Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Daring Bakers - May '08 Challenge!

Miiiiiiiiiii mi mi mi mi mi mi mi mi mi!!!!! *cough* Ahem. That's me getting ready for the opera - no, not a REAL opera (I can sing, but not like that!) - an opera cake!

This month is a first for the Daring Bakers - typically there are one or two hosts each month, but this time we have four! Lis of La Mia Cucina and Ivonne of Cream Puffs in Venice, DB's co-founders, along with Fran of Apples Peaches Pumpkin Pie and Shea of Whiskful (a.k.a. The Fearsome Foursome, LOL).

I had seen pictures of an opera cake before, but it looked pretty intimidating. I remember thinking, 'Well, there's something I'll never make.' This, however, was way before I became a Daring Baker! So when I saw our May challenge I was intrigued and kinda nervous. I was also excited because this month is dedicated to Barbara of winos and foodies. I don't know Barbara, but she is a formerly active and always honorary Daring Baker. If Lis and Ivonne honor her, then I do as well. :) Here's to you, Barbara! :)

Now, on to L'Opera! One of our rules was that we not use any "dark" colors or flavors - no brown chocolate, coffee flavoring, etc. - the colors had to be light. I chose to do a Vanilla-Lavender cake with Lavender-Caramel just looked so wonderful. Plus, I have some culinary lavender that a friend gave me which I really need to use! It was easy to make, in light of the fact that I couldn't find my THERMOMETER....which Hubby claims HE hasn't seen in a long time. Yeah, sure, I can tell you the last time *I* saw it -- when I got it from our deck, where it had been sitting on our grill, exposed to the elements. I was just lucky the sucker worked after that. Anyway, I kind of eyeballed it and imagined that something would have to cook a good little while to get to 305 degrees, did a little dropping into water (having minimal knowledge about soft ball, hard ball, soft crack, etc.) and it actually turned out all right!

OK, that was a complete understatement -- the stuff was totally FAB! Eat it with a spoon. Mmmmmm.....

The white chocolate mousse was really easy, too. I like white chocolate fine, especially combined with other things - but if I needed a chocolate fix I wouldn't even look the way of white chocolate. However, I have to say that the white chocolate ganache with lavender-vanilla whipped cream folded in is heavenly! I could never seem to get a smooth texture; I made the ganache first and put it into the fridge, which meant I then had to heat it back up a little to mix it with the whipped cream. Sounds easy, right? Ohhhh nooooooo, I left the ganache in the microwave a little too long so it got bubbling HOT. I stirred it up (it had a lot of grease going on that I had to try and incorporate back in) and put it into the freezer for a couple of minutes to get COOL again. I almost waited too long; the edges were starting to solidify, but I said 'screw it' and mixed it in, anyway. It had little chunks of white chocolate, which I felt would give it "character".

So it was soon after this that I got into my "dumb-butt" mode (ohhhh no, I've not arrived THERE yet). I decided to finish up the cake on a Saturday afternoon when we were having friends over for supper and was trying to rush through the last couple of steps and finish cleaning the house too. Thought I'd impress them with my Opera Cake Skills. Whooo boy! All those fears I'd ever had about the presentation of this art project came to fruition as my Opera Cake became a big sloppy mess right in front of my eyes, as I baked and assembled it!

#1, I reduced the cake recipe and thought I'd be all cool by pouring the batter all into one pan. Big mistake! I pulled it out when it started to turn brown, messed with it a little, and realized the center was still very goopy. Damn! I also realized that my melted butter was sitting there on the counter. Double damn! I fixed it, and back into the oven it went; it came back out looking rather lumpy on the top due to my fooling around with the top and stirring in the butter. When I took it out the second time it was done, and I cut it in half and then halved those 2 pieces horizontally (playing upon my Perfect Party Cake experience *cough*) to have 4 layers and a rectangular cake.

#2 - The buttercream.....apparently needed to be chilled more.
#3 - The mousse.....clearly needed to have been room temp.
#4 - The glaze.....dripped over the sides in the same manner as the buttercream!
(Shall I go on? LOL)

I came out with this lumpy-looking creation that - while extremely tasty, and raved over by adult and child guests alike - was nothing near the beautiful pictures at which I had gazed so fondly for the last several weeks. I will admit that the flavors were heavenly, though!

Sad, droopy, and dripping (but yummy)! LOL

Inside view, after we cut into it

Cake: Almond-Vanilla Joconde
Syrup: Lavender-Vanilla
Buttercream: Lavender-Caramel with Vanilla
Mousse: Lavender-Infused White Chocolate
Glaze: Lavender-Caramel with White Chocolate

This was the best picture I could get - makes ya kind of forget the big sloppy cake, doesn't it?

