Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A solid choice.

Bread pudding may just be my favorite type of dessert. As children, my siblings and I were never really exposed to American desserts, save for the New York cheesecake that came with the meal at Charlie Brown's (it was a ridiculously good deal!) Maaaaaybe we would try some pie at my dad's annual company picnics at Marine World, but occasions were normally celebrated with cakes from Chinese bakeries in the area like Sheng Kee (something in the vein of taro cake or mango mousse when those came into fashion). We never even really considered ordering dessert at dinners out because it was well known by my sisters and I that dessert was just not going to happen.

When I started going out to meals with friends in high school, bread pudding was just never an appetizing name so anytime that showed up on the menu, my brain wouldn't even register that the dish existed on the menu. Granted, our options were limited the Elephant Bar, Chili's, and Applebee's where mud pies and skillet desserts dominate the dessert menu, but I really cannot recall seeing bread pudding on any of the chain restaurant menus available to us. How did I even know something called bread pudding existed then? I don't know. Perhaps it's just selective memory, but at any rate, bread pudding did not equate tasty in my mind.

And then pumpkin bread pudding happened.

For Thanksgiving 2006, I made a meal of sides and dessert (because roasting a turkey seemed daunting, and the sides are the best part of them meal anyway!), but didn't want to go with a traditional pumpkin pie. A recipe for pumpkin bread pudding popped up from Epicurious and because a self-proclaimed bread pudding dissenter actually loved this rendition, I decided to give it a go. It was so much easier than a pie could ever be, and so delicious to boot. The combination of bread, dairy, eggs, sugar, and of course pumpkin was beyond what I ever thought. I was a convert.

Bread pudding has since been ordered for dessert at countless meals, almost never displeasing. (Is it me, or is the dish nearly ubiquitous now?) When I saw that the Four Star Chocolate Bread Pudding was selected by Lauren of A Baking Blog there was no doubt in my mind that I would be participating in this week's Tuesdays With Dorie recipe. A Dorie bread pudding? That's pretty much a guarantee for success.

The resulting dessert was delicious, but I may have been hoping for more. I dried out challah in the oven before pouring the custard mixture on top (though I don't know I would call it custard as Dorie does - it was just so thin!), omitted the raisins because people are notoriously picky about their presence in desserts, and added walnuts, because - let's face it - walnuts and chocolate are like peas and carrots. Perhaps I just favor non-chocolate bread pudding to the chocolate variety, or maybe I would have loved some banana lodged in between the bread cubes, but it didn't blow my mind. I do think that it tastes better on the second day, chilled, however, and maybe even the third -- I'll have to evaluate the situation when I get to work later. With a dollop of whipped cream.

Dessert for breakfast? All in the name of research.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Slightly tardy, completely worth it.

This cake made me nauseous every step of the way.

Opening the bag of amaretti for the first time, a bomb of almond odor overtook my senses. I honestly thought I was going to vomit right then and there, but, miraculously, I held fast. I resolved to make every recipe for Tuesdays With Dorie this month (the line-up has been pretty awesome, am I wrong?), and so that I would do. The chocolate was chopped, the almonds were on hand, and I had plenty of heavy cream. I forged on, and it was absolutely the right decision.

It's a strange and fortunate coincidence that Holly of Phe/MOM/enon picked Dorie's 15-Minute Chocolate Amaretti Torte this week, because that's really all the time I could stand to be in the kitchen. Having been attacked with food poisoning 24 hours earlier, I couldn't ingest food or look at food, let alone talk or read about it. Candles had to be relegated to the closet and music had to be silenced. Almond is such an intoxicating fragrance when it is welcome, but completely overwhelming -- and nauseating -- when it isn't. I left the kitchen during the short time it was baking, came back to take it out of the oven and so very reluctantly returned to turn it out.

I was much improved the next morning and made the glaze and almond whipped cream without a problem before taking the torte to work. No longer nauseous but still having no desire to try the cake, after several "Mmmmm...this is so good!" responses, I took a sliver and made a composed bite with the cake, cream, and crushed amaretti. It was bliss. I'm a nut fanatic in general and love texture in my baked goods, so the inescapable almondiness in each bite on my tongue and in my nose was pure joy. Though I'm not usually a fan of flourless chocolate cakes, the generous addition of almonds and amaretti made the torte divine.

I'm a little disappointed that I wasn't up to having a full slice, but I rest assured that this recipe will be turned to again, no doubt.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

It's about time.

March 26, 2009 started off like many days. I'm sure I woke up abominably early like I always do, shuffled to the bathroom to brush my teeth, and went bleary-eyed to the gym (without my Shuffle, as that was lost/stolen the week before). I probably showered and made my default breakfast of reconstituted steel cut oats with bananas, walnuts, and copious amounts of cinnamon and nutmeg, and then prepped my lunch for the day, and also dinner because I get out of work later.

Once at work, it's likely I brewed myself a cup of some kind of fruity tea that I picked up last time I was at Target. Not that I'm particular fond of fruity teas, but it the sampler pack was appealing during my last visit for some reason. Around 11:15, Eddie, our UPS guy, bangs on the back gate 5 times, like clockwork. It's my unofficial job to respond to his pounding so at once I jumped out of my seat to answer the back door.

"So what'd you buy?", was the first thing that came out of his mouth.

"Mmm...nothing?" Was this a trick question? Were we engaging in friendly banter already??

