Thursday, September 29, 2011

Croissants - Simplified and Addictive

Croissants are the sexiest bread you can put in your mouth. A really good croissant needs nothing else. Eat it naked (the bread...or you.) A really good croissant shoots flakes in the air when you pull it apart. The outside is golden, crispy and protects the buttery layers of the softest bread on earth.
If the croissant you bite into doesn't do all these things, please just call it a "Crescent Roll" and live with it. Hold out for the real thing before you call it (say it with your best French accent) Croissant.
(The Daring Bakers go retro this month! Thanks to one of our very talented non- blogging members, Sarah,
the Daring Bakers were challenged to make Croissants using a recipe from the Queen of French Cooking,
none other than Julia Child!)

This flaky luna delight has a sorted history and many countries lay claim to it's origin. It did not start out
laminated (the technique of alternating butter and dough to form layers, like in puff pastry.) In the beginning it was crescent shaped and the texture was more like a bread roll, or rugelach. The Italians eat a similar, although usually softer and more hollow version of the croissant called Cornetto. In Vietnam, it's called bรกnh sung bo.

French Croissants were one of my first food fascinations. I tore a 4 page recipe out of Gourmet magazine when I was in college and swore one day I would make them. A couple years later I spent about 4 days, head bent over that scrunched up paper, tediously making about a dozen giant, whispy flaked brown croissants. I was so impressed with myself I immediately took pictures of them in a basket and wrote about it in my journal. That was 25 years ago. I guess I was food blogging without knowing it.
I'm hoping I can simplify the idea of making these and encourage you (if you've never tried it) to make your own Croissant. It doesn't have to be a many-day tedious event. It's really a lot easier than you'd think.

Prep your ingredients, clear a space in the refrigerator for your dough to hang during that segment of time, and get ready to be impressed with yourself. The whole thing can be done (most of it just waiting for the dough to rise) in half a day, or you can do a little one day and a little the next day. Enjoy it. Do it while you're doing other things. Here we go.

Recipe: Croissants
(adapted from the Daring Bakers' adaptation of Julia Child)

1 1/4 tsp. active dry yeast (about 1/2 pkg.)
3 Tbls. very warm water
1 tsp. sugar + 2 tsp. sugar
1 3/4 cups Bread Flour
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup milk (warmed)
2 Tbls. Oil
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 egg, for egg wash

1) Mix the yeast, warm water and first teaspoon of sugar together in a small bowl. Leave it for a few minutes so the yeast can foam up a bit.

2) In a large bowl, pour in the warm milk, salt and the 2 tsp. sugar and stir to dissolve.

3) To the milk- add in the flour, the oil and the foamy yeast. Stir it all together well with a spatula, and turn it out onto a work surface.

4) Knead the dough just 8-10 times, place it into a large clean bowl, cover it tightly with plastic wrap and leave at room temp (about 70- 74F) for about 3 hours (so it can triple in size as it rises.)
5) After it triples in size, pull it out of the bowl and onto a lightly floured work space. Using your fingers, spread the dough out into approx. 8x12 inch rectangle. Then fold it like a letter in thirds (the bottom folded up, then the top over that).

6) Put it back into the bowl, cover well with plastic and let rise again for about 1.5 hours (or it can be put in the refrigerator for over-night.)

7) Put the butter on a piece of plastic, and using a rolling pin, pound it out to about 6x8 inches. Wrap in the plastic to help shape it. It should still be chilled, but not hard.
8) Using your hands (or rolling pin if you prefer) spread the dough out to about 8x14 inches. Unwrap the butter and put it on the top half of the dough, leaving dough showing on the top & sides (see the photo.)9) Fold the dough over the butter, like a letter (bottom part folds up over the butter, then the top part down including the butter.) This makes a letter shape that has dough, butter, dough, butter, etc.

10) Turn the dough 1/2 turn, so the folds are on the right and left sides,
and roll the dough out into about 14x8 inches again. Fold up into a letter, again. Wrap in plastic and place in refrigerator to chill for 2 hours.

