Sunday, August 30, 2009

VIOLET PANNA COTTA WITH BLACKBERRY COULIS

LES BLEUETS SONT BLEUS, J’AIME MES AMOURS.
- Victor Hugo from Les Misérables, 1862

The rose is red, the violet's blue,
The honey's sweet, and so are you.
Thou are my love and I am thine;
I drew thee to my Valentine:
The lot was cast and then I drew,
And Fortune said it shou'd be you.
- Gammer Gurton's Garland, a 1784 collection of English nursery rhymes

Violet and blackberry, the colors of love.


Ah, romance! Fluttering hearts and breathy sighs, knowing glances and fingertips brushing quickly against the other’s, barely touching. Flushed cheeks and lowered eyes, we feel the electricity even when no words are spoken.

We express our love, our passion, in so many ways, by so many signs. Smooth silk sliding down over hips, swishing against her legs as she moves. Jewels in velvet boxes pushed silently across white tablecloths, golden champagne flowing into long-stemmed glasses with a gentle sigh, the bubbles frothing up and over the rim. Boxes of chocolates all tied up in shiny ribbon, bouquets of roses wrapped up in crisp white tissue paper, red for passion, white for innocence and love. Fistfuls of tiny violets, their perfume heady and sweet, their color the color of love.


My husband wines and dines me, prepares me tagines and daubes, buys me jewelry and fine Italian shoes and whisks me off on romantic weekends, gastronomic soirées. The flowers he fills my arms with are never the ordinary, the expected, rather they are blood red dahlias, lush, fragrant peonies in oh so many shades of pink and deep purple tulips, plump and mysterious, the color of aubergines. Platefuls of oysters (I am his pearl) and bowlfuls of delicate, aromatic clams, sunny lunches and cozy dinners, my man knows how to please me, knows just what makes this woman smile. The way to a man’s heart, they say, is through his stomach. This man knows that food means more to me than almost anything else.

And I, in turn, express my love and desire by offerings of sweet and savory. Candles lit, table dressed, dainty morsels set before him, sweet ambrosia. I offer him the choicest morsel, he slides his fork between his lips and I wait expectantly, breath held, for his reaction, a murmur of bliss, a groan of pleasure. His delight transports me to a better place, joyful rapture. I glance at him starry-eyed, thrilled with his enjoyment, the gusto with which he eats, a spoonful, a slice, this is how I offer myself to those I love, the best I have to offer.


Panna Cotta is a favorite treat, his guilty pleasure. Creamy and rich, smooth as silk, sensuous as it shimmers on the spoon and slides over the tongue. As delicate as an angel’s touch, as light as air, Panna Cotta warm’s his heart as sure as my hand placed on his cheek. Knowing just how much he loved it I stayed away from this luxurious, elegant dessert for years, afraid of not living up to expectations. On any restaurant menu, he was sure to order it, the satisfaction wavering with the quality of what was placed before him; sometimes rubbery, sometimes floury, not often pleasing. His most recent disappointment made me realize that it was up to me to create for him the best, the most exquisite Panna Cotta, a sure sign of what I was willing to give of myself. For each perfect bouquet of flowers he ever placed in my arms, for every jewel he slid onto one of my fingers, this gift was for him. Romance in a slender glass, the color of faded roses or pale pink champagne, the scent, the taste of sweet sugar-kissed violets, a jewel-dark blackberry coulis adding depth and richness, the full flavor of the fruit bringing out the best of the Panna Cotta, like a fur wrap draped over a delicate satin gown.

Placing the spoon next to the empty glass, he smiles and takes me in his arms.


VIOLET PANNA COTTA WITH BLACKBERRY COULIS

3 cups (750 ml) cream, or a combination of cream, light cream/half-and-half and whole milk*
2 tsps (1 package, 1/4 ounce, about 8 g) unflavored gelatin
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup (100 g) sugar, 1 tsp replaced with 1 tsp violet sugar

* I used 1 cup (250 ml) each heavy cream, light cream and whole milk


In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, place 1 cup (250 ml) of the cream mixture and sprinkle the gelatin on top. Allow to sit for 5 minutes. Turn on heat to low and allow to gently heat and cook for a couple of minutes until the gelatin dissolves completely.

