Sunday, March 30, 2008

Sugar High Weekend Part II: Chocolate Macarons with Espresso Ganache

No, not macaroons. An entirely different animal, macarons are french cookies made with egg whites and almond flour, and completely devoid of coconut. If you've been keeping an eye on the food blogs lately, you've undoubtedly noticed that everybody's macaron crazy these days. Arguably the most famous of macaron producers these days is Paris' Pierre Hermé, so I used an adaptation of his chocolate macaron recipe that I found on a Singporean blog called Yochana's Cake Delight.

To make the cookies, you'll first want to separate four eggs to get about 100 grams of egg white (save the yolks in the fridge for some other project). Then let the yolks sit in a bowl at room temperature for 24-48 hours, covered tightly with some cheesecloth and a rubber band. Yes, I know, this goes against everything we're taught about the 40-140 degree "danger zone," but this is what Hermé does, and I for one trust his judgment. Once the whites have aged, sift 250 grams of powdered sugar, 25 grams of cocoa powder (regular, not dutch processed/alkalized), and 140 grams of almond flour, then combine. If you can't find almond flour, or don't want to go to the expense (it can a little on the spendy side), get some blanched slivered almonds and pulse them in a blender on low, until they're ground into a fine powder, but not almond butter. Next, beat the egg whites with an electric mixer or Kitchenaid at medium speed until they've turned foamy, then gradually increase the speed to high and beat them until they form soft, slightly droopy peaks:

Next, fold the dry ingredients, about a fourth at a time, into the egg whites:

The egg whites will seem to deflate a bit as the dry ingredients are added, but this is okay. What you'll end up with be somewhat akin to a very sticky cake batter. Put the batter into a piping bag with a large, regular tip (or no tip at all), and pipe into circles anywhere from one to three inches in diameter onto a parchment paper lined baking sheet. It helps to trace out the circles in pencil on the underside of the parchment. I used my camera's lens cap to trace the circles, which gave me 15 cookie halves that were about 2 1/2 inches in size:

Let these sit out at room temperature for about 90 minutes to form skins. While that's happening, you'll make the ganache. Put two shots of espresso, with enough sugar to take the edge off but not quite sweeten it, into a measuring cup, and add enough heavy cream to bring the mixture to one cup. Heat this over a medium flame until bubbles just begin to appear at the edges. Turn off the heat and add 14 oz. of chocolate. I used 10 oz. of white chocolate and 4 oz. of dark, but you can use whatever combination you like. After the chocolate has fully melted, add two Tbsp. of butter and whisk to incorporate. Let the ganache cool to a thick but pipable consistency.

Once the cookies have rested for 90 minutes, put them into a pre-heated oven at 325F, with a wooden spoon wedged in the door to let steam escape, for 12 minutes, rotating the pan 180 degrees halfway through. When the cookies are done, they will have developed "domes" and "feet":

Pair like sized cookie halves and pipe the ganache onto the bottoms (a Ziploc bag with a small cut made on one of the corners works well for this if you don't feel like cleaning your piping bag and changing up the tip). Sandwich them together, and voila: You've got macarons.

Mine turned out pretty well, although the domes deflated a little. Was it the acidity of the cocoa powder? Should I have used more egg whites, or beaten them to a slightly stiffer consistency? I'm not really sure, so I may have to play around with this a bit more to see if I can get the domes worked out. Any pastry chefs who might be reading this are strongly encouraged to offer advice...

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Sugar High Weekend Part I: Chocolate-Caramel Pot de Creme

A recipe for pot de creme caught my eye a while back and it's been rattling around in the back of my mind ever since. So I decided to have a go at it this weekend. The recipe comes from Bay Area pastry chef and blogger Shuna Lydon over at Eggbeater, and while she treats this as just one component of a more complicated dessert creation, I'm letting it stand on its own. In lieu of posting the recipe, I'll let you check it out for yourself. The cream caramel can be found here, the pot de creme here.

Making the caramel is the first step, as it's an ingredient of the custard. I used agave syrup in place of light corn syrup, partly because I don't like using corn syrup but also out of curiosity, agave syrup being something I have no experience with. It worked just fine, but agave is a lot sweeter than corn syrup, so I reduced the sugar by 1/4 C. I also upped the water to 1/3 C and the cream to 1 1/2 C to achieve a little more fluid end result. While the recipe calls for consistent high heat, stoves vary by BTU output, and caramel is easy to burn, so be conservative. Here's what burned caramel looks like next to unburned caramel:

The pot de creme itself is a little tricky, but not difficult. Again, you'll want to keep an eye on the heat, especially when cooking the creme anglaise. Even though the egg yolks will have been tempered when they're added to the dairy, they can still curdle if you throw too much heat at them (found this one out the hard way).

