In defense of food

Hello Hello Familiar Readers!

Almost exactly 2 years ago, I set out to create this blog as a dynamic way to capture and document my culinary adventures – both in the kitchen and at various dining tables around the globe. Through pictures and stories and recipes and critiques, I hoped to somehow preserve those rare moments of pure food delight when your tongue savors the first sip of a spicy sweet penang curry, or when your hands caress the smooth cold surface of a rolled out pie crust, or when the steamy aromas from a pan of shallots, onions and garlic hit your nose. I’ve said it time and time again, but food is just so therapeutic! Why else do we turn to chicken noodle soup when we’re sick? Why does ice cream always follow a heart-wrenching breakup? Why would Santa want cookies on Christmas Eve? Why do billions of families around the world share mealtime with each other? Some dieticians and nutritionists would argue that we have become enslaved to the foods we eat – that we are dependent on food beyond just mere survival; that now, we are looking to food for emotional comfort and support. Well, in defense of food, is that so wrong? We meet our friends over lunch or happy hour or coffee all the time. Many times, food is the only way to buffer potentially awkward meetings and first dates. For some families, meal time is the the only time of day when an entire family can sit and enjoy each other and catch up and really be reunited in love, laughter, and food. In other families, heavily guarded secret recipes are cherished like family heirlooms and passed down generation to generation. There is some very deep human connection running through all the food we eat. Food is this universal language that transcends superficial barriers. It’s what makes us relate-able to a stranger halfway around the world. I mean, we all gotta eat, right?

So, this is my defense of food. To be more specific, good food (see Pollan for what I mean by good food). My unabashed love for food has lead me here, to this blog. The last few months I have been absent from the blog sphere, and I needed a reminder why I started one in the first place, and why I should continue. Well, this entry is it. My tribute to and defense of food. A renewal of my commitment to this. I hope you enjoy!

Buche de Noel
Source: Jacques Torres
So this is the absolute most time consuming monstrosity I have ever made. About 36 eggs, several pounds of confectioners’ sugar, and many rounds of dish-washing later, I managed to produce nothing worth eating. But I forced myself to continue so at least I could say I tried and have pictures to show for my efforts.

Ingredients
2 large eggs, at room temperature
2 large egg yolks, at room temperature
1/3 cup plus 2 tbsp granulated sugar
1 1/2 tsp whole milk
2 large egg whites, at room temperature
1/3 cup cake flour
1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
About 1 cup Flavored Simple Syrup (recipe follows)
Chocolate Pastry Cream (recipe follows)
Coffee Buttercream (recipe follows)
Meringue Mushrooms (recipe follows)
Small block of bittersweet chocolate, for shaving

