Friday, August 28, 2009

Not the Dobos Torte I Remember

The August 2009 Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Angela of A Spoonful of Sugar and Lorraine of Not Quite Nigella. They chose the spectacular Dobos Torte based on a recipe from Rick Rodgers' cookbook Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Caffes of Vienna, Budapest and Prague.

I was excited about this challenge because I love Dobos Torte. I used to work in a German restaurant that made its own Dobos Torte. It was seven white cake layers, a yummy chocolate buttercream and was covered in dark ganache. Maybe it wasn't authentic, but it was wonderful. I was impressed with the strudel recipe we used from Kaffeehaus in the May challenge, so was expecting good things.

Just reading the recipe I knew there were some things that might not work for me. The higher proportion of butter in the butter cream for one. And lemon juice in the caramel, for another. Daring Bakers is about the challenge least for me.  So I made the recipe as written, cutting it it half to make a small torte that served six.
The cake layer recipe worked fine, if a bit flavorless.  The buttercream was a great texture and taste until the final few tablespoons of butter, which take it over the top.  It's too oily and too soft. From the many pictures I saw on the Daring Baker's forums, I'd say the buttercream is too soft and doesn't make a good decorative frosting. I made the caramel to coat some cake pieces for decoration. I later crushed them to coat the sides. I still don't get the point of the lemon juice. The lemon flavor doesn't go well with the caramel and the chocolate. 
This challenge was a good one for me, in spite of my disappointment in the recipe. I will be making Dobos Torte again, but using different recipes for the components, including a ganache icing. Thanks to the hosts and to the Daring Bakers for the good discussions and photos on the forum this month. I learned a lot about buttercream and cake layers!
The challenge recipe can be found here.

Saturday, June 27, 2009


The June Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Jasmine of Confessions of a Cardamom Addict and Annemarie of Ambrosia and Nectar. They chose a Traditional (UK) Bakewell Tart... er... pudding that was inspired by a rich baking history dating back to the 1800's in England. (Check out Jasmine's blog and read all about the tart/pudding's 200 year history.) After the history lesson, the hosts set us free to create our own version. We were required to use the provided recipes for a shortbread pastry crust and for the frangipane filling (an almond egg mixture). We could use any jam or flavor for the filling. Making homemade jam or preserves was strongly encouraged!
A few days before the challenge was announced, I had made my first batch of jam in more than twenty years. I found someone locally on craigslist to trade their organic kumquats for marmalade. I had never made marmalade before. It was so easy, so delicious and so beautiful.
I was inspired by others at the Daring Kitchen forums to make mini-tarts. As I didn't own any small tart pans, I improvised with my muffin tin. My family loved the tarts. The almond frangipane goes well with almost any jam flavor. I was less than thrilled with the pastry dough recipe which I found too rich and too buttery. The tart has a wonderful rich filling (butter, eggs and almond flour). The tart crust was too rich for me. I was also disappointed when two different attempts with the mini-tarts ended with cracked tops.
I decided to give it another try with my new 9" tart pan. A batch of just finished homemade peach preserves was sitting in the kitchen. I was really looking forward to the peach and almond combination. I followed all the suggestions on the forums for getting the crust just right: chilled all the ingredients, froze the butter, then grated it. The crust was blind baked in an attempt to prevent it from being soggy. After all that, I'm still not impressed with that crust. It's still too oily and not crisp enough. The tart, however, was wonderful. Peach and frangipane is a divine combination.
Many thanks to the hosts for the delicious challenge. I know frangipane will have many uses in other desserts for me. I'm still in search of the perfect tart crust though. Feel free to make suggestions. You can find the entire challenge recipe here

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Potstickers for now....and later

In May, we Daring Cooks over at the Daring Kitchen were given the challenge of making home-made potstickers. Our challenge was hosted by Jen of use real butter. She dictated that we must make the potsticker dough from the recipe given (as opposed to buying pre-made wonton wrappers). She provided traditional recipes for pork and shrimp fillings, but encouraged us to go wild with our own filling ideas.

