A journey...

...to discover...

...the heart...

...and soul...

...of a baker.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Chicken Pot, Chicken Pot, Chicken Pot Pie!

I love chicken pot pie, as I've said before (here). Maybe not as much as Slow Donnie (from "Just Shoot Me") but they rate pretty high on my list of favorite comfort foods. I love having a full meal that comes in a single container. One dish that you eat everything out of and then recycle. How perfect is that?

When we were kids back in the 60s an 70s, my mother would serve chicken pot pies from time to time. They were usually a store brand and I always picked out the peas. By the time I was done, that little aluminum pie plate was surrounded by pathetic, discarded green spheres. Even as an adult, whenever I have a chicken pot pie, I pick out the peas. I don't think there's a brand on the market that doesn't have peas. Trust me; they're all chock-full of peas.

An Aside On My Relationship With Peas: I really don't like peas. That's not quite accurate. What I really don't like are garden peas. There's something about their consistency and taste that bugs me. Grainy, mushy, with husks that just don't seem to ever go down easy. Snow peas? Love them! Chickpeas? Yeah, I can do those. Garden peas? Bleah! No way. And don't come near me with split pea soup because I'll split the scene in a New York Minute. 

An Aside On My Relationship With Peas Ends.

A few years ago, I went on a sampling spree of the available brands of pot pies to find one that I liked – and wasn't a health risk. Swanson's was disgusting, and these days only has a top crust. Hungry Man just couldn't be trusted. Marie Callender's was too weird because they add broccoli to the filling, and as much as I love broccoli it just changes the flavor and consistency too much for my tastes. I settled on Stouffer's because they were a decent size, both the chicken and turkey varieties were pretty tasty, and the crust wasn't half-bad.

The crust. Always comes back to crust. I'll admit it: I'm a pastry crust lover. When I eat a pot pie, I work through the filling as quickly as I can (without scorching my tongue) so I can savor the crust. I try to keep it as intact as possible and then eat it from the bottom up. I know. I know. That's a little odd. Look, I never claimed to be completely sane.

At any rate, most store-bought pot pies have lousy crusts, probably because they're frozen, so the crusts have all been through ice hell and back by the time you're ready to eat them. And pot pies on the menus in restaurants, upscale NYC groceries with hot food counters, etc., are a travesty. None of them have bottom crusts and are generally made in a large baking pan. The top crust is usually a poorly made pastry, or something like biscuits layered on top of the filling. The worst is when they try to palm-off mashed potatoes as the top crust. Excuse me? Biscuit crust? Mashed potatoes? Top crust only? I'm sorry; that's not a pot pie, that's a "pot cobbler". And that just sounds nasty.

Obviously, there was only one thing for me to do: make my own pot pies. I went through a couple of recipes, some using cream-of-something soups and others that were more stew-like. None of my versions had peas in them. So there. Eventually, I happened up on this recipe from Allrecipes.com. It proved to be hearty, easy to make, and flexible enough to accommodate  whatever I wanted to take the place of the ever-present peas.

For the all-important crust, though, I modified my regular pie crust recipe by removing the sugar and replacing it with whatever herbs and salts suit my fancy at the time. I've mixed in thyme, curry, and tarragon to great success. Black salt, pink salt, kosher salt...all of these have added subtle tastes to the crusts. At some point, I might using one of my hot salts but that will be a pot pie that I'll keep to myself.

I've mostly used twelve-ounce porcelain ramekins for my pot pies. The difficult part is making the bottom crust, because the cylindrical shape is a bit steep to just lay the crust in it like I would with a regular pie. I'll do a blog to illustrate my procedure for that at another time. I didn't have the time to take pictures this time around because I was making them for dinner and time was running short. Suffice it to say, it's brilliant.

Here are the results of my labors:

Twelve ounces (x2) of chicken goodness!

These were the best chicken pot pies I've ever made. And mine was the best chicken pot pie I've ever eaten. the crust was perfection and I ate ever single last bit. Michele pronounced hers as "pretty good" (which is high compliment from someone who prefers turkey to chicken).

Can't ask for more than that.

Currently listening to: Amanda Ghost - Silver Lining

Friday, January 16, 2015

Mini-Mousse! (Mini-mice? Mini-meese?)

One of the things that I've realized about myself as a baker is that sometimes I get a little...obsessed with making certain dishes. I feel the need to make them several more times after I've served them up to a group of friends. I see something in my technique that I should improve, or find a different ingredient to use that will make the recipe better, or I'm just having way too much fun making it. (I'll tell you about my adventures in challah baking soon.) Such was my experience with the triple-chocolate mousse cake.

I've always adored this cake, as I think I mentioned when I posted about adding it to Michele's Birthday Mini-Big Dinner. It's a challenging and delicious showstopper and it's become something I want to get better at making. Because you never know who your wife will invite over for tea!

The secondary part of this project was to satisfy the desire to use some of my smaller springform pans. I have two six-inch pans and three four-inch pans and they don't get much use. From the two previous times I've made the mousse recipe, I had a feeling I could translate it from to any combination of the smaller springforms.

Sidebar on Pan Size Translations: To quote Rocket J. Squirrel: "Again! That trick never works!" For the most part, that's the truth; I've botched more cake projects trying to make smaller versions using the regular recipes. Either I've used the wrong pans, gotten the cooking times wrong, screwed up the baking temperature, or any made any number of other disastrous mistakes. My inspiration, though, is Bullwinkle J. Moose: "This time for sure!" And I keep trying.

