Monday, December 30, 2013

Chocolate Mousse

One of my all-time favorite Jacques Torres quotes is "Life is short. Eat dessert first." So I got to thinking, maybe 2014 will be the year where we actually listen and subscribe to the wisdom of such an accomplished, distinguished master pastry chef by changing up the sequence of the courses of the meal. Okay, that really might be too much of a radical departure from the way we learned to eat. However, depending on the age (and gullibility) of your family and friends or the power of your persuasiveness, there is a possibility some might be able to be swayed into believing dessert first really should be the new normal. However, if you are surrounded by people who have some deeply entrenched beliefs or eating habits, the mere suggestion of flipping the order of the meal could leave them to think you have 'flipped'.

But come on, maybe just once we should make dessert the first course rather than the finale of the meal. Our whole perspective on eating could undergo profound changes. We might never again say or hear the phrase 'If you eat your dinner, you can have dessert' spoken again. Who knows, just the elimination of those bribing or threatening words (it all depends on one's perspective) could positively change the whole eating experience at dinner tables across the country! 'Eat your vegetables' may no longer be the words many kids (and some adult kids too) have come to think of as a fate worse than death.

I don't know about you, but more often than not I cannot eat one more bite after the 'meal'. When dining with friends in a restaurant, having dessert ends up becoming a vicarious experience no matter how compelling the dessert menu or tray looks (okay, remember I said 'more than one' bite as I have been known to take a taste of someone else's dessert.) So the concept of dessert first is rather appealing, particularly if it is something decadent and definitely made of chocolate. Something like a rich, creamy Chocolate Mousse.

Have you ever eaten a dessert that was so memorable, so delicious that it became the one by which you judged all others? For me that dessert would be Chocolate Mousse. I no longer remember where I found 'the recipe' for the Chocolate Mousse, the one that left a permanent imprint on my palate, 'the one' by which all others were judged against. No other Chocolate Mousse recipe I tried or tasted ever compared to it. I was permanently spoiled by what I thought was Chocolate Mousse perfection. There was only one problem, one serious problem. I misplaced the recipe years ago. And as many times as I went through my boxes and boxes of recipes, I couldn't find it. I felt I had no other choice than to be committed to living a Chocolate Mousse free life because nothing would be better than something. So imagine the range of emotions I experienced when a few weeks ago while searching for another recipe, I came across the 'the recipe'. The best way I can explain the euphoria I felt was is by saying the experience was akin to reconnecting with a long lost soulmate.

There are only five ingredients in this Chocolate Mousse: chocolate, eggs, whipping cream, vanilla and a pinch of Kosher salt. But these five ingredients are transformed into the most insanely delicious, perfect texture confection. It is hard to believe how something so simple to make can taste like it was made by a five star restaurant pastry chef. Whether you have eaten in a five star restaurant or not, you can now create a five star dessert without ever leaving the comfort of your own home or making a serious dent in your bank account.

There are hundreds of recipes for Chocolate Mousse out there, many with the same ingredients but with different proportions. Further differentiating these recipes is the process how the mousse is made. The ingredient prepared the most differently is the whipping cream. It is how the whipping cream is used I think is just one of the reasons for putting this Chocolate Mousse in a category of its' own (which would be the to die for category). Here's the whipping cream game changer. It is not whipped and incorporated into the mixture, rather it is heated to the boiling point, used to melt the chocolate and emulsify the egg yolks. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The recipe calls for six, room temperature, large eggs separated. You will use all six yolks but only four of the egg whites. You can always use the remaining two egg whites for another recipe, so nothing goes to waste.

The kind of chocolate you decide to use matters. I prefer using a bittersweet chocolate (one with a 60% cocoa content) over a semi-sweet chocolate, but either one will work in this mousse (just know the depth of chocolate flavor will be affected). The chocolate, vanilla and salt are placed in a standard size food processor fitted with a steel blade. In a small saucepan, the whipping cream is heated to the boiling point, poured into the food processor and mixed for 30 seconds or until all of the chocolate has melted. The six egg yolks are added and mixed in for 6 seconds. This is just enough time to incorporate them without overprocessing them. The entire mixture is then transferred to a large bowl and allowed to  cool. In my experience the time it takes to beat the egg whites is all the time needed.

The four room temperature egg whites are beat until stiff in a standing mixer, or with a hand mixer or if you are really ambitious with a whisk. When egg whites are room temperature their whipped volume will be greater (a good thing).  If you over beat the egg whites, they will break down and liquify (not a good thing). The stiffly beaten egg whites are then gently folded into the chocolate mixture. Fold until no white streaks or lumps remain.

This Chocolate Mousse needs to set up in the refrigerator. So you have a decision to make after the egg whites have been fully incorporated. Either transfer the mousse mixture to a serving bowl or pour into individual ramekins, custard cups or the single serving size dishes of your choice. I like to put the entire mixture into a single bowl so that everyone can take as much or as little as they want (because sometimes you have people who only want one bite). Once you make the serving container decision, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 8 hours or overnight (recommend chilling overnight).

