Friday, February 24, 2012

Truffles in the sandbox

Summer truffle macarons
My boyfriend, Octavian (yes, he has a name!), has a knack for fixing things. Mostly, he tinkers with vintage audio parts, but he's pretty handy with a hammer or a hacksaw too. It's not too uncommon to find him over at a friend's putting something back into working order or assembling something new. Most recently, he's been helping some friends of ours re-arrange their kitchen's layout--basically, breaking down a cluster of wall cabinets and converting them into serviceable base cabinets (hooray for more counter space!). The job's almost done, and it's looking great. Though this sort of thing is just what Octavian likes to do in his spare time, our friends wanted to thank him for his help. So, late last week, they put together the most wonderful box of gourmet goodies for us. Quail eggs! Foie gras! A bottle of summer truffles! It was like Christmas.
I was more than a little giddy, but I wanted to play with something straightaway, jump right into that sandbox. It was hard to know where to start. Quail eggs first? Or truffles? Or both? I'd never worked with (or tasted, in fact) either before. So, I started a little research, thinking I'd carefully weigh my options. But then it hit me: Hermé has a recipe for black truffle macarons; I have a bottle of truffles. Conclusion: I have to make truffle macarons.
Truffles and ganache
Grey piped macaron shells
Macaron bowl
Now, I still don't know that much about truffles, but I can tell you this. The black truffles you've probably heard of--the ones that can go for $100 or more apiece fresh--are Périgord truffles (Tuber melanosporum) and come mostly from the south of France. These, I'm told, are the mother of all black truffles, the most fragrant and flavourful of the lot. They're available late in the fall through early winter and go for something like €1000 per kilo (that's just over two pounds) at farmers' markets. Unsurprisingly, it's some of these that Hermé expects you to be able to get your hands on for the macarons. All I have to say to that is: yeah right.
My truffles were summer truffles (Tuber aestivum), which, apparently, are a good second to the Périgord (like Robin to the Périgord's Batman?). And though these in particular were bottled (a lot of people, it seems, have been disappointed by bottled truffles, i.e. have found them to be completely flavourless), my friends and I thought that they were extraordinary--wildly deep, earthy, and aromatic, unlike any other mushroom we'd ever had. Bottled truffles might not compare to fresh specimens (again, I'm not in a position to say), but I was more than happy with these.
Baked macaron shells
Macaron crosscut
Oh, and if you're balking at the thought of mushrooms and white chocolate together...well, I did too. In fact, I was pretty convinced mid-way through the process that the macarons were going to be abhorrent, a terrible waste of truffles. But Hermé proved me wrong. Black truffles make for an incredible macaron. Somehow, all that milky sweetness just works with them. Their mushroomy earthiness blooms out of it and leaves you a little bewildered, a little awestruck. These macarons are unexpectedly marvellous. Hermé does it again.

Summer Truffle Ganache
Adapted from Pierre Hermé's Macaron
Note: About the truffles. Truffles are sold in a number of ways--fresh, frozen, bottled, and canned. I can't speak to the differences between them, but I'll say a little about the bottled variety. People tend to be disappointed with bottled truffles, and maybe it's warranted, but it might also have to do with the fact that the bottled ones lose their aroma especially quickly (or so I'm told). One place suggested that you add them immediately to whatever you're planning to cook them with and leave them in an air-tight container for a few hours to lock in their aroma. That's what I ended up doing--I chopped up my truffles, added them to the heavy cream, and let them sit together overnight. Of course, people also warn you not to overheat truffles and advise adding them at the end of cooking, which you can't do here if you've already added them to the cream. So, I don't have anything conclusive to say on the matter, only that I didn't note any serious loss of flavour after bringing the cream to a boil. One last thing--I left the ganache piping to Octavian, and he reported having some trouble keeping the ganache the right consistency. It warmed up very quickly in the pastry bag and made for some very sloppy-looking macarons. He even gave it a few minutes in the freezer when it got really runny. I don't know what to make of this. I added the little bit of truffle juice from the bottom of the bottle to the heavy cream before boiling. I don't know what effect that had. It might have just been an execution problem with the ganache. Macaron shells. For these macarons, I made some pretty standard Hermé Italian-meringue shells done up with 7 g or so of black gel food colouring. You can get a sense for them here. If their feet don't look particularly impressive, it's because I didn't check my new oven's temperature settings against any thermometer readings. From the looks of the shells, my oven's burning a little on the cool side.

