A journey...

...to discover...

...the heart...

...and soul...

...of a baker.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

My Oh My Oh Mallowmars! (Part II)

I thought it would be the marshmallow that would make this little bit of insanity difficult to pull off. I was wrong. It was the cookie. And the chocolate. And the assembly. And the storage. 

The more I thought about how to make this cookie, the more I had to ask Michele what she thought about each of it's components. It didn't take me too long to figure out that what I was doing was custom designing a cookie for her that was based on a cookie she loved. I wasn't recreating Mallowmars so much as creating "Michele-o-mars"...from the ground up. Wow. I guess I take requests now. (From some people. Put your hand down back there!)

One thing at a time, I told myself. The cookie first. Since graham crackers were out, I asked Michele what she thought would make a good base for her cookie. She first said a classic biscuit but then we talked about how the cookie needed to be light but sturdy enough to stand up to both the marshmallow and the chocolate. I searched my mind for alternatives. What about vanilla wafers?

Wafers in Rows.

Some detail.
I've been wanting to try my hand at vanilla wafers for a while now, for a completely different project (which will happen pretty soon), so now was as good a time as any. I went with this recipe, which turned out well. It was tasty but a little too dense for this, and my completely different project

A Brief Word About What I Want (With Regards To Vanilla Wafers):

I'll probably make an alteration or two for the completely different project (notice the foreshadowing). They need to be a little lighter but brown up more. I have a specific plan for my vanilla wafers and they'll need to be as perfect as I can make them.

A Brief Word About What I Want (With Regards To Vanilla Wafers):

I sent Michele to work with the results of the wafers. One of her co-workers, a level or two up from her, I believe, couldn't stop raving about them and how they were the absolute perfect cookie. I accepted the praise and told Michele that if she ever needed to...um...distract this person for any reason, we now know how to do it. But for Mallowmars? No cigar.

What about short bread? I've made shortbread before and I do like it. But I've never made shortbread cookies. I found a recipe that was simple – three ingredients – and had a lot of promise.

Shortbread rounds!

These baked up well, kept a good shape and were pretty much the right thickness. Michele, however, pronounced them too sweet and I had to agree. Alone they were great but if I combined them with marshmallow and chocolate, they'd send her right over the edge of her sweetness tolerance. 

Again I sent her to work with a box of rejects. She shared them at a meeting and they were well-received. When the meeting was over, she noticed that the box, which still had a great many cookies in it, was gone. It turns out that her new direct supervisor had secreted it away from everyone for himself. He told her that they were amazing, and he knows from amazing because his mother, who was a fantastic cook, taught him how to bake, and he's also frequented many incredible bakeries with great cookies in his time. These ranked right up there. Highest praise!

But still not right. Even when I halved the amount of sugar they were too sweet. What if I did a mixture of butter and shortening (as I use to do with my pie crusts) and halved the sugar? 

Three ingredients...plus one.

These tasted fine but they were too fragile to stand up to the rigors of this cookie. (This batch, though, I kept to myself. Mmmmmm!) And when I tried it with all shortening, the results were dismal:

These just refused to brown in any way and weren't even worth giving to Michele to try. Drawing board...as in back to the. 

Digestive biscuits?

It was the baking soda that was supposed
to aid in digestion...hence the name.

Not bad but digestives are sort of graham cracker-like. So these just wouldn't do. 

Wow. Three different cookies, six different batches, and not a winner is sight. I needed to solve this problem but I'd have to wait. It was time to work on the chocolate. 

Part II ends.

Currently listening to: Said The Sky - Book Of Us (Feat. Mothica)

Thursday, August 20, 2015

My Oh My Oh Mallowmars!

Mallomars are Michele's favorite cookie. Personally, I don't care much for them but she adores them. Why? Marshmallow. They have marshmallow in them. My wife is just absolutely loves marshmallow. Rocky Road is her favorite ice cream because of the marshmallow in it. She loves Peeps because they're made of marshmallow. She loves marshmallow because of the...well you get the idea. 

Bottom line is, a couple of years ago, I surprised Michele with my own version of Mallowmars. 

