Sunday, February 18, 2007


Torta di Cioccolato Amaro

Lately my life has been a little hectic, what with preparing for a heart-breaking separation from my angelheart Eric because of my move back to New Zealand (no, we're not splitting up; circumstances have just led us to this next step in our lives as I complete my master's degree this year).

How does one assuage the palpitations, the churning of the stomach, and the breaking of the heart? I proffer the baking of a cake.

The dolce that I decided to make had to be dense and aromatic in order to distract the senses, rendering the brain, if even for a nanosecond, unable to dwell on the impending departure. What drew me to this particular cake by Mario Batali is the inclusion of anise seeds and anisette (I opted for white sambucca). Ever since childhood I have loved licorice, and this has matured into an appreciation for fennel bulbs, fennel seeds (for savoury dishes), anise seeds (for sweet dishes), ouzo, opal nera...Most recipes, whether sweet or savoury, that stop me in my tracks are those that contain a licorice-like element.

In addition to the inclusion of anise seeds and anise liqueur, I noted that vin santo was suggested in the pastry. This further piqued my curiosity. How would this all come together? Needless to say, for the duration of making the cake and waiting for it to bake and settle, I was distracted...

Torta di Cioccolato Amaro
(from Mario Batali's Molto Italiano)

For the pastry:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup confectioners' sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
9 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces and chilled
1/2 cup sweet dessert wine, such as vin santo

For the filling:
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
10 1/2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
2 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon anise seeds, crushed
1 tablespoon anise liqueur, such as anisette

For the glaze:
1 cup confectioners' sugar (I only used 1/2 cup)
1 1/2 tablespoons milk, or as needed
2 teaspoons anise liqueur

1) For the pastry, combine flour, salt, confectioners' sugar, and cinnamon in a food processor and pulse 2 or 3 times to mix. Add butter and pulse further until mixture comes together like coarse crumbs. As the food processor is running, add the dessert wine until dough comes together. Place dough on sheet of cling film, press into shape of a disk, wrap tightly. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
2) Butter a 10-inch tart pan.
3) Roll pastry dough out between sheets of cling film (this works really well and saves getting flour all over creation) to a 12-inch circle approximately 1/4 inch thick.
4) Preheat oven to 400 deg. f./200 deg. c.
5) Line tart with dough pastry and trim the overhang.
6) Prick the tart shell and bake it for 12 minutes or until just set. Set aside to cool.
7) Reduce oven temperature to 375 deg. f./190 deg. c.
8) For the filling, bring cream to a simmer in a medium sized saucepan over medium heat. Remove from heat, add chocolate, and stir to melt. Transfer to a medium bowl and let cool for 20 minutes.
9) In a small bowl, lightly beat eggs and egg yolk.
10) Whisk cocoa and eggs into the chocolate mixture, then whisk in crushed anise seeds and anise liqueur.
11) Pour filling into the tart shell and bake for 15 minutes, or just until the the filling appears glossy and is slightly firm but still loose at the center.
12) Cool tart for 15 mintues on a rack before removing sides of the pan.
13) To make the glaze, in a medium bowl beat confectioners' sugar with the milk and anise liqueur until it has reached a thin consistency able to be poured. Add more milk if necessary. Drizzle over the cooled tart and allow to harden before serving.

My "drizzling" was less than spectacular, but it may have turned out better had I looked at the photo in Mario Batali's cookery book before I poured it out. I just wanted the glaze out of the vessel and onto the tart so I could cut myself a gorgeous slice of decadent heaven. I have to say, though, that this is really A LOT of bittersweet chocolate, so I would consider replacing 3.5 ounces of it with semisweet chocolate. This would add a bit more depth to the chocolate, which, surprisingly, tasted quite flat. For all the anise flavors added, they were drowned out by the bitterness of the chocolate. For those who do not have an affinity for anise, this is not a big deal, but for me it signalled a slight disappointment. I wanted more than a lilt at the very edges of my tongue. The aromas and flavors of the pastry were brilliant; this is a serious consideration for future tarts in which there needs to be a balance between the sweet and the bitter. I will keep this recipe earmarked for revision in the near future.

Baking did do the trick. Though I would not ascribe to a life of aversion (I'm confrontational by nature), getting lost in the world of baking and all things food momentarily was good for me. It will be a while from now, though, before I can get into the kitchen as I will be leaving the U.S. in a couple of days and will have to reorient myself in New Zealand...I hope it will not be too long before I blog again, especially since the writing up of the escape into the kitchen will distract me, again, from feeling every moment the separation from my angelheart Eric.