I wasn't that excited. As much as I like dumplings and potstickers, I've had problems preparing the frozen ones at home. There is always a lot of hot oil smoking and spattering. I thought potstickers were supposed to be stir-fried in a wok with lots of oil. Turns out there are much better ways, as I learned during this challenge.

The dough is just flour and water. It comes together easily, requires some kneading and then some resting. There has been a lot of kneading and resting in the challenges lately (strudel dough, lasagna dough). The dough rests, but you don't. The resting time (15-30 minutes) gives you enough time to put together a filling, making it possible to get potstickers for 4-6 people on the table in a little over an hour. The rested dough gets divided into four pieces, rolled into logs, and cut into 1 inch pieces. Then each piece is quickly rolled into a circle and filled. Filling and pleating the potstickers took some practice. Below are my first five dumplings. You can see that I'm just getting the hang of pleating the dough to fit around the filling by my fifth one (on the right).
I wanted a vegetable filling but wanted something different than tofu. I found a good recipe using quinoa, shitake mushrooms and vegetables. I made the recipe as written, and added 1/2 cup grated carrots. Making the filling was easy, but there is some serious chopping and mincing required. When making a large batch, you are going to want help in the kitchen. The recipe made exactly enough filling for the dough recipe in the challenge--24 large potstickers. I love when that happens!
I'm the only potsticker lover at home.  So, I rolled and filled only eight of them. Then I cooked them, following Jen's instructions for pan frying. I heated a couple of tablespoons of peanut oil in my 12" cast iron skillet, over medium high, put in the potstickers (flat side down) for a few minutes until very brown. Then I added 1/2 cup water and covered the pan and let the steam do the rest of the work.The finished potstickers were very brown on the bottom (the way I like them) and perfectly cooked on the inside.
I liked these so much that I decided to follow the advice in the challenge recipe for freezing uncooked potstickers. I went back and rolled and filled the remaining dough. The dumplings were set on a tray and put in the freezer for 20 minutes until hard, and then bagged for future use. I'm so happy to have my own brand of frozen potstickers in the freezer! 

Thanks to Jen for such a great challenge. This was certainly not a recipe or skill I would have come up with to challenge myself. As always, special thanks to the many Daring Cooks (especially Audax) who posted pictures, questions, suggestions, stories, humour and help at the Daring Kitchen Forums.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Ich bin eine Strudel Frau!*

I love apple strudel. In my opinion, the gold standard is the strudel at the Black Forest Inn in South Minneapolis. A German restaurant and bakery, BFI serves the flakiest and tastiest apple strudel (with lots of whipped cream). I worked at the Black Forest years ago and served many, many slices. I ate my fair share too. I didn't know that strudel like that could be made at home. But it can! Look at that flaky pastry and tasting filling. I can hardly believe I made that. Surprisingly, it's not difficult and doesn't take all day.  

This month we Daring Bakers were given the opportunity to make authentic strudel. The May Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Linda of make life sweeter! and Courtney of Coco Cooks. They chose Apple Strudel from the recipe book Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafés of Vienna, Budapest and Prague by Rick Rodgers.

The strudel dough is mixed together, rested and then stretched, rather than rolled.  The first time I made the dough I was able to stretch the small ball of dough into a rectangle that was 2 feet by 3 feet, as called for in the recipe.  It is so thin you can see through it.  It's quite amazing how stretchy it is. The challenge recipe includes a traditional apple filling flavored with rum, raisins and walnuts. Everyone at my house loved this strudel.  It was even requested as a birthday dessert, so I made it again. I went on to make more strudels: a mango filling with coconut, almonds and pineapple. And one with cherry and honey-sweetened ricotta cheese.

I also made one savory strudel and filled it with chicken, spinach, mushrooms and fontina. It was very tasty and I'm sorry that I don't have pictures. By making a half recipe of the strudel dough, it was easy to make a dinner strudel that served four to six and didn't take up the entire kitchen when stretching the dough. 

