Friday, 27 March 2009

Lasagna with Homemade Spinach Pasta

First, let’s dispense with the obligatory statement:

The March 2009 challenge is hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande. They have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge.

This month’s challenge was lasagna -- and not just any lasagna, lasagna with home-made noodles. And not just any noodles – spinach noodles! I was very excited by this challenge. Normally, when I make lasagna, I use the no-bake noodles, which I know purists cringe at, but actually taste perfectly fine. Plus, I am always on a tight schedule, so the time-saving aspect is indispensible. But, despite this, deep down in the recesses of my mind, I have always wanted to try home-made pasta. The closest I have ever come was some nice gorgonzola and walnut tortellini from the refrigerated section at Shop Rite.

For this challenge, our hosts provided 3 different recipes: Spinach Pasta, Ragu, and Bechamel. The spinach pasta was the true challenge, and we were told that we could use our favorite sauces in lieu of the provided recipes if we so wished. I chose to do this, because I was planning on making this lasagna for dinner with my parents, and my mom refuses to touch anything that contains a cream sauce. So, since the béchamel sauce was out, I decided to just go ahead and make my normal lasagna meat sauce, which is really my friend Lauren’s meat sauce, she was good enough to share her techniques with me years ago.

I am going to run down how I actually made my lasagna, but at the bottom of the post, I will provide the recipes for the ragu and béchamel that were given by our hosts, because the people who actually used them said that they were delicious too, and someday (when I am not having dinner with my parents) I plan on making this recipe the way it was originally intended to be made. And now, that lasagna (in the order that I chose to make things)… I made the sauce about a week prior to the lasagna, divvied it up into portions to make 3 different dishes, and popped them all into the freezer.

The sauce:
3 lbs lean beef (I use 85%)
1 medium onion
5-6 cloves of garlic (more or less to taste), minced
1 can tomato sauce (8 oz?)
2-14 oz cans of crushed tomatoes (I used ones crushed in basil for a little added flavor)
Parsley (small palmful), oregano (3-4 shakes), basil (6-7 shakes), salt and pepper (to taste)
I also add a tiny pinch of red pepper flakes (read: tiny pinch) to give it a little oomph like an arrabiata sauce. I like my sauces a little angry. If I was cooking for just Charlie and me, I would probably put a little more in.

1. I sauté the onions and then brown the meat in succession.

2. Right at the end, before everything is done sautéing, I add the garlic. If you add it too early and it cooks too much, it will get bitter. Once it is in the pan for a minute or so, I add the meat back in.

3. Then I add the sauce and tomatoes. Typically I fill up an empty tomato can at least once with a mixture (1:1) of water and red wine, sometimes I add more. It depends on the consistency of the sauce. I’d rather err on the side of too much liquid, because I can always cook it down.

4. I add the spices at this time, mixing them around, then I set the whole thing to simmer uncovered for at least an hour, or more depending on how much liquid needs to be cooked off.

5. When I am storing sauce to be used at a later date, I let it cool, put it in the fridge overnight (I have heard this helps it flavor up before you freeze it, and I firmly believe it), and then freeze it the next day. When I make lasagna, it takes about 4 ½ cups of sauce (1 cup per layer and top, and a little on the bottom), so I freeze and date my sauce in 4 ½ cup portions to be defrosted later.

The pasta:
2 jumbo eggs (2 ounces/60g or more) (I ended up using almost 4, my eggs aren’t very jumbo!)

10 ounces (300g) fresh spinach, rinsed dry, and finely chopped; or 6 ounces (170g) frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry (I used frozen)

3&1/2 cups (14 ounces/400g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour (organic stone ground preferred) (I used bleached because I was not about to buy something extra and use it once, until I knew the recipe was worth it)

Make sure you have lots of counter space before you begin. You have to knead the dough. A lot. You have to roll out the dough. A lot. So make sure you have your pin at the ready too. And, I found that a firm plastic knife (like the clear plastic ones) works great for cutting the sheets, and you don’t have to worry about damage to your counter top.
1. The first thing I did was combine my spinach and 3 eggs in a bowl. I screwed this up a little, because I was on autopilot and defrosted 2 packages, which is my norm. I didn’t realize this until I had added almost all the spinach to the dough, but honestly it turned out none-the-worse for wear, so these spinach amounts are obviously ballpark figures. I would suggest adding to taste.

2. The recipe calls for you to mix everything on your countertop, putting the eggs and spinach into a well in the center of the flour. Me being me, I used my Kitchen Aid with dough hook, and it worked fine.