1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Line a 15 1/2–by—10 1/2—by 1—inch baking sheet (jelly-roll or quarter sheet pan) with parchment paper.
2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whip, combine the whole eggs, egg yolks, 1/3 cup of the sugar, and the milk and beat on medium-high speed for about 6 minutes, or until the mixture is very light and has tripled in volume.
3. Place the egg whites in a bowl and, using a handheld mixer, whip on medium speed until foamy. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar a tablespoon at a time and continue to beat. When the sugar has been incorporated, raise the speed to medium-high and whip for about 5 minutes, or until stiff, but not dry, peaks form.
4. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold about half of the whole egg mixture into the egg whites. When almost incorporated, fold in the remaining half, taking care not do deflate the batter.
5. Place the flour in a fine-mesh sieve and, tapping on the side of the sieve, sift the flour over the meringue batter. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the flour into the batter, making sure the spatula reaches to the bottom of the bowl to ensure an even mixture.
6. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, and use an offset spatula to spread it evenly. Don’t press down too hard, or the pressure will cause the batter to deflate.
7. Place the confections’ sugar in a fine-mesh sieve and, tapping on the side of the sieve, sift the sugar evenly over the surface of the batter.
8. Bake for about 5 minutes, or until the cake just begins to brown on the edges. Remove from the oven and immediately run a paring knife around the inside edge of the pan to loosen the cake sides. Place a sheet of parchment paper over the top of the cake, and then invert a cookie sheet over the parchment. Immediately invert the cake and the cookie sheet together, then lift off the baking sheet. Peel the parchment paper off the cake. Let cool completely. Line another cookie sheet with parchment paper. Place the cake on a clean, flat work surface with a long side facing you. Drizzle the simple syrup evenly over the cake, using just enough to moisten but not soak the cake. Spoon the pastry cream on top of the cake and, using an offset spatula, carefully spread the cream evenly over the cake, taking care to spread it evenly up to the edges. Starting at the long end farthest from you, slip your fingers between the parchment and the cake and begin rolling the cake toward you, up and over the pastry cream, until you have a firm log shape, or roulade.
9. Carefully transfer the roulade, seam side down, to the prepared cookie sheet. Cover with plastic film and refrigerate for at least 4 hours to allow the roulade to set.
10. Transfer the roulade to a serving platter. Using a serrated knife, cut a 1 1/2—inch—thick slice from both ends of the roll. These will be used to form “gnarls” on the finished log.
11. Using an offset spatula, generously coat the entire log with all but about 1 cup of the buttercream, spreading from left to right in long streaks. Place the 2 reserved slices on top of the log, positioning one at each end and a little off center. Cover the slices with buttercream, using the offset spatula to smooth the top of each piece. Pull a cake comb through the buttercream on the cake so that it resembles tree bark. Then pull the comb up the sides of the slices so that they resemble gnarls on a tree. Place in the refrigerator for about 15 minutes to allow the buttercream to set.
12. While the buttercream is setting, put the mushrooms together by gluing the caps to the stems with a dab of buttercream. Lay them cap side down until ready to place on the cake.
13. Remove the cake from the refrigerator. Using a sharp knife, carefully peel chocolate shavings off the chocolate block, letting them fall over and around the cake. Arrange the mushrooms around the cake. Serve immediately.

Flavored Simple Syrup
Ingredients
1 1/4 cups water
2/3 cup sugar
2 1/2 tbs Grand Marnier or other liqueur

1. In a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the water and sugar, place over medium-high heat, and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. When the sugar has dissolved completely, remove the pan from the heat. Transfer to a heatproof bowl and let cool completely.
2. Stir the liqueur into the cooled syrup. Use immediately, or store, tightly covered, in the refrigerator almost indefinitely.

Chocolate Pastry Cream
-makes about 2 cups-
Note: I don’t think it went well with the cake, but this makes an excellent and fairly straightforward pastry cream… will most likely be recycled for cream puffs or eclairs in the future. ALSO, cook longer than specified as the powdery cornstarch taste needs to be thoroughly cooked off.

Ingredients
4 tbs sugar
1 tbs cornstarch
2 large egg yolks, at room temperature
1 cup whole milk
1/2 vanilla bean, split in half lengthwise
3 1/2 ounces semisweet chocolate

1. Sift together 2 tablespoons of the sugar and the cornstarch in a bowl. Whisk in the egg yolks until well blended, thick, and smooth.
2. In a heavy-bottomed nonreactive saucepan, combine the milk with the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar. Using the edge of a small, sharp knife, scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the milk and then add the bean. Place over medium heat and bring to a boil, whisking occasionally. Remove from the heat.
3. Whisking constantly, whisk about one-third of the hot milk mixture into the egg mixture. Pour the combined mixtures into the hot milk mixture, whisk to combine, and return to medium-low heat. Cook, whisking constantly to keep the mixture from sticking and burning. Just before the mixture comes to a boil, it should thicken enough to coat the back of a spoon. As soon as the mixture boils, lower the heat slightly and continue to whisk for another 2 minutes to cook out the raw taste of the cornstarch and allow the flavors to mellow.
4. Remove from the heat and strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a clean bowl. Cover with plastic film, pressing it directly on the surface to keep a skin from forming, and let cool to room temperature.
5. Place the chocolate in the top half of a double boiler. Place over (not touching) gently simmering water in the bottom pan and heat, stirring occasionally, until completely melted. Using a rubber spatula, fold the hot chocolate into the cooled pastry cream. Cover with a piece of plastic film until ready to use. If not using immediately, refrigerate for up to 24 hours.

