Parisian dark (chocolate) secrets

May 22, 2011 § 1 Comment

Daybreak in Paris last Sunday. The public shame. The disgrace. The furtive attempts to conceal the evidence. The seedy story of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s New York exploits hits the newsstands perhaps?

No, this was me, rising at dawn to try and dispose of 1kg best quality Tanzanian 75% cocoa solids chocolate, a further kg of unsalted alpine butter, lashings of organic double cream and a generous slug of cognac, the whole lot coalesced into a greasy solidified mass of split ganache which should have graced a celebratory chocolate cake, the centrepiece of my cousin Pierre’s birthday party the night before. I finally found an empty public bin by a bus stop, deposited my sorry double-bagged chocolate mess and jogged away, lightened in load and spirit.

So what was the occasion?

A Saturday Night Fever birthday party to celebrate a Significant Birthday. The cake to match was a scaled down (2 layers rather than 3) version of spectacular chocolate-raspberry wedding cake selected from my new favourite baking book “Sky High: Irresistible Triple Layer Cakes” by Alisa Huntsman and Peter Wynne.

The book is American through and through and completely over the top in terms of the sheer number of generously proportioned and imaginatively filled and frosted celebratory cakes it describes. Other bloggers have raved about it so I just had to get hold of a copy. Apart from the Bittersweet Brandied Ganache débacle, it hasn’t disappointed.

The book’s strengths are the seductiveness of its drop-dead gorgeous full page glossy colour photos, its generosity of spirit and the imagination of its flavour combinations. Where it falls short is perhaps in a lack of precision – for that you have to go to Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Cake Bible, another American classic on my bookshelf.

It all started so well. The choice of a classic American chocolate cake, seemed perfect for a party for a chocoholic into American disco nostalgia. The edible elements needed for the cake were 6 layers of Chocolate Butter Cake, generous quantities of seedless raspberry jam to sandwich the layers together, an unspeakably large quantity of Bittersweet Brandied Ganache to frost and a punnet of ripe raspberries scattered over the top to finish.

I have neither the time nor the space to give the complete recipe here – you’ll have to buy the book for that – the instructions for the full 3 tier wedding cake go on for 6 pages. However I do give the recipe for the Lenôtre chocolate ganache which eventually saved the day I’ve tried it 3 times now (albeit using European ingredients) and it’s been spot-on every time. A ganache to lean on, so to speak.

Here is the end result, finished just minutes before the first guests arrived at 7.30 pm. Not bad given the stresses of the afternoon of which more later…

The baking of the cake itself was fine. I followed the recipe to the letter, eschewing my favourite Green & Black’s cocoa powder in favour of Hershey’s obtained here in the UK via Amazon Marketplace.

This wasn’t just for reasons of American authenticity. The recipe specifies a non-Dutch Process cocoa powder in order to ensure the right chemical reaction with the recipe’s raising agent, bicarbonate of soda, to make the cake rise properly. Reading the Green & Black’s small print, you’ll see that this cocoa powder has been through the so-called Dutch process whereby the beans are treated with an alkaline agent to produce a milder flavour and, counter-intuitively, a darker colour. The Hershey’s stuff is paler but in theory contains more “roasty, caramel-like molecules…and…astringent, bitter, phenolics” (quoting from Harold McGee’s indispensable kitchen reference work On Food and Cooking).

The recipe is not a chocolate sponge made by the familiar creaming method but requires softened butter and buttermilk to be beaten into the sifted dry ingredients before the eggs and more liquid in the form of strong coffee are incorporated into the mixture. I would not attempt this recipe without the help of a Kenwood or Kitchenaid-type mixer as it requires a lot of heavy-duty beating.

After the addition of butter and buttermilk the mixture looks like a moist and friable garden loam:

Once the eggs and coffee were incorporated, it became soft, thick and lusciously silky, like a chocolate version of mayonnaise:

Baked, the cake rose well but not too aggressively. Don’t worry, the dome that forms in the oven settles down once the cake is cooled leaving a firm, glossy and flat cake which holds its shape well, eminently well-suited to the architectural task ahead.

The finished cake was firm, rich, dense and crumbly. It had an intense chocolate flavour pointed up by the addition of cinnamon and coffee in the recipe though neither flavour is perceptible. This is a cake designed for filling and frosting as eaten on its own it would be a tad dry.

