Saturday, February 26, 2011

I ♥ cake - Sinful chocolate/caramel dipping sauce

Today I had the pleasure to be invited over to my friends' house for dinner; as usual, the event involved a mountain of delicious food and overeating was inevitable... they had obviously been spending the better part of the day in the kitchen and whipped up an absolutely delightful menu. Their dinner parties are definitely something to look forward to! A few days ago, when I asked my friend if I could bring anything, she tentatively suggested I could, maybe, "if I could be ar*ed", make some madeleines... I jumped on the occasion and, the night before (to age them a bit), baked a full batch of madeleines to bring over. I was definitely in a dessert mood and thought a dipping sauce would be nice to help the madeleines glide down, so I used the dinner guests as my guinea pigs for the recipe below, which I adapted from a time-honoured vanilla pastry cream recipe. The sauce turned out with the exact creamy velvety consistency I was expecting and there was quite a lot of finger-licking going on around the table at dessert time, which I interpreted as a sign of enjoyment ;-)

The sinful dipping sauce, a whole bowl of it...

Sinful chocolate/caramel sauce (for dipping madeleines & more) – Serves 8 generously

13 carambars (or 110gr home-made butter caramel fudge)
125gr Valrhona 68% chocolate
4 egg yolks
50gr corn starch
50cl milk
1.5 tbsp black treacle
1.5 tbsp dark aged rum
60gr brown sugar, lightly packed

·       In a mixing bowl, beat the sugar and the egg yolks together with a whisk until the sugar has completely dissolved (no grains should be left) and the mixture is creamy.
·       Add the black treacle, stir until homogenous;
·       Add the corn starch, stirring until the mixture is smooth.
·       Stir in 25cl milk and reserve.
·       In a saucepan on low heat, melt the carambars (or fudge) in 25cl milk, stirring constantly and making sure the mixture does not boil or overheat;
·       Once the caramel is melted, remove the saucepan from the heat and pour very slowly over the eggs/milk/sugar mixture, beating constantly with a whisk.
·       Return the mixture to the saucepan on medium heat, add the chocolate.
·       Stir constantly with a wooden spoon until the chocolate melts and the mixture thickens. The thickening will happen quite quickly close to the boiling point; when you start feeling that the mixture has started thickening, make sure to stir vigorously, otherwise the mixture may form lumps or stick to the bottom of the pan. Let boil gently for a few seconds and remove from the heat.
·       Stir in the rum.
·       Cover the surface with cling film directly on the surface, to avoid the formation of a skin, and reserve until use – best used warm for dipping madeleines or other biscuits, leftovers will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 24 hours (longer, and the sauce will start losing its flavour).

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Oh ouiiii, Chef!!

Last time I met with my friend L. for lunch, she treated me to an excellent meal at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon; today was my turn to treat her, and as I know she loves the place, I suggested we meet up at Caprice (6/F, 4 Seasons Hotel, Central, Hong Kong). Having booked a table for 12noon (which is the opening time), I arrived 10mn early only to find the restaurant door closed and the reception desk empty. I had to wait for a good 3 to 4 minutes before the receptionist popped her head out of the small office behind the desk and started to pay attention to me. After taking my name, she proceeded to inform me very casually that, sorry ma'am, we are not open yet, and if I could be kind enough to retrace my steps and walk over to the Spa to have a look around and come back at noon on the dot thank you very much. I was gobsmacked. I just turned around without a word an walked away. 10 minutes later and a few hundred Honkies lighter (yes I did walk over to the Spa...), I returned to find the door still half closed but this time, I was allowed in. My guest was already there, and when she proceeded to tell me about coming early and being turned away, my blood just boiled. Frankly people, I hate to sound like a spoilt brat, but this is not the standard of service I expect from the 4 Seasons, let alone form a *** restaurant. I know this girl is just doing her job, but her management should give a bit more thought and consideration to situations like this. I thought that's why they have a bar, to park guests waiting for their table ?? I am not one to kick up a fuss over bad service, but do this to me one more time and I'll take my hard-earned Honkies elsewhere. Thank goodness there was Chef Vincent's food to look forward to!

Garlic bread stick, beurre Bordier salé

AB: scallops ceviche, pomelo, sake jelly, seaweed coulis, melba toast

The AB at Caprice seem to become more elaborate every time I come... This one strangely resembled the Japanese scallops ceviche, citrus oyster leaves and seaweed coulis offered as a starter on the set lunch menu. As for ceviche, the two rather thick slices of raw scallop were more like a marinated sashimi than a proper ceviche, with a touch of pepper, some pomelo and thinly shredded kaffir lime leaf on top. Not sure what the marinade was, but clearly not lemon juice or anything acidic, as the scallop meat wasn't "cooked". The cubes of sake jelly were amazingly tasty, as were the micro-greens on the side. This was an excellent AB, but I did not enjoy the seaweed coulis - nothing wrong with it, the texture was great but it was way too briny for my taste. The accompanying melba toast wasn't really necessary but made a fine vessel to carry some Bordier butter to my greedy mouth...