Coffee Buttercream
-makes about 3 cups-
Ingredients

3 large egg yolks, at room temperature
1 large whole egg, at room temperature
Scant 1 cup sugar
1/3 cup water
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, at room temperature, cubed
Pure coffee extract to taste

1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whip, combine the egg yolks and whole egg and beat on medium-high speed for about 7 minutes, or until tripled in volume and very thick, light, and airy.
2. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the sugar and water. Clip a thermometer to the side of the pan, place the pan over medium-high heat, and bring to a boil. Boil for about 12 minutes, or until the mixture registers 250 degrees F. When the sugar syrup is ready, remove it from the heat. With the mixer on low speed, carefully pour the hot syrup between the ship and the side of the bowl, taking care not to hit the whip as you pour, or the hot syrup will spatter and burn you. Continue beating on medium speed for about 3 minutes, or until the outside of the bowl is warm but not hot and the mixture is slightly cool.
3. Add the butter and continue to whip on medium speed for a couple of minutes, or until the butter is incorporated. Raise the speed to medium-high and beat for about 10 minutes, or until thick, smooth, and shiny, and well emulsified. Add the extract, a few drops at a time, beating until the desired flavor is reached. Be careful not to overbeat, or the buttercream will be grainy.
4. Use immediately, or cover tightly and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Meringue Mushrooms
-makes about 2 dozen-
Ingredients

3 large egg whites, at room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/2 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder

1. Preheat the oven to 275 degrees F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. Place the egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whip and beat on medium speed until foamy. Begin adding the granulated sugar a tablespoon at a time, adding it until the egg whites have increased in volume. Raise the speed to medium-high, add all of the remaining granulated sugar, and beat for about 5 minutes, or until stiff peaks form. Lower the speed to medium and continue to beat for an additional 2 minutes to incorporate more air into the whites. They should be very light and stiff, but not dry and separated.
3. Remove the bowl from the mixer and, using a rubber spatula, fold the confectioners’ sugar into the egg whites, taking care not to deflate them and making sure you reach all the way to the bottom of the bowl.
4. Scrape the meringue into a pastry bag fitted with a 1/4-inch plain tip. To make the mushroom stems, hold the pastry bag at a 90-degree angle and squeeze dime-sized portions of meringue onto the prepared cookie sheet. As you finish squeezing each stem, quickly pull the bag straight up so that you leave a little tail of meringue. Make as many stems as you will need, keeping in mind that baked meringue is fragile and breaks easily, so make a few more than you will actually need. (I like to make enough mushrooms so that everyone can have one when the cake is served.)
5. Make an equal number of mushroom caps by holding the pastry bag at a slight angle with the tip touching the parchment paper as you begin to pipe individual meringues into 1/2-inch rounds. When you have a 1/2-inch round, immediately stop piping and pull the tip straight up, leaving no tail.
6. Place the cocoa powder in a fine-mesh sieve and, tapping on the side of the sieve, lightly dust the mushroom caps with cocoa.
7. Place the meringues in the oven and bake, with the door slightly ajar to allow the moisture to escape, for about 1 hour, or until very dry and firm. If the meringues take on color, the oven is too hot. Remove the pan from the oven, lower the heat, and let the oven cool slightly before returning the pan to continue baking.
8. Turn off the oven and allow the meringues to cool in the oven for about 1 hour. This helps dry them completely. If you don’t have time to do this, remove the pan from the oven and carefully transfer the meringue pieces to a wire rack to cool.
9. Store the mushrooms pieces in an airtight and very dry container until ready to put them together when you assemble the cake.

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One Response to In defense of food

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