The cakes were mixed and baked first thing Friday morning. Once cooled and carefully wrapped and packed, the cake’s 6 layers travelled as hand luggage, sitting obediently beside me on the short Flybe flight to Paris. Cake assembly began in situ at the party venue at about 2.00pm on Saturday afternoon. First the layers were spread with seedless raspberry jam (Tiptree brand), then sandwiched together with each triple layer cake having a slim silver cardboard base:

If I were to make this cake again, I would be more generous with the raspberry jam and I would leave the cake to mature overnight as the recipe instructs. The quantity of jam shown in the picture may look generous but is far less than the recipe suggests and when the cake was cut into later that evening, it had practically disappeared. More jam would have made for a moister cake I think as, being self-critical, it was just a little on the dry side (easily remedied on the night by serving it with extra fresh raspberries and a dollop of crème fraîche).

The next potentially tricky step was the positioning of the 4 transparent plastic dowels which supported the top layer. I measured, cut to size and positioned the dowels. This bit of the assembly worked like a dream – a relief as I’d never worked with dowels before. I know you shouldn’t experiment when baking for a special occasion, especially someone else’s special occasion, but I just couldn’t help myself:

Now for the ganache. How hard could it be to whip up a batch of ganache and slather it on all over the cake? I’d preweighed all the ingredients so it was quick work to set the vast quantities of best quality dark chocolate and unsalted butter (a kilogramme of each no less) to melt over a pan of barely simmering water.

I was patient and careful, never letting the mixture become too warm, not letting a drop of water near it lest it seize up and going easy on the stirring. On the home strait now. All I had to do was whisk in the warmed cream, then the brandy, just like the recipe said and I was home and dry. Blithely, I tipped them in and whisked away. That’s when disaster struck as the previously smooth glossy mix began to separate out into particulates and oil before my very eyes. 30 minutes and frantic whisking and cooling later, I pronounced the mixture officially beyond redemption, tipped it into a big plastic box for subsequent disposal and confessed my error to my slightly alarmed host and his family. The public shame and humiliation!

Having checked Harold McGee subsequently, I think that where I went wrong was in using chocolate with too high a cocoa content – 75% in my case. When liquid is added, the cocoa solids absorb the water releasing the fats out of emulsion and hey presto the mixture splits. His advice is to follow a recipe which sets out precisely the fat contents of the various ingredients and to follow it to the letter. The Sky High recipe was a bit on the sketchy side – ie just bittersweet chocolate, heavy cream and American ingredients are not quite the same as those we can buy in Europe which can make for misunderstandings.

Back to the party. Remembering Corporal Jones’ advice from Dad’s Army (Don’t Panic), using my host’s computer, I quickly retrieved the tried, tested and reassuringly precise ganache recipe I’d learned at the Lenôtre cookery school in Paris over Easter. Next, an emergency dash to the local supermarket for yet more cream and chocolate (just 600g of chocolate this time as 1kg was way too much, even for the most enthusiastic chocoholic) and I was back in business:

I followed the Lenôtre recipe as accurately as I could, though without scales or thermometer to hand I had rely on educated guesswork and prayer. To my immense relief, the ganache behaved itself perfectly and after 20 minutes’ or so cooling, it had reached the perfect consistency for spreading. The first house guests were just arriving at this point so I smiled and pretended to be part of the evening’s entertainment, a sort of cake artist installation.

The final step was piping a bold decorative border of what I can best describe as chocolate blobs to hide the joins between cake and board. Very effective though I say so myself. By the time the cake was served, the blobs had firmed up to become in effect mini chocolate truffles which could be detached and discreetly popped into the mouth while the cake was being sliced and served. Cook’s prerogative!

Cake complete, it was time to enjoy the party with the host rather than the cake the centre of attention – just as it should be. Great party Peter!

Recipe for foolproof chocolate ganache

With thanks to Philippe from the Lenôtre cookery school in Paris. I scaled this up by a factor of three to use to coat the birthday cake which comprised a 7 inch square stacked onto a 9 inch square.

Ingredients

200g cream 32% fat (equates to UK whipping cream – this is liquid cream not thick crème fraîche)
250g dark chocolate 50% cocoa solids (buttons are ideal for quick melting but bar broken into square is OK too)
50g unsalted butter

Heat the cream to 85 degrees C. Break up the chocolate and place into a large heatproof bowl. Pour over the hot cream and leave to stand for 10 minutes. Once the chocolate has melted, stir with a rubber spatula to incorporate the cream into the chocolate. Keep a ball of molten chocolate in the centre whilst incorporating the cream at the edges of the chocolate. Reduce the temperature to 30 degrees C then beat in the butter previously softened and tempered at 22 degrees C.

Cover with cling film and reduce the temperature to 17 degrees C when it will be the right consistency to use.

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Le vrai macaron Parisien

April 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

Actually this is not a macaron but vrai Parisien Philippe, expert instructor for the pâtisserie class I took last Saturday, entirely devoted to the making of the perfect macaroon.

