Saturday, March 16, 2013

the Perfect Brownie

I say this is the perfect brownie, because I made it six times before I arrived at the perfect amount of sugar. Being a francophile, I always regarded brownies as plebeian food, but now I realize that these things have a different kind of appeal from fondant au chocolat.

Why did I bake brownies six times? I am no fan of sugary foods, and kept on cutting down on sugar. When I got it down to a nice bitter flavor, I noticed one thing: the brownie was not only dense, but did not have that slightly flaky hard outer layer that shatters at the slightest touch of your teeth.

Do you see that crustiness? That's what I wanted, but could not achieve, with bittersweet brownies. In the end I had to make these six times to figure out the threshold of crispy crust/no crust. It was worth the effort, and I present you the perfect brownie.

This is all you need:

3 ounces unsweetened Callebaut chocolate (90 grams)
7 tablespoons of unsalted butter (that's 1 stick of butter minus 1 tablespoon) (105 grams)
1/2 cup plus 1/3 cup plus 2 teaspoons white granulated sugar (or 14 tablespoons) (190 grams)
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
2/3 cup flour (95 grams)
2 large eggs
sprinkle of flaky salt (optional)

I'm sorry about the weird sugar measurements. But that's the exact amount, not a tablespoon more or less.

Look on the bright side: this is a one-bowl brownie.

Heat up the oven to 350 F. 

Roughly chop up the unsweetened chocolate and put in a microwave-safe bowl with the butter. Nuke it in 30-second bursts until more or less melted. 

This is quite enough - if you stir it a bit it will finish melting. 

Add the sugar and vanilla essence, stir thoroughly. When the batter is not too hot to touch, add the eggs, one by one, and stir very well. 

Add the flour, and mix quickly. Do not over-mix. Just enough so that it's not floury. 

Pour in a pan lined with parchment paper and sprinkle with flaky sea salt if you wish. I recommend it! 

This would be good for a 8 by 8 inch square pan, but I happened to use a 14 by 5 inch pan and it was alright - possibly a bit thinner, but no big deal.

 Bake in the middle of the oven at 350 F for 20 to 25 minutes, or until a toothpick does not come out with gooey stuff on it.
Let it cool to room temperature before cutting. Surprisingly, I prefer these at room temperature, not hot out of the oven or even warm. Of course it's a personal thing, but I like my fondant au chocolat hot, and my brownies cool. 


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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Hot sandwich with Brussels sprouts

I have this thing about Brussels sprouts. 
Ever since I washed, chopped and cooked about a bushel of Brussels sprouts back in December (volunteering in Rockaway at a holiday party for Hurricane Sandy victims) I have been mildly fixated on these mini cabbages. At the time, washing what seemed like thousands of these little things, I thought to myself, "I could have washed 10 cabbages in 2 minutes and have been done with it instead of washing hundreds of these tiny things," but the resulting dish was so good that I was impressed despite being all Brussels sprouted out. 

Since then, I've most often had them sauteed to the point of light caramelization in good olive oil with plenty of garlic, salt and pepper, but lately I've started veering off the beaten path and tried shredding them. I still haven't found a good recipe for raw Brussels sprouts, but in sandwiches and toasts - they are amazing. 

I also like it that you can keep a pound or so of these in the fridge and use two or three at a time. 
My favorite hot sandwich these days is made with two slices of toast with smoked gouda, a few paper thin slices of onion and plenty of finely shredded brussels sprouts. Since I don't have a hot sandwich press or panini maker, I usually do it on the frying pan with a little salted butter. Yes, the Brussels sprouts tend to fall out from the sandwich, but that's good too. 

Today I tried an open sandwich in the oven - liberally seeded rye bread (from Zabar's, no less) with onion and brussels sprouts. I put them in the oven at 400F for 10 minutes until the cheese started melting and the sprouts started shriveling ever so slightly, then broiled them for two or three minutes until nicely browned on top. 

If anyone has any other Brussels sprouts ideas, let me know!

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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Spinach Provencal

I always liked spinach, but I never knew it could be so exciting until I tried my friend's grandmother Edith's spinach. I was visiting them over the holidays last year, and Edith made a lovely, typically Provencal baked spinach dish that I took several helpings of. It was wow.

What I make may not be a faithful representation of her dish, but this is the best I could remember. It's pretty good, and I don't remember if Edith used any herbs, but I don't. If you have any suggestions on what herbs would go well with this, I'd be glad to hear it!