3. When I felt it had incorporated as far as it could with a hook, which granted is very subjective, I turned it out onto the counter (lightly floured) for some kneading. You are supposed to knead until the dough is satiny, smooth and very elastic. All of the spinach I added made it hard to tell whether the dough was truly smooth, but I kneaded for about 8-10 minutes and it was certainly elastic.

4. I wrapped up the dough in saran wrap and left it on the countertop to rest. The recipe recommended anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours, so I compromised and left it alone for about an hour.

5. I cut the ball of dough into 4 pieces, and worked with a quarter at a time. I rolled out the quarter to a nice large circle, as big and uniformly thin as I could.
6. Then, I used the pin to stretch the dough as per the instructions: “As it thins outs, start rolling the disc back on the pin a quarter of the way toward the center and stretching it gently sideways by running the palms of your hands over the rolled-up dough from the center of the pin outward. Unroll, turn the disc a quarter turn, and repeat. Do twice more. Stretch and even out the center of the disc by rolling the dough a quarter of the way back on the pin. Then gently push the rolling pin away from you with one hand while holding the sheet in place on the work surface with the other hand. Repeat three more times, turning the dough a quarter turn each time. Repeat the two processes as the disc becomes larger and thinner. The goal is a sheet of even thickness. For lasagne, the sheet should be so thin that you can clearly see your hand through it and see colours. Cut into rectangles about 4 by 8 inches.”

(I have to be honest here, my dough was not see-through. I had so much spinach in there, that this would have been impossible. I found, however, that when I cut the quarter into strips (4 strips), it was easier to roll them even thinner after I separated the strips from each other. I’m still not sure they were quite thin enough, but I am fairly sure they were pretty close.)
7. From here there are several options: using immediately, freezing, and drying. I put wax paper between my sheets, popped them into freezer bags, and stored them overnight, and froze any unused sheets as undried the next day. I heard from several people on the forum who did the same thing.
Now, again you have 2 options. You can cook the pasta and then assemble the lasagna, or just assemble the lasagna and have the pasta (hopefully) cook as it bakes (for fresh sheets only). I was going to cook them first, but then I read from several people that they just assembled the pasta and baked it with the fresh noodles and it worked fine. So, naturally, that is what I opted to do. If you want to cook the pasta first, it is 2 minutes in boiling water for fresh, 4 minutes for dried.

Additional ingredients:
15 oz ricotta
1 egg
1 block mozzarella cheese
1 bag shredded mozzarella cheese
Parm, romano, or some combo thereof

1. Mix the egg and ricotta in a small bowl, add in a bit of parsley for some nice color if you like
2. Put a little sauce on the bottom of a casserole dish, and layer 4 noodle strips (or however many it takes to cover the dish)
3. Spread 1/3 of ricotta mixture over the noodles, layer 1/3 of block cheese slicked (supplement with some shredded cheese on the edges and in between slices)
4. Spread 1 C sauce over the cheese
5. Repeat twice more, and end with a fourth layer of noodles on the top. Spread the remaining sauce (you should have about 1 C remaining) on top, and sprinkle with cheese. I like to use some mozzarella, along with parm and romano, depending on what I have, but that is up to your tastebuds.
6. Bake at 350F for about 40 minutes, and turn the oven off, crack the door and let it sit for about another 10 minutes

The whole thing sounds like an involved process, but it isn’t really, especially if you make the sauce in advance (on the weekend when there is more time, which is what I always do). If you have sauce waiting for you in the fridge (because you’ve defrosted it overnight to use it!), it is very little effort to assemble the lasagna.

So, for my review of this recipe…I am so happy that I can now add fresh pasta to my repertoire…but…I don’t think I will be using that skill to make lasagna again. It isn’t that the lasagna wasn’t good – it was great! Really great. But, it tasted the same as every other lasagna I have ever made. Granted, I made this with the same sauce and in the same way as the others, but I was expecting there to be more of a difference with the noodles. I was expecting them to stand out more, I guess. Even with the extra spinach I added, which was nearly twice the amount, I could still barely taste it. I am glad in retrospect that I used my own sauce, because this allowed me to make a comparison solely based on the noodles. I know that the original sauces provided with this recipe are very good, based on other people’s reviews, and if I had used them, I might have thought that the noodles really contributed a lot to the overall flavor of the lasagna, but now I know that is not the case. If I couldn’t detect a difference between the no-cook (no effort!) noodles and the ones that took nearly 3 hours to make, then there is little point in making them, especially if time is short. It is just not worth it to tack on 3 hours to a prep time, when the resulting contribution to the overall outcome is negligible at best. But, having said that, the pasta recipe is extremely tasty, with or without spinach, and I can definitely see using it for something that I can find no other substitute for. Something like homemade raviolis with my own filling. I would love to try that. Maybe instead of spinach, adding some nice sundried tomatoes or roasted red peppers…fill them with cheese…mmmm…yeah, that’ll do nicely…

I definitely plan on trying the original sauces provided (below), but I will be doing it with my usual noodles, and save homemade pasta for something truly unique, where I feel the effort would make more of a difference to the outcome.