I came in thinking about the awesome beef consommé I had last time (a meal which never got blogged as it was a professional meeting so no shooting, I had to pretend to be serious and credible for at least 90 minutes...), and then noticed the lunch menu had changed again, and there was now a chicken consommé on offer - easy choice. I am a huge soup fan, especially in winter time, and I find light soups like a clear broth or consommé are a perfect way to start a meal - tasty and light, they gently awaken the tastebuds without being heavy on the stomach.

Golden chicken consommé, winter artichoke and marinated breast bruschetta
The consommé was absolutely delicious, thick with collagen and full of chickeny tasty goodness. The thin breast slices on the bruschetta were moist and tender, and sandwiched around a layer of thinly chopped celery and greens. Very nice.


The bowl of consommé came with a few small white-ish lumps resting at the bottom. The gentleman waiting our table introduced these as Japanese corn, which I knew was wrong... not only because I randomly happen to know Japanese white corn is no longer in season, but also because the veggie in question happens to be my absolute favourite and I would spot one a kilometer away. These little worm-like lumps were crosnes, and I can't thank the Chef enough for using them on his menu. They are a terribly old fashioned veggie, rather hard to find even in France, and require a special, quite lengthy and meticulous preparation (they cannot be peeled and grow in sandy soil, so they have to be patiently rubbed off  of all their grime with coarse sea salt in a kitchen towel...). Why they are called winter artichokes in English I have no idea - I suspect they might be of the same family as Jerusalem artichokes (topinambours for us Froggies). I had not had one in many, many years and the three little ones I got in my soup made my day!

Skate wing Meunière, Aldudes ham, Pleurotes mushrooms and eggplant caviar in piquillo sauce

When I saw there was skate on the menu, I barely looked at the other main course options... I have always loved this fish, and given that Meunière is not a traditional preparation for it, I was curious to see how Chef Vincent would pull this together. The Meunière butter was brilliant, of a deep golden colour with a pronounced nutty flavour, the skate was grilled crispy on the outside while still reasonably moist on the inside, and the mushrooms and eggplant caviars on the side were delish (the eggplant one tasted a bit smokey, which I found very nice). The thinly diced piquillo pepper on top of the fish had a very deep, almost musky flavour and was absolutely delicious. The thin slice of Aldudes ham provided salty and meaty flavours, welcome to balance the whole dish, which had otherwise rather sweet notes. I am considering returning and skipping starters to just order a double portion of this as a main - delicious.

Petit-fours: baby madeleines, marshmallows with quince compote, salted butter caramels, chocolate and raspberry compote cups with *GOLD FOIL*bling*bling*

I had to have one of each... unfortunately I forgot to pick up my caramel for the road when leaving...  :*(

Chestnut éclair, raspberry and blackcurrant marmelade, cassis beetroot sorbet

Side cut - were is the chestnut??

Why I had to have dessert, I don't know... I guess generally I like to give people a second chance. Since the PC changed last year, I have consistently been unimpressed by the offerings on the dessert menu. Today, the word chestnut caught my eye, and I decided to give that éclair a try... the execution was fine, but the prominently advertised chestnut was noticeably absent, apart from a stingy layer of mousse on top of the éclair, which tasted more of cream than chestnut, and a few thin slivers of "marron glacé" on the plate. Not sure where the "marmelade" was (on the plate was jelly, in the éclair were fresh raspberries), or why one would think that blackcurrant and beetroot are an interesting flavour pairing (!?). The éclair pastry was strange - it was clearly not choux pastry, but it wasn't clear either what it was trying to be... The resulting combination was ok but rather uninteresting. The red crispy thing between the cream and the éclair was particularly annoying, as it was impossible to cut through it without destrying the whole dessert and making a mess in your plate; taste-wise, it made no contribution whatsoever. I am a Frog of simple taste - I like a dessert that does what it says on the tin... and if it says chestnut, I am expecting something about as chestnutty as a Mont-Blanc. My guest ordered a black forest, which turned up looking nothing like one. I don't know what it is with this PC but she just doesn't make me tick. I will surely stick to cheese going forward.

Overall, it was yet another excellent meal at Caprice, kudos to Chef Vincent and his team for the exquisite food and ever so attentive service. See you soon, guys!

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Botany of Desire (Michael Pollan)

Opening any book by Michael Pollan is always a moment of eager anticipation and almost febrile excitement - and The Botany of Desire is no exception. Beautifully written in Pollan’s characteristic sparkling prose, the book is also rigorously documented and reads compulsively. Human beings in general, and farmers and gardeners in particular, are accustomed to the idea that they can bend the natural realm to their needs and desires, weeding out less desirable species to make room for coveted ones. In his “Plant’s eye view of the world”, Pollan operates a complete reversal of this point of view and invites us to consider the world, not from man’s controlling standpoint, but from the “shoes” of a plant, using whatever desirable traits it has to lure us into selecting it and favouring it over other species. Post-Darwinian theories of evolution would very likely not be entirely in agreement with Pollan’s story (they would probably argue that it is the gene using us for its own propagation, and that the plant itself ends up being favoured only as a collateral “advantage” to carrying the gene), but the scientific accuracy here is not the point - the book remains eminently thought provoking, as it touches upon subjects such as GMOs, their unquantifiable externalities, and the necessity to preserve biodiversity. An excellent read for anyone interested in biology and natural history, and for anyone else with an interest in the challenges of modern agriculture.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