11) After 2 hours, take the dough out onto a lightly floured board. With the folds on your right and left, roll the dough out into a 14x8 inch shape again. Fold and roll out, yet again. Fold, wrap in plastic and return to refrigerator for 2 more hours. All this rolling, folding and chilling is creating the soft flaky luxurious bread inside your very own homemade croissants. It's all worth it!

12) Take the dough out of the refrigerator and let it rest on the floured work space for about 10 minutes. Cut it in half and place one half in refrigerator to keep chilled while working with the other half. Roll your dough out to about 10 x 16 inch rectangle.

13) Using a Pizza cutter, cut the dough in thirds cross-wise, then in half from top to bottom. Then, cut into triangles. (NOTE: For larger croissants - roll the dough to 25 x 5 inches, cut into thirds cross wise, then cut triangles out of each third.)

14) Roll each triangle up, ending with a point.
Place on a parchment lined baking sheet and curve into a crescent shape. Cover the pan loosely with plastic wrap and allow to rise for 1 hour.
15) Preheat the oven to very hot 475F. Brush each croissant with an egg wash (one egg beaten with 1 tsp. water.) Bake for about 10- 13 minutes (more if yours are larger.) They should be caramel brown and crisp on the outside. Allow to cool on a rack for a few minutes before serving.

Wasn't it worth it? I know, I know, right? They are SO good. They are gone SO fast (if I'm around.) Seriously, once you've done this, the steps become familiar and you can carve out your time in between other things. Just try it once and you'll see. Go to Paris every chance you get (ok, but at least make your own croissants.) Bonne chance et merci~

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Soup Party - Keeping it Real (and a famous Chef gives back)

Soup-er Party!

It's easy to have a party when things are going great. When things are tough? That's when you need a party the most - a SOUP PARTY! That was the premise I pitched to FoodBuzz (an online community of Food Bloggers from around the world). Each month they pick 24 food blogs to take part in a theme and I am happy to be one of those. This month was "Pantry Staples" - Budget minded meals using what you have on hand. From the time I was twelve-years-old, my core family was my little brother, my mom and myself. I was a child of the 70's and while a lot of my friends' moms were standing up for working outside the home, my mom was already standing 14 hours a day as a single mom with multiple jobs. I viewed the Women's movement from a slightly different angle and wished my mom could actually have a day off to attend a PTA meeting. Those were lean years and a lot of "wonder what's under the gravy" kind of dinners. As an adult with 2 children, a second husband and a new baby - I faced the same kinds of financial challenges. Soup Parties became a tradition. To my husband and I, it was a way of making one end of the month meet the beginning of the next one. To the kids, it was an interactive dinner where they got to pick their own bowls, make their own choices, get up and down from the table and even concoct their own recipes by combining flavors. To celebrate a tradition that continues to this day (and in gratitude for better times), our whole family (the youngest being a teenager, now) and a friend's family with two little guys got together for a Saturday Soup Party! This party was destined to be a "hoot-n-a half", but earlier in the week I had an experience that left me with such gratitude it shone a spotlight on all the many wonderful people and things in my life. It made this party a Super Soup-er.A few days ago, I was given the opportunity to volunteer with food service at The Midnight Mission in downtown Los Angeles along side the famous Chef Nancy Silverton (one of my inspirations). It sounded interesting. I could feel good about volunteering, meet Nancy Silverton and Chris Gardner, and it would be a great addition to my Soup Party theme; what perfect timing. Then somewhere between the tour of the facility and meeting the dedicated staff, my heart got turned inside out and lodged in my throat.

I will admit to having second thoughts about driving around the area by myself. It's one of the roughest parts of downtown Los Angeles. I felt like if I got out of my car I would be hated for just being me; a middle-aged, middle class woman in an SUV. In fact, once I did park I called upon my acting skills by pulling my hair back tight, putting on my son's huge LAFD Academy T-shirt that was in my trunk and walking to the mission with a scowl on my face in an effort to show confidence and purpose. I was laughing inside at myself and shaking at the same time.