And, for those of you who are interested, I give you…Ragu and Bechamel!
Preparation Time: 15 minutes
4 tablespoons (2 ounces/60g) unsalted butter
4 tablespoons (2 ounces/60g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour, organic stone ground preferred
2&2/3 cups (approx 570ml) milk
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg to taste
Using a medium-sized saucepan, melt the butter over low to medium heat. Sift over the flour, whisk until smooth, and then stir (without stopping) for about 3 minutes. Whisk in the milk a little at a time and keep the mixture smooth. Bring to a slow simmer, and stir 3 to 4 minutes, or until the sauce thickens. Cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, until the sauce thickens. Season with salt, pepper, and a hint of nutmeg.
Country Style Ragu’ (Ragu alla Contadina)
Preparation Time: Ingredient Preparation Time 30 minutes and Cooking time 2 hours
Makes enough sauce for 1 recipe fresh pasta or 1 pound/450g dried pasta)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (45 mL)
2 ounces/60g pancetta, finely chopped
1 medium onion, minced
1 medium stalk celery with leaves, minced
1 small carrot, minced
4 ounces/125g boneless veal shoulder or round
4 ounces/125g pork loin, trimmed of fat, or 4 ounces/125g mild Italian sausage (made without fennel)
8 ounces/250g beef skirt steak, hanging tender, or boneless chuck blade or chuck center cut (in order of preference)
1 ounce/30g thinly sliced Prosciutto di Parma
2/3 cup (5 ounces/160ml) dry red wine
1 &1/2 cups (12 ounces/375ml) chicken or beef stock (homemade if possible)
2 cups (16 ounces/500ml) milk
3 canned plum tomatoes, drained
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Working Ahead:
The ragu can be made 3 days ahead. Cover and refrigerate. It also freezes well for up to 1 month. Skim the fat from the ragu’ before using it.
Browning the Ragu Base:
Heat the olive oil in a 12 inch (30cm) skillet (frying pan) over medium-high heat. Have a large saucepan handy to use once browning is complete. Add the pancetta and minced vegetables and sauté, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, 10 minutes, or until the onions barely begin to color. Coarsely grind all the meats together, including the prosciutto, in a food processor or meat grinder. Stir into the pan and slowly brown over medium heat. First the meats will give off a liquid and turn dull grey but, as the liquid evaporates, browning will begin. Stir often, scooping under the meats with the wooden spatula. Protect the brown glaze forming on the bottom of the pan by turning the heat down. Cook 15 minutes, or until the meats are a deep brown. Turn the contents of the skillet into a strainer and shake out the fat. Turn them into the saucepan and set over medium heat.
Reducing and Simmering: Add the wine to the skillet, lowering the heat so the sauce bubbles quietly. Stir occasionally until the wine has reduced by half, about 3 minutes. Scrape up the brown glaze as the wine bubbles. Then pour the reduced wine into the saucepan and set the skillet aside.
Stir ½ cup stock into the saucepan and let it bubble slowly, 10 minutes, or until totally evaporated. Repeat with another ½ cup stock. Stir in the last 1/2 cup stock along with the milk. Adjust heat so the liquid bubbles very slowly. Partially cover the pot, and cook 1 hour. Stir frequently to check for sticking.
Add the tomatoes, crushing them as they go into the pot. Cook uncovered, at a very slow bubble for another 45 minutes, or until the sauce resembles a thick, meaty stew. Season with salt and pepper.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

The Legend of Drunken Cupcake (aka Guinness Cupcakes)

In honor of St. Patty's Day (again), I decided to make another Irish-themed dessert -- Guinness Cupcakes! The best part is, they only called for 1 bottle of beer, which means there were 5 bottles left over!
I pulled this recipe off of the Food Network. It got great reviews, and I was intrigued by the idea of using Guinness as a cupcake additive. Don't get me wrong, I've used strange mix-in's before -- tomato soup cake springs to mind -- but I would have thought Guinness was a tad too bitter to use in a dessert. And yet, with its (slight) chocolate notes, I was curious to see how a Guinness chocolate cupcake would shape up. So without further ado:

These cupcakes are chocolate, paired with a cream cheese icing. The visual effect is literally supposed to be like a little pint of Guinness, in cake form.