As beautiful as a bowl of Chocolate Mousse may be, its' presentation has an even greater 'wow' factor when decorated with freshly whipped cream and chocolate covered espresso beans. But if you are a Chocolate Mousse purist you can serve the freshly whipped cream on the side. No matter which decision you make about the whipped cream, definitely serve it as it provides for a great balance to the thick, rich Chocolate Mousse.

I thought it fitting to have the last blog post of 2013 be a dessert. Had I given it more thought twelve months ago I would have started with dessert first to honor the spirit of Jacques Torres' words of wisdom. Hmmm, maybe I have more traditionalist leanings than I would like to believe and just fantasize about being a little bit of a radical. But regardless of how you live your life, live it as happy as possible in the year ahead. I wish you a very happy, blessed new year.

And oh, before I forget, some of you may have noticed that I have created a list of labels to help you better navigate the blog. Until I can get the search feature working better, I hope this is a time saver for you. The list of labels are under the heading 'Browse By' located in the righthand side column of the blog. 

Chocolate Mousse

12 ounces of semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate chips (My preference of chocolate chips are the Ghiradelli Bittersweet Chocolate Chips (60% cocoa content)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
6 egg yolks (from large eggs)
4 egg whites, room temperature (from large eggs)
pinch of Kosher salt
Optional garnishes: Freshly whipped cream and chocolate espresso beans

1. Place chocolate chips, vanilla and salt in food processor fitted with steel blade.
2. Heat whipping cream to boiling point, add to food processor and mix for 30 seconds until chocolate has melted.
3. Add egg yolks and mix for 6 seconds. Transfer to a large glass bowl to allow to cool.
4. Whip egg whites to stiff peak stage. Gently fold egg whites into chocolate mixture until no white streaks remain. Transfer to serving bowl or whatever serving dishes you want to use.
5. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
6. Top with piped whipped cream and chocolate espresso beans or serve the whipped cream on the side.

I really do believe the 'life is short' part of the Jacques Torres quote. I am not sure this is because I am getting older and have so many things left on my list to do and experience. Or whether it is because I have been witness to and experienced the impact of 'time and distance' or even the 'I am really busy' decisions I or others have made. Regrettably, I have been guilty of putting time and distance between myself and others in times of conflict particularly if they aren't high on my list of those important to me. And as a result, it has sometimes affected a friendship or a relationship. Not that we can't make repairs (we can if we want to), how long it takes us to make them often determines whether or not the conflicts are 'done, over with and forgotten' or ones that chip away at trust. There is a reason why procrastination has gotten such a bad rap.

With the tradition of setting new year's resolutions less than 48 hours away, I already know what is going to be on the top of my list. And no, it's not eating dessert first! Having 'lived alone' for the past two years has changed as well as reinforced some of the things I believe really matter. Those things are not things at all, but people, more specifically, the people in my life who have brought and continue to bring immeasurable value to it. As much as I am one who believes in the concept of second chances, I have lived long enough to know that sometimes we don't always get that second chance. Yes, 2014 will be the year guided by the mantra 'life is short'. Yes, this will be my simple little reminder to always keep both the short and the long views of life in mind.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Potato Leek Gratin

With the Christmas holiday dinner now behind us, some of us are beginning to plan the New Year's Day menu. I say some (versus many or all) because how the first day of the new year is celebrated varies greatly from family to family, from region to region. For some, New Year's Day is a laid back sort of day and not the 'having company over for Sunday dinner' kind of day I grew up with. For others it is eating those foods believed to bring good luck, good fortune, and good health in the year ahead, those foods that have this magical 'change your fate' quality only one day a year. And then there are those recovering from the New Year's Eve revelry, where the sight of food is less than a welcome sight.  But regardless of our traditions, beliefs or state of soberness, unless one begins the year with a day of fasting, we all need to eat something.

So why not begin the year eating a Potato Leek Gratin? It is quite possible that this insanely delicious gratin also has its' own magical qualities. The qualities of making for a very happy start to the new year and an even happier belly. If you are thinking there is nothing 'lucky' in the Potato Leek Gratin, think again. The circular sliced potatoes and leeks as well as leeks being green make this a gratin one containing two lucky foods in one dish! And hey if you make a baked ham or pork roast to go with it, you will be serving everyone a meal that further increases their short and long term good fortune!

For those of you who don't or haven't leeks but like the flavors of onion and garlic, you will love this vegetable. Leeks belong to onion and garlic, otherwise known as, a member of the genus Allium family. The white base and light green portions of the leek have a mild onion-like taste. While they can be eaten raw, however, when sautéed they are transformed into something incredibly delicious. For the gratin, four pounds of leeks are sliced into 1/4 inch rings, soaked or rinsed in water to remove any dirt and then paper towel dried.

