Thursday, May 4, 2017

Saffron Honey Marshamallows

I consider myself a fairly proficient cook and baker, but a novice when it comes to candy-making. To be fair, most of my history with attempting to make candy occurred in my childhood without the aid of a candy thermometer. I had to get by with being told to cook until the "soft ball stage" or "hard ball stage" and spent my time dropping bits of fudge or hard candy into glasses of water then scrutinizing its consistency. More often than not, this resulted in sweet goo which was edible, but nothing like what it was supposed to be in texture.

My first truly successful foray into the world of candy-making was recounted on this blog when I made the Times recipe for microwave saffron Turkish delight. In fact, I have made it twice and it turned out beautifully each time. In between this attempt at making marshmallows and that old success with Turkish delight, I made Alton Brown's homemade marshmallows recipe and it turned out fantastic. That recipe utilizes what many feel is the devil's breakfast drink of choice, corn syrup, but that didn't really put me off. As someone who cooks most of her own food (down to even making my own bread), I don't think a little corn syrup in the occasional homemade marshmallow recipe is going to be a significant detriment to my health.

Perhaps emboldened by that success, and being an enormous fan of the flavor of saffron and honey, I wanted to try the Times recipe for saffron honey marshmallows. It didn't hurt that the recipe showed up on my Facebook feed around Easter and the prospect of making cute, yellow sweets (though not shaped like chicks - I don't have that type of cookie cutter) seemed like a great idea at the time.

I followed the recipe to the letter except for one tiny point. I didn't use a 1/2 tsp. of crumbled saffron threads because it's too expensive to squander in that way. I used 1/4 tsp. Other than that, I did exactly as I was told and this was the result after I sprinkled colored sugar on it:

One commenter on the Times recipe page said hers turned out "gooey," but attributed it to her lack of skill. I'm not going to put the blame on me. The recipe is too wet. Far, far too wet. It was so wet that I decided to cut them up and separate them out several times in an attempt to get them to dry a little:

My first attempt was to gently take the soft, squishy blobs and put them in a container with no lid and more sugar. All that did was have moisture pooling at the bottom of the container much as it did the baking dish I'd poured them into. I allowed them to sit like that for two days and it did little to dry them. If I wanted to eat one, I had to put it in a bowl and eat it with a spoon because it was too wet and soft to handle.

After the container approach failed, I took them out and spread them on a baking rack so there was more air under them. I allowed them to be completely exposed to open air for three days to no avail. They were less sopping, and a few of them had crispy, sugary corners where they'd dried out, but, on the whole, they were still far too gooey and soft to handle.

In the end, I put them back in the container with no lid and just ate them slowly. Any hopes that they would dry out enough to be given to others to enjoy (which was my initial plan) was dashed. They sat on top of my refrigerator for two weeks and never did get dry, but they did start to eventually taste stale and I threw the uneaten ones away.

It is unfortunate that this is such a terrible recipe because the flavor was quite nice and the texture of the marshmallows fluffy and soft. The recipe adds in a total of 1 1/4 cups of water and I think that could be dramatically reduced to get a better result. I'm unlikely to try this recipe again, but if I were to give it another shot, I'd reduce the total water down to no more than 3/4 of a cup (1/2 cup of cold on the gelatin and 1/4 cup cooked with the sugar instead of 3/4 cup and a 1/2 cup).

Someone in comments who said she/he was a professional confectioner said that the issue is that honey is hygroscopic and that other liquid should be reduced so I'm not alone in thinking there is an issue with how wet it was. I don't know if there was an error in the original recipe or if the creator of the recipe did something different, but I wouldn't use this recipe as is. That commenter recommended Thomas Keller's French Laundry marshmallow recipe, which looks a lot like Alton Brown's. I'd recommend either of those over this. Though you won't get the honey and saffron flavor, you also won't get a pile of wet marshmallows.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Date Cake Delicious

I love old recipes for a variety of reasons. The biggest one is that they reflect the tastes and available ingredients of the times and are a window into how people lived before our current state of abundance. Another is a reflection of what they grew up with and were acculturated to enjoy.

I've been watching a series of YouTube videos about 18th century cooking and the Fred-Rogers-like host has mentioned how tastes used to be far simpler than they are now. Our palates are trained for strong flavors and we find food which isn't refined to suit them bland. However, in the past, people were satisfied with far less complexity than we are. I wanted to see how this bread stood up to my modern palate, especially since it is curiously low in fat, and because I had a ton of dates lying around that could use a good home folded into bread.