Well, doesn't it?! :>

I really DO want to try this again, though, and I'm so glad that this was our challenge since, as I said before, I'd never have attempted this on my own. I loved the light version but would love to try the traditional version, too! My biggest lesson learned, in Simon and Garfunkel style: "Slow down, you move too fast...." :D

Check out other Daring Bakers' more beautiful creations here. Many thanks to the Fearsome Foursome, and here's to you, Barbara!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Double DB Challenge - Croissants!

It's time again for the Double DB Challenge, with your fabulous hosts Chriesi and Amy J.! This time we did croissants, which the then-fledgling Daring Bakers did in January 2007 (check it here). We were both a little leery of this one, because it seemed like it was a really involved process plagued by issues with several of the DB's. But I think it made us more determined to DO IT!

First off, I've been doing this little by little after work for I think a week and a half, which isn't my optimal time to cook but hey, you do what you gotta, right? Right! Needless to say, this has been a LONG time coming.

I made the preferment,

a mixture of flour, warm milk, and yeast, on a Monday night and let it sit until I was able to get back to it on Tuesday evening. It was supposed to double; it rose a little but I definitely wouldn't call it "doubled".

I hoped it was enough; I started having fears that my milk was too hot when making the preferment, and I killed all of the yeast; you'll have to read further to see if my suspicions were right or not! On Tuesday, I did the "Make the Dough" step.

It wasn't too bad:

About 40 minutes after the dough began to sit, I took a peek. The recipe said to let the dough rise "until the volume increases by half". Heck, I don't know, but it seemed to be doing all right when I looked. I'm still leery about using yeast, as I haven't worked with it a lot, but I'm thinking, What really could go wrong, as long as I follow the recipe and directions? Right? Right! this point I did a little deviation from the recipe. Instead of letting the dough rise in the fridge for 4-6 hours it sat for about 4-5 DAYS. I seriously had zero time; we were getting the house ready for company on Saturday, and Sweet Pea had a dance recital on Sunday. So I picked back up Sunday afternoon and began laminating (folding the butter in with the dough).

I have to say that the dough was just fine after being in the fridge that long, and I had no problem with the laminating. It was fun! So after my 4th turn of the plaque, I allowed myself to indulge some impatience I was feeling. I put most of the dough into the fridge until tomorrow, and I cut a little off for myself. I made four small croissants - two with aged gouda in side and two with Nutella inside - did NOT let them rise (please - 2 to 3 freaking hours?!), and put them in the freaking oven.

I'm sorry, I guess I'm just an example of our modern age (ah, the humanity!), because I just couldn't STAND to let this stuff sit another day and not do SOMEthing where I could taste it. They were kinda flat...and lumpy....but tasted out of this world. Definitely not light and flaky, but still a good dough, I could tell. It reminded me of the dough that you make sausage pinwheels with. I'm not complaining - but I swore to be good and finish by the rules the next day.

So this past Monday after work, I got to working on the last stage of my challenge. I only used half of the dough because even with the long work island in my kitchen, I was wondering where I was gonna get the room to roll all this out like the recipe says. I'm gonna say, I had FUN, though I'll admit that the dough was really hard to roll out because I took it right out of the fridge. It just took a little elbow grease, though, and I made some original ones without "stuffing".

As my grandmother used to say, good heavenly days! These were THE best croissants I have ever put in my mouth! They were full of tender layers, and the outside flaked off...gah! I tried raspberry jam:

and I had to have my favorite, Nutella:

Hubby had a couple and said they were awesome, so I packed the remainder up and sent them and the Nutella to work with him. We laughed about the guys he works with "having tea" with croissants and Nutella -- but he didn't bring any back home! I only used half of the dough, so I still have some that I'm going to use sometime soon.

The only negative thing I have with this was, DANG!!!!!!!!!!! This recipe is NOT for patience-challenged persons! I mean, crap! Mix and let rise. More mixing and rise. Shape and rise. Laminate and rise. Form croissants and rise. Rise, rise rise! I was thinking, 'These things had better be good, after all this darned waiting.' And most certainly, they exceeded my expectations. I was also pretty impressed with myself because in the past I'd have looked at this big long recipe and totally lose interest.

I actually do plan on sucking up any impatience I might have and making these again!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Happy Mother's Day!