Stir the teaspoon of violet sugar into the white sugar (from which you have removed 1 teaspoon). Add the remaining cream mixture and the sugar blend to gelatin mixture and continue to heat gently, just until sugar dissolves; add vanilla. This should take a few minutes. Allow to heat thoroughly.


Carefully pour the mixture into glasses or small bowls and chill for at least 6 hours, preferably overnight.


Serve chilled with Blackberry Coulis spooned over the top. Decorate with berries.


BLACKBERRY COULIS

9 oz (250 g) fresh blackberries
2 tsps sugar


Clean and pick over the berries. Remove and set aside the prettiest, most perfect berries, less than half of them.

Purée the remaining blackberries then push them through a sieve to remove the solids, leaving you only the pure liquid. To the liquid, add the 2 teaspoons sugar and stir until dissolved.



It was upon a summer's shiny day,
When Titan fair his beams did display,
In a fresh fountain, far from all men's view,
She bathed her breast, the boiling heat to allay;
She bathed with roses red, and violets blue,
And all the sweetest flowers, that in the forest grew.
- Sir Edmund Spenser from The Faerie Queene, 1590

Friday, August 28, 2009

PESTO ALLA GENOVESE AND PESTO SWIRL BUNS

PETER PIPER PICKED A PECK OF PERFECT PESTO

“What,” pondered Peter Piper in his parlor, “shall I make with all this stuff?”


When was the first time I tasted pesto? I truly can’t remember. As you recall, I grew up in a small, engineer-friendly town in the shadow of NASA’s rockets, daughter of the Space Age, raised on the new-fangled and the packaged. Whether boxed, canned or frozen, it was all homely fare, nothing gourmet. Our part of the planet seemed to be utterly untouched by The French Chef or The Galloping Gourmet, even though we religiously watched them on tv. It was as if we lived in some closed-off, pod-like culinary community only receiving the ultramodern, faddish inventions of the food industry, products and ideas meant to recreate a real, homey, old fashioned atmosphere, modernize it for our (read: our mom’s) convenience and bring it right to the dinner table.

Pesto was worlds away from the creamed chicken and noodles, the tv dinners and the jarred tomato sauce. What passed for Parmesan cheese came in a green shaker can, basil I had only ever heard of on British tv and pine nuts…. pine nuts?

Basil Fawlty?

We grew up thinking that pasta was either those cans of kid-friendly O’s or squiggles of mushy pasta shapes smothered in tomato-y or cheesy sauce, chemicals galore (but we loved ‘em anyway, didn’t we?) or the pasta we got at home, spaghetti tossed with mom’s sauce (jar? can?) and served up with dry (sorry mom) meatballs. The occasional dinner out at Rocco’s Italian Restaurant down in that mini strip mall on A1A opened my eyes to what could really be Italian food, thick ruby-red sauce blanketing angel’s hair pasta or golden fried eggplant slices, all served to us on those red-and-white checkered tablecloths, the traditional candle stuck in the Chianti bottle as centerpiece. But still no pesto. The Italian food we saw in the states (or maybe just where I lived) was quintessentially Southern Italian brought over from Naples how many generations ago, rich and filling, heavy on the pizzas and red sauce, the experience somewhat “Disneyized” for the American public.


Maybe I had my first taste of pesto at my oh-so-cosmopolitan cousin’s apartment in New York City in those heady years after college, small town girl trying to get it right in the big city, living on slave wages and taking culinary refuge in his chic Manhattan apartment whenever I could. Or was it my brother, gourmet that he was, who introduced me to the magic that is pesto? In Italy? I truly don’t remember, but I do know that I’m nuts about the stuff. The rich flavor of pesto, both delicate and sharp, both tangy and smooth, pure elegance.

Pesto green - what elegance!