Ingredients (cupcakes):
3/4 C cocoa (recipe called for unsweeteded, all I had was dark and it worked fine)
2 C sugar
2 C flour
1 tsp baking soda
pinch of salt
1 stick of butter, melted
1 bottle of Guinness or other stout beer
1 tbls vanilla
3 eggs

Directions (cupcakes):
1. Preheat oven to 350F
2. Combine all dry ingredients in a medium bowl (I hardly ever do this when it is directed, but I'm glad I did this today, because the cocoa had lumps. You could also sift the dry ingredients directly into the combined wet ingredients if you want)
3. Combine beer, butter and vanilla in a separate bowl

Here is the Guinness and butter
4. Beat in the eggs one at a time, then add the sour cream
5. Gradually add the dry ingredients, mixing to remove any lumps

6. Divide the batter between 2 muffin tins (grease or spray the tins, no muffin cups), filling each well 3/4 full
7. Bake at 350F for 24 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through
8. Cool completely before frosting

Ingredients (Cream Cheese Frosting):
8 oz cream cheese
1/2 C heavy cream, add more as needed to reach desired consistency
1-1lb box confectioner's sugar

Directions (Cream Cheese Frosting):
1. Beat cream cheese until fluffy, gradually add heaavy cream
2. Slowely mix in sugar until fully incorporated and smooth, adding more cream if need be
3. Frost cupcakes and store in the fridge

These cupcakes smelled outstanding while they were baking. Because they weren't in muffin cups, the edges carmelized a little bit.
I tried one fresh out of the oven, and was surprised by the flavor. First of all, even without icing, they are very yummy. They taste mostly like dark chocolate cupcakes, but the stout is definitely there, and it really complements the chocolate well.

The icing came out rich, with a great flavor. I added a little vanilla, which is something I typically do with icings regardless of whether the recipe calls for it or not (unless I think another extract, like almond, would work better with the flavors).

The icing cut the stout flavor just a bit, and really made for a nice visual presentation. I think cream cheese icing is the best pairing for these cupcakes, because a buttercream would be way too sweet, and wouldn't contribute much to the flavor.
I would definitely make these cupcakes again, they had a rich flavor with unique undertones. So far, everyone has really liked them. Make sure you have room in your fridge to store 24 cupcakes, however, since the cream cheese frosting necessitates cold storage.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Irish Soda Bread

I have wanted to try and make Irish soda bread for a long time now, and in honor of St. Patrick's Day coming up, I finally decided to give it a shot. I don't know what it is about Irish Soda Bread, but around this time of year, I crave it. Maybe it makes me feel more Irish. Of course, I'm not Irish at all...but everyone always thinks I am. So I routinely pass myself off as such during every mid-March.

I prefer my soda bread with just a hint of sweetness (especially in the yummy crusty outer part), so I hunted for a recipe that seemed like it would fit the bill. I came across Marilyn O'Reilly's Irish Soda Bread on the Food Network website. Not only was it the highest rated out of all the soda bread recipes, but it also called for more sugar than the others. So I decided that this recipe was definitely the one for me.

3 C all-purpose flour
1/4 C sugar
1 tbls baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
4 tbls unsalted butter (1/4 C)
2 tbls caraway seeds, optional
1 C raisins/cranberries/etc <-- I used the raisin/cranberry blend from Sun-Maid

1 C buttermilk
1 egg
Zest of 1 orange (I decided to add this to the recipe, and it gives a nice citrus undertone. I might even zest 2 oranges next time)

1. Set a rack in the middle level of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees.

2. In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, soda, zest and salt and stir well to mix.

3. Add the butter and rub in until the butter disappears into the dry ingredients.

4. Stir in the caraway seeds if used and the dried fruit.

5. In a separate bowl, whisk the buttermilk and egg together and mix into the dough

6. Turn the dough out on a floured work surface and fold it over on itself several times, kneeding for a few minutes

7. Shape it into a round loaf. Transfer the loaf to one cookie sheet or jelly roll pan covered with parchment or foil and cut a cross in the top (I forgot to do this, so I stabbed at it with a butter knife while it was in the oven...this is why my top looks like a cat attacked it).