The strangest part of this recipe was that you melted or mixed fat into the hot water that the dates were hydrated in. This seemed an odd choice as coating the dates seemed less important than the flour, though I guess the flour was bound to get some of it as well. As a result of the low fat nature, this bread was drier than I would have liked and less "cake-like" than promised. Mine looked like this (yes, it makes two loaves):

The flavor of this was excellent, however. I loved the nutmeg and cloves (though, actually, I used allspice as that's what I had on hand). I skipped the pecans because my husband doesn't like nuts mixed into his quick breads and I hoped he might like this (he didn't).

I really liked the flavor of this, but the texture just didn't thrill me. I think next time that I will use more fat. My plan is to double the fat and make half the recipe for only one loaf next time and see how that works out. If you like dates, this recipe definitely has potential and the flavors are sufficiently complex even for a palate that wasn't cultivated in the 1920's.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Cherry and Apricot Clafoutis

I learned about the existence of claufoutis as a dish about a year ago when I stumbled across a recipe on Serious Eats. It was hailed by their writers as being extremely elegant, easy, and impressive to guests. The recipe also talks about experimenting copiously with egg, milk, sugar, and flour ratios to get the perfect ratios for the right texture. I made that clafoutis no fewer than 4 times and found it satisfactory as a sweet breakfast dish or a less decadent tea time treat, but it never blew my socks off.

When I found the Times recipe, I felt that their version looked, at least superficially, more in line with my tastes as it includes almond flour, yogurt (which can add a velvety texture as well as flavor depth) instead of milk, and an overall less eggy and more cake-like potential. Both recipes are simple, but the Times one is definitely more complex in a way that should take it further away from being French toast or scrambled eggs.

The first time I tried this, I made it with cherries and apricots and put too much fruit in it as you can see by the ratios in the picture of a slice that I took:

It was good, mind you, but I wanted more base and less fruit in the ratios. I should also note that I used canned dark sweet cherries that I had lying around because I had no fresh ones on hand. I rinsed them very well to get the sugary juice off of them and I only used half the sugar to macerate the fruit because the cherries were already sweeter than fresh. I didn't like how it seemed like all of the fruit had a party at the bottom and ignored the base. You can see from my picture that the edges got a bit dark. I used a dark glass quiche pan to make this and it could be that was the issue, but it also could be that my oven runs a bit hot.

Fast forward to today when I made this for the second time, but I omitted the cherries and just made it with fresh apricots. Serious Eats tells me that this is called a flaugnarde if cherries are not being used, but clafoutis is more fun to say and easier to remember so I'm going to rebel against any change in naming the dish. The second one also came out dark around the edges because I'd forgotten what happened the first time by the time I made my second attempt. I hope to remember next time to reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees because it not only got too dark at the very edge, but it also baked 7 minutes faster than the given time of 40 minutes. I think it'd be better low and slow.

Since this time I had a better chance to taste the non-fruit portion (the basic filling), I can speak better to its texture and flavor. It comes across as a slightly stretchy pancake with a fairly good and developed flavor. I can't say that the apricot-only version was "better" per se, but I did like the greater access to the base's texture and flavor. It was more tart with only the apricot in it than the original mix with cherries. However, some of that tartness can be mitigated by dusting with powdered sugar (which I didn't do with the first piece) and a bit of whipped cream.

This strikes me as an excellent recipe for making an oven-baked pancake-like experience with fruit. I think that, with the right fruit (such as bananas), it might even be pretty amazing with maple syrup instead of the whipped cream and powdered sugar. At the very least, it warrants more experimentation.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Crisp Potato Cake (Galette de Pomme de Terre)

As part of my Paris "Try the World" box, I received a jar of persillade as well as some large grain salt. This was not a term in cooking that I was familiar with, but I looked at the ingredients on the jar and set it aside figuring I'd use it in a meat or fish dish in the future. It includes parsley, onion, garlic, and salt and they are all dried little bits. Little did I know that I would have a chance to use this item with a potato dish far sooner than expected.

Aside from the persillade, this is actually a dish with fairly conventional ingredients. It's also simple, but creates a version of a potato dish that isn't common due to the effort that goes into slicing potatoes super thing, slow cooking the "cake," and carefully flipping it over. The persillade merely adds some flavor depth at the end which definitely raises the bar on this. The real star is the textural complexity of the crispy potatoes on the outside and tender ones on the inside. The devil is in the details in getting this right.