I buy pesto by the jar, an Italian brand, of course, because my sons, gourmand and food-aware as they are in their lively, multi-cultured world, eat it by the spoonful, would eat it every day if they could. But last week, JP came to me and pointed at the beautiful, lush kitchen garden he had planted for me and said “You must do something with all of that basil or it’s going to rot and the plant won’t grow anymore.” So homemade pesto it was. So easy to make I wondered aloud why it was that I had never made it before, why I didn’t make it regularly? Well I know that the ingredients can be pricey, but oh is the outcome worth it! So I decided to serve Pasta al Pesto one night and make Pesto Swirl Buns the next as I had leftover pizza dough in the refrigerator. Fabulous!

Did someone call for Green?

I must admit that for the photos I did use an excellent quality jarred pesto for the Pesto Swirl Buns, but I so wanted these for dinner and I wanted to show you what great things can be made with pesto, either homemade when you have it, jarred when you don’t. The Buns I am sending over to Susan of Wild Yeast for Yeastspotting, her weekly All Things Yeast event.

PESTO ALLA GENOVESE
A classic

2 cups firmly packed fresh basil leaves
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
3 to 4 cloves garlic
½ cup pine nuts
¼ tsp salt or to taste (don’t skimp as this brings out the flavor of the other ingredients)
1/3 cup olive oil


Place all the ingredients in a blender and whiz until smooth. Add more cheese, garlic or salt as desired to taste.


Makes 1 jelly jar full.


PASTA AL PESTO
For 4 people

1 lb (500 g) dried spaghetti
Pesto

Make the pasta as directed on the package. Drain and place into a large serving bowl. Toss in the pesto (if you like, you can warm the pesto first).


Serve with additional grated Parmesan cheese. I like to serve this with a fresh tomato salad, a loaf of fresh Italian bread and a good red wine.

PESTO SWIRL BUNS

Bread Dough (I used about ½ - ¾ of my pizza dough : see recipe here)
1 pot pesto

Allow the dough to rest at room temperature if it has been in the fridge. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the dough into a long rectangle about ½-inch (1 cm) thick. Mine may have been about a foot long or a bit longer.


Spread the pesto evenly all over the dough coming all the way to the edges except for the far edge. Roll the dough up lengthwise as tight as possible. Slice into 1 ¼ to 1 ½ inch (3 – 4 cm) wide pieces. Lay cut side up slightly space apart in a parchment lined baking tin. Allow to rest 15 – 30 minutes (they should rise and spread out a bit).


Preheat the oven to 425°F (225°C). Lightly dab the surface of the buns (the dough part not the pesto) with an egg wash (beaten egg) and sprinkle with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.


Bake for 15 – 20 minutes until puffed up and lightly browned all over the surface.


Best eaten warm, but these were fabulous for two days after they came out of the oven, re-warmed or eaten at room temp!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

CLASSIC PERFECT BOSTON CREAM PIE

WHAT'S BLACK AND WHITE AND OH SO SWEET?

A gorgeous Boston Terrier, or

an incredible Boston Cream Pie.

Boston has truly outdone herself in concocting these two beauties! Whether or not the dog or the cake truly originated in Boston matters not a whit, this New England city should be proud of herself for linking her name forevermore with these two sweet, delightful, heavenly creations.


I don’t know which I’m crazier about, my Boston Terrier Marty or Boston Cream Pie. Okay, I have always loved Boston Cream Pie and if it’s on the menu I’ll order it. It makes me swoon! I always choose the Boston Cream Pie-style donuts at the donut shop when I’m home; just think! A cake in donut form!. Soft yellow cake sandwiching luscious, thick vanilla-scented pastry cream and slathered in a rich, dark chocolate frosting. What is dreamier? And please don’t try and stir up conversation or point out the sites while I am savoring a slice of Boston Cream Pie, for you will be sorely disappointed in my lack of interest. All my attention, every sense, every ounce of strength and emotion will be focused on that magical, scrumptious, gooey delicacy.