You need:

tons of spinach (ok, this is about two and a half pounds, or just over a kilo)
1 cup green olives
10 to 12 cloves of garlic
olive oil - 4 tablespoons
salt and pepper (the pepper is buried behind the leaves)
1 and a half tablespoon of flour
1/2 cup of milk (not shown because I forgot)
1 and a half tablespoons of butter

Choose very good green olives that you like. The last time I made this, I didn't really like the taste of the olives I bought, and that effectively decides the taste of the whole dish. Best choose a green olive with a clean sharp saltiness.

First, wash your spinach. Don't put them in a colander and pour water over them; that will not get all the dirt out. Dunk them in small bunches into a large bowl full of water and shake them in the water vigorously, removing roots and red stems if still attached. Pull them out of the water, rinse under running water and put on a large colander.

Put about half and inch of water (in my case that was about 2 cups) in a heavy large pot over high heat. When the water is boiling, sprinkle some salt (half a teaspoon will do) then shove the spinach leaves in. My spinach required a lot of wrestling, but eventually I got it in and clapped on the lid.

After five minutes, open the lid and try to turn over the leaves. The bottom half will already be cooked , so just try to shove the raw leaves down and pull up the cooked ones on top. Put on the lid and wait two or three minutes more.

Remove from the pot and drain. Let water drip from the colander and lightly push the water out.

Give it a rough chop - I chopped it into sections about half an inch wide.

Heat a frying pan over medium heat with two tablespoons of olive oil and sliced garlic. When the oil starts simmering (but the garlic should not be browned) add the chopped spinach, squeezing the water out a little if dripping. You don't have to squeeze very hard, just enough so that it doesn't drip.

Saute for two or three minutes until the garlicky goodness is all over the spinach.

Put the spinach to one side of the frying pan and put the pat of butter and flour in the empty space. Let the butter melt, then mix the two to form a paste.

It doesn't matter if some spinach gets caught in it. Add the milk and stir with an wooden spoon until the paste is more or less dissolved.

Alternatively, if you have bechamel sauce on hand, you can just add about half a cup of that.

Now, mix the spinach in the bechamel sauce until evenly coated. If it seems a bit too dry/tacky/sticky, add a splash of water or milk, a spoon or two at a time. There should be a little liquid left at the bottom of the pan and nothing should be burning or sticking. Sprinkle a little salt - I used a quarter of a teaspoon. The spinach should be under-salted, to balance the strong salt of the olives. Do not over-salt the spinach!

Take the spinach off the heat, add the olives and stir. You can leave the olives whole, slice them or cut them lengthwise as I did - whatever you like. Take a taste and see if the salt is well balanced between the spinach and the olives.

Grease a baking pan with two tablespoons of olive oil. Pour the spinach mixture in and bake in an oven at 375 F for 15 minutes or until bubbly and starting to dry out on the surface. You can also add a few thin slices of toast or baguette on the top to make a crunch. Take care not to let the bread burn.

It goes well as an accompaniment to any meat or fish, but I can have this all by itself as lunch. A baguette and good cheese would make perfect companions.

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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Mango mousse

Here it finally is - the mango mousse so good that people with spoons attack me at parties, demanding another helping.

It's as easy as one two three and virtually foolproof - and while it's useful to have an electric egg beater, it's not necessary. Five ingredients - five ingredients is all it takes to make this smooth, velvety and refreshing dessert.

The recipe is my own, adapted from my mother's recipe for grape mousse, which was given to her by a friend of hers decades ago.

Here's the cast of characters:
Mango juice - 1 2/3 cups
Lemon juice - 1 lemon, or 1/4 cup
Granulated sugar - scant 1/4 cup (50 grams)
Knox unflavored gelatine - 1 packet
Heavy cream - 1 cup

The quality of the juice matters. Try to find one with as much mango content as possible. It should be thick and intense, not watery sweet. As a rule of thumb, I stick to juices in jars, not plastic or paper containers. Don't skimp on the juice.
You will need to whip the cream, so half and half will not make the cut. It has to be heavy cream; fat content over 30%.
While I love brown sugar, I would not recommend it for this recipe - you need a clean light sweetener.

This recipe makes about 4 wine glasses of mousse - and the recipe can very easily be doubled or tripled.

