Tuesday, December 29, 2009

CHOCOLATE CHESTNUT CHARLOTTE

NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS


It’s the same thing, year in and year out. December comes to a lively end, flowing by faster than we could ever have imagined. This cold, cold month comes to a rousing, bubbly conclusion and as the end draws nigh something odd and inexplicable takes over us. All power of sensible thinking comes screeching to a halt and irrational thoughts flood through our poor over-holidayed brain. Maybe it was all that food, the turkey and stuffing, the glazed ham and cranberry relish, all the cakes and puddings and pies that softened our brains. Maybe it was the days and days of stirring cookie dough, pushing heaping spoonful after heaping spoonful of the stuff off onto innumerable cookie sheets and putting a tray in, pulling a tray out and replacing it with yet another tray of even more little mounds of cookie dough. Maybe it was all that sentimental, gooey “Good will towards men” stuff, all the presents that softened our hearts, all those Christmas specials, cartoons and old black and white films that did the job. Spending time with beaming grandparents or too many giddy little kids, thoughts of jolly Old Saint Nick sliding down yet another chimney or all the dazzling, glittery candles and fairy lights that blinded us, made us go all wobbly and weak-kneed and completely lose all reason. Hours of sitting too close to a blazing fire may have softened the old noggin. But every year it happens again and no matter what we’ve told ourselves, no matter how many times we’ve seen that it only ends in disaster, something – what, oh dear, what? – makes us do it again.

New Year’s Resolutions.


Yes, my friends, the time is once more upon us when we sit down and, pen and paper in hand, draw up that impossible list of resolutions, that endless list of promises to ourselves, promises rarely kept. All of those heavy meals and sweets must have made us delirious, intoxicated by one too many candy cane or marshmallow Santa. Glancing over past lists, we shake our head in disbelief and wonder how we can, year after year, set the bar so high: stop smoking, lose 10 pounds, visit grandma every Sunday, never raise our voice to children or spouse, quit our job and live the dream, plan that round-the-world tour we’ve been dreaming of. Pledging ourselves to such is on par with blowing out birthday candles wishing for world peace when what we really hope for is to win the lottery or for the guy that sits two rows over from us in class to fall in love with us. New Year’s Resolutions are as ephemeral as that genie in the bottle, as fleeting as time itself. Yet here we go again.


Yes, the New Year is swiftly approaching, but before we pop the cork on that bottle of bubbly we still have the time to savor the last few days of this year, playing with the toys we have received from loved ones, the standing mixers and cameras, the digital scales and the cookbooks. We watch as the leftovers disappear from the fridge, never fast enough although we know that all those plastic containers of turkey and relish, stuffing, salads and pumpkin pie will save us from having to cook yet another meal. We sit in our favorite comfy chair and sigh contentedly, smiling at those who gather round us as we tiptoe towards a new decade. So just take a breath and, before we commit ourselves to those big, impossible resolutions, let’s have a little more cake and think it all through.


Starting a new year is both exciting and scary, a time of reflection, thanks and wishes. We hope for great things yet are unsure of what it will bring. This year, I have decided to try and put together a list of reasonable resolutions for I know that I am lazy and that, no matter the good intentions, I would much rather be baking.

RESOLUTION 1: Clean up my desk and my work area. And keep it that way.

RESOLUTION 2: Create a workable space for my food photography and learn how to use my camera (see Meeta and Ilva).

RESOLUTION 3: Find the courage to create more elaborate desserts, working more on presentation (see Mowie and Deeba).

RESOLUTION 4: Organize my weeks better so I can spend more time visiting other blogs on a regular basis as I used to do and which I have so neglected these past few months.

RESOLUTION 5: Organize my days better so I can return to my old ways and spend more time on FB with my old Mudpuppy sisters, my hearts and souls, Minna, Vera, Claire, Sabine, Bobbi as well as my darlings Debbie, Lisa and Lee and my high school friends.

RESOLUTION 6: Work more on my writing, completing the stories of blog posts past, trying to write non-blog post articles and stories. Write. Write. Write.

RESOLUTION 7: Isn’t 6 enough?