And my Marty, Boston Terrier Supreme! I remember the day JP brought him home from the breeder’s tucked into his jacket. Poor baby face peeping out, little head the size of a silver dollar, excited and scared all at the same time, a black and white bundle of joy. And I will never forget the day the trainer came to the apartment and instructed us never to allow Marty up on our laps, no matter how cute, tiny and snuggly he was. “He may only weigh 3 kilos, but he thinks he weighs 80! He thinks he is bigger than any of you, so keep him in his place!” Well, we looked at each other in shock and surprise and realized then and there that Marty’s place WAS in our laps! What else does one buy an adorable, lap-sized, cuddly sweet baby dog for if not to sit with him in your lap? I’m just sayin’…

Marty well baked...


And sweet as pie. My face pressed into that soft, warm spot behind his bat-like ears, his now 8 kilo body all relaxed in my arms, I can only think of how much like the perfect dessert he is. Boston is as Boston does: layers of softness, delicate and light, surrounding a heart of cool sweetness, silky and beautifully tempered, the whole draped in a dark, bittersweet coat, strong yet gentle. The more time you spend with a Boston, the more he grows on you, the more you want one around you always. The more you eat of a Boston Cream Pie, forkful after marvelous forkful, the more you want, satisfied but ever craving. Black and white beauties, black and white confections, caress them, savor them, enjoy them. You’ll be coming back for more.

from Zazzle

My Boston Terrier, Marty, came into my life as a surprise, and I’ve been surprised ever since by his humor and cleverness, by how funny he can be – more entertaining than television – stubborn and insolent at times yet how sweet and loving he can be as well. I have always loved Boston Cream Pie, yet I have never had the courage to make a one. In honor of my Marty and Bostons everywhere, I decided finally to tumble into the challenge. This was (because, as I write, there is one slice left) a magnificent treat. Cake rather than pie, lovely cloud-like sponge layers, the best I have ever tasted, sandwiching a thick, smooth, vanilla-scented pastry cream and the whole drenched in a beautiful chocolate ganache.

These are the wonderful Bostons, Maximus and MJ, owned by the other Jamie (Floridian as well) from Mom's Cooking Club!

And a very special thanks to my wonderful friend, Hilda of the beautiful blog Saffron &Blueberry who spent her lovely daughter Papoose’s (aka mini-Saffron) 5-month birthday creating a favicon for Life’s a Feast and half of her morning today helping me figure out how to install it in my blog template. You should see it appear by the end of today. I am truly blessed in the friends I have made through food blogs. Here's a slice of cake for you, Hilda.

After checking and comparing several recipes, I ended up following this classic Boston Cream Pie recipe from Joy of Baking blog. It takes time to make each layer – the pastry cream, the sponge layers then the ganache – but it is, on the whole, quite easy. But if I can guarantee you anything it is that it is totally worth the time and effort: this was one of the best cakes we have ever eaten. JP actually groaned with pleasure!


BOSTON CREAM PIE EXTRAORDINAIRE

Pastry cream:
¼ cups (50 g) sugar
3 large egg yolks
1/8 cup (20 g) flour
Scant 3 Tbs (20 g) cornstarch
1 ¼ cups (300 ml) milk (I used low-fat)
1 tsp vanilla


Sponge cake:
5 large eggs
¾ cup (150 g) sugar, divided
½ tsp vanilla
3/4 cup (95 g) flour (I used cake flour)
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
3 Tbs milk
2 Tbs (30 g) unsalted butter
1/8 tsp cream of tartar or few grains of salt + drop or two of lemon juice to stabilize whites

Chocolate glaze or ganache:
4 oz (120 g) semisweet chocolate, finely chopped (I used bittersweet Lindt 70% dessert and found that it made a ganache just a tad too bitter for me, husband found it perfect)
½ cup (120 ml) heavy cream
1 tsp unsalted butter


Prepare the pastry cream:

In a medium-sized mixing bowl, stir the egg yolks together with the sugar until smooth and blended. Do not do this in advance or the egg will cook.

Sift the flour and cornstarch together then add to the yolk/sugar mixture and stir to blend, mixing until smooth.


In a small saucepan, bring the milk just to a boil over medium heat. Watch carefully. As the milk comes to the boil and starts to foam around the edges, remove from the heat and slowly pour over the egg mixture, whisking as you do in order to avoid curdling.

