Monday, June 30, 2014

And now for some Flour

misshapen but delicious
In Flour, Joanne Chang writes that she grew up in traditional and "fairly strict" Chinese family where, aside from the occasional plate of sliced oranges, sweets rarely appeared on the table. She was exposed to cakes and cookies at her friends' homes and at a young age developed a "full-blown obsession" with desserts and pastries.

Chang:  "I pored over baking books and food magazines; I read and reread dessert descriptions wherever I found them. I lingered at pastry cases at the supermarket. Most of the time I never tried the desserts I was dreaming about. Instead I could only imagine how they must taste: Turkish delight (I read about it in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,) snickerdoodles (Good Housekeeping,) sticky toffee pudding (The Joy of Cooking,) double-crust apple pie (Little House on the Prairie,) New York cheesecake (first spotted at a Safeway in Houston!)"

I completely relate. Her story supports my theory that childhood dessert deprivation can lead to an almost romantic ardor for sweets. The longer and more hopelessly you pine, the brighter those gorgeous and mysterious desserts glow. I should say that I don't view this is as a problem. Ardor is not the same thing as compulsive bingeing. Chang has built an amazing career from her passion and certainly looks like she exercises healthy restraint.

As I mentioned in the last post, Chang majored in math and economics at Harvard, then got a job at a big international consulting firm right out of college. After a couple of years, though, she decided she really wanted to spend her life baking and quit her consulting gig to do so. She opened her Boston bakery, Flour, in 2000. Her yardstick for a dessert: Would you serve this to your mother?

I'm not a complete newcomer to her book. Chang's banana bread is the only banana bread I make anymore and her oreos were the basis for the oreo recipe in Make the Bread, Buy the Butter. I can take no credit whatsoever for those incredible cookies. I would have happily served both Chang's banana bread and oreos to my mother. 

Last week, I made her brioche and the recipe is a masterpiece of clarity and detail. I've baked a dozen or so different brioche recipes over the last few months, and this is my favorite, simply because the whole process went so smoothly. I used half the dough to make a loaf of bread and half to make her chocolate brioche buns, which contain not just bittersweet chocolate, but a lovely layer of pastry cream. I baked three of these beauties (see photo at top) and froze the rest to bake later. My mother would have flipped for the chocolate brioche buns and been very pleased with the tender, buttery brioche.


I'm not quite as sold on Chang's so-called luscious cheesecake, which I baked yesterday for our weekly extended-family dinner. It wasn’t quite dense or tangy enough for me and the reviews were curiously contradictory. Mark declared it the best dessert I’ve ever made, while Isabel said that homemade cheesecake is always “kind of gross.” Seriously?! My sister commented on its "caramelly" flavor, which is odd because it contained no caramel. Maybe the top caramelized in the oven? Or did the caramel notes come from the thick graham cracker crust? I would have served this cake to my mother and she would have praised it extravagantly, but I probaby wouldn’t have served it to her again. 


I do have to mention a couple of Ming Tsai recipes I also tried last night, just to keep up.

His shrimp lollipops from Blue Ginger are a variation on a Vietnamese dish that consists of spiced shrimp paste that you mold onto the end of a stick of sugar cane. Tsai has substituted lemongrass stalks for the sugar cane and has you present these tasty appetizers with a spicy almond pesto. The lollipops were very, very good, but there was general feeling that some mayonnaise, bland and rich, would have been a better foil than that spicy pesto. You have to really love the flavors of lemongrass and Kaffir lime not to want them cut with a little mayonnaise. The recipe is here. (FYI, the lollipops in the book are pan-fried, not grilled, and there are some small differences in the quantities of several ingredients.)


I told my father to hold up a lollipop for me so I could take a picture 


and my sister cried out, "No! I'll do some food styling for you." 


I don't know. Her shot is definitely better, but maybe food styling doesn't run in our family. 


I also made Tsai's napa slaw which is not a refreshing salad, as I'd expected, but a relish, very pungent and sharp, full of fish sauce and vinegar. We ate it on burgers. I would not make it again.

On another subject, Owen texted me from camp requesting pictures of the goats and I took some shots this morning. I hesitated, wondering how it would go over in New England, the goofball from California showing off homely pictures of goats hanging out in a dust bowl. But I sent them. I'm including this picture to illustrate the stark difference between a yard with goats and one without.  It's like the border between North and South Korea. We're the North.
First they eat all the plants, then they grind the earth into talcum-fine sand with their little hooves. Currently, they spend hours every day trying to get through the fence into the neighbors' yard so they can continue with their mission of global destruction. 

