03 March 2010

Dulce de Leche - The Aftermath

A bunch of leftover un-frosted cupcakes + dulce de leche = a bangin' dessert with minimal effort.

Yet again, my effort to never throw anything out led me to a new take on bread pudding.  I had some leftover cupcakes, dulce de leche I made yesterday and (still) a whole lot of eggs and milk.  This is what happened:

Dulce de Leche Pudding
Yield: 8 or more servings 

10 cupcakes, sliced in half lengthwise  *This is what I used, but you could just as easily use leftover bread (cinnamon raisin would be really good) or cake crumbs of any kind*
5 eggs
1 cup whole milk
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, plus a little extra
1/2 cup slivered almonds
2 apples, skinned and sliced into slivers
2 cups dulce de leche

Preheat oven to 350 F.  I used a 1 1/2 quart oval casserole dish that measures 10"x7 1/2"x 1 3/4".  Any casserole dish that comes close to this size will work.  Butter the casserole dish and place one layer of cake slices in it.  In a separate bowl mix together eggs, milk, brown sugar and cinnamon.  Pour half the egg mixture on top of the cake and then top with 1/4 cup of almonds.  Repeat this by adding another layer of cake, covering it again with the egg mixture and topping that with the remainder of the almonds.  Top with the apples and then pour 1 cup of the dulce de leche on top, being sure to evenly coat everything.  Sprinkle a little extra cinnamon on top and bake for 25-30 minutes.  Let cool for 5 minutes before serving.

We ate it with a little vanilla ice cream and drizzled the remaining dulce de leche on top.  So delish.

Dairy Overload

Out of pure fear of running out of something last week I sort of over-purchased eggs and milk for the cupcakes.  Because of this I'm bordering on a series of expiration dates that will result in me losing sleep over having to (dare I say it) throw out food.  Fear not fellow anxiety-ridden-food-thrower-outers.  My resourcefulness led me to make spinach and cheese strata for dinner last night and dulce de leche (for future use) out of sheer boredom.

I made the dulce de leche simply because I wanted to use up the milk.  I really haven't decided what to do with it yet though.  I have some leftover naked (un-frosted) cupcakes so I was thinking of incorporating them into it somehow too.  Here's the recipe:

Dulce de Leche
Yield: 2 cups

1 quart whole milk
1 1/3 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Combine all ingredients in a large heavy pot and bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer.  The baking soda will cause it to rise and get very foamy, so you need to make sure it has room in the pot to expand.  Let it simmer for a while, until it is reduced by about half.  I let mine go for about 2 hours.  You'll need to play with the temperature a bit, adjusting to make sure it is staying at a simmer.  Cool to room temperature and then refrigerate it if you don't plan on serving it right away.  Incidentally, I like to keep caramel stored in a squeeze bottle in the fridge so that I can easily use it to decorate tarts.

Now, onto the strata.  Here's the recipe for that gem:

Spinach and Cheese Strata
Yield: 6 or more servings

olive oil
1 medium onion, medium dice
5 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup dry white wine
3 oz. spinach
12 oz. day old bread, cut in small cubes
9 eggs
1 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon dijon mustard
salt and pepper to taste
10 oz. cheese, small dice

I used my 12" cast iron pan for this.  You could also use a ceramic casserole dish or a loaf pan to get a different shape.  I wanted to use a casserole dish, but mine is packed away in the basement somewhere and I wasn't in the mood to wade through all of my crap to find it.  However, since I used cast iron I was able to do the whole thing in one vessel, which was quite nice.  The clean up was not so nice though.  As for the cheeses, I used up whatever was in my fridge which ended up being mostly asiago with a little cheddar and gouda mixed in.  For the bread, I used some sundried tomato and herb rolls I bought at Le Bus Bakery last week.  Side note:  I've taken recently to buying day old bagels and rolls from that little bargain bin at Le Bus to the right of the register.  What a great deal.  If you use a bread that does not have as pungent of a flavor like the sundried tomato bread I used, you should definitely go for a strong cheese and add a lot of herbs to it also.