So there you have it. Check out the recipes, and give it a try. I warmed up some of the caramel and used it as a sauce, and topped it off with a sprinkling of fleur de sel, which worked out nicely. You can halve the recipes and still wind up with a lot of this in your fridge (btw, if you don't have ramekins, go get some; about six should do), but I don't think you'll have much trouble finding someone to help you out with the leftovers.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

"Twenty Five Thoughts From a Locavore"

I ran across what I think are some pretty inspiring musings on supporting one's community and local economy recently, in this piece that was published in the newsletter of West Philly's White Dog Cafe in commemoration of their 25th Anniversary. I've never been to the White Dog (near as I can piece together, it's more or less the Chez Panisse of Philadelphia), but I've admired Judy Wickes' and Kevin Von Klause's approach to food and community ever since picking up their White Dog Cafe Cookbook back about ten years ago, and I thought I'd share this. A few of these notions are in one way or another specific to Philadelphia or the Mid-Atlantic region, but for the most part these are applicable to any community, so enjoy:

1 - Locally owned businesses provide unique character to the streets of our towns and cities.
2 - Buying local builds community wealth, while buying from chainstores drains capital from our community.
3 - Local merchants - the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker - provide personal relationships that enrich community life.
4 - Supporting local musicians, artists, writers and artisans strengthens our creative class and builds local identity.
5 - Producing basic needs locally builds regional self-reliance, reducing our dependency on long distance supply routes, easily disrupted by climate change and the rising cost of oil.
6 - Buying locally produced products cuts the carbon emissions of transport.
7 - Eating local food strengthens family farms and increases food security for our region.
8 - Buying local renewable energy such as wind power and biodiesel increases our energy security while protecting our environment.
9 - Localizing clothing productions decreases imports of this basic need, building self-reliance. Let's legalize hemp, the natural fibercrop for our region.
10 and 11 - Food from the industrial system has been modified to extend shelf life for long distance shipping and conformity of size and color, while reducing flavor and nutritional value. Food grown locally is more nutritious. And it tastes better!
12 - Fresh beer tastes better, too, and eliminates preservatives needed for shippoing.
13 - Locally owned businesses make larger charitable contributions to community causes as a percentage of their sales than do chain stores.
14 - Supporting and honoring local heroes builds community pride and encourages civic activism.
15 - Engagement in local politics - supporting candidates, running for office, and taking a stand on local issues - builds responsible government that protects our place.
16 - Local independent media covers events important to our community and provides views independent of large corporate ownership.
17 - Local knowledge - the history of our place, understanding where our water, energy and food comes from, and where our garbage and waste goes to - supports wise decision making that protects our natural environment and culture, and builds a healthier and happier region.
18 - Investing locally through local banks, credit unions, and The Reinvestment Fund, puts our capital to work locally, providing a "living return" - the benefit of living in a healthier community and stronger local economy.
19 - Drinking local tap water cuts out wasteful plastic bottles, long distance shipping and the draining of aquifers in other communities.
20 - Buying from locally owned companies brings economic control to our communities away from distant board rooms where decisions are not always made in the best interest of local communities.
21 - Buying local spreads ownership, wealth and power more broadly, which builds a stronger democracy rather than concentrated wealth and corporate rule.
22 - Buying from local producers allows greater transparency. Whether tracing contaminated spinach or children's toys, local production allows exact identification and first hand relationships with producers who reside in our own community.
23 - Local traditions - festivals, parades and annual gatherings - provide collective joy. (Like the Mummers Parade and White Dog's annual New Years Day PJ Brunch). Having fun doesn't mean we have to burn carbons and dollars travelling to exotic vacation destinations. We can create fun at home.
24 - Making a commitment to a place and taking responsibility for its care and well-being is personally grounding, meaningful and satisfying.
25 - Being a part of a local community brings a sense of belonging and security that money cannot buy.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Park Kitchen: Good, But Go Early for Bread!