175 g heavy cream
35 g summer truffles (see notes above)
219 g good quality white chocolate, finely chopped

Put the chopped chocolate in a heat-proof bowl over a pot of simmering water to melt. Stir occasionally.
Bring the cream to a boil. Chop the truffles finely. Add the truffles to the cream and mix with an immersion blender or in a blender until smooth, about 2 minutes. The truffle pieces will still be visible. Pour the cream in three rounds over the melted chocolate, stirring with each addition. Pour the ganache into a wide, shallow dish and cover with plastic wrap, touching it to the surface of the ganache. Chill in the refrigerator until thick and creamy, 3-4 hours.
Makes enough ganache for 36 macarons.

P.S. Has anyone ever tried the black truffles grown in Oregon? Though they're still expensive, they aren't prohibitively priced like the Périgords. And from what I've read, some people really like them. I'm tempted to order just enough for another batch of macarons while they're still in season. Can anyone recommend a vendor?
P.P.S. An English translation of Pierre Hermé's classic book, Macaron, was just released at the end of 2011 in North America, so now, you don't have to beg a friend going to Paris to scour the city for a copy and then struggle with your grade-school French translating recipes. I hear that the translation isn't great but still passable.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A heady affair

Smothered beans
I complain a lot during these dreary months. Nearly everything is drab, grey, and dead. It wears on me. A girl can only eat so many plates of root vegetables, can only drag herself through so many sunless days in a season. But even so, I'd hardly say that I dislike winter. There's something to be said for bright and biting winter mornings, taking in the cold, clean air, and, better yet, for being chased inside by the wind to blankets and tea and warm things bubbling in the oven. Yes, that's what this season is really about for me: keeping the oven glowing.
Though I've gone back to eating meat, there are still few things I welcome more than an earnest pot of beans on a dark, wintery day. I like the simplicity of beans. With the day still before you, you can stir together a few handfuls with some water and salt and keep them bubbling modestly in the oven hours. You can forget them for a while, let the day unfold, and then come back to find yourself with something truly sumptuous. It's surprising sometimes just how sumptuous and satisfying a pot of beans can be. Beans in the cupboard can look so spare.
A layer of tomatoes
My favourite pot of beans this winter has been one with a tangle of greens, leeks, and chopped tomatoes. These beans aren't much to look at, admittedly, but they will surprise you. With a plate of them, you're in for spoonful after spoonful of some pretty serious umami. Prepare yourself for a heady affair.
For the first issue of Lucky Peach, Harold McGee wrote a great piece on umami and MSG. The short of it was: MSG, which occurs naturally in lots of foods, is umami and nothing that we should shy away from. In fact, it's the reason, for those of us who love tomatoes, why we love them. When I first read this last summer, I wasn't quite sure what to think. Tomatoes just didn't really scream umami to me. But with these beans, I think I finally get what McGee means. Give tomatoes, beans, and collard greens a few good hours together in the oven, and you'll see. You'll have something to savour.
Warm, wintery food

Smothered Beans
Adapted from Peter Berley's The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen
Note: Greens. Collards, I know, are not as popular as Swiss chard or kale, but trust me, collards are what you want with these beans. They have a certain savour to them. Anything else will be disappointing. Beans. If, like me, you sometimes like to splurge on dried heirloom beans, this is the dish for them. Much of its final flavour depends on the beans' pot liquor, and quality beans always make for a better one. Leeks. Leeks are often rather gritty. I think the easiest way to clean them is to slit them vertically and then run them under the tap, spreading out their layers with your thumb. Cooking time. I haven't been in the habit of pre-soaking my beans lately and baked these beans for closer to three hours than one-and-a-half. The collards held up splendidly, and the flavours, I'm sure, only got better. Next time, I might let the beans soak at least a couple of hours at room temperature to give them a head start. They could have baked for longer and gotten more tender, but I was getting hungry.