In a large non-stick frying pan, first melt five tablespoons of butter before adding the sliced, dried leeks. At the start of this sautéing process, sprinkle 1 1/2 Tablespoons of Kosher (not table) salt. I know it seems like alot of salt, but don't worry, I promise you it is not too much. The leeks are cooked on medium heat for approximately 20 minutes or until they are tender. During the cooking process you will place a lid on the pan and stir occasionally. If you are not using a non-stick pan, you may have to stir a little more frequently to ensure you do not burn the leeks.

After the leeks have been sautéed, you will add the thyme, white pepper, and whipping cream. You will continue cooking this mixture uncovered on low-medium heat until it has thickened. This will take about 15 minutes. When thickened, remove from the heat and set aside. I will warn you now that when you taste this mixture when it is finished cooking, you will want to sit there and eat the entire pan. It is addictively delicious. But try to show some restraint and patience as the finished gratin is even more delicious.

In the making of this gratin, I went back and forth on deciding which potatoes to use. Russets or Yukon Golds, Russets or Yukon Golds, Russets or Yukon Golds. I was starting to make this decision more complicated and more expensive than it needed to be (at the grocery store I bought both of them). So I took a deep breath, read through a multitude of gratin recipes and learned that these two potatoes were considered to be interchangeable. The choice of potato one makes appeared mostly to be on personal preference, however, Yukon Golds are known to have a slightly more buttery and less starchy flavor than the Russets. In gratins where there is added flavor from cheeses and heavy cream one might not taste a difference between the two potatoes. But I had to make a decision or this gratin was at risk for not being made. You can probably guess which potato I went with. Yes, it was the Yukon Golds.

The original recipe called for peeling and slicing the potatoes into 1/4 inch slices, but I thought the slices would be too thick and 1/8 inch too thin. So I decided to make 3/8 inch slices. This turned out to be a good decision.

There are different, repeated layers in this gratin. Using a large glass or ceramic baking dish greased with a tablespoon of butter, you begin the process by layering one third of the potatoes. The second layer is 1/3 of the leek mixture, the third layer is 1/3 of the grated Gruyere and Parmigiano-Reggiano mixture, and the last layer is one tablespoon of chopped chives. The layering process is repeated two more times, however, the last tablespoon of chopped chives are saved until the Potato Leek gratin has finished baking and is ready to be served.

Once assembled, the gratin is covered with aluminum foil and placed in a preheated 400 degree oven where it is baked for 45 minutes. The foil cover is removed and the gratin continues baking for another 30 minutes or until the top is golden brown. The Potato Leek Gratin needs to rest for 10 to 15 minutes before serving. While it rested I loosely covered it with aluminum foil.

I debated about whether or not I could assemble this gratin the day before I was baking it, but had some slight trepidation about whether or not the potatoes would turn gray if refrigerated overnight. However, because I other things to make for dinner, I did refrigerate the gratin for several hours before baking. Since there was no change to the color of the Yukon Golds, I would (with confidence) encourage you to make and assemble this gratin earlier in the day as it does take some time to put together. But for your investment of time, you will be greatly rewarded. Seriously, this could be one of the dishes placed on the sacred 'last meal request' list. But I doubt very much that I will wait that long until I make it again. 

Potato Leek Gratin (slight adaptation to a Williams-Sonoma recipe)

5 Tablespoons unsalted butter plus 1 Tablespoon to grease the baking dish
4 pounds leeks, white and light green portions, cut into 1/4 inch rings and rinsed
1 1/2 Tablespoons Kosher salt
1 teaspoon minced thyme
3/4 teaspoon white pepper
1 cup heavy whipping cream
6 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated
3 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, freshly grated
3 pounds Yukon Gold (or Russet) potatoes, peeled and cut into 3/8 inch slices
3 Tablespoons minced fresh chives, divided

1. In a large non-stick fry plan, melt the butter. Add the leeks and salt, stirring to coat the leeks with the butter.
2. Cook leeks until they are tender. Stir occasionally and keep pan covered. Will take approximately 20 minutes.
3. When leeks are tender, add thyme, pepper and whipping cream. Simmer until thickened (about 15 minutes). Keep pan uncovered and continue to stir occasionally.
4. Remove from heat and set cooked leek mixture aside.
5. Using one tablespoon of unsalted butter, grease a large 9 by 13 ceramic or glass baking dish (I like using a large oval baking dish). 
6. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
7. In a medium sized bowl combine the grated cheeses. Set aside.
8. Layer one-third of the sliced Yukon Gold potatoes on the bottom of the baking dish. Spread one-third of the leek mixture on top of the potatoes. Sprinkle one-third of the cheese mixture. Finally sprinkle one tablespoon of the chopped chives.
9. Repeat layering process two more times (reserving 1 tablespoon of chives).
10. Cover the baking dish with aluminum foil and bake for 45 minutes. Remove the foil and continue baking until the potatoes are tender and top is golden brown (about 30 minutes).
11. Remove from oven, cover loosely with foil and allow to rest for 10-15 minutes before serving.
12. Sprinkle the remaining tablespoon of chives and serve.
Note: The Potato Leek Gratin goes perfectly with Beef Tenderloin. It would also be a great accompaniment to a baked ham or roasted chicken.