Today I was awakened by the sound of a small voice saying, "Happy Mother's Day...!" and precious Sweet Pea giving me a hug (the first of many I would receive from her). Awww! She and Hubby gave me a homemade card and a gift certificate to the local scrapbook store - score! We lazed around the house for a while and then got ready to go to The Big City (aka Little Rock) for a cool lunch; this is a big deal considering we live in the armpit of the U.S. with very little cultural diversity - yea!

We had Japanese for lunch and then did a little shopping to totally maximize the experience. One of the places we went was the Wild Oats Market (which was bought out by Whole Foods, but they still have the Wild Oats sign, so I don't know if they're keeping it or just haven't gotten around to it all). We had a lot of fun and got some neat things, including some cool cheeses that you can't get where we live.

Freshly cut papaya

When we got home, I set out the cheese

L to R: Champignon brie, Amish Blue, Saint Andre' Triple Cream, Fontina, Raw blue
with some crackers, bread,

Mmmmm, bread-ish items...

and fruit.

Clockwise from top: Seedless red grapes, Reduced balsamic vinegar, Pears, Papaya, & Granny Smith apples

Hubby grilled these El Yummo salmon burgers, also from Wild Oats. It was great! He wanted to pull out just about everything we'd gotten there and have a smorgasboard - and I will admit I tasted everything - but my fave was the cheese and fruit. I could live on that, man!

It was a good day to be a mom. :)

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Tag! I'm it!

I was notified by my friend Chriesi that I was tagged in her blog, and went to find that I am the next victim *ahem LOL* participant in a meme! This is my first one, so I'm excited.

The rules are:
1. Pick up the nearest book.
2. Open to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.

I have a bookshelf right here next to my computer, so it's hard to figure out the "nearest" book. But I stretched my arm out, leaned over, and grabbed the first one I touched.

Digression/Background: Quite a few years ago, the singles group at the church I attended did a service project for an elderly lady. Our mission, to clean out her attic. It was PACKED with books, papers, and old things and was both an ideal penthouse for rats as well as a major fire hazard. The singles minister instructed us to throw away all of the old books, and my sister and I....well, we just couldn't! We grew up in a house with antiques that our parents collected, and old family things that were treasured. So we rebelled. We loaded up the back seat and the trunk of my little Mazda 323 with books; we were probably dragging the ground at the end of the day! LOL

Anyway, I grabbed one of these books, Sixteen Famous British Plays, which was published in 1942. The book includes plays by Oscar Wilde (The Importance of Being Earnest), A.A. Milne of Winnie the Pooh fame, and the inimitable Noel Coward. This is quite apropos, because aside from my love of cooking and baking (which is what this blog mostly consists of), I have a great love of literature and writing. After all, my degree is in English! :)

Capote, Welty, Faulkner......Hendrix?!?! =:D

Following the rules led me to What Every Woman Knows, written by J.M. Barrie, whose claim to fame is being the author of Peter Pan. The following quote is from the first paragraph of Act One of WEWK. Some characters are playing some sort of board game, I think (I have to admit that I haven't ever read this, so we're all sharing it for the first time):

"JAMES glares; and, too late, his opponent is a simple old father again. JAMES mops his head, sprawls in the manner most conducive to thought in the WYLIE family, an, protruding his underlip, settles down to a reconsideration of the board. ALICK blows out his cheeks, and a drop of water settles on the point of his nose."

See? There it is. Read for yourself.

Hmmm. Cracking this book open has really intrigued me. I'm going to have to check it out! :)

And the following 5 are officially tagged to do the same thing I have just done!
1. Anna, my lovely sister and partner in crime when saving old books - at It's Just Not Me
2. My awesome "W Girl"* friend Brandie at Confessions of an Ill-Behaved Woman
3. The very cool (and likely just as ill-behaved, LOL) Megan at Hobbit Ramblings, also a "W Girl"*
4. Michele, my 3rd "W Girl"* at Barrels of Monkeys
5. OK, that's it. I'm not that widespread to have a 5th person. Sad, no?

All righty, girls, have at it! :)

*Term of endearment for fellow grads of my alma mater

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Sweet & Sour Red Cabbage

Hubby went to the store the other day and got a lot of things for meals. Tonight I cooked pinto beans and cabbage to go with some other things that we already have, as well as to go with a roast that we'll be crock-potting for supper tomorrow.