Sidebar on Pan Size Translations ends.

The reason for my experimenting with the mousse was the fact that Michele and I were having two friends over for tea, coffee and dessert and I'd promised to supply scones and some kind of dessert, so I was rifling through my Swiss cheese of a memory for something appropriate when Michele reminded me that one of our guests was gluten free. I've gone around about this with myself in the past – about how I didn't know how to bake gluten free and so forth. But you know what? I can do this. I've done it before to great success. Shut up and start baking, kid! (I made sure to use my inside voice, though. No reason to spook my wife with my true decision-making process.) Once I'd calmed down, I knew the mousse would be the perfect thing to make.

The thing I was most interested in, though, was doing a better job on the bottom layer. The last time I made the mousse, the bottom layer pulled away from the edge of the springform, leaving a gap that the second layer filled. This meant that the the three-layer effect couldn't be seen until we cut the cake. I wasn't sure exactly why this happened, so I decided to change one ingredient: the chocolate. I used Ghiradelli Extra Bittersweet Chocolate Chips, with 72% cacao content. I've noticed when using this for frosting and such, that it tends to be rather oily, so perhaps that was the difference, since the recipe actually only called for bittersweet (which is a 60% cacao content).

Tasty but oily.

I bought a bunch of the bittersweet bars, since I didn't have time to search for chips. I prefer chips because they save a lot of work in the chocolate chopping department. If anyone knows of a technique for this chore, one that doesn't involve buying, or using, an electric gadget, please let me know. It seems as though I'm going to be doing more with chocolate in the future and I don't want to be bogged down with a lot of chopping. (Consider that last sentence an example of "foreshadowing". Just warning you.)

Now. Where was I? Right. The bottom layer of the mousse cake. For the most part, splitting the recipe between the six-inch and the four-inch pans wasn't much of a problem, but it was a little difficult to gauge the appropriate amounts. Next time I'll use both of my six-inch springforms or  get three more four-inch springforms. Lesson learned.

I did my best not to alter the baking time and temperature from the original recipe and, unfortunately, the result was the same as the last time I baked the full-sized cake: the layer pulled away from the edges of the pans as it cooled. On the four-inch layers, I cheated a little and pressed them down a bit before they cooled completely, which seemed to help a little. It's obvious that I'm going to have to work on this.

The other two layers went without incident and I'm finally starting to get a good feel for working with the gelatin required in the third layer. I grated some dark chocolate over the tops to add a bit of visual appeal. Et voila! Triple chocolat Gâteau mousse!

Three layers in four inches times three equals deliciousness! (My baking math.)

Stacked up pretty nicely, I think.

We ended up serving the six-inch version. Two of the other three went to some friends (one of whom said he was going to have it for breakfast) and the last one found its way to the desk of one of my co-workers, who pronounced it "triple-snap in 'Z' formation" good.  So, I guess I did a pretty good job with these.

Comparative sizing.

Happy as I am with how these turned out, I know they can be better. So I'll be sharing another attempt soon. This time for sure! I'll also find a linkable recipe and post it.

Currently listening to: Delilah - Shades Of Grey (SpectraSoul Remix)

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Of Shapes and Sugar and Suggestions for Sisters

As promised, here's another installment of "Carlton's Crazy Obsession With Candy Molds Used For Sugar". I can tell I'm going to have to work on that title; it doesn't roll off the tongue so easily.

What does roll off the tongue easily is a big thank you to my little sister, Miss Kee, for suggesting something that should have been obvious to me from the beginning of my little metal mold adventure. I was talking with her one day about my process for creating my not so cuboid sugar cubes, telling her that my meat tenderizing mallet made a lot of noise when used it to force the sugar out of the molds. Metal-on-metal. It sounded like I was back  in high school Auto Body Shop class.

Begin Flashback Recollection: "Just bang out that dent, slap some bondo on it, paint it up, and it'll be good as new!" Granted, I never took auto shop; I was the student assistant for the auto shop teacher. I still heard plenty of dent pounding though. I even learned what bondo was! Ah...the 70s!

End Flashback Recollection

Not that I didn't enjoy making a connection to my high school days, mind you, but I was running the risk of putting dents in my antique metal molds with every mallet whack. Not two seconds after I made that observation to my little sister, she asked: "Why don't you use a rubber mallet? You have one of those, don't you?" Time for some double-embarrassment. First, I was embarrassed because I didn't think of this rather obvious solution. Second, I was embarrassed because I didn't own a rubber mallet. How could I have failed to equip our home with such a basic and important tool? Egads!

Once I was over my mortification, I procured a rubber mallet from a nearby hardware store and put it through it's paces on a new batch of sugar. My genius little sister was right: dull thunks instead of reverberating pinging was much better! And the molds didn't seem to suffer in the least!

Something else I've learned is that I need to avoid packing the sugar into most of these molds too tightly, otherwise even the rubber mallet won't budge them and I'll lose a substantial amount of sugar.

Below are a few samples of recent acquisitions.

I'm sure these two were once one at some point.

Sweet "Bs" anyone?

Sugar wafers...

...with sunburst and another "B"!

Larger medallions.

I think this is "AHP". I love the script design.

See? "AHP"!

One of my favorites...

...because: "B"!

I've yet to be able to ascertain the provenance of most of my molds. The sellers don't usually know, either. So if anyone reading has information on any of the molds I've posted so far, please feel free to contact me and educate me. I'll post what I learn.

Currently listening to: Robinella And The CC String Band - Man Over