2009 has brought me an armful of fabulous friendships, a bevy of sisters and a few brothers who have helped me through thick and thin, seen me through the hard times and the fun times, who have encouraged me, taught me, supported me and made me laugh. Where would I be without them? Deeba, Hilda, Meeta, Mowie, Minna, Bobbi, Claire, Vera, Sabine, Debbie, Lee and now Lisa (yay!), Nanette, Ilva, Simone, Kerrin. Ellen, Mike and Frank. And of course Sue, Carolyn and Andrew. There are many more that I am thankful that I have met and become friends with, but these special people are truly special indeed, more than one person could ever expect to know in one lifetime and I am truly thankful. And hope they each know how much they mean to me.

And wonderful Greg of Sippity Sup! has generously nominated Life's a Feast for a Homie 2009 and I would absolutely be thrilled if you would go here and vote for my blog (look for lifesafeast.blogspot.com and click on the little house next to it)! Thanks so much!


And now for something very special, an amazing, very elegant, festive dessert, perfect for your New Year’s Celebration, luscious and fancy, perfect with champagne. A gorgeous treat, rich in flavor yet light enough to round off a celebratory meal without pushing you over the edge. Barely sweet, feather light chestnut mousse filling, its nuttiness perfectly matched to the sweet chocolate buttercream cradled in tender, moist vanilla sponge.


CHOCOLATE CHESTNUT CHARLOTTE

SPONGE CAKE:
¾ cup (95 g) flour
1 tsp baking powder
4 eggs at room temperature
1/3 cup (70 g) + ½ cup (100 g) sugar, divided
1 tsp vanilla
¼ cup (50 g) powdered sugar


CHOCOLATE BUTTERCREAM FILLING:
1cup (120 g) powdered sugar
1 stick (115 g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
2 Tbs unsweetened cocoa powder
2 Tbs hot or boiling water

CHESTNUT MOUSSE:
21 oz (600 g) cooked chestnuts
2 cups (500 ml) milk
1/3 cup (70 g) + 3 Tbs sugar, divided
2 envelopes (12 g) unflavored gelatin
½ tsp salt
3 egg whites at room temperature
1 cup (200 – 250 ml) heavy whipping cream


Prepare the Sponge Cake:

Prepare the sponge cake filled with chocolate buttercream a day before (or at the very least early in the day) serving the Charlotte.

Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Line a 15 ½ x 10 ½- inch (40 x 27-cm) jelly roll pan with parchment paper, leaving a bit overhanging the sides.

Blend and whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt and set aside.

Separate the eggs. In a plastic or metal bowl, whip the egg whites, beating first at low speed for 30 seconds then increasing to high speed, until the whites hold soft peaks. Continue beating the whites on high speed gradually adding the 1/3 cup (70 g) of sugar until you have stiff, glossy peaks.

In a large mixing bowl beating at high speed, beat the egg yolks until thick and pale. Gradually beat in the ½ cup (100 g) sugar until very thick. Beat in the vanilla.


Gently fold both the flour and the meringue (egg whites) into the egg yolk/sugar batter using a rubber or silicone spatula until well blended and smooth with no more chunks of whites remaining.


Spread the batter gently and evenly in the prepared jelly roll pan, making sure the batter is spread into the corners (you can “glue” the paper to the bottom of the pan by dabbing a bit of the batter between the paper and the pan and pressing down. This will keep the parchment from moving around as you spread).


Bake the sponge in the preheated oven for 15 minutes until the top springs back when gently pressed. If the cake looks like it is browning too quickly simply lay a piece of aluminum foil on the top of the cake.

Have a very clean kitchen towel ready before removing the cake from the oven.


Remove the cake from the oven onto a cooling rack. Sprinkle the top of the cake with the powdered sugar making sure it is sprinkled evenly all over the surface. Lay a clean kitchen towel over the top of the cake and invert the whole thing. Lift off the baking pan. Very very gently (the cake is delicate) peel off the parchment paper from the cake. Now, working from a long side of the cake, roll the cake and the towel up together into a tight roll. Let the cake cool completely rolled in the towel set on the cooling rack.


Prepare the Chocolate Buttercream Filling:

Place the powdered sugar, the soft butter, the cocoa powder and the hot water in a medium-sized mixing bowl and beat until very well blended, smooth and creamy. Taste. Feel free to add a bit more sugar or cocoa to taste.