I ♥ cake - Caramel cupcakes with butterscotch frosting

Those of you who grew up in France will have recognised the unmistakeable wrapper at first glance... Carambar are a bit of a playground institution in France, they have been around forever (since 1954, specifically) and even if the packaging has been slightly refreshed over time, the glowing yellow and red stripes are still there... Over the years, they have been declined in a variety of heretic flavours (like various fruits or even cola) but in our hearts only the original caramel flavour has a place. Sold by the piece in candy stores all around Froggieland (and in king-size packs in supermarkets), they still make the delights of little ones and full grown-ups alike - even though they are now made by the American food giant Kraft, they are a part of popular traditions of this country which I hope will last long. Since the late 60s, the inner side of the wrapping paper contains jokes that are so appallingly bad that in colloquial French, a "Carambar joke" has become a synonym for any cheesy, not-so-funny pun out there. There even is an entry on about this object of (not so infantile) passions, where one can learn that if inflation had affected the size of the Carambar the same way it affected its price since launch, the sweet would measure a measly 80 cm today - Pimp dat snack I say!! :o)

And once you will have tasted one, you will agree with me that they actually taste like a pretty fine piece of caramel - not bad for a cheap candy... Their buttery vanilla-cocoa aroma surges over a wave of deep, blond caramel. Gastronomic? Maybe not, but delish, certainly. Everytime it's a trip down memory lane, and that surely does make them taste ever so slightly better...

Carambar, 20 of them, melted in milk and butter - the base for the cake batter.

A few months ago, a friend mentioned to me the recipe of a carambar cake, which obviously got my full attention. He was kind enough to source the recipe for me, and I had been itching to try it. One teeny tiny hiccup: carambar are impossible to find outside of France it seems, and I had to bribe another friend with the promise of a cake for him to buy me a few packs during a trip to Paris. These minor technical difficulties resolved, I had to find a suitable topping for my cuppies, and adapted the frosting below from Annie's excellent blog. The texture of the cake came out as a pleasant surprise, as it was a lot lighter than the use of commercially made sweets would have left to expect.

A big thank you to Jamel and his friend Amelie for sharing the cupcake recipe, to Nicolas for buying me a truckload of carambar, and to Peech for smuggling in the rum.

Carambar cupcakes, cooling down on a rack

Butterscotch frosting, stage 1 - making a deep, creamy brown caramel...

Butterscotch frosting, stage 2 - cooling down the caramel before adding the butter.

Caramel cupcakes with butterscotch frosting - ready to be devoured... these are actually quite sweet and buttery, so I would recommend an espresso or black tea on the side to cut down the sweetness and clean the palate.

Rhum Negrita - the perfect aroma for everything from chocolate truffles to crepes and cakes.

Caramel cupcakes with butterscotch frosting (for approx. 18 cupcakes or 1 8-inch rectangular cake)

3 eggs
160gr caster sugar
150gr cake flour (not the self-rising type), sifted
1.5 tsp baking powder
150gr butter
20 Carambar (or about 160gr home-made butter caramel fudge)
10cl milk
1 tbsp dark aged rum
pinch of salt

225gr unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut in 2cm cubes
1 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
1 tbsp black treacle
¾ cup mascarpone
½ tsp. salt
1 tbsp dark aged rum
1 to 1½ cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted

·       Preheat the oven at 180°C.
·       Generously brush a rectangular 8-inch cake pan with melted butter and place in the fridge – or line 3 6x2 muffin trays with paper cups;
·       In a bowl, mix together the flour, sugar, salt and baking powder;
·       In a saucepan over low heat, melt the Carambar in the milk and butter, stirring constantly. Add the rum;
·       Remove from the heat, and keep stirring until the mixture becomes lukewarm;
·       Add to the flour/mixture in thirds, alternating with the eggs (start with 1 egg);
·       Bake 30 to 40mn (cake) or 17 to 20mn (cupcakes).

·       Make the frosting: melt about 50gr of the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat until it turns deep golden brown and fragrant, about 6-9 minutes.
·       Add the sugar, mascarpone, black treacle and salt, stirring until the sugar dissolves.
·       Bring the mixture to a boil and continue boiling, stirring constantly, for 5 more minutes.
·       Remove from the heat and transfer the mixture to a bowl; beat with an electric mixer on medium speed until the mixture becomes lukewarm.
·       Add the rum.
·       With the mixer on medium speed, add the remaining butter a couple of cubes at a time, until each addition has been incorporated. Continue beating until smooth and creamy.
·       Add the sifted confectioners’ sugar.
·       Cover the bowl and reserve in the fridge for about 30 to 45mn, or until the frosting reaches piping consistency.