The venue was the Lenôtre amateur cookery school in the grand looking Pavillon d’Elysée in the heart of Paris’ 8th arrondissement.

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On the agenda were three classic macaroon recipes: vanilla, coffee and chocolate. I’m feeling too lazy to write up all 3 recipes in full, so here they are as photos. I’ve translated and annotated the base vanilla recipe below, but have taken the liberty of halving the quantities to make the numbers more manageable for the home baker.

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My fellow course participants were 3 Parisian ladies and 1 man who turned out to be a professional pastry chef. I decided to share my workbench with him and pick up some extra tips. The 6 of us shared a spacious kitchen nattily decorated with orange walls, sleek white cabinets and lots of chrome and stainless steel.

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Chef Philippe was a little stern at first and asked for no photography. As the morning went on, he gradually warmed and melted and by the end of the session, the no photography rule was relaxed as you can see.

All was of course in rapid Parisian French. This was clearly going to be a workout for my schoolgirl French as well as honing my pâtisserie skills.

So, what did I learn?

Ingredients

1) All the recipes include a mystery ingredient “tant pour tant amandes” which is nothing more than a 50:50 mixture of ground almonds and icing sugar. This is a mix that the professional pastry kitchen already has on hand as it’s the starting point for a number of recipes. It’s not something that the domestic cook needs that often so I’ve restated the recipe in terms of the underlying quantities of ground almonds and icing sugar.

2) The base recipe specifies vanilla powder rather than the more usual extract or paste. Ever wondered what to do with old vanilla pods other than them into a jar of caster sugar? Once the old pods are thoroughly dry, you can crush them in a spice grinder/ mini food processor to make a fragrant powder perfect for use in baking. I haven’t tried this at home yet but will give it a go with my next batch of old pods.

3) The egg whites are weighed for an accurate result. A medium egg white weighs a little over 30g so you’ll need 3 eggs for the base recipe I give below.

4) I need to mention the nasty subject of additives. Although not listed amongst the ingredients, Chef Philippe casually added a couple of pinches of white food colouring to his macaroon mix. On closer inspection, this turned out to be E171 titanium dioxide. At best this seems entirely unnecessary – the finished macaroons were an attractive toasty gold colour – and at worst possibly dangerous.

Philippe also added yellow food colouring to his coffee macaroons, again not in the recipe, and again unnecessary as the coffee extract used to flavour the macaroons (make your own by dissolving instant coffee granules in a very little hot water or consider that old standby Camp Coffee Essence) will also lend them a little colour.

Finally, the chocolate macaroon recipe specifies a massive 82 combined drops of black, red, blue and yellow food colourings to turn the mix into the requisite rich dark brown. When I try these at home, I will make do with a more delicate brown colour provided by the cocoa powder alone.

Equipment

5) I learned to use a much smaller piping nozzle than the one I’d used previously. The recipe specifies nozzles in the range between nos. 7 to 10. I’d estimate that the one we used in the class was about 12mm in diameter.

6) We used very convenient big disposable clear plastic piping bags. I’ve stocked up on these to bring home with me.

7) We used a powerful professional food processor to pulse the ground almond and icing sugar mix. I’m not sure if a domestic processor works quite as well but I’ve had good results from my Kenwood liquidiser.

8) Talking of my Kenwood mixer, this was the machine of choice in the Lenôtre kitchen. Chef Philippe prefers it to the more modish Kitchenaid.

9) To bake the macaroons, we used doubled-up (one stacked on top of another) baking trays lined with unbleached non-stick baking paper, again just like the stuff I use at home. The double trays mean a more even heat distribution.

10) The most versatile kitchen tool we used was a little plastic scraper, the kind used for bread making. This was a fantastic stand-in for a spatula and dead handy for filling piping bags, emptying bowls, rubbing ground almonds through a sieve etc. I’ve brought one of these home with me too.

Techniques

11) The consistency of the macaroon mixture is key to the shape of the finished product. The ground almond and sugar mix was folded into the meringue mix using a spatula in three phases, with 10 turns of the bowl for each addition. Then comes the key final mixing with a spatula, a further turning and folding of the mixture until it becomes smooth and glossy, holding its shape but only just. There is a special word for this final mixing “macaronner”. If you don’t get it quite right, the mixture will be too stiff and the piped discs won’t flow to a nice flat circle and will have little tails instead of being smooth on top.

12) When piping the discs, hold the tip of the nozzle directly above (90 degrees) and very close to the baking tray. Squeeze using the palm of the right hand against the top of the piping bag for a count of 3, stop the pressure then execute a quick flick of the wrist as if writing a comma with a fountain pen to release the nozzle.