A Quick Word About Surprises For Michele:

There are times when Michele's job requires her to be out of town. When that happens there is apparently a switch that gets flipped inside my culinary brain. This switch seems to control the impulses that lead me to obsess about creating something delicious for her to enjoy upon her return. Ice cream, marshmallows, cookies, red velvet cupcakes...all have been the result of being unable to resist this obsession. So long as she keeps getting a kick out of it, I'll keep giving in to it.

A Quick Word About Surprises For Michele Ends

It was a qualified success. I had a few firsts with that project. First time making marshmallow. First time making graham crackers. First time tempering chocolate for covering a cookie. I made more than a few mistakes, too. I think I chose the wrong technique for the chocolate (and maybe the wrong chocolate). Assembly was a bear. And though I enjoyed making my own graham crackers, I reminded myself that I didn't really like graham crackers. 

Turns out, neither does Michele. There I'd gone through all this trouble to make her a version of her favorite cookie only to find out that part of her favorite cookie isn't her favorite cookie! Not quite an allegory of O. Henry proportions but eye-opening nonetheless.

There were a few problems with this version besides the dislike of the graham cracker. 

Stacks of grahams. Delicious but not the right taste.

The marshmallow was good but the recipe was a little convoluted in my opinion (which is subject to change, by the way)

Fluff in the pan.

I didn't get the chocolate right because it was too gooey instead of being hard and shell-like. The marshmallow was quite the wrong shape, which added to the problem with the chocolate. I used a cookie cutter to cut out the marshmallows and the cylindrical shape, smaller than the diameter of the cookie, meant the chocolate covered more of the cookie and thereby softened it. 

Problem solving.

Assemble the mallows!
I think being under the gun, trying to get this done as a surprise for Michele, and having never, ever made marshmallow before were factors in my considering this a qualified success. 

Three on a plate.

Not bad for the first try but I could do better. Don't get me wrong. She loved that I'd made them for her as a surprise and she enjoyed the cookies. I just know I can do better. 

Two years later and I'm finally ready to give it a go. Part 2 forthcoming.

Currently listening to: Dexter Wansel - Voyager

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Make Mine (Own) Marshamallow!

I've always loved marshmallows, especially the giant ones. The only brand I indulged in (especially after I left home for college), though was Kraft. Those other brands just didn't seem to have the right flavor or texture. That said, the only other brand I took a liking to was Stay-puft. I mean, who's going to argue with their spokesmallowman? 

"It's the Stay-puft Marshmallow Man."
When I was in college I discovered that there wasn't anyone who was going to tell me I couldn't buy myself a bag of giant marshmallows for my birthday, so for four years I did just that. Oh, I bought myself marshmallows at other times, but I made it a tradition to always get a bag specifically to celebrate my birthday. Share? Are you kidding? Those babies were mine, all mine!

Though I enjoy having marshmallows in my hot cocoa or just raw  out of the bag,  I don't care for s'mores. Milk chocolate? Ugh! 

A Word About S'Mores ("No Thank You"):

I didn't do any camping when I was growing up. In fact, my first time sitting around an actual camp fire didn't happen until I was in college. There I was, surrounded by peers from around the country, facing a blazing hot pile of flaming wood when the topic of s'mores came up. I had no idea what the heck they were talking about, I'd never heard of s'mores. Then they started making them. I watched in awe as these people proceeded to do what they all must have done around dozens of campfires as kids, resulting in a gooey mess of a "sandwich" that made me think they were all crazy. I understood the concept of toasted marshmallows but combining them with chocolate and graham crackers? Yeah, no. 

A Word About S'mores ("No, Thank You") Ends

As I said, I like marshmallows. Michele? She loves marshmallows. She'll eat cereal with marshmallows in it for a snack. She loves Peeps. She adores Rocky Road ice cream. Her favorite cookies are Mallowmars. A couple of years ago, I used the marshmallow recipe I found in the Bi-Rite Ice Cream recipe book to make her my own version of Mallowmars, but that's a different blog post. Let's just say, it was a qualified near-success.

