Sunday, December 27, 2009

Daring Bakers-Gingerbread Houses

There is a winged lion on the left panel and an angel on the top

I can't believe that another month has passed, and it is time for another Daring Bakers' challenge. I had some troubles with the pictures, and more importantly with the stability of one of my creations. I chose the first dough, suggested by Anna, and noticed that the recipe has the wrong gram amount, which should be 1,330 instead of 1,660. I measured the flour in cups and the resulting dough was nice and soft, not dry like some of the other daring bakers mentioned. After baking, the dough stayed a little soft when I first made some houses, so for the second creation I cooked the heck out of it to the point of almost burning the edges.

Since we celebrated a birthday in the family, and the dough was really big, I cut enough for 9 small gingerbread houses, one for each of the kids who came to the party. The houses were a huge hit since they are things from story books and none of the kids had assembled nor decorated a gingerbread house before. They also loved the royal icing and couldn't stop eating it, really funny. I wish I had a pictures of all the creations because they were beautiful and unique, and one in particular was outstanding and looked like a log cabin. Alberto was the budding artist.

When not licking his fingers Alberto managed a beautiful log cabin

Since I am in Venice, visiting my home town, my family, and my "old" friends, I decided to propose something Venetian as well. Initially I thought of a palace, then decided to make a gingerbread reproduction of the famous Campanile di San Marco. It was really challenging to put the pieces together since during baking they lost the perfect edges, and when glued together they were not straight. I assure you that the real campanile is quite straight.

The December 2009 Daring Bakers’ challenge was brought to you by Anna of Very Small Anna and Y of Lemonpi. They chose to challenge Daring Bakers’ everywhere to bake and assemble a gingerbread house from scratch. They chose recipes from Good Housekeeping and from The Great Scandinavian Baking Book as the challenge recipes.

Check here for the recipes and pictures of the amazing creations by other bakers.

Really crooked

The real thing

Anna's Recipe
Spicy Gingerbread Dough

2 1/2 cups (500g) packed dark brown sugar
1 1/2 cups (360mL) heavy cream or whipping cream
1 1/4 cups (425g) molasses
9 1/2 cups (1663g)* all-purpose flour
2 tablespoon(s) baking soda
1 tablespoon(s) ground ginger

1. In very large bowl, with wire whisk (or with an electric mixer), beat brown sugar, cream, and molasses until sugar lumps dissolve and mixture is smooth. In medium bowl, combine flour, baking soda, and ginger. With spoon, stir flour mixture into cream mixture in 3 additions until dough is too stiff to stir, then knead with hands until flour is incorporated and dough is smooth.

2. Divide dough into 4 equal portions; flatten each into a disk to speed chilling. Wrap each disk well with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight, until dough is firm enough to roll.

3. Grease and flour large cookie sheets (17-inch by 14-inch/43x36cm)

4. Roll out dough, 1 disk at a time on each cookie sheet to about 3/16-inch thickness. (Placing 3/16-inch dowels or rulers on either side of dough to use as a guide will help roll dough to uniform thickness.)

5. Trim excess dough from cookie sheet; wrap and reserve in refrigerator. Chill rolled dough on cookie sheet in refrigerator or freezer at least 10 minutes or until firm enough to cut easily.

6. Preheat oven to 300 degrees F (149C)

7. Use chilled rolled dough, floured poster board patterns, and sharp paring knife to cut all house pieces on cookie sheet, making sure to leave at least 1 1/4 inches between pieces because dough will expand slightly during baking. Wrap and reserve trimmings in refrigerator. Combine and use trimmings as necessary to complete house and other decorative pieces. Cut and bake large pieces and small pieces separately.

8. Chill for 10 minutes before baking if the dough seems really soft after you cut it. This will discourage too much spreading/warping of the shapes you cut.

9. Bake 25 to 30 minutes, until pieces are firm to the touch. Do not overbake; pieces will be too crisp to trim to proper size.

Royal Icing

1 large egg white
3 cups (330g) powdered sugar
1 teaspoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon almond extract

Beat all ingredients until smooth, adding the powdered sugar gradually to get the desired consistency. Pipe on pieces and allow to dry before assembling. If you aren't using it all at once you can keep it in a small bowl, loosely covered with a damp towel for a few hours until ready to use. You may have to beat it slightly to get it an even consistency if the top sets up a bit. Piped on the house, this will set up hard over time.