Saltedsugaredspiced was conceived 364 days ago, just a day away from its' one year anniversary. Like most endeavors (and relationships) I enter into, I jumped into it not knowing whether it would last, how it might evolve, or if I would stay committed (you know the slightly more reckless just 'do' versus the 'think, think, maybe, maybe not do' approach to life). However, what I knew was that its' sustainability or demise would, in large part, be my ability to give it the time and attention it needed as well as how I dealt with any of the obstacles I encountered along the way (because life is messy and it always has obstacles). As excited as I was about 'giving birth' to the blog, there was a part of me that thought it would be one followed only by a few of my friends who would cheer me on (their early and regular feedback meant much to me as it helped to keep me going). Yet, I also hoped it would also become a blog that would also take on a life of its own, one that would be read beyond this little posse of mine. But since I had never been on this type of journey before, I didn't know whether I should go out on the limb of high expectations or just play it safe and not have any. I ended up settling somewhere between the two ends of the expectation continuum.

On this almost one year anniversary of the blog, it appears that my compromised expectations were not just realized but exceeded. So to all of you who have followed this blog over the course of the year, I thank you!!! Not only for taking the time to read through the descriptions of the recipes but also for reading my musings about the lens through which I see the world, see life. As it turned out this blog became more than just a food blog.

Anniversaries of all kinds and birthdays have always been regarded (in my world) as noteworthy occasions. And so for me saltedsugaredspiced's impending one year anniversary is indeed a noteworthy one. Why? First, because there were moments when I wanted to walk away from the blog as it was much harder and more time consuming than I thought it would be. Every so often I needed to remind myself that those endeavors bringing us the greatest satisfaction and euphoric joy do indeed take work and commitment. And second, this blog was something I dreamt about creating for a very, very long time but had procrastinated in launching it because I came up with all sorts of reasons why I couldn't instead of focusing my energies on why I should (you know that old glass half-empty or half full lens).

Where saltedsugaredspiced goes or takes me in the year ahead I do not know for certain (but if I have the Leek Potato Gratin with a baked ham and eat some grapes on New Year's Day, the possibilities could be endlessly amazing!). But what I do know is that this is a journey I am looking forward to continuing, learning and growing from. I really do hope you will stay on it with me.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Steamed Pudding with Hard Sauce

The past two days have gone by so quickly I am tempted to say it all feels like the holidays were a complete blur. But that sentiment would not truly reflect the memories permanently etched in my memory and all created over the course of a few days. At least for me, there is a frenetic hecticness to the holidays that can be simultaneously energizing and exhausting. But I wouldn't trade the two completely different and competing feelings for anything (well maybe I would give up some of the exhaustion). We are a family whose Christmas holiday is best described as one having a myriad of old traditions mixed in with the creation of new ones (wondering if the family can survive a second annual healthy competition checkers tournament next year). As the oldest sibling I love being the one to have the Christmas dinner. Fortunately my sister and brother have indulged me in this more often than not. And so in return for this gift they have given me I have tried to make the meal as well as the day as memorable as possible. Because at some point it is the experiences we have, not just the gifts we receive that remain with us (although receiving no gift at all might be one of those things stays with you for awhile or at least makes you wonder 'was I that bad this year?').

It was during the holidays, in the home of a very good friend, more than twenty five years ago that I first saw and tasted the Steamed Pudding with Hard Sauce. This feast for the eyes was as delicious as it was simply beautiful. Needless to say it was a memorable experience, one that I have tried to make a part of my Christmas dinner tradition.

I had all good intentions of posting this recipe yesterday but time kept getting away from me (yes, I know the road to 'hell' is paved with good intentions). But time may not be the only reason for the posting delay. It is one I will shamelessly admit to you now that uses a cake mix. Yes, it's true, I don't always follow the 'everything has to be from scratch' rule all of the time. Every once in awhile I do make something 'semi-homemade'. And as part of this culinary confession I must also admit that up until now I have always been a little reluctant to share this recipe (even though someone shared it with me) because I hadn't wanted everyone to know of my little rule deviation or spoil their experience of thinking they were having a Dicken's era confection. But after giving it some thought and in keeping with the spirit of the holidays, I thought I should be a little more giving and a little less guarded (selfish was the word I was thinking of actually).

I have used antique steamed pudding molds as well as my Williams-Sonoma non-stick steamed pudding mold in the making of this chocolatey confection. I don't believe Williams-Sonoma still sells these molds, however, a quick search on the internet showed they were still for sale out there. In spite of the fact that the Williams-Sonoma mold has a non-stick surface, I always, always spray it with a cooking oil and then lightly flour (a lesson learned the hard way one year).

So what is the secret ingredient that I have been so reluctant to share? Well, it is a regular 15.25 box of Devil's Food cake mix (not a pudding in the cake mix). Yes, a cake mix that transforms into something one would not think came from a box.