Saute the onion in a few tablespoons of olive oil and butter (I didn't measure it), stirring, until soft for a few minutes.  Add the garlic and white wine.  Cook, letting the wine reduce by half.  Turn off the heat, add in the spinach and mix, the residual heat will wilt the spinach.  Mix in the bread cubes.  In a separate bowl whisk together the eggs, milk, mustard, salt and pepper, going easy on the salt if you're using a very salty cheese.  Add the egg mixture and the cheeses to the bread mixture and stir to incorporate all ingredients.  Most strata recipes will tell you at this point to pour the mixture into a buttered baking dish, cover it with plastic wrap and let it sit in the fridge for at least 4 hours.  I skipped this step as I didn't have the time to wait and mine still came out really tasty and moist.  Bake it, uncovered, at 350 for about 40 minutes.  Let sit at room temperature for 5-10 minutes before serving.  It can be served as an entree with a small salad or you can serve it as a side dish with some grilled meat (sausages = yummy) or a hearty soup.

25 February 2010

The Milk Whisperer

I'm kind of snob when it comes to espresso drinks, and I'm not ashamed to say that.  After spending so much time in Italy, I am often shocked and appalled by what can pass as a "cappuccino" in my home country.  In Italy you always get your cappuccino served in china at a temperature that won't burn your lips off, there's only one size and no one takes it to go.  You belly up to the bar (coffee bar - that is), relax for a few minutes, sip your coffee and return to the streets refreshed.  I've had a lot of cappuccini in Sicily and I can say that most of the time you get a good one.  Of course I've had a bad one here and there - but even the bad ones in Italy are far better than the bad ones I've had in America.  

For these reasons this gem from Serious Eats is totally worth a read.  Also read this post from today which has a very helpful video.  Maybe if customers started demanding perfection and avoiding mediocre drinks (I'm talking about you, Starbucks) we could all find a decent cappuccino in more than one place in Philly (I'm talking to you, La Colombe, it's about time someone dethroned you).

24 February 2010

New old books

When I was 18 and desperately needed a job my Mom hooked me up with a family friend that owned a bakery.  It was my first job in the food business.  I went into the bakery one night and met with Madeline MacDonald, the owner and chef, and sister of my Mother's very close friend from high school.  There was no interview, no discussion before hand.  She just told me to put on an apron and basically get to work.  At that time Madeline's business, Creative Cakes and Confections, was very busy.  She had a few pastry chefs working for her, a few student interns, and the rest of the people there were family or friends of her family or acquaintances of someone she knew.

Madeline was ALL business and gave direction well.  She NEVER stopped working or caring about what she was doing, even though she was very ill from the time that I met her.  She was quite possibly the definition of a workaholic and nothing could stop her from pressing onwards.  No one could tell her that she couldn't do something.  She was a fighter in every sense of the word, and I often thought that she could handle anything that anyone threw at her, whether it was deeply personal (her failing health) or just simply day to day orders at the bakery.  She really was a huge influence on my life and career.  I remember that I called her when I was thinking of going to culinary school and she tried to talk me into attending her alma mater, The Culinary Institute of America in New York.  She sent me a package in the mail with brochures and information on the school and really tried to push me to go there, but it just wasn't in the cards for me at the time.  I wanted to stay in Philly so that I could continue working and living here.  I just didn't have the money to relocate to New York.

Sadly, she passed away a few years ago and lost her long, tiring battle with cancer.  If I ever came close to having a mentor in my life, she was it.  I looked up to her, she was such an intelligent, hard working woman that (frankly) didn't take shit from anyone.  She absolutely ruled her kitchen and she expected perfection and nothing but hard work from everyone, whether you were a dishwasher (which I was for a time) or a pastry chef. 

I was thrilled last weekend when my Mom came home with two books that Debbie (Madeline's sister) had set aside for me.  They were books that she used when she attended culinary school.  Mastering the Art of French Pastry by Bruce Healy and Paul Bugat and Le Repertoire de La Cuisine by Louis Saulnier, which contains introductory remarks by Jacques Pepin.  I feel so honored that Debbie even thought to give me these books, and as I page through them I think about how Madeline must have learned from them years ago.  At the time that she used these books she was still a young woman, blind to what her future would hold and the short life she would have.  I just hope I can do these books and Madeline some justice by learning from them as she once did.