* if a cup is 5 oz. and 1 ounce is 28 grams than the correct amount should be 1330 grams.

A special thanks to Anna and Y, and to the founders of the Daring Bakers for bringing all of us together with amazing ideas, month after month.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Venice-Still Crazy After All These Years

I am in my hometown, enjoying every second, every walk, every sight, all my friends, my family and the breathtaking beauty at every corner.

It is freezing cold, thick snow fell two days ago at the same time as a high tide. I froze my feet and my fingers when I went out to take pictures but I loved every minute.

Here are some pictures taken around town, just a little taste of this fragile but absolutely worth a visit city.

A little taste of Venetian life during the high tide and the snow, life goes on, deliveries have to be made.

Kids were hard at play, enjoying this rare happening.

Below is a picture of one of the oldest and still active squeri, name used for the places where they used to make gondolas.

Squero di San Trovaso

Happy Holidays!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Hot Fudge-Perfect for the Holidays and Quick too.

I am in a real time crunch this week. We are leaving for Italy (YEAH!) on Monday, I am catering a party this Saturday, AND crazy me decided to still do the farmers' market tomorrow (I am hiring a friend to sell for me though). Every Christmas I make few types of cookies to give as gifts, but this year it is not a feasible proposition. Did I mention that I am also seriously purging the house of all the stuff we don't need any more? That feels good, but it will take a while, and I have piles every where. Jill at Jillicious Discoveries gave me the idea of making something quick and delicious like chocolate truffle sauce, so here I am proposing a recipe different from hers, which I found in David Lebovitz's The Perfect Scoop.

This sauce is very rich, velvety, and chocolaty, perfect for a gift. I found the jars at Cost Plus for $.99 each, always a great source of bargains. They looked too cute so I knew they would work.

Semisweet Hot Fudge

adapted by The Perfect Scoop

1 cup heavy cream
3 oz. unsalted butter
2 TBS light corn syrup
2/3 cup sugar
8 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 tsp vanilla extract

Bring all the ingredients, except the chocolate, to a soft boil simmer for 3 minutes. Remove from heat, add the chocolate and let melt for 5 minutes. Whisk until smooth, ladle into the jars, let cool, seal and label. Keeps refrigerated for 2 week.

When I make it again, I would decrease the sugar to 1/2 cup (my personal preference for less sweet things), and maybe add a little bit more cream to make it slightly less dense.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Tiramisu' Turns One-Book Review

Almond Sticks from Bittersweet
for the recipe click here

A year ago I started this blog with the idea of showcasing Marin County growers and their products. I wanted to write about this rich and beautiful area where I live, in northern California, its farmers, the organic movement, and more. It was also an attempt to professionally promote my cooking and baking. Somehow I didn't manage all that, instead I got really interested in photographing food, and being part of an amazing blogging community I slowly got to know.

When I started my career as a pastry chef I made the decision of not going to culinary school so I depended heavily on books to learn techniques, styles, recipes, and more. To start this new chapter, I began working in small restaurants that hired me because of how my products tasted and looked, not on the account of my resume'. Because of schedule restrictions I was never able to work in any of the top restaurants in the City of San Francisco so I learned at a slower pace and mainly through personal quest. Three years ago exactly, I started working with a talented pastry chef, DMG, who taught me a huge amount of techniques and more. DMG also introduced me to bread making, which is something I will always be grateful for.

I love the challenges that classic French pastries bring, and I would love to be able to keep learning classic techniques, but ultimately I prefer baking rustic things, things that are not complicated by layers of sweet buttery creams. When I was growing up in Italy, we used to have lunch at my grandparents' house on Sunday. A big tray of pastries was always present, bought from the still existing shop Pasticceria Tonolo. While my family always went for the creamy items, I always ended up eating the simple pastries, and my all time favorite was a huge meringue filled with whipped cream. I would eat it slowly, first hitting the crunchy shell, then enjoying the soft center, and finally enjoying all three components together. I didn't know it then, but I believe that I was always thinking "One day I want to learn how to make this", and therefore my interest in pastries began by eating them.