I wondered how many other people would volunteer and get involved if they could just figure out "how" to get past this first part.
The event was sponsored by AARP of California and began with a tour of the Midnight Mission. Every person we met along the way absolutely raved about their jobs. They walked around the place sharing pride and hugs with each other. They spoke of the people on the streets who they care for with respect, not pity, anger or judgment of repetitious mistakes.
No one preached a religion or a political stand, just the honor of serving any human in need. Chef Mykel Horn, a man with a perpetual smile, told me he fixes about 6000 meals a month. As long as they have donations from people, markets, stores and businesses - it keeps the cost to 15 cents a plate. He was proud to say this is not your grandma's soup kitchen. He serves an entree, vegetables, salads, desserts and sauces. Chef Mykel has worked in high end restaurants and took this job as a "between-things" gig. That was 10 years ago, and he plans on being at the mission for the next 10 years. I don't think I've ever met a head chef who loved his work so much. He graciously gave credit to his staff and the many volunteers who help out every day. He was particularly beaming about how working in his kitchen can take a problem person and turn them into a person with pride. And, Nancy Silverton, (a chef who has so much on her plate I can't imagine when she has time to even eat) was there for the tour through the serving of the meal. She told me that AARP approached her about this event and she felt it matched the things she cared about and wanted to find the time. She seemed very firm about wanting to give back to the community and that hunger for any person, of course, tugs on her feelings. She had prepared a rich and hearty Pork Stew with butternut squash, bay leaves, rice and hominy. There were also trays and trays of her Butterscotch Pudding. Mai (another impassioned staffer who gave us the tour and seemed to immediately appear next to anyone who had a question) told me how EVERYONE is welcome to volunteer. Just for your reference and my ease, there is parking in the building (I just didn't know about it) and more answers on their website. I'll be back, and I'll be bringing others.

After spending a day with folks who spend their day making miracles happen, creating a meal from my well stocked pantry and fridge felt like a game show. I opened my pantry with new eyes and felt ready to get creative.

I cook a lot - a lot, but what I used for our 4 course Soup-er Party were common ingredients that I think would be easy to keep on hand.
We started with a Chilled Apple Bowl Curry Carrot Soup.I've made this before, but this time I added carrots to the apple as it cooked just to increase the vitamins (there were 2 pregnant ladies at this party.) I also added Mint Extract to the whipping cream just to give it a bright note. I was surprised when the guys just kept eating the apple after the soup was gone. That made clean-up extra easy for this one. Along with the soup, I had a platter of Easy One Hour Bread with Kale & Walnut Pesto, or Red Pepper Jam.

Next, I served a
Dried Wild Mushroom Soup with Shrimp Wontons.
I keep Wonton wrappers in the freezer always because there are so many things to do with them, ie. ravioli, fried and cinnamon or tart shells. I also keep Frozen Tail-on Shrimp for quick Pasta or Appetizer makings.
We took a little break so the kids could get involved, and hopefully that would increase the chances of them trying new foods. I had some Eazee Cheezee Cracker dough (with added left over bacon crumbled in) all made up. I rolled it out, let them pick a shape and they "helped me" bake them. When I served the Tomato Tarragon Cream Soup, we passed around the jar of crackers for adding that little tooth-bite to the creamy soup. I think the boys were excited about their crackers, but more interested in how many they could stuff into one bowl of soup. Having fun at your meal makes for good and relaxed eating habits, so that's good by me.

Everybody joined in making the easiest Pasta ever made (just Semolina and sprinkles of water) called Fregola.
I toasted the little balls of pasta and we threw it into the Full O' Beans and Sausage Soup to fill it out a bit. We finished with just a bite of chewy chocolate with my Easiest Nutella Cookie Ever (only 2 ingredients: Nutella and 1 egg) and a Choco-dipped Frozen Strawberry on a stick. I thought a dessert soup would be over-kill, besides I was out of bowls of any kind.