13) Pipe in neat rows and keep a good distance (3cm or more) between the discs in order to ensure a good airflow and even baking. We piped 28 discs on a tray, a row of 6 then a row of 5 in the gaps, another row of 6, another of 5 then a final row of 6.

14) To ensure that the cooked discs with their still soft centres peeled off the paper easily, we carefully poured cold water onto the hot baking tray as soon as it came out of the oven. To do this, you need to set the tray at a slight slant over the sink and carefully lift up the edge of the paper before pouring water beneath it from a small jug.

15) I’ve never paid special attention to filling macaroons previously. I’ve simply spread them with buttercream using a small crank-handled palette knife. I’ve now learned to make a silky-textured buttercream with a crème anglaise base which is piped onto a macaroon disc in a similar way to piping the disc itself. Sandwich with a second disc, press lightly and you have a level filled macaroon with a perfectly even line of filling around it’s circumference.

16) Finally, the completed filled macaroons should be left to mature overnight in the refrigerator before eating. As if!

Apparently they can be frozen successfully if you need to make a big batch for a wedding, party, family celebration or similar.

OK so that’s the rather lengthy preamble. Time for a couple of pictures of the finished product. First, our neat rows of filled vanilla macaroons:

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Next, the top layer of our very desirable Lenôtre cake boxes filled with the chocolate and coffee macaroons ready to take home:

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Recipe for vanilla macaroons

Makes 25 to 30 filled macaroons

Ingredients

For the macaroon discs

125g ground almonds
225g icing sugar
100g egg whites
25g caster sugar
2 to 3g vanilla powder

For the vanilla buttercream

37g whole milk
15g caster sugar
1 vanilla pod
30g egg yolks
Further 15g caster sugar
100g softened unsalted butter

Method for the macaroon discs

Mix the ground almonds and icing sugar together. Liquidise or pulse in a food processor for 10 to seconds and push the resulting mixture through a sieve.

Put the egg whites into a mixing bowl with about one tenth of the caster sugar. Begin whisking at a medium speed (level 3 on a Kenwood electric mixer) until the mixture reaches the soft peak stage. Gradually whisk in the remaining caster sugar and whisk until the mixture becomes a smooth, glossy, stiff meringue.

Gradually fold in the sieved ground almond and icing sugar mix using a spatula. Do this in 3 or 4 batches. Continue to fold the mixture with the spatula until it becomes smooth and glossy and a little looser but not too runny for piping well.

Using a piping bag fitted with a nozzle in the range 7 to 10 (10 to 15 diameter) pipe individual macaroon discs 2cm in diameter onto a tray lined with silicone paper. Space them at least 3cm apart. Leave the macaroons to dry for 15 minutes or so before baking.

Place a second tray beneath the macaroons than place in an oven preheated to 160 degrees C. Turn the heat down to 140 degrees C and bake for anywhere between 12 to 18 minutes until the macaroons have puffed up a little and have coloured lightly. They should have cooked, crisp bases but still be soft in the centre. Start checking after 12 minutes.

Remove the cooked macaroons from the oven and immediately pour a little cold water onto the hot tray UNDER the baking paper to form steam and help release the macaroons from the paper. Allow to cool for 5 minutes or so then remove from the paper onto a cooling rack with help of a small crank handled palette knife. Leave to cool completely before sandwiching together with piped vanilla buttercream.

Method for vanilla buttercream

Heat together the milk, 15 g caster sugar and the vanilla pod. Bring to just below boiling point then remove from the heat, cover and allow to infuse for a few minutes.

In a large bowl, using a balloon whisk, whisk together the egg yolks and the other 15g sugar until the mixture lightens in coloured just a little. Remove the vanilla pod, scrape out the seeds and add to the mix. Pour the warm milk over the egg yolks and sugar and whisk together. Return the mix to the pan and, stirring the mixture with a spatula or wooden spoon, heat gently to 82 degrees C to make a custard/crème anglaise which has thickened just a little to the coating a spoon stage.

Pour the cooked custard into the bowl of a Kenwood mixer or equivalent and whisk at high speed until cool. The mixture should now be much thicker, pale in colour and softly creamy in texture.

Gradually incorporate the softened butter which you have previously creamed to ensure it’s the right texture for easy incorporation.

Keep cool if not using immediately and bring back to the right soft consistency for piping by gently warming OVER hot water.

That’s it – good luck with making these at home!

Contact details

École Amateur Pavillon Elysée Lenôtre
10 avenue des Champs Elysées
75008 Paris

Tel +33 (0)1 42 65 97 60

www.lenotre.fr

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