The instructions for this potato cake - which sounds so much more impressive when you call it by its French name of Galette de Pomme de Terre - makes it clear that overly starchy or wet potatoes will create issues for the dish so I decided to do what I could to avoid either of these interfering with a good result. I sliced the potatoes to 1.5 mm on a mandolin and then rinsed them three times then let them soak in cold water in the refrigerator for over five hours. This hydrated the potatoes and allowed a lot of the external starch to wash off. When I was ready to make the dish, I laid out a kitchen towel and laid the potatoes out on it in a single layer then put another towel on top and allowed them to dry between them for about a half hour. 

Other than that extra care, I made a persillade by putting a tablespoon of oil into a small glass dish and a half teaspoon of my dry persillade mix in it and heating it in the microwave. I let that sit around a bit as well to allow the flavors to mix a bit and soften up the herbs. This was what I planned to drizzle on the finished galette.

Mine looked like this:

My photo isn't great-looking because it was taken at night with a flash, but this was a really tasty dish. The textural elements were an absolute delight. My husband likened it to a potato chip on the outside. The complexity the olive oil and herb drizzle gave it was just enough to liven it up a bit. 

I not only will make this again, but will make it two days in a row because it was such a hit. It's also really not that hard to do. You just have to be patient and a little careful. It was far easier to flip over than I expected and cooked faster than I anticipated. I did use a non-stick pan, however, because I don't have a cast iron pan at this time and I don't trust my stainless steel not to create a problem. I don't think it suffered any for the choice and it certainly did not stick despite the fact that I forgot to intermittently shake it to stop it from sticking.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Try the World: Tom Yum Soup (Thailand Box)

When I lived in Tokyo, I bought curry mixes which were little more than a cardboard sleeve filled with plastic packets of spices on a few occasions. I wanted to produce something that was more authentic than Japanese curry, which is more like a spicy beef stew than a true curry. Unfortunately, my results with these mixes were lifeless and thin.

I've since gotten a lot better at making curry thanks to the copious amounts of advice on the internet for doing a better job with Indian cuisine. I am still, however, wary of mixes that are little more than plastic packets of spices. I associate them with the same failures I had in the past, but I also wonder if they are "enough" to produce a dish of complexity and depth. So, it was with no small level of skepticism that I looked at the dry spices and had my doubts.

The instructions say to use mushroom, onion, "lemonade." I interpreted that as "lemon juice" as I believe it's a poor translation. For the meat/seafood portion, I opted to use tilapia fish because I had tons of it in the freezer. I cooked the onion a bit longer than it said (1 minute) because I don't like the sharper flavors of raw onion in soup, but otherwise followed the instructions faithfully.

The soup smelled great and I was very careful not to overcook the fish since that could make it rubbery. The lemongrass was the strongest aroma, followed by the pandan. I did not question the portions of the spices that I used because the end of the recipe said one could add Thai chili paste for more heat. I don't have this item, but I figured I could shape in some red chili flakes if it was bland.

It turned out that this was far from an issue. I'm quite tolerant of heat in my dishes, but this was nuclear hot from the plethora of dried chilies. It would stun me if anyone felt this needed more chili. I had to add in coconut milk and mix the soup with rice to make it tolerate. It was stunningly hot.

Though this was really tasty, I wished I'd been warned about how hot it would be. I think that half the number of chilies would have worked better for my tastes. For people who are even less intolerant, I'd think no more than three would do. The other issue with this was that the spices remained too hard to consume when the soup was done. I had to laboriously pluck them all out each time I ate it.

This was very good and I'm glad that it was included in the box. I wish I had known more about it before I had prepared it so I could have made more adjustments to suit my tastes. I can say that the fish went well with this and I think this is a fantastic way to have seafood in your diet. If you don't care for it, the soup is so flavorful that you can't really taste the fish. 

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Try the World: Chaidim (lemongrass/pandum), Coconut Crispy Rolls, Coconut Flower Syrup (Thailand Box)

Sometimes the assortment in a "Try the World" box doesn't lend itself well to combining multiple elements at once. In such cases, I often feel that the little guide book tries extra hard to pull more than one ingredient together to form a cohesive whole. In this case, they didn't have to try hard at all.

I should begin by saying that I didn't know what pandum was before I got this box. I chose the tea because I knew it'd be the least familiar. After I smelled it, it was much more familiar as I recognized pandum as one of the most aromatic elements of tom yum soup.

When I tried the tea (Chaidim lemongrass/pandum tea), it was very hard to separate the smell and taste of it from the broth from that soup. It didn't taste like "tea" to me until I sweetened it with the Chiwadi coconut flower syrup. I used one carefully measured teaspoon of the super thick syrup and it transformed the tea into something complex and lightly sweetened. I was a little worried about the syrup because one of the ingredients is coconut vinegar (5%). I didn't know one could make vinegar out of coconut, but I guess you learn new things all of the time if you're trying new food.