A couple of weeks ago she was going to be out of the apartment all day at a work thingy. I knew I would have time to take care of some errands and to also prepare her a surprise batch of marshmallows. Actually, the idea came to me after watching one of Alton Brown's "Good Eats" episodes. It was about marshmallows and his recipe seemed like it would work perfectly for me. At the very least it wasn't as convoluted a recipe as the Bi-Rite's and that couldn't hurt.

When time came for Michele to leave for the work thingy, I very calmly kissed her good-bye and then set out to run my errands and get back in time to make the marshmallows so that they'd be ready by the time she got back. I don't think she noticed me practically shoving my proxy peach pie into her hands and pushing her out the door. I don't think.

I'm just getting into working in the confectionery world, and though there were areas of my process that could definitely stand some improvement and refinement (perhaps I need a different style of candy thermometer), what I ended up with was most definitely better than any marshmallows I've ever had before!

Chock full o' mallows!

Even better up close.

I think I might have to start a new birthday tradition.

When Michele (finally) got home, I had a bowl of marshmallows sitting ready for her. When she finally saw them – walked right by them, she did – the smile on her face let me know that I'd done a very, very good thing. And the look of ecstasy that replaced the smile when she popped one in her mouth let me know that the good thing was delicious. I took the bulk of the remainder to the standing Saturday night dinner engagement we have with friends and shared them with the table. I was left with very few to take back home with me. A good day, I think!

One question remained, though: Would they stand up to toasting? There was only one way to find out. Tonight we broke out the kitchen torch, found some bamboo skewers and Michele put the heat to the mallow.




I think it held up rather well. And Michele pronounced it "delicious" so that settled the matter.

Someone mentioned that we should descend on the home of some friends in Connecticut and commandeer there fire pit and toast up a batch of these. I might just be up for that....

Currently listening to: Tina Moore - Never Gonna Let You Go


Thursday, August 13, 2015

A Brulee By Any Other Name...

...is caramelized sugar. I sort of learned this fact about twenty-four years ago when I made my first Raspberry Bakewell Tart (with Burnt Cream). Actually, it was a creme brulee with with fresh raspberries on top. I found the recipe in one of my issues of Bon Appetit and it was a hit with my dinner guests. This was well before I actually had my first true creme brulee, mind you. I hadn't even heard of that dessert at the time. Yet I made one just the same. Go figure.

What does this have to do with the price of tea in China, you may ask. Well, not much, except that I recently got back into the creme brulee game, and by "creme" I mean "ice cream". The story goes like this:

Remember a while ago when I made all that ice cream to send my father? Remember the Golden Double Vanilla? Remember when I told a  friend mine about it and he issued a challenge? Of course you don't because I didn't tell you about it then! Don't pout; I'm telling you about it now. Being an excellent cook himself, he said something like "Now I challenge you to put some of that in a heat resistant bowl, freeze it hard then put some turbinado sugar on top of it and caramelize the sugar." Essentially he wanted me to make an ice cream brulee. Hot sugar on still frozen ice cream? How could I resist?

It just so happens that I actually have a kitchen torch. It was a birthday gift from someone (a professional chef) and I'd never used it. The box just gathered dust for nearly twenty years until this challenge. I bought some butane for it, filled it and prepared to light it for the first time.

No, it didn't explode but it was rather unnerving to have that kind of controlled flame so close to my hand. An arc welder I'll never be. I was a little incredulous how this little experiment would turn out, especially since I had zero experience with the torch. Still, I was committed so I set things up...

With sugar on top.

...put the fire to the ice and watched what happened.

Poufe! Caramelizing sugar.
Working. Sort of.

And I ended up with:

Sort of.
As another friend of mine told me when I showed him a picture, I need a bigger torch so I can broaden the flame to get a more even melt. The tiny torch I have is prone to hot spots. Not that I gave one wit about all that when I was broke through the hardening hot crust to dig into still frozen ice cream. I cared even less after the first spoonful hit my tongue. Delicious! I call this challenge mostly met.

But, yeah, I'll get a bigger torch. Later.

Currently listening to: Azedia - Calm Down

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Lattice Eat!