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007


Stem Ginger and Spice Ice Cream

There are many times when reading cookery books that particular ingredients keep popping up. Sometimes I do research to decide whether or not I'm interested in trying them out; other times I am fixated on them. It is when I can perfectly imagine the result of recipes that these ingredients come to the fore, as was the case with stem ginger. This was rather shocking to me at first because I didn't think I was a ginger fan, but then I started thinking of my favorite New Zealand treats: gingernut biscuits (cookies) and ginger crunch, which my fellow Kiwi, Bron, wrote about here). I was unlucky in my pursuit of the item through the conventional route (various markets: super, farmers', and those in between) before finding the product online and promptly ordering it.

Stem ginger is no more than what it sounds like - stem of ginger that has been peeled, chopped into cubes or shaped into globes, then preserved in a sweet syrup (not tooth-achingly sweet, though). I have used the product once already (in a Nigel Slater recipe for Double Ginger Cake) to great success, and now I'm ready to move onto other recipes that feature this special ingredient.

In Los Angeles, though technically Winter, we have been experiencing rather warm temperatures since the weekend (about 80 F/26.7 C), thus necessitating a double-pronged effort to: (a) use stem ginger and (b) make ice cream. Could I trust myself to create a receipe? No. I have neither the balls nor the culinary experience to yet trust my own palate and hand, and with all these cookery books around (that will soon have to be packed up into boxes and shipped to New Zealand or left in storage at my angelheart Eric's mum's house in the U.S.A.), how could I not at least peer into them (ok, let's be frank: I have my nose buried in them most of the time, and they can be found strewn, bookmarked and earmarked, throughout the sunny abode...nightstand, kitchen, dining room, bathroom...)?

Would you believe that I found a recipe that exactly answered my requests? Tamasin's Kitchen Bible by Tamasin Day-Lewis is a massive tome replete with invaluable tips (or what she calls "lowdowns") and information to improve one's cookery skills and to find recipes to suit all occasions and situations. I don't know how I didn't notice this recipe before, but the cookery book referenced is dense, people!

Stem Ginger and Spice Ice Cream
(from Tamasin Day-Lewis' Tamasin's Kitchen Bible)

16oz (450ml) milk
2 vanilla pods, split and insides scraped out
6 egg yolks
6oz (170g) unrefined caster sugar, or 2 tablespoons runny honey (I used chestnut)
20oz (600ml) double cream, or 10oz (300ml) of both double cream and creme fraiche
6-8 cubes stem ginger, starting off with 6, then tasting to see if more required
1 tablespoon ginger syrup
7 cloves and a few bits of cinnamon bark, crushed in a mortar
2 more cubes stem ginger, very finely chopped

1) Scald the milk with split vanilla pods and their seeds.
2) Whisk into egg yolks and either sugar or honey.
3) Return mixture to pan, cook over low heat, whisking as you go until it thickens. (You can also whisk madly at medium heat for approximately 10 minutes before the mixture thickens. The key is to ensure that the mixture does not boil and that the egg yolks do not curdle. If they do curdle, add a tablespoon or two of really cold cream off the heat and whisk madly to bring back together, or whisk madly to reincorporate after pot has been plunged into a sink filled with ice water.)
4) Remove from heat as soon as mixture has thickened and whisk in the cream/creams.
5) In the blender, whizz the ginger, ginger syrup, and half a teaspoon of the spice mixture. Taste to see if ginger predominates to your liking, if not, then add more cubes of ginger. Ensure that the musky backnote of spice is not lost, though.
6) Churn in ice cream according to manufacturer's directions (usually about 30 minutes), adding finely chopped stem ginger in the last few minutes. You could also put mixutre with very finely chopped stem ginger in an ice tray and freeze, remembering to stir the setting walls of the ice cream into the middle of the tray after the first hour, and then again an hour or two later in order to prevent crystals forming.
7) To further accentuate the point, I served the ice cream with preserved ginger.

This is the second time I have made ice cream with a custard base. I still find it too eggy. Next time I will use one less egg yolk to see what happens. To overcome the eggy-ness, I would actually use more of the spice mixture. There is no denying that the bones of this recipe are really great and that the result, though slightly eggy for my liking, was enjoyable spoonful after spoonful. I can always rely on Ms. Day-Lewis for an original and inspiring recipe that piques my interests.

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Friday, February 02, 2007


Chicken Stock and Knaidlach = Matzo Ball Soup

You do not have to tell me - I already know that it is not Passover and that I'm not Jewish. My angelheart Eric and I have, however, been hankering for matzo ball soup since (a) our (still recent) lunch at Pitchi Poï in the fourth arrondisement in Paris, and (b) last year's Passover at which the divine poetess Suzanne's father's wife made a deliciously light soup. There is certainly a restorative positive externality to good chicken soup, which Claudia Roden calls "Jewish penicillin" because it cures all, a medicinal and spiritual reliever. Though we were not exactly feeling poorly before consuming the soup, we felt incontrovertibly better after each golden spoonful. This was partly because we were able to satisfy a craving, and also because the stock and knaidlach had been made at home.