We chatted, we chowed, the dog ran around, the kids ate and ran after the dog, my sons helped me clear the table, my daughter took pictures for me, my son-in-law created the spoon tags, my friends and husband showered me with support, and they all took home a Ball Jar of left-over soup.
Life can be good. That is not to be confused with being easy. Thank you, and you, and you. Pass it along.

Recipe: Tomato Tarragon Soup

2 Cans Whole Tomatoes
1 Onion (sliced length-wise into thin strips)
1/2 Stick butter (2oz.)
1 Tbls. Dried Tarragon
pinch of Oregano
pinch of Basil
1/2 cup Heavy Cream
(Optional: Vegetable Stock for thinner soup)
(Optional: End piece of cheese ala: Parmigiano Reggiano)

1) Pour Tomatoes into a large stock pot. Using an Immersion Blender, pulse the tomatoes into small chunks (or do this in a blender a little at a time.)

2) In a separate skillet on Med., slowly caramelize the onions in the 1/2 stick of butter.

3) Add the Tarragon, Oregano and Basil after the onions are caramelized and stir just until the dried herbs are heated up to release flavors.

4) Stir the onions and herbs (and cheese end) into the Tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Cook on low/med for about 40 minutes.

5) Pour in the cream, stirring and heating for about 10 more minutes. To extend the amount of soup, or to make it a thinner version, add 2 cups of Vegetable Stock.

Garnish with a drizzle of garlic oil, or add cheese crackers when serving :D

Friday, September 23, 2011

Apple Ring Tarts - Simple Saturday

What can I tell you about these crispy, rustic, sweet, caramelized Apple Ring Tarts (with a surprise brandy soaked cherry in the middle) that can be made in just a few minutes? Well, 'nuff said.

Apple Ring Tarts

There are only a few ingredients to this:Yet, the flavor is Classic American Apple Pie with buttery layers of French Puff Pastry. You can make a few of these using just a couple apples, or make enough for a banquet. There is something about biting into your own little apple tart that can make you feel cozy and connected no matter where you are eating.
Recipe: Apple Ring Tarts

1 sheet of Puff Pastry
1-2 Apples (peeled, cored, and sliced in rings about 1/2" thick)
1/2 Lemon juiced + equal amount of water
1 cup Brown Sugar
2 Tbls. Cinnamon
**Optional (but so good) Dried Cherries - soak them in a few Tbls. of Brandy (or Apple Juice)**

1) Dust your work space with a little flour and roll out the Puff Pastry a few inches in all directions.

2) Dip each apple ring in a bowl of equal parts lemon juice and water, shake off the drips and hold for the next step.

3) Pour the brown sugar and cinnamon into a large zip-lock bag. Place a few apple rings in at a time and shake gently to coat thoroughly.

4) Place an apple ring on the rolled out puff pastry and cut a circle around the slice with at LEAST 1 inch extra all the way around. (I used the top of a large container to cut mine.)

Do this one apple ring at a time so you can use the space wisely.

5) Pull the sides of the pastry dough up and around each apple ring, crimping and pleating the dough as you go. Squeeze to make sure each crimp sticks to the other one.

6) Reuse the extra pastry dough by stacking pieces of it on top of each other and roll it back out. This preserves the layering in the puff pastry dough.
7) Drop a brandy (or Apple juice) soaked dried cherry in the center hole. Place the tarts on a parchment lined baking sheet and into a preheated 375F oven for 20-25 minutes.

Turn the pan once during the baking and if the dough has puffed in the middle just give a quick press down on the center to release the steam and continue cooking. Cool for a few minutes before removing from the pan.

Garnish with Powdered Sugar or a Honey glaze.

GREAT NeWs! These freeze well! Before cooking them, place the pan in the freezer and when frozen you can place them in a bag or container. Cook straight from the freezer onto a baking pan, just add a couple minutes cooking time if needed.
The apple slice is just soft enough, but still tangy. The pastry is flaky and melt-in-your-mouth. It's sweet without making your teeth ache. Then, there's that little brandy soaked cherry surprise to finish it off. What you don't know is that I have a few warm ones just waiting for me to stop talking, so~~