1 cup dried white beans (I like Rancho Gordo's alubia blanca), sorted, soaked, and rinsed
1/4 cup dried pinto beans, sorted soaked and rinsed
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 leeks, white and tender green parts, thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse sea salt
1 bunch collard greens, trimmed of tough stems and sliced into 1/2-inch-wide strips
1 14-oz can of chopped tomatoes
Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 275 degrees F.
In a saucepan over medium heat, combine the beans with 4 cups of water and bring to a boil. Skim the foam, reduce the heat, and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes.
While the beans cook, warm the oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the leeks, garlic, oregano, and 1 teaspoon of the salt. Sauté for 5 minutes, until the leeks begin to soften. Cover the Dutch oven, reduce the heat to low, and simmer gently for 10 minutes.
Place the collard greens in a large bowl, add the cooked leeks, and stir to combine.
Place a strainer or colander over a bowl and pour in the beans. Measure out the cooking liquid and, if needed, add enough fresh water to equal 2 cups.
Place half of the greens mixture in the bottom of the Dutch oven. Add the strained beans. Spread the remaining greens over the beans and top with the tomatoes. Sprinkle the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt over the tomatoes and add a few grinds of pepper. Without disturbing the layers, gently pour enough of the bean water down the side of the Dutch oven to barely cover the tomatoes.
Place the Dutch oven over high heat and bring to a boil. Remove from the stovetop, cover, and bake for 1 hour. Remove the cover and check the Dutch oven, adding a little more water if it is drying out. The casserole should be just slightly juicy when pressed gently with the back of a wooden spoon. Replace the cover and continue to braise for 20 to 30 more minutes, until the beans are tender and the greens and leeks have melted.
Serves 6.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The first

Shaped croissant
I have a problem when it comes to complicated, days-long baking projects. As you may have noticed, I can't seem to take on enough of them. I want to better understand ingredients. I want to master techniques. I want to be challenged in the kitchen. I want to be awestruck. So last week, when I found out that two of my classes wouldn't be in session that week, I decided, naturally, that I would use the free time to get ahead in my reading and make some croissants.
I'd wanted to tackle croissants for a while. You should know by now how I feel about buttery, flaky things, and croissants are pretty much the pinnacle of buttery and flaky. I'd just been putting it off because I knew that it would be an especially demanding project and that there was plenty that could go wrong. But with two days in a row clear of commitment, it was time. Hello, Tartine Bread croissants.
Croissant dough in the making
The butter
I ran into problems from the start, and these just compounded as the process went on. First, the sheer amounts of flour, milk, leaven (sourdough starter), and poolish (a similar mixture of flour, water, and commercial yeast) that went into the croissant dough made it really difficult to pull together. The biggest mixing bowl in my kitchen could barely contain it all (I should have foreseen this). And this led to a dough that wasn't evenly hydrated and rather lumpy (I should have mixed it more instead of rushing it). I tried fixing this by giving the dough a few more turns in the bowl during bulk fermentation, but that just overdeveloped the gluten in the dough. So when it came time to rolling it out and laminating in the butter, rolling was a huge struggle and led to tears in the dough.
First turn complete
So I was pretty sure that the croissants were doomed. Croissants, after all, are only as wonderful as they are because of their buttery, flaky layers. And to get those layers, what you do is pound cold butter into a pliable slab, encase that slab completely in the croissant dough, and then repeatedly fold the dough onto itself as you would a letter and roll it out again. When the butter hits the oven, it creates steam, and all of those lovely layers you made separate: buttery, flaky heaven. (How cool is that?) But, of course, if your dough tears repeatedly like mine did, the butter escapes, and you lose those layers. But I was already a day in at that point, so what could I do? I held my breath and hoped (and fretted and fretted some more).
Proofed, egg-washed croissants
Out of the oven
It all turned out all right. My croissants had buttery, flaky layers aplenty. We ate the first few in a matter of seconds, leaning over the kitchen sink to catch all the buttery shards. They weren't perfect, mind you--not quite airy enough, a little too chewy--but they were satisfying, a good first attempt, anyway.
These croissants definitely won't be the last I make. I want croissants that will transport me to Paris. So, if you have a favourite formula or a tip or two for me, I'm listening. (Though I still love Tartine Bread for its country loaf, its croissant directions weren't always clear--some of them even conflicted with what was going on in the accompanying photographs.) Tell me what I should be doing or what else I might be doing wrong. Really, I want to know!
Croissant structure exposed
P.S. I really have to thank my friend, Freerk, for responding to my frantic messages about my poor torn croissant dough so promptly and with such kindness. Thank you for the reassurances!