8. Bake for 15 minutes then reduce heat to 350 and cook for about 30-35 minutes more, until well colored and a toothpick plunged into the center emerges clean. The original recipe says to cook it for only an additional 15-20 minutes, making for a 30-35 minute total cooking time, but I (and the other reviewers on Food Network) found that it took closer to 50 total minutes for the bread to be done.

9. Cool the soda bread on a rack and serve with butter and/or marmalade.

I ate my bread without any butter, and it was very yummy. The crust baked up nice and slightly sweet, almost like a cookie coating on the bread. The caraway seeds were little strong, but without them, I don't think the bread would have much of a taste on it's own. One reviewer said she tried the bread with and without seeds, and the seeded bread won the taste test of her coworkers hands down. Maybe, if you really object to caraway, add only 1 tbls instead of 2.

I definitely agree with the 5 star rating for this recipe. It was easy to put together, looks great, smells fantastic as it bakes, and tastes yummy. It was a little crumbly, especially on the outer parts, but I expect that from Irish Soda Bread. I think I will definitely be adding this recipe to my St. Patty's Day repertoire!

Friday, 6 March 2009

Peanut Butter Cookie Perfection

Peanut butter is basically my favorite thing. Don't get me wrong, I love other desserts too, and I won't always go for the peanut butter option depending on my mood, but peanut butter is pretty much a sure thing for me in terms of enjoyment. And, PB cookies are my fiance's absolute favorite (much to my chagrin, he is not a sweet tooth, and rarely eats what I bake, so the opportunity to make something he'll eat is also a huge motivating factor). So, needless to say, I have been looking around forever for a peanut butter cookie recipe. A great recipe. A recipe that is a bold, yet traditional PB cookie. All of the cookies I've tried are not peanut buttery enough, or the consistency is wrong, or they don't have the right color/look. Up until now, my efforts have been in vain. But then I spied, on Bakerella's blog (where else?), a peanut butter cookie recipe. And the thing that caught my eye was the ingredients list -- there were only 3 primary ingredients, and none of them was flour!

Could it be true? Could the answer to the perfect peanut butter cookie really be so simple? I couldn't wait to find out, so I tried the recipe, detemined to make a Valentine's Day gift to Charlie out of them if they turned out well. And...they did...oh, they did.

2C peanut butter (I used natural to prevent them from being too sweet, since you add sugar)
1C sugar
2 eggs

And that is it folks. Except some semi- or bittersweet melted chocolate if you want to dip them.

1. Mix the PB, sugar and egg until well-blended.

2. Refrigerate the mix for 30 minutes, right in the bowl.

3. Scoop and roll the dough (I used a #40 scoop for this), and place onto the cookie sheet.

4. Flatten each ball down with a fork to make that characteristic criss-cross pattern.

5. Bake at 325F for about 18 minutes. Watch the cookies. They are very delicate, so they will be soft and almost raw looking even when they are done, and they do not brown around the edges. Check the bottoms if you are unsure.

6. Cool on the sheet for 5 minutes, this is necessary to let them firm up a bit. Then, transfer them to a rack and let them cool completely.

If you want to, you can dip them into melted chocolate. I recommend this, (as long as you aren't one of those people who doesn't like PB and chocolate co-mingling) because these cookies are very peanut buttery. Basically, they are like eating a tablespoon of peanut butter -- which is exactly what they are. The chocolate helps cut that just enough, without detracting from the PB-goodness.

These cookies are the best PB cookies I've ever had. They were super easy to make and, best of all, they last forever (I assume because there is no flour). I can safely say, this is it. This is now my recipe for traditional peanut butter cookies. I wish I had Bakerella's skill with a camera, I always take pictures with my iPhone. But trust me, these cookies=peanut butter perfection.

Brownie-Cookie Bliss

This is another tardy post, of something I made about a month ago. I came across a recipe posted on Bakerella's blog, that looked so simple and yet so tempting, that I couldn't resist: Brownie-chocolate chip cookie hybrids, covered in chocolate ganache! And, you can cut a few corners and use mixes, and they still come out fabulous.

(As an aside, if you haven't yet checked out Bakerella's blog, check it out! She is amazingly creative, amazingly talented, and amazingly inspirational. You're going to see me reference her blog a lot because she has a knack for making everything she does look outstanding.)

Now, back to our regularly-scheduled baking!