Mom's in town again, which means, among other things, that restaurant madness is in full effect. Last night's post-Zenger outing was to Park Kitchen. Now, I may be the last person in Portland to check PK out, but believe it or not, this was my first time in the place. I wasn't planning on getting any photos, so I didn't bring my camera along, but I couldn't resist poaching this photo from Bay-Area blog Cooking with the Single Guy for its view of the kitchen, and the fact that it prominently features the very table we were seated at.

We ordered a bunch of small plates to share, tapas style. We also ordered some bread and olive oil, but it turned out that they'd run out of bread. This was a little disappointing, especially since their bread is Ken's, which is really good stuff. Now, I've never worked in a professional kitchen, so perhaps I'm venturing a bit too far out of the shallow end of the pool here, but how does a restaurant of this caliber not order enough bread to last through their dinner service? But I digress. First up were salt cod fritters with malt vinegar and chick pea fries with squash ketchup. The fritters were excellent, with the fish placed a little more forward of the potatoes than in other versions of this dish that I've had, which I appreciated. When you order salt cod fritters, you want to taste more than just potato. I'm not a huge fan of malt vinegar, but it worked well with the cod, making for an whimsical riff on fish n' chips. The chick pea "fries" are mashed, baked, breaded and deep fried, then served in a paper cone, belgian style. They could have been a little crisper, but they were well seasoned and the chick peas made for an interesting interior texture. The squash ketchup, which I'm guessing was made with acorn or butternut, had a flavor which was a nice balance of sweet, acidic and spicy; reminiscent, but not too reminiscent, of actual ketchup.

Next up was pork belly with apple, meyer lemon and licorice. The pork belly was braised in a sweet barbecue-like sauce, which made for a meatier texture than you often find with pork belly that's been slow roasted or confited. While the meyer lemon slices added a tartness that nicely complemented the pork and its sauce, the apple and licorice didn't seem to contribute much to this dish.

The last plate was a terrine of pheasant and dried cherries with coarse mustard and pickled beet. I wouldn't have thought of pairing mustard and pickled beet with a game bird paté, but it worked really well. The flavors were well balanced, and the mustard brought a lot to the game in terms of texture.

Going the small plate route left us some room for dessert. I ordered the meyer lemon pudding with pine nut cookies and licorice chantilly. The pudding had a nice clean citrusy flavor and a texture that was somewhere between a curd and a light cake. The macaroon-like cookies were a little on the chewy side, but the licorice chantilly was dead-on and served as a nice counterpoint to the pudding. Mom ordered the pecan parfait, a frozen cream and meringue mixture studded with candied pecans and topped with a mascarpone stuffed praline cannoli. Both desserts were unusual and refreshing; no molten chocolate cake in this place!

The final analysis? I'd say Park Kitchen pretty much lived up to my expectations. Chef Scott Dolich and chef de cuisine David Padberg's creations were imaginative and mostly well executed, the efficient yet amiable antics of the open-kitchen staff made for a good show (remember when getting a table next to the kitchen was considered a bad thing?), the service was excellent, and Heidi Wieser's desserts provided an appropriately light exclamation point to the experience. The meal was good enough that I guess I can even let the bread thing go...

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A Brief History of Recent Global Conflict...

...As told by the foods of the various nations and cultures involved. This was put together by animator Stefan Nadelman and his minions at Tourist Pictures, the very same folks responsible for Menomena's Evil Bee video. Kinda funny, kinda disturbing, oddly mesmerizing.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

A Totally Random Tim Robbins Encounter

A couple friends and I headed out on Friday to see some music. After a quick pint at the Shanghai Tunnel, we headed over to Kelly's Olympian, where Swim Swam Swum, The Future of the Ghost and System and Station were on the bill. We settled in on the bar side of Kelly's before the music started, and I guess we lost track of time, because we wound up missing Swim Swam Swum's set altogether, a little disappointing, as they're a good band. But we eventually made our way over to the other room, and just as we did, a tall, bespectacled, silver haired man with an acoustic guitar was setting up on stage. I said to my friends, "Who's that guy? He looks a lot like Tim Robbins". And in fact it was. He wasn't on the bill, there was no announcement of his performance, he just... appeared. He played seven or eight songs, one of them a cover of Steve Earle's Christmas In Washington, which to me sounds an awful lot like Ellis Unit One with different lyrics, but I digress. While Tim Robbins isn't best known for his music, I have to say, he did a great job. He's a perfectly adequate guitarist, and he's actually got a pretty good singing voice. It was quite a treat.