The tea still smelled like tom yum broth, but it tasted like flowers and honey spiced with something unidentifiable and exotic. It's a bit like having turmeric in sweets for the first time. It seems a little weird at first, but gets better as you get used to it.

The Virgin Coco Coconut Crispy Rolls were much more approachable. They are like a thick, but very light and crispy sugar cone with three hits of flavor. First, you get orange, then a strong burst of coconut, then the sweetness comes along to bind it all together. They are delicate, but have very present flavor. All in all, a very tasty addition provided that you like coconut (and I do).

Monday, March 28, 2016

Strawberry Shortcake

When I was growing up, "strawberry shortcake" had a very particular meaning. It was little shallow cups of somewhat dry sponge cake bought six to a pack at the supermarket. Into these ads specimens, we'd scoop a pile of mashed strawberries copiously mixed with sugar until they could have been jam. Once the requisite fruit was added, more sugar was spooned on top followed by enough milk to decimate the molecular cohesion of the shelf-stable baked good.

It wasn't until many years later that I realized that "shortcake" didn't refer to the height of the cake, but rather to butter mixed with flour and very little liquid. I had no idea that one could make ones own cake to accompany the berries, nor that other people didn't douse their cakes with milk and create a pile of milky, sugary, strawberry-laced mush as a way of enjoying that dessert.

Perhaps because of my experience growing up, I rarely eat strawberry shortcake as a dessert and I've only attempted to make the cake itself once before. That attempt was so-so, most likely because my baking skills at the time didn't include a thorough knowledge of the evils of overworking your flour or using cold butter. A trip to a local discount store and two large containers of relatively sour berries had me looking once more toward trying my hand at a proper shortcake.

I did a search on the New York Times and found a recipe for which I had everything on hand. Many of them included sour cream, whole cream, or whipping cream and I did not have these items around. Fortunately, Mark Bittman's recipe for shortcake had an ingredients list that I could fulfill and a stunningly easy method of preparation.

I was actually a bit dubious of the recipe because he tells you to blitz the butter into the flour completely with a food processor. I'm not averse to my life being made easy in this way, but a relatively small amount of fat thoroughly mixed into flour made me wonder what it might do to the texture. When I make scones, I always make sure not to mix the butter in completely to keep things tender. Nonetheless, I followed the recipe as stated except for a few things.

The primary change I made was to cut the recipe in half and make only 6 cakes (1 cup flour, 2 tbsp. butter, 1/4 cup sugar, 2 tsp. baking powder, pinch salt, and 7 tbsp. milk). This was in part because my husband and I are the only consumers and I didn't need a ton of them and in part because I don't have a food processor and have to rely on a tiny bowl "processor" that came as an accessory to my immersion blender. I blitzed the sugar, flour, baking powder, and salt with the miniscule amount of butter until it looked like boxed pancake mix.

I then dumped that dry ingredients and fat mixture  into a bowl and made little wells and slowly added the milk, pushing the flour mixture into the milk to gently mix. I wanted to be absolutely certain not to overwork it given how little fat there was. I did not knead it or stir it. I just moistened it and even allowed some of it to stay dry. I put a lid on the bowl and tossed it in the refrigerator for an hour or so to let the flour absorb the milk. This was the other major departure from the instructions, but given how little I'd mixed it, I thought it needed the time.

When I took it out, it was fairly cohesive on its own, with a bit of dry bits at the bottom. I did find that it was sticky, but too thick to use a tablespoon to drop it on the cookie sheet. I cut it into six roughly equal pieces with a butter knife, gently shaped the dough, and put it on parchment paper and baked at 450 degrees for about 8 minutes. It did start to brown and I was worried that it might not cook inside while browning outside, but it turned out okay. I do think my oven may run a bit hot and I might want to reduce the temperature by 25 degrees down to 425 next time. I also didn't add as much sugar to the strawberries when I macerated them (only two tablespoons).

I really had low expectations of this, but it was fantastic. The interior was tender, the exterior was crispy with a good amount of give. It was lightly sweet - much sweeter than I expected given that each cake had only two teaspoons of sugar in it and provided a great base for the lightly sweetened berries.

These are definitely reminiscent of scones. In fact, out of the oven, they look like scones, but they do have a textural difference and a firmer structure in general. They're less delicate than American scones and less layered than English ones. I do believe that they could be eaten for breakfast with other types of fruit or even just like a scone with jam and butter. The odd thing is that they are probably less unhealthy than the average scone given how relatively low they are in fat and sugar (only about 160 calories per cake). I think blueberries would be great on these, add would really ripe peaches. I will definitely be making these again.