-- 1 bag of Betty Crocker chocolate chip cookie mix

-- 1 box of brownie mix (any brand) for a 9x13 pan

I told you this would be easy

-- Ingredients specified on the boxes, which includes eggs, water, veggie oil and butter

-- chocolate ganache (below)

1. Make the brownie mix according to instructions and pour into a sprayed or buttered 9x13 pan

2. Make the cookie mix according to the instructions, and spoon by tablespoons over the brownie batter. Push the cookie down slightly into the batter.

3. Bake for about 35 minutes at 350F

4. Cool for about an hour in-pan, or until completely cool.

While the brownie-cookies are cooling, prepare the ganache:

-12 oz. semi-sweet chocolate morsels (or bittersweet if you want to cut the sweetness
of the brownie-cookie
-3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
-6 Tbsp butter

5. Heat cream and butter in a saucepan until almost boiling

6. Remove from heat and pour over chocolate in a heat-proof bowl, whisking until all the lumps are gone.

7. Pour over brownies, and let set completely

8. Cut and enjoy!

These guys were yummy, and easy to make. I brought them to my fiance's family's house, and they were a big hit.

Mini Lemon Meringue Pies (the so-called Pie-lets)

This is a bit of a tardy post, I actually made these mini lemon meringue pies as a Christmas present for my godfather (lemon meringue is his favorite, but my godmother doesn't make it anymore).

This is a time-saving recipe, not completely from scratch, but you can't tell by taste. And the best part is, you can adapt this for other pies. But more about that later...


-- ~12 mini pie crusts. I found mine pre-made at my local orchard's store, your local supoermarket might have them as well. If not, there are 2 options: 1) get some refrigerated pie crust and mini aluminum plates and make your own by cutting the refrigerated dough in about 4-inch circles; or 2) use the mini Keebler graham cracker shells.Using the graham cracker shells with cooked pudding is supposedly a no-no because the crumbs get soggy, but honestly it'll still taste great.
-- a box of cooked lemon pudding (not instant) plus the specified ingredients on the box (sorry, I don't remember off the top of my head). Royal is a good brand. OR, if you have time, a good recipe for from-scratch cooked lemon pudding plus necessary ingredients (Alton has a great one here). Honestly, though, from-the-box pudding is very tasty, I'm not sure it is worth the effort to make it from scratch...
-- 4 egg whites
-- 2 tbls sugar
-- cream of tartar


1. The first step is to blind-bake the crusts (if you have dough crusts). If you want to put graham cracker crusts in the oven, that is up to you. It will make them taste good, but be sure to watch them carefully.
  • Prick the bottom and sides of the dough with a fork.
  • Normally you would cover it with aluminum or a second pie plate and weight it with dry beans or ceramic pie weights, but I didn't bother with weighing them down because the crusts were so small.
  • Bake at 425F until golden in color. This will depend on the size of your crusts, so keep watch. My little guys took about 6 minutes.
  • Cool completely before filling.
2. Cook the pudding according to the box or recipe instructions.

3. When the pudding is done, take it off the heat and put it on a trivet while you whip the eggs. This won't take more than a few minutes, so don't worry about a film forming over the pudding

4. Combine the egg whites, sugar and a pinch of cream-of-tartar, and whip in a stand mixer with a whisk attachment until stiff peaks form, probably less than 2 minutes.

5. At this point, put pudding into each crust, but leave a little room at the top, because the meringue will displace some pudding.

6. Cover the pudding with meringue, making sure that the meringue contacts the crust all the way around, and that there is a good seal. Meringue shrinks when baking, so this is very important so that your meringue doesn't shrink smaller than the circumference of your pies! I normally use a butter knife to get the characteristic meringue peaks -- just touch the flat side of the knife to the meringue and pull straight away.

7. Put the pies in the oven at 375F, and watch for the meringue to turn golden (keep an eye on the peaks so they don't burn).

I adapted this technique from a regular lemon meringue pie, so it goes without saying that you can do everything in a single 9-inch crust, and have a normal sized pie.

I haven't done it yet, but this little pie-let technique would work well for any single-crust pie (you could do a double crust pie too, but it would not be quite as easy because you would have to cut and fit a top crust). Pumpkin, pecan, and dutch apple pies leap to mind as potential future pie-lets. Oh, and of course the cream pies: chocolate, coconut, banana, etc.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

For the Love of Chocolate (Daring Baker’s Challenge, Feb. ’09)

February’s challenge is a Flourless Chocolate Cake, Chocolate Valentino, inspired by Malaysia’s “most flamboyant food ambassador”, Chef Wan. The recipe itself comes from Sweet Treats by Chef Wan.