When the sponge cake has cooled completely, remove it from the cooling rack and place lengthwise in front of you on the work surface. Carefully unroll the cake. If the cake seems to have shrunk a bit, don’t worry about it. Spread the chocolate buttercream evenly all over the surface of the cake. Now, gently but firmly reroll the cake, rolling it as tightly as possible. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to prepare the Charlotte.


Prepare the Chestnut Mousse Filling:

Grind the cooked chestnuts very finely using a food mill or grinder with fine cutting disc (using a food processor may turn the chestnuts to paste) until they are like sand. Get a teen or a young man to help you out as this is hard on the elbow grease. Place the ground chestnuts in a large mixing bowl.


In a small saucepan, heat 1 cup (250 ml) of the milk with 1/3 cup (70 g) sugar and the gelatin. Cook over medium-low heat, whisking occasionally, until the milk is hot and the sugar and the gelatin are completely dissolved (you will see flecks of pale yellow/goldish on the surface – this is the gelatin. When the gelatin is dissolved these flecks will vanish.)

Pour the hot milk/sugar/gelatin over the chestnuts along with the remaining cup of milk and the salt. Stir until well blended. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for about an hour and a half until the mixture mounds when dropped from a spoon onto a plate.

This goes in the fridge...

... and comes out like this

Assemble the Charlotte:

When the Chestnut Mousse mounds after refrigeration, be ready to prepare the Charlotte: Line a 4-quart (4-liter) glass bowl, preferably round bottomed, very well with plastic wrap. Remove the sponge cake/chocolate buttercream roll from the fridge and remove the plastic wrap. Carefully and evenly slice off the uneven ends then slice the cake into ¼-inch (1/2 cm) slices. Starting at the bottom, line the bowl with the slices of cake, working your way up and around, pressing the pieces gently together to try and eliminate any gaps between the cake slices.


Complete the Chestnut Mousse Filling: In a small plastic or metal bowl, beat the egg whites on high speed until soft peaks form. Continue beating, gradually beating in the 3 tablespoons of sugar until peaks are firm and the sugar is dissolved. In a separate bowl, preferably chilled, beat the whipping cream until peaks hold their shape.


Using a rubber or silicone spatula, fold the beaten egg whites and the whipped cream into the chestnut mousse until well blended and smooth. Mound the mixture into the cake-lined bowl, filling up the bowl to the top.


Carefully trim any cake slices that come above the edge of the bowl and fold them over. Cover the surface (which will be the bottom of the Charlotte once it is flipped over and unmolded) with more cake roll slices. Cover with plastic wrap and put back into the refrigerator until set, at least 4 hours or longer if possible.

To serve:

Remove the Charlotte from the refrigerator. Remove the plastic wrap from the surface and invert a serving platter onto the Charlotte. Invert the platter and the Charlotte. Lift off the glass bowl (yay! It’s clean!) and the plastic wrap. The Charlotte is ready to serve.


I lift up my glass and my fork and I toast you, my dear friends and those of you who come and pay me a visit here at Life’s a Feast every now and then. You keep me alive and keep me going. And I am thankful for each and every one of you.


(ok, she’s had too much to eat and drink, she’s gone all soppy and sentimental now. Grab her arm there, come on, help me pull her off and get her to bed…. Quick, push her out o’ here before she starts on again with all that love and friendship and soppiness and stuff…geez she just doesn’t stop does she? Oops, come on, pick her up again… take that chocolate Santa away from her, oh wow, she’s stuffed it in her mouth already….yipes, oh gee whiz she’s going for the old films now, oh no! not Christmas in Connecticut again! Wowee how many times can one woman watch that stuff… take that bowl of candy away from her I said… almost there…easy now… ok! Whew! She’s stopped now…..


Saturday, December 26, 2009

GINGERBREAD HOUSE FROM THE NORTH POLE

A VERY SPECIAL CHRISTMAS GUEST POST


As a very special treat for my readers, I decided to invite Mrs. Santa Claus to guest post on Life’s a Feast. In keeping with the Christmas spirit, Mrs. Claus agreed to lend a helping hand. I had a wonderful time baking with her and we spent a fabulous afternoon together in my kitchen laughing and chatting. She’s a hoot, I can tell you that. And quite a woman! To tell you the truth, I think she was a rather relieved to take a break and get away from the North Pole and all those men up there and spend a little quality “girl time”. I was thrilled with the opportunity to get to know her and have her guest post for me. Thank you, Mrs. Claus, and I hope we can make this a regular happening. And with no further ado…. Mrs. Claus!