The cake mix ix made in accordance with the package directions and poured into the prepared mold. In a pot larger than the mold, you add enough water on the bottom to cover 1/3 of the pan. I use my All-Clad pasta pot but any large stockpot with a lid will work. The pudding mold is sealed and placed in the water where it is cooked on simmer for 90 minutes. It is important that the pot has a good lid as you do not want the steam escaping. Before I began using my All-Clad pan I had a pot where I had to place weights on top of the lid to ensure the steam would not escape. This worked, but I was always worried the weights would fall off and someone would get hurt (that someone being me).

Periodically check to see if you need to add more water (always add very hot water so you don't reduce the temperature of the water) as it is important to maintain a certain amount of water in the cooking process.

After 90 minutes, the steamed pudding is removed from the pot and placed on a cooling rack (remember to also remove the pudding lid) for about 15 minutes before you unmold. You don't want the cooked 'pudding' to cool for more than 30 minutes or it may be difficult to unmold (another painful lesson learned one year). The steamed pudding will still be slightly warm when you carefully unmold.

The hard sauce is kind of like a frosting served on the side. Made of unsalted butter, almond extract, milk, confectionary sugar and a pinch of sea salt, it is the perfect accompaniment to the steamed pudding. Some will prefer to enjoy the Steamed Pudding all on its own while others will like the contrast of pudding and hard sauce flavors on their palate. Personally, I like the Hard Sauce with this steamed pudding. The hard sauce can be made early in the day, but allowed to sit out for at least one hour before serving so it still has a hard, yet creamy consistency.

Serve the Steamed Pudding warm or at room temperature. If you make it early in the day but want to serve it warm, simply reheat on low in the microwave. Whether you make it for Christmas or for any other occasion, it will be one of those memorable desserts. And whether or not you choose to keep its' ingredients a secret the first time you serve it to family and friends is all up to you. Just remember, sometimes a little mystery is a good thing (at least for a little while).

Steamed Pudding with Hard Sauce (a recipe shared by a very dear friend along time ago)

Steamed Pudding
A 15.25 ounce box of Devil's Food Cake Mix (made in accordance with package directions). Hint: Do not use the pudding in the mix cake mix.

Hard Sauce
1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
2 teaspoons almond extract
2 Tablespoons whole milk
1 to 1 1/2 cups confectionary sugar (added gradually)
pinch of sea salt 
Optional: Add one teaspoon of chopped crystallized ginger for a gingered hard sauce.

Steamed Pudding
1. Pour prepared cake mix into a prepared (oiled and floured) steamed pudding mold.
2. Place mold in a deep pot. Put enough water in pot so it covers 1/3 of the mold. Place lid on pot and simmer for 90 minutes. Periodically check to make sure you have enough water in pot. If you need to add more, make sure the water added is hot.
3. Remove steamed pudding, remove lid and place on a cooling rack. After 15 minutes carefully unmold onto a plate. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Hard sauce
1. In a small bowl, mix together the unsalted butter, almond extract, milk, pinch of sea salt and 1 cup of confectionary sugar until well blended and smooth. If hard sauce is too creamy add up to an additional 1/2 cup of confectionary sugar. 
2. Serve immediately or refrigerate. If refrigerated, allow to sit out at least one hour before serving. Restir the hard sauce.

In the first annual checker tournament this year, I lost in the second round to my youngest brother. I allowed myself to get distracted and suddenly went from potentially winning to losing. So before the final championship round took place we all sit down to dinner. At the end of dinner I said to my brother's friend how sorry I was that this would be the last time she would be invited to the Christmas dinner. After a planned short pause, I said 'that would be because my youngest brother didn't allow his oldest sister to win the checker's match.' I really, yes really was teasing (partly because as being the hostess I didn't think I should win any tournament, particularly one I created and wrapped the prizes for), but we are a wickedly competitive family, particularly when playing games with one another. Where that competitiveness came from I do not know, but I am convinced it is in our DNA as it appears to have passed down through the generations (although the younger generation has turned this competitiveness, thankfully, toward athletics and academics).

I think we all create or sustain a certain competitive spirit in our families. Whether it is ensuring that everyone gets the 'same or equal' number of gifts (a delicate balancing act for parents) or reinforcing loyalties to certain sports teams by buying their paraphernalia or attending sporting events or supporting family members in their competitive endeavors or even matching one's wit against anothers, possessing a certain level of competitiveness can be a good thing. Like most things it is all about finding the right balance of healthiness and unhealthiness. I am glad we are a family that can play together and against one another without any serious casualties (don't think for a moment there isn't a fair amount of teasing that takes place when one 'loses'). But I can predict now that next year my even more competitive than I sister will ask if we are having the Christmas checkers tournament again as she will not want to go into any game again not having played it in years. Next to being competitive we can sometimes be a little predictable. None of my siblings would have ever predicted the Steamed Pudding with Hard Sauce wasn't completely made from scratch. Just like too much competitiveness, too much predictability isn't always a good thing either.