For those who don’t know, flourless chocolate cakes, in addition to obviously being gluten-free, typically are based on chocolate custard (which is nothing more than dairy, eggs and in this case, chocolate). The custard is aerated with an egg foam, and the heat of the melted chocolate actually stabilizes the protein matrix of the cake so that it can hold its shape (since the cake has virtually no starch). The original cake is served with whipping cream, but the Challenge was changed slightly to include making home-made ice cream of any flavor (although two recipes were provided, which I will post below).

I was very excited to be working with chocolate because…what the heck can really go wrong when chocolate is your chosen medium?! Factor in the ice cream, and it’s a win-win no matter what happens.

The Equipment:

A pan – this cake is traditionally made in a heart-shaped pan, but we were told that any pan with a surface area of 50 inches would work well, including 6x8, 7x7, an 8 inch springform pan, as well as smaller pans and ramakins. I decided to go with a normal-sized muffin pan.

An instant read thermometer (recommended) – this is not required, but it is very helpful because it is hard to look at the cake and know that it is done but not over-done. The recipe gives you a temperature to shoot for, which is much easier and eliminates a lot of guesswork if you are using a pan other than the ones described in the recipe.

The Ingredients:

16 ounces (1 pound) (454 grams) of chocolate, roughly chopped (I used a mixture of semi-sweet and bittersweet, but you can use whatever variety is your favorite. This cake is only as good as the chocolate you put into it, so use good quality chocolate!)

½ cup (1 stick) plus 2 tablespoons (146 grams total) of unsalted butter (I used salted because it was all I had and I didn’t want to go shopping. It was no biggie)

5 large eggs separated

This recipe only has 3 ingredients, exceedingly simple, but such lush rewards!

1. Melt the chocolate with the butter. If you are a cautious fellow, that means following the bracketed instructions provided by the original recipe and doing the whole 9 yards with the double boiler. If you are like me, with one eye always on the clock, you’ve probably never fooled with a double boiler in your life. Here’s an easier way and it worked just dandy: put the butter and chocolate into a microwave safe bowl, and heat on high for no longer than 30 second increments at a time, keeping careful watch.

Here it is during and after, and it came together beautifully. [Put chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl and set over a pan of simmering water (the bottom of the bowl should not touch the water) and melt, stirring often.]

2. While the chocolate butter mixture cooled, I greased my muffin pan with some of the remaining stick of butter. I did not fool with the parchment because it was a muffin pan, but I would recommend it for anything larger [butter your pan and line with a parchment circle then butter the parchment.]

3. Then I separated the egg yolks from the egg whites and put them into two bowls. I put the egg whites directly into my mixer’s bowl because I knew they had to be whipped. The rest of the cake I mixed by hand because everything was melted and liquid, and the cake turned out none the worse for wear.

4. I whipped the egg whites until stiff peaks formed (do not over-whip or the cake will be dry).

6. Add the egg yolks to the cooled chocolate, a little at a time. Make sure the chocolate isn’t too hot, or the eggs will cook. I tempered my eggs with a little melted chocolate first, and then added them.

7. Then I folded in 1/3 of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture and follow with remaining 2/3rds until there was no white, but not so much that the batter deflated.

8. Next, I poured batter into my muffin pan, about 3/4 of the way full (fill this much for any pan you use), and baked at 375F/190C

9. I ended up baking for about 17 minutes, until an instant thermometer read 140F/60C.

Note – If you do not have an instant read thermometer, the top of the cake will look similar to a brownie. But try to use a thermometer because any cake tester will appear wet.

10. I then cooled for 10 minutes on a rack and depanned.

I decided that I didn’t want just plain cakes, so I whipped up a quick chocolate ganache to spread over them. I just eyeballed it, but this is roughly the proportions I used:

15 oz bittersweet chocolate

1 tsp butter

½ C light cream

I heated the butter and cream to just before boiling, and then took it off the heat and poured it over the chocolate in a heat-proof bowl, stirring until all the lumps were gone.

Then, I spread the ganache over the cakes.

The ice cream recipes provided to us are posted below, but I didn’t want plain old vanilla. I decided that a pistachio ice cream would go wonderfully with the chocolate, and look sharp next to the dark brown. So I gathered pistachios, eggs, cream, sugar…just kidding!! I gathered Breyers out of my freezer.