25 comments:

  1. I know you love to keep trying new things but I certainly hope you make that pretty cheesecake again since your husband declared it the best dessert you've ever made. Too bad Owen missed all these; would he have liked the cheesecake, etc?

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    1. Owen wouldn't have liked the cheesecake. He only likes plain cakes with frosting, or so he told me a few weeks ago. He told me I should make cakes like you see on a box of cake mix!

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  2. Here is the best cheesecake recipe I have ever made. I've been making it now for almost 30 years. It's adapted from Marlene Sorosky. The original recipe called for more oreos to be broken up and layered into the filling, but my mind rejects that.


    OREO CHEESECAKE CRUST:
    25 Oreo chocolate sandwich cookies (about 2 1/2 cups crumbs)
    1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
    FILLING:
    4 packages (8 ounces EACH) cream cheese, at room temperature
    1 1/2 cups sugar , divided
    2 tablespoons flour
    4 large eggs, at room temperature
    3 large egg yolks, at room temperature
    1/3 cup whipping cream
    1 T plus 2 t vanilla
    2 cups dairy sour cream
    Butter a 10-inch springform pan and set aside.
    To prepare crust, break up cookies and place in a food processor fitted with a metal blade; process until crumbs form. Add butter and mix until blended. Or, mix cookie crumbs and butter together in a bowl. Pour into prepared pan and press evenly over bottom and two-thirds up sides. Freeze while preparing filling.
    To prepare filling, beat cream cheese in a large bowl with an electric mixer on medium speed until smooth. Scrape down sides. Add 1 1/4 cups sugar, beating until mixture is light and fluffy, about 3 minutes, scraping down sides of bowl occasionally. Mix in flour. While beating continuously, add eggs and yolks; mix until smooth. Beat in whipping cream and 1 T vanilla until well blended.
    Pour batter into prepared crust.

    Place pan on a baking sheet.
    Bake in preheated 425-degree oven 15 minutes. Reduce temperature to 300 degrees F and bake 50 minutes or until barely set. It should still jiggle.
    Remove cake from oven and increase oven temperature to 350 degrees F. Stir together sour cream, remaining 1/4 cup sugar and 2 teaspoons vanilla in a small bowl. Spread sour-cream mixture evenly over cake. Return to oven and bake 7 minutes or until sour cream begins to set.
    Remove from oven and cool in a draft-free place to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate several hours or overnight. Makes 16 servings.

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    1. Ok, I'll make it. It's on the list, now. Interesting that it calls for an Oreo crust. An automatic point in its favor with some people know.

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  3. Thank you for inspiring me to try brioche!

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    1. Me, too! I've been looking for a brioche bread recipe for a while and am happy to get a recommendation.

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    2. Good luck! It's really not hard.

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  4. I'm right on board with the deprivation-breeds-obsession idea in relation to sweets. When I was 12, my mom put the entire family on the Atkins diet. For years. I definitely developed some unhealthy compulsions regarding food during that time (ie sneaking treats into the house, gorging whenever I did have access to carbs, thinking about sweets ALL THE TIME.) I still have a hard time just eating a little of any dessert. My husband will eat 2 cookies, then ask where the batch went 5 days later. Ummm...I ate them, of course.

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    1. The Atkins diet when you were 12? Whoa! How did that work? Did you cheat? I, too, was obsessed with desserts because they were such forbidden fruit. I used to think I'd gone to heaven when we'd visit my grandparents and there was ice cream and a big tub of Cool Whip in the freezer. I used to sneak big spoonfuls of that Cool Whip and feel terribly guilty about it.

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    2. It didn't work well. Of course I cheated! I was livid. Nothing like being sent to middle school with bags of lettuce and salami and provolone roll-ups for lunch. I would eat every carbohydrate I could get my hands on outside of the house. My mom was reeeeally into it, and she needed all of us to be on it for her own discipline. She dragged me and my brother (3 years younger than me!! 9 year olds shouldn't be on this diet!!!!) to the Atkins Center in NYC to have buckets of blood drawn (they collapsed one of my veins. Ahhh, memories) and to meet the big man himself, who was infuriated when I answered "pasta and pizza" to his question of "What do you like to eat?" Really, dude? You didn't see that answer coming? I admitted to her a few years ago that I'd kept a stockpile of candy behind my books in my bedroom, so she has since decided that the reason I was so bitchy while on the diet was because I was cheating. Sure. That was it. The whole thing was a hot mess, as far as I'm concerned.