Monday, December 23, 2013

A Rich Hot Chocolate

Starbucks once served a rich thick hot chocolate drink they called Chantico, described as a 'drinkable dessert'. The first time I drank this wickedly delicious, rather decadent concoction was on a warm day in San Antonio (where warm is really warm). We were walking along the Riverwalk and decided to stop at the Starbucks to get something to drink. A cup of hot chocolate wasn't what we going in for but the idea of drinking a hot liquid chocolate was too much to pass up. Seriously, in just one sip I thought I had time traveled back to the time of the Mayans and Aztecs where chocolate (in a hot liquid form) was considered food for the gods. Taking this temporary fantasy a little further, I thought maybe my love for this rich hot chocolate was connecting me to an inner Mayan Princess.

Thank goodness the serving size was small (I think it was only 6 ounces) as had it been any larger it would not be an indulgence but an over the top, almost too much extravagance. Yet ever since having that hot chocolate (it has since been discontinued by Starbucks) nothing I tasted seemed to compare or at least come close to putting me into such a chocolate intoxication, fantasy inducing state. Then one day I came across a recipe for a classic hot chocolate created by Mindy Segal, former pastry chef at MK (one of my most favorite restaurants in Chicago), and now owner of Mindy's Hot Chocolate (an award winning restaurant, dessert bar). Like the Starbuck's Chantico, it is rich, thick and served in small portions. Sometimes a little goes a long way to satisfy a craving, to create a sense of euphoria, or to make you want to scream with pure childlike delight.  Suggesting just a little of something is a good thing might seem a little out of character for me as I have been known be a proponent of the mantra 'more is a good thing'. However, one can't be predictable all of the time.

Milk chocolate, bittersweet chocolate, whipping cream and whole milk are combined to make a hot chocolate to die for (in the figurative sense, although one sip and you might literally feel you have died and gone to heaven). This hot chocolate is so delicious it would be insane to wait for a cold day or night to enjoy it. If you have rules about when you drink hot chocolate, after you taste this, I have a feeling you will break them.

The quality of chocolate matters when making the base for the hot chocolate. (Doesn't quality almost always matter, particularly when making something with chocolate?) I like using Callebaut chocolate for the base (usually available at Whole Foods), however, Scharfenberger, Guittard, Valrhona and even Ghiradelli all make great quality milk and bittersweet chocolates. The milk and bittersweet chocolates are finely chopped, placed on a baking sheet and placed in the freezer for approximately one hour.

Working in two batches, the frozen chopped chocolate is placed in a large food processor and pulsed until fine, even as possible granules. (During one of the batches add a pinch of Kosher salt.) Be careful not to over process as the chocolate could begin to melt from the heat of the food processor. Transfer the chocolate granules to a covered jar or container.

To make a cup of rich hot chocolate, heat 1/3 cup of whipping cream and 1/3 cup of whole milk in a small saucepan to just a boil (you will see a few bubbles). Remove from heat and add 1/2 cup of the chocolate granules. Allow to sit without stirring for 5 minutes.

Whisk the chocolate into the cream/milk mixture until smooth. Return to a low heat to rewarm the hot chocolate, stirring often. I have found that after the chocolate melts in the heated cream/milk mixture and is then whisked, it becomes a little lukewarm.

Pour the reheated hot chocolate into a mug, add an oh so slight pinch of sea salt and top with a homemade marshmallow. Then sit back, enjoy and savor this incredibly decadent, almost dessert like, hot chocolate. 

A Rich Hot Chocolate (an oh so slight adaptation to Mindy Segal's Hot Chocolate recipe)

Hot Chocolate Master Blend
1 1/4 pounds high quality milk chocolate finely chopped
6 ounces high quality bittersweet chocolate finely chopped
pinch of Kosher salt

One cup of Rich Hot Chocolate
1/2 cup of the hot chocolate master blend
1/3 cup whipping cream 
1/3 cup whole milk
an oh so slight pinch of sea salt
1 marshmallow (homemade if you can find them or make them)

Hot Chocolate Master Blend
1. Place finely chopped chocolates on a baking sheet and freeze for approximately one hour.
2. In a large food processor, process half of the mixture to fine, even granules. Transfer to a bowl. Repeat with remaining mixture. (Do not process too long or chocolate may begin to melt from the heat.)
3. Store Hot Chocolate Master Blend in a tightly covered jar. Use as needed.

One cup of Rich Hot Chocolate
1. Bring 1/3 cup whole milk and 1/3 up whipping cream to just a boil over medium-high heat in a small saucepan. Remove from heat.
2. Add 1/2 cup hot chocolate master blend to hot milk mixture. Let stand for 5 minutes (do not stir).
3. Whisk until smooth. Return to heat on low to rewarm (mixture will cool slightly when taken off the heat). 
4. Pour hot chocolate into mug and add an oh so slight pinch of sea salt. Top with a homemade marshmallow. Sip slowly and enjoy.