I barely had time to make the cake, much less homemade ice cream. But my feeling is that sometimes you have to pick your battles. If you can’t do everything, you pick the most important thing. For me, for this recipe, it was the cake. I doubted a from-scratch, pure chocolate cake would suffer much from being paired with store-bought ice cream, and I was right. Not only were the flavors delectable, but I don’t think anyone eating it would think there was anything lacking with the omission of homemade ice cream. I would like to try to make homemade ice cream eventually, but it’ll have to wait for a time and recipe where ice cream is the focus, not just garnish.

I’d give this recipe an 8 out of ten. Outstanding flavor. Mine was a little dry however, I either overwhipped the eggs or wasn’t vigilant enough in watching it bake. But honestly, covered in ganache and paired with ice cream, I’d still rate it higher than a lot of recipes I’ve tried. My Grand Marnier cake, which I believe was one of my very first blog posts, is very similar, although not entirely gluten-free if that is a necessity for anyone. I think this cake would benefit from a little booze in the ganache and or cake, in about the same amounts as the Grand Marnier cake (about 3 tbls for the cake, and 2-4 for the ganache depending on taste). I think a lot of liquors would work well with this type of cake and ganache. As anyone who sampled my cake knows, Grand Marnier goes fabulously. I have a sneaking suspicion that Frangelico will too, so that is next on my list. I also think Amaretto, Kahlua and Bailey’s are good bets as well.

Here are the two ice cream recipes as promised:

Dharm's Ice Cream Recipe

Classic Vanilla Ice Cream

Preparation Time: 30 minutes

Recipe comes from the Ice Cream Book by Joanna Farrow and Sara Lewis (tested modifications and notes in parentheses by Dharm)


1 Vanilla Pod (or substitute with vanilla extract)

300ml / ½ pint / 1 ¼ cups Semi Skimmed Milk – in the U.S. this is 2% fat (or use fresh full fat milk that is pasteurised and homogenised {as opposed to canned or powdered}). Dharm used whole milk.

4 large egg yolks

75g / 3oz / 6 tbsp caster sugar {superfine sugar can be achieved in a food processor or use regular granulated sugar}

5ml / 1 tsp corn flour {cornstarch}

300ml / ½ pint / 1 ¼ cups Double Cream (48% butter fat) {in the U.S. heavy cream is 37% fat)

{you can easily increase your cream's fat content by heating 1/4 cup of heavy cream with 3 Tbs of butter until melted - cool to room temperature and add to the heavy cream as soon as whisk marks appear in the cream, in a slow steady stream, with the mixer on low speed. Raise speed and continue whipping the cream) or use heavy cream the difference will be in the creaminess of the ice cream.

1. Using a small knife slit the vanilla pod lengthways. Pour the milk into a heavy based saucepan, add the vanilla pod and bring to the boil. Remove from heat and leave for 15 minutes to allow the flavours to infuse

Lift the vanilla pod up. Holding it over the pan, scrape the black seeds out of the pod with a small knife so that they fall back into the milk. SET the vanilla pod aside and bring the milk back to the boil.

2. Whisk the egg yolks, sugar and corn-flour in a bowl until the mixture is thick and foamy. 3. Gradually pour in the hot milk, whisking constantly. Return the mixture to the pan and cook over a gentle hear, stirring all the time

4. When the custard thickens and is smooth, pour it back into the bowl. Cool it then chill.

5. By Hand: Whip the cream until it has thickened but still falls from a spoon. Fold it into the custard and pour into a plastic tub or similar freeze-proof container. Freeze for 6 hours or until firm enough to scoop, beating it twice (during the freezing process – to get smoother ice cream or else the ice cream will be icy and coarse)

By Using and Ice Cream Maker: Stir the cream into the custard and churn the mixture until thick (follow instructions on your ice cream maker)

Wendy's Ice Cream Recipe

Vanilla Philadelphia Style Recipe

Preparation Time: 5 minutes

2 cups (473 ml) of half and half (1 cup of heavy cream and 1 cup of whole, full fat milk)

1 cup (237 ml) heavy cream

2/3 (128 grams) cup sugar

Dash of salt

1 (12 grams) tablespoon of vanilla

Mix all ingredients together (we do this in a plastic pitcher and mix with an emulsifier hand blender-whisking works too).

Refrigerate for 30 minutes or longer

Mix in your ice cream maker as directed.

The fine print: The February 2009 challenge is hosted by Wendy of WMPE's blog and Dharm of Dad ~ Baker & Chef. We have chosen a Chocolate Valentino cake by Chef Wan; a Vanilla Ice Cream recipe from Dharm and a Vanilla Ice Cream recipe from Wendy as the challenge.