I do recommend doing an internet search for strudel dough pictures and videos. There is really no comparison between seeing how it's done and reading about it. The challenge recipe can be found here.

Thanks to our challenge hosts for this recipe.  I loved learning how to make this dough and know that I will be making again often.

*Translation:  I am a Strudel Wife/Woman/Goddess!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Ricotta Gnocchi with REALLY Fresh Homemade Ricotta

This month the folks at Daring Kitchen introduced Daring Cooks. The first challenge was hosted by Lis at La Mia Cucina and Ivonne at Cream Puffs in Venice. They chose Ricotta Gnocchi from The Zuni Café Cookbook: A Compendium of Recipes and Cooking Lessons from San Francisco’s Beloved Restaurant, by Judy Rodgers

The actual recipe for the gnocchis looked simple enough. However, the author's description and recipe in the book is six pages. The challenge hosts cut that down some and added their tips. Still, there was lots of text about “test gnocchi’ and tweaking the recipe after testing.  And then “re-testing to ensure success.” Testing and retesting? Before dinner? Also, much commentary about using only fresh ricotta that had to be drained just so. I’d read that ricotta wasn’t too hard to make, so I planned to make my own. That way it would be plenty fresh.

Yesterday afternoon I was in the kitchen and realized that I better get going on making that homemade ricotta. My thinking was that the deadline was just a few days away and I needed to make the ricotta and let it drain overnight. Then after checking to find that it was inedible or the wrong texture or just plain gross, I could run to the store and buy fresh ricotta for $12.00 from the fancy food emporium over the hill. So I did have a plan.

I went the refrigerator and the half-gallon milk carton was half empty. So, it would be small batch I thought. All went well with the heating and the curds separated from the whey as described here. Then when the cheese started to drain, it looked like a REALLY small batch, and just kept getting smaller. I squeezed the cheesecloth to help it drain, but I didn’t want to squeeze too hard because some of the precious cheese was leaking out of the cheesecloth. I put the ball, still in the cheesecloth, in a strainer, over a bowl, weighted it down with a large can of tomatoes and put it in the refrigerator to drain overnight. I sighed and planned a trip over the hill.

Then I moseyed on over to the computer to check the challenge recipe to see if I needed anything else from the store so I could make the gnocchis the next day. That’s when I realized that the posting date wasn’t a few days away, but the 14th….like the next day. It was 2:30 in the afternoon. As I shoot my photos with daylight, I’d have to produce some gnocchi asap if I wanted to make the deadline. I had one hour to go before I had to pick up my daughter.  Why not? I thought. Why not just whip out a challenge? All I have to lose is that little ball of what’s supposed to be ricotta.

So I took the ricotta out of the refrigerator. It looked dry enough to me. I weighed it and it was all of 5 ounces.  That’s between a quarter and a third of what is needed for the full recipe.  So I mixed up the dough, using between one quarter and one third of two eggs. How much is that? I formed all of the gnocchi (all 14 of them). Then decided I better test one. Boiled it for three minutes. Tasted it with butter. It was pillowy and light. And slightly eggy. I knew that eggy taste shouldn’t be there, there’s hardly any egg in it! I tested a second one and boiled it five minutes.  This time I browned some butter with some sage while waiting. Ate half the test gnocchi, eggy taste was gone. Dipped the remaining bite in browned sage butter. Heaven. Really the taste of the cheese, the butter and the sage was perfect.

I put the gnocchi in the refrigerator and ran off to pick up my daughter. I came back an hour later and boiled the rest and served them (to myself) with browned sage butter. They were fabulous. The gnocchi were so light and mild tasting. I’m not sure I’d want anything stronger than butter and herbs, or maybe a light tomato sauce (without garlic). 