I believe I've stated upon an occasion or two how much I like peaches. My favorite jam/preserves/jelly to put on toast (or scones)? Peach. My favorite summer fruit to chomp into? Peaches. My favorite cobbler to gobble? Peach! I don't think I've stated yet  how disappointed I've been in the peaches here in NY this summer, though. Most of the ones I've had have been mealy, tasteless and difficult to work with. Not like last summer at all. I will now amend that statement: I've been disappointed up til now.

Michele had a work picnic thingy out in Jersey last weekend and I wasn't going with her, so I needed to send a proxy. I really wanted to bake a pie but the scarcity of good summer fruit put that idea out of mind. 

A Brief Interlude:

I have to insert a caveat here. I haven't gotten good summer fruit. Several of my friends, who live in different parts of Manhattan than we do, have told me that they've found good peaches and cherries. That very well may be so but since it appears that I'm not part of the 2015 Good Summer Fruit Cabal, I've been stuck with less than stellar stone fruit. C'est la vie.

A Brief Interlude Ends

I was about to gather ingredients for a big batch of cookies when I noticed the peaches at the farmers market that sets up outside my office every Thursday. These were the first peaches that I'd come across that actually smelled like peaches. They were kind of mostly bruised but that really doesn't matter when you're talking pie, so I took a chance and bought a couple of pounds.

When I prepped them, I found that it was relatively easy to separate the flesh from the pits. This is always a good thing as far as I'm concerned. I hate when I get the "cling" style peaches and have to wrestle to get the pit out. So much wasted fruit when that happens. I know there's a technique to it but I haven't sussed it out yet. I will in time, though.

After I got the peaches cut up, something made me change up my process. As normal, I added my sugar and spice (and some lemon was nice) but instead of giving them the slow cook to help bring out and concentrate some of the flavor, I just kept them sitting in the bowl to let the sugar and lemon do some of that work. What I did do was put some well-washed peach skins (which still had peach flesh clinging to it from the peeling) to about a cup of water and boiled until the liquid was reduced by two-thirds. I added a little sugar and the liquid from the sitting peaches to that and continued cooking to reduce. Eventually I got a lovely, thick syrup that I added back to the peaches for the filling. 

Since I was sending this pie as my proxy, I wanted it to look its best, so I made sure I had enough dough for a lattice crust. I've made lattice crusts before to varying degrees of success. Each one has taught me a little more about their construction. Don't roll the dough out too thin or too thick. Watch the width when cutting out the dough strips. Make sure to keep track of the over and under. And by all means, figure out some way of hiding the ends of the weave!

Et voila!

First good peach pie of the season!
The best lattice I've ever done...despite having to fight our finicky oven. Again. Let's take a closer look, shall we?

What took you so long?
 Of course I could make things more even, actually measure the dough strips instead of eye-balling them, be more careful with the spacing, etc., etc., etc., but I don't care about measured perfection in this. I have way too much fun doing all this on the fly to worry about making it perfect. For me it just needs to be at least as good as the last time I did it. I call this one an unqualified success!

I sent Michele off in the morning to meet with her traveling companions and asked if she'd send me a picture of the pie once it was cut. I was reasonably sure it would taste good but I was a little concerned about the consistency of the filling. I really do hate when filling comes tumbling out of a crust when start slicing up a pie. I also hate when a filling is so congealed that it's like eating a chunk of Styrofoam. I thought I'd gotten it just right but since I wasn't going along with the pie, I could only wait for her text. (Well, I another project to take care of while I waited but that's another story.) Hours later I got these:

Traveled well!

And the hole:

Take a slice out of pie!
And the slice.

Holding it together.
This made me very happy to see because some lattice crusts fall apart when you cut into them and the slices just don't look right when you serve them. This one seems to have held together exceptionally well. And when I asked Michele about the taste, she sent the following texts:

"It was perfect."
"Really. Best flavor of any peach pie yet." (Which is saying a lot because last year's peaches were so superior in taste to this year's.)

"And everyone loved it."

After she got home she told me that the husband of one of her co-workers used to be a professional chef and he was extremely impressed with the lattice because he knew how difficult they are to do. He thought mine was very well done, indeed! 

And "very well done, indeed" is enough for me.

Currently listening to: Herbie Hancock - Gentle Thoughts