The other day I spent almost an entire afternoon wrapping presents. When I shared how I spent part of my day with one of my friends she said 'What the hell did you buy?' It was a rather fair question, but for once there was no relationship between the number of gifts bought and the time spent wrapping them. I tend to fuss over the wrapping of gifts as much as I fuss over picking them out. Like food presented beautifully on a plate or the table, even the simplest of gifts seem to be transformed when beautifully wrapped. It's that little attention to detail that for me says 'you matter' just as much as the gift itself matters.

One year I remember making wrapping paper where everyone's package had their initials stamped on them (those Martha Stewart days are over or on hiatus for awhile). Another year I had found some beautiful antique blue velvet ribbon to use for the packages of gifts of friends (I have become a little more selective over the years over my ribbon choices for gifts after I saw the antique ribbon bunched up in the paper and thrown in the garbage). And then I once found the most beautiful three inch wide thick ivory satin ribbon. It was almost too beautiful to cut (but then why does one buy ribbon if not to cut it?)  So one Christmas I decided to wrap the gifts for my childhood best friend with it. The next Christmas that same piece of ribbon reappeared as it was used to wrap the gifts she had given to me. And for more than ten years, this single piece of ivory satin ribbon went back and forth on our gifts to one another each Christmas. (I may be the one responsible for misplacing that piece of ribbon thus bringing an end to what became a tradition for awhile). But for all of those years that single piece of ribbon made ordinary gifts seem extraordinary. And isn't that how we all want our friends and family to feel when we give them a present? Even a box of coal might go from being thought of as not such a great thing to receive as a gift to a fun, good, maybe even memorable one (or least you would hope so), especially if it is wrapped in pretty paper.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Viennese Finger Biscuits

When I hear the words 'stop yourself' or 'relax', I invariably know they are being directed at me (no matter how many other people are in the room). I always hear them, but often behave in ways that make the sender of these messages think I am ignoring them. And truth be told, I sometimes am (I silently wonder when they would just give up and allow me to be me or sometimes I just allow my eyes to widen when I hear those words). Why I am sharing all of this with you? Because even though I have already made a myriad of holiday cookies and confections, I cannot seem to stop myself from making another one (well I really can but don't want to). And because I have convinced myself there is no such thing as 'too much' sugary or chocolately cookie bliss during the holidays (or I am just a glutton for punishment).

Quite possibly these Viennese Finger Biscuits will actually put you in such a state of bliss that you too will be thankful you ignored either those external or internal voices saying 'stop yourself'. As a bonus, there are actually five different ways of making these biscuits (otherwise known as cookies on this side of the Atlantic Ocean). They can be dipped in chocolate only, they can have a wonderful buttercream filling and be assembled like a sandwich cookie (then dipped or not dipped in chocolate), or they can have a layer of your favorite preserves to go along with the buttercream filling (then dipped or not dipped in chocolate). In other words, the possibilities in how you assemble these cookies are endless. Since I tend to skew to the too much end of the continuum, I decided to make them two ways: with buttercream filling and dipped in chocolate and with raspberry preserves, buttercream filling, and dipped in chocolate. And sometimes I like giving others a choice.

The idea of simplifying the holiday baking lasted less than 24 hours with the making of these cookies. While not hard to make at all (seriously), there are several steps in the assembly process. Of all of the cookies I have made this holiday season, this one by far is off the charts as far as taste and presentation goes. They are rich, buttery and chocolatey. They are rule of three cookies amplified. If cookies were a form of currency these would be Franklins.

The dough is made up of only five ingredients: unsalted butter, vanilla, confectionary sugar, all purpose flour and self-rising flour. The use of self rising flour eliminates the need for any other leaveners (i.e., baking powder).

With the exception of the vanilla, all of the dough ingredients are weighed (we are back to the Thomas Keller style of baking).  The more I bake cookies with weighed versus measured (in cups) ingredients, I  become more and more convinced that weighing ingredients make for a more consistent, more perfect cookie.

In a standing mixer with a paddle attachment or a hand mixer, the unsalted butter and confectionary sugar are beat until light and fluffy. After both flours are mixed in, the vanilla is added. When everything is all blended you end up with smooth, thick dough. Important Note: The quantity of ingredients in the dough will yield approximately one dozen cookies. I strongly urge you to double the dough recipe (the filling ingredients do not need to be increased). If using a pastry bag to form the cookies, divide the doubled dough in half  (once you make these cookies you will understand why).

I used a pastry bag to form the Viennese Finger Biscuits (which was more of a workout than I thought). I don't have a cookie press (and don't want one), but if you have one, you might want to consider using it (unless of course your have good hand strength and want to burn a few extra calories). Using a medium star tip, the dough is formed into an even number of 2 1/2 lengths. The cookies will be sandwiched together so it is important to make your cookies as uniform as possible.

The Viennese Finger Biscuits are baked in a preheated 350 degree oven for approximately 15 minutes or until lightly browned on the bottom. Transfer the baked cookies to a rack to allow to cool to room temperature before spreading on the filling and/or preserves.