Since we are close to the Holidays I thought of highlighting the books I keep using over and over, and the authors who keep inspiring me. Some books I have highlighted before, some will be new for you. I haven't had a chance to see some of the books that just came out, and I am sure someone else will write about them. I also have to limit this post somehow, so I am not able to write about many other talented people or wonderful books out there, these are by far my list. I am also limiting my selection to pastry, since that is what my true passion is and these are the books that helped me along the way.

I have met some of these authors, and I can attest that the books reflect them, they are humble, down to earth, wonderful people, all connected by their love for the art of baking. The list is in alphabetical order.

Flo Braker is a Bay Area resident, avid baker, recipe master, prolific author. I have three books by Flo, Sweet Miniatures, Baking for all Occasion, and The Simple Art of Perfect Baking. Her books are ageless, and the recipes, tested and retested, work every time. Her cakes are always wonderful, her directions easy to follow. She is one of those people you want to hug when you meet her, a beautiful soul.

David Leboviz, former pastry chef at Chez Panisse, now lives in Paris, where he teaches courses, gives tours, writes books, and leads the great life of a gourmet. I love his books Ready for Desserts, and Ripe for Desserts, and his Perfect Scoop is the ultimate inspiration when it comes to ice cream and sorbet. His recipes are bold, will kick you to attention, and I love his writing. You can find David here, his great blog. I have many recipe in my recipe book that come from him, his Chocolate Pave' is ingrained in my neurons for ever.

Rose Levy Beranbaum, is the ultimate sweet heart of the cake world, and also a prolific author, and a trove of recipes. I met her once, and she has the spirit and the laugh of a young soul, she is also hilarious. She has a blog, and many books, the Cake Bible, the Pie and Tart Bible, and the Bread Bible, which I happily own. Rose has published a more recent one, Rose's Heavenly Cakes, which I haven't had a chance of seeing, but could be as well be my next purchase. She approaches her writing the same way she started learning how to bake, down to the details, testing and re-testing, until she gets if right. If you need to know how to multiply a recipe to make a wedding cake, this is the book you want. Her recipes are also classic and work well.

Emily Luchetti, the pastry chef at Farallon, and former pastry chef of defunct Star Restaurant, is a continuous inspiration for me, lives in the Bay Area, and is the author of many books. Her dessert recipes are wonderful, easy to replicate at home, some American classic, some innovative, her book Passion for Desserts is full of them. Her taste is impeccable and I love in particular her ice cream book, Passion for Ice Cream, very classy and classic, and full of anecdotes.

Alice Medrich, is the ultimate Chocolate Guru, another Bay Area resident. She is responsible for changing the way Americans taste chocolate, starting in the 80's, in her Berkeley shop Cocolat. Her book Bittersweet is all you need if you want to learn how to work with chocolate. Her book Pure Desserts is very inspiring for the unusual use of ingredients in baking, like buckwheat or kamut flours. Her list of books is impressive, I could add a couple to my wish list.

Peter Reinhart, is the ultimate Bread Guru, a teacher, a prolific author, constantly inspiring regular people to get their hands dirty with yeast and flour. I was part of the Bread Baker Apprentice challenge, but had to stop because I was often late with the entries, and I started gaining weight eating the wonderful breads I was making. This book is full of information on how to start a wild yeast culture, how to make bread, how to shape it, proof it and bake it. I recently bought his latest book, Artisan Breads Every Day, which makes baking bread at home, with less than ideal time, a pinch. Peter can also be found in his blog. Did I mention that I tested some of the recipes before publishing and my name is among the list of more than 400 testers? Power to the cyber world!

Sherry Yard, is the executive pastry chef for Wolfgang Puck, and a force of nature. Her book The Secrets of Baking is a classic, organized by family of pastries, and impeccable. She classifies recipes under Master recipes and then shows all the variations, a must have, if you are just starting. Her book Dessert by the Yard, is a fun recollections of her career through recipes.

Last, but not least, are three books I love and keep going back for inspiration.

Baking with Julia, authored by the late Julia Child and written by Dorie Greenspan, is one of those books you keep discovering, with very rustic recipes, like the sticky buns, or the croissants.

Wild Sweets and Charlie Trotter's Desserts are two books I adore because of the photographs and the use of very unusual ingredients. If I were working in an innovative restaurant I would use their approach, incorporating savory ingredients into my dishes.


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