"Well, you must have bought something. This big box is for you."

"Mmmm...are you sure? I don't know what it could be."

"Well, let's open it!" He grabbed his box cutter from his chest pocket and sliced open the packing tape with three deft strokes, as if he did that for a living.

I rustle around some of the packing paper in the box and then I see it.


You're kidding!

For me?!

Yep. That box within the box, emblazoned with "Kitchenaid" -- that was for me. And I was beyond surprised.

Who could have gifted me with something so generous and completely appropriate?? My sisters, of course, and later I find out that all of the friends I first texted about my new prized appliance contributed to the mixer as well! I felt so sheepish, but though I may not have thanked them personally right away, my elation was undeniable.

Now on to the bigger question -- how should I christen such a bold specimen? I wanted to pick something that made use of its full potential so something requiring lots of beating was in order, and after much deliberation, pound cake was the decided winner. Only a couple weeks earlier, Deb at smittenkitchen had posted about a cream cheese pound cake with strawberry coulis and as someone who cannot ever deny the elegant simplicity of pound cake, how could I better de-virginize the new object of my affection than with something as age-old as that?

I impatiently waited for my butter to soften one mild Saturday morning and then when I finally poked my finger into the square to test its softness and there was a gentle give, my heart beat a little bit faster. I dumped the butter in the bowl and let the stainless steel paddle attachment steadily build up speed and the rest was magic. My butter has never been fluffier. I've always been very patient with the creaming process, but I don't think I ever fully understood what "light and fluffy" meant when describing creamed butter until now.

The addition of cream cheese was a bit of an unorthodox touch, but I could not have been happier with the result. The crackly top was a welcome textural contrast to the fine, soft grain of the interior. And then the strawberry coulis lended the perfect sweetness and acidity to the comfortingly rich cake. I've mentioned my soft spot for Sara Lee pound cake before and with this slice, a wave of memories rushed back once more. I could be happy eating this every day for the rest of my life.

And also obese.

Eh -- it's a give and take.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Nearly a disaster.

My love affair with pie has established itself pretty recently , with the advent of making my own pie, but before that, my disdain for those creations of gelatinous mounds of fruit and sugar glopped between flavorless sheets of dough (or atop just one sheet) would be temporarily forgotten with the appearance of pumpkin, pecan, or banana cream pie.

My first experience with pumpkin pie was at Montesorri when Teacher Rosie decided to bring some in as a festive almost Thanksgiving treat. Having been exposed only to Chinese dessert soups of sugar water with wood ear and jujubes, or red bean pastries (nothing against red bean - still love it!) until then, the pumpkin spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg was at once heaven in my mouth. It probably wasn't a particularly velvety or harmonious pumpkin pie, but I don't think my palate was very advanced back then.

Pecan pie was probably purchased by a family member as an attempt to bring some American tradition to our typically Chinese Thanksgiving of hot pot at our family's restaurant. After a meal of flank steak, tripe, fish balls, beef balls, lamb, tofu, wild mushrooms, and dandelion greens thrown into a gurgling pot set upon a butane range in the center of the table, what would be a more appropriate dessert than pecan pie?? I was groomed to love nuts by my mother's preference for Thrifty's Butter Pecan ice cream (purchased so rarely, but if there were an ice cream choice to be made, that is what it would be), so I had no complaints.

The story of banana cream pie -- I have no idea where it begins. Could it be digging by the forkful into a foil pan encased, plastic lidded specimen from the grocery store in a classmate's kitchen? Or was the fluffy cloud of meringue calling my name at Nation's on Jackson after getting my driver's license, and therefore, buying food without parental supervision? Wherever my first banana cream pie was, one bite and I was hooked. If it's on a dessert menu with bread pudding, I am in turmoil with that decision, often ending in the selection of both treats. How I can I deny either of you???

I am a big fan of the Tartine banana cream pie, with its caramel and chocolate layers, but Amy of Sing for Your Supper picked a strong contender for this week's Tuesday's with Dorie recipe. I feel like a proud mother forced to pick a favorite between her children. One is decadent with all the flourishes and undeniably delicious if a bit fussy. The other is straight-forward, with a little surprise spice, not overly sweet, just comfortingly good. It depends entirely on your mood really.

I made this on Sunday and so trusted Dorie that it tastes best when just assembled that I orchestrated a whole impromptu dinner around it. Having held up the meal with Jamie Oliver's milk-and-lemon roast chicken (a 5 pound chicken takes A BIT more time, to say the least), I rushed to finish the pie and didn't make it so pretty. Talk about gelatinous -- the pastry cream was so dense! Whisking it was nearly impossible as it just created curdled chunks. My eyes were in disbelief and I was about to throw in the towel and throw it out, but I took the advice of Mike and thinned with some heavy cream along with nuking it in the microwave a few times. After a lot of muscle, the pastry cream wasn't looking too bad, so the pie was assembled and though it looks afright, it was terribly tasty. I do love pumpkin pie so the cinnamon and nutmeg hints were quite alright with me. Most importantly for me, the crust did not shrink at all this time like it has done in the past, looking like the impact of a custard tidal wave has washed away the crust wall. It may have been religious chilling of the dough every time I worked with it and right before I stuck it in the oven, or making sure my pie weights of beans and rice reached the absolutely top of the crust, but either way, a triumph!