The buttercream filling for these cookies is made up of confectionary sugar, unsalted butter and vanilla. There will be enough filling for two batches of cookies. In addition to the buttercream filling you can also use some of your favorite preserves. My favorite is raspberry, but any berry preserve would work well. And for dipping the cookies I used a dark chocolate.

Using an offset spatula or butter knife, carefully spread the buttercream filling on one side of a cookie. If you are making the buttercream and preserve variation, you will spread the preserves on the side of a second cookie. There is substance to these cookies, however, I urge you to be gentle when spreading on the buttercream. The last thing you want to do is break one of the cookies because you will end up with less finished cookies. 

Once you have decided which variation of the cookie you are making, you will bring two cookies together to form a sandwich (which is why it is important to have your dough lengths as uniform as possible).

Once the Viennese Finger Biscuits are assembled they are dipped in melted dark chocolate (milk chocolate doesn't seem to work here, but white chocolate would). The dipped cookies should be placed on a piece of parchment paper. Once the chocolate has set, transfer the cookies to a covered tin or serve immediately. During the holidays I often refrigerate my baked cookies and bring them to room temperature before serving. The refrigeration process seems to keep them fresher longer.

There are not enough words to describe how incredible these biscuits are, so I will simply say they are wicked (as in good and not bad). They are more than worth the time and effort that goes into making them. If there was ever a cookie to leave on the plate for the man in the red suit and white beard, then the Viennese Finger Biscuits would be the ones. You are bound to leave a lasting impression and pretty much guarantee he will be making an appearance next year. If you have someone in your life telling to you 'stop yourself' or 'relax', they will be eating their words once the take a bite of this cookie. 

Viennese Finger Biscuits (slight adaptation made to a recipe shared by Caroline Dooley, an Irish baker)

Dough (strongly recommend doubling this recipe as a single recipe yields only a dozen cookies)
7 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature
2 ounces confectionary sugar
4 ounces self-rising flour
4 ounces all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon Vanilla

Buttercream (not necessary to double the buttercream as there will be enough for two batches of biscuits)
3 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature
6 ounces confectionary sugar
1/2 teaspoon Vanilla

Chocolate (if doubling the dough, you will need to double the amount of chocolate)
4 ounces dark chocolate (recommend the Ghiradelli dark melting chocolate wafers)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
2. In a standing mixer with a paddle attachment or a hand mixer, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
3. Beat in the all purpose and self-rising flours until well blended. Beat in the vanilla.
4. Using a medium sized pastry bag with a medium to large star tip, pipe 2 1/2 inch lengths of dough.
5. Bake biscuits for approximately 15 minutes or until bottoms are lightly browned. Transfer biscuits to a cooling rack and allow to cool to room temperature.
6. To make the buttercream icing, beat the confectionary sugar, vanilla and unsalted butter until smooth and creamy. The icing should be room temperature to ensure ease of spreading on the biscuits.
7. Spread the buttercream icing on the bottom on one biscuit. Place an uniced biscuit on top to create a sandwich.
8. If using preserves, very lightly spread your favorite preserve on the bottom of a plain biscuit. Bring the buttercream iced and preserved spread biscuits together to form a sandwich.
9. Melt dark chocolate over a double boiler. Dip one end of the biscuit into the melted chocolate. Place dipped biscuit on a baking pan or cutting board lined with parchment paper. Allow the chocolate to set.
10. Transfer finished biscuits to a covered tin (if not serving immediately) or arrange on a platter.

Over the course of the past 'first' year of, I have shared a variety of cookie, brownie, bar and candy confections with you. In retrospect I showed my affinity for chocolate and sea salt and yet managed to share recipes where butter, sugar and nuts were the focal points. My list of personal favorites changes from time to time and season to season, so I thought it best for you to have the complete linked list rather than share only the 'Lynn favorite at the moment list'.

The holidays are busy enough, so to save you some time as you make your baking and gift giving decisions the linked list below prevents you from having to search through the blog to find them. Hopefully you can turn this 'gift of time' into time spent baking or relaxing (for those of you who know the concept)!

Amy's Shortbread Cookies
Chocolate Chip Cookies with Seal Salt, No Nuts
Chocolate Covered Cashew Clusters
Chocolate Covered Oreos, Sea Salted
Chocolate Whoppers
Cinnamon Glazed Pecans
Coconut Balls aka Better than a Mounds Bar
Cowboy Cookies
Decadent Chocolate Brownies
Decadent Magic 8 Ingredient Bars Served Chilled
Fruit and Nut Chocolate Bark with Sea Salt
Irish Shortbread
Over the Top Rice Krispie Treats
Sea Salted Caramels
Sea Salted White Chocolate and Macadamia Nut Blondies
Sugar Meringue Walnuts
Sugar Saucers
Sweet Dream Cookies
White Chocolate Dipped Ginger Molasses Cookies
White Chocolate Dipped Pistachio and Dried Cherry Cookies
White and Dark Chocolate Dipped Strawberries