Place back into the saucepan and cook over medium heat just until it comes to the boil, whisking constantly, then allow to boil as you whisk for about 30 – 60 seconds until it becomes thick. Remove from the heat and whisk in the vanilla.


Pour into a clean bowl and cover the surface of the pastry cream with plastic wrap and chill in the fridge until ready to use.


Make the sponge cake:

Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Butter and line two 8-inch (23 cm) round cake tins (measure along the bottom of the tin) with parchment paper.

Carefully separate 3 of the eggs, placing the yolks in a large mixing bowl and the whites in a medium mixing bowl, preferably plastic (ideal for whipping whites). Add the remaining 2 whole eggs and set aside.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour with the baking powder and the salt. Set aside.

In a small saucepan over low heat, warm the milk and butter just until warm enough for the butter to melt. Once melted, stir together, remove from the heat and set aside.

With an electric mixer, beat the eggs and the yolks together with 6 tablespoons of the sugar on high speed, for 5 minutes until thick, light and fluffy and the batter drops off in a slow ribbon when the beaters are lifted. Beat in the vanilla.


In a clean mixing bowl, preferably plastic, and with clean beaters, whip the egg whites with either the cream of tartar or a few grains of salt and a drop or two of lemon juice on low speed until foamy. Increase the speed to high and continue beating, gradually adding the remaining sugar. Beat only until soft, moist, shiny peaks form.


Gently fold in half of the creamy egg whites into the cake batter to lighten it, then fold in the remaining beaten whites. Sift or spoon half the flour mixture over the batter and gently fold it in before adding the remaining flour and folding that in just until incorporated. Do not over mix.


Make a well on one side of the batter and pour the warm melted butter/milk mixture into the bowl. Gently but thoroughly fold the butter/milk into the batter. Again, do not over mix.


Divide the batter between the 2 prepared pans, gently smoothing the tops. Bake for 18-20 minutes until the top is light brown and the top springs back when gently touched in the center. Remove the pans from the oven onto cooling racks and immediately and carefully run a knife or spatula around the edges (the inside of the pans) to loosen the cakes as they start to pull away immediately. This will keep the cakes from ripping. Invert the cakes onto wire cooling racks then invert back, right side up, onto cooling racks to cool completely.


When the cakes are cool and you are ready to assemble the cake, take the pastry cream from the refrigerator and loosen the plastic wrap (I did this because I found that too chilled and the pastry cream is too thick to spread. It is easier to spread at room temperature.).

Prepare the chocolate glaze/ganache:

Place the finely chopped chocolate in a heatproof medium-sized bowl. Bring the cream and the butter just to the boil in a small saucepan over medium heat. When it comes to the bowl, pour the liquid over the chocolate and allow it to stand for 3 – 5 minutes.


Then stir until smooth and continue to stir until creamy and thick enough to spread. If you need to (as I did) place the bowl in the fridge until the desired pouring/spreading consistency is reached (not too thick or it won’t spread), taking the bowl out of the fridge and stirring every few minutes to check.


Assemble the cake:

Place 1 layer (carefully as they are very fluffy and delicate) onto your serving platter. With a spoon, stir the pastry cream vigorously until spreading consistency then spread all the cream onto the this cake layer, spreading carefully all the way to the edges. Gently lay the second layer of sponge cake on top of the pastry cream.


Very carefully, pour or ladle spoonfuls of the ganache onto the top of the cake and, using a cake spatula, spread out from the center to the edges, allowing some to drizzle down the sides. Or, if you like, you can completely cover the sides in the glaze as well.


Enjoy!


PS The Boston Cream Pie was proclaimed the official Massachusetts State Dessert on December 12, 1996. A civics class from Norton High School sponsored the bill.

The Boston Terrier was indeed developed in Boston, Massachusetts. A truly American creation, this lovely, gentle dog was a cross between the English bulldog and the White English Terrier, originally as a fighting dog. He is now known as “The American Gentleman” because of his “dapper appearance” and his gentle disposition. (from the AKC website).

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