Well now, I was just tickled pink when Jamie asked me if I would guest post for her. She was a bit worried that I would be too busy at this time of year, but I put her worries to rest right away. “Honey,” I said, “there are just so many fur-trimmed jackets and bonnets one woman can sew, so many little bells to attach to so many tiny elf caps before I scream, so I’d be happy to take a wee break and write something up for your delightful blog!” Once I made sure that no toys had been broken in the brouhaha or inadvertently left behind, Rudolphs’s nose had been shined and Santa was bundled up all cozy, list tucked safely in his pocket, I was as free as a, well, as free as my jolly old man splashing in the Florida waves the day after Christmas…

Now you might think that I lead a pretty glamorous life up here at the North Pole: romantic white landscape, gentle, doe-eyed reindeer, piles of gaily-colored wrapping paper and pretty ribbon as far as the eye can see, but you don’t know the half of it! Being married to the most popular man in the world just ain’t all it’s cracked up to be: and I say Michelle Obama, David Furbish and whoever’s dating that there George what’s-his-name, you know, the cute one, you all ain’t got nothing on fame and popularity. Oh, my man may go under different aliases in different parts of the world: Père Noël, Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Weihnachtsmann, Sinterklaas, but everyone knows who they’re talking about. And my man can’t just get his mug shown on tv, leaving all you gals woozy and weak-kneed and all the men steaming, no, he needs to put out. Presents. Presents, presents and more presents. And just ask the others how they feel about their so-called “better half” getting all the attention! Everywhere we turn it’s Santa this and Santa that…


And I, Mrs. Santa Claus, well, I am more than just a pretty face, the woman behind the man. No, I’m moral support, cookie baker, list checker (yes indeed, no matter what that song says, it’s me!), suit sewer, and the list goes on and on. You know how men are! They would lose their heads if they weren’t screwed onto their shoulders! And I’m taking care of a workshop full of them. So I do more than I am ever given credit for. And those Santa’s Helpers? It may be toys that they’re making but it’s not all fun and games what with the thumbs being hammered and the sore backs, those darn elves keep coming to me looking for compensation for work-related injuries!


And keeping them dressed warmly and holding those Man-Colds at bay is a job in and of itself, what with all the chicken soup and hot cocoa I keep on the stove and all those teeny tiny socks to darn, they just don’t take care of themselves! I mean, what would happen to Christmas if they all got sick? And Santa? You know I love him, but keeping him clothed in that silly red and white suit and making sure he stays healthy before the big day is a full time job! Tried putting him on a diet, too, but no…. he thinks being pleasantly plump is part of the package deal, what everyone expects of him. Well, if he keels over from all that extra weight before next Christmas, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Santa, in the fridge all day...

So, Jamie asked me to guest post on her blog. I thought I’d really like the diversion from all the holiday running around. What to make? And when I saw that she had a gingerbread house to make for that Daring Baker’s challenge I said “Well, doll, that’s right up my alley! Why don’t I just help you bake and put that together? I mean, who knows more about candy-covered houses and snow-laden landscapes than I do?” So here I am taking a few out of my busy schedule to give a helping hand. Think all those elves can take care of themselves for a bit?


Anna of Very Small Anna and Y of Lemonpi asked all the Daring Bakers (and me, Mrs. Claus) to bake a homey, traditional Gingerbread House for December 2009’s Daring Baker’s Challenge. Anna offered us a recipe from Good Housekeeping and Y from The Great Scandinavian Baking Book as well as giving us recipes for both Royal Icing and sugar “glue”. Very Christmassy indeed!

Well, Jamie and I were both very excited by this challenge and dove right in. Little did we realize how difficult working with the dough would be and not an elf in sight to help out. We chose Y’s Scandinavian recipe and though the dough pulled together a charm, rolling it out proved a true challenge. It crumbled into a million pieces and had to be wet, pressed and beaten into submission. We finally succeeded in rolling out enough of the dough for our template (pattern) cut outs and some fun cookie cut outs to complete the North Pole scene (moose and Christmas trees). We baked it up then Clem, Jamie’s son, did help with the gluing together and decorating with whatever bits and pieces of decorative sugars and candies we found lying around the house, secreted away in drawers (she does have an impressive candy stash!).