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  5. Oh! Those chocolate buns look naughty! I've tried several recipes from the first Flour book. The pumpkin muffins have a cook time that is waaaay off and their actual yield is double. They taste nice though. Her snickerdoodles are too crunchy for our taste. I really want to try her pecan buns but I'm afraid they'll turn out wonky. I've also had my eye on the Lemon Ginger Scones. What other brioche recipes have you tried? My Ottolenghi book keeps falling open to the dried tomato "pizza" and I'm certain there is a reason.

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    1. I have to go look through the books to see which brioche recipes I've written notes on. We had so many eggs this spring and summer I kept trying brioches and challahs. I can tell you that the Dorie Greenspan brioche worked great the first time, but subsequent efforts were less successful. The best challah I tried was from Eat Good Food. I've made that repeatedly in a loaf pan.

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    2. I've made the lemon ginger scones twice! They don't need the glaze if I recall correctly.

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  6. My family restricted sugar. I wanted an Easy Bake oven so much! My mom gave me a cardboard box and suggested I make a play oven myself. She didn't understand that I wanted to EAT the cakes out of an Easy Bake oven. I never got one :(
    I did have an adorable toy ironing board that my mom got at a yard sale or something. It was totally realistic, just miniature, and came with a mini iron that actually plugged in to the wall and got quite warm. So charming. But I grew up to be a pastry chef. And I never iron anything. Be careful what you restrict, I guess!

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    1. That's such a beautiful story. Sad, too. A box?

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  7. Goats are totally in these days...replacing the cat memes on the internet...Hope the pictures given Owen some street cred.

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    1. Haven't heard back. That's a good sign.

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  8. Jennifer, quick question: When you made the lamb kebabs with pomegranate molasses, what part of the lamb did you use? The recipe calls for lamb tenderloin or boneless shank or neck (?), but I was wondering if you think boneless leg of lamb would work. It has to be more tender than shank, anyway, right? I don't know where I would find lamb tenderloin, and if I did it would probably be a hundred dollars, but I can get boneless leg of lamb at Trader Joe's.

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    1. Have you tried Super King? The Claremont location has a ton of lamb parts (even the eyeball-intact head). I assume the one in Los Angeles would be similar.

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    2. Did I link to the recipe? Sometimes online recipes are slightly different than what's in the book. I feel like in the book she called for lamb shoulder, but I'm not in walking distance of my cookbooks right now. I used leg. Couldn't find shoulder. I've never bought tenderloin or neck and the only shanks I've ever seen have bones. I'd go with leg.

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    3. Thanks. I did just that. I had to drive to Glendale today--twice :( because the Pasadena DMV has mysteriously closed for business, apparently permanantly--so I went to an Armenian grocery for the pomegranate molasses, and they didn't even have any lamb at all. The very fact that I had to make two separate trips to the DMV today should tell you what my morning was like, so I'm hoping for a relaxed, pleasant grilled dinner tonight! Justme--There are two Super Kings within blocks of me. I'll try there next time.

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  9. Is the pastry cream too much with the brioche? I am having trouble imagining how that would work.

    I have been meaning to try brioche for some time, so I will make a note of this recipe. I am a little leery because I think it would require some altitude adjustment, and if I don't get it right that is wasting a lot of butter! On the other hand, I suppose even bad brioche is probably pretty good.

    Thank you for taking the time to post. Sometimes if I see there's a new one, I'll use it as my treat for doing something unpleasant, i.e. I only get to read the blog after I finish x. Thanks for the motivation! :)

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    1. Funny, I was just wondering if I oversold the chocolate brioches. In fact, they were a little breadier than I wanted and could have used MORE pastry cream. Definitely not too much. It was a very thin layer. I don't know anything about high altitude baking -- if you got the adjustments right, brioche is pretty easy.

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    2. Jessica, how high are you? At 5000 ft I never really needed any adjustments (not that I ever tried brioche). Here are a couple of links for you: http://highaltitudebakes.com/breads/2013/12/13/chocolate-brioche/
      http://www.highaltitudebaking.com/adj_recipes.htm

      Bad brioche can always become great bread pudding or French toast.

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  10. Have you tried Andrew Schloss' overnight cheesecake? I made the limoncello cake from his cookbook, Cooking Slow, back when it was still cool outside. It was creamy and dense and not overcooked on the edges like a lot of homemade cheesecakes tend to be. Here is a Washington Post article with a few variations: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/24/AR2010112403714.html

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