21 February 2010

A Smashing Success

The cupcake test run turned out great.  Despite some mixed reviews from people that tried the recipe I thought they came out great.  The verdict on storing them overnight is in - frost them, cover them and put them in the fridge, just let them come to room temperature before serving and all will be well.  I think that frosting them as close to the time they will be served is optimal, but that's not always possible and this method worked out just fine for me. 

I had a pretty busy weekend so in order to have these things ready by Sunday morning I had to plan it out.  I made the frosting on Friday night and then made the cupcakes and frosted them on Saturday night.  I had a slight problem on Friday with the buttercream when I noticed that it started to separate and break.  I had a long day and by the time I finished with it, it was about 11pm and I was mentally and physically done.  I wanted to go to bed and not think about cupcakes anymore, but I became an obsessed woman and did some research about fixing broken buttercream.  I was pushed over the edge by the thought of rushing out late on Saturday night to get store bought (I would never do this!) frosting to replace the shitty one that I made.  I read about a few different methods to fix it and decided on the one that was dubbed as fool proof: beat in some shortening and then whip the hell out of it and it WILL come back together.  Thankfully, it worked like a charm and I would not be seen running in to Shop Rite at midnight in my pajamas (I would also never do this!) on Saturday night buying up all of the Sarah Lee frosting in the joint.  I assure you that this would have been a very last resort for me and not my proudest moment, but if I had run out of time and there was no other solution even I would have to cut some corners.  Being in Shop Rite in pajamas buying store bought frosting would actually be my weakest moment.  Ever, perhaps.

Alas, none of these horrors occurred and I fixed my little problem with relative ease.  I used rose water and vanilla extract to flavor the buttercream and then added a tiny bit of red food coloring to turn it pink.  It came out a beautiful shade of pink and had a really delicate rose flavor.  The cake stands on each table went over well too.  I knew I was collecting those things for a reason.

My little sweetie Josephine looked gorgeous.  I can't wait to share some cupcakes with her when she can actually enjoy them.  In a few years I will have two tiny cooker chefs helping me out in the kitchen.

18 February 2010

Cupcake Trial

I'm baking 100 vanilla cupcakes with rose buttercream frosting for my little sweetie Josephine's Christening this weekend so tonight I did a trial  run.  I'm using a recipe from the famed Magnolia Bakery in New York.  You can find the recipe here.  My sister originally asked me to bake a cake, but the first thing that popped into my head was this vision of a long table filled with cupcakes on mismatched cake stands.  So, to make things harder on myself (as always) I'm making a whole bunch of tiny cakes instead of making one big cake.  Somehow, my sister also talked me into letting her wear my favorite green snakeskin heels on Sunday.  I love to torture myself.
Turns out my Mom had a great idea:  putting a cake stand with cupcakes in the middle of each table.  It can function both as a dessert and a centerpiece.  I think it will look fab.  I've been collecting cake stands for a little while so I already have quite a few, but I'll be shopping around tomorrow to add 2 more to my collection.  I have a bunch of really cool little ones - but they won't help me here because I need them to fit at least 8 cupcakes.  The small stands I have are so adorable.  They just make me smile.

I wanted to do a test batch of the recipe today because I want to see how they'll keep overnight.  I've been reading a lot of conflicting information online about storing cupcakes so I'm really interested in the outcome of this.  It seems that most people recommend  baking them the day before and then storing them (either in the fridge or at room temp, suggestions vary) wrapped tightly, then frosting them before they are served.  I really want to avoid frosting them in the wee hours of Sunday morning, considering I won't even be able to begin baking until about 7pm Saturday night.  I'll already be up all night so I don't want to wake up at the crack of dawn to frost these things.  Right now I have a few frosted and a few plain, some in the fridge and some tightly wrapped in plastic on the counter.  We'll see what happens. 

While the cupcakes were cooling I watched Moonstruck with my parents and had a glass of wine.  That's a whole other blog post in itself.

11 February 2010

Snow day

I made chocolate chip cookies with with my little lady friend today.  She calls herself a "cooker chef".  It's just about the cutest thing I've ever seen.