Making chicken stock could not be easier: Boil chicken, clear scum, add veggies, then let simmer for a few hours. I would have wound up with more stock had I not forgotten the buoyant nature of the veggies and not therefore assumed the soup pot was full of liquid. I still ended up with just over two quarts, which was enough for the soup and three or so cups for future recipes that require chicken stock. Now that I have made it once, I think I should make it weekly because there is nothing like having homemade stock, for you can see what has gone into it and you know what you're adding to the recipes. And short of raising the chickens and growing the veggies myself, this tastes (in the best of possible meanings) very homegrown. (I don't mean to sound condescending, for I am not the great hero Levin of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina toiling and making produce from his own land, but this brings me a step closer to understanding the romanticism with which some people view the world agrarian.)

I turned to Claudia Roden's ground-breaking (because of the scope and research into the subject in addition to her fine writing) The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York. (I often turn to Ms. Roden whether or not I'm thinking of what to make with what my angelheart Eric and I have on hand, if not for her in-depth focus but for her nourishing and informative prose. Everyone who is seriously interested in food should at least have The Book of Jewish Food and The Book of Middle Eastern Food, though I also have others of hers.) I admit to altering but a few things for the stock. I used 1 chicken carcass and 6 chicken wings where Ms. Roden suggests 1 stewing chicken weighing 5 lbs (around 2.5 kgs) or one chicken carcass and two packages of giblets weighing 1 lb (500 g). I also increased the level of liquid because I used a big pot, so that also allowed me to double the dosage of ingredients. Additionally, I added fennel because I forgot to get leeks and turnips from the market, and I used black pepper instead of white. Towards the end of the simmering period, the fennel was really coming through, and I was childishly excited about the faint, sweet trace it would leave in the soul-warming soup.

The recipe below yields 2 quarts (2 litres).

Chicken Stock
(adapted from Claudia Roden's recipe for Chicken Soup in The Book of Jewish Food)

Chicken in any of the combinations above stated (just be sure that there are bones to yield a gelatinous substance that insulates and protects the stock when frozen or left the chill and flavor; the giblets lend an "essence of chicken" flavor)
1.5 large onions, quartered
4 carrots, cut into big chunks
2 fennel bulbs, quartered
4 celery stalks, cut into big chunks
4 sprigs of parsley

1) Put the chicken in a soup pot, which is filled with water.
2) Bring to a boil and remove scum.
3) Add vegetables, parsley stalks, salt, and pepper.
4) Simmer, covered, for at least 2.5 hours (I went just over 3 hours on account of the added volume, but not much over because I have a cast iron pot that retains heat really well).
5) If using a whole chicken, take it out after an hour so as not to overcook it. Remove meat from it, then add carcass to the pot.
6) Once simmered enough (again, at least 2.5 hours), strain the broth into another vessel. If you are concerned about the fat on top, soak it up with a paper towel, or make the stock (or broth if going on to make a traditional chicken soup) one day in advance, let chill in the fridge overnight and then remove congealed fat from the surface in the morning.

At this point, I put three cups into the fridge to cool completely and then freeze for future use. The remainder was left covered on the stove top while I prepared the knaidlach.

Now, there is an art to making knaidlach, and I certainly have not yet learned it. I found it was very difficult to shape the mixture into balls because it kept sticking to my palms, so I wound up using spoons, resulting in irregular shapes, akin to ovals, or, if being blunt, flat rhomboids. There is hardly anything in this mixture, which yields light and fluffy knaidlach, but one could also add chicken fat, ground almonds, beef marrow...I'll try a variation next time.

(from Claudia Roden's The Book of Jewish Food)

2 eggs, separated
1/2 cup (75 g) medium matzo meal (I ground matzos in a blender)

1) Beat egg whites until stiff.
2) Fold in the lightly beaten yolks, followed by the matzo meal and salt until unified.
3) Chill, covered, for 30 minutes.
4) Roll into 3/4" (2 cm) balls, if you can manage it.
5) Drop balls into plenty of boiling salted water.
6) Simmer for 20 minutes.

Matzo Ball Soup

1) Boil desired amount of homemade chicken stock.
2) Add matzo balls, and boil for but one minute if balls are already warm (if not, reheat in the water that they were boiled in before adding to stock - they absorb a lot of liquid).

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