I would like to thank both Anna and Y for this fun and festive challenge. I think that next time Jamie will be using one of her own cut out cookie doughs for this, either vanilla or chocolate (although a true gingerbread house dough, Y warned us, is tougher to work with as it is made more for its sturdiness and lng-lasting ability rather than good looks and tastiness). The cooked sugar used to glue the pieces together as well as the royal icing hardened faster than expected so we had to work very quickly to pull it all together, but in the end we were all quite thrilled with the final results. Marty is also truly fascinated and has been trying to climb his way up onto the table to look at the house up close. Maybe it’s Santa’s bulging cock-eyed eyes up there that makes Marty think they’re related!


Thanks to Lis and Ivonne for keeping the Daring Baker’s home fires burning! Thank you Anna and Y and thank you Clem for the help. And a huge thank you for Mrs. Claus for taking time out during this busiest of seasons to guest post for me. You deserve so much more credit than you usually get! Now off you go on vacation to the sun and fun of Florida…. Stop by my mom’s house while you’re down there and say “Ho Ho Ho” for me.


And wonderful Greg of Sippity Sup! has generously nominated Life's a Feast for a Homie 2009 and I would absolutely be thrilled if you would go here and vote for my blog (look for lifesafeast.blogspot.com without the www. in front)! Thanks so much!

GINGERBREAD HOUSE

Scandinavian Gingerbread House (Pepparkakstuga)
From The Great Scandinavian Baking Book by Beatrice Ojakangas

(Half recipe would work fine for a small house. I got a lot of left over dough)

1 cup (225 g) butter, room temperature
1 cup (220 g) brown sugar, well packed
2 tablespoons cinnamon
4 teaspoons ground ginger *
3 teaspoons ground cloves *
2 teaspoons baking soda
½ cup boiling water
5 cups (625 g) all-purpose flour, more if needed

* I omitted the ginger and replaced with 2 Tbs unsweetened cocoa powder

In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until blended. Add the cinnamon, ginger and cloves. Mix the baking soda with the boiling water and add to the dough along with the flour. Mix to make a stiff dough. If necessary add more water, a tablespoon at a time. Chill 2 hours or overnight.

Draw and cut out patterns for the house, front and back walls, side walls, roof pieces, door which will be cut out of front wall, chimney.

Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C).

Roll out the dough a little at a time on a floured work surface to a thickness of no less than 1/8-inch. Place the templates on the dough and, using a sharp knife, cut around the templates. Transfer the pieces to cookie sheets lined with parchment paper. Cut out any extra pieces using cookie cutters as you like (Christmas cookie cutters of course).


Bake the cookies for 12 to 15 minutes until set and slightly puffed. Remove the baking sheets onto wire cooling racks and allow the pieces to cool on the baking sheets.


ROYAL ICING:
Can be halved

1 large egg white
3 cups (330 g) powdered sugar
1 tsp white vinegar
1 tsp almond extract

Beat all ingredients until smooth, adding the powdered sugar gradually to get the desired consistency. Pipe on pieces and allow to dry before assembling. If you aren't using it all at once you can keep it in a small bowl, loosely covered with a damp towel for a few hours until ready to use. You may have to beat it slightly to get it an even consistency if the top sets up a bit. Piped on the house, this will set up hard over time.

Simple Syrup:
I halved this amount

2 cups (400g) sugar
Place in a small saucepan and heat until just boiling and the sugar dissolves. Dredge or brush the edges of the pieces to glue them together keeping the pan over very low heat. If the syrup crystallizes, remake it.

Now piece together the walls then adding the roof on by dipping into or brushing the edges of the pieces with the cooked sugar then pressing together. Work very quickly because the sugar glue works fast and well. Use the sugar to glue on the chimney and door.


Decorate with the royal icing, candy, colored almond paste (I rolled out the paste to the thickness desired using a glass, cut out trees with a cookie cutter and the holly leaves using a paring knife ten glued the pieces onto the house using a dab of beaten egg yolk).


Keep it away from the dog.

Now, back to the North Pole...until next year...

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