Measure out 400ml, or 1 and 2/3 cups of juice. Making mousse is chemistry, so don't get your measurements wrong. This is not the time to be casual with numbers. 

In a small bowl or glass, sprinkle in one packet of Knox gelatine. (Can someone tell me why Knox spells gelatin with an e at the end?)

Pour about half a cup of juice over the powdered gelatin and briskly mix with a fork. Leave for at least five minutes while the gelatin absorbs the liquid. It will still look grainy, but there shouldn't be any dry lumps. 

In the meanwhile, freshly squeeze the juice of one lemon, removing seeds and pulp. 

Add the sugar to the remaining juice and warm up over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved. (You can also nuke it in the microwave; it took me about 3 minutes - but keep an eye on it.) The juice will be too hot to touch, but should not be boiling. 

Add the lemon juice and stir. 

Add about half a cup of the hot juice to the gelatin mixture and stir very very well. Then pour the gelatin mixture back in the the hot juice and stir well again. The heat should melt the gelatin completely.

Leave aside until cool enough to touch. 

Beat the heavy cream until very fluffy. I used an electric beater on low for a couple of minutes, so it shouldn't take long even by hand. Do not overdo it - as you see, I am on the verge of over-beating the cream - that is when it starts breaking up instead of being one creamy mass. 

The cream should, however, be stiff enough to stand on its own without dripping. 

When the juice has cooled enough to touch (about body temperature or a bit higher), pour about a third of it in the cream and mix until smooth. (No, do not use an electric beater for this, just a normal whisk is fine.) 

It will look like this. Add another third and mix.

 Then the remainder. Mix until incorporated. 

Pour into glasses, jars, or one large bowl and chill immediately. Small glasses may take 4 to 6 hours, while a large bowl will take overnight to solidify. 
As you can see, the liquid starts separating; the lighter cream to the top, the heavier juice to the bottom. How it will separate - in two layers, in three, or none at all, depends on the temperature of the juice when you mix it with the cream and the temperature of the fridge where you chill it. The colder it is, the less it will separate - the gelatin will solidify before the liquid has enough time to separate. The hotter it is, the more time there is for it to separate before solidifying. 

I'm not picky about how many layers I get or don't get. But if you want a smooth unseparated mousse, I suggest that you add the juice to the cream not at body temperature, but at room temperature, and put it immediately in the coldest part of your fridge. 

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Friday, December 7, 2012

Ossetian Pies

I love Ossetian pies. Russia is a great country for pies, and Stolle has long been my favorite Russian restaurant. The wide counter has pies from one end to the other, and I always had a hard time deciding what to eat that day.

It was years later that I met Ossetian pies. My then-colleague Elena brought some to work one day, made by her mother, who is Ossetian. It was flat and round like a pancake, perhaps half an inch thick, and sandwiched a strangely delicious filling between thin layers of dough. The filling was slightly tangy and a bit meaty - it was hard to describe, but if I had to guess, I might have said it included bits of meat.

The pie in question (still my absolute favorite) was, in fact, vegetarian. The filling was made with cabbage and onions sauteed in butter, then cheese and chopped walnuts were folded in. I kept on nagging my colleague to bring more pies. Occasionally she did, some including cheese and potato, and the newspaper staff would keep an eye on her to make sure we didn't get left behind when she and the pies went for lunch.

When I left Russia, Elena's mother, Lyudmilla, gave me several pies to take on the road. I stuffed my bag full of them and arrived at JFK in a food coma.

Fast forward a year, I finally got my hands on the recipe, and forced Elena to show me how to make them. For me, everything about it was exotic and surprising - I bake a lot and make pizzas, quiche, chicken pot pies, pastries and bread, but it wasn't like anything in my repertoire. For one, the dough was exceedingly soft, sticky and wet. For another, there was no rolling out of dough.

