate and considered myself a foodie when I was still an omnivore four years ago, so switching to a diet of granola and sprouted wheat berries has never been an option for me. Finding restaurants with good vegan food and learning to prepare delicious meals haven’t been so much of an issue. Finding tasty, interesting vegan desserts, however, is much more difficult. (Yes, there are rare gems such as Millennium Restaurant, whose creative desserts  raise the bar for all of us wannabe vegan culinarians. But they’re exactly that — rare.)

Don’t get me wrong,  I am incredibly appreciative of vegan pioneers such Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, whose dessert recipes ensured that I maintained my robust figure while I transitioned to veganism. As someone who rarely entered the kitchen (except to eat other people’s cooking) before I became vegan in 2007, these women were an absolute godsend when I needed a chocolate chip cookie, a slice of cheesecake or piece of apple pie. These days, however, I’ve gotten all Ariel from The Little Mermaid. I want more, you know what I mean? And I want it without relying on vegan substitutes and alternatives like Tofutti “cream cheese” and Earth Balance “butter” that is in most of the vegan desserts available commercially and fills the pages of most vegan cookbooks. Many people enjoy these products, but they’re just not for me anymore.

So welcome to my new dessert blog in which I document my baking successes and failures, and quest to further push the boundaries of vegan pastry!