When I went into the fridge, I saw that we had red cabbage. No problem, I like both white and red cabbage, but since they require different seasonings (and I don't cook red cabbage as often) I had to poke around to find a good "receipt", as old folks call recipes. :) I made mini cornbread muffins too (I'm a Jiffy mix kind of girl), which as any self-respectin' Southerner knows is a must if one is having beans!

I know it probably doesn't look like much, but this is a great example of comfort food for me! The shininess on the cabbage is mostly the moisture from cooking and the balsamic -- I promise there isn't THAT much grease/oil in it!! :P

Here is my variation on the red cabbage recipe that I found here, which is an authentic Austrian dish. I decreased the sugar and increased the vinegar, because I'm not too big on sugar in vegetables, but they really balanced each other out well! I'd definitely make this easy, tasty dish again.

2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 small red cabbage, sliced thinly
4 Tbsp. sugar
1 c. balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat butter and olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the cabbage and cook, stirring, until wilted - 5 or so minutes. Sprinkle sugar in and stir well. Add balsamic vinegar. Cover and simmer, stirring often, until the cabbage is tender and the sugar/balsamic mixture coats the cabbage well, about 30 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve and enjoy!

Piemonte Night!

About a year and a half ago, I was fortunate enough to make my first trip to Europe. It was heavenly! We went to the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, and Italy. I really loved each place and, like one's own children, I couldn't tell you which was my favorite!

I have become enamored with Italian food, though. No, not like the freakin' Olive Garden. Phhttt! I mean REAL food like Italian people living in Italy have. Each region has its own specialities based on their location, history, and indigenous creatures/plants that it's just fascinating to me. While we were in Italy, our friends Max and Monica (sorry, teeny pics!) took us on a walking tour of old town Torino. It was fabulous! We had lunch at a cool little sidewalk cafe, and had orecchiette with cream sauce. *swoon*

Last night Hubby was off playing a gig and it was just Sweet Pea and me. I started thinking about this bag of orecchiette that I had in the pantry, and my lunch with our cool Italian friends, and I just couldn't NOT make it! For those who don't know, orecchiette means "little ears" in Italian. That's because the round, dimpled pieces of pasta do resemble little tiny ears! I had to explain to Sweet Pea that we were not actually EATING EARS. Ha! I get myself into so many long explanations sometimes, just trying to tell her interesting little tidbits.

It has a little more stuff in it than my lunch in Torino, which was lovely and mild, but I thought I'd share it because it was pretty awesome (which is always cool when you just throw things together that you *think* might taste good). If I just bastardized it horribly, I'll blame it on my lack of Italian blood. :D Thus, I proudly present....

ScotsIrish-Piemonte Orecchiette with Dreamy Cream Sauce

1 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 small onion, grated (about 3/4 cup)
1 Tbsp. minced garlic
1 1/2 c. heavy cream
1/2-1 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp. Italian spice mix, dried
Salt & Pepper to taste
Capers, drained
Parmesano-Reggiano, grated

Cook orecchiette according to package directions [mine said to boil 12-15 minutes and I pulled mine off at 12 so it would have that nice al dente feel to it].

Put olive oil into a cold saucepan. Grate onions into pan (or grate and dump in) and add garlic; turn stove onto medium heat and cook until onions and garlic are translucent and soft, about 10 minutes. [Note: Trust me on this - if you add grated onions to a hot pan they just get too close to burning. TOO close.]

Add cream, nutmeg, spices, and salt/pepper to taste, and stir to combine. Let simmer for a couple of minutes so that flavors can meld. Serve over orecchiette. Sprinkle cheese and capers over the top.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Please note that I'm totally guessing on the amounts I used, here. Unless I'm baking, that's how I cook. You could probably add 1/2 to 1 cup of chicken broth to thin the sauce down, if you wish. Honestly, I didn't think about it and it was wonderful, and it was what I remember the thickness of my Torino orecchiette to be. It would be totally fab if you wanted to add some white wine.....but since my 5-year-old was eating this I opted out on that this time. My meal in Torino had thin slices of ham sprinkled on top, which, now that I think about it I could have sliced up the Canadian bacon that's in the fridge, but honestly, it just now crossed my mind (erk).

We also had a mixed green salad with olive oil and balsamic (yummmm), and I had a savory biscotti that I made -- Parmesan biscotti with Cracked Black Pepper and Herbs. Gah! That was great.

The perfect end to the evening would have been making a cup of Italian hot chocolate (from the recipe I found online after I got back from Italy - so I don't know how authentic it truly is - but I also found another recipe that a girl who is from Milano posted, which I now must try soon). But I stayed on the computer too long last night. :P