I have to say my ricotta was the bomb! It tasted great all by itself.  The finished gnocchi taste pretty much like the ricotta. With so few ingredients, I think ricotta gnocchi requires the best you can find in ingredients. I have three kinds of sage in the garden and have never made browned sage butter before today. Talk about delicious simplicity! Melt one stick of butter with 1/3 cup chopped sage leaves. Let the butter continue to bubble on medium until it starts to brown and the foam subsides. Remove from heat. Let cool a few minutes before pouring over gnocchi. That's it.

You can find the challenge recipe here.  A more detailed description from Judy Rodgers can be found here.  Thanks to Ivonne and Lis for a tasty challenge.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Almost a Cheesecake Lover

The April 2009 challenge is hosted by Jenny from Jenny Bakes. She has chosen Abbey's Infamous Cheesecake as the challenge.


It’s been a difficult year for this Daring Baker. The February Challenge was flourless chocolate cake. And this month we baked cheesecake. In my opinion, two of the most over-rated desserts are flourless chocolate cake and cheesecake. The flourless chocolate cake challenge, well, let's say it didn't convert me. The cheesecake challenge? It didn't make cheesecake my new go-to dessert, but it is really, really good! It’s the perfect combination of sweetness, tanginess and richness. The texture is lovely. Jenny, the challenge host, gave us the basic recipe, Abbey’s Infamous Cheesecake, and we could do anything we wanted with flavors, crusts and toppings.

I wanted to make an effort to use “local” and “seasonal” ingredients in my topping choice. It’s environmentally correct. It’s sustainable. It’s all the rage in the restaurant world and food blogs. I was also committed to using what was in the kitchen without having to leave the house, also environmentally correct and sustainable. And cheaper. To my dismay, my California kitchen and garden failed to cough up any kumquats, cherimoyas, lavender, or any other local, seasonal produce that would qualify my cheesecake for a Slow Food Fair. I settled on a jar of canned pears from Trader Joe’s, justifying that it was recently purchased a few miles from my house. Seasonal and local, done. I poached them in port, pomegranate juice and spices that I found in my cupboards.

Port Poached Pears

1 1/2 cups ruby port
1 1/2 cups unsweetened pomegranate juice
1 cup sugar
3 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
2 strips of lemon zest
1 strip of orange zest
1 vanilla bean
Canned pear halves, or fresh pear halves, peeled and cored

Mix together port, juice and sugar in a medium saucepan and heat over medium heat until sugar is dissolved. Add spice and zests. Split vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape seeds, then add both seeds and pod to pan. Add canned pears, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer until soft. Remove pears from the pan with slotted spoon and let cool. Return pan to stove and heat syrup to boiling and cook until thick and syrupy. Strain through mesh sieve and let cool.

I chose to make up my own recipe for a gluten-free nut crust. I don’t avoid gluten, but I do have a lot of gluten free flours in the cupboard from that brief period when I did. The nut crust is better than just a replacement for the traditional graham cracker crust. It’s truly tasty.

Nut Crust Supreme (gluten free)

1/2 cup superfine brown rice flour
2 tablespoons sweet rice flour
2 tablespoons tapioca starch
3/4 cup finely chopped pecans
1/4 cup brown sugar
4 tablespoons cold butter

Mix together flours, nuts and sugar. Cut in butter and work with fingers until crumbly. Press into oiled bottom of a spring form or cake pan. Makes enough for bottom-only crust for a 9-10” pan. Double the recipe for a full crust.

Everyone at my house loved the cheesecake. They liked it so much, that I made it again a few weeks later, this time making a topping of fresh-out-of-the-freezer blueberries.

This is a great recipe for a basic cheesecake. You can find the Challenge recipe
here. A special thanks to Jenny, for hosting and providing a recipe that almost turned me into a cheesecake lover.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Spring Break

I'm away for the week in Berkeley. This photo arrived in my inbox, just to let me know how much they miss me at home. I can assure you that's every dish we own. I see that all the espresso cups are there as well. I think we can assume they've moved on to take-out by now.