I managed to corner him after his set to basically ask him what he was doing there. I phrased the question a bit more diplomatically than that, though. I think I said something to the effect of "So Tim, I'm curious, what circumstances have brought you to Portland on this evening to perform for us?" I was expecting him to say that he happened to be in town and so and so in one of the bands was his cousin and invited him along or something like that, but all he would tell me was "Well, I live here". So there you have it. Tim Robbins lives in Portland (presumably, Susan Sarandon does as well) and shows up at random System and Station shows to play Steve Earle covers. Who would have imagined? And yes, he really is as tall as they say.

The next act up was The Future of the Ghost, who were, perhaps even more than Tim Robbins, the happy surprise of the night. These guys were excellent. I'd checked out their Myspace page beforehand and liked what I heard, but I really didn't know anything about them, other than that they're a bunch of unsigned kids from Salt Lake City. But they took that stage and owned it from the first moment. They were super tight, appeared to be having a lot of fun, played a great brand of eccentric indie pop-rock and had an incredible stage presence I haven't seen since I saw The Sleepy Jackson open for The Polyphonic Spree at the Alladin Theater a few years back. This is a band to watch, people!

System and Station were up next. I like this band a lot, and I'm really rooting for them, because it seems like they haven't been having an easy time of things recently, what with multiple line up changes and all. They've got their following, but it seems as though not many folks in Portland know who they are. I'm told that System and Station share a number of members with Kieskagato, so maybe they're just seen as a side project of that band. Who knows? They did a good job at any rate, and weren't nearly as loud as the last couple times I saw them, which was nice, to be honest. Lead singer RFK Heise admitted a number of times that he was a little toasted (it was his birthday), but managed to hit all the notes pretty much right. And they played a lot of older stuff, so clearly those Kieskagato guys are committed to the catalogue. This is a good band, and like I said, I'm pullin' for 'em.

To get back to that Tim Robbins thing though, I'm not entirely convinced that he was telling me the truth about having moved here. A little internet research revealed that he's in town for a film project, but nothing more. Tim, if you're reading this, perhaps you can clear things up for myself and my readers (even though it's really none of our business). Enquiring minds want to know, as they say. Loved you in Bob Roberts, by the way...

Friday, March 7, 2008

More Good Press for Eastside Eggs!

Portland is truly an amazing place. People here are just plain unwilling to accept the status quo, and as a result innovation becomes a part of the daily routine, be it in technology, art, music, or especially, food... As regular readers of this blog know, since last summer I've been volunteering with Eastside Eggs, a community egg co-operative which was organized by Patrick Barber and Holly McGuire over at, in conjunction with a local agricultural park called Zenger Farm. We maintain a flock of nearly fifty free-ranging barred rock hens and collect their eggs to sell to 47th Avenue Farm CSA subscribers, as well as at the Lents Farmers' Market in the summer (and yes, the volunteers do get free eggs out of the deal, lest you think we're doing this for purely altruistic reasons). This would have been considered a somewhat radical idea back in my hometown of Saginaw, MI, but to me the idea of having a hand in producing the food that nourishes me, and more importantly, my community seems perfectly logical, and it's been an immensely rewarding experience. And others are taking notice as well. Eastside Eggs just got a write-up in the Spring 2008 edition of Edible Portland, and was the subjuct of a short video produced by the folks over at Cooking Up a Story, which I've posted above. Have a look!

While it's easy for those of us who live in places like Portland to assume that we inhabit a tiny bubble of progressive values surrounded by a darker, uglier, meaner nation, the fact of the matter is that this sort of thing is happening all over America. People are shelving their TVs, getting out and meeting their neighbors, embracing crazy new ideas and generally flipping the metaphorical bird to what I'll call, for lack of a better way of putting it, the machine; in short, Americans are learning to live like human beings again. And I for one find that very exciting indeed!

Monday, March 3, 2008

Why You Should Be Paying More Attention to your Omega-6/Omega-3 Ratio...

I've just finished reading a very interesting book, Susan Allport's The Queen of Fats. I ran across this book by way of reference in Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food. If you've been reading any of Pollan's work lately, you'll probably find this book fascinating, as Pollan himself did. Allport explores the role that Omega-3 fatty acids (such as alpha-linolenic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid) play in the western diet; more specifically, the research leading to the discovery of Omega-3s, why the importance of these fatty acids has been ignored by the FDA and USDA in recent decades, and how we can (as well as why we should) re-incorporate them into our diets. It's a quick read, and I would encourage you all to pick it up at your local bookstore or library and give it a look when you get a chance...