I've tried making them on my own - the one with meat (фыдджин - fyddzhin) didn't turn out very well (I didn't know what to do with the filling) but I did make a pretty decent cabbage one. Called кабускаджин (kabuskadzhin) it is my all time favorite. I also tried цахараджин (tsakharadzhin) which is with the stems of beets and cheese. It's leaner than the cabbage one because the stems are not cooked in butter (they go in the pie raw) and there are no nuts. My pie turned out pretty pink. Elena and I made картофджин (kartofdzhin) together; it's with mashed potatoes with cheese. There are other kinds, with mushrooms, with beans, with pumpkin... most of them seem to be savory.

my first one with cabbage - kabuskadzhin
Now, I have a favor to ask - if you are reading this, and are Ossetian, or know how to make Ossetian pies, or have found good recipes on the internet, please leave a comment with links or recipes in the comment section below. I will try making Ossetian pies over the next few months, and if I succeed, I will upload recipes and photos. I want to be master of Ossetian pies and make them for parties and friends, because I think they are one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten!

my first tsakharadzhin - with beet stems
These pies are just amazing, and while I must say that they are not entirely healthy (they usually contain lots of cheese and some fillings are full of butter) but they are absolutely delicious. In Ossetia, they are made on festive occasions such as birthdays. Recipes are handed from mother to daughter, and an ideal pie is flat and thin, with no holes (see mine full of holes?) and the dough should be evenly thin, moist and soft.

Thank you again, Lyudmilla, for all the pies you gave me, and inspired me with. And much thanks to my lovely friend Elena, who patiently spent hours showing me how it is done!

And for those of you who have never seen such pies before and don't know exactly where Ossetia is on the map: (correct me if I am wrong)

Ossetia is a region in the Kavkaz (Caucasus) mountains, and while Ossetians don't have their own (internationally recognized) country, they do have their own language, Ossetic, which is part of the eastern Iranian branch of the Indo-European languages family. The southern part, South Ossetia, is within Georgian territory, but there have been tiffs there and it is still a region very much disputed over. The northern part is called the republic of North Osetia-Alania and is a republic within the Russian Federation. One of the most famous Ossetian people is Valery Gergiev, renowned conductor, who was born in Moscow but raised in Vladikavkaz. I've never been there (I actually have traveled very little in Russia or the ex Soviet states) but it looks like a place I would like - mountainous and green.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Tofu noodle salad

This is my take on one of my favourite Chinese appetizers, a salad made with what I believe is dried tofu noodles. (Correct me if I'm laboring under false impressions.) I love it for the texture it has; a little chewy and rough in a good way. I've never been able to locate the exact source of the noodles, even in Chinese grocery stores (I really should ask the waitress) but I've tried it using "tofu noodles" found commonly in the states. 

Original tofu noodle salad, taken in Japan
These noodles are much softer and much less textured than the ones used in the salad (picture left) but I still like it. They're made by House and advertised as being low carb, gluten free and only 20 kcal per package. The gluten-free doesn't impress me (because tofu is not supposed to contain any wheat anyway) but 20 kcal per serving sounds like a good idea. I don't know why they call them "Tofu Shirataki" though - shirataki looks similar, but is a whole different product, made with konnyaku (konjac in English?) and has a different taste and texture. But I digress.

What you need: (per person)

1 package of Tofu "shirataki" noodles - I use the thinnest kind for this salad, but you're free to try the flat kind!
leek - about an inch and a half of the white part
1 teaspoon Chinese chicken bouillon powder
2 teaspoons sesame seed oil
dash of black pepper

(optional: 1 teaspoon rice vinegar, some lettuce, some other vegetables such as cucumber or peppers)

Split your leek down the middle. And yes, I have been practicing horticulture on a small scale inside my fridge. 

Lay both side down flat, and make the thinnest slivers you can with a sharp knife. 

The thinner the better - mine aren't really ideal... I'm sure you could do better!

In a bowl, mix the leek, sesame seed oil, Chinese chicken bouillon powder and dash of black pepper. Combine well and let it sit while you get the noodles. 

Yes, I realize that chicken bouillon powder has MSG in it. But no, I would not replace it with anything else in this dish. My take on MSG is this - sure, it's not natural, but it's not necessarily evil. A bit of it (chicken bouillon powder) now and then goes a long way and it's indispensable in some Chinese dishes, those that don't involve soy sauce or oyster sauce. 

Open the package of noodles into a fine-meshed sieve and and rinse under cold water for a minute. Drain really well - leave the sieve over a bowl for a few minutes if you aren't too hungry. 

Toss with the leek mixture and serve. You can garnish it with a few lettuce leaves, or even add some other vegetables, such as cucumbers or red or green peppers - just cut them as thinly as possible, like the leeks. You can also add a small splash of vinegar, if you like sour food. I do!

If I'm not too hungry, this salad alone is enough for lunch. Otherwise, I'd serve it with any Asian food - Chinese or Japanese, usually. Itadakimasu!

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